Removed From Game – I’m On the Road, and You’re Invited

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Part 2 of Rich Hagon’s Magical odyssey takes him to Essen for the Invitational. Musings on multiple formats, some thoughts on some of the game’s best, and the sickest draft deck in history (possibly).

Monday evening

If you don’t already know, Winston Draft is a fantastically entertaining format. It has any number of healthy things going for it. First up, you need a sum total of one friend/acquaintance/homeless guy in order to get the show on the road. Second, you get to play with all sorts of poor cards, and are obliged to find optimal uses for them. Third, you get to see busted cards in action, a bit like the Pre-Constructed Theme decks, where there is little enough removal that decks can go about their sick little business more or less unmolested. Fourth, due to the nature of Lorwyn, you get to pay careful attention to the whole tribal thing, since picking good cards in the abstract doesn’t always pay off. On the other hand, you need to try and keep careful track of just how many bad Kithkin or Merfolk you’re passing, as sooner or later critical mass gets reached. Oh, and hate drafting can be a good plan too. Best of all, it’s the perfect format for aircraft travel – six boosters and about a dozen of each land are your total requirements.

I suppose since I’ve told you how great it is, I should probably recap how the game is played. six boosters are very thoroughly shuffled together and put in a central pile. There are then three piles – A, B, and C – with one card in each. I look at the card in pile A. Let’s say it’s Soaring Hope. I don’t want it, so take a card from the centre and add it to pile A. Pile B has a Lash Out, so I take it, and replace it with a card from the centre. Now it’s my opponent’s turn. He looks at pile A. I know it has Soaring Hope plus one unknown card. He doesn’t like it, so A now has three cards. He also passes on B, which then has two cards, and on C, which now also has two cards, neither of which are known to me. Because he has passed on all three piles, he automatically gets the top card of the pile, essentially a random pick. Back to me. I look at Soaring Hope in pile A, understand totally why he didn’t feel Exiled Boggart was enough to make him take it, and can’t say I like the Nath’s Buffoon which joined them. I pass on pile A, putting a fourth card down. Pile B has Ingot Chewer and Deeptread Merrow. The Chewer is pretty dire, but it’s a body, and Red, and the Merrow is pretty decent, so I take pile B.

This pattern continues as the piles eventually reach critical mass as someone sees maybe three playables (with a pretty broad definition of the word playable) in their colors, and scoops the lot. Over the course of the draft, it’s a good idea to keep a check on how many of the six Rares have gone, since they tend to be fairly powerful for Limited in general, and certainly for a format this small. Having done about a dozen of these in the last week, there are usually only 5-6 cards that you will have seen and passed on that make it into the opposition deck. This means you will get plenty of surprises through your games – this is by no means a format of perfect information.

If you have three lonely Lorwyn boosters, I urge you strongly to go fetch a friend, and give Winston a go. You may never crack boosters alone again.

Tuesday, 1am

What a great night. Raphael Levy has a map on his bedroom wall, showing everywhere he’s been with Magic. When I get back, I’d love to plot the paths of the 16 players from Valencia to the Invitational. Frank Karsten, Jelger Wiegersma, Richie Hoaen, Tiago Chan, Antoine Ruel, Gab Nassif, Craig Jones, and I ended up going via Munich. The Japanese trinity of Shuuhei Nakamura, Kenji Tsumura, and Shouta Yasooka flew via Madrid. The Brazilian pair of Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa and Willy Edel got to see a few hours of Paris en route. Stephen Menendian popped in to Barcelona. As for Guillaume Wafo-Tapa and Evan Erwin, they seem to have arrived before everyone, but nobody quite knows how. This is a ridiculous logistic endeavor, and that’s just to put twenty or so Magic people in the same country. The Pro Tour does this five times a year with 500 plus. Make no mistake, this is games playing on an industrial scale.

Once most of the assorted troops had made it in, it was time for a quality meal, and then bowling… yes, ten pin bowling. I’m not quite certain whether alcohol consumption made players better or worse, but sooner or later pretty much everyone got a strike. Now I’m not really a jealous kind of guy, but am I allowed a little bit of “why him?’ about the fact that the only one of us that could actually play was Kenji? The quest to find something that he can’t do goes on. Tiddlywinks. Cooking. There must be something.

