This story starts a few months ago, with me sitting at home, skipping yet another tournament. For weeks, I'd been in a funk, not wanting to leave the house or do much of anything other than play video games and watch television. Magic was not really a priority. You could call it taking a break. You could call it a staycation. You could even call it the death throes of a career of a defeated and deflated man.
Just pretend that's me. You get the idea.
I was deeply considering pivoting away from Magic, or at least away from playing the game so much. But how could I really quit Magic and start doing something else?
The game has been so good to me and my family, and quitting felt idiotic. After all, I could still write articles and make videos and get along just fine. But after a while, when you're not actively playing in tournaments, people take you less seriously. Your work becomes less relevant and your words ring hollow, coming from a place of cloaked insecurity and speculation. I was becoming that which I had despised over the last six years of my career: someone spouting off opinion as fact, even though they hadn't put in the work to give their words meaning.
I could argue that I was still playing a modest amount of Magic Online, and even went so far as to Top 8 a few Magic Online PTQs, but those minor accomplishments don't count for much for me anymore, and I could feel myself slipping away from the game I'd grown to love.
First and foremost, let me say that every month/year of this lifestyle can grind you down. That's why you see so many writers putting out the occasional "Finding the Fire, Part 5." The travel and constant spending of mental energy can really take a toll. This was not the first time in my life that I've taken an extended break from Magic, and I'm sure it won't be the last. But for some reason, it always seems to have a way of bringing me back.
Part of that could be the success gained through tournaments. That high you get from topdecking the right card at the right time, or making the perfect play under pressure, can be immensely satisfying. In fact, that high is probably why so many of us love Magic and continue to play after all these years. But a Magic tournament, in and of itself, is not about creating winners. It's about creating one winner, and leaving hundreds, or thousands, behind.
But more than anything, Magic is about those you keep around you. The friends I've made along the way are the reason I still travel to Magic tournaments. Without those people, the experience would not be remotely the same. All the long nights after a tournament, drinking a beverage and talking about where we'll be in five years, staying up too late and waking up far too early. And all those late-night car rides where we start to forget the sentences we just said. Talking about nothing and everything, irrelevant and irreverent, trying to find a combination of words that say "I love you like a brother" without getting all sappy. These are the people we choose to spend our lives with. And these are the family members we get to choose.
And when that furnace that usually burns so hot in your belly starts to flicker out, these are the people who toss another log onto the dying embers. These are the people who pick you up, drag you kicking and screaming out of the house, and get you back in the game. They get you back to who you are.
For me, that moment of inspiration didn't start at a single point or come from one single person. It was a combination of seeing one of my best friends win Pro Tour Amonkhet and watching another win an Open and a Grand Prix on back-to-back weekends.
I couldn't just sit here and let them show me up! After GerryT won the Pro Tour, I called him late that Sunday night.
We hadn't talked in a few months, mostly because we lived on separate sides of the country, but also because I'm stubborn. GerryT, one of my best friends, had decided to move away from Roanoke again. But I can't be the selfish type of person that holds something like that against him. I want the best for him, and if that means moving away then I should be happy about it. But I can also still be a little mad about it.
Me: "Sorry to call you so late. I just wanted to say congrats, man. I'm really happy for you. It was amazing seeing you up there holding that trophy..."
GerryT: "Thanks man. Now it's your turn."
Now it's my turn? How can that be? Obviously I'm still playing, but am I really still trying? Have I been phoning it in for the last six months? Six years? It really speaks to your inner self when others have more faith in your abilities than you do.
From time to time, I need someone to remind me why I'm here, and why I'm doing this. Seeing Gerry up on the big stage was the catalyst to push me back in. But I wasn't all there. Not yet.
The other half of the tag-team putting me back on track was Brad Nelson. He dragged me to SCG Baltimore, but it was refreshing to be back out on the road again. I worked with Brad the night before the tournament, tuning Grixis Death's Shadow.
The list was perfect, and I didn't make Day 2. It was relieving, actually. Seeing my mistakes directly translate into losses is what made me want to try harder, play more, test more. I wasn't upset at losing. In fact, it was refreshing, like karmic justice. All was right in the world and as it should be. My inexperience with the deck and lack of preparation led to me bombing the tournament, all while Brad went on to win the whole thing.
And somewhere along the way, I felt myself actually having fun again.
