A Tale of Two Cities

Posted in The Week That Was on March 16, 2012

By Brian David-Marshall

It was the best of times, it was the... best of times. At least if you were Grand Prix Lincoln winner Bronson Magnan or Grand Prix Indianapolis winner Tom Martell. It is hard to keep up with all the Grand Prix winners these days, with a major event every weekend that lacks a Pro Tour or a Prerelease. We talked to Matt Costa a couple of weeks back as he crossed the threshold into Platinum status, and our collective hats are off to Zombie horder Richard Parker on winning Lille without dropping a match and Robert Smith drafting his way to the top of GP Seattle-Tacoma. I was struck by the results from Lincoln and Indy as two players with wildly different Pro Tour experiences came at each field with unexpected cards at the center of each of their decks.

While watching the quarterfinals of Grand Prix Lincoln, one of my favorite moments came when eventual winner Bronson Magnan defeated Samuel Karls in the first rung of the bracket. While there were still two rounds of play on the docket to determine the winner of the event, Magnan had just achieved something he had been thinking about since way back in the mid-90s. "Did I just qualify for the Pro Tour?" whispered an incredulous Magnan to nobody in particular.

Magnan later said, "Winning the Grand Prix was the best moment of my life so far—validation that I was certainly seeking. Earning a spot on the Pro Tour is the best thing that I have ever looked forward to." The 31-year-old IT professional has been playing Magic for more than half his life—since picking up an Ice Age pack at a bookstore chain. Curious about how to play, he found his way to a local hobby shop—Comic Book Warehouse—for its pre-DCI Tuesday-night tournaments. It was there he learned how to play, met his eventual best friend, and even made the networking connections that got him his first real job.

"Magic was surely a very positive influence in my life," said the Naples, Florida, resident. "Without it, I am sure I would have become some sort of hooligan."

He would also learn about competitive Magic from the thunder-lizard ancestors of this website.

"Through buying Inquest and Sideboard magazines I learned about the Black Lotus Pro Tour," said Magnan of the name for the very first Pro Tour. "This event inspired me to learn everything I could in hopes that one day I would be good enough to compete. The stories of Zak Dolan and Bertrand Lestree were very inspirational. I loved Magic: The Puzzling that Mark (Rosewater) made and spent hours coming up with my own for other people at the shop."

College took Magnan away from the game and he did not come back until a Prerelease for 10th Edition, where he finished in 2nd place despite not knowing about major rules changes that were implemented with 6th Edition. From there, he dived right into the PTQ scene and has been grinding away at getting himself to the Pro Tour ever since.

Return to Battle | Art by Ding Songjian

Magnan's game took a big step forward last year as he dedicated himself to amassing three byes for the TCGPlayer.com Championship in Chicago he was qualified to compete in. Players could compete in qualifiers for tournament series points that resulted in byes at different thresholds. Not only did Magnan get the byes he wanted, he was the only player to propel his point total into triple digits. It was at that event that Magnan forged friendships with Caleb Durward and Craig Wescoe.

"They were the first pro players to remember my name and are super great to hang out with," said Magnan. "I tested with Craig on site a bit at Lincoln. My major preparation was on Magic Online, against everyone who was trying to qualify for PTQs, and with my good friend John Cuvelier."

The format for Grand Prix Lincoln was Modern, and while the format is wide open with tons of viable archetypes, there was virtually no talk of Aggro Loam coming into the event. But after seeing the deck in action midway through Day One, my co-commentator and Building on a Budget columnist Jake Van Lunen had Magnan pegged as the eventual winner.

Bronson Magnan's Aggro Loam

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Magnan broke down what made the deck so successful: "The format consisted of three types of decks: creature decks with x/1 stats—Robot Aggro, Caw-Blade; decks that require cards in hand to operate—Tron, Storm; and midrange decks like Jund and Birthing Pod. Flame Jab and Raven's Crime or Liliana Vess, when combined with Life from the Loam, basically made the Tron and Storm decks and x/1 creature decks a bye. Adding Seismic Assault and Countryside Crusher gave the deck a powerful end game against the rest of the field. All of this, being backed up by Inquisition of Kozilek, Dark Confidant, and Tarmogoyf, leads to a very powerful combination. The deck also is a Devastating Dreams, Mox Diamond, and cycling land short of being an actual Legacy deck. Why bring a Modern deck to a tournament when you can run a Legacy deck, right?"

The deck continues to be successful, as Osyp Lebedowicz just earned his way back to the Pro Tour with the archetype at a New Jersey PTQ. Osyp changed only one card, removing a Countryside Crusher and adding a Worm Harvest.

Osyp Lebedowicz's Aggro Loam

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Magnan has been thinking about the Pro Tour since its inception. Now that he is qualified, how is he going to prepare?

"I really want to use this opportunity to get on the train, and that means a Top 25 spot. As soon as the new set is spoiled out I am going to build fantasy Limited pools to try to figure out what the draft decks are going to look like. Play once with every rare to gauge the power level. Then start working on the three-set block and try to identify the best two or three decks in the format and design a deck that will crush those and also have a solid plan against the rest of the field. It will certainly be a lot of work to accomplish in a short amount of time."

Grand Prix Indianapolis winner Tom Martell can trace his Magic experiences even further back than Magnan. His memories of his first games at summer camp in 1994 are hazy but he recalls that a Juggernaut and The Hive were involved. His next experience was more deeply etched into memory.

