A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article about my emotional journey through Magic last year. I talked about the downs and downs of having a rough year and missing out on the World Championship. I mentioned how I had failed to earn a single Pro Point in a single Standard event at all last year.
Thankfully, I still maintained hopes of bouncing back. One more year, at least. My goal was to Mary J. Blige it up this year. Flip it around and reverse it. Flip the script, as it were.
The week after the Pro Tour I played the Magic Online Championship Series (MOCS) playoff event. For people not intimately in the know, which is every human being on this earth except about 15, The Magic Online Championship Series is a very confusing tournament series taking place on Magic Online. Very few people truly know how to navigate the maze that is required to understand all the details of this tournament series, and fewer yet are capable of killing the Minotaur that guards the maze's poorly accessible exit. For those few brave souls who escape unscathed, they are rewarded with the knowledge that the quarterly playoff events are fairly exclusive tournaments that require a few layers to qualify for, and a good finish will qualify for an even more exclusive event, the big yearly championship with 24 players and great prizes.
I played Zombies in that tournament, where I fared very mediumly. I went a solid 5-3, which wasn't good enough for any real prize, but good enough to make me think that Zombies was still a fine deck choice.
This was the same weekend where Brad Nelson and his brother Corey Baumeister both made the Top 8 of Grand Prix Minneapolis. I watched coverage of that event, wishing I was there the whole time as they slayed opponent after opponent like a room temperature butter knife through an oil-based liquid. They both played Black-Green Constrictor, a deck I didn't think was very well-positioned, even after Brad made it to the quarterfinals and Corey the finals. I watched them play a lot of matches where they won games they shouldn't have, providing what I considered to be a false positive for the quality of that deck choice.
I felt like Zombies was slightly favored against Constrictor, an opinion that I gathered from beating it a few times in the MOCS against quality opponents, as well as having a generally positive record against it on Magic Online.
The following friday, I played in another MOCS event, this one a monthly eight-round qualifier where anyone who performs 6-2 or better makes it into the quarterly playoffs. Again I played Zombies, and went 2-3 drop. One of those losses was to Paul Reitzl playing Temur Energy, a deck that had been gaining a lot in popularity and that I had been losing to a lot with Zombies.
That same weekend, I drove to Richmond to play in the SCG Open. In case I missed Day 2 of the Modern Open, my plan was to play the Standard Classic with a Temur list that I stole off of Magic Online that looked good to me. I was growing less and less enamored with Zombies, and was in the market for a replacement deck. It's rare that I look at a decklist and not want to make any changes to it, but this Temur list had the cards I wanted to play and none of the stuff I didn't, which made me feel really good about it right away. I hadn't played any with it, yet, but I had a good feeling about it. My guess was that Temur wasn't great against Ramunap Red, but pretty good against Zombies and Constrictor, two of the more popular anti-red choices.
The last time I played in an SCG Open, about a month prior in Roanoke, it was a Modern Open, where I played Grixis Death's Shadow. I started 0-1 in that event, battled back to 5-2, and then lost the last two rounds to go 5-4 and miss Day 2. I then played the Standard Classic the next day, where I lost to James O'Shaughnessy on Temur in the swiss, won the rest of my rounds, drew with Jadine Klomparens in the last round to squeeze into Top 8, won the quarterfinals and then lost the semifinals to Jadine on Constrictor, who then went on beat James O'Shaugnessy in the finals.
I was hoping for a slightly better finish this time around.
SCG Richmond was a Modern Open, where I played Grixis Death's Shadow. I started 0-1 in that event, battled back to 5-2, and then lost the last two rounds to go 5-4 and miss Day 2. I then played the Standard Classic the next day, where I lost to James O'Shaughnessy on Temur in the swiss, won the rest of my rounds, drew with Frank Skarren in the last round to squeeze into Top 8, won the quarterfinals, and then lost the semifinals to Frank on Constrictor, who then went on to beat James O'Shaugnessy in the finals.
Thankfully I get a unique experience from the SCG Tour each and every week. I'm not sure I could have handled a repeat of the previous SCG Tour weekend. That would have broken me. In unrelated news, I saw the same Black Cat walk past a doorway twice. No clue if that means anything. Just a little deja vu.
