Hi, I'm Eric Meng. I just finished 26th place at Pro Tour Dark Ascension in Honolulu, my first Pro Tour, then finished 7th at Grand Prix Baltimore, my first high-level Top 8.
As you may know, Organized Play at Wizards of the Coast very recently changed its invitation policy so that whereas previously, the Top 50 at each Pro Tour and the Top 16 at each Grand Prix were invited to the next Pro Tour, the cutoff is now at Top 25 at each Pro Tour and Top 4 at each Grand Prix. Needless to say, I've never felt so rewarded nor so frustrated for my efforts playing Magic.
I will share with you the story of how I went from looking in at the Pro Tour from the outside, as the vast majority of even competitive players do, to being just on the cusp of living the dream of chaining Pro Tours, to right now where I'm at some murky point in between. I've included an earlier point A when talking about how I got to point B then you might expect because I think personal histories provide important insight into the ever-changing confluence of factors that make up any given player or performance in this infinitely complex game. At some level, the remembrance of cookies in the kitchen wins and loses Magic tournaments, but I will spare you that level of recurrence.
Along the way, I'll share my insights on both Standard and Limited. (If you just want deck lists and recommendations for Standard without the rest, as I know I often have, you'll find them. Just scroll down.) I go to law school full-time at the University of Virginia, I had no team or pro player network going into either event, and spent no significant amount of time testing for either event. Still, I finished 6-4 in Standard and 5-1 in Draft at the Pro Tour and 13-2-1 at the Grand Prix, with an additional loss in the Top 8.
More importantly, I will discuss the mental changes I have gone through from hopeless scrub, to grinder, to my first Top 8. I didn't get there overnight. I've tried to play competitive Magic for years, grinding Pro Tour Qualifiers fruitlessly year after year with no apparent success. A lot of things came together recently for me that let me jump to the next level in Magic. Hopefully reading about my path can help you make some progress down yours, as well, wherever you are.
The Long First Steps of My Journey
My years of trying to get to the Pro Tour are best described, as many journeys are, by the people who helped me along the way. It's always been a challenge for me to find people in the area who have had the same goals for competitive Magic as I have, but the mentors, partners, and friends that I have been fortunate to learn from have been invaluable.
I'll spare you the full story of kitchen table Magic, played without judges or prizes, in high school. (By the way, how cool is it that my good friend Robert Shaw from high school is considering playing in his first PTQ now? It's so awesome that friends of mine are getting re-energized to play more Magic and may be the best consequence of the last few weeks.)
The first embers of the actual Fire were kindled in me, as seems increasingly common these days, on Magic Online. In the summer of 2005, I saw a storefront window in Berkeley advertising the 9th Edition release, and I played in a few drafts sanctioned and otherwise while I was there that summer.
Unfortunately, when I flew back to school on the East Coast at Princeton University in the fall, I had no idea how to find other people to play with. None of my college friends at the time played Magic, and I didn't have a car to drive to tournaments.
But Magic Online was there, unforgiving as it is to players who are both new and weak. I lost a lot of packs, but I was able to play real tournament magic with perfectly enforced rules against strong opponents. I learned a lot by bouncing ideas off of friends on Magic Online, especially Ben Bentrup and also James Xie a bit early on.
I played a lot, and I got better. But my progress was slow. I was only able to win consistently when the metagame favored a certain kind of aggressive deck, such as when I was able to prey on black/white decks with Boros after the first Pro Tour Honolulu (incidentally the first big tournament I followed from start to finish which ignited The Dream as something concrete to me). I still prized and envied Magic Online Premier Event Top 8s as goals unto themselves. Although I had fun and continued to learn, in the big picture of things, I was still going nowhere fast.
