I am typically fairly level headed when it comes to adversity. I might get frustrated, I might be annoyed, I might even get mad, but I usually don't freak out.
On the Tuesday before the Pro Tour, I was sitting in a room dressed in a suit and tie with Gerry Thompson and Glenn Jones. I was clipping my microphone onto my suit. I was clearing my throat. I was saying "Obzedat. Obzedat. Who's your daddy? Obzedaddy" over and over again to myself in preparation for the kinds of things I anticipated myself saying on the Above The Curve we were about to start filming.
Then I found out my passport application was denied. Shut down. Rejected. Dead in the water.
"Dear Mr. Braun-Duin,
Thank you for your recent passport application.
The photograph you submitted cannot be used because Passport Services received your photograph in damaged condition . . . "
I started freaking out.
I ran out of the room. I ran out of the building. I was running around in the parking lot of the Star City Game Center in a suit and tie trying to figure out just how screwed I was. My brain was working overtime trying to decipher who I hated more: myself or the person who denied my passport application. It was a pretty tough choice, but I eventually settled firmly on myself. "I'm such an idiot."
Why? Why couldn't I just be a normal person and apply for my passport ahead of time? Why couldn't I just have sent in my application when I won a PTQ months ago. Why?!
I knew the answer. It's embarrassing to admit, but I struggle hard in dealing with simple things that are trivial for most people. I've spent hundreds of dollars in traffic tickets because I can't motivate myself to get my car inspected. I've had months and months' worth of checks from a job sitting in my room because I can't motivate myself to go to the bank. It would take my account being empty before I finally reached the breaking point to deposit them. I dropped out of college because I couldn't motivate myself to go to class. It's a miracle I passed as many classes as I did with my attendance rates.
It takes ten minutes to go to the bank. It doesn't make sense to struggle with, I know, but if I actually understood why it was so hard for me to do it, I'm sure I'd be much further along in life than I am now. Granted, I am quite happy with where I'm at right now, but I know my family and friends had a lot higher expectations for me when I graduated high school valedictorian almost ten years ago.
I can dedicate hours and hours to things I care about, but it's a struggle to spend fifteen minutes doing something that I don't. I spent hours testing for this Pro Tour. I helped organize drafts. I tried a ton of different decks. I experimented with a lot of different cards. I was going to succeed. I was motivated.
Yet I couldn't motivate myself to get my passport. "I'll do it next week" I said to myself over and over again. I never did. As the time dragged on, it slipped from my memory. It wasn't until the "oh crap" moment that came a few weeks before the Pro Tour that I realized I was in trouble and needed to take action immediately.
Thankfully, I actually did. In those moments in the parking lot of the Star City Game Center, I realized that it still wasn't enough. " . . . Passport Services received your photograph in damaged condition."
I knew it wasn't true. I sent those photographs in perfect condition inside of a protective sleeve. There was no way they were damaged. I was mad. I did everything right. It didn't matter. I couldn't change the situation no matter how hard I willed it.
I took a deep breath. I called the company that was expediting my passport for me. This was my fourth time calling them. The other three times I spoke with uninterested customer service representatives who were rude, dismissive, and told me they would call me back. They never did. I was growing worried that this company was actually just a scam.
This time was different. The person I spoke with was immensely helpful and was willing to work with me even though I was on the verge of hyperventilating. She assured me that if I sent in new pictures immediately that she could get my passport to me by Thursday morning. "That's too late." My flights were set to leave on Wednesday afternoon. She told me again and again that Thursday morning was the earliest. "It's too late . . . what do you mean they were damaged? It's too late." I was in panic mode. Thursday morning. That's the best they could do.
I rushed back into the Star City Game Center, had one of the Above The Curve directors, Jonathan Choi, take new pictures of me, and sent them in. She informed me that they were good and that my application would be resubmitted the following day.
I finished filming Above The Curve. I walked back to my desk and finished the workday. I tried to think clearly, but I couldn't. All I could think about was how dumb I was. All I could think was "how am I going to explain to all the people who wished me luck that I am no longer going because of my own stupidity?"
This was my chance, and I blew it. I was given an opportunity, and I wasted it. Story of my life. I don't handle failure very well. My natural response is to go into shutdown mode. My natural response is to give up.
But the more and more I dwelled on the predicament I was in, the more and more I rejected the idea that I couldn't go to Dublin. I wasn't going to give up that easy. Not this time. I resolved that I was going to do whatever it took to get to Dublin. If I had a chance to get there, I was going to take that chance.
