New York City. February, 1996. I am fifteen years old — a freshman in high school. It’s a frigid winter weekend in the Big Apple. The snowstorm raging outside has shut down much of the city. My flight had been one of the last allowed to land at the airport, but the weather was the last thing on my mind. I sat up late, nervous, for the tournament that would start in the morning – the first ever event of the Black Lotus Pro Tour.
Columbus. Summer 1997. It’s the last round of the U.S. National Championships. After winning the last grinder at 5am the morning of the tournament, I am now playing against Jeff Butz for a spot in the Top 8. I lose a heartbreaking game 3, leaving me to watch on the sidelines as Justin Gary takes down the title.
Toronto. One month later. Playing an Ophidian deck I worked on with future-WotC R&D member Brian Schneider, I find myself in the Top 8 of Grand Prix: Toronto. Three more future WotC R&D members later (Mike Turian, Matt Place, and Erik Lauer), and the championship is mine. Along with it comes an ever-growing hunger for even greater glory…
Chicago. November, 2000. After several years away from Magic to focus on other pursuits in high school, I unexpectedly receive a ratings invite to Pro Tour: Chicago during my sophomore year of college. A Rith and an Armadillo Cloak later and a taste of that long-desired glory is mine, but after my loss to Kai Budde in the semifinals, I am left wanting even more.
Sydney, Australia. August, 2002. I am one win away from Top 8 of the World Championships, playing against Carlos Romao. My Mono Black Control deck is in a powerful position against his U/G Threshold deck, with Mirari and almost limitless mana thanks to Cabal Coffers. A single slip — failing to copy my Haunting Echoes and allowing it to get countered by Envelop — brings my hopes of a major championship crashing down to earth. Carlos goes on to win the tournament. I do not.
Boston. February 2003. My senior year of college, at a tournament close enough to home that my mother could come watch me play. On the back of a draft deck featuring Akroma, Angel of Wrath, I take home my second Grand Prix title — six years after the first. I’m excited to finally have a trophy, but it’s not the one I want…
To say that my win in Austin was a long time coming would be something of an understatement. I have been playing competitive Magic for over half my life. I played in the first pro tour as a fifteen year old high school freshman. I just turned twenty-nine in September, and my ten year high school reunion was this past summer — the weekend after my Top 8 in Honolulu. I have taken multiple breaks from the game, but that hunger to win never quite went away.
I arrived in Austin the Monday prior to the pro tour. I was coming directly from a crazy week in Las Vegas during which my only exposure to Magic was a draft at Panorama Towers with the local Magic players turned poker phenomena. I felt like the time away from testing helped give me a fresher perspective when we got down to the final days. When you’re in the thick of testing for weeks straight leading up to an event, it’s easy to get caught up in the momentum of where you’re going. It’s like Josh Waitzkin in Searching for Bobby Fischer. “I wasn’t even allowed to talk about chess… just fish.” (Searching for Bobby Fischer, by the way, is one of the absolute best gamer movies of all time. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it right now. My report will still be here when you get back. I’m serious. Go.)
After Honolulu, I’d decided that I really liked having a central location for everyone to hang out and test leading up to the pro tour, so I took the lead on arranging a rental house for Austin. The place we rented wasn’t quite as extravagant as the baller beach house in Hawaii, but it was certainly more than sufficient for our motley crew. I was the first one to the house to collect the keys, and the very nervous landlord explained to me how his neighbors had called the police on one of the last renters because they’d been too loud outside at night, and the last people who stayed in the place were a couple in their 60’s, and oh-god-please-don’t-destroy-my-house.
The crew trickled in over the days leading up to the event and the gaming never stopped. We went through nearly a case of Zendikar in our drafts (but never opened a single treasure!) and had rotating Extended testing all the time. I discussed the details of our preparation in my last article, so I won’t go into it much here, but I think it is interesting to note that the house fairly readily split into two camps. Chapin, Herberholz, and Nassif were all pretty much committed to playing the Gifts deck they’d been working on over the previous several weeks, while Sperling, Rubin, MJ, and I weren’t happy with it and were looking for something else. Paul Rietzl was in a camp all his own, which was “hope no one remembers Ancient Grudge is legal,” since he’d been committed to playing Affinity since long before he showed up. Williams was waffling back and forth between Affinity and Gifts while occasionally poking his head in to see what the rest of us were brewing up.
