It's been a long time since I've approached Magic as a "fan" or spectator. For the last year and a half I've found myself at the center of most major events—not necessarily doing well but in the vicinity of the action nonetheless. I no longer sculpt my schedule around watching coverage; instead I book flights to various interchangeable locales to play competitive Magic myself.
This weekend was an exception.
I jammed the refresh button a few more times hoping that the round 12 standings from GP: Orlando would appear due to sheer force of will. This is a reflex I've retained from my younger days but the objective has changed. No longer are there stars that I root for heroes that I've never met that I silently cheer on; I now just see names of peers that I categorize as friends or enemies as I wait for the penultimate round where I will send out a flood of Facebook "Congrats" posts or texts wishing my condolences.
Sometimes I wonder whose names I'd be searching for in the standings today if I were an outsider. Maybe part of the StarCityGames.com crew like Gerry Thompson or Patrick Chapin? Or perhaps one of those feel-good stories like Christian Calcano or Tim Landale? Would I be rooting for someone like myself?
Costa lost his win and in. Friedman got demolished in Top 8 and again failed to secure his envelope to Barcelona by the smallest of margins. The finals were a miserable battle of Conley with a Conley deck and Chapin with a Chapin deck. I'd argue there was no real winner here but alas someone walked away with the trophy.
I waded my way through my first week back at school bombarded by a fresh load of assignments from new teachers who I'd quickly learn to loathe. Discontent always seems to settle in quickly and I'm rarely happy with my surroundings for any real duration of time at college or elsewhere. I outwardly wished for it to be the weekend or for my trip to Honolulu to be here but the nagging feeling that that wouldn't change my disposition haunted me.
Friday finally and I'm greeted on the front page of StarCityGames.com by Ben Friedman's tournament report. I breezed through it praying for a name drop (mise) and chuckling along at my compatriot's adventures.
After a moment of reflection I decided to post this:
Truest words I've ever typed.
Magic is a helluva drug.
My girlfriend placed her head on my shoulder and asked me how much more work I needed to get done. I told her it would be at least an hour and with that she made her way across the room and vanished under a mass of sheets and blankets.
I settled back in at my desk flicking off the lights and turning on my desk lamp. I opened up my laptop and my eyes blinked at the suddenly bright screen appearing before me and…
… It's 4 AM. And I'm in a Modern Daily. And an eight-man. And an Innistrad Draft. At 4 AM. But this is what it takes.
This is my sacrifice my offering to the Magic gods to make it on the Pro Tour.
I've had a lot of conversations with MSS superstar Blaine Hatab about this: about really putting in hard work. We'll be at the gym and idly catch someone just dogging it on the treadmill or doing curls with weights that a child could handle. And that's nice and all but if it doesn't make you sweat—if it doesn't hurt—then you're probably not working hard enough.
I used to think that I'd worked hard before in my life. I used to think that I'd properly prepared for a tournament.
Only now am I starting to figure out what that all means.
"Daybreak Ranger go."
"Vapor Snag it."
I had another week until Pro Tour Dark Ascension and any and all work continued to feel futile. The Minnesota all-star crew of me Matthias Hunt Kyle Stoll Brandon Nelson and Jason Schousboe continued to grind out game after game only to learn that everything sucked.
We built Reanimator B/W Tokens horrible control decks. They revived old Block decks while I dug through articles and forums of years past for something anything. Adam Reiser Andrejs Prost and Shahar Shenhar offered commentary in our Facebook group. It all came to a head when I convinced the team to play games with Sance on the recommendation of Bryan Gottlieb.
Eventually they all settled on a R/G Aggro deck but the thought of registering Forests and Mountains at a Pro Tour again seemed preposterous to me. Additionally if the premise of your deck is playing with Daybreak Ranger and Huntmaster of the Fells and you realize that one of those two isn't any good what are you really even trying to accomplish?
Meanwhile it appeared that everyone forgot that Jund was legal except you get to register Islands and not Savage Lands.
Is this what it's like to be a real person?
I was sitting at a Chipotle with my girlfriend and her friend for lunch before I headed to the airport. They discussed med school politics having kids; I settled for laughing intermittently while struggling to keep my food in my mouth. It was like being back at day care all over again. Where were my crayons and blocks to play with?
