The plan to prepare for Pro Tour Return to Ravnica was to meet at Tom Martell's house the week before Grand Prix San Jose and to test there until it was time to go to Seattle to play in the tournament. Unfortunately people's schedules prevented most of them from coming out that early so we had a steady stream of new arrivals as time went on.
By the end of the first weekend the group was Josh Ravitz Andrew Cuneo Tom Martell Owen Turtenwald Reid Duke Matt Sperling and me. Tom and Matt had to work during the day which meant there were five of us the first few days. I had articles and videos to write and record which meant the four of them spent the afternoon playing matches and I'd come by periodically to watch games and ask how things were going.
Before we met at the house we knew we were excited about Deathrite Shaman and were trying to figure out how best to build decks that could take advantage of him. This meant decks that would want a lot of fetchlands and could use the extra mana he could generate but that wouldn't rely on him staying in play. Ideally we'd want some powerful three-mana spells to cast on the second turn and we basically felt that the most powerful three-mana spell to play a turn early was Liliana of the Veil.
While the others tested Jund with Deathrite Shaman (particularly against Jund without Deathrite Shaman) I tried to build Deathrite Shaman decks with Lingering Souls and/or Mulldrifter because I liked how they scaled. If your Deathrite Shaman lived they were good things to spend a lot of mana on (5) and if it died you could play them for less mana (3) and still get a reasonable effect.
Ultimately I realized that these cards were too slow against unfair decks and were also both slightly weak to opposing Deathrite Shamans out of fair decks. (If I'm going to play Mulldrifter I probably want to be able to get it back from my graveyard.)
I moved on to Junk (B/G/W) Midrange modeled as closely as possible on Jund. My list was something like:
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 4 Deathrite Shaman
- 1 Kitchen Finks
- 3 Loxodon Smiter
- 2 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 1 Doran, the Siege Tower
Eventually I played the deck against Andrew Cuneo's Melira Pod and I didn't really know how to try to win a game. It felt completely hopeless. Then I decided that his deck was basically doing the same things better. It had access to all the same cards if it wanted them but it could win faster by getting its combo or could play a very strong fair game. My sideboard cards felt meaningless since he'd just play fair until he found an answer for them and then win on the spot.
Having concluded this I didn't do what most sane people would do. I didn't pick up his deck and start learning to play it. I figured it was already built I have a lot of faith in Andrew to build a deck well and I knew he'd played it a lot so I figured his list was probably good. So I went on to trying to build other things.
I did some work on U/W with or without Faeries but I largely agreed with Andrew's claim that U/W was just too weak game 1. You had to play too many cards that were only good in half of your matches and without enough library manipulation you'd lose if you just drew the wrong cards.
I asked my friend Eric Poweleit for his Second Sunrise Combo list—I knew he'd been working on it for a long time and had made Top 32 of GP Columbus with it.
I was mostly curious because I really had no idea how the deck worked. I proxied the deck goldfished a few games and went to sleep. The next morning I went back to goldfishing and then someone asked if I wanted to play a few games. I agreed but I still didn't know the deck well enough and had absolutely no idea how to play the deck against an opponent. I did several things wrong lost and concluded that I needed to play a few more draws by myself.
When I was ready I played a set against Jund and went about even but no one seemed remotely interested in the deck so I moved on to other things.
At this point Jon Finkel had arrived and he said he wanted to try Storm with Goblin Electromancers. People were hesitant but it only really took seeing Electomancer in play once to get on board. We didn't know if Storm was the best deck but that card certainly made it better.
I should note that this is the story of how my work went not so much how the team as a whole worked. At various points others were very interested in Jund Tron Affinity (all of which at least one of us actually played in the PT) Soul Sisters and other decks.
After the Grand Prix everyone (almost) was together. We rented a house which fit all of us much more comfortably than the air mattresses and couches people had been squeezing onto in Tom's house.
To clarify a short bio on who was there in no particular order:
Tom Martell: I'm closer to Tom than I am to most others on the team. I've worked with him a lot we played together (with Gaudenis) for Grand Prix San Jose and we often stay together at events. Work meant that he was in and out which made it a little harder for him to be involved in the full process.
