Does spending months claiming you have the fire pay dividends? Was I really going to sleeve up White Weenie once again? Did I really understand Guilds Draft, or was I just going to force Dimir? These were the thoughts swirling through my mind as I landed in Atlanta on Wednesday night, though not that far ahead of “I wonder what’s for dinner?”

Luckily, I got the answer to my most important question shortly—after meeting up with Pat Cox, we made our way to the hotel and found the same Mongolian grill that we went to at the last PT Atlanta, so dinner was solved. As for the rest of the questions, well, those would have to wait.

Having the Fire

What is the fire, and why do I keep saying I have it?

The fire is the fire for competition, a burning desire to succeed at all costs. Do I really have it? No, of course not. But I do care a lot about how prepared I am for each tournament, so even though I am not out there grinding every Grand Prix (I skipped Milwaukee, for example), I’m also not content to show up at Pro Tours as a washed-out shell of my former self (plenty of jokes to be made here, if you’re so inclined). How I can best describe my state of mind when it comes to Magic and Pro Tours is that I am going to be prepared for any tournament I attend, even if I don’t hit every tournament, and especially if I don’t. How I explained this when asked during the weekend was that even if I have a lot less free time than I used to, I do spend a high percentage of that free time on preparation. Just ask Gaby Spartz. Every evening, I was in the Draft queue, or jamming various builds of Jeskai on MTGO. I was determined to know what I was doing, despite having closer to 25-30 hours to devote to prep instead of 120.

Look, there may come a time when I am the washed-out Hall-of-Famer that rolls in and is reading the cards during the Draft, but that’s sure as hell not now, and not any time soon. I’d rather just skip events than show up and embarrass myself—I can do that well enough without getting on an airplane. I felt sharp going into the Pro Tour, despite having the plague, and I believe my play reflected that.

Riding Jetskis

They say money doesn’t buy happiness, but have you ever seen a depressed person on a jet ski?

-Too many comedians for me to try and figure out who stole it from who.

Given my aforementioned time situation, I decided to just pick a deck and jam with it. Maybe that would pan out. I believe testing is better when the different decks are spread out, with everyone focusing on the same deck or two at the end, so I chose Jeskai (otherwise known as Jetski).

I played a couple Leagues with some early lists, but was really waiting on GP New Jersey. After Eli Kassis won the whole thing with a 4x Azor’s Gateway build, I started tuning that.

Jeskai

I made some changes here and there, but the main thrust was basically the same. I liked the deck well enough, but not so much that I was willing to recommend it, and especially not in the face of 10 people on my team who seemed pretty into WW. Plus, I’m a fan of basic Plains myself, so it wasn’t a tough sell to be convinced to run the parade of 1-drops. As it turned out, Jeskai may have been great, but I never got it to a place where I thought it was.

I do wish I’d tested Jeskai with Crackling Drake, as those lists seem a lot more promising, and I’ve even been playing some post-PT with the French list. Had I played in Milwaukee, this is likely what I’d have sleeved up:

Jeskai

I like Niv-Mizzet, Drakes, and lots of Chemister’s Insights, and am a fan of Rekindling Phoenix and The Immortal Sun in the sideboard. Still, this isn’t a mediocre Jeskai article—that’s what we pay Paulo for.

Choosing Your Guild

When it came to Draft, I felt good. I’d been doing a fair amount of drafting on MTGO, even if I was no Tim Aten, and I had a firm grasp on what I liked (Dimir), what I didn’t like (Selesnya), and everything in between. It did feel funny practicing all the guilds, because if we are being honest, I knew I was just going to show up and draft Dimir. Spoiler: I drafted Dimir twice. I really was prepared to draft whatever guild was open, with a bias toward the blue guilds (they actually are better, this isn’t just my intrinsic pro-blue bias), but as it turns out I got to cast a lot of blue and black spells.

One Limited meeting later, where we spent way too much time arguing about the 12th best common in each color, I was ready.

