Battling In The Great White North

Read about how Frank Skarren built his Theros Sealed deck and drafted his way to a Top 64 finish at Grand Prix Toronto last weekend.

They say earning your second Grand Prix Top 8 is so much more important than the first. The first can easily be written off as a fluke, a simple case of the "run goods." The second Top 8 validates the first. It represents a tremendous level of consistency and prestige.

I want that second Top 8.

It was this desire to prove myself that led to me jamming with four other people into a tiny car for the twelve-hour trek from Long Island to Toronto to play in what would become the biggest Grand Prix ever held in Canada. Limited Magic and giant Grand Prix seem to be specialties of mine, so I couldn’t help but feel good as I feel asleep Friday night despite having just spent a sixth of my weekend in a car.


After getting in so late the night before, I opted to do something I’d never been willing to try before: spring on a sleep-in special. Normally, even with three byes, I find myself too stingy to pay the extra money in exchange for the convenience it offers. Unfortunately for my wallet, there might be no going back on this one. Getting to sleep for three extra hours and not having to register a pool was one of the most wonderful things I have ever experienced at a Magic tournament.

I have tasted the forbidden fruit, and it was delectable.

As for my actual pool, I went in hoping to get something smattered with as much of the word "heroic" as possible. The more I play Theros Limited, the more I’m reminded of a mini-version of Legacy. Heroic is like the "unfair" combo deck that tries to assemble an unbeatable combination of cards and snap up easy wins. The non-heroic decks resemble the "fair" decks trying desperately to interact with the combo decks and win on the back of some dumb creature like Tarmogoyf (in this case Vulpine Goliath). As someone who usually plays Shardless BUG in Legacy, I felt like it was my turn to be the combo player.

I was not disappointed.

The only other card worth noting from my pool is Stormbreath Dragon. Although my blue was fairly replaceable, red lacked the overall card quality to justify jamming it just for the Dragon. Not getting to maindeck Ashiok or Stormbreath might seem like a downer, but trust me—some commons are more mythic than they appear. Playing a turn 3 Wingsteed Rider into a Hopeful Eidolon singlehandedly wins a lot of games.

There are a few interesting things to take note of with this pool. I wanted to have a consistent proactive strategy, so I decided Griptide and a single Divine Verdict would be enough interaction. Verdict is better in Sealed than in Draft due to the format slowing down, but I still didn’t want two in my deck. During round 7 of the tournament, I was able to play around my opponent’s glaringly obvious Divine Verdict for six turns while building my board before alpha striking for the win. That is not something I want to be on the other side of.

Evangel of Heliod is a card that I normally find underwhelming. However, in this deck I not only had an above average amount of white mana symbols, but I got to back it up with Spear of Heliod and Phalanx Leader to make the tokens that much more deadly. The only downside to them is that they make Soldier tokens and not Human tokens so Cavalry Pegasus is unable to carry them directly to my opponent’s face, which is why I opted to only play one of the two-mana flier.

My final decision with this pool was whether or not to splash for Ashiok. I had decent fixing between the Amulet and Shores but ultimately decided against it for two reasons. First off, Ashiok is at its best on turn 3, which is much harder to achieve when playing it off of a splash. Second, my deck was already very strong to begin with, and I didn’t feel the need to mess with its consistency in exchange for power.

The deck performed extremely well, and I only received one loss on day 1, which occurred round 6. My opponent was playing a very solid U/B Control deck chock full of removal to disrupt my heroic shenanigans. I managed to win game 1 on the back of double Evangel of Heliod producing somewhere around twenty tokens. He picked me apart handily game 2, and I felt like a big underdog moving into game 3.

With my back against the wall, I decided it was time to bring Ashiok off the bench to go for the Hail Mary. As I sleeved up the planeswalker and my mana fixing, I realized I forgot to grab a Swamp from the land box to go along with my Traveler’s Amulet. Although this wasn’t the end of the world, I did have to call over a judge to request my basic land. When he arrived, I took out a spare Returned Centaur from my sideboard and pointed at it asking for a land of that type.

Although this might have tipped my opponent off that I intended to splash a color, he would at least be in the dark about what it was . . . or so I thought. After about a minute, the judge returned to the table, and before I could say anything he windmill slammed a Swamp face up in the middle of the table right between me and my opponent.

As I looked at him with a flabbergasted "are you serious?" expression, the only thing he could muster was, "What? Did you not want a Swamp?" 

Even with the cat out of the bag, I decided to stick with my plan of bringing Ashiok in. While my opening hand did have perfect mana thanks to the Traveler’s Amulet, I didn’t manage to draw Ashiok before falling to a Whip of Erebos I hadn’t seen in the first two games.

Following the first day I got to do my absolute favorite thing that comes with traveling to Magic tournaments: go out to eat with all of my friends. Factor in my 8-1 record and it’s hard to say I was anything but satisfied going to bed early in preparation for the coming drafts of the second day.

