“Few players recall big matches they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career”. – Patrick Chapin, “Confessions of a Winning Magic Player”
It seems true to me, because flying back home, I could hardly remember how I made it to the Top 8 of nine Pro Tours, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the way I got knocked out of the Mythic Invitational.
I flew to Boston on Tuesday and after picking up my bag and clearing customs, I ran into Martin Juza and my playtest partner for this event, Mythic Champion Autumn Autumn Lily Burchett.
I just had a few seconds to say hello, as the husband of my cousin was there to pick me up. I have family I don’t get to see very often, who live right outside of Boston—in Arlington—and I had decided to stay with them rather than in one of the downtown hotels. I was a bit worried about the slightly longer commute early in the morning, but jetlag was on my side the whole week, and it all worked out just fine.
Wizards asked us to be there early for social media day on Wednesday. Even though they only needed each of us for a few minutes, it was nice to have a day to just relax and hang out with the other players before the big show. The entire week, we had access to a lounge with a big screen TV to watch the Invitational stream, computers with Arena, and food catered twice a day. I ended up spending most of my time there in between rounds or on my days off.
After we were done for the day, Reid, Cuneo, and I headed to Cambridge, where the Harvard campus is located, to meet with one of Reid’s good friend for dinner.
I spent Thursday watching groups A and B play out and supporting my teammate. Unfortunately, the tournament didn’t go well for them, and Lily exited the Invitational midday. On top of that, Ken Yukuhiro and Yuuya Watanabe, two of the strongest players in the field, also failed to advance, which was a bit worrying as they were running the same combination of decks we were. The three of them had gone a combined 3-6 in matches, but I guess there was nothing I could do about it except hope they were on the wrong side of variance, and that things would go better for me on Friday.
Matt Nass and Brittany Hamilton made it out of group A without a loss while Ondrej Strasky and Jessica Estephan had to battle much harder to survive Day 1. I was especially excited for Jess’s run as she was playing our Naya Angels brew.
Andrea Mengucci, Amy “Amazonian” Demicco, player of the year Luis Salvatto, and Arena qualifier Edoardo “Quicksort” Annunziata joined them out of group B.
Wizards planned a party for Thursday evening. They had reserved a lavish downtown Boston club for the first part of the evening, and pulled out all the stops: photographer, open bar, cocktail waiters, a DJ, and goodie bags. I was playing the next day, so I decided to be reasonable and stick to water, but everyone seemed to have a great time even though it did take almost two hours for people to really start hitting the dance floor—probably a record, given that drinks were free.
I headed out around 8:30 and managed to get a good night’s sleep. As I mentioned, jetlag worked in my favor all week and I was able to get about eight hours of rest every night, waking up between 6 and 7 a.m. each day. It was also nice not to have to worry about physical cards or last-minute deck list changes.
My first opponent was Brian Braun-Duin. I was assigned Temur Reclamation for game 1 and was happy to see BBD open with Hallowed Fountain. Leading up to the tournament, there was a lot of talk about the die roll being critical, but given the decks I had picked, getting the right matchups was paramount. I decided to Syncopate a turn-4 Chemister’s Insight, which left me open to a turn-5 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. I eventually dealt with it, but the damage was done. After BBD Unmoored Ego’d my four Expansion // Explosion, my chances were slim to none. I decided to play it out and lost a 25-minute game 1.
Game 2 between my Esper Acuity and his White Aggro deck went much better, and we had about 15 minutes left on the clock for game 3. I decided to go with Esper Acuity since it had a good matchup against White and I thought I might be able to cheese a win against Esper Control despite the matchup being unfavorable. As draws were not an option for this tournament structure, the rule was that whomever had the highest life total when time was called and the five extra turns were played won the match. BBD figured I’d go for Acuity and picked Esper Control. In hindsight, I think my plan was flawed as 15 minutes was maybe enough for him to win the game, and he had access to Sanguine Sacrament via Mastermind’s Acquisition. Ultimately, I just outdrew him and was extremely far ahead when time was called.
Huey won his round 1 match against Shoota Yasooka, which meant we had to square off in round 2 of the upper bracket. Huey was playing the same combination as BBD, and despite me getting the favorable matchups once again, Huey was able make it to game 3 after his White deck ran over my Esper.
