I just got back from Seattle from the Super Sunday Series Championship.
Wow. I have to tell you, this was an incredible event.
I prepped as best as I could, but unfortunately, I wasn't able to keep the crown in Wisconsin by following in Owen Turtenwald's footsteps. Hell, the crown wasn't even able to stay in the United States. I wanted the win. A lot. But one of the amazing things about this event was just how incredible it was, even without having a particularly great finish.
I'm a Spike. Sure, I'm a Spike by way of Johnny, but I'm still a Spike. The competition is what really got me into Magic as deeply as I've gone. When I read Jamie Wakefield's classic book, Tournament Reports, one of the things that I deeply identified with was his introduction, where he witnessed the thrill of competition as he spectated at his first Magic tournament, and he was hooked.
Well, even though I had a lackluster finish, I hope I'll be back next year.
The Super Sunday Series
I'm really fortunate to live in the Midwest. Tournament organizer Alan Hochman and Pastimes are based out of Chicago, but they have been an influential force in organized play for some time. Alan's most recent innovation for Grand Prix events was the Sunday event, the Super Sunday Series. Briefly, on day two of every Grand Prix, one winner will receive an incredible prize: an all-expense trip to Wizards of the Coast headquarters to play for a share of $20,000 against only a handful of players from around the world, all of whom won the same kind of qualifying tournament.
Last year, my old Magical friend Roberto Gonzalez had qualified for the event, and between his comments on social media and the talk of other competitors, it just sounded like the event was a complete blast. Playing in a tournament with a substantial prize is exciting just to begin with, but aside from that, the trip - hotel, airfare, and meals - was completely covered. In addition, there were a slew of activities in and around Wizards of the Coast headquarters.
All by itself, that might not sound like much. Sure, it was a nice event, but it doesn't sound incredibly special just on paper.
Ultimately, what had me excited about the event was the tangible glee I'd gotten from those people who had competed in the event. Without a doubt, people kept repeating the same refrain: this event was a blast. Some people said that they wanted to come back the next year more than they wanted to play at a Pro Tour. When people who have been to the Pro Tour say that, you know that it is pretty crazy.
Before the Event
I qualified for my event via day two of Grand Prix Nashville. I sleeved up my trusty U/B Control deck, finished X-1 to finish in the top 4 of the event, and the Constructed competitors along with the fop 4 of the Sealed portion all met in the Top 8 for a Khans of Tarkir booster draft. I drafted this:
My apologies for not getting my land in the picture - a judge was rushing me. Also in the top 8 were Tom Ross, Charles Gindy, Nathan Holiday, and Alex Sittner, among others. It was exciting to win, and I was looking forward to the trip.
I decided to go out a few days early, and the arrangements were made so that I could hit Seattle the Wednesday before the event. Festivities would be beginning on Friday, but I wanted to make a trip of it and see friends I hadn't seen in a long time.
When I arrived, I rented a car and got on the highway, heading towards downtown Seattle. The event would be happening in Renton, a short distance from Seattle, but I had people to see.
One of the most amazing moments happened shortly after I turned onto Capitol Hill. I hadn't been to town in a long time. Turning from one street onto another, I was suddenly struck by deja vu, and I couldn't decide if the memories I was feeling were coming from when I'd been here for the very first time or when I'd come to town for a Wizards job interview a million years ago. Either way, I recognized the very curve of the street and the buildings as though I'd been there just last week.
It felt good.
I wandered the city, enjoyed some coffee (of course!), and eventually got together with a good friend who'd made their way to Seattle a few years ago. They were from Madison, and we caught and reminisced, ate sushi, had drinks, and basically had an amazing night. The next day was going to be busy, but Wednesday at least, was just a time for enjoyment.
During the day, there was more food and travel about the city, though this time I was joined by my local guide. We visited another friend at her work (filled with all the nerdy regalia you might expect from someone who works in the gaming world), and then I said adios to everyone to head to Renton. I had a game night planned with some Wizards people, and I was excited to see the office for the first time in what was basically a million years.
