The air catches in your lungs, hanging like a bitter bloody fingernail. You rip it off, sighing at the pain and final release.
You make your way into the convention center for the first time. You see some familiar faces and some old friends. It feels . . . good. The smiles. The warm welcomes, cheerful handshakes, and even the subtle jabs here and there.
Then the questions begin to spill out of their mouths like waterfalls.
"What deck are you playing?"
"Can you take a look at my sweet brew?"
"What is your opinion of this and that and this?"
Eventually the room becomes a blur. You feel obligated to answer them because you don't want to be rude. And you normally don't mind—except there's a maelstrom inside your head. A war. A battle of the heart and mind, and it is all you can do to not just walk away.
Your fingers itch because you haven't played with physical cards in weeks. You've been waiting for this tournament ever since the release of Theros. It almost seems like you've got things under control.
You pull out your Mono-Blue Devotion deck and sign up for a grinder even though you already have three byes. It isn't like your goal is to dreamcrush everyone in the event. You just want to test some with your deck in a live setting.
- 4 Cloudfin Raptor
- 4 Frostburn Weird
- 4 Judge's Familiar
- 4 Master of Waves
- 4 Nightveil Specter
- 4 Tidebinder Mage
- 2 Vaporkin
- 4 Thassa, God of the Sea
Four rounds later you're sitting in front of a guy who was knocked out of the previous grinder by the grinder Brad Nelson. He laments his fate as you pull out your deck and begin to shuffle. You're all that's sitting between him and two byes for the Grand Prix, but you can just see his heart isn't in it. You can tell there's something behind his eyes just . . . waiting. Waiting for the hall to collapse. Waiting for the room to fall silent. Waiting for something that isn't going to come.
His tilted eyes look up at you in disbelief, glassy and confused, until he realizes what you just did. A sharp smile begins to creep across his face. And you, sitting there with your stupid sheepish grin, put on your best face for the camera.
"GOOD GUY TODD ANDERSON!"
I should probably have that tattooed across my forehead.
I feel like slime. A shill. A husk of someone I should have become a long time ago. Even in an act of kindness, it was still just an act. I felt like I just did it for myself to help my image or whatever you want to call it. A selfish selfless act to butter up the guys in the cheap seats.
And that battle is still raging in my head as Brad continues to dominate match after match with "his" Mono-Black Devotion deck. You know, the one that he built, not the one the Japanese guy who made Top 8 of Pro Tour Theros did. And definitely not similar to the list I sent him and the rest of my friends in a Facebook message the day they all left for Pro Tour Theros without me.
[Fake Editor's Note: Mono-Black Devotion was originally designed by a person.]
And then fear—or possibly just logic—stepped in.
I had been waffling between the two decks, Mono-Blue and Mono-Black Devotion, over the last few days. I had been winning quite a bit with both on Magic Online. To put things into perspective, I might have won over 35 Qualifier Points for the Magic Online Championship Series in about a week. And if you don't know what that means, you should probably be playing more Magic Online.
Suffice it to say, I'd been playing Magic Online a lot, and I felt comfortable with my outlook on the format. Mono-Blue Devotion was powerful but weak to a reasonable amount of removal backed with some card advantage and maybe a big threat or two. There were also going to be a lot of problematic creatures running around in the form of Polukranos, World Eater and Mistcutter Hydra, and I knew I never wanted to run into either of those while playing the Mono-Blue deck.
But I kept winning. A lot. And I didn't actually bring the cards for Mono-Black Devotion, so . . .
An hour later I'd bought all the cards for the Mono-Black deck. I threw everything my brain was telling me out the window and listened to my heart for once. It wasn't really all that expensive anyway. I kept telling myself that as I shelled out twelve dollars per Desecration Demon. Ugh.
What am I doing?
I've been winning so much with Mono-Blue Devotion. It's the next Faeries! It's the next Delver! It doesn't matter what hate cards the opponent throws at you because you can just overwhelm them with all your synergy! Right? Right?!
