Quite a tournament. Quite a trip. Quite a year. I've just returned home to New York after two weeks on the West Coast preparing for and playing in Pro Tour Dragon's Maze.
First, some notes about Return to Ravnica Block Constructed. I thoroughly enjoyed diving into the format, as I feel it's fun and balanced with tons of possibilities for both deck construction and gameplay. Looking back, it makes perfect sense to me that Craig Wescoe won the tournament with his aggressive build of W/G.
W/G Tokens was a deck that I latched on to right away in testing, identifying it as a smooth and powerful strategy with few clear weaknesses. However, I ended up following this road too far and making an unjustified leap into thinking that W/G would be the defining deck of the tournament and that preparing for mirror matches would be crucial.
My own build of the deck started to get "bigger" and "bigger," using Gyre Sage to ramp into Trostani, Selesnya's Voice and Scion of Vitu-Ghazi just to get a little extra power in slow creature mirrors. My sideboard had an extra land and multiple copies of Angel of Serenity as a trump card against opposing creature decks.
Craig Wescoe, on the other hand, made his deck faster and smoother, which improved his odds in the matchup that really turned out to matter: Esper Control. Knowing what I know now about what decks everyone else brought to the Pro Tour, I need to praise Mr. Wescoe for his genius decision—congratulations!
The deck that I decided to play, along with the rest of #TeamSCG, was Bant Control. In the early days of testing, Brad Nelson worked tirelessly on the strategy, and when we eventually sat down to discuss it, I loved it! It had the cards that made me want to play W/G—namely Voice of Resurgence, but also Loxodon Smiter and Centaur Healer. Moreover, it had a late game that trumped creature decks and wasn't nearly as clumsy as my Angel of Serenity + Gyre Sage sideboard plan would have been.
The exact list that Owen Turtenwald and I played differed from the rest of the team by a handful of cards. Most of us valued having strong beatdown potential and played four copies of Loxodon Smiter alongside Advent of the Wurm in the sideboard. Personally, though, I play much better when I have a very clear and streamlined game plan, and it doesn't particularly suit my style to have Loxodon Smiter and Supreme Verdict in my deck at the same time. In the end, my creatures were four Voice of Resurgences and two Loxodon Smiters simply because I felt they were some of the best defensive plays you could make at that point in the game—effectively, I considered them walls.
Day 1: The First Draft
My opening pack had Ruric Thar, the Unbowed. While not one of the best rares in the set, Ruric Thar is certainly a powerhouse, and I believe it is worth taking over any non-rare in Dragon's Maze. I took a Putrefy out of the second pack and then another Putrefy out of the third! After two more picks, I had Punish the Enemy and Down // Dirty and was firmly in the Jund colors.
Now, at this point, I had powerful single-mana-cost spells in all three colors, which meant that I'd be looking to, at a minimum, a splash each of green, red, and black. However, one of the keys to drafting this block, in my opinion, is to center your deck on a single guild and prioritize early plays in those colors. If you don't, you can end up with a mana base of six Forests, six Mountains, and six Swamps, which is asking for trouble, or you can end up with a deck that has nothing to cast before turn 3—also not ideal. Moreover, what good would it do me to pick up a Spike Jester early on if my finished product might have eight or nine basic Forests in it?
The key to this draft ended up being my decision to wait patiently for Golgari in pack 3 to be the center of my deck. I kept careful track of the cards I was being passed and what I was passing myself and decided that there had to be a Gruul drafter somewhere downstream. This meant that in pack 2 I wouldn't be rewarded with late-pick Skarrg Guildmages or the like. Instead, I eschewed cards like Bomber Corps and Ember Beasts, expecting that I would play a B/G deck with only a Mountain or two to splash my late-game red cards.
In the end, my deck ended up less than mind-blowing but still quite solid, with a good creature base and good removal. I won most of my games by surviving long enough to start casting Golgari Longlegs, Maze Behemoths (whose ability is not something to discount), and, of course, Ruric Thar himself.
Round 2: Eduardo Barraza
After winning round 1, I played a tight match against Eduardo Barraza from Chile, who had drafted an aggressive Naya deck. He got me low on life early, and all I could do was cast Ruric Thar as a roadblock so that he couldn't continue attacking me. Once I got a little bit of breathing room, I made it my goal to get him down to six life so that he couldn't use a burn spell or a combat trick to finish me off.