It’s so nice to be with the big names when they don’t have to be Big Names, i.e. away from the table. You get the chance to ask them about stuff that doesn’t involve their first pick of pack 2, although inevitably conversation turns to Magic pretty regularly. Nonetheless, topics that have cropped up this evening include Britney Spears, globalisation, oil shortages, Imperialist ambitions through the ages, the World Bank, and some other things that I’m not going to tell you about (I had Craig Jones to my left). Plausible deniability. Let’s leave it at that, shall we?

Tuesday, 11.50pm

Everyone has been very much in Magic mode today. The four most popular men in the building today have been, in order:

Craig Jones – because he had the Auction of the People decklists.
Me – because I had an encyclopaedia of Magic, so we could all work out what the Portal : Three Kingdom cards did.
Guillaume Wafo-Tapa – because he had basic land.
Evan Erwin – because he brought his Cube with him.

Between these four essentials of modern life, a good day at the office ensued. The day started with a bunch of Vintage matchups, and it looks as if everyone has their deck together, more or less. The spectre of 16 Legacy Goblin decks running amok has receded. Then it was on to the Auction decklists, and there are some real clunkers out there. Having tested a bunch, the Reanimator deck and Suicide Black seem very popular, as is the Survival deck. 42 Land seems like the kind of thing that doesn’t do a lot, and Willy Edel at least likes the Mizzium Transreliquat/Time Bomb Combo deck. By late lunchtime, there were clearly far more people in the room than the critical mass for a three-on-three team draft, and that took care of the afternoon. Then it was Cube time. I’ve never played a game of Vintage, or even a single turn – although I suspect that might be a similar thing. Wow, the Cube Evan had was fun. I drafted U/W Control – that means Wrath of God, Sunscour, Swords to Plowshares, every counterspell known to man (including Forbid and Force of Will), Decree of Justice, Masticore… this really is Magic’s greatest hits. I went 0-3, including a game against Frank Karsten that involved turn 1 Entomb, turn 2 Exhume Angel Of Despair and subsequent shenanigans (and not of the Boggart variety) involving something that may or may not have been called Kirtar’s Doobrey Shenanigans Maker. (That’s Karmic Guide to you.)

The highlight of the evening came in the final round. Guillaume Wafo-Tapa is watching my game, and in his usual polite, understated way, is pointing out that I’m making mistakes at the rate of, approximately, one a turn. So eventually I apologise to my opponent and explain that from now on he will be playing me and Guillaume together. I will still be driving the ship, but the man who has just guaranteed himself Level 6 for 2008 will be steering. We stabilise. Guillaume goes to get a drink. He returns and enquires why there is now a Spiritmonger and a Phantom Nishoba facing us down, with us in possession of a Masticore in play, a Capsize and a land in hand. My drivelling explanation thankfully skated over, Guillaume proceeds to rectify the situation over the next few turns, turns when I would have already been dead. Gab Nassif calls him over to witness the mauling of Tiago Chan, and when he returns two turns later, he raises a quizzical French eyebrow and wonders where my Masticore has gone. The graveyard, I explain timorously, and he points out that I have Eternal Dragon in my bin, and can pay the upkeep on Masticore forever at the cost of 3WW. Sorry Evan, we’re just going back a bit. So the Masticore comes back into play (don’t try this at home, you’ll get punched) and the game continues. Although I have the apparently fabulous Masticore and the utterly ridiculous Capsize with buyback wet dream going on, Evan continues to make enormously scary men, and given that I am at one life, a 1/1 is an enormously scary man. At this point, my nerve breaks. I have made at a rough estimate 15 or more individual errors, nearly any of which would have cost me the game, but for my Tier 1 handler. I shuffle out of my chair, and slightly defiantly say, “Go on then, win from there.” The situation is impossible.

Guillaume wins.

When I am a Level 6 mage, I promise faithfully that I will continue to write for this noble site, and will patiently and with unfailing good humor put right the errors of lesser mortals when they demand it of me.

Don’t hold your breath.

Wednesday evening

It’s not hard to see that these are serious gamers gathered here for the Invitational. Bizarrely, there’s a sort of shyness about showing too much desire – we’re all here for a tournament with minimal ramifications for all but the winner, and there’s something almost un-British about studying the decklists too avidly. Nonetheless, as we headed for the Auction of the People in a conference room at the hotel, players were poring over the lists and making carefully-coded notes of their potential low bids. This is the kind of game where being passive isn’t always rewarded, and Craig Jones amongst others kept sitting out of the bidding just when it looked as though one more life point would get him a solid deck. The most interesting players in this respect were Richie Hoaen and Tiago Chan, both of whom more or less ignored the entire auction, before handing themselves the apparent dregs of the cardpool, but at a maximum 8 cards in opening hand, plus 25 life. Can these cardpool choreographers make the two-left-feet decks dance? We’ll know tomorrow.