The moral of the story here is twofold. Number one: my life is on a time-loop and I am destined to relive and repeat the same experiences and mistakes over and over again. Don't worry, though, my love for Dolores is real. Number two: Temur Energy was pretty good at the Classic, and it made me want to book a plane ticket for GP Denver to fly to that Standard Grand Prix to play the Temur deck.
Or I did for awhile, at least. I started testing with Temur on Magic Online, and I really wasn't winning that much. Temur started looking more like a Stemur. I wasn't getting smashed or anything, but I wasn't winning enough to really feel great about the deck either. I was thinking about abandoning playing it and I also hadn't even booked a plane ticket yet because I couldn't find any reasonable priced flights that were not extremely miserable travel itineraries.
This is where Brad Nelson and I mutually helped each other out. Brad helped me find a cheap plane ticket that I had been overlooking. I booked the flight, although I figured I would soon regret that choice. I gave him all my insight on the Temur deck. A partnership was formed. Brad was visiting family and hadn't had much time to test. Naturally, he still wanted to make changes to my Temur masterpiece...which of course was still almost identical to that list I copied off of Magic Online, but let's be real, it was my deck now!... I put my foot down and made him play three Sheltered Thickets. He did get me to play two Chandra, Flamecaller in the Sideboard, though, which was a wise choice.
Brad decided to just play my list of Temur for one big reason. It involves a little bit of history. At GP Toronto a few years back, I had an Abzan Aggro list that I really liked. Brad decided to just copy my list for the tournament since he hadn't tested much. I had a really medium finish in that event. I can't remember exactly, but I think I barely missed out on a minimum cash result.
Brad made it to the semifinals, where he punted his match to not make it to the finals of the GP. He had a great tournament. However, Brad complained the entire time about how bad the deck I built was, including much of the trip back. This tilted me to no end. He uses my deck, performs way better than I do with it, almost winning the GP, and then repeatedly tells me how awful it is as we have to drive 12 hours home from Toronto after a good clean scrub out of a GP. Then I have to read articles all the next week talking about how great Brad's Abzan Aggro deck is. It was a very frustrating experience.
Brad's reason for playing my list for GP Denver was partially so he had some complaint equity. He wanted to do better than me at the event so he could dagger me by joking around about how bad the deck was as I was struggled. Regardless of whether the deck was actually good or bad, he wanted the option open to be able to troll me.
My reason for playing the list was that I just didn't bring another deck to the tournament, locking myself into playing Temur, even though I wasn't winning that much with it on Magic Online. My reason behind my card choices was that I liked those cards the most, and I wasn't going to get roped in by other people to change my card choices away from the ones that I found were performing the best.
I like playing high-impact cards that are really great in the matchups they are great in, like Rhonas the Indomitable, for example. Most of the time when I play decks, people try to convince me to cut those cards for less powerful cards that either sacrifice power to be less clunky or more widely applicable. Typically, I've found that when I listen to that advice, I do way worse than when I just play all the cards I like, which is where a lot of my Grand Prix success has come from in the past.
Rhonas was going to stay, and I was just going to play the cards I wanted to play, regardless of what Brad and Corey were going to put in their lists. They both just deferred to my list and we all ended up playing the same 75, which is actually kind of a rarity in and of itself. Usually when we play the same deck, we end up disagreeing on a few card choices and going our own ways. This time we just all played the same thing, which was nice.
After the Grand Prix, the plan was for Brad and I to take a red-eye flight to Charlotte, where our girlfriends were going to pick us up to go to South Carolina to watch the solar eclipse, which I've heard is a once-in-a-while event. Knowing that we were going to have a long day of driving on Monday, Seth Manfield asked me the night before the GP started if I would accept losing in the finals to Brad, knowing that he would probably dagger me the entire drive home about how I did worse than him in the tournament and how much my deck sucked, in homage to the Abzan Aggro story from GP Toronto of yesteryear.
