From the Archives: Winning Together — An Invitational Tournament Report and the Power of Community

Disclaimer: This article was originally written on February 7th and was intended to be published on February 18th. Due to unforeseen circumstances, it was delayed. While this article may be a bit out of date, I’m publishing it due to the strong personal value it holds, and the emphasis on community.


Preparing for the Tournament

Two weeks ago, I participated in the Kingslayer Games Invitational. This tournament featured sixteen players battling across two formats to crown one Season 1 Champion. Representing the culmination of six months worth of events, I knew that there would be no easy matches in this tournament. When the final roster had been confirmed in December, I had a full accounting of which players were in the event. Knowing that some players favor Control, and others favor Aggro, I was able to make a mental spreadsheet of what the likely metagame would be. Complicating this would be the undiscovered nature of the Ravnica Allegiance Standard format — without knowing most of the cards, we could only test portions of the format for card viability.

With a small tournament like this, I quickly realized that testing with groups of qualified players would prove problematic. Ordinarily, I would be one to share information and decklists, as the only way to have success at competitive events early on in formats is to pool knowledge with other players. In any cooperative effort, there is a differing amount of effort put forth by each individual. This is offset by the increase in the quality of data other players can provide. More minds working together solves problem matchups, and this is a net benefit for each player involved. If my win rate against the field on my own would be 51% versus 54% working with others, it’s in my interest to take the 54% win rate. It doesn’t matter if the person who put in the least amount of work has their win rate increase by 20%. They gained more from testing with the group, but as long as each person’s win rate goes up it’s worth it. This argument holds true for most competitive Magic tournaments, as the probability of playing someone you’ve prepared with is small.

In a tournament of just sixteen players, this gain is minimized. Testing with half of the players allows for an accurate accounting of the decks that players are bringing, but it comes at the cost of directly increasing opponents’ win rates. The player who puts in the most time and effort is the player with the lowest gains, creating a situation that incentivizes players to test elsewhere. With this in mind, I knew that I wanted to keep my testing team small, and I would want to coordinate with the players who can put in the most work. Naturally, I chose Andrew Goodwin, as we live quite close to one another and we both have an abundance of free time. Andrew and I were friends with Tony Boozan, the player who had won the final Invitational Qualifier, and we felt he was a natural complement to the testing process. Tony had both qualities we wanted for testing — an abundance of free time and a willingness to play any deck.

Battlebond Artwork

Testing Techniques

When it comes to testing, most players make the mistake of simply playing a lot of Magic. Playing games is good, but the best testing involves learning and cheating a little bit. Discuss lines openly during gameplay, ignore bluffs, and always try to walk away from the session with something concrete that you learned.  Every day we would talk about what we wanted to learn more about, whether it was the viability of a specific deck or the efficiency of certain sideboard cards. Tony and Andrew were highly receptive to my innovative approaches to testing, and we had many games with Wild Cards. When we weren’t sure on which cards to play in our flex slots, I proposed just playing with Wild Cards that could represent whichever card we wanted. I would make a note each time we wanted it to be each potential card, and we would discuss it afterward. We also had every deck proxied and would alternate play/draw regardless of who would win. The goal was data, and we used 25 card sideboards to explore how different sideboard packages would play out. When we had felt comfortable moving onto 15 card sideboards, we would always start with whatever sideboard card we wanted to test in our opening hand to see the impact of the matchup. Before starting each session, we would talk about what we wanted to learn so we could stay focused. I’ve never felt more confident in my testing than I have with Tony and Andrew.

