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Not Sick of It – Pro Tour Magic 2015 *Top 8*

What’s it like to be the best in the world at something?

I have no idea (you’ll have to ask William Jensen), but I had a hell of a weekend.

The Privilege of the “Hobbyist’s Freeroll”

A week before the Pro Tour Paul Rietzl found out that he had made the Magic Hall of Fame. That’s also when I found out, by virtue of my ability to keep a secret and Paul’s ability to tell a couple of family members and close friends the good news. I was unsurprised but very proud and happy to hear the news. Paul was happy too, and he seemed most happy with the fact that he no longer would have to do any “grinding” that he didn’t feel like doing. Seeing Zvi, Kai, Jon, Jelger, et al. not worry about attending Grand Prix but just having fun attending the Pro Tours can make someone like Paul or myself pretty envious.

Every grinder ends up envying, in one way or another, all the players who are able to strike a better balance in their lives, still enjoy Magic, and still win at Magic. For me, someone whose career doesn’t approach the Hall of Fame level, I found my balance and my peace through acceptance and growth rather than incredible achievement. I just stopped going to the events that it didn’t make sense (personally) to attend.

This season I played in two Grand Prix. I was qualified for Pro Tour Born of the Gods in Valencia, but I did not attend. It was only through finishing 8th and 9th in the two GPs I played, and generous concessions from Gabriel Nassif, Gabe Carlton-Barnes, and Martin Goldman-Kirst while out of Top 8 contention in Atlanta that I was even qualified for Pro Tour Magic 2015.

The “Hobbyist’s Freeroll” is what you get when the adopt the mindset that you can be competitive, try hard to win, but not make every available compromise in your non-Magic life (“The Full Calcano” if you will) for the sake of going all-out to become the absolute best. Many people will tell you there is only one way to compete: fully committed. Those people are either assuming everyone is exactly like them, or they have adopted that mindset in order to rationalize the choices they’ve made in their personal lives. After all, the choices you made weren’t selfish or short-sighted if there was only the One True Way to play, right?

In the last few years, I have tried my best to avoid the all-or-nothing mindset. The result of finding balance is that the events you do attend feel like a “freeroll”—pure upside. If you make Top 8, great. If you go 0-5, you still have a way to appreciate the opportunity of playing in a Pro Tour and hanging out with friends and enemies (oh, you’ll miss the enemies too if you take time off, trust me). That’s what a hobbyist does, and that’s what a “professional” might not be able to do.

Take as an example the hobby of bird-watching. Sure there are guys who get home and yell and kick the dog if they don’t spot any birds on a Sunday morning hike, I could name names in the Magic community of those types of players, and competitive people like us exalt those guys or become those guys at some point in our lives. But you get to a certain age I guess and you start to appreciate the folks who can just enjoy the hike, while trying their hardest and being at least competent bird watchers, but who don’t lose sleep over the birds in the guidebook that they never spotted.

Paul’s induction into the Hall of Fame will give one more player the means to pick and choose which tournaments to attend and never worry too much about point totals or mid-season slumps. Gold status for next season affords me some of the same freeroll since I’ll be invited to all the Pro Tours, but I’ll try to sprinkle in another few GPs so I can keep it going, and so I don’t fall 5 points short of Platinum again. Whatever happens, I’ll be having fun and hanging out with the people I like hanging out with, and I can only really lose if I lose sight of that.

Preparation

The Pro Tour Magic 2015 (Portland) part of the story begins with my decision to NOT test with the best team in the world, Team CFB: The Pantheon. Out of fairness to the players who show up early to test every Pro Tour, players on the team are asked to show up at least 1 week early in order to test with the team. If this guideline wasn’t in place, the chance of very unequal contribution from players with different availability would be too great. I had already been given an exception for Pro Tour Journey Into Nyx, where I showed up 2 days before the PT. When family/work obligations again prevented me from showing up a week early in Portland, I didn’t feel comfortable even asking for another exception, so I informed the team that I’d be testing on my own for PTM15.