When I got home, I immediately booked a trip to Grand Prix Las Vegas. Three shots at the Pro Tour in one weekend? Unprecedented. Plus, Vegas is the best-worst place on the planet. I am a self-proclaimed degenerate, after all! And I think some of the interactions I've had with many of you can confirm this. But I was going there for Magic, and Magic only, or at least that's what I told myself in the beginning.
The first few nights were low-key hangouts with GerryT and a kind-enough-to-let-me-stay-with-him AJ Sacher. Those nights involved a lot of pizza and figuring out our Legacy deck. I ended up going 12-3, taking my third loss with two rounds left in the tournament. Dead for the PT invite, I tried to not let it get me down, and finished strong by winning the last two matches.
Modern didn't go so well, though. I tried playing Grixis Death's Shadow again…and failed miserably. But still, I didn't let it get me down. I figured that the deck was just better than I was, and I needed to play it a lot more before giving it up. After all, with so many cards having multiple ways to play them, I must be making small mistakes that I'm just not seeing.
My next event was Grand Prix Cleveland, where I somehow convinced Brad Nelson to team with Ross Merriam and me. I hadn't played a ton of Amonkhet Limited leading up to the event, but I did learn all the cards and play a few Sealed Leagues on Magic Online before the tournament. I knew all the combat tricks, and I thought I could help build the decks. Ultimately, I opted to be the punching bag of the team, taking the worst deck of the bunch and trying my hardest to squeeze out some wins if it came to that. And the first day, that's exactly what happened. I went a paltry 4-3, with two of my matches not finishing or being irrelevant.
On the second day, I was gifted the best deck of the bunch and put up an easy 5-0. Sadly, we finished two places outside of the money with a mediocre 10-4 finish. But for some reason, I wasn't unhappy about it. I was just smiling, happy to spend a weekend playing Magic with my friends.
Plus, I was happy with how I played on the weekend. And that's something you need to learn to live with, outside of your results, if you want to take playing a competitive game seriously.
Home Court Advantage
Fast forward to the week leading up to the Invitational in Roanoke. I was ecstatic to have a tournament in my hometown! In fact, the drive from my house to the Berglund Center only took about five minutes (less if I missed a few red lights). We set up a small group for testing, but mostly went about our business just putting in hours and hours on Magic Online, and sharing our results. Brad was leaning toward Temur Energy (big shock, I know), but I just wasn't sharing his results with the archetype. I was getting desperate.
Finally, on the Thursday morning before the tournament, I was beaten senseless by someone playing W/U Oketra's Monument. And after a quick chat about the deck with the pilot, I could see myself switching to it in the final hours. Luckily for me, GerryT and friends were crashing at my house for the weekend, so I had a few people to talk to about the deck. After all, trying to convince Brad to switch decks when there has been zero testing involved is virtually impossible.
After telling GerryT what I wanted to play in the tournament, it actually wasn't hard to convince him to play the same archetype. We spent the evening hammering out a solid sideboard strategy, and I sheepishly resigned myself to playing Grixis Death's Shadow in Modern. I wasn't happy about it, but I didn't have many other options I was comfortable with. Maybe this time I would do better.
Here are the two decks I registered for the StarCityGames.com® Season One Invitational:
- 4 Bygone Bishop
- 4 Cloudblazer
- 4 Hanweir Militia Captain
- 4 Selfless Spirit
- 4 Spell Queller
- 4 Thraben Inspector
On Friday, I spent the first four rounds of Modern being pleasantly surprised at how well I was playing. My only loss came at the hands of Brad Carpenter in a Grixis Death's Shadow mirror match, which I knew to be a relative coin flip. But something strange happened when we got into the Standard portion of the tournament.
No one knew what my deck was.
I am sort of familiar with this notion.
Somehow, I had taken for granted that my deck was not something everyone knew about. It had only put one deck in the 5-0 category in Magic Online Leagues and was drastically different from what most people were used to testing against in the current Standard format. No one played around Dusk // Dawn. No one played around Metallic Rebuke. And to boot, they all thought I had Archangel Avacyn in my deck.
On the first day, I randomly played against four different Torrential Gearhulk control decks, and it didn't take me long to realize that they had a very tough time beating Oketra's Monument. Plus, Essence Scatter on Torrential Gearhulk would almost always buy me enough time to close out the post-sideboard games.
