Notes From The Other Side

Andrew writes about what he learned at #SCGSEA, his first tournament as a member of the coverage team rather than a player, before he heads to #SCGLA.

Before I moved to Roanoke, I regularly traveled to tournaments in the Midwest with my friend Phil Green. You likely won’t recognize his name from any high profile tournament finishes because Phil doesn’t really have any—when Phil travels to an event, he doesn’t actually play in it. Instead, Phil plays the role of the railbird, bouncing from table to table each round watching everyone else’s matches. It’s not that he doesn’t like playing; he simply loves to watch high caliber Magic players in action.

I shouldn’t say that Phil has zero notable finishes because he does occasionally sling some spells and is actually quite skilled. This should come as no surprise—if you go to a tournament every weekend and spend the whole day standing over the shoulders of the best players in the room, you’ll gradually become a better player yourself almost by accident. He would probably never forgive me if I didn’t acknowledge that he is a former Kentucky State Champion, a fact that he is quite proud of. Whether or not this constitutes a "notable finish" I’ll leave up to you guys to decide.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself that there is no way in hell you would ever wake up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning and drive for three hours to a PTQ or Open Series and then not even sign up to play in it. I never understood it myself. I used to aggressively encourage Phil to compete whenever we traveled to a tournament together, but I almost never succeeded. Eventually I grew accustomed to the fact that I had a traveling companion who wasn’t trying to win the tournament, but I remained a little bewildered that it could possibly be worth his time. One thing I knew for certain was that even though Phil could do it, showing up and not playing was definitely not something I could ever do myself. It just wasn’t in my range.

It’s funny how one’s perspective can change.

I’ve just returned from the SCG Open Series in Seattle, my first event as a member of the SCGLive team rather than as a competitor. I love my new gig and am looking forward to doing more coverage, but when I accepted the job, I had a nagging feeling that I was going to go through some serious withdrawal symptoms due to not being able to play in many tournaments once I started. I’ve been a tournament Magic player for most of my life. It’s in my blood. It seemed almost like a torturous proposition that I would be traveling every weekend to report on competitive Magic, having to see it play out right before my eyes but not being able to participate myself.

As it turns out, Phil was right all along. Watching a game of Magic with a critical eye is nearly as rewarding as sitting down to play a game yourself. I’ve never quite identified with the textbook definition of the Spike psychographic in that I don’t necessarily feel a need to prove myself. Rather, I’ve always viewed Magic a puzzle that I can solve. Bring the right 75 cards and you’ve solved the puzzle of the weekend’s metagame. Identify the right in-game plays on a hairy board state and you’ve solved the puzzle of your win-and-in round.

The thing is that I don’t necessarily need to be playing the game or the tournament in question to have the experience of attempting to solve it. I’m still being put to the task of identifying a winning line of play each round; I’m just attempting to identify it for someone else rather than for myself.

If anything, experiencing tournaments from the coverage side is even more rewarding than actually playing because you get to see things in much wider scope. If I take a deck to a Standard Open and play ten rounds with it, I will certainly learn some things about that deck, how it should be played, and how I should or shouldn’t have built it. What I won’t be able to do however is examine the deck choice of the twenty most seasoned players in the room and then watch a different one of them play a match each round. As long as I maintain my ability to think critically about plays and deck choices, I stand to grow as a player significantly faster by doing coverage than I would as an actual participant.

"Good for you," you might say, "but we can’t all be coverage coordinators. What does this have to do with me?" A central theme of both my own and most other writers’ strategic content is that winning or losing should only be secondary in one’s mind to learning about Magic and growing as a player and thinker. The big takeaway of this weekend for me was that I didn’t need to be actively playing Magic to engage in the learning process.

I’ve heard players time and time again bemoan that they don’t have the time to focus on Magic as much as they’d like and are thus resigned to occasionally showing up to FNM and using Magic as a form of passive recreation rather than earnestly attempting to work and improve at it. Maybe you’re too busy with work or school to actually play Magic on a regular basis, but you’ve got a local PTQ coming up next month and would still like to take your shot.

Read all the coverage and strategy content you can find! Watch stream archives of events and of individual players. Don’t just have the stream on in the background, but actually engage with it. Think critically while you watch. Ask yourself why certain plays were made over others. For that matter, make use of social media to ask the actual players in question why certain plays were made over others. You have every bit as much opportunity to practice by proxy as someone who gets a chance to play every single week.

In the Top 8 of big events like Grand Prix, players—even top pros—often say in profiles and interviews that they didn’t really get to playtest for the event in question, yet they still put up a strong result. This is because they still made use of what resources they had and were thinking critically about the metagame, about previous tournament results, and about impressions made by other players.

Nowadays I’m in the dual mode of trying to learn and improve as both a Magic player and a coverage professional. I won’t talk much about the latter because it actually isn’t relevant to the interests of most Magic players, but I do want to note that the processes for both are actually very similar. You might have heard Magic promoted as a game that teaches and prepares people for other aspects of life, and in this case it is very much true. If you build good habits in tournament Magic, they will aid you anywhere.

Just the same, while I may have been primarily focused on learning to be a broadcaster this weekend, that doesn’t mean I didn’t pick up a thing or two about wizardry in the process.

