This story begins late April, in the year of our Lord 2012. Pro Tour Avacyn Restored in Barcelona was fast approaching, just a couple weeks away, and my friend Steve Mann (hereafter referred to as "SMANN") updated his Facebook status with something to the effect of "I am so, so terrible at Magic…and that's why I'm not going to attend PT Barcelona."
At this point in time, I didn't know SMANN all that well, but I was certain that he could really play. The post wasn't exactly surprising (based on SMANN's oft-emo attitude), but it really did irritate me. To be honest, I thought it was an idle threat of sorts, probably just frustration after losing some Magic Online event.
But the more people responded to his post, the more I realized he was serious. I felt that I needed to step to the plate and take a swing to try to convince him that he shouldn't skip the first PT for which he'd qualified.* I thought I was dishing out tough love or what have you, but I suppose it was a little bit too tough, as SMANN literally unfriended me on Facebook. He did not attend PT Avacyn Restored.
But I had good reason to think my words would help! In fact, I'd been witness to a remarkably similar situation a few months earlier.** I guess this story really begins on January 12, 2012. I was chatting with SMANN on Magic Online about the upcoming Grand Prix in Lincoln, which I was intending to attend, when he told me he was losing too many matches and that there was no point for him to bother with GP Orlando even though it was just a short drive to the venue.
I spent 30 minutes putting things in cold perspective, and while harsh, I felt it was necessary. I knew how good SMANN was, and while he wasn't currently feeling it, if I could convince him of what he already knew, my time would be worthwhile. SMANN did change his mind and attended GP Orlando, where he made his first GP Top 8 and qualified for PT Avacyn Restored.
All it takes is a little push.
Alrighty, well, Pro Tour skipped, but SMANN wasted no time qualifying for the next, immediately winning a PTQ for PT Return to Ravnica (on Magic Online, I believe). This time he went, and long story short, he finished only 29th, not quite good enough for an invite to Pro Tour Gatecrash.
Daggers, sure, but that's okay because again he wasted no time and won the very next PTQ for Gatecrash. What a professional lucker!
Which brings me to my first Pro Tour. Oh, wait! There was a debacle at GP Chicago involving SMANN and borrowed cards and sending them through the mail…or something. Never mind, I forget. ;)
Early on in my preparation for PT Gatecrash, I contacted several pros whose games I respect, hoping to get on a good team to prepare. While I didn't end up teaming with those people, Ari Lax put me in touch with Joe Demestrio (aka Joe TheMaestro) of WoW TCG fame. This was also Joe's first Pro Tour, and we both had explicitly high hopes: namely, win the PT!
Since I live in Colorado and Joe lives in New York, testing was a bit of a difficulty, but we managed to do a bit of brewing and a bit of tuning and got a good number of games played. I would say that when the full spoiler was released was when work truly began. During the day we'd brew lists, most of them independently, get games in at night, and proceed with analysis, revisions, and conclusions.
Meanwhile, John Cuvelier (Gosu. on Magic Online) and I decided to room together in Montreal, and I was invited to a larger preparation group with Cuvi, Pat Cox, David Sharfman, Ali Aintrazi, and SMANN. Within this group, we mostly shared general ideas and had a great number of suggested rough draft lists between us from which we would independently test.
The majority of our group agreed it would be best to play an aggro-style deck, considering the metagame would be largely uncertain and having a proactive plan is always good under such circumstances (i.e., it's more difficult to tune a control deck to beat a field when you don't know the field).
So that's how we proceeded. I brewed many different Naya lists, Gruul lists, Selesnya lists, Boros, Rakdos, and Jund, and after playing games with all of them, I realized that no matter how different the builds were in their composition, they were all fundamentally the same deck. While we were testing a significant number of decks comprised of very different cards and colors, they were all either fast aggro decks, or midrange aggro decks. Since there was such a large number of high quality playable cards for aggro, it seemed like approximately 80% of the metagame would be fundamentally the "same" deck and that we somehow could exploit this metagame.
Initially, this led us in two directions. The first was the best-known aggro deck that trumped all the others: midrange Jund. Like a control deck, Jund could be tuned to beat whatever we expected in the metagame while still having the proactive plan of attack. The second was Esper Control, and this idea appealed to me the most because it was outside of the aggro box that would make up what I estimated to be 80% of the format.
