We’ve got a good few weeks to digest the season, so I’m not going to rush into the Worlds Report Card, Review of the Season, the State of Magic, and other such weighty issues. For now, fresh off the plane home from Rome, I want to share the story of a wonderful week in gaming, and to start, we head back to six o’clock in the morning, in a freezing cold Lincolnshire town, last Tuesday morning…
Walk, taxi, train, plane, taxi, walk. That’s generally the pattern for most of these fantastic trips. I always find it entertaining when long-distance travellers to Europe greet me with variations on a theme of, ‘How was your trip? Of course, it’s really close.’ The fact is, it actually makes very little difference where in the world we’re travelling to. That might sound counter-intuitive, but it’s true. Flight time is such a small part of any travel day that the Pro Tour might just as well be in New York as Rome. Pretty much anywhere is a day away, it’s just that occasionally that day gets a tiny bit stretched.
Of course, the big plus is no jet lag, and that’s something I’m always grateful for at European events. At least one major North American force in the game, Brian Kibler, has gone on record as saying he believes his sleep schedule contributed to a lack of performance on the big day.
However long travel day turns out to be, my favorite part of every trip is the two and a half hour trip from my home town to the airport, and back again at the other end. It’s super-comfortable, with plugs for laptops, nice tables, awesome seats, and most importantly it’s a chance to get my head in the right place. On the way to the airport, I gradually leave family commitments behind. In reality, nothing is more important than Helen (37 — cook), Elizabeth (7 — slave), and Simon (5 months — future income.) As I head for the airport, that gets set aside, and I start to focus on all the major storylines we’ll be trying to keep a handle on.
It’s usually on the train that I’ll take the time to read some recent articles that I’ve been saving up, wade through some current decklists, and attempt to make sure that I know what certain cards do and how they work. This is particularly important with a new set, and despite my homework I have a horrible feeling I spent a large part of one podcast describing Kor Skyfisher as Kor Skymaster. This is a card I’ve drafted with and against many times, but seeing it sitting there in Japanese during day one just made my mind go blank. Sometimes, even preparation isn’t enough!
Part of the fun of travel days is guessing where I’m first going to run into Magic players. Some of my happiest little memories of tournament weeks is turning the corner in some random supermarket halfway round the world and suddenly finding myself face to face with the Brazilian National team, or some first-timers wearing Magic shirts. This time around, I didn’t have to wait long, as no sooner had I got to Manchester airport than I was accosted with a loud, ‘Riichhh!’ There’s something really great about players who aren’t qualified, aren’t intending to play in the Last Chance Qualifier, and are just drawn to the idea of a holiday + Magic combo. It’s next door to impossible for us to cover all the amazing Public Events that happen at these festivals of Magic, but I know that if I ever have to stop covering this great game, then four days of Legacy, Standard, Extended, Sealed, Invasion Block, 8-Mans, Vintage… it’s true gaming nirvana.
Thirteen hours after leaving my front door, I arrive in my new home. Home is a very important thing to me, and I’m always a little adrift until I feel like I’ve got my bearings, especially with regard to food. I have a tiny range of food that I enjoy, which basically consists of meat, cheese, and starch. I read earlier this week that one Patrick Chapin found obtaining meat to be problematic, and now that I know he is a fellow meatatarian, I shall be happy to furnish him throughout 2010 with guides to the whereabouts of the local ‘holy trinity,’ McDonalds, KFC, and Pizza Hut. Whether KFMRVMP (Kentucky Fried Mechanically Reconstituted Variable Meat Product) actually qualifies under the heading of ‘meat’ is debatable, but my general rule is that as long as there’s something resembling dead animal to go with my salt, I’m happy.
The hotel room is tiny, as is often the case in European capital cities where space is at a premium, but I get an unexpected surprise when I discover that I have no roommate. With the best will in the world to all the great people I’ve shared with, this is awesome news, as there’s always an obligation to be considerate to a colleague in what are often trying situations where sleep is really important. To be able to just read, shower, watch TV, or sleep without consideration of others made Rome one of the more survivable PT weeks I’ve had.
Having set up shop in the room, it was off for dinner with Greg Collins. For those of you who don’t know Greg, he’s very much behind the scenes, but runs the global coverage team for all the Grand Prix and Pro Tours. From the moment you get up to at least twelve hours later, every second is precious, so being able to just sit and chat is a rare and great thing. With a medium rare Argentinean steak and fries devoured (no cheese?), it was time for bed.
