Removed From Game – Marathon

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Tuesday, August 19th – After seventeen Rounds across three days, the Great Britain team for Words is locked and loaded. Join Rich as he takes you inside the Top 8, and brings you a plethora of thoughts that took exactly 2 hours, 26 minutes and 44 seconds to compose, curiously the exact time taken to win the Olympic Women’s marathon. Coincidence? Hardly.

I’ve spent a lot of time watching the Olympics, and one of the more important events for us Brits is the women’s marathon, because we happen to have the greatest woman marathon runner of all time in our ranks, Paula Radcliffe. In addition to being the world record holder, Radcliffe has won seven of the eight marathons she’s competed in. The one blemish? The Athens Olympics of 2004, where she basically collapsed in a big heap of disaster. Floods of tears and televised humiliation later, she has become one of those people who are known to the general public far outside an interest in sport. She is, in short, Someone. I mention this because, as I’ve spent my working hours this weekend watching the seventeen rounds that have determined the Great Britain team for Worlds at the National Championships, a large number of parallels and contrasts have occurred to me about the two ‘sports’ I’ve been staring at more or less round the clock. So when I start talking athletics, you’ll know why.

The Start Line

When you look at someone, can you tell if they’re destined for success? I don’t mean by bringing all your intellect to bear, basing your predications on past performance, or ‘inside’ knowledge of their deck tech or testing regime. I just mean, literally, you look at them and think, ‘he’s the one’…? Watching the hundred or so runners limbering up before the marathon, there was absolutely nothing to suggest which ones would be heading the field just over two hours later. Of course there were general physical similarities – you don’t run twenty six miles as an elite athlete without being in great shape – but nothing would have given away the winner in advance. In Birmingham, home to the Magic Nationals this year, I spent a good deal of time just watching and listening as the 150 or so players turned up, sleeved up, and exchanged the ritualistic banter of nervous competitors on the brink of a stiff examination of character and skill. Talking to them gave me a bunch of insight, but although I got round about 40 players, that still left 75% of the field whose motivations, testing, general mental well-being and expectations were a mystery to me. But even if I had spoken to every competitor, would the eventual Top 8 have stood out as ready to step up to the plate? I don’t think so. I was certainly impressed by a few people who seemed to be in great mental shape to take whatever the game could throw at them, and a few more who I felt confident in striking from my list of contenders due to a variety of hard-headed reasons – they hadn’t tested Constructed, didn’t have a plan for Lorwyn, were playing their first tournament of the year, and so on. Even so, the mythical spotlight over the head saying, ‘It’s You!’ was thoroughly lacking.

The Pundits

In the Olympics, there are plenty of people, often laughingly called Experts, who are paid to offer their opinions as to the likely medallists. Partly this is to help the audience whittle down a huge number of unfamiliar competitors into straightforward storylines. Partly it’s to give them an idea of heroes and villains, because everybody loves a bad guy, and most of us like a good guy too. It also serves the function of allowing more casual observers not to think. Life’s too short to work out who you actually want to win, so you rely on the experts to tell you. And finally, and most wonderfully, it allows people who know less of what’s really going on to ceaselessly mock those who (possibly) do. Along the way, I’ve come into contact with a load of Experts across all sorts of activities, and one thing that seems to unite almost all of them (us?) is that they freely acknowledge that their job as Pundit is almost impossible. If there’s an overwhelming favorite for an event, they can either be super-dull and agree with everyone else, or they can risk looking thoroughly dumb by voting against the man who all logic dictates will cruise to victory. On this occasion, I took the latter option, saying ahead of the tournament that I didn’t expect Stuart Wright to make the Top 8. To give you a guide to how comprehensively daft such a prediction was, I asked 35 players their idea of the likely four semi-finalists. They were allowed to vote for themselves, and it was curious how few did so. Here’s the outcome:

Stuart Wright 34
Nick Lovett 12
Matteo Orsini-Jones 11
Marco Orsini-Jones 10
Quentin Martin 8
Neil Rigby 6
Guy Southcott 6
Richard Moore 5
Simon O’Keefe 5
Craig Stevenson 4

22 others were mentioned 3 or fewer times. Now my idea in advance of the tournament looked like this:

Champion – Richard Bland
2nd – Matteo Orsini-Jones
3rd – Marco Orsini-Jones
4th – Daniel Godfrey

Godfrey was a previous National team member, while the other three all play and test together in Coventry. To me, the margins in Magic have become so tight that the only way to reliably succeed is to be part of an authentic team network, and my top three satisfy this requirement. With hindsight, this was perfectly fine logic, but I’d got my geography slightly wrong, since I should have been looking marginally further west, to Birmingham itself. More on this later.

