“Hey Eric,

There’s a shot I can make the Beta Draft—would it be possible to be added to the Beta Qualifier #3 (which I may or may not get a chance to play in)?”

This ended up being one of the more fateful emails I’ve ever sent. On Wednesday, I realized that I’d have time to play in one Beta Draft qualifier, so I emailed ChannelFireball Marketing Czar and Chief Enforcer, Eric “Raging” Levine. Luckily, he was able to squeeze me in, and my journey toward the Beta Draft began.

The Grand Prix in Las Vegas each year is always quite the experience, and this one was no exception. There are a million things to do, both inside the venue and out, and the headliner for this one was the Beta Draft. Eight lucky winners of a Dominaria Sealed + Draft event would get seats at the table, and I figured that I’d take my shot at being one of them. I also was bringing a sweet Old School deck, which is the format I prepared the most for coming in. See, I wasn’t even going to Vegas to play—I was slated to do coverage alongside Gaby Spartz, in one of our rare appearances in the booth. The Thursday side events were just that, and I expected to be done battling once Thursday concluded.

Leading up to the event, I worked on our Old School deck, which in fact was The Deck (caps intentional). It may sound funny to “tune a deck” for a format that hasn’t rotated since inception (more on this format can be found here), but Brian Weissman and I did manage to make some good changes to the control deck we planned on playing. Brian came up with the idea to add Hymn to Tourach to the deck for control mirrors, and it was awesome. Where most people sideboarded in Red Elemental Blast, we boarded in Hymns, and it was a bloodbath. Here’s the list we landed on:

Obviously, half the fun of Old School is playing with sweet cards, so posting a picture of the deck list is mandatory. In fact, Old School deck lists are posted via photo, not list, which adds a really awesome feel to the format.

I went a glorious 1-0 in the event before being pulled away, and since I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it back, I wasn’t dropped. I then got paired against quite the pair of misers, both of whom were more than happy to tweet about their “victory.”

I’ll have you know that Martell and I played out our match later, sideboard and all, and I handily crushed him. Take that, Tom.

Thursday: BDQ

Next up was the Beta Draft Qualifier. Five rounds of Sealed, followed by a Draft, winner-take-all. In fact, one loss anywhere was elimination, so I went in with no expectations. My Sealed had a lot of great removal, but the last few cards were mediocre. Having to play 2/2s for 2 and Fire Elementals with no abilities wasn’t where I wanted to be, even if I did have History of Benalia, Benalish Marshal, Fight with Fire, and a few good removal spells. This is approximately what I had (since the deck got lost in the shuffle):

Shahar Shenhar correctly advised me to just cut the Aesthir Glider for a Plains each round, so I did that. I managed to go 4-0 before drawing, with a few notable incidents along the way:

Haphazard Bombardment hit a Verdant Force on the first shot. Look, I didn’t put that card in my deck not to hit their 8-drop.

Apparently, one of my opponents was not pleased with my lack of sleeves. According to one of my later opponents, my prior opponent complained to the judges after I left about it, and was asking if it was legal to play without sleeves. Is it legal?! Magic was played without sleeves for years, and I hate sleeving. This is a ridiculous line of inquiry, and I wish my opponent had brought it up while I was there (so I could mock it in person).

Some games I went Benalish Honor Guard into History of Benalia, and some games I went double Shivan Fire into Ghitu Chronicler into Fight with Fire. Gotta have a range.

I was supposed to record Magic TV with my sidekick Mashi and my esteemed Editor-in-Chief Andy Cooperfauss, and after I opened my Sealed I texted Mashi that I’d be out of the tournament soon. Whoops.

I made it into the Top 8 as 6th seed, and got ready for one of the biggest Drafts of my life. Winner got fame, riches, and an invite to one of the best events ever held. 2nd-8th got some prize wall tickets.

Things started well, as I opened Lyra Dawnbringer (ding), and both black and white seemed quite open. The toughest pick of the Draft was Kwende against The Eldest Reborn, when I had the following relevant cards:

Normally I’d just slam Reborn, but the combination of Lance, Knight, and Arvad made me lean toward Kwende. My deck had a bunch of first strikers, and was medium aggressive, so I thought the payoff was enough. After getting passed Urza’s Ruinous Blast in pack 3, I was pretty glad I made the pick (though it could still easily be wrong).

My first two matches were uneventful. I beat Zach, a friend of a friend, after he mulled and got pretty flooded, then dispatched a very pleasant fellow playing red-black, with also medium draws.

The finals was a tense affair, and I could tell that my opponent was pretty nervous. I lost game 1 in short order to an army of Saprolings, and won game 2 equally easily on the back of removal plus beaters. I did get to make a play in game 2 that I believe ultimately won me game 3, and shows off the psychological aspect of Magic. There is something to be said for playing in-person, and I took full advantage of it in this match.

In game 2, my opponent attacked with Sporecrown Thallid, which was amazing in his deck, into an empty board. I snapped it off with Fungal Infection, and even remarked how good that was for me. My opponent didn’t seem happy with the exchange, and I thought there was a good chance that he’d avoid attacking into Fungal Infection in game 3.

Lo and behold, in game 3 he didn’t attack with Sporecrown into my board of all Swamps, preferring to let his Saprolings do the dirty work. I was stuck without Plains for a long time, and when I finally started drawing white lands, I was really far behind. He still never sent in that Sporecrown, and I still kept taking 6-8 a turn off Saprolings, past the point where I would have cast Infection. I did think a little each turn, because I figured I might as well sell it a small amount.

It all culminated with the following board:

Me: 6 life, a Lyra Dawnbringer and an untapped Swamp.

My Opponent: Three 2/2 Saprolings, a 6/6 Shanna, and a Sporecrown Thallid.

I was sitting there, all my hopes and dreams of drafting Beta crushed. I’d already begun composing the complaint tweet mentally, and wouldn’t even be able to scratch the surface of how disappointed I was to come so close. In the midst of all this, I heard the best thing I could imagine.

“Go.”

My opponent, fearing what would have been an insane blowout, didn’t attack into Fungal Infection. Granted, I would have won on the spot if I had it, as I would have eaten Shanna with Lyra, chumped a 2/2, and gone to 5. At that point, Lyra versus some 2/2s wouldn’t have been close, and since I’d just drawn my second Plains, presumably I was going to deploy more things.

But I didn’t have Infection, and my opponent passing was the payoff for selling how good it was in game 2. I untapped as fast as I could, slammed Urza’s Ruinous Blast, and that was all she wrote. The entire Serpent Squad was watching (Gaby had a stream meetup, and her stream team is the Viper Brood, an elite subsection of which is the Serpent Squad), and we rejoiced…

—For about two minutes, after which I had to literally run to film Magic TV, as I was six hours late and an entire set was waiting. Luckily, we had some excellent guests able to cover for most of my time missing, and I want to thank GerryT, Brian “The Real BK” Kibler, Ben “TBS” Seck, Reid “The Bones” Duke, Tom Martell, and Brian Weissman (plus anyone I may have forgotten). Mashi was a trooper, as were all the film crew, and we got some awesome content I can’t wait to release.

Also, I was in the Beta Draft!!

It’s hard to overstate how excited I was. I was giddy the entire rest of the weekend, and all I could think about were Shivans and Moxen and Fireballs and Pestilences and Ironroot Treefolk and more. I just love old cards, and I love playing old/janky formats. I made the finals of an Unlimited-through-Saga Rochester Draft at GenCon last year, and have spent a way above average amount of time playing unconventional Limited formats.

I also spend a lot of time perusing and acquiring old cards, so I was ready for the “know the prices” part of the format. I honestly think I may be the best player in the world for formats like these, given zero preparation time—I’ve been training for this for years for no actual reason, and my body was (almost) ready. Plus, this is the only chance I have to be able to (plausibly) claim that there’s a Limited format I know better than BenS or Huey, so I’m just going to go for it.

Speaking of BenS, he also qualified, as did Martin Juza. I was really happy to have two teammates make it, as it somewhat made up for our lackluster (putting it mildly) performance at Pro Tour Dominaria. They had to do a crash course on Beta drafting, as the format has some really weird things going on. I knew they needed help when Martin opened with:

“Can’t we just pick two open colors and draft a good curve?”

Yeeeeeah, that’s not how it works. The average Beta Rochester Draft deck is going to have the following characteristics:

  • 19-21 land, with 20 being average (Martin’s had 23).
  • 3 colors, with outs to a fourth (I maindecked three and sided in the 4th).
  • No fixing besides Celestial Prism—if you thought Navigator’s Compass was bad, get a load of this.
  • 11 creatures, 8 of which have 2 or fewer power.
  • 3-5 cards that actually matter, and will determine most of the games. Beta is a format defined by your top end, so opening a FireballSengir Vampire, or Pestilence matters way more than whatever your average creature is or what you took 5th.

I had some nice resources at my disposal too in the form of the esteemed Brian Weissman (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite people to talk to, and is someone whose work I thought was cool way before I’d ever played a single tournament—he invented The Deck!).

Brian had done a ton of 4th Edition Drafts, which are functionally identical to Beta (minus the power, which honestly is just a reward for being an incredible lucksack *cough* BenS and Martin *cough*). He advocated avoiding white and blue at all costs, as they just didn’t have any stats worth mentioning at common and barely any at uncommon. He even went so far as to say that Hill Giant was better than Serra Angel pick 1 pack 1, which is a bold claim. I wasn’t sure if I was going to make that pick, but getting an in-depth Beta Limited review from Brian was very helpful.

Of course, I had three days of coverage before the Beta Draft, but the amount of space I devote to talking about the Draft does reflect how I excited I was about it, so I’ll just give you the coverage highlights (which is usually what I do when I report on coverage—the view from the booth doesn’t lend itself to quite the depth you get from playing).

Friday and Saturday: Modern

I was paired with Gaby, which is awesome, and we battled our way through three days of Modern, Sealed, and for Gaby, Beta Draft. Here are some of the standouts:

  • Marc Calderaro, the showrunner, delivering an awesome rant because the one deck list we were missing was someone who got featured, and it looked like they were on Lantern Control, which we avoid like the plague. Luckily, they were actually on a sweet Tezzeret Thopter Sword deck. Crisis averted.
  • A sea of humanity. There weren’t actually infinite Humans decks in the tournament, but many high-profile players were on the deck, and we spiked a lot of mirrors. Explaining that whoever draws more Thalia’s Lieutenants is probably going to win is not the most enthralling part of coverage.
  • Modern is about as tilted away from fair decks as it’s ever been. Between Hollow One and Bogles trying to cheese you out, Humans assembling a ton of power while disrupting all spells, and KCI doing god-knows-what over there, it’s just not the time and place to be trying to Jund people out.

Decks I consider reasonable choices right now:

  • Tron – As loathe as I am to admit it, Tron is fast enough to compete and is doing just the right level of broken.
  • Hollow One.
  • KCI – If you really, truly, have practiced enough. You know who you are.
  • Humans – This deck truly is great. It’s fast, powerful, disruptive, and nigh-unbeatable when it draws Aether Vial and two lands.
  • Mardu Pyromancer – The one fair deck I think is playable, despite my normal disdain for nonblue control. It gets to play unconditional disruption (Thoughtseize) and has Blood Moon, plus makes enough tokens to play offense or defense effectively.

Decks I would avoid:

  • Jeskai Control – If you peg the metagame right, this deck is great. Get your answers wrong, and it’s quite bad. This has the potential to be good, but really relies on your predictive powers.
  • Burn – I just don’t think this deck is fast enough. Modern is very fast right now, and people seem to respect Burn enough that it’s not the best choice.
  • Affinity – Not only is this a worse KCI, I don’t even think it’s that amazing against some of the reactive decks. Life got harder for Affinity once Kolaghan’s Command got printed.
  • Storm – The most popular deck in the format plays four Meddling Mage, three Thalia, four Kitesail Freebooter, and four Phantasmal Image. Woof.

Decks I didn’t mention:

  • Your favorite deck.

Matt Nass going off with KCI left Gaby and I racing to explain what exactly it was the viewers were watching. I thought we did a passable job, but wow, that deck is hard to commentate on (and play). If more people played that deck at Matt Nass’s level, or even Andrew Baeckstrom’s, it might be a real problem for Modern balance.

Congrats to Matt Nass for taking down another GP—he’s on a tear, and finally may have turned the corner from being underrated and run flat-out into being overrated. It’s hard to make that big a swing, but I think Matt has managed (I think Matt is great, for the record).

After taking Vegas for all it was worth at the blackjack tables (i.e., losing a tolerable amount), we got ready to cover Limited, and in my case, to crack open the packs of Beta I’d been dreaming amount.

Sunday: Any Drafts?

We kicked off Sunday with a bunch of Drafts, followed by more Drafts, followed by the Draft. I love covering Drafts, and I think they are among the most interesting and compelling part of coverage. Sadly, Limited matches tend not to be of the same interest level, and I’ve always wondered if we should just show all Drafts with one round of each deck instead of sticking to the normal formula of covering each round (often with players we didn’t get to see draft).

The Drafts we watched were particularly interesting. Normally, once the player has settled in, it’s not all that hard to figure out where they are headed. The first four or five picks are close, then they settle into blue-white or whatever, and it’s smooth sailing. Not so for our heroes. We covered Alexander Hayne and Hao-Shan Huang (found here), and at the end of both of their Drafts, I couldn’t predict which colors they were. Hayne was certainly something Jundy, and ended up R/B/g, with Huang being straight Mardu. Sometimes Drafts don’t come easy, and those tend to be the more interesting to watch.

There are also good lessons to be learned. Take the Draft we covered, which was Draft 2 of the Grand Prix:

This Draft highlights a common decision tree, and Gaby and I walk viewers through it during the Draft. In some seats it’s hard to figure out exactly what your colors are, and Emmanuel was not faced with easy decisions as a result. But he ended up falling into a trap that I’ve fallen into many times, and hopefully one you can avoid.

He ended up waffling too much on which colors were his primary, and as a result was something closer to straight Abzan than any 2-color combination, which you should strive to avoid. You can see how it happens in the video, but here are the steps broken down:

  • Early in the Draft, you see cards of three different colors, and cards that work together reasonably well. In this Draft, that was white, black, and green, all with minor token themes.
  • Picks alternate in an unfortunate way where you see all three colors in nearly equal proportion, so every time you think you’re out of a color, a late card pulls you back in.
  • You figure that you should keep taking the best card, and settle on colors later—it then quickly becomes “later.”
  • You have to commit, and just stick to two colors, potentially splashing the third, and stand by the decision. Heading into pack 3, that’s when you just need to make your best guess as to which two colors are the best for you, and go hard on those.

That last step is the one that didn’t happen in the Draft we covered. A pick of Shanna was followed by Seal Away, which I thought cemented the Draft into G/W, but then Deathbloom Thallid got taken over Gideon’s Reproach, and Abzan was back on the menu.

There are cards I’d splash, and there are cards I wouldn’t, and if your deck ends up with Fungal Infection, Sergeant-at-Arms, and Yavimaya Sapherd, it’s hard to call it a success. Bear in mind that this was a tricky Draft, and even though it does serve as a good example for this point, I have to give Emmanuel credit for having a great record to even be featured, and don’t envy having to navigate the seat he was given.

