Sullivan’s Satchel: My Starting 5, Pioneer Bans, And Getting Hooked On Magic

Patrick Sullivan answers questions on his basketball starting five from among Magic: The Gathering players and the moment Magic hooked him.

Chained to the Rocks, illustrated by Aaron Miller

Hello, and welcome to this week’s installment of Sullivan’s Satchel. Though my design work is primarily for Wizards of the Coast (WotC), I’ve picked up a variety of other gigs since becoming a full time contractor at the start of the year. I’m just started a project I’m not in a position to talk much about right now, but some of the principal owners are being introduced to trading card games for the first time. This means unpacking Magic (Alpha in particular) to give some context for much of what’s considered “best practices” in the industry.

I don’t think the average Magic player appreciates just how spectacular Alpha is as a game design achievement — setting aside the game engine (unbelievable), the details of the set are extremely well-executed, especially for it being the first time. The expression of color pie, the execution of rarity, how evocative many of the simple designs are, it all holds up, almost 30 years later, Easy to take it for granted after you’ve been around it for so long but it’s cool to be reminded how much of this was done right the first time.

With that, Director Rob wants to know:

You get to make a rec league team of anyone you’ve played ball with. Who’s your starting five?

During my brief time at Seton Hall University I got to play pickup with future NBA players Eddie Griffin and Samuel Dalembert, and even with a 2020 understanding of the three-point line they’d start together. After that, I’ve been literally dunked on by maybe a dozen people with former D3 college basketball experience, and I could cobble a credible rotation out of the above.

That’s not particularly interesting, so I’d like to talk about my MTG-specific starting five. Caveats include: must be someone I played with personally; must be a Magic player first and baller second (SCG Top 8 competitor Tom Herzog, who played for Michigan State University, is disqualified, for example); and I’m starting at shooting guard. With those parameters, I’m going:

  • Point Guard: Craig Krempels
  • NBA comp: Andre Miller (Denver)

Scouting Report: Old-school, below-the rim point guard with enough scoring chops and feel out of the pick and roll to score or set the table for others.

  • Small Forward: John Fiorillo
  • NBA comp: Draymond Green

Tough, physical playmaking wing with a soft touch around the basket.

  • Power Forward: Matt Sperling
  • NBA comp: Paul Millsap

Swiss Army knife defender, keeps things moving in the flow of the offense, good feel, comfortable diving or popping out of the pick and roll.

  • Center: Jon Sonne
  • NBA Comp: Al Horford (Atlanta)

Offensive fulcrum comfortable operating from beyond the three point line and in, not an instinctual passer but comfortable drawing and kicking, powerful finisher under duress over either shoulder, quality positional rim protection.

Obviously some serious bias here and I’m sure many of the people on this list are comfortably over the hill (or at least, severely diminished from what I remember of their peak) but I would happily go to war with these four even against whoever the good young crop of MTG ballers are supposed to be.

From Renan Correa:

What are your thoughts about the Pioneer bans? I think there’s a general influence of twitter/social media speech on WOTC B&R decisions and I think this is quite bad because those who have more voice are not necessarily the reflection of the majority. Most of these players are a) active on these sites and b) speak english. I’m a brazilian and all the pioneer players from my LGS (they don’t play MODO) disliked the bannings but their voice isn’t heard in those decisions. And some probably will stop playing because they can’t justify spending more money in arbitrary bannings (the last pioneer challenge before bans had 8 different decks on the top 8 and the format was healthy).

I understand that Pioneer wasn’t firing as much but it was very popular before quarantine and some players (like Kanister) pointed out that the difficulty to fire Pioneer tournaments was more a cause of their OP announcements than the overall dislikeness of the format. Do you have any opinions on this subject? Hope you’re doing well during this time, love your content!

I think there can be issues with who controls (or at least influences) the “social media narrative” or whatever you want to call it. I think you are correct in pointing out that much of the discourse occurs in English (WotC being in the United States and primarily employing Americans doesn’t help here) and much of what is assumed about the “financial hardship” of banning is viewed through the lens of Western wealth. These bannings represent many multiples of destroyed value when scaled against per capita income (maybe not the best metric since playing Magic selects for being in the upper brackets, but still), and not just the banned cards themselves but the implied cost of the lost value in adjacent cards and having to construct a new deck altogether.

