Last week I got swept up in the surge of the Modern storm that was Grand Prix :Richmond so I got right into the action by debuting my first article without introducing myself. It seems that introductions are in order. I have been writing a weekly column for magic.tcgplayer.com for three years, and I have recently begun producing a video column. A month ago Doug Linn approached me to see if I was interested in writing a column for Quiet Speculation as well. I started by publishing a primer detailing the most important Modern sideboard cards for the Grand Prix . You can find the two halves of that primer here and here.
That dust from the GP has settled, giving all of us time to take a deep breath and plan for the future in the wake of the tournament. I will get back to Modern in a moment, but I this week I want to start off with the story of my Magic career that has brought me to this point. By knowing what I bring to the table, you’ll be able to get the most out of my work.
I started playing Magic casually fifteen years ago, in the spring of 6th grade. My best friend Tim had already played for years, and he tried to convert me many times. I have “fond” memories of the Shandalar computer game. Tim couldn’t get me interested until one Saturday afternoon when the “neighborhood cool kid” brought over Magic cards to my house. He had already showed them to my neighbor and friend Alex, who in turn immediately acquired some of his own that very day. I already knew what the game was, and I could see clearly the tides had shifted, so I could avoid the Magic no more.
At that point I was in, two feet-first, and soon after I made a trip to the local comic book shop to buy some cards of my own. I found the Magic cards on a shelf right across from shopkeep’s counter. They were displayed in boxes side-by-side, row-after-row, just like candy at the grocery story, and they were wrapped in shiny foil just the same. They had fantastical names like Mirage and Urza’s Saga, and at that point I knew there was a whole world awaiting me. Tim, true to his name, recommended I buy the simple Fifth Edition, as it was the best option for a new player. I came home with some starter decks full of white-bordered cards, and my journey began.
My early attempts at deckbuilding were putting all of my powerful (read: high power/toughness) cards together into five-color abominations with no regard to mana-curve, statistics, or any other well-accepted Magic theory. I have vivid memories of losing handily to my friends’ similarly misconstrued brews. Other local kids caught on too, as did my little brother for a time period. I played with the neighborhood kids frequently, I played with Tim, and I played with whomever else I could. Eventually, almost everyone else’s interest in the game eventually faded away as they came into their teenage years, but my interest only grew.
Nearly a year into playing I heard about the new “Arena League,” starting at the local mall, and it offered a chance to play in a new, semi-competitive environment. It was Mercadian Masques-Nemesis sealed deck, but my brother and I had the good fortune of receiving Nemesis boosters with a rare and 14 uncommons, a fortuitous start to my Magic career.
On Day 1 of the Arena league, there were only 2 other participants aside from me and my brother. One was an eccentric-seeming man named Steve and the other was George, a high-school aged employee of the local Gamekeeper shop that ran the league. It didn’t take long for word to spread quickly, and the popularity of the league grew. Every Tuesday and Thursday, just before 7pm, George would push a cart full of supplies from tiny Gamekeeper store to the centrally-located food court and use a red-velvet rope to take over a big section of food court tables along the main mall drag, between the Auntie Anne’s kiosk and the DQ Orange Julius shop. While girls from high school walked by with bags from American Eagle and PacSun, my mind was delved into an exciting new world.
Arena League gave you points for playing against different people, win or lose, so you got to meet everyone. The guy Steve seemed to have a lot of Magic experience, though he also had lots of strong opinions. I learned a lot about Magic in the 6-player games of “Emperor” he organized at the league. George knew lots of people, and I eventually became good friends with his younger brother and met some his friends who joined the league. I’d go on to hang out with some of those guys outside the league and, years later, travel to tournaments together. The experience opened my world to the depths of Magic and went along with it, the games, the trading, the people. I even learned about the competitive tournament scene.
At the Arena League I learned about the Junior Super Series circuit, the now-defunct scholarship series for kids 15 and under. The online schedule showed one coming up soon on the west side of Cleveland, a hefty fourty-five minute drive away, but it was easy to arrange a ride to tournament that gave a $1,000 college scholarship check to the winner. At this point I had just one year of casual Magic under my belt. My Magic knowledge was limited to what I learned from people at the Arena league and what little I could find on the Internet. I brought a hodge-podged Mono-Green Stompy deck I found online that had made the top 8 of the previous World Championship, which in retrospect was a very fine strategy . I did not have all the cards and I don’t think I had any real experience with the deck, but I beat some people. In round five I took my second loss to a kid playing Opposition. I was locked down for a few turns before he killed me, so I had time to let the loss sink in. It felt terrible, and my opponent looked so happy. This isn’t some story where that kid turns out to be Jon Finkel or Kai Budde, but it taught me that I wanted to be the one winning. I wanted to control the Opposition.