You Beta Draft Now

Finally, after much ado, here was the event I (and about 80% of Twitch chat) was waiting for. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to crack 24 packs of Beta, and an experience so overwhelmingly awesome that I’m sad I won’t get to go to GenCon because it conflicts with the team Pro Tour (there is another Beta Draft being held at GenCon).

The actual Draft starts about 12 minutes in, and involves my first-round opponent slamming Fireball, which was not how I wanted to kick things off. Before we get to that, let me explain a little about Rochester Draft, which I know isn’t really relevant to anyone, but I feel like I fulfilled the “strategy” part of my article with some of the above sections. Plus, if any of your friends are smart enough to qualify for the Beta Draft at GenCon, point them here and I bet it’ll help.

Rochester Draft is face-up Draft, where one pack is opened at a time, and players pick one by one until it hits the player next to the person who opened the pack. At that point, they pick again (they are the “wheel”), and the picks loop back towards whoever opened. Some notes about Rochester strategy:

  • You know your first-round opponent, so keeping track of what they are up to is critical. This is where I got a huge edge on my first opponent.
  • Reading signals is trivial when picks are face up, but you still have to decide when to fight neighbors for colors, as it’s worth it when you are getting something powerful enough.
  • Beta in particular has huge deltas between the good cards and the average ones, so I expected a ton of fighting.
  • I also expected a ton of rare-drafting—random Beta rares are worth hundreds, and good ones are worth truly obscene amounts. I myself didn’t really want to rare Draft all that much—I did take Fastbond, but I also passed rares for better uncommons and commons, and made picks like Disintegrate over Lightning Bolt (a pretty big monetary gap and a likewise large power level gap in Limited).
  • Color-hosers like Circles of Protection and Lifeforce are insane in Beta, and knowing what your opponent’s colors were and what answers they had was paramount.
  • When you are close to the wheel, you can take worse cards over better ones if you think the next few people aren’t in those colors. Taking a decent green card over a good red one is smart if the two next people aren’t in red but one is in green.
  • Remembering as much as you can about what all the players at the table took is really helpful, both in the Draft and later in the matches. It’s also really challenging if you haven’t done it before, and almost nobody has played Rochester at this point. I used to jam a bunch before I got on the Pro Tour, and had even done one as recently as last August. I was ready.

The Draft

My deck ended up quite nice. I opened a Nevinyrral’s Disk, a Disintegrate, and was in a good seat for red-green, two of the colors I really wanted to be in. Unfortunately, my opponent, ScaldingHotSoup, had what was shaping up to be a monster. Not only did he open Fireball and Earthquake, the two players passing to him were aggressively rare-drafting (can I complain about lucky BenS again?). That led to him having the best deck at the table—straight R/G with all good creatures, three (!) Fireballs, and Earthquake. I had my work cut out for me.

Luckily, this is where my experience with these loose formats came to bear. I literally drafted circles around him, as I snapped up Circle of Protection: Red and Circle of Protection: Green. I also kept a close eye on any Tranquilities or Disenchants headed in his direction, and was satisfied when he didn’t take any. I had a plan!

My draft went pretty well otherwise. I did end up in three colors with 20 lands, but I had two X-spells and Disk, plus high creature quality. Dragon Whelp was a gift, and is one of the better finishers in the format. I even got to assemble Orcish Artillery plus CoP Red, which is a throwback if I’ve ever seen one. Between that and the Disk-plus-Wall-of-Brambles combo, I was really doing it.

Here was my deck, with the two Sorcerers and Shatter as relevant sideboard options:

I didn’t bring Beta lands to the tournament because I wasn’t anticipating playing, but luckily an LR listener had them. Thanks again to Josh for the timely loan—I needed Beta lands to play the Beta Draft more than you may know.

The Games

My first match was insanely close, with me surviving game 1 on the back of Guardian Angel for his lethal Fireball, losing game 2 despite CoP Red because he Fireballed all of my creatures, and winning game 3 after getting both Circles in play. He had no outs at that point, and was helpless to my eventual lethal Disintegrate. Ah, the dark side of Beta Draft (rather, one of the many).

