By Roberto Moser • September 26, 2016
The beauty of attending a Grand Prix
Gran Prix are one of the best opportunities for Magic players to enjoy their favourite game in an immersive environment, fully dedicated to all things Magic. A weekend-long celebration of the game, every Grand Prix provides players with the opportunity to compete at high-level stages, meet amazing people, enjoy casual side events, buy, trade and sell cards, get to know the artists and, most importantly, spend some time just enjoying the game, the people, the atmosphere.
If you are a competitive player, you certainly know and love the thrills of playing on Day 2 of a Grand Prix, aiming at a Top 8 that can lead to a whole new world of competitive Magic possibilities. If you are a casual player, you are likely a fan of whacky side events, amazing Chaos Drafts and small stages of competition. Everyone can enjoy these events, provided they come equipped with love for the game and, even better, enthusiasm for the Magic community.
The best part about a Grand Prix is that it can ignite the competitive spark of the casual players and, at the same time, push grinders towards the infinite horizons of casual fun. The competitive/casual dichotomy blurs into shades of attitude, allowing players to have fun on their own terms.
There comes a time when even the most competitive of players, after missing Day Two, is happy to just crack some packs and have some casual fun at the Sunday Sealed Deck event. After nine tough rounds of high-level Standard, maybe all you want to do is just stand in line for a few minutes – or even hours – to meet your favourite artist, chat with fellow Magic players and discuss your favourite arts and flavour texts.
On the other side of the spectrum, maybe you have been travelling to a Grand Prix once of twice a year and now you want to step up your game. Maybe, after Chaos Drafts and Two Headed Giant tournaments, you just want to sit at the table and play for a chance to win some high-level matches.
This is where our story starts. In this second issue of the Mistake Column, I want to share some amazingly awful mistakes I have made at various Grand Prix, proving that casual players have all the rights to aim high, if they come prepared. Which is something I was not. At all.
Our first main event: how to be fully unprepared
After some years grinding side events at local GPs – because, apparently, one can grind side events – my friends and I decided to finally aim for the big stage: Grand Prix Florence 2015 or bust.
We chose this particular Grand Prix as our debut to competitive Magic for a couple of reasons. First of all, we can get there quite quickly via train. Secondly, the format is Dragons of Tarkir / Fate Reforged Team Sealed and we are pretty sure we can have some fun, helping each other building and playing some Limited decks. Finally, Florence is a beautiful city with a very fine culinary tradition, so at worst we can enjoy some fine cuisine and visit the city.
This is where professional players would start testing Team Sealed deck construction. This is where strategy and deckbuilding would be profusely discussed among teammates. This is where competitive players would analyze data and get an idea of the best decks to build, the best strategies to exploit, the best Colours to mix together.
For those of you who do not know what Team Sealed is let me explain it very briefly. In a Team Sealed tournament, each team of three players receives a total of twelve unopened packs – at GP Florence you would receive eight packs of Dragons of Tarkir and four packs of Fate Reforged – to build three different decks of at least forty cards each. Teams then compete with each other, playing three parallel matches of Magic against the opposing team – player A from the first team faces player A from the second team, player B from the first team faces player B from the second team and player C from the first team faces player C from the second team. Players may discuss Mulligan choices, specific plays and strategies during matches, but cards from different players can never interact with each other – for example, player A can’t cast Press the Advantage targeting player B’s Creatures, as all games happen separately. The first team to win two out of the three parallel matches wins.
As you can see, the format requires quite a lot of ability. Good players come fully prepared, knowing all the cards that could come out of the boosters, how to balance their decks, what archetypes they could face, how to play around specific cards. Good players know what they are doing.
But we are not those players. We go in completely unprepared, with just a Prerelease and a couple of Booster Drafts to define our initial impression of the format. We never even try building three different decks from a pool of twelve random boosters. We blast through the front door with the wisdom of a madman wielding a flamethrower at a gas station.
Our first main event: how to brace for impact
Before I tell you how the actual Grand Prix went, I would like to take a small detour to adequately portray the state of mind of my friends and I before the actual main event. If you’re only interested in Magic-related discussions, feel free to skip to the next section, as this one will mostly deal with the emotional rollercoaster that led to our Grand Prix.
