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Attention to Detail #29
I woke up early on Saturday morning. It was 6:45 in the early hours of daylight and I didn't have the mental faculties to tie my shoes correctly, let alone win a trip to Japan. I gathered the supplies I might need for the day. A pen, a life total pad, a card box, my phone and a copy of Hunter S. Thompson's collection of correspondence and articles called Generation of Swine. A book full of wacked-out views on some of the events that shaped the modern world was just what I needed at this early hour. I'd received the book for Hannukah some years ago. The inside cover still bore well-wishes and holiday greetings from some relatives who I never see if I can help it. I went out to the bus stop a block from my house to wait on the first of two busses that would take me to the glorious suburb of Bloomington.. I was a little early for the bus, but I had run out of ways to waste time around the house. While I was waiting, a little bit of rain started to fall out of what was nearly a clear blue sky. An odd omen before a tournament, without a doubt. Once the bus eventually showed up, I boarded and started to read Thompson's words of wisdom about Ronald Reagan and Mu'ammar al-Qadafi. His ramblings about the early years of cable telivision and Haitian voodoo priests would set me up with a kind of cynicism for the day that – although I didn't know it at the time – would carry me far.
After my second bus and a small hike to get around a construction site, I arrived at the Knights of Columbus hall where the qualifier was being held. The KOC hall is a frequent location for such events. It's good for all involved, really. A nice cool basement (a fine thing on a hot summer afternoon) to play in and a bar upstairs for after you're out of the running. As it would turn out, I didn't need the bar this time. I still had another twenty minutes or so before registration was finished and we could start constructing our decks. Due to a couple years of strictly online Magic play I didn't really know any of the current movers and shakers in the local Magic scene. The only person I could expect to be at such a tournament had gotten married the previous weekend and his attendance was doubtful. With no conversations to be had, I opened the book again and focused my thoughts for the upcoming marathon of card playing.
The card pool that I opened was – in a word – atrocious. Of the three Ravnica rares I opened in my tournament pack, the most memorable was Three Dreams. That's about as sad a statement about a card pool as you're likely to hear. It didn't get much better when I opened my Guildpact booster and saw a foil Sky Swallower (not the Simic kind, mind you) staring back at me. The shininess mocked me, and I immediately prayed to whatever Magic gods there are that I wouldn't get this deck back after registration. Once everyone was done writing down the contents of their decks and replacing them in the deck boxes, they started handing out the decks again for what we'd get to play with. I quickly opened my deck box and looked at the registration sheet and let out a sigh of relief when I saw someone else's name on the 'registered by' line. Anything could be better than the pile that I'd registered. After 20 minutes of moving cards around the table (I'd forgotten how troublesome paper cards can be), I put the following deck together.
Fists of Ironwood
Mark of Eviction
Dimir House Guard
Peel from Reality
I've got two stories to tell about the deck construction before we get into the meat of the tournament. First is to point out that culling this pool down to three colors (with a small splash) was very difficult. Tempting me into red was the Slum, the Twinstrike and a Rakdos Pit-Dragon. Eventually I decided that the pull of blue was just too strong, and that I would do with just a splash of red for the Slum and Twinstrike. To facilitate this splash, I put in the Gruul Turf and the Rakdos Signet. As it turned out, this would be a fateful decision. I'll save the rest of that story for round five.
My first round opponent was a clever enough and talkative guy named Jasper. He started out the first round by saying “well, good luck getting that draft set”. Before I could ask what he meant, it was explained to me by the questioning of the guy at the next table. Jasper, I discovered, was the newly crowed state champion (Champs having taken place the weekend prior to this). As a bonus from the Tournament Organizers (led by Steve Port and the awesome folks from Legion Events), anyone who defeated a state champion in a round would get a free draft set. As I would discover after the round, this PTQ – which topped out around 90 players – had not one, not two but FIVE current state champions playing in it. North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa had all come to represent at the last sealed deck PTQ of the season. And just my luck, I pulled a champion in round one. Far from being intimidated by his title, I looked gladly on the challenge. Although I hadn't come here to win packs – the invitation was the real prize I was looking for – a free draft set isn't the worst thing in the world. The first game, unofortunately, was over in short order. I drew all my green and blue mana and ended up with a hand full of black cards. Jasper's superior airforce easily crushed what meager defenses I could come up with. While we were shuffling up for game two, we both saw something which boggled our minds. Right next to us, we saw a guy use Demonfire to kill a Saproling token – for 9 points. We both immediately checked the life totals and saw that the token's owner was at 11 life. Out of range of the big burn, but still it confused us. We shared a momentary look of confusion and both shook our heads with a kind of “hope I play that guy next round” look on our faces.
