The bye system is not ideal for me. Most of my play these days is either online or in low-stakes events at my LGS. I get out to as many PTQs and GPs as I can, but as my age increases my ability to set aside a whole weekend (or weekend day, in the case of PTQs) decreases, and the opportunities for me to farm Planeswalker Points become more and more scarce. Such is the plight of the aging amateur Magic player.
And so it was, I hit the road to Toronto with nothing but a deck box filled with sleeves and a couple changes of clothes. Zero byes, but a gut instinct that I “got” Theros Sealed, which gave me a great shot at running the table Day One and getting to the draft portion. I’ve played enough to understand the pace of the format, and the PTQs I did attend this season have taught me a ton. I was confident.
I took a last crack at byes on Friday in a Sealed grinder. I didn’t open the cards I wanted, but the deck I ended up with seemed reasonable. I won my first round and second, and succumbed in the Top 8 to a player with a much stronger pool. I resolved to do this the hard way.
Saturday morning, the event got a late start. Which is to say, the event began Saturday afternoon. I don’t want to say that this was the worst run event I’ve ever been to, but it was certainly not the best. Throughout Day One, each time Scott Marshall, the head judge, took a few minutes to remind us to play efficiently (because the judges didn’t want to be here all night), I could hear the audible groans around me, as we all quietly protested the idea that this was somehow *our* fault.
My pool was solid. It was a difficult build, because Theros is fundamentally difficult to build with. This set is about average in power level, if not slightly below. Even the bombs are merely decent, though there are a few stand-outs like [ccProd Elspeth, Sun’s Champion]Elspeth[/ccProd]. Generally speaking, without a strong pull from one of those bombs, you’re going to have a plethora of options in your Sealed pool, because most of your builds are going to look just okay. It’s very easy to make a good deck in Theros Sealed. It’s very difficult to make the right deck.
I opened the following:
Of the five colors, my strongest draw was to black—it has the best removal in [ccProd]Sip of Hemlock[/ccProd], [ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd], [ccProd]Lash of the Whip[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Keepsake Gorgon[/ccProd], and it has [ccProd]Read the Bones[/ccProd] (basically the perfect card for Sealed). It has reasonable creatures in Harpies and the enchantment/creatures, and has [ccProd]Gray Merchant of Asphodel[/ccProd] for the close-out potential. It’s also my deepest color, so it appeared at first glance to be the best starting point for the deck.
I spent the next 15 minutes waffling between the blue and white cards.
On one hand, you have [ccProd]Prognostic Sphinx[/ccProd], a certifiable bomb. You have a [ccProd]Griptide[/ccProd], one of the best “removal” cards in the set. And then it dries up. On the other hand, you have a pair of [ccProd]Hopeful Eidolon[/ccProd]s, a [ccProd]Last Breath[/ccProd], a [ccProd]Divine Verdict[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Heliod’s Emissary[/ccProd]. I struggled to determine which was going to be the more reasonable color, and fought to be able to play the Sphinx—what I felt was the marquee card of the pool.
Ultimately, I made the decision to abandon the blue and focus on a streamlined B/W deck.
Let’s get this right out there—I think this build was close to correct, but most definitely not correct. Note that there is only a single [ccProd]Scholar of Athreos[/ccProd] in the deck, of the pair in the pool. Wrong. Note that the [ccProd]Ray of Dissolution[/ccProd] is not in the final build. Probably wrong. I undervalued Scholar, plain and simple. I wasn’t certain if he was good at all, or if I was just cutting a Horned Turtle. It took me one game before I realized my error, and I sided the second Scholar in for every single round. He was an utter blowout at all points, either clogging up the ground in the early to midgame, or coming down late and swinging the life totals. One game, he actually did 18 points of damage on his own—I killed the opponent with a [ccProd]Sip of Hemlock[/ccProd] once they finally answered him.
As for the Ray, I think there are plenty of targets in Sealed, and the instant speed paired with the 3 life is enough to put it over the top to the main deck. Aside from these two issues, I think I made some smart decisions—such as leaving the [ccProd]Phalanx Leader[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Favored Hoplite[/ccProd] in the sideboard. These two were contrary to the goals of the deck, and without an Ordeal to mount on either, it was much more unlikely for them to run away with the game early. Combined with the extreme pressure having a WW two-drop puts on my mana base, I decided it was better left as-is.
Given the information I have today, if I could rebuild the deck I would have the same list with:
-1 [ccProd]Gods Willing[/ccProd]
+1 [ccProd]Scholar of Athreos[/ccProd]
The cut for Ray is more difficult, but it may be either the Spear (which is good but not amazing in this deck) or the [ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd] (which was cut against anything aggressive anyway).
The next point of note is that I am effectively playing no 1- or 2-drops. With only a few exceptions, Theros Sealed is not aggressive. We all know stories about a player dying on turn 4 to the nut Ordeal draw, but those draws are much less likely in Sealed, and the decks able to capitalize on them are much less likely as well. It takes a very specific pool to be super aggressive, and if that happens (in game 1), I have the ability to sideboard and mulligan around it for the remaining two. Much more often, the decks are midrangey, looking much more like your stereotypical Limited decks than Zendikar draft decks. It is for this reason, as well, that I chose to draw first whenever possible.
