SCG Daily - Excess Baggage
There is more to winning than winning.
I played in my first Pro Tour almost five years ago. At the time I was one of the best players in my area apart from Brian Davis, Doug Tice, Kevin Benefield, and Neil Reeves, and had been consistently Top 8ing Pro Tour Qualifiers for the better part of a year. I had been testing for the Pro Tour with Neil and Doug, two very good players, and played a deck that many, many good people thought would be the breakout deck of the tournament (Finkula). I had a comparatively advanced understanding of the metagame, a solid enough grasp on how to play the deck, and playtesting numbers that at least suggested the potential for a high finish. But I had no business at all playing in that tournament, and (though I didn't know it) had absolutely no shot of making any money whatsoever.
It's not just that I disqualified myself from competing another year in the ATM machine that is the Junior Super Series. It's the fact that I was not ready to play with or against the best players in the game, and I was nowhere near prepared for what it takes to play in the highest tier of tournaments.
The problem wasn't that I was bad at the game, though I wasn't (and still am not) any kind of superstar. The average level of play at that time was a lot lower than it is now, anyway, due in a large part to the influence of Magic Online. The problem was that I didn't have the environment.
This article is about trying, with more or less varying degrees of success, to get rid of the extraneous baggage that keeps a good player from becoming great.
At Grand Prix: Toronto I was seated for deck registration when I heard a swell of whispers well up around me, and I turned to see what all the fuss was about. “It's him,” a voice hissed across the table. “Look.”
I didn't get it, but everyone at my table did.
Heads shuffled. Torsos turned. A collective gasp was heaved.
“That guy won a Pro Tour.”
Yep, the luck of alphabetical order placed me two seats away from Price Is Right competitor Mark Herberholz.
I can't imagine any of those guys made Day 2. Just imagine it. With that kind of reverent attitude towards another competitor in a tournament - or any of the other innumerable Pros in the event - how could you be on top of your game when you recognize the face of the guy across from you?
It's not just those guys, either. Any time you hear some dude telling a story about the one time he beat the Pro, or the time Jon Finkel asked him if he wanted to draft, you can assure yourself that someone is falling into a trap that's very difficult to get out of. See, when you focus on the player, you can't focus on the game, and once that happens the coffin is all but nailed.
At Pro Tour: New Orleans, my first opponent was Ryan Fuller. I smiled and said “Oh, you're that guy!” He smiled back. It was the smile of a lion spying a gazelle. Hello, dinner.
Flash forward to Pro Tour: Philadelphia. Like so many other tragic victims, I was running Snakes. We had tested and tested, and we thought our deck posted good numbers against the White Weenie builds as well as the Gifts Ungiven list we'd developed that turned out to be two cards different (discounting sideboard) from a deck that Top 8ed the Pro Tour. Of course, none of us could play it, but that's not the point. We'd also tested against all the Final Judgment decks - the ones in our gauntlet, anyway - and thought that with Myojin of Infinite Rage in the deck there was no way they could seal the deal in time with Yosei having to hold back on defense, and Jitte meant that any one of my guys was a threat after a Wrath.
It really sucked when my first-round opponent dropped a Jitte of his own before blowing up my guys. Oops, hadn't thought of that. And the two-card difference between our deck and the one in the Top 8? Plains and Ethereal Haze. Ooh, ouch. Can't really beat that one. Real awkward.
Pro Tour: Atlanta. We'd breezed through the Sealed portion of the event through a combination of ridiculously broken Sealed Decks (Patron of the Kitsune. Kill it? Oh, Patron of the Kitsune.) and fairly tight play. We'd built about fifteen Team Sealed pools before that, and we were all confident that after beating a team of Hoaen, Gomersall, and Fabiano at the PTQ we won that drafting the format would be pretty self-explanatory. Most importantly, we didn't really have anyone to test that against. No big deal, right? It's like individual Rochester.
Oh yeah. Absolutely. Unfortunately for us Team Rochester just might be the most skill-intensive format in Magic, and a run of poor decks coupled with uninspired play left us wanting for cash yet again.