In the deciding turn, Eduardo double-blocked Ruric Thar, and I paused for a moment, looking at the Putrefy in my hand and the "6" written on my life pad. I cast the Putrefy on his blocker, put Ruric Thar's ability on the stack, and put Basilica Screecher's extort on the stack on top of it. I went up to seven and then down to one, but the favorable combat step meant I got in enough damage to put my opponent below six. I won the game a few turns later.
Round 3: Ming Chee Wang
Ming Chee Wang ended up defeating me and winning our pod. Games 1 and 3 (the ones I lost) looked as though they were turning in my favor, but Ming had Debt to the Deathless to finish me off in each case. As a slow deck with no permission and little life gain, my main way to defend myself from this card was Down // Dirty.
Each game, I drew Down // Dirty, I but found myself in a position where I was missing land drops, behind on the board, and with excellent cards in my hand provided I could survive to cast them. I decided that taking a turn off to cast Down would be too risky, as if Ming was to discard unimportant cards and then topdeck another creature or removal spell, I would fall too far behind on the board and potentially lose a game that was otherwise winnable. In each case, I simply used Dirty to return Putrefy to my hand in an attempt to take some of the pressure off, but both times he had Debt to the Deathless in his hand...
While my decisions in this match led to a loss, I still stand by them. Often in Magic, you'll be faced with a tough choice where you need to think about what your opponent could have in hand or what could come off the top of their deck. In such spots, you should err on the side of "beating the board."
To simplify the example, let's say Down // Dirty is the only card in my hand and I have only five lands in play and nine life. My opponent has an Assault Griffin and two cards in his hand. Let's also say that I don't have any clue what's in his hand—maybe guessing these things isn't my strong suit, or maybe he tapped out last turn to draw two fresh cards off of Toil.
In such a case, I'll always use Dirty to return a removal spell to my hand to deal with the most immediate threat. If I were to cast Down, I would guarantee myself to be losing on the board, not even offering myself the possibility that my opponent has two blanks in their hand! Now I've put myself in a position where I have to topdeck something to answer the Griffin. What's worse is that knocking the two cards out of the opponent's hand has no bearing on their ability to topdeck another threat!
Day 1: Block Constructed
The Bant deck proved to be as good as advertised for me. I won four of my five rounds, going 1-1 against Esper and beating Mono-Red, W/R/B Midrange, and a Bant mirror. Voice of Resurgence was a great tool against opposing blue decks, but it truly shined in the Mono-Red matchup. A two-mana play that can chump block twice would already be very welcome, but Voice of Resurgence typically trades with one or both of the creatures it blocks. Given an early Voice and a strong follow-up, the Mono-Red matchup is quite good.
Round 7: Jeremy Neeman
My favorite match of the day was a Bant mirror against Jeremy Neeman. Since he didn't prepare with #TeamSCG, Jeremy naturally showed up with a number of different card choices from myself. What made the matchup especially interesting was that we didn't necessarily know what surprises one another might have. In the end, I feel that my list proved to be stronger for the mirror in a long game 1 since the counterspells were quite good (particularly Plasm Capture) and Aetherling was a more effective win condition than his Scion of Vitu-Ghazi and Prime Speaker Zegana.
Game 2 went faster, as I Detention Sphered his Simic Keyrune and then he failed to draw blue lands in time to defend himself.
I ended the day at 6-2, feeling confident about both formats.
Day 2: The Second Draft
#TeamSCG has quite a diversity of draft strategies for this format. On the one extreme are the people who aim for slow, powerful multicolor decks and are happy to first pick a Guildgate from an unexciting pack. Furthest to the other extreme is William "Huey" Jensen, who always likes to go for aggressive two-color decks. While my personal approach falls closer to the middle of the spectrum, I've had more success emulating Huey than I have going for four- and five-color control decks.
I had these things in mind when I opened my first pack, which turned out to be a disappointing one. My choices were Simic Guildgate and Ascended Lawmage which, while a rock solid card, is not typically a good enough incentive to dive into Azorius right out of the gates. Nonetheless, with a tiny, Huey-shaped little man standing on my right shoulder and whispering in my ear, I picked the Lawmage.
My next pack was no better, offering me an off-color Guildgate (I think Rakdos) and a Scab-Clan Giant. I could take the Giant, but to do so at this stage in the draft would effectively mean that I could only use either my first or my second pick depending on which guild proved to be open. While I consider the Giant a strong card, the thing about him is that he's a six-mana creature, and you only want one to three of those in a deck. Is it really worth spending your second pick on when you can replace it with the Maze Behemoth or Ruination Wurm you'll get pick nine or later in the draft? In the end, I decided to stick with my guns and just take a Wind Drake out of pack 2—certainly one of the ugliest starts I've had to a draft in this format.