I was saved from the Sisyphean fate of grinding Magic Online for eternity by Simon Cooper's drafts at Princeton University (I must also take this opportunity to chide Organized Play for disallowing the sanctioning of non-store events. This policy does nothing but try to destroy communities such as the one Simon created at Princeton where students without cars had no way of going to stores to play.). The Planeswalker Points database shows that I played my first Princeton University Frist Center cafeteria draft in the fall of 2007, where lost my first match to Lawrence Watts who was rated somewhere in the Top 100 in Limited in the world at the time. In the next few years, Lawrence, along with Simon, Andrew Chen, and Jeff Folinus, chiefly, along with others such as Sean McKeown, taught me the fundamentals of competitive Magic through discussion and collaboration. I started to go to real-life Pro Tour Qualifiers and other tournaments in the New Jersey area, when transportation by train or other people's cars was feasible. I began to field real decks, with cards mostly borrowed from Simon.
With the help of Simon and others, I began finally surmounting the obstacles of card availability issues and not knowing anyone.
I eventually made Top 8 my first Pro Tour Qualifier in Boston, which featured Matt Costa, Jason Ford, and others who have found tournament success recently.
My progress from there was gradual. I was in law school, and the first year is busy. Even worse, almost no one in Charlottesville played competitive Magic, which was truer then than it is now. I played almost no Magic for a year.
But then something happened in the winter of 2010-2011. Three more Top 8s on both Magic Online and in real life, and I had piloted Faeries to the finals of a Pro Tour Qualifier for Pro Tour Nagoya at Dream Wizards in Maryland. I lost. Meanwhile, Andrew and Jeff were able to qualify. In the very last Pro Tour Qualifier of the season, on day 2 of Grand Prix Dallas/Fort-Worth, I found myself again in the situation of winning game 1 of the finals vs. Gabe Carleton-Barnes, a known name and thus somewhat intimidating, playing the mirror. I lost the next two games.
I should mention that up to this point, I did not think I would do well in the Pro Tour even if I managed to qualify. After all, the Pro Tour would feature Limited too, and I was terrible at Limited, right?
Then I had a very poor schedule for playing competitive Magic last fall. I was only able to make one Pro Tour Qualifier at the StarCityGames.com Center in Roanoke, which I thought would feature at the very least strong players who were StarCityGames.com employees, and it would be Limited. But somehow, despite rare-drafting in the Top 8 draft (actually I do like taking mana fixers and weird rares very highly in draft, for different reasons), I was able to beat Josh Cho in the finals and qualify.
The room was oddly quiet. No one had expected me to grab the envelope. I sort of hadn't, either.
Preparing for My First Pro Tour
I had finally qualified. But none of my friends were qualified for Honolulu, and I knew almost no one who would be there. I had been playing less Magic Online as of late then I had before, and worst of all, the Pro Tour would be the first eponymous Pro Tour in format as well as name. Neither the Draft format nor Standard would be out on Magic Online until after the Pro Tour.
In other words, I looked like the typical fish, the typical lucky scrub who would talk about how he was just happy to have been there to experience Honolulu. People talked to me about how I should enjoy Honolulu. I hadn't been there, and it was the type of place I like.
But I made no plans for touring the island. I didn't make a holiday of it. I didn't stay any extra days; I couldn't because of school. But also, I didn't think of the Pro Tour invitation as a vacation with some expenses paid, though it's that as well. I wanted to win.
I had a crucial conversation with my friend Sebastian Park. He knows something about accomplishing the necessary, having earlier finished 8-1 on day 1 of Grand Prix: Washington DC with a red deck. The most striking thing about that was not that he did it after losing the first round, but that he considered the tournament a failure at the time and considered to do so afterwards despite it being (I think) his first Grand Prix day 2.
I asked Sebastian what he might advise me to do for this tournament. He doesn't play a lot of Magic these days, so he wasn't able to say much about Constructed or Limited. But Sebastian told me to think clearly about tournament expectations. He did not give me any claptrap about only first place being success with the rest being failure. Rather, he said to be mindful of what the real goal of any competition was and not to be satisfied with lesser rewards, but also not to unrealistically seek the highest reward every time. For me, Top 25 would be the real goal for the tournament, and the preparations I could do, being asymmetric to the resources and preparations that pro teams could muster, had to keep that goal in mind. I had to utilize the advantages that I did have, such as they were and are, to gain any advantage I could over my seemingly stronger opponents.
