After making Day 2 and qualifying for the next Pro Tour, despite its ups and downs, Eli had a great experience at the first paper Pro Tour since the pandemic.
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Getting the Team Together
I knew for PT Phyrexia I wanted to return to Team Handshake. Handshake is a very unique team. It’s an unlikely alliance of different experience levels, ages, and nationalities. Some members like Jonny Guttman and Julien Wellman are relatively new to Magic and fell in love with the game through Arena. Others like Javier Dominguez and Paulo Vitor are literal World Champions and have been world-class players for years. In the middle, you have players like me, grinders who had some success and are looking to take the next step to be one of the greats.
Constructed Prep/Deck Selection
Preparation for this event was very messy, but I think we emerged relatively unscathed. Team Handshake cut its teeth during the era of Arena PTs. We were playing formats like Standard, Historic and Alchemy where there was the potential to “break it.” A format as open and diverse as Pioneer was a bit of an enigma to the team. The edges were to be gained by knowing your deck inside and out and reinventing the wheel was the wrong approach. After much debate, the team settled into a few different camps.
The largest contingent were the Lotus Field players, led by the combo specialist Tristan Wylde-Larue. We felt that this was simply the best deck in the format, but piloting it was not for the faint of heart. I tried to give Lotus a shot, but the deck was simply too far out of my comfort zone. I had a bit of a crisis when Tristan would continually and nonchalantly wipe the floor with me as I played Mono-White against him. This was supposed to be my good matchup and I was barely going 45 percent? I started to realize that the rest of the format had caught up to the consistency of Mono-White without sacrificing as much power as you do when you play a deck with one-mana 2/1s. I began my search for a new deck to play.
The next deck I tried was Auras. The players working on this deck were a bit more democratic, with Julian “Jewels” Welman, Jonny “Ginky” Guttman and Simon “Sleepy” Nielsen doing the lion’s share of the tuning. The thought process behind this deck choice was that Rakdos was going to drop off in popularity and we would not get punished for playing a deck soft to Fatal Push. I was seriously considering playing this deck. I had played Boggles/Auras strategies before and I really like the card Illuminator Virtuoso. However, I started to believe that Rakdos Midrange would continue to be a popular option and once again started looking for a new deck.
That led me to the next group on our team, the Greasefang players. This group was led by none other than the captain of Team Handshake himself, David “Tangrams’” Inglis. There were a few factors that made Greasefang very appealing for this tournament. First, it was one of the few unsolved archetypes of the Pioneer format. Decks like Green Devotion, Rakdos Midrange and Mono-White Humans had basically been optimized at this point. Spending my time on these decks would mean getting a good sideboard for the weekend or adding a few techy cards to the main deck. Meanwhile, Tangrams managed to overhaul the entire Greasefang deck into something much more appealing to me. Gone were mopey cards like Stitcher’s Supplier and Satyr Wayfinder and in were Vessel of Nascency and Witherbloom Command. Vessel let you more frequently find Greasefang and Command let you interact with the board while you were milling yourself.
Second, we began seeing a metagame that was very favorable for Greasefang. There are two kinds of things that punish Greasefang: graveyard hate and cheap removal that kills the namesake card. In particular, Unlicensed Hearse in sideboard and the Arclight Phoenix deck are the hardest things to beat. Rakdos Midrange was pushing Arclight Phoenix out of the metagame and then it was cutting its Hearses, Go Blanks and Rending Volleys.
Lastly, I liked that Greasefang was relatively simple. No deck in Magic is easy, but Greasefang would require less preparation than playing something like Lotus Combo or Izzet Phoenix. I wanted to make sure I did a ton of drafts and locking in Greasefang early would give me the time I needed to get them done.
The Thursday Before the PT Jitters
Work was very hectic recently and I wanted to miss as little time as possible. This meant booking a flight that left Los Angeles at 10:30 pm and got me to Philadelphia around 9am. This was probably the worst decision I made regarding the event because it really messed up my sleep schedule for the next few days. My plan was to take a nap when I landed, but Wednesday afternoon, Paul Cheon emailed me asking me to do a deck tech and it was just too juicy, so I just couldn’t refuse. I think I managed to do the deck tech without making it obvious that I hadn’t slept.
