“There they are,” I said, my eyes panning over a group of youngsters sitting in a circle on the convention center floor.
“What?” asked Sigrist.
“The first pangs of regret.”

Anyone who’s attended three or more Grand Prix has felt the ambivalence that accompanies the grind. You get to see your far-flung friends, but you also have to navigate through the anonymous sea of humanity and shackle yourself with the rigid structure of being at a specific place at a specific time every hour or so for a day or two. And the Magic itself? It’s difficult for anything to foster more ambivalence than that. It’s the greatest game ever made, and it’s incredibly fun, but not if you play too much, and only if you keep winning, and even then only sometimes. And heck—you could be doing this at home.

Regret notwithstanding, Grand Prix Minnesota wasn’t really optional for me. Sure, the proximate impetus for booking my flight was confidence with the format, but I honestly just needed to leave my town, my house, and my bed. See kids, it’s been a rough couple of years for your Grandpa Timmy. Some combination of anxiety, ennui, and chronic hypochondria plunged me to the brink of a mental breakdown. I hit rock bottom in December, at which point I literally could not think well enough to read an article or listen to a podcast. I was convinced that I wasn’t going to make it to 2018. Sometime in January, I started to rebound, but I still barely left the house and only interacted via Twitch chat and Facebook. It took months before I finally felt physically and mentally well enough to face the world.

But enough about me. How have YOU been?

After my first handful of M19 Sealeds and a few dozen Drafts, I believed that I had a good feel for the formats. It turns out that my Draft confidence was (probably?) justified, whereas my Sealed confidence was outright delusional. “Sealed deck” remains a thinly-veiled euphemism for flipping a coin—don’t @ me. The only people who believe Sealed to be a worthwhile competitive format are those who ran abnormally hot in their last few or those who’ve grown accustomed to playing against people way worse than them. Still, I believe M19 Draft to be a solid format, and I think a lot of the reason people are down on it is because Dominaria is just too tough an act to follow. You don’t take the stage after Hendrix.

The Benefits of Sleep

My flight landed at 8:00 a.m. Friday morning. I considered getting an actual old-fashioned taxi to the convention center since I don’t have a single app to my name, let alone Uber, but when I saw that even the really old people were walking past the cab area and into the Uber/Lyft pickup area, I decided to wait it out. Fortunately, an old friend in the form of Matt Schmaltz showed up a few minutes later, and Mike Sigrist and Rob “Princess Buttercup” Castellon shortly thereafter.

As we rode to the site, the topic turned to the upcoming team PT, and thus one of many recent developments that have sent me on a screaming inexorable tilt: people being clandestine about which format they’re playing. “Holy crap you guys. I just saw on Instagram that Oliver Tiu’s best friend’s janitor’s cat’s previous owner says that Oliver is playing Legacy! This changes everything! We have garnered a significant edge over his team. I’m now going to play one Red Elemental Blast and one Pyroblast instead of two Red Elemental Blasts in my sideboard because he played a Meddling Mage in his sideboard in a League in March. Seriously, this is why you protect information with your life.”

Once we arrived at the site, we bemoaned our early flight, with Sigrist mentioning that he only got about 90 minutes of sleep.

“Too excited to play 6 rounds of Core Set 2019 Sealed, were you?”
“Nah, I got roped into taking my niece to the Taylor Swift concert last night.”
“Ooh, how was it?”
*exuberant grin* “It was awesome.”

He explained that even if one wasn’t into the music, the spectacle was enough to carry the day. For instance, the concertgoers were issued light-up bracelets that were on timers to change colors, make shapes en masse, do “the wave,” etc. at different points in the evening.

Meanwhile, I wondered what the person who dreamed that up and implemented it could have done with his/her life instead.

