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Stark Reality – Three Weekends of Magic

My Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir prep basically started with the Khans of Tarkir prerelease. With a home state Limited GP in 2 weeks and the Pro Tour in 3, there was a lot to be excited about practicing for.

Additionally, I think M15 was one of the poorer draft formats to come out in a while. Convoke is a cool Limited mechanic and I would love to see them use it more, but printing what would be around the 10th best rare in the set and 2nd best uncommon at common (Triplicate Spirits) and what would be around the 5th best rare in the set at uncommon (Cone of Flame) made the game play completely miserable. It felt like Avacyn Restored (which I consider to be the worst limited format of all time) all over again, where every turn was basically just hoping they didn’t have these cards that you couldn’t even think about playing around because they were too unbeatable and hard to interact with, and you were best served just pretending they didn’t exist, and that’s not a game worth playing in my opinion.

So, I was really excited about a change of pace. I wasn’t having fun playing M15 on MTGO, I had a Pro Tour and Grand Prix to practice for and I knew I’d be able to play a lot right away. Since Orlando is only about a 3-hour drive from where I live, all the better players in south Florida would be looking to do a lot of Khans drafts for the 2 weeks we had between the prerelease and the Grand Prix. And we did. We got together to draft at various stores and player’s houses to draft almost every other night for 2 weeks.

I felt really comfortable with the format but I didn’t have concrete conclusions. Everything seemed viable. You could draft a 2-color enemy-pair beatdown deck like RW, BW, UR, or UG and have it be good. Any wedge was good if you got a tri-land and a couple dual lands and could produce at least 7 of each color. And even a 4-color control deck (sometimes with a free splash of the 5th color but usually only playing basic lands in 4 colors) was viable if you picked up a couple tri-lands early.

Each of these strategies is perfectly fine and as a result of having so many options I was really excited about the draft format. The only downside was that with high-variance mana, even with good enough fixing you still have a reasonable percentage of the games where one person has good 3+-color mana and is thereby playing powerful gold cards while the other is stuck on 2 colors and not able to keep up, even if they cast a spell every turn. This usually results in pretty lopsided games, but I think this only happens maybe 20% of the time if you draft the proper number of mana sources for your deck and the rest of the games are pretty good, so all in all the format is pretty fun.

I rode up to the Grand Prix with 3 friends; BrettC, Stoyven, and Gonzo—an enjoyable ride talking Limited with a good crew. Stoyven in particular has some pretty good Limited results for having not played too many tournaments. I believe he has 2 GP Top 8s in maybe 10 attempts, a Top 16 finish in the Two-Headed Giant PT with Oysp, as well as a Top 32 in an individual Limited PT in maybe 5 or so Pro Tours played. I’m thrilled that he and Brett are back trying to qualify for Pro Tours. I know his level of play isn’t back where he wants it yet, but it takes time. I know I started playing again in the beginning of 2009 and I wasn’t playing well by my standards until around the middle of 2010. And I remember William Jensen, whom I consider to be the current best player in the world (though I think Owen Turtenwald is forcing me to reconsider that number 1 status with his never-ending supply of insane finishes) having a similar experience. It can be really frustrating when you are good enough to know you aren’t playing your best, but all I can say to anyone in this position is not to quit out of frustration. It comes back to you, but high level Magic is a lot different than anything else and it just takes time to click again.

I opened an amazing Abzan Sealed pool, except it was completely missing the lands. I had an Ivorytusk Fortress, Hooded Hydra, Meandering Towershell, and what could be the best card (probably second to Wingmate Roc which I’m still convinced is a punishment to Limited players everywhere for some wrong we committed against R&D) Duneblast.

