SCG Daily – So Close, and Yet, So Far

Ever since I started playing this game and learned of the Pro Tour, it’s been my lofty goal to play on that highest of stages. I’ve just wanted to qualify at least once for a Pro Tour event before I keel over (but by then, hopefully, someone will have an Animate Dead handy). I’ve come close, tantalizingly, on a few occasions. Today I’m going to talk about those occasions.

Ever since I started playing this game and learned of the Pro Tour, it’s been my lofty goal to play on that highest of stages. I’ve just wanted to qualify at least once for a Pro Tour event before I keel over (but by then, hopefully, someone will have an Animate Dead handy).

And I’ve come close, tantalizingly, on a few occasions.

My first, and probably best shot, was back in 1999, playing in the Extended qualifiers for PT:Chicago, I believe. If memory serves me right (great, I’m channeling Iron Chef’s Chairman Kaga now), I had been testing a great number of decks for that Extended season, which was to be the last with my precious, beloved dual lands. I miss them so. But I digress.

That was the year that Trix was running rampant, and was considered "the" deck. And it was. It was virtually unbeatable. It was this deck, among other factors, that pushed Wizards into creating the current rotation system for Extended.

God forbid I should ever play the best deck in a format (I also didn’t have all the cards I needed for it, as those crappy Delusions of Grandeur I’d traded away for a song were now selling for ten bucks a pop – again, foresight, not my greatest gift). I’d kind of settled on Suicide Black as my choice.

The night before the qualifier, mercifully being held in Eugene, where I was living at the time (gotta love those ten-minute drives), I was playing in a last-chance tournament being held in, of all places, the local Baptist church (Eugene was sort-of between places to play, and it got volunteered by a father/son team, bless their hearts).

I had brought with me, on a whim, this new deck that, I had been told, had considerable success as a Trix-killer: Trey Van Cleave’s Three-Deuce. And with the just-now-legal introduction of Nemesis to the mix, the Duress-able Disenchant – the bane of Trix – could be replaced with the superior Seal of Cleansing, where is could sit unmolested until needed.

Two local pros, Cy Cook and Chris Benafel, were playing there that night, with Oath and Trix respectively.

I crushed them. Literally. They could not beat Three-Deuce.

I decided right then and there that I was going to play this new deck with less than 24 hours of play time with it.

I remember those rounds well, and I played about as well as I ever have. I kept running into Trix decks and handing them their lunch. Even beat one somewhat-well-known pro, Phil Freneau, playing straight U/B Trix (newer variants added Red mana for Firestorm as a sweeper/alternate kill), when I goaded him into spending a Force of Will on an Incinerate that would have brought him down to six life, then Plowing my own Elvish Vanguard to go up to 23 life, forcing him to combo me out twice – he ran out of cards before he could.

Funny how you remember certain plays after many years.

I went 5-0-2 and went into the Top Eight as the number one seed.

My reward? Being paired against my worst matchup: mono-Blue control, with nothing but counters, Masticores and Powder Kegs. Every other deck in the Top 8 was a Trix variant. Why oh why couldn’t I be paired up against one of them?

I took it to a game three, but kept a dubious one-land hand, met back-to-back Wastelands, and that was it for my first and best shot at making a Pro Tour.

Let’s flash forward a few years. Regionals 2001. Fires was running rampant, and I was looking for ways to beat it. A week before the event, I read this very interesting decklist from the Greek Regionals, built around Invasion and 6th Edition sac-lands, Nether Spirit, and big Red cards that blow up the world on a frequent basis.

We all know it as Turbo-Haups.

Again, with a week to prepare, I pick the deck up and man oh man was this deck fun to play. I think it appealed to my land-destruction sensibilities, as for some reason, screwing over an opponent, resource-wise, is one of my favorite strategies. It’s true. Back when I played the Tribes games online, I was feared as a "base raper."

That’s not quite as icky or depraved as it sounds to the non-initiated, trust me. At least I’m no crappy spawn camper.

After starting out 1-1, I go on a tear. Rebels: Dead. U/W Control: Dead after back to back Blood Oaths for 39 points. Blue Skies: Dead after they run out of counters.

Going into the final two rounds, I’m 5-1, needing only to win one more game to clinch a Top 8 berth. I run into a unique U/B/W control deck, which gives me fits (I thought Haups destroyed control decks), running sixteen counters, graveyard removal and Nether Spirits of her own (yes, her, I believe she was a Chinese exchange student, but I didn’t believe her when she constantly proclaimed she was a bad player in broken English – you don’t get to Table 2 this late by being bad).

I only just manage to steal game two off of her when I bluff her into tapping her lone source of Black mana (so she couldn’t cast Dromar’s Charm) and drop three Seals of Fire to, ahem, seal the game. We end up drawing.

So, of course, what happens in the last round, needing a win to qualify? I finally run into a Fires deck, after missing them for seven rounds.

I get toasted in rapid order. No Top 8, no Nationals for me.

Later that year, I had a great opportunity at States, which now has become my target as "tournament I’d most like to win" – probably because it’s the closest I’ll come to making the Pro Tour, I’ve come to admit. I will happily take the plaque, the product, and being able to put "States Champion" on my business cards.

Running an R/G "Rocket Shoes" deck, chock full of burn, mana acceleration and fat creatures, I lost the first round, then went on a monster – and monstrously lucky – run through the next five rounds, winning the last two rounds against admittedly superior decks (the dreaded R/G/B "Good Stuff" deck, basically my deck with Spiritmongers wedged in).

Final round, I’m in fifth place, good enough to draw in, right?


I get paired down – the only 5-1 to get paired down – and stuck against the 9th place player, who is running, you guessed it, "Good Stuff."

He can’t draw in, and proceeds to then crush me in two games straight.

Why do the pairing gods hate me so?

The sad thing is, if I could have snuck in, the Top 8 was chock full of the earliest iteration of Psychatog decks, and, boy howdy, my deck, with sideboard Price of Glory, would have smoked the early Dr. Teeth decks… they were good but still a little raw in those days.

Since then, I haven’t done quite as well, and the brass ring is getting further and further out of reach. There was a time, a few years ago, when I probably could have put in a lot of effort and time and money and maybe improved my play enough where I might have made the Pro Tour. But Father Time brooks now lollygagging, and now I’ve got too many other irons in the fire. Between freelance writing, poker, my great American novel and, of course, getting married this summer (sorry, Cathy Nicoloff, the Sexiest Man in Magic is now off the table… you had your chance), I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to make those rarified airs again.

As I write this, however, I’m staring over at "George." He’s the coolest thing I’ve ever won at a tournament, a half-size ceramic skull, neatly painted, whose eye sockets usually serve as pen holders. He remains a constant reminder that, yes, I’m not a bad player, and perhaps, someday, I will finally achieve that dream.

I hope you’ve all enjoyed a few of my sundry stories from my ten years in Magic. Let’s do this again sometime… say, another ten years…