The Next Level

Last time, I threatened to do something this week that would outline one method for you to reach the elusive Next Level. For the vast bulk of you out there who plug away at tournaments, whether they are local Type II events, Trials, PTQs, or whatever else… this one is for you.


Last time, I threatened to do something this week that would outline one method for you to reach the elusive Next Level. I was using shall we say the vosotros form, and when I say”you” as a collective”you”, there are probably some of”you” out there who are listening… but not eligible (and that’s probably my bad). I know that many top level pros read my articles. Sadly, I can’t bring you guys anywhere. Moreover, I know that there are a lot of guys who play for fun in my audience. If you want to gather round the virtual fire, I’m sure I can help you all to become more successful at winning, to advance in tournaments, to structure your decks more efficiently, and to raise your fundamental understanding of the game (if you are interested)… but I’m not going to be able to help you have more fun playing Magic (at least not in this article). But for the vast bulk of you out there who plug away at tournaments, whether they are local Type II events, Trials, PTQs, or whatever else… this one is for you.

No high falootin’ strategy or big words.

No bonus section.

No lesbian rock.

This time around, all I’m going to do is show you one way of ramping up your game. Chad Ellis once talked about being Strong Among the Weak, then making the transition to Weak Among the Strong (I would argue that Chad eventually became reasonably Strong Among the Strong, but that is neither here nor there). Right now you are probably reasonably Strong Among the Weak – or even more likely Weak Among the Weak – but want to become Weak Among the Strong. You fight it out in PTQs and go x-2 consistently. You show up in drafts and alternate 1-2 and rare 2-1 records. Right now, you don’t care how much Magic money you rake in the short term; you just want to make that PTQ Top 8; you just want to make the Pro Tour.

Follow the path outlined in this article and you will make the jump. A guy named Mike who hangs out in Neutral Ground sure did…

No no, not me!

Today I am going to interview Mike Clair, one of the rising stars of the reinvigorated Neutral Ground cadre. I met Mike in March or April of this year when he was a total nobody. He was literally some barn who followed us surreptitiously, blending like a shadow in his fitted black tee shirt, trying to catch glimpses of our group’s conversations in order to advance his own deck strategy and tech level. Yet somehow, he successfully latched onto BDM’s hull such that I got an email one day telling me that BDM had added him to the list (Mike had previously been bugging me with personal emails)! The point is, Mike made more than the most of this opportunity. He worked tirelessly towards Regionals… where he eventually opened up with the big 0-1 doughnut.

Then he fought through ten more rounds to make Top 8.

Mike followed this up by winning the Constructed portion of an Edison Vs. PCQ. He handed his deck off to a red hot Matt Boccio, who went on to win the Vs. major in Philly, and went on again to take first place at the recent Neutral Ground PCQ (already heralded as the most difficult PCQ in the world to win).

Mike Clair went from zero to qualified in two months. Follow his route, and you just might stop being ashamed of yourself.

Let’s get to it:

Mike Clair: The Interview

MichaelJ, Lord and Master of All He Surveys: Hi Mike, thanks for doing this interview with me. Tell me a little bit about your background as a gamer. Surely you didn’t start playing the Magical cards just a couple of months ago.

MC: My first gaming experience was the D&D Dragon Mountain boxed set… Scratch that! It was Greyhawk Adventures.

MJLaMoAHS: Greyhawk Adventures? You’re really scratching the bottom of the barrel there in terms of former TSR products. What about playing Magic?

MC: My first card was some sort of giant 6/4 creature with Rampage I think. I remember having cards from Arabian Nights that hurt you… I played a lot of multiplayer. I did badly at Magic, left, came back, did badly again, left again. Eventually I showed up at a store in Long Island where Team Fellow Wizards hung out. I immediately started barning them. I found out they played in PTQs and got them to drive me to one. Of course I slept through the ride and had to take a train into this mysterious”Neutral Ground” place. Train cost me $120. But I made Top 8 of my third PTQ in IBC with Burning Tempo and continued to work with the Fellow Wizards.

MJLaMoAHS: The Fellow Wizards? Oh really? The team with former Northeast Regional Champion Scraps and Super Sexy Jill Costigan?

MC: Funny thing about that. I was going to make Top 8 of Regionals 2002 (my first)… I was playing Scrap’s deck… but I forgot to pay the upkeep on Gurzigost! Osyp was watching and has been giving me hell ever since.

