I had a lot on the line going into Pro Tour Dragon's Maze. While I was locked for Platinum thanks to my 44 Pro Points heading into the event, I was in sole possession of last place when it came to slots for the sixteen-player World Championship event that will be held this summer in Amsterdam. I had been tied for last with Martin Juza up until Grand Prix Portland the weekend before, but he managed to squeeze two points out of a Top 32 finish at that event while I failed to make the second day. I needed a solid finish at the PT in San Diego to secure my spot in the World Championship tournament.
And frankly, I needed to prove to myself that I deserved it. My Pro Tour finishes in Seattle and Montreal earlier in the season had been terrible. I failed to even make the second day in Seattle, finishing a paltry 3-5, while in Montreal I scraped together a few more wins and made day 2 but finished outside of the money in 80th place. That meant that of my 44 Pro Points, only seven were from Pro Tours this season—the minimum three from Seattle and four from my Top 100 finish in Montreal.
The vast majority of my points this year were from Grand Prix, where I had two Top 8s along with a bunch of Top 16 and Top 32 finishes. That isn't going to cut it next year, when only the top five finishes at Grand Prix count toward your Pro Point total. If that rule had been in effect this year, I would have lost around a dozen points.
My Pro Tour testing began even before the Dragon's Maze spoiler was posted. I made a point of familiarizing myself with the Block Constructed format as it existed on Magic Online with just Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash since those decklists were going to be the starting point most players had for the new format. I mostly played around with the W/R/B "Borzhov" Control deck featuring a boatload of removal alongside Obzedat, Ghost Councils; Boros Reckoners; Alms Beasts; and Rakdos's Returns.
While I won every match I played with it online, it was clear to me that it wasn't the sort of deck that would actually be good in the full block format. It was far too reactive and relied too heavily on individually powerful cards to win without any card drawing or deck manipulation to find them. It basically felt like a ramp deck that built to its big cards with removal spells instead of mana acceleration.
The format pre-Dragon's Maze was largely defined by Sphinx's Revelation decks, but they all felt pretty bad to me. I wasn't terribly impressed with the idea of playing Sphinx's Revelation without the tools in Standard that help grease the wheels. Sphinx's Revelation is incredibly powerful when you can easily get to the point in the game where you have six to ten lands out and you can fire it off for almost an entirely new hand.
That's easier said than done, however, when you don't have cards like Think Twice and Snapcaster Mage to rebuy Azorius Charms and ensure that you hit your land drops. Without Think Twice and Snapcaster Mage, you need to play a tremendous amount of lands in order to hit land drops up to the point that Sphinx's Revelation is truly backbreaking. With that many lands in your deck, you can frequently cast even a fairly large Sphinx's Revelation and hit mostly air.
This theory played out in my first sets of playtest games with Patrick Sullivan. Patrick qualified for the Pro Tour thanks to his Top 4 finish at Grand Prix Charlotte, and seeing as we work together and he lives down the hall from me in the same complex, it only made sense that we would test together for the Pro Tour. Thankfully, the rest of my usual testing group was amenable to the idea, which meant that I was able to start playing in person far earlier than usual. Patrick and I proxied up a number of decks and played a bunch of games to get an initial handle on the format. It will probably surprise most of you to learn that the first decks we each built were not midrange green and aggressive red but rather U/B and U/W.
Patrick's U/W deck was remarkably similar to the list that ultimately took Andrejs Prost to the Top 8 of the Pro Tour, complete with Renounce the Guilds in place of Detention Spheres. We both quickly noticed just how unimpressive Sphinx's Revelation felt in the deck. Sure, it was good when he cast it for a bunch, but more often he'd die with several in his hand without the time to cast them or he'd just not bother spending mana drawing cards when he could attack with Aetherling.
It didn't take us long to realize that Aetherling is the real deal. Aetherling is the most unstoppable control finisher ever since absolutely nothing kills it as long as you're careful. Obzedat, Ghost Council was powerful, sure, but it could die to edict effects or get put on top with Azorius Charm if you made the mistake of attacking. Aetherling, though, was pretty much game over once it hit play—it was just a matter of time.
Blue wasn't the only color that got powerful new tools in Dragon's Maze, however. Green, particularly green/white, got quite a few new goodies as well. At the head of the pack was Voice of Resurgence, a card that's definitely right up my alley. I added the antler-headed Elemental to my Modern deck for GP Portland, and my only regret was that I only played three and not four of them.