After the first seven picks, I had a Dimir Guildgate, a Pilfered Plans, and five lackluster blue and white cards. But then, pick 8, after all seven other players had passed on it, I saw a Gaze of Granite! "Well," I thought to myself, "this one card is probably better than everything I've drafted so far, and it might be a signal that strong Golgari will come in pack 3." I took the Gaze of Granite, thinking that I could go BUG or W/B/G.
My fate was decided when I opened Consuming Aberration in my Gatecrash pack... Then I was passed Stolen Identity pick 2... Then I was passed Soul Ransom pick 5! In Return to Ravnica, I opened Desecration Demon, and then the prophecy of good Golgari cards coming my way came true. I got a Lotleth Troll and two Abrupt Decays all late in the draft!
So from a start of completely awful Azorius cards, I ended up with a broken BUG Control deck featuring eight rares, two Urban Evolutions, and a nice suite of removal. I even picked up two Transguild Promenades in pack 3 to make sure my mana would work out if my opponent didn't put too much pressure on me right away.
Round 10: Tomoharu Saitou
After winning the first round, I was paired against Tomoharu Saitou and his aggressive Rakdos deck. If my draft deck had one weakness, it was quick beatdown, so I knew this would be a challenging match. In game 1, I stemmed the bleeding by casting Abrupt Decay and then returning it to my hand with Treasured Find. I stabilized at about twelve life, but a Lobber Crew continued to tick away at me. Thankfully, Desecration Demon and Consuming Aberration kill quickly once they're ready, and he wasn't able to race me.
Game 2 Saitou had a good draw and kept playing bigger and bigger creatures so that I never had a good window to cast Gaze of Granite. Finally, he finished me off with Act of Treason, which was a card I'd need to carefully play around in the third game.
I started game 3 by getting way ahead on cards; Saitou mulliganed and then discarded two cards to take back his creature from my Soul Ransom. I desperately traded off creatures, even losing a 3/2 Lotleth Troll just to preserve my life total. Finally, I got enough breathing room to Treasured Find back my Psychic Strike and held it up for the rest of the game to be sure he couldn't finish me with an Act of Treason. It took many turns of careful play to take him down since I had to leave mana untapped at all times, but eventually my powerful deck took it down.
Round 11: David Sharfman
Back-to-back Pro Tour winners as opponents—certainly no easy draft! David beat me in a long and complex game 1 with his Bant deck by playing well around Gaze of Granite and by squeezing every bit of value out of each of his tricks. Game 2 I returned the favor by quickly dropping a Consuming Aberration and copying it with Stolen Identity. In game 3, a minor stumble on mana was enough to strip me of any chance to keep up with his impressive Simic curve-out.
8-3: 4-2 Draft, 4-1 Block Constructed
Day 2: Block Constructed
Coming out of the draft rounds, #TeamSCG still had four horses in contention for Top 8: Patrick Chapin and Gabriel Nassif at 9-2 and Tom Martell and myself at 8-3. Wouldn't you know it...
Round 12: Tom Martell
Continuing my string of Pro Tour champion opponents, I sat down for a mirror match against my teammate Tom Martell. The Bant mirror match is a frightening prospect. While there is certainly quite a lot of play to it, there's also much that can go wrong and very few ways to survive against a resolved Aetherling. In game 1, Tom did everything he could, drawing extra cards off Sphinx's Revelation and then catching me with a big Plasm Capture. Fortunately for me, he flooded out at the crucial moment and did nothing with his extra mana but cast a Gatecreeper Vine. After that, I resolved an Aetherling, and we moved on to game 2.
In game 2, I was forced to press the action after Tom got out a quick Jace, Architect of Thought. With a well-timed Advent of the Wurm, Tom made me spend mana on my own turn, allowing him to force an Aetherling through my Cancel. Despite Sphinx's Revelation, I was only able to tread water for a few turns before losing to the Aetherling.
I kept a mana-heavy hand for game 3, which worked out perfectly since neither one of us dared a play in the first six turns of the game. Finally, Tom won a counterspell battle over his own Sphinx's Revelation and had a window where he could have cast Aetherling. However, all he had was Jace, Architect of Thought, which found him Syncopate, but with my slight mana advantage, I was able to resolve the first Aetherling. From there, things continued for a number of turns, but the advantage that Aetherling provided me was too much. I ended up taking a very close match.
