Playing to Win
"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."
It has taken me a week to gather my thoughts and write this, but the Sunday before last I played in my first ever Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier, and I came home with the win and an invite to the Regional Pro Tour Qualifier. It wasn't a major event, but it was satisfying to set my sights on a goal and accomplish it, especially on the first try. I got lucky, but I wouldn't have been able to win if I didn't make the right decisions along the way to give myself as good a chance as possible. There are a lot of little things that add up to create the whole of a successful tournament, whether it is a PPTQ or Pro Tour.
It has been years since I wrote anything resembling a tournament report, so today I want to share my experience. I was intending just to share the story with friends on Facebook, but it turns out I had a lot to say, and I think there are lessons within that are valuable for anyone looking to take their game to the next level. There's a lot more to winning a tournament than just playing good Magic, so I'll focus on the things outside the game itself, including physical and mental preparation, and other ways to gain a competitive edge. I'll also dig into my Sealed deck building process and share some interesting details from the games.
I started writing at TCGplayer seven years ago, when I was the height of my pro career. Life eventually got in the way of Magic – I fell off the gravy train and it has now been almost exactly five years since I Iast played in a Pro Tour. Over the past couple years, I have been grinding to get back to the big stage, but playing in Grand Prix and online PTQs has only earned me near-misses to qualify. I used to relish traveling to PTQs, but I have never had the motivation to grind PPTQs. That said, I have seen many friends have success in them over the years and repeatedly qualify, so it's clear that they are the most consistent route to the Pro Tour and are opportunities I have let slip by me.
Lately I have been playing a lot of Magic Online events on weekends, and having a blast playing formats like Vintage, 1v1 Commander and Pauper, and finding enjoyment in the competition is critical if you're to survive the rigors of tournament Magic where by design the brutal losses and near-misses outnumber the big wins. Last Saturday night I didn't feel like playing in anything online the next day, so I on a whim I checked the PPTQ schedule for the first time, and to my surprise I found a Sealed one under an hour away occurring the very next day with a generous 11 a.m. start. I got excited about the idea of playing PPTQs in the freshly-started season, so I made a spreadsheet schedule of upcoming events and set out to win one.
I went to bed early enough Saturday night to get a full night's sleep before the event, optimal for high-performance, but I unfortunately was only able to get about three hours of sleep and couldn't fall back into a slumber, so after tossing in bed for a few more hours I got up early and gave myself plenty of time to prepare. I showered, and made myself a big breakfast of eggs, roasted potatoes and a smoothie with all sorts of fruit, which gave me plenty of quality energy for the day ahead.
I don't normally drink coffee, but I have started experimenting with caffeine at events to increase performance, and I knew I would need it that day after so little sleep, so I filled a quart-sized mason jar with some gourmet coffee courtesy of my AirBnB from the weekend before at Grand Prix Indianapolis, and chilled it in the fridge to bring with me when I left. I'll never forget the time I witnessed Reid Duke and Tom Ross arriving at the feature match area to play the finals of the SCG Invitational, both with coffee in hand. I also had a bag full of snacks, including roasted almonds and pistachios, dried apricots and mangos,,which would provide a source of energy to snack on through the day, and some 100% dark chocolate, which was another source of caffeine boost, along with a water bottle.
I also downloaded a few feel-good, pump-up songs to listen to on my phone, and although I never felt like listening to them at this event, they can be a good thing to turn to when you lose focus, especially to help stave off tilt after a loss.
I am used to wearing my TCGplayer gear at major events, but for this event I put on my favorite outfit, an old thrift-store Gold's Gym sweatshirt that I wear when working out outside in the cold, and it gave me a competitive and confident mindset that served me well in the event, and kept me very comfortable. I think it might be time for me to follow some other TCGplayer writers and embroider some clothes of my own choosing with our logo as an alternative to the t-shirts.
On my drive to the event, I reminisced about my past successfully grinding old-school PTQs and I had the realization that I had actually won three PTQs in the same calendar year in 2005, starting with my first-ever win in February, one in the summer and another in December. At the time I didn't realize how great of a performance that really was, so I felt extremely motivated to win and confident in my ability to do so.
I drank about a pint of my coffee in the car when I arrived at the event, saving the rest to drink later in the day, and I felt alert and ready. There were some familiar faces in the room, but no one I was worried about, although right when we were to start our deck registration two friends who are among the very best Limited players in town arrived, so I threw them a smile and a wave to let them know they had competition. The player count was me and 22 others.
When I opened my cards, a Hostage Taker stood out and gave me incentive to be blue-black, and I seemed to have plenty of other playables in the colors. Including every playable blue and black card brought me to 22 cards, meaning I would be able to fill out the last card or two and piece together a deck. My biggest concern was that I had a reasonable mana curve of creatures – specifically two-drops – but four quality two-drops meant I was good to go.
