I had obligations at home for a Thanksgiving, so I couldn't go to Europe very early. I managed to make it to Grand Prix Strasbourg, but only by flying in the morning of the tournament.
Playing in Grand Prix Ottawa has felt like a small mistake, but I barely even feel like I played in Strasbourg. I was in a jet lagged haze and just wanted to lose so that I could get back to testing, and I managed that pretty efficiently. I tested a little on Sunday, but had to cut it short to fly to Nice. I'd planned to work very hard in my final hours in Nice, but I just didn't have it in me. I got in, chatted in a lobby late at night, and went to sleep.
In the morning, I went to breakfast at the hotel. Staying at the hotel was wonderful. Having every player and basically the full staff of the event all in the same hotel, a hotel that had an excellent breakfast and which was very accommodating to letting us use the dining area for games throughout the day created an outstanding gamer commune living experience that's only really matched in testing houses for PTs, which are always my favorite times of the year.
I really loved having everyone together, and knowing that I could just wander downstairs anytime and find a game or conversation, and unlike the testing houses, after the tournament started, there wasn't a pressing sense of urgency, just a great feeling of community.
Anyway, that first morning, after breakfast I watched the coverage crew do a KTK draft and then met Lex, my girlfriend, who was staying with me for the week. Lex took a nap and I built my Pod deck for the tournament that afternoon.
Registration was a small catered event that evening where we were given our "swag bags" for the event. This year, every player got a "Magic: the Gathering World Championship" satchel. It's a nice satchel, and I definitely don't want to seem ungrateful, but I know that in previous years, players got personalized hoodies, which I would have loved, and really hoped I'd earned. I know it's very silly, but it would have meant a lot to me.
Anyway, being jet lagged meant that it was easy to go to sleep early after registration in plenty of time to get a good night's sleep for the tournament.
Of course, being jet lagged also meant waking up at 3am and having trouble getting back to sleep.
Anyway, after an acceptable night's sleep and another large breakfast (I hadn't had a meal in France that wasn't a hotel breakfast at this point, oddly, because I was always just too tired at night) it was time for the tournament.
The tournament was a very weird short walk from the hotel. It was just a couple blocks away, but it involved walking through a sad little street carnival that was a row of rides on the left and gambling booths on the right. At one point I saw exactly one person driving around in a bumper car, not doing a lot of bumping.
The tournament started with a Vintage Masters draft, and I opened Survival of the Fittest, a card other players discussed as being among the best cards to open, and picked it over Wild Mongrel. I later found out that Tom Martell, to my right, had first picked a Wild Mongrel of his own, and neither one of us saw any green cards after that. I second picked a Serendib Efreet, thinking Survival of the Fittest would be best in U/G Madness so that I would have other ways to take advantage of the madness creatures that I'd be taking over basically anything.
Unfortunately, I only saw two Basking Rootwallas and no Arrogant Wurms in the draft, and I ended up with a solid but unspectacular U/G Madness deck. I had a lot more discard outlets than madness cards, and I had an easy white splash off Savannah and some ways to find it, so I played Penumbra Wurm, Symbiotic Wurm, and two Breath of Lifes (with Krosan Tusker and Elvish Aberration as backup targets) to give my deck a little twist.
I don't think Reanimator is very good in VMA, mostly because getting a random big creature into play doesn't do much. I ended up siding out the reanimation package every round, but I brought in very different cards in each round, and the narrow cards I brought in would have been worse in the other matchups than the reanimation package, so I don't regret the build.
My first match was against Reid Duke playing storm. Because one of the drafts was featured, we got our opponents' decklists before we even played our first match.
Before I get into what happened, I have to talk about what playing in this tournament is actually like. There are only 24 players and only three judges, but the room is set up for the Magic World Cup that will happen a few days later. There's so much space that they have each match play at its own table. Playing in a quiet room with no distractions and no other matches to watch is deeply unusual for tournament Magic, and adding known decklists meant that we had nothing to hide and could openly chat about the draft or our decks when we sat down to play. On top of all that, every round was untimed, which meant it didn't matter if everyone started at the same time, and there was no sense of urgency.
I commented in my match with Reid that this tournament really felt like the World Championships of Kitchen Table Magic, and I think that's fitting, given that that's probably how a vast majority of Magic is played.