Incorporating Tony would move us past the exploratory phase of testing, as we would determine which decks had potential against the known contenders. Early on we knew that Sultai Midrange would be a presence, as Hydroid Krasis slotted naturally into the successful Golgari Midrange shell from the prior format. We also had early versions of White aggro decks. After prerelease, I was testing with an Azorius version but we quickly moved to Boros to test the viability of decks. Nexus of Fate decks boasted polarizing matchups, so we discarded them pretty quickly. As we began weeding decks out of our testing pool, we noticed two decks boasting a substantial win rate — Esper Control and Sultai Midrange. Kaya’s Wrath into Teferi proved a potent combination against all but the most aggressive draws, and Hydroid Krasis into Find//Finality allowed Sultai to go bigger than the rest of the midrange contenders.

Coming up on release day we had narrowed down our selections to a few decks, ultimately selecting Esper Control and Sultai Midrange as the Week One favorites. The SCG Open that weekend reflected this result, and we felt confident in our ability to navigate the format going forward. We had identified that Mardu Aristocrats was an underrated deck, and while it boasted unfavorable matchups against Sultai and Esper, it proved to have powerful win rates against other tier decks like Mono Blue and Bant Nexus. With a desire to attack Sultai Midrange, I began looking into decks that we had discarded early. I had been impressed by the Gates decks and Temur Reclamation in the grindy matchups, but with no consensus Gates list and Reclamation’s vulnerability to creatures, I had been hesitant to develop them further. With the consolidation of Gates lists online and more data, I started testing with it during the week. Immediately I was impressed by the power and consistency, as my change to playing four Gateway Plaza fixed many of the mana issues with the deck.

I had convinced myself to give Gates a second shot, and later that week Andrew and I focused on analyzing the consistency issues we had discovered in Mardu. The deck boasted some incredibly powerful turns, but it suffered from consistency issues. You needed the right mix of lands and spells to win the game, but lacked reliable mana sinks like most other decks in the format. This led to games becoming increasingly unfavored as the game went on when compared to other aggressive decks like Azorius Aggro or Mono Red. Gates suffered none of these issues, and it boasted an incredibly favored matchup against Sultai Midrange. The Esper Control matchup was tougher, but fixable in postboard games.

With the reset of rankings on Arena, I piloted Gates to Platinum on the first Day, losing only a couple games along the way. The deck proved incredibly powerful and consistent, and Andrew and I jammed a bunch of sideboard games with Gates versus the known metagame. We weren’t sure how to sideboard in the Sultai Matchup, but the lopsided nature of the games minimized that concern. I decided to take Gates to FNM to get a few more reps on it, and had a middling finish due to some poor variance and mulligan decisions. I am normally a very safe player when it comes to mulligans, but found myself not being aggressive enough with my mulligans on Gates. FNM taught me the error of this approach, and I finalized my list for the Invitational shortly after.


The Invitational

I woke up early due to a pretty crazy rainstorm and took this time to re-sleeve my deck and fill out my decklist. Making sure I had every card I needed was important, and I had trimmed down my backpack to just the essentials for the tournament. I was carpooling with Andrew but had enough time to make myself breakfast before he picked me up. We braved the flood plain of Fountain Valley and found ourselves at the shop just in time to hear some thunder and the trademarked HU-WHATs of Jason Jahromi. We didn’t want to reveal the decks we were on to the other players, so we played a quick board game with the Jeremy Fain before the tournament started. Jeremy would be our judge for the tournament, his sarcasm proving to be a comfort in the veritably tense tournament.

March of Multitudes

The Invitational started with Draft, and I found myself sitting diagonally from Ivan Espinosa. While I hadn’t tested with Ivan for the event, I considered him the player to beat for the tournament. As one of the best players in SoCal, I knew that Ivan would draft a strong deck and read signals appropriately and ensure a tough Round 1.

The Draft

I started the draft with some early Azorius picks, as a P1P1 Warrant//Warden led to a second pick Azorius Skyguard. With my early packs being stacked with Azorius cards I knew that I would be pushing Chase into either Esper or Bant, and this hunch was confirmed when Azorius dried up in Pack 2. Still, I found myself with a decent Azorius deck going into Pack 3, as I had a great curve and a couple of removal spells. Pack 3 was relatively dry, but I picked up a Sphinx of New Prahv and a Chillbringer but failed to find any extra removal spells. With a solid deck, I figured I didn’t have a shot at a 3-0 finish, but a 2-1 would almost assuredly lock me for Top 8.

