I’m as baffled as Jesse is, but I’ll take what I can get.

I don’t go in to tournaments with much in the way of expectations. No matter how much you’ve prepared or how great your deck is, Magic has a ton of variance, and sometimes it just won’t be your day. Even when we had Caw-Blade, some people on our team didn’t make Day 2 (and trust me, Izzet Phoenix is definitely not Caw-Blade, Birds aside). This has the side effect of it being a pleasant surprise when things do break your way and you do end up finishing well. Still, I was quite prepared for this Mythic Championship, and I felt like I gave myself the best shot of succeeding. That, plus a disgusting amount of luck, is all it took to Top 8 once again.

Limited Preparation

Prep for this tournament started as it usually does—me talking to Pat Cox (more commonly known as tdubs) about Draft, and him making fun of me for my Set Reviews.

In my defense, I based my ratings off the Arena bots (not to be confused with the Arena Boys, though much like the bots, they may not be the best source of strategic advice), and assumed every green deck would always have four Sauroform Hybrids. That actually dovetails nicely into my next topic.

Arena vs. MTGO/Paper Testing

When it comes to Constructed, testing best-of-three on Arena seemed like a perfectly fine way to go about things. Once you get to Diamond/Mythic, you face decks and opponents that offer plausible preparation for the Mythic Championship. The same isn’t true for Draft, at least while we have bots drafting on Arena.

I did 80% of my Drafts on MTGO and stand by that ratio. Drafting on Arena is fun, and a good way to learn how the cards play, but isn’t how I’d recommend practicing for the Limited portion. So much of the game is figuring out what the bots undervalue, and it can give you a warped sense of which decks are open and what decks look like. For example, Gates and the Gate payoffs all go super late on Arena, so if you drafted only on Arena, you could easily begin to overvalue cards that go into that deck (and be in for a rude surprise when the Gates do not indeed flow). Likewise, the Grasping Thrulls flow like water, and wheeling Imperious Oligarch happens frequently. Still, as long as you mix your preparation, you should be fine, and I don’t think anyone would be foolish enough to only practice on Arena and subsequently go 0-3 as a result.

Starting From the Bottom

When it came to Standard, figuring out a deck wasn’t easy. After playing a bit and watching streams, I felt like I understood why you’d play each deck.

Aside on streaming and the current information gap:

This may be the best possible time for people who aren’t on a big team or don’t have ample time to prepare. You could watch your pick of MPL members, each of whom basically plays their Mythic Championship decks. Finding a good deck is easier than it’s ever been. I mean, Team Ultimate Guard basically just played Alex Hayne’s Mono-Blue list, sideboard and all. Granted, the next Mythic Championship has some weird prerelease aspects to it, but I think in general you don’t have an excuse not to play a good deck, and should focus more on making sure you know how to play your deck instead.

End aside.

The format hasn’t changed a ton post-PT, so here’s a handy guide to help you pick a Standard deck:

  • Mono-Red: You are good at drawing Light Up the Stage and enjoy Shocking your opponent’s face.
  • Mono-White: You are hoping everyone forgot that Kaya’s Wrath exists. You are also planning on drawing between three and four lands every game (that was our strategy at PT Guilds of Ravnica).
  • Sultai: You want to be 45% in every matchup.
  • Nexus: You want to lose more than you win, but feel very clever when you do win.
  • Esper: You are good at drawing the half of your deck that’s removal spells against aggro, and the half that’s counterspells and discard against control. Also, you draw one shockland and all Glacial Fortresses each game.
  • Izzet Phoenix: You forgot to buy cards after Guilds of Ravnica (and/or you thought the MC was Modern).
  • Mono-Blue: You have twenty cool matching Islands (or twenty different Islands, if that’s how you roll).

