Respect for the Streaks

Posted in The Week That Was on March 23, 2012

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.

Crash Davis: I told him that a player on a streak has to respect the streak.
Annie Savoy: Oh fine.
Crash Davis: You know why? Because they don't—they don't happen very often.

Bull Durham, 1988

How do you measure your Grand Prix success? Talk to a hundred different players and you might very well get a hundred different answers. Players want to just play well. They want to learn something. They want to play against their idols they see play on the Pro Tour. Some want to just make Day Two. Others just want to get into the Top 4 and qualify for the Pro Tour. Few players, if any, can envision emerging from a scrum of more than a thousand other Magic players without taking a single loss over eighteen rounds of play.

Richard Parker and Reid Duke

Yet in the past few weeks, two players have managed to do just that. Armed with just one bye, 31-year-old jeweler/accountant Richard Parker rattled off thirteen straight Standard wins at Grand Prix Lille with his Blue-Black Zombie deck before drawing twice into the Top 8 with three more wins on the horizon. Then, just this past weekend, 22-year-old MOCS Champion Reid Duke hit the post-bye rounds running in Nashville, with ten straight wins before two intentional draws assured him a seat at the final draft table of the tournament and the last three wins he needed to finish the event unblemished. One player did it in Standard with a fairly rogue decklist and the other did it in Limited with a robust Sealed Deck pool and three different draft decks.

Parker, who will be playing in his fourth Pro Tour when he arrives in Barcelona, had been working on his Zombie deck for some time both on Magic Online and on his local tournament scene. After taking only one loss with the deck at Game Day, it was one of two decks that he was considering for the GP. In the end, it was the length of the tournament that tilted the scales in favor of the undead.

Richard Parker, GP Lille 2012 Champion

"I did have Blue-White Planeswalker Control that I had played most of the season as a backup plan," explained Parker. "But I didn't want to be under time pressure all day at the GP, so switched to Zombies. Zombies seemed to have extremely powerful cards—Geralf's Messenger, Phyrexian Obliterator, and Phantasmal Image. I remembered how the Illusions deck could win games it had no rights winning thanks to Phantasmal Image. The undying of Geralf's Messenger and Gravecrawler's ability make the deck resilient to board sweepers, and the Mortarpod/Gravecrawler combo gives the deck an alternative-win condition. Overall, the deck suits my style of play."

Richard Parker's Zombies

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In a wrap up about The Top 5 Cards of Grand Prix Lille, Pro Tour Hall of Famer Frank Karsten likened the Zombie deck's ability to finish an opponent to the classic Red Deck Wins. Parker explained the deck's synergies—and how players might have underestimated his deck's reach throughout the weekend:

Geralf's Messenger | Art by Kev Walker

"My game plan was to inflict as much damage as possible in the shortest time. The deck can eat large chunks of the opponent's life without attacking—Geth’s Verdict, Geralf's Messenger, Mortarpod. Most opponents seemed willing to take early damage—when they might not have against a red deck—then look astonished if I played a Messenger, equipped it with a Mortarpod, and shot them for a total of 5 damage. The deck has a lot of ways of forcing damage through; Phyrexian Obliterator trampling is important since you can remove blockers post-blocking and still deal damage.

"There was one game where my opponent had a Primeval Titan, I had an Image of it and he was on 6 life, I cast Geralf's Messenger, equipped it with Mortarpod, attacked with the Image. Then before he blocked, shot him with the 'pod and Tragic Slipped the Titan. He took a total of 11 damage out of nowhere that turn."

Geralf's Messenger
Tragic Slip

I asked Parker what his goals were coming into the tournament and he explained that his main goal was to go 7–3 on Day One and to be able to keep playing on Sunday. His previous best finish at a GP was Top 64 and he hoped to exceed that.

"At GP Prague, where I went 9–0 Day One, a poor 2–4 Day-Two performance left me in the Top 64, so I didn't take anything for granted even at 10–0 in Lille."

But as the tournament wound down and Parker's wins kept stacking up he knew the no-hitter was possible. He couldn't help but think about throwing a perfect game and winning those last two rounds of the Swiss as well.

"After Round 13 I was thinking how great it would be to win every round," admitted Parker. "However, my Round 15 opponent asked me to ID (intentionally draw) and I did not want to dream-crush him as it did not seem fair. I also agreed to ID in Round 16 for the same reason. Karmically speaking, this seemed to be a good decision as I played my Round 15 opponent in the semifinals."

With two rounds that consisted of nothing more than signing two match result slips at the end of the Swiss rounds, Parker had plenty of time to think about those last three rounds and the magnitude of what he was up against began to sink in.

"I had plenty of time to think about the Top 8," said Parker, who was mostly focused on getting past that first round of the elimination bracket and earning a qualification for Barcelona. "I pretty much walked around the venue repeatedly and tried not to think about my luck running out in the quarterfinal. Eventually I concluded that I had beat my quarterfinal opponent 2–0 already in Round 14 of the Swiss, so whatever pressure I was feeling, it must have been exponentially magnified for him, which eased things for me slightly.

Gravecrawler | Art by Steven Belledin

"The quarterfinal match was the first one of the GP where I was nervous because I hadn't been on the bubble until then," admitted Parker. "I feel I punted Game 2 due to pressure—I made a small error in front of everyone and that led to a series of larger errors!—but regained my composure for Game 3. Once I made the semifinals I relaxed, knowing I had qualified and the pressure was off. I played much better in the semifinal and final as a result."

Parker, who is looking forward to a week of playtesting in Barcelona, had a suggestion for players looking to pick up his Zombie deck for their local Standard gauntlet. Despite it being Lord Week here at, he recommended cutting the Diregraf Captains for additional copies of Phyrexian Metamorph to ease the deck's need for blue.