Voice of Resurgence is an outrageously powerful card, one that is clearly pushed to be not only a hoser for the kinds of decks it's designed to be best against but good enough to see play as a general value card. It's remarkably good at playing both offense and defense since it leaves a body behind whether it dies to a removal spell or an opposing attacker. It clearly makes it more difficult for opponents to defend themselves with cards like Azorius Charm and makes countermagic downright embarrassing. These are all big plusses in my book.
The next major card for green was Advent of the Wurm. The main thing Advent seemed poised to do was make populate a real thing in Block. Where before the best thing Trostani, Selesnya's Voice and Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage could realistically make were Centaurs, now it was possible to start churning out Wurms—and fast. G/W was already a player in the format prior to Dragon's Maze, albeit a minor one, and getting two of the best cards in the set in Voice of Resurgence and Advent of the Wurm seemed likely to push it to the status of one of the major decks.
Going into testing, my assumption was that the decks to beat would be blue control with Sphinx's Revelation, green midrange (mostly G/W Populate decks), and red aggressive decks. As a result, the first deck I built (after my initial abomination of a U/B deck that got thrown away after playing a single match) was a G/B aggro deck splashing blue. Why splashing? I felt like blue offered a lot against blue control, which I expected to be heavily based around expensive haymakers like Aetherling, as well as G/W Populate, which I thought would result in tons of stalled out games that could be easily broken open by cards like Cyclonic Rift.
My initial sketch looked something like this:
4 Experiment One
4 Gyre Sage
4 Lotleth Troll
4 Dreg Mangler
2 Renegade Krasis
2 Varolz, the Scar-Striped
4 Corpsejack Menace
3 Duskmantle Seer
2 Simic Charm
2 Spell Rupture
1 Golgari Charm
2 Abrupt Decay
Amusingly enough, a significant part of my incentive to build this deck came from a draft the week before with the rest of the Stone Blade team in which Justin Gary played a Corpsejack Menace against me with Experiment One in play. I was immediately impressed by the synergy and wanted to try to see if I could make it work in Constructed. The synergy was powerful, and the deck was capable of some seriously explosive draws but it was relatively clunky and inconsistent. Having both Experiment One and Gyre Sage in the deck led to a lot of weak mid-to-late-game topdecks, and I found myself without a great way to close out games if my opponent could deal with my giant evolved monsters.
One of the most important things I learned while testing this deck was how difficult it was to beat the aggressive red decks in the format with creatures. This was a deck that was capable of building big monsters very quickly, yet thanks to Firefist Striker, Dynacharge, Rubblebelt Maaka, Legion Loyalist, and friends, I had a lot of trouble using those monsters to effectively block.
The games that I won against red were all a combination of blockers and removal for the key creatures, and even some of those games I ended up losing because the game would go long and I'd draw too many land without really having a way to break through a stalemate because I needed all of my creatures on defense and couldn't afford to go aggressive. It certainly didn't help that all of my dual lands meant I was taking an average of four damage each game from my mana base.
I also learned how important it was against the control decks to be resilient to Supreme Verdict. This deck had a lot of creatures that could power through Verdicts, like Experiment One; Lotleth Troll; and Varolz, the Scar-Striped but a lot of the rest of the creatures in the deck matched up very poorly against it. While Corpsejack Menace and Duskmantle Seer were powerful, they weren't powerful enough to win the game by themselves after a Supreme Verdict.
I decided to shift gears and try playing just G/B since the blue wasn't really working out as I'd hoped, but I found that playing just two colors forced me to play a lot of cards that were really just much weaker. There were options like Thrill-Kill Assassin that weren't horrible, but I felt like I was giving up a ton of power compared to three-color decks. I decided to move in the direction of G/B/W so I could play cards like Voice of Resurgence.
My first builds of G/B/W moved to a much more midrange place, cutting Experiment One and playing a higher land count to support cards like Obzedat, Ghost Council and Blood Baron of Vizkopa. Blood Baron initially seemed super powerful to me since it was very difficult for a lot of decks to kill and seemed like a great way to close out games against G/W or red decks.
