Pro Tour Journey Into Nyx, Atlanta, May of this year...
A long weekend of some of the best playing of my career, and the luckiest topdecks of my career, and I was qualified for the World Championships of Magic: the Gathering.
I remember reading coverage of the first Magic World Championships as a kid, hearing about Zak Dolan's triumph over Bertrand Lestree. That's when I first dreamed of someday winning the championship myself.
Two years later, the Magic Pro Tour was invented. I won the first qualifier I ever played in, and basically for the span of my career, I've always been able to play in every Pro Tour I could make it to. I've had to re-qualify a few times, but it has always worked out. The World Championships, on the other hand, has not always been a given.
In 1996, my first Pro Tour was immediately after Worlds that year. By the following year, I was already on the "gravy train," so to speak, enjoying enough success that I was invited to every Pro Tour. Worlds, on the other hand, had a different invite policy that made it much harder to qualify for if you were American.
I could play in neither the 1997, nor the 1998 World Championships, but at the time, I didn't think too much of it. After all, I was still a kid. There's all the time in the world…
Fast forward to 2007.
After my return to the game, I wanted very dearly to play in the World Championships. After missing the top 8 of the National Championships by a single match, my best chance was to qualify on rating. I was going to tournaments every day, having mapped out the most opportunities in a sixty-mile radius. Every time I'd lose a match, I knew it'd take ten more wins to balance it out.
After fighting tooth and nail, sure enough, I managed to sneak onto the invite list for ratings. I would link you to my tournament report from that event, as it is one of the highlights of my life. Unfortunately, all of the commas are temporarily broken in some of the old articles, that one included, and it would be embarrassing to try to read without them. Hopefully they will be fixed next week, but for now, here's a song about the tournament.
That tournament ended with me finishing second place.
What they don't tell you in wizard school is that second place hurts the most.
To come so close, you can taste it, only to fall just short…
I've woken up at night many times thinking it was that moment again, feeling it slip away, feeling the pain again.
A few years go by.
You start to take for granted that there will be more chances to win the world championships in the future. After all, it turned into just another Pro Tour…
Then it all changed.
First, it looked like there might not be World Championships anymore. Then, the community came out in full and demanded a new World Championships be created. This new World Championships brought with it a return to the exclusivity of the World Championships, and in fact, was far more exclusive than any previous.
Worlds now inviting just sixteen, and then later twenty-four, players meant invites were going to be hard to come by. The most common way to get invited?
Unfortunately, however, I live in North America, so the bar for a Pro Points invite is much higher. This is particularly challenging, since I work nearly 80 hours a week at the moment, making it hard to go to many Grand Prix.
It says right here, all Pro Tour winners get invites to the World Championships!
I found the loophole! I found my out!
Something changed in me during the second half of 2013. I had played one too many matches of Magic. It wasn't that I was sick of it or anything. Far from it. It's just that coming up with something nobody was expecting no longer made me feel anything.
The joy of playing control decks had become hollow.
All I wanted to do was win the World Championships, and playing a control deck when it was anything other than the best felt like making bad bets at a casino. Sure, it was fun at the time, but now it just felt like I was spewing value. Control is the best sometimes, but lots of other things can be too.
That fall, at Pro Tour Theros, things were different. There was no going back. Almost everyone on my team played a sweet blue deck, and that deck was great, but Paul Rietzl and I thought we'd have better chances with my W/B Midrange deck that eventually went on to put him in the top 8, with me at 9th.
To come so close…
When Aaron Forsythe looked at my deck before the tournament, he was in shock. Was I really playing a W/B midrange deck? We locked eyes. I saw in him the recognition that a change had taken place. I could tell he was enjoying watching how it was going to play out.
Pro Tour Journey Into Nyx was a really good weekend for me. I gave myself the best chances I could and played some of the best I ever have. I also ran extremely well all weekend, getting lucky many times. The thing is, you basically have to run extremely well to win a Pro Tour. This doesn't diminish the skill involved with giving yourself the best chances you can. Sometimes you're going to get lucky, and sometimes you aren't. How often are you able to convert your lucky days into success? How often can you escape death on your unlucky days?
When the dust settled, I had qualified for the 2014 Magic World Championships, my first since the change to this new style with so few invites.
This is where it starts.
Leading up to Worlds, I knew testing was going to be a new challenge. For a while now, I have had the benefit of the best testing team I've ever seen, The Pantheon. For this event, however, we had too many people qualified to play as one big team (7 out of the 24), so we splintered into many tiny groups. My teammate for this event? Paul Rietzl.
Paul and I both work more than full-time, so we knew time was a serious constraint on us. For instance, I've been working on the 2015 printing of Next Level Magic!
