The 6 Magic Articles I Hope You Remember

In his farewell article for Star City Games, Ross Merriam looks back at his archive and chooses six of his writings with timeless lessons for all competitive MTG players.

Birthing Pod, illustrated by Daarken

After seven and a half years, this will be my final article for StarCityGames.com. It feels like a lifetime ago that I first got an offer to join the staff here. I was mostly directionless, but also in the middle of a breakout year on the SCG Tour, and getting paid to create content made Magic feel like a viable career path for the first time in my life. After years of following the best players and reading articles on school computers so that I could prepare for my FNMs and PTQs, moving to the other side was surreal.

I’ve spent much time thinking about what I wanted to do with this last article, and it mostly came down to what I want you all to remember from my time here. I’ve written hundreds of articles, but a few stand out. One of the unfortunate realities of Magic content is that most of it is so topical that it loses a lot of relevance over time. One of the things I’ve tried to do is infuse generally applicable lessons into my articles, but there’s only so much of that you can do.

But over the years I’ve had a handful of articles that I think are timeless. These are my favorites among the bunch, and the ones that unfortunately, due to the topical nature of Magic content, still get lost over time. So in the interest of keeping these articles around, here are the six articles from my SCG catalog that I want all of you to reread and keep in your minds moving forward as players. They’re going to make you better, because I know writing them made me better.

In A Word

A little background on this article. It was my third one for the website, second as a regular writer. When I was first brought on, I was only writing every other week, and I wrote this on an off-week. I wasn’t sure if Cedric would even want to publish it, but I needed to write it just to sort out my own thoughts.

I wrote it after returning home from Grand Prix: Boston-Worcester (aka GP Worcester) in 2014, where I played Birthing Pod to a 12-3 record. Pretty good for a Grand Prix, and I’m sure I cashed for a few hundred dollars on a trip that certainly cost much less since I lived less than two hours from the site at the time.

But in this case, 12-3 may have been the worst result possible. While I may have been in the middle of a breakout year on the SCG Tour, my results on the other circuit were lackluster at best. I had played four Pro Tours, with a single min-cash to my name, and my best finish at a Grand Prix up to that point was a single Top 16 at Grand Prix: Providence in 2011, where I lost playing for Top 8 with Elves in Legacy. I wasn’t qualified for any Pro Tours going into this event, and it fed the first one of the upcoming season, which was critical if you wanted to make a run at the Pro Players’ Club levels.

To get that qualification, I needed a 13-2 record, even if it wasn’t good enough for Top 8 due to the massive size of the event, over 2000 players. After a 12-0 start, my breakthrough on the Grand Prix stage seemed inevitable. I was playing my trusty Melira Pod deck, which I had tons of experience with, and losing three matches in a row seemed impossible. But of course it wasn’t. I made a small mistake on camera in Game 3 of Round 13, in the mirror against Jacob Wilson. I used my Dismember too aggressively and opened myself up to his topdecked Linvala, Keeper of Silence. Round 14 saw a close loss to Affinity, and Round 15 saw the same matchup end in a much more lopsided affair.

For a young, hungry Magic player trying to prove himself, this was a nightmare. I got back to my parents’ house that evening and sat down on the floor of the living room in the dark. I wanted to be invisible. My mother walked in and clearly knew something was wrong, but I was too lost in my own head to talk about it.

Filled with self-doubt, getting my thoughts on paper and out of my head seemed like the best idea for at least getting to sleep that night. So that’s what I did. When I sent it off to be published, Cedric responded, saying he’d publish it at my regular time the following week, giving me a chance to edit it if I wanted to. That was smart.

When the next week came, I decided to keep the original text intact, but to amend it with some later reflections from the days afterward. The original is certainly melodramatic at points, but that’s because this was a time when Magic was my life, for better or worse.

In hindsight, it’s pretty clear that too much of my self-worth back then was tied to Magic, specifically tournament results. But I’d caution against willing yourself into being completely dispassionate. If you want to succeed in any competitive endeavor, you have to invest some part of yourself. The tricky part is in finding the right balance. How much of yourself can you invest without risking moments where you come completely unraveled? I’m much better at striking that balance than I was then.

The Idiot’s Guide To Making The Pro Tour

This is my favorite article I’ve ever written, and it was only my eleventh. I guess I peaked early.

It’s my favorite because I think it’s my most honest voice. It’s also my most present voice. Most articles are written in hindsight, and filtered through that lens. You have time to reflect and correct your mistakes or hide them. But here I’m showing a glimpse into my mind, warts and all.

Throughout the tournament I’m filled with worry, doubt, and distraction. And the narrative is me persevering through all of these internal obstacles, as well as the external ones my opponents produce. I think it’s important to recognize that the moments when you’re completely clear-headed and focused are few and far between. So rather than trying to eliminate these internal obstacles, you need to work through them.

Maybe most people wouldn’t remember which feature match table they played on the previous day, like I did setting up for Round 15, but that’s how my brain works. It’s what makes me good at trivia. I’m not going to waste time and energy trying to fight it. It’s just something I have to work through. And despite it all, I played some great Magic in that tournament with a deck that would quickly fall out of relevance in the format.

In many ways, that tournament and this article are redemptive sequels to “In a Word.” I qualified for the very next Pro Tour after falling short in Worcester, and later that season I’d reach Silver and put up my first Grand Prix Top 8. Of course, I ended up falling only a few points short of Gold, which makes the close call at Worcester still sting. C’est la vie.