This was only part of the battle. The other half was the advice given to me by Lawrence, who simply told me that I was better than I thought I was and that the vast majority of players on the Pro Tour were worse than I thought they were.
These two conversations and thoughts floated in my brain as the months and weeks passed and I still was not able to prepare much for the Pro Tour. But I didn't feel dead in the water. I was determined to not be just happy to be there. I did what preparation I could while still dealing with my responsibilities in school and my personal life. I kept up on Standard and Draft pre-Dark Ascension. I followed Dark Ascension spoilers and the few parts of the Hive Mind that were public information due to the Internet.
I still had no pro team and did not work with any other Pro Tour competitors on either Limited or Constructed. But I utilized the resources that I had and others did not. I attended both local Prereleases so that even though I was not able to play any Draft at the Prereleases, I was able to begin to understand card interactions. I attended both days of the StarCityGames.com Open in Richmond on Release Event weekend, playing in the Standard Open (with Five-Color Control, a poor deck choice) and then both Draft Opens, as well as doing one side draft. I played in a Friday Night Magic tournament. I also did one of the great Thursday night drafts in Charlottesville run by Jeremy Dunn, the best teacher of Magic I've ever met.
I didn't do well in any of the above tournaments, but I kept in mind the crucial advice I had read in a strategy article (I forget which one) to stay mindful of the purpose of every match of magic. I knew that my purpose was to learn for the Pro Tour, not to win these tournaments. As Sebastian had discussed with me, I could not be satisfied with small prizes to the detriment of the possibility of me winning the prizes that actually mattered.
In the end, my material preparations, listed out numerically, were not strong. I had done a total of four drafts, none of which I had won, and played one FNM and a StarCityGames.com Standard Open, both of which I did poorly at. In addition, I played maybe ten matches on Cockatrice, five against randoms and five with Lawrence.
But I was where I needed to be: I had real tournament experience in both formats. It was serendipitous, I know, that I had the advantage of the StarCityGames.com Open in Richmond effectively in my backyard, but that was one of the few advantages I had. I didn't have to care about not attending due to giving away team tech, as I had no team and I had no tech. I leveraged this. I watched matches and thought about how the format worked out. While I was waiting in between rounds at a Draft Open, Forrest Mead, who I had first met in the finals of a Grand Prix Trial for Grand Prix Shanghai (where we both worked that summer), suggested that Zombies would be a good deck for me to play at the Pro Tour. At that point I thought a red and green aggressive deck would be stronger, but just to be sure, I bought some Gravecrawler and Geralf's Messenger at the site.
After my failure with Five-Color Control, I ruled out played a control deck immediately. I thought about the dumb aggro starts I couldn't deal with, even against opponents who seemed worse than I was, and decided that I wanted to do that as well. I worked on red and green decks with Birds of Paradise, Sword of War and Peace, Chandra's Phoenix, Strangleroot Geist, and Hellrider, as well as red and black decks with Stromkirk Noble, Gravecrawler, Diregraf Ghoul, Chandra's Phoenix, and Bump in the Night. By working on, I don't mean testing, but simply brewing up lists on Google Documents with Lawrence and with some very limited input from Andrew.
Two days before the Pro Tour, I was able to get some games on Cockatrice in with Lawrence, and with some help with Reejery on Cockatrice, we ended up with the list that I played at the Pro Tour which eschewed Bump in the Night and Chandra's Phoenix for a curve of Gravecrawler and Diregraf Ghoul into Porcelain Legionnaire and Stormblood Berserker. I hadn't forgotten the decks from the first Pro Tour Honolulu in 2006 which captivated my imagination and introduced the idea of The Dream to me. I found once more Craig Jones's Zoo list and Mark Herberholz's Gruul list from that event using StarCityGames.com's deck archive, and the curve, creature power to casting cost ratio, and burn in those decks seemed similar to what I planned to play (with the burn in my deck being significantly weaker than what Jones and Herberholz had access to in 2006).