That said, I do believe Pioneer was becoming less popular at least in part due to the format stagnating, and it’s informative to me that League attendance went from about 270 the Friday before the bans to around 450 in the time after it. That’s anecdotal (maybe the best we can do under the limitations imposed on physical play) and I don’t know if it’s enough to justify the bans on its own, but I think it’s fair to say something beyond OP uncertainty was harming the format.

I do think it is useful for people, including people who make the decisions on what to ban, to remember that not everyone is engaging with the same ability to slog through bans and rebuilds as everyone else and that should be part of the conversation, and that we should proactively try to engage with people in other parts of the world, who speak other languages, to gather that perspective.

From Mike Jarvis:

With the swath of bans in Standard and Pioneer, the formats feel (at least somewhat) open for now. When you’re approaching a tournament for a wide open format, how does your sideboard plan change versus a tournament with a more established format?

Do you tend to generalize answers (I.E., some artifact hate, some removal, etc.), or do you bring silver bullets for what you think might be the top decks?



My strategy is somewhat informed by the fact that I play low-powered aggressive decks that can’t hang with more powerful decks even by sideboarding in to more powerful cards. I use a framework of highest yield, which combines a blend of:

  • How popular is the matchup or card I’m trying to become better against?
  • What is the value-over-replacement of the cards I could sideboard versus the worst cards in my maindeck in the matchup?
  • Is the card still productive on the draw, or if my draw isn’t very good?
  • Is the matchup in question close enough that appreciably improving my matchup yields a lot of win equity?
  • Am I oversideboarding for matchups that are already so good or so bad that there isn’t much to be gained here?

For example, my Pioneer sideboard of:

  • 4 Chained to the Rocks. Very powerful against creatures, extremely high value-over-replacement for fighting big creatures especially, busted on the play or draw.
  • 4 Skullcrack. Very high value-over-replacement versus your weakest burn spell for decks with few creatures and want to win with lifegain.
  • 4 Searing Blood. If you successfully resolve this you win on the spot.
  • 2 Wear. Maybe a little weak and narrow, but again, a very different dimension.
  • 1 Lurrus of the Dream-Den. Not a good example of anything here but it’s busted, whatever, people forgot you’re still allowed to do this and it’s still powerful even if you need to pay some extra mana.

Lastly, our Question of the Week, and winner of $25 of SCG Credit, from Cole Cunningham:

Hi Patrick,

What was the moment/tournament where you realized you were “hooked” on competitive Magic, that it was something that you really wanted to do a lot more of/ take seriously?

-Cole C.

I’ve talked a lot about playing Folk of An-Havva in a Type 1 (Vintage) tournament back in the day to get people’s Juggernauts and then it actually happening that way in the first round. I was definitely addicted to something at that point, but I’m not sure it couldn’t have been sated by playing local events or money drafts at events or myriad other ways one can be “competitive” without engaging with the larger Organized Play architecture Magic provides.

I was fortunate enough to grow up with Eugene Harvey, an absolute savant at Magic, among other endeavors. He was always the best person in our group, and so his success at big events was a measuring stick for the rest of us. If he was illegitimate, we were just playing stupid games in a basement that didn’t amount to much. If he could hang, it meant we could, too.

I remember reading The Sideboard and how it made the players seem incomprehensibly good, that we weren’t playing the same game, and that we were doomed if we were ever unfortunate enough to get paired against one of them. The praise showered on them was a tacit degradation of us (at least, that’s how I took it) — if you were any good, we’d be talking about you, too.

Anyways one year Eugene flew down to Orlando to grind into US Nationals in 2000 or 2001, successfully qualified the night before, and then crushed the tournament en route to a Top 4 and a spot on the National team. I remember him calling me on the phone (I stayed back in NJ, broke and unqualified) and thought it was a prank for ten minutes before I got independent confirmation about what happened. It wasn’t me, and I wasn’t even there, but the feeling that someone I was around was just as good as anyone else in the room made me feel like there were no barriers, and I think that’s the moment I was officially hooked.