All these seem like incredibly different problems that are really difficult to remedy - and largely, that's a true statement. But they all stem from one root problem, which is that there is only so much progress one can make in a localized playgroup, no matter how skilled that small group of people is. If you have any desire at all to succeed on the Pro Tour level you absolutely, positively, necessarily must extend your network, and truthfully you need to do it fast.
The two greatest contributing factors to my improvement as a player were my decision to start writing again, and my friendship with some good men from St. Louis.
All of the sudden, going to an event was different. It used to be that if I wasn't barning Bdavis I was walking around the hall awkwardly looking for a side-draft in order to have something to do. But there is not an individual in the world, it seemed, who did not know Richard Feldman or Tim Galbiati. All of the sudden I had a group. All of the sudden, there were all of these players around me talking about Magic the Gathering. Most importantly, all of the sudden there were Team Drafts.
Team Drafting is essentially the first step. If you can hold your ground on the Team Drafting circuit, chances are that at least you don't suck. Moreover, you get a chance to start playing against all of those people you read about in articles, and even if you're completely and totally outclassed you start to get over any sort of nervousness you might feel sitting down across from someone you've heard of. The concept of being intimidated by a “name” Magic player seems so funny on its surface - I mean, what kind of D-list celebrity is that - but I won't lie, it used to happen to me all of the time. Team Drafting will get you over it, even if you lose in the process. I went 7-1 in team drafts in Prague thanks literally 100% to my teammates, who managed to overcome my apparent compulsion to punt every time I untapped my lands, and my opponents' awful draws. Yet in the process I had “beaten” Antonino DeRosa, Jelger Wiegersma, Jon Sonne, Gerry Thompson, and a whole host of other namedrops. This helped me get over it. It wasn't necessarily an accomplishment - like I said, I had some really good teammates and all of those guys had some really bad draws - but it did help me on some subconscious level not to place myself on a tier below everyone else for no good reason other than I had heard of their names.
Drafting also gave me AIM screen names and e-mail addresses, which are other things you absolutely need to continue to be competitive. This'll help you avoid playing the equivalent of the Snakes deck at Pro Tour: Philadelphia, and will give you people to play against so you don't fall into the helpless trap of Pro Tour: Atlanta. Of course, you still have to play well and you still have to not be an idiot, but a good network will help you climb otherwise insurmountable steps. Going through this process is every bit as essential as playtesting, doing research, and everything else.
So how do you do that? Well, don't be that guy who goes up to some “pro” and chatter like an idiot, and make sure that you're capable enough at drafting or talking about some relevant format that you don't embarrass yourself. But people will be able to tell when you're worth their time. When Paul Cheon and Luis Scott-Vargas roomed with us in Charleston, we ended up staying up forever talking about some Magical format or another. I had no idea who these guys were until that night, but it became evident that it was only a matter of time until they did well at something. I mean, they had their game down. And lo and behold, they're representing the United States at Worlds.
The most important thing is to be willing. You can't broaden your connections if you're sitting with your local group of players telling bad beat stories - and, incidentally, those don't earn you a lot of mileage either. Listen really quick, because the next few sentences might be the most important thing you read in the entire article. I'm going to be blunt. If you've been seriously PTQing for a couple of years and you're not yet playing on the Pro Tour, the reason is not because you're unlucky. Don't make excuses and act like it is. Don't think you're the one guy that the sentence I just uttered doesn't apply to because I don't know your situation. I fell into that trap for several years, and it's still very tempting to do so. All of that time spent clouding your mistakes is time that you could be focused on tightening up your play. I have told many a bad beat story and gotten real sandy many many times, but not once have I looked back and said, “man, you know what, telling that story about how I drew eleven lands in a row has made me a much better person and a much much better Magic player.” It doesn't work that way. I promise.
So yes. Being willing. Find that guy you lost to in the finals of that PTQ a few cities over, and see how he's doing. Get his e-mail address. Talk to him before the next event. Hell, get your group of friends and his to chill out after the Grand Prix (and if they're from Iowa, get real drunk in their hotel room after they get screwed out of the Top 4 by Brazilians.) Like everything else, it's an investment. Not only will you probably meet some very cool people and enjoy the Magic experience more as a whole, you'll get a lot better in the process. It's worth it.
Until next time,