The Splits

In long-distance running, the best way to succeed is to run at an even pace. In Magic, you just want to win and win and win and then take it easy down the home straight. The Top 8 at Nationals over 14 rounds looked like this:

Chris Stocking – 33
Richard Moore – 33
Jonathan Randle – 32
Matteo Orsini-Jones – 32
Mikhail Dimakos – 31
Ioannis Kyriazis – 31
Stephen Murray – 31
Russ Davies – 30

Unlike almost any other tournament, Nationals has a very strange dynamic, since not only does it feature multiple Formats, but the Standard portion of the event is split into two. That becomes relevant because the Metagame becomes warped and twisted, with no guarantee that the best Standard decks will be at the top of the standings by the time the last four rounds turn up. Seven rounds of Limited can lead to all sorts of weird ups and downs. So let’s look at the rollercoaster ride of the Top 8. In each case I’ll list their points after each round.

Russ Davies – 3 – 6 – 9 – 9 – 9 – 12 – 15 – 18 – 21- 21 – 24 – 24 – 27 – 30

Playing a Doran/Mana-Ramp deck, Davies kicked off with a 3-0 record in Standard. Over four rounds of Lorwyn-Morningtide Draft, he managed a 2-2 record, and he was not a happy man overnight. For one thing, his two losses came at the start of the draft, and at 3-2 his campaign was on the verge of falling completely apart. At 5-2 after the first day, he was very much just a part of the pack, and 2-1 in Shadowmoor-Eventide Draft still left him in amongst a throng of outsiders at 7-3. Most wisdom suggested that 3-0 would be necessary, followed by an ID, but a loss in Round 12 left him at 8-4. Just as at 3-2 the previous day, this was the point where a weaker player might have believed the ride to be Over, but Davies took heart from his 3-0 start, which meant that going into the final round he was the highest-placed tiebreaker on 27 points. Winning his last round squeezed him into the final slot for Sunday play. More on his quarter final against Chris Stocking later.

Stephen Murray – 3 – 6 – 9 – 9 – 12 – 15 – 18 – 18 – 18 – 21 – 24 – 27 – 30 – 31

The 2006 Scottish Champion, Murray had demonstrated to us all that he was capable of going the distance. Never mind that, he had demonstrated to himself that he was capable of going the distance, and that’s much more significant. To be honest, he was one of the players I had discounted from the reckoning, following a conversation the night before competition began, when he said that he had played very little, had no real clue about the Metagame, and was just hoping to do ok. It’s rare to have four rounds of Draft within a single pod, since Swiss demands only three. What that meant is that of the 152 players setting out, only 19 would start the Standard 3-0, one of whom was Murray. Putting 16 of them into the first two Draft pods ensured that after six rounds there could only be a maximum of 3 players undefeated at 6-0 (in the event there were two). Of these, neither David Yendall nor Mikhail Dimakos could reach Day Two with a perfect record, so Murray had a share of the overnight lead on 6-1. His wobble came on the second morning, where an unexciting Shadowmoor Block Draft led to two opening defeats. Psychologically though, he would have known that he had only to win that one remaining Limited match of the weekend to get back to his undefeated Reveillark Standard deck, and he really made it count, going 3-0 once again before IDing his way into Sunday play.

