It’s always been a dream for every one of us to enter the Top 8 of a Pro Tour, let alone the chance to ever participate in Magic Invitational. It’s definitely not an easy task to achieve, but it’s not an impossible one either. Today, I have achieved my dreams in the Magic "world": I’ve got several Top 8s to my name, and most importantly, a chance to play in Magic Invitational, despite the fact that I’m living in such a remote area in the eyes of the Magic community. I considered writing to support myself for votes, but I figured out that most probably I wouldn’t be able to outclass other pro players that have been playing on the gravy train for years. I wasn’t even aware when I got selected by the R&D, not until BDM congratulated me for it. Tp be honest, I never expect that anyone from my country would make it this far, I mean, I understand how far we can go and our capabilities. Being filled with joy and satisfaction, suddenly I felt something was missing in me when I went to a local PTQ scene and realized how lonely I felt. While all the other players are busy preparing, focusing on their game and so on, I was left stranded alone. For that particular moment, I could see the missing part of me. It’s actually the "casual player feeling" that was lost within myself.
I started this game six years ago when I was 12. My younger brother used to play with my cousin all the time, and that is where he learned the game. Then, there was one day where my brother brought me two packs of Urza’s Saga and taught me how to play the game. I thought the game was cool, as every card has cool pictures and artwork, and soon I realized that some of my friends at school play Magic as well. Suddenly Magic became a medium of communication for me, as I got to hang out in friend’s places for hours playing something that everyone was enjoying. After approximately a year, I started to play this game and hang out in a local store game called Comics Corner, which offered weekly tournaments. Back in those days, I always armed with a Green Stompy deck and only knew how to attack, attack and attack. Well, Green Stompy is cheap, not only referring to its casting cost, but also its value. It’s an affordable deck for beginners like me who want to play Magic, but only have around five dollars a week to spend.
There were so many new player characteristics to learn at Comics Corner. There were those who never play with tricks, and there were those who always win, not because they’re good in playing, but they are good bluffers (well, they bluff legally, nothing wrong with that) in the game. One of the formidable bluffers, which I like to call R, was probably the best bluffer around that time. However, he was not very good in Magic, particularly drafting, yet he continued to win games with an excellent talent got bluffing. I learnt a lot of tricks from him unintentionally. I observed the way he tricked his opponents into making plays in his favor, and slowly I learned his repertoire. My first GP was in 2000 in my own country, where I posted a mediocre 3-3 result. That was also the same year where Pikula won the Invitational and created the powerful Meddling Mage.
I got invited to my first Nationals Championship in 2001 (note that I was only 14-years-old that point). I got crushed badly in the Limited portion, but went 5-1 in the Constructed portion where I piloted a Counter Rebel and was only one win away from Top 8. One of my close friends made it to Top 4 and win about $400 US dollars. His performance and the money he won inspired me to further excel in the game. I can still remember when my deck contained 4 Meddling Mages, I looked at it and wondered, "Wow, how awesome would it be if I ever have a chance to create my own card", but the imagination was flushed shortly because I’m always realistic with my chances. Who knows, I’m going to participate in this "dream tournament" in about few more days.
I attended my second Grand Prix, which was GP: Singapore, later in the year. I begged my parents so badly to go Singapore for vacation, enabling me to play the GP as well. Finally, much to my delight, they agreed to go toSingapore for vacation instead of somewhere like England, or whatever. With only one bye in hand, I fought hard and made Day 2 with a 5-1-1 record. I was nervous, happy and thrilled and could hardly sleep on that night. On the following day, I waited patiently for my opponent to sit as pairings was posted up. I was smashed in the head in a quick 20-minute match, but I managed to get some wins over the next five rounds. I ended up as 33rd in the final standings. How awful is that scenario? Well, it turned out to be gold later in my career and I still won $250 on amateur standing. That was my first dollar earned in this game. Completely satisfied with the prize earned, I ended up using half of the winning to spend my family and relatives for a nice luxury dinner. Everyone was proud of me, despite it just being $250. In Malaysia, you don’t always have chance to get these amounts by merely playing with cardboard.
In order to keep up my parent’s faith towards me as a responsible person, I have to keep pace with my school assignments too. It’s a pretty hard to keep a good balance between the game and schoolwork, especially if you want to have a social life as well. Sigh. Regardless, I still tried my very best to achieve it, and my commitment towards success had never failed. In fact, thing started to go pretty well.
