PTQ at Worlds 2011

23:52 Sun 20 Nov 2011. Updated: 22:08 26 Jun 2013
[, , ]

The last time the Magic: The Gathering World Championships were in San Francisco was September 2004. 2004 might have been the high water mark of my MTG career, and at one of the side events for that Worlds I racked up probably my best win, a two–one victory over Tsuyoshi Fujita with my Black/Red Death Cloud deck[*]. A month later I picked up my first (and, it seems, only) PTQ top eight result[†].

Rather than being spurred by those results, however, my interest in the game began to wane a little. It was a slow dwindling, but eventually I stopped playing in PTQs, and then stopped playing Wednesday nights at sfmagic, and then stopped playing casual games. After Grand Prix Portland I didn’t play for almost a year. The game that had been such a mainstay for so long receded into the background, and I’m now fairly determined to sell my cards—and, furthermore, to attempt to not accumulate any more of them.

Worlds 2011 was in San Francisco, however, and it seemed wrong to not go at all to something just ten minutes away from me; given that I was going to go, it seemed wrong not to play; given that I was going to play, it seemed wrong not to play in a tournament. So at 08:15 on Saturday morning I was registered for one of the larger Pro Tour Qualifiers I’ve played in, with 320 players.

The format was Sealed Deck with the latest set, Innistrad. I had played with Innistrad cards once before, a draft on Wednesday night with the sfmagic crew. Apart from that my preparation had been more or less nonexistent.

The card pool I received seemed reasonable, with the most notable card being Garruk Relentless. However, I didn’t think the rest of the Green cards were strong enough, and thought my only shot was White/Blue aggro, which happened to include the stupid Invisible Stalker/Butcher’s Cleaver combo.

I was probably right about this being the best direction for my card pool; I might have been wrong to not put Garruk Relentless in anyway, and I was wrong with some of the other card choices. The deck:

W/U Aggro (40)
Land (16)
  • 8 Plains
  • 7 Island
  • 1 Shimmering Grotto
Creatures (14)
  • 2 Doomed Traveler
  • 1 Selfless Cathar
  • 1 Invisible Stalker
  • 1 Unruly Mob
  • 2 Silverchase Fox
  • 1 Cloistered Youth
  • 1 Fiend Hunter
  • 1 Lantern Spirit
  • 1 Civilized Scholar
  • 1 Abbey Griffin
  • 1 Slayer of the Wicked
  • 1 Manor Gargoyle
Other (10)
  • 1 Silent Departure
  • 2 Feeling of Dread
  • 2 Think Twice
  • 1 Bonds of Faith
  • 1 Rally the Peasants
  • 1 Butcher’s Cleaver
  • 1 Smite the Monstrous
  • 1 Grasp of Phantoms

Relevant sideboard cards were:

  • 1 Silent Departure
  • 2 Makeshift Mauler
  • 1 Daybreak Ranger
  • 1 Garruk Relentless
  • 2 Traveler’s Amulet
  • 1 Curiosity
  • 1 Sharpened Pitchfork
  • 1 Urgent Exorcism
  • 1 Spare from Evil

The Shimmering Grotto was in there purely to flash back Rally the Peasants—and it shouldn’t have been. I never needed the flashback, and the Shimmering Grotto definitely slowed me down at times—when that’s absolutely the last thing this deck needed. After every game one, I sided in the additional Silent Departure and the two Makeshift Maulers, taking out both copies of Think Twice and usually the Abbey Griffin. If I played it again, I would take out the Shimmering Grotto and replace it with a Plains (White was more important early), make the swap I made after every game one, and strongly consider putting in Spare from Evil over Rally the Peasants. Actually, I’d probably try putting both of those in against decks without a lot of Humans, as together they could represent a major chunk of damage, which is really the point with that deck.

Still, a reasonable enough deck for my first ever pool in the format.