At the first Pro Tour Qualifier where I made Top 8, I had brought two decks so that I could switch decks on the morning of if I had misgivings. Despite my disadvantages coming into Pro Tour Dark Ascension, I had no misgivings. I brought only the one deck and made no changes after the grueling flight with multiple connections into Honolulu.
I submitted the following Standard deck:
- 3 Porcelain Legionnaire
- 4 Diregraf Ghoul
- 2 Falkenrath Aristocrat
- 2 Fume Spitter
- 4 Geralf's Messenger
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 4 Stormblood Berserker
I arrived fairly late on Thursday night, and I had no one to invite me into the many drafts being run in the convention hall that night. Haitao Jia, who I knew from playing in Shanghai and who was judging at his first Pro Tour, said that the mainland China players needed an 8th to draft with, but by the time I got to their table they had already long started. Eventually, I played a 3v3 team draft (the first I had ever done in my life) with some local players. I of course went 0-3, but I didn't feel bad. Small wins weren't what I was in Honolulu to earn.
Battling at the Pro Tour
I then drafted (approximately: my cards got jumbled and I didn't take notes at the Pro Tour) the following deck:
2 Hollowhenge Spirit
1 Victim of Night
1 Undying Evil
1 Unruly Mob
1 Loyal Cathar
1 Typhoid Rats
1 Stromkirk Patrol
1 Smite the Monstrous
1 Blazing Torch
2 Falkenrath Torturer
1 Black Cat
1 Gruesome Discovery
1 Thraben Purebloods
2 Village Cannibals
1 Slayer of the Wicked
1 Bonds of Faith
1 Highborn Ghoul
1 Manor Skeleton
1 Vault of the Archangel
1 Spare from Evil
1 Curse of Oblivion
1 Curse of Exhaustion
1 Ghost Quarter
1 Favor the Woods
1 Hysterical Blindness
1 Curse of the Pierced Heart
1 Riot Devils
1 Graveyard Shovel
1 Unbreathing Horde
1 Pitchburn Devils
1 Hanweir Watchkeep
1 Harvest Pyre
1 Skeletal Grimace
1 Clinging Mists
1 Ray of Revelation
Pack 3 was quite frightening, as there were some packs I saw not too late in which I didn't see any white or black cards at all. But my deck was synergistic enough to beat what seemed like pretty underpowered decks in the hands of my opponents, and I ended day 1 at 7-1.
On day 2, I had Lucas Blohon and Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa in my pod, and I drafted (roughly) the following deck:
1 Reap the Seagraf
1 Diregraf Ghoul
1 Makeshift Mauler
1 Walking Corpse
1 Typhoid Rats
1 Endless Ranks of the Dead
1 Geist of Saint Traft
1 Feeling of Dread
1 Undying Evil
1 Spectral Flight
1 Rotting Fensnake
1 Morkrut Banshee
1 Brain Weevil
1 Blazing Torch
1 Saving Grasp
2 Diregraf Captain
1 Slayer of the Wicked
2 Armored Skaab
1 Snapcaster Mage
1 Skirsdag Flayer
1 Death's Caress
2 Evolving Wilds
1 Stitcher's Apprentice
1 Manor Skeleton
1 Gather the Townsfolk
1 Curse of Thirst
1 Tracker's Instincts
1 Hysterical Blindness
1 Clifftop Retreat
1 Graveyard Shovel
1 Ghostly Possession
1 Forbidden Alchemy
1 Falkenrath Torturer
1 Curse of Oblivion
1 Hysterical Blindness
1 Gruesome Discovery
1 Dearly Departed
1 Skeletal Grimace
I didn't do much early on in pack 1 except take fixing very early, but I was given a consecutive pair of Diregraf Captains late and I went into U/B except for dipping back into white for some power in later packs. If I recall correctly, I first picked Geist of Saint Traft in pack 2, and first picked Spectral Flight in pack 3. I lost to Lucas Blohon in the first draft round, then beat my other two opponents in some tough games. The free-win cards did their share to steal some games.