Thursday evening

You probably want to know about the first day of the Invitational. No chance. You’re going to hear about me instead. Oh alright, duty first. The Cube Draft was a fantastic format, with deck archetypes of old born anew, highlighted by Antoine Ruel Mono-Green destroyer, and Gabriel Nassif’s oh-so-nearly Combo deck which narrowly came up short in all three rounds, leaving him at the bottom of the standings. Then we saw the first two rounds of the Auction of the People, and the big story was that both Tiago Chan and Rich Hoaen were 2-0, having essentially abdicated from the bidding process. At the end of Day 1, even the 0-5 Gab Nas was still technically in contention, and Mark Rosewater, who has probably forgotten more about Magic than you or I will ever know, reckons this is shaping up to be the best event yet. I have to admit, it’s pretty exciting from my seat in the front row.

Okay, so, it’s 10pm and I’m in the bar and there’s a spare seat going in a three-on-three Draft. I’ve taken a long hard look at myself in the past few weeks, and concluded that I wouldn’t want to swap with Evan this week. When I know I’m good at something, pressure doesn’t bother me at all (live broadcasts to 20 million people sounds like fun to me, for example) but when I’m less than excellent, pressure piles on me. At this Invitational, I would expect to get somewhere around the three-win mark, and I reckon that’s about par for any PTQ-level player who’s been around the block for a while. If you think that’s pessimistic for myself, or Evan, or you, would you really expect to go better than 1-4 against the best players in the world across multiple formats? Well, I wouldn’t, so sitting down with Jelger Wiegersma, Gabriel Nassif, Craig Jones, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, and Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa was a pretty scary experience. It’s not that I wanted to win, although of course I did want to win, but I really didn’t want to look stupid in the eyes of these guys that I respect hugely… I earn my living via their interviews.

I’m teamed with GabNas and Craig, and the chances are that Paulo, Jelger, and Guillaume are a significantly stronger team, because they don’t have me in it. I first pick Wizened Cenn, and that was mostly that. By the way, now seems a good time to share my favorite thing about StarCityGames.com. Have you noticed that all the decklists here have the words “suggested by” on them? Well, I’m here to tell you, this ain’t no suggestion. Play these cards against anyone in a three-on-three, and you’re going to do unspeakable things.

Paulo managed to get a game off me, the first time he has ever accomplished this (!) in between two Turn 5 kills. Jelger needed to use the restroom, so was dead before substitute Raphael Levy could hand him back his cards game 1, thus giving me blissful revenge for the mauling Raph gave me in Pro Tour: London back in 1999. Game 2 was a bit closer, and I actually had to tap some of Jelger’s many flyers down before, you know, putting him to 0-1 lifetime against me. Then it was Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, but no Level 6 mage with a mere one Pro Tour victory this season could seriously expect to have a chance against me. His Merfolk deck was very good, and only vastly superior playskill prevailed…

Because all of you are not necessarily British and may therefore be slightly unfamiliar with the gargantuan amount of irony that has accumulated over the last paragraph, I wish to formally make it clear that I am under no illusions about what occurred tonight. I found a hole in the Draft that Brian David-Marshall had highlighted to me in Valencia and shoehorned my way into it. Nonetheless, you may be certain that these 40 cards are never ever being pulled apart. I may leave instructions in my will that they’re buried with me. My Wizened Cenn is about to be signed by my victims. Unless you’re Remi Fortier, Magic in the last seven days has never been this sweet. I await the e-mail from the Editor asking me to take over Drafting With Rich with eager anticipation.

Friday evening

I’m aware that I sometimes end up sounding like a cheerleader for Wizards, but if I see something good, I’m kind of obliged to tell you. Today, I saw confirmed in the most public way what I already knew from the last few days – Winston Draft is the value in so many ways. I am prepared to agree, however, that there may be a higher luck value in this than in many other Limited formats. From testing, I generally ended up with twenty solid playables in two colors, and a couple of nice bonuses in color number three. It seems as if the Pros don’t get these decks, apparently ending up around the 15-16 playables mark and being very much three color. If this holds true across all abilities, you’re going to want to take mana fixing like the Vivid lands and Shimmering Grotto really highly. If your play partner is a more co-operative soul, like Craig Jones, you should be fine.

