2nd Place with Dark Jeskai in Paris

You might have been surprised to see my name in the Paris standings.

If you were, that makes sense—I have greatly cut back on the number of GPs I play. I skipped both GP Houston and Detroit in the United States. But because ChannelFireball runs a few European GPs, they were generous enough to fly out a few Pros that they sponsor to participate in their Grand Prix promotions.

In this case, I did spell-slinging for 4 hours on Friday, followed by the Standard seminar with my compatriot for the trip, Reid Duke, and last played the Foiled Again Bounty Event.

I can’t express how much I enjoy doing these promotions. The enthusiasm is always so high from all the Magic players who participate. And frankly, I really enjoy helping people with their decks, discussing strategy, and analyzing Magic. I’m not particularly competitive, and wins and losses aren’t the part of the game that I particularly enjoy. It might be unusual to hear this from a Pro, especially one who has been fortunate enough to have as much success as I have had, but I enjoy commentating Magic matches more than playing.

Speaking of which, a handful of people were very complimentary about my commentary and asked if I would be doing it again. Hopefully I can work out a way to get back into it, because it’s something that I really miss. But there are downsides. Commentating requires much more work and commitment than playing, and also requires not playing the event itself. This is a pretty big value loss for me, because with my Hall of Fame invite, I’m going to play the 4 Pro Tours. I’ve been Platinum the past 3 years and I would not have made it a single year without playing enough Grand Prix to fill in the slots allotted for Grand Prix points. It’s a delicate balance.

Back to Paris. I arrived in the city Thursday morning. Reid got in around an hour before me and we split a cab to our hotel—which we found out a few days later was really stupid. The train ran right to our hotel and cost 4 euros. The cab, on the other hand, was 25. We were staying about 5 miles away from the site—an adequate room for only 40 euros a night (total, not each) that even included breakfast. Once we learned how to navigate the train, it was pretty convenient as it was only 6 stops and 2.5 euros.

Tournament preparation was the easy part—I already knew I was going to play Dark Jeskai. I had tested it through the Magic Online Leagues and really liked it, not because I thought it was an exceptional deck in terms of power or win percentage, but because I like playing close games where I rarely know if I am going to win or lose early on. I love when every game is really close and I have a good sweat until the end. So this was my kind of deck.

I started with Andrew Cuneo’s list that he got 2nd with at GP Houston.

Dark Jeskai

Andrew Cuneo, 2nd place at GP Houston

I found Tasigur horrendous, and removed it early in testing. The deck draws cards and uses its mana well, and doesn’t have many big creatures that are good targets for removal. Dig and Murderous Cut are better delve cards for the deck, so Tasigur was just terrible.

Everything else was performing pretty well except Gideon. I was hesitant to cut Gideon—I understood why Tasigur was bad in the deck, but I couldn’t understand why Gideon wasn’t good. In the end, I cut them both, and was happy I did. The Dark Jeskai lists that Top 16’d this GP also played few or no Gideons, and I guess in a world where Rally is the deck to beat, you are better off without them. I think they are close, though, and they might have helped me in the finals since they are good against Grixis Control.

Dark Jeskai

Ben Stark, 2nd at GP Paris

The deck ran smoothly and I can’t imagine changing much from the main deck. The sideboard wasn’t great for this tournament as no one was on red aggro and I never brought in the Clerics, so they should have been Dispels. They are still good against Atarka Red and much better against the UR Prowess deck while also being good against control and an upgrade to Stroke against Rally, though I wouldn’t want a million copies of Stroke and Dispel—just enough to be able to have 1 and Dig/Truths to lock up the game. If you draw too many early, it is very easy to have it cost you the game by not properly pressuring them and/or losing to their creatures. That is partly why I didn’t use them, because I didn’t want more counters versus Rally, and Stroke is good in places where Dispel is unplayable, like against Ramp. But I would rather have Dispel than Stroke against Rally since they both counter Collected Company and Rally, and Dispel costs 1 less mana.

I ran extremely well throughout the whole tournament. I won a lot of close games that my opponents could have won if they drew or had a certain card. On Day 1, the only match I lost was to Daniel Ward playing Grixis Dragons. Our games were close and he definitely played better than I did. That didn’t surprise me, as it’s one of the main advantages of playing something a little different or rogue. That Dark Jeskai is an extremely common deck meant that Daniel probably played a lot more practice games against it than I did against Grixis Dragons. I finished the day winning game 3 against 4-color Collected Company on the last turn of extra turns in a spectacular comeback game that I definitely didn’t think I was going to win until the end.

After a fun day of Magic, I had a nice dinner with Frank, Tobi, and Reid at a Japanese restaurant across the street from the site. The food, prices, and company were excellent, and I was happy to have a good meal. It did take a while because I think the restaurant had roughly 10 times more people in it than they had ever had before, but I’m sure they didn’t know there was going to be a Magic Grand Prix across the street and that there would be a surge of hungry gamers coming at the same time to attack their sushi supply.

I woke up Sunday morning needing change for the train, planning on going to the site. This was way more difficult than I anticipated it would be. My hotel wouldn’t give me change and told me to go to a different hotel to get it. The other hotel wouldn’t give it to me either, but luckily, a nice Dutch Magic player overheard my conversation with the hotel and gave me change. We rode the train there together—and I was not making good time. I asked the courtesy bus driver who was driving the 1 mile from the train station to the convention center how long it would be before this next bus left and was told 10 minutes. This was at about 8:50, so I had the brilliant idea that I could get there quicker on foot. I was probably right by a very small amount of time, but that meant running the whole way. In the end, it worked out because I burst through the door at about 9:07 and pairings were already up. No reason to leave any time to spare, right? That would be wasteful.

