I feel like a soldier who has returned from battle, traumatized by the events that transpired at Pro Tour Dominaria. Friends were slain during the early rounds of the tournament as I told them “it’s okay, we’ll get them next time,” like a solider would tell his comrade as he bled out. I myself eventually fell with my team in round 8 of Day 1, missing Day 2 for the first time of a Pro Tour since Dragons of Tarkir. After Day 1, only our captain, Luis Scott-Vargas, was still fighting.
What Went Wrong with Team CFB at Pro Tour Dominaria?
Quite a few things. Some we could control, and some we couldn’t.
First of all, our Draft record was horrendous, which I think was due more to variance than lack of preparation. We thoroughly prepared for Dominaria Draft. After talking about the format with other teams, everyone was basically on the same page. We didn’t horrifically misevaluate cards or anything.
One factor that made extra Limited prep less relevant was the distance of the Pro Tour from the release of Dominaria. Since the Pro Tour was six or so weeks after the release, it was difficult to gain a significant edge on the field in either format. I’m used to having some story about how some card you’d never expect in a thousand Drafts to table actually tabled. Like Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa getting a sixth or seventh pick Golden Guardian pack 1 at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, a card we had as one of the best in the set. Usually, the field underprepares for Draft and overprepares for Standard, and we capitalize.
This time, a lot of people I talked to complained about how weak the packs were in their Drafts. I don’t think this was an anomaly. I think players were just fighting for the good cards, while on Magic Online some players were overvaluing weaker cards or staying on color when they shouldn’t. I was beyond worried after pack 1, and managed to turn it into a reasonable R/W Legends deck, but was still short a playable or two. I posted a 2-1 record, losing in the finals to a solid but beatable W/G creature deck that was light on removal.
This time, the field had weeks and weeks to Draft. Doing one Draft a day would have been enough to get up to speed. The difference between the knowledge you obtain on your 50th draft and 100th Draft is minimal. So in many ways, overpreparing for Draft could have been a pitfall, as it may have cost us valuable reps in Standard. In my opinion, we didn’t gain enough to spend as much time drafting as we did.
How Did We Mess up so Badly in Standard?
There were a lot of things going on. First of all, Dominaria is a powerful set, but it pales in comparison to Kaladesh block. We worked hard to explore all of the cards in Dominaria. Every card that stood out to any of us we tried, and tried, and tried. Mox Amber brews, legendary sorcery brews, The Antiquities War brews, and of course, in-depth exploration of Karn, Scion of Urza.
In doing so, we essentially ignored the reality of what was going on. Kaladesh, despite many bannings, is still dominating Standard, and until it rotates, we are better served living in the past than trying to embrace the future.
I spent a lot of my time testing a Mirari Conjecture deck brewed by Sam Black that I eventually deemed not good enough. After that, we found out quickly that Glint-Nest Crane was a great card, but only specifically paired with an artifact core. Decks like W/B Vehicles, and some R/B Vehicles, can use Karn’s ability to make Constructs semi-effectively, but they can’t push him to his maximum potential.
Matt Nass got to work and the first iteration of his deck looked like this:
From this we took the deck into Grixis colors, and after catching Josh Utter-Leyton’s eye, it turned into the U/G Construct deck that a lot of our testing team ended up playing at the Pro Tour. The theory behind it is that Llanowar Elves into Karn is one of the best ways to get Karn going before it’s too low-impact. The colored cards weren’t the driving force behind the deck—it was the Karn shell. Llanowar Elves may die to Goblin Chainwhirler, but getting the one or two turns of free mana out of it before you had to pass the “do you have it?” test was more than enough to have a huge impact even against the Chainwhirler decks. The deck performed rather admirably during a lot of testing, but we still had massive disagreements about what matchups were good, favorable, and outright bad.
Here’s the deck many members of Team CFB and UltraPro played at Pro Tour Dominaria:
Sam Pardee, 7-3 at Pro Tour Dominaria
With few sideboarded games, the deck was doing well against R/B, a deck we thought would be the most popular at the Pro Tour along with Mono-Red. The deck could manage the early threats. It didn’t care much about Rekindling Phoenix—its game plan was to race with Verdurous Gearhulk and Aethersphere Harvester, so the deck could usually keep a healthy life total if it could keep Aethersphere Harvester on the battlefield. With Glint-Nest Crane, it had access to both of those cards often.
Against control, the game plan was Scrap Trawler with Walking Ballista and Implement of Ferocity or Renegade Map, depending on which iteration of the deck we were playing, and grind them down while getting chip shots in. After sideboarding, Lifecrafter’s Bestiary did all of the heavy lifting.
But one of our major pitfalls in testing was that our stock decks for our gauntlets may have been outdated. If we had tried the deck more against updated R/B decks, we may have learned that the matchup wasn’t great, at best. Once R/B got to remove its bad cards like Bomat, all of its cards were high impact, and it quickly went from favorable to unfavorable.
Most control decks opted for more main-deck win conditions. Torrential Gearhulk gave the U/W decks more access to Settle the Wreckage, and with no way to interact outside of Metallic Rebuke, the Gearhulk itself, backed up by interaction, was a sizable clock. We couldn’t just sit back forever and grind out the control decks.
