Sullivan Library – The Bittersweet Return and a Few Lessons

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Pro Tour: Valencia was destined to become Adrian Sullivan’s triumphant return to the higher echelons of the game. Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as well as he’d hoped… but he still left the sunny Spanish shores with plenty of lessons by which we can all hope to improve our game. If you’re serious about reaching the next level, let Adrian show you how…

A brief word before I begin. You won’t find much Magic here. This is much more about the magic of the Pro Tour than Magic at the Pro Tour.


It’s been a few years since I went to a Pro Tour. God. I can’t help it, but when I look at those words or I say them out loud, it bothers me. Valencia represented something big to me. Valencia was a chance, if I did well enough, to return with pride to the fold of the Pro Tour. I spent a lot of time working on my deck for the event, and practiced whenever I could find the time.

I played the Rock at Valencia. I shucked out an incredible amount of money for cards (most particularly Tarmogoyf), and ran with my heavy bags to just barely make my flight out of the country. I thought I would miss the event. As chance would have it, I didn’t (silly flooding), but there was no way anyone would have known that…

Valencia is over. I went an underwhelming 5-5, but I don’t think that I’d change a single thing about the deck I was playing. Even if I didn’t do nearly as well as I would have hoped, one of the things that I did was provide me a huge reminder about why it is that I want to be on the Pro Tour. It’s not just an attempt to explore my competitive nature, it is the experience that is the Pro Tour itself.

Magic is one of my driving forces, and probably has been for most of my adult life. Sometimes I’ll run into a friend that I haven’t seen in some time and they’ll ask me what is going on in my life. Inevitably, as of late, I’ll answer it the exact same way. Life is so incredibly good, I’ll say, but I often hesitate to go into the specific details. It seems hard to convey the sheer pleasure I’m getting out of living right now. I’m writing regularly again, something that I really enjoy. I’ve been living with my incredible girlfriend, and things are going wonderfully. I’ve finally returned to school to finish up that degree that I never finished. I’ve been seeing a lot of live music (ah, Madison!) and just lazing it up in cafes here. And I’ve been playing Magic.

When I was growing up, by the time I was in high school, I was throwing myself into competitions of all kinds. I loved the feeling of putting myself up against someone else and seeing how I measured up. I was somewhat of a cross country and track star, and also applied my brain in things like forensics and debate. When time for college came around, I found it nearly impossible to continue to pursue these things at the UW-Madison. My former teammates, a few years ahead of me at the UW, had been state champions in cross country and track and they worked incredibly hard but still hadn’t become a part of the varsity team here. I love competition, but a part of that involves actually beating competitive.

Into that void came Magic. After quickly learning how woefully unprepared I was for the infant tournament scene in 1995, I quickly tried to get up to speed. It took me a few years, but I qualified for my first Pro Tour in Chicago, and began my journey. Rookie Randy Buehler would win that event (qualifying for the tournament with Elipoise, the Sands of TimeEquipoise combo deck designed by my Cabal Rogue collaborator Elihu Feustel), and I would be hooked.

Over the years, I found my niche. Sometimes I could be a great player, but usually, I was an okay player. And, of course, sometimes I was a terrible player, as many Madison players are happy to point out when they get a chance. I think I am, however, a fantastic thinker about Magic. I’d be willing to bet that if you’ve played Magic for more than a few years, you’re likely to have played a deck or archetype I designed, and that’s a pretty exciting feeling.

When I look at what the Pro Tour has become, compared to what it used to be, I’m almost bewildered. It’s a pleased kind of bewildered. So often it seems like the Pro Tours aren’t merely in amazing cities, they are actually in venues that are almost mind-numbingly beautiful. The recovery from the flood, so skillfully managed by a crack staff, is a testament to the quality of work that Wizards puts into the event. Scott Larabee laughed and told me he struggles imagining what on earth they would have done back in the old days.

The modern Pro Tour is so much more than it ever used to be in the old days. Flying players out to the Pro Tour after they win qualifiers, the Pro Player club, the Pro Player lounge, and so many other little, tiny innovations have made the Pro Tour into something awesome. All of the wonderful things from the old days are still there, but they are also supported by this well-developed framework that almost takes your breath away.

Extended Decks

I worked hard on the deck that I played in Valencia, and I have to say that I think that my lackluster performance with the deck can be attributed to a pair of factors. First of all, Extended is currently a format of inches. If you look at the decks in the format, largely because of how explored this format is, if you are a solid player, you can expect to find wins from any deck that you might play. There is, however, a range of expected results you could get from a deck.

Take Tron. I would expect, in general, your typical expected result with a Tron deck would place you somewhere between the top 5% to 75% of the field. That’s an incredible range of potential results, akin to saying that, at Valencia, a solid player might likely get a result of anywhere between 20th to 300th if you were to play and replay the event numerous times. A truly exemplary player piloting the deck, like Quentin Martin, is going to push that result towards the top end, but I still would imagine that it would take a serious bit of luck to push above that top end, even for a player like him.