Round 1 Ivan and I were paired, and if you haven’t seen any of our matches before they are usually quite full of banter. This match was a little less so than normal, partly due to the nervous tension I had. Game 1 was over quickly, as I had an aggressive start with multiple flyers, but a Turn 6 Ethereal Absolution from him ended the game. In Game 2 I brought in two copies of Expose to Daylight but didn’t draw them in time. He stalled out with Azorius Skyguard and flyers, and his double locket start drew him into his Ethereal Absolution. 0-1.

In Round 2 my opponent was my testing partner Andrew Goodwin. We had draft quite a bit together both online and in person, and I knew he was likely to be an aggressive deck. Game 1 I had an early Senate Guildmage that was stabilizing through his Ill-Gotten Inheritance, and timely combat tricks on my part removed most of his board state. He eventually drew an Undercity Scavenger to pair with his Smelt-Ward Ignus. This combination of cards removed my Guildmage and gave him a 5/5. A few turns later he had lethal with Skewer the Critics. Going into Game 2 I felt pretty confident, as I had many sideboard cards for the matchup and knew what to expect. I mulliganned away two no landers and found myself with only five cards to match his seven. Andrew, like the lucksack he is, curved out perfectly from turns 1-5 and pretty quickly dismantled my defense. 0-2.

I was pretty bummed by this point, and I knew that with a 0-2 finish I could only lose one more to be live for Top 8. In Round 3 I faced off against Ryan Sanders, the other 0-2 Drafter in the pod. I curved out perfectly in Game 1, playing Pegasus on Turn 2 into Sphinx of New Prahv on Turn 4. Chillbringer on Turn 5 came down to lock up his Arynx, and the game quickly ended. In Game 2 Ryan flooded out pretty hard, and a Turn 4 Sphinx of New Prahv let me race his early creatures. I kept drawing creatures and decided to play around Wrecking Beast by only swinging with Sphinx of New Prahv and my Azorius Skyguard. Ryan had the Wrecking Beast, but I kept back enough blocks to survive his attack and crack back for lethal in the air. 1-2.

Standard

While I was a little disappointed with my Draft performance, a 1-2 record in a tournament like this is pretty good, and I was heading into a Standard format I was well prepared for. I only needed to 3-1 the Standard portion to lock up Top 8, a record I felt confident in achieving. I knew I had put in the practice, but the field was still strong players, and I would have to play tight to make it.

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In the first round of Standard, I squared off against Chase Chappell. Chase qualified for the tournament through Championship Points, but he also put up a finals appearance in IQ #5 with an off-meta deck. I knew Chase was a wild card going into the tournament, and that he could feasibly be on any combination of cards. Despite his attachment to homebrews, Chase is a great player with a wide range of archetypes.

We start Game 1 and I learn pretty quickly that Chase brought Rakdos Burn to the event. It’s a close game, but I don’t draw Archway Angel and he has just enough burn to close the game out before my Ram can kill him. In Game 2 I draw both of my Knight of Autumn and he doesn’t get to do much. Game 3 is quite close, but he floods out pretty hard and I have an aggressive Gatebreaker Ram draw. He casts a Risk Factor and I only lose to Shock plus Skewer the Critics. He draws a couple of lands and scoops it up. 2-2.

