Flow of Ideas - (More) Stories of A PTQ Grinder
We're about to wake from our wintery, Sealed hibernation and descend upon the lush fields of Extended. The landscape has changed since our last visit, and there is much to explore. But before we leave our cozy, warm caves for the unknown, won't you stay for one more round of storytelling?
If you're in a rush to find Extended tech, I implore you to return next week when I have an Extended article you won't want to miss. But if you can have a moment before heading out to the jungle, then stay. Take a seat around the fire. Think of the past stories, and then prepare for a wave of new ones.
GP Dallas 2007 was on the horizon. The format? Invasion-forward Extended. Planar Chaos had just been released and became legal to play the weekend of the Grand Prix. There were a ton of decks you could play, but some of the major decks of the time were Destructive Flow, U/W ‘Tron, Domain Zoo, Aggro Loam, Boros, Psychatog, Goblins, Affinity, Gifts Ungiven, and Friggorid. The very first Counterbalance / Sensei's Divining Top decks were also beginning to take shape after some results on Magic Online, and GP Dallas would begin to etch that archetype into the annals of the metagame.
Our story, however, takes place a week before.
Wizards had recently changed the rules about Pro Points accumulated at Grand Prix, so that only Pro Tours would remove your amateur status for MSS (formerly the Junior Super Series; that year, the Magic Scholarship Series) tournaments. Up until then, I'd been extraordinarily successful in the MSS circuit and hadn't wanted to risk picking up a Pro Point and losing my eligibility.
Now that the rule had been removed, I was ready to hit up Grand Prix close to me. Dallas was on the list.
I'd been working on Aggro Loam and had a version I knew how to play inside and out. I felt pretty confident in my deck after playtesting for hours each day and had a teched out sideboard, but, without the funds to build it on Magic Online, I wanted some actual tournament experience with it. Playtest games can only show you so much.
I was in Phoenix at the time, and there was a PTQ coming up, so I diligently traded and bought cards to build my deck up. I was extraordinarily worried about finding the Terravores I needed and almost didn't play because I couldn't find them. However, at the last minute, Doug Coats yelled across the room for me, found some fellows with a pair of Terravores, and I was set.
This was my decklist:
It was your traditional Aggro-Loam decklist, except I could transform into a Destructive Flow deck in the second game. The other piece of technology I had was Last Rites in my sideboard. After scrounging for solutions, one-time JSS superstar Pranay Mohan brought it to my attention. Our TEPS and Heartbeat matchup wasn't great, but if you just wished for Last Rites and resolved it, you couldn't lose.
I shipped the list to Max McCall back in Seattle, and we both played it in our respective PTQs. He went 6-2, and to this day, I still have the voicemail saved in my inbox of him calling me and recommending changes to the deck, complaining about he shouldn't have gone 6-2, and letting me know how dumb everybody else was. The usual.
What happened to me?
I picked up a loss in round two to Pyrostatic Pillar out of Boros. I won a few legitimate matches… and then some crazy events began to unfold.
In round 6, I got paired against Rashad Miller. I had no idea who he was at the time; all I could tell was that he was a suave out-of-towner. He had a mystique about him because he was chatting with other out-of-towners each round. His great play skill and smooth voice was only heightened in my mind because he was playing Heartbeat Combo, a deck reserved only for people who knew what they were doing.
In game one, he handily beat me. In game two, I used Last Rites to strip his hand. In game three, he went off. He Mind's Desired for four and then cast a bunch of free spells, Fact or Fictioned, Mind's Desired for seven or eight… And whiffed entirely. I untapped, ripped the card I needed, and killed him.
It was statistically improbable. I don't know what the odds were, but I wouldn't be surprised if they were one in a million.
In round seven, playing for Top 8, I was paired against U/W ‘Tron. He showed me he had Spell Snare in his deck on turn 1 of game one by countering a Dark Confidant, and then in both games I went all-in on Devastating Dreams multiple times to take the match. After the match, my opponent was incredulous that I had gone in against him when I would instantly lose if he had a Snare.
