As soon as it was announced, it became obvious that the Players Championship was unlike any other tournament we had ever seen. Sure, we’ve had the Invitational, but that was different—it was more of a spectacle tournament, with goofy formats and people having fun. This was the same, except with a hundred-thousand dollars and many pro points thrown in for good measure—so, in practice, a lot different. At the time, I couldn’t be sure I was going to qualify, but I liked my chances. I have, after all, gotten the biggest amount of pro points in Latin America for the past seven years straight, and no other Latin Americans that I knew of were actually traveling for events (except for the one who ended up being banned for bribery—oh well). When I got 2nd at PT Honolulu, I all but locked my slot. At the time, I wondered what we’d do for playtesting and such, but it was still very far away and we couldn’t know who would qualify, so I just waited.
By the time Pro Tour Barcelona ended, we had our 16, and I was glad to see that 8 of the participants were actually from Channelfireball. As much as this made me happy, it also made things awkward, as I had expected. I didn’t think we could all test together for this event, and most people agreed. There were two main reasons:
1) Playing all mirrors is boooring, both to play and to watch. This tournament was already going to be more of a coin flip than others because every player was good, and we didn’t want to make it even more so by all playing the same deck.
2) It was too hard to prevent bias in deck selection. Being 8 people with vastly different tastes and opinions, it wasn’t feasible (or desirable) to have everyone play the same deck—but how would we deal with the fact that we knew what 7 other people were playing? If you see that 7 of 16 are playing a deck, are you not going to tweak your sideboard a little bit? Are you not going to pick a deck that beats their deck? You will, at least, never pick a deck that loses to them, that’s for sure.
If we all decided to play Jund, and then one person came up with UW Control, what would we do? Maybe the person really liked the deck, but maybe they just wanted to beat us, how would we possibly judge? Of course, we run the same risk in any tournament, but on a much smaller scale. There is a much smaller reward for tweaking your deck to beat 7 people out of 300, and there is a much smaller chance you actually get punished if someone on your team decides to do it.
So, for those reasons, we decided to split up. Splits happened randomly. People just posted, “I’m testing with this or this person,” and we ended up settling into groups: Owen with Reid; Kibler with Finkel; Martin and Shuhei with Yuuya; and me with Luis, Web, and Josh. After the World Cup, Luis and I flew to Denver, where we met Web—Josh would be working from his home and then joining us in Boston.
Most of the early testing I did was to familiarize myself with the format, and for that purpose I was not actually opposed to Magic Online. I could play with a variety of decks and against a variety of decks. Once I had a better idea of what things looked like, Web and I decided to try a couple decks against each other. Overall, I was not very happy with our testing dynamics at the time, mostly because I truly dislike playtesting on Magic Online, but it was what we had. Trying to play something like a Pyromancer’s Ascension deck with all proxies was just not feasible.
We were also just two for most of the time (since Luis was at work), and that was not even close to the ideal number for me. I like to take a lot of (long) breaks and I like to watch a lot of matches to get a better idea of them from both sides, but every time I wanted to take a break that meant the entire testing had to do so, and there were no more matches to watch. Trying to come up with something different also made me feel a little guilty, since that’s mostly a waste of time.
We left for Boston with no real clue of what we liked. There we met Josh, and spent most of our Sunday and Monday playing and discussing. With four people things flowed a little better (it mostly meant I could just watch or propose a weird deck without feeling guilty), but it was still not ideal for me—I’d much rather have had eight or ten. By the time we were done jamming a bunch of weird decks, we were left with two choices: Zoo or Loam. Since we had to leave at 3 A.M. for our flights (yeah that was well planned) we just stayed up the entire night playing (or, rather, Josh and Web were playing, Luis was sleeping and I was watching—I don’t sound very useful from those descriptions, do I?). Ultimately, we decided, once again, to play Zoo.