As the Standard rounds resumed, I lost to Samuel Estratti playing U/W Delver (as people have finally figured out, he's really, really good), then beat Andrew Cuneo playing Five-Color Control. His deck was very, very similar to what I played at the StarCityGames.com Open in Richmond. Here was a clear instance where the asymmetric preparation I was able to do paid off, both in my decision to not run Five-Color Control and my knowledge of what it took to overcome its defenses. In the case of our match, I knew that resolving Sword of War and Peace could overwhelm any of his defenses, even Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, as I lost matches that way at the StarCityGames.com Open. All that happened in my game 3 against Cuneo.
I then lost a gripping three games against Matt Costa playing U/W Delver, which he wrote about in his tournament report here. I was out of Top 8 contention after that, then lost another match to Todd Anderson without any time to think about what was happening.
I finally took a minute to breathe. I went to Blazin' Steaks and had a decent meal. (By the way, the steaks there are NOT six dollars, as some would have you believe. It is six dollars to add steak to any plate. Maybe they've had a price increase recently?) Lawrence and Sebastian texted me and told me to keep my head in it, that Top 25, my original goal, was still in it for me if I won out.
I beat my last round opponent, who was playing Jund Ramp and got overwhelmed in game 1 and mana screwed in game 2. I felt happy that I got to play one last round of Magic with my deck, which I liked.
Then, out of the blue, came the standings. Of course they had to slow-roll them from 25th up and say, From the USA," before each appropriate name. This was doubly painful due to Americans being at 25th, 24th, and 23rd. By the time they got to Gerry Thompson and others who drew in, I knew the die had been cast.
I had to get away from the tournament center.
Random lyrics from Tha Gatherin' popped up and swirled around in my head. I had to get away from the tournament center.
I regained my breath and spent the Sunday taking in the wonderful vibe and food in Hawaii and getting some swimming and hiking in. I didn't think much about Magic, but I certainly did a lot on the flight back to school in Charlottesville. I even entertained notions of blowing $1,000 on a flight to Lincoln or Omaha.
But then I caught a really bad cold. I wasn't even sure I could go to Baltimore anymore.
That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore
I got well in time and prepared both Zombies (with Skirsdag High Priest of course—that technology was the one thing I really regret missing for the Pro Tour) and a tweaked Esper Spirits list to battle with at the Grand Prix. They both seemed like decent choices. One was a deck I knew how to play and had high-level tournament experience with, and the other had best deck characteristics (that is to say, it is like Faeries, Caw-Blade, and others in being a flexible aggro-control deck that rarely just loses).
But two days before the Grand Prix, I had a very, very strong feeling in my gut that I should play Frites, the reanimator deck that Raphael Levy and other French players invented and played at the Pro Tour.
In Magic as in life, sometimes the subconscious decisions are superior to the apparent and rational ones. The mind processes information in strange ways, and Magic and life are so complex such that I think conscious decisions can often not process all the relevant information. But the human brain and instincts are stronger than we might think sometimes and can.
So I followed my gut. I bought the rest of Frites (it actually wasn't that much after buying cards for potential Pro Tour decks two weeks earlier—for the first time in my life, I didn't have card availability issues for Standard—an awesome feeling!). I was only able to play three games with Eli Yannopoulos in Charlottesville, but that was better than nothing.
I found a finish by Sam Pardee, Smdster on Magic Online, which had two Sword of Feast and Famine, one Sword of War and Peace, and one Sword of Body and Mind in the sideboard, which seemed to fit into my theory of how strong the Birds of Paradise into Sword plan is in Standard. I suggested to him that the Swords all be Sword of War and Peace, just due to power level, and he immediately agreed. He convinced me that the third and fourth Inferno Titans were better than Raphael Levy's maindeck Wurmcoil Engines and I agreed.
Still, I didn't have the deck on Magic Online, and I didn't get any playing in.
