Flow of Ideas - Stories of a PTQ Grinder
Ten years is a long time to devote to anything. People put in less time to their entire college educations to their finest passions to their long-term goals. This upcoming January will mark my ten-year anniversary of playing lands and casting spells. What were you doing ten years ago? Are you still doing it now? There are few things I still retain from when I was ten years old and Magic is one of them.
I look back on my experience and I'm thankful for the people I've met the places I've been and the games I've played. I'm appreciative of the moments that will never leave me the ones I signed an unwritten contract in Father Time's blood in order to receive and remember.
I can close my eyes and reappear in a chair lights overhead and the screeching shuffling of cards buzzing in my ears the opponent's face hazy yet familiar another mirage in the desert of memory. I can see their hands move as cards snap into focus dancing around the surface like a tablecloth faerie. I can feel the emotion hit like a bottle of hard liquor on your 21st birthday churning your stomach as the boat sailing your sea of stomach acid pleads for you to stop yet your mind encourages you to delve further into the concentrated moment.
What happens within those fifty-minute rounds is what we live for.
Each round inks a few sentences in a personal novel. After ten years my novel has character. It's busting at the edges with scribbled marginalia on every few pages and photographs glued here and there to better tell the story. Some pages are fading or have fallen out entirely. Others are highlighted and marked with sticky notes ones I come back to again and again at after-event dinners and long car rides.
Today I want to crack open my novel and share some of the latter.
Some of them contain lessons. Some of them are just entertaining. Either way there's personal resonance in each. Enjoy.
To tell this story we need to go back to a time when the next Pro Tour was Pro Tour Hollywood when LSV was in love with green midrange creatures and when George Bush was still president. The date was February 18 2008. The format? Invasion-forward Extended.
With Extended season fully in swing I had been testing numerous decks for the event. For a while Affinity was my frontrunner. I'd been working with Max McCall on the deck and we had a fairly consistent version that packed Fatal Frenzy to twist matchups in our favor that Shrapnel Blast wouldn't.
However I was worried about being hated out. I despise it when a deck succumbs to a few sideboard cards and alongside Dredge Affinity is a word nearly synonymous with that weakness. I began to look toward other options.
Eventually I began working with Mike Flores on a new kind of G/B Rock deck. It was totally untraditional for an Extended deck. It used Life from the Loam as a card advantage engine and had a Kokusho the Evening Star endgame as a weapon to beat the Solitary Confinements out of Enduring Ideal. I quickly fell in love with this deck and spent hours upon hours tuning it. Before I knew it I had built the ultimate in slow grind-‘em out decks. I was returning Kokusho with Genesis just so I could flashback Cabal Therapy. The decklist is unfortunately trapped within the annals of my old computer or I would show it to you. In any case despite its slowness it was fun to play and never really felt old.
For some backstory Travis and I have known each other since my brother and I started fighting with Travis and his brother for Junior Super Series scholarship money. We're rivals built in the same fashion as Ash Ketchum and Gary Oak. Secretly we'll help each other and then whenever we play we always put on a fun show.
Anyway I gave Travis the two Mires I had on me and told him I'd help find the others.
I began walking around scoping out the sideboards. No Affinity hate was in sight. I talked to a bunch of the top players none of whom were worried about the artifact menace. Furthermore this seemed to be Goblins' big breakout weekend – a matchup Affinity with Fatal Frenzy was extremely favorable in. When Jonathon Loucks came up to me complaining that he didn't really enjoy any deck in the format I was pushed over the edge.
“Here take my deck. I've been testing it all week and it's a lot of fun. You get to play with cards you never would otherwise.”
“Wait what? How are you going to play if I take your deck?”
“Don't worry about it. I have a plan.”
I was going to have to hope Travis could find his Bloodstained Mires himself. In the next twenty minutes I rushed around and cobbled together the Affinity decklist I wanted to play added Engineered Plague to the sideboard to help combat the uprise in Goblins. Just as pairings went up I finished writing my decklist and sat down deck barely sleeved in time to play the first round.
Of course I began tearing through the PTQ. Despite only seven rounds it was one of the hardest PTQs I've ever had to play in. My read on hate had been completely off and I had to face several Kataki War's Wage on the day managing to grind out several games and somehow win through the dreaded 2/1. I had to defeat a few strong Northwest players you've probably never of – Ian Kerr Bryan Petersen and Chris Buker – as well as fight through Mike Gurney (who would Top 8 an Extended GP a week or two afterward) my brother Tanner and Alexander West – twice!
After dispatching Alexander West and his sideboarded Kataki for the second time I was off to the finals against Travis Woo.
Game 1 was completely under my control when an out-of-gas Travis ripped a Patriarch's Bidding to put him back in the game. I fought back for several more turns afterward making progress and digging for a Fatal Frenzy but eventually the Goblin army overcame me. In game 2 I finally got to set my Engineered Plagues on something other than Spirit as I quickly cast one and shut him down. We were going to the third game with everything on the line.
I tanked and ended up keeping a hand with no black source but double Engineered Plague. I knew Travis had basically no outs to a Plague and if I drew a Vault of Whispers Chromatic Star or Springleaf Drum I would instantly win.
The game went on for quite a while in an attrition war me trading whenever possible to dig for a black source. Finally I was ahead despite the double Plague rotting in my hand. I still hadn't found a black source but I was looking to be in a position to win the game. Travis had one card in his hand and four red sources.* Even if his last card was Bidding I didn't think there was anything he could draw to cast it.
He drew his card and smiled. He snapped a Graven Cairns onto the battlefield and I instantly realized what had occurred. Travis confirmed: “That's my Bloodstained Mire substitute.” Travis cast the Bidding he had been holding I failed to draw a black source on the next turn to contain his army and Travis was on the way to his first Pro Tour.
To get here we're going to have to go even further back. Guildpact had just been released and there was a Sealed PTQ for Prague which used the brand new set in Spokane a city about four or five hours out of Seattle located on the other side of the state. Who knows why a PTQ had been set there but what mattered is that a PTQ was happening within a seven-hour radius and I needed to be there.
To set up the context I was extraordinarily good at Ravnica Sealed. I suspect it was mostly because I was fifteen years old and therefore always had access to all five colors on turn five. In any case I made Top 8 of five out of the six PTQs I played in that season.
The PTQ was in some generic hobby shop that sold model airplanes six different kinds of glue and in a rack off to the side some Magic cards. It was clear the owner didn't really understand the logistics of what was going on but it didn't matter too much because Cascade Games – the premier TO for the Northwest – was running the event and had sent staff to oversee the event.
The PTQ ended up being exactly 64 players capping it off at only six rounds. For reference there hasn't been a Spokane PTQ since.
I opened a Sealed deck with Glare of Subdual Angel of Despair and Savage Twister. I could choose which ones to play… But why not play them all? So I splashed the WW of Angel off three sources and ran Gruul Nodorog Bloodscale Prowler and Elvish Skysweeper for backup. Boros Signet was in my sideboard. I had no concept of mana discipline but I didn't need to. I had the small child mana advantage. You can view the entire deck here.
Anyway after the bipolar and confusing nature of my deck sufficiently frustrated several of my opponents (including both now and then StarCityGames.com columnist Noah Weil) I unintentionally drew in the last round to end up in 8th place.
The draft went reasonably well and I ended up with a R/G/W deck that was actually pretty good. I had managed to wheel the super underrated Mindmoil and was passed a lot of good Gruul cards in the third pack.
My round 1 opponent knew what was up and had drafted a great U/R/b deck complete with Izzet Chronarchs and Peel from Reality. Game 1 I came out of the gates quickly but as the blue Ravnica decks tended to do he eventually buried me in the card advantage of Vedalken Dismisser Train of Thought and Steamcore Weird and won on the back of Wee Dragonauts.
Game 2 ran similarly long. I had a solid start and then stuck an early Mindmoil and began sifting through my deck. However he regained control and all hope seemed lost. I had an out but I had forgotten about it due to the drain of the match. When I Mindmoiled into a Skarrgan Skybreaker to deal lethal damage I was just as surprised as he was.
It all came down to game 3.
Just as game 2 ended the Cascade Games TO came over cheeks slightly reddened. The store had to close and so the quarterfinals needed to wrap up immediately.
You read that right. The store had to close.
Apparently there was no reasoning to stay open later. Therefore we entered into sudden death. If at any time one player has less life than another that player loses. I looked to my sideboard bemoaning the fact that I passed three late Benedictions of Moons for unplayable cards. It's too bad we hadn't known about this going in. I boarded in everything cheap and hoped I wouldn't just die to a turn 2 Pyromatics.
My opponent mulliganed and kept six. I looked over my opening seven. Nothing worthwhile. Mulligan. I saw a hand of land land land Courier Hawk Mourning Thrull Gate Hound. I tanked. Rather then dig for a one-drop I kept.
Did you see what I missed?
I realized what had happened as soon as I did it. If I played Mourning Thrull instead of Courier Hawk then I have a guaranteed win if I just attack. Even if he blocks I gain one life and end up victorious.
But I didn't. And I lost.
I wished my opponent good luck and calmly walked away. The remaining Top 4 retreated to a nearby McDonald's to finish the event (seriously) and I sulked back to my hotel.
I got back to my room and locked the door. My eyes finally begin to bubble as my tear ducts burst. Anger. Frustration. Lack of discipline. Disbelief. All of those emotions were contained in those tiny tears and all of those tears were directed at myself.
It was the first time I'd ever cried because of a match of Magic.
Since we keep going back further and further in time let's continue the stroll in our modified DeLorean to August 2005.
A lot of things were happening for me this year. After slowly easing up my skill I began working with a fifteen-year-old Ari Lax on a Mono-Green Beatdown deck. When I started working with him he told me the deck had begun to warp the Michigan metagame and all decks had begun to become Mono-Green or anti-Mono-Green. Looking back on it that was total hyperbole. Some things never change I suppose. Regardless I bought into it and began working on the deck.
Fortunately I made the finals of the next JSS event with it and qualified for Baltimore. Sameer Merchant and I then continued to work on it and we both made the Top 8 of Seattle Regionals both of us ultimately losing our quarterfinal match. If you want better context or just want to read some of the laugh-worthy sentences I thought would be a good idea when I was fifteen you can find the Regionals tournament report I wrote here.
When it finally came time to go to Baltimore and play the deck everybody was talking about was this absolutely awful Mox-and-Nail Tooth and Nail deck that came out of French Nationals. I playtested it and found it abysmal though Ari would ultimately champion it to his death. Mono-Blue ‘Tron was also one of the breakout decks but I didn't really take it seriously despite knowing about its presence.
In the end I decided to go back to my roots – literally. It was time to break out the Blanchwood Armors again.
If you want the details of the tournament including a range of play that I can look back at today and think “Man I can't believe how dumb I was” to “Wait why don't I still think like this?” you can read the tournament report I wrote here. While there are actually a few good stories from the event I mostly want to tell you about what happened in round 12.
For those who don't know how the JSS worked it was a Standard event for scholarship money that ran alongside US Nationals. You had to be sixteen or under to play and you had to qualify for the event in tournaments around the country. It was discontinued after the championships in 2007 but it was vital to my growth as a Magic player and it's a shame a similar system isn't still around. (Though I recognize it was not a success for Wizards by any stretch of the imagination.) The Championships were a thirteen-round event with nine rounds on Day 1 and four more on Day 2.
I ended Day 1 at 6-3. I lost to now-friends Anthony Izzo who I met for the first time at that event and Sean Pottinger. I also lost to James Kandebo who in retrospect I now recognize was known as a savage JSS cheater. Whoops.
In any case everybody did the math. It seemed like you had to be X-3 or better to make Top 8. If I won out and went 4-0 I could still make it.
It was time to rally.
I came back on Sunday and proceeded to play like I had never played before. Round 10 fell. Round 11 fell. I was two more wins away.
Then it happened. I got called for my first feature match.
For those keeping score at home yes that is Travis Woo playing to my right.
Michael on the other hand was playing some crazy five-color deck with Bringer of the Black Dawn. I guess at least this JSS opponent had to shuffle tutor the fair way.
Game 1 he landed a turn 3 Bringer and took me down without much effort. I managed to barely pull out game 2 after a fourth turn Bringer. As usual everything was on the line in game 3.
I had a mediocre start that required me to go in on a Rushwood Dryad by handing it Blanchwood Armor on turn 3. After attacking and passing back Michael picked up two cards to draw and accidently looked at both of them. The judge issued him a warning and play continued.
I know what you're thinking. You think this is like watching a generic horror movie: you know how this one ends. The kid is going to have the game locked up look at another card and get a game loss. “Good stories” you might already have queued up in your mind to post in the forums. “However I felt the third story was pretty obvious.”
Hold up. This isn't Saw 12 here: there's a twist.
Back to the game.
My opponent found the mana to cast the Wrath of God he needed to leave me helpless. He untapped cast Enduring Ideal and I immediately knew I was done for. He searched up Zur's Weirding and my stomach acid began to rise in order to singe the hopeful wings of the butterflies fluttering in my stomach. Then for no real reason whatsoever I asked for him to pass over the oddball enchantment so I could check the lengthy text three times to try and find a loophole that doesn't exist.
While I was looking at the card my opponent turned to the judge. “How many warnings does it take to get a game loss for something?” he asked. “I looked at my top card earlier in the tournament.”
I looked up stunned. A couple of butterflies broke free of the flames as my own personal inner volcano receded. Is that even a game loss? I wondered. The judge paused the match and scampered off. My opponent and I sat in an awkward silence for about fifteen minutes his posture visibly sinking as mine rose the longer the judge took.
The judge came back. I gripped the chair as though it were my life raft waiting for the news.
I couldn't believe it.
I went onto win my next match. The math we did was wrong (story of my life) and I didn't end up in Top 8 but 10th place and $2350 of college paid for still made for a pretty happy ending.
From Seattle there are basically three places you can feasibly go in a car to PTQ. There's usually two in Seattle one in Vancouver and one in Portland. If you're an adventurous PTQ grinder like me there are also the PTQs in Boise. Though I did drive down to California for a JSS challenge once (perhaps a story for another article) everywhere else is realistically too far away if you're reasonable. The drive to Portland is about three hours from Seattle.
Why is all of this important?
Let me explain…
It had been a particularly busy week for me. I had been hit hard with a surprise dose of schoolwork and hadn't had much time to test for the Extended PTQ on March 15 2008. To up the ante there were two PTQs that weekend: one on Saturday in Portland and one on Sunday in Vancouver. I wanted to hit up both. There was one problem: I had no idea what to play.
I finished up all of the homework I had to do for Monday on Friday and exhausted threw all of my Extended cards into a box so I could leave at 6 am the next day. My father had offered to drive me down to Portland for the day so driving wasn't an issue. A deck was. I decided I was just going to have to figure out what to play in the car.
We started making our way down and I started working through brews in my head. It was the same format as the PTQ in the first story – Invasion-forward Extended – but I didn't think Affinity was a good choice for that weekend. Players had caught onto the deck and were packing a ton of hate and storm combo decks like TEPS had surged in popularity after GP Vancouver. I needed something else. I had blind faith that I would come up with a deck in time.
Cue Josh Wludyka.
About halfway down to Portland I had a feeling to call up Josh. He was at GP Philadelphia but the event hadn't even started yet. We talked all of the time so I didn't think he could tell me anything new about deck choice. I knew what he was planning to play. Every possible thought process led me to believe talking to him would not help me out in my deck choice yet I called him anyway.
This is what our conversation was like:
“Hey Josh what's popular at the GP? Any new decks?”
“Play U/W Tron. I'm pretty sure it's insane.”
“Wait what? Where did this come from?”
“Yeah Adam Yurchick and I brewed it up at Brett Blackman's house last night. We're pretty sure it's insane.”
“What are its matchups like?”
“Haven't really played any games.”
“Alright… Well text me the list.”
I put all of my chips in the basket. Running off the same feeling I just knew I could trust him. With no idea of matchups or how to sideboard I managed to build nearly the entire thing. Running behind I staggered into the tournament site with minutes left and procured the Skycloud Expanses and Meddling Mages I needed before scrawling out my decklist in a fevered haze.
I went undefeated in the Swiss finally losing a close quarterfinal match to double Shrapnel Blast out of Mono-Red Burn. The next day I ended up in a crushing ninth place at the Vancouver PTQ.
When I started writing this article I had a long list of stories to talk about. “Eleven stories in one article? No problem.” As I began to put them into words it quickly became apparent that each story has its own life; its own backstory which begets another backstory. There was far more to say on each that I would rather tell four stories well than eleven poorly and I hope you enjoyed them. More importantly I hope you could feel them. I hope some of the raw emotion dripped off the page and mixed into your mind.
If you enjoyed this article please let me know! If you like hearing these stories I'll make sure this kind of article returns eventually. It's an experiment and I want to know what you guys think! Whether you loved or hated this article please either post in the forums tweet me at GavinVerhey or send me an e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com to let me know what you think.
Have fun creating new stories at your events this weekend!
*In coverage of the match written by Riki Hayashi it says that Travis already had one black source on the battlefield. Travis and I don't believe that to be the case but there's no way to find out for sure. And even if we could know would you really want to?