My GP Rotterdam squad was assembled many months ago, around the time of GP Sydney. That might seem early, but team GP arrangements are one of the few things that move quickly in pro Magic—everyone knows that everyone else will have their team together soon, so if you want a good team you have to move quickly yourself or all the other players will already have committed to a team. Either that or you can just have a team that you always play with, like Owen-Reid-Huey, but this has never really worked with me. In fact, I’ve never played more than one tournament with the same pair of teammates.
At the time, I was in the middle of a week-long trip to Australia and New Zealand with Shahar Shenhar and Ondrej Strasky, and one of them mentioned that we should play together. We checked all the right boxes—we’re good friends who respect each other, and have similar goals and skill levels. I had already teamed with both of them separately (Shahar with Martell and Ondrej with Bolovo), so I knew there would be no major conflicts.
After we agreed to team together (contingent on me actually being the Brazilian captain, since otherwise I wouldn’t go to Rotterdam), Shahar sheepishly disclosed that his record in the last 3 Pro Tours combined was something like 3-15. Rather than be discouraged, Ondrej and I decided the team tournament was our chance to #MakeShaharGreatAgain.
On November 10th, I left my home in the great city of Porto Alegre for the Amsterdam airport. My girlfriend offered me a ride to the airport, to which I said, “nah it’s fine, I’ll just get an Uber” because I knew she was busy.
Biggest mistake of my life.
It turned out it was 3x surge pricing, so instead I decided to go outside and try to get a regular cab. I eventually did, and on my way to the airport realized that I didn’t have any Brazilian money on me, because I had planned to take an Uber. I panicked for a moment before breaking it to my cab driver that I wouldn’t be able to pay, but it turned out he had a credit card machine (most taxis here don’t), so it was all fine.
Since I took a cab and not an Uber, there was no air-conditioning in the car. It’s almost summer here, so the windows were open but I was sweating anyway. At some point I glance at the window and see a very large spider staring at me from the outside of the mirror. Spiders and I don’t get along. I think they’re sadistic evil creatures from hell, and they think I’m a human being that wants to kill them.
At this point, I had two clear choices: I could close the window and burn to death, or I could let the spider stay there and likely be poisoned to death. I decided on a compromise and rolled the window up a little bit—hopefully, it wouldn’t come inside of the car.
Sensing movement, the spider followed the window and then quickly leaped multiple times in succession to eventually land on my side of it, nearly giving me a heart attack and causing me to jump back in my seat as far as I could. In Brazil, we have a saying that translates roughly to “God doesn’t give wings to snakes,” meaning he wouldn’t give a dangerous being a way to do extra harm, but giving that spider the ability to apparently teleport amounts to basically the same thing in my book. The end result was that I went the entire ride with my eyes locked on the spider, barely breathing, as it seemed to just sit there and move up and down a little bit on the window in what I can only assume was a taunting dance as it saw how terrified I was.
Moral of the story: Always take a ride if someone offers you one. Also, spiders are evil.
After two stops and a re-routing, a train, and a cab, I was in the hotel I shared with the rest of the Brazilian team, which was far from the event. Booking a hotel for this trip presented a problem because the two events we were playing, the GP and the World Magic Cup, were in different venues and very far from each other, so I did what any reasonable person would do and booked one that was far from both.
Arriving at the event the following morning, I received what would be the first of many messages from my teammates. It said this:
In the end they barely made it, so all was fine.
We sit and, after some announcements that could have said anything since there’s no way to understand a word through the sound system, I, as player B, start opening the packs. I open 11 of them and they don’t seem very good, so I tell Shahar that he, as the luckiest person I know, should open the last pack, because we need a good one. He reaches over, grabs the pack, opens it, and BAM: Sword of Light and Shadow. What an overachiever.
Upon closer inspection, it turned out that the packs I opened were actually pretty good, too. Highlights included 2 Depalas and 2 Veteran Motorists, as well as a Pia Nalaar and 2 Cultivator of Blades.
We quickly settled on one deck being R/W—when you get sent a signal like that, you listen. The other decks were more complicated.