I started out well, winning my first two matches—mostly on the back of putting out the Invisible Stalker early and then putting the Butcher’s Cleaver on it for a 4/1 lifelink creature that couldn’t be blocked or targeted by my opponents. In round three I lost to a White/Green deck that just seemed to have better creatures, and which I couldn’t take a game from. Another three wins, including an unfortunate pairing against my friend Brett Allen that I squeaked through with excellent draws, and I was at five–one. It was a nine-round tournament, with a cut to top eight after that. Seven-one-one might not make it, but it would depend on tiebreakers. If I won three more, I was in; if I won two more, I could perhaps draw in the last round to get in; if I won one more, I would at least get some prize.

In round seven I played Rasmus Sibast, I think playing White/Green. In the first game I went to five cards; he went to six, and it was a lopsided affair judging by the notes I have on life totals, but I can’t remember any details whatsoever. In the second game I played creatures on my first three turns and then followed with Rally the Peasants to bring him down on life very quickly. Two lopsided games, and then on to the decider. I had to mulligan to six, and that didn’t help me. The life totals reflect another lopsided game, but my notes for the game don’t say anything other than: “one mana short”.

Five–two, out of contention. Next up was Stefano Ossino, playing Black/White. The first game was extremely close, and a critical moment came when I had two creatures out and attacking against no blockers: a Homicidal Brute (5/1) and the Invisible Stalker (1/1); he forced me to sacrifice a creature. Racing, and hoping to get a definitive lead, I gave up the Invisible Stalker. I’m pretty sure that was the right decision, as if I’d gone the other way the game would have been even more lopsided. However, he seemed to keep drawing removal and/or creatures to turn the tide, and I lost with him on four life. In the second game, we went back and forth for a long time, with my early beatdown supplemented by Butcher’s Cleaver, but slowed by the creatures he kept adding to his side. Eventually the life totals were 14–7 in my favor, but he had a ton of blockers and it wasn’t clear how I could get through. Among his creatures was a Markov Patrician, 3/1 lifelink. I knew that if he attacked with it, he’d be safe. I had a flyer and an Invisible Stalker on my side, and he had four on his; I was holding Feeling of Dread and Rally the Peasants and my evasion creatuers were a 1/1 and a 3/3. He cast Army of the Damned to give himself 13 tapped 2/2 Zombies, and then decided the safe thing to do was hang back. I played Feeling of Dread on two of his flyers, flashed it back on the other two, untapped, played the Rally the Peasants, and got in for eight to squeak through. He cursed himself for not having attacked with his lifelink creature, and I thought that maybe that was the luck I needed to get back to winning. Nope; our third game was close again, but not that close, and he beat me down in relatively short order.

Five–three, and now just trying to qualify for prizes. My last-round opponent was Jerome Lechevre, playing either White/Red or White/Green/Red. Our first game was extremely close, with him on four life at the end, and managing to take me from six to zero in the last turn. In game two I had a very strong start, and when I put Bonds of Faith on Invisible Stalker with him at 12 life, he conceded. In the deciding game, he started out better than I did, but not for long. I managed to stabilize the board, and get the life totals to 10–8 in my favor. The same turn I did that, I attacked, forcing him into a disadvantageous block that lost him a creature. It all looked under control; he had two cards in hand. But at the end of my turn, he tapped six mana and played both of those cards: two copies of Brimstone Volley—which, because his creature had died that turn, both did 5 points of damage to me. Game over, match over, tournament over.

Five–four, probably better than I had any reason to expect in a format I’d never played before, and given that I was pretty rusty. I did make some egregious errors, but not really in games that cost me. The more subtle errors, like incorrect sideboarding, not taking Shimmering Grotto out, and perhaps tempo-related decisions in the early stages of games, weren’t so apparent, but I felt as if their traces gradually became more solid as the day went on, and eventually they pulled me back to mediocrity.

Although the end result was similar enough to Grand Prix Portland 2011, my attitude was different. While my play level was probably about the same (average) on average across the day, I think I had more highs of focus and lows of distraction in Portland; I also think that the losses were slightly less bitter and the wins less sweet. Perhaps because I felt one of my main avenues to victory, the lifelinked unblockable untargetable-by-opponents 4/1, was a pretty dumb two-card combo that shouldn’t have been in the set.

