Preparation for PT San Diego started pretty much like the preparation for PT Montreal. We were all going to meet in Eric Froehlich’s gigantic house in Las Vegas, which could comfortably fit the 15 of us and his adorable dog Honey, we’d playtest for about a week, go to GP Portland, and then to San Diego on Monday and test more there. The main difference, at least for me, would be that I would actually be going to the Vegas part of it—last time, I went to GP London and only got to meet the team three days before the tournament when most of the testing was already done.
I left Brazil on Saturday very early, arriving in Miami at about 4 p.m. local time. After a modest two and a half hours in the immigration line, I took my flight to Las Vegas, arriving at around 11 p.m. By that point, my tooth was hurting slightly—it had throbbed a bit for the entire flight, but I took some painkillers and it was fine.
By the time I got to the house, it was hurting more. When I went to sleep, I had to go for a stronger painkiller because the previous one just wasn’t working. Luckily, I actually had those on me. I always travel with a small pharmacy, because in the U.S. it’s often very hard to buy medicine if you do not have a prescription. I took more painkillers on Sunday morning, but it only got worse and I was approaching a point where I wouldn’t be able to take more painkillers anytime soon, so I had to concede defeat and try to find a dentist. Every place I tried to call was closed, since it was not only a Sunday but also a holiday (Cinco de Mayo), but I eventually found a clinic that would open for a modest “emergency fee.” I ended up having to do an emergency root canal, which cost me about five times as much as it would in Brazil, maybe more, but at least it stop hurting and I could go back to testing.
Our Block testing was pretty standard. We built all the decks we thought were good, identified the best, then built new decks and tried them against those. By that point, we (or I) assumed the metagame would be something like 25% red-based super aggro decks (mono-red, Boros, Rakdos, Gruul), 25% green-based aggro-midrange decks (GW, GB, Junk), 40% blue-based control decks (Esper, Grixis, Bant, UWR) and 10% others, with most of that being non-blue control decks (BRW for example).
I think that our biggest mistake in this regard was that initially we overrated the presence of red. We had things like Izzet Staticaster maindeck, for example. But eventually we fixed that (I still expected it to be about 10%, though, and it ended up being much less). We quickly found out that Aetherling was unbeatable in control mirrors and it became our go-to kill condition for blue decks.
Once we had enough information to know that our deck lists were sound, we decided to run a mock tournament. Basically, you give each person a deck, they build a sideboard, and then we simulate a tournament. This is good for two reasons: first, it involves everyone—though we were about 12 at that point, we never really had more than two or three games going on at any point. Second, it lets us test decks in a sideboarded environment, though no one really knows what an optimal sideboard is, some decks get much worse because either there is a lot of sideboard for them (red) or because they don’t have a good sideboard (GW), and it is good to identify those weaknesses.
At that tournament, I played what was my favorite deck at that point—a UR turbo-Aetherling deck splashing black for Far // Away and Slaughter Games. UR had excellent cards against red but struggled with the bigger creatures from GW/GB, but we thought Far // Away might fix that, and it would beat all the control decks because you could run Counterflux and Slaughter Games, therefore winning the Aetherling war. This was the list:
Sideboard (very rough):
I played first against Josh, with a Boros list similar to the one he played in the actual PT to a Top 8 finish. I killed him very easily, 4-1 (we played 2 pre-sideboarded games and 3 sideboarded ones). I then got paired against Gerry with BG and also went 4-1, though that felt harder—he drew a lot more lands than I did and he was playing Corpsejack Menace, which I could Mortars, rather than Goliath or Desecration Demon. I then played against Shahar with UW and also beat him 4-1—he won game one because I played badly but it seems like I was greatly advantaged both pre- and post-board. I won a game off Slaughter Games, which he actually had no outs to (the master plan of Jace ultimate doesn’t work very well when you can’t blink Aetherling), but the other ones were just off of Counterfluxes.
Eventually, we realized red was not going to be such a big part of the metagame, and focused more on black/green/white combinations, which proved to be a problem for the UR deck and led us back to blue/white-based control decks. Varolz, the Scar-Striped in particular was much better than I had expected and I was looking forward to playing more with it. By the time we left for GP Portland, I liked the Junk (WGB) deck we had more than anything else because it seemed to be the best mix of speed and resiliency, but I also liked GW—it was very powerful and beat all the midrange mirrors because of Trostani.
GP Portland was a complete failure for me (I played Scapeshift), so let’s just skip to the following Monday. We considered going back to Vegas for the last three days before the PT, but that seemed counterproductive, so we decided to try and find a place in San Diego. There was no affordable option that would fit all of us, so we settled for simply staying at the hotel. We would get a suite with a lot of room and they said they would be able to put tables in there for us. When we got there, there were no tables to be seen, and they tried to charge us $500 dollars to put one in the room—we complained that the only reason we had gotten the suite and stayed there in the first place was because they said they’d have tables, so they let us use a conference room instead, which was much better than what we imagined.
