Magic tournaments, by their nature, contain some of the biggest emotional swings their competitors will ever face. It's peculiar, because one would instinctively assume that Magic tournaments are intended to be breaks from the cares of the "real world," places where players can momentarily put aside their worldly concerns in favor of intense attention to minute details in deck design and in-game play. Of course, as we all know, that kind of intense attention breeds emotional investment, the kind that results in utter despair when the turn of a card quickly ends the climax of weeks of preparation, hundreds of dollars in travel and card costs, and hours of painstaking focus at the tournament itself.
By the same token, when the stars align, it can bring forth some of the most unadulterated joy in otherwise stoic or jaded individuals. Magic draws us in, and enthralls us with the emotional roller coaster inherent in the tournament scene, making the rest of our lives seem muted and dull by comparison. I know this because I have experienced it. Some of my lowest moments have been at the hands of tournament Magic.
- Losing in the finals of a PTQ in my first ever PTQ Top 8.
- Bricking my first two Pro Tours, knowing that I would have to return to the bottom of the PTQ trenches in order to try to requalify.
- Going from 9-2 to 9-7 at Pro Tour Theros.
- Losing multiple win-and-ins for that elusive Pro Tour Top 8 at Pro Tours Journey into Nyx and Magic 2015.
- Losing a win-and-in on camera at Grand Prix Detroit when I had the win available, had I decided to "go for it."
The list goes on and on. Of course, Magic has brought me more moments of pure elation than anything else in my life.
- Winning that first PTQ and going to the Pro Tour for the first time.
- Making my first GP Top 8. Cashing a Pro Tour for the first time.
- Getting the news that I would receive a special invitation to Pro Tour Avacyn Restored and thereby locking Gold for the next year.
- Winning the PTQ at 3am in an empty event hall in rainy Connecticut that brought me back to the PT after I had fallen off.
These kind of emotionally charged events "stretch" one's emotional calibration, making normal day-to-day swings of life less impactful by comparison. Even now, it is unclear to me whether I am naturally inclined to logic rather than emotion, or if Magic is simply so fraught with swings that it changed me as a person, making it harder to feel sheer joy or despair in quotidian life. In that way, more than any other, it seems like Magic will stay with me for the rest of my days.
I begin this tournament report with that brief introspection about how Magic intersects with its most dedicated players' emotional well-being because, well, this Pro Tour was particularly swingy for a great many people, myself included. It began on the Thursday morning before Grand Prix Houston, when I woke up to the following two text messages from my mother:
1:21AM - Grandpa is dying
1:56AM - Grandpa just died
My 90-year-old grandfather, Sheldon Keilson, had been in relatively good health, and was certainly strong enough that I had expected him to live at least another few years, possibly even to 100. Even a fall and a broken bone didn't seem to change that outlook, as he was planning to go to physical therapy to regain the use of his arm. Unfortunately, he caught some sort of infection in the hospital, and his immune system was weak enough from the operation to reset his humerus that the germs ran roughshod over him, quickly turning into full-body sepsis. It was a shock to all of us, but I was asked to speak at the funeral, so I needed to make a change of plans on short notice and fly home instead of to Houston. However, my flight to the Pro Tour left on Monday afternoon from Houston, so my new flight plan was convoluted and unnecessarily long, to say the least.
Now, I flew Las Vegas - Atlanta - Baltimore on Friday, then drove with my family to New York and back for the funeral and burial. After doing my duties as a grandson at the service, it was time to fly out of Baltimore to Houston, to drive across town from one Houston airport to the other, then to Los Angeles, where I could finally catch my flight to Barcelona and then to Bilbao, arriving Tuesday night bedraggled and jetlagged. But I made it, and tried to put the difficult weekend behind me in anticipation of the first Modern Pro Tour in two years.
I was thrilled to be piloting my favorite deck in the format, Grixis Death's Shadow with Mishra's Bauble, so I dropped by the apartment where teammates Gerry Thompson, Ondrej Strasky, Josh Cho, and (for testing purposes) Steve Rubin were staying in order to play some Magic Online and talk shop about the decklist. I guess now is as good a time as any to add some true Magic-oriented content to the report, so here's the list I ended up playing after discussions with Steve, Dylan Donegan, and Andrew Jessup.