However, what I did not have was a Sandsteppe Citadel. I had one Opulent Palace and one Scoured Barrens to make a 3-color deck work with. Not even an Abzan Banner. The Banners stink, but I would have definitely played it. In most Sealed formats I primarily look to my power cards to build my deck, however in gold formats I primarily look to my lands. Since the gold cards tend to be powerful but spread out it is usually correct to play the colors with your tri-land and dual lands. This left me in a weird spot because I did have some lands in other colors but all my good cards were the same colors.

I also had Armament Corps, Abzan Guide and multiple other good Abzan commons and uncommons. So even with not nearly enough sources to cast all my cards reliably I felt like I had to play Abzan. I actually had a free red splash with 3 red dual lands for Burn Away that Pat Cox pointed out, and I ended up boarding that in a lot. I missed it during deckbuilding because I was so focused on getting my mana as solid as possible. It didn’t actually help or hurt my mana since I just cut 3 basics for 3 red duals and the Burn Away was well worth it as you play against a lot of bomb creatures in the later rounds of Sealed Grand Prix and it came through for me multiple times (thanks Pat).

Anyway, luck was on my side that day and I drew all 3 colors in at least 2 games every round except one and finished the day 8-1. At this point, not only am I doing well in the GP but I get to do two high-level drafts in a Premier event as practice for the Pro Tour next week and I would really love to do well in my home state GP. Obviously it is always sweet to do well, but it’s definitely even more fun when you have a lot of old friends around and you know a lot more of the people at the tournament.

In the first draft I drafted what I thought was a really good Temur deck. I consider Temur to be the weakest of the 5 wedges for Limited, but good cards are good cards. I generally rank the guilds Mardu, Abzan, Jeskai, Sultai, and Temur for draft in terms of draftability, but all 5 can definitely produce a good deck if you get good lands and powerful spells in your colors. My deck featured Sagu Mauler, 2 Icefeather Avens, 2 Mardu Heart-Piercers, and a Frontier Bivouac with a handful of dual lands. I really liked my deck.

I know that in one of the matches I got completely mana-screwed and stuck on 1 land after a mulligan to 5 or something the other, and one of the matches I think I just lost to good cards at the right times but nothing out of the ordinary. So, I finished 1-2.

Getting your 3rd loss definitely eliminates you from Top 8 contention in a 2000-person GP, but there was still money and 2 Pro Points left to play for, plus it was still a new sweet draft format with the Pro Tour the following week so I was still ready to crack some packs. In the 2nd draft I started with Duneblast p1p1 and then another one first pick of pack 2. So I drafted a super sweet 5-color control deck featuring those and Villainous Wealth. I ended up losing a close match to Stanislav Cifka round 1 playing virtually the same exact deck, then won the next 2 matches to finish 11-4. That left me in 75th place for $250 and 1 Pro Point. Not a great finish, but not a horrible record. I was very disappointed with the draft result but I felt like both my decks were good.

I started out by playing Abzan midrange on MTGO as it seemed like the obvious deck of the format. I immediately didn’t like the deck. It had a serious problem with flooding out in games where your opponent deals with your threats. I think Ari’s team actually solved that a little with the planeswalkers. I don’t think the expensive planeswalkers stack up that well in the format right now but they are tough to deal with sometimes and can definitely close a game.

I spent pretty much all of Monday playing the deck. I then reported back that I didn’t think Abzan was good and Luis said to try Jeskai. I immediately loved it. It’s everything I want from a Magic deck. Sometimes you play really controlling, other times really aggressive. You have a 24-land deck with scry and Dig Through Time so you don’t really get mana screwed or flooded very often, so it’s very skill rewarding. It plays a lot of very close games with close/hard decisions that are often the difference between winning and losing. I stayed up all night before my 6 a.m. flight Tuesday basically putting in an 18-hour MTGO session with the Jeskai deck.

