“Please just hold the Curious Obsession.”
About a week before they announced the list of players who would be joining the Magic Pro League members at the first Mythic Invitational, I got an e-mail asking if I would like to be part of the event.
Would I like to compete in the first major MTG Arena tournament? A 64-player, $1,000,000 prize pool event? I had to think about that one real long and real hard.
Even though, like many others, I had been wondering who would be able to compete alongside the MPL players at the Invitational and how the qualification system would work, not for a second had I considered the scenario where I would just straight-up get invited. I figured I would have to earn my spot the hard way, and to be honest, with the first Mythic Championship in Cleveland a month away at the time, the whole Invitational thing had completely fallen off my radar so I was just stunned when I got the news.
When I decided to quit poker two years ago to come back to Magic full-time as a streamer and a content creator for ChannelFireball, I was encouraged by two seemingly big changes happening at Wizards: a new CEO was stepping in and they were recruiting the Play Design team, which I hoped was a sign of renewed ambitions and good things to come.
It’s still early to tell how Arena and the Organized Play changes will impact the game but things are looking up right now. I expect the first year or two to be rocky while Wizards figures out a good system for all of it, but I’m hopeful they can get there with the help of feedback from the community.
While getting an invite to compete for a first place cash prize of $250,000 felt surreal, it also made me nervous whenever I thought about it. Even though I’ve played for fairly high stakes before, whether in the Top 8 of a Pro Tour or at the final table of a WSOP bracelet event in Vegas, this feels like a huge opportunity and I’m really hoping I can make the best of it and not have too many regrets when all is said and done.
I think Wizards did mostly a great job with the invites they gave out and I was happy to learn that the past four Pro Tour winners would be invited to the first Arena Mythic Championship.
As someone who was always opposed to Wizards giving away anything meaningful through the trophy leaderboard system on MTGO, I can’t say I was a big fan of the way the last eight invites would be awarded for obvious reasons. I’m assuming part of the reason they went with this solution is because they didn’t have a proper tournament structure available on Arena yet.
I will say that as time went by, I actually warmed up to the idea. I thought that the system might not be all that bad, and I might have enjoyed being a part of it. I also thought the whole unhealthy part of the grind was blown out of proportion and it was just the nature of Twitter that made people have such an extreme stance, but I’m not so sure anymore. I don’t trust my opinion on the matter as someone who, back when Magic was pretty much my entire life, would beat himself up for months over sometimes a single mistake in a Pro Tour match. I would not let go of it until the next Pro Tour came around and I had a chance to “redeem” myself.
I think it’s fairly clear by now that this system was bad on many levels and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who disagrees. Call it morbid curiosity, but I would be interested to hear first-hand what the experience was like for the people who went hard and came up short.
The silver lining was that it seemed that the cream rose to the top, but at what cost?
Preparing for the First Mythic Championship
As usual, I started my testing with the Draft format, and I did so by losing. A lot. It took me about fifteen Drafts to get my first 3-0, but after that, I went on a roll, going undefeated in almost half my Leagues. I had decided to Draft pretty much exclusively on Magic Online. I figured it had to be a better approach than practicing on Arena and while I’m not sure the skill gap was huge, I was worried about developing bad Draft habits and not valuing how high or low I should be picking cards. Given how the Arena Draft bots were under-picking Gates and Gates payoff cards, I was glad I did—though to be fair, you could occasionally still get some fairly late dual lands on MTGO as well.
We managed to track data for 329 matches over 155 Drafts. Not quite pre-Arena Pantheon sample size but decent, and it seemed like Orzhov and Simic were the best two colors combinations. Rakdos was doing reasonably well while straight Azorius underperformed and Gruul’s results were abysmal. If you’ve watched my stream at all while I was practicing Allegiance Drafts, you might know I hate Gruul with a passion and I vowed not to draft the combo unless I opened something like a Domri or a Ravager Wurm. I knew the sample size was small, but R/G just felt so bad and you could even lose with some of your more busted decks because you were just so prone to flood or screw, and there was not much you could do if your opponent had a bunch of removal spells and some card advantage. While most of the people I talked to thought Gruul was the worst color combo as well, they also thought it was still very playable, especially if you were the only one drafting it.