Our green was very good. It had 2 Thriving Rhinos, a decent curve, many playables, and an energy subtheme. Our red was also strong. We had 2 Brazen Scourges and a decent number of aggressive creatures, many of which also had an energy subtheme. Our black was very weak. It had some energy as well (Thriving Rats, Die Young), but most of its limited power seemed to be in an artifact subtheme. Our blue was, to the surprise of no one, quite bad. Our only playable cards were 2 Aether Theorists, a Serpent, 2 4/4 Crabs with defender, 2 Select for Inspection, and 1 Empyreal Voyager. For artifacts, we had some Vehicles that would surely go into the R/W deck, some creatures that would likely go to to the black deck, and 2 Prisms that were up for grabs.
Our main choice was what to do with the green. Either we’d pair it with red and make an aggressive R/G energy build, or we’d pair it with blue to make a controlling U/G energy build, potentially with splashes. After examining the pool more extensively, we realized that the green cards were too aggressive to be paired with the blue cards. On top of that, the 2 Cultivator of Blades plus 2 Spontaneous Artists combo seemed too good to pass up, as the prospect of hasty Overruns was very appealing.
That posed a problem, because the blue cards did not match the black cards. The black cards were mostly artifact-based creatures, and the blue cards were mostly energy-based, underpowered cards. It’s definitely possible to build a good U/B deck in Team Sealed, but you either need a lot of artifact synergies or a lot of power since the game is going to go late. We had neither, so the deck didn’t work. We could also split the green, but that left both decks kind of weak. The blue cards were simply not strong enough to be the core of a deck, and the black ones weren’t good splashes.
We tried multiple configurations and eventually decided that the R/W deck would part with some of the good white cards that fit the black cards better by giving it some Servo makers and an Inspired Charge. We actually had a theme and a way to win the game. This deck would also get the Sword of Light and Shadow since it needed the power the most. The other decks didn’t need another way to win the game or powerful cards.
Some people thought it was weird that we didn’t play blue, but I thought it was okay. Not only do I hate blue in this format, I also think our pool really didn’t have a good blue deck. We also ended up not playing our 2 Prophetic Prisms anywhere, which I think was a good decision—the R/G deck could have splashed Empyreal Voyager, but it was an aggressive deck and we didn’t want to add clunky 2-drops that did nothing.
Here are the 3 decks we built:
Ondrej snatched the Sword of Light and Shadow before any of us could move and said he was playing it no matter what, so Shahar and I were left with the other two decks, which I preferred anyway. I didn’t care which one I played and Shahar liked the W/R one more, so he got that one and I was left with R/G.
I thought the W/R deck was great, the R/G deck was great, and the B/W deck was mediocre but could win. Overall, I was happy with our pool and with how we built our decks, except for the fact that Shahar snuck in an Aradara Express and a second Built to Last over 2 creatures when I wasn’t looking, which left him with the awful ratio of 2 pump spells, 4 Vehicles, and 13 creatures. I don’t particularly mind Aradara Express overall and I’m okay playing it when my deck demands it, but if I play it then I want a much higher creature count. I think the leading cause of death for R/W decks in Kaladesh is drawing all Vehicles and pump spells and no creatures, so I try my hardest to minimize those scenarios. Personally, I would also have liked to cut a Chandra’s Pyrohelix from his deck if we had another playable creature.
I thought our decks were good, but there’s nothing like round 1 of Team Sealed to disabuse you of that notion. My opponent curved Aetherstorm Roc into Skysovereign, but I managed to win anyway by topdecking a hasty 3/3 when he was at 3. Ondrej’s opponent curved Confiscation Coup on his Sword of Light and Shadow into Saheeli’s Artistry, copying the Sword of Light and Shadow, with another Saheeli’s Artistry somewhere in his deck—Ondrej did not win. The fact that Ondrej thought the Sword would become unequipped when his opponent gained control of it, and attacked his opponent with the equipped creature to give them a free creature and 3 life, certainly didn’t help matters. Shahar was in a close spot but eventually succumbed to a surprise Fleetwheel Cruiser. And, just like that, we were 0-1.
