Today’s Pro Tour is in a great place. It is really fun. There are superteams and superstars. We are back to four per season, plus the World Championships. There is a palpable buzz surrounding the coverage. The atmosphere is fantastic.
I’m sure it’s not been eradicated, but cheating is decidedly uncool. While 10-15 years ago, a pro might’ve said “Well, that’s just Ryan being Ryan” or “He’s a great guy outside of Magic,” today the vast majority of high-level players look down upon unscrupulous play. Calling a judge isn’t considered a “dick move” at the pro level.
And we live in a resurgent era of tournament reports, including use of the phrase “dick move” as early as the second paragraph. Truly, a renaissance.
It is in this setting that many of the game’s legends are active participants on the pro circuit again. Budde, Finkel, Kastle, Dougherty, Maher, Nassif, Herzog, Wiegersma, Karsten and others have stormed back into competitive play. While some were initially ambivalent about the idea of consistently using their Hall of Fame invite, I believe they all have seen what I have seen: the Pro Tour is awesome again.
The tournaments themselves are hard. Although the best players today are not noticeably better than the stars of the 90s, the average PTQ winner is much stronger. The ability to play on Magic Online and the growth of Magic communities throughout the world has resulted in Pro Tours where there are very few easy matches. This places an extra importance on preparation—those who show up with few drafts and an untuned deck usually suffer a predictable fate.
After a poor performance at Pro Tour Born of the Gods (2-4 in Draft, 7-2-1 in Constructed), where I missed the money, I resolved to be more prepared for Atlanta. I believe there is significantly more edge in having a thorough understanding of a Limited format than sweating the last few cards of a Constructed deck. In addition, at this point in my Magic career, I know who I am. I’ll never be a great deckbuilder like Sam Black, Patrick Chapin, Brian Kibler, or Josh Utter-Leyton. But, I am a good tuner. I can quickly synthesize what is important in certain matchups. And I am good at learning new Limited formats, figuring out not only how to evaluate new cards but how the power level of previous cards has changed in light of new sets. Finally, I think I play OK too.
There was a problem, however. CFB Pantheon, my team for the past few Pro Tours, requires members to spend significant time on location before the event. This rule is in place to prevent freeriders from benefiting from the group’s playtesting without contributing. While I had taken a week off from work for both Dublin and Valencia, I knew early on that it would be impossible for Atlanta. I simply don’t have enough vacation time, and Magic is just a hobby for me (albeit one I take very seriously), not a profession. I reached out the most respected (read: old/rich) member of the Pantheon, Jon Finkel, to explain my situation. Jon and William “Huey” Jensen are the putative leaders of the team, and we came to an amicable split, with the window open for a possible future return.
Now a free agent, I knew exactly where I wanted to turn. I immediately contacted Eric Froehlich and Luis Scott-Vargas of ChannelFireball. The two teams have a competitive but friendly relationship and I’ve always respected the way “Prime” operates. We came to an agreement—I would fly to Las Vegas for the beginning of the testing process, meet the team in Minneapolis for the GP, and contribute as much as conceivably possible through online testing (specifically for Limited) and the day before the event in Atlanta. Overall, I was thrilled with the preparation situation and very thankful for the opportunity. From one super team to the other—not everyone is fortunate enough to land so softly!
Obviously, my first step was to build aggressive white decks. It’s incredible how close my initial attempts at White Weenie came to the deck that Darwin Kastle and Rob Dougherty used to make the money at PT Journey into Nyx. I spent a little too much time being cute with Vanguard of Brimaz and Spear of Heliod. Their list appears to be a strict upgrade from what I first built, and probably the best representation of straight WW in the entire event.
I learned very quickly that White Weenie existed in the world of Theros Block Constructed as traditional White Weenie. What I mean is that everything bad Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa has ever said about it was true. He once wrote about a different White Weenie deck: “It was just underpowered. It was an aggro deck without any disruption or reach, and you couldn’t really do anything to stop the other decks from doing what they wanted to do (which was generally more powerful than what you wanted to do), while at the same time not being fast enough to kill them before they do it. This is a problem all the White Weenie strategies share, and the reason I dislike all of them.”
