I started testing for Pro Tour 25th Anniversary about a month before the event. I even came to the States early, about two weeks before Grand Prix Sacramento, and stayed with my girlfriend in California. We split our six-man ChannelFireball team into LSV, PV, and Siggy, and Josh, Bens, and myself. We were all pretty excited about this one as it was going to be the biggest Pro Tour ever in terms of prize money and we still had an outside shot at making the Team Series finals.
I didn’t want to spend much time on M19 as the format is largely irrelevant, so I only did a few Drafts and just focused on Standard. A Team Pro Tour places a lot of responsibility on you to pull your weight, so it definitely made me play more than usual.
I started by trying the new decks. Mono-Blue Storm looked promising, but the more we played, the more I realized it’s mostly just a game 1 deck that gets worse after sideboard against everyone while you don’t really improve much outside of bringing in counterspells. A lot of cards that are already played in high numbers like Negate, Jace’s Defeat, Duress, Abrade, or Thrashing Brontodon are very good against you and everyone has access to some of them.
I also tried Grixis, which I liked a lot. Magma Spray is an important answer for Scrounger, and with four Harnessed Lightning I didn’t have a problem with bigger creatures either. It also fixed the mana (Aether Hub) and helped you draw more cards from Glint-Sleeve Siphoner. What I loved the most about the deck was Vraska’s Contempt + Torrential Gearhulk. But every time I got my creatures Chainwhirled it just felt too bad. The deck also missed something proactive that would create continuous card advantage every turn.
Liliana Death’s Majesty was okay, but it’s no Teferi. I also tried green, both splashing for blue and black, but felt like I was always hoping for my opponent to not have a Chainwhirler for my Llanowar Elves, Chandra for my Steel Leaf Champion, Settle or Rekindling Phoenix on turn 4, or Glorybringer on turn 5. Basically just a lot of hoping that I curve out perfectly and that they don’t have the right answers. But that’s what you sign up for when you play a deck where your only interaction is Blossoming Defense.
I also ruled out Mono-Red as they printed a couple of new creatures with 4 toughness that looked very important, Sai and Nicol Bolas, and all of a sudden playing with Shocks and Lightning Strikes didn’t seem appealing. These creatures were also the reason why I disliked U/W Control, as your creature removal in Settle the Wreckage and Seal Away did nothing against them.
It was time to go back to R/B Aggro. This was basically the best deck in the format for a long time and it didn’t look like M19 had the tools to change it. There are just too many good cards in red right now. This is what I ended up playing:
Here is my reasoning on some of the numbers.
4 Bomat Courier – I tried cutting them for Magma Sprays to hedge for the mirror but they are just too important. It’s your best card against control where drawing five cards with it isn’t unusual and it can basically win you the game by itself. It also turns on Unlicensed Disintegration.
3 Unlicensed Disintegration, 1 Cut // Ribbons – I actually hate Cut // Ribbons and if it weren’t for Mono-Green, I would play zero. Sorcery speed is super relevant and with only 10 black sources in your deck, the odds of actually playing the aftermath part of the spell aren’t that high.
2 Heart of Kiran, 2 Kari Zev – Two is the perfect number. Playing more just means that you end up drawing 2 too often and you don’t want to have dead cards stuck in your hand.
2 Hazoret, 2 Chandra, 2 Rekindling Phoenix – I decided to split my 4-drops evenly as I wanted access to all of them and I would rather draw one of each and have a choice than draw multiple copies of one card. Some people cut Hazoret because of the overall high curve of the deck, but I feel like there are some games where no other card would win you the game and it’s too good in the mirror. Phoenix is amazing versus Mono-Green and Chandra is great against control, but both of them are also good in the mirror.
1 Soul-Scar Mage – I’m not a big fan of this card as it’s just too low-impact most of the time and it basically just felt like a necessary evil because of mono-green, which is the only matchup where this card is actually good.