Given that our deck-building mastermind, Josh Utter-Leyton (Wrapter) hadn’t touched a Magic card since GRN, it’s no surprise that we ended up on Phoenix. Wrapter, BK, and I jammed a bunch with the deck, then showed up in Cleveland to find that not a single person across our team agreed on matchup results of basically any matchup. OK, that is an exaggeration, but we did have a lot of failures to agree on reality, if we could even tell what reality was. It’s always difficult deciphering what is actually going on in a matchup—numbers aren’t the whole story, as sample sizes are small, but what a matchup feels like can be easily warped by outlier games. Usually it’s not too hard to get to the bottom of things, but I felt like we had lower confidence than usual by the time we had to submit our decks.

Here’s what seven or eight of us registered:

Izzet Drakes

8 Island
4 Mountain
1 Blood Crypt
4 Steam Vents
4 Sulfur Falls
4 Crackling Drake
4 Goblin Electromancer
4 Arclight Phoenix
4 Chart a Course
4 Shock
4 Radical Idea
4 Lava Coil
2 Tormenting Voice
2 Discovery/Dispersal
1 Ral, Izzet Viceroy
4 Opt
1 Beacon Bolt
1 Entrancing Melody

Sideboard
3 Negate
2 Niv-Mizzet, Parun
2 Entrancing Melody
2 Sorcerous Spyglass
1 Shivan Fire
1 Beacon Bolt
1 Disdainful Stroke
1 Spell Pierce
1 Murmuring Mystic
1 Ral, Izzet Viceroy

Some notes on the deck:

  • We used the name “Drakes” and “Phoenix” basically interchangeably, and that led to two outcomes: confusion when people thought someone was talking about the 8 Drake 0 Phoenix deck (which was more popular at the time) and me making a lot of bad Drake references. I enjoyed both of these things.
  • Pteramander sucks. I kept wanting to cut down on them until we hit zero copies. It dies to too many cards, and is way too slow. In your best draws, it’s a great turn-5 play, but that’s not what this deck needs.
  • Blood Crypt was to cast Discovery or Dispersal, as needed. I would cut it moving forward.
  • Ral’s nickname soon became the Ralchicha (salchicha means hot dog in Spanish). It’s very important you know this.
  • This deck can’t really play counterspells in the main deck, as it needs all its spells to bring back Phoenix, but that makes it exceedingly weak to Esper and Nexus decks.

We were happy enough with the deck, though those of us who were more skilled at having 2-3 Phoenixes in play on turn 3 were more optimistic than the others. Unsurprisingly, I was among this group. Plus, I had a lot of momentum from the last Mythic Championship, and was determined to prove that those of us not in the MPL still could compete on Magic’s biggest stage.

Sideboard Guide

Esper

Out

Entrancing MelodyLava CoilLava CoilLava CoilLava CoilShockShockShockShockTormenting VoiceTormenting Voice

In

Niv-Mizzet, ParunNiv-Mizzet, ParunBeacon BoltSorcerous SpyglassSorcerous SpyglassRal, Izzet ViceroySpell PierceDisdainful StrokeNegateNegateNegate

Nexus

Out

Entrancing MelodyLava CoilLava CoilLava CoilLava CoilRal, Izzet ViceroyShockShock

In

Beacon BoltSorcerous SpyglassSorcerous SpyglassSpell PierceDisdainful StrokeNegateNegateNegate

WW

Out on the Play

Arclight PhoenixArclight PhoenixRadical IdeaRadical IdeaRadical IdeaRadical Idea

Out on the Draw

Radical IdeaRadical IdeaRadical IdeaRadical IdeaRal, Izzet ViceroyRal, Izzet Viceroy

In

Shivan FireEntrancing MelodyEntrancing MelodyBeacon BoltRal, Izzet ViceroyMurmuring Mystic

Sultai

Out

ShockShockShockShock

In

Entrancing MelodyEntrancing MelodyBeacon BoltRal, Izzet Viceroy

Mono-Blue

Out

Crackling DrakeCrackling DrakeCrackling DrakeCrackling DrakeRal, Izzet ViceroyTormenting VoiceTormenting Voice

In

Shivan FireBeacon BoltEntrancing MelodyEntrancing MelodyNiv-Mizzet, ParunNiv-Mizzet, ParunSpell Pierce

