Almost

Feature Article from Brian Braun-Duin
Brian Braun-Duin
5/11/2017 11:01:00 AM
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It all started with this tweet:

I sent out that semi-joke tweet the day before Grand Prix Richmond. I say semi-joke because clearly it is ridiculous to expect to go 17-1 or heavens forbid, the coveted 18-0 at a Grand Prix. Nobody has ever done the perfect 18-0 before and going 17-1 would imply that I either won the event or lost in the finals. To say that I wouldn't be happy with anything less than that is a bit of a stretch, but I'm fond of absurdist humor. Based on my initial tweet, I could go 13-2, then win the tournament and still find myself “unhappy” with the result, which is clearly not realistic.

But I wasn't entirely joking. I was determined to dominate this GP and I had a really good feeling about it. I've learned to trust my gut feelings. I didn't think I would literally go 17-1 or 18-0, but I did think that I was going to do really well, and I wasn't willing to settle for mediocrity at this tournament. I truly would not have been happy if I scrubbed out. For the first time in a while, I was mad and I've long needed that anger to fuel me.

Last year, I won Worlds and then made Top 8 of two of my next three Grand Prix. I was crushing during that stretch. But that all ended. After making Top 8 of Grand Prix Louisville in January, I haven't had a single good finish in any event after. I scrubbed out of the Magic Online Championship and every single Grand Prix over that three and a half month stretch. I wasn't even putting up average or mediocre finishes; I was getting absolutely smashed. I was still putting in a lot of time testing and preparing, but I had lost something along the way. I had lost the drive that has pushed me to do better and better at Magic over the last four years of play, and worst yet, I knew I had lost the drive and didn't know how to get it back.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how to get this fire back. I knew what was missing, but I didn't know how to find it again. Mentally and logically I still cared a lot about my tournaments and my performances, but how could I make myself emotionally care? Turns out, it's really hard to make yourself emotionally invested in something just by trying to tell yourself that you should be. I needed an external catalyst.

What was missing was adversity. I'm often driven by a passion to prove people wrong. I want people who underestimate me or view me as weak to have that blow up in their face. When I started out playing in PTQs and SCG Opens I remember all the times that I saw top tier players say mean things about me or my peers on social media platforms like Twitter. I read it all, and I remembered it all. That drove me. I didn't want them to be right and I was willing to do whatever it took for them to not be right. If it took me driving six hours to a PTQ, losing the finals, and then driving four hours the other direction to a PTQ the very next day, that's what I was going to do to prove that I could stay on the Pro Tour or that SCG Open players were capable of making it onto the Pro Tour.

What gave me the drive again recently came from an interesting source. In late March and early April were back-to-back team tournaments in San Antonio and Mexico City. LSV posted a power rankings article for both events, ranking the pro teams that would be playing in those tournaments. Both times my squad – the team of myself, Shaheen Soorani and Pascal Maynard – were ranked near or at the bottom of the list. I'm not saying he was wrong to rank us where he did, but I wasn't happy with being near the bottom of the list, regardless. I was even less happy with the description of me that “players with big wins often take their foot off the gas” which implies that I've just coasted along this year without really trying. I have worked just as hard this year at Magic as I did last year, and that big tournament win of Worlds happened seven months ago. Seven months is well past the time frame where “taking your foot off the gas” can even apply anymore. However, you can put your foot harder on the gas, and this was the catalyst I needed to turn up the gas higher.

I desperately wanted to crush those team tournaments to prove the rankings wrong, but things didn't work out as planned. In both team events, our team was in Top 4 contention deep in the tournament and in both tournaments we had multiple win-and-ins that we lost. We lost four win-and-ins in two events in back-to-back weekends and that stung. Not only did we fail to prove the rankings wrong, but we had phenomenal starts turn into disappointing finishes.

I was out for blood at GP Richmond. Thankfully, I was given an unlikely gift to help me prepare for the event.

Amonkhet was the first set ever where Magic Online went live with the set around the same time that the set was also legal to play in paper. In the past, the Magic Online prerelease would happen about two weeks after the paper prerelease. This time around, it happened the Monday after, which was almost two full weeks earlier than normal.

This means a lot of things for competitive Magic, but what it meant for me is that I was given an early avenue to play a lot of Magic and get a leg up on testing for the Pro Tour, which in this case meant doing a ton of drafts.

