Most people felt that our testing for Pro Tour Kaladesh was too long and burned people out, so we met in Prague about a week later than we normally do. The theory behind this was that we always knew we had a lot of time, so we never did anything meaningful in the first few days—therefore, by moving straight into “the last few days,” we’d be productive immediately. This would save us a week of testing if we were right, but would also be disastrous if we were wrong and actually needed the extra time to get a feel for the format, since there would be no way to fix it.
I was also worried on a personal level. I don’t actually play much Magic outside of tournaments. Even now, I have not touched a real or virtual Magic card since the PT. I already know most of what I need to know about Magic, but I need the reps before the PT to trigger my muscle memory. With one fewer week, I worried I wouldn’t be in good form for the PT, so I decided that I would dedicate extra hard this time.
My trip to Prague started on the right foot when I received a message confirming my business class upgrade. Domestic upgrades are nice, but mostly unnecessary—international upgrades, on the other hand, are a delight. You get infinite room, the chairs lay down completely for you to sleep, and instead of “chicken or beef?” with a plastic fork, you get to eat duck with orange sauce with actual silverware and Haagen Dazs ice cream for dessert. On top of that, it makes me feel very elite—business class is usually a bunch of old rich people in suits and jewelry who can afford the enormous price it commands and then there’s me, a young kid in sweatpants breaking the system.
Upon arriving and sitting in my aisle seat, I’m approached by a flight attendant who asks if I would mind exchanging my aisle seat for a window seat so that a husband and wife can sit together. I really, really prefer aisle to window—not only can I spread my not very small legs around (which is worth the occasional bump from the food cart), but I can also get up any time I want without having to worry about other people. Going to the restroom, grabbing candy, medicine, my computer—all things I sometimes just won’t do if there’s someone in the way that I’d have to wake up. The way I see it, aisle is sort of the “medium rare” of airplane seats—some people think it’s weird to prefer it, but anyone who has experience with it will tell you that it’s just better.
In the end, I decide that this couple is going to have a lifetime to be close to each other and they can survive 11 hours apart. I tell the flight attendant that I’m sorry, but I would like to keep my aisle.
She finds me a different aisle, which I go to, only to find out that that aisle is also taken, so I have to move back to my seat and again split up the couple, which I feel absolutely no guilt about doing. Eventually they work something out and I’m put in a different aisle, at which point the person sitting next to me asks what happened, to which the flight attendant replies, “oh we were trying to switch him up so that this husband could stay near his pregnant wife, but we worked it out.” Everyone shoots daggers at me as if I were the most inconsiderate monster in the universe while I silently scream, “I never knew she was pregnant!” Now, would I have switched immediately had I known? I guess we’ll never know.
After 11 hours of luxury and then a few more hours of normal life during my connection in London, I arrived in Prague. It felt like this:
I met Ben, Steve, and Shuhei at the airport, and we made our way to the place Petr had rented for us. Petr was a new addition to our team, and it turns out that when he’s not busy attacking 3/2s into 5/4s while being tapped out, he’s rather useful. Our place was a kind of mansion that we rented out fully—we had eight bedrooms, all with their own bathrooms, and we could play in the eating area since it had multiple tables. The place was run by a Russian woman who cooked breakfast every day: sausage, eggs, cereal, cold cuts, pancakes, crepes—you name it. One random day she even made us soup for dinner.
All in all, we stayed there for 10 days. The price for renting the whole place for 10 days? $105 dollars each. It felt like this:
All in all, it was probably the best setup we’ve ever had for testing. Each person (or every 2 people) had their own room that they could retire to at any point, and we had a big common area with multiple tables where we could be completely focused on playing (or doing player rankings, depending on who you’re talking about). It was like having a hotel with a conference room, except we had the entire hotel so we didn’t have to worry about locking anything up, taking our belongings back to the room, or wearing presentable clothes. It was also about 10 times cheaper than a hotel and conference room would have been.
