It has been a while since I’ve been able to write a tournament report – or much of anything about Magic, aside from the occasional review of an upcoming card or the coverage of a quarterfinals match. In fact, it has been quite a while since Magic has been good to me. The past year or so has seen my interest in professional Magic fade… And I decided that for a bit, I would hold off on writing since everything I seemed to write about Magic was terribly depressing.
It doesn’t seem like that long ago when I was at the top of my game – but time has a way of playing tricks on you, especially on me. I have a pretty poor concept of time. On any given day, I may not know what day of the week it is, what date or even month, unless I really spend some energy to think about it. It all kind of runs together; and up until Chris Pikula gave me a pocket watch for being the best man at his wedding, I didn’t even own a watch. In some regards, this disregard of time is a blessing. It stems from the fact that I play games for a living. I don’t have to be at an office at any particular time, I don’t dread Mondays or look forward to Fridays. I wake up when I wake up, I go to bed when I’m tired… And in between, I’m often playing games.
That was the year that I was on top of my game. Top 32 in Pro Tour – Mainz at the end of 1997, 1st place at Pro Tour – Los Angeles in 1998, and another top 32 at the 1998 World Championships. It all seemed so easy. Not that I didn’t work for it. For a time, I lived and breathed Magic. We practiced hard for professional tournaments and we played well. We were better than most.
I’ve been told that the year is now 2002. Four years have passed since then. Four years… That’s a long time, and it happened so fast. And what have I to show for it? Some top 8s at Grand Prixs, a top 8 at US Nationals… In each of these performances, I failed to even tie my best earlier performances, my 2nd place finish at the first North American Grand Prix in Washington DC or my 5th place finish in the 1998 US Nationals. Is it really all downhill from there?
One might suspect that I got overconfident, that I stopped practicing and playing Magic. It happens to many players after they win a Pro Tour. Overconfident, perhaps, but I never stopped playtesting for these big tournaments; I never stopped playing Magic. We tried everything, from playtesting with CMU back when Randy Buehler and Erik Lauer were still kicking around, to playing with the Jumble, to playing by ourselves. Occasionally another member of the team did well again… But not me. I certainly had a knack for staying on the Pro Tour, but in the roughly four years since Worlds 1998, I had failed to place in the top 32. In the meantime, the Masters series was born, meant to make it so that professional Magic players could do just that, play Magic for a living. Me, I can’t even see the Masters series. It is on the other side of a mountain that I’m constantly climbing and falling back down, called qualifying for the Pro Tour.
Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what, if anything, went wrong. Did we become grown up, could we no longer spend the time on Magic that is required because of real life concerns like careers and marriage? While that might apply to Chris Pikula or Worth Wollpert, it certainly didn’t apply to me. I don’t feel as if I’ve gotten considerably worse over the years. Did I just get lucky in 1998? I don’t think that entirely explains it; we were the best prepared, with the best decks, and we played better than almost all of them. All I can think of is that the average skill level on the Pro Tour has gone so far up, that I am just one of the pack, at times lagging behind on my old tired legs.
This brings me to March, 2002. It’s the end of the road, or so it seems. I’ve been to some PTQs for PT: Nice and little kids beat me in Odyssey/Torment Sealed deck like you wouldn’t believe. I’m qualified for Pro Tour – Osaka based on my Constructed rating, thanks to a largely unsatisfying 9th place performance at Grand Prix: Denver last year. And what do I have to do to qualify for Pro Tour: Nice and for the 2002 World Championships? Top 32, something that I haven’t achieved in four years.
I’m weary. For so long I cared so much about this game, I spent so much energy on it and it hurt to come up short again and again. While my self-esteem is not entirely tied to my performance as a Magic player, it certainly has a hand in it. Its bound to happen when you work hard at anything, whether its at your job, a sport, or a relationship.
Chris Pikula and Tony Tsai, while qualified for Pro Tour: Osaka, decided not to go. Perhaps they are bit weary, themselves. In preparation for Pro Tour: New Orleans, I practiced with the folks at Neutral Ground, Scott McCord, Mike Pustilnik, and any number of people with some relationship to them or to the store. It ended in failure. It seemed to make sense to practice with these people whom I play Magic with day after day… And so I did it again. This time, we came up with two decks, a control black deck and a blue/green deck. I decided to play control black, a deck that I knew very well. We had a great sideboard for the mirror match and the deck’s flexibility and raw power was unmatched in the format.
I loved the deck. Cabal Coffers is an amazing mana producing engine in the mid to late game. Nantuko Shade is insane; a reasonable turn 2 threat or blocker which can easily attack for twenty in one turn in the end game. Haunting Echoes provides a much-needed answer to Ichorid as well as serving as an additional threat – especially against control decks. Innocent Blood, Chainer’s Edict, and Mutilate allow the deck to easily deal with almost any threat, while Morbid Hunger can fend off the opponent’s creatures or go straight to the head as a victory condition, while providing the necessary fuel for the Skeletal Scrying card drawing engine. Meanwhile, Rancid Earth was crucial in the mirror match, allowing you to get off that first Mind Sludge to empty the opponent’s hand, regardless of who went first, and also made it so that you can deal with Squirrel Nest and Caustic Tar, and often mana screw opponents with bad mana (like many of the Blue/Green decks). If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing in the main deck.
