I take one week off and everyone is running around like chickens with their heads cut off.
“What happened to Riki?”
Answer: I took a trip to GP Daytona Beach to judge, and what with being gone from Thursday to Monday and working 12-hour+ days at the site, it was highly unlikely that I would be able to get an article done. Now having saved some money on my auto insurance by switching to Geico, I have lots of fun stories to relate.
Choosing to go to an out of state GP is a big deal for Magic players. It's the point when you decide that you are really “going for it,” investing both large amounts of time and money to become a better player and pursue your lofty goals.
It's roughly the same thing for a Magic judge. The decision to judge a Grand Prix within driving distance, like I did with San Francisco, is all about the decision between playing and judging. After crossing that divide, it's another Leap to get to the point where I am willing to drop a few hundred dollars on a plane ticket to Daytona Beach.
I make my decision to take the cross-country trip to Daytona Beach sometime in early October. I get in touch with the Tournament Organizer, Eric Mock, and make arrangements to judge all three days (GPT's Friday, and two days on the GP, possibly with side events mixed in), and I reserve a room in the judges' block for the Cheontourage and myself. When the dynamic duo returns from their rain-drenched trip to Valencia, we book our flights and the finality of all the planning settles into my mind.
In addition to LSV and Paul “Level 6” Cheon, I will be rooming with Grand Prix SF runner up Jon Stocks and Iain Bartolomei, who seems to have a permanent spot in California PTQ Top 8s reserved as of late. Like their predecessors in the Cheontourage, these two have vowed to push each other to the next level in 2008 with their sights firmly set on Level 3 status.
The next month passes in a Whirlwind of Magical cards between judging States, a PTQ, and the TCGpprentice. I also fit in a Guitar Hero III release party where my meager talents get blown out of the concert hall by local judge Jeff “Judge of Currents” Morrow.
On the Thursday before the event, Luis and I board our plane in Sacramento and make the short hop to LA where we have a three-hour layover until our redeye to Atlanta departs. We mull about the terminal for a bit, taking stock of our options. Luis opts for McDonalds, and like a movie theater, everything is marked up by 50%, which makes it 25% as satisfying. Look, I never said that math was my strong suit.
Unsatisfied with the Golden Arcs, we make our way to “El Cholo,” an in-terminal bar that boasts “LA's best margarita.”
Unlikely. That's the first word to cross my mind. Why is LA's best margarita being tucked away in an airport terminal bar? Sure, there's plenty of traffic in an airport, but most of these people don't care about the difference between a margarita and a Marton Stromgald as long as one of them gets them drunk for their flight.
El Cholo might have LA's best margarita, but their service leaves a lot to be desired. Luis asks for water no less than three times before our Russian-accented waiter remembers to bring them to us. The margaritas are good; I just don't know if they are “LA's best” good. They certainly aren't “twelve dollar” good.
Our flight to Atlanta is just under four hours. The in-flight movie is “Mr. Bean's”—Zzzzz. It's just before midnight so I just end up sleeping through the entire flight and miss Mr. Bean's idiotic hijinks completely.
Atlanta looks just like LAX, which looks just like Denver from the time I flew to GP Dallas. When we get to our connecting gate to Daytona Beach, we see a bunch of prone bodies on the seats. It's around 9am local time, 6am for our native Pacific time, and I imagine a lot of these people are in the same boat as us, road-worn and weary.
Iain should be in Atlanta at this point—he caught a flight out of San Francisco—so Luis calls him up. Suddenly one of the prone bodies in an adjacent row sits up and answers his phone. Like some modern day Kerouac, or maybe just a bum, Iain is on the road sleeping it up at an airport. Luis and Iain dig some packs out of their travel bags and do a Time Spiral-Planar Chaos-Planar Chaos Winston Draft. Such fiends for the game they are. They barely finish before we board our plane.
Standing outside the Daytona Beach airport, Luis and I hit the phones. He calls Jon Stocks, who has flown into Orlando and rented a car. He's about twenty to thirty minutes away from picking us up. I call Eric Mock and get the hotel information that I somehow managed to not print out.
Finally, we're here, and the room isn't ready yet. Wonderful. Some of Luis and Iain's MTGO draft buddies are hanging out in the lobby. So I meet “Aceman,” “Nova Sandler,” and a few others, never learning their real names. I think this is the new state of the world at large and Magic as a subculture where your username is your identity.
