It's Christmas, which is not especially important to me, but holidays are generally good times for reflection. More to the point, I spent the last week playing RTR Limited to prepare for Grand Prix Indianapolis, where I finished 16th. I'm pretty happy with that finish, but I don't think anyone's looking to hear much more about that format now that we're late enough into the season that previews for Gatecrash have started. With a Legacy Grand Prix in Denver coming up, I'd like to tell you about Legacy, but I've been playing one way in that format for the last year and have said what I have to say about Faithless Looting already.
What all this means is that it's time for me to reflect on 2012, while somehow working in enough lessons that this is worth reading and not just a Christmas letter from someone you don't know too well.
I think of my life as being relatively stagnant. In life, I tend to make progress rather than change. I keep doing the same things and get better at them, so my life improves, but the basic summary of what I'm doing stays the same. At the beginning of this year, Team SCG Black hadn't yet formed, and I was much less respected as a deckbuilder. I wasn't producing anywhere near as much content for StarCityGames.com. I was "a professional Magic player" and Magic was my primary source of income, but in the last year it really became my "profession"—a real job where I couldn't make more money by doing something else.
Oh yes, about that. People still often ask me if I have a job or what I do for a living. This is usually at a Magic tournament, so I often say, "This." In a conversation this past weekend, I realized that if you only count travel, writing, and playing Magic, I work around 70 hours a week. I legitimately don't have time for another real job, and any job I could get would come with a pay cut, which means that Magic no longer feels for me like a way to get by while being lazy and not having a job. I'm just doing the thing I'm best at, the thing I love the most, and I've made a career of it, which I'm pretty happy about.
In January, I finished 12th at Grand Prix Orlando playing Delver of Secrets and Champion of the Parish. It was my first time playing Delver, and I built the deck myself the week before the tournament to exploit what I saw as an underutilized synergy to give an aggressive deck another powerful one-drop. That tournament taught me a lot about how Delver decks play against each other, which set the foundation for me to eventually build the framework of the Spirit deck Team SCG Black played in Pro Tour Dark Ascension.
In game 1, I tried to be the aggressor. I had more power early since I had more and better one-mana creatures, but they had equipment, which could win the late game. Both of us had Vapor Snags for removal. Vapor Snag is "good" against Champion of the Parish because it resets his +1/+1 counters, but it's not as good as it might feel because you don't actually get ahead on mana and you're down a card. Because they were less aggressive, I could often save Vapor Snags for times when they tried to equip a creature, which would put me ahead on mana, so it was actually a bigger tempo swing.
In game 2, I usually sideboarded to be a more controlling deck. I'd bring in Ratchet Bomb to deal with Invisible Stalker and Runechanter's Pike (or Delver in a pinch), and I'd use card advantage generated by Doomed Traveler, Midnight Haunting, and Mortarpod to win the long game. Doomed Traveler was amazing for me in that tournament, but I still haven't found another time to take advantage of him in the same way.
In February, Team SCG Black was formed, and I finished 22nd in Pro Tour Dark Ascension with Spirits. It was an awesome trip. We spent a week in a house overlooking the ocean playing Magic every day, and it always felt like we were learning things. I got to know my teammates, many of whom I'd barely met before that, and everyone got along very well. As much as I loved that trip, I think it did a lot more than I realized at the time to put the ways that I've grown since into motion.
As for what I learned about Magic itself, I think I'd already learned most of the lessons about that deck before the tournament—it was mostly putting theories from Orlando into practice—but the big takeaway was to never give up in a Magic tournament. I started 0-3, and my fourth round opponent wasn't even trying; he'd already lost the tournament since it had started so poorly. I knew my deck was good, I knew other people were doing well with it, and I knew I understood it and could do well too. I was determined to try to do that, and I won my next six rounds before losing one and then won five more after that.
Jason Ford recently asked me if I play worse after I can no longer make Top 8 of a tournament. I said I don't and can't even relate to doing that. Jason is there to win the tournament and anything less than that doesn't matter to him. For me, I play in Grand Prix to accumulate Pro Points, and I never really expect to win. As long as there's a Pro Point I might earn, I'll play just as hard for that as I would for anything else.
Later in February, I played Andrew Cuneo's U/W Control deck to an 11th place finish in Grand Prix Baltimore. Andrew had been working on the deck in Honolulu, and I was impressed by how it played. People had started playing Corrosive Gale to beat the Spirit deck, so I switched to this and had a great time.
Andrew has always been a master of building control decks, and I think he understands them in a very different way than most players. For most players, control decks try to live through the early game and then play some trump card to end the game. In Andrew's world, decks that buy time with Mana Leak and Day of Judgment before playing a Sun Titan or Consecrated Sphinx are midrange decks. When Andrew isn't playing against an aggro deck, the early game is any time players are still only playing one spell per turn or the turns where people are still making land drops that allow them to cast spells they hadn't been able to cast the turn before. Those six mana trumps get countered or Wrathed the same way anything else does.
He explained to me that Mana Leak is bad in control decks because Mana Leak isn't good on turns 10-15 and those turns are often going to be important. Playing a deck of his against any other control deck is almost always an amazing feeling. The end game doesn't look that much bigger or more impressive, it's just that all the cards that get you there are chosen with those late turns in mind in a way that other players don't think about. The tradeoff against aggressive decks, when it exists, often isn't that big of a deal. He still has the important cards, so at most he's giving up a few percentage points. This is why I like his decks a lot and take him very seriously as a deckbuilder to watch.