The conversation and interactions seemed to stretch through time to the point where I felt like my clothes were slowly going out of style. Eventually I began to imagine an alternate universe where I spent my time watching the news and studying hard instead of playing Magic such that I actually had something interesting to say.
I snapped out of it when my girlfriend asked me if I need to head to the bus soon.
Her friend asked where I was going and without missing a beat my better half fired off with: "Hawaii. Hawaii. Isn't he so lucky!?"
I was safe. I was clean. I was out of i-
"And just ask him why he's going!"
"They're all seven for $20. Every single one of them. Can't they just give us a little incentive to come to their shop? How about 8 for $20 or they throw in a bulk rare maybe even just some nice uncommons?"
Tommy Ashton led us as we swiftly sifted through the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet. We gorged ourselves with fresh pineapple and mango which cooled our bodies in the withering heat.
Tommy bought T-shirts. Alex Majlaton purchased a Pikachu plush toy. I inexplicably spent $10 on a painted coconut that the company places postage on and mails home for you (they had a MySpace page and everything!).
After a few hours we returned back to the hotel and were greeted by a lobby full of familiar faces and booster packs covering a once clean floor. The people and location change from weekend to weekend but the scene always remains the same having become as closely associated with the term "Magic Tournament" as the rounds themselves.
I made my way over to one of the drafts and fingered through a selection of decks pausing only to make fun of a specific card or its owner when I deemed it to be necessary.
I slid over to a couch and began to badger the sage-like Tom Raney God bless his soul.
I watched Dan Jordan and Shahar Shenhar battle U/W Delver against Mono-Green intervening only to play a single game where I conceded on turn 4 for no reason other than being sick of staring at Forests.
Eventually Justin Desai and Matt Costa called me and I made the mile trek to our lavish hotel The Pagoda.
(For the weekend we knew that we were headed in the right direction when we took a left turn on "Dead Squirrel Road.")
We spent the next day and a half going to the beach hiking up Diamond Head and eating ice cream.
Magic was played but more to pass the time than as any sort of real focus or as an act of last minute preparation. We had all long since settled on our respective decks—Desai on Humans and me Costa and Friedman on Delver.
Final card choices were made through civil debate and discussion not through physically rehearsed game situations. We settled on playing a Day of Judgment and a Consecrated Sphinx. We all knew it was wrong but none of us had the audacity to turn down the opportunity to register them.
My heart was pinballing through my chest. Every beat was exaggerated sending a rigid earthquake through my rib cage. I was shaking sweating biting into my own lip just to make sure that I was still there.
I was sitting at 5-2 battling in the last round of the day against Pro Tour Valencia finalist Andre Mueller to go into day 2 with a loss to spare. We're deep in game 3 and I f***ing feel alive.
I spiked my fifth land after stalling on four forever and immediately cast my Battleground Geist with a Gallows Warden ready to come down the next turn. I was dead to him peeling Brimstone Volley or his Balefire Dragon but otherwise had this locked up.
As he went to draw his card for the turn my eyes locked onto his scanning his features for any sort of facial expression that would clue me in.
I winced unsure if I could physically handle either him sucking me out or me fading for what feels like the first time ever. I braced my fragile mind for impact and suddenly realized that I wasn't even breathing anymore.
I love it I hate it I can't escape it.
I live for this.
Now imagine a five foot seven Asian child celebrating like that. At the Pro Tour.
Costa kept on five but his opponent begrudgingly went to four on the play. I was standing behind the rail with only Justin Desai to keep me in control while Dustin Taylor encouraged my antics.
I started bouncing up and down with some intermittent fist pumps just lengthy enough to release the tingly feelings resting inside my arms but succinct so that they wouldn't aggravate the undeserving opponent.
Costa Probed him (on four the nerve) and saw something embarrassing like lands and a Ratchet Bomb.
Ratchet Bomb? Why didn't he just bring his casual EDH deck to the table instead?
I started up another short dance routine with a loss being unfathomable at this point. I watched the next few turns play out before I began to walk away. Dustin asked me where I was going and I simply replied "It's over man." He laughed as half-hearted cockiness is nothing out of character for me. But this time I really did mean it.