I felt like the first word of every sentence, because I freaking capitalized on the early release of Amonkhet. I drafted about 10 hours a day for six days straight. I got roughly 70 drafts under my belt during that period. I became addicted to drafting Amonkhet. I actually enjoy drafting way more than playing Constructed, and I used to be a “Limited player” many years ago. That has all changed in the last few years and now I'm determined to strike more of a balance again and regain my drafting skills. After a clean 70 drafts, I felt like I had a pretty solid understanding of how to draft most every color combinations, with the exception of green-blue and black-green, which I didn't win a lot with and didn't keep trying after a number of failures.

I was doing this to test for the Pro Tour, but it had the intended side effect of also making me go into GP Richmond feeling extremely ready. The key was going to be to escape the Sealed portion without getting beat up too badly. Sealed is high variance, and I had only been drafting in preparation for the Pro Tour, so I had not played any. It may seem like draft skills should carry over to Sealed, but sometimes Sealed formats are very different than their respective draft formats, and Amonkhet had a pretty big disparity there.

Thankfully, Shaheen Soorani came to the rescue. The night before the GP I fired up a few Sealed pools on Magic Online. I showed him three sample decks I could build from the sealed pool and he told me to play the deck that I thought was clearly the worst. I wanted to play an aggressive white-blue deck but he told me to play the extremely durdly blue-black control deck instead. I decided to go with the deck I thought was the best, promptly went 0-2, then swapped over to his preferred choice and easily finished the league 3-0. Welp, guess I was completely wrong.

Shaheen was under the impression that Amonkhet Sealed was very grindy and that you couldn't win by playing an aggressive deck unless it was busted, and so you should just build the best grindy deck you can with your pool. At the Grand Prix I was faced with a similar choice. I could play an aggressive white-blue deck that looked decent, but not great, or I could play a super grindy blue-black deck. This time, I made the right choice.

I thought my deck looked above average, but not that crazy. I had a great rare in Archfiend of Ifnir, but most of my opponents were also going to be playing good rares. Having one bomb rare doesn't really make a Sealed deck good when most people play the deck that lets them play their bomb rares.

I ended up going 9-0 with the deck, which was way above expectation. What I failed to realize was how insanely good random flying creatures were in this format. Shimmerscale Drake was great all day, especially when I could turn it into a Baneslayer Angel with Cartouche of Ambition. I won most of my games by just playing Cartouche of Ambition on a flying creature or building my own Baneslayer Angel by putting both Cartouche of Knowledge and Cartouche of Ambition on the same creature.

Starting 9-0 was euphoric. I had drafted a lot of times, way more than most of my Day Two opponents likely would have, and I was doing really well in drafts on Magic Online. I enjoyed the format and felt like I had figured most of it out. I just needed to go 2-1 in two drafts to make Top 8 and I felt like I had that in me.

This was my first draft deck. Blue-black isn't a preferred draft archetype for me, but both colors were open and I jumped in. I was the featured drafter for this draft, so you can go back and watch the draft if you want. I was really happy with how I drafted in this one. I first picked a red card and then made the decision to take the blue rare Commit // Memory over an arguably stronger card in Merciless Javelineer second pick. I made this decision based on my guess that blue was going to be wide open if my neighbor passed up on a strong blue rare with the first pick. I was immediately rewarded by getting Curator of Mysteries Pack 1, Pick 3, which blew my mind and cemented me into blue.

After the first pack I was blue-red but I had taken a very late Shadowstorm Vizier, giving me the option to swap into black if I wanted to. In the second pack, I opened another Shadowstorm Vizier, knew it would most likely wheel again, and picked up one of black's best commons, Cartouche of Ambition in anticipation of the Vizier coming back. It did indeed come back and I settled comfortably into this blue-black deck.

I played some wild matches with this deck. In the first round, I played against Devin Koepke who had three copies of the same rare, Prepare // Fight, which he played in three consecutive turns in a hilarious sequence in game two. He stalled for a bit on four lands, however, and I knew he almost certainly had Colossapede in his hand. I sat on a Lay Claim for many turns waiting for him to play it. He eventually drew land five, I stole his giant green creature, and was able to leverage it on defense long enough for my fliers to win.