The green creature decks were naturally poor matchups. Their nut draws are faster and better, and they could often go bigger than you, and quicker. Winding Constrictor could dominate a game as we had no way to interact with it. Once we brought in Baral’s Expertise, it was a whole different story. We were able to manage the battlefield better, and when you’re able to cast Karn, Scion of Urza with it on an empty battlefield you can crank out your huge Constructs and gain the initiative in a battle of who has the biggest creatures.
All in all, we weren’t quite sure how good the deck was by the time of the deadline. Most of us, anyway. The last half hour before deck submission was absolutely crazy. People were asking each other what they were playing, people submitted and then re-submitted decks. I waited until the last minute, and decided I’d play a deck I was strongly against playing from the start: R/B Vehicles. I didn’t even know my deck list at the time of submission. Steve Rubin, Alexander Hayne, Martin Juza, Tom Martell, and Constructed master Matt Severa had spent some time working on the deck, and I trusted them. I simply erased Steve’s name, added mine, and planned on spending the next day testing the deck.
I don’t like playing public enemy number one, and I honestly thought (and still kind of do think) that the deck is not as good as its results. Maybe I’m foolish, but I spent the entirety of Thursday wishing that I had registered W/B Vehicles, a deck I was comfortable with and knew in and out. Playing the top deck at a Pro Tour is usually either very right, or very wrong. Every player comes into that tournament with a game plan against you. Every player has reps against your deck. So unless the deck is truly unbeatable, players will often have plans you may not have the tools to fight against.
Here’s the deck I was on about a week before submission, and that I somewhat regret not playing:
I felt more comfortable with W/B than B/R. W/B had a favorable Mono-Red matchup, and a close matchup against B/R. Cards like Cast Out and Ixalan’s Binding gave me ways to interact with planeswalkers and permanents like Aethersphere Harvester, whereas B/R would have to attack planeswalkers to get rid of them and rely on its few copies of Abrade and Unlicensed Disintegration to be rid of Vehicles. History of Benalia and Knight of Malice are great against U/W Control, a deck I thought would be more highly represented than it was. The only really mediocre card in B/W Vehicles is Toolcraft Exemplar, which I think is a necessary evil game 1, and a good way to get underneath control in post-board games. It comes out basically everywhere else for more removal and a slower game plan.
I think a lot of the team realized Thursday that this wasn’t going to go particularly well, and of course it didn’t.
Some of the mistakes we made:
1) Not working enough on stock decks
We should have focused more on the few stock decks of the format we didn’t necessarily think were excellent. We didn’t have anyone fixing U/W Control, we had no one truly working on R/B Vehicles until the last two days of testing, and we worked our early hours on G/B Constrictor, W/B Vehicles, and a ton of brews.
2) Trying too hard to break it
We spent too much time working on brews that we could have dismissed earlier. With access to Standard on Magic Online for six weeks, we should have trusted the Magic Online metagame more, and rule out decks that we didn’t see being played heavily. For instance, we spent an entire day on a Mono-Blue Tempest Djinn deck when we should have been able to put it aside faster. It was a deck on Magic Online, and we could have let the hive mind tune that deck for us if it was good.
3) Poor communication
We didn’t have enough access to each other’s data when we got in-house. We all stopped making posts for the most part in our team forum the second we all got into a room. This left us having to ask others for information, and others were left in the dark. If we combined our data earlier, we could have had a better idea of what we needed to test.
4) Relying on each other too much
I’m mostly blaming myself here. You should trust your teammates. I’m sure others on my testing team would agree that we expected others to do things we didn’t and that we could get the answers we needed if what we were working on fell through. This falls largely under the umbrella of poor communication, but for instance, I thought Martin Juza had an ironed out R/B list since he had been an advocate for it early in testing, but he was onto other decks as a lot of people on our testing team didn’t like R/B. I should have known he didn’t, and that’s on me.
5) Planning to use Thursday to test Constructed
I don’t blame us too much for this, since it only became clear after we had booked our travel plans. We do a lot of our work in-house, and try to get some reps with stock brews done before we leave, mostly on Magic Online. When the submission date was released, we had plenty of people landing on Tuesday, or getting in late Monday, and it essentially cut out 20-25% of our perceived testing time. I don’t like the Wednesday deck submission. I feel more stressed in the day off wondering about my deck choice while feeling helpless to change it. For those who are huge fans of it, they could always make the personal decision to submit their deck a day early, and plan for a relaxing day off on that Thursday.
I definitely would like to see the six weeks in between Pro Tours reduced. You’ll see a lot more tournaments like this where the metagame is solved quickly, and you get no diversity in decks. After a few more Pro Tours like this in a row, you’ll start to lose the excitement of the event until it fades into obscurity. I don’t want to see this happen, and I think the game will be better off if its top promotional tool is successful.
All in all, testing for this PT reaffirmed one thing for me: I love my team. Despite doing an obviously poor job, there’s no other people I’d rather die on the battlefield with than TeamCFB and Team UltraPRO. I felt a bit off the day or two after the Pro Tour. I wondered what I was doing and why I still do this. I spent two weeks away from my family, missed them dearly, and it was all for naught. I came to realize when I got home that I love my family and was so happy to be with them, but a part of me was still back on the battlegrounds with my fallen brothers. I miss them, and can’t wait to get back into the fight at GP Vegas. See you there.