I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into playing Mono-Blue at Mythic Championship Cleveland. These kinds of temper tantrums tend to be associated with immaturity, but in my case, it’s taken a lot of growing up before I could even get to this point. It’s in my nature to go against the grain, and I’m the owner of a virtually bottomless well of stubbornness. So for me, “I’ll do it, but I don’t have to like it,” is progress compared to my usual, “I’m not doing that, end of conversation…”
As some readers may know, I have the great fortune to be a member of one of the most professional and successful teams in the modern era of Magic. Our group, which we call The Pantheon, has certainly had our share of strike outs over the years, but we also have a high rate of showing up to big tournaments with well-tuned lists of top archetypes. This ranges from the relatively obvious—Temur Energy, Mardu Vehicles, Modern Infect—to decks that were legitimately broken—Temurge at PT Eldrich Moon, Spirits at PT Dark Ascension, and Bant Hexproof at PT Avacyn Restored.
I said that “we have a high rate,” but what I really mean is that my teammates have a high rate of picking good decks. In far too many of these cases, I went maverick with some rogue deck of my own, or stubbornly refused to play a deck because I convinced myself it had a fatal flaw. In doing so, I’ve left more than a few Pro Tour match wins on the table.
It’s taken years for me to start overcoming this problem. Of course, there’s Jon and Kai persistently teasing me about my love of fair G/B decks. But the single biggest reason I’ve succeeded in expanding my deck choices is Owen Turtenwald. In my moments of self-doubt, Owen never fails to tell me that I’m good enough to learn any deck, even if it’s an unfamiliar archetype when time is running short. He encourages me to challenge myself. And this time it paid off.
Now don’t get me wrong, I embrace my affinity for fair G/B decks. It’s the type of Magic I love to play, and any time I have a close choice, I’ll gravitate toward midrange. For this reason, I was excited at the prospect of bringing Sultai to the Pro Tour. On Day 1 I told William Jensen, “Sultai is the same deck I’ve always wanted to play, but it’s a really, really good version of that deck.” A few days later, after a particularly good practice session, I remember thinking to myself, “I’m going to win this Pro Tour with Sultai.”
Sultai was my frontrunner for quite some time. I was winning with it on stream, and I liked my matchups against the top decks. When I met the first half of my team in Cleveland, our initial results showed White Weenie as one of the best decks, and Sultai as one of the few decks with a good matchup against it.
And then William Jensen showed up. He was liking Mono-Blue after some good results on stream, and showed up with the deck sleeved up and ready to go. I thought I could humor him with a few matches, just to be a good teammate, but I hoped we’d be done with the project soon. After all, I was about as likely to get on a spaceship to Mars as I was to register Mono-Blue for the tournament. It was a gimmick deck.
At least, I thought it was a gimmick deck. You could get your free wins with Curious Obsession, and give a headache to the Nexus of Fate decks. But once you started facing skilled opponents with enough cheap cards to keep pace, you were in for a reality check. That’s not even to mention white and red aggro decks tearing you apart like a damp tissue.
It turned out I was the one in for a reality check. William beat me nine games to one in our first set of Blue vs. Sultai. Duress, Cast Down, Kraul Harpooner—they weren’t nearly enough to stop the bleeding. “Fine,” I said, “Maybe Blue beats Sultai, but it’s hardly a real deck if we expect a lot of white and red at the Pro Tour.”
The real turning point came next, when we played against white and red. White was an even matchup, with Entrancing Melody being a huge beating in the post-sideboard games. Red was downright favorable once we could bring in Surge Mares to hold the ground and dodge the burn-based removal spells.
It was this revelation—that Mono-Blue was actually totally fine in the matchups that people perceived to be problematic—that really turned my world upside down. If you take 50/50 matchups against red and white, near auto-wins against Nexus of Fate and other clunky decks, add a favorable matchup against Sultai, and sprinkle in whatever freebies you get from the Curious Obsession draws, the calculus starts to become pretty clear.
