Viking Chic, Or: A Thousand-Dollar Journey For Nothing?

She got her own interview on The Sideboard and a Feature Match with Sol Malka… But more importantly, she permanently emblazoned an image into the collective Magic community: A woman in a viking helmet and pigtails. And this is her story.

My trip began less than three months ago, when Regionals started becoming the hot topic in the Magic community. I was feeling a little run down with work and was looking for something to bring back a little bit of excitement to my life. I came up with this grandiose plan of trying to work my way to the top of the Magic food chain – a journey from casual Arena player to contender. I even had it all figured out that I would pitch the idea of a series of articles to Star City on the evolution of a Pro Tour Magic player. I started getting advice from some of the more successful Magic players in Denver and jumped right in to practicing for Regionals.

Unfortunately, after about a week of practice sessions and getting in at most five games in four hours of gaming with very little in terms of results on the best deck to play, I figured I was pushing my luck. Let’s face it; I think I played a net total of six Constructed tournaments in about five years. I was seriously wondering if I could compete. I didn’t feel I was getting enough practice in, and I had little time to do much else. I pretty much forgot about even trying to write any articles (maybe by the end of this little journey, I can convince the Ferrett that it would be a great series to write).

So, somewhere along this the line, my practicing paid off and I tightened up my play enough to get the invite to Nationals with a record of 6-0-2 at the Albuquerque Regionals. That’s long past, so I’ll spare you the details. Chattering excitedly on my way home about getting the chance to play with top players while trying to prevent my buddies in the back seat from opening the box of Torment I just won, reality gave me a big slap in the face. This would be my schedule from now until May 30th:

May 1st – Proposal and final report for an engineering project at work

May 20th – Design review for another engineering project at work

May 24th – 28th – My dad is visiting from Minnesota

May 30th – Proposal for another engineering project at work

Just for background, if you’ve never been involved in a proposal/presentation process, it usually requires about three to five straight 1 a.m. – 2 a.m. nights right before the due date to get them completed. I won’t go into gory detail, as I don’t want to scare away some of you younger folks from a career in engineering – at least not yet. I also happen to play softball Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays while running Arena for a local store on Wednesdays. I’m not trying to make any excuses for my ability to play at Nationals, but I really had to consider how much time I had to prepare to determine if it was worth my time to spend $1000 to fly down to Florida with my husband for a weekend to get massacred.

Okay, I am making excuses – since I obviously did pay the $1000 to fly down to Florida for the weekend.

What really made me to take the big proverbial leap, though, was looking at the invitational list and seeing my name as the only recognizable female on the list. That pretty much sealed it – how could I justify being the only woman to qualify for Nationals and then not bothering to show up? I had to represent, for the good of all women. If nothing else, I was going to make the best of it and have fun along the way. On the plus side, I did manage to get in three whole drafts of OD-TO-JU and three nights of playtesting with my husband right before I left.

I am going to make a little aside here before I continue on for the ladies out there: Women, if you’re going to a big Magic event and you have a boyfriend or husband that isn’t already in the event with you, bring them along. They are the best moral support you can ask for. You can probably even sucker them into taking pictures of you – that, and it helps to have someone you can split the cost of a room with because, well, you probably don’t want to try to share a room with six other of your Magic male buddies. Especially if they are still in high school.

Sometimes it really doesn’t pay to be female.

So here I am at Nationals, playing with the big boys, the powerhouses of Magic. Nope, your eyes are not deceiving you: I am wearing a Viking helmet and accompanying wig. Sometimes, you just have to do certain things to get people to help you out. This little shenanigan was the result of my request for a local game store, Valhalla’s Game Center, to help sponsor me for Nationals. I said that I would try and promote them as best they saw fit. They were more than excited to help out, but said they didn’t have any T-shirts I could wear. I told them that I would be more than willing to wear whatever they came up with. Guess what? I think I should be thankful that they didn’t have any time to add any additional accouterments. I also think I might have taken away some of the limelight from another competitor who was strutting around in a feather jacket; I found out later the guy was the infamous Peter Szigeti. I should’ve introduced myself to him and asked what his excuse was. Oh, well – maybe next time.

