SCG Daily – 10 Years of Magic, Part 4: Slide Into The Abyss

Things go very badly… but don’t worry, we’ll be laughing and singing all the way. Well, you will. I’ll be butchering small puppies and teddy bears because somebody needs to.

Beware as we now enter the wilderness years…

Things go very badly… but don’t worry, we’ll be laughing and singing all the way. Well, you will. I’ll be butchering small puppies and teddy bears because somebody needs to.

Beware as we now enter the wilderness years…

I managed to 7-0 Day 1 of a Pro Tour and then fail to make the Top 8. I think what annoyed me more was having to face people who’d thought I’d choked and thrown it away.

Newsflash, dudes! Not much you can do when your opponent topdecks like a maniac and you fail to make a third land for three games in a row!

Sorry, just had to get that off my chest there. Not that I’m still bitter or anything.

After Tokyo my finances were a bit tight. I skipped GP: Gothenberg and, although I really wanted to go, GP: Moscow. Moscow, the other side of the Iron Curtain… now that would be a place to play Magic! Unfortunately someone’s propaganda department was a little overzealous. We heard rumours of potentially over a thousand wanting to play (unfounded) and a requirement for visas that cost more than the flight (true — don’t leave those bad boys to the last minute) and ultimately chickened out.

The next Pro Tour was Barcelona. This was Limited, so I sent a facsimile of myself instead. He couldn’t draft either, although he did manage to get lucky with the pairings and pick up three points off a bye. Joking aside, I’m glad I got to go to Barcelona as Gaudi’s architecture, in particular La Sagrada Familia, is just fantastic.

During this time I was lucky to be part of a UK wide team, “Secret Tech,” that included players from Scotland (Joules Haigh, Gary Campbell, and others) and some of the best players in England outside of the palace (Gordon Benson, Dave Grant, Chris Clapton, and others). We didn’t really meet up anywhere in real life. It was just an email list that bounced ideas off each other. Generally we were too strong-willed to agree on a single best deck, but it did mean we got a good idea of what our personal pet decks should be able to beat in the format.

In 2001 the Scottish Nationals were held before the English Nationals. Normally this wouldn’t mean a thing, as the glory of days of Graham Thompson had long passed and the Scots weren’t really regarded as a force any more. Except this year I heard rumours of an unholy alliance between a large Scottish team (Puppet — sworn enemies of the Scottish members of secret tech) and an emerging team from the North (Leeds — our editor might know a thing or two about these fellows [Go Team Leeds! — the other Craig.]). The rumours were that Puppet had run amok with a Machine Head variant known as Power-of-Four and that it would be hitting the English Nationals next. I tried to get an exact decklist, but couldn’t. This meant I didn’t have the tech cards of Skizziks instead of Blazing Specters, or a green splash to run Saproling Burst. But I did have Plague Spitters, and the little Spitter was a nightmare for all the Opposition decks that squirmed out of the woodwork at the time (Alex Borteh was to learn this the hard way in the World Championships, as Tom van der Logt slaughtered him in a particularly one-sided final).

Unfortunately the Team Leeds guys couldn’t draft, and left themselves with too much to do on the Standard day. And… I… could…?

Wait, that can’t be right.

There can be few things more devastating to national pride than to have the match to decide the draft champion of England (basically to decide the one person who went into the second day 6-0) between such Limited specialists as… er… me and er… Tony Dobson (a really good Constructed player — not too fussed about the Limited game). This was all the more surprising considering the day had started with me Rochester drafting between two small children who’d decided I obviously knew what I was doing and they should try and take the same cards as well (Situations like this are why Nationals start with three rounds of Constructed, in case you’re wondering).

I went onto to finish third and make the national team for a second time. I even got to carry the flag by default, as neither of my two team-mates, Ollie Schneider and Mike Fisher, wanted to do it.

The World Championships in Toronto was almost a rerun of Yokohama. Still armed with a version of Machine Head I posted a credible 4-2 on Day 2. But had I finally sorted out my draft game?

Had I bollocks!

1-5 again.

I didn’t even have an Enduring Ideal deck to fall back on this time, and ended up 3-3 or something equally mediocre with a bad Secret Force deck.

