MOCS Madness

Posted in The Week That Was on March 22, 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.

Forget March Madness! it is going to be MOCS Madness this weekend at PAX East, as sixteen of the best Magic Online players converge on Boston to fight for the Magic Online Championship and the lion's share of $116,000 in prizes. Our bracket starts with the Sweet Sixteen (you can read about a dozen of the competitors here and here), and there is even a Duke you can root for in this one!

Reid Duke is going to be playing in his third-straight MOCS Championship, going back to 2010 in Chiba, Japan, and through 2011 in San Francisco. He finished better than average in 2010 at 5th place but was far from satisfied. Always a formidable opponent online and in the Open-style event, everything changed for Duke when he requalified the next year and took the trophy home.

Reid Duke, Magic Online 2011 champion

"The ideas of forward progress and self-improvement are very important to me as a Magic player," said Duke, as he took a break from his preparations for this weekend's event. "Winning the 2011 MOCS was a turning point in my career, especially in terms of confidence. I finally felt that I could keep my composure and close things out in high-pressure situations. The difference between 3rd and 2nd in the MOCS is (was) $8000, and the difference between 1st and 2nd is $8000 in addition to qualifying for both next year's MOCS and the Magic Players Championship—truly immeasurable value. Compared to that kind of pressure, the Top 8 of a Grand Prix or a tournament is like nothing! And the next time I had a strong start in a tournament, at GP Nashville, I went on to win the whole thing!"

If you have found yourself on the wrong end of a Modern Jund deck anytime in the past eighteen months you can blame Duke. While he played Zoo in the Swiss rounds of the 2011 MOCS the players were able to switch decks before the finals and he opted for a deck that would become the bane of Modern players everywhere. He had been testing that archetype with his brother in advance of the event but ultimately decided Zoo had more sheer power despite having a weak matchup against the relatively unplayed Jund decks at that time.

"I was looking for something that could simply beat the pulp out of Zoo, which was the deck my opponent had also played in the Swiss," recalled Duke. "With the encouragement and help of Tommy Ashton, a Maryland player who I'd looked up to ever since getting on the Pro Tour, I settled on Jund with Punishing Fire, Bloodbraid Elf, and four Liliana of the Veil."

In the time between the two MOCS events, Duke has experience the highs and lows of competitive Magic. At the Magic Players Championship, he ended up finishing the event in last place, but the experience was valuable and it will be forefront in his mind this weekend.

"The Magic Players Championship and the MOCS are very similar in structure. The lesson is that every single match counts, no matter your standing in the tournament. This weekend, it'll be very important to stay focused, and not let the results of a previous round affect my attitude or my play."

For Duke, the high point came in Hawaii at Pro Tour Dark Ascension, when he made a deep run into the event and finished in 38th place—just a few spots behind the aforementioned Ashton.

"Before winning the MOCS, and before joining with Team, I'd played six Pro Tours and I'd cashed zero. Since then, I've played four Pro Tours and cashed all of them!" said Duke, who felt he missed an opportunity to post an even better finish in Montreal at Pro Tour Gatecrash. "I felt at the time—and in retrospect I'm sure of it—that I had a great Constructed deck (Jund) and it was a single 0–3 draft that held a good tournament back from being truly great."

Buried in that quote is the fact that Duke also started to work with Team SCG after his MOCS win put him in the spotlight. It is an assemblage of talent that includes Hall of Famers Jon Finkel, Kai Budde, Gabriel Nassif, Zvi Mowshowitz, Patrick Chapin, and Jelger Wiegersma. It also includes former Player of the Year Owen Turtenwald, mad scientist Sam Black, and Pro Tour Gatecrash winner Tom Martell—just to name a few.

Jon Finkel, Kai Budde, Gabriel Nassif, Zvi Mowshowitz, Patrick Chapin, Jelger Wiefersma, Owen Turtenwalk, Sam Black, Tom Martell

"The experience has really emphasized that there's something to learn from everybody, and that that will always be the case, even if I'm someday one of the best in the game. The preparation is so crucial for both Limited and Constructed, but being part of the team also just imparts a feeling of confidence: that I'll know what to do in any situation, that I'll have people to help me and out watch my back, and I won't have to take on every challenge on my own."

Duke who went on to describe how a teammate's milestone achievement was also a high-water mark of his reign as the MOCS Champion: "I'd say the highpoint of the year was when Owen Turtenwald made the Top 8 of PT Gatecrash with the Jund deck we'd worked on together. I was equally happy for the success of Tom Martell, and all of my other teammates who'd finished well over the past year, but in the case of Owen and the Jund deck, it was a true validation that our hard work had paid off. Five great basketball players need to play a lot together before they'll make a great team, and in that same way I think Team SCG is really only starting to hit its stride. I have unlimited optimism for the future of the team, and on a personal note I feel that my turn is coming soon!"

While he has still not made the Elite Eight of a Pro Tour, Duke has dominated the Grand Prix circuit with six career Top 8s—four of which came since his MOCS win and include another trophy from Grand Prix Nashville. He offered a piece of personal advice for players looking to take something away from his GP success that they can apply to their own careers.

"For me, the key to tournament success, and GPs in particular, has been to know my deck very well. True mastery comes when you've played the same deck in a number of tournaments, because not only do you know every matchup inside and out, but you know how to handle things when you're faced with an unfamiliar situation. Sticking with the same deck will serve you much better than constantly switching in an attempt to find something broken."

Four Pro Tours and countless Grand Prix later, the time has come for Duke to defend his title. He has a vast network of the world's best players (who it should be noted consider him to be a member of that club) with which to playtest Standard and debate Cube picks, but specifically for this event, Duke felt the need to return to his roots.

"When I think of Magic Online, and what it means to be a 'grinder,' I think of hours and hours and hours and hours of playing—truly an individual undertaking," Duke reflected after being awake for forty-one hours in the quest for his 35th Qualifier Point and returning from Grand Prix San Diego. "Magic Online taught me patience and discipline, and it's given me the foundation of everything I know about Magic. At times over the course of the year, I'd felt that I'd lost my way. I could no longer find my name on the Magic Online Player of the Year leaderboard; I could no longer feel the 'F2' callous on my left index finger. And my lazy lifestyle was affecting my play! I'm never as good as when I'm simply playing a ton of Magic, and that's what I've tried to do in preparation for the MOCS."

While Duke gets to waltz into the event courtesy of his reign as Champion, the path to the Sweet Sixteen was not as smoothly paved for those who had to fight their way in—especially the two players who won the Last Chance Qualifiers after the seasonal qualifiers had come to a conclusion, Daniel Botoff and Oscar Jones.

Botoff is a twenty-six-year old student from Sicklerville, NJ, who is understandably excited about adding "MOCS competitor" to his Magic resume.

"The MOCS LCQ win was probably my biggest accomplishment in Magic thus far, since it qualified me for something big. I've done well in many previous MOCS seasons throughout the year, going Top 8 in a few like Innistrad Constructed and Magic 2012 Sealed, but always just missed. I play Magic exclusively online, though, but after this event hope to move back to paper with my first Pro Tour invite."

Like so many of the players we have talked to in these profiles, he has been playing the game since he was little. Magic was something Botoff was able to share with his older brother.

"Growing up, I looked up to him, emulating a lot of what he did, and Magic:The Gathering eventually became introduced to him. Once he showed me I was hooked. We would play in our bedrooms nightly as we grew up—fierce competition into the early hours of the morning when my Dad would eventually scream for lights out. Without him, I wouldn't have gotten to this point of success, that's for sure," said Botoff, who would eventually play mostly online. "My online gaming began when I heard about the client from a friend, and from there the enjoyment of all aspects of Magic intensified. Over the years I've left for other games (as an MMO gamer) and come back, but these days it's become my game of choice due to the amount of thought you have to put into each play, the many different styles of play to choose from, and the sheer challenge of understanding what your opponent is thinking each turn."

Botoff had some close calls throughout the 2012 MOCS seasons—none closer than a loss in the finals of Season 4. As he found himself down a game in the finals of the final Last Chance Qualifier he thought his run might come up short again. He evened the series and then faced the biggest Game Three of his life.

