I’m Paul Dean, and I recently made Top 4 at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar in Milwaukee. Just a couple weeks ago I was where many readers are: doing average to above-average at PPTQs, rarely getting to the PT, and never really staying there. There was a little bit of skill, a lot of luck, and a few misplays along the way, but this result goes to show that with effort, preparation, and patience, anyone can find themselves on the Sunday stage.
Even qualifying for PTBFZ was nearly a pipedream for me—I had to do the unthinkable. While living in Shanghai with an awful internet connection, I won a Magic Online PTQ. Not only did I have a 50% chance to lose each round, I also had a 30% chance to disconnect. Regardless, I remained focused, my connection stayed focused, Nissa, Worldwaker stayed really focused, and I got the invite.
It wasn’t my first Pro Tour. I had played at a few before, but never did well—in retrospect, I always went deep on a bad deck, or was severely underprepared. Thankfully, for the first time, Lucas Siow and I found ourselves qualified for the same Pro Tour, so I was confident I would have a good deck in my hands this time.
To prepare, we spent about 3 weeks meeting several times with Team Lucas Siow’s Basement. Only Lucas and I qualified, along with local Denys Robinson, but we had around 8 players every meeting, each with different insights and perspectives. This was important to prevent me from registering a deck list of Ruthless Rippers or Clutch of Currents. Sometimes you just need your boys to pull you back, you know?
I’ll touch on draft briefly, but I actually wasn’t posting very strong records with Team Basement in testing, so I would take any advice here with a grain of salt. Everyone else was doing well with blue-or-black-based ingest synergy decks, and I was chronically 0-3’ing with them. Lucas was also high on the UW fliers archetype, using hyperboles like “if you don’t first pick Clutch of Currents, you are a fish.” Someone claimed that Courier Griffin was a bomb rare.
I tried this archetype as well and went 1-2 or 0-3. The only deck I was winning with involved lots of Eyeless Watchers, Vile Aggregates, Ruination Guides, and even Swarm Surges. No one else liked this draft deck as much as I did, but my results picked up when I simply began forcing it. Of course, that gets a little dangerous, because I was typically the only one who wanted something like Call the Scions in my deck, so I had a few punishing trainwrecks where the pieces didn’t come together. I knew results at the PT could vary.
Early on we were really liking an Abzan Aristocrats deck that played many Abzan Ascendancys. It was doing very well against Jeskai, GW Megamorph, and control decks, but it lost badly to Anafenza, the Foremost. And I mean miserably. All the Abzan Ascendancys, Sultai Emissarys, Zulaport Cutthroats, and Hangarback Walkers would tap out immediately when Ronda Rousey stepped in the ring.
I also liked GW because of the power Wingmate Roc brought against Jeskai, Abzan, and in the mirror. After a lot of Abzan vs. GW matches, however, we concluded that the two decks do almost the same thing. Almost every winning game consisted of an unbeatable curve: Warden of the First Tree, Dromoka’s Command, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and then Wingmate Roc. The difference between the decks was that Abzan has good removal like Murderous Cut and Abzan Charm, rather than just Valorous Stance. Of course, you also get to play Siege Rhino, but most importantly, GW wasn’t playing my main squeeze: Anafenza, the Foremost.
The Perks of living the Abzan lifestyle.
The key factor that made me firmly decide to play Abzan Aggro was the mana base that Brad Nelson, Tom Ross, and others had done well with a week before the Pro Tour. It consisted of 14 fetchlands and no lands that would come into play tapped like Shambling Vent. I couldn’t believe how consistently I could play turn-1 Warden of the First Tree, level it up turn 2, turn-3 Anafenza, and turn-4 Gideon.
By Team Lucas Siow’s Basement
I don’t consider our list particularly fancy, and for good reason. All of the cards in the deck are simply extremely good, and there isn’t much room to revolutionize the deck. Regardless, I’ve been asked about the 1 Abzan Charm in the sideboard. It looks very out of place in the board because it is decent in almost every matchup, isn’t insane anywhere, and you bring it in in almost every match.
