The Definitive Tourney Report, Parts I & II: The Cost Of Convenience. A Plan For Sharpie. Card Signings. Intensity Theory.

I told you I’d be back. It was a while ago that I had to take my leave of you, the most wonderful audience a writer could hope for, in order to do a little life maintenance. And now we’re about to find out what I’ve got left in the tank, because a story needs to be told, and I have arrived to do the telling.

I told you I’d be back.

It was a while ago that I had to take my leave of you, the most wonderful audience a writer could hope for, in order to do a little life maintenance. Nothing big… A little paint, new carpet here and there, you understand…but enough to keep me out of the writing game for a while. The question is, what remains of the drive and instinct and whatever little talent I might have had clinging to my nerves and ganglia? Hopefully enough, for the sake of your senses and my ego.

So did the pen pass me by, or no? This I wonder. Twelve rounds across from a monitor is thirsty work for the soul – especially if you want a bombastic bang, and not T.S. Eliot’s proverbial whimper. In any case, we’re about to find out what I’ve got left in the tank, because a story needs to be told, and I have arrived to do the telling.

What’s happened?

Well, can’t you guess? Lando and friends have busted me out of my cellphone-selling carbonite prison for one more go around at StarCity, and this time I’m here to spill my guts about PT: Chicago. Life signs are normal, despite months of literary inactivity. You’ll be pleased to know that I still breathe air, eat food, and play Magic, and I’m currently exhibiting few (if any) of the ill-effects commonly found in someone who spends each afternoon embedded in fleshy, sweating walls of cubicle hell. When you’re pining away the hours, explaining Nextel company policy to people who still believe the earth is flat, things sometimes seem bleak. A good day is when I can scare the customers into making their orders slightly less fraudulent.

But I manage.

It feels good to do this again. I have exorcised the demons of cellular technology, if only for a brief time. Declare, if though hast understanding.

In a sense I never really left, so this trip back won’t be such a chore. This is in stark contrast to my last hiatus from the written word, during which I wasn’t playing Magic at all. I was gathering dust at my computer, playing online games with Jamie Wakefield and a bunch of other people I now can’t stand. Life is full of little ironies.

For those interested, an excursion into online gaming wasn’t the most productive way to spend a year and a half. I could have learned a language in that time, and still had the spare seconds to get someone’s name (P Diddy, maybe?) tattooed on my rear end. That being as it may, I’m happy to say that things were a little different for this vacation. First of all, I was making money, not spending it. Well, okay, you got me – I was doing both. Second, I kept on playing. Limited, that is. I haven’t touched a Constructed deck in four months, but I don’t feel any the worse for it – I was never much of a deckbuilder anyhow.

(It’s funny. Some are builders, some are users, and I’m definitely the latter. Such is the way of things. I trust more for me that which was made by another – and come a major Constructed event, I have the bleary, half-mad article-surfer eyes to prove it. And that’s just the attention required to find the deck. Playing it is another matter.)

In Limited, I think I was as ready as I could have been for the Pro Tour. I’d been drafting anywhere from one to four times a week (I know, I know… chickenfeed compared to some), and absorbing what I could of the format. The ins. The outs. The little peccadilloes that make each iteration of Limited a unique entity. Plus, I was reading articles by Nick Eisel, Gary Wise, and others, and when the opportunity was within my reach I would actually go out and try the things they suggested. Add to that what little I could learn on my own, and you’ve got a fair recipe for preparation. Salt to taste.

I. The Road. Drafting. The Cost Of Convenience. A Plan For Sharpie.

Chicago was an experience. The motorists reminded me of the stories people told about Ryan Fuller and how he would ask “Are you done?” almost even before an opponent’s turn had started. Chicago motorists were like this, as they would begin honking at you if you hadn’t started moving forward 0.0001 of a second after the switch from red to green. The cabbies were the worst offenders here, often unloading an earful of horn after only the slightest of hesitations. The streets were beautifully lit at night, but you could catch your death of cold by standing outside to admire the colors – with the wind chill, temperatures were obscene. It was so cold that I forgot which gender I was after walking a block.

