Disappointment is not the word I would use to describe my Magic career over the last nine months. But one thing has remained constant in my quest to regain entry to the Pro Tour:
Changes in Organized Play, near-misses at Grand Prix, and even getting bugged out on Magic Online. All of these things have kept me from reaching my goal—or so I thought. Looking back, I am confident that the only thing holding me back was . . . me. I know that some of my complaints are justifiable. I also know that some very ridiculous things had to happen for me to miss so many times. But what I also know is that my head just wasn't in the right place. So you know what I said?
Just play Magic.
Just go to the tournaments that can actually qualify you for the Pro Tour and do your best. Play what you know, try to adapt as best you can, and just fight for it harder than you ever have. Stop whining and just play your best. So for the past few months, that's what I've been doing.
Eliminate Bad Habits
I think one of the easiest things to forget when you play Magic is that it is just a game. Obviously, competitive spirit goes a long way. You need to want it, but if you don't want to win, then we can go find a checkers board. The trick is maintaining the balance between winning and fun, but the line is so incredibly difficult to toe. One of the biggest problems I see in my friends is that the losses hurt way more than they should and winning doesn't mitigate the pain of the loss. When that happens, it is probably time to take a step back. When you play enough Magic, losing just becomes another part of the game. It is the same in any game that applies skill and variance, and you have to accept that some things are just completely out of your control.
A lot of my friends take losses pretty hard. I know that I do too, but at this point it is just another mental game that you have to play by yourself. Take a walk if you need to. Clear your head. There are still plenty of matches to play, and you can't let a loss linger over you and affect the outcome of your next few rounds. Once you bring the results of a previous match into the current match, all is lost.
On the other side of the coin, you also can't let a few wins in a row affect your judgment. At times, like after you've won your third or fourth match in a row, you feel invincible. You start to keep loose hands just to prove that you can even though you would definitely mulligan based on prior knowledge and reason. You make aggressive plays when you're winning when it is often correct to play conservatively. You play like your decisions don't matter when this is exactly the time of the tournament where every turn matters more than the last!
"Of course they don't have Supreme Verdict. They haven't had it all day, baby!"
This type of mindset is just as dangerous as a losing mindset and one that I also have a good amount of experience with. I've played a ton of Magic, and I've kept my fair share of one-land hands on the play—and for what? Yes, there's a bit of a sweat to be had and an eventual rush of adrenaline when you actually draw your second land, but then you start to justify your poor actions in future situations. And it cascades from there. An insanity of sorts, where you lose control of your senses and logic because you're winning. Your choices are obviously correct or else you wouldn't have won so much, right?
The truth is that every single decision you make in a game of Magic matters. It might not matter for that game or for that match, but it will matter at some point because we are creatures of habit. Whenever I mulligan, I try not to look at the top cards of my deck. I don't want to know whether or not I would have "gotten there" because I don't want to be in a similar position later and make a poor decision. I want all of my decisions to be correct regardless of whether or not I would have drawn out on my opponent because that is just smart Magic.
I know that a lot of people compare Magic and poker—I have done so many times in the past (though I hate it)—but I think that this analogy is quite relevant. In poker, there are plenty of spots where you're very behind, and it is often correct to fold. Yes, you can get lucky and maybe win a big pot, but the investment to do so usually isn't worth the risk. The same can be said for mulliganing a poor hand even though you might be able to draw out of it. If you look at your opening hand and you don't think that it can win the game, then throw it back.
Crystal Blue Persuasion
This past weekend at Grand Prix Albuquerque, I showed up to the venue completely ready and willing to audible decks, but this time it was from Mono-Black to Mono-Blue Devotion. I knew that Mono-Black Devotion is a fine deck, but the rise in aggressive strategies certainly wasn't doing me any favors and is something that Mono-Blue is very handy at beating. Mono-Black is a control deck that lacks a solid one-mana removal spell or sweeper effect, and with those limitations it can be pretty difficult to beat Rakdos Cackler or Soldier of the Pantheon. Believe me—I've lit hundreds of dollars on fire trying to find ways to beat those decks on Magic Online to no avail.
