I recently competed in the MOCS Championship held at PAX East. So sit back and relax, but also stand up and get really excited, because you're in for a wild ride as I describe the sights, the sounds, and the intense, high-level Magic battles. Let's jump right into it!
With a lengthy discussion of how I prepared.
It's easier to find the answer to a problem if you believe that a solution exists. But before that you have to recognize that you're solving a puzzle in the first place.
There are many different types of puzzles in life. Competing on a reality TV show can be a puzzle. They have a clear start point, end point, and challenges in between. If I was ever selected to be on a reality TV show, I would train to win it. I'd commit to be as mentally and physically ready for the potential challenges as possible.
Here's how I'd prepare for a few different reality shows.
The Amazing Race:
- Get intimately familiar with how airports work
- Get in the best shape I could
- Learn everything geography related (time zones, countries, maps, etc.)
- Learn some basic phrases in the languages of countries I'd expect to be visiting
- Brainstorm strategies to exploit the rules, like bringing a local with you to help you find your way around
- Become an expert at making fire
- Get in the best shape I could
- Learn to be as likable and friendly as possible
- Get good at lying and spotting lies
- Be prepared for any potential challenges (Survivor uses a lot of similar challenges from season to season)
- No training necessary
- Ladies can't resist me
A lot of these skills seem useful to have in everyday life, so what keeps me from striving to be good at these things anyway? Why wouldn't I train to win at real life?
Because there's no clear end goal. No pot of gold to win. No princess to save. No dragon to slay. Not even a kingdom to protect. No epic choice between right and wrong that decides the fate of all life.
What could the goal of life be? To reproduce? Be happy? Discover the key to immortality and rule the cosmos with nanobots? There's certainly no set of rules to tell you what to do. Who knows!
Thankfully, I had a clear goal with the MOCS Championship:
So I recognized that the MOCS Championship was a puzzle and had a clear goal. The next step was to brainstorm a list of everything I could do to get an edge beyond the playing Magic part.
MOCS Championship Preparation List
- Hotel close to site
- Team to test with
- Get in the best shape I could
- Eat healthy
- Have food to snack on (dark chocolate?)
- Sleep schedule synced on Boston time
- IPod with relaxing music/meditation music
- Phone + chargers
- Comfortable clothes
- Sleep mask
- Ear plugs
- Post-round ritual (stretch, listen to music, hydrate, bathroom)
- Play slow
- Positive attitude
- Have fun!
I would also have to get used to the Magic Online beta client. I think everyone would've chosen to play on the normal client if given the choice, but I saw an opportunity. I would make sure I was intimately familiar with it and completely ready for any quirks it threw at me. You don't need to outrun the bear; you just need to outrun the other guy.
I could prepare by doing all of the above, but the most important part would obviously be playing Magic, so I'd have to master the formats.
Early on it became apparent there were very few decisions to make during deckbuilding so this would be the simplest format to prepare for. It was rare that you could build a deck more than two colors, and most pools had a clear direction they should be built. I just did ten or so Sealed events online so that I'd be familiar with how the games played out.
We were allowed to use anything in the client during the MOCS Championship, so I saved a file of all the Gatecrash combat tricks in my account in case I needed to look at it during a game.
This would be the trickiest format to prepare for since the cube wasn't available online before the event; to effectively test, you had to build it in real life. Thankfully, I'd cubed a lot whenever it was online since it's fun and challenging.
I explored a number of different drafting strategies, including staying open and drafting whatever as well as trying to force mono-red and mono-green ramp.
A basic guide for drafting control in Cube is: spend about one-fifth of your picks on lands/fixing, one-fifth for removal/Wraths, one-fifth for counters, and one-fifth for planeswalkers.
The rest of the deck is filled out with card draw and a handful of creatures. The creatures should either be late game bombs that are resistant to removal (Meloku, the Clouded Mirror; Sphinx of the Steel Wind; Cloudgoat Ranger), draw a card and gum up the board (Wall of Omens, Seagate Oracle, Snapcaster Mage), or both (Epochrasite, Eternal Dragon, Aeon Chronicler, Etched Oracle).