In the 2002 National Championship, I made my first Top 8 in an event outside of GPTs and PTQs. The following year, 2003, I tried my hand at GP Singapore, as it was close and pretty affordable trip for me. That was the first GP Top 8 in my career, sweeping the top amateur spot and reaching the finals, only to lose to a deck sporting 4 Timberwatch Elf. I felt then that I started to develop a deep understanding towards drafting for the first time in my career. Sometimes it’s funny, because usually when a good Limited player excels, he doesn’t just stop there. He obviously knows how to play quality Magic and excels in making decisions all the time. I’ve found that this particular skill is an advantage in life for people like us. You see, once you crack a pack, you make a decision. This process never ends until the last card of the third pack. Then, you have to go through a series of decision making again during the deck building process and it continues. I believe this skill could slowly be carved out within yourself and fully unleashed to improve your performance in any field – it’s something that extends beyond just Magic, that’s for sure.
I’ve discovered that premier events like Grand Prix are an essential training ground for players who are trying to step onto the Pro Tour. PTQs however, do not train you as you might expect. It’s simply because the amount of players competing is smaller, and it’s missing something. I guess it’s the "real tournament feel". Playing in a large venue at a GP makes you tighten up, and with some overseas pros around, you’re more eager to compete with them to prove yourself in the world’s eye.
I got invited to World Championship 2003 due to my high ranking after the GP performance. I thought that I had a great chance to post good results due to my past performances. I was, however, totally wrong and foolish. Once again I got crushed in the event just like I did at my first GP. I ended up dropping from the tournament on Day 3, since I knew there wasn’t a single chance I could win money anymore, while my brother posted a 19th place finish in the main event and 4-0ed in Team Rochester Draft, putting the Malaysian team third in the final standings. How impressive was his result? How awful was my disappointment and sorrow?
I discovered something valuable in the process, though. It was my own fault for putting up such mediocre performance. I believed that I wasn’t playing tight enough and lacked full concentration during a game. I even looked down on some of my opponents, which is obviously a very brutal mistake to make. A reminder here: Never look down on anyone, since you never know when you’ll loosen up and make a mistake without even noticing it! Believe me, this is a theory that was discovered unintentionally based on my own experience, something I went through plenty of times before in my early days.
My attitude towards the game has changed. A noisy and talkative side of me has turned into a silent, quiet concentration machine during sanctioned matches. These changes had made an impact in my game. Of course, you have to practice from time to time and keep in touch with the latest tech and decks so that you won’t be falling too far away. In 2004, I made another Top 8 appearance at GP: Hong Kong, where my teammate won the event. Again, my performance was overshadowed by him, but I knew it didn’t matter. What matters the most is your own performance.
Next, I went 8-0 in my National Championship, conceding three times to close friends and drawing my last match before I cruised into the Top 8. I ended up third, having to play the 3rd/4th playoff with my own brother. My deck was an ultra fast mono-Red Goblins deck designed to beat Affinity and it worked pretty well for me. Another change in my game is that when it’s time for Limited, it’s my territory in my country. I swept through the Limited portion and sat comfortably waiting for the rest of my teammates to make it to Top 8 as well. As the third member of national team, you get to participate in Worlds and even if you lose all your matches, there’s still $1000 waiting for you in the team event.
Well, that would be the worst case scenario should it ever happen, but obviously I wasn’t going to go there and lose any more. I wanted to win games, and I had to do more research and be work hard to make my chances real. Much to my delight, there was a GP: Kuala Lumpur held in my country, and I got the chance to test my unorthodox Rift-Slide-Witness concoction. I had 3 byes coming into the event, but it quickly became a 3-1 record on round 4. The reason? Simply because one of my teammate bathes slowly and took his time, which drug four of us, all with 3 byes, to a 3-1 record. Fortunately, all of us were still able to make Day 2 and ended up in the money. I posted a Top 16 result, where another win would put me into Top 8. Should I had not received the match loss on round 4, I always had a good chance to make the Top 8. I learned that my 3-color Slide deck wasn’t that bad anyway. It worked. There were people who called me greedy with that deck, saying it was insane to maintain a good mana base and still be able to cast a turn 2 Lighting Rift. I told them it’s obviously great if I am able to draw the right configuration to cast it on turn 2, but the Rift was meant to be cast on turn 5 onwards. They gave me that kind of unpleasant look, which took a little time for me to realize that I should not waste my time anymore on them. I continue to do research, making modifications and adjustments on my deck, and kept with the daily routine practice on Magic Online to keep my drafting skills sharp.