Finally, Thursday night was upon us. We all made our way over to the tournament site to register, find cards, and get a sense of what to expect from the metagame. The buzz everywhere was about Dark Depths. This was somewhat surprising to us, since we never found a Dark Depths deck in our testing that we were terribly happy with. It also wasn’t terribly informative, since there are so many ways to build Dark Depths that it’s hard to say what you’d need to look out for in a Marit Lage-infested metagame. We also heard significant buzz about both Affinity and Dredge, but surprisingly little about Hypergenesis.
After picking up everything we thought we needed, we headed back to the house for last minute brewing, particularly for the sideboard. With what metagame knowledge we had picked up, our sideboarding plans changed drastically. Gone were the Chalice of the Voids, Silences, and Rule of Laws aimed at Hypergenesis alone. Rubin, Sperling, and I sat up into the wee hours debating the right mix of hate cards for the various matchups, and it was in this late night brewfest that we finally settled on Blood Moon as a virtual lock against Hypergenesis that could prove powerful against other decks as well, since it shut down Dark Depths as well as any number of other decks that weren’t prepared for it. Ghost Quarter had made its way into the main deck as a response to the popularity of Dark Depths, and that same popularity led to the rest of them finding a home in the sideboard. When I decided to head to sleep well after midnight, the rest of our sideboard was Tormod’s Crypt and Gaddock Teeg, but when I wandered back into the kitchen after a bout of insomnia, Rubin and Sperling were talking Meddling Mage against Dredge and to buy time to play Blood Moon against Hypergenesis. I liked the sound of it, convinced them against trying to fit a Hallowed Fountain in the maindeck, sent a few text messages to find the rest of the cards I needed to borrow, and finally actually got to bed.
But not to sleep. I’m not sure if my body was still trying to operate on Vegas time where bedtime comes with the sun, or if I was just overly excited for the tournament, but I couldn’t seem to get to sleep for the life of me. I’d set my alarm super early to make it to the site in time for people to find the last cards they needed and just in case we hit traffic. I kept waking up every half hour or so, paranoid that I’d slept through my alarm. It certainly didn’t help that Dave William’s phone was in the bathroom not far from where I was sleeping and every time he got a text message I could hear it vibrating against the tile. After I’d gotten maybe an hour of actual consecutive sleep, my alarm went off for real, and I stumbled out of bed to get ready to go.
Thankfully, we didn’t run into any traffic, and we got to the site with time enough to spare for me to find caffeine. I find a convenience store not far from the site, but it doesn’t open until 8:30. That doesn’t seem convenient at all, does it? Thanks to the magic of the iPhone I track down another convenience store, this one with “24” in its name, which gives me hope it will be open. I discover that it’s in a rather unsavory area of town, and I duck inside quickly as a gentleman on the street informs me that if he had my hands he’d cut off his own. I don’t disagree that I have beautiful hands, well conditioned by years of compulsive shuffling, but I decide that I’d prefer to avoid any further interaction with this fellow and hurry on my way after stocking up on sufficient energy drinks to get me through the day.
The buzz that morning was much the same as the previous night. The dealers were sold out of Dark Depths and now Ghost Quarter, in what is certainly not a coincidence. We found the few last minute cards we need and sat down to sleeve up and register our decks. The seatings for the player meeting went up and shortly thereafter the pairings. I popped in my headphones, tuned my iPod to “Out of the Sky — Kyau and Albert Remix” off A State of Trance 2008, and got ready for action. For those of you who missed it, here’s what I played:
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Wild Nacatl
- 3 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 3 Qasali Pridemage
- 3 Baneslayer Angel
Round 1: Joel Calafell — Dredge
No first round walk in the park for me. Joel was playing Dredge, which was the deck that I least wanted to face based on my knowledge of the matchup alone. It was time for a trial by fire. Game 1 was an extremely long affair in which I got in for a bit of damage early, but Joel was able to get his dredge engine going quickly. Despite the army of Bridge tokens he was quickly making, all was not lost, however. I had an active Knight of the Reliquary with Punishing Fire and Elspeth in my hand, meaning that I could set up to clear out all of his flying creatures and jump kill him in a single attack. That plan fell apart when his dredging put two more Narcomoebas into play the turn before I was going to start gunning down his flyers to kill him, and the following turn Empyrial Archangel came along to join the party, locking me out of the game. As the game is slipping away, I fire off my Ghost Quarter at a land just to see if Joel will give me the information about whether or not he has another basic, but he doesn’t bite since it’s clear he has the game firmly in hand.
