Grinding is a Young Man’s Game



-Gabe Carleton-Barnes

@unclegcb on Twitter








The bartender is very pretty, but she can’t find my tab.  I have to be in Corvallis in 9 hours so I can borrow cards, fill out a decklist, sleeve up, and attack for two at 10am, sharp. Josh Ravitz and Thea Steele are waiting for me, because they are crashing at my place and I haven’t given them a key. They look tired, but I’d have stayed for another drink.

Bad operations, you say? Yes, bad operations. But I’m off the grind. Burnt out. I’ve been to almost every PTQ in a 5 hour radius of Portland, OR, for the past 3 years. For 3 and a half years before that I was doing the same from Brooklyn, and that’s a lot of PTQs. Last year I was on the Tour for Montreal and San Diego. In San Diego I was playtesting Craig Wescoe’s top 8 matchups on Saturday night while he slept because we had played the exact same 75 in the tournament. I had, for the first time in 9 Pro Tours since 2001, been shuffling the PT winning deck all weekend...

But I am no Craig Wescoe. I finished 114th, and for the next 10 months I ground and I ground and I ground. I scolded every Magic friend I had who skipped a PTQ for anything less than a wedding. I cajoled them, encouraged them, challenged their fire. Feed the fire and the fire will feed you! Tomorrow might be your tournament! Save your bad beat stories, and give me the good beats! Grind. GRIND. GRIND!

Next month, I will be 35 years old. Last year’s Magic World Championship was won by a kid about half my age. The same kid who knocked me out of (thin) top 8 contention in Montreal in round 15.  I’m pretty sure he also loitered on my lawn.

This Saturday there was a PTQ in Seattle. I won my first 2 PTQs in Seattle. I won my most recent 2 in Seattle. And I’m not going: there’s a Sunday PTQ in Corvallis, which is much closer, and I might not even go to that one. Jon Metzger cajoles me, encourages me, and challenges my fire. I am resolute. Burnt out. Look, I tried: I logged into Modo and played some 2-man queues with mono-blue, my deck of choice in the format. I couldn’t beat the new R/G monsters decks. I had played U/W control and hated it last PTQ. All that burning and grinding had tired my weary bones.

Friday night Jake Van Lunen posts excitedly on Facebook about his PTQ plans out in New Jersey. I like a Van Lunen deck, so I message him for the list. I toss a copy together just in case.

Saturday I’m sleeping in while Jon Metzger is in Seattle PTQing, and I get a text from Seamus Campbell. He invites me to meet up with Jaron Heard to review some drafts and, more importantly, drink some drafts. I bring Jake’s deck along.

We end up playing some games but the deck does not inspire me. Jaron wants to PTQ in Corvallis but doesn’t have a deck. My phone vibrates.

Josh Ravitz and Thea Steele both just got eliminated from the PTQ in Seattle and are ready to start driving towards Corvallis, they want a place to crash.


Jaron asks what Josh is playing and I don’t know, but Jaron shows me this article:

Something speaks to me. I hear word that Eric Phillipps is top-8ing a New Jersey PTQ with this deck at the very moment. Herald of Torment? Sounds fun.

A spark.

Later. As the bartender is mistakenly giving my card to some other departing patron, Josh and Thea are updating me on changes to the deck, which I have relayed to Jaron. We’re going to need some Thrill-kill Assassins. Pack Rats are for suckers.

I leave my phone number with the bartender in case my card comes back. Thea and Josh help me tear open my final 10 packs of Return to Ravnica looking for a 4th Thrill-kill Assassin. We find 2 Chaos Imps, 0 Assassins. Thea and Josh head to bed. I tell them it’s about an hour to Corvallis, and they set their alarm accordingly: I stay up way too late watching basketball.

When I wake up, it occurs to me that I haven’t driven to Corvallis in ages. I google it. It’s actually almost 2 hours away.

It is currently 8 am, and Josh is still in the shower. And what dealer is going to have Thrill-Kill Assassin? I consider going back to bed.

