Have you ever played Dark Souls?
Dark Souls is one of the most incredible video games I’ve ever beheld. It’s gruesome and stark and hopeless and so ego-crushingly difficult it’s almost a wonder it was popular enough to warrant a sequel.
Run-of-the-mill enemies can kill you in two or three hits. With bosses, a stray nick from their weapon is often just lethal. Levels are designed with the express purpose of crushing you under boulders, hurling you into bottomless pits, smashing you against spiked ceilings.
Everything about Dark Souls is brutal. The architecture of every facet of the game has a singular, monomaniacal purpose: to completely and totally fuck your shit up.
The tagline for the game is, simply, “Prepare to Die.”
Full Disclosure: I have yet to play Dark Souls myself. My love of the game comes merely from watching it be played many, many times.
I would tell you that I don’t want to sound obtuse with what I’m about to say, but if you read my previous post, then you know damn well that I am absolutely, undeniably obtuse.
So here’s the obtuse statement of the day: Competitive Magic: the Gathering is a lot like Dark Souls. It’s exhausting; it punishes the smallest mistakes; grinding is a bleak, miserable process, and every loss is crushing.
But the mark of a talented Magic player — perhaps even more so than technically tight play or a penchant for correctly deciphering constructed metagames or the ability to read opponents — is an unwillingness to quit. To play Magic not despite your innumerable losses, but perhaps in fact because of them; that is a skill only the most talented of players have.
This isn’t just poetic bullshittery I’m spewing at you right now; the best players in the world all average to about a 60 percent win record. The best players in the game still lose just shy of HALF of their matches. And this is very likely the thing that makes them better than the rest; they’re willing to lose almost half the time in order to find success and enjoy meaningful wins.
In other words, the best players in Magic history have always been the ones who are the most prepared to die.
This is Josh Utter-Leyton. He’s arguably the best player of 2013 (and actually player of the year). His win percentage is just over 60 percent.
Dark Souls and high-level Magic have more in common than simply a willingness to fail, however. Another fundamental trait they both share is the promise of rewarding correct decision-making in times of pressure.
The hardest boss in Dark Souls is in many ways very random. The onus of the player in this particular fight is to adapt to that randomness and pursue a consistent series of decisions that results in victory.
The hardest matches you play in Magic are incredibly random. The onus of the player in the most difficult games of Magic is to adapt to randomness and pursue a consistent series of decisions that results in victory.
These two are the Dark Souls equivalent of a mulligan to five against your worst matchup.
On Saturday, June 15th, I attended the Card Kingdom Standard PTQ for Pro Tour Theros.
First off, I want to reiterate something I’ve been saying ever since Card Kingdom started running PTQs. They absolutely and without a shadow of a doubt put on the best large store-run tournaments in Seattle. Next time they do a PTQ, everyone should give them their money. They had RK Post on-site as their guest artist! They held a $15 modern tournament that paid out in Tarmogoyfs! They ran a 9-round Standard tournament in roughly 10 hours, which is pretty unprecedented given every single round had players who went to time! You don’t even have to enter the main event to enjoy yourself. They have on-site vendors, a hotdog stand IN THE TOURNAMENT HALL, infinite high-EV side events, and the best judge staff you can ask for. Card Kingdom’s PTQs just totally and completely rule.
Alright, shameless plug for our sister store out of the way, I’d like to talk about how I actually performed.
Up until about four days before the PTQ, my plan was to run Junk Reanimator, as it is in many ways just “the best deck” in the format. It’s consistent and versatile and it doesn’t really have any bad match-ups.
The problem was, I’d been testing the deck and I wasn’t having any fun. Its draws are inconsistent, the mirror feels almost completely die-roll dependent, and casting Thragtusk left me feeling hollow every time I did it.
At one point, I was contemplating just not going to the PTQ. I’d been on a pretty unrelenting losing streak since January, and Standard as a format just felt unrewarding and uninteresting to me.
Cue the obligatory part of the story where I talk about how my friends are the best in the world, because Jen Rockwell and Travis McKinney are the only reasons I bothered showing up that day.
You see, Jen really didn’t want to PTQ without me (we’re like a married couple except we aren’t romantically involved and we don’t live together and we don’t get sweet tax write-offs), so she was pulling hard for me to drag myself to a tournament I was utterly ambivalent about competing in. For whatever reason, I’ve always had a hard time bailing on her (it’s like a Catholic guilt complex only I’m not even a little bit Catholic), so I was feeling the pressure to attend solely for her sake.
Travis’s role in my attendance was a bit more subtle. He simply texted me out of the blue on Wednesday morning to say “I think you should play Act II at the PTQ.”
This behavior on his part was completely unfair, because anyone who has talked about constructed with me understands that there’s one thing I love more than all other things when it comes to deck design: SYNERGY.
I’ve played Act II on and off since its creation by Brad Nelson back in late March, and while I’ve always run consistently poorly with it, I’ve simultaneously always been smitten by its ability to win games out of nowhere thanks to the sicko combo kill it packs in the form of Boros Reckoner and Blasphemous Act.
Add to the above the realization on my part that I was only 76 planeswalker points away from a round one bye at all GPs from now until December, and the next thing you know I was contacting Kevin Kwong to force him to build my sideboard for me for the PTQ (REAL TALK: I have met literally no one as good at constructing sideboards as Kevin. I owe every single decent finish I’ve ever had at a constructed tournament to his ability to craft perfect 15-card sideboards).
And just like that, nous sommes prêts à mourir.