Walking in the lobby, by sheer chance I came in just as Melissa De Tora was leaving. It was an awesome coincidence, and she caught me up on how it was being a new Wizards employee. She had plans for dinner, but she promised to stop by the event and see how I was doing.
Then it was up into the offices. There were a few faces I'd known for years: Nate Heiss, Mike Turian, and Mark Globus gave me an enthusiastic hello, and we were joined by Randy Buehler and several other Wizards people who I met for the first time. We played some board games, eventually heading to a restaurant to eat and keep playing. I did horribly at Augustus, but I won our game of Nyet!, an awesome trick-taking game that is out of print. It was getting late, so I had to say goodbye.
On Friday, before I headed to the event, I had one last trip to take. Jay Schneider, the man who brought us the Sligh deck (yes, Sligh) had me come by for a playtesting session for an expansion to a deckbuilding game he was working on. It was really cool, and I got to meet his friend Jim, one of the original playtesters for Magic before it had even become Alpha. Awesome!
Later that night, I grabbed a drink with my old friend Sam Heckman, a member of the legendary early Magic team, The Crew. He's working in Wizards of the Coast in marketing now, and we reminisced about the days of yore. Eventually he made fun of me for my pedantic nature (R/w, W/r, and W/R are not all 'Boros'!), and reminded me of why it is so great seeing him.
All of this, of course, is pretty privileged stuff. One of the awesome things about playing Magic for a very long time is that you get to meet a lot of really amazing people over the years. Unsurprisingly, many of those amazing people move on to do awesome things. I feel very fortunate to have made those connections, but it is also one of the things I love about this game: there are some incredible people in it.
Events like the Super Sunday Series really drove that home.
A Preamble: Friday
Driving into Renton from the outskirts of Seattle, things started with a horrible mistake: I hit the highway pretty close to rush hour. This ended up making for some fairly miserable driving. As I got closer to Renton, things started to thin out, and I noticed I was basically following a cab.
We both ended up at the same place, a hotel right next door to the Wizards of the Coast headquarters. I got to the desk just a short time before Benton Madsen, an amiable American who was currently living in London. He saw the Simic pin on my jacket and offered me good luck. "I imagine you will crush me in the tournament, good sir!" he said, with a playful bit of flair. "I certainly hope that is the case!" I replied.
"Oh, so it is going to be like that is it? You were supposed to say that 'no, you'll be the one crushing me', but now I can see what kind of opponent you are! I'll be looking out for you!"
He put forth some more banter, and we had a chuckle.
Right from the beginning, things just felt different than a normal event. There was a frivolity to it.
I dropped off my things in the hotel room and headed back to the first floor where I thought I'd heard the sounds of gaming. I entered a large conference room where there were free drinks, cookies, and free drafts.
There were a ton of people whose faces I recognized already playing. I think the first person I saw was Joel Larsson, but there were others as well. Saito was probably the most famous name present, but there were a lot of people to say hello to. Tournament organizer Alan Hochman gave me a hearty greeting, and he was joined by Steve Port, another Midwest tournament organizer who is also the man behind my favorite accessories: Legion Supplies.
I watched a lot of drafts, ate some food, and had a lot of laughs. There were people from all over the world here! Malaysia, Ireland, Japan, Denmark, South America, Queens. It was pretty amazing seeing the common language of Magic bringing us all together. By the time the night ended, I felt really excited for the event the next day.
Saturday morning, I grabbed some free breakfast and sat near a competitor who looked familiar. We chatted a bit, and he said we'd met at some recent Grand Prix. His name was Bruce Swiney and he lived in the Seattle area.
His first Pro Tour was the first Pro Tour. "Pro Tour phone call?" I joked to him, since most of the people who played in that first Pro Tour qualified via calling a phone line for the invite. "No," he said. "I placed in the top portion of US Nationals, so I got my invite that way."
