A variety of fun and interesting things happened to me while I was in Hawaii, but my Pro Tour experience started with my testing at home in cold, windy Chicago. It kicked off after Ryan Rolen shipped me a BG Pod deck to consider, which reminded me why BG Pod had been unplayable for a while (a lack of two and three drops) and showed that those problems were fixed and that Pod had a host of new toys to work with.
This is the build I would have played on the Pro Tour:
The Grim Backwoods surprised me by turning mana dorks into cards in the late game and giving the deck some protection against flood. Meanwhile, Tragic Slip was often the best removal spell ever, similar to Dispatch in artifact decks. I hadn’t touched BG Pod since the days of Caw Blade, but I knew the deck was good.
Wednesday, February 8th
I borrowed cards from my roommates and caught my flight. Going through security, I was sure to take my deck out of my backpack, out of its case, and put it in a tray. I’ve had decks searched before, and most security types don’t realize or respect that the cards are worth money. In fact, I once had a lady console me that she, “knew what they were because her kids played YuGiOh,” before opening a deck box, containing a fully powered vintage deck, upside down. I wasn’t even allowed to pick up the cards, and was forced to watch her fumble and slide power and black boardered dual lands across the floor with her meaty fingers. Never again!
I spent the flight from Chicago to Hawaii alternating between reading Phillip K. Dick’s The Ganymede Takeover, jamming some matches against myself on Magic Workstation, and watching the anime X-Men show. I love anime and I love X-Men, but I’m still not sure how I feel about the mixture. Seeing Storm act even vaguely oriental was jarring, and the villains felt like underdeveloped, demonized caricatures. That said, the Wolverine-Cyclops tension was handled well, and the fight scenes were freaking sweet.
When I got off the plane a warm blast of Hawaiian air hit me in the face, and I knew the trip was going to be awesome. Nick Miller picked me up at the airport, and we grabbed some giant two-dollar hot dogs and started testing. This was my first time meeting Nick, and he struck me as an accommodating host, chill guy to hang out with, and competent test partner. That night, we met up with his magic buddies, a mixture of locals and military types, and got a few drafts in. I was still forcing UWb and feeling good about it.
After drafting, we drove to his place, flashed our IDs to get on base, and jammed some more games before passing out. With Pod, I had a strong win percentage when I played perfectly, but most of the time I ended up blundering at some point in the game. Against Delver, I had to run a number of mana dorks in order to match tempo, but that left me vulnerable to Gut Shot plus Snapcaster Mage. I set these qualms aside and got some sleep.
Thursday, February 9th
We picked Jesse Hampton up from the airport. Apparently I’d played him in the SCG invitational, but didn’t recognize him, his face being lost in the blur of matches and opponents that has become my life. A self-described “fast and loose” player, Jesse is known for top eighting his first Pro Tour in Philadelphia. Maybe he was just in a good mood because he was in Hawaii, but he struck me as the kind of guy who always finds something to laugh about.
Nick’s local friend James decided we should eat lunch at Gyu Kaku, a Japanese place where we ordered flavored meats and fried them on a grill that was built into the table. I’m not the worst cook, and the meat was spiced well. My only complaint was that I prefer thicker cuts, and the meat had to be sliced thin in order to cook quickly. As we got more and more full, we cared less about the quality of the food, and I ended up overcooking some stuff. An interesting idea for a restaurant, but not somewhere I’d eat regularly.
We showed up on site and rocked another draft. I talked with more people, and decided to ditch pod. The deck has a lot of options at most stages, and there wasn’t enough time to get the experience I needed. After a lost match, I could usually back track and find a winning line, but the problem was that I wasn’t finding that line in the first place. I decided to help my friends work on Delver.
I talked separately with Phillip Lorren and Nick, and all of us liked the idea behind the Spirit deck that had made the SCG top eight, but didn’t like the glut of three drops. To streamline it, we had the idea of combining elements of the second place list, which helped the curve some.
