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Trusting the Process

Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica was a stressful tournament to prepare for. It made me feel like I had gone soft. My initial plan was to see what the metagame was, find a deck I liked, and just jam it endlessly until the time of the Pro Tour. I’m usually pretty good at picking strong decks. One of my biggest strengths in Constructed Magic is finding decks that have a solid set of matchups, making minor adjustments, and knowing my deck well. I’m proud of my ability to play strong decks week to week.

This time it was different. Not only was the metagame all over the place, changing weekly or even daily, but there were plenty of options within each archetype. The cards overall were weaker. Blue decks aren’t all Torrential Gearhulk decks. Red decks aren’t all Chandra, Torch of Defiance decks. Decks and colors have tons of options, and it makes the deck-building process more difficult—and of course, a lot more fun.

Once Golgari Midrange had a breakout performance one week, I decided it was my kind of deck and I was going to play a lot with it, and try and figure it out before GP New Jersey. I spent countless Leagues testing and tuning the list, and came to some conclusions on how to approach that tournament that I was happy with. I went into the tournament with the “I hope I can dodge mono-blue” mindset, and then played against exactly that in the first two rounds of the tournament. I suffered quick losses, and then lost to a Jeskai opponent who was prepared for Carnage Tyrant. Carnage Tyrant was my crutch in that matchup. I had been successful with it previously, but no one was fooled by the time of the tournament.

After GP New Jersey I felt like I was back at square one and as confused as ever. I tried some other decks—and actually, I liked them all. Izzet Drakes, Jeskai Control, and Golgari Midrange all seemed like decks I’d be happy to play. It’s weird—normally when there are so many viable options, I hate them all. Generally that’s because I think the decks have reached their final iterations, there are too few choices, and it’s hard to fix those decks’ bad matchups. In this format, however, I felt that every deck had a lot of wiggle room. If I worked on it hard enough, I could improve on the bad matchups and maybe make them good.

The first deck I worked on ever so slightly was again Golgari Midrange with Matt Nass. He asked me where we should start, and I quickly replied “four Wildgrowth Walkers.” We knew at this point that white aggro was a contender in the metagame. It was one of your better cards against Izzet Drakes, and your best card against mono-blue and mono-red.

After that, Matt refined his list from his own experiences at GP New Jersey where he had a fairly successful tournament. He loved Cast Down. A cheap way to deal with Drakes, small white creatures, anything with a Curious Obsession on it, the list goes on. Assassin’s Trophy is too punishing early to cast, and he really wanted that slot to play the role of cheap removal you could cast early. Cast Down was weak against Jeskai, an already mediocre matchup, and in the mirror.

Matt added Doom Whisperer, a card that had previously been considered too weak in the mirror because of Vivien Reid. Again, Doom Whisperer isn’t particularly good against Jeskai, but neither was Carnage Tyrant anymore. Carnage Tyrant may deserve a small number of slots in the deck for the mirror, but it has lost its impact in almost every other matchup, so the numbers needed to come down.

I was a bit skeptical, but came to realize that he was right. It’s exactly the kind of card the deck needed. Doom Whisperer was able to effectively block flying creatures like Crackling Drake and Rekindling Phoenix, and was a brick wall against white aggro. Doom Whisperer allowed him to find what he needed in whatever matchup because his life total was often high. Either he was playing a matchup where he could deal with his opponent’s threats and protect his life total, or Wildgrowth Walker was boosting his life total enough to give him the opportunity to surveil. Either way, the card was impressive.

Matt Nass ended up playing this Golgari Midrange list to an 8-2 record at the Pro Tour:

Golgari Midrange

Matt Nass

I still wasn’t sold on Golgari though.

We thought White Aggro and Izzet Drakes would be the most played decks in the tournament, and next would be something close to an equal share of Jeskai Control and Golgari. While Matt had gotten Golgari to a point where it was flipping with Izzet Drakes and thoroughly crushing White Aggro, the concessions were to Jeskai Control and in the mirror. If people showed up with Golgari deck lists that were outdated with more Carnage Tyrants, we were a pretty significant underdog. As I said before in previous articles, Golgari Midrange was tuned to cannibalize itself and anyone who made less changes to their deck than we did would have a better matchup.