To be honest, it was Lucas’s idea and I was skeptical, but his reasoning was sound. We really wanted our removal to be cheap. If you curve either a Hangarback Walker or Warden of the First Tree into an Anafenza, the Foremost or Gideon, then cast two removal spells in the same turn, you are VERY likely to win the game. The problem is that Abzan Charm rarely helps you do this. Even if you have Abzan Charm plus Murderous Cut, it is actually not that easy to get two black mana on turn 4 without skimping on double-white, which you want for Gideon and Wingmate Roc. The Silkwrap is much better for this job, and essentially replaced the 4th Abzan Charm in the main deck.
Any combination of two of these on turn 4 will do.
Playing the Deck
This format is all about momentum, especially in a GW/Abzan-type of mirror, of which there are many. There are a number of cards in this format which are extremely powerful when you’re slightly ahead, but can literally do nothing if you’re behind, such as Dromoka’s Command. Additionally, almost every game revolves around who can play Gideon, Ally of Zendikar from a better position. If you are ahead on board and cast him, it is nearly impossible for your opponent to get back into the game.
When opponents are playing any deck with Canopy Vista, you should always consider how the board would look if they cast a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. I have often found myself casting a Den Protector on turn 2 with an Abzan Charm in hand—without it, I wouldn’t be able to kill the opposing Gideon. You really don’t want to find yourself in a situation where they cast Gideon, and you can’t kill the planeswalker immediately, because they will untap with 4-5 mana, and pump out another 2/2 token.
Because of all this, it is very, very important to curve out. This deck has many trap hands, usually involving no creatures until turn 4—especially if that includes Dromoka’s Command. If a Siege Rhino is going to be your first creature, you can be almost sure it will die, and he certainly won’t be putting on his Dromoka-brand boxing gloves. Ideally you want to cast Warden of the First Tree on turn 1 a lot.
This format’s turn-4 combo kill.
I’d also like to stress that I board very differently on the play vs. on the draw, mostly due to how high variance something like Dromoka’s Command is. On the play you can demolish opponents after they tap out for their 3-drop, but on the draw they may kill your creature before you can untap. I don’t generally approve of concrete sideboard guides, but here is a sample of how I sideboarded at the PT against major decks:
Turtenwald’s Dark Jeskai
On the play:
On the draw:
In this matchup, on the play, you just want to curve out while hoping they stumble on mana. Ideally you’d kill a Mantis Rider on the way and then cast Wingmate Roc to win. On the draw, however, this is a pretty unrealistic plan. You often have to spend time reacting to a Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy before it flips, and they cast all their removal in a more timely manner. This also makes Dromoka’s Command poor because you’re unlikely to be able to use it before they Crackling Doom you or before Jace flips.
On the play:
On the draw:
This board plan has a similar idea. On the play you want to curve out and take advantage of the power of Dromoka’s Command. On the draw, you’re much less likely to be able to. Tragic Arrogance is one of the only ways to beat a raided Wingmate Roc, and on the draw, many times you just cannot deny the Roc. You can use Roc to kill Gideon. If they attack with anything (such as a 2/2), you can leave them with only that tapped creature, and then swing at Gideon with something to kill him.
Don’t get caught by a Become Immense or a Temur Battle Rage. Be willing to trade creatures such as your Anafenza, the Foremost for their 4/3 Makindi Sliderunner. Try to make them use Become Immense to keep their creature alive in combat. As the game goes long, cast Gideon with back-up removal, and you will be favored to win, barring a combo-kill.
If they make a lot of Goblins, do your best to keep the board clear so you don’t die to Atarka’s Command. This could look like attacking to trade a Rhino or a Warden of the First Tree for some Goblins.
