More Ways To Win – Grinding At Grand Prix Montreal

Ashley had a strong start in Montreal, but couldn’t quite convert. Let her show you what she learned in the last Magic 2012 Limited event!

I knew that I wanted to go to Grand Prix: Montreal for months in advance. As far as big Magic tournaments go, it’s relatively close to me and I hadn’t been to a Grand Prix in a couple of years. Montreal would be the seventh Grand Prix I’ve attended and the second one in Montreal. The last time I played in Montreal I finished in the money, so I was hoping for the same run of luck. A Top 16 would’ve been especially amazing, because:

It feeds Pro Tour: Honolulu, which is a great place for a Pro Tour.

A friend of mine is already qualified.

After this year, Grand Prix will no longer offer Pro Tour invitations.

Unfortunately I didn’t make Top 16, or even Day 2, but it was still a fun experience that gave me a lot of insight I’d like to share. If you’ve never played in a big event like a Grand Prix, I highly recommend it. It’s a great chance to spend time with people you haven’t seen in a while, stay in a cool hotel, eat at fancy restaurants, and basically take a pseudo-vacation for a few days. Plus you gain so much experience with things like playing at a higher rules enforcement level against better players. Magic players like to throw about terms like EV all the time, but if that was the only thing that mattered then almost nobody would go to a Grand Prix. Fact of the matter is, you can’t put an EV on fun, and a Grand Prix is about the most fun one can have playing Magic.

I went to the Grand Prix with my partner Jamie and my friends Jackie and Mark. We had no problems at the border or getting to the hotel. We stayed at Zero One, one of the hotels listed on the event website, which gave a discount to Grand Prix competitors and was located just a few minutes from the Palais des Congres, where the event was being held.

I got offers to share hotel accommodations in hotels that were farther away, but I can’t overstate the importance of staying somewhere close to the event. It’s just such a huge burden off one’s mind, especially in a foreign city, and the time it saves alone can be well worth it when you get done playing late and just want to go back to your hotel room and get some sleep for the next day. Not only that, but the money you save by staying at a distant hotel might not be worth the cost of the taxi fares you have to pay. A twelve-minute taxi ride in Montreal costs about $40—if you’re traveling somewhere, make sure to factor stuff like this into your costs.

When traveling to a big event, make sure that you’re prepared on all levels. Not just the deck you’re going to play or your knowledge of the Limited format; look after the minutiae that’s all part and parcel of any kind of travel. Make sure you have maps and directions, important paperwork like passports, and that you print out and read all the event information. Many players showed up expecting to pay their tournament entries with a credit card despite information to the contrary on the event website.

Also, if you’re traveling by car, GPS is your friend.

With the help of our GPS, we easily found our hotel and dropped off most of our things there. We had a nice two-bedroom suite with a kitchen and living room area. The room had a microwave and a refrigerator; the latter we used to store some food we’d brought to help us get through the long tournament days, like sandwiches, Lunchables, soda, and bottled water. Bottled water is notoriously expensive at hotels, as is most on-site food.

We immediately left for the Palais des Congres. Jackie and Mark played in a couple of grinders to try to earn some last-minute byes, while Jamie and I sought out Commander games. Jamie wasn’t interested in trying to grind for three byes and I already had three from a Trial I won at my local store a few weeks ago.

At first, we played in one of the Commander “Sit-and-Go” events for a $5 entry, which really isn’t a very good deal. There wasn’t much going on for these events and we had to wait a bit to even get two more players. Jamie and I together had paid $10 and the six packs that we won were hardly worth it, especially since they were packs of M12 and I have yet to open one of the new planeswalkers out of the approximately three boxes I’ve cracked.

The Commander game wasn’t a lot of fun. The prize structure the other players wanted was two packs per elimination, which encourages ganging up on a weak player to get packs, instead of going after whoever is the threat to try to win. After getting a hit in with my new Commander, Intet, the Dreamer, I found little reason to change targets. Also, because packs were on the line and we’d paid to play, Jamie and I felt more inclined to cooperate—we easily dispatched the other two players so that we could walk away with the packs.

I felt like this wasn’t fun at all for the other players, and the game wasn’t particularly long or interesting so it wasn’t much fun for us either, even though we did end up with half a dozen packs. So, in the end, we just sought out players on our own who wanted to play rather than sign up for any more structured events. This took a little doing but, after a bit, we got into a great six-player game that lasted a while.

