It's funny how things work. I've tried so hard, for so long, to Top 8 a Pro Tour, but in the end it didn't even matter (RIP Gideon). I've put full months into near non-stop testing for Pro Tours only to fall hilariously short. I've dedicated everything toward achieving this goal and found myself yelling out "It's tearing me apart, Lisa!" as I failed time after time after time.
Eventually, I gave up on ever Top 8'ing a Pro Tour.
I wrote an article, almost two years ago at this point, about how I just had to accept that it might never happen for me and if I couldn't accept that, I should just quit Magic. I couldn't keep on like I was, trying so hard to Top 8 a Pro Tour and being so devastated when another one came and went with another 8-8 finish in the books.
This led to a new mindset for me where I just focused on enjoying the aspects of Magic that I liked, and didn't worry overmuch about the aspects that I didn't like. I like solving the competitive metagame puzzle and playing certain strategies that fit my style, and I don't like worrying about how many Pro Points I have or how many more wins I need to Top 8, so I stopped doing that. I stopped pouring my self-worth into my results in Magic. That mindset treated me well, but what happens when the thing I'm not enjoying is Magic itself? What then?
About three weeks ago, I got hit with a wave of depression. While I've struggled with depression on and off again many times in my life, this was the first time where I basically was able to immediately recognize what I was dealing with. Progress, at least. Despite that, I could not work up any motivation whatsoever to care about Mythic Championship London. In fact, if it wasn't for the MPL, and my prior obligations to my team, KMC-Genesis, I would have simply skipped the tournament. I certainly wanted to.
I guess you could say that I'm glad I didn't.
The Saturday when my flight was scheduled to leave, I had to spend the entire day basically convincing myself to pack, convincing myself to drive to the airport, and convincing myself to board the flight once inside. I felt like such an a**hole, even though I knew that the feet-dragging was just a product of the depression, and not a true reflection of myself. Going to London to play in a Mythic Championship is a dream come true for so many players. I know it was once for me. Playing on the Pro Tour was all I had ever dreamed of doing in Magic for so many years of my life. I dedicated my career and most of the time in my life toward that goal. Yet now here I am, a decade later, a sad, depressed shell of a man wishing I could just stay home and lay around reading my books instead of going. What the hell happened to me? What the hell is wrong with me?
I forced myself to play four leagues leading into my trip to London and all four were with Lantern Control. More accurately, I felt guilty about not testing at all and would play a league whenever Brad Nelson would periodically message me to ask me if I had booked my flight yet or played any Modern yet. I hadn't...and I hadn't. Thankfully, Brad knows who I am as a person by this point and never judged me for any of this, at least not to my face. I got around to booking that flight eventually. I even boarded it, when the day came. One step at a time.
I did no better than 3-2 in any of my Lantern Control leagues. I played one more league in London and I went 1-2-1 in my league, with the draw being my opponent timing out against me in game three while they were attacking me for lethal. Oh, I also had zero permanents in play and no hand thanks to Liliana of the Veil's ultimate, and my opponent had two versions of Liliana in play as well as some number of Dark Confidants, Tarmogoyfs, and Tireless Trackers and a full grip of cards. For some reason, Magic Online considers timing out and attacking for lethal at the same time a "draw". But yeah, who knows who would have won that game had it concluded naturally. Anyone's game. A draw sounds like a fair conclusion with the outcome so up in the air. Good game, it's a draw.
I subsequently abandoned Lantern Control but wasn't sure what deck I should play instead. I was thinking it was going to be Tron, Humans or Phoenix, but I had limited to no experience with Tron and Phoenix, and hadn't played Humans in about a year. I knew I was going to have to settle on one of these decks and play them relatively blind. Having wasted the weeks leading up to London, I simply wasn't going to have time to test much Modern anymore.
Once I was in London, I mostly buckled down to test. It's one thing to do nothing at home, it's another thing to do nothing when surrounded in a house by other Magic players, many of whom are depending on me to do my best for the sake of the team series. I couldn't convince myself to care, but I could still convince myself to put in the work.