A grumpy old man (affiliated with the site, not the event staff) won't let us into the tournament venue, so our merry little band high steps it to the neighboring arcade, where among other things I get to watch some fairly good DDRing from the crew.
Trial and Error
After assorted arcade fun, it's time for me to judge the GP Trials. My head judge is Jared Sylva. He randomly divides us into teams of two to run each 32-person Sealed flight. I'm teamed up with Deb Rivkin for flight two (Yellow flight for those who saw our lovely color coordinated pairing sheets).
When the third flight kick-starts next to mine, I am taken aback to see Shuuhei Nakamura dashing to his seat. You may need a moment to let that one sink in because I certainly did. Shuuhei is one of a select few Level 6 mages in the Pro Player Club. In fact, he is the only mage to repeat as a Level 6 in the first two years of the PPC. Maybe, having finished Day One in 72nd place at GP Kitakyuushuu, Shuuhei wants a little extra practice with the format. The truth is close, but oh so much more Japanese. During rounds, I catch up with snappy-dressing pro and ask him what the heck he is doing in a GPT.
“At GP Kitakyuushuu, Shouta Yasooka asked me to play in a trial with him for fun, but I begged out, saying I was ‘tired.' Then in the main event I opened a really bad card pool.”
That's about the gist of what he tells me. The words he actually uses to describe his card pool are “kuso pack,” with kuso literally translating as sh-t. It's just another case of Japanese superstition; Japan is a nation obsessed with horoscopes, blood type personality matches for couples, and all things Miss Cleo, except they don't have the actual Miss Cleo.
For Shuuhei, the karmic translation is clear: don't play in a GPT, scrub out of main event; play in a GPT, do well? With the power of hindsight, we can see that Shuuhei barely squeaked into Day Two in 63rd place. Perhaps this means we'll be seeing Shuuhei in more GPT's in the future, trying to buy some good Karma, or perhaps barely squeaking isn't quite good enough so he'll be wearing Olivier Ruel's lucky hat.
If you're going to play in GPT's, you need to be aware of the big change that took place within the past year. Instead of being one monstrous Swiss affair that takes its winners into the dawn light hours of the morning, they run as single elimination flights of 32. The key is the single elimination part. This leads to two unique considerations.
Slow play matters (more)- Slow play should always matter and you should be vigilant in making sure your opponent does not take too long think about his plays no matter how complicated the board situation. Just like everyone else, I have an “I just needed one more extra turn to win (or force a draw)” story that means I should have played faster or prompted my opponent to do the same at some point. When you're playing in a Swiss tournament, you can afford to absorb a draw, or even a loss, due to sloppy clock management. Not saying that it is ideal, but X-1-1 will still get you into most Top 8s and Day Two cuts. Not so in a single elimination tournament where a loss boots you and a draw… well, those have their own funny rules.
The life total rule- There are no draws in single elimination; someone has to win, and if the game score is tied, the player with the higher life total in the current game wins the game and the match. If the life totals are tied, then the first change in life total determines the outcome. This can mean damaging your opponent, but also applies to life gain. I heard of one incident when a Tanglebloom won such a match for someone.
I come across one match that finishes game two during the five extra turns, leaving the match at 1-1. Both players look up at me and ask “What now?” What happens now, I explain to them, is that game three starts with the Sudden Death rule in effect. Both players' eyes open wide at this. For the next three minutes they sideboard feverishly, trying to jam as many one-drops as possible into their decks without mucking up their mana too much. I watch with interest as the player on the play keeps his hand with a smile—he's got a one-drop for sure. His opponent, one-dropless, mulligans to six, keeps that hand, and the exciting Sudden Death game begins.
Player one quickly drops a Mountain and a Boggart Forager, about the only time that card could ever be considered useful. Player two has mulliganed into a Mountain and…
Yep. Good game. I mean, as long as he doesn't do something stupid like Tarfire the Forager (which he doesn't). Later, in another flight, I hear the roar of a crowd that probably means a similar thrilling Sudden Death victory. Other than that, the Trials proceed smoothly and we get out of there at midnight. (Although I think the final flight does not finish and all remaining players are awarded three byes, so the tech appears to be to sign up for the final flight, folks.)
