Since I went to my first Pro Tour, I’ve imagined what it was like to win one of them. I’ve dreamed about it, both literally and not; I’ve gone through winning speeches in my mind multiple times. When the time came, the best I could come up with was “pretty good” and some babbling. I know, I know, I was disappointed at myself too. Regardless, it does not matter much what I said, but rather how I felt – and I felt much better than “pretty good”, even if I cannot exactly put a name to it yet. Hopefully, with this article (and its continuations), I will be able to explain a little bit better what it means to me to win the Pro Tour, as well as give you a good idea of how my experience in Puerto Rico was.
My Pro Tour started effectively on Monday morning, when I woke up earlier than any person should ever have to take my flight to Puerto Rico, which at least was a direct flight, unlike most of my friends’. I would imagine I stayed awake for about five minutes total during the almost three hours flight, and once I got to the airport I met the people who would be staying at the same house I was. We had decided to book a house instead of staying at hotels, and I had high hopes about it being pretty awesome, both in a magic and in a non magic level.
We went to the car rental place, and after some time (ok, A LOT of time) we managed to sort out the three drivers; we had multiple people who were able to drive, but some were not 25, some were 25 but didn’t have a credit card with enough limit in it to book the car, etc, etc. After all was done we rode to our house. Our group, at the time, was the following:
– Gabe Walls
– David Ochoa
– Josh Utter-Leyton
– Brad Nelson
– Martin Juza
– Lucas Blohon
– Tom Ross
(we were later joined by Ben Stark and Matej Zatlkaj)
Once we got to the place, it was slightly disappointing. We had booked three fifths of a big complex, but, as it turned out, the three we had were all smaller than the two we didn’t. The house could accommodate everyone, but the beds were a bit smaller than we would have liked if we were going to share them, and we didn’t have a big room where we could play, which meant most of the time we would have to be divided and that was not our original intention. We talked to the owner and managed to book another of the places until Thursday morning, which was fine because we figured we wouldn’t be testing much from Thursday on anyway. We managed to isolate Brad and Luis in a corner where they wouldn’t be disruptive to other people’s sleeping schedules, and I was assigned to the “foreigners dependencies” with Martin and Lucas, later to be joined by Matej, which meant for this night I would have a room all for myself. Oh, and we only had one cable for the Internet.
After turning all the air conditioning in the building on, we left for lunch. We found a nice place called Bebbo’s Cafe that had some local food (fried plantains!) and there we were joined by Ben Stark. We had a healthy format discussion, which included me wanting to put Vengevine in any possible deck and everyone else ditching all my suggestions. We figured out that if we could break the graveyard, that would be game, because no one would have any hate, so maybe a Hedron Crab/Bloodghast/Vengevine deck would work? We would have to do a search on “graveyard” when we got home. Someone also suggested Hedron Crab/Roilling Terrain, but we found out that this was kinda lousy if you ever milled an Eldrazi. Time passed and many suggestions came by, most of which made Brad shake his head in disgust, and none of which actually seemed any good.
After lunch, we decided to go to a Wal-Mart to buy a big table, so we could draft and test together, as well as stuff for us to survive – drinks, chocolate, all those things a person needs. We got caught in the biggest traffic jam ever, and about one hour later we gave up and trying to get to the Wal-Mart that we couldn’t even properly locate and just went to a random supermarket to get the food, but no tables; It was only the first of many hours I would eventually spend lost inside a car.
We got back to the house at around 6ish, and everyone was just dead tired, since we had woken up so early to take our flights (or not slept in some people’s cases). A lot of people went to take a nap, and so did I. Around 8:00 I woke up and joined them in our “common room,” and we played some Block.
At first, there was one deck I wanted to play – Mono-Red. If I thought Mono-Red was good enough to play in Standard, how would it not be good in block? All it lost were the Lightning Bolts, which could be replaced by Burst Lightning just as well. The biggest appeal that the Red deck had to me was that it simply could not lose to the Eldrazi deck (and when I say Eldrazi it is always going to be the Ulamog kind of Eldrazi, not Monument) – I had played that match a lot, and it seemed just miserable. There isn’t really anything you can do to make it better, either – Pelakka Wurm seems like a solution but it really isn’t, because you are just dead before you play it. We even played a game in which Luis played turn 5 Pelakka Wurm, turn 6 Pelakka Wurm, and then lost on my turn 7!