I wasn’t entirely sure how to sideboard, but I decided to go with Meddling Mages and Blood Moons and pulled Lightning Helix, a few Knight of the Reliquary, and two of my Baneslayers. I kept a single Baneslayer in the deck just as a way to guarantee that I could push through Stinkweed Imps even if I had Blood Moon in play shutting down my Punishing Fire recursion, but knowing that the dredge decks typically didn’t play any basic Swamps makes that entirely unnecessary in retrospect.
Game 2 Joel mulligans and has a relatively slow draw, and I’m able to stick Blood Moon quickly. The enchantment clearly took him by surprise, as he has no basic land in play and no apparently way to play anything, and it doesn’t take long for the one Baneslayer I left in my deck to mop things up. Game 3 Joel mulligans once, then again, and thinks for a long time before keeping his five cards only to say “go” on his first turn without playing a land. The reason he kept his hand is clear the following turn, as he rips a land and plays a Chrome Mox into Ideas Unbound. His deck continues not to cooperate, however, as he doesn’t find a single dredge card in the top three. I don’t have a great draw myself, but I’m able to start putting on pressure as he tries to find some action. Because of our long game 1, the clock is winding down, and I’m trying to make sure the game ends in time. Joel is looking for a way out, but it doesn’t come and I kill him just as the round ends.
Round 2: Robert Jurkovic — Dark Depths
There’s really not much to say about the actual gameplay of my match against Robert. He was playing a Dark Depths deck fairly similar to the one Paulo made Top 8 with, but it seemed like he had absolutely no way to deal with Ghost Quarter. In the first game I played out a quick Knight of the Reliquary and immediately fetched my maindeck Ghost Quarter. I killed a few Dark Confidants and Vampire Hexmages with Punishing Fire and just left my Ghost Quarter untapped the entire game. Eventually my random animals ended things.
I sideboarded as was my standard plan against Dark Depths, removing Lightning Helix, Elspeth, and Baneslayers for Blood Moon, Ghost Quarters, and a pair of Ancient Grudge for Chalice and potential Pithing Needles. The second game was somewhat amusing, as I just drew and played out three Ghost Quarters as Robert played a Chalice of the Void on one, presumably to lock out my Paths, but that gave me the information that he didn’t have Pithing Needle and likely was drawing very slim to my Ghost Quarters. I kept playing out threats one at a time, forcing him to Damnation single Wild Nacatls and transmute for Doom Blades, until I eventually drew into Punishing Fire and started going to his face. After a few turns he played out a Vampire Hexmage and used it on his own Chalice of the Void. When I went to return Punishing Fire at the end of his turn, he went for the Extirpate, which gave me a chance to instruct him a little bit in the nuances of Magic timing.
You see, split second is not the fastest thing there is, despite what you may believe. It only prevents players from adding spells and activated abilities to the stack, and while that is enough to shut out most responses, mana sources are a wee bit faster. This interaction had come up in conversations during our testing, and here I had a chance to pull it off in the tournament! I tapped my remaining Grove in response to the Extirpate, giving him a life, which put the Punishing Fire trigger on the stack. A quick judge call later to confirm the interaction, and Robert just smiled and nodded and packed up his cards.
Round 3: David Felske — Goyf Blue
My first game against David was very strange. We both had reasonable early draws, but both of us were somewhat light on lands. We got into some fights over Tarmogoyfs early on — both his and mine — and my Paths gave him a lot more mana. I managed to get in some damage and started going to his head with Punishing Fire in an attempt to finish him off and felt like I might manage to get there despite his huge advantage from resolving multiple Ancestral Visions. At one point he discarded a Vedalken Shackles, so I didn’t play out any creatures for fear of him having a second and stealing them with that or Threads of Disloyalty, and with several of his Tarmogoyfs gone and my Punishing Fire going I figured I was safer to just keep Firing away rather than risk losing to my own creatures. I only had four land, though, despite it being very late in the game, so I was only able to Fire once per turn, which ultimately wasn’t enough as he was able to Rude Awakening and attack me for 16 while I was still sitting on the same four lands.
