Wednesday October 7, 2015
I awoke in a strange bed in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I had been staying with Ari Lax for the last two days in order to audition for Jeopardy the previous afternoon. The audition went well, but now it is time to put that out of my mind and focus on the upcoming Pro Tour in Milwaukee. I have a 7:10am flight out of Logan Airport that will transport me to Madison, Wisconsin so I can meet up with much of my testing team and play Grand Prix Madison this weekend.
Having not gone to sleep until around 1:00am the previous night (I am a Magic player after all), I was exhausted. I snooze until 4:30am and begrudgingly awake to take a shower.
As I'm packing, my backpack (which I have had for fourteen years) zipper breaks. I frantically fiddle with it and miraculously it zips closed before I reached the point of waking up Ari to try to borrow another bag. Already behind schedule, I walk out the door towards the Red Line of the Boston Area Subway.
The first train in the morning is supposed to leave at 5:15am, and I don't arrive until 5:20am. When I get to the platform it says the next train isn't arriving for at least twenty minutes. Gross. I have to transfer to the Silver Line bus to the airport, and I have little idea how long this whole process takes, but at this point, I am already beginning to get nervous.
Luckily my cell phone has an internet connection on the platform, so I look at the train schedules. There are Silver Line buses leaving at 5:50am and 6:05am, and it only takes fifteen minutes to get to my terminal. As long as the security line isn't crazy, I should be okay.
At 5:42am I get on the Red Line. As we approach the next stop, I realize that I accidentally got on the train moving in the wrong direction…
Now I have absolutely no chance of making the 5:50am bus and an outside chance of making the 6:05am. The following departure, 6:20am, leaves me only 35 minutes to make it through security and find my gate. It's not looking good.
At this point, I'm looking to trim time wherever I can. I check-in for my flight online. I find out the gate so I don't have to look at the boards in the terminal. I check to see if my flight has been miraculously delayed, but everything is on time. Fortunately, I only have to wait three minutes for the next Red Line train going in the right direction, but I'm already thinking about contingency plans.
I'm sure I can find another flight later in the day, but will I have to pay for it or will Hasbro forgive my ineptitude? Will I have to spend another day in Cambridge? Hopefully I don't need to find out the answers to these questions.
As the subway train moves along, I am nervously watching the clock on my phone:
5:45am...Park St Station
I get off and quickly find the sign for the Silver Line to Logan. Thinking I won't be able to make it in time, my prayers are answered as I turn the corner and see the Silver Line Bus mere steps from where the Red Line drops off, waiting with open doors.
I'm a bit calmer as I realize I will have about an hour in the terminal to make my flight. The bus moves along without delay, and I arrive at Terminal A to a long but manageable security line. I make it to my terminal minutes before they call my zone to board.
Play perfectly, get rewarded; Play to your outs, etc.
After some uncomfortable but needed sleep on my flight, I arrive in Madison ready to locate my teammates, who have been in the city since Monday, driving up after #SCGINDY.
A responsible and prepared person may have talked to them the night before to arrange logistics. But I'm a Magic player. I call out to them on Facebook asking for an address and possible pick-up. Unsurprisingly, the first and only response is from Michael Majors.
The rest of the team aren't exactly morning people.
Armed with an address I look into a taxi. With a fare of around $50, I am not excited by this proposition. I need a bit more value. The bus is only $2 but takes 90 minutes, and I have this strange notion that my time is worth something.
As I'm waiting to hear back from Brian Braun-Duin about picking me up (as it turns out he was still asleep), I see a sign for airport shuttles. Despite being thirty minutes away, the Radisson shuttle is complementary. Game!
By the time I figure this out, call for a pick-up, and get to the hotel, it's almost noon. Perfect time for a draft! As it happens, this hotel which was picked arbitrarily by the rest of the team is right across the street from a game store.
Play perfectly, get rewarded!
This is my first draft of the new set because I have spent the last month grinding IQs, so I'm happy to start catching up. Generally in my first few drafts, I try to find a key set mechanic and build around it since the linear decks tend to be what defines the boundaries of what is possible in the format.
We see the same thing happen in Constructed where the most linear decks, often aggressive, are popular early on and slowly are replaced by well-tuned midrange and control lists that are more metagame dependent. Obviously there is somewhat less metagaming to be done in Limited, but once you know the essential parameters, you can begin dissecting them and attacking them with specific strategies, often with underappreciated cards that come around later than they should.
These sorts of parallels between Limited and Constructed are too often overlooked as it is easy to become distracted by their many differences, but once you recognize them you can begin to use the knowledge you gain in one format to aid you in another, which can rapidly improve your overall play.
So with that in mind and what information I gathered from talking with my teammates, I moved in on G/R Landfall after getting passed two Valakut Predators and a Territorial Baloth in pack 1. I ended up with ten landfall creatures including Akoum Firebird, a few pump spells, and two copies of Unnatural Aggression. Several great draws later and I was 3-0.
