Being the editor of StarCity is like being a eunuch in a whorehouse: I can watch all I want, but I never get to play.*
Those of you who may have been paying attention to My Fabulous Career may know that thanks to Rizzo, I set out to become a freelance writer. In that time, I’ve contributed about ten chapters to one book that’s been published and another that hasn’t, gotten a contract for two other books, and it looks like I have about a 50/50 shot of getting contracts for two more books before the end of the year.
Oh, and I also got promoted to Webmaster of StarCity, which means that I’ve been working on a complete and utter revamp of the site that will knock your eyes out around September first.
My success is killing me.
When I got back from GenCon, I worked from 6:30 in the morning until 1:00 the next morning… And that wasn’t my busiest workday. I’m busier than a one-legged man in a paper-hanging contest. Deadlines keep walking up and sticking spikes in my head. I can only dream of sleep.
Thank God for my uncle.**
So after twelve-hour days of editing Magic articles, if anyone were to suggest playing Magic to me, I would punch them. Hard. In the nads. And if they didn’t have nads, I’d strap that person to a table to graft some nads on, and then I’d punch them.
So when it came to GenCon, I wanted to go, but I hadn’t done any playtesting since my initial spate before Judgment’s release. I’d read all the articles, and I’d even listened to AndyStok tell me how I was crazy… But I was gonna play birds.
“You don’t want to play Birds,” said Laura Mills. “It’s unreliable.”
I looked at the decklist I had adoringly. Such a good decklist.
It had something for everyone: Maindeck Envelops. Three Morningtides. Lots and lots of birds to overwhelm Monoblack’s endless”hey, ditch one of those!” effects. Soulcatcher’s Aerie, which gave me the astonishing ability to make a comeback by creating a single 15/15 bird and attacking with just one card.
I got lost in the vertical forest of a wavy flashback as I remembered being crushed by Birds at my first serious OBC tourney – a steady flow of large, scary creatures that flew overhead like Roc-sized seagulls. I remembered six-card Keep Watches. Whee!
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I emailed back. “It’s a great deck.”
“Your choice,” she said.
What she really meant is,”If you want to bungee jump with a rubber band you found in the back of the refrigerator, I can’t stop you“… But Laura’s a very nice person, even if she’s writing for that evil other site now.
But I learned a very important lesson that day – not necessarily about OBC, but about Magic in general. So walk with me.
In any case, the GenCon part of Magic started well enough, with a GP: Los Angeles Trial that was fairly sparsely-attended; it only had about thirty-one people, which was probably because it started at 5:00 on a Thursday night. I got a totally crap deck but managed to squeeze out a 3-1-1 record, putting me squarely in 6th place.
We all sat down to draft and discovered an interesting fact: Nobody wanted to.
This made sense for a number of reasons: First, it was now about 11:00 at night. We all knew a serious Top 8 Rochester Draft would take about an hour and a half to do, and then we’d actually have to play each other. We’d be all up until three in the morning for a couple of packs… And the real prize was tomorrow’s 10:00 PTQ: Houston.
Not to mention that having done one Od/Tor/Jud Rochester draft and one Od/Tor/Tor draft, I was the player at the table with the most experience in the Rochester format.
So we all asked who actually wanted the buys. As it turns out, two people did – one, ironically enough, being the guy who crushed me with the Fabulous Bird Deck (more on that later). The rest of us were entirely happy to divvy the prizes up equally – thirteen Judgment packs apiece. Not bad.
There was just one problem, though – somehow, these two sad bastards had to figure out who actually won.
It turns out that the finals of a tourney, if everyone agrees, don’t necessarily have to be the format du jour. If every single person in the Top 8 agrees, your Rochester Draft could suddenly become a regular draft, or a single-elimination OBC tourney, or perhaps even a rousing game of multiplayer. Hell, you could play serious”Go Fish,” for all I know.
But we all knew one thing: Rochester was right out.
“Whatever happens,” said the Judge,”You all have to agree on it. If even one person dissents, we draft. Got it?”
“Got it,” we said. The Judge stepped over to administer another tournament.
So we all decided, spontaneously, that we’d just draft – just a happy, regular draft. Since none of us actually wanted to play in the Top 8, we’d all draft to make sure that the Two Byes got solid draft decks, and the Two Byes could play each other. Problem solved.
“Wait a minute,” said Bye Guy #1. “If you’re not actually playing, then everyone will just rare draft. My deck will suck!”
That was a good point. As much as we didn’t want the prize, all eight of us agreed vehemently that whoever got the bye should get it via skill… And two players trying to draft solid decks in a sea of rare-drafters would wind up with terrible decks.
“All right,” said I,”Tell you what. Let’s make it a four-man draft.”
We all spontaneously agreed, thus shifting the format finals again.
“You choose someone you trust,” I said to Bye Guy #1. “Then you choose someone you trust. They’ll draft for you. They’ll be your seconds in this duel. Then, at the end, they’ll immediately concede to each other and you can duel with the two real draft decks.”
