I love Mexicans. And I guess they love me back, because they wouldn’t let me leave after the tournament was over. As Martin Juza noted on Twitter, I think the traveling pros signed more cards, playmats and assorted Magic paraphernelia than during entire seasons of American Grand Prix. I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with Mexican fans, players, spectators, staff, and judges and was consistently overwhelmed by the hospitality of the country. That being said, at 4:15 am on Monday morning after the tournament was over, as I paced around outside the Immigration office in the Mexico City airport, waiting for it to open and approve of my returning to America, I couldn’t help but have some mixed feelings.

But we’ll come back to that. This story really starts a few weeks earlier, in Seattle. As I settled into my customary aisle seat while the plane was at the gate at LAX, a commotion developed 10 rows in front of me. A distraught mother with a 2 year old child had been assigned the middle seat behind her daughter, rather than next to her. And while normally, I’d let the situation sort itself out (I’m about 6-2 and 195 pounds so the middle seat is particularly brutal), this time I felt compelled to help. I mentioned to the nearby flight attendant that I’d be willing to trade seats if it meant the mother could sit with her daughter. Five minutes later, I was settled into my new middle seat, between two rather large businessmen. I figured it was only a two hour flight, and what I gave up in comfort, I’d receive back in good karma. I was also treated like a soldier returning from war by the flight staff and showered with free wine and food. Two days later I had a top eight under my belt and I hope that mother had a good weekend too.

Fast forward to GP Mexico City, some time during day one. The tournament was held in the “Expo Reforma,” which I believe is Spanish for “Seventh Gate of Hell.” The temperature inside the hall was unseasonably hot for Arizona in August, with sweaty hands and sticky cards the norm. During the byes I ventured outside the hall to buy a coca-cola to wash down a burrito and handed the vendor the smallest bill in my wallet, 100 pesos. Assuming that I had given her about a dollar, I told her ‘No Gracias’ to the change, much to her suprise. In reality I had given her about 9 dollars, making it easily the most expensive virgin drink I’d ever consumed. But hey, that kind of money goes a long way in Mexico, so rather than dwell on my economic error, I focused on the tournament.

Have I mentioned that I had one of the worst sealed decks of all time? While at some point I’ll write a full treatise on the art of the sealed deck, there is a simple process one should undergo after receiving their wares.

-Check your rares (Mine were [card]Champion of the Parish[/card], [card]Ravenous Demon[/card], [card]Call to the Kindred[/card], [card]Curse of Misfortunes[/card], [card]Parallel Lives[/card], and [card]Gravecrawler[/card])

Ideally, you have an elite bomb like [card]Olivia Voldaren[/card] or [card]Bloodline Keeper[/card] that will give you an initial direction. Failing that, what you’re really looking for is multiple good rares in the same color ([card]Kruin Outlaw[/card], [card]Instigator Gang[/card]). Here I had three playable rares, none of which anyone could confuse with a bomb. We need to go deeper.

-Check your curve

While less of a concern than in draft, you can’t play a deck with less than 5 things to do before turn 3. Whether a [card]Dead Weight[/card] or a [card]Somberwald Dryad[/card] or even a [card]Think Twice[/card], you need something to start developing a game plan and prevent werewolves from ripping you limb from limb.

-Check for inherent synergies

When you draft a deck, you should be mentally adjusting your pick order so that you end up witha coherent deck, and not just a pile of cards. Most of the time in sealed deck, you don’t have that luxury. In fact, if you look at the undefeated sealed decks for most Grand Prix, they are largely devoid of synergy and instead simply a collection of all the best bombs and removal in the format.

-Have a plan for bombs

Whether countermagic, something like [card]Crushing Vines[/card] or [card]Into the Maw of Hell[/card], targetted discard, or pure speed, you need something to hand the ridiculous cards of the format that your opponents in rounds 6-8 (or 9) will surely possess.

