It's been a while since I had a tournament result that inspired me to write about the event, and even longer since that event was a Pro Tour. Finishing outside the money (and in most cases, the second day) at Pro Tours Hawaii, Barcelona, Seattle, and Montreal was not pleasant. That, combined with my attendance at more Grand Prix this season than any other (and mediocre results there, too), led me to put some serious thought into what was happening.
Was I doing something wrong? Was I getting horrendously unlucky? What could I do to fix things? Was going to all these events worth it?
Unsurprisingly, there was no easy answer to any of the questions. As the wise Shuhei Nakamura would say, “both is ok.” I was doing things wrong, I was also getting somewhat unlucky, fixing things was possible, and my schedule was something I'd need to take a look at.
One of the biggest changes this year was certainly my new work schedule. Instead of managing ChannelFireball and practicing for Magic events, I found myself working normal office hours, still being involved with the website, and attempting to practice for Magic events. Luckily, Andy has done a fantastic job as Editor-in-Chief, though I still have plenty to do here. The biggest hit I took was going from playing Magic 20-30 hours a week on average to a number closer to 5-10. Instead of feeling reasonably prepared for most Grand Prix, I was playing decks with less testing behind them, and I was just playing way less overall.
That certainly hurt, and at the beginning of last year I was hardest hit. The adjustment period was difficult—I wasn't used to having to budget my time so precisely. I was able to mostly fix that for the latter half of the season, once I realized how it was hurting my chances, but in the beginning I was at a definite disadvantage.
It is worth noting that I didn't cut back on PT testing, and my bad run of Pro Tours actually started well before I even knew I was going to get a new job. That does show that my season wasn't solely caused by new demands on my time, even if they were a factor.
As self-indulgent as it may be, I do believe I was on the negative end of a few coinflips last season. Even if I wasn't in top form, bricking on four Pro Tours in a row seems like it takes some work. Bad luck shouldn't stop you from fixing things you could do better, but it is useful to realize that sometimes you do just get whammied, regardless of how prepared you are or how well you play. Ideally, you are as well-prepared and skillful as possible, therefore needing less lucky breaks than others, but realistically, anyone in a Top 8 was on the positive side of a few coinflips throughout the event.
I'm not going to claim that a full-on Rocky montage happened, but I did do a good amount of self-reflection after PT Montreal. It felt like the straw that broke the camel's back, and I didn't know how much more losing I could take. A couple friends helped me immensely.
Thanks to Ben Stark, I actually got way more serious about working out. After the move to Denver last year, I had gotten pretty lax about getting exercise, and Ben's commitment to working out during PT testing (and dragging me along with him) led to me doing much more of that once I got home. It helped take my mind off Magic, and overall has helped me feel quite a bit better, especially during long events. I made time to play basketball and work out during PT testing for San Diego, and I'd highly recommend it for improving focus.
Talking with EFro was also valuable. As I'm sure most of my team had noticed, I wasn't nearly as happy as I used to be at events (or jolly, as EFro called it). My enthusiasm for Magic had really been diminished by losing, and that was certainly not a good thing. EFro knew where I was coming from, but pointed out how much worse it was for me to be unhappy about my results. It made me less invested, and could have a severe impact on my ability to ignore past results and focus on the future.
I couldn't pretend everything had gone swimmingly, but I tried my best to not dwell on it during PT testing, and I think I was reasonably successful. Thanks to the Frodog Millionaire, I felt much better about San Diego, and decided to take things as they came. Also, San Diego has great Mexican food, which helped.
The first phase of testing took place in the middle of the desert, also known as Las Vegas. EFro's house has become the unofficial CFB headquarters as of late, based only on on its proximity to where people live, size, niceness, swimming pool, dog, and distance from awesome restaurants. That's it, though.
We assembled the legion about a week before GP Portland, with a lucky few getting caught up in the action even earlier. Even though a Modern GP was the first tournament on the agenda, I don't think any of us played a game of Modern besides Conley (who was testing neo-Eggs). Organized Play has since avoided scheduling Constructed GPs the week before the PT, which is great. Limited GPs work well, but nobody wants to playtest a different Constructed format a week before a Pro Tour, and it wouldn't work to make them the same Constructed format. There are plenty of weekends for Grand Prix that aren't the week before a PT, so hopefully Portland is the last we see of this.
GerryT and I ended up playing his Tron list:
I added an extra Celestial Colonnade, and should have played the 4th. Colonnade is so sweet, and Mapping for it is surprisingly good. Tron was decent, though I ended up losing to Affinity, Jund, and UWR to miss Day 2 at 6-3. I wish I had played Melira Pod—the deck was already solid, and the addition of Voice of Resurgence added way more than I realized. Sam Pardee earned a well-deserved victory, and both he and Matt Nass made Top 8 (Sam's report can be found here).
