My plan was to write about my weekend and wait to talk about my match against James Hammes until I got there in the narrative, but I can’t really bring myself to write about other things first. I feel horrible, and I have since I learned that the play I made was illegal. I slept for fourteen hours last night, partially because I was exhausted from the weekend but mostly because I didn’t want to deal with what felt like an entire world that thought I was a cheater.
I feel like I cheated because it’s perceived that way, but I don’t believe I did—I know that I’d feel horrible if I got away with cheating, and I didn’t feel horrible in the rest of my match with James. It wasn’t until I talked to Cedric Phillips and Patrick Sullivan after the match and they told me my attack was illegal that that feeling set in. Ultimately even being me I can only be so confident that I didn’t cheat because it’s hard to know my exact thoughts at the time, but my memory is that I genuinely believed James when he told me my Elvish Visionary didn’t have summoning sickness. Let me get into what happened as I see it.
On my turn I cast Glimpse of Nature. James responded by activating Pernicious Deed to kill all my creatures (I think this was one Elvish Visionary, but I’m not totally sure since I haven’t had the opportunity to rewatch the match as of this writing). I proceeded to go off, casting three Glimpse of Nature three times throughout the turn.
At some point it became clear that it was going to be hard to get enough creatures into play to make my Craterhoof Behemoth lethal, and I realized I could cast Green Sun’s Zenith to shuffle them into my deck to eat up some of my extra draws. But by the time I realized this it was too late, and I’d already drawn too many cards. Since two of my Green Sun’s Zenith had been hit by Cabal Therapy, I couldn’t put enough cards back into my deck to cast enough creatures to kill my opponent with Craterhoof Behemoth without decking myself, and I was going to die to my James’ Baneslayer Angel.
While I was looking over the board to figure out if there was any way out of this, I remembered thinking that all of my creatures had summoning sickness, but I didn’t consciously remember how the turn had actually started. So I asked my opponent to confirm that all of my creatures had summoning sickness, and he said "all but the Elvish Visionary." I was surprised because I’d thought all of my creatures had summoning sickness, but I was relieved because it meant I’d been doing a bunch of work to try to get enough creatures for nothing and I would actually win the game.
The problem is that my opponent was wrong about my Elvish Visionary. It’s weird that he’d be wrong about that; after all, he did intentionally kill all my creatures with his Pernicious Deed at the beginning of my turn, and that was the last thing he’d done in the game. Surely he’d remember that, right? Well, apparently not. I’d submit that as evidence that it was possible to forget incidentally. So how could my opponent possibly have thought that?
Well, earlier in the game he’d played and activated Pernicious Deed. When he did it, he paid one mana and announced "Deed for one" I started to pick up all my creatures because I assumed he’d kill them all but then realized that he only said one. I had a Visionary in play, which I put back on the table, and I put my other creatures in the graveyard.
I believe if I’m remembering correctly that this was strictly an error on his part—he should have activated Deed for two and killed that as well. I’m guessing that while I was going off my opponent was mad at himself for wasting his Pernicious Deed in response to my Glimpse, which there was no reason to do, and confused his two separate errors with Pernicious Deed into a single error in his head. He remembered using a Deed incorrectly and leaving an Elvish Visionary in play.
In the moment I think I believed the same thing. My opponent suggested an incorrect board state, and the judge watching the match (officially a "spotter," not a "table judge" and as such not someone who is responsible for maintaining the game state but still someone who can speak up) didn’t say anything, which made it easier to trust my opponent. My brain was more relieved than confused, which overrode an impulse to clarify something that was unexpected with an impulse to accept something that sounded good. I allowed a cognitive bias to trump my faith in myself to track a game state, which was irresponsible, but I didn’t take a game action that I knew in the moment to be illegal.
Sadly, I think very few of you believe me at this point. In fact, when I finish this I still think most of you will think I probably cheated. What I did was bad and looks very bad.
The issue is that things on the table looked very different from things on SCGLive. Cedric told me that he’d spent the turn explaining what I was doing, talking through the number of creatures I’d need to get in play to make Craterhoof Behemoth lethal by itself because no other creatures could attack. That was at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
It’s clear based on my play that it was something I had in mind too, but I had a lot of other things going on. This was my second time playing Elves in Legacy, and the last time after every single time I went off with Glimpse, someone—either my opponent or a spectator—would tell me about the one or two triggers I missed somewhere along the line. My primary focus for the previous ten minutes had been on maintaining the game state and remembering all my triggers and then on trying to figure out ways to avoid decking myself.