Testing continued with mostly the same decks: Mono-Red, Junk, Esper, GW. There was a new deck, though, courtesy of Magic Online—BG aggro. Normally we would not put much weight in Online results (especially so soon after the set is released, since cards like Voice of Resurgence cost a billion dollars), but the deck was actually very good. It was 4-0ing the DEs, and it was winning a lot when we played it. That worried me—I thought it was going to be one of the most popular decks in the tournament and didn’t want to lose to it.
Eventually we reverted back to our original Esper configuration, with maindeck Barons. Barons had been tried and abandoned when we assumed everyone would play Mono-Red or Esper, but they are insanely good against any black/green/white configuration (less so against GW because of Advent of the Wurm, but Esper has a lot of ways to deal with that one, so they’re still very good), and they seemed like a good choice again. After much playing and deliberation, we split on two camps: Esper and Junk. A lot of people liked both and were deciding between them (I was in that camp), and some people liked neither and decided to play Boros (Ben, Josh, and Patrick Sullivan).
To me, it seemed like Esper was the better deck, but I was wary of playing it. I had, after all, lost a lot with Esper in the previous months. The problem with it was that we could tweak it to beat anything, but if we got the metagame predictions wrong then we might run into trouble. Eventually we decided that answers were not that different after all—if we expected a lot of Mono-Red and ran into all GW then sure, some cards would be bad, but if we expected BG and ran into GW then we’d still have a very good deck. For some people that was not enough, and they chose to just be proactive, but to the majority of us the deck seemed powerful and versatile enough that, as long as we didn’t get it massively wrong, we would be fine. This is what we played:
Some players had 2 Merciless Evictions and no Angels, but I think that is worse—when I have four Barons in my deck, I want my Wrath to not kill my guys, even if they cost a mana more.
(Editor's Note: This section was added, though it wasn't part of the original article.)
My first draft started well—I took a pack 1 Warped Physique and followed it with a Turn // Burn. Pack three offered Carnage Gladiator and pack four another Gladiator, setting me up for a nice aggressive Rakdos deck. I then got two Dimir Guildgates in a row, and a black Gatekeeper, which made me wonder if I should go Rakdos Aggro or Grixis Control. The indecision continued up to a point where I could take Bane Alley Broker or the 2/1 bloodrush Goblin, and by that point I felt like most of my cards would be better in a focused aggressive deck (especially the two Gladiators), so I took the little red guy and never looked back (I ended up with a Broker still, but that went to my sideboard). My final deck was a pretty good Rakdos splash Blue and I went 3-0 with it.
The Constructed rounds didn’t go so well—I started with a feature match versus Willy, playing Naya, which I lost. The games were fairly interesting and I plan on doing commentary over them in a video soon, so I won’t go into much detail here. After that I played versus two Mono-Red guys, and both beat me in fairly close matches. In fact, I felt like all of my matches were very close—I could basically have won all of them with a different die roll or if I had a fifth land that came into play untapped rather than a Dual Land, for example.
At this point I was pretty devastated, and I got paired against a Maze’s End deck. When I looked at that deck before that tournament, I thought it looked horrible. When I played against it at the PT, my suspicions were confirmed—game one, my opponent just didn’t do anything and died (he had a bunch of Fogs, but without a Howling Mine effect how is he going to keep it going? The fact that I could use Far/Away to bounce my Sin Collectors didn’t help him either). Game two I played a Nightveil Specter on turn three, and on turn four I attacked. He revealed a Boros Guildgate and conceded on the spot. That was my only win in constructed. Round after round I would watch that deck at the PT, and I do not recall it winning a single game, though it must have because those people were still in the tournament and often in high tables. No offense to those who chose to play it (I’ve certainly played some very bad decks at PTs), but I have honestly never seen a deck as bad as this one being played by so many people at the PT and I strongly recommend that you avoid it.
At this point I was still live for Platinum, though I had to 9-0. I got paired against Junk, a version slightly different than the ones with had but with the same basic premise. We split the first two games, but I’m pretty confident because it doesn’t seem like he can actually ever beat a Baron. I don’t draw one in the third game either and end up losing to go 4-4 on the day. At that point, I knew the “dream” was over—I would not be Platinum that season. I was pretty upset, but was still playing for a lot of money and maybe a plane ticket to Dublin if I Top 25'd, so there were still ways to salvage the tournament.
