Removed From Game – From Prerelease to PTQ to Pro Tour, Part 2

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Tuesday, February 9th – Join Rich on a PTQ Pilgrimage to the tournament that matters more to more players than any other, in the quest for the fable blue envelope. If you’ve played in them, you’ll know what he’s talking about. If you haven’t, this is what’s in store on your way to the Big Show.

Last week, I came to you more-or-less live from Seattle during Prerelease weekend. To my mind, the Prerelease is where many of our dreams start. For the lucky and/or skilful few, those dreams end at the Pro Tour, and for the best of the best of the best, a $40,000 cheque and a slice of Magic immortality.

This week, I want to take you one stage closer to the Pro Tour, with the route that most of us take to qualify. Come join me on a 2010 PTQ Pilgrimage…

It’s New Year’s Day, 2010. The Pilgrimage begins, as it always does, with the gathering of the precious artifacts. I stare round the tiny room that serves as the Magic shrine chez Hagon. Dice, the hematite stones I use as counters, M-Fest pens, an Altrincham Gamers scorepad from circa 2000. All go into the faithful travelling bag. Wait, almost forgot the playmat, but which one? Grand Prix: Indianapolis, with the John Avon Ravnica Plains. That’s my lucky playmat. In it goes.

Downstairs, and farewell to the family. Into the car, and a pause for reflection. The next time I’m staring at my own front door, I’ll have covered two days, 400 miles, dozens of games, and a stack of memories. Now, of course, qualifying isn’t on the agenda, but for the first ten years of PTQ Pilgrimages it was all-defining.

I drive to Neil’s, a man who has shared many of the same roads with me down the years. I’ve been so blessed in my time in the game, and perhaps more than anything I want to see Neil realize his ambition to be a Magic Pro. He’s been to over half a dozen Pro Tours, and is widely considered to be amongst a handful who can legitimately compete at the highest level. My wanting it for him, though, is nothing like as badly as he wants it himself. Like so many of us, Neil is defined by the highs and lows of his Magic weekends, with his day to day life just a way to fill in the gaps.

With Sealed the Format the next day, we settle in to a New Year session with historic Theme Decks from across the ages. Darksteel with its utterly broken Skullclamp deck, Shadowmoor and Twilight Shepherd, all the Guilded fun of Ravnica, and then dialling it back to Onslaught. Cryptic Gateway, Aether Charge, and lots of Beasts.

Of course, the games themselves are secondary, but as the evening wears on they form a backdrop to a succession of memories. You know them all. They’re intensely personal to each of us, and yet they are all the same — the first PTQ win, the lost passport, the flawless victory, the nine land in a row, the Jedi Mind Trick you lost, and the Jedi Mind Trick you won.

Then there are the players you remember for the strangest reasons — the guy in the orange trousers, the guy who would only play foils, the guy with the hot girlfriend who always read books in the corner, the small child who became a teenager-young man-student before your eyes, the blind guy with the whispering assistant, the guy called Rachel….

Almost midnight, and time to crash for a few too-short hours. The appetiser is over, and it’s time for the main event.

A few too-short hours later, an unwelcome alarm call starts the day. As we start the trek southwards through the frozen dawn to come, we’re both lost in thought. It’s important to conserve mental energy, as the crucial moments, if we reach them, will still be up to fifteen hours away. To distract ourselves, we indulge in pointless arguments. Past highlights have included ‘the probability of dying in a car crash en route to a tournament, arriving at a death-risk-per-mile number’, ‘the FA Cup, is it relevant to anyone anymore?’ and ‘the encyclopaedic sexual knowledge of a former Pro Tour finalist.’ That last one, by the way, almost literally had me clawing my way out of my car at 70 miles an hour. And I was driving.

8.30am, and we’ve covered the trip in record time. Thing is, on Sunday morning, only nurses, security guards, and Magic players are on the roads. We park the car, and meet the tournament Head Judge on exactly the same mission as us — breakfast. This is always one of the highlights of the day, since, apart from almost everything else you do on a PTQ day, nobody is actively trying to prevent you from having breakfast. For some, it’s a mango and pineapple smoothie, followed up by some sushi. For others, the chocolate bar they’ve been cradling for the last 100 miles of the trip down. And for others, it’s 2000 calories of food so bad for you, it would only be worse for your health if you ate it at the reception desk of Chernobyl. Guess which one of those is me…

9.30am, and the doors open. We sit, and scan the morning paper. Players trickle in, and hundreds of Happy New Years are exchanged. With each new arrival, I realize what a phenomenal community I’m part of. Although our lives only intersect on these tournament days, that is enough to bind us into fellowship, because we’ve all lost the unlosable matchup, and missed the unmissable last train home.

