(Metagame Archives) PCNY: The Rules

By Gary Wise

“Wouldn’t it be good to be on your side? The grass is always greener over there.”- Nik Kershaw.

Part 1
Nik Kershaw was a musician of the 80’s whose songs often echoed the truths of human experience. The above quote serves as proof. After all, we always want that which we don’t have. Are you a professional poker player? Maybe you long for the structure and security of a 9 to 5 job. Are you married with kids? Maybe you miss the days when you could live by your own schedule and spend your money on your desires instead of other’s needs. Do you play on the PC? Well, then maybe you think that taking a job where you get paid to write about the game is paradise.
At PC NY, I learned that the grass on my side of the PC coverage game is green and lush, and my shoes are mighty comfortable.
If you followed Metagame.com’s coverage of PC NY, you might have noticed in Ted Knutson’s excellent blog-based ramblings that, instead of taking my usual perch at the keyboard, I joined some 300 players at the tables to participate in the Pro Circuit. It was a strange place to be and the results are worth looking at¾if you can learn from my example, maybe you won’t need to repeat my mistakes.
I believe there are a number of rules that should govern a player’s tournament life regardless of a tournament’s level. I’ve developed these rules through playing in over 40 professional tournaments featuring “that other TCG”. Today, I want to focus on just one of them.
Be the best player of your deck in the tournament.
One thing I found shocking about the NY metagame was the sheer number of Sentinels players at the tournament. Was Sentinels the best deck at PC NY? Absolutely. Anyone who denies that isn’t being realistic. There were decks that could consistently beat Sentinels, but those decks severely punished a player for the slightest misstep.
Sentinels was amazing in the NY-era metagame because all the player had to do was play the curve and stay alive for Magneto and Bastion. More times than I could count, I heard players complaining, “My deck should beat Sentinels,” after taking a loss, but if the Top 8 showed us anything, it’s that no deck could actually beat Sentinels when the machines were played correctly. If your testing showed otherwise, your Sentinels player was probably doing something very, very wrong.
Unlike just about everyone in attendance, I decided to play X-Stall. I knew this decision was questionable. The odd expressions that appeared on others’ faces every time I mentioned what I was playing were indicative of a less-than-extraordinary deck choice. However, I stuck by my decision for two reasons.
1. It’s better to spend energy on figuring out how to play your deck than on figuring out which deck to play.
2. I’m comfortable playing X-Stall because I’ve played it far more than I’ve played any other deck.
Dean Sohnle has shown us the importance of deck knowledge. I think that he’s the first of a wave of Vs. players who are going to dominate the game because of superior deck knowledge. I had a Sentinel deck completely built, free of proxies and therefore free of the pre-tournament rush-to-get-60-cards-I-don’t-own-only-to-lose-track-of-who-owns-each-one burden. However, I knew that to play the robots would mean mirror matches. And after that, mirror images of those mirror matches. Eventually, I’d feel like Bruce Lee in a scene from Enter the Dragon, facing a thousand images of myself with no idea which way to turn.
If I played Sentinels, could I beat a random player playing a randomly awful deck? Sure. Could I beat Dave Spears, Adam Bernstein, or any of the other players who’d been playing Sentinels six times longer than I’d been playing Vs. System seriously? Well, the answer to that question starts with an “n” and ends with an “o.”
My belief is that when you pay airfare, hotel costs, and New York prices for food, transportation, and post-tournament entertainment, your goal has to be victory. Not just making Day 2 or simply finishing in the money, but winning the whole tournament. It’s that $40,000 check that justifies those expenditures if you’re a student, a poverty-stricken writer, or anyone who doesn’t smoke $100 bills in lieu of cigars. Sure, we’re all coming out for the good times, but many a good time can be had locally. You owe it to yourself to try to win, and you’re not going to do that if you’re repeatedly playing a mirror match that you can’t win more than 50 percent of the time.
In the three weeks before Pro Circuit New York, I’d won two minor tournaments playing X-Stall and finished second in a third. I’d learned the deck well enough to make changes to the standard decklists. I’d found a friend and capable gamer in Jason Grabher-Meyer, with whom I could have meaningful and intelligent discussions on the archetype that we’d both come to enjoy. I’d beaten Osyp Lebedowicz, Eugene Harvey, Adam Horvath, and the rest of Team TOGIT in assorted matchups against assorted archetypes in our pre-tournament warm ups. Overall, I developed a confidence with the deck that made me feel like I could play the game in a style that didn’t involve four or five mistakes per turn. Confidence is key. That’s what made the choice an easy one.
The tone for my tournament was set with my first-round pairing against Jeremy Pinter, who has likely played something like 300,000 more games with X-Stall than I have. Jeremy was definitely more aware of what was going on than I was, and despite needing a final-turn, extra-time topdeck to win, he surely felt like he was playing a better game than I was. Naturally, Jeremy was playing Sentinels and he made Day 2, while I finished Day 1 with a 5-7 record. That, in large part, is why I write more about overall tournament strategy than individual deck tech- but I’d bet that a good number of Jeremy’s losses were either to the mirror or to decks built to beat him. I can’t help but wonder how he’d have fared if he’d busted out a few third-turn Wolverines.