Gruul

Out

Radical IdeaRadical IdeaRadical IdeaRadical Idea

In

Shivan FireEntrancing MelodyEntrancing MelodyBeacon Bolt

Mono-Red

Out

Ral, Izzet ViceroyEntrancing Melody

In

Shivan FireBeacon Bolt

Drakes

Out

ShockShockShockShock

In

Ral, Izzet ViceroyBeacon BoltNiv-Mizzet, ParunNiv-Mizzet, Parun

Sideboarding is pretty easy with this deck. When removal is bad, counterspells are good, and there isn’t a ton more to figure out. A few notes:

  • Beacon Bolt is a great hedge against control decks that bring in cards like Lyra, Thief of Sanity, or Niv-Mizzet. It’s pretty low cost to have a couple of Bolts in the deck.
  • Spyglass was kind of weak. I’d swap the two for a Disdainful Stroke and a Spell Pierce, and bring them in against all the matchups where Spyglass is good.
  • Entrancing Melody is surprisingly good even against medium-sized threats. It’s great against Krasis, but still solid against 3-4 mana cards.

Now that we had our deck, it was time for the Limited meeting.

The Meeting of the Minds

Our Limited meetings tend to have a few consistent features: BenS skips them despite being one of our best resources for Limited, we spend an inordinate amount of time ranking the 7th and 8th best commons of each color, and Pat Cox gets mad when people compare rares to other rares in P1p1 scenarios. My goal for this one was the eliminate the latter two issues (it’s well beyond my power to solve the first one, despite that seeming to be the easiest one to tackle).

I’d spent most of my Limited prep talking to Pat (who told me not to play 4 Azorius Guildgates in my 2-color deck, then laughed when I lost due to drawing one) and drafting on MTGO, ideally with Wrapter and BK over. I always find it helpful to bounce ideas off teammates, even if sometimes that involves letting Wrapter read Chillbringer five days before the Pro Tour. Nonsense aside, those guys did get me most of the way there when it came to Limited, and between that and Martin convincing all of us that Plague Wight was busted, I volunteered to run the Limited meeting.

My approach was made easier by this being a guild format. Instead of ten 2-color pairs to talk about, there were only the five guilds (plus the Gates deck and the Esper Dovin’s Acuity deck). I laid out rough pick orders for each guild, but didn’t worry about ordering past the top five commons. I really didn’t want to get bogged down in ranking irrelevant things, and as anyone who has seen the internet and its current crop of articles can tell you, humans love ranking things. I felt like we were largely successful, and we kept the meeting to a trim 2.5 hours, going over each archetype, the cards that made them tick, and where uncommons fit in. We also ranked each rare against the top uncommons and top commons, giving all of us a good baseline for when we opened a rare we hadn’t had a chance to play with. Highlights of the meeting included:

  • Tom Martell calling Plague Wight unplayable. Martin then said, “I think you mean unblockable.” Martin was correct.
  • Blade Juggler being the best black common in both Rakdos and Orzhov. It’s just insane.
  • BenS threatening to punish anyone who took Lumbering Battlement over Sharktocrab (don’t worry, Ben wasn’t actually at the meeting—he just heard about it later).
  • Matt Nass asking if we should talk about Dimir, getting laughed at, then later losing to Dimir while 2-0 in the MC.

After wrapping up the meeting, people broke off. Some of us went to test the deck we’d chosen to play, while others decided to get a last couple of Drafts in. I did neither. Once I’ve gotten to the point where I feel prepared, I tend not to play any more. Plus, what if I lost a bunch of games with my Constructed deck? I needed the confidence to go with all that momentum. I did feel very prepared for the tournament, even though that is by no means an indicator of success. All it meant was that I was ready to battle, and I’d put myself in a good position to get lucky, which is one of the tactics I am best at (I mean the getting lucky part, obviously).

