The most important thing to realize about the format going into the Pro Tour was that playing control was basically going to be impossible. First of all, you had to contend with a brand new, wide open format, where you would be facing a ton of wildly varying strategies. It’s always very hard to build a control deck right for a new format, and Modern was far newer and larger a format than normal, making it all the harder. Now, that in itself doesn’t make control unplayable, but it does mean that few players are going to show up with control decks, and it does make playing control high-risk. If it’s also high-reward, though, then it may well be worth it, which leads into control’s second big problem: all of the best incentives for playing it were banned. It’s not like a control deck was going to have the advantage on raw card power like it might have if it had access to Jace, Ancestral Vision, and Mental Misstep. And then to top it all off was of course control’s biggest obstacle: Cloudpost.
So the format’s two early front-runners, Cloudpost and Zoo, were largely non-interactive turn four decks at best, and control looked to be essentially unplayable. The format could not have looked riper for combo decks, and with such a wide card pool there was certainly no shortage of viable combos to work with.
In my mind, the key was to find the fastest possible combo deck. Given that everyone else playing in the Pro Tour was also likely to be driven towards combo, I thought it was going to be important to greatly prioritize speed over resiliency. In a format full of non-interactive decks, all I wanted was the fastest goldfish.
An important realization was that Lotus Bloom was too slow for this tournament. You HAD to be aiming to kill turn three.
This train of thought is what led me to initially liking Swath Storm, our best goldfish deck at the time. It wasn’t a particularly stable deck - it mulliganed terribly and stone fizzled a disturbing percentage of games. It certainly didn’t stand up to a counterspell very well. But I could accept all of these issues; you had to, to optimize for speed. Still, these problems meant that while I thought Swath was good, it wasn’t great. I wouldn’t have been unhappy playing it in the Pro Tour, but I was hoping that we could find something better.
At around this point in our testing, with Swath safely tucked away as a fine choice if nothing better presented itself, I actually declared, “I am DEFINITELY not playing Zoo.”
The push to sacrifice resiliency for speed led me to try making this deck work:
It was not very good. I liked it because it had the potential to turn two kill, and had a pretty consistent turn three goldfish, but it did not stand up to disruption well at all. Ultimately, this is a bad Shoal Infect deck. If you can stick a fragile combo creature, Blighted Agent asks less from your deck than Puresteel Paladin does.
It wasn’t until after dismissing this deck that we found the Infect deck, though. I stumbled across it going through all the online daily lists during some down-time Sunday at the Grand Prix, and was immediately excited about it and threw together a list. The Czechs independently did the same, and when we compared notes our lists couldn’t have been more different. My list ended up looking pretty similar to the Sam Black / John Stoltzman build, though I never got away from playing Black for Inquisition of Kozilek, Plague Stinger, and Plunge into Darkness (and their mono-Blue list definitely looks better to me). Meanwhile, the Czechs were playing a fetchland / shockland manabase and full sets of Spoils of the Vault, Plunge into Darkness, Gitaxian Probe, Street Wraith, Dark Confidant, Night's Whisper, Dismember, and Ad Nauseam. Amazingly, I’m only kidding about those last four.
I liked the infect deck; it was the first deck since Swath that I entertained any serious notions of playing. It was insane against Cloudpost and other combo decks, so we focused our efforts testing it against the creature decks. Zoo was a nightmare for our untuned lists, and Affinity was closer but also not favorable. We couldn’t think of any way to really turn the creature matchups around, and we did not consider showing up with a deck that couldn’t beat Zoo a viable option. With so little time to go, we set the deck aside to focus on Zoo and Swath.
It wasn’t until others on the team were considering maindeck Mana Leak in Zoo that I came around to even the possibility of playing the deck. I hadn’t really considered playing an interactive Wild Nacatl deck, but that was exactly what Kibler was building. His Zoo list was the closest thing to a control deck you could realistically play. The maindeck Mana Leaks may not have lasted, but my interest in the deck did.
I was still very far from sold on the deck, though. All of the problems that control decks had may have been somewhat mitigated in Zoo, but were still very much applicable. What eventually sold me on Zoo was not that I thought the deck was good. It was that I thought that every deck in the tournament was going to be terrible. Everyone was going to be playing flimsy, inconsistent messes, because you had to to compete on speed. Against that field, all I wanted was something stable, that could present just enough interaction to let its opponents collapse in on themselves, and that’s exactly what Zoo offered. I wasn’t thrilled with the choice, but it was the best we had.