[Rich Fein interjects]: I remember now! You beat me with that crap.

MJLaMoAHS: As I recall, Rich, you were playing ZevAtog that year. No way you were beating Scrap’s deck… he had main deck Spellbane Centaur!

MC: Yeah, I don’t think I ever kicked a Kavu Titan all day.

MJLaMoAHS: So anyway, you continue to claim allegiance to the Fellow Wizards… Despite beating Rich with Scrap’s deck, I’VE certainly never seen you gaming with ERod and company. BDM claims you gave a dollar and a spare pair of pajama pants to porn star Adam Reubens in order for him to vouch for you, to give you some street cred, as it were.

MC: Team Fellow Wizards was the store. If you played there… it was like you were one of the Fellow Wizards.

MJLaMoAHS: I guess we’ll have to live with that answer for now. Whatever your origins, dubious as they may be, you have become a well-respected member of the Neutral Ground regulars, and, anyway, the topic of this interview is your meteoric rise to success. What do you think was the first step in your positive momentum as a player?

MC: Definitely it is drafting at Neutral Ground. I started out really slow… I probably went 0-3 in my first ten drafts. But after the drafts, I looked at the decks that beat me. I stared at them. Eventually I figured out that what was wrong was my card valuations. I was playing all right, but I wasn’t taking the right cards. I topped out pretty fast, and within 4-6 weeks, I was holding my own.

MJLaMoAHS: I actually found the same thing a couple of years ago when I was drafting at Neutral Ground in preparation for Nationals. I got my ass kicked by better players and re-worked my valuations. It was a valuable tool.

MJLaMoAHS: Do you think you got a lot of mileage out of the Regionals list that we assembled?

MC: Yeah, it was good. The best was when Seth would pop in once a week, post the reasons why all of our testing from the previous week had been invalidated, and then post his new lists.

MJLaMoAHS: I noticed that for most of the testing cycle, you were advocating different builds of Tooth and Nail. However, when Regionals rolled along, you showed up with a templated version of Ravager Affinity.

MC: I wanted to prove that Tooth and Nail beat Ravager. I worked on it a lot. Then I played it at a NAC Qualifier and made Top 4. Top 4 is pretty good, but along the way, I lost to Ravager twice. I was getting the cards I wanted and still lost. It was at that point that I realized that I was wrong, and Tooth and Nail doesn’t beat Ravager; if I wanted to win, I had to act on that information and make a change in my game [ed. Mike eventually qualified in another Q].

MJLaMoAHS: What do you think the main advantages of your version were?

MC: I had Electrostatic Bolt over Pyrite Spellbomb main. This was right then, and I still think it is right. In the Ravager mirror match, you have to deal with two main threats: Disciple and Ravager. Most decks were playing a couple of Spellbombs for Disciple and Oxidizes for Ravager, who is too big to kill with Spellbomb. The problem is that you are taking damage when you kill a Disciple with Spellbomb and you are screwing up your mana to play Oxidize. If you just play Electrostatic Bolt, you make your mana better and have more consistent answers to their main threat creatures. The other main difference was that I had Furnace Dragon in the sideboard, which gave me a huge edge. If I had stretched to four colors instead of emphasizing Red, I don’t even know if I could have cast him when I needed to.

MJLaMoAHS: How many Ravager mirror matches did you play?

MC: Not that many… only three.

MJLaMoAHS: What about other matchups?

MC: I played all sorts of dumb stuff. Ironically I started off against Tooth and Nail… and lost to it. I played against a White Equipment deck and a Land Destruction deck all the way in round 8. I also played against two of those R/G”automatically beats Affinity” decks.

MJLaMoAHS: But they didn’t automatically beat you?

MC: Are you kidding? They got the cards they wanted but I had three Disciples and killed them.

MJLaMoAHS: You started off Regionals with your back to the wall at 0-1. Yet you rose to the occasion, much like another one of our list members, Seth Burn. What, specifically, did you have to do to dig yourself out of the worst possible record in such a grueling tournament?

MC: Honestly, I played three sticks in a row after the 0-1. Then I moved on to good decks in the hands of bad players. Then I played against good players who didn’t have optimal listings [more on that later]. And I rules lawyered one guy.

MJLaMoAHS: A man after my own heart!

MC: I was down a game. He presented a seventy-four card deck. I had him deck checked… he was only supposed to have seventy-three.

MJLaMoAHS: What is your philosophy of winning? What are the roles of correct play, being good, playing well, and getting lucky? How much of a factor is each in a match? In a draft pod? In a long tournament?

