People usually get their writing careers started off after they have an impressive finish at the Pro Tour and some editor will reach out to them and ask them to write about their experience. Naturally, fresh off my impressive 3-5 finish at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, I reached out to some editor and decided to start off my new career in writing here. I’ve written many articles in the past, but after a while I lost the enthusiasm that made it fun for me, so I took an extended break.
I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be happy and some answers I saw repeatedly were to volunteer, foster community, and help others. I’ve dedicated a huge chunk of my life to trying to become to best Magic: The Gathering player in the world; now I want to spend some time encouraging others to go far in the game and possibly feel some of the satisfaction and fulfillment that succeeding at tournaments has brought me.
If you know anything about me as a player, then you probably know I’m one of the most competitive players in all of Magic. All I care about is what will give me the best chance to win and I don’t care how much fun I have with my deck while I do it or how interesting the games are. So fair warning – if you’re taking advice from me, you’d better be prepared to play to win. I sometimes even jokingly remind my friends at the Prerelease, “we play to win in this family.”
In a way, there are only two different kinds of strategies in Magic: how you build your deck and how you play the games. I’m a firm believer that for every Pro Tour, there’s a field of decks which can potentially be predicted – by the Magic Online metagame and human behavior – and there’s a combination of cards you can have that will give you the best chance to win against that field. Often the most successful players have identified the correct archetype but they would have changed a few cards based on their experience. As you can see, there are countless opportunities to make a mistake and the lesson here is that games of Magic are decided by who made the least.
My goal as a player is to make the fewest mistakes as humanly possible. But enough about me as a player for right now. Let’s talk about what I played at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan:
Going into the Pro Tour, I was allergic to the idea of playing a Tron deck because I felt it was inconsistent and, to be honest, I believe I have a skill edge on the majority of the field, so I didn’t want to play a deck that loses to itself some portion of the time. If I can instead play a deck that can keep more hands and have consistency issues less often, I feel like I’m better-equipped to play longer interactive games and give my opponents more opportunities to make mistakes.
It’s actually funny because my best friend, teammate, and roommate, William Jensen, won the World Championship last year with Temur Energy, but a few days before the tournament, he wasn’t sure if he should play Temur Energy or Ramunap Red. I urged him to play Temur Energy because I thought he was just a way better player than everyone else and he would win as long as his hand didn’t dictate how to play the games. As it turns out, Temur Energy was just a way better deck than Ramunap Red and everything else – so much better they needed to ban it – but the underlying point remains the same: identify your strengths and play to them.
Once I got down to heavy preparation, it seemed like I was mostly wrong about the consistency of Tron, and pretty much across the board every deck has a similar fail rate. Most Modern decks are sacrificing consistency for power in one way or another, and when you’re forced to play between sixteen and twenty lands, anything can happen. I was relieved to be playing a deck that wins on Turn 4 since that was something that was important to me from the start. I’m willing to concede that Tron can’t literally end the game with a win by the fourth turn of the game, but I feel comfortable calling all Turn 3 Karns and Turn 4 Ulamogs wins, since they essentially make my opponent’s chance to win extremely close to zero percent.
When it comes to Modern, I think it’s just too hard to – and almost arrogant to think you can – solve every problem you might come up against. You can have good mana and a nice sideboard, but you can’t feel like you’re advantaged against multiple linear decks that try to do completely different things. You might have to face Humans, Tron, Burn, Dredge, 8-Rack, or a deck with all flavors of Time Warp in it. In the past I’ve played Infect at Modern Pro Tours and once I played with Wild Nacatl to records of 7-3, 7-3, and 7-2-1, so I was telling any teammate who would listen that “the best defense is a good offense.” I want Turn 3 Karn against people prepared for it and people not prepared for it because if someone happens to solve the format, I still want to have some equity in any match I play by winning the die roll, getting lucky, and having a faster hand than theirs.
I was very happy to be playing four Ancient Stirrings in Bilbao since that card’s power level is totally unreasonable. It’s basically a Ponder effect but you always get the best card, you never draw the bad cards, and you get to look at five cards instead of three. It was a huge part of the refined versions of Bant Eldrazi, it was played in the now-banned Amulet Bloom decks, and it seems relatively clear to me that if it keeps showing up in decks, WotC will eventually have to ban it.