Had I played Delver on the Pro Tour, this is what I would’ve ran:
We settled on Shimmering Grotto as a fifth black source, since it could also tap for white and didn’t come into play tapped like most other options. I fell in love with Thought Scour. People would manually set up Delver with Ponder, and we had an instant speed cantrip to mess up their work. Our Snapcaster Mage toolbox filled faster than ever. With Thought Scour in the list, I began to appreciate Runechanter’s Pike more and more, and in testing the card was frequently two hit killing people from full life. Sacking out and milling the occasional Lingering Souls put the card over the top.
In the end, my unfamiliarity with piloting the archetype, as well as the sound advice of my friends, convinced me to stick to my guns and run Hippo Blade. I had day twoed GP Orlando with the deck, losing mostly to stumbling on mana, so I added a few lands and updated the sideboard.
That night, the locals took us to Snow Factory, which Nick described as “a Caleb kind of weird.” The place reminded me of Japanese pop culture with its bright whiteness, cartoony architecture, and music videos. I’d had shaved ice before, but only thick, syrupy stuff at carnivals in little cups. Here, the creamy shavings were soft, fluffy, and reminded me of frozen cotton candy. I didn’t see a small size, and was served a full plate of cold, delicious flavor. I ordered the mango, which came covered in condensed milk and round balls called mango pearls that reminded me of tapioca but with a small burst of mango flavor in the center.
Friday, February 10th
Going into the tournament, I considered running a 3-1 or 2-2 split of Galvanic Blasts and Geistflames, but Jesse didn’t agree with my reasoning, saying there would be games I would just win from burning the opponent out with Galvanic Blast. I played devil’s advocate for a while, and then got some second and third opinions from grinders who I respect, and finally went with his advice, which was correct. It’s a difficult thing to admit when you’re wrong, even with something as simple as a Geistflame, but knowing when to listen to yourself and when to cave is important, and took me years of experience to learn.
There were a few other reasons Galvanic Blast was the correct choice for this tournament, such as Humans being more popular than Delver and the new Drogskol Captain needing an answer out of some Delver lists.
I registered the following:
You can check out the deck tech here.
R1 UB Infect
Game one: I played some removal, chumped his Phyrexian Crusader with artifact creatures, and stuck an [card elesh norn, grand cenobite]Elesh Norn[/card].
Game two: See game one.
Lesson to learn: No matter what your friends tell you, UB Infect is not a strong choice for a major tournament. At no point in the archetype’s history has it impressed me as inherently strong or resilient, and its only point of consistency is that it’s been consistently underwhelming. And this is coming from the guy casting Razor Hippogriff.
R2 Matt Marr with Delver
I have a strong draw in game one, but he has some tricks I don’t expect, like maindeck Dungeon Geists. I deal with the troublesome flyer, and start racing his Geist with a myr token and a Sword of War and Peace.
He draws for his turn, going to two cards in hand. The turn previous he’d Pondered and kept, so I knew the card wasn’t a brick. He calmly tapped his Geist of Saint Traft sideways, and I decided to drop to three instead of blocking with my Timely Reinforcements tokens. I was trying to dead a second copy of Geist, but should’ve realized that I won through that and pushed my tokens in.
Further complicating my mistake was that he calmly passed the turn at four life, with only a Snapcaster Mage or Vapor Snag as answers to my win on board. I drew the seventh land I needed to cast the [card elesh norn, grand cenobite]Elesh Norn[/card] in my hand, but couldn’t just jam it without fear of being blown out by Snapcaster. I paused, looked to my Buried Ruin in play and my Glint Hawk Idol in the yard, then back to the Buried Ruin. Good players will often follow your eyes, since those give a lot of tells. Looking to the graveyard after drawing a land is a way to convince a strong opponent to play around Snapcaster Mage, for example, which could buy time to draw gas.
Anyway, I sent in my myr with Sword of War and Peace and two Timely Tokens, leaving one token back. He cast the Snapcaster, thought, and then targeted Vapor Snag and removed my attacking myr, taking two. I slammed [card elesh norn, grand cenobite]Elesh Norn[/card] post combat, and Matt’s eyes got real big.
Our next game was less close, and I landed another [card elesh norn, grand cenobite]Elesh Norn[/card].
Lesson to learn: Even if you make a mistake, your focus should be on how to win the game. I punted by not blocking the Geist, but kept my head on straight and found a good line.