Generally, White Weenie is playable when PV is wrong. Sometimes it is not underpowered (Stoneforge Mystic, Steppe Lynx), sometimes it gets to play very strong disruption (Ethersworn Canonist), and sometimes it has outstanding reach (Squadron Hawk, Ranger of Eos). In Theros Block, the best white aggressive decks had to splash a color. Both WU and WR heroic were fixtures at the Pro Tour and players such as Stanislav Cifka and Jared Boettcher had excellent results with them. However, they both suffered from the following big problems:
Junk, BUG, and Constellation-based decks just have the right solutions to the problems that the aggressive white decks in the format present. Because I believed these cards would be pervasive, I resolved to give up on white. I liked the look of our BUG deck from the beginning, but I’ll let those more intimately involved in its genesis take the credit for that in their own articles.
I did a lot of drafts as soon as Journey into Nyx was released on Magic Online, enough that I felt fairly comfortable with almost all the archetypes. White/black stood out as a deck that I felt could be powerful, but I wasn’t sure how to draft. Green/black was the only archetype that I actively wanted to avoid. I just didn’t see the GB decks come together too frequently.
I had slight preferences for UG or UW aggressive decks as well as UB control decks and mono-red, although the latter required a significant early commitment in order to cut the color and reap the rewards from Born of the Gods, and was thus a strategy highly dependent on variance. The other decks (WG, WR, UR, and GR) I felt I could draft well enough, but didn’t have strong feelings about one way or the other. As I drafted, I posted every 3-0 deck I drafted to the CFB forum, along with brief thoughts, and engaged in general Limited discussion throughout my process. I felt very prepared for the drafts.
We spent Thursday fine-tuning the BUG sideboard, registering, and listening to Ben Stark and PV argue about any and everything. In what became a running theme, Ben and Paulo would “debate” a variety of topics and hypotheticals such as “If you had to choose between the death of one innocent person or the worldwide end of sports, what would you choose?” Except they weren’t really debates, discussions, or arguments. It did not seem they sought a more perfect understanding of the truth, nor were they attempting to make arguments designed to persuade an attentive audience. Instead, it seems they mostly work on their timing. Timing, as in “I want to start yelling as soon as it appears you are winding down without appearing to explicitly interrupt you.” Of course, I’m having some fun with Ben and PV. These sorts of discussions between intelligent people, and the passion Magic players have for intellectual discourse writ large, remains one of the primary draws of the Pro Tour for me. Still, sometimes I want to eat my nuggets in peace.
Going into the tournament itself, objectively I’d have been happy with Top 50. Top 25 would lock me for Platinum and keep me alive for Worlds. Top 16 would give me Platinum for Portland as well as next year and basically lock me for Worlds. But first, I had to survive draft one.
I was greeted by a welcome sight: King Macar, the Gold-Cursed. Luckily, black flowed throughout pack one and I picked up red as a second color with a small Minotaur subtheme. I was forced to pass 2 Anger of the Gods in pack three, and resolved to play around them.
Round 1: Jimmy Dela Cruz – USA
Jimmy was a pleasant Bay Area player who actually frequents the ChannelFireball superstore. He had a nice white/black deck with enchantment synergies, solid removal, and a Fate Unraveler. We settled into a race game one, which I feared I might lose to the Unraveler that Jimmy had bestowed with a Cavern Lampa. On turn seven, Jimmy played a seventh land and a Griffin Dreamfinder to return Nyxborn Shieldmate (which had earlier traded with one of my 2/1s). He then attempted to bestow Shieldmate onto his Unraveler for two mana. This would have let him win the race by one turn, assuming I did not have a chump blocker or way to kill the Unraveler. I called a judge.
My read of the situation was honest mistake. I think there was less than 1% chance that Jimmy was trying to cheat, but it’s important to call a judge in these situations. A pattern of self-beneficial mistakes is unacceptable, which is why the warning system exists in the first place. The judge had us back up, I played my chump blocker the next turn, and took game one.
