An Octopus Token At The Pro Tour

Jim Davis had a wonderful trip to Dublin in the name of making money by playing Magic! Today he comments on Limited Magic in the modern age, the work of preparing for such a big event, and all things Standard in between!

Not quite what we were hoping for.

Pro Tour Aether Revolt was my first Pro Tour since Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze four years ago. That Pro Tour had a similar result.

Having a 50% win percentage in any tournament never feels good, let alone one with such importance as a Pro Tour, but there’s one simple and irrefutable fact about Pro Tours that anyone competing in one can take solace in.

Pro Tours are hard.

It sounds like a somewhat obvious statement, but look at the Hall of Famers and Pro Tour Champions surrounding me in the standings of both Pro Tour Aether Revolt and Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze. Talent, preparation, and good fortune are all prerequisites to a good Pro Tour run, and if all three aren’t in sync, it can quickly fall apart.

Only one of those three is something we can actually control, which makes the quality of our preparation the most important factor for any tournament.

Crash Course

It’s no secret my focus the last few years has been on the SCG Tour, and there’s one format the SCG Tour rarely features – Limited. Constructed drives viewership and sales, so it makes a lot of sense, but as such, Limited has become basically a blind spot for me.

There was a time I considered myself a Limited expert. Competitive Limited was all I played at the start of my Magic career, drafting at least three times a day on Magic Online and only playing in Limited PTQs. I didn’t start playing Constructed until a few years down the road, and over the years I’ve won a few Limited PTQs, 7-0ed Limited at US Nationals, and finished 24th at Pro Tour Prague, which was a Draft-only Pro Tour.

That brief resume is less of a humble brag and more just amusing context for the fact I’ve done probably around fifty drafts in the last five years and couldn’t even tell you what the good commons are for the last few Draft formats.

So once I was qualified for Pro Tour Aether Revolt, it was time to crash course some Limited. Thankfully Magic Online didn’t disappoint for once, having the set available online less than a week after the release! I got in about five drafts before leaving for Dublin, where I would be meeting up with Team Hotsauce Games and a few old friends on the Tuesday before the Pro Tour.

Red Eye, Red Door

In the last few years, most flights I’ve taken had been restricted to the eastern half of the United States and are usually around two hours in duration. This is fairly fast and convenient, but a terrible duration for watching a two-hour-and-twenty-minute movie. Thankfully, my redeye flight to Dublin from JFK was over six hours long, giving me ample time to watch not one but two movies I’ve been waiting to see. I knew they would be awful, but as a fan of the source material for each, I had to see them.

We interrupt this Magic article for Jim’s Movie Reviews!

Independence Day 2 – C-

It basically starts and ends at “no Will Smith, no movie,” but it also had an absurd plot and completely lacked the dramatic and tense buildup of the first movie. Rating not total trash for few redeeming moments and reminding me that the original Independence Day exists and was great.

X-Men: Apocalypse – D

I don’t think they could have packed more stuff and characters into this overbearingly bloated attempt at a movie if they tried. I grew up reading X-Men comics, and this movie bore little resemblance in almost any way. If there was ever an example of a movie collapsing under its own weight, X-Men: Apocalypse is it.

It’s hard to be disappointed when you have zero expectations, thankfully. After bad movies, a few hours of bad sleep, losing five hours, and a painless bus ride, I found myself here:

No, I was not in The Shire. This was the door to our apartment, which had been set up by Gabe Carleton-Barnes of Team Hotsauce Games. Just want to give a big shoutout to Gabe in particular for getting the apartment and everything all set up; it was great to go to an event and not be responsible for getting everything arranged.

The team I worked with for this Pro Tour was made up of Team Hotsauce Games, SCG’s own Ross Merriam, and the most lovable duo in Magic, Osyp Lebedowicz and Phillip Napoli. I of course know Ross well and have known Jersey boys Osyp and Pnaps for years, but the pleasant surprise was all the Team Hotsauce guys who are awesome – Raymond Perez, Jr; Gregory Orange; Tyler Hill; Cody Lingelbach; and Stephen Neal.

We had three days before the Pro Tour to solve a new Standard format, of which the starting point had been laid out at SCG Columbus and SCG Richmond.

Level 0

If the first two Standard events with Aether Revolt told us one thing, it was that Standard had been completely upended. I suppose a new set and a round of bannings will do that.

The two main forces in the format were the winners of the first two Opens: B/G decks based around Winding Constrictor and Verdurous Gearhulk and Jeskai decks based around the Saheeli Rai / Felidar Guardian combo.

By now both of these decks are very known quantities, and we expected them to form the Level 0 of the format at the Pro Tour.