Main Event: Day One
I am on side events for Day One, which means I don't need to be onsite until 11am. Unfortunately, I am rooming with four players so the hustle and bustle gets me up and I figure I'll just wander down and catch the sights. I get a chance to sit down with Ben Bleiweiss and Pete Hoefling at the Starcitygames booth. For me personally, the most interesting thing to come out of this is Ben's explanation of how his “Building on a Budget” column has evolved into what it is today based on forum responses. Even writers for Le Mothership have something to learn from the masses.
I also manage a quick exchange with Brian David-Marshall on event coverage. We swap the usual pleasantries about how much we like each other's work, but he adds a nice little “But there was that one time you misspelled my name S-H-I-L-L.”
Yes, there was that one time I called him out for irresponsible journalism regarding the winner of the Great Designer Search. I've heard about BDM's remarkable memory, so I figure he'll remember that. I do some quick talking about it not being personal (I did call out the entirety of WotC for that incident) and how opinions on the Internet are exaggerated for drama and conflict. I mean if you hold me sacrosanct to everything I write, I probably hate the world and the horse it rode in on. I just play a bitter doctor on TV, kids.
Anyway, with things being as busy as they are, I only have a minute or two to chat with BDM, but I think we square things away and have a good hearty handshake on it. Whatever criticism I might heap upon him—he looks awkward as hell on video coverage what with the long pauses and looking down at his notes—he's still one of the best in the business when it comes to written coverage, and I hope I have a chance to work with him in the future on that.
All of this chatting with people takes me to eleven o'clock, and since no side events are firing yet, I get the temporary shift to assist on the main event where judges are busy counting deck lists for legality. I come across one problem list with only 39 cards listed. I throw it into a pile of about a dozen lists. I guess that isn't so bad for a 650-person tournament, but it still irks me. Having never committed a deck registration error I don't understand what is so hard about counting to forty or sixty (and fifteen).
After getting the counts, it's time to match the deck lists with the players entered into the tournament to make sure we got everyone's list. I read off names from deck lists while Jeff Zandi, an occasional contributor to our site, checks them off the master list. This is actually a somewhat arduous task because Magic players have awful handwriting. On more than one occasion we have to make an educated guess and hope it's right. Shouta Yasooka is the worst offender. At the end of this task, we come up two deck lists short; apparently two players entered the tournament but didn't bother to build a deck. Took their foil Thoughtseize and went home perhaps?
I spend the next few rounds walking the floor of the main event. The bulk of a judge's time at any tournament is spent floor judging, walking around, waiting for a call, stopping to watch matches involving friends—I mean, matches that attract your interest for no particular reason. Most of the confusion on the day stems from layers, with a large number of questions starting with “I play Wings of Velis Vels….” Shapesharer and Turtleshell Changeling are two other contenders for “most asked about card.” I probably need to write a rules heavy article in the near future on these cards.
Girls, Girls, Girls
At just about the midpoint of the day, Carlos (side events head judge) and Jeff (co-TO as far as I can tell) call me over with an unusual job for me. Apparently, a handful of women want to learn how to play Magic, and they task me with putting together a tutorial session for them.
Magic… with women! Who wouldn't jump at such an opportunity? Well, me, I guess. I'm a little too old at this point to get excited just because someone has a pair of breasts. Plus, my keen mind picks up on the fact that these women have to be significant others of Magic players. There's just no other feasible explanation for why they would be at a Grand Prix and not know how to play Magic.
Jeff is explaining to one of the girls that they have to open the tutorial to both sexes lest he get hit with some kind of discrimination charge. Of course, there aren't any guys in the house who need a tutorial in Magic, so it's me and nine women together in a side event conference room with a bunch of Lorwyn precons. If that sounds sexy, you haven't been paying attention. These are Magic players' girlfriends (and fiancйs and wives as it turns out). If fact, a few boyfriends who have scrubbed out join us to help out, which is a relief for me from a manpower perspective, although it completely saps any sexiness out of the whole affair.
The tutorial moves forward with the expected minor hitches (like forgetting to explain how instants differ from sorceries. Oops.) and one major one. Teresa (or possibly Theresa) gets a little frustrated with the game state and storms out crying. Great. Add “made a girl cry” to my list of Magical accomplishments. Real nice. Do they promote you to Level 2 judge if you've ever made a girl cry?