In Round 5 I am up against Matt Yuen and it’s my first feature match of the tournament. Matt won the Limited IQ, and as an inexperienced Standard player, I assume he is on Sultai. My hunch is correct, and in Game 1 he lands a Turn 3 Vivien Reid. I’m under the threat of her ultimate pretty quickly, but I use Circuitous Route to set up a double Ram turn. He only has one kill spell, and I cast a Gates Ablaze to clear the board and kill his Vivien. With his Midnight Reaper drawing him five cards and just a grip of Gates Ablaze I need to fade removal spells for a couple of turns. Luckily, he doesn’t have any kill spells and I clear his board for two turns. In Game 2 he mulligans to 6 and keeps a one land hand. He misses his second land drop for a few turns, and I have an abundance of lands. He kills my Ram at two life, but I cast a Mass Manipulation to steal his two creatures. 3-2

With only two rounds left and only one more win needed, I was feeling the tension. I knew it was likely I would play a bad matchup the next round, as Reclamation Gates and Esper Control were among the decks in the 3-2 bracket. In Round 6, I get paired against Randy Casillan on Reclamation Gates. This matchup is exceptionally poor for me, as I brought a list configured to beat Sultai and other creature decks, and Midrange Gates tries to win the game by attacking with big creatures. In this matchup, Midrange Gates can lose quite quickly as it possesses no way to interact with Nexus or Wilderness Reclamation in Game 1. In Game 1 I stick an early ram and start attacking, and Randy finds a Reclamation. I have a very aggressive draw, but he fails to draw a Nexus or an Expansion//Explosion before my creatures can push through just enough damage to close out the game. In Game 2 I board out my removal spells and bring in threats that can kill or steal his sideboard Rams. He mulligans to 5, and I have a slow draw. With a Reclamation and many lands in play, I resign myself to a loss, but he misses his untap trigger, and we don’t catch it until I’m attacking. On the next turn, he makes a close decision on whether to lead on Growth Spiral, and he gets punished for his sequence. Unable to cast a Nexus, he passes with a giant Hydroid Krasis in play. I draw six cards during my turn thanks to a Guild Summit and find the Banefire plus Thrash//Threat to deal thirty points of damage to him. 4-2.

After squeaking out a win against Randy, I am shaking and use the restroom to decompress. I’m reeking of nervous sweat, and I’m a little hungry so I down my protein shake and hope it holds me. At 4-2 I am able to intentionally draw into Top 8 with Carlo Negrete on Esper Control. I was locked if I chose to play, but with only one 10 point player in the tournament, there’s a good chance that I am the 4th seed if I draw. If I win then I am 2nd or 3rd seed, and a loss ensures that I’m in the bottom half of Top 8. With Esper Control being a poor matchup for this version, I take the draw.

I use the time during the round to take a walk, as I am quite nervous. Tony won his round as well while Andrew lost, so we wander around outside and talk strategy. I’ve found walking around a great way to shake the nerves of winning and decompress after a tough loss. When we come back the round is finishing up and the Top 8 is announced.


Top 8

In the Quarterfinals, I am paired against Nico Urrea on Sultai Midrange. I had been sharing my thoughts on the archetype with Nico, and the Frilled Mystic plus Biogenic Ooze tech we worked on had carried him this far. Even with this matchup being great for me, Nico is a fantastic player with aggressive strategies, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a read on his sideboard plan. I’m crucially on the play in Game One, but I mulligan to 5. Not a great way to start Top 8 coverage, but my hand is close to perfect. Growth Spiral into Guild Summit lets me push ahead, and a Circuitous Route undoes the mulligan I took. I draw a Gates Ablaze to sweep his board and fight through his Vivien Reid with my creatures. Backed up by a second Circuitous Route, I have more lands and more cards in hand than he does, and the game ends after I drop a couple of Colossus.

In Game 2 he plays a Wildgrowth Walker on Turn 2, which he follows up with a Jadelight Ranger. I fail to find enough gates to sweep his board, and a pair of midgame Merfolk Branchwalker is enough for my concession. I don’t change anything about my sideboarding for Game 3, but being on the play I know I need to prioritize having a three drop. In Game 3 he plays a two drop into a Jadelight Ranger, but I have all the tools I need. A Gates Ablaze clears his board, and a Guild Summit pushes me ahead in cards. It looks like he has a land heavy draw, as he plays an Incubation Druid on Turn 6 and nothing else. Guild Summit draws me most of my deck, and a few turns later he concedes. Onto the Semifinals.