The data also suggested that 3-color decks were outperforming 2-color ones, as was the Gates archetype, and being on the draw was overall slightly better. Esper was the most winning color combo, a deck that ideally relied on Dovin’s Acuity as an engine, and I was hoping I’d be able to start my Draft with a blue, white, or black card at the MC.
I relied mostly on Arena for my Standard testing. It’s not the best approach, but given that my teammates live in different time zones and have busy lives, it wasn’t easy to get lots of games in against them. I played a bunch of Blue Tempo and while the deck was doing well, I also didn’t feel especially great about any of its matchups. The deck is challenging to play but also hard to play against, and I was worried it wouldn’t perform as well against the field at the Mythic Championship. I was also worried it might get hated out, especially given how hyped up Alex Hayne got the archetype with his crazy run on the Arena leaderboard. The whole situation felt like Atlanta all over again, when I decided not to play the deck after finishing second with it in GP Lille and once again, it seems like my concerns were unwarranted.
About a couple weeks before the MC, I picked up Sultai Explore and loved it. The deck was enjoyable to play and felt really good. I wasn’t doing much losing at all, even though the competition wasn’t the strongest, and I never found a reason to switch to something else. I thought the stock version at the time was clunky so I tried to smooth the curve out by cutting the third Find // Finality, the 6-drops, and Memorial to Folly. I was also very impressed by Hostage Taker and while I’m not sure you want the full playset, it seems weird to me to play any copies of Ravenous Chupacabra until you’ve maxed out on Hostage Taker.
I was relieved to see I was still doing well in person when I joined the rest of the team in Cleveland, even feeling like I was able to go toe-to-toe against Sultai’s supposedly bad matchups, Esper Control, and Reclamation decks. I was pretty much locked in and had to figure out the last few details. I wasn’t a big fan of Vraska’s Contempt and decided to try cutting it from the deck to see if I really missed it. I made Pete, who also had Sultai as his frontrunner, play me in the mirror. He was piloting the version Corey Burkhart had just taken 2nd place with at the GP and I was playing my own version without any copies of the BB2 removal spell. We played a bunch, I won most of the games, and in almost every one of them Pete cast Contempt to get rid of one of my planeswalkers (I obviously made sure to point it out each and every time it happened). This reinforced my belief that the deck didn’t really need the 4-mana removal spell but it seemed like Rekindling Phoenix was on the uptick and ultimately, I didn’t have the guts to pull the trigger.
5 Forest 4 Overgrown Tomb 3 Drowned Catacomb 4 Breeding Pool 4 Watery Grave 4 Woodland Cemetery 1 Midnight Reaper 4 Llanowar Elves 4 Wildgrowth Walker 4 Merfolk Branchwalker 4 Jadelight Ranger 4 Hostage Taker 4 Hydroid Krasis 3 Vivien Reid 3 Cast Down 2 Vraska's Contempt 1 Vraska, Golgari Queen 2 Find/Finality Sideboard 3 Duress 1 Crushing Canopy 2 Thrashing Brontodon 1 Cast Down 4 Kraul Harpooner 1 Cry of the Carnarium 1 Spell Pierce 1 Disdainful Stroke 1 Karn, Scion of Urza
At this point, there have been about a billion articles about the deck, so I’ll just go over some of the less conventional card choices.
Midnight Reaper is a solid curve filler, probably the next best 3-drop after Jadelight Ranger. You’re usually happy to draw the first one in most of the matchups, even against red and white aggressive decks. Vraska, Golgari Queen was put on my radar by one of VTCLA’s tweets (the Standard trophy leader on MTGO). It was in and out for most of my testing but I kept being impressed with the card. Pretty much every deck in Standard has some premium targets for the -3 ability and an extra planeswalker is valuable against control as it allows you to extend your board presence without getting wrecked by a sweeper.