I Reckon y’all can understand by now how much I value my team.
For the sake of transparency, here’s the 75-card list I registered for the tournament.
It turns out, Travis’s deck recommendation was basically perfect, because the almost all of the field for the PTQ was soft to the ol’ one-two punch that is Reckoner into Blasphemous Act. Here’s a breakdown (with commentary when appropriate) of what I played against, for the sake of thoroughness.
Round One: Junk Aristocrats (LOSE 0-2)
(Note: My opponent had some pretty nutty draws, to the point where he misplayed in game two, called a judge on himself to try and take back his misplay, was promptly denied the ability to do just that, and still crushed me anyway.)
Round Two: Junk Reanimator (WIN 2-1)
I want to take a moment here to talk about my opponent for this round — the one and only Jesse Withrow. Jesse is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, straight up. He always has a smile on his face and he’s always a good sport no matter how his matches conclude. The first time I played against Jesse, we drew into the top 8 of a money tournament together, so it was pretty disappointing having to play against him in the round two losers’ bracket given our previous encounter.
Long story short, I comboed him out game three and my infinite Lingering Souls draw was enough to best his mull to five in game two. But what’s really worth noting here is the conversation we had AFTER our match.
Jesse and I spent a good five minutes chatting about what it means to be a Magic player. He talked about how he doesn’t get the people who can’t enjoy Magic if they’re not winning. We talked about the fun that is the dynamism of a high-variance game, and how awesome it is to be able to meet so many smart, like-minded people simply by slinging cards.
I was basically on life-tilt after my round one loss, but Jesse’s good nature and words of immense wisdom spun my mood in a completely different and radically positive direction.
So thanks, Jesse. You rock, and I owe a lot of my performance for the rest of the day to you.
Round Three: Gruul Aggro (WIN 2-0)
Round Four: UWR Midrange (WIN 2-1)
Round Five: Jund Aggro (WIN 2-0)
Round Six: Gruul Aggro (WIN 2-0)
Round Seven: Izzet Blitz Woo Brew (Win 2-0)
This round involved one of the smartest games of Magic I’ve ever played — a game where I was truly prepared to die. It was game two, my opponent was attacking me with a 4/4 Nivix Cyclops after having cast Artful Dodge, and my board was three untapped land and a Boros Reckoner. My hand was three copies of Blasphemous Act and a Tragic Slip. He cast an Electrickery in declare attacks phase, targeting my Reckoner, telegraphing a lethal Boros Charm in his hand.
So I’m dead-on-board unless I can activate the Slip in my hand. I went deep into the tank with my Boros Reckoner’s trigger on the stack, and 70-or-so seconds later, I came out with a decision.
“Send my Reckoner trigger at my Reckoner, get another trigger.”
The conclusion I’d come to was to kill my own Boros Reckoner to activate Morbid on my Tragic Slip. It deprived me of ALL possible pressure I could apply, but it kept me from dying on the spot, so I determined it was the right thing to do.
“Send the second trigger at my Reckoner, get another trigger, Reckoner dies, deal one damage to you.”
My opponent cast Boros Charm. I responded with Tragic Slip. He was at 13 life. I drew a second Reckoner two turns later, followed by a Lingering Souls. He extended the hand and complimented my tight play.
Round Eight: Naya Blitz (WIN 2-0)
After starting 0-1, I had rallied back to 7-1, and was in seventh place going into the last round, meaning I was live for top 8 on a win-and-in but I couldn’t draw. I was feeling very confident in my deck, and was ecstatic because I’d avoided my worst matchup (Jund Midrange) all day. I introduced myself to my round nine opponent, kept a passable seven, and settled in to try and win the bubble match.
Round Nine: Jund Midrange (LOSE 1-2)
Fate is a cruel mistress, and I should have known better than to honestly believe I could escape the Jund menace at a nine-round tournament. In the third and final game, I mulliganed to five and he had turn two Farseek into turn three Huntmaster of the Fells into nut perfects after that, and my tournament was over.
Poetically, and perhaps cruelly, my Blasphemous Act combo-kill deck finished the tournament in 13th place.
MFW I lose my bubble match against my least favorite deck in the format.
The upside of this tournament, despite its bittersweet ending?
Well, it’s two-fold. I overcame my losing streak and top 16ed a PTQ. But more importantly, in that moment against the Nivix Cyclops combo player, I experienced my second-ever moment as a Magic player where I felt, in terms of the game and in terms of my play, like I was truly prepared to die.
Some might argue that tight play is its own reward, but the line I tow is slightly contrary to that; tight play is rewarding when you learn from it. In so many ways, it’s identical to losing. Value and gain and personal growth in Magic all boil down to the same caveat; they all come from learning through playing, and you can choose to accept them or reject them.
It’s the same with Dark Souls, really.
I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who haven’t played what is arguably the best video game of the last decade, but I will say this: Jund is my Ornstein and Smough. I keep losing to it — sometimes by miles, sometimes by inches — but I’m going to beat it one day. Especially now, parce que je suis prêt à mourir.
P.S. On Sunday, my friends and I had a really silly multi-fake-format draft/sealed/pack wars extravaganza. Thanks to opening a constructed deck in my sealed pool, I made it to the Alliances pack war finals, where I gained infinite life and staved off ONE OF THE ONLY FUCKING POISON CREATURES IN THE SET in order to take home the trophy. And I do mean trophy, as you can see by the GPOY below.
Matthew is Gamma Ray’s resident Magic snob. Follow him on Twitter and Google+!