It still took me a few days of moping around the house before I came around. For a while I pretended I was going to play White Weenie, or Esper, or stack my Sultai sideboard with enough hate cards to put a band-aid on the matchup. But in the end, it was crystal clear what deck I needed to play. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t the type of Magic I liked to play. It didn’t matter if I was lacking experience with the deck. Reluctantly, I registered Mono-Blue.
Reid Duke, 3rd place at Mythic Championship Cleveland
20 Island 4 Merfolk Trickster 4 Pteramander 4 Siren Stormtamer 4 Tempest Djinn 3 Mist-Cloaked Herald 1 Chart a Course 3 Dive Down 2 Essence Capture 3 Spell Pierce 4 Wizard's Retort 4 Opt 4 Curious Obsession
As a team, our main innovation was to increase the number of Essence Captures. It’s a highly efficient card for an aggressive creature deck, and since we believed that the Mythic Championship would center around Tempest Djinn, Goblin Chainwhirler, Benalish Marshal, and Venerated Loxodon, we wanted access to the effect in large numbers.
My personal influence on the list was to lobby for the full four Surge Mares. The only spot where you really want all four is Mono-Red, but I felt that it was important enough in that matchup to be worth expending the sideboard real estate. There were only one or two matches in the whole event where I brought in four Surge Mares, but they were instrumental in winning my quarterfinals match against Alex Majlaton’s Gruul deck in five tight games.
For all the stress I had in learning Constructed, I was kept afloat by my Booster Draft preparation, which was going swimmingly. I was making slow and steady progress, I knew all of the archetypes, I was agreeing with my teammates (rather than butting heads with them), and I was winning a lot!
For most sets, I never even stop to notice whether I “like” a Draft format or not. I enjoy playing Magic, and a new set will generally keep me sufficiently engaged until the next set comes out a few months later. Ravnica Allegiance is an exception: I’ve been loving it. In particular, it’s a breath of fresh air from Guilds of Ravnica, which I personally found lacking in replay value.
I believe that all five guilds (plus a couple of niche archetypes) can be successful in Ravnica Allegiance Draft, and many of the guilds have more than just one fixed identity. What I mean is: If you’ve seen a couple of GRN Boros decks, you’ve seen them all—you’re curving out with cheap creatures and hoping for a couple of mentor counters here and there. Some of the guilds in RNA, on the other hand, can be drafted in a wide range of styles. Azorius is a great example, and happens to be what I drafted both times at the Mythic Championship.
In the first Draft, I started with Sphinx of New Prahv, and Azorius was reasonably open. But it wasn’t the premium flyers that I saw going around so much as the removal spells and Sphinx’s Insights. I ended up with a highly controlling deck that could answer all of the opponent’s threats, and recycle itself indefinitely via two Clear the Mind.
This is an archetype I’d drafted a couple of times before, and which some of my teammates—Andrew Cuneo, for example—had been liking. The card draw and removal spells are strong, and if you ignore the prospect of attacking with creatures entirely, you can stick your opponent with dead removal spells. The finals of the Draft saw my Orzhov opponent pointing Summary Judgments at his own creatures, since upgrading to an afterlife token was likely the best that card would ever do for him.
My second Draft was featured, and you can watch it here. I was basically mono-blue in pack 1, and spent most of the Draft wavering between Simic and Azorius. Early on, I made note of a Clear to Mind that failed to wheel. That, combined with the fact that dedicated card drawing was scarce, made it very unlikely that I could repeat my deck from the previous day. Luckily for me, three Sphinx of New Prahv were opened, made it around the table, and gave me a clear plan and path to victory.
This was a more traditional “Skies” type of deck, where I used defensive cards to hold the ground while big flyers did my dirty work in the air. The game play turned out to be smooth sailing as I had a turn 4 Sphinx in most of my games, and my opponents rarely had the right answers.
So I ended up going 6-0 with two very different takes on the Azorius guild. The coverage team seemed to think that I’d homed in on Azorius Control as some kind of broken strategy. Ironically, I’m just as happy to beat down with big Gruul creatures as I am to recycle my deck with Clear the Mind. In this case, Azorius was simply the direction the cards pulled me, and it worked out well that I’d had some practice drafting the niche Clear the Mind strategy.