I remembered that I was trying to make Craterhoof Behemoth lethal by itself, but I didn’t remember why I was operating from a memory of that knowledge. When I got to the point where it looked like there was nothing I could do, I thought it would be a good idea to verify the game state before actually conceding. When I asked my opponent if all my creatures had summoning sickness, I fully thought the next two seconds would involve him saying yes and me picking up my cards.
The other issue is that people watching couldn’t hear us. I’m sure it looked like I did everything I could to try to win legally, realized I couldn’t, paused, and then tried to trick my opponent by making an illegal attack. That’s not what happened. I didn’t suggest to my opponent in any way that I could attack with this Visionary. I didn’t point to it and ask if it had summoning sickness or say it didn’t. I asked to make sure nothing did, and he "corrected" me.
I’m assuming everyone will say that I’m a pro and I’d been doing all this work that clearly demonstrated that I knew what was going on and that I knew he was wrong when he said it because there’s no way I could have forgotten. My opponent forgot, and he had far fewer distractions than I did over the previous ten minutes and much less incentive to believe that the creature could attack.
Also, pros aren’t infallible. I played that game terribly. It was likely wrong to fetch, putting myself to five instead of six so that there was no way I could pass the turn if I had to, and it was likely wrong to play the third Glimpse of Nature. I was close to fizzling, but I possibly should have realized that it would make it hard to get enough creatures into play and just taken the risk. Having cast it, I should have realized the Green Sun’s Zenith trick earlier, and I also should have been using Green Sun’s Zenith for one instead of zero, which doesn’t make my library bigger but does put creatures into play without drawing so many cards, which was the actual goal.
My point is that playing my deck wasn’t something I could do perfectly on autopilot; it took my full concentration (which as usual was limited at this point from a weekend of Magic and no sleep and not having eaten since before the tournament), which meant that I really had no idea where the belief that all my creatures were summoning sick had come from or how confident I should be in that knowledge. I just knew that it was something I’d been assuming, but I sometimes assume wrong things in a game of Magic.
Throughout that game I believe I resolved every trigger, many of which were bad for me, despite the fact that in previous games I’d forgotten to draw off Elvish Visionary after drawing from Glimpse when I really wanted the card. It might have been easy to get away with missing a few triggers and seeing if my opponent was paying enough attention to make me remember them, but while triggers can be forgotten now, it’s not legal to intentionally forget them so I didn’t, as I had no interest in cheating in that game.
Some people on Twitter suggested that this was somehow premeditated or planned or that I mind tricked my opponent into letting me attack. That’s absurd. If I clearly remembered the Deed, there’s no way I would expect my opponent to have forgotten the last game action he took even if you assume that you can’t trust me about the actual exchange that happened. The exchange did not involve me leading him there in any way.
More people think this was an opportunistic cheat—I didn’t expect it to come up or arrange for it, but when my opponent said I could attack, I knew I couldn’t and did anyway. This is the belief that I think people will continue to have.
I’ll add this, which should be obvious—taking an illegal action on camera in an SCG event regardless of whether I can avoid punishment in that match is never close to worth it to me if we ignore morality entirely and assume that I’m a sociopath who’s acting purely selfishly. I have an extremely long-term view of my role in Magic and put a very low priority on money and finishes in these tournaments.
I can’t imagine that anyone thinks winning this match was good enough for me to make needing to explain myself worth it even if people believe me because there will always be some doubt and doubt is easily more valuable than winning the tournament would be. What this means is that if you don’t want to assume that I care about the integrity of the game, it should be clear that if I was fully thinking through everything I wouldn’t choose to cheat there.
I assume everyone can grant that when it’s pointed out that way since it seems so obviously true to me. The argument that I cheated anyway would go like this. "It was the heat of the moment, and he was desperate. He saw an opportunity to win, and he took it because he has a cutthroat approach to the game that trumps his integrity in the moment." That’s a reasonable belief to have, which is why I think most people will leave this thinking I cheated.