It was nice to see the offices of the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune, and not so nice to get asked for change by every clown who was”thirty-five cents short of a Big and Tasty Burger,” as one such requester proclaimed. The skyline was peppered with buildings, both large and small – many of them aberrations to a mid-size city dweller like myself. Towering office buildings. Freakish, cylindrical parking garages climbing untold stories into the blue. “That’s not a parking garage,” I thought to myself. “That’s one of those things from ‘The Matrix’ where they store human batteries.”

I won’t tell you too much about the preliminaries of the voyage to “The Windy City.” It was a fairly standard affair, what with asking friends to go, making hotel arrangements, arranging for time off work (sorry Tex, you’ll have to get a cell phone from someone else) and the like. One integral part of the planning was when I set out to determine which cards I could bring to get signed by my favorite Pro Players.

For some, it’s fairly straightforward.

Other decisions are tougher. What if the appropriate card is something the Pro might not want to sign? Or maybe there are two appropriate choices? And what if the card isn’t worth signing?

In the case of Eisel, I wouldn’t even have to bring the Starstorms – any time he plays in a Limited event, he’s always got plenty of them in his pocket. Not sure why. Then, of course, there’s the question of availability.

And what if having a certain signature might actually LOWER the value of the card?

  • Peter Szigeti ———–> Kaboom!

Despite all the pratfalls and pitfalls inherent in the decision-making process, I was able to assemble a small glass holder full of cards to be signed. I’m pleased to relate that all Pros were quite gracious and friendly, although Kai did seem to physically recoil from the oblong, abdomen-thrusting art on Voidmage Prodigy.

The trip down was uneventful. We played “Twenty Questions” with Magic cards being the only possible answers, and I was able to stump the rest of the car with the little-known Sewers Of Estark. Junk food was consumed, maps were bandied about and folded with the type of ineptitude that only seems to creep into your fingers when you’re trying to fold a map, and wrong turns were narrowly avoided. John Labute, my longtime friend and teammate, was the driver. This was probably a wise decision, since I had four near-collisions driving to Cleveland.

G-Money. When the roads get foreign, stoplights are what I be ignorin’. Don’t let Geordie behind the wheel if you’re anywhere outside of Sarnia. Arrive alive, and in full control of your physical faculties.

Drafting this set is an interesting little question, a question to which there are many answers, some of them better than others. I qualified with R/W, playing a deck that was so fast that I ran fifteen land (four of which were Forgotten Cave), seven one-drops, ten two-drops, and a few big finishers that I picked up late – Gratuitous Violence and Menacing Ogre. The deck made use of some of my favorite underplayed cards, namely Crown of Fury and Custody Battle, plus two Sparksmiths and a bunch of Soldiers. I would draft R/W for many drafts afterward, and enjoy great success with some combination of Soldiers, Goblins, burn, and white tricks. I was underdrafting Daru Lancer and overdrafting Skirk Commando. I was succeeding because I wasn’t running into solid B/G decks. I was getting late cycling lands, but I still hadn’t fully realized the importance of those lands in the grand scheme of things.

Then I started drafting B/R. I would hoard all the removal at the table and sometimes first-pick Wretched Anurid, and run people over. Eventually people started getting wise to the fact that Wellwisher decks were crap and that Black and Red were the only true colors, so I had to learn to draft other things. I tried a lot of R/G (I was getting Wirewood Savage really late, locally), some B/G, and even took a few runs at U/W as suggested by a talented Ontario player by the name of Pete Danforth. At the same London PTQ, I heard a conversation regarding the strength of Lightning Rift, and pursued an education on the”Rift deck” over the course of the following weeks.

The conversation was something like this:

Mark Zadjner:”I’d take Lightning Rift over Sparksmith.”

Ed Ito:”What? Get @$%% down and get busy on my @#$%”

Mark Zadjner:”Well, in pack 1.”

Ed Ito:”Well…okay.”

I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

The last two archetypes I tried to master were B/W Clerics, and U/R. I got pretty good at both before PT Chicago came calling, but I still made a bad pick or two, most notably my choice of Thoughtbound Primoc over Pinpoint Avalanche during Draft 1. No less an authority than Jon Finkel would declare the pick”obviously bad” – and in hindsight, I’m inclined to agree.

