Secret Origins

Posted in Daily Deck on December 13, 2013

By Mike Flores

So the column concept we had after I left Top Decks didn't really work out the way we originally envisioned. But don't worry! I'm returning to weekly here on in the beginning of next year with a bit of a different concept; I hope you love it.

We wanted something special to bridge between now and then, and had the idea of interviewing my old friend and most-drawn-upon muse, Jon Finkel. Wow! Super original! Everyone wants to interview Jon Finkel. What do you even ask him? Everyone wants to figure out how you peel back the skull to reveal the secrets of Jon's computer-like super Magic mind. Did I mention everyone wants to do this? How do you do this well?

Über-interviewer and Pro Tour Historian Brian David-Marshall had this great idea.

"Just deal out some hands and have Jon tell you if he would mulligan or not."

Thanks GreedyM!

Part of the problem with trying to figure out what makes Jon so very special is trying to take what makes him different—his in-game—and translating that, out of the moment, onto digital paper. That's really difficult for even great interviewers because how is Jon (or whoever) supposed to remember what was going on between his ears while he did whatever awesome thing? So much of what we call great play is driven by context, by moment, by not only what a player is trying to do but what he thinks the opponent is trying to do, right then and there. Some of it is luck; much of it we never see and no one ever sees. Brian's idea was great because it was just purely practical. Specific decisions, specific to the moment even, and wholly and contextually translatable to readers. This—this—is how you approach an opener.

Also, Jon loves Loves LOVES taking draws with his Storm deck.

Jon Finkel playing Storm at Grand Prix Portland 2013

I was pretty sure he'd have his Storm deck handy.

I was right.

This was the first hand we looked at:

Desperate Ritual
Gitaxian Probe
Gitaxian Probe
Pyretic Ritual
Pyretic Ritual
Pyromancer Ascension

I thought us lucky to see this first. It's not hard to pick a "yes" with an easy hand full of cantrips and access to both colors. But what about a hand with access to nine or even ten cards, depending?

Me: "Would you keep this on the draw?"

Turns out Jon wouldn't. Tom Martell, sporting his 2013 World Championship jacket, happened to be walking by where we were talking and made the good point that there isn't even a one-mana [draw] spell to draw into even if you hit your lands.

Sadly, the mulligans didn't go very far... but Tom made for a heck of a set of chats. I actually thought readers might learn more from Tom's journey of the past couple of years than the oft-tapped Jon. Finkel, for his part, continued taking test draws. He really loves that Storm deck.

Over the past couple of years, Aristocrats Champion and World Championship–competitor Tom Martell has emerged as one of the best players on the Pro Tour... but he certainly didn't start out that good. Can readers learn from the tools Tom adopted to drive his rise from kitchen-table aspirant to Grand Prix Top 8 competitor to Grand Prix Champion to Pro Tour Champion?

I'm guessing yes.

Tom Martell, winner of Pro Tour Gatecrash

Me: When did you make your break as a professional Magic player? Was it when you Top 8ed that Legacy GP?

(Tom made the finals of Grand Prix Columbus 2010 with this Counterbalance deck.)

Tom Martell

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Tom Martell: No. It wasn't until I Top 8ed Pro Tour Paris (two Pro Tours later). It was the first time I was really playing well and understanding the game conceptually in a different way.

The Legacy GP was a stepping stone, of course, and my first major finish, other than a PTQ; though I hadn't played in a PTQ in six years at that point.

I had started trying to qualify for the Pro Tour for about six months, at Grand Prix.

At Pro Tour Honolulu I lost in the final round of the LCQ. Three of the guys who qualified were in my same car—and none of us played against each other! It could have been all four of us.

That got me all fired up, though it was heartbreaking to lose, having gotten that close.

I decided to "just go" to Pro Tour San Juan even though I wasn't qualified. I won the Last Chance Qualifier with Patrick Chapin's Next Level Bant deck, which was awesome.

I was able to Top 32 the Pro Tour cold, thanks in large part to the Mono-Green Stompy deck made by Zvi Mowshowitz and Brian Kowal.

Me: How were you practicing? Most people don't just decide they are going to play in big tournaments, show up for big tournaments, and wake up professional Magic players.

