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Hugging A Cactus

Walking the Planes is the best creative Magic content being put out right now. I do not see this as a bold statement, and I’m positive that plenty of people will read this thinking, “yeah, no duh.” If you haven’t seen any Walking the Planes videos (just click here if you haven’t, seriously), the gist is that the best of the best players are highlighted at each Pro Tour, with plenty of Grand Prix in between. The skits that kick off every episode are really fun to watch (could not stop laughing at this one—boy, BDM commits), and the production value is top-notch at every stop. Recurring players and themes pop up, and Nate and Shawn do such a great job presenting the storylines that each episode just makes you want to be a part of it all.

The road, however, is not an easy one. It’s also not very glamorous. There are PTQs—regional tournaments that can be anywhere from 70-150 people (with a few outliers here and there) that offer up one spot to the Pro Tour, while Grand Prix offer PT slots based on attendance, but the minimum amount of PT slots offered at a GP always go to the Top 4 players.

Before Planeswalker Points, you could get rewarded for lots of near-misses by just having a composite/Limited/Constructed rating high enough to meet a certain threshold to qualify. Consistently good performance over a substantial stretch of time was rewarded, which, in a variance game like Magic, is exactly what you want to reward. This system, however led to people needing to “sit on their rating,”—abstain from tournaments in order to preserve their high DCI rating—to get to the next Pro Tour.

Now, with Planeswalker Points, second place in a PTQ is about as good as an 0-2 drop. Consistent performance doesn’t really matter these days. Winning is what’s emphasized. Which is unfortunate, because winning honestly isn’t as much of an indicator of Magic skill—anyone can spike a single tournament. At the same time, there’s something weirdly romantic about it: the winner of the tournament gets the big prize and everyone else goes home. Obviously the appeal of this wears off pretty quickly when you drive 6 hours to a crowded PTQ only to get mana screwed out of the quarterfinals of a win-and-in/Top 8/whatever, but at some point, you develop relationships with all the other grinders you meet, and you all sort of become comrades in arms, commiserating over money drafts and bad chain restaurant food.

There’s a lot to be said about the PTQ experience. The reason people have connected so much to Walking the Planes is because each episode looks at a tournament as more than its baseline definition. It’s easy to look at the PTQ system and the current impossibility of staying on the train unless you Top 25 the PT you qualify for as exploitative, but there’s just something about going out on the same road once traveled by every pro, past and present, and taking your licks until the hard work pays off. And there’s really no better way to figure out whether competitive Magic is really for you or not.

* * *

I left Syracuse for the Johnson City PTQ at about 8:30 in the morning. The guys in the car:

Adam: He drove. He writes articles for this very website. We travel to events together 99% of the time, but at each stop, he gets recognized way more than I do.

JJ: A mutual friend of ours that I used to work with at a comic book shop that neither of us work at anymore. Like Adam, he grew up going to shows in Syracuse’s hardcore scene, so they spend the drives to and from Johnson City talking about a bunch of people I’ve never met. Think two high school classmates reminiscing about high school years later. Unlike Adam, who is six years older than me, JJ and I are the same age.

We get to the event way early and try to figure out a way to pass the time, until JJ remembers bulk rare cee-lo. This would be how we’d waste time between rounds for the rest of the day, being obnoxiously loud over winning and losing pots full of some of the worst rares/foils printed in recent memory. By the end of the day, Adam was the true winner, having started from a single Instinct Trump card, winding up with a thick stack of bulk rares from JJ and my binders.

This is what I’d be gaming with:

[deck]Main Deck
4 Avacyn’s Pilgrim
4 Invisible Stalker
4 Loxodon Smiter
4 Voice of Resurgence
4 Geist of Saint Traft
4 Ethereal Armor
4 Rancor
4 Spectral Flight
4 Unflinching Courage
1 Simic Charm
4 Breeding Pool
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Hinterland Harbor
4 Sunpetal Grove
4 Temple Garden
2 Glacial Fortress
1 Moorland Haunt
Sideboard:
3 Nearheath Pilgrim
4 Strangleroot Geist
3 Agoraphobia
2 Negate
3 Safe Passage[/deck]

It’s basically Mike Flores’ Bant Hexproof list from SCG Somerset with some sideboard adjustments. Any control deck with [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] is just a miserable matchup anyway, so I replaced the [card]Rootborn Defenses[/card] with [card]Safe Passage[/card]s in order to be better prepared against [card]Blasphemous Act[/card]s, [card]Bonfire of the Damned[/card], and the like.

