keep the blood in your head, and keep your feet on the ground

#tot: i went to nationals, pt. 1

Posted on July 1, 2018

when edgar told me i made it to nationals for magic: the gathering — my current obsession — i decided i wanted to go .


here’s what happened on day one.


*cue law and order gavel slam*


standard round 1:


i played against a gentleman named eli who drove six hours to the tournament. he left his kids and wife at grandma’s — about three hours away — and while he isn’t the biggest fan of the standard format, he wanted to collect some points.


eli played a red aggro deck, and we went back and forth. i won the first, eli took the second, and i took the third — each player on the play winning their game. eli had to take a mulligan on game three, and he scryed away a land which would have given him a chance to cast hour of devastation, wiping most of my board. i had a glorybringer the turn after, but it would have been a surprising turn of events.


eli, edgar, and i talked after the match, and eli told us about


thinking about using the crap out of it.




standard round 2:


i spotted the california tattoo on andrew’s arm and asked him if he was from the golden state. he told me he was from fresno, and we had a quick conversation about where i was from.


“you know where monterey is?” i asked him.




“it’s an hour south of san jose.”




andrew asked me if i traveled much to tournaments. “nope,” i told him, “this is my first big out-of-state tournament.”


i’ve played in canada, but i didn’t travel to the great white north specifically to play magic. if i were to visit korea, maybe i’ll hit up a shop to see what mtg is like in my birth country.


andrew told me he came all the way to columbus, ohio for the foil promo card that each person participating in nationals got.


“i don’t play standard,” andrew told me, “but i wanted this card!”


we had an interesting match; andrew surprised me with a new perspectives deck (a combo deck that can win in one giant long swoop once it starts going). at first i thought he was playing a control deck, and i cautiously played around essence scatters, negates, and settle the wreckages. when he dropped new perspectives on the table, i could only sit there, helplessly watching as he laid out most of his deck.


game two, i went full steam ahead. unfortunately for andrew — and fortunately for me –he was stuck on two lands. he scooped around turn five.


for the final game, andrew brought in a nice little card that gave him life and took away mine every time he discarded or cycled. that gave him some leeway as i hit him with a swarm of creatures only to see him drain my life and keep me from a lethal strike.


i worried about making a mistake, and while i won, andrew and edgar both told me what i could have done to improve my play in case i ever get caught in the same position again.


i could have lost this one, but i came out of it holding on to dear cardboard life.




standard round 3:


i didn’t expect to be 2-0. the day previous, i joked with edgar about losing the first match on purpose so i could go directly into the loser’s bracket and score some easy victories.


at 2-0, i knew i was playing someone else who had gone undefeated up until now. things weren’t supposed to be easier — i was climbing uphill, and i felt like a loss was coming.


i expected to play a control deck, but i ended up playing an opponent playing a similar deck to mine.


the mirror match did not go well for me. he ran over me after i had to go to six on the first game and missed a crucial land drop that could have turned the entire game in my favor.


john had an easier time during game two when i drew nothing but land.


“good luck!” he said, leaving the table. up until then, he seemed very stern and serious. the parting words lit up his face in a bright smile.


magic is competitive!




standard round 4:


being 2-1 felt about right. i was coming back down to earth from a high, and i asked myself: did i really expect to go undefeated?


during the first game of round four, kyle used refurbish to grab his god pharoah’s gift from his graveyard. i rolled my eyes believing the end was inevitable.


a part of me felt resigned to the thought of losing another match, but i decided to adjust my attitude and play it out. i had a phoenix hovering over the 4/4’s that kyle’s artifact was creating. the phoenix darted in for attacks dropping kyle’s life points down while i chump-blocked his onslaught of the undead.


looking to end it soon, he used a turn to attack with all his creatures. i killed one with a spell and soaked up some damage with a block. the unblocked creature punched me in the face bringing me to lethal — overkill, even — on kyle’s next turn if i didn’t do something immediately on the following turn.


i knew the count, and after drawing a card (goblin chainwhirler) that would ping kyle for one on etb (enter the battlefield), i lamented very audibly, “just one more!”


i had a scrapheap scrounger (3/2), a phoenix (4/3), and soul-scar mage (1/2) on the field. i held up the cut / ribbons in my graveyard and checked my land count. i had six lands — enough to shoot for four. kyle was at 13 life. i counted out how much potential i could do.




what if i cast chainwhirler?




count it again. 