But all these decks, card selection and tuning aside, were known quantities. There was less than two weeks until the Pro Tour, and I knew we weren't in the realm of format breaking. I was revisiting everything in the hope of finding some angle I'd missed when I came back to my B/R Zombies deck from GP San Antonio.
Falkenrath Aristocrat was one of the Top 5 cards in all of Standard during the time of that GP, and to my knowledge, the only reason that B/R Zombies fell out of favor was the rise of faster aggro decks like Mono-Red. And why was that? Well, Zombies was so good against control decks because of the value of Gravecrawler, Geralf's Messenger, and, of course, Aristocrat, but the problem is that Gravecrawler, Messenger, and Diregraf Ghoul are poor at interacting with aggro.
One of my favorite synergies in the Zombies deck was between Falkenrath Aristocrat and Knight of Infamy. The exalted was great, and the additional +1/+1 counter for having the pseudo-ability/value-add "Humanity" won me several games, though it didn't come up very often. With the advent of unbelievable mana in Gatecrash Standard, I looked to make W/R/G work, where I could maximize the Humans next to Falkenrath Aristocrat.
That said, my initial list was quite terrible:
- 4 Boros Elite
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 4 Falkenrath Aristocrat
- 4 Hellrider
- 4 Knight of Glory
- 4 Knight of Infamy
- 3 Thundermaw Hellkite
I didn't even have Boros Reckoner in my first build!!
While it was "terrible," I could definitely see the promise from the games I played. This deck had almost everything I wanted—all the tools that would help me exploit control decks and still have game against aggro. And it would be off the radar, have a surprise factor to make my opponents play worse and no tedious mirror matches. Of course, it was a rough rough draft and looked very different than other decks up to that point, so no one cared too much for it other than me. However, I knew I was definitely on the right track.
One week before leaving for Montreal, heading into arguably the most important week of preparation, I finally had some direction. But by Monday at 2 PM, I felt it coming on at work, and by the time I got home, I was getting sicker by the minute with flu symptoms. I woke up in the night with a full sweat, significant fever, and chills all over. I was burning up and freezing at the same time. There was zero chance I could even drive to work. But after my fever broke around 9 AM, I was able to get some work done from home.
It was during this time that the agonizing stomach pain began. When I stayed absolutely still, there was a minuscule chance it would alleviate the pain, and I tried for it at every opportunity. It felt, I imagine, like someone was twisting my guts around with a pitchfork. A literal "please shoot me" level of pain. Practically the only time I wasn't writhing was while I slept; testing for a Magic Pro Tour was not even remotely within the realm of possibility. I went in to work Wednesday, only to leave after a couple hours as the pain intensified. I hoped for a Thursday recovery, but the pain absolutely would not subside, and again I found myself leaving work, this time headed to an acute care clinic.
Initially, the doctor thought I had appendicitis! Luckily I did not, but the traditional pain medicine they pumped me with didn't help my gut. Eventually, they gave me a medicine prescribed for Crohn's disease, and that immediately went to work. I felt a glimmer of hope. It was Thursday evening, and finally it felt like I'd recover in time for my Monday flight. The weekend was spent purely on recovery—no thoughts of Magic—and by Saturday I could almost eat normal food again.
By early Monday morning when I left for the airport, I was mended and ready to be in Montreal making final deck decisions and drafting. And by Monday night, I was finally there. Cuvi was the only member who'd be arriving before essentially Thursday, so we'd have a couple extra days of prep. Unfortunately, the extra time was not particularly productive in regards to Standard, but we did get drafts in on Magic Online and I was feeling very comfortable with Gatecrash Draft.
At the most recent SCG Standard Open, Billy Postlethwait had won the event with Jund, so it was a litmus test for any deck we introduced as a possibility at that point. Billy's win was pretty much all Pat Cox needed to lock in his Jund selection, completing the format trifecta of Modern, Legacy, and Standard. Also, Pat locked this in:
At this point, Joe Demestrio was set on Jund and truly loved the deck, while Cuvi was up in the air. Sharfman was on a plane from Germany to Montreal, so he was literally up in the air. After talking with Ali on Thursday afternoon, I was leaning towards Esper Control. My goal was to choose a deck by Wednesday night, and while I didn't accomplish that, here's what I'd decided: in this format, we should be playing either Supreme Verdict or Boros Reckoner (or both).
