My 2013 In Review

In this week’s article, Grand Prix Toronto winner Ari Lax takes a look at how he did with the goals he came up with for himself this year and sets new ones for next year.

I’m not likely to play another sanctioned event until 2014. It’s also likely I don’t play anything bigger than a FNM until the Pro Tour. I’ve debated Sacramento or Vancouver, but there are a number of factors that make attending less attractive. Oddly enough, the coast-to-coast flight isn’t a relevant factor. It’s more a matter of the five Grand Prix cap when I have three Top 8s already and nine more Grand Prix to travel to this season. It’s also a matter of using my time to test Modern for the Pro Tour. I know a lot about the format, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a ton more to learn.

So with that, another year comes to a close. How did I perform on my goals from last December?

4. Comfortably hit Gold for the 2013-2014 season and maybe even Platinum.

Done. While my match for Platinum wasn’t particularly close, the fact that there even was a match is close enough.

3. Play more decks that aren’t combo in Legacy

“I often neglect Legacy as a format in testing, resulting in drifting back to what I feel comfortable with. When that fails to be good, I find myself actively disliking the format.” —Me in December of last year

“I think the reason I’ve continued to play Storm is in large part because I started on it in the format. The precision that ANT required made it so that I had to know all the little tricks. Most other decks are way more forgiving, and I fail to account for this. I may have misused a Flickerwisp trick or missed a damage with Death and Taxes, but I still won. I might only be at 80-85% proficiency with a Stoneblade deck, but that last percentage is not a big deal.” —Me three weeks ago

I failed on this one. I’ve tried to excuse this to myself by saying I ignored the format for the majority of the last year, but that’s not good enough.

2. Try to get local Modern events going.

By the raw numbers, this is a failure, but it was something I actively gave up.

At some point around December of last year, I started playing the game in a very different way than I did before I moved to Boston. Instead of playing random events to chip shot store credit, I played solely to win whatever the next major event was. There were also a number of smaller factors that limited the amount of time I spent playing physical Magic: living an hour away from basically the only store in the city, traveling via a transit system that shuts down fairly early, starting a real job, and doubling up the amount of content production I’ve been doing for StarCityGames.com. Oh yeah, and moving in with my girlfriend, which was the whole reason I moved to Boston to begin with.

I’ve definitely had debates about whether I’m overdoing it on the focus front, but the rewards of my actions have won every time to date. I haven’t gone full-blown utilitarian. I’m not against the occasional Cube draft, offseason 3 v. 3 (like the one that is currently delaying my article), or Legacy event for duals. I still enjoy ice cream sandwiches and puppies. It’s more that there’s a time and place for everything, and the week before the Pro Tour is not the time to be playing Explorer Pod in a random weekend Legacy event (though with a deck as awesome as Explorer Pod, it’s probably an understandable mistake).

1. Extend my good testing practices to all events, especially those with unknown formats (aka Pro Tours).

Snap check, especially on the important events.

In Constructed I’ve definitely succeeded. For two out of the three Pro Tours, I showed up with one of the best decks in the room*, and the other I played a deck that won a Grand Prix a couple weeks later (but was admittedly not right that weekend). My Constructed Grand Prix rate wasn’t great at two for six, but those two were Top 8s and two of the bricks I didn’t actually put effort into. As a friend put it, I have become very good at proper variance allocation.

*To recount my rating of Pro Tour decks, I’m pretty sure our Jund Aggro deck from Pro Tour Gatecrash was the best deck for that event, with the other contender being Owen Turtenwald and Reid Duke Jund Midrange. At Pro Tour Avacyn Restored, our Esper list was one of the best, and in my mind the only non-Esper deck you could argue for against the top Esper builds was the Florida Naya deck.

My Limited Grand Prix results suggest I’ve also applied this, but in reality it’s a bit different. I played three Sealed Grand Prix this season and went 18-3 in that portion. I definitely opened an above-average selection of decks, but I also had a very strong grasp on all three Sealed formats. People talk a lot about Sealed being a crapshoot, but history (aka Owen Turtenwald) has shown that is far from the case.

Nearly a decade ago, I was playing in a Ravnica block Sealed event where I 2-2ed and felt I had no chance to win. I discussed it with Aaron Breider, one of the better regional players at the time, and he had the following advice: only a minority of Sealed pools are unworkable in the build portion. The majority are good enough to make Top 8 but easy to mess up, and another small minority are impossible to go wrong with.

Again, this was a decade ago. Since then average card quality has gone up drastically mostly because the number of straight-up unplayables has been approximately halved. His advice was also on a PTQ level, where a record of 6-1 or 7-1 was required to make the cut. If your bar is 4-2 at a Grand Prix or even 6-2 with a single bye, it is much easier.

I’m still floundering in Draft. Aside from Toronto, I was approximately dead even in drafts over the year. That said, I think I’ve figured it out.

I’m just going to listen to what people who are actually good at Draft say.

For some reason I’m very hit or miss on picking up new Draft formats. I had about a yearlong streak where it was super easy for me starting with Magic 2012 and ending with Return to Ravnica. Now, from Gatecrash through Theros, I’ve been slow on the uptake. The events I’ve performed well in Limited at have been almost 100% not my doing. At Grand Prix Toronto I had Brian DeMars‘ excellent top-level view of the format and Chris Fennell’s overall expertise to guide my picks. In Grand Prix Providence I was physically carried by Alex John, who goes deeper than nearly anyone in Draft formats, and Matt McCullough, who just does things that win.

Until I figure this out, I’m going to lean a lot more on the expertise of others. I’m not saying I can’t provide important insights, but if Chris Fennell tells me not to draft white at Pro Tour Born of the Gods, I’m going to listen.

Lessons Learned

The big story for me this year was the formation and relative success of Team Luxurious Hair (likely soon to be renamed). Most of my lessons this year have been in the realm of team construction and management, which is not a widely relevant topic. After another Pro Tour or two’s worth of experience on this front, I might write another article about the logistics behind this, but as of now it’s still up in the air.

My attitude shift towards Sealed was something I really implemented this year, but I’ve known about it for a long time. Going back to my first Limited Grand Prix Top 8 in Scars Limited (2010 for those who count in years instead of sets), I was able to go X-1 in the Sealed portion based off of lessons I learned about the format while losing at a different Grand Prix four weeks earlier. I just didn’t attend Limited Grand Prix between then and Return to Ravnica. Phantom Sealed has been a big part of this, as was the analysis of successful decks I did for Toronto.

In terms of getting better at the playing games part of events, I haven’t made much progress this year. I don’t feel like I’m playing any better Magic than I was at my first Pro Tour. I’ve just gotten better at getting to the point where I’m playing on that level.

If anything, my takeaway from this year is the Craig Wescoe quote from San Diego I’ve talked so much about. Until they stop giving you opponents or you are mathematically eliminated, the event isn’t over. Top 8 is only a short break before another three rounds. At all points your focus should be on winning, whether it’s that game, that match, or the whole event.

Goals For Next Year

7. Write my odds-based Momir primer.

Yeah, I promised I would start on this in the summer. It’s now December. I will start on this soon and post updates here or on Twitter. If I start slipping again, feel free to call me out.

6. Run back a team event with Alex and Matt.

Finding a trio that works is a big part of winning at Team Limited events. I’ve been playing with Alex John and Matt McCullough for years, and there’s a reason that team worked so well for Providence. Alex knows how to train wreck people, Matt drafts solid decks and just wins with them, and I show up with two byes and open rares. Nashville is a ways off, but I’m already making sure it can happen.

Aside: The light-hearted negativity is part of this. I am delighted to win matches I shouldn’t, as anyone who was around for the Grand Prix Toronto Top 8 can attest to. Obviously no one plays perfectly, but their disgust at all of my small misplays never fails to bring a smile to my face.

5. Keep at least six or seven of my current Pro Tour team on the Pro Tour for next year.

One of the big issues our team had at the start was consistency of members. A whole new cast of members each event meant that everyone had to relearn who they could trust on what topics. Everyone knows Magic players can be very opinionated, and even if both people have good ideas it’s hard to get two people who know nothing about the other to compromise and start having reasonable discussion.

Part of that consistency is having the option of retaining members. Between San Diego and Dublin, we picked up two Gold pros to add to myself and Craig Wescoe. While our last Pro Tour was a bit rocky, that core is going to be a huge plus to our team dynamics going forward.

In terms of this goal, we are well on our way. I only need six non-attendance points from three Pro Tours and eight Grand Prix (with two open points slots) to hit Gold, and Seth Manfield might already be locked. A single good Pro Tour showing is often enough to push a player to Gold, and almost all of us have shown in the past that we can do that.

4. Fill my last two Grand Prix point slots with Top 16s at a minimum.

This goal is also “hit Gold,” as two Top 16s is the six points I need to hit 35 barring extenuating circumstances. I have three Modern Grand Prix, three Limited Grand Prix, and two Standard Grand Prix lined up. I haven’t run my lifetime stats recently enough to know them offhand, but two high finishes out of that set should be within expectations. If I really have to, there are another two events I could pick up.

3. 3-0 a Pro Tour draft.

I’m not aiming big here; I just want one. I have done this a handful of times in the past, but I haven’t won a Pro Tour pod in over two years. Even if you put me at 50/50 to win a match, I’m performing below expectations.

For what it’s worth, I find it comical that my plan to do this is currently put my success into someone else’s hands as much as possible. This isn’t a long-term solution, but I’m very good at extrapolating from results. By putting the actual draft decisions out of my mind, I will be able to focus more on the process of getting to that point and replicating it in the future.

2. Do something new and notable.

The easy way to read this is “Top 8 a Pro Tour” or “hit Platinum,” but as I said, those are the easy way.

I’m not hugely invested in sports, but towards the end of high school I had a statistics teacher who was a huge baseball fan. Once real work had wrapped up for the year, we spent class time keeping baseball stats. I hated the game before then, but the sheer amount of information and trivia was awesome and kept me interested.

A similar thing applies to me in Magic. Last season my cool stat was “second-best Constructed record on the Pro Tour.” To use an example from this year, I’m currently three for five on making Grand Prix Top 8s this season. If I finish the season at above 50%, that would be a hell of a feat and a cool stat to brag about.

1. Maintain and improve on the quality of content I’ve been producing over the past year.

I write about Magic because I like to talk about it and more importantly I like people to listen. Not all of my content is going to be a hit, but I’d like enough of it to be that I’m worth reading on a regular basis.

Of course, I’ve carved out my niche as a technical expert as opposed to a brewer (see: Patrick Chapin) or actual writer (see: Gavin Verhey). This lends itself to an easy solution—the more I play, the more I know what to write about. Given my current plans, that shouldn’t be an issue.

Right now I’m looking for feedback on my video content. I’ve got the basics down, but the removal of Daily Events as an easy out has led me to think about some of the other things I could be doing with my recording. If there are any ideas you have that you want me to try out, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.