While in London, the bulk of my focus was going to be on mastering the new Limited format thanks to the effort my teammates put in proxying up approximations of draft packs of War of the Spark. Doing well in Limited is extremely important and an underrated path to success at the Mythic Championships. With War of the Spark Draft at the Mythic Championship being effectively a prerelease, this was one of the best opportunities I would ever have to do well in Limited at a Mythic Championship, since, at the very least, I could easily have a leg up on many of my opponents in terms of experience.
For one, I'm generally good at new Limited formats before other players catch up and surpass me. Most of my good results in Limited events in the past have come right after a set's release. Secondly, I'm on a testing team with the members of team Ultimate Guard as well as the members of team KMC-Genesis, which means that I have the pleasure of testing with some of the best Limited minds of all time. Since I have started testing with these phenomenal players, I have not done worse than 4-2 in Limited at a Pro Tour or Mythic Championship, and I cannot claim that it is coincidence. Learning from the best has helped me.
I managed to have the best win rate of anyone in Limited during our testing house, which I consider to be about as impressive, if not more impressive, than Top 8'ing the Mythic Championship, considering that I was playing all week against Reid Duke, Seth Manfield, William Jensen, Jon Finkel, Kai Budde, etc. etc. Yes, these are indeed "not-humble" brags. They are simply regular brags.
My strategy in Limited was to just draft some amalgamation of Grixis colors as often as I could. UR, UB, BR, or just regular old-fashioned Grixis were all on the table. Random cards with amass tacked onto them were generally premium cards, although drafting pure amass cards like Relentless Advance or Invade the City tended to underperform. Toll of the Invasion, for example, was a card that I usually maindecked two copies of in most of my decks. The card looks bad—three mana for a slightly improved Coercion never excited anyone—but it kept greatly overperforming. The amass 1 aspect of the card proved its relevance consistently, especially when paired with various powerhouse rares or uncommons like Eternal Skylord, Soul Diviner or Widespread Brutality.
The other strategy I employed was to never put a mediocre creature into my deck no matter what. I was never playing any random 2/2's for two or Goblin Pikers in my deck, even if my curve looked horrendous as a result. The format was slow and I never wanted to draw dead cards later in the game, and these creatures in particular would go dead far faster than they would in normal draft formats.
I didn't mind playing vanilla 4- 5- or 6-drops because they had great stats, but playing a 2/2 for two with marginal abilities was almost never worth it. There were very few common Grixis creatures I was willing to play at two mana, with Lazotep Reaver being the best of the bunch.
In my first draft, I first picked Arlinn, Voice of the Pack. I've found this planeswalker to be extremely impressive, creating a steady stream of 3/3 wolves, or more importantly, 2/2 wolves with a +1/+1 counter on them, making it the perfect top end for a proliferate deck. After pack one, I was solidly in green-black.
In pack two I opened God-Eternal Kefnet alongside Band Together (one of green's best commons, if not its best common). I had a decision to make and I decided to take God-Eternal Kefnet. I realized after pack one that Arlinn was the only green card I had above replacement level and that green didn't actually seem open, I was just surviving off of green's incredible depth in the format. Green is deep, but not powerful, and I didn't want to get the secondary scraps from a color that wasn't even that great.
I switched into blue-black and never looked back. I was right that green wasn't open and I got rewarded for it. I ended up with a quite strong U/B deck and went 3-0.
This now marks two Mythic Championships in a row where I started 3-0 after the first draft. Prior to that point, I had only ever 3-0'd two drafts at the Pro Tour ever! I can get used to this. Thanks, teammates. You're the best.
In my second draft, I went all-in on forcing Grixis, throwing away better cards in other colors in the First Picks to take Grixis options instead. This was, in all seriousness, probably not the best way to draft, but it did work out. I went 2-1, losing only to Thien Nguyen in a wild three-game affair. Thien was to my left in the draft and benefitted from my refusal to take any white cards.
Going 5-1 in Limited is tied with Pro Tour Atlanta 2014 with the best I have ever done in Limited, and about the minimum record in Limited required to be reasonably in contention to make Top 8. Top 8'ing these events is insanely hard. At one point in the tournament I was 10-2 and realized that I still needed to win two of my next three matches at the very minimum, even though it had already seemed like I had won nearly every match I had played in the event. Making Top 8 is extremely daunting.