I thought about it for a few seconds and decided that I was okay with that outcome. It would take a lot of daggering to bring me off the high of a GP second-place finish, especially with how much of a Standard rut I have been in for the past year.
Spoiler Alert. Foreshadowing. I got out of the rut. On the drive home, there was a small pothole in the road, but thankfully I was able to navigate us in and then eventually around this rut. You can't keep a persistent fellow like myself in a rut like that forever. Eventually the wheels start spinning and the car propels out. That was a fairly minor rut, though, all things considered. I Can't Believe it's Not Ruttier.
Day 1 of the GP was a mixture of great and bad. I went 9-0, which included giving Ramunap Red a dirt Ramunap three rounds in a row and then winning the ninth round in the Temurish mirror by stealing my opponent's The Scarab God with Confiscation Coup and then destroying him with his own creatures out of his graveyard. The full beating, they call that. The steal and deal. The grab and slab. The take and break. The acquire and perspire. You get the picture.
That part was pretty great. The downside was that I had a brutal headache that was destroying me inside and out. I get headaches a lot on Day 1 of Grand Prix and Pro Tours, but never on Day 2. I truly do not understand this phenomenon, but I wish I did. Why? Why never Day 2? I rarely get headaches outside of exactly Day 1 of tournaments. Almost never have them at home. I don't understand it, but then again I am not a trained medical professional. I just stayed at a Hyatt Regency last week.
The bad was that the last three or four hours of the day were an exercise in stamina as I tried to not buckle under the growing pressure of my head trying to pop out of my skull. I managed to hang in there. I did not sleep well that night, but when I got up the next morning, the headache had dissipated. The forecast was clear skies for Day 2.
Clear skies or not, it did not start as planned. In round 10, I started up a game against another Virginia Magic player, Charles League on Zombies. In game two, I had a Chandra, Torch of Defiance tick all the way up to seven counters before eventually being whittled down by a pair of Dark Salvations and a Liliana's Mastery. I ended up losing the match to two more copies of Liliana's Mastery.
Not like this. Not like this.
Round 11 I thought I was also going to lose. I was playing against Jonathan Job on Mono-White Eldrazi and he slammed a Solemnity on turn three of game three that invalidated my entire hand. Suddenly my Tireless Trackers and Rogue Refiners all became Bastion Enforcers and Longtusk Cub turned into Grizzly Bear (or Runeclaw Bear, if you prefer). I was just completely dead to something like Those Who Serve or some other generic vanilla creature. Instead, he bricked on his fifth land a few times, didn't do a whole lot, and just died to the Bear And Bastion tag team, who are the current tag team champions of the world, known for their unrelenting beatdown style.
In round 12, I got paired against Brad Nelson in the 75-card mirror and he slayed me. This is an interesting match on camera where I was pretty sure he had a certain card, in this case Chandra, Flamecaller, but the drawback in playing around it was just too great in that I was quite unlikely to win if I did. I chose not to play around it, he had it, and suddenly I was 1-2 on the day and facing elimination from a Grand Prix where I had only lost a single game on Day 1.
Over the past year, I've written a lot of articles about improving my mental game. It's easy to start out 1-2 after a 9-0 start and see things slipping away and lose control over yourself. I've done it plenty of times myself. I'm glad in this case, however, I maintained control of myself and was able to apply the lessons I've learned to stay calm, collected, and playing as well as I could.
I battled back, didn't lose again in the swiss, and eventually found myself into the Top 8 of this Grand Prix. Corey and Brad both also made Top 8, which was an insane accomplishment as the first brother combo to Top 8 back-to-back Grand Prix. Beyond that, the three of us – the only three playing our exact list – went a perfect 3/3 on making it to the Top 8. It will definitely go down as one of the most dominating Grand Prix performances of all time, and not likely something to be topped for a while.
We unfortunately ended up as the sixth, seventh and eighth seed, which meant that we would be on the draw quite a lot in the Top 8. Being the last seed myself, I knew I would never get the play to start any match. But, fortunately, it meant that I was on the opposite side of the bracket as Brad and Corey, and couldn't face either of them until the finals.