With my shuffling complete, I hoped for a better start in the second game. Unfortunately, it was not to be. This game I pulled all my black and blue mana and all my strong green cards. I was dead before I really knew what happened. Distraught I complained about my mana problems and also that I never saw my Twinstike, not that I could have casted it. Upon hearing that I had it in my deck, he said “wow. Thanks for not drawing that.” Although I'd lost (and didn't get a free draft set), I was still pretty pleased. Jasper was a good opponent who won gracefully and my mana troubles didn't go unnoticed. With 90 people, we were set up for 7 rounds of swiss before the break to top 8. I was going to need to win at least 5 in a row to have any chance at making the break. The odds weren't good, but I was still pleased with my deck and knew that things weren't over yet.
I didn't get the name of my second round opponent. All I wrote down as notes for the match was that it was a slaughter. The first game my opponent mulliganed to four. The game was over in short order. I even had the luxury of holding back my bombs to prevent him from knowing just how strong my deck was. The second game was a bit longer, but no less punishing. He drew an early Stinkweed Imp, which I knew was very strong against me. All of my removal is of the killing sort rather than the neutralizing sort. However, my hand promised a strong stream of creatures and I hoped I could goad him into a few dredgings to limit his card supply and stunt his development. And that's exactly what happened. My beaters kept coming out and I kept sneaking a couple points of damage past him. The Rumbling Slum hit the board and I knew he'd have to dredge the Imp again to kill it. He did so and played it. Then he cast Compulsive Research and, after drawing and discarding counted his deck. After all the Imping, he was down to 6 cards left in his deck. The next turn I swung in with the Slum and killed the Imp yet again. Then I cast Vigor Mortis on the Slum, bringing in an even fatter fatty. On his turn during his draw step he counted his deck again and looked through his graveyard. After a bit of thought, he scooped up his cards and I was 1-1.
Between rounds, Jasper came up to me and asked how I did. I reported on my near-bye against my opponent and he told horror stories of his opponent who was apparently packing Putrefy, Mortify, Pillory, Darkblast, Disembowel AND Last Gasp. I wished him better luck – and better tiebreakers for myself.
My third round pitted me against a nice enough guy named Will. The games were exactly what I was hoping for. I got practically the same hand both times and, apparently, so did he. I got a turn 3 Assault Zepplid followed by a turn 4 Stratozepplid and the flying assault crushed him before he could manage any kind defense. He grumbled about mana flood, but I knew that that kind of start would be hard for someone to stop even with the perfect land draws. The second game, amazingly, I had the exact same plays, albeit with a different Signet. He had a little bit more defense this time, managing a couple of small fliers. They couldn't stand in front of the Zepplids, though. I've always been a big fan of Zepplins. The living versions of them are no less impressive. All day long I was waiting for someone to use a Cackling Flames to kill my Assault Zepplid so I could shout “Oh, the humanity!”. However, every time the Zepp came on the board it tended to win the game. I'd rather have that any day. Suddenly I was 2-1 and feeling a lot better. After the round I noticed Jasper complaining about some aspect of his match and knew that the state champion had just been knocked out of the tournament.
If my third round Zepplids were impressive, my fourth round was downright ridiculous. The first game went a little something like this;
Turn One – Forest, Wild Cantor
Turn Two – Swamp, Roofstalker Wight, Swing for 1
Turn Three – Forest, Swing for 3, Sac the Cantor, Rumbling Slum
And, with that, the game was over. My opponent put up token resistance (literally) but it was already in the bag. My Wight flew over for a few points to soften him up until he ran out of blockers for the Slum. Eventually, I just crushed him having only taken damage from my own creature. Game two was equally bad for my opponent. Although I didn't pull the Slum right off the bat, it did make another appearance. This time in the company of the Zepplids. That's about as good as I could hope for, and after a few minutes I was 3-1 and feeling real good. The round had only lasted 12 minutes for me, and as I walked by the owner of one of the local game stores (Dreamers Sportscards & More), he asked if I was out already. He seemed taken aback slightly when I breezed by him and just said, “nope. I just won”. His game one was still in the midgame with no end in sight. I took my extra time to go upstairs and have a burger and a victory beer. A perfect way to spent the middle of the tournament.
