I’ve been writing about this game for a long time. Back in the days of Mirage Block, (that’s six years ago) I wrote my first tournament report for the Magic Dojo, which was the center of the online Magic Universe at the time. The Dojo was an open forum for players around the world to share ideas, theories and experiences, and everyone was involved: Chris Pikula, Brian Hacker, Alex Blumke… The world’s best players were making a major contribution to the community because, simply, the rift between them and the common variety gamer was small by comparison to today’s. There was little money in the game, and that meant that if you played, you did it for one reason: You loved to play Magic: the Gathering.
Lately, that’s been changing. With the increase in money and the resulting heightening of competition, the Pro game has become its own entity. Pro players have all the cards they need, get more than a decent return on their investments in the game, and either play in tournaments no one else can or can’t play in tournaments that everyone else can. The gap has become a little too large for my tastes, eventually pushing the Dojo right out of existence.
Call this my small attempt to bridge it a little.
Since I wrote that first tournament report, I’ve graduated from University, moved to a different country on a different continent, traveled the world a few times over, and found myself in a very comfortable place. I write for the Sideboard on a full time basis, having dedicated myself exclusively to them for the last couple of years – but lately, I’ve found myself in a bit of a bind. The Sideboard is a site dedicated to the promotion of the Pro Tour and its denizens, not an open forum, and when I wanted to write a tournament report for PT: San Diego, I had no where to post it. I thought my Osaka experiences would meet the same fate, but when Alan Comer suggested Osaka might make for a good report, coinciding with my returning to Toronto for a few weeks for visa purposes, I decided it was time to contact the Ferrett.
I really like Star City. It doesn’t always cater to my tastes (I have to admit, I’m not much for the casual game; sorry Tony, Tony), but the site has a lot of writers whose words I enjoy, and the Ferrett’s been pretty good to me, keeping me informed when my name’s been thrown around in the past, so this seemed like a natural forum for that work that doesn’t seem suitable for the Sideboard. That’s not to say that I’ll get racy in these installments: They’ll just be a little more personalized.
So that’s my introduction. Osaka was a good tournament for me (not to ruin it for you guys) and enough went on there for me to want to get that on paper. I hope you’ll find the story as interesting as I found the experience. With that thought in mind, I present to you the Wise Eye View of Pro Tour Osaka.
In The Beginning…
On September 20th, eight days after my original flight was cancelled, I moved from Toronto, Canada, to London England, moving in with my Godzilla teammate Ben Ronaldson and his older brother Ivan. Having had a horrible 2001 up until that point (for what its worth, the year wouldn’t get any better) in terms of my Magic performance, I had decided that if I were to continue as a pro Magic player, I would need to move my base of operations to a locale where I could do more live playtesting – so when the Ronaldsons offered me a room at their place, I eagerly accepted. The importance of this with regards to Osaka is that its that move that allowed me to start playing Magic, be it for fun or preparation, pretty much every day. Ben is an absolute dynamo – to the point that sometimes I can’t keep up with him as far as playtesting goes, but his presence is balanced by that of Ivan, who generally enjoys a fun game or two in the wee hours.
When Ivan and I play, we do so with a few unusual stipulations. First off, I’m not allowed to get upset about anything. Second of all, he’s allowed to do all the trash talking he wants. Third, he’s allowed to take back mistakes, while I am not. The reason we play this way is to improve my tournament game, especially the anger-based rules, as losing my temper had been a problem for me in the past. While we usually play at less than 100% mental capacity, I’ve found this ritual to be helpful, forcing me to focus through the distortion.
So with the ability to play every day and the balance struck by my two roomies, the next problem I had to overcome was my insecure place on the threshold list (players with threshold have twenty or more PT points over the last year, qualifying them for the Pro Tour) and the attention it got. While most players are recognized for their successes, Peter Szigeti was busy making sure that I was being recognized for my failures – so when I managed the top 48 finish I needed to avoid falling off the train in San Diego, the sigh of relief wasn’t so much for the fact I was still on the train, but for the release I got from so much negative attention.
Now here’s the funny thing: After San Diego, the commotion died down, but going into Osaka I wasn’t qualified for Nice. I went to a number of European Grand Prix, crashing and burning at all of them, and as a result, the limited rating I wasn’t content to sit on plummeted to the point where it wouldn’t qualify me anymore. I played in one PTQ, making the finals – but needing three points in Osaka, when I met teammate Chris Clapton in the finals, it was appropriate with Osaka looming for me to concede. I was confident in my ability to earn the few points I needed, but with nothing in this game 100% certain, I was still pretty nervous about things.
Not that I hadn’t practiced the format enough. The day Brainburst posted the Torment spoiler, Zvi posted his initial deck ideas to the Godzilla mailing list, and they looked frighteningly similar to the eventual Osaka metagame… And that meant that for the two months prior to the tournament, we played the same decks over and over, rebuilding and refining. The aforementioned Clapton, John Ormerod (who wouldn’t be going to the PT), Ollie Schneider, and Richard Edbury were constantly around, making themselves available for testing – and at times I just wasn’t up for playing those same matchups over and over, because frankly, I’d already done it.
All through testing, one thing felt right: The black deck. I didn’t sense it was necessarily the best deck so much as I sensed it was the right deck for me to play. If there was only one best deck, everyone would play it… But Magic is a lot more interesting than that because the options available have to be sorted with the personality of the potential pilot in mind. I’ve always been a player of blue and black cards, seldom casting red or green ones, and with there really being only one good counter in the format, any blue configuration I tried just didn’t feel right.