He'd played in several of those first Pro Tours, including Pro Tour Atlanta (aka the Prerelease Pro Tour, where the Pro Tour was a Prerelease). After that though, he took a long break before he'd gotten hooked back in. I asked what brought him back. "The competition," he said. I nodded.
At this point, we'd been joined by Steve Port, and we were all talking about the old days. Steve started as a tournament organizer in the '90s, and there were a lot of ways that doing that work was similar to the competition of playing. The conversation had a lot of laughs, and by the time we all gathered for our short walk to Wizards of the Coast, I definitely felt like Bruce was someone I'd connected with more in such a short time at a Magic event than anyone I could recall.
It took only a little longer than a minute to travel door-to-door from the hotel to Wizards HQ, and when we arrived, we turned in our Standard decklists for later that day (along with circles around any Fate Reforged cards we needed - they were being supplied for the duration of the tournament by the event), filled out a few forms, and received a really cool commemorative playmat. Our first of three events was about to begin.
The first three rounds of the event were a format I'd only heard about: Sealed Draft.
In the beginning, you get a bag with three packs split between Fate Reforged and Khans of Tarkir. You're given a few minutes to look at your packs, and then came this instruction:
"Everyone put the cards back in the bag and seal it with the sticker provided."
After that, we were taken to different table to draft! These cards would be added to our pools, from which we'd build a single forty-card deck.
I'd talked about the format with a few people before the event. In Madison, Bob Maher confirmed my opinion on it: this was going to be a supercharged version of Draft. The decks would be full of insanity.
That's basically how it played out.
My first deck was a fairly impressive-feeling base Sultai deck with a pair of Archers' Parapet and other good cards to slow the game early and a Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury and a Thousand Winds as my big end-game hitters. The mana felt perfect, and I didn't struggle to cast anything at all.
In my first round, I'd play Denmark's Oscar Christensen. He had a great R/W Aggro deck, and he was on top of me every game. Goblin Heelcutter was incredible against me, and he crushed me with it in the first game. In the second game, I was nearly dead when I took him down out of nowhere with Kolaghan and friends. The final game, I almost managed to win, but again, Heelcutter combined with War Flare basically put me out of the game.
Our match was incredibly fun, and we talked about how crazy our decks were. Valorous Stance was a critical part of one of his victories, and we discussed just how great the card was in Standard as well. We wished each other luck, and then it was onto the next match.
My next match was against Masayuki Yasuda from Japan. There was definitely a language barrier, but we managed to speak the universal language of Magic. I won the Big Penny coin flip against him, one of my only coin flip wins all weekend. He had an Abzan deck that had a number of strong midrange cards and a lot of removal. I beat him pretty handily in the first game, basically just with a random collection of manifest cards. The next game, Thousand Winds and Icefeather Aven did a dance, trying to get in the last few points of damage through a Citadel Siege, all the while not dying; I only barely finished him.
Finally, in the third round, I played against my PT Honolulu teammate Seth Manfield. He's from Maryland, and we shared a beach house at this last Pro Tour. I fully credit Seth for coming up with one of the key strategies for one of the matchups of the Top 8, helping Ari Lax take that Pro Tour down. Seth's deck was a solid Mardu Aggro deck with his own Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury.
The first game was crazy, with us both dropping Kolaghan. A little bit of bounce helped me take it, but only barely. The second game, I kept a hand that spectator Melissa DeTora says was probably a good keep. On the draw, I failed to make a third land, and I got crushed. In the final game, I was forced into a beatdown plan, and while I got Seth down somewhat low, he finished off my army and then made short work of me.
I started the event 1-2. I was pretty down about that result, but I was hoping to rally. I felt great about my Standard deck, and the next step was to have lunch and then take a tour of Wizards of the Coast's offices. My goal was to shake off the results of the morning and move on.
Lunch was pretty awesome. Melissa and I joined several players, and we discussed my keep in one of the games. Eventually the consensus was reached that I made the wrong call; this format is so fast, you can't hope to wait on a third land to show up before you start doing something. This made sense to me. The collective wisdom of players from four countries made sense. I thanked everyone for their thoughts and reflected back on the loss.