[img n=’Blastoderm’][img n=’Fires of Yavimaya’]
I had another chance the following Autumn, this time with a Fires of Yavimaya deck that was all the rage on the Internet; a deck I actually had some experience playing. This time I started off with a 5-0 sweep against less prepared opponents before taking an intentional draw with a young Paul Nemeth, another new addition to the Quiet Speculation staff. At the time, it was rumored that Paul was some kind of chess prodigy.
I fell in the top 4, but my fires were stoked higher. I got yet another chance the following spring. I met Paul again in the last round of swiss. Ever the competitor, he worried about his tie-breakers in the 30 player event and so declined the intentional draw. This choice forced a grueling match between my updated Fires deck and his deck that revolved around Jokulhaups and Nether Spirit. His deck was designed to beat Fires, and it went on to become the hottest deck of Regionals soon after. We couldn’t finish our match in the allotted 50 minutes so it ended in a draw anyway. Paul and I have yet to to settle the score.
[img n=’Nether Spirit’][img n=’Jokulhaups’]
I went on to win the tournament, qualifying myself for the JSS Champs held concurrently with US Nationals at Disney World.When I first arrived in Orlando, the hotel lobby was full of people playing Magic on every spare table. The excitement was palpable. After getting settled in I found the conference room, which seemed to hold endless rows of tables filled with cards. People were everywhere, and I could recognize some Pros. The feeling in that room was unforgettable.
I had time to see the theme park, but at that point in my life, the Magic Kingdom turned out to be not so exciting. I got seperated from my family at Epcot, so I wandered around alone all day before a thunderstorm forced me inside a burger joint. I found my mother waiting for me on the last shuttle back to the hotel, while my father and brother had already returned. Apparently that same day the player hotel had a fire-scare, forcing hundreds of players to cease money-drafts in progress and frantically evacuate with board-states in hand, much to the amusement of my brother.
As far as the JSS championship event, I had my trusty Fires deck with me, but the night before, after playing with some other kids, I decided I splash both white and black for access to the Invasion dragons and the Planeshift battlemages. My deck was inconsistent, and most my opponents seemed well prepared, and I was off to a 1-2 start. In round 4 my opponent was a young lady playing Counter-Rebels, and her sideboard Wrath of God completely leveled me. After the match, she held it up straight-armed and proudly displayed it to her father watching from the bleachers. The tournament was in a Track and Field building and quite literally had bleachers all around it. I dropped after another loss a couple rounds later. I remember going outside and getting teary-eyed because of my poor finish, and I vowed to return to the event. After regaining my composure, the next day I had the opportunity to see the top players compete in US Nationals, the big show.
That trip was a defining point for me, and I was hooked on Magic at that point. I even picked up a job right when I turned 14 so I had some extra cash for Magic. As my Magic experience and knowledge grew I made more money growing my Magic collection by trading cards at the Arena league than I did making $20 a shift bussing tables. I continued to grind the JSS circuit, and I discovered Pre-Releases, States and Regionals.
A major turning point came a year later when the Gamekeeper store moved from its small mall location to a full-fledged store, allowing it to host the league inside. It even started Friday Night Magic drafts, the first-ever consistent local tournament option, which provided an outlet for my competitive fire. It was also around this time that I discovered Magic Online, and I opened up a beta account. Magic Online opened up a whole new world, and it was a key later success.
I played the JSS events when they came to town, and two seasons later I won another JSS. I beat my friend Paul in the finals, who had beat our friend Chris in the top 4, all of us playing none other than Monoblack control. It was a real team effort. We tested together, we drove together, and we won together. I returned to the JSS Championship again in 2003 and put up a money finish. I was then over the age limit, and my JSS career came to a close.
I turned to the PTQ circuit. I had no success at first, but I finally cracked the top 8 of a 36 player sealed PTQ in the fall of 2004 during my senior year of high school. I followed that up by top 8ing the the Ohio State Championship the following weekend. My first PTQ victory came the next February, a week before my 18th birthday. I played a UW Mind’s Desire Combo deck, and I made the top 8 at 5-2. Three tough matches later, I was the champion. This qualified me for Pro Tour Philadelphia, Kamigawa Block Constructed.
