Relighting The Fire

After taking some time off, PT Kyoto Top 8 competitor Cedric Phillips is recommitting to competitive Magic. Read about his unique journey and what inspired his return to the tournament scene.

“Catch ride to airport. Jubilant.
See people I know on flight. Ecstatic.
Sleep six of eight hours on flight. Elated.
Land in DC. Kiss the ground when I land. Filled with glee.
Land in Cleveland. Captivated.
Walk in house. Greet parents. They ask how my trip was.
Question ignored. Glass of Simply Lemonade with Raspberry poured. Delicious.
Turn on laptop. Log on to MTGO.”

Hello again.

Some of you may remember the above passage. Many of you may not. For those of you who don’t, that was the end of the last relevant article I ever wrote for this website.

That was also the last tournament I attended before I willingly took myself off the Pro Tour.

Life is interesting.

When I was 18, I had pretty much everything someone could want during their adolescence. I was a wrestler in the best shape of my life on one of the best teams in the state. I had a mother who just won an epic fight against breast cancer. And I had an acceptance letter to Purdue University to study in the best hospitality program in the country.

You’d think I’d be pretty happy given where I was at in life.

I wasn’t. Why not?

Because people still felt that my 20th place finish at Grand Prix Cleveland was a fluke.

So I set out to prove them wrong. All of them. And I had the perfect proving ground. Grand Prix Columbus was right around the corner. I was a terrible Limited player but I had great people to learn from, so I drafted Mirrodin/Mirrodin/Darksteel.

Three times a day.

For four weeks straight.

I didn’t have any byes. And I didn’t care. People were going to know who I was by the end of the tournament.

And they did.

But I still wasn’t happy.

There was still more work to be done. If you want to be recognized as the best in the world at something, you have to work hard at it.

So I did.

I got a Magic Online account and drafted late into the evenings.

Instead of going to my senior prom, I attended Ohio Regionals. 688 people. Eleven rounds of Swiss. Eight people qualified. I wasn’t one of them.

That summer, I teamed up with the best players in northeast Ohio and designed a format defining deck. Eight PTQs later. No qualification to speak of.

But yet the fire inside still burned.

And then the winning began.

My first PTQ win for Pro Tour Atlanta. And then another for Pro Tour London.

And then another for Pro Tour Prague.

And then another for Pro Tour Charleston.

Things were finally starting to swing my way.

And then there was Pro Tour Kyoto. The exclamation point on all my years of hard work. What a magnificent weekend that was.

Fast forward to Fall 2010, and I was checking “Drop” at 2-4 from Pro Tour Amsterdam.

Life is interesting.

Seven years.

Seven years of playing Magic every single day. Seven years of preparing for the next relevant tournament. Seven years of looking at decklists for new ideas. Seven years of analyzing metagames and figuring out how to exploit them.

Seven. Years.

And people honestly wonder why I abruptly took myself off of the Pro Tour?

I was tired.

Tired of coming up short.

Tired of putting in a ton of work and not getting the output I wanted.

Tired of having the best deck at a tournament and watching someone else win with it.

Tired of winning the lower level tournaments but coming up short in the ones I really wanted to win.

Tired of watching people worse than me hoist trophy after trophy.

A lot of people thought I played Magic for the money. Others thought it was for the admiration of my peers.

They were both right.

But most of all, I was doing it because I wanted to win. And despite my best efforts, I wasn’t.

So I decided I would stop losing.

I couldn’t take it anymore.

Everyone has a breaking point. After seven years, I had reached mine.

I had a modest career.
-10 PTQ wins
-1 GP Top 8 (Columbus)
-1 Pro Tour Top 8 (Kyoto)
-1 State Championship (Indiana) 
-1 Regional Championship (Ohio)
-1 US Nationals 9th place (Baltimore)
-1 9th place GP finish (Oakland)
-A lot of good people met
-Far too many cards/playmats signed

It was a good run.

I decided that I’d still attend a few tournaments to see my friends as quitting cold turkey wasn’t realistic. To go from playing every day for seven years to not playing at all is quite the lifestyle change. I see why it’s difficult for professional athletes to hang it up. They don’t know any other way.

Neither did I.