There’s an undercurrent too, though, with each new arrival. We’re the first through the doors. If they closed registration right now, we’d be playing the final at 10am. That may never happen, but we’ve seen PTQs featuring 11 before now. Six more come through the door, and someone makes the obligatory joke about how we’ve got the Top 8 now, and everyone else can go home. Behind this forced jollity is a ruthless sizing up of the potential opposition. Here comes the guy who always makes Top 8. Oh, tedious, the Scottish clan are here, they’re usually tough to beat. Didn’t that guy finish 11th at Pro Tour: Valencia? And here’s the last three National Champions.

As the numbers rack up, you find yourself reassessing your chances. We’ve hit three figures now, and at least 30 of them can hold their cards the right way up. It’s going to be tough. For plenty of us, we harbor no real expectations, other than a vague hope that we’ll somehow be given the Sealed Pool of Doom that even our dead grandmother could qualify with, but for those 30 or so with live chances, the test is about to begin.

We sit, and out come the cards. It’s the Naughty Schoolboy part of the day. Absolute Silence! That’s the rule for registering your pool, so we’re reduced to furtive whispers, glances, grins, and suddenly more than a hundred grown men have become twelve years old again, and developed an alarming array of facial tics, grunts, and nods. It doesn’t matter how many of these you’ve done, you’re genetically wired to want, desire, no, actually Need to tell people what you’ve opened. You see the Baneslayer, the Day Of Judgment, the Cursed Scroll, the Planeswalker, and secretly you begin praying that you’ll somehow be given this same pool back to build with.

It doesn’t happen, of course, except for one guy who lets out a yelp of exaltation. That’s as good as his day gets. He goes 0-2 and drop. I’m sad, because my actual pool is nothing like what I registered, with all the good Common and Uncommon Red and Black that can almost guarantee you a winning record. Oh well, I’m here for the day out, so don’t feel too miserable.

Round one is over, and I’ve been murderised. I suspect my deck is worse than I first feared, because I got to play plenty of my better cards, and none of them were relevant. Now the next stage of our ritual can begin, as we congregate in corners to discuss the round just gone. This is not the place for considered reflection, at least for the most part. This is the time for explaining how we were robbed, how our opponent has the best sealed deck we’ve ever seen, how we’re going to qualify anyway, anything rather than sit quietly and realize that rationally our dreams are already over for another weekend.

There seems to be a rule that the worse the player the louder they talk, and the more I watch Magic, the more I realize it’s the quiet ones you need to watch out for. Whether they’ve won or lost round one, they’re busy tinkering with their deck, adding in all the useful information they’ve gleaned from the deck in actual battle to see whether they can make an adjustment that could make all the difference come round seven. For most of us, our standing within the community means putting on a brave face, never being wrong, always being ahead of the game. For a few, it’s actually being right that matters, no matter how much painful self-awareness that requires.

2pm, and the initial excitement has subsided. Now we’re into the rhythm of the day, play, win, lose, talk, eat, look, play, win, lose, check the standings, calm down, play, win, lose, vanish into the night. While the chosen ones are barely out of second gear, with three rounds gone it’s already over for some. Then it’s time to shift priorities, and draft. Or, as I say, face the fact that it’s over and done with, and let the real world back in, a world where something matters more than a 2/3 for 3 with Lifelink and Deathtouch.

Now we’re heading down the stretch. I’m out of contention, as I usually am these days, but I’ve had some great matches. It turns out my deck would have been just perfect for Gunslinging — almost always competitive, but never overwhelming. I’ve fought for every game win, and apart from that round one blowout, every round has gone to the wire. Neil, meanwhile, has that look of utter futility that comes with our second loss. Short of somebody actually dying, the math says he can’t make it in. He keeps winning, and winning, and winning, but that second loss remains final.

Final standings are in, and one of the strongest PTQ fields in recent memory has led to a Top 8 packed with well-known UK names. It’s no surprise to see Laszlo Leka in yet another Top 8. Dan Gardner is National Champion. Marco Orsini-Jones is every bit as good as brother Matteo, who made a Pro Tour Top 8 last year. Richard Bland is a European Grand Prix regular, and close friends with Gardner and the O-Js. Mark Glenister made top 16 in Honolulu last year, while Mick Wright is the father of renowned deckbuilder Stuart. Against these six, Steven Nemeth and Doug Kimbley look to have a hard time ahead.

A room that seats 150 now seems cavernous and cold. Now we’re down to where it really matters. The fun day out is over, and it’s time for someone to grab hold and forcibly take the dream away from the other seven. The Top 8 retire to a darkened corner to draft, away from the distractions of the various hangers-on and late drafters, who remain largely oblivious to the main event unfolding a few yards away.

