Arcane Teachings – Mountains and Mutavaults at Pro Tour: Hollywood

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Wednesday, May 28th – Last weekend, Tom played in his last Pro Tour for the foreseeable future. Low on preparation, and bereft of options, he decided to rock out with the Red spells. While he didn’t cause a splash in the grand scheme of things, he did learn some significant lessons on the evolving Standard format. To learn these lessons, and to discover why PT: Hollywood may well be his last, read on!

This past Thursday night as I made my way to the Pro Tour: Hollywood player dinner after picking up the last few junk rares I needed for my deck, I was encountered by a microphone-wielding Rich Hagon, who asked me to do a quick audio interview. I happily obliged, but he surprised me by beginning “I’m standing here with Internet Magic writer Tom LaPille, who will be playing in the Pro Tour tomorrow, and one month from now will be starting an internship in Magic R&D at Wizards! Tom, what are you playing tomorrow?”

I wasn’t originally planning to make the announcement for another couple of weeks, but the cat’s out of the bag so I might as well address it now. On June 23, I’ll be continuing the proud and storied tradition of StarCityGames.com writers being absorbed by the mothership. To be fair, my own case would be more accurately described as me launching myself at said ship with great velocity than passively being absorbed, but that’s a story for another week*. My last article on this site will go up on June 17. Thank you, readers, for being part of my Magical journey up to this point. A little over a year from now you’ll begin to Play Magic With Cards Tom LaPille Helped Make, and I sincerely hope you enjoy that when the time comes.

I’m sure Rich would have left that out of his podcast if I had asked, but I let it go because:

1. It made for a better story.
2. From Wizards’ perspective the Pro Tour is all about the story.
3. What is good for Wizards will very soon also be good for me!

I accepted the offer from Wizards in early April. This was quite obviously an exciting development; however, the combination of needing to arrange moving to and living in Seattle, keeping up with my last quarter at Ohio State, and the fact that I had the job locked up no matter how the Pro Tour went distracted me from making time for lots of Standard playtesting. I started looking for collaborators too late in the game, and all of the groups I could have been able to work with had closed borders so I had to go it alone. My practice started in earnest about a week before the StarCityGames tournament. Ben Wienburg and I spent a few days trying out various builds of Faeries, Mono-Red, and Elves. Our Faerie deck kept morphing more and more into a pure control deck, our Mono-Red deck kept adding more burn spells and losing creatures, and our Elves deck never really changed but neither of us like it very much. Ben ended that time set on Faeries, while I didn’t really have a favorite.

Enter Gerry Thompson. He joined Ben, Reuben Bresler, JR Wade, and I on a wonderful trip to Richmond, Virginia for the StarCityGames Mega-Magic Weekend. Gerry detailed his exploits that weekend here, and Ben and I both played his Faeries list that weekend. Both of them felt great about the deck; I had mixed feelings, but I ran with it anyway and I felt good after making it to the finals of a trial Friday night and losing to the mirror. My feelings became more mixed after the next two days, on which put up mediocre 4-3 finishes. First, the deck felt very draw dependent to me; when I didn’t start with Ancestral Vision or Bitterblossom, I felt like I was very far behind against any opponent. Second, the deck felt underpowered. I know this sounds stupid to say; Bitterblossom, Ancestral, and Mistbind Clique are awesome reasons to play Faeries, but if I didn’t draw those three cards in sufficient numbers the rest of the cards in the deck didn’t stand on their own. Sometimes I could snipe things with an unsupported Spellstutter Sprite, but most of the time that didn’t hit anything important. Third, I thought the deck was very unfun to play. To be honest, this is all probably because I was bad at playing it. Gerry Thompson and Ben Wienburg both told me that I had made some questionable plays while they watched me that weekend, so I decided to just give up. I didn’t think I could improve enough in two weeks for it to be a good choice for me.

Aside: note that I didn’t bring up the mirror being miserable, even though it is. At no Magic tournament in an environment that is not very sharply defined does one deck make up more than a fourth of the field. It simply doesn’t happen. If a deck has a completely random mirror but wins 80% of the time against everything else in the field, you would be pretty foolish to not play that deck. Take the coin flips in the mirror, crush everything else, and on average you’ll do pretty well. I would have played Faeries if I thought that the combination of me and faeries was that favored over the rest of the decks in the field because I would not have expected to play more than five or so mirror matches.