I’ve played the game for 15 years, and despite much striving have never been better than slightly above average. Now, having ceased to play much, I’m probably barely above average. But one of the problems for me has always been that I couldn’t seem to find the right way to make effort count. There were some formats I practiced fairly hard at without getting much better.

To put it another way, I could never figure out just what constitutes “mindful practice” for MTG. It’s not just playing, or if it is, it means playing a lot more than I did even as a fairly obsessive gamer years ago—although I did always suspect that I wasn’t obsessive enough to compete with many of the good players.

In addition, there’s some kind of maddening intellectual laziness at work. I’m reasonably good at games in general, but this may hinder me in the long run when trying to become truly good at any game. Being “good” at picking up games might be due to being able to relatively quickly construct a mental model of a game that I can then refer to in order to be successful. But later, as my understanding of the game becomes more sophisticated, that model requires updating—and at some point I stop being interested in updating it. There’s some complexity threshold at which I prefer to travel the well-worn neural paths of the old model rather than finding difficult new ways to represent how the game works, and that’s what I mean by “laziness” here. More annoyingly, I don’t seem to be aware of this at the time, only when I examine the situation afterwards, and it’s never been clear quite how to get past it. But in retrospect I can often see where, instead of treating the individual game I was in as a puzzle yet to be solved, I instead took the easy route of following my comfortable model and waiting for the part where I win.

This should probably bother me less now, given that I no longer play the game much. Instead, it bothers me almost as much, for different reasons: I don’t seem to mind losing quite as much as I used to, but I hate the idea that I might never figure out how to at least make true attempts to play optimally, rather than happily resorting to following a model I know is flawed—although I don’t know exactly how—but which is comfortable and always seems “good enough”.

[*] I played this:

RatCloud (60)
Land (20)
  • 10 Swamp
  • 4 Mountain
  • 4 Bloodstained Mire
  • 2 Blinkmoth Nexus
Mana (6)
  • 4 Chrome Mox
  • 2 Talisman of Dominance
Creatures (14)
  • 4 Headhunter
  • 2 Ravenous Rats
  • 4 Chittering Rats
  • 4 Solemn Simulacrum
Other (20)
  • 4 Echoing Decay
  • 4 Night’s Whisper
  • 4 Death Cloud
  • 4 Stone Rain
  • 2 Barter in Blood
  • 2 Sword of Light and Shadow
Sideboard (15)
  • 4 Relic Barrier
  • 2 Shatter
  • 3 Withered Wretch
  • 2 Persecute
  • 2 Infest
  • 2 Oblivion Stone

It was a decidedly non-standard Death Cloud list of my own devising, with the Sword of Light and Shadow stolen from Japanese lists for Black/Blue Death Cloud decks. Fujita was playing his own rogue deck, one involving March of the Machines with Sunburst to give himself e.g. 10/10 artifact creatures for 5 mana. It went to three games, and remains one of the best MTG matches I’ve ever played.

[†] It was a Kamigawa Sealed PTQ, and I made it to the top eight with a Black/Red deck with Nezumi Shortfang as its highlight. I then lost in the first round of the Rochester Sealed Draft top eight, partly due to drafting poorly and partly due to getting so mana-screwed in the second game that I think I cast no spells.

One Response to “PTQ at Worlds 2011”

  1. Alex Says:

    Above average seems an overly harsh self assessment, You must have reached at least competent, if not dangerous. I don’t know enough about MTG ( harmless / mostly harmless ) to comment on your strategies or tactics but I played a little bit of magic way back and you are the only person I know who competed on an international level with some credibility.
    The ‘not updating mental model’ problem is a very common one in all walks of life , people tend to stick with what has worked for them in the past, even after it has become inaccurate or sub optimal. I suspect the only answer to this is getting the correct level of difficulty, not so much that the problem seems insurmountable but not so easy that your current outlook is successful all the time.

Leave a Reply