When I made my way to the team testing house, I stumbled into the Limited meeting before even putting my suitcase down. I came midway into us finalizing our pick order for the blue cards. Most players really didn’t want to draft this color, but our team felt like you could exploit this. If players had a preference for non blue-decks, then blue would usually be open, and if it was open then you should know how to draft it. I didn’t feel the same way as my team on this one. In my practice, blue was just a step behind the other color pairs. I just wasn’t interested in drafting it even if it was open. In the Limited prep I had done on my own, I was enjoying drafting toxic aggro decks, based off of Branchblight Stalker. I thought my team was a little too low on this toxic two-drop, but I was too tired to argue, and headed off to bed.
The Friday First Draft
One of the nice parts of having an event in Philadelphia is that you get access to the Reading Terminal Market. Everything feels fresh and authentic and you get to avoid convention center food. I ended up with mixed results from the Market however. Starting my Friday off with a whitefish salad sandwich ended up not being the smartest choice. I love a good Jewish deli, but I should have gone for something a little more simple in the morning, maybe a croissant or something with eggs.
With my stomach upset because of early morning fish, I’m off to the event and what do you know? I’m in the featured pod. It’s still a strange feeling to me that I’m contributing to the star power of the feature match area. Half of the PTs I’ve ever played have been on Arena, so I’m still not used to being a “name player.” I start my draft off in the best way possible with a Migloz, Maze Crusher. Many members on our team were big believers in the Limited data aggregator 17lands and I knew Migloz was the card with the highest win rate on this website. In fact, Nathan Steuer, World Champion, said to me on the cab ride to the site, “Gee wiz Eli, I sure hope I open Migloz and I’ll just force Gruul Oil.”
RG Aggro by Eli Loveman
At first, I think I managed to draft a solid Gruul Oil deck. But after a talk with some teammates, I realized what I have is a flawed version of the archetype. I had lots of synergy cards, but not enough oil to fuel my engines. For example, I highly valued Urubrask’s Anointer during the draft, but my teammates tell me that card is worse than it looks. I ended up a disappointing 1-2 in the first draft.
Feeling a little disappointed that I was unable to convert my bomb rare into a 2-1, I headed back to the Market to rectify my earlier mistake with the fish sandwich. I brought teammate Simon Nielsen with me and we shared stories about our awkward draft decks. I convinced him that some fresh baked cookies would ease our sorrows. I sat down for Round 4 across from my opponent Yimin Zhi. He’s a world-class player from another big testing team, Sewer Rats. We exchange deck lists and I am confronted with a five-color monstrosity.
Pioneer Bring to Omnath by Yimin Zhi
My eyes are immediately drawn to the two Rest in Peace and the Rending Volley in the sideboard even though I should be focusing on the main deck cards right now. Greasefang often lives and dies by the opponent’s sideboard and I’m pretty happy to see that it’s somewhat light.
We get into Game 1 and I have a pretty slow draw. Zhi manages to cast a Bring to Light and chooses to go for Escape to the Wilds to gas up rather than go for the killing blow with a Slaughter Games naming Greasefang. He ends up getting punished with five bricks off the top, but I’m not able to close it out.
In Game 2 he has a Rest in Peace, but I’m at the ready with a Witherbloom Command to answer it and I combo off with the Parhelion II shortly afterward.
In Game 3 I slam a Liliana on three and I make the decision to -2 remove a Fable token rather than +1 to discard my Parhellion. Zhi drops a Pithing Needle and names my Liliana to punish me for my decision. The game progresses a few turns and Zhi starts to tighten his grip around the game. I’m kicking myself for not just +1’ing my Liliana right away. When all hope is lost, I top-deck Witherbloom Command, free my Liliana from the Pithing Needle, discard my giant Vehicle and combo off.
