A major theme of my career has been the effort to escape mediocrity. Pro Tour purgatory, the caboose, Krouner’s disease; call it what you will. While my peers, and even my pupils, continue to dominate the tour, I never quite seem to either fail or succeed.
These days, though, I have been daring much closer to the failure cliff, as I’m sure that twisted morlock Mark Herberholz will attest to. I am no longer an international grinder; I am a fantasy card enthusiast on a lark. With school becoming a dominating presence in my life – with YouTube and Laguna Beach becoming dominating presences in my life – and with the hopes of actually making money waning, I feel myself approaching the sunset of my Pro Tour career.
There are two accomplishments I have long desired: to have one more finish – a finish to brand my career with – and to play in the Magic Invitational.
My original circle of friends from the Pro Tour has become extinct (except for, maybe, the tenacious ghoul Ben Rubin). While they were around, they had a particular relationship with the Invitational. Our players who were deserving of spots did not get them. My mentor, Gab Tsang, finished first in the Swiss in consecutive Pro Tours, and wasn’t invited. Ben Rubin finished second in two Pro Tours his first season, and wasn’t. Ken Ho, one of the top 10 Magic players of all time, wasn’t. Aeo Paquette, who Top 8’d his first two Pro Tours. William Jensen, the greatest drafter of his time. Gary Talim, a surgeon with an Acorn Harvest. The list goes on.
I knew getting invited would feel like a victory for all of us. Kind of like how I’m the first Cunningham to graduate High School.
Additionally, the honor of playing in the Invitational was something I felt I deserved. Not just for the sheer resilience I’ve displayed clinging to the Tour like a drowning rat for half a decade, for writing, or for bitching a lot in the forums… but for playskill. You see, I have been burdened for some time with the frustration of believing I’m better — much better — than my finishes would indicate. That is, I’ve always felt I was good enough to play in the Invitational, even if something was holding me back from getting there by way of brute force.
So you can imagine how excited I was to all of a sudden, despite an unspectacular year, be a frontrunner for the last few spots in the Invitational when I had never even been close before.
This excitement was tempered somewhat by the sh**storm that became the Voting forums, where I and a few other candidates openly attacked each other. In retrospect, I was a bit heavy-handed, although I do stand by what I wrote, and I do feel vindicated by the clean results. My perspective is this: if you’re going to care about any competition, it’s critical to know the rules. This is both so that you can act within them to the fullest, and so that others can’t take advantage of you.
The Magic Invitational vote was a competition with few explicit rules: no person can vote more than once, and mass spamming is prohibited (evident by the very existence of the new vote). I stayed away from these things, and I called others on them when they didn’t. Simple as that.
I don’t blame any of the other candidates. As Randy said, a poor system really put us in awkward positions. The worst part of the whole thing was that it tainted what is really a special accomplishment for a Magic player. It was also disappointing to see Shu Komuro give up so easily.
At a certain point, I had accepted the eventuality that I wasn’t going to go this year after all, and probably not ever. This little heart has been broken so many times already; what’s once more?
But, some way, somehow, the dream did become real. I was going to play in the Magic Invitational.
I would like to extend a thanks to all of my friends in the forums at StarCityGames.com, RogueGaming.com, MtgOntario.com, MtgSalvation.com, Maroox.com, 604poker.com, Pojo.com, MtgPlanet.com, MySpace.com, ThisisAwkward.com, Facebook.com, the Might & Magic message boards, Upperdeck.com, the Vancouver Linux user group, and HockeyVancouver.com, without whom this achievement would not have been possible. We did it!
I knew that sometime in the next year or so, I could be cracking foil ffeJs.
I make this fact extremely evident to Mark Herberholz. It delights me, and it tortures him to no end. We agree to settle our differences over a -1% split at Pro Tour Prague. The victor, then, would own the eternal and irrefutable retort: “look where the chips are, brah.”
We shake on it.
For context, let me paint you a picture of my last couple of Pro Tours.
Honolulu was an all-time low.
I invite my mom along to the PT to offset hotel costs, since I am not only broke, but also knee-deep in credit card debt.
