Now you just gotta win out!—text message from Matt Jones

Last Friday I hated Magic.

Let me back up: Last Friday I woke up at 4:45am to get on the road early to Grand Prix Pittsburgh, Gatecrash Limited format, with Matt “The Obliterator” Jones, Kadar “History’s Greatest Monster” Brock, and Local Notable Level 2 Judge Connor Hays. I picked the boys up at zero dark thirty at Kellogg’s Diner in Williamsburg, aka HOTC HQ, and proceeded to jam six hours west to Steel City.

I wanted to leave early so as not only to miss Friday-morning NYC traffic, but also because—given that the last season of Planeswalker Points had just ended the week prior—I suddenly found myself with zero byes, and wanted to play some grinders. I hadn’t thought about the fact that this plan would pretty much leave me with zero sleep, since I am essentially incapable of getting in the biscuit (that’s Arkansan for “go to sleep”) before midnight.

But so we rolled into Pittsburgh, which is positively shitty with bridges, and parked and checked into the Westin, just in time to avoid a horde of Mary Kay ladies who were also checking in (they were having some convention at the hotel that weekend). We got some food—Matt Jones’ aforementioned pretty-much-whole-fried-fish sandwiches—ran into Dana and fellow HOTC writer Jess on the street—and hit the David L. Lawrence Convention Center (which, hey, was the first LEED-certified convention center in the country!).

Fresh from the Allegheny River.

Fresh from the Allegheny River.

I completed my preregistration and grabbed my playmat and Prime Time—both of which I later sold for $31 total, aka $9 less than my entry fee, which always seems weird to me—and signed up for grinder No. 1. Pretty soon it fired, we were seated, and I ended up with what seemed like a strong Borzhov build.

In round one, I faced the Borzhov mirror, and game one was an incredibly grindy and drawn-out affair, literally lasting 40 minutes. I got into a bad situation where he had out a Vizkopa Guildmage and Gateway Shade with a lot of possible pumps, and the life totals were just stalling out and going in the wrong direction. I should have just conceded and moved on to game two, but I was pretty much crashing, sleep-wise, at this point. My face was hot and I wasn’t thinking clearly. I lost game two—I forget how—and was out.

I really just needed to go back to the hotel room, chill the fuck out, and sleep. So what did I do? I got a Red Bull and signed up for another grinder, of course.

The hot-mess result of my grinders.

The hot-mess result of my grinders.

I ended up with yet another Borzhov pool—and promptly lost yet again in round one. I was really discouraged, at this point, just thinking I was terrible at Magic. I signed up for a draft and and drafted what I think was actually a really good nutso all-the-Guildgates-and-Greenside-Watchers RG control (?) deck, with Borborygmos at the top end. Yeah, I was fatigued as shit. I won G1 and thought I was set—but I kept a terribly slow hand in G3 and lost the match.

I hated Magic. I was just incredibly overtired and thinking that this weekend wasn’t going to be a good one for me. I desperately needed to get back to the room and get to sleep, if I was going to be in any shape to play on day one. So that’s what I did.


This captures how I was feeling pretty well.

Day One

Saturday morning I wake up, collect another Twenty Sider who came up Friday on the bus, Josh Fetto—bye-having Kadar and Matt were still snoozing—and get some breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts before heading over to the convention center and getting seated for the player meeting.

The head judge announced that there were 1,626 players in attendance, meaning that we would be playing nine rounds of swiss, followed by a cut for everyone with worse than an X-2 record, and then a tenth round—after which there would be another cut. Suffice it to say, after the Sunday-morning double-elimination debacle at GP Charlotte, people were pissed. (The head judge later said he had mispoken, and that there would in fact be only a single cut, after round nine. Crisis averted.)

After deck-registration, I get passed my pool and I’m initially pretty bummed: I’ve got the classic two-Shockland pool (Sacred Foundry and Breeding Pool), supplemented by Mystic Genesis, Biomass Mutation, Giant Adephage, and Alms Beast. So of course I look to Simic first—I especially didn’t want to auto-play Boros after Friday’s cock-up—but, although the green was deep, the blue just wasn’t anywhere.

