Pro Tour Atlanta Report *5th*

I’d had high hopes going into my preparation for Pro Tour Journey into Nyx. For one thing, my two best PT performances had come at the previous two Block Constructed Pro Tours. For another, I had a tremendous amount of faith in my team—ChannelFireball: The Pantheon—to tackle the format and come up with a winning deck.

It’s hard to overstate the advantage that being on one of the premier professional teams can give a player at the Pro Tour. This advantage is magnified when the format is Block Constructed, because Block Constructed tends to be a relatively unexplored format.

To put this in clearer terms: Standard is played every weekend by hundreds of thousands of players across the world. Any lone player can copy a winning deck list, and if she plays well and knows her deck, she’ll have a fine chance to perform well at the Pro Tour. Block Constructed is played far less frequently, and consequently the metagame is less clearly defined, and the deck lists you can find on the internet may not be well tuned. To truly master Block Constructed, a player needs to understand the ins and outs of the format, what strategies are possible, and what her competition is liable to show up with. Having a team to help you achieve this is hugely important.

So I felt optimistic about Block Constructed, but there was also the not-so-small matter of the six rounds of booster draft at the Pro Tour. I’ve historically struggled with Limited on the Pro Tour. If I’ve been among the two dozen best performing Magic players over the past couple of years, I think I’m lucky if I’ve been among the best one-hundred drafters… Before last weekend, I’d never put up better than a 4-2 draft record at the PT, and I’d only 3-0’d one PT draft in over twenty tries.

That said, I’ve been determined to turn that trend around, and I felt like this event was my chance to do so. I’d practiced a tremendous amount of both previous formats—triple-Theros, and Born of the Gods/Theros/Theros— and The Pantheon’s constantly-improving Limited preparation had left me feeling like I knew exactly what to do in full block draft as well.

I was also coming off of a 2nd-place finish at a Limited Grand Prix in Philadelphia. I think that event could prove to be one of the best things to ever happen for my Magic career—from my opportunity to compete in a stacked Top 8, to the entirely-justified criticisms of Mr. Ben Stark and the coverage team, to the total thrashing that Frank Skarren gave me in the finals. I’ve always found that a tough loss can lead to growth better than a hundred wins and GP Philadelphia felt like it led to a veritable “leveling up” for my Limited game. On the one hand the strong finish was a confidence boost because I’d been struggling in Limited up to that point, but on the other my failure to take the trophy reinforced the fact that I still had room to improve.

Ten rounds of Block Constructed and six rounds of booster draft—two weeks before the Pro Tour I was optimistic that I could bring my best game to all of them. My team came through in fine form: Andrew Cuneo conceived of the B/U/G deck that most of the team wound up playing. Gabriel Nassif, Jelger Wiegersma, and William Jensen put countless hours into fine tuning the list. Sam Black, Patrick Chapin, and Owen Turtenwald brewed up dozens of potential new decks that I might’ve played under slightly different circumstances. And that’s not even to mention the blood, sweat, and tears that all fourteen of us (plus a few working remotely) put in day to day, testing matchups and solving the Block format. Every deck, every sideboard card, and every single win that the team earned in the tournament belongs—at least in part—to the team as a whole. I thank them all for their hard work!

But I might as well start from the beginning…

Day One: The First Draft

One year ago, the structure of the Pro Tour was changed so that the booster draft portion would come in the morning instead of the afternoon. I’ve been told that this change is good for coverage, and I even personally prefer starting with the draft when I’m fresh and full of energy. However, there’s one unfortunate side effect of this change: since there’s nothing to guarantee that the number of competitors adds up to a multiple of eight, some number of the draft pods must be comprised of only seven people. This only changes the dynamics of the draft in small ways, but the major consequence is that some number of players will receive byes in the early rounds of the event—these people have a tremendous advantage over everyone else.

Fortunately, Pro Tour Journey into Nyx was my turn to be seated at a seven-man pod! I had the insurance that I couldn’t possibly 0-3 the pod (since if I started 0-2 I’d be guaranteed the bye), and I got to cross my fingers for that coveted round one bye!

