The Long Road

Posted in The Week That Was on September 27, 2013

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

It has been a very long week. I got to play in a Theros Prerelease this past Saturday at The Compleat Strategist and have spent this week waiting for every chance to crack more packs and start playing. I chose the Path of Honor for my Prerelease experience because Celestial Archon seemed reasonable to play and I hoped to get white heroic cards from my seeded booster.

I ended up getting rewarded with a pair of Phalanx Leaders and built a pretty aggressive blue-white deck that topped out with the Archon, Prescient Chimera, and Medomai the Ageless. Opaline Unicorn quickly displaced any notions I had about the best common artifact in last week's column and my MVP card was Triton Tactics. The blue instant saved my creatures from burn, ambushed attackers, undid the work of tappers, and—most importantly—gave me cheap targeting for my heroic triggers.

I ended up going 4–0 and winning 12 quickly drafted packs of the new set. I'm waiting anxiously for this weekend when I can get my hands on as much product as needed to fill the drafting chasm inside me. By the next time I write this column I hope to have at least a box worth of drafting experience. One of the local players who will also be trying to get in as many drafts as possible is Eric Mann-Hielscher, who will be heading to Dublin for the first Pro Tour of his career.

We spent a lot of time playing next to each other at the Prerelease and started talking about how we got started. The Compleat Strategist has been a gaming fixture in New York since the 1970's. It was the store where I bought my very first packs of Unlimited more than 19 years ago. In talking about how we got started playing the game I was shocked to learn that Eric has been playing the game nearly as long as I have. I couldn't help but be struck by how the Prerelease experience has transformed for him. What was once a fun little tournament showcasing the new cards suddenly became the first steps on his own hero's path.

"I got started in 1994, just before Fallen Empires was released. I was in middle school, and I heard about it from some friends on a bus going to an Academic Triathlon meet. I liked games and it sounded fun and interesting, and all the cool kids were doing it so I had no choice. My friend Dan and I bought the last Revised boosters in town and were hooked," said Mann-Hielscher, who found himself playing regularly in PTQs within a couple of years.

Along with three brothers—Mike, Carl, and Neal Oliver (not the Neal Oliver you're thinking about; more on him shortly)—Mann-Hielscher and his friends became some of the best players in the Rochester, Minn., area, even if they couldn't crack the glass ceiling of bigger events.

Eric Mann-Hielscher

"Whenever we'd make the trek to PTQs in Minneapolis we'd get schooled by people like Melissa Lang, and I don't think any of us ever Top 8ed," he recalled. The group of players ended up curtailing their PTQ dream when a nightmarish incident changed their perspective. "Eventually, in 1997, Neal and I were leaving for a PTQ when we got in a big car accident, and we both stopped playing shortly after that. It just took a lot of the wind out of our sails as we'd prepared a bunch and thought we had great decks."

He never left the game and played wherever he was living, but he didn't think about PTQs again until the game returned to Mirrodin.

"I was never very serious about it again, though, until the Scars block when I started playing a ton on Magic Online. I got bit by the bug hard and was playing and watching streams for probably 40+ hours a week and hitting most of the online limited PTQs. I think the ease of playing online combined with my desire to avoid thinking about my PhD thesis were a perfect breeding pit for a lot of Magic. I also think the advent of Magic strategy videos helped me jump start my game back to competitiveness much faster than if I'd had to work on it from scratch. I remember the first LSV video I stumbled across and immediately realized how great a tool it was."

After completing his thesis and entering the workforce the recently transplanted New Yorker was considering another break from the game.

"In early April I told my wife that I wanted to quit Magic entirely because I didn't think I could or even wanted to play non-competitively and to do that requires a massive time investment. I explicitly told her that the 4/6/13 Magic Online Gatecrash limited PTQ would be my very last tournament," he said before admitting: "I think the likelihood of that was pretty low, but I do expect that had I not won I would have taken a hiatus."

As it turned out, quitting was not in the cards. A serviceable Orzhov deck carried him into the Top 8 and a second-pick Skyknight Legionnaire sent him headlong into Boros. And apparently he was the only one to end up in that guild.

"My deck was insane, and I was wheeling main-deckable cards," he said. "After the draft I was really excited and told my wife I didn't know how I could lose, hoping I didn't jinx myself. I didn't lose a game until the finals where I got color screwed, but every other game wasn't particularly close."