Having only played Vs. System seriously for a month, I can’t help but wonder how much better I might have fared if I had played Sentinels, Mutant Nation, or any of the other decks at my disposal. The truth is that there were a lot of players at New York who were simply better than I was at the game. I still need to ask dumb rules questions for verification at times and annoy the judges in other ways, but in the end, I’m confident that I made the right choice. It’s up to you to figure out yours.
Part 2
One thing I can’t help but love about the  Vs. community is how everyone has the game in common. Even a pudgy, balding, Canadian loudmouth **looks around for an example** can have an informative opinion if you give him a platform from which to debate.
It’s the sharing of ideas that can allow one to transcend his or her limitations. Are you strong in Constructed but weak in Sealed Pack? No problem; get a teammate to explain what makes a Sealed card good. Finding your Fantastic Fun deck fatally fizzling when it fails to finish your foe? Fear not, your teammates can show you the flaw that leaves you floundering. We learn from one another, and through building that base of knowledge, we become better players. Rule #2:
No one can beat the system alone.
You can be possessed of Leander’s talent, Jones’s poise, Sohnle’s deck knowledge, and the USA’s understanding of draft in the 60s, but without a little help from your friends, you aren’t going to accomplish squat in the big leagues. Michael Jordan needed someone to pass him the ball and Barry Bonds needed someone to drive in, and the bad news for you loners out there is that Vs. is no different.
Over on vsrealms.com, artsy, beatnik, hockey goon Rian Fike is directing traffic in a sometimes silly, entirely entertaining thread called “Team Stat Center” whose primary purpose is the glorification of Team Realmworx. While the system he employs to show their superiority is skewed in their favor, when one reads between the lines it’s easy to see that this thread illustrates my above point: there’s strength in numbers.
Looking at our just completed Top 4, we see that Adam Bernstein worked diligently with Gabe Walls, Nick Little, Neil Reeves, et al. Jason Hager has a strong core of playtest partners when they aren’t harping on the message boards. Mike Barnes is tight with Shane Wiggins, Tim Batow, and the rest of the Oklahoma boys, and Antonino DeRosa is a member of TOGIT. They defeated Alex Shvartsman of team KGB, Ryan Jones and Vidi Wijaya of Realmworx, and Hans Höh, who works in unison with the rest of the German professionals. That’s eight for eight in well established brain trust set-ups.
More proof?
Getting the idea?
We each bring to the table our own mindset based on the knowledge we’ve collected and the experience we’ve accumulated, but only by comparing notes with players of similar caliber can we expand ourselves beyond the limitations of individual thought. Whether you’re misunderstanding the metagame, underestimating a card for Sealed play, or not fully appreciating a deck’s nuances in a particular matchup, it’s virtually impossible to escape one’s own mindset. Without outside interference, we keep repeating our mistakes and not seeing them for what they are.
Fundamentally, the strength of teamwork comes from the ability to capitalize on individual strength. Player A can build decks with the best but isn’t the strongest player, and player B isn’t the creative deckbuilding type but can play the heck out of those Vs. cards. Separately, they’re each going to be solid, but together they’ll be a force. A shares the deck tech with B, B teaches A the matchup nuances, and both are better for the information exchange.
If the benefits stopped there, that would be reason enough for one to get organized, but they go beyond. There’s something inspiring about having friends nearby watching out for you. Something uplifting in knowing that a teammate is going to be sad for you when you lose, empathic to your missing drops 3 through 5, and happy when you win. Those at the site will tell you that there was no louder cheer than the one heard when De Rosa was announced for the final spot in the Top 8. That kind of love has to be inspiring, and the relationship has to be reciprocated. Next time Antonino approaches a PC, he’s going to remember, and as a result he’ll work with the full knowledge that his efforts will pay off not only for him, but for his teammates as well.
That’s what we call inspiration.
Without teammates, Antonino couldn’t have developed his decklist. Without teammates, he wouldn’t have gotten the practice he needed to thrive and survive. Without teammates, he’d have had no one to lift his spirits after a tough loss, no one to bounce deckbuilding ideas off of, and no one to celebrate with when it all paid off. Without teammates, Antonino would be nothing . . . at least from a gamer’s point of view.
First and foremost, Vs. System as a game is strategic. We choose our cards, we play our cards, we use our cards to trump opposing cards. But with all that in mind, you can’t underestimate the social nature of the game. You can’t play by yourself—there’s no game without an opponent and the truth is this: you’ll have no game without someone to learn from.
How does this all relate to my New York performance? In a month, I went from hardly knowing what formation was to pulling off five wins in the Pro Circuit before being eliminated by my sixth loss. For a star of the game, this would be a disappointing experience, but for an observer of the game, it was a huge leap in the right direction. It not only signified my emergence as a player but as a writer, as the experience will undoubtedly allow me a better understanding of the Vs. player mentality.
Had I made Day 2, any success I’d have found there would undoubtedly have been a direct result of TOGIT teachings from the days leading up to the tournament. Cards that were suggested to me by Jason Grabher (but I hardly even know her!) Meyer led directly to wins that I might not have gotten without them, and the fun I had that pushed me to play that final match after being eliminated from the possibility of Day 2 undoubtedly would have been absent were there no one to high five and complain to when things inevitably went so askew. Colleagues make the experience, but more than that, they make the experience possible. You can’t do it without them.
Part 3
“Who . . . am I?” – Derek Zoolander 

