All of this happened more or less. The Magic parts anyway are pretty much true. One guy I know really was eaten alive in a quarterfinals match by Wurmcoil Engine tokens. Another guy I know really did mulligan to four in his semifinals match. And so on. I've changed all the names.
It is Monday February 7 2011 and I am sitting in an airport in Indianapolis Indiana with AJ Sacher Chrandersen and Alex Bertoncini. We are eating lunch and talking about nothing in particular. Continuing with the weekend's theme of all of us being fish Alex is noting that the ornaments hanging from the rafters of the atrium resemble jellyfish. The weekend melts together in my mind fourteen hours of play and fifteen hours of play separated only by a translucent and effervescent membrane of four hours of sleep. The games are gone; the turns are gone – I played them all. I don't have a trophy to show for my record but I feel giddy all the same. I'm tired overwhelmingly so. I could fall asleep right now but for this conversation about nothing in particular. My eyes close for half a second past the standard blink and my unconscious starts sprinting. The blank screen inside my head plays a silent film of disjointed images. My recollections of the weekend are scattered and disoriented disorientingly unmoored from chronological norms of anecdotal relation. All that remains in my reverie are the people.
I have this condition…
It is Sunday February 6 2011. I have no idea what time it is or if the sun is shining. I mean how many windows are there ever in a convention center? I'm alarmingly awake for having woken up at 6:30 am. I've played six rounds of Magic since then and have yet to lose a game with the deck in my backpack. My feet drag as I walk to the pairings board noting that Alex is already sitting in the feature match area. I wonder what poor sucker has to play him?
I get to the pairings board at the other end of the hall and start looking for my name. I find it and start moving my eyes right dragging them across the 12 that represents my points total and the 4 that represents my table number getting to the name of my round five opponent.
I'd never played a sanctioned match of Magic against Alex in my life yet I've played against him more than I've played against anyone else: cube games test games type four games…the list goes on. The number of times that he has Dazed my Force of Will on his Aether Vial the number of times he has Spell Pierced my Firespout and the number of times he has Vialed in Cursecatcher and Cursecatchered my Firespout all come rushing through my head. I knew I would have to beat Merfolk today but I didn't expect to have to play against King Fish himself.
We shuffle up and get deck checked. Ten minutes later I present my deck for game one. Fifteen minutes later I present my deck for game two. I thought my hand (Tropical Island Misty Rainforest Sensei's Divining Top Sensei's Divining Top Tarmogoyf Force of Will Brainstorm) was good. He thought his hand (Wasteland Wasteland Island Island Mutavault Cursecatcher Silvergill Adept) was bad.
Skill game of course.
Game two develops into a more even game. I have three lands a Noble Hierarch and a Sensei's Divining Top in play. My hand is nonexistent. His board is Cursecatcher and Silvergill Adept and I'm at 11. He has one card in hand. I fetch at the end of his turn and hit the stone-cold nuts – Tropical Island and two copies of my four-mana blowout card. I untap draw the Trop flip Top to draw the four-mana card play the Trop and tap for UGGW. I place the card facedown on top of his Cursecatcher. He stares at it for a second. “Natural Order?” he asks. I say nothing. Ben Stark spectating from behind Alex leans in. Alex finally grasping my intent reaches out for the card slowly sliding it across the feature match area bending the top back to see just what I'm playing. Ben leans in further peering intently over Alex's shoulder as the card starts to turn up…
“AGAIN? YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME. YOU [censored – remarks about Alex's sexual predilections].”
“Just a casual Spell Pierce between friends…what's wrong?”
It was only the hundredth time that I'd lost to him countering a must-resolve Firespout; that's all. I actually just could never stick a sweeper against him when it mattered. When he had Cursecatcher and Silvergill Adept the sweeper was always fine. When he had Aether Vial and Merrow Reejerey? Sure! But God FORBID he had Lord of Atlantis Merrow Reejerey and Silvergill Adept. If he did have those I was just NEVER sticking my sweeper. That's when I decided that Firespout was overrated that Rhox War Monk did what I wanted but better and that I could find better mirror trumps – like Natural Order for example. Besides I had a card that would actually matter against him and it would be one immune to Cursecatcher Spell Pierce and Hydroblast. It was a little overboard but it would make for a great story. I mean how disgusting would it be for me to cast...
…"Llawan Cephalid Empress? Ohh that's not goooood" Alex mumbled as Ben Stark chortled into his shoulder.
“Just this one” Alex said giving me the middle finger and picking up his board.
