It was a big year for Magic: The Gathering. Return to Ravnica and Theros have been well-received sets; Magic in general has sustained its steady climb in popularity; and the excitement and coverage surrounding the tournaments we have now would have been almost unfathomable a year ago.
For me personally, it's been a year of learning, growing, and getting a better feel for my own identity as a player. When the ball drops at midnight tonight (I'm writing on New Year's Eve), I'll turn my eyes toward the future. Today, though, I'll allow myself one last chance to look back on the year that's coming to an end.
Pro Magic won a substantial victory when Wizards of the Coast announced that they'd be adding (back) a fourth Pro Tour per year. Nonetheless, 2013 was a year of only three Pro Tours: PT Gatecrash in Montreal, PT Dragon's Maze in San Diego, and PT Theros in Dublin. Between the prize purse, prestige, and Pro Points at stake in these tournaments and the low number of chances to do well, the Pro Tours really stood as live-or-die moments for me and other pro players.
Despite failing to break through with a Top 8 finish, I count myself lucky to have finished in the money at all three of 2013's PTs. I managed to stay afloat and give myself the best chance to try again next year.
In particular it was the Constructed portion of these tournaments that carried me. Wildly different approaches led me to all three of my deck choices, and each worked out for different reasons. I'll share some of the lessons that I'll be taking with me into 2014.
Beginning in chronological order with PT Gatecrash back in February also allows me to start with the deck that defined 2013 for me: Standard Jund. Not only was it my best deck of the year, but it was the deck that brought me the most success of my entire career. What started as an 8-2 Constructed record at the Pro Tour later became a Grand Prix win, another Grand Prix Top 4, a Magic Online Championship 4-0, a World Championship 2-1, a World Magic Cup Qualifier Top 8, and a PTQ second-place finish.
Though I'm on the topic of PT Gatecrash, I've offered a Grand Prix Jund decklist from later in the year. The reason is that Jund taught me about persistence and the value of sticking to my guns. Throughout the season I worked on fine tuning my decklist and my gameplay, and it culminated in my finish at GP Miami.
Jund was not a broken deck. If you'd polled players over the course of the season about the best decks available in Standard, only a small minority would have answered Jund. Instead, the key to my success was a deep knowledge of the deck, sideboarding, and how to play each matchup and at the core a genuine love for playing with Jund.
If there was one aspect of Jund that was actually quite remarkable, it was that it had no clear weaknesses and could be customized to handle any opponent. The Magic Online Championship was a sixteen-player tournament where I made very little attempt to disguise my deck choice even weeks and months preceding the event. Even with savvy cutthroat players gunning for me, Standard turned out to be my best format in the event.
I always tell aspiring players that the best way to learn is to choose a deck, stick with it through a handful of tournaments, learn it inside and out, and really make it your own. With Standard Jund, I practiced what I preached, and it paid off. Each week I'd monitor small shifts in the metagame, and by the end of the season it was almost second nature to adapt Jund's maindeck and sideboard to them.
The most memorable thing about that Standard season was the Jund's perceived weakness against Junk Reanimator, which for a long time was the most popular deck. Contrary to popular opinion, I found that with a good sideboard plan and careful gameplay this matchup could actually be colossally favorable for Jund. For a period of a few weeks, I coasted to strong finishes by beating two or three Junk Reanimator opponents in each event I played.
So the lesson of Jund was hard work and intimate knowledge of my own deck. It's much better to play your best with an ordinary deck than to constantly switch around to try to stumble upon something broken.
Return To Ravnica Block Bant
Return to Ravnica Block Constructed was the format of PT Dragon's Maze in San Diego. Many of the best deckbuilders in history laud Block Constructed as their favorite PT format—and for good reason. With the unexplored possibilities and the restrictions of a small card pool, it's more realistic than normal for hard work during testing to result in a very strong Constructed deck.
While preparing for this event, my teammates and I tried out basically every strategy under the sun, and we settled on Bant Control.
Like Jund, Bant wasn't doing anything completely broken—not exactly. There's no special synergy between Loxodon Smiter and Sphinx's Revelation that put Bant head and shoulders above the rest of the field. The reason why we settled on Bant and why I put up another 8-2 Constructed finish was that it simply played all of the best cards available to us.
If I asked you to take twenty seconds to name the most influential cards printed in Return to Ravnica block, what are the first ones that come to mind? Sphinx's Revelation should almost certainly make your list. What about Supreme Verdict; Voice of Resurgence; Detention Sphere; Jace, Architect of Thought; and Aetherling? Each has made a huge impact spanning dozens of decks, and Bant made the best use of the highest number of these cards.
As mentioned above, there's no special reason why Voice of Resurgence needs to go in your blue control deck. However, in this particular format, Voice of Resurgence was almost too good to not play! It was incredible against control and the best card by far against aggro. Decks like Mono-Red Aggro had little choice but to trade two creatures for it at a point in the game where they really needed to be pressing their advantage.
The lesson of Bant Control was to first identify the best weapons available and then to find a way to put them to good use.
Standard Mono-Blue Devotion
- 4 Cloudfin Raptor
- 4 Frostburn Weird
- 4 Judge's Familiar
- 4 Master of Waves
- 4 Nightveil Specter
- 1 Omenspeaker
- 4 Tidebinder Mage
- 4 Thassa, God of the Sea
The most recent Pro Tour was in Dublin; I played Mono-Blue Devotion, and it was the best deck I've ever played at a Pro Tour.
All other details aside, the power level of Mono-Blue Devotion is simply so high. You utilize three-mana indestructible Gods and four-mana creatures that can present twenty or more power at once. All this comes in a deck that comes out smooth, has consistent mana, and includes ways built in to avoid both screw and flood.