My second draft was much less focused than the first, and therefore much worse. I opened a decent pack and had to choose between Makka and the 4/5 giant that fights a creature at random. I chose Makka. Then, in pack two, I had the choice between Makka and Armed // Dangerous. Armed // Dangerous is a much better card, but I didn’t want to be Gruul after passing a Gruul card (since they control pack 2), so I took the Makka to keep my options open. I regret that; I think Armed/Dangerous is enough better that it is worth the risk. Pack three had a Tithe Drinker and a Gruul War Chant. At this point I should probably have stuck to my strategy of passing Gruul (especially since I passed the Armed // Dangerous) and taken the Vampire, but I think I overestimated the War Chant a bit and thought that maybe I would splash it, and I didn’t want to waste my first two picks, so I took it. Pack four I took a Vorel and pack five a Krasis Incubation, which showed me that Simic was super open; I went to the Gatecrash pack with the intention of drafting it.
That didn’t work out very well; I first picked a Gyre Sage and then got passed a pack with Homing Lightning and no Simic. I took the removal spell and then pack three saw a Shambleshark, but by that point figured I should be in Gruul splash Blue and not the other way around, so I took a Green card. I saw absolutely no Simic that draft, but wheeled the Shambleshark out of a pack that was pretty mediocre, which made me think maybe I really should have been in Simic but the packs were just bad for me.
I ended up with a full three-color deck with some good cards but no fixing, and finished 1-2. In one of my losses I felt completely outclassed, and in the other completely unlucky. I did combo Vorel + Gyre Sage to cast a gigantic Street Spasm in the match I won though, so there’s that.
By the end of the draft, I was playing for Gold with a Top 75—I needed to 5-0 my Constructed rounds. My first opponent quickly put an end to that with his Selesnya deck, and I dropped from the tournament at 5-7. 4-2 in draft and 1-5 in Constructed. Still, I liked my deck. Overall we did very well with it (around 65%), and that’s including my abysmal record. I was very happy with how the team performed as a whole—we were 15 people and every single one of them made Day 2. Josh Top 8'd to steal Player of the Year from Yuuya (which ended up tied for third/fourth after looking like a big favorite for the entire season), Luis Top 16'd to remain Platinum, and so did EFro to top up an incredible season. Of the 17 Platinums this season, nine are from ChannelFireball, which is amazing considering how many good people actually play this game.
As for myself, well, I did very badly this season; I needed a very strong result for Platinum or a decent result for Gold and, since I got neither, I ended up Silver. Ever since 2006, which is when I “went pro”, I’ve been Platinum or an equivalent every year—having such a drastic downgrade is certainly going to impact my life in the upcoming months and I am not sure what I am going to do with it yet. In all likelihood you will probably not see me in as many foreign GPs, as it’s hard to justify the investment right now (plus I graduate at the end of the year and there are many things I still have to do with school), but we’ll see what’s going to happen - maybe I do well in the first Pro Tour of the next season and then I’ll start chasing Pro Points around the globe again.
There weren’t many interesting situations to talk about, so I’ll leave you with a quick breakdown on how I think the matches play out against the main decks:
I think that if you draw Supreme Verdict, you’re a heavy favorite to win the match. If you don’t, you’re a heavy favorite to lose. On the play, you can usually Jace on turn four and then try to dig for the Verdict, but on the draw that is often too slow. Boros is a much worse matchup because Verdict is the single best card you can have and they have more answers to those, which is probably bad for Esper players because it will be more common now that Josh Top 8'd with it. If you expect a lot of red, Blood Baron of Vizkopa is not actually great, and Obzedat is better. After board, you don’t want many expensive cards—the five-drops are better than Aetherlings. I like Syncopate a lot on the play and not at all on the draw, and I think having two Sin Collectors is fine, since every card they potentially board against you is a spell (even though I do not think Skullcrack is good, they’d much rather have Mortars for Captain/Baron).
This matchup is good for you. If the guy in the finals were playing our Esper list (or Mihara’s for that matter), I don’t think Wescoe would have been the winner. Verdict is still your best card, and drawing (and resolving it through Rootborn Defenses) still correlates more to winning than anything else, but it is not as necessary as against red because you have a lot more time to play cards such as Baron and Far // Away. Sin Collector is also better against them, since they have more targets and the cards you do take out are some of the best in their deck (Advent of the Wurm, Rootborn Defenses). Syncopate is again horrendous on the draw but fine on the play, though Sin Collector is usually better.