Ioannis Kyriazis – 3 – 6 – 6 – 9 – 9 – 12 – 15 – 18 – 18 – 21 – 24 – 27 – 30 – 31

Very little momentum characterised the Day One progress of Ioannis Kyriazis. He had chosen an off-the-shelf mono-red deck for Standard, and that was a choice that looked risky in the early stages, with plenty of old school players choosing to Metagame by bringing the deck that beat the deck that beat the best deck. That’s to say they brought variations on a theme of mono-white control, designed to put to the sword the prevalence of red decks that had themselves preyed upon faeries. Scotland’s Jeremy Mansfield faced old-time Pro Stuart Walker in round one, with Walker playing an assortment of Condemns and Wraths and Runed Halos and Martyr Of Sands to the point where Mansfield described his defeat as ‘more like 5-0’ than the 2-0 it had actually been. In a conventional tournament of non-stop Standard, those control decks might have had more of an impact on the 20% of the field that had come tooting the red spells (that’s a full 30 players going mono-red, comfortably the most popular archetype). In fact, by the time Kyriazis got back to his burn, Figure Of Destiny and Demigod Of Revenge, most of the hate-filled white decks had vanished from the top tables. That left the path clear for another 3 wins and a last round ID.

Mikhail Dimakos – 3 – 6 – 9 – 12 – 15 – 18 – 18 – 21 – 21 – 21 – 24 – 27 – 30 – 31

Dimakos was one of only two players who started the last round of Day One with an umblemished record. Having already ‘won’ the Draft table, presumably his expectation of sweeping Lorwyn would have been high. So how do you sort yourself out mentally when you lose the last round? I’ve covered a lot of final round matches at the Pro Tour and assorted Grand Prix, and somehow that first loss of the weekend coming in the last round of Day One seems to affect people disproportionately adversely. That seemed to be the case for Dimakos, who had a less than wonderful 1-2 record to complete the Limited portion of the event. Once again however, his Reveillark deck held strong, helping him to a perfect 6-0 record before the ID.

Matteo Orsini-Jones – 3 – 6 – 6 – 9 – 12 – 12 – 15 – 18 – 21 – 24 – 27 – 28 – 31 – 32

At 4-2, O-J faced a near make-or-break final round of Lorwyn. His win there began a run which included a sweep of Shadowmoor Draft. Offered an ID by eventual top-of-the-Swiss Chris Stocking in Round 12, he got a lucky escape. Recognising that a win there would virtually cement his Top 8 berth, he declined the ID, fell one game down, and then slightly cheekily enquired if the ID was still on the table. I confess to not knowing Stocking very well, but my reading of his agreeing to the ID has a lot less to do with his assertion that ‘having Matteo in the Top 8 wouldn’t be particularly bad for me’ and a lot more to do with the fact that he’s far too nice a human being to stomp all over someone’s dreams unless it was comprehensively in his interest to do so, which wasn’t the case here. Matteo took full advantage of the ‘bonus’ point, won his 13th Round, and ID did the rest.

Jonathan Randle – 3 – 6 – 9 – 12 – 12 – 15 – 18 – 18 – 21 – 24 – 27 – 30 – 31 – 32

At Pro Tour: Yokohama 2007 I had a chat with Frank Karsten. At the time the Dutchie was well in contention for Top 8, finally falling just short in the last round of the Swiss. What prompted me to seek him out was partly to do with his return to the scene of his most outstanding Magic accomplishment, when he finished runner-up at Worlds 2005 in the very same building. So did that engender feelings of near-invincibility in the unflappable Karsten? Not at all. He had almost no sense of positivity off the back of that Worlds performance, instead continuing to focus on the cards and the man in front of him each round. This is of course very sensible, but as someone who can name both a series of venues of which I’m extremely fond (i.e. where I’ve had successful performances, Magical and otherwise) and a few I instinctively shy away from (due to bad memories) I was still surprised that it had almost no impact. Now in Randle’s case, the gap between appearances at the NEC was only a few weeks. At the British Grand Prix he had been the last remaining Brit in the tournament, making it all the way to the quarter final. So did the venue hold a special Magic magic for Randle? Whilst that remains unclear, his performance at the Grand Prix was clearly no fluke or quirk of Metagame vagaries.