Our testing team consisted of the following people, ranked in order of how much I like them (just kidding… or am I?):
- Joel Larsson
- Ondrej Strasky
- Eric Froehlich
- Ben Stark
- Mike Sigrist
Face to Face
- Jacob Wilson
- Alexander Hayne
- Steve Rubin
- Ivan Floch
- Sam Pardee
- Petr Sochurek
- Shuhei Nakamura
The remaining member of Face to Face, Oliver Tiu, didn’t test with us, as he was unable to meet in person due to being entirely focused on school in the hopes of giving America a brighter future:
The other Hareruya guys also did not test with us in any way.
Given that we were going to play at GP Prague, most of our early preparation was Limited. About 10 Drafts in, my record was a solid 30%. For those who also skipped their classes to watch Magic streams, this meant that every time I went 1-2 in a Draft, I was exceeding expectations and had cause to celebrate. I don’t think a consistent win percentage this low has ever been recorded outside of Shahar Shenhar’s Limited win percentage on Pro Tours in the past two years (for those curious, it’s also around 30%. Don’t ask me why I know this, but I think it’s my duty as a writer to share this knowledge with you).
I honestly didn’t know what was going on. I felt like I had a pretty good grasp on Kaladesh Limited (and my win percentage both in testing and in high-level events backed this up), but I just couldn’t seem to win in Aether Revolt. Was it really that different?
As it turns out, I don’t think it was actually that different, but the key differences that eluded me were definitely causing me trouble. Once my team helped me identify those differences, they were easy enough to fix. I’m not going to dwell on Limited too much, however, since I’ve already shared my views on Aether Revolt Limited.
GP Prague was very exciting. Since we had 3 byes, we had deck building a little later, and since pools didn’t come preregistered (tsk tsk), we had to police each other, with the person in front of you watching intently as you opened your packs and then registering your deck for you.
I sat across Sam Black, and he was going to open his packs first. He proceeded to open a sequence of extremely unplayable rares.
Then it was my turn to open my packs. First pack: Heart of Kiran. Not bad. Second pack: Release the Gremlins. Third pack: Aethertide Whale. Fourth pack: Aethersquall Ancient and masterpiece Steel Overseer. Normally opening all those bombs would already be pretty good, but doing it as Sam had to watch when he had just opened 6 unplayables in front of me made it extra satisfying.
Needless to say, my deck ended up pretty good. On top of all those bombs, I had 2 Pacification Arrays and plenty of removal. I didn’t have many quality creatures, but with the two flying Whales I wouldn’t have any problems closing games. My biggest question during deck building was whether to pair blue with red or black. Black had better quality spot removal, but red had Release the Gremlins. I figured Release the Gremlins had to be excellent in Sealed, and started that with the intention of siding into black against green decks that weren’t very artifact-heavy and whose creatures could grow bigger than my red removal could reach. I ended up getting paired against all green decks, and sided into black every round.
Two cards that were supposed to be great—Heart of Kiran and Steel Overseer—were actually not that good. I only had two other artifact creatures, and I had almost nothing that could crew the Heart by itself. Regardless of that, however, my opponents always lived in mortal fear of Heart of Kiran—it felt like someone had slipped in the type “Flagbearer” while I wasn’t looking. Any time I played it, even if I could never crew it (or just didn’t want to crew it), my opponents would sigh in disbelief at how lucky I was and then spend the next turn killing it regardless of what else was going on, even when it was doing nothing.
I navigated Day 1 to an 8-1 record, my only loss being a combination of a misplay plus some bad luck to punish me for it.
My Day 2 was also straightforward. I started with a solid G/W Revolt deck, and won two rounds before losing to a great U/W deck. I then drafted another G/W deck, this time leaning more on Vehicles than Revolt. The highlight of my second Draft was when I went turn-1 Consulate Dreadnought, turn-3 Peacewalker Colossus, turn-4 Fleetwheel Cruiser attack for 5, and turn 5 animate both with Colossus.
I won my first 2 rounds to put me in a win-and-in against Christian Calcano. His deck was very good, and in game 1 he started with 2 Winding Constrictors and a Fabrication Module, following it up with a Scrounging Bandar and 4 (!) Aetherstream Leopards, all while I was struggling without white mana. In the end I managed to play a couple of well-timed tricks he wasn’t expecting, and stole a game that I thought I was surely going to lose. It was an interesting battle of power versus information—his cards were better, but they were all in play, so I knew about them. My cards were worse, but they were all in my hand, so he didn’t know what I had and they had devastating effects. Game 2 went my way from the start and I was in the Top 8.