Normally, I get very emotional in team events, and by that I mean I turn into an emo teenager when I lose early on. Winning in team tournaments is amazing because it means that you do well with your friends. Losing in team tournaments is very depressing because you lose with your friends. It’s also the tournament where you have the best chance of doing well and there are very few of them, so every time you do badly it feels like you missed a great opportunity.
But this time around, I didn’t feel that badly. Obviously I wanted to win, but I wasn’t devastated to lose—losing in Magic is just something that happens. I know this seems obvious, but it’s been one of the worst parts of my game for a long time. I just don’t deal well with losing. I feel bad, I tilt, and I play badly in the following games. Basically, I’m very immature.
For a while, I thought it was OK to feel this way. In fact, I thought I was supposed to feel this way, because not feeling it meant I didn’t care enough. Everyone said you had to really want to win, that it had to mean something to you, and that you had to care very deeply. You can’t be happy to finish 2nd, they said, because then you’ll never finish 1st—you can’t settle. I believed them. The time I lost the finals of a PT in Hawaii was the worst I’ve ever felt at a Magic tournament.
Lately, however, I’ve been doubting the wisdom of those words. I decided to force myself to care less and to be more indifferent to the outcome—not because I don’t want to win, but because I know I’m not likely to win everything, so I’m just setting myself up for a painful life if I’m devastated every time I don’t do well. And in this tournament, it worked. Though I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t devastated. As a result, I had more fun, and so did my teammates, and undoubtedly I played better in the following rounds. So if you’re one of the people who thought as I did, who thought you had to want to win and no other result was acceptable, because otherwise you wouldn’t win, well, know that I’ve been changing my perspective on things and I’ve been feeling better about tournaments as a result.
The following rounds were mostly uneventful, and our superior card quality eventually caught up to our opponents. I never actually got to cast a hasty Cultivator of Blades—I could have done so many times, but it never felt right. The card was still very good since most of the time it would make 2 tokens and then have to be removed because a pump spell would threaten lethal the following turn. I didn’t think the card was that good before this tournament, but in my deck it was awesome.
Throughout the day, we rarely helped each other during the matches. We mostly kept to ourselves and asked pointed questions such as, “is there any trick that costs this much?” or “should I keep?” Once someone finished their match, they would move their chair and help one person. One notable exception was when my opponent told a judge he wanted to ask a question away from the table, which prompted Shahar to ask, “hey Paulo, since your opponent is gone, what do I cast here?” fanning his hand of 5 cards. I looked at the board for 2 seconds, said, “just attack with all your creatures—he’s dead on board,” and turned back to inspect my game. Yeah, I’m great.
Throughout the day, since I was the only one with a backpack, I automatically became a mule. I would carry everyone’s deck boxes, playmats, life pads, pens, dice, jackets, and food. Every time we ended a round, Ondrej and Shahar would throw all of their things my way and say, “can I put those in your backpack?” Then they’d move the result slip my way, say, “You’re the captain, can you take this to the scorekeeper?” and leave to do something fun without waiting for an answer as I scrambled to fit everything. Shahar would also say, “hey can I get my wallet at the bottom of your backpack below everything else?” about 3 times per round, after which he’d just put it back there below everything else so he could invariably ask for it again 5 minutes later.
Regardless of all that (or perhaps because of all that!), we finished the day at a very happy 8-1 record (which is different than the “unhappy 8-1,” which is when you start 8-0 and then lose your last round—it’s amazing how two identical records can feel so differently depending on when you pick up your loss).
Shortly after arriving in my hotel, I receive a message from Shahar:
Yes, of course you did.
After getting not nearly enough hours of sleep, I arrive at the event Saturday morning. For some reason I was still surprised to receive the following message:
In the end they made it just in time, and we opened our second pool, which I think was actually stronger than our first.