I got a lot of confused looks from opponents when I chose to draw. When your game plan involves staying alive long enough to grind them out with Scholar, the extra card is worth way more than the attack step. When these games usually went, “land, go” for the first three turns, my opponents began to get my point.
Once the day actually got its start, my matches all basically went the same. I got the impression right away that my array of removal spells was going to carry the day, and that I had enough life gain to keep me live until well beyond the point where my opponents could find a way to win. My most frequent win conditions were Scholar of Athreos, followed by [ccProd]Sentry of the Underworld[/ccProd] mounted with a [ccProd]Hopeful Eidolon[/ccProd]. The regenerating Baneslayer was a hell of a card, and overperformed by a large margin.
I picked up my first loss in round 2, to the worst play mistake I’ve made in a very long time.
The board is nearly clear, with a [ccProd]Disciple of Phenax[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Arbor Colossus[/ccProd] on his side, and a non-monstrous Gorgon on mine. I read him for [ccProd]Boon of Erebos[/ccProd], which he’s left a black mana up for over the course of a few turns. We’ve been playing chicken with my Gorgon, but it appears (now that he’s hit the mana to monstrous and keep the Boon up) that he’s ready to bite. He attacks with his Colossus. Before blockers, I activate my Gorgon. He responds to the activation by casting Boon on his Arbor Colossus. This is a clear mistake—if he waits until the monstrous ability triggers, I have to target the Colossus. Now, I can simply let the Boon resolve, let the activation resolve, and only then does the triggered ability hit the stack and I can just kill a different creature. So I do just that—killing his Disciple. Then I block the Colossus with my deathtouch Gorgon.
Except, the Colossus has a regeneration shield on it from Boon, that hasn’t been eaten by the trigger from Gorgon. Too late, I realize my mistake. I made the right play for the way I expected these events to unfold, but the wrong play for how they actually unfolded. Rather than being tricky and trying to “get” my opponent for his mistake, I should have simply targeted the Colossus as expected and let the regeneration shield remove it from combat for the turn. Then, the next turn he is still stuck looking for removal for my Gorgon, as we’re caught in a standoff until he finds a way through. I have much longer to find a removal spell for the Colossus myself, as I’m not on a two-turn clock. Instead, I draw a brick and die. I was tilted hard by this error, and essentially gave my opponent the match on a silver platter. I am sure that had this mistake not been made, I would win this round (if perhaps not in two games), but it left me no margin of error and I lost a squeaker in game 2 with him at less than 5 life.
I took a few minutes to walk off the loss. The single worst feeling when coming into a Grand Prix with no byes is to lose one of the first three rounds. It makes you feel miserable inside—like maybe you aren’t good enough to deserve the byes anyway, but if you had them, you know you’d avoid all this stress. I’ve been to a lot of GPs over the course of the last decade—in only one have I had three byes. It was the easiest Day 2 I’ve made ever, and knowing how hard it is when you play all nine rounds makes me frustrated with every early loss. I shook off the loss as best I could—refusing at the time to even discuss the mistake I knew I made with my friends, and resolved to tighten up for the rest of the day.
And quite a day it was. After recognizing that I lost to myself, and putting my faith in my deck if not my mental state, I rattled off three wins in a row. Some of the game states were interesting, some of the decks were pretty solid, but all in all I felt like my deck was much better than the ones I was facing off against. Many of them were three or four colors, and the opponent would get punished for their greed by missing on colors into the late game. Or they would have no way to deal with a regenerating flier. Or they’d be cold to a Scholar, with [ccProd]Divine Verdict[/ccProd] in hand. I was winning the grind, and I was enjoying it.
In round 6, I played a fellow from the deep, deep North. He lived so far up there that if you ask him for directions, he just says “Go South.” It’s all South. He said he drove over 10 hours South for this event. That’s the equivalent distance of driving from Toronto to Washington DC. Except you go the wrong direction. He had a thick Quebecois accent, but I’m pretty sure he said his uncle works for Santa Claus.
The important thing about this round is that I’m an idiot. My opponent had a very reasonable W/B deck, which was potentially as good or better than mine. In our first game, I managed to leverage my removal spells against his fliers and take the game down with Sentry. In our second, my back was against the wall with the ground stalled, looking for an answer to his [ccProd]Wingsteed Rider[/ccProd] enchanted with [ccProd]Hopeful Eidolon[/ccProd]. I drew Erebos and played it, ready to draw some cards to find an answer. He attacked for 4, and went to 12 life, and I slammed back with my team and dropped [ccProd]Insatiable Harpy[/ccProd] to balance things out. I passed the turn, he drew…
And then I realized Erebos has text.