The “speed over resiliency” line of reasoning proved to be a popular one at the Pro Tour, explaining the preponderance of “belcher” decks in the tournament. It also proved to be somewhat incorrect. In my eyes, the decks that performed the best were not the fastest, but the ones that were most able to interact with the fast decks, and stand up to interaction themselves. Splinter Twin outperformed the storm decks. Mono-Blue infect outperformed the suicide builds. And Wild Nacatl proved to be one of the format’s best cards. In the end, most of us were wrong about the format. The key wasn’t finding the fastest possible deck; it was figuring out how to play as many counterspells as possible, while still being fast enough to beat Cloudpost.
Though our Zoo list performed pretty well, it was very far from perfect. We grossly overestimated how many creature decks were going to show up. In hindsight, it shouldn’t really be surprising just how much combo was played, but our predictions going in were off and that meant our deck was off. We were too heavily skewed versus aggro: Lightning Bolt, Lightning Helix, and Elspeth were all pretty embarrassing against most of the field. When you consider that these cards also only shine in specific creature matchups - neither Bolt nor Helix are awesome in the big Zoo mirror since they don’t kill anything that’s actually important, and Elspeth isn’t great versus fast Zoo or Affinity - you really have to question why we played so many. Elspeth at least was very good against Post, but if we knew the field going in we certainly should have cut at least the Helices for spells better suited for interacting with combo, like Spell Pierce, Mana Leak, or Flashfreeze. If we had actually predicted the field right, though, I don’t think we should have been playing Zoo at all. I think that Infect (in particular Sam Black’s list) was the best choice for the tournament. Our list was okay to good against the field full of Belcher decks, but Infect was great, and its bad matchups didn’t have much of a presence (especially if you were to take our team out of Zoo’s 15.59% of the field). That said, I am very confident that we had the best deck in the tournament for best 3 of 5 matches...
For reference, after the usual last minute scramble where we spend a significant amount of money at the dealers buying cards we have back in the hotel room, only to weaken our sideboard with the frantic changes, this is where I ended up:
I started off the tournament beating Twin, Affinity, Suicide Infect, Molten Rain Zoo, and Hive Mind. Just like that, I found myself drafting in pod one under the scrutiny of the draft viewer.
If I could offer you just one piece of draft advice, it would be this: always draft like you are being covered for a draft viewer.
Since I am not just limited to one piece, though, let me also say that I think White is the best color in M12 draft. It’s the deepest color at common, and its commons come together to form a consistent and synergistic aggressive deck with a smooth curve. Red is “stronger” at common than White, but the problem is that too much of its strength is concentrated in its best commons. Where White has two common cards that draw drafters into it early, Red has five. Unsurprisingly, this results in your typical table having more Red drafters than White, when based on average card strength Red really shouldn’t be getting drafted more. Black both isn’t as deep as White, and really wants you to commit heavily to the color.
This isn’t to say that I force White, just that I display a clear preference towards it. I like to stay flexible and move into whatever color looks to be the most open (note: Green doesn’t count as a color), but when a pick comes down to two cards similar in power level, I take the White card over the non-White one even if it’s a little worse. For example, I’ll take Pacifism over Doom Blade.
You can check out the draft viewer for the first draft here.
I’m pretty happy with how I drafted, and was very happy with the deck I ended up with. My first two picks were Call to the Grave and Gorehorn Minotaurs, but when White showed signs of being open I was able to get away from both of them and ended up with a strong White Blue aggro deck. Though sadly, it wasn’t as spicy as it might have been, as I had trips of both Mesa Enchantress and Griffin Rider marooned in my sideboard.
The one pick I really dislike was taking Drifting Shade over Aether Adept pack one pick five. My logic at the time was that I was essentially picking between Call to the Grave plus Drifting Shade versus Aether Adept, which was true. There were two factors which swayed the balance towards Adept, though. The first is that Blue was much more likely to be open: the Adept represented a clear signal, whereas the Shade did not. The second is that at that point I was almost certainly locked in to White, with a Stormfront Pegasus and Gideon's Lawkeeper in my pile and White (or Blue) looking to be the most open color. Neither Call to the Grave nor especially Drifting Shade are very attractive to a base-White deck, whereas Aether Adept is one of the cards you want the most. The way things ended up going, missing out on that Adept, and shipping it to Sebastian Thaler on my left, almost certainly cost me 3-0ing the pod.
In round six I was paired against a friend from NorCal, Ricky Sidher, who is quite feared on MTGO (because people mistake his account “__SipItHolla” for Michael Hetrick’s “__ShipItHolla”). Ricky must have still been in a Modern mindset, as he decided to draft a Belcher deck. He went off in game two, burning me out from 20 with triple Scepter of Empires into the classic Fiery Hellhound plus Titanic Growth plus Fling combination. The other two games he just fizzled.
