Here’s the down and dirty on how to win an RPTQ.
Step One: Pick the Right Deck
I came into the Standard format fairly cold. My friends were all recommending Rally but, while it looked good, I noticed a lot of hate and I was worried about the time it would take to learn to play the deck optimally.
In reality, the time concern wasn’t a good one, as it takes just as long (if not longer) to learn how to play against Rally optimally, and you need to be able to do at least one of the two to succeed in this format.
Last season, whenever someone asked me what they should play, I told them to play a deck with Siege Rhino, as the card had a tremendous capability to make up for small blunders and swing games.
I took my own advice and started checking out lists, which is when I found the Mardu Green deck. Mardu Green tries to kill everything, and runs Goblin Dark-Dwellers as a way to flash back stuff and kill even more things. Dark-Dwellers is a tricky card to evaluate, but when you’re flashing back a 3-mana spell, it’s basically a 4/4 Snapcaster with menace.
Part of picking the right deck is getting in enough prep, and I jammed as many games as I could. Every time I had a few minutes to spare I’d run it through a few matches on MTGO. I uninstalled League of Legends so I wouldn’t have distractions in my free time. I streamed it, recorded it, and tested it live with friends.
There are three main breakthroughs that I made that differ from the stock list, starting with adding Radiant Flames and Languish to the main. One weakness of a deck full of 1-for-1 removal is an opponent that goes wide. Since the decks that aren’t pumping out tokens are still casting Collected Company and trying to build up a board presence, this means that sweepers are a lot better than usual. You don’t need many, but they pull their weight.
My second big change was to cut Soulfire Grand Master. While Grand Master isn’t awful in every matchup, it is awful in the ones that are close or difficult in any way, and it’s very much overkill against RDW.
The problem with Grand Master is that the 2/2 body gets bricked fast in this metagame, and it provides a lightning rod for various soft removal spells that would otherwise be bad against you. It’s a huge liability in the mirror.
The last major innovation I made was to realize that main-deck Hallowed Moonlight is necessary in a field of Rally and Collected Company. It’s efficient, it gains value, and it cycles when it’s dead. I was surprised at how often it comes up, and it randomly hoses cards like Pia and Kiran Nalaar, Hangarback Walker, Secure the Wastes, or even a Deathmist Raptor trigger.
I would maindeck Hallowed Moonlight in any kind of white controlling deck in this metagame.
Some prefer cards like Anafenza and Kalitas as main-deck hosers, but those cards aren’t nearly as effective because the Rally decks are stuffed with ways to bounce creatures. The opponent has plenty of time to use Collected Company to build up a board presence, bounce your hoser for a single blue, and combo out. Post-board, these permanent-based hosers actually become useful as the opponent boards out half of their bounce and brings in anti-spell cards like Dispel and Duress, and diversifying your hosers becomes quite good.
Step Two: Pick the Right Tournament
Between the ability to fly to any region in the world and the RPTQs being spread out over two weekends, there were a ton of options. It’s just a matter of weighing what’s actually worth it. These were my main considerations:
Quantity of opponents (number of rounds)
You can do hard calculations for this by figuring out the total number of people that qualify per area (using the map of PPTQs for a season and adding local Silver pros) and figuring out driving distances, as most people go to the closest location. My buddy Louis did some of this and suggested driving to Lincoln, Nebraska, which was a few hours further than other options but was in a dead area where most people to the east would be going to the Twin Cities or St. Louis.
Quality of opponents (toughness density)
RPTQs are small enough that asking tougher opponents from your area where they’re going and then trying to avoid them is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I went a step further and asked friends in nearby cities as well, which helped me eliminate St. Louis since that’s where the Chicago players were going.
Some people are fine flying to a softer RPTQ, especially if they can combine it with visiting relatives or friends.
The MTGO RPTQ is the most convenient since you don’t have to leave your house, and the number of people for these things is smaller than some real life RPTQs, so they’re definitely reasonable. The main downside is that the skill density of your opponents is the highest possible.
Each season there are a few areas that get a huge number of players. That’s on Wizards’ logistics, and I don’t know if they’re constrained by factors we don’t know about like the TOs and whatnot, but if I was in an area with a typically high turnout, then I would heavily consider trying to qualify online.
Another consideration with the MTGO RPTQs is that the invites pay out $1,500 instead of a plane ticket, so the tougher average opponent is worth it if you live near the next Pro Tour.
Travel buddies if driving
Just because you found the perfect RPTQ doesn’t mean you have fellow crazies that also want to drive more hours. I was lucky that my buddy Mike, someone I’ve known since college, won a PPTQ with Rally and said he’d go wherever seemed ideal.