Within the main event, Steve Menendian is keeping his cool remarkably well, given that he started out 3-0 and has gone 0-6 since. I imagine he’s glad that he still has his “home” format of Vintage still to come, although that can bring its own pressures. Evan is on 2-7, which from here looks about par for the course, and he has the big bonus of being ahead of 2004 maestro Gabriel Nassif, who is another doing an excellent and convincing impression of good humor in the teeth of adversity. To be honest, I suspect it’s genuine, as he understands the tiny margins that make the difference at this level, and sometimes they don’t go your way, all in a row.

One final thought – the interactions amongst the group are extremely interesting to watch from my Removed From Game perspective. There are obvious natural communication barriers between some of the group that lead to the Japanese gravitating largely together, although Kenji wins the sociability award by a mile. Whilst it would be unfair of me to paint a picture of universal harmony, neither is there any noticeable animosity. What there is, by the bucketful, is hard-earned respect. Each of these players knows that the others are every bit as smart, every bit as hard-working, every bit as good a deckbuilder, and every bit as much a competitor as themselves. Which means that a very strange phenomenon has existed here this week – nobody wants to win. Okay, that’s not exactly true, but nobody wants to be seen to be wanting to win. The English old-fashioned phrase “bad form” springs to mind. To focus all one’s energy and efforts on winning what is essentially a joint party for being popular and/or good is seen as slightly against the spirit of the thing. Let me tell you how many players were in the bar last night doing Winston Drafts or just shooting the breeze – none. Let me tell you how many players were in their rooms, testing their Bring Your Own Standard, and Vintage decks for Saturday – that’ll be all of them. Richie Hoaen had it right when he said that everyone here is extremely competitive, and anyone who tells you they don’t want to win is straight up lying, maybe even to themselves. The empty bar told its tale most eloquently. I can’t wait for the fireworks tomorrow.

Saturday night

Fireworks I wanted, fireworks I got. The players really delivered on the Choose Your Own Standard format. Steve Menendian and Evan Erwin had Counterbalance Top plus Mystical Tutor in their decks. The Brazilians resurrected Fruity Pebbles, featuring the three-card kill of Enduring Renewal, Shield Sphere, and Goblin Bombardment. Incredibly, this wasn’t even the funkiest Combo out there, as Tiago Chan proposed to generate pots of mana with Ashnod’s Altar, Fecundity, and Saproling Cluster, before Blazing to the face. Other decks on display included Mirari’s Wake from Karsten and Wiegersma, Tog, Teachings, Dragonstorm and Recurring Nightmare/Survival Of The Fittest, or simply RecSur as it’s more commonly known. The format turned out to be pretty deep, with plenty of design space for you to get busy in. Which two blocks make you the best White Weenie deck? Is there a Mono-Blue control deck out there? And what about Red spells? Well, you might have to work quite hard to defeat the pure burnination put together by Craig Jones. It’s no exaggeration to say that Mr. Jones was rather excited by the prospect of sending so much napalm the way of opposing faces.

We rounded things off with the Vintage format, and whilst Tiago Chan made it in with a round to spare, Rich Hoaen had to face a sudden death shootout with Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa of Brazil for the second slot in the final. At a Pro Tour, I rarely get to see more than one or two matches of any particular player, especially if they don’t make Sunday, so it was a real pleasure to have the chance to watch players in more detail. Paulo is only twenty, and maybe the impetuosity of youth contributes to his playing at a million miles an hour, but the fact remains that he is hugely impressive at the table. Knowing that only a 3-0 sweep of Vintage would be good enough, he faced down World Champ Steve Menendian in a protracted match where he surely knew that any tiny slip would be punished to the max. It goes without saying that all the best players in the world are, er, good at Magic, but Paulo’s stock rose significantly for me this weekend.


And that brings you up to date with my travel wanderings. Tomorrow I return to base, and will bring you the full Pro Report Card from Valencia next week. Meanwhile we have a final to play featuring Tiago Chan and Rich Hoaen. I suspect Richie wants it a little more, and probably starts a marginal favorite. If you want to know what happens, you know what I’m going to say: Come join myself and Tim Willoughby over at the mothership for all the action.

Until next week.

As ever, thanks for reading.