Portland in Black and White – Top 8 with Orzhov

A few weeks ago I got on a plane and started the trek to Government Camp, Oregon to start testing for Pro Tour M15 with my CFB Pantheon teammates. Government Camp is a nice little resort town up in the mountains of Oregon. We had a pretty nice house for the two weeks, with everything we needed to get in good practice for the Pro Tour—tables and chairs. There were a decent amount of restaurants and a coffee shop in walking distance of the house, which made things very efficient and convenient.

I wanted to do well at PT M15 especially badly, as a Top 25 finish would lock me for the World Championships in December. Going into testing, I figured the most likely thing that would happen was that I’d end up playing a Sphinx’s Revelation deck. The format seemed pretty well defined, and although people would certainly try some things, I didn’t expect a lot of groundbreaking innovation, largely because none of the M15 cards looked like they would have a major impact on Standard.

I played Sphinx’s Revelation decks the entire year, so I knew I’d be very comfortable with the deck as well. At the beginning of testing I was focusing on both Esper and straight U/W control strategies. I realized early on that the Revelation decks just weren’t quite as good as I would like against the black-based devotion decks, because the post-sideboard games were not good for the Rev deck. Andrew Cuneo decided quickly that he was going to play U/W control, which meant I could be sure that Andrew was going to put a fair amount of work into it and we’d have a great list if I decided to go with Revelation.

Another option was to play Owen’s Mono-Black Devotion deck. Owen has been playing black decks for the entire year now. It’s no surprise that black was the first deck he decided to work on. Because our team expected the top three decks in the metagame to be Mono-Black, Mono-Blue, and Revelation decks, Owen opted to work on Black Devotion splashing green. This would allow access to Abrupt Decay and Golgari Charm, which had very good applications in all three of those matchups.

I started working a on Soldier deck, and Patrick Chapin started working on a Slivers deck, since it looked like aggro decks could be well positioned. Both decks ended up being pretty competitive but not quite special enough to play. Once our second batch of teammates arrived, Paul Rietzl began playing more with the Orzhov Midrange deck he had been playing for quite a while on Magic Online. He believed that it was advantaged against Mono-Black Devotion and Revelation decks and was about 50-50 with Mono-Blue Devotion, which was a good spot for the expected metagame. A few days before the Pro Tour, Paul settled on this deck, and a lot of us fell in line. Some others decided to play the Orzhov aggro deck that Sam Black had been working on.

Here was the list that I played in the Pro Tour:

I was very happy with the deck, and on Thursday we headed to Portland to register and get ready to play the Pro Tour on Friday. The first three rounds on Friday would be draft. Like a lot of other people, I think the best deck is white/green with a convoke theme. But I knew that other people would have this opinion, so it was important to only go into this deck if it was somewhat open. Another strategy that I like to employ in M15 draft is to stay in one color as long as possible. The rares are so good that often in pack two or sometimes three if I’m very deep in one color and not others then it would be easy to not miss out on something like Soul of Shandalar or Soul of Theros.

Day One

My first draft started out great with a first-pick Hornet Queen. Hornet Queen is an outrageously good card. Although it costs seven mana, it has a huge and immediate impact on the board, and it’s almost impossible to lose a game when you cast it. My first five picks were something like Hornet Queen, Elvish Mystic, Hunt the Weak, Hunt the Weak, Siege Wurm. I was very happy with that start. After that, I saw a pack without a good green card, and the best card was Welkin Tern. Welkin Tern is one of the best blue commons so I took that, and followed it up with a Peel From Reality. The rest of the draft was pretty straightforward:

Round 2 vs. Samuel Tharmaratnam (1-0)

Samuel was playing a blue/white deck with multiple copies of Sanctified Charge. Games one and two went very similarly to each other, with Samuel and I each winning one of them. In game one, Samuel mulliganed and I got off to an early lead. However, by using Rogue’s Gloves in combination with Aeronaut Tinkerers and Welkin Tern he was able to get back in the game and eventually stabilize. I couldn’t find a second Forest to cast Genesis Hydra, and Sam built up an army and finished me off with an Inspired Charge. In game two, Samuel was able to get a reasonable start again with a turn two Welkin Tern, but not as much pressure to follow it up. I was able to use my tempo cards, Peel from Reality, Quickling, and Frost Lynx, to chip away at his life total, and finish the game with an Amphin Pathmage making a creature or two unblockable.

The third game of the match was the most exciting, at least from my perspective. My opening hand was a little slow, but it did have my Hornet Queen in it. I had also opted to sideboard in Hunter’s Ambush to combat Samuel’s two copies of Sanctified Charge.

