Eternal Warrior #39: Travelling Without Moving

RexDart recounts his recent trip to Indianapolis for the StarCityGames Legacy Open and a Modern $5K. There’s nothing like the horrors of a large paper Magic tournament to make you truly appreciate MTGO.

Every time I do it, I stare at my sunken eyes in the mirror the next day and swear to myself, “Never again!” It’s often unpleasant, it’s made me sick more than once, and it’s expensive. But I always seem to forget how horrible it is after a few months, and find myself right back in the same situation. Why, dear God, do I keep attending large paper Magic tournaments?

I enjoy this game quite a bit, but playing eight to ten hours of it in a single day is just not a pleasant experience. The experience doesn’t have to be this bad, and first and foremost, I blame the asshole who came up with the idea of Swiss pairings. Back in the 90′s, large tournaments were either single- or double-elimination. This was great. In those tournaments, there were only two possible states of existence:

1. Winning and happy!
2. Losing and free to go do something else!

In large Swiss-pairing tournaments, we are stuck with a third option.

3. Desperately clinging to hope in the X-2 bracket.

Most of the people in the room are stuck in this nightmarish purgatory after a few hours, forced to slog along on the hope that some miraculous fortune will whisk them into 8th place and possible glory… or at least that they might finish well enough to win their entry fee back. Even with a deck you enjoy playing, there is nothing enjoyable about this experience. Find pairings. Scramble for your seat. Make awkward small talk and hope your opponent goes along with it and isn’t one of those douchebags wearing headphones the whole match to psych you out. Play a match. Race to grab a smoke or hit the vending machine. Realize you had way more time than you thought, collapse into a cheap plastic chair and stare at the clock ticking overtime while the High Tide players finish taking their twenty-minute turns. Think about how you probably could have made it to the Chick-Fil-A and back by now. Repeat until you lose enough to be mathematically eliminated for prizes. This probably won’t happen until the final round. The Chick-Fil-A will be closed by then. Of course.

There’s nothing like a paper Magic tournament to make you wonder if you even like this game, let alone love it enough to justify the time and money you put into it. People complain about all the faults of MTGO, and yes there are many, but the convenience of playing within walking distance of your bathroom and kitchen trumps everything.

Some of you may know, if you follow the paper tournament scene, that StarCityGames recently changed their Open Series to resemble two-day GPs. This was deemed necessary because of increasing attendance. As a side-effect, they now select only one format per weekend to be the Open format, with the other two major constructed formats relegated to the $5K “Super Invitational Qualifiers” held on Sunday. Under the old format, I was able to skip the Standard tournament on Saturday, do some trading, play a small 4-round Legacy event that night that’s basically the equivalent of a Daily Event, and have time to enjoy the city both nights before setting in to play Legacy on Sunday. Although I hated these changes, my local Legacy playgroup from south St. Louis was excited to see that the Indianapolis event was designated to be a Legacy Open, so we decided to make the 4-hour trip to Indy.

I’d never been to Indy, and looked at this like a scouting trip for my intended visit later in the year for GenCon. We rented a large two-bedroom suite within walking distance of the convention center. Well, it was “walkable” assuming you were kitted out like Ernest Shackleton. Indy’s scenic downtown featured such sights as the stadium where the Colts play football, the parking lots for people going to see the Colts play football, and the creepy old possibly-abandoned warehouses where I assume knife-wielding hobos live because I don’t really understand cities. [Editor's Note: We also have a Children's Museum in Indy! --PlanetWalls]

There are countless articles out there about how to prepare for a tournament, but those articles all seem to assume that you believe you might win the tournament. Everybody will tell you that you should get a good night’s sleep, bring lots of water, don’t drink the night before, act like a damn Boy Scout on a field trip. Screw that noise, I got in late Friday night and headed straight for the bar. Contemporary Magic tournaments like this have several hundred competitors; you don’t beat the odds with abstinence and a “good night’s sleep”, you beat them by getting lucky matchups and topdecks repeatedly for two days. If you doubt me on this, wait and see what I almost made Top 8 with in Modern — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I had been preparing for this tournament with UB Tezzeret. As we discussed a few articles back, these Chalice of the Void decks are only good in certain metagames, and we had been in one of those during the reign of Treasure Cruise. After the bans, I was far less certain of this. I expected to see a lot of Shardless BUG (Sultai), and I knew that to be a bad matchup for my deck. So I brought almost my whole freakin’ collection along just in case I wanted to audible to something else. But I decided that would involve a lot of obnoxious sleeving and unsleeving of cards — I’m telling you guys, paper Magic is so annoying — so I stuck with Tezz. I liked the deck, it’s fun to play, and it has some crazy opening hands. It also has some horrible, unplayable opening hands. Lots of them, actually. Conventional wisdom is that you shouldn’t play a high-variance deck like this at a long tournament, and here I was taking it to what would be 15 rounds of Swiss if I made Day Two. But once again, conventional wisdom only really matters if you think you can win.

