I spent the last week of my life in Valencia, Spain. Was I sightseeing? Was I traveling around, taking in all of the tourist activities that Valencia has to offer? Or was I cooped up in a 22nd floor apartment with twelve other Magic players, desperately trying to figure out how to break the Modern format and learn Theros/Born of the Gods Draft?
I'll give you a hint: I have no clue what kind of touristy activities you can even do in Valencia. Spain wasn't a vacation. I invested lots of money and lots of time into this event, and I treated it as such. For that reason, I have a low tolerance when I hear people say, "Dude, you're in Spain. Enjoy yourself. Who cares that you did bad in a Magic tournament." If it was a local event, sure, I could go home, watch some Netflix and not care. But when you invest the level of time, effort, and money that I did, it's perfectly acceptable to be frustrated when it doesn't go well regardless of where in the world you find yourself. Carmen Sandiego wasn't even there. Daggered.
Despite the testing, the Pro Tour ended up being a bust for me. After a 2-3 start, I rallied back to 5-3 to slide into the second day. However, my 0-3 draft to start the second day meant that I had to 5-0 Constructed just to make the minimum cash finish. I wasn't able to pull through.
On Sunday night, as I was just about to leave to start the long journey back home, I had a conversation that went something like this:
"Well, I didn't do well at the Pro Tour, but I feel like I really learned a lot and will do better next time." I said as I walked toward the door.
"Most Magic players don't actually ever get better. Are you going to be a better player in six months than you are now?" Dave Shiels responded.
"I am an infinitely better player now than I was a year and a half ago. Six months from now, I will be better yet."
It was a good question, and my response seemed on the surface like the right thing to say. I actually have improved significantly at Magic since I started writing for StarCityGames.com a couple of years ago. I went from a middling Open Series grinder to a slightly less middling Open Series grinder. Progress. Feels like I'm Malcator, the way I just showed Vorinclex that not all progress involves teeth or claws.
In all seriousness, though, I actually have improved a great deal at Magic. It took a lot of work and effort, but when I think back to where I was at two years ago, it's clear to me that I am both a better Magic player and a better person in general than I was back then. I have improved significantly at Magic; therefore it stands to reason that in six months' time I can be even better yet.
However, for some reason the question continued to nag at me. Am I better now than I was in Dublin last October? Am I better player than I was when I won Grand Prix Louisville? Am I actually a better player than I was six months ago?
There was a flaw with my line of thought. While it certainly does stand to reason that in six months' time I can be better, it doesn't mean that I will be better. I know that I can be better. I have shown in the past that I have the propensity to learn and improve at this game. It's a little arrogant to say that I will be better though. That's not just something that happens over time. It takes work. It takes dedication. You don't just "get better."
The Pro Tour and my failure left me hungry. It's an inexplicable feeling, but I have this burning desire to go to and crush absolutely every tournament I can possibly play in. I want to get back to the Pro Tour. I want to show people that I belong there. When I start to lose at a game, I do one of two things. I quit playing the game, or I do whatever is necessary to become the best at the game. I've lost a lot at Magic. It's safe to say that I haven't quit. That means it's time to put actions to words and show that I'm willing to do what it takes to be the best.
I have fifteen Pro Points. I'm not qualified for the next Pro Tour in Atlanta. I need twenty Pro Points to hit Silver in the Pro Players Club, which would give me a qualification for Atlanta. The only way to get those points is to finish well in upcoming Grand Prix. It's simply not feasible for me to travel to every single Grand Prix, which means I have a limited number of tournaments to hit a limited number of points.
Looks like it's time to get to work. I've identified a number of ways I failed in Valencia, and I feel like there is something useful to learn in highlighting them.
I went 3-3 in Dublin in Theros Draft. I went 2-4 in Valencia in Theros/Born of the Gods Draft. There was a point in time where I considered myself a Limited player. There was a point in time where I was good at Limited but sucked at Constructed.
My mindset is still a relic from that time. The old adage "you are what you eat" actually applies here. I consume Constructed information constantly. I record Constructed videos weekly. I write Constructed articles. I play in Constructed tournaments nearly every weekend. When I actually log on Magic Online, I do so to test out a Constructed deck. I don't do it to draft.