By my calculations, I had exactly one chance.
My second try at a passport had to be successful. The expediting company had to do it all right, and a disgruntled government employee in an office in the back of a passport agency during the midst of a government shutdown had to agree. That passport then had to be shipped overnight to me. I had to have it in hand on Thursday morning. I had to get all my flights rescheduled. Those flights had to still arrive in Dublin in time to get to the Pro Tour. I had to get Wizards of the Coast to allow me to play in their Pro Tour without being on site to register on time. Easy game, right?
If that all came together, then I could play in the Pro Tour. It's been said that everyone has a "one time" where they can wish for something to go perfectly right "just that once" and have it actually happen for them.
Unfortunately, I used my one time a year ago in a two-man queue on Magic Online. I miracled that Bonfire and earned my prize: a fresh pack of M13. How could I possibly know that I'd need it more now? It seemed so right at the time.
I did my part.
I contacted WotC and explained my plight. I was hoping that they would have some advice or suggestions for me. I was actually blown away by the responses I received. They rescheduled all my flights for me to leave on Thursday. As long as I submitted my decklist ahead of time, they would allow me to play in the Pro Tour if I arrived before it started on Friday. They helped me far beyond what I ever imagined.
Suddenly, the long shot didn't seem quite so long.
I woke up early on Thursday morning. I walked out to sit on the couch by the door so I could hear the FedEx guy if he knocked. I passed out there. I woke an hour later and checked my phone. I had a message from David McDarby. "Your mail is at your computer." I walked to my computer. Well, would you look at that! A shiny new passport. They even spelled my name right!
They also included the old pictures that they had discarded for being damaged. It looked like they had tried to staple them onto something and failed. I felt like in an office somewhere Milton from Office Space was laughing hysterically and yelling out "I believe I have your passport."
My new flight to Dublin was set to arrive at 8:50 AM Friday morning. The draft was scheduled to start at 10:00 AM. It was about a 30-40 minute drive from the airport to the site. I had to clear customs faster than a speed runner on the first level of Super Mario Bros.
One problem. My seat was somewhere toward the back of the plane. If I had to wait for 900 wide-eyed tourists to slowly filter out of the plane and through customs ahead of me, there was no way I'd make it.
I asked the airport attendant in Philadelphia if there was any way I could possibly get off the plane faster. She told me there was an open seat at 6E but it would cost me $100 to move seats.
I'd never been happier to burn $100 in my life. It's what Benjamin Franklin would have wanted. It's the kind of freedom he fought for.
The flight arrived twenty minutes early. So far so good. I was determined to be the first person off the plane. Two old people and a young woman beat me to it. I stiff armed one old man and juked past the other in the ramp leading off the plane. The woman was far more elusive. I knew she was going to be a tough foe the moment she only ordered a salad for the in-flight meal.
She made one classic mistake, but it was enough. She flew too close to the sun. Some fit people like to take the stairs instead of the escalator to prove a point. "I'm fit enough to actually take these stairs myself. I don't need any help" is what that action proclaims.
Screw that. I'll take all the help I can get. I ran up the escalator and passed her by thanks to the power of technology. Game.
I was the first to go through customs. I ran out of the airport and jumped in the first taxi I saw.
"To the Royal Dublin Society."
"What's going on at the RDS?"
"I'm playing in a card tournament."
"No, it's a game called Magic."
"You're not going to hypnotize me, are you?"
"It's not that kind of Magic."
I arrived at around 9:30 AM. I did it. I was sleep deprived. I was stressed out of my mind. But I made it. I was going to play in the Pro Tour.
Draft #1: Speed Kills
My first draft went all right. I ended up with a G/R deck with a lot of heroic creatures and some of the most "powerful" enablers in the set like, uh, Messenger's Speed. Yeah. That one.
I lost the first round in less than ten minutes. My opponent quickly suited up Fabled Hero both games, and it was over before it began. "You, poet, write this down. 0-1." It certainly felt like we were the first match to finish. "I can't believe I came all the way to Dublin for this sh**!"
All I could think of was the phrase Brad Nelson said to me earlier: "Welcome to the Pro Tour, kid."
Thankfully, my second round went a little better for me. My opponent missed a crucial trigger, and I ended up being able to kill his suited-up Thassa's Emissary as a result.
"Sided it in?"
Standard: You Reaper What You Sow
I think it was pretty clear that there was one card I was going to be playing at this Pro Tour.
"You know what card I'm talking about. Say. His. Name."