Here’s the decklist I brought for Legacy:

In Round 1, I am paired against Elves. This is one of my good matchups. In the maindeck I have Chalices, Trinisphere, and Ensnaring Bridge to hold off Craterhoof Behemoth or Progenitus. And there’s more help post-board. I won with Chalices in Game 1, and off double Engineered Plague in Game 2. I also had a Trinisphere out, which I figured was pretty good, but my opponent claimed the card wasn’t really that bad for Elves. I love the can-do attitude there, the willingness to fight through hate and overcome obstacles, to climb every mountain and soar majestically over chasms of self-doubt upon a rainbow made of pure belief. I still don’t think he was beating that Trinisphere.

Round 2 was against Miracles. Tezzeret can’t possibly lose to Miracles given reasonable draws on both sides. One of the main reasons I’d played Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas in Vintage at one point was to fight opposing Jaces, and the same principle applies here. Your trump cards are just better trump cards than theirs. Chalice is amazing against them, turning off all their necessary library manipulation. My opponent in this match cast a Blood Moon on me, and I had no trouble casting anything all game thanks to the six mana-rocks. Not counting the rarely seen Snapcaster-beatdown plan, Miracles has two win-conditions: Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Entreat the Angels. Entreat can’t win through Ensnaring Bridge, and Tezzeret will win the game much faster than Jace. I would take this matchup all day long, which is not something I’m used to saying about Miracles.

In Round 3, everything begins to unravel. My opponent is playing Lands with Punishing Fire and Life from the Loam. I have maindeck Leyline of the Void, so that seems swell. I have Ensnaring Bridge to stop Dark Depths. Lands preys on creature aggro decks and is soft to combos. On paper, this looks great. Instead, my deck does what you’d suspect it does quite often: draw no action for numerous turns in a row, while my opponent is able to control the board with Engineered Explosives. Pro tip: if you have Pithing Needle against Lands, you may be tempted to name those god-forsaken Rishadan Ports that are driving you crazy, or name Thespian’s Stage to hold off Marit Lage. If you name anything other than Engineered Explosives, your Needle isn’t going to stick.

Legal Disclaimer: I’m not a pro, and anything I call a “pro tip” should be deemed suspect. But I can tell you it’s what I should have done, and didn’t, and will henceforth place far too much emphasis upon every time I play against Lands from now until the day I die… which will probably happen while playing against Lands, because holy mother of God those guys sure take their sweet time getting around to winning the game.

Of the eight people who made this trip with me, I’m the only one at 2-1, everybody else is at 1-2 or worse. So I’m our pathetic standard bearer at this point.

Round 4 I was pitted, finally, against BUG. I was steamrolled in Game 1 by discard and an early Tarmogoyf followed by countermagic. Well that’s okay, on to Game 2! Do you see all those ridiculously rare cards in the deck list that look like hot tech from 1994? Yeah, that was my board plan for BUG. I have a sentimental attachment to Guardian Beast. It was the first “money card” I ever acquired, part of a long sequence of epic trades back in ’95 that circuitously morphed my Ice Age and Revised rares binder into my first pieces of Power. I have literally no idea why Guardian Beast was ever a money card, because even back then it was suspicious tech — Gorilla Shaman hadn’t even been printed yet to endanger your Moxen, were you that desperate to save your Icy Manipulator or Mirror Universe from Disenchant??

I’d love to tell you that Guardian Beast was super-sweet protecting my lock-pieces from Abrupt Decay, just like I planned. But I never got the chance to cast it, sitting in my hand alongside The Abyss while I got stuck on mana. I was also tilting a bit from how badly I was stomped in Game 1, and forgot to play out the Leyline in my opening hand. If only a little box had appeared floating in front of me, helpfully reminding me to “perform any opening-hand actions,” then perhaps that Tasigur wouldn’t have come down to finish me off after he pounded me with a sizable Tarmogoyf. MTGO, you win again.