When I won an Innistrad Sealed PTQ, I was still a Limited player. Nowadays? I am not a Limited player. It took two back-to-back poor results in Limited to finally hammer that point home.
That has to change. The majority of players who made Top 8 of the Pro Tour last weekend did so with no more than three losses. My 3-3 record in Dublin meant that I had to go undefeated in Constructed to have a reasonable shot at top 8. My 2-4 record in Valencia meant I was drawing dead.
Everyone focuses on whatever Constructed format applies for a given Pro Tour, but far less emphasis is put on Limited even though it plays a huge role in the success of any given player at a Pro Tour. You can have an average record of 6-3-1 in Constructed and still make Top 8 if you go 3-0 in both of your drafts.
I tested with a team for this event. In the numerous drafts we did in the week leading up to the Pro Tour, I averaged a record of around 1-2 or slightly worse. I was losing a lot, and worse yet I couldn't really figure out what I was doing wrong.
In fact, it wasn't until Thursday night before the Pro Tour that I finally understood the format. Something finally clicked. Unfortunately, it was too late for me to really get any drafts in with my newfound understanding, and I paid the ultimate price for my inexperience when I couldn't adapt well enough in the draft on the second day of the tournament.
I was good at Innistrad block Limited. Great, even. I won a PTQ in that format. I had a Limited rating over 1900 on Magic Online for a long time, which is quite difficult to do. I was crushing drafts. The thing is that outside of the occasional Avacyn's Pilgrim into Travel Preparations start, Innistrad Limited was grindy. Decks were aggressive, but games were usually a grind. Your opponent was casting Spider Spawning for ten Spiders. Your opponent was killing you with Burning Vengeance two points at a time. Removal was plentiful and powerful.
Theros is not grindy. Favored Hoplite into Ordeal of Purphoros? You're dead. Thanks for shuffling up but not actually playing. Theros is a format that really rewards tempo. Theros is a format that really rewards nut drawing your opponent and just creating a board state that they can't possibly win against as early as you possibly can. In Theros, you can attack for nine damage on turn 2. In Theros, your five-mana removal spell only sometimes is good enough to kill their two-drop.
Let me be the first to say that I absolutely abhor that. I don't think it's fun in any way for anyone. I also suck at it. That's not to say that I can't nut draw someone. Obviously I can. I just hate drafting all-in decks, and I'm not good at playing the tempo game. There's a reason I've never had success in a tournament with Delver of Secrets in my deck.
On Thursday night, the revelation I had is that green is actually just unplayable in Theros Limited. I'm sure many will disagree, but I didn't do better than 1-2 with any green deck I drafted in the week leading up to the Pro Tour, with the majority of my decks being green. In fact, some decks I drafted that looked awful to me, such as a U/R deck with a bunch of crappy creatures, were good enough to go 2-1.
Every green deck I drafted looked insane. I had an excellent curve with tons of powerful tricks. Yet every time I would end up 1-2 or 0-3, and I would wonder what went wrong. How did I lose in this draft? My deck was so good. It doesn't make sense.
Green just can't catch up. If your opponent goes dude into ordeal, you're dead before you get to play Magic. Green is left playing some "big" creatures that actually still aren't as big as your opponent's massive one-drop that they put a million of enchantments on, and you end up losing the game eventually. The other colors all have ways to fight or are aggressive enough to race.
W/R is probably the strongest archetype, with U/W and U/R also viable. These decks are all aggressive or tempo-oriented strategies aiming to take advantage of heroic or other synergies. At the other end of the spectrum is mono-black or nearly mono-black. Generally, the black deck splashes white for cards like Scholar of Athreos and Sentry of the Underworld along with a few quality bestow creatures. This is the true control deck of the format. You want to kill your opponent's creatures and then just finish them with whatever is left.
The mono-black strategy was my favorite. Black is awful in pack 1, so frequently it gets avoided by most players. If everyone opens a pack where there isn't a good black card, which is most packs, then nobody is going to see any reason to jump into black. By forcing black, you get the couple of reasonable playables in pack 1, and then you get free rein in packs 2 and 3. Since everyone else is already committed to other color combinations, you're going to get cards like eighth pick Gray Merchant of Asphodel. Black has a number of early defensive cards to hold off quick ordeal draws long enough to start to hit the expensive cards like Sip of Hemlock or Keepsake Gorgon that can actually permanently deal with those creatures.
