Before Pro Tour Gatecrash in Montreal, I decided to do something I haven't done in well over a decade: write an article on Magic: The Gathering. The closest I've come in between are the half dozen or so interviews per year I agree to do over email and this Reddit AMA.
Why don't I write articles? First of all, I play in very few tournaments. Second, my brain works in odd ways that work against writing tourney reports—it forgets lots of specifics, both about testing and the tournament, and comes up with more generalized impressions instead. You can see this clearly here in the last Magic article I wrote. It was for a tournament I'd won where I knew all my opponents while playing unique formats, and I still couldn't remember much in the way of details. You'll also pick up that 22-year-old Jon wasn't nearly as funny as he thought he was.
Therefore, I'm not going to be discussing matches I played or much about the Pro Tour itself. Instead, I'm going to focus on what it means to be a team and selecting a deck.
All right, that was a cheap ploy. Obviously, I don't mean that last sentence—my scarf actually won the Pro Tour.
In all seriousness, though, this was likely the worst of Sam's decks I've played in a PT, although that's more a testament to the other decks he's designed than a slight on this one.
Including Tom's three wins in the Top 8, we won about 59% of our matches with the deck. Of course, when you're playing at the highest level, 59% is good but not spectacular, and for the most part we're above average players.
To put it in perspective, our "Spirits That Can't Block Wolf Tokens" deck in Honolulu won about 67% of its matches, and our Bant Hexproof deck in Barcelona won 75%+. I did even better the two times I played Storm (except for the drafts sadly), but the team as a whole didn't do nearly as well. Anyway, my point is that since I've "returned" to the Pro Tour, I've been walking in with an unfair advantage—the best (or one of the best) Constructed decks. This is an advantage 22-year-old Jon could only have dreamed of.
People often ask me about the differences between the Pro Tour now and the Pro Tour then. There are of course many, but the biggest to me has to be the structural advantage of being on top, of being "a pro."
Last year I had the highest win rate in matches on the Pro Tour of my career, at about 72%. My 1997–98 season (for those of you who started playing in the last decade, Worlds used to be in August and the seasons spanned two calendar years) approached that, at about 70%, and lifetime I'm just over 65% (a bit worse in Grand Prix). What changed in the fifteen years since? I'm certainly not a better technical player. My mind works a bit more slowly, as is obvious whenever I watch a video of myself playing Magic from the late '90s. I'm also far less dedicated to the game. I played all the time back then, both Constructed and Limited. What changed?
The advent of the modern team.
In the five Pro Tours I've played since coming back, my worst Constructed performance was the 6-3-1 I put up in Montreal. My other Constructed finishes were 7-1-2 (Spirits), 7-1-2 (Hexproof), 8-2 (Storm), and 8-1-1 (Storm). Every time I sat down to play a match, I knew that I was advantaged against my opponent. In all my years of play before that, I only really felt that way three times: Prison (Chicago '97), Rath Block Recur (Worlds '98), and Tinker (Worlds '00). I used to invent and test new decks all the time—as is always the case, most of them sucked, but a few were gems. Now, with an entire team putting in work to find new decks and test them, I barely even try. My input mostly goes toward tuning the decks and selecting what deck to play.
Team SCG ended up playing four decks at Pro Tour Gatecrash: The Aristocrats, Jund, U/W/R Flash, and Esper Control. So why did I choose The Aristocrats? It's easiest to start with why I didn't play the other decks.
Matt Costa championed our Flash deck. I have tremendous respect for Matt—even if he is just out of diapers—and Flash is exactly the sort of deck I like to play. Cuneo was also a pretty big fan of it, and stylistically Andrew and I have a lot in common. I really liked the graveyard deck he built for Barcelona, and it was my top choice for a large portion of playtesting. I got off that deck for many of the same reasons I didn't play Flash: it didn't actually win. Oh gee, Jon, really? You elected not to play the deck that didn't win? Brilliant! The thing is, when playing Flash (or Cuneo's Barcelona deck), it usually felt like you were winning, but then after ten games you looked at the results and your record was 5-5.