We arrive to Florence on Friday afternoon, pumped and ready to rock the stage. We immediately visit the beautiful castle where the GP will take place on the next day, acquire our exclusive playmats and play a couple of games of Commander before dinner. Player A and Player B – I’ll keep this anonymous, so you’ll have to guess which one is me – manage to avoid a fight when the team finds out Player A forgot to bring his Commander deck. Fortunately the team has a spare deck and the first crisis is averted.
Dinner time comes and the team decides to try a typical restaurant near the hotel. All the team indulges in a fiorentina, a very typical grilled T-bone steak that takes its name from the city itself. Things get real when Player C – who had skipped lunch and was definitely starving – decides to also order spaghetti allo scoglio, a fish-based entrée that definitely clashes with the meat-based main course. For some reason, Player B takes personal offense in this order from his teammate and the two get into a pretty serious and unjustified fight.
At the end of the dinner, the team takes a brief tour of the city and ultimately decides to head back to the hotel, hoping for a full night of sleep in preparation for the Grand Prix. Having to share a room, the players spend a good hour talking about Magic, but ultimately fall asleep.
The third and by far the most dramatic moment of tension happens sometimes between 3 AM and 5 AM, when player A starts snoring in the most brutal way imaginable, immediately waking Player B and Player C up. The rest of the night is a blurred mess of sleep deprivation for the two unfortunate teammates of Player A.
When morning comes, two thirds of the team can hardly stay awake, Player B is somehow still mad at Player C for the entrée choice from the previous night and Player A seems to be the only one having a vague idea of the situation.
Now imagine this odd trio walking into the Grand Prix.
Our first main event: how to unsuccessfully manage tension
The team receives the pool and starts the usual ballet of Sealed deckbuilding. Cards are divided by Colour, bombs are singled out of the bunch of available cards and unplayables are quickly dismissed. The initial tension – we were attending our first main event, after all! – is rapidly replaced by an fuorious frenzy.
The team is absolutely stoked with the pool. Two Sunscorch Regents, a Foe-Razer Regent, a Deathmist Raptor, a Den Protector, a Sidisi, Undead Vizier, a Crux of Fate, a Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest are among the top Rares coming out of the packs. There is a lot of great options to work with. Once again, this is where good players would start analyzing possible decks and curves. Once again, we are not those players.
We start with the most obvious and hasty approach possible: put all the White and Green Dragons together, to fully exploit the powerhouse that is Foe-Razer Regent. Since we’re at it, we jam in all the good White and Green cards, obviously including Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector. Done.
We are left with Blue, Black and Red. Because Khans of Tarkir is supposed to focus on Allied Colour Pairs, we split Black in two: the aggressive half gets paired with Red and the Control-ish half gets paired with Blue. Done.
We review the decks and feel amazing, never questioning our choices because, after all, we are playing all our Rares, aside for Shu Yun the Silent Tempest. Which is a great card, but we have no reliable way to splash it anywhere.
We decide to give the Red-Black aggressive deck to player A, who loves aggressive and Token-focused strategies. Player B gets the Blue-Black Control deck, because he is the control freak of the team – as you might have guesses from the entrée incident. Player C gets the synergistic White-Green decks, because he is the only one in the team who plays Abzan in Commander, so he probably knows something about that. Apparently this is a correct line of thinking.
We submit our deckslists and feel great, because our deckss look phenomenal. Little did we know that we had just made a mistake after another, running through deckbuilding with blindfolds.
What we felt we submitted were three amazing and complementary decks. What we actually had in our hands was an insanely powerful White-Green deck with more than 80% of the raw power of the entire pool; a Blue-Black filled with removals, but no real way to finish the game; and an all-in aggressive Red-Black beck that would either win the game within turn five or inevitably succumb.
But we were not self-critical enough to see the flaws in our creations. We were just ready to cast some spells and win some matches.
We sit down at the table, shake some hands, introduce ourselves to our opponents and start shuffling. We try hiding our excitement behind a very farfetched mask but it is no secret that all our hands were shaking in excitement. Our opponents are from France, so we chat briefly about their travel, the pools we received, our overall experience with the game.
