That was the feeling that washed over me as I extended my hand to Frank Karsten, conceding my third consecutive defeat and completing a precipitous fall from 12-0 in Grand Prix Boston-Worcester. Another entry in the long list of failures at GPs and another missed opportunity at qualifying for the Pro Tour. I can't say I was in a state of shock or disbelief. I wasn't in much of any emotional state at the time. I was numb. Drained. Empty. After Karsten left with the match slip, I noticed I was still in my chair with my cards still on the table. Not wishing to make a spectacle of my misery, I gathered my things and looked for the nearest exit.
After a tough loss, I typically want to be left alone. For much of my Magic career, this was fairly easy. I was faceless amidst the sea of players and could find a secluded corner to wallow in until I found the strength to rejoin my friends. On this day, in this place, anonymity was impossible. Walking through the DCU Center, I was confronted by many friends hoping for good news only to be met with disappointment. It's painful to see that look in their faces. They were rooting for me, invested in my finish. I let them down.
In addition, players I had never met who were following my progress were similarly let down. They could certainly hear the frustration in my voice as I curtly answered their questions without breaking stride. They did nothing wrong, and I hope they can forgive my lapse in tact. I wasn't myself in those moments, at least not a version of myself I am happy with. I was broken. I couldn't stop walking because if I did, I may have collapsed to the floor. I didn't want to look anyone in the eyes to reveal the tears welling in my own.
After leaving the site, I went across the street to the Uno for some solitude. Not a particularly appealing option, but Worcester doesn't present many, and I lacked the strength to walk anywhere. Taking a corner stool, I ordered a drink and prepared to make a half-hearted attempt at processing what had just happened. Not five minutes later the man two seats down introduced himself to me. He gave his name as Mario, and he was on vacation from his home in Brazil. Not in the mood for conversation, I quickly forced a smile and went about trying to end the encounter as politely as possible. Mario told me that he read my articles and frequently watches me on SCGLive. He added that there is a significant contingent of aspiring players from Brazil that do the same and hold my opinions in high regard. He gleefully showed me the used link to my recent article on his phone and when he asked for a picture to bring to his friends as a souvenir, I obliged. (I wish I had asked him to send it to me.)
I'm new to this sort of notoriety, but this interaction was the highlight of my weekend. After a lull in the conversation, I could have gone back to my initial intention of sulking alone, but I continued talking with Mario while he finished his meal. He asked for some advice about beating Miracles with his BUG Delver deck. I tempered my comments by noting my lack of experience with both decks, but Mario still soaked in every word with a joy that in my melancholy I had forgotten about. To know that I garner such respect is as affirming as it is humbling. We only talked for about ten minutes, but it was enough to get me back to some semblance of normalcy. While I wasn't quite myself for the rest of the day, I cannot thank Mario enough for lifting my spirits at a time when they seemed hopelessly low.
On that note, I would like to diverge a moment to say that I truly appreciate everyone who takes the time to let me know they appreciate my work or enjoy watching me on coverage. It is fantastic to know I have people rooting for me across the community so when you see me at an event, please don't hesitate to say hello. If I come off cold at any time, I really am sorry that you caught me in a moment of weakness. I can't strive for perfection, but I will strive to be better.
The rest of the day was spent birding some drafts, playing some old Standard decks (Skullclamp is not a real Magic card), and other typical hangings out that go on at a Magic tournament. Condolences were offered. Hugs were shared. Daggers were twisted. I have a great group of friends, and I often found myself distracted from the GP, but it was never for long. I was in the odd state of oscillating between genuine happiness and genuine sadness. Neither tempered the other. They were distinct rather than opposite ends of the same spectrum. And as much as I appreciated my friends at the time, I was ready to leave.
Soon I was walking through my front door, preparing for the onslaught from my dog, Jelly Bean, that accompanies every return from a weekend away. Still an exuberant puppy at heart, she hasn't quite grasped the concept of not jumping on people when she gets excited. While usually a nuisance when I'm not feeling my best, that night it was refreshing to be welcomed by someone with no knowledge of Magic or GP Worcester. She just wanted someone else to pet her and take her for a walk. Blissful naivety. In that moment, I envied her life without the stresses of humankind.
Settled in, I immediately tried to forget the day and fall asleep. Now who's naive? I was physically exhausted, but my mind was still racing without hint of stopping. A never-ending stream of questions passed through my thoughts. You may expect most of them to be about the matches themselves. Could I have reasonably mulliganed a three-land hand with Qasali Pridemage and Birthing Pod against Affinity? Should I have held that Dismember in game 3 against Jacob Wilson? But for the most part I was done thinking about the tournament itself. What I dwelled on was where this result left me moving forward.