The first deck that jumped to mind was, again, R/W Vehicles. We only had 1 Depala this time around—unlucky—but our Vehicles were much better and, more importantly, much cheaper. Despite not having much removal, the R/W deck seemed excellent to me, and all the cards complemented each other perfectly, so it made sense to just stick with it. You basically haven’t lived until you crew Ovalchase Dragster with Gearshift Ace.
The second thing that jumped out was that our blue was pretty good. We had Confiscation Coup and Saheeli’s Artistry, on top of 2 Whirler Virtuosos and a plethora of good defensive and energy-based cards, including Multiform Wonder and Electrostatic Pummeler. We knew our deck would be base blue with at least a red splash, and initially built a RUG Energy deck that splashed green for 2 Attunes, 2 Sages, and an Arborback Stomper, which went well with our Saheeli Rai.
That left again the question of what the third deck would be. Green had good leftovers from the energy deck, such as 3 Peema Outriders, so it was probably going to be the base of the third deck. It also had a counters subtheme with 3 Hunt the Weak and 2 Fairgrounds Trumpeter. Black had playable cards, but not many, and they weren’t very good. I’m starting to think that black is just bad—there’s never anything I want to play. The B/G cards didn’t go particularly well together and the deck felt underpowered to me, but after agonizing over it for half an hour I simply couldn’t come up with a better way to split the colors—the R/W and U/R cards were just too synergistic with each other to make sense anywhere else.
As time ended, we made a last-minute decision to remove green from the U/R deck. We thought our mana was okay, but we didn’t really need to produce more energy, and not playing green would allow us to play Inventors’ Fair, which could search for Multiform Wonder and Decoction Module—normally a card I hate playing, but one that makes sense when you have 2 Virtuosos and an Era of Innovation. We also cut the Pummeler because we figured the deck just wasn’t interested in a 1/1 for 3, and we had no pump spells of any kind.
Our decks ended up like this:
My team wanted me to play the blue deck because it was more complicated and they thought I’d play it better, which would leave Shahar with the R/W deck and Ondrej with the B/G deck. I, however, didn’t really want to play it. As you may or may not know, I hate durdling in this format, and, as sweet as that deck actually was (and it was very sweet), I just wanted to play R/W and smash face, which is my comfort zone in Kaladesh. They let me have the W/R deck, so Ondrej scooped up the U/R deck and Shahar got B/G.
I was very happy with our decks. I thought both the R/W and the U/R deck were solid 9s, and the B/G deck was like a 4. There were two decisions that I think perhaps we should have made differently. The first one was not playing Furious Reprisal in the W/R deck. That was me. I thought I already had too many 4-drops and, with a whopping 5 Vehicles in my deck, I just wanted more creatures. In retrospect, we should probably have moved the card to the U/R deck rather than leaving it in the sideboard of my deck, but we figured that U/R was already good against small creatures and would need more help against bigger creatures, so Malfunction seemed to actually play a more important role there (but it’s possible we should have had both).
The second decision was not playing Eliminate the Competition in the B/G deck. I like the card even in decks that aren’t dedicated to making tokens, and Shahar had 3 Peema Outriders and a Weaponcraft Enthusiast, so I definitely wanted to play it, but Shahar argued that he would want to pump his creatures most of the time rather than make tokens, and thought the card was better suited for the sideboard. Ondrej agreed with him, so the card ended up in the sideboard even though that’s not what I would have done.
Our first match of Day 2 was ridiculously close. I won my match and looked at Ondej, who had the game practically in the bag against a U/B Control deck, so I was sure we had already won. It turned out Ondrej was still in game 1 and I for some reason thought he was up 1-0, and I had to watch in horror as he lost the next 2 games fairly quickly, leaving it up to Shahar to decide the fate of the match.
Shahar’s game progressed to a very interesting spot, where we would certainly have lost had the clock been infinite (the board was crowded and the opponent had a Chandra). Since we were in extra turns, however, Chandra wouldn’t have time to ultimate, which prompted different lines of play from our opponent.