The Mythic Championship Begins

There is nothing like the start of a Pro Tour. I know, I know, they are called Mythic Championships now, but they will always be Pro Tours in my heart. No matter how much Magic I play, I’ve never found anything that compares to opening your first pack on Day 1, and seeing how lucky (or unlucky) you’ve gotten. There’s no low as low as having a train wreck mid pack 2, and already crafting the bad beat tweet in your mind. On the flip side, there’s nothing as fun as getting the insane hookup pack one, and getting to enjoy a whole two more packs when you know you’re heading towards an awesome deck (my second draft at the last Mythic Championship was like this, and it is a delight to know that you’re drafting the right deck in the right seat).

My first Draft was nowhere near like that. I opened with Warrant // Warden, then took Grotesque Demise, followed by a smattering of mediocre blue, white, and black cards. I had no clear direction after pack one, except that I knew red and green weren’t open. My first five picks of pack two were horrendous too. As it turned out, Logan Nettles (to my left) was Azorius, and apparently no good Orzhov cards were opened. I was deep in tweet-crafting mode, where I’d bemoan my abysmal luck and explain why I started 1-2 or 0-3. Then, a ray of hope. I got Consecrate // Consume 6th pick, followed by Grasping Thrull 7th pick. Maybe Orzhov was open, but the packs were just bad? Did I have outs?

Pack three was nothing but hits. I took Mortify, then Dovin, then Kaya’s Wrath, then every good Orzhov card you could imagine, capped by wheeling the Grasping Thrull I passed in favor of Dovin. The swings in this Draft were wild, but given where I ended up, that just made it feel that much sweeter. Here’s the final deck:

The blue splash was easy to justify, and the deck was nuts overall. I actually should have played a second Undercity’s Embrace, as Pat Cox had a good point about pod Drafts—I was pretty sure there were no other Orzhov drafters, so Embrace goes up in value. I sided it in twice, and wish I’d main decked it.

Some notable occurrences during the Draft rounds:

  • In round 1, I cast Carnage off of Tome, making my opponent discard Warrant // Warden before I attacked. That was good.
  • I got smashed by a sick Gruul deck round 2, despite having Consume and Wrath both games.
  • Round 3 I was presented with the following opener against an aggressive Rakdos deck, on the play:

I kept, because this hand could easily win after missing one land drop, and would still be in it after missing two. I of course drew two lands immediately, making the game not close to being close.

2-1 After the Draft

This was a disappointing 2-1, as my deck was awesome, but the Gruul deck that beat me was also great. Now, about those Phoenixes…

The first couple of rounds of Constructed are exciting too. Not only do you get to see if you have a functional deck, but you also get to run around looking at what everyone else brought. It’s a blast, and I hope we don’t move toward deck lists being open for MCs (the Invitational is a different animal). You also get to see how your team is doing, and it can be pretty fun when you realize you broke it—when we played Colorless Eldrazi in Modern, having one loss total after two rounds of Constructed clued us in that we’d broken it.

Constructed highlights:

  • Sultai Spell Pierced my Tormenting Voice in game 1. I did not expect that, though my two Phoenixes meant that I didn’t really care.
  • I lost the Niv-Mizzet race badly in the Drakes mirror. Untapping with Niv is a huge game, and you basically never lose if you do.
  • I got to cast some post-combat Chart a Courses against Mono-Blue. If you are in a position to successfully raid Chart, you are usually winning, and I certainly was in that game. Turning into Izzet Control against Mono-Blue was a very successful strategy, and I didn’t lose any matches to the blue menace.
  • Entrancing Melody on Llanowar Elves led to a turn 4 Ralchicha. That was a fun game.
  • I played the second-craziest game of the tournament (the craziest being game 2 against Marcio on Sunday. Spoiler: I made Top 8). My opponent had a quick pair of Tempest Djinns, but I got back three Phoenixes on turn 4 (I told you I was lucky). That led to a standoff, and we both basically sat there for about seven more turns. My opponent then had Merfolk Trickster into Deep Freeze to hit me down to 5, at which point I had the following turn:
    • Opt, find Niv-Mizzet. Play Niv-Mizzet, then string together enough spells to kill two Tempest Djinns and two Pteramanders, bringing back three Phoenixes.