In an odd turn of events, I had decided to play three copies of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in my sideboard just in case my deck was bad. I just wanted a powerful card that could win the game by itself in case I was overshooting on just how good the rest of the deck was. And luckily, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is very good against control decks.
This just in.
I ended up going 7-1 on the first day of play, and I was very confident in both formats moving into the second day of competition. Unfortunately, my draws did not line up all that well against my opponents in Modern, and I ended up getting whooped by both B/G Midrange and G/R Valakut. Going into the last four rounds of Standard, I knew I couldn't afford to lose another match. I just hoped my deck was as good against the rest of the field as it had been against the four Torrential Gearhulk decks on the previous day.
My first opponent in the second Standard portion was Jonathan Sukenik. Many of you might not know this, but Sukenik is a secret master. In fact, he's beaten me the last four or five times we've played in competitive events. I was deathly afraid to face him at first, but my deck seemed to carry me more than I could ever imagine. And apparently my deck was solid against Zombies! After chump-blocking and trading in some spots, I ended up flipping a Westvale Abbey and taking both games in quick fashion.
My next round found me facing off against Mono-Red Eldrazi, a deck I'd seen Todd Stevens pilot on his stream quite a bit over the previous few weeks. It looked solid, but once again my deck helped carry me to victory. After surviving an early Chandra, Torch of Defiance and a flipped Hanweir, the Writhing Township, I figured I couldn't lose. Game 2 was much more frightening, as my opponent drew quite a few large, hasty creatures. But a pair of Cloudblazers and Oketra's Monument put me slightly out of reach.
The round after that, I was pitted against a fellow SCG content producer: Jonathan Suarez. He had gotten our W/U Oketra's Monument list from Justin Parnell, who had gotten it from GerryT on Thursday evening. Our first game was a marathon involving both of us flipping Westvale Abbey into Ormendahl, Profane Prince. Eventually, I was able to steal the game by playing more fliers than he did, even though he got to stick an Oketra's Monument about ten turns before me. The second game had me drawing well while he stumbled slightly on lands, and my cheap counterspells put the nail in the coffin.
Going into the last round, I was pretty nervous. I'd be playing for Top 8, after all. But miraculously, the standings had lined up in such a way that I could draw into the Top 8! I did not expect that at all, and had been telling people in all the previous rounds that I'd likely have to win all the rest of my matches.
Being able to draw released a lot of tension that had been building up in me, and I was ready to get some dinner and sleep. During dinner, GerryT was kind enough to help me figure out how to sideboard, but we didn't spend too much time on it. After all, I was playing against a widely known matchup with my Grixis Death's Shadow deck: Eldrazi Tron. In fact, I had already played against it once in the tournament already, and a number of times in previous tournaments.
The next morning I woke up early, probably a little too early, but I was excited. It has been about two years since I've made an Invitational Top 8, and I couldn't wait for my turn to battle. When they called us to the stage, I sat down across from Daniel Byington. My fingers were tingling, the lights were a little too bright, and I could feel the pressure pushing down on me. I was on the draw, and would likely be on the draw in every match in this Top 8. But I couldn't think about that now.
I won the first game on the back of a timely Kolaghan's Command to destroy a potent Chalice of the Void (that had been peeled right after my first-turn discard spell). After that, I got to slam a few copies of Death's Shadow, and my removal spells mopped up his creatures. The next two games were a much different story and had me flooding out while being locked out by a Chalice of the Void. I was on the back foot, but not ready to give up just yet.
The fourth game, when I was down 1-2, had me off to a great start. I was able to stick a Tasigur, the Golden Fang through a Relic of Progenitus, as well as a few copies of Death's Shadow. I could even protect them with a counterspell while having Terminate and Snapcaster Mage on backup. But the entire match came down to the fifth game, where I did something I had no idea I was capable of doing.
The game started ominously, with Daniel leading with two Tron pieces and an Expedition Map. Luckily, a Thought Scour was able to find me a Ceremonious Rejection, so I was relatively safe from my opponent's first big play after hitting Tron. Unfortunately, I was unable to draw much interaction besides that. No discard, and very little deck manipulation. His third turn started off with a Thought-Knot Seer, which I was happy to hit with my Ceremonious Rejection, followed by a Relic of Progenitus that he quickly popped to dig for a Chalice of the Void or other relevant play. He passed the turn to me.
I tanked for 30 seconds or so, looking at the following hand.