This time around, I randomized my deck choice for the decider using a GTO approach. Something fairly embarrassing, and very fortunate, happened. I thought Temur Reclamation was the slightly better choice so I weighted my choice towards it. I would play Acuity if I rolled a 1 through 40 and Temur on a 41 through 100. Except all I had was a D20 and when I rolled 19, I didn’t think twice and locked Esper Acuity in. 19 is between 1 and 40 after all. Huey used the GTO approach as well, weighted toward White, and I ended up with a favorable matchup. If I had been coherent, my 19 would have meant picking Temur Reclamation and who knows what would have happened then.
I was featured against John Rolf in the upper bracket finals, and not only did I get favorable pairings for the third time in a row, but John also had subpar draws.
Just like that, I had made it out of the group stages and into the Top 16. Seth Manfield was the other player with a clean 3-0 while Reid managed to survive despite dropping to the lower bracket right away. Janne Mikkonen, a.k.a. Savjz, surprised most as the fourth player making out of the group of death.
Group D saw Kowalski, Depraz, Glogowski—a.k.a. Kanister, and Nguyen—a.k.a. TheAsianAvenger—qualify. Kowaslki showed up with Temur Rec + Esper Acuity as well, and his perfect record meant the deck combination went from having the worse record on Day 1 to one of the best records overall (9-6). Variance, etc.
The Top 16
We all found out what the bracket looked like on Saturday morning and my round 1 opponent was the other French player in the tournament, Jean-Emmanuel Depraz. He was on Gruul and Esper Control, and the good runs continued as not only did I get the right matchups, but Depraz had to take a mulligan in both games.
Next up was Kowalski and my first “mirror match.” I was worried, as Kowalski had probably played these decks more than I had and his versions seemed better against control. He had a few more relevant cards in his Acuity deck and a third Niv-Mizzet, Parun in his version of Temur. The algorithm paired Acuity vs. Temur and Temur vs. Acuity, and with slightly better draws and solid game play, I won both games. I did make one mistake that almost cost me the game when I was on the Acuity side. I had used all my Acquisitions to get very far ahead, removing all of Kowalski’s win conditions with Unmoored Ego. I had one Nezahal left to kill him. All I had to worry about was not to get decked, but with Azcanta flipped, I would be able to make sure Nezahal wasn’t one of my very last cards. But I didn’t keep exact track, and I stopped using Azcanta a bit too soon, drawing the Dino later than I should have. I ended up dealing lethal with two cards left in my deck and if Kowalski had drawn one more Chemister’s Insight, he would have decked me with the draw triggers.
I was 2-0 on the day, meaning I only had to win one out of the next two matches to advance to the Top 4. The Sunday stage felt so close, yet so far.
My next opponent would be Savjz, who was the only other non-MPL member on our side of the bracket. He was on Esper Control and White, and I was hoping the pairing gods would smile down on me one last time. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, as not only did I get my Temur deck paired against White but Savjz also won the die roll in the matchup where it mattered. His draw was a bit clunky and I would have been in decent shape had I found one of my two Fiery Cannonade. Game 2 didn’t go much better. I had a reasonable opening but drew a ton of dead cards, and even named the wrong card on Sorcerous Spyglass (Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin instead of Teferi) even though the game was pretty much over at that point.
After the loss, my first in the tournament, I was told I would be playing in the last match of the day, which meant I had to sit there for several hours waiting to find out who my opponent would be.
Andrea ended up earning the spot after dispatching Matt Nass and Luis Salvatto.
I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been thinking about how high the stakes were. The loser of our match would go home with $12,500 while the winner would get to play for his share of $495,000 on the Sunday stage, which meant that this was the single highest stakes match in the history of the game, worth over $100,000 in equity.
We sat down and the admin pointed at my A deck, Temur Reclamation. I lost the die roll, Andrea led with basic Plains and I couldn’t help but shake my head. It was going to be an uphill battle, but when Andrea passed his second turn without playing a creature, I knew I had a small chance to break serve. I kept the board somewhat clear with a copied Shivan Fire on turn 3 and was able to fire off an Explosion for 6 on Andrea’s Venerated Loxodon. Unfortunately, just when I thought I made it out of the woods, he had the Marshall into Tribunal one-two punch that left me drawing dead.
I had to mulligan on the play in game 2 and keep a hand with no blue mana but Andrea’s seven wasn’t ideal, which meant I had a shot. I drew what I needed and managed to force a third game, which meant I had a decision to make. Do I try and get into Andrea’s head or do I just GTO it and roll the dice again? Given how the games had gone, I considered just picking Acuity. But ultimately, I decided to trust my D20 and go with Acuity on a 1-14 and Temur Rec on a 15-20. It came up a 6 and I locked up Esper for game 3.