I got to Hawaii Wednesday afternoon. I figured it would be better to go Wednesday than Thursday for two reasons. It gave me a day to catch up with the rest of the team, and I kind of wanted to go to the HoF ceremony since Paul Rietzl was getting inducted. I stayed up for my quick flight to Atlanta then fell asleep before take off on my Atlanta to Hawaii flight. Normally I’m pretty bad at sleeping on planes, but since I had stayed up all night and made sure to drink no caffeine I completely crashed. Still, I only slept about 5 hours—I spent the other 4 hours watching Pacific Rim and Catch Me If You Can. Pacific Rim was as bad as expected and Catch Me If You Can was as good as I remembered, continuing my usual dislike of new movies. After taking a very long and expensive cab, I arrived at the TeamCFB testing house Wednesday afternoon.

It seemed like a lot of people liked Jeskai, but everyone also liked this Jeskai Ascendancy combo deck. I thought the deck looked good, but it was exactly the kind of deck I didn’t want to play. Games would mostly be won and lost on the back of drawing or not drawing your combo pieces and how fast your opponents’ draws were. It didn’t feel like you could really impact that large a percentage of games, where by contrast Jeskai felt like one of the most skill rewarding decks I have played in a long time.

The problem was that I didn’t really have any idea how good the Ascendancy combo deck was. It could be completely broken and since I hadn’t tested it, I really had no idea. So I figured the prudent thing to do was to do what I usually do, which is see what Wrapter thinks. I really trust his opinion because I don’t think he has the biases that a lot of other people have. He’ll play Mono-Red or Sphinx’s Revelation or whatever he thinks is the best deck and he’s really good at judging what the best deck is. Also, his tech for the tournament was to add Nullify to the Jeskai deck which seemed really good for the Pro Tour. Aggro is usually very underplayed in the Pro Tour itself, and Nullify is abysmal against 1-mana creatures but pretty awesome against Siege Rhinos and Wingmate Rocs. Once he decided to play Jeskai Tempo it was pretty much a no-brainer for me because that meant the combo deck could be very good but couldn’t be insanely broken or anything. In the end I think Wrapter, Ocho, Shahar and I played the Jeskai deck, Kibler played Temur, Willy Abzan, and everyone else played the Ascendancy combo deck.

My drafts in the Pro Tour went very similarly to my drafts in the Grand Prix. Not that I drafted the same decks—in fact I drafted 2 completely different decks from the ones I drafted in the Grand Prix. In the first draft I had a Mardu aggro deck that I thought was a pretty big favorite to go 2-1. The deck was good but not spectacular. I had an Ankle Shanker, Mardu Roughrider, and Mardu Charm off a splash in a base-RB build with about 4 dual lands. 2 Arrow Storms, 2 Mardu Skullhunters, 3 Disowned Ancestors and a bunch of the standard commons fleshed out the curve.

I won round 1 pretty easily with good draws. Round 2 my opponent was Temur and didn’t draw his red splash and I definitely won because of it. He cast a lot of spells but wasn’t able to cast the Surrak in his hand that he showed me after the game, and I’m pretty sure that would have been the difference in the game.

In round 3 my draws were fine, but my opponent had a 5-color deck and drew his mana both games and beat my brains in with way better cards than I had in my deck.

In the second draft I drafted a really good Jeskai deck. I picked up 2 Mystic Monasteries to support Flying Crane Technique and Jeskai Ascendancy. I also had Hordeling Outburst, which may subtly be one of the best cards you can get in a dedicated Jeskai deck. The Jeskai deck can be really powerful but struggles to find the balance of enough creatures and spells. I generally like around 12 creatures and 11 spells in it, with the Hordeling Outburst pulling awesome double duty. The rest of my spells were good too and my curve and mana was awesome, so I thought I had a pretty good shot to 3-0 with this one. I ended up 1-2. I don’t think it was really a reflection on the deck. I had poor mana draws in round 2 and the cards just all seemed to line up badly for me in round 3.

I then went 4-0 in the next 4 rounds of Constructed. I beat Mardu Midrange, the mirror for the third time in the tournament, and 2 Abzan decks. That left me 8-1 in Constructed and 11-4 in the tournament. Even though it was clear that a few people could Top 8 at 12-4 it was equally clear from the round 15 standings that it couldn’t be me.

