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How to Succeed in Magic Without Really Trying

Written by Jeff Zandi on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Limited

How to Succeed in Magic Without Really Trying

Jeff Zandi

Jeff Zandi is a level 2 judge and an eight-time veteran of the Pro Tour. He has written continuously about Magic for over eighteen years. His team, the Texas Guildmages, have the longest running regular game in history, meeting at his home every Tuesday night since 1996.

I’ve had a great time playing Magic this year. Too good a time, actually. While I was in Las Vegas for the Grand Prix and for the World Series of Poker, I had the kind of great time that costs a lot of money. I spent so much money on that trip that it’s been difficult to justify other trips. Then along came Grand Prix Denver. Teammates started asking me if I wanted to go to Denver. Yes, I obviously wanted to go to GP Denver. Team Sealed is my absolute favorite competitive format. I can’t wait to tell you later how much I love Team Sealed. So what if I was still licking financial wounds from a long summer of Magic? I was in for Denver. Two teammates were quickly agreeable and we put a plan together right away. Scot Martin, an original Texas Guildmage that I’ve been playing Magic with for twenty-two years, grabbed a hotel room at the convention center right away. Maitland Griffith has been playing with us for almost three years. He’s seriously chasing the Pro Tour this year. He not only committed to Denver, but to Mexico City the week before, another Guilds of Ravnica sealed deck event. My tale of Magic success starts with the decision to go to GP Denver despite the financial barriers. The next thing I have to do, unfortunately, is immediately betray the title of my story and give away the ending. I wasn’t successful in Denver and I was really trying. So what’s the point? You’ve heard it said that it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters? It’s one of those things.

Our team’s plans for Denver were cemented by the time prerelease weekend for Guilds of Ravnica arrived. For a change, I jumped on Magic Online as soon as possible, two days before the paper prerelease, as a matter of fact. I hit the ground running with the new set, crushing my first prerelease league with Boros. Full disclosure, I’ve been a Boros guy since original Ravnica arrived thirteen years ago. Exhibit A… Rally the Righteous is a common instant from Ravnica for 1WR. When you play it you untap a target creature and then each other creature that shares a color with it. Those creatures get +2/+0 until end of turn. My Magic Online account holds 119 copies of this spell. They came into my possession from one feverish Boros booster draft after another. I like the way that white cards add a thoughtful element to what would otherwise be just another sweaty mono red aggro strategy. Boros is my favorite, not necessarily philosophically, but for limited play.

I played Boros on Friday night at the midnight prerelease at Common Ground Games in Dallas. The next day, me and my son traveled across town with a couple of boxes of brand new booster packs to the house from which Jason Chan lives and runs his game streaming empire. Chan, better known as “Amaz” to his gaming friends around the world, entered our sphere when Chan’s manager brought him over to our house to draft about a month ago. Chan’s manager is Brent Kaskel, a Texas Guildmage who moved on from Magic (and quite a few Pro Tour qualifications) years ago to work in eSports. Since Kaskel and Chan had decided to move back to the Dallas area, and since Amaz was starting to play more Magic, it was natural for Brent to introduce Amaz to his old Tuesday night draft group from more than a decade ago. Suffice to say, we all hit it off with Amaz right away. He’s a truly gifted gamer and a very friendly person. Today, instead of playing in another prerelease event, we’re at Chan and Kaskel’s gaming house to practice booster draft. Amaz is practicing for an upcoming Pro Tour that he has qualified for and, even closer on the calendar, Amaz is playing Guilds of Ravnica limited at Grand Prix in Mexico City and Denver.

We did a team draft first, with six players. I learned very little. I forced Boros and Amaz liked my deck, and he’s always honest when describing what he likes or doesn’t like about your deck, but it was a bad Boros deck, trying to play four four-drops and (gasp) three five-drops. That’s not the kind of Boros deck that gives you the best chance to win. Those larger Boros cards, like Garrison Sergeant, Hammer Dropper and Hellkite Whelp, look like they do a lot but they end up being naked plays. Naked because they’re in a deck that can’t really support them with a midrange strategy. The Boros cards work when you go fast and low with zero or just a few cards that cost four or five. If you’re going to stretch into the five-slot, it needs to be for something more aggressive like Barging Sergeant or something that can help you win the turn you play it like Intrusive Packbeast. I don’t even think Inspiring Unicorn is that good in Boros. By the time you have it in play and you’re ready to make it pay off, your opponent seems to be ready for you. The Unicorn’s effect, while nice, isn’t the kind of thing that helps your mentor triggers. My team Boros deck today was a loser exactly because of these kinds of four and five-drops.

We drafted again with eight players and I didn’t do any better. I shot for Izzet and just didn’t know what I was doing. It felt great to be drafting on prerelease weekend but I can’t say that I learned that much. I feel completely lost where green cards are concerned. Every green plan, whether teamed with white or black, seems too slow and backed by too few good spells.

