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Grand Prix Philadelphia Report *2nd*

Last weekend I played in my fourth Theros Limited Grand Prix. At GP Toronto, I made Day Two but failed to finish in the money, despite having three byes and two no-show opponents. At GP Sacramento, I started 8-0 and up a game in round nine, before managing to lose that round and enough more on Day Two to again finish outside the money. At GP Montreal, one of the most painful mistakes of my career lead me to come just short of making Day Two. Last Friday, I was facing the prospect of one more Theros Grand Prix, and I’d been getting steadily worse.

The troubling thing was that I didn’t really know what was wrong. Throughout the season I’d been playing regularly, both online and live, and been performing just fine, if not even better than that. For whatever reason, though, I just hadn’t been able to hold it together in the clutch.

When we started the drive to the tournament, I was in a bitter mood, frustrated with a format that hadn’t been good to me, and frightened by the prospect of yet another embarrassing failure. I publicly decreed that I was “sick of losing, and not going to do it anymore.”

Now, as a logical person who’s well acquainted with the hostile swings and uncaring mathematics of Magic, there’s part of me that finds extravagant claims like this ridiculous. On the other hand, I also know the value of having a proper mental state for a tournament, and being scared of losing is not it. So I traded that in for a vengeful determination. I had something to prove—not exactly to my opponents, or my critics, or myself—I was playing GP Philadelphia to show Theros limited that I could still beat it into the ground if I wanted to.

What’s more, I wanted to do it my way. This tournament had a running theme for me: I built four black decks in a row, despite (or perhaps because of!) the fact that black is the weakest color in Born of the Gods. I’ll be discussing that in more detail when we come to the draft portion. First, I need to show you my Sealed deck, which did the bulk of the heavy lifting for me last weekend.

GP Philly Sealed

Saturday morning found me staring down at a solid but rather challenging Sealed pool. I could rule out red and green as options (which is why they aren’t pictured above), but my white, blue, and black were all solid and relatively close in power level. I could have reasonably built any two-color combination of the three.

My heart told me to build U/B Control, as it had the strongest lategame and made use of the highest portion of my best cards. The problem was that my creature base was simply awful. I only had access to one creature that cost less than three mana and it was the wholly unexciting Mindreaver. When you can’t develop a strong board position early, you wind up having to use tempo plays like Voyage’s End and Sudden Storm defensively, which leads to you being down cards and struggling to tread water. I didn’t listen to my heart and decided that U/B Control needed to be reserved as a sideboard plan against other slow decks. Phenax, God of Deception is unbeatable in a U/B Control mirror, and in slower matchups my lack of early plays would not be as big of a liability.

My eyes told me to build U/W, as it looked the most like a Magic deck—focused with a concerted strategy. In addition to my Akroan Skyguard, Vanguard of Brimaz, and Fabled Hero, blue offered one more heroic creature in Battlewise Hoplite, as well as a few more good ways to trigger heroic, and a nice suite of tempo plays to back them up. U/W was a solid and playable deck, and indeed looked like the decks that I often shoot for in draft.

However, Sealed deck is not draft, and it’s important to understand a few crucial differences. First is that there’s more removal in Sealed (by virtue of the simple fact that more booster packs are opened). Second is that you can expect to face less focused decks, with more late-game bombs. These two factors combine to mean that games go longer, and it can be harder to win with an early rush. So while in draft you can often use a Voyage’s End or Sudden Storm and win the game before your opponent can recover, these cards lose value in Sealed deck when games are longer and the card disadvantage hurts more. The U/W deck could be especially bad against removal-heavy decks if my one heroic creature gets killed and I’m left with a hand of bounce spells and combat tricks.

As I mentioned, the U/W deck was certainly fine and had a lot of nice things going for it. What’s more is that Owen Turtenwald looked at my Sealed pool (after I’d turned in my deck list) and told me that he would’ve played U/W. This was a suggestion I took very seriously, as I consider Owen to be the best Sealed deck player in the world by a fairly wide margin. I sideboarded into the U/W deck a few times over the course of the day and it was very good for me, but in the end I didn’t listen to my eyes either.

