Two weeks ago, I took second place at Grand Prix Chicago. In poker terms, we would call my tournament experience the 'second nut.' Fortunately for me, the difference in tangible rewards between second and first place at a Grand Prix is a paltry $1300 - which, as a college student who delivers pizza, is a very hard sentiment to express. And yet I'm quite comfortable doing so, as second place is still good enough to serve as the realization of every dream I've been working towards for the last several months.
This story starts, I suppose, at Grand Prix Cincinnati two months ago. More specifically, it starts shortly after I lost back-to-back win-and-ins against Jared Boettcher and Brad Nelson to miss a Top 8 I desperately wanted. I was, to put it frankly, heartbroken. As I moped around the tournament hall, struggling to come to terms with the fact that my tournament was now over, Josh McClain, who I played in round nine, came up to ask me how I had finished. After I gave him my sob story of being close, but not close enough, he asked me what tournaments I had coming up. Specifically, he mentioned GP Phoenix, another Standard GP being held on the other side of the country in two or three weeks. It was the nonchalant manner in which he mentioned this that got me – like the possibility of me going to GP Phoenix was at all reasonable. We resided in two very different worlds, and I finally admitted to myself how badly I wanted to live in his.
Prior to this epiphany of mine, not admitting how badly I wanted to taste Magical success was something that held me back. It was fear that made me hide how important this was to me, fear that others would judge me for wanting success at “a game.” Fear that I wasn't good enough, that I couldn't be good enough. And so I would tell people that I wanted to be on the Pro Tour, but always with a slight sigh in my voice, as if I was talking about a far-off dream I would never reach. I would say that the lifestyle of professional Magic players looked awesome, but always with a slight laugh, as if the idea of me getting there was ludicrous. Cincinnati changed all that. I allowed myself to want this dream, and resolved that Cincinnati's double win-and-in would not be my last shot at it.
So back to work I went. I'm a MTGO player by nature, and did what I could to live the grind. Working till midnight and waking up at 6 am for the Standard dailies became a regular occurrence. Magic was dominating my life, and I felt great about it. Working towards a goal is, in my opinion, one of the best feelings in this world.
In the weeks prior to Chicago, I was having a really hard time finding wins on MTGO. I was grinding Mono-Black Devotion splashing Abrupt Decay for the most part, and I was losing. A lot. I was convinced the green splash had to be good up until the Wednesday before Chicago, and I intended to play it. I wish I could say that I had some major epiphany about the format that prompted me to jump ship to Mono-Black, but honestly, I just got sick of losing. So I hopped into some eight-mans with an updated version of my Cincinnati list. I went 4-3 or something, but two of the losses were to Luis Scott Vargas and Raymond Perez Jr. Overall, I felt much better playing it and decided that this was my best shot. Here's what I registered:
This list is 69/75 of the same cards as my Cincinnati list. The key features are:
- Zero Temples. Mono-Black is ruthless at punishing opponents who stumble, and without any lands entering the battlefield tapped on my side of the table I was able to maximize my ability to do so. I would say the major illustration of the benefits of not having any Temples is that the sequence of turn-one Thoughtseize, turn-two Pack Rat, turn-three make a Rat necessitates that your first three lands not come into play tapped. Overall the deck is very mana hungry, and its commonplace to want your Xth land to come into play untapped for X = all the way up to 8.
- Zero copies of Devour Flesh. Fun fact: I hate Devour Flesh. Absolutely hate it. More on this later.
- Lifebane Zombie over Nightveil Specter. The way I look at this decision is that in the matchups where Lifebane Zombie is better (pretty much anything playing Poulkranos, World Eater; Mono-Blue Devotion; or anything with access to Blood Baron) it's way better. When Nightveil Specter is better (the mirror, burn) it's only slightly better. Yes, I would argue that Specter is only slightly better than Zombie in the mirror. You see, I really only want four non-Pack Rat non-Merchant creatures in the deck post-board, and I feel that Desecration Demon is better than either Specter or Zombie.
- Access to two Whip of Erebos in the 75. The miser's copy is in the main as flood insurance and to win games I wouldn't otherwise have a shot in, and the second is in the board for the matchups we want it. Whip is a great non-creature devotion source to complement Erebos, and Whip plus Gray Merchant gives tons of inevitability in games that are going late.
But back to me hating Devour Flesh. People tell me they see Mono-Black as a control deck, a deck that grinds its opponent out in every game. I don't understand this perspective at all. Gray Merchant of Asphodel is the centerpiece of the deck, and it is clearly a card that is not maximized in a control deck. Gray Merchant's strength is not inevitability – it's the race. Sure, we take a control role in the hyper-aggro matchups, but the Mono-Blue and Monsters matchups are regularly decided by a race. Essentially, what it boils down to is that the lifegain drawback of Devour Flesh is considerable in far too large a percentage of games for me to be comfortable playing it.
And don't even get me started on how miserable Devour Fleshing an opposing Desecration Demon is...
A lot of people I talk to about cutting Devour Flesh seem uncomfortable with having zero outs to Blood Baron of Vizkopa. Sure, my list will lose a very large percentage of games where the opponent plays a turn-five Blood Baron. But with four copies each of Thoughtseize and Lifebane Zombie, a potential turn-five Blood Baron is usually nabbed out of their hand. And played in the later stages of the game, suddenly Blood Baron of Vizkopa is actually eminently raceable.
So I had a deck, and I had a dream. Friday was spent defending my list (and its lack of Devour Flesh) to multiple Magic friends. Over and over again. They really seemed to think I should be playing Devour Flesh. But I was confident in my preparation and refused to deviate from my plan. This is a key aspect of preparation – you need to stick to what you learned for it to be relevant at all. If you audible off of your hard-earned knowledge, you have wasted all of your prep time and likely lowered your chances of success.
Day One of the Grand Prix finally arrived and I was more than ready to battle. My Day One matchups were Mono-Blue Devotion (twice), Jund Monsters, the pseudo-mirror (with green splash), UW Control with Planar Cleansing, Naya Walkers and Bant Walkers. I only dropped one game on my way to the Day One 9-0, to Mono-Blue. To say I was feeling good would be an understatement. I felt like I was playing at the top of my game, and every choice I had made in my decklist seemed to be rewarded.
Day Two did not start off as well. I dropped round ten to UW Control with Detention Sphere, easily my worst matchup, and to make it even worse I felt like I played fairly poorly. The Mono-Black v UW Control with Detention Sphere matchup is as hard to play correctly as any matchup I've ever encountered, but I was still upset at letting my great start slip away from me. Then I proceeded to lose the first game of round eleven against Jund Monsters, and suddenly this tournament felt like it was spiraling out of control.
But losing control is a choice, so I took a deep breath, sat up straighter in my chair, and managed to keep my cool. I fought back and earned the win. I won again in round twelve against the pseudo-mirror, including a game I was particularly proud of to start off the match. I stopped feeling so good about myself after losing an intensely-complicated thirteenth round against UW Control with Detention Sphere again, and I walked away feeling like there had to be something I could have done. But there were two rounds left and I needed to win them both, so I turned my focus to that instead of getting trapped in that feeling. Then with two fairly non-competitive matches won due to some bad luck on the side of my opponents, beating Mono-Blue Devotion and Jund Monsters, I was officially locked for a Pro Tour invite.
I was not, however, locked for the Top 8; it was time for a sweat. Having expended that much energy on a tournament only to have your fate decided by the whims of tiebreakers is not a great feeling, but it worked out for me this time and I squeaked into eighth place. The result was actually ideal for me, as Jared finished in first place after the Swiss, and I would be guaranteed my chance at revenge for our Cincinnati match - and you can watch that chance right here:
It felt really good to take the match, and on top of feeling good, it also brings my lifetime camera feature match record up to 1-3!
After my match with Jared, there was a considerable amount of downtime for me since our match was the first to finish by a considerable margin. The enormity of what I had accomplished started to sink in, and I did my best to distract myself from it with conversations. I had qualified for the Pro Tour, but there was still a GP to win and plenty of time afterwards to reflect on my success.
Finally, the semi-finals were ready to begin. As I was reviewing Adrian's decklist, I realized for the first time that he was on Planar Cleansing and not Detention Sphere. All of a sudden, I had myself in the finals in my head. The Planar Cleansing version is a much better matchup, and I was convinced that his super threat-light version would actually be trivially easy. Our one match is certainly too small a sample size to say if I'm right or wrong, but I felt in control the whole time and advanced to the final.
I wish the finals had gone better, but that's Magic. I mulliganed to five in game one and kept a non-ideal six in game two; neither game was particularly close. I can't complain, as I certainly ran good overall on the weekend, but a finals match that couldn't be condensed into two paragraphs in the text feature match would have been nice!
Going forward for Mono-Black, I fully expect it to remain the de facto best deck in the format until the fall rotation. That's a bit of a bold statement since we haven't seen the complete M15 spoiler, but the deck is just too good for me to imagine its dominance will be shaken in any meaningful way.
Going forward for me, well, I have a Pro Tour to play! In the spirit of not being ashamed of your dreams, let me just say that you only get one rookie season on the Pro Tour, and I fully intend to make mine count.