I have just returned from Nice, France, where I had the honor and the pleasure of competing to become Magic: the Gathering World Champion. To prepare for Worlds, Owen Turtenwald and I headed east to Sugar Loaf, New York; the home of Reid Duke. We had a couple of weeks to prepare for four different formats, with some help from friend and teammate Andrew Cuneo: Vintage Masters draft, Khans of Tarkir draft, Modern, and Standard, before heading to France to play against 24 of the best Magic players in the world.
After a lot of Constructed testing and a little draft polishing, we headed to the airport and were on our way to France. Luckily for us, the flight was oversold, and we ended up being upgraded to international business class, which was exceptionally nice. I was actually able to fully stretch out my legs! The first challenge we had to face: jet lag. We stayed up as late as we could on the first night, and slept until a reasonable hour, so things seemed like they’d be okay in that department. The next night was the player meeting, where we got to relax and meet up with all the other competitors. One more good night’s sleep, and it was game time.
Vintage Masters Draft
Because Vintage Masters had been on Magic Online for a while before Worlds, and the removal date was some time around Khans of Tarkir‘s release, Owen and I had done a lot of VMA drafts to practice. Vintage Masters ended up being put back onto Magic Online in the week or two leading up to Worlds, so while the three of us did some drafts together to practice, it wasn’t exactly a focal point of our testing directly preceding the event.
We believed that the best deck in Vintage Masters was the storm deck. The storm deck is tricky to draft, however. Drafting storm comes with a major risk—sometimes the right cards aren’t opened, and you don’t end up with any of best win conditions; Brain Freeze being the best, followed by Psychatog, and then Tendrils of Agony in a pinch. Storm also is very focused on select cards—cards such as the win conditions listed above, High Tide, Frantic Search, Nightscape Familiar, and Deep Analysis. Because of this, tables often cannot very well support multiple storm drafters, which can lead to some train wrecks.
The second best deck is blue/green madness, focusing on cards like Wild Mongrel, Basking Rootwalla, and Arrogant Wurm. However, in Vintage Masters, there are a lot of very powerful rares, mythics, and specials, so it’s important to be open to anything.
I had hoped to avoid being in a pod with either Reid or Owen in Vintage Masters, as like I said earlier, it’s tough for multiple storm drafters to be at the same table. As it turns out, not only was Owen in my pod, he was to my immediate left. Yuuya Watanabe was to my immediate right. One thing we had discussed before Worlds was who else was likely to draft storm. I personally thought that a lot of people wouldn’t consider it, because it’s somewhat of a gimmicky strategy, and there is a chance of a train wreck. However, I definitely felt that Yuuya was capable of it, especially given that at last year’s World Championships Yuuya’s Modern Masters draft was covered, and he chose to first-pick a Worm Harvest. This is relevant, because the dredge deck in Modern Masters was similar to storm in Vintage Masters, in that it was a somewhat unorthodox strategy that couldn’t support multiple drafters, but had very high upside. For these reasons having Yuuya to my right somewhat worried me. Given that Owen was at my table, having him on my left is perfect, as I basically get to dictate which cards he sees, so if I go into storm, it would be very unlikely that he could even attempt to draft it right behind me.
I opened my first pack and the only cards of note were Visara the Dreadful and Brain Freeze. Visara the Dreadful is a very powerful card, but black is by far the worst main color in Vintage Masters. It is also not as powerful in Vintage Masters as it has been in past formats, due to its weakness against decks like storm and Rift/Slide, as well as being very slow against the aggressive creature decks like G/W Auras, White Weenie, and Goblins. Also, given that Brain Freeze is the best win condition for a storm deck, and it’s pretty hard to have a train wreck deck when you have a Brain Freeze, I decided to go for it and took the Brain Freeze.
The draft went pretty well for me. I was able to pick up a lot of card draw, a couple Nightscape Familiars, a few copies of Obsessive Search, an additional copy of Brain Freeze, and two copies of Psychatog. Psychatog is particularly great because if played on turn three, it can be very hard for the opponent to penetrate, buying a lot of time, and also doubles as a great win condition. In pack three, I actually picked up a 7th-pick Mana Drain, one of the most powerful cards in Magic’s history, which led me to believe there were very few, if any, other blue drafts are the table.
Here was my final deck:
In round one I was paired against Lee Shi Tian, playing green/white Auras. Based on the deck lists, it was apparent that the games were going to come down to a race. One thing that worried me was that Lee’s deck contained two copies of Deftblade Elite. My deck was heavily reliant on Nightscape Familiar to ramp into my blue 4-casting-cost card draw spells. If Lee was able to play a Deftblade Elite on turn one, this would prevent me from effectively getting a Nightscape familiar into play until turn four, when I could leave up mana to regenerate.