The B/G graveyard deck is among my favorite archetypes in this draft format. So after my first few picks were black, seeing a Nyx Weaver was all the incentive I needed to dive in headfirst. Conveniently, I’d also picked up a small constellation theme early on, and was keeping an eye out for three copies of Kruphix’s Insight that might wheel.

As it turned out, I was an enchantment or two short (or a Nemesis of Mortals or two short) of wanting to jam all three Insights into my main deck. However, I had a lot of great removal, so I included one Insight and one Font of Return as a small card advantage engine to ensure that I’d win long games.

My deck wasn’t busted, but it was totally fine, if not a bit better than that. Also, between having a slightly smaller card pool (seven players instead of eight) and the packs seeming to have been a little weak, I thought I’d have a fine chance.

I missed out on getting the bye, but my good luck came in other ways, as each of my three opponents missed a land drop in one of the games. I beat Jon Stern’s W/G Heroic deck as my removal would not allow him to set up a game-winning creature and my Spiteful Blow extended his mana screw in game two. I defeated Adam Jansen’s U/B deck by pushing an early life total advantage in game one, and sideboarding in some more late game card advantage in the form of Reviving Melody in game two. Finally, I narrowly squeaked by Rares-Glad Colomei’s U/R deck despite nearly getting decked in game three after he Annulled my Font of Return.

3-0 Overall Record

Day One Block Constructed

As I briefly mentioned, I’d settled on the same B/U/G deck that 12 of 14 Pantheon players had chosen. In a format where spot removal is excellent, but where there’s nothing along the lines of Supreme Verdict or Wrath of God, we found Prognostic Sphinx to be king. Beyond that, the B/U/G colors offered the highest portion of the format’s best cards in Sylvan Caryatid, Courser of Kruphix, Hero’s Downfall, and many more.

The deck was solid, but not overpowered, and I knew I’d have to work for my wins. My biggest concern was that I hadn’t gotten quite as many games in with the deck as I normally do before a Pro Tour, so I was especially nervous when I saw my round four pairing would be about as far from a “warm-up” as you can get…

Round Four vs. Patrick Chapin

Patrick Chapin was one of two of my teammates to deviate from the team deck; he was playing Junk. Our decks had the green and black cards in common, but where I had Prognostic Sphinx and Kiora, the Crashing Wave, Patrick had Elspeth, Sun’s Champion and efficient white creatures. I felt the matchup was close to 50/50, but I knew Patrick would be a tough opponent and any slipup was going to cost me.

Patrick won a close game one and I won game two with a veritable nut-draw on the play. In game three, Patrick got me low with some early pressure, and then slammed Arbor Colossus after he’d exhausted all of my removal. I had two Prognostic Sphinxes and a Courser of Kruphix against the Colossus, and I was low enough that I’d have to chump block it every turn in order to survive.

Note also that the clock was ticking down at this point. If I was going to win the match in time, I couldn’t think things through as thoroughly as I would like. Patrick attacked me with Arbor Colossus; I got as far as to realize that Courser of Kruphix was my most reliable blocker (due to the threat of monstrocity hitting my fliers), so I chump blocked with one of my Sphinxes.

What I should have done was to double-block with my Sphinxes. Arbor Colossus can become a 9/9, which is not big enough to kill both Sphinxes anyway, but what the double-block would accomplish is to force Patrick to activate monstrosity on his own turn (against which I discard a card to tap my Sphinx and make it hexproof), rather than letting him bank that ability for a later turn.

What happened was that I drew for my turn, and revealed a brick on top of my library with Courser of Kruphix. Patrick simply made his creature monstrous and forced me to tap my Sphinx so I could not scry and was locked out of finding an answer.

Given the circumstances, I was quite unlikely to win the game anyway, but if I’d seen the play of double-blocking, then I’d have gotten to attack with my Sphinx, scry, and see a few cards deeper into my deck. Then if I could’ve chump blocked with Courser of Kruphix, drawn a removal spell, and if Patrick didn’t have a strong follow-up, the game might continue, potentially changing my loss into a draw due to time running out.

3-1 Overall Record

After losing to Patrick I rattled off two wins against Team Revolution and their U/B Inspired deck (Trey Van Cleave and Vidianto Wijaya) and two wins against white-based heroic decks (Ivan Floch and Rob Dougherty) to finish the day happy with a 7-1 record. Patrick had finished 8-0 and every single Pantheon player had made Day Two—quite the successful Day One!

