The Geist of Magic Future?

Posted in The Week That Was on March 2, 2012

By Brian David-Marshall

It has been a crazy handful of weekends for Grand Prix Baltimore Champion Matt Costa. Coming into Pro Tour Dark Ascension, the 19-year-old from Eastham, Massachusetts, had just 16 points in the 2012–13 Pro Players Club standings. With scheduled exams making it murky as to whether or not he'll be able to play in Pro Tour Avacyn Restored, he was very concerned about being able to continue playing Magic at the Pro Tour level come the next season.

A first Pro Tour Top 8 appearance and one Grand Prix win later and the three-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor is sitting on 44 points—just an even dozen off the lead for the US National Champion's seat at the World Magic Cup—and has locked up invites with Platinum status throughout the 1012–13 season. Costa has been a friendly face on the East Coast Grand Prix and PTQ scene for the past several seasons, along with a handful of other young, talented players all waiting for their breakout moments.

As Costa sat down to face off against his quarterfinal opponent at Pro Tour Dark Ascension—none other than Jon Finkel—the Hall of Famer joked with him that theirs was a battle between the Ghost of Magic Past and the Ghost of Magic Future. Despite his young age, and only starting to play at the Grand Prix level for the past several seasons, Costa has been playing the game for the better part of a decade, starting back in the sixth grade.

"I think the fantasy element is what drew me in first, although I spent a lot of time playing games like chess and Stratego when I was younger," recalled Costa, who approaches each game of Magic with a chess player's mentality. "The idea that the decisions I was making affected whether I won or lost was definitely a factor, too."

The late, lamented Junior Super Series Qualifiers were where he first got the taste for competitive play. After losing in the Top 4 of one qualifier only to have his friend Chase Kovacs win the invitation, he decided to travel to Nationals that year and ended up winning a Last Chance Qualifier for the MSS Championship himself. He continued to play at that level until the termination of that program pushed him into the PTQ pool, starting with a confidence-boosting Top 8 finish on his very first try.

The New Englander waited until the Grand Prix train rolled into Boston in 2009 to take a stab at the next level of play—him and about 1,500 of his friends and neighbors.

"It was huge, which was awe-inspiring, but there were so many people there from the local PTQ scene that it felt very familiar, too," Costa said of that Limited Grand Prix, which saw him go 7–2 on Day One and earn a seat to draft with the big boys. "I think it really hit me on Day Two, when I had to participate in my first called draft, and was sitting down next to pro players every round. I ended up going 5–1 on Day Two, finishing out of Top 16 on tiebreakers."

He got a little closer to a Top 8—and nabbed his first Pro Tour invite—a year later at Grand Prix Houston, when he finished 9th in a tournament that ran deep with talent at the top of the standings.

"Looking back on the tournament, I played against David Sharfman, Sam Black, Owen Turtenwald, Pat Cox, Adam Yurchick, and Martin Juza over the fifteen rounds," marveled Costa. "Not all of those players were as well known at the time as they are now, but I knew that I was playing—and beating—some of the best. It gave me a ton of confidence. In particular, I had a 'one-round PTQ' against Martin Juza in the last round, playing a mirror match. Winning that match to qualify for my first PT was a major high point for me, and the opponents I played against certainly made me feel like I deserved it."

The mirror match Costa alluded to was the Thopter Depths match-up, which was the dominant deck for that Extended PTQ season.

According to Costa, "It was the first time I played a deck that I felt was head and shoulders above the other archetypes, which was a really good feeling. The one thing I remember most about the tournament was how amazing my sideboard was. Sideboarding was definitely the key to my success in the tournament, which taught me a valuable lesson"

Matthew Costa's Dark Depths

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After starting to play in PTQs in 2008 for the first time, and just one year off of playing in his first Grand Prix, Matt Costa was going to Pro Tour San Juan—something he dreamt about all the way back to his days on the JSS. In hindsight, Costa admitted his performance at that first PT might have suffered from a case of the "just-happy-to-be-heres."

"I remember being so caught up in the atmosphere of just being there that I wasn't nearly as focused on Magic as I should have been," admitted Costa. "I didn't prepare enough for Constructed and ended up going 2–3. Two rounds later, I was in position to Day Two, but had to play against Ben Stark in the 'finals' of my pod. I lost a close match, but wasn't that upset about it. Looking back, my expectations were probably too low, so maybe I wasn't really ready to be there."

By the time 2011 rolled around, Costa was making the Top 8 of two Limited Grand Prix and also made the first Day Two of his Pro Tour career at PT Nagoya. Costa began to get a reputation as a formidable Limited player, with both of his Top 8 exits coming at the hands of Limited endbosses Tim Aten and Richard Hoaen. He went 4–2 in Limited at Nagoya but said "the wheels came off" down the stretch, with an 0–4 finish to miss being in the money. As he headed to Pro Tour Dark Ascension—confident in his ability to draft—he focused his energy on the new Standard format and having a deck he felt as confidant in as the one he had for GP Houston.

Costa said of the brain trust that worked on the Delver deck that took him to the quarterfinals of Pro Tour Dark Ascension: "I prepared mostly with (GP Atlanta winner) Jason Ford, (GP Orlando Top 8er) Ben Friedman, and Justin Desai. Jason also worked a bit with Minnesota players, such as (Rookie of the Year) Matthias Hunt and (US National Team alternative) Brandon Nelson, while Justin and I talked to other local Boston-area players."

The group actually didn't play against each other much, and without Dark Ascension being available on Magic Online, Costa had to triangulate the Standard format forward based on playing the old format online.