"He's . . . he's Obzedat?"
"You're goddamn right."
I tested for this Pro Tour with Jacob Van Lunen and Gerry Thompson. A lot of the Roanoke crew, like Chris VanMeter, Rudy "Brick City" Briksza*, Chris Andersen, David McDarby, Kenny Castor, Glenn Jones, and others were willing to help out drafting and testing Standard even though they weren't qualified. Despite having a small team, a full-time job, and being separated from JVL and his friends during the entire process, I felt like we actually accomplished a lot.
It was pretty clear that Jacob and I were on the same page with a lot of what we wanted to play. I pretty much knew I was playing Obzedat no matter what, and Jacob was fairly set on playing a deck with Voice of Resurgence. Let's just go ahead and mash those together and see what we get. I'm good at playing midrange Obzedat decks. I knew for this PT it was going to be important to just stick to my strengths.
JVL spent a lot of time working on Junk. I spent a while durdling on other decks before eventually settling on Junk myself. His versions of the deck were pretty aggressive. Mine were much more controlling. We compared results. We compromised. We eventually settled on mostly the same 75. Here is the list I played:
- 4 Reaper of the Wilds
- 2 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 4 Voice of Resurgence
- 3 Obzedat, Ghost Council
The list plays out a lot like a normal Rock deck. You mix some of the most powerful midrange threats in the format, such as Voice of Resurgence, Reaper of the Wilds, and Obzedat, with a plethora of cheap removal spells and disruption like Thoughtseize and voila. Top it off with a few planeswalkers and dinner is served.
That's right. I said Reaper of the Wilds is one of the most powerful midrange threats in the format. This card was discovered reasonably early on in testing, and I was extremely impressed with how powerful it was. It didn't take long playing with the card before I was set on playing with it.
Reaper of the Wilds is the perfect size to dodge all of the commonly played removal. Selesnya Charm, Mizzium Mortars, and Doom Blade all miss. It's bigger than a Boon Satyr and a Loxodon Smiter. Thanks to the hexproof ability, Boros Reckoner can't even trade with it, and control decks are forced to Supreme Verdict it. Thanks to the Deathtouch ability, it can always trade up with bigger creatures like Obzedat, Kalonian Hydra, and Polukranos.
However, the best aspect of the card is the scry ability. In a deck with 26 lands, minimal card filtering, and almost no card draw, it's easy to think that you would flood out fairly often. Reaper really helps to minimize that. Not only does Reaper rarely die, but he turns every trade in combat, every chump block, and every removal spell into a chance to shape your next draw. I can think of numerous times in testing where I needed to hit specific outs, such as Vraska, in order to win games, and thanks to Reaper I was able to scry deep enough to find them.
Once you can stabilize the board—and Reaper is very good at doing that—you can start to chain removal spells into each other. Kill their creature, put a land on the bottom. Kill another creature, put a Sylvan Caryatid on the bottom. Trade with their creature, keep that Doom Blade on top. It's very easy to achieve that kind of velocity against other creature decks and ensure that they can't ever come back.
Against control decks only a few cards really matter. Obzedat is the main one. You can pretty much just scry every single card to the bottom that isn't something like Elspeth, Obzedat, or Underworld Connections. There were numerous times against control decks where I would lose three or four creatures to a Supreme Verdict but dig right to an Obzedat or an Underworld Connections to keep the pressure on.
Originally, I had cards like Loxodon Smiter, Boon Satyr, and Advent of the Wurm in the deck. It took playing in FNM a single time and going 2-2 to realize that wasn't at all where I wanted to be. You can say it was a small sample size or that I was focusing too much on the results of that one FNM, but frankly it is pretty easy to tell when a deck isn't clicking. You don't need to play a lot to realize that.
While Loxodon Smiter was a fine dude against decks like Mono-Red and G/W Aggro, it was miserable everywhere else. I didn't want it against any of the midrange decks or control decks. And believe me, I was losing to every single midrange deck I played against.
I cut those cards and added in cards like Underworld Connections, more removal spells, and more planeswalkers. Suddenly, I started winning a lot more. The deck felt more cohesive. The deck felt more powerful. The day after going 2-2 at FNM, I split the finals of an IQ. I cut Loxodon Smiter from my maindeck and Unflinching Courage from my sideboard and still beat Mono-Red Aggro three times in the IQ. I was sold.
