Have you ever noticed how life seems to laugh at any and all attempts to script it? There are so many actions that are out of our control that trying to schedule all but the most immediate futures is simply foolish. I've had a particularly unusual few days that have reminded me of this lesson I probably should have learned by now, but I can be a bit…how you say…dense. Hopefully you can learn (and laugh) from my mistakes.
To set the stage we have to go back a few months:
Since the announcement last year unveiling the StarCityGames.com Players' Championship, I began planning my schedule of events with the express goal of qualifying. I knew that my best chance was to ignore the early leaderboards and focus on earning an at-large bid at the end of the year. I quietly tracked my point total, updating it after each event. I looked for IQs of any level on days that were free of bigger tournaments. Still, early in the year I felt as though I was simply treading water, maintaining my spot around 30th on the leaderboard.
Then SCG Providence happened, and suddenly I was in the middle of the race, with an outside chance at winning Season Three. After a strong summer, I was essentially a lock for an at-large bid as long as I showed up to a few events in Season Four. I expected to be in a close race through the entire year, and it was nice to be able to relax and look forward to the event itself, rather than focusing on the qualifying tournaments, especially given that the format for the Players' Championship was announced at the end of Season Three, right at the time I felt comfortable assuming I was qualified.
My first thought was that regardless of the structure of the event, preparing for a sixteen-person field is much different than preparing for the hundreds or thousands that show up to Opens and Grand Prix. In the latter, I am always one to stick to a single deck and rely on expertise to gain the majority of my edge. This is due in part to the difficulty in predicting small metagame changes and the unreliability that any gains are realized from a correct prediction. That is to say it is quite possible to change your deck to combat Sultai Reanimator and happen to be paired against nothing but W/U Heroic and U/B Control, even if Sultai Reanimator was indeed more popular. The edge gained through expertise is consistent across tournaments and managing variance is paramount to sustained tournament success.
The second reason I prefer to play the same deck is that it is impossible for other players to capitalize on my predictable deck choice when I am only one of many. No individual makes up a large enough portion of the metagame to warrant such targeted preparation. This dynamic is completely reversed in a tournament as small as the Players' Championship. I represent 1/16=6.25% (Gotta put that math degree to work somehow) of the room. I would need to widen my range to give myself the best chance of capitalizing on an unprepared field. So in early September, I vowed to use the remaining time to explore both Standard and Legacy as much as I could.
What actually happened? I played a lot of green creatures, especially ones that make mana. Old habits are tough to break. To be fair, the G/B Devotion list I piloted in New Jersey was the result of much testing, but it was for a Standard metagame that no longer exists. I looked into various Show and Tell decks in Legacy, but they were all bad. Every Friday saw me begrudgingly default back to the same decks I had been playing with very little being gained in terms of widening my range. It didn't help that I also played plenty of Limited events this fall between a Sealed Deck PTQ Season, GP Nashville, and GP Ottawa. I hadn't even planned to play Ottawa because my Canadian geography is terrible, and I thought it was west of Toronto. A tentative plan to go turned definite once I qualified for the Pro Tour at GP New Jersey, making pro points much more valuable than they otherwise would be.
So come Thanksgiving I found myself in essentially the same position I was in two months prior. Actually, it was worse. At least then I had a Standard deck that was good in G/B Devotion. Now I had nothing. To compound my problems, I had promised to spend the week after Thanksgiving in New York City visiting some old friends. While a reprieve from the grind would be enjoyable, I needed to get some work done or fall hopelessly far behind. So I did what I could to assemble a testing crew. A possible three days of testing turned into one due to various schedule conflicts. There life goes again, always intervening with my arrangements. He's kind of a jerk. Then again, without life there would be no garlic naan, but I digress.
Unsurprisingly, a single day of testing did little to sway me toward any decks. Standard seemed to be filled with midrange decks, which I have long detested. I wanted something different. Something interesting.
Christmas came early:
I had built a version of this deck for the testing session, but mine aimed to be singularly aggressive and had a lower curve that included Monastery Swiftspear and Defiant Strike. In reality I committed the common blunder of over-synergizing with an already powerful card by including weaker cards that should work well with it. Defiant Strike was indeed quite good with an active Jeskai Ascendancy, but any spell would also be good so there is no reason to play the one that is downright awful in nearly every other situation. Yuuya just cut the chaff and in doing so created an Ascendancy deck that was still fine without drawing its namesake card.
