Tuesday, October 30, 2012

My Grand Prix: Philadelphia

I didn't win. I made a mistake in a grinder that cost me a spot in the finals. I did not swap into a better deck when appropriate in the Grand Prix and promptly dropped at 2-3. I rushed home Sunday to beat home Hurricane Sandy.

That is the "too long; didn't read" version of my weekend for the Twitter generation. But here's the story:

Until this past weekend, I had never been to a Grand Prix. I had been moderately serious about Magic for a long time, but it is only in the past year that I have acquired a job and a life situation that allows me to travel with friends for a weekend. Philadelphia is also a prime location, being just about two hours from where I live and is a city I have visited before (once for a PTQ, twice for work). The fact that the format was Return to Ravnica limited cemented the fact in my head: I had to go to Philadelphia. Luckily, I am keyed into a fantastic gamer network centered around the Twenty Sided Store- I would not be alone. 

Even at 28, the prospect of going to such a large event alone seemed daunting. Sure, I would know people, but knowing there would be at least a dozen familiar faces eased any nerves I would have had.

Although my original hotel plans fell through, the NYC Magic Google group came through and I was set up to stay in a room with two other competitors and a judge for the event. I opted to take the floor since I have a bed roll and don't mind using it. Friday morning rolls around and I finish packing and get the call: two of my passengers, Li and Zach are here. We go to load up the car and stroll back to 7th and 9th. We spot our final party member, Connor -the judge I am staying with- and wave him over. We load up on provisions (coffee) and promptly get on our way. 
The ride down was uneventful, and full of discussions about (what else) Magic. The only disturbance (if you can call it that) was the obvious odor when we entered New Jersey.  We reach Philadelphia in under two hours, and see other 20 Siders walking towards the hotel. I roll down my window and holler, happy to see familiar faces. It takes me a while to figure out exactly how to get to the valet area, which leads to a sequence of rights and lefts around what can only be described as a traffic spiral. Finally, our bags are dropped off and we proceed to the convention center to try an earn byes.

Grand Prix are large tournaments that qualify the top four finishers for the Magic Pro Tour. Players can earn up to three byes (free wins) by holding a certain professional level or competing enough in the previous season. The day before the main event, there are feeder tournaments known as grinders that allow people to win the right to start with three free wins.

Once our party reaches the tournament site, we all go to register for Saturday. At the registration table, I run into the incredibly tall Nathan Holt, who makes the Walk the Planes videos. I make a joke about our disparate height and he chuckles. I wander the dealer booths and eventually run into Eric Klug from Klug Alters, and talk to him (at him?) briefly about Cube. I regroup with my friends and head back out to the Reading Terminal Market. This is one of the reasons to play major tournaments in Philadelphia- a huge food court of awesome options located across the street. Our mixed group scouts the location, and I opt for the Cajun stand. On the way to get my food, I run into Chris Pikula and introduce myself. I had been communicating with Chris on Twitter leading up to this event, as I live in his former neighborhood. We share a laugh, and head on our way. Once we have all acquired food, it was time to grind.
Out of the 32 people in the tournament, 7 of us came from the same store. I win my first three rounds with ease (my pool of cards was quite strong) and it was my overly aggressive play in the last game of the semi-finals that cost me a chance to play for the byes. However, I am not upset. I know I cost myself the byes, and I tell myself I will not make the same mistake in the Grand Prix.

I guess I lied to myself just a little.

Rather than sign up for another event, I opt to get dinner and wander around the convention center for a while before opting for sleep. I make my way back to the hotel and eventually pass out in my corner, excited for what Saturday would bring.

Saturday morning rolls around and I make my way to the shower in the darkness of the room, attempting to not wake anyone else up. It does not matter, as by the time Connor and I leave to get breakfast, everyone is starting to get ready. I wear my Twenty Sided Store shirt, donated by the store, and proceed to the site.

Lauren and Luis run the store, and sent down the shirts with a few regulars. They did not ask me for money, instead giving us the shirts as a way to promote their store. However, for the first time in I do not know how long, those shirts made me feel like a part of a team. It was made even cooler by the fact that one of the people I was staying with, the one who booked the room, helped to get the store started before moving to California. 

