To say that the last nine days of my life have been incredible would be a gross understatement. I'm still going to try to do this trip to Europe for Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir justice by telling you all about it, but forgive me if I'm unable to convey how magical it has been.
Recently rebranded as Team Off Brand (because everyone loves a two-for-one), I was invited to join some of the absolute best players in the game today, such as Brian "The Dizzler" Braun-Duin, Brad Nelson, Ari Lax, Chris Fennell, Michael Majors, Steve Rubin, Gabe Carleton-Barnes, and a host of other excellent magicians. My nerves were shot, as being in a room full of players of their magnitude was daunting. Luckily, Bradley gave me a pretty invigorating pep talk about how I deserved to be where I'm at. This would come in handy. I'm sure he doesn't even realize how much that little speech meant to me.
Our testing was extreme and brutal, but I loved every single second of it. From sun up to sun down- roughly 14-16 hours a day-we were slinging cardboard.
The initial read on the format was with Chris VanMeter winning the most recent SCG Open with G/R Dragons, we'd see a surge in the deck. Dragonlord Atarka has had a tremendous effect on the format, and it was possible that a lot of players would default to this already powerful deck. This left us in a strange place, but we were anxious to "solve it."
One of the more important factors we took into account was not getting attached to any particular deck right away, and we stayed open to a multitude of options. The first deck to emerge from this testing was a bruising Naya Dragons deck that killed very quickly and efficiently if the pieces fell into place. This was accomplished by having a Xenagos, God of Revels in play and following it up with a Dragonlord Dromoka. This would make the Dromoka a ten-power hasted, lifelinking monster that they couldn't kill that turn. This could be followed up by things like Atarka or Whisperwood Elemental for a clean win. The deck unfortunately was too inconsistent, so we moved on.
Other decks like Jeskai Aggro and R/W Aggro were strong on our radar, but in the end they felt too susceptible to G/R or G/W, and one huge factor that went into not playing them was that we wanted to make sure that our testing wasn't reaching an inbred status: as in altering our decks to beat the matchups we were losing to in testing, rather than building our decks for a perceived field.
The next level was achieved with a very interesting Jund Dragons deck that relied on the engine of Satyr Wayfinder and Whip of Erebos to power out Dragonlord Atarkas with lifelink! The black felt like an upgrade to white since it also gave us Sidisi, Undead Vizier. The deck handled the heck out of G/R Dragons, and it was showing a lot of promise. This is until Brad started working on refining it, and his results showed that after sideboard the deck lost a lot of weight to other decks and was too clunky to compete. Again, we scrapped it.
Then it happened.
Tired of losing with the Esper deck he brought with him, BBD exclaimed that he wanted to try Abzan Aggro. It was powerful, but we were worried it wouldn't have the power to compete with G/R Dragons or the control decks we expected to be there in abundance.
Side note: It was pretty neat that our team had working lists throughout the week of U/B Control and Esper Dragons that were almost completely in line with what did well at the tournament, although we didn't think those decks were in a great place for what we predicted the Pro Tour metagame would look like. See the Unwritten was another card we were hip to, and I wish we explored more.
Gabe Carleton-Barnes, henceforth referred to as GCB, brought his own version of Abzan Aggro to the party. I recall testing against him in the first match with the deck, and that's when the bass dropped.
His curve was pretty normal at first: Fleecemane Lion and Anafenza, the Foremost. My hand with R/W Aggro lined up fairly well against it, but then he dropped Surrak, the Hunt Caller on the battlefield.
"That's awesome," I said to him while laughing. He followed it up with a hasted Siege Rhino, and I was dead.
Then it happened again.
Soon Surrak went from a one-of to two, and then three, and as many as four. BBD began working tirelessly on the deck, and a few of us built it and started destroying everything we put in front of it. This was the deck! Brad came on board, as did our teammates Austin Bursavich and Seth Manfield. We began perfecting the sideboard, but then Steve Rubin had to mess everything up for everyone.
For those of you not familiar with Steve Rubin, he's the architect of Ari's Pro Tour-winning Abzan Midrange list as well as the designer of the Abzan Control list that put four players in the Top 8 of Grand Prix Memphis. In the shadows he toiled away at Abzan Control for this PT, and two days before the event he emerged and proclaimed that he had solved it.
My gut told me to play Abzan Aggro since we had been practicing with it a bunch, and I felt like I knew the deck pretty well, but Seth Manfield and Chris Fennell decided to switch to Control, and after about twenty games with it against our Abzan Aggro deck, I decided to switch as well. We'll get to that list later.
Entering the halls of the Pro Tour was supposed to be terrifying for me. I should have been intimidated, but the reality of it is that I wasn't. Not even remotely.
In all honesty, before I play in events like Grand Prix and StarCityGames Opens, I get extremely nervous. I always have. My stomach is usually in knots, my head throbs with pain, I'm prone to getting sick, and I generally am a wreck. I'm not a skittish person, but something about these tournaments always has me on edge. This was not the case, however.
A curious phenomenon occurred as I sat down for my Draft pod on Day One of the Pro Tour. Steve Rubin sat next to me, and I looked across the table at Sam Black. A few seats away was Hall of Famer Olle Rade…the Sylvan Safekeeper himself. I felt calm, though. No fear. Nothing, really. I had just spent the last eight days drafting relentlessly with some of the best players in the world. I lost a ton. I won a few. But I learned so much. We discussed the format and dissected Limited to almost perfection. Their advice on cutting, signaling, and what colors to go into made this draft a breeze for me.
