Not Quite Top 8 at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch

Two weeks before the Pro Tour, I headed to Conyers, Georgia, to a house in the middle of nowhere to test with my team, The Pantheon. The new deck on the block that would require the most testing would be the Eldrazi deck, featuring Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher from Oath of the Gatewatch, in combination with Eye of Ugin and Eldrazi Temple. Almost all of our Eldrazi builds were white/black based, and in general, more of a midrange strategy than the UR and colorless decks that ended up dominating the Pro Tour.

We spent a fair amount of time on Affinity, Infect, Kiki Chord, Melira Company, UWR (Sneaky-Kiki), Burn, Jund, Scapeshift, and Eldrazi. After several mock tournaments, and countless hours of playing sets of decks against each other, most of us believed that Infect was simply the most powerful and best deck. Many of us had played it at the previous Modern Pro Tour as well, so we felt we understood a lot of the matchups and interactions well.

I think we had all settled in right around Monday or Tuesday before the Pro Tour. Of the 12 of us we had: 7 Infect, 2 UWR (Jelger and Antonino), 2 Jund (Reid and Shahar), and 1 Affinity (Nassif). The next few days would be spent doing more drafts and everyone testing their problem matchups in order to finalize sideboard strategies.

Thursday rolled around and we headed downtown to check into our hotels, register, get some dinner, and get a good night’s sleep before the Pro Tour.

Friday morning, it all began…

The First Draft

I started things out with an Essence Depleter. Although it wasn’t the overall belief of everyone on my team, I am pretty adverse to drafting decks that are based around colorless mana. I don’t particularly like my decks to require what is effectively a third color of mana, and I don’t want to spend high draft picks on mana fixing. When that’s the deck that I’m forced to draft, I’ll still do it, though. My first pack at the Pro Tour wasn’t great, and Essence Depleter was the clear best card, so that’s what I took. The draft wasn’t going that well in the beginning, mostly because the packs weren’t that great. That’s usually fine, though, as it means the other players’ decks typically aren’t great either. I ended up drafting a very aggressive red/black devoid deck, which played very well.

The most interesting pick of the draft was late in pack 3 when I had a choice between Touch of the Void and Swarm Surge. Touch of the Void is a better card in 99% of decks, but in this case, my deck was hyper-aggressive with something like 18 colorless creatures, including 4 copies of Sky Scourer, so I opted to take the Swarm Surge. I knew going into pack 3 that I really wanted to have a copy of Swarm Surge in my deck and passing up on the Touch of the Void was a high price to pay, but I’m glad I bit the bullet and made the pick.

My deck ended up being quite solid. I had a very low curve—no cards in my deck cost more than 4 mana—and was easily able to play a deck with only 16 lands. I did have to play 2 copies of Tar Snare, which I would have preferred to play any aggressive creatures over, but I just didn’t have any more. In the end, my deck was 16 lands, 2 Tar Snare, and 22 colorless cards including a Molten Nursery, which was great in the one game where I drew it.

I ended up going 3-0 in a tough pod that also featured Lucas Blohon, Ondress Strassky, and Sam Black, with wins against the latter two in the second and third rounds of the draft.

As we did at Pro Tour Fate Reforged, the majority of Team Pantheon opted to play a UG Infect deck.

UG Infect

Kai wrote about our deck on the eve of the Pro Tour, which can be found here.

Some notable card choices:

Rancor ended up being the card that we chose to occupy the slot we had Distortion Strike in the last time we played Infect. This helps to get through ground blockers with Glistener Elf, or flying blockers with either Glistener Elf or Inkmoth Nexus. We tried Slip Through Space as another alternative to Distortion Strike, but it wasn’t very strong. Rancor has the added advantage of simply being faster in a pure goldfishing sense than either of the other two options, while also providing the needed effect.

The two main-deck Spell Pierce were an extremely important part of the deck. 1-mana interaction spells are great in a deck where our goal is to kill our opponent as quickly as possible. Spell Pierce basically stops all the best interaction spells, with the exception of Abrupt Decay, and also provides some interaction with other noninteractive decks like Living End or Storm. Spell Pierce was also very good in the Burn matchup, as their best spell in the matchup, Searing Blaze, is usually easy to counter if we’re able to leave the blue mana up to cast Spell Pierce.