And yes, I’ll freely admit that I did feel kind of stupid in that hat at first, since I tend to be easily humiliated. Unfortunately, I have this weakness that will allow me to try some pretty insane things in the name of fun. By the next day, completely ungarbed, everyone was still calling me the Viking lady.

I suppose I should start actually inserting something here about my matches throughout two tough days of competition. Ending up 130th at Nationals with a record of 5-7 after two females the previous weekend made 10th and 74th respectively at GP: Milwaukee, I kind of feel embarrassed to talk about my performance. But then again, I wish I had Chris Benafel as my boyfriend to practice with. No, I take that back. I dearly love my husband, and I wouldn’t trade him for the world. I wish my husband could play like Benafel. No, I think I’ll take that back as well. I wish I could play like Benafel – I can’t even convince my husband to tap the Static Orb with Opposition so he can completely untap on his turn because he thinks it’s cheesy.

So, anyway, back to the tournament. Round 1, I face Aaron Amendolia, playing Trenches with maindeck Lightning Angels, Flametongues, and Meddling Mages. I already know this was my hardest matchup. I don’t really know many names on the Pro Tour circuit, so I don’t recognize him or the one sitting next to him that he is bantering with. The person Aaron is talking to starts going on about the DCI investigating him for tournament fraud when he never turned in a tournament report in his life. Whoever this guy is, he seemed pretty friendly and amiable and I couldn’t figure out why he was under such scrutiny. I caught a glimpse of his nametag after my match was over – Ed Fear.

Ohhhhh… (Yes, this actually has some significance later on).

So Aaron and I, after some genial small talk, start playing. We don’t get much farther than turn 3 or 4 before somebody starts snapping pictures. Great. Here I am, already facing down a Lightning Angel I can’t deal with, and I am getting publicity. I was at least hoping I’d be winning before I got any attention. I know, I know… That’s what I get for wearing the hat. Game 1 is Lightning Angel all the way, as I can’t find a Flametongue to deal with it. Since I don’t see a Trenches, I bet on not seeing them in Game 2 and side in only the Gainsays. I come out relatively fast with Mongrel turn 2, Wurm turn 3, and Flametongue soon after. I don’t bother doing any additional siding on Game 3, which becomes my downfall. I get the upper hand right away with 2 timely Gainsays to get both Squirrel Nest and Opposition on the board and stop Aaron’s double Lightning Angels from hitting me, and to let an Arrogant Wurm get through for some damage. A Flametongue from Aaron’s side stops the beatings. I just need to start drawing into some creatures to make sure he is locked down, but I see nothing but land as he successfully casts Goblin Trenches. Four squirrels can’t stand up to an army of twelve Goblins. As Aaron taps out at the end of my turn to put enough Goblins into play to finish me off, I mentally hit myself for not siding in any Trenches-type removal. When he taps that final land, I have a sudden flashback to a discussion my husband and I were having earlier about the merits of Simoon over Unnatural Selection in the sideboard. We finally decided that a good Trenches player would never completely tap out at the end of an opponent’s turn to make sure the counter threat was in place. That meant a turn 2 Selection would be more of a threat than an end-of-turn Simoon. We were wrong. You can’t imagine how much I wished for the Simoon then. Despite the loss, I felt pretty good at the match being so close… Especially after I see Aaron shoot up the ranks to finish in 40th place.

Round 2, I see a familiar name – Sol Malka. The first-ever Extended tournament I played in was with his Rock deck. I suspected that I would see a lot of big names throughout the day, so it didn’t bother me too much to be playing him. Then, as we sat down and started introducing ourselves, I heard our names listed as the Feature Match. What? We both lost and we’re going to be in the spotlight? I tell him as we are getting up that my hat was to blame. He happened to mention that he hadn’t won any of his last five Feature Matches. I could bet that he wasn’t very happy about sitting at that metal table so soon. As we sat down to the table and had the zones explained to us, I asked Randy Buehler if he had anything to do with this, since he happens to be good friends with my husband. Mark Rosewater walked by at the time and took all the credit, saying it was the hat that did it, and the extra X-chromosome helped.