Similarly, neither white nor black had much going for them besides the Alms Beast, a Vizkopa Guildmage, and two Orzhov Guildgates. Gruul had some good stuff but it didn’t have enough early drops—which Boros (sigh) did have, in the form of 2X Wojek Halberdiers and a Truefire Paladin. Here’s what I registered:


Skinbrand Goblin
2X Wojek Halberdiers
Truefire Paladin
Syndic of Tithes
Bomber Corps
Vizkopa Guildmage
Martial Glory
Boros Charm
Prophetic Prism

2X Warmind Infantry
Goblin Hellraiser
Skynight Legionnaire
Armored Transport
Act of Treason
Massive Raid
Gift of Orzhova

Assault Griffin
Millennial Gargoyle
Alms Beast
Holy Mantle

Debtor’s Pulpit

7X Mountains
5X Plains
Sacred Foundry
2X Orzhov Guildgate

That’s 15 creatures, nine spells—and 16 lands. Even with the splash, I felt like my mana was pretty good, what with the Prism and the three dual lands—and, furthermore, I felt like I needed to live on the edge a bit and run just 16 lands, given that my curve topped out at four, with the exception of the Pulpit.

I also didn’t have any bombs, save for Alms Beast—and really, he’s only a bomb if you drop him on turn four. I obviously had a bunch of great two- and three-drops, but beyond that the deck was solid but unexciting. That’s why I thought I needed both the Gift and the Holy Mantle, in order to surprise my opponent and flip the race on them.

The last addition I made was the Debtor’s Pulpit. According to the rationale I’ve outlined earlier, I felt like—especially in the later rounds of a big GP—I needed a way to deal with big bombs that I couldn’t otherwise handle. I would have killed for an Angelic Edict, seeing as how Pulpit doesn’t answer two of the cards I most feared, Obzedat and Assemble the Legion, but unfortunately that wasn’t an option. So in the Pulpit went. Notable on-color sideboard cards included:

2X Smite
Shielded Passage
Foundry Street Denizen
Beckon Apparition
Skyblinder Staff

It retrospect, it was dead wrong of me to run the Vizkopa Guildmage. Initially I had her  and the Beast in there with just the Orzhov Guildgates and the Prism, but at the last minute I added a Swamp, in order to try and get enough black mana to potentially activate both of her abilities in the same turn. But that was a pipe dream, and absolutely not what my deck was wanting to do, as I later discovered.

It’s possible—possible!—that I should have maindecked the Foundry Street Denizen, aka Kadar Brock’s best buddy; but I still think a maindecked Smite was the better option. And that’s what I mostly did, throughout the day: After game one, I boarded out the Swamp and the Guildmage for another Plains and a Smite. A GP friend of mine (more on this later) said that I should forget about the splash entirely—no Alms Beast!?—and just run both Smites and the Denizen. And maybe that’s correct, but I didn’t do it. Either way, I was ready to play.

I saw this guy before I think R1, and it just cracked me up. I don't think I've ever seen a guy with his head more flatly on a table.

I saw this guy before I think R1, and it just cracked me up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy with his head more flatly on a table.

Round 1—Brendan

Brendan was on Gruul, with Clan Defiance, Legion Loyalist, and tons of bloodrushers. In G1 I lost to Clan Defiance, essentially. It’s possible I should not have raced for as long as I did. In G2 I kept a slow hand with only Mountains. He killed me from 11 by double-bloodrushing onto his Ceratok for 13 damage, while I double-blocked another dude of his which had Madcap Skills on it. Not how I wanted to start out. I just didn’t feel like my deck was working properly in this match, like the gears were grinding or something. 0-1 matches, 0-2 games

Round 2—Oliver

I find my table and sitting down already across from my seat is—a little kid. I later learned he was 12, but he looked even younger than that. And I’m thinking, “OK, cool—a kid. I can chill out a bit, win a match, and get back in the saddle.” Because how good can a kid that young be?

