Showered In Swings: Pro Tour Retrospective

It’s been a truly surreal week for Ben Friedman. He’s lost family and friends, and he’s lost Magic games. But the same game that often poses difficulties will provide opportunities. This was his Pro Tour.

Magic tournaments, by their nature, contain some of the biggest emotional
swings their competitors will ever face. It’s peculiar, because one would
instinctively assume that Magic tournaments are intended to be breaks from
the cares of the “real world,” places where players can momentarily put
aside their worldly concerns in favor of intense attention to minute
details in deck design and in-game play. Of course, as we all know, that
kind of intense attention breeds emotional investment, the kind that
results in utter despair when the turn of a card quickly ends the climax of
weeks of preparation, hundreds of dollars in travel and card costs, and
hours of painstaking focus at the tournament itself.

By the same token, when the stars align, it can bring forth some of the
most unadulterated joy in otherwise stoic or jaded individuals. Magic draws
us in, and enthralls us with the emotional roller coaster inherent in the
tournament scene, making the rest of our lives seem muted and dull by
comparison. I know this because I have experienced it. Some of my lowest
moments have been at the hands of tournament Magic.

  • Losing in the finals of a PTQ in my first ever PTQ Top 8.
  • Bricking my first two Pro Tours, knowing that I would have to
    return to the bottom of the PTQ trenches in order to try to
  • Going from 9-2 to 9-7 at Pro Tour Theros.
  • Losing multiple win-and-ins for that elusive Pro Tour Top 8 at Pro
    Tours Journey into Nyx and Magic 2015.
  • Losing a win-and-in on camera at Grand Prix Detroit when I had the
    win available, had I decided to “go for it.”

The list goes on and on. Of course, Magic has brought me more moments of
pure elation than anything else in my life.

  • Winning that first PTQ and going to the Pro Tour for the first
  • Making my first GP Top 8. Cashing a Pro Tour for the first time.
  • Getting the news that I would receive a special invitation to Pro
    Tour Avacyn Restored and thereby locking Gold for the next
  • Winning the PTQ at 3am in an empty event hall in rainy Connecticut
    that brought me back to the PT after I had fallen off.

These kind of emotionally charged events “stretch” one’s emotional
calibration, making normal day-to-day swings of life less impactful by
comparison. Even now, it is unclear to me whether I am naturally inclined
to logic rather than emotion, or if Magic is simply so fraught with swings
that it changed me as a person, making it harder to feel sheer joy or
despair in quotidian life. In that way, more than any other, it seems like
Magic will stay with me for the rest of my days.

I begin this tournament report with that brief introspection about how
Magic intersects with its most dedicated players’ emotional well-being
because, well, this Pro Tour was particularly swingy for a great many
people, myself included. It began on the Thursday morning before Grand Prix
Houston, when I woke up to the following two text messages from my mother:

1:21AM – Grandpa is dying

1:56AM – Grandpa just died

My 90-year-old grandfather, Sheldon Keilson, had been in relatively good
health, and was certainly strong enough that I had expected him to live at
least another few years, possibly even to 100. Even a fall and a broken
bone didn’t seem to change that outlook, as he was planning to go to
physical therapy to regain the use of his arm. Unfortunately, he caught
some sort of infection in the hospital, and his immune system was weak
enough from the operation to reset his humerus that the germs ran roughshod
over him, quickly turning into full-body sepsis. It was a shock to all of
us, but I was asked to speak at the funeral, so I needed to make a change
of plans on short notice and fly home instead of to Houston. However, my
flight to the Pro Tour left on Monday afternoon from Houston, so my new
flight plan was convoluted and unnecessarily long, to say the least.

Now, I flew Las Vegas – Atlanta – Baltimore on Friday, then drove with my
family to New York and back for the funeral and burial. After doing my
duties as a grandson at the service, it was time to fly out of Baltimore to
Houston, to drive across town from one Houston airport to the other, then
to Los Angeles, where I could finally catch my flight to Barcelona and then
to Bilbao, arriving Tuesday night bedraggled and jetlagged. But I made it,
and tried to put the difficult weekend behind me in anticipation of the
first Modern Pro Tour in two years.

I was thrilled to be piloting my favorite deck in the format, Grixis
Death’s Shadow with Mishra’s Bauble, so I dropped by the apartment where
teammates Gerry Thompson, Ondrej Strasky, Josh Cho, and (for testing
purposes) Steve Rubin were staying in order to play some Magic Online and
talk shop about the decklist. I guess now is as good a time as any to add
some true Magic-oriented content to the report, so here’s the list I ended
up playing after discussions with Steve, Dylan Donegan, and Andrew Jessup.

