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Building a Foundation

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Modern

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I almost didn’t go.

Only two weeks earlier I attended my first Modern tournament. I had spent the last two months or so poring over MTGO Daily decklists and testing on Cockatrice whenever I had the chance. I bought most of the cards with store credit earned from hours of card sorting at my local game shop. As the deck came together, I spent weeks trying and failing to find Modern tournaments. When I finally got to Friday Night Magic, I was ecstatic. I was excited to see my work pay off. It did, to some extent at least. My 3-1 record didn’t seem bad at all for somebody who barely played tournament Magic.

I returned a week later with a few changes to my list, most importantly a brand-new set of matching foil lands. When I walked in, I noticed a few people I hadn’t seen playing last week.

Turns out those were the guys who were actually good.

The players running the real decks (Jund, Kiki Pod, and American Midrange) had been at a Standard tournament the week before. The night started out all right, though. I had an easy Round 1, eking out a win against Pod in Round 2, and tied with Jund in Round 3 (people were talking to my opponent and we went to time, which is pretty frustrating). Round 4, though, I played UWR Midrange.

The kid destroyed me. I won’t go into details. It was rough.

I want to stop here and say something very important. After an 0-3 drop in a Grand Prix, a veteran friend of mine said something that really made me rethink my whole children’s card game philosophy:

“I’ve played so many games of Magic that any particular one doesn’t mean anything to me.”

Obviously I’m paraphrasing, but it blew my mind for some reason. A game of Magic is a game of Magic, whether it’s playtesting in your basement or the finals of a PTQ. “If I win this … they’re going to fly me out to San Diego to play with the best players in the world.” Intimidating, but not to be trusted.

Even if you flew across the country to enter a tournament, the six games in a row that you lost are still just games of Magic. You lose some of them. It’s unavoidable. But once you’ve been to 10 Grands Prix and six of them have been above average, that’s a success.

So I learned to stop thinking about individual games — and more importantly, to stop thinking about individual tournaments. I’m very, very new to competitive Magic. But I absolutely love it, and I plan on playing in a hundred more tournaments. I’ll do poorly in plenty of them, and I plan on doing very well in more of them.

So that fourth and final match at my local FNM really didn’t mean anything to me in the long run. I lost, and it felt bad, but the loss didn’t make me reconsider my deck or my skill or my future as a player or my place in the universe. After all, I did well in the last one. It was great. And it’s Friday Night Magic for god’s sake. It’s the most casual thing you can do with a pile of 75 pieces of cardboard. I was playing Merfolk. It’s not even a Tier 1 deck!

But the next week I was asking the shop how much my deck would sell for in cash.

Something else crushed me. It was the way those guys talked to me. They weren’t all that mean. It wasn’t particularly malicious. But it was the dismissiveness that overwhelmed me. Of course I lost. I was playing a shit deck. I didn’t know what I was doing. When I beat the guy on Kiki Pod I got pretty lucky. He didn’t draw well. The Jund guy was barely paying attention. UWR is an unwinnable matchup and I was so far behind he had two Lightning Helixes left in his hand when I conceded the second game. Of course I lost.

I drove home with no music on. Did I mention that I drove out 45 minutes to get there? It’s the only shop in a 50-mile radius of my house that runs Modern. I have close to zero trade material and very little cash to spend on cards. I built my deck by sorting cards at a local game shop for about two months. Why did I even bother?, I thought.

I didn’t expect to be back. But by about Wednesday, my tunnel-vision wore off and I began to remember the big picture. This was something I cared about. It was something I had worked for, and somewhere in me, I decided I wasn’t going to be some scrub that couldn’t even handle FNM.

I don’t know exactly what it was that completely changed my mind. It was the last week of the PTQ season, and there wouldn’t be another chance to play serious Modern Magic for a long time. “So why not?” If I won three rounds before I lost two, I’d have a positive record and that’d be good enough for me. I just wanted to experience it. See the sights.

I felt pretty good about my Fish deck, but I was having doubts as I looked over some recent PTQ results that week. The couple lists that had done well were all-out beatdown with 32, maybe 36 creatures. Four Phantasmal Image, four Coralhelm Commander, even Merfolk Sovereign. Decks so fast that they ran Disrupting Shoal as a pseudo-Force of Will so that could tap out every turn. It’s not a bad plan; just flood the board with dudes so you’re not as weak to spotremoval.

But I had done my research. I knew my deck better than my friends, even if they were better at Magic than me. I had to trust myself and play the deck that I believed in. So these are the 75 cards I registered that morning.

