This article isn’t going to entirely be about me, but I figured my story is so similar to others that I’ve heard that I should share. Several of my friends have made the rise from “brand new player who doesn’t understand why card advantage is good” to Pro Tour player, and we’ve all gone through the same stages.
In the beginning, I was a young child who enjoyed comic books and console RPGs, and something about Magic just called to me. I don’t even remember how I heard about the game. I think I may have just seen it walking through the toy aisle at Target, but I bought a few packs of Portal. No rulebook, no one else to play with, no nothing.
Naturally, with no one to play with, Magic was a thing of the past for me. I started junior high and got a job, and one my coworkers, Adam Gunderson, brought up the fact that he played Magic, as it sounded like something I would be interested in. I told him that I had heard of the game and even had some cards, and he suddenly had a gleam in his eye and a wicked smile.
“You should come over to my house after work. Bring your cards,” he said.
Before I knew it, we were playing! He had a bunch of different decks and even built me an Elf deck out of his cards. Obviously, he wasn’t going to part with his cards for free, so he took a few of my cards in exchange, which I was more than fine with. Thankfully, the Portal Wrath of Gods not only say “Destroy all creatures,” but also “This includes your creatures.” I knew for a fact that I didn’t want to kill my own guys, so I happily traded it to Adam. My Priests of Titania would live, as would my [card]Thorn Elemental[/card]s!
My younger brother played Pokemon, and Adam built some decks out of my brother’s cards and we played some games of that. When we played Magic, I would win sometimes, but Pokemon was no fun. I lost literally every game. What a stupid game! To make matters worse, Adam’s turns took so long because he kept playing cards that drew more cards.
Afterward, he looked through my deck and asked me why I wasn’t playing any Bills or Professor Oaks. All of the spells in Pokemon are free to cast and you can play as many as you want per turn. Bill just reads “Draw two cards” and Professor Oak is Wheel of Fortune, but only for you.
I didn’t understand why I would want to discard my hand or why I wouldn’t just play more, different spells in my deck instead of Ancestral Recalls. You’re just going to draw those cards eventually, right? Thankfully, Adam was a good teacher and I quickly understood. After that, a million doors just flew open. I suddenly realized that there were a ton of theories and concepts that I had no idea even existed. Games like Magic and Pokemon were way more interesting now.
Adam told me about how he used to play tournaments, and that we should go to a local one. I had a “tuned” version of a net deck that I found, but didn’t win a match. I got cheated by a guy who took advantage of me not knowing the rules intimately, and I lost to Adam, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t mad at either of them, I was mad at myself. Losing sucked, and it was my fault that I lost. Next time, I vowed to come more prepared.
I started attending FNM whenever I could get a ride, and from there I learned about PTQs, GPs, and the Pro Tour. I printed off articles in the school library (Mindripper was my favorite site) and read them during class, played a lot of games against my friends, and tried to absorb all the knowledge I could. I can only imagine what would have happened had I channeled all this energy into school, but that’s neither here nor there.
Eventually, I started winning FNMs regularly with control decks like Nether-Go and later, Psychatog, and I started becoming arrogant. After all, I was a big fish in a little pond. These guys were just no match for me. Part of this was that the control cards were very good at that time, but also, the players didn’t really care if they won or lost. They were just there to have fun, and didn’t have the same competitive drive that I did.
I needed to move up the stakes, and so I did. I had dabbled in tournaments like States and PTQs, and always got crushed. But it was just like the FNMs. If I were able to play more larger tournaments, eventually I would figure out what I’m doing wrong and correct it.
My first PTQ top eight came during the Invasion block constructed GP Minneapolis. I was FNMing at a bigger store, with better players, and I was learning everything I could. For the GP and the subsequent PTQ, I played a UWR aggro control deck that I got from local hero Noah Weil. It was a little different, as it had the full amount of Disrupts and zero Fact or Fictions. At the time, it seemed genius, as I would be able to play two spells in one with my lower mana curve, and when they cast their Vindicates or FoFs, I get a surprise two for one.
Thinking back, that doesn’t actually seem like the greatest innovation after considering just how good FoF was, but it made sense at the time. In the GP, I lost to a local who always beat me, and lost to two “Pros,” Jacob “Danger” Janoska and Billy Jensen. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was playing scared against those guys, but after my round one loss in the PTQ to another Pro, this time PTR, I was pretty sure that I had another problem I had to fix.