In game two, Jimmy appeared flooded while I attacked with an assortment of Minotaurs and other evil creatures. It turned out his hand was full of tricks, which he deployed once he finally found a Lagonna-Band Elder, but he had fallen too far behind from my curve, and I was off and running.
Round 2: David Reitbauer – Austria
I recognized David’s name from the European GP circuit. He also was once nearly a World Champion, falling to Andre Coimbra in the finals. Unfortunately, not only was David drafting red/black to my direct left, he also suffered mana problems in both games. In game one, Spiteful Blow kept him off red mana for a few crucial turns, and I even sideboarded in Peak Eruption for game two to keep him off the presumed 2 Anger of the Gods. I didn’t draw it, but I did draw lots of Minotaurs and removal spells.
Round 3: Jared Boettcher – USA
Jared is on a bit of a heater, and I was excited for the challenge. In the first game, I curved out perfectly. In the second, things looked pretty good with a turn four King Macar. But Jared’s Spear of Heliod allowed him to sneak in some extra damage and Flurry of Horns made some unnaturally large Minotaurs to force a third. In the third game, I played or made seven creatures—all Minotaurs. Since they all had deathtouch, some regenerated, and all were angry, it made combat extremely difficult for him, and I had the ideal start.
Here was the BUG deck I was set to go to battle with:
PV does a fantastic job in his report describing our thought process, but I’ll just add that I felt great about the deck and thought we had great sideboard plans for most of the major matchups.
Round 4: Marlon Gutierrez – Mexico
Marlon killed me on turn five of game one, although the game was functionally over when he had four creatures out on turn three. Mono-Black aggro is a good matchup overall, but certainly an all-in type of draw game one can be quite a beating. In the next two games, Bile Blight, Drown in Sorrow, Dark Betrayal, Feast of Dreams, and Silence the Believers did their thing.
Round 5: Alex Sittner – USA
Alex was playing a really interesting Junk Constellation variant, including Dictate of Karametra and Polukranos, World Eater. We played two highly-interactive, swingy games largely decided by information and haymakers. I used Thoughtseize to clear the way for Prognostic Sphinx and was able to use Ashiok and Unravel the Aether to neuter the top of his deck whenever his Courser of Kruphix revealed something strong.
Round 6: Patrick Chapin – USA
Patrick’s innovative Junk deck was definitely favored against BUG. Still, I feel like I didn’t give him a very good match. In game one, I severely underestimated the power of Brimaz. I chose to attack him with 2 Prognostic Sphinx and Hero’s Downfall Patrick’s Elspeth, rather than attacking Elspeth and Downfalling the Brimaz. Three consecutive Silence the Believers kept my Sphinx locked down from that point forward while Brimaz pumped out tokens. In game two, every time I scryed, I immediately felt like I made the wrong decision. Not happy, I hoped I hadn’t derailed my entire tournament.
Round 7: Maxime Gilles – France
Maxime was also playing G/B/W Junk. The details are a bit fuzzy, but I do remember all four Reapers of the Wild making an appearance game three. The card is just extremely difficult for non-Elspeth decks to deal with, and, true to form, I succumbed.
Round 8: Brian Kibler – USA
Sometimes, when you lose two in a row, things completely unspool and you never recover from the tailspin. Other times, you mana flood/screw a Hall-of-Famer into oblivion, and you’re back on track.
Exhausted, I sought a low-key meal. The CFB dinner at Maggiano’s turned into quite a large event, so I split off with partner-in-crime Matt Sperling for something smaller.
Matt had prepared for the Pro Tour with the Pantheon, which put us both in an awkward spot leading up to the event. As the person I talk to most frequently on a daily basis, it would be natural for us to discuss Magic. However, anything pertaining to strategy was completely off limits. He was the enemy! This was an untenable situation, the implications of which I don’t think we fully considered until a few weeks before Atlanta. Moving forward, for tournaments where Matt is qualified, I’m going to make sure we are on the same team, even if takes some additional sacrifices (on his part, obviously).