Back in the women’s marathon, the Big Moment occurred just past the hour mark, when a Romanian athlete put on a spurt and ran clear of the field. She had a history of doing that, and a history of always coming back to the field. As a result, the ‘chasing’ pack were rather more pack than chasing. In terms of Coverage, it can be difficult enough to spot the Big Moments even weeks after the event, so when I’m able to see at least the potential for something important happening while it’s actually occurring, that’s extremely satisfying, professionally speaking. Randle is a fairly forbidding character, at least externally, since he’s very quiet, and smiles rarely. The way the Grand Prix fell out, I never got to speak to him, which does tend to happen when there are hundreds of competitors, dozens of storylines, and only one of you. Even so, I still hadn’t spoken to him when I sat down at the end of Day One to see if David Yendall, Top 8 from 2006, could go undefeated overnight. He had been paired down, as Swiss meant he had to be, against the then 5-1 Randle. Yendall took the first game with a screaming Kithkin deck that looked like all good Kithkin decks should – a tight tight tight curve, serious early threats, and late-game reach with cards like Kinsbaile Balloonist, Plover Knights or Cloudgoat Ranger. In game two, he had Randle on the brink of defeat at just 2 life, but Randle had done the math, and nine mana fed into Wren’s Run Packmaster made for three more 2/2s that were just enough with a supporting cast of millions to just about squeak the equaliser. In game three, the Kithkin deck was just blown away. I said at the time that if Randle went on to win Nationals he would look back at that second game against a good player with a great deck, and see the turning point. At 5-2 he would have been amongst the scrappers. At 6-1 he shared the lead. Yendall went from 6-0 to 6-3 and never recovered to contention. Randle won Nationals.

Richard Moore – 3 – 6 – 9 – 12 – 12 – 15 – 18 – 21 – 24 – 27 – 27 – 27 – 30 – 33

The 2005 English Champion always seems to be involved in heavyweight clashes. In 2006 he was put out of the running by eventual Champion Craig Stevenson, and his road to the Top 8 here was peppered with tasty matchups. Seismic Swans was his Standard deck of choice, and he made the perfect 3-0 start. At 2-1 in Lorwyn Draft, he faced Coventry’s Richard Bland, my idea of the overall winner, knowing that the winner would be in great shape for Day Two while the loser would have to fight for their lives. Like Randle, he found himself a game down, and like Randle pulled out all the stops to come back and take the decider comfortably. With another 3-0 in Shadowmoor Draft, that should have left him qualifying for the Top 8 comfortably, since at that point he led the field at 8-1 with another of Coventry’s squad, Christopher Harrold. Moore is one of those characters though who tends to win in spite of themselves rather than because of themselves, in that they tend to believe that the wheels are just waiting for any excuse to come off, rather than expecting to coast to the finish line. His resolve was sorely tested therefore by back-to-back losses in Standard. Round 13 brought victory but by then the price to be paid for those losses was high. He was paired down in the final round, knowing that his opponent could not agree the ID. And then he found that his opponent was Stuart Wright, the near-unanimous choice as pre-tournament standout. That his nerve held says much about Moore, who is one of the real Gamers in the UK, being someone who will quite happily play Magic between rounds as well as during them. Whilst the other contenders will have been delighted (on a purely Gaming level) to see Wright depart from the scene, the presence of Moore for Sunday play was ominous indeed.

Chris Stocking – 0 – 3 – 6 – 9 – 12 – 15 – 18 – 21 – 24 – 27 – 30 – 31 – 32 – 33

Of the 8 competitors who made it through to Sunday, a sum total of one lost their opening match. That man was Stocking. From that point on his story was simplicity itself, reeling off a mighty 10 consecutive wins, including 3 in Standard, 4 in Lorwyn draft and 3 in Shadowmoor draft. That meant that he had wrapped up his participation on Sunday with a massive three rounds to spare, all of which he ID’d. Talking to him after the tenth consecutive victory, I was struck by how self-deprecating he was, saying that he knew he was by no means the best player here, that he’d had plenty of luck, that he hadn’t expected to do that well, that matchups had gone his way, and so on. Intriguingly, this ‘Amateur’ background was interspersed by some decidedly ‘Pro’ comments, including how he had worked hard for the event, chosen his Metagamed Elves deck with care, Drafted regularly with a group he considered to be of a high standard, and so on. As we’ll see, this combination of accurate self-appraisal (he deserved his success due to the work he’d put in) and English self-deprecation (how could this happen to him when there were so many good players in the room?) reached its height during the quarter final with Russ Davies, which is where we turn our attention next.

