At the beginning of the last Pro season, I made a conscious decision not to beat myself up by going to a tournament every weekend. I was going do some coverage over the year, which I really enjoy, and focus on a smaller number of Grand Prix, especially Team Grand Prix. If I came up short of Platinum or Worlds, I’d be okay with it.
Over the season, I had some good but not out-of-this-world Pro Tour finishes. My finishes were good enough to put me in striking distance of Worlds with a few months left in the season. Most likely I’d need something like a Pro Tour Top 8 to get me in, though. Amazingly, a few weeks before Pro Tour: Hour of Devastation, Owen, Reid and I won the Team Grand Prix in Cleveland. A few weeks after that, I won the Grand Prix in Kyoto. All of a sudden, I only needed something like a 10-6, or maybe 11-5 finish at the Pro Tour to qualify for the World Championship in Boston, Massachusetts.
Worlds in Boston has a special meaning to me. It’s where I grew up. My early years of learning and playing Magic were all spent in the Boston area, and there were periods of time where I went to downtown Boston almost every weekend for one Magic event or another. I also knew that if I made it, I’d have hometown support.
I managed to muster exactly the 10-6 finish I needed at the Pro Tour to get myself an at-large spot in the World Championships. I believe I’m a pretty good Magic player, but I’m also a realist. I don’t care how good you are—there’s no guarantee you will ever qualify for the World Championships again. You never know where life will lead. After I qualified for this World Championship, I decided to treat it like it would be my last. I, of course, hope to play it again someday, but just in case, I was going to give this every last bit of effort that I had in me.
As soon as the Pro Tour was over, I did everything I could to prepare. Owen and I played some 4-set Standard without any Ixalan cards. I looked over the leak, and played some with blurry cards, where I wasn’t even sure of the casting costs. As soon as cards were being spoiled, I was trying to play with every card.
After Grand Prix Washington DC over Labor Day weekend, I hitched a ride with Mike Sigrist back to Boston. I had planned to stay at my parent’s house up until Grand Prix Providence and the World Championships. Owen and Reid had both planned to join me there a couple of weeks later. During that time, I was almost constantly playing Standard with either Owen, Reid, Andrew Cuneo, or Ben Rubin.
At first, I tried a lot of ideas based around Ixalan cards and tribes. I realized quickly that these Pirate decks, Dinosaur decks, etc. were just not going to be able to compete with Kaladesh’s energy cards and the decks that have been dominating Standard for the past several months—notably Ramunap Red and Temur Energy.
Ramunap Red played the bully against our brews, and did a very good job of it. Almost all of the new decks we created were quickly knocked down by Red, and I started building decks just to beat it. We even considered playing it up until the final days of the tournament. Most of our control testing was against U/W Approach, and not U/B. Reid had worked a lot on U/B at the beginning of testing, but I wasn’t keen on playing control at the tournament, as I thought people would be too well prepared for it. I think our results were more skewed with Mono-Red than other groups because of Rigging Runner. Our red deck had 4 copies of Rigging Runner, which I think looking back gave us even more extreme results in favor of Mono-Red against the control decks, and perhaps made Mono-Red look worse against a deck like Temur.
After playing an average of about 10 hours of Magic a day for a few weeks, and then subsequently Owen and I being in a house in suburbia with nobody else around for a week, we started to get a bit stir crazy. The stress and pressure had us feeling delirious. We started regularly having conversations between the Pirates of Ixalan in funny voices, and at times I would just throw out Jurassic Park quotes (quotes is a bit of an overstatement, I’d basically just say “DINO DNA” very loudly every half hour) with no rhyme or reason.
Soon after, Ixalan was available on Magic Online, and Reid made his way to Boston, so Constructed took a back seat for a few days and we immersed ourselves in Ixalan Booster Draft. I found Ixalan strange to learn. It’s a high-variance format in which you not only need to be in certain colors, but also certain tribes if you’re looking to have a high ceiling for your deck.
