As the plane hits the runway, I find myself startled awake. I quickly de-board and begin navigating through the Denver airport en route to my connection flight, stopping only to briefly consider purchasing a Tim Tebow jersey for no reason but to send it up in flames. I notice a familiar buzz coming from my pocket and check its contents only to find a text message from the ever-lovable Matty Gemme waiting for me. I hit the “Open Text” button and find myself met with a simple but bottomless prompt:
“Tell me about Austin.”
At this point, most of you have probably forgotten who I am, and I certainly don't blame you. My 2011 year finished quietly, with me barely missing the money at PT Philly and my personal highlight of Worlds being my adventures at the Exploratorium in San Francisco with Ben Hayes. I was pretty disappointed with myself, and given the new OP changes, all but resigned my fate to playing a few PTs this year and then hanging it up for good.
However, a late night meal of pancakes and hot chocolate at IHOP with Matt Costa got my head back in the game, and I became determined to put my name up in lights at least one more time. We discussed the possibility of stringing together a trip for GP Austin and Orlando, as both took place before we had to return to our respective colleges. With Ben Friedman recruited as well, we began setting these plans in motion, and I found myself reenergized.
As I hadn't picked up so much as a single card since Worlds, I began the process of retuning my game over the internet. With a little help from Jarvis Yu, I was able to take the Aceman approach to preparing for the Grand Prix. I began double queuing and talking daily with Bryan Gottlieb about decks for Standard and Modern. I was running events in Masques Block Draft, Pauper, and 100-Card Singleton, any format I could get my hands on—except for Innistrad Limited.
I had done plenty of drafts in preparation for Worlds, largely under the tutelage of Tim Aten, and frankly, that wasn't what I needed. I knew the archetypes and their respective pick orders, and I have a reasonable conceptual grasp for the mechanics of Limited (despite what most would like you to believe about me). However, what I found by playing all these random and unfamiliar formats was a refreshed approach to the game that came with a new level of focus and clarity. I learned to better anticipate my opponent's sideboarding, deduce their deck's contents and capabilities, and play around cards that I didn't even know existed prior.
With my heightened mental mindset, I boarded a plane with Matt Costa on Friday morning bound for Austin. After meeting up with Greg Jolin and hopping in a cab, we checked into our hotel where we were greeted with complimentary fresh cookies. Naturally, they had nuts in them (which I'm deathly allergic to), so it's as if the whole thing never happened—but even worse because everyone else enjoyed them. Hmph.
After some minor debate and a much needed change of attire, we headed on over to the site to register. We briefly debated the merits of the sleep-in special, but being indecisive individuals, we left it up to a coin flip. Heads meant we would be there for the 9 AM start, and after also declining to compete in a team draft, I wasn't spewing all of my money at a Magic tournament for the first time in recent memory.
As one of our roommates, Matt Ferrando, would not be joining us until later that evening, I had volunteered to register him. After turning in my own slip and release form, I attempted to do so for my roommate as well. The registration slip was accepted but not the release form, as I was told that I was “clearly not Matt Ferrando” and that I couldn't sign off for him. I found this all a little strange, as I wasn't ID'd for the first form I turned in, and I'm not really sure if I look any more like a Jason Ford than a Matt Ferrando…
After hunting around the room for a few people that I wanted to see, our trio headed out in search of dinner. We walked down Sixth Street, but that's mostly full of bars unsuitable for our group of two children and one Old Fogey. Walking further down the street, I saw a cop idly talking to some homeless people, so I decided to see if he had any suggestions. He stumbled over the question for a few seconds before blurting out the name of some restaurant and pointing in its general direction. Given that we never found the place and the internet claims no knowledge of its existence, I can only reasonably conclude that the cop was in fact a homeless man in disguise and hadn't actually ever eaten anywhere in the city.
Desperate, I punched the word “Food” into the address line of my phone's GPS. It directed us to Stubb's, which is conveniently one of the best BBQ places to hit up in the local area. After stuffing our faces (which I graciously paid for), we headed back to our hotel to meet up with Ben Friedman.