It was my head that told me to build W/B. Black had my best cards, and the most late game power. White had my best creatures, and filled in the gaps well. While the W/B deck may look unfocused, with a creature curve stretching from one (sort of) all the way to seven, this is, in fact, exactly why I chose to build it. A nicer way of saying unfocused is well balanced, and this, from my long experience, is exactly what you want in a Sealed deck. Top priority is a good creature base, and W/B had the best. Second priority is late game power—card advantage and bombs—and W/B was adequate in this department (better than U/W but a little worse than U/B).

I considered my deck to be above average, just a couple of cards short of being insane. I had three nice heroic creature, including the unbelievable Fabled Hero. The problem was that I only had four ways to target them. Note that I have a strong distaste for combat tricks, and that this goes double for Sealed Deck as compared to draft. Even so, I considered playing Mortal’s Ardor, but decided against it because most of my creatures had such low power—it would really only have been good in the games where I stuck Fabled Hero.

Also, I had two copies of the very efficient Odunos River Trawler, but with only two enchantment creatures to return from the graveyard. So if I’d opened, say, one more Hopeful Eidolon and two other reasonable bestow creatures, I would’ve had the nuts. As it was, I had a fine deck that could be great if I drew my cards in the right order and combinations. This was what happened, as I had good draws all day, only a couple of mulligans, and no heinous mana floods. I had a few games where Fabled Hero was insane and a few games where Odunos River Trawler was insane. On Day One, I went undefeated in both matches and games!

Sealed deck record: 6-0 (after three byes)
10-0 in games with W/B
2-0 in games with U/W

As always, Day Two of the Grand Prix was draft. If you’ve watched any of my draft videos in this format, you’ll know that I almost never draft red. Red is the strongest color in Born of the Gods, with two premium common removal spells in addition to some great uncommons and solid common creatures. Consequently, it’s common for a lot of players to go for red, and when the Theros packs come, where red is weak and shallow, they wind up fighting like dogs over table scraps.

I have no problem with drafting green—it was my favorite color in triple-Theros—but for whatever reason I most commonly wind up in some combination of white, blue, and black. Black is my favorite color by far, in part because it’s positioned exactly the opposite way as red. Black has very few cards that are viewed as slam first picks, so it can be underdrafted in Born of the Gods. However, black is excellent in Theros, and if things break properly, you can wind up as one of only a couple of black drafters and reap the rewards. I try to draft in a way where I never miss out on a good black deck if it’s available.

With those things in mind, I sat down at pod one for the first draft of Day Two. It was challenging, and I didn’t end up with the best deck that I could’ve. My draft was recorded and shown in bits and pieces throughout the Day Two coverage, which you can find here.

Another factor at play here were the players sitting around me. Passing to me was Carl Mitchell, who was playing in his first Grand Prix. It would be a mistake to judge the quality of a player based on something like this—the world has many great talents hidden in unexpected places—but it would be a mistake to ignore the experience level of that same player. The less experienced or comfortable a drafter is, the more likely they are to pick the best card from their first couple of packs and stick to them. In Born of the Gods, this means they’ll gravitate toward red and white and shy away from black.

To my left was Joe Demestrio, a player that I know and respect. However, for whatever reason, I predicted (probably incorrectly) that he’d be a player who would gravitate towards aggro heroic decks.

So I wasn’t going to force black, but as usual, I didn’t want to miss out on a good black deck if it was available.

As soon as I opened my first pack, I became immediately aware of the cameraman standing behind me. I made my first pick of the draft expecting that not a single player on this world or any other would agree with me: Meletis Astronomer over Retraction Helix.

In my favorite archetype of U/B Control, Retraction Helix is a borderline playable. Just like in Sealed, the slower your deck is, the more you prefer hard removal to bounce spells and tempo plays. Also, U/B often has no heroic and not many robust early creatures. On the other hand, a 1/3 body with an upside is a fine two-mana play in a control deck, especially when you have some flexibility to draft around it.

My other favorite archetype is U/W Heroic with lots of cantrip enchantments and a low land count. Meletis Astronomer is simply unbelievable in such a deck as it allows you to basically “go off,” chaining enchantment into enchantment and burying your opponent.