Around Sunday or Monday, Owen had started gravitating more toward Temur as we were happy with the Red matchup, and we thought we could have a sideboard that would be good in the mirror and against control. When we headed into Boston on Tuesday morning, we were still not completely locked between Temur or Red, but it was exceedingly likely that we’d end up playing one of the two. We enlisted the help of Ben Rubin, who had been playing a bit of Temur himself, so we knew he liked it, and we began to work on the last few cards in the main deck, as well as polishing off a sideboard.
On Tuesday night, Reid, Owen, and I went out to dinner. Someone suggested that we not talk about Magic for the entirety of dinner. We could use the break. We headed to Rock Bottom Brewery, where Brad Nelson, Brian Braun-Duin, and Seth Manfield were waiting at the door. Since we weren’t going to talk Magic anyway, we decided to just have dinner as a group. We sat around, and laughed and told jokes without talking much Magic, which was really good for our mental health.
After dinner, though, it was back to deciding which deck to play. After further work with Ben Rubin, I had more or less settled on Temur. We had some work to do over the next couple days on tinkering with the sideboard and finalizing the numbers, and here is what we ended up with:
(As this article is meant more to be a story than a strategy guide, I am not going to include detailed sideboard strategies or anything like that. Reid wrote an article doing just that, however. Please check it out right here.)
Thursday night, I was very tense. I had put a ton of time and effort into doing well in the tournament. I’m not typically nervous about Magic tournaments, but for some reason this time it was different. I wouldn’t end up losing any sleep, but I was actually experiencing a bit of butterflies the night before the event. Maybe it was just that it was finally the World Championship, or maybe it was because I was in my hometown and going to be playing in front of friends and family and didn’t want to fail them, but I was definitely feeling the gravity of the situation in this one.
I woke up pretty early, as I tend to do in my old age, so I went for a brief walk in downtown Boston and grabbed some Starbucks to clear my head. I was happy to have a little bit of time to myself. After my walk, I met Owen and Reid for breakfast, and then headed over to the site for some Booster Draft.
I am usually pretty confident in Booster Draft, and Ixalan isn’t exactly an exception. The difference in Ixalan is that I feel there is a higher-than-normal fail rate compared to other formats. Sometimes there is just very little you can do in a seat, and it will cause some train wrecks. That was what I was hoping to avoid.
The first Draft went pretty well. I had a decent, low curve R/W Aggro deck with some Dinosaurs and some Pirates. I didn’t have a ton of tribal payoff, which is fine, if not ideal. My deck was able to win quick and aggressive games, which is very good in this format, but even better in a situation where you don’t have those payoffs. I played an extremely close round 1 against Sam Pardee, where at different points in the third game I thought I was about 5% to win and 5% to lose, but ended up winning due to Sam severely flooding out after flipping a Treasure Map. Round 2 I was able to find a win against Martin Juza, avenging my loss from the Team GP Final in Providence just a week earlier. In the final round, I had my first of 3 matches against Javier Dominguez, where he was playing a very good and aggressive U/B Pirates deck. I was able to squeak that one out also, and was in a great position at 3-0 after the first Draft.
It was finally time for Constructed, where we’d find out if all the preparation paid off. Round 4 was the one round played without deck lists, and I was lucky that it was the round in which I was paired against Josh Utter-Leyton. Our deck had a lot of cards that people wouldn’t be expecting, and in three long games against a player and deck designer as good as Wrapter, he’d be forced to respect a lot of random cards after already seeing Essence Scatter or Torrential Gearhulk. He’d be forced to wonder how many more of those cards I had in my hand or library. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Josh, and in rewatching our match, I totally understand why the games played out the way they did from Josh’s perspective. Had this been a different round, where deck lists had been available, I might not have pulled it off.
Over the rest of the day I played against Reid Duke, Seth Manfield, and Brad Nelson—all Temur mirrors. Our deck was heavily tuned for the Temur mirror, so those are reasonable pairings. Except for Reid, of course, where we played nearly a 75-card mirror. I was lucky enough to win the match against Reid, and able to maneuver my way against two world-class players in Seth and Brad.
I had finished the day 7-0, which was awesome. I was, of course, very proud, as nobody really goes into the World Championships expecting to emerge undefeated after an entire day of play.
