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Georgia on My Mind (GP Atlanta report) *Top 8*

The week after Pro Tour Journey into Nyx and before the Grand Prix in Atlanta would be the third week I was spending in the Georgia suburbs. For this week, several members of my team, Team Pantheon, who had stayed for a couple weeks beforehand, would be joined by a few members of team ChannelFireball. Sam, Owen, Reid, and I would be joined by EFro, Shahar, Wrapter, Paulo, and Ben Stark to spend a week hanging out and playing Magic. I ended up doing only one Sealed deck myself during the week, but did take time to watch several others, which, with that level of talent to spectate, proved very valuable to me.

On Saturday morning, we drove downtown and began the 1,300-person Grand Prix. I opened my Sealed pool and immediately noticed that my black and green cards were both very shallow and weak. I knew that there was no chance I’d be playing either of those colors in my deck. Red appeared to be my strongest color by a decent margin, featuring several premium removal spells as well as decent creatures. I went back and forth for nearly the entirety of deck building between red/white and red/blue. I built both decks four or five times each and agonized over which to play.

Here are the two decks:

Red/White Aggro

GPAtlantaWRSealed

Red/Blue Control

GPAtlantaURSealed

Both decks have some very good cards, but neither has the appeal of a specific card or two that will win a game on its own. Both decks have pretty focused strategies. The plan with the red/white deck is to play a few cheap creatures and overrun the opponent while using the red removal spells to eliminate potential blockers and gain tempo. The plan with the red/blue control deck is to play long grindy games and win by drawing a lot of extra cards and use those cards to 1-for-1 until eventually overwhelming the opponent with card advantage. After pouring over these decks for twenty minutes or so, I really thought they were close to equal in power level. The red/blue deck is certainly more my style, but I am plenty comfortable playing an aggressive deck as well.

One thing that I was really worried about with the red/blue deck was being unable to beat bombs from my opponents. Because of the way the deck was built, I knew the games were going to go very long. This means that over the course of these games my opponents would often be able to draw to their best cards before I’d have a chance to actually finish them off. If my opponents had cards like Elspeth, Whip of Erebos (or any of the weapons for that matter), or Abhorrent Overlord, the games would be very difficult to win. In a Sealed deck tournament, as you get later into the day, the average deck at the top tables naturally tends to get better and better. So I anticipated that if I were fortunate enough to be doing well late in the day, I’d end up playing a couple matches where this situation would come up. The red/white deck didn’t have great answers to bombs either, but my theory was that at least if I drew well I could win quickly, and my opponents would be less likely to draw their expensive finishers.

Ultimately, I decided I’d play the red/white deck and sideboard into the red/blue deck when I felt it was appropriate. In practice, I never played a single post sideboard game with the red/white deck for the entirety of Day One. The reasons for this were twofold. I think I somewhat underestimated how good the red/blue deck really was. But also, I had the good fortune of not running into many bombs at all throughout Day One. This could be in part because the frequency of those cards is higher in Theros, and the tournament only used two packs of Theros because of the addition of Journey into Nyx.

Round 7 vs. Trey Van Cleave (6-0)

In game one, Trey and I were both playing white/red. Both of us ended up drawing a lot of lands, and not a ton of action. He played a Hundred-Handed One and put Chosen by Heliod on it, and I was forced to chump attack an Everflame Eidolon into it and finish it off with Rage of Purphoros. Unfortunately for me, he was able to follow it up with an Ornitharch, for which I was unable to find an answer and made quick work of me. His deck didn’t seem particularly fast, and although both my decks were a bit soft to the Hundred-Handed One, I felt that since it was an early play anyway, and it created such major problems for the creatures in the white/red deck that I boarded into blue/red.

