Back To The Beginning

For this week’s article, Ari does something a little bit different. He retells the story of his first Pro Tour in Kyoto, Japan, where he managed to finish in fifteenth place.


Ever since the first series of StarCityGames.com tokens, I had been thinking about what I would choose if I eventually got one.

I quickly realized it wasn’t a choice. It had to be a Bitterblossom token.

Bitterblossom was the card that provided me with my first Pro Tour successes. Until this past year, the majority of my Pro Tour cashes and Grand Prix Top 8s were a result of playing with the card. My first article for this website was about beating people with the card.

I wrote a tournament report about my first Pro Tour a long time ago, but it was my first-ever article and as a second-year engineering student my writing skills were rusty at best.

Knowing what I know now, this is my retelling of that story almost five years later. Most of it is written as myself from that point in time, with italicized notes from myself now.



There were four major decks in this format.

Five-Color Control: The combo of Vivid lands such as Vivid Creek and Reflecting Pool meant you could play literally anything if you were fine with playing a turn behind in the early game.

Spectral Procession: Specifically comboed with Windbrisk Heights and came in Mono-White, W/B, and W/R varieties. Mono-White utilized Kithkin tribal synergies for a more aggressive game plan, W/B was the grindy tokens list featuring Bitterblossom, and W/R was powerful.

Faeries: Instant-speed everything, man lands, and Bitterblossom. Also featured the classic pinch of Mistbind Clique and Cryptic Command, which meant your opponent could get blown out both for casting spells pre-combat and waiting to cast spells until post-combat.

Mono-Red Aggro: The same thing as always. The mono-red creatures in this era were more bulky and less Sligh style. Compare Figure of Destiny to Rakdos Cackler or just consider that most lists played four Siege-Gang Commanders.

Leading into Conflux, Spectral Procession had been my jam. Coming off a stellar PTQ season with Kithkin, I lost a White Weenie mirror in the finals of States.

Notice that I said White Weenie, not Kithkin.

Something I realized early on in the format was that the actual Kithkin were pretty bad. They were all 2/2s attacking into 1/1 tokens. That is not a way to make profitable exchanges. Now, if your 2/2s have first strike, it’s a different story. Knight of the White Orchid, Sigiled Paladin, and Knight of Meadowgrain were my low-drops of choice.

So when the W/R midrange deck Boat Brew first appeared, I was all over it. It had all the best cards from Kithkin (Figure of Destiny and Spectral Procession), had none of the bad ones, and got to add some red all-stars like Siege-Gang Commander and Ajani Vengeant.

After Conflux . . . nothing changed. Really. The set had three Constructed cards: Path to Exile, Volcanic Fallout, and Noble Hierarch. Path to Exile was an upgrade that specifically helped the W/R deck beat non-Tokens strategies (W/B had Terror), Volcanic Fallout was basically the same thing as Firespout against non-Faeries decks, and all the decks Noble Hierarch helped were fundamentally bad against Spectral Procession (see: how the Modern Tokens decks are supposed to beat up on fair decks).

After spiking countless local events with the deck, I was all set on it for the Pro Tour. I wasn’t losing to anything.

Clearly this meant my testing was terribly flawed.

The Friday before the Pro Tour, I made my way back from Ann Arbor to RIW Hobbies to get in some last-minute testing. I sat down with Patrick Chapin to talk about my deck choice, and his response was “want to play some games?”

Four in a row, all with the nuts. Figure of Destiny on turn 1, Ajani Vengeant on turn 4, and more action where that came from.

Cryptic Command, counter your Ajani and bounce your Figure. Cruel Ultimatum you a bit later. Terror your Figure of Destiny, Broodmate Dragon trumps your Ajani easily. I was easily defeated in all of the games.

I played a game or two against Kyle Boggemes playing Faeries. He didn’t even need Bitterblossom to demolish me. Yet again Cryptic Command ran circles around my five-mana sorceries.

The lesson I learned: guess I should play with that card.

I had three options: Five-Color Control, Faeries, or some wild Noble Hierarch brew. They pegged the first as a “masters only” option, and with five days left I didn’t trust the latter to be good enough in time to battle. That left Faeries, a deck I had played once to a 2-2 finish at FNM.