So I was to prepare “alone,” but I knew I couldn’t accomplish anything truly preparing alone. I decided to post a Facebook status asking my friends, qualified or not, to help me test for the Pro Tour. The following people responded that they’d be willing to help me however they could: Adrian Sullivan, Patrick Sullivan, Cedric Phillips, James Gates, Greg Hatch, Adam Barnello, Frank Gilson, Mike Flores, Jarvis Yu, Dustin Cristos, Mark Herberholz, Riad Mourssali, Caleb Durward, Paul Dean (qualified), Jason Ford, and Anand Khare (qualified).

That’s a lot of talent, and includes a bunch of people who weren’t even qualified but were willing to help me prepare. Patrick Sullivan even removed himself from the Team CFB mailing list so that helping me wouldn’t be a conflict of interest.

I knew I didn’t have time to test every idea or suggestion. I would have to play the role of “Idea Gatekeeper” and use my judgment about which ideas seemed worth testing and which didn’t. I think I was successful at the PT precisely because I happen to be good at the role of gatekeeper, armed with limited time but a wide range of potentially valuable input.

Let me explain. Adrian Sullivan and Mike Flores might both be willing to send me a ton of ideas, deck lists, impressions about the format, etc. There is quite of bit of useful information I can get, and quite a bit of “noise.” I think any great innovative deck Builder (as opposed to deck Tuner) is better at generating ideas than filtering down to the really, really useful ones. I’ve seen it time and again as I’ve worked with some of the best Builders of all time over the years.

To give you a sense of how it was going, Adrian Sullivan sent me an email with his top six decks, with complete sideboards, and cards from M15 included. Not like “here’s six decks that I brewed” or six decks with no mana bases or sideboards. These were his TOP six, and the lists looked pretty good. At another point, Mike Flores and Adrian were politely but clearly disagreeing about what cards should be included in a mono-black aggro deck. Mono-black aggro wasn’t a deck I ended up having time to test once I fell in love with Burn, but it gives you a sense that these guys were thinking about Standard, they had decks they liked, ideas to try, and were happy to share and discuss.

Alongside advice from Adrian and Mike that can feel a little “out there,” I had Patrick Sullivan, Mark Herberholz, Jarvis Yu, Jason Ford, and others who really understand Magic deckbuilding from a conventional viewpoint and can anchor a discussion back to what will be effective in the context of this tournament, the metagame, and the other deckbuilding choices you’re making.

Others on my “team” were perhaps somewhere in the middle. Adam Barnello and Anand Khare, for example, contributed both speculative ideas and input into the practical choices I’d have to make. Overall, everyone who chimed in and/or helped me get games in (Frank Gilson and Dustin Cristos made themselves especially available for actual testing, which goes a long way) was a significant contributor.

The Burn Deck: Positioning and Tuning

My experience with Burn goes back to the prior Standard format, where I played Mono-Black in nearly every event, and would occasionally face Burn. I always had two feelings when I played against Burn, 1) holy crap this is scary, I don’t like this, and 2) I’d really be in trouble if a tuned deck list and good player showed up with Burn (as was the case when I played vs. Vidi in an SCG Open and barely escaped after drawing multiple Merchants–he made Top 8 of that tournament, I did not).

What if the black decks started cutting Merchants for Blood Barons and Elspeths? What if Stoke the Flames proved to be a very playable 4-damage spell to go with Warleader’s Helix and Boros Charm? What if Mono-Blue didn’t gain anything from M15 and became less popular?

Adrian Sullivan and I discussed Burn briefly and we both recognized that we didn’t like Magma Jet. Drawing Magma Jet means the card in your hand is worse (2-mana Shocks aren’t good) but you might make a future draw better. Well, in a deck with this much redundancy and mana this good, Adrian and I both didn’t (and still don’t) like that tradeoff. If you play Magma Jet, the scarcity of deck slots means something’s gotta give—usually the 4th Shock and/or the 4th Searing Blood. I’d just rather draw those more efficient spells than Magma Jet, and if I flood a bit more than other Burn decks, maybe the turn 1 Shock (or turn 3 Pyromancer + Shock) bought me extra time or the Searing Blood got me a free Lightning Strike anyway to offset that extra land I drew.