After enjoying some waffles from the Waffle Window with Pat Cox and the Ocho in Portland, I did a few team drafts and watched the rest of the tournament.
Our flight to San Diego was on Sunday night, a move that ended up working very well. Most of us had a very pleasant 3-hour direct flight to San Diego, and after Martin generously gave his 1st class upgrade to BenS, Ben and I had some good conversations that I'm sure entertained the rest of the cabin.
Of course, the rest of the foreigners had multiple connections and got there 12 hours later, but that was their call.
In order to get a place to test without resorting to cramming into the lobby, I had called up the site hotel some weeks earlier to discuss options. We ended up booking a bunch of normal rooms and a suite, after they suggested the plan of moving tables and chairs into the suite. Once we got there, the hotel decided it would be easier to just give us their conference room for 4 days:
The room was even (somewhat) soundproof, which was good considering our team's propensity to start late and test late. We got tons of games in over the next four days, and as usual, we were much more on-task the last four days of testing than the first week.
Because the PT was Block, I realize that not everything we learned from it is directly applicable to more popular formats, but there were still some interesting lessons:
These guys are awesome, and I'm not even trolling. Varolz, the Scar-Striped in particular is powerful enough that I'd be surprised if he didn't see a good amount of play in both Standard and Modern. Lotleth Troll combines quite well with Varolz, making real use of trample to just end the opponent. We extensively tested both GB aggro and Junk, with Shuhei, Kibler, Matt Nass, and Gerry all including Lotleth Trolls and Voice of Resurgences in their PT deck:
This is the list Kibler played, with Shuhei and Matt Nass playing similar lists (Gerry's was even more different).
Voice of Resurgence is unbelievable. It's the reason that GW, Junk, and Bant exist, and will continue to make its mark on all Constructed formats. It's not hard to point to this as the most powerful card in the set, at the ridiculous cost of two mana. I do find it funny that we decided to play a blue deck full of counters despite expecting a ton of Voices, but it's a decision I think we all stand by.
Here's the skipper. Aetherling costs a ton of mana, but is basically unstoppable assuming you have survived until you have seven or more lands in play. Granted, that's almost a victory condition by itself in Constructed, but I can't really remember a more unkillable finisher. It clocks for 8 a turn, blocks almost anything, and dodges every removal spell save Pithing Needle (which still leaves you a 4/5). Playing two to three Aetherlings was standard for all our control decks, and we expected nothing less from most of our opponents.
This card is still insane, as Wrapter proved by capping off his incredibly sick year with a PT Top 8 (congrats, by the way... sack). That BTE is ridiculous should be no surprise, but I thought I'd mention that it was one of the pillars of our gauntlet.
Surprisingly, Sphinx's Revelation was not actually insane in Block. We played three, and it's very possible that we should only have played two. It just affects the board less than similarly-costed or cheaper plays (Angel of Serenity, Aetherling, Blood Baron of Vizkopa), and it doesn't draw into anything better than playing those cards. I'm not saying that the card is bad, just that it's not as absurd as it is in Standard. Us realizing that was helpful to our testing, even if we ended up on three Revelations in the end.
I was surprised to learn that a number of other teams didn't like Azorius Charm. Voice of Resurgence certainly makes it weaker, but it's still so good at being a removal spell that helps you hit land drops that I didn't like cutting it. We considered doing so, but ultimately decided that it was just too good at what it did to leave on the sidelines, especially with Varolz types of Trolls running around.
Far // Away impressed us early on, and pretty quickly became a 4-of in most of our Esper and Grixis lists. We did expect more GB aggro than there ended up being, but even with the amount of GW around I was happy with how many we played. This card was one of the main reasons to be Esper, and I'm interested in trying it in Standard (though it does lose a little luster when paired against Thragtusk over and over).
These cards obviously compete for the same slots, and we ended up making a metagame call by maindecking the Baron and siding Obzedat. Baron is insane against all the aggro and midrange decks (when combined with Sin Collector it even survives Mortars against mono-red), though it's fairly soft to control. It did end up being good against Bant, but wasn't great in the Esper mirror. I'd probably lean towards Obzedat in Standard, but keeping Baron in mind as a sideboard card would be wise. Its power level is quite high, and it has the potential to just crush some decks.