Settling on a Deck

By late Wednesday, I’d already locked in to WW. I decided to play that deck for a couple reasons:

  • Most of the team was happy with the deck, including some of those whose opinions I highly value (*cough* Wrapter). That also meant the deck was well-tuned, and all the potential slots had been investigated.
  • The Ajani’s Pridemate package seemed really good. We got to play Tarmogoyf (or bigger) in our deck, and all that it cost us was playing more Healer’s Hawks and Leonin Vanguards, which I’m not even convinced are worse than Skymarcher Aspirant to begin with.
  • Experimental Frenzy is a messed up Magic card. I really liked the red sideboard plan, even if getting to 4 mana was a bit rough, and that made us pretty confident that post-board games would be a lot better than they would normally be for a 20-land mono-color deck. As it turns out, this wasn’t exactly as smooth as it sounded, but at the time I liked it.
  • I had the same Beta Plains that got me two previous Top 8s with WW (PT Nagoya and Worlds in 2011). I’m a regular Craig Wescoe/Pat Cox, when you look at the success I’ve had with attacking white decks.

After laying out the main deck, which was pretty locked, we had to decide on the sideboard. We were pretty happy with most of it:

4 Experimental Frenzy
2 Banefire
1 Mountain

A nice anti-control package.

2 Conclave Tribunal as catch-alls.
2 Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice as a powerful mirror-breaker (and she did deliver).
4 Baffling End as cheap removal for the mirror.

Where we got hung up was on the Baffling Ends. See, taking out Conclave Tribunal for Baffling End in the mirror is just not a huge upgrade. It’s a little better, sure, but not so much that it’s really worth a sideboard slot. We kicked around various ideas until someone suggested that one of us play one Settle the Wreckage. That way, if they got to Settle someone, especially on coverage, everyone in the tournament would play around the rest of the team’s nonexistent Settles.

Martin suggested we high roll to see who had to play it, but I liked the idea enough to offer myself up as a sacrificial lamb. I love nonsense, and the story equity was too high, though even I couldn’t predict how high it actually would end up being. I snapped it off, and registered the following:

White Weenie

Martin wrote up an excellent sideboard guide (and given that you really shouldn’t be playing the Settle, use his list). Plus, I’m coming dangerously close to hitting my strategy quotient, so I’ll just point you in his direction.

Sick Beats and Ravenous Chupacabras

The whole week (and just about up until now, days later) I was pretty sick, and not in the good way. I had a horrible cold, and ended up looking and feeling pretty crappy. That didn’t really hurt my play, luckily, since I pretty much dial in once gameplay starts, but if you’re wondering why I looked miserable even while making Top 8, that was it. Add to that the fact that I’ve started regaining previously-lost weight, and you’ve got yourself a Ravenous Chupacabra indeed. I’m hoping to turn that ship around, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve not been the most disciplined recently.

The Pro Tour

I played 20 games with WW, did a few last-minute Drafts, and was ready to roll. My Pro Tour started, appropriately, with a Ritual of Soot (over Status // Statue). I followed that up with Nightveil Sprite, then Whisper Agent, then Hypothesizzle. Unfortunately, Dimir dried up near the middle of pack 1, and I was pretty sure I was getting cut. Sadly, the only really open guild was Selesnya, which a) is my least-favorite guild and b) didn’t go at all with my first six picks. I resigned myself to drafting Grixis control, knowing that pack 3 wasn’t going to go well, and it did not.

