This may have been the most stressful two weeks of my life. Multiple times I simply had to walk away from whatever situation I was in, pop in my earbuds, take some deep breaths, and decompress.
As much as I tried to avoid it, I felt the weight of expectation for this Pro Tour, especially after a poor showing the week before in Grand Prix San Jose. Fortunately, I was working with a great team highlighted by Ari Lax and Craig Wescoe, and I was confident our testing would be organized and productive enough to yield excellent results.
Unfortunately, the day before the event, this expectation had yet to be realized. The recent bans meant much of our previous testing was useless, as well as most of my previous Modern playing experience, which was with Birthing Pod. Technical issues prevented much of the gauntlet data we hoped to track from being recorded, which left us all testing our niche decks and hoping something would stick.
Our testing was further complicated by many of us attending either Grand Prix Mexico City or Grand Prix San Jose the week prior. This left us very few days in DC before moving into hotels, meaning a testing house was impractical. Seth Manfield graciously hosted us at his house in the area Monday and Tuesday night, although a cancelled flight prevented me from arriving until Tuesday.
Few of us arrived with a clear idea of what to play. All of our experiments failed the Abzan test and yet somehow Abzan also felt lackluster. For me this was unsurprising, as I loathe midrange decks, but the reticence of my teammates to commit to another deck left me with little direction.
I had played many different decks during the initial stage of testing to overcome my initial lack of experience due to playing nothing but Birthing Pod decks for two years, but nothing emerged as a clear best deck. Additionally, I tested with B/W Pox and an Esper Midrange deck that used Thought Scour to enable Tasigur, the Golden Fang and splashed white for Lingering Souls, which was the best card we found against Abzan decks.
Ultimately these decks were slightly advantaged against Abzan because their threats were more resilient and they could generate small material advantages that snowballed as the game went along, but they were significantly worse against the field because they did not have nearly the same clock to take advantage of their disruption suite as Abzan.
I spent more time than I should have ranting about how all the decks were bad, much to the annoyance of the rest of the team. I reluctantly locked myself into Abzan on Thursday afternoon and set about talking with the others playing the deck about potential sideboard cards. With all but one slot settled, I went down to the site to register and purchase a Fulminator Mage.
Over a thoroughly mediocre dinner, I felt resigned to a mediocre finish. I did not think my deck was particularly good, and on top of that I would be miserable playing it. That is not a recipe for success. So against all reasonable advice I audibled by proclaiming to the table:
"*@#$ it! I'm lighting people up!"
I have said this before, but it bears repeating: Do as I say kids, not as I do.
Oddly enough, after making the rashest decision I made all weekend I felt rather calm and strangely excited at the idea of casting Lava Spike at the Pro Tour. I had played many games with and against Burn, most of them being against Abzan so I would be well-practiced. Burn's extremely linear and proactive gameplan was also appealing in a metagame that would feature a larger than normal percentage of rogue decks. Many other players on the team also fell on Burn, so there was confidence from numbers as well.
We returned from dinner and set about crafting (read: finally putting together) our lists. Discussions over the merits of splashing green for Destructive Revelry and playing Kor Firewalker for the mirror were had. Competing opinions were presented and I waited awhile for a consensus to emerge.
At that point, I recalled the advice I received earlier in the week from Team Manager (read: Team Barn/Cheerleader) Stu Somers. Stu recognized that I was waiting for my questions to be answered by everyone else, and at a certain point you have to rely on yourself and trust in your own ability.
Having never been qualified for consecutive Pro Tours, much of my testing experience has been as an outsider to a team giving me a chance based on my other results. As such, I always chose to be a role player rather than truly insert myself into the group. I would do what was asked of me and hopefully be rewarded with a great deck the team would build. In reality most teams almost always at some point break into factions as individual deck choices differ. The choice of which faction to join is a personal one and often so are the minor decisions of what the last two or three cards you play will be.
The team cannot do everything for you, nor should it. Magic is not a team sport as much as I had been trying to make it so. You cannot get a ring for riding the bench. There are no Will Perdues in Magic.
The advice Stu gave me was immensely helpful and helped me to realize that I needed to be more decisive. I immediately looked to my own knowledge of the deck and built the list I would register the next morning:
The first decision I made was to drop the black splash I had used in much of my testing. Black gave the deck access to Bump in the Night, which was great for added redundancy (you can never have too many Lava Spikes), as well as Crackling Doom which was effective against Abzan and gave you an out to G/W Hexproof. I did not expect many copies of Slippery Bogle, and Molten Rain was good enough against Abzan that I did not want the additional three mana spell, especially if they only did two damage.
It is really easy to get too fancy with a linear deck and lose sight of the primary objective. Every card you add to a burn deck that does not deal your opponent damage makes all your other cards worse, so the opportunity cost for niche cards and answers to opposing hate is high. This was the primary principle behind most of my deckbuilding decisions.
The most subtle result of this principle was my decision to play nineteen lands when many opted for twenty. In my testing it was much easier to win when missing an early land drop than when hitting the fifth or sixth. It is usually important to play enough lands to start playing multiple spells in one turn, which is usually three and sometimes four.
Without mulligans, on turn 3 you have seen nine cards on the play and ten cards on the draw. To average seeing three lands in that time frame, you would play twenty lands on the play and eighteen lands on the draw. With the three-mana spells in the sideboard and the occasional desire to play a fourth land drop to enable playing multiple two-mana spells in the same turn or enable landfall on Searing Blaze, I did not want to err too low in the range, so I opted for nineteen.
