For this Pro Tour, I decided to mix things up. I would still test with the same team, with one change. The bulk of my preparation would be done via Magic Online, and I traveled to Japan a full six days later than the rest of the team.

My preparation actually started back when Marvel got banned as I played a bunch of Standard to familiarize myself with the new environment. This actually helped quite a bit. With Hour of Devastation being one of the weaker sets when it comes powerful cards, the Standard format was bound to change very little. U/R Control got a bit better, but control overall is a flawed strategy in modern Magic. The only new obvious deck would be Mono-Red, thanks to Ramunap Ruins and Earthshaker Khenra. Therefore, my first move was to test this deck.

When I picked it up, I thought I would play a couple of Leagues, find the deck unplayable, and move on. Boy was I wrong. The deck was great. After I tuned my list a bit (more lands and Hazoret), I was doing really well in the Competitive Leagues. Based on my findings, I decided to write up this post in our Facebook group 9 days before the tournament started:

“You guys are probably just reaching Kyoto so I decided to write down my thoughts on how we should approach Standard.

The best decks are W/u Monument, Mardu Vehicles, Temur Energy, G/B, Zombies, U/R Control, and Mono-Red. I think the last two should be the decks that we look at first since they’re the ones that got the most from the new set. Hour of Devastation and Supreme Will are huge additions, while the Mono-Red deck is completely new because of the Khenra card and the Desert synergies.

I think Mono-Red is the most important deck to concentrate on right now and we should try and figure out how much hate it can handle. You guys have experience with testing similar kinds of decks so you should know how to approach it. I’ve been playing online with it and have won more than 75% of my matches over 10 Leagues. Reading articles, I don’t think it gets the recognition it should and when it does it’s the bad version from the Open. Also, the online lists I’ve seen only play 2 Hazoret and crappy cards like Trial of Ambition, Cartouche, Bushwacker etc. Basically, that deck could really be underestimated and we shouldn’t make a mistake of doing that.

As for other brews—my personal opinion is that we shouldn’t waste any time on New Perspectives (too weak to counterspells), Paradoxical Outcome (can’t beat Abrade), God-Pharaoh’s Gift (can’t beat Abrade either), Hollow One decks (1-mana 4/4 isn’t great if you can’t play it on turn 1 or 2 and you have to play bad cards to enable it).

We could go back and try our Aristocrats deck from the last PT, which I think may have gotten better, but it’s still most likely poor. Decks I think we should try are all the Champion of Wits emerge decks—I think those might have potential and I don’t really want to try them online so I’ll leave that to you.

Another deck that’s definitely worth trying is ramp. Crested Sunmare is also a card that could have a lot of potential but I have no clue how to build a deck around it.

Also, I think we should just have 1 person (ideally Sam or Steve) whose only job is to find the best version of the B/G Grim Flayer midrange deck as I think that will likely be the most solid deck if all else fails.”

It turns out that I was pretty much right. The only thing I missed was that God-Pharaoh’s Gift was actually playable when built well. When I arrived in Kyoto, we basically had it narrowed down to three decks: Mono-Red, U/W Gift, and G/B with Grim Flayer.

We discarded U/W quickly, even though we built this cool version with Walking Ballista and Glint-Nest Crane. G/B was always going to be played by Sam Pardee, a Grim Flayer fanatic. It had a good matchup versus Red and medium matchups against the rest of the field.

As for Red, it was just a strong deck. I briefly considered abandoning it for other decks out of fear that everyone would be prepared for it. Common sense won out as, even though Red was popular online, the format was still wide open with a bunch of playable decks. We did expect people to be ready for it, but didn’t think that they would give the deck enough respect. Now we just had to make sure that our list was going to be good.

Luckily we had our secret weapon—Ben Stark. Now Ben is known as Limited expert, but he is also incredible when it comes to Constructed. He doesn’t like testing in real life very much so he always closes himself up in a hotel room to play a lot of Magic Online. This time he focused purely on Mono-Red. He tried out most of the viable options, and in the end my teammates came up with the following version that brought PV to his 2nd PT victory.

Ramunap Red

We got two important things right: we played a lot of lands and built a great sideboard.

The process of building the sideboard was a thing of beauty. Those of us interested in Red locked ourselves in a hotel room on Thursday night. Based on the feedback from Ben, we put together a very strong sideboard. We did this by moving some of the cards we originally had in the sideboard (the 24th land, the 2 Chandras) into the main deck, creating more space in the board. This gave us the freedom to play cards like Pia Nalaar and Aethersphere Harvester—we expected Red to be the most popular deck and wanted to ensure that we would be favorites in the mirror match. The only card I regret playing is Savage Alliance. It was an untested, last-minute addition that was supposed to serve as insurance in case we missed a go-wide deck that would cause problems for our deck.

While building the deck, I gained a huge amount of respect for my teammates. It’s unbelievable how good they are at deckbuilding. I wish we had recorded our debates as there was just so much information to absorb.