But I can’t let Thea and Josh down: I screwed up their schedule, now I have to make up for it. I throw on clothes, alert the troops of our predicament, and toss some cards into a backpack. We fight through the rain to find breakfast sandwiches and coffee, and Josh demonstrates the driving style he cultivated in New Jersey while I text decklists and DCI numbers to Jaron so he can get us registered.

I am almost half awake when we arrive. Jaron has filled out my decklist, and I have only 2 changes to make. Jon Metzger hands me the 10 rares and mythics I was missing. It’s 9:57. I haven’t sleeved by deck. I scratch out the “4” next to Thrill-Kill Assassin and replace it with a “3”. A singleton Pack Rat fills in. This is what we have:

4 Rackdos Cackler

4 Tormented Hero

4 Thoughtseize

3 Pain Seer

3 Thrill-kill Assassin

1 Pack Rat

4 Ultimate Price

4 Lifebane Zombie

4 Herald of Torment

4 Hero’s Downfall

2 Desecration Demon

4 Mutavault

2 Temple of Deceit

17 Swamp


4 Duress

2 Desecration Demon

2 Erebos

3 Doomblade

4 Dark Betrayal

How did I let this happen? I’ve played 0 games with this deck, I’m frantically sleeving at the player’s meeting like an amateur, I didn’t actually get the cards I wanted to play, I have no idea what my sideboard plans are, I haven’t called to cancel my ATM card… and there are the pairings. 160 players: 8 rounds.

Having a Thoughtseize in your opening hand sure makes up for a lot of bad preparation. I’m paired against an Esper control player. He mulligans, and my deck gives me a beauty of a hand, but somehow I can’t push through and I lose game 1. I could blame run-bads, but I was barely awake so it was probably just bad play. I reinforce that supposition in game 2, making a series of horrific misplays: I skip a land drop with Demon and Erebos in play, so I can’t activate Mutavault to protect Demon from Devour Flesh, and I have one less mana the entire rest of the game. I forget that Jace makes attackers more vulnerable to Last Breath… but Erebos stays in play and I win anyway.

Game 3 I don’t impress anyone, and neither does the deck, but my opponent is nowhere near killing me when time is called, and I escape with a draw.

My round 2 opponent is wearing a superman shirt, with a small red cape attached to it, and shuffling his deck so I can see his cards. Mono-white heroic. I win the die roll, and my opening hand contains 2 Lifebane Zombies with a nice balance of lands and spells. But he draws 3 Banisher Priests and I draw lots of land with no removal, and die to a gigantic lifelinker.

At this point it should be noted that this tournament is being held in an Elk’s Lodge, which has a full bar right in my field of view... But the coffee is finally kicking in, and I’m not going out like this! I sideboard in more removal, play tight, and walk away with the match slip.

Jaron is 2-0 and loves this deck already. I am encouraged. Against Esper Humans, I stick Thoughtseize and Lifebane Zombie and game 1 ends quickly, then I outrace a resolved Blood Baron in game 2 when neither Thoughtseize nor Lifebane show up in time to handle it.

I play against Esper Control again, and now that I know the matchup it’s easy. 3-0-1. Oregon State Champ Ryan Bemrose is next, another Esper control, but I’m rolling now. I mulligan to 6, he mulls to 5 and puts up a good fight, but this Esper control matchup is even better after sideboarding. 4-0-1. I watch table 1 play to a draw: Black with white splash vs mono-white heroic. These will be my next 2 opponents, and I will crush them both.

6-0-1, and paired against friend and good-man David Stroud at the same record. We draw into the elimination rounds.

Meanwhile, on table 3, Jaron (at 6-1) is drawing with Thea Steele (R/w Devotion). Thea has almost 3 percentage points on the next player who could pass her in the standings: I do the math myself and tell her she is safe to draw. She and Josh and I go for coffee while round 8 winds down.

Final standings are posted and Thea is in 9th. Almost a 4 percentage-point swing happened somehow. I am feeling empathy daggers, but can offer little consolation after my advice went awry, and Thea and Josh head back to Seattle as the top 8 begins. Thea tells me I’ll just have to win it, then, and instructs me to send her regular updates.

Top 8 looks dangerous for Jaron and me. Two R/w burn decks are represented, and that matchup looks horrible. Indeed, Jaron is quickly dispatched by one of them in the quarters.