Lately, I've been counting on coming to Pro Tours two weeks early and testing hardcore to get in shape for events. That wasn't an option for this event. Paul had been counting on playing Magic Online tons to stay at the top of his game, but unfortunately, version 4 really is that bad.
So, with limited time to prepare, yet four formats to prepare for, we knew we had our work cut out for us. The four formats called for four different methods of preparation. The first? Vintage Masters.
Vintage Masters was to be the first format of the tournament, and had the notable distinction of being the only time the format would ever be played in paper. This meant testing for the tournament was necessarily going to involve some Magic Online. There was just no way around it.
I want to make two things very clear. First, I am super appreciative of the boosters and tickets WotC sent to all of the competitors to prepare for the event, myself included. That was super awesome of them. Second, my scathing criticisms of MTGO are not just because I like to complain or tear down things that people make or whatever. I just believe MTGO could be better--so much better. It is offensive to me, settling for this. I hear all of these excuses, but I know for a fact it is possible to make it not just good, but great.
In the weeks leading up to Worlds, I probably did something like sixteen drafts. I managed to sort of go infinite despite going 1-0 drop in most of my drafts. Playing was just such a miserable experience. I didn't want to play at all, but forced myself to play at least one round of each draft both to practice for Worlds and because I deserve this. I haven't done everything in my power to try to bring about change in Magic Online, and so I deserve v4. I want to feel the burn, the pain, and remember it. As long as v4 is the only way to play Magic Online, I deserve to feel this pain.
Fortunately, I am extremely lucky and opened two Ancestral Recalls, which helped fuel "going infinite," despite how rarely I played out the drafts. Paul was concerned about the relative lack of depth of my experience with the format, particularly given how much play there can be to the games and how complicated of a Draft format it is. I was extremely successful in my practice drafts, but it was clear early on that the drafts online were nothing compared to the drafts we'd face at Worlds.
I've been so used to the easiest drafts I'm in being the Pro Tour drafts, since all of my other drafts are practice drafts leading up to the Pro Tour, containing seven of the best players in the world. Once you get used to that, drafting online seems like a cakewalk. Still, I was pleased with the type of decks I was getting, and I experimented with most of the archetypes, learning I favored white, red, and blue. The biggest boon to me was having Paul Rietzl and Matt Sperling teaching me about the cards, the decks, the pick orders, the interactions, and basically anything and everything about the format. Despite a relatively small number of drafts, I felt well prepared for this Limited format, plus I really, really enjoy it. It's just a super awesome set that is extremely well designed for the hardcore audience.
"The way you draft U/R Control is you get passed a fifth or sixth pick Prophetic Bolt and you just move in." -Paul Rietzl
Doing Vintage Masters in paper was super exciting. WotC had randomly generated 100 Vintage Masters booster packs online, then converted them to real cards from people's actual collections. Then, we each randomly picked three boosters, which I thought was a nice touch, instead of just having it be already locked in with them knowing who was going to open what.
I sat down with Paul Rietzl on my immediate left. Paul and I shared most of the same perspectives on the format, so I was somewhat concerned that we'd want the same cards. However, I passed him an Armadillo Cloak in my first pack, so I knew he would take that as a clear single to be G/W Auras. I started out staying very open, with a little bit of every color but white. Then I got passed a sixth pick Prophetic Bolt and read the signal loud and clear. In fact, I literally heard Paul's voice in my head repeat the above quote he had said during our preparation.
This is the deck I drafted for the first three rounds of the World Championships:
"Wow. Your deck is close to perfect." -Paul Rietzl
The most interesting cards in my sideboard were Cloud Djinn and Flowstone Hellion, but I didn't think I was going to be short on ways to close out games. I also had an Underground Sea and Tropical Island. If it were a normal draft, I would have maindecked them to bluff with, but in this tournament, everyone gets everyone else's decklists. So instead, I didn't play with them, but sideboarded them in against everyone. That way, if I draw one in a post-sideboard game, they might suddenly realize they didn't memorize every green and black card in my sideboard and start to wonder what I might have boarded in, costing them valuable mental energy.
Round 1 vs Lars Dam B/W Aggro with Armageddon
This was my first time playing Lars and I have to say, I was impressed with his play. I also appreciated him after the match, reminding me that Lightning Rift can kill a Stoic Champion if I cycle on my opponent's turn. As for the match itself, Lightning Rift dominated most of his deck, Battle Screech dominated most of mine. In the decisive game, I was flooded but playing around Armageddon (since I knew he had it). Eventually he cast Armageddon, but my hand was all land, so I recovered quickly.
There was a strange situation involving Lars before the tournament. He was trying to get his Modern deck together the night before, and could not locate Fatestitchers. He asked everyone in the event for them, and some people even assumed it was some weird bluff. After all, who would just ask everyone else if they were really playing Ascendancy combo?
