A Man With No Mission: Top 4 at Grand Prix Louisville
Nate talks about his experience at grand prix Louisville, his thoughts on magic, and balance in all things.
It's important to have goals
This is a phrase I've taken to repeating to myself internally like a mantra when I find myself doubting the purpose or plausibility of my ambitions. Sometimes, it feels as though it's the only thing that stops me from spiraling into cyclical self-doubt and crippling existential anxiety. It still baffles and kind of bothers me on some level that something as simple as reminding myself that at some point, I decided that I have a reason to be here – a mission, if you will – can stir something inside of me that allows me to temporarily feign human functionality.
So what is my mission?
Well, I don't know exactly. I've always wanted to achieve something extraordinary; something lots of people wish they could do, but can't. But that's too vague to be a mission statement in its own right... at least for me to take it seriously. So for now I substitute the pursuit of some overarching mission with short-term goals, varying in levels of attainability, with the idea that achieving them will put me in a better position to move forward in other parts of my life. For example:
- Eat better (easy)
- Exercise more and get in better shape (medium)
- Hike the Adirondack 46 (hard)
- Practice guitar more (easy)
- Write more songs (medium)
- Record and produce a demo, and find a way for people to hear it (hard)
It's so simple to set goals, yet so difficult for most people to actually go through with them. I decided last year that I'm refusing to let complacency-induced inertia govern my actions and set me up for a lifetime of wondering why I never did anything great with my youth. Why am I telling you all of this? Well, mostly because prior to my top 4 finish at Grand Prix Louisville last weekend, I didn't think anything related to playing Magic would be important enough to me to consider adding to my list. But it's important to have goals.
It's important to have goals...
I'm a very competitive person
I'm also a very feeling-driven, unfocused person. Not in the sense that I have a hard time focusing on menial or boring tasks that I need to accomplish in my daily life, but in that my actions and motivations outside of things I need to do to survive are largely driven by feeling things out in the moment, and as such are always subject to change. This might not seem that important, but the story of how I was convinced to travel for fourteen hours in the cramped back seat of a truck with four other dudes to play a game I wasn't sure if I even liked anymore, and what happened while I was there (the $1,000 Cabal Therapy, Wang's adventures into the Kentucky nightlife...), makes more sense if you know these things about me.
I was initially approached by my buddy Kevin about helping him test out some new version of Deathblade with Noble Hierarchs in it for Louisville against the Grixis Delver deck I had just split the finals of a local 1K with. At this point, I was feeling like a solid lock to not go to Louisville – I've been playing guitar a lot and didn't want to take days off from it, plus I was sure I wouldn't do well as I had only just started playing Magic again after about a year off. After beating him four or five games in a row, he asked:
“Are you coming with us? We have room for one more”.
“I don't know yet. I'll let you know”. I was pretty sure I wasn't going.
“Well, whatever, just let me know soon” he said.
That was that. At that point, I had decided I wasn't going... until the next day, when Max, Kevin's co-pilot, messaged me on Facebook:
“I hear you will be joining us”. I was confused about how that was gathered and passed along from what I had said. Maybe Max figured I needed more convincing. I don't know.
“C'mon brotha I was stoked, first beer is on me”.
That was that. At that point, I was a lock to play in Grand Prix Louisville.
* * *
I start glossing over Chas' decklist, quickly realizing that we have the exact same maindeck. On the draw in the mirror, I don't feel favored. I try to comfort myself with the fact that my Pro Tour invite was locked up, and the difference between $1,500, $2,500, $5,000 or $10,000 isn't a big deal when I wasn't expecting to make any money this weekend anyway. Our first game begins with mulligans to six on both sides, but quickly erupts in typical Delver mirror fashion. We trade removal spells for creatures and Wasteland each other, until he plays a Deathrite Shaman I have no answer for, and I play a Young Pyromancer he has no answer for. He untaps with his Deathrite Shaman, three mana available, plays his own Young Pyromancer, then plays a Ponder into my Daze. I had to Daze the Ponder to get an elemental token to match his, to stop him from finding an answer for my only creature, and because I wasn't sure the Daze would do anything else now that he had more mana than I could hope to contain. Still, things weren't looking good. He had two cards in his hand that I had no concrete information about, and my hand was a Wasteland, a Scalding Tarn, and the Underground Sea I had just picked up for my Daze. I gulp nervously as I slowly draw my card for the turn...
* * *
I decided not to play any trials on Friday even though I had no byes. Instead I spent the day saying hi to familiar faces and jamming games with Kevin and fellow upstate player Ethan. This was vacation, after all. I wasn't here to stress over anything. At least, I didn't think I was, until the adrenaline hit me after the player meeting Saturday morning...
There is something pure about competing at Magic that gets me in the zone, especially competing at Legacy. I had forgotten how intense it could be. It's my cards vs. their cards, trying to control my expressions while reading theirs, and adjusting my plan to beat what I think theirs is. What a good feeling it is having correctly assessed all of these things to cobble together a match win. After winning a mirror match in round one with relative ease, then managing to beat a turn 1 Chalice of the Void for 1 when my opener was five one-drops and two lands, I felt like this was my tournament. Somehow I felt like my decisions, from mulligans to how to navigate board states to reading what could be in my opponents' hands to gauging and playing to my outs in tough situations was more clean and accurate than it had ever been (speaking of mulligans, I think I counted 16 games where I threw hands back at least once in the swiss, but I felt like it was right 100% of the time... maybe I really am getting better at this).
I don't know if I should attribute this to the fact that I had been focusing on other areas of my life, opening up or exercising parts of my brain I didn't have full access to before, or if I just wasn't as burned out and stressed about Magic as I was when I was grinding to relatively little success, allowing me to focus on simply playing for the sake of playing the best that I could. It was probably some combination thereof. The hyperbolic time chamber of adulthood was demonstrating itself to be more useful for improving at Magic than actually playing Magic, which while counter-intuitive, makes a lot of sense to me in the context of my own life.
Some relief came across me when I was 6-0 after round six, but by that point, I wasn't going to be OK with just making day two. I had set a goal for myself mid-tournament: to qualify for the Pro Tour. After all, it's important to have goals. The list in my head looked like:
- End day 1 undefeated (easy)
- End day 2 at x-2 for PT qualification and top 8 (medium)
- Win the Grand Prix (hard)
I knew I was unlikely to win the whole thing, but even achieving the “easy” goal turned out to be more difficult than I had hoped. It's easy to be optimistic when you're on a hot streak, I guess. I ended the day 8-1, dropping a match that wasn't very close in round nine to Cody Napier, who also ended up making top 8. After declining an invitation to partake in some of the more exotic parts of the Louisville night life, I went to bed exhausted and fell asleep instantly.
On Sunday I played some of the most difficult Magic of my life. After some super-close matches against Oliver Tiu (who beat me), Mike Derczo, and JP Sohi, and some not-so-close matches against others, I was 13-2, putting me at 7th seed for the top 8 of Grand Prix Louisville. I was feeling kind of nervous, kind of excited, and kind of like I wanted to sleep, the physical and mental manifestation of which was me staring blankly running my hands through my hair while I contemplated how a society got to a point where some of its people think spending their time and resources on a children's card game is a thing they should do. I was still stuck in this complete mess of thought while we took the top 8 picture, making the fact that BBD and Reid Duke were standing to the left and right of me even more weird than it already was.
Anyway, about that Cabal Therapy...
* * *
Honestly, I was surprised enough that I had untapped with a Young Pyromancer in the mirror, but I knew as soon as I drew the Cabal Therapy that my deduction skills were really going to be put to the test. If I didn't nab both cards in his hand, I probably wasn't going to win that game. So what was in his hand? I knew he didn't have a removal spell, or he for sure would have just killed my only creature. I also had the read that he didn't have Daze, because he would have Dazed me back when I Dazed his Ponder the previous turn. He also couldn't have been holding a land, because he didn't make a land drop on the previous turn and he would have played one before Pondering in case I had Daze. From there I gathered that he must have either a Force of Will without a blue card to pitch and a creature, or two creatures that weren’t one drops, or a cantrip and a creature, or two cantrips. From this deduction, I figured I should name a cantrip. He had already used a Ponder, so I figured I should probably name Brainstorm.
His other card was Gurmag Angler, which I also stripped away. He drew a Wasteland for his next turn, which I didn't mind because I had so many lands. My next draw was Ponder, and from there, winning was academic. I know that was only game one, but I stole it on the draw because of that topdecked Cabal Therapy, and the next two games went exactly how the matchup is supposed to go. Winning that match meant I was $1,000 richer than I would have been if I didn't, making that the match of the $1,000 Cabal Therapy.
My death in top 4 against Andrew Sullano was thankfully pretty quick and painless. Over the three total turn cycles that our match lasted, he managed to put Griselbrand into play twice through my Force of Wills. Not counting the time we spent looking at decklists, shuffling, and sideboarding, I died in about two minutes. It was kind of an anticlimactic end to my tournament life, but at least Andrew was probably the funniest dude I played against through the whole event. Still I have to admit, when I left the grind in 2015, I didn't think a Pro Tour qualification was something that was in the writing for me anymore. I came out of this tournament feeling much different about Magic than I did going in. It may be fleeting, but I do feel like I owe it to my past self to give it my all at this Pro Tour. He wanted this way more than I do.
By the way, Max never bought me that beer. See you in Nashville.
P.S. Thank you Kevin, Max, Will, Erik for dragging me along, and thank you Rob, the best fake testing partner/loose deck engineer.
P.P.S. I will post quick summaries of all 17 matches I played in the comments since I know people like those.