Luckily, I bumped into Jeff Folinus at a burrito place near the Baltimore Convention Center on Friday evening. Due to the rain and traffic, we both arrived too late to play in any last-minute Trials to gain three byes. It was late and we both like to sleep early. So we played maybe five or so games, my Frites (and also Zombies) against his Esper Spirits. These games were very, very educational. Jeff suggested that I replace the two Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur with two more Thruns and since I trust him, I did.
On Saturday morning, I submitted the following:
I joked with Eli while waiting for the tournament to begin that I would inevitably place fifth here, as I had made virtual Top 8 of a Magic Online PTQ that week in addition to my 26th place finish at the Pro Tour. The idea of being a perpetual Pro Tour Avacyn Restored bridesmaid was too funny to not laugh about…
Despite having my own hotel room, which normally allows me to sleep very well, I couldn't get much sleep at all the night prior to day 1, and I played horribly. But the deck bailed me out again and again, and I squeaked into day 2 on 7-1-1, losing and drawing to U/B Control, but beating everything else, which included not only aggro decks of various stripes from U/W Humans to Mono-Black Infect but also Esper Control decks and many Ramp decks.
On Saturday night, I went to bed immediately after leaving the tournament and calling my girlfriend, and I was luckily able to fall asleep quickly. I awoke feeling rested. I was in the same state of being not only mental and physical well rested but also awareness of the fact that I had felt the same way on day 1 of the Pro Tour.
I continued my strict logistical body maintenance that I had fortunately managed to carry out on day 1 of the Grand Prix as well. Despite most bathrooms at the site being incomprehensibly locked (in addition to many other poor aspects of how Grand Prix Baltimore was run), I made sure to drink a Nalgene's worth of water after the end of every round and expel it from my body near the beginning of the next round. I made sure to eat only when I had time to digest it when not playing. After all, I had recently heard on National Public Radio or read in the New York Times that mental performance is negatively influenced both by improper hydration and by the after-meal coma effect.
A lot of my mental energy in between rounds was spent on this kind of thing and I think that was good, and I plan to do that again in the future. Magic is a game of inches, not miles, and every advantage in mental acuity, no matter how small, can be devastating especially when playing with or against a complex deck (definitely the case when playing Frites against U/B Control). Secondly, thinking about these little things, even if trivial, prevents the mind from inevitably being trapped on fixations about standings or prizes that happens to many middling competitive players (myself included) often and creates negative mental feedback loops. I avoided that almost entirely at this Grand Prix.
By the end of day 2, I had played against U/B Control five times going 2-2-1 in all. I think that with highly skilled pilots on both sides of the matchup, it was about 50/50 as the metagame existed at the Grand Prix. It's certainly not a bye for U/B Control as some say (both my losses were extremely close—I mulliganed to oblivion in game 3 against Brad Nelson with four consecutive no-land hands, and I was one red mana short of being able to pump Inferno Titan for the win against Charles Gindy in my game 3 against him before being milled to death by triple Nephalia Drownyard). But it will get worse now, as the Sword of War and Peace plan will no longer take informed U/B Control opponents by surprise as I did to some.
At round 16, I was in and win (probably), and I won my first feature match in my life. It was a fake feature match, with no coverage on the website, but it was still yet another first. I found out I was paired against Matt Costa, and I felt happy. Though he was a tough player, I would much rather face U/W Delver than U/B control, although I would much rather play against one of the aggro decks in the Top 8.
When I saw Matt's decklist during the Top 8 decklist review before the quarterfinals, I was even happier. He had only one Surgical Extraction for sideboard hate. The matchup is not easy, but it seemed very winnable to me.
But Matt is a very good player, and his deck is the most lethal weapon in this format. I took game 1 with a good Faithless Looting the turn before I was dead to Invisible Stalker with Runechanter's Pike. But I lost games 2 and 3 when Matt realized what battles he needed to fight, planned ahead well, and I also had some Mulches and Faithless Lootings that were comically below expectation whiffing time and time again.