To this end, despite our having a strong black deck, our team was heavily divided as to what to play. Heading into Osaka, Schneider, Norris and I were the only ones who were”playing the black deck,” though Pete and I were both open to last minute miracle discoveries. Ben was leaning towards black over blue/green Compulsion, while Chris felt he hadn’t played the black deck enough, and as a result was leaning towards blue-green. Zvi was obviously blue/green from day one; not surprising, as he’s been known to develop a strong affinity for certain Constructed decks (Turboland, anyone?), and Eric Froehlich, who’d joined our team for this tournament was pretty much the same, while non-Patrick Mello Germans were all leaning towards either Compulsion or Breakthrough based blue-green decks. Patrick hadn’t tested too much for the tournament, and felt like Black was the better choice for him.
The flight over was pretty good, with Pete having nabbed us business lounge vouchers to make the Amsterdam transition a little smoother. I don’t know how he does it, but Norris seems to get around fifty hours of activity into every day, and uses those fifty hours to do just… Well, everything. You name it, Pete’s pretty much done it: it kind of makes you feel like you’ve been wasting your time when you hang with someone who accomplishes so much. Me, I like to watch TV sometimes…
The one problem with the flight was the fact every European pro seemed to have found the same great deal we had. All of the non-Godzilla Englishmen were flying with us, as were Dutch players of all shapes and sizes and Frenchmen who were decidedly smaller than the average Dutch. There were even players I didn’t recognize trying to hide Green-themed deck boxes when I’d pass them in the aisle, and as a result, we really couldn’t do any playtesting. After an hour or so of the Amsterdam-Osaka flight, I left Ollie, Ben, Pete, Chris and the center seat I had against the bathroom wall and moved to one of the two open seats left on the plane, which while a little secluded actually allowed me to breathe. As a result, I survived the flight.
Before getting to the weekend itself, I feel like I have to share a little insight on the insider’s view of Alex Shvartsman OBC series, because it was so drastically important to this Pro Tour. Alex informed Godzilla of his decision to write the series in Heidelberg, and our reactions ranged from”that’s idiotic” to”if we invite him to join the team for this tour, maybe he won’t do it.” In the end, we knew the former wasn’t true while the latter wasn’t an acceptable option.
There are two viewpoints to take on the series: The one I take from a personally biased point of view is that it hurts the Pro Tour process. Players should be rewarded for their playtesting, and wisdom is attained by its pursuit. What Alex’s series did was wipe out a lot of people’s hard work, and in our case it was abundant. We kind of snickered at the first installment because he was so far behind, but by the second installment he’d pretty much caught up, mentioning every ‘tech’ card we’d discovered in our testing. From our gauntlet, the only deck he was missing was red/green (which Patchwork Gnomes made good, by the way; Scott Wills came up with that one) and while his black listing was looking a little weak by comparison, it was obvious the collected wisdom of the world had him on the right track – and I have to admit, it was frustrating. My problem wasn’t so much the fact that Alex had the information so much as the fact he was sharing it with everyone. This meant that those players who wouldn’t ordinarily have a chance to do well suddenly had the decks at their disposal.
How is this unfair? Simple: they didn’t do the appropriate work usually needed to find the best decks in time for the Pro Tour (remember, we don’t usually have the benefit of netdecks), and to me, it felt like the ones who were actually doing things right weren’t being justly rewarded for their efforts.
However, the Sideboard contractor in me takes a decidedly different viewpoint. Once in Osaka, I had a conversation with Jeff Donais about a number of things, including the Sideboard’s direction, and Alex’ OBC series eventually came up, as I’m sure it did in every conversation Jeff had with a pro throughout the weekend. Amongst the things he told me in explaining his decision, there was one byte of info that really stuck with me:
“There’s more interest in this Pro Tour than any Pro Tour ever”
Think about that. One more time:
“There’s more interest in this Pro Tour than any Pro Tour ever”
Here are the realities of the Pro Tour: Wizards of the Coast has a product; Magic cards. They wish to increase sales of this product – and as a result, they create a professional tournament circuit in the hopes that aspiring players will buy more Magic: the Gathering cards. It’s not the same as professional Tennis or Golf, because those professional games aren’t geared towards selling rackets or clubs, and that’s why they constantly change the Pro Tour formats – so that there will be a broad interest in the many Magic: the Gathering cards available to the market. Like every professional game circuit, the motivation is financial… But while the crux of financial interests of Tennis and Golf are in broadcast rights and the like, Magic’s are in sales.
It was Jeff’s contention that because of Alex’s choice to involve the public at large, the public at large was more interested in the goings on in Osaka than they had been for pro tournaments in San Diego, New Orleans and the like going back through the years – and if that’s the case, then you can only agree that the Sideboard’s choice to air the series was the right one. In the long run, increasing the interest in the Pro Tour can only benefit its denizens, and as a result, I think the begrudging pro really has to take a step back, look at the bigger picture, and accept that the series was probably the best thing for the Pro game as a whole.
Still sucked to see our decks up there, though…
With this being my third visit to Japan, I was definitely less excited about visiting the country and more interested in the tournament itself. Ironically, despite that missing enthusiasm, I knew Japan had always been very good to me, furnishing me with my first Sunday appearance at Worlds ’99 and with a top 32 in Constructed (which happens less often for me than in Limited) last year in Tokyo. On those grounds, it was good to be back.
