“If I win… everybody will say, ‘Well, of course he won.
He’s a top-ranked player.’ But if I lose…”
I should have won the World Championships. I don’t say that with bravado, like somehow I feel like I deserved the victory, and it was stolen from me by the whims of fate. I don’t say it as a prelude to some kind of sob story about bad beats. I say it with a weight in my gut, a hollow emptiness of an opportunity squandered, a chance at history that I allowed to slip from my grasp.
And I mean it, too.
The stage was set perfectly. At the beginning of the event, I was inducted into the Magic Hall of Fame, standing smiling on stage beside Gabriel Nassif and Bram Snepvangers, wearing a ring meant to symbolize that I’m one of the best who has ever played the game. The first day went amazingly well, as I put up an undefeated record with a deck that seemed almost perfect for the metagame – extending my Pro Tour streak of victories while wearing a suit to 14-0.
The rumblings of the coverage team were that no Hall of Famer had ever made the Top 8 at the World Championships at which they were inducted. When BDM
brought up that bit of trivia at the end of my
Caw-Go deck tech video,
my reply seemed almost prophetic.
A 3-0 finish in my first pod left me as the only undefeated player and brought the prophecy that much closer to coming true. I struggled a bit in the second draft and finished 1-2, but that still left me at 10-2 and in second place going into the final day. Facebook and Twitter were alight at my run with Patrick Chapin going so far as to bring my name up in the same breath as Jon and Kai.
And then it all fell apart.
“What was the mistake? Who made the mistake?”
Magic is a hard game under the best of conditions, and long Magic tournaments add an additional layer of challenges. Worlds, in particular, is remarkably demanding, featuring three days of competition across three different formats. Excelling at the World Championships requires intense preparation and serious focus.
When people talk about mistakes in Magic, they’re generally referring to specific choices in an individual game. A bad attack, a botched block, or an ill-timed spell. While these are certainly examples of mistakes, it’s important to recognize that success in Magic doesn’t come entirely from playing the game itself.
If the best player in the world shows up to a tournament with a terrible deck, he probably isn’t going to win. If that same player had the best deck but tried to play sloppy drunk or at the tail-end of a 72-hour poker session, he probably isn’t going to win either.
I didn’t play a bad deck in Extended, nor was I taking shots between rounds – that’s not my point. The deck I played – 4-Color Control – was clearly fine at worst and quite good at best, as LSV went 6-0 with it, while PV got the wins he needed to draw into Top 8, and others had at least a reasonable level of success. Mine was by far the worst record of the bunch,
failing to win a single match when all I needed was 3-2-1 to be a lock for Top 8.
So what happened?
Two things. One, I didn’t personally put enough testing time into Extended. The deck was fine, but I played it poorly. I’d played 4CC quite a bit but not enough under legitimately competitive conditions and not against a wide enough selection of the field. I didn’t have a strong enough grasp of the matchups to know what mattered in any given set of circumstances, and the easiest way to lose any matchup is to lose track of what’s important.
Two, I didn’t pay enough attention to my mental state at that point in the tournament. I was exhausted. The week had drained me between traveling, the tournament itself, the Hall of Fame, etc. Things like trying to get in touch with my brother to make sure he made it to Japan in time for the opening ceremony and staying up late to iron a shirt to wear with my suit – these were little details that I just didn’t have to deal with at most tournaments, and they all added up.
I should’ve recognized that I wouldn’t be playing at the top of my game on Saturday and done my best to avoid playing a deck that would lead to long, complicated games. In particular, I should’ve known that many of the people at the top of the field would be playing control decks of some kind and either built my deck to win the mirror in game one or played another deck altogether. It’s rare that 4CC mirrors ever finish three games in time, and I certainly shouldn’t have put myself into a situation to play under time pressure with a deck I wasn’t intimately familiar with.
I put myself into a position to make mistakes and suffered as a result.
“Petey hung his rook!”
Those mistakes started not long after the Extended rounds began. In the first round of the day, I lost to Stephen Wolf, who was also playing 4CC. His version was significantly different and seemed set up much better for the mirror match with both Jace Beleren and Vendilion Clique in the maindeck, along with Celestial Colonnade as an additional manland that dodges most removal in the matchup. I lost a long game one that involved multiple Cruel Ultimatums back and forth but was largely decided by his deck’s configuration including more cards for the mirror match. This put my back to the wall for game two, and I came up short, having to make a number of risky plays that didn’t pan out in the hopes of winning before time ran out.
That put me to 10-3, and I was paired against Adam Witton of Australia. Adam was playing Pyromancer Ascension, which became clear in game one when he resolved the deck’s namesake enchantment on turn 3. On my turn, I played Jace, the Mind Sculptor to dig for answers and drew… Runed Halo? I called a judge to inform him that I had drawn a sideboard card in game one and received the standard penalty of a game loss. Another danger of playing a deck you’re not intimately familiar with – not being able to recognize when you’ve properly de-sideboarded at a glance.
It looked like things would be okay despite the logistical error, as I came back to win the second game rather handily on the back of Vendilion Clique, Thoughtseize, and a backbreaking Identity Crisis. I’d kept in my Lightning Bolts in anticipation of Adam bringing in the Pestermite/Splinter Twin combo, and sure enough my first Thoughtseize revealed a hand with three Splinter Twins and a Pestermite. When Adam went back to his sideboard for game three, I thought he might be removing the secondary combo now that he’d seen I had removal for it, and oddly enough that awareness on my part would prove to be my undoing.