This list is hedged a bit more against Humans, with a Lightning Bolt
maindeck and a few Izzet Staticasters in the sideboard. To make room, a
Liliana of the Veil, a Kozilek’s Return, and a Rakdos Charm have been cut,
which hurts against Dredge and U/W Control, but we expected Affinity,
Humans, the mirror, and Tron to be the most popular decks. Therefore, the
changes made sense, and I was pleased with the list overall.

Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the secret 76th card in the
list, possibly the most important addition for in-person play, the Mishra’s
Bauble Reminder Paper. Because you cannot place a die on your opponent’s
library in order to remember Mishra’s Bauble’s delayed trigger and a die on
your own library does not help remind you to stop during the opponent’s
upkeep, the best solution is a big honking piece of paper with “MISHRA’S
BAUBLE TRIGGER” written on it in big block letters, to be placed directly
on the battlefield and provide such an imposing and disruptive presence
that it’s impossible not to notice it at all times, which makes it quite
difficult to forget the trigger. I’d forgotten the Bauble trigger twice at
Grand Prix Oklahoma City a few months ago, and I was determined not to miss
it at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan. This reminder helps keep up good
communication between both players, pleases judges with its clarity, and is
guaranteed to get a few laughs over the course of a tournament. Have some
humility and use it, because if I’m not too good to use a reminder paper, I
don’t think anyone is.

My confidence in my Constructed deck was sky high, but our booster drafts
at the house did little to improve my low confidence in the Draft format.
Fortunately, I had enough experience under my belt that I thought I was
good for at least a 3-3, and was hoping for a stellar Constructed record to
carry me to the Top 8. I left the testing apartment during a lull in the
nearly nonstop rain in Bilbao in good spirits, only to be quickly caught in
an icy hailstorm where I had to take refuge under a highway overpass and
had my shoes and backpack soaked through. After the bridge hideout, I made
it back to my hotel, shivering and chastened by the fierce winter weather
in Bilbao. Naturally, the swings never stop.

The night before the Pro Tour, I felt fully prepared, having just finalized
and submitted my decklist after lengthy discussions with Andrew and Dylan,
and went to bed calmer than I’d been at many previous Pro Tours. Then I
woke up after only a few hours of sleep (blame jetlag!) and glanced at my
phone, which was lighting up with messages about Korey McDuffie in a coma
at the hospital, unlikely to pull through. Everyone had slightly
conflicting information, but it was clear by 4am Bilbao time that Korey was
gone, another death seemingly out of the blue. I sat there, unable to
sleep, unable to get up, in a kind of hazy semi-awake state for a few more
hours, until the window started to brighten around 7:30.

Now I was jetlagged, low on sleep, and somewhat emotionally numb from the
events of recent days. Not the best combination for playing the Pro Tour,
but one thing Magic can still do for me is put me in the kind of flow state
where I forget about all my other concerns in favor of putting my mental
energy into combat math, draft picks, or sideboarding for an obscure
matchup. With this in mind, Oliver Tiu and I got up and made our way
through the rain to the convention center, where I sat down and got ready
to do my first in-person draft with Rivals of Ixalan. Of course, a
Profane Procession got opened up immediately on my right, which meant that
I knew I couldn’t draft B/W. I took a Crested Herdcaller from a pack with
Bombard and Luminous Bonds as other reasonable options, and thought I’d try
drafting a green midrange deck, maybe Merfolk, maybe Dinosaurs. I ended up
drafting U/G/w, splashing a Huatli, Radiant Champion and an Ixalan’s
Binding off of four Sailor of Means, an Evolving Wilds, and a Traveler’s
Amulet. I knew I was unlikely to go 3-0, but I thought 2-1 was possible,
which was eventually what happened when I got lucky in game 3 of round 3
against a mana-screwed Jonathan Morawski.

Just like that, it was time for Modern, with three mirror matches in a row.
I went 2-1 in those mirror matches, beating Mike Sigrist in Round 6 despite
an egregious misplay on my part that gave him an opportunity to get back
into the game.