In the end, he couldn't find the Fatestitchers he needed, so he ended up just having to put some of his sideboard cards in his maindeck and use some cards he didn't want to in his sideboard (I think Slaughter Pact and Pact of Negation, if memory serves). Now, it sucks to have card availability be a factor for the World Championships, but I understand. I actually couldn't locate a card I wanted for my Modern sideboard either, so I understand. Not having a dealer on site was brutal, and this was the first time in a long time where card availability actually impacted my list, but that is a part of Magic.
The thing that's weird to me is that multiple other people got to use proxies in the tournament. Stanislav Cifka spilled soda all over his Modern deck, ruining the cards. Willy Edel also had a judge-made proxy. They both had the right cards at some point in the tournament, and then stuff came up. It just seemed weird.
Anyway, I'm just glad Lars went 3-1 in Modern, despite having to play with a (probably) worse version of his deck.
Round 2 vs Paul Rietzl G/W Auras
Paul's deck was designed to beat creature decks, like the U/G Madness deck piloted by Jeremy Dezani that he had just beaten, and unfortunately, he got paired up against the two non-creature decks at the table, me on U/R Control and then Ivan Floch with Turbo Fog.
It was an extremely good matchup for me, as I was easily able to stop all of Rietzl's threats, gaining a winning advantage from Lightning Rift. After the match, I received another tip on Lightning Rift: a reminder that Lightning Rift triggers off your opponent's cycled cards too.
Round 3 vs Yuuki Ichikawa B/W Aggro
Lightning Rift easily ripped apart his 1 and 2 toughness creatures, and without Battle Screech he could never get ahead of it. The most notable thing that stood out to me, aside from Yuuki's excellent play, was his sportsmanship. At the beginning of the match, I had rolled a six to see who goes first. Yuuki rolled two dice, one going off the table, the other coming up six. He immediately picked up both dice, re-rolling, refusing to take the six that he could have argued for.
"If you somehow get out of Vintage Masters draft 3-0, I know who my money's on." -Paul Rietzl
A key component of our playtesting was Paul Rietzl flying to Denver for a weekend just before Thanksgiving. We both thought Delver seemed insanely good, so we both wanted to figure out what the other decks were to consider in the weeks leading up to our face-to-face testing. The main deck I worked on, besides Delver, was Ascendancy.
I experimented with non-green lists like Josh Utter-Leyton, Tom Martell, and Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa played and thought the deck was good, but I didn't like its head-to-head matchup against Delver.
I also experimented with green builds, tuning a list prior to GP Madrid, only to discover the exact list (other than lands) I had been working on was played to a day 2 finish in the event.
During Paul's weekend in Denver, the format we worked the most on was Modern. We had both played Standard and Khans Draft quite a bit because of the previous Pro Tour. Vintage Masters was an important one to test, and we did talk about it quite a bit, but a lot of the practice was just going to be on our own in random 8-mans.
Modern, on the other hand, was a format with some real valuable low-hanging fruit. We didn't even need to play all that many matches to learn what we needed to. Basically, we just wanted to work backwards and eliminate decks from consideration. Going into the weekend, this was our list of considerations:
The first deck we wanted to focus on was Ascendancy. We thought it was likely we'd be able to rule it out quickly, but in the event that it surprised us, we'd want to spend a lot of time on it, tuning it. I had already spent some time testing Ascendancy vs Delver against Michael Jacob here in Denver. That matchup was surprisingly close, which was a big selling point of the Ascendancy deck, since the deck was so good at slaughtering unprepared opponents.
We switched to Birthing Pod, needing this to look good to stay on the deck. Game 1s against Pod had been looking good, but once we updated the Pod decks, some of that percentage evaporated. Once sideboards were involved, the Pod deck played out similar to how the Abzan deck did but with lock components like Linvala. Ascendancy looked like a good deck, but we had seen enough to see that it didn't impress us as much as Delver.
Having just played the Abzan deck, we decided to play it against Delver to see if it magically wow'ed us, but it just felt so underpowered without either of the broken blue cards.
Before getting down to the tough job of getting Rietzl off of Affinity, we played some Temur Delver vs U/R Delver, with the primary difference being Tarmogoyf instead of Monastery Swiftspear and the addition of a few shocklands. As we expected, the damage from the lands was brutal in the mirror. Tarmogoyf was good, no question, but we actually liked all three of the other creatures better, so we quickly dismissed Temur Delver, despite the matchup feeling very close to 50-50.
Finally, to settle things once and for all, we played Affinity vs Delver. Paul mainly just wanted to see the Delver deck being at least 50-50 post-board, assuming game 1 favored Affinity (as it usually does). To his surprise, Delver actually ripped Affinity apart game 1! The Delver deck is just so mana efficient and has so much good cheap interaction.
