Today I wanted to give a platform to one of my friends with whom I’ve grinded plenty of Magic, and finally made the breakthrough he was looking for by winning Grand Prix Sacramento. I asked Richard Liu a series of questions about his Core Set 2019 Limited win, and some general thoughts on the formats he actually enjoys.
Q. As someone who has been a long-time competitive Magic player, what led you to make the jump to actively traveling to GPs and trying to qualify for the PT that way? Has this win made that long grind feel worth it to you?
Getting onto the Pro Tour has always been one of my major goals. I even started to travel a lot for GPs after Wizards added Bronze, something imminently achievable by just grinding events, to the Pro Players Club levels. Over the course of the grind, I’ve gotten to experience the pang of so many near misses, every failure more agonizing than the last. I started to feel that I would be forever consigned to be that grinder who occasionally gets close but never makes it, or the guy who forgets to equip Cranial Plating or misses his Experiment One trigger for exactsies.
I can still remember the mounting tension of the Top 8 announcement at Sacramento. Waiting with bated breath as each name was called, the announcement of each name dragged on for an agonizing eternity. The swelling of hope when the 39 pointers ended at 4th place, sure, yet unsure of what that entailed. It was a moment of pure catharsis when my name was called. Finally making it onto the Pro Tour was vindication of my years of struggling with being not quite good enough. I felt unmitigated euphoria from finally reaching my journey’s end and an unparalleled high. Even eventually winning the GP paled in comparison.
I’ve been playing Magic on and off for over 20 years—23, to be precise. I started during the release of Fourth Edition and I can still so vividly remember the first two cards I ever held: A Bog Wraith and a Craw Wurm. The latter became my favorite card and the barometer against which most creatures were measured, at least until I found a Scaled Wurm in my Ice Age pack. What could possibly be stronger than a 7/6 with no drawback?
I can say without exaggeration that Magic quickly became one of the pillars of my childhood: a white knight charging valiantly on his alabaster steed, a pale otherworldly figure ready to feast on an oversized crimson vein—that iconic single bolt of lightning set to a minimalistic somber backdrop. These cards, these powerful images, not only galvanize my childish imagination, but it also served as the perfect avenue for me, introverted and shy in my youth, to make friends and form connections. Indeed, many of the friends I made playing Magic throughout my life remain close to me even today.
In the day following the Grand Prix, I was inundated with a deluge of congratulations from my friends, many of whom I connected through via Magic but haven’t touched the game for years. It was then that I realized, in a very day-time-children’s-programming manner, what Magic really meant to me. I connected with my roommate when we were very young through Magic. I got my job through the friends I made in Magic. I get to go to Blizzcon every year because of Magic. All of these things, and many more, were because of the bonds I formed through Magic. It wasn’t the pursuit of the Pro Tour that kept me playing, but rather the people I had met along the way.
My words alone cannot adequately express how grateful I am, but to all my friends who supported me, who cheered for me when I rose, and comforted me when I fell, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. From the bottom of my heart. Thank you.
Q. You mentioned that you had done very little preparation for the tournament, as you’re not really a Limited player. But you won the GP, so did you run hotter than the sun or find a key to the format other people might have missed? Do you believe this format benefited you more, as someone with a generic level of Magic skill applicable to any format, over a more niche one like Modern?
I think core set Limited environments, especially Sealed, are bare bones, down-in-the-mud Magic. They heavily reward a strong understanding of basic card economy, which I am fairly proficient at, being a control player in every format (I play Affinity like a control deck over half the time in Modern). Now whether or not these advantages manifested themselves over the course of the tournament is questionable, as my Day 1 pool was amazing. I think the only time I had to make a serious strategic deck decision was in the last two rounds. So in those two rounds I boarded nothing because my opponents had Nicol Bolas and I could never win a long game against that card, so I just pushed my guys sideways every game at every available opportunity and it worked out.
My two Drafts in the Swiss during Day 2 boiled down to drafting the open colors and having consecutive turn-4 Vivien Reids drag my disaster of a second deck kicking and screaming over the finish line. If anyone wants to run with the tripped-and-fell-into-a-pit-of-money luck theme, that deck is the one that should earn me it. Broken Sealed pools happen every GP, but you don’t always get to salvage a good Draft record out of a clear 0-3.
