Last week I had the honor and the privilege to compete in the first ever Magic Players Championship. The event was my absolute favorite tournament I have ever played in and I'm incredibly thankful to have had the opportunity to play in it. Everything about the tournament was fantastic and I'm hopeful that I'll be able to earn my spot again next year.
But let's begin at the beginning. When the final roster of the Player's Championship first came to light there was some concern amongst my usual test group about how we'd handle preparing for the tournament. This was a unique event to say the least since we made up literally half the field. The general perspective was that all of us testing together wouldn't work for a variety of reasons. The biggest of those in my mind at least was that I wanted to do my best to win the tournament and that includes preparation and deck choice. I consider my ability to come to the right conclusion about what deck to play to be one of my strengths as a player. It's one thing to work on a deck with a team of a dozen in a field of 350 players—it's another thing entirely to arm half of the field and I wasn't willing to give up that edge.
Ultimately the group broke down into four parts. LSV Paulo Wrapter and Web tested together Juza and Shuuhei joined forces with Yuuya Owen paired up with Reid Duke and I reached out to Finkel. Some people were very surprised to hear that Finkel and I were testing together since most modern fans of the Pro Tour know us best from our clash at PT Dark Ascension but the reality is that Jon and I have been friends for a long time. We tested together as early as 1997 when I was the only other person to play the Prison deck with which Jon made his very first Top 8 at PT Chicago. We worked together again in 2000 when I helped build the Tinker deck that won Jon the World Championships in a mirror match against Bob Maher in the finals as well as a number of other events throughout the years.
Jon for his part was quite receptive to the idea. We made plans for me to come stay at his place in New York during the week between the World Magic Cup and Grand Prix Worcester though he made it clear that he had many obligations that would keep him from being able to commit all of his time to playtesting while I was there. I was fine with that since it would give me some time to explore New York City a place where I haven't spent nearly enough time in my life.
It helped that I didn't feel that any of the three formats of the Players Championship needed much exploration. I'd done a great deal of drafting before I showed up in New York both in Cube and M13 formats and I was sure that I'd get at least a few of each in before I left (and I was not disappointed). Modern was a very well explored format with the results of GP Columbus and the Team Constructed portion of the Magic World Cup pointing to a world of aggro and aggro-control decks with perhaps a smattering of Jund Birthing Pod and control.
Jon and I didn't spend a ton of time testing Modern and most of our early attempts were discouraging. Each of us had our own pet decks that we wanted to play based on our previous experience in the format. Jon had done very well with Storm at both PT Philly and Worlds while I had an ongoing love affair with Knight of the Reliquary which I'd played in every Modern tournament since the advent of the format. Unfortunately when we took turns running our decks into the various gauntlet opponents—mostly aggro-control Delver decks of various sorts—we could only seem to win with the enemy deck.
In my frustration I posted on Twitter that I thought it was hilarious that Modern is a format in which Wild Nacatl and Green Sun's Zenith are banned—the implication of course being that cards like Delver are still legal. The issue with Modern is that it's going to be home to all of the most efficient and powerful cards from Magic's history and when whatever is best is banned whatever was lurking just behind is going to step up and take its place.
This is true of both creatures and removal spells. Removal in Modern is just too good to actually try to play an honest creature deck. If you look at the U/W/R Delver decks or Snapcaster Zoo decks you'll see similar patterns: a plethora of one casting cost creatures and incredibly efficient removal. The suite of Lightning Bolt Lightning Helix and Path to Exile—all backed up by Snapcaster Mage—makes playing any kind of actual creature that they can remove efficiently largely a waste of time.
And even if somehow you could get something like say a Knight of the Reliquary to stick it can't even block Delver or Steppe Lynx effectively so you're even further behind for being so foolish as to try to play a three casting cost creature. If you look at the decks from the Players Championship you'll notice a distinct pattern. Every maindeck creature anyone played with the exception of the Knight of the Reliquary in Jun'ya Iyanaga's deck costs two or less or can't be profitably dealt with by the commonly played removal.
The most commonly played creature that cost three or more was Geist of Saint Traft which dodges all removal thanks to hexproof and conveniently interacts exceptionally well with a battery of removal spells that you can throw at opposing creatures. After that there's Kitchen Finks which requires two removal spells outside of Path and gives you life even if it gets exiled and its good friend Bloodbraid Elf which obviously provides incredible value against removal by just giving you a second spell on top. Jon and I played with Vendilion Clique which is fragile against removal but playable thanks to its enters the battlefield effect and instant speed along with Restoration Angel which similarly provides a spell effect that can actually try to help fight against all the removal flying around.
What's my point? Well I mostly feel like Green Sun's Zenith is a very strange card to have banned in this world. It seems like Green Sun's Zenith is a crucial card for any deck that actually wants to play with honest to goodness green creatures because it doubles as a Llanowar Elf when you draw it early and an actual threat when you draw it late. In a world of Snapcasters and Paths where you can't hope to win with even the first two creatures you play it seems important to be able to play enough mana acceleration effects that you're not just trying to play catch up against everyone jamming every one-drop they can plus every good removal spell.