I replaced the [card]Ground Seal[/card]s with [card]Agoraphobia[/card]s (at the suggestion of the incomparable Jason Corrigan) because I hate [card]Ground Seal[/card] and wanted better game against aggressive decks. I thought about [card]Runner’s Bane[/card] instead of [card]Agoraphobia[/card] for a second, but came to the conclusion that [card]Runner’s Bane[/card] is a bit too narrow—it really only stops [card]Burning-Tree Emissary[/card]s and [card]Flinthoof Boar[/card]s—and [card]Agoraphobia[/card] also helps against otherwise unbeatable cards like [card]Blood Baron of Vizkopa[/card].

I was reading Jamie Wakefield’s first book—The Quest for the Pro Tour—the week leading up to this PTQ. It’s really funny—and really, really 1996. The decks are mostly terrible, the in-game logic is mostly loose, and no one has any smart phones or Facebook accounts. I really recommend locking down a copy for yourself and reading it, if only to see how far thinking and competition in Magic have come.

One of Jamie’s pet peeves is overpowered cards, and the players that choose to exploit them. It’s weird for me to think about Magic before logic like this was ubiquitous within the Magic community. As he consistently gets crushed by people playing [card]Land Tax[/card] and [card]Thawing Glaciers[/card], Jamie complains about how overpowered and “cheesy” these cards are and openly demands to know why anyone would play them.

Since The Quest for the Pro Tour was written, there’s been enough written about “scrub mentality” to fill multiple condescending phone books. It’s not clear here why Jamie so reviles playing with the best cards, but if I had to guess, it’s because his respect for the game has manifested itself into balking at exploiting its designers and developers (which is really weird because he spends almost the entire book playing Necro, albeit with maindeck [card]Derelor[/card]s).

I mention all of this because Bant Hexproof is exactly the kind of “cheesy,” “oops I win” deck that Jamie Wakefield would’ve absolutely hated, and honestly, I hate it too. Its joylessly linear nature reminds me forcefully of the old Standard [card]Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle[/card] decks. Like most Magicians, I am cursed with the insane notion that I’m better at this game than actual results would indicate, so I’m always hesitant of hyper-linear strategies, opting instead for decks that have some decisions to them other than “pray they don’t have a board sweeper.” However, I did want to win the tournament, and I really haven’t played as much Standard as I’d like, so I weighed my limited options, decided to embrace variance, and played Bant Hexproof.

Plenty’s been written about Bant Hexproof already, but my take on it is that, sure – it’s a little glass-cannonish, and you can hit some really awkward all-aura/all-M10 land draws with it. It’s also capable of putting together a dizzying run of blowout victories.

We all have a vague idea of what a tournament win looks like: you play tight, you get good matchups, you get some lucky draws. What’s interesting about a deck like Bant Hexproof is how brazen it is about the fact that a lot of Magic is out of your hands; even the best go 0-2 drop from time to time, through no fault of their own. If each player in the room is at roughly the same level, then it becomes a subgame of “who brought the best deck for the room.” Sometimes, you prey on unsuspecting opponents with some rogue strategy. Other times, your superior knowledge of your deck just makes it the best deck in the room. The idea of a Magic tournament being this straightforward isn’t always obvious, but a deck like Bant Hexproof shines a light on it.

We skip the player’s meeting and go straight to round one. The head judge for this event, L2 judge Michael Caffrey, runs a really tight ship, and it’s at the point where I’m excited to go to an event he’s running. There aren’t many judges that understand the player experience, which is essentially:

• Player meetings are the worst
• Excess time between rounds is the worst

Too often, there’s this weird disconnect between players and judges where everything the other wants gets sort of lost in translation, but to his credit, Mike knows both sides of the fence, and crafts a great gaming experience every time.

Round One – Anupam Hidroi

Anupam is playing Aristocrats, a deck I’ve played against once in sanctioned play.

Game one I keep the following hand on the draw:

[draft]Glacial Fortress
Sunpetal Grove
Sunpetal Grove
Invisible Stalker
Unflinching Courage
Loxodon Smiter
Spectral Flight[/draft]

You absolutely can’t keep a hand without a shockland—I get totally rocked in this game and shouldn’t expect anything else.

Anupam stabilizes at 3 life in game two, and while he draws [card]Blood Artist[/card]s and [card]Lingering Souls[/card], I draw straight lands.

0-1

Round Two – Shane Johnson

We make small talk before the match, and right away he’s fuming: “Bant Hexproof, man. That’s what I just played against. I hate that deck.”

“Yeah, me too.”

I win game one when his two-lander draw never materializes into anything good, unless you count his [card]Legion Loyalist[/card] + [card]Madcap Skills[/card] combo that was never in any danger of killing me. Game two, though, was sweet. His plays:

Turn two: [card]Truefire Paladin[/card] Turn three: [card]Silverblade Paladin[/card], bond the Paladins
Turn four: I chump block
Turn five: I am dead

The decider hinges heavily on [card]Agoraphobia[/card]; I draw two of them, both of which shut down some potentially brutal [card]Truefire Paladin[/card] draws. The games go pretty long, with him getting two-for-oned on both of my [card]Voice of Resurgence[/card]. This draws out the games long enough for [card]Agoraphobia[/card] to shine; there’s a spot where he had to tap out to make one of his [card]Agoraphobia[/card]-ed [card]Truefire Paladin[/card]s trade with my [card]Loxodon Smiter[/card], at which point it was safe to return the [card]Agoraphobia[/card] to my hand. I eventually closed the door with a [card]Moorland Haunt[/card] that he never had any hope of keeping up with.

1-1

Round Three – Shaun Dickson

As he sits down, Shaun admits that he followed me on Twitter, which is neat, because now he knows what I’m playing. I find out soon enough that he’s on Jund.

Game one I mulligan to six and am forced to go all in on a [card]Loxodon Smiter[/card] that he has a [card]Putrefy[/card] for. I do not draw a creature for the rest of the game.

In our second game, he [card]Duress[/card]es me for my only aura, a [card]Rancor[/card], but I’ve got a nice draw of [card]Invisible Stalker[/card] into [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card]. Shaun casts [card]Liliana of the Veil[/card] and targets me with it, so I bin my [card]Invisible Stalker[/card], and after an awkward judge call where I ask if the M14 legend rule is in effect yet, I put a topdecked [card]Unflinching Courage[/card] on my [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card] and 8 him.

He untaps and tanks, wondering why I didn’t cast the [card]Loxodon Smiter[/card] he knew about. The reason dawns on him as he +1s his [card]Liliana of the Veil[/card], and I put the [card]Loxodon Smiter[/card] into play.

“Ooh. That’s why.”

Shaun tanks for exactly a second, and then calmly taps out to cast a [card]Barter in Blood[/card].

1-2, out

Adam’s 1-2 as well, but JJ is 2-1 and still in it, so I opt to stay in the tournament, and Adam un-drops himself.

Round Four – Adam Barnello

After checking the pairings sheet, Adam strides over to me, beaming, and puts his hand up. I instinctively high-five him.

“Why did I just high-five you?”

“’Cause we’re playing in the bar!”

After checking with Caffrey to make sure it was okay, we walk to the dive bar about a half block away, I order a round of double 7 & 7s, and with a golf tournament on in the background, set out to play round four of a PTQ.

Adam’s playing Junk Reanimator with some personal choices—two copies each of [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] and [card]Blood Baron of Vizkopa[/card] maindeck. The matchup is still really terrible for him, so the games aren’t really worth discussing much. His best card in the matchup, [card]Blood Baron of Vizkopa[/card], runs into a 9/7 trampling first-striking [card]Avacyn’s Pilgrim[/card] game one and an [card]Agoraphobia[/card] game two, and that’s it.

2-2

JJ loses his round four match, and we all agree we’ve had enough and go home. On the way, we stop at a diner in my hometown for some breakfast food, which is enough to make me fall asleep the rest of the way home.

I’m disappointed with my performance, for sure, but if I’m being honest, I really hated my deck, wasn’t really comfortable with the mulligan decisions, and hadn’t played a lick of Standard in months.

I should start testing for these things.

Jon Corpora
pronounced ca-pora
@feb31st

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