Round seven, game one, Sebastian Thaler curved out on the play with Phantasmal Bear into two-drop into double Aether Adept, and while I had two-drop, three-drop, four-drop, that proved to be much too slow. In game two I mulliganed to five, but was feeling pretty good with turn two Stormfront Pegasus, turn three Jace's Archivist on the play. Double Aether Adept showed up yet again to ruin my fun though, and by the time the Archivist came online it was little more than a Merfolk Looter. The Archivist’s impact was further mitigated by Thaler putting his Gideon's Lawkeeper to good work, tapping the Archivist in my draw step. The game proved to be fairly close, but the two Adepts had me on the back foot the whole time, and made racing his Spirit Mantled Aven Fleetwing essentially impossible. If Thaler hadn’t been draw step tapping my Archivist, or perhaps if I had used the Archivist or my own Lawkeeper just a little more effectively to dig a card or two deeper, I may have hit my one out - Alabaster Mage. But I didn’t, and I succumbed to the unstoppable three points a turn.
To close out the day, I played Jeremy Neeman, and in two of the three games I curved out Pegasus, Pegasus, Assault Griffin. In both games, he had Arachnus Web for the Griffin, and both times I slammed a Guardians' Pledge to knock off the Web and hit him for an extra four, ruining any chance he had of racing.
Dinner that night ended up being notable for how absurdly bad our waiter was. Literally absurdly bad. Figurative absurdity would merely imply slow service, getting orders wrong, never refilling drinks, etc., all of which our waiter was very accomplished at, but that just wasn’t enough for him. At one point, long after we had devoured our salads, and were ravenously awaiting our meals, he stopped by to ask, “Have you gotten your salads yet?” Sadly, we were too stunned to play correctly and snap answer no. Long after that, a couple at the table next to ours was served an appetizer, and the woman complained that it had nuts on it, as she was allergic. His response: “Like, deathly allergic?”
I took advantage of our ample down time during dinner to remind Luis that we didn’t play Dismember in our deck. You see, back just after PT Nagoya, while complaining about Dismember, Luis made the bold claim that he expected to play Dismember in every single constructed deck for the rest of the year, and even wanted to bet on it. I didn’t think he was far off, but with so many tournaments to go, the value was too good to pass up. Booked!
Leading up to PT Philly, it was very obvious we were not going to be playing Dismember, not that that stopped Luis from trying. He fought harder to get a Dismember in our sideboard this tournament than he did for Gruesome Encore in Paris, but was ultimately just as unsuccessful. Luis offered to flip a coin for double or nothing on the bet, but there was no way I was going to give him an out to money transferring from his pocket to mine on this. Luis retaliated by paying out in quarters. Over the course of the meal, my dismay at the quarters faded as a rather elegant solution clearly presented itself to me. I hope our waiter was able to put that change to good use!
Day two started with my draft once again being covered; it is available for your viewing pleasure here.
This draft didn’t go nearly as smoothly as the first, though I still like how I drafted. The only really embarrassing pick I made was Sutured Ghoul over Divine Favor. In my defense... yeah, I’ve got nothing. I once again found myself getting away from my early picks and moving into what was most open; the problem was that this time that color was Green instead of White. With 8th and 10th pick Birds of Paradise and no other color showing any hints of hope, my direction was pretty forced. I got rewarded with a 5th pick Overrun in pack three, and that gift made the deck come together well enough. I had removal (three Pacifism and a Doom Blade), solid creatures, and the Overrun gave me a legitimate bomb. The deck was a little rough around the edges - I was stuck playing a Sea Snidd and maindeck Naturalize - but the packs were weak enough (I mean, first picking a Trollhide when I’m in three colors, come on!) that I liked my chances still.
Game one of the first round came down to the following key turn. I had a hand of two five drops, an Overrun, a Pacifism, and a Doom Blade. I hit my fifth land that draw-step, but I had to spend the turn Pacifying my opponent’s Drifting Shade, and passed back with Forest, Swamp, Plains untapped. My opponent’s board was a Runeclaw Bear and a Tormented Soul, with me at 9 life. My plan at this point was simply to drop my two fives the next two turns, followed by what would then be a very lethal Overrun. Since my mana was going to be tied up for my next few turns anyway, I decided to Doom Blade the Bear when my opponent attacked to save some damage, despite both of my next drops outclassing it. My opponent then played a post-combat Trollhide on his Tormented Soul. The rest of the game went as scripted, with me playing out both creatures into a lethal Overrun while sitting on two life. If my opponent had just played the Trollhide pre-combat, or if I had not Doom Bladed the Bear, my life total would have instead been zero.