All I wanted to do was just buy the cards for the Mono-Blue Devotion deck and stop debating/thinking about it. But the real question for me was if the real-life metagame would look like the Magic Online metagame. Should I actually abandon ship?
To be honest, I just didn't know. A lot of things used to make perfect sense to me. When you win a bunch of matches on Magic Online, that is supposed to correlate to real-life results. The players are a little bit better there, so the testing is generally stronger than what you would get out of playing local tournaments or even just playing a few games with friends. When something is actually on the line, even if it is just a few booster packs, people play tighter. They try harder. That is one of the things I like about Magic Online the most.
But if I've learned anything over the last few months, it is that Magic Online results don't always correlate to the real life and are often meaningless. I mean, you could find a gem of a brew or the most tuned list of whatever deck you want to play, but you will rarely play against the same field in a live tournament that you would face on Magic Online. I don't know if it is economics or just the fact that people on Magic Online really like attacking with Grizzly Bears, but live tournaments feature fewer aggressive decks than you would play against on Magic Online by a significant margin.
Over the years, Brad Nelson and Gerry Thompson both tried to teach me this fact. I just didn't listen. I mean, who doesn't like attacking for two? Why wouldn't people play Rakdos Cackler given the chance? It just makes sense! The outlier in this equation (and what I was missing) definitely stems from whether or not you have byes in the event in question. I know that sounds a bit odd, but let me explain.
On Magic Online and at larger tournaments like SCG Opens, you have a much higher chance of playing against an aggressive deck. In actuality, people do like to attack for two. It's just that many of the players that like to attack for two aren't always on the same level as the guy who likes to cast Thoughtseize, if you get my drift (no offense, Patrick Sullivan).
At a Grand Prix or a SCG Invitational, having byes in the tournament can actually alter what deck you should be playing because the expected field you will play against is suddenly much different from the guy with zero byes. When you start off with three free wins and are playing against other people who also have three free wins, you can make a few deductions just from that information. It is less likely that you're going to see an established pro enter a tournament with Rakdos Cackler. It just doesn't happen that often. There is also a minimal chance that a deck with such high variance as Mono-Red Aggro begins the tournament at 3-0. Obviously it can happen, but the likelihood of the tournament being full of people who are 3-0 playing Mono-Red is unlikely, so you should build your deck according to the metagame you expect to face.
What I'm really trying to say is that I hate Mono-Black Devotion. I mean, the deck is obviously very good, but I don't want to ever play it at a SCG Open. The field would be too diverse, and I'm pretty sure you'd just get crushed by aggro decks in the first few rounds of the tournament. The lesson to learn here is that metagaming is different from tournament to tournament even if the expected decks are the same. Play the deck that is most likely to win the tournament factoring in all variables (including byes).
But back to the tournament! Luckily, I just decided to sleep on Friday afternoon since I hadn't really slept at all thanks to my early flight on Friday morning. Laziness, exhaustion, whatever you want to call it, I just slept for hours at the hotel when I got into Albuquerque, and it was glorious. I awoke from my three-hour nap and headed to the venue around 7 PM to see what everyone was playing.
At this point, Mono-Blue Devotion was all I could think about. Sam Black had been sporting the deck for months, and no one could seem to beat it. Not consistently anyway. Master of Waves is far too powerful against most of the aggressive strategies, and the deck has a ton of cards that just offer up free wins. Cloudfin Raptor is one of those cards, though not everyone knows it. When the deck was first spoiled, I saw many players immediately trim down on the "crappy one-drops" when in actuality that is your best line of offense against any non-sweeper strategy. Cloudfin Raptor is just absurd when you don't stumble and is the card I am most afraid of when playing Mono-Black Devotion.
