There’s something about a shared experience… And there’s something, something kind of cosmic about that. You feel a deeper thing. And you know that deeper thing.
My second time playing Theros Limited was at a PTQ in Rochester, New York. I took the full amount of time deckbuilding, and came out with two decks: A U/G ramp deck that had no way to stop a creature that was bigger than one of mine, and a G/W deck sporting [card]Fleecemane Lion[/card], and not much else of note. Both decks started [card]Satyr Hedonist[/card], and I wish there were a better reason for that than simply, “I did not read the card.” I didn’t figure out that my original configuration of U/G was the optimal build until I was safely out of Top 8 contention. My experience that day can be safely summed up by this sequence:
It is game two. Down a game, I boarded out of the U/G configuration into G/W, and, playing from behind, I orchestrated some shenanigans with [card]Dauntless Onslaught[/card] to get both of us to no non-lands in play. This line would have never worked on a living, breathing human, but it worked quite nicely on my anthropomorphic, walking, talking brick of an opponent. He says go, and I draw…[draft]Horizon Chimera[/draft]
Who’s the brick now?
Still live to make Top 8, in a topdeck war, I drew the deadest card possible. A literal uncastable. My opponent complained liberally at every land drop he made, cursing his luck, as I voicelessly peeled land after land after land after land as penance. Finally, he hit a [card]Wingsteed Rider[/card], while I kept chaining lands together like Charlie Kelly building a house of cards with Scotch tape.
The [card]Horizon Chimera[/card] stranded in my hand laughed all the way to the 0-2 bracket, where I parlayed my nightmarish start into an 0-3 Oh God Why Am I Doing This until, finally, the 2-4 Are We Going To A Bar To Watch The Late Games Yet THANK GOD. It was a harrowing day. Thankfully, we confirmed my Sealed pool was quite bad anyway at Applebees, over the sounds of a Pittsburgh throttling at the hands of the lowly Oakland Raiders. The loss was a lot to take for the inordinate number of white men in Steelers jerseys who chose to split their time at Applebees evenly between mainlining horrible chicken wings and yelling full-volume at every Pittsburgh first down. I don’t know what it is about white guys in their 40s and 50s, but across America they love those frigging Steelers. My friends and I found some time in all the schadenfreude to discuss jobs, relationships, 90s popular culture, and of course, Theros limited.
There was a two-part article series about PTQs, split between two writers over on SCG a few weeks ago. I couldn’t make it through the first one because the prose was very dense and reading it just felt like work. Work where the payoff is that I get to hear someone who has been playing Magic for less time than me gripe about all the things that make PTQs suck, like the topic’s somehow not a dead horse, bloated full of sleeve wrappers and match slips and change for tolls, resting eternally on dozens of Chipotle trays and crushed Red Bull cans. Like it doesn’t get kicked every time someone with a writing gig has a bad experience, or loses in the finals, or whatever. The second half of the PTQ series was a lot easier to read and I found myself nodding along with a lot of its points, even if I found that a few parts deserved more exploration than they got.
Getting on the Pro Tour is hard no matter which way you slice it. It’s set up to look like an exercise in futility by design. That’s what it is! The latent function of the PTQ/GP system is that it groups players in bunches according to skill. Tournaments don’t care about how many articles you write or how many pros you chat with on Twitter. The relationships you forge will wind up a direct result of how well you do on each stop—the 5-0 table in Rochester, NY is going to look an awful lot like the 5-0 table in Albany, NY. This ensures you’ll be rubbing elbows with mostly the same people through the entire run of a tournament. At some point you acknowledge—most likely, subconsciously—that you aren’t fighting each other, but instead are fighting a lopsided system together. Look, I know it sounds ludicrous. I’m just reporting my findings. Your mileage on this theory may vary, especially if you’re the type that keeps his eyes forward and doesn’t look at or talk to anyone, but for the most part, we’re all in this together, no matter what tier of player you find yourself in.
It all comes back to the power of a shared experience. In this case, it’s shared misery. This article’s worth revisiting, if only because it coldly details all the improbabilities of spiking a PTQ. There are long hours, horrible venues, irrational judges, and shady dealers. PTQs and GPs are, in essence, hostile environments. Okay, that might’ve been a little bit of a jump to make. Chapin-esque logic leaps aside: If you go into any large tournament as an island unto yourself with only the goal of qualifying for the Pro Tour, you will tire of competitive Magic extremely quickly. This is a fact.
