Last weekend I managed to Top 8 Pro Tour Ixalan against all odds. I wasn’t feeling well leading up to the tournament and had low expectations for myself, but managed to rattle off a bunch of wins before taking three draws into the top seed of the Top 8.
Still, this is probably the most bittersweet article I’ll ever have to write. I’ll get into that in a bit.
Testing for this tournament was different than I’m used to. Team ChannelFireball and Team UltraPRO formed into one testing unit, and the majority of our testing was conducted online. Very few of us actually played together online—we just played Magic Online and reported our results and thoughts, which led to some debate and theorycraft. Since both the Limited and Standard format were played at Worlds and Nationals this year, the testing was less about finding something new and more about attacking the metagame appropriately.
We would all try decks we thought were interesting, then post our results and thoughts. I focused on God-Pharaoh’s Gift decks early, and came to the conclusion that the Esper Gift deck was too slow against The Scarab God. The deck has a hard time activating Gate to the Afterlife early but does a good job of gumming up the battlefield. If the opponent had a The Scarab God, however, it was extremely difficult to fight through it with just Hostage Takers.
I came to the conclusion that if God-Pharaoh’s Gift was going to be good, you’d need to go the Refurbish route to get underneath The Scarab God. I tried the Refurbish plan, and decided that since tokens decks were picking up in popularity, Negates and Appetite for the Unnatural were all going to be too heavily played in Temur sideboards to fight through.
A lot of us liked Abzan Tokens initially, and Gregorz Kowalski, a testing partner, gave us a list we all had high hopes for. The problem was that the format developed quickly after Nationals, and Temur Energy decks started to pack more counterspells, more enchantment removal, and even more Chandra, Torch of Defiance because of the rise in popularity of tokens, and all of these were problems in post-board games. Sam Pardee managed to 8-0 a MOCS qualifier with Abzan Tokens, but still, all of us were concerned about being disadvantaged post-board against what we knew would be the most played deck in the tournament.
After this, a lot of us focused exclusively on various energy decks. We tried Temur, Sultai without Winding Constrictor, and Sultai with Winding Constrictor. Our last task was to try a 4-color version of the deck.
My flight was delayed a day due to weather, and I lost power. I spent a full day in a Panera Bread playing Leagues with rough draft 4c Energy decks, and hopped on a flight the next morning.
When I got to Albuquerque to meet up with the rest of the team, we tried various iterations of 4c Energy decks and we ended up with a list of cards that we wanted to play. Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Vraska, Relic Seeker, and Glint-Sleeve Siphoner were a few of the cards that impressed us the most outside of the usual suspects. The Sultai version of the decks were missing Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Harnessed Lightning, and Whirler Virtuoso, and the Temur versions were missing The Scarab God and Vraska, Relic Seeker.
We realized through testing that putting both Siphoner and Chandra in the deck stressed the mana too much. Basically, we had to choose one, and we ultimately settled on Chandra because it also gave us easy access to Harnessed Lightning and Whirler Virtuoso. Harnessed Lightning is the best removal spell in Standard at the moment, and Virtuoso makes aggro matchups so much better that we thought it would be a mistake to not play these cards.
After we decided we were definitely going to play Chandra, we had another decision to make: straight Temur, or 4c Energy? We had hours—and I mean hours—of debate over which version of the energy decks to play. The upside of black was that The Scarab God and Vraska, Relic Seeker helped a lot in matchups like God-Pharaoh’s Gift, Abzan Tokens, and even U/W Approach.
The downside of playing 4 colors was obviously that the mana wasn’t as smooth, but also some of us believed that Glorybringer and Confiscation Coup were better 5-drops in the deck than The Scarab God, and it was unnecessary to include an extra color for just Vraska.
We never really came to a consensus. Matt Nass even played straight Temur Energy while the rest of us played the 4-color version of the deck without a high degree of confidence. After the event, there were varied reports from teammates, some who thought that straight Temur may have been better, and others like myself who think the black helped. Go figure, the ones who did the best liked 4c Energy more. In reality, the opinions are likely biased toward who had what matchups in the event itself.