Enter Evan Erwin and Chris “I am” Nighbor**. In a story that is now fairly well-known, Evan Erwin showed up to Sunday morning of the StarCityGames Mega-Magic Weekend with four hours of sleep, no deck, and a dream. Coincidentally, Chris Nighbor had showed up with a Vintage deck and a Mono-Red Standard deck that was about to go unplayed. I played broker, and it was a match made in heaven. Nine rounds later, Evan took home third place, some cash, and an awesome story. I saw in the Mono-Red deck something that was close to the Extended Zoo deck that I loved so dearly (read: already knew how to play pretty well), so I decided to give it a try.

Despite how bad the deck looked on paper, it actually tested incredibly well for me. Right off the bat, I was putting up records like 8-2 and 7-3 in ten game sets against stock lists of Faeries and Elves. This was encouraging, since it meant that the Red deck was one that I already could pay with a high degree of competency. Green Big Mana decks of various sorts were a problem, and I needed to find a way to deal with sideboarded Kitchen Finks and Primal Commands, but that was a problem I thought I could solve.

Before I go on, I would like to make a comment about the proper use of the “ten game set” concept in playtesting. Ten games is a very small sample size, and using a set of that many games to actually guess at a matchup percentage is quite naïve. This does not even take into account differences in player skill, which may be huge and lead to massively skewed results. However, I do find ten game sets against competent opposition to be very useful for telling me if my deck has a winnable matchup against another deck while I am playing it, which is the only important variable for tournament performance. The other good use of the However Many Games Set is when you have one matchup that you really need to know where you stand on. When I asked Manuel Bucher, the creator of the deck Guillaume Wafo-Tapa played at the PT, about their matchup against Faeries, he said “We felt great against everything else, so one day we sat down and between me, Guillaume, and the Ruels played a hundred games between our deck and Faeries with lots of switching players back and forth. The decks went literally fifty-fifty.” It would have been unmanageable to do a hundred games against every possible opposing in the format, but the Faerie deck was enough of the field that they knew it was worth it.

Gerry’s suggestion to solve the Other People Gaining Life problem was to splash green for Kavu Predator and Tarmogoyf, but I ended up rejecting that because I didn’t think the mana worked if I still wanted to play Flame Javelin. I needed twelve Green sources for turn 2 before I was comfortable moving all of my two-drops into Green, and that meant either basic Forests or Groves of the Burnwillows. Groves have obvious synergy with Predator, but in practice they caused awkwardness more often than they made big Predators. I wasn’t willing to play both Forests and Mutavaults in the same deck as Flame Javelins, and I was also very attached to the enormous amount of manlands that Chris’s original Red deck played. The combination of these factors caused me to reject the Green list and go back to Mono-Red.

I flew to Hollywood with something close to Nighbor’s Red deck sleeved up and ready to go. When I told Chris that I was playing his Red deck he became excited, and we went up to my hotel room and started brewing. I still had a pair of Countryside Crushers in my list, but Chris told me to cut them right away because all they did was die and have no effect. Both of us were interested in finding some kind of cheap Red creature that had a long-term effect on the game, and the card we found was Magus of the Scroll. We didn’t have time to play an extensive amount of games with it, but in the games we did play it did exactly what we wanted it to do so we decided to play three of them and reduce to two Shard Volleys.

Our sideboard, however, was completely up in the air, and I owe all of it to other people. Boldwyr Heavyweights comes from Ben Wienburg, who came up with it when we were looking for ways to win in the mirror. Chris convinced me to play Everlasting Torment, a card that I really didn’t want to play. It manages to solve both the problems that Green decks pose: life gain and opposing enormous creatures; it solves the first problem in the obvious way and the second by making your burn spells into permanent creature shrinking spells, and despite hating the card I couldn’t come up with another card that solved both problems so I ran with it. That card was definitely a product of insufficient preparation.