The answer: pretty fucking good. This kid was seriously talented, and even had the tics of a hardened pro—flipping cards like Kibler, very distinctly passing priority and moving through phases of the turn, and so on. And the kid beat the shit out of me.

Well, he didn’t beat me that badly—our match did go to three games. I won G1 when he couldn’t draw land (although I also put up a strong offense), and lost G2 after mulling to five and getting mana-screwed. That said, I definitely made a game of it in G2, and could have actually won if I had been able to find a second Plains, which would have allowed me to do the last point of extort damage off of the Martial Glory which (if I had played it, which I didn’t, because I couldn’t kill the kid) would have dropped Oliver to one life.

In G3, I lost after never drawing a Mountain and getting 4X red cards stuck in my hand. Also, I stupidly decided to race after stacking up Mantle and Gift on my Griffin, when Oliver had a Gift-ed Syndic on his side of the board. For whatever reason, after I suited up the Griffin, I decided to swing in, thinking that I had to gain the life—when of course I could have just held back and blocked with the Griffin, gaining the same amount of life. After I did that, Oliver of course just swung back and did some tricky shit to kill me. A guy I’ve become friendly with at GPs, Alex Yatsenko, happened to find me during this match, and was watching all this go down. “Racing was pointless at that point,” he said.

Alex was right. I shook Oliver’s hand, wished him luck and encouraged the kid to keep playing—told him he was an excellent player and I that I hoped he did well, which I did! But man, I was also pretty disappointedt. 0-2 matches, 1-4 games

After the match, Alex took a look through my deck and reprimanded me for the splash. He pointed out, perhaps correctly, that Alms Beast wasn’t even that big of a bomb, which is maybe true—but it is a very strong card. He made the recommendations I mentioned earlier, about the 2X Smite and the Denizen.

I texted Matt Jones and Kadar at this point, lamenting my second loss TO A CHILD. So Matt Jones writes back those fateful words, “Now you just gotta win out!”

Matt Jones found the kid later in the day on Saturday and took a picture with him. Matt asked him, “Hey, did you beat the hell out of an almost-middle-aged guy wearing a red hat earlier today?” And the kid says, matter-of-factly, “Yes.” Also, the kid is drinking coffee. He’s a monster! Coolest kid ever. The tracksuit just kills it. (MJ also said to the kid, apropos of “I promise this isn’t weird,” “Don’t worry, I’m an artist.”)

Round 3—Zach

Zach was a hip and friendly local dude—who unfortunately started our match with a deck-reg error (he had left out three cards on his list), which led to a game loss. In G2 I stomped him with Warmind Infantry with Holy Mantle on it in one, two, three, four + Martial Glory swings. It wasn’t much of a game/match, but I stopped the bleeding. 1-2 matches, 2-4 games

Round 4—Patrick

My opponent was on the play, and kept his seven. I mulled to six and kept a two-Mountain hand with Bomber Corps, Vizkopa Guildmage, and maybe Gift. But the round took an inexplicably long time to start, and while we were waiting, I started to rethink my decision to keep—visions of the stats on drawing a Plains (not to mention a Plains AND a black source) were running through my head. So I called a judge and explained the situation to him, asking if I could continue to mulligan, even though I had already said I would keep. Given that my opponent kept at seven, the judge said that would be fine, and I mulled again—to the most amazing five ever: Truefire Paladin, a Mountain, a Plains, and maybe Armored Transport plus something else. I killed him very quickly.

In G2 Patrick got out the Consuming Aberration + Agoraphobia combo (the first time I’d encountered that particular combo, wherein you just keep on bouncing and replacing Agoraphobia, triggering Aberration each time), but his mills were unlucky and I had already dealt a ton of damage to him, and finished him off with a Boros Charm for four. 2-2 matches, 4-4 games

Round 5—Gunner

Weirdly enough, for a 1,626-player tournament, Gunner was the dude who had been sitting across from me at deck reg—so I knew, vaguely, that he was on Dimir. I beat him down pretty hard in G1 after he cast Paranoid Delusions and ciphered it onto a Wight, to pretty much no effect, as I didn’t flip any creatures and the Wight stayed a 1/1. The next turn, he even bounced it with Keymaster Rogue.