My response? “Oh yeah, whoops. I forgot you had that card in your deck.”
That didn't help matters.
Before I could take everything in, I had locked up a Top 8 slot.
In the quarterfinals, I played against a guy with an R/G Blood Moon deck and managed to draw my way into basics despite him quickly locking me under a Moon.
In the semifinals I believe I played against Affinity; he had poor draws, and I found my two Ancient Grudges at just the right times.
After all of that, I was in the finals. I was one match away from qualifying for my first Pro Tour.
The problem? I didn't want to go to the Pro Tour.
If I won the invite and attended the Pro Tour, I'd lose my MMS eligibility. I still had two years left, and, at the rate I'd been winning at, that was probably worth at least $3,000 in scholarship money.
I'd known what I had to do for the entire event. I sat down and told my opponent he could ship me his box for the win. It was the offer of a lifetime: for a single box, he could go to the Pro Tour.
“I'm not going to go to the Pro Tour either.”
It was a complete farce. We were in the finals of a PTQ… and neither of us cared about winning the slot! We discussed options for a little while, and eventually he told me that there was a chance maybe he would go, but he needed the packs at least to honor a prize split with his friend. He was playing the “brand-new” Countertop deck, and to this day, I wonder if he just refused the split because the matchup was incredibly in his favor.
In any case, he wasn't going to budge, and I wasn't going to concede for only one of the two boxes. So there was only one thing to do: slay him.
He quickly took the first game. In games two and three, he mulliganed to five and four. I stripped his hand and won the match.
I went home with my empty victory and a box of cards. That night, my mother planted a seed: she told me I should consider going to the Pro Tour. Now keep in mind this is my mother, the person who would have to help cover the college tuition the MSS wasn't paying for. Her seed was planted, and I began to ask around.
For those playing alone, here's what I had to weigh. If I went to the Pro Tour, I would lose two years of MSS. I'd been making around $1,500 to $2,000 a year (scholarship) off the MSS. However, obviously going to the Pro Tour has its perks as well. To top it all off, I had wanted to go to Japan my entire life. At 16 years old, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to go to Japan for free. That experience is certainly worth something.
What would you do in this situation?
Let me know what your answer is in the forums.
After weeks of debate and (ironically) doing horribly at GP Dallas, I finally decided not to go. I felt helping having my college paid for was going to be invaluable in the long term. The fact that I had two whole years of MSS competition meant there was a lot to be gained for my future. I let the travel deadline pass and prepared for the upcoming MSS championship.
Shortly after making my decision to not go to the Pro Tour and letting the deadline pass, Wizards cancelled the MSS for after 2007.
I've still never been to Japan.
If 2007 was going to be my last chance at MSS scholarship, I had better make the most of it.
I had flown out to the Magic Weekend – back then, that meant the place US Nationals and the MSS Championships were held – ready to give the event my all. The format was Ravnica-Future Sight, and Dragonstorm had just been pushed out of the format because 10th Edition (and its lack of Seething Song) had entered the format. The format was fairly open.
I was determined to do well. Not only had I missed the Pro Tour for this, but the year before, I'd lost my last two matches to miss Top 8, and the year before that, I had missed on tiebreakers. I wasn't going to let that happen again. I had been brewing and testing furiously for this event but still didn't have a deck I liked.
Fortunately, after landing, I managed to meet up with a group of Midwesterners who gave me a U/W/R Momentary Blink decklist that I began playing and working on. It was kind of like the Aethermage's Touch deck but without the awful Aethermage's Touch.
I unfortunately don't have the list saved in my decklists folder, but it had Court Hussar, Riftwing Cloudskate, Grand Arbiter Augustin IV, Lightning Angel, Remand, Signets, Lightning Helix, Momentary Blink, Boom//Bust, and Venser, Shaper Savant. Out of the sideboard, we had Aven Riftwatcher and the Avalanche Riders + Cryoclasm package for similar midrange, plus Akroma, Angel of Fury to absolutely trump the mirror.