Zendikar

At this point, I have to get up and walk around for about ten minutes, as I’m incredibly excited. We had agreed to split the Top 8 prizing so I was guaranteed $300, but winning the trophy would be an incredible accomplishment in a stacked tournament like this. After walking around and hitting the restroom, I’m bouncing around and learn that my opponent is Randy again. As I sit down in the feature match area, we learn that the bracket was messed up and that I am actually playing against Carlo. While Esper Control is still a poor matchup, it’s not as bad as Reclamation Gates. Carlo is a friend of mine, and to ease a bit of my nervousness I crack jokes and goof off during the match. In Game 1 I resolve a lucky Guild Summit and start building a mana advantage due to Circuitous Route. Carlo is missing land drops, and I play around Kaya’s Wrath for a couple of turns. He finally clears the board, but I have enough follow-up threats to close the game out as he starts to hit land drops.

In Game 2 he seems to have all the answers, and he curves a Chemister’s Insight into a Teferi. From there he never taps out, and I can’t stick a threat. I go for the desperation play of playing a Gate Colossus and using Thrash//Threat to deal eight to the Teferi, but he has the counterspell for it. I concede in the face of a Teferi emblem. Being on the play in Game 3 proves to be important, as it lets me cast a Circuitous Route into his countermagic without getting punished by a Teferi. My first one resolves, and I use the mana to set up a double Guild Summit turn. He answers one, and I use my turn to resolve a Hydroid Krasis. With a Guild Summit in play, I can slow my game down and rely on the card advantage to fight through his reactive spells. After playing my Krasis he hits his sixth land drop and casts two mortifies, answering both my Guild Summit and my threat. I use this lapse in his defenses to put two Gate Colossus into play with Negate backup, letting me counter the Teferi he casts. Unable to answer the 8/8s, he concedes and I’m in shock. I’ve made the finals.

I ask Jeremy if I can take a short break before playing the Finals, and I use this time to call my parents. They’ve never played Magic and don’t entirely understand what goes on in the game, but they’ve supported my interest in the game since I was in elementary school. Shaking a little bit, I fumble to back to the table to play against Peter Phan. Peter is on his Izzet Burn deck and is on the play. This matchup is draw dependent, so I need to mulligan aggressively. Peter has a powerful start in Game 1, with triple one drop. My hand is a slow Ram oriented hand, and a flurry of burn spells closes it out. In Game 2 my hand is close to perfect, with early removal and a pair of Rams. My 5/5s are enough to end the game quickly, as Peter makes a questionable attack. Moving onto Game 3 I’m a wreck. I’m at the culmination of six months of work, of countless hours of practice, faced against a fellow Kingslayer for more than just a trophy. A tournament of this experience is a validation of my efforts. I feel more proud of my accomplishment in making the finals than I do of cashing a Grand Prix. The exclusivity of the event, the friends I made along the way, and the spectacular coverage contributed to the feeling that this isn’t just a tournament.

I know from comments of spectators and my conversations on the break that much of the SoCal community is rooting for me, and I tell myself that playing my best is what is important. Regardless of the match result, I tell myself that playing my best is a victory on its own. With a handshake and a smile, we start Game 3. Peter plays a one drop into a Warkite Marauder, blanking the Gatebreaker Ram that is in my hand. If I play it, he’ll just use the Warkite to kill it, but if I don’t play anything then I have the same situation. I decide that the only way I am winning this game is if I answer his board, and I frustratingly tap out for a Gates Ablaze into his open mana. He thinks for a little bit, and it resolves. I’m floored. Six cards in hand and multiple counterspells in his deck, and he is left with no answer to my sweeper. With no board, he casts a Lightning Strike and follows it up with a Viashino Pyromancer. I answer his board with a Gatebreaker Ram and stare at the Deafening Clarion in my hand anxiously.