Not to say Japan isn’t a remarkable place. I don’t think I’ve visited any country where less English is spoken or where the people are as forgiving of one’s lack of lingual capability. The people in Japan are extraordinarily hospitable and helpful – to the point that if you ask for directions, they’ll walk you to your destination. The people of Japan, in all of my experiences, have been helpful and honorable, so I do look forward to the time I spend there. A part of me has this intense desire to drop everything for a year and go there to teach English, but the rest of me knows that I don’t speak a word of Japanese and this old dog isn’t the best at learning new tricks.
From the plane, we had a scenic 45-minute drive to the tournament area, and that gave us a little time to chat about things. Sitting with the entire English contingent, I put the question of who they felt would best represent England as members of the national team to the mob, and it quickly became obvious that it was anyone but me. As every English name I’d heard was dropped at one point or another, I came to the sudden, harsh realization that as far as English Nats go, I’m the villain. I’d hoped that with my obviously wanting to be in England by virtue of my choice to be there, that maybe I’d make a good representative for the country. Instead, I now understood that I was the foreign usurper come to take money from English coffers.
When we arrived, Ben, Ollie, and I parted ways with the rest at 11 a.m., agreeing to meet Pete and Chris at our hotel at 2 p.m. Unfortunately, while Pete and Chris were enjoying their rather nice digs, ours were pretty much awful. The bathroom was difficult for a grown person to fit into, the duvet had cigarette burns, the room wasn’t heated, and when I went downstairs to ask for an extra pillow, I was informed that there wasn’t one in the entire hotel. Auspicious beginnings.
We spent the day playing the black deck, with the jetlagged Clapton/Norris combo understandably failing to show up, but with two players needed to play in our three man crew, I headed down to see what Dirk Baberowski and his travel companion Nancy Jeanette were up to. Turns out they were about to head for the city to grab a bite and before I knew it, I was on a Japanese subway. We ended up in the middle of Osaka, checking out a department store, dining in this little place with screaming chefs and skewers of every meat imaginable (I think raw tongue and intestine were amongst the available…) and eventually ending up in a little coffee house where, when I asked for Ice Tea, I got a cup of tea with a lot of ice in it. Pretty typical of the Japanese attitude that turns face value into real value.
Exhausted, we eventually headed back… But on the train we started talking about decks, and the question came up of why we hadn’t tried the Upheavals we had in our blue/green Compulsion deck in our Green/blue Breakthrough variant. It only made sense, with Breakthrough.dec making better use of Werebear, so we decided to give it a try when we got back.
After a few detours at this Football(soccer)/Batting cage/Driving Range/Video Game/Bowling Alley fun park, we got back and threw the ‘new’ Breakthrough deck together (Dirk, you still have my cards!!!) and it started doing really well. It was doing as well against black as Compulsion was, it was doing better vs. Squirrel Beats and blue-black, and it was even showing a slight edge in the Compulsion match up. Suddenly, as will happen when internet thought processes go live, there were new possibilities. We called Ben and Ollie upstairs and tested some more, prompting Ben to say that he definitely wasn’t playing Compulsion any more. Eventually, exhausted, we all agreed continued testing should wait until we’d assembled the rest of the team. We all went to our respective rooms around midnight for a good night’s sleep.
Despite my exhaustion, I awoke enveloped by the darkness of night. Without a clock visible, I couldn’t tell what time it was, so I tried falling back to sleep, but it just wasn’t happening. I had slept for about an hour on the plane, meaning I’d slept about an hour on ‘Tuesday night,’ so I figured it best that I try to get back to sleep, but with the paper thin walls emitting sound from five floors below and the heat a stifling seventeen million degrees, I couldn’t. I lay there, staring at the ceiling, counting the seconds, then minutes, then hours waiting for the sun to come up – but after better than two hours of this, I started getting really frustrated. Quietly as I could, I started fumbling around for my watch, finally grabbing it and heading into the bathroom where I turned on the lights…
I’d woken up at two in the morning.
I tried unsuccessfully to fall back asleep one last time, but now more awake thanks to my building frustration, I knew it was pointless. I threw on some clothes and headed out of the hotel, noting the deep stains in the elevator carpeting as I did, with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in hand, headed to the 24 hour convenience store, got some Volvic (the finest natural spring water in the world) and sat down to read.
Let me tell you, if I were entirely awake, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would have been one f**ed up book. In my sleep-deprived stupor, it became even more so. With each chapter I read, I became more confused and frightened by what the characters within were doing. It was strange and awesome and weird all at once, reading one man’s account of how the body reacts when you trash it as much as is humanly possible. With three hours sleep in two nights (not to mention only three hours on Monday; I figured I’d sleep on the plane), I could relate.
I eventually headed back up to the room around 6:30, so fatigued that to not fall asleep seemed incomprehensible, but it was so hot in there that the impossible was achieved. Eventually I inadvertently woke up Ben and Ollie, and after a bunch of black deck mirror match up play and the like, we headed into the area where the tournament was being held.
When we arrived, I was frustrated to find out there was a total of eleven teams in the gateway. I saw Mike Turian and we did a mock hug of condolence, as our Potato Nation third, Scott Johns, had a nine months pregnant wife – and as such was unable to make the trip to Osaka, meaning we couldn’t compete. The last word on this is that Blake Johns had better be a damn good kid (congrats, Scott).
The next few hours were spent talking to a number of people: Jeff Donais about Sideboard, Andrew Cuneo about life, Mike Turian about the next team Pro Tour and the like. I watched Phoenix Foundation do a draft against Les Plus Classe and couldn’t help but mock Kai when he complained about having not drawn any of his three Looters against Gabriel Nassif. Noting that Kai had a five-to-two creature advantage and that his guys were all three-power flyers, I put on my best German accent and said ‘and I didn’t even win San Diego!’ Eventually, the Germans finished the draft and we were set to go.
