Against the Wall at GP Portland 2010

23:54 Sun 12 Sep 2010
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One more loss would end my tournament. I had won the first game in this match, a long and drawn-out battle, and now in the second game I had reduced my opponent from 20 to six life and had six power on the board. I had more threats in my hand, and was sure he had only one card that would save him. I just had to hope he wouldn’t draw it.

Grand Prix Portland 2010. I was way down in the standings of the 1368 players there, in the three–two bracket, struggling to string together an unlikely five straight wins to make the cut. In theory money was at stake, as the eventual winner would receive $3500, but I knew I wouldn’t see any of that. Even making the cut wasn’t uppermost in my mind. I just didn’t want to be eliminated.

Neither did my opponent, Ken. About my age, he’d clearly been playing the game for a long time. I suspected he’d seen about the same success I had in that span—i.e. not much. Two long-timers scrabbling away far from the top tables. I had the upper hand, and barring a minor miracle would rise slightly in the standings, maybe high enough to see the cloudline.

A Grand Prix is the highest level of tournament that has open entry, a “pro-am” event. This event was Sealed Deck, meaning that you build your deck out of the unopened packs you’re given. It’s the most egalitarian of the competitive formats, at least at the start.

I hadn’t played MTG in months, and hadn’t played in a tournament in over a year. The set we were playing with, M2011, I hadn’t even seen before that day. I didn’t expect to build or play well enough to win, but I was less rusty than I predicted. The deck was more than solid, and looked more than a match for Ken’s.

When he took his turn, however, he got the one card in about 25 that he needed, and suddenly he wasn’t on the brink of defeat.

Losing at MTG is a very familiar feeling. I’ve done it many times, especially in competition, over my fourteen-year career as a tournament player. Playing often feels like slowly being backed into a corner, knowing that you can escape if you draw the right card and your opponent does not, but as you keep drawing nothing and your opponent’s deck produces more and more questions that you cannot answer, the walls loom behind you.

I felt those walls, then. The clock said 11 minutes left in the round. I didn’t know if I could still win this game. From a position of feeling that all was under control, I now felt very much at the mercy of luck.

Close games are sometimes like being pursued through a labyrinth by something awful. Something awful that’s gaining. But with ingenuity and good fortune you can find the right path and emerge into the light of victory. You can win and know that without your ingenuity and skill the win could never have happened; you can lose and know that there was no way out, that each card drawn was another shovelful of dirt on your grave.

Ken’s fantastic draw off the top represented several shovelfuls. He followed it with another, and from that point my options became more and more limited until I was the one who could no longer stave off defeat.

Six minutes on the clock, and we go into the decider.

It doesn’t happen. The board stalls, and there’s no way for either of us to win in time. Instead, we both lack the presence of mind to discuss a possible concession, and so draw—eliminating both of us from contention.

Not for the first time, I found myself wondering what the attraction of the game was. The most vivid experiences of the day came after I had picked up the two losses, after I was already on the edge of elimination. Both of those matches required very precise play and tremendous focus.

So the reason to play is presumably to experience the successful navigation of the labyrinth. And, too, the state of focus you need to be in to attempt the labyrinth at all. I strive, and strove for years, to have it be enough just to reach that focused state, and to not care about the outcome, but haven’t achieved such enlightenment. The wins remain sweet, and the losses terribly bitter.

In some ways the experience of playing at GP Portland has awakened my interest again, not exactly in the game, but in tournament play, in striving to reach optimal play under extremely challenging conditions. Optimal play is, and always has been, extremely difficult for me to determine, but in achieving my mediocre record at the GP, I still came quite close to it much of the time. Could a pro player have won my matches with my deck? I don’t think so, but, maddeningly, I don’t know for certain, and I would really like to. Wanting to know the answer to that question may be at the core of what attracts me to the game.

That being said, it’s highly unlikely that I will return to the game anytime soon. It’s simply too demanding of time—my six rounds of play took up about ten hours. I can’t do that regularly, and doing it only irregularly more or less guarantees that I’ll never figure out the answer to that question.

I am, however, very glad I played. The ambition to be much better at that intellectual endeavor also applies for other things, not least of which are programming and writing. It is at least possible with those to clearly see where you’ve gone wrong, and to follow a set path to improvement. The desire to achieve razor-sharp mental acuity playing MTG is generalizable, and so I’m left with a strong desire to push myself to improve as both a programmer and a writer. This desire existed before, but having it reinforced to such an extent makes the time and effort of playing in Grand Prix Portland clearly worthwhile.

Notes for MTG Players

I played aggro White/Blue, with a low curve and a deck that included double Scroll Thief, double Pacifism, Blinding Mage, Sword of Vengeance, Sleep, Mind Control, and Sun Titan. I was in the two-loss bracket because I lost game one of my first match with a mulligan to five lands, and game three to drawing five spells and 11 land, and because my fourth-round opponent cast Garruk Wildspeaker five times over the course of three games.

Ken’s savior, as those of you familiar with the format might have guessed, was Baneslayer Angel. I still had a shot at that point, but he followed it immediately with Serra Angel. I had answers, but none of them appeared in time.

Congrats to all of the sfmagic.org crew who did well, including Nick Lynn (top 8), Steven Edelson (15th), and Brett Allen (57th). It was also good to see the rest of the people I knew there.

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