Thus far I've only briefly mentioned my Pro Tour testing team, who indeed helped me immeasurably in all three Pro Tours this past year. However, the fact is that with my current skill set I never—not with a year of testing—would have built a deck like this for a Pro Tour on my own.
This deck stands in such stark contrast to Jund and Bant Control—decks of a type that I understand and might be able to replicate in the future. However, Mono-Blue Devotion isn't a question of handpicking Standard's best cards, nor is it a matter of fine tuning for the matchups that you expect to face. Mono-Blue Devotion is a deck based on synergy, one where you really need to see the big picture if you're going to succeed.
The lesson of Mono-Blue Devotion was to think outside the box. Pay close attention to new mechanics and cards that might not have a clear basis of comparison. Wizards of the Coast frequently hides powerful tools—either intentionally or unintentionally—in places you might not expect. Try out new ideas, as crazy as they might look on paper, because if you don't at least try you don't give yourself any chance of finding something broken and more importantly you won't learn how to look for these things in the future.
So far I've covered the relatively narrow formats of Standard and Block Constructed. Modern is a different creature altogether, with a huge diversity of explosive strategies that can blow you out of the water if you're not prepared for them.
In such an environment, I again turned to Jund, remembering the lessons of both Standard Jund and Block Constructed Bant Control. I felt that generally speaking Jund utilized the best cards in the format and the ones that I most wanted to be playing with. More specifically, it was a deck that I myself had experience with and one that I felt I could fine tune, sideboard well, and play with a high level of proficiency.
However, there was one last problem that I had to face with Modern Jund. You see, back when I considered myself an expert with the deck, I played four copies of Bloodbraid Elf, which had since been banned and left no acceptable replacement. There was a hole in the deck that needed to be filled.
I wanted something powerful in the four-drop slot. Olivia Voldaren was slow and easily answered one-for-one; I wanted reliable card advantage. Huntmaster of the Fells was bad against decks that could go over the top with a more powerful late game; I wanted something that could disrupt Affinity and Birthing Pod.
What I found was Chandra, Pyromaster, which provided a steady stream of card advantage if she survived but also could impact the game right away by pinging off mana dorks and small creatures. She was perfect against decks that relied on Celestial Colonnade to deal with planeswalkers and great in ground creature battles where the board could stall out.
The lesson of Modern Jund was to identify a problem with your deck and look for creative solutions for it.
Up to this point I've indulged myself by highlighting a few of my more memorable successes from 2013. However, I consider the year a failure in the department of Limited Magic. In all three Pro Tours, I had good decks and put up strong results in Constructed, so with more impressive Draft finishes there's no reason why I couldn't have cracked the Top 8 of these tournaments. Similarly, while I had three Grand Prix Top 8s in Constructed, my best Limited finish was a Top 32 at GP Houston.
It's not that I inherently struggle with Limited. In fact, there have been times in my career where I considered it my strong suit. However, I do believe that my abilities in Constructed have grown at a faster pace than my abilities in Limited and I'm no longer the balanced player that I used to be.
The fact is that in order to have great finishes at Pro Tours one has to excel at both Constructed and Limited. In the future, I need to put the same level of thought and commitment into mastering new Draft formats that I do in fine tuning my Constructed decks.
Getting better at Limited stands as a general goal for 2014. My first event of the season will be the Limited Grand Prix in Sacramento, California, and I'm hoping to start the year off with a bang.
I have some more specific goals as well. While I'm proud of some of my achievements from 2013, one more year has drawn to a close with zero Pro Tour Top 8s to my name. I have two empty spaces in my trophy case—one for the Pro Tour and one for the World Championship, where I came up one win short this past year. These are the goals that I'm truly working toward, and each year that I leave them unfinished gives me the feeling of merely treading water.
So for next year I want to take the steps of at least making it back to the World Championship and of playing in a Pro Tour Top 8. These are not things that any player in the world can take for granted, and I'm planning to work as hard as ever to make them happen.
Bonus Section: Grand Prix Statistics
In my research for this article, I compiled my personal statistics for the Grand Prix of 2013. While there might not be direct strategic lessons to be learned from numbers like this, I think that I might as well tack them on at the end for anyone who cares to see. I feel that I had a strong year but not the best of any pro player or even close to it. This might give you a small peek into a reasonably typical year for a pro player.
There were 21 Grand Prix in North America in 2013. I attended fourteen of them plus one abroad in Warsaw, Poland for a grand total of fifteen. Of the ones I missed, some conflicted with other events, some would have interfered with Pro Tour testing, and some I just chose to skip so I could have a weekend off. Fifteen GPs in a year is a lot, but I'd guess that there were ten or twenty players who attended more than me.
I made day 2 at eleven of fifteen GPs. Keep in mind that I had three byes at all of these, so I typically needed to win four out of six rounds on day 1. I believe that a pro who shows up with a good deck and is on top of their game can expect to day 2 (very) approximately two times out of every three.
I cashed eight of the eleven I made day 2 of and the fifteen I played in. I'm usually pretty disappointed to make day 2 and not cash, but with GPs increasing in size so quickly, I suppose it's something that's bound to happen from time to time.
I made Top 8 of three of the fifteen I played and won one of those (Miami).
This is approximately the pace I've been on since I considered myself a pro. Certainly it's tough to expect to win a GP every year, and there are plenty of players as talented as myself who haven't ever done so. Beyond that I don't view these stats as too extreme or out of the ordinary. While I had more than my fair share of good luck in 2013, I'd like to hope that I can have a similar performance in 2014 just on the back of consistent hard work and focus.