Gary’s favorite comedies of all time:

1)      Zoolander

2)      Groundhog Day

3)      Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back

These rankings are based on a combination of first viewing laughs and multiple viewing posterity. Comedy is different than other films as far as entertainment goes because it’s all about the punch line, and once you know the punch line, the wind is knocked out of it. Any film that can make me laugh when I already know the punch line is something special.

After the top three, the picture gets foggy, but while in New York, I may have found a new entry for the list—The Longest Yard. I’d heard about the remake in January, heard about the bevy of WWE and NFL stars who’d obviously be beating the crap out of one another, and was pretty excited for the prospect. Academy Awards? Who needs ’em. Give me a little Sandler, a little Rock, and a lot of severe punishment. By the end of the film—and Steve Sadin and Joe Carrey can verify this—I was chanting, “Mean machine! Mean Machine!” along with the in-film crowd.

Good times. Good times.


Rule #3) Remember why you are here.

We each have our reasons for going to Pro Circuit. Some go for the convenient excuse to visit non-local locales. New York gives us Yankee Stadium and Katz’s Deli. LA gives us the Hollywood sign and the Walk of Fame. Amsterdam gives us a look at life on the liberal side, and Indianapolis gives us . . . um . . . hay?

Some travel for the love of the game. Perlas and Carrey and Spears and Kalman and Grabher-Meyer make the trips because of their love of gamers and Vs. System. Sunday night, after getting back from the movie, Spears was still rallying weary judges, holding each of them upright in their assorted chairs, propping them up with one appendage each so that he could get in that one more draft he’d provided the product for. In the greatest city in the world, that’s how the man spent his last hours. Gamers.

