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Breaking Through – Restart

Have you ever been playing some video game for an extended period of time before setting it down for a while? When you try to pick it up even just a month or two later, the journey feels severed. Or perhaps you have experienced this with a book. I know that the first time I read The Da Vinci Code I stopped about 80% of the way through. The book was controversial at the time and I wanted to delay the ending for a debate I was having at school in which I felt the bias would hurt.

After the debate, I tried to finish the book, but it just was not to be. I had lost small but important details and even turning back a chapter or two was not enough to get me back on track. I had lost “being lost” in the book. I waited a few more months and then began the book again, this time finishing it completely. The journey felt smooth and enjoyable. I knew both where I was going, as well as where I was coming from.

When I first began writing professionally, I never thought I would be. I was a small-time Magic player with a passion for deckbuilding but I had no ambition to translate that into anything more. One thing led to another and a crafty niche found me a regular column on not one, but two websites that I hold to this day. It was an honor to be accepted into the community but I wanted to write to people who were in a similar position as I was. Those players who feel like they have what it takes but who need a little perseverance and luck in order to get to where they want to be. I decided that I knew what that felt like and I knew what it meant to stare back from the other side. I knew what it was like to Break Through and so I titled my column just that.

Eventually, the idea of Breaking Through to the Pro Tour was just a thing I no longer had to do. I was fortunate enough to make the train and stay on it, so I shifted my attention to other goals. I wanted to make Top 8s. I wanted to design amazing decks. I wanted to win tournaments. I wanted to show that a little innovation and the willingness to stand by it could be rewarded when done right.

A canvas with 20,000 colors at your fingertips. How was it that so few colors were being used?

Over time, those goals, that checklist, slowly filled itself in. I saw myself journey to just about every corner of the earth in search of piecing together just the right combination of 75 cards and I loved it. Everything was Magic, whether I was aware of that or not. The game had given me so much but I never really took the time to step back and realize just how much of myself I was giving the game.

Eventually, though I could not pinpoint the moment in time, I found myself burnt out. I am not sure exactly what the cause of that was, although more than likely it was a combination of causes. Maybe it was the increased number of tournaments, causing a lot more travel and a lot less prep time for each. Maybe it was a period where my success was nonexistent for a little too long. Maybe it was simply that my life away from Magic was beginning to matter more and more and my dedication to the game was suffering as a result.

I actually wrote about this a few times, although I was never quite aware that I had yet to make it out the other side. At some point, the idea of doing a draft with friends was no longer tempting. My notepad with brews and scribbles would go weeks without a new addition. I even found myself mentally dropping out of Grand Prix at X-2, something that a more driven, younger, hungrier me would never have even considered. I had come from Top 8’ing my first Pro Tour after starting 1-2 to losing the willpower to rattle off two wins in a row and clinch Day 2 of a Grand Prix? What the hell was going on?

Strangely, I was aware of the funk I was in, but I had no desire to do anything about it. Don’t get me wrong, I very much would have loved to be out of it. If I could have just snapped my fingers and watched it dissipate, that would have been great. However, I knew that I could not just snap my fingers. I knew whatever was needed was going to be hard and I had no desire to put that much effort into it.

I had used Magic as an escape for so long that it was now Magic I needed escaping from. But it was never that easy. You can’t really just walk away from a game that has its roots stretching into so many parts of your life. Magic was a game and a hobby, sure, but it was also a paycheck, a social network, a lifestyle. I may have needed a break, but where was I going to find the time?

Of course, as one might expect, things never really got better because I had done nothing to make it better. Acknowledging your issues, whether that be poor mulliganing skills in Magic, or a lack of confidence in real life, only goes so far. You need to act on those observations in order to reflect any change and I was just not doing that.

Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir

Pro Tour Khans was set to be a big event for me. Five and a half years ago, Hawaii is basically where my professional career began. However, now Hawaii presented me with another potential first, but on the other half of the happiness spectrum. After five and a half years of being on the train, Pro Tour KTK was the final Pro Tour I found myself qualified for.

If I am being completely honest, while I felt myself emerging from whatever hole I was in before, I still was not ready to compete with the best just yet. If I was being honest with myself, I would have deferred my invite and skipped the Pro Tour altogether just to take care of myself, but value and logic won out in the end.

Skipping the first Pro Tour of the year is a huge misplay in terms of value should you requalify and this one even happened to be in Hawaii, which was just a bonus. Perhaps I was just not ready to admit that I should be taking a step back. The format looked ripe for a deckbuilder to pick apart and I was excited to be working with Team TCGPlayer as we started prep about 3 months before the Pro Tour. I put my head down and charged forward because that had been the routine for almost six years now.

