You've caught me in kind of a bad moment. It's 1 am, and my brain is running on sugary snacks and willpower alone. It's quiet, considering it's a Saturday night on a college campus, or at least that's what I think, oblivious to the fact that the music from my earphones would drown out any noise anyways.
I am playing in an online PTQ. The format is M13, and at the beginning of Round 1, we were 403 people. That number has been whittled down significantly. It's round 9 now. Only those who finish 8-1, as well as the single person who goes 9-0, will have a spot in the Top 8.
My pool is good: Not insane, but obviously good enough to have gotten me this far. This is what I was looking at around 8 hours earlier:
There are lots of things to be thankful for in this pool; Garruk is a powerhouse in limited, and Green is quite obviously deep enough for me to reliably have triple green. There's an Evolving Wilds. The two worst colors (Black and Red) are also taking up very few card slots, of which only one is a rare and two uncommons. There's a good assortment of powerful uncommons in the three remaining colors (Rancor, Talrand's Invocation, Arctic Aven, double Prized Elephant, Healer of the Pride, Duskdale Wurm and a Mwonvuli Beast Tracker to fetch it or one of the spiders).
There's also some things that could have been better; in addition to the Hamletback Goliath, another of my rares in Battle of Wits is completely unplayable even if it's in the right color. There's six very poor or at least unexciting uncommons in the artifact slot (I would trade any of these for an Elixir of Immortality against any mill decks I might face). And there's very little removal apart from the two Pacifisms, not only in my strong colors but in general. Here's the initial build I came up with:
It looks solid, right? It has a good curve, a few more creatures than most sealed decks, a classic combat trick as well as a few ways to force through damage in Battleflight Eagle and Rancor, and a devastating endgame in Duskdale Wurm and Garruk, Primal Hunter. It's remarkably good in the air (and especially against the air) for a White-Green deck. It is, in other words, almost guaranteed to perform well. If you showed me this deck and asked me how many of its matches it would win in a PTQ, I'd go as high as two-thirds.
Two-thirds, or 6-3, would perhaps have netted you 50th place in this PTQ. This deck might be consistent, but it doesn't have what it takes to actually win a PTQ (or, top 8, but you know what I mean). Though I had already hit "Submit", the crowd was thankfully slow enough for me to sort my remaining cards by rarity. Apart from a few choice uncommons that I was sad leaving on the bench, this guy was staring at me from the sidelines:
This card does something that nothing in my previous build, not even Garruk or Pacifism does. It deals with creatures like Krenko, Mob Boss, Xathrid Gorgon, Arms Dealer and Vedalken Entrancer. These are cards people are likely to play in their sealed pools, more so in the 6-0 bracket than the 4-2 bracket. And those are the decks you need to be able to beat if you want to not just do well but to have a shot in the hunt for the blue envelope.
I quickly put in my favorite jellyfish as well as his best friend Essence Scatter and some other Blue cards, removed some of the White, and changed the land configuration. This is what my final submission looked like:
... This might look slightly less consistent, but it has more removal, more card advantage and even, I would argue, more raw power (Invocation goes a long way on that account). It has more evasion and more multi-colored spells for the Dryad (which definitely was relevant some games). There's probably going to be decks like this toppling over each other to get their sixth match win in round nine (if their players have not already dropped) but there's also going to be decks like it in the top 8. Will this particular deck be among them? Where did we come from?
... It's round nine, and I am playing in the win-and-in round. My opponent is navigating an extremely powerful, if also extremely greedy, White-Blue-Black deck where he somehow also found room for a Cathedral of War in the mana-base. In game one, we both stumbled a bit on mana but he got out of it a bit faster than I did; I had out an Arbor Elf, an Elvish Visionary, a Deadly Recluse and a Welkin Tern with Rancor that was beating through his Fog Bank for 2. He had out a Servant Of Nefarox (And also his Cathedral on the table) and spent his fourth turn playing and equipping a Ring of Xathrid to it. I ripped my third land (a second Island) to cast my Talrand's Invocation, but he countered with a Vampire Nighthawk, equipping the ring to it and leaving up only a single Island.
Since he does not have regenerate mana up, I decide to swing my Drakes into his Vampire since I am holding a Titanic Growth. I need to get rid of the Vampire asap since I don't have white mana for my Pacifism yet and I'd need to chump it every turn if I am ever to drop the Garruk I am also holding. He blocks with the Vampire. I pump. He Unsummons my drake. I knew there was a risk of this, but I feel like I was still right to make him have it or take the extra damage. He swings back for 5 lifelink (one counter, two Exalted triggers) with regen mana up (I do not throw away my Recluse), sending me to 9 life. He passes the turn back without casting anything despite having 6 mana. I rip my only Plains and slam down the Pacifism. The immediate threat has been dealt with, but the Ring is still going to be a menace. I attack in order to take him back down to 11, but instead a Faerie Invaders eats my other drake and he only takes two from my Tern (blocking two of the damage with the Fog Bank). As good as Invocation is, it hasn't lived up to its potential this game. I have a Recluse back on defense for the Faeries and I can chump the Servant with my Visionary if he moves his Ring to it, but I am still on the backfoot. I need another land to cast my Wurm but I can cast Garruk next turn. He untaps and casts an Arctic Aven and moves the ring to that, instead. Things are rapidly going downhill.