"I got my parents to take me to a local game store during that summer and I remember the first pack I opened had a Shivan Dragon," Martell reminisced. "It is one of the most vivid memories from my childhood, cracking that pack in the back seat of their car and seeing that awesome flying beast staring back at me. Looking back at that moment now, eighteen years later, it is incredible how emotionally it resonates with me. I had no idea at the time that I was starting down a journey that would define a huge part of my life."

When Martell returned to school after the break, the game didn't take as he had no friends at school who also played. He would not pick it up again until his senior year of high school, when some of his friends started playing, and that experience of opening a Shivan returned to him. One would imagine that with a Grand Prix win, a Pro Tour Top 8, and two more Pro Tour Top 16 finishes, he would be the most successful player from his school, but there was a certain Luis Scott-Vargas lurking one year behind him in the junior class.

Said Martell of his transition from playing in the cafeteria to playing on the Pro Tour: "I was at the tail end of my 'chess career' and the strategic complexity of Magic really appealed to me. I played my first FNM in early 2000 with mono-red burn featuring Flame Rifts. I had so much fun I bought a box of Urza's Saga and a box of Urza's Legacy, cracked them, and was hooked. I narrowly missed qualifying for nationals a month or two later in my third or fourth tournament and won a PTQ a few months after that. I was always very competitive and loved the tournament aspect of Magic; it was a great replacement for chess. That helped me really hit the ground running with tournament level Magic and let me skip the phase where players have to get acclimated to tournament conditions, pressure, etc."

If I had to list the players I would have expected to see at GP Indy, Tom Martell would have been on the top of the list. He is pretty likely to show up at any given GP to start with, but you also have to look at his track record in Legacy Grand Prix—which includes a 2nd-place finish in Columbus, 17th in Providence, and an overwhelming match win percentage overall. Yet, up until the Friday before the event he was not planning to attend.

"I love Legacy and thinking about missing the tournament after the successes at Columbus and Providence was pretty hard to stomach," said Martell of his eleventh-hour decision to attend. "I also had 30 points and the Pro Point awards at Barcelona jump from 6 to 10, so I needed 4 more points for getting to Platinum to get easier. I liked my chances of doing that over two GPs instead of just Salt Lake. I knew I couldn't go to Nashville regardless, so I bit the bullet and booked my flight around 1am on Friday morning."

Tom has had more than his fair share of success playing white-blue aggro-control decks with Caw-Blade earning him a Top 8 at Pro Tour Paris and Delver Spirits a Top 16 at Pro Tour Dark Ascension. In his Top 8 profile for this past weekend's Grand Prix, he joked that he combined the two PT decks to create his Legacy deck—a deck which seems inordinately "fair" for a format with as much potential for combo degeneracy as Legacy.

Tom Martell's Esper StoneBlade

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"The brokenness of Legacy is dramatically overstated," said Martell when asked about his deck choice. "There are certainly combo decks that are trying to do unfair things in the format—High Tide, Dredge, Hive Mind, Belcher—but they aren't threatening consistent, redundant turn-one or two kills. The format also has a lot of fair decks in it—Maverick, RUG Delver, Zoo, White-Blue Stoneforge—so there is clearly some balance between the two. We made some concessions to the unfair decks in our list with the three Force of Wills, the Clique, the discard package, etc., while trying to make sure we crushed the fair deck mirrors. Fair decks are generally going to be more consistent, offer more opportunity to outplay your opponents, more open ended decisions. I think that is both more fun and more powerful over a long tournament."

Vendilion Clique | Art by Michael Sutfin

Lingering Souls gave Martell a more robust plan of attack than traditional Stoneforge Mystic decks, and being able to Intuition for three copies of the Dark Ascension uncommon was pretty sweet as well.

"This is a MUCH better Plan B than the other Stoneforge decks; when their Stoneforge dies they have to work very hard to realize an advantage from their equipment quickly," said Martell, who would often get a Umezawa's Jitte for his Spirit tokens. "We also have a great disruption package that can keep our opponents off their game using discard and light countermagic. Finally, we are a much better Jace deck than other white-blue decks as we have a bunch of flying tokens providing cover fire for our Jace to hit play. The Spirits also make it very hard for opponents to keep a planeswalker in play as Jace is at his worst against distributed small threats."

With his win, Martell earned 8 points and virtual Platinum status in 2012–13 Pro Player's Club by virtue of the 3 guaranteed points for Pro Tour Avacyn Restored. It also puts him within 18 points of the lead for the US National captaincy of the World Magic Cup team. Getting to be the US National Champion would line up nicely with another of Martell's goals for the coming season.

"I'd obviously love to win a PT," said Martell. "I feel like I let Paris get away from me with a few big mistakes against Ben in the quarterfinals and I want another shot to get there. I've come close twice since with my two Top 16s, but I'm ready to get another stab at a title. I think it will be VERY hard for me to pass Kibler and LSV to become the default qualifier to the US team but it will really all come down to Barcelona. A week ago I needed to win Barcelona and have Kibler bomb to get ahead of him by 1 point; now there are some easier-to-imagine scenarios that get me there, but it is still a tremendous long shot. Unfortunately, I only have one GP left in my season, given my work constraints; I'll be in Salt Lake City at the end of the month. I'm really trying to squeeze in a trip to Mexico City next weekend but it is looking dicey right now."

Martell is looking forward to working with the same team that created the powerful Delver Spirits deck for Pro Tour Dark Ascension for the upcoming event in Barcelona.

"We haven't figured out the exact team situation yet, but I'm hoping to work with Sam Black and Jon Finkel as with the last few PTs. We've had some great success together and I think we can keep doing so going forward."

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