Reigniting The Fire

Do you feel like you’re in a competitive Magic slump? Brian Braun-Duin tells you how helping Team SCG Blue for Pro Tour Avacyn Restored helped him reignite his fire for tournament Magic.

A week ago, Pro Tour Avacyn Restored in Barcelona hit the books. A lot of writers have already touched on some of the Block decks to come out of the Pro Tour, so I won’t cover the same ground they have. I will say that the Pro Tour was intensely fun to watch, and the coverage was fantastic this time around. I really tip my hat off to Wizards of the Coast for the strides they took to make the Pro Tour a memorable experience.

If you enjoyed watching the PT coverage and liked the look of some of the Block decks to come out of it, I can’t endorse playing Block Constructed on Magic Online enough. It’s a great way to get your feet wet on Magic Online, and I personally find it significantly more enjoyable than playing the same Standard matchups against each other over and over again.

I can’t speak for other Block formats, but Innistrad Block has proven to be a very diverse format and the top decks and dominant archetypes are constantly evolving. I have personally gone 3-1 or better in Daily Events with over six unique archetypes since the banning of Lingering Souls, and there are at least three separate tier 1 or tier 2 archetypes off the top of my head that I have never played. I don’t say this to boast but rather to showcase how truly diverse the format is and how many viable decks there are. And this is before Avacyn Restored is even out on Magic Online! I can’t wait to see the shifts in the Block metagame once AVR cards start to hit the market.

I do have one fairly serious topic I want to discuss regarding the Pro Tour. There is a growing epidemic in Magic: The Gathering. It’s been creeping up on us in the last few years and like a virus, it’s slowly spreading. Our immune system is growing weaker, and if we don’t act soon this blight may be irreversible.

I’m talking about naming decks.

First, I will give you some good news. There was one shining beacon to come out of Barcelona. It was the deck that cast Unburial Rites on Griselbrand. It was the deck simply named "Raisin’ Brand." Let’s all take a moment to bask in the beauty here. It’s a clever pun that effectively conveys the purpose of the deck. Ebert gave it two scoops way up.

However, this great success was unfortunately marred by an ungodly plague on the deck naming community. The Naya midrange deck that was played by a full fourth of the field was given the title "Wolves and Angels." I lost a small part of myself each and every time I saw that deck name used, and that’s something I can never get back. Not only is it the most unoriginal name imaginable, it is also does a terrible job describing what it is the deck actually does.

The most played creature type in the deck is Human. Cavern of Souls holds the deck’s mana base together because you can name Human and cast the wide variety of Humans in the deck that have casting costs that range from G to 1WW to 2GR. Team SCG Blue played one Wolf and one Angel in the maindeck, Wolfir Silverheart and Restoration Angel, respectively. They played over fifteen Humans.

If you handed me a deck box and said, "Hey man, wanna test this Wolves and Angels deck against my sweet new brew?" I would do the following:

I’d say this, word for word, "So how does the deck work? I cast Herald of War and then next turn my Chameleon Colossus costs one less and Immerwolf can pump it, right?"

You would be forced to say, "Well, actually, it’s a Block Constructed Naya midrange deck. You use Cavern of Souls to name Human to cast all the Humans in the deck. Let me tell you, though, this Wolves and Angels deck is pretty awesome!"

There’s no response I could provide to give the absurdity of that statement justice. I’d hand you back the deckbox, crumple on the floor, and begin to convulse uncontrollably. My mind would be utterly destroyed by the ridiculous deck name I just was witness to. You would have to check me into an institution. When I emerge three years later, I would not be the same person I am today.

These are the dangers we face when we go about naming our decks.