At that point, my opponent Entrancing Melodied my Niv (?!), but I was able to play a second Niv and Lava Coil the traitorous one away, locking up the game.

I ended the day 6-2, which was a start I was quite happy with. Obviously I wasn’t going to Top 8 again, but it set me up for a nice 11-5 finish or so. Unfortunately, the rest of the team wasn’t faring as well, as I was hoarding all of the luck for myself. Everyone but Ben made Day 2, though aside from Siggy and Juza on 5-3, the rest of the squad was 4-4. Ben actually couldn’t make dinner, as he was back in Florida by the time round 7 started.

Serendipitous Saturday

I had a tough Draft pod on Saturday.

My Draft wasn’t much easier. I started Rakdos, but took a couple Orzhov cards when they presented themselves. I hoped Shahar (to my left) was Simic or Gruul, but sadly he was neither, which did not bode well for either of us. After being on the receiving end up some pretty weak packs, I ended up with a 6/10 Rakdos deck:

These Draft matches were a wild ride:

  • In game 1 of round 1, my opponent cast: Consume, 2x Grasping Thrull, Kaya’s Wrath, Mortify, and Ethereal Absolution. I was once again mentally preparing myself to lose the round, but squeaked out a super tight first game, with Rakdos Roustabout dealing the final point of damage. I do want to note, by the way, that when I say I was mentally resigned to losing the match, I didn’t stop trying or anything like that. I was just able to see myself losing to a vastly superior deck, but still did my best to win… and win I did. My opponent flooded game 2, and I completely stole a round.
  • I then defeated Oliver Tomajko in one of the least close matchups I’ve ever seen. He was piloting a good Esper deck, but it relied on a ton of Slimebinds and Lawmage’s Bindings as removal. That does not work out well against a sacrifice deck that also has Ill-Gotten Inheritance as a damage source, and I got to Act of Treason with Priest of Forgotten Gods, sacrificing an enchanted creature. I can’t count how much card advantage that was.
  • In my last round, my opponent was playing straight Bant, and his deck was obviously cobbled together after some late color switches, thanks to opening Biogenic Ooze and Mesmerizing Benthid. Sadly, he played both those cards on curve both games, and I died in a very frustrating manner. I’m not as anti-rare as some of my compatriots, but losing to self-described “crap plus mythics” was not a fun experience.

9-3, Time to Win Out

I couldn’t get there again, right? The Phoenix deck was fine, but nothing special, and I needed to 4-0 before hopefully being able to draw. There was just no way I would get to pull yet another rabbit out of my hat, but I sat down to play anyway.

  • I beat Martin Juza on Sultai, after he cast the biggest of Vraskas when all I had out were two lands and an Electromancer. His mana flood plus my string of perfects got me there, though had it been the Carnage Tyrant that competed for that spot, I would have died messily.
  • I got to set up a nice Spell Pierce against my buddy Shaheen, who was on B/U/G Reclamation. I had two Phoenixes and two Radical Ideas in the ‘yard, and a hand of Electromancer, Pierce, and two lands. I played Electromancer, and flashed one Radical Idea back. Shaheen responded with Cast Down. I then cast the other Idea, and Shaheen went to Negate it (hoping to stop me from finding a third spell). I then got to spell Pierce the Cast Down, now that he was tapped out, which saved my Goblin and was the third spell for the Birds. I love it when a plan comes together.
  • Against straight G/B Midrange, I pulled out a close match. My opponent conceded game 3 prematurely, frustrated by flood and a mull to 5, then flipped his top card, only to see a Cry of the Carnarium that would have wiped three Phoenixes. I didn’t have lethal on my turn. Don’t scoop until you are dead.
  • In my win-and-in, I defeated Peter on Mono-Blue soundly. He did take one game, but when Phoenix has Electromancer in play, it’s so easy to maneuver around the blue deck’s counters. I stole a Tempest Djinn and rode it to victory, two basic Islands and all.