This list is hedged a bit more against Humans, with a Lightning Bolt maindeck and a few Izzet Staticasters in the sideboard. To make room, a Liliana of the Veil, a Kozilek's Return, and a Rakdos Charm have been cut, which hurts against Dredge and U/W Control, but we expected Affinity, Humans, the mirror, and Tron to be the most popular decks. Therefore, the changes made sense, and I was pleased with the list overall.
Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the secret 76th card in the list, possibly the most important addition for in-person play, the Mishra's Bauble Reminder Paper. Because you cannot place a die on your opponent's library in order to remember Mishra's Bauble's delayed trigger and a die on your own library does not help remind you to stop during the opponent's upkeep, the best solution is a big honking piece of paper with "MISHRA'S BAUBLE TRIGGER" written on it in big block letters, to be placed directly on the battlefield and provide such an imposing and disruptive presence that it's impossible not to notice it at all times, which makes it quite difficult to forget the trigger. I'd forgotten the Bauble trigger twice at Grand Prix Oklahoma City a few months ago, and I was determined not to miss it at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan. This reminder helps keep up good communication between both players, pleases judges with its clarity, and is guaranteed to get a few laughs over the course of a tournament. Have some humility and use it, because if I'm not too good to use a reminder paper, I don't think anyone is.
My confidence in my Constructed deck was sky high, but our booster drafts at the house did little to improve my low confidence in the Draft format. Fortunately, I had enough experience under my belt that I thought I was good for at least a 3-3, and was hoping for a stellar Constructed record to carry me to the Top 8. I left the testing apartment during a lull in the nearly nonstop rain in Bilbao in good spirits, only to be quickly caught in an icy hailstorm where I had to take refuge under a highway overpass and had my shoes and backpack soaked through. After the bridge hideout, I made it back to my hotel, shivering and chastened by the fierce winter weather in Bilbao. Naturally, the swings never stop.
The night before the Pro Tour, I felt fully prepared, having just finalized and submitted my decklist after lengthy discussions with Andrew and Dylan, and went to bed calmer than I'd been at many previous Pro Tours. Then I woke up after only a few hours of sleep (blame jetlag!) and glanced at my phone, which was lighting up with messages about Korey McDuffie in a coma at the hospital, unlikely to pull through. Everyone had slightly conflicting information, but it was clear by 4am Bilbao time that Korey was gone, another death seemingly out of the blue. I sat there, unable to sleep, unable to get up, in a kind of hazy semi-awake state for a few more hours, until the window started to brighten around 7:30.
Now I was jetlagged, low on sleep, and somewhat emotionally numb from the events of recent days. Not the best combination for playing the Pro Tour, but one thing Magic can still do for me is put me in the kind of flow state where I forget about all my other concerns in favor of putting my mental energy into combat math, draft picks, or sideboarding for an obscure matchup. With this in mind, Oliver Tiu and I got up and made our way through the rain to the convention center, where I sat down and got ready to do my first in-person draft with Rivals of Ixalan. Of course, a Profane Procession got opened up immediately on my right, which meant that I knew I couldn't draft B/W. I took a Crested Herdcaller from a pack with Bombard and Luminous Bonds as other reasonable options, and thought I'd try drafting a green midrange deck, maybe Merfolk, maybe Dinosaurs. I ended up drafting U/G/w, splashing a Huatli, Radiant Champion and an Ixalan's Binding off of four Sailor of Means, an Evolving Wilds, and a Traveler's Amulet. I knew I was unlikely to go 3-0, but I thought 2-1 was possible, which was eventually what happened when I got lucky in game 3 of round 3 against a mana-screwed Jonathan Morawski.
Just like that, it was time for Modern, with three mirror matches in a row. I went 2-1 in those mirror matches, beating Mike Sigrist in Round 6 despite an egregious misplay on my part that gave him an opportunity to get back into the game.
I had a Liliana of the Veil on five counters with a Death's Shadow, and a Kolaghan's Command in hand, to Mike's Tasigur, Snapcaster Mage, and Nihil Spellbomb. I should have simply dealt two damage to Snapcaster Mage and destroyed the Nihil Spellbomb, allowing my Liliana of the Veil to make him sacrifice Tasigur. Instead, I Edicted his Snapcaster Mage, holding the Kolaghan's Command to make him discard the card he got from end step using his Nihil Spellbomb and getting back Gurmag Angler, but that was foolish because the Gurmag Angler was useless without a graveyard, and I'd have to discard it the next turn anyway in order to uptick Liliana again. I was too focused on value and lost focus on how I could slam the door on my opponent winning. In the end, Mike bricked on removal and I won the game, but it was significantly closer than it should have been. I resolved to buckle down and focus for the last two to try to end the day with a respectable 6-2 record.