At most of the Pro Tours, much of day ‘zero’ is taken up filming the lifestyle piece for the website. Back in Geneva 2007, that meant heading for the Alps to film Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa seeing his first ever snow, and spending much of my time on my backside, almost literally freezing my butt off. Other highlights include taking Aaron Nicastri and Steve Sadin to see what used to be the Wall at Berlin 2008, and the beach house video in Honolulu, which allowed me to wear a truly horrifying item of clothing and get paid for doing so.
This time, we were focusing in on two sets of brothers. As an only child, I’ve always found the dynamic of sibling rivalry fascinating, as it’s so different from my own experience. In Rome, there was a real gulf between the two pairs, and yet the similarities were more marked. From France, the royal family of Magic, Antoine and Olivier Ruel. From the USA, Brad Nelson and Corey Baumeister. Now, I’ve known Corey for a while, and liked him, but had no clue that Brad was his brother. It was really great hearing their story of how playing Magic basically drove them together during their teenage years, cementing them as best friends. I know that sounds hokey in an ordinary sentence, but watching them interact was great.
We took the four of them to film at the Coliseum, which is one of the few places on Earth that are in my experience truly awe-inspiring. As someone who loves a theatre, to see this 50,000 seater stadium up close was amazing. As a Christian, I guess it’s not exactly known as a great place to perform, but that can’t detract from one of the great political statements of the Roman Empire. I’ve had the privilege of doing a great deal of traveling, performing round the world, so I can get a bit indifferent to historic monuments and such, but that wasn’t possible with Corey and Brad around, since this was a staggering thing for both of them.
As we chatted, I got a small window into hometown life, and it was clear from both of them that while they had the same love of home as most, they were profoundly grateful for the opportunity that simply being good at cards had given them. I mean this with the greatest respect imaginable, so please don’t be mad, but I think we Europeans, steeped in hundreds of years of ‘high art and culture’ can sometimes forget that ‘smalltown USA’ exists, and how different that world is from that of the Vatican, the Berlin Wall, or the Houses of Parliament.
At any rate, I found myself wondering about the Ruels as our interviews came to a close. I arrived on the global tournament scene in mid-2006, a few months after the epic battle Olivier had with Kenji Tsumura to be Player of the Year, a race he would lose by a single point. It was not long afterwards that his disqualification and subsequent ban occurred, and to my mind he simply hasn’t been the same since.
For Antoine, winning Pro Tour: Los Angeles in 2005 had neatly headlined his playing career, and almost from the moment I met him, it was clear to me that his main focus was supporting Olivier, and there was no prouder moment for Antoine than when Olivier became inducted into the Hall of Fame in Memphis last year. Even when Olivier won Grand Prix: Brighton, it seemed to me that he took no special pleasure in the victory, and talking to him in Rome, I do wonder whether we’ve seen the best, if not the last, of the Ruels. 54 Premier event Top 8s are a family record that Brad and Corey will have to go some to match.
Back at the Worlds site, getting ready to open, I decided to utterly abuse my position of power by getting my name down as the first name on the very first draft of Worlds 2009. This turned out to be a smart move, since the lure of 8-4 Drafts costing just five Euros each was a massive draw, and the queue was quickly into the hundreds. The draft was a ton of fun, as I took Valakut, The Molten Pinnacle, and didn’t really look back. I ended up splashing Pitfall Trap and Journey To Nowhere, but for the most part I played with the infamous split card Mountain/Lightning Bolt. It helped that I faced in round 1 an extremely brave young Italian who was playing in his first draft ever, and had opted to attempt this using English cards from a nearly-new set. My monsters weren’t great, but Molten Ravager dealt 20 in game one, and Journey To Nowhere dealt with Sphinx Of Lost Truths plus Celestial Mantle, which might have been a proper beating.
Then I moved on to play Mat Marr, and we had a terrific time together, with his assorted Allies proving too much in the decider. I also got to meet Kali Anderson, and as things turned out, it was good that she was around for the disappointment to come. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, all will be revealed later on.
Next up was the Coverage meeting. With Wizards taking the whole of the Palazzo dei Congressi, we had a spacious room all to ourselves. This was just as well, since ‘ourselves’ was a massive crew, which lined up something like this:
Greg Collins — The previously-mentioned boss of all things Coverage. Almost always first man in at silly o’clock, almost always the last man out at five past sleep deprivation.