It’s funny to go back now and read people’s reactions to our deck—most of them extremely negative. “The lack of innovation from CFB was disappointing,” “Zoo, that’s not even a playable deck,” “How did they come up with something so bad?” and so on. The truth is: a) it wasn’t bad, and b), this tournament is A LOT different than anything you’ve ever played. It is not a PT, it’s not a GP, and it’s most certainly not a Magic Online Daily Event. The fact that Zoo was not a deck online didn’t mean it was not a good choice for this particular tournament. In the end, 7 of the 16 players played Zoo, so it can’t really have been that stupid of a choice—we’re not all idiots. The question is, what made this tournament so different than normal?
1) All the players were good. Normally, there is an edge to be gained on playskill. Since every one of us there is probably better than the average competitor, even in a PT, we shy away from decks that have no play to them—we want chances for our opponents to make mistakes, we want complicated positions, we don’t want the game to be decided on whether our opponents drew the Force of Will or the Leyline of the Void, because we can tip the complicated position in our favor.
In this tournament, however, that didn’t exist. Whereas before we might play an interactive deck rather than, say, Storm or Tron or Eggs or Affinity or whatever, we would have no incentive to do so this time. In fact, we were actually looking forward to finding one of those combo decks that we minimally liked, because we thought this was the tournament to play them. Unfortunately, all of the combo decks we tried underperformed. We still had to be mindful of the fact that if we wanted a combo deck to work, it’s likely that everyone else would, as well.
2) With 16 people, every single person is a huge part of the metagame. Since we had no real clue what other people were playing (though we had a few hints as to what people liked), we didn’t know what to prepare against, which would leave us in big trouble if one of the groups decided to play something that caught us off guard. In a normal tournament, you can be off in the number of “weird” decks, but never by much—if 20 people decide to play Affinity and you weren’t expecting any, well, that’s still only 5% of the metagame. Even if you can’t possibly beat it, you’ll play against it once, maybe.
In this tournament, though, if a four-person group decides to play something, suddenly 25% of the tournament is playing it. Owen and Reid, for example, played a Zoo version that was weaker in the mirror, but strong against Storm (they had four Mindbreak Traps and three [card thalia, guardian of thraben]Thalias[/card], because they’re degens). We turned out to be playing a Zoo deck that had a good matchup against them, so I think they had a lower than 50% expectancy in the overall tournament. If we had decided to play Storm instead, they might have won the whole thing! That’s a very small change—only one group decided to play a deck over another—but it impacts your win percentage drastically, and there is no way to control or predict it accurately.
So, armed with those two ideas, we realized that we wanted to play a proactive deck, that could beat any kind of strategy—fair or unfair. Some of the decks were really good at beating the fair ones while losing almost every game to the unfair ones, but we didn’t want to be there, because we imagined people would think like we did in number 1). So, we went with the most proactive thing we could find that we still liked, and that would not just lose to someone trying to beat it: Zoo.
The actual list we played was as follows:
Most of it is pretty self-explanatory, other than the Pridemages I guess, which we had because we wanted to have extra sideboard slots and they were the card that could most easily come to the main (though if we had a SB slot we would likely have run something less generic than Pridemage). I explain most of it here.
In fact, there was so much coverage for this event that I’ll not focus on the matches—you can probably find anything that you want in the official coverage. What’s more, even though the players were all good, there weren’t really any insane plays or decisions for me, I don’t think—the games were kind of unremarkable, so there isn’t much to say about them.
The day before the event, we had a big party, which included all of us and a bunch of Wizards employees. I was particularly glad to meet Courtney Maheras, who, together with Tracy from the travel agency, has saved my life multiple times. If you’ve ever had any sort of problem with traveling or payment I’m sure you’ve talked to Courtney, and you probably love her as well. Scott explained to us the rules of the tournament, and then we were left to eat and draft.
There was a lot of food, and it was mostly very good. They had small servings of a fish (Abalone? Albacore? Something with A) that was delicious and I think I had like 15 of them. The whole affair was awesome, much like the player’s parties of old but even better. I really miss those, though I understand why they don’t run them anymore. This sort of thing helped the tournament feel special. We were honored guests there, and they really tried their hardest to make sure we felt that way.