I lost a very good back-and-forth match in Round 5 against Death and Taxes. They have a ton of annoying plays against Tezzeret, such as shutting off my mana rocks with Phyrexian Revokers. The biggest thing to remember here is that you are never safe behind an Ensnaring Bridge — and when you see them tick their Vial up to three, it’s already too late, Flickerwisp is on the way.

I dropped at 2-3. My friend T was also 2-3 but decided to keep playing. He won out and made Day Two. This of course prompted everybody to ask why I dropped at 2-3. By that point, I had remembered how little I enjoyed these things, and the prospect of spending the next few hours in x-3 purgatory was not appealing. x-2′s were guaranteed to make the cut. x-3′s would only make the cut if the player in 64th place was x-3. This turned out to be the case, but was heavily in doubt going into the final round.

I hadn’t had anything to eat all day, so I trudged back across the arctic tundra to the hotel, stopping for a slice of pizza on the way. After an hour or so, I walked back to the site to hit the vendor booth. For the first time I can ever recall, SCG had allowed other vendors to attend, and they had some Vintage stuff with them. I decided to offload a foil Linvala, Keeper of Secrets on my hunch of it seeing a reprint in Modern Masters 2, and after some extensive haggling over the proper buylist price of Relentless Rats, I picked up a Vampiric Tutor plus what has to be the worst Library of Alexandria I have ever seen, for about $200 total in trade credit. Seriously, Mark Poole signed this Library with a damn ballpoint pen. My first Library twenty years ago looked like it was run over by Heavy D’s tour bus, but if I’m being honest I’d say it was still better than this. I will never be able to sell this, but if there’s ever a contest to assemble the lowest-grade Arabian Nights set, I’ve got a great head start.

T finished up his last round against an opponent playing something called “Oops! I Forgot to Bring a Real Deck!”. I hear Force of Will is a card in Legacy, but I guess this guy and the five opponents who lost to his combination of half a Belcher deck plus some Return to Ravnica draft leftovers hadn’t gotten the news.

Some of our team had gone to a restaurant chain which shall remain nameless, but is known for low-quality hot wings with too much breading and attractive waitresses, but mostly attractive waitresses. I had no desire to visit this establishment, so I found us a nice local brewery to visit. On account of the Indiana Pacers being in town, we couldn’t park anywhere near the brewery, and ended up at a different restaurant chain of much the same character, but with better wings. On the way home, I insisted on swinging by the liquor store to buy a fifth of Crown Royal. I had forgotten to bring my Crown Royal bag and decided this was to blame for my failure. If you’re not carrying your deck around in a Crown Royal bag all day, you are not a true 30-something amateur Magic player.

T was the only one who made Day Two, but he was our driver, so I was stuck in Indy for Sunday. I had brought along my Mythic Conscription deck for Modern for just such an eventuality. If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this: Always plan for failure. About half a pint of Canadian whiskey and an hour of playtesting later, I realized I probably couldn’t beat anything with the deck, but it’s beautifully foiled-out with promo Noble Hierarchs and a playset of foreign black-border Birds of Paradise, and if there’s one thing you can say about me it’s that I will gladly play something that loses but looks expensive while losing.

Here’s the list I sleeved up:

So-called Mythic Conscription was the most powerful deck in Standard in the summer of 2010. Despite that fact, every opponent I played against all day had to read Sovereigns of Lost Alara. I had a sweet foreign foil Eldrazi Conscription that I never fetched out, to avoid endless judge calls for Oracle wordings. How does the Modern player-base comprise so many people who don’t know the namesake cards from the most popular Standard deck from less than five years ago?

I’ve been playing this deck in Modern for a couple of years in paper Magic. The Standard version of the deck got to play Jace, which sadly is banned in Modern. But I rather like the Modern upgrades of Geist of Saint Traft, Vendilion Clique, and a better mana-base. The deck thrives on having a ton of fetchlands available, and as a Shard deck rather than a Wedge deck, it was great to have the Onslaught fetches added to the format last fall.

I made a last minute decision to maindeck the three Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, moving the planeswalkers to the sideboard. I had to board them out all day except against UWR control, but I still believe it’s correct to run them maindeck.

I will save you the drama, and tell you that I went 6-2 with this deck and barely missed Top 8 on breakers, finishing in 11th. How did I pull that off?