The game starts and we discuss among ourselves whether or not to keep certain hands. Our opponents do the same, so after the final “I keep” calls a couple of our games start, while Player C from our team takes a Mulligan.
It takes a couple of minutes, but the third game of our table kicks off as well. It takes a couple more seconds, before Player C from our opponents’ team asks “wait, how many cards do you have in you hand?”.
Reality stroke Player C like a Hammer of Purphoros. He had taken a Mulligan to seven, without realizing it. Nervous and hyped for competing in his first Grand Prix, he had shuffle his deck, laid down the usual seven cards and opted to keep, without realizing he was supposed to only draw six. He had played his first turn, so there was no way to take his mistake back. “Unfortunately, I have to give you a game loss”, politely declared the Judge.
Player C got so angry at himself for such an obvious misstep, that he spent the rest of the match in a state of confusion and embarrassment. While Player A and Player B kept encouraging him, he was in such a shock that he was unable to think the rest of the match through. Despite the insanely powerful deck, he lost his match, profoundly apologizing to his teammates, the opponent, the Judge and pretty much anyone who would listen.
Once Player A also fell at the hands of his opponent. It was clear that the team was up for a rough start. Player B, facing a tough Control mirror match, spent pretty much the entire time in a tense Battle of Wits ending his own battle with a tie.
The pause between rounds saw Player C blaming himself for the loss of the entire team. In his eyes, that little mistake had costed his friends the whole first round. Player A and Player B were as supportive as possible, minimizing the mistake and encouraging the friend to get back on the horse and prepare for another ride.
Our first main event: how to have an actual moment of heroism
The team managed to win the second round. Ironically, our opponents had just been defeated by a team of unidentified “Pros from France”. I am almost certain Raphael Levy was indeed attending the Grand Prix, so he might be one of those Pros in question. This second victory managed to lift the morale of the team up and definitely helped Player C regaining his focus.
The best part about this victory is how it actually happened. In all the insane range of mistakes, poor deckbuilding choices and overall bad ideas, the team managed to triumph in such a spectacular and clever way.
Picture the scene: Player C quickly wins his own match, piloting with precision his extremely powerful deck. Player B faces yet another Control mirror match and once again he manages to respond to almost every threat from his opponent, until he realizes his deck is equipped with no way to actually win the game. Our Player B loses is match, so it’s all up to the two players still fighting to decide the outcome of the round.
Each team gathers around its respective Player A. The Red-Black aggressive deck of our team is slowly grinding out damage from the opponent’s White-Blue Control deck. Unfortunately, our opponent casts Narset Transcendent and things start to look very grim.
The Red-Black aggressive deck now has two options: furiously attack Narset and hope to take her out, or aim for the opponent’s life total. Somehow the game turns into a grindfest of Red and Black Creatures getting bounced, destroyed and pacified. Meanwhile, the opponent’s Narset Transcendent is burying Player A under a ridiculous amount of card advantage. Despite having the opponent down to a very low life total, there seems to be no angle of attack for the Red-Black deck.
Player A and Player B suddenly realize that the singleton Sarkhan’s Rage in Player A’s deck is the only way to take down the opponent, as every Creature deployed gets quickly dispatched by the very reactive White-Blue deck piloted by the opponent.
However, Narset Transcendent’s loyalty is quickly climbing up. The activation of her -9 ability would mean the end of all the plans for our team. With a subtle mind game, Player A and Player B decide to approach the situation with the best bluff of their lives. They spend the following three or four turns looking at Player A’s hand, asking the opponents what Narset’s ultimate does and then shrugging in false serenity.
Projecting a very false aura of indifference towards the dreaded ultimate ability of Narset, Player A and Player B manage to trick the opponents into thinking Creature-based attacks will be our intended way to acquire victory. After some discussions among themselves, the opponents decide to keep increasing Narset Transcendent’s loyalty, aiming to draw more reactive spells to hold our Creatures down. They could ultimate Narset, but they decide not to, seeing no value in such a play.
Tense turns pass, with our opponents stuck at very low life and all our Creatures getting dispatched at Instant speed. Until the long-awaited Sarkhan’s Rage shows up and gets cast “to the dome”. The opponents look down at that Narset Transcendent that could have saved them, but are forced to extend the hand. To this day, I still consider this to be one of the best mind games we have ever played, both as players and as a team.
The remaining portion of the tournament proceeds with ups and downs. We lose the following round, manage to get back to a 2-2 record, but ultimately fall during round five. We drop out after five rounds with a 2-3 record, hungry and tired. We interpret the result as a sign, as our 2-3 record ultimately echoes the power and toughness of Pensive Minotaur, for some reason the mascot of our team.
The rest of the Grand Prix is a more relaxed experience, where we meet some amazing people from the community, trade some cards, check some vendors’ stands and spot some Pro Players.
On the train home we all realize how poorly we had built our three decks. First and foremost, we had completely glossed over the possibility of pairing White with Blue. This would have allowed us to play Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest and spread some of our best bombs among all the decks. Secondly, we ignored synergy problems among our decks, essentially playing the best cards in each Colour pair, with little to no regard for the actual strategies of each deck. Sure, playing Sidisi, Undead Vizier to fetch a Crux of Fate was amazing, but the Blue-Black deck had no way to realistically press the advantage after a sweeper, so Player B was often forced into dragged games with little to no way to seal the deal.
We toyed with the idea of re-building the decks just for fun, possibly focusing on a Blue-White flyers deck, a Red-Green beat-down deck and a Red-Black Midrange shell. In the end, we just accept our fate and spend the rest of the trip having some casual fun, pondering on our mistakes just for the sake of chatting.
So this was our first GP main event and what an emotional journey it was. From the tense matches to the amazing spare time spent talking about of favourite game, everything was quite fantastic. Even the sourest moments were somehow filled with a deeper meaning, every mistake contributing to improve our perception of the game. Or so we thought.
The truth is, what doesn’t make you quit Magic actually makes you a better player. Provided you are mature enough to learn from your mistakes.
That time I just went for side events: how to set the scene
Fast-forward to almost one year later; I am given a chance to attend another Grand Prix near me. This time the setting is beautiful Bologna, the format is Modern and the stakes are ridiculously high. We are in the middle of Eldrazi Winter, a dreaded period where Eye of Ugin, Eldrazi Temple, Eldrazi Mimic, Reality Smasher and Simian Spirit Guide are all Modern legal. This combination of cards allows for insanely fast sequences that can lead to a Turn 2 finish. Not only this Eldrazi deck manages to be extremely fast, but it also leaves little to no breathing room to the opponent, as an expertly timed Mana Leak or a well played Path to Exile can not prevent the Eldrazi from applying increasing amounts of pressure on the opponent.
Wizards of the Coast will end up banning Eye of Ugin in Modern on April 4th, 2016, pushing the deck from a format all-star to a still respectable contender. The following months will see the Eldrazi deck morphing into new versions of the list, focusing more on the long game, rather than on its original flashy starts. The deck becomes more manageable, but is still a very respectable list to bring to your local Modern tournament.
But let’s go back to that GP Bologna I wanted to attend. Eldrazi Winter is shaking the Meta and the majority of players either set for the popular net-decked list, or struggle to find countermeasures for its explosive starts. A couple of friends decide to attend the main event, bringing a Dredge deck and a Living End deck, respectively. Another friend, who proudly sports the Affinity list he is most proud of, sets for side events, avoiding the main competition in favour of Booster Drafts, 8-player Modern tournaments and maybe some lines at the artists’ booths.
I am quite intrigued by the possibility of attending the main event, as it would mean rocking my favourite Modern deck in the face of wave after wave of Eldrazi. In the end, I cowardly decide to go for side events, sure that I will have a chance to play my customary list against various opponents in a more relaxed context. I pack my bags and make sure to bring my Esper Mill deck to Bologna.
For those of you who do not know what Esper Mill is, it is a deck that is regarded as either “an insanely interesting concept” or “the worst thing this side of Lantern Control”. Love it or hate it, the purpose of the deck is to mill – which is, to put cards from one’s library directly into one’s graveyard – you opponent’s whole library, until they can not draw any card. The deck plays a lot of cards devoted to this goal, including Hedron Crab, Glimpse the Unthinkable, Mind Funeral and the dreaded Archive Trap. The list I decide to bring features quite a lot of defensive spells, including four copies of Path to Exile and four Supreme Verdicts. After all, I am sure Eldrazi is the deck to beat, so I have to come prepared to face multiple versions of the same deck. My list now feels somehow well positioned to play against what I am sure will be a sequence of Eldrazi: I don’t feel like I can consistently beat the standard Eldrazi list every single time, but I can likely stand my ground better than many other lists, thanks to cards like Surgical Extraction and the imprinting of Dawn Charm on Isochron Scepter.
Expecting loads of Eldrazi deck, I reach the Grand Prix and start registering for Modern side events.
That time I just went for side events: how to misread the Metagame
Between various side events, standing in line for artists, trades, Booster Drafts and a Legacy Tournament – more on this in the following section! – I get to play a total of six rounds of Modern during the whole weekend.
Out of my six opponents, literally none of them plays an Eldrazi list. Not a single one of them. I see way more Eldrazi during the Oath of the Gatewatch Booster Drafts, rather than the Modern tournament. Yes, during Eldrazi Winter.
I meet amazing people, chat during and between games, I have a lot of fun and get to know so many fantastic players. But all I meet is a Melira, Sylvok Outcast Combo deck, a weird White-Black lifegain deck, the classic Affinity deck, a Living End deck, a Blue-White Control deck, and an Ad Nauseam Combo deck.
Too late I realize I know maybe half of the decks I am facing and, as ridiculously unprepared as I am, I stumble from one match to the next, never really sure of what my opponent’s game plan is.
I play too conservatively when I could increase the pressure and I take aggressive angles when my opponent is too close to comboing off. I get very close to winning multiple matches, but my head is not in the game as much as I would need it to be, so I end up missing the mark too often. I spend a good chunk of a match having my opponent explaining how Lightning Storm works, as his Ad Nauseam list is definitely something I was not expecting to meet. The only match I win is against an extremely salty opponent who leaves the table before we can even chat a little.
I discuss with my friends between rounds and I find out a good bunch of them is actually encountering one Eldrazi player after another, but many other lists are definitely popping up here and there. The Eldrazi Winter is actually turning into a mid-season of various archetypes struggling to keep up with the dominant list. I just so happen to meet all the contestants and never the champion.
In my quest for some nice Modern action I definitely succeed in having fun, meeting amazing players and artists, spending a weekend of pure entertainment and cracking some packs. I also bring home an Æther Vial playmat, signed by the amazing Karl Kopinski.
In the end, I also succeed in what was probably the true spirit of Esper Mill: making the game miserable for both your opponent and everyone watching the game.
Well done, Roberto. Well done.
That time I just went for side events: how to mess multiple formats up
Now, Grand Prix Bologna was not all about Modern. A Legacy side event is scheduled and it immediately catches my attention. An opportunity to play more Magic, with my signature Burn deck? I can’t miss it!
I immediately register and prepare to shuffle a pile of cards I am extremely proud of. In a continuous attempt to make Magic non-interactive and overall awful, I decide to bring to the table a custom Burn list that plays no Creatures in the main deck. With twenty lands and forty spells that just scream “burn everything down!”, I feel great and ready for some action.
My deck is excellently placed against what – for some reason – I feel will be the most popular archetypes in this Italy-based tournament: Delver and BUG. I am ready to burn Shardless Sultai and Temur Delver decks to the ground, while my opponents look down in anger at their useless removals. Come at me, you Maelstrom Pulse enthusiasts. I have nothing but fire to give you!
Turns out my ability to completely fail at predicting the Meta is not limited to Modern, but it also applies to Legacy.
My first opponents is an English gentleman that sports an elegant coppola and a Mono-Blue Storm deck. He politely goes through the motions of his combo as soon as I ask him to and I lose the first game to multiple Brain Freezes hitting the Stack all at once. Sure, it happens, I will just bring in all my best countermeasures. We both go to sideboards and I quickly pick up my best weapons, including my beloved Red Elemental Blasts. I take out all my Searing Blazes and my Searing Bloods, as I am sure my opponent is playing no Creature whatsoever. I check my “in” pile and my “out” pile one last time, I shuffle the deck and present it to my opponent.
Game two starts and I keep a good hand that, unfortunately, has none of the cards I brought in from the sideboard. “Oh, well, I’ll just draw them” I say to myself. I start shooting spells at the dome, as my deck usually does. After one or two draw steps, the horror. I draw a Searing Blaze.
Utterly confused, I ask my opponent the permission to check my sideboard, making sure to never have it touch my hand of cards or my deck. He gives me his permission and I immediately realize my Red Elemental Blasts are still in the sideboard, alongside the rest of the cards I was planning to bring in. I had somehow managed to re-shuffle the deck with all the sixty original cards in, without actually including anything from the sideboard.
I try to maintain my poker face, but my opponent quickly unleashes his Storm counter against me and I am defeated. I confess my mistake to my opponent and we have a good laugh at such an awful misplay.
The second match is a tense one, but I manage to win against a very good Shardless Sultai list. My opponent’s deck is truly amazing, with Jace the Mind Sculptor, Liliana of the Veil, Shardless Agent and Deathrite Shaman among his best cards. We both fight well, but this one goes to the Burn player.
I enter the third match knowing I have to give my best if I want to come back from this initial 1-1 record. My opponent is an Italian girl with whom I chat a little bit about the previous rounds. She is 1-1 as well, so the stakes are high for both of us. Before the game start, she makes a comment that seems to hint at her deck being a dreaded Dredge list. I cross my fingers and hope she doesn’t play Manaless Dredge, the deck I fear the most with the list I brought. Partially because it’s a pretty complicated deck to play against, partially because I realized too late I had no consistent sideboard plan against it. Sure, Faerie Macabre is always a great sideboard card, but I have no Leyline of the Void available.
She wins the die roll and says the three words I fear the most in a Legacy tournament: “you go first”. Boom, we have a Dredge deck.
I play as well as I can, knowing that I have very limited room against a deck that consistently fills the board between Turn 2 and Turn 3. I aim for the highest Mana efficiency I can achieve, but Narcomoeba and Bridge from Below are too much to handle. During the second game my copies of Faerie Macabre can only try and mitigate an unstoppable flow of Creatures that, in the end, leaves me defeated.
I curse myself for not bringing anything more reliable as a sideboard option and concede the match. The good aspect is that I lose the match so quickly, I get to rest a little bit and chat with my opponent and a couple of bystanders.
The fourth and final round is where I want to get my comeback. There’s a huge difference between 2-2 and 1-3 and all I need is another deck playing Creatures, like the Shardless Sultai player from Round 2. I hope for a Temur Delver, but all I find is another Storm deck. This time I manage to not mess my sideboarding process up and actually play the games with a good bunch of adequate cards. In the end, however, my opponent bests me.
The main takeaway from my Legacy experience is that I managed to convince myself that the Meta was shaped in a certain way, while it actually included so many options I was only partially prepared for. I was excellently equipped for a Death & Taxes match, a Show and Tell match and a Maverick match. Even Lands seemed like a good matchup and Reanimator was probably not that bad, as well. I completely missed the mark, essentially bringing a knife to a gunfight. Or an Ashen Rider to a Storm fight, in this case.
Grand mistakes: how to learn nothing from your Grand Prix experience
A Grand Prix is an amazing opportunity to play Magic with friends, meet new people and spend an awesome weekend of fun and, if you are in the mood, competitive games. For grinders and competitive players, it’s an amazing opportunity to attempt the big breakout, to try and climb the ranks of professional Magic, starting from the bottom.
To the casual players, it’s a chance to breathe, live and experience Magic in all its forms, from Booster Drafts, to Legacy tournaments, from meetings with the artists to casual Commander games.
But for all players, it’s a chance to mess up. It’s a chance for blatant misplays, awful mistakes and embarrassing situations. If you are a somehow mature player, each mistake is an amazing opportunity to learn and improve your play style, your deckbuilding capabilities and your overall game management. But if you are a casual like me, each mistake is a story to tell your friends, an episode in a saga of Magic-based disasters.
You either learn from your mistakes, or you embrace your imperfections and live to tell the story of how you messed deckbuilding up, of how you forgot to cast that one Surgical Extraction that could have won you the game, of how you ordered a fish-based entrée before a meat-based main course.
It might not seem much, but I still love to question my friend’s menu choice from that night back then. Yup, I was Player B.
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