Everything’s Going Rite: Top 8 at Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad

What a week. I can honestly say it ranks among the strangest in my life, though this report had its beginnings many weeks ago, when Shadows Over Innistrad was first spoiled.

Like I mentioned in my last article, our plan for this Pro Tour was to work with Team Ultra PRO. I was excited to work with them—a combination of great former teammates and a bunch of people I’d never gotten a chance to work with before. The initial phase of testing was in Denver, where Matt Nass, Josh Utter-Leyton, and Patrick Chapin came over to my house multiple times a week for Constructed battles. I even had a Draft day where those guys plus a bunch of friends and coworkers came over for a day of (you guessed it) drafts.

On Brews

One of the first decks Matt Nass built was BG Sacrifice. The initial list used Smothering Abomination as the payoff and had a very different creature mix.

BG Sacrifice

Some of the initial synergies included Relentless Dead (to go with Fleshbag + Husk, as well as being a sacrifice engine by themselves) and Smothering Abomination, plus more creatures overall. As it turned out, Relentless Dead was too harsh on the mana and not quite powerful enough, and Smothering Abomination was just awful (though we didn’t realize that until much later). We played this deck a lot, even after cutting the Relentless Dead for various other cards (1-2 Cryptolith Rites, more Fleshbags, fewer Fleshbags, Evolutionary Leap). After spending hundreds of hours on the deck, we eventually shelved it. It just didn’t have what it took to be our Pro Tour deck.

Delirium Jund

I flexed my brewing muscles and built a couple decks myself. The one I liked best was Jund, which was built to take advantage of Traverse the Ulvenwald, a very powerful card.

Traverse was awesome in this deck. It fixed your mana early, let you play a lot of mana sources, and turned into gas later. Mindwrack was critical in enabling delirium and Dark-Dwellers, and the Traverse for Dwellers, play Dwellers, replay Traverse line was a really good one. It also got to play Atarka often, while not getting flooded on 7s. Sylvan Advocate was also Deathcap Cultivator at various points, which is a very reasonable card itself (we also called it Deathcap for Cutie all throughout testing).

I still like this deck, though the vulnerability to Westvale Abbey is real. If you play it, pack multiple Clip Wings in the sideboard since that’s the best answer we found. One of the reasons we shelved this was a weakness to Ramp, but given Ramp’s small footprint on the metagame, I think Jund could be solid.

On Shadows Over Innistrad Draft

I love this draft format. There are a ton of different decks, lots of awesome build-arounds, and even the speed of the format is highly variable. Some decks are fast (RG Werewolves, WG Humans, BR Vampires) and some are incredibly durdle-y and slow (UG Clues, Abzan Delirium, UR Spells). No matter what you enjoy about Limited, some amount of it is present here, and the range of experiences is great. Plus, I like that Epitaph Golem is a card I can take early and build around with the express purpose of decking myself.

Marshall and I went into depth about my plan pre-PT here, in one of my favorite episodes of LR.

On GP Barcelona

I went 4-4, losing badly with a solid sealed deck. I wish I could blame flying in the morning of, but that’s such an obviously bad plan that I clearly didn’t do it. What I did do was get crushed, over and over. GP Barcelona does bring me to a critical PSA though:

*Public Service Announcement*

anton

This is Anton Jonsson. He is in the Hall of Fame.

The reason I make this critical public service announcement stems from a disturbing trend of Anton not being recognized as being in the Hall, or even believed when he says he is. For example, take his second draft in Barcelona, where Anton was 9-3.

Opponent: Are you playing in the Pro Tour next week?
Anton: Yes.
Opponent: How did you qualify?
Anton: I’m in the Hall of Fame.
Opponent: No you’re not.
Anton: Yes I am.
Opponent: No you’re not.
Anton: Yes I am.
Opponent: OK, sure. Well, I guess there are two Hall of Famers in this pod.
Anton: No there aren’t.
Opponent: Yes there are. Sam Black is in the Hall of Fame.
Anton: No he isn’t.
Opponent: Yes he is.
Anton: I don’t think he is. Whatever, let’s play.

Anton then proceeded to get smashed.

In order to prevent further occurrences, I want to reiterate that Anton IS in the Hall of Fame. Like, for real.