I became very comfortable with drafting this style of deck—recognizing which cards were the most powerful and knowing what type of card I was missing and which parts of the deck needed to be filled. Every deck ended up very similar since the cube isn't very big.
I wanted cards that no one else did and would regularly get them late. I used all the parts of the draft buffalo. I could take a dual land early since I knew that I would likely wheel playables very late in the draft. All Suns' Dawn—who else could possibly want that card? I consistently got late Voids, Catastrophes, Condemns, and, almost always if he was opened, Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker.
Even if my force control strategy wasn't great and might not hold up against skilled opponents, I felt it would be foolish to change it before the MOCS Championship. I had already learned it and had success with it; I would have to trust that my previous preparation would be good enough for the big stage.
Standard was the most important format since it would decide the winner in the Top 2. It was also the only format where you got to pick your deck ahead of time, so I knew I'd be spending most of my time on it.
I started with U/W/R Flash. It was great against the aggro-heavy online meta, but I felt I couldn't beat Jund. Usually when going into a tournament, step one is finding a deck that can beat the aggro decks. For the MOCS Championship, step one was to find a deck that could beat Reid Duke.
So my original criterion was to find a deck that could beat Jund. I did not have an easy time.
I tried U/W/R with Assemble the Legion, Naya Ramp with Assemble the Legion, Prime Speaker Bant, and Omni Door. Lots and lots of Omni Door. All sorts of fantastical builds: some with four Rakdos's Return and four Sphinx's Revelation, some with a bunch of Door to Nothingnesses that ramped into them, some with four Temporal Masterys that ramped to Omniscience and had Increasing Ambition to take a bunch of turns and win with Thragtusks and Garruks.
Nothing was working.
I knew I could always fall back on playing Jund if I couldn't find a deck that consistently beat it, but if I spent most of my time searching for something better and failed, I would be at a disadvantage to anyone who'd been playing it nonstop and knew it inside out.
Then G/B/W Reanimator became popular, and I was almost certain I would play it. Unfortunately, the versions I tried didn't perform consistently and were not where I wanted to be against aggro decks. Also, Reid Duke started playing Ground Seals maindeck. I didn't like Reanimator, but it looked like I might end up playing it.
I expected a lot of my fellow competitors to think along the same lines as me and pick up Reanimator, so now I had to find a deck that beat Jund, Reanimator, and aggro. But I was still grappling with the task of trying to win a match with anything.
I'd 0-2 with Jund, switch to Reanimator, and 0-2 with that before 0-2ing with some weird Omni Door build.
About a week and a half before the MOCS Championship, I realized what I was doing wrong. I was playing terribly. I expected to lose and was caught in a downward spiral. It wasn't any deck—it was just me. It's easy to get caught up in the search for the perfect deck while ignoring the fact that playing competently is more important, so I resolved to slow down and tighten up my play.
I felt like Esper Control was good against aggro and it also usually beat Jund game 1 since two-thirds of their deck doesn't do anything against it, but games 2 and 3 were miserable. It seemed like counters, Syncopate in particular, were very good against Jund and Reanimator, so I decided to try adding a bunch to the maindeck. My aggro matchup didn't suffer as much as I thought it would, and now I was very confident with all my game 1s.
Then, while checking Gatherer, I saw Evil Twin. It fit the criteria for exactly what I wanted to do against Jund and Reanimator post-board. It could actually beat a resolved Huntmaster, Thragtusk, or Angel of Serenity, which nothing else could. They would also be taking out most of their removal against me. It could be reset with Restoration Angel, it could copy a Huntmaster or Thragtusk, kill it, and then be Blinked to kill an Olivia or Obzedat. It could copy an Augur, Blink to copy Restoration Angel, and then Blink the Augur again. Acidic Slime is also a card that exists!
Most importantly, Esper Control is the style of deck I enjoy playing, so as soon as I tried Evil Twin I knew I would be playing Esper.