Antoine Ruel, with whom I have never shared an exchange, demands that my longtime teammates dump me from their roster for reasons unstated. I am forced to subsist off the table scraps they sneak me, phone-Magic with my friend from Kamloops, and Ravitz’s MTGO account, where I sully his good guy reputation.
(Opponent has a lethal attack. I offer the draw.)
jravitz: maybe i have it?
Bubu_kong: if you concede i do it
Bubu_kong: cause i want boosters no tixs
jravitz: give me a turn to think about it
Bubu_kong: got 10 sec
Bubu_kong: and i attac
Bubu_kong has run out of time and has lost the match.
(Jedi mind tricks, etc)
By Round 11 of the Pro Tour, I’m 7-1-3. All three draws would be wins with more time.
Round 12 I’m playing Game 3 against Ruud – the best Magic I’ve ever played, fluid ballet – I sense weakness turn 5 game 3 and go all-in with a Meloku right then and there – the only play that gave me a shot. It’s the last turn, and he’s dead to a two-outer.
He gets there, exuberantly flinging the Faith’s Fetters into my eye, netting himself an unsportsmanlike conduct warning, and the win.
Round 13, the same, although this time I could’ve avoided it. Makes it worse, makes it sting. Off-kilter, I land a lucky sucker-punch the next round but get nutted the last two, missing money by four spots.
My mom imposes a 12:30am curfew that prevents me from doing more than one moneydraft in a night.
Antoine effortlessly clocks in another Top 8.
Mark Herberholz wins the entire tournament.
Murray Evans cashes.
Doug Potter (period).
I 0-3 a moneydraft, punting the rubber in front of the very pros who ousted me from the Beach House, validating in their eyes every cold-blooded thing they’ve ever said about me.
I find time in my busy schedule of losing at Magic cards to lose a hope-shattering $300 credit card game (my portion of the meal had been a half-share of a blooming onion).
There really was a moment… after going 1-4 in the last five rounds, standing outside by the fountain, that I probably felt the worst I’ve ever felt in my career… a feeling of futility…
I felt a powerful compulsion to throw my deck into the water. Of course, by my deck, I mean my sleeves with Doug’s cards in them, some of which he had worked entire summers to buy. I resisted. (They were Japanese sleeves.)
Perhaps my lowest moment came when walking to a hotel with J. Evan Dean, with Nassif on the fringe of earshot. Evan asked me who I was staying with. In a pathetic attempt to maintain a faÃ§ade of dignity, I pretend to mishear his question, answering “down by the beach.”
A measured pause. “No, I asked, who you’re staying with.” Realizing the jig is up, I murmur “mother.” Nassif, hearing the entire exchange, and knowing my situation, erupts into riotous laughter.
Could it get any lower? Only after getting pummeled 0-2 by said Evan Dean, and a character known only as “boy” in a 4v4, as perennial partner Nassif pleads with me “not again!”
I talk with new Pro Billy Moreno for the first time that evening. He seems almost… to exude some humility… while meeting me. I laugh. Maybe he didn’t get the memo?
I’m the Pro Tour whipping boy… The last time I cashed a PT I was worried about the millennium bug. People were like, relax, it’s the 80s. And I was like, no, actually, it’s still 1979 until midnight. (It was New Year’s.)
Like… I’m exaggerating, it was after midnight, but the fact remains… I was the nut low, the sweet and nut low. Wasting away my Level 3 until Worlds when the half-decade fairytale would finally evaporate, and all memories and dreams of any Pro Tour would cease.
For Prague I drafted a ton of RRG, a ton of Mirage Visions (to clear the palette), and about 8 RGDs with local players Seb Denno, Elliot Fishman, Patrick O’Neil, Daniel Krietzman, and Mike Thicke. These players represent Vancouver’s finest, a crack testing squad who, most importantly, tolerate my endless stream of vaguely-movie-related banter.
[Countering Patrick O’Neil’s Hour of Reckoning with an Overrule] “That, sir, would be too bold.”
[When Seb Denno asks me the next time I’ll moneydraft with him] “I’d say when the Angels win the pennant.”