This is the beauty of this format and why it was so frustrating to me. Being a week behind could mean being a week ahead, or you could just get punished. You have no idea how people will change their decks. You may know you’ll see a certain percentage of Golgari, but you can’t have a good idea of how many Vraska, Relic Seeker, Doom Whisperer, and Carnage Tyrant you’ll play against. There are so many viable options within decks that players could be doing the right things for the wrong reasons, the wrong things for the right reasons, and so on. I find this to be an excellent puzzle for deck building myself, but it does frustrate me in finding that extra edge I want.

So if not Golgari, what was next?

Jeskai Control seemed great to me. I hadn’t played much with it, but LSV and Sam Black were big advocates for the deck, both playing a fair amount with nearly identical deck lists to the one Eli Kassis used to take down the trophy at GP New Jersey. Azor’s Gateway was so powerful that it acted as a means of card selection, and essentially a form of pressure. If you couldn’t interact with it you were bound to get punished by a big Explosion, unless you could end the game quickly.

Throughout testing, we never found a deck we actively didn’t want to play against with Jeskai Gateway. White aggro decks were close matchups, and Golgari was extremely favorable. Mono-Blue Tempo was the only deck to be scared of, but we knew that deck would be a small percentage of the field and underperform. Basically, we didn’t expect to play against the deck so there was no reason to worry about it.

After playing a lot of the white aggro matchup and the Izzet Drakes matchup with Jeskai, we still didn’t have a solid idea of who was a favorite. I found in my earlier testing that I was often beating Jeskai with Izzet Drakes, and Paulo had the opposite experience in testing, finding himself a pretty heavy favorite. I think the problem was that our results were drawn from different sources. I played the matchup on Magic Online in Leagues, while Paulo was on more of a focused list playing in person. That said, we were also playing against totally different Jeskai decks. I never played against Azor’s Gateway, whereas Paulo played with it exclusively. By limiting ourselves to only a few days of testing in person, we were potentially unable to get accurate results here and potentially anywhere as there are so many different versions of a lot of these decks.

I was interested in Izzet Drakes at the beginning, but I also didn’t know how to build it. I heard opinions advocating for no Goblin Electromancer, and some people saying to play a small number. To me they always felt like the best card in the deck, as the 2-mana card filters gave you consistency and explosiveness. Radical Idea and Tormenting Voice allowed for additional card filtering, whereas Crash Through and Warlord’s Fury leave you stuck with what you get. That said, I liked a small number of 1-mana cantrips in addition to Opt because once you side out Shocks, it can sometimes be difficult to trigger the Arclight Phoenixes. Maybe if you have the full four Goblin Electromancer it’s not as important.

After we saw the results of the MOCS from the weekend before the Pro Tour and knew that white aggro was picking up some buzz, we didn’t want to play a deck that had a truly bad mono-white matchup. My experience from the white aggro side was that I was often just as scared of Izzet Drakes as they were of me. The matchup is incredibly close, and I think with a good plan Izzet Drakes could get even better. There’s the option to add white and pick up Deafening Clarion. I wanted to add Siege-Gang Commander to the sideboard in addition to the full four Fiery Cannonade. Siege-Gang Commander was impressive against Mono-White Aggro out of other decks we tried, and by turning the Izzet Drakes deck into a control deck that could impact the board every turn of the game I think we could turn the matchups from negative to positive.

After looking at Yuuya Watanabe’s Top 8 deck list, this is the next deck I’d try in the queues if I were preparing for GP Milwaukee. It’s his 60-card main deck, but I made a change in the sideboard. I moved away from Murmuring Mystic for a card that impacts the board immediately.

Izzet Drakes

Yuuya Watanabe

So after testing every other deck and actually liking most of them, how did I end up on White Aggro?

Quite simply, I was worried I wouldn’t build Izzet Drakes correctly, we didn’t have anything new for Jeskai, and Golgari seemed like a risky call.