I draw my sixth land and elect to put out the Wurm instead of a Planeswalker I can't defend in the air (also setting up a draw-7 from my Garruk next turn if he taps out). I've got no attacks. On his turn, he (predictably) sends in the Aven. I block with the Tern to free up Rancor (for two more cards off Garruk), prevent the damage and make him spend the regen mana. He also gives the Aven lifelink. That leaves him with 1BB up. Ugh. Murder would be brutal in response to the Rancor. I am biting my nails for a second until he moves the ring back to the Servant, tapping one of the Swamps. Phew. I draw another land, which means I need to pull the "Draw 9"-plan and hope he hasn't got another Unsummon.
He doesn't. I leave up White in case I hit the second Pacifism, which I do, in addition to a Naturalize, Deadly Recluse, Essence Scatter, Quirion Dryad and my two Centaur Coursers. I attack in with the Wurm, which trades with the Invaders (Servant is regenerated) and deals 2 through blockers (including Fog Bank). It's probably a bad attack in hindsight, but I feel like I need to pressure him. I tap out to pacify the Aven. Hopefully I can keep him from gaining more life now, he's still at 16. He goes to 14 from a Sign in Blood, forces me to chump his huge Servant on the attack, and passes. I draw Void Stalker. I've discarded the Dryad and a land to go to 7 so I Naturalize the ring, play out a Recluse and the Stalker and pass it back to him. He Crippling Blights the Stalker and passes it back. I draw the Beast Tracker. My Silklash could get me through the Fog Bank. I fetch it, play one of the Coursers, and leave open the Essence Scatter. Rancor goes on my Recluse which can then force 2 damage through the Fog Bank. He plays a Welkin Tern in his turn and passes it back. I attack with the courser as well as the Rancored Recluse. He trades off the 5/3 Servant for the Centaur and takes 2 through the Fog Bank. I play my Spider. He Scatters it. Dang. On his turn, his Tern comes in for 3 (the Cathedral is still in play) and I block with the untapped Recluse and they trade. He casts his own Talrand's Invocation.
Gulp. I think I'm out of answers. I attack in with the Beast Tracker and the Recluse, and he trades off one of the drakes to avoid going to 6. I play another Centaur and ship the turn. His drake hits me back for 3, sending me to 6. Eek. I can only afford to attack with the Recluse for one more turn. I draw for my turn. It's my own Fog Bank. Sweet! I send in everything including the Arbor Elf. He blocks the Recluse and Murders the Centaur - good I attacked first! - and goes to 5. I play my blocker and ship the turn with Scatter open. He draws and plays a Watercourser. I don't counter it but elect to keep my Elf back to chump it. I draw land and attack only with the Recluse. He takes the trade and goes to 3 in the process. I elect not to Rancor the Elf yet since I can always do so next turn. He untaps and plays Harbor Bandit. That one, I counter! An "ommmgmgmg" escapes my opponent in the chat. This game is intense. I Rancor my Elf. He blocks with the Drake (forgetting to absorb the last damage with the Bank, going to 2), and they trade. It's down to topdecks now, but I have a Rancor in hand. He rips and plays Xathrid Gorgon. Not a dangerous attacker, but I've drawn 8 cards more than him and can't win a stall. I draw the 7th-last card in my library. Divination. Awkward. Figuring I need to pressure him, I cast it. It comes up with Arctic Aven and a land. I play out the bird, which is a mistake, but it doesn't matter because the last four cards I have left are lands. I keep playing until the game tells me I can't draw any more cards.
We go to sideboarding; I take out Visionary and Dryad for a Plummet and a Negate, both which seem really good against him. I open G2 with a great curve-out including Rancor and destroy him in a matter of minutes. We're on to game 3.
And that's where it gets really intense. I mull a hand of 7 that has a little too many lands and too defensive cards - it's a hard decision, but I know my best bet against this opponent is to pressure him from the get-go and hope his mana messes him up. I get a six of Duskdale Wurm, Deadly Recluse and Centaur Courser as well as two Forests and my loner Plains, which is a snap keep. He goes first and my first draw is another Centaur, which is excellent. He plays out his Welkin Tern on turn two, which is kind of awkward since I need to decide if I want to block it with the spider I am putting down.