Gunner vs. Hunter.

Gunner vs. Hunter.

In G2 he assembled the Dimir Keyrune/Hands of Binding/extort Voltron, and beat me pretty handily. In G3 I battled through a tough and unexpected Merciless Eviction, after dropping Mantle on Skinbrand (he had out Keyrune + Hands again). I had Massive Raid and Act of Treason in hand, though, and he was at four life. All I needed him to do was to cast something big that I could steal and kill him with—and he obliged by casting Leyline Phantom, tapping himself out. 3-2 matches, 6-5 games

Round 6—Marcus

In G1 Marcus played five Plains, a Blind Obedience, a Skyjek, and an Aerial Manuever—which didn’t save his guy, as he thought it would, against my Boros-Charmed Transport. We got deck-checked in between games one and two. In G2 I kept a five-lander and drew only a Wojek Halberdiers toward the end; all my other draws were spells (Mantle, Gift, Raid, etc.). Even so, I was about to stabilize with Gift and Mantle on Wojek, but he cast Martial Glory on his Madcap Skills-ed Griffin and killed me from nine life.

Prior to G3 I boarded out all the black mana, plus Prism, Alms Beast, and Vizkopa Guildmage for the Foundry Denizen (somewhere in the distance I heard Kadar Brock hooting in victory), a Smite, Shielded Passage, two Plains, and a Mountain. I was rewarded with a blistering draw on the play in G3. I went Bomber Corps into Hellraiser Goblin into Warmind Infantry. He tried to kill my Infantry with Homing Lightning, but I had Boros Charm for indescrtructible. Also somewhere along the way I stole his Syndic’s wallet. 4-2 matches, 8-6 games

Round 7—Zack

My opponent this round, one of those super-interesting (to me, anyway) stoner-looking dudes who are counterintutively incredibly and hilariously rigorous about Magic, was on Simic. In G1 I used Boros Charm (on indestructible) to off two of his guys in a key attack. G2 was much closer: I mulled to six, and got a lot of damage in early. My last turn I had out Warmind, Gargoyle, and Bomber Corps. He was at nine, with a tapped Rust Scarab and an untapped Scab-Clan Charger. I put Gift on the Corps and swung in with the team. He hemmed and hawed over whether to block with Charger, but he didn’t. I did eight damage to him, putting him to one, and lifelinking me to eight. If he had a Bloodrusher on the crack-back he would have had it—but he didn’t. He said he was looking for a Slaughterhorn, which would have won him the game, but he didn’t find it. 5-2 matches, 10-6 games


Team 20 Sided hanging out between matches.

Round 8—Alex

Holy shit I’m on a 5-0 streak. This is the round where I really start thinking about it: I’m win-and-win-and-in for day two. At this point it’s still a ways off, but nevertheless, after the debacle of the first two rounds, I had settled down—and so, apparently, had my deck—and everything was working beautifully. Like clockwork, I was boarding out the Guildmage and the Swamp after every game one (usually for a Plains and a Smite or Shielded Passage), and my deck was just beating down hardcore. So of course I start to get nervous.

In this round my opp. drew his seven and realized he hadn’t de-sideboarded, so we called a judge. He had to mull to six, but only got a warning, rather than a game loss. I was fine with this, because he seemed like a nice guy, a local Carnegie Mellon student, and I didn’t want to rake him over the coals for his error.

Once G1 started, I had a great draw, including Alms Beast. I played Warmind followed by Beast, and held Holy Mantle until I could kill him from 10 life with Mantle on the Beast, by swinging and bloodrushing Skinbrand onto the Beast—which I just realized right now, while typing this, that I can’t actually do (Mantle grants protection from creatures). Well, whoops. That was a seriously honest mistake, though. I don’t think I realized, until I heard someone talking about it on Sunday, that you couldn’t bloodrush onto a Holy Mantled-up creature.