It was beating everything, and so I built it up, borrowed some of the cards, and prepared to play it. Before leaving for dinner, I handed it to Magic Weekend Mad Man – who promptly won a Zune with the deck. By the time I came back, the last grinder for Nationals was about to fire, so I hopped in.
I ran right through to the finals of the grinder. If I won, I would be able to play in Nationals the next day. I fell in a close three games to Project X. Interestingly enough, the person I lost to in the finals was Mike Bennett – who went on to make the National team after beating me. Crazy.
Anyway, I was all set to go. I spent the next day testing and testing, and our deck couldn't lose. Most of us were set to play the deck.
And so the MSS started.
Round one, I faced eventual Top 8er Ryan Ward with Angelfire. Mana screwed two games in a row. Loss. Round two, I faced U/G/W Momentary Blink. Mana flood. Mana screw. Loss. Round 3, I played some beatdown deck. Drew a bunch of blanks in the matchup. Mana screw. Loss.
I had worked so hard. I had skipped the Pro Tour. Our deck couldn't lose. And for this?
By round four, I was emotionally battered. I was frustrated. My friends were making fun of me. Winning with this deck had literally been the easiest thing imaginable 24 hours before. I re-sleeved my deck and tried to focus, but I couldn't.
I was up against this kid for round four. No offense to him – but he was exactly what you'd expect at the 0-3 tables of the MSS. He was playing a R/G/B beatdown deck with painful mana and not doing it very well. In game one, he ran over me.
Game two, he had put me to three. Any burn spell in his deck would kill me. He had an active Dark Confidant, and I was low on cards. Everything seemed hopeless.
I looked down at the cards in my hand. They weren't changing. Just like everything else in this event, this was another game where everything had gone wrong.
I closed my eyes. Like an anime montage, I saw the past few months crawl before me. I wasn't honestly about to let it all end here… Was I?
I opened my eyes. I saw my only path to victory. I snapped Lightning Angel down and served.
Four turns later, he had found blanks, and I dropped him to exactly zero. He flipped his top card, and it was the Incinerate to kill me.
Next game, he was the one mana-screwed.
I won the next round. And then the next. And then the next. And then the next. I played out of the most impossible situations. I knew when they had it. I fought past their rips and cut off their route to victory at every turn. I had seen the worst of the tournament already and moved past it; nothing else could stop me. After round four, I lost three games in the rest of the tournament: one in round six and two to Ari Lax in the 73-card mirror. (Turn 3 Grand Arbiter two games in a row; some things never change.)
Despite my start, I ended up in 29th place and picked up $1,150 in scholarship money.
After my last win, I sought out BDM and gave him a high five. “Now I know what it feels like to be Kenji.”
A little over a year later, in October 2008, I would finally attend my first Pro Tour. I had qualified with Faeries in Lorwyn Block Constructed, which meant I was on my way to Berlin for the Pro Tour. It was an exciting time for me; not only did I get to go to play on the Pro Tour, but it would mark my first visit to Europe.
Now, for those out there who might not have been following the Pro Tour in 2008, Berlin was Pro Tour: Elves! Shards of Alara had just been released, and Extended hadn't been played for a while. All of the major testing teams had built up their own list of the Heritage Druid and Nettle Sentinel Elf combo deck.
In retrospect, it was quite hilarious. Everybody had the deck, and everybody thought it was their secret, and so everybody had evolved their decks in different ways. Everyone's build was slightly different: some people used different kill mechanisms, some people played a second color, and so on.
In any case, I wanted to make the most out of my Pro Tour experience, and so I had been testing and keeping my ear to the metagame floor to figure out what was going on. While the public may widely believe that the Elves deck suddenly appeared out of nowhere, that actually wasn't the case. If you were paying attention, you knew about it. I had the deck weeks before the Pro Tour (albeit not as refined of a version), and, as the Pro Tour approached, it slowly changed from a joke deck to a legitimate threat.