I also played a little bit against Boros, and that match didn’t seem very close either, though that might be because our Boros list was not well built at the time – it had Sparkmages over removal for example, and Sparkmage is just not good against Red. As it was, the Red deck was just faster and had way more ways to deal with Boros’s creatures, and Searing Blaze was just the biggest beating ever. I kept in mind that Red was a good deck to play, even if I didn’t really waaant to play it.
The other option we had was Brad’s URG deck. Brad played a unique part in our house, at least to me, because he had pretty much already done all the work we were trying to do, and he knew (or at least had a good idea) why most bad decks were bad, though he really couldn’t explain it. A typical conversation would be:
PV: “what about this card?”
Brad: “no, that’s not good”
PV: “Why not?”
Brad: “I’ve already tested it, it’s not good”
PV: “But why not? It seems like it would be good based on this this and that”
Brad: “No it’s not, I’ve already tested it”
That was not overly helpful, because I am not an easy person to convince – I want to know why things are the way they are, not simply what things are. How could I just blindly trust him if the explanation didn’t make sense to me?
So, regardless of what Brad said, I did spend some time trying and brainstorming some new ideas, like Mono-Black Vampires/Tokens. That is not to say nothing he said made sense – Brad was invaluable to me in the process of choosing a deck, as he did know a lot about the format, and sometimes he was able to explain it in a way that convinced me, so that meant I wasted far less time than I would if he wasn’t there (and when I say “I”, I generally mean “we”). Basically, Brad’s presence there meant two things – one, we didn’t waste much time trying to build something that would never work, because Brad had already wasted that time and knew it would never work. Two, we didn’t actually have any possibility of breaking the format with an insane brew, because he kept us too attached to “real decks”, since in his mind he had already tried everything possible. He was a big advocate of the UGR deck the entire time, saying it was the best he had found, and he was the first person to plant the “UGR seed” in my mind.
The next day we woke up relatively early and went to the bit beach. We stopped by a Walgreens and bought three small plastic balls, since we couldn’t find a volleyball (which is actually the only sport I can play well; I know, I know, I’m Brazilian and I’m “supposed to know how to play soccer” as if it is genetic , but I don’t). We got there and the water was good, but nothing spectacular – I’ve found out that most Americans have a somewhat distorted view of what an “awesome” beach is, probably because theirs aren’t very good in the mainland. Hawaii, for example, has nice beaches, but I can find similar some hours away from home, whereas most Americans I’ve talked to seem to think they are insane.
Regardless, we had a lot of fun – we started simply throwing the balls to each other (which I am pretty terrible at, since we don’t really play any of the sports that involve that), but soon enough the game went from throwing the ball to people to throwing the ball at people, which then became throwing the ball at Gabe for the most part.
We came back, showered and decided to play a Mock tournament. We split ourselves in three rooms – the “control” room, the “beatdown room” and the “rogue” room. Each room would build its respective decks and then we would meet to play a tournament. I was obviously assigned to the beatdown room and decided I’d play mono-red, and then we built a Vampires deck for the other guy to go with our Boros. We ended up building the “tokens” vampire deck I talked about. I was assigned to play Mono-Red against Juza, who was in the rogue group and had built an UG Trap deck with Gabe Walls. People wanted to play best of 3 with sideboard, like in a normal tournament, but I honestly didn’t see the point – we were building new decks, we had no idea how they would play out against each other deck and so we could not properly build a sideboard, and even worse, we would have no idea what was good to bring in or to take out, probably distorting the results in the process. I suggested best of 5 without any sideboarding (which admittedly was convenient for the Mono-Red player) until we had a good idea of what was going on and since Martin was of the same idea we just played best of 5 ourselves.
We were done with our best of 5 before anyone else could finish their second game, and Martin didn’t come close to winning any of them. We played some more while we were waiting for the others and I think I ended 8-0.
After that, the tournament just completely fell apart and it became kind of a “fire at will”. I played some more games against the UG Trap deck, this time against Gabe, and the end result was 2-4 me or something like that. I don’t know if Gabe was playing it differently than Martin, but it seemed to me that I had just gotten pretty bad draws against Gabe, and the match was in fact really bad.