In G2 I had a great hand of Truefire, Wojek, Gargoyle, Act, Plains, Orzhov Guildgate, and Mountain. I just beat him down repeatedly, after playing Wojek on T2 and Hellraiser Goblin on T3 and swinging for five. On T4 I played Syndic and Truefire and swung for a million. On my last turn, I cast Act on his Skynight and swung with the team—all he had left was a Bomber Corps. He was at nine life, and I Martial Glory-ed for the win.

At some point during G2 he Mugged Wojek No. 1, which I had played on T2 intead of Truefire—and then I promptly drew Wojek No. 2. I was happy with how I’d sequenced my plays, in not exposing myself to losing my better cards, aka Truefire. Doing stuff like that was how I really thought I gained extra advantage all day long—by playing my less-good (but still strong) stuff first, in order to bait out removal on my less-good cards. I think you can do that if ALL of your cards are able to beat down, as mine were. 6-2 matches, 12-6 games

Team Light Buoy, aka me and Kadar, on Friday.

Team Light Buoy, aka me and Kadar, on Friday.

Round 9—Chuan

Somewhat unbelievably, given my 0-2 start, here I am yet again, same as at GP Philly— win-and-in for day two, after a six-match winning streak. I was nervous, but not, I think, as nervous as I had been in Philly. And that’s what high-level play experience will do for you: desensitize you to the nerve-wracking situations that you are going to experience at big-time events like GPs and PTQs. So back to the game.

In G1 my opponent, who was from Beijing and who was on Orzhov, mulled to five on the play. I beat him with a great curve-out situation of Boros beaters, and didn’t even have to play Mantle or Gift, both of which were in my hand. This, again, is something that I didn’t do right in Philly—in my win-and-in match there, I jumped the gun and pulled the trigger too early on my bombo of Supreme Verdict and Rootborn Defenses. Here, though, I kept my trump cards in hand until I definitely needed them—and in this game at least, I didn’t.

In G2 Chuan mulled again, although this time just to six. Again I stomped him with an amazing curve, backed up by Martial Glory. Hellraiser Goblin did WORK. All Chuan mustered was a Basilica Screecher with Midnight Recovery on it, getting back the Balustrade Spy I’d killed earlier with Martial Glory. My only worry this game was when his Spy first hit the table, and milled about eight of my best cards: Mantle, Mugging, Act, 2X Wojek, etc. But I just kept dropping hasty fliers (thanks to the Goblin)—and beat him! My last, overwhelming swing was with Syndic, Gargoyle, Griffin, Truefire, and something else.

HOLY SHIT I MADE DAY TWO! And on a seven-match winning streak, no less. Fucking unbelievable. I didn’t want to celebrate in front of my opponent, but a guy I know, Eric Philipps, had been watching my match, and congratulated me and gave me a side-five after I won. As Chuan packed up his cards I just sat there, de-sideboarding and shuffling, and stifled a grin. I remembered what my 2HG partner Christian had once told me, after making day two, about how winning his win-and-in match was one of the most purely happy moments of his life. Finally, at my seventh GP, I knew how he felt. I was positively vibrating, my chest swelling with pride. Matt Jones telling me to win out after my 0-2 start? YOU’RE GODDAMN RIGHT I DID. 7-2 matches, 14-6 games

I realize this is weird 'cause it's taken in a convention-center bathroom mirror, but this is how happy I look after I make day two.

I realize this is weird ’cause it’s taken in a convention-center bathroom mirror, but this is how happy I look after I make day two.

But back to the analysis: An interesting point is that, when you have an active Hellraiser Goblin on the table, your opponent will willingly make blocks that they might otherwise hesitate to make. The reason, I decided, was that in these situations your opponents think you don’t want to attack. But, if you’ve set it up properly—and you should never commit Goblin to the board unless you have at least a two-turn plan to keep him from fucking you—you do want to attack. And they block and you blow them out with a trick.

