It was a cold and windy Saturday morning in early January. I trembled in the front seat of my friend's Grand Prix as we sped down the interstate. A line of cars had pulled to the side with blown out driver's side tires, all victims of a giant chasm in the road at least five feet across and a few feet deep.
"Oh, God! How many of those people do you think were Magic players? A companion in the back seat asked.
I didn't answer. I couldn't answer. The only thoughts running through my head involved sixty cards and which seven I should keep in a starting hand and which I should mulligan, a problem I had struggled with when testing decks.
In many ways, my first experience at a Grand Prix was both a grand success... and a total abject failure. If you couldn't gather from the title, I sucked and did so in a bad way. Little went right concerning my deck building and my gameplay. However, what did occur during that faithful weekend in January was the beginning of what I expect to be a long-term love for the competitive side of Magic: The Gathering.
Listed below are some of the lessons I was able to take away from the tournament. I feel that they've made me not only a better player but a better steward of the game as a whole. Hopefully, any aspiring tournament players out there can benefit from my failures as a player, as the items listed below are lessons that will stick with me as long as I live.
Listen to your gut and don't be the last to take your own advice.
Trust your gut. Believe in yourself. Everyone has been told these tired and regurgitated phrases ad nauseum since their days in diapers. However, there is very good reason for such. Think back to any time in your life when you've been forced to make a decision with great consequences. At least for myself, when I haven't taken the advice that I was most comfortable with, I've often regretted it in the future. Especially when that advice wasn't my own. Need an example?
Picture it. Lincoln, Nebraska, late 2014.
My job at the time was one any hardcore Magic player assumed was a dream. I was a manager and buyer at a local game store. I had spent the better part of the year carrying on about Grand Prix: Omaha and my overblown dreams regarding my performance. At the time, Khans of Tarkir had just released and the little common that could, Treasure Cruise was the talk of the town.
Before this powerful blue spell was banned in the Modern format, decks across all five colors were doing everything they could to splash blue to cast this spell, or its bigger brother, Dig Through Time. For a brief time, decks playing cheap spells, fetch lands or anything else that quickly fueled the graveyard were the talk of the Magic world. The deck front and center of the pack was Modern mainstay, URX Delver.
Any player who has stared down a Delver flipped on turn two knows if left unchecked; things can get out of control in a hurry. Now, imagine that deck being able to refuel it's hand for relatively little mana, sometimes as early as the fourth or fifth turn. A Delver deck stacked with cheap counterspells, cheaper burn and efficient removal seemed unstoppable... that was the deck I wanted to play.
As the event drew closer, my coworkers seemed to take a greater interest in my strategies and deck choice. The individuals I was surrounded by had been playing the game far longer than I had and had experience and knowledge far beyond my own. None more so than the store owner, a man who had seen a couple Pro Tours and numerous Pro Tour Qualifiers.
One slow afternoon, I had brought my deck to him for critique. I won't post the list here as I don't honestly remember it, but it was your standard Grixis Delver build. As he rifled through the tournament caliber deck, a conversation ensued that I can honestly say I wasn't ready for.
“It's Delver.” He said poignantly. I nodded as he continued his exam. As he finished, he slid the double sleeved deck back into it's box and slid it across the smooth glass counter.
“I don't think you can handle it...”
Perplexed, I asked what he meant by that statement. He would go on to describe the tournament atmosphere, an exhausting test of both mental and physical endurance. One that at times could go on for more than fourteen hours and could bring even the most seasoned veterans to their knees. Delver is a deck where every play is a crucial decision point. With my lack of tournament experience, the fear was that I couldn't effectively pilot a deck that required such attention to detail.
In many ways he was right, I wasn't ready. But what I was even less ready for was my deck's replacement. With only a month left before showtime, I had been dealt what felt like a deathblow to my strategy. Delver had been my deck for nearly a year, and I felt like I knew it inside and out. However, doubt had entered my mind and begun to twist it in ways that were insurmountable.
Eventually, I settled on a burn strategy, a simple deck that I affectionately referred to 4 Color Burn. The Fourth color, of course, being blue, the single fuel needed to cast a treasure cruise as soon as possible. While the deck was strong, it wasn't my own. I felt that I had sacrificed my initial strategy for one that I honestly didn't believe in.
When you enter any constructed Magic tournament it's imperative that you believe in what you're piloting. Even if the deck you're playing isn't the strongest or the flashiest... it's yours. Your success will be measured in what you build and what you believe in, even if you're merely chasing the top deck in the format. That being said...
Stop chasing the top deck in the format and read the meta better.
While blue and Treasure Cruise was the deck to beat, it was Birthing Pod that took home the title, a deck piloted by friend and fellow store manager, Erik Peters. It's worth noting that the engine for this deck, Birthing Pod was later banned from the format, along with Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time.
Before the banning, Birthing Pod was a deck that literally could never get worse. As new sets were released, creatures and pieces were swapped out as stronger cards became printed. The deck was always strong, but it appeared that it has close to reaching its apex.
At our store, players scrambled to construct the deck after its strong performance in Omaha. Players rushed to get copies before they sold out and old decks were either parted out or sold in order to construct this deck, the cost of which could easily exceed $800.
One player, in particular, had started building the deck completely from scratch, lands and all. After purchasing from him his old Affinity deck for around $200 or so, he proceeded to rack up a $600 tab for a deck he was just learning to play. And just as quickly as it came... it went. A few weeks later, Birthing Pod was banned and his deck was virtually dead.