Here’s what I ended up with:

I will say that this is not as bad as it looks, especially judging from the responses on Twitter. Grixis control decks can be a little clunky, but they are powerful, and having both Ritual of Soot and Invert // Invent to tutor for it does give this deck some good comeback potential. Some notes on this deck, and the format in general:

  • Wishcoin Crab is drastically underrated. I would have gladly played a second here.
  • Mediocre Dimir or Izzet decks tend to outperform the average or even good Selesnya decks. Any guild can have a great deck, but the blue commons are so strong that I don’t mind being somewhat cut on blue.
  • Invert // Invent plus Vedalken Mesmerist is a mondo combo. I killed two creatures over the course of the Draft by Inverting after attacking with Mesmerist.
  • Devious Cover-Up is a good card, and having two makes your late game very strong. It looked like a meme and ended up being a legit win condition.
  • Ritual of Soot was my MVP, as I stole two matches with it, defeating a sick Izzet Aggro deck and a very strong Selesnya deck. When my Selesnya opponent mulliganed and went 1-drop, Emmara, Rosemane Centaur, then Prey Upon plus Ledev Champion, it was only thanks to Ritual that I escaped with my hide intact.

My loss in the Draft was to Corey Baumeister, who had a very good Dimir deck. I could have won game 2 had I known his deck better, as I chose not to shuffle Ritual of Soot back with Cover-Up after killing four creatures with it. He later played three more low drops, I drew Invert // Invent, and was forced to stare longingly at the Ritual of Soot in my bin. Still, it was game 2, he was Dimir, and I hadn’t seen so many cheap creatures game 1 that shuffling back Ritual made sense.

I was quite happy to emerge with a 2-1, as this deck was nothing special. It was time to find out if our Constructed deck was busted, crap, or somewhere in between.

Draft 1 record: 2-1

I ran quite nicely in Constructed, in what was to be a recurring theme of the weekend. I started 4-0, beating the following decks:

  • Heroic Reinforcements WW
  • Jeskai Control
  • G/W Tokens
  • U/R Drakes

I then lost badly to Mark Jacobson on U/B Midrange, as Fungal Infection into Cast Down into Ritual of Soot into Hostage Taker was just too much for my poor 1-drops to handle. Some interesting plays from the Constructed rounds:

  • My WW opponent kept a hand of all expensive cards, including Venerated Loxodon. One of the themes of the weekend was people thinking that Venerated Loxodon was good in the mirror—it is not. It’s passable on the play, but just barely, and quite bad on the draw. Tapping all your creatures is just too big a drawback, and I was happy to see it on the other side of the board (though most of the time I didn’t see it, given that they’d die if they cast it).
  • I won a game against Drakes where Adanto Vanguard attacked 8 times. Drakes has a lot of tools in that matchup, but sometimes Vanguard just runs roughshod over all their burn spells, and it definitely won me a game that I was otherwise losing badly.
  • After I attacked with everything, my opponent asked how many permanents I had. I looked down, counted, and said, “looks like 10.” In reality, I knew I had 10, and even had the Pride of Conquerors in hand. Do I love bush league nonsense? Why yes, yes I do.

I ended the day at 6-2 after losing to Mark, and felt just okay about it. The last round of the day really does impact your mood, and going from 6-1 to 6-2 is kind of a bummer. Still, that record gave me a real shot at making Top 8, and I was bound and determined to make the best of it.

The rest of Team ChannelFireball didn’t fare so well. We all started well in Draft, but after Day 1 we only had four players left, as Josh had gone 2-3-2 (dear lord, man), and Martin went 1-4 in Constructed.

I had dinner with Pat Cox, who was a disappointing 4-4, Sam Black, who was 6-2 and in my pod, and Andrew “Lyin’ BK” Baeckstrom, who was also 4-4. It wasn’t the most excited table in the world, but we did go to The Cheesecake Factory, so we at least got to eat unreasonable portions. When BK tried to order a salad, he was asked if he wanted a small or large one. When he inquired as to how big a small was, he was told it fed “2 or 3” people. I can only wonder what a large was used for (he got the small, in case it wasn’t clear).