A bit of a bummer sidenote to this story is that after I finished my match, Matt Jones was still playing his win-and-in. I was too wound up to watch, so I sat down at a table behind him and started writing notes on R9. And then, after a while, I heard a cry of such pure rage and dismay that the hairs on the back of my neck stood up: Matt Jones had struck out. Simultaneously, with the power generated by his cry of defeat, Matt force-crushed his miserable deck with his mind (and, sure, his hands helped), like how when Darth Vader got angry and everything around him crumples. Despite the circumstances, it was kind of amazing. (Sorry, MJ.) Dana said the only thing that would have been better was if Matt had just stood up and ripped a fucking phone book in half.

Round 10–Frank Karsten

The cut was made, to 206 players with X-2 or better records, and I was safe for day two. But, given my first- and second-round losses, my tiebreakers were really bad, and so I was very nearly at the bottom of the pile, in 204th place. But at this point I cared not for your pedestrian rankings: I had achieved my goal, and anything else was just gravy.

So of course in R10 I get paired up against Hall-of-Famer Frank Karsten, a really nice guy who’s originally from the Netherlands (he happens to be living in Pittsburgh at present). He’s been out of the game awhile, but Hall of Famers are very dangerous indviduals, Magic-wise—and after losing G1 to his strong, bloodrush-y draw, with Ghor-Clan Rampager and Mugging, I’m thinking, “OK, my streak had to end sometime.”

But I wasn’t done yet. Before G2 I sided out all the black, the Prism, and the Pulpit for Denizen, 2X Smite, and Shielded Passage. I won G2 on the back of a Mantled, Gifted Skinbrand Goblin that I protected with Shielded Passage—I specifically waited until I had five mana, so I could play the Mantle with Passage backup; and, sure enough, he tried to Massive Raid the Goblin in response to my casting Holy Mantle, and I felt really fucking smart for playing it safe and nuking his removal spell.

In G3 I killed Frank from 12 life by Mugging his Rampager (for no blocks), and swinging in with Gargoyle, Griffin, Bomber Corps, and Syndic—and then casting Massive Raid for four, plus extort, to do 14 total damage. Before this GP, I’m not sure I’d ever used Mugging strictly to falter a blocker, but I did it a few times this weekend and it was awesome. BOOM! 8-2 matches, 16-7 games

An interesting note: At one point in G3, I had out Bomber Corps and Syndic, with Skinbrand in hand. Frank had an Ivy Lane Denizen on his side of the table, which I swung into with just Syndic. I have no idea why I didn’t also swing with the Corps, given that either creature + a bloodrushed Skinbrand would have killed his Denizen. Frank clearly suspected a trick, but my leaving back Corps made him think I had a different trick than I actually did: namely, as he told me after the match, Aerial Maneuver. I honestly have no idea how him thinking I had Maneuver made him play differently from that point onward, but evidently it did, because after the match he said, “You really mindgamed me with that Syndic attack.” Sure man, I’ll take it. Just goes to show at what a high level some of these pros are playing at, as opposed to we filthy rabble.


But back to the story—What the hell just happened!? I’d gone 8-2, snagged an “I Played a Magic Hall of Fame Member” button (Frank was a really nice guy), and improved to 128th place overnight. I was on top of the world. I split from the convention center, called my fiance to share my victory with her, and met up with Team 20 Sided at a nearby Thai place, where they had pre-ordered me of the spiciest pad Thai I’ve ever eaten. We went back to the hotel, I scarfed the noodles and a Mexican Coke, and hit the hay, after talking a bit of day two strategy in MJ, Kadar, and Josh’s room, and drafting on Decked Drafter back in mine. I went to bed thinking about how all day long on day one I’d had the top button of my shirt buttoned, and that I had somewhere misplaced the pen I’d been using to record life totals all day. These items panicked me. So on Sunday when I woke up, I made damn sure to retrieve my pen from MJ and Kadar’s room, and I buttoned the fuck out of that top button. Superstition isn’t just for ball-players.

Tune in next Friday for the conclusion of my GP Pittsburgh run.

23/17 is a Hipsters of the Coast column focused on Limited play—primarily draft and sealed, but also cubing, 2HG, and anything else we can come up with. The name refers to the “Golden Ratio” of a Limited deck: 23 spells and 17 lands.

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