The Grind: Part 1
In accordance with the bet made between Jeff Cunningham and Gabe Walls in
a charity auction
on eBay for the U/G Madness deck and Astral Slide deck both signed by the players and foiled.
The story fades up in a dank cave somewhere in the urban sprawl of Burnaby B.C. — Stronghold Games. For the past three years this or somewhere like this is where I've been steadily devolving.
It's always dark in Stronghold. This is because I only ever show up past midnight usually on Fridays. Well every Friday. And Saturday and Wednesday if I get the bug. Eternities have seemed to pass in this textured and sensual darkness and with them the remaining vestiges of my lucidity.
Whether because of my fever-dreamed plans to launch ThicketBasiliskLure.com (Canada's answer to ChannelFireball.com) my wild money draft tirades and regularly maintained ”sh**list” or my maudlin Street Fighter IV apologetics (“No one ever taught me how to fireball!”) the Dickens-type card urchins with whom I've become kin have gradually taken to treating me like an addled hermit.
Only in rare instances does the full extent of my slide become clear even to me. Sometimes it's a younger player illicitly hinting at the right play during a money draft (“How many Lightning Bolts did he have again? Three?”) justifiably terrified that I'll miss it which sparks some recall. Other times it's a stray Ranger of Eos and the question of why it so accurately presages the onset of body-wracking day-terrors. Still others it's the mere sight of my own haggard reflection in the bathroom's cracked funhouse mirror which starts the flow of tears down through the fetid canals of my ashen golem-face.
In a past life I attended some 32 Pro Tours and Top 8ed a few Grand Prix. These accomplishments are enough to ensure intermittent gunslinging gigs which keep me in substance (packs and vainglory) enough to avoid having to face the prospect of withdrawal for a little while longer at least.
I don't mean to sound ungrateful. I've spent many enjoyable nights in this setting — hatching Werewolf schemes elaborating my cube draft philosophies and sitting in on rowdy repeated YouTube screenings of my brief cameo in television's Fat Like Me. It was some sort of midnight oasis and I often felt a genuine sympathy for my fellow travelers.
I still attend PTQs every now and then which symbolically speaking amounted to a prisoner reaching outside of his cage for a key momentarily dangled there by his jailer. There was a GP only seven hours away and so we made plans to attend.
An aside — obligatory I'm afraid —
One evening in my private dwelling (certainly no less squalid) in the din of my battered laptop and in the hypnotic synapse bath of Facebook I notice a post on Gabe Walls' page:
“just got done beating Paul R in a slide vs UGmadness matchup circa 2003 best of 9 for 100. He did manage to get 1 match before reality hit.”
A faint indignation genetically recalled comes over me and I challenge Walls to a rematch which he accepts. I initially wanted to just play for one hundred but Walls sets the stakes at my attending a North American Grand Prix of his choice if he wins as well as a match report. To be sporting (and since I don't consider the match losable) I set his end at a physical copy of each deck to be signed and eBayed for a king's ransom (between fifty and one hundred Canadian dollars).
I win the first match. He wins the next three and then takes the final session two matches to one.
Here's the list I used (from memory):
Two of the matches were write-offs to severe mana-screw/mulligans and I barely got any solid madness draws. Now I realize that citing mana-screw/bad draws as the primary cause of losses in a series of matches is generally about as credible as Nick Eisel's “My Side of the Story: What Happened at GP: Boston” but what can I say? It happened.
In any case the matchup wasn't as good as I thought. As I remembered it and on paper three Quiet Speculations and one Ray of Revelation is a major advantage in what becomes an only seemingly bad matchup. While this is true I hadn't anticipated how relevant Boil would be out of the sideboard. The potential for end-of-turn Boil untap Wrath is a major aspect of attack given U/G's natural strategic posture in the matchup. Suddenly every Island becomes a major board commitment.
What the matchup should be is close. I made a couple of small misplays that might have made a difference. There's actually a ton of play between the two decks. It's one of the most tactical matchups I've ever played. I do encourage you to bid on the charity auction StarCityGames.com is holding. Do I wish I were the one receiving DI on eBay for them? Sure. Would I have attempted to lure you into an elaborate phishing plot? Absolutely. This is beside the point.
Anyway it had become clear I wouldn't be able to rely on a good matchup and that I'd require some sort of providential assistance. My repeated pleas for Walls to “brick” on his cycles however “for once in [his] f***ing life” would go unanswered.