I’ve long held the belief that the Modern Pro Tour is about breaking the format and having an overpowered strategy; it’s essentially a contest to figure out which card WotC should ban next. Second Sunrise, Rite of Flame, Cloudpost, Splinter Twin, and Eye of Ugin all seem pretty offensive by today’s standards. And don’t even get me started on Blazing Shoal.
The Pro Tour
For clarification, I went 3-5 at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan with an 0-3 in Draft and 3-2 in Modern, so I’m not totally clueless on the format. I predicted Five-Color Humans would be the most-played deck but would also completely flop out. You win some. You lose some.
The best card for me during the Pro Tour was absolutely Leyline of Sanctity. As Tron, I feel like my worst matchup is Burn, and this is the highest impact card you can play in these colors against a Burn deck. Multiple games played by Ultimate Guard Pro Team involved putting Leyline of Sacntity onto the battlefield against Burn and Scapeshift and seeing them effectively concede on the spot. I often played games in which Leyline would eventually be destroyed, but the time it gave me to set up was more than enough value to be worth the sideboard slot. Tron is a deck that makes use of extra time extremely well, and the spells it casts help catch you back up from behind – one of the deck’s greatest strengths.
Huey was quite fond of Walking Ballista and insisted we have four between the maindeck and sideboard. I was skeptical at first, but it didn’t take many games for me to be convinced. At first glance it has added value based on how flexible it is, as it can come down on Turn 2 on the draw and kill Dark Confidant, Turn 2 on the play and kill a Champion of the Parish (which is pretty filthy), or be useful when you have ten or twenty mana but nowhere to put it. This may not sound attractive, but Tron almost always wins when it gets to do its thing in a timely manner, so a lot of the types of games you lose are mana screw or mana flood. A removal spell that conveniently is also a creature worked wonders dodging the effects of Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Kitesail Freebooter with the added benefit of feeling like I was pre-sideboarded against Affinity.
If I had to recommend a deck moving forward, I think Mono-Green Tron is at least one of the top five decks in the format, but I’m not comfortable saying just yet as it isn’t crystal-clear. One funny story I heard from the Pro Tour came as Yuuya Watanabe was helping Ken Yukuhiro practice his matchup before the Top 8 started Sunday morning and Huey asked what Yuuya was playing, he said “G/B Tron,” and Huey said “Why no Burning Inquiry?” And Yuuya said…
“I don’t like random.”
I wasn’t there and it’s totally possible with the language barrier he could’ve meant something completely different, but I like to think Yuuya thinks about the game the same way that I like to think about the game, and leaving the outcome up to chance would be heartbreaking to me. I think even if I knew exactly how good the B/R Hollow One deck was going in that I probably wouldn’t have played it for the same reason. The reality is Ken is a phenomenal player and his deck choice was really impressive; he saw past all the randomness and decided this deck would give him the highest win percentage, and on top of that, he played the games well all weekend. It’s a well-deserved Top 8 for someone who already seems to have a resume worth talking about for the Magic Hall of Fame.
Speaking of Yuuya, he had a pretty interesting take on Tron, which I would want to try moving forward:
I love the third Ulamog. If I had thought of that myself, I would’ve been all about it. I’m also really in love with the basic Swamp in the sideboard. It’s easy for us as a community to look at the decklist and pooh-pooh a choice like that, but I think Field of Ruin is a complete game-changer in Modern. I applaud Yuuya for acting accordingly. One Llanowar Wastes and one Overgrown Tomb is adorable as well, with a deck full of land tutors and with a decision as close as Llanowar Wastes versus Overgrown Tomb, why not split the difference and pretend like a situation might come up where you’d search one over the other?
It’s a bit cliche to refer to the Pro Tour as bittersweet, but this time it truly was. I failed to make Day 2 in a way that was humbling, but Ultimate Guard Pro Team is in first place on the Team Series Leaderboard, I got to watch my friend and teammate Reid Duke get his third Pro Tour Top 8, and Jon Finkel got ninth place!
I wish my performances lately were a little better, but everyone can go through rough patches and the two guys who I keep playing Team GPs and the upcoming Team PT with – whom I swore an oath with in a peach garden – they regularly win World Championships or make Top 8 of the Pro Tour.
So maybe I’m the real winner after all.