Yuuya's inclusion of the full four Treasure Cruise was particularly intriguing since if you could consistently cast them relatively early, it would provide a game-breaking draw in the many elongated attrition games that this Standard format features.
Without access to live players or MTGO I was resigned to goldfishing a bit with the deck before flying to Portland for the Open Series last weekend. Fortunately, my flight was scheduled to get in that afternoon, and my roommates for the weekend would arrive with plenty of time for some last-minute testing.
This is the point where life facepalms as it can't believe I continue to make the same mistake.
The Flight From Hell
For some reason I booked a morning flight out of JFK airport, so my day started with barely any sleep.
My flight out of New York routes through San Francisco before landing in Portland. All goes relatively smoothly to San Francisco, where for some reason my ninety-minute domestic flight leaves from the international terminal, forcing me to go through security again. Despite the inconvenience I arrive at the gate with time to spare. As the scheduled boarding time approaches, I notice that there is no agent behind the desk, which seems strange. No matter, there is still time. Someone will show up.
Around ten minutes before the scheduled departure, another concerned passenger called the airline and informed me that the flight may be cancelled. No announcements have been made concerning our flight, but with no plane in sight, I went back to the departure board, where it still listed the flight as on time. Then, preferring to deal with someone in person rather than over the phone, I set out to find a gate with an agent manning it.
This proved more difficult than I had anticipated. Apparently, Alaskan Airlines employees are rarer than the Loch Ness Monster. When agents from other airlines were of no help, I gave in and called Alaskan's customer service department. They confirmed that my flight has been cancelled. Disappointing, but expected. I ask to be moved to the fastest flight to Portland. I am informed that even though Alaskan Airlines operated the flight, since I booked the ticket through American Airlines, I would need to go through them to be rebooked.
Not a problem. I get the appropriate number and explain my situation to an American representative. He tells me that it is Alaskan's responsibility to rebook me since they operated the plane.
I devise several possible causes that led to this predicament:
1) One of these employees is new and/or mistaken.
2) Both employees are trained to try to have the other airline pay for the new ticket.
3) One of these employees is a miserable human being that wants me to suffer for their own sick pleasure.
4) I am on Candid Camera.
Knowing that anger will likely not help my situation, I take some time to calm down before calling Alaskan Airlines again. I am quickly rebooked on a new flight that connects through Seattle to land in Portland at 7:15--not ideal but it was the best available option. Oddly, the agent that booked the ticket could not tell me the gate I would be leaving from, so I head on back to the departure board. It shows my new flight as being delayed by over an hour.
"Really? I was booked onto a flight that is already delayed? How could she not have known that?"
Then it occurs to me that this delay would likely affect my ability to make the connecting flight in Seattle. So I call customer service for the fourth time and once again explain my predicament. My fears are confirmed and my next best option is to take the delayed flight but move to a different connection that would land in Portland at 8:45. Too exhausted to complain, I dejectedly agree.
The flight out of San Francisco is further delayed, and as we land, it is about 15 minutes before my connecting flight is set to depart. I am, of course, in the very last row of the plane. At this point my next best option if I miss the flight is to hitch a ride to Portland thanks to a generous offer from Gerry Thompson. As I am waiting for the passengers ahead to deplane, I go online to check the gate for my connecting flight. Turns out when you get unlucky enough, it eventually turns back into good luck. My connecting flight was delayed long enough for me to make it with no rush. I landed in Portland at 9:15, almost seven hours after initially scheduled.
The kicker? It was my birthday.
With several of my roommates also experiencing significant delays, I gave up on testing and went through with my plans to meet up with some friends in the area, who were kind enough to pick me up from the airport. (Thanks Katie and Austin!) Shortly before going to sleep, I make the final decision to play Jeskai Tokens. I am missing many cards so Nathan Holiday graciously offers to loan me his copy of the deck. He made a few changes to Yuuya's list after testing the deck on MTGO. I played the following:
That morning, I was completely exhausted. I had to look through my deck to write down my list because I was not even sure of the cards in my own deck. I had yet to play a game with the deck. I was starving, having not had time to eat breakfast. I was mentally resigned to going 1-2 drop, taking a long nap, and finally getting some testing done.