As we were about to leave, I was approached by Keita Mori. Keita, for those who don’t know, is the absolutely awesome editor of Sideboard Japan. He’s a dynamo, always on the move, speaking more than passable English, getting his friends the cards they need whenever and generally being an all-around good guy. Keita came to me and informed me that the next day, the owners of Hobby Japan would be in attendance and that they’d like to meet with me about potentially doing some work for them. He showered me with a few compliments and informed me that I was the most read Magic writer in Japan (I had no idea previously) and that basically I was the Japanese equivalent of what David Hasselhoff is to Germans. (By the way, that’s a big fallacy. Hasselhoff isn’t nearly as huge in Germany as North Americans have been told. Sad, but true.) While I found all of this pretty hard to swallow, I agreed to meet with them the next day, as Keita explained that they wanted to in essence offer me a job. Who was I to say no?
We headed back to Kai’s room at the Hilton, courtesy of Wizards – which looked absolutely fantastic next to our flea-bitten hellhole – and proceeded to test for a while. Eric Froehlich, who knew the Compulsion deck better than anyone, was there to observe the Breakthrough deck in action, and he watched me lose three straight to Patrick Mello with the black deck. While Pat’s draws had been nuts, averaging around nineteen each of Edicts and Shades, it was looking like Dirk and I had been misled by good draws the night before. When Ben informed me that he’d just beaten Breakthrough as played by Norris 8-2, my fears of something better were put to rest, and I was playing the Black deck in Pro Tour: Osaka.
The rest of the night was pretty uneventful. I was absolutely exhausted, so after dinner and some sideboard talk (we were still a few slots shy of a complete sideboard), it was time to sleep. I went to bed, knowing that I was likely to blink and find myself teleported to eight hours in the future.
I lay in bed, quickly hearing Ollie and Ben’s breathing patterns shift, signaling their nocturnal state, but I never joined them. For seven some hours I lay there with what felt like a thin coating of manure covering my entire body. Without a doubt, the worst hotel I’d ever stayed in. After four or five hours of this, I left the room, going downstairs to see if I could swim. Of course, the swimming pool didn’t open on Fridays, and I then discovered the same went for the business office. I ingested some sugar and caffeine in the hopes I’d be awake and aware in time for the tournament and read some more Fear and Loathing, and at seven a.m. headed back to the room, where I sat quietly for half an hour until I was finally able to take a shower, knowing that my waking the guys up wouldn’t matter.
At this point, I did a little math. With three hours sleep Monday night, one hour worth on the plane and two more hours on Wednesday, I’d slept six hours in the past ninety or so.
So Ollie, Ben, and old death on legs headed to the tournament site. The moments before the tournament, I started getting paranoid about the fact we had no Innocent Bloods in the sideboard, meaning that we had no solution other than Chainer’s Edict for Braids. Not a good thing. I cut one of our three Mesmeric Fiends, putting me at sixteen cards, and then finally, needing to lose one last one, I cut the one Skeletal Scrying in the board, deciding one in the main should suffice. It was a big mistake. The seatings for the player’s meetings went up, throughout which I babbled to no one in particular in order to keep myself awake, and after considering a last minute deck exchange with Jelger Wiegersma, pairings for round one were up. If you want to take a look at my final decklist, check out the coverage on The Sideboard.com ; you’ll find it there.
ROUND 1: Clifford Yap. Finished: 179th
Generally, the hope in the first few rounds of any Constructed Pro Tour is to sit down across from someone you don’t recognize. The logic behind this is that in all likelihood, they have no connection to any major team, and as a result their deck will come up lacking. When I saw Clifford’s name, I let out a little sigh of relief.
It was a mistake.
Clifford and I shook hands and started chatting, with the opening conversation going something like:
“Hi, I’m Gary.”
How do you respond to that? This same conversation played out around a dozen times over the weekend, and I still have no idea where the conversation is supposed to go from there – but I eventually got him talking and found out it was his second Pro Tour. (I think. Sleep deprivation has left a few of the facts of the weekend a little hazy.) They announced the beginning of the round and we got underway.
I started the first game ominously with a mulligan and he made me pay, casting all manner of Rancid Earths before casting Mind Sludge. While I was getting my face bashed in, though, one thing was more disturbing than anything else: He didn’t cast a single card we didn’t have in our version of the deck. It’s usually a major advantage to be on one of the PT megateams because your deck is often just better than your opponents. It was very quickly becoming obvious to me that this wouldn’t be the case in Osaka. Damn you, Alex!
After losing the first, I boarded in the Braids sideboard, taking out all those five and six casting-cost spells that would never see the light of day in the match up if he had Braids (which he did) and proceeded to beat the man to a pulp. Game three, Clifford looked at his opener and thought for a long time, finally electing to keep. Unfortunately for him, he’d chosen to keep a two-land hand and didn’t draw a third before I cast Rancid Earth on my third turn. After that, it was all elementary, with Braids and more Earths finishing the job.
Round 2: David Beduzzi. Finished: 95th
David seemed like a very nice guy, and when I asked that he and the teammate he was seated next to speak in English instead of Italian, he very willingly complied. Before each match, I shake my opponent’s hand instead of saying good luck – as I can’t say I honestly want them to get lucky, but at the same time want to show some respect and be a decent sportsman. David thanks me for not saying good luck, informing me that to do so to an Italian is considered poor form.
