1) Most people build 60 + 15, Patrick Chapin builds 75.
This is something I already knew about my good friend and teammate, the Innovator himself. But wow, when it’s on full display and you’re the one he’s bouncing the ideas off, it’s just so impressive to watch. Patrick thinks explicitly about which 60 cards he wants against each deck, while implicitly weighting the importance of each competing choice according to the metagame he predicts.
For our Abzan list, this meant making sure we had enough cards in the sideboard such that we could board out all the bad cards against red decks. Fleecemane Lion being worse than Arashin Cleric hurts that matchup some, but it still lets you land on a very favorable 60 after sideboard, and it helps you against Dig Through Time decks at the same time. These aren’t accidents, this is Patrick holding dozens of pieces of the puzzle in his mind and endlessly tweaking until it all fits together into a final 75.
If there’s ever one last giant tournament to settle everything or a tournament to win a billion dollars, I’d rather prepare with Paul Rietzl and Patrick Chapin for that tournament than prepare with the next 5 people on my list of great deckbuilders. Much of my success in the 2014-2015 season was piggybacking onto their efforts and/or figuring out how to grease the machine with my own contributions.
2) For booster draft preparation, one expert opinion is valuable, two independent expert opinions is really valuable, and what Team Ultra PRO puts together for each PT is almost unfair.
Team Ultra PRO doesn’t and can’t put together the number and caliber of “PT house” drafts that The Pantheon does. I remember drafting with The Pantheon in Hawaii and having a miserable draft record while watching Jelger and Owen put together good deck after good deck. That’s a great way to prepare and there’s basically nothing like it. Team Ultra PRO takes a different approach. We had Sam Black, Justin Cohen, Matt Severa, and others practicing in Madison, Ben Stark practicing in Florida, Rich Hoaen practicing in Toronto, etc. The opinions everyone on the team is developing will ultimately overlap in some places, conflict in other places, and fill in gaps if, say, someone never got a chance to play with a certain rare but a teammate a few thousand miles away did.
A few meetings online and in person before the event, and we were able to synthesize this information into a collective body of knowledge we could all draw on. How that information was discussed and shared is part of the Team Ultra PRO “secret sauce” so I should probably leave it at that.
3) For me, home field advantage means PST time zone.
A few jokes have been cracked about how both my PT Top 8s were core set PTs: I’m a core set specialist, what will I do now that core sets are being retired? The similarity I can actually feel between PT Magic 2015 in Portland and PT Origins in Vancouver is that they are short flights from my home in San Francisco and they are in the same time zone, meaning I get more sleep, feel more rested, and make decisions during the time of day I’m used to making decisions. Nobody really knows all the factors that cause “home field advantage” or performance in general at this event or that event, but I can feel a difference based on where a tournament is located and I’m not exactly thrilled about the 2015-2016 PT schedule.
4) A few things I’ll never forget: the professionalism of Shaun McLaren, Yuki Matsumoto, Rich Hoaen, and others.
Going into round 13, I was 9-3 and would have to win 3 or 4 straight matches in order to make Top 8. My opponent Shaun McLaren was in the same boat. We knew a loss meant kissing the Top 8 dream goodbye. Shaun was playing Abzan Rally, a fairly nightmarish matchup for my Abzan Control deck. In game 1, I drew an opening hand with Fleecemane Lion in it (not a maindeck card), called the judge, was forced to take a mulligan (and fix my deck), and got smashed in a game I don’t think my deck could win more than 5% of the time.
I try not to let The Fear of a bad matchup dictate which deck I play or how I build my 75. It’s okay to have bad matchups in the field if you expect those decks to be fringe and/or otherwise poorly positioned (making them fringe in the winners metagame you hope to occupy). The Rally decks were the boogeyman of this tournament for Abzan Control. I didn’t have Hallowed Moonlight or Anafenza or anything, I just had a couple crossed fingers that the pairings or games would break my way.
In games 2 and 3 of my match, I gave Shaun a good ol’ mana screw + flood one-two punch. Game 2 he discarded to hand size for several turns, game 3 he drew enough lands to hard cast an Eldrazi. It takes a lot of luck to make Top 8, and much of mine arrived in this match.
After having those draws, in that spot, Shaun shook my hand, smiled, and wished me good luck.
The next round was round 14, and I got paired against Yuki Matsumoto playing Sidisi Whip. Again, you’ve got to understand that a loss here is as big as they get at X-3 in the last couple rounds of the Pro Tour.
After the match slip was signed, the slip that basically read, “Matsumoto is out,” he smiled, pumped his fist, and told me “Make Top 8!”
When I walked away from the match I was met by David Williams, who upon learning I had won, channeled his inner Denzel with, “My _____!!!” which was also much appreciated.
Finally, in round 15, playing against teammate Rich Hoaen, and ultimately knocking him out, it was “Good luck in the Top 8” from Rich. He got me back by ordering 12 oz. of Wagyu steak at dinner, but he was very respectful otherwise.
None of these guys owed me anything and each had earned the right to sulk, to storm off, to say nothing. Each of them instead showed class and respect, and acted toward me in a way I always try to act toward those who get the better of me.
5) Drafting decks that look “like they’re supposed to look” gives you a higher floor.
In neither of my Pro Tour Top 8 runs did I 3-0 a single draft. In fact, I went 2-1, 2-1, 2-1, and 2-1 in the 4 drafts spread over PT M15 and PT Origins. The thing I remember most about my draft decks at PT Origins, pictured here and here, is that I made several picks in each draft with an eye toward doing what the archetype likes to do. My UG deck has 3 Disperse and 3 Might of the Masses. My RG deck has a Rogue’s Passage that I took early and is set up to play and take advantage of exactly 1 copy of Nissa’s Pilgrimage, which is the number I like to have. It’s really hard to track all the combinations of cards and possible game states while you’re drafting, but if you can use your preparation to get a sense of how the archetype wants its games to play out, you can visualize that type of game and draft the appropriate pieces. When things break very well you go 3-0, when things break average you go 2-1. That’s the idea at least.