R3 I played a Swede with Esper Control. In game one Glint Hawk Idol did some work, and I was able to burn him out, despite some fast and loose play on my part.
In game two I stuck an early Grafdigger’s Cage, which constricted his deck something fierce. He answered my threats, but when I kept bringing them back I was able to grind through a Gideon and then his life total.
Lesson to learn: Grafdigger’s Cage is great against a deck stuffed full of flashback spells. Ramp decks should look to this as a tool for wresting inevitability from the control decks, though that would mean cutting Green Sun’s Zenith.
R4 I played Rob Dougherty with WB Tokens. Both games I felt I was a turn away from stabilizing, and I had a chance to throw away position to play around the cards in his hand, but felt I was better off going for the win then.
Rob didn’t think I misplayed, but I’m not so sure. Overall the matchup felt bad, like I was a turn too slow, though I could’ve seen it going the other way if the draws had been different. If I expected WB Tokens (which I didn’t for this tournament) I would board a pair of Ratchet Bombs, which might be useful against the token version of Delver too.
Lesson to learn: Step one, don’t lose the game. Step two, win the game.
R5 Br Zombies.
Game one I kept a hand of Plains, double colorless land, Whipflare, Day of Judgment, Solemn Simulacrum. Not sure if I had a seventh card or if I mulled, but I drew nothing but Galvanic Blasts for a while. I stabilized at four life, hit him once with the Solemn, and had lethal next turn with triple Galvanic Blast. He drew for his turn, shrugged, and dropped mountain, Brimstone Volley, and Gut Shot. Ouch.
In game two I hit him a few times with a Sword of Feast and Famine while he resolved some cheap threats and a pair of Geralf’s Messengers. I managed to stabilize at a low life total, again with lethal next turn thanks to an Elesh Norn in hand, but again he ripped the red source to finish me off.
Lesson learned: Metagaming is a harsh mistress. At this point, I had two losses in a row against decks we didn’t expect due to how they performed in testing. Choosing the right deck and tuning it is one of my better skills, but sometimes you make the correct decision and still get punished. Perhaps I should’ve boarded a pair of Ratchet Bombs after all.
Draft rounds: I forced Esper (with Delver in mind from pack one) and ended up with a decent deck full of efficient threats, tricks, and a few bombs. I went 2-1, losing to the player with seven rares.
Saturday, February 11th
Draft two: I showed up breathless, a scant minute or two before the start of the draft, and cracked a Vorapede. Awake Caleb would’ve seen this as a great signal for the guy to the left of me to go green. Tired, flustered Caleb saw a 5/4 trampler with undying.
Tired, flustered Caleb strayed from his mono-esper strategy, drafted a clunky RG deck, and went 0-2 before getting a bye. Fortunately I only had seven people in my pod, and 0-3 was impossible.
The bye gave me a full fifty minutes to rest, but taking a break is a sure way to lose the adrenaline, lose the fire, and lose the next round. I jumped in a free draft with Phillip, insisted we kept what we draft, and played Phillip the first round. I forced UW, crushed his GW deck (very easily,) and was in the right frame of mind to start winning again.
R12 : Esper Delver
I sat down across from a Japanese player running Yuuya Watanabe’s list. My opponent played tight, for the most part, but I had a stronger draw and took the match. His build looked similar to what I would’ve ran, which felt good.
Lesson to learn: Most Japanese players play well, bring strong lists, and are to be respected. That said, they’re players like you and me, and
R13: Benjamin Leitner with GR Aggro
Ben is a fourteen year old European, and the youngest person at this pro tour. He’d actually messaged me on Facebook, asking if I knew of a good deck for the tournament, but I’d kept switching lists so I never got back to him.
Game one was close, and he had a pile of hasters and burn to put me away.
Mid sideboarding, I asked him if he thought Sun Titan was good against his deck.
“Why are you telling me this? You know I have more information in the next games?” he asked.
I smiled and shuffled up. In my mind, if the opponent makes a decision based around a miser Sun Titan that may or may not be in my deck, then he’s probably making his decision for the wrong reasons. I like doing confusing things, like keeping after seeing four cards, as the opponent is then using his mental powers trying to figure out what I’m up to instead of focusing on the game state.