We all wandered the halls, guided by Ron Foster, another old Magic friend from days gone by. It's been a long time since I'd walked these halls, and it was amazing to me just how much I'd forgotten. I don't know if the huge Dakkon Blackblade figure had been there before or not, but it sure looked cool. The offices were just offices, but there was cool art everywhere and enough things to catch the eye that a lot of pictures were taken by the 44 of us wandering around.
When we got back to the tournament room, my seat had an envelope waiting for me: it was the Fate Reforged cards I needed to complete the deck! Here is what they had for me:
That's it. Just one card.
Here is what I played:
Before the event, I felt as though it was possible that there could be more radical changes. Ultimately, I just didn't have the same confidence in a wildly different build than what I had played previously. Silumgar, the Drifting Death was underwhelming to me. Ugin, the Spirit Dragon was the most impressive card but only seemed to help me beat decks I was already good against. Crux of Fate didn't solve any problems I felt needed to be solved. Tasigur, the Golden Fang felt impressive, but a lot of testing made me feel like it wasn't appropriate in the maindeck.
74 of the 75 of my PTQ-winning deck. I was okay with that.
My first opponent was Filip Sand from Sweden. I misread his name as "Flip," and we let the name stick now and again throughout the weekend. He was playing a deck that I think could best be called Abzan Planeswalkers. I don't know how many planeswalkers he was playing in the maindeck, but it felt like about a million.
He crushed me pretty badly. Three Thoughtseize, some land, and an Abzan Charm took him to 10 quite quickly, and while I tried to recover, it just didn't work out (though it almost did). The next game I stumbled a little, and he punished me for it.
I actually quite like this matchup, but he basically tore me open.
This did not feel good. I resolved to put on a happy face and soldier on.
Round five, I face Kyle Smith from Toronto. He's an incredibly nice guy and we talk about long road trips and food. He was playing a R/W midrange deck with all of the cards you might expect: Seeker of the Way, Goblin Rabblemaster, Stormbreath Dragon, and a few new cards like Soulfire Grand Master and Monastery Mentor. He nearly won the second game, but I make Pearl Lake Ancient do a Trade Routes impersonation, and I killed him with only a single life left.
In between rounds, I ended up in some fun conversations with Gerry Thompson, who basically just decided to stop by. A match between Matt Costa and Michael Bonde had just ended, and so there was some lively discussion about whether or not U/B Control was even a viable deck. I had my opinion, of course, and I bowed out on this one...
My last match of the day was against Heimir Palmason from Iceland, basically playing the same deck as Kyle Smith. Unlike Kyle, he only managed to barely to scratch me. I could tell he was pretty disappointed with his finish and I understood. 3-3 is where I was at, and I wasn't excited, so I could only imagine how he felt.
There were more free drafts before dinner. Time was short, so the group I was with decided we were going to do an eight-person "one game match" single elimination draft for all of the cards. I made the finals with an exciting Jeskai aggro deck, and then it was off to get food.
Dinner had been arranged at a nearby barbeque place. I loaded up my car with several Japanese players (Masayuki Yasuda, Ken Yukihiro, Yuusuke Sasaki), and we made the short trip to the restaurant. I ended up seated between the best Scrabble player I know, Scott Larabee, and Nicholas Fang, scorekeeper extraordinaire. (Fairly new) R&D member Ben Hayes was at our table, along with a collection of other players. I didn't really get a chance to meet many people at the table because Larabee was so wildly entertaining, and while I'd like to apologize to those people, I still had an amazing time. Hopefully, I successfully convinced Larabee he needs to watch Captain America.
Conversation lasted well into the night. Helen Bergeot, Gerry Thompson, Randy Buehler, Jackie Lee, Marshall Sutcliffe, Rashad Miller, and many other names you might recognize were at various different tables, and we probably could have stayed for a long time if the siren call of the draft wasn't pulling so many people back to the hotel. After dinner, I drove back an entirely different collection of players, but ended up talking with Jackie Lee about Magic and Seattle instead. It was an amazing conversation, so I think that I ended up "winning," though I didn't get in the practice I might have hoped for.
