I won a Pro Tour.
It still hasn't fully hit me. But every so often I drift off to a thought like "hmm, I get to play at Worlds" and snap out of it with a gigantic grin on my face.
Lemme tell ya about the journey. See, it's been a long time since the days of playing on the kitchen table against my dad and brother—wait, it hasn't been that long since I've done that. Just . . .
Here's how it went down.
As PTs become more saturated with super teams, it's harder for a dedicated lone wolf to succeed. I feel like that gap will only continue to increase as more teams form and teams continue to innovate and become more efficient at doing what they do. Even a small piece of information or bit of strategy shared by a whole team can have a huge impact on the outcome of a tournament. And as soon as one team has a new superior piece of tech, all teams need to adopt or risk falling too far behind. It's becoming kind of an information arms race that is slowly shifting the way PTs are played. They also have the infinite and unstoppable power of friendship on their side.
That being said, I felt comfortable preparing for this tournament mostly on my own since it was an unusual Pro Tour. You could be somewhere around two-thirds prepared for both formats before the banned list and Born of the Gods were announced.
There are also a few other benefits from going solo that can turn you from a Wizard of Loneliness into an Alpha Doge. A big one is less stress. I definitely felt that sense of no pressure throughout the tournament by being lower profile. If I lost, I lost. If I won, I won. No expectations, so not a big deal either way.
You get to make your own schedule as well. You can draft at your leisure online. There's no need to round everyone up for dinner after the first day; you can simply collapse into bed (pants optional) and order room service (pants required apparently).
Going a week early to fight jetlag, which had destroyed me at some previous European Pro Tours, also wasn't a big concern since I'd found melatonin, which helped normalize my sleep schedule.
I figured I'd be more prepared for Modern because I'd already played it a bunch and less for Draft since my PT Limited performance is usually lacking. So my plan was to lock in my Modern deck at least a week before and binge on drafting as soon as Born of Gods came out online.
I'm an advocate of having a sharpened Constructed list you know inside out against rather than trying to hunt for the best deck. Modern is a format that rewards experience, tinkering, and having a strong sideboard plan for every deck you expect to encounter. There are a lot of matchups your deck needs to have a plan for and you need to know how to play against. Modern's had some time to age and breathe and is still all over the place, and it's hard to find something busted against such a large range of potential decks.
Then the banned list changes were announced.
My immediate thoughts were that Faeries would be amazing and Zoo would be lackluster, which turned out to just be pure fear since no deck I've ever played has been capable of beating turn 2 Bitterblossom . . . unless I happened to be running far superior hard counter Sacred Mesa. Let me tell you, unbanning Bitterblossom will put the fear of the gods in any value lovin' control mage.
The first deck I tested online (the banned list changes weren't in effect yet, but I pretended they were) was Splinter Twin. Jund got nerfed and was always a huge problem for Twin. It also wasn't public enemy number one, so the hate wouldn't increase too much. It didn't fold to anything and actually had fair number of favorable matchups and a nice amount of play to it.
I found an old Twin list I had that ran four copies Izzet Staticaster main, which gunned down a surprisingly large part chunk of the creatures being played in addition to zapping the Fae menace.
Twin would be a great choice.
But I was losing a lot of games, games I felt I would be winning with U/W/R Control.
By then I had wised up to the word on the street that "Nactals rule, Faeries drool." I also realized eventually that I could play Staticaster in U/W/R if I wanted to. Besides, I had already liked U/W/R before the banned list changes so it was the deck I was most familiar with, and it should only get better thanks to the removal of Deathrite Shaman and the addition of Zoo.
I could just be results oriented or whatever, but it feels like the more I align myself to playing strategies I enjoy, the better success I have. Before the tournament. I was actually excited when I thought about being able to flashback Lightning Helix or cast a big Sphinx's Revelation.
So I locked into U/W/R Control and didn't test a single game versus Faeries; I just hoped it wouldn't be good and ignored it. I made sure I was especially ready for Pod and Zoo. Here's the deck I ended up with:
Four is a very key toughness in this format since it survives Lightning Bolt and Anger the Gods and is able to block Wild Nacatl. U/W/R is already overloaded with three-damage spells, making Anger the Gods less necessary but still good.
U/W/R generally has worse game 1s and stronger game 2s and 3s since it has a lot of burn and a lot of counters and usually only one of them will be good against any given deck. This means you get to say your deck has the best sideboard since half the deck is dead game 1.
You want sideboard cards that are either good in multiple matchups or complete haymakers.
Some of the more unconventional cards choices:
I feel Spell Snare is a bit of a trap card because it plays so nice in your opening hand and seems so efficient as well as being great with Snapcaster Mage but actually doesn't hit enough cards against a lot of decks. It also obviously becomes weaker in multiples if they aren't casting cards for two mana.
Every time I see a U/W/R list with Geist of Saint Traft, I shed a single tear. It's very good in the mirror but terrible against a large portion of the field. There is no reason this deck needs to be pressuring any deck except creature-less combo and other control decks since it will slowly gain advantage and win naturally.
Great turn 1 or 2 play. Do not hold on to your Porphyry Nodes to try to extract more value; this card is basically a sweeper on a stick but does not play like Wrath of God, and it is almost always right to play it out sooner rather than later. The beauty of the Nodes is it either stops your opponent from playing creatures for at least a turn, allowing you to ready a Mana Leak or Cryptic Command, or forces them to overcommit, allowing you to prune their small dudes with Lightning Bolts and Nodes the rest.
It gets hexproof dudes. It gets regeneration dudes. It gets hexproof, regeneration, uncounterable trolly Trolls. It's decent at keeping Bitterblossom in check. It's good against Zoo. It'll eventually ping off any number of totem armors (again, don't get greedy!). Have you accepted Nodes into your life yet?
There are some non-believers who will tell you it's worse against Pod than Wrath of God. Or that it's anti-synergistic with Izzet Staticaster and Wall of Omens (which isn't in the deck but very easily could be). Or that it can be a terrible topdeck and is bad against flash or haste creatures. Those people are big dumb heads and should go ahead and play Wrath of God.
Rarely better or worse than Mana Leak, but its mana cost can trip you up early or be a hard counter late against burn or the mirror. Mana Leak is good right now, so having access to a similar effect isn't bad. And who's gonna pass up a chance to play with what is basically Counterspell?
I think this picture sums up my thoughts:
With my Constructed deck settled give or take a few cards, now it was time for a solid week of drafting.
I quickly learned my favorite archetypes were B/W Control, U/B Control, U/G, and BUG.
The only archetypes I was willing to happily draft with red were R/W Aggro and almost mono-red, so it would take red being really open for me to get into it.
I was very comfortable with how I felt about the format despite knowing my thoughts weren't necessarily completely accurate. I had a plan.
The Pro Tour
Soon enough I was leaving behind the icy plains of Alberta on a plane across the Atlantic. Fortunately I had a row of seats to myself, and I used the opportunity to stretch out and watch two movies at once. After a few nights of adjusting for jetlag, I was ready to battle.
I started off with a Herald of Torment and got passed Ornitharch, so I was immediately thinking B/W. The packs seemed a little dry in my colors but didn't offer other options other than a very late Snake of the Golden Grove. Since I wasn't a huge fan of G/W or G/B, I stayed the course and barely managed to get enough playables. Pack 3 I first picked a Temple of Silence over nothing and second picked Scholar of Athreos, which I was happy to have but unfortunately didn't see more of.
- 1 Felhide Minotaur
- 1 Forlorn Pseudamma
- 1 Keepsake Gorgon
- 1 Ornitharch
- 1 Returned Centaur
- 1 Returned Phalanx
- 1 Scholar of Athreos
- 1 Sentry of the Underworld
- 1 Baleful Eidolon
- 1 Herald of Torment
A good version of this deck is my favorite place to be in the format. This was close to a good version, but it had a few too many subpar cards gunking it up. I expected to 1-2.
Round 1: U/G
In game 2, I got mana flooded, but MVP Scholar of Athreos took the game with three activations a turn.
Round 2: U/G Prognostic Sphinx
I was up against fellow Canadian Sammy Tharmaratnam. Game 1 he flooded out, although from what I saw his card quality was superior
Game 3 I mulliganed on the play and felt pretty bummed. I played a turn 4 Forlorn Pseudamma and started making Zombie enchantment creature tokens, while Sammy played out an Aerie Worshipper and Graverobber Spider, and we traded minor blows. He finally found a fifth land and played Prognostic Sphinx again. I slapped Herald of Torment on Forlorn Pseudamma, attacked him from ten to five, and prayed he had nothing since I had to chump block with my entire team the next turn to survive. He bricked, and I stole the match.
Round 3: G/R
In game 2, I got my Keepsake Gorgon active, and Sip of Hemlocked the rest of his dudes.
Game 3 I was on the draw and made the first play of Herald of Torment. He responded with Polis Crusher. I wasn't sure of the exact wording of Polis Crusher and if he could destroy my Herald by attacking, but I was too scared to check and tip him off if he could, so I played Forsaken Drifters and attacked for three. Fortunately it turned out the Crusher has to be monstrous first, and he traded it off for my Drifters when it attacked the next turn. Once again Keepsake Gorgon showed up and was more than enough to secure victory.
I felt incredibly lucky to escape the first draft unscathed. I think my deck was successful because it was consistent and the expensive removal spells could take over if my opponents didn't have an aggressive draw. I got some food while listening to the Power of Now audiobook on my phone, as I always do in between rounds. I listened to it about 1.5 times over the weekend, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking to relax their mind in between rounds.
Round 4: Jund
The Jund matchup is very grindy, and card advantage is king here. I tend to keep riskier land-light hands rather than mulliganing. In game 3, I kept a one-land hand and manage to draw out of it and Mana Leak my way to victory.
Round 5: U/W/R Twin
During a lengthy game 1, I end of turn Snapcaster Maged targeting a Sphinx's Revelation and tapped six mana, leaving three land untapped to play around or cast my own Mana Leak. Unfortunately, I had a brain fart and accidentally announced my Rev for six instead of for three. Somehow we both missed this; my opponent said it was good, and I drew six cards.
All of this was noticed by Brian Kibler, who was in the match next to us and focused on my game rule violation rather than shuffling his opponent's deck (classic blame Kibler). So we called a judge, and I was fully expecting to get a game loss, which I was feeling pretty bad about because I was far ahead even without the Rev. But apparently the rule was changed, and three random cards from my hand got put on top of my deck instead.
I took the game from there and resolved to focus harder.
Round 6: Melira Pod
Pod has a lot of powerful cards that can close the game out, so the key is to counter or disrupt the important ones like Birthing Pod and survive until the late game when they draw into lands, Birds of Paradise, and Noble Hierarch. Everything went according to plan; he flooded out both games while running up against Anger the Gods.
Round 7: Living End
I was up against Michael Hetrick, who was also running the tables Lone Wolf style. Game 1 I didn't have any counterspells and tapped out to Snapcaster Mage + Lightning Bolt him at the end of his turn. He played a Violent Outburst into Living End, and I conceded.
Game 2 he missed his third land drop with four dorks in his graveyard and a full grip. It was the end of his turn, I had three mana, and my hand was two copies of Remand, a Vendilion Clique, and a Path to Exile that I wanted to Clique away. I had a feeling that he had Simian Spirit Guide + Violent Outburst, but I ignored it and played the Clique anyway. I wasn't even certain Living End runs that card or what amount if it does. It turned out he had it and won. My top two cards were lands, so I could've easily won if I'd waited til I had Remand backup to play Clique.
Round 8: Courser Jund
This round I played against Matej Zatlkaj, who has been putting up a run of consistently strong results lately. Game 1 he only had one green mana, was stuck on four lands for a long time, and was unwilling to play a Tarmogoyf that got Remanded back to his hand because he knew I had Cryptic Command. He bricked on lands for a bunch of turns, and by then I was too far ahead for him to come back.
In game 2, he thoroughly steamrolled me before I could cast a spell.
I stumbled back to my hotel exhausted. I took off my pants, collapsed into bed, and then ordered room service—in that order.