Here's the list I settled on:
The three Purify the Graves were a last-minute swap from Rest in Peace suggested by David Caplan purely for Reanimator. Purify is better than RIP against Reanimator because they bring in Abrupt Decays and Acidic Slimes and you can find it with Augur and blow them out at instant speed. Caplan felt there would be a ton of Reanimator, and I agreed. They were originally Rest in Peaces, which were better against pretty much every other matchup since I wasn't playing Snapcaster Mage and would bring in RIP against a lot of different decks like the mirror, Human Reanimator, U/W/R, Zombies, and The Aristocrats. But I didn't expect many people, if any, to play those decks.
Throughout my testing, I made sure to look at my competition's decks in Daily Events, which helped me form a picture of what the metagame would look like. I couldn't find what everyone was playing and there was no guarantee the information I had would be accurate, but any sort of data is better than nothing.
Here's what my prediction of the field looked like going into the tournament based on my scouting. It excludes myself and fellow Canadian/superstar David Caplan since I knew what he would be playing:
The more information you have on what you're opponents are going to be playing, the more warped your deck should become to specifically beat those decks. I made my Esper list as well prepared for G/B/W Reanimator, Jund, and swarmy aggro strategies as I could. Here's what the actual field looked like:
I also assigned everyone to the deck I thought they were most likely play and saved their decklists in my account since you were allowed to look at decklists saved in your account while you were playing.
How many almost exact decklists did I end up having? Five.
That isn't too bad, but honestly having someone's individual decklist ahead of time wasn't a big deal since the format was pretty well explored at this point and you'd know within seconds what you were up against.
My plan was to fly from Edmonton and arrive in Boston on Thursday night. I left for the airport early since there was a gigantic snowstorm that morning and a 100-car pileup on the highway. I'd barely been delayed while fly before, so I wasn't that worried.
I made it to the airport with plenty of time, but my plane had to be deiced. It ended up taking off an hour and a half late, which gave me just half an hour to make my connecting flight in Montreal.
I arrived and started running through the empty airport. Who makes these places so big anyway?
I made it to customs. I still had time. An attendant was waving me through, but there was a girl sitting at the counter waiting.
I walked up and asked if I could go through.
"Well, you better figure it out." she replied. She didn't look pleased to be there.
I interpreted this as, "You can make it! Run!"
So I took off running.
"Wait! What the hell are you doing? Come back!" she yelled.
I trudged back and handed her my customs form. She started asking me some basic questions. Adrenaline was pumping through my body and brain (assuming that's where adrenaline actually goes).
I shakily answered her questions. Come on, come on.
"How much money are you carrying?" she asked.
"Twenty dollars?" I stammered. I was actually carrying like 200 dollars. Why did I lie?
She rolled her eyes as dramatically as possible and stamped my form.
"Ok, we're done. You probably missed your flight."
"Thank you," I said as I ran off.
I made it with time to spare. There were still a few people boarding.
"We gave away your flight."
Apparently, I didn't have enough time to actually get to the gate.
My biggest misplay of the weekend wasn't Magic related; I just needed to ask a flight attendant to tell them to not give away my flight. I simply didn't know that was something that happened. Looks like I needed to train before The Amazing Race after all.
They got me a new flight the next morning and put me up in a hotel, but I had to be up at 6 AM.
I lied awake in bed, wondering if I'd make it in time, the acid pooling in my legs. I tried to relax. I listened to music and did all the standard stuff to fall asleep but I mostly just oscillated between repressed panic and pretend relaxation, occasionally willing myself to sleep.
I got one hour of sleep and barely made it to PAX on time. I settled in, trying to relax.
They gave us special Magic Online accounts (mine was ArsenalMunch_MOCS) that had every Magic card on them.
They asked if we were ok with having the first format of the day be Gatecrash Sealed instead of Standard. No one objected; I was happy with the change since Sealed would be easier on my tired brain.
I sat down and took a few deep breaths, and then the tournament began.
- 1 Armored Transport
- 1 Balustrade Spy
- 1 Basilica Screecher
- 1 Cartel Aristocrat
- 2 Daring Skyjek
- 2 Guardian of the Gateless
- 2 Kingpin's Pet
- 1 Knight of Obligation
- 1 Smog Elemental
- 1 Syndicate Enforcer
- 1 Wight of Precinct Six
I open a great pool. I probably should've built a more aggressive version, but my control tendency and the Merciless Eviction caused me to build it more controlling.