Finally, the tournament that changed my presence in the Magic community had arrived. Sometimes you can’t deny that Magic has some luck factor to it. Take for example my round two opponent who played Tooth and Nail. Supposedly he had a great matchup against me, but he never drew his Tooth after 10 draw phrases with all the Urzatron lined up in play. I topdecked a Vulshok Sorcerer in a crucial turn where there was no other card in my deck that would save me. My opponent mulliganed to five and never got a chance to recover. I put up a nice 5-1 record on Day 1 with my Slide deck, 4-2 in draft on Day 2 and 4 straight wins on Day 3 before drawing twice to secure my first Pro Tour Top 8. I got interviewed by Justin Gary and I think the clip are still available online. I was so nervous, as it never happened in my life before, and my friends in Malaysia were laughing about it, since I looked like an idiot. Nevertheless, the whole thing was fun.
In the Top8, I was paired against one of the more favorable matchups for my deck, Mono-Red Goblins. But it was not to be. Usually, Goblins deck ran with Molten Rain, Stone Rain or even Naturalize in the sideboard due to the popularity of Tooth and Nail, and the Rains are versatile as you can board them against any control deck as well. The rains are good to fight COP: Red because COP: Red is mana intensive, and he can prevent his opponent from having enough White mana sources to ever cast a Wrath of God. In the end, the Goblins player would have successfully "weathered" the COP by controlling his opponents mana and dropping more threats to overwhelm COP: Red. With this assumption, I went for the less powerful but mana efficient Silver Knight instead of COP: Red. My Top 8 opponent chose to forego the consistent power of Rains for the raw power of Sulfuric Vortex. By running Vortexes instead, it makes my Silver Knights less efficient than before. In this case, he had won the "Sideboard War".
We played four tight games, which was funny, because we both split a game each merely because of Sulfuric Vortex. I used Knights and Rifted him out, and he has the usual beatdown plus Vortex "burn you out" style. The last game was less interesting though as I mulligan to 5 on the play and I never got to make a comeback. I still walked out of the Top 8 with a smile, as I had achieved more than what I expected to. The experience I gained at Worlds was invaluable – it certainly helped me to look at this game in a different light and strategy-wise, improved me a lot. You get to see cool skill plays from pros, you get to see how they use their cards appropriately. You just have to witness it yourself to get a full understanding of what you can learn simply by watching Magic at that level, but it’s a lot.
The experience I gained at Worlds brought me another awesome Top 8 in Nagoya. Magic Online helped again for sure, but I could never have done it without the real-life experience. In PT: Nagoya, I pulled out a timely bluff against Frank Karsten, which triggered the awareness of the community that Asians could bluff as well. Thanks to my community here in Malaysia for all the "tricks" revealed to me unintentionally and I got to utilize it at the next level of play. Because of my bluff and back to back PT Top 8 performances heavily aided by MODO, I suddenly looked like a poster boy for Magic Online. For that, the R&D granted my wish by voting me to for Invitational.
That was a dream within a dream for me, as I’ve always watched the coverage of past Invitationals, and waiting to do gun slinging with Carlos Romao.
Nowadays, things seem to changed. I never get to play PTQs again, at least not for another year and a half to come, and I’m really missing some things. I hate it when I can’t play regular amount of competitive Magic anymore because I felt it could not raise my performance. These days the only competitive tournaments I’m allowed to play in are GPT, which I can play, but that often means I only get to play in tournaments every four to six weeks and that’s certainly not a good sign. Moreover, I felt lonely in my home ground, as no one can consistently go to PTs with me. Sometimes I think that casual players have a much easier and better life of Magic: The Gathering than those that were on the gravy train. They can play any time they want, regardless a PTQ or GPT, and there’s no pressure for them to win or lose. In a way, I actually think that they improve much faster than the pros can, because they get more action – more competitive practice. I like the luxury a pro player gets, especially with the new addition of Pro Player’s Club, but it’s often tiring to make a trip 10 or 15 hours in the air, despite the fact that I got to play my favorite game at the highest level. How awesome it would be if they ever allow open PTQs for everyone to play in once again. Remember, “Pro” is only a label that many players have, and one that they will lose if they don’t get a chance to keep their game up.
Until next time, have fun playing in PTQs, as some day you might find yourself no longer allowed to play in them and you might just miss it when it’s gone.