Arcane Teachings – Worlds PTQ Report

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Tom is back from Worlds, where he played in the first PTQ for Pro Tour: Hollywood. He didn’t come home with the invite, but he did learn about the format and he shares his opinions with you. Also inside is an autobiographical account from the Gifts Rock deck that Tom played.

I didn’t really have time to prepare much for the actual tournaments at Worlds thanks to the end of my quarter in college. My Extended preparation consisted mainly of talking to other people and thinking about what happened in Spain. The first conclusion I came to was that even though Extended has the potential for stupid ridiculous blowouts, games were actually taking forever. I figured that if the Pro Tour winning deck has a four mana 2/2 in it, I could probably get away with assuming that games will take a lot of turns. This opened me up to many more deck choices than I gave myself in Spain, which was annoying because of how little time I had to make one.

At this point, I got a message from my colleague Adam Yurchick informing me that Niv Shmuely had won two premier events in a row with Gifts Rock. I called the deck underpowered in my last article and it was annoying to think that it might actually be good enough, but I decided to give it a try based on Niv’s results. Adam introduced me to Niv, and he gave me his list. I built the deck with real cards, goldfished it a few times, put it in my spell-casting backpack, and went back to studying.

After my last exam on Wednesday morning, I got in a car with Adam Prosak, JR Wade, and an Extended deck I barely understood. Adam and JR are always good times, and as such the ten hour drive went fairly quickly. Some of the conclusions that we came to are:

• Lots of people in the world are terrible at literally everything they do. Everyone in the world is terrible at most things they do. There are no exceptions to the latter.
• It is odd that there is so little non-Green mana fixing and no artifacts at common in Tenth, given the comparatively large amount that Time Spiral and Lorwyn have. We could see Eleventh Edition having Terramorphic Expanse, Shimmering Grotto, Chromatic Star, Prismatic Lens, Moonglove Extract, and perhaps something like Steel Wall as a sixth non-colored card so that there can still be 121 commons with the same number of cards of each color.
• Most goals that are truly worth striving for are unlikely to be achieved, but there is more value to be found in the journey toward these goals than there is in the actual achievement of ordinary ones. Sometimes, you even actually get there. My current long-term goal is a long shot, but it is very worthy and chasing it will be extremely interesting.
• It is more skill testing in Limited to have a large amount of cards of a similar power level than to introduce deliberate “skill-testing” commons like Bog Hoodlums and Herbal Poultice. These cards may trick a truly bad player, but once one is no longer truly bad these cards might as well just not exist. Having stone blanks in packs isn’t interesting.
• When I do not use cruise control, my highway driving speed varies a lot and this makes it difficult for my passengers to sleep. Sorry guys.

I also got to spend some time with my deck during the drive, and among other things I learned its life story, which helped me understand it a lot better. I told you two weeks ago that it was a classic example of an incoherent deck, and now I think that I was wrong. I would tell you the story myself, but I thought it would be better if you heard it from the source. Gifts Rock, take it away!

“My father is the Gifts deck from Kamigawa block. He first gained notoriety in Philadelphia in 2005, when he won the Pro Tour played in his format. Good players loved him because he was the best control deck available; bad players loved him because he gave them the ability to accelerate into giant creatures that were fun to attack with. The money and fame that came with his success turned him into an international playboy. At first, everything he touched turned to gold. He won Grands Prix in Minneapolis and Niigata. He didn’t win in Taipei or Salt Lake City, but he did manage to take five and six of the respective Top 8 slots in those places. He got the fire back for a trip to Mexico City, where he stood on top of a third Grand Prix. All the while, he won qualifiers everywhere he went and could find a player good enough to handle him.

“He started to lose the touch when Ravnica was released. Frank Karsten took him to the finals of the World Championships after some changes that he wasn’t happy about, but I think he knew then that his time was coming to an end. He managed to trick some of the world’s best players to take him to Hawaii, but he didn’t have it anymore. Arita, Asahara, Cunningham, Karsten, Komuro, Mori, Oiso, Tsumura are all names that he disappointed. Being single suited his lifestyle before the spotlight let him, but now that he no longer had his youth and fame no one wanted anything to do with him. He settled into a quiet and lonely life back in Kamigawa, but took occasional extravagant vacations to try to recreate the way he felt when he was young and famous.

