"Are you going to win every match in this tournament?"
This is the question I ask every newcomer that crosses my path. This time around it was Mark Nestico. He had finally qualified for his first Pro Tour and found a spot at our team's dinner table. He knew he wasn't on some of our levels and looked to be getting more nervous in the hours leading up to the tournament.
Often, the first timers at the Pro Tour are nervous and try to shake it with delusions of grandeur. They pray that wanting it more will somehow manifest into obtaining it. They set goals to try to accomplish this, like making day two or cashing. They never just try their best and see how it goes.
This is the worst thing you can do. Every win or loss starts to come with slight expectations. Instead of just playing Magic, you start to get closer or further from a pre-determined goal. Round after round, the pressure builds until emotion begins to dictate your decisions. You lose control.
I always ask this question to new comers to give them a sense of perspective. The goal is to look at each round individually instead of grouping them into one big tournament. This helps to understand that a loss isn't going to ruin their tournament.
Mental stability is the most vital aspect for being successful, and it's something that I harp relentlessly in my writing. Broken records may be more original than my content, but that isn't my fault. I could talk about the ideal ways to view competitive Magic all day long, but it takes each person to truly listen to me at least once to get my message across. Being centered is more vital than just being good.
Today we are going to go over my entire thought process throughout my time in Brussels from testing to the tournament. We will go through how I came to all of my conclusions and how just one minor misstep almost cost me my best finish in a Pro Tour since 2010. Today I put my money where my mouth is and prove to you how important a clear mind and a full heart truly is.
For those looking for Abzan Aggro technology, you will have to wait until tomorrow. Brian Braun-Duin did most of the legwork on that deck, and he will proudly be going over all the details about that it. I trust that he will do it justice and you won't be disappointed.
My story started with a rag tag group of intellectual individuals. The team might have been newly formed, but the experience we had was nothing to scoff at. Many of the members have spent years on the Pro Tour, but the constant beatings haven't left us jaded. The fire inside us never dwindled, and we were ready to put in the work and effort needed for success. Even the inexperienced players had something to bring to the table. They all had results to back up their level of skill, just not as many of them. All-in-all, this team had the potential to shatter any ceiling that could be put on it, and we were ready to work as hard as we could to see just how high it was.
The first couple of days in the testing process saw us do the normal things. Getting over jetlag was the most important, but that didn't stop us from playing as much Magic as possible. We did multiple drafts each day and filled in the rest of the hours with testing Standard. Some of the players in the house wanted to work on known archetypes, while others wanted to brew. Unsurprisingly, the main ingredient in our cauldron was Scale of Dragon. We tried so many different brews involving the Elder Dragons that we couldn't imagine playing anything else. The reason why was this thing:
Now this isn't your normal "ramp into fatty"-type card. Atarka's ability to be your finisher and also be an interactive spell is exactly why it was such a powerhouse these past couple weeks. She breaks the mold much like Unburial Rites or Sphinx's Revelation has in the past. You always want to ramp into something powerful when you play devotion-based decks, but what you ramp into doesn't always impact the board the way you would hope. Cards like Hornet Queen were once the only trump a ramp deck could find. This was easily dealt with by cards like Bile Blight, Drown in Sorrow, and Doomwake Giant. If answered, Hornet Queen wouldn't have left any lasting effect on the board. That is why ramp style decks would have to use such an abundance of spells like Genesis Hydra and Polukranos, World Eater to overwhelm an opponent's removal. In actuality, the existence of Dragonlord Atarka might be the death of decks like G/W Devotion. You just don't need that much more out of your big spells anymore.
I spent countless hours trying to satisfy Chris Fennell's thirst for playing this gigantic beauty, but I couldn't find something consistent enough for my own liking. You see, I like to be able to outplay my opponents in Standard. I know I can, and therefore, I want a deck that gives me the ability to sideboard malleably and always be ready for what my opponents might have. Ramp strategies are not high on my list, and I eventually abandoned the deck for brighter horizons.
The next deck that I got stuck on was Jeskai Aggro. It was 59 cards, to be exact, from Jim Davis's deck from his second place finish at the Open Series in Dallas back in early March. Outpost Siege was doing well against many of the decks we were testing against, and I was poised to find something that beat the deck.
Chris VanMeter's G/R Dragons deck didn't just beat Jeskai, it humiliated it. Dragons beat it so badly that I abandoned Jeskai after only eight games. My new mission in life was to find the decks that beat G/R Dragons. I grabbed the deck and said to my team, "Beat me!"