I was greeted by a pick one pack one Flatten, which is almost certainly the best common in the set. I followed it up with a Draconic Roar, and then another Flatten. Pick four saw a quandary of Butcher's Glee versus Swift Warkite, but based on our analysis people have zero respect for Glee. I took the Warkite confident that it would table, which it did. Butcher's Glee is one of the top ten commons in the set, and we learned this after Ray Tautic (our secret weapon) told us he was first picking it. Everyone laughed, and then Ray destroyed us all with it. Then we stopped laughing and drafted it accordingly, which only made our black-based decks better.
The next pack was rewarding, as my cuts gave me a pretty nice pack two. I was passed another Draconic Roar to go along with the Ultimate Price I opened. Another Glee even came to me. Late, of course. Pack three was a deeeeeelight. I slammed the Mardu Strike Leader that I opened, which went exceedingly well with the double Butcher's Glee and Kindled Fury I had. I reached for pick two of pack three and was greeted with an Archfiend of Depravity! My cuts worked! I calmly placed it down and reached for pick three, where a second Archfiend was staring at me.
From there I tabled double Alesha's Vanguard, because that's another card people seemingly don't value despite it being much better in a format with Kindled Fury and other dash creatures like Reckless Imp, and my deck was complete.
- 2 Alesha's Vanguard
- 2 Archfiend of Depravity
- 1 Gurmag Angler
- 1 Hooded Assassin
- 1 Kolaghan Aspirant
- 1 Kolaghan Skirmisher
- 1 Mardu Strike Leader
- 2 Qarsi Sadist
- 1 Reckless Imp
- 2 Shambling Goblin
- 1 Swift Warkite
I knew this deck could easily 2-1 or 3-0 the pod. I was paired against Olle Rade my first match of the Pro Tour, and I handily beat him off the back of Archfiend and Ultimate Price. My second round was a loss, but it came from not drawing any lands and my opponent one-upping my double Archfiend deck with a double Sunscorched Regent deck! Round three I played against two-time Pro Tour Top 8'er Yuuki Ichikawa, but his clunky U/G Manifest deck was outclassed as I beat him in two games, which took a combined twelve minutes.
Going 2-1 in my first draft had me excited, and I was ready for Standard.
- 3 Satyr Wayfinder
- 4 Siege Rhino
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
- 2 Dragonlord Atarka
- 1 Sidisi, Undead Vizier
- 1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
The theory behind this deck was to play a typical Abzan Control deck, which is already great at handling the midgame, and providing a nearly unbeatable endgame with Whip, Atarka, and Elspeth. This gave us a lot of flexibility with building a sideboard, so I'll explain a couple of the choices which may seem strange.
Archfiend of Depravity is great against G/W Devotion, as it prevents them for having a ton of creatures in play. In practice is was fine, but underwhelming.
Merciless Executioner was because Tom Ross showed the world the Bant Heroic deck, and we wanted a few bullets against it. Merciless Executioner was also nice to have against U/B Control and Esper, as it let you kill their hexproof Dragons and sometimes upgrade a Satyr Wayfinder to a 3/1.
Risen Executioner was very nice against the control decks as a reoccurring threat they couldn't be rid of unless they used Perilous Vault. There were games where he would eat three counterspells, two removal spells, and deal the full twenty damage. I was extremely impressed with him.
I won my first two rounds and started off 4-1 before losing three in a row. A few losses came from poor draws, but I also kept a few hands that were considered loose, and they didn't pan out. My decision trees also were completely wrong in a few scenarios, and I could have done a better job of maximizing my resources when I was in bad spots. I think I played very well, just not nearly well enough.
The draft the next day saw me with another, albeit it less exciting, R/B Aggro deck. It had good creatures, but it lacked solid removal. I went 1-2 in the pod disappointingly, as one of my losses was to not drawing a fourth land until turn 12, but one loss was entirely due to my own misplay of naming the wrong mode on Outpost Siege. With my opponent at eight life and me with two creatures in play and one in my hand, I decided to name Dragons. Most of the time this is correct, but my opponent's G/R deck I knew from the previous two games was fine at gumming up the ground. I still had a Dragonlord Kolaghan and two Reckless Imps in my deck, so naming Khans would have just been better. I could have dealt the final damage to him through the air if my draws and Khans triggers were good, but I didn't give myself that chance. I got him to two life before I flooded out in key turns and died. A few cards down were a Reckless Imp and Kolaghan, meaning I'd have easily taken the match had I not screwed up.
I played for a few more rounds, won a little bit more, and eventually wound up conceding to friend Ben Stark in turns because he was a tiny bit ahead and could use the pro points more than me. He was thankful, and we actually had a fantastic match that made me remember why I love this game.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing, laughing, and going to the Pro Tour after party hosted by Outpost Games. I drank, told jokes, had fun with the other pro players, and blew off the millions of pounds of steam that had built up over the previous week.
As I type this now in quiet reflection on the eve before I return home, I am humbled by the support of my friends, teammates, family, and all those nice folks that said nice things to me and encouraged me before I played. I didn't do as well as I hoped to have done, but for a first time, I think I did okay. My goal is to get back to the Pro Tour as soon as possible because it was one of the most fun things I have ever done. Absolutely intoxicating.
By the time you read this I'll be home, at work, and completely miserable that despite doing it for eighteen hours a day for ten days, I am not playing Magic right now.