I did my Pro Tour testing through Magic Online events and I played a 5-color control brew that I got from a Zvi Mowshowitz article series. I skipped my senior prom to attend the Pro Tour, and lost three straight matches after winning round 1. I was simply unprepared, but I learned that the average Pro Tour opponent was really no better than I was. PT Philly was the only “skins” payout tournament in history, a triple-elimination tournament that paid an increasingly large sum for each individual match won throughout the tournament rather than paying by the final standings, so I earned $100 for my efforts in round 1.
Playing on the Pro Tour completely changed my mindset, and it gave me a new baseline of success to work towards. I had a whole summer ahead of me with nothing but Magic planned, so I got to work. The major competitive format that season was still Kamigawa Block Constructed, so I started by copying Kai Budde’s BW control deck from the PT and won a trial for Grand Prix: Minneapolis.
That summer I would drive to the west side of town many times a week to meet up with the competitive young players, many of whom I’d met grinding the JSS circuit years earlier. We would stay up all night long drafting, only to do it again the next day. It was in these sessions I learned the basics of Limited magic and how to properly navigate the combat step.
I picked up White Weenie in Kamigawa Block Online, and I went to Origins Game Fair where I finished 2nd place and top 4 in back-to-back PTQs. After a night of drafting I took the deck to a PTQ in Detroit, where I finally won. I took this new confidence along with the byes I won earlier, and I converted it into a top 4 finish at Grand Prix: Minneapolis, where I also won the second-place amateur prize. I had done everything with the same deck, and I tuned it extensively between each event that summer. My experience that summer became a framework for future success.
I went on to college in Columbus, OH, at a time when I was first tasting success in Magic and I had the full freedom to pursue it further. Columbus was a prime location, and it gave me easy access to at least a dozen PTQs each season. The real resource in Columbus was the wealth of talent and experience that came with it. My second PTQ win qualified me for Pro Tour: Los Angeles in 2005. I was involved in my first experience testing for a fresh Pro Tour format while collaborating with Tom LaPille, who would go on to work in Magic R&D. During weekly drafts I learned an immense amount from Sam Stoddard, who was also hired by R&D a couple of years ago. These players and many more taught me a great deal about the finer aspects of the game.
When people were not around, Magic Online offered the constant opportunity to grind at my convenience. My game improved quickly, and another PTQ win that winter was followed by going undefeated at Regionals and earning my first invitation to US Nationals. I also started traveling to more Grand Prix within driving distance, though it was over two more years before I found further success on that circuit. At the end of 2006 I acquired a passport after my DCI Constructed rating qualified me for the World Championships in Paris.
I strung together PTQ wins for years, playing a few Pro Tours each season throughout my time in college. A finals finish at Grand Prix: Philadelphia 2008 immediately followed by a ninth-place finish at Pro Tour: Hollywood 2008 gave me enough momentum and Pro Points to get me onto the Pro Tour “gravy train” for the 2009 season, earning me an invitation to every Pro Tour that year. Strings of money finishes at Pro Tours and Grand Prix kept me on the train through 2012, while the last Pro Tour I played was Gatecrash in Montreal last year.
Along the way I have made the top 8 of six Grand Prix, including a win in Houston 2010. I was a member of the US National Team in 2009 after making the finals of US Nationals. Magic has brought me to Europe eight times, Asia three, and to all reaches of the USA, including three trips to Hawaii. My biggest success is the countless number of amazing friends I have made throughout the years, and the experiences we have made together. My current goal is to make more friends, and to teach them what I do know while learning from them what I do not. I am a life-long student of the game with the goal of achieving and demonstrating true mastery of the game of Magic, and to apply those skills beyond the game itself.
My goal of this column is not to simply digest tournament decklists or re-hash things that have already been written. I know most Quiet Speculation readers approach the game of Magic with an angle of efficiency and from a competitive perspective , so I am interested to learn about what you actually want to hear and read about. Maybe there is something that other writers ignore, or that they don’t do well. Maybe there is a type of article that you find most valuable, or perhaps a certain subject will be pressing during any given week or month.I am open to anything. Communicate with me and I will be able to provide the best service to my readers. I bring a unique set of skills and experience to the table, and hope to be a valuable resource for anyone serious about improving their Magic game. By cultivating knowledge, we may develop confidence in ourselves, certainty in our actions, and success in our endeavors.