I drafted a B/R deck that was decent—not good, not bad. It did have 3 Daring Demolitions, though. I won my first two rounds and lost the finals to Multiform Wonder plus Aerial Modification twice in a row, which was depressing considering I had, you know, 3 Daring Demolitions in my deck. But it was still a very good result, especially for someone with a 30% win rate in the format.
Ivan Floch also made Top 8, but lost in the quarters. At some point while I was waiting for my next match Ivan was telling me about how his deck wasn’t very good, and then his Top 8 opponent came over and said, “Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone play two Wayward Giants before!” Ivan stutters a bit and goes “well, the Giant is not that bad…” and the guy laughs and replies “yeah, not that bad compared to that other 4/6 for 6 that you also had in your deck.” Just brutal.
Ivan was kind enough to wait for me, a decision I’m sure he’ll regret for the rest of his life, as it took about 4 hours for the entire tournament to complete after he was eliminated. By the time we left, it was almost midnight, he had no battery on his phone, and I had no internet. We found some Dutch judges willing to call a taxi for us, but we waited for about half an hour in the cold wasteland that surrounded the tournament and the taxi never came. Eventually we asked a security guard to call us another taxi and, after about 15 mins, that one arrived, and 20 minutes after that we were finally home.
Early on in Constructed testing, a couple of fundamental points became clear to us:
- Jeskai Saheeli was an excellent deck. It wasn’t just new and popular. The ability to have a turn-4 combo kill in your otherwise-control deck was huge, and the deck could play both types of games well, so you couldn’t really hate on it. Even if you didn’t have the combo, the fear of the combo was enough to make people play differently against you, and that was meaningful. It really was Splinter Twin reborn in Standard.
- On top of being a great deck overall, Jeskai Saheeli had an excellent matchup against other Saheeli decks. A ton of removal, Negates, Disallows, card drawing, and Gearhulk made the matchups against any sort of 4-color Saheeli, Marvel Saheeli, and whatnot very favorable. Since we thought Jeskai Saheeli was going to be very popular, this ruled those decks out.
- B/G Delirium (the SCG Open version) was horrible. Every new deck we built was good against B/G Delirium—it had literally no good matchups and half the time you played Mindwrack Demon you died to it in two turns. We weren’t even trying. We’d just build some weird deck, and it’d go 70% against B/G Delirium. I started thinking that maybe no one would play the deck.
- B/G Energy, on the other hand, was much better. It still wasn’t great, but it seemed to have better matchups than B/G Delirium across the board. One card we really liked that I haven’t seen much of is Blossoming Defense—it was excellent. There was one problem, however: the matchup against B/G Delirium wasn’t good. Mindwrack Demon, for as awful as it was most of the time, simply won any game that stalled.
- The Tower control decks had good matchups against Saheeli, though not as good as we imagined. Tower trumped Saheeli in the “mirror match,” but you still had a lot of trouble if they had Saheeli and you didn’t have Tower. And if neither player had either, the decks were similar except they could kill you out of nowhere. I wouldn’t worry about Saheeli if I played a control deck, but I also wouldn’t play a control deck because of its great matchup against Saheeli, since it wasn’t actually that great.
- Mardu was a powerful aggressive deck that had bad mana. It’d win most matches if it drew well, and lose most matches if it drew badly.
We left Prague on Wednesday to go to Dublin, and I had 3 possible decks in mind: Jeskai Saheeli, Mardu Vehicles, and Metalwork Colossus. Joel wrote about the Colossus deck a few weeks ago.
The first step was to eliminate the Colossus deck. That was done with more playtesting against Jeskai Saheeli. Originally, we thought the deck would win game 1 and be fine post-board, but playing against different sideboard configurations showed us that the matchup was actually quite bad post-board. That, coupled with a bad Mardu matchup, ruled the deck out for me.
The next step was to decide between Mardu and Jeskai Saheeli, and that was harder. I think the breaking point was when we tweaked the Mardu mana base to a point where we simply cut all Aether Hubs. Aether Hub was simply an awful card, and the deck became much better when we cut it (though one eventually made its way back in as a concession to the sideboard).