Personally, I played against decks like Approach and Tokens, where Vraska, Relic Seeker helped tremendously in situations where Confiscation Coup would have been a dead draw. Vraska also felt great against control because I didn’t need to worry about them boarding into creatures as much. With Chandra and Vraska in my deck, I was able to leave proactive answers to sideboarded creatures without having to leave a weak card like Harnessed Lightning in to hedge.
Paulo did an excellent write-up on what we referred to as “Draw-Perfect Temur.” (Thanks, Gerry T.)
Day 1 started off with a bang. I sat down at a pod in which I knew the names of just two players: David Mines, a great player I’ve traveled with to Pro Tours and Grand Prix, and Jacob Wilson. Jacob beat me in the finals of the previous Pro Tour Day 1 Draft, so I was hoping to get some redemption, but sadly never got to play him.
I ended up with a U/R Pirate deck I thought was merely OK. I opened Primal Amulet in my first two packs and got to show the table how unlucky I was. I caught a glimpse of Jacob across the table almost bursting into laughter. Well, the joke was on them, because I at least opened a Charging Monstrosaur in my first pack, a card I’d take over most rares anyway. Monstrosaur was my MVP, as I won every game I drew it. My deck contained 4 Siren Lookout, Charging Monstrosaur, and nothing else of note.
I managed to defeat David Mines in a close round 1 match, defeat a solid-but-not-spectacular G/W Dino deck in round 2, and lose to a great U/B Pirate deck with multiple One with the Winds and Mark of the Vampires in round 3. My deck was low on removal so Auras were excellent against me.
This left me with a satisfying 2-1 record heading into Standard, as I didn’t think my deck was very good.
Team CFB got out to a great start, as only Ben Stark and myself managed to lose our Draft finals match. Martin, Luis, Paulo, and Wrapter all won their Draft pods.
My Day 1 Standard was unusual for this event, I think. I played against five different decks on Day 1, starting with Ramunap Red in round 1.
I managed to ride both of my Bristling Hydras to victory in both games (lucky Siggy).
In round 2 I played against Yuuki Ichikawa in a mirror and one of the most interesting matches I played. Going into the round, I knew Yuuya Watanabe was on 4c Energy, but I also knew that Kentaro Yamamoto was on Ramunap Red. I keep a hand with a removal spell, a Whirler, a Hydra, and four lands on the play.
Yuuki takes two mulligans and scrys to the bottom. After I play a land and pass, Yuuki doesn’t play a land and passes back. I again play a land and Yuuki doesn’t play a land and passes back. I understand at this point that he kept a no-land hand, or a hand that couldn’t beat anything and that he was just going to concede and not show me anything so that I won’t know how to sideboard.
So going into sideboarding I face a quandary. Do I board based on either of these decks, or do I hedge against both? My gut told me to board as if he was Energy, but I decided to hedge anyway. I did think that it was more likely that he kept a hand with an Attune with Aether or 2 and no lands than a no-lander with Red, since you can still win with Hazoret on a mull to 4, but I ultimately ignored this thought.
I brought in my Confiscation Coups, as they’re good in both matchups, and my Abrade, and took out a Chandra and my Glorybringers so that I didn’t get flooded with expensive cards if he was Red. I didn’t hit my third land drop in game 2 and got run over pretty quickly.
Game 3 was bizarre. I took control early with a Nissa, Steward of Elements and a Chandra, Torch of Defiance, but I kept seeing one or two blanks off of Nissa. My Nissa ended up on about 12 loyalty, so I felt like I must have done something wrong to not ultimate for 10 damage early instead of fixing a draw step or something, but I ended up winning with a Chandra ultimate after a board stall, in large part by keeping a spell on top here and there, and bottoming land.
I rounded out the day beating U/W Approach, 4-Color Tokens, and G/W Aggro. The black cards were pivotal in all of these matches, allowing me to attack the decks in ways they weren’t set up to beat.
My Draft deck on Day 2 was not good at all. I started the Draft with a Seekers’ Squire in a weak pack, a Dire Fleet Captain, and then to my surprise (and delight), a third-pick Rowdy Crew. I went into tunnel vision at this point. I never saw a reason to move off of these colors because the packs looked so weak.
