Compulsive Research: How I Learned Airlines Don’t Have Pro Red and How Not to Win a PTQ


After witnessing my good friend and testing partner, Jon Loucks, win a PTQ with Kiki-Jiki and Pestermite, my motivation to qualify for Honolulu went from high to stratospheric.

Hawaii is a place that I would love to spend some major time, and the Shards Block Constructed format is unique to this Pro Tour. Having an open, unexplored format is something that I would love to spend time digging in, making new decks and having fun with, trying to define a mostly undefined format. And with two friends going already (Gavin Verhey and Jon), my desire intensified tenfold.

After the Seattle PTQ, I started looking around for places I could qualify. There were only three weeks left in the Extended season, so I booked flights to both Anchorage, Alaska, and Boise, Idaho. I could not find a PTQ the third week, but I really felt that Alaska gave me the best shot at qualifying, as their PTQs are tiny, usually running between sixteen and twenty people. Usually flights from Seattle to Alaska are very expensive, but I had frequent flier miles that I could utilize, so I paid my $5 tax and was ready to go to Anchorage.

I did my homework and studied previous Alaska PTQ Top 8s, Regionals, and States decklists. With a field so small, it was possible to learn the best players’ names and figure out what kind of decks they were likely to be playing. I talked to a couple of people who had either played in Alaska or knew people who played there, found out what certain people were playing, and absorbed all of this information. I thought about the little things, like how my habit of referring to Woolly Thoctar as “Hockey Mom” [1] might offend some Alaskans. Ultimately all of this didn’t dramatically change my deck choice, but it never hurts to gather as much information as possible before making a decision.

I decided on a variation of Bill Stark’s Naya list from the Seattle PTQ, and Bill and I had been trading ideas back and forth on tuning the deck. It sounded like the field would be mostly aggro with one or maybe two combo decks thrown in and little to no control. Naya Zoo set up to beat the mirror was my choice, and I felt comfortable with it. I tested extensively against Saito’s list, thinking that would be the most popular version of Naya, and I felt comfortable with the results. So it was off to the 49th state to win a ticket to the 50th state.

Tournament report

Okay, I’ll spoil it for you. I didn’t win the PTQ because of volcanic fallout.

Actually, I never even made it to the PTQ because of volcanic fallout.

Mount Redoubt, near Anchorage, had recently erupted causing all sorts of havoc for air travel in and out of Alaska, so when I got to the airport I had the following conversation with the airline person:

Counter person: Sir, because of the volcanic ash in the air there’s a good chance your flight will have to be diverted to Fairbanks instead.

Me: How far away from Anchorage is Fairbanks?

Him: About 350 miles. Unfortunately, it would be your own responsibility to find ground transportation to Anchorage. Or you can get a refund with no penalties.

(I wasn’t particularly surprised. I was following the news and was aware of the eruption, so I had resigned myself to not going even after I had left for the airport. So I decided to have just a tiny bit of fun for my own amusement.)

Me: Wait, so my flight’s being changed just because of volcanic fallout? There’s no way to counter that?

Him: (Looking at me like I’m a moron) Um, no sir.

Me: I’m sorry, you’re right. That was dumb of me. Volcanic fallout can’t be countered.

So I had to make a decision. I could run the risk of flying to Fairbanks and then trying to drive about six hours to Anchorage in the middle of the night in March when the roads could be bad, then have to drive back to Fairbanks”¦and if the volcano erupted again, I could potentially be stuck in Fairbanks or Anchorage for even longer. My other choice was to get a refund on my ticket and stay home.

This sounds like an easy choice, but it wasn’t. I wanted to qualify, and this was by far my best chance. Ultimately, I took the refund.[2] It turns out my flight did not have to be diverted to Fairbanks and did land in Anchorage, but the volcano erupted again Saturday and I would have been stuck in Alaska for who knows how long, as they’ve grounded all air travel to and from Anchorage. I don’t regret my decision. Much.

I tried at the last second to catch a flight to Calgary, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, or Oklahoma City, but all the flights were booked and I couldn’t get to any of those destinations before the PTQs started. Thanks to Gavin Verhey who was texting me all my possible destinations as I was on the phone with the airline. “What about Oklahoma City? No? How about Calgary?”

So I’ve got potentially two more chances to qualify for Honolulu. There’s Boise this weekend, and I’m probably going to take a little trip to crazytown and go to Honolulu for the Pro Tour anyway and try to grind in via the last chance qualifier. But my chances are dwindling.

However, this whole situation might have been avoided had I not made some critical mistakes at various points during this Extended season. I don’t think I’m particularly far away from winning a PTQ (though perhaps I’m not particularly close; I’ve been in Top 8 contention heading into the final round of a Constructed PTQ five times, only to lose or erroneously draw and miss out on tiebreaks – but the difference between Top 8ing a PTQ and winning one is pretty large, or so I’m told), so I feel like I’m positioned well. If I can shore up some holes in my game, I’m on the verge of making significant gains.

Mistake #1: Playing the wrong deck for my style

I hate limiting myself to a particular deck archetype, but I’ve looked back at my results in Constructed play and they have generally been much better when I’m playing an aggro deck. I started out playing aggro decks and did relatively well, then tried playing control, combo, or midrange decks and my results were less than good. Perhaps that highlights a limitation in my play (and certainly provides room for growth), but if there’s a tier one deck that I’m more comfortable playing with, then why not play that deck?

Even when I’m doing well with a controlling deck, I’m told that I look like I’m not having fun. And sure enough I definitely don’t seem to enjoy myself as much (or at all). I did fairly well playing W/R/b Martyr at the start of the season, but after a long day of playing that deck, I wanted to just go home and collapse. It’s exhausting, and with the amount of time I put into testing the Martyr deck, I was already mentally fatigued by round three or four of the PTQ. I switched to Naya recently (though to be fair, it’s also in large part due to the fact that Martyr is a pretty bad metagame call right now), and I don’t feel like setting myself on fire after eights rounds of play.

