The Last Minute

The experience is the thing – what does it mean to just fully immerse yourself in the most difficult and prestigious event of the year? Sam Black shares what he can of his preparation for this event by showing what it feels like to be a competitor at a challenge this incredible.

I’m sitting in Paul Rietzl hotel room, he’s on the phone next to me working his regular job from Seattle. Our plan was to play Magic Online this afternoon to finalize our Standard decklists, but Magic Online had other plans.

It’s my second time here, but Worlds is still amazing. Last year I was in France, and it was great – we were all in the same relatively-small hotel, and it was just a great social environment where we’d all have breakfast together every day and then take the short walk to the site. This year is different enough to give it a unique character while maintaining a lot of the key elements, which I really appreciate.

We’re in Seattle. When I arrived, I took a shuttle to a hotel next to Wizards of the Coast headquarters, checked in, and went straight to WotC for a tour of “The Pit” and a few of their offices or departments or whatever, and then had an excellent catered dinner and did a team Rochester draft with Paul and Eric Froehlich against WotC’s Tim Aten, David Humphreys, and Ben Hayes in which they brutally crushed us.

The next morning they shuttled us from Renton to downtown Seattle to the hotel a few blocks from PAX where we’ll be staying for the rest of the week. That afternoon Paul and I did some testing so that I could make sure his deck choice for Modern seemed as great to me as he thought it was, then we went to the convention center for some interviews followed by dinner and more testing.

Paul’s on a much earlier schedule than I am, so after he went to sleep I walked through the hotel lobby to get to my room in a different tower and ran into some coverage guys wrapping up a Commander game. I ended up staying up far too late talking life and politics with Jacob Van Lunen and Marc Calderaro, the kind of chance encounter that just adds to the surreal awesomeness of the entire experience.

This morning on my way out for food I ran into most of the coverage team and joined them for a walk to Pike Place Market. I love being in such a small place with so many friends and just casually bumping into people I know whenever I go anywhere, everyone just hanging out all over the place rather than needing to make plans to get people together.

After lunch, Paul and I finalized our sideboard plans while waiting for MTGO downtime to end so that we could be done with Modern and get to Standard.

In a wide-open Modern field, especially in a tournament with very few rounds where nothing will really rise to the top and where there’s no time to do extensive tuning, I love playing a powerful proactive strategy. Even ignoring the details of this tournament in particular, I think a great algorithm for success in Modern is to play the most unfair deck that no one is really hating.

Paul’s been a longtime lover of Affinity as a deck in Modern, and he pointed out that its positioning is excellent at the moment. The core of the deck is powerful enough that normal cards like Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile don’t actually beat you, and you’re just getting too much mana efficiency advantage over all your opponents for them to reasonably interact with you on a “fair” axis. People these days are relying on cards like Kolaghan’s Command and Destructive Revelry to keep artifacts in check, and frankly that’s not enough – or fast enough. Abzan isn’t very popular, losing a lot of market share to Jund, and even when Abzan does exist people have recently been playing between zero and two copies of Stony Silence. Affinity hasn’t won anything lately, so it’s just not at the top of people’s list of decks to attack.

As Paul sees it, if people want to beat Affinity they need “stone-cold killers” like Ancient Grudge or Stony Silence, and those are basically at an all-time low at the moment.

I still love Amulet Bloom as a deck, but it’s gotten a lot of attention lately. People are likely still trying to fit in Blood Moons and Ghost Quarters, but I don’t think there’s anything that should make it obvious to Worlds competitors that they need to be prepared for Affinity. Additionally, Paul and I have both been doing outstandingly with it on Magic Online – I went 9-1 while trying to figure out if I should play it yesterday.

The final selling point for me on Affinity is the addition of our piece of “tech” – Ghirapur Aether Grid. Most of the decks that have Stony Silence are decks that are trying to win with 2/1 creatures like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben (G/W Hate Bears), Snapcaster Mage (Jeskai Control) or 1/1 fliers (W/B Tokens). Against each of them, Ghirapur Aether Grid ignores the fact that Stony Silence is supposed to cripple you and locks them out instead. Now, admittedly, it costs more and it’s almost impossible to cast after Stony Silence comes down, so it often won’t win the head-to-head if both decks draw their hate in their opening hand. My point is that it generally adds a lot of percentage in those matchups while also bringing a lot to the table against other decks like Elves.

Also, of course, one of the biggest hurdles to playing a new archetype in Modern for me is the basic familiarity that leads to things like having a solid intuition about how to sideboard and what kinds of hands to keep, and having Paul with me to walk me through ten matches and work out a firm sideboard guide has been a huge help.

It’s interesting to feel very confident in my deck choice for a tournament this week but have no idea if it’ll be a good choice at the WMCQ in San Jose the next week, but I suppose that’s just how Magic works.