The next match was against Jeskai Control, which is a close matchup that often revolves around them topdecking the last piece of burn necessary to close out the game before an angry monster gets in the last hit. Fortunately for me, on the one key turn I faded a burn spell, and in the second game, Liliana came down and ripped my opponent's hand to shreds.
In the final round, I was paired against Living End and won by the skin of my teeth in two games I had no business winning. In the first game, I never found a threat and died quickly. In the second, I was mana-screwed, but my opponent made a fatal misplay to let me back in. He cast a Demonic Dread without using his Grove of the Burnwillows to make me gain one life, leaving me at exactly eleven when I untapped and played my Death's Shadow. This meant that he could not kill my Shadow with a Grove, as it would put me to only twelve, and because his two Monstrous Carabids were forced to attack, he was going to have to grow my Shadow to massive proportions. He attacked with the Carabids and two Street Wraiths, so I blocked a Carabid and took ten, going to one life. A 12/12 Death's Shadow sure does appreciate a nice Berserk effect, and my opponent promptly took 22 damage the next turn. He looked shaken after that one.
In game 3, my opponent again comboed off unimpeded, but he took two damage from an Overgrown Tomb untapped to play around Stubborn Denial, so my post-Living End Death's Shadow (with help from a Snapcaster Mage chump block) again grew to fantastic proportions. With my opponent at fourteen, a topdecked Collective Brutality was enough to kill his post-combat Simian Spirit Guide and put him within range of my one Lightning Bolt. That match was truly insane, and at no point in any game did I think I was winning, but somehow I drew the right cards and my opponent gave me the opportunity to steal the win from under his nose.
From 0-1 to 6-2, I was having my best Pro Tour start in years, but all I wanted to do was eat and sleep, and get ready to pull off a Top 8 performance with Korey's favorite Modern deck, a performance he'd assuredly tell me was "a long time coming," and "couldn't have happened to a more deserving player," were he still here to witness it. Of course, Bilbao had other plans, and after wandering around with Oliver and MGG Moon teammate Mattia Rizzi, we got caught in a sudden rainstorm again and had to beg some European players with phone service to try to call a cab company on our behalf. Eventually, a cab did show up, and we got some food and got to bed, but I gained a permanent chip on my shoulder for cities that still rely on taxi service in 2018. Another half-night of sleep led to another rainy morning (notice a pattern?) where the taxi stand by our hotel was empty, leading to me begging a receptionist at the hospital by our hotel to hail us a cab as quickly as possible half an hour before Day Two started. Again, we were soaked, but we did indeed make it to the site in time for the draft, where I needed a positive record to stay alive for Top 8.
Unfortunately, it was not to be, as Brian Braun-Duin opened a Hadana's Climb behind me, and I picked Impale - Impale - Luminous Bonds to try to hammer in a B/W Vampires deck, passing him all the green and blue cards I could. Somewhere around fifth or sixth pick, I started to get a little nervous, as it seemed like there were not enough good black or white cards in the pack, but I could not realistically move into U/G at that point, and there were no desirable red cards either. Later I learned that Teruya Kakumae, to my right, was in U/R Pirates. It seems like the people on the other sides of Brian and Teruya were both B/W and pinned me in a very difficult spot, where there were never enough quality cards to move into a different color, but I was left with the second-best card in my colors in every pack.
In the first round, against Grzegorz Kowalski, I faced down a similarly low-powered B/W deck, where my two sideboarded Canal Monitors and a sideboarded Grim-Captain's Call powered me through him in the second and third games. I have never had more respect for a 5/3 for five mana, especially when Grzegorz's Dinosaur Hunters were powerless to stop the Lizard. Unfortunately, I got stomped in the next two rounds, when I played five non-games in a row involving mulligans, color-screw, and mana flood. To be fair, my deck was absolutely a 1-2 deck, but I just needed my luck to hold up for one more round! At 7-4, I was fairly dejected, but a close win over U/W Control on the back of my planeswalkers put me back in a positive mindset, when I sat down across from fellow cryptocurrency enthusiast David Williams, playing Humans.
We traded the first two games, setting up the following position in game 3.