The fact of the matter is that I am somewhat cutthroat. I’m a rules lawyer and often hold opponents to mistakes that some others would let them take back, like remembering a trigger a moment too late. It is entirely possible that someone like that would be looking to take advantage of an opponent, would fail to see the big picture, and take the win that was handed to him even if he knew it was illegal. That’s not what I believe happened in this case, but it’s a reasonable story.
I will point out that at that point you need to have me pegged at being in a fairly narrow range of brain processing power. You’re claiming that I’m smart enough to be sure of the exact game state after focusing on the mechanics of my cards for the previous ten minutes while still being stupid enough to lose sight of the bigger picture in the moment. It’s possible, but I hope it doesn’t seem like the most likely explanation to most of you.
And that in around 2000 words is what I believe happened. To those of you who lost respect for me over this, I respect that. I think it’s important to be vigilant against cheaters in Magic, and I think what I did in that game looked horrible. I apologize for putting you in a position to doubt me. I know that respecting me less as a person makes it harder to trust me even when I’m just giving advice about a format and makes me less valuable to you.
I sincerely don’t want to be less valuable to you, and I’m sorry that I’ve put you in that position. Even if you believe me about what happened, I think it’s fair to lose respect for me. I allowed a cognitive bias of wanting to believe something to trump the knowledge that I should investigate claims that seem odd to me. I regret that, and I’m deeply ashamed of that mistake.
When I thought about writing this article chronologically, I imagined getting to a match that I played earlier in the day against Miracles and pretending that the end of that match was the scandal I was writing about. I went 7-1-1 at the SCG Legacy Open in Milwaukee on Sunday. I lost to Affinity, and I drew with Miracles. Against Miracles game 2 ended with two minutes on the clock. My opponent commented on the fact that I could win game 3 in three turns and he couldn’t and then proceeded to shuffle for two minutes until time was called, when the judge watching told us that we wouldn’t play any of game 3 because it hadn’t started yet.
This is another interesting issue that I’m curious about people’s thoughts on. My opponent easily could have presented his deck in time for us to start the game if he’d wanted to—that was clear to everyone—but it’s also extremely easy to eat two minutes sideboarding and shuffling, so the judge ruled that it wasn’t stalling because he was proceeding at a reasonable pace. The fact that he made it clear that it was his intent not to start the game because it could allow me win and not him doesn’t change that.
Do people think that allowing that is the proper judge call? Do people think the rules regarding that should be the way they are? Would it be better to have a clear guideline about whether game 3 will start based on the number of minutes left on the clock when game 2 ends to avoid this issue?
All right, now that my "issues" topics are out of the way, let me get to a bit of strategy for those who are more interested in my usual fare. This past weekend I played the exact same Mono-Blue Devotion deck that I played at the Invitational in Charlotte. I lost against Esper Control one of the three times I played against it, lost to Mono-Black Devotion in a match where I drew roughly two spells during my draw steps in both games combined, and lost to a W/B Aggro deck that played five different one-mana white creatures (Boros Elite, Loyal Pegasus, Soldier of the Pantheon, Dryad Militant, and Judge’s Familiar).
The white deck’s two-drops included Daring Skyjek. Azorius Arrester, Keening Apparition, and Imposing Sovereign. White aggro can often be hard for Mono-Blue Devotion, but this build in particular was outstanding against me. The most important thing to do is to come out fast, and this deck could do that and was great at disabling my blockers. He also blew me out one game with Profit // Loss. Overall, I was still very happy with my deck exactly as configured.
As for other people’s Standard decks, for the most part we don’t get to see many new things, and Mono-Black Devotion won both the Standard Open in Milwaukee and the Grand Prix in Phoenix. The two winners were split on the issue of Lifebane Zombie or Nightveil Specter (I’m surprised so few people just play a 3-1 or 2-2 split at this point so that they can play the best one on turn 3 against their opponent more often, but that doesn’t seem to be how most people think about deckbuilding). Also worth noting is that neither player used Staff of the Death Magus, which was probably right. The threat of the card basically guaranteed that burn wouldn’t be as popular after Beijing, which meant there was no need to actually play it.
Daniel Ward brought something fairly new to Grand Prix Phoenix with his Bant Control deck, an archetype Tomoharu Saito also championed at the event, though Saito’s take had less green.
— TomoharuSaito (@TomoharuSaito) April 7, 2014
I will say that Saito’s deck is the absolute last thing I want to face with Mono-Blue Devotion, as my build can never beat a Supreme Verdict deck with Last Breath that also has access to Mistcutter Hydra.
The most innovative new deck of the weekend was easily Mason Lange’s Mono-Green Aggro deck. He told me he built the deck because he thought there’d be very little Mono-Blue Devotion in Milwaukee and wanted something that would be good against Esper Control, Mono-Black Devotion, and R/W Burn. I’m sad to see Slaughterhorn in this deck—I like that card, but I think Aspect of Hydra would be really awesome in the slot. The use of Mending Touch to fight Supreme Verdict is pretty awesome.
I don’t think we’ll see this green deck become one of the top decks in Standard. It looks like the kind of thing that someone occasionally breaks through with by hitting good draws or the right matchups and that Mason probably knew particularly well having put effort into building it. The list itself is probably off by a few cards, and people are more likely to give up on it because of that than put effort into perfecting it. That said, it does something new and something that some portion of players really like doing, so I think we will continue to see a little of it.
As for Legacy, I’m digging Elves. I’m 13-3-1 in matches played with the deck so far, and as we’ve seen I’m not playing it perfectly. The Miracles matchup is pretty bad, and I haven’t played against combo a lot. But it’s really good against the fair decks I’ve been playing against. In many ways it’s the Legacy Melira Pod—it can function as a fair deck with some disruption (discard and Abrupt Decay) that can grind out card advantage, but it can also randomly go off and win.
Natural Order for Progenitus has been particularly good for me, which is noteworthy because I’ve noticed that a lot of Elves decks don’t even play Progenitus main. I’ve found that against a lot of fair decks they can keep your creatures mostly in check, but you can eventually force through a Natural Order so having a creature that doesn’t require a board presence to win is outstanding.
Outside of that, Eric Rill’s winning Four-Color Delver deck looks awesome. I love Young Pyromancer, and the random singleton Edric, Spymaster of Trest is a sweet way to take advantage of those tokens. This deck manages to use Cabal Therapy, Lightning Bolt, and Brainstorm well, and you very rarely get all of those things together in Legacy. It’s kind of funny to me that this deck is basically a U/R deck that splashes both halves of Deathrite Shaman, but the card’s just that good.
If something tempts me away from Elves in Legacy, it will likely involve Edric, Spymaster of Trest, but maybe I should just be testing him in Elves. That actually doesn’t sound half bad—he is an Elf and probably makes a sweet Green Sun’s Zenith target when you don’t have a lot going on but have a couple Elves in play and a medium amount of mana. After all, the deck is very good as using the extra cards he draws, (I suspect that drawing even a few extra cards would make going off the next turn extremely likely).
Also, while I’m talking about changing Elves, you may have noticed if you’ve played or watched much Elves in Legacy that the deck is remarkably slower than you’d expect compared to the old Extended deck given that the Legacy version gets to play with Gaea’s Cradle. The reason is that the deck isn’t built for speed; it’s built to be able to beat Force of Will. This means not playing Summoner’s Pact because you’ll often lose if they counter the creature you search for.
It makes me wonder if it’s reasonable to sideboard a set of Summoner’s Pact to become a dedicated fast combo deck in combo mirrors. I feel like the deck should be able to reliably kill on turn 2-3 if it’s built to do that, but as is it’s much more of a turn 4 deck, which makes it worse than it could be against combo. I’m not sure if it’s the best approach—I haven’t really gotten to exploring Elves sideboards, but it struck me as something to consider.
And that’s my takeaway from the weekend. While I left the tournament feeling awful after the cheating accusations I was facing on Twitter and having missed the Top 8 on tiebreakers, I genuinely had a good time before that. I was winning a lot more than I was losing and playing enjoyable Magic. My friends from Madison were there, which is rare for Magic tournaments these days, so I got to play some other games between rounds.
A lot of people told me they liked my articles or that they’d learned something particularly valuable from them, both opponents and other players between rounds. I had a great conversation with a teacher about education. It’s the fear of losing all those great moments with fans who respect what I’ve done as a player and a writer, moments that make me love attending Magic tournaments and keep me from getting burned out, that makes the fear that people think I cheated so terrifying, and that’s why simply knowing myself just isn’t enough.