On Speaking Spanish

My father is Chilean and both my parents speak Spanish. It was technically my first language, though I lost it fairly quickly when I started school in California. I’m still relatively fluent, though clearly not a native speaker (some members of coverage have gone on record as saying my Spanish is “abysmal”). Either way, it’s pretty easy for me to communicate while in Spain and our team quickly came to rely on me over the course of the trip. My favorite moment came at a kebab place, where Sam Black and I ordered, then went upstairs to wait for our food. The other seven orders did not go very smoothly, and everyone else was on tilt that I’d left without offering assistance.

I managed to give a couple interviews in Spanish for some Spanish Magic websites, which was fun, though I had to use English card names and I’m sure my Magic slang knowledge was minimal. Like English, other languages have plenty of their own terms for Magic, and I had no idea what those were.

On Draft Testing

One of the best ways I found to test draft was while in Barcelona/Madrid, where Sam Black and I would jam infinite drafts on MTGO. We kept drafting WG/x delirium, and watching each other’s drafts and discussing what was working and what wasn’t was super helpful. I’m not saying that I recommend first-picking Epitaph Golem, but I’m also not saying that I never have done so. The LR episode I linked to earlier covers this archetype in depth.

On Timing Out

One of the results of the aforementioned draft testing was how often I timed out. We kept staying in places with medium internet, and I would routinely get disconnected for large periods of time. I’m not saying I didn’t time out—just saying it shouldn’t count.

On Leaking Tech

I wanted to get some reps in with White Weenie since at one point it looked like the deck I was most likely to play. I log onto MTGO on a secret account (well, semi-secret), and joined a Competitive Standard league. I soon found myself paired against Rich Hoaen, who is also on our team, and playing WW himself. He didn’t know it was me, and he played the 1 card that our list had that wasn’t in Tom Ross’s original list, Anafenza. I couldn’t help myself, and ran the following:

snippet

A few minutes later, Rich posted on our forum that he may have leaked some info, at which point I got to reveal the depths of my buffoonery. I’m also well aware that this account is no longer even semi-secret, but that’s OK—M. Bison is a name that should be feared.

On Ulvenwald Mysteries

After two weeks of being off the BG deck, we all of a sudden were back on it. What happened was that Sam started building a bunch of Abzan sacrifice decks, and someone suggested taking a look at BG again. We tried a few new cards, including Ulvenwald Mysteries. Sam posted a list with Cryptolith Rites and Ulvenwald Mysteries main deck, and we started to get excited about the deck again. Pat Cox messaged me and asked me what happened (since he wasn’t in Spain yet), and why we were back on the deck. I told him it was because of Ulvenwald Mysteries, and then he made fun of me.

It turns out that Mysteries wasn’t good and got moved to the sideboard pretty quickly. It’s a shame it didn’t move a little farther than that. The problem is that all the control decks either had World Breaker or Kalitas, making Mysteries never the right fit. It’s a powerful card, but not one I’d recommend going forward.

On Black/Green

This was its final form:

The last pieces of the puzzle were Loam Dryad and Duskwatch Recruiter. One of the benefits of Sam trying a bunch of similar decks is that he started liking those 2 cards, and after adding them, BG got quite a bit better. The real key was cutting Smothering Abomination for anything, and the final main deck was awesome.

I’d update the sideboard to:

On Sideboarding With BG

This is a tricky deck to sideboard with. It’s a synergy deck, so I don’t advise sideboarding much, and it’s important to know what you can cut.

Against Bant Company

Nothing.

If you know they have Avacyn, you can cut 2 Duskwatch Recruiters for 2 Ultimate Price, but otherwise I wouldn’t touch the sideboard. Bant was why we played BG, and the matchup is very good. I wish I’d gotten a chance to play against Bant in the Top 8 of the PT, as I wouldn’t even touch my sideboard and would just stare at Andrea Mengucci while he boarded.

Against WW

Out

In

You want Gryff’s Boon protection against WW as you win any game where you don’t get run over early otherwise. We started the weekend by boarding out Cryptolith Rites against Bant and WW, but soon realized we shouldn’t be cutting such an explosive card.

Against Kalitas (in Midrange)

Out

In

Assuming other Ultimate Price targets and not many sweepers, just bring in max Kalitas insurance. Kalitas is the best card in the format against you, and you would rather have too many answers than too few.

Against Kalitas (in Control with Sweepers)

Out

In

This is how I sideboarded against Esper with Kalitas and I thought the plan was solid. You end up a little low on Company hits, but this deck starts high on those anyway. Rites is way weaker once the opponent is wiping your board, and Transgress + Price gives you good outs to Kalitas.

Against Ramp

Out

In

Transgress is the best card against Ramp, and Rites gets blown up by World Breaker (plus they often have sweepers).