Here we have the actual best reason to play Esper. Sin Collector was insane, and hands-down the best card in the control mirrors. Providing a cheap 2-for-1, a good amount of information, and a great draw early and late, Sin Collector is a card I expect to see a lot of in Standard. It also trumped Counterflux, which was another card I really liked in the control mirrors.
Jace matched up incredibly well with the threats in Block, and was easily one of the most powerful engines. I don't expect him to have the same success in current Standard, but would definitely keep an eye on him once Innistrad rotates.
Here is the Esper list that about half of our team played (EFro, Web, Martin, PV, Shahar, Brock, Conley, and myself):
There were a few minor differences among our lists (PV had an Angel of Serenity, Efro had a 3rd Dispel, Conley had a Notion Thief, etc), but the vast majority of the list was the same. As I mentioned before, we built this for a metagame heavier with green decks (GB specifically), but were happy enough to play against control. Our sideboard ended up being excellent, with Nightveil Specter and Precinct Captains being the standouts for me. I'd definitely play 3-4 Specters if I had to do it again, which may be relevant to the very few people playing in the MOCS this weekend.
Now, to the actual tournament!
My tournament started off with a covered draft, and the draft viewer can be found here.
Having my draft covered was awesome, since I would get to hear about what I could have done better by BenS once the day was over (and that's exactly what happened). I started with RUG cards, though Ben thinks I should have taken Armed // Dangerous pick 2 over Krasis Incubation, despite Incubation being a better card. Had I done so, I would have cut Gruul harder, and may have ended up with a more focused pack 2. I did end up with a kind of scattered draft deck, so Ben is probably right:
Splashing the Zhur-Taa Druid is a bit greedy, but my curve was high enough that I thought it was worth the inconsistency (as I usually do when making decisions).
The first round went well, but the next two did not. I beat a nice fellow by the name of Thomas Rickarby before losing to Denniz Rachid and Martin Yuuuuuuuza. Martin rolled Aurelia, the Warleader right off the top, and she combined well with the Pyrewild Shaman in his hand to just kill me.
The draft didn't go smoothly for another member of our team either, as Shahar managed to 0-3 with the following menagerie:
After starting 1-2, I was ready to put Esper to the test. I've traditionally done much better in Constructed than Limited, though I suppose this year I did Top 8 two Limited GPs with absolutely no help from Pack Rat or Mizzium Mortars (hey, someone has to open both cards twice, and it might as well be me).
Round 4 did not go according to plan. I battled against Paul Ewenstein, who was playing GW, and discarded to hand size both games one and three. Game one was easily the most frustrating game of the tournament, as I died from 16 to a Selesnya Charm token (eventually joined by a second), with 7 cards in hand at all times.
After this round, I was not feeling great. That round of Constructed felt like it summed up my entire year, and the thought of ending my season without even getting a shot to play for Platinum was incredibly tilting. I was done quickly enough that I took a short walk around the site, and talked to the friends I saw while doing so. I realized that worrying about how badly my tournament was going just wasn't productive, and I would have plenty of time to think about how unlucky I was and how frustrating it was after the event. I managed to put all that behind me and continue to battle.
My next four rounds were quite the turnaround. I beat, in succession, GW, Shahar (or as we affectionally call him, Razad) playing the same 75, Bant Control, and UWR control. There were some nice highlights from these rounds:
• Playing Day9 at 1-3 wasn't exactly what I envisioned coming in, but it was actually awesome. He was a blast to play against and talk to, and it honestly helped me start enjoying the event and get back into focus. Our match had close games 1 and 2, but his mulligan game 3 plus my triple-Blood Baron of Vizkopa let me earn my first Constructed win.
• Against Bant Control/Midrange, I sided in Nightveil Specters (mainly because they are awesome). In game 2, I was facing down lethal with a Specter out, so I decided to just attack before Wrathing. What card did I flip?
Whoops. All of a sudden, my Specter survived and I got to wipe my opponent's board, which I followed up next turn by flipping Dispel off Specter. After I killed my opponent with that same Specter, he showed me the Sphinx's Revelation he drew immediately after I flipped the Dispel.
• My battle against Alexandru Stefanescu playing UWR was one of the more satisfying control mirrors I've played in a long time. Because of Sin Collectors, I knew his hand almost the whole time, and between that and drawing a ton of counters, I was able to maneuver both games to exactly where I wanted them.
After starting 1-3, being 5-3 didn't feel so bad. I knew coming in that I probably needed a 12-4 to Top 16 and hit Platinum, and my tiebreakers were going to be bad enough to prevent me from drawing in the last round.