An easy way to look a metagaming at big events is to look at what level everyone is going to be on. The established metagame is often referred to as “Level 0.” It is the baseline for the format, and what is to be expected at any event. Metagaming is done when you look to figure out what everyone else is doing and take the next step to be one step ahead of the game.

If Level 0 is scissors, you want to be rock.

Level 1

We quickly established that both B/G and Jeskai Saheeli were the Level 0 decks of the format and looked for decks that would be advantaged against both. If everyone is playing scissors and you bring a rock, there’s going to be a lot of scrap metal in your wake.

As both the Hotsauce Games guys and I had found out at the first two Opens of the format, Torrential Gearhulk-based control decks were an excellent foil to the two big decks in Standard. B/G decks lacked sticky threats like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or Vehicles to keep up with the one-for-one removal, while Jeskai Saheeli had a hell of a time trying to set up and resolve its combo through a wide array of counterspells and removal.

While I was pairing Swamps with my Islands for my control deck, Ray Perez was embracing Mountains.

Regardless of the differences, both decks have the same plan— kill things, counter things, draw cards with Glimmer of Genius, cast Torrential Gearhulk, win— and that plan is very good against both Level 0 decks.

The other deck we were working on was ultimately played by Gabe and Cody to average finishes:

Looking for an edge in B/G mirrors, we turned to Tamiyo, Field Researcher as a trump that would also be good against control decks as well.

This was the deck that we spent the most time on, but most of us ultimately dismissed because it was a bit too inconsistent. There’s a lot of stuff going on in this deck, and while it does succeed at being good in B/G mirrors, it doesn’t gain enough against the other decks to really stand out. It is also just barely ahead of Level 0; many of the decks good against the Level 0 decks are also good against it, with the only really saving grace being Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in the sideboard for trying to beat control decks.

Level 2

After a few days of testing, I was very confident with our conclusions.

  • B/G and Jeskai Saheeli were the baseline decks of the format.
  • As such, they will be well-represented and popular with players looking for a solid, “safe” choice.
  • Control is an obvious foil to both decks, which means that Torrential Gearhulk should be out in force as well.
  • Therefore, a deck with a good control matchup that can also handle B/G and Jeskai Saheeli would be an excellent choice for the Pro Tour.

We had properly identified Level 0 and Level 1 of the format, which left us with the tools necessary to make a Level 2 deck choice.

After getting crushed by Zan Syed’s B/R Zombies deck at SCG Richmond, Prized Amalgam seemed like the answer. We had spoken for a bit at the event about his deck, and he felt like he had a very good B/G matchup as well as a killer control matchup. Half of that statement was true.

As advertised, I relentlessly crushed Ray and Ross’s U/R Dynavolt Tower decks to the tune of roughly 10-0. Some games were comical blowouts, with the others being difficult only because the deck is so inconsistent. On the other side of the coin, Ross and Stephen relentlessly crushed me with the stock B/G deck to the tune of roughly 0-10. It was embarrassing.

When the deck was operating smoothly, it felt like you were playing a Modern deck against Standard decks. When the deck was dealing with awkward hands and draws, it felt like you were playing a bad Limited deck. Some games there wouldn’t be any Prized Amalgams in your top twenty cards and you’d have very little chance to win at all.

The deck was simply too inconsistent and matchup-dependent to be a viable choice. If we somehow knew that over half the field would be various types of control decks, an argument could have maybe been made, but even then, the deck’s inconsistency was a rough sell for a difficult ten rounds of Standard.

The Eleventh Hour

It was about at this point that time started to run out.

Testing for a large and important tournament is always a race against time, as there is never enough time to properly explore all options. There’s always a point where it’s time to close the books and just make a choice, and with nothing better available to me, I decided to just run what I know:

For the most part, this was just an updated version of the list I’d written about previously and played at the last two Opens… so much for secret tech!

Yes, I played two Anticipates in my deck. No, I was not happy about it. As I was expecting a more control-heavy field, I shifted my maindeck a bit to be better in longer games. Anticipate is okay if you have time to cast it, and is at its best in control mirrors. To make room, I shaved a Fatal Push and Horribly Awry, a plan that would go Horribly Awry.

For the sideboard the only big change was the addition of two Walking Ballista over the pair of Dead Weight. Walking Ballista can serve a similar purpose against the more aggressive decks, provide an excellent safety net against Saheeli combo decks, and most importantly give me a proactive answer to control mirror tech cards like Dragonmaster Outcast or Fathom Feeder. Control decks almost always sideboard in some sort of creature juke to punish opponents who sideboard out removal, and having an answer to those threats that isn’t dead otherwise is pretty exciting.