He throws down the Cathedral and that sways me to make the block (my second draw was an Arctic Aven I cannot cast). He Essence Scatters my first Centaur. This offense is losing its momentum quickly, if it was ever an offense. We're both at 20. He puts down his own Aven and I don't draw an Island, but he doesn't have a Plains either. I play out the second Centaur, having drawn Invocation. His Aven hits me for 3 due to Exalted and he puts down a Vedalken Entrancer that I hadn't seen in games one or two. I have an Encrust in my board that is unreliable off six Islands and an Evolving Wilds but which would have been golden against him; the ring and gorgon was not enough on their own to make me put it in.
Talking of Gorgons... That's what comes down on the next turn after I've drawn another Blue spell and passed it back. It's not game over, but it's quite close; I have no answers to the Gorgon or the Entrancer except the Void Stalker and even if he doesn't do anything else, he has the Entrancer as a clock. He's got 9.30 left on his clock and I've got 29 cards in my library. I keep calm, draw my Mwonvuli Beast Tracker, and play it. Looking over my library, I've got no other answers than the Stalker, and my only way of winning through the Gorgon is to draw Garruk, protect him and ultimate him. We're all-in on that plan. I pick out a Deadly Recluse to put on top to go with that defensive direction.
The next 15 minutes or so is a staring contest (and he's being helped by a Gorgon): He plays a Harbor Bandit, which hits me once before being pacified. He drops a Faerie Invaders and attacks with both fliers. I trade my Recluse for the Faeries (they have 3 power). He casts Talrand's Invocation and I pacify the Aven. I am taking some damage along the way but he is spending his Blue mana on other things that milling, so I endure it. I'm at 8. I take 4 from the tokens, going to 4. I know I need to topdeck an Island. I do. My Fog Bank comes out. He needs to not have Murder. He doesn't. I go to 2. He mills away my Stalker. I play out the Aven, which is petrified to avoid lifegain. I have a Plummet in hand but he's not attacking his drakes into my Aven + Bank. I am also holding back my Divination, afraid that it might be the draw that makes me mill out before I can win. I need to draw Garruk naturally, or at least have enough mana to cast him on the turn I draw him, to have a shot. I get out the Welkin Tern. He petrifies it. He's milled 3 of my 6 islands and I still need the second for my Invocation.
Instead I draw Garruk. Great! First part of the plan is in order. I cast it (tapping below Plummet but with three flying blockers) and it resolves. I hurry to plus it. The beast is petrified. Another Island is milled. There's one left in my deck. He casts an Exalted creature. He murders my Fog Bank. Garruk is at 5 now. He attacks with a 4/4 drake, which I trade both of my fliers for. Garruk goes to 6 and I neglect to cast the Silklash Spider I draw, opting to keep open Plummet instead. The other Drake comes in. It Plummets and dies. I draw my second Island, put it down, cast Talrand's Invocation and ultimates Garruk, creating 7 Wurms in addition to the two drakes.
It's not enough. My opponent is at 20 with five blockers out. I'm at 2 cards (which means I won't even get another turn) and at 2 life (meaning I'd die on the backswing). My opponent has three minutes left on his clock. He mills me out on my end-step (and petrifies a Wurm, for good measure). He untaps and Crippling Blights another Wurm. We're in his end step. "Nice games", he admits. "Yeah. Man this sweats", I feel justified in answering, "so close to top 8!" My hands are running through my hair. "Yep. Can you please concede or kill me?", he asks, thinking I'll let him wait my 10-minute timer out. "Nice deck," he adds. "Of course," I reply, "You too. Good luck." I pass priority and lose the match and the chance of top 8. Around 10 minutes later, the last match ends, and I get 19th place and six boosters of M13.
What convinced me to play in this PTQ was the feeling I had the day before, on Friday, at the RTR Release where I was drafting at my local game store. I went 3-0 in matches and 6-1 in games, my only lost game being in round 3 to a player whose DCI-number is 4 digits shorter than mine and who's already got pro points. But more than the result (which was welcome, of course), it was the feeling I had. I've read articles (and a book) by Patrick Chapin, and after this weekend I feel like I definitely know what he's talking about when he's talking about having "the fire". While my nailbiter loss in the final round of an online PTQ might have been a heartbreaker there and then, I've had a few days to think about it (and draft more RTR), and I've found that it has only redoubled my drive to go all the way. I almost got there this time with a fine (but as I said, not insane) pool and through some of the best Magic I've ever played. It was only my third PTQ (and my second online) - there will be more to come. Next time. The format will be something else, but knowledge of the format isn't everything you need to win a PTQ. You also need that fire inside, that will to fight and not give up, ever. And I'm doing everything I can to ignite that fire, to stoke it and keep it burning. If you, like I, have ambitions in competitive Magic, I suggest searching inside yourself for that fire and nourish it. With perseverance and enough effort, I know you can do it. Just like I know I can do it.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you got something out of it! I would appreciate any comments here or on Twitter, where I'm @Lobster667. I also have a blog if you want to read more of my musings on Magic, over at Tumblr.