Complex? Yes. Absurd? Sure. But these guys wanted the byes. And we had to find a way to give it to them so that we could get some damn sleep.
There was just one problem:
Bye Guy #2, the one who had crushed me with the Bird deck, didn’t know anyone here well enough to trust them. Being the stalwart figure of honesty that I am in the Magic community, I volunteered to be his second. We shook hands and gave each other a manly hug.
Bye Guy #1 brought back Adam Fischer, who hadn’t even registered in this tournament. Adam, who looked bewildered but pleasantly dazed, seemed to be in it for the novelty.
“All right,” I explained. “You’re going to participate in a four-man draft in the Top 8 of a tournament, except you’re not really going to be drafting – well, you’ll be drafting, but immediately after you’re done you’ll hand the deck to your friend and he’ll play in the finals. You got it?”
“Sure!” he said, smiling.
“And I want you to take this seriously,” I said, wondering why I was even here.
The Judge came back, having stepped out briefly for a stiff drink, and saw Adam Fischer standing there. “What the hell is he doing here?” he spluttered.
I explained the situation to him, which sounded weirder the more I said it.
“You can’t have someone who’s not even in the tourney play for you!” he roared.
The eight of us looked chastised but unbowed. “But we all agree on it,” we said in unison.
The Judge looked vexed, remembering what he had said about everything being all right as long as we all agreed on it, which we helpfully pointed out to him. He nodded; tried to find a hole in our logic; couldn’t.
“Well, you just can’t,” he said, and unceremoniously kicked Adam Fischer out. Adam hung around anyway to see what would happen, since a small crowd was forming to watch the shenanigans.
“Do you trust anyone else?” he asked Bye Guy #1 in exasperation.
“Wait a minute!” said one of the players. “Does the Top 8 prize include the draft set?”
“Yes…” the judge reluctantly answered.
“Then we all have to include that in our prizes!” he said.
Whatever the judge had to say about the tournament formats was lost in the shuffle of math as people tried to figure out how to divide 144 by 7 evenly.
At that point, I gave up. Eventually, they just gave me some boosters and I walked away with two of my friends to find a drink. I think the finals were decided – in perhaps a first in low-level tourneys – by a two-man Solomon Draft.
I was asked three times during the event whether I was going to write about it. Damn skippy I was.
Anyway, as it turns out I was up until two in the morning anyhow, since I went out to the Safe House for drinks. Say what you will, I can’t avoid The Safe House at GenCon.
The Safe House is the ultimate theme bar, and it’s cool as hell; for one thing, you can’t get in the front passage. The whole idea of the place is that it’s a clandestine meetinghouse for spies, so the”front” is a deli that, strangely enough, never seems to be open. You have to walk around to the side into a little door, where someone takes your cover charge and asks you for the password. If you don’t know the password – and, of course, first-time visitors don’t – then you have to do something bizarre in order to get in, like pretending to be a plane or doing the chicken dance. Do that, and a sliding bookcase shifts to the left…
And you enter the bar, generally to applause. Why? Because there’s a hidden camera there, of course, and everyone in the bar was watching you cluck.
The bar itself is spy-themed and has a lot of cool stuff to look at – it’s very narrow and warreny, and yes, it does have secret passages. There are posters and movie memorabilia everywhere you look, along with custom drinks, a great dance floor, and pieces of things like the Berlin Wall hanging about. It’s one of the best bars ever.
Alas, the night we went, the woman who was doing the passwords was on break, so they simply waved my wife through. An hour later, they were back to humiliating people. Oh well.
I really wanted to see my wife do the Chicken Dance.
Anyway, I woke up the next day at around 8:30. I was sharing a hotel room at GenCon with my wife and my friend Jeff, who are both early risers. For no apparent reason that I could fathom, they got up at 6:30 to go out and wander about the convention center, where nothing was open yet.
I was still sleeping when Gini came back in. She snuggled up in bed next to me and we talked for about a half an hour.
I told her how it was especially nice that she had come over to my table when I was in the fourth round to surprise me with a hug. Other players had told me how cool she was.
“Is that unusual?” she asked.
“Well, Magic players with girlfriends? They’re rare. Magic girlfriends who tolerate their playing? Rarer still. And Magic players whose girlfriends actually encourage their boyfriends to play Magic? They’re are rare as unicorns.”
“So I’m a unicorn?” she asked, biting her lip coquettishly. Suddenly, I knew why she had come back to the room, and had pointedly explained to me that Jeff was in a game.
But though I had the cards in my pack, I hadn’t made a deck yet. And the tourney was in forty-five minutes.
I immediately leapt in the shower to consider my options: Strange with the wife, or playing Magic.
The first question I asked was, which activity do I get to do more often? Considering that my wife had just entered law school and my deadlines were currently sucking all my time into a narrow pipe, after some serious thought I decided that it was going to be pretty much even for the next few months.
The second question I asked was, which was I going to enjoy more? Well, I have to admit that I love strange… But making the finals at a tourney would be something that I could write about.
With my wife, I knew I could make the finals.
We left the room at 10:30.*** And told everyone that I was sick.