When it came to Modern, most of the team was jumping onto Dredge as the deck of choice. Seth Manfield was tearing up Magic Online with the deck, posting something like a 27-3 record with it in six leagues. In between testing Limited, I managed to play two leagues with Dredge and went a combined 4-5 with the deck. I then picked up Humans, went 4-1 in my first league, and locked it in.
I thought Dredge was a good deck, but the problem I had with it was that I feared people would overload on graveyard hate in the Mythic Championship. I was right in that regard. Surgical Extraction was somehow the most played card, and 33% of all copies of Surgical Extraction were played in the maindeck. I also feared I wouldn't play Dredge well enough. While I do have past experience with Dredge—I Top 8'd GP Dallas with it a few years back—I was rusty and could tell that I wasn't playing optimally with the deck. Seth was a master with the strategy, and I feared that we were getting a false-positive from Seth being so good with the deck in his results.
As it turns out, the people who played Dredge didn't do very well, except Seth, who proved that he is indeed a master of the deck, going super deep with it and only losing the last two rounds to miss Top 8, unfortunately. It would have been great to Top 8 alongside a teammate in Seth, but it was not to be.
I ended up deciding to just play Humans. Humans I suspected would be a really good deck going into the event. Humans benefited from the London mulligan: there are a lot of hands with Humans that should be thrown back because they are too slow to get to the board and a lot of cards on a mulligan that can be sent to the bottom without losing much value, such as extra Aether Vials, extra lands, or hate bears that are irrelevant in the matchup. Humans benefited from open decklists: mulligan decisions and cards like Meddling Mage improve dramatically when you know not only your opponent's archetype but also their decklist. Humans benefited from the success of Dredge and Phoenix: every Relic of Progenitus or Surgical Extraction in the opponent's maindeck was essentially a dead card against you.
More importantly, Humans was an archetype I knew how to pilot. While I hadn't played the deck in about a year, I have played so many games with it in my lifetime that I already knew a lot about sequencing, mulliganing, and other decisions with the deck. Going into a tournament with almost no testing, I considered this a massive benefit. I felt that if I played a deck like Tron, or Dredge, or Phoenix that I would screw it up a lot. I was less worried about screwing it up a lot with Humans.
Mentality wise, I simply did not care how I did in this tournament. Part of me wanted to do well in Limited so as to not embarrass myself after doing so well in the testing house, but ultimately, I didn't really care. For the first time that I can ever remember, I didn't really ever think about Top 8 or how cool it would be to make the Top 8. I was truly and completely broken. For the first time ever, I didn't care about my result. I would have been ok going 0-5, though I was still going to try my hardest.
Of course, as the universe would have it, this was the tournament I finally did actually make Top 8. After 23 bricks, the 24th one was a hit. This was the tournament where I finally got that monkey off my back and got my first ever Mythic Championship Top 8.
This was the least I have ever tested for a Mythic Championship/Pro Tour in my entire life. Normally I throw everything I have into preparing for the event, but not this time. I did 10 drafts and played two leagues with my deck.
It was strange. The first time I didn't care, the first time I had truly given up on the dream of making Top 8 was the time that I actually got there.
I paired my 5-1 Limited record with a 7-2-1 Modern record for 12-3-1 and 4th place after the 16 rounds of swiss. Top 8. Finally.
It may seem a weird twist of fate—a coincidence even, that the event I didn't try so hard for was the one I finally did well in, but I don't think that's right. Part of the new mentality and mindset that I was using in Magic tournaments was to never focus on the results, to just play Magic, enjoy playing Magic, and see what happens.
The problem is, it's easier to tell yourself to use that mindset than it is to actually embrace it fully and practice it truly. This was the first time where I genuinely did not care at all. This was the first time where I just genuinely tried to have fun without any external pressures attached.