I woke up Saturday morning with the same routine as Friday. I went to Starbucks and walked around the streets of Boston. I had breakfast with Owen and Reid. I headed to the site to do a Booster Draft. I kept telling myself all morning that all I had to do was win one Draft and I’d almost definitely be in the Top 4 of the World Championships. You can’t win the tournament on the second day, so the best I could hope for was to put myself in a position to win on Sunday.
I had a tougher Draft on Day 2 than I did on dDay 1. I started with a Glorifier of Dusk, followed by another white card. I thought maybe B/W Vampires was an option, but the white dried up quickly. I shifted into B/R with some Pirate synergies. In pack 2, I was able to pick up a second-pick Hostage Taker, which is one of the best cards in the set, so I knew I’d be looking to splash it, or maybe even play U/B. I ended up with a solid R/B Pirate deck with 2 Fiery Cannonade and a Hostage Taker on the splash.
After wins against Seth Manfield and Josh Utter-Leyton, I played the finals of the Draft, effectively a win-and-in for Top 4, for me, against Sam Black. Sam had a White-Green Dinosaur deck featuring a lot of Dinosaurs, several Commune with Dinosaurs, some Kinjalli’s Callers, and a Vanquisher’s Banner. I was able to win game 1 by casting both of my Fiery Cannonades on the same turn, completely wiping Sam’s board and allowing me to attack with all of my creatures for a couple of turns. The second game was pretty long. Sam had apparently decided at some point in the game that I was incapable of actually dealing him damage. I had sideboarded in a Marauding Looter and used it a few times, so I had fewer cards in my library. With three cards left in my library, I drew my Hostage Taker, cast it, took his Bellowing Aegisaur, and cast it. On the following turn, I was able to attack with about half of my creatures and after blocks, play both Fiery Cannonades and Lightning Strike on “my” Bellowing Aegisaur to pump my whole team, and make the attack on my final turn, with 0 cards in my library, lethal.
I had a dream about this game a couple of days after Worlds. I actually made a mistake assigning combat damage. Sam had 2 copies of Kinjalli’s Caller (both with two +1/+1 counters) and a Looming Altisaur with no counters blocking one of the Headstrong Brutes. The Brute became a 6/6, so I should have been able to kill all of Sam’s creatures that were blocking it, because they all had 4 damage on them from the 2 Cannonades. I think I said to only kill the 2 Callers, but luckily at that point I was too far ahead on the board and it didn’t come back to haunt me. I think that was the first time that I discovered a Magic error in a dream.
So after 10 rounds, I was 10-0, and a virtual lock for the Top 4. My dad had been hanging out and watching most of the weekend and with every win he would comment on how more and more unbelievable my undefeated record was. It was cool having him around, and he was enjoying the tournament despite being unable to actually follow the games.
Heading back to Constructed, I felt the pressure was off a little bit. I knew that by winning, though, I could earn more Pro Points, and potentially knock some competitors down a peg while Owen and Reid tried to surge for Top 4. Over the next 3 rounds I was able to defeat Shota Yasooka (I got very lucky in that one) and Gerry Thompson before dropping my first match of the tournament in round 13 to Kelvin Chew. I was a little bummed to lose round 13, but it didn’t bother me that much. It did set up an interesting situation in round 14.
I thought I’d be paired against Javier Dominguez. Reid and Owen would both be paired against Kelvin and Wrapter. I thought before the round, that if we all won, the Top 4 would have been the entirety of the PGO plus Kelvin Chew. Unfortunately, only Reid did his part. As it turned out, with Reid winning, he would’ve needed me to win to make Top 4, and I came up short against Javier, so the Top 4 on Sunday was: Me, Wrapter, Javier, and Kelvin.
I was super happy to be in the Top 4, of course, but I knew that I’d have to get preparing for my matchup against Kelvin, as while Top 4 is a good accomplishment, it’s not really what people shoot for or remember about these types of events. We had dinner, and then headed to Reid’s room to do some testing. Reid and I played the matchup for a couple of hours, worked on various sideboard strategies, and had discussions about the matchup. At roughly 11 p.m., I decided I wanted to go to sleep, and Reid being the friend and teammate that he is, told me that he’d leave his phone on and to call him any time day or night to play again or discuss the matchup.