In the end, my decision of “Mardu versus Jeskai” came down to: “do I want to play the best deck, or do I want to try to beat the best deck?” I did an AMA recently and someone asked how my team identifies whether we should play the best deck or try to beat the best deck, here was my response:
“Assuming the best deck is an unknown quantity (e.g., Eldrazi), we’ll just play it. If the best deck is a known quantity, then there are two questions I ask myself:
The first is, ‘How is the mirror match?’ If I think the mirror match is all luck, then I’m unlikely to play the deck. If I think I can have a good sideboard plan or play in a different way and beat it often, then I’m more likely to play the deck. I thought Saheeli was kind of in between—there wasn’t a whole lot I could do regarding playing or sideboarding that people weren’t also going to do, but I could tweak my main deck slightly for the mirror (with more Negates and fewer dead cards).
The second is, ‘How far do I have to go to beat the best deck?’ If the answer is ‘not very far,’ then I expect people to do it, and I won’t play the best deck. If the answer is ‘very far,’ then I’ll play the deck, because I expect people will either give up on trying to beat it and will just hope they don’t get paired against it, or they will show up with decks that beat it and don’t beat anything else, and I likely won’t be paired against them later in the tournament.”
For PT Aether Revolt, we considered Jeskai Saheeli the best deck. But when we asked ourselves the question, “how far do you have to go to beat Jeskai Saheeli?” the answer was, “you just have to play Mardu.” Mardu was a perfectly fine deck that happened to have a great matchup versus Jeskai Saheeli, so people wouldn’t have to go too far out of their way to beat it. They didn’t need to maindeck multiple hate cards, they just needed to choose a valid aggressive deck. We thought that was something plenty of people would be willing to do, and that wouldn’t punish them at all, since it didn’t make their deck inherently weaker.
This got me off Saheeli, and I decided to play Mardu instead. The rest of the team arrived at the same conclusion, with the exception of Siggy and Peter, who played Jeskai Saheeli and whom I’m going to guess regretted their choice by about round 5.
This was a relatively standard Mardu Vehicles list with a blue sideboard. I really disliked the blue (I didn’t think those cards were worth making your mana base worse), but I simply couldn’t come up with anything that I wanted to play in the sideboard that I’d bring in any matchup, so I caved and played the counterspells. Rebuke was good against Gearhulk decks, and I don’t think anyone on the team ever boarded Rejection in during a single matchup.
The problem is that, just like all aggro decks, Mardu is very straightforward. It’s already playing the best cards at all spots on the curve, so you have almost nothing to take out in any matchup because you dilute your deck too much. You need artifacts to add mana for Spire of Industry, so you can’t take out Vehicles, and then you need the creatures to crew the Vehicles, so you can’t take those out either. You can take out some planeswalkers, but whenever the game slows down (such as post-board when people have a ton of removal), planeswalkers get better.
So, yes, Fatal Push is good in the mirror, but it’s a) not super easy to cast and b) you can’t have 12 removal spells in your deck post-board. It’s for this same reason that we didn’t play Fragmentize. So even though we were theoretically “wasting” two sideboard slots on blue lands, we weren’t giving anything up because we wouldn’t want to sideboard in anything else in any matchup.
An exception to this, of course, is having a transformational sideboard, like the Oath-plus-planeswalkers plan. This would actually let you take out several cards without hurting your deck and make your sideboard slots more valuable, but we didn’t have that at the time (and I’m not entirely convinced it’s actually good, for whatever that’s worth).
The Pro Tour
The tournament itself started well enough. I had a Draft strategy of mostly remaining open, and it paid off in spades when players on both sides of me opened insane rares that they couldn’t play. I solidified myself in U/G, and received a Baral’s Expertise in pack 2, and then a Verdurous Gearhulk (!) and a Confiscation Coup 3rd in pack 3. My deck was a regular deck before those bomb rares, but they made it quite good. I went 2-1, losing a very close game in the finals of the Draft.