The tournament location was, ahem, weird from the outside, but very cool from the inside. Since they wanted to film both Cube drafts, they decided to do one, then the other. I was selected to go in the second one, so we all went to the adjacent bar to watch the first. They were showing Reid Duke, and it was interesting to see how many of the Cube picks are based on personal opinion—almost everyone disagreed with most of the picks (not only with Reid’s, but among ourselves too), and the internet as a whole also had a ton of varied opinions.
When it came the time for me to draft, I was incredibly nervous. You can, like everything else, look at my draft here.
At the end of it, I was not unhappy with my deck. It was certainly not the best deck I could’ve had, but I didn’t think it was bad—I thought I was going to 1-2 or 2-1. I certainly didn’t think I was going to 0-3, but I don’t think anyone ever does, no matter how bad their deck is (though my deck wasn’t that bad, I swear!)
If you’ve followed the draft, you might have noticed that no one went for Mono-Red, even though it was clearly open. Should I have? Maybe. In an article a while ago, Greg Hatch wrote:
“Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the red drafter in the first 8 picks at the table, then you are the red drafter.”.
That’s an interesting theory, but it has a glaring problem—if, by eighth pick, I can’t find a red drafter, then it’s safe to say no one else can either. Following this rule would lead to everyone, simultaneously, moving into red. Yes, I did see a third pick Koth of the Hammer and a Goblin Guide eighth, or something, but what if the person who got the Koth fourth or fifth decided to go red? I have no way of knowing, and if I move into it, then it might be disastrous.
Last, it’s not like red is the best deck—you certainly don’t have to move into red if the opportunity presents itself, it’s just an option. At our table, it was an option no one took, partially because they were already established in different good archetypes, and perhaps partially because they weren’t sure that the people next to them hadn’t moved into red after seeing some of the late picks. Obviously it’s a very small sample size, but Luis was the only mono-red drafter in pod 1, and he went 1-2.
Round 1 I played against Owen, with a deck that was better than mine, but not necessarily by much. I think I’d be a favorite if I drew Akroma’s Vengeance, but he would be if I didn’t. We were both extremely nervous, and made a bunch of rookie mistakes. In the end, I won game 1 and he won games 2 and 3—I think I could have won game 2 with better play.
Round 2 I played against Finkel, and g1 he played an early Tinker for Sundering Titan when I was stuck on mana and I just died. G2 he baited a counterspell with a Fauna Shaman. I knew he had Genesis and the card would be a problem, so I countered it, since I had a Snapcaster Mage for Counterspell next turn anyway—he played Tinker for Titan again and again I died.
Round 3 I played against Martin, with a deck that I think was better than mine overall but definitely worse in this particular matchup. He was playing Reanimator and I even had a Relic of Progenitus in my board! In the end, I think I got reasonably unlucky and lost 0-2.
That put me at 0-3, and somewhat devastated. normally, if you go 0-7 or 3-4 it doesn’t matter, but in this tournament every single win was very important. I tweeted something like “yeeeah this tournament is going well”, and my mom, whom I didn’t even know actually uses Twitter, tweeted back at me “Remember San Juan!” (the PT I won after starting 0-2). That lifted my spirits a little bit, and I decided to battle back.
My next match was probably the most important, against Josh—the 75-card mirror. I think if I had lost that, I’d probably have lost all my spirit with it—but I won, and then I won again against Reid (who was also playing Zoo but a faster version, so worse in the mirror as a general rule). My game three against Reid was particularly tense, as I had a great hand with only two lands, and he played [card geist of saint traft]Geist[/card]. I failed to draw a third land for mine, so I had to take 6 extra damage, which put me in a position to lose before I played all my great spells. After he played his entire hand, I ended up at 2 life. I think he had four turns to draw a burn spell (though it had to be a burn spell, I had answers for everything else—so he only had like 12), but he didn’t and I was able to win.