Tom Martell: I actually under-prepared a lot.

My big catalyst for improving was drafting with Jon Finkel in New York. I wanted to get more serious.

Pro Tour Amsterdam was the first time I prepared more seriously; I came out a little early and I made second day. It was just nice to be there. It was the first time I had played two Pro Tours in a row!

Previously, I had Day Twoed seven GPs in a row without qualifying. :(

Me: Let's talk about skill acquisition. You weren't one of the best players in the world when I met you... but sometime between then and now you became one of the best players in the world. What changed?

Tom Martell: I have a chess background. Chess is very pattern-based.

For me, translating that to Magic was about getting reps in and learning the different shapes games take.

I don't need to test a specific format all that much; I need to draw parallels to something I have done in the past.

Me: Tell me about Paris...

Tom Martell: By Paris I was excited and doing well.

Tom Martell, Top 8 at Pro Tour Paris 2011

Me: You had the second-greatest Standard deck of all time (and probably the best sustained Standard deck that Ramp;D didn't make)... and pretty much only lost to the guy who won, in the mirror.

Tom Martell: Having Caw-Blade definitely helped!

In San Juan I had a great deck—the Mono-Green deck by Zvi and Brian Kowal.

In Amsterdam I didn't have a good deck. I played a Rock variant.

Me: The Treehouse deck? Hard to say that wasn't a good deck with multiple Top 8 performances. Hate to break it to you friend!

Tom Martell: The White Weenie deck Paul and Kai played was much, much better. :)

Treehouse was no Caw-Blade. By far the best deck I've ever played in a tournament was Caw-Blade. I had no prep with Caw-Blade; I punted Round 1 due to lack of experience.

The night before the tournament I was actually on the fence. I almost played the Vector Asp deck Steve Sadin made. Steve actually has the bragging rights of getting multiple Hall of Famers to play that Vector Asp deck (including the best deck designer of all time, Zvi Mowshowitz, and arguably the best player of all time, Kai Budde) to play his Vector Asp deck.

Thank God I wasn't one of them!

But I punted Round 1... I didn't know what my deck did yet. By Round 3 I knew what I was doing and was able to recover.

My opponents certainly helped. Part of it was being ahead of the curve and using new cards myself. I played a UB Control player; he played Inquisition of Kozilek on me and saw Sword of Feast and Famine; he took Mana Leak instead. I easily killed him with the Sword, which protected my creature from his black removal.

Sword of Feast and Famine was a new card. People weren't familiar with it yet, and very few people had played Stoneforge Mystic in a Constructed deck (though they could have played essentially Caw-Blade with Sword of Body and Mind for months).

Me: You won a PT last year. How do you feel about THAT deck?

Tom Martell: Aristocrats was fine... but not close to Caw-Blade.

In fact, I don't think Aristocrats was a Top 3 deck in terms of power level.


Aristocrats played to my strengths. It had elements of a linear aggro deck... But was not that fast. Unlike some similar decks of the Pro Tour it had no infinite combo. But it had cards that I was familiar with, and it could change gears quickly and play different roles in a matchup seamlessly. You could be a removal/control deck or pounce on them.

Just look at a card like Champion of the Parish.

Champion of the Parish enabled some of the most explosive draws, but was not what you wanted most of the time. In fact, it was bad against Bonfire of the Damned and other sweepers.

I needed Champion of the Parish against Joel Larsson. I needed to pressure him before he played Boros Reckoner... but it was not what you wanted most of the time.

[card]Bonfire of the Damned[/card]

Me: Picking the right deck for a tournament is something that is in most players' power most of the time (and one of the most important decisions a player can make in advance of winning). Do you have any overall rules for picking a deck?

Tom Martell: If Jon [Finkel] and Sam [Black] are playing the same deck, play that deck.

This was a hard rule to learn, and it took some mistakes to get there. For Pro Tour Avacyn Restored they had basically Bant Hexproof; but the deck came the night before the Pro Tour. It felt "too gimmicky." The mana could have been awful, and it was weak against Boros.

Jon, of course, made Top 8!

Instead, I played a deck with Gisela, Blade of Goldnight that could never beat a Zealous Conscripts. I felt like it was not a good choice, but didn't trust my instincts.