Three Drafts at the Guildmage Meeting

A few days after prerelease weekend we had a great turnout at our weekly team meeting/practice. With a couple of late arrivers included, we had eighteen players for our first Tuesday night drafting Guilds of Ravnica. We had eight players drafting downstairs and nine players drafting upstairs a few minutes later. We played three rounds of Swiss in each draft and cut to a final four, as is our custom. We’ve only been doing this for the past 1,075 weeks, give or take. In each draft, we played out the semifinals matches and then split the rares, mythics and foils in each draft among the finalists of that draft. I also captured the finalists’ decks for future analysis. In the eight man draft downstairs, the finalists were Brian Heine with Izzet and Zach Kartauser with Boros. In the upstairs draft with nine players, I got nowhere near the semifinals with a bad Boros deck, the finalists were Amaz and his roommate and manager Brent Kaskel. Both of them drafted Dimir. Brent splashed for green, swear to God, with two Golgari Guildgates for Vigorspore Wurm. I found it hard to believe, at the time, but I’ve since played his deck quite a few times and I can see how he felt the Wurm could help him finish games.

After these two drafts, we had eight players that wanted to draft again, so we did. The finalists from this third draft were Ian Jasheway with Dimir splashing green for Charnel Troll and two copies of Status/Statue, and Linh Nguyen with Boros. Three of the six finalists tonight played forty-one cards in their decks. I won’t insult these fine men by telling you who was naughty. Merely opening-week jitters, I’m sure. I think I tried to draft green in the late draft. It didn’t work out, to say the least.

Grand Prix Mexico City

I didn’t make the trip to Mexico, though I wish I had. Maitland Griffith and Brian Heine went, as did Amaz. Maitland didn’t reach day two. Brian did, and just missed the top eight, finishing seventeenth and earning $500. Amaz had another amaz-ing competitive finish. He reached the top eight, and beyond, taking home $2500. Maitland didn’t win any money but he didn’t come home empty handed, he brought Montezuma’s Revenge. He missed Tuesday night’s practice and a couple of days of work.

More Practice in Dallas Before Denver

On the Tuesday night after Mexico City, Brent and Amaz made the scene and we had a good draft with eight players. This time, the winners where Brian Heine with Golgari and Brent Kaskel with Izzet. No splash for Brent this time around, his mana base was too concerned with supporting Niv Mizzet, Parun and Expansion/Explosion!

Before the meeting, I had opened twelve boosters and taken a cut at building three decks as a practice assignment for this weekend’s team limited GP in Denver. I caught Amaz late in the evening and gave him the pool, sorted by color with no hints of the three decks that I had built and recorded earlier. I was interested in seeing what Amaz would come up with. Amaz was happy to take a shot at the pool. As fast as lightning, he had three basic deck plans in place. I’m sorry to say that the decks he built were not similar to the ones I built from the same pool. He was all the way to the point of splitting up cards for the three decks’ sideboards when Brent starting looking over the decks. He disagreed with many of Amaz’s choices. Amaz tried to accommodate Brent’s ideas to a certain extent, but Brent’s take on the pool was simply very different from that of his roommate. Brent has always been more of a natural talent than a deck-building scholar. Brent can win with decks that he can’t always explain. Amaz, on the other hand, is always able to share his analysis. That doesn’t make Brent’s ideas wrong, just harder to defend. The two of them go and on over this test pool. I try to steer Amaz towards finished decks, and he eventually cements the builds of the three decks to something close to his original choices. I looked up at Brian Heine, who will be teaming with Amaz and Brent in Denver, and I said, “Good luck!” Brian knew what I meant.

The next day was Wednesday and Brent sent out a message to some friends that he and Amaz wanted to practice team sealed prior to heading to Denver this weekend. My wife was out of town (way out of town in India, as a matter of fact) or else I might not have been able to devote two straight nights to Magic. I arrived at Brent and Amaz’s gamer’s house in Allen (think far, far, far north Dallas) just in time to help them unload their Hummer with groceries. Actually, these guys don’t really buy “groceries.” What they buy is snacks and beverages. It’s like never-never land over there. I truly do wish I could live there and soak up Brent and Amaz’s gamer powers. It’s a giant, very comfortable house with lots of places to relax and several big tables for gaming. We’re in the dining room tonight, as we were on the Saturday of prerelease weekend, playing Magic on an inch-thick green marble table. It takes some effort to roll a die without having it skitter off the side.

We decide to keep the team of Amaz, Brent and Brian together tonight since they will be playing together in Denver. For this team sealed exercise, Amaz produces some fresh Guilds packs that he was given in Mexico City. They’re in Spanish, a challenge for all of us, but particularly for Tuan who has hardly seen the set to this point. Neither team needs the entire hour that teams will have available to them in Denver. On the other hand, we aren’t making ourselves fill out deck registration forms. Paperwork will represent the last fifteen or more minutes of deck construction at the Grand Prix. I’m teamed with fellow Guildmage Tuan Doan and a friend of Brent and Amaz’s named Justin Warden.

I didn’t record anything about this team sealed exercise. It was useful, just the same. Tuan, not having had any experience with the set before tonight, was happy to play whatever was sent his way. Justin felt strongly about the Boros deck that our pool delivered, and he also fashioned a Dimir deck out of the pool. There was enough Izzet left for Tuan that none of us had to play green. I wish I remembered more, but the exercise was more about how to work together to build some decks without anyone getting grumpy. Amaz and Brent and Brian took longer to get their decks together. They built their decks in the other room. It didn’t sound like there was the kind of heated debate on this night that I heard from Amaz and Brent the night before at my house. We played one round of matches before setting these decks aside. After each team looked at the other’s sealed pool, we went on to a team draft. Me and Justin each drafted Dimir with Brent on my left and Justin’s right also drafting Dimir. All three blue/black decks were surprisingly decent but obviously thinner than desirable. Amaz bravely drafted Selesnya but only won one of his matches. We won the draft 5-3.

