“No more mistakesâ€”wake up, Ali, you have a trophy to win. Stop missing triggers; you’re making simple mistakes. This match is in the bag. Just play it slow, and play it right; you can do this,” I tell myself.
I’m nervous sitting across David Ochoa. I know I’m favored, but Ochoa is an amazing player. I know if I get one more warning it will be marked up to a game loss. I can’t afford that; I won’t let that happen. Coming into this finals matchup, I am excited but afraidâ€”so afraid that for some reason I offer the money split knowing my deck is favored in this matchup.
I need to relax, I need a drink of water, I want to sleep. I want this trophy; it is mineâ€”all I have to do is focus.
I haven’t felt this nervous since my first Friday Night Magic ages ago. It is an alien but nostalgic feeling. I remember entering Underground Games with my Squirrel Overrun deck; man how naÃ¯ve I was. I remember hearing the owner of the store, Jason Vogt, shouting out, “FNM starts in 15 minutes, sign up now” and filling out my DCI information and paying my seven dollars.
I was overwhelmed with excitement, nervousness, and fear. I was too shy to talk to anyoneâ€”luckily for me Jason was the exact opposite. He asked me what my name was and where I was from. I eagerly answered his questions, and when he asked me what I was playing, I couldn’t open my Ziploc bag fast enough. I proudly showed him my mono-green deck that consisted of Chatter of the Squirrel, Acorn Harvest, Squirrel Mob, Steely Resolve, and Overrun. I noticed him cringe a little, and he wished me the best of luck.
I sat down for my first sanctioned Magic tournament and got obliterated by a mono-black control deck. I was a little disappointed and went up to report my loss. Jason inquired about the match, and I told him, “I lost. He killed all my guys and played a spell that destroys all my cards (Haunting Echoes).” He laughed and told me it was okay and to just keep playing.
I lost my second and third match to Goblins and then Mirari’s Wake. I didn’t feel like playing anymore. I felt severely out of place and outclassed. I wanted to find another hobby. I told Jason this, and he chuckled again and said, “You just need to play a better deck.” He assembled U/G Madness for me and let me play it against his decks. He told me what I was doing wrong and helped me correct my mistakes. Then he gave me the deck for a very cheap price. I fell in love with the deck; I was crushing all my friends at school. I couldn’t wait for the next FNM.
The next time I arrived at FNM, I was confident and won my first match. I was so ecstatic; I could compete with everyone now. I went on to lose my next two matches, but I won two as well. I was addicted to this game; it was all I want to do. I got my brother and my friends involved, and we all started playing. I continued to go to FNM every week, and my play skill slowly got better and better.
Fast-forward a half a year. Now I was at my first JSS piloting Psychatog. It was such a hard deck for me to play, but I felt at home. I loved being able to say no, and I loved drawing cards even more. I didn’t do well at this event, but I was winning more and more now. I was making new friends, and I was playing with new decksâ€”this was my escape.
A few more years down the road, and I was at my first PTQ with Daniel Genkins. Genkins was playing the dreaded U/B Fae, and I was trying a mono-black deck featuring Korlash, Heir to Blackblade. It seemed to do okay vs. Fae, but I lost to pretty much everything else. I ended up audibling to Fae and started out 5-0 before I fell to Dragonstorm because I had no idea what he was doing. I found it weird, but I actually enjoyed losing to his deck. I wanted him to beat me. I hated playing Faeriesâ€”what a dumb deck. My wheels fell off shortly thereafter.
This was the point where I realized the power of rogue decks. I learned Dragonstorm wasn’t a true rogue deck, but the power you get when your opponent doesn’t know exactly what you’re doing is immeasurable. I wanted to play fun cards like Dragonstorm. I despised playing 1/1s; what a sick joke. No more attacking with 1/1s for me! I was turning a new leaf.