“just one more!” i whispered, forcefully.


i sat there shuffling the cards in my graveyard, looking for an out that i couldn’t see — an out that my head kept telling me didn’t exist. i was about to scoop when i decided to count again.


if you were paying attention, you would have been able to spot that i actually had 13 damage ready to go — the perfect amount to kill kyle with. i don’t know why i kept counting 12 — and yes, i counted the prowess trigger.


maybe it was fatigue. maybe it’s a disorder that keeps me from mathing correctly. whatever it was, i would have been devastated if i hadn’t caught my mistake.


after i realized i had 13 damage in the chamber and kyle was tapped out completely, i made it a point to count, count again, and count some more before making my move. kyle paused for a second, then he picked up his cards ready to start game 2.


i can only imagine what he was thinking as he watched me complain about not having enough damage. i hope he doesn’t think i was sitting there trolling him for five minutes.


math is not my thing.


for game two: kyle couldn’t find his artifact, even though he went through a lot of cards to dig his way into one.


my army of creatures, two removal spells, and a chandra eventually ran him over on the final turn.




standard round 5:


played against stephen and his version of the god pharoah’s gift deck. since we were both in the 3-1 bracket, i thought i’d have a tougher go of this one simply because of the law of averages. there’s enough variance and decision-making that goes into each match that could see two opposing decks beat each other.


what were the odds i’d beat another gift deck, and from someone higher ranked?


against doubt, i pushed myself forward.


things escalated quickly, and i had to make a spot decision.


i felt like i made a big mistake using abrade to blow up stephen’s artifact instead of his shalai, which had taken a hit from soul-scar mage’s ability.


shalai gaves stephen’s creatures protection from my spells, but his pharoah’s gift was literally raising the dead.


i started to beat myself up over what i thought was a poor decision, but over the next few turns, stephen cast several more creatures that made me realize doing either wouldn’t have won me the game. either shalai died, and stephen continued to resurrect his growing army of undead creatures before each combat or i got rid of the artifact only to face off against the creatures stephen played from his hand that went on to buff the rest of his board and give him life.


i was caught between a rock and a hard place. actually, no, i was caught in an iron maiden filled with rusty nails.


i made some adjustments to the deck and took game two. i sided in a set of duress cards, a doomfall, and anything else that would keep stephen from using his cards.


a week ago, i played a mono-red deck for the store championship. i ended the day with a 2-2 record and complained that i needed better removal and a bit more control.


the decision to come to nationals with a red/black deck is one i do not regret. having played a full round of standard at nationals and scoring a 4-1 record, i couldn’t have been happier.


well, maybe if i went 5-0…




draft round 1:


after standard play, we moved into draft. i sat at a table with seven other 4-1 players. i was nervous having to go through my first super-competitive draft round because of the formality.


i fumbled my first pack and dropped some cards on the floor.  the player next to me looked at one of the patrolling judges and shouted, “i didn’t see them!”


before the draft started, i told edgar i was going to stick to two colors. like many promises, i ended up eating those words. i found myself drafting three colors, and i stressed out over my mana base because i didn’t have much in terms of fixing. i did have very powerful cards, and i rushed to edgar to seek his approval and some words of encouragement.


“this looks sweet,” he said, “you will do well.”


when the pairings were announced, and i sat down in front of my opponent and did what has become a forced habit after i was caught having too many cards during a deck check at a pptq: i counted the cards in my deck.




i counted it again.




i started to panic. was a card missing? did i miscount? 


“judge!” i yelled.


“what can i help you with?”


“i counted my cards,” i explained, “and i only have 39.”


“how would you like me to help you?” he asked, very politely.


my mind blanked. “what are my options?”


“did you drop it or misplace it? i can go grab your decklist, and we can see what’s missing,” he suggested.


i thought it was a very reasonable solution, and the judge rushed off to find my decklist. i apologized to my opponent, gabriel, who was very gracious.


“do you want me to step away from the table so you can lay your cards out and figure out what’s wrong?” gabriel asked. i was taken aback at the amount of consideration he was giving me.


“i — i would really appreciate that,” i said.


gabriel suggested i count the cards i drafted, and then i realized i made a critical error. though i had it right when i filled out my decklist, i counted the played cards on the sheet one last time and counted one card twice — once as a land and also as drafted card. so instead of 40 cards in my deck, i had 39.


“well, i think i know where the problem is,” the judge said, bringing my decklist over to my table.


“i think i counted wrong,” i said, embarrassed.


“unfortunately, you will get a game loss,” he told me.


“will this affect every game?” i asked, freaking out, “can i fix this for future rounds?”


the judge calmly explained that i would take a game loss for this round, and i would have to play the second game in the match without sideboarding. i would have the chance to choose whether to play or draw.


“but what about future games. will i suffer a game loss for every first game?”