I woke up early on Sunday again, probably a little before 6 o’clock. I was excited, though no longer nervous, and couldn’t go back to sleep. My hotel room had a balcony overlooking Boston, so I put on my headphones and went out to the balcony and just stood out there for a few minutes. Sometimes in life, when I’m feeling strongly about something, be it an event or an emotion, I’ll find a song that embodies how I’m feeling and listen to it for a while.
Sunday morning, I spent a good 45 minutes listening to “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” from The Lion King on repeat.
After going for a walk and getting some coffee, I decided that 7:45 a.m. was an appropriate time to wake Reid up to play more games, so I called him and told him that I’d be there in 15 minutes. Reid and I played for a couple more hours before heading to breakfast and then going over to the site. After breakfast, the Team Series final had a ways to go, so Owen and I found a quiet place in the basement of the tournament venue and practiced the matchup.
Basically, I felt that game 1 was tougher than the sideboard games. Search for Azcanta was a problem card for me. If Azcanta got active too quickly and I wasn’t far ahead, it would prove very difficult to win. We felt that if I was able to get one of the pre-sideboard games, of which there would be two, I’d be in decent shape. I lost game 1 pretty handily, but managed to squeeze out a close game 2 to even the match going into the sideboard games. I won the first two sideboard games to take the match over Kelvin 3-1. I felt fortunate to win a tough match, avenging my loss to him in the Swiss, and find a spot in the finals.
Right away, I started to prepare for a finals match against Wrapter. This wasn’t because I thought Josh would win, or preferred to face him, but because I already knew exactly what to do against Mono-Red. I had spent 5 or 6 hours testing against Kelvin’s U/B Control list, but Josh’s was considerably different. He had more Search for Azcanta, and Vizier of Many Faces, which would be good, but he also had Hieroglyphic Illuminations over Glimmer of Genius, which would be worse in the matchup. Ultimately, I didn’t have very long to prepare for Josh, because Javier won the semifinal match very quickly, as Red tends to do.
While by no means did I think I had a can’t-lose matchup against Mono-Red, I did like my position going into the finals. A decent-to-good Red matchup was one of the reasons to play Temur in the first place. I won game 1, and Javier won game 2, both rather handily, and then Javier and I proceeded to play two of the closest games of Magic that I’ve played in a very long time. In the final game, Javier had something like half his deck to draw on the final turn to kill me and force a deciding fifth game. He flipped up his hand of 2 Kari Zev to give everyone the full sweat, knowing that his top card was either going to force a game 5 or crown me World Champion. He drew his card to the back of his hand and slowly squeezed it out. As he looked at the card, he glanced back at the board, and at his life total, and slightly paused. At this point, I figured it was over. He laid his cards on the table, congratulated me, and extended his hand for a hand shake.
I had actually done it! After three days of play, I was the World Champion. I took off my headset and looked over towards the crowd, where I saw my dad, my sister, Owen, and Reid applauding. I was sort of just stunned at this point. I started to walk over to them, but was told to stay on the stage for interviews, so I did. I had so much emotion running through my head—it’s hard to really describe. I was holding it all together until Marshall asked me who I wanted to thank. At that point, I stopped. In a big moment like that, where I’d achieved one of the greatest goals I ever could have dreamed of, I started to thank many of the special people who got me there. Just thinking about how they have helped me and how much they care about me was enough to make me tear up. I tried my best to hold it together, and I thanked many people who were integral to getting me there.
“What would winning the World Championship mean to you?” was a question that I must have been asked four or five times in interviews in the lead up to the World Championship. It’s a tough question to answer. I am usually not at a loss for words. The truth is, sometimes you have a dream or a goal for so long, it’s hard to know exactly how you’ll feel when you achieve it. Even now, I couldn’t reasonably explain all the emotions I felt. But I can say that standing there on stage with Marshall, my family, and Reid and Owen behind me, accepting a trophy that I feel like I gave my heart and soul and worked my whole life to earn… what did winning the World Championship mean to me?