I ignored my stupid brain as I continued throwing money at dealers around the convention center to pick up the finals pieces for the Mono-Black deck.
Disgusted with myself and loathing the day to come, I went to sleep knowing that I'd made a mistake. After spending over $100 on Unhinged Islands, I had fallen apart once again from all the pressure and buckled to impulse.
I woke up reasonable early the next morning and headed to the site to talk with Brad and Brian Braun-Duin about the final inclusions in the deck. We were all set on a pretty close list and had talked a bit the night before about cards like Dark Betrayal and how important Pack Rat was in the mirror. After putting on quite the performance the day before, the room was all abuzz about the Mono-Black deck, and we needed to be prepared for it.
It wasn't long before the player meeting started, and we ended up sleeving this list (with BBD opting for the fourth Mutavault over Nykthos).
- 4 Desecration Demon
- 4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
- 4 Nightveil Specter
- 2 Pack Rat
- 1 Erebos, God of the Dead
Because we expected a few mirrors, we opted for a split between Doom Blade and Ultimate Price, and I'm still not sure which one is better. What I do know is that Ultimate Price kills Pack Rat and Doom Blade doesn't kill black creatures, so there's that.
The day started off smoothly with us grabbing lunch at a sports bar across the street from the convention center. I wanted more than anything for my switch to Mono-Black to be correct. I knew it was good, but . . .
Then I remembered something Brad had told me earlier this year:
"Do you know why you do so badly in big tournaments? You always pick a deck to beat the wrong kind of players. You need to play the deck that wins the tournament, not the one that makes Top 8."
He was right. I always pick the "best deck from last week" rather than the "best deck for this week."
Below the curve, as it were.
We got to the event site with time to (de)spare, and I didn't even want to play games. I just watched other people battle against tough matchups and played Kaijudo with Lauren Lee to pass the time. It was curiously satisfying. It was comforting to do something besides play Magic for a change. After all, I will be heading to the Kaijudo Pro Tour Championship Duel of the Dragon Masters in a few months. Might as well play a few games.
Then round 3 ended, and I snapped back to reality. I shook off the dust and got my head straight. It was now or never because Jesus Tap-Dancing Christ I'm never going to win a 1,000-person Sealed Deck PTQ on Magic Online.
The first six rounds of the tournament were quite strange. Five of my opponents were playing Thoughtseize, and none of them could beat my deck. Pack Rat was out in . . . well . . . packs. Blood Baron of Vizkopa was never good enough, and my deck didn't stumble too much. I kept a few one-land hands on the draw with Thoughtseize and Pack Rats after mulligans to six and was fortunate enough not to stumble. Everything was going just fine—until my name was called for a feature match against Sam Black.
This would be the test. The Mono-Black deck we'd tinkered with to beat Mono-Blue finally facing it down. And it is such sweet subtle justice that I kept a two-land hand with removal and Underworld Connections on the draw in game 1 only to fail at drawing lands. Maybe my luck had run out. Or maybe I'd made a terrible mistake in my deck choice.
The following two games were barbaric. We both threw everything we had at each other. I even stunned Sam with a Dark Betrayal in game 3 to kill his oh-so-important Nightveil Specter on a turn where I desperately needed to play two removal spells with just three mana. Did I mention he was playing Mono-Blue? But I lost that game to Bident of Thassa and the third Master of Waves after failing to draw a removal spell in three draws.
Normally in tournaments I fly off the handle a little bit after losing a close match, but I felt like I composed myself quite well after this one. I scooped up my cards and headed to the nearest sink to dunk my head in. My face was blood red, and I could feel my body temperature rising. Was this it?
And then my next two opponents played Orzhov Guildgate.
I had never been so relieved to end day 1 of a tournament with just a single loss. After playing against so many black decks, I felt like we were spot on for the metagame. Of course, there were a lot of other decks running around. Esper Control and Mono-Blue Devotion were out and about, as well as a few Green Devotion decks and a smattering of other archetypes. But for the most part we were right about everything we thought we'd play against.