With those things in the back of my mind, I started with this main deck, adopted from a list Saito posted but intending to Firedrinker Satyr the slow decks and Searing Blood the creature decks:

I started testing the deck and I was liking the results. Mono-Blue couldn’t kill Young Pyromancer (without leaving me a 3/3 Frog) and I had the burn to either keep them off devotion or burn them out if ahead early. The matchup didn’t feel incredibly good, but I knew it was good enough and I could focus on the decks I thought would be even more popular like the Pack Rat decks. Against black, I was finding their main decks had too few cards that really mattered, and you could even beat one of them, Desecration Demon, pretty easily if you got a Young Pyromancer to stick. The Firedrinkers were fine, and they helped Young Pyromancer survive more often by virtue of eating a Bile Blight or Hero’s Downfall in many early games. Gray Merchant of Asphodel was annoying, sure, but the typical devotion available wasn’t a whole lot—it’s costly to drop a Connections against this deck instead of doing anything else, and Lifebane Zombie was laughably fragile.

So all told, I wasn’t missing Skullcrack THAT much. I didn’t get a chance to play against Revelation decks very much, and that’s probably why I initially thought the missing Skullcracks (and Adrian kept telling me they needed to be there) weren’t that big a deal.

As testing was moving along, I was discussing with both Sullivans—Adrian and Patrick—whether the Firedrinker + untapped lands + Chained to the Rocks in the sideboard plan was better than a different plan that involved more scry lands and Toil // Trouble in the sideboard. Adrian really liked playing more scry lands, and Patrick kind of did too, but I just intuitively did not feel like the deck wanted to slow down, especially because scrying turn 1 wasn’t even that useful for this particular deck, but playing 2-drop and 3-drop was critical. Finally, the testing I had done had been really successful, and mana is always a big part of that. To change it now could potentially improve things, but with time running out I went with an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to the mana base and left my ETB-tapped land count at 4.

Riad Mourssali is a player from Arizona that I grew up with on the southwest US PTQ circuit, back when my friends and I would road trip to San Diego, Phoenix, Vegas, wherever that weekend’s PTQ was, and we’d run into Riad and his guys. We’ve kept in touch and every so often one of us will be preparing for a Magic event and ask the other “hey, you played any Standard recently?” This time Riad had been playing Standard, and he’d been playing Burn. I was very happy to get his input on what to do with the burn list.

Riad was pretty clear that he thought Skullcrack and Eidolon of the Great Revel belonged in the main deck, and Adrian never really stopped insisting on Skullcrack in the main, and so I figured my best bet at tuning this deck was to LISTEN to these experienced burn players and just put the damn Skullcracks in my main deck. You surround yourself with smart people precisely so that when they start shouting the truth at you, you can listen.

I asked Jason Ford to test out the Eidolons for me, and he reported back that they’re solid, but if Sylvan Caryatid is popular, it blocks it perfectly and/or accelerates right to 4-drops, so Eidolon kind of sucks in those games. I thought green devotion would be a fairly popular deck, and I loved Young Pyromancer in my testing, so I settled on 4 Young Pyromancer, but I cut the Firedrinker Satyrs for 1 Eidolon of the Great Revel and 3 Skullcrack. As soon as I made that change, the deck just had the “look and feel” of the deck I wanted to play.

My testing, my friends, my intuition, my prediction for the metagame, they all were telling me “this is the list.” So I didn’t budge on the scry lands (not including extra ones), and I felt good about adding the Skullcracks.

Oh, one more thing that happened along the way: 3 Sacred Foundries. There is a stigma to playing less than 4 of the “obvious” duals, as evidenced by Tweets like this:

The stigma is reasonable; most of the time you do want to max on the good duals. So what happened?