More importantly, I made a bad block in game 3. I should've triple blocked his Geist of Saint Traft with both Llanowar Elves and my two Spirit Tokens. In reality, I think Matt bluffed not having a second removal spell when he let his turn 1 blind-flipped Delver of Secrets die to the second pair of Spirits that blocked it (he killed half of the first pair to block it with the Dismember that he revealed off of his blind flip). I was hypnotized by the bluff and did not make the appropriate risk-reward calculation in not guaranteeing (unless he had double removal, which was extremely possible—he did another Vapor Snag not much later, so maybe I was just dead no matter what). But I lost an inch and the match, as I could not hard-cast my Elesh Norn in hand due to both lack of a second white source (my conscious decision before the tournament to keep the Mountain instead of adding a second Plains hurt here though it helped elsewhere in the tournament) and Matt's probable Mana Leak or Dissipate in hand.
Matt just had my number, as he did in Honolulu. I was glad (and not at all surprised) to hear that he won the tournament. His choosing to play the same deck he did in Hawaii was a strong conscious choice, and he was rewarded for continuing to play the deck better than anyone else in the room.
So once again I was one match short of where I wanted to be with some cash on the way in the mail (did you know that it takes 6 weeks to get these prize checks?), but without the metaphorical (sadly not literal) blue envelope to Barcelona.
Thoughts on Standard Going Forward
Despite the popularity of U/B Control among players in the know for Grand Prix Baltimore, I still think that you want to be proactively aggressive in this format. I've never liked playing, in this modern age of strong and diverse aggressive threats, the style of deck that U/B Control is (the only time I ever played that style of deck was in Core Set Constructed on Magic Online). To me, it feels like Faeries without any of the good cards, only the filler. Every win is hard. The deck is threatened hard if any one of a series of individually strong cards resolves such as Chandra's Phoenix, Strangleroot Geist, Geralf's Messenger, and others.
I had thought about lateralling to R/G with Birds of Paradise, Sword of War and Peace, and Hellrider the night before the tournament, and I was not surprised at all to see Jackie Lee make the Top 8 with her take on the deck which she also did well with at the Pro Tour. That is a strong choice going forward, as is B/U or B/R Zombies and U/W Humans. One must be mindful though of what the players one wants to beat are aiming at. If they aim at Zombies, then R/G Aggro and U/W Humans are better, and the reverse is true. There are just too many styles of aggro decks for me to want to play a do-nothing control deck.
The build of Frites that I played at Grand Prix Baltimore is also an ok choice going forward. It is a real archetype and will continue to find success if opponents do not have a clear game plan against it. I think that there's a good sideboard plan against U/B Control yet to be discovered. Burning Vengeance is probably not it, although resolving an enchantment that costs three using an Avacyn's Pilgrim or Birds of Paradise against U/B Control when they cannot counter it is very threatening to U/B Control.
As for sideboarding advice, I will give the usual frustrating answer that you shouldn't stick to strict sideboarding plans for each matchup. I certainly didn't prepare any formal “sideboard this in against this matchup, sideboard this out against this matchup” plans before either the Pro Tour or the Grand Prix. Instead, in preparing each sideboard, I thought about what kind of equity I would need against every style of deck. When actually in the tournament, I thought “backward to forwards” (as Chapin says in Next Level Magic) and thought about what tools in my sideboard would be necessary for a winning game state against opposing decks.
I will say that it would be inappropriate to simply run with the sideboards I did, rather than holistically looking at the field one wishes to beat. I built Zombies for Week One of the format and adapted Levy's deck for (what effectively was) Week Two. I can say that Skirsdag High Priest is a necessity at least in the 75 of the Zombies deck, and Wurmcoil Engine was an underperformer in the Frites sideboard, even with only 2 copies in the sideboard.
One powerful aggressive strategy that I thought about but haven't had the chance to play at a public event is a deck utilizing the synergy between Goblin Grenade and Increasing Vengeance. The ability to 10 an opponent out of nowhere, and threaten to 15 them with a single topdeck in the late game, should not be underestimated. It's unfortunate that the actual Goblins in Standard right now are laughable, since we have a block without any Goblins.