Sadly, PV's dream was dead. He was 4-4, which let him play Day 2, but he needed a Top 8 to Platinum. His season was somehow worse than mine, likely due in large part to being unable to attend as many GPs, and watching him end on such a sour note was terrible. Hopefully next year is significantly better (we'll break it for Dublin, or at least that's the plan).
The rest of the squad was in good spirits, with all 15 of us making Day 2, albeit with our fair share of 4-4s and 5-3s.
My draft pod for Day Two only contained one familiar face:
129 Moreno Morales, Fra * [ESP]
130 Aintrazi, Ali * [USA]
131 Denno, Sebastian * [CAN]
132 Scott-Vargas, Luis * [USA]
133 Le Friant, Christop * [USA]
134 Passow, Christopher * [DEU]
135 Edgerle, Nick * [USA]
136 Rodriguez, Javier * [ARG]
I knew Ali Aintrazi, United States National Champion in Perpetuity (since Nationals as we know it is gone), but didn't recognize the other guys in our pod.
This draft went much more smoothly, though it was a little odd in that I was straight Orzhov without any good Gatecrash cards. That's quite the rarity, and came about as a result of Orzhov being super open pack 1, having me cut it, and having the guy to my left go into Orzhov pack 2. That's not necessarily unwise on his part, because I'm sure it was very open, but it was bad news for me. Luckily, I opened well and got a ton of Orzhov pack 1 and exactly what I needed pack 3, so my deck ended up quite strong:
Lyev Decree was the last card I added, mostly because I knew how good Huey Jensen kept saying it was. It won me two games, so I have to admit Huey was right to love the card (and by “love the card” I mean tell me it's terrible and that under no circumstances should I play it).
I had two dramatically different matches in round 9 and 10. In round 9, I battled against Christopher Passow, the player I was passing to, and both of our draws were exceedingly mediocre all three games.
I lost game 1 to an Armadillo Cloaked 3/3, won game 2 off some profitable trades, and managed to steal game 3 against an 8/8 lifelinker on defense by peeling Maw of the Obzedat, slamming with everything, and sacrificing what he blocked.
Nick Edgerle was my next opponent, and this wasn't the first time I'd faced him. I had forgotten, but apparently we played for Top 8 at US Nationals (the one Ali won, even). After he played some original Arena basics I remembered the previous match, since those basics are awesome.
My opening hand, on the play, was this in game one:
This is about the best draw I can think of, with a sick curve and my best card. Nick's draw was also great, curving into the following cards:
It was funny when I detained his Piker to get Captain through on turn three, and then sadly had to stop him from attacking on his turn. It would have been much better if he had to hit me and tap his guy, but that isn't how that interaction works. We had a tight race, but Blood Baron of Vizkopa and Lyev Decree—cards of similar power level—did a lot of work and I ended up winning by a comfortable margin once the Baron got online.
When I got paired against Ali the next round, he conceded, knowing I was in the hunt for Platinum. He said that Platinum meant a lot more to me than the tournament meant to him, and I definitely appreciated the gesture. Ali ended up going 4-1 in the Constructed portion, but his tiebreakers left him at 29th place. I've conceded other times in events, and know it's always a tough decision (though I haven't even been doing well enough to do that lately). Oddly enough, in three of the tournaments where I scooped early I made Top 8 (Nationals 2007, GP San Francisco 2007, and Lincoln 2012). Sometimes you play against a friend and want them to hit their goals, and the win just means less to you than it does them.
The second Constructed portion was it—my final shot to lock up Platinum for the next year. As BenS said when I was 3-3, I was in for a good sweat. He predicted that I would end up like 7-4 or 8-4, and would have a couple fun rounds before finding out whether I succeeded or not. Ben does like action, and he correctly predicted my situation, as it turns out.
My first match, against Nicholas Cuenca, wasn't really close to being close. I lost an Aetherling race to Azorius Charm game one (I needed to flip Psychic Strike or Sin Collector off Jace, and didn't), and never played a 4th land game two.
Just like that, my back was against the wall, Ben was getting his sweat, and I was prepared for some emotional swings over the next few hours.
My match against Jeremy Dezani was the most intense of the entire tournament. I lost game one handily after he resolved and used a Jace like 10 times. Game two was equally one-sided, as he countered my first two plays and then just died to a Blood Baron.
Game three was a grind, but I had resigned myself to a loss once the gamestate was the following:
Not only was I just dead on board, but even my draw step (which was about to happen) couldn't yield anything that let me live against Counterflux. EFro was watching, and we both knew that my dream was dead. I wasn't going to be Platinum, and my tournament was effectively over.
I dejectedly drew a Jace, Architect of Thought (best card in the deck), and tossed it out.
What just happened? Did I win this game?
