So Many Insane Plays – Crashing The Invitational

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Unsurprisingly, Stephen Menendian’s Magical thoughts are currently mired in the Invitational. Today’s So Many Insane Plays details the Voice of Vintage’s thoughts on hearing of his Invitation invite, and takes us through some his ideas on the possible upcoming formats. He breaks down the Invitational info from the past, and highlights the mammoth task ahead of him…

Uncharacteristically for a man who has to be at work at 9am every weekday, I decided to take advantage of the waning Midwestern summer and go out last Thursday night for some bacchanalian enjoyment (i.e. dancing, drinking, and partying) at some of the busiest hotspots in town. When I arrived home around 12:45am, with just enough time to get enough shut-eye to be productive, I ran one final email check and then hurried my way to the Team Meandeck forums for one last web scan before blasting my way into dreamland. I clicked the first thread that popped up, the “Vote Steve for the Invitational Storyteller ballot” thread, and one of my teammates had written “Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee did it!!!!!!!” I quickly scrolled down and, one brain cell at a time, it slowly dawned on me what had happened.

After telling my girlfriend the news, I popped open my AIM account, and the soft pulse of glowing lights swam across my laptop as people messaged their congratulations through the Internet ether. In my delirium haze – part alcohol induced, part exhaustion – I could only hammer out a few expressive phrases of excitement and thanks before crashing into bed.

Being voted to go to the Invitational is a mighty honor. But being selected by Wizards is an honor greater still.

Going into the Storyteller ballot, I expected there to be an obnoxious vote split between Erwin, Rizzo, Sanchez, Craig Jones, and Fabiano. But as the voting progressed, I mentally revised my calculations. At first, I expected Evan to be the man to beat, with no less than a third of the vote. But as the poll responses grew, I revised that upward to 45% and it became clear that Evan was the inevitable winner. As a storyteller, I really had nothing on Jeff Cunningham. As an entertainer, how can you outdo the Magic Show or Kyle’s kitschy but hilarious narratives? Knowing that I probably couldn’t beat Evan, I thought that a strong vote from the Eternal community, in conjunction with an Erwin victory, might send a signal to the Powers That Be that the Invitational might want to take a slightly different direction in future years. I felt that my chances, or the chances of someone from the Eternal community, representing on the Invitational in future years were probably good. I felt that we sowed the seeds for the future and would have to wait to see what sprouted.

In a manner that surely shocked most of you as much as it shocked me, the future, apparently, is now. And upon my shoulders are hung a heavy responsibility in addition to a proud honor. My performance will be the measure, in some way, of what the Invitational may hold. If I falter here, I may well close the door shut to future Eternal Invitationalists, as an experiment that failed.

Realistically, I do not expect to be on the Invitational ever again (unless I win), and certainly not by R&D fiat. There are only 16 slots in the entire Magic pantheon to whom this honor can be awarded. This is, in terms of my Magical pursuits, a once in a lifetime opportunity.

So, here it is. I will have to go to work. I will roll up my sleeves and prepare for a tournament that is unlike any I will ever play in again. It’s rare that I am able to prepare for anything other than Vintage. It’s too much work for someone who has a full time job and a full time personal life. I did some serious preparation for the Legacy Grand Prix and I came out alright (21st out of 885 ain’t half bad). But beating Mark Herberholz and Kenji Tsumura will be a different story. These are players who have dedicated themselves to the game.

I don’t want this article to serve to re-open the debate about what the Invitational is or should be about, because that is not an appropriate subject for an article such as this, but many sports similes have been bandied about. I brought up the point, in the storyteller ballot thread, that the Invitational is a different beast than a true “all-star” game in many ways, but one important way that I highlighted is that “playing field” is so much different than in a true “all-star game.” In other sports, the players have all been playing the same game, and the all-star game will be playing that game. Vintage Magic is as different from Limited as Two-Headed Giant is from Type 4. It’s not the same game. It’s not even the same rules. Sure, you play cards under a similar turn structure, but both basketball and soccer use “balls” and try to get them to a bounded area on the opposite side of the field through a team defense. That doesn’t make soccer and basketball the same sport, despite the many similarities.

While the Cal Ripkin analogy (regardless of how it is phrased) has some utility, and I like the Ultimate Fighting comparison, I think another point of comparison might be Tiger Woods at Putt-Putt golf. Sure, Tiger will be using many of the same skills and same know-how – after all, he is a master putter – but the context and the field of play is so much different. Hitting a ball up a 15 degree incline with a slight southwesterly wind 13 feet from the hole on the eighteenth green in Augusta, GA (“a tradition unlike any other”) is still “putting,” but it’s a helluva lot different than shooting a pink ball up a Clown’s nose 30 feet from an aging arcade and romper room.

And that’s why the Invitational is so sweet, and why this one will be so special. The Invitational is a chance for the brain of Mark Rosewater to come up with zany, unheard-of formats that he wants to spring upon the best players he can find (and people like me). This year is a return to the world of real cards, the first since 2001. That means that MaRo can open the treasure trove of creative ideas he’s been quietly storing up for the last five years while his baby has been limited to what is available and possible on MTGO.

And that levels the playing field, somewhat. I can’t beat the best Limited or Constructed Master at his own game on the formats in which they’ve won Pro Tours. Very few people can beat Tiger Woods on an 18-hole golf course, four rounds. But I imagine some pretty unconventional people can pummel Tiger into the Woods on the back nine of Crazy Kenny’s Miniature Golf and Family Fun Center.

So, the Invitational, if tradition holds, will be five formats, three rounds apiece, capped off by a grueling finals match featuring each format. The good news is that Vintage is my turf. That means I have a shot, even if remote.