Forcing black was what I wanted to do. I thought the strategy was good and hoped it wouldn't be recognized by other players, as it fit my playstyle best. In my first draft, it worked out perfectly, and I ended up with an excellent B/W deck with which I went 2-1. While 2-1 isn't 3-0, I felt like I had drafted a 3-0 quality deck, and I wasn't disappointed at all with how that draft went. If a couple of things had swung my way, I could have easily have gone 3-0.
My next draft was a train wreck. Again I tried to force black, but I made the classic mistake of trying to draft a control deck two seats to the left of Guillaume Wafo-Tapa. I should have simply known going into the draft that he would look to draft the only control deck in the format (B/x) and not even bother to try myself. Pack 1 pick 1 I took Asphyxiate over Fall of the Hammer. Fall of the Hammer is the better card, but I was trying to force the strategy I wanted to be in. I paid a price that could be easily described again as ultimate.
I ended up with a pretty awful B/R Minotaur deck. While I did have both Rageblood Shaman and Kragma Warcaller, the deck still didn't quite come together well. I probably should have at least gone 1-2 with the deck since I lost a bunch of games that were exceptionally close where I ended up flooding out, but it still wasn't great. It wasn't a 2-1 or 3-0 deck.
"Hey BBD, how did your draft go?"
"I have four copies of Felhide Minotaur in my deck."
"Wanna get lunch after you drop?"
If I'd had those two copies of Fall of the Hammer that I passed, I could've at least gotten some value from the draft by naming my deck "Fel of the Hammer."
If I qualify for Atlanta, I will be ready in Limited. It takes more than a week leading up to an event to be prepared to draft. I didn't draft enough Theros leading up to our testing with Born of the Gods, and I got my just desserts. I will grind as many drafts on Magic Online as it takes to be intimately familiar with everything from Born of the Gods and Theros. At the very least, I will be better at Limited play in general regardless of the format.
More than just Limited, though, I want to become better at playing decks that aren't grindy. I'm comfortable grinding out my wins one Thragtusk at a time. I'm not comfortable trying to ride one or two cheap threats and some disruption all the way. I think I need to start playing those decks and learn how to win with them.
Speaking of Thragtusk, did you know that in German his creature type is "Bestie?" I think that pretty accurately sums up my relationship with him. We're besties.
We didn't end up breaking the format in Constructed. Our team of thirteen members played four different decks. Alex Majlaton and Jon Stern were on Affinity. Steven Wolfman, Todd Anderson, Ben Moir, and Lucas Siow were on Zoo. Alexander Hayne, Dave Shiels, and Glenn McIelwain were on Splinter Twin. Sam Pardee, Josh McClain, Jacob Wilson and I were on Melira Pod.
Overall, I feel like our testing went reasonably well. It's actually very hard to test for a format as wide open as Modern is in the limited amount of time we had. Simply testing known quantities alone in any kind of a thorough manner would easily take up weeks' worth of testing. Coming up with brews and throwing them against the gauntlet is an entirely added layer of complexity.
One of our early conclusions was that Zoo is extremely powerful. In fact, a lot of our decks were simply folding over and over again to Zoo. We felt that the Pro Tour was going to be dominated by Wild Nacatl and friends. Even when playing decks with cards like Tarmogoyf, Abrupt Decay, Path to Exile, Scavenging Ooze, Kitchen Finks, and Restoration Angel, I was still getting slaughtered by Zoo. I had so many cards for the matchup, yet something as simple as one-drop into one-drop into one-drop with Ghor-Clan Rampager to back it up was enough to devastate my dreams. We ended up abandoning all of those decks.
I spent a long time testing W/B Tokens. The deck seemed strong, and I had a good matchup against most fair decks. The main issue I ran into was that I simply could not beat Melira Pod. Even with a bunch of active tokens and an Intangible Virtue, I was still losing to something as simple as a few Birds of Paradise and a Gavony Township. I was also losing post-board games to our Zoo deck, which featured Pyroclasm in the sideboard. It wasn't a stretch to think that other Zoo players would adopt Pyroclasm considering it completely wrecks some decks and all of the creatures in Zoo have three toughness anyway.
