If I was to sum up the last week in one word, that’d be the one I choose. It’s been pretty miserable up here in New York, more than it usually is around this time. The luster of the holiday season is gone, and we’re left with a gray and dingy frozen wasteland where there once was a bright and silver winter wonderland.
It’s also been below zero (F) for about a week, and while we don’t have the blizzard conditions or extreme cold snap temperatures they’re experiencing in Chicago, you still can’t shake the ache from your bones any time you’re forced outside the comfort of heated refuge. It’s a dull throb that’s quick to set in and reticent to leave.
For me, the cold goes beyond the surface. It goes beyond the number on the thermometer or the wind chill factor. Cold is what I feel when I look at a deck of Magic cards, and how I entered our seasonal local Pro Tour Qualifier last weekend. I felt underprepared, underpracticed, and unfamiliar with my deck. It had been too long since I played with real cards—too long since I played with a 60-card deck—and very nervous about how I would perform under these conditions. I was going in cold.
The largest of the local game stores in Syracuse has moved around a number of times over the course of the last five years. They started out in a basement cave on the underground floor of an old warehouse, long since converted into studio and apartment facilities. They were there for years, until they moved to a more retail-friendly location across town. This move was short-lived, and they jumped when a bigger opportunity arose and they moved into the local mega-mall. They spent the next few years being shuffled around by the mall management, as their lease agreement dictated that they would only have a particular place in the mall as long as no other company was willing to rent that location. Unfortunately, this meant they moved from one storefront to another over and over again, always trying to find a reasonable location for a store that requires play space. Some of their locations were better than others, and one even had about 1,000 square feet available for game tables. About two years ago, the agreement they had with the mall changed, and they decided to pursue another location for their business. They ultimately decided to return to square one, and move back into the basement location under the warehouse.
I tell you this because the location has its benefits and detriments. On the bright side, it’s directly next door to a restaurant with a bar. This is clutch for us adults when things go horribly wrong, or if you’re interested in getting some quick food between rounds. On the not-so-bright side, it features actual zero parking, limited play space, and only a single toilet for any and all players requiring relief. The staff is excellent, and the judges did a great job making sure the play experience was as positive as possible for this event, but there was not a ton they could do given the event was close to double the size of any Qualifier previously held in the area. Or, it would have been, had they not capped the event to maintain the limits of their fire code. 217 players entered the PTQ last weekend, and at least 30 (though I’ve heard upward of 50, depending on who you ask) more were turned away once the cap was reached. This was the first time we’d cracked 200 players in a PTQ in upstate NY (including the Qualifiers in Rochester and Poughkeepsie), and actually we had never had more than 180.
The logistical difficulties of running an event with that many players in an undersized room were great. Players were facing off across Warhammer tables (while standing), or playing on Comic Book racks (also standing). If there was a horizontal surface, it had a table number on it, and they did everything they could to accommodate as many people as they could. I found the effort both uncomfortable and commendable, as they realized that it was in their best interest to put as many people on the player list as possible, and tried to accommodate as best they could. It wasn’t pretty, but at least no one was playing outside.
For this event, I mostly tested with Mono-Blue Devotion—it best did the things I wanted to be doing in the format and I had some experience playing it on Magic Online. Up until just a few nights before the event I was pretty certain that’s where I wanted to be. Of course, there’s always a wrench thrown in the works and ultimately I had a change of heart. I realized that in a field where some decks were playing [ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd] and others were playing [ccProd]Sphinx’s Revelation[/ccProd], I didn’t want to be playing the deck that chose to play neither. I realized I wanted to be drawing cards and doing unfair things. So, I arranged for a copy of Mono-Black Devotion to be available should I need it, and got down to learning the deck.
Really, I read a bunch of things Owen wrote about his performances with the deck, and watched some of the coverage of him playing it. I also got in touch with Max Brown, who just came off winning the SCG Invitational piloting Mono-Black, and who also happens to be a staple in our local PTQ scene. He and I discussed the changes he would make to his list for the expected metagame, and I decided to go for broke and run the black deck. Max and I ran the same 75:
4 Pack Rat
4 Desecration Demon
4 Nightveil Specter
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
1 Lifebane Zombie
4 Devour Flesh
4 Hero’s Downfall
1 Pharika’s Cure
4 Underworld Connections
3 Temple of Deceit
3 Dark Betrayal
2 Pharika’s Cure
1 Doom Blade
2 Erebos, God of the Dead
2 Lifebane Zombie[/deck]
From Max’s Invitational winning list, we swapped a [ccProd]Lifebane[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Erebos, God of the Dead[/ccProd] in the main and side, and cut one [ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd] and one [ccProd]Dark Betrayal[/ccProd] from the board for a pair of [ccProd]Shrivel[/ccProd]. Max expected the Grand Prix results from the prior week to cause an upswing in the number of white weenie creatures being played, along with more of the Esper Humans deck that won the event. One [ccProd]Shrivel[/ccProd] wouldn’t cut it, so we added a second. The switch between the Erebos and Lifebane was also influenced by this influx of white creatures.