It’s a lot easier to cope with something difficult if you know there are a lot of people chasing the same thing. It doesn’t always have to be competition. This is my understanding of how people look at how they got through high school. High school’s an apt comparison if only because in high school you’re very likely to be surrounded by people that are consistently the worst. Pro Tours themselves do a great job of weeding out people that mistrust IDs and use Crown Royal dice bags, but there’s no barrier of entry to a GP or PTQ (just like high school!). If you’re a more competitive player, this generally means you’re going to find less people who understand where you’re coming from and more people who’ll take it personally when you don’t allow takebacks or understand timing rules etc. So you play these matches, and win, lose, or draw, go commiserate with your friends after the match, the ones that drove the same distance on the same poorly-maintained highway drinking the same Dunkin’ Donuts coffee—the ones that get what you’re doing, get why you’re doing it, have felt the same futility, staring at impossible odds.
So yeah, shared experience is a weird thing. David Lynch can’t even explain it.
Last weekend, I packed my car with three other dudes for the drive out to the 197-person PTQ in Poughkeepsie, NY. Here’s the deck I registered:[deck]Main Deck
1 Aqueous Form
1 Horizon Scholar
2 Nimbus Naiad
1 Sea God’s Revenge
1 Triton Fortune Hunter
1 Triton Tactics
1 Voyage’s End
2 Agent of Horizons
1 Anthousa, Setessan Hero
1 Karametra’s Acolyte
1 Leafcrown Dryad
1 Nessian Asp
2 Nessian Courser
1 Ordeal of Nylea
1 Sedge Scorpion
1 Sylvan Caryatid
1 Time to Feed
1 Voyaging Satyr
1 Polis Crusher
1 Traveler’s Amulet[/deck]
Relevant sideboard cards were an [card]Ordeal of Thassa[/card], a [card]Vaporkin[/card], a [card]Fade into Antiquity[/card], an [card]Artisan’s Sorrow[/card], and a pair of [card]Savage Surge[/card]s, but I don’t think I misbuilt. This deck was quite good, and I was happy to get it. I would’ve liked a [card]Griptide[/card], but I’m not really one to run three rare spells and complain, even if one of them is just a [card]Rampant Growth[/card].
I learned quickly that players really want to go all-in on one creature and force you to have an answer. What’s more, even though it sort of bucks fundamental strategy, I’m pretty sure it’s correct here. So you really need some sort of way to beat a Voltron creature. Between [card]Voyage’s End[/card] and [card]Griptide[/card], blue is pretty good at this, and thanks to the total absence of aggressively-costed removal at common, green finds itself in a favorable spot. The games tend to go really long. Basically, Sealed and draft are radically different here, more so than usual.
Reading a report of someone’s matches where all their wins were just matches that went right and their losses just went wrong is the worst, but that just feels like what happened here. My two match wins (yup, I’m the worst) came against two poor players. In one match, I had [card]Polis Crusher[/card] and six open mana against his five open mana of GGGBB, so I put him on [card]Lash of the Whip[/card] and played around it until he just died, at which point he confessed that he never had Lash and that he was just waiting on a sixth land for [card]Sip of Hemlock[/card]. SICK READ, JONNY.
My first loss came in round two. After serving the beatdowns to a mediocre RG deck that mulled to five, I saw end of turn [card]Boon Satyr[/card], untap, [card xenagos, the reveler]Xenagos[/card], swing for 6 in two consecutive games against it. I did not win those. Round four saw my tournament hopes come to an end against a solid player on UW that was able to strand Anthousa in my hand for multiple turns while he attacked me to death with [card]Master of Waves[/card] and his minions. I thought I had a shot at that game and said so as I congratulated him on the win and filled out the match slip, and he grinned sheepishly and showed me a [card]Vanquish the Foul[/card] to go with a second [card]Griptide[/card]. Usually it’s nice to know when you’re drawing dead, but even with one friend still alive I decided to call it a day and drop. When you’re beat, you’re beat.
I’m looking forward to going to more PTQs and getting a better hold on my thesis Re: PTQs and the Shared Experience, as well as Theros Limited. This format’s a lot like an onion, and I love onions, even if they might wind up making my breath smell terrible.