Screaming Shield: A Love Story
I toyed around with writing a tournament report for GP Cleveland after the event but never really got around to it and my laptop died destroying my notes. But looking back it was an extremely fun weekend of playing magic, eating food and hanging out with friends and I thought I'd talk about some of the things that made it so great. I didn't expect to be nostalgic for 2019 in 2020 but here I am.
This was sort of the GP I prepared the most for up to that point. I did a total of 10 drafts on mtgo in the 2 weeks before the tournament. I remember not trophying a single one with a series of draft decks which all felt great to me. My first impressions of the format were Rakdos, Azorious and Orzhov were great and the green guilds were a little lacking.
And of course I met my true love Screaming Shield. My first win with it involved fiddling with it back and forth between Azorious Sky-Guard and some other dork. Using 7 mana to mill them for 6 a turn. I remember it was an epic game where all three win conditions: life, deck and time were in play for both of us. Except deck for me. My opponent wasn't clever enough to bring their own shield to battle. My clock ticked down as Zack and Allen argued over competing lines.
Allen organized a limited meeting which was very helpful for hearing other people's thoughts and a survey in which we all gave our personal ratings of commons. My mic was being a little fuzzy so I didn't contribute to much during the meeting. But I did share, while going over mythics and rares, that I had Prime Speaker Vannifar in a sealed pool in which my only three drop was a Spire Mangler. It didn't impress in that context.
The trip to Cleveland was pleasant. I was able to fit all my supplies into one bag. It's easier for sealed GPs. I even found room for a baggy of green tea leaves. Since I was one bagging I was able to bike straight from the office to the greyhound stop in downtown Columbus. It reminded me of the one time I biked to the airport. It was to the San Jose Airport (SJO) for GP Denver. While I'm following this thread of loose associations one other time coming home from SJO I had an uber driver who I would later have again. It's the only time I've had the same uber driver twice. With some birthday paradox reasoning I wonder if I should be able to guess the number of uber drivers in the bay?
I make it to the bus stop and ask my group chat for audio recommendations for the trip. Someone recommends an episode of Reply All which I've already listened to. Someone else recommends "The Coast is Never Clear" by Beulah which I've listened to before but descide to queue up anyway since it's great. I must have made some typo because someone else corrects me which prompts Zack to link to David Foster Wallace's Tense Present. An amazing essay with an amazing title. I remember reading infinite jest on my phone over a period of maybe a year. It was sort of the worst literary experience possible. It's nice to be able to go to the footnotes and back via hyperlinks but a book might have been better. Of course the real reason it took so long is because every time I take my phone out of my pocket I get sucked into nonsense. I'm also a big fan of "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never do Again" and "Everything and more: a Compact History of Infinity". The trip flies by and I'm in Cleveland.
I walk to the convention center where Allen is and I meet some of his friends. We go to Dinner, settling on Indies, a nearby Indian restaurant. After some discussion we decide to eat family style and figure out the optimal ratios of spicy to non-spicy dishes of vegetarian to meat dishes and garlic naan to person. The food was delicious. Sharing a family style meal in a restaurant with six other people who I had mostly just met seems like it happened in a totally different world.
After dinner we split up into two cars and head back to the airbnb. There were ten of us in one house. I had originally planned to stay at the Cleveland Hostel because I had decided to come sort of late and I thought the airbnb was full. But it turns out there's always room for one more. On the drive we dropped of Zen Takahashi at his accommodations. The location prompted a discussion about micromorts. It reminds me of the last time I was in Cleveland for a GP in 2017. I was in between Google and Grad School so I didn't really have anywhere to be between GP Las Vegas and GP Cleveland. And Columbus was my final destination anyway. So I stayed at the Las Vegas Hostel and flew directly to Cleveland Thursday morning. My crew wasn't arriving until Friday so I booked an airbnb which billed itself as a hostel but was really just some guys house with two bunk beds in one room. I tried to take public transit from the airport but the metro only took me within 5 miles and I didn't want to figure out the bus system so I ubered from there. When the Uber picked me up he asked me if I was sure that's where I wanted to go. While there I left to find lunch and on my walk back I walked past the house because the neighborhood architecture was pretty homogeneous and a stranger shouted at me that he thought I missed my stop. While falling asleep I swear I heard gunshots. Still better than the motel Duan booked for us thought. They charged us $10 for a roll up bed. But Zen was on the other side of Cleveland so totally different.