Nebraska was a good call, and we had 24 players sit down for round 1. From the data that @HeleneBergeot tweeted out, Nebraska was the smallest RPTQ in the world.
The 59% is counting the online attendance. The 9% difference between the first and second weekend (more if some players didn’t play) might be a geographical difference, simply accounting for events that are easier to get to. But it could also be a psychological one. Players like to play, and people might hedge toward playing sooner rather than later if given a choice. This may mean that playing on the second weekend is going to give you slightly smaller attendance on average—one more consideration for future RPTQs.
A large reason for the Nebraska dip is that the area is so out of the way. The last GP Lincoln was in 2012, and despite having a popular format (Modern), the tournament only got 716 players. When a tournament is too out of the way, that factor starts overriding everything else, restricting people’s ability to self-regulate event sizes by traveling.
Fortunately, Helen has already mentioned that Nebraska and Italy are the two extremes that they’ll be working on, though that didn’t help the players in Desio last weekend.
In Nebraska, a full third of the players were on Rally. One person recognized me and knew my list from playing me on MTGO, so most of the field knew that I had main-deck Hallowed Moonlights, but it didn’t seem to matter much. It’s just not a card you can play around when your deck is designed to set up a lethal Rally.
The permanent-based hate gets much better post-board when Rally boards out the Sidisi’s Faithfuls and brings in stuff like Duress, Dispel, or Disdainful Stroke. They’ll still have Reflector Mages, and it’s best to play Anafenza/Kalitas on the same turn as other removal spells to permanently exile key creatures.
Similarly, Flaying Tendrils doesn’t kill everything, but it can combine with other removal to permanently exile things. If the opponent boards in aggressive, larger bodies like Anafenza, then I’m likely to board Flaying Tendrils back out.
Ultimate Price is actually fine, and you can leave it in over a Duress if you think the opponent is going to have more targets than average, like Kalitas. Meanwhile, Kalitas is a fine card to bring in to gain value in the midrange control mirrors, but I’ll only bring it in if I think it’ll trigger consistently and it matches up well against the opponent’s removal suite.
Outpost Siege is absolutely unbeatable in matchups like this and borderline good enough for the main deck, but I haven’t pulled that trigger yet because of Dromoka’s Command out of the Bant deck. I’ve considered a second Outpost Siege or maybe an Ob Nixilis in the fourth Goblin Dark-Dwellers slot.
Chandra is the best trump in the mirror because she kills things, draws cards, and ends the opponent quickly. It’s the perfect top-end to our suite of Siege Rhinos and Crackling Dooms. Also, the best answer to an opposing Chandra is a Chandra of our own.
Sarkhan is fine in the mirror. It’s a great card to follow up a Siege Rhino and can eat Goblins for value. Still, I usually don’t bring him in unless I know my opponent is on the Infinite Immolation plan. It’s mostly here for when I want to diversify my threats, and shines against ramp and heavy control strategies.
Flaying Tendrils shines in matchups where the opponent is aggressively attacking with multiple small threats. In those matchups, you don’t want to hold your sweeper for maximum value but you might also want to sweep again later. Unlike Radiant Flames, Tendrils can be flashed back with Goblin Dark-Dwellers.
Tips on Playing
As far as playing the deck, think about possible draws where you might need to use a specific mana color. Sometimes, playing a turn-1 dual land is better than playing a creatureland despite the fact that a dual land has a chance of coming into play untapped later.
Early discard gives a ton of information as to how to sequence your removal and navigate the game. Properly sequencing your land drops and removal is almost the entirety of the skill in piloting this deck.
The removal is efficient enough that you can stumble and still buy enough time to crawl back into it down the road.
Goblin Dark-Dwellers generates a ton of value, especially when flashing back Read the Bones. This means that you can lose value on your removal (say by double-Crackling Dooming a Gideon), and then regain that value later. This also means that you shouldn’t be afraid to mulligan. This deck goes through a lot of cards!
As far as matchups go, I’ve been beating most things and losing hard to ramp. The closer matchups are the control mirrors, where both decks have a ton of crappy soft removal in the main deck. Whoever draws more relevant cards should be up a game.
When playing against Mardu Green, get in damage. It limits the Mardu player’s options and makes it easier to close. A turn-2 Ayli from Rally is often scarier than a turn-2 Jace. This also means that Reflector Maging a Siege Rhino or Goblin Dark-Dwellers to get in damage is an absolutely fine play.