The innovation of Witherbloom Command just makes the deck so much more resilient. It doesn’t mill you as many cards as Satyr Wayfinder, but it’s so much more flexible. It’s moments like these that make me thankful for my teammates..
The rest of the rounds on Friday play out in fairly straight forward fashion. I dispatch some Rakdos players who have no sideboard cards for me and I take my third loss to an Angels player. Angels is a pretty poor matchup because they quickly build a board stronger than what your combo does.
At the suggestion of my teammate and Australian Regional Champion Anthony Lee, we ate a quick meal at a Vietnamese restaurant. I ordered pho to get some fluids in my body. We made our way back to the Airbnb and I fell asleep watching my teammates on the Twitch VOD of coverage.
Saturday Morning and Draft 2
For Saturday morning, I returned to the Jewish deli in Reading Terminal Market. Today, I went with some nova lox on an everything bagel. A much better choice than the whitefish salad. A bagel with nova lox is one of my favorite breakfasts. I can’t easily get it in my neighborhood of Los Angeles so I take every chance I get to have a nice bagel.
Moving into the second draft, I’m excited to actually draft a good deck this time. Unfortunately, it’s not meant to be and I draft a flawed deck once again.
GW Toxic by Eli Loveman
Synergy is so important in this draft format. You don’t want to draft a deck that just has a curve and removal, you want to draft a deck that executes a game plan. It’s almost like a weird Cube. This draft deck is the perfect example of what not to do. My first pick is a Kemba, Kha Enduring. This Cat is a super powerful card in a RW Equipment deck and a bear with upside in any other deck. In pack 2 I open a Thrun, Breaker of Silence and from there I just force GW despite it not being open. My deck has some small synergies, but really I have half a toxic deck and half an Equipment deck. I end up with another disappointing 1-2 record in the draft.
The Home Stretch
I’m not happy with my Limited game, but I’m not worried because Greasefang was so good to me yesterday. I have faith in the Fang. I start off by splitting a pair of matches, losing to Azorius Control and defeating yet another Rakdos player skimping on graveyard hate. At this point I start to visualize what kind of result I’m hoping for in the last three rounds. I’m currently sitting at 7-6. A record of 9-7 will get me a qualification to the next PT in Minneapolis. I’m trying not to put a lot of pressure on myself to reach this threshold. I’m telling myself that even if I don’t “re-que” today, I can play the PTQ tomorrow and I have a decent shot to do well at Regionals as well. Despite trying to rationalize it away, I can’t help but feel the pressure set it.
Round 14 pairings go up and I’m playing against a Lotus Field combo. This matchup is solid, my deck can outrace theirs, I have Thoughtseize and I have the ultimate haymaker, Damping Sphere, in my sideboard. Starting off with Game 1, I have the perfect one-two punch of Raffine’s Informant into Greasefanging my Parhelion II. Unfortunately, I lost the die roll and my opponent had a turn four kill thanks to an Arboreal Grazer. In Game 2, my opponent mulligans low and I have Liliana on turn three to punish them. Game 3 I keep a six-card hand with a Thoughtseize and an Informant, but no Greasefang. I start to feel good when he goes down to five, but the joy is wiped away when I cast my Thoughtseize and he reveals Vizier, Lotus, Stage, Temple of Mystery and Botanical Sanctum. I fail to produce any pressure, and he top-decks a big spell to spend with his two Lotus Fields.
Going into the final round I’m in a win-and-in situation. Victory means going straight to PT Minneapolis, defeat means waking up early tomorrow for a PTQ to try and earn my shot there. Standings go up for the final round and I see that I will most likely play against none other than Luis Scott-Vargas. Not only is LSV one of the best to ever do it, I know he’s playing the Izzet Creativity deck. His deck has lots of cheap removal to deal with a certain Rat Pilot and he has a combo of his own that will one-shot me. Feeling pessimistic about the matchup, I make my way to the table.
