Swimming with the Sharks: A Beta Tale

There was a boy called Matthew Goslar, and he almost deserved it.

Stolen from C.S. Lewis, this introduction is an adequate depiction of my tale as a magic player and of my journey into the beta draft.


I’ve been playing Magic off-and-on for 25 years with varying degrees of seriousness and success. I began playing “mana-drop”, a format where players drop all the lands they draw in their opening hand and continue to draw until they have 7 non-land spells to start the game. I was the first friend to play a 200 land deck laden with a healthy helping of X spells and subsequently broke the format. Fast-forward several years to my first tournament. I rubber-banded my Elf/Fastbond/Benthic Behemoth deck together and hit up the local comic shop. The players picked apart my deck and let me know that it was not Type 2 legal and that if I wanted to play I would have to buy a pre-constructed Tempest or Stronghold deck. I chose “The Sparkler” and proceeded to lose repeatedly to the terror that was Tradewind Rider. I didn’t play another tournament until middle school.

Strapped with playsets of black bordered duals, a complete lack of pricing knowledge, and the desire to build another terrible Green/Blue deck I walked into One Stop Gaming and traded my collection for a bunch of Great Whales, Morphlings, Rushwood Elementals and Verdant Forces. This store was the beginning of my love for tournament magic and the community it housed. I won my first tournament with a Nemesis pre-con (Blastoderm was just that good). I played in a few JSS tournaments with UG Madness and didn’t do a whole lot of winning until high school. I became deeply engrained in trading on magictraders.com (MOTL), playing at Atomic Comics, traveling to East Valley PTQs, and brewing terrible decks. High School ended and so did my desire to play Magic.

In college I thought I wanted to be “cool” and didn’t think Magic fit into that equation. I played the occasional pre-release and jammed a lot of Ravnica drafts on modo with my friend Joe, but aside from that I kept my card gaming tempered. At 21 I moved to Seattle with a case of Alara block in hopes of making some magic friends, but instead ended up 1v1 drafting the whole case with my best friend. When I moved back in 2010 I wanted to make some new friends and dived back into competitive magic. I brewed up a Sarkhan the Mad/Abyssal Persecutor deck and did well enough to keep pushing forward. Game Nights, Gamers Inn, Rookies to Legends, and Manawerx became my new homes and I was playing magic every day. I went to my first GP during Innistrad Block and was lucky enough to stay with the eventual winner Marc Lalague. After that I couldn’t stop. I earned 3 byes in a quarter just by grinding weekly tournaments at Pop Culture Paradise in Tempe. It wasn’t until the PPTQ system that I really began to understand what it takes to consistently improve. I recently cashed my first GP in Dallas and now day 2 more than not. I still have a lot to learn, but at least I’m on the right road.

GP Vegas 2018

I recently lost my job as a migrations manager at a web hosting company, but before I was let go I had booked a bunch of GP flights and had pre-registered for both the Modern and Limited tournaments. With the help of Will Levin and Justin Webb I was able to finish Mono Green Tron (a deck that I reluctantly grinded to a 72% win-rate in ~150 matches on mtgo). I knew the deck was falling off after the printing of dampening sphere and the inclusion of Field of Ruin in the newly popular control decks, but it was the deck I had the most reps with, so I went ahead and ran with it. I ended up losing my win-and-in for day 2 to a scapeshift deck running multiple copies of Crumble to Dust and Dampening Sphere. I honestly couldn’t be too upset as nothing gets me more hyped than degenerate gambling and the idea of playing in a limited GP. I stayed up until the sun rose, managed to avoid losing more than a few hundred dollars, and woke up without a hangover. It was a good day.