I mill about the site, seeing familiar faces. Some of them I know personally, some I recognize from Magic coverage. There is tension in the air; the tournament is about to begin, but the specter of Hurricane Sandy lingers at the back of our collective consciousness. However, they seat us and we get to start looking at the pools of cards we will be registering. Finally, we have the opportunity to get the cards we will be playing for the day. I'm seated next to Owen Turtenwald, former Player of the Year. Part of me wants to ask him to take a look, to give me advice. I know it is against the rules, but my desire to get better is kept in check by my desire to compete.

The tournament itself does not go well. I win my first two rounds, but make a mistake that costs me a game in round three. I never get a chance as my opponent easily takes game two. In rounds four and five, I play against decks that are much better than mine and proceed to resign from the tournament. But my weekend was just getting started.
After refueling on food, I start making my way around the hall. I end up grabbing friends who had been eliminated for a Cube Draft. We sit ourselves a table away from Adam Styborski. Adam is someone I count as a friend. We started chatting about Pauper Cubes almost two years ago, and have kept up communication. He tried to lure me out of semi-retirement for writing when he took over Gathering Magic, but I declined. A few weeks later, I was writing for Star City. Oh well. I show him my draft deck and he gets a devious gleam in his eye. During this time, I run into Chris Pikula again and he introduces me to other gamers from Park Slope. Small world. 
As the day draws to a close, we stop playing and start watching our friends, looking out for those who will get to come back on day two. One by one our friends are eliminated. But one makes it through. Lirek, the youngest of our group finishes his round and comes running over to us, arms in the air. He made day two.
If I take one thing away from the Grand Prix, it will be the look of happiness on Lirek's face as he got lifted into the air.
I close the night by speaking to Steve Sadin of the coverage team after he finishes his shift. Steve is a good man, and we had run into each other the weekend before the Grand Prix at a food fair. We chat about limited and New York Sports. Eventually I meander back to my friends, make plans for the next day (as Sandy is definitely going to be an issue) and eventually pass out.

Sunday comes and I once again grab breakfast with Connor. He judges, I pass time at the tournament site. I play a few games of one-on-one Commander, watch friends draft, and try to help Lirek keep his cool. Eventually I run into Nathan and Adam again, and watch them crack packs of Mirage for some free-for-all multiplayer sealed. I'm introduced to Jon, one of the writers for Gathering Magic who just finished an ambitious and epic writing project in 52 FNMs. 
I wanted to stay, but the sky was getting darker. Last year, Hurricane Irene altered my plans for moving. This year, it altered my plans for fun. 
We loaded up my car, swapped Connor (who had to stay and judge) for Tim, and headed home. Again, no problems (aside from the smell in New Jersey, and my GPS falling off the windshield) and made it home with enough time to stock up in advance of the storm.

I scrubbed out, I made mistakes, and I had an amazing time. I regret my play mistakes, but what I regret more is not making an effort to talk to some of the luminaries of the game. I guess this just means I will have to do it again at the next Grand Prix I attend.

Because I am going to go again. How could I not?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Re: My last post

To the person who commented on my last post:
Please e-mail me at my staff account- let's start the conversation again.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Becoming "The Man"