I started brewing new deck ideas that fell flat on their faces. The process of making new decks was so tedious and time consuming. So many ended up failing, and the ones that did work didn’t work all that well, but for me, it was worth it. I enjoyed the attention it provided, the whispers all around me; it also made people approach me, and that was huge, since I was usually too shy to approach others.
I decided to brew really hard back when B/W and G/W Tokens were the best decks. I really wanted to play mill even though everyone was against it and said it was utter trash. Eventually I found the gem that made the deck viableâ€”Evacuation. The card ended up being an instant wrath effect against these decks. Walker Trull, Daniel Genkins, and I traveled to a double PTQ weekend.
For the very first time of my life, I decided to play a rogue deck. The feelings were overwhelming; again I was nervous, doubtful, and filled with fear. That all ended up turning into a euphoric feeling. I was exhilaratedâ€”I was winning. I went 5-3 the first day, but I knew what changes needed to be made and was quickly ready for the next day. I ended up sitting at 5-1-1 round 8 against Zach Jesse who was 6-1 playing 5-Color Control with all singletons except for Cryptic Command and Esper Charm. He was looking to draw, but unfortunately I could not do that.
I went on to win game one by milling him out. Game 2, I brought in my tech, which was Vendilion Clique, mind you, and she carried me all the way. I ended up losing my quarterfinals by having to mull to five and four respectively. Life was so unfair, but at least I had made a friend in Zach Jesse and played my first rogue deck in a bigger tournament.
My friends Daniel Genkins and Walker Trull stopped playing Magic, and after a couple of months I stopped too. I started going to the gym and getting ready for college. I was then courting a beautiful young woman named Faith Tysinger, and I didn’t want to scare her off by mentioning Magic. But the itch was not gone for long. I slowly crept back into Magic and quickly got hooked again. Luckily for me, Faith saw how much I cared about the game and wanted to start learning how to play. She didn’t want me to hide anything from her and wanted me to be happy. How lucky was I?
I was now playing at Parker Banner Kent and Wayne (PBKW) since Underground Games had shut down. I walked into the store and saw no familiar faces; nobody knew me here; I felt like an outcastâ€”I really missed Underground Games and my old friends. Even though I was in unfamiliar territory, I still wanted to play Magic. I continued my trend of playing off-the-wall decks like White/Red Control with Swans of Bryn Argoll and Cascade Land Destruction.
I even tried a deck with Cairn Wanderer, Mistmeadow Skulk, and Akroma, Angel of Wrath, which failed pretty miserably. I got stomped until I found a half-decent list that could win FNM. People noticed my brews and success and flocked to me. I finally felt welcome; whenever I walked in, people would jokingly say, “Oh NOOOOO, here comes Ali Aintrazi. I guess we are all playing for second guys.” I would start laughing. I enjoyed playing here; it was slowly becoming my new home for Magic.
I met Jonathan Suarez at PBKW; we quickly became good buddies. He asked me to come and test with him for events. I was thrilled. I wanted to test with someone that was better than I was and quickly accepted the offer. We tested, and he kept stomping all my rogue decks like it was nothing. We ended up traveling to more events because he knew when and where they were. After a tournament where I did horribly, he sat me down and said, “You’re not using your full potential. You’re wasted talent. Stop playing silly decks and just f***ing win.” It went in one ear and out the other. I enjoyed playing wacky decks way too much to quit.
Eventually Pyromancer Ascension came out, and I was all over that card. I could copy my Cruel Ultimatums? SOLD! I somehow convinced Suarez to play it that weekend. I was happy he was finally playing a rogue deck. I was praying we would do well at this event. We played this deck at a Star City 5K before they were Opens, and I went 1-3 drop. He ended up not doing much betterâ€”something like 3-3 drop. After that tournament, we promised each other to never pick up Pyromancer Ascension again. I felt so guilty for convincing him to play this deck. That’s when I promised myself I would offer people my rogue decks, but I wouldn’t push them to play them. I didn’t want to be held responsible for someone traveling for hours only to do miserably.
