SCG Daily – 10 Years of Magic, Part 5: The Triumphant Comeback

We last left our hero torn and broken in the wilderness. Read on now as we regale you with his triumphant return to fame, glory, riches and women (actually I might be lying on that last point, but we can still hope).

We last left our hero torn and broken in the wilderness. Read on now as we regale you with his triumphant return to fame, glory, riches and women (actually I might be lying on that last point, but we can still hope).

I’d pretty much given up on being a pro player. It was too expensive, consumed too much time and I was trying to get my life back in order and make my mother happy by completing a PhD. I still had the occasional weekend break to cover a GP, but even that was losing its lustre as I never seemed to do anything expect report at the venue and drink in the hotel bar afterwards.

Paradoxically, the reason I came back was the controversial “skins” payout system used at PT: Philadelphia. I’d pretty much turned my back on the Pro Tour, as it was simply too expensive considering I just got beaten anyway. The prize allowance for UK PTQs barely covered the flight, and came nowhere near to covering the hotel. There were even bizarre situations where both finalists of a PTQ wanted to give up the slot, as neither wanted to go and not winning meant they could play more PTQs and maybe win more money.

However, the prize system for Philadelphia got me interested. Even if you failed to make Day 2, a couple of wins would at least mean you picked up enough money to cover the hotel. I don’t think they got the system right at Philadelphia. There were the issues with being eliminated on draws, the $1000 byes, and the fact I went home with more money than one of the guys in the Top 8. But I also think it’s a shame they abandoned the experiment so soon rather than try to work on fixing the flaws. For me it came closer to fulfilling the illusion of the Pro Tour being a professional tournament, rather than an expensive holiday that happened to have a Magic tournament attached. By that I mean you could at least pay for the cost of the trip with a couple of wins.

So I travelled up to Scotland with a trusty Extended deck and took a slot despite being paired against Life in the quarters (Ah, trusty Ports, how many opponents have you turned the screw on over the years…).

Philadelphia was odd. I think I may have played some of my worst Magic on the Pro Tour ever (including a truly appalling game against Gabe Walls that I’m still embarrassed to have won), and yet somehow managed to stumble to within a win of Top 8. I’m still not quite sure how that happened. I think a lot of it might because I actually listened to good sense and played someone else’s deck rather than my own.

Philadelphia was Kamigawa Block Constructed, and the two dominant decks were White Weenie or Green/Black control decks that revolved around the Hana Kami / Soulless Revival loop. I had a straight Green/Black version that was strictly inferior to the version splashing Blue for Gifts Ungiven that Stuart Wright had brought. I still didn’t know what to do with Gifts Ungiven half the time, but Meloku was very easy to play. You dropped him / her, untapped, and then won. Even I could do that.

The first round was predictable. I got mana screwed in both games, and lost. Welcome back to the Pro Tour, Craig… have you missed us? Yep, usual crappy PT luck. Why did I even bother coming?

Then I won, and won, and won, and kept winning, until I found myself playing against Steven Wolfman. The winner would be guaranteed a place in the Top 8. I got pasted in the first game, and should have lost the second except Wolfman cocked up. I usually feel that’s my job, so it’s quite surprising to see someone else let nerves get the better of them. In game 3 I had the loop in hand but found myself under too much pressure, as Wolfman dropped Jittes, Kodamas and Yoseis. I was always facing one more threat than I could actually deal with. If Wolfman’s deck had stuttered for one turn the recursion elements of my deck would have taken control, but it didn’t and I was now down to my last life with two rounds to go.

The last round I was paired up against Olivier Ruel. Normally this would be scary, but Olivier is a friend I see regularly on the GP circuit. He was in already, and so there might be a chance he’d scoop me in.

At a normal PT? Maybe. But this was where the skins system confused everything. You only got prize money for the matches you won. If Olivier did scoop, I’d feel honour-bound to give him the $1000 at stake for this match. If I then lost the last round and bombed out in the quarters (remember, I was feeling very lucky just to have got this far, and really wasn’t playing with any great skill) I wouldn’t receive more money than if I’d just lost the match. Olivier was also top of the standings. If he won there was a good chance he’d receive the $1500 bye in the next round. Faced with that math Olivier was very apologetic, but determined to play.

I put up a good fight. Game 1 was fantastic. I was getting nowhere, and watched as Olivier dropped Heartbeat and then the Blue Myojin. My following turn was brutal, as I Sickening Shoaled his Myojin then cast my own Black Myojin to take away his hand in his draw step.

He took the second game, and the third went long, real long. My hand was a Meloku and not a lot else. Olivier was screwed for White but had his own Meloku. I thought and went all-in, returning all my land in response, hoping I could kill him with the fliers before he drew both the White sources he needed for Final Judgement. I didn’t, but even then the game wasn’t over as I was given time to rebuild. I’d forgotten about Sway of the Stars however, and Olivier was able to completely reset the game on the verge of extra turns (after cunningly Extracting my Tribe-Elders). We both drew enough land, and I dropped Kodama while Olivier dropped Meloku.