I was lucky as hell all day.

I played against Affinity a whopping four times. I had expected this deck to be popular a week after the Pod and Cruise bannings, and had plenty of experience against Affinity from my local shop. My deck wasn’t going to lose to Steel Overseer or Master of Etherium, I could race that easily, so it was really just a matter of fighting off the only two spells they play that really matter: Cranial Plating and Arcbound Ravager. Even if they land a Plating, you can often trade off creatures until you land an Eldrazi Consription and win. Post-board I just mulligan aggressively to Stony Silence. They can remove it with Wear // Tear, which is what every stock Affinity list plays to deal with hate cards. But they need both that card and a Glimmervoid to cast it, since their Mox Opals and Springleaf Drums are turned off. Against most variants, you can usually apply enough pressure to win by that point.

Even with it being a matchup I was comfortable against, I got a ton of breaks throughout the day. I topdecked Stony Silence one turn after my opponent Thoughtseized me. I got a Vendilion Clique down just in time to steal a Cranial Plating. I had a seemingly perfect mix of lands and action all day. If I needed to rip a fetchland to hardcast Sovereigns of Lost Alara or Eldrazi Conscription, I got there every single time.

I also got very lucky all day to avoid Tron and Scapeshift because their red sweepers like Pyroclasm and Anger of the Gods totally wreck my deck. If you are interested in trying this, the first thing I would do is come up with a better plan against those cards. I believe the best options are Burrenton Forge-Tender, Mark of Asylum, or Pay No Heed. I personally favor Mark of Asylum because it works continuously and shuts down a stray Bolt or Helix if you happen to bring it in against UWR.

In perhaps my only bad break of the day, I had a Round 3 loss to Elves, and remembered that the foil Linvala I sold the previous day had formerly been in my sideboard. But at least I can look at that hideous Library of Alexandria in my binder for the next twenty years!

One of the quirks of big paper Magic tournaments is that, if you do well enough to be in contention down the stretch, you suddenly have to become an amateur mathematician to determine whether you should play or draw. The last time I attempted to perform mathematics was back in college, where I failed differential equations and decided to quit engineering and become a history major. Apparently you’re supposed to make sure one guy on your team can actually do that crap, take a screenshot of the standings board on your phone, ask him to look at it, and just do whatever he tells you.

Our math guy said I should play because there was a chance an X-2 would make Top 8. I of course had no intention of playing an actual game of Magic if I could just draw, take the hundred dollars for Top 16, and go to Burger King. (I mean, obviously I would rather go to Chick-Fil-A, but now it’s Sunday and they’re closed on Sundays because you don’t fry chicken on the Lord’s Day, you heathens.) I had done the math myself and determined to my satisfaction that everybody else would have to make a bone-headed decision to allow any 6-2 to sneak into Top 8. It turns out that in addition to math, you also have to be an expert on the Prisoner’s Dilemma and rational-choice theory. This is a hard game. As it turns out, my opponent wouldn’t draw, the guys above us made bad decisions, and a 6-2 snuck in. Sadly I was fourth among x-2′s, not quite good enough.

For all the scornful remarks I made earlier, winning really does cure a lot of the angst about these horrible marathon tournaments. I could almost — almost — get behind some of that Spike crap about having a “winning attitude” and being prepared and not staying up until 3AM the night before sipping Canadian whiskey. But how much does it really matter? At my level of play, everybody who ever does well at a tournament is certainly riding a really good string of luck. Sure, you “make your own luck” by making good decisions, you “play to your outs”, yada yada yada. When I’m telling myself to play to my outs, I’m not hitting my outs most of the time, because statistically unless your out is a land card, you’re probably going to miss. Some people play those statistics as part of a winning strategy, but I only seem to find myself thinking that way when I’m losing and desperate.

Some days you just get all the luck, open great hands all day, “run good”, and enjoy the ride. And so you forget how awful the day before was, and how much you hate Magic tournaments. The excitement you felt the first time you went to a huge tournament and saw several hundred people who loved a game as much as you did, maybe that’s gone for good. But still you remember the good times you had with your friends, and forget how damn cold it was and how early you had to get up on a weekend. And you end up going to another one of these damn things in three months, because you’re a sucker. Or maybe, deep down somewhere that you won’t ever admit, you’re an optimist. God I hope it’s not that.


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