Earlier this summer in Atlantic City I made my first Grand Prix Day Two cut, limping in at 7-2. It was my tenth Grand Prix, and yet my only Day Two. I went 2-3 with zero match wins earned that day; both my Draft pods were seven people, and I received the bye in both of them. So no, I don't have any notions of being particularly good at Magic. If you put me in the right room, sure, I could conceivably come out on top, but more often than not I'm just another nondescript fish in the sea, donating to the prize pool rather than earning a cut of it.
The summer slate of Grands Prix was a bummer. Only two events in the Northeast, close together on the calendar, and after them nothing else until Pittsburgh which had two major problems going against it: It's Modern, and Pittsburgh in late-November is a snowy hellscape. To the casual Wizard Squares participant, having all the Grands Prix you'll go to in a calendar year squished so close together makes it seem like you're getting cheated somehow.
As soon as the Grand Prix season was spoiled, I marked down Atlantic City and Providence on my calendar, looking forward to Atlantic City and not really caring about Providence; my favorite co-conspirator, Brad, lives 20 minutes from Atlantic City, so I planned on vacationing at his place for a week, jamming Phantom Sealeds and drinking beers. I made my first-ever Day Two on the back of one bye and an above-average sealed pool, but the closest thing I did that resembled testing DTK draft was one MTGO 8-4 and watching Andrew Cuneo take a whole lot of Tapestry of the Ages on his stream. Somehow this did not serve me well come Draft day.
My hopes for Grand Prix: Providence dwindled as the date drew closer. Paul Rietzl, a deckbuilder I have a weird fondness for, tweeted that his Abzan Aggro list was perfect. As someone who won a PPTQ with the deck, my interest was immediately piqued. I dutifully took his list to a handful of local events – sure, the competition isn't great, but it's a fine place to get a feel for Standard, and if you can't win matches there, then something is off. Unfortunately I couldn't really win enough to get comfortable. It felt like everyone had caught up to the deck, whereas when I'd been playing it before I felt unbelievably ahead of the curve. Meanwhile, on irc, Jarvis Yu was telling anyone who would listen about how good his Abzan Midrange deck was.
Two weeks before the Grand Prix, coming off a lunchtime testing game in which I (embarrassingly) got so mad I threw a die at the wall, I messaged Jarvis for his list. This is known in many circles as the last refuge of a scoundrel.
This is the list I eventually ran at the Grand Prix. In jamming games against friends at work, I was satisfied at how much the deck rewarded tight play and simply knowing what the cards do. Stuff like Siege Rhino and Elspeth are powerful enough to drag you out of most bad situations and I found Den Protector to be nothing short of fantastic, representing a recurring threat of your choosing as well as being a very short clock in conjunction with Abzan Charm.
I drove there with two coworkers: Vaughn and Dan.
Vaughn moved from Maine to work for TCGplayer. He played GR Devotion in the main event. He's got a dry sense of humor, which I enjoy, and the fact that he's an army brat made him excessively easy to travel with. He's definitely a powerful wizard, always seeing all the lines during playtesting, but his lack of concrete tournament results since moving to Syracuse has left him pretty ambivalent towards the game. I sat next to him every day at work for quite a while, and to my happy surprise, many of our takes on the happenings around us lined up. Vaughn's a smart guy, so I see consensus with him as a ringing endorsement.
Dan is my roommate. All you really need to know about Dan is that he once told me, without a trace of irony in his voice, that if I just worked hard for two years, I'd be a millionaire. My former boss, Dan takes joy in reinforcing people's perception of him as a meathead (actually, he is very bright). His in-game decision-making skills are nonexistent but he doesn't seem particularly bothered by it, which actually feels like the correct approach to take - as opposed to letting Magic consume parts of your life generally reserved for (in Dan's case) going to the gym, gardening, and nurturing your obsession with Yankee Candles.
GP: Providence weekend marked the first time I've ever eaten in a restaurant alone. Dan nor Vaughn had any byes, so I had plenty of time to get brunch. On my way to the restaurant, I stopped to chat with Jarvis and **GRAND PRIX TOP 8 COMPETITOR BRYAN GOTTLIEB** and as soon as they started to discuss sideboarding for their respective decks (which, if you're keeping track, includes the one I was playing), I was completely lost. I realized I was way out of my depth, and mentally prepared myself for a short afternoon. It was in this mindset that I doubled up on mimosas at brunch.
After dropping my first two matches – a match against GW in which I played abysmally and a match against Atarka Red in which I kept a triple-Abzan Charm hand in the dark game one – the self-fulfilling Prophecy was coming true, right on schedule. I figured I'd win a couple matches in the Crown Royal Dice Bag bracket for the sweet, sweet Planeswalker Points and get knocked out of the event just in time for happy hour. There were even rumors of a $30/head Champions/Champions/Betrayers draft materializing, which I remember being very enthusiastic about. How else could a 2-2 start conceivably end?