I don’t remember all the details of the match, though I remember casting Haunting Echoes in game one after a quick Nantuko Shade. Game two, I was dominating pretty thoroughly, but a couple of absolutely awful plays made it close, one of which saw three creatures in play: His Roar token, my Shambling Swarm, and his Shambling Swarm, which he had by virtue of Persuasion. He attacked with only the Roar token – a big mistake on his part, but I did him one better, blocking with my Swarm and sending the counters to the Roar instead of the other Swarm, which would in turn have to kill the Roar. In the end, though, my draws were too good for his blue-green deck, whose use of Deep Analysis over Compulsion geared it very much towards the early game.
Round 3: Scott Gerhardt. Finished: 128th
While I try not to let my guard down during premier-level event matches, Scott made it pretty hard to keep a stiff upper lip. My draws in this match were pretty nuts, leaving things pretty far from close – but if nothing else, Scott and his blue/green deck kept things interesting. The prime example of what I mean came during sideboarding, when he informed me he’d won a sideboarded game against red/green with an unusual card he was now boarding in against me. I racked my brain trying to figure out what it was… But even that didn’t prepare me for Twigwalker, which was supposed to protect his creatures from the fast Mutilate. The build up to the first ‘Walker being cast was so tremendous that when he finally cast it, it was only appropriate that he let out a bellowing”BAM!!!”, at which point the head judge came over to issue me a warning for being too loud. Guess my rep proceeds me. Scott argued my case and the warning was removed from the record before it ever made it to paper. All in all, a good match; it’s unfortunate Scott didn’t make day two, but I was happy to see he managed to squeeze a third PT point out of the tournament by coming 128th.
Round 4: Bram Snepvangers. Finished: 52nd
Bram has been developing himself a bit of a negative reputation on tour as of late, so while things had always been amicable between he and I, I was pretty careful when watching to make sure things were up and up… And from what I could tell, they were. I knew going into the match that he was playing mono-black with 28 land and one Hypnox, but my draws ensured that it didn’t really matter what he was playing. Game one, I was all Mind Sludges and Rancid Earths to his mulligan, while game two I was much of the same but Braids came to play, too. I’m not 100% on this, but I don’t think he had permanents when he shook my hand at the end of the match.
Round 5: Olivier Ruel. Finished: 2nd
When Olivier and I found out we were playing one another, he came storming towards me and jumped, landing on my chest. Instead of letting him fall though, figuring we were both 4-0 and had both played in the Invitational, I carried him to the feature match area. Turns out that the effort was wasted, though, as he’d played a feature match the previous round, and Mark Rosewater wanted to add a little variety to the pit.
Game one was all Olivier in this mirror match. He won the coin flip, meaning he won the race to Rancid Earth, meaning he won the race to Mind Sludge, meaning he won the game. Game two saw me cast the first Earth and the first Braids and the second Braids and the first Mind Sludge and I won. Game three I mulliganed, as he again got off to the better start. One problem I had with the format is how much it awarded a player for going first, so it came as no surprise that with his win of the coin flip, Olivier virtually won the match. I may have finished this match the same way Bram did in round four.
Round 6: Andrew Mitchell. Finished: 53rd
I’ve been familiar with Andrew for a while, having gotten an opportunity to get to know him better at the Invitational this year in Cape Town, his home. After we exchanged pleasantries, the match got underway, with the mirror once again coming down to draws. Game one, I got the good stuff, and things were looking pretty good game two when he double mulliganed… But his five cards included Swamps, Rancid Earth, and Braids and I never found he kill spell needed to finish the legend off. Game three I was looking pretty good, getting off the first Sludge, but I couldn’t find a way to kill Andrew… And when I drew Haunting Echoes, I had no choice but to cast it or risk having it Sludged. He drew his a few turns later, using it to better effect, and it wasn’t long before I was staring down the barrel of a loaded Nantuko Shade.
Round 7: Christophe Haim. Finished: 8th
Christophe and I agreed that drawing into day two was the right play, with the determining factor for me being that someone had told me that a good 10-3-1 would be good enough for top 8. I had the best tiebreakers of the 4-2s. In the end, when I didn’t make top 8, I was damn impressed with the fact that Haim had. It meant he’d gone 6-0-1 on day 2.
Ollie and Chris had managed to draw into day two also, while Pete and Ben had failed to make the cut. I was completely wiped out, operating on fumes and needed a decent sleep. Fortunately, I’d planned ahead.
That morning as I prepared to leave for the PT, I knew that if by some miracle I managed to make day two, another night like the few I’d just survived wouldn’t be acceptable, and I packed a change of clothes for the day’s journey as a precaution. Instead of heading back to the hotel with Ben and Ollie, I went with Pete and Chris to theirs, where I got myself a room. After checking the internet with eventually dashed hopes of finding the decklists of potential opponents and piecing Brian Kibler red-blue ‘tog deck together and testing with the guys, I retired to my room, where I got the best seven hours sleep I’d had in a long time.
Knowing from the accounts I’d heard the day before that 10-3-1 should get me in, my goal on the day was 6-1. Granted, the general goal should be to win them all and sort the bodies out afterwards – but when you have a dozen top 32s with only one top 8 to show for it, your goals become pretty cut and dry. Pete, Chris, and I headed to the site, grabbed a little something at Starbucks, chatted a bit with Mike Turian and Osyp Lebedowicz, and eventually went to find our initial seatings: Pete in the PTQ, Chris and I in the PT.
For some reason I still can’t fathom, I’ve always done better on the second day of Pro Tours than the first. Time and again I’ve struggled to barely make day 2, then gone 5-1-1 or 6-1 once there… And while that isn’t too good for the tiebreakers, it boded well for me if going 6-1 was really all that mattered.