I went to GP Denver at the beginning of 2011. I started 6-1 before losing the next two to miss Day 2. I won a draft challenge the next day, beating Ben Stark in the quarterfinals after he won Pro Tour Paris.

Maybe I still had it?

Didn’t care. Not coming back.

I attended Pro Tour Philadelphia at the back end of 2011. I came across the Blazing Shoal poison deck late in the game but designed a masterpiece with AJ Sacher and Ben Lundquist in 48 hours. I started 4-2. Then I lost the next two to miss Day 2. I positively influenced Sam Black with the Snapback tech the night before the tournament.

Maybe it was time to give things another shot?

I’m good. Thanks.

WotC made an announcement that another Pro Tour in Honolulu was going to occur. That happened to be my favorite Pro Tour location. I decided I wanted to qualify. And I did! I won the biggest PTQ of the season on Day 2 of Grand Prix San Diego.

Certainly it was time to get back on the horse?

Meh. I’d rather work my nine-to-five than experience heartbreak again.

People asked me why I played in those tournaments. Realistically, I didn’t have a great shot at doing well, so why bother?

Because I felt empty.

I wanted to want to win again!

But I felt nothing.

The wins didn’t matter.

Influencing deck construction of others positively didn’t matter.

The free trip to Honolulu didn’t matter.

Nothing mattered.

Until Grand Prix Salt Lake City.

Life is interesting.

My best friend in Seattle, Steven Birklid, qualified for Pro Tour Barcelona during the first week of the qualifying season with Affinity. He was going to take his girlfriend with him on the trip, but he wanted me to qualify as well so we could make a memorable experience out of it.

So I played in a ton of PTQs. And not one PTQ Top 8 to show for it. 

Grand Prix Salt Lake City was my last shot. I took a Conley Woods brew and finished terribly. A common result when you trust in Mr. Woods.

But on my way to being eliminated from the tournament, many players asked me the same questions:

-When are you going to start writing again?
-Can you sign my playmat?
-Can you sign my Kithkin?
-I thought you retired?

As I wandered aimlessly around the convention center wondering how to pass the time before my flight home, I stumbled upon Michael Hetrick playing against Jackie Lee for Top 8 in a R/G mirror. As I prepared to railbird an intense game 3, my attention was diverted by something in my peripheral.

Someone was standing there.

Looking at me.

And I had no idea why.

When I finally shifted my focus, I had to look down.

What I saw in front of me was a child no older than 8 years.

I could tell he wanted to speak with me but was too nervous to, so his father did for him.

Apparently he really liked the deck I played as he was a big fan of Sorin, Lord of Innistrad. He learned how to play Magic through my Kithkin decks that I had become well known for. He was too scared to ask for my autograph, but with some urging from his father, my initials were engraved on his playmat for years to come.

And then we went our separate ways.

To him, I was larger than life.

To me, I was a shell of my former self.

Life is interesting.

As I went back to watching two up-and-comers battle their hearts out for a Top 8 berth, I was overcome with emotion.

For the past two years, I had felt nothing.

The wins didn’t get my heart going.

The losses didn’t make me upset.

Winning the PTQ for Honolulu should have made my weekend. It barely fazed me.

But signing a playmat for a young child?

That brought tears to my eyes.

In my time away from Magic, I took a job in corporate America with an advertising firm. I was the youngest Senior Account Executive in company history. I still have the largest single deal in company history. I made around $8,000 a month.

I tell you that not to brag.

I tell you that because nothing that I did while working there made me feel as good as I felt during that moment in Salt Lake City.

And it was at that point that I realized that playing this game is something I’m supposed to be doing in my life. 

Not because of the money. There isn’t a lot to be made anyway.

Not because of the fame. Being famous is overrated.

Not because it makes me happy. It has before and will again.

But because it makes other people happy.

And if it makes other happy, then it makes me happy.

Life is interesting.

I never thought that signing a playmat for someone would be the way that the fire within me would become re-lit.

But here I am. 

Ready to win again.

And this time for all the right reasons.


Cedric Phillips
Email = [email protected]
Twitter = @cedricaphillips
Facebook = http://www.facebook.com/CedricAPhillips
TwitchTV = http://www.twitch.tv/ceddyp