I hadn't played all that much Standard over the last few weeks thanks to the temporary demise of Magic Online, but I did remember that Mono-Blue and Mono-Black Devotion were the two decks I liked most. I'd tried all flavors of Red, White, and Green, and none of them were more appealing than casting Master of Waves or Gray Merchant of Asphodel. The draws were too erratic and often relied on Burning-Tree Emissary a bit too much for my tastes.
When I arrived at the tournament hall, I saw Huey and Owen sitting at a table battling some games of Standard. It looked like they were both playing Mono-Black Devotion, which was odd considering I hadn't seen either of them play it in a tournament before this one. I was a bit intrigued, so I just watched them play a few games, chiming in every now and then. Eventually their confidence in the deck overwhelmed my fears, and I just locked in and went to buy three copies of Shrivel.
Hold on, let me find a picture.
This is the one card that I thought would help tremendously in the white-based aggro matchups (thanks to Brad Nelson). I was ready to just play Wring Flesh and get it over with, but Brad informed me that Shrivel is legal thanks to a reprint in M14, making me ecstatic. I know that sounds strange, but I'll try to put it into words as best I can.
Shrivel kills things.
It kills a lot of things in very specific matchups where you need to kill lots of things.
Golgari Charm is a card that I've wanted in my Mono-Black Devotion deck for a while now, and I've tested it quite a bit by splashing green via Temple of Mystery and Golgari Guildgate. Unfortunately, this means you have to play fewer Swamps or fewer Mutavaults and a lot of your lands come into play tapped. For me, the most appealing aspect of Golgari Charm is that it helps alleviate a lot of the pain coming from Mono-Red and W/R Aggro, often killing two or more creatures. The added benefit of killing Detention Sphere or Underworld Connections is just a plus.
But lands coming into play tapped happened too often for my liking. I knew I needed something similar to help solve the same problems that Golgari Charm helped solve. Yes, Shrivel is a mediocre card, but it is a card that plays a specific role in particularly tough matchups. Many people instantly dismiss cards in decks based on preconceived notions that those cards are traditionally "bad."
I've watched countless times as people pick apart decks and change sideboards based on what they consider "trash" without considering that the pilot almost certainly had good reasons to play those cards. When you see a decklist, you often view it in a vacuum. You see a set of spells and think, "Why would I ever want this card? No one plays that deck." You might be right, but you probably aren't. This is especially true if you've never played with the deck before and want to change things "just because it feels right."
I opted to play as many copies of Shrivel as I could fit into my sideboard without losing too much ground in other matchups. And man was Shrivel just the actual nut. I would not have done as well at this tournament if it wasn't for Shrivel. There was a very important turn I played in my win-and-in match where Shrivel was the only card I could draw to get me out of the situation. Can you guess what I drew? I may have been running well, but that's just something you have to do if you want to do well in a tournament. There are too many factors that are out of your control, and you have to get lucky on multiple occasions in order to succeed.
As for the Grand Prix itself, a lot of things went right for me to make the Top 4 and finally qualify for Pro Tour Born of the Gods in Valencia. Playing a deck I was comfortable with was at the top of the list.
Here is the Mono-Black Devotion list I used to make the Top 4:
- 4 Desecration Demon
- 4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
- 4 Nightveil Specter
- 2 Pack Rat
- 1 Erebos, God of the Dead
If you notice, my list is a bit different than the others that did well. I opted for the more "traditional" build with only two Pack Rats main and two more in the sideboard. My logic for this was that I wanted more removal spells in order to compete with the rise in devotion-based strategies. All of the devotion decks rely on creatures in order to fuel Nykthos, Thassa, or other absurd cards, so having a string of removal spells to slow them down is exactly what you want in order to capitalize on cards like Underworld Connections.
Secondly, I played three Doom Blades over just the singleton Ultimate Price for similar reasons. Many of the devotion decks are packed full of multicolored creatures, making Ultimate Price fairly worthless a high percentage of the time. I'd died so many times with an Ultimate Price stuck in my hand that I just decided I'd had enough. In hindsight, Ultimate Price would have helped me more in the Mono-Black mirror, but I only lost one of those out of the three times I played it. Having more Ultimate Prices would obviously help in the mirror, but at the beginning of the tournament I did not expect to see so many established players playing Mono-Black Devotion.