Sunday (Fun Day)
With the way the tournament is structured, it is apparently entirely possible to go 6-3 and make top 8. Because the final pods are created to split up the top players, if they should lose, it is possible for a 6-3 to sneak in. This is unlikely, but not only are we running 9 rounds for 44 people, but we're also finishing up with the possibility of spoilers in the mix.
The last three rounds were Draft. I was ready. I sat at my table, took a breath, and got ready to go.
I opened up my first pack, and I was struck with a conundrum. A mythic was staring at me. This mythic:
Now, some would say that this is an easy call. Snap-take the Ugin! However, I had been having success with an entirely different strategy that was quite aggressive. Ugin didn't exactly feel like it played well with Valley Dasher. I thought for a very long time, and then took the Ugin.
By the time we got to the second pack, I'd also picked up another mythic:
At this point, I was building a pure control deck. I'd grabbed some Typhoid Rats for early defense and had this incredible combo:
Here was my list:
- 1 Bloodfire Mentor
- 1 Disowned Ancestor
- 1 Mardu Blazebringer
- 1 Mardu Warshrieker
- 1 Sage-Eye Harrier
- 1 Sultai Emissary
- 3 Typhoid Rats
- 1 War-Name Aspirant
- 1 Zurgo Helmsmasher
I really, really loved the deck. I'd been getting jokes all weekend from Marijn Lybaert and a few others about how I love to draft rares. This deck had several mythics. Several of the coverage guys came over to check it out. They thought it was pretty sweet, and I have to agree.
The basic way the deck played out was that I would slow things down with my Typhoid Rats, Disowned Ancestor, and other early drops. From there, I'd ramp while blowing up the world with Arcbond or End Hostilities, and then something dumb would happen to take over the game.
It definitely kept playing out like that at least.
It did in most of my games.
In round seven, I faced eventual champion Luis Salvatto from Argentina. He was playing a Temur deck, and in game 1, I was walloping him when I tapped down to move in for the kill on the following turn. I knew he had a Pearl Lake Ancient, because he'd dropped it on turn 8 before I forced it back to his hand. At a healthy 19 life, I felt pretty safe.
He dropped the Pearl Lake Ancient again and added to it a pair of instant manifest cards. On his turn, he untapped, played Barrage of Boulders, and pumped up one of his critters to hit me for exactly nineteen. Damn.
In game 2, he dropped a turn 7 Pearl Lake Ancient, but I manage to just barely take him out with a combination of Sorin, Solemn Visitor and Arrow Storm. The final game, another turn 7 Pearl Lake Ancient came to visit, and I took some lines that moved me from maybe having a chance to not having one.
Okay, 3-4. I'm definitely dead for top 8, no matter what. But I was ready to win on and see what I could make happen.
In round eight, I played against Mark McGovern from Ireland. We had a great time chatting, but Sorin, Solemn Visitor came out after I've stalled the board, and End Hostilities + Zurgo make a combo that is hard to beat. The next game was similar, though with Ugin instead of Sorin.
For the final round, I was hoping that a win meant cash prizes. At this point, the way things have broken out, no 6-3s would have made the top 8. I was still hoping for a chance at Top 16, but it looked unlikely. My opponent was Allan Asmussen from Denmark. I'd been chatting with the Danes all weekend, and we sat down to duke it out.
These were long games. He had a very powerful four-color deck with Villainous Wealth, Siege Rhino, and some great support cards. In the first game, things went long, and he played a Villainous Wealth for seven, nabbing my Zurgo and only a little bit otherwise. I barely survived that combat, and practically threw away my team to survive the next turn. Then I topdecked Ugin, blew up everything, and followed it up with Sorin. I inched my way back to victory.
The second game, I was struggling to survive, put Sorin up to ultimate, and sacrificed it, then immediately brought it back to my hand with a sideboarded Warden of the Eye, and plussed it again. It took a while, but this proved too much for him.