It was AJ Sacher who taught me how to slow roll opponents. During byes at GP Atlanta a few weeks ago he was going through the theatrics of exactly how he planned on prolonging and exacerbating someone's moment of loss. “One of the better ways to slow roll someone” he said “is to tap your mana and place the card facedown on the table. The thing is you have to be sure that you've got 'em. Also it helps if there's a little bit of uncertainty for them. That way they want to see it to make sure you're not bluffing them but then you also just made them want to kill themselves.”
Game three was never really in doubt after that number.
I snap back out of my reverie. It is still Monday February 7 2011. I'm still at the airport. Sweet Jesus am I exhausted. How did everyone else figure out that Qdoba burritos are just strictly better than the Chinese pick-three that I just tried to consume?
Chrandersen's phone suddenly goes off. He looks down and mutters “Ah shit. It's my boss. Can only run good for so long…” Like any true friend he skipped work today to drive Alex and me to the airport. He jumps a few strides away from the table hunches over and answers the phone. A few seconds later he's back at the table. He needs to go. No surprise there. He wishes everyone well and he disappears vowing to give me his flight details as he'll be staying at my house during the DC Open. How lucky that I met him when I did. How lucky that we both had the weekends we did. Well they'll insist on calling it luck…
It is Saturday February 5 2011 and I just dispatched Caleb Durward in a feature match that came down to my fading a four-out river card to hold onto a tight third game. The match puts my record at 8-1 going into the final round. The standings are no saving grace either – the 1 and 2 are at 25 points and are guaranteed to be in with draws with the 3 and 4. The 5 6 7 8 9 and 10 are all within a tiebreaker point of each other from 61.8% to 60.8%. Two of us wouldn't make it if everyone drew with a possible third not making it if the higher-breakers 22-point player in the 11-12 pairing won. Of course
01/08/11 - SCG Standard Open Pairings by player for round 10
Andersen Christoffer J 24 4 Levin Drew 24
I got to the table knowing what I wanted to do. Chrandersen started “Look I can draw; I know you can't so we're going to ha—”
I cut him off. “I know what the standings say. One of us is definitely in with a draw. The degree to which I care about your success relative to mine is greater than the likelihood that I don't make Top 8 with a draw. I'm willing to draw here.” To explain my logic:
One of us was 100% in with a draw barring a huge catastrophe. By drawing we essentially agreed to place our respective fates in the hands of our previous opponents. But here's where the math comes into play. If I care about his success one-quarter as much as I care about my success I have to be 76% (or more) likely to make Top 8 with a draw in order for it to be a good idea for me as a person. Any less likelihood and I'm making a dumb and overly selfless decision. I understand that it's difficult to quantify one's own desire for friends to succeed but it's reasonable to come up with a rough estimate. In this case financial variables aside I cared about Chrandersen's success a whole lot – let's say 75% as much as mine. I thought I was about 40% to make Top 8 so a draw gains us 0.4 of a Top 8 slot in “life-equity” if you will. By contrast if we played it out we were guaranteed exactly 1.0 in Top 8 equity. Given my math we gained 1.4 in Top 8 equity with a draw.
The next hour was a huge sweat. I watched as my former opponents won their matches coming up to them afterward and hugging them and thanking them. Halfway through the round I was called to the judge table. Jared Sylva asked me “Hey did we get a deck from you?”
“No but I don't know if I'm going to be in the Top 8.”
“Well give it to us anyway.”
So I gave them my deck. Twenty minutes later with three matches outstanding I hear the judges calling me back to the table. Riki Hayashi is holding my deck and looking down at me.
“Your deck is fine but you're going to need to change these sleeves.”
“That's fine but I don't know if I'm going to make Top 8.”
“Well do it anyway.”
“Look here. If you make me unsleeve and resleeve this deck and then I get NINTH on BREAKERS I will probably go find a bridge and jump off of it. Do you understand why I might want to do that?”
“How about this? How about I promise to the second you tell me I'm in the Top 8 come back here and resleeve my deck. In exchange you guys promise not to slowroll me about whether or not I made Top 8.”
“Sure thing on the resleeving it later but no chance on the slowrolling thing.”
“Thanks so much/I hate you.”
So I go back to my friends and close my eyes. I was satisfied with my play and felt that I had made a good decision. Well mostly satisfied with my play…
It is round one of the ten-round Standard Open. My U/B opponent and I split the first two games. I played a turn 2 Khalni Heart Expedition with Primeval Titan Explore a land Thrun the Last Troll and a Green Sun's Zenith in my hand. He plays Everflowing Chalice on turn 2. I rip a nonland and play my land and Explore. It bricks. I pass. He plays a land and casts Jace the Mind Sculptor. He Brainstorms and passes. I peel my fourth land play Thrun and pass. He untaps draws and Brainstorms again. He plays a land and passes. I draw a land play it attack his Jace and Zenith for 4.
“Time to get Oracle of Mul Daya and BURY this guy.”