Comical/Useful Aside: This was a horrible bias on my part. The whole control is more difficult to play is a longstanding myth, and if anything it may have been easier to play here. Cruel Ultimatum is a hell of a card to play to.

That said, I did have a lot of experience losing to Faeries. I spent Block season testing against the deck and knew exactly what happened in the games the Spectral Procession decks lost. I spent the previous season playing Reveillark and knew what happened in the games midrange decks got outclassed.


My Draft testing before arriving in Japan all pointed toward Traumatic Visions being the best common in the set.

Okay, that may have been overstating things. Fiery Fall was probably a bit better, and there were those who would slam Armillary Sphere. But hear me out on this.

All of the fixing in Conflux was five-color fixing. Instead of the three-color mana bases of Shards Draft, you were looking at four- or five-color decks being optimal

Let’s put it another way. In Shards, your goal was always to be two colors splashing for the third. The fixing was fairly limited, with the average being about three pieces per player. There were also a bunch of times where it was the wrong fixing, like Esper Panorama in your Grixis deck, and a lot of times where it was just too slow, like the fight between Obelisk of Bant and Rhox War Monk being three-drops. Getting more than seven sources of each color was a chore, and that doesn’t cut it in an evenly split deck. However, an 8-8-5 count was good enough to cast those six or seven green cards in your Jund deck when most of them were removal or late-game powerhouses (8-8-5 accounts for things like Grixis Panorama as one of each in a Grixis deck).

With the five-color fixing added to the format in pack 3, your counts didn’t get better for the two splash three mana, but adding a basic of a fourth color often made at as easy to find as your other minor color.

The five-color incentive cards were also better at the point of the game when you were expected to have five colors, no earlier than turn 5. This point was after the turn 2 and 3 choke point created by Panoramas and Obelisks, as opposed to looking at your hand of Island, Forest, Naya Panorama, and wondering how you are casting Steward of Valeron or any other G/W two-drop.

So imagine a world where you are trying to play four or five colors for five-drops. Not only do you need fixing, but you need answers to your opponent’s similarly powerful cards. Traumatic Visions does that. Nice Voices of the Void (in a clunkier format, the full four or five cards matter), nice eight-drop mythic rare. My fixing answers your game breaker after the fixing part becomes irrelevant.

I left for Japan with the full intention of drafting powerful late-game control decks.


I can’t believe I’m saying this for something that was literally five years ago, but jeez we have it nice now. The industry standard for international flights now is seatback TVs with a wide selection of things to watch. On this trip, it was High School Musical III on a tiny screen three rows ahead. I was fortunate enough to doze off for a brief moment.

I landed in Japan after a fourteen-hour direct flight. My game plan for the time change was to sleep the minimum amount of time on the way there, stumble to the hostel, and pass out at a normal local time. Despite my complete inability to read street signs and match them to my Google Maps printout, I managed to complete this process. Awkwardly, my travel companion, Jed Dolbeer, did not manage to do the same on his way from Seattle.

Despite my best attempts, the time change was still a little jarring. Even though I got a solid nine hours of sleep, I remembered after the shower that towels don’t magically appear when you are done. Because I woke up at 5 AM local time, I had the opportunity to sit and stew over my terrible play while drying off.

When I headed up to the common area around 9 AM, it was already full with what sounded like most of Europe testing for the Pro Tour. I managed to contact Jed, who had apparently gone to the wrong hostel and just decided to stay there. We met up, retrieved our shoes from the cubbies out front, and crossed the city to our onsite hotel room to meet Kenny Mayer and Shaheen Soorani.

Where did I meet these people? I knew Jed and Kenny through Team Unknown Stars, the online testing group I helped Gavin Verhey found. Where did I know Gavin from? JSS. The best way to find people to connect with for big events is to meet them at prior large events. A lot of people struggle to find travel or testing partners for their first Pro Tours, and this is a big factor in that.

While last night I had kept up with directions for the three blocks between the train station and the hostel, that morning did not go nearly as smoothly. There are a lot more wrong turns to make on a two-mile trip, and we ended up winding through a subdivision. The first backyard vending machine was bizarre, but the third or fourth was . . . actually still just as comically out of place.

