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A Tale of Two PTs

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Two weeks ago, I was inducted into the Pro Tour Hall of Fame. It was the highest high and the greatest achievement anyone can receive in the game of Magic. And the game of Magic is a huge part of my life.

I’ve been playing this game for 21 years. I’ve met so many amazing people because of this game. I’ve learned a great deal about myself. At times it has been my primary source of income, my primary source for a strong competitive outlet, and has always been my primary source of friendships.

I’ve been interviewed many times now about what the Hall of Fame means to me. In short, it’s everything. And there are no words that can accurately describe that.

I also lost the Player of the Year title. I didn’t realize how much it meant to me until the end of Day 2. So much of me was trying to marginalize it based on how unlikely it was going into the last event. I had a 3-point lead on the field and was a decent favorite vs. any other individual player, but the field as a whole had a big edge on me. I’m still coming to terms with the fact that I managed to put up more than 70 Pro Points this season, enough to hit Gold twice with an extra point to spare, and I don’t get to represent my country in the World Magic Cup. I’ve never been able to represent the U.S. in competition.

Maybe next year.

Testing with TeamCFB

As for the tournament itself, we were back to our old preparation routine. The team spent a week at my house in Vegas preparing for the tournament before all but Neal Oliver and Paul Cheon left for GP Dallas. At first I was frustrated to know that so many people were going to go to a GP right before a PT, many of whom had no real incentive to do so, but it turns out the work done the week prior far exceeded my expectations. We got to try out many new strategies to get a feel for how the new cards played. Demonic Pact seemed great but never worked out. Jace was easily the best card in the set. And then there was Hangarback Walker, which is just absurd.

I didn’t pay much attention to the UR Ensoul deck the day it was built—I didn’t believe it had any real potential. I watched a few games where the actual card Ensoul Artifact was cast and realized just how unbeatable this was against a field that wasn’t prepared. So many of the other cards in the deck are strong as well. Hangarback is great across the field. Shrapnel Blast represents an enormous chunk of damage out of nowhere. Ghostfire Blade is beyond phenomenal in a deck that can actually support it.

The rest of the deck was pretty mediocre, but the synergies kept impressing me. It had explosive draws with either Ensoul Artifact or Springleaf Drum, or it could use Ghostfire Blades to sneak in damage before Shrapnel Blast or Whirler Rogue cleaned up. The deck was great. The weekend was spent with Paul and Neal jamming countless games against each other, finding some of the weaknesses of the deck before trying to play all the worst matchups they could come up with for the deck (pre- and post-sideboard).

The crazy thing was, even after building the most hateful (realistic) sideboards we could, the Thopter deck was still doing quite well. It was a rare 10-game set where the artifact deck would go worse than 5-5, with plenty of 8-2s and 9-1s in its favor. At some point, even the biggest skeptics on the team had to admit that it can’t just be positive variance or drawing too many Ensoul Artifacts since we had played literally thousands of games.

The biggest addition I made to the deck was going to 4 Stubborn Denials. I think this card is absurd in the metagame, is an incredible combo with Ensoul Artifact, and does so much work in every matchup other than Green Devotion (which is already a great matchup for Artifacts). We played more sideboard games than usual and had a pretty good idea of where we wanted to go in every major matchup.

UR Thopters

I was feeling really good about our Constructed deck, and as usual, felt great about Draft. I was excited to make a run for PotY!

Draft 1

The first draft didn’t exactly go according to plan. I sat down at the type of table you want to see at a PT—other than Craig Wescoe, there were no familiar faces. I was really hoping to open a good rare, something I haven’t had much experience with, having only first-picked a rare once in the past 7 PTs. This would be no exception as I took a Totem-Guide Hartebeest out of a super weak pack. I would prioritize Auras the rest of the draft, which meant I ended up with exactly one Weight of the Underworld in my final deck. Stalwart Avens were the best cards in the next couple packs and I saw some mediocre black.

I continued opening blanks in pack 2, first-picking a Read the Bones before adding a Cruel Revival and mediocre creatures to my pile. After another unplayable pack-3 booster, I was passed my first bomb in Sentinel of the Eternal Watch. At least I had a plan.

I wasn’t passing much, so I was hoping to pull a 2-1 out of this deck that looked 1-2 quality. I figured I would lose to the player who opened well, but since I was passing nothing, it was likely many of the decks were as bad as mine—and they kind of were?

The draft rounds did not play out as I hoped, however. Round 1 I lose the roll. My opponent has turn-2 Consul’s Lieutenant, turn-3 Knight of the Pilgrim’s Road, turn-4 Akroan Jailer and Knight of the Pilgrim’s Road, and I died without casting a spell thanks to some mana issues. Game 2 I mulligan into a 2-lander, scry to the bottom, and don’t find a 3rd land. I play turn-2 Fetid Imp which trades with his Cleric of the Forward Order, but turn-3 Consul’s Lieutenant into turns-4-and-5 Charging Griffins was lethal quickly.