Day Two: The Second Draft

I was drafting in Pod One, which always tends to feature quite a lot of talent, and some very interesting draft dynamics. Patrick Chapin and Josh Utter-Leyton were the only 8-0 players, and therefore knew with 100% certainty that they would be paired in round one. This makes for some interesting counter-drafting dynamics, but I was well away from all that, sitting on the other side of the table and content to do my own thing.

“My own thing” is exactly what I did, again going into my favorite archetype—B/G graveyard. In fact, my draft was remarkably similar to the one on the previous day and again I ended up with a pretty solid deck. Compared to the previous day, my removal was a bit worse but my creature base was a bit stronger.

Two players to my left was Andrea Mengucci, who opened the nearly-unbeatable Silence the Believers. He told me after the draft that he picked the card, but was ready to jump ship on black right away if he’d needed to. “I watch all your videos and you always draft black!” He told me. I guess my reputation precedes me!

I slowly but surely grinded out my three opponents in this draft: Ricardo Sanchez Garrido with U/W, Patrick Chapin with W/B (evening the score to 1-1!), and Joel Larsson also with U/W.

Overall Record: 10-1
Draft Record: 6-0!

Day Two Block Constructed

Because of the two 8-0 players, pairings broke in a strange way and draft Pod One actually had two 3-0 players, the other being my new friend Andrea Mengucci, which meant that he and I would be paired in round 12. Andrea was playing Naya, which is a 50/50 matchup for B/U/G or perhaps a tiny bit worse since their explosive draws are very hard to beat.

I won game one of the match, which tends to be the easiest since they have some nearly-dead removal spells that they sideboard out after the first game. Game two was pretty close, the crucial turn was when Andrea attacked his 7/7 Polis Crusher into my 5/5 Polukranos. I blocked and cast Bile Blight so I could shrink and eat the Crusher. I thought I had a great chance to win if I could untap and use all of my mana to monstrous Polukranos. Unfortunately Andrea had the Lightning Strike to finish it off, leaving me with nothing to contest his Xenagos, the Reveler, to which I eventually lost.

Game three Andrea again played a quick Xenagos, the Reveler, and I could never quite catch up. I kept having to spend my turn to answer his newest threat while the Xenagos ticked up and up. I couldn’t stop it from going ultimate, so I just had to hope that he would have some back luck when he flipped his top seven cards—he didn’t…Arbor Colossus, Arbor Colossus, Courser of Kruphix, and a collection of other lands and mana dorks entered the battlefield and made short work of me.

Overall Record: 10-2

Next I faced Josh Utter-Leyton, who was also playing B/U/G, but had a maindeck configuration much better suited to control mirrors. Luckily for me, Josh was color-screwed in game one, allowing me to go into the sideboard games—where things are more even—up a game. We played a close game two, I narrowly edged him out, and won the match.

Not only did beating Josh earn me my eleventh win, but it earned The Pantheon the right to tease the other ChannelFireball team about running 24 lands to our 26. We’ve been putting this right to good use, despite the fact that mana base aside, their deck list was likely better for the tournament than our own.

Overall Record: 11-2

Sitting at 11-2 with strong tiebreakers, I was facing two—or possibly even three if I was lucky—chances to find one more win and make the Top 8. I was feeling great, but if my Pro Tour experience has taught me anything, it’s that it’s very possible to lose three matches in a row.

Round Fourteen vs. Jared Boettcher

Jared was playing the explosive and terrifying U/W Heroic deck, which is capable of building giant unblockable threats, and is virtually impossible to ever race. In game one, my draw featured a lot of lands and a lot of removal, but no threats or card advantage, so I took out Jared’s big threats, but he eventually bled me to death with his left-over one power creatures.

I won game two with a great draw on the play, but the shoe was on the other foot in game three. Jared suited up a creature with an Ordeal of Thassa, and my first play was a turn 3 Hero’s Downfall on the draw. Jared had the Ajani’s Presence to save his creature, pop his Ordeal, and the game was over in short order from there.

Overall Record: 11-3

Now my back was against the wall. If I failed to win this round, I could try to win round 16 for a 12-4 record, but then my fate would be in the hands of tiebreakers, which is never where you want to be. This would be one of my most important single matches to date, and it was against a very fitting opponent.