I had stretch to add the last couple playables to the deck, but an Evolving Wilds and a Traveler's Amulet, along with Treasure from two Depths of Desire and a Dire Fleet Hoarder, meant I had the opportunity to splash. One of the biggest mistakes I see players make in Sealed is making a splash without the mana to consistently do so, or by splashing far too many cards to the point of having a true three-color deck. There were no other colors in my pool with two solid playables to splash for my remaining two cards, but I had possible options in white for Luminous Bonds, red for Storm-Fleet Pyromancer and green for Tendershoot Dryad. I had seen this rare in action for the first time the night before online when practicing, and it crushed my very strong Merfolk deck. It beat me so badly that I even thought about the card later that night when driving, so I decided that it was the splash for me – and it ended up dominating every game I cast it. It's a true bomb.
Three mana sources is necessary for a consistent splash of two cards, so I considered playing Traveler's Amulet, but it's slow, especially for an aggressive deck, as it requires investing two mana, so I left it out and just included Evolving Wilds and a Forest, with the logic that I could lean on my three sources of Treasure as the remaining sources, and it was just a one card splash. The remaining lands were split evenly between Island and Swamp, which is usually ideal because it reduces the likelihood of having to mulligan hands without access to a color.
My deck had a very low curve, so I really did not want to play 17 lands, although in retrospect it may have actually been correct to play the extra land because my card quality was so high and my 24th card would be weak. For my final card I included Raiders' Wake, but after pondering for the remainder of the build time, I decided to switch it for Negate at the last minute, with the logic that I could use it to protect Hostage Taker or to catch my better opponents by surprise. I didn't draw it often, so it ended up doing very little. I sided it out a few times for Sworn Guardian against aggressive decks, and Raiders' Wake came in at times, although I never cast it.
Here was my final decklist, and relevant sideboard cards.
I started my tournament against "King," an old-school pro from the area and one of the guys who came in at the end, so it was one of my biggest possible matches right off the bat. He started out strong, but I stalled him out with Hostage Taker and eventually took over the game with my bomb of The Immortal Sun, played very defensively to allow it to generate value, and eventually won through sheer attrition, which included casting Siren's Ruse and Recover on Hostage Taker to get three total uses out of it.
He remarked how good my deck was, and by the end of the match was laughing at how ridiculous it was, and told his friend that no one could beat it. His friend said he had a very weak deck with no rares, so I was in their head and feeling good about my chances, especially when it was announced that where would be no Top 8 draft, and we would play through the Top 8 with our sealed decks. The two guys were very upset with this since they constantly team draft and had a big edge, but it was a huge boon to me given the Sealed deck which at that point I realized was exceptional, and because I had yet to do a single Rivals of Ixalan draft.
I beat my next opponent, likely the next strongest player in the room after the two late-arriving teammates and myself, with my superior card quality, starting on the backfoot game two but narrowly pulling it out against Hadana's Climb with careful play, and dominating game two with bombs.
My opponent in round three had a strong Merfolk deck splashing Radiant Destiny and Azor, the Lawbringer. In game one, my Kitesail Freebooter revealed a Grazing Whiptail in hand when he had UUWW in play, so his mana was clearly stretched far, and it cost him. He seemed stunned from the loss, and when shuffling before game two I got the feeling he may have looked at my deck when shuffling, a feeling compounded by me then drawing a weak hand, so from then on I made sure to stare him in the eyes when shuffling.
Nearly two decades of playing competitive Magic may have made me paranoid, but a very simple cheat made possible by the rules change of no longer being able to cut your own deck after the opponent shuffles it is to look at the top of the opponent's deck while shuffling before presenting. The extreme version of this is giving them a bad hand, but even just taking a quick glance and knowing a few cards in their hand, or potentially their entire hand and the cards to come, is a huge edge. It's important to do everything you can to prevent this, because it's easy to do and impossible to prove after the fact. I believe I have seen multiple pros do this, and I think it's much more common than you'd realize at lower-level events, so don't take your eyes off your opponent's when shuffling. Most opponents will make it very clear that they are not looking at your deck, so if there is any real possibility they could be, don't take any chances. If you suspect it, ask your opponent to not look at your deck and shuffle more, or call a judge.
Another point, and one which I have wanted to write about for a long time but haven't really had the right place to do so, is that I believe a statistically significant number of opponents cheat when rolling dice by intentionally throwing sixes. It's an easy cheat to practice at home, and it's another cheat that is next to impossible to prove after the fact, so there is absolutely no reason to determine play/draw this way. In recent events, including this one, I demand to do an even/odd roll, being sure to specify CALL IN THE AIR, otherwise it can still be manipulated if someone calls before the roll, which cheaters will attempt to get you to do. Rolling even/odd with one dice is essentially the same as flipping a coin, except it doesn't come with the baggage that the possibility of weighted coin brings, and you can sell it by explaining another practical advantage: it only takes one roll, which saves time.
Players are used to the high roll, and I had multiple opponents in the PPTQ comment that it was strange or that they preferred to high roll or whatever, but they ended up deferring to the even/odd roll. If an opponent insists on high roll but you don't want to call a judge, you can ask that they put the dice in an empty deck box and shake it vigorously over the shoulder and high-roll that way. High-rolling has no place in competitive Magic, as it's both inefficient and ripe for abuse, so let's stop doing it and normalize even/odd rolling until tournament software randomly generates who wins the roll, which would be ideal.
I played a close game two from the backfoot and put myself into a position to win, but I made my first real mistake of the event, and was properly punished. I was at three life, and had the option to use Waterknot on his 1/1 Merfolk Mistbinder, but because he would have used a pump spell like Crash the Ramparts the turn before if he had it, I reasoned I was safe. If I took this option, I could play The Immortal Sun the next turn and kill him with my fliers through any ground blocker. Instead, I played The Immortal Sun that turn, bringing him from 12 to three and ensuring I would win the next turn even if he cast his Pious Interdiction. At the end of turn, he sacrificed his Traveler's Amulet, giving him four lands for the first time in the game, untapped, play it, and cast the Jadecraft Artisan I knew he had in his deck, and brought me to zero life in a game I had locked up. I realized that if he did have Pious Interdiction, I could just kill him over two turns, so I took a wholly unnecessary risk by giving him outs I could have completely cut off in a game where I was firmly ahead. I was flustered, but knew I was favored in game three on the play. My draw was weak, and he nearly had me dead with a series of great topdecks, so I resigned to my fate and the gods punishing me for my mistake, but I narrowly pulled it out with a key topdeck of my own in my final turn to go to 3-0 and clinch the Top 8 of the five-round event.
Sometime before round four, my round three opponent told his friend and I that he didn't realize I wrote for TCGplayer, because he had looked my name up after the match because it sounded familiar, so I thanked him for reading, and it definitely put some respect in him and others who heard, which is a good edge to have, along with the general fear of my deck that was circulating around the room from the two good players loudly complaining about it.
I prepared to draw in rounds four and five, but being paired down meant I had to play. Great draws and careful play against an opponent with a strong Vampire deck but who was admittedly inexperienced made for my easiest match of the day, so I moved to 4-0 and to the top of the standings before drawing in round five, which earned me top seed and the option to play first in each of the Top 8 matches.
Before round four, I jumped the gun and ordered a salad with tuna steak from a local middle eastern restaurant, so with my extra time after drawing round five I went to pick it up. I nearly went to eat it inside the card shop, but instead walked to a table nearby in a nice green space and ate in peace and silence, which allowed me to clear my head and refocus for the task at hand. I was sure not to overeat, eating the whole salad but leaving one of the pieces of tuna and pita for later. I washed it down with most of my remaining coffee, saving a swig for the finals.
The two good players I knew also made Top 8, and eventually returned with some Chipotle, which is probably a fine meal for a tournament, but definitely on the heavy side, especially if eating the whole burrito. Adding a bunch of hot sauce can't help either.
In the quarters I rolled over the eighth seed – the one 3-2 player who slipped in – who had a solid Merfolk deck and put me on the backfoot both games but wasn't able to close me out before Tendershoot Dryad took over both games. Both of the good players lost, so the coast was clear.
The semifinals were against my opponent from round three, who so far was the only opponent to take a game from me. He likely noticed me watching him shuffle my deck in the earlier match, because in semifinals he actually started just doing pile shuffles and not picking up my deck at all.
I played carefully to win game one, and I sided in Dark Inquiry and Raiders' Wake to deal with his mythic bomb of Azor, the Lawmaker. He was able to get it online game two and take another game off me, but in game three I drew Dark Inquiry and held it until he played his fifth land, at which point I fired it off and indeed caught him with the mythic, at which point I could breathe a sigh of relief. He played a Soul of the Rapids, which prompted me to use a Waterknot on his Shaper Apprentice. This ended up being critical because the game turned into a race that I narrowly won in the final turn, fading his chance to topdeck Jadecraft Artisan to kill me.
The other semifinals finished much earlier, but when they started I overheard one of them complaining that the RPTQ was very far away to the point of not being realistic to attend, so I hoped the player that beat him shared the sentiment. Before we played, he asked me how important the packs were to me, to which I said not at all and that I would love to give him them all for the slot. He eagerly accepted and shook my hand, and just like that I had won the tournament. There's a ton of variance in Magic, with even the very best players winning something like 70% of their matches, so it's important to minimize variance at all points, so splitting in the finals to take the slot is advisable whenever possible, even if I figured my deck was superior.
It felt great to drive home with the win under my belt, and a confidence boost for my upcoming events. It was a lucky break getting a busted Sealed deck, but the only way to get it was to go out and play.
Let me know if you have any questions about the event or general tournament questions, or if you want feedback about your own Sealed deck or something that happened in your event.