What Pressure Feels Like

Many of us have experienced the pressure of playing in a PTQ Top 8 or an IQ final, but we’ve never played Magic as long or as under as much pressure as the God of Storms did as he fought for his entire year’s worth of work! This is what the SCG Tour is all about!

Some of you may know me as “the peanut guy” or “that guy who plays Storm as often as possible.” I’m a former graduate student in Mathematics who spent 2016 grinding the SCG Tour and some Grand Prix and also hanging out with my adorable cat, Wilt. Given that this is now my primary focus in life, the SCG Invitational in Atlanta and Players’ Championship at the end of last year were hugely important weekends for me. I played Magic with more pressure on me than almost anyone will ever feel during a Magic game.

My name is Caleb Scherer.

I’m not giving you a tournament report.

I’m telling you what it feels like.

Atlanta Invitational Day 1: On the Bubble

I had a lot invested in going to the Players’ Championship. I had spent the whole year, almost exclusively driving, to every single SCG Tour weekend. The grind was taking its toll on me, but I had managed to push myself to Atlanta for what would hopefully be the second-to-last tournament of the year. I didn’t come that far to go home without a Players’ Championship chance.

Going into the Invitational, I was holding onto a slot in the Players’ Championship by a thin six points over SCG’s own Todd Anderson. At least I was trying to maintain my spot, versus having to win the Invitational for it, as was the case in 2015. This meant there was little margin for error, as I would need to finish at minimum one point bracket below Todd to maintain the status quo, not to mention the other possible corner-case situations involving crazy Season 3 math that could knock me out entirely.

Getting what I figured to be a Top 32 finish to lock my slot was something of a tall order, given that 2016 had been one of my most trying to date. Since the Las Vegas Invitational I won, I spent most of my time with Team Cardhoarder’s own Jacob Baugh and Devin Keopke in tow, but had yet to procure an Open Top 8 in 2016. Huge thanks go out to both of them for pushing me though it all and helping me keep my sanity throughout the whole year, and especially the Invitational.

Congratulations again, Jacob. I know how good it feels.

As for my preparation, I worked on Skype and MTGO with two friends, Zack Kanner and Alex Stratton, who would also be at the tournament. The Knoxville Open gave me an idea of what I wanted to be doing in Standard. My choice was a B/G Delirium list similar to the one I piloted to a Top 16 finish in that Open.

Goodbye, Emrakul. We’ll all sincerely miss you so much.

This left just my choice for Modern. I’d been playing Infect for a couple of months, and after many Leagues online the week before the Invitational, I was at a crossroads. The deck was Public Enemy Number One, which meant losing to hate more often than I would like. Convinced that an audible wouldn’t be in my best interest, I put my hopes on crushing Standard and registered the following:

Beginning the tournament were four rounds of Standard, where I started with a quick 2-0. At this point I was already feeling that the PC slot was well within reach and needed to just take it one round at a time. But in Round 3 I was paired against my good friend Ryan Fleisher, which started the downward cascade. I ended up losing the second two rounds of Standard. This left me reeling, as now I needed to 3-1 in Modern with Infect (where I already felt weak) just to make Day 2, let alone have a Top 32 finish.

Every round was money gained, money lost. Every turn, every tap, was huge.

I managed to win the first two rounds of Modern, easing my fears a little. Then in Round 7 I got crushed pretty quickly, but I soon learned that Todd was having an even worse day than I was and had been battling with three losses since Round 3. This put the pressure back on, as the next round could easily be the last I would get to play in the season.

In the abstract, I don’t know if it’s good to keep track of your competition during something like this, but at a Magic tournament, you don’t have a choice. Even if I avoided looking for Todd on the pairings board or around the room to figure out which tables he was at, a bunch of people would run up to tell me. It makes for a long day, and a really long weekend.

I sat down for Round 8 against Bant Eldrazi. To say I was anxious about this match would’ve been an understatement. After a quick Game 1 and a second where I made plenty of mistakes under the pressure, it all came down to a final game. I got a bit lucky and got there. Immediately I rushed to figure out if Todd had won. He had; tomorrow, the race would continue.

So much for sleeping well.

Happening simultaneously was my buddy Jacob Baugh crushing it to a 7-1 record, setting him up for a great shot of getting the seasonal invite to the PC, which he had been working hard towards all year. Going back to the hotel, I was trying to calm down about the next day, which would decide my PC fate. This is something that I have struggled with a lot recently, as I’m sure many other grinders have. My thoughts kept coming back to the same point of how the grind and constant string of medium results had worn me down. If I didn’t make it, which finish in which city in which game would I blame for it? I had an entire years’ worth of work to choose from. I felt such a huge need to prove myself by re-qualifying for the Players’ Championship. In 2016 I made it there on an Invitational win; in 2016, I could show everyone that I could still make it by dedication as well.