I tried to get Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker/Deceiver Exarch going on a turn when most of the other players were tapped out, but I was forced to play three spells to do it and got hit with a rather unexpected Mindbreak Trap. Ultimately, I succumbed to a guy playing Animar with a deck full of morph creatures and getting Brine Elemental locked. So if any of you think that Kiki/Exarch is unfun, make sure you look at things in the proper context!

Jackie and Mark didn’t fare too well in the grinders, and Jamie and I got back to the hotel late after a pretty epic game.

The next day felt strange because I didn’t get to play a round until about two o’clock. Because I had three byes, I could’ve opted for the “sleep-in special” where a judge registers my deck and I don’t have to show up until a couple of hours later to build it. However, this option cost $10 more and I wanted to have extra time to familiarize myself with my sealed deck and play some practice games with it before I jumped right in for Round 4.

This is the pool I opened:

This is what I registered:

1 Assault Griffin
1 Auramancer
1 Devouring Swarm
1 Duskhunter Bat
1 Gravedigger
1 Onyx Mage
1 Peregrine Griffin
1 Sengir Vampire
1 Serra Angel
1 Warpath Ghoul
1 Zombie Goliath

1 Fireball
1 Incinerate
1 Manalith
1 Mind Rot
1 Oblivion Ring
1 Pacifism
1 Timely Reinforcements
1 Wring Flesh
2 Consume Spirit
2 Mighty Leap

8 Swamps
7 Plains
2 Mountains

I debated running blue instead of black, but I was worried I wouldn’t have enough finishers to close out games. Gravedigger and Sengir Vampire seemed like they’d pull their weight a lot of the time and I wasn’t dissatisfied with the rest of my cards, either. Blue didn’t have Mind Control or Aether Adept, which are cards I’d really want to have if I was playing it. The presence of so many mill-themed cards was interesting but probably too cute, so I decided against it. Other than Incinerate and Fireball, my red was not overly impressive. I decided to splash those two cards because I wanted more removal and I had the help from Manalith, which I wanted to run anyway. My green is very boring except for a Stingerfling Spider.

It’s very possible that I should’ve run Brink of Disaster and Adaptive Automaton. Brink of Disaster is more removal and better than I was giving it credit for, especially in a deck that’s not particularly fast like mine. The Automaton is pretty vanilla in my deck but Auramancer wasn’t any better, since I’m only running two enchantments that tend to stick around.

I played quite a few games with my deck before round 4 and thought it was pretty solid. I was winning most of the games. Since I already had three byes, I felt like I had a good chance to make Day 2—I only needed to go 4-2 from here. Still, as I advised in my article, Perilously Comfortable, I didn’t want to be overconfident, nor did I want too give much thought to my record or how many more matches I had to win. My goal was to win all of them, taking things slow, one match at a time, and focusing on the task in front of me.

Round 4: Andy Peters playing B/W

We played our match at table 1, which seemed pretty nice. I only hoped I could stay there every round!

Andy had three byes from a Trial win too, and he kicked things off with Dark Favor and Spirit Mantle on one of his creatures, which I fortunately had the Oblivion Ring for. Since he’d gone all-in with the one creature, he lost a lot of steam and I was able to win game 1 relatively quickly. Game 2, I mulled to five cards and made a fight of it, but right after I stabilized he hit me with a Sorin’s Vengeance and put the game away. The last game I made a very bad play mistake, not realizing that Mighty Leap plus Consume Spirit would kill him that turn until after I’d already recorded the damage from my creature. The following turn he played Sorin’s Vengeance, which luckily didn’t kill me, and the game turned into a knock-down, drag-out fight over the next few turns as I struggled to finish him. Eventually I did, and was:


Round 5: David Reitbauer playing B/R Bloodthirst

Game 1, he stalled with Throne of Empires for a very long time, but I was able to keep his creatures at bay with the help of Timely Reinforcements, Onyx Mage, and Peregrine Griffin. He managed to get a Bloodlord of Vaasgoth with bloodthirst on the table and had lethal damage coming in the following turn. Fortunately, I was able to force through five damage with Peregrine and Assault Griffin and Incinerate him for the rest.

In game 2, we traded a couple of creatures early before he got a turn 5 Bloodlord with bloodthirst. I couldn’t draw an answer to it and quickly lost. Afterwards, I casually said that I only had two outs at that point: Pacifism, which he’d already seen, and Day of Judgment. I shrugged and was like, “Oh well…” I figured if there was even a slight chance he’d play around Day of Judgment, it was worth trying.

Game 3 was very back and forth and we ended up in a situation with no creatures on the board. I had a few cards in my hand, but none of them were great. Then he dropped Rune-Scarred Demon for Gravedigger. He never got a chance to play the Gravedigger though, because I played the Smallpox I had boarded in against him and took out both the Demon and the Gravedigger in his hand. His jaw dropped, and I was able to quickly take over after that.