Some love the thrill of competition. Zvi Mowshowitz, one of the great TCGers of modern times, showed up to the tournament having learned how to play the game three hours earlier. Hours. Even with Zvi’s analytical skills, he had to know he was going to get destroyed, but he braved it anyway. Zvi’s a guy who loves the puzzle, loves the questions and loves the quest for the answers. Sure, the money’s nice, but that’s not what keeps him coming back. If you’re in New York for money, you’d better be hanging out on Wall Street.

Of course, the money is nice. I think that’s long been one of Alex Shvartsman’s main motivators, though admittedly, he makes money by squeezing as much of it out of fun times as possible instead of working sixteen hours a day in an office. Alex is another professional gamer, one who recognized that the Pro Circuit offered an opportunity for major cash advancement in exchange for the less than tedious task of playing and playing and playing.

We each have our reasons. For me, it’s the stories. Those who’ve known me longer than you will be happy to tell you that I have a little habit of repeating stories until your ears bleed. For me, there’s nothing like a good story to share with buddies, to laugh over, to analyze, and to repeat. That may be why Churascarria Plata Forma is amongst my favorite restaurants in the world.

A Brazilian Meat House, CPF sits you with a two-colored disk: one side red, the other green. When the red side is face up, you help yourself to the salad bar. When you’re ready for the meat, you flip it over, signaling that the waiters should be at your beck and call. Suddenly, fifteen varieties of meat are being transferred from meter long skewers to your plate, which piles higher as you eat, and this continues until you can’t eat no more. When you get a dozen gamers at a meal, small nations run out of livestock.

Thing is, that was only an hour, and I was in town in the constant company of good-time-gamers for a week. Amongst the listable things I also experienced while I was in the New York/New Jersey metroplex:

–         Paid $4.99 for a sandwich whose ingredients included French fries, cheese steak, marinara sauce, mozzarella sticks, and chicken fingers

–         Drafted with Team TOGIT, gaming masters

–         Thrilled at the site of Dave Spears in a Mullet and frowned at the rejection when he refused my offer of a donut box as card case in the aftermath of Vs. Realms’s cop-gate

–         Learned that Rob Leander’s demise had been greatly exaggerated. He was in Sweden

–         Taught Josh Wiitanen how to arm wrestle

–         Did an interview on Internet radio

–         Created a casual format

–         Stole a donut from the coverage room while still in the Pro Circuit (sorry Toby)

–         Received a grand total of seven massages

–         Beat defending champ Adam Horvath in the Pro Circuit. This was immediately after I’d had two consecutive feature matches, while Adam never got one. I guess his isn’t a big enough name in the community to warrant that kind of attention, even if he was the all time leading money winner as we played.

–         Watched in amusement as Gerard Fabiano hatched a plot for a TV show in which he and friends would make a first impression–based distinction on random contestants, declaring them either “good men” or “scumbags.” Look out VH1.

–         Played a similar game with Steve Sadin on the New York subway as each patron entered our car

–         Flirted with every female I came into contact with. That’s right, Osyp, I said it!!!

–         Defended myself from Osyp’s accusations of being a serial flirt

–         Shouted assorted cereal names at Osyp as he tried desperately to pick up a Ukrainian girl

The list goes on . . . and gets stranger.

If you’re traveling for the times, make sure you have the times. If you’re traveling to win, you’d better play to win. The point is this: in each of our odysseys, we reach a critical destination at which we must make choices. Do you rules lawyer the guy who played the wrong resource? Why are you here? Do you go to the Yankee game or play the $10K? Why are you here? Do you eat at the ever consistent McDonalds or go for more localized cuisine?





Answer that and you’ll know how to proceed in every situation. And at a PC, you have enough going on with deck choices, metagame analysis, single-card hunts the night before, lodgings, flights, keeping track of luggage, remembering wake up calls, and fighting your battles at the table that spending your energy on anything else is unnecessary and wasteful. Know why you’re here. It’ll give you the answers and you’ll have a better time for it.

Part 4

Every great story starts with one little event. Aside from those of you who live in Europe or under a rock, everyone knows by now that the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in 85 years last September. Everybody knows they had to go through the New York Yankees, their most hated rival, to do so, and most everyone remembers that in order to do so, they had to fight back from being down three games to none to win their best-of-seven series with those Yanks. 