The same argument can be made for having only a single copy of Dark Betrayal in the sideboard while most other people were playing three. Since I only had two Pack Rats in the maindeck, I didn't have as many sideboard slots to dedicate to the mirror, but I don't know if that is such a bad thing. It is already pretty hard to figure out exactly what to bring in and take out in the mirror since there are so many different lines you can take.
For example, I often see players with both Desecration Demon and Gray Merchant of Asphodel in their deck after sideboarding when I am positive that you don't want both. If your plan is to bring in Duress to help protect your Pack Rat, then Desecration Demon is certainly better than Gray Merchant since you want to overload their removal spells. However, Gray Merchant is one of the only cards that can steal a win from an opponent who has gone animal with Pack Rat.
In a lot of ways, being on the play or draw is important for figuring out your exact sideboard configuration. I think that Duress is awesome on the play when you're trying to be the first person to land and protect Pack Rat but is fairly weak on the draw when your opponent could easily just ignore your Duress and kill you with a swarm of Rats. It is a delicate dance where so many spells are important for containing your opponent's draw but many of those cards become invalidated with a single threat from the opponent. Underworld Connections makes many of those spells look underwhelming, but then again Underworld Connections can be abysmal when facing down a Pack Rat, so concessions have to be made somewhere.
So if you're bringing in three Dark Betrayals, an extra Erebos, and three Duresses, what are you cutting? The only option at that point is Demon or Merchant because all of your other spells are much more important either defensively or offensively.
Pharika's Cure is a card I've gone back and forth on over the last few months. In one respect, it helps to contain the menace that is Mono-Red Aggro, but it has applications in any sort of aggro matchup. It does a certain job quite well but still fails to handle some of the more problematic creatures. Nightveil Specter, Frostburn Weird, and Boros Reckoner are all tough threats to beat, and your removal doesn't always line up correctly with their threats.
The extra life you gain is nice and all, but I would much rather just have hard removal when I can fit it. This is one of the reasons we played three Doom Blades in the sideboard at Grand Prix Louisville—because we expected a lot of the Green Devotion deck and very little Mono-Red Aggro. While Pharika's Cure is great, I think that Shrivel is much better when you have to choose between giving yourself a chance to win a tough matchup and having a card that is average across multiple matchups.
In all honesty, I was not expecting to do well at this Grand Prix. I hadn't had a chance to play much Standard since Louisville, and I felt very behind as far as technology was concerned. I just decided to go with what I knew best and hoped to do well. When I started off the tournament 10-0, I could see my goal within my grasp. But we were short of the 1,200 player cutoff for Top 8 to qualify for the Pro Tour, so I would once again be playing in a virtual PTQ finals in the Top 8. With so much on the line, I remember visibly trembling at one point in the match. Specifically when I had my opponent dead on board but ultimately lost to an odd couple of Selesnya Charm and Boros Charm.
With everything on the line in game 3, I could see things start to slowly slip away even though my opponent mulliganed to five. I kept a mana-heavy hand with a Temple of Deceit, putting a land on the bottom of my library. I continued to draw six more lands out of the next seven draws and ultimately killed my opponent with his own Boros Charm off Nightveil Specter. If he had put up a real fight, there was no way I could have won that match with the draw I had, but I got extremely fortunate to end up winning and qualifying for the Pro Tour. And I am ecstatic!
It has been over a year since I was qualified for a Pro Tour, and I don't plan on letting this string of finishes go to waste. I am pretty close to getting Silver status, giving me a chance at a run for Gold should I put up a decent finish at Valencia or another Grand Prix. I know that I'm going to put a lot of pressure on myself to do well, but I just hope I can remember the motto that got me here in the first place.
Just play Magic.