Against GW Tokens

Out

In

Like Bant, this isn’t a matchup where you need to do much. Accept the good times and don’t make your deck worse.

Against the Mirror

Out

In

Kalitas is the only thing that matters, and the max number of answers is important. Duskwatch Recruiter is also key, so Price does double duty.

The general idea here is as follows:

Take out Rites against sweepers.
Add Ultimate Price against Kalitas.
Take out Loam Dryad instead of Blisterpod (and rarely both).
Try to keep ~25 Company hits in the deck.

Despite the deck not having much of a sideboard, the deck was awesome, and I’m very glad I played it.

On the Pro Tour

It was time to battle. We had BG, we had our draft strategies lined up, and we needed to find out how right (or wrong) we were.

On Draft One

I first-picked Elusive Tormentor over Olivia because Olivia is a gold card and ended up RB Vampires. When I say I “ended up RB Vampires,” that’s an understatement. This was the best deck I’ve drafted in the format, and has a good shot of retaining that title.

Opening a foil Olivia in pack 2 was surreal, and it made me think this PT just might go well.

My matches ended up being pretty close, but the Vampires precon reigned supreme, and I was 3-0.

On Constructed

Black/Green ran as perfectly as I could ask for on Day 1, and I cruised to an 8-0 start without much trouble. My draws were just absurd, and I was doing things like play Rites + Company on turn 3, and summon Ormendahl on turn 4.

8-0 after Day 1 felt pretty good. Needing 4-3-1 to Top 8 from there seemed attainable, and I had just played eight of the easiest rounds of Magic in my career. I think I played them well, but I had the nut draft deck and what felt like a very good Constructed deck.

On Coverage

Just out of curiosity, I would always ask the spotters (coverage team members who keep track of cards in hand and life total) who was in the booth. I have a lot of friends on coverage, and I like to know who the eyes in the sky are. Just for reference, definitely not so I could play lands in front, or take confusing shortcuts. I also enjoyed having conversations with my opponent that were actually beats on the spotters as they aren’t allowed to say anything. I had multiple opponents get very confused by what I was saying, as my actual audience was standing there unable to respond. Is this why people say I’m a troll?

On Luck

People keep asking what I did to start winning again. Well, the short answer is “I’m getting luckier.” It’s not a very satisfying answer, or some kind of false modesty—it’s just the truth. Don’t get me wrong—I think I play well, and I’m happy with my level of play this last year, but it takes more than that to win. Preparation is important, deck selection is important, and luck, luck is very important. I’ve played in plenty of tournaments where I prepared well and had a great deck and got crushed. I will blame some of my losses over the last year and a half on poor deck selection, but even the tournaments where that wasn’t the case didn’t always go well, nor did I expect them to.

Magic is a challenging and rewarding game, and I work hard to be good at it, but I also am cognizant of the fact that catching lucky breaks is the difference between Top 8, Top 16, and so on. These last 2 PTs I have caught those breaks, and I’m happy about it.

On Fevered Visions

Hands down, the most tilting moment of the Pro Tour occurred during this draft. I first-picked Lightning Axe, second-picked Nearheath Chaplain, and third-picked one of the more underrated cards in the set, Fevered Visions. This oddball rare is absurd in blue/red aggro, and that’s what I was hoping to draft after getting Visions third. I got another Visions 5th, wheeled some UR tempo cards, and felt like things were going great.

Enter pack two. I first-picked Daring Sleuth. I second-picked Ember-Eye Wolf. EMBER-EYE WOLF.

This video sums up the rest of the draft:

My deck was just a couple cards short of being absurd, and by “a couple” I really mean like 5 or 6. Still, I had to make do with what I had, and it was time to battle.

I got smashed by Brad instantly, beat Seth Manfield’s 3-color control deck on the back of his bad draws, and somehow defeated Katsuhiro Mori’s RW Aggro deck. It wasn’t pretty, but Ember-Eye Wolf and Insolent Neonate, both wearing Ghostly Wings, got the job done.

Yeah, that’s a deck all right. Still, 10-1 was a great record, and I was super happy to 2-1 with the deck.

On Twitch Chat

While playing against Steve Rubin, he cast a Gideon without double-white, thanks to Oath of Nissa. I took a called shot, and accurately predicted what was going on in the Twitch chat.

https://twitter.com/prolepsis9/status/723870534837100544

On Making Top 8

After beating Steve, I was 12-1, and despite a bit of a sweat, ended the Swiss at 13-3. I was in Top 8 of the second Pro Tour in a row! Making back-to-back Top 8s after a nearly 6-year drought was awesome, and I felt incredibly good. This was less redemption than when I first broke the streak a couple months ago, but it still was great.