Grand Prix Denver

At long last, it’s finally time to fly to Denver for the team limited GP. The night before the trip, my wife still out of town, I’m sitting in a very quiet house going through my collection for some cards I can sell. It’s been many years since I put a hundred Magic auctions on eBay each week. I do a lot less Magic business than in the past, but I always try to put together a small pile of cards to sell to vendors when I head to big events. I’m only selling things I have extra copies of, and I like using Magic cards to pay for Magic events. My son hates it when I sell to vendors because he knows how little I’m going to receive compared to the retail value of the cards. That’s just business. You can take a lot of time and energy and trade your cards for value and look for opportunities to sell at closer to retail, or you can hand a stranger a pile of cards and then drag some hundred-dollar-bills across the table into your wallet.

There are two keys to selling cards to vendors. First, you want to know what you are likely to receive. After I assemble a pile of cards that I intend to sell, I look up the buylist prices for those cards on Star City Games. Their buylist is considered a brutally lowball valuation, but it gives you an idea of how little you might have to accept for your pile of cards. Step two… sell your stack of cards to ANYONE other than Star City Games. I arrived in Denver around noon on Friday and transported myself to the Crowne Plaza Denver Airport Convention Center. The name is a mouthful and is almost larger than the facility itself. I have been to two previous GPs housed here. I’m amazed that it’s considered big enough for a Grand Prix. This is the venue where, ten years ago, Gerry Thompson got his first GP championship. Gerry T had his bag stolen while he was having his championship photos taken in front of the waterfall in the lobby. My Texas Guildmage pal and teammate Hunter Burton top eighted that GP just a year before his best tournament finish, a final four appearance at Pro Tour Austin.

I put my stuff away in our sixth floor (that’s the top floor here) and descended to the elevator bay hidden behind the lobby waterfall. Then I followed the circuitous route around the edge of the convention center to the very back of the facility where the Grand Prix was happening. Along the way, I passed another convention, a gathering of people in the animal control career path. No kidding. As I passed the open doors of their main convention area, I heard the speaker on stage say this: “We’ve talked a lot about the ‘animal’ part of our business and now I believe it’s time to talk about ‘control.’” I would sort of love to know what the rest of that speech was like.

At the complete other side of the building from where the hotel is located, I arrived at the room where the Magic event was taking place. It looked small inside and it was already jam-packed with players playing in trial events and other side events. I couldn’t imagine how there would be room in here for a Grand Prix tomorrow. I quickly learn that the main event is sold out. There will be exactly 500 three-man teams. There are a number of vendors and I get in line behind a few guys waiting at one high quality vendor. When it’s my turn, I flip open a box and get out a stack of cards no more than an inch and a half high. I break the stack into a series of smaller stacks arranged by the buy prices that I looked up. I tell the friendly agent assisting me that the piles are arranged roughly by value. He appreciates the fact and starts looking up each of the cards on his tiny computer, laying each card on the industry-standard grid before him. The grid is printed onto a playmat with slots for each popular price figure, from fifty cents to fifty dollars. Or something like that. The pricing playmat, an innovation at least ten years old now, I believe, is complete genius. Not only does it help both parties keep track of what is going to be paid for each card, it gives the buyer a crucial edge as he placidly places each of your cards onto the playmat onto one of the labeled rectangles. Suddenly, it isn’t this cutthroat businessman telling you what your cards are worth, it’s just the playmat. No eye contact needed. Genius.

I normally wouldn’t want to bore you with the details of a sale, but it’s central to how I feel like I bungled my way through what felt like a great weekend even though I didn’t win at Magic. Money can do that, sometimes. With the help of the Star City Games buylist, I judged my humble stack of cards would bring me $587. The figure I receive from my buying agent is a little better, $804. Here’s a list of what I sold, you tell me if I’m likely to miss any of these cards: 2 Lotus Bloom, 4 Champion of the Parish, Reiterate, 3 Oversold Cemetery, 7 Conspiracy, 4 Lava Spike, Temple Garden (Guilds), Sedge Sliver, Sacred Foundry (Guilds), 2 Sword of Body and Mind, 4 Cover of Darkness, 3 Archive Trap, 3 Eiganjo Castle, 7 Swarmyard, 6 Lord of Atlantis (Time Spiral), Iona, Shield of Emeria, 12 Ancient Ziggurat, Linvala, Keeper of Silence, 6 Leyline of Anticipation, 2 Sorin Markov, 2 Grave Titan, Forbidden Orchard (foil), Boseiju, Who Shelters All, Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, 2 Cabal Coffers, Azusa, Lost But Seeking, Rishadan Port (M25), 5 Demonic Tutor (Revised), 4 Oracle of Mul Daya, Goryo’s Vengeance, 3 Leyline of the Void, 2 Riptide Laboratory and Lava Spike (foil). Oh yeah, also a stack of twenty one dollar cards whose identities I did not record. The reason why I detailed this transaction is to illustrate how little I’m going to miss these cards. These are not top-of-mind rares. A lot of these cards aren’t rare at all. I’m *ahem* old enough to be your dad and I still got a thrill from putting eight hundred American dollars in my pocket. I wasn’t a clever collector to accumulate this particular pile of cards. I just happened to keep them for a long time. It’s been years since I bought a Magic card collection from anyone, yet the forest of trees that I maintain in their converted rectangular form keeps delivering gold to me, year after year. It’s crazy that Magic has remained valuable all these years. Of course, this highly lucrative house of cards could collapse tomorrow. Of course, we’ve been saying that for over twenty years.