Reid Duke has been a PT regular for the last two seasons and had different goals than Richard Parker coming into his GP weekend in Nashville. Since winning the Magic Online Championship during Worlds in San Francisco, expectations for the Magic Online standout have been high in offline Magic events, and he was looking for a strong finish.

Reid Duke, GP Nashville 2012 Champion

"Winning the MOCS was the proudest achievement of my life, and everyone seemed to have a lot of respect and faith in me," said Duke of his mindset coming into this year's events. "Personally, though, I couldn't help but have the mentality that 'anybody can do well one time.' I wanted to prove the people who believed in me right, and prove myself wrong; I wanted to prove that my first big win hadn't been a fluke."

Duke had cashed multiple events throughout the first part of 2012 but grudgingly referred to that as "modest success."

"I say 'modest success' because even though my finishes were good, each of those events were disappointing because I could point to mistakes and reasons why I'd fallen short," explained Duke. "After that came a frustrating dry spell where I failed to make Day Two of three GPs in a row, and with things not going my way, all I could do was think back to the opportunities I'd previously wasted in one way or another. I became determined not to let it happen again."

Part of that determination came in the form of getting out of the habit of being able to see what cards he had previously selected during drafts. When you draft in the Top 8 of a PTQ, Grand Prix, or Pro Tour, you cannot look at your cards in between picks. You place the cards face down in front of you and have a review period in between each pack. On Magic Online, you see your cards on display the whole time, and in an interview with Rich Hagon, Duke explained this was a handicap when it came to playing live.

Slayer of the Wicked | Art by Anthony Palumbo

"I realized that Magic Online had been a crutch for me in that way, so I changed my screen display so that I couldn't look back at my picks, and had to keep track by memory," Duke elaborated. "Now I can more or less remember every card I picked during drafting, and usually the order I picked them as well."

Early on during the Grand Prix, at least one player from the event was raving about Duke's deck on social media and predicted the MOCS Champ would come out on top at the end of Day One. There were nine rares in the pool thanks to three foil rares—with five on-color for his eventual deck—as well as strong uncommons like Slayer of the Wicked and Lingering Souls. Duke knew the deck was good but was not as sure as his opponents that perfection awaited.

Slayer of the Wicked
Lingering Souls

"There's more to winning a Limited tournament than having a good deck; at GP Seattle just two weeks before I opened a very strong pool and didn't even make Day Two. The most dangerous thing in Magic is to 'expect' a certain outcome or to feel entitled to win. All I knew was that my deck would give me the opportunity to do well if I played my best and things went my way."

Things did go his way, though, and he headed into Day Two without a loss. There, he drafted a blue-red Burning Vengeance deck that continued his streak to 13–0. One of the keys to drafting this format for Duke is about taking what cards come to you and not expecting anything to be there. While he drafted a Burning Vengeance deck, he was not counting on it to win. Instead, he was looking for a deck that would allow him to execute a consistent plan.

"One of the reasons it was so great was that I had a ton of card selection," said Duke. "I got to see a lot of my deck, and therefore had a lot of options every game, and I was rarely mana flooded or screwed. Having consistency like that is a great way to go undefeated, because as long as you can survive the early turns, you know you'll always be in the game."

Burning Vengeance | Art by Raymond Swanland

Heading into the last draft of the Swiss, Duke needed only one win to lock up his Top 8 berth. I asked him if he felt any temptation to try and run the table to 15–0 before heading into that final draft.

"I'll have an 18–0–0 GP at some point down the road, but no, there was no temptation this time," said Duke with confidence and humility. "Before Nashville, I'd only had two GP Top 8s and I'd never even won one. I felt that trying to go undefeated would be getting ahead of myself and I didn't want to get too big for my britches. Aiming for 15–0 would imply an expectation to win the Top 8, and while confidence is important, somebody at my level expecting to take first when there were players like Shuuhei Nakamura and Ben Stark still in contention would have bordered on being conceited. That said, now that I have a trophy, all bets are off for next time I'm in the same position."

This was not the first time that Reid Duke had gone 13–0–2 in the Swiss of a Grand Prix. He posted the same Swiss result at GP Providence before losing in the Top 4. He was keenly aware and wanted to break through that glass ceiling and earn his first win at a live tournament. To this point, he had not won so much as a PTQ played live, with all of his tournament wins coming in online play. He took advantage of the bye rounds to eat, drink some coffee, and get himself focused.

During the Swiss rounds you can afford to take a loss—even if Duke failed to do so—and it gives you a little wiggle room when drafting. Once you get to the Top 8, anything less than a 3–0 deck is not going be enough. I asked Duke how a Swiss draft differs from the Top 8.

Said the Nashville champion, "In a single-elimination draft, there might be a deck or a player who's so good that you know you'll have to beat him or her to achieve your goal. If I watch the best player at the table pick a Bloodline Keeper, I'll make sure I have a realistic plan to beat that Bloodline Keeper. In the Top 8 of Nashville, I was in red and blue with permission and removal, so I didn't feel like I had to worry much about any specific thing. In this case, I basically just did what I could to make my own deck good."

I asked Duke for one parting thought about drafting on Day Two of a Grand Prix and how you adjust moving from one draft to the next—and hopefully onto a third one.

"A special challenge is the attachment you get to your winning decks," cautioned Duke. "Once you rattle off three—or five, or six—wins with a deck, you begin to feel unbeatable with it, and it is painful to de-sleeve it and put it in your backpack. However, it's important to be confident in draft, and know what it takes to win in a variety of colors and situations."

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