When you're testing, there is a real finite limit to the number of matches you can play in different matchups (especially if you're trying different builds of the deck), so you learn to take an intermediate position between the numerical results and how the matchup "feels." A 50-50 matchup will break 7-3 34.4% of the time over ten games and go 14-6 11.5 % over twenty games, so as quantitative as we'd like to be, a purely quantitative decision would be suboptimal.
Going purely off "feel" is just as bad. Some decks spend a high percentage of the time winning, but that's just because the aggro deck kills you on turn 5 and the control deck goes to turn 20 or beyond. People also have something of an inherent bias towards the deck they're playing because they become personally invested.
Flash had both these problems but was even worse—it would often lose those long games on turn 15. At first you just think you're getting unlucky, but at some point all the evidence weighs down on you. Flash was a deck that "got unlucky," which of course means that it was par for the course and therefore not unlucky at all. In the end, Flash played 275 matches at the Pro Tour with a win percentage of 49.82, which is about what I would have predicted.
Patrick Chapin championed Esper during testing. Yes, I could have predicted this going in. If you want someone to build the best control deck for a Pro Tour, you could do far worse than Patrick. .Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), the direction WotC has been pushing Magic means control is the best deck less often now than in the past.
Control has additional problems with playtesting, especially in new formats. First of all, there's a tendency for control in playtesting to subtly adapt its answers to the threats that are popular in your group, aka the Erik Lauer effect (or, early in my career, the Jon Finkel effect). Patrick is better about this than we were, but no matter how well intentioned, this effect always manages to creep in.
Consider a universe where you randomly select the decks you're going to tune your answers against. If the control deck has the wrong answers for your playtest group, then it gets reworked or consigned to the dustbin. Conversely, if it has the right answers, it will look really good and be one of your top choices. There's another more subtle effect: you learn and adapt your play against the decks and threats in your group, and because you're the deck with the answers, the deck which has to make more choices, you gain more from this than the people playing against you.
Both times I played Storm in Pro Tours, I knew that it had issues against properly played control decks, but I thought that in practice I would get the matchup up to at least 50-50. In reality, I went undefeated (well, I did in Seattle—I don't remember what I had my one loss against in Philly).
I love playing control, but Patrick loves playing control more than I do. We had nut decks in Honolulu and Barcelona, but Patrick didn't play them either time. This was a problem I suffered from for a while as well, as evidenced by PT Paris and PT Dallas. I also never played Necro when it was really good.
Worlds '98 was a turning point for me. In Block, we played a Recur / Living Death deck that I built and tuned as "the popular deck that I'm definitely not going to play"—it turned out that not only couldn't I build a deck that beat it, but our version was better than everyone else's. Right after Worlds, I won GP Boston with a slightly updated list, winning every single one of my matches with no draws (sick brags). In the Type 2 portion, I played Deadguy Red, another deck that was completely out of character, but it ended up with three of the slots in the Top 8.
The takeaway from all this is that I knew that Patrick would have a control deck that looked very good but that I would be hesitant to play it. In this case, reality looked much like theory. Two days before the Pro Tour, I worried that I hadn't given Esper enough of a chance. I felt even worse about it when most of CFB showed up with the deck. However, despite the pedigree of its players, Esper Control put up the worst results of any archetype at the Pro Tour, at 46.29%. I would love control decks to be good again, but in an era of hyper-efficient creatures and Pro Tours scheduled three weeks after a set's release, it seems like WotC has stacked the deck against it.
Reid Duke championed our Jund deck, which may have been the best deck we played. Reid, Owen Turtenwald, and Ben Seck played the deck and were sold on it pretty early. I have a bit of an aversion to playing the most popular/stock deck at a Pro Tour. After all, everyone is going to make sure their deck doesn't lose to Jund, right?