There is a startling disparity between my results on the SCG Open Series and the Wizards of the Coast sponsored circuit. 18th is my best GP finish in over three years and first finish in the money in two. I have not played on the Pro Tour since San Diego over a year ago. After my run in Providence, I checked my match history to see if I had won more matches in that weekend than over the entirety of the previous PTQ season. I played five PTQs for Pro Tour Magic 2015 and had more match wins in the Standard Open alone. While at times I have shown myself capable of competing with great players, I have never shown that capability at the highest level, on the grandest stage. My thoughts that night were filled with self-doubt and unanswerable questions. Will I ever break into the professional ranks? Am I good enough to break through? Can I ever be good enough? Should I even be concerned with results? After all, it is often said that the best approach is to focus on your play and let the results come when they may. Some things you can't control, and it's best to let them go to focus on what you can.
Well I am not strong enough for that. Nothing I have done in my life has given me greater joy than Magic. I am deeply invested in the game and my performance, for better or for worse. Now that I am writing, I have the added pressure that my performance lends legitimacy to my opinions. No one wants to read articles by the person that went 1-2 drop, regardless of how insightful or well-written they may be. What it comes down to is I really wanted this one. I know it is cliche to say that, but this was an important opportunity for me that I was tantalizingly close to taking. I wanted to carry my success on the Open series to a professional level event and 18th doesn't feel like I did. I still don't know exactly how much I won. I was there to win a trophy, not a check.
Despite all of this, I remained rather calm as Day 2 started. I knew there was plenty of Magic left to be played, and there would be plenty of time to celebrate a good finish later that day. However, with each win my anticipation and excitement grew. Every round I happily made my way to the fountain to refill my water bottle, flashing a big O with my hand to anyone who asked for my record. Variance was breaking my way. I was winning dice rolls and rarely taking mulligans. I drew four running perfects to begin game 3 against Stanislav Cifka on Day 1. I played well in a completely unfamiliar matchup in Living End in Round 10. This was going to be my tournament. The last three rounds were callously fast, at least as I perceived them. Round 15 in particular was a completely one-sided affair. How could everything unravel so quickly?
With the new fifteen round cap at GPs, the swiss rounds are over quite early. Worcester finished at around 4:30 in the afternoon, well before a typical PTQ or Open. Looking outside it felt as though the tournament couldn't be over. There had to be more time. Another round. Another chance to secure my spot in the elimination rounds. Instead I was left asking myself: When will my next chance be? Will there even be another? Do I deserve another?
I'm writing this on the day after the GP and after some much needed rest not much has changed. I feel better and will continue to do so, but the disappointment and self-doubt will linger, likely until the proverbial monkey is off my back. As for how I go about getting there, your guess is as good as mine. All I can do is keep working on myself and hope that will be good enough one of these days. Maybe my perspective will change by the time you read this, but for now I will leave you with this:
I've grown accustomed to not having all the answers, but right now I have none. Just more questions.
In a word:
The Following Week…
The story above was not meant to be instructional, although I hope parts of it are. It was not meant to garner any pity, although I appreciate everyone who is invested in my success, no matter how small the degree. It was meant to be a raw, unfiltered account of my emotional reaction to a difficult situation. I have not edited it from the original draft, as I feel that would be counterproductive to my stated purpose.
In fact, I did not start to write it with the intention of publishing but as a catharsis. During the process, I saw the story as a continuation of the themes presented in my first article. It is the most honest representation of who I am that I can give you.
I understand that my story is not unique. Plenty of other players have had an event or series of events with frustratingly close calls. However, the advice often provided for such players is inadequate. We are universally told to move on and let it go. This is useful in the moment while the tournament is still in progress. It is important to keep your focus and not succumb to tilt when there is still something to be played for. But this advice is woefully lacking once the tournament finishes and the reality of the situation is allowed to fester.
It is possible that the best players are able to brush off such defeats, but such an ability eludes me. I am emotionally invested in Magic, and missing my first GP Top 8 in heartbreaking fashion was painful. Perhaps I should work towards stoicism in the face of defeat, but I have no idea how to start that process or even if it's possible to develop an attitude in the same manner as a skill.
Some may react with stubborn determination, looking to immediately get back to work on the next event, the next opportunity to prove themselves. This approach was disastrous for me last weekend, starting 1-2 in both events I entered and generally being miserable the entire time. This week, I plan to take the opposite approach: removing myself from the stress of competitive Magic and hopefully returning to the Open Series in Syracuse refreshed. Maybe by then I will have some much-needed answers.
For those of you who were expecting a strategy piece, I ask for your continued patience. You will get your wish with my next article in two weeks.