I got a great night's sleep.
I started off the second draft by opening the strongest uncommon in the set: Ornitharch. I got passed Drown in Sorrow and Nyxborn Triton and decided to take the Sorrow and look to go B/W again. Visions of Keepsake Gorgons danced in my head. I got passed another Nyxborn Triton and Excoriate and took the removal spell. Next I took an Asphyxiate and a Nyxborn Eidolon, and I got shipped two Nullifys and a Divination late over nothing of interest, suggesting loud and clear that blue was open and white was dry.
Before pack 3, I looked through my picks and panicked a little since I had approximately zero ways to win in U/B.
Then I opened Elspeth, Sun's Champion, which gave my deck a clear powerful direction:
- 1 Blood-Toll Harpy
- 1 Evangel of Heliod
- 1 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
- 1 Ornitharch
- 1 Returned Centaur
- 1 Setessan Battle Priest
- 1 Tormented Hero
- 1 Nyxborn Eidolon
- 1 Nyxborn Shieldmate
In retrospect, both my Draft decks look much nicer than they did in the moment. I suppose this could just be because they performed well (aka reverse sour grapes, which Google tells me is called "lemon sweets")
Round 9: U/B Control
My deck was better suited for the matchup, and my two Read the Bones plus removal took the match.
Round 10: Little White Guys
Round 11: U/R Bombs
Finally, I got my first taste of the feature match area. Fortunately, I wasn't under the cameras immediately, so I had some time to get acclimated.
Game 1 I finally saw Elspeth, Sun's Champion, who I ride to victory.
In game 2, a monstrous Ill-Tempered Cyclops bashed my face in while I failed to dig into a way to deal with it.
Game 3 we both did nothing beyond trading removal spells until turn 6, when I ran out Elspeth. She resolved, and I followed her up with Evangel of Heliod, making a buttload of tokens that took the match. Afterward, my opponent showed me his Prognostic Sphinx and Stormbreath Dragon that failed to show up.
At this point I was feeling pretty excited and confident. The only other time I'd 3-0ed a Pro Tour draft was my first one in Prague with two Storm Herds, and now I'd done it twice when it really mattered. I listened to some more Power of Now to relax and get my head on straight.
Round 12: Blue Moon
Back to Constructed, I was up against Lee Shi Tian with his innovate deck. I had caught wind of what Lee was up to during the tournament, which made an especially huge difference for a matchup like this. Going in blind and not searching basic lands or expecting him to have the Twin combo would have been devastating.
The goal was to try to get into favorable counter wars while throwing burn at his face.
In game 2, I got beat down by Batterskull.
Game 3 Lee resolved Blood Moon when I was light on counters and also managed to Spreading Seas my Plains before sticking a Teferi, Mage's Zhalfir. At this point I had him at two life but was completely out of relevant castable cards and unable to force my Snapcaster Mages through his defense. But time was called while we were at an impasse. It was very unlikely I was winning against his full grip, and it was only a matter of time before he found a threat to finish me off.
Round 13: Melira Pod
This match came down to a key misplay in game 3 where my opponent attacked his Scavenging Ooze into a Celestial Colonnade he'd forgotten about. He had to Abrupt Decay his Birds of Paradise to feed the Ooze just to trade with the Colonnade. That gave me time to find a Sphinx's Revelation and take the match.
Round 14: Melira Pod
I now had three win-and-in matches to make Top 8. For my first one, I was up against former teammate Jacob Wilson with a fine-tuned Pod list. He played very well around my Mana Leaks and eventually snuck a Voice of Resurgence through my counter-heavy hand and swarmed me.
Here's where I was expecting the wheels to fall off. I was sure I was going to run into a succession of Uber Magicians who scoffed at my makeshift pile.
Round 15: U/W/R Twin
Game 1 went long, and I found out very late in the game that Tim Rivera was playing the Splinter Twin combo and barely managed to stop him from comboing. Near the end of the game, I showed him my hand full of counters and burn in attempt to save time, but it just ended up putting more time on the clock.