I was able to win the first game by casting a big Temporal Fissure, bouncing all of Lee’s creatures including a Dreampod Druid that had been enchanted with Elephant Guide. This put him in a position where he was forced to chump block my Psychatog every turn, until I was finally able to use Choking Tethers to get through and finish him off.
In game two, Lee got his Deftblade Elite out on the first turn, and I was forced to attempt to go off slightly earlier than I would have liked, due to a fast clock. On the turn I was trying to combo, I was unable to find my 2nd Brain Freeze or enough spells to keep going, and was only able to cast Brain Freeze for something like 24 cards, which wasn’t quite enough to win the game.
In game three, however, I was able to find both copies of Brain Freeze pretty quickly, and cast them for something like 18 and 21 cards respectively, forcing Lee to draw a card from an empty library, and winning the first round of the tournament.
In round 2 I defeated Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa and his UWRB midrange deck, and in round 3 I lost in three very close games to Shahar Shenhar and his Goblin/Burn deck.
Record after Vintage Masters draft: 2-1.
Modern was the Constructed format we prepared for the least. There were a few reasons for this: there had been no major Modern tournaments for a while, aside from Madrid, which made it a bit harder to accurately predict a metagame. Also, in Modern, there are a lot of viable decks, and a lot of directions to take those decks. It’s considerably harder to test ten to twelve matchups, learn them, and have plans for them than it is to do that in Standard, where it is easier to identify the top four to five strategies, and make sure to have appropriate game plans for each of them. Also, given that Standard would be the format of the Top 4—and the goal, of course, is to win the tournament—which would be played best 3 out of 5, was of the utmost importance.
In addition to Storm, we spent a lot of time testing UR Delver variants, some UR Splinter Twin, as well as a little Birthing Pod, and a little Ascendancy Combo. Ultimately, Storm is a very powerful deck that all three of us were very comfortable with. We thought Treasure Cruise was a powerful addition to the deck, but in hindsight I’m not so sure. The effect is very powerful of course, but it has an awkward interaction with both Pyromancer Ascension and Past in Flames, as both rely on cards in the graveyard. Storm is always competitive with other combo decks, as it can win on turn three, or rarely turn two with a lot of luck. We were a bit concerned about the creature-based Jeskai Ascendancy combo deck, as it could win on turn two considerably more often than we could, although we were unsure about exactly how much of it there would be in the tournament. We decided at the last minute to add a Meddling Mage to the sideboard to try to combat that deck if we were to get paired against it.
Here is the version of the deck that Owen and I played, which was one or two cards different than the version Reid played:
In round 4 I was unable to overcome Shaun McLaren’s counterspells from his U/W/R control deck.
In round 5 I was paired against Player of the Year Jeremy Dezani, playing Scapeshift combo. Jeremy had a ton of success last year, including his win at Pro Tour Theros. I hadn’t had the opportunity to actually play against him yet, though, so I was happy to finally get a chance to see him play.
Unfortunately, I lost the die roll, which proved to be the difference in the game. Jeremy was able to use two Sakura-Tribe Elder, Search For Tomorrow, and Scapeshift to kill me on his fourth turn on the play, in a game in which I was almost certainly going to be able to win on my fourth turn on the draw. That’s okay though, that’s how Modern goes sometimes.
I just brought in two copies of Dispel to fight Jeremy’s array of counter magic, knowing that despite the result of the first game, my deck tended to be a little bit faster than his. In game two, an Electromancer survived and I was able to untap, and dig through my deck with Rituals, Manamorphose, and card draw spells, until I finally found a Past in Flames and a Grapeshot to finish off the game.
Game three was very similar to game two. Electromancer stuck in play for a couple turns, and while Jeremy drew some counterspells, he didn’t draw any ramp, and couldn’t overcome the mana advantage that Electromancer created, and I won the game rather quickly.
In round 6 I beat Tom Martell playing UWR Jeskai Ascendancy Combo
In round 7 I had the pleasure of playing against Kentaro Yamamoto for the first time. Kentaro played great—so great that I was deeply impressed as I left the match. He played perfectly with his mana, leaving up counters when appropriate and committing threats when appropriate. I lost a close match to end the day.
I went 2-2 in Modern to end the day at 4-3.
Khans of Tarkir Draft
Going into Worlds, I planned to employ the same strategy that I’ve used for most of Khans of Tarkir season when it comes to Booster Draft: Play a consistent two-color aggressive deck, unless I have a good reason not to, with a preference toward UG or BW.