I was never a huge fan of Negate in the sideboard or even Disdainful Stroke, but some number is probably a necessary evil. I dislike that it’s usually so obvious when you’re holding permission with this deck and keeping up 2 mana to counter something like a Wilderness Reclamation while deploying enough pressure isn’t a trivial task. I decided to try Spell Pierce and it felt really good. People didn’t expect it and I felt like it stayed surprisingly relevant even in some of the longer games because of expensive cards like Entrancing Melody, Chemister’s Insight, or even March of the Multitudes. Having to only keep 1 mana up makes a huge difference in many matchups and it’s one of the reasons why I decided to run two Thrashing Brontodon in my sideboard as well, mostly as a proactive way of dealing with what some called a broken enchantment.
Pete registered something very similar and the rest of my teammates all played a Reclamation deck. Eli, Morgan, and Edgar played Temur Reclamation without Nexus of Fate—the same deck Pascal Maynard, who was testing with us, played to an 8-2 record. I think the overall win-rate of the deck was around 60% despite Morgan going 0-5 after a 3-0 start in Draft. Shaheen played a Sultai Reclamation control deck and my BFF Amiel, who qualified for his first PT in almost a decade, decided to play White Aggro.
We ran a little simulation where we assigned a win percentage for each matchup, as well as a share of the metagame, for each major archetype and our conclusion was that it was a toss-up between pretty much all the tier 1 decks. The only clear loser seemed to be Rakdos Midrange despite its very good Sultai matchup.
I felt well prepared for the tournament even though a lot of matchups in Standard felt like a coin flip. I still thought I might have some holes in my Draft game, but I felt like I had a chance of doing well if the packs broke my way, I was able to stay focused, and not make stupid mistakes in-game.
The first Draft was kind of a nightmare. I first-picked a Chillbringer out of an unexciting pack, and Sky Tether and Skitter Eel were decent second and third picks but not exactly what dreams are made of. Things got a bit trickier as I had to dip into green, and after trying to stay the course by passing a pack with Zhur-Taa Goblin, and another one with Skewer the Critics and Light Up the Stage, I resigned myself and picked the Savage Smash that wheeled out of the pack I had opened. I was still hoping to be able to avoid Gruul, but there seemed to be no way out and I ended up with what I thought was a pretty bad red-green-splash-blue deck.
I got crushed in round 1 by a good Rakdos deck. Ironically enough, Spear Spewer, a card I deemed borderline unplayable and had as far as I could remember never lost to online, did a ton of work for my opponent, even acting a pseudo Sol Ring in game 2 when the 0/2 powered out a turn-2 Light Up the Stage.
At this point I would have almost been happy getting out of the pod with a single win, but my luck turned around and I won two extremely close matches.
When you 2-1 with red and green cards in your Ravnica Allegiance Draft deck.
My first round of Standard was a punt fest between me and my Simic Nexus opponent. I even missed an onboard kill in the third game, which almost turned my guaranteed win into a draw. I had to make use of the extra turns to deal the final points of damage and hope my opponent didn’t draw a Nexus or a Root Snare.
I got paired against Orzhov Angels in round 5. We split a couple non-games and I was able to curve out on the play in game 3, leaving him no chance to win.
I then had to face one of my housemates for the week, GP winner Jacob Baugh, playing the Temur Reclamation team deck. I wasn’t really happy having to play this matchup but I at least knew what to expect. I won the die roll, put my training wheels on, and got the dream Wildgrowth Walker into double Jadelight Ranger draw in game 1 while multiple Hostage Takers were able to keep his Niv-Mizzet at bay in game 2.
I got paired against Izzet Drakes in round 7. Game 3 was looking good and it looked like I might be picking up my sixth consecutive win, but I started drawing land after land, and a couple Crackling Drakes helped my opponent turn the corner quickly.
To make things worse, I had to play against Juza in the last round of the day in what I assumed was the mirror. I stalled on lands in game 1 and should have probably taken a page out of the Mengucci book and scooped a bit faster. I was in a decent spot in game 2 but with the clock running low, I decided to take a spewy line in an attempt to close out the game faster, despite having perfect knowledge of Martin’s hand. It backfired big time.