“My mother, the Teachings deck from Time Spiral block, is two years younger. Her pedigree is similar to my dad’s; she won her first Pro Tour too, and she traveled the qualifier and Grand Prix circuit as long as she could. She was also the best control deck in her format; some players hated her for being cold and unfun, but the best players respected her for what she was capable of. However, she was never quite as dominant as dad was – she was always in striking distance at Grands Prix and she served a lot of PTQ players well, but she didn’t always take down the big shows. I think this was probably better for her in the long term, since she knew she wouldn’t be on top forever and that allowed her to fade away more gracefully than dad did. She came to play at States 2007 for old times’ sake, but disappeared somewhat contentedly into relative obscurity after that.

“Mom and dad met in Cancun this past fall. Dad was on one of his customary mid-life crisis trips; mom was taking a well-deserved break from constant business travel. They found each other at an overpriced tourist bar. I’ll never know what drew them together. Perhaps he saw in her a reminder of his youth when he was good or was attracted to her ability to take total control of games in a way that he never could. Perhaps she saw him as the truly dominant deck that she never was or wanted to be with someone who knew how to end games quickly in ways that she couldn’t. Either way, they spent three passion-filled days together, exchanged contact information, and went their separate ways. A month later, mom called dad and gave him the news that an accident had happened. After some serious soul-searching, they decided to move in together and raise the child that eventually became me in Extended.

“My parents have never really understood me. As long as I can remember, mom has wanted me to be more controlling and dad has wanted me to dedicate more slots to powerful game-ending cards. Neither of them can accept that the decks I live with are just fundamentally different than any peers they ever had. Everyone around me is so fast that if I tried to play more expensive cards whose only purpose was to end games, those cards would all get blanked by decks that wanted to take me out of the game by turn 4 or 5. If they aren’t that fast, then they’re probably a deck like Tron or Ideal that is building up to something so powerful and big that nothing I or anyone else can do will stop it. I think I’ve solved the problems that a modern Extended deck faces about as well as I possibly can. No matter who I play against, I just drag them around in the mud for a while with me until they become an unrecognizable mess, and then I kill them almost as an afterthought. It works for me, even if my parents don’t like it.

“I may never be as famous or successful as my parents, but that doesn’t mean I’m not worthwhile. I’m not pretty on paper, but if you take me into battle you’ll be able to force each and every one of your opponents to play a fair game of Magic with you. Give me a shot and a little practice time and I won’t disappoint.”

I decided to believe the deck. I spent Thursday acquiring the last few cards I needed, and in between I drafted for free a few times. On Friday, I registered the following list:

Many, many thanks to Niv Shmuely/Trunks123 for the list. It was very good when he gave it to me, and I only made minor tweaks. My only maindeck changes were to cut his single Damnation and Vault of Whispers for the third Eternal Witness and the fourth Forest. I didn’t want to kill my own lands with Deed, Eternal Witness is awesome, and Damnation seemed awkward since we had added lots of creatures and not everyone else played lots of creatures. I moved the Damnation to the sideboard, since having one somewhere is clearly correct. The other big change was to put in a massive Gaddock Teeg sideboard plan. The bad matchups for Rock are the big mana decks like Tron and Zac’s Rock and Nail, and Gaddock Teeg solves those problems very neatly. You can’t cast Gifts Ungiven under one, but that’s okay because the plan is to Gifts for it. Leave one in the sideboard, then if you don’t draw one naturally, Gifts for Wish, Witness, Teeg, Therapy. Use the Therapy to protect from whatever is most likely to stop it, then Teeg them and they can’t cast spells anymore. There should probably be a Jailer in the sideboard, but I decided that no one would play Dredge. I was wrong, but happily I never played against one of them. I plan on putting it back if I play this deck again.