Upon our arrival at our hotel, we rapidly learned about the difference between Japanese and American hotels. When we went to pick up our reservation under Kenny’s name, they graciously let us in based on our claim that we were with him. That is after they made us upgrade from a two-person room to the three people we clearly had.

I’m glad they did. In America, a room for two means two queen beds that can probably fit two people each, not counting the floor space. In Japan, our three-person room had three beds that were barely tall enough to fit me, let alone Kenny when he arrived later.

Jed and I immediately began to test Constructed. We both agreed on Faeries being awesome and started building the best list. Jed was high on Vendilion Clique, and I quickly matched his excitement over the card. It was suboptimal against W/B Tokens, but did good work everywhere else. R/W had a midrange card quality spread to exploit by taking their high-drops, Kithkin only had so many game breakers to go with their random 2/2s, against Mono-Red Aggro it was a solid clock that traded when necessary, and it obviously was one of the best cards against control. We ended up on the full playset of the 3/1 legendary flier, opting to trade or cycle extra copies as needed.

There was a brief moment where Jed and I considered an audible to W/B Tokens. We were brought back to our senses after a couple more games that Faeries just won. Around 30% of the time, playing Faeries was not playing Magic. Anything your opponent did, you had the answer. The other 70% weren’t freerolls, but they weren’t bad either. The lament of the Faeries player was having to play normal games of Magic with some of the best cards in the format in your deck. Rough life.

Looking at this year, I’m unsurprised that Mono-Black Devotion has been so good. You have the Thoughtseize + Mutavault duo reunited for the second time, and Pack Rat completes the trio as Bitterblossom’s tribal Rat cousin.

My Draft testing in Japan was the opposite of my offsite testing.

Jed showed up raving about his Magic League Draft strategy of mediocre R/B Beats. While I was looking at the format from the perspective of “how do I maximize the fixing?” Jed was looking at it from the perspective of “how do I maximize the fact that everyone wants to be fixing?”

You have a Deathgreeter, a Goblin Deathraiders, and an Onyx Goblet on the play. Your opponent keeps a Panorama + Obelisk draw. They are at ten before doing anything.

Hello and good luck.

I was naturally skeptical. You really want me to play 1/1s for one? How many lands are you playing? (The answer was 15, up to 16 if you had rares.)

Two drafts later with what Jed called “suboptimal decks” and I was sold. Even these less-than-perfect decks managed 2-1s. Admittedly I was aided by Sarkhan Vol both times, but sometimes these things happen. All I had to do was repeat that at the Pro Tour and I was set, right?

At the end of this, Shaheen finally showed up. Not only had he scheduled a last-minute flight in, but he had booked for the wrong airport. A multi-hundred dollar three-hour train ride had delayed his arrival even further. His first action upon arrival was to break the restroom. Not in the classic way either. He locked us out.

We immediately called the desk and then realized we had four people in our three-person room. In classic Magic player fashion, our focus was immediate value and not having to pay for this. The hotel staff already knew Jed, Kenny, and I were there, so that meant it was on Shaheen to hide. He didn’t quite fit in the closet, so he ducked between two beds and threw a blanket over himself.

In retrospect, we could have just said he was visiting, but watching Shaheen ninja leap over a bed to hide with his feet poking out was well worth it.

Battle, Round One


I sat down for my first round, pulled out my deck, and flashed my trusty Spirit tokens in the process. My opponent “returned my favor” and accidentally showed me a Plains.

Just like the JSS.

I tried to start up some banter with my opponent, but he was having none of it. More accurately, I’m pretty sure he spoke ten words of English. I got as far as “okay” and “high roll” with a finger pointing upward.

Maybe not just like JSS.

The information that he was playing Spectral Procession ended up making no difference in my mulligan. I opened up a hand of Thoughtseize, Bitterblossom, Agony Warp, Mistbind Clique, and lands that cast my spells. My next four draw steps included another Mistbind Clique and a Cryptic Command. He managed to resolve two spells this game, both of which promptly died to Agony Warp.