Over time, I learned to defer to Sam and Jon when I don't know what to do or am on the fence.

When we all play the same deck my Constructed performances are great. My worst record Constructed performance [when playing the same deck as Sam and Jon] was actually a 7–3–1 in Montreal... the Pro Tour I won.

I have 8–2 or better in every other Constructed format.

Me: How do you bend your Constructed deck-picking powers to the current formats?

Tom Martell: I know it's not conventional wisdom, but I think Mono-Black Devotion is actually a dog to Mono-Blue Devotion. It's winnable—and most Mono-Black players have the matchup going the other way—but I think it favors Mono-Blue devotion.

The big problem is that people are not building Mono-Blue Devotion properly. Thassa is really powerful. Bident is powerful; in fact, Mono-Black Devotion has problems ever beating an active Bident of Thassa... but people are cutting it!

If you are drawing three or more cards per turn, you are going to have devotion to blue. Thassa is going to get through unblocked and win the game in two turns.

Me: As a Mono-Black Devotion player, how do you address this from the wrong side of the fence?

Tom Martell: Black must be the aggressor.

I know this is not conventional wisdom... black is supposed to be "the Control" in the matchup... but Mono-Black Devotion is all about one-for-one removal. If the opponent gets Bident of Thassa online he or she is going to draw too many cards to answer one-for-one.

Black must be the aggressor. I side in Lifebane Zombie. Sometimes you get a Judge's Familiar but that isn't really the point. The point is to put the Mono-Blue Devotion deck on a clock. You can play Lifebane Zombie on turn three and it is very difficult to block.

Me: How can players who are not yet World-Class Pros get better? The way you did?

Tom Martell: It's about the people you spend your time with, the people you are surrounded with.

Look at Owen Turtenwald, Reid Duke, and Huey Jensen—The Peach Garden Oath brothers. They spend all their time—nonstop—together. They're all very good players individually but together their results are unprecedented.

Owen is a former Player of the Year but just won back-to-back Grand Prix for the first time. Huey is backing up his Hall of Fame induction with Grand Prix and Star City Open finishes.

For me, playing with Jon in New York was huge for me getting better.

Me: I remember the day you first got the call. There was an open spot in a draft...

Tom Martell: I remember the day.

Me: You certainly took advantage of the opportunity! I also remember when you earned the #1 rating in FinkelDraft standings. You said it meant more to you than Top 8ing a Pro Tour.

Tom Martell: That must have been tongue-in-cheek. Once I actually made Top 8 of a Pro Tour—which I hadn't then—I reversed my position. :)

But earning #1 in FinkelDraft was my first signal I was actually good at this game.

Me: So what did you learn, playing with Jon and company?

Tom Martell: It is important to play against players who are better than you.

Every time I lost, I asked myself why so-and-so made a decision I wouldn't have made.

But even after that, and winning a Pro Tour, I don't consider myself a very good drafter.

Me: How do you reckon? Your Limited results?

Tom Martell: Like I said before, as a chess player, I draw on past experiences and build on them. To be a great drafter, I need a great drafter to model. To me, there are very few people other than Ben Stark and Huey Jensen who are really great drafters to model.

It is not hard to win the easy drafts.

It is not hard to win when you get exactly the deck you want.

The great drafters know what to do when the colors they want aren't open. Me? I'm done.

If you want to Top 8 a Pro Tour, you need to be able to pull 1–2 out of a train wreck. On the Pro Tour, you only get a couple of drafts to prove how much preparation you've put in... and you don't control when a train wreck is going to happen. And train wrecks are going to happen!

You can't be wedded to your first pick.

Me: What do you think about just learning the best deck and trying to force that?

Tom Martell: The deck you want is not always open. If your mindset is just to learn one or two decks you are going to fail if those decks don't materialize.

This is a huge area of opportunity for me. My Limited win percentage on the Pro Tour is only about 55%. I've gone 9–1 or better in the Constructed portions of three Pro Tours and only Top 8ed one of them. :(

Me: What qualities do you think "a good drafter" has that you don't, at this point?

Tom Martell: Like I said, the way I learn, I need a model.