Thoughts on Limited Going Forward
As Steve Sadin and I talked about when waiting before our on-air interview on Ggslive, I think that a new rubric or theory is needed to discuss the nature of threats as related to answers in Limited formats now. If a threat is answered but dominates the first few turns of the game, as my Diregraf Ghoul with Spectral Flight on it did in my last draft round, it has generated something akin to, but powerful in different ways than, card advantage.
That something might be called momentum or initiative, but much work remains to be done in understanding it. That said you should try to gain it whether in Draft or Sealed. This means giving your deck free wins when you can through deck construction or draft picks, as well as through in-game decisions that take you down a decision tree that can lead to wins that your opponent cannot interact with. It also means chasing powerful and synergistic archetypes in draft, especially those are undervalued. A way to put yourself into position to do this might be, as I did at both the Pro Tour Qualifier I won and at my two drafts at the Pro Tour, to be open-minded for the first few picks. A synergistic deck is worth having to fill your last slots with weaker cards, as I did.
One thing to know is that you should utilize sideboard cards aggressively. I got what I consider very strong sideboard cards such as Ray of Revelation and Curse of Oblivion very late at the Pro Tour drafts. As cards like that can be better than some “always maindeckable” cards in the right matchup, I think that most people underrate them by far.
It is also important to play differently against different decks. Just as you wouldn't always just run your Dragon out on turn 6 against a blue deck in Core Set Limited (especially in Sealed, as the very reason that people play blue is likely to be because of Mind Control) due to the high risk of having your bomb Mind Controlled and losing the game on the spot, you shouldn't trade with blue decks on turn 2 in Innistrad Block Limited, especially if you have no answer in hand to Stitched Drake.
There and Back Again
Instead of satisfying my ambitions, the last two tournaments have only made them stronger. There is just so much I have yet to accomplish and so much more I am capable of, especially in the long run. For instance, as I have learned more and more about how Magic is both a mental and a physical sport, I can see that improving my physical fitness would aid my Magic play immensely.
I actually have played far less Magic outside of tournaments in the past few weeks than I usually had played. I think there is something to that. As Simon-drafter and Grand Prix Champion Zohar Bhagat said to me, the best he and his friends ever did on the Pro Tour was when they tested the least by far in the time preceding the Pro Tour.
In my mind now, I think I now understand why that might be. Magic is all about The Fire. If you have it, no obstacle from school to personal problems to lack of resources or network, is too great to surmount. If you do not have it, any obstacle no matter how small, becomes an insurmountable obstacle to you taking any step. Small wins sometimes quench The Fire and are dangerous for that reason. This is not to say that one should not play Magic outside of the Pro Tour, but that one must always be mindful whether The Fire is still there or not. If it isn't, and your stated goal is winning at competitive Magic (and it's entirely fine if that's not your goal—in some ways that is a much happier hobby), you should reconsider how you're spending your time.
I know that I still have The Fire. I've always had it, ever from the first time the idea of The Dream entered my mind. But the next steps have never been as clear as they are now.
There is the short run obstacle of course. As of the writing of this article, I'm still not invited to Pro Tour Avacyn Restored in Barcelona this May. I will get there, whether by winning a Pro Tour Qualifier, making the semifinals of a Grand Prix, or getting fifteen more Pro Points this season. Although I am busy with unavoidable commitments in school and my personal life, I won't let that stop me. See you at the next day 2!
P.S. I can't forget to thank Eli Yannopoulos, John Powell, Paul Andrews, and Case Johnson, in addition to those already mentioned, and others for their enthusiastic support in the past few weeks, as well as Bill Boulden and Patrick Chapin for their fantastic album, Tha Gatherin', which I listened to, in Kibler-like fashion, the mornings before the Pro Tour began (I think I'm finally beginning to understand “The Storm”). And of course I would be much worse off without the love and unconditional support of Summer, my girlfriend. It makes a big difference!
@ericmengMTG on Twitter