To make a long story short, I thought my Limited preparation was strong, and when combined with good opens in the packs and good draws in the games, I was able to convert it to a great finish. As an aside: I don’t write about Limited very often, but I’m thinking of making an exception for Ravnica Allegiance. Keep your eyes peeled in the coming weeks.
In Constructed, I earned seven wins, two losses, and an intentional draw. Combined with the Draft rounds, that put me at a record of 13-2-1, good enough for second seed going into the Top 8.
My Swiss breakdown with Mono-Blue was:
- 2-1 against White Weenie
- 2-0 against Sultai
- 1-1 against Esper
- 1-0 against Nexus of Fate
- 1-0 against Rakdos Midrange
My quarterfinals match would be against Alex Majlaton and his Mono-Red deck that splashed for Collision // Colossus in the sideboard. Alex was certainly well-prepared for the matchup, but there were a couple of reasons to be optimistic. First, this was probably the matchup I’d practiced the most before the tournament. Second, I would get to go first in game 1 due to being the higher seed. Third, we’d come prepared with a full playset of Surge Mare to help dodge Alex’s sideboard hate.
Game 1 of this matchup is pretty tough, and you basically always lose if the Red player has turn-2 Runaway Steam-Kin on the play. But I felt that if I could escape the pre-board games with a score of 1-1, I had a very realistic chance to take the match.
With only a few precious hours of practice time, I decided to split it evenly between the Red matchup and my prospective semifinals match, which would be against the winner of a Mono-Blue mirror, and where I’d benefit most from the extra practice. Shahar Shenhar volunteered to be my opponent while Jon Finkel and William Jensen played drill sergeant, yelling at me over my shoulder any time I’d make a bad play.
Both matchups seemed razor close, and I went to sleep feeling like any outcome was possible.
True to form, my match against Alex and his Red deck went to a very close five games. Just as I’d hoped, we split the pre-board games, and after a hard fight I was able to take two of the three sideboarded games.
My next opponent was Autumn Burchett in the Mono-Blue mirror. I knew Autumn was a skilled and experienced pilot, and we’d even taken a lot of inspiration from the deck Autumn had been grinding with as we finalized our own build of Mono-Blue.
Yet again, we split the pre-board games, with a Curious Obsession making for a lopsided game in each player’s favor. The next two were gritty and intricate, with Autumn finally managing to edge me out in each case. Upon rewatching the match, I’ve learned that if I’d simply jammed all of my spells at the first opportunity, I would’ve had a great chance to win both games. That said, I hope you’ll have at least a little bit of sympathy for me, as it’s a matchup where finding safe opportunities to resolve your key spells can be the difference between victory and defeat.
In my line of work, I’m regularly forced to play big matches against Luis Scott-Vargas, William Jensen, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Marcio Carvalho, and Yuuya Watanabe. I’ve never for one day in my life believed I was a better Magic player than these guys. The only way I make it through these matches is to tell myself that on any given day, with the right preparation, and when I’m really in the zone, it’s possible for me to play better in a single match. And I take great pride in the fact that I’ve been able to win one or two of those big matches.
I like to think of Autumn Burchett’s victory as evidence toward the truth of this concept. While it may be a year or two yet before I’m willing to concede that Autumn is a better Magic player than I am, they most definitely got the better of me in that match. And it wasn’t luck. Autumn showed that preparation and being able to bring out the best in yourself are the most important weapons in a Magic tournament.
Autumn, you’re a very deserving champion. And thanks for reminding me that I still have a lot to learn.
On the topic of learning, this was a great event for my growth as a player. I went outside my comfort zone in terms of deck choice, and I was generally happy with my play throughout the event. Although I played on Sunday in the Pro Tour before this one, Cleveland was my first time making out of the quarterfinals. I’ll be trying my best to get another shot at it, and hopefully I can improve just a little bit more next time.