In short, I rate Meletis Astronomer much higher than the rest of the Magic community does, and it also happens to be great in the decks I like to draft. Compared to Retraction Helix, I thought it had both a higher ceiling for how good it could be, and a higher floor for how bad it could be. (Although I’ll grant that there’s some middle ground where Helix would be better, as in something like an average U/G deck).

Next I picked up a Nyxborn Triton then an Akroan Skyguard and a second copy of Meletis Astronomer; I was on track for U/W Heroic. Pick five I faced the choice between Tromokratis and Loyal Pegasus. I wasn’t yet locked into white, and I don’t like Loyal Pegasus much except in very extreme decks. I like picking up a card like Tromokratis because it’s great in a slow, controlling deck, and also serves as a get-out-of-jail-free card if your deck winds up bad. If I have a train wreck draft, I can at least put Tromokratis in my deck and get some number of wins just off that!

I very much regret my sixth pick, and it’s the one where I’m willing to admit to a clear mistake. It was between Oreskos Sun Guide and Deepwater Hypnotist. I again used the logic that I was not yet locked into white, so if the pick is close, I should go for the blue card. The problem is that this pick is not really close. Deepwater Hypnotist is a filler card—unlikely to change the quality of your deck—whereas Oreskos Sun Guide is a card that you really want to be playing with. I should’ve taken Sun Guide here and stayed on track for U/W, but instead I picked Deepwater Hypnotist and continued to keep my options open.

By the end of pack one I was mostly blue with an Akroan Skyguard and a few filler black cards that came late. Worth noting is that two of my blue cards were Tromokratis and Divination, which are excellent in U/B Control, but border on unplayable in U/W Heroic.

I opened pack two and was forced to make a decision once and for all. It was Hopeful Eidolon, which would be a great addition to U/W Heroic, particularly with two Meletis Astronomers, or it was the more objectively powerful Gray Merchant of Asphodel. Given the circumstances and the decisions I’d made in pack one, I think this is a very close pick and I could’ve reasonably gone either way. In the end, my unwillingness to pass up on a good black deck won out and I picked Gray Merchant of Asphodel.

The rest of the draft was fairly academic and I more or less picked the best blue and black card from each pack. I saw great white in pack two, including two Wingsteed Riders (although I picked very good cards over them in each case), while black proved to be overdrafted. My deck would’ve been great if I’d gone U/W, but it ended up fine in U/B as well. I was saved by opening Shipwreck Singer in pack three, and being passed two blue bombs after that.

GP Philly Draft One

As you can see, my deck had a lot of great cards, but was missing a couple good pieces of removal and/or bounce to be truly excellent.

I won an absurdly close three-game match against Michael Baraniecki’s R/B Underworld Cerberus deck, and then a fairly close two games against Carl Mitchell’s G/R deck. I actually sideboarded in white against Carl Mitchell, in part to have an answer to his Mistcutter Hydra, which had the potential to be unbelievably good against my deck.

Finally, it was back to reality when Mark Evaldi decimated me with his U/G deck. There’s not much to say about this match except that it was a good, clean, fair-and-square loss. Mark’s deck was better than mine, and it was also a bad matchup for me. In both games, he put Aqueous Form on a big creature and I had no answers to that in my whole deck.

Draft one record: 2-1
Overall record: 11-1

Given the size of the tournament, I’d need a 2-1 record in the second draft in order to make the Top 8. Comparatively speaking, this draft was very simple as I was black from the start and the color ended up being wide open.

GP Philly Draft Two

My deck turned out excellent, with the all-stars being two copies of Gray Merchant of Asphodel and two copies of Mogis’s Marauder. My biggest decision was whether to splash green for two Pharika’s Menders or blue for a small handful of other cards. I decided to maindeck the blue, since Griptide would be fairly irreplaceable against a heroic deck, and since I’d be maindecking two Returned Phalanxes anyway, but I’d swap it for green in an attrition matchup.