Next was deciding between splashing green for Destructive Revelry or playing Wear//Tear to kill opposing Leylines of Sanctities. Well, Destructive Revelry deals damage so that was an easy choice. The Stomping Ground required to play a green card does make your mana significantly more painful, since you need to fetch for two shocklands, but I will gladly trade damage in my Burn decks.
The single copy of Flames of the Blood Hand was an unpopular choice that I decided to play for two reasons:
1) Many players would simply play some big lifegain cards in their sideboard, like Timely Reinforcements or Obstinate Baloth, as their plan against Burn. In this instance, having a fifth card to stop lifegain spells would be important.
2) Against resource denial decks like Abzan, the fifth four-damage spell would be effective at making the most of my topdecks against discard spells. It is easy to attribute games where you deal exactly nineteen or twenty damage to variance, but only when you have taken every reasonable measure to tilt the wheel of fate in your favor can those attributions have merit.
I chose to play Lightning Helix and Deflecting Palm as my only sideboard cards for the mirror, eschewing Kor Firewalker. I was more wary of Zoo than my teammates, and Helix is excellent in that matchup, as well as any other matchup with a similar dynamic of my burn spells racing their creatures. Palm was a card that many were excited about because of its blowout potential in the mirror, against Abzan (Where Eidolon and Liliana often make Tarmogoyf very large), and against Infect. I recognized this potential, but the inconsistency the card offered made me want to limit it to a single copy.
Path to Exile was the one card I played that does not deal the opponent damage, and it is solely there to answer Kor Firewalker. I would even err towards leaving it in the sideboard until you see Firewalker from your opponent, which I did in the one round I brought the card in. You really just cannot afford to draw blank cards when their life total is low. I could have played Pyrite Spellbomb as an answer that can be a burn spell, but I preferred a one mana answer to hate.
The one card I played and was unsure of was Grim Lavamancer. I had not played it in most of my test lists and on paper was unimpressed because of its lack of immediate impact. I trusted Ari Lax on its power and was glad I did. Lavamancer is a reasonable burn spell that opens up the control role against opposing creature decks, most notably Affinity and Infect. Optionality is rare in a deck so linear, and as such, is incredibly valuable. An unchecked Lavamancer is also excellent in attrition matchups, capable of dealing six or more damage with one card. Flooding on them is poor, so I would not add any more, but I was happy with my two copies where some teammates only played one.
After the tournament, I can confidently say that this was the best Constructed deck I have ever played at a Pro Tour, although admittedly I had not set a very high bar. Somehow the weeks of chaos and worry had led to a good list of a well-positioned deck. For much of the testing period I was convinced I had been spinning my wheels and getting nowhere, when in reality I was learning what I had not bothered to when my plan for Modern was simply to play Birthing Pod. All it took to realize it was for someone to tell me to trust my own instinct.
However, the time I spent hesitating to make a decision on what to play in Constructed left me unprepared for the Limited portion of the event. I was only truly comfortable playing aggressive decks and leaned heavily towards Jeskai.
When I started the second draft with Silumgar, the Drifting Death and two Grim Contests, I was excited at the power level of my deck but anxious at the prospect of navigating a draft as a control deck. With little Sultai mana fixing available, I was forced to add a fourth color, white, which further complicated my draft, as I had to prioritize mana-fixing more highly. After the draft I was quite disappointed with my deck and knew I missed several picks, as my deck lacked some key pieces, most notably a hard removal spell for the lategame when I passed on two copies of Rite of the Serpent.
After a victory in the first round and some reassurance from other players that my deck was solid, I was excited at the prospect of getting a 2-1 or better out of what I thought was a trainwreck. Instead I played rather poorly in round two against Huang Hao-Shan, most notably attacking my Salt Road Patrol with one counter into his Shambling Attendants. Silumgar was on the battlefield. As he correctly noticed, a three power creature will not kill a four toughness creature in combat, and I sheepishly put my creature in the graveyard.
After losing the next round to an excellent curve from my opponent in game 3, I further embarrassed myself by tilting off rather aggressively (although fortunately not in front of my opponent) and left the event hall briefly to calm down. The weight of my expectations for the event was wearing on me at the worst possible time. I needed to go undefeated over the last five rounds to qualify for the next three Pro Tours, but more importantly, I needed to keep that fact out of my mind and focus.
I was able to recover in time to play some good Magic aided by some timely draws but fell short of my goal with a 4-1 finish, good for a 10-6 record and 54th place. Afterwards, I reflected on my frenzied emotional state both before and during the tournament and realized the following:
It is comforting to imagine the pressure to succeed being external. That I need to win to achieve validation from my peers or to elevate my status as a writer, but in reality, most of the pressures I have are internal. Magic is very important to me because I want it to be. I want to win for myself. When I lie awake at night before a tournament (because I can rarely sleep well) I imagine the moment my finals opponent extends his hand in defeat. Maybe that is not the best way to go about things, but for now, I cannot help it. The fire is there, and I just need to find a way to use it constructively.
But in order to be useful, fire needs to be properly managed. Emotion is a powerful motivator but often clouds your decisions. Emotion is powerful but often unpredictable. Personally, I try to not fight it, but as I saw last weekend, that can lead to being consumed in a wildfire. In order to succeed, you must remain in control. You must create order from the chaos.