At this point, it was pretty clear we were on Delver, but just to give us the experience, Paul boarded in Chalice of the Voids to see if that could turn things around. While that card was great, the matchup was still bad for Affinity, with Delver gaining a lot more cheap interaction instead of Gitaxian Probes, Mana Leak, and Remand.
We were both on U/R Delver and happy about it. Here's the list we ended up on, after Paul jammed tons of games online the week before the event:
This may not look like the most original new deck to come out of the weekend, but our goal wasn't originality. This deck is totally broken. It seems like everyone wants to be so clever in Modern and do all kinds of fancy stuff. I haven't seen anything as good as straight-up Delver. It would be so strange for WotC to not ban Treasure Cruise. It functions as Ancestral Recall nearly 85% of the time. It's not even close to realistic. I think my equity in the upcoming Modern Pro Tour would be higher if nothing was banned, but I'm not sure how that works out for the format long term.
The only winning archetypes this past week were:
Delver 17-11 (Treasure Cruise)
Rest of the field 20-32
There is a popular misconception that wanting cards banned is because you can't beat it. I even had some people write to me this week asking why I think a card needs to be banned when I just went 4-0 with Delver.
That's the point! I think it's broken, so I'm playing with it, proving it is broken. Playing this deck is like playing a Legacy deck! The only difference is that our counterspells cost more than zero and our cantrips aren't quite as good.
Paul and I quickly identified the core of the deck that seemed relatively locked in.
Final spots were largely theory chats between Paul and I, and his testing online. Kai Budde and Marco Blume also contributed with some insights after playing the deck a bit.
I loved the list and wouldn't change all that much, going forward. It feels wrong to only play three copies of Thought Scour, so I guess I'd have to find room for the fourth; however, I am glad that I didn't change the Izzet Charm into it at the last minute as I had considered. Paul swore by the Izzet Charm, and it greatly overperformed for me all day.
The sideboard is where more of the interesting cards ended up, though it's important to note that since the Delver deck only has like 52 cards you want to play, you can put some sideboard cards in the maindeck to make more room as long as they aren't too narrow.
U/R Delver's Sideboard:
2 Dispel, 2 Spell Pierce, 1 Negate - The anti-spell package, these cards come in against most combo decks and most control decks. They also come in against Burn, which functions like a combo deck in many regards. The one Negate is partially because of diminishing returns of Spell Pierces, but also because we have a slot to bring in another card against other Delver decks but do not want to bring in Dispel or Spell Pierce. Negate countering Treasure Cruise is huge. We considered Deprive, but it's just too bad to have to try to Deprive on turn 2 sometimes, and the basic Mountain really would make things awkward at times.
2 Blood Moon - Sideboard tech against anyone that loses to Blood Moon. Shocker. Obviously greedy manabases are the main targets, but some less obvious targets include Jeskai Control (since it shuts down Celestial Colonnade, making it very difficult for them to kill you with damage) and Temur Delver (at Worlds, we had access to our opponents' decklists for three out of the four rounds, so I knew my Temur opponent didn't have a basic Forest. A resolved Blood Moon effectively killed all future Tarmogoyfs).
2 Smash to Smithereens - First and foremost, we needed some answers to Chalice of the Void. We didn't expect many people to be able to play Chalice of the Void, but if we encountered it, it would be devastating if we had no outs. Additionally, having Affinity hate is always nice. We might have played three copies if it was a GP, but we thought Worlds was a tournament where people would be much more likely to be on the blue cantrip side than the Chalice of the Void side of the equation.
1 Threads of Disloyalty - Tarmogoyf can be pretty annoying for Lightning Bolt decks, so having an extra trump can go a long way. We thought it was risky to play too many, as Vapor Snag seemed like a good card in the format. Threads of Disloyalty is also part of our anti-Delver plan, as stealing any of Delver's creatures (particularly Young Pyromancer) is a respectable, if slow plan.
1 Harvest Pyre - Harvest Pyre was at varying times a Dismember or a Combust, but we ended up on Harvest Pyre to try to save sideboard space. We knew we wanted a card that could kill Deceiver Exarch at instant speed, but we also wanted a card we could kill Tarmogoyf with. Combust being able to kill Siege Rhino and Restoration Angel was almost enough to get us on board, and I could see playing one at a GP, but having another answer to Young Pyromancer and Monastery Swiftspear was great for mirror matches.
1 Magma Spray - Yes, Magma Spray's specialty is killing Kitchen Finks and Voice of Resurgence, making it an excellent anti-Pod card, but we also just wanted another Shock in the sideboard for fast decks, whether U/R Delver, Burn, or Affinity. We considered Pillar of Flame, but that's more of a maindeck card. Anybody we'd actually be siding it in against is going to have targets, so we can live without being able to go upstairs. Being an instant is just so big when it comes to cards like Inkmoth Nexus, Young Pyromancer, or Goblin Guide.
