Near the end of the final PPTQ season I noticed that I wouldn’t have a lot of opportunities to play anymore. Things were pretty busy for me, so my options were one final event right over the Iowa border, or try and drive up to Minneapolis to play in an LCQ. I wasn’t going to drive four hours for that shot, so it was do-or-die in Iowa.There was a bad GW Explore deck that I had a lot of fun with, and I’d practiced with it quite a bit in the past, so I just sleeved that up. This was the deck the Madison guys took to a GP last fall, that used Path of Discovery to get a massive number of explore triggers. This let you dig for specific cards quickly and make a bunch of huge lifelinkers. The draw to the deck was that you had the ability to go way over the top of all the grindy creature decks (GB), and could transform into an Ajani/Adanto Vanguard beatdown pile when you couldn’t count on your board sticking around. The metagame at the event was perfect for the deck, with my one terrible matchup, Teferi control, basically nonexistent. I had some close early rounds, and if I remember correctly, I went to time a lot.
After a few rounds I went out for a quick lunch and noticed that I had a lot of phone calls from my family. My grandmother had died that morning. She’d been ill for a long time so it wasn’t a shock or anything, but it was a huge blow. Magic is great distraction from real harrowing life issues, however, and I managed to pour all my mental energy into playing during each round, and I worked on booking a flight to the funeral in between. I think I actually played quite well, and I typically do play better when I’m not feeling my best. I over-socialize a bit more than is productive, so when I have a headache or I’m stressed about something that I want to ignore, I’m often good at putting more of myself into each game. I made it to the finals of the event and got paired against longtime Iowa friend Steve Nesteby on red aggro, a matchup I think is favorable when you both have average draws – but he smashed me. At the very end, he confessed that he thought I would put more effort into testing for the RPTQ, and that he’d be perfectly happy with the few hundred in credit that we had decided would go to second place. And just like that, I’d been gifted an invite to the RPTQ.
For the new standard format, I really liked the Esper control decks that were popping up. I built a list that I really liked, took it to a local 1k the week before the RPTQ, and lost in the semifinals to my friend Jeremy who was also on Esper control, but I liked his list much better. He was convinced that Thought Erasure was the best way to answer the biggest threats, and he was totally right. I was winning a lot more once I played the full set of discard spells. I also liked playing a few Notion Rains. One of the most common ways to lose with the deck was missing land drops 4-6 or missing a color, and the surveil from both of these cards mostly ensured that never happened.
I was a little worried about the GB + Hydroid Krasis decks that were becoming more popular, but Severa and I tested the matchup for a few hours during the week, and we found that going up to 3 Hostage Takers in the board of Esper Control was the best way to address the Krasis problem.I stuck with Esper in the RPTQ, and again faced the meta I expected. I played against a lot of GBu decks and our practiced gameplan worked out. I played against Mono U in the finals, a matchup I had no experience with. My friend Evan had done well with blue in the RPTQ, so we discussed my general approach and sideboard plan and everything worked out in my favor once I cut down on clunky disruption.
I did make one pretty huge mistake in the final game: I was way ahead on life thanks to an uncontested Lyra, but my opponent had a single creature on board. I played Hostage Taker, and with its trigger on the stack, he Dove Down. If he had played the spell with the pirate on the stack, I would have been forced to remove my own Lyra, but we both missed the interaction. I think I’m a huge favorite even if this does go badly because I can just remove my Hostage Taker and keep beating down, but I end up expending a lot more resources that way.
So I was again qualified for the Pro Tour. For a long time we had zero information, but eventually it was revealed that the formats would be perfect for me. I love modern and was happy to get to play it, and the prerelease limited format is something we’d been prepared for in Madison for a long time. We often build set cubes to start drafting a week early, and this would be a great final test of what we’d been doing.
I decided early on to start learning the “Best” deck, Izzet Phoenix. I actually flew out to GP Tampa to test it out, something I wouldn’t normally do, but I had a vacation day I needed to burn at work and the practice would be especially valuable. I reasoned that if I was able to do well with the deck, I could spend my time working on lot of other things and have Phoenix as a backup plan. And that’s exactly what happened.We learned about the new mulligan rule and began breaking out basically every deck we could think of that might benefit from the change. Severa had announced early on that he was just going to lock in GDS and get a ton of reps with it, and Sam did exactly the same thing with Lantern after top8ing Tampa. I churned through decks in a hurry. We tested out Grishoalbrand, Tron, Amulet, Ad Nauseum, Bogles, Cheerios, Jund Shadow, a few awful Mox Amber + Mox Opal Decks (“if someone breaks it and plays 8 moxes at the PT, it’s going to be us!”), and plenty of other piles.