I brought in a pair of Ancient Grudges for two Lightning Helixes to deal with Vedalken Shackles and give me the option of pressuring Engineered Explosives or killing Chrome Mox if he has it. Games 2 and 3 were much more representative of the way the matchup usually goes. I don’t recall exactly what order they were in, but in one game I was able to get out a quick Knight of the Reliquary thanks to Noble Hierarch and the game just ended almost immediately when he couldn’t remove it. In the other he kept a fairly loose draw and I was able to punish him (get it? Punish him?) for it with an aggressive start backed up by Fire. Blue decks were a huge reason we wanted to build Grove/Fire into our decks, since it gives inevitability against them almost regardless of what they have. Once you have Grove/Fire going, virtually none of the cards in their deck do anything of relevance — only Tarmogoyf and, as game 1 showed, Rude Awakening if they happen to have it.
Round 4: Charles Gendron Dupont — Burn
It’s pretty clear how the match is going to go when Charles leads with “Mountain, Lava Spike you.” His burn isn’t quite enough to race me in game 1, and at timely Lightning Helix seals it. Game 2 is a different story, as he comes out fast with a Goblin Guide that gets in for four damage before I can throw anything in front of it. He has more than enough damage to finish me off. Game 3 does not go well for him, though, as he has to Lightning Bolt my first turn Wild Nacatl before he gets behind on damage, and when he sends in his Blinkmoth Nexus on turn 3, I have the Punishing Fire with the Grove to return it. I assemble a team of Noble Hierarchs and Qasali Pridemage and I’m hitting him for five and leaving mana open for Punishing Fire, and Charles just can’t keep up. At the end of the game, he shows me a hand full of Goblin Guides and Hellspark Elementals, none of which could ever profitably attack me because of Punishing Fire.
Round 5: David Ochoa — Dark Depths
We’re called for a feature match, but we get the fake one with no reporter, so I can’t point you to the coverage. In the first game David has a Thoughtseize to get rid of my Knight of the Reliquary, but I rip another one and I’m able to tutor up Ghost Quarter to prevent him from going off. Random animals beat him down thereafter. I sideboard identically to my round 2 match, bringing in Blood Moon, Ghost Quarter, and a pair of Ancient Grudge. My sideboard comes through in game 2, as I’m able to constantly present him with disruption to prevent him from going off and force him to use his Damnations one-for-one on my creatures. He plays out a pair of Vampire Hexmages with a Dark Depths in play, but I have sufficient Ghost Quarters to keep them at bay until I draw into Blood Moon, which I play along with a Tarmogoyf. He’s able to remove my Tarmogoyf, but I kill his Hexmages and beat him down with a pair of Noble Hierarchs.
At this point Randy Buehler approaches me about doing a deck tech for the coverage, and I agree under the conditions that the video doesn’t go up until after all the Extended rounds are over — despite how many people had already heard about our deck, I didn’t want anyone with an internet connection being able to see our exact list! Doing interviews about my deck always seemed to be my downfall in the olden days of the pro tour — at Worlds 2002, I did a Deck Tech after three rounds of Standard when everyone playing my deck was 3-0 or 2-1 and at the end of 6 rounds no one was better than 3-3 — but it seems like that curse is finally over.
I was definitely excited to be 5-0, and felt immensely confident in the deck after playing against such a diverse set of opponents. Ben was also 5-0, while Matt Sperling and Michael Jacob were each 3-2 — a pretty impressive showing for the only four players of a particular deck in the field! I talked briefly with Ben about our draft preferences in case we sat next to each other, and unfortunately it seemed like we both had the same basic plan — Red, Black, or both.