I found that I still needed a way to clear the board before Blood Baron of Vizkopa could really start attacking, though, because there were always a bunch of creatures like Ash Zealots, Centaurs, or Wurms that made it tough for Blood Baron to get through. I experimented a bit with Gaze of Granite, which was a stone cold killer against tokens and pretty powerful against red, and for a while I was happy with the direction my list was going.
It looked something like this:
4 Gyre Sage
4 Lotleth Troll
4 Voice of Resurgence
4 Loxodon Smiter
2 Varolz, the Scar-Striped
4 Sin Collector
3 Desecration Demon
2 Obzedat, Ghost Council
2 Blood Baron of Vizkopa
2 Abrupt Decay
2 Gaze of Granite
3 Gates (one of each)
When I played more with the deck, though, I just wasn't happy with it. A lot of the cards were very situational. Blood Baron of Vizkopa proved to only be good against G/W and red when I already had some measure of control over the game, and even with my four Sin Collectors I was struggling with control because I had so many reactive cards and expensive creatures. After a particularly bad day of testing that included losing both of my rounds in our mock tournament, I decided I needed to go in a different direction.
That was when I got to thinking about the G/B aggro decks that were floating around on Magic Online. They were playing four copies of Varolz, the Scar-Striped which had up to that point only been a two-of in my lists. While I was watching those decks play out, I realized that Varolz fundamentally changed the way those decks were able to function. While Varolz only had the impact of a three-drop in the early game, the value he provided later on could easily eclipse that of much more expensive creatures. I realized that maxing out on Varolz could allow me to build a deck that was able to have a powerful late game without the clunky draws that come from including a bunch of big creatures in your deck.
I distilled the deck I'd been playing to the elements I liked and the ones that I didn't. With the expensive creatures gone, so were the Gyre Sages, which once again made room for Experiment One. The G/B decks played twelve one-drops, with both Dryad Militant and Rakdos Cackler, but I was really unimpressed by them. I liked that Militant could scavenge for +2/+2 for a single mana, but I felt that the field would have a lot of Centaur tokens, so I didn't want to play a bunch of creatures that could easily get blanked as the game went on.
While I was tweaking my list, I discussed it with Shuhei Nakamura, who was talking intermittently to Ken Yukuhiro about a similar deck. It was in Ken's list that I found two of the cards that got me really excited about playing G/B/W: Cartel Aristocrat and Debtor's Pulpit. One of the big problems I'd found with my old G/B/W list was that it could get stuck in a ground stall against G/W or a similar deck and lack a way to break through, with only Desecration Demon offering real evasion, which was hardly a reliable way to finish your opponent off. Cartel Aristocrat's ability to gain protection from any color meant that it could break open stalemates and sneak damage through, an ability that becomes that much more valuable when you have Varolz, the Scar-Striped to scavenge tons of counters on to it.
Debtor's Pulpit was even more exciting. One of my biggest hesitations about playing G/B/W was the inability to effectively deal with an opposing Blood Baron of Vizkopa. You could have a tremendous start, and your opponent could sometimes just drop a Blood Baron and completely stop you in your tracks. While you could sneak damage past with Cartel Aristocrat and Varolz sacrificing creatures who got blocked, you were almost drawing dead to a Blood Baron at a high life total.
Not so with Debtor's Pulpit. Despite being white, Debtor's Pulpit gives the ability to tap a creature to one of your lands, which lets you keep a Blood Baron of Vizkopa locked down while your team finishes the job. We'd considered cards like Devour Flesh and Slum Reaper, but they were unreliable against any plan that involved other creatures, while Debtor's Pulpit not only stopped Blood Baron but could also keep Aetherling in check long enough for you to win.
With all of that technology, here is where my deck ended up:
- 2 Cartel Aristocrat
- 3 Desecration Demon
- 3 Dreg Mangler
- 2 Dryad Militant
- 4 Experiment One
- 4 Lotleth Troll
- 3 Loxodon Smiter
- 2 Sin Collector
- 4 Voice of Resurgence
- 4 Varolz, the Scar-Striped
On the day before the Pro Tour, I was as confident as I have been at an event in recent memory. I liked my deck against both Esper and G/W, which I expected to make up the majority of the field, and I felt it was sufficiently proactive and had enough generally powerful cards that it could handle whatever unexpected challenges were thrown at me.