At the airbnb people are mostly focused on standard. Everyone else is qualified for the pro tour. I'm the only one there for just the measly GP. There's a lot of Esper control and reclamation decks if I recall correctly. I was mostly trying to get people to talk about limited. After a bit, Zack, who arrived too late for Indies, is hungry. No one else is after our Indian meal but I walk with him to Kan Zaman. I think I had some condition that he get me Baklava or something. It was a long wait for medium food and we took it back to the airbnb to eat.
The next day everyone else has to wake up bright and early for the pro tour which starts at 9 am and has an earlier check in time for those who didn't check in the day before. My sealed PTQ isn't until 11 so I have a lot of time to kill. I do some pacing, some draft spectating and some reading of Hartshorne. Also like the morning before every tournament I take a huge dump. Maybe it's the adrenaline. Maybe it's the redbull I had with my coffee.
The Friday PTQ had my favorite deck registration moment. Usually I hate hearing all these people talking about how their sealed pool is great or unplayable or how the person sitting across from them has such an easy build or how their tournament is already paid for. So I had my game face on, not smiling, giving minimal answers to questions like 'where are you from'. When it's my turn to open my packs: first rare, Hydroid Krasis, second rare, Ethereal Abslution. I finish opening my packs, which are thoroughly good even excluding those two, and then make a huge smile at the person sitting across from me, who laughs. It felt like some genuine human connection. But I guess the real moral of my story, like all my stories, is I'm very lucky.
I build a temur deck with Krasis and Zegana as the main draws along with some premium commons and uncommons like Sunder Shaman, Clan guildmage, Frenzied Arynx and Galloping Lizrog. But the fixing isn't great for the temur deck and after 19 excellent ones you have to round it out with some medium cards. And somehow the Orzhov deck is even better. In addition to the Absolution, I have 2x Ministrant of Obligation, Blade Juggler, Basilica Bell-Haunt and Kaya's Wrath as big draws.
I punted when showing people my sealed deck. I should have shown them the temur deck first and then said 'But I'm playing the other two colors'. Instead after showing them the Orzhov deck everyone believed it obviously had to be the right choice. The first round after winning game one with BW I sideboarded to Temur to get a feel for it and to practice the transformational sideboard. I decided Orzhov felt better and didn't make that move again.
The Temur deck I considered is the following:
Between Rounds two and three I was going to get Indian food with Zack and Richard but at the last minute decided it was smarter to stay in the convention center. It's annoying not playing the same tournament as all your friends the rounds never sync up.
The only other spot from the swiss I remember was in round four against a Rakdos deck featuring the man himself which I believe was the only deck to take me to game three. He had Amplifire and in game three while triggering it he revealed cards from the top of his deck in such a way that I saw that the one under the revealed creature was Skewer the Critics . So before he drew I called a judge and told him that I had seen the extra card and the judge ruled it should be shuffled away. At the time I thought it was a sort of clear spot: I shouldn't know any of the cards in my opponents deck, if I see one I should call a judge and they should rule the deck should be randomized. But in hindsight it's sort of a weird spot. Neither of us are going to take any more game actions before my opponent draws. And if the card was in my opponent's hand it would be fine for them to reveal it, though advantageous for me. Would I have made the same snap decision had my opponent revealed a land? I hope so. My opponent seems perturbed by the ruling. And in hindsight I agree it's a strange spot. The most common revealed from top of deck errors I see are seeing the next card when drawing by the drawer himself. And in that spot it's much clearer that the deck should be randomized.
Finally after round four I had time to get lunch with someone and Allen, Zen and I went to Jake's deli where I got a corned beef sandwich. It was delicious.
I won the last round of the swiss and it was on to the top 8. Somehow I managed to sell my won tix to my last round opponent for $100. The speed of the transaction makes me worry it might not have been the best one for me. But I hate holding onto them until the last day of a GP. It's just one more thing to keep track of.
All my practice for the format had been drafting so for the first time in my life I was feeling prepared. But I sort of bungled it. You can see my draft below. Sort of a mardu control deck built around gate's ablaze. While I was drafting I thought the synergy between screaming shield and gate's ablaze was pretty cool. This was one of the few drafts I did where I didn't end up solidly in one of the guilds so I felt pretty unhappy with it. But it wasn't a total disaster. There was a fair amount of removal and card advantage and the mana for Gate's Ablaze was good. What the deck is really missing is Bladebrand s for its Footlight Fiend and Dagger Caster .
In the quarterfinals I played against Mack. This was my first time meeting him but he's actually a Chicago based player who I have a lot of mutual friends with. Before presenting we discussed our decks a bit and I said I wasn't that happy with mine. When he cast Feral Maaka turn 2 I said 'so the draft didn't go so well for you either?' which in hindsight might have been a little aggro. Sorry Mack. It was a good match up for my Gate's Ablaze and Cry of the Carnarium and I won. I also won the semifinals though I have no memory of it. But alas the Finals got away from me. My opponent cast a bunch of sunder shamans, the natural enemy of Gate's Ablaze and Grotesque Demise. I made one mistake where I waited a turn to cast my sky tether on their shaman and took five damage I didn't need to. But regardless it was going to be a hard game to win. At least the prize support is good. For second I get a whole case of RNA. I call up my broker Duan and he says he can get me $600 for it. And he knows a car of people in Cleveland who can mule it back to Chicago for me.
After a demoralizing loss, Allen, Zack, Jacob and I went to get BBQ. But the tragedies kept coming because Mabel's BBQ and Boney Finger BBQ both had long waits. We settled on the Pho Thang Cafe. It was completely empty that Friday evening. Sort of a bad sign. The food was good though. Jacob and Zack both day twoed with middling records, which I unfortunately can no longer recall. Allen missed day 2.
Back at the airbnb there's some pressure to crack the case to draft but I insist I want to sell it and we manage to scrounge up 24 packs anyway. I draft an Azorious deck featuring screaming shield of course. I remember drafting screaming shield equipping into to senate courier and cackling as my opponent murdered me with 2/2s anyway. The key to playing with screaming shield is to scream every time you activate it.
The start of the GP day is just as relaxed as the start of the PTQ day and because Allen and some others scrubbed out of the PT I was able to share a relaxing breakfast with others. We went to Lucky's diner which was absolutely amazing. I'll definitely go back if I'm ever back in Cleveland.
My GP pool seemed even better than my PTQ pool. In building the pool I made the biggest mistake in terms of lost tournament equity of the weekend. I decided to splash my blue cards. Later, on the way to lunch I'd defend my decision to play my Sphinx of Foresight by saying "It's really good in your opener and it's mostly good to top deck on turn 7. So there's only a rather narrow band of draws for which it's bad. But I didn't need the playables or the boost in power level. My straight Orzhov deck was just great.
My pool wasn't super deep but then next four best BW cards were fairly acceptable: Forbidding Spirit , Catacomb Crocodile , Justiciar's Portal (which I wouldn't normally be happy with but seems good enough with 2 Blade Juggler and a Basilica Bell-Haunt ) and probably 18th land but maybe Bring to Trial , Undercity Scavenger or Plague Wight .
There was also the decision whether to play screaming shield and/or High Alert. In the end I only found room for the screaming shield. The two really play so well together though. Generally people seemed to think I made some mistake putting the shield in my deck. They thought my deck should have no trouble winning games it was ahead so it didn't need another win condition. But the shield is too alluring. It screams 'play me'.