Then SMANN showed up to save the day.
SMANN was pretty much the only person who saw the potential in my W/R/B Aggro deck, and at dinner Thursday I was already making significant card changes in my head. I got it to a place where I knew I'd be happy to play it, so I was heavily leaning towards it. At this point, the list had been through roughly five major revisions, utilizing cards like Obzedat, Orzhov Charm, Silverblade Paladin, Lingering Souls, Sorin, Zealous Conscripts, some without Champion of the Parish, Thundermaw Hellkite, and with many different combinations of removal in the maindeck. During the course of dinner on Thursday, I changed about sixteen cards from the previous build and ended up with "Exalted: The (Boros) Reckoning":
- 4 Boros Reckoner
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 4 Falkenrath Aristocrat
- 2 Hellrider
- 4 Knight of Glory
- 4 Knight of Infamy
- 3 Thundermaw Hellkite
- 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
SMANN's not picky but had shown up with a mostly red deck that was very underpowered, and since I had so many cards at my disposal, there was no way I'd let him play it. We tested games of my W/R/B Humans versus Esper Control, and W/R/B felt favored. Then we tweaked Jund to the metagame we expected and played that against W/R/B. W/R/B also felt favored there, and SMANN enjoyed the Jund deck much more than Esper, so we finished out the Jund deck and settled on this list:
In just a few hours of theorycrafting and spot-checking during crunch time, we'd been incredibly productive. So at 2:00 AM the night before the Pro Tour, there was just one minor detail remaining: twelve more cards for my sideboard. SMANN was almost asleep as soon as we walked in the hotel room, but I needed his help, so quickly I laid out every possible sideboard card for my deck covering his side of the bed to prevent him from sleeping until the task was done. (I admit it was devious. :-)). That's when he suggested the MVP of my sideboard: Nearheath Pilgrim. This card won me several matches, and I regularly wished I had it maindeck over Knight of Glory.
"Yeah, I guess Pilgrim's aight."
An Inauspicious Start
I started my first Pro Tour with a game win but a match loss. Then another game one win and another match loss. I'll be honest, I was quite shocked considering I knew that with tight play the deck I drafted could certainly yield me a 3-0. I already had experienced unusually poor luck (i.e., kept a two-lander, both colors with three castable two-drops on the draw, and lost the game without hitting a third land), then against Christian Calcano in round 3, I lost game 1. I swear I had a huge grin on my face. For some reason, I found the loss funny. I'm a big believer in mental toughness, and I wasn't particularly phased. I tend to not allow the things I can't control affect me within a game. This match would have some outcome in the end, and I could either have my head in it or not. I'd control what I could, and I bounced back to take the match.
I was excited for Constructed! Round 4 on the play game 1, my opponent played Avacyn's Pilgrim into Farseek into a Thundermaw Hellkite that went the entire distance via his Restoration Angel protection plan for my freshly drawn Dreadbore. Kinda upsetting, I suppose. I easily grabbed game 2 but again lost the match. I started out 0-2 and was sitting at 1-3. Then, between rounds, I actually began to tilt. I complained to people, which was senseless, useless, and surely unappreciated. I found a way to calm myself down and had a great feeling about going forward. After refocusing and at a record of 1-3 waiting to battle, I tweeted something to the effect "I'm a Zen Mother******* Master"
From then on I was (mostly) on point, dodged the run-bads, and won four in a row to finish the day 5-3. I was ready to win the Pro Tour.
"Allow me to demonstrate mental toughness."
Can't Stop Won't Stop
Most of the team made Day 2, and SMANN and I didn't waste any time getting off to a perfect start, each 3-0ing our draft. At 8-3, it was back to my fun deck and Standard. I was of supreme confidence, and making Top 8 seemed like purely a matter of avoiding variance. Unfortunately, I couldn't keep up the run-averages and mulliganed to five both games of round 12. My game 1 mull to five was actually so good that if I was on the play I would have won. Pretty sick.