I had a Liliana of the Veil on five counters with a Death’s Shadow, and a
Kolaghan’s Command in hand, to Mike’s Tasigur, Snapcaster Mage, and Nihil
Spellbomb. I should have simply dealt two damage to Snapcaster Mage and
destroyed the Nihil Spellbomb, allowing my Liliana of the Veil to make him
sacrifice Tasigur. Instead, I Edicted his Snapcaster Mage, holding the
Kolaghan’s Command to make him discard the card he got from end step using
his Nihil Spellbomb and getting back Gurmag Angler, but that was foolish
because the Gurmag Angler was useless without a graveyard, and I’d have to
discard it the next turn anyway in order to uptick Liliana again. I was too
focused on value and lost focus on how I could slam the door on my opponent
winning. In the end, Mike bricked on removal and I won the game, but it was
significantly closer than it should have been. I resolved to buckle down
and focus for the last two to try to end the day with a respectable 6-2

The next match was against Jeskai Control, which is a close matchup that
often revolves around them topdecking the last piece of burn necessary to
close out the game before an angry monster gets in the last hit.
Fortunately for me, on the one key turn I faded a burn spell, and in the
second game, Liliana came down and ripped my opponent’s hand to shreds.

In the final round, I was paired against Living End and won by the skin of
my teeth in two games I had no business winning. In the first game, I never
found a threat and died quickly. In the second, I was mana-screwed, but my
opponent made a fatal misplay to let me back in. He cast a Demonic Dread
without using his Grove of the Burnwillows to make me gain one life,
leaving me at exactly eleven when I untapped and played my Death’s Shadow.
This meant that he could not kill my Shadow with a Grove, as it would put
me to only twelve, and because his two Monstrous Carabids were forced to
attack, he was going to have to grow my Shadow to massive proportions. He
attacked with the Carabids and two Street Wraiths, so I blocked a Carabid
and took ten, going to one life. A 12/12 Death’s Shadow sure does
appreciate a nice Berserk effect, and my opponent promptly took 22 damage
the next turn. He looked shaken after that one.

In game 3, my opponent again comboed off unimpeded, but he took two damage
from an Overgrown Tomb untapped to play around Stubborn Denial, so my
post-Living End Death’s Shadow (with help from a Snapcaster Mage chump
block) again grew to fantastic proportions. With my opponent at fourteen, a
topdecked Collective Brutality was enough to kill his post-combat Simian
Spirit Guide and put him within range of my one Lightning Bolt. That match
was truly insane, and at no point in any game did I think I was winning,
but somehow I drew the right cards and my opponent gave me the opportunity
to steal the win from under his nose.

From 0-1 to 6-2, I was having my best Pro Tour start in years, but all I
wanted to do was eat and sleep, and get ready to pull off a Top 8
performance with Korey’s favorite Modern deck, a performance he’d assuredly
tell me was “a long time coming,” and “couldn’t have happened to a more
deserving player,” were he still here to witness it. Of course, Bilbao had
other plans, and after wandering around with Oliver and MGG Moon teammate
Mattia Rizzi, we got caught in a sudden rainstorm again and had to beg some
European players with phone service to try to call a cab company on our
behalf. Eventually, a cab did show up, and we got some food and got to bed,
but I gained a permanent chip on my shoulder for cities that still rely on
taxi service in 2018. Another half-night of sleep led to another rainy
morning (notice a pattern?) where the taxi stand by our hotel was empty,
leading to me begging a receptionist at the hospital by our hotel to hail
us a cab as quickly as possible half an hour before Day Two started. Again,
we were soaked, but we did indeed make it to the site in time for the
draft, where I needed a positive record to stay alive for Top 8.

Unfortunately, it was not to be, as Brian Braun-Duin opened a Hadana’s
Climb behind me, and I picked ImpaleImpaleLuminous Bonds to try to
hammer in a B/W Vampires deck, passing him all the green and blue cards I
could. Somewhere around fifth or sixth pick, I started to get a little
nervous, as it seemed like there were not enough good black or white cards
in the pack, but I could not realistically move into U/G at that point, and
there were no desirable red cards either. Later I learned that Teruya
Kakumae, to my right, was in U/R Pirates. It seems like the people on the
other sides of Brian and Teruya were both B/W and pinned me in a very
difficult spot, where there were never enough quality cards to move into a
different color, but I was left with the second-best card in my colors in
every pack.

In the first round, against Grzegorz Kowalski, I faced down a similarly
low-powered B/W deck, where my two sideboarded Canal Monitors and a
sideboarded Grim-Captain’s Call powered me through him in the second and
third games. I have never had more respect for a 5/3 for five mana,
especially when Grzegorz’s Dinosaur Hunters were powerless to stop the
Lizard. Unfortunately, I got stomped in the next two rounds, when I played
five non-games in a row involving mulligans, color-screw, and mana flood.
To be fair, my deck was absolutely a 1-2 deck, but I just needed my luck to
hold up for one more round! At 7-4, I was fairly dejected, but a close win
over U/W Control on the back of my planeswalkers put me back in a positive
mindset, when I sat down across from fellow cryptocurrency enthusiast David
Williams, playing Humans.

