I've lost count of how many weekends in a row I'd been on the road. I remember that I was at home for the Battle For Zendikar Prerelease. The rest has been a blur.
The Road to the Players' Championship was no joke. I got in the easy way last year through an Invitational, my invite to last year's #SCGPC basically coming as a freebie prize along with the token I so long wanted. This year felt like the opposite. The race for the At-Large slots this year had me nervously refreshing the leaderboard page every Wednesday. IQs became must-wins instead of casual extra points. Top 8'ing an Open gave an average number of points. Heck, I even Top 8'd #SCGDEN and went down on the leaderboard. There were opportunities to roadtrip across the northeast hitting IQs, and while they offered more points in total, I'm grateful that I didn't have to take that path as I can't imagine how exhausting it would've been.
The #SCGINVI in Las Vegas locked everything up for me. I had a few people hot on my tail, but once I knew they didn't make the second day of competition, I knew that my slot was secured. The tournament from that point on felt like a freeroll. I finished day one at 6-2, needing a likely 7-1 but possible 6-1-1 record to Top 8. A record of 5-3 would be satisfactory for a Top 32 finish to end the year, and is the record I thought I'd end up with playing Infect in Modern and Atarka Red in Standard. I got wrecked on day 2, only winning three and losing five, putting me outside of cash range. I didn't care though, the #SCGPC is what I came for and it's what I got.
Decklists were due at 12PM EST Wednesday. This is nearly three full days before the tournament began. Roughly 70 hours to think and agonize over decisions that you can no longer change.
I knew that most people wouldn't have much time to test, much less change their deck choice in between #SCGINVI and #SCGPC. This meant that what we saw at #SCGINVI would nearly 100% be what people would bring for the next week. I did the same last year, playing W/U Heroic and Legacy Infect in every tournament I could and bringing a slightly modified but fairly stock version of both decks to the Players' Championship. My big tech for that tournament was running four Submerge in my sideboard because I knew Ross Merriam would be on Elves and it's also nice against Steve Mann's Temur Delver.
This year Todd and I had an advantage. An ace up our sleeves. Standard master Brad Nelson was back home doing the dirty work for us. At the time we didn't know that Death and Taxes was "the dirty work," but it was cool with us in the end.
Brad Nelson took the Invitational off to test and relax. It worked out for him last year, and if it ain't broke, don't fix it. He correctly figured out that Todd Anderson's Jeskai Black deck (or Brian Braun-Duin's Open winning deck, or Michael Major's Mardu Blue) was the best in the format. He also pinpointed that the metagame was wide open for Legacy Death and Taxes. He went with Abzan "Junk stuff" in Modern, which was a great choice as he went 3-0, but not quite the style of either Todd or myself.
Having booked cheap tickets for Todd and my flights to #SCGDEN, #SCGINVI, and getting back home, we didn't end up getting back to Roanoke until Tuesday morning. This gave us little time to nap, catch up, and figure out what we wanted to play. Sacrifices had to be made. I submitted decklists for Zoo and whatever Legacy deck Brad recommended for us. We spent the rest of the day watching Brad playing Magic Online with Death and Taxes. A daily, 8-man, and 2-man later, we were 8-0. The only loss the deck took on the day was a fun match of Death and Taxes versus Todd's Jeskai Black on the kitchen table. Jeskai Black blew out Death and Taxes with a Painful Truth's for four while a Thalia, Guardian of Thraben was in play. Soulfire Grand Master is also a beast in Legacy, something that should really be explored more.
I was comfortable with my Legacy and Modern decks. I knew Todd's deck was the best, even if wasn't "the best for me." I solitaired for hours with Atarka Red and some with Danny Jessup's Mardu midrange deck that he Top 8'd the Las Vegas Open with. This is the Atarka Red deck that I came inches away from playing at #SCGPC.
Fears went in all directions.
Will I be hated out?
Am I being too predictable?
I'm I being too stubborn?
Am I outside my range?
Will I embarrass myself on camera?
At 4AM, still undecided, I fell asleep with the mouse cursor hovering over the submit button.
Roanoke, Wednesday 8am
Up and refreshed for the morning, I'm happy to have already locked in Modern and Legacy decks. Standard I just couldn't pull the trigger on. It's the format where I couldn't afford to take a loss. I needed a deck that was capable of beating everybody on any deck. I couldn't convince myself of anything the night before.
