The World Championship is a long journey. As a long-time pro, I have only played the current version of the World Championships once. That was in 2013, when I lost in the Top 4 to Shahar and his 17 Lightning Bolts. That tournament was by far the most fun I have ever had playing competitive Magic. To be frank, I have cashed at a lot of Magic tournaments, and grinding those events out just doesn’t do it for me anymore. I’m not hating on less experienced players. When I cashed my first couple of Grand Prix back in 1971, it felt special. But that was a long, long time ago.
Now what I enjoy most is playing big matches, with a lot on the line, against great players. Or to be more concise, the Magic World Championships. In the years since my 2013 appearance, I had good and bad seasons, but not the type of season I needed to qualify. It took 5 years, but finally, this year, I made it back to Worlds.
The 2017-2018 season started out well for me. At GP Phoenix, not only did I finish 12-3 for 3 Pro Points, but I also met Rachel Otto, who would soon become my amazing girlfriend and a huge source of support over the year. At Pro Tour Breaking Bad, I had a solid finish of 11-5, and the next weekend I picked up a 2nd place finish at GP Atlanta. With 3 quarters still remaining, I had 19 Pro Points. I had a few more good finishes at Grand Prix and another 11-5 at PT Rivals of Ixalan, but was still short as the year was coming to a close. The last weekend before the cutoff, my team finished 2nd at PT 25th Anniversary, leaving me with 66 Pro Points at the end of the season and locking my at-large slot for Worlds. Thanks again Martin and Wrapter (mostly Wrapter) for helping me get there!
Having successfully qualified, it was time to start preparing. My testing process for every event is to generally play however many Magic Online Leagues I decide to make the time for based on how much time I have, how important the event is to me, and how much I enjoy the format. While I love Dominaria Draft since it’s my favorite Limited format since I started playing on the Pro Tour again in 2009, I’d already done hundreds of Dominaria Drafts. I was already well-practiced and didn’t need to play much more of that, which meant that my Worlds prep was about three weeks of MTGO Standard Leagues, all day, every day.
My opinion on Standard is this: R/B is the Jund of the format. It plays a lot of close games, and the choices you make in deck construction are only worth a few percentage points. It is a safe, reliable deck you can never go wrong with, but it is also nothing special. I already knew which cards were good and bad in the mirror, so if testing other options didn’t go well, I could make a B/R list tuned for the mirror pretty easily. Both Greg and Javier did an excellent job with that and got the results they deserved, compared to those who played slightly more standard R/B lists that we might have used in a GP, but that were a little less tuned for the mirror.
I played everything you could possibly imagine, because I wanted to understand every deck before deciding on my final list. As Paul Rietzl tweeted before the event, an average player has an equity that is negative in a GP, $600 or so in a PT, and $12,000 or so in Worlds. Worlds is the real deal. Worlds is how I wish every competitive Magic tournament could be for a talented competitive player. I would wake up and think about what I would test every day, and I was excited to do so.
With the format solved, it was time to metagame. U/B and Esper Control were close but just barely not good enough. Mono-Red Aggro was the best deck in Standard and a slight favorite against B/R, but play skill was close to irrelevant. If you draw 3-5 lands it feels like playing Modern because the cards all feed off of each other and the deck is very focused. Get stuck on 2 or draw 6+ lands and the deck is hot garbage. I generally never run decks like that in Grand Prix where I want to be able to use decision making to gain win percentage. In Pro Tours, I will run a deck like that when it is very good, such as the two times I played Mono-Red Aggro—once in Vancouver when Joel Larsson won and Hour of Devastation where Paulo won with our red list. This red list is not good enough that I would have ever considered it for a Grand Prix or a Pro Tour, but at Worlds, where everyone is great, it makes sense to run the best deck in a vacuum even if my decisions matter very little.
With how many Chainwhirlers I expected to face in the tournament, Viashino Pyromancer wasn’t an acceptable inclusion. I tried cutting them for more burn spells, but the deck was too easily taken apart by one or two removal with that low a creature count.
Then I found Rigging Runner. Rigging Runner isn’t amazing, but with 12 one-drops you should always have something else to play first. Then a 1-mana 2/2 first strike is a pretty good card against Scrapheap Scrounger/Goblin Chainwhirler decks. Now I had enough creatures that didn’t die to Chainwhirler to play a rush/burn deck, and my decision was made.
Rachel and I arrived in Vegas on Tuesday. I planned to jam as many MTGO Leagues as I could to make sure that I wasn’t crazy for submitting Rigging Runners in the World Championships and to celebrate Athena’s birthday by stuffing our faces at Caesars Palace’s Bacchanal Buffet (or as I like to call it, the happiest place on earth). Both Rigging Runner and Bacchanal lived up to expectations. A great day was had by all, but while leaving Bacchanal, I felt disgusting. Stuffing my face to the point where I felt like I was exploding was wonderful, as always, but knowing I would be submitting a 22 Mountain, 15 one-drop, mono-red list in the Magic: the Gathering World Championships didn’t feel as good. As gross as it felt, I was confident that it was the right deck choice.
On Wednesday I woke up feeling a little sick, not because of mono-red this time, but because of some sort of bug. I just figured that I’d blow my nose a little and it would be no big deal. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s a week later now as I write this and I’m still coughing up disgusting blobs of mucus (you’re welcome for the visual). I got worse Thursday and only slightly better Friday and Saturday. I was very sick during the competition. Luckily for me, I was playing a deck that often finished matches in five minutes and where play skill barely mattered, so I don’t think it affected my performance much.