Andrew Cuneo and I were dead last in tiebreakers, around 19th and 20th. He suggested drawing, since we’d both make Top 16, whereas if we played winner would Top 16 and the loser would finish around 25th—possibly inside the Top 25, possibly outside. Going 8-1-1 in Constructed at the Pro Tour and missing Top 8 is pretty disappointing, but that’s just breaking it up in a way that suits complaining. I ran really well in total, even if my decks were good and I ran pretty poorly in the Limited games, I obviously ran really well in the Constructed portion to go 8-1-1.

In addition, my awesome girlfriend Michelle arrived in Hawaii just as the Pro Tour was ending Saturday, and that plus a Top 16 is way more than enough run-good for one Pro Tour. We spent the next 4 days counting engagements. Congratulations to Pat and Tara, Brian and Natalie, and Paul and Kat. I’ve known all 3 of those guys for a long time and am really happy for them.

I finished off pretty much every night with 3-5 hours on Magic Online to prep for GP Los Angeles.

I met Stoyven at the airport in LA Thursday night. He had landed a little earlier (thanks for waiting) and we went to our beautiful hotel, the Stillwell. It really wasn’t beautiful at all, but hotels in downtown LA are quite expensive and it was only like $80 a night. After checking in, I got right back on MTGO. I was 100% sure I was going to play Jeskai, but I was reconsidering some individual card choices. I kind of liked Prognostic Sphinx for the mirror and Abzan midrange matchups, but I hadn’t drawn them a whole lot in the MTGO’ing I had done over the week, so I didn’t have that much confidence in my opinion on them.

It was about 1 a.m. Pacific that I got on MTGO and fired up an 8-man Standard event. I won round 1 and that was the last round I would get to play, as Magic Online made the inconsiderate choice to completely stop working. When we woke up Friday it was still not working, so I went to the site with Stoyven. He was going to try and win some byes in the trials and I saw a 1 p.m. Standard event starting and decided to jump in that. I went 5-0 and I believe I actually went 10-0 in games. I played basically the list I played in the Pro Tour, but with 2 Sphinx main instead of the 2 Sarkhan. The only problem was that once again I hardly ever drew the Sphinx, so basically I gained even more confidence in Jeskai but still had no idea how I felt about Sphinx. Stoyven won his trial so we had a pretty good Friday at the site. I spoke to a few of the other CFB guys who were going to play Jeskai and ultimately decided on this list:

I went 9-3 in the tournament not counting my byes, putting me in 18th place. I lost a couple close matches and got owned by one mono-green deck since I had no wrath effects. All in all the deck felt great again. I know when you win a lot it’s easy to get biased, but I wasn’t only winning against bad draws. The deck’s consistency and flexibility make it an excellent choice in Standard right now.

I kind of wanted to switch the Mana Confluence to a Temple of Enlightenment, but I didn’t want to mess with the mana without extensive testing because I didn’t want to risk messing it up. I’m off Standard now, but anyone picking it up might want to try change. If there is a lot of mono-green in your area, I think you want End Hostilities.

If there are a lot of aggressive decks around then Magma Spray is probably your best card there. Other than that, there are a lot of different versions of Jeskai you can play. McLaren’s take on the deck from his 2nd place finish at the Pro Tour was very controlling while Yuuya’s was very aggressive. I personally think this is the best version of the deck right now. Even though we didn’t put any in the Top 8 of the Pro Tour, only 4 of us played it and our records were 8-1-1,7-3,7-3, and 6-4. That’s excellent. With this version, you can play aggressive or controlling depending on what you draw. That flexibility adds value to the deck and makes you tougher to sideboard and play against. It was a fun 3 weekends for me and I’m pretty happy with the results, even with no Top 8s. Next up: Nashville on Halloween.

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