This card is good against Affinity, Noble Hierarch/Birds of Paradise/Wall of Roots decks, and a potential hedge against main deck Spellskites. It’s also a good answer post-sideboard to Izzet Staticaster.

Andrew Cuneo played the Corrupter last time we played Infect, but he was the only one of us who chose to do so. We all played it this time. We expected a lot of Affinity, and enough random artifacts that we all thought it made the most sense for our 13th infect creature (counting Inkmoth Nexus) to be the Corrupter.

One thing of note is that our deck contained no Spellskites at all, either in the main deck or sideboard. In testing, we found that most decks that Spellskite is good against were prepared for it. We also noticed early on in testing that every time we played a matchup with Infect, before everyone was aware of each individual sideboard plan, other decks would often board in cards like Destructive Revelry or Nature’s Claim in preparation for sideboard Spellskite. The Spellskite didn’t often actually do anything other than eat these cards out of our opponent’s hands. We decided that the low impact of the card itself combined with the ability to strand dead cards in our opponent’s hands made it worth not playing. We expected very few players, if any, to show up with hexproof decks. If we thought that would be a considerable percentage of the field we would have played some Spellskites, but I think we made a very good decision. I certainly cast a few Gitaxian Probes over the course of the tournament which revealed cards in my opponent’s hand that I knew they could never cast unless I activated my Inkmoth Nexus.

Although only a sidecard card, this was one of the cards and plans we came up with that I thought was the best and most impactful. When we worked on the Burn matchup in testing, we found that the Burn deck would get to a very low life total. The Burn player often knew they could be reckless with their own life, so they would fetch and shock themselves freely and take plenty of damage off of their own Eidolon of the Great Revel.

We found that Kitchen Finks served two purposes. It allowed us to gain life and save damage by staving off attacks or being targeted by burn spells, but it also allowed us to take the initiative. Especially with a Noble Hierarch in play, we could simply race the Burn deck in a good old-fashioned damage race. Dryad Arbor also helped a lot here, as any non-infect creature with a pump spell and Become Immense was nearly always enough to end the game with damage.

For the first round of Constructed I was paired against Kyle Boggemes playing UWR Control. In the first game of the tournament I won by attacking for damage with Noble Hierarch and some pump spells. Unfortunately, I lost the next 2 games and dropped the first round of Modern—not where I wanted to be. Luckily, from there, I was able to rattle off the next four in a row to finish Day 1 at 7-1. This is about as good of a position as I could have hoped for going into Day 2.

Day 2

I guess I had decent tiebreakers as I ended up in pod #1 to start the second day. It would be a tough pod, highlighted by another Hall-of-Famer: Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa, and young pro Martin Muller. Paulo was sitting to my immediate right and would be feeding me during the draft. My first pack contained Jori En, Ruin Diver as the best card, with the second-best card being Oblivion Strike. I’m more than happy to first-pick Jori En. I like that card a lot and I also like UR a lot as an archetype.

As it turned out, Paulo to my right also ended blue/red, as he was passed a second-pick Jori En in a pack also containing Stormchaser Mage, which I was happy to pick third. From there, though, Paulo moved more into a colorless archetype than I did, so it didn’t end up going too badly for either of us. I ended up with a pretty interesting deck, quite synergistic, featuring three cheap prowess creatures—2 Umara Entangler and a Stormchaser Mage—to go along with Jori En, Pyromancer’s Assault, and 6 copies of Slip Through Space. I ended up playing another 16-land deck even though I wanted to play 15. Ultimately, even with the six cantrips, I decided on 16 due to color requirements. Because I had so many Slip Through Space, I knew it would be important to draw 2, so I wanted to play at least 9 blue sources. I didn’t think I could get by with only 6 Mountains, so I opted to play 9/7, Islands:Mountains.

I ended up going 2-1 in this draft with a loss in the middle to Scott Lipp. There was a chance to win the second game on my final turn if I drew one of three or four cards to remove his blocker, draw a haste creature, or chain a Slip Through Space into another Sift Through Space or one of a few other cards, but it wasn’t meant to be. I had really hoped to 3-0 the draft, of course, but I was still in a decent position at 9-2 heading back to Modern.