In game two, as expected, we played a very long game. Trey had sideboarded out of white/red and into white/black. Trey was whittling away with a Springleaf Drum/Servant of Tymaret combo, as well as an unbestowed Cavern Lampad that I had previously knocked off a random white creature. Eventually I was able to somewhat stabilize by getting to Lightning Strike the Servant and cast an Interpret the Signs, revealing Rage of Purphoros. After drawing five cards, I was able to pick off the Cavern Lampad. After using Pull from the Deep to return Interpret the Signs and Lightning Strike to my hand, I was able to gain complete control and finish the game.

To begin game three, we didn’t have a lot of time on the clock. For this reason, I played the early turns a bit more aggressively than I may have if that had not been the case. I played a Flurry of Horns on turn five, and rather than leaving multiple creatures block every turn to play the control game, I quickly decided to only leave one creature back, and Trey was able to cast removal spells in consecutive turns to get a lot of damage through. Towards the end of the game Trey had four or five creatures in play and had managed to knock me down to 2 or 3 life. We both had no cards in hand and were playing off the top. I had a Prescient Chimera in play and managed in consecutive turns to draw or scry into a removal spell into Retraction Helix into Sudden Storm to win the game just as time expired. I got somewhat lucky to win, but also had to take a line that would at least give me a chance to win as opposed to giving myself a draw as the best case scenario, which worked out for me.

I ended up finishing Day One at 9-0, which naturally I was very happy with, as it put me in a great position going into the draft.

Draft One

First pick I was faced with a choice between Hydra Broodmaster and Hour of Need. While Hydra Broodmaster is very good, I think it is slightly less powerful than Hour of Need, which is arguably the best uncommon in Journey into Nyx, and at worst in 2nd place to Banishing Light. Second pick, I received a pack with Golden Hind and Battlefield Thaumaturge. This made me wish I had taken the Hydra, but the Thaumaturge combos really well with Hour of Need and can also has some very powerful interactions with cards in later sets, such as Sudden Storm or Glimpse the Sun God, so I opted to go with that. White seemed open so I spent the next few picks taking some white cards, and was headed toward a blue/white deck. I spent most of the rest of the pack picking up some creatures, aside from a reasonably late Ajani’s Presence.

Second pack I opted to take a Retraction Helix first pick of Vanguard of Brimaz because I already had a few two-drops and wanted to make sure to get some bounce effects. The next couple picks were a Nyxborn Shieldmate and an Ephara’s Enlightenment. I was very happy to get Ephara’s Enlightenment. It’s very good with heroic creatures and occasionally can take over a game on its own. I ended up picking up a lot of good cards in Born of the Gods, most notably a second copy of Retraction Helix.

Pack three started near perfectly with a Phalanx Leader. After that I had a couple good picks in Observant Alseid and Ordeal of Heliod. I spent most of Theros just taking mediocre creatures to fill out my curve. One interesting pick I made was choosing Breaching Hippocamp over Ray of Dissolution. I’d nearly never make that pick, but I had one enchantment removal spell that I could sideboard in with Dawn to Dusk, and I really liked having the Hippo to go with my two copies of Retraction Helix.

Here is the final deck:

GPAtlantaDraft1

Round 11 vs. Alex Majlaton (10-1)

In game one I was able to start off with a turn two Phalanx Leader. Unfortunately, Alex was able to kill it with a Fall of the Hammer using his Akroan Line Breaker before I could get any value out of it. Alex followed up with a Bladetusk Boar, so he had the potential to do 7 points of intimidate damage per turn which meant that I had no choice but to race. I was able to cast a few enchantments on my Meletis Astronomer to help me find more. On Alex’s final turn if he had been able to draw something to trigger heroic on his Akroan Line Breaker I would have lost the game, but, luckily for me, he missed and I won the first game.

In game two Alex got off to a quick start, and I unfortunately did not. My first play was a turn three Nyxborn Triton, and my next was to bestow Observant Alseid on it. Unfortunately Alex had Chained to the Rocks, and was able to continue attacking with Kragma Butcher and another creature. I came close to being able to stabilize, but Alex drew Dawnbringer Charioteers and I was unable to find an answer to it before being forced to chump block with my Stratus Walked Phalanx Leader, and ultimately dying to the Charioteers.