Mike Thompson, a Seattle-area staple, is a great example of a person who just plays his style of deck and plays it well, and has amassed over 100 pro points in the process. He usually plays some sort of fishy midrange/aggro W/x deck because that’s what he’s most comfortable with, and doesn’t spend a ton of time worrying about playing the consensus “best” deck in the format. If it’s good enough to win a PTQ and it suits his style, then he plays it and he does very well. His belief is that deck choice is largely overrated, and he seems to prove that consistently.

Mistake #2: Playing a deck that’s not consistent enough to win a PTQ

For the most recent Seattle PTQ, I had tested a zoo deck filled with mostly three-drops. In testing, it did very well against the standard Naya builds as well as Faeries, and was also solid against Loam. It seemed like a reasonable choice, and the person who gave me the decklist felt the same. For reference, here was my 75:


My results were astoundingly average, as I found myself mulliganing a lot all day. I could blame bad luck, but the deck has an inherent problem. Yes, it’s great when you play Birds or Hierarch into a turn two Thoctar or Doran, and a solid draw happens a majority of the time. Maybe 70% or so. But 30% of the time you get awkward draws with a hand full of lands, Birds/Hierarchs, and burn spells. And 30% is a large percentage when you need to go twelve rounds (counting Top 8) and you can only afford to lose once all day. So I can cry about my luck when I mulligan to three on the play in the deciding game in a matchup where I’m heavily favored, but playing an inconsistent deck is going to lead to inconsistent results. Especially in eight rounds of Swiss. (Also, playing exactly two Tarmogoyfs was probably a mistake, but a minor one in light of the deck’s other problems. I do not suggest playing this deck, no matter how much it stomps Faeries in testing.)

Mistake #3: Sideboarding undexterously

This is an odd one, but it cost me a match at a PTQ and eliminated me from contention. I was playing W/R/b Martyr against Faeries, and we were going to game two. Because I had accidentally pointed my box in the wrong direction when I opened it, my opponent saw that I had Boil in my sideboard and mysteriously played around it all game, even though at the time the deck was completely unknown, as was the sideboard plan. I lost the game (and ultimately the match) because he played around Boil, but if he had not known about it, he said, I would have blown him out. There are lots of reasons to consider losing games, but I hadn’t thought about the physical, logistical parts of sideboarding. Game mechanics can make for a very frustrating reason to lose a match, but they are part of the game, so be mindful of them. (I even did “sideboarding practice” and had people try to figure out what I was siding in and out. Sometimes the little things matter.)

Mistake #4: Not being in the proper physical condition to play a long tournament

I am one of those people who just doesn’t do well when he doesn’t get enough sleep. I can fake it and probably muddle my way to an FNM win, but anything beyond that and I’m in trouble. My play deteriorates faster than anyone I know when it comes to not sleeping enough. The same goes for not eating. And I’m not very good at identifying when I’m hungry/tired, so I just lose focus in the middle of matches and I make mistakes I would never make otherwise, and these mistakes have been costly. Sometimes the mistakes are subtle (playing the wrong fetchland so I don’t have the mana to play Doran and Smother in the same turn against Affinity; playing a non-Mutavault land late game so I can’t attack with Mutavault the following turn), and sometimes not so subtle (forgetting that Spearbreaker Behemoth doesn’t need to pay to give himself indestructible; making a bad attack).

When I was playing Martyr, I was aware of how mentally exhausting the deck was, so I made sleep a priority and I brought plenty of snacks with me to keep myself fed throughout the day. I didn’t stay up until 2:00 AM drafting or playing poker. I got to bed early and gave myself enough time to get a good night’s sleep and also eat a good breakfast. Even when I wasn’t putting up good results because of running into a million Death Cloud and Faerie decks, I powered through some horrible matchups (beating a Tron deck, a Death Cloud deck, and a heavy discard deck on day one of GP: Los Angeles) and I felt like I played well all day, seeing plays several turns in advance, formulating paths to victory where there didn’t seem to be any and then acting on them”¦it was a terrific feeling, and I think if I didn’t see so many poor matchups all day I would have done just fine based on the way I was playing. And I was well-rested. I need to take this approach for every PTQ or event I play in.

Next up: Idaho

Unless I can get my airline to give me more frequent flier miles to go PTQing in two weeks, it looks like Boise’s my last PTQ this Extended season. After that, it’s all about Standard. My tournament schedule is going to be very busy, with some major event going on every weekend between now and mid-June. (PTQ in Boise, Grand Prix: Seattle trial, another GP: Seattle trial, Alara Reborn prerelease, another Grand Prix trial, yet another Grand Prix trial, Regionals, Grand Prix: Seattle, and Pro Tour: Honolulu. Phew.) I haven’t played much Standard at all, so it’ll be a great way to throw me into the fire to get me prepared for Regionals, my hometown Grand Prix, and the upcoming Standard PTQ season.

[1] When Woolly Thoctar was first spoiled on MTGSalvation, they put the following fake flavor text on the card: “The only difference between a hockey mom and a Woolly Thoctar is lipstick,” a reference to Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Being a political junkie, this amused me to no end and I’ve been referring to Woolly Thoctar as “hockey mom” ever since. Also on a political note: When you fly to Anchorage, you fly into Ted Stevens International Airport. I’m sure there’s another joke in there somewhere. Bonus points if you can work in Bobby Jindal.

[2] And then they charged me a $100 “cancellation fee,” which is an interesting definition of “no penalties.” Isn’t air travel great?

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