In the second round, I played against Justin Cohen who had one of the best decks I have ever seen in Amonkhet Limited. In the first game, he curved out with premium common and uncommon green-white exert creatures and easily finished me off with a Trial of Solidarity. The second game was an extremely close game where I was able to successfully play defense for a while with a Seeker of Insight-turned-Baneslayer with both blue and black Cartouches on it. Eventually he went for a kill and I had Winds of Rebuke to stymie his attempt and win.

Game three was a crazy game where he started out with a Gust Walker, a three-drop and a Gideon of the Trials and I just played a few creatures out the first few turns. In a critical turn, he attacked me with Gideon and a few other creatures, putting me low on life and leaving his Gideon safe from dying to a return swing. He followed up by playing a one-toughness creature post-combat. On my turn I slammed Cartouche of Ambition on my flying creature, simultaneously making it big enough to kill Gideon, kill his one-toughness creature, and gain me enough life to keep me from dying the next turn. That blowout turn was enough to swing the game in my favor.

Round three was also an insanely good match against eventual Grand Prix winner Mike Baraniecki. He destroyed me in the first game by using Trial of Ambition and Cartouche of Zeal along with Ahn-Crop Crasher to take care of my board and push through a lot of damage. Game two I managed to barely race him thanks to a timely Cartouche of Ambition to shrink his reach creature and gain me some much-needed life. In game three he started out with a brutally aggressive start. I managed to barely stabilize at 4 life, needing him to brick for a few turns, while I was stuck without black mana and a few black cards in my hand. Thankfully my deck was almost mono-blue and I was able to cast cards every turn even without having access to my second color. Eventually he went for a lethal attack with a Brute Strength and I had Commit // Memory that I had been sitting on for a while to ruin his attack and allow me to finish the game a few turns later.

I managed to 3-0 the draft and end up as the last undefeated player at 12-0. I was going to need to win just one more match in the second draft to lock up Top 8. I got a bit nervous, however, as the second draft didn't go as well for me as the first one did. I ended up kind of forcing myself into red-white after sticking to my early picks, and ended up with the following deck.

I thought my deck had a very high power level, but also had a fairly high delta between my best cards and my worst cards and so I was going to need to draw the good half of my deck to win matches. Thankfully, it was all smooth sailing. I managed to go 3-0 with this deck, only losing one game along the way. After winning round 13, I was locked for Top 8 at 13-0, but knowing that I couldn't be happy with anything worse than 17-1 or 18-0, there was no way I was just going to coast!

Like I said before, nobody has ever gone 18-0 and this might be the only time I ever start 13-0 at a Grand Prix, so I was determined to do the best I could possibly do to finish with a perfect record. I played both rounds 14 and 15 with the intention of finishing up the swiss at 15-0, something that has only been done a handful of times. I was able to do exactly that, making the Top 8 with a perfect record.

There is a known curse surrounding 15-0 players who make the Top 8. None have ever won, with most losing in the quarterfinals. I vowed that I would break that curse, but alas it was not to be and I fell in the quarterfinals like many of my predecessors. Martin Dang beat me in a game three that was absolutely wild.

I took some very conservative lines of play against Martin. I knew he had drafted three copies of Brute Strength, as we got to see each other's drafted pool of cards but not the actual final decks. I didn't know how many were in his deck and I was winning by enough that I felt like I was comfortable blocking to play around him having one. If I don't block, I win if he doesn't have Brute Strength, however I instantly die if he does, and I wasn't willing to take that risk. Unfortunately, he didn't have Brute Strength and drew an insane series of cards in a row to barely stay in the game while I flooded out, including drawing his only out on one turn, causing me to eventually lose and leave the table still in shock about what had just happened.

I was quite disappointed to lose in the quarterfinals and not be the first player to ever go 18-0 at a Grand Prix, but on the other hand, I was really happy with how I played, how I drafted, and what this hopefully says about how I will fare this upcoming weekend at Pro Tour Amonkhet.

They say that perfection is unattainable, and I have to agree. Last weekend, I was almost perfect. Almost. Close, but not enough. I'll have another chance this weekend, and the next, and the one after that. I can never achieve perfection, nor is it realistic to expect to. I may have one perfect tournament one time in my life if I'm lucky, but I will always have room to grow and improve. I'm just glad that I have the drive and hunger again. A poor finish this weekend will leave a bad taste in my mouth, and I'm going to claw as hard as I can to avoid that.

I wouldn't have it any other way.




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