Then Apocalypse came out… and wow, was this a set to get behind! Even though I was getting tons of boosters for helping out at Grand Prix tournaments. I still bought a booster box of Apocalypse because the good rare density was somewhere close to a small portable black hole.

I felt most people had missed Desolation Angel, and proved it by winning the first Invasion block PTQ in London. I was also looking forward to the forthcoming Grand Prix season as:

i) it wasn’t Limited.
ii) I had three byes for the first time ever.

This was it. Time to really get down to work and show that Birmingham wasn’t some one-time fluke. Except I only managed to convert one of the three GPs into a Day 2 appearance.

London was especially vexing as I was playing for Day 2 in the last round. I resolved Desolation Angel with kicker with a Phyrexian Arena in play. My opponent had no cards in hand, and then went on to topdeck land, land, Gaea’s Skyfolk to chump your Angel while I died to my own Arena after drawing stone cold nothing in eight cards.

Warsaw was equally feeble, especially considering as it clashed with a team PT and very few name players were present. At least this one was partially my fault. I’d gone with a spicy Chris Clapton Lightning Angel special and had started out fine with two wins, but then the wheels had fallen off after a round 6 match where I really should have brought a judge over for slow play. Instead I tried to speed up to compensate, as I wanted the win. Unfortunately this meant taking risks in trying to win the game fast rather than playing safe, and my opponent had the cards to take advantage. I then went on to lose the next two, including an unwinnable matchup against Pierre Malherbaud. To rub salt in the wound I found out afterwards that two losses and a draw would have been enough to advance, and I’d only needed to play safe in the sixth round.

For Oslo I switched back to my Desolation Angel deck, and fuelled with two large bottles of beer (head of coverage at the time, Nele van der Borght, had asked me to write a Day 1 recap before realising this was a bad idea, as I could barely stand, let alone write) I finally made it into Day 2. The format had moved on and the deck wasn’t really that good any more, but I managed to scrape out a Top 32 and pick up some money.

From here on it makes grim reading. This is the point where I slide into the abyss.

Beware, for we are now on the verge of the Wilderness Years.

First off we have New Orleans (the tournament I q’ed for with the Angel deck) and for this tournament the Secret Tech mailing list had actually managed to show some dominance by taking the lion’s share of the PTQ slots. Unfortunately we started tested a little prematurely, as Odyssey had just come out and it “didn’t seem very powerful.”

Oh dear, how little we knew! Psychatog hadn’t really been spotted yet, but Odyssey had fuelled an extremely powerful Reanimator deck that propelled the YMG team to high finishes. We had an early version of a dump truck deck with Meddling Mage and Shadowmage Infiltrator. I wasn’t convinced on the deck, and wanted to play a Red deck (although that would have been slaughtered by the Reanimator decks in any case), but I relented and went with the team decision. Sometimes that’s the correct choice. In this case it wasn’t, although I may have been in a position where there were no correct choices.

I’m conscious this daily series is starting to read like a crushing litany of bad beat stories, but I’m sorry you’ll have to suffer yet another as this was special (and despite appearances to the contrary, I am actually a truly evil individual who likes torturing his hapless audience in new and novel ways).

In round 1 I started out by battering a Sliver deck (a real sliver deck, not these overcosted sliver wannabes they aim at only Timmy nowadays). After two Gerrard’s Verdicts he was left with no cards in hand, no creatures in play and just some land. This seemed like a good time to make Finkel.

However, it was an even better time for him to draw the one Black creature in his deck: a Hibernation Sliver.

I had a Morphling in hand and was presented with a difficult decision. Although I had enough land to cast it I wanted to wait for a third Blue source so I’d be able to protect it. The third Island hadn’t arrived but my opponent didn’t have any cards in hand. With the Infiltrator shut down I felt my best play was to take the chance now while he had no cards and then ride the game home on the back of Superman.

All well and good. Except his next card was Vindicate.

New Orleans was the first Pro Tour at which I actually dropped. The deck turned out to be slower than I expected, and I got trapped in the double draw bracket with only a day of bad matchups against Oath decks (although I managed a memorable draw against Bob Maher thanks to a win by correctly naming Gaea’s Blessing with Meddling Mage) to look forward to. Kai went onto win the tournament with a famously topdecked Morphling against Tomi Walamies in the final, and finally was acknowledged as the best player the game had ever seen.