Round 2 I played against a pretty mediocre RB aggro deck, but stumbling on mana is still a death sentence against the most mediocre of decks and I again lost in 2. In round 3 I played the best deck I would face: a UG deck with at least 2 Scryfish, Bounding Krasis, Nissa, Rhox Maulers, and all solid cards. I would finally take a game, but Rogue’s Passage pushed through the final damage in game 3 when I couldn’t find a removal spell or Sentinels.

I was 0-3, managing to cast an impressive 7 total spells in 3 rounds. It was dejecting. The Player of the Year was all but over. Heading out for the lunch break, I felt terrible, but had everyone sending me Tweets and in person congratulating me. They had finally made the announcement that I was in the Hall of Fame. I was upset, dejected—but thrilled. What’s 1 PT and 1 PotY title when you’re in the Hall, right?

Day 1 Constructed

At this point, I really had nothing to lose. I was going to play out the Constructed rounds until I was eliminated, and hopefully I could squeak into Day 2 to try to redeem myself in draft a bit.

The deck worked flawlessly in the early rounds. I rattled off 3 straight, winning all 6 games, and all in convincing fashion. I had no mulligans and no real stumbles. For the third win, I beat a Mardu Goggles deck that had 4 Crackling Dooms and 4 Kolaghan’s Commands main—things were looking up. I quickly won game 1 against Fabian Dickmann’s Jeskai deck in round 7 before finally my first stumbling in the next 2. My draws weren’t bad, but his were good, and my actual good cards didn’t show up and my deck looked kind of silly.

I was 3-4 and on the verge of elimination. Sam Black was 7-0. The PotY dream was over, so time to just relax and play the best I could.

I managed to scrape by Abzan Rally in round 8. I almost lost game 1 to Minister of Pain blowing me out, a card I didn’t even realize was in the format. This left him on a 1-turn window to draw Rally while he had 0 cards in hand, and that’s exactly what he did. He already had Liliana, so he was able to draw a ton of cards and get back anything he wanted. Luckily, he chose Elvish Visionary over Minister when I had lethal on board and he missed it. Game 2 took forever since I was trying to deck him with his own Nyx Weavers, but also he was taking upwards of 2 minutes every single turn. I had a judge watching from the 30-minute point, but the pace of play never increased. I managed to finally lock up that game with a Whirler Rogue with about 5 minutes left on the clock, so the sweat was definitely real.

Draft 2

My Day 2 draft started with a Fiery Impulse—not the rare I want, but it’s not too bad to pick up the best common in the set. I was passed a Kothophed, Soul Hoarder with an uncommon missing and a good drafter in Tim Wu to my right. I would never pass the Kothophed, but this clearly means he took a Sentinel of the Eternal Watch or a Whirler Rogue, the best two uncommons by a wide margin. I saw no red cards whatsoever, and some middling black cards, adding a Fetid Imp, Shambling Ghoul, and Weight of the Underworld to my deck. Green appeared open with a way-too-late Wild Instincts and a fully-tabled Gaea’s Revenge, in addition to Yeva’s Forcemage and some good sideboard cards like Aerial Volley.

My second pack had no good green or black cards, but had a Pia and Kiran Nalaar, which I took to keep my options open. There still wasn’t much in red, however, and both my first picks would be relegated to the sideboard. I was passed Skysnare Spider second pick, but also received no black. A second Wild Instincts and some mediocre 2- and 3-drops in green helped fill out my curve, but I figured I would still be black after getting passed Kothophed pack 1 and seeing no red.

I first-picked a Conclave Naturalists and received a 4th-pick Unholy Hunger, showing that I chose colors correctly, but there was just not a playable in most packs. Luckily, the packs that had 2 green cards would allow me to table the other since nobody was in green. My deck looked like a mediocre pile, but again I shipped close to nothing and at least this time had some nice late game.

This deck played out much better and I dropped one game to Tim Wu’s UW deck in the finals of the draft (in which he had 2 Consul’s Lieutenant, one of which he took over the Kothophed) before he flooded out in game 3, so I felt good heading back to Standard. I had won 4 in a row and 7 out of 8 to have a somewhat respectable 7-4 record, but Sam was at 9-1 (soon to be 9-2), and Lee Shi Tian was just behind him, so it was just about playing it out to a money finish and trying to put a little bit of pressure on them.

Day 2 Constructed

The wins kept coming. I scraped by a Mono-Red deck on 1 life in both games, annihilated a UB deck that just didn’t have the tools to stop the artifacts (plus Revoker on Perilous Vault), and then played Andrew Cuneo’s UR Control deck in the feature match area at 9-4. Sitting at the other 2 tables were Sam and Lee, who had each struggled during their Day 2 matches, and suddenly 9-4 had me back in the pole position to win the title. Andrew had mana problems in a near unwinnable matchup, and I was 10-4 and a full match clear of Sam for the U.S. Captain.