You might think that my manic way of testing is far too all over the place. That I am aimlessly testing decks I like until I dislike them. My team sure thought that was what I was doing, but in actuality, I was getting into the heads of the other players. Not the ones I paired together with for the event, but those we set out to destroy. I tried to understand exactly what others were doing. Obviously, every team built CVM's deck in preparation for the event, and they too needed to figure out its Achilles' heel if it had one. I needed to know what they would discover. The answers to these questions would surely send me down the correct path. I just needed to find it.
Time was ticking down, and I was all over the place. Many of my fellow teammates started to feel the pressure of not having a deck, and they started to get weary. I was their Standard guy that was going to bring wisdom to the group. Instead, I was switching decks every four hours and speaking in hyperbolic tongue. They couldn't risk me doing this until Friday morning, so they started working on the Atarka Abzan deck that some of our team ended up playing.
The reason why I was so comfortable with my position is that I don't feel the pressure of finding the right deck. It will come to me. It always does. I see the clock as something ticking up. It represents the amount of time I have had the opportunity to research the format. Most see it counting down like that of a bomb waiting to explode if they don't find the right answer. In testing, you will never find the right answer. You just need to find a good enough one. One that comes to you after the entire canvas has been painted.
What I found was that the format was relatively simple. This format revolved around four toughness creatures. Thunderbreak Regent was the axis point that everyone had to work around. Cards like Ultimate Price would replace Bile Blight. Valorous Stance was going to lose ground since it couldn't beat the follow-up Stormbreath Dragon, which made black the strongest color in the metagame. Being too reactive was going to be difficult unless you were dedicated control. This would leave Abzan Midrange to be one of the weaker deck choices.
All of this was great for what Brian Braun-Duin was working on. Abzan Aggro was poised to be well-positioned against the field that I predicted. R/W Aggro and Abzan Control were the deck's toughest matchups, but both seemed like very poor choices. I was all-in on what he was working on. I found my deck, and I was locked in. I sounded like a flaky crazy person to the rest of my team, but I didn't care. I said my peace and told them I was locked. 100%!
This might not sound like I was emotionally stable from the outside, but I truly was. I saw a strategy that was well-positioned for what I expected. I could continue to work on other things and maybe find something better, but that could end up going terribly wrong. Standard is a very cyclical format where testing for too long can be an issue. I knew we were getting close to the end of the line and didn't want to take an unnecessary risk. Abzan Aggro was also not a deck that is easily piloted, and I hadn't yet made myself proficient with the deck. In actuality, I hadn't yet played a game with the deck since I tested for the Players' Championship last December. I needed to learn the deck, find any tweaks, and it needed to be done within 48 hours.
Abzan Aggro wasn't a flashy deck. It wasn't going to get me any praise as a deckbuilder or get me a deck tech with Brian David-Marshall. What it could do, however, was get me wins. I once was emotionally invested in playing something new to gain praise from the community, but something snapped in me last year when I was grinding the Open Series in an attempt to qualify for the Players' Championships. I realized that winning the trophy is far more important than anything else. Instead of writing the story for myself, I would simply let others write it for me. I wanted wins and nothing more.
Dreams of grandeur flooded the halls as players from all over the world arrived to the site Friday morning. Some saw it as the culmination of the years of hard work that finally got them there. Others were on the hunt for Pro Points to finish the year with additional qualifications. A very select few saw it as a chance to solidify their chances for Worlds and the status of Platinum that it comes with.
I was there to play Magic.
I sat down to Ari Lax's left. Being fed in a draft by a teammate isn't ideal, especially when our Limited testing was so extensive. I knew I wouldn't be getting any great late picks, but I could at least hope for some clear signals.
Instead, I ended up with the trashiest excuse for a Limited deck. I was going to need multiple things to go right for me to pull off a couple wins.
Somehow I won the final round of Limited to finish the Draft portion with a meager one win.
The thirty-minute lunch break allowed players to either gloat or commiserate with one another about their Limited rounds. I listened to some bad beat stories, but I was rather happy with my finish. Not because I only won one round, but that I even got one with my poor Limited deck. Sure, I could blame it on Ari's poor signals, but odds are I could have done something better. It was my fault, and I had to live with it. I had been there before and knew I could rattle off some wins.
I ended up going 4-1 in Constructed to finish the day with a 5-3 record. Most people saw this as the "back against the wall" record. There wouldn't be any room for another loss if you intended to win it all. I just intended to play more Magic.