I am stubborn and have difficulty moving out of my ways. On the other hand: Reid and Owen... I am sure Huey is teaching them.

That is invaluable at this level. At this level everyone is good. Everyone has different weaknesses but plays at a high level. But building more strengths? That is what everyone is after.

Me: Any other misconceptions or modifications in mindset that you think it is important for readers to learn about?

Tom Martell: People want to see the $16,000 Lightning Helix. That is what they want to see. Often, even the good commentators miss the really genius play.

People don't see the really genius plays because they're so subtle.

When I beat EFro [Eric Froehlich] in the Top 8 of PT Gatecrash, I mulliganed to five. I had Blasphemous Act in my opening hand, but sold that I didn't. I had no choice. If I played any other way, I lost... but it was probably not obvious to people watching.

Thank God EFro drew the land to play Aurelia, the Warleader—which, like the $16,000 Lightning Helix—is the flashier play. If he had not drawn the land, he would have just cast Hellrider and killed me. I got lucky he drew the land, and lucky he made the play he did... But I had to play the way I did or I would have lost anyway.

If I had lost, people would have just said "Aw, he mulled to five. Of course he lost." And they would have missed it.

The flashy moments someone topdecks Lightning Helix are great. But the real genius to this game is when a player figures out what his or her outs are and plays to them. If someone has a four-outer he or she is going to miss most of the time. He or she isn't going to hit it and you are never going to think about it.

    Ten Takeaways from Tom
  1. Passion—Tom didn't put it this way, but if you step back a second, it's almost impossible to see his ascent without harnessing an almost superhuman passion for Magic. He talks about being "fired up." He started traveling to Grand Prix to qualify, and got back on tour by traveling to a Pro Tour San Juan he wasn't qualified for! Tom didn't have a typical number of opportunities, but he was passionate in giving himself many of those opportunities.
  2. Contacts—Tom grew as a player by surrounding himself by players who were better than he was, at least at the time. When he got the opportunity to first draft with—and learn from—Jon Finkel's circle, Tom made the most of those opportunities. The insane success of the Peach Garden Oath—Reid Duke, Owen Turtenwald, and Hall of Famer William Jensen—is just the most recent example of good players surrounding themselves with other good players in order to grow.
  3. Technology—Tom's success comes, at least in part, by being ahead of the curve with good and great decks. You are not going to have a lot of opportunities to have a deck like Caw-Blade before anyone else has heard of it, but the opportunity to play with new, good cards before other people realize how good they are comes almost constantly in Magic. Every time your opponent misses how good a Sword of Feast and Famine is early on can be a free game win.
  4. Foundation—Unlike the "grinder" model of modern Magicians, Tom doesn't gain his edge by playing a million games with the newest deck over and over and over again, looking for small value. He draws parallels to past performance and looks for familiar models.
  5. Strengths—As in "play to your own" strengths (as with the flexibility of Aristocrats); and acquire new ones (as he has intimated Reid and Owen are).
  6. Conventional Wisdom—Don't be afraid to defy it. Most players disagree with Tom's read of Mono-Blue Devotion versus Mono-Black Devotion, for instance.
  7. Train Wrecks—They happen; they happen for presumably every player who plays enough. You make Top 8 of a Pro Tour by eking out a 1–2 with a train wreck instead of sucking up the 0–3 everyone expects.
  8. Genius—…Is not [necessarily] in the flashy games, the $16,000 Lightning Helixes. The genius in Magic is found in identifying your outs when you're in trouble, or the right line, even—or especially—when that is not flashy or is hard for most other folks to see. Whether you hit your four-outer or not has no bearing on whether it was right to play to it.
  9. Flexibility—Is the essence of a good drafter. There are different ways to obtain strong results (e.g., knowing a particular strategy well and forcing it) but the best drafters still 3–0 tables even when their preferred strategies aren't open.
  10. Self-Reflection—Tom's interview was full of it! How many players know their Limited win percentages? Tom's self-reflective mindset, open to improvement even as he claims to be stubborn, seems like one of his defining assets. Without change there is little chance for improvement. Whereas Tom's improvement in recent years has been meteoric!

Mike FloresMike Flores
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Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

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