My fifth opponent was a real nice guy named Matt. I mentioned in my deck construction section that there was a story that came into play in this round. Here it is. The match went to three game, with me having won the first in short order against a mana screwed opponent. The second game was a lot closer. I was slowly losing to small eveasion creatures and big walls. Stuck in my hand was my Twinstrike – with no source of red mana. I knew that if I could just draw the red, the standstill would turn into a rout for me. I didn't draw the Gruul Turf, the Wild Cantor or the Rakdos Signet. Instead, I drew the Farseek. And right then I realized my mistake. I had forgotten to put a single Mountain into my deck to be searched out by the Farseek or the Silkwing Scout. He eventually pulled ahead in the game and won before I could ever find a source of red mana. I searched my sideboard frantically, hoping I'd remembered to throw a Mountain in there – even a foil one that came with the deck or something. But there was no Mountain to be found. I shuffled up and hoped it wouldn't be an issue again. And, again, it happened. The third game I died holding Rumbling Slum and Twinstrike in my hand when either card would have swept the game game for me. My oversight in deck construction cost me my fifth round and put me down to a 3-2 record. I was out of the running for the Top 8 without a miracle. Fortunately for me, after the round, they posted the prize payouts which were based on record. If I won my next two rounds, I could still win some packs. I didn't want to walk away empty-handed, so I stayed in. Unfortunaetly for Matt, he also lost another match and got pushed out of contention for the top 8. Neither of us was destined to appear at Pro Tour: Kobe, apparently.
My sixth round was another short one against a guy named Andy. He made a fatal error in the first game that seemed to knock him off his game for the remainder of the match. He chump blocked a couple of large creatures with a Graven Dominator and a couple other creatures, in a seemingly bad play. With no effects before damage, I shrugged and he started to pull his creatures off the board into the graveyard. He said 'those all die, too. They're 1/1s, now'. I pointed out that he'd misplayed Haunt (since it only takes effect when the Haunted creature dies, not when the Haunting creature dies). Realizing his mistake like a bolt of lightning, he scooped up his cards and swore under his breath. I really did feel for him, but at this level of play there's no mercy for that kind of mistake. The second game was over in a hurry. He had some decent ground creatures, but never pulled a flying creature to deal with my 5/5 Stratozepplid (thanks to Vigor Mortis). I was up to a 4-2 record. If I won my last round I'd get something for my effort. If I lost, I'd have a long bus ride home with nothing to show for it.
The seventh round of a tournament tends to bring out the worst in some players. It's been a long tournament. And, when you're not in contention for the big prize, it can be a bit frustrating to keep playing. That being said, my seventh opponent was quite rude. I'd had a good string of opponents all day long, but it had to end some time. During the match he continued to talk to friends who would come by the table to ask about where they were going for dinner and whether one of them had a chance at the top 8. At times I had to shout at him to get his attention and get him to actually play the game. The first game I crushed him with the Zepplids (my all-stars for the day, without a doubt). The second game, when his behavior became truly obnoxious, I made a really strong play (or maybe he just made a bad one) which won me the game and I was quite happy about it. He had a couple creatures on the board and so did I. We were both at least 2 turns away from killing each other, though. He dropped a Selesnya Guildmage with 8 lands still open and swung with his two attackers. I announced no blockers and he tapped 8 mana and said “I'll pump twice”. The head judge happened to be watching the match (which was the last one still running due to my opponent's slow play), and I asked “you're putting two activations on the stack?” and he said that yes, he was. Then I cast Twinstrike (having still had another card in my hand) which killed his Guildmage and one other creature with both activations still on the stack. The sloppy play cost him the game and any shot at prizes. Considering his behavior (and the fact that it meant prizes for me), I was quite pleased with what happened. The Head Judge grinned as I played the Twinstrike and nodded at me approvingly. My opponent scooped and presumably went off to get the much talked about dinner with his friends.
I picked up my 12 packs of prizes (enough to recoup my losses on the tournament at least) and got out of there. I had a long night still ahead of me and I was hungry for some dinner of my own. It was another hour on the bus to get back to civilization, and Hunter S. Thompson kept me company the whole way. Although I failed to make the top 8 at the PTQ (something which has eluded me since the mid-90s), it was a pleasant time. This was the first big paper Magic tournament I'd played in (not counting prereleases) since the State Champs of 2004 (where I placed 9th). Mostly I was happy to discover that my time in the online world hasn't diluted my paper Magic skills at all. I spend a lot of time in this column promoting the efficiency and fun of online play, but I want to use this column to remind online players that paper Magic is still fun. Computers may be the way of the future, but nothing can compare to 8 hours in a basement playing Magic with complete strangers.
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