You can see everyone's decklists here.
Oddly enough, they did the pairings manually and posted who we were playing against each round on a piece of paper taped to the wall. We had to challenge each other for each match. Maybe that's why we flew from all over the world to sit in a big room and play on computers.
Round 1: Malteko - Orzhov
I kept a hand low on lands and stumbled to lose game 1. I kept another hand low on lands but drew much better in game 2, so we went on to game 3.
I pressured him early and I was about to win, but he topdecked a Vizkopa Guildmage and the lifelink brought him back from the brink. He started drawing a bunch of guys and got way ahead. I tried to stay alive long enough to draw into Merciless Eviction, but I couldn't find it in time.
Round 2: Sylenced1 - Dimir Mill
I figured I could side into Mind Grind and have late-game inevitability. I tried to add lands, but for some reason you couldn't add extra sideboard lands in these challenge games. Fortunately, I happened to have opened two Islands in my pool, so I just added those and rolled with it.
In game 3, almost immediately both my Islands got milled. I had no more ways to cast Mind Grind. I wanted to side in a third Island, but just risked it instead of saying anything. Once again, I misplayed by not saying anything.
Thankfully, my uncastable Mind Grind also got milled before I drew it, and I won with good old-fashioned beatdown.
Round 3: Cozmo - Gruul Aggro
He took game 1 with a timely Madcap Skills, but my dense removal suite took care of his dorks in games 2 and 3.
Round 4: Jacksad - Naya Aggro
In game 1, I got Clan Defianced and died. I quickly won game 2, and game 3 he got stuck holding Clan Defiance without a green source, and I took the match before he could find one.
I lost every game 1 but managed to keep plodding along without tilting or making too many major misplays. I was very happy with this result considering my mental state and how close the matches were. Things could have gone a lot worse.
My draft started with a Force of Will over Phantasmal Image and Channel. I got shipped a bunch of counters early and never had a strong incentive to branch out of blue and white. I was very happy with what I ended up with even though it wasn't five colors.
- 1 Augur of Bolas
- 1 Cloudgoat Ranger
- 1 Old Man of the Sea
- 1 Snapcaster Mage
- 1 Keiga, the Tide Star
- 1 Meloku the Clouded Mirror
During deckbuilding, an error popped up causing all my cards to duplicate, giving me an 80-card deck, and I couldn't get rid of any of them. Fortunately, it got sorted out. I added a bunch of lands to my sideboard just in case.
You can see the cube decks that were in my pod here.
If I could just keep it together for the next three rounds, I could get some rest and be ready to crush Standard the next day.
Round 1: Sylenced1 - Tinker Bant Ramp
I threw away game 1 by pulling the trigger on a Wrath way before I should have when he copied my Cloudgoat Ranger with Phantasmal Image. He had a few other 2/2s, and I was at a high life total, so I should've waited. He cast a Myr Battlesphere, and I died. I wasn't processing how the cards interact in a way that would be favorable for me; I was just playing on autopilot.
I easily took game 2 by keeping up a solid counter wall.
Game 3 looked great. I had a bunch of counters, and his pressure was minimal. Then I let him resolve an Aether Vial. Seven turns later I was facing down an Angel of serenity with only two counters in hand.
I played terribly and essentially threw away a dream matchup.
Round 2: Goobafish AKA David Caplan - Bant Ramp
Round 3: Smdster - U/R Tempo Burn
Probably my worst matchup, but I made minor misplays here and there that probably cost me the match as he managed to tempo me out in games 2 and 3.
It felt like I ran great all day and had awesome card pools but played badly.
I'd envisioned the tournament being special and me being prepared. Kind of like a mother with a beautiful birth plan including music and relaxation, and here I was, jittering from caffeine overdose, squirting a child out next to the dumpster behind 7-Eleven.
Just like you can't will yourself to sleep, you can't tell yourself to play better and expect it happen. I was stuck in the zone of playing badly— I recognized it but wasn't able to correct it.
Fortunately, I quickly shook off these negative feeling and went to get some rest. I was still in contention for Top 2, after all.
