Let’s start with how I actually got invited to the Pro Tour, via the controversial Sponsor’s Exemption invitation. To me, I always felt I deserved the slot. Not to sound overly entitled, as some are sure to say, but that’s how I felt. The invitation process as it now stands is far from set in stone and definitely a work in progress. WotC continues to take strides to make the game and the Pro Tour the best event it can be, which involves continually reworking the system to get things right.
Qualifying for the Pro Tour is very difficult right now, not to mention trying to stay on. When I first was on the train, there were 6 Pro Tours per year, and the ways to qualify ranged from needing to Top 32 the Pro Tour to having 20 points to Top 16’ing a Grand Prix—often, PTQs would be 2 slots even though they were quite a bit smaller than they are today. Also, if you’ve done well in the past, the top X players in the world and various regions would qualify on rating. Most of that has become much smaller today.
I took some unfortunate hits due to tiebreakers to keep me barely off the Pro Tour (and consequently cost me a plethora of Pro Tour points that would be invaluable today). Having the Top 2 locked up in GP San Jose, then missing the championship round because our tiebreakers plummeted in the last round via an absurd number of matches going exactly one way was painful. Following that up with a 26th place finish in the Pro Tour the following week, again having some tiebreaker issues in the final round, was a nice nail in the coffin. I figured I would either get a Sponsor’s Exemption invite, or my Magic-playing days were limited. I still wanted to earn my own seat, so I decided to download Magic Online finally (not really the easiest process thanks to owning a Mac) to play the Silver and regular PTQs one day…
Suffice it to say, Magic Online never alerted me to my Silver round starting—when I needed to 2-1 to make Top 8—during an intense match in the other PTQ, so I got dropped from that tournament. Luckily, I went on to make Top 8 in the 600-man open entry. As the Top 8 draft was getting ready to fire, the program does what it normally does (and the reason why I don’t really use it) and crashed for no reason. This resulted in my missing the entirety of pack one and working hard to scrape any semblance of a deck together. While reasonably tilted about this turn of events, I managed to win my first two rounds rather easily with an aggressive Selesnya deck, before losing an extremely tight game 3 in the finals to exactsies from an [card]Explosive Impact[/card].
All of Twitter seemed to be talking about how I was now a lock for a special invite, but honestly I was just heartbroken about another near miss. I’m prideful and I hate to lose, so it’s always tough to come so close. While I was happy that my friends were so convinced I was going to make it onto the Pro Tour, I knew that I would also have to deal with all the critics and people who don’t really understand how the game and business side work claiming that I didn’t “deserve” to be there and had to “earn” it.
Finishing 3rd in a team Grand Prix (a.k.a. 7th/8th/9th), 26th in a Pro Tour, and 2nd in a 600-man PTQ is earning it, at least in the opinion of myself, and the people who decide these things at WotC. If ratings still existed, I would be locked up there, too. There will be no apologizing from me for getting an invitation. (Sorry, not sorry.)
As for the PT preparation itself, many members of the team have already discussed it. I bought a home in Las Vegas last year, and it can house the entire squad pretty reasonably, so people made their way out here at their own convenience to get some gaming in. Luckily, for this particular event, we were able to add Gerry Thompson, a fantastic player and deck builder whom everyone already knows, and will hopefully remain a fixture on the team unless he gets some better offers.
Having Gerry around added some new dimensions that we were certainly missing, and his contributions were immense. We were also able to utilize the services of my room mate, future Hall-of-Famer William Huey Jensen, one of the best Magic players of all time. Having someone of this caliber to play countless games and offer his opinions on the format, as well as help solving the draft format, contributed greatly to the team’s overall success. I only wish there were some way to keep him on the team in the future.
In every Pro Tour, and basically every tournament for that matter, I look to play a more controlling deck. I like decisions and I like putting opponents to the test and using skill to as big an advantage as I can. In new formats, however, that can be extremely challenging. Control decks are designed to have answers to all the problems when they need them, but if you don’t know what the problems are going to be and build your deck incorrectly, you are set up to fail before the tournament even begins. Aggressive decks don’t have that problem. They supply the threats that other decks need to find a way to answer or die trying. Messing up by playing the wrong threats won’t punish you nearly the same way as it will from the other side, so there is far more room for error.