Unfortunately, the pool I opened had bad rares, a poor curve, a general lack of inherent synergies, and no great answers to bombs. Time to go back to an old plan I’d used before – beat the crap out of them before they know what hits them! Here is the deck I registered:

[deck]1 Gravecrawler
1 Stromkirk Captain
1 Bloodcrazed Neonate
1 Rakish Heir
1 Screeching Bat
1 Erdwal Ripper
1 Crossway Vampire
1 Hinterland Hermit
1 Diregraf Ghoul
1 Pyreheart Wolf
1 Farbog Boneflinger
1 Village Ironsmith
1 Vengeful Vampire
1 Ravenous Demon
1 Geistflame
1 Dead Weight
1 Corpse Lunge
1 Fires of Undeath
1 Faithless Looting
1 Harrowing Journey
2 Bump in the Night
9 Swamp
8 Mountain
1 Haunted Fengraf[/deck]

Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, thats an 18 land beatdown deck. Yes, it only has 3 two drops, one of which is [card]Bloodcrazed Neonate[/card]. And yes, thats 2 Bump in the Nights. But sometimes life hands you Agaves and you have to make Margaritas.

Round 4 – Manuel Gomez

Manuel had a relatively slow 4 color deck with [card]Divination[/card], [card]Evolving Wilds[/card] and multiple [card]Dawntreader Elk[/card]s supporting bombs such as [card]Gavony Township[/card] and [card]Dungeon Geists[/card]. In game one his superior card quality overwhelmed me and in game two I took advantage of a slow draw to win before he found all 4 colors of mana. In the third game [card]Dungeon Geists[/card] locked down my [card]Vengeful Vampire[/card] and began taking chunks out of my life total. I was chipping away at his as well, however, and played a midgame [card]Pyreheart Wolf[/card] that he struggled to adapt to. Finally, the turn before his flyer would finish me off, I alpha striked with all my creature to bring him down to 9. With 8 lands out and 2 Bumps in hand, I eeked out a narrow win.

4-0

Round 5 – Alejandro Perez Bermudez

In game one, I curved Gravecrawler into Hinterland Hermit. On turn three I had the chance to “pile on” with [card]Erdwal Ripper[/card], but opted for the safer play of [card]Screeching Bat[/card] in case Alejandro was trying to trap me with a dastardly [card]Rolling Temblor[/card]. As it was, he drew his card and frustratedly conceded on turn 3. In game two I immediately fell behind to a [card]Hanweir Watchkeep[/card] and [card]Lingering Souls[/card]. On his 5th turn he attacked with both Spirit tokens, looked at his hand and the [card]Lingering Souls[/card] in his graveyard before dramatically passing the turn. While I successfully sniffed out the [card]Village Bell-Ringer[/card], he did flashback the [card]Lingering Souls[/card] next turn and destroy me. In the third game, I started well with [card]Fires of Undeath[/card], [card]Dead Weight[/card] and [card]Farbog Boneflinger[/card] keeping his board under control while he struggled with mana development. On one turn I pass with R open and a [card]Geistflame[/card] in hand when his board is 4 lands, [card]Avacyn’s Collar[/card] and [card]Hinterland Hermit[/card]. As Alejandro is thinking, the match next to me finishes and one of the players asks me how to spell my name so he can friend my on Facebook. When I look back, the Collar is equipped to the Hermit and [card]Gather The Townsfolk[/card] has been cast and resolved. I tell Alejandro he hasn’t given me an opportunity to respond to the equipping, and he claims that I’ve had “ample time.” A judge is summoned, and his to his credit, Alejandro truthfully admits that I never indicated either vocally or by some sort of nonverbal signal that I was given or had passed priority, and I’m allowed to [card]Geistflame[/card] the Hermit. I win a few turns later.

5-0

Round 6 – Omar Vallejo

I get to taste the full power of [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card] in the first game. In the next 2, Omar gets awkward draws that are heavy on removal and lands but low on action and my undying creatures and flashback removal keep me undefeated. Needless to say, locking up day two with such an atrocious deck felt good.

6-0

Round 7 – Timothy Thomason

For the first time in the tournament, I play against an American. In game one we trade brutal errors, but he makes the last one and I eke it out. In the next two, his double-[card]Drogskol Captain[/card], [card]Dungeon Geists[/card], [card]Geist-Honored Monk[/card] makes short work of me. I found myself unusually unperturbed for having taken my first loss of the tournament. That being said, limping into day two after starting 6-0 was not something I envisioned.

