SCG Daily – 10 Years of Magic, Part 2: Learning the Ropes

So when we left off yesterday I’d just won a Grand Prix in Birmingham with a random Red deck, beating Kai Budde in the final. Kai then went on to win the next three European Grand Prix tournaments, and the world trembled beneath the feet of the German Juggernaut. While I… I… uh…

While I sucked.

In which we follow our hero on his first faltering steps into the Pro Scene and watch as he triumphantly… er… loses… a lot.

So when we left off yesterday I’d just won a Grand Prix in Birmingham with a random Red deck, beating Kai Budde in the final. Kai then went on to win the next three European Grand Prix tournaments, and the world trembled beneath the feet of the German Juggernaut. While I… I… uh…

While I sucked.

I was an unconventional Grand Prix winner. Previous winner’s photos had shown a procession of very serious young men barely smiling as they hoisted their trophy. My photo was of a screaming long-haired nutter. In my arrogance I thought I could throw the normal playbook out of the window and have success doing things my way (and of course everyone would come to realise this was the right way).

So let’s move onto my first Pro Tour, Pro Tour: Rome 1999. The format was Extended, and I was travelling with Dave Sutcliffe and Neil Rigby. The initial budget plan was to get a hotel for two and then I’d crash on the floor. Unfortunately I hadn’t been to Italy before and didn’t realise how paranoid most hotels are about not exceeding a room’s maximum. Tip for prospective players going to Italian events: don’t try sneaking extra people into a room. It just isn’t possible. The entrance is usually a narrow bottleneck past the reception desk, and they will notice if you haven’t been there before (I once got chased around by one of the cleaning staff while trying the same thing a few years later at a Grand Prix). I basically bottled it and got a single room for the nights that were available.

I didn’t really have access to the internet at the time, and wasn’t aware of the North-South rivalry that Sutty had been busy stoking. At the time the perception of most of the London players was that they were arrogant, elitist, and didn’t want anything to do with the rest of the country. Sutty then poured some oil on those flames by telling them that he had a fantastic deck for the Pro Tour and wasn’t about to tell them about it. All good clean harmless fun.

He and Riggers were talking about Reap-Lace (you turned a bunch of your opponent’s permanents Black and then set up infinite cycles with Reap) and unfortunately it didn’t turn out to be the secret weapon they hoped. Sutty knew he was in trouble when he played Darwin Kastle in one of the earlier rounds. All of his attempts to paint things Black were thwarted when Kastle either Firestormed his own guys away or blew up his own land. So yeah, there’s an important lesson here. Other people do actually test for big tournaments as well, and that hot deck you think you have is probably just another deck they had sitting in their gauntlet.

And what about me? I didn’t go with Reap-Lace. I was going to do it my way and that meant playing something I’d built. So what was the devastating tech I brought to the party?

Uh… Imaginary Pets and Flesh Reavers.

Yes, this was an Extended Pro Tour just after Urza’s Saga had been released. You know, the set that had Tolarian Academy and Yawgmoth’s Will. Other people were playing RecSur decks that could generate infinite mana with Great Whale or just abusing Academy to the nth degree and there was me with my… uh… Imaginary Pets.

I’d tried to build, as Sutty put it, “the fastest sligh deck ever” without ever realising one of the strongest points about Red decks is their consistency. A random three-color deck where I couldn’t even cast my spells half the time (or even keep them on the table) is not a bad deck… it’s an abysmal deck. I did, however, manage to destroy the one Academy deck I played, mainly because my deck was also running maindeck Raze. Poor guy, bet he never saw that one coming. I lost everything else, including a match against a mystified John Larkin. He wanted to know why I was sideboarding both Cursed Scroll and Null Rod into the same deck.

However, I had picked up a taste for the international tournaments. Pro Tour: Rome was just a blip. If I hadn’t been screwed for one of my colors (because I’d randomly included basic land) then I might had got into the pack of Academy players, and then everything would have been okay (yeah, right).

A few months later I was using some of my winnings from Birmingham to jump on a flight to Vienna for the Grand Prix. By some twisted logic I’d thought it would be easier to qualify there than at a local PTQ. That was the insane reasoning. The sane reasoning was much more sound.

After graduating from university my plan was to try and make it as a novelist. I’d had a few horror short stories published, but wasn’t going anywhere fast (try going to your local book store and finding a horror author that isn’t Stephen King, James Herbert, Anne Rice or any of the other names that have been around forever, and you’ll appreciate the problem). As soon as my younger brother graduated, my intention was to join him and travel the world a bit. One of our uncles had picked up the travel bug, and we’d been thrilled by tales from far-flung places. Unfortunately, most of the free money they used to throw at British students they’d since taken away, and with all his debts it seemed unlikely that my little brother was going to be able to muster enough resources to leave even the county.

