This past weekend I cashed in the Top 100 of the 1,400-player Grand Prix Manchester with my own rogue control brew. Today I’m going to reflect on my experience in the tournament and the strategy I took going in.
Much love to the staff, competitors, and MTG community in general. While the tournament left me exhausted I have nothing but warmth for everyone and everything that went into it.
My Emotional Strategy – Hope for the Best While Expecting the Worst
My emotional strategy going into the tournament was to hope for the best while expecting the worst. The last tournament I played in was Valencia, and an average finish left me in a bad place after hyping myself up with unrealistic expectations. I wanted to protect myself from that this time around.
By hoping for the best while expecting the worst I felt awesome after wins and neutral after losses. This is much healthier than feeling neutral after wins and horrible after losses. My opponents were in general good and prepared and expecting to win every round just didn’t make sense.
I was hoping for a chance to play for and make single-elimination Top 8, but that was never the expectation. So when I was 10-3 with only 2 rounds to play I couldn’t believe I actually had an outside shot—I was possibly within punching distance of a fresh plane ticket back to my home in the Pacific Northwest!
When the losses finally came to end my tournament that was fine, because that was the expectation all along. I left the site full of pride, love, and optimism.
Looking back I feel like 10-5 (no byes) is a great record. I can’t ask to win more than 2/3s of my matches and to do it with my own unique strategy is even better. All in all, it was a great experience.
Tournament Winning Theory – Have a Huge Edge
Going in to Manchester, my 11th Grand Prix, I had qualified for the Pro Tour in 3 of my previous 10 tries. While doing it a 4th time would be an unrealistic expectation, it is always the goal. I had to do what I could to make that goal as realistic as possible.
I believe that to spike a tournament you have to have a huge edge. There are too many rounds, too many players sitting down with tuned decks to win by tight play and a known top deck. Doing these things can give you a fine edge, but I wanted a huge edge.
I believe the best way to have a huge edge in a Magic Tournament is to do something divergent. I believe you need to identify what everyone else has missed, what everyone else is doing wrong, or at least a way to exploit what everyone else is doing.
This means a lot of preparation and it also means taking a lot of chances in strategy. I took a lot of chances. I did a lot of weird things, played weird cards, and had a lot of questions going in.
Let’s take a look at how my strategy developed.
Theros Block Constructed Metagame
These are two of the only Modern-playable cards in Theros Block and they happen to be cheap drops in the same color. You would have to have a VERY good reason to not play them, and most players didn’t.
So, of course I spent my testing playing with and against Sylvan Caryatid decks to figure out what they were doing exactly. It didn’t take me long to have a startling realization about the way they played that guided my entire strategy.
Playing with and against the Caryatid/Courser decks felt like Core Set Sealed Deck. Yes, Core Set Sealed Deck.
Core Set Sealed Deck has some unique qualities:
• Bad mana
• Slow starts
• No synergy between cards
• Creature dominated
• Highly interactive
• Long grindy games often decided by topdecks
This is basically how I felt the format played out, and how I feel Core Set Sealed Deck plays out, so I would use my tried and true Core Set Sealed Deck Strategy of playing a basic control game plan.
The strategy worked in M14 Sealed at GP Oakland to get me over to Europe to begin with, so I figured I would use a similar strategy here.
Winning Core Set Sealed Deck Strategy
My control strategy for Core Set Sealed hails all the way back to following Kai Budde as a pre-teen many years ago. The idea is basically that it’s better to be flooded than screwed, because bluffing interaction and top decking a bomb can get you out of a bad flood, whereas a bad screw leaves you waiting to die.
Here are my tenets for Core Set Sealed that I would bring into Theros Block Constructed:
• Play more lands
• Play only two colors
• Play a higher average converted mana cost
• Draw first
• Keep seven
Pretty simple stuff. Play more lands, play 2 colors, rig the deck with bombs, draw first, don’t mulligan. This frequently puts us in a position where our opponent has mulliganned on the play and we are immediately up 2 cards with a late-game rigged deck for an easy win.