The third game went back and forth. I countered an Ascension and Esper Charmed away another, and after a while, we were both sitting back and playing draw-go. My hand was a trio of Lightning Bolts, Identity Crisis, and Cruel Ultimatum when I resolved a Jace and Brainstormed, which Adam destroyed at the end of my turn with a kicked Burst Lightning.
That Burst Lightning, along with memory of Adam going to his sideboard before game three, somehow convinced me that Adam no longer had the Pestermite combo in his deck. I hadn’t seen any pieces of it with my early Thoughtseize this game, and the Burst Lightning seemed like a card that wouldn’t be in his deck if he’d shaved cards for the secondary combo. On my next turn, I decided to tap out for Cruel Ultimatum with my reasoning being that I wanted to use it as a “bait” spell for my Identity Crisis, which would surely be game winning if it resolved next turn and stripped Adam’s graveyard.
Of course, what really happened is that Adam countered my Cruel, played Pestermite at the end of my turn, and then untapped, Splinter Twined it, and killed me.
I sat there for a moment in shock. I had the game in complete control. I had
Lightning Bolts in my hand to keep myself from ever dying to the Pestermite combo. With so many of his cantrips in his graveyard, Adam was hard-pressed to even get an Ascension online if he drew it. I could easily sit back and wait to draw a Thoughtseize, or a Vendilion Clique, or anything to ensure that the coast was clear before tapping out for one of the big spells in my hand, but instead I found the only way I could lose the game and took it.
Why was I so sure Adam had sideboarded out the Pestermite combo? What did I think the four cards in his hand were? If I took the time to actually break down the likely contents of his hand, the only things that actually made sense were either pieces of the Pestermite combo or a fist full of burn spells. If he had countermagic, he would’ve fought harder over my Jace or my Esper Charm that destroyed his Ascension. If he had cantrips or card draw, he would’ve been using them to dig to more relevant spells. Of course he was sitting there, playing nothing with a hand full of cards – he was hoping for me to tap out, so he could capitalize on my mistake and win on the spot.
And I let him.
That wasn’t all. The next round, I played against Josh Utter-Leyton and threw away game one by playing a land before combat, somehow convincing myself I wanted extra mana for a counter war and then not fighting over his Cryptic Command on my lethal Creeping Tar Pit, being unable to play it again, and then having to fight over his Wurmcoil Engine the following turn as a result. I lost to a double-backed up Cruel Ultimatum one turn later in a game that I certainly should have won and was only able to escape the match with a draw rather than a win. I then lost a spirit-crushing match to Jonathan Randle to leave me out of Top 8 contention after leading the field for so long. When people asked how I could finish if I won out, my answer was “Not in any place I care about.”
The ring on my finger that had so filled me with pride two days before – that I had been envisioning posing with in my trophy shot on Sunday – now felt heavy on my hand, like some cruel joke someone had played on me. I took it off for the rest of the weekend, only wearing it out Sunday night to the player party Mitamura had set up because I knew people would ask to see it.
“Maybe it’s better not to be the best. Then you can lose, and it’s okay…”
I’m writing this late Wednesday after a long trip home from Japan and an evening’s worth of jet-lag-induced coma. And even now, I open up MagicTheGathering.com and see Paul Jordan article with the introduction talking about how all eyes were on me going into the final day of Worlds and how one of the big stories is that I blew it.
In my week in the Bay Area before leaving for Japan, I convinced Brad Nelson to watch
Searching for Bobby Fischer,
one of my favorite movies of all time and the source of all the quotes scattered throughout this article. He said that some of the lines in the movie – like the one above – gave him goose bumps.
Look at the GP Nashville coverage.
Go on; look at it. Even after the tournament is over, and a champion has been crowned, there it is in the blurb. “Brad doesn’t win.”
I know Brad felt a lot of pressure at Worlds with huge expectations both in the Player of the Year race and in the Magic Online Championship Series. I certainly felt much the same after the whispers following my performance on the first two days.
A lot of people consoled me after my Day 3 performance, saying things like “You can’t win them all,” and “You’re still a Hall of Famer,” but those sorts of things really didn’t help. I realize that I can’t win every game I play, of course, but I can do my best to win the ones that are possible, and I didn’t do that. I’m still a Hall of Famer, yes, but I don’t want to be someone who rests on my laurels and basks in past glory. I want to win every single tournament I play in.
We can make mistakes and make excuses for ourselves, or we can learn from them. I can assure you that I’m not going to go into Worlds next year without a solid deck with which I’ve played hundreds of games – for Day 1
Day 3. I can promise that I’m going to do everything I can to fight the drop off in my focus that has me going X-0 every Day 1 but only intermittently converting that start to a win. I’m going to get back to the gym to help improve my energy level, so I don’t start to crash halfway through a tournament – I can assure you that it’s no coincidence that my results at Honolulu and Austin last year came when I was working out every day.
I may be in the Hall of Fame, but I’m still hungry to win. The ring doesn’t change anything. Despite the pressure that may come with it, I want to be the favorite in every tournament I play. I want my name to come up in conversation with the likes of Jon and Kai. I want the top story from the rare tournament where I don’t do well to be the fact that I didn’t win. But I’m not the best.
“Trick or Treat,”