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The Importance of Looking Back

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Hey everyone!

Today I want to discuss the importance of looking back. This could be in regards to many things: family, school, career, or in this case, Magic. I turn thirty in a few weeks so maybe that explains the retrospective mood.

It's also close to the ten year anniversary of being one game away from winning a Pro Tour on February 21, 2010.

Here's the beauty that almost got me there:


Jund was the boogeyman going into PT San Diego. Jace, the Mind Sculptor's debut into Standard was also hotly anticipated. It took awhile for the hive mind to figure out the right way to build around the powerful planeswalker. Niels Viene's Open the Vaults deck featured the only two copies in the top eight. Bloodbraid Elf into Blightning or Lightning Bolt kept Jace at bay for a while.

Luis Scott-Vargas went on a historic 16-0 run in the swiss only to be taken down by Simon Goertzen in the top 4, who ultimately vanquished me in the finals.

This event changed my life. I won $25,000 which is a ton of money when you're a college student. Coolstuff Inc.'s own, Evan Erwin, offered me an opportunity to write some articles for Starcitygames that weekend. The rest is history as I've been writing Magic articles for nearly a decade.

For such a monumental time in my life I found it surprising how many of the facts I needed to double-check while writing this article. All I remember is losing the fifth game of the finals and my life changing forever. That's about it. We eventually forget the facts of key events in life, but never forget how it made us feel.

I take that last part back. I do remember thinking there sure were a lot of lights on the Sunday stage. Thank god I took a shower that morning.

Over the course of a single weekend I would no longer be considered an underdog.

Origins

I learned how to play Magic in 1995. My cousins, Adam and Stephen, taught me how to play. Of course I retained very little about the actual rules as I was five years old and didn't even know how to read. I would call them at ungodly hours of the day spelling out cards asking if they were any good. How they put up with that I will never know.

My first FNM was late 2001. Odyssey was just released, but there used to be a twenty day window before new sets were legal for tournament play. It was Masques block, Invasion block, and Seventh Edition.

I was an eleven year old kid with a gw deck consisting of the best Standard cards I could find. It took me nine years to get to the PT finals from there. Those first nine years of tournament Magic are something I often forget. I met incredible people along the way and was a part of teams that went on to do great things.

Here are some of the places I played and the people I met:

Great Lakes Crossing Mall's Wizards of the Coast Store in Auburn Hills, MI (2001)

Back in the day WOTC actually had brick-and-mortar shops to sell their board games and sealed product of TCGs. I played FNM every week and needed to carpool since I wasn't close to having a license. For about a year I wouldn't ever do better than post a 2-2 record.

If my mom would drive me to the tournament she would walk around the mall for four hours waiting for it to finish. She could have been doing more entertaining things on a Friday night after working all week. I'm very thankful for that.

I met some great friends that now work nearby in Ann Arbor. Alex John and Matt Nikolai went on the make Top 8s at Grand Prix and still play eighteen years later. The only difference is we don't look like the cast from Stranger Things anymore.

Actual picture of my original play group.

Oddly enough I first met Gabriel Nassif's wife, Liz Lempicki, at this FNM, too.

The Big Toe, Immanuel Congregational Church located in Oxford, MI (2002)

That's right we didn't play Bingo at church; we played Magic. This was especially strange because considering we were coming out of the 90s where Magic had a big religious stigma.

There's a literal petagram in the background of the original Unholy Strength art and people weren't happy about it.

Don't worry they'll fix that in post:

That's better.

I was trying to find some memories from The Big Toe's old website, but the domain is now for sale. Despite a church-run tournament sounding casual it was nothing of the sort. All of the serious players from FNM would play here on Saturday morning. I got the drive to play more from four of the regulars: Don Schreiber, Ray Yolkiewicz, Brandon Charnesky, and Dan Levi.

The tournament organizers called it the Big Toe because they liked the card, Plague Spitter.

It kinda looks like a big toe

Blue Dragon Games (2004)

I learned how to draft Champions of Kamigawa from Dan Cato, a local who recently finished ninth at Pro Tour New Orleans. He also handed me a sweet seventy five I would use to win the Michigan State Championships in 2005:


Back then damage went on the stack so you could sacrifice Shambling Shell to prevent opposing Umezawa's Jittes from getting counters while killing the equipped creature, important stuff for a Standard format dominated by the powerful equipment.

This was by far my biggest tournament finish to date. The State Championships had a lot of clout in those days. I could rattle off the names of past State Champions at the time. I wanted to be like them.

I won an IPod, a couple booster boxes, and free entries into pre-releases and PTQs in the midwest for an entire year. I went from being that little kid from FNM to the State Champ. That was big for me. I got perhaps too much confidence from that event.

Everybody at this store called me "Cheeks" because I had big chipmunk cheeks. I couldn't get away from that even with the State Champ title.

Team Unknown Starts (2005)

A group of grinders formed in the mid-2000s. We shared a common goal of winning scholarship money on the Junior Super Series (JSS) circuit and then qualifying for the Pro Tour.

The JSS circuit only allowed those without pro points to compete for college scholarship money. As a result, many of the big names broke out and competed in their first Pro Tour when they were no longer eligible for the scholarship money. The parents simply wouldn't have it any other way and the event circuit was a great experience.

Need I say more?

The team was created by Senior Magic Designer, Gavin Verhey. Among the standouts in this team were Ari Lax, Christian Calcano, and Pro Tour Berlin finalist, Matej Zatlkaj. We had a message board and shared cards on Magic Online. Gavin put a lot of work into making the team great.

Osyp Drives me to School- a Magic Online Clan (2006)

Back in the day, Magic Online clans meant something. It was essentially a chat room with a strong community aspect. The program would track how many packs the members of each clan won and had a leaderboard for bragging rights. One of the most prestigious clans of that time was "Osyp Drives me to School."

Like Team Unknown Stars, this group featured many up-and-coming grinders:

  • Ari Lax (amrlx)
  • Adam Yurchick (Dipterans/Condescend/A Bathing Ape)
  • Owen Turtenwald (OwenTheEnchanter)
  • Brad Nelson (FFfreak)
  • Josh Utter-Leyton (wrapter)
  • Corey Baumeister (FFfreakslittlebro)
  • Brandon Nelson (Donkasaurus Rex/Wakester)
  • Brandon Burton (SandydogMTG)
  • Melissa DeTora (meg_griffin)
  • Jim Davis (JimDownside)
  • Austin Bursavich (SneakyHomonculous)
  • Stu Somers (Stu55)
  • John Rolf
  • Bret Blackman (namblab_b)
  • Niv Schmuely (Trunks123)

Many of the names you see above were better known by their MODO user names because they hadn't broken out yet. I complain about MODO these days because this was my clan back in version 2.5. How can you compete with this? I learned a lot from this group.

R.I.W. Hobbies (2006)

Yea, that RIW...

At this point it should be assumed I'll be wearing an RIW jersey at any large event. Pam Willoughby, the owner, has been instrumental in helping me become the player I am today. She would sponsor the local players so they could grind the PTQ circuit. I was able to travel to PTQs in the region with a combination of her sponsorship as well as literally saving my lunch money.

The back room of the store was reserved for the team members to draft and test for upcoming events. It was at RIW I would meet Patrick Chapin, Gabriel Nassiff, Mark Herberholz, Brian DeMars, and Luis Scott-Vargas for the first time. All of my tournament trophies are still in the store.

During my run at RIW, DJ Kastner and I would build many decks that would post high tournament finishes at PTQs and Regionals. It was during this time I became a true grinder.

I reclaimed my state championship title with Solar Flare in 2006:


I snuck into the top eight at 7-2 with the best tiebreakers.

This deck looks rough, but had a high ceiling for its day. A signet into Persecute could clear out somebody's entire hand on turn three. Don't get me started on using Compulsive Research to discard Akroma, Angel of Wrath and Zombify on the following turn.

Can we bring back bounce lands in Standard? They were so much fun to play. If not then I'll settle for signets.

Here's my fifth place list from 2007 Regionals.


Only the top four qualified for Nationals. This tournament stung. I would ultimately travel to Nationals and try my best to grind in, but come up short.

The deck primarily won by getting value with Sacred Mesa. You haven't lived until you Rewinded a spell and made two flyers with the four mana. I would also settle for flashing in Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir to block a Treetop Village.

This is quite literally my favorite deck I have ever played.

Does anyone know why I played a single Snow-Covered Island? Me neither.

My first individual PTQ win came with this awesome Mystical Teachings deck in Time Spiral Block Constructed. Unfortunately I can't find the list online.

DJ and I tuned a list at GenCon 2007 where there were two PTQs back-to-back. We only had one copy of the deck so he played the first qualifier until well after midnight only to lose in the finals. He hands me the deck for the PTQ that begins in a few hours and goes to bed. I win that one.

This format would have never happened today. There were three decks: Mono-Blue Morphs, ug Aggro, and Mystical Teachings Control. The ug Aggro deck crushed Mono-Blue which crushed Teachings. In true rock-paper-scissors form the teachings deck was good at beating ug.

Since everybody was afraid of losing to ug nobody played Blue Morphs. We came in and dominated ug Aggro with Mystical Teachings. It somehow became a two deck format where the matchup was lopsided head to head.

In 2008 I won another PTQ with the first iteration of Domain Zoo that excluded Boros Swiftblade.


This is where I began building decks that cut synergy for raw power. It was cool when your 1/2 double-striker was pumped with Gaea's Might, but it was medium the rest of the time.

I can assure you these were the strongest cards we had available at this time. Wild Nacatl wasn't even born yet. It was my first big finish with a Zoo deck, but would not be my last. It played similarly to Noble Hierarch decks of today which explains my love for her.

This tournament meant a lot to me. The top eight of this PTQ featured:

Owen Turtenwald

Adam Yurchick

Patrick Chapin

Cedric Phillips

Back in the day I would see all of these guys at local PTQs and it was completely normal. They didn't always top eight at the same time; this one was a sight to behold.

The next big run I made at the PTQ level was the inspiration of this article. My friend, Tania, was being hassled about crying after a match which prompted the following tweet:

Yes.

It all started during the Lorwyn Block Constructed PTQ season where I was playing a sweet Four-Color Doran deck:


That's right. Cryptic Command alongside Doran, the Siege Tower. This is one of my favorite formats I've ever played. Sometimes Cloudthresher also made the cut because quadruple Green mana shouldn't mean you need to leave Cryptic Command at home.

It beat everything in the format except the Faerie menace. Since it was unlikely for me to take home the invite without beating Faeries at the top tables I switched to playing the deck myself.

I can't find the Faeries decklist online, but I had some interesting innovations such as playing more than zero Ponder in order to find Bitterblossom more consistently. Before Pat Chapin wrote about the power of Preordain in 2011, the one mana cantrips weren't popular even though they would have been great in good stuff Blue decks.

Three PTQs in three weekends with the Faeries. The first tournament I was getting my sea legs and put up a Top 16 finish. After some tweaks I ran it back and made the finals losing to Dale DeWood. He was playing Five-Color Control which is traditionally a good matchup. Losing that round was sad as I have finished second in many PTQs at this point. It was actually known among the grinders that I had a very large collection of second place finishes (a.k.a. steak knives).

The following weekend I played the same sixty cards and only made some aesthetic sideboard changes. It was another eight round event with a cut top top eight. I made it all the way to the finals again; up against Brian Demars playing Five Color Control. Again, this is the matchup I wanted to face with the blue envelope on the line. I've been here before and I know the matchup. The pressure was on as it was the last PTQ of the season; I wanted to play in PT Berlin.

I lost and was devastated.

When I got home I was locked out of the house to make matters worse. I just broke down crying. I really wanted it.

Thinking back on that day was interesting because I often reminisce, but I don't put myself in the shoes of young Kyle. I think of past events as my current self. I'm thankful that my past self cared so much; who knows what I would have become otherwise.

Even though I couldn't see it at the time I would get my chance in the spotlight. As I'm sure you can imagine I wasn't doing awesome in school. Mediocre grades were a blessing as I spent all of my time thinking about Magic. I would often hang out with my Magic friends outside of school which kept me at a distance from my classmates.

One week before Pro Tour San Diego I attended a PTQ in Columbus, Ohio. The format was Extended. DJ and I were working on various Zoo decks to combat the top strategy that featured both the Thopter/Sword and the Dark Depths/Vampire Hexmage combo built by Midwest PTQ grinder, Gerry Thompson.


In 2010 the legend rule would force you to sacrifice the newest copy entering the battlefield. Temporal Isolation would give the Marit Lage Token shadow and wouldn't deal damage. Creating a new token would result in it being sacrificed so they were locked out. The popular counter in the deck was Muddle the Mixture because it could transmute for most of your combos; Temporal Isolation could not be countered by this card as it only hit instants and sorceries.

Temporal Isolation also worked well with Blood Moon. I don't want to kill creatures with Path to Exile to fix their mana; that would be silly.

Boom // Bust could be revealed to Bloodbraid Elf and I could cast either half in those days. It was a 3/2 with haste that cast Armageddon. I would be ahead on board when my lands were in the graveyard because of Knight of the Reliquary becoming gigantic.

The Boom half of the card could also be used to destroy basic lands if a Blood Moon was on the battlefield.

This was my favorite metagame deck I've ever worked on. DJ wanted to play Blood Moon and I wanted to play Boom // Bust. A true Reese's Peanut Butter Cup deck.

Despite turning thirty years old I feel I've already lived a lifetime through this game. My teen years were spent honing my craft. Playing Magic is like riding a bike; I still borrow from all of the hard work I put in years ago.

A majority of my testing involves playing a deck against myself and then watching some videos of the format playing out to make sure I'm not off base. If a deck feels smooth it's likely good. I definitely wasn't able to see the patterns well enough in my teen years to get any benefit of playing against myself.

The only thing that has been consistent in Magic over the years is change. This year WOTC has been releasing sets faster and making more amendments to the rules. As a result, even the top players have less time to practice for a tournament as they need to relearn the rules of engagement constantly.

If I want to make a deep run in an event no longer do I have to fear the competition having a full month of testing ahead of me. I have a shot if I give it all I've got.

This is great for me as I have transitioned away from playing Magic as a job or as a grinder. I play because I get to see my friends and relive my wonder years. Many of the faces I see today aren't the same as the ones I talked about in this article. There has been a changing of the guard.

I find I'm either looking forward or being distracted by technology. It's rare that I look back at all of the work I did to get to where I am today. It made me very happy to recount all of the good times I've had as a kid.

It's possible that all of the events I wrote about needed to happen to get me to where I am today. Maybe that isn't true; who knows. What I do know is that putting yourself out there is invaluable. If you're looking to break through just keep going. Remember to cherish the journey along the way.

Thanks for reading.

-Kyle

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