But wait… Before we get too far, let me tell you about the Hotel 71. It was too ritzy for the likes of us. We had to get out of there quick, before the money was all gone. The bathroom was the size of an entire suite at the Holiday Inn, and parking was $32.00 a day. Hell, in Canada that almost gets you a car. Amenities were priced like the pharaohs had returned. Sure, you could walk into your hotel room and buy an”Intimacy Kit” (as opposed to the Motel 6, where you run across the highway and get either Trojans or Saran wrap), but at what cost? After unburdening myself of $20.00 US for two Pepsis and a couple of ribbed Ramses, I’d probably be firing blanks regardless of how comely the hogbeast in question.

It was called Hotel 71 because it was on 71 E Wacker drive. Now, Wacker drive is a great name for a road – it’s almost as good as the little pavement path we traversed on the way to GP Cleveland – Fangboner Road. That being said, Wacker Drive is the only street I’ve ever seen where you can go from South Wacker to North Wacker to East Wacker to West Wacker, without ever making a turn or leaving the actual road itself. As a result of this topographical tomfoolery, we didn’t know what the hell was going on once we’d hit the city proper. Near the end, I was ready to fold up the map and see if I could get better results by following the magnetic deposits in my nose.

I mean, four different streets in one? That’s quite a tally of Wackers!


The elevator in the place was an ear-popping contraption that would repeatedly inflict Apollo Mission-style G-forces on the occupants (is this a lift or a time warp? Does this thing say TARDIS on it? Where the blazes are we headed? Through the roof?), but it got us to where we were going, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much. The toilet was the power model, flushing with the force and decibel level of a small-scale pneumatic implosion device. Plenty of closet space. Two bedside tables, and a desk with lamp. A breathtaking view of the Chicago streets. And right next to the venue! What more could a man ask for?

Well… It would be nice to pay less than $3.00 for breakfast orange juice, but hey – someone has to foot the bill for those lobby renovations. I’m not a man of great means, but for Chicago, I’ll pay $3.00 for an orange juice. The story is free, and that makes it alright. A writer can live cheap for along while, in fact. The story is always free.

II. A Rough Start For The Sarnians. Card Signings. The Humanization Of Finkel. Intensity Theory.

The venue was a beating. Sure, Chicago is the windy city, and your berries are liable to shrink to the size of raisins on the walk to and from the Marriot, but it’s a small price to pay if you want to see Magic: The Gathering in full effect. Television monitors,”The Pit,” dealer tables, confection stand, tons of big names, product being busted and passed as far as the eye can see. Sideboard reporters buzzing around like fruit flies over an apple that’s gone a little soft. Yellows and blues in big swathes of fabric and plastic fronting, the walls festooned with logos and informational charts.

The last chance qualifier didn’t start for a while, so I walked around to see who I could see. Zvi jumped right out at me immediately, because he’s hard to miss. You can find the man with any of your five senses if you try hard enough – he’s frenetic, brilliant, he’s the quintessential gamer. It took me a while to fumble the card holder out of my pocket and find the foil Yawgmoth’s Bargain – but I did, and the signing went down as planned. My Sharpie, purchased at Shopper’s Drugmart, was a virgin no more.

Next, I was able to grab Kai, and the aforementioned recoiling incident occurred. Well, to be honest, it was less a recoiling, and more of a”tsk-tsk” sound that he made with his mouth; the sort of clicking noise you automatically associate with mild distaste or disapproval. Before getting the card signed, I was able to listen in on Kai and Marco speaking actual German, which was interesting because I’d never actually heard people speak that language before, except on television. It sounded pretty much like I expected, even though they weren’t saying things like “You will never escape, Dr. Jones!” or “My name is Oberlieutnant Kupenfuhrer Wolfcastle…and here’s McBain!”