A Puzzling Judge Call
Constructed also started well enough, though I had an interesting 20-minute judge call at some point. I’m playing game 2 against Jeskai Saheeli, and the board is crowded on my side. My Japanese opponent asks, “your life?” and I reply “19.” “20?” “No, 19, I took a point of damage from Spire of Industry.” He nods and attacks with his Torrential Gearhulk. I consider triple-blocking it but ultimately take the damage, and say “14.” He then says “no, 15.” “No, 14, I was at 19!” He untaps his Gearhulk and says “then no attack.”
I call a judge, who rules it was a communication error and rules my opponent can take the attack back. I think I’ve done everything correctly and this is too much of a free pass (he could be expecting me to block, for example, or could have realized mid-way through that his attack was bad), so I appeal—we call the head judge and a Japanese judge.
After a lot of conversation and translation, the head judge ultimately rules that he believes that I said “19” and also believes my opponent heard “20,” so no one is doing anything with ill intentions, but since “19” is correct and it’s clearly noted down in my life pad, it’s unfair to let my opponent take the attack back. All the while I can’t help but wonder why on earth my opponent wants to attack if I’m at a higher life total, but not a lower life total. It would make clear sense if he wanted to attack if I was at 19, but then didn’t want to if I were at 20—but the other way around? That’s just so weird.
Eventually it dawns on me—my opponent is also at 14. He has Linvala! By attacking first, my opponent made our life totals equal, so he’s not going to gain 5 life if he plays it.
I think we’re done with our ruling, but my opponent comes up with a new twist: that the Spire of Industry damage never really happened and I just made that up when I should, in fact, be at 20. I had no problem with our interaction before (I also believe he simply understood “20” when I said “19”), but this feels a lot like he’s accusing me of cheating, and that I do have a problem with. It would have taken some otherworldly foresight to deal myself a point of damage that never happened in the middle of combat in the expectation of a Linvala that I’ve never seen, though, so it’s pretty easy for the judge to figure out that I had no reason to lie and stop my opponent’s accusation in its tracks. The head judge keeps his original ruling of “no take backs” and I end up losing the game anyway, but winning the match.
I made my way to a great 6-1 record before ultimately losing the last round to Martin Juza’s Jundicles deck. I really like that name, Jundicles. Jundicles. Isn’t it great? It’s too bad the deck isn’t more popular. Jundicles.
6-2 is still a pretty good record, so I’m happy about the whole ordeal.
The second Draft mirrors the first—I stay open and I’m rewarded by the people next to me opening bombs in colors they can’t play. In this case, Freejam Regent from one side and Skyship Stalker from the other. It’s great to be lucky, but it takes a special kind of lucky to benefit greatly when the people next to you get lucky.
I win my first two rounds and lose the third to finish 8-3. Not a bad record, and at this point I’m imagining I need to 4-0-1 to Top 8, which is hard but doable.
I win round 12, but lose round 13 to a G/W deck. This loss leaves me a bit disheartened, and I think I’m out of Top 8 contention. I win round 14 and, before round 15, see that I’m in 18th place—sort of middle-of-the-pack of the 30-pointers. This confirms my suspicions, and I message my mother and girlfriend telling them I can’t make Top 8 anymore.
I win an unremarkable round 15 and then, as pairings for round 16 are released, someone tells me “you’re in with a win.” Really?!
I check standings again—I’m 9th. How did this happen—how did I jump that much? Did everyone that was ahead of me lose?
Well, no matter. My name is called to the feature match and I hastily message my mother and girlfriend again, telling them “nevermind, I can actually make it and I’m going to be on camera!”
My match is against fellow Hall-of-Famer Ben Rubin, who is on B/G. It’s a shame our game 1 wasn’t actually recorded, as it was very interesting. We both had good draws and curved out, then at some point he attacks with two 5/5s and a 4/4. I have a couple of random creatures I can block with (a Thraben Inspector, a Pia token, etc.), and think for a very long time before declaring “no blocks,” going to 1. This is dangerous, as I’m dead to Walking Ballista, but I thought it was the line that gave me the best chance to win. He seemed very surprised. I don’t think he expected me to go down to 1 life with so many potential chump blockers in play. It is indeed a line that I don’t think most people would have taken.