My opponent also wrote up his Draft and our match here.

My second round was much less challenging, as I was facing Hall-of-Famer Martin Juza. His 23-land 1-drop aggro deck folded to my Circle Red and my sideboard Prodigal Sorcerers.

That put me into the finals against longtime player and former WoW TCG pro Tim Rivera, who I actually played at my very first Grand Prix (Anaheim 2003, for those wondering—I even did a very belated tournament report here). Going into the Draft, I knew Tim was a huge threat. He’s a skilled player who has been playing forever, and knows all about formats like this. I expected him to have a great deck, and he ended up with a monster. At the end of the Draft, I would rank ScaldingHotSoup (or Ian, if you want to use his actual name) first, Tim second, and myself third. Tim had two copies of Pestilence, Terror, Sengir Vampire, and a bunch of good creatures.

Luckily, we agreed to split the prizes and play for the glory, so I didn’t feel nearly as bad as if I just got trounced to walk away with nothing. He did dispatch me, though it took three games, and in the end, the better deck had to win some of the time.

Phew.

This report was about as long as our weekend was, so I don’t feel bad ending it here. Of course, after losing the finals of the Draft, I then went back and helped my poor suffering coverage colleagues break down the set (I felt horrible for bailing on the last three hours of coverage, but the Beta Draft was just too unique for me to ever pass on it). We got out at about midnight, at which point Gaby, Andy Cooperfauss, and I met up with an extremely loose Paul Cheon (he does make an appearance) and his partner in crime Kevin Chu, at which point we Vegas’d it up until 4 a.m. We ended up ahead enough to feel quite happy, which was a nice conclusion to the weekend.

I also had this happen on the way out, which somehow seemed perfect for the weekend:

OK, now I’m really calling it. Before we go, here are some props and slops, because this is a throwback report.

Props

  • Gaby, for literally holding down the booth solo while I ran to go do the Beta Draft. Gaby doing solo coverage of a format she has never seen before is literally a nightmare she’s had about coverage, so her trucking through it is worthy of praise.
  • Rich Hagon, for dealing with much the same, and covering for me when I was unable to resist trying (and succeeding) to qualify for the Beta Draft. He also opened a Black Lotus on stream, which I can assure I thought was really funny. Yeah.
  • BDM, for being the perfect person to cover said Draft. It’s only right that the Pro Tour historian be involved, and he too picked up some of my slack.
  • Paul Rietzl, for being by far the best Paul on coverage that weekend. Really great job, Paul.
  • Tom Martell, for battling Old School and hopping into the booth when needed. Maybe Tom has the fire again, and we might be seeing more of him on the tournament scene.
  • Andy Cooperfauss, for putting up with my nonsense on coverage and on ChannelFireball, and being a great guy to gamble with/absorb bad cards at blackjack.
  • Josh, for the Beta lands hookup.
  • Liz Lamb-Ferro, for her vigilance in making sure all the precious Beta/Alpha product was safe and delivered for the Draft.
  • Eric Levine, for head judging a challenging Draft, and opening the packs such that all the cards came out minty fresh. For a guy called Raging Levine, he had a gentle touch.
  • Eirik, for bringing Gaby and I an awesome breakfast on Friday. It really hit the spot.

Slops

  • Matt Nass, for making people think they should take KCI to a tournament, therefore making themselves and their opponents suffer.
  • Pat Cox, for losing win-and-ins for both GPs. You’re killing me, man.
  • Andrew Baeckstrom, for obvious reasons.
  • Paul Cheon, for only doing one day of coverage. We didn’t get to hang out nearly as much as I wanted to.
  • Wrapter, for not coming to Vegas. What the hell, man?
  • Eirik, for losing in the Top 8 of his BDQ. That would have been awesome.
  • Me, for any and all looseness last weekend. It was an overwhelming weekend, and I punted plenty of times (both in game and out).