In all fairness to me, one of the other ladies who knows her says that Teresa has tried to learn how to play Magic before with varying degrees of frustration. The Lorwyn precons we use don't exactly help matters. Teresa up and leaves a board involving Knight of Meadowgrain (lifelink and first strike) wearing Battle Mastery (double strike) and her opponent controlling Sygg, River Guide (protection). This is not a beginner-friendly situation. Other than that it's peaches, roses, and whatever. And for the rest of the weekend I have pretty women thanking me and other judges commending me for my patience. All in a day's work.
Main Event: Day Two
I'm actually on the main event staff this time, which is cool in a lot of ways. It's my first time judging in a Professional REL environment (Day One is Competitive). I get to watch the players draft up close and personal, although judging means watching their eyes to make sure they aren't running the Big Peeks, and I get zero sense of what kind of deck anyone is drafting.
After the draft, I am on the deck check team, lead by Jason Powell. Things are a lot more laid back on Day Two since we only have 64 decks to check, and the card pools themselves are smaller (45 total for Draft as opposed to 75 for Sealed). We do beginning and mid round deck checks, and the only usual occurrence is that we randomly select Alex Lieberman two rounds in a row. He's got dinged sleeves both times, even though they are clearly brand new sleeves. The first time, I watch him push the card out of the sleeve from the bottom and see exactly how the sleeve gets the distinctive finger mark. The second time is a completely different mark, so there's no need to upgrade the penalty or investigate for non-Boggart Shenanigans.
For Round Eleven, I draw the Feature Match area assignment. Judging the Feature Match area is the most exciting, boring job you can get. What I mean is, for my Feature Match assignment, I get to watch Paulo Vitor DDR (Dance, Dance, Revolution!) versus Mark Herberholz and LSV versus Tomoharu Saito. That's four of the top ten players in the world. The boring part is that these players need nary a judge. Except that this one time, they do need a judge, or more correctly, Saito needs a judge to tell him if Burrenton Forge-Tender's ability can affect damage from Mudbutton Torchrunner even after it has been sacrificed and is safely tucked away in the graveyard. (The answer is yes.)
After the second draft, it's another fun round of deck list counting. Unfortunately, one of the lists I see in the problem pile is Luis's. He's only registered 44 cards. Luckily, if you can call it that, his deck is pretty awful anyway and he 0-3s his second pod, but it's a crappy way to end what looked like such a promising run. Meanwhile, Iain finishes in 20th place, a strong showing, but just short of the Top 16 he needs to qualify for Kuala Lumpur. And of course Paul and Jon don't even manage to Day Two, this despite Paul powering up with a Hunan fortune cookie. Maybe he still has a hangover from reaching Level 6. Must.
Finally free of the stripes, I join Luis, Paul, Ben “2006 US Nationals Team Reunion” Lundquist, Zack “I'm not Zac Hill” Hall, and Adam “no cool nickname, but I'm just damn good at Magic” Chambers for dinner at the BBQ shack across the street from the convention center. There's another table of Magic players behind us that includes Billy Moreno and Chris McDaniel amongst others. Some of our braver souls try the “fried corn,” which ends up looking more like “burnt corn.”
After dinner, our table plus Jon Stocks and Paul's friend Big Dog from LA join up in our room to do a 4v4 draft. I draft a pile, quite possible one of the worst decks I've ever drafted.
Things start off fine with Silvergill Adept and Judge of Currents. Things dry up in a hurry. I end the first pack with three Judge of Currents and nothing to make them good. No Steambed Aquitects or Silvergill Dousers. It's just a big mess. I'm getting cut off hard, and it's pretty clear that I should be in Goblins what with the Tarfire I got passed third pick and the late Muddbutton Torchrunner making the rounds.
Then in pack two, my savior arrives: Forced Fruition. This card saves my draft in a way that no ordinary bomb like Purity or Austere Command possibly could. FF allows me to fill out my deck with some late Broken Ambitions and Faerie Trickeries, along with some very questionable creature enchantments…
During deck construction, Luis convinces me to cut the trips Judge of Currents since they don't actually do anything in my deck. In their place, we pack the deck with those Zephyr Nets I had taken as a backup plan. Paul pans the deck. Zack Hall is off in his own world. I enter battle with this:
3 Zephyr Net
1 Forced Fruition
1 Protective Bubble
1 Lairwatch Giant
1 Turtleshell Changeling
1 Stonybrook Angler
1 Goldmeadow Harrier
1 Deeptread Merrow
1 Silvergill Adept
3 Broken Ambitions
2 Faerie Trickery
1 Avian Changeling
1 Sentinels of Glen Elendra
1 Neck Snap
1 Glimmerdust Nap
1 Tideshaper Mystic
My first opponent is Adam Chambers. His loss to Tannon Grace in the last round left him in 9th place in the main event, just over half a percentage point out of the Top 8. Primarily a Limited player, Chambers has been quiet this year due to the Constructed-heavy United States GP schedule. He's hoping that his performance at Daytona will catapult him to a successful 2008 season. He is also hoping to forget his three games against me.
In game one—Game One!—Chambers plays two—Two!—Wispmares as vanilla 1/3 flyers. While I'm relieved to see him play them out before my enchantments, I wonder how I can possibly win this match against such awful cards that are particularly suited against me.
I slowly lock up his most threatening attackers with my Nets and Naps while countering others. This leaves his Wispmares free to nibble away at my life total. With the help of Surge of Thoughtweft, Chambers nibbles me down to single digits. That's when I draw the deck's Plan B. You may be a bit confused because the deck is already a pile of Plan B, a milling deck without Drowner of Secrets. So maybe it's my plan C, Lairwatch Giant with Protective Bubble.
I think I just heard jaws around the world dropping to the floor. Plan D is to put the Bubble on Turtleshell Changeling.
Let's just stick to Plans A and B then. B works well enough as Chambers can't deal with the untouchable four turn clock. When I tell Paul that I'm winning game one, he shouts, “Did you do it with Forced Fruition?” No, Paul, I didn't. But thanks for telling Chambers and the rest of his team.
Chambers runs me over in game two with some decent cards like Lys Alana Huntmaster.
I “curve out” with Stonybrook Angler, Pestermite, and Turtleshell in game three. That may sound unimpressive, but it's about as beatdown as my deck gets. It's enough pressure to force Chambers to play out his dual Wispmares as 1/3 blockers though. Unfortunately the second one blows up my Protective Bubble that was threatening to take over the game on my Turtleshell. Yes, I just wrote that and it was not sarcastic.
With the Bubble gone, I pretty much have no way to break through his Wispmare defenses (if these games sound stupid, you should have been there), and I switch to the Net plan, throwing a few on his actual cards, Plover Knights and Nath's Elite.
My next opponent is Ben Lundquist of US Nationals fame. Rumor has it that his deck is powerful and slow, the perfect matchup for my counter and mill plan. Sure enough, I trade off some early creatures and land Forced Fruition at a comfortable twelve life. Ben plays Giant Harbinger and fetches up Hearthcage Giant. I counter the Hearthcage and Glimmerdust Nap the Harbinger after it hits me once.
Ben counts his library and determines that his next spell is his last one, so he makes it a good one: Galepowder Mage. I'm dead in three swings and Ben has three cards left in his library after drawing seven for the Mage. No problem. I have Ringskipper and Protective Bubble, which guarantees me one chump block and the win…
If not for his Giant Harbinger sitting there taking a Nap. Because of that, I am forced to Protective Bubble his Harbinger to keep Galepowder Mage from waking it up. So Galepowder pushes my Ringskipper aside and I don't find an answer to it in my next three draws. One of my three Zephyr Nets would have won me the game right there. Ben absolutely crushes me in game two with an early Smokebraider.
My third match is against Big Dog, whose real name is Micah (sp?). I'm not sure if Big Dog is his MTGO name, a nickname from something else, or possibly both. What I am sure of is that by this point he can't help but have heard about my concoction. He reveals an Ajani off an early clash, but doesn't play it into my counter wall. Instead, he holds it until I tap out for Forced Fruition. At that point, he plays Ajani and Garruk, makes his army hunormous and smashes me like a bug.
The next two games are roughly the same: I play Forced Fruition and he goes for a really big turn with his planeswalkers. Fortunately for me, things end up in my favor. In one of the games, Big Dog loses a Fistful of Force clash leaving me at two. As fun as this format is, doesn't it seem like a lot of games are ending in “and then I lost the clash and the game”? The other game ends with Big Dog unable to play Fistful of Force for the win because he doesn't have enough cards left in his library to survive the Fruition.