“Or we could get Lotus Cobra! If we ever peel a land we're good money to just slam Titan and go to town.”
“Nah let's get another Thrun and beat him down for EIGHT a turn! Three-turn clock!”
Look my internal monologue can get a little misleading at times. My opponent looked like he felt genuinely sorry for me in the following ten seconds.
“Uh it's legendary.”
“Yep.” (Casually bin both Thruns pass)
Well maybe genuinely sorry that my IQ is well below room temperature. Genuinely sorry that his tiebreakers are going to be shot to hell. Genuinely sorry that his opponent is literally mentally retarded and probably illiterate too. Probably not so sorry that my supposedly optimal line of play on turn four was “attack Wrath myself go.”
Lost that one. Skill game I tell ya.
I stumble away from the match dazed and confused. After talking with friends for a few minutes (and not telling the story obviously) Christian Valenti comes up to the group and exclaims to me “Buddy! I'm so sorry! I heard what happened! That sucks!”
I frantically tried to communicate to him that I did not want the reason for his sympathy to get around. In the middle of going to get my semaphore flags though Joe Bernal caught onto my anxiety and demanded to know what was going on. Since I knew how this would end (everyone hears the story anyway and daggers me relentlessly because it's hilarious) I decided to tell the group my story anyway. Predictable laughter and disbelief ensued.
Afterward I was moping around and whining to Sam Black. He looked at me and with his air of perpetual calm asked “Have you been so quick to forget the major lesson you learned at GP: Atlanta?”
“You know the one you learned after going 6-0 0-3 to miss Day 2. You came up and you told me…”
“Yeah yeah don't play a deck I'm not emotionally invested in. Listen Valakut is fine. I like it all right. It's not that…it's just I didn't really come here to play Standard.”
“Yeah but you're here now and you're playing Standard. You really only care about Legacy? How do you expect to get better?”
”It's not that I only care about Legacy; it's just that I'm not emotionally invested in this format at all.”
“Then why fly out here? Surely you're emotionally invested in the opportunity cost of the money you had to spend to fly here. If you want to be here play like it. If you don't why did you come?”
And in that moment it clicked. I could play the rest of the rounds hating myself for the mistake I made. Making the decision to stay tilted and not invested however would mean proving to myself that I was that bad player who legend-ruled his trump card in a very favorable position. It would mean letting my friends dagger me about the play for weeks to come. It would mean letting that play define my tournament.
Alternatively I could let that play be a funny story but one that was overshadowed by a much better story: the one where I won anyway…
I snap my head back up. Alex left for his gate a while ago and AJ and I are going through the security line. My bag gets pulled off of the X-ray conveyor belt for hand screening. I wearily watch the security guards hand me back my duffel bag with the 6.2-ounce tube of toothpaste in it and carry my backpack of Magic cards over to the screening area. I slip my laptop back into my duffel put my shoes back on and walk over to the screening area.
“Anything sharp or flammable in here?”
“Nope. Just a bunch of collectible cards.”
“Man they're going to be sooo excited to find the exaaact same things in my bag!” AJ smirked. The woman looked up forced a chuckle and started unpacking my bag. Two binders three deck boxes fifteen booster packs and one GP Massachusetts playmat. No not Boston. Fitchburg. You know the one with the two Akromas on it.
“All done here ya go.”
I throw my bags over my shoulder and start following AJ. I look out the airport windows. I realize that I hadn't seen sunlight in days. Being able to see the good ol' flaming star perked me up for some reason.
“God I ran sooo good this weekend.”
“Yeahhh you really did…”
It is Friday February 4 2011 and I am at Nick Becvar's house. We met in Atlanta through AJ and he invited Chrandersen Alex and me to his house for food and playtesting the night before the Open. I knew I was playing Valakut because it looked like a deck that would gain a lot from the rotation would have a very straightforward plan for winning and would require far less thought and careful deck construction than a Jace-based control deck would. I had gotten a list from Julian Booher on a private Facebook chat group called The Glub Club – so named of course because all of its members are complete fish. Julian and I met briefly in Kansas City but grew better acquainted through conversations in The Glub Club.
After my poor showing in Kansas City I resolved to play the exact 75 of a talented Standard player and Julian fit the bill well enough. At any rate he plays far more Magic Online than I do and had a list from someone who is definitely in the tank about Standard more than I am. I asked him for a Valakut list and he obliged me with a list telling me that Gerry had given it to him earlier that week. Well off to a good start.