I sat down to register my pool and immediately noticed something. I had a couple good 4-ofs. 4 skittering surveyors. 4 academy drakes. Karn, Scion of Urza. Vicious Offering. Cast Down. Eviscerate. I had a solid UB deck, but no powerful off-color cards to take advantage of my surveyors. I couldn’t help but play 3 of them for value alone. After my two byes I ended up going 3-3 drop and lost to a suited up Danitha in every sealed pool. I think my deck was great, but certain cards lined up a little too well against it. I was disappointed and thinking about just skipping the PTQ on the last day to experience Vegas. I’ve never made the pro tour and that has been my #1 goal since returning to the scene. I started registering for the PTQ, but my friends were so excited about the value in the beta draft that I decided to register for that instead. I may want to make the PT more than anyone, but I knew this was a special opportunity that could easily never happen again. With an RPTQ trip a week later I decided that I made the right choice. I got dinner with my boy Jake Balsiger (who accurately said I should have been studying card prices and prophetically called my win). After dinner I proceed to stay up until 6am, lost a few hundred dollars, had a few too many drinks, and powered up for what I didn’t realize was the main even of my weekend.

I woke up having turned my alarm off in a panic. I wasn’t sure I’d make it to the event in time. I washed up, threw some clothes on, messaged Justin to confirm the event time, contemplated skipping to sleep more, then shook the thought off and raced to the convention center. I got there with plenty of time and sat down to another great Blue/Black pool with another Karn. This time I had much less of the consistent creatures and removal that usually help a UB sealed deck, but a lot more bombs and raw power.

Here is the configuration I ended up registering:

I ended up sideboarding in 2 syncopates in almost every matchup over the confessor and guardians/scholar depending on the matchup.

Round 1: My opponent no-showed. Luck was on my side.

Round 2: Chantz Conlin. My opponent had a very good esper deck with a strong historic theme and double Raff Capashen. He blew me out game two by casting EOT Raff into Urza’s Ruinous Blast, but games 1 and 3 I just ground him out with value and saving syncopates for key cards.

Round 3: My most difficult match of the event. James Hockman is a local judge and he had an insane Jund saproling deck. He steamrolled me Game 1. Game 2 we decided that he could have left a couple blockers back and not lost instead of dying on the swingback to me flashing in Sentinel of the Pearl Trident, enabling me to tap an extra blocker with my icy manipulator and blocking a creature that would have otherwise been lethal. Game 3 he got stuck on lands, I used Icy as a Rishadan Port and he couldn’t come back from the deficit.

Round 4: Eric Froehlich – We talked a little bit about the weekend and how much he wanted to qualify for the draft. In my head I knew that I wanted some vengeance. He gave me my first loss when I was 5-0 in GP Oakland and knocked me out of top8 contention of the standard GP in Seattle. He had a busted UR Wizard deck with multiples of key wizards and must have cast fight with fire 5 times in the match. Game 1 I won a long grindfest where I made sure to play in a way to keep my life total above 10 if possible. Game 2 I was trampled by a quick aggressive draw. Game 3 was a nailbiter. Eric had to cast Fight with Fire defensively multiple times to kill my creatures and the value engine that was Karn. At one point during the match I played a land, then he gave me a land over a dread shade off Karn’s +1, then I tanked for a moment, played a tolarian scholar, then accidentally played a second land for the turn. I was embarrassed and apologetic. The judge rewinded the land back to my hand and gave me a warning. I had a key syncopate on the last turn of the game and I could tell that he was very upset about missing out on his chance for Top8. Eric has always been a total gentleman and has given me some great games of magic in relevant positions in tournaments.

Round5: John Waite – This was by far one of the most fun and friendly games I had all weekend. John was 3-1-1 and I considered asking him to concede, since his win could mean that Huey and Owen could possibly draw and we would both miss. I was in 15th place and had to win to make Top8. I ended up just playing and winning two quick games. He had some very powerful GW creatures and some reasonable removal, but I was able to gain control of his Evra in Game1 with The Eldest Reborn and then take his Thorn Elemental with In Bolas’ Clutches Game2. Torigaar was unreal good in this matchup as he was above 40 life in both games before I dropped the 7/6 legend.