Kelly Digges — The truly heroic fixer of all things grammar; speling, t y p esetting, factual accuracy (‘Great Britain wins!’), INSERT WITTY PICTURE CAPTION HERE, and many other tasks that he accomplishes with unfailing courtesy, flair, and professionalism. It’s a good job he doesn’t realize quite how talented he is, otherwise he’d probably be unbearable.
Dave Guskin — Like Kelly and Greg, Dave works full-time in the main office in Renton. Amongst other things, he’s largely responsible for the upgrade to Gatherer on the website, and has also spent plenty of time within R&D, designing and developing upcoming sets. At Worlds, he’d be part of the main text team, focusing on Feature Matches and the Magic Online Championship.
Evan Erwin — With a license to rove, Evan spent much of the weekend just being around stuff that was happening, and conveniently having a video camera with a flashing red light on it. There’s an intimacy to his pieces that are hard to replicate on the ‘mainstream’ coverage, since he so often finds people at their most relaxed. If you want to know what fun on the Pro Tour is like, checking out Evan’s videos from Worlds is a top place to start.
Craig Gibson — One of the best things about joining the Pro Tour team back in 2007 was when I discovered that there was this guy, Craig, whose sole purpose was to make all our stuff look better on the page. It seemed almost too good to be true — a professional photographer who would go anywhere with you and get you exactly the image you needed to make your point. It’s tempting to think that there are only so many ways you can photograph Magic, but if that number is indeed finite, Craig seems to be a long way off yet.
Bill Stark — Most of the Coverage staff have a particular expertise, whether it’s the photo essay (Josh Bennett), the lowdown (Tim Willoughby), or the offbeat (me). Bill’s expertise blows my mind, because at recent Pro Tours, he’s been Metagame Man, taking literally 400+ decklists, and quantifying and identifying every last one of them to arrive at the shape of the Metagame. The knowledge of historic deck archetypes, current trends, and analysing new trends, is a staggering achievement, and I don’t believe I will ever lose my sense of wonder at the way he’s able to make so much sense out of so much data so quickly. Bordering on genius, quite frankly.
Keita Mori and Daisuke Kawasaki — Part of the fun of Worlds is that we get Coverage teams in multiple languages. Keita Mori used to work for the Japanese distributor, before coming onboard to work directly for Wizards full-time, a move that meant the world to him. Daisuke is also a Coverage veteran, and it’s great to have two experts on Japanese Magic around the place, especially when it comes to the major domestic tournaments that don’t come to our attention much, like The Finals. (See? Most of you have no clue what I’m talking about, right?) QED.
Andrea Vitali and Bruno Panara — And while we’re there, these guys were writing for the Home Team, ensuring that there would be one Italian in every set of three Feature Matches. Andrea ensured that my one sentence of Italian for the opening ceremony was spot on, and elected not to take the opportunity to have me say, ‘You’re all idiots, and I love Yu-Gi-Oh!’, which I would have said in Italian with equal understanding and panache.
Tim Willoughby — Tim is a genuine Gamer in so many ways. When it comes to an understanding of what’s really going on in a match, he’s an outstanding analyst, and is a really good player himself, spoilt only by the fact that he’s having far too much fun Going Rogue to ever get around to grinding his way through PTQs with The Best Deck. Modesty ensured that Tim couldn’t tell one particular tale from Worlds, but I’ll get around to it later on.
Nate Price — Nate really is the proverbial dark horse. He comes across as utterly unruffled, a veritable picture of self-containment and self-assurance. And then you hear some of the stories. Mind-boggling, fabulously entertaining stories, which you just know can’t be true. Until you ask him about them, and he tells you that for half of them he was just ‘there’, but that the other half are spot on. Nate Price: Outside — Gandhi. Inside — Attila the Hun. All-around awesome.
Brian David-Marshall — As the Pro Tour Historian, you might expect that BDM would have few peers when it comes to the story of the game, but a lot of Pros could learn a lot just by hanging around and listening a bunch, especially when it comes to Limited. In approximately five minutes, he’s hugely improved my game, and without even really trying. The man with the most extensive contact book in world Magic, BDM probably doesn’t know everyone and everything, but it’s pretty close.
Randy Buehler — I can still remember the look and feel of the old Sideboard magazine in white/blue/black, and Randy’s face on the front having won the Pro Tour. Randy has given an absolute ton to the game, and it’s a good bet that once the opportunity presents itself, he’ll be taking advantage of his Hall of Fame invites to come back to the Pro Tour, and it would be a bad move to assume that he’s a spent force.