“Routine.” Using that word in the context of my approach to Magic is a tough one to swallow, but that is exactly what it was.

I actually feel like the testing for the Pro Tour went really well. I had quite a few strong ideas and the team offered plenty more to mess with. In fact, it seemed completely possible that we would end up breaking the format as we had five or six lists that all seemed very strong. Over time though, those lists just proved to be strong lists and nothing really stood out above the rest.

The team had many great options to choose from though, which was good, but there is always that longing to stumble upon the deck that can’t be beat and in that department, we came up short. Still, we had pretty good tuned lists for the following decks:

Big Junk (Junk ‘Walkers)
Jeskai Burn/Tempo
Blue/Black Control
17 Land Mono Red
Jeskai Ascendancy Combo (Space Jam, as we called it)
Blue/Red Control

And in the final hours before the event, Neil Reeves and Chris Fennell drew up an interesting blue/white control deck that borrowed a lot from our other two blue control decks and looked solid, even if it was the least tested list from among those we had.

In the dark, if I had to put myself on one of those decks, Junk is certainly the type of deck I have the most experience with. However, I did not want to back myself into a corner. Our metagame had evolved in such a way where there were not many cheap sweepers running around. Anger of the Gods and to a lesser extent Drown in Sorrow were really the only two cards holding back both our aggressive red deck and Space Jam from seeing play. We had moved away from both decks when we expected a ton of cheap sweepers, but now we expected much less.

I actively thought our red deck was the best thing in a field with no Anger. We had been crushing nearly everything without that card in embarrassing fashion. Even our Junk deck which had plenty of life gain and removal was losing to the deck some 60 or 65% of the time. The data and games were there but I knew that the hardest part about playing any aggressive, opening-hand-dependent deck is actually pulling the trigger.

There is a lot of risk in running this kind of strategy, even if there are big rewards as payoff. I decided I was going to fight my fear and just commit to the deck on Wednesday. I would spend most of Thursday working on the list and the sideboard and I felt comfortable going into the Pro Tour. David Sharfman was even on the deck too, which helped boost my confidence in it.

The Aftermath

By round seven, I was out of the tournament. I had drafted a pretty solid deck that was light on mana fixing due to a teammate sitting immediately to my right and picking up 12 dual lands, but my spells and power level were high. Sadly, a 1-2 finish made things difficult for my Standard deck which really wanted to be playing against Jeskai Tempo and random control decks. Whip of Erebos and Feed the Clan were not among the cards I wanted to be face.

I definitely should have had two main deck copies of Frenzied Goblin over the two Eidolons, which was a mistake, but regardless of how I got here, I was now standing on the outside looking in.

There were a couple of rounds left in the day so I went for a walk to gather myself. The Hawaii convention center is one of the most beautiful buildings you will ever set foot in, including an open air top-level where the Top 8 profile photos are taken. I made my way over to the lump of dirt and grass where I stood five and a half years earlier.

I cannot tell you how long I stood there. The concept of time seemed to be a thing lost to emotion for however long I stared into the sky.

The last time I stood here, the world was in front of me. I remember calling my best friend the night before that Top 8.

“How do you feel about Rome?”

Rome? I barely had the funds to leave Colorado before that and here I was inviting my favorite person on a trip to Europe? Was this the life I had stumbled into? I could get used to this.

I would love to tell you that I stood there five years ago and that the only thing on my mind was winning that Top 8, but I would be lying. This was a breakthrough moment for me and I was barely able to take it in. I would graduate soon and the scary world of the unknown after those university doors were to shut behind me seemed to be filling itself in. Could Magic really be the next step for me?

I was uncertain, but I was optimistic and I just kept turning those pages. One after another. New challenges and goals peeled back with every one checked off of my list.

Standing on that spot made me realize something about all of those feelings. That rush of optimism and genuine excitement that I remember feeling take over me. I had to remember what it felt like because I was not currently feeling it. I had left that moment and now I was looking back at it.

Restart

Falling off of the train is one of the things I feared most during my career. It was never at the forefront of my mind, nagging me like an unpaid bill or a missed deadline, but somewhere buried in my brain was a fear of not knowing where I would go or what I would do. In fact, I was so fixated on not falling off of the train to avoid this feeling that I had somehow brought that feeling to me. I was on the train, but I had no idea where I was going or what I was doing anymore.

Sometimes, it takes going back to move forward. We can only become so big and do so much before we need to be reminded of where we came from.

Sometimes you just need to turn back to page one and start over.

I was once just a kid with a dream and a notebook. What are a few years to stop that from happening again?

I’ll see you on the Pro Tour.

Conley Woods

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