I felt pretty great about our deck choice going into the tournament, but there is always a chance we missed something. It turns out that we didn’t, and had what was likely the best build of the best deck, which obviously feels great. Especially after our failure last time.

As for Limited, I played around 70 Drafts online. My results were mediocre, which is okay. It takes me a while to get used to playing with new cards, but at the end of the process I felt pretty confident.

So, Iwas ready for both formats, yet I failed to produce a good result. What went wrong?

It all started quite well. In my first Draft, I correctly recognized that red was open in my seat and got rewarded with 3rd-pick Glorybringer. I ended up with a nice 15-land Boros Aggro that played out better than I expected. I went 3-0, which is unusual for me. I was excited to enter the Constructed rounds, but then everything went wrong. I had medium draws against Zombies, lost the die roll, and then lost the match because of it in the mirror. Round 6 was also a nightmare as I played against one of my best matchups in U/R Control. I was firmly ahead in game 2, up a game, but I made some loose plays and my opponent punished me with Hour of Devastation off the top and the game slowly slipped away. Going 0-3 with a deck I liked was a huge disappointment, but I managed to bounce back with two wins.

Going into Day 2 I was still alive for Top 8, which was my goal for the tournament. The 2nd Draft again went well. I think I drafted well, and ended up with a strong B/W Aggro deck. Unfortunately, in the deciding game of the first round, I made a giant blunder.

My opponent, Nathan Smith, and I are deep into our match with only 10 minutes on the clock, so we’ve seen most of each other’s deck. My board is 3 lands and Khenra Eternal. Nathan has Feral Prowler and a freshly played River Hoopoe. Even though I had no combat trick, I decided to attack. Nathan double-blocks and I bin my creature.

My goal with this attack was to sneak in 1 free point of damage. I know Nathan is a Gold pro, so he’s good at Magic. Therefore, when I attack, he will realize that I must have a trick because I wouldn’t just chump attack with my creature. He’s already seen at least 3 ways that would kill Hoopoe in combat: Splendid Agony, Sandblast, and In Oketra’s Name. Therefore, he’d be protective of his Hoopoe and block with only the Feral Prowler, which would result in 1 point of free damage for me. This was my thought process in the 10 seconds from my draw step until my combat phase. I thought my logic was sound, so I decided to attack.

Unfortunately, I failed to acknowledge that Nathan might see the situation differently. First, if he blocks I have to spend some mana to protect my creature and even though his Hoopoe will die, he’d get me to skip my 3rd turn without adding extra pressure on the board. Second, his hand might encourage blocking. For example, if he doesn’t have extra lands, the Hoopoe loses its value as it’s less likely he’ll get to activate his ability. This was exactly the case, so he correctly chose to block.

Basically, in my mind, the Hoopoe was a big threat. I think the card is great and I had a 2/1 flyer in my hand that was getting blanked by it. From my point of view I’d never have thought that Nathan would put his power piece in harm’s way. But I didn’t think to look at the situation from his point of view. Another deciding factor was that I didn’t have much time to think about the play, as if I sat there for 30 seconds and decided to attack, Nathan would have known something was up. Overall, it was a very foolish play. I think I just wanted to show myself that I was smart enough to push 1 free point of damage through. Instead, I lost a creature and the match. From that point, the game wasn’t very close, but if I’d had the extra creature, I think I’d be a favorite. The best part? My next two draw steps were Splendid Agony and In Oketra’s Name. Good beats.

I bounced back with 2 wins in the Draft. In Constructed I went 3-2 to an overall record of 5-5. Not great. Still, if I could go back in time, I would still play the same list, so it’s hard to say what went wrong. I lost 2 rounds to Zombies, 1 to the mirror, U/R, and an interesting build of B/r Aggro. Even though I failed to meet my goals at this PT, I’d still say that it was a resounding success. Japan is a fantastic place and it was an incredible experience to watch my two teammates and great friends in the finals. Big congrats to both Sam Pardee and Paulo Vitor. I’ve already mentioned this on Twitter, but I think PV is getting dangerously close to the title of 2nd best player of all time. Having played in a bunch of team tournaments with him, I feel like I know his abilities quite well. It might not be visible to the less experienced players, but PV is playing on a whole different level compared to most pros. Overall, it was a well deserved victory.

As for CFB Ice, we pretty much failed in the team competition. Even though we had the best finishing PT competitor in PV, we only managed to squeak into the Top 4, which is two spots shy of qualifying to the big show. What can I say? I hope that the next season will go better for all of us. It’s been an honor to be part of such a sick squad as all the players on the team are honestly great. Professional Magic is fickle, and I ended this season with only Gold status. This past week I thought a lot about my future in Magic, and I’ve decided to give it a shot for at least one more year. The Pro Tour is just too great not to be a part of it. I wanted to take a bit of a break in Japan, but here I am already thinking about Modern and the upcoming Grand Prix Birmingham.

Time to hit the queues again.