I'm economically comfortable in an Economy Comfort middle-seat, chilling on a 6AM coast-to-coast with a ream of printouts in my lap. I'm audibly muttering to myself. The printouts contain three columns of data: cardnames from the latest Magic The Gathering standalone expansion, Khans of Tarkir; the official phonetic pronunciation of those respective cardnames; and each of those cards' associated name text, cut off at the end in some cases due to the physical size of the 8.5 x 11 printout-page. The fingers of my left hand obfuscate a few of the cells in the first column, hiding the names, and I'm squinting through the minimal lamplight as I process some words about "exiling" "creature cards" from "an opponent's graveyard."
"…the Forsworn. The Forebear. Forthright. Foremost. The Foremost. Anafenza, the Foremost."
Other F-words are involved.
Gradually I make my way down the page, fielding the occasional passenger's askew "WTF" look with a kind of knowing shrug that I hope conveys, "Yeah, you're not wrong." The syllables I'm emitting sound like incantations.
It's very important that I get these right, I want to explain. There are a lot of factors to consider, I want to express. For instance (I imagine myself saying) although there's a marked difference between the respective phrases, "He unmorphs the 4/4 lifelink creature" and "On that side of the table is a 4/4 lifelink creature"-with the former evincing ignorance that detracts from the observer's implicit expertise, undermining the viewer's confidence in his capacity to give competent analysis, while the latter conveys expositional value that helps illuminate the content of the game state to a player not yet familiar with the functions of the set's cards at a glance-it's clearly superior for me to be able to make a conscious choice to omit the cardname rather than do so out of ignorance. And so (I want to walk my hapless neighbor through, an understanding faade of sympathy etched across my forehead which ekes ever-so-slightly into the outside corners of my eyes) I've got to make absolutely sure I've memorized every aspect of these 269 distinct rounded rectangles, including their accurate fictitious/imaginary/made-up pronunciations.
When inevitably my neighbor does indeed ask me what the deal is with the paper-reams and picture-shapes, I wind up using far fewer hundred-dollar words.
"For instance, this is Anafenza," I tell the person as if he's interested, introducing her like a friend.
It's very important .
I can't recall a tournament report having ever been written from the perspective of a commentator. Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir was awesome, and a lot of people ask me about what it's like to do commentary for an event with the kind of production value the Pro Tour has, so I thought I'd throw a little something together to shed a bit of light on what that's like. As it happens, it's also my last event with the PT coverage team for the foreseeable future, but I've written enoughgoodbye articles that I've learned not to get too sentimental about it. Over the course of my involvement with Magic, I've been a PTQ grinder, a Pro Tour mainstay, an off-the-wall deckbuilder, a weekly columnist, a coverage reporter, a game designer, and a color commentator. I never seem to leave; I just put on another hat. I don't yet know exactly what the next hat's going to be, but I have no illusions that it won't be there in some form.
Still, this is the last opportunity I'll have to capture what's unquestionably an awesome, unique experience in a way that feels at all authentic. I asked CeddyP about it and he gave me the greenlight, so with all of that out of the way: here we go.
Brad's face is an enormous grin as he starts to shuffle through his deck and flip over cards. I ask whether we're Rabble Red-ing again and he smirks, revealing a Hordeling Outburst.
"I'm certainly making goblins."
He's showing me cards one-by-one now.
…Seeker of the Way…
…Elspeth, Sun's Champion??
"All the decks have all these answers," he's saying, "but at a Pro Tour, I don't want to gamble that I understand what the threats are going to be. I didn't like any of those decks. I want to be able to present the perfect 60 cards after sideboard, to be exactly the deck I need to be-and to keep my opponent guessing what my configuration is going to look like."
This is cool. Brad's always my go-to guy for understanding Standard, because regardless of whether his selection is the best deck at the tournament, his theory for how the environment is going to look consistently makes sense. He's also willing to go much deeper-varying his post-board configuration wildly depending on whether he's on the play or on the draw-than a lot of other players at the event, so a lot of times the progress of his own thought process serves as a gradient along which other testing groups have fallen.