I ran pretty well all day again. My opponents weren’t screwed or anything—quite the contrary—we played a lot of very real games of Magic. It felt like I had a little bit better draws and they didn’t have quite what they needed to beat me. I don’t think I have ever Top 8’ed a Magic tournament without drawing better than my opponents and I think it’s important to remember that no matter how well you play, at the end of the day, you can’t succeed at Magic without drawing well. It’s why my perspective is generally only to get upset when I play poorly. If I draw poorly, it just wasn’t my tournament and I’ve definitely had more than my fair share of good draws and good luck in Magic tournaments.

After round 13, I was 12-1 and in good position to make Top 8 when I encountered some interesting situations. They didn’t post standings after round 13. With 2 rounds to go in a 1,500-person GP, whether or not an x-1 can double-draw into Top 8 was going to be extremely close.

I knew that and I’m very good at standings math, but I couldn’t possibly figure it out without the standings. So I went to the judges and asked if they could post them. Their response was that it was to their discretion whether or not they post them with 2 rounds to go and they had chosen not to. I asked if I could see the standings and they said that wouldn’t be fair to the other players. I argued that I didn’t mean only me—anyone who asked to see them should be able to see them because very few people would have a similar decision.

They declined to show them to me or post them, so I choose to just play the round since it would have been worse to take a draw that was effectively a loss if I couldn’t draw in than to play when I could have drawn in. I lost to Ryoichi Tamada.

When I saw the standings after round 14, I got tilted because I could have drawn in, though there was no guarantee Ryoichi would have given me the draw because he was pretty much locked and may have wanted to play for the #1 seed, and there was no guarantee we would have gotten paired against opponents who could draw in round 15. So it was pretty close, and may not even have been right to draw in round 14, but it was frustrating to not have access to the standings. I don’t know what the rules are regarding this but I think they should be standardized.

Round 15 was even more of a mess. I was in 4th and if I drew I would most likely get exactly 9th. My opponent was in 3rd and would most likely get 8th with a draw. So whether or not we should draw depended on the outcome of a handful of other matches. There were two next to us in the feature match area, and two more being played at tables we couldn’t observe. I had no idea what the rules were regarding whether we could even legally use the information of the other match outcomes to make a decision and to what extent we were allowed to go to obtain that information.

After a lengthy discussion, the judges informed us that we could use the information and bystanders could choose to bring it to us, but we couldn’t get up or slow down our matches progress to get it. Okay. We start battling. Game 1 I got stuck on 2 lands and lost easily. Game 2 he flooded out and I won easily.

I did have one of my more embarrassing, though inconsequential, moments of the tournament. I stole his Jace with Exert Influence, then tried to flip it… only to learn it goes back to him. It hadn’t come up for me yet and I wasn’t rereading cards and double-checking plays like I might in a close game. In a game where I had an active Ob Nixillis, I couldn’t lose. All and all, it was the perfect time to learn how that worked when it didn’t cost me anything.

Game 3, his flood was less severe than game 2 by a lot, but I still had more resources and won pretty easily. Afterward, we found out that one of the matches drew on time so if we drew, we would both have made Top 8. Steve approached me and asked if I would give him the draw if the judges would change the result. I said I wasn’t sure what the rules were but I didn’t think it was even possible to change a submitted result that wasn’t a mistake but that if it were legal and possible, I would consider it if I was roughly 100% to make Top 8, which I was pretty sure I was. He went to go talk with the judges. I’m not great with the rules so I like to ask the judges everything and run everything by them. The judges discussed it for a while and said it wasn’t possible —you could only change a result if it was misreported. I think that’s a good rule and the correct rule, but it was an interesting spot that had never had come up in my time playing Magic.

In the Top 8 and Top 4 matches I played against Abzan Aggro with blue and Abzan Aggro without blue. They both felt like good matchups and I won pretty easily. Sorry, Martin!

The finals matchup felt bad to me. We had the same amount of card drawing and counters, but Petr had 2 Chandra 1 Ob Nixilis main to my 1 Chandra. It was the first time I really missed the Gideons. He also drew better than me and played perfectly, so I left satisfied with my 2nd-place finish.

I’m now 1-5 in GP finals, which is getting a little frustrating, but this was probably the least frustrating loss of any of them. I am not big on the concept of the Champion or 1st place being more special than 2nd, so I usually leave a tournament happy with 2nd place, and this one definitely felt right. Some of the others were a less satisfying perhaps because they felt a little less just. At Team GP Detroit, my last 2nd place, it’s possible that all 3 of my team’s draft decks were better than all 3 of the opponent’s draft decks—we were unlucky to lose that one. In the end, though, 2nd is an incredible finish in a Grand Prix, even if I haven’t had a run great in the finals. I’ve run extremely well in the Swiss in order to make 18 Grand Prix Top 8s, so I have no complaints here.

I finished out the trip by attending the CFB staff/judge party, which was awesome. Food, drinks, and drafts is pretty close to paradise. Thanks to CFB for giving me this opportunity as I wouldn’t have attended this GP otherwise, so I owe this great finish to them for bringing me out. Thank you to everyone who helped me on the trip and who continues to inspire me to play this game. Promoting and playing the game remains fun because of the energy and support I receive from all the players and fans. Very few people are lucky enough to make a living doing what they really love. Magic has provided me with so many great opportunities and that’s in large part due to all the love and support the pros receive from the community. It doesn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated. Thanks again, and hopefully I’m lucky enough to pick up another 2nd place in Spain in a few weeks.

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