MC: In a big tournament like Regionals, being good means approaching every match with the idea that you want to play as tightly as possible. It is not a matter of innate skill.

MJLaMoAHS: Assuming that both luck and skill are factors, what can a player do to control the variables? That is, how can a superior player”keep his lead” as it were, and how can an inferior player close the gap in a match?

MC: An inferior player’s main advantage is deck construction. I can’t tell you how many good players had bad lists. My friends from Long Island did the work, they did the testing, but they didn’t have the right lists. I beat a good player pretty deep in the tournament who was like”Wow, Furnace Dragon.” That’s not acceptable if you plan to win in an eleven round tournament. I can tell you that I had a really good understanding of the format from testing at Neutral Ground and from our list. If I didn’t have BDM telling me to play Furnace Dragon, there was no way I was in the Top 8.

MJLaMoAHS: Would you say that you were better or worse than your average opponent? Why? What were the factors that determined the outcomes of the games and matches that led to your overall record?

MC: I had the advantage tactically in 100% of my matches. I understood the matchups and the environment better than every opponent. In terms of raw skill, it varied widely. Some players were much better than I was, but I beat them with better tech and by emphasizing tight play. When we were both playing for Top 8, for example, a good player next to me (in the Affinity mirror) played his Furnace Dragon. He had a huge lead on the board and didn’t have to play it. His opponent stacked the Dragon, played Shrapnel Blast, and went on to Oxidize every land the first guy played for the rest of the game. There was no reason to make that play. This is a clear example of a good player, who was ahead, playing the better list, throwing away every one of those advantages by not playing tightly. He didn’t just lose, he gave the opponent the game two win and was lucky to pull it out.

MJLaMoAHS: Certain parties have informed me that the people on the list pretty much consider me retired from Neutral Ground play (seeing as I am old, married, and never have an”I’ll be there” response when a Mondraft, Tuesdraft, Wednesdraft, Thursdraft, or Sundraft is declared). However, you always seem to be the first person to respond with an”I’ll be there right after work / school.” How much do you game?

MC: A lot… too much maybe. When I’m not in school, four to six nights a week.

MJLaMoAHS: I find this to be intriguing in the extreme. For those of you at home, Clair is… how shall we say this… A Really Good Looking Guy. [He is, actually. I had the pleasure of hanging with Clair at Nationals this weekend, when he tried to carry me as a drafting partner and failed miserably. – Knut] He’s like built, handsome, and young. What The Hell Are You Doing At Neutral Ground Every Nigh Rather Than Spending Your Evenings At Upstairs At Rodeo Bar?

MC: I don’t go out that much. Honestly? I left the Ivy League to get married.

MJLaMoAHS: Huh? Which school?

MC: Penn.

MJLaMoAHS: I went there too! Do you know Magic was invented there? Anyway…

MC: Anyway, I was going to get married. We had a bad breakup and I haven’t really dated since.

MJLaMoAHS: Wow, I feel really bad about these next two questions now… But I’ll run them anyway. When I was your age, I found the young ladies upstairs at Rodeo Bar to be… how shall we say this… both quite attractive and not too hard to nab. You understand it’s not very far from here, right?

MC: I don’t do one night stands.

MJLaMoAHS: Who The!? I just want you all at home to know that since the first time I took him there (when he was then sadly attached), Rich Frangiosa, possibly the premiere Magical Mac, makes a point of it to show up at Rodeo Bar after his usual 1-2 drop at Neutral Ground, later calling us to ask whether he should keep the girl he brought with him or take the girl he picked up at Rodeo when we meet for post-PTQ boozing across the street.

MC: I thought this article was about me.

MJLaMoAHS: Moving on… You seem to be quite dedicated to Magical spells. However, when the Vs. system popped up, you quickly adopted that game as well.

MC: Part of it was that I had heard how easy the Magic Pro Tour was at the beginning and wanted to get in on the ground floor. But it was also another game to draft. People were drafting Vs. and I joined in. I can’t emphasize enough how much better drafting is for your skills, in Magic, in Vs., than anything else. You have more, different, situations come up in draft that make you think and help you understand how to play better.

[Editor’s Note: We are not a Vs. website, but the following section relates to Magic fundamentals, so I’m leaving it in. You should not, however, read this as free reign to get all chatty about Vs. in your submissions. – Knut]

MJLaMoAHS: As the co-designer of what I consider the premiere Vs. deck, you must have put a lot of time into your version of Brotherhood Burn.