Here was where I cocked up. On the turn Olivier dropped Meloku, he was tapped out, and I drew black Myojin. My immediate thought was, “great, a wasted draw.” I was so focused on thinking about how I could administer the extra point of damage I needed to do on the last turn I didn’t even think about the Sickening Shoal in hand, or about using it to kill Meloku. Killing Meloku didn’t matter, as I still could only put Olivier to one with my last attack, and Olivier didn’t have another turn to kill me with. On reflection I was too single-minded here. I should have just killed Meloku and ended the game in a position of dominance. Olivier might have scooped. As it was, the game ended with me about to die to Meloku-spawned fliers, and I think Olivier was a little hurt I didn’t scoop. I took the draw, which eliminated me, and $500.

I think I was secretly a little relieved I didn’t make that Top 8. I was terrified of making some awful blunder under the lights that would haunt me forever.

So that was two more matches missed for Top 8. At least I was getting better. I drew the last one.

One good result wasn’t about to tempt me to start playing GPs again just yet, but I was a little concerned the European coverage was a little reliant on me. Kim Eikefelt had stopped years ago, and Rui Oliveira (have to make sure I get the i and e in the right order, otherwise he’ll kill me) had other more important things in his life, like fatherhood. Time to find some apprentices (but not train them too well; I have to remain the best, obviously).

My PTQ drought seemed to be over as I managed to qualify for London quickly. Unfortunately, I never got to go. The terrorist atrocities on the Thursday beforehand ground the country to a halt. No trains were going into London. I went down to the train station on three separate occasions, only to be turned away. Tom Harle had come up with an alternate plan that involved taking a taxi part of the way. I still had a very pragmatic approach. It was a Limited Pro Tour, and spending a lot of extra money to still not guarantee being able to get there did not feel worth it. I tried one last time to see if the trains were still running (the phone said yes, the girl behind the counter said no) and called it a night. It’s the only Pro Tour I’ve been qualified for that I’ve failed to attend.

One of the highlights of that year was the Russian Ninth Edition release event. I was invited to provide coverage. At last I was getting to see Moscow (which is stunning). That event was fairly notorious, especially the meal afterwards. I’d already learnt the lesson about the differences between vodka and Russian vodka after throwing up on Osyp Lebedowicz shoes in a strip club (which was in the basement of the hotel – how convenient. Actually, nah, it was rubbish, which in no way had anything to do with me being kicked out on another night) a few nights earlier. There are quite a few tales still to be told about that event (and for a small dollar fee I’ll be quite happy to divulge or forget them on demand.)

In Moscow, I chatted with Geoffrey Siron. With Los Angeles coming up he mentioned the Belgians had no one to work with for the Pro Tour. Nothing more came of this until a chance conversation on IM at Quentin’s house linked the Brits (and Irishman Stewart Shinkins) with the Belgians.

I’d had to skip Nationals that year as I was in the middle of completing an end of year report for university (a mini-thesis in its own right). But this, and because I hadn’t played Standard since Philadelphia, meant I got to qualify for Los Angeles.

We had Stuart Wright nifty, yet complicated, Domain deck and a ‘Tog deck I’d thrown together (yes, a control deck. I don’t know how either). Basically, as soon as I saw the spoilers for Ravnica I realised the Dredge mechanic was probably busted in Extended, and it only took Life from the Loam (with the Onslaught cycling lands) to provide the engine. The Belgians had taken it even further, and built a more explosive deck with Wild Mongrels and Golgari Grave-Troll. Basically we took that heart, threw in Tops and the Life / cycling lands engine, and gave birth to a monster.

Day 1 of Los Angeles was one of the most fun days of Magic I’ve ever had, as the deck just smashed people. It was cool to see people’s eyes bug out as a Psychatog went from 0 to lethal from a virtually empty graveyard in the space of a single turn.

Unfortunately the news was out by Day 2, and the Pro Tour demons had also caught up with me. It wasn’t so much a bomb-out as a quiet implosion. I thought I had a good chance of staying the course with this deck, but then it just seemed to mulligan and mulligan. I’m a reticent with the mulligan at the best of times, but I just couldn’t get a hand out of the deck. I don’t think I’ve ever mulliganed so much in a single day of Magic (one game I was even forced to go down to three cards!). It was yet another frustrating Day 2, as I slowly sank back into a fairly mediocre (considering I’d gone into the day in first place on 8-0) Top 32 finish.