I also felt really good about the Draft format. I'd been winning consistently in all of our practice drafts, largely sticking to the principles I laid out in my article a few weeks back. I had a discussion with Ben Stark about his thoughts on the format, and they pretty much mirrored my own, which was reassuring to say the least.
Day 1 of the Pro Tour did not go as well as I had hoped. I drafted a solid Rakdos deck in the first draft after first picking Sire of Insanity over Warleader's Helix and getting a late Spike Jester. Despite passing the Helix, I saw ridiculous Boros cards on the way back, but I stuck to my guns and ended up with a good but not great deck. I started off with a loss after some poor draws against some excellent ones but came back to finish the draft 2-1. I ended up picking up two losses in the Constructed portion, with one of them being perhaps the silliest match of Magic I've ever played.
It was against David Sharfman, who was playing Naya Blitz, and in the first game I mulliganed a bad hand into a reasonable hand that was missing a color of mana. I kept and only played an Experiment One before I died. In game 2, he kept a hand with multiple Burning Tree Emissarys but only a single land, and he played only an Experiment One before he died. In game 3, I kept an excellent hand and had a 4/3 Lotleth Troll defending me when he played Gruul War Chant and made blocking very difficult. I never drew a third land and died with Gift of Orzhova and Putrefy in hand when he hit me for exactly my life total. If I at any point had drawn another land—including the turn before I died—I would have almost certainly won the game.
Coming into day 2 at 5-3, I didn't have incredibly high hopes. Mostly, I wanted to finish in the Top 50 so I could pass Owen Turtenwald in the Player of the Year race, which would mean two people would have to pass me in order for me to miss the World Championship. I started off with a tough draft table, including Sam Black, Kenny Oberg, Raphael Levy, Stanislav Cifka, and Matt Nass, with only two players whose names I didn't recognize. I managed to draft an excellent Simic deck and 3-0ed the pod, beating Matt, Sam, and Stanislav along the way.
It felt good to get back to Constructed with a shot at the Top 8. Historically, I haven't done nearly as well in Limited as in Constructed. My first two Top 8 finishes after I came back to the Pro Tour were done despite my Limited records, not because of them—I went 0-3 in the second draft at PT Austin after starting 8-0, which nearly derailed my entire tournament. After my 5-1 Draft record in San Diego, though, I rattled off three more wins in Constructed to put me at 11-3 with a chance to play for Top 8.
Alas, it was not to be. I found myself paired against Makihito Mihara, who was probably the worst possible matchup for me at the top tables, though I only realized that when I looked at his decklist after the fact. While I'd been beating up on Esper all tournament, including Kai Budde just a couple rounds before, none of them had nearly as good a sideboard against me as Mihara.
I took game 1 on the back of a fast start but was a few damage short of killing him in the second game when his Aetherlings took me down, and in game 3 I was unable to get enough early pressure going thanks to a missing black source for a few turns and a second turn Woodlot Crawler on the other side of the table. Despite all of it, I managed to assemble an 11/10 Lotleth Troll to attack through his Blood Baron of Vizkopa, but a Sphinx's Revelation for five found a second Blood Baron and another Woodlot Crawler that sealed the deal, putting Mihara through to the Top 8 and me out of it.
I ended up accepting my opponent's offer of a draw in the final round, which put us both in the Top 25—17th and 18th to be exact—qualifying him for the next Pro Tour and earning me enough Pro Points to ensure my spot in the World Championship. I debated playing it out, but I didn't have very much to win and had quite a bit to lose—if I lost, I would finish outside the Top 25, which would have made it possible for me to miss Worlds if Mihara finished second, and if I won, I would have only marginally improved my tiebreaker standing for the World Championship by passing Cifka in points. All in all not worth it, especially when it meant that my opponent also got the qualification he wanted out of the deal.
It was rough to lose playing for Top 8, but it felt great to be in the position for that to happen, especially having gone into day 2 at only 5-3 and having to win six straight matches to get there. Overall, I was happy with my tournament. I felt I had a great deck for the field and drafted and played well overall. I accomplished my primary goal, which was to qualify for the sixteen-player World Championship. Oh, and at the end of it all, I just got into my car and drove home. Beat that, huh?
Next season, I hope to do better. I have to do better. I will do better.
Until next time,