Embrace The Flood

I’ve repeated this mantra many times over the years, in print, on VS Live!, on stream. Really, wherever and whenever I can. But I still find myself constantly adding lands to decks that skimped on them. If anything, it’s even more applicable today, given how much more card advantage most decks are afforded. When you so rarely run out of things to do with your mana, being able to deploy your cards and activate abilities quickly is all the more important.

I understand that you want to play as many sweet spells in your deck as possible. And I understand how much of a feel-bad it is to draw a pocket of lands in the late-game. I once lost Game 3 of a match on Day 2 of an SCG Open when I was live for Top 8 because I drew ten straight lands when nearly any spell in my deck at any time would’ve been good enough to finish the game.

If you play long enough, you’re bound to have some moments of extreme variance. And I still believe that mana flood is more mentally stressful than mana screw, which is why players are more inclined to avoid the former. But I promise you that it’s easier to win games when you’re flooded, because then you actually get to play Magic. And it’s easier to mitigate flood by adding more card advantage, mana sinks, and utility lands to your deck.

Maybe I’m fighting a losing battle against human psychology here, but I will not be deterred. Rest assured that I will continue this fight until my dying breath.

What If?

I know I’m known for my tight play in tense moments, whether it was brilliantly deducing that Patrick Sullivan could only kill me with the combination of Price of Progress and Fireblast and so tapping out to destroy his Sulfuric Vortex would be a mistake, or always double-checking to make sure I have my Reclamation Sage in against Blood Moon decks when playing Scapeshift. But I’ve made a few mistakes over the years.

Analyzing your games afterward and finding possible mistakes and alternate lines that you missed in the moment is certainly helpful. And while there’s plenty of value in the technical aspects of the situations I analyzed in this article, there’s an implicit lesson here that I hope you take away from it.

You have to be honest with yourself.

The classic example of not being honest with yourself is the player who makes a mistake, then doesn’t follow it up with the correct play because it would reveal their mistake. Like not casting a Noble Hierarch after combat because they accidentally chump-attacked their creature due to forgetting to cast it first. We’re all prideful, and it’s painful to reveal such a silly mistake so plainly. But making the right play is worth more than wounding your ego.

In that second play, where I came up one point short against Reid Duke, it would’ve been easy to assume that I optimized that intricate sequence, given my experience with Elves in Legacy. But with a close look, I found the winning line. It was disappointing to find a mistake with a deck I know so well in a high-leverage spot, but that’s the price of improvement.

When you go back and analyze your games, you’re actively trying to find places to improve, which means opening yourself up to being wrong. You can always get better, and as long as you’re willing to be wrong, you will.

Role Assessment In Control Mirrors

I don’t play control decks often. Magic these days has too many snowballing threats, and trying to line up the right answer at the right time over and over again is rather difficult. But in a limited sample, I’ve had some good success with control when I find the metagame is right. Part of that success is my implicit understanding of the control mirror.

Unfortunately for me, I’m a novice compared to Jonathan Sukenik. He played bad Jeskai Control decks in Modern for years, and he’d be the first to tell you that they weren’t good decks. But he enjoyed playing them, and he played them at the highest level and made me look like a complete novice.

One of the problems with theory articles is that they require the reader to learn in a completely abstract space. Maybe a contrived example or two can illustrate the points you’re making, but there’s no replacement for hands-on learning. I love this article because that match against Jon laid out the key principles governing control mirrors so plainly, it makes them resonate much more clearly. It honestly feels like a staged instructional video, and it’s the only time I’ve had a match like that on camera.

If you’re a budding control mage, this is an essential match to watch, and you should check out more of Sukenik’s matches too. He doesn’t have the name recognition of a Wafo-Tapa or Orange, but he’s a stone-cold control master.

Your Cantrip Play Is Losing Games

Developing and popularizing Izzet Phoenix is the highlight of my career thus far, and in the early days I loved seeing anyone pick up the deck and find success. But I remember coming away largely disappointed with how players were utilizing their cantrips. It’s easy to get into bad habits with cards that are so similar, thinking that it doesn’t make much of a difference in how you sequence them. But Magic is a game of small edges, and the difference between good players and great players is often going from 95 percent to 98 with details like this.

You can always get better, and as long as you’re willing to be wrong, you will.

So if you find yourself plateauing after some good improvement, you likely need to look into minute aspects of your technical play like this. And while this article focuses specifically on Izzet Phoenix, there are some good general lessons for optimizing your technical play.

The first is that you need to develop good heuristics. These are your default lines of play that are right in a broad range of circumstances. In my case, most of the time I was trying to see the most cards with my cantrips, which yields the most optionality. Once you have that goal in mind, finding the right sequence is pretty trivial. Having heuristics in place will not only help you play well, it will save mental energy for tougher decisions.

But the best players also know when to deviate from their established heuristics. For example, if I need to find a second land drop, I’ll Opt instead of Serum Visions, since Opt sees two cards down immediately, where normally you’d rather Visions early to set up your draws. Usually there will be a few common exceptions to your rule that you should have in mind before a tournament. Try to find as many of those as you can. You won’t be able to cover every situation since Magic is so complex, but the more situations you can analyze and patterns you can find, the better-prepared you’ll be.

Whether you’re reading these articles for the first time or the tenth, I hope you enjoyed them and that they made you better players. That has always been my goal as a writer, though if anything I’m the one who benefited the most. Ever since I tutored math as an on-campus job in college, I’ve known that teaching others is the ultimate test of your knowledge. You have to have a complete understanding in order to effectively communicate new ideas and concepts to someone else, because you have to find a language that they understand, which oftentimes means learning to translate from the way in which you learned it. If that doesn’t make sense to you, just try teaching.