In game two my opponent had double Smallpox, which were actually pretty good in the matchup, what with his deck being full of Gravediggers and mine being full of Pacifisms. This game though all they really accomplished was compounding his problem of starting down a card from a mulligan.
The second round of the draft started off with my Greater Basilisk and Alabaster Mage locked in a fierce battle against Gorehorn Minotaurs and Goblin Fireslinger... until I peeled a 6/6 Dungrove Elder, and that powered up with Lifelink immediately closed out the game. Game two Alabaster Mage once again proved to be insane, keeping my life total afloat in a long game against two Fireslingers. I avoided trading off creatures or firing off a premature Overrun (to gain life with the Mage), going all the way down to (effectively) one life before Overrunning for the win.
The final draft round culminated in a super tight game three. The life totals were 9 to 14 in my opponent’s favor, and my board was an Assault Griffin, Alabaster Mage, and six lands (three Forests), with Overrun and Titanic Growth in hand. My opponent had three tokens from Timely Reinforcements and from a full grip played an Assault Griffin with a Plains untapped. I immediately put him on Stave Off - I knew he had it in his deck from a previous game, and it was unlikely his best play from a full hand was a single four-drop unless he was holding Stave Off. So when I drew a Plains for my turn, I just played it and shipped the turn back. He sent in with his Griffin, and I couldn’t afford to block: even trading the Titanic Growth for Stave Off was quite bad for me, as if I drew a Forest and not a creature, the Titanic Growth to go along with the Overrun was going to at the very least force some chump blocking. So I took the hit to 6, and my opponent tapped out for Chasm Drake and passed. On my turn I drew Peregrine Griffin, played it, and shipped back, prepared to cast a game-ending (though not lethal) Overrun the next turn. My opponent had other plans, though, and cast a Stave Off on each of his flyers to burn me out from 6. That was a frustrating loss, since it was well within my power for the round to have ended differently. It was pretty awkward to “play around” the Stave Off, only to lose to it combined with a second copy. Not blocking the Assault Griffin I’m pretty sure was correct, despite never getting another opportunity to play the Titanic Growth in the game, since it made my Forests live draws. What I should have done, though, was the turn my opponent tapped for Chasm Drake I should have bashed with Assault Griffin. If he blocked, then trading Growth for the Drake would have been great for me. And if he didn’t block, it would have been even better, as gaining three off of Alabaster Mage would have pushed me to safety, and my Overrun would then be very lethal the next turn.
Back to constructed, I started off on the right foot taking game one off of Twin. In game two a Slagstorm left me with nothing but lands, but with a Tectonic Edge in play and another in hand facing down my opponent’s four lands (two non-basics) and two cards in hand, I was still in a decent spot. On my turn I played my land and went to double Edge my opponent...
You know that feeling when you lose a game online to a misclick? Now try to imagine how it must feel when the game you lose to a misclick is instead in a Pro Tour while in top 8 contention...
… only to discover that somehow a fetchland had found its way into play instead of the second Edge. I sucked it up and Edged my opponent down to three lands instead of two. He missed his next land drop, and thanks to my mistake was able to cast an Exarch that turn. Three turns and three lands later, I died to a Kiki-Jiki. I had drawn a creature and a Unified Will immediately after my botched turn, so had that Exarch come out one turn later I would have been able to Unified Will it, and then most likely win that game. I managed to come back and not throw away game three, but wow was that embarrassing.
Playing to lock up a top 8 slot against Pyromancer Ascension, I was down a game and mulliganing to five in game two. I closed my eyes, and when I reopened them, we were in game three and I had a Rule of Law and a clock in play, with enough counterspells in hand to counter every single spell my opponent could possibly play for the rest of the game.
AND TOP 8 THAT IS!!!
I lost the next round to Pyromancer Ascension (sideboarding Twin), failing in my attempt to block for friends with four losses, before drawing into the top 8 in the last round.
That night I obviously treated the team to dinner. When given their choice of any restaurant to eat at for free, oddly everyone decided they were just really in the mood for Fogo de Chao. Over $60 a head and I was the only one on the team to top 8, could I run any worse?!
The top 8 happened, and it was well-covered. The only thing I have to say about it is that after the tournament was over, there was only one thing I wanted to do: draft! As far as how that went, well, I’ll just leave you with a sample hand from my deck: