The Three Lessons I Learned While Winning The PTQ

What I’m talking about are the intangibles of winning. These are the things that can turn a good player into a great player, or a mediocre pool of cards into a winning Sealed deck, even if it is for just the space of one tournament. They are things that you cannot judge from a player’s Limited Rating or the Pro Tour point total of their playtesting group. I have chosen the three that I have deemed the most central to my victory at the PTQ.

I’d like to start this article by ignoring the last tenet of”How to Get Your Article Rejected,” the so-called Ham Sandwich rule, where you must hook your reader so tightly that even though they desperately desire to scarf some grub they continue reading. In this section, the Ferrett writes, "Making lots of ‘Ha ha, I suck so maybe you shouldn’t listen to me’ jokes will not keep the reader from leaving. (In fact, it’ll drive them away)."

While I know that I do not suck, I may also entertain certain delusions about how good I actually am: I have never gone to the Pro Tour. My Limited rating is less than 1700, and I haven’t even made a top eight besides the Junior Super Series (you can tell how much of a scrub I am since I managed to sneak that in). As your stomach growls and you eye the deli across the street, you are probably wondering exactly why it is that you should continue reading?

Well, I did win the Limited PTQ: Amsterdam held this past weekend at StarCityGames in Roanoke. That doesn’t make me the next Jon Finkel, and I’m sure that more than one player still considers me to be what I described in the previous paragraph – a nobody with little skill in Limited formats that got some lucky pulls. But sometimes the strongest currents flow beneath the surface where their direction is more difficult to discern.

What I’m talking about are the intangibles of winning. These are the things that can turn a good player into a great player, or a mediocre pool of cards into a winning Sealed deck, even if it is for just the space of one tournament. They are things that you cannot judge from a player’s Limited Rating or the Pro Tour point total of their playtesting group. There are far more than I will list here; I have chosen the three that I have deemed the most central to my victory at the PTQ.

The first intangible may well be dismissed out of hand by more serious players, but I find it compelling enough to list it here. People that frequent the Wizards website have surely read articles about how randomization is the key to the Collectible Card Game market; it is what makes each game unique, and sometimes you must live or die by the top seven cards of your library. If you haven’t guessed already, I’m talking about luck.

Now, good players tend to dismiss this aspect of the game; you should build and play your deck in a manner that reduces luck as a factor, allowing you to control your own destiny. You can never quite count it out, though, for even the best players make mistakes, and sometimes you need to topdeck that Glissa Sunseeker that hasn’t yet seen the light of your hand.

For example, consider this situation in the semi-finals: I am at six life. My opponent, at seven, taps all his creatures to send across a Fangren Hunter and a Skyhunter Patrol equipped with enough hardware to deal me six by himself. I used my two Pearl Shards to prevent the next four damage to myself, then block Fangren Hunter with Krark-Clan Grunt. I sacrifice both shards to make the Grunt a 4/2 first striker, taking down the Hunter, and leaving me at two life. My opponent looks at the situation on the table: I have the Grunt and a Ogre Leadfoot equipped with a Leonin Scimitar – enough to take him to one life the next turn, since he has no blockers. If I draw an artifact, I can sac it to the Grunt for that all-important single point of damage – so he tells me not to draw one, then declares the end of his turn.

I want to take a small detour right here. Not only am I shamelessly building suspense, but I’m trying to show that even though Magic players are often ridiculed by society at large, our”pimp hand” can still be”way strong.” You see, I was invited to a lingerie party on Saturday evening. It’s been so long for me that I almost consider accidentally brushing up against a girl in the supermarket”getting some,” and I had been looking forward to it all week: what could be better than imbibing alcohol in the presence of twenty-five scantily clad women? I imagined scrubbing out early to draft and then making the three-hour trip back to Richmond in plenty of time to get my swerve on.

But everything changed when I made the top eight; I had to make a difficult choice. I even hoped I would lose quickly once the final matches started, but my deck seemed destined to pull just right. I had fantasized about going to the lingerie party all week; however, I had fantasized about making the Pro Tour since my first sanctioned tournament at Richmond Comix. Knowing that I was giving something up to go for my dream gave me a purpose and helped me, exhausted as I was, to continue. I sacrificed an evening of carousing with half-nekkid chicks for a shot at first place – and the twisted metallic Gods of Mirrodin smiled upon me.

Back to the semifinal match: remember, I needed to topdeck an artifact to win. I figured my odds were good since about half my deck was artifacts, so after knocking the top of my library a few times and talking sweet to it, I pulled a Granite Shard and attacked for the victory.

Of course, this wasn’t the only time I got the cards I needed when I needed them; I hear that equipping a Plated Slagwurm with a Loxodon Warhammer and a Neurok Hoversail wins games. But it is a good example.

Time for the second intangible. Every player has come across this part of the game – and sometimes that’s been a good thing, other times a very very bad thing. What happened at the PTQ taught me a couple of important lessons and I am proud of the way I eventually handled myself.

The second intangible of winning is sportsmanship. I have always prided myself in being a good sport; I’m not a hardass when it comes to tapping mana, or how you want to put damage on the stack, or whatever effects you have to play. When you dig into your bag of tricks, I basically want to realize your intent: I don’t want to trick you rules-wise into doing something "technically wrong" and steal a win that I didn’t deserve (or a draw, for that matter). Here are two examples from my day.

The first is my fourth opponent of the Swiss rounds. I’ve seen him around and he’s a regular at PTQs. I took the first game quickly and was building towards a victory in the second round behind a pair of Needlebugs and some other goodies. He was at very low life and I had a bunch of creatures that I sent over. One of these creatures was a Fangren Hunter, a 4/4 brute with trample. It was blocked by a 2/2 creature, so I assigned four damage to it, expecting two of the damage to trample over. Unbeknownst to me, the official rules are that you must assign two damage to the creature and two damage to the opponent; when he told me this, I got frustrated and an argument ensued. He immediately called over a judge, who remained for the rest of our match.

I called him a rules lawyer. I told him that he was taking advantage of someone that doesn’t know rules errata as well as he does. He said that he hadn’t done anything wrong, since he was following the rules to the letter; I said something, like "I’m not calling you a cheater – I’m saying that you’re not very sportsmanlike. You knew my intent, but you tricked me into doing it wrong and are trying to steal the match." The tension was so thick you could have cut it with a Banshee’s Blade.

There were two minutes left in the round. Having failed to deal the necessary damage, I stalled out, drawing lands for the rest of the match while he managed to get me with fliers in the second turn of overtime. He pulled out a draw and I was mad – because it wasn’t my opponent that beat me, it was me. If I had attacked with my pair of Needlebugs, I would have won the game despite the trample trickery, but I left them sitting behind for some stupid reason. I realized that I wasn’t mad at him so much as I was mad at myself – and as he was sitting next to me, I immediately and profusely apologized. I had made a fool of myself in front of some good players, my friends, and the head judge, whom I also apologized to later. Doing so made me feel much better, and suddenly I didn’t feel so bad for getting that draw when I could have won. I was still 3-0-1 and had a good shot at top 8, and though I had acted poorly I felt I had redeemed myself and was ready to play.

The second example was my semifinal match. The first game, I won quickly. I continued to play despite my opponent trying to get me to concede and run to the lingerie party. The second game, my opponent was a mess, tapping and then retapping his mana in different ways, sending attackers then saying,”Hold on, let me think about that.” He even Deconstructed an artifact of mine, took three points of burn, then realized he could sink the mana into his Viridian Longbows and took the life back. I didn’t say anything because I thought we had an understanding that we were playing a more relaxed type of semi-final match – and furthermore, I didn’t think I would win the game since he had a Luminous Angel pumping out 1/1s and a Viridian Longbow with around ten mana.

I must repeat the oft-used phrase: To assume makes an ass out of”U” and me. The final game of our match was much more to my liking – a fast-paced attacking battle. I was slightly ahead and had a Leonin Scimitar in my hand, a Goblin Replica in my hand, and eight untapped mana. I wasn’t sure if I should put the Scimitar on my Ogre Leadfoot, since that way I couldn’t pop my Replica to take out his nasty 5/3 trampling artifact. I thought for a while and then played the Scimitar and equipped it to my Ogre; about fifteen seconds later, I thought that I should not equip it to leave my mana open to play Goblin Replica and have enough left over to pop him.

My opponent immediately called me out on it and said what’s done was done as I just stared at him, incredulous. I asked him about tapping and untapping his mana, about the three points of damage he waffled on, and several other points of interest – at which point he informed me that maybe I should play tighter.

Up to this point, this opponent was the only person to hand me a loss during the Swiss, but he and I shared an Alma Mater and a few other things in common. Despite the loss, I had enjoyed playing against him the most of all my opponents, since we had good conversation. After this moment, I lost respect for him. I pulled the Granite Shard and the win, and he said all kinds of things: That he was going to quit Magic among them. I didn’t appreciate his comments after what I still considered to be a good match between good players. So from the sportsmanship intangible, I learned two things: you will always feel and play better when you are a good sport – but never assume that your opponent will be!

A quick aside: Now that I fully plan to use my invite and go to Pro Tour Amsterdam, I realize I am going to have to play a much tighter game. I am not saying that everyone that plays a tight game is a bad sport or vice versa. But I believe there are things you can do to make clear what kind of game you and your opponent are playing. I have always played at Richmond Comix because I like the establishment and I like the people that play there: They are my friends. As such, it is easy to let things slide. Things must go a little differently now, though: I must practice stricter rules on the way to Amsterdam. To maintain my stance on sportsmanship, I plan to announce this at the beginning of each of my matches. "If you tap your lands, they are tapped. If you untap your lands then realize you should have pinged me at the end of my turn, it’s too late. A card laid is a card played. Think about your plays before you make them, because I’m not going to allow you to take any back. But at the same time, I am holding myself to these same standards. Good luck."