2 Ahn-Crop Crasher – I tried one at first and it consistently overperformed, so I ended up playing two. There are very few Shocks and Magma Sprays being played right now and people also don’t play around it, so it gives you some unexpected kills out of nowhere. It’s also great against control, where it helps you put a lot of pressure on them early.
1 Aether Hub – I used to play two, but games where you draw both or one early just felt too bad. 10 black sources are the absolute minimum, though.
1 By Force – Someone in our testing group suggested this card on the last day and I liked it. It’s super narrow, but we expected the other big teams to also be working on Storm and it was a complete blow out when you drew it.
Basicaly, we expected a ton of R/B, a decent amount of green and Mono-Blue Storm, and very little control. All I wanted was basically removal, more removal, and Phoenixes and Glorybringers.
Between teams CFB, UltraPRO, and a few more members of the big testing team, we decided to split into three groups where each focused on their own format. This meant that we didn’t actually discuss any of the card choices with our teammates for the PT, which made things feel a bit weird but I think we did a pretty good job. Ben is regarded as one of the best Limited players in the world, but I think he’s also quite underrated as a deck builder. He tried a bunch of decks and eventually settled on a slightly modified version of KCI.
I liked the blue addition to the deck, as Negate is the absolute best card in the mirror against Tron and against other combo decks. Sai also made the sideboarded games much more interesting, as they are usually boarding out all creature interaction.
Josh is just great and watching him at work breaking formats is a real delight. He spends most of the time brewing on Magic Online, posting new lists in the forum daily (usually containing the cards Manamorphose and/or Bedlam Reveler). The decks are usually pretty creative and sometimes it takes me some time before I figure out the purpose of some of the cards.
This PT was no different. During one of the rounds, right after I finished my match, I looked over and Josh’s opponent has a Chalice on 2 in play. I found that a bit weird as our U/B Death’s Shadow deck basically consists of almost all 1-mana spells, so I asked Ben what happened. Well, it turns out that Josh played a sideboarded Throne of Geth, sacrificed it to itself and proliferated, added one more counter on his opponent’s Chalice and turned his own card against him, locking him out of playing 2-mana spells for the rest of the game and any more Chalices for 1. Brilliant.
As it turned out, the hardest part of this PT wasn’t deciding on which decks to play or the last couple of sideboard cards. It was convincing Ben that this was not a great idea:
Playing the Beta Draft at GP Vegas was an awesome experience and Ben wanted another try at it. The only problem? Gen Con was happening on the same weekend as the PT. Everyone who knows Ben knows that he thinks in numbers and EV, likes to take risks, and occasionally misses rounds at tournaments because “the odds of me missing the round was maybe 1% and I really wanted to get a burrito.” It took us two weeks to convince Ben that flying to Indianapolis to play the Qualifiers on Thursday and coming back to Minneapolis on Friday morning, the first day of the PT, on very-little-to-no sleep was not something he should do.
On Thursday, there were pizza and cupcakes at the registration, which was great. Every competitor also got a random foil set of a recent expansion in their swag bag, which was a nice gift. The PT started well for us, winning the first three rounds. When we went to check on the other team, we found out that they were 0-3 and actually started considering going to Gen Con themselves. After convincing them that Siggy was still playing for Worlds and we were not technically drawing dead in the Team Series yet, they decided it was indeed a good idea to keep playing.
In round 7, I quickly won my match and learned that both Ben and Josh were up 1-0 in their matches. I already started thinking where we were going go for dinner with things looked great. All we needed was one more win, but we quickly lost the next 3 games and all of the sudden it was down to Josh and Sukenik in the final game. In what would be a common theme during the weekend, Josh won the match and we ended up as the only undefeated team after Day 1.
Day 2 wasn’t as smooth, and we alternated between winning and losing, picking up losses against teams Carvalho/Saporito/Romao, Wu/Hull/Orange, and Baeckstrom/Cohen/Kiefer. Last round pairings resulted in four clean cut win-and-ins and we had to battle it out against our friends and old teammates Wilson/Rizzi/Shenhar. Fortunately I won the die roll and had two fast draws with Chandra against Shahar’s Esper Control, and Josh won his match as well. We made the Top 4 in 2nd place!