I began my day on the Comic Book racks.
My first round opponent was on the Esper Humans deck. Our first game was an enormous grind, as his fourth-turn [ccProd]Whip of Erebos[/ccProd] forced me to play much more defensively, and hold removal for the places where I knew it was absolutely necessary. His most threatening creatures were his [ccProd]Lyev Skyknight[/ccProd]s, which were awkward to defend against when given haste by the Whip. He got me low on life early, putting me to 6 with a pair of Skyknights in the grave, but I managed to slowly grind back into the game with help from some baby [ccProd]Gray Merchant[/ccProd]s, and draw enough cards to keep up with his Whip until he exhausted it.
I think the real key to me winning this game was his aversion to taking damage from a [ccProd]Desecration Demon[/ccProd]. Most of the game saw him with a [ccProd]Xathrid Necromancer[/ccProd] in play, and he was willing to trade his creatures in for Zombies in order to keep the Demon at bay. This meant his [ccProd]Supreme Verdict[/ccProd] “combo” was much less effective, and it meant I could eventually grind through his team without the use of removal spells, and focus those spells on the creatures I couldn’t block with [ccProd]Gray Merchant[/ccProd]s. Despite needing to deal over 50 damage in this game, I managed to land a [ccProd]Pack Rat[/ccProd] on an empty board when we both were nearly out of gas, and that took the game home.
Our second game was much less interesting, as his 3-color aggressive deck had mana issues, and I capitalized by putting as much pressure on as I could.
Round two I faced UW Control for the first time ever while piloting Mono-Black. Now, I’ve played a bunch of UW in the format, and I’ve played against the deck with Mono-Blue, so I had a passing awareness of how to beat the deck. Still, this was a new animal, and playing with hand disruption changes the dynamics of the matchup in a major way. I lost the round, and can point to two distinct errors in my play to demonstrate why.
In game one, I landed a turn 2 [ccProd]Pack Rat[/ccProd] on the play against his [ccProd]Azorius Guildgate[/ccProd]. I attacked on the third turn before making a Rat, and he [ccProd]Last Breath[/ccProd]’d. I made a Rat in response, as my hand was full of removal and had no other early pressure. I discarded a [ccProd]Devour Flesh[/ccProd]. Now my hand was [ccProd]Devour Flesh[/ccProd], 2 [ccProd]Hero’s Downfall[/ccProd], plus a [ccProd]Gray Merchant[/ccProd] and a [ccProd]Desecration Demon[/ccProd]. On my next turn, I again attacked with a Rat, and this time I made a second to apply more pressure. I discarded a [ccProd]Hero’s Downfall[/ccProd] (the more expensive removal spell, and I had two, but only the one Devour), and got in for 2. I made no further Rats, as he cast [ccProd]Supreme Verdict[/ccProd] on turn 4. Turn 6, he played and ticked down an Elspeth, killing my Demon. I cast [ccProd]Hero’s Downfall[/ccProd] on it on my turn and played another Demon. On his turn 7, he played his second Elspeth, and killed my Demon again. I had no answer for Elspeth, and died to it with a pair of [ccProd]Devour Flesh[/ccProd] still in my hand.
It’s easy to see in the clarity of hindsight that I should have kept the second Downfall. Because of inexperience in the match, I undervalued the importance of the spell. Certainly he could have drawn his [ccProd]Aetherling[/ccProd] instead of the second Elspeth, but I may die to that either way—or I can use the removal as “Fog,” and try to race with Gary. Either way, I played poorly and lost.
In game two, I made one of the worst keeps I’ve ever made in my life, with 1 Swamp, a [ccProd]Duress[/ccProd], and garbage. I have no excuse and no idea why I kept, but the game played out as it should and I died before I hit four mana.
The next match, I sat across from a local who knew I was on Mono-Black, and whom I knew was on Mono-Red. Not devotion, just one-drops and burn. He killed me on turn 4 in both games.
1-2 and dead.