The event started off auspiciously for me, with me not drafting devoid synergies, and instead drafting a UW fliers deck. Blue and white just seemed very open, and green and red weren’t. My deck seemed quite good, featuring 2 Retreat to Emeria, 2 Clutch of Currents, a Planar Outburst, and a Noyan Dar, but I was wrecked in round 1 by Chris Fennell who cast 3 Snapping Gnarlids per game. He told me he had 5.
The doubt quickly settled in about forcing devoid synergies like my gut told me, but then again, I didn’t want to be a fish and first-pick Call the Scions over Clutch of Currents. My faith in my play group was rewarded when I finished the draft 2-1, and then finished 6-2 at the end of Day 1.
The Constructed rounds weren’t very interested—I curved out a lot, my opponents curved out less, and Anafenza, the Foremost got in for lethal. My loss on Day 1 was to Ryoichi Tamada who finished in 2nd place overall.
On Day 2 I drafted an RG devoid deck, though with less synergy and Vile Aggregates than I would have liked. I finished 2-1, and proceeded to go 4-0 in Standard. At that point I was looking at drawing into the Top 8 and feeling pretty good.
I’m sure many have already heard this since the coverage team really enjoyed working the vengeance angle, but round 16 comes and I’m paired with Owen Turtenwald. I ask if he would like to draw, but he politely says, “no thanks, if I’m able to win, my friend Reid can make it into Top 8.” Naturally, that isn’t what I want to hear, but I respond, “All right, I understand. I’d do the same thing.” He easily murders me and I wish him luck on Sunday. My friends tell me I’m almost 0% chance to Top 8.
Reid wasn’t able to win his match though, which meant 8th place would be determined by who had better tiebreakers between Javier Dominiguez and myself. Unfortunately, his breakers were better than mine. I walked around the tournament hall like a zombie for a while, waiting for them to finally announce the Top 8 so that I could leave and get dinner.
The Top 8 announcement comes, and Javier is standing next to me, and so are two cameramen. One of them was holding his camera pointed in my direction, but he was looking about incredulously so I wasn’t sure if he was recording me. The other cameraman was pointing his camera anywhere really. As the announcer started speaking:
“And in 8th place…”
I saw the second cameraman lift his camera and pointed it at Javier.
I’ve rewatched the video clip of the announcement, and honestly this felt like a 35 second pause in real life. It only lasted 2 seconds, but the disappointment felt like eternity I guess.
Then the cameramen turned towards me, and I guess the stars aligned.
Top 8 and the Vengeance Angle
I know it’s a sweet storyline to think of #1 World Player Owen Turtenwald dream-crushing Paul McNobody from Toronto, but then Paul grits his teeth, has a Rocky montage, beats Owen, and thanks his mother for believing in him. But you can watch the clip for yourself, Owen draws very poorly and Wingmate Roc closes the door. It isn’t like I took vengeful pleasure in the win like everyone seems to think.
Lucas and Jesse Hampton tested my matchup against Owen on Saturday night, and honestly it looked bleak. I still don’t consider it a very good matchup. I spoke with Owen in the morning, and he modestly agreed.
Regardless, I was on to Top 4, playing the mirror against Kazuyuki Takimura. There isn’t much to say, as it’s captured on camera, but I received too many condolences from friends and players about missing my 4th land drop in the 2nd game. (The match begins around 29 minutes.)
If you only tuned into my weekend at about the 34:30 mark, I look unlucky, but that’s a ridiculous frame of reference to look at Magic (or life) from.
If you look at my entire weekend as a whole, I was objectively very lucky. I BARELY made it into the Top 8, and I won a bad matchup in the quarterfinals largely due to luck. Additionally, in that second game against Takimura, I even drew my 3rd untapped land right on time for the Abzan Charm. And he even mulliganed to 4!
You can also say I was and am very lucky to have the players and friends around me, like Lucas, Maksym Gryn, Fadi Hirmiz, and many others. I certainly wouldn’t have made Top 4, or feel so good about myself without having them around me. I’ll let that marinate.
Anyways, if you ask me in person, I’ll tell you it was all me.
I’m the best.