Two thoughts ran through my head while sideboarding: “wow, I made the right choice” and “why is this the first time I’m doing this to people?”

Round 2 promptly reminded me of one of the reasons. My opponent led on basic Mountain and Red Decked all over me. I felt like I was clawing my way back into a game where my opponent was flooding only to get Banefired out.

In retrospect, this loss was probably my fault. A couple years later I described the Extended Red versus Faeries matchup as one of the hardest in the format, and the decks were almost identical to these Standard versions.

I was still reeling from the last loss when my next opponent had the same start. Did I really fly all this way to get these pairings?

The answer was clearly yes, but my opponent decided to keep some loose hands and not punish me for it. His fourteen points of burn spells game 1 folded to Vendilion Cliques, and his Graven Cairns plus six spells did not get there game 3. He tilted off about his draws and informed me that I just got lucky. I informed him that he probably should have mulliganed and got what he deserved.

The final round of this Constructed portion showcased my mastery of the mirror match.

Game 1 was played off five-card hands. His five was two Terrors, Agony Warp, Spellstutter Sprite, and Island. My five was Thoughtseize, Bitterblossom, Spellstutter Sprite, Broken Ambitions, and Swamp. I drew a land. He didn’t.

Game 2 I kept another Thoughtseize + Bitterblossom hand with a Loxodon Warhammer to win any Blossom fights. His first plays were Thoughtseize my Bitterblossom, Thoughtseize my Hammer. My first plays where Thoughtseize, Bitterblossom, Loxodon Warhammer.

No matter how good the card is, you can’t Thoughtseize the top of their deck.


Despite being X-1, there was still a sweat here. Pro Tour Kyoto was fourteen rounds, meaning one person at this table would 0-3 to end up 3-4 to miss day 2.

My last-minute Draft testing was immediately rewarded with Sarkhan Vol. When in doubt, open planeswalkers and let the rest sort itself out. After being passed some topnotch Jund cards, I ended up with a R/G version of the aggro deck, with 2/2 haste (Rip-Clan Crasher) replacing 3/1 trample (Goblin Deathraiders). Bomb rares Sarkhan Vol, Kresh the Bloodbraided, and Obelisk of Alara battled alongside last picks Tukatongue Thallid, Goblin Mountaineer, and Cylian Elf.

In three rounds, I was honestly regretting not playing the fifth 1/1 for one.

My opponents were completely unprepared for the beatdown. Their mulligans and turns burned searching for perfect mana were punished by my curves of two-drop, Aura, bash. My rares accounted for two of my six game wins. Rip-Clan Crasher accounted for three.

One opponent even raged off about losing to my terrible deck because of my rares and his poor luck with drawing mana. Fortunately he was passing to me, so I had the pithy reply of “thanks for the Rupture Spire and Fiery Fall” (two of the best fixers in pack 3) all lined up. Mediocre beats really are the best ones.

One person at the table did go 0-3, but I was the one who went 3-0 and ended the day at 6-1.

Unfortunately for my roommates, I had apparently siphoned our group luck allotment. Shaheen was especially broken. After his travel woes and a 2-0 start leading into a 1-4 streak, he just wanted to soothe his pain with warm milk tea (equal parts tea, cream, and corn syrup in a can) from the alley vending machine.

The problem: none of us read Japanese. Milk tea comes in both cold and hot.

Imagine going to a vending machine and trying to buy a soda. There are buttons that vend Coke, but any of them might come out flat. You don’t know why anyone would buy it flat, but apparently a subsection of the population likes it that way. There’s no way to know if the button you are pressing is for flat or fizzy, and there are eight columns.

Needless to say, Shaheen bricked on all attempts. As he stood there howling in shock, holding three cans of cold milk tea and five yen too few to try again, I decided to give it a single try.

He was right; warm milk tea is really good.

Battle, Round Two

After claiming my victory right to a short bed over the miserably hard floor, I woke up ready to battle and draft again.


This draft started similarly to the last one. I opened Sigil of Distinction, arguably the best rare to open in the format, and was passed a late Kresh. Pack 1 was a little unfocused, but I was counting on pack 2 to sort out what was going on.