My 2-1 record with 15th pick.dec, along with Paul's 4-0 mauling, means I don't have to play my final match against Jon, which is all well and good for me. Milling people is hard work. We war (each team member flips over a card and highest mana cost takes those cards) the picks and Luis gets them all. He gets them all. Oh, except for the leftover foil Oaken Brawler that he graciously gives to Paul for 4-0ing the draft. What a nice guy.
The next day, Jon and Iain leave for their flights sometime very early in the morning. Luis, Paul, and I sleep in late—almost too late—we barely make our checkout time. We catch lunch with my fellow judge Brendan O'Connor at a restaurant that purports to serve “gator tail.” I have to try this. I just have to. I'm left somewhat disappointed. As James Spader says in Stargate: “Tastes like chicken.”
Brendan kindly gives us a ride to the airport. We check in, catch our connecting flight to Atlanta and settle in for our respective layovers with Tiago Chan, Raphael Levy, and Gadiel Szleifer. Somehow the conversation turns to animals, and this is apparently right up Levy's alley. He starts things out with a rather innocent “How many unarmed humans would it take to kill a bear?” The group asks Levy various questions about these humans. These are average people; no warriors, bodybuilders, or Peter Petrellis. They are also afraid of the bear to whatever extent normal people are afraid of bears, which means that you have to factor that fear in. It will take a certain amount of people to build up the Mob Mentality to attack in the first place.
Most of us agree that it would take something like fifty people to kill this bear. We move onto a slightly more dangerous animal. How many people would it take to kill a shark? In the ocean, we deem the number to be infinite. There's just no way people stand a chance against a shark in water. In a swimming pool, I postulate that you might be able to stack enough dead bodies into the water to suffocate the shark.
Next Levy drops the mother of hypothetical animal questions: would you rather spend a half hour in an Olympic-sized swimming pool with a shark or half a soccer field with a bear? I wonder if this is what all Magic Hall of Famers think about in their spare time. Tiago opts for the bear and I have to agree with him. Luis offers up the contrary opinion, saying, “Unless you're bleeding, the shark might ignore you.” I guess that's true. I then suggest that the bear might ignore you too, but Levy, the Crocodile Hunter of Magic, says that bears are very territorial and will attack intruders mercilessly.
After a couple more animal related discussions, we grab a bite to eat, with we fat Americans haumphing twice as much food as the Europeans. Then we scatter to our respective planes and another exciting Magic weekend is over.
There are so many other people I met that weekend. I came across Justin Vizaro and Mike Wawszczak from TCGplayer.com in the side events area. Apparently their Main Events didn't go so well. On the plane from Daytona to Atlanta, I sat next to GP Toronto Top 8 competitor Brad Taulbee. I expanded my judge-signed foil Rule of Law collection by five, including level 5 Sheldon Menery. I also talked to the heads of two new, exciting online Magic ventures, MtgChicago and ManaNation. I also ran into Chris Williams again, who mistook me for someone else at first, but apparently it wasn't Mike Flores. Oh, and there was also Lance Loden, most famous for Kiki-Opposition from three years ago. I played him at GP Salt Lake and I've always tried to say hello since as a fellow Opposition lover.
All this and I still missed talking about that one guy or that one thing that happened at that place. That's the nature of these events. There's just too much going on in a short amount of time. This hasn't been a tournament report in the traditional sense because I didn't play. If I have advice to offer from my experiences, it would probably be:
a) Double check your deck reg sheet.
b) Play at a reasonable pace and make sure your opponent is playing at a reasonable pace.
c) If b) isn't happening, call a judge. In fact, call a judge for anything out of the ordinary.
d) Meet people and have fun.
P.S. Yes, we will have the TCGpprentice Finals this week. Fellow Seattleites Robin Russell and Zaiem Beg square off for the title of TCGpprentice, a Feature Writer position, and a bag full of marbles. The loser gets nothing. Okay, that's not true. We've set up some nice parting gifts for everyone in the Final Four. I'm looking forward to seeing how Robin and Zaiem approach the “Year in Review” and I hope you are too.
by Riki Hayashi
Monday, November 26, 2007
I take one week off and everyone is running around like chickens with their heads cut off.