Adrian Sullivan came to me and said he thought 3 Sacred Foundry 4 Battlefield Forge was better than 4 of each. I was VERY—all caps—VERY skeptical. I probably wrote 1000 words to Adrian arguing why it didn’t seem like it could be correct to not have 4 Sacred Foundry, especially with Chained to the Rocks in my 75. Rather than shout at each other with no end in sight, we localized the precise point on which we disagreed. I had played enough games to know that Sacred Foundries cost you more life on average in this deck than Battlefield Forges do. We agreed that from strictly a life-saving perspective, Forge wins. What we didn’t agree on was the impact Chained to the Rocks has on the outcomes. I speculated that even though you’d miss on Chained to the Rocks only a small percentage of the time because of this one-land choice, when you did miss it would be potentially devastating. Adrian understood this, but didn’t think it would come up often enough to justify spending extra life points on average every time you drew the card. I left the conversation fairly confident in 4 Sacred Foundry (alongside 3 or 4 Battlefield Forge).

Well, then I played another 10 games with the deck. Then another 10. Sacred Foundries continued to cost me an annoying amount of life relative to the other lands (I know at least one player who told me that turn 1 tapped Sacred Foundry is not playing Mutavault turn 1 as often as they should). I consistently had plenty of white mana for my white splash. I didn’t play enough games to get a feel for how often missing a Chained would come up, but I knew since this is a sideboard card I plan to cast on turn 4-6, it wouldn’t be coming up often, and the life probably mattered more even considering (frequency * impact) of each outcome and not just frequency.

I messaged Adrian “You were right about 3x Foundry, I was wrong.” I still feel that way. I’m glad I played 3 Foundry at the Pro Tour, and (results-oriented sample coming, brace yourself, but evidence is evidence) I never once drew a Chained to the Rocks without a Mountain to enchant and I never once had a white spell in my hand I couldn’t cast until the final game of the tournament where I’m pretty sure a white mana would not have saved me. I DID win games at a low life total, and I did take damage from my lands, but not that much damage.

The Final Deck List: RW Burn

****What would I change going forward??****

If you skimmed this article for the deck list and proposed changes only, you’re too lazy to be worthy of a great deck like this. Just kidding, I understand. I would swap out 1 Warleader’s Helix for the 4th Skullcrack main. I would play a 3rd copy of Chandra, Pyromaster somewhere—probably the sideboard. Other than that, I’m not sure I’d change anything else as of today.

The Tournament

Before we get down to the round-by-round report and aftermath, I need to thank ChannelFireball’s own Jon Saso and Andy Cooperfauss for their support. When I messaged them and told them I wouldn’t be on either of the official CFB teams, but was working alone, I wasn’t sure if that would mean I’d have no “sponsor” for the event to help with cards or whatever else I needed. This was not the case, and in fact I borrowed most of the burn deck from CFB even though I wasn’t on either official team. Jon left me two notes as I left California and headed to the PT, 1) that I should win the whole thing, and 2) “Go Giants.” Hopefully I didn’t let Jon down with my 8th place finish, and hopefully the 2014 San Francisco Giants continue to let Jon down as they struggle to keep up with my boys in blue.

On to the tournament. As usual for Pro Tours these days, the format was: 3 rounds of Draft, 5 rounds of Constructed, then another 3 rounds of Draft and another 5 rounds of Constructed.

Draft 1: RG Auras

I took Brood Keeper over Inferno Fist early in pack 1, which is a pick I like making since I love RG or RW Auras. Most people would say that’s a bad pick, but I don’t show up to impress people with my picks, I show up to win as best I know how. The Brood Keeper decks I was drafting online were simply winning more than their fair share.