Round Fifteen vs. Guillaume Wafo-Tapa

Mr. Wafo-Tapa is one of the best players in the game today, and might rightfully be mentioned among the best of all time. He has a presence and a level of focus in the game that are hard to match, and he’s a wizard when it comes to navigating long, complicated games.

He was playing “W/G/B Enchantress” which at first I was viewing as some kind of combo deck built around Eidolon of Blossoms. The reality, as I came to realize, that it was actually a solid, well-balanced midrange deck that simply featured the Eidolon as a small card advantage engine. Guillaume actually beat me in game one by pointing removal spell after removal spell at my Prognostic Sphinx and eventually running me out of cards.

Games two and three, after I’d improved my deck through sideboarding and improved my play through a better understanding of the matchup, I was able to come back and win. The match was long, complex, and mentally taxing—exactly what I would’ve imagined for my first PT win-and-in.

Overall Record: 12-3, good enough for Top 8!

The feeling of locking up the Top 8 was difficult to describe. Rashad Miller interviewed me immediately after the match and I nearly had to cut the interview short before I got too emotional. My friends and teammates were waiting to congratulate me, and it finally sunk in that I’d be able to play again tomorrow for the title.

My teammates Patrick Chapin and Jamie Parke had also made top eight, so there was no shortage of celebration. It was thrilling to play the top eight alongside good friends, and, although they had to play one another in the quarterfinals, I was on the opposite side of the bracket, so the dream was still alive to meet one of them in the finals.

The tournament wrapped up around 9PM, we had dinner, and then made time to test ten games of my quarterfinals matchup. I’d be playing against Yuuki Ichikawa with Naya. Being pressed for time, I got both a little less sleep and a little less testing than I would have liked, but nonetheless, I couldn’t have felt better.

The Top Eight

As it turned out, I was the last quarterfinals match to play, so I had plenty more time in the morning to test my matchup. I had enough time to settle on sideboard plans that I liked for both the play and the draw (not an easy task!), but the matchup wasn’t going exactly as I’d hoped. I felt that I really needed to win game one, because after sideboarding it was a real challenge to keep the Naya deck’s ten planeswalkers in check with only four copies of Prognostic Sphinx and four copies of Hero’s Downfall.

Quarterfinals vs. Yuuki Ichikawa

In game one I mulliganed to a good six-card hand. Inconveniently, though, I had to lean on a Courser of Kruphix and a Polukranos, World Eater, which make Yuuki’s nearly-dead removal spells in game one quite potent. His draw matched up well against mine and he chopped my legs out with two Banishing Lights for my creatures.

He played one Elspeth, Sun’s Champion after another, each of which took two hits to kill with Prognostic Sphinx, but all the while he had an Ajani, Mentor of Heroes ticking up and offering him a long run advantage. I went through nearly half my deck, but could find neither a Hero’s Downfall for his Ajani, nor a Drown in Sorrow to mop up the Soldier tokens and I was eventually overrun.

Game two was a lot less close. I looked at this opening hand on the play:

This was an extremely close call. The matchup is fairly tempo-oriented, so if I missed my third land drop I’d likely be dead in the water. What’s more is the fact that so many of my lands enter the battlefield tapped that even if I did hit my third land, it would be possible for my first play of the game to be a turn 4 Read the Bones—unacceptable if Yuuki had a decent hand. Also I had two double-blue spells that I was pretty far from casting, so I decided to throw it back. I ended up going down to five cards, missing my second land drop, and getting rolled.

It was a bit of an anticlimactic end for me to what was otherwise an extremely exciting weekend. Nonetheless, I felt good about the way I’d played and was thankful that I’d at least gone down fighting. I was thankful that I got to play at least one close and interesting game under the lights, thankful that I’d made my first Top 8, and thankful that my friends and teammates had also done so well. Congratulations to Patrick Chapin for winning the whole thing!

Jon Finkel, the man with the most Top 8s in Pro Tour history, tells me that the first Top 8 feels the best. True or no, I’d like to be able to judge that for myself. This little taste of success makes me want to be back there all the more, so I’ll be setting my sights on Pro Tour Portland in a few months!

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