Gaudenis Vidugiris: My best friend in Magic. We used to live together and travel everywhere together before he moved to New York City for work but we still travel together very often. He doesn't play or communicate quickly which can frustrate people testing against him but I know him well enough that we can talk easily. This makes discussing where we're at with a format easier and he's been very useful to bounce ideas off of.
Matt Costa: I hadn't worked with Matt before and I knew he wouldn't be available very early because he'd be busy with school but I've been extremely impressed every time I've watched him play or talked to him about Magic. I think he's far too talented for me to pass up an opportunity to work with him. After he arrived we tried building some decks together and while they didn't pan out I was very happy with the process.
William " Huey" Jensen: I'd briefly met Huey once before but we picked him up as soon as he was invited after his near miss in the Hall of Fame vote because he is friends with Jon and some of the others who'd been playing forever. Over the weeks I learned that he was nicknamed after a giant cartoon baby duck and I can definitely see how the name stuck. He's huge friendly goofy fun and extremely talented. He was a pleasure to have around and we're hoping he can find a way to play in Montreal to work with us again.
Jon Finkel: I'm pretty sure you know something about who Jon is. While working for events he's extremely modest. He knows that other people are likely to follow anything he says just because of who he is so he knows that he needs to be very careful about pushing an idea unless he's completely sure if it.
Jelger Wiegersma: Jelger is extremely laid back and put together. I don't think I've ever seen him get mad or get into an argument with anyone. He's fairly quiet and passive in testing but he's always up for a game and has reasonable input if asked about anything.
Owen Turtenwald: Owen and I don't have great history and we value extremely different things. I was surprised when Owen asked to work with us but he gets along well with other members of the team (especially Reid and Andrew). We knew he was a hard worker and solid player so we decided to give him a chance. He's not quiet and is relatively conservative in considering outside the box ideas but I like to have some of that to keep us focused on reality. He and Huey got along great and I think the two of them having so much fun helped keep the team's attitude positive.
Matt Sperling: Matt is another person whose sense a humor is very different from mine and he and Tom could get on each other's nerves likely because the see each other so much at work (Matt works for Tom). Like Tom it was difficult for Matt to be as involved in our Modern testing since most of that happened while they were at work and when they were available we'd often want to draft. Matt generally works closely with Rietzl and Nassif who were also working with us but weren't coming out to San Jose. He helped to keep us in touch with their ideas when most people who were there had so much input in person that they stopped paying attention to the mailing list. The three of them were mostly interested in Affinity which most of the rest of us were unlikely to play but it was important to keep sight of it. He also contributed some of the only written thoughts to the group about Return to Ravnica Limited after his experience crushing Grand Prix San Jose.
Andrew Cuneo: I can't really bring up a "different" sense of humor without going straight to Andrew. If you've ever watched his stream or seen him comment on another stream you might have some sense of his unique sense of humor. Left to his own devises most of the content he generates will be in jest and largely useless but when questioned about something in particular he almost never fails to have something insightful to say. He had the most experience of any of us with Modern and had a firm grasp on the format from the beginning. I also have nothing but respect for him when it comes to building the kind of decks he likes to play.
Dave Williams: Dave is a great guy who I'm always happy to have around. He's classy and mature and just loves Magic. Like a lot of us I think he was frustrated with Modern and wished we could just play Limited all the time. He only joined us at the end but I think he was open-minded and communicative as always.
Josh Ravitz: Josh has been friends with Jon forever so we knew Jon would want him to work with us as soon as he qualified. I didn't know Josh as well as others and I'd say I was a little concerned just because he often has a less cheerful disposition than others. But he was great about coming out early and putting in hours as well as taking care of a lot of logistical concerns and making everything go smoothly.
Reid Duke: Reid is pretty quiet which is good. He likes to work through his own ideas. Early in testing I've generally seen him focus his own thing but he's not attached to doing something different just to do it. Always mature and courteous he has a great attitude and great approach to the game.
It'll be really embarrassing if I missed anyone.
Paul Rietzl and Gabriel Nassif also worked with us but not in person in San Jose and Kai and Zvi also helped out on our mailing list even though they couldn't make it to the event.
Once we were all together I started trying to build more aggressive Deathrite Shaman decks rather than the midrange approach I'd been taking. I tried a Vampire deck that wanted to use Deathrite Shaman Grim Lavamancer Kalastria Highborn and Blood Artist for reach but it was just a little too slow and it was too hard to fill the graveyard. Next I tried another Grim Lavamancer / Deathrite Shaman deck with blue for Delver of Secrets and more spells to fuel my one-drops but the problem was that if my opponent wasn't playing a creature deck my one-drops were just too slow and low impact if I didn't draw a Delver of Secrets.