The deck that snagged my attention for a long time was Amulet Titan. I was winning with it a lot in testing, but once I tried playing it on modo and had to be more precise about my triggers, and was playing against more hostile opponents, I started losing. I realized I had two options at this point: 1) Play nothing but Amulet Titan until the PT so that I could get in the reps to play it competently or 2) Keep learning all the decks in the format to better understand the metagame and look for something else I liked. It was also pointed out to me, around this time, that I might get totally slain by jetlag and be incapable of fully focusing on tight Amulet gameplay when it mattered most.
This is a good time to bring up my sleep preparation. I’d never traveled to Europe before, but I’d been to Hawaii and handled the sleep pretty well. I can usually operate on little rest, but I’m really not myself on less than 7 hours. I made a spreadsheet for myself of bedtimes and wakeup times (15 minutes earlier each day!), and slowly adjusted to Europe over the course of three weeks. Normally my alarm goes off at 6:30 am, but by the time we left for London I was easily getting up at 4. This meant that the 6 hour time shift would be cut down to 3.5 hours, which is much more manageable and much easier to slip into over 2-3 days.
Anyway, I tried out lots of decks against the metric of “does this beat both Tron and GDS” and basically nothing survived. Those two decks seemed best at punishing opposite extremes, and I figured that if something could beat both, it was probably worth spending time on. Humans was probably the closest thing, but I really just hate Aether Vial, and I knew I wouldn’t have fun playing it. In the end, I went back to Phoenix, but I made a lot of sideboard changes after what I’d learned. The two biggest takeaways were that neither Blood Moon nor Molten Rain were even close to good enough against Tron, and that Dredge was very beatable if you drew ANY hate cards, even if they were weaker ones. These points led to me playing Alpine Moon over some Blood Moons, and to playing a second Anger of the Gods over a second Ravenous Trap.
Alpine Moon was substantially better vs Tron. The main thing you needed was to pressure them while disrupting their mana. All the other options cost 3, and that was far too much. It slowed you down just as much as it slowed them, while Alpine Moon could slot in anywhere you had an extra mana. The second Anger was mostly there to account for the uptick in Humans, while being *enough* vs Dredge. All of these calls ended up being great for the real metagame, and I think my time spent trying out decks helped me tune my final list a lot.
We built our set cube the Friday before London and got in something like nine or ten drafts over the course of the weekend. This part of testing was espcially fun. Folks from all over the midwest came into town, and we regularly had two full 8-person drafts going at once. Draft weekends are often taxing because some people never really figure out what they’re doing, and will burn through a lot of time and money without making progress. This time it was much smaller and more relaxed, with a lot more discussion, and because we weren’t playing for anything (we usually draft rares at the end), there was no pressure to finish playing with terrible decks.
We did a few drafts on-site before the PT, and I noticed that some of my grindy decks had a hard time closing, but I wasn’t really sure how to fix the problem. There weren’t a lot of big, hard to kill threats in the format that could actually push through a board stall. This theme continued throughout the weekend.My first draft pod had Steve Rubin, one French player I recognized, and no one else I knew. It also only had 7 players, which meant it was impossible to 0-3. I started off my draft with a Spark Double, then immediately got passed a Teferi. A good start! I got a third pick Sorin and we were off to the races. Sam and I had discussed right before the event that a lot of people who hadn’t drafted a lot might be afraid to take rares they hadn’t played with, and it seemed like that was the case. I expected to be an Esper control deck and picked up some late fixing so that I could play any bombs I opened. And then I got passed Widespread Brutality, Nicol Bolas, the “Bitterblossom”, and Bolas’s Citadel by the end of the draft. My power level was through the roof.
And then I got the round one bye! I was feeling great about my draft. My first real opponent had a RG deck, but I was able to dismantle him in game one, going Teferi > Spark Double > removal spell > Bolas. We both agreed my deck was insane, but in game two he had a two-drop and a Living Twister, which took a lot of resources to remove, and then he played a Chandra. I couldn’t keep my planeswalkers on board and got run over. In game 3 he went 2-drop, Twister, Chandra, Tolsmir, and I wasn’t close to being in the game.
Round 3 was mostly the same. Opponent was on UW fliers and I didn’t have the means to protect my walkers or my life total the way I would have hoped. Game 3 was a close one though, and we ground out forever and got into topdeck mode. He hit a single creature and a few lands while I hit all air. I checked the top of my deck after the game because I’m stupid, and saw the Aid the Fallen that would have returned Bolas and Spark double and easily put the game away.
My realistic goal for the event was to finish 11-5, which would qualify me for the next Mythic Championship. This still seemed in reach – if I could go 5-3 after a bad a draft, certainly I could go 6-2 the next day. We fueled up on curry from a place called Pier Masala, which we’d also gone to the night before, and it was fantastic. The curry in London doesn’t fuck around, and this rivaled the very best I’d ever had in the States.
My second draft was similar. My pod had Corey Burkhart, Riku Kumagi, and no one else I really knew. I first picked a Tamiyo’s Epiphany out of a pack that had basically nothing, and then got passed a Time Wipe. I don’t love straight UW as an archetype, so I knew I’d likely again be in a control pile. In pack two I opened a Jace and immediately got passed a Tamiyo, so a plan of self-mill control seemed pretty reasonable. I was again short on real ways to pressure my opponent. One angle I did have was Huatli. Every creature in my deck had more toughness than power so Huatli actually gave me a big boost. I had several 1/3 fliers, 3/4 griffins, and even the 3/6 giant that gains 5 life.
I was paired against Corey in the first round, and I stole game one by decking myself with Jace. In games two and three he was able to grind me out with two copies of Enter the God Eternals, and when I was forced to pull the trigger on my Time Wipe, he followed up with Command the Dreadhorde – not a beatable card for my mill deck.
In the second round I played vs WR aggro, and he couldn’t beat either Time Wipe or the lifegain giant + Huatli. 11 life in one turn is a lot.
The third round was against Riku, and we had two back and forth games that only left us with about 8 minutes on the clock for the third. We got in about 15 quick, do-nothing turns, but I had most of the lands in my deck in play while he only had four, and I couldn’t keep up with the density of his draw.
Another 1-2 meant I’d have to win out in order to qualify for Barcelona.
I sat down for the first round of Modern against fellow Midwest grinder Matt Hoey. He was on humans, which I was pretty comfortable with, but I flooded out comically in game one playing zero spells multiple turns in a row, and then missed my second land drop after 5 looks in game two before getting locked out by Thalia. I might have been able to draw my fourth land on turn 6-ish to play an Anger of the Gods and survive, but I bricked and died.
The next round was probably my worst played of the event, against Brad Nelson. I had given up a little now that I was dead for my goals, and played without any kind of real plan against his Jund deck. Instead I just did some fine see-spell/play-spell magic and he picked me apart.
I took a short walk after this and got some caffeine, and decided that even though I was dead for another PT, I should really focus and use this opportunity to play the best I could. It had been four years since my last PT, I had no idea how long it would be until my next one, and I really ought to finish strong.
I had a great match against Steve Rubin next, on GDS. It was a matchup I’d played a LOT against Severa so I was really well prepared, but his game plan post-board was really unique. He’d brought in the UB Extraction card and started stripping my win cons out of my deck, so I was suddenly left with only one crackling drake as a way to win. Luckily I had an active ascension, so I was able to find it almost immediately, and he didn’t draw a way to remove it. Steve is a great player and is one of the nicest people I’ve had a chance to play against, so this was a nice way to ease back in after titling off a bit.
My last two matches weren’t anything special for the most part. I drew hate cards and won my post-board games against Titan Shift, and then won a Phoenix Mirror with the exact same maindeck 60 after drawing all the best cards for the matchup. That last opponent was also very nice, and gave me some Russian chocolate as a gift that actually tasted pretty good.
So I finished 9-7, which wasn’t the best result, but it was hard to be upset. I was very happy with my modern performance and preparation, but fell short on limited. I would play my same phoenix 74 (might have played a Gut Shot over the second Lightning Axe) if I had to do the tournament again, though I would also give a look to the new 4-Ascension builds that have been popping up. The limited portion was tough. I went a little overboard, and the one choice I look back on with wonder was a Bolas Citadel over Kasmina while deep in Grixis Control. The one game I played the Citadel it completely took over, but there were also another time or two when I just couldn’t spend my turn putting it out.
GP Madison is next (reading this again right before I post it, we did good! 29th place!), so I’ll be looking to make some adjustments based on what I’ve learned. After that, I need to shift my focus back to standard to attempt to get back on the “Mythic Championship” train. I feel like I’m playing good magic right now, and I’m confident I’ll be around again soon.