This is really an easy-mode strategy that has nothing to do with “tight play” or a “good deck.” It’s just plain consistent. It fundamentally gets a lot of free and easy wins where you have extra cards, lands, and bombs.
Let’s take a look at how we can apply this strategy to Theros Block Constructed.
Play More Lands
The Caryatid/Courser decks usually run 24-26 lands with 12 tapped Temples and 12-14 untapped lands. The idea is they can go land light because you can scry past spells in the early game to hit land drops and draw gas in the late game.
I decided I would run *only* 27 lands with 10 tapped Temples and 17 untapped lands. My divergent strategy would be to start with a lot of lands and scry past extra ones. This way I would be more prone to flood while other decks were prone to screw.
This is the mana base I played:
Play a Higher Average Converted Mana Cost
In a low synergy format like Core Set Sealed (or Theros Block Constructed) games are often won by just playing a higher average converted mana cost. Classic Momir Basic strategy.
Think about it. In a grindy world of low synergy, 3 trumps 2, 4 trumps 3, 5 trumps 4, and 6 trumps 5. At some point everybody runs out of cards and I want to be the guy with 7s and 8s in my deck, even if it means having fewer life to work with.
The Caryatid/Courser decks fill in the early game with 12 Temples, and their curve is generally concentrated around 3, 4, and 5, topping out at 6, with occasionally 7-mana effects and abilities.
To trump the 6 top curves I would play fewer 2s and play 7s and 8s instead. Looking through the limited pool of cards in Theros Block I found the best 7s and 8s to be in black and white, so that’s what I played.
Here’s a curve sorted list:
And here is a (toe-socks endorsing) curve sort I snapped outside the venue immediately before disassembling and returning the cards.
As you can see I really don’t start playing til turn 3 and try to survive on mostly 3-drops on my way up to 6, 7, and 8.
This is basically the curve I like to play in Core Set Sealed, where 3 is the fundamental turn where you MUST start playing.
Here is a curve sort of my sideboard, which was mostly designed to give me options to lower my curve against the 20% of the format that starts playing on turn 1.
Against the aggro decks we can alter our deck to start playing on turn 2 and topping out at 6 mana. This way we can keep our average converted mana cost higher while not being so much higher we get run over before starting.
Drawing first is a big cheat code in Sealed Deck because it just means more cards for the late game. While it does mean occasionally getting run over early, it means easier keeps and fewer mana problems in the mid- and early game.
While decks that draw first in Constructed are rare, I thought this was the time to pull it out.
With a format defined by bad mana, slow starts, and low synergy between cards, drawing first would sort out a lot of problems against 80% of the field and net a lot of free victories from awkward draws from the opponent.
I had a hard time actually choosing to draw first when I had to reveal my option, generally thinking I would save it as a secret weapon for game 3. But every time I didn’t I regretted it. I only lost 1 game all tournament getting blitzed by a Caryatid deck but lost a lot of games from mana stumbles on the play while giving the opponent an extra card.
Whether drawing first was actually right, I don’t know, but I believed that it was—and if it was, I would have a huge edge from the start all the time and that would give me my best chance of winning the tournament.
My strategy was to never mulligan. When you play a lot of lands and 7s and 8s mulliganing can cause a lot of problems. Somehow, I pulled it off.
In 16 rounds of play I didn’t mulligan once. This sounds totally crazy but it was by design and there are a lot of features of the format that make keeping especially easy. I didn’t see many mulligans from my opponents all weekend either.
To start, I felt like I couldn’t mulligan when I would eventually need 7 physical lands on the table in front of me. When starting with only 6, having 7 lands in play one day seems like but a hoop dream. Mulliganing for more lands is only an effective strategy when opening on 0 and 1, and I was lucky to dodge that all tournament.