The last round of Modern was against Junya, whom I’m apparently 2-7 lifetime against. He was playing a Zoo deck that couldn’t possibly answer Geist and had none of his own, so a somewhat poor choice in my humble opinion. Game 1 I killed him with Geist (duh), and then I decided to board in one Mana Leak, since he had Knight of the Reliquary, Baneslayer Angel and Elspeth, Knight-Errant in his deck, and I wanted to get him with it.
I had the Mana Leak in my opening hand, and after a slow start from him I passed on turn two, thinking, “surely he has Knight of the Reliquary”. He didn’t. Then, on turn four, I could have played two dudes, but I thought that surely, if he didn’t have Knight, he’d have [card elspeth, knight-errant]Elspeth[/card]—so I kept two mana up again. He didn’t play anything. Now, if he didn’t have Knight or Elspeth, what would he have? Certainly [card baneslayer angel]Baneslayer[/card]!
So I kept mana up again, all the while being hit by [card delver of secrets]Delver[/card], with three [card snapcaster mage]Snapcasters[/card] in my hand and no targets. He didn’t play anything again, making me unsure if he was playing around the Leak or if he just didn’t have anything, He’s sort of a sage if he was playing against the one-of Mana Leak I sideboarded in the Zoo mirror, but I suppose I did pass without tapping out multiple times so I hinted at it. In the end, I managed to Mana Leak a Baneslayer when he had seven mana, and then Snapcaster that to hit a second Baneslayer the following turn. Success!
The following day had an M13 draft, and again it’s recorded. I started with Xathrid Gorgon, and followed it with Firewing Phoenix, Searing Spear, and Crimson Muckwader. The goods kept coming, and I picked a good red card every pack while also passing multiple good red cards, which resulted in like four people in red in a row. That was not much of a problem, though, and my deck ended up very good:
I lost game 1 to Kibler in what I think was an unfortunate match. Game one he played t4 [card garruk, primal hunter]Garruk[/card] with backup, and I didn’t have much action, and g2 I mulliganed to five and stalled on two lands, though I would probably have won if I had hit a third on turn three.
I then beat Hayne in a somewhat easy match, where having his decklist really helped, since it told me he had two main deck Negates and that I could spend my Turn to Slags on small creatures because he didn’t have any big ones (also three Scroll Thief in the board, so I left in my Walls that I would normally take out). Game one he did stall on two lands, but I did draw fifteen, so it was sort of even. Then I beat Web in three games, since he didn’t have a whole lot of answers for my, well, anything.
At 7-4, I assumed I needed to 3-0. I beat Web (again ) in the mirror match, bringing my result to 4-0 (4 mirrors! Told you, Zoo is great). I then got paired against Shouta Yasooka, a match I assumed I was advantaged in. I actually had no idea what was going on during the games, and we split the first two. For the third, he ticked his Aether Vial to four, so I was sure he had a Huntmaster of the Fells. I played the entire game around it, afraid to tap out and die to Huntmaster + Cryptic Command tapping my guys, but a bunch of turns later he turned out to have Glen Elendra Archmage, a card I didn’t even know he had in his deck, despite having his decklist in front of me five minutes before the match. When I looked at it, I just never associated it as a card against Zoo, so I ignored it. It’s unclear whether I’d have won had I not played conservatively, but I don’t think I would have.
I got paired against Martin the following round, which meant, if my understanding of tiebreakers was correct, that I’d be in for sure with a win. An excellent draw from me game one paired with mulligans and a slow draw from him game two meant our games were pretty short, and soon enough I was announced in the Top 4.
At this point, I was obviously very happy—from 0-3 to Top 4 and battling for the title. It was unfortunate that I was playing against Yuuya, by far my hardest matchup in the Top 4. At first, I assumed the match was slightly unfavorable, sort of even, actually—my games against Martin had been very easy. Playtesting against Web quickly disabused me of that notion, though. I failed to take into account that their version was even better than the normal Jund decks against us, with four main deck Kitchen Finks, four [card liliana of the veil]Lilianas[/card], and two Obstinate Baloths and a Batterskull (!) in the sideboard. When it came time to play, I was smashed by Yuuya. I did get somewhat unlucky, which made for some sad games, but I think he was definitely advantaged and supposed to win anyway.
