Return to Face the Monster

Posted in The Week That Was on November 15, 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.

The nature of my column, which focuses on what is happening in the world of competitive play, does not always let me participate in theme weeks here at Still, there is something about the essence of the Theros themes that lend themselves so well to discussing tournament Magic. As we built our way up to Pro Tour Theros I spoke with potential heroes Eric Mann-Hielscher and Neal Oliver, and after the event interviewed the last hero standing in Raymond Perez, Jr., who made the Top 16 in his first stab at Pro Tour play.

If these players are being cast as heroes, then what is the monster they must all face? It is not the more experienced and successful players. Luis Scott-Vargas, Jon Finkel, Shuhei Nakamura, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa are battle-tested veterans who you will need to contend with should you sit down to play at Pro Tour Born of the Gods in Valencia, but they are not the monster—not individually, anyway. The real monster is the Pro Tour itself, a veritable multi-headed beast that has put significant dents in the armor of even its most successful would-be challengers.

I talk to players at all levels of the game and I have known more than a few who have made their run at the beast and decided they were much better suited to tackling smaller critters on Friday evenings and sparring with their friends. Still others face the monster, take a measure of themselves, and prepare to earn another chance to become part of the Pro Tour mythology by finally getting the upper hand on the beast. One such player is Korey McDuffie, a familiar face on the Pro Tour a couple of seasons back who has been trying to get back to finish a heroic task that began when a decade ago in Atlanta, when he was just twelve years old.

Korey McDuffie, Pro Tour Avacyn Restored

He got pulled into the game right around Mirrodin block by a group of players who were already playing on the PTQ circuit and McDuffie joined them within two seasons, playing at Regionals in Atlanta with a well-tested version of Tooth and Nail.

"Starting with that very tournament I just wanted to play at the highest level of competition," McDuffie said of that long-ago event. That same year, he ventured out of his hometown for a tournament in Dallas. "I traveled to my first Grand Prix when I was fourteen."

While playing at GP Dallas he began to understand the nature of the monster he wanted to one day attempt to slay. Means to an end like Pro Points and the Players Club entered his consciousness and he started playing in more Grands Prix and local PTQs. He also began to pay attention to the heroes who had acquitted themselves and were the subjects of heroic tales on this very website.

"I realized how hard it was to get onto the Pro Tour and was inspired when I saw players like Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, Kenji Tsumura, and Mark Herberholz perform well in every tournament they played in. I just wanted to get on the Pro Tour. I went on to travel to PTQs that were within three or four hours away from Atlanta for the next year or so."

Atlanta is one of the original Magic communities in North America and there were plenty of players willing to drive a young up-and-coming Magic player to events. McDuffie, as a teenager, had little in the way of responsibilities, and was trying to get his first invitation almost every weekend. Magic Online provided him a way to continue honing his skills and it was not long before McDuffie was playing Magic more often than not. Grinding away like that, week in and week out, may have seemed like an interminable journey with no land in sight at the time, but his first blue envelope was not long in coming.

"After playing in PTQs for less than a year, I achieved my first PTQ victory at StarCityGames in Roanoke, VA, when I was fifteen years old," recalled McDuffie. "I was playing a deck with Doran, the Siege Tower and Profane Command in Extended, and it qualified me for Pro Tour Hollywood.

Korey McDuffie, Grand Prix Nashville 2012

"I was so happy I had reached my goal of getting an opportunity to play with the best players in the world. I realized that I was good enough at Magic that if I just kept playing, I could potentially play at a professional level."

When he arrived in Hollywood he came armed with a deck that was considered to be in the top tier—Blue-Black Faeries—and only one matchup he was worried about. As fate would have it, he ended up matched up against Mono-Red, the one deck he feared, five times, and was consumed by the monster well short of Day Two. It would be very easy to curse the fates and bemoan the bad matchups but McDuffie knew an essential truth within a handful of rounds.

"I learned that the players on the Pro Tour were more skilled than they were at any other level of competition," said McDuffie, who next qualified for his next two Pro Tours and posted similar results. "I still didn't Day Two my third Pro Tour, which just reinforced my idea of the caliber of Pro Tour players. I ended up being qualified for Worlds on rating, and finally placed in the Top 50, which qualified me for the next Pro Tour in Paris."

Working with David Sharfman for the start of the 2011 season, the two players independently came up with a Caw-Blade list similar to the one that ChannelFireball used to dominate the field. McDuffie made a deep run into Day Two and was also playing that same weekend for Top 8 of the Grand Prix—an event won by Sharfman. There was a lot to be excited about on the weekend, but he was sent back to the PTQs and GPs if he was going to get another shot at the monster.

He did not have to wait long, as Grand Prix Dallas/Fort Worth was on the horizon, where McDuffie would post the first major Top 8 of his career.

Korey McDuffie - Top 8

Download Arena Decklist

"I still recognize that as one of my best performances," said the GP Dallas Top 8 competitor. "I was satisfied that by Top 8ing the Grand Prix and doing well in Paris, I qualified for the next Pro Tour in Japan, and I could continue trying to become a pro-level player that season. After that weekend, I played in every North American Grand Prix and Pro Tours for the rest of the year and after a year of grinding I ended up being a Level 4 Pro; I was qualified for the next year of PTs. It incentivized me to play Magic for the next year, since I had a good shot of continuing my run, and continuing my path as a grinder."

McDuffie fell short of being qualified for Pro Tour Return to Ravnica at the start of the last season and found himself back where he started—in Atlanta, looking at the PTQ schedule. Nobody ever truly quits Magic but no one would have begrudged McDuffie if he decided to stick to drafting with his friends and borrowing a deck when an Open Series or PTQ wandered into his vicinity. But it is hard for heroes to rest on their laurels knowing the monster is still out there.

"After becoming so competitive, I only wanted to play on the Pro Tour," said McDuffie, who won an Open event during that span despite hoping he would lose so he could play in a PTQ the next morning. "I had a lot of discipline. I lost in a lot of PTQs trying to get back on the PT. The last weekend that you could qualify for Pro Tour Theros, I lost in the Top 4 of the PTQ in Atlanta and then lost in the finals of (another) PTQ. Despite getting close to feeling burned out, I continued putting a ton of hours into practice every week and finally completed my goal of getting back on the Pro Tour again."

This past weekend in Nashville, McDuffie found a magical weapon—a Sealed Deck pool that let him navigate the Swiss rounds of his PTQ without a loss—and draft his way to an invite for Pro Tour Born of the Gods in Valencia. For the young hero, his persistence goes to back to what he saw the successful players he admired doing when he was just starting out on the Pro Tour.

"I learned that they were as successful as they were because they were so familiar with the game. They played longer and more often than I did, and I learned that you have to play a ton of Magic in order to be on that level. From that day until now, I have never taken longer than two weeks off of Magic. You have to stay very involved if you want to keep up with the rest of the pack. Not only do you play to improve your skill, but you build your sample size. Magic is a game that includes variance, and the more shots you take, the more likely everything goes your way to win a tournament. This concept stuck with me for years to come and I have became a grinder committed to trying to stay on the Pro Tour ever since."

McDuffie will draw on the resources in his area to prepare for the event with his friends Brian Eason and JT Hetricks—the same friends he played with constantly during his quest to get this second chance. He is also hoping to work with his good friend—and the winner of the GP he made the Top 8 in—Dave Shiels, to make the most of his next chance to bloody the beast. Even if he doesn't, I fully expect to see McDuffie get up, dust himself off, and try again.

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