My deck ended up with a bunch of low-power cards and 4 Vehicles. Yes, I said 4. 2 Sleek Schooners, a Fell Flagship, and a Dusk Legion Dreadnought. I left a pair of Mark of the Vampire in my sideboard because I had all small creatures with no evasive abilities, a pair of which were Desperate Castaways.
I made a deck building mistake in retrospect—the second Sleek Schooner should likely have been an Elaborate Firecannon. I had played with the card only once before and never drew it, and we never had a Limited discussion this time like we normally do because we were so focused on making a decision on which energy deck to play, and the set had been out so long that we all pretty much had our own opinions at this point and were unlikely to diverge from them. I probably had three or four cards I’d have asked about in the meeting, and Elaborate Firecannon was one of them. I managed to make do with scraps though and built a deck with multiple Dual Shots and Fathom Fleet Cutthroat.
If I had to predict my record with my deck, I’d have guessed 1-2. My deck had a solid curve, but my cards were all low impact. I managed to get some wins on the back of Dual Shot killing multiple creatures on more than one occasion. I was able to ride the Elaborate Firecannon in a post-board game, and realized then it should have been my fourth artifact for the Desperate Castaways, as my deck had no mana sinks and nothing to do with excess lands anyway other than discard them to Rowdy Crew if luck was on my side.
I managed to win three close matches and headed to the second set of Standard matches with a 10-1 record. Not bad.
I played against Yam Wing Chun, who to my knowledge has never lost a match with Ramunap Red other than against Paulo in the semifinals in heartbreaking fashion. Oh the talks I would have had with him if I had a crystal ball to show me how much we’d have in common after this tournament.
Nonetheless, I defeated Wing quickly in two games to give myself a likely win-and-in the next round.
Next I was paired against Guillaume Matignon on Jeskai Approach. Guillaume is one of my favorite people I rarely see anymore—we tested together for a couple of Pro Tours. He always plays control, and is always very honest about whether it’s a good or bad choice. For a Modern Pro Tour, he said something like, “hey guys, I’m going to play Fairies for this PT. Here is my list. Don’t play it. It’s awful.” Then the next Pro Tour, he was one of the masterminds behind an excellent Esper Dragons deck, and all but told us that it would be a big mistake to not play the deck, which of course turned out to be true.
I managed to win a close three-game match on camera and at this point I’m feeling good that I’ve likely locked up a Top 8 berth. I may not be in the Hall of Fame, but at least now I can say that I’m tied for the fewest Pro Tour Top 8s on Team CFB.
I took draws the next three rounds to lock myself for first seed going into the Top 8.
That night, my entire testing team huddled downstairs in our hotel lobby and got to work on my Top 8 match. Now usually, if a player makes Top 8, a few people will work on the matchup while others get some much needed rest, the Top 8 competitor will hang out until they want to sleep while the others work on it a little more, and that’ll be that. This time, I had my entire testing team behind me. I can’t describe to you how touched I was. I have never been so grateful to have such good friends and colleagues as I was in the hour or two I sat in that room on Saturday night. I went off to bed around 11 p.m., an hour later than I normally would have because of daylight savings time.
This is where the story gets a little bit sad.
During the first two days of the tournament, I felt awful. I had been sick off and on and was starting to feel better before arriving in Albuquerque, but some combination of the dry climate and flight messed me up. Sunday was the first day I woke up feeling almost 100% since I got there. I was unable to sleep through the night, likely from some minor jet lag, but still felt pretty good going to the tournament.
I showed up on time, ate some breakfast, and started playing test games against Mardu, as it’s probably the deck I was the least familiar with playing against with 4c Energy. My plan was to remove my Chandras, Hydras, and Glorybringers, and bring in Confiscation Coups, Abrade, Magma Spray, Appetite for the Unnatural, and a single counterspell: Spell Pierce on the draw to snipe a turn-2 Heart of Kiran, and Negate on the play. Glorybringers lined up poorly against his cheaper flying Vehicles, and poorly against both Dusk // Dawn and Unlicensed Disintegration. Dusk // Dawn made Hydras a liability, and Chandras got wrecked by a fast curve and flying Vehicles.