Atlanta Invitational Day 2: The Tiebreakers

I woke up the next morning surprisingly refreshed and quickly downed a bunch of free hotel coffee to get my mind ready for what was shaping up to be one of my most nail-biting tournament days yet. Luckily Standard was first again, so my confidence was high. I rattled off three wins, further solidifying my lead. The next two rounds were quite rough, though, with losses sending me into the scenario of having to win the last three to make the Top 32 I so badly needed. I won Round 14, and after talking it over with Matthias Hunt, I found I could either win both of my last two matches to lock the Top 32 or have an outside shot with a 1-1 finish. We both had a backdoor out in Jacob winning the whole thing (spoiler alert: he did!).

What are teammates for?

In Round 15, I lost a tough match to Korey McDuffie, which completely took the wind out of my sails for making it. Here I fell into the trap many have before and mentally imploded. Luckily for me, Korey was a great friend and gave me a life talk that helped me steady myself for the last round. Thank you so much.

No matter how many tournaments I play in, I always have a need to keep myself focused and not to worry or even expect a certain result. I just have to play the game. That’s what I have to keep in mind. That’s what we all have to keep in mind.

When the pairings were posted, I was paired against Zan Syed, whom I had met at the previous Open. I got the win, but so did Todd; I had finished 10-6 and Todd at 11-4-1. This meant that tiebreakers had to go my way twice to get my invitation to the Players’ Championship; I would need to make Top 64 and Todd would have to miss Top 16. After what seemed like forever waiting to see the final standings, I saw it:

17th: Todd Anderson

63rd: Caleb Scherer

I had made it! By the thinnest of margins, sure, but still a whole three matches sooner than last year.

The 2016 Players’ Championship

I had finally achieved my goal, but there wasn’t much time to celebrate. Given the structure of the Players’ Championship, I needed the most preparation for Standard. The B/G Delirium list I’d been running stood no chance against all the Aetherworks Marvel decks, so back to the drawing board it was. As for Legacy, the answer was quite obvious, Storm. Then, for Modern, it was a similar Dredge list to what I had won the Classic with in Atlanta the Sunday after I locked up my Players’ Championship invite.

To prep, I worked with my teammate Joe Lossett, who was also on the lock in Legacy and Modern, testing pretty much exclusively Standard. Of course, being results-oriented, I feel like it was the correct way to budget our time, but in retrospect, I wish I had at least given a couple of days to each other format. My goal for the 2016 Players’ Championship was to do better than I had in 2015. This meant I was shooting for a Top 4 or better.

Fast-forward to early Thursday morning and I was feeling pretty confident in my deck choices as I set out on the full day of driving to Roanoke from St. Louis. After all of that testing, it was nice to be able to have a day to just forget about Magic, since decklists had to be submitted the night prior.

Come Saturday morning, I sat down to play Legacy, where I felt that I had the upper hand to lock a Day 2 slot and not have to worry about Modern. Unfortunately, things went the exact opposite after winning my first round against Max McVety. This is where I truly started to feel the lack of Legacy prep bite me. Then, to top it off, I lost my battle to lock Day 2 against Todd Anderson (of all people) in Modern, so I didn’t feel too good going into that format either. In a nice turnaround and with some luck, I was able to 3-0 my “Play to Stay” pod, thus locking up my slot for Day 2 and putting me in a wild-card match against Liam Lonergan.

Before going to bed that night, I went over all of my sideboarding plans for the match against Liam’s Mardu Vehicles and then my possible quarterfinals matches. I kept thinking about how exciting this was, as these Standard matches were where I had put all of my effort in getting ready for this event and hopefully it would pay off.

Luckily the first two matches went pretty quickly against Liam and then Jeff Hoogland due to Whirler Virtuoso and Emrakul, the Promised End. At that point, I felt that most of the pressure was off, as I had attained the goal I set out for.

The unfortunate part was that I had to play against my friend Jacob Baugh in the semifinals, in a mirror where he had many more important cards then I did. The games of this match were by far the most taxing on me of the whole tournament. I had to play some Emrakul turns just right to stay in the game. It also really helped that Jacob’s deck was drawing perfectly on the turns I controlled.

The finals, while not the most taxing, was for sure the hardest for me. It was awesome to have the chance to sit down for the most important match of the SCG Tour against my teammate Joe Lossett, but unfortunately, four quick games later, Joe had won. It was demoralizing, of course, but Joe definitely earned that trophy, and a huge congrats to him for crushing it. It felt good just to see it end. And end happily.

The main thing that I’ve taken away from this whole year of grinding is that dedication and determination are way more important when grinding a circuit such as the SCG Tour than one may think. I made it to the Players’ Championship point. If I had just chosen to sleep in one Sunday at an Open instead of going back at it in a Classic, I would’ve been out (not counting the pass-down from Jacob winning the Invitational). This one fact is something that stands out in my mind as a reason to be proud of myself and encourage others to always keep pressing on.

Do not quit.

I owe a bunch of people many thanks for being there for me on this journey. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if it weren’t for all the support of my family, friends, travel companions, teammates, and cats.

And I promise you this: You will see me grinding on the SCG Tour all over again in 2017.