The Main Event

Our room got up early on Saturday, all three of us were showered, shaved (okay, only Scot shaved), and ready to leave the room an hour before the start of the main event. We ventured into the breakfast buffet in the lobby restaurant. That decision almost cost us. There was a lack of staffing in the little restaurant and not much interest from the little bit of staffing they had. Still, we eventually got a shot at the buffet and we wolfed down some food.

When we walked into the event space, I was thrilled to see that the Grand Prix had opened up more than twice as much space as they had the day before. The newly opened area was for the main event and included sturdy chairs. The chairs throughout the smaller area yesterday were mostly plastic and extremely easy to break for the girth-y Magic player like myself. Pretty soon, even this larger space was completely full with a capacity crowd of competitors. Scot and Maitland and I run into friends from back home and elsewhere. High fives, hugs and meaningful nods ensue.

Finally, the seatings are posted for card pool registration and deck construction. We find our spots and seat ourselves, as instructed, in A-B-C order. I’m A, Scot is B and Maitland is C. Amaz, Brent and Brian are seated not far away on the next row of tables. Amaz is jubilant as usual. His energy level seems like it is always high. I haven’t watched very many of his Magic streams (and absolutely none of his Hearthstone streams) but it seems like Amaz has endless energy and in impossible to deflate personality. He plays serious, but in between he seems almost like an animated character come to life.

Any number of people in the room can be heard to say that it would actually be better for team deck construction if the teams were seated with two players on one side and one player on the other side. As it is, we’re seating three in a row. Announcements and more announcements. It’s hard to hear what the head judge is telling us. People are buzzing and the sound system is not quite as good as it could be. Maybe it’s the way sound travels at this altitude. Judge announcements at the beginning of the event quickly become old hat when you play in a lot of events. It’s rare that you are hearing any instructions that you haven’t heard hundreds or possibly thousands of times before. But we’re playing team sealed today, and this format isn’t played that often. I strain to hear these announcements because the instructions are different from other events.

First, the good news. Our pools have, as everyone hoped, been preregistered by a computer. Each team receives a card box with the contents of twelve Guilds of Ravnica booster packs. These cards are sorted by color but not necessarily alphabetically within each color. The card pool is accompanied by a sheet listing all the cards in the pool. The card pool is identified by number on the two-sided sheet. This is your card pool’s master list. In order to verify that the computer has documented the card pool correctly, each team passes their pool and their registration sheet and verifies that the pile of cards does indeed match what is printed on the sheet. Errors are found on different lists around the room. About half of the errors reported are actually just confusion over the way the cards in the pools are ordered on the printed sheet versus the way they are sorted. Eventually, all the pools are verified and passed back to their owners.

Finally, the moment arrives that all 1500 players have been waiting for. They put one hour on the clock. Each team now builds three decks out of their card pool. After the decks are built, they have to be registered on three different registration sheets. Any card that might be useful for a deck’s sideboard must also be listed on the individual deck registration sheet. Sideboard cards cannot be shared by different decks. It’s interesting that it is not necessary to register every unused card in the card pool, just the ones that will be played either in one of the three main decks or in one of the three decks’ sideboards.

I firmly believe that team sealed is the best format in Magic. You might guess it has something to do with how much I love sealed deck specifically and limited formats in general, but that isn’t it. Team sealed is more what Magic: the Gathering was at the very beginning. Before there was an internet full of tournament-winning decklists, before there was a Pro Tour, there was just you and your friends and a relatively small collection of cards from which you tried to build some good decks. Because the pool contains twelve boosters’ worth of cards, team sealed feels less like sealed deck to me and more like a very narrow constructed format. In this format, half the challenge is figuring out how to turn 180 cards into three good decks. The other half of the challenge is doing it together as a team. This format would be a little easier, not better but easier, if when you registered your team you also registered which of those players would build all the decks. Again, I’m not saying it would be better for one person to build the three decks, just easier.

There are other reasons that make this format so wonderful, such a favorite of players like myself. When you play a regular sealed deck tournament, your experience is so insular. You do it alone. As a matter of fact, if you ask for help, or receive help you didn’t ask for, you can be disqualified from the tournament. Between rounds of a normal sealed deck tournament, you regale your friends with what’s good and bad about your deck. They only care a certain amount. They tell you what’s good and bad about their decks. You only care a certain amount. Team sealed is different, you and your teammates are very much in this thing together. Every choice you make affects the fortunes of your two teammates. Your individual wins and losses matter more because they affect your teammates as well.