In testing before the matchup, I played about eight or nine game 1s and never won a single one. In sideboard games I was winning the majority of them so I wanted to be able to steal a game 1 and then take two out of three sideboarded games.
I finally sat down against my opponent Samuel Ihlenfeldt on Mardu in the Top 8.
The plan went well until game 5. If any of you didn’t watch it, I made what will likely (and hopefully) go down as the worst mistake of my career. In an incredibly close game, I decided to leave up mana and represent something, as well as keep Servant of the Conduits back as blockers instead of in my main phase reanimate his Pia Nalaar from the graveyard with my The Scarab God. My opponent had a Scrapheap Scrounger in his graveyard as well, but didn’t have any black mana except an Aether Hub with no energy. My thought process was that if he draws a land to bring back the Scrounger it’s annoying but I’m still in good shape as I can threaten his life total and clean up with Vraska, Relic Seeker the next turn. I didn’t even thoroughly think this plan through as I had just received a caution for slow play for a very slow combat phase trying to figure out my attackers on a complex board.
My opponent draws for the turn and casts an Aethersphere Harvester. My first thought is, “Oh no, a lifelinking blocker ruins the math—does Vraska get me out of this?” So as he casts his Aethersphere Harvester, my mind is already looking towards my next combat step on my turn. As this happens, he triggers the Harvester and rolls his dice to 2 energy and just as he gets the energy, I realize that I had already said “OK” and now he was able to bring back his Scrapheap Scrounger with his Pia Nalaar, leaving me with Longtusk Cub in my graveyard as my only target for The Scarab God that would actually hit the battlefield.
He puts together an attack with a Thopter and a Heart of Kiran, which is threatening to kill me next turn so I have to win on my turn. I think about how I am going to get out of the mess I put myself in and take the damage. I bring back my Longtusk Cub but then tank on my The Scarab God trigger, deciding if there was anything I could do in my upkeep and what cards I could possibly keep on top that would save me. I see two lands and I know they won’t help, bottom them, and draw Magma Spray. When I drew it, in my head, I said to myself, “I win.”
I think it out for a while, but somewhere in my thought process I think that Longtusk Cub was brought back in my upkeep. This is inexplicable because my lands aren’t even tapped yet but I generally put the creatures I bring back in upkeep on the bottom row as to not think I can attack with them. I force myself into thinking the Cub can’t attack and think I have no way out of the situation, make a desperate attack without the Cub, and realize as my opponent is lining up blocks that I could attack with the Cub. If I attack with the Cub I can use the Magma Spray I just drew to remove a blocker and still get in for lethal.
I rightfully receive a slow-play warning as I spent too much time trying to think myself out of the jam I created. I shook my opponent’s hand and showed a little anger and frustration. To make sure he knew I had no ill-will towards him and that all the anger was directed at myself, I shook his hand again and apologized if it seemed that way. I later cooled off, found him, gave him a hug, and discussed how we sideboarded.
This ended my tournament, yes, but not my experience. I felt awful for myself, of course, but mostly I felt awful that I let down my team. We work hard for every Pro Tour, and every now and then one of us gets a chance to win the event, but it’s always the result of everyone’s hard work. This time it was my turn to perform for my team, and I felt that I let them down with a mistake I make such a small percentage of time. It still baffles me. In the end, all of my teammates and friends came to find me and were very supportive. Some told me stories of how they messed up in big moments, some said that it happened to everyone, and some told me that I was still great and thanked me for a good overall performance despite how it ended.
What I know is that if I am in fact great as they said, it’s only a product of the friendship and lessons I’ve learned from them along the way. I am extremely fortunate to get to play and learn from not only the best players in the world, but some of the smartest most down-to-earth people on the planet. I feel humbled that all of these people I looked up to at one time, I now have the privilege of calling my friends.
Right now I can’t honestly say it’s behind me because I still picture an untapped, unsleeved Longtusk Cub on the corner of the battlefield, but all in all I feel good about the result and hopefully someday this is just a story I tell about my worst misplay ever.
The next step is to get myself into the Hall of Fame, because I can only handle so much trolling from my team—and I just gave them a lot more ammo.
To everyone who supported me throughout the event, thank you—it means the world to me.