States was coming up, and I listened to Suarez for once. I tried my luck with the cascade mechanic in SC for States and ended up taking it down with Jund. He obviously congratulated me and rubbed it in, “See what happens when you play a real deck.” That wouldn’t be the last time I heard that statement. Â
A few months later I was playing in Nashville in a Limited PTQ that Suarez was unable to attend. I went with Zach Shaffner, a friend I befriended a long time ago at Underground Games.
We both were close to Top 8 and got paired together. He wanted the draw, but I wanted to play. So we ended up playing, and I beat him and drew into Top 8. I watched the rest of his matches and cheered him on. Luckily Zach won his next match and was also in the Top 8.
I ended up winning this PTQ after playing against Christian Valenti in the Top 8. I was so enthusiastic. I was going to do what some people only dreamt of! I was going to play on the Pro Tour. I just wished Suarez was with me to celebrate; he knew how to throw a party. Little did I know that this was only the beginning for me.
I ended up getting top 64 at my first Pro Tour, which was San Diego. I got to see Jason Vogt again after so many years. We caught up on life and enjoyed the city. It really was a grand time. I wish I got to see him more often. I also befriended Orrin Beasley here. I was happy with top 64, but I still yearned for more. I wanted to do better; I knew I could do better.
I started traveling to PTQs far and wide. I was becoming a grinder, and people knew me on the PTQ circuit. I kept playing rogue decks, such as Kiki-Jiki Might Shift, which featured Scapeshift and Tooth and Nail and made Top 8 but didn’t quite close the deal. It became frustrating, but I still wanted Magic to be fun. I didn’t want it to just be a grind.
I also played a rogue deck by Jon Mahon, which had Time Warps and the crazy Mirror Sheen, missing Top 8 on the bubble. After playing this deck, I couldn’t put Time Warp down. I finally managed to win a few more Sealed PTQs but did horribly at the Pro Tours. Failing to do well in Amsterdam and not even winning a single match in Paris, going 0-4 drop, sucked! I was only winning the Sealed events and getting so close with the Constructed ones, then doing horribly at the Pro Tours. I needed a change of pace. I needed a win.
Thankfully it wasn’t too far off. My next big success was in Japan. It was Worlds, and I was qualified but lacked the funds to go. I put up a donation button on Facebook but wasn’t getting much success. Adam Richards saved the day by offering to pay the full price of the trip. He flew us both out to Japan, and I ended up getting 19th, playing U/W Control in the Standard portion and going undefeated in Extended with 5-Color Control. I began to realize here that I did really with control decks for some reason or another. After I was paid, I gave half to Adam even though he said it was not necessary, but I insisted. Placing 19th at Worlds had rejuvenated me. I was delighted, but I still wanted moreâ€”something bigger and better.
Star City announced its Open Series, and I started traveling to these. I wanted to win one of these tournaments! This circuit is where I met many of my best friends, honed my skills, and became known as a rogue deckbuilder thanks to U/G Turboland and Grand Architect. When Bill Stark gave me the deck tech, I was hooked again to rogue decks.
I was an attention whore, and rogue decks brought me a lot of attention. Who doesn’t want to play with the new deck on the block? My name became bigger because of the Open Series. People looked forward to seeing what I had next, and I couldn’t wait to show them.
I picked up Mythic when people thought it was a joke of a deck. I ended up beating Tanner Lang playing Polymorph and then losing in the top 4 to Alex Bertoncini piloting Jund. Mythic was an awesome deck, and it slowly started becoming Tier 1. I kept losing on the Open Series, but I finally had my day in the sun with Mythic in Baltimore where I took it down against the mirror match, ripping Finest Hour for exactsies!
Suarez and the crew all celebrated my success. We went drinking and walked through Baltimore. I was content for now. I mean how could I not be? I had my very first Magic trophy.
