Ugh. Just ugh. The Modern PTQ this past weekend was a huge disappointment for me, and I ended up dropping when I found myself fighting back tears having lost again in round four. Magic is a game of skill, this is true, but there is also a not-insignificant element of luck involved, from the draws you get to the matchups you get assigned. And while some of these matchups are going to be great for you, some of them are going to so disfavor you as to make winning nearly impossible.

On Saturday, I ran into my worst matchup three rounds in a row. I was playing Jund-gro, the aggro version of Jund with the expanding oozes. I based it off this list here, but I tweaked the sideboard a little bit to have more game against Boggled Enchantments, a deck I fear. And when I took it out for a spin on Friday night, taking advantage of Twenty Sided Store’s unique Modern FNM, it performed well for me. Here’s how that tournament went down:

Round 1: Vin, Jumbies

Vin mentioned that he had come to the store with Legacy and Standard decks, and thus was forced to cobble together something from those two decks. I’ve played against his Rock deck in Legacy before, and it presents a great deal of face-beating. That he could make some gold out of such distinct formats is both awesome and a testament to how Modern falls between the two other constructed formats these days.

Game one he kept a one-lander, dropping a turn one Deathrite Shaman in the hopes that he would be able to ramp off the fetches he assumed I had. Well, I did have them in hand, and realizing that the more his mana was constrained the better off I would be, I didn’t drop a land into the graveyard the whole game. It helped that I had a nice curve, but by playing smart I kept him from ever getting the momentum to be in that game. As a general rule of thumb I don’t mind grinding a game out if it’s the more certain victory; I could likely have beaten him more quickly had I taken a more aggressive tactic, but preventing him from dropping real threats like Lotleth Troll, or ever successfully getting his Vengevine engine online was worth taking it slow.

Game two was a bit more epic, coming down to some tight combat math in the endgame. Combat math is one of the things I consider to be a strength when I am playing Magic, and this was no exception. He knocked me down to one life before I hit him back to get him down to four, but then my Raging Ravine and Putrid Leech walled him off. We were in a stalemate, since he had a Vengevine and a Bloodghast that would keep me off lethal, but at the same time swinging in meant I could crack back with my Ravine and win. We laid lands for about three more turns before I drew another threat off the top of my library. He needed to draw a blocker to maintain parity, or a zombie to recur the Gravecrawler to bring back a second Vengevine for lethal, but I had crafted a scenario where I was more likely to win, and he drew blank.

1-0, 2-0

Round 2: Hugh, Affinity

Hugh is without a doubt one of the best players in the store. He regularly makes the finals of the events he participates in, and his play is consistently tight, if not flawless. So, running into him playing one of the decks that eats me for breakfast? It was a little demoralizing. Luckily, Hugh is a great guy, and, while intimidating, he’s also one of the nicer opponents you could have. Perhaps it’s that he has nothing to prove!

Anyway, I lost this matchup in two games. I actually had played against the deck a few weeks ago when I was running Infect, and it had trouble dealing with Infect’s explosive start. Jund, however, is just enough slower than Affinity to tilt the match in its favor, and my aggressive version didn’t put him on enough of a clock to handle the fact that most of his threats have evasion. Talking to other people afterwards, they seemed skeptical that Affinity was so favored against Jund, but I disagree. From my experience running the deck back when Jund still had Bloodbraid, I was usually happy to see my opponent lay the familiar red, black, and green. We played a bunch of games since we had finished so quickly, and Hugh won literally all of them. It was brutal, but it made me respect that you can only plug so many holes in your sideboard.

1-1, 2-2

Round 3: David, BW Tokens

I also played against David’s deck during that Infect tournament, and having tried it out myself I have a pretty good sense of how the match plays out. So long as I can keep him from dropping an Auriok Champion through my discard options, and keep pressure on his hand with Blightning and Liliana, my card advantage machines can usually get there, and Ghor-Clan Rampager is an all-star in token matchups. This is not to say that David was a pushover; the deck has some explosive starts, and David knows the deck better than anyone I know. But I took game three after being beaten down by eight spirit tokens in game two, and I realized I had made the boneheaded error of not boarding in Maelstrom Pulse.

2-1, 4-3

Round 4: Mike, Kuldotha Goblins

Mike had made it to a 2-1 record with his own spicy Goblins brew that relied on some of the affinity pieces to power out Kuldotha Rebirth tokens and then give them battle cry with Goblin Wardriver and Signal Pest. His deck was pretty darn cool, and it gave me some ideas of how to tweak my own Goblins list (which tends to run a bit more tribally themed). Anyway, I blew him out game one, and—while I forget exactly how—the fact that he was at 11 life right before I killed him suggests that the Rampager (an all-star) was involved.

Game two he had an awesome start, such that I found myself facing down goblins with four and five points of power before I could seriously commit to the board. There’s not much you can do when you’re facing that down. Game three Mike kept an explosive hand, projecting a sort of “what the hell” attitude, and when I played turn one Inquisition of Kozilek he laughed and dramatically flourished his hand. I immediately saw why he was so chagrined; he had no lands in hand, just a Mox Opal, two Memnites, and some explosive one-drops he never got to cast. Of course I took the Opal. It was mean, but it was the right play.

3-1, 6-4

And that was how I went into Saturday. I felt excited because the deck had performed well, and while I knew I had some pretty awful matchups, I also had a bunch in which I was strongly favored.

Round 1: Pedro, UWR Geist

This was a brutal round for my opponent, and it made me think I had a good shot at doing well in this tournament. Pedro is a known player in the area, and he’s not bad at Magic. Game one, though, I followed a turn two Liliana up with a brace of Tarmogoyfs, and I killed him by turn six. He did some sideboarding, and when I Inquisitioned him turn one in game two I saw he had brought in at least two copies of Threads of Disloyalty to handle my Deathrites and ‘Goyfs. This match played out with a lot more interaction. I made one fairly egregious error, swinging in with a 3/3 Bloodhall Ooze instead of waiting another turn for it to be a 5/5; a Restoration Angel, of course, ate the Ooze.