The Top 8

Back at the women’s marathon, with the winner now long-gone and out of range – because it turned out that this was the one occasion when she didn’t shoot her bolt and come back to the field – the remaining contenders for medals settled down into a war of attrition, ticking off the kilometres and miles as they drew ever closer to the stadium and the finish line. Amongst them was the second-string Brit, Paula Radcliffe having been long-eclipsed thanks to a persistent leg injury. Our plucky Brit finally finished sixth, thus equalling the best ever performance by a British woman in an Olympic marathon. Thing is, she was ecstatic with that performance. Now I’m the kind of guy who would also be thrilled if I finished sixth, especially if it was the Olympic women’s marathon, where simply getting me to the start line undetected would be a major triumph! But that isn’t necessarily the way to win trophies, and the quarter-final match between Chris Stocking and Russ Davies had a somewhat surreal quality, as the two competitors vied for who wanted it least. ‘I’d be embarrassed if a GB team had me on it’ said Stocking. ‘Same for me’ replied Davies, as both continued in very similar ‘please God don’t let me make a glaring error of idiocy in front of all these nice people’ vein. The matchup favored Davies, and in the end that counted. Even then, Davies was straight into ‘I’ve done everything I wanted because I’ve got to Worlds.’ To be fair, he did attempt to refocus for his semi-final and subsequent 34d/4th playoff, but the gargantuan achievement of reaching Memphis was his personal summit this time around.

Stephen Murray looks utterly innocuous, wandering around the venue in an apparently-affable daze. Put him across the table however, and he becomes a serious proposition, focusing all his efforts for the times when it matters most. His achievements in reaching the final were all the more remarkable given his lack of preparation, and for the second time in three years he will play at Worlds. Having narrowly missed the Top 8 for the last couple of years, Matteo Orsini-Jones will have been glad to get over the hump, but won’t have enjoyed losing to Murray in the quarters, a match that he felt a slight favorite for. Michail Dimakos fell to eventual champ Jonathan Randle in three straight, while perhaps the most disappointed of the quarter finalists would have been 2005 English champion Richard Moore. In a match where his Swans should have been marginally quicker than the best Ioannis Kyriazis’ red deck could muster, 3 times out of 5 that proved not to be true, and Ioannis went on to face Randle in a semi-final that was simply tremendous to watch, comfortably in my Top 10 matches since I started Coverage. Every step of the way, Randle couldn’t afford a moment’s lack of vigilance or the reach of the red deck would consign him to the 3rd/4th playoff. Time and time again he found his way to the correct play, and although Kyriazis couldn’t quite break the Fae, he was more than a match for Davies’ Doran in the playoff, thus earning his spot on the team for Memphis. In the final, despite being a matchup underdog, Stephen Murray did his country proud, seeking every possible crack in the Faeire armor, and testing Randle to the limit. But every time he found himself with minimal room to manoeuvre, Randle found the play – frequently a Mistbind Clique – to close the game out as quickly as possible, and counterspells always seemed to be in hand when nothing else would do.

Crossing the Line

After the marathon, the commentators seemed somewhat sniffy about the performance of the winner. They were surprised that she had made her move as early as she did. They were surprised that the rest had let her go without resistance. They were surprised that she held on, as she never had before. And they were unimpressed with the race as a whole. It’s tempting to feel the same about the victory of Jonathan Randle when you look at the list of recent winners which include John Ormerod, Richard Moore, Craig Stevenson and Craig Jones. That would be a mistake. Amongst Randle’s training partners are Lazlo Leka, one of our more successful European Grand Prix travellers in recent times, and Richard Parker, the leading Brit from Pro Tour: Valencia, and currently well inside the top 100 ranked Constructed players in the world. You may not know his name very well, but in Jonathan Randle Great Britain has a worthy Champion, and one who will go to Memphis to do more than just make up the numbers.

Hopes and Dreams

As always, sport is a harsh mistress, and for every hope and dream that came to a culmination in Birmingham, many more were ruthlessly extinguished. Out of simple human decency, when I can tell that it really matters to someone I tend to ‘look the other way’ as I have no desire to intrude on private grief. But without the numerous players who had genuine ambitions of making Worlds this year, and yet failed, there could be no success stories. Therefore, as always, as someone who makes their living reporting on these people who put their hopes and dreams on the line round after round and year after year, a heartfelt thank you. And whether gold, silver, bronze or no medal at all, it’s you who make the game The Game.

Until next week, as ever, thanks for reading.