Now, with the benefit of time, Birthing Pod has seen somewhat of a replacement in the printing of Collected Company, the deck simply isn't the same. People not only lost a lot of money but confidence and focus as well. People were rattled and quite frankly pissed off. While Magic financiers and pros will scoff and click the little red dot in the corner, I feel that those who raced to the top, in a way got what they deserved.
How did this affect me and my quest at a Grand Prix you may wonder? My store owner was right. Delver was not the deck to play. However was right for somewhat of the wrong reason, and I was wrong to play a deck so similar in scope to Delver in choosing burn. Had I properly predicted and read the metagame, a collection of decks people were likely to play, I could have situated myself better post game 1 instead of falling as many similar decks had.
Had I read up on the metagame properly and kept my ear to the ground, I would have been able to decipher that Delver was not the deck to beat, and neither was burn. I was so focused on chasing the rabbit down the hole that I neglected to focus on the fact that likely more than a quarter of the same players had the same idea.
This lack of proper preparation led to a weak sideboard, a weakened mental state, and a poor deck choice in general. Had I focused less on playing Delver as the "deck to beat," and more on how to beat it, I likely would have performed better post-sideboard, regardless of what deck I chose to pilot.
Know your limits and break them.
I am not a good white player. I have never been a good white player and it's likely I never will be. My strengths lie in red and blue, and somewhat in black. That is what makes Magic such a unique and compelling experience, your choice in piloting a deck likely starts in examining your personality.
Present day, I am piloting a white deck... it's not going so well. In fact, it's going rather poorly. The deck currently carries a win-loss ratio somewhere in the neighborhood of 35% The thought of trying to pilot a deck, the primary focus of which is a color set I'm not familiar with stems from my poor performance in Omaha.
Birthing Pod as a deck had been at the top of many tournaments since the multitude of pieces had existed. While Birthing Pod stood as the engine, the remaining creatures were the aftermarket parts, and the aftermarket parts kept getting better and better. Tiny elves were swapped out for Voice of Resurgence. Scavenging Ooze would creep up from time to time and Blood Artist would find its way into some lists. A deck that can cheat in some of the best cheap creatures in the game had always intrigued me. Suddenly, Siege Rhino came into existence, and I knew I would likely never be able to pilot this deck.
At its core, Birthing Pod is a combo deck. Able to either gain infinite life, deal incalculable damage or just smash your face in, the deck already felt untouchable in certain cases. The inclusion of Siege Rhino meant that the deck had gone over the top. Playing Birthing Pod meant every play was a decision point. Even playing a certain land out of your hand first turn wrong could spell the difference between a loss and a win when piloting a 'Pod deck.
This micro-managing and hyper analytical gameplay is not something, at the time I was very skilled or experienced at. I did not possess the skills or the dexterity to pilot that deck or a similar deck. It simply isn't how I play the game. However, Magic is changing and growing at a heightened pace with every tournament. As the game changes, we must adapt as players.
For every person's playstyle, there is a deck for them. American Control plays differently than Esper Control. Even the somewhat simplistic Mono Blue Merfolk plays a different game than White/Blue or White/Blue/Green Fish. The new tournament player may approach a complicated or convoluted tournament deck structure and dismiss it for something that can essentially play itself. Don't fall into the trap as I did.
Understand that as the game grows, decks fluctuate and strength and popularity. That Delver deck that I yearned to play in Omaha? While still incredibly strong, it's nowhere near as well positioned as it was a year ago. After a period of weak performances, thanks to the printing of Hangarback Walker, Affinity is stronger than ever.
Know when the time is right to learn a new trick, but never abandon your strongest deck. If your tricked out Merfolk deck isn't the strongest in the meta at the moment, don't panic sell. Save your money, find alternatives and experiment. For example, a deck recently won Grand Prix: Oklahoma City using a unique strategy.
Even after 20 years, the game will still reward the brave and the bold.
So what have I learned...
After nearly a year, I am not yet the tournament player I want to be... but I am well on the road to success. While the requirements of life dictate that I may not be able to practice as much as I would like, this is supplanted by a better understanding of the game I love.
This first real test will come during the Nuke Con 1k Modern tournament this October. Armed with the list below, I feel that after this period of introspection and analysis, I am better prepared to have a stronger showing and play better Magic.
AeroPaws' Mono Blue Fish
Creatures: (32) Artifacts: (4)
4 Cursecatcher 4 Aether Vial
4 Harbinger of the Tides
4 Master of Waves Enchantment: (4)
4 Lord of Atlantis 4 Spreading Seas
4 Master of the Pearl Trident Land: (20)
4 Silvergill Adept 14 Island
4 Merrow Reejerey 4 Mutavault
3 Phantasmal Image 2 Cavern of Souls
1 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
3 Vapor Snag 2 Spellskite
2 Remand 2 Relic of Progenitus
4 Hurkyl's Recall 2 Spell Pierce
There it is. My weapon of choice and monument to progress. In piloting this deck to what I hope will be a top 30% finish, I will have accomplished what I set out to do the day after licking my wounds from Omaha. I will have revealed that the path ahead of me is a tad smoother than it would have been six months ago.
I hope that new and veteran tournament players were able to gain some knowledge from this article. I honestly believe that Magic is the best strategy game on Earth behind Chess. The quest to better oneself at the game of Magic is akin to seeking mental enlightenment and validation for one's progress and study. Hopefully, you too can find your way in improving your game. Until then, I hope to see your name on the other side of a match slip, hopefully shaking hands after a match well played.