A week or two before GP Denver, Scot and Maitland and I turned on a timer and opened twelve of Scot’s boosters. Because they were Scot’s boosters, he led the effort to open and sort the cards, and then he sort of led the effort towards separating the cards into three basic deck plans. Because one person was making most of the decisions in this practice exercise, guess what, the decks came along very quickly and smoothly. Maitland and I offered suggestions and, with no pressure on us and nothing on the line, Scot implemented our suggestions and modifications without much critique. In short order, we had three pretty good decks. That was a couple of weeks ago, practicing at my house.

On this day, in the middle of the burgeoning throng at GP Denver, the three of us are a little more harried and less cool as Scot, in the middle seat, starts dividing up cards. Maitland, on Scot’s right, starts looking at the Boros possibility. Scot is looking at Dimir and I’m handed cards for Izzet. Like true cowards, our first idea is to avoid playing green if at all possible. Even as we first start trying to put decks together, I feel like we’re working in a more chaotic, less fluid way than we did at our home practice. It’s always different when you’re under actual tournament pressure. Maitland builds a Boros deck, pretty differently than I would have, and it’s hard to reach across Scot to tell Maitland what I would have done instead. Scot is fairly happy with his Dimir deck. I’m looking at an Izzet deck with spells but no creatures.

Actually, you can learn a lot about our pool simply from the multi-colored cards. Dimir gets an Artful Beatdown, Darkblade Agent, Nightveil Predator, Notion Rain and Whisper Agent. The Izzet deck could have Beacon Bolt, two Hypothesizzle, two Goblin Electromancer (I didn’t mean there were NO Izzet creatures), and one Piston-Fist Cyclops. How about Boros? Two Hammer Droppers, Integrity/Intervention, Skyknight Legionnaire, Swathcutter Giant and Truefire Captain. We’re talking about a Boros deck with expensive creatures. That’s the wrong kind of Boros, I assure you. Gold cards that require green? Tons. Erstwhile Trooper, Find/Finality, Flower/Flourish, Knight of Autumn, Molderhulk, two Rosemane Centaurs, Status/Statue, Sumala Woodshaper, Undercity Uprising and two Vernadi Shieldmate. Are you ready to solve the puzzle?

Scot locks in on Dimir. Maitland takes on the green/white/black plan. The last deck choice is whether to go with bad Boros or bad Izzet. The spells are better in the Izzet deck, the creatures are better in the Boros deck. I also feel more comfortable with the Boros plan, so that’s the way we go.

Everyone knows that the draft version of a limited archetype, Boros for example, will be a stronger deck than the sealed deck version. People go a little too far when they say that team sealed versions of decks are always as good as most draft decks. I think team sealed decks, on average, are clearly better than regular sealed decks, they still fall short of the average drafted deck of the same archetype. Having said that, here’s my team sealed Boros deck:

There is a very good card I’m not playing in the main deck. Experimental Frenzy. At that time, I hadn’t played Frenzy yet and I didn’t understand its greatness. Even though I failed to put it into the main deck, I brought it in from the sideboard in every match, usually ditching the second Hammer Dropper. My deck was slow as hell! I had three one-drops who were all good targets for a turn two Maniacal Rage, but it just didn’t come up that often. This deck looks like the kind of Boros deck you can come up with from a very average sealed deck pool, not the stronger type that you expect from a team sealed pool. This is certainly not a draft-quality Boros deck by any stretch of the imagination. I had two copies of Collar the Culprit in the sideboard along with Hellkite Whelp and two more Rubblebelt Boars. I registered some other cards for the sideboard as well but the only cards that ever came in were Experimental Frenzy.

I like Hellkite Whelp and I might have played it if I didn’t have two better five-drops for Boros. Intrusive Packbeast and Barging Sergeant were considered good enough for Boros draft decks in the first three weeks of Guilds of Ravnica drafts but I don’t think they make it into any good draft decks any longer. The lands that they distributed to us were the cellophane packs of lands from Hour of Devastation. These contain a certain number of full-art basic lands. I picked up a ton of full-art lands off of tables all day long. Sometimes it’s the little things.

The Matches

Feel like the article’s been on the long side? Don’t worry, this part is very brief. In round one I’m paired with Nathan Colker. He and his teammates are from different places in California and they each travel a good bit to play Magic. He’s playing green/white with a red splash. I’m on the play in game one and I keep a decent two-lander. No third land, game is over on turn six. In game two I get land but we still don’t have much of a game, it’s over in seven turns and I barely touched him. I’ve lost the first match for our team in round one in record time! The next match finished by either Scot or Maitland is also a loss and we’re off to an unfortunate start. Our opponents, Colker/Shein/Nabi go on to finish the tournament in 41st place with nine match wins.

My round two opponent is Bill Beyerlein. He is playing Boros and his deck isn’t really much better than mine. I taste victory in a close game one but lose games two and three without making much of a mark. Our team, ahem, loses this match and we’re panicking at 0-2. The team of Beyerlein/Keeth/Higashi finish the tournament 82nd with five match wins.