Format is great. I'm great. Ready for the PT!
Interestingly, my deck played out similarly to the Constructed version of G/R Landfall. When I was able to get ahead on board early and keep the pressure on by making appropriate land drops, my tricks were often game-ending. When I was not able to gain an early advantage or I missed key land drops, my cards proved to be underpowered and my opponents easily stabilized. What I found was that if my opponent got to a point where me making a land drop was not scary for them, I was a huge underdog. If making a land drop was scary, then I still needed to have the goods or I would fall behind.
From this lesson, I can glean two things:
1) The current iterations of G/R Landfall probably don't play enough lands.
Most lists I see play anywhere from 21-24, with most in the middle at 22-23. This is a typical land count for an aggressive deck with the kind of curve that G/R Landfall has. However, given that each land drop is so critical at making your threats reasonable, I would not play fewer than 24 lands and could even see playing 25. When you are ending the game quickly, flooding is not as much of a concern, and you can think of a lot of them as pump spells.
2) With a higher land count, they need a good mana sink or card advantage.
While I noted above that flooding is less of a concern in such a fast deck, it is still a concern. As such, we should find a card that helps mitigate the added risk of flood from playing more lands. What immediately comes to my mind is Den Protector. It is a fine body when you are curving out (and especially good with pump spells) and can still put in work as a five-drop. It can even return a fetchland if your draw is heavy on landfall creatures.
The rest of the afternoon was filled with Constructed testing as we work to examine the ramifications of last week's Open Series and whether or not Michael Majors' 28789347th crazy brew is the one that finally breaks it. As with Limited, I begin by playing with and against mostly stock decks to get a feel for the format, which means a lot of Jeskai Black and Atarka Red.
My first impressions of the format is that it will be a lot faster than last year because the lands enter the battlefield untapped early and often. Stumbling on the first few turns gets you soundly punished by Mantis Rider and Become Immense. While this means a lot of sweet decks will be pushed out of the metagame for being too slow, it is generally good for testing to have such a strict constraint because we are unlikely to waste too much time on decks that are not good enough.
On the other hand, the removal of Temples from the format has made every deck have more variant draws in the midgame, leading to more flood issues than before. As such, having cards that can be played early but are effective mana sinks will be very important. Having independently noticed this issue specifically within the context of the G/R Landfall deck, I feel more comfortable generalizing it to the rest of the format.
A quick dinner at the surprisingly high quality hotel bar was followed by a second draft, in which I first picked Greenwarden of Murasa and quickly moved into a green ramp strategy. With some late blue and two Skyrider Elves in pack two, I supplement my ramp with a converge theme and splash some much needed removal.
This deck certainly looked worse on paper than my G/R Landfall deck from the first draft, but it was powerful enough to carry me to a 2-1, losing a close match to BBD and some comeuppance from his own landfall deck where I made a critical mistake in game 3 by not killing a Territorial Baloth which he double-pumped on his turn for lethal.
A lot of my wins came from casting fliers and big Eldrazi creatures as I noticed that the battlefield stalls frequently if neither player seizes a significant edge in the earlygame. Knowing this, I want my decks to be at the extremes of the spectrum, either getting ahead early with small creatures or going over the top with huge ones. This is not the time to be midrange.
The day closed with the most important item on the agenda: The Hot Tub Meeting. Rather than test until the point of exhaustion and go to sleep, we prefer to leave some time at the end of the day to destress and talk about everything we have learned and what is left to be done.
This accomplishes three important tasks for successful testing:
1) It gives everyone direction.
With so little time to explore so much space, you really need to play every game with a purpose. Talking over what is left to figure out with your teammates allows you to lay out a plan for what your next day will be like, and begin the day without wasting time jamming games aimlessly.
2) It gets everyone on the same page.
On a team of ten or more people it is very easy to section off and test in smaller cliques, leading to multiple groups of inbred testing. Regularly interacting with everyone on the team lets you break out of that bubble and receive necessary unbiased criticism.
It also opens you up to the ideas that other people are working on, which could affect your own decks. Sometimes two people come to completely opposite conclusions about a card or deck and only find that out at the end of the day because they have not been working directly with each other. In this way, the team becomes more cohesive and its results more powerful.
3) You get to be regular people.
Well, as regular as Magic players can be. I feel that many people have this conception of testing houses as the scene of Ivan Drago preparing to fight Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV. As though we are all machines who only focus on playing Magic over and over again in a technically sophisticated lab.
In reality, the hard work, while rewarding, needs to be tempered with some time to relax. Also, when your team is closer, you are more invested in the results of your teammates and everyone helps each other to reach their potential.
Okay. It's been a long day. And while I'm happy with what I've learned, I'm certainly nowhere close to being prepared for the PT or this weekend's GP. It's time to hop in the hot tub, figure out what we're doing tomorrow, and get some sleep. I'll be back in two weeks to cover everything I learn in greater detail and hopefully share the story of a great result and hopefully BBD buying plenty of dinners.