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Originally I was going to write about Soulless Mono-Red again this week. About how I had, on the third attempt of the month of November (damn you Thanksgiving!) broken the x-1 curse, and gone 3-0 / 6-0 at FNM. How I had won a second coveted Conclave Tribunal (damn you Thanksgiving!) How even though I think Naya is the best on paper, if I had to push all my chips into the middle of the table, the devil on one shoulder would be Goblin Chainwhirler; and the angel on the other would be… Dead to a Fight with Fire.

But last night I got the call.

Well… I had gotten a series of texts all day, first.

“1-0

“2-0.

“4-1. Lost a close match to uw. Send me your energy MichaelJ!

“Think I just locked Top 8…”

You know the texts. The update texts.

By early evening I was on the edge of my proverbial seat; and not just because the chair was too small.

But at 9:29 PM I got the last update text before I got the call.

“I let you down.”

You didn’t let me down motherf*cker. Nor did you let yourself down. Sometimes you just don’t win. You hear that, Dear Reader? Doesn’t matter how good you are; doesn’t matter how much you practice; sometimes you just don’t win.

My very good friend, pride-producing protege, and burn brother Roman Fusco lost the win-and-q match in Top 8 of his Regional Pro Tour Qualifier.

Not surprisingly, Roman played rw Burn; or, in the parlance of those of us who have to choose a second deck after winning a preliminary event with a first deck, “dance wit’ the girl what brung ya.” This is what he used to make Top 8:


I respect the necessity of having to play actual graveyard hate these days (e.g. Rest in Peace) due to the threat of Creeping Chill out of Dredge (i.e. Lightning Helix you, for free, with a free card)... But I don’t have to like it. I cannot co-sign cutting a Lightning Helix for a Shard Volley, though. Ew. Smelly.

Aside: Exchange Between Mike and Roman RE: Shard Volley

Roman: Shard Volley won me a match against Infect!

Mike: I don’t want to hear it, Roman. You didn’t so much as have a second Chained to the Rocks in your sideboard. There is nothing you can say to me that wouldn’t translate into “any one casting cost spell would have done the same thing.”

Roman: Okay, he has two Infect creatures and they’re both lethal…

Mike: Oh my God, Roman. I told you I don’t want to hear it.

Roman: I Bolted one, and Shard Volley’d the other.

Mike: Did you only have two lands?

Roman: Yes.

Mike: Is it because you had Shard Volley in your deck?

Roman: Also yes :(

Individual card choices in a deck where almost every card does the same thing is not the topic of today’s article, though. What matters to me is what happened next.

Roman got what almost any player would want in his spot. Coming into the Top 8 he was third - meaning on the play - and his opponent was on Tron. Think about that for a second: Burn deck, on the play, AGAINST TRON? Many would be rubbing their hands together, Monty Burns-like, anticipating the Blue Envelope at just the announcement of the matchup.

The only problem? His all-or-nothing opponent was Grand Prix Champion Vidianto Wijaya. So, Tron or not, it’s not like he lost to some stick.

“I’m worried I’ll never get that close again.”

This.

This is what I wanted to write about this week.

Roman is a Regional Champion. He plays in a goodly number of Grand Prix events; always has two byes… But has never made it to the Pro Tour.

I’ll tell you now, Dear Reader, what I told him this morning:

Success is not a straight line.

Do you have any idea how many times I’ve given up? Most dramatically, I gave up on Magic in abject desperation… And then qualified for the Pro Tour the next day1 .

I rattled on the phone a litany of times I had near-misses as bad as Roman’s loss to Vidi last night. For you, Dear Reader? The first eight I espied on the Planeswalker Points site:

1. February 15, 1997

I didn’t have a truly commensurate story to Roman’s. I didn’t have a long climb up early on. I was just kind of terrible - not good enough to play in sanctioned events - then a little less bad, then I won my third PTQ ever. I’ve had a steady amateur-level win percentage, more-or-less, since 1996.

So my first memorable leap into the depths of self-pity didn’t come until February of 1997.

Yes, PTQs were a bit shorter then. Somehow the third round isn’t recorded by the PWP website. How I beat Alex twice after the ID is baffling. What’s most important is that, yes, the slot-stealer in question was the GOAT.

Only, he wasn’t the GOAT yet. His first Top 8 wouldn’t come until later in 1997, though he’d be playing a variation of the same deck.

I mean, losing a Blue Envelope slot to Jon Finkel isn’t something to be ashamed of. What was worse was what happened next.

Jon and I weren’t BFF or anything yet. But we did test together for PT Dallas a little bit, and ran into each other frequently at tournaments. So I saw him a couple of weeks later in my next didn’t-win-the-PTQ.

“Two days after I beat you for the slot,” started the eventual GOAT, “I got my ratings invite in the mail.”

That, dear reader, is… Two decades later, words still escape me.

This one was from a few weeks later that season:

I’m not really counting it because I was still two or three rounds out of the Blue Envelope at the time I was eliminated. It was a super spitty way to lose, though.