6-1

Round 8 – Jesse Hampton

Jesse is one of the best young up-and-coming players in Magic today. I played against him at PT Philadelphia and remember being impressed. This year, in Honolulu, teammate Jelger Wiegersma beat Jesse playing for Top Eight but was also left with a positive impression of Jesse’s play. Unfortunately, our match was fairly anticlimatic as he sandwiched some brutal mana problems around where game where he destroyed me with [card]Skirsdag High Priest[/card] and I escaped with an improbable record.

7-1

Last time I was in Mexico City for a Grand Prix, Mark Herberholz and I enjoyed the city to its fullest. As luck would have it, the Mexican and American men’s national soccer teams were playing a World Cup Qualifying Match (or something like that). Now I really don’t understand soccer, but this opportunity was too good to pass up. We found a hole-in-the-wall sports bar and I screamed GOAALLLLLLLLLLLLL for each American score en route to the first victory over Mexico in some time. Needless to say, the local enthusiasts were less than pleased with this particular gringo.

The peak of the trip came on Monday morning, when I accidentally pilfered Mark’s passport by wearing his shorts to the airport, leaving him stranded and broke in Mexico for two days (Monday was Labor Day in the US, so the embassy was closed). But hey, what are friends for?

This trip was significantly less adventuresome. I did order Octopus as our hotel restaurant and had a few mas Margaritas after the first two, but was exhausted. The combination of my advancing age and the sweltering conditions in the tournament site had sapped my spirit. Matt and I retired to our chamber before midnight.

Here is a good description of my first draft on day two, as discussed with Steve Sadin.

Basically, I’m old school when it comes to draft and extremely stubborn. I value the ability to signal which colors I’m in significantly more than other players and often won’t turn back when I’ve taken a double-faced card of a color. In this way, I approach the draft format as a quasi-Rochester, intentionally giving my neighbors information about what I’m doing in order to warn them to stay out of my way.

Needless to say, this did not work in this draft. I still managed to scrape something playable together, however, and figured I could squeeze out a 2-1.

Round 9 – Christian Pelletier

Christian had a RG Werewolves deck topped off with [card]Instigator Gang[/card]. He put me under a tremendous amount of pressure game one, but [card]Spider Spawning[/card] allowed me to stabilize and [card]Demonmail Hauberk[/card] turned those Spiders into major threats. In the second game, a [card]Gravetiller Wurm[/card] with Morbid threatened to make short work of him, but a [card]Traitorous Blood[/card] brought me down to 6. I had a sweat as Christian peeled his last draw step – a [card]Fling[/card]. Had he waited a turn to steal my 8/8, we’d be going to game three. As it was…

8-1

Round 10 – Ben Stark

In the first game, Ben’s mulligan and my grindy BG cards allowed me to wear him down. At one point I used and flahed back [card]Deadly Allure[/card] on a [card]Somberwald Spider[/card] and a [card]Young Wolf[/card] to eat both his Grizzled Outcast and 1/1 Spirit. My double-[card]Shimmering Grotto[/card] mana base allowed him to even the score in game two. In the third, we traded damage back and forth until a seemingly out of place [card]Wild Hunger[/card] on a random unblocked spirit tipped me off that I was about to die. So I used the [card]Bonds of Faith[/card] I’d been saving for something big on his seemingly innocuous [card]Nibilis of the Urn[/card]. Sure enough, he had a [card]Skillful Lunge[/card] that would’ve combined with [card]Wild Hunger[/card] to kill me next turn. As it was, I narrowly won the race.

9-1

Round 11 – Marcelino Freeman

I mulliganed on the play to get started, and then whiffed on an early [card]Mulch[/card]. Unsurprisingly, he steamrolled me with a [card]Galvanic Juggernaut[/card]. In the second, Marcelino kept a land light hand and started discarding. We agreed to play one good game, and did. He put me under a ton of pressure with a good curve and a few removal spells, but I had a [card]Slayer of the Wicked[/card] to even things up. Interestingly, as creatures died, Marcelino targetted me with his [card]Selhoff Occultist[/card] triggers, presumably thinking about decking me in the long run. While the first few activations missed action, he eventually hit [card]Deadly Allure[/card] and then at one point both [card]Unburial Rites[/card] and [card]Gravetiller Wurm[/card]. Combining all three cards with my [card]Young Wolf[/card] in play left Marcelino without an army, and me with a 2/2 and 8/8 for mop up duty.