The Pro Tour – Day 1

While I was crushing my online drafts prior to travelling to Dublin, my practice drafts with the team had not been going so well. I went 1-2 in almost all of our practice drafts, and somehow felt like I was getting worse as each draft went on.

Regardless, I have a pretty deep-seated confidence in my instincts as a Limited player. I haven’t played much Limited in the last few years, but countless years when I was younger drafting three times a day (or more) on Magic Online does that to a person. As I sat down for my pod to start the Pro Tour, I was calm and relaxed. There were no world class names in the pod, and I was ready to roll.

My first Limited deck was nothing too fancy, just a solid G/W deck splashing red with a good curve, good tricks, some removal spells, and a pair of Renegade Ralliers. The deck played out beautifully, and the only game I lost, I punted.

3-0ing the format I don’t play very often was quite nice, and it was on to constructed.

If 3-0ing my first Draft pod was a pleasant surprise, going 0-4 in my first four Constructed rounds was quite the rude awakening. I had some odd rounds against some fringe decks and played against zero copies of Saheeli Rai or Winding Constrictor, the cards I was planning on beating. I certainly had some awkward draws here and there, but was definitely thrown off by my opponents’ unorthodox decks. Thankfully I was able to beat a B/G Delirium deck in the last round to limp into Day 2 at 4-4.

The Pro Tour – Day 2

Back when I was playing Pro Tours consistently, the minimum record to make Day 2 was 5-3, so coming back at 4-4 was certainly underwhelming. Still, with a good run, both money and Pro Points were in reach, so it was time once again to crack some packs. This time my pod was a little more stacked, and the draft did not go so well. I started off G/W, and ended up a Grixis pile that went 1-2.

While the draft certainly went astray, I was pretty happy to have a mostly playable deck in the end. I opened up Herald of Anguish in Pack 2 and never looked back, and Pack 3 rewarded me with Confiscation Coup and Eliminate the Competition.

The deck wasn’t great, but it was a good example of what you can do to salvage a draft gone wrong. I ended up going 1-2, but both losses were very close and could have easily gone the other way. Herald of Anguish is also just completely unbeatable.

Going back to Constructed, I would alternate some wins and losses, eventually losing the last round playing for an extra Pro Point to finish an even 8-8. It was a fitting loss, because it was very telling as to how poorly we anticipated the metagame.

My Four-Color Vehicles opponent not only crushed me Game 1 with an army of Scrapheap Scroungers on the play, but also cast turn 3 Fevered Visions against me in Game 2. What, Gideon, Scrapheap Scrounger, and counterspells weren’t enough?!

We Missed the Boat

Six Vehicles decks were in the Top 8 of the Pro Tour, a deck we almost completely dismissed from Day 1. It’s embarrassing to say we didn’t even have a Vehicles deck built in our gauntlet. Vehicles got absolutely trashed in both SCG Opens, and having beaten it over and over in both events, it looked like a hollow shell of its former self without Smuggler’s Copter. The issue is that we weren’t thinking of Vehicles at all when we were looking at potential foils to the metagame.

Given our projected field, a properly built Vehicles was the perfect Level 2 deck.

Gideon is far and away the best card against any control deck, and Vehicles is the best Gideon deck in the format. Given how easy it is to splash a fourth color in the deck as well, blue offers many more anti-control and combo tools as well. Vehicles can be weak to the overwhelming battlefield states that B/G Constrictor decks can create, but with maindeck adoption of Fatal Push and the control decks around to take them out, this was a very solvable problem.

We had all the analysis and tools we needed, and we just didn’t come up with the proper solution: Mardu Vehicles was the best deck to play at Pro Tour Aether Revolt, and it wasn’t particularly close. I don’t fear any sort of Mardu Winter or upcoming bannings or anything, as the format will certainly adjust, but every tournament usually has an abstractly “correct” deck, and in Dublin it was Mardu Vehicles all the way.

An Octopus Token in Dublin

Going 8-8 in a Pro Tour is never what you want after putting in the work to qualify and prepare for the event, but it was pretty hard for it to put a damper on my trip.

With no Pro Points and not that much invested in the Pro Tour/Grand Prix circuit at the moment, this was a fun chance for me to get out of the country for the week and go somewhere I’d never been before. Some tournaments are very stressful— it’s your last chance to qualify for a big event, or you need a high finish to maintain some sort of year end goal. Pro Tour Aether Revolt was quite the opposite for me.

I got to visit a new country for a week, meet a bunch of new friends, explore, catch a Mr. Mime, eat very well, and just get away from it all for a week. As I’ve always said, if you can’t enjoy the events you do poorly in, you shouldn’t be playing in events at all. Thankfully it’s just a lot easier to enjoy them when they’re somewhere special!