Testing with Team Channelfireball and Team Ultra PRO was a joy, and I felt like I was in good hands when I went to bed while the the guys tested my Top 8 matchups.

On Losing to Shota

I lost, it wasn’t close, but it was at least mercifully fast. Shota is an incredible Magic player and I have the utmost respect for him. If I was going to lose to someone, I was okay with it being him.

On Organized Play Announcements

Well, this happened.

This announcement was by far the loudest event of the weekend, easily overshadowing the Top 8 and Steve Rubin’s impressive win. The reactions were (predictably) negative, and social media blew up, with the reduction of 2017 Platinum appearance fees by far the biggest target.

The goal of making Worlds a bigger deal, and a flagship tournament, is not a bad one. I don’t mind the idea of increasing that prize pool, even at the cost of some of the appearance fees. I understand why some players would rather have consistent salaries, but advertising a $500,000 prize pool is way more impactful than a $150,000 one, with ~$300,000 of appearance fees paid throughout the year.

The problem with the announcement is that it stripped something players already earned—next year’s appearance fees. Players traveled the world in 2015-2016 in order to obtain Platinum appearance fees, and deciding those would be reduced by 90% in 2017 felt like breaking a commitment.

The mood on Sunday night was the opposite of what it would be at a normal Pro Tour, and not a single competitor I knew was feeling good about things. It broke my heart to see all my friends feel so terrible, and I myself was there along with them. It’s been a while since I was a full-time Magic pro, but I was once, and this kind of change would devastate many of the players who do play this game professionally.

The best thing by far to come out of the announcement was the overwhelmingly positive response from the Magic community. If you want to talk actual numbers, something like 30-40 players were going to be directly financially impacted by the change, yet thousands upon thousands of Magic players voiced their displeasure with the changes. #paythepros was all over Twitter and Twitch, and I can speak for myself and every pro player I know when I say we were blown away by how the community reacted. The community and pros don’t always see eye to eye, but everyone reading this had our backs, and it was an incredible sight to see. Thanks again.

The next announcement was a much better one.

Basically, we got to keep the increase in 2016 Worlds prizes, and 2017 Platinum appearance fees were restored to the previous level. It fixed the point that everyone had a problem with, and in fact added a bunch of prize money to the overall pool. The fact that the original decision was made still makes many pro players nervous, and where things go from here is something we are all keeping a close eye on. I feel good that WotC listened to the outcry and adjusted course quickly, but don’t feel great about the circumstances as a whole. Flying home on Monday felt awful, and I was the least happy I’ve ever been after a Pro Tour, which is insane considering the fact that I Top 8’d.

On Karaoke

Gaby, Tim Willoughby, and Neil Rigby (who is commonly known as “The Big Rig”) convinced Anton Jonsson and me to go to karaoke on Sunday, and we paid them back by singing a truly awful rendition of Hall of Fame (which I remind you, Anton is a member of). It was bad, though it did make the evening better.

On Testing with Channelfireball and Ultra PRO

I was happy going into the PT, and our results overall were solid. Getting to test in Denver and communicate with a group of top Magic players was great, and meeting in Barcelona/Madrid helped a ton. Working with new people is always interesting, and seeing how everyone thought and approached Magic was very useful. Sam Black and I love going deep on draft, and figuring out the format was a highlight of the trip. I was also very impressed by how much Justin Cohen can sleep, as he was out for about 50% of the time we shared lodging in Spain. I may be a Platinum Pro when it comes to sleep, but he’s easily Diamond, or some other higher level.

I am also glad that we listened to Matt Nass this time. At PT BFZ, we didn’t, and failed to play the busted Rally deck. This time, Wrapter and I pulled the trigger and played the deck the three of us tested infinite in Denver. It was a smart move. I wish it went a little better for Cheon and Web, with Cheon having a very rough PT. I’m sure the next one will be better.

That’ll do it for today. This was a bittersweet report to write, as this was a very odd PT. The highs were real, and the lows were too, but in the end, I’m obviously very happy to do so well. My teammates were great, the coverage team was great (and adding Gaby to it made it even greater), and I guess I’m winning at Magic again, which is also great. I’m even going to hit more GPs than I was planning to, as I’m only a few points short of Worlds. See you in New York, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles.

LSV

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