I got the 2nd Brood Keeper pretty late and was off to the races. Some Auras and some Invasive Species later, and my deck had come together. Invasive Species with Hammerhands is sweet even if you don’t get any Brood Keepers. Satyr Wayfinder and Rummaging Goblin + Vineweft is also in play here. Multiple sets of synergies with overlapping cards is great if you can find it in  Core Set draft. I also like Feral Incarnation more than most pros do, if you can keep your creature count very high. Ornithopter and Foundry Street Denizen seem crappy, but they not only cast convoke spells, they lighten the load of playing 3x Invasive Species.

I won my first two rounds and in the third round I lost the red/green mirror match when I just stumbled on mana one game, and misplayed another game by not returning Torch Fiend instead of a land turn 3 with a Species and 5-6 turns later being a turn slower than I should have been in casting a Feral Incarnation. When you have Incarnations, you have to be cognizant of stuff like this and give up a very speculative chance at 2 damage to keep your lands in play if your hand is land-heavy.

2-1 record

Round 4: Ramis Pascual, Toni

Toni was playing Green Dovotion (splashing for Domri and Xenagos). This is a popular deck on Magic Online, so Jason Ford and I had both played against it several times (he played some games using the lists I was sending him, and would report the results). Game 1 tends to be relatively easy, and I won it. Games 2 and 3 can be really easy if you get Firedancer going, or really hard if you don’t. In game 2 I got crushed by a fast draw and a Reclamation Sage on my Chained to the Rocks. In game 3 I was able to stick Firedancer and my opponent’s devotion and life total were never very high.

Round 5: Rachid, Denniz

Denniz was playing Esper control. After the match he told me he kept a somewhat slow draw assuming I was playing a black deck like the rest of Team Pantheon. Breaking away from the team was paying unexpected dividends. In any event, his scry lands and slow spells got completely run over game 1, as often happens against the Esper version of the Revelation deck. In game 2 I just had a nice draw which included a Skullcrack, and that was that.

Round 6: Sharfman, David

Sharfman was playing BW midrange with Obzedat and Blood Baron. Like most decks, I am about 50% vs. this type of deck, with a lot riding on whether the black deck gets a turn 4 Desecration Demon or not. At one point Sharfman attacked his 6/6 Demon into my Chandra’s Phoenix when he knew (from Lifebane Zombie) that my hand contained both Shock and Searing Blood. I thought the play was questionable given what Sharfman knew, but what he didn’t know made it even worse—I had drawn a second Searing Blood.

There’s a sense in which, playing against the burn deck, you feel like you can’t just sit back and wait, you have to take action. That’s true in general, but in this case I think trading in the Lifebane for the Searing Blood and waiting for a removal spell or just a little more time would have been better than attacking with the Demon. In all my excitement about getting to double Searing Blood a Desecration Demon to death, I forgot to return my Chandra’s Phoenix from those Searing Blood triggers. I drew my card for the turn, felt stupid, and had to use another burn spell to get the Phoenix back for the following turn. I’m pretty good with stuff like remembering Chandra’s Phoenix since I was raised in the “YOU FORGOT TO PAY ECHO!” era, but nobody bats 1.000 on triggers I guess.

Sharfman also failed to draw a 5th land that came into play untapped, and the extra time was exactly what I needed to put the game away before the Obzedat or Blood Baron could swing things.

I can’t remember what happened in the other game(s), but I edged out the victory.

Round 7: Scott-Vargas, Luis

Ah yes. I had been waiting, praying, telling Paul about the fact that all I wanted was to get paired against someone from Team CFB or Team Revolution who were both playing red creature decks. In testing it became very clear very quickly that the burn deck, as configured with 4 Shock and 4 Searing Blood and 4 Young Pyromancer which spit out the equivalent of Foundry Street Denizen at least once a turn, was going to pray on the people trying to win by spitting out 2/2s. I expected creature decks and devotion decks to be present in significant numbers, and that’s why I refused to shave numbers on these cards as others in my group were suggesting I do so.

My draw game 1 was pretty mediocre actually, but so was LSV’s. He struggled to get the 2nd Mountain he needed to really put the pressure on, and the turn or two he went without it was the difference.