Randy covered most of this match in Sideboard Online, but it never helps to add a little flavor from my side of the table. Game 1 I come out pretty strong with a turn 1 Bird and a turn 2 Squirrel Nest. I am feeling pretty good with the start, but Sol does manage to get a Shadowmage Infiltrator on the board I need to find some way to deal with since I don’t have a Flametongue or Wild Mongrel available for an answer. Sol quickly retaliates with a Pernicious Deed, and my position starts to become precarious. I draw into a Circular Logic and then a Flametongue Kavu. The Infiltrator is giving him card advantage, which I don’t like at all. I am sure he is holding a Spiritmonger, and I want to get the Deed off the table as soon as I can so I can start rebuilding. I know that casting the Flametongue will force his hand. Unfortunately, after I cast the Flametongue with all my available mana, I realize that he still has four mana to blow the Deed at the end of my turn. I wince at my stupidity, especially after he follows up with one Spiritmonger and then another while I don’t have enough mana open to use my Circular Logic. I don’t get beyond three mana for the rest of the game. The only solace I take from Game 1 is that at least I remembered to put Bind in my sideboard.

When I go to sideboard, the only thing that I really know is Sol is playing U/G/B with the obvious choices for black and green cards. The typical build of this deck is mainly control… But I saw zero counters from Sol. I take a gamble and put in the rest of the Flametongues and Binds, but leave the Gainsays out. I start off slow enough with only a Basking Rootwalla, but manage to get a Squirrel Nest out. The Engineered Plague does its job. At this point in time, I see Randy leave our match, even though I am at twenty life and Sol is somewhere around nine from his painlands and early Rootwalla hits. I thought the game was still far from over. After all, there wasn’t a single creature on the board on either side. So we keep attempting to play it out, with Sol taking another three more points from pain lands to cast his spells. I have a Fire/Ice in my hand, and I figure if I can just dig into some more burn, I can take him out. I get a Merfolk Looter on the table, and since the only card in my hand is Fire/Ice, I swing for another point of damage. Three more painlands later, all I need is red mana to win. A timely Deep Analysis digs for four, and the last card I draw is Shivan Reef. Burn for two? Yep.

Game 3, I finally have a good grasp of his deck and cast a single threat at a time to make him really use all his board clearing spells. He manages to get me down to 3 when I finally get Opposition on the board to stop some of the pain. I tap out his remaining creatures at the end of his turn with my Basking Rootwalla and Wild Mongrel. I need to draw another creature if I’m going to be able to survive his onslaught. It doesn’t take me long to count the cards in my hand and the mana on the board to realize that I have enough to do the final seven points of damage to him. I am sure I was probably sitting there for more than a minute, trying to guess if he might be packing Repulse. Since I didn’t see any countermagic, I had no choice but to bet no, as each successive draw would only get better for him. After pumping and resolving my Mongrel three times, he scooped up his cards and offered me his hand. Whew!

After the match was over, my husband (who I will subsequently refer to as Mike) said that he overheard someone next to him chastising Sol for playing a really bad deck for the current environment. Well, at least I didn’t embarrass myself too much by losing to him in front of everyone. On the further plus side, I now know what the Red Zone is.

Round 3, I play Aaron Mau packing a U/G Upheaval deck. I find myself in a tight spot early as a Divert takes my second-turn Squirrel Nest to his land and I take most of the beatings from a 3/3 Mongoose and my own traitorous Squirrels. Recognizing his biggest creature is only going to be a 4/4, I side in the two Jade Leeches. This turns out to be the right tech, as it hits the table in Game 2 and my opponent can say nothing other than,”Jade Leech. Wow. I can’t deal with that.” It does the damage and we move to Game 3.

Rootwallas and Mongrels on my side come out fast, and Aaron decides to chump with his still 1/1 Werebears to keep off the pain. He doesn’t find answers in time, and a desperation Upheaval only delays the final result. I am ahead of the curve at 2-1, and feeling pretty good about my ability to hang in there.

It’s Gary Wise interview time between this match and the next, give or take a match. I was kind of excited about it (hey, who doesn’t like attention?), but it really is weird answering questions as someone types them up on the keyboard. While Gary is getting set up, Randy and I were trying to figure out if I was the fourth person he ever played Magic with – but I was pretty sure I had done nothing other than trade some cards with him. We finally jogged our cobwebbed memories and agreed that I was the first person he split a box of Fallen Empires with. I will be using this tidbit of knowledge as my claim to fame from now on.