I go into full-on Coverage mode to chronicle the Top 8. I’ve been standing in rooms just like this one, watching drafts just like this, for more than a decade, mostly while waiting to see whether Neil is going to qualify, and what time I can start driving us home.

I watch Glenister draft his way to a UG Allies deck. He faces newcomer Doug, and wins handily. The other debutant, Steven, takes on Marco Orsini-Jones, and can’t get past him, falling to Shepherd Of The Lost and Sphinx Of Lost Truths. Marco has two of these. Richard Bland has one of those horribly awkward Red-Blue Control decks, featuring double Whiplash Trap and some snivelling way to victory once every possible threat has been snuffed out. He grinds down Laszo 2-0.

Mick Wright, meanwhile, has never been to the PT, at least as a player. He’s a fine judge, and has a tremendously talented son, but right now, it isn’t about this, it’s about him going up against National Champion Dan Gardner. Mick loves his deck. He’s the only Black drafter at the table, and he has double Marsh Casualties, four (count them, four) Heartstabber Mosquito, a Malakir Bloodwitch, and an Ob Nixilis, The Fallen. Against six of the other seven, his deck looks unbeatable. He isn’t playing any of those six. He’s playing Dan Gardner.

As I stand over Dan, watching him complete his decklist, my heart sinks for Mick. Dan has more or less drafted an entire Boros Bushwhacker deck, complete with triple Kor Skyfisher, double Plated Geopede, a stack of removal, and Teetering Peaks chicanery. I simply don’t see how Mick will survive long enough to make Heartstabber Mosquitoes as relevant 2/2s, much less Kicked at seven mana. To be fair, Mick takes the second game, with Ob Nixilis following Marsh Casualties, but Dan remains unfazed. Kor Skyfisher on turns two and three is more or less game right there, and as I look at Dan’s hand, I know I’d be telling Randy in the booth that this one was pretty much over. Moments later, it is, and although Mick puts a brave face on it, you can see he thinks he may never have this chance again. And he may be right.

The evening wears on. Marco and Mark are matched in the semis, and a small group of devotees surrounds the table. As the board steadily increases in size and complexity, I pause to look around at the spectators, all rapt. Dan Gardner is there, waiting to see who will join him in the final. His semi-final opponent, Richard Bland, has departed with a disappointed wave to the last train of the night back to the midlands. Mick Wright is there, wanting to see if he’s lost to the eventual winner. Stuart Wright is there. Neil is there, and so too is former National Champion Jonathan Randle.

What links this group is that they all truly understand what’s at stake. For these players, who have all played at a level where it Really Matters, they know that these next few minutes are about more than a game of cards. This is about vindication, vindication for all the hundreds, and indeed thousands of hours spent in preparation. This is about looking yourself in the eye and knowing you did everything in your power to be on the plane for San Diego.

Mark is a tough competitor, and has the great combination of huge self-belief and a willingness to listen with an open mind, no matter the source. Wedded to nothing other than the pursuit of excellence, he takes his time, trying to unravel the web that Marco has been steadily weaving about him. Landshy throughout this third game, Mark tries everything, but Marco is ruthlessly efficient, and advances to face Gardner in the Final.

More than an hour earlier, Marco predicts he will edge Mark out, Dan will crush Richard, and then defeat Marco handily in the final. This to me is one of the toughest parts of Magic to deal with, when you really Care. You can’t reach the final of a PTQ without really knowing what’s going on, and you can’t suddenly turn off your awareness that you should lose the match you want to win more than anything. I’ve talked to players on Pro Tour Sundays, which should be the pinnacle of their career, and they look at me and say ‘I don’t think I can win.’ They’re not being pessimistic, they’re just telling you the truth, in exactly the same way as they’d tell you that Natural Spring isn’t a Constructed-quality card.

It’s 10pm. Home is still four hours away. And still we wait. Oh, we could have gone home hours ago, but although it’s unspoken between us, neither of us wants to leave without knowing the outcome. Finally, as expected, Dan has just too much for Marco to handle, and twelve hours after it’s begun, the final card is drawn and the final damage dealt. We wend our way out into the London night, with a long, tiring drive still ahead. The conversation this time is all about the might have beens, the plays we could have made differently, our increased understanding of the format, our disappointment for Marco and Mick, our pleasure that Dan is building on his Nationals success.

2.15am. Home.

Two weeks from now, someone will win Pro Tour: San Diego, and I’ll be there to call them home. Perhaps 400 players will reach the start line, and half of them will arrive there from a day just like this, their own PTQ Pilgrimage. This really is a very special game.

Next week, I’ll conclusively prove that I’m the luckiest man alive, as I chronicle my journey to the commentary booth, which will, I trust, be an inspiration to gingers everywhere.

Until then, as ever, thanks for reading…