I am no expert in this art of deck naming, but here are a few alternatives off the top of my head. Most of these are just simple, bland, descriptive names, but I would have still readily accepted any of these over Wolves and Angels:

Naya Midrange
-G/R/W Midrange
Naya Angelou (The judges will also accept: "I know why the caged Wolf sings.")
Wolfir Silverheart and 56 other assorted G/R/W cards
-Ir-Restor-Rational (This one is a huge stretch.)
-Avacyn’s Pilgrim’s Progress
-Humans, Werewolves, Angels, regular Wolves, Garruk, Bonfire and Gavony Township

I have to say I’m a bit partial to Bondfire myself. Maybe one more soulbond creature needs to find their way into the deck to get full mileage out of Bondfire, but at least there is promise there. Regardless of what you’d like to call the deck, can we all agree never to refer to it as "Wolves and Angels" for the sanity of all?

With that rant out of the way, there is one more thing I want to talk about regarding the Pro Tour before I get into the heart of my article. The Pro Tour finally showcased the most powerful flip card in Innistrad Block. I was hoping this card would finally break out into the forefront, and I was not disappointed.

Is it Huntmaster of the Fells? No. That card broke out at Pro Tour Dark Ascension.

Scorned Villager? No.

Daybreak Ranger? No.

What could it be?

This card didn’t even make the cut in Limited a lot of the time. The latent power was always there, but it was hard to make it work. It only took one Pro Tour appearance before the most feared double-faced card finally showed who rules Innistrad…

Sorin’s illegitimate heir, Josh Cho. Or as he’s better known:

The other side of this double-faced card is unfortunately not something we can show and still call ourselves a family friendly site. Sorry, folks.

At any rate, I want to give huge congratulations to a friend of mine and fellow SCG writer Josh Cho, who showed how awesome he is by finishing in 3rd place at his first ever Pro Tour. What a sick accomplishment. I was really proud to watch the coverage, and I can’t tell you how happy I am for him. Cho is really a great guy, and he deserves all the success he has gotten.

And with that, I’d like to finally move into the topic of my article. While it may seem like what I have written so far is just a random mish-mash of words and mini-rants about Pro Tour Avacyn Restored, I promise that there is a real point that ties it all together. Even though I didn’t attend the Pro Tour myself, it held special importance to me. It was the catalyst I needed to reignite the fire.

The Fire

When I talk about "the fire," I am referring to the desire to win that drives us all to compete in the first place. If you don’t have a strong desire to win, you won’t. The desire to win comes from a desire to achieve whatever prize it is that winning provides. This doesn’t have to be a monetary prize, booster packs, a Mox Sapphire, or anything tangible like that. It certainly can be, but the prize can also simply be recognition, self-satisfaction at a job well done, proving your skill, or any number of other things.

To reignite a fire, two things must happen first. First of all, there has to be an original fire. Secondly, that fire has to go out. This may sound obvious, but I can’t explain how I was able to reignite the fire without first discussing how the fire went out and why it was even there in the first place.

While I have had "the fire" on and off for as long as I’ve played Magic, the most recent fire I had began at the tail end of last year when I won my first PTQ.

Last year, a number of skilled Magicians moved to Roanoke to integrate themselves into the growing giant that is StarCityGames.com. This started with Todd Anderson and Gerry Thompson. Before they came, I was kind of stuck in a rut with my Magic playing career. I wanted to improve at the game, but I didn’t know how to do so.

When Gerry and Todd showed up on the scene, it fired me up to succeed. I wanted to become as good at Magic as they are, and I wanted to prove to them that I could compete on the same level as they can. When I dedicate a lot of time to a pursuit, I do it because I have a burning desire to be the best at it. To be the best at Magic, I need to learn from players who are better than I am and also strive to surpass them at the same time. Todd and Gerry’s moves to Roanoke finally gave me players I could look up to and try to beat in my own backyard.

At the end of last year, Todd and I started traveling to events together. Not only was I competing for a slot on the Pro Tour, but I was also competing to beat Todd. That’s not to say that I was trying to beat him directly in a match, but that I wanted to show him that I could play at the same level as he can. I can’t say for sure, but I feel like Todd was also competing to beat me. I think this friendly rivalry caused us both to play better Magic as a result.