Atarka Red would have a target on it. I'm a notorious and "guaranteed" aggressive player. People wanted to be able to get through me to win the tournament. When multiple formats are involved people want to play something "easy" like an aggro deck, so they tend to show up more frequently in multi-format tournaments. Modern, this time around, is the format the most people relaxed their focus on and chose a straightforward aggressive deck. I know that's what I did.
I played Patrick Sullivan's complete 75 Modern Zoo deck. You might've seen Cedric Phillips playing it on Modern Super League. Or me playing it in a versus video . Or you just know a Wild Nacatl deck when you see one. The concept isn't new, but the tuning and thought behind the card choices is what I put my trust in. Win or lose, I was happy with Modern, playing a deck that wasn't Infect and was a tad off the radar but that I knew was very good.
The clock was ticking down. I'd been up all morning going back and forth over the last card choices. At one point there was one Silumgar's Command and one Ojutai's Command maindeck. Then the Planar Outburst made the sideboard. Then the third Radiant Flames got cut. Then it got re-added. In the end, Todd and Brad settled on three Monastery Mentors maindeck with only two Kolaghan's Commands as the maindeck Commands.
Roanoke, Wednesday, 11:58am
I'm looking at the Facebook thread between myself, Brad, and Todd. Every change they make is both moving toward pummeling Abzan deeper into the ground while also moving farther away from what I'm comfortable with. One minute left before the deadline. I'm hesitant. I copy/paste the list from the thread as my submitted decklist.
Roanoke, Wednesday, 11:59am
Thoughts wash over me. How much I am to blame if I lose with a different version? In about fifteen seconds that feel like fifteen minutes, I change cards back to what I'm comfortable with and finally click submit.
I walk up the stairs, knock on Brad's door, and sheepishly tell him that I wasn't comfortable enough with their list to go 75s with him and that I last-minute reverted to a previous list of Jeskai Black.
Look, I've played Brad's decks before. 60 maindeck. 15 sideboard, Card for card. He's done the same for my decks as recently as #GPPITT. He loved the 75 I handed to him. Those signed Glistener Elves even had an unexplainable magic to them. They're just scarier than normal.
But I really should've played Atarka Red. Not because it's the best deck or that I can play it well. To get around the exact situation that happened at #SCGPC. I knew it minutes after submitting Jeskai Black. We ran the risk of systematically getting taken out one-by-one by a deck setup to beat Jeskai Black. While I knew that Abzan Aggro would be like half of the Standard metagame and Todd's Jeskai Black deck was the best deck overall against the field, regrets started pouring in.
Day One, Legacy
I like Legacy. I consider myself a Legacy guy. It's bigger, more stable, and rewards experience through the entirety of Magic. The only reason I have Open wins and Invitational wins are due to Legacy.
People have told me that I'd be a great Delver player. Some say that Infect is a better Delver deck. Others say it's a handicapped Delver deck. I've played Delver some and it's a fine deck. Plenty of important, small decisions and room to outmaneuver, trick, and press an advantage. Still, I don't like it. It doesn't give them the fear. The fear of a Wasteland, Daze, or Stifle doesn't do it for me. I want opponents to wonder if a play will cause them to lose the game of Magic at hand, not to just be put in a disadvantageous position.
Death and Taxes wasn't on my radar. It wasn't on anyone else's. I'd never played the deck and neither had any of my fifteen competitors, to my knowledge.
But we've all played against it. It's a deck full of tricks, and we all know them by now. What Aether Vial can do at instant speed and how this and that can be stacked. We're as familiar with Flickerwisp as the pilots across from us. We have our Dread of Nights and Massacres else we get caught--hand in cookie jar--at Opens.
What a perfect opportunity for everyone to dip into the cookie jar.
Dread of Night turned into Disfigure. Massacre turned into Darkblast. If a creature removal spell didn't hit a Glistener Elf it didn't make the cut for #SCGPC. Joe Lossett even showed up with a maindeck Submerge. With a possible three Infect, 2-3 Elves, and up to six green-based Delver decks, it was a smart way to up the blue card count for Force of Will without cutting removal.