Round 6: Jake Gagnon playing B/G

In game 1 he played turn 2 Skinshifter and turn 3 Cemetery Reaper, but I played Timely Reinforcements, Assault Griffin, and Devouring Swarm and proceeded to race him rather than trade any creatures and let his Reaper get active. His Vampire Outcasts with bloodthirst didn’t save him because I blocked with tokens and sacrificed them to the Devouring Swarm before damage. He tried to Arachnus Web my Swarm, but I sacrificed another token to give it four power and won on the following turn.

I wasn’t so lucky in game 2. He curved out perfectly with a very fast draw while playing removal spells on my slower creatures to stop them from blocking. He then won with (a probably unnecessary) Overrun.

For game 3 I mulliganed to five, trading cards with him early on before he hit me with a Mind Rot. Then he took over the game with Cemetery Reaper and a bunch of other creatures.


Round 7: Steve Morochove playing U/B

Game 1, I got several spells countered and eventually succumbed to the advantage my opponent had been gaining from a Merfolk Looter.

In game 2, I decided to play a Manalith on turn 3 instead of a Warpath Ghoul because I sensed that my opponent had Mana Leak. It turns out he did, but he let the Manalith go. He played Distress on me and took my Warpath Ghoul, making me question my decision not to play it. I drew Peregrine Griffin the turn after, and was able to play it on turn 4 thanks to the Manalith and him being tapped out. I eventually got him, forcing a game 3.

In the deciding game, I got stuck on three land and he Mana Leaked my Manalith. When I got to four land, I played Assault Griffin but started to fall behind because I needed a fifth land at that point. After a back and forth, and my eventually getting a fifth land, he ended up with just Merfolk Looter and Harbor Serpent but only three Islands, so I decided to play Oblivion Ring on his Looter. I had a couple of creatures in my hand and a Mighty Leap—I figured I could deal with the Serpent that way if I had to.

The next two turns, he played Islands but I had played one of my creatures to block. He dropped an Aether Adept to bounce my blocker and knocked me to 4 life.  I replayed my blocker and another creature and took down the Serpent, but he kept playing big creatures, forcing me to double block to kill them.

I played Serra Angel, which he then copied with Phantasmal Image before killing it. I killed his Image with another double block and started to gain ground on the board with Zombie Goliath and Devouring Swarm. I went on the offensive and he played Call to the Grave. I was worried he’d draw his Grave Titan over the next couple of turns, but when he didn’t, I won—albeit just barely.

One detail about this match that I’d be remiss not to include is that there was a guy watching who made a comment during game 3 about my opponent not understanding the M10 changes to combat, in particular how double blocking worked. My opponent had assigned damage rather than ordering blockers, and neither one of us had thought much about it because we both understood what creature he wanted to kill.

I told the spectator that if he was going to watch our match to please be quiet and refrain from commenting. When he started to object with “But,” I raised my hand and yelled “Judge!” A judge came over, asked what was going on, and my opponent and I explained. The judge pulled the spectator aside and talked to him. Afterwards, I told him that even though he hadn’t said anything likely to impact the match, I wanted to stop him before he did. My opponent and I were in a pretty intense game 3 and were just a couple more wins from Day 2, so it would’ve been really frustrating if someone watching said something that changed the outcome of the match. He seemed to understand where I was coming from. We talked for a little bit and parted amicably. My opponent seemed to be a nice guy; we shook hands and wished each other good luck.


Round 8: Steven Wolfman playing B/R Bloodthirst

Despite playing Magic since Revised, I got my first feature match ever in the next to last round of Day 1. I was really excited, but admittedly nervous too. I shook off the tension by reminding myself that this was why I play Magic: to be a top player, to play in the spotlight, and to have others crowded around me cheering me on. The same things that fill us with anxiety make life such a great adventure. I think I was able to ignore the extra pressure of having my every move heavily scrutinized and to just enjoy the experience.

Coverage of my match can be found here. It’s mostly right on the money, although I’ve joked with a couple friends that I’ll have to thank Bill Stark for making the match seem closer than it really was. All my other matches were much more even, but Steven’s deck was really good and I felt like I got run over.

The only mistake I know I made was that I didn’t Fireball his Onyx Mage right away. This enabled him to get bloodthirst with his Blood Ogre, which I couldn’t easily deal with as a 3/3, which in turn let him get bloodthirst again for his Gorehorn Minotaurs. I feel like the game would’ve been far less lopsided had I killed the Onyx Mage then and there, but saving removal (especially good removal like Fireball) for your opponent’s best creatures is such an important thing in Limited, where you might not have much removal to start with, that I failed to make the counterintuitive play, which I believe was correct.