At this point, this is a position where, if the opponent does not make a move, the game is sure to draw. But we have a lethal trampler in play with a removal spell and a pump spell in hand, so any sort of attack from the opponent that ends up not killing us could ultimately kill them. We have a Hunt the Weak in hand, and a Prakhata Pillar-Bug, among others. The question now is whether we want to fight with the Pillar-Bug or not—gaining life means it’s less likely that we die, but we also want to make our opponents think that we can die, because otherwise they’ll never attack. Basically if you had asked me “do you want to gain 20 life?” I would have said no, because with 20 more life we would discourage the opponent from attacking and guarantee a draw, and I thought we could win. At the same time, we didn’t want to not gain life and just die to an alpha strike plus any spell. We decided we could afford to gain the life and still appear vulnerable enough to provoke an attack.
On his last turn of the game, the opponent used Chandra on our Prakhata Pillar-Bug. We debate saving it with a pump spell, but if we do that, then the opponent is certainly not attacking. We take a while to figure out whether we will just die to any random spell if we don’t, and decide that no, we won’t. Ideally we would have figured all of this before, of course, as not to tip our opponents off, but the board was complicated enough that we were just not capable of doing it in time to appear inconspicuous. Eventually we decided that we could afford to let it die. Our opponents thought for a while more and attacked with everything! We used our removal spell to prevent lethal, and then the second trick to counter their trick, which allowed us to attack for the win on the last possible turn.
We won the second match, lost the third, and won the fourth. Not much happened other than a sweet situation where Kenji played Demon of Dark Schemes, and then Ondrej proceeded to copy it with Saheeli’s Artistry, then copy his copy with Saheeli Rai, killing all of Kenji’s creatures, followed by stealing it with Confiscation Coup the following turn. Oh, we also ultimated Saheeli Rai at some point, but it wasn’t even that good. Our tiebreakers were hideous, courtesy of having started 0-1, so we couldn’t ID the last round.
Ondrej won his last match fairly easily, and I was up a game with what I assumed was a sure win in game 2. My opponent had few cards, was low on life, and I had a better board and about 6 cards in hand. I only had 3 lands in play, but as soon as I drew a fourth land my opponent would immediately die to either my Fleetwheel Cruiser or my Start Your Engines. Even if I didn’t draw a fourth land, I had three 2-drops in my hand, and those were likely going to be enough to win the game.
What happened after that was one of the most frustrating sequences of events I’ve experienced in a competitive event. Every turn I would draw one of the remaining 4-drops in my deck, play a 2-drop and activate Depala for 1, sending a land straight to the bottom of my deck. If anyone ever thought I had marked cards, this game should be enough evidence that at least I’m not marking my lands, since if at any point I had just not activated Depala for any reason I would have won immediately.
The game progressed to a point where I already cast all my 2-drops, and my hand is now five 4-drops. In what is likely his last turn of the game, my opponent attacks me with a 4/2 and a 2/1 flyer with 2 cards in hand. I can block the 4/2, and then I can activate Sky Skiff to block the 2/1 flyer. There are two alternatives here: Either he has Fumigate, which I haven’t seen yet, in which case I probably want to take the 2/1 flyer, or he has double pump spell to kill me (a Built to Last/Charge combination). His deck is fairly aggressive and weenie-based, so those cards could definitely be there.
After some consideration, I decide that I don’t want to risk dying to two tricks. I can beat Fumigate even if he has it—my hand is full of gas. I block both and he casts the Fumigate.
Now the board is clear. If I draw a land this turn, I surely win. I manage to draw another 4-casting cost card. Not that anyone is counting, but that’s all of them in my deck. I pass the turn with 6 cards in hand and no play. My opponent topdecks a Fabricator, and plays that plus the bear he has left. I finally draw land and cast Furious Reprisal, leaving him with just a 1/1 artifact and an Underhanded Designs. He then draws Bastion Mastodon, which is a big creature that’s also an artifact to turn his Designs on, and that kills me.
