Two weeks ago, I won Grand Prix New Jersey. It was the third largest Grand Prix of all time and the largest Legacy Grand Prix. This was one of the biggest accomplishments of my Magic career. In all likelihood, it was the biggest. It is rivaled only by winning Grand Prix Louisville last year to kickstart Mono-Black Devotion's stranglehold on the Standard format.
Honestly, I still can't really believe it happened. It's one of those things where you say to yourself "I'm going to win this 4,000 player Grand Prix" at the start of the event, but deep down you know it's not going to actually happen. It's highly unlikely, no matter how good you are or how good your deck is. You just tell yourself that to get pumped up.
Except this time, it did actually happen. And I'm still in a state of shock, happiness, and excitement. Excitement for what is yet to come. I went from not qualified for Pro Tour Fate Reforged to now in a good position to make a run for Silver and hopefully even Gold this year. Magic is a volatile game, and anything can change at the drop of a hat. I was on the outside looking in, and now I'm back on track for some of King Macar's stash.
I want to share my story. I want to talk about where I was in Magic before this tournament, how I arrived at my winning list, and what this means for me going forward. I want to talk about my perspective and how this win has changed it.
First, I want to share a bit of my history.
Spring of 2013, I won a PTQ with Junk Reanimator to qualify for Pro Tour Theros. Prior to that point, I had played in one Pro Tour: Pro Tour Dark Ascension in Hawaii in 2012. I missed day 2 of that Pro Tour and didn't qualify again until Dublin.
Since Dublin, I haven't missed a Pro Tour. Dublin started a chain of events where I would have a mediocre Pro Tour finish and then somehow qualify for the following Pro Tour anyway. I qualified for Pro Tour Born of the Gods by winning Grand Prix Louisville. After another mediocre finish in Valencia, I was all set up to miss Pro Tour Journey Into Nyx.
Miraculously, a last minute trip to GP Minneapolis the week before Pro Tour Journey Into Nyx netted me what I needed. I had to top 8 that Grand Prix, and I pulled it off. That qualified me for the following three Pro Tours: Atlanta, Portland, and Hawaii.
I didn't place high enough in any of those Pro Tours to qualify me again, and I ended the year on 33 Pro Points, two short of hitting Gold. After bricking in Hawaii, it was back to the grind. I needed to win a PTQ or top 8 a Grand Prix again to get back on the Pro Tour, and as someone who has grinded Magic as long as I have, I know that isn't something you can ever take for granted.
I was determined to get it done, but raw determination isn't always enough. I thought that I was going to get there at Grand Prix Nashville. Teamed up with CVM and Michael Majors, we went 7-2 day one, and our day 2 sealed pool was very powerful. I thought we had what it took to go 5-0 and make the top 4, but we ended up losing our win-and-in round and finished in eighth place. It was good for three pro points, but the Pro Tour invitation still eluded me.
The week before Grand Prix New Jersey I decided to skip the Open Series in Columbus to instead perform the classic rite of passage known as a "double PTQ weekend." It is the Mecca of the MTG Road Warrior. I was going to do a PTQ in Asheville on Saturday and a PTQ on Magic Online on Sunday. There was but one snag. Magic Online PTQs now work under the new system where you first have to qualify in a preliminary PTQ event.
For Magic Online, these preliminary events run a few times a day and you have to go 4-1 or 5-0 to qualify. The events are in the same format as the PTQ you are trying to qualify for. In this case, that meant Khans of Tarkir Sealed.
I had a number of chances to qualify, so I felt like it shouldn't be a problem to eventually hit a 4-1 or 5-0 given enough attempts. It wasn't. I played in four of them and I wasn't even close. I also played in a few other Sealed daily events and didn't cash those either. I went 3-2 one time and the rest were miserable failures. I was so frustrated at my Sealed woes that I considered skipping the Asheville PTQ. If I couldn't even go 4-1 a single time on Magic Online, what were my odds in this PTQ?