[To Fishman, who wants to play the finals of a 2v2 instead of me] “What do you know about pressure?!?”
[To Patrick O’Neil, while I’m manascrewed] Do you have a wife, girlfriend? Because I’m gonna find her…
[Mumbling to myself while playing] “Finkel, Einhorn. Einhorn, Finkel. Finkel is Einhorn…”
Testing on MTGO meant the usual tilts and tantrums.
Chaos AD plays Ribbons of Night654400075,496: (Enhanced) targeting Viashino Fangtail654400387,422:.
Turn 10: theroboticarm.
Drift of Phantasms654400406,492: blocks Centaur Safeguard654400068,470:.
theroboticarm plays activated ability from Selesnya Evangel654400350,490:.
theroboticarm: i have a wife
theroboticarm: 2 kids
Chaos AD: what does that mean?
Chaos AD: no luck?
theroboticarm: give me one more game
Chaos AD: we can play again later
theroboticarm: one more game
Chaos AD: save your deck
Chaos AD has rejected your challenge
theroboticarm: hey, I just wanted to thank you.
Chaos AD: for what?
theroboticarm: for lying through your ****ing teeth
Chaos AD: what?
Chaos AD: I’ll play you after the tourney, dude
Chaos AD: is this jeff cunningham?
Anyway, while I truly wish that every PT was held in Hawaii, Prague was nice.
It stood out to me as the most laid-back city I’ve ever visited, in a casually hopeless sort of way. I could tell I was closer to Russia than I’ve ever been before.
I arrived with the hopes of filling my days with practice drafts. Instead, since there were only three of us (I was rooming then with Morgan Douglass and Brad Taulbee), we could only do a single three-man draft.
Popularized by Kyle Rose, the “Chester-style” three-man draft has been noted as a leading factor in the demise of American Magic. While wildly enjoyable, this type of drafting promotes skills conducive to losing games, rather than winning them.
As we wandered from hotel, to bridge, to castle, we discussed the format in depth. Like everyone else on the planet, I wanted to draft RGU.
While I like this format a lot (unlike Kartin’ Ken who claims, as usual, that the sky is falling), it is a challenge.
First of all, it seems that everyone knows the ropes: i.e. take bouncelands high, Selesnya sucks, that sort of thing. It is harder to get a leg up in conventional ways. Second, I’m typically a very proactive drafter… my method is to establish strong preferences in draft, and then to pursue them aggressively. This can work because the harder you go (taking low picks from that archetype over high picks from other archetypes), the more you entice your neighbor into picking the other colors. In this format, though, because of the guild structure, it’s like with Torment where even if you cut Black completely, your neighbor can just jump in pack 2 and reap the rewards. You have to stay flexible, and stay tuned to the idiosyncrasies of any given draft. If you read Julien Nuijten article from earlier this week, that basically sums up my feelings.
I didn’t pursue it at the Pro Tour, but it occurred to me that U/B/W might be the way to go, as both Orzhov (instead of Izzet), and Azorius (instead of Simic), seem to generally go underdrafted in their respective packs, and the combination has a naturally good synergy. I had a lot of success in this format after the Pro Tour with this method, so maybe the format’s not as hard as I thought.
Always play first.
End strategy content of article.
The evening before the Pro Tour they have a dinner for the players at a four-floor dungeon style tavern. It’s one of the most surreal things I’ve ever seen.
At the Colony house, we used to do this thing called Dinner Sealed. It is what it sounds like. You eat dinner, build a Sealed Deck, and then play with it. This is generally rare practice; who wants to waste a $15 Sealed Deck while they’re focusing on eating? The circumstances need to be just right for this decadent act to occur.
Tonight they are. Each guest is handed a draft set as they enter.
The entire smoky hall is filled. Four-hundred players dinner-drafting.
The place is lit by f***ing torches, so not only can you not see anything but dinner drafts in all directions, you can barely see the cards in front of you. No one has any idea what the game state is; they just play the cards in their hand until it looks like somebody’s won.
Oompa bands play out of tune folk songs at an uneven tempo. These dirges waft through the tavern, instilling a palpable sense of dread.