There was another break for lunch. I was seated with Oscar Cristensen, Kamui Kaye, Filip Sand, Gautier Lam, and several others, and we laughed about some of the experiences we had in our draft. Several of the players in the room were in the Top 8, and there was some fun joking between two of them that since one had beaten the other in the Swiss rounds, now they should "give the favor back" and lose this one.
The Top 8 began and the rest of us sat around doing nothing.
No, just kidding! They gave us more free drafts.
Michael Bonde decided that what we really needed to do was Team Rochester. This was met with general merriment, and teams are formed at random. Michael Bonde, Jackie Lee, and Michael Boland face off against me, Joel Larsson, and Anatoli Lightfoot. My R/U aggro deck ended up a total mess, Joel's barely Mardu aggro deck was okay, and Anatoli's five-color morph deck was awesome. Anatoli crushed his opponent, but Joel and I got stomped just in time for the event to end. Rochester takes a long time!
When Luis beat Oscar in the finals, one of the most exciting things that happened was the general sense of goodwill in the room. Luis's friends were so excited for him, particularly his countrymen. For Oscar, it was the same, though tinged with some degree of condolences - at least as much as you can have for someone who had just won $3,000.
The sportsmanship between the two was absolutely amazing, and standing there watching the final moments, it really felt like the congratulations that Oscar offered Luis was truly heartfelt.
We all headed back to the hotel to play some more Magic before heading to dinner. I ended up playing a great set of games against Edwin Lim from Malaysia, my U/B Control versus his heavily anti-control Abzan Midrange. The games were pretty intriguing, and at times we had a big crowd, towards the end including R&D member Mark Gottlieb.
We had many incredible games, but in our last one, a sideboarded game, Edwin emptied my hand with Liliana Vess, made a fourth 4/4 with Nissa (his third Nissa to hit the table that game), pumped them all up with Sorin, and came in. The crowd we'd gathered dissipated; I was obviously sure to lose and it was time to go to dinner.
The attack knocked me to one after I chump-blocked with a stolen Courser of Kruphix, turning my Interpret the Signs, fetched by a Liliana Vess of my own, face down. I tutored for a Dig Through Time, cast Interpret, drew eight cards, put a Radiant Fountain into play to hop up to three life, and sat back behind seven mana. Over the next few turns, first an Aetherspouts (that Oscar played around), then a Perilous Vault plus Hero's Downfall, then a Tasigur held him off, now with only a single 4/4 hanging back.
Still, I was sure to be decked. Until, of course, I played my Cranial Archive with three cards remaining. "That game was insane," Mark said, finally chiming in.
It was an amazing game, one that was so insane that I wished it had been caught on camera. When all was said and done, I finished with a 5-4 record in the event, in 19th place out of 44 players. Oscar had even won more games than I had in our matchup. But that game was such an amazing win, it made me feel like a champion.
We filled up a restaurant nearby, had celebratory drinks, cheered each other on, laughed, ate, and more. Some played Magic. Some of us talked Magic. I'm sure some people even managed to do things unrelated to Magic, but I'd be surprised.
The champion, Luis Salvatto was making the rounds with the trophy. "Have a drink with me!" he cheered, and I did. Someone took a photo of us, and we all laughed and cheered again.
By the time the evening ended, I only had a few hours before my plane was going to take off. I had spent several hours in the night discussing Death and Taxes with Michael Bonde, while Saito and Marijn yelled "Draft" at each other. Filip and I talked about Magic and his work towards becoming a doctor. Luis had decided to make the trek down to San Jose for the Grand Prix, and was cheerfully welcomed into the car-full of Danes for the trip.
There are probably hundreds of other small but awesome stories that happened in those few days in Seattle for the Super Sunday Series Championship.
Most of us didn't know each other before this last weekend. It was a special few days, and I feel like all of us will never forget it.
I don't ever want to be out of the main event on day two of a Grand Prix. But if I am, there is no way I'm going to miss trying to qualify for this event again.