Here’s what I know from a quick review of the past Invitationals.

First of all, a 10-5 record will probably make the finals.

Looking first at the Invitational coverage from the cardboard era of the Invitational:

The 2001 Invitational
Kai went 11-4 and Dan Clegg made the finals at 11-4, while Scott Richards missed the cut at 10-5.

, Chris Pikula and Jon Finkel made the finals with records of 10-5 and 11-4 respectively. Castle and Jacob Slemr made the finals going 11-3-1 and 10-4 respectively.

Looking at the MTGO era, we see this general trend hold:

2006: First and second were 12-3, but no one else was better than 9-6.

Terry Soh: 12-3
Tsuyoshi Fujita: 11-4
Masashiro Kuroda: 10-5

Bob Maher: 14-1
Mattias Jorstedt: 11-4
Carlos Romao: 9-6


Jens Thoren: 10-5
Tomi Walamies: 10-5
Jon Finkel: 10-5

In short, 11-4 is definitely going to make the cut, and 10-5 is probably good enough to make the finals.

To make that cut, I’m almost certainly going to have to go 10-5. As I said, the good news is that Vintage is one of the five formats. But even assuming I sweep that format, I’ll need to pick up at least seven more wins from four other categories. Going 3-0, 2-1, 2-1, and 0-3 in the other four formats is good enough to do it. Also, going 2-1, 2-1, 2-1, and 1-2 or 3-0, 3-0, 1-2, and 1-2 would do it at as well.

We also know something else about what the other formats might be. We know that Auction of the People is the Legacy format, Alphabet design. I submitted a deck for that format, so I have a very good idea of what the decks will be capable of doing. The real skill in that format will be the bidding. Knowing how to properly value each deck in terms of both life and starting hand size in the context of a fast moving, frenetic auction war will be the key to that format. That format should be the easiest of the unknowns to break. Once those decklists go public, I’ll need to thoroughly test each and every one against each other. There will be no unknowns in that regard. You’ll have the ability to see how each deck functions against each other and change variables to see where the competitive balance falls. The advantage here will go to people who have tested these decks the most. The key will be arbitrage. It will be to exploit gaps in player valuation. To gauge what others value the various decks at and try to get a solid deck cheaply. The only unknown will be how people will bid for decks after you’ve already won yours. If you are bidding early on in the process, there is always a possibility that another player may get a better deck more cheaply than you thought.

As for the other formats, we must begin to speculate, but tradition holds that two of the five formats are Limited. In 2000, the two Limited formats were Solomon Draft and Duplicate Sealed. In 2001, the two Limited formats were Rotisserie Draft and Duplicate Limited. In 2002, restricted to MTGO, the formats were Rochester Draft and Two-Headed Giant. In 2004, the formats were Pack Draft (where all the players drafted from each available set) and Rochester. In 2005, the formats were Invasion Booster Draft and Sealed Deck using Vanguard. Last year, the formats were Mirage-Visions Booster Draft and Duplicate Sealed.

Aside from drafting Type 4, I’m mediocre at Limited. While I really enjoy Limited, I’m definitely not good enough at the format to win a PTQ. Limited requires, like all formats, technical playskill, but it also brings to bear skills that aren’t tested at all in other formats: card valuations in a rapidly changing draft environment, signaling, and so forth. My very infrequent drafts will put me at a pretty big disadvantage even in Duplicate Sealed, where knowledge of and experience with the card pool being distorted will provide a base of knowledge from which to make evaluative decisions. That said, we will all be working with the same card pool in Duplicated Sealed. There will be no surprises once the cards are unveiled.

I’m hoping that Mark Rosewater takes the opportunity of returning, perhaps for this year alone, to cardboard formats, to run something completely different. The further the formats are from those that are featured on the Pro Tour, the better my chances are, and the more fun it will be anyway. Of the formats that have been run before, I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing Duplicate Sealed built upon a theme. I would have full knowledge of each of the cards in the format, so no surprises, and I wouldn’t have to suffer if I made a misstep in the draft itself. Any normal error would no doubt be exploited in a draft. But in a draft against the best players in the world, it would be a giant gaping hole to exploit. Small errors no doubt are magnified in that context.

I could theoretically see MaRo rolling up some unprecedented Limited Format into Two-Headed Giant. (Two-Headed Giant is fine by me – I can hang my fortunes on the skills of some other Pro!) Since Two-Headed Giant is a format they’ve been promoting of late, it seems like a realistic possibility. I would imagine that doing 2HG with some wacky card pool would be a lot of fun. I’m not sure they’d go for it (for rules reasons if little else), but I would really enjoy Unhinged Two-Headed Giant. Plus, it would be an opportunity to feature the “Un” sets. How sweet would Arabian Nights Limited be in Two-Headed Giant (or Portal Three Kingdoms!!)? In any case, I’m going to try to get some practice with the Duplicate Limited card pools that were used in previous Invitationals. They have a page that lists all of the cards and invites you to build a deck and see how it would compare with the Pros. It reminds me of those practice law school exams professors would have on file.

After speaking with Mr. Chapin, he says that there are some key subtleties to Solomon Draft. I plan on traveling up to Michigan to practice it.

Finally, I’m hoping that they use this opportunity to return to the Block Party using the full panoply of Magic expansion sets. I.e., I hope they open the door to using every Block, including the Blocks that aren’t on Magic Online. Since Coldsnap is now a part of Ice Age, this will give players an opportunity to play proper Ice Age Block. This is a format I could really enjoy playing.

After all, who wouldn’t enjoy playing multiple Yawgmoth’s Will in the same deck?

Until next time,

Stephen Menendian