Day 2: The Fire Rages On

My pod on Day 2 was significantly harder, but the Draft itself was significantly easier. I sat down with the following competitors:

  • Sam Black
  • Francisco Garcia
  • Matt Johnson
  • Rob Pisano
  • Willy Edel
  • Andrea Mengucci
  • Yam Wing Chun

This Draft was basically on rails, as I first-picked House Guildmage, then Nightveil Sprite, then Whisper Agent, then Artful Takedown, and never deviated. I even wheeled Whisper Agent, and I knew I was set. Packs 2 and 3 were more of the same, as I was getting 7th pick Dead Weights and wheeling all sorts of good stuff.

The final deck was awesome:

I opened well, got passed good cards, and was definitely in the right guild. I would be disappointed with anything less than a 3-0.

Some deck building notes:

Enhanced Surveillance has a place in decks like this. It makes it so this deck never gets flooded, and can dig (and enable) Gruesome Menagerie, while also ensuring that I never get decked. It’s a somewhat niche card, but it fits here.

The Bartizan Bats kind of sucked, but I wanted a 4-drop with some punch, given how much removal I had. Ben recommended that I just play my second Hired Poisoner instead, and I made that swap when appropriate.

I did manage to emerge unscathed from the Draft, beating Andrea, Sam, and Willy. Andrea’s deck was medium and he got bad draws, so it wasn’t particularly close, but my other two matches came down to the wire. I was on the receiving end of some good draws, and I managed to get to the second Constructed portion at 9-2. Meanwhile, the rest of team CFB all had also gone 3-0, leading us to have by far the best limited win percentage at 81%. Pat Cox also went 3-0, putting him to 7-4 and in range of a good finish.

Getting Across the Finish Line

I started with two quick wins over Yuuya on Drakes and Kasper Nielsen on WW/r (both of whom would also make Top 8). At this point, a lot of my matches were featured, so you can check them out on Magic’s YouTube or Twitch page.

11-2, one win short

I then faced Wilson Mok on Jeskai. After splitting the first two games, it came down to him lacking white mana in game 3, though when he found it, he delivered some beatings. Ixalan’s Binding took out my Conclave Tribunal and stranded another in hand, and his one copy of Invoke the Divine killed my other Tribunal to keep him alive at 1, and got back Seal Away for Adanto Vanguard.

I was then losing a race to two Crackling Drakes backed up by Deafening Clarions as life gain while I flooded out. I messed up pretty badly on my second-to-last turn, as I declined to play Adanto Vanguard, fearing an Essence Scatter that would make his Drakes lethal. The problem was that I couldn’t afford to play around it, and after I topdecked Banefire on the last turn, I was 3 points of damage short. Still, he could just leave back a Drake and it wouldn’t have mattered, so I was presumably dead anyway.

11-3

OK, this was it. Did I have the fire or not? Would this one match, with lots of luck involved, heavily impact the narrative concerning my current skill and preparation? Does any of this really make sense?

(No, yes, and no, respectively.)

My win-and-in was somewhat anticlimactic, if I’m being honest. I got paired against Michael Kundegraber, playing G/B, and kind of just steamrolled him. He missed a land drop in game 1, and I Tribunaled his Druid of the Cowl. In game 2, I topdecked three Experimental Frenzies in a row. That may not sound great, but given that he killed the first two, it worked out very nicely for me.

12-3

At this point, I was pretty nervous. Playing for Top 8 is one thing, but not knowing if I could draw or not was much more nerve-wracking. Add to that the fact that Gaby was going to fly in if I made Top 8, but the last flight left within the hour, and I was a mess. I’m texting Gaby, saying that maybe I can draw, but don’t know, the round is going late, she’s debating calling an Uber on spec—it was wild.

Getting Pump-Faked

I determined that I could draw, unless I got paired down. I had good enough breakers that I’d sneak in at 7th or 8th seed, which was fine with me. I got paired against John Girardot, and we agreed to draw… or so we thought.