The rules were different back then. There was a lot of table talk and people behind me basically told my opponent how I was sideboarding (I had a transformative sideboard). I’m not sure, even today, what could be done.

I included this because the only named player is beloved Andrew Cuneo. This was the day I met Andrew, through mutual friends Erik Lauer and Randy Buehler. Andrew followed up beating me in Round Three with winning it all! It was his first trip to the Pro Tour where he has become such an important superstar.

2. January 24, 1998

I honestly have no memory of this tournament; which is weird, right? I have near-photographic recollection of harrowing losses but it really seems like I mopped up this day.

Sixteen-or-so-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor Alex Shvartsman returns as a named opponent. This must have been devastating for me, though. I mean look at that record. 1998? What deck was I even playing?

I assume I didn’t win because according to old PWP, I played another Extended PTQ on 1/31 seven days later, and then another on 2/1 (the very next day). I think the 2/1 tournament was the origin of “Spring forth burly protector, and save me!” … Meaning I can remember what altran played, but not myself.

Kaervek's Spite

3. October 3, 1998

David “Tourless” Weitz would eventually crack the Pro Tour but at this point would have to wait, a Michael J shaped obstacle in his way.

Trey Van Cleave is of course the man with a thousand Grand Prix Top 8s (and one or two too many bans, sadly). Worth Wollpert was my first Pro Tour roommate, the longtime boss of MTGO, and a Top 8 competitor himself, at LA 1999.

This was a heartbreaker. I had a secret metagame deck designed by Mike Donais of Cabal Rogue before he joined WotC R&D. It played Hammerhead Shark main deck:

Hammerhead Shark

The bet was that most of the good decks had Island; and the main one that didn’t (Deadguy Red) had Jackal Pup, which was bad against Hammerhead Shark.

I lost in Top 4 to the eventual PTQ Champion when he drew only Reflecting Pools and a Caldera Lake for Blue, three Hammerheads laughing from the not-red zone.

The “secret” Curiosity-Hammerhead Shark deck won the next Grand Prix, in the hands of Canadian National Champion Gary Krakower; Trey himself would also make Top 8 of that Grand Prix, alongside Worth’s Team Deadguy teammate (and my 2018 upstairs neighbor), Tony “the Shark” Tsai, no relation.

This part of the story doesn’t seem like it has a happy ending for YT.

Not only did I never actually qualify for Rome, but multiple of my opponents did at the next GP.

I was back in Ohio for about a year, away from my East Coast playing partners for the first time in four years.

Hold on a sec, 1998-1999 actually has a great ending, as I qualified for every PT for the rest of the year, Nationals, and Worlds (though I chose not to play in Worlds, covering it for The Dojo instead).

4. December 13, 1998

The previous entry was in Akron, OH (you know, LeBron’s hometown)... But this one was in Cleveland, OH (I’d say my hometown but I was actually from the suburbs):

The notation here is super weird. I drew with a Jon “Hula” in Round Six, but lost to a mystery opponent for the slot (or at least Top 4… I know he won the slot). I know because the player in question was PT Top 8 competitor John Hunka. It would be super weird if there was actually a John Hula and a John Hunka in Top 8, wouldn’t it?

This tournament was notable because my good buddy Matt Cavotta also made Top 8.

This was another tournament where I had made an awesome run (undefeated in the Swiss) only to lose to the eventual winner in Top 4 or so. But this is what I was getting at with Roman. Though I was frustrated, I went on to win a PTQ in Detroit Rock City a month later. It wasn’t about never “getting that close” again.

5. March 13, 1999

There is basically nothing good about this tournament. Other than I beat future kingpin and pillar of the community Pete Hoefling in Round 4 :)

I drew my teammate Patrick Johnson (PatrickJ) into 9th place… and then committed one of the most Bad Player Flores plays of all time. Have you ever heard of anyone losing mana with Palinchron and High Tide?

Palinchron
High Tide

How can you even do that?

Well, now you have.

Also I dinged up my car on the icy drive back from DC.

… But then won a PTQ (in Detroit again) a week later.

The $700 or so I needed to fix my car was a really big deal to me at that point. That was equivalent to 1/3 or 1/4 of what I was planning to live on all summer in New York. But that sweet, sweet Blue Envelope was the only thing I cared about, ultimately.

6. June 18, 1999

You’ll note my losses were to PT Hall of Famers Mike Turian and Jon Finkel. The unnamed losses were to US National Champion Dennis Bentley and Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz.

I learned so much this tournament.

First I learned I might actually be pretty good. I had won a lot of PTQs and competed pretty well at the amateur level for about three years at that point; but Pikula especially had cautioned me that I had never done anything on the National level, and that my decks (which I thought were pretty good) weren’t doing anything on the National or PT levels.

I went undefeated in games on Day One!

I was really excited; like I said, it was the first time I did anything.