I’m playing against U/W control, and he’s stuck on 2 lands. Confidence surges through me as I peck away at his life total through his cheap removal. However, I can’t get a good clock established before he hits a glut of land, and the game quickly turns in his favor. I’m down.

Jaron warned me that this guy brings in a lot of creatures, so I bring in a singleton Doom Blade even as I cut all the Ultimate Prices. The plan against control is -4 Thrill-Kill/Pack Rat, -4 Ultimate Price, +4 Duress, +2 Demon, +2 Erebos. But I leave one Demon on the bench for the extra Doom Blade.

Game 2 goes more according to plan. He puts up a good fight but I have just the right mix of discard, threats, and a timely Hero’s Downfall, and we’re on to game 3. Since I’m on the draw, I decide to cut a Cackler for a second Doom Blade, as Lifebane is too slow to catch the first Brimoz on the draw.

Game 3 looks good to start: I deploy some dorks and have 2 mutavault to threaten if he should Supreme Verdict. I kill a Brimaz with a Hero’s Downfall and exile an Archangel of Thune with a Lifebane Zombie. He eventually Verdicts, but his life total is around 10 and he has no board position, although he does have 7 or 8 lands in play: danger zone if he draws a Revelation. I decide to crack with Mutavaults rather than casting a Demon, as he has 2 mutavaults untapped to trade, but that will stifle his Revelations. He accepts the trade. I play a couple more threats but he answers them 1-for-1, and we are in top-deck mode. At some point he plays a Jace, draws Elspeth off of it, and I kill Jace, but he doesn’t play the Elspeth immediately and I draw a discard spell. I draw another, a Thoughtseize, and hold it to protect my next threat. I draw… Doom Blade.

Stupid useless Doom Blade.

He’s got 8 lands now, and he draws his card. Somehow, I know it’s Sphinx’s Revelation. Either he scryed it too quickly to the top or played a shockland up, but I know.

I draw Duress. I target him with Duress. He taps out to Revelation for 5 and shows me:

2 lands

1 Jace, Architect of Thought

2 Last Breath

1 Azorius Charm

1 Elixir of Immortality

I check his graveyard and RFG pile. 3 creatures, 2 Mutavaults. 1 Elspeth. I take his Jace, then Thoughtseize his Elixir. Elixir would make his deck far too good at this point, and I’m unlikely to win by drawing a couple of 2-power creatures at this point… so it’s on to plan B.

I commence to draw little other than lands, Hero’s Downfalls, and discard spells. At some point I draw Erebos, but he has Revoke Existence. Mostly I just wait for him to play a win condition, then clear the path with a discard spell and kill it. My opponent is getting nervous. He counts his dead creatures and planeswalkers. Everyone knows what the game is now, and almost everyone thinks he has exactly 1 win condition left.

My hand? 1x Duress, 2x Swamp.

He commences to play 4-5 scry lands over the next few turns, pushing card after card to the bottom of his deck. I draw swamps and the occasional bear. Finally, he draws a Brimoz and deploys it. I have nothing to handle it, and even a single 1/1 might be sufficient to kill me. I draw... Hero’s Downfall. I lead with Duress, and he has nothing to protect Brimoz: all his counters are in the sideboard. I Downfall Brimoz, and my opponent smiles, sighs, and offers the hand with a “good game!”

The semifinals are against mono-red. I ask for a bathroom break and consult with Jaron. He says the matchup is horrible. I suggest leaving in some Thoughtseizes to try to protect your larger threats. He says anything is worth a shot: the matchup is terrible!

My opponent has the play and mulligans. My hand is Swamp, Swamp, Mutavault, Lifebane Zombie, Thoughtseize, Thoughtseize, Thoughtseize. I snap keep.

He keeps 6 and leads with a mountain. I Thoughtseize (18 - NO FEAR!), and see Searing Blood, Lightning Strike, Chandra’s Phoenix, Skullcrack, Ash Zealot. No second land. I take the Searing Blood. He draws and passes. I Thoughtseize again(16 - NO FEAR!), taking Lightning Strike (he drew Boros Charm), and deploy a freshly-drawn Tormented Hero.