I woke up the next morning with a feeling of peace and love for my opponents. Turns out that feeling doesn't mean you're going to win.
This is what I'd been preparing for. I was rested and ready to go.
Game 1 he cast a Liliana that I Syncopated, a Huntmaster that I Verdicted, and then landed a Garruk, Primal Hunter. Already things weren't going according to my plan of hoping he draws the part of his deck that does nothing against me. I still had a shot though. The game went very long, as I kept clearing the board and firing off Revelations while he drew a bunch of cards with Garruk. I had to keep tapping out, but he couldn't find a Rakdos's Return to finish me off. I couldn't find a Planar Cleansing to kill his Liliana and Garruk and lock up the game. I went through what felt like 50 cards of my library with Augurs and Revelations and still couldn't find a Cleansing before he was able to ultimate Liliana and take game 1.
I mulled to six for game 2 on the play and kept two lands, two Evil Twin but never saw another land.
Round 2: Eken. - Big Human Aggro
I had his list from before the tournament started. We traded the first two games. In game 3, I didn't Wrath early, trying to play around the Boros Charm he was representing. Instead I played out a bunch of Gloom Surgeons and Restoration Angels. He had a Mayor of Avabruck pumping out Wolves and a Frontline Medic that allowed him to keep attacking in. I couldn't find an answer to either, and I eventually had to Verdict into his Boros Charm and lost.
Round 3: Butakov - G/B/W Reanimator
His list was built to beat aggro, so I was able to Verdict away his Centaur Healers and mana elves and got way ahead before milling him out game 1.
Game 2 I copied his Thragtusk with Evil Twin and Blinked it with Restoration Angel, copying his Angel of Serenity as he played it. Maximum blowouts. He still attempted to kill me with Craterhoof Behemoth, but I Sphinx's Revelationed for three, hoping to draw a Syncopate for the win, and got there.
Round 4: ht991122 - R/G Aggro
This was my last round, and I was playing for an extra two grand with a win. He was on the play game 1, and by the end of turn 2, he had a Stromkirk Noble and two Burning-Tree Emissarys in play. I lost that one.
Game 2 he had the same start with a one-drop and two Burning-Trees on turn 2. I looked to stabilize with a Verdict, but he dropped a Domri and hit three of its four pluses.
I ended up in 11th for the minimum cash, a virtual last place. What went wrong? I was actually happy my deck for each format and felt I had a good matchup every single round.
Obviously, the main problem was I didn't play very well.
What about Esper Control? Is it bad, or was my Esper list bad? Possibly. I think Esper will start picking up in popularity if it is the real deal (it did perform well at the SCG Invitational). But really Esper hasn't performed particularly well in the past, and you can't just ignore the data. I do feel it's well positioned right now for the PTQ season though. I like the Jund and G/B/W Reanimator matchups and feel like the G/R Aggro and Naya Blitz are favorable as well; you sometimes just get steamrolled by nut draws.
But Standard is a very healthy format, and any archetype you prefer has the potential to win.
The Top 2 featured a very short Reanimator mirror finals between Butakov and Maletko, one that I didn't even know took place until after it was over. Butakov emerged victorious. Congrats to him!
Wizards was taking us out for dinner, but we had some time to kill so we obviously started drafting. We decided to do an M13 Team Backdraft, where you try to take the worst possible card from each pack and then swap drafted cards with the person drafting across from you who's on the other team. Then you try to build a deck out of the crap they drafted for you.
It was hilarious watching the last few picks as it became clear who would be getting the last pick Staff of Nin or other bomb that was floating around the table.
The drafting part was highly enjoyable and surprisingly skill intensive as I tried to construct the perfect pile of anti-synergies and unplayables. I ended up getting a last pick Nicol Bolas, which led to me trying to stay away from those colors. I course corrected too hard, though, and ended up giving three Pacifisms, two Aven Squires, and a Serra Avenger to my swap buddy, Dzy.