So my match with Reid felt just like any of the countless matches I've played with him while preparing for a Pro Tour in a testing house, rather than like one of the most important matches I'd ever played, as it was.
Reid was playing Storm, so I'd just need to try to clock him as fast as possible to force him to try to go off before he had all the pieces. He had a ton of mana acceleration with two Mana Vaults and two High Tides, but only a single Tendrils of Agony to kill. At one point in the first game I sloppily tapped GG rather than GU to cast Survival, leaving an untapped blue that would cost me a Survival activation, but I don't think it ultimately changed my clock, and when he had to cast Tendrils of Agony for only seven copies, I knew he couldn't actually win.
In the second game, we had a nice final turn where he had a good hand, but I had a Circular Logic to try to stop him from going off. In his upkeep he cast High Tide, which I let him resolve, then Vampiric Tutor. He only had a single Swamp in play, which he used to cast the Vampiric Tutor. I decided that my plan should be to stop him from getting BB, but allow any other spell to resolve. He cast another High Tide and maybe some sort of card draw spell, but when he went for a Turnabout I had to counter it--even if I didn't have to counter it just to stop him from getting BB, it would have given him enough mana to blank my Circular Logic on any future spell, but he had to tap too low to resolve it, and that stopped him, winning me the match. Reid mentioned that he would have won if I'd tried to counter any of the previous spells.
My next round was against Jacob Wilson who had an 18 land W/B aggro deck with Death Grasp and a lot of edict effects. I lost a very close first game where I would have won if I had one more life or he'd had one less. For game 2, I brought in Tangle, Triangle of War, Rescind, Brindle Shoat, and some other cheap creatures, and cut the reanimation package and Serendib Efreet because I didn't want to be lowering my life total against an aggressive Death Grasp deck with a tapper. He had Council's Judgment and Reanimate to thwart my reanimation plan.
I drew Brindle Shoat in the second game, and it basically felt like it was enough to beat him by itself by turning off his edicts.
The third game was awesome, and involved me using my Triangle of War to kill his zombie token (stranding his Sarcomamcy) over killing his tapper, Mesmeric Fiend, or Soltari Tropper. Then he reanimated my Krusan Tusker, but I was able to stop it from attacking, and I got to a position where I could attack to win after his Sarcomancy raced his Soltari Trooper. It was a very close match.
My third match was a feature match against Stanislav Cifka, who destroyed me with goblins, largely thanks to having hate drafted several green cards that were very good against him with very early picks in the draft. I also blocked horribly once because I forgot that Goblin General pumps itself.
Lex was at the site with me, and despite having come to a few Pro Tours with me in the past, Lex had never really been around the venue for the Swiss portion of a tournament. Lex was surprised to feel excited and nervous about my results, and had a much better time than expected. This made losing particularly disappointing, as I had to report a loss to Lex. A 2-1 start was satisfactory, but disappointing after my 2-0 start, of course.
I felt outmatched in my first match of Modern against Josh Utter-Leyton, whose Jeskai Ascendancy deck really impressed me. The games felt just close enough that I could imagine stealing one, but felt like I'd need him to get very unlucky for that to happen. After I lost I told Lex I lost to a much better deck but that not everyone would be playing it, and I'd just have to hope I didn't get paired against it again. Lex was very disappointed when I reported that my next opponent, Tom Martell, was playing the same deck.
Again, it felt like I came very close to winning a game, but still mostly hopeless.
An 0-2 start to Modern had really derailed my tournament, but I could still turn it around and finish the first day with a winning record if I won my next two.
My third match was against Jeremy Dezani, and I was excited that it wouldn't be against Jeskai Ascendancy until I learned that he was playing Scapeshift instead. In game 1 I mulliganed into a great curve of Thoughtseize into Wall of Roots into Siege Rhino. On my fourth turn I attacked and cast Linvala, Keeper of Silence over another Siege Rhino to minimize that damage his Cryptic Command would do. I was happy when he countered and drew instead of countering and bouncing my Siege Rhino as it meant he likely hadn't found a Scapeshift and wouldn't be slowing the beats, and my Rhinos took the first game.
