Preparing for a Pro Tour is a taxing process.
Doesn't matter if it is your first or your twentieth; the stress and pressure looms overhead. I have been fortunate to have had the opportunities I've had, to play in these high-level events over the last decade, and do so on my terms. I played control, or combo, in nearly every event since Regionals 2003. No Goblin Guide, Arcbound Ravager, or Goblin Rabblemaster for me, my friends.
I had continued success with Islands, Plains, and eventually Swamps, but have fallen victim to "trying the best deck" in the last three Pro Tours. Mono-Red, B/G Delirium, and B/G Delirium (with Emrakul, the Promised End) were the decks I chose to battle with.
The original B/G Delirium list was one I developed well before the event, bringing it to the team in Australia. That deck had a control feel to it, surviving to an eventual Eldrazi that couldn't be beaten. The other decks were inexcusable. I've had long talks with professionals and they all hyped me up (like friends do), predicting that my results over the years would have been significantly better if I played "better" decks. They may have been right at one time, but now that is not the case.
To perform at a high level with the best deck, your heart must be in it. That involves time dedicated to learning the deck inside and out, and that is something I simply don't have anymore. Maybe if one of my fine readers could go back and time and warn young Shaheen not to become obsessed with the Island, things could have been different.
The perfect hand.
As an administrator at my school and soon-to-be father, the requirements to mastering Temur Energy are out of reach for me. Time isn't the only factor at play here. Having the desire to play decks outside of your wheelhouse is a whole different challenge in and of itself.
I am like many of you who have followed me for the last decade of writing for SCG. When you draw all the cards, kill all the creatures, and lay down all the haymakers, Magic is fun. I did not enjoy casting the spell Shock. I did not enjoy the matches decided by the few points of burn I needed to scrounge together to vanquish my enemy. The only thing I did enjoy about playing the "best deck" was the reactions by my opponents throughout the tournament. Bomat Courier was not the first play that anyone would suspect from me and it did help me secure a victory in at least one of my Pro Tour matches.
For all those aspiring professionals reading, master different archetypes as you battle from format to format. Some of you are in school or have flexible jobs or lives, so time isn't a large hindrance to your progression. One day that all may change, and you'll be glad you put in the legwork!
I am going to play control at Pro Tour Ixalan. The Scarab God, Approach of the Second Sun, and Torrential Gearhulk are powerful enough for me to comfortably dive into the control pool on the largest stage. I have written about Grixis Control a few times in the last couple months, which will probably end up as my weapon of choice. I've also developed a U/W Approach list and I think it's quite powerful in a field of energy. I'm going to share both lists with you all, discuss the state of Standard, and introduce my crew, #TeamCardHoarder!
The Esper Professor / Expensive Sorcery Master – Shaheen Soorani
Master of Modern/Limited/Legacy/Cube (What format is this PT again?) – Eli Kassis
The Gold Pro – Noah Walker
The Very Old Veteran – Joe Lossett
My Only Control Ally – Robert Graves
The Prodigy / The Future – Jack Kiefer
Whenever I feel a dip in my competitive immortality, this team props me up. #TeamCardHoarder is a well-oiled machine meeting three times a week, preparing for the next event with youthful vigor. When a Limited GP approaches, we chat synergy and pick order; when Constructed pops up, the analysis begins.
Eli Kassis and I have been building "unique" decks since we started playing the game, so it should be no surprise what we bring to the table. Jack has an excess of talent, brewing a bit on the side but playing with technical perfection. The team gets together and digitally views, critiques, and analyzes Magic Online battles on a regular basis. This is where I see my teammates bring their talents to the table.
Joe and I have teamed quite a few times in the past and he's willing to put in the legwork for the most powerful, known strategies. Noah provides a similar use for the team and happens to be in his competitive prime. I've been friends with the kiddo since he was a small lad and I'm very excited to finally team up. Finally, Robert seems to be my only control ally on the squad! Noah and Eli will mention how they love control, but it's bad; well, at least there is one other human being that is willing to Glimmer of Genius in such a dangerous world. As I write this, he could have easily switched to Ramunap Red, but let's hope he hasn't.