That put us in some kind of rock-paper-scissors metagame, in which the Eldrazi/Trap deck beat the other control decks, Red beat the Eldrazi/Trap decks, and sideboard beat the Red decks – but only sideboard from Red or White.
Early enough, we deemed UW to be unplayable – it did not have a good enough win percentage against the aggro decks to justify its bad percentage against the Eldrazi decks. Once we got to the tournament, it was obvious that the rest of the world did not share our opinion, but at the moment that’s what we were working with. I also deemed Eldrazi unplayable myself, since I couldn’t make it beat Red no matter what. Our overall conclusion was that, for a deck to be decent and beat Red, it had to play Red itself.
That left UGR and its variant, UGr Summoning Trap. Some people were really enthusiastic about Trap, because it theoretically gave you a good edge in the control mirrors, but I was not sold on it. The trap deck presented a couple of problems to me:
1) It required too many slots. In a Trap deck, every card you take out makes your entire deck much worse, either because it means you are trapping into something awesome less often or because it means you aren’t playing Trap as fast as you would like. If we added 6 removal spells to our Trap decks so that it could beat Red, what would we take out? Either Trap targets or acceleration, and both of those were crucial.
2) It required you to play unplayable cards if you really wanted to make your Traps devastating. Of course, you could resign to playing Avenger of Zendikar and Rampaging Baloths and Pelakka Wurms and the like, but then why are you really playing Trap? You will Trap and will still lose to their Avengers, their Kozilek, their Ulamog, their Day of Judgment. That meant playing cards like Emrakul in your deck, which I knew I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to do once I saw Gabe play a game in which he had a hand of 2 Avenger and 3 Emrakul.
3) It could fizzle, and it did fizzle way more than I would like. If I am building my deck around a card, and adding suboptimal cards in the process, I don’t want to risk it doing nothing once I finally get to 6 mana. I think the easiest way to check if your Traps are going to be good or not, other than doing a somewhat complicated math, is to just look at your opening 7 every time you play and imagine if you would like to trap into those 7 cards. I did that when I was watching them playing, and I didn’t like the results.
4) You couldn’t punish them with a main phase trap. Against a deck like UW, you’d play EOT Trap, they would counter it, and you wouldn’t be able to capitalize on them being tapped out, because all your Trap targets only do things on your next turn, giving them the time to respond to them. Michael Jacob also identified this problem and said that he had added Terastodon and Iona, Shield of Emeria to his Trap deck so that you could trap into something effective on your turn, but this didn’t solve any of the other problems.
Add that to the fact that the UGR Trap deck wasn’t even beating the UGR deck more than 50% of the time, and that meant I was not going to play it – all that was left was Mono-Red or UGR. In the end, though, I think I always knew I was not going to play Mono-Red – the tournament was too important for such a gamble. In the end, it was Luis who opened my eyes – he said he had no idea what had happened that I had suddenly wanted to play [card]Goblin Guide[/card]. I told him the idea of auto beating half the field was very appealing, and he explained that, though the Red deck would destroy the random decks, the UGR deck would also have a good win % against them – I would just have to work a lot harder to get my wins, but I would get my wins anyway. It also improved against everything in the format post-board – pretty much the opposite of the red deck. That sold me in – out of a rock paper scissors metagame, we had found Spock.
Matej arrived that day, which meant I was going to share my bed with him, but he was a good roommate who didn’t move or make any sounds at all – the only conflict was the temperature of the AC, but we could live with that I suppose (especially since he would always sleep first so I would always have the final say on the nightly temperature *evil grin*).
On Wednesday, we ended up losing some of our teammates, who were gone to the rainforest. I wish I could have visited the rainforest, but I really needed to practice more; a person needs to have priorities and mine was the Pro Tour. Luis and I were pretty much set on the UGR deck, and Brad told us that, if we wanted to perfect it, what we needed to do was to get Michael Jacob. Luis talked to him and we arranged to pick him up where he was staying, which was close to the hotel. I went with Luis – according to him, it would take 10-15 minutes. About one hour later, after having gone in all directions but the right one in the chaotic streets of Puerto Rico, we found MJ and headed back. On our way back, we got lost again and ended up on a way to a bridge with a bunch of national flags. We paid the 3 dollar toll, crossed the bridge and then promptly turned back and had to pay the 3 dollar toll again (ok, promptly is a way of saying it – it took us around 10 minutes to find a way to go back).