Perhaps the biggest feature of the format that contributed to keeping was the scry lands—with so many scry lands going around normally speculative hands became keeps. Scry lands would give everyone a better shot of hitting the lands or the spells they needed, generally under no pressure as the opponent scryed as well.
The actual Magic card that had me drawing first and keeping 7 was Thoughtseize. I played Thoughtseize and a lot of my opponents played Thoughtseize.
If we play first, mulligan, and get Thoughtseized, forget about it. We’re down so many cards that it becomes an unlikely uphill slog to win. I wanted to win the extremely common Thoughtseize wars.
Since the format is so low on synergy, once you see that you have lands in your opener the only other important thing is having a curve to play to. We could mulligan for curve but an early Thoughtseize is such a curve buster that I figured, just forget it, keep 7.
Beyond the format, I designed the deck to be able to keep just about anything that had 2 or more lands. Gild had everything to do with it.
Gild is our key transitional play that moves us from the mid-game to the late game early. The best thing about it is it only costs one black and also makes white mana.
Since Gild only costs one black, we can keep hands that have no black mana. Whereas other decks are TWO lands away from casting their important removal spells, we would be only 1 black source away, and can survive on white cards until then.
Similarly, since Gild makes white mana, we can keep hands with no white sources.
All this together contributed to being able to keep an extremely wide range of hands. Here’s an example of a couple hands I kept and would keep again:
On the draw
We’re going to need to draw 6 lands an Elspeth at some point, and the scry lands can get us into the action to survive until then.
On the play
This draw is a bit risky but if we dig into any black land we have perfect mana and great spells. Sure, you could try a mulligan, but 6 on the play leaves us really vulnerable to Thoughtseize. I’d rather take my chances with 7.
If you’re interested in seeing for yourself this link, is a sample hand generator for the deck. You’ll probably see some 0- and 1-landers that need to be shipped, but you can see that almost anything else is a keep.
Theros Orzhov Control Card Breakdown
So my strategy going in was play extra lands, play two colors, play a higher average converted mana cost, play second, and keep 7. Let’s take a look at the actual cards used to make this strategy work.
If you’ve played much Magic you know how good Thoughtseize is. It rips apart synergy and blows massive holes in curves.
Thoughtseize is particularly good in Theros Block because of Courser of Kruphix. Courser reveals new draws and Thoughtseize reveals the hand, so a lot of the time you get to play with perfect information all game. This is a huge advantage.
Thoughtseize is particularly good in this deck because the card is a great late-game draw. Most opponents do not empty their hand as they have removal rotting in their hand in the late game. Patience and a late Thoughtseize clear the way.
Nyx-Fleece Ram got the nod as our early game defense. The most important feature is that it only costs one white and can be played whenever. While something like Bile Blight requires two black and a target, the Sheep is very easy to cast and can be plopped down immediately.
I always want to play life gain in control decks if possible and our only real options in black and white are this or Ray of Dissolution. Either of these cards fuel our Thoughtseize or Read the Bones, but the Sheep matches up nicely with Fleecemane Lion.
Read the Bones was the most important card in the deck and I would play 4 if I played again. Every time I had time to cast it early or topdecked it late I felt like I couldn’t lose.
The card is such a nice smoother on our way up the curve and such a gassy draw late that I was usually happy to draw multiples. Even though it means giving up life and board presence to use, our strategy is to take back board presence later, so Read the Bones is perfect.
Standard removal. Kills most things. Kills Planeswalkers. Kills creatures. Duh.
Banishing Light is like extra Hero’s Downfall but much worse. It doesn’t kill Stormbreath Dragon and can be removed by a lot of common cards. It’s necessary though to have more flexible early answers.
A nice thing about this card combined with the Sheep is there were a lot of opportunities to show enchantments in game 1 before boarding them all out, setting our opponents up to draw useless Destructive Revelries.
Brimaz is just the best 3-mana proactive play and it’s a finisher in the late game. Although it’s hard to cast early and trumped by most 4-drops, it’s just the best 3-mana combat guy there is—great on offense or defense.