The MVP of my deck was definitely Sentinel of the Pearl Trident. I was able to reset a saga, save my Karn, ambush viper some attackers, reset clutches, tap extra creatures with Icy, and even blank a couple deep freezes.

At 5-0 I ran to get a quick break and still didn’t feel like I had much of a chance against a draft pod containing multiple PT winners, hall of famers, and future hall of famers, but I kept my mind clear and chatted with friends instead of getting into my own head.

Pack 1: Pick1 was a pivotal point (and mistake) in my draft. The choice was between an Icy Manipulator and Aryel (the BW Legend). Aryel is insanely powerful and can take over games by herself, but locks you into two colors while Icy Manipulator is just as powerful and keeps you wide open. In my head I thought that I wanted to be more aggressive against better players rather than play a long, grindy game with icy, so I slammed the Aryel and never looked back. Pick 2 was was not great and was between Valduk and a Mesa Unicorn. Mesa was on color, but Valduk is also incredibly powerful in the right shell, so I took the Valduk. I continued to get a couple dubs and a some generic white creatures.

Pack 2: This is my nightmare. Anyone that knows me knows that I’ll rare-draft in situations that you should never rare-draft. I’m like Pascal Maynard x100. I opened a foil mox amber. The only other card in the pack was a fiery intervention, so I thought and thought and finally made the right choice and took the removal spell. Up next was a gift. I got a 2nd pick Shalai, then a Danitha, a couple trappers, and a seventh pick Serra Angel. I grabbed a gideon’s intervention,a couple run amoks, and a short sword. Every pick in the pack was playable and made my deck. White was wide open.

Pack 3: Opened a Forbearer’s Blade and was passed a late Kwende.

I breathed deep and realized that my deck was actually good enough to win.

Round 1: Ronnie Rittner – GB Saprolings. Game 1 I got stuck on only red mana and he had only black mana. I discarded white cards to hand size, but ended up getting a valduk with a couple short swords and won off a run amok from the top of my deck. He wrecked me game 2 after I got stuck on two lands. Game three I missed my 3rd land drop on the draw after mulliganing, but drew my land and was off to the races.

Round 2: Mark Herberholz. His UG deck was clearly not suited to deal with a hyper-aggressive strategy. He cast several copies of Blink of an Eye, but it wasn’t enough to stop my tempo. Every time he cast a 3/5 spider I had the reproach or run amok to push through damage. I made a terrible mistake and attacked my 3/2 into his 2/4 flying legend, but it wasn’t enough for him to overcome me going wide with fliers. He was super humble and wished me luck in the finals.

Round 3: Mike Sigrist. We waited some extra time to see if they wanted to have this match on camera, but after a few minutes they told us to play and we had a nice crowd gathered around our table. The judge and I joked a bit about both of us being mistaken for Brad Nelson at some point and the feeling at the table was pretty light-hearted considering the stakes at hand. This was another grudge match for me as Mike had given me my second loss at the previous Limited GP Las Vegas when we were both 8-1 (I also had an even better RW aggro deck with triple gust-walker, but double heaven/earth with benefaction of rhonas was such a baller combo). Game 1 I mulliganed and both of our decks worked as they should. He had some removal. I had played a Kwende and hit him for a billion with a suited up bird. He played a siege-gang commander, but his mana was too constrained to overcome a run-amok for lethal. Game 2 I mulliganed and my deck sputtered out. Game 3 I had a reasonably aggressive draw, killed his siege-gang commander before he could activate it, played some fliers and he seemingly drew nothing but lands. I swung for lethal, my friends cheered, he extended his hand, and with that I had a beta draft ahead of me and he was left with 2200 tickets.

I didn’t play well enough to win, but any player knows that some amount of luck must accompany you to a great finish. I almost deserved it. Despite the feelings of elation and pride, I couldn’t help but feel bad for the people I beat along the way who wanted so badly to play in the draft, join their fellow teammates, and maybe even open a minty Lotus.