My first pick was unexciting. I opted to take a Mardu Hordechief over an Ivorytusk Fortress. Mardu Hordechief is a good card, but not the bomb you’d hope to start a draft with. Ivorytusk Fortress is probably a better card, but I’d rather not spend a pick that early on a three-color card, unless it’s a true bomb, just because of the strong possibility that you won’t be able to play it. I spent most of packs one and two drafting fairly average white and black cards without seeing anything particularly special.
In pack three, though, I got a gift—a second-pick Duneblast. Of course this seems contrary to what I’ve already said, but Duneblast is one of the best cards in the set, and in nearly any format, when you’re given the opportunity to play a card that powerful, you are basically forced to do everything you can to make it work. Third pick I picked up an Abzan Ascendancy, which was particularly good in my deck because I had a fair amount of weenie creatures, and also very effective in combination with Duneblast, to sweep the board while leaving us with several 1/1 flying Spirits. The deck turned out pretty good thanks to the strength of those two rares.
Here is the list:
In round 8 I won a couple very long games against Yuuki Ichikawa and his four-color control deck.
In round 9 I was paired against Josh Utter-Leyton. Josh is a friend of mine, and a Pro Tour staple that I actually still haven’t played Magic against in a professional-level event.
In game one, Josh and I reached a stalemate. It was pretty apparent to me that Josh was holding creatures to play around Duneblast. I got down to something like five cards in my library, and still hadn’t been able to find it, but finally drew Abzan Ascendancy. I probably played a little more aggressively than I should have, because I was worried about running out of cards, and allowed Josh to combo kill me using something like Defiant Strike into Tormenting Voice into Act of Treason, which I had a Feat of Resistance for, then Crippling Chill, all while having a few prowess creatures in play. He was able to break through for just enough and send us to game two.
In game two, I got a pretty perfect draw. I think I curved out Mardu Hateblade into Mardu Skullhunter into Mardu Hordechief into Bellowing Saddlebrute and Josh was forced to play the whole game on the back foot. This was really not where his deck needed to be given that it was very aggressive and playing two copies of Ride Down, a card that is really poor when you’re playing defensively. I won the game to force a deciding game three.
I started off slowly in the third game and Josh had a good draw. He ate my Alabaster Kirin by attacking with a Jeskai Windscout and a Crippling Chill on my morph as well as a Defiant Strike after I had blocked. Over the next two turns I played a Bitter Revelation and a Swarm of Bloodflies. Josh then made an all-out attack with four creatures. I decided to only block one, leaving my Swarm of Bloodflies to not block, so that it could survive to my following turn. Josh had Ride Down, and in combination with prowess on two creatures, it dropped me to 1 life.
I had six lands in play and Duneblast in my hand, so I needed to draw an untapped land on my turn, or I’d have no chance to win the game. I untapped and drew for the turn. It was a basic Forest. I instantly put it into play and cast Duneblast. Swarm of Bloodflies got something like four or five triggers, and became a very sizeable flying beast. I knew I had to fade a lot of cards in Josh’s deck, including Act of Treason, Jeskai Charm, or even a creature followed by Ride Down. On Josh’s turn he played just a Jeskai Windscout. I didn’t have much left in my hand, just a Rush of Battle, which I had sideboarded in. I drew and played a Mardu Skullhunter but couldn’t attack, because I’d be dead on the crackback from the Windscout. I held my breath as Josh drew his card, hoping it wasn’t something that would kill me instantly. Again, Josh passed the turn, and I was able to cast Rush of Battle and attack with both my creatures. Josh was forced to chump block the Swarm of Bloodflies and my two creatures combined were now lethal. More importantly, I gained 4 life, cutting Josh’s outs to instantly kill me down to just an Act of Treason. Josh didn’t draw it or a way to deal with the giant Swarm of Bloodflies, and I moved on to 2-0 in the pod.
In round 10 I once again succumbed to Shahar Shenhar. One of the games I couldn’t find a seventh land to cast Duneblast, and in the other game I was just completely run over.
Another 2-1 in draft put my overall tournament record to 6-4. A 4-0 in Standard would almost certainly be enough to make Top 4, while a 3-1 would give me some chance.
Standard was the format that we prepared the most for. In advance of even getting to live testing, Reid and I had both been playing a lot of different versions of various Whip of Erebos decks. By the time I arrived in Sugar Loaf, we were both pretty sure that we were going to register Whip of Erebos at Worlds We also expected that a large percentage of our opponents were going to come to the same conclusion. We spent a lot of time figuring out the best strategies to win the Whip mirrors, and ultimately decided the best trump card out there was Pharika, God of Affliction. Rather than play a Sidisi deck ourselves, we ultimately decided that Green/Black Constellation was a better choice, as we felt the deck overall was a little more powerful, and it allowed us to play two main deck copies of Pharika.