Sarkhan Vol seemed like it would do just that, but green dried up very quickly. I was pushed into a mediocre Grixis deck featuring two 2/1s for 1U. I opted not to splash my green rares due to a lack of fixing but later realized my deck was barely good enough to win a game without them and boarded them in.

It turns out the reason my draft was so awkward was that I was being cut out of Grixis on my immediate right. I learned this while being completely destroyed by that person in the first match.

My second match had an equally rocky start. My opponent pile shuffled to 41, looked confused, and pile shuffled again to 41. As he flipped through his deck to figure out what the extra card was, he flashed me an Elspeth, Knight-Errant. As he did it a second time, he flashed me a Flameblast Dragon. The other ten or so cards that accidentally got revealed to me weren’t bad either.

I called a judge to get this resolved. My opponent became offended and interrupted the judge to complain about the single-round wear on my sleeves.

At this point, I decided my opponent certainly did not deserve to win this match. His “good luck” was met with a “hope you mulligan” from my side, and I was resolved to crush him.

I played some of my tightest Magic of the event. Each game was won with an attack for exact lethal when facing down a rapidly deteriorating board. Sigil of Distinction was timed for maximum damage, equipped to the exact right creature to induce actions, and played around all the removal he had shown me in his scramble to fix his deck. I must have been wearing the smarmiest smirk as I Sarkhan Voled his Flameblast Dragon, signed the slip, and thanked him for the win.

The third match could not have been more different than the previous one. Despite the Japanese-English language barrier, my opponent was extremely animated, and we both had a blast. I managed a victory after a tight game 1, and appropriately my record in the pod matched the power and toughness of the Jhessian Lookouts I was shamefully playing.

In retrospect, this Draft format may have not been as good as I remember it being. Of the thirteen games I played here, over half were decided by mana or mulligans.


After an uneventful pair of rounds against Spectral Procession decks, suddenly it kicked in.

I was 10-2. One more win and I would Top 8 my first Pro Tour.

My opponent was Luis Scott-Vargas, who at 11-1 was locked for Top 8.

I asked for the scoop. He asked what I was playing, and I paused.


“Let’s play.”

Two games of Kitchen Finks and poor draws later I found myself doing tiebreaker math.

More than any other loss of my Pro Tour career, this was the match I came back to for a long time.

When I lose because of a poor draw or matchup, that’s something that happens from time to time. When I lose because of a punt on my part, I know it’s my fault.

The question I always asked was “what could I have said to get the scoop?” There wasn’t a clear right play in any way, and I knew odds were there wasn’t anything I could have done. But the fact that there was the potential right response and I didn’t find it is was what got me.

The other interesting thing is that I never held the decision to not scoop against Luis. I always knew it was a decision he had a valid reason to make, and since then I’ve made the same decision at Grand Prix. If you have a strategic reason to not scoop, you aren’t wrong to play.)

I was fortunate; I was a solid lock with a win, and the bracket was all bye matchups of Boat Brew and control. One easy win and the next morning I would be playing for a Pro Tour title.

Except it wasn’t. Brian Robinson and Doran, the Siege Tower blocked my way, and after two quick games I sat in fifteenth place. I made mistakes, but looking back I don’t think they mattered. I was outclassed and underprepared for the matchup, and the person who should have won did.

The rest of the trip was a bit of a blur. A victory dinner, some throwback drafts, and a train ride later, I sat in the airport waiting for my flight home.

Everyone was quick to offer congrats and condolences, but in my mind it was all the first. Sure, I runnered losses to miss Top 8, but just fifteenth is awesome. Eight Pro Points was a long way toward the 20 required for Gold, and if this event was any indication, I should easily run back my finish at Pro Tour Hawaii.

This last observation was clearly wrong, as I didn’t cash another Pro Tour for two and a half years. That’s what happens when you play the one Pro Tour you accidentally test for and then don’t really work on them for the next two years.

Hopefully this article captured what a first Pro Tour is like, albeit an extremely successful one. If you have any other questions about it for Valencia or any upcoming event, let me know and I’ll do my best to answer!