Draft 1

The start of my first draft couldn’t have gone much better. I kicked things off with a first-pick Gray Merchant of Asphodel followed by a Disciple of Phenax from the underwhelming pack that was passed to me. Pick 3 gifted me a second Gray Merchant, which pretty much guaranteed black was the color to be in. Throughout the course of the draft, I was pretty much mono-black and only moved into blue to pick up some win conditions in the form of Sealock Monster and Horizon Scholar. This is the deck I ended up with:

My only real regret with how I built this deck is playing the Tormented Hero. I tricked myself into being more afraid of early rushes than I should have been, especially since a good portion of my deck was geared towards controlling the early game. The slot would have been much better off as either Annul or Blood-Toll Harpy.

Believe it or not, the other big point of contention with this deck was whether to play Felhide Minotaur or Crackling Triton. In the end, I decided the extra devotion to black was more important than being able to Shock something if I had Opaline Unicorn in play.

My draft pod was very strong and featured both Rich Hoaen and Huey Jensen. After being narrowly beaten by Huey, Reid, and Owen in the finals of the SCG Team Sealed Open in Somerset earlier this year, I knew there was no way I was making it out of the draft with a 3-0 record without facing off once again against the now Hall of Famer.

For the first round, I faced off against recent Grand Prix Kyoto winner Rich Hoaen, who was piloting a decent U/W Heroic deck. He managed to take game 1 with a Bident of Thassa I had passed him during the draft in favor of Pharika’s Cure. Although losing to a card I passed stung, taking Cure was the right pick for my deck, so it didn’t feel nearly as bad. I managed to squeak out game 3 thanks to a timely Nimbus Naiad bestow set up by Horizon Scholar to win a close race.

During the second round of the draft, I was paired against Steve Rubin, who had drafted a very aggressive R/W deck. Game 1 was a nail biter, and I went into my last turn of the game with him on seven life and me having six flying power in play. Because I was dead next turn, I needed to draw one of my six outs (two Baleful Eidolons, two Sip of Hemlocks, and two Gray Merchant of Asphodel) to win the game. Between the low card count left in my deck and the blanks I had scryed to the bottom, I had about a one in three chance to hit. Even with serviceable odds, I felt extremely lucky when I revealed my top card to be Baleful Eidolon to close out the game.

Game 2 went much more simply, with my early defenses holding him off until my more powerful cards took over the game.

To absolutely no surprise of my own, at the start of round 12 the loudspeakers announced that I would be playing in a feature match against Huey. The text coverage of the match can be found here.

Unfortunately, the match didn’t go my way. Huey’s deck was very late-game threat dense and matched up well against my deck geared towards beating aggressive creatures. Even still, Huey is a great guy, and if you’re going to lose to anyone, it may as well be one of Magic’s finest. With a record of 10-2, I could still Top 8 if I crushed the next draft, so my hopes were still high.

Draft 2

For the second draft, I was sitting to the right of good friend and Pro Tour Avacyn Restored champion Alexander Hayne. Although I knew this meant that winning the draft wouldn’t be a walk in the park, I had the safety of knowing I was sitting next to a skilled drafter who would read and respond to any signaling I offered. I started things off by taking a Keepsake Gorgon out of a decent pack. The pack that was passed to me was much worse, and the only real black card it had was Cavern Lampad. I tend not to like Lampad that much especially in controlling decks, but the only other option was a Stoneshock Giant.

Unfortunately, this is where I made my big mistake of the tournament.

I let my aversion to red in Theros affect me too strongly and went for the Cavern Lampad. I was severely punished as the draft continued, and I kept passing upper-level red cards in exchange for mediocre black and eventually white cards. I am confident I would have had a much stronger deck if I’d gone into red, but instead I was left with a train wreck.

As you can see, the card quality of my deck ranged drastically. I managed to pick up a few great cards like Triad of Fates and Heliod’s Emissary but the amount of filler I had to play was too high. I was also very torn on a "plan" during the draft. There’s the aggressive creatures combined with the defensive/controlling triple Scholar of Athreos as well as the green splash in my sideboard that I wasted a few picks on.

The only real redeeming quality about this deck was the double Alseid and Lampad package. Making one of my horrid creatures huge and unblockable and praying my opponent didn’t have an answer was the only way I managed to win the first round of the draft. Unfortunately, my next two opponents had real decks and dismantled me pretty handily. Losing the second round knocked me out of Top 8 contention, and losing the last match dropped me from Top 16 to Top 64.

I’m still very upset with myself for fumbling at the one yard line and falling for one of the most basic drafting pitfalls. Although it wasn’t the Top 8 I was looking for, I still managed to make a little money and secure another Pro Point for the season. Getting to see my teammates Seth Manfield and Ari Lax Top 8 and Ari subsequently win made a good consolation prize, but it also made me want to be right there next to them even more.

I’m going to go after another Top 8 trophy with all I’ve got!