It wasn't until Wednesday night that I ended up abandoning W/B Tokens and decided to just play Pod. That meant I only had one day to work on it. Thankfully, I was on a team with Sam Pardee, Josh McClain, and Jacob Wilson, three of the best Pod players in the world. Those three all played the same list. My list was only a few cards off from theirs, the main difference being that I played a third Abrupt Decay over a third Chord of Calling since I feared Zoo.
- 1 Spellskite
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 4 Kitchen Finks
- 2 Murderous Redcap
- 3 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Orzhov Pontiff
- 1 Qasali Pridemage
- 1 Ranger of Eos
- 1 Reveillark
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 1 Shriekmaw
- 1 Viscera Seer
- 2 Voice of Resurgence
- 2 Wall of Roots
- 1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
- 1 Melira, Sylvok Outcast
I also played a third Scavenging Ooze in the sideboard since it was simply the best card in the mirror match and I figured it would be good to have access to in an open format like the Pro Tour. In addition to being a powerful threat on its own, it's good against a wide variety of strategies that interact with the graveyard, such as Storm and Living End.
Of the four of us that played this deck, I was the only one who didn't finish in the Top 25, and a large part of that was due to my 2-4 Limited record. Jacob Wilson, as you probably know, ended up getting second place with Melira Pod.
Another reason I didn't do quite as well is that I didn't have sufficient time to work on the deck I ended up playing. One of the biggest mistakes I made this Pro Tour was hanging on to a pet deck long past the period I should have. A number of other players on the team were interested in W/B Tokens when I was winning a lot early with it, but they all ended up abandoning it for one reason or another. I was the lone stalwart.
I knew deep down that W/B Tokens probably wasn't good enough, but at the same time I also wanted it to be good enough and desperately hung on for that reason. I love playing cards like Lingering Souls, and I wanted to play it, baby, one more time.
If I had abandoned W/B earlier, I could have done things like test Melira Pod against U/W/R. I ended up playing against U/W/R four times in the tournament and went 1-3 against it. My record was stellar against decks that weren't U/W/R, but I had severe issues beating that deck. The combination of cheap counters, Anger of the Gods, and spot removal was hard to plow through. Even an active Birthing Pod wasn't always enough, especially in post-board games where they had access cards like Rest in Peace to really shut things down.
Something as simple as a Thrun, the Last Troll would have instantly helped shore up that matchup. Thrun survives Anger of the Gods (and everything else if you have mana open) and can bash through everything in U/W/R.
I had also heard coming into the event that the dealers were sold out of Tempest of Light. That could only mean one thing. There's really only one deck that plays Tempest of Light: U/W/R. There's really only one deck you want Tempest of Light against: Auras. I played over 50% of my rounds against those two decks. If I had just held my finger to the wind and listened to the information I was given, I could have probably avoided the losses I had against U/W/R and the loss I had to the slipperiest of bogles.
The last thing is that Melira Pod is a very difficult deck to pilot optimally. While I was pretty familiar with the deck since I'd played a lot with it on Magic Online, I was still not nearly as proficient at it as the other Pod masters on our team. This Modern Pro Tour really showcased how much value there is to simply grinding a lot of Modern. A lot of the top performers were Magic Online grinders and people who have done well in Modern Grand Prix in the past. I should have focused more on Modern on Magic Online in the months leading up to the event. Even though the format was changed from the banning of Deathrite Shaman, that familiarity certainly wouldn't have hurt at all.
It's weird, but I actually feel good about this Pro Tour. Normally you don't come back from an event where you got slaughtered and feel good about it, but I actually feel there are tangible places for improvement. I know what needs to be done.
I need to fix my Limited game. I need to learn how to draft a format that doesn't fit my preferred playstyle. I need to grow comfortable playing archetypes I don't enjoy as much.
I need to abandon pet decks as soon as I realize they aren't good enough. I love me some Intangible Virtue, but I would have preferred a few more days testing with Pod.
I need to get a better understanding of the metagame and develop a plan to beat the more popular decks. When I know that a deck like U/W/R is going to be dominant, I should test against it and build my deck to beat it. Who knows, if I had spent hours testing against U/W/R and suggested that we put a Thrun in our list, Jacob Wilson might have won the Pro Tour instead of getting second place.
I know what needs to be done. All that's left is to actually do it.
Six months. I will be better.