That did give us time to talk to MJ about the deck, though we didn’t really figure something out that we hadn’t before, I don’t think. He liked the first Rampaging Baloths over the second Avenger of Zendikar, for example, but I really think the second Avenger is better in the main, as it is just much more powerful. We played the whole day, and I was happy with the deck – it was not spectacular, but it was good, it had game against everything and it had A LOT of game against everything after sideboard. It was not the easiest deck in the world to play, but it was not the likes of Elves that you just need to have experience with that particular deck – all the matches of Magic I’ve ever played in my life served as a little bit of practice with the UGR deck, to the point where I could pilot it decently even with a small amount of testing. It also helped that I had played with many of the other decks, so I knew the format relatively well.
We talked a lot, and decided on the following list:
The 5 slots were going to be a combination of Growth Spasm, Sea Gate Oracle and Overgrown Battlement. Of those, my personal favorites were the Battlement and the Oracle, since they play multiple roles in all the matches – the Battlement is a blocker against the Red decks (against them you don’t really care much about the acceleration so you are not worried if they die) and helps playing Jace and Oracle (the green one; it is awkward to have two Oracles in the same deck – we had many conversations that didn’t make sense at this point because people were talking about one Oracle and the other person would think the other Oracle) turn three against the control decks, which is very game swingy; The Oracle is a blocker that digs, and he blocks Goblin Ruinblaster and Lotus Cobra in the mirror, which is important, as well as blocking Kor Firewalker if you need it to. We decided to sleep and go to the event and then figure out our last slots, but I was really only considering those three cards.
We were supposed to go to the beach again on Thursday, but it ended up not happening as we just wanted to go to the site and draft. I knew draft was my weak spot in this tournament, and since all I had to do was decide the combination of Oracles/Battlements in my last 5 slots I very much preferred drafting over playing Block; we got to the hotel and did one draft, 8 men and teams after. The card pool was the worst I’ve ever seen, and I ended up with a mediocre UR deck, going 1-1 before I had to go give Willy Edel his LCQ deck. I did attack with Surrakar Spellblade to draw six cards, though, which was sweet.
I went to the site and drafted a real 8 man this time, until we went to the player’s party.
The party was a nice surprise – San Diego’s had been dreadful, and this time there was food (!!) and it was excellent. The only problem is that they didn’t have very much of it at first, and they ran out of plates very fast. I ended up getting a small, coffee plate with the intention of going back to fill it several times, but by the time I went the second time there was no food anymore. I talked to the waitress and found out they were having food again in one hour or so, so all we had to do was wait a little bit.
We left the place and met Gabe, who had been talking to a few people and found out that control would be much more played than aggro. We could get by that, except Gabe seemed to think no one would play aggro, and I found that, even though control would be more popular, there would still be enough aggro to the point where we couldn’t just give up on it. That didn’t change my deck choice in any way, though – we had chosen our deck especially because it had game against everything, and our sideboarded games against control were very good.
We went back to the party when food appeared again, and this time it was all for ourselves – there was our table and maybe one other. The churrasco was excellent, and I ate a lot more than my hunger ordered.
We went back to the house and laid out the deck – me, Luis, Josh and Web, the four people who were set on playing it. Then, someone suggested something that changed everything – I am not sure who was it, but I think Josh – and that was adding [card]Lotus Cobra[/card]s and [card]Goblin Ruinblaster[/card] main. I was skeptical at first, but the more I thought of it, and the more the other players talked about it, the more I liked the plan. We decided to play a couple games – Josh went to play against a GW Eldrazi deck, to see how much the match would improve, and we played a couple games against Mono-Green aggro, to see how much the deck would be harmed by the fact that we had cut some removal. It turned out that it had not been harmed much; in fact, the Cobras were quite excellent, pretty much making up for the fact that the Ruinblaster was terrible, and Josh reported that he had destroyed his opponent with the new cards, which were both awesome.