I instinctively wanted to cast my Lightning Bolt, which was incorrect. Of course, I looked even more foolish when he flashed in a freshly drawn Thalia's Lieutenant, and suddenly I was at nine. I didn't want to cast the Death's Shadow there because if Dave put me to five life the next turn, I could play the Shadow and prepare to Temur Battle Rage him out. I just cast my freshly drawn Gurmag Angler, but Dave drew another Thalia's Lieutenant, cutting my clock by a turn and making it so that I needed to draw a fetchland, Engineered Explosives, or Mishra's Bauble right there. I bricked off and died. Of course, the correct play was to take three and proceed with the game with Dave pinned between the need to kill me and the need to not put me to a low life total to die to an angry Shadow. As our esteemed editor Cedric Phillips bluntly explained after hearing the situation, "C'mon Ben. Of course you want him to deal you damage! Should have asked him if he'd like to give his Mantis Rider double strike there!" Lesson learned.
With my back against the wall for a respectable PT finish, I played against Five-Color Collected Company Humans, Jeskai Control, and finally B/R Hollow One piloted by Kentaro Yamamoto, beating them all in close matches. 8-2 in Constructed (with one win being a clear punt by my opponent and one loss being a semi-clear punt by me) was definitely at the upper end of my expectation for myself, but I truly do think Grixis Death's Shadow with Mishra's Bauble is just that good. There are several decks that have good matchups against it, including some of the best-performing decks from the PT, Mardu Pyromancer and U/W Control, but the deck is fundamentally doing busted things and is close to a Legacy deck in power level. Modern Grixis Death's Shadow would surely hold its own against notable busted Legacy decks like Storm, Infect, or Sneak and Show, and if that's not a ringing endorsement for a Modern deck I don't know what is.
Of course, my Pro Tour wasn't over, not by a long shot. "Partyboi" Pascal Maynard was excited about getting a group of players together to go out for drinks, and despite my general low energy level at that point, I agreed to join him. For some reason, all the Magic players seem to think that my presence is necessary for a good time, although now that I'm pushing 25 I'm feeling like much more of a grown man and much less of a college-style all-night partier. Regardless, I said I would go, so I went. A memorable late-night excursion resulted in half-man, half-tank Christoffer Larsen pushing all us smaller humans well past our responsible limits, and the night culminated in a very intoxicated Oliver Tiu deciding to enter the shower fully clothed...with a pile of towels at the bottom of the shower. The hotel room quickly flooded, so when I finally got back to the hotel after losing my coat and the room key in my own moment of intoxication, I got to witness an old man yelling at a confused and sopping wet Oliver in a language he didn't understand, Noah Walker trying desperately to save my clothes and laptop from the encroaching puddle, and the same old man frantically mopping up the floor and cursing as he turned off the main water supply to our room. I passed out fully clothed, waking up with a hangover and Oliver and Noah asking me to come talk to the proprietors of the hotel.
After overcharging us for the room, then nearly kicking us out for ruining the wooden floor with Oliver's unfortunate experiment in clothed showers, I suppose I looked pitiful enough that they relented and decided to let us stay the last night. I slept most of the day, waking up just in time to watch teammate Gerry Thompson lose a heartbreaking finals after that crazy semifinals win, breaking his undefeated Modern streak right at the finish line. I stayed up most of the night in order to try to get my sleep schedule back on Pacific time and to let Oliver into the hotel when he got back from watching the Super Bowl. I'm now somewhere over Iceland on my second of three flights to get back to Las Vegas, and I must say, I cannot wait to be somewhere where it's not constantly precipitating, to get back to a consistent sleep schedule, and to return to some semblance of routine.
So, what does this Pro Tour represent for me? It was a Modern PT where I got to show off my chops in deck construction, running my own tuned list to a great Constructed finish and my first PT cash in nearly four years. It was a wake-up call for me to hop back into Limited to train up for Pro Tour Dominaria. It put team Metagame Gurus: Sun deep into the thick of the Team Series race, which is incredible after such a weak first Pro Tour. It was a constant stream of lows and highs, sometimes at the same time. It was a reminder to do what you love and to be kind to one another, because you never know when the ride is going to end.
Lastly, I just asked the man sitting behind me on the airplane to please stop bumping my chair, and in heavily accented English, he responded with, "F**k you. Shut up." A fitting capstone to a very surreal Pro Tour.