Jund was the most popular deck at the Pro Tour, although WotC broke it down into aggro Jund and midrange Jund. A similar distinction could of course have been made about the second most popular deck, U/W/R, but that got all lumped together, probably because Wizard's nightmare is another major tournament with Jund decks everywhere. Still, the aggro Jund subcategory had the highest win percentage at 60%, and midrange Jund clocked in fourth at 55.6%.
Reid, Owen, and Ben spent most of their time fine-tuning Jund, working on the sideboard, and becoming experts in every matchup. It paid off with Owen making a well-deserved Top 8, his first.
What's the takeaway here? Much like Necro fifteen years ago, you can win by playing a highly tuned version of the best deck that you have complete fluency with. Jund is no Necro, but it was an excellent choice. I cannot make a strong case that playing The Aristocrats over it was the right call.
- 4 Boros Reckoner
- 4 Cartel Aristocrat
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 4 Doomed Traveler
- 4 Falkenrath Aristocrat
- 3 Knight of Infamy
- 1 Restoration Angel
- 2 Silverblade Paladin
- 2 Skirsdag High Priest
- 2 Zealous Conscripts
Why did I choose it? I hoped to get lucky. Sam had been playing around with various Human decks and Skirsdag High Priest decks and sacrifice decks with middling results. None of the decks were bad, but nothing was great either. This was his final version, which really only came together a couple days before the Pro Tour. I'd gotten in some reps with and against it and it seemed solid, but I hadn't played it as much as most of our other decks and it wasn't winning enough to put it head and shoulders above our other decks.
So why did I play it? Because I didn't want to play any of our other decks; it appeared at the very least solid; it would be unexpected; and I trusted Sam's judgment. I know most people think that when you choose to play a PT-winning deck, it's some sort of "Eureka!" moment, but the reality here was much more pedestrian.
What's the takeaway here? I'd like to give you a nice, one-paragraph summation that will help you pick the perfect deck to play in every tournament, but the reality is much messier than that and can't be pithily summed up without becoming tautological.
So here's our tautology: play with the best team you can. Of course, the best players aren't always the best teammates. If someone were drafting Team SCG members to win Pro Tour San Diego, Kai Budde and I would likely be picks one and two. (Or maybe Tom. And yes, it looks like Kai will be playing with us in San Diego.) If you were picking the person you most wanted on your team, your first two picks would clearly be Sam and Zvi Mowshowitz. This isn't to say I don't add value in testing or that Sam/Zvi winning the Pro Tour would be a surprising outcome. Rather, it's just an acknowledgement that our skills are most valuable in different aspects of the game, something which certainly works to my advantage.
The slightly less tautological follow on is to know your teammates. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of your teammates, but just as importantly learn their preferences and biases. If Brian Kibler is in your playtest group and he's convinced the control deck is the best deck out there, he's probably right. If it's a creature deck with Forests in it, well, maybe. Conversely, if Chapin is sleeving up Hellriders, you can be sure I am too because Patrick's threshold for playing Hellrider is much higher than for playing Sphinx's Revelation. You should apply these same principles to yourself as well, but thanks to human nature they're far easier to spot in others.
We all know how the event played out. Tom and Owen made a packed Top 8 along with Ben Stark, Eric Froehlich, Joel Larsson, Melissa DeTora, Stephen Mann, and Gerry Thompson. The fact that Tom won was incredible. I spent the night before playing the other side of a brutal matchup which he somehow pulled out 3-1.
I was even more impressed with Tom pulling out the victory in the semis over EFro. I've had a very high opinion of Tom as a Magic player for a long time, but somehow it seemed like his results never lived up to his talent. I'm sure part of it was luck, but I think that he sometimes cracks under the pressure, especially when things are going against him. He "tilts" so to speak. There he was in game 5 of the PT semifinals, the biggest game in the biggest match he'd ever played, and he double mulliganed. With his back against the wall, he played perfectly and pulled out the victory. Sadly, that was the only part of the Top 8 I got to watch. I spent the quarters testing his matchup versus EFro's deck, the semis testing his potential matchup versus BenS, and the finals en route to the airport.
Without my scarf.