He won the second game, but in the third he unexpected tapped out to let me combo him out after I played Melira, Sylvok Outcast and Kitchen Finks. Maybe he was just too used to playing against Pod without the combo.
My last match of the day was another feature match against Willy Edel, who I didn't realize at the time was undefeated in Modern, but whose deck didn't seem great against Pod, and I won in three games despite playing a little sloppy when I was way ahead.
The second day started with the Khans of Tarkir Draft, and again, I had an easy first pick, taking Zurgo Helmsmasher out of an otherwise unexciting pack.
Once again, the first pack didn't really cooperate with my first pick. Fortunately, I was prepared to think of Zurgo as a powerful finisher rather than an aggressive Mardu card. I took Abzan Charm second, and I think I took Scoured Barrens third and another Abzan Charm fourth. I saw very few Mardu cards, and comfortably settled into Abzan splashing Zurgo.
I saw and took a lot of good removal, but I was a little creature light. I managed to find three Hooting Mandrils, which obviously work well with removal, and I thought my deck was pretty good. My major concern was that I'd seen a lot of Treasure Cruises in the draft (I think I passed at least five), and I didn't really like the idea of playing against multiple people who could draw three cards with a deck full of removal. I also agree with what I see as conventional wisdom that one generally wants to be proactive in this format, so I didn't love how my deck was positioned strategically even if my card quality was high and I liked my individual picks.
I ended up with this:
- 1 Alpine Grizzly
- 1 Archers' Parapet
- 3 Hooting Mandrills
- 1 Jeskai Student
- 1 Ponyback Brigade
- 1 Ruthless Ripper
- 1 Sagu Archer
- 1 War Behemoth
- 1 Zurgo Helmsmasher
Of course, that's exactly what happened in my first match against Yuuya, who had a good Temur deck, but I thought I had a very good matchup. In practice, all of my spells felt great, but I drew around twice as many lands as he did, so the games weren't terribly competitive. The potentially less biased version of this match exists here.
I still felt like my deck was good, but I was worried that I'd missed my chance against one of the decks in the pod without Treasure Cruise, and things might get worse if I had to play against Treasure Cruise in the next round.
And of course, my next round was against Shaun McLaren's U/W splash Crater's Claws aggro deck with two Treasure Cruises. This felt like a terrible matchup. In addition to a good curve of threats that my removal wouldn't trade particularly profitably with, he had Ghostfire Blade, which would mean that I could lose to any random creature he had left, and I couldn't really hope to kill all of them because of the Treasure Cruises. I'd need to get draws that could pressure him.
I was relieved to draw an opening hand that would let me cast Zurgo Helmsmasher on turn 4, and thought that would be good enough to win the first game, but he had Crater's Claws to kill it, and he was able to beat my best start. By this point, I'd realized that I had too much land in my deck (I'd drawn more than enough later in the first game here as well), but I didn't love my options when it came to adding a spell. Ghostfire Blade was a huge problem, so I considered Naturalize, but I didn't really want more situational cards that just traded with one of his cards against his Treasure Cruises.
I opted for a very untraditional approach. I brought in Rush of Battle despite the fact that my deck only had ten creatures that could attack (plus Mardu Charm) and only two of them were Warriors. My thinking was that, since he knew my deck, he'd know exactly what to play around, and he had an aggressive deck with a lot of evasion that was likely still favored in the late game. I wanted a win to win a race, to make my deck more aggressive, and to make the game play out in a way he wouldn't expect, so I thought Rush of Battle was a good way to "make something happen" in a matchup where I felt disadvantaged.
Well, Rush of Battle certainly made something happen.
In the second game he cast his second Treasure Cruise and deployed four morphs to the battlefield. I had an Archers' Parapet, Jeskai Student, and two Hooting Mandrils, and eight life to his seven. He had only four mana up, so he wouldn't be able to flip the Master of Pearls that I was pretty sure he had in play. This felt like my one chance, so I cast Rush of Battle and attacked with everything. My hope was that he'd have to block with enough creatures that he couldn't kill me on the backswing and that the threat of a counter-counter attack would force him to keep his creatures back, and I'd be able to finish him off with the Parapet. How combat went exactly would depend on his morphs and his hand, but it definitely wouldn't get better if I waited.