I did have fun. I thoroughly enjoyed my two draft decks and had some truly fun and close matches with them. Against Alexander Hayne, I had an extremely lucky topdeck of Dreadhorde Invasion in game two that gave my already massive Zombie army creature lifelink to pull me back into the game when I was dead next turn. On the final turn, he played a Saheeli's Silverwing as his lone blocker for my 13/13 lethal army token and when he looked at my top card he said something akin to "that about sums up my status in this game." I looked at him and said, "So I'm topdecking Totally Lost." It was indeed a Totally Lost on top of my deck.
I also had fun in Modern, even in some of the games I lost. I lost round 5 to Dredge because I had one Grafdigger's Cage in my sideboard. Due to the way decklists worked, you saw which cards your opponent had in their sideboard, but not the quantities. My opponent, fearing I had a lot of Cages, brought in Ancient Grudge against me. They were able to Ancient Grudge my Aether Vial when I kept a one-land nut Aether Vial hand. I almost assuredly would have won that game with Auriok Champions had they not had Grudge, and my opponent confirmed they would not have boarded it in without seeing the Cage in the sideboard. I found it fairly funny that I lost to Dredge because I had graveyard hate, and it made me seriously question the value of even having Grafdigger's Cage in my sideboard in the first place.
My first game of Modern was one for the ages. I was playing against Chris Kvartek, who eventually Top 8'd as well, but we didn't know the matchup, as round 4 was played without decklists. I mulled to six and threw a Reflector Mage on the bottom of my deck, keeping a disruption-heavy hand, hoping he was on a non-interactive deck. It turned out that we were playing a Humans mirror and after early Champions of the Parish traded off, the next eight creatures were only Noble Hierarchs, Meddling Mages, Thalia, Guardian of Thrabens, and Kitesail Freebooters, all the worst creatures in the matchup. With up to five Meddling Mages in play at the same time, we had basically locked each other and ourselves out of the game and played this incredibly anemic grizzly bear game of Magic that I eventually won by topdecking a late-game Aether Vial that eventually allowed me to sneak out my cards. Taking his last attack down to 1 life, I managed to draw into the card I needed to attack Chris for an exactly lethal 5 damage in the air, winning a razor-thin game. Fun times were had by all, if by "all," you mean the subset consisting of exactly me and me alone.
Losing did not faze me in this event. I took my licks where I did and just kept plowing along. More importantly, winning didn't faze me either. One of the easy mistakes to make is to start winning and going deep in one of these events and then let the pressure build up because of it and allow that external pressure to affect your play. I never felt pressure, even while I was doing well deep into day two, and I also wasn't worried about losing and missing Top 8. I just didn't care anymore, I was going to play my best and enjoy the ride, and enjoy it if it happened, but not worry about it if it didn't. That's the perfect mentality to have, but achieving it is easier said than done, even for me, and I've strived to attain that for many years of Magic play. This is the first time, at least since 2016 Worlds, that I can truly say I embodied this mentality entirely.
It wasn't until I won that last match and locked Top 8 that some of the emotions came out. When I had a chance to get alone I teared up some. I played my first Pro Tour in 2012 and this has always been a dream of mine, even before that point, and it was finally realized. Finally when I had truly given up all hope, it happened. At one of my weakest points, battling depression, in a foreign country I didn't want to be in, playing in a tournament I would have rather sat home and read fantasy books instead of attending, I achieved the dream I had wanted for a decade now. I didn't know how to react then, and I still don't know how to react now. It hasn't really hit me yet.
And then I got truly and utterly destroyed by Tron in the Top 8. Some things never change. You can always count on Tron to ruin the moment.
Oh well. There's always next ti...ahhh, I see what I tried to do there. Who knows if there will be a next time, and for one of the first times in my career, I can honestly say that I don't care if there is or is not. Unlike other good finishes I've had in the past, this I'm not going to use this to pressure myself to replicate or surpass it in the future. Instead, it's just going to be something I cherish and celebrate. Top 8'ing this tournament isn't going to fix the problems in my life. It isn't going to solve my depression or suddenly transform me into a superior Magic player. But it is something that I will always have, an accomplishment that can't be taken away from me. I'll celebrate that even if I never achieve it again.
24th time's the charm.
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