Are you hungry yet? My stomach is growling as I write this, but I feel I am doing scrubs across the nation a favor, so I will brave the pain to bring you the final intangible. According to the Ham Sandwich rule, I should have written the most important but often unseen victory condition first. But this is my article. And to tell the truth, I prefer roast beef.

So here it is. The head honcho. The most important condition that led to my victory. Get ready. If you really want that Ham Sandy, go make it now, then bring it back to the computer.

The last intangible is friends. I never could have done it without my homies, and that’s for sure. The reasons for this are myriad and I want to get all of them. But first, let me give a special shout out to the people I came with: John Davis and Ben Newberry-Ham. I had played with John about a dozen times before and had never met Ben, but by the end of the day they were both cemented as fast friends.

So how, exactly, did they help me win? I think I’ll do this chronologically. First off, John drove us the three hours to Roanoke. We had to leave at 5:45 in the morning, and despite little sleep and burning eyes we all talked the whole way down to the tourney. We spoke about what cards we wanted to get in our Sealed Decks, which colors were most viable, what we should expect to give up in trade for an Oblivion Stone. We were all in high spirits and raring to go when we got there.

Second, after we made our decks we sat down and discussed them. I had a very strong sealed Deck, including great cards like Loxodon Warhammer, Tel-Jilad Archers, Plated Slagwurm, Terror, and Soul Foundry; Ben had a similarly strong deck, including the aforementioned Oblivion Stone. We all agreed that John’s deck was a little worse than average, as he had no Limited Bombs, and a weak creature base; but we were all excited to play.

Pairings go up and out of the 63 other players registered in the PTQ, my opponent was… John Davis.

I know – that sucks, right? One of us would end the round with a loss, which for all intents and purposes will end your tournament. You would have to win out in order to make top 8 with a loss in the first round. When I took my seat, I was thinking that John would probably lose to my superior deck – a shame, because he’s a great player. But imagine my surprise when I drew nine lands out of about twelve cards in the first game; John whittles me down with two pairs of 1/1s from Raise the Alarm until I am dead.

Game two: Imagine my surprise when I drew only two lands out of about thirteen cards. John whittled me down with similar weenie creatures until I succumb. He writes the results on our slip of paper and we continue to play – it was about five minutes into the round and I’m sure that my deck will win this one. Well, we played five games, and I lost every single one… But before John went to turn in our slips, I notice that he’s recorded it as a 2-1 win for me.

When he came back to the table, I ask him about it, and he tells me that he conceded the match to me because he knows that he can’t go anywhere with the deck that he has. My deck, he continues, has a solid chance of making top 8, and I only lost because of mana screw. I nodded my agreement and give him some daps and several thank-yous. Without this gesture, I could never have done so well.

What makes this the most important intangible, however, is that it doesn’t stop there. John continued to play to try and improve my tiebreakers. In fact, he played every single round of Swiss in an effort to lock me into the top 8, and came away with a 4-2 record – which was impressive, considering his card pool. Furthermore, one of those losses was when he conceded to me. We will never know if he would have made the top 8 without that loss, since every pairing for the rest of the tournament would have been different. What we do know is that he had a shot, but he sacrificed it to give me, an unknown, a chance.

Ben dropped to draft after the second round. Whenever he or John had finished their match and I was still playing, they would come and watch me play. Just having my friends at my back made me play more confidently. After the match was over, they would question me about plays I had made, discuss the options I’d had, or describe my mistakes so that I would not make them again. When the top four players drew into the finals and had an hour to discuss how they would Rochester, my friends were there to give me the inside scoop. They also gave me invaluable insights into the Rochester Draft format, since I had only done it once before, around three and a half years ago.

Finally, they kept my spirits high after what I thought was a terrible draft. I locked into white with a couple of great early creatures, but then watched in dismay as the people to my left allowed great card after great card to make it to my opponent on the far side of the table. Some examples: He got an eighth- and ninth-pick Leonin Den Guard and Skyhunter Cub. He got a seventh-pick Pyrite Spellbomb. It was ridiculous and I was sure I would lose quickly and be off to the lingerie party. I even thought about conceding to get there that much sooner, but my friends convinced me to stay. They were right there the entire time through the finals and they gave me the strength to make confident plays an eventually win the tournament.

Well, those are my intangibles of winning. When I sat down across from my opponents, they couldn’t tell I had these things, but they were there nonetheless and they were essential to victory. Hopefully I can muster up some support for the final destination: Pro Tour Amsterdam.

And last but not least, here are some props and slops.

Props: First and foremost to Star City Games; you have a great establishment and I enjoyed playing there. Props to John, Ben, and Ian for having my back. Props to the Head Judge who was a great guy, and to all my peoples back at Richmond Comix where I had my humble beginnings. Finally, to three cards: I love you, Loxodon Warhammer. I love you, Granite Shard. I love you, Awe Strike.

Slops: To the dude who called Disciple of the Vault a janky card, even though he won me two games. Slops to certain people in the top 8 for communicating during the draft after they had already discussed it beforehand. And slops to my quarterfinal opponent for taking a loss ungraciously and personally.

Thanks for listening to my rambling on – and enjoy your sandwich no matter what cold cuts are in it!