Similarly, pure Psychatog might have a range of 7.5% to 55% (30th to 220th), and in the hands of a player like Paul Cheon, you would expect to see him push things towards the top end of things. Now, this is not to say that these particular percentages that I’m giving are hard and fast. In these two cases, they represent a gut check that I have for the range of results that it seems like will generally happen for a deck. Getting outside of your range is bound to happen if you replay an event 1000 times (or simply look at any one result), but this is the generally territory that a deck will live in.

Take my deck. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that the Rock deck that I played was the absolute best deck at the tournament (which I’m not claiming it is, but who knows, maybe it was). Its range is still in the .25% to 50% (1st to 200th), and I would hazard to guess that the fifth best deck at the tournament would probably have incredibly similar stats.

What this means for those of you coming into the new Extended season is that you literally have a wide-open field to choose from. There will definitely be decks, however well that they placed at the Pro Tour, that you should not place in your hands at a PTQ. The range of value of return for these decks is ridiculously wide, and if you aren’t a Paul Cheon, for example, you aren’t going to get the rate of return on Psychatog that he did. Now, your opponents aren’t likely to be Paul Cheon either, but I would hazard a guess that Psychatog is much less likely to be the right choice for you than a deck that has a much higher rate of return (say, just as an example, Goblins).

In Valencia, I definitely performed on the lower end of what I feel is the expected range for the deck. I attribute this to a lot of things, not the least of which was how off my game I got after the flood. I was so prepared and ready to play on Friday morning, but found myself somewhat shaken and less mentally prepared on Saturday morning. By the end of the day, I know that I threw away two matches that I’m aware of (I’m sure Eric Taylor would claim I probably made at least six other colossal errors of which I’m simply unaware).


All of this brings me to a number of lessons that all come to mind because of specific people in Valencia.

A Lesson from Zac Hill

Zac and I talked a lot in Valencia. He’s got this fantastic level of energy and is just as sharp as a tack. As we were going over the deck that he played, and the rationales for all kinds of numbers in the deck (he claims it is one of the tightest decks that he’s ever built), I was struck by how much thought he’d put into every single one of the decisions in his deck. While I don’t have enough information to know if I’d agree with all of his conclusions or that his answers to problems were the best available or not, he very successfully convinced me that his choices were not something that he’d arrived at without a lot of rigorous thought (contrary to some of the things that I’d heard from critics of his deck at the event itself).

Sitting around with Zac as “Day 3” played out, he said something that reminded me of my own feelings about myself when it comes to Magic. “I’m not going to do great at an event like this because I have some great degree of play skill over any of the best players here or anything. I have to get my edges from my deck. If I’m going to do well at the Pro Tour, it will be because my deck is better.”

I definitely agree with this sentiment. Almost ten years ago, I was listed as one of the top players in the game to not have a Pro Tour Top 8. I don’t think that that was actually true (as anyone who has seen some of my truly donkheaded plays can attest), but having the right weapon for a tournament can go a long way. For the last two major events that I was at, this Pro Tour and Grand Prix: Columbus, I feel like I definitely could have won the event on the strength of my deck. I didn’t, but I think I could.

Know your strengths and weaknesses. If you aren’t going to be the best player in the room, find your edges in your deck choice, whether it is by playing a great sideboard card, having a well-tested rogue deck, or what-have-you.

A Lesson from Owen Turtenwald

Owen seemed to be having a blast almost all of the weekend. All before the event, he struggled with what to play, slipping and sliding between an almost “infi” number of decks, as he might say. Towards the end, he was looking at my Rock, Goblins, and Affinity, but completely unable to really settle on something.

In a lot of ways this reminded me of his uncertainty before Grand Prix: Columbus. In the end, a number of his ICBM teammates (though, I’m told, primarily [email protected] DeGraff) told him to go with what he knows. He knows Goblins inside and out, and he was able to take it to 2nd place.

In Valencia, if nothing else, by choosing Goblins, Owen put himself in the enviable position of being so intimately familiar with his deck that he knows almost unconsciously what kinds of choices to make with the deck. Between rounds, even after a loss, he was full of jokes and constantly making fun of his friends, of himself, of his opponents, and just about anyone. Knowing his deck like he did let him actually relax and be pretty refreshed between rounds.

If all things are equal, go with what you know. Even go with what you know if things are somewhat less than equal. A deck might be the best deck in the room, but that doesn’t mean it is going to be the best in the room in your hands.