You can't actually afford to play eight copies of Noble Hierarch (even if you were allowed to) because a lot of games come down to attrition and drawing three mana creatures when your opponent draws three Kird Apes means you're going to die. If instead you draw one mana creature and two somewhat inefficient Knights of the Reliquary however you just might have a chance in this fight.
I understand the arguments against Green Sun's Zenith—it increases redundancy and can cause many games to play out the same way—but is it really so scary to give some additional consistency to someone who's trying to play Magic in the most honest way around: with green creatures? Maybe I'm biased but I'd like to be able to play a Doran or Knight of the Reliquary sometime in Modern and not feel like I'm a fool.
Anyway enough ranting about the format. Neither Jon nor I could get our pet decks to work out and with little time left we turned to see what other people had been successful with. Neither of us wanted to play Delver in a field we figured would be full of Delver and anti-Delver decks but we liked the look of Tzu-Ching Kuo's deck from the World Cup. After an embarrassingly small number of games with the deck between ourselves and against random opponents on Magic Online we were out of time before leaving for GP Worcester. We were getting better results with U/W than with anything else so we decided to play it with a few changes.
The biggest was the swap of Sword of Feast and Famine with Sword of War and Peace since we imagined the format would be heavy with aggro-control in which racing would be common. The R/W sword also happened to be virtually unbeatable in the mirror so that would give us an edge if anyone happened to have a similar line of thinking to ours and end up playing a deck similar to Kuo's. We also swapped out most of our Remands for Mana Leaks at the recommendation of Gaudenis Vidugiris who had played a similar deck at GP Columbus but we decided to keep a single Remand in the deck because we knew we'd be getting decklists for the Modern rounds and didn't want our opponents to be able to easily play around all of our counters.
After a long drive from New York to Worcester on Friday and a disappointing finish in the GP over the weekend I was on a plane to Seattle the following Monday—no rest for the weary. At this point I had been on the road for going on two weeks since I hadn't gone home since before Gen Con. I was quite happy to find that WotC had put us up in an awesome boutique hotel just a few blocks from Pike's Place Market and was even happier to learn that the hotel was only the beginning of the perks that would come with being a part of the Players Championship.
As I said in the intro the Players Championship was quite simply my favorite tournament I've ever played in. On Tuesday night we had a player meeting and reception which included awesome catered food and an open bar (assuming you were savvy enough to know who to ask for extra drink tickets that is). We didn't start play until noon each day and had catered food throughout the day. The tournament was held at a concert venue—the Showbox at the Market—and as soon as the last round finished for the day we were all handed drink tickets and the bar opened up. This came in quite handy when I lost playing for Top 4 against Yuuya on Thursday especially since I felt like I played the match poorly and could almost certainly have won. But it was definitely the happiest I'd ever been to finish 6-6 in a tournament in my life especially considering I ended up splitting with Yuuya and he won the whole thing.
My only complaint about the tournament is its name; it should have been called the World Championships. I understand the motivation to carry on the title of Player of the Year which has historically been awarded to many of the best players in the game while the title World Champion hasn't necessarily been quite as illustrious. But I think that's short sighted because the title World Champion means something to people who don't play Magic that Player of the Year does not.
If I tell someone who doesn't play Magic that I've won two Pro Tours they have no idea what that means. If I tell them that Yuuya Watanabe is a two-time Player of the Year they'll smile and nod. But if Jon Finkel goes on a date with a girl and tells her he was a Magic World Champion? Well that might just end up going viral and hitting the front page of Reddit!
Okay maybe that's not the best example. In all seriousness though if Magic is going to reach a broader audience it has to take a broader perspective in these kinds of decisions. This year Magic had no World Champion and that's a terrible shame because that's something that anyone understands. The structure for the Players Championship is absolutely perfect to give away the title too. The problem with the history of the title is that Magic has never had a World Championships worthy of the name—all of the previous World Championships have pretty much been a Pro Tour with a different name and a slightly different invitation criteria. A tournament that invites only the top players from each region of the world the winners of the biggest tournaments of the year and the most successful players over the course of the season? That sounds like the World Championships to me.
I hope I get to come back and play next year but I hope the title I'm fighting for then is that of World Champion. Oh and I hope it's in Seattle alongside PAX as well because I had an absolute blast at the Return to Ravnica Party and getting a chance to meet (and dance with; be sure to check out the Party video for some clips of my dance moves) all the Magic fans who made it out.
That's it for this week. Sorry for the lack of detailed game play analysis and the like but my brain is absolutely fried from the three weeks on the road gaming and I can barely piece together how to do my laundry now let alone reconstruct complex game states. I actually forgot to turn my washing machine on earlier today and then came back confused several hours later to find the clothes were all still dry.
One parting word though. Today is my birthday! Happy birthday to me right? Well thank you! In lieu of presents this year all I'm asking for is contributions to the SolForge Kickstarter! For those of you who haven't heard of it SolForge is an awesome new digital TCG designed by the makers of Ascension (including yours truly) in partnership with the one and only Richard Garfield. Our Kickstarter ends on Monday and we have some awesome promotions running to reward everyone who contributes including a special reward level based on my birthday so be sure to check it out!
Until next time