As our ramblings continued, we discussed Siggy playing against “suspected” cheaters—by which I mean people who have absolutely cheated and may continue to do so—in sketchy situations where it looked like they were manipulating their deck… and then only cutting them instead of shuffling. I won’t name any names because I’m not looking for that kind of trouble, but you know who you are, we know who you are, you’ve made no effort to rehabilitate your reputation, you are a cheater, and nobody trusts you.

Despite being exhausted, Siggy is so naturally affable that he made the hours just fly by. Soon it was time to head over to the hotel and watch Cedric in his element.

When we got to the room, Cedric opened his laptop, his phone, and his other phone (really), and began working in about ten different tabs, most of which were devoted to daily fantasy baseball. We were going to do a practice Draft, but first he had to finish responding to his emails, edit an article, change his Twitter name to a complete sentence, pick a restaurant for dinner, pick a restaurant for breakfast, update his Ultimate Guard to-do list, and listen to a podcast on 3.5x speed telling him exactly how to set his final baseball lineup. (Spoiler: He lost it all. Should have played around it.)

Our Draft was green-blue, headlined by two Dryad Greenseekers and a Sleep. He took the latter of these under protest despite dismissing it as absolute garbage. “It’s never worked for me once,” he said before winning 5 of 6 games solely because of it. Drafting with Ceddy in a nutshell.

Like a Cross Between Pokemon Go and Sudoku

I could list my Sealed pool and see how you’d build it, because I’m legitimately curious whether anything could have been done, but this is most definitely not a strategy article. There were some lands and some spells. Literal Dinosaurs on the cards. Tempo. Velocity. Card advantage. Sequencing. The whole bunch.

I was delighted to discover that all of the pools are now preregistered, so you no longer need to bust packs or write things down in the total column. Hell, I’ll pay an extra Ulysses for that any day of the damn week.

I finished 3-3 because Sealed is big floppy clown shoes, and then around 3 in the morning, if memory serves, went to dinner with my squad for the weekend. The composition of said squad was Cedric and myself, as well as:

Mehran Latif: One of my best friends. We make it a point to see each other every year, and have done so in Oklahoma for a Tool concert, in California for the Jeopardy Tournament of Champions, and at various other locales. Better than Zack Wolff at Magic.

Rob Pisano: Most of my contact with Rob had been online, but he’s a fellow Jets fan, meaning that there’s plenty to commiserate about, and that probably also explains the cloud of impending doom that seemed to be following him around. Regardless, he’s a great guy.

Tommy Ashton: People throw around terms like “nut-high human” so much that it cheapens them for the people to whom they actually apply, and they certainly apply to Tommy. It’s impossible to find fault with this guy. His mind is always working, he’s always saying something clever, he’s suitably salty without being mean-spirited, and when he’s not working, playing Magic, or watching the Washington Wizards, he’s doing serious research of cat pics on the internet. The cat du jour was the Pallas’s cat, or manul, a fluffy fellow from Mongolia who makes hilarious facial expressions.

Tim Wu: Tim is 42 years old and grouchy.

While we waited to be seated, Tim Wu and Tommy came up with the idea to upend the “cross between poker and chess” cliche for describing Magic by instead telling strangers that it’s like a combination of two disparate games/shows/activities. Tommy came up with “a cross between Fortnite and poker,” Tim with “a cross between Game of Thrones and Sonic the Hedgehog.” One I came up with just now: “a cross between tic-tac-toe and Hamilton.” The possibilities are endless. Try it with your next Uber driver and report how they respond.

The “No Role Model” Zone

My only activity of note on Sunday was a Dominaria team Draft with my new acquaintance Marcus “ace-and-deuce” Luong. I first knew him as one of the myriad people who really bothered me from Nassif’s Twitch channel (best Magic stream in the biz). Eventually he became tolerable, and I was excited when he made Top 8 of GP Sacramento. He seemed to play relatively well, and despite being a bit of a B, is a reasonable human. PTR would have had a field day with him before eventually accepting him as a loyal acolyte.

Here were the randomized teams:

Bad Guys

Marcus Luong: He asked me how to spell “orange.”

Daniel Weiser: The quiet one. The shy one. The silent killer.

Dan Ward: No comment.

Good Guys

Me: This weekend I asked Ben Yu if he remembered me, and he did, he really did! *blush*

Oliver Tomajko: I learned a number of things about the former National champ this weekend, but none of them are suitable for publication. Also, he spent most of the weekend trying to popularize the “reverse dab.” (Don’t ask.) He is good at Magic, though!

Matthew Foulkes: What’s the superlative version of “devil-may-care”? Because I assure you, when it comes to Mr. Foulkes, the devil most certainly does not give a crap. Sounds less like Jeremy Irons in person than he does on stream, but I still should have gotten him to say “IIIIII killed Mufasa!!!” Decidedly not a role model.

It felt rather odd opening actual physical boosters of Dominaria. Even though I’m fairly certain that I drafted it online more than anyone on the planet, this was my first time holding the cards. It’s also kind of a shock to the system to revert even one format when you’ve drafted a lot of the current one. On top of that, the ever-restrained Ari Lax was sitting behind me, watching, judging.

I started by taking Vicious Offering over nothing, then took Blessed Light over Danitha and a few other white cards. The plan was to start hacking white, and realistically, I should have known ace-and-deuce to my left would favor ratchet red-white. I should have been hacking red with greater aplomb.

When I got In Bolas’s Clutches third, Ari and I shared an arrogant chuckle. “Been a long time since anyone team drafted, eh?” we both thought to ourselves. I ended the draft with blue-black, splashing Blessed Light and Teshar, with highlights including Belzenlok, his Rite, and Traxos, Scourge of Kroog, possibly the best overall card in Dominaria Draft.

When I played Marcus, I attacked a 2/2 into a 3/2 first striker and cast Blessing of Belzenlok on it. Fortunately, the game was already locked up because it was turn 9 and Marcus was still on three lands. I dispatched Dan Ward by achieving Traxos advantage in 2 of 3 games. And then, with the score tied 4-4 and me down a game against Weiser, the pressure was on but it’s a dead format so you’re getting the truncated version: I DID IT YOU GUYS, WOO! (Seriously, the next time I do a current-format Team Draft with any real stakes, I’ll go into more detail, assuming that’s something anyone would be interested in.) The constant in all of my matches was Tim Wu looming over the table, looking at my various board states with Cabal Evangels, Howling Golems, and Guardians of Koilos, and muttering, “I thought this was supposed to be one of the best formats ever. What the hell?”

I drafted okay. I didn’t play particularly well. But I didn’t let my teammates down, and that was the goal. The definition of “not letting one’s teammates down” varies from Draft to Draft. All that matters is that your team wins, so if your teammates get 5 matches between them, nothing you do can let them down. If they both go 0-fer, you have no obligations, so you can’t let them down in that case either. Here, though, Oliver drafted well, presumably played well, and went 2-1. Foulkes didn’t deal a single point of damage over six painful, embarrassing games while also passing to the player on the other team who was a breath away from going 3-0, but arguably that was just variance. Meanwhile, I’m the purported “Draft expert” over here. There’s some expectation that I’ll display a minimum level of expertise. And I didn’t, but you know what? RAAAANGGZZZ!

As to the Grand Prix itself, how did Day 2 go for the dinner squad? You know the part in Kill Bill where the Bride goes to the restaurant with the Hanzo sword? Yeah, my friends were the Crazy 88. Pick your movie: they were the incompetent henchmen the hero single-handedly works their way through. In the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest of life, they were wrapped in buns and sitting on Joey Chestnut’s plate. Between the four of them (Mehran also failed to make Day 2), they went a combined 2-10 over the first three rounds, and the last three rounds didn’t go much better.

***

I have no plans to end my GP career on that note, so you probably haven’t seen the last of me playing the IRL version of our beloved cross between Bridge and Skeeball. Oh, and congrats to Magnus Lantto or whatever.