6) Setting a goal does a little, writing it down does a little more, and sharing it does even more.
I had no idea how I would make it, and it didn’t look like I would toward the end, but I never lost the confidence of thinking I deserved to make it. Lots of people have gotten lucky and then praised their confidence, but I could see my focus was better, my decisions were better, my preparation was better. The goal and the confidence weren’t everything but I do think they helped me with that focus issue, which lead to blunders and held me back over many prior seasons.
The part of my blog about no longer complaining about having a full time job and stopping with comparisons that were conditional on “well, if I did Magic full-time, maybe…” was a pledge I pretty successfully stuck to. When I got no extra points at a PT I wasn’t able to show up early to, I didn’t complain and start in with “what ifs,” I just tried to make plans to get to the next one a little earlier and use my time there a little more efficiently. I had discussions with Paul about how specifically to become more efficient with a limited budget of time (and everyone has a limited budget, just different limits). Don’t complain—plan.
7) Find out what you really need to know first, confirm what you already know second.
I thought Patrick and I saved good chunks of time in playtesting by going straight to matches we cared about or straight to the sideboard configuration we were curious about with and against various decks, and just always focusing on “what do we need to learn and what steps can we take to learn it?” I actually didn’t play many games of Abzan vs. Rally The Ancestors because I knew that the deck wasn’t amazing against Red, Red would be good, and the deck was likely to be a fringe player just like Ascendancy was in Hawaii. That’s just not time well spent since I knew how the deck operated having played it against other decks.
When you run out of time, as you eventually will, better to have the leverage of combining recent experience in unknown scenarios with experience in the known scenarios rather than what I’ve seen some people do, playing 400 games of what they already know just to hunt down that final 2% edge.
8) Play/Draw sideboarding splits continue to matter.
Origins Limited ended up being really tempo-based in most matches, meaning one or both players do not have time to cast all their spells in many games. I find that in any format, especially a tempo-based one, players do not make enough adjustments based on whether they will be on the play or the draw. Bad 2-drops might be better than average 3-drops on the draw, and vise versa on the play. Against Marcio Carvahlo on Day 2 I sideboarded in a Magmatic Insight on the draw as a flood mitigator because I felt like I would be looking to trade as many cards as I could 1-for-1 or even 1-for-2 to stay alive against his red/black deck, and I knew that flooding out was a risk. The cards I took out were things like Titanic Growth that are riskier when blocking than when attacking, especially against black once they get to 5 mana, and further increase the risk of flood when trading.
In Constructed, the Abzan deck can sideboard out a land against a slow deck on the draw more often than not, and the space helps you fit an extra Hero’s Downfall or something similar, reducing the likelihood a Jace or Nissa catches you empty handed. Elspeth is sometimes worse than End Hostilities against a deck with Thunderbreak Regent on the draw, while the Elspeth could be better against the same deck on the play (you gain virtual life on the play, making a slower card better and you are more often on the front foot, making the less-defensive modes of Elspeth more valuable).
9) Ben Rubin still has his fastball, and should be on your next PT fantasy team.
Everyone said I was a sure loser in the “side drafts” I did on Sunday after getting knocked out of the PT. There is a long tradition of people not bringing their A-game after that emotional roller coaster ends and you hop into the tea cup ride. Boy were those people right! Dave and Paul deserved better than what I gave them. Oh well. My point was that Ben Rubin has always been great and is in the Dave Humphries Memorial Underrated and Especially So in an Untimed Event Hall of Fame in addition to being in the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame. I know you think your crossover is special, but you don’t want any piece of these guys at the local YMCA.
10) Justin Cohen is the perfect Magic Pro Tour Rookie of the Year.
In one season I went from not having any idea who Justin Cohen was to hoping I get to team with him for all of 2015-2016. His roommate Sam Black is great too, but I knew that. Justin is self-aware, creative, brilliant, and committed to working and improving.
Justin and I have a running joke about the Pro Player Club Levels. See, you’ve heard of Silver, Gold, and Platinum, and maybe Bronze if you follow LSV and Cheon. But there’s actually Bronze-Leech, Silver-Leech, and Gold-Leech levels as well. When your best friend (Paul in my case, Sam in Justin’s) is Platinum, well, they can always request a Pro Tour hotel room with 2 beds. Paul and Sam are too nice to say no to us and we go ahead and take advantage of that. When Paul got his 43rd Pro Point with one PT left to play, I officially locked up Silver-Leech. Justin had already locked up Gold-Leech at the time. But trust me Justin, a Gold-Leech can eventually become Platinum. There is hope. I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to pay it forward to a new leech or pull up that drawbridge behind me like my white immigrant American ancestors would have wanted.
Thanks to everyone who supported me, wished me good luck, or congratulated me over the last couple weeks. Special shout out to my fiancée Carly, my staff peeps Toby Elliott, Scott Larabee, Mike Rosenberg, and Marc Calderaro, and all of Team Ultra PRO including Ben Rasmussen who was killing it with scouting and logistics from back in the States, Craig Wescoe who posted immediately after missing Day 2 that he would do anything he could to help the team scout or test for the Top 8, and Dave Williams who responded on Sunday to a text of, “Come to this day party, it’s me and 10 girls right now” with “Can’t, my friend made Top 8.”
All that, just so they could all watch Swedish Kibler take my lunch money in less time than it took Darwin and Rob to shuffle for game 1.