Unfortunately, this decent position faded relatively quickly…

In round 12, I was paired against Andrew Brown in what would be my first meeting with any Eldrazi deck in the tournament. I won the first game, which was not interactive at all, on my third turn, on the play. After sideboard though, my draws weren’t quite as good, and Andrew’s were much better. I succumbed to Dismembers, Gut Shots, Thought-Knot Seers, and Reality Smashers.

In round 13, I was paired against the colorless Eldrazi deck, this time in the hands of Ivan Floch. I was 9-3 at the time, while Ivan was 10-2, which meant I had been paired up. This was a double-edged sword, as typically being paired up means the quality of the opponent is higher, but on the flip side, it did help tiebreakers somewhat to play against people with a better record. In any case, it’s the Pro Tour, and there are never any easy matches. I had heard the matchup was somewhat tough for me, but was hopeful that I could win it anyways.

Unfortunately, I didn’t put up much of a fight against Ivan, mulliganing four times in two games, and not really mounting much of an offense or defense. I felt like I spent more time shuffling before the games than the games actually took to play out. That’s okay though—I’ve certainly been on the other side of matches like that, and it’s part of the game. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t especially frustrating for it to happen at such an important time in the tournament.

So after being 7-1 going into Day 2 and then just two rounds of Modern, I had already picked up my 4th loss and was sitting at 9-4. Pretty big bummer, as any Top 8 aspirations I had all but evaporated.

After a couple of wins in rounds 14 and 15, including a super intense and close match against Nathaniel Smith with Burn in round 15, in which I was able to deal exactly enough damage with a Rancored Dryad Arbor to lock him out from casting any further spells with his Eidolon of the Great Revel on the turn before he’d likely kill me, I moved to 11-4. 12-4 sometimes makes Top 8 at the Pro Tour. Why not me? Well, 12-4 misses more often than it gets in. I was also told that it looked like everyone at the top could draw in if they chose to. As it turned out, both Shuhei and Ivan, who were already locked, chose to play their matches. This was very good for me. If they were to both win, they would knock two competitors from 12-3 to 12-4. If I won, maybe I could get lucky with tiebreakers. Of course, I still had to win a match first.

I headed up to the pairings board, and had what was probably the pairing I’d least want in the tournament: the mirror match against the best player in the world, Owen Turtenwald.

We were both playing the exact same 75 cards in our decks, so we knew exactly what to expect. The main deck doesn’t interact all that well with itself—1 Dismember, 2 Spell Pierce, and 4 Vines of Vastwood, which are often used to fizzle opposing pump spells. In game 1, Owen and I both mounted small offensives. Spell Pierce bought me one turn, and on that turn I was able to attack with an Inkmoth Nexus and a Glistener Elf. With Owen unable to stop both of them, and nothing to stop Might of Old Krosa and Become Immense from my hand, I picked up the first game.

In game 2, Owen and I both mulliganed with Owen on the play. I cast Gitaxian Probe on my first turn after Owen had played Inkmoth Nexus, and his hand contained 4 lands (3 fetches and a Pendelhaven) and a Dismember. My hand was pretty good, and I was pretty far ahead at this point. I Dismembered Owen’s Nexus on his turn since I had a Dismember to spare. I knew it would be quite hard for Owen to win with the cards in his hand because he had gotten so unlucky off his mulligan. He fetched for a Dryad Arbor and was plinking away while I started attacking with a Blighted Agent, but he was never able to recover from his poor opening hand.

I eventually heard that Ivan and Shuhei had won their matches, but I didn’t bother sitting around trying to figure out if I’d make it in. I’d just wait for the announcement and hope. I had no control over anything at this point anyway. So I did what I often do in times of high anxiety and took a walk with Reid Duke. After 5 or 10 minutes, we headed back to be there for the Top 8 announcement. Unfortunately, I came up short in 9th place. To be fair, it wasn’t particularly close—I was something like 1.3% behind in the first tiebreaker, which may not seem like that much, but there have been much, much, much narrower 9th-place finishes. I wasn’t really all that bummed about the result, even in the moment. Objectively, 9th is a good result, and I was proud of how I drafted and played over the course of the weekend. As always, I was also proud of my team, the Pantheon, and proud to even just be a part of it. No Magic tournament would be as fun, successful, or rewarding without them.

It would’ve been nice to get that sixth Top 8 though—maybe next time.

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