A thing that's important for us as commentators is to get as diverse an array of opinions as possible about what the format's going to look like. Every Pro Tour represents a format that hasn't been played before-and this is doubly true for major-set releases. So it's absolutely vital for us to cast a wide net of ideas about how to draft the set, and how to think about the Constructed environment. Early on in the process, players haven't necessarily formed concrete ideas yet-limiting our ability to do advance planning-so the Thursday before the event is an absolute scramble on the coverage side. We don't have to play the matches out, but we do need to understand the topline of how they work. Imagine having a single day not just to playtest every major matchup, but to build every major deck, experiment with every major sideboard, and develop a rough understanding of what's likely to matter once two players sit down in front of a camera.
It's a lot to process in a single day-and there's also several hours' worth of audio testing, the pre-event run-throughs, the lighting calibration, the preview segments at the desk. Learning who the guy is who's going to mic your player up for a deck tech, and figuring out where he's sitting so that you can ferry the player from Point A to Point B in the three-minute window between the round's end and the start of shooting. Divvying up accountabilities for who makes slides, who populates them with information, who has the final say on content. Figuring out the shift-transitions-these are fourteen-hour days-between camera crews, floor reporters, spotters, and the talent inside Studios A and B.
Mostly though, there's a sense of real excitement. At the end of the day, we all play the game (and for me personally, we're just now passing the point where I've made a lot of the cards). Everybody wants to know how players are going to play with their new toys.
"…and I don't know how many good attacks he has available, because with five mana open, an unmorphed Efreet Weaponmaster leaves him 2-for-0'd."
Marshall just ignores this comment and moves on. Normally, solid dialogue proceeds according to a pattern that's I like to describe as "acknowledge and advance": reinforce a claim that's being made, then move the conversation forward in proportion to the progression of the gamestate. For the Play-by-Play guy, this means re-centering the conversation on the action that's occurring in-game; for the Color guy, this means contextualizing an action that just occurred in the context of everything else that's going on. As such, I'm startled by Marshall's lack of acknowledgement-and so it takes a moment for me to realize I've made an error, which is that I forgot the Efreet Weaponmaster's unmorph trigger grants +3/+0, but it doesn't grant first strike. Neither the viewers or Marshall, of course, have any reason to perceive what specific element of my train of thought got derailed, so what they've experienced is simply a comment that flat-out doesn't make any sense (ignoring, of course, that I ought to have framed the phrase "2-for-0'd" itself in a way whose consequence was more self-evident).
Aah. Alrighty then. I'll file that lesson away for the next six months.
This is the kind of mental monologue that, as a commentator, you're engaging in all the time. It's not as though I couldn't recite the text of Efreet Weaponmaster if you asked me what it did. But that's a very different situation from the situation you find yourself inside within the match, which is that you're narrating literally thousands of details in real-time-and so the act of keeping them straight coupled with an inability to edit one's mistakes means that the seas are rife with opportunities to misspeak. When you do so, it's a bad experience for the viewer and a stupid-feeling experience for you.
The solution you end up developing as a kind of workaround for this is a weird intuitive sense of how confident you are in reality at a given point of time. The more confident you are, the more specificity you lend to your analyses, and the 'deeper' you're willing to go into a strategic decision-tree. Bear in mind, of course, that the players have all playtested these matchups dozens of time against the best players in the world, knowing the significance of every single card, whereas you're literally getting handed these decklists in the middle of game 1, scanning the contents in the gaps between when you need to talk. So the 'depth' of your analysis might not be all that, err, deep.