In game 2 or 3 I had a very robust draw including a Satyr Firedancer, and I won pretty comfortably.

Round 8: DeTora, Melissa

YES! Again I got to play against red creatures. I sat next to Melissa in round 4 when she played against Brock Parker, and from glancing over I noticed she had sideboarded in Magma Sprays and was maindecking Rubblebelt Maaka.

For game 1 I lost the die roll and Melissa chose to play first. This turned out to be absolutely critical as my opening hand contained Eidolon of the Great Revel, while Melissa’s opening hand included 2 Burning-Tree Emissary and a Firefist Striker. Had I gone first, I would have won the game easily. With Melissa on the play, I was able to get her down to 3 or 4 life, but could not kill her in time.

In games 2 and 3 the full power of an unanswered Young Pyromancer or Satyr Firedancer (or both as it turned out in game 3) was on full display. I boarded out my Chandra’s Phoenixes as I usually do when the Firedancers come in, and I just went to work with burn spells and 2-drops that do cool things alongside burn spells.

At 7-1 after Day 1, having 5-0’d the first Constructed portion of the tournament, I was feeling pretty good. Paul, Paul’s girlfriend Kat, Tom Martell, and Paul Dean, a Canadian player whom I was staying with for the tournament, all went to dinner to celebrate Paul making the HoF. Paul (Rietzl) generously chipped in a few hundred bucks towards the bill since he was the honoree (the Magic community has long had this backwards tradition). I told Paul and Kat I’d take them out to dinner Saturday night if I made Top 8. The only “jinx” I believe in is the one on unplayable artifacts from Mirrodin, M11, and Stronghold.

Draft 2: UB Control

2-1 second draft record, 9-2 overall.

In both drafts, I began 2-0 and lost in the third round to a deck that I was decently matched up against. This time it was Huey and his UW deck that beat me on camera. 4-2 wasn’t a bad showing, but it wasn’t great either. I was going to have to pick things up in Constructed.

In round 10 I was playing my UB draft deck against Greg Orange. Paul finished his match early and watched my entire game 3 from the rail. It was a close game in which I had several turns in a row of tough decisions and ended up winning a close one. Paul told me after the match that he thought I played the game exactly as he would have played it, down to every last mana spent. That was the first time I really thought “I’m in the zone here, I think I can do this.”

Round 12: Floch, Ivan

Before he was Magic Pro Tour Superstar Shepherd Ivan “Huge Flock” Floch, he was just a guy trying to win round 12. Standing in his way was RW Burn. Game 1 he got to Rev into Rev and I was defeated. In game 2 he drew all 4 of his Nyx-Fleece Rams. So here I was, down a game to UW Rev playing 4 Rams in the SB, who drew all 4 Rams in game 2, and I won this match.

The first Ram got Wear // Tear’d immediately. The second Ram let me stick a Chandra, which then pinged the Ram and let me take it down with Warleader’s Helix the following turn. When Ivan got rid of the Chandra and played 2 more Rams, it was looking bleak. I attacked with Chandra’s Phoenix, dropping Ivan to 8 life. Ivan untapped, drew a card, and then realized he didn’t gain life from the Rams. Sweet, free Shock.

Ivan said go with 7 mana up. I untapped, drew, and swung in with the Phoenix. In combat, Ivan decided it was time to Revelation for 3 (leaving up 1 mana), meaning he had a Dispel in hand for my Skullcrack. I cast Skullcrack, Ivan cast Dispel, and I cast a 2nd Skullcrack in response. Ivan, still upset with himself over the Ram triggers, conceded the game… not remembering that Dispel would still counter the first Skullcrack on the stack, he’d still draw 3 cards, and he still had 2 Rams in play.

In game 3 I was able to apply pressure on Ivan, one creature at a time, and eventually burn him out. Ivan was upset about giving away game 2, but he never lost his cool or became angry, he remained friendly and I believe wished me luck going forward. As I said earlier with my missed Phoenix trigger, we all have those moments. How you act and how you recover are pretty important, and Ivan did well at both.