“oh, no! that would be terrible!” the judge replied, “but since we don’t know what your 40th card would have been, you will have to choose a basic land to round out your deck because you can’t continue to play with just 39.”


i chose a forest, and the judge made an adjustment to my decklist.


gabriel won the game, and i took another loss.






draft round 2:


i played against a deck with a lot of removal, but i otherwise felt solidly in control during the first game, which i ended up winning easily.


i made it a point not get cocky, and i told myself not to judge the outcome of the entire match on just one game.


and i began to stress out, mildly, during the second game that started off well until we both threw a bunch of cards around during an attack on turn five or six.


when one of my creatures was targeted with removal (vicious offering), i tried to buff it with a gift of growth. mitchell threw another vicious offering on the table, and i ended up losing two creatures in a three-for-two that put mitchell ahead.


i didn’t need to worry for long.


a few top-decks later, i had whisper up and running and bringing back creatures from my graveyard. one of the creatures, yavimaya sapherd, comes in with an extra creature when it etb’s, which created a nice little resurrection engine that mitchell knew he couldn’t beat now that he had spent all of his removal.


match, me.




draft round 3:


i felt better about making a stupid deck construction mistake and losing my first draft match. going 5-3 was my dream, and i now had a chance to go 6-2, which was beyond what i hoped for.


i asked my next opponent what his first two games were like.


“i went 2-0, then i got 2-0’d.”


“by who?” i asked.


“the guy sitting next to you in the red shirt,” he said.


“oh, i lost to him too,” i said, not wanting to explain any further.


i won the first game even though i made a terrible mistake. my opponent used one of his dice as a token, and i completely forgot what it was for when i made an attack that he swiftly blocked. instead of forcing him into a corner, he was able to kill a significant part of my board, and i didn’t know how i was going to take away his remaining three life points.


he managed to create a very large board for himself, and i squeaked by gaining life through various means.


eventually, i drew a windgrace acolyte — a card that would give me three more life, but it would send three cards to the graveyard. i looked at the other cards in my hand, wanting a better solution. it took me a while to realize my opponent didn’t have flying creatures, and with only three life left, he would die on my next turn if he didn’t remove the flier or summon a blocker.


my opponent, knowing he had to act, decided to send all of his creatures at me, but i held back the flier. on my next turn, i went to combat, and he picked up his cards.


“you got it,” he said.


the second game was a difficult one. after the first game, i saw joseph reach for his sideboard with purpose, and i knew he had an answer for my saprolings deck — radiating lightning, a card that hit me for three damage and hit all my creature for one.


i started the game with a slimefoot and a saproling migration that gave me some tokens. slimefoot created another saproling or two for blockers, and nothing happened in terms of combat for several turns, though my opponent’s board state was starting to get bigger and bigger.


for some reason, and this is a habit of mine that has lost me previous games, i made it a point to hold a land card in my hand. when i drew another land and put it down, i realized i would have had eight lands — enough to create an extra saproling on that turn.


it was a mistake that cost me the match. joseph cast a radiating lightning, killing every single saproling. though it gave me life and drained him one point for each killed saproling, a few turns later, joseph was at one life.


one. last. life point.


for game three, joseph rushed to an early lead and forced me to discard the last two cards of my hand before putting me on the shelf for the rest of the day.


i finished 5-3, my original goal.


but i could have been 6-2.


i’m a sad boy.




quote of the day: “you made me f*king paranoid about flouride in water!” – edgar, deciding he was going to walk to a store 15 minutes away at 12am because he was thirsty.



Posted on June 6, 2018

i had to step outside of class for a brief moment and found a group of my students sitting outside eating their brunch — i don’t allow food in the computer lab now that the new desktops have been received and installed.

one of the students i didn’t recognize, but it’s the end of the year and i didn’t need to know whose class the student was missing, why they were out, and whether they had permission. only two of my students were actually eating, and the group of five sat and stood around a tight circle near one of the supports.

i heard a gasp as i walked through the door. i recognized it immediately — it came from a senior whose expressions always forced me to pause and laugh during lectures and announcements.

everything was a surprise to her, whether i was asking for students to turn in assignments or to pay attention to a specific item in the project guidelines. her jaw would drop and remain open while her eyebrows knit together.

“jacob! what do you mean?” she would whine.

if i acknowledged her at all — whether by long stare or a grimace, she would shrug and throw up her hands, her face still frozen in a mix of confusion and innocent horror.

on occasion when i had to send out the seniors to a meeting, i would ask her where she was going.

“i’m a senior, jacob!”

“i’m sorry. i keep forgetting that.”

when i heard her gasp as i stepped out of class, i responded quickly, “don’t act like you’re surprised” as i kept my eyes forward and kept walking.

she giggled behind me. “you know me so well,” she said.