I immediately +1'd Jace, hit for 8, and watched my opponent realize what just happened. He was so focused on countering whatever I -2'd into off Jace that he didn't realize that Jace was actually the only thing that could save me. I Dispelled the last-ditch Sphinx's Revelation he had to tap out for, and won the unwinnable game.
To recap: I was 0% to win, drew the 3-outer to even have a theoretical chance, and my opponent momentarily blanked and allowed me to steal the game. If that didn't make me feel like Platinum was happening, nothing would.
Despite needing three more, I was feeling very Zen. After all, I had just lost in almost every possible universe, so I was on a giant freeroll anyways. I was no longer feeling anxious (well, at least not as anxious), and was just ready to fight my last three rounds.
My next opponent was Hao-Shan Huang, from Taiwan. Unfortunately for him, this had to be one of the least close PT matches I've ever played. He was on one of the Maze's End decks, and after Sin Collecting him multiple times, I was able to easily outrace the Maze's End.
There was a funny spot in game two when I attacked with a bunch of creatures. He cast a foreign Renounce the Guilds, so I sacrificed my Sin Collector and had him take 8. He looked at me, confused, and pointed to his card again. I took a closer look and realized it was actually a Riot Control. Good beats. He took nothing and gained 4, then died two turns later to my army.
I faced off against Sethsilp Chanpleng this round, from Thailand. I asked if he knew Sukhum Kiwanont, another Thai player against whom I played one of the biggest matches of my career. Unsurprisingly, they were acquainted, as Sukhum is a fairly active player with a number of good results.
After a quick game one (I mulled six land Syncopate into a 2-lander and just died), I was able to slow down the pace of play the next two games. Sethsilp was on Jund Aggro, and I just slammed Blood Baron of Vizkopas and Aetherlings into play until he died. Sin Collecting an Act of Treason was crucial game three, as was him missing his third land drop.
This was too perfect. Not only was I playing for Platinum in the last round of the tournament and season, so was my opponent, Ari Lax. As he pointed out, we were also playing for the honor of being the Top Dimir mage in the world, a game almost as large.
Feature match coverage can be found here.
Unfortunately for Ari, the match was about as anti-climactic as the coverage describes. I resolved four Jaces in quick succession game one, using the -2 ability seven times in four turns, which put me infinitely far ahead.
After siding in all my creatures, I curved out into the following:
12-4, 11th place, $5000.00, Platinum, relief, excitement, happiness.
This was one of the most important tournaments of my Magic-playing career. More than the tangible rewards of being Platinum (which aren't trivial), this helped me feel good about playing again, and made me feel like I was rewarded for preparing and playing well. I don't want to be too results-based—I understand that even if I did terribly I would have prepared well and (possibly) played well. Still, I received precious little of that reinforcement over the past year and a half, and getting rewarded for doing my best to be in the best position to win really helped. I'm not saying I didn't deserve some of the beats I've taken, but getting the feedback that if I focus and manage my time well I can reverse the trend is very encouraging. Also, Jundstice.
Doing coverage in the Top 8 was also awesome, and hitting the sweet spot of making Platinum but still being free to do coverage was a nice twist of fate. I certainly would have been happy to do coverage even if I did poorly in the tournament, but I can't imagine it would have been as much fun. Watching Josh lose a horrendous matchup wasn't exactly how I would script things, but Wescoe's deck looked pretty awesome, and his win was well-deserved.
I'm glad to get past this year and move onto the next, but still have to congratulate Team ChannelFireball on another great year. Josh won Player of the Year, EFro and BenS had amazing seasons, David Ochoa made his first Pro Tour Top 8, and we once again have half the Players Championship, with Kibler, Shaharazad, Shuey Noks, and the Juzam Djinn picking up the other four slots. Sadly, I'm not among that group (I barely missed, if by “barely missed” I mean I spiked an incredible finish in the last event of the year to still be a couple points short).
Watching Owen get his first Top 8 this year was also awesome, and long overdue, and the same is true of GerryT. The race for “best player without a PT Top 8” is once again wide open, as three of the best candidates all disqualified themselves in quick succession (though my vote is still Paul Cheon).
Not everyone on our team got there at PT San Diego, and even though I wish they had, hopefully next year will be much better. Another win would have done wonders for Kibler, Conley, and PSulli, and a few more for Gerry, but there will be more opportunities. I was really happy with our team's prep for this event, and it'll be interesting to see how we manage our time come Dublin.
Thanks to everyone for all the support and kind words. It meant a lot to know that people were rooting for me, and I'm glad I was able to finish the season strong.
Sample hands from my two draft decks: