The Dragonmaster’s Lair – Looking Back, Looking Forward

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Friday, January 1st – In 2009, Brian Kibler returned to Magic with a vengeance! In his comeback Pro Tour, he rocked out to the final table. In the second leg of his PT return, he took home the trophy. Today, he recaps his personal journey, and shares those lessons learned along the way…

What a difference a year makes. If you were to have told me on New Year’s Day 2009 that in the next 365 days I’d make two Pro Tour Top 8s — and win one of them — I’d have thought you still hadn’t sobered up from the night before. A year ago I wasn’t even qualified for the Pro Tour! I’d only just begun playing Magic again a few months prior, and my best finishes to speak of were a few PTQ quarterfinal exits. Somehow in the span of a year I managed to eclipse all of my previous Magic achievements despite starting from the bottom. To say 2009 was a good year for me would be something of an understatement. In the New Year’s tradition, I’m going to use this article to look back at the last year and ahead to 2010.

The first event I played in 2009 was Grand Prix: Los Angeles. Prior to that tournament, I’d only played Magic once since the previous qualifier season because most of the local PTQs were scheduled on dates when I was out of town. I showed up at the event with my only knowledge of Extended coming from a cursory reading of articles online. I thought the G/B Death Cloud/Loam deck that Mike Flores wrote about on MagicTheGathering.com looked interesting, so I decided to play it. Unfortunately — and predictably — I was not the only one reading Mike’s column that week, and the field at the Grand Prix was full of Loam decks and decks that beat Loam. I made it through to Day 2, but failed to win a single match once I got there, losing a half dozen or so mirror matches to cards like Garruk, cards I hadn’t played.

Moral of the story: Prepare for a tournament if you’re going to bother to show up and care about how you do. I didn’t go into the Grand Prix thinking I’d dominate with a deck off the internet, but I wanted to do well enough to qualify for the Pro Tour and didn’t put myself in the position to do that. Grand Prix: LA would mark the last tournament in 2009 I attended without significant playtesting beforehand.

The next event I played in was a local Extended PTQ for Honolulu. I had come away from the Grand Prix with a lot of respect for Michael Jacob G/B Loam deck and put in a decent amount of playtesting before the event. I added Red for Ancient Grudge in the sideboard to shore up the Affinity matchup, since it had done well at the Grand Prix (including knocking MJ out of the Top 8), and as a nod to LSV’s win with Mind’s Desire decided to play Cranial Extraction over Mind’s Desire in my sideboard. I both vastly underestimated the popularity of a GP winning combo deck, and vastly overestimated the effectiveness of Cranial Extraction against it, and though I went 2-1 against TEPS in the PTQ, I was still knocked out of contention when my Cranial Extraction got Remanded and my Mind’s Desire opponent went off in my face.

Moral of the story: Understand the important matchups and test your sideboard cards. It’s easy to convince yourself that you’ll win a matchup with a certain sideboard plan, but sometimes things don’t work how you expect. Cranial Extractions were just too slow to beat TEPS, especially out of a deck with no mana acceleration. The games I was winning against the Mind’s Desire decks seemed to all involve Raven’s Crime and Life from the Loam, so I went in search of another card that could help me pressure their hand for my next attempt. I found it in an old favorite of mine: Cabal Interrogator.

With no local PTQs left and my fire nowhere near quenched, I decided to make the trip out to Las Vegas for a tournament. I called up some of my local friends who I thought might also want to go, but one of them was celebrating his birthday that weekend so they were headed to Vegas early to party before the tournament. I was left with just one last resort — make the drive out by myself. I did just that, suffering through a two-hour traffic jam in the mountain pass just before state line, and ended up sleeping on my friend Josh’s floor, since he’d just moved in to his new apartment and had no furniture. Despite all my tribulations, I managed to tear through the tournament the next day undefeated and qualify for the pro tour, with the Cabal Interrogators I’d dug up pretty much singlehandedly winning me the quarterfinals.

Moral of the story: Perseverance pays off. I could have easily decided to skip out on the PTQ since I had no one to make the drive with me, but I had a good feeling about my chances and decided to make a go of it. For those of you who are having trouble breaking through and winning a PTQ, consider this; once I started playing Magic again, it took me ten PTQs before I won a slot, including three straight quarterfinal exits. I went on from there to make Top 8 in the first Pro Tour I played in, and then won the next. If I hadn’t been willing to take my lumps in the trenches, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Keep working at it, and maybe you’ll be the one hoisting the next trophy.

I wasted little time preparing for PT: Honolulu, scouring the internet for Block decklists to get started even before Alara Reborn came out, and brewing new decks with each card that got spoiled. We found Jund early on and spent a great deal of time tuning it, but then the Magic Online Championship the week before the Pro Tour showed that the rest of the world was thinking the same thing. When we showed up at the beach house in Hawaii, Jelger had an Esper Beatdown deck built by Neil Reeves that was performing well against Jund, especially builds that were biased against the mirror with very little spot removal. When I showed up at the tournament site to get cards and found that Uril, the Miststalker was selling for $30, I decided to audible to Esper. After a few hours of working through sideboard plans with Ben Rubin, I went to sleep confident in my choice — and then woke up the next morning and rattled off eight straight wins. I stumbled in the draft on Day 2, but managed to put together the wins I needed in constructed to make Top 8. There I fell to Conley Woods after a rocky draft that saw me stick to Esper and lose to a maindeck Volcanic Submersion in the first game.

Moral of the story: Practice more draft. Pro Tours are split formats from here on out, and 4-3 overall isn’t an impressive record, even if three of those wins were from the same pod. At the Pro Tour level, finding the best archetype isn’t good enough, because if you have a winning record, you’re often going to find yourself at a table with people who have the same ideas, or even worse with people who draft their decks to beat the consensus best deck. I didn’t have enough familiarity with archetypes other than Esper, and my record suffered because of it, including an early exit from the Top 8.

The next major event was U.S. Nationals. I prepared for the event fairly extensively, playing on Magic Online, Magic Workstation, and in person with Matt Sperling and Paul Rietzl, and despite their insistence that Kithkin was the deck to play, I was set on 5CControl with Baneslayer Angel. Despite the insistence of many players that Broodmate Dragon was superior in the deck, I felt that Baneslayer was one of the best big creatures ever printed, and that its vulnerability to removal was more than offset by its absolute dominance once it hit the board. I started the tournament 4-0 in the Constructed rounds before posting a 1-2 record in draft due to some frustrating circumstances that put me on tilt. I decided to go out on the town that night, resulting in a Day 2 performance that had me exhausted, hung over, and playing terribly. I finished the tournament with an abysmal record that was almost entirely my fault.

Moral of the story: Take tournaments seriously and don’t let mistakes get to you. I was still in Top 8 contention when I decided to go out drinking until closing time and threw away any chance I had of making the National team by letting my frustrations get the best of me. There are only so many tournaments each year and thus only so many opportunities to succeed. Squandering them to go out partying because you’re upset and need to let off some steam is not the road to success.

Then came Pro Tour: Austin. My preparation for Austin was exhaustive. We had a mailing list with decklists shooting back and forth daily, and we explored virtually all of the potential combo decks in the format. Despite the protests of some of my playtest partners, I managed to fit Baneslayer Angel in any number of Extended decks, the majority of which were eventually shelved. I showed up in Austin a week before the Pro Tour and spent the time testing both draft and Constructed, and in the last few days got on board with Ben Rubin Zoo deck featuring Punishing Fire and Baneslayer Angel, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Moral of the story: Whatever it is you just did — do that again! In all seriousness, despite my success in Austin, I still came away from the tournament with lessons learned. Despite my extensive Limited practice, I still didn’t have enough flexibility in my draft strategy, and once again a poor Limited performance nearly brought an 8-0 Day 1 finish to a crashing halt. I nearly threw the Top 8 finish away again in the penultimate round, as I punted my match by playing too quickly and not thinking everything through.

The next event I played was GP: Tampa. I’d done a great deal more drafts on Magic Online since Austin and felt very comfortable with the format, so my hopes for the event were high. When I arrived at my hotel, I ran into Steve Sadin in the lobby, who informed me that he was turning 21 and was going out for his birthday with a bunch of people that night. Rather than proceed with my plan of crashing early, I dropped by bags off in his room and went along for the ride. The next morning, many members of our crew were in rough shape — at least one in such rough shape that he dropped from the tournament before it started! I was a bit hung over myself, and it certainly affected my play somewhat, but I managed to make Day 2 and post a decent record on the draft day to finish in the money and pick up the PT point I needed to lock myself for Level 7 the following year.

Moral of the story: Wait, didn’t I just talk about the importance of taking tournaments seriously after my disaster at Nationals? Didn’t I learn from that? I did, but the moral of this story is that winning isn’t everything. Greater than the success I have had in Magic are the friendships it has allowed me to make. I know interesting, intelligent people from all over the world who I otherwise would never have met thanks to my involvement in the game. I’ll take the chance to go out with a friend for his 21st birthday over a few hundred dollars and a pro point any day.

After that was my Worlds trip, which began at GP: Minneapolis, where I finished 3rd, though I felt like if I’d played differently in my semifinal match I might have won. Worlds itself was a rough tournament in which I just wasn’t able to keep my head in the game thanks to my body not believing that it was supposed to be awake. I finished a disappointing 9-9 when I needed to Top 32 to make Level 8 for 2010, and I can look at almost all of my matches in retrospect and point to what I did wrong to lose.

Moral of the story: Slow down and think. On top of that, set yourself up so you’re in a position so you can think. Going into Worlds I felt like I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, since I felt obligated to go to the Grand Prix the weekend before, but in retrospect I feel like I may have been better off skipping GP: Minneapolis and heading to Europe early to give myself a chance to adapt to the time change. It really would have been perfect if they’d just had Minneapolis the weekend before and let GP: Paris lead into Worlds, but they know that already. I’m glad WotC has taken note of this for the schedule for the upcoming year. I’ll be scheduling my travel with jet lag in mind, and thankfully there won’t be any GPs to interfere with that.

In all, I feel like 2009 was a great year. I was able to come back to a game I love, recreate and exceed my previous levels of success, reconnect with old friends, and make many new ones. I hope the lessons I’ve learned help me make your next year as enjoyable and successful as the last — and I hope you learned something from them too.

Happy New Year!