Wild Ricochet is an awesome little piece of tech that originally comes from Adrian Sullivan. It is good in the mirror, since you get to turn their burn spell into two of your own burn spells. It is also awesome against Green/Black decks, where you get to steal Commands both Profane and Primal. Keep in mind that you can only change targets, not choose modes. If you Wild Ricochet a Primal Command that was going to gain them seven life and search them up a creature, what will happen at the end is that you will gain fourteen life, they will gain zero, and you’ll both search up a creature. We decided that we wanted a sweet creature to search for when that happened, so we rocked the single Siege-Gang Commander. The last two cards were Jaya Ballard, Task Mage and Keldon Megaliths. Jaya Ballard was Chris’s answer to the Green-White Glittering Wish/Wilt-Leaf Liege decks that he was sure would be out in force, and Keldon Megaliths was an extra way to get fake spells out of your lands that was good in slower matchups when a tapped land wasn’t a huge problem.

This was my list:

I’m not going to give you a round-by-round description of what happened because it wouldn’t be useful and my record was unremarkable. The gist of it is that I won three matches when things went right, and then in the other five people simply had come prepared, even though the games felt close. I beat an Elves deck and two Faerie decks, and I lost to two Elves decks, a Reveillark deck, a strange Black-Green Big Mana deck, and a Merfolk deck. All the matches I lost other than the one against Merfolk involved my opponents gaining absurd amounts of life with an assortment of tools that included Kitchen Finks, Aven Riftwatcher, Momentary Blink, and Primal Command. In the Merfolk match, my opponent boarded in eleven cards: four Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tenders, four Bottle Gnomes, and three Reveillarks. Yikes. The frustrating part about this was that all tournament I was only capable of drawing Everlasting Torments in pairs, which is clearly not optimal. Had I drawn one Everlasting Torment and one Wild Ricochet in game 3 against each of the Elves decks or the Big Mana deck, I would have won those matches and it would not have been close. Adrian Sullivan credited Wild Ricochet with four of his match wins, so I feel good about having included it.

I could blame my poor result on sick variance, but that would be missing the point. I walked into a field full of incredible life gain cards with Shard Volleys in my deck, and on that alone I did not deserve to do well. I accept this.

Time for some takeaways:

1. When preparing for large tournaments, make allies as early as possible. By the time I was looking for a team, almost everyone who I wanted to work with had already closed borders and had their tech brewing in dark basements. It’s not strictly necessary to have a team to do well since behind every team’s deck is one rogue genius, but it sure helps to have lots of people with which to bounce ideas.
2. Avoid strategies that have trouble against obviously good sideboard cards. It is easy to beat a Red deck without much thought: just drop in some Kitchen Finks and Primal Commands and you’re good. These cards are also good against other decks. The opposite is true about something like Reveillark, which needs to be attacked in many ways for everything the deck is capable of to be shut down. This isn’t quite the same as the idea of splash damage, although it is similar.
3. Don’t play Red in this standard format. You might 3-5 the final Pro Tour you’ll be allowed to play in for a long time, and have to do coverage on Saturday instead of play. I enjoyed the opportunity to meet many of my future coworkers, but I would have rather been battling myself than watching and writing about other people battling.

If I could start the tournament over again, I would play Black-Green Elves. The deck is simple, strong, and I know how to play it already. If I could start preparing for the tournament over again, I would learn Reveillark or Manuel Bucher crazy Quick ‘n Toast control deck. I knew before the tournament that there was some kind of deck based around Reflecting Pool and the Vivid lands that played a million cards of many different colors, but I was too intimidated to seriously try to figure it out. Manuel, Wafo-Tapa, and the Ruels managed to get it mostly right, and they were rewarded with three Top 32 finishes out of four people with the deck. I respect the work they did, but I think there is still more development that can be done with that concept and I am excited to see what enterprising deckbuilders come up with for Regionals.

I am writing this on a plane from Chicago to Columbus, so I haven’t really had time to digest what went down this past weekend in its entirety. I’ll have started at Wizards by the time Nationals rolls around, so I am not going to be playing at Regionals; there is no reason for me to get in the way of someone who really wants a slot. I do, however, have many friends who are playing in Regionals and I’ll be helping them prepare. Next week, I’ll talk about what you need to know to get an edge on the field. United States Regionals happen on June 7; will you be ready?

Have fun!

Tom LaPille

* Specifically, this is a story for my article that will go up on June 17.
** This will never get old to me. It disappoints me that Chris did not wear the “I am Nighbor” shirt in Hollywood.