Despite the round one loss, I was able to win five in a row, and then with a little ID math from Jack Stanton (which I desperately needed, considering I had never been in that situation before) I was sitting down for my top eight match against PTQ ringer, Walter Egli.
My matchup was a virtual bye, but there I was, full box of Apocalyse and PTQ top eight pin in front of me, with a few of my friends watching. I played a turn two Meddling Mage, couldn’t think about what to name and eventually said “Undermine,” a card not even in my opponents deck. After my next three threats were Vindicated, I thought about how bad my play was.
But I didn’t care. My goal before the tournament was to make top eight, and I achieved that goal. As far as I was concerned, the tournament had ended already, and the rest was a formality. I literally had no chance to win a match in that top eight.
I realized what I had done a bit later, and decided that t8 was no longer good enough, despite proudly wearing my pin on my backpack. I wanted to play in the Pro Tour and get over my “Pro fear.”
I continued attending as many big tournaments as possible, thanks mostly to Ken Bearl, but didn’t quite have that breakthrough I was looking for. I made a lot of good friends by FNMing and especially by playing in a team PTQ at GP Milwaukee. We had a lot of fun in the PTQ, eventually losing in t4 to our local store owner, and we exchanged AIM screen names.
A few days later they told me about Magic Online and I was hooked. I borrowed two draft sets from my friend, and that was all I needed. I lost my first two drafts due to misclicks and not having the right stops, but after that, I never spent another dime on MTGO.
The drafts were all 8-4s, and the majority of them were incredibly soft. You could see who you was waiting in the queue and check their info. You can bet that if BenS007 joined the queue, I was leaving. Playing against pros online didn’t help me get over my supposed fear, as all I could see was a name. For all MTGO was concerned, it was about my bottom line, and I learned to pick my battles.
I didn’t get to draft in real life very often, but I quickly fell in love. Homework, girlfriends, and chores were neglected because there were seven in the queue. Who was I to disappoint those seven individuals who needed a fix? Hell, I’m only about a fourth of the way through this article and I’m opening MTGO right now.
Constructed was something that I didn’t get into for a while, mostly because I didn’t know how profitable it was until I physically looked at the payouts. I bought most of the [card]Psychatog[/card] deck with my draft winnings and borrowed the rest.
Once I was immersed in Magic Online and playing both formats regularly, all the while looking for my mistakes, my comprehension of the game grew tremendously. I cannot pinpoint the exact date I went from fish to above average, but it was definitely sometime during OOT/OTJ.
I won a team PTQ with Ken Bearl and Tim Bulger in OOT limited sometime in there. It was probably the easiest tournament I’ve ever played in, probably because Tbulge and I were MTGO fanatics while Bearl drafted live once a week and dabbled in MTGO. We all knew the format well and it showed.
The Pro Tour hit us hard. We managed to make day two on the back of our team sealed skills, but quickly realized we had no idea how to team Rochester draft. We didn’t win a match. It didn’t help that Bearl was star struck when he played against Brian Kibler, Patrick Mello, and Jon Finkel.
However, not all was lost, there was a PTQ on Sunday, which I won. I played a bad midrange UB Braids deck, but almost every round I defeated someone who had a Grand Prix top eight.
I developed an affinity for midrange decks almost on accident. I showed up to the first Extended PTQ of the season with my trusty Psychatog deck. However, GP Reims had just finished, and a lot of the players in the PTQ were packing net decked versions of Sui Black and RDW, matchups that I wasn’t comfortable with.
My traveling partner, Steve McKenna, was playing Rock and I decided to audible into that as well. I couldn’t find all the [card]Ravenous Baloth[/card]s I needed, as Steve was already borrowing mine, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t lose a game until top eight, but still won my top eight and top four matches.
I sat down for a mirror match in the finals, and this time, I had my eye on the prize. Nothing else but qualifying mattered, and I let my opponent know it, but he told me that he also wanted the slot. I told him to shuffle up, and he blurted out, “I’ll give you all the money and all the prizes!”
After considering that for a moment, I took him up on his offer, made top eight the next week (eventually losing to a huge punt on my part), but then won the PTQ the next weekend.
It all seemed so easy. Magic Online was going well, I had a plethora of packs and tickets, almost every deck in Standard, and I was repeatedly qualifying for the Pro Tour. Despite the PTs going poorly, and the fact that I could reflect and easily see that I had one of the worst decks in the tournament, it didn’t matter. I was winning far more than I was losing, and the arrogance set in.