Afterwards I was in contemplative mood. Another Pro Tour and another disastrous performance. My writing plans were going nowhere, and I’d been out of university so long I wasn’t even sure how much help my degree would be in getting a job in the real world (I was currently packing jewellery at night in order to get some income, and still living at home). The travelling was nice, but I was starting to wonder why I was spending all this time (in both preparation and the event itself) on a game where I’d just turn up get beat and go home with nothing.

Pro Tour: San Diego turned the screw a little further. But San Diego was Limited: you always get beaten at Limited Pro Tours.

Except there were some key differences. For starters, San Diego was the now defunct Rochester format. One of my key weaknesses in booster draft is I was and still am terrible at reading signals. With Rochester it’s all out in front of you, so it’s hard to misread a signal and end up fighting with neighbours. The other difference was that it was triple Odyssey, and I was actually quite good at that format. By “quite good” I mean I really knew what was going on. This was the first Limited format where I honestly felt I had a good shot of making Day 2.

Triple Odyssey was fairly simple. You either drafted Blue/White or Red/Green, and you didn’t touch Black with a barge pole (Torment, with its heavy Black skew, was yet to arrive).

The first draft went well. I got a strong Blue/White deck and only managed to lose to Alex Shvartsman better Red/Green deck. In contrast the second draft was horrific, and all the worse because I couldn’t do a thing about it! I was in the right seat for Blue/White. Marco Blume to my right was Red/Green, and Noah Boeken to my left was Black. And the boosters were horrible. Flat out terrible. At the other end of the table I saw Kirtar’s Wraths and other tasty rares being busted open, but when I got to open my booster there would only be some tenth-pick dregs worth taking. Worse, the guy two seats up to me had been virtually mono-Black, but then moved into Blue to cut down my options even further. It was the right thing to do, but I still felt like jumping over and shoving every useless Black card I’d been left with right down his grinning throat. Now that’s signalling.

I was distraught after the draft. I knew this format, but a set of rotten boosters had saddled me with a clear 0-3 deck.

And that’s pretty much how the draft went. I had hope against Noah Boeken when a Graceful Antelope stole one game and he hit a horrible mana screw, but my deck was simply so awful I couldn’t actually take advantage and put him away despite him mulliganing and not drawing land. Worse, I misread a card and lost an Angelic Wall with Psionic Gift to Skyshooter because I thought it destroyed only attacking creatures with flying.

That was my one chance. I didn’t get another as I was dispatched fairly swiftly in the next two rounds. Another Pro Tour, another Day 2 missed. I sat around thinking “there goes the train for Day 2… and you’ve just missed it, again.”

On a positive note, San Diego was the tournament of the infamous Tijuana trip with the Scots and Irish. Good fun was had by all, but not anything I can talk about in a family friendly site like this, ever. (And I mean ever. Don’t even think about asking. The seven participants are sworn to a band of secrecy that we’ll take to the grave.)

Just after San Diego I switched from playing in Grand Prix tournaments to reporting on them. I enjoyed the travelling and I enjoyed the community, but I was spending a lot of money and not really seeing any return. Mark Wraith had decided to quit as one of the European team, and I was put forward as the replacement. This made sense to me; I’d still get to do the travelling and be involved with the events, but my expenses would be paid and I wouldn’t have to worry about seeing all my finances dribble away.

GP: Heidelberg was a little embarrassing for my first official stint. After a legendary drinking session with Ben Ronaldson and some U.S. players, both me and the scorekeeper didn’t turn up on the second day until after the first draft. Not the best way to make a good impression. I still remember Brian Kibler arriving at the venue mid-afternoon, beaming from ear to ear as he informed the rest of the American players they’d been thrown out of their hotel.

Fortunately I rallied from that, and went on to become the coverage machine we’re familiar with today.

Although I was no longer playing in GPs, I was still keen to get on the Tour. They’d just changed the prize support for PTQs in England to be a cash award rather than the flight. This was good, as for all but the Japanese PTs the £500 prize would be enough to cover flight and probably hotel as well. I could maybe start attending PTs without them being so much of a money train.

Except then I started to fail to qualify.

I took Miracle-Gro (the dominant Extended deck of the time) to London and swept the swiss on both days of the double header, only to lose to Quentin Martin in the semis both times (once to a bad manascrew, the other to Quentin topdecking his fourth Swords to Ploughshares in the top third of his deck — I was not a happy bunny). Before I was virtually invulnerable in PTQ Top 8s. If I didn’t fall in the quarters I took the slot with nearly no exceptions.

Then I started to lose in the semis. It was basically just variance catching up with me, but I didn’t like it much. Colin Tipton qualified for Nice in one of the first PTQs, and in arrogance I booked on the same flight. It was Odyssey Limited – I knew it really well and was going to so many of the PTQs that qualifying would be a formality.

I didn’t, and kept failing to qualify for pretty much an entire year.

After San Diego I didn’t get to go to another Pro Tour until Venice in March 2003. This was the comeback that wasn’t. The format was Onslaught Block Constructed, and the deck everyone expected was some form of Astral Slide cycling deck. I had a Red/Green deck based around Kamahl, First of Krosa turning their land into creatures and then Slicing them all way. It was very good against Slide, as trying to Vengeance me would result in them Armageddoning themselves.

Unfortunately, while the idea was there, I arrived at the Pro Tour to discover I was only packing version 1.0 of the deck. I was straight Red/Green with four Kamahl, while the Germans had a much better teched-out version with White for Akroma’s Vengeance, and Chromeshell Crab in the board to steal opposing Silvos’s. I also discovered the Zombie matchup I hadn’t tested was not just bad, it was terrible.

But at least I beat Slide.


Nope, I managed to lose to Slide in the first round. I let nerves get the better of me. I’d put in so much work and I really wanted to make this tournament count. Somehow, when faced with a board position totally in my favor, I managed to pick the exact sequence – probably the only sequence – of plays that would cause me to lose the game. That was impressive. It took real skill to lose that game.

Two more losses and the “comeback” was more of a “hello, goodbye and don’t even think of showing your head around here less you want it shot off.”

Venice was interesting as it was one of those tournaments where I could again see the shift in power in English Magic (it gets harder to keep track of these things when you’re sitting on your ass at home).

The old guard of Ollie Schneider and John Ormerod were still playing, but not with the same fervor. Instead there was a new London crowd that had been pushing through for some time. They were based around Sam Gomersall‘s flat, and jokingly call the “The Castle.” They brought a solid Zombie deck and Sam Gomersall, Dave Ball, and Eddie Ross all posted good finishes.

Sam Gomersall then went on to travel extensively and become the token British Pro (We weren’t good enough to manage more than one player on the train at a time). Overall it was pretty bad times for English Magic. Nobody (other than Sam) was really going to the GPs, and it seemed like most of the time we were sending a bunch of random people to each Pro Tour just to get beaten. Stuart Wright had a promising run at New Orleans, but then fell to the British curse of picking up a string of losses just when Top 8 was in sight.

And as for me, Venice had finally nailed home some hard truths. I wasn’t good enough. Sure, I could dominate local tournaments, but the Pro Tour was something different. Without solid connections it just wasn’t possible, no matter how many hours I put in. All that time spent testing before a tournament was just waste. I could be doing better things with my life.

I moved out of home and tried temping for a year. I didn’t feel like that was going anywhere, because the average office has the collective intellectual capacity of an amoeba, and I’m not enough of a bullsh**ter to get myself noticed. A friend suggested going back to university for a Master’s Degree. I took that chance and performed so well I stayed on for a PhD.

I still played the game, but mainly for fun at a local level. I thought of myself as the “coverage” guy now. That was something I was good at. Where before I’d spent nights in cold (sometimes really cold) train stations just to play PTQs the next day, now I wasn’t too fussed. In one PTQ final I just scooped to Pete Norris, as the Pro Tour was Limited and in Japan. At the 2004 Nationals I realised I was actually playing only my second Constructed tournament since the Nationals the year before.

I think, like pretty much everyone who plays the game and is half decent, I had a dream of seeing myself one day lifting a PT trophy… or at least playing under the lights on Sunday. Now I had a more realistic view. I wasn’t good enough, and trying to delude myself otherwise was costing too much in both time and money.

The dream was dead.

Or was it…?