Still, there are moments that feel almost psychic-moments where you're attuned to the heartbeat of a match, and you feel its tension building at critical junctures and decision points. You watch a game that once felt totally unlosable slowly slip away, as we saw from Seth Manfield against Jeremy Dezani in Round One when Seth was forced to Time Walk himself by unmorphing War Behemoth. You feel the inevitability of a certain topdeck, as when Ari napped the white source he needed to jam Zurgo Helmsmasher into the red zone, or when Patrick curved out savagely in the semis of Pro Tour Journey Into Nyx with none of the necessary mana in his hand. You see a player act like it's one way when the other player knows it's the other way, and the juxtaposition between the ensuing catharsis and despair is the entire range of human emotional experience.
When you find those moments, they last forever. They are why you do this work.
I am racing to find Conley Woods. This is never a good sign.
An hour and a half ago I walked up to Craig Wescoe and tapped him on the shoulder. He was smashing his opponent's face, which is a good sign-you never want to engage a player who's losing.
"Deck tech at the end of next round, Craig?"
"Sure, yeah. Yes."
A round passes, we talk to Guillaume, he's endearingly French, it's all good. But then the next round I'm walking around and Craig has to let me know something.
"Hey. Zac. Listen. I can't do the Deck Tech," he says.
There's obviously a tension that exists for players who do Deck Techs on Day 1. The expansion of PT coverage has lent a lot more to big teams who have good scouting support, so a Day-1 deck tech means that any substantial player you play against is going to know your decklist. On the other hand, coverage shout-outs are hugely valuable for sponsors-and for upstart players looking to build their brands, you want as much screen-time as you can get. Still, it's pretty unusual for a player to give you the go-ahead and then rescind, so I launch into the compromise-spiel:
"Oh it's totally okay, we don't have to do sideboards."
"…that's not the problem. My team doesn't want me to do it."
"Oh. Cool. I understand. Well, BDM and I can do the deck tech, and we don't have to say it's affiliated with y'all."
"…that's not going to work either."
The issue is that Craig's team has Deflecting Palm, and they don't want other teams to know about the very existence of that card in Constructed, period.
We reserve the right to feature any decklist in the tournament, of course-but we want the content to be as compelling as possible, and I don't want to try and manufacture a reason to play the card Deflecting Palm as I sit there trying to explain what the deck does as a whole. The trouble is that, with this Deck Tech queued up, we don't really have a good subsidiary option and it takes time to parse a decklist, organize it into coherent slides, get those slides created and edited, and queue them up with the production team in time to film the segment.
Fortunately-my thought process goes-Conley is always down, and I bet his deck is interesting. If, you know, he's still in contention.
The story cuts off here, as not all narratives are laced with drama and resolution. Hagon sees me sprinting, asks what the deal is. BDM has already anticipated the situation with Craig and has set up Cifka, who's already walking to the stage to get mic'd. We get to feature a neat build of U/B Control, which simultaneously highlighted some sweet Khans cards and put the spotlight on a deck that very few people seemed to have seen coming. The content is good, Deflecting Palm stays secret, Dig Through Time gets called out as a format-defining spell, and we move on to the next round with hardly a single player being remotely aware of the chaos.
In other words, it's pretty much the ideal segment.
Everybody has a strategy on how to draft, but nobody agrees what that strategy should be.
The one-of interviews are fascinating. I have heard each color in the format described as the best color, and I have heard each color in the format described as the worst color. People I respect swear by two-color decks, and people I respect swear by five-color decks. Trail of Mystery is "a trap" and "a windmill-slam bomb." Lens of Clarity is about the only card I've yet to hear described as "secretly really good."
Day One's featured draft showcased Jeremy Dezani as solidly Temur and Reid Duke basically as B/W Warriors with a light splash for powerful spells-pretty conservative and straightforward, really, compared to the kind of craziness that's possible in this format. Day Two's features are more interesting, with Yuuya exercising tremendous restraint in dodging blue to be rewarded with a very solid R/W deck with high card quality, late-pick removal spells, and some really late Ponyback Brigades along with at least a bit of fixing to flip them. It was Sigrist though, who really revealed to what extremes the format could take you if you let it-this is a guy who took Winterflame, Master the Way, and Rakshasa Deathdealer within just a few picks of one another, intending to play them all.