Round 8: Brian Davis. Finished: 18th
As Brian mentioned in his report in what I hope were less eloquent terms, I won game one on the strength of my drawing three Nantuko Shades, and won the match thanks in part to his making a mistake, targeting himself with Predict and milling a Psychatog when the right play mathematically was to target my mono-colored deck. Fortunately for me, he didn’t do so. Brian was playing without Infestation main deck, and the CMU blue-black build included Finkels – which we found very bad in our testing, but the sideboard strategy that saw CMU members transform their decks into Upheaval/Infestation decks in order to combat Chainer’s Edict and Innocent Blood seemed to be a strong one. I liked the Skeletal Scryings in their capacity to fight off Haunting Echoes.
Round 9: Luca Chiera. Finished: 40th
I’d played Luca a couple of times before, and it was pretty obvious in the early going that my 2-0 record vs. him was on his mind, but the psychological advantage never came into play. Game one, I played Nantuko Shade and attacked until he killed it, then played a second and did more of the same. Then he died.
Game two, Luca kept a dangerous hand, playing a Coffers instead of Swamp on turn three, and I managed to Rancid Earth a Swamp before he played another land. Then I Rancid Earthed again, and when he played a third Swamp, I had the third Earth waiting. The Shade did the rest in a match that lasted around five minutes.
Round 10: Matteo Di Thomaso. Finished: 39th
When I sat down across from Matteo, I thought about wishing him good luck, knowing full well it would have annoyed him (he’s Italian)… But I guess I’ve gone soft in my old age and we chatted briefly about my not doing so. Unfortunately, that was the most entertaining part of this match for me. Game one, I got down a quick Shade against his creature heavy blue-green deck, but he got the quick start with Aquamoeba and Roar of the Wurm, and on the turn he needed his drawn card and one card previously in hand to be a two mana or less creature and an Aether Burst, they happened to be just that. I still have a lingering feeling I could have played this game differently and won, but I still haven’t figured out how.
Game two, I mulliganed once into Swamp, Innocent Blood, Tainted Pact, and three meaningless cards and decided to keep, drawing my second land – Coffers – the turn before I died. I think going to five wouldn’t have been too good a proposition either.
So now I was on the brink. My tiebreakers were nuts, but according to yesterday, I needed to finish with thirty-one points, and that meant that I needed to win my last four rounds. This meant I had to be strong. This meant I had to be tough. This meant I had to…
Round 11: Mike Turian. Finished: 47th
…take the man with whom I’ve made a good portion of my money in this game and eliminate him from top 8 contention. Merde.
Mike is one of my favorite people, and despite our paths parting with regard to our Pro Tour affiliations, I always hope that he’ll win. Of course, I’d never faced him in competition before, so I’d never really had reason to want him to lose. As unfortunate as this pairing was, now I had one. The feeling didn’t last too long. I don’t remember all the details, but game one was pretty quick, with Mike suffering some small-scale mana problems in the face of my good draw, while game two, Mike missed one important land drop and paid for it the rest of the game, being forced to fight his way back against the Braids/Rancid Earth board. Surprisingly, he did so, but only because I found myself in a six-turn land clump – but with Mirari and around forty mana in play, I had a lot of turns to draw into a finisher, and I finally did, two turns before I would have died, with the Diabolic Tutor I finally found more than doing the trick.
Round 12: Frank Karsten. Finished: 42nd
Amongst Dutch players, Frank is one of the most respected players in the country, which is reason enough to give him a lot of respect when playing against him regardless of his being a good guy. Playing a blue/black deck that none of the Dutchmen playing it were too happy with, he gave me a good fight, with my land destruction keeping him handcuffed enough game in the last game to prevent his Upheavaling. This all meant that my resolved Nantuko Shade had ample time to finish him off. Then I exhaled.
Knowing I still needed to go 2-0 to have my shot at top 8, I decided to not bother to look at the standings. I guess my attitude was that I should want to win regardless. I knew a draw would leave me out of the running, so it seemed like there was little point in speculating.
Round 13: Florent Lefranc. Finished: 38th
It’s always interesting playing against players who don’t speak English, but throw it into the feature match pit with top 8 on the line and you have a situation where you need to be sociable in order to communicate when a part of you really doesn’t want to be too communicative. With a number of French players watching, though, we were able to understand one another and there were no problems.
Game one went pretty well, with Rancid Earth allowing me to get off the first Sludge, and when I eventually cast Haunting Echoes with demanding control of the game, I was ready to shuffle for game two… But Florent wasn’t having any of that, giving me a free look at his deck. Turns out he’d just given up valuable clock time, as the Echoes meant there was virtually no way for him to win… But I wasn’t complaining about the free information.
Game two started well for me with his double mulligan, but I noted to Josh Bennett (who was doing match coverage for the Sideboard) that I’d had one mirror match opponent double-mulligan while playing first and lost, and that the nature of the match-up meant that I wouldn’t be that surprised if it happened again, with playing first so important in the race to Rancid Earth and Mind Sludge. I should have kept my mouth shut.
Florent started game two with Rancid Earth and Braids as I could only stare at my own copies of each card, and I was sent to no-permanent hell before I could do anything about it. Fortunately, in game three, I was able to turn the tables, with a Tutor for Rancid Earth allowing me to destroy one of Florent’s two tapped swamps, with the threshold kicking in to kill his just-cast Nantuko Shade. Very ugly. I think he conceded with no permanents and close to no cards in hand.
Round 14: Ben Rubin. Finished: 21st
I only got a very brief look at the pairings and I thought it said I was playing Gerrard Fabiano, a Neutral Grounder who I’ve seen at a couple of Pro Tours but don’t actually know. Truth be told, I was a little relieved – if only because I knew what he was playing and because more often than not, it’s better to play someone you don’t know than someone you do at this level, because if they’re known its because they’re really good, and if they’re a friend you don’t really want to be the instrument of their demise. I tapped Gerrard, who was trying to see the list, on the shoulder and told him ‘see you at the table,’ which must have confused the hell out of him once he’d seen the pairings.
As I headed to the feature match area, I overheard someone say ‘Gerrard is insane’ and did everything I could to stay focused. Knowing that a win would probably get me back to the top 8 for the first time in far too long, I did a little stretching and a little psyching myself up – but when I got to the feature match area, the nameplate accompanying mine wasn’t Gerrard’s.
It said Ben Rubin.
Simply, Ben is one of the top five players in the game, and while we’ve been friendly for a long time, I’m the first to admit I’m a little intimidated by Ben’s skill in this game, which I also must admit far exceeds my own. Ben beat me in a meaningless match at Pro Tour Chicago 1999, he beat me in a much more important PT: New York 2000 match and he beat me in the first round of the first Masters at the second New York that same year. There are definitely guys I’d rather play… Like Ryan Fuller. Or Stalin.
On the bright side, though, I was definitely confident about the matchup. I think Ben and his partner in all things deckbuilding Brian Kibler are amongst the top deck builders in the world, but our testing the night before suggested the matchup was a favorable one. I quickly polled a couple of teammates about what they were sideboarding, and they filled me in on everything, keeping it all accurate except for one thing. When I asked if they were playing Divert, the consensus I got was that they weren’t.
Game one was long and drawn-out. At one point earlier on, I called a judge on Ben for his untapping some lands, and while I didn’t care much about the mana involved, I hoped that it might mess with his mind a bit. He appeared a little flustered, but as far as game interactions went, it never came into play. Eventually, having cast Morbid Hunger a couple of times (this was the first match up where I was actually glad to have it in my deck), I had enough time to build my mana up to ridiculous proportions – meaning that when I finally got a Shade into play, the game was over.
Man did that feel good. I’d just played a smart, mistake-free game against one of the world’s best and come out the winner for it. I was feeling good, feeling calm, and feeling a lot more confident about my ability to win this match. I finished boarding and handed my deck to Ben for cutting. He grabbed it and started pile shuffling, just as he had the game before. Thing was though, there was suddenly this nagging feeling in my gut that something was wrong, because for the first time all tournament, I hadn’t counted my sideboard before presenting my deck. As I watched Ben continue to pile, my fears worsened when he and I both counted fifty-seven…fifty-eight…fifty-nine…sixty…
…and there were still two cards in his hand. Ben got a confused look on his face, thinking he’d hit fifty-nine or the like, and he started counting again, remarking that the second count didn’t match the first one. I grabbed my sideboard, and to my dismay, there were thirteen cards there. I told Ben to stop counting and called over Colin Jackson and told him what I’d done, leaving him no choice but to give me a game loss.
For years I’ve been writing articles about behaving professionally and the kind of mistakes you don’t make if you want to be a top Magic player – and in screwing up like that, I felt like a combination idiot and hypocrite. There was silence in the gallery from the English players who’d gathered to watch as I beat myself up for a couple of minutes.
As we shuffled up for game three, I continued to beat myself up, but I eventually concentrated on the matter at hand, forcing myself to calm down and think about the fact I was likely only able to do so because of my dining room sessions with Ivan. I chose to play first while Ben mulliganed and got off to a good start, with Ben starting things off with only a filter land. I hoped beyond hope for land destruction, but couldn’t find any until Ben dropped his first mana-producing land. Things were still looking decent though and while I was still a little emotionally unstable thanks to game two, I felt myself calming down. I decided to go in for the kill, tapping five of my six available mana to cast Mind Sludge.
He Diverted it.
I was absolutely destroyed. I knew I still had a chance to win the game thanks to Ben’s limited mana resources, but my mindset suggested otherwise – and in this kind of a situation, that can make all the difference in the world. I discarded three good cards (sorry, don’t remember which ones) and sat ready to take my beatings, thinking only about how painful this would be to look back on for the next few years.
Ben drew and played his fourth land and gave up his turn and I drew a card I’ll comment on in a second. Ben’s next turn went ‘draw, go’, and I drew and played a Swamp, giving me eight mana. I looked at the card in my hand and put it down and thought about what effect it might have on the game. I relinquished priority and Ben cast Skeletal Scrying for three. I responded by casting Skeletal Scrying for seven, leaving just one Edict in my graveyard. Scrying may now be my favorite card.
I drew the seven as Ben looked at the Haunting Echoes in his hand, which seconds earlier would have won the game but now was completely useless. I didn’t draw that much off the seven cards, but it was enough. Mana built, Braids and Rancid Earth kept his resources low, and I finally got out Nantuko Shade with him holding only one card with Compulsion in play, and soon the game was over.
I closed my eyes as the English players celebrated, which was a big deal to me. Getting that cheer out of the same guys who’d been lamenting my success at Nationals only three days earlier felt pretty good. So did making top 8. Good enough to make me forget just how bad I’d performed under this kind of pressure, right?
Before I could answer that question, Mark Rosewater came over with the standings in hand. Without pause, he let me know that I wouldn’t be in the top 8, likely finishing tenth or eleventh, making me feel a little better about not openly celebrating my win. I talked to the English and then left the area feeling pretty miserable.