The next round I settled in for my match against some Italian guy. We were still both very much in the hunt for money but the fact was that I just didn't care.
Sometimes in life some things are bigger than just one person.
We made it to game 3 and there was a tricky board position involving him at seven life with a flipped Delver and myself at five with a Geist of Saint Traft. I just Pondered last turn and was forced to cast my Timely Reinforcements despite knowing that he had a Surgical Extraction in hand to negate the life gain.
He became callous swearing under his breath calling me lucky. He probably even called me a stupid American at some point which wouldn't be too far from the truth.
He cast the Extraction and continued to berate me. I attacked for the turn and he cast a Snapcaster Mage Snagged my token and killed me.
I was dumbfounded incredulous that he would put on the whole act when I was clearly just dead on board. Under slightly different circumstances I would have been livid at this point. As it was I calmly picked up my cards and headed over to where I really wanted to be.
Costa was there; he was smiling. I knew. I didn't even have to ask. I ran up gave him a hug ensured that he was locked and spilled out all the congratulations in the world.
He did it.
But at the same time we did it.
I was already living vicariously at age 20. But in that moment I was validated.
"Would it be 'fair' if Finkel made the right play and mulls to five and got stomped?" – Tim Aten
Their Mana Leaks and Vapor Snags were miserable; ours were insane.
Their "tech" in Dungeon Geists was borderline unplayable against our build.
They were the old cocky veteran squad. We were the upstart underdogs the feel good story of the event.
I dare say it but Costa wanted it more. He had that killer look in his eyes. Ask Dave Shiels about it sometime he'll tell ya.
We spent Sunday morning playtesting a few more games and were ultimately happy with our understanding of how the match would play out. Desai ventured to Wal-Mart in hopes of picking up some foam fingers and air horns (at my request) but to no avail.
Our foursome arrived at the convention center around 8:30 and things kicked off shortly thereafter. I wished Costa the best before Reid Duke grabbed him for a quick pep talk prior to heading into battle.
Finkel took the first game easily crushing Costa with an army of Drogskol Captains. Game 2 was a close affair but a timely Delver of Secrets flipped for the veteran let him steal one that I thought we should've had.
They went off camera and I returned to my draft with Ari Lax and Jarvis Yu unable to watch or stomach the ongoing match. Coverage streaming from a nearby laptop let us know that Costa had finally taken a game off Finkel prompting a minor celebration.
However my merriment was short-lived as Finkel blew through our hero in the fourth and deciding game of the match. Costa exited the ring and there really isn't anything to be said.
This wasn't how it was supposed to end…
The cab dropped us off at the airport and I began to mentally prepare myself for returning to my so-called reality.
Ben walked up to the Delta stand and asked the young man to print his boarding pass. He asked for Ben's ID and began to process the information through his computer. Ben and I began to talk about the tournament our decks and the future of our Magic "careers." After surely holding off for as long as possible the employee perked up. "Are you guys talking about Magic?" We bowed our heads in agreement.
"Ah man that's sweet I love Magic. I got this Burning Vengeance deck and man it tears people up. You should see the look on their faces it's priceless."
He asked us what colors we play and if we had any trades on us. He brags about his Akroma and how jealous all of his buddies are of it. He asked if we've ever seen a piece of the legendary Power Nine. When we asked if he plays at FNM he kindly explained that he competes in something like that: Tuesday Night Magic is the thing around here.
Eventually our conversation died down and we told the young man that we had to go so that Ben could make it to his flight. He thanked us for the chats and wished us safe travels.
As Ben and I walked I began to blurt out something along the lines of "What a buffoon" but caught myself as I can only wonder how much fun the airline worker is having when he sits down with his stack of unplayables at the kitchen table with his friends. Maybe they're the ones who are really doing what we claim to love after all.
I found myself forced to skip GP Lincoln due to prior personal commitments but with an open invitation to stay at the Friedman residence it became impossible for me to skip out on a return to the East Coast for GP Baltimore.