I was on the draw, kept two Moment of Craving hand, and my heart sunk a little when Andrea led with Hallowed Fountain. The game wasn’t looking great, but it wasn’t hopeless either, and on my turn 6, I had a decision. I could tutor for Spyglass, naming Teferi, or I could go and get The Immortal Sun and risk Andrea drawing an Absorb or his fourth Thought Erasure in his next three draws (he had an Insight in the graveyard).
While the first ten or twenty games you play of a matchup can give you a decent feel for it, these are the kinds of spots where you get rewarded for having played a matchup over and over again. Unfortunately, I hadn’t, but from the few times I had been in a similar spot, Spyglass or Unmoored Ego were just not enough. There was a reason the Acuity vs. Esper Control matchup was bad, and I felt like tutoring for The Immortal Sun was the play that gave me the best chance of winning. Having talked about it with multiple pro players, I’m still not sure of the right call, but it sure looked awful in hindsight as Andrea was already holding Erasure #4 and he drew two Teferi off the top.
While I don’t really regret my in-game decisions, I do wonder if I could have prepared a bit better and figured out Andrea’s tendencies for game 3, which might have swayed me to go with Temur and get myself a favorable matchup in the $100k decider.
The first thing I did when I got back to the lounge was ask his teammates what Andrea’s strategy for game 3 was and they said they told him to flip a coin, which made me feel better. Except that’s not what Andrea ended up doing. He really didn’t want to have his White deck paired against Acuity, so he went went with Esper Control, which meant there was perhaps room for me to outwit him.
While I didn’t have high expectations going in, it really hurt to get so close only to be denied, and I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things I could have done differently to maybe give me a slightly better chance.
It felt like the structure and the prize pool of the Mythic Invitational magnified the feelings I usually experience at a Magic tournament with really high highs and really low lows. I wondered how long it would take me to get over one of the biggest losses of my career.
I ran into Jarvis and he told me he was going to dinner with Autumn and Emma, and meet up with Reid and Andrew a bit later. That sounded exactly like what I needed. Emma and Jarvis had both won the first flight they had played for Sunday’s MCQ, both playing the same physical 75 (Jarvis’s copy of Izzet Phoenix). I asked Emma how she liked the commentator gig and I don’t remember her exact words but she basically said she loved it and that she had never really been attracted to competing on the Pro Tour, etc. Reverse-jinx at its finest—she ended up winning the MCQ the next day and will be competing in the Mythic Championship Barcelona.
I showed up at PAX early and spent most of the morning grinding the ladder on Arena in the lounge, securing a spot in the top 1000 and in the first Arena qualifier while watching the Top 4 play out. It wasn’t easy, as I kept wondering what could have been, but ultimately, I was happy for all four of them. Savjz was the biggest surprise of the tournament and showed some high level Magic throughout the weekend, Ondrej had the hardest path to get there and demonstrated incredible mental resiliency in fighting his way through the ladder, then through the lower bracket both on Day 1 and Day 2, Kanister is the troll we have but don’t deserve, and Andrea’s preparation and love for the game was rewarded with the biggest cash prize in the history of the game. He even held off buying a new computer when he learned that first prize came with a brand new one, and I couldn’t help but think that we could maybe all use a bit of that Mengucci optimism in our lives.
Not that it’s relevant now, but I’m still not sure how good our decks were and I guess we’ll never find out. If I had to go back in time, I would definitely try to have a slightly larger playtest group. Four people would have been perfect for this event.
While the Invitational was bittersweet on a personal level, it was a huge success, and Wizards did an amazing job. Pretty much everyone loved the coverage, the numbers were through the roof, and the War of the Spark trailer was mind-blowing. I would like to thank everyone who worked behind the scenes, whether it was those taking care of us, or those working back in Seattle to make sure the event ran as smoothly as possible.
Just before leaving I was teasing Mike Rosenberg, who is in charge of Esports operations as the tournament director, that they had set the bar extremely high and wished him good luck keeping it up. I think I spotted a nervous smile.
I also wasn’t sure how it would feel to play on Arena. I was a bit worried going in, but the experience was positive. Magic and Wizards are in a unique spot, as they have to juggle an online scene with a tabletop one, which can’t be an easy task. I’m excited to see how it all pans out and it what it means for me as a streamer and a competitor.
One “downside” with the Invitational’s success is that the competition might become tougher than ever, and I’m hoping I can be more efficient in my tournament preparation in the future.
Next up is the Mythic Championship in London at the end of the month, which means back to Magic Online, Modern, and Blue-White Control for now.