In game three, Alex got off to an extremely slow start. I was able to play a turn two Phalanx Leader and put Ephara’s Enlightenment on it on turn four while leaving a white mana up for Ajani’s Presence. Although I had no other creatures to benefit from the heroic trigger, I played a Battlewise Valor on it to make it even bigger and attack Alex’s life total, as he still hadn’t drawn white mana and I was very worried about Chained to the Rocks since Ajani’s Presence wouldn’t protect against it. On Alex’s last turn he had a Minotaur Skullcleaver with Dragon Mantle and a Fanatic of Mogis. He attacked with Skullcleaver into my 2/3, so I decided to block. Alex pumped with only two mana remaining. I decided to cast Ajani’s Presence, since I thought it was very likely his follow-up play would be to cast Fall of the Hammer to try to kill Phalanx Leader. That was exactly what happened and my Retraction Helix targeting Phalanx Leader simply to get a +1/+/1 counter was enough to win the game.

Draft Two

In my opinion, the three cards that are in contention for best card in Journey into Nyx are Ajani, Mentor of Heroes, Dictate of Heliod, and Silence the Believers. So obviously I was very happy to open Silence the Believers in my first pack of the second draft. I knew when I drafted it that I would prefer to draft a controlling style that could play long games and hopefully take advantage of the strive feature on Silence the Believers. My preferred color to pair with black for that purpose would be blue, and second to that would be white. My second pick was really not what I was hoping for in War-Wing Siren. I actually like War-Wing Siren quite a bit, but it isn’t particularly good in a control deck. Unfortunately, the pack was really weak, and I didn’t really have any other options. Third pick was very good to me in Feast of Dreams, and I spent the rest of the first pack drafting mostly black cards as well as picking up a few white cards and a few blue cards.

Going into Born of the Gods, I still hoped to be black/blue but was certainly open to black/white as well. I ended up picking up mostly black cards in Born of the Gods, and no white cards of note at all. I did pick up a Retraction Helix and a Chorus of the Tides in blue, but neither of those cards are as strong in control decks as they are in other strategies.

Even as I opened my pack of Theros I wasn’t sure which color I was going to play to support my black. My first pick in Theros was Erebos’s Emissary which I was very happy with. An important thing I noted was that the pack also contained a Scholar of Athreos. Scholar of Athreos fit perfectly in the deck I was trying to build, so I was really hoping to finally settle into white, and hopefully wheel it for my deck. Second pick, I was passed a somewhat weak pack, including another Scholar of Athreos, so I went ahead and took that. I picked up two copies of Read the Bones and a Lash of the Whip over the next few picks, all of which were very good in my deck. I took a late Wingsteed Rider out of a weak pack even though it wasn’t particularly great in my deck, I could still randomly build a monster by bestowing Nyxborn Eidolon or Erebos’s Emissary onto it. Unfortunately the first Scholar of Athreos didn’t make it back to me, but I will still happy with my deck overall, aside from having to play a Decorated Griffin.

Here was the final deck:

GPAtlantaDraft2

Round 14 vs. Nathan Holliday (12-1)

At 12-1, the winner of my match with Nathan would be able to draw into top 8, while the loser would likely have to play another win-and-in to seal a spot in Top 8. Nathan had been the one to hand me my sole loss in round 10, so I also was happy to have a chance to avenge my earlier loss.

In game one, Nathan had drawn a hand with Forest, Mountain, and Unknown Shores. I had played an Oreskos Swiftclaw on my second turn and a Harvestguard Alseids on my third turn. Due to not having Swamps, but having an Unknown Shores, Nathan played his Returned Reveler on his third turn. I decided to stay aggressive and put Cast into Darkness on it to continue my attacking. Nathan had to attempt to cast Fade into Antiquity targeting Cast into Darkness just to have a blocker to stop the onslaught, but I was able to Feast of Dreams the Returned Reveler in response. Nathan was too far behind due to his mana troubles and conceded the game shortly thereafter.