The only Draft that was kind of interesting was my Top 8 Draft. The night before, I asked my friend, Gold-level professional player Bradley “Future Platinum Level Professional Player” Yoo, to do a Draft on Magic Online so that I could watch and learn, having literally never drafted the format before. He proceeded to concoct literally the most unplayable green-white train wreck I had ever seen in my life. All it did was play useless creatures and cast Inspired Charge. He very easily 3-0-d the Draft while keeping such stellar hands as five lands plus Centaur Courser.
I took that philosophy to its very limits in my Top 8 Draft by picking the most unplayable cheap creatures possible, along with Inspired Charge and other similar effects. It turns out that everyone treating the format like a durdle-fest makes all of these garbage 1s and 2s plus pump one of the best things you can Draft. That may be the only insight I can really share. People looked at this format and saw a slow format full of expensive value cards, but it’s only like that if everyone agrees not to murder each another by turn 6.
Top 8 Draft
Q. Speaking of Modern, as your primary format, what would you recommend for this upcoming PPTQ season?
The one constant that I’ve held throughout my entire competitive Magic life is playing Affinity (it’s called “Affinity,” not “Robots,” though “5-color control with a card type sub-theme” also works). That being said, I cannot in good conscience recommend Affinity in the current Modern metagame. Humans, the deck that fed Affinity a lot of free wins, is trending down while Jeskai Control and Mono-Green Tron are trending up. Jeskai Control is probably Affinity’s worst matchup of the tier 1 decks and Mono-Green Tron is basically a coin flip with an edge for Affinity.
I would recommend Mono-Green Tron in Modern currently. It has game against everything except combo (or Ponza), but you are basically never going to play against a good KCI player and that is the combo deck du jour.
Q. Should Deathrite Shaman have been banned in Legacy? What would your ideal Legacy format look like?
I played Czech Pile for almost a year before Deathrite Shaman was banned, so it didn’t feel good to have your $4,000 investment, er, deck, rendered unplayable.
Unfortunately, Deathrite Shaman probably needed to go. That card was pretty clearly the second-best card in Legacy (Brainstorm should never and will never get banned) and was beginning to warp the format around itself. Wasteland, which was supposed to keep super greedy mana bases in check, was often relegated into purely a tempo play. Not that Deathrite Shaman-into-Wasteland didn’t buy you an absolutely disgusting amount of tempo. Who knows, though, maybe Deathrite Shaman was the safety valve keeping Snapcaster Mage or some sort of graveyard deck in check. Only time will tell.
My ideal Legacy format involves Dig Through Time, but we all know that ship has sailed. Failing that, any Legacy format where I can play a Brainstorm/Ponder deck and potentially consider cutting a Force of Will from the main (i.e., don’t have to play against a combo deck every other round) seems fine to me.
The reason I phrased and asked question #1 in particular is because in recent months I’ve seen a lot of public, “do I want to keep doing this?” postings from friends and acquaintances who have been playing Magic for a fair bit of time. What I feel happens is that people get stuck in these ruts and either want to double down without changing their playing habits or travel time expended in Magic, or they want to quit. Which is fine. Honestly, more people should quit when they reach this point!
I know so many people, including myself, who put competitive Magic on the back burner after a certain point and generally improve their life as a direct result. Then they come back to it when they are in a better place and it turns out that they are still competent. It isn’t like quitting other types of games, where that can render you incapable of playing the game. As we’ve seen, Magic loves comeback stories. I laugh every time I see Lucas Siow casually smash a GP or do well at a PT compared to how hard he tried when he was playing all the time. Even for the people who stick with it, it can take years to get an actual breakthrough and have it stick. See: Matt Nass.
Competitive Magic is a good place to experience failure and decide if you want to work through it or not. The level of commitment simply isn’t there compared to other major life choices where failure can cripple you for years and years*. If you can’t deal with the stress or anxiety and don’t think that you can battle through it, you can stop. On the flip side, if you do and are in a life position capable of doing so, you can do what many local grinders have done in recent years and start GP grinding instead of trying to go through the appalling PPTQ-RPTQ system.
*That’s not to say it can’t happen or hasn’t in the past, just that the skills that tend to make for good Magic players also tend to slide over into the real world in useful fashion. Go read Sperling’s article for a great take on this.
So to the people who message me talking about how they don’t think that they can cut it and so on after a number of misses, read the above answers and absorb it. The upside of sticking with it is that if you really are that close and that good, with enough tries you’ll get there. Richard Liu, Bradley Yoo, and most recently Pro Tour Champion Allen Wu are good local examples of that at work. Just decide what you want to do and do it. Magic isn’t going anywhere.