I don’t see Merfolk as an aggro deck. Remand, Silvergill Adept, Vapor Snag, Spreading Seas, Cryptic Command, and Sygg, River Cutthroat all keep the beats coming without running out of cards. The deck is smooth as butter.

I woke up at six the morning of the tournament. Way earlier than I needed to, but there was nothing to be done about that. I had a bit of trouble sleeping the night before my trip to Disneyland. I spend the hour-long car ride doing a bit of deep breathing in silence and then jamming out to some inspirational Led Zeppelin cranked up to 11 in the car. Twenty-five bucks and an hour of waiting later, I was sitting across from my first opponent. He was a 13-year-old kid, but he seemed to have some experience. You can’t let your guard down. These kids can be scrappy. However, he was playing the American Twin list about which Arix Lax said the following:

“No lie, this deck makes me actually ill to look at. All offense intended.”

My experience wasn’t wildly different from that. I didn’t even see a combo piece in Game 1, but ironically I thought he was playing UWR Control with Snapcasters and Resto Angels, so I brought in Torpor Orb anyway. I can’t remember if we went to Game 3, but I managed to take the match relatively easily. He was upset, but polite.

I played against Jund in the next round. I took a beating, but the guy ended up in the Top 8. I didn’t stick around to see how well he did. Who knows, maybe I lost to the guy who took down the whole tournament.

So, at 1-1, my thought process was, Well, if I win two more before I lose, I’ll be 3-2. That’s a positive record, that’s about what I came here for. Shrug.

Obviously, a blatant buildup like that will tell you that I did better than that. I won my next four matches. My deck treated me very well; I won’t deny that. But I could literally feel myself learning and playing better throughout the day. By Round 4, I was already happy with my results. I got less nervous as the day went on. My mind cleared up. More importantly, I was learning. I figured new things out about my deck and the game in general every match. Don’t get me wrong, I still made some horrible plays. I have a lot to work on, that’s never been more clear. But I feel great.

I lost a pretty fair match to control, and found myself at 5-2 going into the eighth and final round. I realized I could still win 12 packs. Not bad at all. I was there to blow $25 for the experience of playing high-level Magic. Ending up ahead by the end of the day? That was crazy to even consider. My final match of the day was against Kiki Pod. It’s a great matchup for me. It’s slow, so I have time to take advantage of my card draw; not to mention that those cards also have incredibly strong effects. Spreading Seas takes them off triple red very easily, Remand can keep Birthing Pod and combo pieces off the board, and Cryptic Command… well, you don’t really lose when you resolve it.

Game 1 was an easy win. He complained (loudly) about mana issues, but half of that was Spreading Seas. That’s kind of the point of that card. Their pacing is perfect for my deck. With a very strong sideboard plan, I went into Game 2 with my mind reeling. One more game. Not a match, but a single game before I walk out of my first Pro Tour Qualifier with a 6-2 record and $36 of packs. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I’d be somewhere in the neighborhood of the Top 32 players out of 221.

Obviously, a blatant buildup like that tells you that I didn’t win.

Game 2 slowly ground to a halt as we traded blows. I wasn’t in a great spot, but the game was definitely winnable. The problem was I kept forgetting about my Torpor Orb. He played a Kitchen Finks, and I went to change the life totals. He was nice enough to remind me. A few turns later, a Resto Angel comes down. I go to change the life totals. He reminds me again. And then, a few turns after that, I play a Silvergill Adept. Before he can say anything (he tried), I grab the top card of my deck and slap it right the fuck into my hand.

One game loss later, a Kiki-Jiki meets up with his buddy Deceiver Exarch, and that’s it.

It’s an interesting feeling when you’re disappointed with yourself in a spot like that. I never understood the guys who go to a Grand Prix and don’t do well enough on Day 2. I wondered why people didn’t get excited when they won an FNM.

But your expectations go up. No matter where you end up, that last game that you lose, you spend hours turning it over in your head. Sideboards, mulligans, plays that didn’t work out the way you expected. The game loss didn’t mean anything to me. Don’t do that again. Got it.

But I learned what it means to play real Magic. Variance is a harsh mistress, but people get stuck on that, and that kind of thinking is not conducive to bettering yourself. That’s old news, but for one weekend, I felt it. I saw a long path ahead of me as a Magic player. Lots of games, lots of tournaments. Many long drives, and plenty of headaches and heartaches. The trick is just to take it in stride. That’s the theory, at least.

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