During this period I was playing the best Magic of my life. I made Top 8 of multiple SCG Open Series in both Standard and Legacy. I Top 8ed both PTQs I played during the Innistrad Sealed season, and I felt like I played particularly well during the PTQ I won. During the Top 8 Draft of that PTQ, I was solidly set in playing U/W. However, at one point I grabbed a Rolling Temblor out of a weak pack and then later picked up a Traveler’s Amulet with the idea that I might want to splash the Temblor at some point.

Sure enough, in round 1 my opponent had, that’s right, FOUR Avacyn’s Priests. After a grueling game 1 where I went through my entire deck and still couldn’t push through his full four-pack of clergymen, I sided into two Mountains, a Traveler’s Amulet, and a Rolling Temblor. You could say I was able to…roll him…in games 2 and 3. With special thanks to Orrin Beasley gracious concession in the finals, I finally won my first PTQ.

This leads up to the point I started writing for StarCityGames.com. I finished 9th at SCG Open Series: Richmond playing Mono Green Tanglewurm Control, went 4-4 at the Pro Tour, and haven’t Top 8ed a single event since then.

Losing the Fire

What happened? At some point I lost the fire. I can’t provide an exact answer for why this happened, but I think I grew too satisfied with myself. I had made it to a Pro Tour. For the longest time, this was my goal. I didn’t embarrass myself at the Pro Tour. If the current system was in place, I would have even made Day 2.

I played in four PTQs for Barcelona. I didn’t Top 8 any of them. I played a different deck in all of them and played none of those decks well. I could have played in more PTQs, but I didn’t bother and didn’t qualify. I blamed it on the Modern format. I blamed it on my poor luck. I should have placed the blamed where it belonged: on myself. To some extent I had kind of stopped caring.

I played in a few SCG Open Series, and I’m sure I don’t even need to mention that I didn’t Top 8 any of them. I played G/R Aggro for Standard at the SCG Invitational in Baltimore without having played a single game with the deck beforehand. I’ve never played a G/R Aggro deck in my life. It should be no surprise to anyone that after my two byes, I lost both rounds of Standard. I then went 2-2 in Legacy to finish 4-4 and missed Day 2. Missing Day 2 of an event where you start with two byes is a pretty low feeling. I’m not going to lie; I felt pretty inadequate. I felt like I was playing with players who were way out of my league.

Around the same time, I was definitely suffering from some level of depression. I am positive there is a correlation between my performance at tournaments and how I was feeling in real life. The point Gerry made in his recent article really hit home. If you aren’t in the right state of mind outside of the game, how are you ever going to succeed in game?

Reigniting the Fire

Interestingly, what pulled me out of this seemingly endless slump was not my own success but the success of others around me. Granted, I haven’t played in any events since the Pro Tour, but I can tell my outlook has changed and I can feel success coming on.

Earlier, I said that my dream was to play in a Pro Tour, and I had accomplished that by playing in Honolulu. Well, that wasn’t the full story. I had another dream. That dream was to become part of a team. I have always envied the members of CFB. Not only are they some of the best players in the world, but they are part of a team that consistently comes up with one of the best decks at every tournament, if not the best deck. While PT AVR was not a strong moment for team CFB, it’s one poor tournament out of how many successes? They have certainly shown their dominance as a team. Don’t let the results of Barcelona fool you. They are still the team to beat.

The idea of having this core group of strong players that are all helping each other and rooting for each other’s success has always appealed to me. I have always felt that I am a better team player than individual player in any competitive endeavor I have been a part of. I was finally able to get a taste of what it’s like to be part of a team in helping Team SCG Blue for PT AVR. It was honestly awesome for me, and it helped me in a lot of ways.

I put in a lot of work helping the team. I did it for a number of reasons. At a base level, I just love playing Block Constructed and wanted to break the format. At a slightly higher level, I wanted to see my friends succeed and do well. At the highest level, I did it for myself. I wanted the team to succeed because I want the team to be something that carries on past one event. I wasn’t qualified for Barcelona, but if I am going to qualify for Seattle I want there to be a group of players I can count on to back me up.