He flipped his Dragon's Eye Savants, which were equipped with Ghostfire Blade, and blocked a Hooting Mandrils with one of them. A morph blocked my other Hooting Mandrills, and I passed priority. I couldn't do anything, but I wouldn't even if I could, as he was taking four from my Jeskai Student and four from my Hooting Mandrills, which would kill him. To my surprise, he also passed priority, and confirmed when I asked if he was ready for damage. He revealed his Sage-Eye Harrier (which he had the mana to flip) when the game ended, and explained that he forgot that Hooting Mandrils had trample.
I was too shocked to really remember anything that happened in game three. A turn before I'd felt hopeless, and I'd started imagining an 0-3 with this deck and thinking about how things had gone wrong and the end of my tournament. Suddenly, stealing that game, it felt like I had a real chance again. For some reason, in my head, my next match somehow depended on this one. I won the third game, and felt like I had a completely new lease on my tournament life.
In the last round of the draft I played against Lars Dam. Lars also had Treasure Cruise and Crater's Claws, but this matchup seemed a little better because he was a bit slower with ten morphs, and he had Flying Crane Technique, Jeskai Ascendancy, and Mardu Ascendancy--all powerful cards, but powerful cards that relied on Lars having creatures, and with only twelve creatures in his deck, I might be able to strand these cards with my removal.
Lars took an interesting line against me. He played a morph, and I killed it, then he played another morph and passed without playing a land. Thinking I had a chance to catch two spells, I cast Rakshasa's Secret, and he discarded a land and a Disdainful Stroke. I was impressed--he identified that this would be a grindy matchup, given how much removal I had, and paid attention to the fact that I had Rakshasa's Secrets, and chose to hold a land to discard so that he'd have more threats. On his turn, he played Tormenting Voice and discarded another land, then passed again without playing a land.
At this point, his plan had backfired. I think he expected to draw into a land with the Tormenting Voices, and now he was starting to run into the problem that his deck really needed five mana to operate, and without that, he had to try to beat me with a deck full of Grey Ogres. I cast a couple Hooting Mandrils and blew out a double block with an Abzan Charm. I was able to get a third creature, an Alpine Grizzly, into play before he could cast Dead Drop, and I kept it out of combat to keep his Dead Drop from killing my 6/6 trampler, and he died with 5+ cards in his hand.
He got stuck on three lands again the second game, but this time, I don't think it was by choice.
I managed to escape the Khans of Tarkir Draft with a winning record, and the tournament came down to my performance in Standard. I felt good about my deck, but I thought it was likely that I'd completely misevaluated the field. I knew my deck was good against the deck I played against on Magic Online like W/U Heroic, Mono-Red, and Mardu Midrange, but I was starting to doubt that anyone was actually playing any of those decks. I wasn't really sure how my deck would do if the field was full of slower blue decks.
I've written about how my approach to my matches when I discussed my Standard deck here. Winning the first round against U/B Control was a huge relief, as I was worried that that was one of my hardest matchups. My next match against Shahar was very close, and we played great games, but I was really frustrated to lose when game 3 had started out so well. I got about as lucky against Owen as I'd gotten unlucky against Shahar, and managed to steal a game 3 with a lucky topdeck after he resolved a Hornet Queen.
Going into the last round, I knew I'd finish ninth if I lost, and I could make top 4 with a win only if three other matches broke right for me. Most likely, I'd finish fifth or sixth. Still, even without a top 4, I was playing for $2000 and a pro point, certainly a big game. The match was an anticlimactic end to awesome tournament, as I mulliganned into some really weak hands and flooded out in the first and third games.
Overall, the tournament was definitely among the best and most exciting I've ever played. I think my preparation was decent, and I'm very happy with my play. I periodically struggle with a bit of impostor syndrome. Luck is really important to my profession, and a few results can really swing people's perceptions. Often, I hear people talk about Magic, and I wonder if they're much better than I am. I don't watch enough matches to have a good sense of how others play, so I really have no idea how good I am compared to other people except that I have some solid results. Last month, I think my confidence was pretty low, but after some good Grand Prix finishes and a performance I'm proud of at the World Championships, I feel like I know what I'm doing, and I'm looking forward to trying hard to earn a slot at the tournament again next year. I'd hate to miss this event after getting a taste, especially in Barcelona, one of my favorite cities.