"Weary from the sleepless night before, jittery from way too much caffeine, I pressed on against an Azorius deck, splashing red for Teleportal," recalled Botoff of the matchup. "The final game was decided by a single blow; my opponent again amassed an army of dinkers and cast Teleportal, but it wasn't enough, leaving back only one Azorius Arrester to block. I knew my victory was solidified. In my hand I held the Stab Wound to remove him from the board and swing with my creatures, including my crutch of the draft, Deadbridge Goliath. I was pretty dumbfounded as I sat in my bedroom with a win in front of my computer screen. I believe it was 4 a.m., the girlfriend verbally abusing me to sleep, but only victory washed over. I have since been eager to compete in the MOCS, and have been training since.

"Preparation for the MOCS has been grueling as I really don't know what to expect," admitted Botoff. "I have been playing tirelessly online, testing my Standard brew for the upcoming event, and tweaking it against the metagame I feel I will come up against. The difficult part is figuring out what my opponents will be bringing with them, and I only have myself to rely on for that."

The remaining LCQ winner is easily the youngest player in the tournament at just fifteen years old. Oscar Jones is a Salt Lake City native who began playing the game only two years ago and lists beating me at Grand Prix San Jose among his accomplishments, although a couple of wins this weekend and I am sure I will get pushed down the list of career highlights quickly. Jones resisted playing Magic for some time after seeing some kids playing "this alien card game in the library quite frequently." Once he decided to play he downloaded Magic Online and has not looked back.

"Basically, I started with online play, and got into IRL play just before New Phyrexia came out, with my first Grand Prix being Austin 2012, where I Day Twod but punted and tilted my way through the Draft portion," said Jones. "Since then, I have been going to GPs every two months or so, but mostly playing Magic Online. In the end, I would really never have gotten into this game if it weren't for the insane, almost annoying at times, persistence of my friend William, and since he got me into the game I have just really enjoyed it ever since."

With Christmas right around the corner, Jones found himself impulse clicking on a—for Magic Online standards—lightly attended LCQ. Interestingly, a misclick on the first pick of the Top 8 draft may have inadvertently steered him away from a trainwreck.

"In the Draft portion, I first-picked a Stonefare Crocodile over a Grove of the Guardian, which was due to the Magic Online Right-Click option malfunctioning. Although it was pretty tilting, I decided that I needed to just stay cool and focus if I wanted to win," said Jones, demonstrating a maturity often lacking even in older, more experienced players. "The misclick ended up being a blessing in disguise because GW was not open at all (with FoundOmega to my left getting shipped the Grove after a P1P1 Collective Blessing) and I ended up moving into RUB with three Voidwielders. In the Top 8, I almost lost in the quarters to FoundOmega after he went runner runner runner, but in turn, I topdecked my only out to win Game 3 and the match. Other than the quarterfinals, where I think I was a huge dog, I feel like my deck was far superior to my semifinals and finals opponents' decks, and the matches were relatively uneventful."

Jones has been smashing away at Magic Online to practice Standard and Sealed. For Cube, he has been getting in as much practice as possible with a local Cube that somewhat resembles the Magic Online Cube. "I will try to apply my knowledge of his cube and my experiences with past Magic Online Cubes to do well at MOCS in this portion. I noticed that bounce lands are in the MOCS Cube and I think this is something that could throw me off, as I have almost never drafted a Cube with bounce lands, with the exception of the Magic Online Holiday Cube."

As for his long term Magic goals, Jones tried to imagine a full life that incorporates Magic just like one his idols.

"Although I want to do well on the Pro Tour circuit at some stage in my life, and maybe even take home the trophy, I don't think I could make a living out of Magic. I really aspire to be like Jon Finkel, not necessarily because he is such a master of this game, but because he has been able to be very successful in other areas of life while still maintaining a healthy 'relationship' with Magic."

You can follow along all weekend to see if the Duke powerhouse, either of these two Cinderella stories, or any of the other twelve players we have profiled emerge as the last man standing. You can follow along with the live stream and the text coverage (where Steve Sadin will round out coverage of the sixteen players with the Magic Online Player of the Year, Hiroki Yamashita).

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