Thursday was an uneventful day. I did a coverage interview and played a few practice Standard Leagues and Dominaria Draft Leagues on MTGO and tried to take it easy before Worlds. Though still sick, I did manage to go to bed early and get a good night of rest to prepare me for battle the next day. Friday morning, I woke up, showered, had my coffee, and walked over to the site. I was focused on the tournament I was about to play and didn’t check Twitter.
When I arrived at the site, Martin Juza informed me that GerryT had announced that he was skipping the event to protest the state of professional Magic. Some peers have complained that this overshadowed the tournament, but I think what Gerry did was very brave. While we don’t know exactly what causes what in terms of growth and sales, the Pro Tour was a very early institution in Magic and one that has played a large role in its growth and success over its 25-year history. Prizes on the Pro Tour have barely gone up over this long period while sales have soared. Hopefully Gerry’s protest draws enough attention to these issues that we can see some substantial increases in the Pro Tour prize pools and Platinum/Gold club benefits.
The tournament itself began with a Dominaria Draft. My first pack had two cards I considered windmill slams: Fight with Fire and Josu. You can get a lot of extra value in Dominaria Draft out of late-game bomb creatures, because the format is very slow and has a lot of recursion, so I took Josu. In the rest of pack 1 I took a Blessed Light, Skittering Surveyor, Rona, and a couple of other black, white, and blue cards.
Pack 2 I opened Lyra. That pretty much locked me in on B/W/u. Yes, that’s two-for-two on broken mythics. I spent the rest of the Draft prioritizing ways to find and recur them. Cards like Dark Bargain, Soul Salvage, Windgrace Acolyte, and Rona all go way up when you have cards like Josu and Lyra.
I got the bye round 1, then won some very tough matches against Allen Wu and Luis Salvatto. I was stoked to start out Worlds 3-0 in one of the most skill intensive (I skillfully opened two mythics) and fun Limited formats in a long time before getting to playing my super high variance Standard deck.
In the next four rounds of Standard I went an almost textbook 2-2. In the two matches I lost, my land draws were not good at all, and in the two matches I won, they were perfect. Finishing Day 1 at Worlds 5-2 was excellent. The record needed to Top 4 would most likely be 9-5 or 10-4, and after starting out 4-0, my tiebreakers were likely to be very good. I finished the night by having a nice dinner at Firefly with some of the coverage people, EFro, and Athena, then went to bed. I didn’t sleep nearly as well as I did Thursday night. I don’t know how people sleep well before Day 2 of a big tournament when you have a good record, but if anyone wants to let me in on the secret I would greatly appreciate it.
Saturday morning started with another Dominaria Draft, where I put together another very good deck. This time it was a ramp deck with Llanowar Elves, Elfhame Druid, two Grow from the Ashes, Siege-Gang Commander, Grunn, Thorn Elemental, and plenty more. I lost two very close three-game matches to John Rolf and Javier Dominguez, and beat Sigirist. I was upset at this point. I thought I would either 2-1 or 3-0 and be in great shape for Standard, where I expected to get some losses when my draws were bad. Fortunately, Javier and Gregorz Kowalski continued to destroy the whole tournament, so 6-4 was actually a pretty good record and it left me tied for third with a bunch of people. I had the best breakers of the bunch at the time.
My bad luck in that Dominaria Draft was completely reversed in the Standard portion. I drew well all four rounds. I won a close match against Matt Nass where in game 3 he had about 10 chances to find a Fog and failed. I then played very good back-to-back matchups to Ken’s Mono-Blue Aggro deck and Allen Wu’s U/B Midrange deck. I managed to 4-0 the Standard portion, leaving me 10-4 and in 3rd place at the end of Day 2.
In the Top 4 I was matched up with the 2nd seed, Greg, who was playing B/R. I had already played against it 100 times between online and the tournament, so I didn’t bother playing a single game Saturday night. I knew that the matchup was very close to 50/50. If I dumped my hand into a Hazoret I almost couldn’t lose, and if I didn’t I almost couldn’t win. There wasn’t much to learn. There was, however, tacos and beer, and then Cirque du Soleil with Rachel, Martin, and Laura. It was great not thinking about Magic before the Top 4 and I felt at ease going into my Top 4 match Sunday.
Waking up Sunday morning, it was time to hope that the 50/50 coin flip would go in my direction. It didn’t. For anyone who didn’t watch it, my draws were atrocious, and Greg destroyed me. I always look back and wonder about the big matches where I might have cost myself the game, like game 5 in the Top 4 of Pro Tour Gatecrash against Joel, or my game 1 in my last Top 4 at Worlds against Shahar. This Top 4 was a match I will never think about again. There was nothing I could have done. I had a great 6-2 run with a high variance deck in the Swiss and my draws were just not there in the Top 4. After that match, I got Firefly again with friends and hung out with people at the hotel for our last night in Las Vegas before we all headed home the next day.
In the end, I was happy with my choices and play. Javier is a great champion who couldn’t have deserved it more after coming up just short last year. Hopefully everyone who didn’t already know who Greg was does now. He’s an incredibly good player and I wasn’t shocked at all to see him shine on MTG’s biggest stage. Thanks to EFro for helping me with some Standard prep, my incredible girlfriend Rachel for her endless help and support, and everyone who follows pro Magic, likes my work, and supports my career. Worlds is the most fun tournament of the year, and I really hope to get back there again soon.