“if i don’t pass your class, i won’t graduate,” he said.

“then, give me a reason to raise your grade because you didn’t turn in anything for three weeks. i see you’ve done work the past couple of weeks, but — three weeks. three weeks of nothing!”

“let me tell you why,” he stammered, “can i please tell you why?”

i already knew, and it wouldn’t sway me. “i don’t care about any reasons that come from outside this class.”

“i’m not trying to make excuses –”

“does it have to do with why you can’t participate in class?” i interjected.

“it has to do with why i can’t function in class.”

“fine, go ahead.” i already knew what he was going to say.

“my mom is terminal, and i’ve been very tired because i have to feed my siblings and make sure they’re taken care of. i don’t get to bed until very late. i try to write my scripts at home, but my internet isn’t very good. sometimes, i can’t finish them.”

“i understand that,” i responded, “but i don’t expect you or anyone else in this class to work on scripts at home. everything i have assigned this quarter — no, this year — was work designed to be completed in class.”

the class was a broadcast class where students signed up for news stories, researched them, then wrote scripts to be read in front of a camera. we have a 30-minute weekly television show that goes out to the entire county, and my students have — time and time again — waited until the last minute to work on scripts and queue themselves up for time in the studio.

i continued, “and i have to restate that your grades in all the other classes are a’s and b’s.”

“but –”

i had his grades pulled up on my computer. “you’re taking advanced math, a college-level english course, and several other high-level courses. you’re acing all of them except for mine. broadcast is the easiest class on your schedule because i don’t give you homework, i don’t assign a lot of essays, and i grade you on what you do in the hour you’re here. this is a career class where showing up on time and doing the job is main focus of this class.”

he took a deep breath, his eyes searching the air above me for an argument. “but i am very tired, and i can’t –”

“but you’re passing every other class! i need to know why you can’t put in the effort every morning to do what you have to do. it’s not hard, you’re one of my best writers, and you’ve done well every quarter except this one.”

“is there anything i can do to raise my grade?” he pleaded. his face turned a deep purple as his hands began to shake. his eyes were sunken but alert, and his hair was combed but shaggy.

i thought about doing what i had told myself i would not do — raise his grade out of pity. but i managed to put my foot down. we would see what would happen if an unstoppable force met the immovable object.

“the quarter is over,” i said with resolve, “there’s nothing left to assign.”

his body began to shake visibly, and he took short gasps of air.  i maintained my adamant composure, but my insides screamed, “mercy!”

he didn’t move from his position, but i came up with an idea. “go to the counselor. tell them to drop you. if they won’t do it, i will talk to them.”

“jacob. why are you always acting?”

acting. if only they knew. teaching was never my first choice as a profession. growing up, i had heard that those who do, do. those who can’t, teach. if teaching was ever in my future, it would only happen after years of working in a successful career. i would, and only could, teach from example and experience.

but i have come to a fuller understanding that a man may make his plans, but God will establish his steps.

after a few years working as a freelance photographery, an opportunity came up to teach at a regional occupation program. i became a part-time cte (career technical education) instructor. when my director saw that i had worked at a computer repair shop, she asked me to take on computer science courses.

now, i’m a teacher with a lot of hobbies. and i had a lot of students who brought the fight to me every single day.

“get to work!” i said, angrily at the student.

“i always do work.”

“then, let me rephrase — go do some work that’s actually good.” it sounded harsh then, and it sounds harsh now. but i had fought in many battles with this particular student who made it his mission to work off the grid. he never signed up for the important headlines. instead, he would show up on the due date with a set of videos no one asked for, and i thought no one wanted.

“what’s this?” i would ask.

“a review on a rap album.”

“who’s the rapper?” when he named some obscure rapper i would query the class, “has anyone ever heard of this guy? anyone? no one?”

he would hover until i dismissed him. “fine. i will accept it.”

over the course of the year, we would constantly butt heads. our exchanges were always the most bitter, the most loaded.

“you’re a snake, jacob,” he once told me.

i answered every challenge with a quick reaction that tested his motivations, his statements, his facts. “tell me what i did. what did i do, huh?”

“you gave the other student a camera, but you said no to me.”

“that’s because he was going to film something for the class. you, on the other hand, were going to film something for your own personal use. i would rather you get your work done and not screw around working on personal projects you don’t turn in.”

“that’s messed up,” he said, walking away.

i always had to have the last say, “just do what i tell you, and there’d be no problems!”

he used to walk into my class during other periods. for a few weeks, i only saw him in first period, and he stayed a considerable distance away from desk.

one day, while a group of students and i were talking, he joined us. while we bantered and discussed topics that had nothing to do with the tasks at hand, he posed a question that caught me off guard.