Game two was a very fun game. Nathan had Pharika, God of Affliction, which is an extremely powerful card, and especially good against my deck. Throughout the game at various times, I had no choice but to trade off “real” creatures for Nathan’s Snakes. At one point in the game Nathan had in play a Returned Reveler bestowed with Nyxborn Eidolon and a Snake token. I had nine lands and no other permanents. Nathan attacked me for 4 down to 4 life. Then Nathan added a Graverobber Spider to the board. I played my tenth land and passed the turn. When Nathan attacked, I was able to cast Silence the Believers with two strives in order to remove all his creatures from the game as well as his Nyxborn Eidolon that was bestowed. We were both virtually out of action at that point and spent the next couple turns topdecking. Nathan found a Satyr Wayfinder and was able to put three creatures into his graveyard. I had been able to put a Felhide Minotaur into play and bestow Erebos’s Emissary onto it. I also spent a Feast of Dreams that I’d been holding to kill one of Pharika’s Snakes. Again, I was forced to trade some “real” creatures for Snakes. Luckily for me, at a point where I was in need of action to deal with a couple Snakes, I drew… Decorated Griffin! I said to Nathan at the time that I thought Decorated Griffin was better in our current game state than it has ever been in any game since it had been printed. I followed up that draw with Scholar of Athreos, and Nathan had no way to deal with the creatures or get through. The Scholar finished Nathan off a couple turns later.

So with my spot in Top 8 solidified, I drew with Jon Stern in the last round and it would be on to the Top 8 draft.

Top 8 Draft

My opening pack was somewhat weak, until I got to the rare, Eidolon of Blossoms. Eidolon of Blossoms is actually a very powerful card, especially as a first pick. After first picking it, you are able to prioritize enchantments slightly higher, and often create ridiculous game states where you’re drawing two cards a turn for several turns. Second pick I took Feast of Dreams over Spiteful Blow and then third pick I had a choice between Cast into Darkness, Satyr Grovedancer, and Temple of Malady. I considered that Cast into Darkness was good with Eidolon of Blossoms, but also then I’d have only one green card and two black cards. I decided it was more important to stay the course with green at that point so I opted to take Satyr Grovedancer. Fourth pick I got a good card, Nyx Infusion, which is a removal spell that combos with the Eidolon. I got a late Nyx Weaver, and for the most part didn’t see a ton of great green cards in the first pack, although my best card was still green.

Unfortunately my first pick choice in Born of the Gods was between Noble Quarry and Grisly Transformation. I took the Quarry and was passed a second pack with a real lack of choices for my deck. This time it was between Unravel the Aether and Felhide Brawler. Again, not where I was hoping to be at second pick, but I took the Unravel as I wanted to be sure to have an enchantment removal spell in my main deck. I gambled on two Setessan Oathsworns in this pack, hoping to pick up a couple copies of Scourgemark, a couple copies of Grisly Transformation, or a few bestow cards. That didn’t really work out, though. I was very happy to see a 7th or 8th pick Asphyxiate, and that led me to believe that black was very open at the table.

My first three picks in Theros were all black: Baleful Eidolon, Tormented Hero, then Lash of the Whip. The Tormented Hero pick was actually pretty interesting. The best card for my deck was Pharika’s Mender, but I really wanted a one-drop for my curve, and because the Mender is two colors there was a very high chance that it would wheel. Given that, I decided to take Tormented Hero and try to get the Mender on the wheel, which I did. Fifth and sixth pick were very good to me with a Gray Merchant of Asphodel and Disciple of Phenax. I picked up a second copy of Lash of the Whip fairly late to round out the removal package in my deck.

Here was my Top 8 deck :

GPAtlantaTop8

I was pretty happy with this deck. I had good cards, decent removal, some aggressive creatures, and a couple decent finishers. I felt I got a little unlucky with the opens, particularly in Born of the Gods, but that definitely happens.