In game two I cast a few removal spells, but bricked on my third land with an Oblivion Ring and a Day of Judgment in hand. On the last possible turn to stabilize, I ripped a Clifftop Retreat for the Oblivion Ring and then another for the Day the next turn. Rather than slam the land and the wrath effect, I ran the old suck-in-my-breath-and-tank line, but I couldn’t hold it long.
“Nice topdecks,” he said.
Despite my gratuitous slow roll, the magic gods weren’t with him and he didn’t recover.
I squeezed out game three thanks to a good mixture of removal spells, Timely Reinforcements, and [card elesh norn, grand cenobite]Elesh Norn[/card].
After the match, he shook my hand and asked me about Modern, which we talked about for a bit.
Lesson to learn: Pro Tours are great spots for networking, and shouldn’t be wasted. Also, every match is an opportunity for a slow roll, and similarly shouldn’t be wasted.
My opponent was playing a stock Illusions list, and since I had tested the matchup I knew all of the lines. That, plus a high level of caffeine, led to me blitzing. He tried speeding up to match me, but he was playing against a rogue deck and had too much to keep track of. At one point we messed up the game state, and both received warnings. I could tell he was getting flustered.
“Can we just slow down after this? I think we should slow down,” he said.
I smiled, slowed down for a few turns, and gradually start increasing the speed, though he did better that time and didn’t rush to match me. More experienced players are used to the opponent trying to control the tempo of the game, and are either comfortable blitzing as well or won’t let it happen.
A powerful draw from my end put him away in two games. The Illusions matchup feels even better than Delver, as the sweepers tend to hit multiple threats and there are more ground pounders for Timely Reinforcements tokens to block.
Lesson to learn: You don’t have to match your opponent’s speed. Take the amount of time you need to make your decisions, and above all don’t get flustered. Find your focus and keep it, even if you’re playing an over caffeinated, bush-league git like myself.
My opponent was playing a RUG Ramp deck with countermagic and planeswalkers. He didn’t hit a green source in game one, and I had to board not knowing what he was on. In game two I got Creeping Corrosioned, but still had gas. I made a few mistakes that I thought cost me the game (like running a Timely Reinforcements into a Mana Leak when I could’ve waited a turn.) Eventually, I lost to a Garruk Relentless. I boarded differently for game three, but still badly. I got blown out by double Ancient Grudge and I thought, sadly, of the Hero of Bladeholds still in my sideboard. Likewise, he still had Slagstorms in against me, which was probably a mistake on his part. So goes the rogue deck mirror.
Lesson to learn: Sometimes, you eat the bear; sometimes the bear eats you. I misboarded badly in this matchup because my opponent was playing a rogue brew, and I think I could’ve won if I’d known what he was up to.
R16 Michael Jacobs with Delver
This match was reminiscent of Orlando, where we also met in the last round for a win-and-cash. Only, last time he had been on five color control. MJ seemed less comfortable, less happy this time around, and bemoaned his deck choice. After playing some games, I agreed with him.
In game one he flooded out badly, and scooped after Wurmcoil Engine started hitting him.
Game two was more of a game, but his Delvers were bad to him and I had time to deal with his threats.
Lesson to learn: Play the deck you’re comfortable with. Like him, I almost audibled to Delver, and would’ve been equally miserable if I had.
Overall, I was happy with my play over the tournament, but unhappy with my drafting. I ended 10-6 and in seventy first place, which was within my expected range but lower than I would’ve guessed.
That night, I went out to eat Vietnamese with some #TeamSS buddies. The prolific Chris Davis (Shyft4,) creator of Seismic Swans and Ghost Dad, who you might know from his CFB Pauper Videos; Chris Mascioli (Brim,) famed curmudgeon; and David Gleicher (gtf,) one of the first strong players I met when I moved to Chicago, a consistent casher and, after Honolulu, a gravy trainer.
Marc, another Chicago player, also tagged along, and we both ordered the Chicken with Spicy Lemongrass, which was decent. After dinner, the whole table played the three card game for standard, where players can’t deck and only have three cards to kill the opponent with. The format diversified quickly, with the first tier deck being Gut Shot, Memnite, Memnite, which lost to Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Plains, Inkmoth Nexus, which lost to Plains, Memnite, Glint Hawk, which in turn lost to the Gut Shot decks. It was an interesting thought experiment, and one I recommend trying out. What’s the best three card deck for Block, or Modern? What does said best deck lose to?