A week before the Pro Tour, the results from the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Cleveland came in. A G/W deck featuring a lot of token producers like Call of the Conclave, Advent of the Wurm, and Voice of Resurgence won. I added Ratchet Bomb to my sideboard. It worked exactly how I wanted it to in testing.
A Junk deck got second place. It was interesting to me how different that list was from the version that JVL and I had. That Junk list was much more focused on aggression, like many of our earlier lists were, but I much preferred the current list we had over it. The aggression just didn't work as well as we wanted.
Regardless, I realized that Blood Baron of Vizkopa was likely to be a serious problem for us. As a result, I added three Lifebane Zombies to the sideboard primarily for that card. Elspeth's -3 or a large Scavenging Ooze was really the only way we could ever get a Blood Baron off the table. Both felt like flimsy plans, especially when Elspeth's -3 was likely to blow up half of our creatures as well. The new plan against Blood Baron—outside of just hoping to dodge it—was to get it before it hit the table with cards like Thoughtseize and Lifebane Zombie. It wasn't the greatest plan and we couldn't stop the top of their deck, but it was better than nothing.
Another plan against Blood Baron was to just play our own. I had Archangel of Thune in the sideboard originally, but it simply wasn't cutting it because I didn't have enough creatures to really take advantage of her abilities. Dan Musser's Junk deck finishing in second place opened my eyes to the fact that people were going to be playing midrange decks at the Pro Tour. It was time to add Blood Baron.
I went 5-3 both days for a combined 10-6 record in the Pro Tour. I got 84th place, missing the cash on tiebreakers. I was two wins away from locking up a Top 25 finish, easily attainable with a stronger showing in Limited.
My second draft went very poorly for me, and I barely scraped together a 1-2 record. I drafted G/U directly to the left of a player also drafting G/U. I don't actually think I was wrong to be in those colors; it just so happened that there were so many good green and blue cards in pack 1 that I didn't even realize I was getting the second-best choice each pack. As you might guess, pack 3 was completely barren for me.
I went 7-3 in Standard. In a tournament as prestigious as the Pro Tour, I feel like 7-3 is a fairly solid showing. Jacob Van Lunen lost his win-and-in match playing for Top 8 with the deck. Together, we both had good showings in Standard.
We didn't break the format, but we came up with a strong deck that performed exactly how we wanted it to against the decks we expected to face. I was happy with our testing, and I was happy with our end result.
I didn't end up spending a lot of time sightseeing in Dublin. I did get to see the Book of Kells in Trinity College, which is about 1200 years old. I actually found the entire thing fairly interesting, especially since they had the Book of Mulling on display as well. Those scribes were millennia ahead of their time, and I'm pretty sure that if I had been able to study up on that book before the Pro Tour, I would have certainly shipped back that sketchy seven I kept in round 9. My memory is hazy, but I'm fairly certain one chapter of the book even discussed getting screwed by the Magic Online shuffler! And some say there is no such thing as a real prophet.
I mostly wandered around downtown Dublin. A few things of interest certainly caught my eye. I was pleased to see that there was a place that claimed to take excellent passport pictures. It warms my heart to know that there is at least one place on Earth where people can get passports without pain and suffering. I also ran into a hotel called "The Barnacle." Some of Brad Nelson's biggest fans were rumored to have stayed there.
Tuesday morning came early. At 7:15 AM I stepped out from my hotel to get in my cab and leave Dublin behind.
"How was your tournament?"
I looked up, and to my surprise it was the same cab driver I had on the way to the tournament on Friday. He remembered me and remembered our conversation from before. We had an excellent chat on the way back to the airport. Those were the only two cab rides I took in Dublin. I don't know what the odds of getting the same cab driver both times are, but I can't imagine they are very high.
I'd guess they are about the same odds of getting a passport in one day, getting your flights rescheduled, and getting to the Pro Tour venue right on time to play Magic on the greatest stage.
Just good enough.
And while 10-6 wasn't good enough to get me anything besides an extra Pro Point, I am happy with the experience. I learned a great deal about the testing process and what works. I learned to stick with your strengths and trust your experience. I learned to never give up no matter the odds. Honestly, I was mostly just happy that I actually got there.
I learned that I want to qualify for Pro Tour Born of the Gods in Valencia. At the very least, if I manage to qualify, I won't have to worry about trying to get a passport again.
At least, I hope so. I could always lose it after all.
*People keep calling him Biscuits. Personally? Not a fan. Brick City is where it's at. It fits his personality and sounds exactly like his last name—unlike Biscuits. Can we all please jump on the first train to Brick City? All aboaaaard.