I did, however, show up at the 5:00 Grand Prix: Cleveland trial, Bird deck in hand. I assembled it on the spot, and who did I see but Top 8 Proxy Adam Fischer? I showed him my deck, and we both agreed that it had some serious hate for monoblack and a pretty good shot against U/G. He even said I had”metagamed” well, which was a pretty nice compliment considering that I had thrown it together half an hour before.
Here’s my deck:
Now, there are any number of things wrong with this deck:
There are too many situational cards that don’t work together. Envelop, Divert, and Morningtide are all great cards in certain matchups or certain times… But there are a lot of matchups and times they’re dead cards. I spent a lot of time with this deck holding the wrong damn card in my hands.
It relies heavily on situational cards. When Keep Watch worked, it worked brilliantly; when I had no creatures, it blew chunks. The same with Battle Screech; if it was the only white creature I had drawn, it was only two cards and there wasn’t enough I could do about it. I would have been better off with Deep Analysis, which is less powerful but a hell of a lot less situational. Likewise, drawing an Aerie when I wanted a creature also hurt.
It has a lot of single-mana blue cards and very few single blue sources. I’m not writing down the exact mana configuration here, but you can assume that thanks to the heavy white component, I used four Skycloud Expanses and a minimum of Islands. The Diverts and Envelops kind of hurt you when you’re trying to keep mana open to react in a deck with as little land as this has.
The sideboard needs either Lost In Thought or Kirtar’s Desire to handle Shades and Mongrels. To be fair, I knew this going into the tourney – but as has been noted elsewhere, finding commons at tourneys is a hell of a lot harder than rares.
Now you might think that’s the lesson, and it’s a simple one: Make sure every card in your deck is good at all times. Everything else belongs in the sideboard. But that’s not really the lesson.
The reason why is that I was blinded. Blinded by The Draw.
I think we’ve all seen that trick: We look at a deck and we never look at the worst hands; we get blinded by the Perfect Play, the one that’s going to put us into the win zone. You hear it from rogue deckbuilders more often than anything else -“With a perfect hand of these three cards and the mana you need, no one can stop you!”
But you know, if I had thought about drawing,”Envelop, Divert, Screech, Aerie, Kirtar,” it would have been a lot more honest – and I might have gone with another deck.
Back when Fires was all the rage, everyone talked about the unstoppable Fires draw – first-turn Birds or Elves, second-turn Fires of Yavimaya, third-turn Blastoderm, fifth-turn Saproling Burst. And the deck was built for redundancy: It had four of each card, so the chances of seeing that hand was as mathematically optimized as you could get. Everyone discussed how unbeatable that hand was.
I playtested Fires a fair amount.
And out of twenty games, I got that hand maybe twice.
I spoke last time about how we, as humans, distort the odds – we think the impossible is always on our side. But there are a lot of cards in Magic, and the odds are against the best hand. When designing a deck, you need to playtest – not just to learn what cards to play when, but to really see what you do generally draw.
Because The Perfect Draw also assumes The Perfect Mana to cast it. It also assumes The Perfect Opponent sits down and watches you crush him – my Perfect Opponent never cast Innocent Blood before I cast a Suntail Hawk, and he especially never plopped down a Shade on turn 2. It also overestimates the chances that one, and only one, of the Perfect Cards will be in your Perfect Hand.
Playtesting not only teaches you how to play, but it crushes your unreasonable expectations into the fine dust of reality. That’s something you need to see to really judge a deck.
Part of being a better Magic player is realizing that the perfect draw – or even a great draw – doesn’t happen all that often. You have to build your deck around the average draw, to assume the worst, and that it will fight its way back from everything. Every card must pull its weight.
When you look at a deck, think that it looks good, sure… But don’t assume that just because someone got The Perfect Draw against you (like my opponent did back at Origins) that you’ll always get it. I never should have played this deck… And I paid for it with a 1-2 drop.
Remember that much like the Truth, The Perfect Draw is out there… But you’ll only catch glimpses of it. Don’t rely on it.
* – No, I won’t let you get away with language like this. I’m the editor. Nyah.
** – At one point when I lived in Ann Arbor, my uncle came out to visit me with my other relatives; I was overjoyed to see Tommy, but wondered how he got the vacation time. He told me, in an embarrassed conversation whispered in a hallway, that apparently I had been involved in a near-fatal motorcycle accident and that he had rushed out here to tend to my comatose form.
“And don’t tell your mother,” he said.
Ever since then, my uncle and I have instituted a cheerful cross-policy of using each other as excuses and have taken several bullets for each other – I think I’ve died twice and had a couple of accidents, and whenever I get behind, he gets sick. I don’t know what I’ll do when he actually passes on.
*** – Now here’s an interesting question: Considering that Team Academy is all about improving your Magic play by taking every opportunity, but also seems to enjoy the seamier side of life, would having sex with my wife in lieu of a Magic tourney be something that Andy Stokinger would approve or disapprove of? I have no idea. I guess I’ll find out whether he reads my articles, but I’m guessing he doesn’t.