My chances to Top 8 were incredibly slim but I was hoping I could play a good Day 2 and get some extra points for the team.
Coincidentally, my other Magic BFF, Herberheezy, had qualified for his first PT in a while too. Williams and EFro wanted to go to a Brazilian steakhouse but I didn’t feel like treating myself to a pricey dinner and Mark never said no to a burrito, so Chipotle it was. It was good catching up with him even though it meant I had to deal with the usual jabs and rub-ins.
The second Draft was uneventful. I first picked Rakdos Firewheeler over Lawmage’s Binding, got passed a Hackrobat, and never had a reason to look back. My deck ended up very solid but I was a bit worried as I had to pass an Angel of Grace, as well as two Gates Ablaze and an Archway Angel in the third pack.
I played Kenji Tsumura in round 9. As we sat down and started to shuffle, my mind wandered for a second. Kenji won Player of the Year in 2005 without winning a single Pro Tour, repeating what I had accomplished the previous year. It almost felt like another lifetime. Neither of us had a PT Top 8 this decade.
In game 1 his Orzhov deck did what it was supposed to as I slowly fell behind to an afterlife trigger despite a reasonable draw.
I mulled to five in game 2, which was pretty much a death sentence, but Kenji missed his third land drop and didn’t draw a black source until my Cult Guildmage had snagged five or six spells out of his hand. A near perfect draw in game 3 helped by the Glass of the Guildpact I had boarded in sealed the comeback. I didn’t take it as any kind of sign though—I knew better.
My round 10 opponent and I played three incredibly close games, but multiple 2-for-1s and correctly playing around the second Gates Ablaze couldn’t make up for the four extra lands I drew in game 3. I picked up the loss that officially knocked me out of Top 8 contention. At least I didn’t have myself to blame for this one—I had even boarded out a land and chose to be on the draw. But what about my lazy play against Juza?
I drew much better in round 11 and was able to score a respectable 2-1. Even though we don’t test together for major tournaments these days, the fact that Rietzl 3-0’d the pod made things a little better and it still felt like “we” maxed out on points.
Back to Standard and I was hoping that with the pressure of competing for Top 8 gone, I would be able to pilot my Sultai deck better than I had on Day 1.
I faced Wilson Mok in round 12, who joked about being intimidated by the yellow hat. I explained that the hat was of actual neutral luck and asked him if he would rather me not wear it. He snapped off the offer. We split the first couple of games, and in the decider, I was struggling against Tocatli Honor Guard, having drawn pretty much all ETB creatures. I eventually got out-tempo’d, but could have maybe avoided that situation if I had played a vanilla Hostage Taker instead of greedily holding it in hand.
I then lost against Izzet Drakes for the second time in the tournament, a matchup I must have won the last seven or eight times I played it on Arena. Loss number seven ensued, this time against Nexus of Gates. I had never played against the matchup and I think it showed. Game 1 was out of my reach, but I think I played over cautiously in game 2 and gave my Russian opponent a bit too much time to set things up.
I got paired against Blue Tempo for the first time in round 15 and won a close one. There is a reason the deck ended up winning the tournament and despite having access to four Harpooner after sideboard, the matchup still feels close.
In the last round of the Swiss, I played Makis in the pseudo-mirror-match as he was running the Kanister build without Wildgrowth Walker. I was generous enough to give him a head start and punt game 1 but incredible luck prevailed. I even had the luxury to miss an on-board kill again, a detail he didn’t omit to bring up later that night at dinner.
I ended up 9-7, and Pete was Team Face-to-Face’s best performer with a 12-4 record. Edgar got the nine wins he needed to qualify for the last two Mythic Championships of the year, but Amiel lost his “PTQ finals” in the last round against Seth, ending up 10-6. He even made it all the way to the Top 8 Draft of the Sunday PTQ ,but his seat was rotten and I’m not sure he could have ended up with a decent deck if he drafted perfectly.