March was a month full of disappointing finishes—making Day 2 but not earning more than a single Pro Point. In Grand Prix Indianapolis, I finished just out of the money with the same deck Tom Martell won the tournament with and discovered how awesome Lingering Souls is in Legacy, and in Grand Prix Nashville, I went 2-1 with a 55-card Draft deck to Top 64. Those were the highlights.
Why play 55 cards in a Draft deck?
It's not really a useful lesson anymore. It was very specific to triple Innistrad, but I had five Selhoff Occultists and several other ways to mill myself and a lot of way to take advantage of a fully stocked graveyard, so I simply played all my good cards. I actually lost a game that I might have won if I'd had a single extra card in my library.
I might have been able to build a different 40-card deck that was good, but the only way to play the specific strategy that I was trying to play was to play more cards than that. I knew the strategy would work.
At the end of March, I finally played the Zombie deck in Legacy, which I'd originally built for Grand Prix Indianapolis but chickened out of playing. I finished 11th at a StarCityGames.com Legacy Open and loved the deck.
April was an off month for Magic (which it will be again this year—I'm not sure why that is exactly), but May was the month of Pro Tour Barcelona and a few more ill-fated Grand Prix. Barcelona was another fun week of playing Magic with the best ever: my first time working with Kai Budde and another excellent success for a deck I built the framework for at the last minute.
As a team, we did very well with the Hexproof deck in Barcelona, and I personally went 7-3. Unfortunately, I 0-3'd my first draft, so at the end of the tournament I was left watching Gau and Jon play in the Top 8.
For Grand Prix Minneapolis, I tried brewing a control deck with Patrick Chapin at the last minute and learned not to do that again. I'm not sure exactly which part I need to avoid, but it's probably the part where I hastily throw some control cards together and play it without testing.
In June, I just missed making it on to the US team for the World Magic Cup with "Delverless Delver" or U/W Midrange. I finished in the Top 16 in Vancouver after squeaking into Day 2 at X-3 by 6-0ing the drafts, and I made the Top 8 in Atlanta with my Legacy Zombie deck.
I'm still not sure if it's right to play the weird decks that I played in June. I did well with Zombies, but at the same time, I told Gau not to play it. He played RUG Delver instead went on to win the tournament. The U/W Midrange deck did very well that weekend, but when I finally got around to playing regular Delver months later, I was very impressed. I think it was probably right to play U/W Midrange once, before people knew what I was doing, when I beat people because they thought my deck was doing something very different from what it was actually doing. But I don't think I should have played it again.
I think people underrate how much advantage you can gain from changing something about a deck just to be different. It sounds like you're trying to be too cute and popular decks do the things they do because those are the best things, but different things are often similarly powerful. If you can do something people don't expect, you can get a lot of free wins. The trick is that the change has to matter—it has to be something that will let you punish someone for thinking you were doing something different than what you're actually doing and be similarly powerful.
July and August were uneventful. In September, I brought my mom on a trip for Magic for the first time to Costa Rica and had an excellent time despite two major disappointments. The turtles that I'd been so excited to see weren't there—we'd missed them by a few days (which I only learned after we'd driven four or five hours to try to see them)—and I got a horrible Sealed pool and didn't make the second day of the Grand Prix. It was still a great trip. If you ever find yourself travelling for Magic regularly, I recommend looking for opportunities to bring other people with you and making a vacation of it every now and then. A lot of the cities Grand Prix are held in are pretty awesome.
Pro Tour Return to Ravnica was in October. I don't feel as good about my preparation for that tournament compared to the other Pro Tours in 2012, but I think that's largely because of the format. I really don't like Modern. I still haven't worked out the lesson there. I hope to figure out the best way for me to deal with Modern soon.
In November, I had moderately successful tournaments in Charleston and San Antonio, finishing 9th and 28th, but was completely overshadowed by the success of Reid and Gerry. I like Standard right now at least as much as I dislike Modern. I've had some success playing G/W, Bant, and R/B.
I played G/W at a time when I wanted to be proactive against the U/W Flash decks that weren't quite set up to deal with that kind of aggression, but the rise of Knight of Infamy and red removal made me move away from G/W. I played Bant when I thought it could beat the aggressive decks; it turned out to be a little slow against Rakdos. I eventually switched to Rakdos because it seemed to be the best deck in the format and played it at the StarCityGames.com Invitational in December.
Now that I'm at the end, this feels more like a tournament report than a reflection on lessons learned. I'm not sure how much of that is because they're still so recent that I don't know what I'll do with the experiences I had and what I might be able to refine into lessons as I continue playing.
The process of synthesizing information in Magic, figuring out what you've learned from various experiences and how to use it in the future, is something worth thinking about. I'm not sure if it would be useful for me to talk about how to do it in general or if it has to be more personal than that, but I hope that this article has demonstrated the kinds of lessons you should look to learn as you play in tournaments.
It's always people who reflect on what's happened in tournaments and where they could have done things differently, rather than finding excuses for why they lost, who improve most quickly. If you can isolate specific things you were doing right when you succeeded and find ways to do those things again in the future, you should learn even faster.
Thanks for reading,
@samuelhblack on Twitter
(I haven't done any streaming in quite a while, but this weekend I'll be streaming the Magic Online Streamer Championship on December 30th.)