Near the end I eschew my standard correct sideboard plan in a hopeless and fanciful Hail Mary. I send in Gigapede on a suicide mission through a full armada of Wraths Slices Faithfuls and Angels. “Giggles” never even makes it out the gate. Gabe Boils me twice and then plays all four Lay Wastes showboating for the growing crowd. I like Gabe but in this moment he was a repulsive human being.
If the match had taken place in person I would at least have recourse to vague out-of-earshot charges of him having had McCarrell'd my deck or Carvalho'd Wraths. As it was I was reduced to accusing him of having bribed Worth before logging off without as much as a “bgs.”
I make the trip down from Vancouver to Portland with my brothers Jackson and Max and friend Geoff.
Jackson 24 is a compulsive chain-drafter successful online poker player and founder of the now defunct thisisawkward.com. Despite being a well-respected player locally and having played in the JSS Championships Jackson is still annoyed that he has never broken through to the next level not even a PTQ Top 8.
My youngest brother Max 22 is a business graduate and outgoing club promoter. Given how little he plays Max's results are outstanding. He's already made the Pro Tour and only missed Day 2 on a questionable ruling. Ravitz still remembers the time Max declared his hatred for Loxodon Warhammer prompting his money draft opponent to equip up and attack directly into his Soul Nova. Grown up Max is tall well built and has a black eye from a bar fight last night. This actually seems to suit his play style which can be described alternately as “grimy” “thuggish” or “hood.”
Geoff Ma 21 is a friend from Stronghold. He's a regular money draft teammate. The only way he could punt more is if his decks were sleeved in pigskin. To provide a representative instance I might say glance over at Ma's board and see a Day of Judgment in the graveyard and nothing in play. I might then look over at his opponent's board and see a 1/3 in the bin and three monsters in play and draw the only possible conclusion: someone needs to call money draft 911 because there's a killer on the loose. Geoff never stays on the sh**list for long though — because I like the guy. We are therefore united in a relationship of pathological codependence. I suffer his calamitous decision-making; he endures my endless griefing.
We arrive in Portland late on Friday. Jackson had wanted to play in some trials but they're over by the time we get there. The four of us do a draft at the site and then head back to the hotel room. Jackson's friends Adham and DJ show up and along with Max they start another draft even though it's already late. I urge them to get some sleep before heading to the other room with Ma. Between each of us having our own bed the television and the pills sleep comes quickly.
The hall is the size of an airplane hangar and swarming with people. There are many familiar faces.
There is Paul Rietzl Pro Tour Champion — something I never thought I'd hear outside of maybe a Magic-themed episode of Sliders. Not to knock him — great player great guy — it's just that the last time I saw him the two of us were warming our hands over a barrel fire in the caboose of the gravy train.
There's Josh Ravitz; or is it just a phantom wandering the trade districts?
And Brett Shears Gary Talim and Derek Starleaf — certainly the most welcome additions at any tournament. Rumor has it that Peter Szigeti who has been banned for fifty years is going to show up with a wig mana-shirt and glasses and infiltrate the tournament before donning a judge shirt and arbitrarily assigning game losses — an operation I'm all too sure would have been executed successfully and with deadly precision. Fortunately/unfortunately someone has talked him out of it...
Terry Tsang Matt Sperling Tim Aten Doug Potter Pat Chapin… all of whom I'd only catch glimpses of over the weekend…
It's a bewildering pastiche of new and old; although given the span of the hall and size of the crowd it's difficult to say what is and isn't optical illusion. At one point I swear I saw Conley Woods and Brad Nelson money drafting against Mike Loconto and Bertrand Lestree.
I'm seated at deck registration with both of my brothers which makes the deck swap process that much more anxious as we pull for each other to receive or avoid certain decks.
I wanted badly to end up with a U/W deck. Scry is so insane in this Sealed format. Unfortunately it just wasn't there. Here's the deck I built:
1 Ajani's Pridemate
1 Assault Griffin
1 Child of Night
1 Gargoyle Sentinel
1 Howling Banshee
1 Infantry Veteran
2 Liliana's Specter
1 Silvercoat Lion
2 Squadron Hawk
1 Stormfront Pegasus
1 War Priest of Thune
1 ? (Wild Griffin?)
1 Doom Blade
2 Mighty Leap
1 Mind Rot
2 Quag Sickness
2 Celestial Purge
1 Rotting Legion
1 Mystifying Maze
I'd typically play sixteen lands in a deck like this (and maybe cut Corrupt) but I didn't feel I could play fewer than nine Swamps or eight Plains. This deck looks okay but has zero reach which tends to be problematic in Sealed. A fairly classic example of building a Draft deck in Sealed but I didn't have any better alternatives. Deathmark could easily have been maindecked although U/B and U/R decks are a reality. Maybe by cutting Mind Rot weirdly which is worse than it looks in a deck like this.
After my two byes I'm paired in a feature match round 3 against Cassius Weathersby. Game 1 we begin play and I have a good hand. By the second turn I notice that the clock is only just starting. I call over a passing judge and ask him what the procedure is at this point. He says we should “just restart.” A casual “just restart” really? I have a good hand. I ask him if he's sure and he says he isn't. I ask for an appeal and he leaves comes back and says we can play on.
I start with an Infantry Veteran Stormfront Pegasus and Gargoyle Sentinel. My hand's a bunch of removal and Mighty Leaps. He plays in order Serra Angel Baneslayer Angel and then another Serra Angel. Under the banner of rereading the card I surreptitiously check the Baneslayer for scuffs or maybe an M10 logo — telltale signs of a “packed lunch” — but amazingly it checks out. I actually have removal for everything and enough momentum to get the job done.
In the second game my start is slower and while I still have enough removal for the first wave of his threats I don't have enough pressure and his Crystal Ball lets him pull away while on two life.
In the third game with not much time on the clock I mulligan and then draw the second Squadron Hawk for the full kick in the teeth. I'm playing very fast with not much gas but he has some decisions and we end up going to time while he again is starting to pull away with Crystal Ball...
...Except that the table judge a local judge and TO that I know now informs us that we have three extra minutes due to changing tables between game 2 and game 3 (after the other feature match had finished we had to move onto the GGsLive table.) I objected — this had been an uncomplicated move of about six feet during sideboarding — actual time estimate of about twenty seconds. Three minutes was a clear and obvious overcompensation and one that would very likely affect the outcome of the match. He said only that it was “fine” and so I appealed.
The head judge arrived and said that we should've been informed of the three minute extension and for that he apologized but he was going to uphold the table judge's ruling.
Cassius ended up winning on the fourth extra turn of time. All in all a frustrating round. A draw is irrelevant Day 1 but with now mathematically assured bad tiebreaks it's as good as a win on Day 2.
Meanwhile Jackson opened the deck he always seems to have: slow green multicolor and has started 3-0.
Max opened a really good G/B/r deck but is 0-2 after his bye.
Geoff Ma opened an insane R/W aggro pool and had the good sense to leave Day of Judgment in the sideboard. He's 3-0.
Round 4 my opponent arrives to the table and after he has a few exchanges with the judge and we talk for a bit I notice that he still hasn't sat down. I ask him if he always shuffles standing up and he responds “It's legal before you present.” Fair enough.
In game 1 he just outclasses me with bigger guys and wins without much of a fight.
In game 2 it all comes down to one crucial judgment call:
He's U/B has three cards in hand four or five lands in play and just played his only creature — a Liliana's Specter. He's at thirteen life.
I have in play an Infantry Veteran and a Child of Night and two Plains and a Swamp. In hand I have a Howling Banshee and an Assault Griffin.
I have to discard one and I choose the Assault Griffin reasoning that against three cards in hand with only an Infantry Veteran in play (after he presumably trades with the Child of Night) I'll be facing an uphill battle and may require the calculated risk to have a shot at the win. Basically I decide to put myself a bit further ahead if I draw a Swamp (eight left) but at more or less dead if I draw a Plains (six left).
In retrospect ditching the Banshee is probably the better play because in both cases I'm pretty cold to a removal spell regardless of whether he's at ten or thirteen and if he doesn't have one I just prevent turning ~20% of my deck into dead cards. Then again if he's holding a Doom Blade and I hit a Swamp I guess I look pretty good.
At this point I'm feeling pretty beat up. In preparation for this tournament I'd done a ton of 8-4s and was crushing them. I have strong opinions on the format. Now it feels like I've spilled out before the tournament has even started.
I can win out 5-0 to make Day 2 but the prospect is difficult to even entertain. So many times before I've been in this position. I've made it through enough times to make dropping out of the question but I've also grinded it out to the last round only to lose enough times to make me balk in the face of what's to come.
The grind — an unthinkable number of rounds to win with no margin left for error and near negligible chances of ultimately reaching the promised land of the right side of the prize scale. This deck just seems so one-dimensional that it's hard to have any faith that it can get those wins.
It's also already about 6 p.m. with six rounds to go. It would be a long night.
Same as always then I resolve. Brew a pot of coffee order in Chinese and knock off a 2-0 so that you only have to go 3-0. It's the best way.
Geoff Ma: 4-0
At 2-2 in a Grand Prix you're in a no man's land a disquieting realm that one would normally not have the occasion to visit being blissfully out of contention.
Instead to my left row upon row of Crown Royal dice bags and to my right endless slide-down life counters in active use. I hadn't seen this many scrubs since I had a graveyard shift stocking medical supplies (present day).
Interesting though. The overspilling contempt for my opponents and the judging staff doesn't usually hit until later in the afternoon.
I win my next two matches against nice guys and I'm at 4-2.
At some point I overhear someone at the pairings board note that you can tell if the person you're playing against is really a nice guy if they're still nice after they lose. Later Jackson would also note that you really appreciate the players who lose with grace. This weekend almost all of my opponents were good sports and fine competitors. Losing well still sometimes eludes me. Saying “good game” and meaning it seems to be the correct state of mind to be in; does caring too much warp this simple truth?
Max has won his last three and is 4-2 and Jackson and Ma are both now at 5-1.
In round 7 it's the end of game 1 — I have two Squadron Hawks in play and a Liliana's Specter all tapped. My opponent is at five. I have a Corrupt and land in hand and three Swamps two Plains in play. It's his turn.
He has in play a 5/5 Protean Hydra enchanted with Pacifism a Sacred Wolf a Grizzly Bear and a Sylvan Ranger. I am at twelve. He draws his card for the turn (he now has two) taps two of his five or six land and plays War Priest of Thune destroying the Pacifism and representing eleven possible damage.
He then taps all of his creatures only barely — at about fifteen degrees — and says “attack with everything.” Now to an experienced player this is going to set off serious alarm bells.
He has played a creature and disregarded its summoning sickness for the difference and is tapping his creatures in a non-committal way uncharacteristic of the way he's been attacking throughout the game. This situation can (and will) be played off as a mistake but it's so dubious.
I commit him to his action: “Which creatures are attacking?” He indicates the Ranger the Bear the Wolf... the War Priest... and the Hydra.
I call for a judge. The judge arrives; I explain that my opponent has tried to attack with a creature with summoning sickness for the win and the judge checks with another judge to confirm that the ruling is a warning for a Game Rules Violation.
I untap and attack in the air for what with Corrupt will amount to lethal. So then felt you or…?
You've got to be kidding me.
I wait a beat to make sure he's not doing the “Safe Passage— Ah just kidding ya got me” thing. Or even the “Jeff… (puts hand on my shoulder)… I'm messing with you.” He isn't.
Again I commit him to his action: (dejected) “Safe Passage?”
I can't remember if I say something (“That's an Excommunicate”) or if he just notices/“notices” but he then says something like “Oh I guess I can't even play this.”
I call for a judge and immediately ask him to speak away from the table. I describe how my opponent has misrepresented cards on two consecutive turns for the win in an extremely tight board situation and call attention to the high suspiciousness of the situation. At this point another judge is also around.
The judge tells me to return to my match to continue playing and that they'll covertly watch my opponent to see if he tries anything again! It goes without saying that this is insufficient and that obviously if my opponent were cheating he's now well keyed in to my awareness of that fact.
I restate my case to the effect of: “I'm an experienced tournament player and I believe I've presented substantial justification toward a claim that my opponent might be cheating a very serious allegation. I need to speak with the head judge immediately.” They seem to accept this and one judge leaves.
After a moment he returns and tells me that the head judge is occupied and to continue with my match with one of them keeping an eye on it and that I can speak with the head judge after the round if I have further concerns.
Pretty unreal. I agree on the condition that the head judge come as soon as possible reiterating the seriousness of my claim. The first judge seems to agree to this and I return to my match.
My opponent now drops to one life and I target him with Corrupt.
We go to game 2 and he's stuck on two lands. He promptly loses and drops.
After the round I find the first judge and tell him that I'm still interested in speaking with the head judge. I then see the head judge and just approach him. As I recount my story the first judge takes issue — apparently there had been some sort of miscommunication about whether my opponent had actually attempted to play the alleged Safe Passage. (I'm not sure what exactly he'd thought I was saying.) The head judge grasps the situation but there's not much to do at this point anyway.
I do also tell the head judge what I'm about to say now — that despite all of what was described I can't actually be confident my opponent wasn't just genuinely mistaken! He didn't know I had Corrupt in hand and in most cases there Excommunicate as Excommunicate would've been enough to seal the win. Weird. One small check that could've at least been performed by the judges is looking at his decklist for Safe Passage — if he didn't even have one in his deck that would be pretty damning...
I don't know maybe I'm being overzealous. I just like to play the game by the rules; that's my jam.
Maybe it was the fact that if it were intentional it was officially the oldest trick in the book. It was like someone trying to pull a three-card Monty hustle on David Blaine. Not that I'm a cheater; it's just that I know my tricks and am constantly developing my fare.
To put things in perspective: at a recent Legacy event playing Reanimator and holding my priority I called a judge over to confirm that Pithing Needle could shut down a Faerie Macabre in a player's hand; then once my opponent confirmed its resolution I promptly named Flooded Strand of which he had two in play. I'm not expecting a similarly fine Italian cursive just not to have my intelligence insulted with such impudence.
Between the incidents mentioned so far as well as a few others that came up one of the most frustrating aspects of this tournament for me was the judging an experience several players I talked to shared and of which there were numerous examples. When a nuanced situation comes up you almost always need to appeal to the head judge to receive the correct ruling or even to be properly heard. The ability to appeal to the head judge is a great and really necessary aspect of the current system. The problem is that in a massive Grand Prix the one HJ appeal system is plainly outmoded. I can well understand why the head judge might be swamped; there are just too many people. My suggestion is to add a head judge for every five hundred participants beyond the first (for the first day).
The feeling of the tournament was of being swept up in a sea of people and having to take what you could get instilling a submerged sense of lawlessness. For this reason as well as others one felt with his compatriots “as a man in a storm when dust and rain are blown by the wind stand[ing] aside under a little wall.”
At this point Gary Talim has lost to go 5-2. The prospect of two elimination matches is more than he cares to endure. Some people just can't handle the swings. Also in the fine tradition of TerryT Gary has a girl in town who he's interested in “dropping it in” settling the matter.
I win the next one as well; although I have no recollection of how. Part of the difficulty is the basic format and deck. Part of it is that at this point willing not playing had become the active principle and so the particulars are blurred. What I will say is that those two Squadron Hawks deserved Purple Hearts after the absurd tours of duty they put in. I stop-lossed those guys so hard my Assault Griffin started a Facebook petition.
All of us now — me both of my brothers and Ma — are at 6-2 and playing for it.
We check the pairings and wish each other luck.
Again I don't remember specifics only foggy shapes and surges of emotion.
He's four or five-color control with lots of removal and card drawing. I get game 1 on the back of I think mana screw.
Game 2 we're at parity until he drops a Gaea's Revenge and suddenly puts me on dead.
Ma walks up as game 3 is starting and tells me that he made it.
I have plenty of removal in hand but he doesn't play any creatures and just kills my first wave. I'm out of guys.
He hits seven lands and I hold my breath — Gaea's Revenge and I'm drawing dead. He doesn't have it.
I draw a few creatures. He does as well but I have the removal and tricks. I'm through!
I'm elated. It's only a Grand Prix but the physical relief of getting the job done makes it feel timeless.
I run into Max who's also animated — he won. We slam a high five.
I ask about Jackson and Ma shakes his head. I walk over to his match in the shadowy fringes of the thinning tournament hall. This is the place where I know from experience that these sorts of eliminations occur. I find him sitting at the table with a defeated posture.
There's a recap and mutual disappointment at the fact that the three of us won't be playing Day 2 together. Jackson takes off to go find his friends. Max heads after him.
They've decided to postpone the tenth round until tomorrow and so at just before midnight we're done for the day.
There's no one around to eat with so we just head to the nearby Subway which is beset with Magic players and resembling a scene out of Gremlins 2. My earlier notions of seeing Portland outside of this three-block set piece had all but evaporated. We compare war stories their victorious outcomes revealing our still bellied optimism toward the future.
We return to the hotel and stop by the others' room. Jackson Max Adham and DJ as well as the freshly arrived Aeo Paquette and Daniel Krietzman are planning a pub crawl. Max asks me to come wake him before I leave for the tournament site tomorrow and I agree. Aeo and DJ are sharing our room later but will be quiet.
We return and prepare to turn in. Ma asks for a sleeping pill to ease the process. “Aren't you as exhausted as I am? You really need a pill?” He just laughs punches out a double-dose and knocks it back dry. Dude's a train wreck. I take half a pill myself just to be sure.
In the twilight glimmering of late-night American television the day's events finally begin to fade away along with only the dimmest awareness of the fact that while we had escaped the frying pan we were due to enter the fire.