Thought Scour | Art by David Rapoza

"While this wasn't optimal, I thought my best bet was to be as experienced as possible, so I could make informed decisions about lists and sideboard cards," Costa said. "We were all in contact with a number of different people, so our process was mostly taking all that information and finding an angle to attack it. Maybe we got lucky, but our prediction of the metagame was pretty close to accurate. We knew enough to not expect very much Black-White Tokens and also had a Delver list that we felt could consistently beat Humans—something that others weren't able to do. People tend not to respect the 'best' deck. Just look at Jund in San Diego and Tempered Steel in Nagoya."

The pivotal decisions for the deck revolved around Invisible Stalker and Thought Scour. The hexproof Human was a subject of much debate for the team, but ultimately they decided to include it in their list.

Invisible Stalker | Art by Bud Cook

"Other people were playing Porcelain Legionnaire—a card I think is just bad. Other decisions had to do with the predicted metagame. We wanted lots of Swords because of Humans and Lingering Souls—both strategies we thought would be heavily played. Thought Scour was also a huge addition. Playing a '50 card deck' with no narrow cards in Game 1 was much better than the alternative of having to play with some low-impact card."

Matthew Costa's Delver

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Costa ended up needing every last win he could squeeze out of the Standard rounds and went 9–0–1 to make his first Top 8 after an uncharacteristic 3–3 in Limited.

"I was disappointed in myself. The first draft didn't go very well for me, and I managed to lose a match to Tom Martell in the second draft with a deck that was very, very good. In the back of my mind, I knew I had a good Constructed deck, so at least I wasn't dreading the last five rounds like I normally might have."

The confidence was not unfounded, and five rounds later Costa found himself with the best record among the Standard players, his first Top 8, and just about as fearsome an opponent as you could be bracketed off against.

"It was truly amazing, emotional, and a bit surreal," said Costa of hearing his name called out as a Pro Tour Top 8 competitor. I asked him about the Dickensian conversation with his quarterfinal opponent. "Jon referred to Paulo as Ghost of Magic Present and described our match as the Past versus the Future. That meant a lot coming from Jon. I wasn't really thinking about anything during the match other than Magic. There are so many decisions to be made; I don't really think I have much mental energy left over to waste on anything else once I start playing."

Heading into the first Standard Grand Prix since the Pro Tour, Costa made some changes to his deck in anticipation of the shifting metagame.

Gut Shot | Art by Greg Staples

"For the Grand Prix, we expected a field of Ramp, Blue-Black, and Zombies—none of which are decks that I want Gut Shot against," said Costa of the removal of one Phyrexian mana spell in favor of another. "Dismember was a key addition, as the format slowed down a bit—and the aggressive decks were becoming more susceptible to Dismember and less so to Gut Shot. We also added a couple of game-ending five-drops to the sideboard in Jace, Memory Adept and Batterskull. They were there for Control matchups, but Batterskull was also a key part of our plan versus Zombies. Corrosive Gale was a natural addition to combat Spirits, although we felt the deck was very poorly positioned."

Matthew Costa's White-Blue Delver

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The deck carried Costa to the third Top 8 of his career and a finals showdown against another impressive young Magic player in Dave Shiels, who ran Blue-Black Control. Winning the first major trophy of his career was all the sweeter for Costa due to winning against someone he has so much respect for.

"An awesome experience and something I'll treasure," said Costa of the win. "There are a lot of ways to be successful in Magic, but even the difference between 1st and 2nd is pretty huge. When the Top 8 was announced, I was happy to see Dave on the other side of the bracket. We're good friends, and a final between us was the best possible scenario. In reality, I was just equalizing the score. We both have three Top 8s, and now we each have a trophy."

I mentioned earlier that Costa plays Magic with a chess player's mentality. Nothing illustrates that better than the games against Shiels, which were shaped by the information provided from Gitaxian Probe.

Gitaxian Probe | Art by Chippy

"Information advantage is always more important than people give it credit for," said Costa, when asked about the impact the blue cantrip had on the outcome of the finals. "I think one of the most important aspects of the matchup from the Delver side is to make them cast their spells at the most awkward times—basically to not let them leverage their mana or card advantage. On that note, if both players play their spells on curve, blue-black will win every time—it's really a matter of patience to overcome that advantage. Game 2, I knew his hand for basically the entire time, and I knew I would win eventually. Game 3 was much more interesting, since at one point late in the game I Probed him to see seven very good spells. It took a lot of effort to account for all of the possibilities and make sure I wasn't running myself into trouble."

The 8 points for winning the Grand Prix pushed Costa into the elite Platinum-level club, with all the benefits that come with it. It also means that Brian Kibler, Luis Scott-Vargas, and Josh Utter-Leyton—the three US players ahead of him in the Pro Players Points standings—have someone to keep an eye on down the stretch between now and Barcelona.

"I'm very excited. This upcoming summer will be the last before I really have to start focusing in on internships and applying for jobs. It's great knowing that I'm financially able—and even incentivized, to play the game that I love. There are lots of great players at Platinum. I'm glad to be in their company." Costa then concluded with his itinerary—an itinerary that still has a huge question mark at the end of it. "I'll be in Seattle this weekend, and probably Indianapolis after that. I haven't made up my mind on the final two US ones—Nashville and Salt Lake City. It's unclear whether or not my finals schedule will allow me to go Barcelona. I'm going to try my hardest, and if I can go, then I'm in as good a position as anyone for the World Magic Cup and the sixteen-player Championship."

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