Round one I played against Jim Davis. He's been on Sultai Delver lately and it's comforting to see him lead on Underground Sea into Deathrite Shaman. His Stifles are weak against a no-fetchland manabase, and Mirran Crusader does work against his removal suite of Disfigure and Abrupt Decay. A matchup I watched Brad win in our living room on Magic Online and fortunately for me, that was enough experience to navigate here.
Round two is against Alex Bastecki with Four-Color Delver. I slide my decklist to Alex, revealing that I'm the same 75 cards that he just previously lost against in the hands of Todd Anderson. I ask him if he would've preferred to play against Infect this round. He says, and I'm paraphrasing, "Infect is tough, I'd rather play against this." I nod. I win this round in fair, yet unfair fashion with Aether Vial and Mirran Crusader and get ready to play Todd Anderson in the finals of the Legacy pod.
Sadly, there isn't much to say about this one. I won the die roll and had a tempo advantage on him. As for the matchup, it's a dance with Phyrexian Revoker/Pithing Needle to name the half of their deck that is hurting you while not inhibiting yourself too much. I ended up with an Ethersworn Canonist in my deck for game 2 and the after-match chatter involved if either of us should've brought in Sunlance for opposing Phyrexian Revokers. The Death and Taxes mirror is pretty sweet.
I beat Todd in the mirror, so I'm 3-0, and into the "winner's pod." The pod plays for a day 2 bye, which guarantees a minimum Top 8 and $2,000. Brad also 3-0's his pod, and Todd wins his "destination match" into the upper pod, making the final record for Death and Taxes on the weekend 9-1.
I'm playing Zoo. I beat Jim round 1 on G/R Tron. I lose to Jacob round 2 on Jund, then lose to Brad on Abzan round 3. At 1-2, I face Jonathan Morawski in what's very close to a mirror match playing for a day 2 bye. It's basically a $1000 ante match that even has a little bit more added value as the winner is on the play for most of tomorrow's Standard matches. Jon was on the play game 1 in our match, which ended up being pretty important as he won both games on the play.
I left the venue defeated.
I started 4-0 and finished 0-3.
The day felt like a failure. Todd won his match for a bye, while I lost mine. I lost three tight matches in a row. Maybe I could've won them all? A bluff-attack here. A bluff… block there? No. I couldn't win. As an aggro player I always wish I could do more. I signed up for my cards to play themselves and that's what happened.
I hop in Todd's car and we head to my house. It was good to get home. The coverage was on. The girls were watching the boys play.
Hillary, Nicole, Kali, Amber.
Me, Jim, Todd, Brad.
Everyone drinks and has fun throughout the night. Eventually Jim and Nicole are ready to head home. The night ends in a handshake between me and Jim wishing each other the best of luck tomorrow.
Jim beat me in two straight games in the Wild Card round of 16. Then he beat Jonathan Morawski in Top 8, who was on Abzan Aggro. Brad Nelson was the next victim in Top 4, playing Jeskai Black. Todd Anderson won his side of the bracket, taking on all comers with the Jeskai Black deck he's been perfecting all season. Jeskai Black is bad versus G/R Ramp, but Todd has a chance here.
Two out of three matches.
Standard, Modern, and Legacy.
By this time everyone is watching the finals at our house. Nicole (Jim's girlfriend), and Kali (Todd's wife), have left the party and are watching from the sidelines of the finals at the StarCityGames Center.
I know if Todd can squeak out a win in Standard that he'd have the trophy in his pocket. He comes close, losing a tight three-game Standard set.
Todd beat Jim in Legacy already. Death and Taxes is an awesome matchup for Sultai Delver. Todd won 2-0 previously, and we can't wait for that matchup to happen again.
Modern was the format chosen next. Temur Twin against G/R Tron. The matchup favors the Twin combo deck, but not as much as much as a dedicated Twin deck does.
At home, we're all hoping for a Legacy match to end a great Players' Championship, but Jim dispatched Todd in two matches. G/R Tron is powerful and consistent enough to take home the trophy.
If not for myself, Todd, or Brad, I wanted no one else to win the Players' Championship more than Jim Davis. I've played with him for over a decade. He's great and his decks are great, from Legacy Goblins to Standard U/W Control decks.
Jim showed up to our party.
Poured shots for everyone. Toasted everyone with Disaronno.
Grabbed the megaphone, thanked Nicole for her support and us for our hospitality.
Everyone got home safely.
I only hope next year's #SCGPC ends as perfectly as this year's.