As I mentioned in my draft tech from the coverage on Sunday, my basic plan in Zendikar draft is to be aggressive. The format is very fast, and landfall creatures like Plated Geopede, Steppe Lynx, and Windrider Eel — along with the ever-growing allies — make blocking with similarly costed creatures difficult. I place a huge premium on two cost creatures since it’s so important to hit your curve, and probably have an unhealthy love for Goblin Shortcutter, since he plays the dual role of a two drop in your curve and a trick to mess up your opponent’s ability to block in the later turns. Cards like Slaughter Cry and even Vampire’s Bite are much better in this format than they’d be elsewhere, since games so frequently just come down to turning creatures sideways over and over.
My draft starts well, with a Hideous End over Punishing Fire, which I follow up with a Crypt Ripper over Goblin Shortcutter and Tuktuk Grunts to keep my second color open. When another Tuktuk comes in pack 4, I decide to make the jump to Red, and I’m rewarded with back-to-back-to-back Goblin Shortcutters. The rest of the draft goes fairly predictably, although I’m frustrated to open an incredibly weak pack 3 and only get a Magma Rift for my first pick, and my deck ends up pretty solid — solid enough to raredraft an Arid Mesa halfway through pack 3 when I don’t have a real pick for my deck! I ended up playing a Bog Tatters in my main deck as my 22nd card (I almost always play 18 land in this format), which I’d rather not play since even against other Black decks it’s not really that great because the format is so fast, but overall I’m happy with my deck and think I can pull out a 2-1 or 3-0 if things go my way.
Round 6: Kin Leong Chong
Kin is playing a defensive W/G deck, and in the first game I’m able to apply enough pressure and removal that he’s never really in the game. In the second game, I’m forced to double mulligan, but I get a decent start and I’m able to hold him off until I draw into Vampire Nighthawk, which slowly starts to turn the game around. He’s able to kill my Nighthawk and I have only a lone Goblin Shortcutter for pressure, but I keep attacking him and neither of us is drawing action. I finally draw a Soul Stair Expedition and he pulls the trigger on Day of Judgment for my lone 2/1 when he’s at one life, and follows it up with a Timbermaw Larva that’s big enough to kill me. I don’t draw a blocker and die with two counters on my Expedition.
Going into game 3, I’m feeling pretty good that I managed to nearly win off of a double mulligan. I again have a reasonable start and get in some damage early. He lands a Savage Silhouette on a Kor Skyfisher to hold off my team of creatures and the game slows down. He’s spending a lot of time thinking on his turns, so I’m pretty sure he has his Wrath, so when I draw Mind Sludge and point it at his face, I know it’s a good one. He discards Day of Judgment and a creature, and I start playing Goblin Shortcutters to force damage past his regenerating blocker, and soon enough he’s dead.
Round 7: Paulo Cortez
This match is covered on the Wizards site, so you can see it here. Neither game was terribly close, as Paulo stumbled on mana in game 1 and I had an absolutely absurd draw in game 2, with Vampire Hexmage into Gatekeeper into Sell-sword into Tuktuk Grunts, with Vampire’s Bite and Slaughter Cry backup to make blocking impossible. While Paulo had some powerful cards like Merfolk Seastalkers that could easily win him the long game, Zendikar draft is just not a format that is conducive to long games — aggression wins the day.
Round 8: Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa
This match is also covered on the Wizards site here. I was pretty excited coming into this match playing for back-to-back 8-0 day one pro tour records and I wasn’t about to let Paulo stand in my way. I think in general I had a pretty good matchup against his deck, since we were both aggressive Black decks, but his was all Surrakar Marauders and mine was all Nimana Sell-swords and Goblin Shortcutters, so all of my creature abilities were live while his were largely irrelevant. The most interesting play of this match was in game 3 when he cast his Bala Ged Thief. I think it speaks volumes about the format that I chose to keep a Tuktuk Grunts to keep the pressure on the following turn rather than Mind Sludge that I could have used to force him to discard his hand. Board presence and tempo is absolutely king in Zendikar Limited, and I think that’s a good example of having to make the decision between pressure and long term advantage where the pressure is certainly the right choice.
It felt amazing to finish the day undefeated again, especially in my second of as many pro tours in the past four years, but I was sure to keep things in perspective. I may have been 8-0, but there were still eight more rounds left to play, and I would have to win a whole lot more of them to get to where I wanted to be. “Take it one attack phase at a time,” as Rubin said to me. And that’s just what I planned to do…
Join me next week for the exciting conclusion, in which my childhood dreams come true…