In the first round I again faced Mark Evaldi, who was the other black drafter at the table. His deck featured two copies each of Hero’s Downfall, Pharika’s Cure, and Sip of Hemlock as well as a Bile Blight—it certainly qualified as an attrition matchup! I lost game one, but won the next two on the back of the Pharika’s Menders and a timely Gray Merchant topdeck. On the coverage, Ben Stark questioned my (admittedly questionable) decision to sideboard in Fleetfeather Sandals. I did so because we both had tons of meaty ground creatures including multiple copies of Returned Phalanx and Marshmist Titan. This meant two things: first that flying could be a major gamebreaker, and second that I had a lot of vanilla ground creatures which did virtually nothing that I needed to sideboard out.

In the second round I lost a close one to Adam Mancuso’s G/R deck. In game one we played a twenty-turn game where Adam made about eight tokens from Hammer of Purphoros. In game three I was curving out with a great hand while Adam didn’t play a creature for the first couple of turns. I was all set to slam Shrike Harpy as soon as he did so, but unfortunately his first play was a turn 5 Arbor Colossus. To play the Harpy would’ve been silly as he could just give me two counters, play a sixth land, blow it up, and attack me for 9. Suddenly I’d lost my best play and couldn’t get through the Arbor Colossus on the ground; it dominated the game and eventually took me down.

So it was do or die in the last round. I faced Adam Jansen and his U/W deck for a spot in the Top 8. Thankfully, I’d been passing to Adam and had a small idea of what tricks he’d be likely to have or not have. The games were close but my draws were good and I ended up winning 2-0. The crucial play was being able to take his Celestial Archon with Disciple of Phenax in game one.

Draft two record: 2-1
Overall record: 13-2 and fourth seed going into the Top 8!

A highlight of the event was making the Top 8 alongside a great friend and personal hero Huey Jensen, who’d come back from a 4-2 start to also finish the Swiss rounds 13-2! Nonetheless, there was little room for sentimentality as I was there to win, and knew I’d have to make it through three world-class players if I was to do so.

My draft was about as wild as you could possibly imagine. I started out drafting Bant colors and wound up nearly mono-black! I first picked Courser of Kruphix and got some good green in pack two, but it was also painfully apparent that green was getting cut off from the right. I also picked up an Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver and a handful of other blue cards. Throughout the draft I wasn’t sure whether I’d be G/B, U/B, U/G, or B/U/G! This made it hard to evaluate cards like Pharika’s Cure, as I had no idea how many basic Swamps my finished product might have.

In the end, I came up about one piece of mana fixing short of wanting to play three colors, and since my deck was pretty strong I decided to play it safe and stick to B/G.

GP Philly Top Eight

I had a lot of powerful cards, but my deck was pretty slow and didn’t have to much early defense. If I’d made two or three picks differently, placing a higher priority on cheap cards like Returned Phalanx, things could’ve been better for me. In short, I did the best I could given the time pressure and the rule against looking back at your picks which make professional drafts so challenging, but I’m not perfect and still have room to improve.

My first two rounds went according to plan and I found myself in the finals against Frank Skarren’s U/G beatdown deck. I don’t know which deck would be a statistical favorite if we played a thousand games, but I had a rough idea of how the matchup would play out. If Frank had good draws, I’d be too slow to keep up; if he stumbled a little, my stronger late game would take over.

In short, that’s the way things played out. Frank had the right cards on the right turns, and managed to take me down on the back of a couple of key flying creatures. In game two, I died with seven mana, a Keepsake Gorgon to make monstrous, two copies of Lash of the Whip, and a Sip of Hemlock still in my hand. If I’d had a few more life, a few more mana, or an extra turn, I could’ve taken over the game, but Frank orchestrated things so that that wasn’t possible.

Top 8 draft record: 2-1
Overall finish: Second Place

Well, I’m not perfect, and I made some mistakes in both drafting and game play. That said, it was a huge improvement from my previous finishes in the format, and I’m proud of both my performance and the outcome of the tournament. I’ll keep trying to develop better instincts for those marginal draft picks, and tightening up my game play. Maybe next time I’m here I’ll have the Pharika’s Cure for that turn 2 Vaporkin or I’ll know to hold up Lash of the Whip at the right time, and I’ll be able to take another shot at the title. Until then, congratulations to the GP Philadelphia Champion Frank Skarren, and I’ll look forward to our rematch!

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