I'm at the point with Magic where I like winning a lot, but I still don't like going to tournaments where I'm not comfortable with both possible outcomes. My RPTQ was pure misery for me: I audibled to Esper Dragons, walked into a room that was very hostile to the deck, punted my first match on-camera, bought $150 worth of stuff to make myself feel better, and immediately lost to a Dragons of Tarkir Game Day Champion (he had the 'mat to prove it!) and drove home alone because none of my other friends qualified.
That was a situation where I had no contingency plan – no one to cheer for, no new city to explore – so losing just made it feel like I'd wasted a day. After a lot of years of trying to figure out what it was about Magic, I slowly realized that the game doesn't have to make me feel this way. If there's a way to be happy with the outcomes of doing well and doing poorly, then the game is a lot more palatable. 99% of the time, ensuring happiness after an event simply means traveling with friends. This is a roundabout way of saying I was excited to explore Providence on Saturday night with Dan and Vaughn.
I don't remember much about the next two rounds, let alone winning them, but round seven sees me paired against monogreen. He starts the game on Elvish Mystic but declines to attack into an open board on his second turn. I assume he just forgot to attack, but then the Ranger's Guile he flashed me on accident before the game when he picked up his sideboard yells "BOON SATYR" at me, and so I'm able to craft a game plan from there instead of being totally caught unawares. It ends up being a closer match than I thought it would be and, after the match, he shows me the math he'd done during game three – if he'd hit one more creature off his end step Collected Company, he would've had enough devotion to green to beat me and my triple-Siege Rhino draw with a pair of Aspect of Hydra, plus a Den Protector flip for a third copy. As good as REMOVAL: THE DECK seems on paper against Aspect of Hydra, I was relieved to sneak out of that match with a win.
Round eight I keep a double Hero's Downfall, Thoughtseize, Courser of Kruphix hand, and mentally pump the fist when my opponent drops turn one Temple of Deceit. After a day of play with the deck I have no concerns whatsoever with this matchup. Just based on the cards I'm playing and the cards I know he's playing, I feel good about this one. To make matters even better, he runs out two early Ashioks, waking up the otherwise-dead Hero's Downfalls in my hand. Game two I keep a double Siege Rhino hand and draw Ugin and Garruk before I draw my fourth land, but I'm able to wrap up game three in less than five minutes on the back of an early Fleecemane Lion, double Thoughtseize, and running Rhinos to close it out.
My win-and-in for day two was against Matt Costa, playing the Sultai deck. I ground out three copies of Dig Through Time game one with the help of an Elspeth, Sun's Champion, and in the second game his two-lander didn't materialize. No CCB drafts for me.
If you noticed, I ran very well after my 2-2 start. I saw all favorable matchups, didn't mulligan at all, and saw mostly less-than-stellar draws from all my opponents. It's hard to pretend that getting lucky isn't a big part of the puzzle. Using the excuse "I got unlucky" after a match certainly doesn't help anyone, but I'm still not sure what it does to acknowledge when you're the recipient of incredible luck.
I grabbed a quick dinner with a few fellow irc lurkers and walked through a packed downtown Providence back to the room (it was Pride weekend). I'm asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.
Flores' new column on luck is something I'm looking forward to (which you can check out here). There's a definite hurdle that mid-tier players always need to overcome, and that is snapping out of always playing conservatively no matter what. It's a tough nut to crack. Players of a certain level have in their mind The Ideal Grinder: someone who never relies on luck, and simply beats their opponent's heads-up to the tune of a 62% win-rate. No plays are speculative on future events, and you play around everything you humanly can. This is a tough spot to be in. You feel like you're playing disciplined, fundamentally-sound Magic, but in actuality you're just costing yourself percentage points.
I'm always reminded of a report I read from the Indianapolis Colts' training camp, back when Peyton Manning was their quarterback. As an offense, the Colts' personnel were very poor, with the exception of Manning, so the Colts leaned very heavily on him to pull them through games. A reporter was watching the Colts practice one afternoon and noticed that Manning's backup quarterback got almost no reps with the practice squad, in stark contrast with conventional practice-wisdom. So the reporter asked the coach, "why don't you let your backup quarterback get more reps, in case Peyton goes down with an injury?"
Without looking away from the men on the practice field, the coach replied, "if Peyton goes down, we're screwed. We're not going to practice being screwed."
* * *
I pick up a quick loss against a monored deck sporting Dragon Whisperer to start my day, keeping me winless against Stoke the Flames. My next few matches were a blinding streak of good fortune: I ran into a Mardu deck that hadn't been updated since Fate Reforged. An Abzan player much better than I am mulliganed in games one and three. A four-color Whip of Erebos player mulliganed in games one and three. I was 11-3 going into the final round, and got paired against my close friend Bret. We agreed to a 50-50 split and played the match, and he won. I locked up 51st (2nd lowest breakers out of X-4s!), and my first-ever Pro Point, plus $100 extra from Bret.
Sometimes, you just get lucky.
Jon Corporapronounced Ca-pora@feb31st