Taking it puts me in a scenario where I can kill him if his two remaining cards are lands, and I can draw any creature to win if one of his cards is a spell (whereas chump-blocking would force me to draw something specific to beat a spell, like Unlicensed Disintegration). He has a creature, but I draw Scrounger and I win.
Game 2 was on camera, but that one wasn’t very exciting as he mulliganed and was stuck on one land. That was just a big relief. A lot of people will tell you, “I don’t want to win games like this,” “I want to earn my wins,” or “I just want to play the game,” but believe me, when you’re in a spot where you have to win the game to make Top 8, all you want is an opponent who mulligans to 5 and doesn’t play a spell. The universe delivered and I advanced into what was hopefully the Top 8.
Everyone congratulated me on my 11th Top 8, which made me nervous as I wasn’t actually a lock. I mean, I was 9th and I had won, and my tiebreakers were significantly better than Ivan’s, so in theory I should advance to 8th, but who knows? There have been many tiebreaker surprises in the past.
As we’re waiting for the Top 8 announcement, Riccardo approaches a me and Ivan and turns to Ivan. “Ivan, we need you in that area for the Top 8 announcement.” He then starts to leave before eventually turning to me. “Oh Paulo, you too… I guess.” That’s probably not how he said it, but it’s how it felt to me. Clearly if he wanted Ivan, then Ivan must have made it. Bummer.
They eventually called players 1 through 7, leaving just Ivan and myself with a lot more than just a Top 8 on the line. For me, the title of “second-most PT Top 8s of all time,” finally surpassing Kai Budde. For Ivan, it would be his fourth PT Top 8 and the potential last straw he needed for a Hall of Fame induction. At least if I’m going to miss it, then a friend is going to make the Top 8, I thought. That was a bit comforting. We were told to approach. It felt like this:
* If you want to employ my Photoshop services, I’m taking business inquiries at twitter.com/pvddr.
Eventually the judge announced Brazil, and that was me! Hooray!
It turned out I had reason to worry, as the tiebreakers ended up being much closer than anticipated:
I didn’t feel the need to practice much for my Top 8 match, as it was the exact same matchup we’d tested a lot and played throughout the tournament. But there were a couple of things I wanted to learn about my second quarterfinals matchup, assuming I advanced, so I tasked teammates Ivan and Sam with playing the matchup and telling me what was going on.
My Top 8 was unexciting. I went 5 games deep in both matches, but I felt that I hardly played any “games.” It was funny that they would pause our game for the camera, we’d wait 10 minutes for the other match to finish, and then they’d arrive. We’d start playing, someone would miss their second land drop, die horribly in 2 minutes, and then the camera would have to move over again. We’d wait another 15 minutes, they’d come back to us, and then the exact same thing would happen, just on the other side.
Overall, I felt like every single game I played was defined by mana problems on either side. There were multiple 1-landers on 6 that didn’t get there, several people stuck on 3, and a lot of “no black mana” in the Mardu mirror. I think this is just the unfortunate nature of Standard, where the best deck is at the same time punishing and inconsistent, but it was remarkable that I didn’t feel like I even did anything in the Top 8. I believe that a much worse player would have won the exact same games I won and lost the exact same games I lost. Most of the key decisions I had were whether to keep or mulligan my 6-card hands, and perhaps that I should have done differently.
In the end, I was still thrilled with my result, especially considering that I assumed I was out of the tournament. I achieved a historical milestone, and I’ve already locked Platinum for next year with two PTs still to go. It was also a very important tournament for Latin America and Brazil specifically, which is now establishing itself as a major region. To give you an idea, there was a year where I went to Worlds as the second Latin America seed while having fewer than 30 Pro Points, and now it’s the middle of the season and Lucas, who has 31 points, is in fourth place! In Europe, he would be third. Those are the kind of numbers that would be unthinkable a couple of seasons ago, and I’m very happy we’re now starting to push past this barrier.
Moving forward, I’m going to do commentary for the GP in my hometown (Porto Alegre), which I’m very excited for, and then I’m flying to Orlando, San Antonio, and Mexico City. If I’d known I’d Top 8 the PT, I probably would not have gone to those tournaments, but I’ve already booked everything, so I might as well go and try to put myself in a good spot for Worlds and the World Cup!