With little motivation to move for the rest of the night, we decided to hop in a MODO draft. Unfortunately, the internet was not working, so we called down to the front desk to resolve the issue. After I went through all the obvious steps with the lady who answered my call, I was transferred to tech support.
The man on the other line introduced himself as Kirk and began inquiring about some absurdities, such as what internet browser and version of Windows I was using. I'm certainly no computer expert, but I know well enough that these things have nothing to do with whether or not I should be able to connect to the internet in the first place. After some debate, I figured my best option was to just hang up the phone and let the problem persist.
However, this was not enough to outsmart Kirk, who quickly *67'd us right back. After playing hot potato with the ringing phone, an elated Ben Friedman answered and began what I can only describe as a delightful conversation with Kirk. The phone call lasted over 20 minutes, with them discussing everything from shampoo products to holding hands. In the end, our internet was still broken, but Ben did leave Kirk with his cell phone number just in case he felt something special between the two of them.
Kirk did indeed call back later that evening, but our internet remained busted all weekend.
With only an unimportant college bowl game on TV, we decided to go next door to Denny's so that Ben could grab dinner. We were greeted by a particularly grungy looking waiter, sporting a pony tail and orange Texas t-shirt to go with a brain clearly aided by some foreign substances. He helped make the meal quite enjoyable, allowing me to order off the kid's menu without any questioning and dropping things left and right. He even insisted that I order the pancakes “without cheese.” We decided that this man must also be a “Kirk.”
After returning to the hotel, we quickly settled in and all fell asleep shortly after Matt Ferrando's arrival.
After the usual shower routine, we headed off to the site. I had forgotten that Ben Friedman wasn't registered, so we had to make something of a sprint for the last few blocks but managed to get there in time.
The pool I received was nothing special, featuring three rare lands that made my heart sink the minute my eyes glanced across the registration sheet I was handed. Even if its contents weren't lying in the bottom of a trash barrel somewhere, I wouldn't list it all out for you. I built something that resembled your average G/W draft deck with a splash for Spider Spawning and Falkenrath Noble (neither of which I ever cast) after sideboard with recommendations from Limited experts Matt Costa and Sam Black.
After registering our decks, we made our way over to IHOP for breakfast where we were again greeted by a surprisingly jolly waiter. Given her zealous attitude and general awesomeness, we quickly dubbed her “Kirket.” I tried ordering a hot chocolate, but she knew that wasn't good enough and wisely upgraded me to one with caramel added to it. I was in Heaven, and she was my goddess.
Or something like that.
Returning to the site with a significant amount of downtime still to burn, I recruited Christian Calcano to come explore the nearby farmer's market with me. It ended up being something of a bust, as we arrived within the last hour when most vendors were either closing up or sold out. Despite this, it gave me a good opportunity to catch up on the last month or so of events with him (though it's all posted on Facebook anyhow) and do some walking outdoors in the nice southern weather.
The details of my games itself are largely forgettable and not worth mentioning. After my three byes, I faced two opponents who gave me the most curious look when I announced that I would draw first, then an opponent who chose to play first, before I was finally destroyed by Donnie Peck. After squeaking out a close one against Clayton Shafer, I played about as poorly as possible to defeat the colorful Ryan Benito. I felt pretty good to be exiting the building with an 8-1 record considering my previous struggles with Limited and felt a renewed sense of confidence in my gameplay.
We settled in for dinner at Serrano's, a Tex-Mex joint not far from Stubb's. We made a huge punt, deciding to sit inside upon the insistence of one of our group members and the featured Saints-Lions game on television that was in a near deadlock. Sure enough, Drew Brees quickly picked apart Detroit's secondary, breaking the game open, and after a Stafford interception, we felt real dumb about our decision. However, with a dish that may claim the title for the best Mexican food I've ever eaten and Ben Friedman covering the check, I left a happy camper.
Traveling down the lively Red River Road en route to our hotel, we passed by a few clubs and restaurants with live music acts. Exiting one was a man dressed in something resembling a trench coat and carrying a guitar. As he followed behind us, he began whispering in our ears, with the only thing that I could make out being “watch out for those demons behind you.” Naturally, he eventually peeled off to drop his guitar in his quaint Volkswagen Beetle.