And then there was this mysterious thing called Magic. I could see the world and get paid for it. How good was that?

So I rocked up at Vienna completely independent of the UK contingent. Vienna was also Extended, but Urza’s Legacy had been released and brought with it a card that was so powerful they had to ban it pretty much before the general populace even got a chance to see it. I’m talking about Memory Jar, and the talk before the tournament was of Megrim-Jar combo decks. The rumors were loud enough even I, despite being handicapped with the lack of internet, heard about it before going (my source back then was the gossip-monger extraordinaire Colin Tipton). I had my own version. It wasn’t an optimal version, but the deck was so insanely powerful it didn’t matter. Unfortunately Rome had shattered my ranking to the point I had to battle it out from round 1. I picked up an early loss, and then had to face off against Randy Buehler for a place in Day 2. I won the key die roll but then missed the turn 1 kill. I didn’t get a turn 2 (yes, the deck was that insane!). Randy won 2-1 in a match that might have only been 7 turns in total for both players. He went on to play in Day 2, while I got to scrub out in a PTQ.

A few months later I was off to Oslo. I’d always wanted to visit the Scandinavian countries, and it wasn’t until the plane landed that I realised I was finally getting the opportunity to do so. Oslo was – and still is – very expensive. I could only afford to spend one night in the cheapest place I could find. I spent Saturday drafting all night and sleeping on tables at the venue. Sunday I stayed at the airport.

This was my first Limited Grand Prix, and I actually had a bye. During my bye I hooked up with a U.S. player, Alex Shvartsman, who was also there alone and didn’t really know anyone else. Shvartsman still holds the record of most GP Top 8s despite not playing in any for the past two or three years. Back in Oslo he gave me a brief lesson in Limited play after butchering me in all of our practise games. I went onto to lose four consecutive games to a Lava Axe to the face, but then rallied to a reputable 5-2 record. Which of course meant I lost out on tiebreakers, as was the rule for attending GPs without the full complement of byes back then.

A month later and I was bombing out of GP: Amsterdam. Fortunately, Amsterdam is a city of many distractions and I was mainly over there to visit my uncle (the globetrotting one) in any case.

Somehow I managed to qualify for another Pro Tour (I’ve been trying to remember how, where, and with what deck, but this one actually eludes me), and this time it was off to New York for Urza’s Block Constructed. Tinker had just appeared and was being used to bust out enormous Colossi all over the place. I didn’t have a bad deck this time. In fact, despite scrubbing out, I still look back on this deck with fondness. Through a Midlands connection of Warren Marsh I was actually part of a unified British contingent for this one. Unfortunately the lack of Internet meant my contact wasn’t regular enough.

I decided on a virtually mono-Green beatdown deck, as the Green cards were pretty good. What really pushed the deck over the edge was the presence of Thran Quarry and Crop Rotation. My sideboard had all sorts of weirdness, like Bone Shredder and Rebuild, which most players didn’t expect from a mono-Green deck.

Unfortunately, while I’d tested and knew I could beat the mono-Blue Tinker decks, the metagame had moved onto Red/Blue Utility Belt variants that included Arc Lightning and Wildfire. In testing I got the deck to go 50:50, but this wasn’t how it turned out on the day as Dave Humphries stole my turn 1 Wild Dog with Claws of Gix and Kyle Rose also beat me heavily with the same deck (and never once breaking into a smile). There were some high points as I completely bamboozled an American running a Red/White anti-Green deck. He really wasn’t expecting me to unleash Bone Shredder and all kinds of other off-color goodness. Unfortunately it wasn’t good enough, as I lost the last two rounds and slid out of the tournament.

1999 continued to be a fairly good Magic year for me. The World Championships were scheduled to be held in Japan, and I really wanted to do well at Nationals. A free trip to Japan. I mean, that’s the other side of the World. How would I ever get to go to Japan under normal circumstances? It seemed to me to be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Somehow I muddled through the draft portion with a 5-0-1 record, but then I had a dilemma over what to play for Standard. I’d been running a Standard version of the Blue/Red Tinker deck, and been laughed at for playing something that wasn’t much different to the block decks, but decided to go with it anyway. It turned out to be an excellent decision as the deck was far more powerful than I initially thought. It also helped that pretty much everyone in my bracket had chosen to play safe with Red decks. Red decks struggled to beat up turn 2 enormous robots. Paying eight life to untap a Colossus isn’t so bad either when it’s about to block a Jackal Pup. I floated into the Top 4 on a raft of Red decks that were handily keeping all the other decks I couldn’t beat beneath them.

That year they only cut to top 4, which was then the National team. I’d done it. I was actually going all the way to Japan as part of the UK team! Winning the Nationals itself was of lesser importance. It looked like I might be favorite, as Mark Wraith and Dan Paskins both had Red decks while I’d already beaten up John Ormerod’s Survival deck in the swiss (Green had approximately zero real ways to kill an artifact around this time).

But as I’ve said before, being favorite against the Red deck and actually beating the Red deck are often two completely different matters. I couldn’t draw Voltaic Keys, and seeing that I was unnecessarily dithering in the final game Dan Paskins just stuck the winning Incinerate in his cap. Oh well, I was going to Japan. I didn’t care (although it would have been nice to take the title).

Before Japan there was the (now sadly defunct) European Championships in Berlin. Officially there were eight qualifiers from the Nationals, spread across four rooms. Unofficially there were also another seven or so players qualified on ranking. As Ben Martin was with his girlfriend, and so given a room to himself, that left three rooms with an average of about five or six in each. For some reason the hotel that had been chosen was in one of the more “colorful” areas of Berlin.

My performance was fairly abject. The Johnny player in me had risen to the fore again, and I had an AuratogRancor deck that was quite frankly horrible. Less said the better.

I’m very bad at letting go of my pet decks sometimes, but being part of a team for Worlds meant Dan Paskins, Mark Wraith, and John Ormerod had a vested interest in me not playing Auratogs and Argothian Enchantress. That deck was banned. How about the Opalescence / Replenish deck that some of the German players had taken to Euros?

Actually, that was quite good. In fact it was very good, as I 4-1-1’ed Day 1 and ended the day in fifteenth place. I went to bed thinking I had a good shot at Top 8, or at least money. I mean I’d probably 4-2 the draft day…

Quite how I thought I could possibly ever 4-2 the draft day despite having hardly ever drafted (and I mean ever, not just this set) is beyond me. We didn’t (and still don’t) draft enough in England [Mostly because folk who challenge us to a draft often run away crying like little girls when the chips are down… – The Other Craig]. Beating other people who are even worse does not suddenly make me good at draft. I realised just how wide the chasm was when I managed to 1-5 Day 2.

Then there was the usual scramble for Extended decks. In my experience, the second format is always neglected. This one was even weirder, as they’d just changed a lot of the rules and some of the old cards now did very strange things. I seem to remember there being a broken deck with Phyrexian Devourer and Fling that caused them to announce an emergency errata for the offending Alliances artefact. With cracks and holes opening all over the place, they basically announced an odd rule that said they would be operating more on the spirit of what the card was supposed to do, rather than see the entire tournament brought into farce by a stupid deck exploiting a loophole (think something along the lines of the legendary Wall of Roots / Magma Mine deck that exploited a loophole in how Time Vault was worded to generate infinite mana in between turns).

I had an Enduring Renewal deck kicking around. I used to do busted stuff with Altar of Ashnod, Ornithopters, and Triskelions, but the addition of Goblin Bombardment in Tempest meant the combo was only three cards rather than four. I checked to make sure the combo was still legal (on the grounds that the spirit of Enduring Renewal was to do unfair things in the first place) and tried to get it past my team. They all had different decks, but John Ormerod said that I was permitted to play the deck that could kill on turn 2 and generally did the job by turn 4 at the latest. The listing wasn’t optimal and the manabase was dangerously flaky, but the deck still posted a credible 4-2 record.

Afterwards we had a chilled out day visiting a quiet Japanese town on the coast. I remember climbing inside a giant statue of Buddha and diving into the ocean fully clothed with Dan Paskins and Mark Wraith because it was so damn hot. A really cool event. In the Top 8 Kai Budde reinforced his dominance by battering everybody with the Tinker / Covetous Dragon deck. The final was so lop-sided they even put a half-hour delay between games 2 and 3 because it looked like the whole thing was going to be over in about quarter of an hour.

While I wasn’t involved with Chicago 1999 and the Cocoa Pebbles deck that really put English deck building on the map, I think part of the inspiration to John Ormerod might have been the very shaky variant I played at Worlds. Given more time, John O and other gifted players like Tony Dobson really had a chance to get to work, and the addition of Necropotence really pushed the deck over the edge. While Tony Dobson didn’t get past the quarters, the deck generated a lot of buzz and marked England as the country to watch for deck building (I know, hard to believe it now).

Before Chicago there was Pro Tour: London (quick check – no, I still hadn’t learned to draft) and a couple of team GPs. I went to both Cannes and Frankfurt with a couple of local players, Pete Norris and James Morgan. Pete moved to Holland for a while and got very good at Limited after drafting with the Dutch. James moved onto other games. In Cannes we had possibly one of the most atrocious judge rulings I’ve ever encountered, when my opponent had somehow switched Muzzles with his last opponent (cards were stamped with numbers to prevent cheating) and had also somehow managed to lose another card somewhere else. His penalty: nothing. Yep, nothing, nada, zip. And I didn’t challenge it either, as that would make me seem an asshole according to my own code of morality. Sometimes you just have to be professional though – I didn’t challenge, and we went on to lose the match. In the last round of Day 1 we had a bubble match against a French team known as Black Ops. That team consisted of two brothers – Olivier and Antoine Ruel – and Florent Jeudon. They destroyed us and then went on to win the whole event. Both of the Ruels went on to become two of the best players of the game.

While Cocoa Pebbles had been praised at Chicago, the true abomination didn’t emerge until later as the Illusions of Grandeur / Donate combo was married with Necropotence to become one of the most broken decks ever. As combo decks are one of my fortes, it didn’t take long to be back on the Tour again, this time for the infamous Lin Sivvi Pro Tour in New York.

For me this marks both a high point and low point in English Magic. The high point is fairly obvious. Warren Marsh made it all the way to the final, to top off another strong English performance. London, and in particular Hampton Court Palace (where Ben Ronaldson lives), was definitely one of the strongest hives of deck building activity at that time.

On the low side, I think it put a fracture between the players that were already on the Tour and the players trying to make it up. For me personally, New York 2000 was a disaster. And for anybody not in the Palace crowd or affiliated with it, the trip was fairly horrible. One guy on his first Pro Tour was abandoned at the airport. Only one hotel room had been booked, but rather than try and split the numbers evenly to allow the second group to be able to afford a room, basically Pete Powell (also on his first Pro Tour) and I were shoved out into the night. We managed to find a cheap youth hostel, but then came very close to missing the tournament itself. On the morning of the tournament itself we spent around forty-five minutes fruitlessly trying to get a cab. Pete wasn’t too unduly worried (“Magic events never start on time”), whereas I was (“That’s local tournaments, this is the Pro Tour. They start on time!”). We missed the player’s meeting and I received a game loss for turning in my deck list late as I laid out my entire deck in front of my first round opponent, a bemused Alex Shvartsman, in order to make sure I’d gotten everything down. Like the previous New York event I needed to win round 6 to be able to draw into Day 2, and instead lost the last two rounds.

Afterwards I was fairly scathing on the UK newsgroup, although with hindsight a lot of it was fairly unjustified. Turning up to a Pro Tour without having booked a room and expecting to crash on someone’s floor is a little cheeky. I had this rosy-eyed view of expecting all my countrymen to work together for the bigger tournament. The truth was the game was moving in a more international direction. Teams were forming across national borders, as players were forming friendships with players they saw regularly on the Tour. The Palace contingent went on to join forces with some of the top European players and remnants of Mogg Squad to produce one of the most frightening deckbuilding machines ever seen.

I was not included.

Teams are always a touchy subject on the Pro Tour. To do well you clearly can’t go alone, but striking the balance between wanting to include friends and making sure everyone pulls their own weight can be very tricky.

Perversely I think the successes of Chicago and New York may have in part contributed to the stagnation that followed for English magic. Basically, we now had an elite group of players that had little or no contact with other players in the country. This meant that any new players were effectively left to fend on their own, by which I mean they turned up and got crushed, while without fresh blood the influence of the Palace waned until most of the players lost interest and moved onto other things.

I said 1999 was quite a good year for me, as I got to go to the Pro Tour multiple times and even represent my country at the World Championships. But if you look closely you’ll see that I didn’t make a single cent at any of the Pro Tours or Grand Prix tournaments I attended. Not a single money finish, or even a Day 2 appearance. The importance of having tight links with a strong team cannot be understated. I often wonder how these tournaments might have gone had I been based around a major regional centre such as London, rather than being stuck out in the middle of nowhere in Shropshire as I was at the time.

There are some players who burst out of nowhere and storm to big finishes in their very first tournament. The rest of us have to take the knocks and keep plugging away, and as you can see I took plenty of knocks in the early days. The key word here is persistence.

Join me tomorrow when it gets better, as I start making Day 2s and money.