My first round opponent was playing an outdated five color zoo list. It looked like it may have been an actual carbon copy of Raphael Levy Grand Prix winning lists from the end of last season, all the way down to not containing Tarmogoyfs. Game 1 was awkward. He did ten damage to me on turn 3 with a Mighty Swiftblade. I stabilized with Hierarch, Genesis, and some removal spells, but he very nearly killed me. Of course, it didn’t help that he prematurely scooped. He had one more turn to draw a removal spell, but chose not to see if he got there or not. How lucky. In game 2, he connected with two Gaea’s Mights while I was tapped out, hit me with two fully powered Tribal Flames, and I died. In game 3, my turn 1 Bird survived, my turn 2 elder blocked a Kird Ape, and my turns 3 and 4 Hierarchs ensured that I never fell below twenty life again for the rest of the game. I killed him with them and my Genesis.

This felt like a free win. My opponent’s deck was outdated and he probably had card access problems. I’m not sure if I would have won the first game if his Mongrels had been Tarmogoyfs. He also scooped too early. The funny thing was that told me before the match that he didn’t want to do well in the tournament because he was going to play in Super FNM. I immediately replied that I would do my best to help him out. Perhaps that was rude of me, but it sure helped establish in his mind that I was the good player and it was natural that I beat him. That’s the only explanation I have for him scooping prematurely.

My second round opponent was playing Enduring Ideal. It looked like a carbon copy of Andre Mueller’s deck from the Pro Tour. I tried pretty hard to punt the first game. I stripped his hand, but he was working a Top. He had two dual lands, one Invasion sacrifice land, and two charged Pentad Prisms out, and when I drew Trinket Mage I had the option of getting Top to search for more ways to kill him or getting Engineered Explosives to take away his mana. I went for Explosives and killed the Prisms, but then three turns later he had found two more Invasion lands and I still hadn’t found any more action. In hindsight, this was an absolutely hideous decision because his deck has thirty seven or so mana sources in it. He eventually found an Ideal, but he had naturally drawn both of his Dovescapes before he found a Top so he couldn’t stop me from playing spells. He could, however, turn into a dragon. I killed the first two Forms relatively easily, but he had a third that I had to topdeck to kill before I died. I managed to do so this and he was out of win conditions. I did not deserve to win this game.

I did, however, deserve the second game. I boarded in Gaddock Teegs and drew a strange hand with no fetchlands, Birds, or Elders, and no Black mana or discard spells, but with a Top. I played the Teeg on turn 2 and started working the Top. Eventually he was close to going off and I was still without Black mana, but instead of waiting until he had eleven mana to Wish into Pyroclasm and then Ideal, he decided to just Wish for the Pyroclasm and go off next turn. I activated Top at end of turn and saw a Polluted Delta. That was nice, but I still needed to find discard. I drew my card and activate Top: no discard. I get a Swamp with Delta and look again. I missed again. I had four mana left and a Trinket Mage in hand that I had never had time to play before that, so I ran it out, shuffled, and blind drew a card with the Top and one Black mana untapped: it was Duress. Got there! This was clearly unlikely, but I took every last opportunity I had to get lucky and it worked that time. That Pyroclasm that was now in his graveyard was his only out to Teeg, so I killed him a few turns later. Other than the mana problem, this was basically how sideboarded games against big mana decks should go with the Teeg plan.

My third round opponent was playing last season’s Destructive Flow deck- the one with Jittes and Swords of Fire and Ice and not Terravore or Devastating Dreams. I don’t remember much about this match other than game 3, which was very annoying. I mulliganed on the play into four lands, Sakura-Tribe Elder, and Engineered Explosives. I led with land into land and Elder, and his first play was a turn 2 Dark Confidant after fetching a Mountain and a Swamp. I sacrificed the Elder on his end step expecting to Explode the Confidant next turn, but I untapped and drew Duress. At this point, I started to wonder about the Mountain that he fetched up on his first turn. My hand could only find two basic lands, so a Destructive Flow next turn would set me back way too far to have a chance. I elected to Duress him to preempt this possibility. Of course, he didn’t have it and his Confidant flip next turn was Duress for my Explosives, leaving me with a hand full of land and no way to stop Confidant from giving him tons of cards. I put up a little bit of a fight, but I eventually died to a Troll Ascetic after not drawing much other gas. I still have no idea what the right play there was.