More than anything, it only costs 1 black, and even in two colors I’m concerned about my mana. This card was gold for me.
Psychic Intrusion is the insane slow trump card of all trump cards. You could have an Elspeth or even a Worst Fears but it’s all moot if you get hit by Psychic Intrusion.
I feared this card greatly and wanted to sideboard up to much more myself, but didn’t want to get stranded with them with so few blue sources.
Elspeth is obviously insane on so many levels, and some views of the format are basically Elspeth vs. Elspeth. It’s not far off.
I was okay with playing 4 of this mythic. It’s fun and extremely powerful. I wasn’t going to stop there though.
Fated Retribution was an insane Magic card for me all weekend and I think I maybe should have played 4. It led to really easy wins.
There was one game where I kept 5 lands 2 spells, immediately got Thoughtseized, and started by drawing 4 consecutive lands only holding a Gild. I considered conceding and revealing to save time, but my third spell was a timely Fated Retribution which let me play a 30-minute game where no other card could.
In general flooding into Fated Retribution was an insane strategy, and most players couldn’t really play around it. They could give me more time, or they could hope I didn’t have it.
Quarry Colossus was my counter-7 play to Fated Retribution. I figured smart players would consider slow rolling one creature at a time, and Quarry Colossus would make them look foolish.
More than that, the deck just needs power to actually close games, and this is the best 7-drop in white or black for this deck. Alternatively I could have played another Ashen Rider but I wanted a curve of four 6s, four 7s, two 8s, instead of four 6s, three 7s, three 8s. Pretty minor either way.
The real benefit of Quarry Colossus was that every time it was revealed or in play my opponents had to pick it up and read it. While my opponents were busy tanking over a card they were playing against for the first time I was surveying the board while consulting my sideboard to strategize for the rest of the match.
I’d say in general Quarry Colossus saved me mental energy while eating up opponent’s mental energy, and I always try to play a few cards that are “readers” just for this.
Ashen Rider was my big top finisher and it was worth all 8 mana.
I had an Ashen Rider kill two Elspeths. I had an Ashen Rider remove a Banishing Light to free my own Elspeth.
It’s just the best 8-drop available.
I didn’t actually play blue or Dissolve but I made it a point to fake it whenever possible. More than the Psychic Intrusion splash, I played the blue Temples just to troll opponents.
Whenever I could I would sequester two blue temples with a third land and thumb the clump whenever my opponent went to cast a spell.
“Hang on I’m thinking.”
“Ok, sure, that resolves.”
I’m not sure how much of an edge I got out of it but it was hilarious to me and I had players asking me about my blue cards after the match.
Orzhov Control Play Breakdown
I won 2/3s of my matches over 15 rounds which was a great result. The deck mostly played to script, with most of my losses coming from severe screw or flood, which will happen to any deck over 15 rounds. I felt I did my best to minimize those problems relative to the field and won a lot as a result.
In general I felt advantaged and that the deck produced a lot of easy mode wins. I won consistently by consistency. I had better mana, more cards, and more bombs than most of my opponents. I didn’t necessarily have to play “tight” or “grind,” I just cast fat bombs and passed…
I won a lot of games in the early game by having opponents mulligan on the play into Thoughtseize.
I won almost every game that went significantly long, just based on having a higher average converted mana cost.
On the whole, playing Orzhov Control in Theros Block Constructed was a really fun and interesting experience. I liked how the deck played a lot and I learned a lot from it moving forward.
Future of Theros Block Constructed
Theros Block Constructed tournaments are rare and I know most of you didn’t play it and won’t play it, although I imagine reading about it can make for good entertainment or lessons.
The thing is, that most of us WILL play something like Theros Block Constructed when Ravnica rotates out of Standard.
When that time comes, I hope you can borrow some strategy from this to give yourself a huge edge.
Much love to all, and good luck!