My round three opponent is Wyatt Darby. He and his teammates are from Iowa City. Their middle player, Mr. Locke (can’t remember his first name at the moment), was a regular player at Pro Tour Qualifiers that I used to run regularly in Wichita, Kansas. Wyatt is playing Boros and he wins game one even though I’m on the play. Game two is very close and I prevail. I win game three, and my only match of the day, after Wyatt mulligans to six and then to five while on the play. My luck was as good in game three as his was bad. I had Healer’s Hawk on turn one and Maniacal Rage on turn two. Shortly after my match was over, I believe Scot lost his match. Our continued adventures are hanging on how Maitland does in his match. He loses a tight one and our tournament day is done, 0-3. Our opponents finished in 250th place with three match wins.

The worst case scenario. All the trouble to travel to Denver with two other people and we bomb out in three rounds. Obviously we’re not happy campers. At the same time, after three hard-fought rounds with each of us feeling like we are just out-gunned, we also feel some relief as we divide up the rares and foils from our pool. Going into round three, Scot asked how Maitland and I would feel about continuing to play in the main event, even after mathematically eliminated from Day Two, just for the fun of it and to pick up planeswalker points. I told Scot I wouldn’t be for that, personally. I promised him that I would absolutely not give up mentally while we were playing with two match losses, but once we were eliminated with a third loss, I wouldn’t want to play anymore. Planeswalker points don’t do much for me and it just wasn’t fun playing with these decks.

Why did we go 0-3? I’ll admit that mistakes were made during deck construction time, possibly in the selection of decks and certainly in the card choices made for each deck. We felt like we had used our one hour of construction time very efficiently. We were close to our final decks after less than thirty minutes. Between nerves and the noise in the room and the pressure of the Grand Prix and the physical constraints of our table, our team was affected with regards to getting the best three decks built. I feel more than okay about my own game play in my three matches. I watched the remaining matches of my teammates whenever I was finished. Scot played well in his matches and Maitland played well as far as I could see from two chairs down.

When you weigh all the factors, I think the biggest problem was our card pool. This is the most obvious argument anytime you lose playing sealed deck. Just the same, I strongly believe our pool was difficult to do anything fantastic with. Let’s go to the rares and mythics: Divine Visitation, Light of the Legion, Gruesome Menagerie, Arclight Phoenix, Beast Whisperer, Chamber Sentry and a foil Overgrown Tomb. Most of these cards were in Maitland’s green/white/black deck. We probably panicked and tried too many things in that deck. Scot’s Dimir deck was probably very average and just ran into some above average decks. I was slow Boros with Arclight Phoenix and too many four and five-drops. End of story. Even though I love team sealed, and even though I believe it’s the best format, and very skill-based, you still have to have some cards in order to win.

Now it’s time to eat. Our food guy is definitely Maitland Griffith. Gourmand? Probably. Fashion forward? A little. Hipster? Maybe. At any rate, he always finds the good places to eat wherever he goes. The Crowne Plaza Denver International Airport Convention Center, yeah, that’s the full name of the hotel, is stuck in a group of other hotels and restaurants in a sort of small village between the airport and actual Denver. Still, Maitland finds a better-than-average joint for us. Maitland tends to prefer fancier nosheries with complicated cuisines, but today he finds a pizza place for us. Anthony’s Pizza and Pasta, just next door to the Urban Sombrero and across the parking lot from Outback Steakhouse. One cheap Lyft ride and boom, we’re hip deep in New York style pizza. And I do mean hip deep. Standing up at the counter for ordering, Scot’s in a bit of a hurry to go to the bathroom so he agrees to whatever Maitland’s plan might be. Maitland’s plan is to buy two pizzas and split them between the three of us. That’s not a crazy plan. We just didn’t realize how voluminous the large pies are at Anthony’s. When they don’t have hamburger, Scot’s preference, we go with grilled chicken on one pizza. Pepperoni, well, salami, on the other. When the pizzas arrive, they are so large that only one can fit on the four-topper that we’re sitting at. The beef pizza has to sit on the next table over. That’s okay, it’s the middle of the afternoon and we’re almost the only people in the place. First the good news. The pizza is freaking delicious! These pizzas are made from top notch ingredients. This is not Pizza Hut or Papa Johns. The only problem is how much pizza we have. Scot is nonplussed with his pizza. He had something slightly different in mind. I am in heaven when I taste the first bite of the salami pizza. When I finish the first piece, as much of an absolute pig as I can be when I’m hungry, I immediately realize we’re in too deep. Up on the menu board it says that the large pizza is eighteen inches across. For whatever reason, our pies are each nearly twenty-four inches across.

I eat a second slice. Even better than the first. New York pizzas taste better to me after the crust cools enough that you can eat it properly, that is, with your hands. I finish the second slice and know that there will not be a third. We ordered too much pizza. Maitland grabs not one, not two, not three but four small pizza boxes and starts boxing up leftover pizza. Do we have a refrigerator in our room? No, we do not. Two big slices are enough to fill each of these boxes. Maitland uses a paper plate as a divider and adds a second layer of pizza to several of the boxes. We jump into another Lyft with Maitland and I carrying all the pizza and head back to the hotel. We go up to the room where Maitland and I lounge around for an hour or so, Scot drops off some stuff and then he heads right back to the GP for some more Magic. I watch some college football while Maitland makes fun of it. I work up the nerve to have one more piece of pizza.