With the throes of anxiety taking over, Peter taps out for another creature and my heart nearly stops. I quickly untap and cast the Clarion, giving my Ram lifelink. One swing gives me enough of a buffer that he no longer has any outs, and I play a post-combat Ram. With two 8/8s in play, Peter has one draw step to answer my board. He untaps and plays a land, thinks for a little bit, then scoops with a smile. I’ve won.

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Peter’s smile is met by a cheer from the spectators, and I’m whisked away for a trophy lift and an interview before I can desideboard. I’m a little bit frazzled, but a sense of relief sinks over me. From an 0-2 start to Season 1 Champion, I feel more accomplished than I ever have before. As I try to make my way to the stream room, I’m greeted by a string of hugs and congratulations from both bystanders and friends. I took a moment to thank Tony and Andrew for their incredible testing and acceptance of my crazy ideas and gave the worst interview of my life. Kyle had no questions prepared, and I didn’t want to keep my friends waiting on me, so I wrapped up pretty quick and went to make food plans.

I wasn’t particularly aware of the rest of the night, as the intense mental effort exhausted me during dinner, but on the ride over it just clicked. I had won. I was starving, tired, dehydrated, and just wanted to relax, but I had won. I didn’t feel like I had accomplished much, after all, I just played Magic until they told me to stop playing. An inevitable sense of dread crept through me, as my classic impostor syndrome surfaced. I didn’t deserve it, I told myself. I got lucky, and my opponents got unlucky. Peter never had a second red and Carlo had missed land drops. I didn’t feel like I had accomplished much.


Community

Teamwork is an integral part of competitive magic at any level. With a game as complex as Magic, it is impossible for one person to figure out a format on their own, and even with hours of work success is not guaranteed. Some play Magic for the social experience, some for the enjoyment of the game, and still others for the thrill of competition. Regardless of why we individually play Magic, a community is critical for success. Few players in Magic’s history have succeeded alone, and a strong community proves critical to many success stories. With teamwork increasing the value of practice, working with other players is the fastest way to improve. Across the globe, players travel together, test together, and work together to share in each other’s success, and a strong community is critical for heavy attendance.

As mentioned before, I chose two players that were both friends and competition to test with me for this event. Every game of magic and every person offers something new to learn, and without friendships and community, I would never be able to learn what others have to offer. Innovation is driven by seeing the game differently than those that came before, and a willingness to try out the ideas of others. Few situations give rise to a more applicable usage of “shoulders of giants” than competitive Magic. When a list first hits the scene, players pick it up quickly and try it out before changing it around. In this circumstance, having a strong community allows each person to learn what others are learning while mitigating the drawback of testing unique additions. Nearly every professional player tests on a team and shares data and these approaches can yield unique approaches to formats. Beyond simply improving your chances of winning an event, a strong community makes winning feel better. The inclusive, familial feeling that comes with the bonds of friendship is an irreplaceable component of success.

The release of six months of tension and the build-up of a vision we had at the shop culminated in a victory not just for myself, but for my friends. We had come together as a community to build something beyond ourselves, and I was there at the center of it, swept away in silence by the roar of camaraderie. The inevitable state of man is that of want — of that incessant desire for more. More money. More success. More pride. The space between success and failure is measured by the smiles on the faces of friends, and on that tense car ride to dinner, I came to peace with my tournament. To validate the support and the belief of the friends I’ve made along the way is a success in itself, and to stand in front of the eyes of the community as someone to aspire to is a euphoric feeling like none I’ve experienced before. Thank you, to everyone in the Magic community for making winning worth it. Thank you, to everyone at Kingslayer Games, and to my family for the endless support in pursuing my hobby. The friendships I’ve made through playing Magic make all the hard times of life more bearable, and I know at the end of the day I can always come to the shop and put a smile on my face.