I never set out for this to happen.
In my life outside work, I don't think anyone would confuse me for "The Man." I'm  a self-professed nerd, lover of Star Wars and superheroes. I listen to punk rock. My main hobby is a card game. I may be 28, but in a lot of ways, I'm just a boy who grew up.
Of course, unlike children, I have a job. More than that, I have a career.
I work in Student Affairs. It's not a well understood job by people outside the field (although anyone who has gone to college has probably interacted with someone who works in Student Affairs). My job is to help ensure students at the college I work at have the best possible time outside of class. Other people in my field help them with their residence situation, their mental health, or help tutor them. Student Affairs attracts a certain kind of professional- one who wants to improve the quality of life for the people they work with. It is incredibly rewarding, and there is rarely a day when I do not want to go into work.
There are challenges, however. Even though we work closely with students, we are no longer students ourselves. I can strive all I want to put my finger on the pulse of what a college aged person wants, but I can only approximate their desires based upon anecdotes and trends. I also am beholden to the college at large, and have to take a long view. This is not a bad thing, but sometimes students can look past this. After all, most of them are around for four years- many long term projects will not be completed in their tenure. 
But this is not about them.
At the start of 2012 I began a project to open up some space for general student use. I had (and have) the support of my supervisor, my division, and other important parties on campus (including students). However, a vocal minority wanted more input, spearheaded by one former student. This made sense: the space was supposed to be for students, and our plan took student input into account, just not in the way this group imagined. They denied my request for meetings and slowly faded into the background.
Until the Diversity Committee started to meet. The same former student attended, and he and I got into a heated exchange. He wanted to open up our facilities to the public for a free education. I took the long view and said it would devalue an education here, and that our students should come first.
It was brief. It ended quickly.
Then I got an e-mail. It's an e-mail many SA Professionals get in their career. It is the e-mail that labels them a racist. 
It was then that I really had the realization that to this student, I was part of the system. I was an oppressor, keeping the students down, putting limitations on freedoms, and generally doing all the things one thinks "The Man" should do. 
I sent a polite reply, apologizing for my tone, but not for my position, and the student disappeared until this week. 
The project I had been working on for student space is ongoing, and we opened to the campus community at the start of this semester. The reaction has been slow- many members did not even know the place existed, and drawing people to a cavernous room, even with comfortable furniture, has been a challenge. This person appeared again, in an e-mail to my and my Vice-President, sarcastically pointing out the failure of the space in his eyes. My VP responded back, asking this ex-student to be constructive and defended me.
That felt nice. However, there I am again, being firmly entrenched in the role of "The Man," standing there, with support of the institution.
One more e-mail came, one that received no reply.
In this e-mail, I am blasted for what this student perceives as a project solely for my ego, and then called me Napoleonic.
I had a laugh, and realized I could not turn back.
I had been attacked on the basis of my height, something I had no control over.
I had been insulted without base, but rather because I disagreed and stood my ground.
And yet, I am still The Man. I am standing in someone's way of their perceived utopia.

And I am perfectly fine with this. 

I am the Man, in this respect. I am part of the system. I can do all the good I can, but there will always be someone who is not pleased with my action.

And when they fall back to attacks on me, and not my actions, they become part of a system too.

Me? I'll be playing cards and rocking out.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Death and the Force

I had an article published on Star City Games yesterday. This is nothing new. Neither is the criticism I received in the comments. What was new was my reaction: for the first time, I felt uneasy. I felt like someone had hit me right in the emotion box. Maybe it was because I was reading it at 8am, or maybe it was because the criticism was articulate and did not attack me, but rather attacked the site for publishing my content. 


I am not one to shy away from criticism- I actively strive to improve my output. Whether it is writing, my work, or just being a friend- I want to do better. Unlike work and life, writing necessitates a separation from the time of intent and the reaction of the public. Even with the quick turnaround time of Magic writing, I can write an article and have it sit for a week before it goes live. This is nothing compared to books and other publications, which can sit for long periods of time, going through multiple revisions and little deaths before the final product is consumed. My writing is far more raw- one, two, maybe three vut downs and adds, distilling my perfect thought into crude words. Nothing I write is ever exactly what I want to write, but just a gross approximation- the shadows on the walls of a cave.

But this is the death every author, every writer, has to experience. One of my favorite moments of college was learning about Barthes' "Death of the Author." As I learned it- as it was instructed in English 301- Introduction to Theory and Criticism- the basic idea is that once a work is released into the world, the author no longer has any say in how it is received. The intended meaning does not matter, as the work now belongs to the masses and everyone can assign their own, sometimes personal, interpretation. 
This resonated with me for many reasons, not the least of which was the Star Wars Prequels were out at the time. Being a  huge Star Wars fan, it struck me as arrogant that George Lucas could go and revive his authorship of the Star Wars Universe, one that was "owned" by the world, and turn it on its ear. Lucas yanked Star Wars away from the fans, away from people who had loved it for their entire lives and changed it. We were the authors of our own imagination, but Lucas erased that with a metric-fuck-ton of CGI. 