Or maybe I didn’t play enough Sealed to respect the threat of bloodthirst.

Anyway, I was pretty disappointed to lose so quickly. Part of it had to do with the extra pressure of being a female Magic player. I feel like many people assume women are bad at Magic because it’s rare to see one doing well in a competitive event, but I think this is just a statistical problem; much fewer women play competitively than men, that’s all. I felt like losing in a highly visible way, in a fairly helpless fashion, might serve to reinforce some of these negative stereotypes about women and Magic. That’s a big topic all on its own, but for now I’ll say that this added pressure might contribute to why more women don’t play competitively.

I tried to stay positive. I had one more match to go and I could still make Day 2.

Round 9: Louis Boileau playing W/B (he morphed into W/U after game 1)

Game 1, I kept a two-land hand on the draw holding Timely Reinforcements and other nice, cheap plays but I got stuck on two mana and didn’t draw a third for about four turns. I did manage to make the game really close and think things could’ve gone differently if I’d drawn my land even a turn sooner. Louis agreed that I had the cards to win the game if they would’ve come down just a bit earlier.

For game 2 he transformed into a W/U deck and probably spent too much time sideboarding. This was one of several times that I should’ve called a judge and didn’t. The funny thing is that I’ve been playing Magic for years and know better. I called a judge a few times throughout the weekend, but it was still probably only half as many times as I should’ve, which leads me to believe that the average player isn’t calling a judge enough either.

This is no slight on Louis, he was just being careful, but five or six minutes passed before he presented his deck—about twice the time allotted. This not only gave us less time to play the match with him already up a game, but he was also getting the advantage of extra time to make an ideal transformation.

In game 2 he played Pacifism, Timely Reinforcements, and Jace’s Archivist among other things. The Archist discarded my hand of spells, netting a couple of cards for Louis out of the deal while my new hand was all land. He dumped a bunch more cards on the table—creatures and Crown of Empires—and again I felt helpless as the game slipped away, and with it my chance at making Day 2.


Mark was the only one of us who did make Day 2, but he ended up missing the money and coming in 76th.

Jamie got us some food from a Subway downstairs in between rounds 8 and 9 (and thanks to Steven, I had plenty of time to eat it!) so we just went back to the hotel after the event. Both of us were pretty tired. Jamie’s deck had been pretty good, but she’d only won one round and was lamenting the fact that her opponents still had better decks than her in the 1-3 bracket. She dropped from the main event after round 5, deciding the chance at Planeswalker Points wasn’t worth it.

The next day I managed only a 3-2 record in the PTQ with this deck:

1 Archon of Justice
1 Armored Warhorse
1 Blood Ogre
1 Chandra’s Phoenix
1 Elite Vanguard
1 Fiery Hellhound
1 Goblin Fireslinger
1 Gorehorn Minotaurs
1 Griffin Sentinel
1 Peregrine Griffin
1 Serra Angel
1 Stormfront Pegasus
1 Volcanic Dragon
2 Goblin Piker

1 Fireball
1 Stave Off
2 Pacifism
2 Slaughter Cry
2 Timely Reinforcements

9 Plains
8 Mountains

The rest of my pool looked like this:

I liked my aggressive curve with bloodthirst and the fact that my deck topped out with actual finishers: Serra Angel, Archon of Justice, and Volcanic Dragon. I had a few combat tricks and a few great pieces of removal, plus I didn’t have to play three colors as I had the day before.

I’m not going to do a round by round analysis here—I just want to go over the most important situations and interesting lessons.

I started out thinking that choosing to draw first was correct in M12 Sealed, but I ended the weekend not so sure. So many sealed pools turned out to be really aggressive that, for the PTQ, I chose to play first at every opportunity.

One of my losses was to someone playing a very similar (albeit slightly better) version of my own deck. In game 1 I had a couple creatures on the board and almost didn’t add a third, thinking, “What if he has Day of Judgment?” It was Sealed after all, and what were the chances he actually had a Day? Turns out quite good; he cleared my board on the following turn. I still have to learn to trust those instincts I guess…

I watched someone that I highly respect and admire misplay in a match. I made the mistake of pointing it out afterwards, thinking I was being helpful, only to be met with an angry response. I felt terrible for having said anything at all and worried that I had made an awful impression with this person. I concluded that it’s risky to offer unsolicited advice to someone after a match, since you never know if they’ll appreciate it or bite your head off.

Afterward, I made a vow (that I will probably end up breaking at least once) to not give unsolicited advice. If someone asks for help, I’ll help them, but people can be sensitive about their mistakes, especially when they’re pointed out by a stranger or someone they perceive to be a newbie.

Continuing my trend of not calling a judge enough, I stopped an opponent from trying to draw extra cards after a mulligan. Then, when they tried to play Deathmark as an instant in a highly suspicious situation, I just pointed out it was a sorcery instead of calling a judge. I think this person probably should know better, but I want to make it clear that we can all be careless and make mistakes. Accusing someone of cheating is a very serious thing and I’m not suggesting at all that this was what he was doing, but calling a judge ensures that these kind of infractions can be tracked.

The reason the situation was so suspicious is that he would get almost no advantage from playing Deathmark as a sorcery, as he still couldn’t hit me for lethal that turn. If he could play it as an instant, I would be tapped out but unable to hit him for lethal, and then he could swing back for the win. Even in a less suspicious set of circumstances, you should call a judge if someone tries to make an illegal play.

Many Pro Tour aspirants equate being a serious-minded competitor to being a jerk. Most of the FNM and Pro Tour players are pretty nice. Most of the jerks seem to be part of the middling PTQ crowd. These people get angry and have outbursts when they lose because their perspective is muddled and they think they are better than they really are. They also think that you need to fish for penalties or resort to intimidation to try to get ahead. They’re effusive and friendly when they’re winning, or just on your turns, but become sullen and nasty when they’re losing, often doing things like repeatedly asking if it’s their turn, threatening to call a judge on you for various reasons but usually not doing so, urging you to play faster, and muttering under their breath about luck and variance.

One of the players I played noticed that I had a few split sleeves. I went to replace them and he called a judge (okay, fine) and the judge let me switch them out. Then he tried to get the judge to give me a slow play penalty because it took a minute beyond the time allowed to present your deck. The judge merely gave us an extension of a couple minutes, as he’d been standing there the whole time I was switching sleeves. He didn’t specifically ask the judge to give me a penalty, only implied it in a very roundabout way. He then proceeded to talk to me like we were best friends—mostly just on my turns.

Is this what the kids think it means to be a good player these days? You should always call a judge if you think something is fishy, and there’s nothing wrong with getting a free win because your opponent gets a penalty, but high-level Magic is not about calling a judge for slow play to psyche your opponent into playing faster and making mistakes when they were already playing at a reasonable pace. It’s not about hoping their sleeves have a defect. If your opponent plays slowly or has marked cards, they should get a penalty, but these are not the kinds of things you should bank on.

As for the people that are putting on their best fake friendliness, it is fairly obvious that you are being fake and trying to get an edge. It’s a little bit insulting that you would expect someone to not know what you’re doing at a PTQ or higher level event.

“Do you have byes?” “How did you get them?” and “So where are you from?” are all questions that are meant to find out what kind of player you are. If you have byes, you might be decent, but if you got them from a trial then you could’ve just gotten lucky that day, so it doesn’t count for as much as if you had gotten them off rating. If you’re doing well but didn’t have any byes, your sealed deck must be amazing. And if you’re coming from far away, it is more likely that you are a good player because you have enough confidence and fire to take the extra time and expense to make the trip.

There is nothing wrong with asking questions like this to gain edge, but it might be the oldest trick in the book. If you think you’re being sneaky, think again. Whatever bad traits I may possess as a player, I can spot someone being fake a mile away. If you play twenty questions with me trying to break down my whole psychological profile, I will lie to you. You’ve been warned!

Jamie commented after my feature match that she saw me board out a Swamp and a Plains for a Swamp and a Plains. She thought this was hilarious and has decided to try more stuff like that herself. The last thing you want to do when you have nothing is let your opponent know that you have nothing!

Our group wrapped things up Sunday night by walking the cobbled streets of old Montreal and eating at a great restaurant. I tried poutine for the first time, which I had never heard of before—it’s French fries with chunks of cheese and pork over the top. I also tried some very strange burger that turned out to be pretty good.

I came home to a ton of Facebook messages from people wishing me luck, people who saw my feature match offering their condolences, and general positive energy. This more than anything makes the grind worth it: the friendships, the support, and knowing there are people in your corner cheering you on. I just want to say thanks to all the people who were rooting for me and to the majority of my opponents for being gracious, whether winning or losing. To the not-so-gracious, well, I have hope for you. Once you get that attitude and temper in check, I suspect that you might too find more ways to win.