Me — Well, there has to be a weak link somewhere, right?
Once we’d set our stall out and confirmed the stories we’d be looking to follow over the next four days, it was time for the Opening Ceremony. Well, not the actual Opening Ceremony, but the half a dozen run-throughs the night before that would ensure the actual Opening Ceremony the next morning would go smoothly. As most of you know, my background is as an entertainer, so anytime you put me in a genuine Performance Space, I’m a happy camper, and this place was certainly that. Almost 1,000 seats, with a tremendous set of technical facilities. Having taken part in a couple of transatlantic group phone-ins during the run-up, it was really nice to see all the parts coming together. In particular, the set was fabulous, and was a major part of kicking off the event in the right way.
Finally, I could join the player party, which this time was in the main venue, rather than a bar or restaurant further away. I grabbed a bite to eat, and joined Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa, Gaudenis Vidugiris, and Sam Black. One of the things I dislike about Pro Tours is that there’s never enough time to just sit and chat with players. During the tournament, there’s certain information that we require almost every time. You can guess what most of this is — what’s your Sealed deck like? Will you make Day 2? What’s your record? What Constructed deck are you playing and why? These kind of questions are our bread and butter, and essentially never change.
It’s much harder, under the pressure of round by round action, to find out what makes a player tick, what their view of the Pro Tour is and their own place on it, their philosophy of play, training regimes, tips and tricks, their thoughts on cheating, how they source their deck… and in truth, these are the kinds of question that really interest me, since, although knowing someone is playing Control might tell you something about them as a person, knowing that their 5-1 probably tells you little more than that they’re either lucky, good, or both.
Ask someone how prevalent cheating is in the game today, however, and you uncover all sorts of things, like how they define cheating, how much they believe intent makes a difference, their views on fairness, judgement, penalising the guilty… these are all things that help us understand something about the person away from the table.
With PV, Gaudenis, and Sam, I learned a ton, in particular about the Metagame. Not specifically the Worlds Standard Metagame, but a more general discussion about choosing your deck. The edited highlights go like this: Suppose you know what the so-called Best Deck is (which, for the purposes of topicality we’ll call Jund), and you’re also comfortable that it isn’t especially easy to hate out The Best Deck (which might be a problem if something like Dredge in Extended was The Best Deck.) Now you have to decide whether to play that deck.
On several previous occasions, Paulo has played Faeries, and has been very straightforward about his logic, which boils down to ‘it’s The Best Deck, and I’m going to play The Best Deck better than most people playing it, so I almost always have an edge. In the mirror, I’m likely the better player, and against the rest of the field as a whole, I’m playing The Best Deck.’
To my mind, this logic is fine as long as it’s actually true that you’re going to play The Best Deck better than most other people. Trouble is, if 100 out of 400 are playing Jund, for the vast majority of people playing it, that won’t be true. At that point, you’re giving up an edge in the mirror. If it were me, I would almost never choose to play The Best Deck, since I would expect to be among the worst exponents of the deck. To my mind, I’m likely to lose against Sam, or Gaudenis, or Paulo, anytime we’re sharing the same 75.
My best chance against a Pro is to choose a deck that affords me minimal opportunities to make misplays, and maximum opportunity to render their playskill edge null and void. A prime example of this kind of deck might be something like All-In Red, or maybe Dragonstorm. Can you deal with turn 1 Blood Moon? Can I count to nine and fetch every Bogardan Hellkite in my deck?
That’s when things got interesting.
All three of them basically said I was nuts, and were good enough to expand on this. While all three were careful to say that the edge for a really good player might be more substantial with something like Extended Faeries than Standard Jund, I was astonished at what they said next, and it was this:
The Edges in Magic are tiny.
From a Pro perspective, this is horrifying. Knowing that you’re so massively better than many of your opponents, and yet well aware that even the least accomplished of them might easily be winning 40-45% of the time against the best in the world. It’s tempting to think that PV, Gau, and Sam were being overly pessimistic, but it’s certainly true that the most successful players in the history of the game have a winning percentage round about 60-65%. Given this, they all felt that a weaker player voluntarily giving up the Edge of playing The Best Deck in order not to give up the Edge of playing it better was just mostly plain wrong.
Summary 1 — Mostly, play The Best Deck, even if you’re not amazing at playing it.
Summary 2 — Rich is wrong. Again.
Some things just never change.
Next week — the four best days of gaming.
Until then, as ever, thanks for reading…