We set up a mock tournament with the decks we'd been working on and some other stock lists from Magic Online with disheartening results. For the most part all the decks we'd been working on did worse than all the random lists we grabbed. It was a small sample size but I think it may have caused some of us to panic as Dave and Sperling suddenly began a quest to find cards for Soul Sisters.
Jon was basically set on Storm pretty early which I knew would be a good choice for him. He knew the deck really well it was powerful and he felt best playing it. Huey Jelger Owen and Reid got on board pretty quickly but others were worried that it was just Jon's pet deck and that people were hopping on because it was Jon. Once some people were in it spiraled and they were afraid of groupthink.
Tom and I had played Storm in Grand Prix Lincoln to horrible results. We were afraid to pick the deck up again because we were afraid of hate. Jon and the others put a lot of work into figuring out the right sideboard for Storm. Jon started with a sideboard that was eleven to fifteen creatures and zero to four Lightning Bolts and slowly moved away from the creatures into less radically transformative options that still dodged graveyard hate and Leyline of Sanctity.
The day before the Pro Tour I still wanted to build something new and exciting. I knew there theoretically was still time; I just had to put together everything I'd learned and come to the right conclusion. My last effort was U/W Baneslayer Control. I felt like Baneslayer Angel was extremely well positioned against fair decks that lean heavily on Lightning Bolt and Abrupt Decay for removal and white's sideboard cards are excellent against unfair decks. I said I wanted to play it until I found a bad matchup and if I couldn't beat something important I'd move on. Scapeshift was the deck that broke that dream combined with a worse Jund matchup than I expected. I knew I couldn't fix both.
That left me to decide between Jund and Storm. I knew we had excellent lists of both but I had much less experience than I wanted with either. There are costs to my method of trying to build new decks all the time.
I played Jund at Worlds in Rome and went 0-6. The deck was fine but I didn't play it well. I know Jund is a straightforward deck but I didn't trust myself to just pick it up and be able to win mirrors. At the same time I wasn't comfortable with Storm. I talked to Jon to work through the things I wasn't sure about but I still had no experience with its sideboard and it can be hard when you're playing against an opponent who can interact to figure out when to try to do things.
I played Storm but didn't feel at all confident and I made some important mistakes. I played some games very well but some games very badly and that's just not enough. I did very badly at this Pro Tour beating only a single opponent but it was entirely my fault.
I wasn't in a good mental state for the event and I think that's because I knew I wasn't comfortable with my deck. I think I probably need to try to have a backup deck that I know is good that I'm building familiarity with while I'm trying new things in case they're not good enough.
As for Modern I think it's a frustrating format. It looks relatively diverse because there are a lot of decks but they're either extremely fragile unfair decks that can't beat a prepared opponent or they're fair decks. The problem with the fair decks is that they're all basically the same. With no real card draw or library manipulation every deck is forced to play an extremely similar curve and land ratio. You can basically choose whichever colors you want and play any of the "good cards" in those colors as long as you have a reasonable curve but all the cards are mostly the same thing as all the other cards of their casting costs and the disruptive elements are strong enough that you can't play cards that are based on loose synergies.
If you want to play a deck that's based on synergy rather than individually strong cards you're pushed into playing an unfair deck. If your synergistic deck isn't as explosive as other unfair decks it just won't be able to compete. Cards like Thoughtseize Abrupt Decay and Mana Leak stop you from reliably getting multiple cards in play that can play off each other and cards like Tarmogoyf and Dark Confidant are strong enough that they need to be dealt with by themselves which basically just makes them better than a card that only needs to be dealt with if it's working with something else. The unfair decks force you to be able to interact extremely early and put pressure on you to be able to win before decks like Tron or Scapeshift that have a very ultimate kind of inevitability can do their thing.
Basically I feel like the decks lack real identities and that the "good cards" have been played so much throughout history that it's all fairly bland.
During testing most people I talked to lamented the fact that the tournament wasn't Standard which looks much better right now. Modern needs a lot of work but I'm hoping Wizards will continue to look for something to do about it.
Thanks for reading.