The next day started off rather intense. We all sat down at our draft pod to find two of the seats empty. The judges informed us that one of the players would be intentionally dropping due to illness so we would be drafting seven handed. This was amazing! No one at our pod could go 0-3! Soon after last call for the draft happened and our seventh slot had yet to be filled, the judges walked up to us and now told us we would be six handed.
I argued that this was pretty ridiculous at a Pro Tour. I might have came off as a hypocrite since I was totally fine being seven deep in the pod, and now only complaining since we would lose the free wins, but the fact is six-man pods are unheard of. We all knew going into the Pro Tour that there would be some seven-man pods, but the idea of six has never happened. They shouldn't be so lazy to leave us hanging. Surely a repairing would be tedious, but this fix was ludicrous!
Nothing was going to change, and we all prepared for the first six-man draft any of us has probably played. That was until our little engine that could showed up right in the nick of time! The judges slammed three packs down for a late arrival and our table rejoiced!
I ended up drafting a decent deck and found myself in the finals without a bye. Sadly I wasn't able to win the match and found myself "dead" for top 8. Friends apologized to me like I had recently been through a tragedy, but I was content. I went 3-3 in Limited at yet another Pro Tour. It was my fault that I hadn't learned to be good in Limited over the past couple years. History was repeating itself again, which made me realize that I needed to actually get good at drafting before Pro Tour Magic Origins.
Even though I was dead for top 8, I still knew there were Pro Points on the horizon if I did well. I just needed to play some tight Magic. Round after round came win after win. I was playing great Magic. Actually, I was playing some of the best Magic I have played in a long time. I would always replay my most recent match in my head, and I couldn't find a mistake. I was in it!
With one round to go, Ari Lax and I bumped into each other. "So one more win for Platinum," he said. He was mistaken. The fifteen points I would earn would get me only to 53, which left me five points short. I would need to find two more points somewhere to obtain that goal.
"No, they changed it to 46!"
I COMPLETELY FORGOT ABOUT THAT! I WAS PLAYING FOR PLATINUM! SOMETHING I HAVE WANTED FOR SO MANY YEARS WAS ONLY A MATCH WIN AWAY! I COULD FINALLY GET THE ONE THING I HAVE WANTED FOR ALL THESE YEARS! I COULD BE PLATINUM AGAIN!
Excitement filled my body as I walked around the hall. All of the "what if's" filled my mind--I even dreamt of going to Worlds. I would be within reach of that accomplishment since highly regarded players have put the benchmark as low as 52 points. I could do it!
The final pairings went up, and I was against my old teammate Raphael Levy. I knew he was playing some sort of Red-based Devotion deck, which should be a decent matchup for my quad Ultimate Price deck. I sat down, shook his hand, won the die roll, and drew seven cards.
"Don't mess this up, you are playing for Platinum!"
"If you win this, you will be Platinum."
Something was wrong. I wasn't even focused on my hand or trying to get reads about his. I was concerned about a goal that was only obtainable if I won. I wasn't playing my normal game. I put my opening seven down on the table and took a deep breath. I did the best to calm my nerves and play my game.
Honestly though, I wasn't calm. I was nervous. I was shaking. I was playing out of control. My plays were most likely correct, and I most likely would have made the same ones under better circumstances, but that isn't guaranteed. I was playing with emotion for the first time in the tournament. I was playing as if something was going to be taken away from me. Not that I was going to earn something. I was playing entitled Magic.
It was so easy for that switch to flip. Ari didn't mean any harm in what he said. He was already out of the event and became our cheerleader. He just wanted the best for his teammates. He was excited for me that I might actually hit Platinum, but he didn't know how difficult it is for me to play good Magic with emotion.
Now I could have easily figured out that I was playing for Platinum if I was thinking about it. The secret is that I wasn't. I was just playing Magic and only thinking about next round. Nothing else was in my mind. I was clear and focused. It isn't easy to get to this state of mind each tournament. In fact, it took me a year to find a healthy balance. Tournament after tournament I had to train myself to just play every match the same way. It took me one conversation to unravel.
I'm not saying it's easy. I just know that multiple times I could have derailed from finding my way to 12-4. I could have given up with my terrible draft deck and not played my heart out for my one win. I could have given up after my fourth loss when winning the whole event was no longer an option. I never let emotion in, which put me in the position I was in. Next time I will do my best to not even lose focus at that point. Magic is a constant war against yourself as much as it is against the rest of the competition. You can either hope for the best, or work at playing your best.
In the end, it's your choice.