I was told the draft would start at 8, but 10 minutes later they decided that it needed to start now. I was the worst player at the table, hadn’t rochestered since I was an actual child, had the least time to prepare, and the realization that I qualified hadn’t even hit me yet.

The Draft: We sat around a table in the background and were given instructions. Everything was casual, people were chatting about their experiences with the format, and everyone was incredibly nice. We were all excited and nervous to be there. LSV, BenS, and Juza all agreed that they were more nervous and excited for this than they would be for a PT Top8. We took a quick break, took a picture, then sat down for the draft. We put some tiny white gloves on, attempted to pick up a merfolk trickster, realized the gloves were too slippery and took them off in excitement for the first pack. The draft was a blur. It was almost comical how hard it was to read the cards. LSV and the head judge explained to everyone what obscure cards did. I was on such a high that I was picking twiddles and bad blue enchantments over actual playables. When my first pick pack came up with a wheel of fortune I started to reach for it before the review time had even started and LSV jokingly said “we know, we know”. After pack 1 I calmed down a bit and hit a wall. “I have to actually play with what I draft” I finally thought in my head. I stopped taking useless cards and started picking up whatever creatures were left in the packs. I was gifted a late pick Two Headed Giant of Foriys and a Rock Elemental. BenS opened an Underground Sea, so I got a miser Icy Manipulator. At one point I didn’t realize it was my turn to pick, someone nudged me and I started reaching for a prodigal pyromancer, then stopped. There was an artifact I couldn’t read. WHAT DID IT DO? IT LOOKS GOOD. I DON’T EVEN KNOW IF I’M BLUE. instinctively grabs the artifact. I read it. Throne of Bone. It’s awful. Meanwhile, my round 1 opponent hasn’t opened any money, but has double pestilence and a Sengir Vampire. I open a Time Vault and realize that I’ve won no matter what happens. We finish up the draft and sit down to build our decks. We have to register basic lands, we need more channel fireball sleeves so that we don’t have to de-sleeve our current decks. Some adorable kid comes by to ask for autographs. I end up with a sloppy jund deck with 21 lands.

The Game: Tim Rivera starts to shuffle my deck and then pauses realizing he probably should just cut it. Game 1 I play a couple big creatures. I suit one up with an unholy strenght. He plays paralyze, but I have enough mana to untap it and kill him. Game 2 I don’t draw much and play a Kormus Bell not realizing it works on my opponent as well. He has 4 swamps and I have 2. We laugh and I concede. Game 3 He plays a 3/3 into my hand full of 2/2s. I realize I’m going to have to double block since I have essentially no removal. He then plays a pestilence and the game is over as he can shoot all my creatures for 2 and never lose the pestilence. I cast wheel of fortune in desperation hoping for a miracle, then extend my hand.

The format was awful, the actual play of the beta draft felt like an afterthought to the production of the draft itself, but the experience was memorable, amazing, and something that most people will never be able to experience. I got to sit with some of the best players in the world, open some packs that I hadn’t seen since I was 6, and experience magic history. It’s been two weeks and I’m still getting congratulatory messages from old friends and high fives at local events. I ate some KBBQ with Tate Donovan, drove home, intensely worried that my beta cards would somehow melt in my car from the hot Phoenix sun during the drive.

This was a pretty important win for me, but I’m going to continue to grind, support the local community, work with purpose, and do my best to be the best me a magic player can be.

Next step: the Pro Tour

Special Shout Out To: the entire AZ MTG Community (special shout out to Jake, Shane, Phimus, Justin, Devin, Will, Blaine, Yonas, PJ, Franky for always making sure I have a deck – Harry and Phimus for always showing me how I built my sealed pools like an idiot – to anyone who stops by the stream – I probably forgot people, but I have the worst memory of all time) and my family who has put up with this dumb passion for the last 25 years.

Leave a Reply