In the modern world, can the author ever really die? The internet makes feedback instantaneous and visceral. Trolls proliferate, sometimes just for the sake of being critics. This loop means that the author and critic can have a nearly real time conversation, where the stronger will can impose his/her meaning for the world to see. 

The Force is strong with this one.

I try avoid commenting in my articles (unless I make a glaring omission or want to clarify a point), The truth is, I am rarely happy with what I write. I expect it to be dissected and critiqued. I use it as fuel to improve, and source material for more writing (such as this piece here). So do I die as an author? I'm not entirely sure. I think for any one who is an internet person, Barthes' death is more akin to the state of Schrodinger's Cat. 

But who is going to check the box?

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord

I've been intending to use this blog to chronicle some of my EDH/Commander escapades and decks. After much prodding my Mike (my 2HG partner from my previous post), I am going to post my updated Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord deck.
This deck started years ago as a Darigaaz, the Igniter deck. Then, it transformed into a Glissa, the Traitor deck followed by a Skullbriar, the Walking Grave deck as described here.
Jarad is a graveyard based deck. Shocking, I know. It differs from many other Commander decks I have seen in that it runs only two spells that cost six or more. This is to help make Dark Confidant better (and I was inspired by Sheldon Menery's work on this Nath of the Gilt-Leaf deck). This skews the deck towards being aggressive, which is fine by me. I run quite a few ways to fill my graveyard (Survival of the Fittest, Hermit Druid, Life from the Loam, Jarad's Orders, Greater Good, Lotleth Troll, Splinterfright, Corpse Connoisseur, Phyrexian Plaguelord, Gobbling Ooze, Grim Backwoods) and other cards to take advantage of this fact (Life from the Loam, Splinterfright, Reanimate, Coffin Queen, Necromancy, Kessig Cagebreakers, Genesis, Grim Harvest, Volrath's Stronghold, Phyrexian Reclamation, Living End). There is also a +1/+1 counter theme, a hold over from Skullbriar, but still potent (Oran-Rief, the Vastwood, Corpsejack Menace, Dreg Mangler, Deadbridge Golaith, Champion of Lambholt, Increasing Savagery, Gobbling Ooze, Scavenging Ooze).
The deck is a machine in that everything works well together, and right now, I am very happy with how the deck plays. It is a ton of fun and is never really lacking for resources.

Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord

Blood Artist
Bloodgift Demon
Bone Shredder
Coffin Queen
Corpse Connoisseur
Dark Confidant
Demonic Tutor
Disciple of Griselbrand
Falkenrath Noble
Grave Pact
Grim Harvest
Harvester of Souls
Living Death
Phyrexian Plaguelord
Phyrexian Reclamation
Skeletal Scrying
Skirsdag High Priest

Awakening Zone
Champion of Lambholt
Deadbridge Goliath
Eternal Witness
Garruk Wildspeaker
Gobbling Ooze
Greater Good
Hermit Druid
Increasing Savagery
Indrik Stomphowler
Kessig Cagebreakers
Life from the Loam
Lotus Cobra
Mold Shambler
Oracle of Mul Daya
Scavening Ooze
Survival of the Fittest
Sylvan Library
Yavimaya Elder
Yavimaya Granger

Corpsejack Menace
Creakwood Liege
Dreg Mangler
Grim Feast
Jarad's Orders
Lotleth Troll
Savra, Queen of the Golgari

Lightning Greaves
Nihil Spellbomb
Nim Deathmantle
Sol Ring
Solemn Simulacrum
Sword of Light and Shadow

Barren Moor
Bojuka Bog
Command Tower
Evolving Wilds
Golgari Guildgate
Golgari Rot Farm
Grim Backwoods
Oran-Rief, the Vastwood 
Pine Barrens
Polluted Mire
Rogue's Passage
Slippery Karst
Tainted Wood
Temple of the False God
Terramorphic Expanse
Tranquil Thicket
Treetop Village
Verdant Catacombs
Volrath's Stronghold
Winding Canyons
Forest (9)
Swamp (7)

Monday, October 1, 2012

For the Swarm- My Return to Ravnica Prerelease Weekend

To say I was excited for the Return to Ravnica prerelease would be a gross understatement. Wizards has been doing an excellent of making a prerelease feel like an event rather than just a tournament. Playing with Return to Ravnica would allow me to preselect one of my favorite color combinations- green/black AKA Golgari- and receive a special guild pack full of Golgari goodies. I could not wait.
Seeing as I had work for an unknown amount of time on Saturday, I signed up to play Sunday morning. Work, thankfully, was over by 1pm which gave me enough time to drive over to the 20-Sided Store and see if there were any slots for the afternoon sealed or evening 2-Headed Giant event. I was in luck- one of the players had signed up for 2HG alone, hoping to find a partner on site- a role I gladly took. I left after the afternoon flight fired and returned a few hours later to partner with Mike. We opened a fun pool, with a shocking three Lotleth Trolls (I was Golgari, he was Rakdos and got two of the Trolls in his packs). We built our decks poorly but had a blast anyway, ending up at 1-2. 2HG is not my cup of tea, but I would do it again if I found someone to team with. However, my heart was set on the next morning.
After far too little sleep, I woke up before my alarm and trudged through a morning routine of showering, getting a bagel and coffee, and driving to 20-Sided. Unexpected traffic meant I arrived with a few moments to spare, but still early enough to not have Luis frantically calling me and other players clamoring for my spot. I got my guild pack and sat down, said hi to the other players at my table, and waited. After what felt like forever, I cracked my packs and sorted their contents. This is the pool I was given to do battle with on the day (I've opted to go color-guild-color, breaking up WUBRG for organization purposes):


Armory Guard (2)
Azorius Arrester
Concordia Pegasus
Eyes in the Skies
Sunspire Griffin
Swift Justice
Rest in Peace (2)
Trained Caracal
Trostani's Judgement


Dramatic Rescue
Hussar Patrol (2)
Lyev Skyknight (2)


Faerie Imposter
Chronic Flooding
Isperia's Skywatch (2)
Soulsworn Spirit
Sphinx of the Chimes


Essence Backlash
Izzet Charm
Pursuit of Flight


Bellows Lizard
Explosive Impact
Gore-House Chainwalker
Lobber Crew
Racecourse Fury
Splatter Thug
Tenement Crasher
Traitorous Instinct
Viashino Racketeer


Deviant Glee
Havoc Festival
Rakdos Cackler
Rakdos Shred-Freak
Spawn of Rix-Maadi


Catacomb Slug
Destroy the Evidence
Drainpipe Vermin
Launch Party
Mind Rot (2)
Perilous Shadow (2)
Slum Reaper
Shrieking Affliction


Corpsejack Menace
Dreg Mangler
Golgari Charm
Golgari Guildgate (2)
Golgari Keyrune (2)
Golgari Longlegs
Grisly Salvage (2)
Jarad's Orders
Sluiceway Scorpion (2)
Stonefare Crocodile
Trestle Troll


Aerial Predation (2)
Centaur's Herald
Chorus of Might
Drudge Beetle
Gatecreeper Vine (2)
Giant Growth
Korozda Monitor
Rubbleback Rhino
Urban Burgeoning

Selesnya Sentry

Chromatic Lantern
Tablet of the Guilds

This was a challenging build (or at least my sleep deprived mind thought so at the time). Golgari was nice, but the curve made me nervous that morning. I also felt the need for greed, as two Gatecreeper Vine and a Chromatic Lantern would make it far easier to play multiple colors. I was also excited by the plethora of creatures with Detain in blue and white, as well as their nifty combat tricks and their almost dragon. After laying a few different builds out, this is what I did battle with on Sunday morning:

Azorius Arrester
Trostani's Judgement
Launch Party
Isperia's Skywatch (2)
Soulsworn Spirit
Sphinx of the Chimes
Lyev Skyknight (2)
Hussar Patrol (2)
Dramatic Rescue
Launch Party
Corpsejack Menace
Golgari Keyrune
Centaur's Herald
Drudge Beetle
Gatecreeper Vine (2)
Korozda Monitor
Rubbleback Rhino
Chromatic Lantern
2 Golgari Guildgate
7 Forest
4 Island
4 Plains

Relevant Sideboard
Golgari Charm
Golgari Keyrune
Golgari Longlegs
Aerial Predation (2)

I am fairly certain this was not the correct build of this color combination, let alone for the pool. If I could do it again, I would definitely include the Syncopate main, as well as the Faerie Imposter, likely at the cost of Centaur's Herald and Corpsejack Menace (which is not very impressive in my deck). It is also possible that I missed a fairly strong Simic-Golgari build, splashing white for the two Skyknights and the Judgement, and adding better black cards.

After laying out all my cards after (and letting my rubber band brain snap back to original size), it became obvious to me I missed a pretty strong Golgari-Rakdos build that ran Perilous Shadows that could get scary when fueled by Chromatic Lantern. While I am never happy about making an error (especially one that looks so obvious now), I am happy it happened at a prerelease.

As far as the tournament itself...

Round 1 I played against Malcolm, a Small Child who opened his pool at my table. I knew he was Azorius and his deck was pretty strong (but had shaky mana to support green and Loxodon Smiter). I took game one on the back of Detain creatures, and he repaid in kind in game two. Game three he stalled on land and it was over quickly.
After the round another store regular (Seth) and I helped Malcolm tune his deck. I remember the days when the other Grown Ups would do the same for me, and I won't lie- it makes me smile to think I'm now that guy.

Round 2 was against the terse Sam. I could tell from the way he carried himself that he took this seriously. Game 1 was a back and forth affair, with his Bant deck pumping out tokens and my Bant deck Detaining them. He gained a ton of life off a Azorius Charm and then wiped the board clean with a Supreme Verdict, before dealing the killing blows with a bird token when I could not find a blocker. When I finally drew a Skyknight to detain the token and buy me a turn, he exiled it with Trostani's Judgement on my end step, netting himself another attacker.
In game two, I sided aggressively, taking out a land for a second Keyrune, and bad cards for Aerial Predation, Golgari Charm, and Syncopate. Sam was the aggressor early in this game, and I had to play out my hand quickly to keep my life total high. Eventually the board is empty, as is my hand. Same lays an Archon of the Triumvirate, which is sure to do me in. So of course I rip an Aerial Predation. Sam musters another creature that is going to do me in, but I rip a creature with Detain to stop his attack and crack back for the win.
Side note: This is why I was so drawn to the build I played. Detain is incredibly powerful in the stalled board states of sealed, and they make for excellent topdecks.
Game 3 was unexciting, as I curved out and smashed Sam in fairly uninteresting fashion.

Round 3 I was paired with Andrew who won game one on the back of Guttersnipe and multiple spells. Game two my mana base came back to bite me and I was quickly down 0-2.

Round 4 set me against my nemesis- Dyan. I like Dylan, but the previous two times we have played, he has won the match on the back of epic bluffs. However, we always have good fun when we play, and agreed on a split for four packs each. We sat down to play for fun...because Magic. Dylan dispatches me fairly quickly with his nuts Golgari deck in game 1. Game two I stabilize (and manage to counter his Deadbridge Goliath with Syncopate, which elicited a string good natured swears). However, Death's Presence was too much, and I died.

2-2, four packs, and good times. The weekend was a success, and it was only Sunday afternoon. Dyland and I got our packs and "drafted" them to see who would get which pack. After some shenanigans and trades, we decided to each open one pack. Dylan went first and cracked nothing exciting. Then it was my turn.

I cracked Jace.

Sometimes, the rich get richer.