We traded the first two games, setting up the following position in game 3.

I instinctively wanted to cast my Lightning Bolt, which was incorrect. Of
course, I looked even more foolish when he flashed in a freshly drawn
Thalia’s Lieutenant, and suddenly I was at nine. I didn’t want to cast the
Death’s Shadow there because if Dave put me to five life the next turn, I
could play the Shadow and prepare to Temur Battle Rage him out. I just cast
my freshly drawn Gurmag Angler, but Dave drew another Thalia’s Lieutenant,
cutting my clock by a turn and making it so that I needed to draw a
fetchland, Engineered Explosives, or Mishra’s Bauble right there. I bricked
off and died. Of course, the correct play was to take three and proceed
with the game with Dave pinned between the need to kill me and the need to
not put me to a low life total to die to an angry Shadow. As our esteemed
editor Cedric Phillips bluntly explained after hearing the situation,
“C’mon Ben. Of course you want him to deal you damage! Should have asked
him if he’d like to give his Mantis Rider double strike there!” Lesson

With my back against the wall for a respectable PT finish, I played against
Five-Color Collected Company Humans, Jeskai Control, and finally B/R Hollow
One piloted by Kentaro Yamamoto, beating them all in close matches. 8-2 in
Constructed (with one win being a clear punt by my opponent and one loss
being a semi-clear punt by me) was definitely at the upper end of my
expectation for myself, but I truly do think Grixis Death’s Shadow with
Mishra’s Bauble is just that good. There are several decks that have good
matchups against it, including some of the best-performing decks from the
PT, Mardu Pyromancer and U/W Control, but the deck is fundamentally doing
busted things and is close to a Legacy deck in power level. Modern Grixis
Death’s Shadow would surely hold its own against notable busted Legacy
decks like Storm, Infect, or Sneak and Show, and if that’s not a ringing
endorsement for a Modern deck I don’t know what is.

Of course, my Pro Tour wasn’t over, not by a long shot. “Partyboi” Pascal
Maynard was excited about getting a group of players together to go out for
drinks, and despite my general low energy level at that point, I agreed to
join him. For some reason, all the Magic players seem to think that my
presence is necessary for a good time, although now that I’m pushing 25 I’m
feeling like much more of a grown man and much less of a college-style
all-night partier. Regardless, I said I would go, so I went. A memorable
late-night excursion resulted in half-man, half-tank Christoffer Larsen
pushing all us smaller humans well past our responsible limits, and the
night culminated in a very intoxicated Oliver Tiu deciding to enter the
shower fully clothed…with a pile of towels at the bottom of the shower.
The hotel room quickly flooded, so when I finally got back to the hotel
after losing my coat and the room key in my own moment of intoxication, I
got to witness an old man yelling at a confused and sopping wet Oliver in a
language he didn’t understand, Noah Walker trying desperately to save my
clothes and laptop from the encroaching puddle, and the same old man
frantically mopping up the floor and cursing as he turned off the main
water supply to our room. I passed out fully clothed, waking up with a
hangover and Oliver and Noah asking me to come talk to the proprietors of
the hotel.

Uh oh.

After overcharging us for the room, then nearly kicking us out for ruining
the wooden floor with Oliver’s unfortunate experiment in clothed showers, I
suppose I looked pitiful enough that they relented and decided to let us
stay the last night. I slept most of the day, waking up just in time to
watch teammate Gerry Thompson lose a heartbreaking finals after that crazy
semifinals win, breaking his undefeated Modern streak right at the finish
line. I stayed up most of the night in order to try to get my sleep
schedule back on Pacific time and to let Oliver into the hotel when he got
back from watching the Super Bowl. I’m now somewhere over Iceland on my
second of three flights to get back to Las Vegas, and I must say, I cannot
wait to be somewhere where it’s not constantly precipitating, to get back
to a consistent sleep schedule, and to return to some semblance of routine.

So, what does this Pro Tour represent for me? It was a Modern PT where I
got to show off my chops in deck construction, running my own tuned list to
a great Constructed finish and my first PT cash in nearly four years. It
was a wake-up call for me to hop back into Limited to train up for Pro Tour Dominaria. It put team Metagame Gurus: Sun deep into the thick of
the Team Series race, which is incredible after such a weak first Pro Tour.
It was a constant stream of lows and highs, sometimes at the same time. It
was a reminder to do what you love and to be kind to one another, because
you never know when the ride is going to end.

Lastly, I just asked the man sitting behind me on the airplane to please
stop bumping my chair, and in heavily accented English, he responded with,
“F**k you. Shut up.” A fitting capstone to a very surreal Pro Tour.