That also meant we had infinite sideboard slots now, and we could play a ton of cheap removal to combat the aggro decks – so now we had two less removal than we had before, but four more in the board, as well as more counters and more versatile guys. Before that night, I thought we had a good deck – I was happy playing it. After those changes, I thought we had an excellent deck, perhaps the best deck, and I was delighted to play it. Even if we didn’t test much, we had played enough, talked enough, theorized enough, to know the implications, and I liked them. This is what we ended up playing, the four of us, plus Tom Ross who jumped in the last minute:
I think all the cards in the maindeck are pretty self-explanatory, and I would not change it if I was to play the deck again. It is funny how every time I see this deck written, it is labeled “Comet Storm“ – this is not really a Comet Storm deck. If I had to pick one card, I would say this is a Jace, the Mind Sculptor deck. Or Perhaps a Lotus Cobra deck. Really, it is more of a Burst Lightning deck than a Comet Storm deck – it might as well be the least important card in it (though it still plays its role very well and I would not cut it). In fact, I would label this deck as a lands deck – this deck is very mana hungry and many two-landers are not keepable.
The removal in the board might be very random, but it isn’t. We wanted Flame Slashes because they were the best against Malakir Bloodwitch, Steppe Lynx and Plated Geopede (Forked Bolt is also good against them, but their best game against you after board is to wait with a fetchland to protect their dudes, and Slash will kill those two guys even if they do that), and they also kill Wall of Omens, so we maxed on them (though we don’t board in the four against Wall decks anyway, but you might want three). Searing Blaze is the worst removal against the actual aggro decks because sometimes RR is a bit rough, but we wanted to have access to two so we could make the swap for Bursts in the mirror, since they kill creature + Jace, as well as Raging Ravine, which the other removals don’t. It is also relevant that it kills big Geopedes and Lynxes like Slash, as well as Lodestone Golem. Forked Bolt is the next best one mana removal spell, and it is great against Mono-Green while being the same as any other against the early Red guys, and Cunning Sparkmage is a card that Luis really wanted to play, and it seems fine – you only have one because if you want him as a complement to your removal, and not as the removal per-se; I.e., if you draw Flame Slash on turn one/two and then Sparkmage on turn three it is going to be good, whereas if your two removals are two Sparkmages you might be dead before they matter.
The creatures are also not random – you have the slots in the board, so you can afford to play one that is good against aggro (Rampaging Baloths) and one that is good against control (Hellkite Charger), and you never want two more guys against anything. Mold Shambler is kind of a catchall answer, and is good as a fifth Ruinblaster against Eldrazi, as well as killing the two most problematic cards in the UW match, Jace and Gideon.
Vapor Snare was a bit untested, but it is very good against Vampires and it deals with two of the most powerful creatures against you, Abyssal Persecutor and Ob Nixilis – it is not a versatile card, but when you have as many slots as we had, you can do with a few dedicated, very powerful cards to answer specific problems.
The counters were great – Deprive is another catchall and Spell Pierce is the best at stopping their Jaces when they are on the draw, as well as forcing your important cards when you’re on the play. Usually, if you have the choice, you just want to counter Explore/Growth Spasm/Everflowing Chalice. The Spell Pierces were the best card in my sideboard, and I would like a third if I find enough cards to take out against the matches where I want the third.
This deck plays different depending on what you are up against. If you are up against another control deck (generally UW), the game has two stages – the Jace stage and the late game. The Jace stage is the most important one, and the late game will usually only happen if no player can have the Jace advantage; The Cobras help with this, because they let you play your Jace before theirs. Jace is such a big advantage because, even if they have their own, you got to Brainstorm first, and you are going to untap first, so you can play another Jace or something else while they are tapped out. This deck excels in Jace wars, since you have eight ways of playing it on turn three and you can kill it reasonably often, with burn, Raging Ravine and your creatures, whereas other decks only have their own Jaces and Gideons (and more counters I suppose, but your ways of dealing with it are better).
The general rule is Brainstorming, unless your opponent is also playing this deck and has access to Burst Lightning and Raging Ravine next turn – in that case, you want to use the +2 ability before you Brainstorm. I usually use this on myself, since I have no clue what they want – I might be putting a counter on the bottom when all they wanted was a land, and vice-versa, whereas I’ll always know what I want. Once you get Jace going and untap with it, it is very hard for you to lose against any control deck.