Maitland and I head back to the Grand Prix to sign up for Sunday’s sealed deck PTQ. After we do that, I enter a three-round sealed deck event. After abject failure in the team event, I get extremely cocky for some reason. The pool points to Dimir but is a little short on cards. I stick in a couple of red cards. No problem, right? What if I told you I tried to stretch my red splash all the way to Niv-Mizzet. Yes, this is my life at this point in the weekend. I don’t want to bore you or embarrass myself any more than necessary. Suffice to say, it didn’t work. I drop after two terrible matches. This is a case of the stakes being too low. Instead of using this little tournament to get myself back on the right track, I jammed Niv-Mizzet into a Dimir deck and suffered the consequences.

On Sunday morning we wake up and start again. All three of us are playing in the sealed PTQ. There are 419 players and we’re playing six Swiss rounds. Essentially, you can’t make the top eight if you lose any matches. It’s possible some undefeated folks can draw in the last round. I finished twelfth in a similar event on Sunday at Grand Prix Las Vegas a few months ago. Today’s card pool seems okay to me. That’s because I’m completely punch drunk where the format is concerned. Here’s the list that I turn in:

The deck certainly is a mixed bag. The red cards belong in Izzet, not Dimir, including a blue card like Vedalken Mesmerist. Disinformation Campaign looks promising, and Thoughtbound Phantasm and Darkblade Agent can be very good. I have seven cards with surveil including the very useful Nightveil Sprite.

If I had chosen to avoid a third color, the blue spells that could have been in the deck include Disdainful Stroke, Devious Cover-Up, Leapfrog and Wall of Mist. I didn’t want to play those cards in the main deck, although I sided in one or both counterspells a few times. If I had wanted to go farther with the red splash, I could have added Crackling Drake and Direct Current with the addition of Chromatic Lantern and Izzet Locket. I decided that Crackling Drake wasn’t quite worth stretching my mana that far. Maybe I did learn something from the Niv-Mizzet debacle last night.

As it happens, the only rares in my deck are both in the splash, Risk Factor and Steam Vents. The other rares in the pool are Chromatic Lantern, Citywide Bust, March of the Multitudes and Knight of Autumn. Green cards. What are you going to do?

The splash was pretty good throughout the day, even Risk Factor. I hardly ever got the Disinformation/Nightveil Sprite combo going. My games were grindy all day. I win round one against Santiago Sanchez playing blue and black without any red cards. In round two I lose to Samuel Margarita in two straight games. His deck? Dimir splashing red. In round three, a fellow named Matthew (I scribbled his last name too poorly to read now) bested me in two games. His deck is blue and black and, wait for it… red. In round four my opponent fails to show up and I win easily. In round five, Drew Miller and I split games one and two. I’m on the draw in game three, mulligan to five and never deal a single point of damage. Amaz and Brian, just finished with their day two matches in the Grand Prix, watch as I heroically lose game one, heroically win game two and bravely draw nothing in game three. I could play one more match and, if my opponent failed to show up, win enough prize wall points to take home ten booster packs. Instead, I choose to go to dinner with Amaz and Brian and Maitland. My competitive weekend ends without winning any prizes whatsoever, an unprecedented occurrence. I have often not reached day two, and therefore prizes, in the main event of a Grand Prix. In fact, I reach day two less than twenty percent of the time. But when I jump into side events, booster drafts and sealed decks and Sunday PTQs, I have never walked away with just zero prizes. Whew!

Are You Not Entertained?

We step outside the doors to wait for a Lyft. A lovely snow has been falling all day. The ground is warm enough that the streets are staying clear even though the soft snow is sticking to most surfaces. Maitland came to Denver with a dream of crushing some sushi at this very special restaurant in the central zone of the city. As we depart from the convention center, it turns out the sushi place is closed on Sunday. Maitland is beat down enough by the events of the weekend (he and Scot were out of the PTQ sooner than I was) that he agrees to the rather pedestrian choice of Outback Steakhouse.

It turns out that the team of Brian Heine, Jason “Amaz” Chan and Brent Kaskel did pretty well today. As a matter of fact, they lost just one match all day and that one match loss was all that kept them out of the final four. They finished in eleventh place. This finish is a slight comedown for Amaz who top eighted last weekend in Mexico City, but it’s another highly successful finish for Brian Heine, the instant favorite to win Guildmage of the Year for the second straight year (it’s an honor our team awards each December).

We’re not the only Magic players in the place. We are seated in a booth just past a table of six Pro Tour hotshots, at least one of which is in the hall of fame. No more than a knowing nod is passed between our table and theirs. Amaz and Brian are thrilled to be finished with a weekend of high stress, high level Magic. Maitland and I are thrilled to not be playing any more Guilds of Ravnica sealed deck. Cheese fries arrive. Warm bread appears. Some sort of seafood appetizer for Amaz appears. Our main courses all include steak, the largest being a giant T-bone for Brian. I got a large sirloin, but one not as large as the one that Amaz orders. Maitland orders fish. I tell Amaz that I don’t think he can really eat all the food on his plate. Amaz is not a big guy, by far the smallest at the table. He asks me if I want to bet. I do not. Good thing, too, because Amaz crushes a pound of steak and whatever else was on his plate, and that’s after an appetizer of his own and some of the cheese fries.