10-1

I’ve been in this situation many times. Good record on day one, 3-0 the first draft, sit down at Pod 1 and BLOW IT. The key thing is to stay in the moment. Forget about your record, the conditions, where you are and just focus on the packs and the people around you. I managed to scrape together a RG werewolves deck topping off with [card]Falkenrath Marauders[/card] that I thought could get me the required win.

Round 12 – Humberto Patarca

Game one was a long, drawn out affair where Humberto cast AND flashed back two copies each of [card]Reap the Seagraf[/card] and [card]Moan of the Unhallowed[/card]. Meanwhile I had virtually all the werewolves in my deck flipped and waiting for me to draw a necessary critical mass of tricks for an alpha strike. Before that could happen, however, Humberto found his [card]Helvault[/card] and I was powerless to stop him from imprisoning all of my savage animals. Game one’s long stalemate left precious little time to finish the match, leading me to keep a poor hand of 6 land and Rakish Heir on the play game two. Again, Humberto’s large amount of token generators were too much for me, and I fell to a swarm of Walking Dead.

10-2

Round 13 – Josh Utter-Leyton

I kept 5 mountains, [card]Tormented Pariah[/card] and [card]Falkenrath Marauders[/card] game one and never drew a Forest. Unfortunately, in games two and three Josh was just brutally, brutally constrained on mana, so I was able flip my werewolves and (hopefully) move into the top eight. This is an added benefit of the RG werewolves archetype – totally unforgiving against manascrewed opponents.

11-2

Round 14 – Craig Wescoe

Craig and I intentionally drew into Top Eight.

11-2-1

Ben Stark covers my top eight draft here.

I have to say that I pretty much agree with the entirety of his analysis. I did make a few mistakes in the draft, which Ben kindly highlights, but generally thought I did about as well as I could given the way the packs broke.

Quarterfinals – Gustavo Nunez Moreno

It seems like Gustavo’s deck didn’t really come together, a Grixis control deck that didn’t have enough in terms of impact cards to really threaten my deck. As would become a pattern, I used the [card]Traitorous Blood[/card]/[card]Altar’s Reap[/card] combo to deal with [card]Creepy Doll[/card] game two, and was off to the semis.

12-2-1

Semifinals – Daniel Hernandez

An aggressive draw in game one let me run Daniel over. Game two was awesome. I put him under a tremendous amount of pressure, but he refused to give in, fighting for every bit of momentum, every life point. For 3 or 4 turns, I could draw a mountain to cast one of the 2 [card]Traitorous Blood[/card]s in my hand and win, but did not. And finally, Daniel finished me off with a sequence of [card]Dissipate[/card] into [card]Lost in the Mist[/card] into [card]Tragic Slip[/card] to counter all of attempts to kill him.

The deafening ovation Daniel received after game two reminded me that I was a foreign invader trying to steal the trophy from Mexico. Unfortunately, game three was extremely anticlimatic as Daniel’s slow draw didn’t allow him much play and I was able to kill his comeback-attempt [card]Evil Twin[/card].

13-2-1

Finals – Humberto Patarca

You can see the coverage of this match here.

14-2-1

To be honest, I was so mentally exhausted by this point that I barely remember the match. But I do remember the same feeling of being grateful when I finally won. I’ve won two major Magic tournaments now, exceeding my lifetime expecation by about two, and I never forget how lucky I’ve been in this game.

And if only the story ended there. When I got to the airport for my early morning flight back to Los Angeles, I was informed that I was missing a stamped exit form they had handed me upon my arrival. The purpose of this form was to prove that I hadn’t overstayed my welcome the United Mexican States. At no point did anyone make it clear that this form was important, much less that it was REQUIRED to return to America. The insanity was amplified by the fact that I had in my possession both a passport stamped with the date of my arrival, but the original boarding pass that proved I had arrived on Friday.

Nevertheless, I was denied a boarding pass to my flight and sent to the Mexican Immigration Office for replacement forms. Unfortunately the office didn’t open until 7 am, leaving me pacing around for about 3 hours muttering to myself. When I finally got in, they sent me to the police station to report my forms missing. There, I was interrogated about how I could lose such sensitive documents. I came up with an appropriate lie, got some forms stamped and was back in Los Angeles about 10 hours later, after buying an entirely new flight.

Herberholz’s revenge, indeed.