Next year I attended as many Opens as I could. I refused to play Caw and played U/W Control, U/B Control. I kept losing and not making Top 8. I wanted another trophy, but it was nowhere in sight.
I tried my hand at Legacyâ€”I took the Metalworker deck, shaved all the red, and added blue to it. I Top 8ed with it and put the deck on the map. In the next Open, I was playing Metalworker and lost to the mirror match on the bubble, so I had delusions that this was a real deck. I got my wakeup call at the next Grand Prix by going 2-3 drop; the two wins were from my two byes. The rollercoaster that was life was going downhill again.
The SCG Invitational was coming up, and I tried my hand at Grand Architect this time with a deck featuring Blighted Agent and Viral Drake. Suarez was infuriated. He said, “This is a real tournament; what the hell are you doing with that pile?” I was a little throttled, but I felt the deck was good enough.
I obviously went 0-3 drop against Caw-Blade. To appease Suarez, I made a promise to play some form of Caw-Blade, even though the deck disgusted me. As luck would have it, I won Baltimore again playing Twinblade. The win felt so good, and it was so much easier to do with the best deck.
And this time Suarez wasn’t the only one saying, “See what happens when you play the best deck?” So I took a break from wacky decks and started playing more mainstream decks. I didn’t want people to just know me as a decent player that played bad or weird decks.
I wanted to show people what I was capable of, and Nationals was no different! I still hated Caw-Blade, so I didn’t want to play it; instead I played U/B Control, which utterly stomped the Caw-Blade menace and had decent matchups against everything else. It was also a control deckâ€”I loved me some control, and I knew control suited my play style from Worlds last year. I cruised right through the Swiss portion of Standard like a hot knife through butter.
Now I’m face to face against David Ochoa, Webter the Robot. He is all that stands in my way, and he is nothing to scoff at. I’m extremely exhausted, and I’m playing poorly. I forget to draw off Preordain, miss two Sphinx triggers, put a card from Liliana Vess into my hand for a split second on accident; what the hell is going on here…?
WAKE UP, ALI!!!
I start announcing every step out loud to help me along the way. Untap, upkeep, draw, main phase, use planeswalkers, combat phase, trigger Consecrated Sphinx. I have him on lock downâ€”he is not going to pull through. No more mistakes. I got thisâ€”swing for lethal, he goes for the handshake… I’m now National Champion.
It still all feels so surreal; I’m still excepting to wake up from this amazing dream. I’m filled with a myriad of feelings. One thing I do know is that… My hunger is still not satisfied; it may never beâ€”but that Worlds trophy is coming home to the United States where it belongs. On the way home, I am flooded with so many warm words and so much love that I actually begin to tear up. Yes, the national champ cried but only for a fleeting moment, I promise! I still got all this under control.
I have so much thanks to give, and I just want to thank a few people before I wrap things up.
Thank you, Jason Vogt, for getting me going and supporting me where my parents would not. Thank you to Said and Amanda Aintrazi and Cindy and Darrel Tysinger for cheering me on and being supportive when you guys don’t even play the game. Thank you Jonathan Suarez for being that voice of reason and still cheering me on even if I don’t end up playing the best deck; you truly are a great friend. Thank you, Justin Parnell, for actually taking my brews to heart and testing them with serious vigor and helping me through all things in life, not just Magicâ€”please move closer. THANK YOU STEPHAN FOR BEING MY SECRET BOYFRIEND; I MISS YOU! Big thanks to John Winters and Brad Sheppard for giving me the U/B deck. Thank you, David Wise; you’ve helped me in many different ways. You are a great person and a better friend, sorry for hurting you. Thank you, Faith Tysinger, for being so supportive of me and being the best girlfriend ever; I’m seriousâ€”I love you so much, beautiful!
Most importantly, a huge thanks to the reader and my fans for having my back and cheering me on, I wouldn’t be here without you guys. Seriously, thank you so much!
Ali, the Falling Leaf