Some things I learned in Seattle:

  • Standard is incredibly diverse right now. There were six different archetypes represented in the Standard Open Top 8, but an even more diverse cross-section existed at the start of round 6 when I noted the archetypes being played by the fifteen undefeated players. That list: 2 Jund, 2 Naya Hexproof, 1 Mono-Black Devotion, 1 B/W, 1 G/R Monsters, 1 G/W Aggro, 1 Mono-Black Aggro, 1 R/W Burn, 1 R/W Devotion, 1 Mono-Blue Devotion, 1 U/W Devotion, 1 Esper Midrange, and 1 Bant Control. That’s thirteen individual archetypes out of a possible fifteen.
  • Before I left for Seattle, I made a list of notable players from the Pacific Northwest, people with previous Top 8s at the Pro Tour, Grand Prix, or Open Series level. Then after round 1 began, I identified thirteen players from that list who had actually shown up and noted what archetype they were playing. On this list there was very little diversity at all. The tally: 1 R/W Devotion, 2 R/W Burn, 3 Jund, and 7 Esper Control. Of these thirteen players, the two that made it to the Top 16 were the two R/W burn decks in the hands of David Doberne and Christopher Morris-Lent. Only two of the Esper players made it to the Top 32, and Sphinx’s Revelation decks on the whole had a poor performance in Seattle.
  • The two statements above are almost certainly related. In a field this diverse, it is nearly impossible to predict what you’ll be playing against, and for this reason you’ll face an uphill battle all day if your game plan is to be reactive. The trickiest part of constructing a U/W/x Control deck is figuring out what spot removal to include, as every option aside from the mercilessly overworked Detention Sphere is narrow to the point of being blank against a significant subset of opponents, even sometimes to the point of being good against one flavor of a macro archetype and bad against another. You want Last Breath against Nightveil Specter but not Lifebane Zombie; you want Doom Blade against Polukranos. World Eater but not Reaper of the Wilds; and you want Celestial Flare against Blood Baron of Vizkopa but not Pack Rat. In the face of such diverse threats, all you can really do is play a smattering of different answers and hope you find the right ones at the right times, which is obviously not a reliable solution across a ten-round tournament.
  • Blue devotion decks have become significantly less popular. I don’t know of a good explanation for this. It may be an extension of the point above that virtually any removal spell available to both U/W/x and black will find a good target against blue devotion. It may also be a result of blue devotion’s natural prey, G/R-based creature decks, being on the decline, although this may be changing as well.
  • You’re just as likely to face Mono-Black Aggro at a large Standard tournament as you are to face Mono-Black Devotion and possibly more so. Now that Herald of Torment’s bestow mode offers some of the same functionality to aggro decks that Desecration Demon does to the devotion builds, switching to Mono-Black Aggro essentially just means trading one-drops for Gray Merchants of Asphodel, and once again, in a diverse field I’d rather err toward proactivity and put my opponent on a clock.
  • Legacy will always be Legacy, where a combination of innumerable options and limited deck choice flexibility due to cost means that the metagame is both incredibly varied and somewhat immune to sweeping change. The cross-section of 5-0 players on Sunday included: 2 Miracles, 2 U/W/R Delver, 1 Elves, 1 Jund, 1 BUG Delver, 1 Aluren, and 1 U/W/R Thopter.
  • The presence of Aluren might raise some eyebrows, but it’s something of a Seattle specialty. One of the deck’s main advocates, Martin Goldman-Kirst, lives in the region, and in the four previous Legacy Opens in Seattle, he has one Top 8 and three Top 16s with Aluren. This time the deck went deep in the hands of Martin’s friend and co-conspirator Alex Ledbetter. Like many other fringe strategies in Legacy, Aluren seems like a deck that could easily be putting up much better numbers if only more people knew it existed.
  • Thopter Foundry + Sword of the Meek as a finisher in U/W decks also made some waves this weekend. The 5-0 player above, Adam Ruprecht, managed to convert his strong start into a Top 4 finish. At the time that the above data was being compiled, I also noted that Rigo Vasquez sat at 4-0-1 with U/W/R Thopter. Rigo ended up with another unintentional draw, finishing the day with a 6-1-2 record.
  • Unintentional draws in general have a peculiar effect on Legacy tournaments in that you are much more likely to run into certain archetypes once you find yourself in the draw bracket. U/W Miracles (and in this tournament, U/W/R Thopter) is the biggest offender, and as a result you must play this deck with the understanding that ending up in the draw bracket will likely result in a mirror match, which can easily mean still more draws. This is even more important if you’re playing a different deck that is notably vulnerable to Counterbalance strategies. As a real world example that played out in Seattle, Cedric Phillips and Henry Romero played a feature match to a draw in round 3. Cedric was playing Painted Stone, a deck that steals a lot of wins on the back of Blood Moon, and Henry was using a Mono-Blue Delver deck that relied heavily on Back to Basics. Both players lost a huge edge once they fell to 2-0-1, as they were increasingly likely to encounter a U/W Miracles opponent with ten to twelve fetchable basic lands.

Those are some impressions I got this weekend, but certainly one could have drawn many of these same conclusions just from watching at home. The same dance begins all over again this weekend when the Open Series comes to Los Angeles, so if you won’t be battling but still want a chance to sharpen your skills, make sure you tune in. If you will be at #SCGLA, I’ll make the same request for this event that I did last week for Seattle: seek me out and introduce yourself! I was a grinder for many years in the Midwest and got to know hundreds of other Magic players in the region, but my knowledge of the West Coast Magic scene is more limited, which I’d like to change. Hope to see you there!