10-2

Round 13: Friedman, Ben

Feature match, another nice opponent, and my second time playing against the BW midrange deck featuring Obzedat and Pack Rat and crew. Ben’s deck was boarding in more Sin Collectors than most (had to be 3 or 4) and they were pretty critical in the close match we played. The Burn player’s primary resource is the cards in his or her hand, and Sin Collector can do pretty nicely in a race for the black/white deck. Ben was another nice guy (this Pro Tour stands out to me in terms of the sportsmanship and attitude my opponent’s displayed; round after round my opponents proved they weren’t taking things too seriously to the point of no return). Picking up my 3rd loss to Ben meant my margin for error was gone. I was going to have to 2-0 to be able to draw in, 2-1 would leave me praying for Top 8 but most likely in Top 16.

10-3

Round 14: Dezani, Jeremy

A teammate of Melissa De Tora on Team Revolution, Jeremy was also playing the Goblin red deck. I dispatched with him on camera fairly easily, with cards like Young Pyromancer, Shock, and Searing Blood once again justifying their inclusion in my deck. Jeremy was stuck on 1 land in the first game, so it’s not like it would have mattered all that much, but even had he drawn land I feel my deck was ready to fight these fights.

Round 15: Kuo, Tzu-Ching

Ah, the “win-and-in” round. Last time I was here was at Worlds in I think 2011 where I was playing … red deck wins. Goblin Guide was a bit better than Young Pyromancer, but then again the Bitterblossoms and Bloodbraid Elves I was playing against in that Extended format weren’t bad either. I lost to Jund in that win-and-in, with my opponent at 2 life in game 3. That one haunted me for a bit.

Back to this one, my opponent was Tzu-Ching Kuo playing Green Devotion. Decent matchup, not an incredible one, and a very formidable Constructed opponent in Kuo.

Prior to the match, as a crowd was forming behind me, I asked a judge to remove the spectators that were Kuo’s friends and teammates from a position where they could see my hand. I had no evidence of wrongdoing and I am not suggesting Kuo or his friends did anything shady. I just wanted to prevent even an inadvertent reaction to me drawing a burn spell, let’s say, or maybe a friend who has decided to give Kuo some help he didn’t ask for. In any event, I was informed by head judge Scott Marshall that unless something has already happened, they will not remove spectators. They were willing to have a judge keep an eye out, and so I settled for that. Nothing happened. I came up to Scott after the match and just expressed my desire that either the rule or the setup of the venue be changed, at the Pro Tour level. Only one side of the match could accommodate spectators, so Kuo’s friends had no choice but to stand right behind me, and I couldn’t ask them to go over to his side of the table. I don’t want to be checking pairings and then sprinting as fast as I can to get the “good side” of the table. But that’s what this is incentivizing. At least at the top tables of PT events, I believe there should either be spectating areas on both sides, or players should retain a veto over which spectators to allow.

In game 1 of the match, I won the die roll and led with turn 2 Eidolon of the Great Revel. Kuo grimaced and played Burning-Tree Emissary into Sylvan Caryatid, taking 4 damage in the process. Chandra’s Phoenix came down to do its work, and pretty soon I was up a game, and one game away from 12-3.

In game 2 Kuo started with Forest and Nykthos (which often indicated a lack of additional lands when it comes out on turn 2) along with a Voyaging Satyr. I untapped and Searing Blooded the Voyaging Satyr. Kuo drew a card, played another Voyaging Satyr, but had not drawn a third land to play. I untapped, cast Satyr Firedancer and Shock on Kuo, killing the Voyaging Satyr. So far so great. With a Firedancer and 3 land to just 2 land, the game was basically over. My hand was 2 Lightning Strike and 2 other burn spells, so in a few turns the game was actually over.