Turns out, they weren't too high. I got smashed in round one of the PTQ, and although I rattled off a bunch of wins in a row, I eventually succumbed in round 5 to pick up my second loss and get eliminated from top 8 contention. I felt that with how poorly my win rate was in Khans Sealed, I had to be building or playing my decks wrong, but I just couldn't figure out exactly what my errors in judgment were.
At any rate, I gave up on that and decided to start focusing on Legacy. Grand Prix New Jersey was looking like my last chance to qualify for Pro Tour Fate Reforged, and I wanted to maximize my chance of making it. It was Legacy, my favorite format, and I felt like I had a leg up on most of the other competitors, thanks to playing a lot of Legacy on the SCG Open Series.
I also feel like the bigger the tournament was, the better my chances were of qualifying from it. A record of 13-2 is good enough to qualify for the PT, even if you don't end up top 8'ing with that record. The more people in the tournament, the less likely I get paired against the true Legacy masters each round.
New Jersey ended up being a bit of a big one.
Michael Majors and I were both interested in playing a Jeskai strategy for this event. It felt like Jeskai offered a lot of the same advantages that U/R Delver did, but it also had a lot of other benefits too, like access to Swords to Plowshares and Stoneforge Mystic.
We started out testing something akin to what Carsten Kotter had suggested when Khans of Tarkir first hit: a control deck featuring 4 Dig Through Time and even a few Treasure Cruise for good measure. The deck seemed good, but there was definitely something missing. I had some games where I would resolve multiple copies of Dig Through Time and still lose.
Once was an anomaly. Twice was a coincidence. The third time was a pattern.
I started tinkering with the setup of the deck. The first thing I tried was a version with only 4 Young Pyromancers as the creature base. The deck wasn't great, but Young Pyromancer was really performing well. I was hooked. It didn't take much for me to know that I wanted to play Young Pyromancer in this tournament. Young Pyromancer rewards you for simply playing the game with your opponent. Force of Will your Jace? Lightning Bolt your Stoneforge Mystic? Here's a token for your troubles.
One other interesting thing I was noticing was that my single copy of Treasure Cruise kept outperforming my four Dig Through Times, even in a heavy control strategy. It seemed like Dig Through Time should simply be better, but I was just running into a lot of scenarios where I would have both in hand, and I would opt to cast Cruise instead. Sometimes I just needed more raw cards. Other times I couldn't afford to pay two mana, especially two blue mana when I had things like basic Plains and Spell Pierce in my deck.
All of these things started pushing me toward a more proactive Treasure Cruise strategy rather than rely on trying to play a reactive game. My next iterations of the deck started to look more and more like the final version I played in New Jersey. I was cutting my land count and adding in Gitaxian Probe to fuel Delve and Young Pyromancer. Things were starting to come together for me.
I played a version of the deck both in a Magic Online video that came out the Friday before the Grand Prix as well as in the live Versus Video at the Grand Prix against CVM. I went 2-2 in my Magic Online video, and CVM smashed me 4-1 at the GP. Let's just say, it wasn't exactly the best showing for the deck.
In fact, it was so bad that I spent a lot of time the night before the event contemplating an audible. I had three decks to choose from: my deck, a version closer to Rudy's list from Columbus, or Caleb Durward's U/R Delver deck. I was so close to audibling that I even called Todd the day before the event to bring me Delver cards, since I had left them at home. At some point I decided that I was just going to stick with my testing, and I'm glad I did.
One thing I want to point out about all of the testing I did on Magic Online is that I lost. A lot. I was getting crushed on Magic Online over and over again. I would be playing in a tight game, make a minor mistake and get punished every time. It sounds miserable, and it was. I would make a play and think "Well, that wasn't right, but it is only a problem if my opponent draws a Vendilion Clique here and decides to main phase it."
Opponent untaps, draws, and taps three mana immediately. Punished. Every time. And I'm not even talking about Grove of the Burnwillows. But you know what? I'm quite glad I got punished. It taught me to stop sticking my hand in the cookie jar. If my opponents didn't keep drawing their outs after I gave them those outs, then I wouldn't have learned to stop making those mistakes.