MC: This is a funny story. I spent the week before the first PCQ dissenting against Sadin and Rich. The main idea came from them.

MJLaMoAHS: For those of you who don’t play the Vs. system, team Brotherhood is what we would call a tribe in Magic. Other teams include the X-Men and the Spider-Friends. Vs. is constructed around teams of characters (creatures) and support cards such that Brotherhood is the equivalent of Black, making for the best suicide deck and the best dedicated purely long game slow deck as far as I can see. Most Marvel tournaments are composed about 75% of Brotherhood decks. How did you differentiate your deck, how did you weather the hate given the fact that any enemy is probably set up for primarily Brotherhood opponents?

MC: The deck is based on Sadin’s curve of eleven one-drops and seven two-drops. No one else runs one-drops. They think they suck. My deck isn’t more powerful, but it is more consistent. I spent the entire PCQ mopping up less consistent Fantastic Four decks that thought they had a bye against Brotherhood. I would beat them with worse cards before they even had anything on the board.

MJLaMoAHS: It seems to me that your version of Brotherhood was about”breaking the rules” of Vs. deck design. Many of this young game’s pundits have said that your deck doesn’t use”the best cards”… yet in my observation it is so successful.

MC: The principle is the Magic mana curve: I curve out. If on turn 4 I can play two two-drops with two copies of The New Brotherhood in play, I am going to net eight power and demolish whatever four-drop the other guy plays. It doesn’t matter that his four-drop is”better”.

MJLaMoAHS: What generalizations can we make about competitive Magic from your experience in Marvel?

MC: The average Magic player knows the rules a lot better. Also the average Magic player has a much better grasp on the metagame and what he will have to face and beat.

MJLaMoAHS: Gaming… for fun or other reasons?

MC: Fun!

MJLaMoAHS: You’ve barely got your foot in the door, premiere event-wise, in Magic, and all of a sudden you are a Vs. pro player. How do you plan to split your apparently copious gaming time?

MC: For now I’m going to focus on Magic. I like it better. It’s a deeper game with more cards, and makes for better drafting. I understand that Upper Deck is releasing more sets more quickly, though, and that is going to increase my interest in Vs.

MJLaMoAHS: How long do you plan to keep up this ridiculous pace?

MC: I’m 23 and a Junior at Fordham… probably until I graduate.

MJLaMoAHS: What looks good in MD5 PTQs?

MC: Ironworks.

MJLaMoAHS: What are you running this weekend at my favorite tournament (which I will now not be attending for the third consecutive year)?

MC: I don’t know. For me it’s between G/W, Goblins, and Affinity. I know Affinity best, but by now, other players will have caught up. [For the record, I believe Mike played R/g Goblins at Nationals, though he’s listed as”Michael Clain” in the coverage. – Knut]

MJLaMoAHS: What is your last spot of advice for the scrubs out there trying to clean up their games?

MC: If you are interested in getting better, the first thing you have to do is expand your horizons beyond your local store. If you live near a city, devote one day a week, or even one day a month, to getting better (for me it was going to Neutral Ground). Go up to the best players and try to get in a draft. Because you are a scrub, they will probably want to money draft you… but if you are nice, ask for advice, and approach them humbly, you will eventually become welcome. You have to accept that you are going to 0-3 a lot when you are playing against guys above your skill level [at this point, Sadin and Rich exclaim they were shocked when Clair stopped going 0-3]. But good players make good plays. When you watch them and imitate them, you get better. You learn things about tactics and tempo that your local store is not going to teach you. You are going to come up against more situations, and eventually learn how to play better when they, or other unpredictable boards, come up later.


Hello people at home! This interview took place during a team draft. I watched six games played against Steve Sadin and Rich Fein – other friends and characters in our drama – wherein Mike Clair lost four of them. He resolved Molder Slug and/or Fireball in every one of those six games, whereas Steve Sadin deployed such board positions as double Dross Prowler and Rich Fein missed an on-table kill, winning anyway (claimed to be distracted by yours truly… like that has ever happened). Mike said he learned in this draft that, Molder Slug or no, he would not be drafting Green at Nationals. But when I woke up this morning, I got an email from Mike telling me that he finished up 2-2, and that he had come back from the 0-2 I watched. He cited, like Rich, that I was just bothering him and that he went on to focus on his own tight play rather than improving all of yours.