In round 15, I was paired against LSV, and sat down to shuffle up. He was shuffling as well when he said “you know I can’t try to beat you when the win means so much to you and nothing to me, right?” After double-checking with him about 100 times that he had exactly 30 points and not 31 (where 2 more wins and 15 more points would mean 46 and Platinum for him), he signed the slip in my favor. If he had 1 more point, I would have conceded to him, since him getting Platinum is so much more valuable to me than the title.

It’s a weird situation that I don’t think many people outside of the Pro Tour really understand, but it is pretty common. A similar situation nearly developed in PT San Diego a couple years back when LSV needed to Top 16 to make Platinum and I thought there was a decent chance we might have to play. I had spent a long time prior to the event thinking about what would have happened if we were in a position where the winner makes Top 8 and the loser misses Top 16, and what I would have done. This was before my fourth PT Top 8 and could have potentially cost me votes for the Hall of Fame, and I realized that I just couldn’t play it out in that scenario. I know Luis would have asked me to play it out, but some things are just more important, and forcing someone to play out a match to the best of their abilities when it hurts a friend is a horrible thing to do to anyone. I hope I will never be put in a position where I am “forced” to do something like that to someone I care about since I simply couldn’t handle it.

At 11-4, it looked like the US team slot was mine, and once Lee Shi Tian lost to fall to 10-5, it looked likely that Player of the Year was mine, too. Only a couple of people could pull it off, but it would require that they reach the finals of the PT at the very least, and they were all 10-4 going into the round. So, to recap, they would need to win the last 2 matches, have me unable to win my final match, then win the next two matches in the Top 8 after squeaking in as the 8th seed on tiebreakers.

In the final round I was paired against Marc Tobiasch, a really nice guy from Germany, and before I could look at the standings he came up to me and asked me a few things after stating we were paired. He asked if the points in the final round could matter to me winning Player of the Year, and I said yes, but only if Sigrist wins, then he would need to win the PT instead of getting 2nd. I thought at first that he was also looking to scoop, but it turned out he needed a draw to lock Silver. I felt pretty terrible and certainly wanted to give it to him, but I needed to see how Sigrist’s match was playing out first since I would hate to cost myself the title. He informed me that we were only playing for points since with our record we both could not make Top 16 and a draw would lock us both for Top 25.

We started playing it out and he basically crushed me. I thought I had game 1, but he had a key Stoke the Flames and managed to then burn me out. Game 2 I was getting beaten pretty bad and down to 6 life (we both had no board) when I asked if he still wanted to draw. He had said we were playing for nothing and so a draw would mean he gets the point he needs and we finish with more money combined than we would otherwise. The game certainly wasn’t over, but I would need some great draws and then to try to still win game 3 on the draw in a very bad matchup, so locking up the extra money and hoping Sigrist didn’t rally off 4 wins in a row (while having tiebreakers hold to even make Top 8) was a pretty easy decision. He accepted, and Siggy went on to win an anticlimactic game 3 in his match, snuck in as the 8th seed, and managed to 2-0 his quarters and semis in non-competitive games.

I got to fulfill multiple dreams that weekend, making the Hall of Fame and getting in the booth for Sunday coverage. Of course, being at the news desk seconds after having an incredible important and prestigious title slip through my fingers was tough. I had tears in my eyes watching Jackson not even try to win game 1 before not playing a second land game 2. I was shellshocked. I had forgotten they even wanted me to do coverage while watching the screens when Marshall tapped me to let me know we were back on in 30 seconds and I had to get in there. I haven’t watched the video yet, but I will. I know I tried my best to keep my composure and make the show the best it could be. Hopefully it worked out.

All in all, it was a weekend I will never forget. The team was amazing. It can be tough to have 15 people work together, there are arguments, yelling—that really didn’t happen this time. The teams are always changing, some people get dropped, some people get added, and some people decide to try out new teams and new approaches. For this Pro Tour, we saw Shahar go off to Pantheon and Kibler go off to Team Kibler, and both were missed for the different strengths they bring to the table. We also added Neal Oliver for this one, and he was fantastic—a great player, hard worker, and I like the way he thinks about the game. It’s very cool getting to interact with new, smart people and it’s kind of awesome that Magic helps make that happen.

I struggled a bit more with Limited this season that I’m used to, posting a 16-7 record vs. 27-9-3 in Constructed. That gives me something tangible to work on, as this was my first season without Ben Stark to work with in the Limited portions, but I’m thrilled to have been able to put up a solid Constructed year. Lots of thanks go to my teammates for that.

I team up with LSV and Ben Stark in Detroit before the World Championships at the end of the month—and you better believe I’m looking to get that #1 back in front of my name!

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