Now here’s the funny thing: I wasn’t that pissed about not making top 8. I’d come from behind, had a strong day against the best players in the hardest tournament in the format, and frankly, hadn’t done enough to earn myself a spot in the top 8. What pissed me off is the fact that in this, my 29th Pro Tour, with all of the big matches I’ve played, and all the preparation I’d done, I still crumpled under the pressure. I screwed up something as simple as a sideboard count when all that mattered was the keeping of a level head. It was weak, and unprofessional and deserving of my shame.
I was annoyed for the rest of the night, after having once again come so close, and while people didn’t really understand it, when you come so close to your goals time and again and think you’ve achieved them only to have reality pull the rug out from under you, maybe they don’t have to. Fortunately, two things happened to lighten the load a little.
The first was a talk I had with one English player, whose name I’m going to leave out of this retelling because even I have moments that I feel are profound enough to keep private. In that conversation, that player, who was part of the conversation about the potential English team three days earlier, said something that will stay with me for a long time:”I just wanted to tell you that I would be honored to have you represent England at Worlds.” It may be hard to relate, but when you’re a stranger in a strange land, it always feels like there’s a little something keeping you on the outside, and there are constantly reminders of your place. Having that said to me meant a lot because at least in one person’s mind, I wasn’t the foreign usurper any more: I was just another Magic player living in England who wanted to represent his country well.
That kind of acceptance is hard to find.
The second event was a little bit funnier, if not more preposterous. I was standing in a circle of players talking about how poorly I’d performed against Rubin when none other than Peter Szigeti walked up. He sized me up, looked me in the eye, and said,”I guess you took that whole gravy train thing and stuck it right up my ass.” Then he half-smiled and walked away. I took it as congratulations.
The rest of the weekend was less eventful. We went out for a very nice meal that night and then retired for the evening, and after another sleepless night, headed to the tournament center. Mark Rosewater asked me if I’d be interested in taking my first shot at doing commentary, and while Randy Buehler and I were a little uneasy at first, the moment our mutual love for Ryan Fuller was brought up, we settled into what felt like a decent rhythm. The rest of the day was spent drafting, chatting, and hanging out around the tournament center, because frankly I was too damn tired to do anything else. The next few hours passed in whirlwind fashion, with a late night poker game leading to a four-hour nap before boarding a plane and heading home.
A few days after returning home, after taking advantage of the opportunity to heal the Rubin-match wounds, I came to the realization that my Constructed rating could be a lot higher than it had ever been before, and while I usually don’t pay too much attention to it, with the Masters including five invites based on rank, I figured that it might be worth taking a look at.
Wow; good for ninth place, first in England. As I looked at the names ahead of me (and the fact I was two points out of a tie for fourteenth), it dawned on me that that most of them were already qualified for the Nice Masters, which is to be Extended. I did some checking and confirmed that I was indeed on the list of five players who’d be invited by rating. A couple of weeks later, it was confirmed for me. I guess winning those last four matches was worth it after all.
Props and Slops
In the past, I’ve gone in depth with these, but it’s taken me so damn long to write this thing that I’ll keep it brief:
- Ben and Ivan Ronaldson – best roomies I ever had.
- Godzilla – We had a bad tour, but I’m still proud of this team.
- The unnamed Englishman – Thanks, it meant a lot.
- Japan – I’m always treated with respect by everyone there, regardless of whether they’ve heard of Magic: the Gathering
- Thirteen of my opponents – Things were kept sportsmanlike in our matches, and I’ll remember them all fondly.
- Hobby Japan – My new employers.
- Everyone who has voiced their support to me over the last few months – With all the negative press I’ve gotten of late, a lot of people, only some of who I know, have voiced their support, either publicly or privately. I may not always seem appreciative, but trust me, I am. Thanks guys.
- Gary Wise – Your slip-ups in the fourteenth round were unacceptable. You’re better than that.
- Brian Davis – Mocking me in your tournament report for the sake of it seems so…2001. Instead of emulating the misguided actions of others in a plea for acceptance, try being your own person. Not everyone will love you for it, but hey, you don’t have to be loved by everyone.
- Peter Szigeti – Still on the slops list, Pete, because one congratulations and one explanation of your actions doesn’t undo a lot of the damage you’re responsible for. At the same time, I understand the reasons you did what you did – and now that you have the attention you’d craved, I’ll be curious to see what you’ll do with it.
- Bob Maher – Not really a slop, but I wanted to say something here. The slop is for not being in Osaka, because I always enjoy spending time with you (and Courtney), and while I don’t love that you were part of something the required your being penalized, anyone with half a brain knows that your positive influence on this game has far outweighed any negative that might be perceived. There are writers in this community who took it upon themselves to forge a witch-hunt based on assumption and conjecture, and their doing so reeks of the McCarthy trials. While they insist that this is the DCI’s fault, each of us is responsible for the crap that spews from our mouths – and when that crap is composed of unfounded assumptions, it only goes to really harm a person about whom you have no concept of the truth. Get your heads out of your asses, guys, and understand that when you put pen to paper, you should be assuming a certain amount of responsibility.
Okay, I know this took me too long to get posted, and I apologize for that, but I had a lot of thoughts to get down amidst articles with more concrete deadlines. I want to thank Star City for posting and any other site that linked to the article, and I want to thank all of you who’ve stayed with it this long. If you got something from this report, be it enjoyment, an understanding of the Pro Tour experience or a cure to insomnia, do the rest of us a favor: Next time you have a tournament experience that you feel is special in any way, write it up and don’t leave anything out. We all have a lot to share; it just takes the will to actually follow through. Thanks for reading,
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