By the end of the sixth round of Draft, about the only deck that hasn't seen all that much success in the Feature Match area is non-Warrior two-color aggro-though Jeskai isn't an archetype many people seem to have figured out either. Warriors, people say, has the highest upside but can totally fall apart. G/U Morphs is very love-it-or-hate-it, while B/G "toughness-matters" seems wholly a function of how many Kin-Tree Invocations you can snag. The R/W Tokens strategy oftentimes gets folded into Mardu due to the power of Ponyback Brigade, and R/U spells gets folded into five-color because (shockingly) card advantage and removal are good against everything-and neither Quiet Contemplation nor Goblinslide seem to be worth the payoff. Of the clans, Mardu seems to be winning the most when it works, but Temur is what's hogging the spotlight. Abzan-as one would expect-is always solid, while Sultai also can get folded into five-color control but has seen success as a Mandrills/Scavenger-fueled aggressive deck that makes powerful use of Become Immense. As mentioned before, Jeskai feels like the toughest nut to crack-but at least one player swears by it, preferring to "combo finish" with multiple Bloodfire Mentors and Jeskai Windscouts culminating in a big turn fueled by tempo-positive spells like Crippling Chill, Act of Treason, and Jeskai Charm.
The argument I buy most though, comes from Team TCGPlayer, whose tried-and-true Limited plan of "let Chris Fennell and Neil Reeves figure it out" seem to confirm what my Nashville teammate Jake Van Lunen had been telling me from the beginning: go five-color always. Take removal and bombs over everything, fixing over everything else, and make sure to secure 2-3 copies of Treasure Cruise and Bitter Revelation to pull ahead when the board was clear. This usually produced solid decks in and of itself, but it also served to deprive the rest of the table of manafixing-which gave you a couple free game wins a draft, due to the "wedge" decks stumbling to get their act together.
I make a note to try that out for the coverage drafts later in the hotel lobby-but I somehow doubt I'll manage to stay awake.
It's a surge of humanity as they announce Lee's name, his entire team barreling towards the stage like a tsunami. Eighth place. Sunday. The reaction on his face is that of a parent in a disaster zone who has just been reunited with a lost child. In my fifteen years on the Pro Tour, I have never seen this many tears.
For the past three weeks in Hong Kong, Lee has been fighting exhaustedly for justice. In this particular moment-which hangs in the air like a verdict of innocence in a courtroom-he found himself an altogether different kind.
I have to admit, I was rooting for McLaren. Part of it was his list-I loved it-and part of it was that he was able to get to the Finals basically testing with no one but himself. It's the kind of deck he's good at playing, and anyway I'd look forward to the ensuing tournament report. Mostly though, it's because-as a player who catches plenty of flack for 'less-than-perfect' technical play myself-I'd love to see a master strategist take down two Pro Tours.
At the end of the day though, it was Ari, with the decklist Pro Tour Journey Into Nyx Champion Patrick Chapin declared " the best in the entire tournament", who took the crown.
The Twitch and Reddit chatter about Ari as "Magic's new bad boy" is hysterical to me, as my experience with him could not fall further from that pole. I've been a fan of Ari's since he burst onto the scene, and I've always found him not just fun and personable, but genuinely wise, thoughtful, considerate, reflective. Earnest in a vulnerable way, generous and genuine. He gives credit to his allies, and never disrespects his opponents even when he loses. When he wins-as when he defeated me in our Feature Match at GP Atlantic City, and as I've seen him defeat so many players on camera over the years-you can tell it means something to him, but he doesn't approach the victory with the condescending, distant inevitability that you see from some other elite players. The win has substance, is treated with value. I respect that.