12-3

Round 16: Mondon, Pierre

When the standings and pairings went up for round 16, it was clear that Pierre and I would be drawing to both lock up Top 8. I had played Pierre in the draft portion of Day 2 in a match I won. Yet another nice player who I am glad made Top 8 and will be coming right back to the Pro Tour in Hawaii.

12-3-1 (5th place going into the Top 8)

Family (Magic and IRL)

As soon as I locked up Top 8 and Tweeted about it, text messages and social media posts poured in to congratulate me and wish me luck in the Top 8. I made a quick call to my fiancée Carly, who has countless times been informed “There’s a tournament that weekend, I can’t [do something she wants to do].” She doesn’t know anything about Magic, but she knows to remind me to play slowly and focus, which has been helpful. She watched the stream of the Top 8 and said the commentary helped her follow along even though she doesn’t play, so props to Marshall and Zac Hill for that. My dad also watched stream (he played Magic with my brothers and I back in the ’90s) and he texted me after the loss that he was proud of me and how I handled it.

Several times leading up to round 16 and after round 16 when the congrats were coming in, I couldn’t help but think back about how long I’ve wanted to Top 8 a Pro Tour, and who I used to share that dream with. Growing up, when I was 15 years old, or 17 years old, etc., I would go to my friend Cassius Weathersby’s house or he’d come to mine or we’d meet at a tournament or we’d drive 8 hours to play a PTQ or we’d eat at Norm’s at 3 a.m. But whatever we did and wherever we went, we would be cracking jokes and playing Magic the whole time. The first time I felt skilled at a booster draft format, that format was “Cassius’ house commons and uncommons 1-on-1 re-pack draft.” We would just stay up until 6 in the morning playing some made up format or working on our Type 2 decks. On those road trips to PTQs, our goal was to qualify for the Pro Tour. Well, that was my main goal. Cassius always seemed to understand that having fun was the most important thing. I wrote in 2010 about Cassius, about our many road trips growing up “Regarding the road trip, if Cassius is in your car, a 6-hour drive can seem like 3, and sometimes you don’t even want it to end.”

Last year Cassius passed away. I know if he was here he’d be among the most excited and truly happy for me that I accomplished this goal—a Pro Tour Top 8—that we used to openly dream about together. I know he’d be proud of me joking around on camera about losing in the Top 8. I started making jokes at the Magic table to make Cassius laugh the way he made me laugh. I don’t think I would have been able to have fun like I did and enjoy the quarterfinal exit if I never learned what I learned from Cassius about having the right attitude.

The Quarterfinals: Flock, Ivan

I was elated to have made the Top 8. I was not elated about having to play Ivan again in the quarterfinals. There were much better matchups for me in the Top 8, but I knew the matchup was very winnable and I knew the contours of it and how to play. I felt confident going into the quarterfinals.

I came up a little short game 1, where I just needed to have a cheaper mix of spells or another Skullcrack to put it away but didn’t find them. In game 2 I really got crushed and knew early I wasn’t going to be advancing. Over the two games Ivan made it look easy to make all your land drops, have all your answers, and have Revs, but it doesn’t always look that easy, and I made it look hard to draw 2-mana burn spells instead of the 4-mana ones. The matchup isn’t THAT scary if you’re thinking of playing burn in the future.

Regarding the end of game 2, it’s tough to be sitting there thinking not about what the right play is but just whether to concede or play it out. I chose to play it out because I really wasn’t feeling too upset about losing (I wasn’t suffering, I was still having fun) and I wanted my moment on stage to last a few turns longer. You never know if another opportunity to play and joke around on that kind of stage will come around.

Finally, here is my conversation with Ben “TBS” Seck upon my return to SF.

Me: feelsgoodman.jpg

Ben:  yeah obv
you will be on cloud nine until the next PT
then reality will hit
until then
[expletive]ing invincible
but yeah
congrats man
really happy for you

Thanks Ben. And thanks to everyone else who cheered, high fived, sent congrats, etc. Maybe Lightning Strike will strike twice and I can do it all over again someday.

-Matt Sperling
mtg_law_etc on Twitter

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