Since you might have seen the interview on sideboard, I won’t go into details. But I’ll let you in a little secret – Gary Wise likes bananas (insert your own conclusions here).

Round 4, I play Brad Swan in the mirror match. At least he assured me his name was Brad Swan, despite the nametag that clearly said Greg. His brother was playing in the JSS at the time, and I guess they thought switching nametags might help their luck. Someone tells me later that their father plays Magic as well. I think that’s neat to be a part of a whole Magic-playing family! On with Game 1. I get the creature advantage early and manage to get the Opposition on the table first. This is where my lack of experience and practice kills me. I end up getting too aggressive early and throw my hand to my Wild Mongrel to save it against a Flametongue. This puts both Brad and I with zero cards in our hands and I with board control. The topdeck war favors Brad as he pulls a Squirrel Nest off the top and casts it without fear. He then draws another Squirrel Nest. I think I draw through about four land before I see anything, but it is too late. The last two cards I draw out of desperation off a Deep Analysis? Two Squirrel Nests. Bah. On to Game 2, where I side in my three Unnatural Selections.

One hits the board on turn 2, and despite early burn to my creatures from Brad, it is enough to give me the advantage and beat down with my Flametongue, Mongrel and Rootwalla for the win. Game 3, I can tell Brad doesn’t want to go down easily as he three-pile shuffles my deck. It works, as I find myself with no land in my opening hand and need to mulligan. The six-card draw looks pretty good with an early Bird, Unnatural Selection, Flametongue, and Looter. Brad draws early Fire, and keeps my side of the table empty for a long time. I manage to get a Wild Mongrel on the table to do away with his own, but a Flametongue from his side stops me from recovering. I draw through a pocket of land, but have no red source and my own Flametongue sits dead in my hand. Brad’s Flametongue and lone Elf finish the job. I bother to look at the next card I would have drawn, and it was a Mossfire Valley. D’oh!

I knew my own mistakes cost myself the first game, but I was feeling pretty good knowing that I could recognize when I was being foolish. So far, though, no one had gotten me 2-0. That’s was at least a sign I could put my hat into the ring of good players.

Okay, Round 5. I need to win this one, for Mr. Wise’s sake. He wanted to make sure he wasn’t interviewing some total punk washout that shouldn’t even be at Nationals. My opponent is John Bonnet, playing Psychatog. He tips his hand early by playing second-turn Nightscape Familiar and a third-turn Psychatog. No counter. Okay, I’ll just go ahead and Fire your Familiar while you’re tapped out, then lay down my combo pieces without fear. He drew into nothing but land for the next several turns and the game was mine. Game 2 was a little more exciting, as I did fourteen points of damage to myself thanks to painlands and a Deep Analysis, but John doesn’t ever find the Upheaval. This is the first match of the day I win 2-0.

Round 6? Bring it on!

I see another Psychatog deck, piloted by Nick Eisel. He knows how to play this deck, as he bluffs countermagic with a hand full of Probes and Fact or Fictions. I play cautiously, and it costs me as he grinds through his deck to find the answers, killing me with the ‘Tog without ever casting Upheaval. I thought Game 2 might be mine, as I manage to get Opposition on the board early with two Birds ready to shut down the counter mana; I just need to draw into some creatures, and it is all mine. Looking back at my graveyard and the cards in play, I saw a total of twelve land and ten spells. I think you know the outcome of that one.

So I end the day at 3-3. The smile on my face belies my performance; why would I be smiling when I’ve pretty much knocked myself out of contention? For several reasons. First, it has been a long time since I played a group of friendly, genteel players. Most tournaments I’ve played at back in Denver, there is always one jerk who just ruins your day. I didn’t see a single one of them today.

Secondly, I could see exactly what I had done wrong to give up games that I should have won. That’s a huge revelation; it means I can play at this level. I just need to clean up the mistakes, which can easily be rectified by lots of practice.

Oh yeah, and all the attention didn’t hurt to help make me a giggly little schoolgirl. Tee hee!

Tomorrow, the dreaded draft and what it takes to defeat the maker of Magic.