My life total was at 14 from two fetchlands, so I would be unable to turn on ferocious for my Stubborn Denial. But I also couldn't afford to let him cast a Karn Liberated on an empty battlefield. So I went to 11 life and cast both copies of Death's Shadow, leaving me a hand of three lands and a Stubborn Denial, with a Watery Grave up. The worst possible next turn would see him playing an eighth mana source and casting All Is Dust. I put it to the back of my mind and hoped that wouldn't happen.
When Daniel untapped, played a Cavern of Souls, and cast All Is Dust, my heart sank. But before I could even think about what I was doing, my hand was tapping my last land and casting Stubborn Denial. I couldn't win if this All is Dust resolved. I had drawn too many lands, and he had such a huge mana advantage. It was a bluff, plain and simple, but one that I made without even thinking. Somewhere deep down, I already knew that I was going to cast that Stubborn Denial. And somehow, I was able to pull the trigger on the biggest bluff of my career. Daniel shook his head and accepted his fate, putting his countered All Is Dust into the graveyard.
It wasn't until he cast Dismember off his Cavern of Souls that he realized I was only at 11 life and the Stubborn Denial wasn't ferocious. I saw him uncomfortably shift in his seat, and something in his voice changed. Two turns later, Daniel conceded, showing me a hand full of lands. I got up from the table as fast I could, shaking, as Brad wrapped his arms around me laughing.
"Oh my God, you're insane! How did you even do that!?"
I don't know. I still don't know how I did it. I don't know if I'll ever be able to do it again. I was just in the right moment, at the right time, in the right state of mind. And it worked. It actually worked. I'm still baffled by it. It is extremely rare that you ever get to pull off that kind of a bluff playing Magic, and even less likely that you get to do it while in a position where you're playing for tens of thousands of dollars.
I'd like to say one thing about Daniel Byington before we continue. Just remember: that kind of pressure, in that kind of situation, is reason enough for anyone to make any kind of mistake. Anyone can forget, for a split second, exactly what life totals are. I've been in that exact same situation before, and made a similar game-losing and tournament-ending mistake. It happens all of us. It happens to the best. Daniel Byington was a wonderful opponent to play against, and I hope he gets to exact his revenge on me the next time we meet.
I know how easy it is to see someone do something sub-par in a match and think, "Man, I'm way better than that guy." Well, you're not. I'm not. We're all just regular people who, from time to time, mess up. We're all just human, and that's all I have to say on the subject.
The semifinals against Dan Fornier were not nearly as exciting (for him, I'm sure it's a much different story). We both played Grixis Death's Shadow, but his version was tuned to be favored in the mirror. His 3-1 victory over me was not surprising in the least. Liliana of the Veil was a powerful card for the mirror, and one I had even tested leading up to the event, but ultimately decided against because of how it negatively interacted with holding onto Snapcaster Mage and Stubborn Denial. Liliana of the Veil is much more potent in the alternate versions of Death's Shadow that don't play blue, since you're much happier tapping out and casting all of your spells before using her discard ability. But, like I said, she was very good in the mirror, and I got ripped apart by it.
So here I am now, writing this article and giddily recalling the events that led up to me taking fourth place in the first Invitational of the year. It was two match wins short of where I wanted to be. After all, having my own token and a Pro Tour invite would be awesome, but it is hard to be upset with such a strong result. I'm just glad that my testing paid off, even if I did end up trusting my gut about a Standard deck I hadn't played with before. I think it is fitting that my 7-0-1 record with W/U Monument in Standard carried me into the Top 8.
As for what's next, I'm not really sure. This weekend is the Hour of Devastation Prerelease, but after that, I might take a week or two off. I've been going pretty hard at it for the last few months, and a short break should do wonders to clear my head.
While I didn't quite have time to get to it this week, I'll be writing primarily about the new Standard format over the next few weeks. I'm very excited about this new Standard, both because of the release of Hour of Devastation and the recent banning of Aetherworks Marvel. There is so much to uncover, and the previous Standard format only offered one major event after Aetherworks Marvel got the axe. W/U Monument was just one of those hidden gems that I'm hoping to find again. I don't know for sure just yet, but the deck might still be good!
I'm back, I'm playing about as well as I ever have, and I don't think I'll be stopping anytime soon. So thank you to all my friends, and even you loyal supporters. Every tournament, every article, every positive interaction that I have with any of you is just another reason to keep doing what I'm doing. Thank you for being there, and reminding me why I'm still going.