Samuel was attacking with several creatures every turn and I was on the back foot trying to build my board to a state where I’d be able to cast Hornet Queen. I had been hitting my land drops every turn so it was clear to me that I’d be able to cast my Hornet Queen on turn 6 (because of Elvish Mystic) if I could survive that long. On the turn before I was going to be able to cast Hornet Queen, Samuel tapped a white mana to cast Oppressive Rays. He thought for a little while about whether to cast it on my Coral Barrier or my Elvish Mystic. Given that I had 6 mana in play counting Elvish Mystic, Samuel reasonably decided to cast it on Coral Barrier, but luckily for me that meant I was able to cast Hornet Queen on the following turn. The turn after I played Hornet Queen and got to untap and leave Hunter’s Ambush up, I could now block in such a way that looked like I’d be completely blown out by Sanctified Charge. Hunter’s Ambush allowed me to lose no creatures in the exchange while Sam lost three or four. He was unable to recover from that point and I took the match two games to one.

I ended up winning the third round with the blue/green deck as well, to finish the draft at 3-0 and things were looking great. It would be on to Standard for the rest of Day One. I rattled off four wins in a row over the next four rounds and in the final round I was one of three undefeated players. The other two undefeated played were Zachary Jesse and Owen Turtenwald. Naturally, I hoped to avoid playing against Owen for as long as possible, and I got my wish. Owen was paired against Zachary, while I was paired down against Martin Scheinin.

Round 8 vs. Martin Scheinin (7-0)

My match against Martin wasn’t the most exciting match of the tournament, but it might have been the most pleasant. Martin was very friendly, and I really enjoyed our match. Martin was playing Mono-Black Devotion and our match played out as these black mirrors often do. Martin was able to remove my turn two Pack Rat in the first game, and found an Underworld Connections I didn’t have an answer for. After a few turns of Martin drawing two cards per turn to my one, I was too far behind to catch up and buried in card advantage. His threats started sticking since I ran out of ways to remove them, and I died soon after.

In game two, Martin cast an early Thoughtseize taking Underworld Connections out of my hand. He was again able to deal with my Pack Rat, but this time, I topdecked an Underworld Connections and Martin didn’t have one. The shoe was on the other foot, and my threats started sticking, and I was able to bury Martin in card advantage.

Game three was anti-climactic. Martin mulliganed and missed some early land drops. I found an Underworld Connections again and there was really nothing Martin could do. He eventually extended the hand and said to me, “Today, you cannot lose.” Martin was a model of good sportsmanship in handling his loss to mana screw, and I appreciate that quite a bit. I was exceptionally happy to be undefeated after the first day. I think PTM15 was my 40th or 41st Pro Tour and I had never started better than 6-0 before in any Pro Tour in my life. I was very proud of my Day 1 performance but certainly was hoping to follow it up with 8 good rounds on Day 2 and a Top 8 berth. We headed back to the hotel to get a good night sleep, and would be at the site early Saturday morning for another draft and five more rounds of Standard.

Day Two

My second draft didn’t go particularly well, but I think I drafted reasonably. I first picked a Geist of the Moors and then took a couple middling white cards over two different copies of Peel from Reality because I don’t like blue very much in M15, and also wanted to stay in white. I got a late Sanctified Charge in pack one which I was exceptionally happy with, because my deck to that point was virtually all white creatures. Pack two I opened a pack with only one white card, a Divine Favor, and ended up taking a Gravedigger. Certainly not what I was hoping for.

I took more white creatures and a couple black and blue cards throughout the second pack. I did get a late Mass Calcify which was actually very strong in my deck, essentially acting as a seven-mana Plague Wind. In pack three I opened a great card in Soul of New Phyrexia and then second-pick I got another copy of Sanctified Charge. I really wanted another charge for my deck, so I was very happy to see that. Not much else exciting happened in the third pack.

Here was the final deck:

Round 9 vs. Zachary Jesse (8-0)

Zachary was also playing a blue/white deck, although his deck wasn’t quite as aggressive as mine was. In game one Zachary and I both played early creatures. I got some early damage in, but Zachary stuck Avacyn, Guardian Angel. Luckily for me, I would have some time to find an answer, either Pillar of Light or a bounce spell, since I gained a fair amount of life from Soulmender and two copies of Sungrace Pegasus. I had also drawn Geist of the Moors, so Avacyn wasn’t able to attack me for fear of being double-blocked, since she is unable to protect herself. Eventually what ended up happening was I drew Soul of New Phyrexia. Since Avacyn only prevents damage based on color, she wasn’t able to do anything against Soul of New Phyrexia and Zachary eventually succumbed to it.

In game two, I got off to a really fast start with turn two and three Oreskos Swiftclaw. Zachary played two copies of Oppressive Rays, one on each. This strategy is okay in a game that is going to end quickly, but I just emptied my hand of all my creatures and then started paying to attack with the Swiftclaws. Zachary was forced to start trading creatures for them anyway, effectively turning my Swiftclaws into 2-for-1s. After buying himself a turn by playing Bronze Sable and casting Solemn Offering on it, Zachary had no more tricks and was overwhelmed by my army.