That was now twice I’d posted an X-0 on Day 1 of a Pro Tour, only to fail to make Top 8. Not a good reputation to have. This time wasn’t as heart-wrenchingly close as Tokyo. We’d built the deck late and hadn’t really tested it against control decks like Rock or normal Tog. Those matchups, which I’d avoided on Day 1, turned out to be pretty bad. The closest I’d come was against Billy Moreno, but that was with me needing to be lucky and topdeck a Wonder in the third game.

I was more philosophical about this one. I’d been here before and knew all too well that a perfect X-0 record on Day 1 is no guarantee of a successful ride into Sunday. There are still a lot of rounds to play on Saturday first, and none of your opponents are going to lie down.

After struggling so hard to get back on the Pro Tour, it was bizarre to find myself in a situation where it was hard to fall off. Top 32 at LA qualified me for Honolulu, and the same rating that qualified me for LA was also good enough for Worlds.

Worlds ’05 was my third World Championships, and the first I got to play without being on a National team. The points I’d picked up from LA and Philadelphia also put me with a good shot at making Level 3 in the Pro Players club.

Unfortunately I didn’t really put the preparation in on the Constructed side, and made the old mistake of going with version 1.0 of the Greater Good deck. Again it was too single-minded, and too easy to disrupt. In the past combo decks had to be single-minded, but they had tools like Duress and Force of Will to protect them. Now the keyword was diversity and both of the finalist’s decks were perfect examples of this ethos. In a weird flip from usual events, I finished Day 1 with a mediocre 2-3-1 record, and then went on to 4-2 the draft. Unfortunately I got Joules’ed on the night before Extended (I went out drinking heavily with Joules Jardine until six in the morning. The man is a legend – during the course of the week he drank three Japanese bars completely out of draught beer, and went on to nobble the Welsh team the night after). I managed five rounds in which I learned my Grave-Troll deck wasn’t really that good anymore, as it lost to two Affinity decks and got destroyed by Pierre Canali with the multi-colored French Tog deck. With the gap between rounds seemingly getting longer and longer, I retired after round 17 in order to get some sleep.

While I didn’t make Level 3, I still had Honolulu queued up, and of course we all know what happened there. (But if you’ve forgotten, you can read the full report here).

I didn’t think I was going to do well at that tournament because I hadn’t really settled on a deck. Again, contacts turned out to be really important, as Billy Moreno (Billy might just be the best deckbuilder outside of Japan at the moment) was on hand to convert what I thought was a fairly poor deck into probably the best deck in the field.

Yes, I was lucky. For two days the scarily unreliable Zoo manabase behaved as good as gold. I barely mulliganed. Sometimes you get days like that. Other days… well, I’ve already told you about the many mulligans of Los Angeles Day 2.

2006 has been a fantastic year in Magic for me. Not only did I finally break into my first Top 8, but I also got to make money for the first time at both a Limited Pro Tour (Prague) and Limited Grand Prix (Athens). I even made it onto a Pro Player card (okay, so the last one’s pretty sad… but don’t knock it until you’ve opened a tournament pack at a pre-release and seen your own face staring back at you).

My PT record used to be a joke (although, to be fair, that median finish value is still pretty dire). Now it’s not too bad. I’ve attended twenty Pro Tours, including four World Championships, and have managed a top 64, two Top 32s, a Top 16, and runner-up.

The third Grand Prix I attend next year will be my fiftieth in total, as either player or coverage.

While playing my hobby I’ve been lucky enough to travel the World over the last ten years. I’ve walked in Red Square, I’ve boogied down Bourbon Street, I’ve watched the sunset in Hawaii, I’ve supped expensive cocktails on a rooftop club in Los Angeles, I’ve seen firework displays in Yokohama, I’ve walked inside Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, I’ve downed Tequila in Tijuana. Heck, I’ve even given tours round the red light district in Amsterdam (don’t ask – I don’t understand how I got nominated either).

For a hobby, Magic’s not doing to bad on the money front. In order to go back to university for my Masters I had to take out a large loan. Well, that doesn’t exist anymore… thanks, Lightning Helix!

And I’m not done yet.

I’m currently on 85 Pro Points. By the time I’m eligible for the Hall of Fame (’08 or ’09), I want to have crossed that 100-point threshold. Sure, my current record is no way near strong enough, but to make that ballot is in itself a massive achievement.

I also want to play the Invitational (Not that I’m dropping massive, elephant-sized hints to all you lovely and above all voting people out there). It’s something I’ve not done.

And of course, there’s always the dream. I never actually picked up that winner’s trophy in Honolulu. I still have that desire, pushing me on.

I think what I wanted to make clear over this series is that, like all card games, Magic still bows before luck and variance. The difference with Magic, as opposed to games like Poker where you can play many games – hands – in an hour, is that you really have to take a long-term view. There will be times where you put in a lot of time and effort only to beaten by rotten mana draws or lucky topdecks by your opponent. You have to be patient and you have to be persistent. It will happen.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this ramble down my memory lane.

Many thanks for reading.

Craig Jones