I sat down Saturday morning at pod 3 with luminaries including Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, Andrejs Prost, and Brian Braun-Duin. I opened a booster with Pharika, God of Affliction and decided to swallow my dislike for green/black and go with the bomb. While pack two was a bust, pack three rewarded me multiple rares, all of which I got third pick or later. Here is the final product:
I decided that my removal-light deck would be better off playing mediocre/situational removal like Cast into Darkness and Weight of the Underworld over a small heroic subtheme. I thought I had a great shot to 3-0.
Round 9: Jason Ellis – USA
Round 10: Andrejs Prost – USA
Andrejs and I were featured, and things looked really bad in game one. An Akroan Skyguard with Nyxborn Eidolon started taking chunks out of my life total while his ground troops nibbled away. I found a Cast into Darkness to shrink the flyer and Reaper of the Wilds to stem the bleeding, but Necrobite let him keep on attacking. That is, until I found the seventh land to drop an Abhorrent Overlord for five, which he could not answer.
Round 11: Guillaume Wafo-Tapa – France
Another feature match, this one covered here.
After game one, I felt great. I had only lost one game in 5+ rounds of Limited and thought I was destined to 6-0 and march straight through to the Top 8. When I saw two Forests and a Golden Hind in my opening hand for game two, I really thought it was my day. But a Swamp was not forthcoming for many turns and Wafo made a giant monster. I made the decision to board into the heroic subtheme for game three. Things looked great until Unravel the Aether and Reprisal from the top of his deck dropped my shields. Then the bridge exploded.
Back to Constructed, I felt like I was a pretty big longshot to make Top 8.
Round 12: Todd Anderson – USA
I had a pretty good idea of what Todd was playing. His Naya deck seemed designed to prey on W/x, constellation decks, and mono-black strategies. Redirecting 2 damage from a Magma Jet to keep Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver under control just doesn’t cut it. I made a pretty severe error in game two by allowing Todd to untap with a Purphoros in play that gave Todd a very narrow out, but luckily Worth decided not to punish me for it, and I was back on track.
Round 13: Jon Finkel – USA
You can watch this match here.
You can see how complicated this match was here:
As you can see, on turn four of extra turns I would attack Jon down to 5, with a guaranteed kill the next turn. Unfortunately, we get five extra turns and not six. I’ve watched this match a few times, and I don’t feel like either of our paces of play was that slow. I tend to do mechanical actions a lot faster than Jon, but spend a bit of time thinking through decisions, especially scrys. Sometimes you just run out of time.
A word about concessions; if the situations had been reversed, I would not have conceded. I don’t begrudge Jon his decision to take the draw he earned. I don’t feel like he played too slowly. It’s not like he read my planeswalker over and over again.
Round 14: Stanislav Cifka – Czech Republic
This was covered here.
Cifka beat the crap out of me.
To eliminate me from Top Eight contention.
My Mom and Dad, on the way to Florida to spend time with my grandparents, brought me a cup of coffee. It helped, and I reminded myself that I still had a lot to play for.
Round 15: Conley Woods – USA
Conley was armed with a very cool take on Junk Constellation, including the Arche-pig. We both had to mulligan quite a few times in the match, and a couple timely Silence the Believers kept my Top 16 hopes alive.
Round 16: Yuuya Waatanabe – Japan
Yuuya’s Naya had some spice, including sideboard Worst Fears he could cast off Caryatid and Mana Confluence, but it remained an excellent matchup. Polukranos, Stormbreath Dragon, and Polis Crusher just match up very poorly vs. Silence the Believers, Hero’s Downfall and Kiora, the Crashing Wave. Yuuya was a gentleman and lived up to his reputation by playing extremely tight the entire match. There was just nothing he could do.
Far enough removed from the debacle against Jon, I was ecstatic. Likely to make Top 16 and lock up immediate Platinum benefits, how could I not be?
I went out to dinner with Matt and Bob Maher and reflected on what a great Pro Tour this was. Patrick gets his title, Reid gets his Top 8, Jamie gets back on the horse. Josh continues to build his burgeoning legend.
And, for my own part, I keep ticking. As you probably know, Magic is a hobby for me. I’m a weekend warrior. A hacker, a punter. I try to play the game the right way and I might never be the best in the world, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be a World Champion. I hope I get a chance in December.
Thanks for reading,