If you can’t have the Jace advantage, then your goal is to prevent them from having it – not much different than Bitterblossom wars with Faeries, except the situation where both players have Jace doesn’t exist because it is, well, “legendary”. Whatever happens, killing Jace is your priority. If they play Jace, sometimes you will be tempted to play Oracle of Mul Daya, Sphinx of Lost Truths, whatever, even Goblin Ruinblaster, instead of your own Jace – don’t do it, just kill their Jace with yours, it is that important and you cannot let them untap with it. Whatever you want to do can wait a turn most of the time, killing Jace cannot.
Another thing you can do during the Jace stage is Ruinblastering – with this deck, at least the way it is built, you have a much better early game than all the other controls and it is not unlike that you just overrun them on the play with Cobras and Ruinblasters, so you generally want to be aggressive given the choice.
If neither of you has Jace, then you just want to keep playing lands. Oracle is the most important card here, and as long as you are careful not to walk a bunch of Cobras and Oracles into a Day of Judgment, you should be fine. Be mindful of your Raging Ravines, they are very important and some UW decks don’t have many answers to them – one mistake I was making during testing, and probably during the tournament too, was that I didn’t activate my Ravines as often as I could, but sometimes a Ravine will just win the game on its own and it is better than playing a spell – I would actually go ahead and say Ravine is the most deceptively difficult card to play in the deck, and the one a good player is more likely to make a mistake with; Mutavault was never an easy card to play with, as it always presented you with a choice, but most of the time you could do something and activate Vault if you had to, whereas Ravine demands full commitment and it is hard to know when that commitment is appropriate. Also, if given the choice between Ravine and Kazandu Refuge, always lead with Refuge, as this is the one you want to get hit by Spreading Seas.
If the control deck is the Eldrazi deck, then you have to be much more aggressive – on the bright side, they can’t really do anything to stop any of your cards, so it all depends on how well you draw. They do not have any Jace or a reasonable way to kill it other than All is Dust, and you can usually ride it to victory (through Brainstorming, not through his ultimate most of the time – you don’t have enough counters to protect him for that long even if you are fatesealing them), but they will win if you get to the late game most of the time, because their spells are more powerful. Remember the Jace/Ruinblaster combo, it is very good against them and they have a hard time disrupting it. I think the big Eldrazi deck is your worst matchup in the format, but it is still not that bad.
Against the mono-red deck, you want to keep your life total high so that you don’t die to burn or Devastating Summons/Goblin Bushwhacker, which will close most games. Getting an Avenger of Zendikar into play is a top priority against them, because it nullifies their best way of killing you once you’re past the early game. Most of the time you just want to kill all their early guys and curve into actual spells that affect the board – it is more important to kill a Goblin Guide than to try to accelerate into a Jace or Oracle, for example – you can use the acceleration later to get an Avenger earlier into play, but you don’t need it as soon as possible like you do in the control matches because your midrangey spells are not that good against them. Kargan Dragonlord is rarely a problem, since you have six removal spells, Jace and counters, and after board it is not a problem at all. This is not a hard rule, but generally with Jace you just want to Brainstorm instead of +2ing to try to save it, as you don’t really care much if it dies and they will often not even attack it.
Against Mono-Green, you just want to kill anything that moves and adds mana. Their cards all get better the more they have, and they are almost all equal in value, so you just want to get rid of them early – if you kill their first two elves, for example, then their Wolfbriar Elementals, Beastmaster Ascensions and Eldrazi Monuments all get a lot weaker as a consequence. Comet Storm is a beating against them, and Cobra is also excellent. Their best cards are Monument (which you combat by killing as many guys as you can, and with Jace) and Vengevine, which you can fight with your big creatures (Avenger and Sphinx) that both battle favorably with it.
I think those are the top decks in the format – this one, mono green (and its variation GU though I have no idea how that plays out), Red, UW and Eldrazi Green. In fact, those are probably the only decks in the format right now. Next week I will start the actual tournament, and I will mention sideboarding strategies as the matches come up in the tournament. I will also flashback to the testing process about drafting, which I haven’t mentioned here, when I get to those rounds.
Thanks for reading, see you next week!