Additionally, my teammates worked really hard perfecting our deck list, and came up with what we believed was the best version of White Aggro. A majority of our team was extremely high on the archetype and did incredibly good work on it. They battled on Magic Online, in person, and it was simply winning everywhere. Normally, I only like to play decks I’ve played a lot with and that I’m comfortable with. This time, I didn’t come to any strong conclusions, and since others were fairly confident and with good reason, I trusted the process.

White Aggro

As you can see, this is one card short of Luis Scott-Vargas’s 2nd-place list. I’m missing Settle the Wreckage, and yes, there’s a story behind that.

With about 20 or so minutes left before decks were due, we jokingly decided to high roll to see who would have to play a Settle the Wreckage, and be very loud when they cast it. Luis just said, “Nah, we’re not doing that. I’ll play it. I don’t care.” Obviously, we thought this was hilarious at the time, but it became even funnier after watching him win the semifinals with it in one of the most memorable moments in Pro Tour history.

The most innovative part of this deck list was the Ajani’s Pridemate package. The card did tons of work in mirrors, and helped against damage-based removal like Lava Coil and Shock, or even sweepers like Deafening Clarion and Golden Demise. Having this extra technology made us feel that a lot of the more popular matchups would improve. We thought White Aggro, Drakes, Jeskai, and then Golgari would be the most popular decks in the tournament, and maybe Golgari would jump Jeskai but certainly not the other two.

Pridemate was a big addition for the mirror and basically any deck playing Steam Vents, so despite the deck being on the radar, we thought we had improved the matchups enough to make the deck a great choice for the tournament.

What we didn’t see coming was the popularity of Golgari. Golgari was poorly positioned against Jeskai and Izzet Drakes, and with those decks being such good choices we thought it may scare people from playing the deck. All of this combined with a solid innovation in Ajani’s Pridemate sold us on the deck. Golgari could also be built in a way that was less oppressive to our strategy, though unlikely given how popular White Aggro had become online.

Pride of Conquerors, while played in other versions before, was different than the rest of the lists as well. Most Boros Aggro decks relied on Heroic Reinforcements as a way to punch through, and we moved to Pride of Conquerors as it allowed us to play fewer lands, and it was a more powerful card in mirrors as a way to win big combats. Pride is also simply more reliable—the other Boros Aggro decks cheat on red sources just a little for Heroic Reinforcements.

Heroic Reinforcements was one of the most impressive and explosive cards in testing. I thought it was a big reason to play the deck, and in retrospect that may be true. That said, if you’re trying to get an edge in the mirror specifically, I think the list Team CFB and Team UltraPRO played was excellent.

Despite a personally poor Standard record, my team did an incredible job putting this list together, and I think if the metagame broke like we thought it would, we would have had an overall better result. If anything, I have myself to blame for not noticing the trend, not believing how strong the deck was earlier, and not putting down what I was doing to get to work on it. While I was busy spinning my wheels playing the enemy against other teammates paralyzed by the puzzle that is this Standard format, I could have made the choice to work on the team deck and provide some value in building it rather than simply letting them work on it while trying to figure out something else.

Despite a poor Standard showing, I managed to 6-0 the Draft portion of the event to finish a solid 10-6 for the weekend—just enough to achieve Platinum for another quarter.

It may seem that White Aggro is stronger than it is. With six copies in the Top 8 you’d think that Standard has a new best deck. I believe it’s a poor choice going forward, however. The deck isn’t as resilient as you would hope, and with everyone gunning for it, I’d avoid the archetype at the moment. Decks like B/G Midrange and Mono-Red prey on White Aggro, and I’d expect to see those decks out in force this weekend.

Even with LSV’s 2nd-place finish our team had a pretty mediocre showing overall, and we’ve already begun conversations on how we can improve our process. This is what I love about my team, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. Their desire to be better and improve is always there despite their previous success, new opportunities, and priorities. We just crave the competition and challenge that the Pro Tour always has in store for us.

All that said, I have a bit of a vacation from Magic coming up. I have no Grand Prix scheduled until year’s end, and while I’ll be playing and learning the game still it’s nice to have some time off for what really matters: family and friends.

For now, I’m excited to see how this Standard format shakes out as it seems to be the beginning stages of one of the best Standard formats I’ve played. I hope you’re enjoying it as much as me.

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