I arrived at Reagan around 11 PM and was swiftly scooped up by Friedman and Costa. We made the hour trek back to Ben's house where I was greeted by his parents and my new best friend Sheila.
We spent the next hour arguing over how to update our Honolulu list for the next day's action. Ben wanted to play with Negate Costa wanted more singletons and I hated everything. So it goes.
Friedman eventually headed to bed while Costa and I stayed up for our usual late-night chats. We discussed our respective college math courses our relationships and our "double lives." He broke down how his Pro Tour Top 8 has changed his Magic "career" plans. I listened attentively giving feedback and advice while silently considering the end of my road come December.
It may sound selfish—it may be selfish—but at times it can be tough to be happy for those around you when you're in a rut. When you are used to being the star and are surpassed so suddenly it's hard to be complacent. The worst part is that you knew it was coming all along that the person behind you was better than you that your moment in the limelight was not meant to last—and nothing you can do would ever change that fact.
Costa and I have come a long way together battling through the JSS ranks and the treacherous Northeast PTQ circuit. By some twist of fate I managed to make it out first and stay on the train. However anytime I found myself at a local PTQ I couldn't help but stand behind him as he beautifully crafted his way through match after match with an expertise that I could only dream of obtaining. The inevitable has finally come to fruition.
"I've never seen you not smiling at a tournament." – Mike Flores US Nationals 2010
"I've never seen you happy to be at a tournament in my entire life." Brian David-Marshall GP Kansas City 2011
A sinking feeling was accompanied by a funk as I crossed through the doors separating the open lobby area from the convention hall. This temporary sickness was quickly relieved when I jumped into the beckoning arms of Matty Gemme hoping to all powers that be that he'll never let go.
I made my usual rounds seeking out my favorite familiar faces veiled by an ocean of strangers. I talked to "Kid" Gindy about his move to Virginia and asked Gabriel Kaptchuck how his first semester at Johns Hopkins has been.
Eventually it was time to get down to business and our trio (plus Matty Gemme and Chase Kovac) huddled up at a table. Costa wanted our last maindeck slot to be an Image and Ben was still raving about Negate; I was firm on my choice of the third Invisible Stalker. Costa eventually decided he was on board and after running through all the dream scenarios we rounded out the usual suspects with a Jace Memory Adept and Batterskull.
I spent the first few hours of the day wandering the nearby area stopping at Starbucks and Subway. I asked friends about the early rounds high-fiving to their victories and fronting a frown over their bad beats. The stories were rarely unique or even interesting but sometimes you just need to be an ear for a friend.
Coming out of the byes always feels something like the first week of college. Limited or Constructed your deck always feels fresh as you ease yourself in playing the round as if you were goldfishing on Magic Workstation. A mull to five on the draw in game three didn't even begin to faze me and soon enough I was walking up with the slip making a tight circle with my thumb and index finger when friends inquired about my record.
Round 7 pairings went up and I was matched against Paulo playing U/B. I sat down and shuffle up with an aggressive stare but any of the confidence I once held had been sapped. I mulliganed without hesitation telling myself that I couldn't win with that hand but really I was just building up an inner barrier that would ease the pain when it was all over. I Probed him early and the revealed cards confirmed weakness from him but a few turns later I found myself crushed and wondering what happened. The second game was more of the same and I began to identify with my opponents from the previous rounds who seemingly never had a chance.
I breezed through the rest of the day unimpeded making swift work of Ryan Bogner and his U/B Zombies deck for the second straight event before closing the day out with a win against Nathan Bertelsen's W/B Tokens. These wins felt meaningless however as my mind remained occupied by thoughts of my match against PV.
"You sure do play a lot of Magic for someone who is quitting."
All I could do was smirk while I continued to shuffle away. The conversation became more intimate as Chapin began to inquire why exactly it is that I play Magic. Short a real response I told him that it's a mental release a break from everything else in my life that I detest so strongly.
"So it's just the best of the worst for you?" he suggested. "That's not right man… Magic is something you should love."
Maybe he's being genuine; maybe he's really just offering up his most sincere advice and trying to reach out to. But I can't help but feel that I'm being gamed that he's in my head—and it's working. I struggled to focus on the match at hand but my mind replayed the poignant questions as if devoted to finding some deeper truth or meaning within.