Packs come unevenly… 9 cards, 8 cards, 2 cards, 11 cards, 6 cards. Passing left, right, left, across, down, up, backwards. Mid-draft, finally – it is as if there are 300 packs and not 3 – the food starts arriving – beer, free and unlimited, unrecognizable appetizers; meat, goulash, mutton.
With tables already occupied with cards and lands, the plates of food are shoved to seats, the floor, anywhere.
The servers become irate. The heat is sweltering. Cards are everywhere, in my hair, in my eyes.
It was like that description of hell… with every person’s hands chained to a long table.
As Osyp said, all that was missing was Randy Buehler cracking a whip.
I once read about a Chess player who said it physically hurt him when he saw a board that had been randomly arranged with pieces. That’s kind of how I feel about playing Magic in groddy conditions. Part of the fun of Magic comes from trying to play perfectly, which is difficult enough in normal circumstances.
When I think of those token generators, life totals kept in the head, with ripped up cards, grit in the deck, and meat, and beer, and utensils, and everything forced into clusters all together, and having to play around Chaos Orb… O, it is terrible indeed. ~
I go 2-1 at a good first table (Nassif, Goron, Caumes, Ibamato) with a solid U/W/R deck (Brightflame, 2x Grand Arbiter, 3x Guardian of the Guildpact).
The second table I open Moldervine Cloak and basically can’t get away from Green. Should’ve, probably, but didn’t. I end up in GWB once I open Pillory/nothing and get passed another Pillory. I pass insane Azorius in Pack 3 – deck would’ve been nuts if I was UWB. I also miss a good amount of mana accelerators and two-drops, so the deck is powerful but still mediocre. I feel with a bit of luck I can go 2-1.
Round 4 killed all hopes of that. An older English gentleman sits down across from me, and deadpans “writemore.”
He complimented me, talked about the PTR article, said he used to know him, asked where I’m from, said he’s been to Vancouver, said it’s a lovely city, counted backwards from ten, asked me if I’ve seen any good films lately, engaged me in world politics.
My responses became increasingly brusque, especially as the game began. My opponent was so friendly that I didn’t want to outright ask him if we could just talk after the match. Instead, I only hope that’s evident. A poor approach, no doubt. I find keeping one’s criticisms to oneself an insidious practice.
The main problem that emerged was the sludgy pace of play established, in part, by this dialogue and, in part, because I think my opponent (first Pro Tour?) was nervous. I couldn’t single out any one decision of his that took exactly too long… it was simply a consistent excess spent on rudimentary plays (i.e. Shambling Shell decisions) turn after turn after turn after turn.
Because of this, I never quite felt justified (especially in light of his friendliness) to ask him to play faster, or to call a judge.
He was ahead during the game, but he was giving me chances. I was still very much in it. Eventually, he finished me off in what became a squeaker.
After Game 1 there were only ten minutes left on the clock. I was frustrated and helpless. I was frazzled.
“Another?” I said, hoping he’d say no.
“Sure,” he replied. “Do you have a sideboard?”
This confused me.
Yeah, I thought. It’s in my bedroom. I keep my undies in it. By now, however, I knew I was in a foreign land.
“What’s a sideboard?” I asked.
So he told me.
He told me of tournament play, playing best two-out-of-three. He told me of PTQs, and the upcoming Regionals tournaments. He told me of English National Championships, were the best players in the country come together to sling spells. He told me of the mythical Pro Tour, where the greatest players in the World compete for thousands of dollars.
I was spellbound.*
I keep an aggressive but risky hand in Game 2 – two lands and Moldervine Cloak. I don’t keep if there’s twenty more minutes on the clock. I shouldn’t have kept anyway. I don’t get there and lose the match.
I’m not out of the tournament but I feel extremely frustrated. On MTGO, I win that match, one way or another. 2-1 had seemed reasonable, but 2-0 was a much taller order with this deck.
Round 5, I demolish a German playing a Brecht-style suicide R/B – all one and two drops, with Dimir House Guard in the sideboard. I’m all for extreme draft archetypes, but we played about four of five fun games afterwards and he got pummeled almost every time.