I think game 2 involved an Ajani Vengeant ultimate, but my brain has overwritten the details with "that is the moment you made Top 8." It was a feeling of relief. Having played this game so long, making Top 8 of a Pro Tour has always been the achievement. That's what you do if you're a great player. You Top 8 a Pro Tour.
Round 16: Affinity
I had the best tiebreakers and wanted to draw, but my opponent wanted to play for top seed. He was swiftly taught the meaning of value as I assaulted his puny robots with Electrolyzes and then played Stony Silence followed by Porphyry Nodes to lock up the play for every match in the Top 8.
I felt very fortunate with the bracket, as the three decks I feared the most were on the other side (in order of fear, Blue Moon, Melira Pod, and Storm.) I didn't do any testing the night before. I just thought about how I would sideboard and what my plan would be for my quarterfinal and possible semifinals. I managed to get a good 4.5 hours of sleep in.
I woke up and started the day by putting on my secret weapon. No one else would know about it, and it would be my key to victory.
Then while leaving my hotel, I proceeded to almost close the elevator door on the head judge, which if I believed in non-wall omens would've been a pretty bad one.
I got to the tournament center and calmly waited for my first match on Sunday to start.
I'd like to think I played well during the Top 8, but I also made a fair number of mistakes. At a certain point your brain just isn't going to function as well, and you'll start to slip up, exposing your fundamentals. At times like those it's really important to have a nice base of practice so your instincts can kick in and hopefully help fill in the holes in your play.
Every time I felt a surge of emotion coming, I almost immediately caught that excitement and just looked up and took a deep breath or appreciated the beautiful artwork on the walls. (For example, did you know Karametra is sitting on a fox and has a scythe/sickle? There might be something sinister behind the methods she uses to harvest her crops.)
I felt confident in my matchup here. The key would be dealing with Restoration Angel efficiently and not letting him slip a combo through. Game 1 I was able to just end of turn fire off Sphinx's Revelation since I knew all Tim could do was Remand them. Eventually one resolved, and I was too far ahead.
Game 2 just slipped out of my hands slowly. I probably should've taken more risks and not been so afraid of him comboing off.
Game 1 I took an aggressive and risky line, but he managed to disrupt me at the last second.
In game 2, I Threads of Disloyaltyed his Sworded up Scavenging Ooze and killed him with it.
Game 3 Patrick mulliganed to five and got mana screwed as I slowly took advantage and eventually found a way to kill him. It felt like he made some interesting sideboard decisions since it seemed like we both went into full-on control mode, which should benefit me more.
Once again I relaxed by admiring the artwork. (What's the deal with Xenagos getting promoted [or demoted] from planeswalker to god? Look for him in the next set as Xenagos, Supreme Mugwump of the WizenGamot.)
I could feel the energy radiating off Jacob. The desire to win. The version of Pod he played is incredibly powerful and is probably the best deck in the format right now since it's hard to hate out without any really bad matchups. He was also playing like a master.
Getting to play first was incredible crucial here since it allowed me to Mana Leak Voice of Resurgence, Birthing Pod, and Kitchen Finks. That's what happened as I stole Game 1. Jacob battled back, taking game 2 and then game 3 when I made a particularly comedic series of blunders and anti-topdecks. You could actually hear the crowd cheer, groan, or in my case laugh at the topdecks. I couldn’t help but smile as I drew Cryptic Command after needlessly chumping away my third blue source or drawing Porphyry Nodes against his board of fifteen creatures.
Then I ultimated Ajani Vengeant.
And then he mana flooded, and I Threads of Disloyalted his Scavenging Ooze.
And then I won the Pro Tour.
I had been trying to remain relaxed and calm all weekend, but having it be all over was just like a flood of many emotions crystallizing and hitting me at once.
Exhaustion, relief, joy, disbelief. Triumph. It's like nothing else.
Fame, Fortune, & Babes
There's something special about Magic. I've spent countless hours playing this game. Finally seeing that I'm good enough to compete at a professional level is incredible. What does it really mean to win a Pro Tour? It means I get to go and play some more of this game that I love.
My Secret Weapon
I had been saving them all tournament. They worked. I won wearing them.
My Threads of Nationality.