The sideboard, on the other hand, was a bit shaky. This deck was prepared for the mirror match. With four Mesmeric Fiends and four Braids, the deck should leave an opposing control black deck in the dust if it doesn’t have the same sideboard. The Caustic Tar was there for situations where it is difficult to win with creatures – but in retrospect, Haunting Echoes serves as a perfectly fine victory condition in that scenario. Against the slower Blue/Green decks, you could go up to four Mind Sludge and two Haunting Echoes and hope to obliterate the opponent’s decks. Against aggressive Blue/Green decks, you could bring in the Shambling Swarms as additional creature control. I’m convinced there must be a better sideboard plan against Blue/Green, but I haven’t figured it out quite yet.
Whatever the case, this is the deck that I ended up playing and I was quite happy with it. After the first day, I was 6-1, in great position to make top 8. The second day, however, didn’t go nearly as well. While I continued to play the same deck archetypes over and over again, Blue/Green began evening the score. Perhaps with more experience I could defeat those same Blue/Green decks again, but it took time to adapt to their differing sideboard strategies. Some Blue/Green decks used Bearscape to keep pumping out creatures until I ran out of creature removal spells. Other Blue/Green decks turned into slow Upheaval decks. Still other Blue/Green decks relied on protection from black creatures like Anurid Scavenger and Nantuko Blightcutter. In any given game, I didn’t know whether to expect Stupefying Touches for my Nantuko Shades, which often won singlehandedly, Diverts for my Rancid Earths, Chainer’s Edicts, and Mind Sludges, or any number of other cards. Perhaps this inability to completely prepare for the Blue/Green deck’s sideboard strategies makes it a stronger deck than I once gave it credit for – but eventually, as the optimal strategies become clear and players become better at playing their Control Black decks against Blue/Green, I believe that Control Black will end up on top.
I won’t bore you with the blow-by-blow details, but when the dust settled, I added a 3-4 on Day 2 to my previous 6-1 performance. If you can read Japanese, the Sideboard covered my Round 1 match against Jin Okamoto and my Round 9 match against Takayuki Nagaoka. Unfortunately, I can’t understand a word of it except the occasional "King of Beatdown" and "Mind Sludge,” but for those English speakers, there is one featured match against South Africa’s premier Pro Tour Player, Andrew Mitchell. Despite the inaccuracies of Alex Shvartsman reporting, like when he states that I have no way to deal with Andrew’s Caustic Tar because I have no Rancid Earths main deck (I have four Rancid Earths main deck) and when Andrew has the superior sideboard with both Mesmeric Fiend and Braids, Cabal Minion (the same sideboard that I have, mind you), it will give you a good idea of how the match went.
Over the course of the tournament, I played against three main deck archetypes. I played six matches against Blue/Green, going 3-3, five matches against Control Black, going 4-1, and three matches against aggressive black decks with Braids and Ichorid, going 2-1. The last of the three is a horrible matchup, by the way, and I got very lucky to win that many matches against them. That being said, my loss to Bram Snepvangers and his Control Black deck was utter crap, with me taking two mulligans in game one and one mulligan in game two. I still almost crushed him with Braids in the second game despite missing my fourth land drop for three or four turns. The results against Blue/Green? We’ll chalk that up to a combination of bad luck, inexperience against the various sideboard plans of Blue/Green, and at least one clear-cut mistake.
At the end of the tournament, after going 9-5, I ended up in 28th place.
After four years, it felt pretty good. With that finish, I’m now qualified for Pro Tour: Nice, US Nationals, and the World Championships in Sydney, Australia. If I get even one extra PT point (more than the minimum) between PT: Nice and Worlds, that should keep me on for the next individual Pro Tour.
After the final standings were posted, Scott McCord and I walked outside the Osaka ATC, planning to stop at the convenience store for our ritual egg salad sandwiches (not much for us vegetarians around there) and we stumbled upon a celebration going on, out of sight from the street, right next to the water. There was an enormous structure covered in flowers, with music blaring. There were only about twenty people in attendance; it was a strangely small gathering for such an elaborate display. Lights beamed this way and that, a dry ice fog machine was pumping out vapors. Some sort of Enya-like music was blasting through the loudspeakers and torches set up in the center aisle leading up to the structure burst into flames, one after the other. Soap bubbles filled the air and the cutest child you ever saw went running around, trying to catch the bubbles before they hit the ground. It was beautiful. For the life of me, I have no idea what they were celebrating. The randomness, the sheer absurdity of this event going on, out of sight, with only a few observers… It seemed like those lucky enough to be passing by at just the right time were being given a gift. At least, that’s what it felt like to me.