FoundOmega (who mysteriously wasn't even in the MOCS Championship), instead of worrying about the colors he was drafting or power level, seemed to have the best strategy of taking anything over a card that could potentially be a win condition. This left his deck swappee, David Caplan, with a pile of decent cards including Akroma's Memorial, two Mark of the Vampire, two Switcheroos, and three Farseeks but only four crappy creatures total to win the game with. One of the highlights of the weekend was watching Caplan struggle to win with a 2/2 and Akroma's Memorial, stuck with two Mark of the Vampires in hand unable to enchant his pro black guy as he claimed that his deck wasn't that bad.
Then I beat ht991122's also superior U/W/R Control deck with a similar curve of dorks. After two rounds, it was time for dinner.
The atmosphere of the MOCS Championship was incredible the entire weekend, and dinner was no different. The players, staff, and just everyone was incredibly friendly. At dinner, we all got a chance to talk to Chris Kiritz about the tournament and the beta client.
The consensus about using the beta was lukewarm at best and there were a few dropped balls during the tournament itself, but being able to voice our thoughts on the matter to an actual human and see there are sentient minds behind the decisions being made was nice.
The sting of losing didn't come close to polluting the fun. I can't imagine the experience being topped, and I highly recommend you win an invitation to one immediately.
Where should the MOCS go from here?
The MOCS is relatively new and there were some issues with the beta, but I feel those will naturally get ironed out in time. What other improvements could be made?
PAX East was great, but we only had Sunday to experience it. It's also basically a pit of costumed bodies and loud noises. A private location like the Players Championship last year would be ideal, but there's probably promotional and budget concerns. It didn't feel like a perfect fit, but it was fine. I don't have a better solution. Maybe tacked on before or after a Pro Tour weekend?
The Honor System
The computers were arranged in such a way that you could lean over and see other people's screens if you were so inclined, and the "lounge area" where we would hang out after matches was within view of some of the computers where you could watch people still playing. You could also walk around after matches were done and see what decks other people were playing. Most of this was frowned upon if not completely against the rules, but it still put us in an awkward position because there were times where you would actively have to look away to not see what someone was playing.
With the manual pairing system, you just had your decklist saved and then would challenge your opponent each round in the tournament practice room. Hypothetically, anyone could have easily changed some cards in their deck based on who they were playing. They would've run the risk of getting caught, but it added an extra element of potential cheatery that shouldn't have existed.
The Scoring System
The confusing points system was used to decrease the likelihood of people having the same record at the end and tiebreaks having to be used, but it created more problems than it solved.
You could be paired against someone with a completely different overall record than yourself. I was playing against Butakov in the second last round. He needed a win to make Top 2, and I was playing for an extra 2K if I 2-0'd. Needless to say, it didn't feel particularly good to beat someone who was competing for a much better prize. It also creates potential for collusion.
The tournament should be switched to a cut to Top 4, and the regular method of pairing would be a strict upgrade.
It's a little confusing to put an emphasis on Magic Online nicknames because you basically have to attach two names to a new face.
There was also a lot of incentive to use a ghost account to test with prior to the event so the other competitors couldn't scout what you were playing. This is a problem in general with Magic Online; high-profile players can remain anonymous by making new accounts whenever they want, but it's just a nuisance to do. Personally, I would like to see a change in one of two directions: accounts should be completely transparent and be publicly linked to your real name or be anonymous and have the ability to change the account name.
It would be helpful if they give future MOCS Championship competitors access to an anonymous account with all the cards on them for testing purposes prior to the tournament (and make it so the account can't trade) and then use people's real name as their account name during the tournament for clarity.
Right now the MOCS doesn't feed into itself very well; the only option to qualify every month is to grind.
Perhaps making Top 8 of a MOCS should automatically qualify you for next month's MOCS, and it might be a good idea to automatically qualify every MOCS winner for next year's MOCSes so there is an increased chance of seeing familiar faces at the next MOCS Championship.
There was a short time at the beginning of the year when it was announced that MOCS winners wouldn't be receiving an invitation to a Pro Tour. Fortunately, the situation was resolved thanks the fine folks at Wizards listening to the competitors' and the rest of the community's complaints.
Magic Online is only going to grow and become a bigger part of competitive Magic. Now is the time to say where you think it should head and what changes should be made.
ArsenalMunch on Magic Online
@ShaunMcLaren on Twitter