The whole match is on camera, but I’ll talk about one play, because people asked me about it (ok, two plays). It’s game two, and I’ve just played Kird Ape and Kird Ape. My hand is Tarmogoyf, Lightning Helix, Tribal Flames, and I passed turn three with no play after attacking. My reasoning was that I didn’t want to expose Tarmogoyf to Lightning Bolt.
Some people argued that he would have already Bolted the Kird Ape if he had it, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Game one he did have a Bolt but did not kill my Ape on turn one. Sure, he was on the play then, but still, he knows that if he doesn’t Bolt I can’t play ‘Goyf, and that alone might make it worth holding. I also played a second Kird Ape on turn two, so if his hand is Bolt and Maelstrom Pulse, it’s very understandable that he holds the Bolt with the intention of getting both Apes.
If I play ‘Goyf into Bolt + Pulse, I lose the game. If I don’t, I can Helix my Kird Ape in response and follow up with ‘Goyf. I think it’s fair to accept that risk and play ‘Goyf, but you can’t say that he surely he doesn’t have Bolt—that is not a logical statement. Later on, when he played Finks (and not Pulse), I decided that a) it was less likely he would have Bolt, since one of his reasons for having it and holding it (the ability to Pulse both Apes) had vanished b) I didn’t draw anything useful so my ability to play around things was diminished and c) he was tapped out, so making him Bolt on turn four might make him waste his entire turn.
I could have Tribal Flamesed him as well, which would make ‘Goyf impervious to Bolt, but he hadn’t played anything and he really looked like he had a bunch of fours in his hand, and with two Baloths in his deck I don’t feel like I could afford to Flames him and have him drop a Baloth on me, that I can’t remove, attack through, or burn him through. His four-drop ended up being Bloodbraid Elf, which unfortunately hit Inquisition of Kozilek, though at this point I don’t think I could have won even if I had played it.
So, I lost. I couldn’t say I was surprised, and the sadness about losing was somewhat diminished by the thought that I never expected to be there anyway after starting 0-3 (but losing still sucks!). I felt like whoever won the Finals would be a very worthy winner. They’re both very good players, Shouta dominated the tournament and came up with a very innovative (and good) deck, and Yuuya actually picked the best deck for the field (of the reasonable decks. If you knew that was going to be the metagame, you could actually afford to go to great lengths to beat creature decks, picking for example something like a Life deck).
Afterwards we had a party—the Return to Ravnica party. I didn’t expect it to be very big—I was very wrong. When we got there, the line was turning the corner (though thankfully we got to skip it because we were VIPs. It’s ok, you can be jealous now. Did I mention we also got free drinks?!). The place was packed, and it had food, drinks, spoilers, dancing, people on a cage and an Assassin game—pretty much everything you could ask for in a party.
There were even a surprising amount of girls. While looking through the pictures to see who I’d try to Assassinate in the game, I picked a girl assuming she’d be easy to find on the grounds that she was a girl alone, but there turned out to be a lot of them and I could never actually find my target. The music was pretty good, which meant I spent a big part of my time dancing, sometimes with the other Pros from the tournament, sometimes with people from the Wizards staff, and sometimes with random people from the party. I actually really like dancing, it’s one of the few things I’m really bad at that I like to do anyway. The party was great and far surpassed my expectations in every single way—my only regret is that it ended much too early.
So, this was it! The entire tournament—no, the entire experience—was awesome in every single way, the mix of incredibly casual environment with incredibly professional tournament was just impossible to match. I’ll admit that, when I found out I’d been elected to the Hall of Fame, I considered not going to GPs anymore. I was already qualified for all PTs, and I could just fly to them and try to do well. If I hit Platinum, great—if not, whatever. The World Cup and the Players Championship, however, changed my mind about things. Both tournaments were so incredibly awesome that I really, really want to play them again next year, and I will go to a lot of GPs if that is what it takes for me to achieve it.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this, see you next week!