I learned about strategy. My loss to Zvi was this sprawling game where neither of us had any removal but we just made more and more material. I was drawing tons of cards but he was gaining tons of life. If I had the grasp of strategy I have today, I certainly could have won… But in the summer of 1999 I didn’t have it yet.

Can you imagine the difference between my 9-4 and, say, 10-3; or if I had won that match against Zvi, 10-2-1? It would have been life changing for me!

I didn’t get on the Pro Tour via this Grand Prix, not exactly.

But I put a lot of what I learned into US Nationals a month later, where I went 5-1 in Limited, including a victory over Mike, who was considered maybe the greatest Limited player in the world at that point.

My performance at Nationals put me in… Ninth :(

I got very unlucky on breakers, and Zvi hopped me for my Top 8 spot, and a spot on the National team. That said, I was qualified for every PT for the next year as a result of the ratings I built up over the course of these two tournaments.

It strikes me that we’ve gone 6/8 deep and haven’t even hit the 2000s yet!

7. July 8, 2000

Hickory Woodlot

I “invented” Hickory Woodlot for this tournament.

Before this tournament, nobody played it. By the end of the format, it was a four-of in every Green deck.

As with most new technology (e.g. Inspiring Vantage in Burn) people criticized it before adopting it full-force.

Pikula kind of shook his head watching all day. “I just don’t get how Mike never gets f*cked by those Hickory Woodlots.”

The plus-side of Hickory Woodlot is that you can play turn two Silt Crawler or turn three Blastoderm, ahead of the opponent.

The objection, of course, is that you run the risk of blowing all your land up, yourself. It was of course in the Finals that I drew all Woodlots.

I made Top 8 every week for the rest of the format, but never took home a Blue Envelope. Perhaps the worst of it was playing Story Circle on White against Jon Sonne’s Mono-White deck… And then losing from more than 10 to his Rath's Edge.

Story Circle
Rath's Edge

I didn’t qualify for that PT… But success isn’t a straight line.

I spent the summer of 2000 road tripping with primarily Paul Jordan and Josh Ravitz; two of my most important Magic contacts, and dearest friends over time. We were joined some weeks by WSOP bracelet winner Eric Kesselman (who won one of the PTQs), the aforementioned Pikula, and Tony Tsai.

If I had won one of the PTQs I “should” have - especially early on - I wouldn’t have made some of those friendships; I hate to admit it, but the friendships are actually more valuable than the Blue Envelope. I was ultimately both Paul’s best man, and Tony’s ;)

8. May and June of 2001

I wanted to end on this one because - despite being almost two decades old - it is one of the most instructional of the bunch. Look at this a moment:

Weird inclusion, right?

I finished 30th in a four-slotter.

I didn’t even win one of my three wins!

What gives?

This was a Limited tournament. I had these cards in my deck:

Flametongue Kavu
Hunting Drake

… Oh, sorry.

I meant I had these cards in my deck:

Urborg Volcano
Salt Marsh

This was quite simply the best Limited deck I’ve ever had. My mana was perfect and my cards were all hits.

My loss?

The speaker system went out and I didn’t hear the round announced. There were at least half a dozen of us who took that loss that round, for the same reason.

Paul had dragged me to Florida for a US Nationals I wasn’t qualified for. “For the times.” I was nursing a running injury and didn’t want to go. But I went. And then THIS happened.

This was the tournament that I figured would break me. I had put my entire adult energy into Magic but had never so much as made a Grand Prix Top 8. What a stupid way to lose. I gave up and quit. I quit in the IHOP that night.

That was Thursday.

I spent Friday - unqualified - gunslinging for the Junior Super Series. I was quitting Magic but I was there, so might as well, right?

Two of my friends convinced me to play in a Team PTQ with them Saturday.

This was Saturday:

Yeah.

I successfully didn’t win a Meat Grinder, quit Magic, and qualified for the PT again in a 48 hour stretch.

Not only that, New York 2001 was the first time I would ever win money on the Pro Tour! If you’re super interested, we were probably good for a Top 4, but suffered “the worst ruling ever on American soil”. I’d have to learn different lessons, about cheaters, and how to call a judge, after that.

So what’s the point? I didn’t even pick everything salient… And we’re talking about only the first four or five years of my playing Magic seriously. I had so many near-misses. I could do this all day. The team event where I couldn’t imagine how my opponent could win… But he could. For the slot. The third Reclamation Sage. The missed Eidolon trigger (for like five slots and five hotel rooms).

Do you have any idea how many times I’ve either quit or decided I would never be on the PT again? Considering I’ve been playing longer than many of you reading this have been alive… It’s a few. But something happens. I collaborate with someone great, like Paul or Patrick Chapin, or Roman himself… And then boom! I’m right back, fire lit again.

So of course Roman is going to get close again. He might not win the next time, either. And if he doesn’t… It’s going to be g-d frustrating for him. But he might! And if he keeps putting himself close… He’s going to break through at some point.

There is no reason, Dear Reader, the same shouldn’t go for you.

LOVE

MIKE