My fourth round opponent was playing Remi Fortier’s Pro Tour winning deck. As an aside, I’m pretty sure that “Chase Rare Control” is the worst deck name I’ve ever heard and I hope it doesn’t take hold. I have two problems with this name. The first is that it’s just as clunky as “Counter-Top-Goyf,” so the change is barely an improvement. The second is that the deck isn’t even a control deck. It’s a fish deck. “Control decks” don’t play Dark Confidants and Umezawa’s Jittes. The deck’s plan is to keep the opponent off-balance for just long enough that it can steal games. Can we just call it “Fish” and move on? This name is one syllable and perfectly descriptive as opposed to being clunky and misleading.

That aside, my opponent this match was actually pretty good. He was from Costa Rica, and had flown to New York under the impression that he was qualified on rating. Something had gone wrong with that, so he was playing in side events. He seemed like a nice guy even though his English wasn’t great, but things started to go awry when I presented my deck. He didn’t quite shuffle my deck; instead, he repeatedly did a strange cut and then squared the cards by hitting the bottom edge of the cards against the table while facing the deck ever-so-slightly toward him and looking down at the deck. My first thought was that he was peeking at my deck, but I thought that I was probably being paranoid. He also had a habit of putting his hand on his deck, adjusting it a little bit, and riffling the edge of the few cards with his thumb toward him, which I did not at first think was a problem even though I was attentive to it. On turn 6, however, everything changed. He quite clearly was thinking about whether to top or not, and then did the deck-grab-and-riffle motion while staring directly at his deck. Immediately after doing this, he chose not to use the top and instead just draw a card.

This was an awkward situation. I was about 90% sure that my opponent was actively cheating me, and that he was very, very skilled at it. However, if I called a judge and talked about this at the table he would just stop doing shady things because he would know I was onto him and we couldn’t catch him. My solution to the problem was to call a judge and ask him if I could ask a rules question away from the table. Once we were away from the table, I told him about the things I had seen and that I suspected my opponent was doing them for benefit. After this, however, my opponent completely stopped the deck-gripping and between games 1 and 2 he actually shuffled my deck as opposed to doing the repeated peek-cut; I can only assume that he figured out that I had caught him and stopped. I don’t think the cheating impacted the match all that much because it was confined to the first six turns of game 1, but I was very unhappy that we failed to catch him, both for me and for everyone else in the tournament. A disqualification for cheating means that I get a match win, and it means that no one else gets cheated.

The games themselves were very long and complicated and my notes aren’t helping me remember exactly what happened. In general, the story of both games was that he just slowly pulled ahead of me with Confidants and Tarmogoyfs and killed me. His card advantage engines are faster than mine and his threats are cheaper than my answers. It took a few counterspells in each game to keep me down, but I lost. This was frustrating because it was the first real match I played in the sense that it was the first opponent who I felt was on a similar level to me. I also felt going into the tournament that I should have a good matchup against the counterbalance decks, but now I don’t know if that’s true.

I played out the rest of tournament even though I was out of contention to learn about my deck and the format. In the remaining three rounds I played against a Boros deck splashing Black, a copy of Giulio Barra’s deck from Valencia, and a strange homebrew GroAtog deck, beating them all fairly easily. I know that I punted game 1 against the Boros deck; I don’t remember the details but I died with two Witnesses and a Hierarch in hand against a burn deck. That cannot possibly be anything other than my own fault. I was distracted by the need to Trinket Mage for Explosives to deal with his Silver Knights and Soltari Priests that made Hierarch a waste of time, but instead he just burned me out on the last possible turn. I was exactly right about the Barra deck; it’s a pile of cards with no plan, and I easily dragged him into a long game and generated- literally and figuratively- enough card advantage to take him out of the game. The GroAtog deck was kind of close, but he didn’t have enough threats to put me away when he had an advantage as long as I could contain his Psychatogs.