Here’s how Bracht was drafting the aggro R/B deck at Torino: “His second draft started off with Stinkweed Imp over Golgari Rotwurm, Bramble Elemental, Selesnya Evangel and Ordruun Commando. He hate-picked Golgari Brownscale second pick, with Watchwolf, Roofstalker Wight and Goblin Spelunkers in the pack. Bracht had no intention to play the two Brownscales he picked at all, but took them “because they just kill me”. And his key cards will come around later in the draft anyway.”
Jesus, this new breed really is more aggressive. Back in my day you were badass if you took Psionic Gift over Windreader.
Round 6, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa insano G/R/U deck crushes my nut draw Game 1, and I’m manascrewed Game 2. Another PT, another 3-3, another nail in the coffin.
Despite being dead-tired and soul-sucked (or because I was dead-tired and soul-sucked) I arrange a suicide draft: Kamiel, Wessel, and Julien versus me, Josh Ravitz, and Rogier Maaten (who unhappily joins our team when we can’t find a third victim for his countrymen). Our decks are the absolute nut low. I’m U/W with 36 blanks and 4 Guardians of the Guildpact. Ravitz’s deck is 5 colors, his mana base an even 3, 3, 3, 3, 3. Rogier’s deck, though, wow – it was at this point that I realized we were being 4-on-2’d – was four colors, no fixers, had 7 creatures total, 3 of which were walls. I have not seen anything like it since the time that Huey, PTR, and Pannell 3v1’d Jose at GP Tampa, and Huey (Jose’s “teammate”) drafted double Atogatog.dec. Rogier assures me he’ll go 2-1. I assure him that if he wins a game I’m buying the room steak dinners.
Five minutes later I’m fighting to get the people from Guinness Book on the line, as Rogier has punted out an 0-3 in absolute record time. I 3-0 (natch), and Ravitz loses the rubber in a heartbreaker (Peel from Reality in response to his hellbent Twinstrike – the modern day equivalent of the Churning Eddy on the Wurm token and Caustic Tar’d Swamp).
This tone was set for the weekend. I would win, and my teammates (Ben Rubin) would draft smoldering heaps of feces.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if Ben Rubin does it, it’s right – I don’t care if he’s Bolting himself in response to you laying a Forest – it’s the play, it’s legal, and it’s f***ing brilliant. I can therefore only assume he was on the hunt for some sort of masochistic thrill. In the end we ship the Japanese so many bills we’re legally obliged to make them fill out W-4s.
Ah, Ben Rubin. Lord of the Universe, creator, preserver and destroyer of us all.
The next morning I notice that all of my draft rares and entire Standard deck have gone missing. After considering the possibilities, I ask Ben if perhaps he has “misplaced” the cards, possibly in his backpack or jeans.
He protests, but upon my insistence, I look and find the cards neatly bundled in the front pocket of his dungarees.
He’s a lot like me, that masterful little kami.
I would spend the rest of the weekend with Ben. We consider entering a 2HG for an iPod, but the line up is too long. Instead, we watch the seasons pass in the Player’s Lounge, testing block and getting first dibs on pretzels. For the sake of testing, I declare all my lands painless Cities of Brass. The sheer suggestion moves Ben, a disciplined veteran designer, to tears of laughter. There’s that smile I remember. As players still in contention wander in between rounds, we pour through their sideboards, emphatically suggesting the inclusion of our pet cards. They smile, nod, and silently return their decks to their original configurations.
We read coverage on the computers. Email loved ones. Eat steaks in the lobby. Watch the entire Matrix trilogy. Throw popcorn at the jumbo-tron when Antonino takes the 3/4 over a bounceland. “You need mana-fixers in this format” we expound, sage-like.
Dinner with Star Wars, Moreno and co. Evan Dean slams back absinthes as if they’re cokes. The spicy sausage is delicious. Ben Rubin loses the credit card game, and I can’t help but wonder how things always seem to come together the way they’re supposed to.
The Pro Tour ends. I pay Mark Herberholz 1% of his winnings, a $6 transfer straight from my soul to his wallet. This – and everything else – is just what I have come to recognize as another weekend at the PT.