So, of course I made the top 8. Isn't it nice when a plan comes together?
I live in Bizarro World.
I am also very lucky.
I played many games where I simply treaded water until one of those two cards created an insurmountable advantage. In other games, Seeker of the Way and Goblin Rabblemaster would punish a slow start by my opponent, and my deck would look like the older Jeskai lists. Other times I was a burn deck. There was a surprising amount of versatility for a deck supposedly built around a single card, especially with the transformational sideboard. I definitely have a Standard deck I like.
More importantly, I have some questions to look into to improve the deck for the coming weeks.
How important is the transformational sideboard? How much worse is it as a known quantity?
How do I improve the mirror match? How should I even play the mirror match?
I got destroyed by Abzan Midrange in the top 8 and the matchup seems poor. How can I turn that around?
How big of an issue is Doomwake Giant from the Whip decks?
Playing as a control deck was something I did many times on the weekend to success. So many of the decks in this Standard, particularly the green ones, rely on developing a huge board, and End Hostilities is backbreaking against them. Even siding out all eight of my creatures I was able to close games fairly easily, although I believe I drew the lone Elspeth more often than I can normally expect to. I could easily see adding a second copy to the sideboard as I very likely will not be getting rid of that sideboard option, although I may employ it less often if I think my opponent will be prepared.
I won a mirror match on camera in round eight, and really I have no idea if I played well or horribly, although my default assumption tends towards the latter. Nathan said he added the Negates and a second Anger of the Gods to the sideboard for the mirror, and they were both excellent. My opponent won game 2 of our match on the back of drawing three Negates and using them at opportune times to generate tempo, and Anger of the Gods single-handedly won me game 3, killing six tokens and a Goblin Rabblemaster my opponent had in play, while a Jeskai Ascendancy allowed my lone creature, a Seeker of the Way, to survive.
After the match I found out my opponent sided out Seekers while I opted to bring out Rabblemasters. I felt like the cheaper creature would be more valuable when I have some counterspells and the lifegain Seeker offers would be useful. That said, Rabblemaster can easily take over a game while also helping in longer games by gaining some value. I do like bringing out some creatures because I think being reactive is important since it is too easy to get punished for tapping out.
I brought in Glares in addition to Erases for game 2 assuming Ascendancy was far and away the best card in the matchup, but once my opponent did not show me a Seeker in game 2, I brought the Glares out for game 3. Even if Ascendancy is far and away the most important card, there are only so many narrow answers you can play before you are stuck holding dead cards too often.
Overall the mirror felt incredibly complex as in general you want to get ahead early because the deck is much worse when behind on board, but that is balanced by the risk of tapping out and giving your opponent free reign over their turn. I will certainly be experimenting different gameplans this week.
As for the Abzan Midrange matchup, I just don't know at this point. The issue is you want to become the control player against decks with Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix, but neither End Hostilities nor Anger of the Gods is good against them. I was fortunate to play against only more creature-heavy versions of Abzan in the swiss, featuring Fleecemane Lion and Wingmate Roc. Without the ability to control the board, Thoughtseize on efficient removal spells and counterspells is deadly. Also, Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix prevent you from applying significant pressure, meaning card advantage from Read the Bones, Abzan Charm, and Courser can easily outpace your one-for-one answers.
The most obvious fix is to figure out a way to become the control deck. If not, I will be looking for a resilient threat that can pressure their planeswalkers. What exactly that could be I do not know yet.
It appears that I won't ever learn, because I find myself in Seattle with a definite plan for the next two weeks. I am going to spend this week exploring Standard with special emphasis on Jeskai Tokens. Testing partners will be easy to come by in a house full of Magic players, but you know how that goes. In all likelihood I will be playing Jeskai Tokens and Elves at the Season Four Invitational this weekend. Next week I will turn my focus to Legacy, looking at other possibilities for the Players' Championship. Still, I would not be surprised if I play the same two decks there and continue to rely on my practice.
I can't wait to show up to Roanoke with Miracles and Temur Monsters.