In an odd way I felt more invested in the success of the team than people actually playing at the Pro Tour. At one point during testing Brad Nelson asked me if I was ok, since I guess I was giving off the vibe that I wasn’t happy. I kind of shrugged it off and replied that I was fine, but what I was really feeling at the time was disappointment. I was disappointed because the deck everyone was settling on at the time was a deck that I thought was a bad choice. It was a weird feeling to be so invested in an event I wasn’t even playing in.

At that stage in testing, everyone was on board with the RUG Self-Mill deck that fills the graveyard with creatures and powers out huge Splinterfrights and Ghoultrees. I couldn’t adequately explain why, but I knew deep down that it was a bad deck choice. I couldn’t prove it with words and none of the decks I was playing was winning against it, but I knew that it couldn’t be the right choice.

Eventually the power of Wolfir Silverheart was discovered, the RUG deck was thrown away, and the time was nigh for Naya. I was much happier when everyone settled on Naya. It wasn’t because it was a deck I had been helping tune along the way, but because it was a deck I felt was simply better than the other choices. I wanted my friends to succeed. I wanted them to prove the haters wrong, and I wanted them to legitimize the work the team had put in with a strong finish. I felt like if the team did poorly then maybe there wouldn’t be a team anymore, and that was not something I wanted to see.

Team SCG Blue performed much better than anyone expected at the Pro Tour. Team SCG Blue might not have had quite the standout performance of Team SCG Black, but I don’t think anyone would have ever predicted that they would put six "no names" into the Top 50 and Josh Cho into the semifinals. Is it sad that one of the most exciting moments of my Magic career was watching other people play Magic? Granted, it was in a Pro Tour using a deck I helped create, but I felt happier seeing Todd Anderson and Ali Aintrazi and Josh Cho sitting near the top of the standings after Day 1 than I did when I won my PTQ.* The only thing I could think of was how much more exciting it would have been if it was me sitting there playing the deck.

As I was watching the coverage, I had a mixture of happiness in seeing my friends succeed and regret that I hadn’t done more to be there with them. Block Constructed is my favorite format, I knew the format better than almost anyone by playing it so much on Magic Online, and yet I was sitting on a couch drinking Diet Dr. Pepper and watching streaming internet coverage at ungodly hours in southwestern Virginia while my friends were playing Magic on the biggest stage in Barcelona.

I wanted to be a part of that.

If that doesn’t reignite the fire, then what will? All I know is that I’m serious about qualifying for Seattle, and I feel like I have a good chance to do so by the end of the PTQ season. Hopefully I can share my successes and failures with you all along the way.

If you are experiencing a slump, I wish I could tell you how to break out of it. I spent the last five months in a slump, and I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong or how to break free. I knew there was something wrong. I had enough poor finishes in a row and couldn’t blame bad luck anymore. Yet, at the same time, I was still having more and more poor finishes.

Sometimes the only way to win is to not play.

By not playing, I realized exactly what it is I was missing out on, and I rediscovered why I played in the first place. And now I want that again.

Brian Braun-Duin


BBD on Magic Online

*One of the happiest moments for me watching the Pro Tour coverage was during round 1. Ali Aintrazi had a feature match against Patrick Chapin that wasn’t shown on camera. Ali had wanted to play a U/W/R Miracle deck at the Pro Tour, but I felt like we all kind of convinced him to play Naya instead. I felt bad about it since the Miracle deck is much more his style, and I was really hoping he would succeed with Naya so he wouldn’t regret his choice.

Obviously he got paired against Chapin round 1, who was playing the deck he wanted to play. I was really hoping that Ali would be able to pull off a win somehow. I got really excited when I heard BDM announce that Ali had beaten Chapin by playing Nevermore on Terminus of all things. If Ali was going to win with any card in the Naya deck, I think we all knew ahead of time it was going to be the sideboard Nevermore. Let’s not kid ourselves here.