“why are you always so hard on me?”

i didn’t respond right away as several conversations were going on at the same time. when the mood shifted, most of the students left to return to their desks. as he turned to follow them, i stopped him.

“you know why i’m so hard on you?” i said, “it’s because you’re all talk.”

“what do you mean?” he asked, elongating the end of his sentence.

“i still remember what you said to me when i first met you. you said, ‘whatever you want, let me know. i’m your guy.'”

“i remember that,” he said, “and i do work every week. i do more work than everyone else in this class.”

“but it isn’t good work. you talk a big game, but you have improved the least. you do the bare minimum, you skate by, and you weasel your way out of doing actual work.”

“you’re acting.”

“no. i’m trying to teach you something. when you go to college, you’re going to have professors who don’t care about you because they have a thousand students to worry about. you’re going to be a number, a student competing with thousands of others who are more competitive, better-abled, cutthroat, and coming in with a higher privilege. they’re going to destroy you unless you open your eyes.”

he stopped for a moment. i could tell he was absorbing the words, though his facial expression was defiant and hard.

i continued, “you think this is it. you think this small little world is everything. but it’s not — there’s a huge world out there, and you are insignificant. you’re not special — not to them — because you haven’t done anything. you’re just another person with a sense of entitlement, and you have to prove you deserve to be there. it’s not about what you say. it’s about what you do.”

we stared at each other for a long second.

“i get what you’re saying,” he said.

“do you? or are you just telling me what you think i want to hear? i need you to understand this — talk is cheap. it is so very, very cheap.”

“i get it.”

“i wouldn’t say this if i didn’t care,” i told him, “i have to toughen you up because i am invested in you. i cannot let you fail.”

“i get it,” he said again.

“are you going to miss us seniors?”

“yes,” i lied. well, it was a half-lie. some i would miss — those who shared their lives with me past the professional courtesies or discourtesies present in any client-employee situation. all of my students are my clients — i am here to serve them. some treat me as an adult, an authority figure, a voice to be ignored.

to others, i’m a friend, an advisor, a brick wall of truth to bounce ideas off of.

“it’s going to be weird not seeing some of you around all of the time,” i said.

“are you worried? like, worried about our futures?” another student chimed in.

“for the most part no. but i want you all to succeed. i don’t want to hear that bad things have happened to you, or that you’ve failed out of school.”

“we’ll be fine,” the first student said, “we’ll try not to get into too much trouble.”

“can you sign my yearbook?”

it was the student whose mother was terminal.

“uh, yeah, sure,” i stuttered. “how’s your mother now?” i had heard she was quickly fading. the counselors dropped him from my class, and not a single day went by that i didn’t reconsider my decision to not raise his grade.

“she’s,” he paused, searching for the words before his lips turned into a smile, “well, she’s, she’s doing much better now.”

“that’s good,” i replied, “i’m glad to hear that.”

he gave me his yearbook, and i picked up a pen from my desk. “thanks,” he said, “thanks for signing my yearbook.”

i opened to a page partly filled, and my eyes caught part of an entry that said, “you are such a cool guy!”

as my eyes turned to a blank section, those words filled the space between my ears. i knew very little of this student outside of the past month. he was a hard worker when he put in effort, and he always said very little to me or anyone else in the class. if situations were different, would i have been able to comment on something more personal? would i have known more, and would that have affected my decision?

i started to write something, but the words escaped me. i considered writing the usual yearbook message — “have a good summer. see you (not) next year!”

what could i possibly say after all that went down? the truth? if i could, i would have written an apology, something that explained my rationale. i wanted to tell him that i was sorry his mother wasn’t in better shape, and that i had to maintain the rigor, structure, and composition of the course — that i couldn’t make exceptions to the rule and pass someone if they didn’t do the work.

i wanted to tell him that life throws curveballs and sliders, and sometimes it will lob an underhanded throw that ends up being a glass ball that just shatters in your face and leaves you scarred.

i wanted to tell him that it wasn’t my fault, but all i could write was a short paragraph that told him to be positive, stay strong, and recognize his potential. it was diplomatic — something in between what i wanted to write and what i could.

when i was finished, i capped my pen, placed a small sheet over the page so the ink wouldn’t smear, and snapped the book closed.

as i handed it to him, he smiled. “thanks,” he said.

“thank you,” i said.

before he walked out the door, possibly for the last time ever, he stopped and waved. “i’m going to college and majoring in media,” he told me.

i smiled back at him. “don’t forget about us here,” i said.

he lifted his hand again and replied, “i won’t.”