I didn't win the Pro Tour. That honor belongs to Ari Lax, who after many near misses, finally broke through to the Top 8 and made the most of it. Congratulations to Ari on a well deserved victory.
This is where I could begin a list of excuses for why I didn't win, but in fact, I have none. My poor performance at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir was totally my own fault. I came into the event with insufficient preparation, especially for the Draft format, and I struggled as a result.
Magic is a hard game. At any given premier event, there are hundreds or even thousands of other competitors, all of whom are intelligent, capable individuals who have similar goals to yourself--they want to win the tournament. When they put in the work in order to give themselves the best chance to win and you don't, it is not misfortune you should blame when you don't succeed.
It's true that things didn't break my way in a few key situations during the Pro Tour. I may have drawn too many lands, or lost too many die rolls, but I let myself get into those spots through my own decisions.
The biggest of those decisions was when I actually got to Hawaii to start practicing for the Pro Tour. For most recent events, my team has gotten together to start testing about a week out from the tournament, usually on the Thursday or Friday before the weekend leading up to the event. There was a time we got together even earlier--two full weeks prior to the Pro Tour, as some other teams do even now--but too many of us have too many other commitments and responsibilities for that to be realistic anymore.
This time, I had an added commitment that kept me away from playtesting even longer. My girlfriend Natalie was dead-set on going on "The Groove Cruise," a three-day music party cruise out of LA to Catalina and Ensenada, Mexico, that happened to be the weekend before the Pro Tour. I made some effort to try to change her mind, but she was so excited by the prospect that I quickly caved and agreed that we would go.
There was certainly a time in my life when I would have made a very different decision. I skipped my own college graduation to go to a Pro Tour. I remember an ex-girlfriend of mine asking me once what I would say if she asked me to choose between her and Magic, and I literally laughed at her.
Think back to when you were a kid in school, when you always thought about time in terms of summers and seasons and what grade you were in. Often, that's what being a competitive Magic player feels like. Just two more weeks until spring break! Well, I spent my senior year spring break in Venice watching Osyp win with Astral Slide. While Magic and Magic tournaments are still a huge part of my life, I no longer think about the passage of time solely in terms of Pro Tours.
I am fortunate that I am in the Hall of Fame and don't have to worry about a bad tournament or even a bad season potentially costing me the ability to play in future events, so I'm able to make choices like the one I did.
That said, while I may not have started testing until I got to Hawaii on Sunday, I tried to make the most of what little time I had. I was standing in the security line for the cruise ship sending decklists to our testing Facebook group on my cell phone, and periodically paying the exorbitant onboard internet rates of $0.79 per minute to check up on things while at sea.
The deck that I was most excited about from my security line brewing session was Abzan Aggro. At the time, it seemed like the most important decks in the format were Jeskai Aggro and various Courser decks, like Abzan Midrange or Green Devotion. I liked the idea of playing both Fleecemane Lion and Raksasha Deathdealer alongside Abzan Charm, since it made actually stopping your offense very difficult for your opponent even with the duo of Sylvan Caryatid and Course of Kruphix. The efficient two drops seemed to line up well against the largely three casting cost removal in the format, like Hero's Downfall or the Charms.
The list that I started playing with the most when I actually got to the Hawaii house was only a few cards off from the deck that Mike Sigrist took to a Top 4 finish. The biggest difference was my version's lack of Thoughtseize. At the time, there were two major factors keeping Thoughtseize out of my deck.
The first was simply that I was taking so much damage already. Between Herald of Torment, Abzan Charm, and a half-dozen painlands--including a couple of Mana Confluences in my build--the life loss really added up. In a world where we expected Jeskai Aggro to be the most popular deck, it seemed dangerous to be paying so much life.
The second was our view of what we expected the format to look like. We anticipated a format with a lot of aggro and midrange and few true control decks. Without many ways to cast Thoughtseize on the first turn, you often had to make the choice between casting Thoughtseize or playing something that actually impacted the board in the middle turns of the game. When you're clearing out a key card like Sphinx's Revelation or Supreme Verdict, the benefit can outweigh the cost, but against decks with a fair amount of redundancy, you are often giving up your turn to marginally reduce the effectiveness of what your opponent can do on theirs.
It's possible--and perhaps likely given Sigrist's success--that Thoughtseize belonged in the best version of the deck, but we abandoned it early on and didn't really come back to it, certainly due in no small part to time constraints. Ultimately though, I gave up on the Abzan Aggro deck because of the manabase. I never found a balance where I felt like I could consistently play my spells on time without dealing too much damage to myself.
The latter point was certainly magnified by the makeup of our testing gauntlet. Jeskai Aggro was the front-runner for many people in the house for much of our testing period, and it got more games in than anything else by a fair margin (unless you include goldfishing, in which case Jeskai Ascendancy was the leader by miles). This made the damage dealt by every Thoughtseize or Mana Confluence or Llanowar Wastes that much more noticeable. I started trying out different decks that were a bit less demanding in their mana requirements, at least in the early game, in the hopes that I could avoid a bit of the pain that kept ending with me getting burned out.
I tried a Sultai Delve deck based around Sidisi, much like the one Brad Nelson wrote about a few weeks before the Pro Tour. The deck was capable of some powerful things and could easily play Whip of Erebos to help mitigate painland damage and hugely swing the Jeskai Aggro matchup. The biggest problem the deck had though, was that it was full of enablers without much payoff.
With mana accelerants to ramp and Satyr Wayfinder, Commune With Nature, and Nyx Weaver to fill up the graveyard, the deck had a lot of individually low impact cards. It was easy to draw a lot of these and not enough copies of things like Sidisi to really take advantage of them. On top of that, Sidisi being only a 3/3 for four mana meant that it was an expensive threat that was vulnerable to both Stoke the Flames and Lightning Strike, which I expected to be some of the most commonly played removal in the format. I tried various versions of the deck, but I never really liked any of them.
One card that I really did like from the Sultai deck though, was Raksasha Deathdealer. It may seem strange that it took playing the card in Sultai to really get me excited about it when it was already in my Abzan Aggro deck, but that deck was struggling enough with its mana that it couldn't really use the killer cat to its full potential. Deathdealer felt right at home in a midrange deck as a card that could offer both early board presence and lategame power.
Inspired by the Deathdealer, I put together a few G/B midrange style decks, similar to the ones I played last year, with Polukranos, Reaper of the Wilds, Courser, and the like. I tinkered with them a bit, but they just didn't feel like they had the right tools, and the double black cost of all of the good removal spells made it difficult to ever play multiple spells in the same turn. The deck felt like it really needed something like Abrupt Decay, which was a highlight of last year's deck. Three mana removal spells and four mana creatures--without any really exciting options for planeswalkers, even--just wasn't the recipe for a good deck.
That's when I turned to Temur. Mostly, I was disillusioned by the black removal offerings after my Sultai and Abzan experiments. Bile Blight was too hard to reliably cast early, and Hero's Downfall was too expensive to be a reliable line of defense against Goblin Rabblemaster and Mantis Rider, so I wanted to try joining the ranks of those calling down Lightning Strikes to clear a path. I was also pretty excited to try both Temur Charm and Savage Knuckleblade, since they seemed like excellent cards in need of a good home. Alongside the Knuckleballer, I was also looking forward to trying Stubborn Denial. It's easy for a lot of people to look at Stubborn Denial and see a worse Negate, but consider the difference between Negate and Spell Pierce in the formats in which they've been legal. The difference between one and two mana is bigger than any other cost gap in Magic except for the difference between one mana and free.
This is about what my first Temur deck looked like:
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Rattleclaw Mystic
- 4 Savage Knuckleblade
- 4 Stormbreath Dragon
- 4 Polukranos, World Eater
- 2 Surrak Dragonclaw
The deck was clunky. It had too many expensive cards and ramp creatures that were too vulnerable to removal, especially in a world where the most popular deck played both Lightning Strike and Magma Jet. I reworked the deck a bit more to lower the curve a little, added Sylvan Caryatids for more reliable ramp, and moved the Stubborn Denials to the sideboard.
The deck felt like it had some promising elements, and there were certainly some powerful cards--most notably Savage Knuckleblade and Crater's Claws. Knuckleblade was just an absolutely dominant creature, a huge threat both early and late that couldn't be effectively blocked by just about anything thanks to its ability to grow to 6/6 on its own. Crater's Claws was exactly the sort of effect that this kind of deck often needs--something that allows it to play from behind. Ramp decks look great when they have a good draw on the play and accelerate out a big creature off of some elves, but they are a lot worse when they are the ones under pressure because most of their spells generally take an entire turn to play. Crater's Claws is fantastic because it can be either Shock or Fireball in the right circumstances. Being able to play a Savage Knuckleblade off of a mana accelerant on the draw on turn 3 and use the one leftover mana to deal two damage to your opponent's Rabblemaster with Crater's Claws can easily be the key to avoid falling insurmountably behind.
The one card that underperformed significantly was Temur Charm. It wasn't that Temur Charm itself was bad, but rather that the structure of the deck was not set up for Temur Charm to be good. Sure, I had a couple of Surraks that I could get sneaky with that would let me hold up mana on my opponent's turn to actually cast Temur Charm without losing out on my ability to advance my board, but generally speaking the way the deck played was tapping out each turn to play mana accelerants or threats, leaving Temur Charms stuck in my hand until after my opponent had played out their Arbor Colossuses or Wingmate Rocs that I was then left to deal with.
When I went to sleep on Tuesday night--yes, everything I've discussed up until this point happened between Sunday afternoon and Tuesday night --I wasn't happy with any of the decks I'd been working on. I know the rest of the team was pretty much deciding between Jeskai Aggro and Jeskai Ascendancy, but neither deck really appealed to me, and I still had hopes that I could put together a deck that I liked.
Then Wednesday morning I woke up and built this:
- 1 Ashcloud Phoenix
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Heir of the Wilds
- 3 Rattleclaw Mystic
- 4 Savage Knuckleblade
- 2 Stormbreath Dragon
- 4 Boon Satyr
- 4 Polukranos, World Eater
The details weren't quite the same when I started out, but the principle was there. I wanted to move away from a ramp-style monsters deck to a more aggressive build that could better maximize both Temur Charm and Crater's Claws. I cut a lot of the high end for more cheap creatures, most notably Heir of the Wilds and Boon Satyr. Heir was a card that I'd initially played in my Abzan Aggro list. There it was only the ninth and tenth two drops alongside Lion and Deathdealer, but here it was much more impressive, since I could consistently activate ferocious and have it attacking as a 3/3 early in the game. More importantly, it has deathtouch, which means it doesn't get outclassed as the game goes on. Sure, your opponent can drop Siege Rhinos and Polukranos and Wingmate Roc, but they all die to the Heir just the same.
This is especially important because of the burn capabilities of the deck. Maxing out on Crater's Claws means that you can quite readily win games in which your opponent has an insurmountable board advantage because you can just blow them up with a huge X spell. The mode I most commonly used on Crater's Claws in testing is X=0 to kill something for one mana, but I also fired off quite a few ten+ blasts to close out games that went long.
Boon Satyr is another card that serves different purposes early and late. I was always a big fan of bestow creatures in my aggressively-oriented midrange decks because they can be a reasonable threat early on and offer additional power late, and here that role is magnified. Boon Satyr can be an instant speed threat that can allow you to hold up Temur Charm (or play around an end step removal spell like Lightning Strike) that also happens to turn on ferocious for Crater's Claws or the Stubborn Denials in the sideboard.
My earliest build of the deck had Goblin Rabblemaster in the place of some of the Satyrs and the Stormbreath Dragons, but I ended up cutting them pretty quickly. Rabblemaster is very powerful, especially when you can ramp into it on the second turn with an elf, but it is at its best when it is paired with spells that can help clear the way. While it was certainly fun bestowing Boon Satyr on an attacking Rabblemaster, or attacking with it and fighting a Courser of Kruphix with Temur Charm after the +1 power triggers resolved, ultimately I found that the little snowballing goblin seemed out of place amidst the big green monsters.
I ended up not being terribly happy with the Stormbreath Dragons that I replaced them with either. Stormbreath was decent against Abzan because they had to have exactly Hero's Downfall to deal with it, but I didn't like having a five mana creature that could be killed by Stoke the Flames against Jeskai. I liked the Surraks in the sideboard as a swap for that matchup, but Surrak isn't very good against other green decks in game 1--especially Abzan--since he just dies to any of their removal spells and can't really attack through the Rhinos gumming up the ground.
I was very happy with Ashcloud Phoenix, however, and would probably play more of them if I were to play this deck again- -and I plan on doing exactly that at GP LA this coming weekend. I didn't get a ton of testing in with the Phoenix before the Pro Tour--which is a risk you take building a deck on Wednesday-- but I was very impressed with it every time I drew it in the actual tournament.
One of the best things about the Phoenix compared to the other four and five drop options is that it's a flex spot on your curve. If you draw two Polukranos or two Stormbreath Dragons, you end up with nothing to do in the early turns of the game, but if you draw two Phoenix, you can just morph one and play the other and end up using your mana much more efficiently. It's also worth noting that Rattleclaw Mystic means that your morphed Phoenixes are somewhat disguised, so your opponents can't be sure what you actually have face down. For a similar reason, Sagu Mauler could be a decent choice, but in my experience the six mana to play it face up is a pretty prohibitive cost.
Here's what my deck for GP LA is likely to look like this weekend:
- 3 Ashcloud Phoenix
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Heir of the Wilds
- 3 Rattleclaw Mystic
- 4 Savage Knuckleblade
- 4 Boon Satyr
- 3 Polukranos, World Eater
It's possible that I want a fourth Rattleclaw Mystic, perhaps even in place of one of the Elvish Mystics, because the mana fixing from Rattleclaw is even more important with the increased number of Phoenixes in the deck. It's also possible that the land base itself should shift a little bit, with perhaps an additional Temple instead of a basic Forest. I cut one copy of Hunt the Hunter from the sideboard because I expect green devotion to be much less popular than Abzan, and Disdainful Stroke is an excellent option against either one. I could also see playing a copy or two of Nissa in the sideboard as an anti-control option--one that is particularly sweet when she can protect herself by generating 4/4 creatures that enable Stubborn Denial. Overall, I liked my deck quite a bit, and think it has the tools to compete in the post-Pro Tour metagame.
I certainly would have liked to have done better in the tournament myself, but my lack of preparation hurt me in the Draft rounds in particular, and then my limited time to test my Constructed deck left me making some poor sideboarding decisions in the Standard portion. Or maybe I was just distracted by other things on my mind.
In any case, I didn't come home from Honolulu with another trophy, but I felt like a winner regardless.
I'll be back in fighting shape for the next Pro Tour when I don't have cruises and proposals to worry about. See you then!