Siron, Ruel, and Canali are on my flight to LA, and so we have some time to clear the air.
Everything changes once you actually qualify for the Invitational.
It’s easy to imagine yourself playtesting for it, but when the time comes it doesn’t seem to work out that way.
Firstly, have you ever tried testing a wacky format all alone? It goes a little something like this:
* ffeJ message me for BlockParty
* KandyKid has joined #apprentice
* ffeJ message me for BlockParty
* KandyKid has quit IRC (Client Quit)
Secondly, as I said – everything changes. Motivation. The instant you’re in the Invitational, it shifts from being this incomprehensible battle of the Gods on Mount Olympia, to just another week of your life gaming, with no money on the line. And of course there’s the Pro Tour to test for (ha). Still, I felt pretty comfortable with my preparation.
Here is what I did, in case you are curious how a pro tests for a tournament. These days, I know the North American pros usually just play a lot of Momir Vig basic, but this was before that.
Duplicate and Decadent sealed were two of those feel-good tests that you can’t study for, so they were taken care of.
I love a Mirage Visions draft. The format is the Magic equivalent of a stress-ball. You draft Red-Green each and every single time, and annihilate anyone who doesn’t. I felt confidant for this one, and focused mainly on staying tight-lipped about my strategy.
For Block Party, I did manage to do some testing with Nassif, Terry Soh, and (?) Ben Goodman. I’ve always hated Goblins but knew they were the Tier 1 of the format. Because of that, my first instinct was to stay away from U/G madness.
I didn’t want to play Slide because I knew it had a lot of bad matchups versus control decks. Domain seemed pitiful to me. I tried MBC (I loved it in Block) but it couldn’t beat Goblins consistently. I tried Tooth with Chrome Moxes, but it was pretty flimsy. The Invasion style aggro-controls just aren’t my style.
Desperate, I turned to the Kamigawa block (last refuge of a scoundrel) trying Kamigawa WW; however, not only did it suck, but I had made a bloodpact at the 98 JSS that I’d never play WW again. I tried a modified Gifts deck (figuring Extraction was good, and that Jitte could maybe beat Goblins) but this infuriated Terry (“why must we test this? Just to prove it sucks?”) And so we – yes, we, Terry – as a couple, decided to drop it.
In the end, Terry swayed me back to U/G. While I knew there were some poor match-ups, I figured that not everyone would play Goblins, as the Invitational tends to have a less focused metagame than usual. I also know U/G better than anything else, probably better than I know any other deck in Magic, and so I guess the choice was inevitable. I think my list reflected having a lot of experience with the archetype. Let me tell you, you don’t just wake up one morning and decide to only play two Aether Bursts.
For Auction, I read over the decklists a number of times, and polled the rest of the participants to get an idea of what was good. The decks that stood out to me were Fujita’s (just looked like a tight little package, and the avatar was strong), Pikula’s (although I underestimated how good it actually was), Karsten’s (a better Affinity), Asahara’s (a rock solid combo deck), Menendian’s (turn 2 kill buy-ins?), and Paskins’s (a better Goblins). Of all these, I suspected Fujita’s, Pikula’s, and Paskins’s were underrated, so I had my eye on those ones in particular. I wasn’t sure about Rizzo’s deck, it looked good on paper, but reports from those who had tried the decks were that it didn’t play well.
That was roughly the extent of my preparation for the Invitational.
As for my card… I’ve been dreaming up Invitational cards for years, but when it finally happens, I didn’t really have anything ready to go. I wanted to make an Imp.
I end up G1 2/1 G: Sacrifice a creature: Search your library for a creature and put it in your hand. Basically, I wanted it to encourage creativity in deck construction like Survival, my first pet card, did, but in a different way. Whether or not it worked is up to you, the consumer.
What is your Favorite Invitational Card?
I arrive in LA Monday evening feeling miserable.
A Pro Tour and a long flight are enough on their own, but I was also suddenly sick and out of laundry. I spend the evening taxiing to a pharmacy, and to a Laundromat.
After my finish in Prague I do have pangs of illegitimacy. What the hell am I doing here?
[Join us tomorrow for part two of this excellent report! — Craig]