My general thoughts on Extended have changed a lot since the Pro Tour. Before Valencia, I was sure that the format was a degenerate mess where games weren’t going to end very often after turn 5. Quite obviously, I was very wrong about this. Magic is an incredibly resilient game, and there are enough easy answers to the degenerate strategies like Dredge that games actually go long most of the time. Enduring Ideal, which is the best combination deck, doesn’t even win when it goes off; you get to play more Magic after that. To be fair, it is strange and distorted Magic that usually ends in your opponent turning into a dragon and breathing fire at your face until you become a charred mass and die, but sometimes you still get to win. That’s healthy. If you care a lot about the actual experience of playing a format before you play in tournaments, don’t be afraid to play Extended because of broken decks. You’ll still get to play plenty of Magic, and the games will be good, longish, and interesting.

This has a very different implication for those of us who will play any format that qualifies for the Pro Tour no matter how much we do or don’t like it, and especially for people who think they are better than everyone else. Because most games go long, you can get away with playing interactive decks that aren’t blazingly fast. I would go so far as to say that if you think you are better than average, you should strongly consider playing one of these decks. Extended is so wide open and the available sideboard cards are so good that it’s very unlikely that the format will settle down with anything even resembling a “best deck” for a good few months. Because the power level differences between decks appear to be so low, you can play a deck that forces interaction and isn’t vulnerable to absurd sideboarding hate without losing anything.

I firmly believe that interacting with my opponents at most Pro Tour Qualifiers is a very good idea. Six of the seven people I played against in the Worlds PTQ were absolutely wonderful people who I had a great time playing against. I also think I am a significantly better Magic player than each of them. I want to play longer games against those people so I have more time for skill to overcome luck in each game. There’s no need for me to strap myself to a rocket like Dredge or Enduring Ideal, light a fuse, and pray when I can give myself the ability to play tons of Magic against people I think I can outplay. Basically what I am saying is that I am going to play decks this season that give me lots of time and decisions because I think I am better than the rest of the field. If you think you are better than the rest of the field too, you should consider doing the same thing.

Feel free to rage at me for the previous paragraph, but it would be kind of silly for you to do that. I write to try to help you get better at Magic, but I go to tournaments to win them and so does every other truly good player. Magic tournaments are competitions, and you should respect people who treat them very seriously as such especially when something like a plane ticket to an exotic location is on the line.

I like the Gifts Rock deck a lot. As it told you in its life story, the deck’s plan is to grab the opponent, roll him around in the mud until he is completely unrecognizable, and then win as an afterthought. I did not realize before the tournament just how good at rolling other decks around in the mud this deck actually is. The deck is full of cards that can swat other decks out of the sky as they try to jump over it by doing powerful things. The Hierarchs, Baloths, and Deeds force aggressive decks down to its level. Cabal Therapy gets the combination and control decks. Deeds mess with decks that require lots of permanents, like the Counterbalance deck. Living Wish is there to catch any niche strategies like Dredge, Affinity, Tron, or Ideal with bullet creatures. No matter who your opponent is, they’ll have to go through you to beat you. I like that a lot.

However, I have some issues with the list. The deck was a little bit slow, and often in the early turns I felt like I wasn’t using my mana effectively. I think Trinket Mage needs to go. I don’t know what you replace it with. You could go the direction that Tine Rus went in Valencia and play Collective Restraint, but it seems to me that this only hits aggressive decks and my instinct is that I am safe enough against those decks without it. I may try playing all four Sensei’s Divining Tops, since I wanted to have one on turn 1 of every single game I played. I’ve been warned that they are very slow, but I would reply that if Sensei’s Divining Top is too slow in this deck, then this whole deck is too slow, which I know it isn’t. I also am excited about the idea of making the deck look even more like something out of Kamigawa Block Constructed, which is my second favorite Constructed format in history. My deck wants to do that too, but it just wants to please dad. Whether or not it’s actually correct remains to be seen.

Although Extended gives the potential for stupidly fast games, most of the games I played in the PTQ at Worlds were actually long, interactive, and interesting. This means that it’s okay to play a deck that isn’t blazingly fast or crazy, because you’ll still get to play Magic enough. For good players, this means that you may want to find a deck that forces people to play Magic with you. Gifts Rock is one deck that fits that description, but there are others. Either way, find a deck you like, learn it, and go play some Extended. You’ll have fun for sure, and you might even win a plane ticket.

Next week, I’ll talk about what I think is top of cool shape in the world.

Happy fishing,

Tom LaPille