12-3

I was surprised to have gotten there, but I still had to draw. My tiebreakers were horrible, so I was steeling myself and ready to play. I wasn’t accepting congratulations—not yet—as I’ve been 12-3 and missed before.

It then was a clean cut, and I got to draw with good guy Alex Majlaton, who I’m happy got to crack his first Top 8.

12-3-1, and Very Lucky

11th time’s the charm.

The tenth time certainly wasn’t, as I’m not writing this with a *1st* at the top of the page. That’s how the cookie crumbles, though, and I did get one sweet match in the Top 8.

I was paired against Marcio Carvalho on White Weenie. This matchup used to favor WW, but now that people are cutting Adanto Vanguard, I actually like the Phoenix side. Vanguard was always the best card, and even Tithe Taker wasn’t close to being as effective.

Relevant video of our match can be found here:

Actual match coverage is here.

In the games I won, I tended to stick an Electromancer and play a flurry of spells, particularly ones that ended up with Phoenix in play. Once the Phoenix deck is humming, WW has a very hard time breaking through, and Crackling Drake can often kill in one hit. Game 2 was actually the best game by far, and I highly recommend watching it. I drew better in that game than any game of the tournament, and it was a nail biter from start to finish.

My Top 4 match was a lot less exciting. I got destroyed, and badly. Esper is a tough matchup, and facing down multiple main deck Cry of the Carnarium made it nigh impossible. I could have potentially won game 4, as I didn’t play around The Eldest Reborn, but I’m not beating myself up over it—that is just a very hard matchup. OK, that’s a lie: I am beating myself up over it, but mistakes do help you learn. My mistake in this case was mistakenly assuming that The Eldest Reborn wouldn’t be in post-board, but that attack should have clued me in that it was. My block was bad (I traded a 1/1 flyer for a Goblin Electromancer, and then got Murmuring Mystic eaten by The Eldest Reborn), and I got punished for it.

Final standing: 4th place, $15,000, some amount of Mythic Points with unclear value, and more confirmation that I’m one of the luckiest.

Big congrats to Autumn Burchett for winning! They played great, and deserved it. Their win also means a lot to a ton of folks, and I love how much positivity surrounded it. Less big congrats to Reid for another excellent finish (sorry buddy, you have to win the tournament for the biggest congrats), and thanks to Reid for lending me some sweet Shocks that I still haven’t returned.

Team ChannelFireball also had a nice Saturday, as Martin finished 11-5 and Wrapter finished 10-6. Combined with my finish, that put us in first place in the team series. Of course, I’d be like fourth or fifth, but trust me, I’ve been carried so many times by teammates that it’s nice to be able to repay the favor.

I should also note, that while I joke (always, about everything), I have a great team. Team ChannelFireball + Team Ultra Pro + associates do an excellent job making sure that everyone is prepared. We played a smattering of different decks, as none of us found a deck that was busted (stock Mono-Blue was probably the best choice for the tournament), but having a forum full of great players and [deleted BK joke] always makes me feel confident going into a MC. Who knows, maybe we will break it for London and have some sick Modern deck.

With all that said, some thanks:

  • My team (as I basically said above).
  • Gaby Spartz, for flying to Cleveland in February to support me. I did even somewhat trick her (unintentionally), as she thought it was my birthday, but she came anyways, even after realizing my birthday was the week before.
  • ChannelFireball, for having tournament prep be a part of my responsibilities. It’s very empowering when President and CEO Jon Saso tells me not to worry about X, Y, and Z and tells me the best thing I can do is win the tournament.
  • Huey Jensen, for being the best, even if he didn’t tell me to play great Mono-Blue instead of mediocre Phoenix.
  • The Kiefers, for helping make Denver a great place to test. We probably should have done that sooner.
  • Pat Cox, for being great at yelling at me when I do stupid things.
  • BK, for being a good sport.

I then flew home, prepared like mad for GPLA coverage (which turned out wonderfully), and finally found time to write this. Hopefully I have cause to write another soon, as the Invitational is coming up, and I believe I’m due.