I immediately informed my opponent that we had allowed him to gain life with Erebos in play, and called the judge. I figured that there wasn’t a lot about the game state that had changed, so I expected them to correct the life totals and we move on. This is not what happened. The judge ruled that we had come too far to rewind (as both players had drawn a card and an attack had been made), and they were leaving the game state as-is. I appealed. Scott Marshall upheld the ruling, and though I really didn’t understand the issue (and for the record, my opponent didn’t either, and was perfectly willing to just correct the life totals and move on), I didn’t want to argue beyond Scott’s ruling, so we continued play. Over the next turns, I gained a bit of life with the Harpy and drew into a removal spell for the [ccProd]Wingsteed Rider[/ccProd], putting my opponent on the back foot and eventually getting the W. There were no hard feelings, he said he thought I did exactly the right thing.
In fact, it’s worth pointing out that of all the high-level events I’ve ever played at, I had more pleasurable opponents in this Grand Prix than any before. Literally every single person I played was cordial, positive, and happy, and it made the event feel much more enjoyable than it could have been otherwise. I don’t know if it was because most were Canadian, or because we all were frustrated by the late start and slow pace of the event, but every single person I played against this weekend was a fantastic opponent, win or lose. Thanks everyone, you ruled.
After this round, I went to the judge station to ask more about the ruling. I still didn’t understand why they weren’t able to just fix the life totals, and now that the match was over, I thought it was a more appropriate time to have that conversation. Scott was busy, but another judge (my sincere apologies for forgetting your name) explained the situation—the nutshell version is that they’ve made the hard-line determination to either back everything up, or nothing. Since we’ve moved too far in the game progression (one full turn cycle) from the error, they won’t back up both draws—even though there was no on-board interaction, too many decision points have been passed. I don’t know that I agree with this in the specific context of this exact scenario, but I agree with it in the abstract, so I’m satisfied. Even had I lost the game, I think I still would have agreed eventually, because really it was my bonehead error that would have cost me. Strike 2.
Rounds 7 and 8 were a return to form for me and the deck, as we battled opponents who seemed to have difficulty fighting through our removal suite. In round 8 I faced my first aggressive deck (though it was RB Minotaurs, rather than the 1-drop into Ordeal version), and in my opponent’s own words, “sometimes your deck just loses to Horned Turtle.” Scholar of Athreos won in a whole new way to lock me into Day 2.
It’s always a wash of relief that comes over when you hit that point. I can’t stand the sweat of playing round 9 with your back against the wall, knowing you’re in Thunderdome with your opponent and you’re both desperate to succeed at your opponent’s expense. I’ve been there, and I hate it. I’d rather just know I’m set, and try to lock in a good record for the draft portion before heading out for the night.
My final round of Day 1 was against Phil Samms, and only one of us showed up. Unfortunately, it was him. In game 1 on the draw, I mulled to five before keeping the third one-lander in a row. I did my best to struggle back into the game, but PSamms also had an X-1 deck, so it was a battle I was destined to lose. In our second game, I kept a hand of 2 Plains, Charlie the Unicorn, Read the Bones, and three dudes. I died with all of those cards save the pair of Plains in my hand. A disappointing end to a surprisingly excellent day, but at long last I had a loss I couldn’t blame myself for.
Unfortunately, this meant it was time to draft. I had approximately 1 draft under my belt with Theros, and while I did get a crash course from hotel-mate Ian Bartolomei (who had hundreds of times as much experience with the draft format), I still felt horribly underprepared.
It showed. My first deck was a mediocre W/G brew that was stuck halfway between an aggressive heroic deck and a ramp deck with little to ramp into. I lost the first two rounds of the draft in resounding fashion, and with it all hopes of a money finish. I salvaged a win in the third round to prevent an 0-3 disaster, and tried to just focus on the second draft. When the pack presented me with a Polukranos, I felt like I was in it. I ended up G/B grind, with a [ccProd]Bow of Nylea[/ccProd] alongside the PK, and a trio of [ccProd]Pharika’s Mender[/ccProd]s to cycle them back over and over again. I ended up 2-1 in the second draft, losing the second round to an extremely aggressive, nearly mono-red deck. He had three [ccProd]Akroan Crusader[/ccProd]s in the first two turns of game 1, with enough gas to kill off every roadblock I put in his way. In the second game, after forcing him to use his Chain on a 3/3, I slammed Polukranos. On his turn, he [ccProd]Threaten[/ccProd]ed it, scryed to the top, and attacked with it. Then, he used his second Chained to the Rocks on it. Yup.
Overall, I think that a few major mistakes kept me out of contention for prizes with this one—the gameplay error all the way back in round 2, and the strategic mistake of being underprepared for the draft format itself. Trying to learn how to evaluate cards on the fly is nearly impossible in a format with as much nuance as Theros, and it comes with no surprise that the first draft deck was a disaster. I’m both disappointed by the fact that there are no more Grand Prix this season to use my new knowledge (and that the PTQ format is changing as well), and excited that there are plenty left in the block. Despite finishing outside the money yet again (it’s getting old), every GP I attend reignites a passion for high-level competition, and I find myself scouring the schedules for the next opportunity.
Thanks again to all the great opponents I had this weekend!
If you think you’d have built the Sealed pool differently, I’d be glad to hear your thoughts. Post the changes you’d make and why in the comments!