Dave Price was drafting, but in between games I sidled up to him with Sharpie, foil Jackal Pup and foil Mogg Fanatic in hand, my body language and trappings leaving little room for misunderstanding as to my purpose. He was all too glad to sign the cards before going back to his draft. I wouldn’t see much of Dave throughout the remainder of the proceedings, but he did drop by on Saturday evening to partake in the conversation that Josh Bennett was conducting concerning the difficulties involved with being sincere as opposed to putting on a false front. After offering his insights, he drifted off, and I didn’t see him again, but I’ll always have the cards.

Brian Kibler I got later that afternoon. I was hesitant to approach him because I know there are a couple of guys who look like him but who aren’t him, and also because he has headphones on a lot, creating a sort of”do not disturb” vibe. Nonetheless, I was able to marshal all of my courage, and I walked away one signed Rith and one experience richer. Brian has gained a smidgen of weight in the last while, but according to the grapevine (and only a few of the stories are apocryphal, no doubt) he still cuts a mean rug and carries himself well.

Jon Finkel was one of the last to take up the pen on my behalf. I’d seen him numerous times throughout the day, and as you might expect from a fanboy like myself, I was slightly awed by his almost supernatural presence. In the mid-afternoon, before getting the card signed, I had occasion to sidle up lengthwise to a conversation that Jon was having with some fellow players. They seemed to be joking around with each other, and as I leaned in the direction of the rhubarb and concentrated my ears, I was able to catch a sentence coming out of Finkel’s mouth as he offered reprisals to a less-than-complimentary appraisal of his skills. Needless to say, I was interested. Jon Finkel, debating the points of the game with his contemporaries? What a golden opportunity to bask in the presence of a true master, to learn by osmosis a level of skill and precision that would normally take a month of hard knocks to reproduce!

As such, it was with great anticipation that I awaited Jon’s reply.

“Suck my left nut,” said Jon, in jovial tones.

Well, that made it a lot easier to get the card signed. It turns out Jon is a little like me.

Now, while I was doing all of this, my companions were really tanking it in the Last Chance Qualifier. John had dropped after an 0-3 start. Mike”Jersey” Clark had likewise gone winless. Andy Kornet was 1-2 and likely to play until he got tired of it (the man went 1-6 at GP Cleveland, but dropped before Round 8 to protect the ol’ rating). I have no idea what went wrong, but I do know that Jersey misbuilt his deck, John got some bad draws (he may have also misbuilt his deck – I personally wouldn’t splash a Complicate), and Andy is…2ell, Andy. The man once played three Accursed Centaurs, and his favorite T2 deck is UpheavalHypnox.

John, sitting with me in the hotel room a little later, could only say shake his head and say “What a disappointment.” Truth be told, I didn’t know what to say to him in return. John, a mild-mannered thirtysomething equipped with Ned Flanders pushbroom mustache and glasses, has improved a lot in Limited of late, but unfortunately he couldn’t get it done on that day. Truth be told, I’d been hoping that be might make a run at qualifying. To be trounced 0-3 isn’t easy to take, though to John’s credit, he handled it a lot better than I would have.

I play Magic with an intensity that grown men usually reserve for war and sex. Sarnia’s own Jean-Marc Babin, sometime writer for mtgontario.com and one of the more talented players in town, once told me that I looked”pretty intense” when I was playing for the slot in Garden City. My only response to that (and this has become my standard response to anyone who asks me why I look like I’m about to cry anytime I have to drop from an event) was to say, “I didn’t come here to lose.”

It sounds like so much macho rhetoric, of course – but if you can ignore that, it’s very true. Losing is not part of my plan when I show up at an event, and as such, losing is not something I handle without needing a little time to collect myself. The bigger the event or the more disastrous the result, the more time I need. I’ve come to accept this part of myself, and a trait that I used to see as a sign of immaturity I now accept as a reflection of just how much I strive to be good at this game.

I’m not the only one touched by this curse. Losing is never easy when you expect great things of yourself, and I think I know about a hundred young men who spent at least part of the weekend feeling some version of what my friend John was feeling. Sure, the next day you’ll be out drafting, drinking, horsing around, but for a while everything just seems gray.

If hurt had a color, that would be it. Grey. Grey as a sky that isn’t planning to change much, and cold as the water at deep fathoms.