Returning to the hotel, we all found ourselves lying under the covers pretty quickly with Scrubs on the television. Lying in bed and wrapped in each other's arms, Elliot asked JD what he was thinking about. He said “just you,” but we all know that's a lie. Some discussion of the wonderfulness of cuddling ensued, with Matt Costa left wondering if he would be more attractive to girls if only they knew of his aptitude for said activity. Some questions may never be answered, but cuddling is unquestionably incredible.
With three of five qualified for Day Two, our room had another early start. We opted for a cab this time, getting dropped off to rebuy at IHOP with Kirket. She complimented us on our good manners and wished us the best of luck for the day.
I found myself in the second pod for the first draft, featuring PT Top 8ers Sam Black and Michael Jacob, GP San Diego champion Shahar Shenhar, and MOCS Champion Reid Duke. I found an Olivia Voldaren staring back at me in the first pack and swiftly settled into U/B. I quickly picked apart a R/W deck, then Sam Black with B/W, and finally G/B Werewolves en route to a pod sweep. I even daringly picked a foil Hinterland Harbor second in pack two (it was empty, I PROMISE), so alongside Olivia, my lunch was paid for.
Inevitably, the texts and Facebook posts began pouring in. Whispers of a repeat performance to start the season began seeping through, despite the fact that I was still at least a win and a draw from clinching a Top 8 slot. Tim Aten and Matt Costa helped keep me grounded during this time, and I resolved to keep a sharp focus heading into the second draft.
With SneakyHomunculus (Austin Bursavich) seated to my right and knowing his strong preference for blue, I settled into G/W after starting the draft with a Galvanic Juggernaut and receiving a fifth pick Tree of Redemption. Matt Costa and I had previously discussed our distaste for the G/W archetype, as much like aggro decks in Constructed, you can always beat them if you want to. It's also been extremely popular since the start of this Limited format, so everyone knows the deck's capabilities and how to play against it / how to value specific cards properly. Despite this, that's what was open to me, so I moved in and finished with a slightly above average deck.
Round 13 pitted me against David Saylor, who at this point I can only describe as one of the most unpleasant Magic players out there. The match started on good enough terms, with some basic back and forth conversation before the gaming began. He showed himself to be G/W as well, with me handing him a quick defeat in game one as he flooded out before getting smashed by a Travel Preparations nut draw in the second.
Game three was where everything went wrong, where David went from normal Magic player to raging psychopath. During game three I found myself slightly behind on board but with an active Tree of Redemption. He made an attack with some evasive creatures and quickly changed my life total, while I told him to hold on (as I had to decide if I would like to use the Tree first). He snapped back at me, insisting that “there's no reason to have an attitude” and that “there's no need to get upset just because you're in a terrible spot.”
A nearby judge informed us that we both needed to calm down, to which I nodded and simply remained silent. My opponent took the exact opposite route, screaming loudly that he was in fact calm and that I was acting out of line. At that point, the judge essentially told Saylor that he needed to stop, but his mouth decided to keep running. The judge then issued a sportsmanship warning, to which Saylor promptly lost it and began demanding for a different judge to come over. The table judge got up, causing the kid sitting next to me to tell Saylor that he should probably just shut up for his own sake. The Head Judge ended up coming over, and after a few more random spurts from Saylor, play ensued. I lost shortly thereafter, but apparently that wasn't good enough, as Saylor chased after the Head Judge to complain about whatever had happened.
The results aside, this was easily the most miserable match of Magic that I have ever sat through in my entire life. Maybe that's this man's plan, to essentially force his opponent to not want to be there anymore in an attempt to tilt them...but is it really worth it? Dark Confidant tells us “Greatness, at any cost,” but the Disney Channel classic Brink! taught me that “You are defined by the company you keep and how well you keep it.”
I know where I stand.
In the next match, I lost in three to Craig Edwards and his B/W deck. In the decider, I failed to realize where the game was headed on turn two and cost myself the match with poor decision making on that one turn.