You all know the type. The local ringer with a couple PT finishes who is probably the best in his state. The locals fear getting paired against him and are resigned to their fate before the match slip is even signed. He might be likable, but he certainly thinks very highly of himself.
He also won’t get any better at Magic. If he loses, it’s because he got unlucky, not because he got outplayed or made a mistake. After all, he was much better than his opponent, what else could he lose to besides luck?
I was still able to win on the local level, but I consistently had failures at Pro Tours. Finally I decided to reflect on how I got to where I was, and realized that when I was at my peak, I was extremely hard on myself. If I lost a close match, I would watch the replays on MTGO and see if I could find something that I should have done differently. Generally I would have a bad feeling in my stomach if I knew something was wrong or at least wasn’t quite right. I had missed something and I had to know what it was.
Once the arrogance overwhelmed me, that no longer became necessary. I was Gerry MFing T, I only lose to luck! Why bother watching my replays? I am so amazing that I never do anything wrong.
Once I snapped out of it, I made my first Grand Prix top eight. I was in a tough seat for the Rochester draft, and tried to maneuver into better colors a few points, but it didn’t work out. I made the last pick of the draft, and Antonino, who was on my left, stood up and said, “That was the best pick you made all draft.”
I quickly lost, while Ant won the tournament.
I made some mistakes, and I think I wanted to win, but I had the same “I’m just happy to be in top eight” mood that I had for my first PTQ top eight.
Still, my goals didn’t really shift. I had to make another top eight to prove that the first wasn’t a fluke, and I did. Again, my goal was to make top eight, not win, and I suffered another top eight exit.
So, to recap:
1) Don’t be arrogant. This might sound hypocritical coming from me of all people, since I get a bad rap for telling it how it is, but I don’t think arrogant is really the right word for what I am.
I write about what I believe is true, therefore I write in absolutes. If I don’t know much on a subject matter, I simply won’t write about it, as I don’t presume to know about everything.
Anyway, there is always someone better than you, no matter what you’re doing. You can also always improve. I suppose it depends on what your goals are. For example, if you are fine with being the best player in your store, you can be as arrogant as you want as long as you are actually the best.
However, I’m always striving to be the best. I’m just not content with top eight anymore, or even second place, I want that trophy.
2) Learn from your mistakes. If you can’t tell what you’re doing wrong, ask someone who is better than you. If you don’t think you’re making mistakes and are losing anyway, that is part of the problem. You are making them, whether you want to believe it or not.
3) Set your goals high. If you just want to finish in the money at a GP, it’s extremely difficult to do better than just 32nd. If you meet your goals, re-evaluate. Is this really what you still want, or can you do better?
As far as general advice is concerned, you should be willing to do whatever you need to do to qualify. In my day, the closest PTQs were Wisconsin (6 hour drive), Chicago (8 hour drive), Nebraska (6 hour drive), and sometimes Winnipeg (7 hour drive).
I didn’t miss a single PTQ if I could help it. There is absolutely no way you can complain about not qualifying if you are skipping PTQs. I don’t care if you think it only takes you two attempts to qualify, or that you “should” have won the first PTQ you played in. If you didn’t go to every qualifier you could have, then you didn’t even try.
I hear a lot of people complaining about having to drive 3 hours for a PTQ, and that’s just absurd. A PTQ only 3 hours away is a blessing.
What do you think is easier? Winning an eight round PTQ (by going 9-1-1, but usually 10-1) or making top 16 at a GP (with a 12-3 record, but maybe less considering byes and that some 11-3-1s make t16 at smaller GPs)? Without a doubt, making top 16 at a Grand Prix is easier. You can get THREE losses and still qualify. If you’re on your game, there’s no reason you should lose more than three matches in a tournament. You still only have to win the same amount of matches in a PTQ.
In addition, GPs give you necessary experience and allow you to network with better players.
People who skip GPs are not allowed to complain about not being qualified.
Learn how to play your deck. If you are changing decks every week trying to keep up with the metagame, you are probably making a mistake. For one, a PTQ metagame is usually regional and hard to predict. Second, I would gladly put money on the guy who played the same deck in six PTQs without a top 8 before I put money on the guy with two top 8s with different decks.
One reason: the guy who’s been playing the same deck forever is probably going to make less mistakes than the other guy. Consistently playing well is far more important than being a minute step ahead of the competition. All of the decks are great nowadays, and each of them is pretty powerful, so it’s hard to get a significant edge in deck selection. Just play something that you’ll play well and you should do fine.