Suddenly he had to prepare himself for a Pro Tour and think about Constructed for the first time since his ill-fated PTQ in 1997.

"I started playing a bunch of Standard online a couple months ago to get into the Constructed mindset, and have been paying attention to anything and everything people say about Theros," said Mann-Hielscher.


But he also needed to find a team. He reached out to another first time Pro Tour player who happened to share the name of his PTQ buddy from Minnesota—Grand Prix Las Vegas Champion Neal Oliver.

"We have a team of six Q'd people to test Constructed. It's very fun for me as it's all new and different types of puzzles. I've also started flying to GPs for the first time, which is a blast," Mann-Hielscher said.

So what did it feel like to have to think about the new cards in a completely new context?

"Prereleases are just the most fun tournaments—everyone is so excited and friendly. I feel a little bad when I beat kids or very casual players, but the atmosphere is such that people mostly just want to play and care less about winning," he said. "I was definitely there to win packs so I could draft this week with my new and excellent NYC Magic friends, and also to get a feel for the new Limited format. It was an interesting contrast having the impending competition in mind, but I'm a very competitive person regardless."

One of his biggest concerns about playing on the Pro Tour is not making what he called "blunders that make me lose sleep afterward."

"I'm very hard on myself when I make mistakes. I want to come out of it feeling like my game was polished enough that my losses came at the hands of either things out of my control or masterful play on the part of my opponents. That's a tall order, but as close to that as I can get is what I'm shooting for. I also want to feel like I contributed to my team being successful. I don't have any specific goals as far as placement, but the higher the better as I'd love to chain my current five Pro Points into a Silver invite. I've gone from wanting to quit to being happily and hopelessly addicted."

Mann-Hielscher is hoping to be over the feeling of being starstruck by the time he gets to Dublin.

"I found it very strange in Providence to see all the pros around—it felt like I was surrounded by celebrities. I've gotten more used to that now after more GPs, and I'm just expecting some very intense competition. I'm very curious what a PT looks like from the inside."

The View from Inside

If you happen to be in Dublin during the weekend of Pro Tour Theros you will be able to get an insider's view of the event thanks to a decision to open the event to spectators. The hall will be open to the public from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Spectators will be able to watch the event on flatscreen TVs in a viewing area or see the action live from along the perimeter—known in Magic parlance as railbirding.

The hall will not be open for Magic play or for trading, but Crowe's Public House on Merrion Road (a block and a half away) will be streaming the webcast and the local Irish Magic community is planning to host a series of events, the details of which will be coming soon. For more info you can visit this link.

I caught up with Director of Global Organized Play at Wizards of the Coast Hélène Bergeot for a little more detail about the decision to invite the Magic community to come in and watch the event live.

She explained that the original decision to make Pro Tours into private, closed events came from a desire to enhance the overall experience of the competition and that creating public events was a distraction from improving the Pro Tour and live coverage.

"At the same time, we were doubling the number of Grand Prix to provide the experience of participating in a large event to more players," she said. "However, the feedback shared by many players has been that despite having access to more Grand Prix, they still miss the chance to watch in-person the best players battle for the title of Pro Tour champion or for coveted Pro Points. This is what encouraged us to revisit our decision and open up the venue to live spectators."

The passion of the Irish Magic community as conveyed in interviews with the national team during the World Magic Cup played some role in the decision.

Team Ireland at the World Magic Cup

"It definitely had an impact on our decision," Bergeot said. "We were considering opening the Pro Tour to the public in 2014, and we accelerated our plan when we realized how passionate the Irish community was, as it would have felt like a missed opportunity. It's really inspiring to see a whole community getting so engaged."

In my previous interview with Mann-Hielscher he credited part of his return to competitive Magic to being able to watch strategy videos made by Pro Tour Hall of Famer-elect Luis Scott-Vargas. It's a story I've heard from players all around the world as the Hall of Fame ceremony approaches—a Hall of Fame ceremony that will now be open to the public and represent just one of the experiences Bergeot hopes the local Magic community will take part in.

"It's also about getting a chance to mingle with pro players from all over the world. We are also planning a Q&A session with Aaron Forsythe. Last but not least, we have a special guest: Christine Sprankle and her amazing cosplay. Elspeth will be attending Pro Tour Theros."

If you can't make it to Dublin you will still be able to see everything, from the opening ceremony to the winner hoisting the trophy. But if you can make it to Dublin, make sure to say hello.


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