After the last round, we learned that the other CFB team battled back from 0-3 to a very respectable 9-5 and this actually put us in a position to pass Team Ultimate Guard and make the finals of the Team Series—if we won the entire tournament. They were actually playing for 10-4 in the last round, which would lock us for the finals regardless of our result on Sunday, and even thought they had the match locked up. Luis, playing the last game of the last match, passed his turn with Gurmag Angler, flipped Delver of Secrets and a Force of Will, Stubborn Denial and Daze in hand against his U/W opponent who was conveniently at 8 life. It wasn’t meant to be. One Supreme Verdict later, things turned around and we now had to win the tournament to make it.
I was pretty happy with the R/B deck, mostly winning against random decks and going 5-2 in mirrors, 1-1 against Turbo Fog, and 0-2 against the only two people in the tournament playing U/W Control. Unfortunately, we faced one of the teams with U/W Control again in the finals and my build just wasn’t very well suited for that matchup, so I ended up getting crushed by Greg Orange. Being on the draw in game 1 also didn’t help, as both of my turn-2 and turn-3 Scrapheap Scroungers got exiled by Syncopate. I ended up playing the last game of our match horribly when I zoned out for a few turns and ended up getting my Scrounger exiled when I didn’t have to and missing an attack for 2 because I miscounted my opponent’s mana.
It didn’t matter in the end, as my opponent was just too far ahead for me to have a chance, but it still didn’t feel great. Josh was looking good in his match that was on hold, up 2-1 with two Dread of Night in his opening hand against his Death and Taxes opponent, so it all came down to Ben’s match of KCI versus Hollow One. He had a good shot of combo’ing off on turn 3, but we were on the draw and our opponent also had a turn-3 kill. Game 2 went to Ben and in both games 3 and 4 we started combo’ing off and had a decent chance at winning, but ultimately fizzled on finding some of the key pieces, and that was it.
We finished in 2nd place, good enough for $72,000 for the team and 18 Pro Points, which safely put Ben and I into Worlds. If the tournament was individual Legacy, Josh would have easily won the whole thing, as he only lost once or twice during the whole weekend, so it felt really bad to not get that one more win and get him to Worlds as well. It also meant that we finished in 3rd place in the Team Series by a few points. Overall, it was by far the most high stakes match of Magic I’ve ever played and it would have been great to win, but it’s hard to complain after getting 2nd in a Pro Tour.
I’m also super happy for all of our teammates who got all of the Points they needed this weekend to lock up Worlds or Platinum: Siggy, Greg Kowalski, Andrew Baeckstrom, Matt Nass, and I’m sure I’m still forgetting someone.
A lot has been said about R/B Aggro already, so there isn’t really anything new I can teach you as far as tips and tricks. The most common thing that happens in games is probably your opponent targeting your Chandra, Torch of Defiance with Vraska’s Contempt or Chandra’s Defeat when you have a Heart of Kiran out. Make sure that you crew the Heart using the loyalty counters enough times to kill your own Chandra in response, denying your opponent the 2 life or digging deeper into their deck. The most important thing to know is how to sideboard in every matchup, so let’s move onto that.
I made some slight changes and ended up playing this at GP Brussels, going 11-4. I liked the version and I’m very likely going to play something very similar again at Nationals this weekend.
I thought there would be mostly R/B as usual, less green because of Turbo Fog, and more control in the form of Esper and U/W. When looking for sideboard cards I noticed that people started playing Insult // Injury as a way of getting around the Fog effects. That sounds great in theory, and it’s really good in the matchup, but you can’t actually bring it in against anything else, which makes the card super narrow. I tried Sorcerous Spyglass and liked it much more. It gave me about as good a chance at beating the deck and it’s a card I can also bring against U/W Control, Esper, or possibly Mono-Blue Storm with four Karn.
This matchup is only about applying as much pressure as possible. Don’t keep a hand where your first play is turn-3 Chainwhirler. You will most likely lose game 1, as you have too many dead cards in your deck, but it gets much better post-board. Four Duress helps you get rid of Teferi or Gift of Paradise, or shortens the clock by a turn by taking a Fog.
Sorcerous Spyglass is usually very close to game over. I know some of the PT versions played up to four Manglehorn and the good players usually bring them in, but after the PT where only a handful of players decided to play Storm and didn’t do very well with it, Manglehorns were the first cards people cut from the sideboard, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much.
This matchup isn’t about card advantage or haymakers like Glorybringer and Hazoret. You need to be as fast and efficient as possible. Don’t be afraid to mulligan to 5 or even 4 if it means starting with Bomat into Scrapheap or drawing a Spyglass in your opening hand. Bomat Courier draws you a card every turn, as they don’t really have anything that interacts with it other than Teferi or sometimes Commit // Memory. A four-card starting hand of three lands and Bomat Courier is going to give you a better chance to win than a hand with multiple Glorybringers or Rekindling Phoenixes. None of the creatures you play after the first two or three really matter, as they are usually forced to Fog anyway. For that reason I also keep in some Disintegrations, as it gives you an answer for a potential Lyra. Chandra is great because it provides another source of non-combat damage they can’t prevent.
Out on the Play
In on the Play
Out on the Draw
In on the Draw
I tried sideboarding in many different ways and I believe this is the best way to do it, even if it looks very simple. I thought Crasher would be okay on the play where I wanted to be more aggressive and have fewer Abrades but between Chandra’s Defeat and Magma Spray, they just have too many cheap answers for it. It’s much better to try to kill all of their stuff and win with Chandra and Glorybringer than to try to get aggressive with cards that are only good when you are ahead. It’s usually better to hold on to Goblin Chainwhirler rather than play it on an empty board on turn 3, especially if they have mana up. Holding it in your hand means that you can use the trigger to kill the Egg token from Rekindling Phoenix or finish off a Chandra that killed one of your creatures. I don’t like Cut // Ribbons because it’s sorcery speed.
Be aware that they can be splashing for almost anything through Prophetic Prisms and fastlands. I just played against a version splashing for Chandra’s Defeat and Jhoira, for example. Sometimes when they have Karn on low loyalty and it’s obvious that they have Paradoxical Outcome, it’s just better to ignore it and attack them. Try to save Abrade for Inspiring Statuary and Unlicensed Disintegration for Sai, but don’t be afraid to use them to push damage through against a Karn token or to kill an Ornithopter when they are forced to Paradoxical Outcome for just a few cards.
Try to force them to use Vraska’s Contempt on a creature and stick a Chandra. Hazoret isn’t great because it doesn’t immediatelly pressure them on turn 4 and usually can’t attack until a turn or two later when they have Contempt or Gearhulk ready, so I’m not actually sure if leaving it in is correct. The best way to kill their creatures is with Unlicensed Disintegration. Sometimes they can’t even afford to play a Nicol Bolas or Scarab God because with the extra 3 damage they would fall too much behind. I don’t think boarding in Cut // Ribbons and hoping the aftermath part will be relevant is worth it. It doesn’t kill a Scarab God or Gearhulk at instant speed.
Keeping in Abrades mostly depends on how many Aethersphere Harvesters and Heart of Kirans they have and what their 2-drops are. You don’t want them if you are playing against Thorn Lieutenant but they are good to have against Servant of the Conduit. You board into control, try to kill their creatures, and slow them down with Phoenix to win with Chandra and Glorybringer. They usually have Llanowar Elf, Scrapheap Scrounger, Merfolk Branchwalker and Rishkar as good targets for Magma Spray. Sometimes you just need to kill a Llanowar Elf on turn 1 so that they don’t play out their hand too fast. I like being aggressive on the play.