I kept a suspect hand in game 1 and was handily crushed when my deck did not deliver any miracles.
Suddenly my third eye awakened and I could see it; I envisioned myself mulling to five while he curved out and destroyed my hopes and dreams. I thought about my match with Paulo from the previous day and about losing to Juza and Kibler in Honolulu. I considered the inevitable text messages from my own mother telling me that I probably should've just stayed home this weekend if all I was going to do was lose when it mattered.
I took a deep breath and everything just disappeared. My mind became clear my leg began its jittery 1-2 step and I was back to where I needed to be. I rekindled our small talk before the second game and convincingly dispatched him with a Jace Memory Adept.
I was back in the driver's seat. He was now the one dodging my questions trying to keep me out of his head. This dynamic was subtle but crucial; it wasn't that he doesn't like me that he didn't want to talk to me—he just knew that he couldn't let me in. Every response he gave only strengthened our rapport and I was currently the one holding the puppet strings.
Game 3 was a close affair but my singleton Batterskull managed to do him in. We shook hands on some great games and I picked up my cards and headed over to booth to talk with Sheldon.
Every match victory counts for three points in the standings but sometimes their value transcends just what the sheet reports.
It never fails to amaze me how quickly things can fall apart especially in Magic. You can go from being on the top of the standings to outside the money in just a few short rounds with a fleeting crew of Facebook supporters dropping you for the next best thing the minute results are posted.
I lost to Jackie Lee in a grueling three game set where I punted away game 1 and kept a bad hand in game 3 with the clock ticking down. Next I fell victim to Andrew Lukas after I played an (un)Timely Reinforcements and was punished by a topdecked Sword of War and Peace. Scotty Kelley offered me some reprieve as his Frites deck delivered little help to him during our match. I finished out the day by conceding to Sam Black in an effort to help him lock up Platinum status and then drew with Corey Gaudreau into the money.
The day was far from over though as Costa still had a tournament to take down. I gave my support to all four of the Bostonian crew in Top 8 but there could only be one winner and I know which camp I truly belong to. I kept within earshot to follow the results but was unable to physically be there while matches progressed. It's not that I mind watching Magic played or the sometimes sluggish pacing of the matches but rather that I get too emotionally racked up with each and every draw step.
Costa first took apart Eric Meng with Frites then Matt Scott with U/B Zombies. In the finals he won what could have easily been a local PTQ finals or money draft match against Dave Shiels with U/B control.
The table judge asked if I would like to present Costa with the trophy a request to which I obliged. Congratulations were cut short as I was forced to take off shortly thereafter with Jarvis Yu and Bing Luke. I spent Sunday night at my grandparent's home in Alexandria before departing back to school in the wee hours of the morning.
The week passed quickly and when Friday came I was greeted with this sight on the mothership:
Another Grand Prix weekend rolled around and I was on the proverbial rail again this time due to the expense of plane tickets to Seattle. I settled on playing Sealed release queues and Standard eight-mans on Magic Online while watching coverage to get my fill.
I followed the standings warily watching as Costa stumbled out of the gates with an early loss before rallying off two wins. He picked up his second loss in round seven before winning his next placing him squarely on the bubble for Saturday's final round.
My phone vibrated across my desk. I saw Costa's name flash across the top of it and I didn't even need to open it up to realize the message's contents. I grabbed my hoodie and headed out into the brisk March evening walking with the sole intention of escaping my own thoughts.
Magic is a tough tough game. I once overheard Patrick talking about playing with his Survival deck at Grand Prix: Columbus and he said that essentially there were only so many things he could focus on at once and execute correctly. He didn't let himself get bogged down with mistakes or missed interactions because there's often just too much going on. Focus on what matters as they say and the rest will fall into place.
You will almost certainly never play a perfect match of Magic and you will find yourself finishing far more often in "dead last" than in first place. I take on each event as opportunity to learn and grow coming one step closer to perfection with every game I play. That is why I write these reports—they're just part of how I reflect on and learn from my own experiences.
Shout outs to Tim Aten Mike Gemme Mike Maclone and anyone else who helped with this article.
Thank you for reading.