To make matters more complex, the cat jumped out of the bag once the site opened. People started asking for Glimpse of Nature – eventually offering to buy them for upward of $50 each – and the secret gradually leaked. Thus, you had people trying to construct their own build of Elves with the small amount of information they had, making the situation even more comical. All of these people had their own Elves decklists on little testing.
One such example of a situation this created was someone went to the dealer looking to buy Orzhov Pontiff for the mirror match. They slipped them the money and were very discreet about it – but someone saw the card exchange and caught on. A murmur began, and everyone at the dealer tables at that time suddenly started scrambling for Orzhov Pontiffs for the mirror match. It truly was a sight to behold.
In any case, the point is that we had the Elves deck when we were testing back in Seattle, and, for whatever reason, we didn't choose to play it. The deck that we liked the most was G/B Death Cloud / Life from the Loam with Raven's Crime. The deck was alright, and I felt it was actually reasonably positioned to beat Elves since it had numerous sweepers between maindeck and sideboard.
The day before I left on my plane flight for Germany, Mike Gurney and I began to brew a U/R Swans deck that had the Chain of Plasma / Swans of Bryn Argoll kill but also had Blood Moon to just lock people out of the game. We figured out that even if Elves was popular, Blood Moon was absurd against all of the other decks, and nobody had a good answer to it. The Swans deck capitalized on that by using it to buy time to find its combo.
When I landed in Germany, I played my G/B Death Cloud deck against everyone else's deck, and it did pretty well. However, I began to test the Swans deck, and it was putting up phenomenal numbers. It was beating everything, even Elves thanks to Firespout and Engineered Explosives. There wasn't a lot of time though, and decisions had to be made fast.
When Mike arrived, we began to work on the deck some more, but it didn't look like we would get enough done in time.
The night before the Pro Tour, Jed Dolbeer, Mike, and I sat in a hotel room talking about what we should play the next day.
Jed had decided to switch onto Zoo and was working on radically changing the structure of his Zoo deck. He wanted a better Elves matchup, and so I suggested playing Zoo with Firespout, Threads of Disloyalty, and Rhox War Monk. With no testing, he was willing to play those changes.
Mike Gurney was just beginning to build the Swans sideboard. We hadn't played any sideboarded games, and we were going to similarly build the sideboard on theory.
I wasn't willing to stake my whole Pro Tour on a deck we hadn't tested very much and an untested sideboard. Everybody around me was switching their decks up. Jed was switching his deck entirely. Mike was moving onto a deck we had barely tested. Back on site, people were turning into Elves converts left and right. Earlier in the night, Steve Sadin had told me to play Affinity.
I wanted out of this madness.
I decided to just play G/B Death Cloud. It was still doing well against everyone else's deck, and I had a ridiculous amount of experience playing it. Why should I change? Those decks might just blow up in their face, and I knew my deck was reasonable. After all, isn't changing your deck at the last minute one of the biggest mistakes people always talk about? I wasn't about to fall for that trap.
Mike easily cruised into Day 2 with the Swans deck at a 6-2 record, then hit an unfortunate and unlucky string of losses late on Day 2 and finished in 122nd place. Jed ended up massacring his Zoo and Elves opponents, ending up in 29th place.
I missed Day 2.
That's three more stories to knock off the list I have sitting here to tell. I'll come back to the rest eventually. But for the next while, I imagine we'll be turning our eyes to Extended. The season is going to be heating up by next week – and you'll definitely want to check out what I have to say.
Until then, if you have any comments, please let me know! Either post in the forums, tweet at me @GavinVerhey, or send me an e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com. I'd love to hear what you thought.
Hopefully you'll be able to make some stories of your own this PTQ season.
Rabon on Magic Online, GavinVerhey on twitter, Lesurgo everywhere else