I ended up going 3-0 with this deck after winning against two friends in round 10 and 11, Owen Turtenwald and Matt Sperling. I was thrilled to 6-0 Limited at the Pro Tour, and after playing with my second deck, I think it just turned out that the packs in our pool were somewhat weak. My deck wasn’t perfect, but it was certainly competitive and I think all right for the table. I was 11-0 at the Pro Tour. With five rounds to go I’d likely only need to come up with one more win to make Top 8. In round 12 I took my first loss against Ben Friedman.

Round 13 vs. Tzu-Ching Kuo (11-1)

Tzu-Ching was playing a green devotion deck with a lot of planeswalkers. This isn’t the best matchup, as it can often be very hard to come back playing the black deck if you fall behind. That’s exactly what happened in game one. Tzu-Ching amassed an army of creatures and cast two Genesis Hydras, one for 5, and one for 9. I got on the Pack Rat plan with not much else to do, but my Rats simply couldn’t get big enough in order for me to stop his onslaught and I was overrun.

In game two I got off to a great start. I was able to Doom Blade Tzu-Ching’s Elvish Mystic and cast Lifebane Zombie to remove Polukranos from Tzu-Ching’s hand. The Zombie took Tzu-Ching all the way to 2 life, and the turn before it was going to do lethal damage, Tzu-Ching was able to use Domri Rade to fight an Elvish Mystic with the Lifebane Zombie. I drew Elspeth and started making Soldiers, but Tzu-Ching was able to play a Garruk and use the minus ability to put Hornet Queen into play. Luckily, I drew Bile Blight to finish off all the tokens and attack for lethal damage.

In game three, Tzu-Ching kept a hand with two lands, Elvish Mystic and Courser of Kruphix. I Thoughtseized the Courser, and used my removal spells on Tzu-Ching’s mana creatures. From there I was able to develop my board and Tzu-Ching couldn’t cast his big haymakers because of a lack of resources. Lifebane Zombie and Mutavaults were able to finish off Tzu-Ching.

After the match against Tzu-Ching I was at 12-1, and barring something very bizarre, I should be a lock for Top 8. But of course, I wouldn’t feel comfortable about that fact until the moment I was able to draw or heard Scott Larabee announce my name as a Top 8 competitor. I ended up losing the next two rounds to Pat Cox and Yuuki Ichikawa. Luckily, everyone at 12-3 or better was able to draw in the last round, me with Ivan Floch.

I knew I was locked but I was pretty nervous for Owen. Owen had won his final round against Neil Reeves and had an outside shot of sneaking in to the Top 8 if his tiebreakers could creep ahead of Jeremy Dezani’s. We waited around for a little while for the Top 8 announcement, and as I expected at this point, Scott called my name as the third seed. It could have been fourth or fifth but I knew I’d be in there somewhere. And then, in what was easily one of the biggest highlights of the weekend I saw the reaction from Owen and many friends and teammates as Scott called out his name as the 8th seed. Gabriel Nassif recorded a video of it that has been making its way around the Internet, so if you haven’t seen it, I recommend checking it out.

We all headed back to the hotel to do some testing and have some dinner before getting a good night sleep and coming back for Top 8. I recruited Reid Duke to play the Jund side of my matchup with me, and Matt Costa helped out Owen. Unfortunately, I didn’t think my matchup was that great, but felt that I was able to develop a good understanding of the matchup and give myself the best chance to win.

Unfortunately, I didn’t advance past the first round of Top 8, losing to Pierre Mondon. The first game wasn’t super competitive, he got ahead early and pretty much stayed there. In the second game, I was actually able to gain more or less complete control thanks to two Underworld Connections, but couldn’t find any pressure fast enough, and ended up losing to a topdecked Rakdos’s Return two turns before I would’ve been able to finish off Pierre.

I am extremely proud of my 7th place finish at PT M15, which was my 5th Pro Tour Top 8. Making Top 8 of the Pro Tour in the modern era has been a major life goal of mine since returning to the game a couple of years ago. Another goal of mine has been to compete in the Magic World Championships, and with this result, I’ll get to do just that in France in December. I am incredibly proud of the season I’ve had personally, and also incredibly proud of my team, putting seven people into Top 8 of four Pro Tours. I can’t wait to see what we’re able to do next year.

This weekend will be the start of the next Pro Tour season. The first event is a Team Sealed deck Grand Prix, also in Portland. Unsurprisingly, I’ll be playing with my Oath Brothers, Owen Turtenwald and Reid Duke. The three of us will be putting on a Team Sealed Deck seminar at the site on Friday at 5 p.m., so if you’re around, please come by and check it out. The event should be great, and I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to start off the new season with a bang.

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