Legacy End Boss Level: Tom Martell
Good chess players plot their strategy several turns in advance; the best know when to adjust on the fly. Tom Martell came to Magic after two or three years of competitive tactical black and white warfare on that familiar grid square. He "first started playing in 1994 during…summer vacation." He said "I was at a…camp program and met some kids who were playing Magic. I was familiar with Dungeons and Dragons and was already an early adopter of computer RPGs so I really liked the subject matter… Magic really hit a sweet spot for me."
He did leave the game when the camp was over and he arrived back at school to find that none of his friends were interested in flopping cards. But he returned his senior year of high school and eventually started attending his first competitive events. "I remember the tournament actually."
"According to the Wizard's Planeswalker Points website my first tournament was actually my very first sanctioned event. I went 3-0 in a FNM on 2-18-00… I was playing Mono-Red Burn with Thunderbolt and Flame Rift. I don't remember any of the other cards and I had no idea what I was really doing but I very quickly dove in full speed."
Inherent in both chess and Magic is careful management of resources and Martell's roots in tournament chess shine through when he evaluates "one of [his] best wins." It "was game 1 against Jason Ford in the Top 4 at GP Columbus. I had a pretty bad matchup with my Four-Color Counterbalance deck against his Landstill [build]. The game must have gone 30+ turns and took well over an hour but I was able to eventually grind him out and run him out of removal. I remember feeling like I'd played very well strategically (evenif I made some tactical errors) and had adjusted my game plan several times to move with the changing game states."
Being flexible in role evaluation is one of the most oft-missed components in "Who's the Beatdown?" Players can take a page out of Tom's winning playbook and add a new facet to their skillset by learning to recognize when the situation has shifted. Having that kind of flexibility leads to greater freedom in challenging a metagame; you don't always have to rely on your own deck ideas.
As Martell explains "I'm a gamer and I love the action of playing games… I rarely even try to build decks. I like to tune the creations of others and then take [the results] into battle."
He does have a few deck building stories though. "I remember sitting at my friend's dining room table a week or two [after his first tournament] cracking a box of each set in Sagablock that I purchased to try and get a collection. Going through the cards I actually pulled out Skirge Familiar and Yawgmoth's Bargain and started building a deck around them as a great combo engine. This is one of the few times I've brewed totally from scratch (as at the time I had no idea what a metagame or a net deck even were) and I was pretty thrilled to discover soon thereafter that I'd correctly identified one of the most broken engines in Magic."
It isn't always about being the best brewer however and by recognizing your own limitations you can get better at overcoming them. "I've continued to improve…as I've battled against the best in the game and winning now when I feel like I've earned it is a great feeling."
Tom has been on a rather good streak recently with a Grand Prix win in Indianapolis and a third place finish at GP Salt Lake City not to mention his Top 64 showing at GP Seattle-Tacoma. There are a lot of variables that go into that kind of success. When it comes to "winning a major tournament like a GP or PT [it] requires so many things to break your way no matter how well you are playing or how good your deck is."
Taking advantage of the breaks can only happen when you practice. Being able to visualize the game and prepare for changes in the board state are the building blocks towards future opportunities.
"I know that I've improved tremendously as a player over the last year and a half as I've 'grown into' my role as a pro player. When I won the [Last Chance Qualifier] into San Juan and turned that into a Top 32 finish to [qualify] for Amsterdam I was happy as I knew I was good enough to play on the [Pro Tour] and was thrilled to have that belief validated."
Along with learning more about the game we also learn more about ourselves. It's true that we all have bad beat stories but the successful plays and tournaments are what keep us coming back so I asked him what tournament match game or even turn still stood out in his mind as his best.
"For me I remember the matches that I punted or mistakes that I made much more vividly than matches that I've won. My 'biggest' win was the finals against Kenny Castor [at] GP Indy. It was my first major tournament win and I really really wanted it."
While it's important not to focus too much on your losses Tom suggests the point that drawing on the experience can lead to sharper tighter decision making in the future. Connecting knowledge of your mistakes with the idea of improvement it's easy to see that you can only get better if you acknowledge that you aren't the best yet.
Of course being a recognized professional player is not just about the bling airplane rides and scores of adoring barns. Tom recognizes that the community faces important issues every day. When your voice can shout out of a shiny gold trophy it matters that you're saying worthwhile things.
"We are on the cusp of a tremendous evolution in Magic as there are a significant number of women who want to play at a competitive level. This is awesome for the game for the brand and for us as players."
The emergence of female contenders who battle through the scrum to appear consistently at the top of the leaderboards has spurred critical discussion of the often-insular culture of the game and has initiated a shift in how women are perceived by the community at large. Jackie Lee's Top 8 at GP Baltimore Mary Jacobson's fifth place finish at GP Lincoln and Melissa DeTora's fantastic run are all evidence of a surge in popularity among female gamers and the first female Pro Tour champion can't be far off.
Tom points out "One of our biggest tasks now is to make it clear to everyone that we as a culture are inherently open and welcoming of anyone who wants to join us and to have a zero tolerance policy for sexism or negativity towards women."
Melissa DeTora is on record pointing out that there are more female players now than ever and that it's no longer as uncommon to sit down across from a woman as it was back when the only feminine names seemed to be the androgynous ones. The subject remains contentious as the community seems divided into several camps but it's undeniable that this positive shift is one of the most important changes the community must embrace.
Whether it's improving your game or improving the game for others being able to adapt is a crucial tool in your kit. When you constantly work to get better Martell proves that you can achieve a kind of success you can be proud of.
The interview is over but Tom Martell's quest to play Lingering Souls in every possible format continues. While casting Intuition for the flashback superstar is the closest I've felt to cheating in years I'm not nearly as talented as Legacy's reigning Grand Prix winner. The point being you should probably follow him if you don't already as he continues to make history in one of Magic's most popular formats.
Ben loves to write about Magic and he gets meta when he writes about writing but the most entertaining thing by far has to be watching Full Metal Jousting and you should start doing that if you just absolutely refuse to check out his blog. You can follow him on Twitter and suggest future interview subjects at firstname.lastname@example.org.