Again, I don't get too discouraged by things I can't control, and meanwhile SMANN was tearing it up, looking to be in very good position. He lost a close one where Owen Turtenwald drew a Dreadbore to deal with a big Olivia just in time to save himself. And then in the penultimate round, he lost again. Things were now looking grim, but we knew that if SMANN won the last round and Roberto Gonzales (aka #TeamBowTie) also won, it would be a coin flip as to who would make it in eighth.
While I was actively disappointed to be at a lower table, I fought back hard to win games 2 and 3 of round 16 against an Esper Control player, which at least would put me in the money. I ran over to find out that SMANN had won his round, and it was now very possible he'd make Top 8.
It was all on Roberto, and we were cheering him on (only to hope he would then lose a tiebreaker coin flip afterward :/). And #TeamBowTie got there. I must say, Roberto is one of the nicest guys and has incredible sportsmanship. Huge props to him on a stellar performance!
Waiting for the Top 8 announcement was possibly the most stressful scenario I've ever experienced at a Magic tournament. We were all pulling for SMANN so hard that the tension was practically unbearable—more on this very soon! But eventually it came:
"And in eighth place… … … … … Stephen Mann."
The Ecstasy and The Agony
We were all whooping and hollering so hard it was crazy. I lost my mind. Seriously, I couldn't think. And I was starting to feel very bad physically from all the over-excitement.
It's apparent now in retrospect that we should have immediately headed back to the hotel to begin testing the matchups for SMANN and simply had food delivered. This is exactly the sort of thing I would usually be right on top of—making sure to focus on what matters most in the moment. But I was gone in my head.
I was on autopilot, just following everyone, and apparently we were heading to a sit down restaurant. It was brutally cold, and with each step I was in more distress. My chest was tight, my breathing was labored, and the area of my heart was actively hurting. Now, this wasn't exactly new to me—I suffer from panic attacks, and I was pretty sure that's what I had going on. But panic attacks are devastating and deceptive—they make you feel you are literally going to drop dead and that you need help, even when you've had them before. And after we walked about a quarter mile in the freezing cold, I was definitely thinking, "What if I'm having a heart attack for real?"
We waited awhile for a table, and the whole time I was just trying to calm myself down. I took a Xanax when we got seated (which I probably should have taken sooner), but it didn't seem to do anything and then my sense of taste was all messed up. I was just feeling worse and worse when I decisively stood up from the table and headed for a cab to take me to a hospital. Long story longer, my blood pressure was sky high, I was fortunately not having a heart attack, and Canadian ERs are an absolute farce.
Impending Top 8
After my ordeal, I got back to the hotel very late and SMANN was still up by himself while everyone else was sleeping and/or gone. He hadn't really gotten much practice for the Top 8 because of how long the dinner took. I still feel terrible about this series of events on several levels, not having my wits about me to prevent the restaurant scenario and maximize preparation or to personally help strategize and test. Both those failures stemmed from my general poor health.
SMANN unfortunately lost in four games to Ben Stark playing Esper Control while I was unconscious and completely wiped out from the series of events the night before.
All In All
While it's never good to end a tournament with a loss, overall our group did well, and it's hard to be too disappointed. I finished in the Top75, Pat Cox's Beard in the Top 50, Joe TheMaestro in the Top 25, and SMANN in the Top 8. I learned many subtle but valuable lessons that I'll carry with me and hopefully put to good use very soon. :)
Grats to Gerry Thompson(knew it), Owen Turtenwald, Melissa DeTora, Eric Froehlich, Joel Larsson, Steve Mann(lucker!), Ben Stark, and Tom Martell on a great Pro Tour!
And also props to Wizards of the Coast for doing an amazing job with their sponsor's invitations!
@thePratser on Twitter
* SMANN actually qualified for his first PT when he was like five years old but barely knew how to play Magic back then. Barcelona was the first PT he qualified for since he'd become "good" at Magic.***
** What I didn't realize when dishing out the harsh advice about Barcelona was that it was too late for SMANN to get an airplane ticket and therefore attending was truly off the table. Since nothing could be done about it, I was being more-or-less unknowingly mean.
*** Yeah, I'm exaggerating about his age.