Looking at the top 8, it's actually insane how dominant Abzan as a color combination really was. The Midrange deck literally only lost to itself, and the Abzan Aggro deck advanced to the semis before being narrowly dispatched 2-1 by McLaren. Immediately after the PT at GP LA, Jeskai's performance tanked-and I can't help but assume that Sunday was a harbinger for its downfall. Sleeving up a zillion burn spells against a field where the best deck in the format plays Sorin, Siege Rhino, Wingmate Roc, and Courser of Kruphix is certainly a "bold choice," but I don't think the deck is dead by any means. The Hushwing Gryff plan is a good start, for one thing, and I like the Nullify build a great deal because the threats it can't take out (i.e. planeswalkers, mostly) get ripped apart by Hushwings and Mantises.
What I am confused about is why we're not seeing more Perilous Vault control. You have one of the best weapons in the format against the upswing in red decks-Drown in Sorrow-and Vault is exceptional in a field defined by midrange strategies. People are packing even fewer ways to deal with Vault than they were at the PT-Jeskai Ascendancy Combo caused more people to sleeve up Unravels and Reclamation Sages-and now that the field has more established archetypes you don't have to try and configure your maindeck to beat the unknown everything. Personally, I'm on a 4-1 split of Ashiok and Pearl Lake as my finishers right now-I really like having a Courser of Kruphix on my side of the table in this list-but I think that deck is a serious contender for the next Open Series even you find yourself attending.
Not that I know how to play this game anymore, or whatever. That was in another era-when who I was, in my mind, was indistinguishable from whom I could defeat.
She dances like glitter falls, her sweater ricocheting pink against the haze of flickering dimness. All of us are on a bus. Brian and Natalie are wearing rings, and the atmosphere is joy, not desperation. Also there's champagne, flowing like variance, and some of the world's best Magic players are congratulating one another on terrible puns and saying "Hi!" to Jamie Parke's mom. I myself am huddled in a corner because my brief flirtations with pole-dancing (don't ask) were dashed by the juke of a too-sudden turn-and anyway, after three straight days of talking it feels good to be the listener. But part of me want to reach out, say something, express gratitude. Yet the ten feet of distance between Allie and I is silenced by a wall of sound, and what possible words are there to convey in seconds what people live entire lives to prove?
What do you say to someone whose work saved your partner's life-whom you've met before, but never made the connection?
I want you to like me.
Do you like me?
Look, I'unno. You stay up singing until 4AM, talk about everything and nothing, begin conversations that never have any chance of ending, and take pictures of Greg Ogreenc passed out on a couch. At some point Brian raps, which serves as a conclusion. It's amazing how little you know about anything and anyone, and yet this ritual, this engine, has rumbled on for long enough that it starts to feel like home.
The commentary position was a blessing, an incredible opportunity in ways that are too numerous to count. But it was also comfortable-and I don't do comfortable.
The nominal reason I had to leave (and it's an honest reason, and it's probably the real reason, for sure) was that The Future Project has grown to such a level that its Chief Strategy Officer can no longer disappear off the face of the earth for five weeks every year-particularly if he is ever going to take an actual vacation. We've got a lot of amazing things in the pipeline here at TFP- just ask Alicia Keys --and it's irresponsible of me to continue to spend so much time on something that distracts from our ability to mature into this next stage.
"Spending so much time on something" probably includes spending that time playing, also. So in making this commitment, it would make sense that I'd be waving this world a kind-of-implicit goodbye.
But this is a story, a narrative, and narrative truth is very different from factual truth. Narrative truth is the kind of truth that feels true, that you want to be true, that you hope to be true, even if it isn't-especially if it isn't. And the story I'm telling goes like this:
As long as the coverage gig was around, I knew I had a ticket for every event. That meant that if I made the top 8 of a PTQ-as I had several times since I 'came back'-and I lost, well, whatever. If I was in the running for the top 8 at a GP-as I have been several times since I 'came back'-and I lost, well, eh. There was always a fallback. A safety valve. There are a lot of PTQs and GPs on the horizon, and this game has meant too much to me to fade out safely into comfortable oblivion, a backdrop for the action, a lens through which to witness something greater than I will ever be.
I'm Zac Hill. My ego is big enough to make a Blighted Agent swing for lethal. If there's a show on, and I'm a part of it, well. I guess I'll have to try and be the star.