Round 14: Josh Utter-Leyton
I beat a Maze's End deck in round 13 and then faced Josh Utter-Leyton and his Boros deck at 10-3. I felt good about the matchup, especially after my convincing win over Mono-Red on the first day. However, in game 1, I mulliganed down to five cards and kept a hand with one land, a Selesnya Keyrune, and a Supreme Verdict. I felt that a hand that would at least allow me to cast Supreme Verdict if I drew lands was better than going down to four and hoping for the best. Unfortunately, I never hit a second land and lost my quickest game of the tournament.
Game 2 looked a lot better for me, as I faced a clean board and a comfortable life total in the midgame. Unfortunately, I never drew a Sphinx's Revelation or another card that could put the game away, and after a number of one-for-one trades, I ended up out of answers. Josh presented one more creature, which ended up finishing the job while I drew lands.
One of the most frustrating feelings in Constructed Magic is when you stabilize in a control versus aggro matchup and lose anyway to mana flood. In sideboarding for such a matchup, my first priority is always to ensure that I can comfortably win given that the game goes long. After all, my plan is for the game to go long, and if I can't win from there, then what's the point?!
Perhaps a more familiar example is Standard Jund against Naya Blitz. People frequently ask me why I leave in Garruk, Primal Hunter, which is a slow and unexciting card in a matchup that's often decided in the first few turns. The fact is just that you need some way to win the game. Of course, something like a Pillar of Flame is the single best card you can have against Naya since all you want to do is trade one-for-one as early and as often as possible.
However, it's the presence of cards like Garruk that make this a feasible plan. If all I draw is Pillar of Flames, at a certain point I'll be forced into remembering that my Jund deck has 29 mana sources and my Naya opponent only has about twenty. Who do you think will be the one to flood out and lose? Especially since Olivia Voldaren and Huntmaster of the Fells can die to Searing Spear, you need a few extra cards in your deck that can put the game away.
This strategy of keeping in one Garruk against Naya is the result of an entire season's worth of experience. I wish I'd had the same level of mastery with Return to Ravnica Block Bant, but it was simply not the case. I'm not sure to what extent I got unlucky against Josh and to what extent I sideboarded incorrectly, but the fact is that if I sideboarded my deck into a configuration where this can happen even one out of every six or seven games, then I made a mistake. Maybe I should have left in an extra Angel of Serenity or Aetherling to have a little more power in the late game.
The crucial play of game 2 came when I cast Jace, Architect of Thought and used the +1 ability and Josh killed it with an attack and a Boros Charm. I allowed one of my few "business" cards to be killed before it gave me any card advantage, and it turned out to be devastating. Looking back on the game, I would have had to play in a very convoluted way in order to protect my Jace, so I don't necessarily have any regrets, but it's certainly something I'll be thinking carefully about the next time I play the matchup.
Round 16: Denniz Rachid
After beating another Mono-Red player, my final match of the tournament was playing for Top 16 against Denniz Rachid and his Maze's End deck. I won game 1, but I promptly demonstrated my inexperience with the matchup in game 2. I sideboarded close to the way I normally do for a control mirror, thinking that counterspells and card drawing would be the most important things. I opened on a passive hand and kept it, like I did against Tom Martell, but Denniz Rachid punished me for it. He used his advantage in the matchup—inevitability—and beat me in a game where we hardly played spells at all.
For game 3, I changed things dramatically, taking out nearly all of my reactive cards and bringing in cards like Centaur Healer and Rapid Hybridization (perhaps to use on my own Gatecreeper Vine or Voice of Resurgence for extra damage). This time, I pressured Mr. Rachid's life total, forcing him to cast a Saruli Gatekeepers into Plasm Capture. I used the mana to pump up my Aetherlings for lethal and won the game just in the nick of time.
In the end, I finished in 9th place, with a record of 12-4: 4-2 in Draft, 8-2 in Constructed.
I was very pleased with the Bant deck and recommend it to anyone looking to play Block Constructed sometime soon.
2-1 vs. Red Aggro
1-1 vs. Esper
2-0 vs. Bant
2-0 vs. Maze's End
1-0 vs. W/R/B
The Top 16 finish made me Platinum for the year and squeaked me into the last at-large spot in the World Championship. Considering I improved upon my own Pro Tour personal best by about 30 places, I really can't complain.
I think I'm the happiest man to ever finish in 9th place!
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