1 Electrickery - This is a little bit of slot efficiency, as we wanted another answer to tokens (Pyromancer and Lingering Souls), while also having another Shock for fast decks. We particularly liked Electrickery vs Affinity, but we also like it against U/R Delver.
1 Bonfire of the Damned - This was some last minute technology serving as our third sweeper for tokens, like Young Pyromancer's. I never drew it, but it would have been kind of sweet. That said, Izzet Staticaster might just be better in this slot. I guess it depends on what you're trying to accomplish. I still need to make room for the Hibernation I couldn't find in time for the tournament, so I guess my first substitution would be adding a Hibernation.
1 Hibernation - While I didn't play it in the tournament, Paul did, and it was great. I didn't happen to face the matchups where you'd want it, but they were out there. Birthing Pod, in particular, is very vulnerable to Hibernation, which ends up being just a massive tempo play; they often are too far behind to come back. Depending on what you're up against, remember that Blood Moon + Hibernation is a mondo combo!
Round 4 vs Shahar Shenhar, Rwu Burn
This was just an awesome match. I highly recommend watching it on video, which can be found here.
Game 1, he came out to a blistering start. Goblin Guide into Goblin Guide + Rift Bolt on the play. I knew I was in real bad shape, realizing that I was going to lose to the cards I knew about. I was going to have to finesse a couple points of life from somewhere. Shahar is extremely difficult to bluff, but I got him with the "pen trick." I knew he had a Mutagenic Growth from Gitaxian Probe, so when he attacked with his two guides, I began to write down my life total change. He stopped me and Mutagenic Growthed one of his Goblins during combat. If I had Snagged first, the extra two damage from Mutagenic Growth would have proved fatal.
Something else to learn from, Shahar was color-screwed for a while, but when he finally drew a fetchland, he played it immediately. This was important because it gave me the information that he could Treasure Cruise that turn before deciding whether or not to chump block with Monastery Swiftspear (which would put me at one life, turning off my fetchland, turning off my counter for his Cruise).
Now, as it turned out, I would have chumped anyway, but it is a reminder of how important it is to map out your turn before playing your land, even if you know you're going to play it.
Game 2, I lost. Fast. Shahar just came out blisteringly quick and killed me before I could stabilize.
Game 3, Shahar missed an Eidolon of the Great Revel trigger and I ended up at two life. Of course the game would have played out differently, so it's not like it for sure would have flipped the match, but who knows? It was nice winning the match, and all, but the problem was that this misplay lit a fire under Shahar. From here on out, his focus was at maximum in all of our future games, his play flawless. And unfortunately, I was going to have to play him three more times.
Round 5 vs Shaun McLaren, Jeskai Control
This match was pretty intense, and games 2 and 3 can be found here, if you like watching epic battles back and forth in Modern.
One game, I Treasure Cruised five times!
Paul and I didn't realize Snapcaster could flashback Treasure Cruise for just a single mana, but maybe they changed that with the release of Khans of Tarkir to make Treasure Cruise work like Gitaxian Probe, rather than Force of Will. If Paul and I had known, we would have played a second Snapcaster Mage.
Round 6 vs Kentaro Yamamoto, Temur Delver
This was very much a mirror match, but I was able to gain a major advantage by locking him out of green mana. Since we had each other's decklists, I knew he didn't have a basic Forest in his deck.
Round 7 vs Ivan Floch, Jeskai Delver
Another Delver mirror match, and I don't want to sell it short here, because the Delver mirror matches are quite interesting, with tons of tiny battles. It's just that this report is going to be extremely long, and I want to avoid getting too in depth in specific games unless there is a single key moment or lesson. Long story short, we both manipulated our library lots and I got his life total to zero.
To end day 1 undefeated.
Despite Paul's skepticism of my experience with Vintage Masters, I thought Khans of Tarkir Booster Draft was going to be my weakest format. It is so deep, so skill-testing, and I just didn't have the experience that most of the guys at my table had.
Looking back, if there was a flaw in our process, it was neglecting Khans of Tarkir Draft. It's so hard to prepare for four formats at the same time, and we had both drafted Khans of Tarkir quite a number of times (me around 20, him around 100). As a result, we didn't really spend much time working on it as a team.
This came back to bite us, as both of us went 1-2 in Khans Draft.
My pod was the featured pod. You can watch from anyone's perspective using this draft viewer . I first picked Mantis Rider, but things took a turn for the rocky when Wrapter second picked a Jeskai Ascendancy after first picking Murderous Cut.
