An oft-talked about joke among those on the coverage team, and a staple story of Magic coverage, is the “travel story.”
The “travel story” can take many forms. One of those is the classic bad-beat travel story. The one that comes as a result of canceled flights, unfortunate hotel disasters, or general bad luck when it comes to getting from Point A to Point B. Perhaps the most famous, and recent, example of the bad-beat travel story is the one Tim Willoughby wrote about from the 2012 World Magic Cup, showcasing Japan's flight cancellations and ensuing $1,400 cab ride from Washington, DC to Indianapolis to make it in time for the first round of the tournament.
Then there's the classic weekend-warrior story. These involve players accustomed to booking Friday night red-eye flights to get to the tournament on time for their first round of play, booked with a pessimistic Sunday evening flight back home. The weekend-warrior story can emerge as a real gem when the player's plan doesn't quite come together, when they just so happen to Top 8 the Grand Prix and have to go through re-booking their flight for Monday so that they can stay and compete for the trophy.
What doesn't often happen, in this particular type of story, is the trip being booked at the last minute. And by last minute, I mean the Friday before the GP main event.
Enter this weekend's “travel story” protagonist: Matthew Sperling, Pro Tour Magic 2015 quarter-finalist, infamous “Sick of It” columnist on ChannelFireball, and a pro player with a very good Grand Prix win percentage over the last year.
Sperling has been juggling a conundrum many of the Magic weekend warriors have, which is the fine balance between a full-time job and moonlighting as a professional Magic player. In fact, this weekend was not even on the docket for him. Coast-to-coast Grand Prix were one of those luxuries he and many of his testing partners of the aptly named Team Work could not afford, and the California resident could not field a flight to the other side of the country on his strict work schedule.
Well, okay. He's here today, so as it turns out, maybe there is a little wiggle-room.
He's here, despite the initial approach of “no GP Miami for me, thanks”, and despite flip-flopping on the subject multiple times over the last week (he was close to pulling the trigger on a flight, but opted out mid-week when he was unable to obtain VIP registration for Grand Prix Miami before it had sold out).
“It was three things coming together,” he explained. “The first was that my fiance was going to be out of town visiting her friends in Los Angeles. She asked if I had any plans and I really didn't. I said I would just stream. Then, my friend Adam Mancuso messaged me saying 'I just booked Miami last minute. I've got an extra bed in the room if you want it.' I told him I'd take a look. I searched for flights, but they were too expensive.”
Matthew Sperling flip-flopped on the Miami trip more than once, but it was the perfect storm of excuse-quashing that ensured his trip to the Grand Prix.
“Then, I checked with my teammates [from Team Work] to see if they had a deck,” Sperling said, still not ready to put the potential plan to rest. “They did. Samuel Black had a great Green-White Devotion deck, so I was set to run that if I could go, but I mentioned that the flights were still too expensive.”
That's when teammate and Hall of Famer Bob Maher came in.
“Bob Maher said he had extra frequent flyer miles so he could get me a cheap flight,” Sperling said. “A combination of a good deal on the flight, Sam Black's deck, and Adam's hotel room offer locked me.”
From there, Sperling found a flight that would leave San Francisco at around midnight, but would get him into Miami at 11 a.m. With his three-byes from his Gold-level Pro Player Club status, Sperling would have just enough time to arrive on-site, assemble the missing cards he needed for his deck, and settle into his first round of real play.
“We call this the Paul Rietzl 2012,” he joked, referring to the year where friend and Hall of Famer Paul Rietzl was a true weekend-warrior. This was the year where Rietzl traveled to every Grand Prix that he could possibly go to on the “red-eye into town, plan to leave Sunday evening, change the flight if I make it into the Top 8” plan. (Fun fact: For Rietzl, that never happened for the really long trips except for the one he won in Grand Prix Mexico City 2012. The only other GPs he Top 8'd during 2012 were on the west coast.)
“A Top 8 means I'll move my flight and miss a day of work,” Sperling said. “A non-Top 8 means I'll be rushing to the airport to catch my 6 p.m. flight.”
“That's the coast-to-coast weekend warrior schedule,” he said with a shrug. Sperling had been off to a good start, but by Round 8, he found himself at 6-2 and in need of a win in the ninth round to advance.
His round 9 opponent, local Donald Mathers, had no flights to catch and all the time in the world if he broke through to tomorrow. Sperling, however, was either a match away from keeping his Day Two hopes alive or guaranteeing that he'd make his Sunday evening flight.
Sperling had gone to six, keeping a one-lander with a Forest, Elvish Mystic, and Voyaging Satyr, all of which came out in short order in the first two turns when he did not find a second land. It was enough mana to operate on, as the two mana-dudes helped play a Courser of Kruphix, which found a Temple of Plenty for Sperling on top. It was indeed plenty, as the lands came shortly after that and Sperling's deck quickly exploded with creatures. Mathers did not have the removal to interact, and could only progress the board of his White-Black Tokens deck. Mastery of the Unseen manifested Sylvan Caryarid came next, and with Sperling's life-gain engine online the game was close to locked up. A few turns later, and Sperling's Polukranos, World Eater was able to break through a clutch attack to end things.
Local player Donald Mathers sought Day Two, and weekend-warrior Sperling was in the way.
The second game's big play came from Sperling's decision to crack a Windswept Heath for a Forest rather than an Plains in order to fuel a Setessan Tactics away a Brain Maggot and a soldier token from Raise the Alarm. The play left an opening for Mathers to resolve a replacement creature as well as a Thoughtseize, which robbed Sperling of the Polukranos, World Eater he got back from the dead Brain Maggot. A few draw steps later yielded white spells, and a Monastery Mentor from Mathers was more than enough to push Sperling to a third game.
Back against the wall, Sperling reels from some brutal hand disruption.
The hand disruption did its job, and the Brutal Hordechief was just the nail in the coffin as well as the stamp on Sperling's boarding pass for tomorrow evening. The weekend warrior would have to try again at the next event in his search for Platinum status.