It’s later now. They fixed MTGO and opened the events again. I played a few Standard matches. I won an eight-man queue, but also found a second deck I think my deck is bad against. I’ve decided it’s too late and I can’t think of any obvious solutions to the matchup, I just have to hope to avoid it or get lucky if I do play against it – another point that’s just how Magic works. After I played some matches, Lex’s flight arrived in Seattle and they took a train into the city and arrived nearby. I went to meet them and take them to dinner, and decided that was the end of my testing to select my decks. I’m back in my hotel room now. Lex is asleep, I’ve written down my decklists and sleeved up my Modern deck. Now I just have to write what I can here and get some sleep for the event tomorrow.

I can’t talk about my Standard deck and reasoning the way that I did Modern because this article will be live before we’ve played the Standard portion of the tournament, but there’s a good chance I’ll discuss that later.

Knowing that I couldn’t try to get into all of the strategy before the event, I wanted to try to capture more of the experience of the moments leading up to the World Championships. Anyone might reasonably feel stressed or anxious, but tournaments really haven’t done that to me in a long time. It’s funny, I don’t consider myself an anxious person, but one thing does consistently cause me some anxiety – travel. Even though I travel all the time, it just feels like a forced final decision point, like submitting a decklist (but again, for some reason that’s less stressful for me). I’m always worried that I’ve forgotten something or brought the wrong things. This time I brought two Modern decks, Amulet Bloom and Elves, neither of which I decided to play, and had to have Justin get Affinity to Lex so then could bring it to Seattle for me, but I knew that might happen. As far as I’ve found so far, the only thing I forgot was my headphones, but I was able to get a pair on the airplane.

I’ll likely have trouble sleeping, but not too much, and that’s mostly just because of being in a hotel. I feel good about my decks and my preparation, but there’s only so much confidence you can feel in a tournament against the absolute best in the world when most experts put you somewhere around the middle of the field.

To be honest, being put in the middle of the field is a huge honor. Last year, I had a clear goal at Worlds. I wanted to show that I belonged there, that I could hang, that my getting there wasn’t just a fluke, that I knew how to play Magic, and it wasn’t just that I happened to find a single deck I could play well (Mono-Blue Devotion) and do well in a handful of tournaments. After finishing in ninth place with a winning record and making it back again this year, I feel like I belong here. I think people have expected me to be here for a while, and I don’t think many are doubting that I should even be in this tournament. Now that I don’t feel that need to prove myself, what’s my goal? Same as always, I guess. I just want to make good choices, play well, and win as much as I can.

I don’t have the single focus that someone like Patrick Chapin has famously had of being the World Champion. Magic is a marathon for me; I’m always playing the long game, and I never put a lot of stock in a single tournament. Maybe that’s why I never win, but I honestly don’t really think so.

This tournament is a good opportunity to earn some Pro Points to make sure I can be here again next year, because I really do love the atmosphere and the tournament. We have exhibitor badges for PAX so that we can get in early because our event starts before the convention actually opens, letting us all skip the line and get into some special lounges. That’s pretty cool, right? I like experiencing random perks like that, especially when someone else is paying for them, but especially when I’ve earned them. I want to be here again, and that’s not easy and it’s not a foregone conclusion. A lot has to go right this year, but I think it will, I don’t just hope it will. I really expect to make it again. It just really isn’t the kind of thing I (or anyone else) can just slouch into.

I ran into Eric Froehlich on the elevator today on my way to Paul’s room. He asked if I wanted a small prize split. Neither of us care about the money, he said he just wanted a rooting interest. That means a lot to me. Eric and I aren’t close – I’d stayed at his house once when he was putting up several of my teammates for an event, but we’ve never worked together and we haven’t talked much. Eric great and I know he has strong opinions about who else is great, and I honestly wouldn’t have guessed that I was someone he respected enough to want a split with.

Willy Edel tweeted that I would have been his first pick overall in a fantasy draft of this event. I think that’s lunacy. I like my preparation and I feel good about this event, I think I’ve been playing well, and I don’t think I’m much less likely than anyone else to win. I even expect to finish with a winning record, but to say that I’m more likely than someone like Yuuya, Eric, or even Shahar to win – there aren’t statistics or numbers you can point to in order to justify that, I know that much.

These votes of confidence mean a lot, and I know several of you believe in me as well, I mean, there’s a good chance that’s why you’re reading this article – you think I’m good enough at Magic that I can teach you something, maybe even something you couldn’t get elsewhere, and that means a lot too.

So my final thoughts before going into Worlds? I’m appreciative. I’m happy. The steps WotC has taken to make us feel special and respected have worked. I feel appreciated… which, honestly, is all that I’ve ever really wanted from Magic. Have I mentioned that publicly? I’m really just a show off – I just want people to recognize that I’ve found something I’m good at, and I want them to watch me do it. Anyway, I hope I don’t embarrass myself tomorrow, but am I worried about winning the tournament? Not at all. I have what I want from Magic, I’m living my dream, and it’s great. I’m in a nice hotel room in Seattle, about to play the biggest Magic tournament of the year for thousands of dollars and in front of thousands of watchers, and I can hear Lex quietly breathing as I finish things up here.

I don’t need a win.