I was originally looking at a U/R Aggro deck splashing two Mantis Riders, but my deck seemed real bad to me. In the third pack, I took an End Hostilities over basically nothing and decided to try to build a mediocre Jeskai Control deck, instead of a bad U/R/w aggro deck. After picking the End Hostilities, Ben Stark said I should have put it in my sideboard to transform into mediocre control when needed, but try to stay U/R/w aggro. I was faced with a decision between Force Away and Alabaster Kirin, with me picking the Kirin, and Ben saying Force Away would have been better.
I am not sure which path would have been better, but I am inclined to believe Ben, as he is a better drafter than me, and my deck didn't turn out well. I eventually was faced with another control vs aggro decision, between Pearl Lake Ancient and Tranquil Cove (to help splash those Mantis Riders). I took the Pearl Lake Ancient and never looked back.
Here's the list I ended up playing:
- 1 Alabaster Kirin
- 1 Bloodfire Mentor
- 1 Glacial Stalker
- 1 Jeskai Student
- 1 Jeskai Windscout
- 1 Kheru Spellsnatcher
- 1 Leaping Master
- 2 Mantis Rider
- 1 Mistfire Weaver
- 1 Pearl Lake Ancient
- 1 Salt Road Patrol
- 1 War Behemoth
- 1 War-Name Aspirant
I definitely play an above average number of Blinding Sprays compared to most, but I really do think that card is better than people give it credit for. Maybe it's the types of games I try to steer things towards, but I love the tactical options it gives you. Sometimes it can just be game-winning. It is slow, but at least it replaces itself, even if you have to play it in a spot where it isn't good.
Round 8 vs Shahar Shenhar, Mardu Tokens
He just rolled over me. His deck was much better than mine anyway, so while I fought to give myself chances, I couldn't keep up with his speed while I was stumbling on mana.
I didn't let the loss get to me. It was time to focus on the next match.
Round 9 vs Ivan Floch, Temur
Ivan's Temur deck was very fatty oriented with little ability to play around End Hostilities. I managed to get him with it twice, getting me a much needed Khans of Tarkir win.
Round 10 vs Kentaro Yamamoto, Temur Aggro
Unfortunately, we were paired based on record, not record in the draft, so I had to face Kentaro's excellent U/G/r aggro deck that revolved around lots of Savage Punch/Dragonscale Boon/Incremental Growth action to power his many Alpine Grizzlies. He defeated me, sealing the draft 3-0.
We didn't spend a ton of time preparing for Standard, as I was very happy with Abzan, and Paul was only really interested in Abzan and Jeskai. He had been toying around with a Jeskai list that took out Mantis Rider for Jesaki Ascendancy and used four Treasure Cruises. It looked very similar to Yuuya's Jeskai Tokens deck, though Rietzl's version had Monastery Swiftspear and Defiant Strike instead of Chandra, Jeskai Charm, and Raise the Alarm.
Looking back, Paul was happy to have played Abzan, but he definitely thought Yuuya's list was the best version of Jeskai he has seen.
The way Paul decided to actually get all the way on Abzan was the classic "Ten game set for all the marbles." He was on Jeskai, I was on Abzan; whatever won, he'd play. The matchup favors Abzan, of course, and I won 6-4, wrapping up our Standard playtesting. We both had played so much of this format already, we thought it a better use of what limited time we had to focus on Modern and Vintage Masters.
Here's the list we ran:
I haven't changed much from my list, since Grand Prix LA.
Swapping an Elspeth and a Roc for two Brimaz obviously brings the curve down quite a bit, giving the deck a little faster of a gameplan. Mostly though, Paul and I both just felt like Brimaz matched up reasonably well with the format. Needing double white early for Brimaz required some adjustments to the manabase. These tweaks added two white sources without cutting any green or black.
We also made some changes to the sideboard:
Glare of Heresy was starting to look appealing as an answer to opposing Siege Rhinos, Sorins, Ajanis, and Elspeths, that also hit Jeskai Ascendancy, Seeker of the Way, and Mantis Rider. Anafenza was a concession to Paul's belief that Whip of Erebos was going to suddenly surge in popularity.
Round 11 vs Kentaro Yamamoto, Sultai Reanimator
I sideboard as though he is U/B Control, though I am suspicious.
Sideboard vs U/B Control:
If you're confident they don't have Ashiok, you can cut another Downfall instead of the Wingmate Roc. Read the Bones and Liliana Vess give you more ways to fight card advantage fights. Utter End is like a Hero's Downfall that can hit Perilous Vault (which is sometimes devastating, if they were counting on it). Nissa, Worldwaker is the best anti-control threat, but there just isn't enough control to justify too many slots, so we've got two Anafenzas for additional sideboard threats that are primarily targeting the countless Whip of Erebos decks seeing play these days.
Paul's read on the metagame was absolutely spot on this time around. His biggest prediction in Standard was that Whip of Erebos decks were going to be huge. I asked, "15%?" He said it would surely be more than 20% (which proved to be a very conservative estimate, itself). I was definitely not sold on the Anafenzas going into the tournament, but I have had really good experiences trusting Paul's gut. He's not a guy that has strong guy feelings every time around, but this time, he wanted extra percentage against Whip decks.
The main way we made room for the Anafenzas were by cutting the Drown in Sorrows, a decision that didn't turn out too badly, though I think I'd rather have at least one. Now that Yuuya's tokens deck is likely to be popular, there's a good chance we just need to go back to two.
So, I board in my usual anti-U/B Control plan against Yamamoto… and as it turns out, he's on Sultai Reanimator. Looks like I'll have to play game 2 without much removal. Fortunately, Anafenza is part of our anti-control plan...
Round 12 vs Yuuya, Jeskai Tokens
Finally, Plan A comes back to bite me. I mulligan into a six-card hand with one land but don't get there.
For those not familiar, Plan A is one of the two best ways to win, according to Kai Budde and Paul Rietzl (tongue in cheek). Plan A is they get mana screwed. Of course, we actually only hope for Plan A when they show up, since them not showing up is the other best way to win, according to my Hall of Fame teammates.
In game 2, I have two land, but I stumble before finding a third.
It didn't really matter much, given how non-competitive our games were, but here's how I would have sideboarded if I had faced Yuuya in the finals.
Sideboard vs Jeskai Tokens:
Sometimes I'd bring in the second Anafenza, sometimes neither. Sometimes I'd keep a Sorin, but not always. Sometimes I'd keep one Murderous Cut. The main thing is getting rid of Abzan Charm, which is just a bad Read the Bones in this matchup. It's not super attractive to pay life against his burn, but he's not that burn heavy, and he is likely to board out Lightning Strike. The post-sideboard games become so much more attrition-based, so having the lategame draw power of Read the Bones is huge.
Glare of Heresy and Utter End are both totally reasonable answers to Jeskai Ascendancy, though if I were to play in the Season Four Invitational this weekend, I might use the Erase that Paul used (instead of the Utter End). Utter End was good for me, sometimes in places where Erase wouldn't be, but costing one mana is the greatest. There are no shortage of good midrange plays to make with this deck, but it's rare that we get to make two good plays in the same turn. Erase makes that possible.
Round 13 vs Shahar Shenhar, Sultai Reanimator
Game 1, Shahar got an early Ashiok going, but I had a Hero's Downfall ready for when it finally hit a creature. Eventually, I got Brimaz and Courser of Kruphix going, overwhelming him, while he drew mostly air.
Game 2, I had a Downfall for his early Ashiok, and a Thoughtseize let me know he had a removal heavy hand, letting me sculpt my turns. I played out the weakest threats first, and then, eventually got ahead with tokens from an Elspeth. I mainly focused on drawing extra cards and building a strong hand while keeping him off of Hornet Queen. Finally, I stuck a Liliana Vess and drew Siege Rhinos for the rest of the game.
Round 14 vs Shaun McLaren, Abzan Midrange
I knew I was locked, but if I won, I would get first seed. I also knew that while Yuuya, Yamamoto, and I were in, the fourth spot was very much up for grabs. If Shahar won his match, he would clinch it. If he lost and McLaren won, it would be McLaren's. If they both lost and Huey won, it would go to Huey. If all three of them lost and Sam Black won, it would go to Sam. If all four of them lost, Shahar would get it anyway.
It was an excellent match, and Shaun played absolutely excellent. I have to say, I was really impressed with his gameplay all weekend. Game 1, I was in the driver's seat all game, winning little battle after little battle. I wish there was video of that game, as I put in some serious work, including setting up a Siege Rhino vs Siege Rhino blowout, with Abzan Charm for the pump.
If you'd like to see McLaren masterfully come back to win the match, we had a couple more really good games you can see here. I was exhausted from a long couple of days of battle and made a critical blunder that came back to haunt me. On turn 3 of game 2, I cast Read the Bones instead of Abzan Charm (on his end step), which meant I had to discard. After a long attrition battle, I was just a little bit behind and ended up losing because of it.
Sideboard vs Abzan Midrange:
The exact mix of Brimaz and Utter End varies from game to game. Also, sometimes I like to bring the Nissa in to mix things up.
It was an interesting experience having three days off before the top 4 of the competition. I kind of like having one day off, but three days off was too much. It felt like two very disconnected events. I just think trying to do the Magic World Cup and the World Championships at the same time was too much. I could definitely tell the staff was starting to get run down by the end. Besides, having the World Championships at 4am on a Tuesday is just weird, and a giant waste.
I prepared for my Top 4 matches with Rietzl, Reid, and Huey. Tom Martell, Josh Utter-Leyton, and Shahar Shenhar also lent me cards to build the opposing decks, which was awesome. Testing revealed I was behind in all the game 1s, but my sideboard plans seemed solid.
Semifinals vs Kentaro Yamamoto, Sultai Reanimator
Sideboard vs Yamamoto's Sultai Reanimator:
Despite winning with Brimaz beatdown, I switched into a more controlling build for game 2, winning almost as fast. I just drew so many Siege Rhinos, and a Thoughtseize let me know to play around his two copies of Disdainful Stroke. Every time he held up Stroke, I played cards that cost three. When he had to play something, I dropped another Rhino.
They had started with the other match, fearing our match would run super long. As things had obviously taken a very accelerated path, they held our match to be sure to cover it before it ended, as we were already going into game 3 and the Shahar/Yuuya match was still on game 1. Obviously, WotC thought the top 4 matches would run longer than they did, but I think there's just no way you can plan on not showing both of the top 4 matches in the World Championships. If time was going to be an issue, I think you can have two of the earlier World Cup matches overlap instead.
Sadly, I don't think there is video of the first two games, but the third game can be seen here. Unfortunately, this is the game where Yamamoto misses some land drops. If only those first two had been recorded...
Finals vs Shahar Shenhar, Sultai Reanimator
My match against Shahar can be seen here .
Live by Plan A, die by Plan A.
Without question, it was heartbreaking to come so far, only to fall in three games without even getting to put up that much of a fight. My draws were real bad, and Shahar played real well. I just would have liked to be able to give it a better match to end on.
At least I got a little sweat when I was getting rolled in game 3 after taking a mulligan and sitting defenseless without black mana. Shahar had been real liberal with his life total, and I tried to make sure I could still come back if I hit running Rhinos. With my back against the wall, I actually drew a Rhino. Suddenly, I was back in it. If I drew another Rhino, I might just live the impossible dream.
Sadly, it was not to be, and I fell three games to zero.
Sideboard vs Shahar's Sultai Reanimator:
The most important difference between Shahar's deck and Yamamoto's was the inclusion of Ashiok, meaning I needed the Downfalls. In the final game against Shahar, I decided to mix it up a little, adding the two copies of Brimaz back in in place of an End Hostilities and an Elspeth, but I just couldn't get anything going.
Looking back on the event, I was very pleased with my preparation and my play. I know it may seem like I pointed out lots of mistakes I made or things I could have done better, but there are actually way more than that. There always are, and realizing that is such a big part of actually getting better. Everyone makes so many mistakes or suboptimal plays all the time. There is no profit in trying to delude ourselves into thinking we're already perfect. Facing the truth is where the real gains can be found.
— Paul Rietzl - Major thanks for being such an awesome playtesting partner. He and I have worked together many times, and I look forward to many more.
— Matt Sperling - Talk about an awesome teammate! He went so far above and beyond the call of duty to help the two of us prepare despite not being qualified, himself. Dude is an A+ teammate.
— Reid Duke and William Jensen - For helping me test for the final four. Their experience and insights were much appreciated.
— Michael Jacob, Kai Budde, Marco Blume, and Allie Brosh for help testing for the event. Each contributed ideas that helped shape the decks Rietzl and I played.
— Lars Dam, Yuuki Ichikawa, and Shaun McLaren - All three really impressed me with their playskill and their sportsmanship.
— Kentaro Yamamoto - Wow. A truly great player and a player of great honor. I am thankful to have played so many matches against such an incredible player. Despite him having mana problems in two of our matches, he was never anything but the kindest and most professional of players.
— Shahar Shenhar - Magic's first ever two-time champ does it back-to-back. He is absolutely unreal, and what's even crazier is that he is just on the way up. He just turned 21! I can't even imagine how strong his game will be by the time he is on the Hall of Fame ballot. I believe Shahar will someday be the three-time champ. Congratulations, buddy. You earned it.
Slops? There are lessons that can be learned from even the bad, but maybe some other day. Today, I am just thankful for all the wonderful positive people that helped make this week so meaningful.
There's roughly 362 days until the next World Championships. I've got twenty points, so I'm going to need about thirty more, or to win one of the three PTQs I've got coming up.
While this was my last tournament to play in of the year, Grand Prix Denver is not far away, and I am super looking forward to a Grand Prix in my own backyard. I am also looking forward to doing commentary on the Season Four Invitational in Seattle this weekend with Patrick Sullivan and Cedric Phillips. I just don't have the time to do commentary very often right now, but I'm really looking forward to this one, and if we break the viewership record, maybe I will make one of my weekends open up next year for an encore.
Thank you to everyone that sent positive energy my way over this past week. It meant a lot.
If you don't already have a copy of Next Level Magic, the physical version is back in stock, and looks better than ever. Check it out!