A Lesson from One of the Sliver Kids

Jacob van Lunen is one of the Sliver Kids that won our first (of hopefully many) Two-Headed Giant Pro Tours. Waiting for coffee in the Pro Player Lounge (god, what an amazing development), I met Jacob van Lunen. As we all fought over the food and coffee like jackals over a discarded kill, eventually he and I clawed our way out to some tables to lounge about before the round began.

At some point I found out who he was, and we talked about his Pro Tour win as a rookie. This got me asking him more about his specific strategy for that event. One of the things that drove me crazy about talking to a number of people that railed against the luck of the Sliver Kids, even from people normally seem more even-keeled about these kinds of things.

In my reading of the coverage of that Pro Tour, it seemed to me that the Sliver Kids had totally explored Slivers so thoroughly that they could easily distinguish between sub-archetypes and recognize the value of paths opening up before them in ways that others didn’t actually recognize.

One of the biggest misconceptions about Limited is that people win by drafting what other people aren’t drafting. “People just didn’t draft Slivers,” they say, about people like the Sliver Kids. This is such a huge mistake. The actual key is knowing the format so incredibly well that you’re going to be able to identify the underplayed powerhouse at the table. This is much more difficult to do in a non-Rochester environment, but it is still eminently doable. If you have identified a strategy that is far and above other strategies, you need to be able to know it so well that you can make the right call even when your options are going poorly. Mike Hron rode that knowledge to success with Black in Geneva, and the Sliver Kids rode that same knowledge to their victory.

They won because they simply knew the format better that their opponents.

Jacob was really nonplussed about all of the negative attention. Shrugging everything off, he just looked like he was having fun living the life that the Pro Tour was granting him. Traveling the world is, in itself, pretty incredible. The people on the Pro Tour can be harsh, but a lot of them are such great, fun people, that you can mostly ignore the rough spats. Jacob is exactly one of those positive faces now likely to be a staple on the Tour. I’m really glad that I met him; it was a true pleasure.

One Last Lesson, from Mr. Storyteller

Evan Erwin.

What an awesome guy. I had never met Evan before when he came over to introduce himself. We talked a while about this and that, and just had a few great moments chatting for several minutes. After he had left, someone commented that I’d been really nice to him. And why not? He seemed like a great guy.

I talked with Evan about this later. A lot of people have given Evan some grief about his Q’ing for the PT off his winning the Storyteller ballot for the Invitational. Now, regardless of whether or not this “policy” of Wizards is a good idea (I think, actually, that it is a poor idea), the fact of the matter is this: whether he’s invited to the Pro Tour or not, Evan is just a great guy.

All of you that voted for him for the Invitational don’t need to be told this. You already know. Let me tell you something you might not know, though. Evan puts a lot of work into what he’s done. Time and time again, I saw him taking great efforts to find someone and just talk to them on camera. He was always so fun, and funny, and kind.

He said that he’d heard a lot of crap about how awful Pro Players can be, but for the most part he’d had a great experience thus far. And that’s the way it is. It’s the nature of our memories. We will remember the bad beats and forget the good. And thus it is with the Pro Tour player. “Pros” have a bad reputation, and it’s largely because of the nature of our memories, where we remember the arrogant jerk-off who made us feel like almost nothing, but don’t remember as easily the nice game against someone who happened to be a regular or semi-regular on the tour.

Evan totally got this, though. Yeah, he’d gotten a lot of bad beats in the forums from random loudmouths. And I imagine that he’s probably heard random pro chatter that was kind of aggravating. But the fact of the matter is that he was there at the Big Game, and he was having the time of his life. He was enjoying himself, and preparing to tell all of us more stories. He loves telling stories, and maybe that’s why he won that ballot (which he deserved).

There’s a ton of people that might be willing to chip away at you, but that doesn’t mean you have to make it matter to you. There is so much to enjoy in this world. For those of us that play Magic, maybe even more so. Evan knows this, and he’s out there, joyously collecting stories to share with all of us.

Thanks, Evan. The game is better with your involvement.


There are so many other lessons I could call upon right now, but I’ll be honest: I’m dead tired from such a harrowing weekend, and I’m literally writing down all of these thoughts as they come to me in various airports. With any luck, this will actually make it to be printed in time. If it is delayed, I hope everyone enjoyed some of my thoughts inspired by the Pro Tour.

I have a lot I’d love to talk about for the near future. I could talk about the post-Lorwyn Extended. I could talk about Samuel Korsell’s very intriguing Staff of Domination combo deck for Extended (he beat me round 1). I could talk about States. I could talk about the Rock deck I played at the Pro Tour.

What do you think I should talk about? I’m game. If one of you is especially convincing in the forums, then I’ll write about whatever you say, and tell everyone why I thought your call was the right call.

Until then, I’ll be brainstorming for States. It’s so soon. God, so much work to do. Wish me luck.

Adrian Sullivan