Vs. GB or Junk:
This matchup is worse than both GW and Mono-Red because it combines the elements of both that are bad for you. They’re fast and resilient at the same time (which basically means sometimes you need Wrath to beat them, but having it doesn’t mean you win nearly as much). Our list is very heavily skewed towards beating it, with access to four Blood Baron of Vizkopas, four Far // Aways, and cards like Merciless Eviction and Angel of Serenity in the sideboard, so we thought we would have a decent matchup. When deciding between Esper and Junk, I thought we’d have a good matchup with both against each other, because our Esper list was better against Junk/BG than the average Esper list, but our Junk/BG lists should be favored versus the field Esper. It seemed more people played Barons main than we expected, though, which makes it a little worse for Junk there.
These matches are very interesting, because there are very few cards that matter but there is still play to it. It’s not like Nephalia Drownyard. I think there are two main stages of it: the Jace, Architect of Thought stage and the Aetherling stage. The Aetherling stage will define the game, since there are no answers to it in any of the decks—if you have a resolved Aetherling and the opponent does not, you will very likely win. Winning the Jace stage means you are more likely to win the Aetherling stage—it’s like a subgame. Think of it as a Shahrazad—whoever loses that subgame has a much harder job winning the actual game, but it is definitely doable.
In the Jace subgame, there are two possible scenarios—either you can afford to wait or you can’t. Being able to “afford to wait” is defined by multiple factors, such as whether you have a ton of lands in your hand, whether you have a backup plan if your Jace gets countered, whether you know how many counterspells they play or whether you can beat an opposing Jace. If you are stuck on four lands, it makes no sense to not play your Jace, because eventually you will be forced to do something anyway. There are only 3-4 counterspells in most lists, so just go for it. If you have resources, then I’d say you usually don’t go for it. In a scenario in which one person plays Jace, Architect of Thought and the other person has Syncopate + Jace, the second person is usually favored. Since that is true, it’s often right to simply pass rather than running your Jace into open mana even if you do not have a counterspell—they will not want to expose themselves to this happening.
Because Aetherling is so powerful and ignores everything, you have to make sure you do not lose to it. If your opponent has access to Aetherling mana and you do not know for a fact that he doesn’t have it (such as Sin Collector), do not run into it. Whatever it is that your opponent is doing and you want to stop is probably not as important. He wants to Revelate for 4? Let him, that’s not nearly as important because most of the deck is air. (Though, of course you can counter it if it will not leave you exposed to Aetherling). As a general rule, I like to have at least 8 lands in play before I play Aetherling, since it’s likely they’ll have two ways to kill it by the time it happens, but Sin Collectors lets you do that with only one. Whatever happens in the game, know that you can win by simply sticking an Aetherling—do not think the game is lost simply because the opponent has drawn 10 more cards than you, sometimes they have no answer and just die.
When both players have Aetherling, it’s a race. Cards that matter are now lands, cards that make them blink their Aetherlings (Azorius Charm, Far // Away), and Sphinx's Revelation because it gives you some time and draws you into those cards. You usually want to ignore anything else that is happening—just attack for as much as you can as long as you leave enough lands to protect your Aetherling. Do not ever let them block with their Sin Collector if you can help it. If you have more lands than they do, blink your Aetherling to force them to spend one more mana on their turn to make it unblockable. Remember that you can use Azorius Charm to gain life which is sometimes more efficient than using it to blink their Aetherling.
After board, the game changes radically. Players tap out every turn for various things and you might be facing a deck that has 4 creatures in it or 15. Some people board Nightveil Specters, some people board Precinct Captains, some people Obzedat, Ghost Council, some people board Notion Thief, some people board Counterspells, and some people board all of the above.
If you expect a lot of control cards and get Precinct-Captain'd, well, sucks for you. If they board in Captains and Specters and you Wrath them, sucks for them. The best card in my opinion is the Specter—it is good versus all their plans, it blocks Captain if they have it, it sometimes actually races Aetherling and it comes in before they can punish you by tapping out, especially if you’re on the play. Sometimes they have to tap out on turn three to answer it, and then you Jace them, which they have to tap out to answer, then you Obzedat them, and so on. Having Specters and Obzedats makes Dispel good, since those are good threats to protect, and those cards make Aetherling slightly less important (though still very important). After board, I’m fine with playing Aetherling with only one mana up (or even with no mana up) because it’s very likely that they a) have less answers and b) have already used many of the answers they have in your previous targets.
As I said before, I liked the deck. I would not change anything in the main, I don’t think, though I would definitely go up to four Specters (taking out a Connections and something else)—they were the best card in our sideboards and they are also very good against the Bant list that StarCity played. If you expect more Boros, then some changes might be in order. Maindeck Precinct Captain, like the Czechs played, is a possibility. If you expect a lot of Junk or GW, you can go Mihara’s way and play some Woodlot Crawlers (though I think four is excessive).
I hope you’ve enjoyed this, and see you in Mexico next weekend!