Then we get into the finer details. Those who were paying attention remember that the Sox were down 4–3 in that fourth game. Those with well-attuned memories can recall that Mariano Rivera, the Yankee’s unstoppable ace in the hole, was pitching. And those with the sharpest eyes remember that with Mo pitching, it was Dave Roberts’s steal of second base—when everyone in the ballpark knew he was going to do it—that acted as the catalyst for it all.   

– Roberts steals, getting into scoring position.

– Roberts scores as a direct result, tying the game.

– Boston comes back to win the game.

– Boston comes back to win the series.

– Boston goes on to win the World Series.

It was a big event around here, one that will be recalled with affection a century from now, but none of it would have happened if Roberts hadn’t stolen that base. Which makes for a suitable lead into the fourth and final rule of this series:

It’s the little things that count the most.

This is the case in almost any endeavor, but it holds especially true when tournament play of a game with as many minute details as Vs. System is involved. One bad formation, one misspent resource and the course of an entire game—and with it your tournament—is irrevocably changed.

Through years of study, and by study I mean some combination of chatting with other gamers and learning from personal experience, there are a number of little things I’ve come to understand will help in the course of any tournament. Some of them will seem basic, some instinctive, but they form a pattern that one should repeat in order to coax a peak performance from the jumbled mass of nerves and circuitry we call the human body. Each on their own hardly seems significant, but say each one improves your performance by one percent. When you pile them all on top of one another, they make a pretty substantial difference. Take a look:


–          Always give yourself a full 24-hour day to get acclimated in the tournament city.

–          If you’re changing time zones, the body needs two full days to adjust.

–          If you have trouble sleeping on planes, ask to be seated at the back, as planes are sold front first and your chances of getting your own row will increase substantially.

Food and Accommodation

–          Give yourself eight hours of sleep a night.

–          Make sure your hotel is booked in advance and that you know your roommates well (and that they respect your sleeping needs).

–          Coordinate your sleep patterns with the tournament schedule as soon as you arrive.

–          This means going to sleep eleven hours before starting time, as the human body needs three hours to get itself up to full steam.

–          Eat healthy and light in the days leading up to the tournament.

–          On the day of the tournament, avoid heavy meals. Instead, small, high-energy snacks are best. This is because your senses are at their sharpest when you’re hungry (this is known as the hunter’s instinct).


–          Memorize your decklist.

–          Know your matchups—it’s not just about playing your deck, but also playing against your opponent’s.

–          An hour before tournament time, play a casual game in the format you’ll be playing. This is the mental equivalent of stretching. If it’s Sealed Pack, draft one booster. This makes the mind accustomed to the thought process that goes into the decisions you’ll have to make.

–          Maintain a positive outlook. You aren’t going to win if you don’t believe you can.

–          Have a judge check your sleeves.

–          Have a friend check your decklist.

–          Find an emotional center. In tournaments, things inevitably happen that will upset some players. If you happen to be one of them, you don’t want that event skewing your next match.


–          Call a judge on everything. This includes any mistakes you make or rulings that you’re “only” 99.9% sure of.

–          Along those lines, get to know your judges. You share a common interest and they can be pretty helpful in a pinch.

–          Don’t drink between days (or the night before, for that matter).

–          Develop a poker face. Even if you aren’t much good at reading your opponents, there are players out there who are.

–          Develop an information network. If you know what everyone is playing, it’s a huge advantage where mulligans and early drops are concerned. Have one team member get a list of participants, and when you learn what a player is playing, report it to them.

–          Keep calm. With impending success comes excitement. With excitement comes emotional clouding of a logical mind.

–          If you succeed, don’t forget your friends. No one wins a tournament on their own. Make sure they know you know that.

Some of these may seem a little strange or downright dumb to you, but it works. Living right leads to feeling right, which in turn leads to a heightened probability of playing right. If nothing else, you have to know that that will take you in the right direction.

There are other rules that could be discussed, but four parts is already a lot and I need to save a little something for future writings. The idea behind this series was to show you that there’s more to winning than just playing the cards right. They call it a Pro Circuit at least in part because you need to treat it that way. Don’t pay your airfare and hotel to play like a rookie. You owe it to yourself to coax as much goodness out of you as is possible. If you want to do that, play by the rules.


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