I'll spoil the result by saying I went 7-2. Here were some of the highlights:
I lost round one as part of my tradition of losing the first round of GPs with broken sealed pools. I'll never forget losing round one of GP Indianapolis when my opponent essentially 8-1ed me with crook of condemnation. Maybe it's more accurate to say I was prevented from 8 for 1ing them with my Glyph Keeper , God-pharaoh's gift and Champion of Wits . But it felt the same. But anyway this match 1 game 1 both my opponent and I have pregame actions but his sphinx is a little more castable than mine. And it feels a little hard to win after I put his under lawmage's binding.
Round 7 I played against Andrew Tenjum. I wish I could remember his exact curve. But I remember I went turn 1 screaming shield, turn 2 pegasus, turn 3 equip and embarrassed his side of the board. I think he had footlight fiend, blade juggler and Spikewheel Acrobat. That board isn't quite stabilized so I must have had another spell or two. I remember him conceding when it was clear the mill plan was getting there. To be honest I guess the real story is I had a better pool than my opponent and cast better spells so I won. But it really felt like shield allowing my pegasus to block acrobat was an important interaction that game. Did I mention I love screaming shield?
That round locks up day 2 so I guess I don't have that many stories from day 1. I don't remember rounds 4 through 6 or lunch. But I think I ran back the deli with Allen because I remember giving him my spiel about how Sphinx is good in your opener or as a late top deck on a walk over there.
I pick up my second loss round 8. I get a lot of value from ethereal absolution but my opponent draws Mortify . I think I played a little strangely. I sacrifice my absolution to final payment in response. But really I should have waited to get the best possible target. I also think I played a little too defensively with the Absolution in play. I played like I thought the only way I could lose is if my opponent surprised me with some burst damage. But really the most likely way to lose was exactly what happened: Mortify .
In my last round I get paired against Morgan McLaughlin who Jacob tells me is a stealth Platinum Pro. Later he'd retweet my blog post about preparing for GP NJ, which makes him my favorite mtg pro I don't personally know. I feel pretty good going into the match because I figure such a skilled player is probably playing with a much worse pile to end up with the same record as me. And indeed the match is sort of a one sided beat down. McLuaghlin didn't look like he was having much fun. Not that I blame him. He probably had a long day of eking out narrow wins against better pools. I remember killing a Footlight Fiend , Gravel-Hide Goblin and Burning-Tree Vandal with my absolution.
Allen of course 9-0s with a five color pile. Richard day 2s but I can't remember his record.
As always the real fun starts when we're done playing magic and are going to get dinner. We settle on Sokolowski's University Inn. It's about two miles from the convention center. We have one car for 6 people but Allen says he'd like to walk and Zack jumps in on that and I decide to join. I had assumed it would be a pleasant reasonable walk but after we got out of the downtown area it was a trudge through unlit, sidewalkless streets in industrial areas. But that's fine since we got views like this.
We had ordered ahead because the kitchen was closing a few minutes before we arrived so the food was ready when we got there. I ordered a steak because I wanted as much food as possible. It was delicious. The dinner was also eventful because Zack told me about a forum website lesswrong. It came up organically because some 'rationalist' had made a blog post about the 5 colors in magic. In the weeks following I ended up spending some time there and applying to attend a MIRI summer camp/conference on AI safety. So the conversation ended up effecting my life a lot though at the moment I don't plan to continue studying AI safety.
After dinner Allen and Jacob wanted to get ice cream from Mitchell's which sounded delightful. My favorite part of ice cream parlors is sampling all the flavors. I wonder when the next time I'll be able to have the experience of annoying some ice cream server by hemming and hawing and asking for one more taste to help me make my decision. I already know I'm just going to get whichever chocolate flavor has the most exciting fillings anyway.
Random tangent which sampling ice cream flavors reminds me of: in Mexico City I went to El Mercado de San Juan to eat some bugs with Rhiannon. The person behind the counter very helpfully gave us all kinds of bugs to sample and after sampling I really didn't want to actually get any bugs. But I felt obligated so we got some ants to munch on. They tasted sort of like unpopped popcorn kernels. I really hope bugs aren't the future of food. I hear some people saying their a really sustainable source of protein and I wonder if they've ever actually eaten them.
Anyway I was struggling to finish my huge monoflavor ice cream while Allen and Jacob were enjoying their banana splits. And when I explained the only reason I was having trouble finishing my ice cream was because I had just eaten a huge steak Allen said 'You live your life the way everyone should', which is probably the best complement I have ever received.
The next morning Allen, Richard and I hit up the Cleveland Bagel Company for breakfast. I have the good sense to order two bagels for breakfast and lunch. It ended up being pretty stressful because our bagels took a while and then the first uber didn't show up so we didn't get to the convention center until the draft was basically starting.
Unfortunately I didn't take pictures of either of my draft decks. My first draft went exceptionally well. I got basically the nuts rakdos deck. I remember making a very close pick over rakdos guildgate P3P6 and then wheeling it! So I was definitely in the right colors. I also carefully picked up a screaming shield around 9th pack 2. But decided to leave it in the board this time. The deck had such a good curve and I had so much trouble imagining losing to anything besides kaya's wrath that I cut a land for a drill bit .
I don't really remember anything about my games with the deck besides them being extremely quick. Which was good because between rounds I had to hunt down my case mule. Duan had given me his number and he texted me the table where he was playing a round of the PTQ. And what do you know, it was Mack, the player I beat in the quarters of the PTQ. It was only a little awkward. What made it more awkward was when I saw him I instantly knew I knew him from somewhere but couldn't quite place where.
The second draft didn't go quite as smoothly. I ended up in Azorius, splashing black to activate my Twilight Panther s. What I remember most from drafting is that if I had been bold and just taken all the wilderness reclamation s, Sphinx's Insight s and Of One Mind s I would have had a decent constructed deck. But you can't kick yourself for being heads up enough to put it all on the line at X-2 for that. And don't worry I had my screaming shield
I end up losing the first one to a Rakdos deck. Ah well. Then I win the next one but don't remember how. The third one was interesting though. I remember my opponent had an onboard kill thanks to sharktocrab but missed it and I milled them out. It was sort of awkward because my opponent was 15 and there was a judge sitting right next to us. I wasn't doing anything wrong, but it sort of felt like I was.
Allen was busy crushing. Going into the last draft he was talking about how he wanted to 15-0 the GP. He ended up losing the first round of the second draft and settling for a draw with Wyatt Darby. I didn't stick around for the top 8 since my greyhound was at 7 and it seemed like for the most part my friends were busy scattering to the wind.
I tried to eat at the Hofbräuhaus Cleveland but the buffet ended just a few minutes before I arrived (one of the unluckiest things to happen to me all weekend. Almost as bad as the time at GP NJ when I went to starbucks, ordered green tea and they gave me ENGLISH BREAKFAST!) and I didn't have enough time to order something. Instead I ate a rather unpalatable burger and fries at the greyhound stop itself. On the ride back I followed along as Allen drafted an unbelievably powerful deck featuring krasis and 2 Guardian Project . Congrats on the win Allen! You never stop inspiring me.
I'm pretty happy with my results for the weekend. Once upon a time I really only cared about qualifying for the PT at these events. But actually winning over 1k in a weekend playing a game you love is pretty nice. I've also had something of a habit of doing well day 1 and then drafting horrible decks. Going 7-2 in drafts for the weekend was a pretty good result for me.
The next day I say to a colleague at the math tower that these long mtg weekends feel like some sort of acid trip. I forget what I was doing before and what was important. He said 'why don't you stop' but I didn't mean it as a bad thing.