After defeating Alex Majlaton in the quarterfinals, I was paired against Jon Stern in the semis. Jon and I have played twice this year, once in Top 8 of GP Louisville, and once in a win-and-in in the last round of GP Vancouver. Jon won both of those matches, so I’d hoped to get a little bit of redemption in Atlanta.

Semifinals vs. Jon Stern

In game one, I mulliganed and got off to a fairly slow start. To make matters worse, Jon had a Kiora’s Follower on turn two and was able to accelerate an extra turn ahead. I had a Fleshmad Steed with Grisly Transformation on it, and was chipping away. I finally drew my second Swamp and was able to play Disciple of Phenax and Gray Merchant on subsequent turns. Jon was attacking with many creatures including Humbler of Mortals, and on my last turn, I needed to draw Noble Quarry in order to get through for lethal damage. Unfortunately, I drew an Asphyxiate, which wasn’t enough to do the trick, and Jon was able to finish me off on his turn. Noble Quarry was in fact my next card, but there was no way for me to survive one more turn.

My draw was significantly better in game two. I started with Tormented Hero on turn one and a Bloodcrazed Hoplite on turn two. Jon had Kiora’s Follower on turn two again, which would make it hard to run him over. At one point Jon played a Setessan Oathsworn and blocked my Tormented Hero. Jon played Savage Surge, but I was able to play Lash of the Whip in response and get a two for one while maintaining tempo. We traded damage for a few turns, and ultimately I had a Grisly Transformation on my Tormented Hero as well a Gray Merchant of Asphodel. Jon was at 1 life and had a few creatures of his own. I drew for my turn and decided to Asphyxiate my Tormented Hero to trigger heroic to play around Sudden Storm. It worked, and we moved on to game three.

In the third and final game, Jon started with Kiora’s Follower yet again on turn two. We traded creatures early and reached somewhat of a stalemate. There was a turn in which Jon played Raised by Wolves on a Breaching Hippocamp when my board was Bloodcrazed Hoplite, Satyr Grovedancer with a counter on it, and Felhide Minotaur. I attacked with Bloodcrazed Hoplite and Satyr Grovedancer and traded for the Wolves, but at this point I made a really poor decision. I could have played Feast of Dreams and removed the Hippocamp before Jon untapped, but decided that since I had a Felhide Minotaur, I could just try to trade for it. Jon then played Pin to the Earth on my Felhide Minotaur, with his only Island. At this point I decided to take a hit and try to draw a creature that could trade with the 3/2, since Jon had at least a Humbler of Mortals and a Gnarled Scarhide that I wanted to be able to remove with Feast of Dreams if I could. Unfortunately, I didn’t consider Hubris, and when I finally did play Feast of Dreams to protect my life total because I hadn’t drawn anything, he was able to Hubris both the Hippo and the Raised by Wolves back to his hand. I was able to Lash of the Whip the Hippocamp, and when Jon put Raised by Wolves on a Setessan Oathsworn that he drew a few turns later, I was able to remove it with Asphyxiate. Again we reached board parity, and I spent several turns realizing that I was going to lose the game eventually when Jon drew Fleetfeather Cockatrice. A few turns later, that is exactly what happened and I was eliminated in third place.

I like Jon a lot and respect him as a Magic player, but at this point, I have no choice but to consider him my arch nemesis. I’m really looking forward to our next meeting, so I can have another chance at actually winning one.

It’s hard to be unhappy with a third place finish in a 1,300-person tournament, but of course, it would have been really nice to increase my pro standing by another point or two and put myself in a better position to qualify for the World Championships. I’ll likely play another Grand Prix or possibly two before the Pro Tour in Portland, but most likely it will take a good finish there to qualify me for Worlds.

I really enjoyed my time in Atlanta. Locking up Platinum for next year and finishing third at the Grand Prix were both very satisfying. Watching the success of my teammates at the Pro Tour also gives me great satisfaction. Seeing Reid make his first Pro Tour Top 8 as well as seeing Patrick Chapin win the Pro Tour were both great moments that I won’t soon forget.

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