Here is the list we played:
In the first match of Standard, round 11, I was again paired against Yuuki Ichikawa playing Abzan Reanimator. Game one took a long time, a very long time. I got Whip of Erebos into play first, but also had the misfortune of sending both copies of Pharika to the graveyard early in the game with Satyr Wayfinder and Commune with the Gods. Occasionally I would get Yuuki low on life, and he would exile a Soul of Theros and attack me for 40, while gaining 40 himself. It became clear that Yuuki was going to try to deck me, as he got his own Whip of Erebos into play. I wish I had saved the score pads from this game so I could include a picture. Eventually after casting and whipping Hornet Queen into play five or six times, I was actually putting a dent in his life total. At the end of the game, I was finally able to deal lethal damage with something like five cards left in my library. Game one took 55 minutes, and I won with a final life total of 142.
Game two wasn’t as long. My deck came out very explosively. I got a quick Eidolon of Blossoms into play, and Yuuki had no way to remove it. I was able to cascade that into more and more card draw, and apply more and more pressure to the board. Yuuki’s draw was pretty slow, and I ran him over very quickly.
In the next round, I again was defeated by Kentaro Yamamoto. He was playing Sidisi Whip. I think this is a good matchup for BG Devotion but due to some unfortunate luck and great play by Kentaro he won an extremely close match, ending game three at 1 life.
With two rounds to go, I was 7-5. There was a chance that if I won the last two rounds, I could still make Top 4, but I’d need several things to go my way. For starters, Shahar was going to have to do some losing, as, if he also ended 9-5, he would win out on tiebreakers. Yuuki Ichikawa had great tiebreakers too, so he’d have to lose one of the last two rounds.
Unfortunately, in round 13, I was paired down against Raphael Levy. This would hurt my tiebreakers a little, if I managed to pull out the win, and make things even harder for me to make Top 4 in the final round. I won a three-game match against Raph, playing mono-red aggro, in which the player on the play very easily won in all three games. Luckily, I won the roll.
So, because my tiebreakers had dropped a little, Shaun McClaren passed me on tiebreakers and he would get paired up to play Patrick Chapin in the last round. I would have the incredible pleasure of playing my first ever match against the one and only Yuuya Watanabe. My situation going into the last round was this: I had to win. I needed Chapin to beat McClaren. I needed Yamamoto to beat Shahar. A lot of things needed to go my way, most notably, I had to win a match against one of the greatest players of all time, in Yuuya Watanabe and his Jeskai Tokens deck.
In game one, Yuuya got mana-screwed after a mulligan and never played a second land.
I had never seen or played a game against Yuuya’s deck up until this point, so I didn’t fully understand how the rest of the games were going to play out, which probably led me to sideboard poorly. I didn’t take out quite enough spot removal, because I was a little too concerned about Rabblemasters, and I didn’t really appreciate how controlling Yuuya would try to be after sideboard.
I ended up getting off to a slow start in the second game, and didn’t get much going. Yuuya drew many of his Disdainful Strokes, End Hostilities, and Anger of the Gods, and I couldn’t mount a substantial enough offense to fight through those cards and Jeskai Ascendancy.
After getting to play that game, I was able to fix my sideboarding and give it all I could in game three. Unfortunately, I started off with a mulligan (as did Yuuya), and was forced to keep a hand with two lands, none of which tapped for green mana. I stalled on green mana for a turn or two, but that was enough to put me too far behind, and I was never really able to get in the game. Right around the start of game three, I had heard from the table behind me that Shahar had won his match, so I knew I was only playing for a Pro Point at that point, but I still really wanted to notch a win over Yuuya. As it turns out, McLaren also won his match, so all three matches didn’t go my way, most importantly mine.
I finished 8-6, which was good enough for 8th place. I would be lying if I said I was very happy with the result, but I certainly feel that it was a decent showing against many of the best players in the world.
This World Championship tournament was the most fun event I’ve ever played in my life. The competition was at the absolute highest level. The atmosphere was great. The venue was ideal. I truly liked nearly every single thing about the experience. One of my highest goals for this year is to perform well enough that I can play that tournament again next year. I have truly never played a tournament that was anything like it. Major props to Wizards of the Coast, the judges, the coverage team, and most importantly all the other competitors for making it a truly memorable experience.
Big congratulations to Patrick Chapin, Kentaro Yamamoto, and Yuuya Watanabe on incredible runs. And of course, most importantly, congrats to my good friend Shahar Shenhar on his second consecutive Magic: The Gathering World Championship. Hopefully I’ll win a match against him someday.