By Gabe Carleton-Barnes

This article is dedicated to:

Henry Romero, who held the mirror up for me to see it,
Ryan Bemrose, who proudly refuses to learn it, and
Nathan Saunders, who used to smack me around with red cards when I was as stubborn as Bemrose.

The first time I playtested with Steve Sadin, he was still a teenager. I was a comparatively old man: going on 30, but new to New York Magic. I had come to New York certain of two things: that I could play with the best New York had to offer, and that I could learn from them. I was certainly correct about the latter.

Steve and I had met at the first and only Top8Magic Mockvitational, organized by the incomparable Brian David-Marshall. We were paired during the Build Your Own Block rounds: You can check out the decks we each played here. I had cobbled together a version of my favorite deck, Upheaval/Psychatog. Steve had put together a classic red deck complete with Fireblast and Jackal Pup.

That match was one of the best, and most fun, that I have ever played. We went to four games, and every one was epic. In game three, facing lethal damage and tight on mana after Steve resolved Boil, I was able to cast Sickening Dreams and discard a hand full of uncastable cards to draw the game, sending it to a fourth.* In game four, Steve finally put the match away with Fireblast to the face. I remember having a great time, and thinking that if we played that match again, I’d probably win. I was, in my own opinion, a master of the control vs. aggro matchup.

Some time after my first playtest session with Steve, I realized I was dead wrong. I don’t recall the format: probably some old version of Extended. At the time, I started every Constructed format by jamming as many Islands into a deck as I reasonably could. I had won a lot of Magic games with Islands. My system was simple: Play the control deck until I learned how to beat all the other decks with it.

On this day, I had built my control deck, and the default aggro deck, when Steve showed up at my railroad apartment in Williamsburg to get some games in. I handed Steve the aggro deck, confident that I would exact my revenge for my epic Mockvitational defeat.

I didn’t win a game. It didn’t matter who was on the play, or how good my hands were. The games all ended with me staring at unused counters, lamenting unspent mana, baffled at my inability to find a Spell Snare target at any point in the game against a deck with a dozen or more targets, and staring down a Satisfied Steve Sadin Smirk. Man, that kid could smirk!

The most important lesson Steve taught me that day didn’t sink in right away. Because control decks made me feel safe, because they were familiar, I was picking them automatically. Because I was damn good with those decks, I was able to beat most aggro players with them. What I didn’t realize was that I was beating those players because they were letting me.

While we were playing, Steve cast lots of two-mana spells when I had Spell Snare in my hand; he just did it when I couldn’t cast Spell Snare: Either I was tapped out or I had to hold up mana for something else. He sequenced all of his plays in such a way as to punish my slow, situational cards. I really never had a chance.

However, at FNM, or in the Swiss rounds of a PTQ, my opponents were not so diligent. They let me leverage my cards just enough to fight to the mid-game, where my control decks could take over and win in a landslide of card advantage. I thought this happened because control decks were just better if you knew how to play them.

The truth is, I was building and playing decks that were optimized to beat players who were willing to be beaten. I was exalting in my winning percentages against mediocre competition even as I failed to get over the hump in the late rounds of tournaments against more refined competition.

It was a hard journey, but I have broken my addiction. Don’t get me wrong: I still love a control deck … but not as much as I love taking a control deck apart with some carefully sequenced aggressive cards. Sometimes, I even try on Steve’s smirk for that final attack.

*I included Sickening Dreams in my sideboard thinking it was in Odyssey, although it wasn’t. No one figured this out until after the tournament. Although I finished second in the event, I went 1-2-1 in Build Your Own Block, so a lot of good it did me!

Gabe Carleton-Barnes has been playing Magic for over 20 years, mostly as a PTQ grinder and intermittently as a Pro Tour competitor. Currently based in Portland, Oregon, where he is an Open Source web developer by day, Gabe lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for three years. While there, he failed to make a documentary about competitive Magic but succeeded in deepening his obsession with the game. Gabe is now a ringleader and community-builder for the competitive Magic scene in Portland, wielding old-timey slang and tired cliches to motivate kids half his age to drive with him to tournaments.

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