Even though Amiel is more of a Limited player and I’m the renowned deck builder, he was the one who came up with the Jeskai deck I played to a 2nd place finish in GP London 2001, the week before we made the finals of the Team PT together alongside Nicolas Olivieri. You could say I owe him. He was also one of the very first friends I made playing Magic. It was great to root for him all weekend and see him do well again. Even though he came up short this time, it probably won’t be too long before he’s back playing in a Mythic Championship and crushing the “side” Drafts.
The Top 8
I can’t remember the last time I watched the entire Top 8 of a tournament. I’m not even sure it has ever happened. I’ll usually watch when my friends are on but even then, I might skip a game or get in a Draft while keeping an eye on the scoreboard. Not this time though.
It had been a bit disappointing to find out that Autumn and Reid were on the same side of the bracket. Hopefully they would at least both make it out of the quarters.
It wasn’t exactly a smooth ride as they both dropped game 1. After a small hiccup, Autumn turned the screws on Julien and even won the deciding game after discarding to hand size on turn 2 and taking a hit from a curious Trickster. I remember looking away for a few minutes and wondering if the game score was bugged when Autumn was in a dominating position and the graphics still showed them up two to one.
I wouldn't fancy my chances if I was opp pic.twitter.com/STAVDkMzAK
— Daniela Díaz (@h0lydiva) February 24, 2019
Reid had to battle a bit harder and dig a bit deeper. Down two games to one, I was already trying to figure out the words I would use to try and console him if he exited the Top 8 without winning a match for the fourth consecutive time. I couldn’t come up with anything. A hug would hopefully help.
But Reid was on the play in game 4 and curved out nicely to even the score. Both players got to keep their opening seven for game 5 and I held my breath when Alex tapped his mana on turn 2. I’m sure Owen and Huey sitting right next to me did too. A Steam-Kin backed up by any reasonable number of spells would be extremely hard to beat.
Viashino Pyromancer, go. A sigh of relief.
Reid was ready with his own 2-drop, a sideboard Surge Mare. For the rest of the game he was able to slowly pull ahead until Alex was left drawing dead.
On the other side of the bracket, you had arguably the current two best players in the world going up against each other. LSV was able to take advantage of a favorable matchup and defeat Marcio three games to one.
Bonde and Ikawa’s match was closer even though game 5 was somewhat anti-climatic as Bonde never recovered from an early missed land drop.
In the first semis, Reid and Autumn faced off in the mirror match. Reid and I have been good friends for a long time now, and I felt a bit of guilt over not being able to choose sides. I was just hoping for a good match and for whomever was the better player that day to come out on top. I found some relief knowing that Reid would approve.
Game 1 was favorable to Reid but things didn’t stay that way, and for the rest of the match, it seemed like every tough decision was on him. Or maybe it was Autumn making it look easy as they took the semis in 4.
Their final opponent would be Ikawa, who had swiftly gotten rid of Luis. It was LSV’s turn to be on the wrong side of the matchup, and in his own words, it was not close to being close.
It was time to find out who walked away with the $50,000 prize and the very first Mythic Championship title.
Autumn had the superior draw in game 1 but in what must have been a lapse in focus, they gave Ikawa an out to Wrath the board away. Fortunately, the Japanese player wasn’t able to find the land he needed to dodge Spell Pierce and the back-to-back English National champion found themselves a game closer to holding the trophy.
But Autumn, with their back against the wall for the first time in this Top 8—for the first time in the entire tournament actually—played two of the best games of Magic I’ve ever watched. Two near flawless games when the stakes couldn’t have been higher.
The world knew.
I don’t think BDM could have hoped for a better ultimate event to cover or a more touching final interview.
Every match had been incredibly tense and highly contested. Each of the eight players, whether they were making their first Sunday appearance or their tenth, had inspired me in their own way.
As the weekend came to a close, I found myself sitting on the floor, in the corner of a now mostly empty hall, making sure my phone had enough battery so I wouldn’t miss out on dinner plans or hotel lobby Drafts. I felt something I hadn’t felt at a Magic tournament in a long time. I felt a sense of belonging.