The team preparation for this Pro Tour has been exclusively online. I miss the testing trips where I could travel and stay a week (or longer) prior. That yearning for live testing has dimmed down after this recent experience with #TeamCardHoarder. I realize how effective the internet is for testing, compared to how ineffective it used to be. Magic Online making the newest sets available before the tournament has solved the drafting practice issue.
Before this, Limited testing was exclusively in person for an upcoming Pro Tour. Pro Tour Ixalan is an even more convenient tournament, since the set has been out for about a month. I feel confident in my ability to draft, solely because of Magic Online. Standard testing has also improved with digital access to cards. I could play against members of my team, analyze plays with team spectators, and adjust accordingly. I still think that testing at a house with the whole team present is more effective, but the online option is a nice alternative.
We have discovered a great deal about this format through our weekly conversations and daily testing. We all know Temur Energy is the best deck, but is it Caw-Blade good? It may not be as powerful, but its popularity will nearly reach it this weekend. I predict 30% of the field will be on Temur Energy, while another 15% will move into Sultai/Four-Color Energy. That leaves my prediction at 45% energy-based decks. I hope for the game's sake that I'm wrong, but the good news is control whips them all. They have tried to get cute, attempting to steal or clone our finishers or their Bristling Hydra, but it hasn't been enough.
While control is so great against half the field, the other half is deadly.
Ramunap Red, Mardu, B/R, and other aggressive decks give control players night terrors. U/W Approach's sideboard plan with lifegain central was a great strategy…until a creature was printed that negates it easily and on curve. U/R and Grixis have the same issue as before, leaving me to rely on the hero Multiform Wonder to save the day.
I think one brave control soul will dodge the red land mines in the tournament and breach the Top 8. The win conditions are powerful, and energy struggles mightily against each of the major control decks. They have no answer to an Approach of the Second Sun Game 1 and are forced to win two post-sideboard games. The Scarab God, backed by an onslaught of removal and card advantage, takes down Energy with ferocity. I am very confident that I can hop in the control captain's chair and defeat the powerful Temur Energy mages that I'll face this weekend.
Let's hope one of these two lists can propel a lucky control mage to the top of the standings.
I mentioned that I'm leaning toward Grixis, but I really like the U/W list. I tested U/W Approach with black, but it fell short. The mana was tough, Fatal Push was not timely in the matchups where it is desperately needed, and the third color didn't add much to the deck pre- or post-sideboard.
It turns out that the deck just needed more sweepers on its way up to seven mana. I played seven battlefield wipes and cut one for a third Opt. With six mass removal spells and a deck full of card draw, it hasn't been difficult to destroy all the creatures in consecutive turns. U/W Approach has an unfair feel to it when playing against decks without the means to stop the second casting. Energy decks have a strong sideboard plan against it, yet are helpless Game 1. That is enough to make any control mage jump onboard, but there is one thing holding me back.
Torrential Gearhulk and The Scarab God are on a different power level from the rest of the cards in Standard. Their mana costs balance that power hike, but it will not keep me away. Torrential Gearhulk turned Snapcaster Mage into a deadly threat that ends the game quickly. Snapcaster Mage is a most powerful card, but Torrential Gearhulk is a win condition.
I was hoping there would be a few more instants worth flashing back, but at least we were granted Vraska's Contempt and Settle the Wreckage. This card will continue to rise in power until it fades into Modern, where it'll still see play from time to time.
Meanwhile, The Scarab God is simply broken. It warps the game in nearly every matchup, and often prompts a concession when unanswered. That is the perfect sign of a control finisher, with the perfect mana cost.
There is a certain nostalgia I get from this Grixis Control deck that I is difficult to resist. Ultimately, my deck choice is coming down to a game-time decision. Do I sleeve up the expensive sorcery or utilize the most powerful creatures that Standard control decks have access to? All I know is that I'm happy to be back to my roots. I considered giving the final Pro Tour I qualified for another "best deck" shot, but that ship has sailed. There will be no regrets this weekend from this old veteran. I know how lucky I am to have an invite to battle the best at least one more time and I plan on giving them the icy grip of removal, counterspells, and a good old-fashioned slow control death.