By the time he draws his second mountain, I have done 6 to myself, have 2 creatures in play, and I know his entire hand except 1 card. It’s Magma Jet, and he kills my Lifebane Zombie, scrying both cards to the top of his library. I play a Thrill-Kill unleashed and crack him to 14. He draws, passes. I play land 5 and Bestow Herald of Torment on Thrill-Kill. He targets Tormented Hero with Searing Blood and takes 5. His next draw is Lightning Strike, and even though I’ve done 7 to myself, his land stumble was fatal.

-2 Thoughtseize, -2 Pain Seer, -1 Pack Rat, -4 Hero’s Downfall

+2 Demon, +4 Duress, +3 Doom Blade

The plan is to kill creatures and get a Demon or a Bestowed Herald into play as quick as possible. But plans don’t always work out. You can’t bestow when you only have 3 lands, so even though the removal & discard plan to whittle away at cards worked well enough, sometimes you find yourself attacking with a Thrill Kill Assassin and Tormented Hero to drop your opponent to 8 against his Ash Zealot and 0 cards in hand, and casting a Herald of Torment to block the Ash Zealot. When you are at 3. And sometimes your opponent draws a land, allowing you to untap, take 1 from your own Herald, draw an Ultimate Price, and consider removing the Ash Zealot to crack for 7. But he’s at 8. So sometimes you attack with Herald and Thrill Kill Assassin, drop him to 3, and pass with mana and a Hero up. And sometimes your opponent will draw another Ash Zealot, allowing you to chump with your Hero, Ultimate Price the other Ash Zealot, go to 1 on your own upkeep and swing for the win.

There are plans, and then there are plans.

David Stroud has defeated the other red deck in the semis (he’s on Esper control) and we high-five on facing each other in the finals. It’s a win for the team already, so we’re happy with the results. We run the invite vs everything split, and get to business. I’m quickly down a game after my mulligan doesn’t work out.

Game 2 is closer but I am able to maintain pressure, and we’re quickly on to game 3.

We trade early threats, but I have seen his hand and he is holding Elspeth and Aetherling without the land to cast either. He doesn’t hit land 6 immediately and I continue to draw action, leaving him with, essentially, a double-mulligan hand. With him at 4, I tap out to bestow a Herald onto Tormented Hero. David stone faces me until I turn him sideways, then offers a hand, a congratulations, and a hug.

I’ll see you grinders in Atlanta. I’ll be the guy with the shuffle-calloused hands, the Revised Edition basics, grumbling about the good ol’ days when Pro Tours were limited or constructed, never both, and when you always knew the best deck was the blue one. Until then, stay off by damn lawn.

-Gabe Carleton-Barnes

Co-host of Card Talk: The World’s Greatest Magic: the Gathering Podcast (find us on iTunes)

@unclegcb on Twitter


Josh & Thea for the fire, the ride, the advice, and the good times.

Thea for forgiving me for being wrong about her tiebreaks.

Jaron for making a PTQ sound fun, for picking up cards for me, for getting me registered, and for figuring out the deck with me all day.

David Stroud for one of the jolliest PTQ finals I’ve had, and for his authentic support, even in defeat.

RJ Smith, who was damn gracious in the semifinals when all the breaks went my way.

Kevin Du, who was damn gracious in the quarterfinals despite losing to the cheesiest and most desperate of strategies.

All my opponents in the swiss who were fun to play against and (mostly) refrained from teasing me for playing an aggro deck at a snail’s pace.

Jon Metzger for maintaining the grind, holding my feet to the fire, and loaning me tons of cards.

The Henrys for having so much fun all the time.

The staff for a very well run event.

All of Draft-PDX for making grinding fun, cheering me on, and eating cake.


Me for my standings math, my drive-time estimates, my sloppy round 1, and for playing a Pack Rat despite Ravitz’ better advice.

Ryan Bemrose for sabotaging his talents: you should be playing Pro Tours by now.

Henry “Glamrock” Freedman for the assertion that “everything is economics.” Kids these days.

Those 10 RTR packs I opened looking for Thrill-Kills. You sucked.

Magic Online for being awful but not quite awful enough to prevent me from playing.

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