We didn’t have a control deck I really liked before leaving for Montreal on the Monday before the PT. Many members of the team really liked the UWR deck, but despite BenS saying it easily beat midrange because he won a set of games 7-3 before sideboarding and 3-1 post board, I didn’t believe that to be the case.
An aside on testing in general, and a pitfall I think a lot of players probably walk into (because they certainly do on this team): Grinding games just to get the numbers is a terrible idea. Playing a 20-game set to see if a deck wins 14-6 or 12-8 is completely irrelevant, because the sample size is far too small. You can easily play a matchup 20 times and go 16-4, then have someone else play another 20 and go 4-16.
To really get a good feel for your deck, you need to have a higher understanding of the game. You need to know what you’re actually looking for and get a feel for the matchup and how favorable it is, without taking the actual game scores too literally. If a deck is constantly put into a situation where it needs to draw exactly [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] to win (a card that, let’s say, there are 3 copies of in the deck), it doesn’t matter how many times they actually draw it. The number of times they “should” win the game by drawing the Hellkite is still going to be 3 out of however many cards are left in the deck. Learning how to actually play the matchups and win close games once you are playing a deck you really care about is important, but if you are 5% to win a game before drawing your card, what cards you actually draw are irrelevant for testing.
Back to Montreal—a lot of the team is starting to see the holes of the UWR deck, just as Gerry decides to hop on board. I’m pretty locked in on playing an aggressive deck, leaning towards mono-red, until I decided to make some changes to the Saito Naya deck by removing the slower cards and adding my current format favorites in [card]Hellrider[/card] and Thundermaws. I would later find that, according to Conley, other people had been discussing a very similar deck on Twitter and had been putting up some solid results. I liked the fact that I could play Thundermaws and Smiters and [card]Domri Rade[/card]s over the 1-drops that were completely unplayable after turn 2 in the “mono-red” deck. I also thought that [card]Gyre Sage[/card] was one of the more powerful cards you could have on the play, but pretty worthless on the draw, and needed more testing.
Kibler was also testing a Naya deck, but the need to play a bunch of one-drops that were terrible after turn 1, playing no two-drops so that your deck did very little and was super slow without a one-drop (or worse if they killed your Elf), and the fact that you had to play basic Forests with Arbor Elves in a deck with 4 [card]Boros Reckoner[/card]s had me off the deck pretty quickly. I really liked where my deck was at, and after punishing Jund and UWR repeatedly, started working on finalizing the sideboard.
I wanted to come up with a basic sideboarding guide mainly so that Brock Parker, who would be playing the same 75, would have a general guideline. Against control decks—those without many creatures and access to [card]Supreme Verdict[/card]s—I would be taking out the Gyre Sages and [card]Mizzium Mortars[/card] for Triumphs, Garruks, Aurelia, and Charms. Against aggro decks trying to race, I would take out the Hellriders and Thundermaws for Garruks, [card]Thragtusk[/card], [card]Pacifism[/card]s, and Pilgrims. [card]Rest in Peace[/card] would come in as needed. Things would vary dramatically on how I would sideboard throughout the tournament based on specifics in a matchup, and some number of Gyre Sages would come out in many matchups when I was on the draw, but that is the basic outline. Here’s the 75 I played:
[deck]3 Clifftop Retreat
4 Rootbound Crag
4 Sacred Foundry
4 Stomping Ground
3 Sunpetal Grove
4 Temple Garden
4 Boros Reckoner
4 Burning-Tree Emissary
4 Flinthoof Boar
4 Gyre Sage
4 Loxodon Smiter
3 Thundermaw Hellkite
4 Mizzium Mortars
4 Domri Rade
1 Aurelia, the Warleader
3 Boros Charm
2 Garruk Relentless
2 Nearheath Pilgrim
2 Rest in Peace
2 Triumph of Ferocity[/deck]
As far as draft strategy, Ben Stark covered most of it. While I think Boros and Orzhov may be the two strongest archtypes in a vacuum, I find both red and white cards to be overdrafted and avoid them. I really like blue. I don’t think it’s the most powerful color, but if people aren’t drafting well or aren’t drafting it at all, it’s nearly impossible to beat. My blue decks in the CFB preparation drafts I believe went 3-0, 3-0, 3-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-0, 2-1, 3-0; and in the PT I again went 5-1.