We all lost game one of our quarterfinals, but we all battled back and won our matches. I beat Zombies, thanks to a very timely Radiant Flames in game three and was on to play Ramunap Red in the semifinals.
At this point I was 4-0 against Ramunap Red in the event, so I was feeling pretty good. I ended up winning a game where my opponent got mana screwed and lost game two where I couldn't find lands myself. Game three was an interesting game where my opponent was at a sweet 16 life points with a Chandra, Torch of Defiance in play, and I decided to go face with Bristling Hydra and a Rogue Refiner instead of taking a guaranteed kill on the Chandra. This put my opponent to dead the following turn to my current creatures plus a followup Hydra and Longtusk Cub, but allowed Chandra to live another turn, a very risky plan when he had Hour of Devastation in his sideboard that could easily Devastate me. I didn't make it this far by not taking risks, though, and they don't call it Face Temur for nothing. He didn't find the Hour of Devastation and I was on to the finals.
My finals were a rematch against Brad and rather anticlimactic as he curved out very well on the play, which even with a good hand is quite hard to beat. Down a game, I kept a risky six-card hand that ended up curving out reasonably well but again Brad had a disgustingly good hand. Knowing that with no removal in my hand I was unlikely to beat his board of a Confiscation Couped Glorybringer and Skysovereign without trying to race, I decided to make racing my line of play. With a hand of two Chandra, Flamecaller and a Glorybringer and with Brad at 16 life, I decided to go in on the plan of just smacking him for 6 + 6 + 4 and hoping his hand wasn't just all gas or that I drew some much needed interaction in the interim. Turns out, he had a Bristling Hydra, Rogue Refiner and a removal spell and I died very quickly.
Seth Manfield's Friday night hypothetical became a reality. I lost to Brad in the finals of GP Denver. I would be forced to deal with his daggers on the drive home, and he had the luxury of doing better than me with my deck and then telling me that the deck was bad. Thankfully, Brad kept the daggers to a minimum. The biggest dagger, by far, was that I had to pack his trophy in my luggage because he didn't have space. Then, in true BBD traveling fashion, I very obviously got stopped by the TSA at airline security for the flight home with a first-place trophy and a second-place plaque both in my bag. Thankfully they didn't bother to ask how I ended up with both.
We were all genuinely happy for each other. I was happy for Brad and Corey who had accomplished an awesome feat with back-to-back GP Top 8's. I was happy for Brad and I, two great friends who got to play each other in the finals of a Grand Prix, the dream of every group of friends who drive together to a tournament. I was happy for the three of us, who made history by finishing first, second, and fourth (on seeding) in a Grand Prix with the same exact deck, a monumental feat. And I was also happy for Corey and I, two friends who both had the honor of losing twice to Brad in the same tournament, that extremely lucky son of a…
Right. So, it was the old one-two-four punch. First place. Second place. Fourth place. Two brothers and a third wheel. Two members of the same North Dakota family, and a third guy, whose family is also from North Dakota but is completely unrelated. It's a classic tale. Two brothers and a thirrd bald white dude who somehow is in the mix. I've seen it hundreds of times, and it never gets old.
This time, Brad got to be the one-punch man, but I'm pretty happy to settle for being the two-hole-punch.
My only regret is not that I didn't win. It's that I didn't get to de-sideboard my deck in front of Brad instead of celebrating if I had. He hates that, and it would have been a just finish to the event. A little dose of revenge for GP Toronto years ago. But alas, that will have to wait. One day maybe, but Sunday was not the day.
I needed this result. More than I am really willing to admit. My Standard failures were a monkey on my back, and the monkey was getting fed a lot. Being able to Top 8 this Grand Prix and break that monkey off my back was very liberating. It was a much-needed Pro Point boost and confidence boost. I'm feeling very good going into the upcoming Grand Prixs in the next few weeks. The nagging fear that I am done for, past my prime, incapable of putting it together again, is gone. At least for now. I may still be past my prime, and most likely I am, but I still have some gas in the tank, and I just got my car out of a rut. It's time to rev that engine and go. It's time to get back on track.
- Brian Braun-Duin