That night at Nick's house I watched Ben Stark and Christian Valenti tune a Valakut list that looked very similar to Julian's. They fired ideas back and forth cutting cards and debating slots. I asked them if they were okay with me playing their eventual list and both assented. Unfortunately they then decided that this meant I should have input on the deck and began to quiz me on my feelings on the second Avenger of Zendikar/third Oracle of Mul Daya slot. I argued for Avenger; they agreed and I went back to observing the Valakut masters tweak the sideboard. I wrote down the 75-card concoction stuffed the paper into my backpack and wandered over to the other side of the room.
There was a Cube draft in full swing but I didn't want to bird or play Limited. I wasn't completely confident in my deck for the Legacy event yet and I wanted to get some test games in. Thankfully AJ was sitting around looking bored. He quickly jumped into a set of Goblins v. Natural Order. After three games we noticed a few things:
I was drawing Rhox War Monk well above expectation yet it was always just completely better than Knight of the Reliquary.
I never wanted to tap Knight.
Wasteland was a huge blank pretty much every time I drew it. Sitting on Knight and getting Wastelands was not a realistic line of play.
Armed with that knowledge I cut the Knights went up to four Rhox War Monks main and added two Qasali Pridemages cut the two Wastelands for one Forest and one Island cut the Path to Exile from my sideboard added the second and third Pithing Needle and vowed to figure out the fifteenth sideboard slot in the morning. Almost immediately the pre-board matchup looked as favorable as I wanted it to be. The War Monks would buy me time to find and cast Natural Order and then attack with Progenitus for the two turns I needed to kill them. The Pridemages weren't great in the matchup but they provided more exalted effects in the deck as well as those crucial extra two-drops for Counterbalance. Finally the blue card count rose by two with the addition of the War Monks leaving it at a much healthier nineteen for my Force of Wills. Of course without that test session who knows which round I would've been knocked out in…
I look down at my cell phone checking the time. 12:37 pm. It is Friday February 4. I am in Reagan National Airport waiting for my 2 pm flight to Atlanta whereupon I will wait for my 4:30 pm flight to Indianapolis. It will get it around 6 pm. I will meet Alex Bertoncini and Chrandersen at the baggage claim area and we will drive to Nick Becvar's house. Why am I flying to Indianapolis again?
Do I really love this game that much? Do I think I can end up in the black for the weekend given how much money I spent on these plane tickets? Or was it always just about the people and I would be going there if it was in Kalamazoo Michigan because seeing AJ and Alex and Chrandersen and Sam is worth paying $300 and not seeing sunlight for three days? Or do I have something to prove? Not only to myself but to others? When did this start…
It is December 24 2010 and I am walking into a deli in New York City. Upon hearing that I would be in the city for the holidays Ben Hayes invited me to a playtest session and dinner with the usual crew of New York players. Having lived there for eight months in 2008 I was all too happy to just be in New York with them again.
I walked in the door and looked around. No one. I was on time so nothing to worry about yet. I walked upstairs to the rows of empty tables slung my backpack down and pulled out my box of Legacy cards. I started pulling together my Columbus Counterbalance deck a reasonable starting point for the new format. I notice movement out of the corner of my eye and look up to see someone walk up to me. I vaguely recognize him but I've also never met him.
“Hi I'm Steve. Sadin. I think we're Facebook friends.”
“Sounds about right. I'm Drew.”
We sat down put together a Goblins deck and played some games. People trickled in eventually swelling our party to eight. We decided to go to Bon Chon for dinner.
We started walking from the deli to the Korean barbecue restaurant the group's members separating into different conversations. I made small talk with Steve. He asked me the first question:
“So where do you go to school?”
“I graduated in May but I went to a tiny little liberal arts college in western Massachusetts. I promise you've never heard of it.”
“Bard College at Simon's Rock. There's like 450 students total.”
“Yep heard of it.”
“I went to Sarah Lawrence; I know all the little schools like that.”
“Oh. Well cool. I know exactly one person who went to Sarah Lawrence. He was one of the three people I hung out with a lot at the summer camp I went to at Simon's Rock a few years before I actually went there for school. Aaron Edwards?”
“Freshman year roommate.”
Upon arriving at the restaurant we were informed that we'd be waiting for twenty minutes. I turned to Steve and started to make small talk.
“So I saw that you're the new editor of StarCityGames. Congrats.”
“Yeah it's pretty sweet.”
“Any chance you're looking for Legacy content?”
“Yeah actually I'd love some.”
“Anything you want me to write about?”
“Can you send me a piece on Time Spiral?”
“Definitely. When do you want it by?”
“How's next Tuesday sound?”
“Sounds pretty good…”
It is January 28 2011. I am sitting at work doing nothing of particular importance. An email pops up in my inbox:
I open a new tab on my browser and start looking for flights to Indianapolis. If I'm going to be writing for StarCityGames on a weekly basis the least I could do is show up to their tournaments…
So it goes.