That night I felt like relaxing a little bit. Alabama played against Arkansas, and I got to the sports bar across the street right after halftime to discover we were crushing them. It was comforting. I had a reasonable dinner with Kali, Brad, the Will Cruse, and a few other guys. Nothing ridiculous happened other than going to a different bar to watch UFC and staying up until "way-too-late AM" before I had to get up early and play day 2 of a Grand Prix. But I really don't get to see Will all that much, and I knew we'd have a good time at the very least.
The next day I woke up to the sound of a fire alarm in my hotel. The first thing I did was jump in the shower because, you know, I had a tournament to win. I even used the elevator because why not. I shuffled through the rain to the event site for the third time that weekend in flip flops and no jacket with plastic bag covering my plastic hair.
It was not the best of mornings.
But I started off the day with a win. Weird. I would have sworn that you were supposed to lose the first round of day 2. After all, that had been my track record over the last few months. Regardless of the anomaly, I figured what the hell. Might as well just win a few more.
After playing against both Brad Nelson and Brian Braun-Duin, I managed to escape with just a single loss to an opposing Pack Rat, and somehow we all managed to squeak into the Top 8. I'm not sure how often three teammates playing near-identical lists Top 8 the same big tournament, but it sure felt like a feat to behold.
I heard my name called over the loudspeaker by the head judge alongside Brian, Brad, Sam Black, and new Hall of Famer William Jensen. Not a bad outing for StarCityGames.com writers!
I had bested over a thousand people to get to where I was at that very moment. My third lifetime Grand Prix Top 8, and right after putting up some solid finishes over the last few months in PTQs and SCG Opens. I know I'm playing out of my mind right now and making good decisions when it comes to deck selection thanks to the help of my awesome friends.
As I sat down across from Andrew Baeckstrom, my Top 8 opponent and yet another pilot of Mono-Blue Devotion, the fear came creeping back. But his list only had one Bident of Thassa in the maindeck! As long as he didn't draw it by turn 4, I would be fine. I could grind through his little monsters and keep his Thassa in check fairly easily. The . . . only . . . thing . . .
The next game I was more prepared. I had a few more removal spells and got to cut some of the chaff. My Desecration Demon came online, and I picked apart his threats and hand. And then something crazy happened.
And just like that everything good that had happened that day drained out of me along with the color in my face. My fingers were shaking as I methodically packed my bag and got up from the table. Deck. Dice. Score pad. Pen. And finally, playmat. I smiled, wished Andrew good luck, and walked to the bathroom.
My ears were a deep sour red. My cheeks and nose matched quite nicely. I wasn't sad. I wasn't angry. I was simply defeated on every conceivable level.
"Congrats on making Top 8, Todd!"
Just like that my dreams of the Pro Tour were gone yet again because there were only 1050 players instead of 1200. I just . . . I just don't understand how beating over a thousand people and making the Top 8 of a tournament is less of an accomplishment than beating sixty-five people in a PTQ, but I get it. You drew the line, and I didn't cross it.
But that's just it. I did accomplish something, or at least I feel like I did in hindsight. I made my third Grand Prix Top 8, but it ultimately doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things because that was the end of the ride. For years I've been chasing the PT train, missing Gold because of how the seasons have fluctuated, or because I qualified for the same Pro Tour twice and ended up missing the last one or two of the season, or because I hit Silver the one year where you didn't get at least one free invite.
But at the same time I recognize that I am the one who failed to accomplish the goals set before me. I know that it was my fault I fell short, and that is what hurts the most. I love this game, and I'm grateful for everything it has given back to me. Writing articles and making videos about a card game is an actual job, and you want me to have it? You have got to be kidding me!
I've met my wife and all of my closest friends because of Magic. And every competitive part of my mind and body wants nothing more than to stand on the precipice of greatness, holding that Pro Tour trophy at the end of the day and then just smashing Kali's slightly smaller trophy on the effin ground. Maybe one day . . .
After all, a boy can dream.
(<3 you sweetie)
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