For the first draft, I sat down with Alex West on my left and Jackie Lee on my right. When Jackie burst onto the scene last year, it seemed she did so by forcing RG in every draft and playing RG beatdown in every Contructed format. Couple that with her Boros guild pin, and I was looking to avoid red like the plague and force Dimir from the start. Most inexperienced players seem to think Dimir is terrible and should be completely avoided, when it is actually quite good and all five guilds are very draftable.
When I opened [card]Nightveil Specter[/card] pack 1, I expected good things to come. I took some early removal, a Spy, and got a 4th pick [card]Dimir Charm[/card] that meant everything was going to plan. In pack 3, I actually took a [card]Killing Glare[/card] 2nd pick, hoping to wheel a 2nd [card]Dimir Charm[/card] as the only drafter in the pod and was successful. Our first pod was only 7 people, so there was no risk of going 0-3, but I had a pretty nice deck to work with:
[deck]2 Cloudfin Raptor
1 Incursion Specialist
1 Deathcult Rogue
2 Sage’s Row Denizen
1 Nightveil Specter
1 Balustrade Spy
1 Millenial Gargoyle
1 Keymaster Rogue
1 Syndicate Enforcer
2 Leyline Phantom
3 Death’s Approach
2 Dimir Charm
1 Shadow Slice
1 Stolen Identity
2 Killing Glare
I was lucky enough to get the round 1 bye. In round 2, I played against a Gruul deck in game 1 (my first actual game of the tournament), and after leading with Raptors turns 1 and 2, I hadn’t actually played a single creature to evolve them until a turn 8 Leyline Phantom, and he immediately cast [card]Homing Lightning[/card] to get rid of both of them. Luckily, my removal was keeping him in check and the Phantom took him to 15 to 10 to 5.
He had a tapped [card]Armored Transport[/card] and an untapped [card]Legion Loyalist[/card] when I cast [card]Death’s Approach[/card] on it with [card]Dimir Charm[/card] and [card]Stolen Identity[/card] in my hand. He still had 3 cards in hand and went to pick it up to put it in the ‘yard before putting it back down and thinking. He cast [card]Pit Fight[/card] targeting his 1/1 and my 5/5 and I wasn’t sure what to do. I could Dimir Charm in response to play around Homing Lightning and potentially Arrows. Or I could let it resolve and pass the turn. It was a weird spot and eventually I decided to let it happen and declare my attack. At this point he pointed out that my Leyline Phantom was supposed to return to my hand. I told him the card clearly says whenever it deals combat damage but he was insistent. The judge didn’t have too many problems making a quick ruling here, and 5 damage later I was up a game. I managed to win the match by Dimir Charming myself to find a 6th land 3 cards down and cast Stolen Identity on his 7/6 [card]Ruination Wurm[/card], encoding Identity onto my Rogue for the full blowout.
Round 3 was a pretty quick 2-0 win featuring Specter stealing a Plains first turn from my Orzhov opponent then going to town, eventually removing his [card]Merciless Eviction[/card] and giving me extra info of what to play around in game 2.
Moving onto Constructed, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of my deck, but managed to beat a Bant midrange deck, a UWR deck, and a Jund deck before losing an epic feature match to Jund.
I was up a game and facing down a Liliana at 7 loyalty after drawing like 9 lands in 11 draw phases, while he did the same. He drew Huntmaster, going up to 10, with me down to 6. I finally ripped a spell—the only one that really did anything—Aurelia, which immediately took Lili down to 1 loyalty. He drew nothing, flipped Huntmaster and ticked up Lili, taking me to 6. I put my best chance of winning, after drawing a meaningless creature for my turn, at attacking him down to 4 with Aurelia and passing with Lili at 2, needing him to brick for one more turn, rather than killing Lili but giving him 2 draw phases. He happened to hit a Nighthawk, leaving me with a small handful of outs to win the epic game, but I drew another land. I got mana-screwed game 3 for my first loss of the tournament.
I got to close the day by having a draw so good against Owen and his Jund deck in game 3 that I couldn’t even remember exactly what had happened. It was completely unbeatable, and the game ended in 2 minutes to leave me at 7-1 and in pod 1 for Day Two with Ben Stark and Melissa DeTora.
Make sure to read part 2, where I’ll break down Day Two and the Top 8!