SCG Daily – About a Burning Fire

From the time he was a mere pup, Fang knew he wasn’t like the other dogs. While his friends enjoyed fetching sticks, burying bones, and chasing cars, Fang found himself more interested in posting blogs and listening to Panic! At the Disco…

From the time he was a mere pup, Fang knew he wasn’t like the other dogs. While his friends enjoyed fetching sticks, burying bones, and chasing cars, Fang found himself more interested in posting blogs and listening to Panic! At the Disco.

Luckily for you, I was bluffing just now. However, I hope that snippet is enough to convince you that yesterday’s claims weren’t unfounded. If you don’t believe the above sentences prove anything about my diplomatic immunity, let me know in the forums, and I’ll go all-out next time. I’m not afraid to flaunt my powers.

The Newsflash
I have some potentially bad news for you-you probably aren’t going to win a Pro Tour.

I have some even worse news for you—you probably won’t win a Grand Prix or Nationals, either. Heck, the majority of you who play in PTQ – even those who play regularly – will never qualify for the Pro Tour.

Why am I telling you this? Just meanness for meanness’s sake? Obviously, you’ve read my articles before. On most days, you’d be right. I don’t like people very much, and as such, I love opening the shades of delusion so that the brilliant light of reality can burn holes through your skin.

Now that’s a metaphor. I really do good work sometimes.

Today, however, I’m not just being pointlessly mean. I’m looking to explore an intangible concept, the jay nay say kwa* that separates the winners from the losers. It’s the reason why the same people win repeatedly, while others with seemingly comparable skill falter. It’s a supreme, greatly justified confidence that you just can’t fake. It’s more than a desire to win – it’s a need to win. Some call it the "Killer Instinct."

Let me give you an example. A few years back, there was a Team Limited Grand Prix in Chicago. As you may remember, this tournament was won by a devastatingly handsome mastermind and a pair of punk children. Let’s ignore the mastermind for a moment and examine the children**.

On one hand, we have John Pelcak. On that particular weekend, Mr. Pelcak was on fire. We were giving him good decks, sure, but none of our decks were really awful, and he just didn’t lose very many matches. I had secret hopes that he would drop a couple more so that it would be indisputable that I carried the team, but he simply did not. Going into the final round, Pelcak had only lost a single match.

On the other hand, we have Gadiel Szleifer. Gadiel hadn’t played much Magic since his Top 8 finish in Columbus a few months prior, and he was what the Argentinians would call "el no puede ganar ichisantos." On Day 1, he pulled off the remarkable feat of losing every round up until the last one, which we swept. He managed to pull out a win the next day during my only loss of the tournament when the packs granted him 2 Nagaos and a Keiga. No one except cheaters, Olivier Ruel, and Shuhei Nakamura can win every week, and well… this was one of Gadiel’s “off” weeks. [This was submitted before GP: Malmo, I swear. – Craig.]

In the semifinals, John and I won our matches, while Gadiel managed to somehow lose a match where he was playing a Dampen deck that the other team didn’t bother to disrupt during the draft, and his opponent (Mike Hron) was piloting a Red/Green deck featuring Thousand-Legged Kami that boarded in Black for a singleton Distress.

Ostensibly, what happened in the finals wasn’t remarkable, and at the time I thought nothing of it. We won the match and the tournament. I won my match, and Gadiel won his, while it looked like Pelcak was in some trouble. He was crumbling under pressure and making some mistakes, like not remembering that his opponent had a Long-Forgotten Gohei in play. (His match no longer mattered since Gadiel and I were already finished.) No big deal, right? Gadiel was due for a win, and Pelcak was due for a loss, right? Upon further reflection, I’m not so sure.

Pelcak is a fairly proficient wizard, but he has trouble winning key matches. He made a fair amount of PTQ Top 8s, but there were many thrown matches, thrown decks, and tears before he finally won one. He does fine on Day 2 of Grand Prix when he’s out of the running for Top 8. He has never made the cutoff to Day 2 of an individual PT, but he does fine when he’s on a team. I think the Killer Instinct factor is diluted in team events; there’s a lot less pressure on individuals (those with the KI often thrive under pressure), and how well teammates get along with each other is quite relevant. Pelcak’s pretty good, but he probably won’t win anything of relevance. (I’m writing this before GP St. Louis, but it’s getting published after. Wouldn’t it be, like, a couple dozen hoots if he won that?)

Gadiel is a skilled magician. He skipped the JSS to jump right on the tour, and it took him a while of playing on the PT before there was a tournament where he didn’t make money. Sure, he’s better than Pelcak – and most people (myself included, at Constructed anyway) – but the disparity there isn’t enough to explain the difference in results. I sensed something about Gadiel by the second time I saw him, and actually predicted he would Top 8 a Pro Tour “within two years.” He ended up Top 8ing a PT within 9 months of that prediction, and winning a PT just over a year after the prediction.

As far as I can tell, KI is something you’re born with. You either have it or you don’t, and there’s no way to change that. If you have any evidence to the contrary – or any opinions on the matter at all – I’d like to hear about it in the forums.

Here are a few “professionals” who have “it”:

Gadiel Szleifer
Antonino de Rosa
Osyp Lebedowicz
Bob Maher
Justin Gary
Ken Ho
Ben Rubin

And here are a few that don’t:

John Pelcak
Josh Ravitz
Gerry Thompson
Morgan Douglass
Chris Pikula
Eugene Levin
Patrick Sullivan

I’m not trying to be mean to these people. I purposely picked good players to put on the non-KI list (except for Pikula hehehehe). In a comprehensive list of KI- and non-KI people, many of the non-KI people would be more skillful than the KI people. Hell, I might even be wrong about some of the ones I listed. But the long and short of it is, who would you put your money on in the last round of a PT to see who makes Top 8: Bob Maher or Gerry Thompson? Justin Gary or Eugene Levin? Maher and Gary are both washed-up old dinosaurs, but the decision still isn’t close in my mind.

Interestingly, I don’t really fit on either of these lists. As with many of my thought processes and personality traits, I actually vary by the day. Admittedly, on most days, I do not have “it.” But if I have my game face on, you’re all in huge trouble. Another person in this rare category is, interestingly, my replacement on :B, Chris “Star Wars Kid” McDaniel.

The Scandinavians don’t really fit into these lists either. They’re just so laid back and masterful that they often just fall into success***. As Nicolai Herzog lamented during a feature match (to a nearby Rich Hoaen) on his way to his second consecutive Limited Pro Tour win, “I play so bad, but it doesn’t matter!”

That’s it for now. All told, I’d say today’s article was a rousing success. I got to praise Gadiel, subtly bash Pelcak, and relive one of my only glory days as a spellflinger. Not only was much of what I said self-serving, but it was probably true! Wow, bonus!

Join me tomorrow when, after nearly 25 years, I finally come out of the closet.

Love always,
Timothy James Aten

*I know how it’s really spelled, unlike some people who spell “per se” with an A and a Y.
**Do I need to bother making a tasteless joke here?
***Many of them are very good, especially at draft, but this article isn’t about “skill,” per se.