Game 1 goes as expected. He removes my Greasefang and works his way up to the five mana and two tokens necessary to Creativity into Xenagos plus Worldspine Wurm and attacks for 30. At one point in this game, he discarded a Fire Prophecy to one of his looting effects and I verbally state, “Wow, I’m screwed.” If he’s discarding a cheap disruptive spell like that, there was basically no way I was going to be able to win the combo.
We go into Game 2 and I resolve a Liliana of the Veil. It kills a Fable token the turn it comes down and then slowly constricts Luis’s resources until I’m able to win with Greasefang plus Chariot. In testing we thought that Creativity was actually an underdog against a deck like Rakdos Midrange. Assembling two tokens and five mana is actually not as easy as it looks against discard spells. My sideboard plan of adding Duress and Liliana transforms me into a bad version of Rakdos Midrange, but it got the job done.
Game 3 I cast a discard spell and see a hand of two Rending Volley, two Make Disappear and a Pathway. I start to panic about all the answers he has in his hand, but then I look at my hand and I realize that I can work my way through them. If I have three turns where he draws cards that aren’t removal or Creativity, I can beat his hand. I go for a Greasefang and It gets countered, I go for a Traverse for Greasefang and it gets Rending Volleyed. All part of the plan. I’m starting to get to a pretty low life total due to a Goblin Shaman token, but Luis just isn’t drawing gas, so I have a window to get back into the game.
At this point, I have a key decision. Luis has one unknown card in his hand and his deck list has two more soft counters. I have five lands. My hand is Scrapwork Mutt, Esika’s Chariot and a land. I can either play the land to play around Make Disappear and Spell Pierce or I can hold the land to discard to the Mutt. I decide to not play around a soft counter and he has the one-of Spell Pierce as his last card! Luis says “Well, that was a big swing.” I’m inclined to agree, but I try to keep up my poker face.
The Fable token attacks me lower and lower for the next few turns as neither of us draw gas. Then I draw the perfect card, Can’t Stay Away. This will let me try to go for the combo twice thanks to flashback. I Greasefang into a Chariot and it works. It’s been something like eight or10 turns and Luis still hasn’t found an answer. The next turn I draw another perfect card, Parhelion II, I flashback the Can’t Stay Away on an Informant so I can discard it, and I end the tournament by attacking with Angel tokens, just like we drew it up. Even though I’ve played quite a few Pro Tours at this point, it never stops feeling good to qualify for them. Even if you have to do it by your opponent drawing 10 lands in a row.
The Rest of the Team and Top 8
I’m full of energy from my win, but I want to be a good teammate as well. I had seen that we had a lot of players at the top tables over the weekend, and I was excited to see if they had clinched their win and ins for top eight. Javier, Tristan, Nathan and Captain David were all on deep runs all weekend. Unfortunately, only Nathan was able to get there in the end. Watching Nathan over the course of these last few years has been really something. He’s really put his all into Magic and he deserves all of the accolades he has collected recently. It might seem weird to say for someone as young as he is, but he’s come a long way. As happy as I am for Nathan, I am equally sad for David. It stings to see him come in 9th. He does so much work making our ragtag group of Magic players into a real team and I really wanted to see his hard work pay off.
One of the reasons that I’m so glad for requalifying was that I got to spend my Sunday enjoying the Top 8 coverage and the MagicCon. I did some shopping, saw some cosplayers and watched the preview cards live. I made my way back up to the PT hall only to find some fellow Handshake members in an intense team draft against some CFB members. I’m thankful to be on a team of such machines, because after 16 long rounds, I didn’t have the stomach for more games. While watching some of the Limited, I start to hear clapping in the hallway. I think to myself, only Reid winning could get people to clap this loud. Sure enough, I can see him getting interviewed by Cedric from across the hall. Reid is the perfect champion for the return to paper play. I’ve only had a handful of interactions with him so far, but every story you hear about him being the nicest man in Magic is true.
While Jonny, Tristan and I are eating lunch, we spot Reid from across the market. I have a few cards signed by him already, but I can’t imagine a better way to cap off the weekend than with a nice autograph.
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