I had a good idea of the answers Mike was going to give when I set up the questions, long before the interview. But a lot of his answers really intrigued me. He seems to emphasize somewhat different things in his improvement curve than I would have thought. Everyone tells you that if you want to get better, you have to play more, but Mike was very explicit about how you should go about this. I played fifty hours a week at one point and didn’t get any better, but Mike, surrounding himself with players on The Next Level of skill had to bring up his own game in order to compete with them. He had no choice. In order to do that, Mike was forced to throw away his wrong ideas from the past. He had to change his card valuations. He put in the work of studying the decks that beat him after they beat him, in order to see what cards his opponents were taking, and perhaps more importantly, what he was erroneously passing.

Mike says that draft is the best way to quickly improve your game. The reason is that in Constructed, the same situations come up in repeating matchups, but in draft, different situations come up with every different draft and draft deck. You have to value your resources more carefully and make more – and many times harder – decisions. In Constructed, you can unlock a board with a Wrath of God or evasion fatty, but in draft, you sometimes have to sculpt the position you want to be in many turns before the relevant cards come up. Drafting often, and against other strong players, teaches skills that help you not just in future drafts, but in Constructed down the line.

In terms of Constructed, it seems that Mike thinks that understanding the environment is the most important tool a player can have. He freely conceded that some of his opponents were or are more talented and skilled, but he was able to beat them anyway. Mike beat those players with better preparation or with better understanding. It is important to note that no matter how much investment he had put into his pet deck Tooth and Nail (and believe me as list owner, that it was a lot), when crunch time came around, he had to accept where he was wrong in order to adapt and succeed. He also credits his network of friends – primarily BDM – with the tech he used in order to get an edge over other skilled Ravager players. No matter how much preparation he put in, Mike would not have qualified without the help of this network.

Last of all, Mike emphasizes playing tightly and the process of getting better itself. The biggest change a player can make when going from Strong Among the Weak to Weak Among the Strong is to understand that he isn’t an inherently bad player… he is a player making bad plays. He can change. He doesn’t have to be a bad player forever, if only he alters the decisions and decision making process that are blocking his ability to win. He has to accept that some plays are better than others, and, over the long haul, has to try to make the tightest play possible at every opportunity.

An important aspect of tight play that Mike alludes to is what Chad Ellis once called”The Danger of Cool Things.” Whether it is wanting to absolutely demolish the opponent with an entwined Tooth and Nail or a mis-casting Furnace Dragon when it could just as easily backfire on an advantaged board position, improving Magic players should never lose sight of one thing: tournament Magic is essentially a binary. There is W and there is L (with D or ID notwithstanding). It doesn’t matter how big you win if you win, and it doesn’t matter how big you would have won if the opening you give your opponent changes that W into an L.

I once won a vital PTQ match from the most improbable situation imaginable. At the end of the game, my mono-Black deck had exactly a Wasteland and Sarcomancy (no token, just the Sarcomancy) in play and my opponent had several Forests, two Lifeforces, and had resolved three Natural Orders, playing two Uktabi Orangutans on the way for my Cursed Scrolls. The first Natural Order would have clearly beaten me, but my opponent was so caught up in crushing me in a flurry of Creeping Molds and huge animals that on this third Natural Order, he actually shuffled his graveyard into his library by accident… which was an automatic game loss. At the time, I was down a game and carrying a Swiss loss; I went on to win the PTQ eight rounds later. If my opponent had just emphasized tight decision making instead of going nuts with how cool he could play, my day would have ended in round four instead of successfully at four in the morning.

I chose Mike for this interview because I have literally never seen a player rise in skill and success so quickly. He is not just a great guy, but a chameleon that brings the best out in other players… and takes that best with him, incorporating it into his own skill set. I am really glad that Mike had the initiative to try to break into our group, because he has made us richer for his presence, and helped to raise everyone’s overall gaming level even as he has improved his own skills. If I am at least semi-retired from regular gaming (For Now! You Bastards!), I could not ask for a better replacement as Mike in the group.

I hope that Mike, Steve, Seth, and the rest of the Neutral Ground list go to town at Nationals this weekend. Hopefully they will all be playing G/W, in order to reinvigorate the glory of absent Flores. [We are never going to hear the end of not one, but two Floresian-style W/g decks making the top 8 at Nats this weekend. At some point you will be begging Mike to talk about Napster again… – Knut, who knew Mike was right all along]