While I am the first to admit that my technical play is far from stellar, I always believed my strongest asset to be that I had a good vision for the game and was able to hone in on what mattered in a give match. This skill set failed to shine through in this instance, and I was left both full of doubt in myself and out of Top 8 range.
To say that I was crushed during that moment would be a stretch, but I was incredibly disappointed in myself. I felt that I had played some of my best Magic in a long time during the first draft and compiled a strong deck in the second only for everything to fall apart so quickly. In many ways, this is the unfortunate reality of Magic tournaments, where you are rarely afforded more than a loss or two throughout grueling days where you find yourself on edge at almost every single moment.
Before my final match, I did some math with Reid Duke and realized that a draw would lock me for Top 32, whereas a win would place me in the Top 16 and a loss in Top 64. With a $300 gap between 32nd and 33rd and Pro Points nearly irrelevant to me at this point, I convinced myself that offering a draw was the so-called “right” decision. The reality, however, was that I was incapable of suffering through another loss that day. I'm sure that sounds overly dramatic, but the thought of falling down the standings even further would be too much to endure.
A quick aside about the updated Grand Prix prizes, for those who have not noticed. Top 16 awards you $600 and 3 pro points; Top 32 $500 and 2; and Top 64 $200 and 1. This system is disastrous because of how ridiculous the final round of the tournament becomes. At least before, there were invitations to the Top 16 that people needed to fight for. Now however, the gap is so small for the 24 slots following the Top 8 that you are almost always better off drawing. Any situation that incentivizes you to not play Magic is not a good one, and as a fan of the game, I really hope that this is amended.
The final round included another dagger, as I found myself watching Matt Ferrando lose playing for top eight. While my situation sucked enough, I would do almost anything to have a friend like Matt get in and hopefully find himself on the Tour. Unfortunately, it was nobody's day.
After the final standings were put up, we headed back to Stubb's for a quiet dinner. As if things weren't bad enough, I quickly saw Facebook flooded with status updates regarding Tim Tebow, and well, that just is.
A few plates of meat and another signed dinner check later, we began marching back to the hotel. We ran a couple of MODO drafts with Ferrando exhibiting his prowess in the U/G Dredge archetype before we decided to return to IHOP for dessert. Unable to see myself paying for a third meal on the weekend, I ordered a grilled cheese with my sundae to recoup some value. Realizing that I would need ketchup for my French fries later in the night, I grabbed an entire bottle and quietly stuffed it inside my to-go container as we began our exit.
At the door, we were greeted by newly crowned champion and Hall of Famer Raphael Levy and his crew of Frenchies. After inquiring about our plans to get to the airport and coordinating a cab ride with us for the morning, we began our exit. However, I couldn't pass up a good opportunity to make a fool of myself and flashed one of the Frenchies the ketchup bottle hiding inside of my container, receiving only some gawking and a bewildered look in return.
Sorry for making all Americans look stupid.
With early flights for the majority of our crew, three of us and Raph piled into a cab at 5:30 AM. I spent about an hour at the airport talking to Matt Costa, catching up on life before wishing him good luck in Orlando. I will not be joining him this weekend, as I have school obligations, but expect big things from this kid (who quietly already has two GP Top 8s in the last year to his name).
It's tough to say what Magic holds for me in the near future. I'm sitting on an almost irrelevant eight points currently and likely will not be able to attend PT Barcelona due to finals. I'll try to my best to make it to any convenient GPs, but priorities are starting to build up in other areas of my life. That said, this weekend was the first time that I really felt I was enjoying the game in a long time, and that is a massive step in the right direction for myself.
Tournaments remain an interesting fixture of my life, and I hope that they won't be disappearing from my schedule anytime soon. They give me an opportunity to travel and see friends I wouldn't, exercise my brain and express my creativity on a platform otherwise available, and compete at the highest level when I am all but washed up in every other facet of life. Lest we forget all that this wonderful game has brought us.
Just as I quickly went from first to irrelevant on the weekend, I found myself eating out at some of Texas's finest restaurants only to now return to my normal college life where I am rationing out my ramen packages for the week.
As Joe Pennachio and Pete Ingram put it, “The swings are just unreal.”