Sunday, February 12th
On Sunday morning, Nick took Jesse and me to the North Shore beach, which was peaceful. We stopped by Matsumoto’s, a shaved ice place and popular tourist spot, and the guy behind the cash register was a magic friend of Nick’s and waved the bill. I ordered a mixture of mango, guava, and some fruit I’d never heard of before with a topping of condensed milk, which I knew I liked from my experience at Snow Factory. We walked along the beach, watching people paddle surf boards and enjoying our shaved ice. The guava was the best.
We showed up at the event site with the top eight already in full swing. We got in a free draft, where I talked my usual trash and was promptly smashed 0-3 (justice) but was carried by my teammates (no justice.) I walked over to the TV screens in time to watch games four and five of the Kibler vs Finkel match, which was epic to watch live.
There was a turn where Kibler had all three Galvanic Blasts and Finkel was at twelve with four land up (including a Moorland Haunt) but nothing to munch on in his graveyard and no reason to tap low. I thought of a line where Kibler Combusts the Snapcaster Mage at sorcery speed, giving Finkel a chance to tap low for a 1/1 and die immediately. Chris Davis thought this was the correct play, but I wasn’t so sure. Against a PTQ grinder, the trick would probably work, but Finkel would have a better time sensing when he’s being led and the play might’ve even tipped Kibler’s hand.
The emotion on Kibler’s face when he’d realized he’d won the match was epic, and definitely worth spending a few more hours of precious Hawaii time in a hall full of magic players.
At around four they ran out of product for the free drafts again, and we left with a group of locals to go eat at a place called the Sweet Home Cafe. The place had a bring-your-own-beer policy, and the beer run gave us something to do during the hour long wait. Apparently, this place was popular, and James kept assuring us it was worth it.
When we got inside, we were given a section that featured three pots of spicy, boiling broth set up on table stoves. We then walked up to a set of refrigerators, grabbed plates of what we wanted in the soup, and dumped it in. Our soup ended up with an eclectic combination of lobster balls, udon noodles, bacon wrapped scallops, pot stickers, straw mushrooms, fish cake on a stick, and my personal favorite, the rib-eye and cheese wantons.
We each got a plate of thinly sliced beef tongue, which we fit into a wire net and held in the boiling soup. Since the broth was so hot, the meat browned right before our eyes, and cooking it reminded me of roasting marshmellows. A second too long, and the meat was too tough.
I started my bowl with a bit of sticky rice before ladling in some broth and special items. There must have been thirty different types of sauces, and I mixed some of the spicier ones in. As we ate, the soup cooked down, and the flavors had more time to mix. Even though we were getting full, the food continued to smell and taste better, and we couldn’t help but keep eating. It was now that the locals informed me there was free dessert. The servers brought out three large bowls containing a mixture of shaved ice, condensed milk, jello chunks, and other such deliciousness. It didn’t look like much, but tasted excellent, and we managed to devour most of it.
That evening we walked along the Waikiki strip, a stretch of beach known for its swimming. Our good spirits were matched by a warm breeze, and torches lit our way. There was a type of tree where the roots grew down from the branches, and with all of its sharp twists I couldn’t resist climbing one. If I’d had another week in Hawaii, one of those branches would’ve been a great place to chill, read a book, and enjoy the view.
Monday, February 13th
On the way to take Jessie to the airport, we stopped by a truck food stand and Nick treated us to a box of malasades, which were a thicker, heavier sort of doughnut. We had chocolate and normal, and both were tasty, although it only took a couple to fill me up.
I got in one more draft with the locals and one more meal (this time at a curry place,) before getting dropped off at the airport. I had a few hours to kill, and spent most of my time there and on the plane working on my article. When I was almost finished, I realized that the tournament report had probably gone on too long if I actually reached the point where I was writing the article, but I didn’t think the story ended until I stepped into the chilly streets of Chicago, with its even chillier looks from strangers.
Home sweet home.