All in all though, I want to give praise to the Legacy players on Magic Online. Most of my opponents were happy to discuss card choices and lines of play. For the most part, my opponents were also just better Legacy players than my opponents at the Grand Prix. Really, the quality of play was very high on Magic Online testing for this event to the point where even though I was losing a lot, I didn't feel like that was going to carry over to the Grand Prix because I just didn't expect my GP opponents to play on that same level.
I've used Magic Online to test for many events in the past, and this was by far the most successful that method has ever been for me. Outside of getting paired against Burn once per daily event, I felt like I was getting in real matches against quality opponents, and the more and more I tested, the less and less mistakes I was making with these Jeskai decks and the more I was winning with them. It was great.
The day before the tournament, I spent a lot of time talking to Michael Majors and Ben Friedman, and those conversations were very instrumental in hammering out a lot of kinks in the deck. Well, you know, minus Ben Friedman trying to jam some spicy ones into the deck like Disrupt. Thankfully, Majors was a voice of reason and kept my tournament from getting disrupted.
I also had a few good conversations with Dave Shiels about the archetype, which helped give me confidence, since Dave and I had been testing separate builds, but we agreed on a lot of the core principles about the deck. It is always reassuring to know that a good player has come to the same conclusions you have.
One thing I have noticed over the last few years is that I am usually pretty good at identifying what kinds of strategies are going to be successful in a format, but I am not very good at building those decks optimally. Having these guys input on the deck improved it significantly, and I owe them a lot for my Grand Prix win.
The night before the tournament, I spent a lot of time talking with Brad Nelson who really helped me build a sideboard that was just so much better than the sideboard I originally had. Brad is just one of the best deckbuilders in the world right now and sees Magic in a much deeper way than most people. Brad didn't think my deck was very good, but he was still willing to help me with the sideboard. He helped identify that my maindeck was weak to two things: combo decks and True-Name Nemesis. As a result, I built my sideboard specifically with those two things in mind, and it worked out beautifully.
This is the list I played:
I'm going to make a bold statement. Gitaxian Probe is one of the top 10 cards in Legacy. Maybe top 5. I have heard time and time again that cards like Gitaxian Probe are "training wheels" in Legacy. The argument goes that if you're a good player, you can figure out what is in your opponent's hand over the course of the game based on deductive clues and that you don't need to actually see it to "know" what they have.
That argument is just plain dumb. It's hard for me to express just how wrong I think that is. Sure, I could attempt to figure out some of my opponent's cards. Or, you know, I could also just look at their hand and figure it out that way. I can't tell you how many times I Probed my opponent, was shocked at how bad their hand was, and knew exactly what I needed to do to win the game from that point. Korey McDuffie even countered a Gitaxian Probe when we played, because his hand was so bad and he didn't want me to smell blood in the water.
Gitaxian Probe won me my finals match against Tom Ross. It gave me the information I needed every single turn of the game to be able to navigate those games. I knew when I had to play defensively and when I could play aggressively. WIthout Probe, I might have played a lot more conservatively, and I might have lost as a result.
Couple that with it being a free Young Pyromancer trigger and a free mana for Treasure Cruise and it should be an automatic four-of in any deck that looks at all like this one does. The card is that good. It's also a mondo combo with Meddling Mage in post-board games against any combo deck.
Another misconception is that Young Pyromancer has no synergy with Stoneforge Mystic. Originally, I figured that might be the case myself, but it turns out that is also not true. While Stoneforge Mystic takes up six slots in your deck that don't trigger Young Peezy, both Umezawa's Jitte and Batterskull are great with tons of expendable tokens.
True-Name Nemesis was not something I wanted to play, but I needed a way to beat opposing copies of the card, and I figured relying on countering it alone wasn't going to be good enough. None of my original lists had the card, but after Rudy's win in Columbus, I knew it would be needed. True-Name ended up being great in the event and well worth its inclusion. The other option for me was Council's Judgment, but I hated that card against a lot of decks in the format, including U/R Delver.
This deck still keeps the powerful aggressive draws backed up by countermagic that U/R Delver can boast, but it has so much more resilience in Stoneforge Mystic and Young Pyromancer that allow it to play a longer game and still win. I had a lot of games where I didn't play a threat until turn 5 or 6 or even later, but since the threats of Stoneforge Mystic and Young Pyromancer are so powerful and resilient, I was still able to gain control of the game.
I don't honestly have a whole lot to say about this event. I ran extremely hot. To win a huge tournament like this, you have to get lucky. I did. A lot. I won multiple game 1s against Storm by being able to Brainstorm into Force of Will to stop a combo when I was otherwise dead. After day 1, I was 9-0, and my only game loss was to Death and Taxes when my opponent started with Mother of Runes into Spirit of the Labyrinth on the play when my opener was two Brainstorms, Treasure Cruise, and four lands.
It was crazy that Tom Ross and I met in the finals. We didn't get paired against each other until round 15, when we could draw into top 8, and then we didn't meet again until the finals. We were just really fortunate to dodge each other up until that point. I think it's crazy that two people who stayed in the same hotel room ended up meeting in the finals of a 4,000 player event. Better yet, at least for me, I was able to finally beat Tom Ross, something that has eluded me thus far. He is not an easy foe, and even though I knew the matchup was good, I still was worried that Tom would manage to get me.
Probably two of my hardest rounds were my win and in round 14 against MUD and having to play the same MUD deck again in the quarterfinals. While I don't think MUD is a terrible matchup, it is certainly a scary one, and I did lose a game in both matches to some quick blowout cards, such as an early Chalice of the Void or an early Sundering Titan.
My loss came in round 13 to Lands. That matchup seems essentially unwinnable. I ended up adding Surgical Extraction to my sideboard after this tournament, because Loam and Punishing Fire engines aren't stoppable with Containment Priest or Grafdigger's Cage, my graveyard hate spells for the event.
Unfortunately, I have a confession to make. My win in this tournament might have to come with a bit of an asterisk because I was doping for this event. Doping is illegal in many sports, but there aren't rules against it in Magic yet.
How was I doping? Well, I was doing the low-carb diet. I was not eating breads or sugars, and it improved my performance significantly. I've heard discussions on Twitter recently among high name players about the merits of eating healthy and whether or not it actually improves tournament performance. The consensus seems to be that it does not.
I couldn't disagree more.
Maybe simply eating healthy doesn't matter, but I can say for a fact that eating low-carb improves my thinking processes, and it's a huge difference. When I am on the low-carb, my thinking is crisp and clear. When I am not on it, I often feel fuzzy or clouded in my thinking. It was never something I noticed before I started doing the low-carb diet, but once I started thinking clearer, it became easily apparent how much harder it was for me before.
I am sure many of you have noticed, but I have gained back a lot of the weight I had lost. I lost 100 pounds in 2013. In 2014, I gained back 40 of it. During that period of time, I also had very poor tournament performances. I think the two are related.
I tried going back to the low-carb diet a few times, but I was failing at it. Temptations were overcoming my discipline, and I would find myself shoving a candy bar straight down my gullet. Goulet. A few weeks ago, I decided that I was putting my foot down and going back to the diet, and I wasn't going to stray from it.
New Jersey was my first event back on the diet. I played very well in New Jersey. In fact, it may have been the best tournament I have ever played in terms of limiting the mistakes I was making and taking aggressive lines that paid off. I Force of Willed a Brainstorm in my semifinals match against Storm in game 1. It is a very unorthodox line, but I am positive it won me the game. I don't think carb-consuming BBD would have made that play.
I don't think it was a coincidence at all that I won the first tournament I played after I started my diet again. I've lost ten pounds since I've been back on it, and I don't intend on stopping anytime soon.
Winning Grand Prix New Jersey gave me a new perspective on Magic and what it takes to succeed at the top level. Outside of players who are naturally the best in the world, it isn't possible to achieve success without putting in a lot of work. I knew this already, but for some reason, I still had hoped to achieve success without putting in the underlying work. It was a fool's errand.
Lately, I simply haven't had time to put in that kind of work. My schedule is really busy. On weekends, I travel around the country playing Magic. During the week, I work two jobs. I have my content job, where I produce Versus Videos and write articles. I also have a part-time job at StarCityGames where I manage non-English magic cards. Both of these jobs eat up a lot of time, and that doesn't even take into account the amount of time I spend talking about Magic on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
I was starting to burn out on it all. As a result, my work was suffering in all three jobs. I was doing worse at tournaments with less testing. My content is worse when I don't dedicate as much time to it, and my job suffers when I am running on low sleep
The end result is that I have very little free time, and when I do have free time, I want to spend it relaxing or doing things I enjoy doing. I don't always want to spend it testing for events. As a result, I frequently go tournament to tournament without any games of testing in between the two events. I simply don't have the time, and when I do, I don't have the desire.
That's not a good recipe for success. I don't think it's a coincidence that with a reduction in testing time, my results have also suffered in the past six months.
Leading up to Grand Prix New Jersey, I had three days off from work. I used those days to test for the tournament, and I won the tournament. I know for a fact that would have never happened without those days to dedicate to testing. I would have never come to the final list that I played. I would have played something far less tuned or someone else's deck and who knows where I would have finished.
As a result, I decided to quit my part-time job. It's a financial risk for me, but if I am truly serious about making it as a Magic professional, I have to be willing to dedicate the time and energy it takes to do so. Winning this Grand Prix puts me in a great position for the rest of the year. I already have 15 Pro Points this year, and I am now qualified for the next Pro Tour. I am willing to make the sacrifices needed to capitalize on that.
I am going to be working a lot harder on my game, my tournament preparation, and my content moving forward. I'm excited to see what results from it.
Where Do We Go From Here?
StarCityGames announced a new set up for the Open Series next year. Opens have become Grand Prix and Invitationals have become Pro Tours. This change is great for players. It is a dream setup for a player's perspective. Playing eleven long rounds of tournament Magic in a single day and having to go 10-1 or sometimes 9-1-1 to top 8 is not only extremely difficult, it is also extremely taxing. It also just isn't fun. Grinding that much Magic is grueling.
As a player, I love the changes.
The one downside to the new structure is from a coverage point of view, and the main gripe is that Legacy coverage is reduced. Personally, this sucks for me. I love Legacy. It is my favorite format because it is a beautiful format. There are so many decks, strategies, and ideas. There are so many decision points each game, and it is a format where skill rises to the top.
I understand that Legacy being diminished sucks, but this is not the death of Legacy. There will still be a few Legacy Opens that SCG runs, and that will be like having a Legacy Grand Prix in terms of coverage, covered by Patrick Sullivan and Cedric Phillips, two of the best in the business.
Legacy is also a healthy format. Treasure Cruise hasn't destroyed the format, as evidenced by SCG Richmond where we just saw Death and Taxes and Miracles meet in the finals, with nary a Cruise between them.
What's the next step for Jeskai Stoneblade? To be honest, I think Michael Majors and Ben Friedman are on the right track. You should read Michael Major's article from earlier this week. I'm not sold on Counterbalance and Sensei's Divining Top, but I like the addition of Snapcaster Mage and a more controlling strategy as a whole. People are now prepared to beat this deck, as evidenced by me playing against Lands twice in Richmond (and getting smashed both times). To stay ahead in Legacy, you have to keep up with the trends and alter your deck to combat them. People are gunning for Stoneblade, and you have to stay one step ahead. I added Surgical Extraction for Loam and Punishing Fire, but it wasn't enough.
From now on, however, I am going to be putting in the work to find out what is enough. I have the fire, and I don't intend on letting it go to waste.