We were in the feature match area, but the results slips weren’t there, so we were told to go to the scorekeeper’s table. There, we filled out a result, but were informed that “something was wrong” and we would likely be getting re-paired. Apparently, the 1st table was the same two players who played the round prior, which clearly can’t happen. All of the top 4 tables were called back to the feature match, and pairings were read off individually. It was like picking teams in school, where players were called up and paired off pair by pair. Granted, it led to the correct pairings, which is important, but it was nerve-wracking.

The result was that I got re-paired against Jun Hao Tay, who could still draw. Phew. Crisis averted. Sadly, my previous opponent, who had already (nominally) intentionally drew into Top 8, was paired down, forced to play, and lost. That’s a brutal swing, even if the final pairings were the correct ones, and I really feel for John. Rough beats, but a 10th place finish is one to be proud of.

Ninth Time’s the Charm

So that was it. I finished 12-3-1, good for a 7th place finish, putting me in my ninth Top 8. I’m more amazed now than I was at the time (being sick really did a number on me), and despite not showing it, I was overjoyed, and still am. It still means a ton to me that I can compete on this stage, and I felt really good while playing. I felt prepared, dialed in, and in my element, which apparently is tapping Plains for cards that cost 1 mana.

Gaby also made her flight, barely, so that I’d have a cheering section during the Top 8. She actually made it by about two minutes, so even after I made Top 8 I had a nice little sweat going. It’s also pretty awesome that she flew out for less than 24 hours—given the three-hour flight each way, that’s quite the gesture. I hoped to reward that with a win, but I couldn’t have everything break my way.

Pat Cox rattled off seven wins on Day 2, finishing at 11-5, good for 10 points and at least one qualification. That made me super happy, as the PT isn’t the same without Pat, and I talk to him about Magic a ton. I’m glad he will be there to listen to me complain about losing in Cleveland. The rest of the team finished with Siggy at 10-6 and some 4-point finishes past that, which wasn’t exciting but enough to keep us near the top of the Team Series.

I didn’t play any games before the Top 8—the matchups were all ones we’d tested extensively, and after a fun team dinner, I crashed.

The Top 8 is all on camera, and pretty well covered. Plus, did anything really interesting even happen there?

OK, settle down, I’ll talk about a few things.

The Vampire Token That Never Was


Honestly, I didn’t pick up the Vampire token because I thought it would increase my win percentage. I was pretty sure that if I did nothing, Jeremy would attack with everything, because that was the right play. I picked up the token because Magic desperately needs more showmanship and buffoonery, not less, and I just love stuff like that. It made an exciting moment way more exciting, and led to one of the most memorable plays I’ve ever been a part of. I hope more people go down that road, as being mono-serious control isn’t nearly as fun to watch. It’s also worth clarifying that I have no interest in being bad-mannered to my opponents, and didn’t try to here. I just want Magic to be more fun and have more fun playing it, which I know sometimes will lead to me looking like (and being) a jackass.

The Mull to 4

This was pretty crushing. I’m lucky enough to have a lot of Pro Tour Top 8s, and I can say from experience that 2nd is the place that you feel the most. I’m not saying I’d rather get 4th than 2nd—I’m not stupid or crazy. What I am saying is that I still think about my loss to Nassif in Kyoto, and will think about this loss, whereas the other six times I got 3rd-8th don’t really register. I didn’t feel like winning the PT was within my grasp the same way, and it doesn’t sting nearly as much. Mulling to 4 sucked, but I don’t think the rules need an overhaul or anything. It was just bad luck, and part of what I signed up for.

14-3-1, 2nd Place

Well, that’ll about do it. I got lucky, played well, drafted solid decks, got lucky, and had a good team to back me up. That sometimes means everything breaks in your favor and you do well, and that certainly happened here. Thanks to everyone who followed along on Twitter—it really does make me happy when people cheer me on, and I’m glad I was able to (mostly) deliver this time around. I’m likely going to up my GP attendance some this year, as I really would love to compete at Worlds, and this gives me a real chance at doing so.