While we were running up a big bill at Outback, our teammate Scot stayed back at the GP where he was doing well in a booster draft. After his draft was over, he texted me to see if any of us at Outback would like to meet Scot at a movie theater to see Bad Times at the El Royale at a nearby theater. Amaz and Maitland are immediately in. Brian has to get to the airport. In fact, he has all his possessions with him in a single small backpack.

The bill arrives at the Outback and you know what happens next. The other three guys start getting out credit cards. They want to play the credit card game, where each of us put a credit card in a pile and then we press our server to somehow randomly choose one of the cards to which the entire meal will be charged. I have always hated this game and have never played, in all the years hanging out with Hunter Burton, who played it constantly. I choose here and now to play the credit card game for the first time because Amaz is pleading for me to do it. Something about those honest eyes of his, set behind that pair of lenseless black framed glasses… I pull out a card and put it into the pile. Maitland takes the lead when our server returns to pick up our payment. He asks her to take these four cards, randomize them in her hands behind her back somehow, and then begin putting the cards onto the table one by one. The last card placed on the table will buy everyone’s meal. She was slightly puzzled, but she went along with the gag. This puzzled me, because I figured most people in her field had heard of this game by now. She shuffled the four cards behind her back and the first one she slapped onto the table was… mine! I immediately proclaimed, “I love this game!” It’s a good feeling, being the first one to know that you are not paying for everyone’s dinner. Next came Brian’s card. Then Amaz’s and finally, paying for all our dinners, Maitland’s card. I’m such a sweet guy that in my mind I’m thinking how I should still offer to pay for my own meal, or maybe pay the tip, or sneak some cash to Maitland later. Then I realize that when you play the credit card game you are agreeing to both sides of the bargain. If you lose you are going to buy everyone’s meal and not be a baby about it. You are also agreeing to graciously accept the generosity of whoever loses. So I let Maitland pay. At this moment, and I realize I might not feel the same way in the future, I’m actually not going to complain if I lose the next time I am inevitably pulled into one of these games.

Then, because we really know how to party, Amaz and Maitland and I take a Lyft to the mall, a longer trip than I had imagined, to the Century Aurora Cinemark to see a movie. Yup. This is the same movie theater where the mass shooting occurred in 2012. We got there first but Scot soon joined us. At the last minute, Amaz decides that he wants to see Venom instead of Bad Times at the El Royale. His movie is going to start half an hour after ours and we don’t say anything about how we are going to get back to the hotel. It’s just fun to be doing something the night before traveling back home. Sunday night at a GP is usually not much fun, just packing up and hanging in the hotel room. As soon as we enter the theater for our film, you can tell how old we are. We head straight for the back of the house. We sit in the middle of the row, Scot in the middle, Maitland’s on his right and I’m on his left. It’s funny how you can learn new things about someone you’ve known for decades. I had never been to the movies with Scot, after all these years. I learned that Scot is one of those people who don’t want any talking in the theater, not even during the trailers for future releases.

I didn’t have a great feeling about this movie going in, the TV commercials made it seem like such an obvious rip-off of a Tarantino movie. I was pleasantly surprised. It is a lot like a Tarantino movie, but there’s nothing wrong with a director being influenced by previous directors. Tarantino’s work is influenced by other directors. Every director is. Bad Times at the El Royale was a genuine treat and felt very new and fresh. Scot, who is more than happy to talk once the credits are rolling, agrees with my positive review of the film, as does Maitland.

I text Amaz and tell him that I’ll wait for him to get out of his movie so that he doesn’t have to go back to the hotel at midnight all alone. He says not to worry about it, that he has already taken a Lyft to another theater when the Century Aurora Cinemark tells him he can’t enter the theater with his backpack, a security precaution in place ever since the massacre six years ago. Strange that Maitland and I weren’t bothered at all even though we were each carrying bags. Is it because we’re old? Maitland has a hipster beard and seems young and dangerous. Is it because Amaz is of Chinese descent? (I think he’s a Canadian citizen but I haven’t asked him for any paperwork.)

Back at the room, Maitland and Scot and I play some pack-opening games. We play some DC-10 and we play the newer Pai Gow Magic game. Maitland and Scot enjoy the Pai Gow game better. I still prefer DC-10. Finally, it’s time to pack up and go to sleep. Our Monday morning departures are strangely staged. I leave the hotel first, at 6:00 am. Maitland leaves two hours later and Scot leaves two hours after that.

What a Weekend

I got rich. I sucked at Magic. I saw snow. I got a free steak dinner. I went to the movies with pals. I saw a lot of people that I only run into at these large out of town events. It was a great trip, though the results-oriented part of my brain felt nothing but the pain of failure in the main event on Saturday. I concentrated on my sealed deck skills and ended up with nothing to show for it. In the cardboard sense. Meanwhile, I was having all kinds of “success” throughout the weekend very much “without even trying.” The weekend at Grand Prix Denver was more than just an exercise in competitive humility, more than just a lengthy read. It was one of the best Magic experiences of my life.

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