Game 3 a little of my bad luck is paid back by the universe when I have a pretty good draw and my opponent is stuck on lands. I make an awful attack that could lose me an unlosable game if my opponent topdecks a Plains and has Fumigate in hand because I miscounted something, but it ends up not mattering—my opponent has the Fumigate but not the Plains, and we advance to the Top 4!
Our Top 4 draft was… interesting. I start with a first-pick Fumigate, followed by some more white cards, when I see a fifth-pick Cloudblazer. Now, I hate blue, but I like Cloudblazer and I like winning matches, so I picked it since it’s a strong card that goes well with my Fumigate. Next pick has another Cloudblazer, and at this point I’m basically locked into playing them—I’ll either be U/W or splash them in another white deck.
The Draft progresses uneventfully, and I happily scoop up plenty of cards that I’ve never played before in the history of this format, such as Disappearing Act, Paradoxical Outcome, and Acrobatic Maneuver, all of which made my deck. In the end, my deck looked like this:
I thought my deck was good. It was different and had tons of cards I hated, but it had a plan and was cohesive. Or, rather, two plans—a control plan and a token plan. But I didn’t feel like they conflicted with each other because I just wanted to use the tokens to block and Shrewd Negotiation away. Plus it’s team drafting, and I had actually done a bit of hate drafting for a change. I took Nature’s Way and Arborback Stomper quite early from my right side neighbor, whom I predicted was B/G, and then a second-pick Depala from Frank, whom I predicted to be R/W. It turned out that they were indeed G/B and R/W, so my counter-drafting actually did something.
Ondrej had a G/W deck that seemed pretty good to me, and Shahar had an atrocious looking U/R deck. It was aggressive, but the card quality was very low, and he seemed to have no reason to be blue at all, as all his blue cards were basically last picks. I thought Ondrej and I would probably be favorites, and Shahar would have to be lucky and draw the good part of his deck.
In the end, Ondrej lost his match and I won mine, which left it to Shahar to win it all. I didn’t follow most of game 2, getting there at the end of it, but it seems to have been quite an interesting game that could have gone either way. Eventually we arrived at a topdeck war, and we have a turn where we set up Eager Construct (pumping our Salivating Gremlins) and Renegade Tactics. We have a scry and a draw. If we hit any spell (we have a prowess creature) or any artifact, we probably win because we force some blocks that are highly advantageous for us. If we hit a spell that does something, we surely win. If we hit a creature, we’re still in an okay spot. We hit 2 lands, which leaves us slightly behind on board. Then we make some bad attack and pass, and our opponent draws Wildest Dreams, which he casts for 4. At this point we have one out in our deck—Welding Sparks. If we draw it, we win. We don’t, and that’s the end of our tournament.
All in all, my Top 4 match thought process was remarkably similar to what I imagine Hillary Clinton supporters experienced watching the U.S. election:
- At first, I figured we were more experienced players, we would all be on the play, and I first-picked a Fumigate. At this point we’re probably, like, 98% to win. Mathematically.
- Then I pick a blue card. The probability drops to around 85%.
- Then I look at Shahar’s deck. It looks like a booster pack, except there’s no rare. We expected Shahar’s deck to be bad, but not that bad. We might be 60% to win.
- Ondrej, who had our best deck, loses his match. That was a surprise blow—perhaps we shouldn’t have discounted Frank so early. It’s now really down to the swing states, and they are not looking good. We’re at 40%.
- Shahar can’t draw a land. 30%.
- His opponent draws his fifth land. 20%.
- The opponent casts Wildest Dreams for 4. At this point, we’re like 5% to win. But we were over 95% before, and we got all this way to 5%, so clearly those percentages don’t mean much, right? It’s possible to win when you have 5% chance, right? The opponents did it—we can do it too! We can’t lose hope.
- We don’t draw Welding Sparks, and we lose. All hope is lost.
Overall, despite the disappointing Top 4 match, I was quite happy with the result. I thought we mostly played well and built our decks well, though we did get quite lucky with our pool and we weren’t punished nearly as much as we could have been by the mistakes we did make. My teammates were 10/10 and I would definitely play with them again in the future.
On the condition that they bring their own backpack.