Dead for Top 8 a mere three rounds in, I decided to focus on just using the rest of the event as testing, and getting in games with the deck while I had the chance. It’s a long Standard season, and there’s something to be said for getting experience in early when there’s much more to come. I had a perfect opportunity to learn, and I wasn’t going to pass it up just because I was frustrated with my current performance. None of this stopped me from going to the bar next door between rounds to drown my losses, of course.
For the next two rounds, I played against Mono-Red (or more accurately, R/w) Devotion. I’ve been told this is a bad matchup for Mono-Black, but I won both rounds in decisive fashion. I think there’s a very tangible tension between a deck that wants to play a fast aggressive game, and one that wants to be adept at capitalizing on the absurd amounts of mana [ccProd]Nykthos[/ccProd] is capable of producing. It puts the deck into this midrange zone, which is exactly where Mono-Blue and Black sit, and they’re both better at playing that game than the red deck is.
Notably, in one game I managed to hit with a turn 3 Specter, and flipped [ccProd]Nykthos[/ccProd]. I used it to play a second Specter. On the next turn I hit with both, and flipped a pair of [ccProd]Nykthos[/ccProd] (making me 3-for-3 this game), and used the legendary land trick to generate 10 mana. Then I played two [ccProd]Gray Merchant[/ccProd]s in one turn.
I picked up my third loss of the event (to kill me for prizes this time) against Mono-Blue in the sixth round. Our match was close—as this match tends to be—and I lost the third game on a questionable line that my opponent and I discussed at length after the game. After taking a Master from his hand on turn 1, I landed a [ccProd]Pack Rat[/ccProd], knowing he has a pair of [ccProd]Cloudfin Raptor[/ccProd]s in hand but no way to pump them. On his third turn he drew a [ccProd]Frostburn Weird[/ccProd], missing his third land drop. I knew his hand still contained a [ccProd]Thassa, God of the Sea[/ccProd] and a [ccProd]Master of Waves[/ccProd], so if he managed to draw a land I was in rough shape. I played conservatively, [ccProd]Duress[/ccProd]ing him on turn 3 rather than making it a race with Rats, and I ended up losing the game. I think the first error was taking the Master, rather than the Thassa. Again, I was not experienced enough from this side of the table to recognize how I could expect to lose this game. It was 100% because Thassa made his threats unblockable. Had I been more aware of this endgame, I may have still lost to the second Master (I had one Downfall already in hand), but I would have had time to find a second answer before he hit four mana.
Granted, he was lucky to hit the Weird on turn 3. I still think I could have played better with more matchup experience to better identify the proper threat that I actually couldn’t beat, ever. This is why I was still playing in the event.
I rattled off a win in the mirror for round 7, and a win against UW control in round 8 (using my newfound experience in what-not-to-do from round 2!) to cap off the day. Certainly this was not my most impressive PTQ finish, but it taught me more than I have learned in one event ever before.
Moving forward, I’d recommend that you basically just play Owen’s list. He’s gotten the deck perfectly streamlined now, and I think all the changes I’d make are captured in his most recent build. While I think Shrivel is still good in concept, the metagame didn’t adopt the Esper Humans deck to anywhere near the level I’d expected, and after a week of moving away from those results I’d expect it to fall off even further. If anything, I’d consider toying with the numbers of [ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Lifebane Zombie[/ccProd] between the main and side, depending on the expected metagame of your event. If there’s more aggro presence, the Cures can be valuable in the MD, but the Lifebanes are excellent against control and any decks adapting to Mono-Black by using [ccProd]Blood Baron of Vizkopa[/ccProd].
The day after the PTQ, I started my next semester of grad school. Conveniently, I’m taking a statistics class this semester, focused on using stats to improve the effectiveness of processes. I can’t help but think about how my testing process relates to the average results in these PTQs for me. While I’ve had plenty of mediocre finishes, and had a spike for one as well, I’d say my average is around the middle to bottom of the top 16—and I’m unsatisfied with this mean. This weekend’s PTQ is a perfect example of the failures I have coming into an event cold, and I have to wonder what kind of step change I could make with my average result if I put the work in ahead of time. I intend to pay much closer attention to this in the near future, and see if I can’t make a significant impact on the average result in PTQ performance simply by streamlining my deck selection process ahead of time, and focusing on becoming familiar with my deck in time to know the right plays before being forced to make them with the tournament on the line. I’ve been at least passing aware that my preparation system is inadequate for some time, but I’ve been willing to ignore it for the sake of laziness and riding on reasonable play skill. I’ve decided I’ve had enough of that. It’s time to get down to business.