He kept hitting me with the Angel and I kept hitting him with my Leech, until all of a sudden I was representing lethal with four life left, forcing him to keep back his Restoration Angel. I swung in with my Leech and ate his Angel, bringing me down to two life and preventing me from using my Deathrite Shaman, out of respect for the possibility of the Lightning Bolt. We spend a few turns staring each other down, with my Leech slowly taking two points off him at a time, before he topdecks a bolt and points it at my face. I assume I was dead then, since the play made no sense unless he had the second burn spell in hand, but I used the Deathrite to gain two life anyway, and it turned out he didn’t have the second burn spell at all. It was a total misplay, and it let me use my Deathrite when I untapped to kill him a turn faster than I otherwise would have been able to. If he had held it, I would have been dead as soon as I tried to use my Deathrite to kill him, not that it was likely that I would have. I won that game at one life, and I went on to my next matchup proud of my play and of the deck I was playing.

1-0, 2-0

Rounds 2, 3, and 4: RG Tron

The problem with random pairings is that you can end up playing the same matchup three rounds in a row, while the person next to you is never going to play against a deck twice in the whole tournament. Usually this is no big deal; most matchups are fairly balanced, and each deck only has a few bad matchups and a few really good ones. All the rest hover in the 50% range, and come down to tight play. But even the tightest play in the world isn’t going to be much help against a deck that is preboarded against “fair” decks like Jund. At least two of my three opponents were playing Relic of Progenitus main, and I think they all had Pyroclasm maindecked as well. My version of Jund is particularly weak to these spells, since Bloodhall Ooze needs a turn or two to get going, and my Goyfs and Deathrites rely on an active graveyard. Tron also runs Wurmcoil, an absolute beating against a deck that has no way to exile it or survive its deathtouch. Anyway, even if I could get past all those problems, the deck still drops a turn three Karn a disturbingly high percentage of the time.

In five of the next seven games that I played, Tron was assembled on turn three; in four of those games, it was used to immediately cast Karn (the fifth dropped a Wurmcoil). The two games that didn’t involve a turn three Tron were the opposite ends of the spectrum. Once, I managed to have two copies of Molten Rain and the Deathrite and fetch to cast it on turn two and turn three, keeping my opponent off Tron and letting me get my sole win against the deck. That was the only game I won, one in which I had two pieces of sideboard hate in my opening hand. The other time was the final game before I dropped. I was on the play, mulled down to a six-card hand that would have been bonkers against any other deck, and intentionally overcommitted into the Pyroclasm by playing out both a Deathrite and an Ooze on turn two. At that point he hadn’t dropped an egg or a colored land, so my play was in the hopes that I could sneak in a few growths of the Ooze before he could wipe my board—but of course he immediately dropped a Grove of the Burnwillows and won the game. It was hard to be a good sport about this.

1-3, 3-6

Had I known that I was going to face Tron three matches in a row, I think the tournament would have been less devastating—but that’s not how it goes. After the first matchup I was keeping my head up. After I got paired against Tron again I tried to find some sick humor in all of it. But the third time I got paired against Tron, down in the basement with all the other X-2s, I looked next to me and saw a weird BUG deck playing against a Battalion homebrew. Something about this, and the fact that I knew by that point that I was unlikely to rally, just made me crack. If I had been one chair over, playing either of those decks, I would have most likely won. Even a hard loss to Affinity probably wouldn’t have prompted me to drop. But there’s a certain type of demoralization that comes from losing to your worst matchup three times in a row, and I fell for it hard.

Not that the day was a total loss; I bounced from the main tournament and went back to the store proper to jam some drafts. I went 2-1-ish in two different drafts running some awkward Dimir decks. Each one of those tournaments had a moment that reminded me that no matter how crushed I might have felt (which was completely), I am still pretty good at Magic.

In the first draft I was facing down a Vizkopa Guildmage at four life, the board having been stalled out by his Assault Griffin and my two Metropolis Sprites, one of which was encoded with Undercity Plague. My opponent topdecks a Gift of Orzhova and slams it on his Assault Griffin, swinging in for what should most certainly be the win, or at the very least move him out of the range of my own air force. I blocked with the un-encoded Metropolis Sprite and double pumped it before damage, at which point it self-terminates and he gains no life. He died to exactsies on the backswing.

In the second draft I also had Undercity Plague, and we get a five-minute warning just as we’re starting game three. My opponent drops a bunch of Syndic of the Tithes and starts extorting me silly, although he gets somewhat stuck on four lands. Meanwhile, my 18-land deck is curving out, and on turn six I play Undercity Plague and encode it to my flier, and the game quickly turns around. That card is brutal, and it’s particularly strong in Dimir.

Still, it’s sometimes easy to forget the degree to which this game can influence our self-esteem. For me at least, and I suspect many others, Magic provides a good outlet to do battle on the basis of wits and skill. It gives me an opportunity to hone my intelligence and strategic thinking against the minds of others, and it can be a shock to all that when I go from winning to losing.

One of the interesting aspects about the Twenty Sided Store Championship was seeing how a group of people who had been consistently posting positive win percentages dealt with not succeeding in a tournament that clearly meant the world to all of us. Given the nature of the event there was no way we could all have winning records, and when you’re facing down such skilled opponents it’s easy (for me at least) to minimize the element of luck when you lose to them. But luck is a factor in Magic, and bad luck can derail one’s expected outcome. It’s important not to let a series of hard losses damage your self-esteem—and when I figure out how to do that, I promise I’ll share.

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