Behind The Curtain Of Philly And Innistrad

Valeriy talks about helping his teammates prep for the Pro Tour in Philadelphia and cheering on his own from home. He also discusses Planeswalker Points, Modern, and Standard with Innistrad.

Hello! There’s a week left before the Prerelease, and I finished this article a week ago. So, a significant part of the set is unknown, and it’s problematic to speculate about new Standard. On the other hand, Modern is in hibernation until Worlds and (hopefully) the PTQ season. These facts make my article truly stand up for its name “Behind the Curtain”—I will talk about team testing, the Philly result of my teammate (a good one), and about Planeswalker Points. The upcoming Standard, of course, will not go without attention.

First thing to mention is Philly. This PT was great for the Russian-speaking Magic community: Ukrainian Oleksandr Onosov at 13th place and Russian Egor Khodasevich at 18th. Oleksandr is a well-known MTGO player Dr.Vendigo who finally attended a big non-digital Magic tournament (and finished in the top 16), so I hope his offline career will be long and interesting; Egor is my teammate, so I have some thoughts, stories, and experiences to share.

Language aside

Oleksander Onosov is Alex (as Alexander the Great or hockey player Alexander Ovechkin), but it’s a strange feature of Ukrainian language that some names and other words are slightly different from Russian equivalents; similarly, Baltic languages have a tendency to add “s” to Russian names and surnames—to make it similar to native names, like Gaudenis Vidugiris. Alex Ovechkin was called “Alexanders Ovechkins” once—in the hockey World Championshp in Latvia. It was a scandal. The same story is with Andrejs Prost (baconator5000 in MTGO), who is the second Russian-speaking player to ever reach the PT Top 8 (after Ukrainian Yuri Kolomeyko in Barcelona-2001) and who has Russian and Latvian roots, despite residing in Alaska. “Mainland” Russians sadly are yet to reach the Top 8 of a PT, but I hope that this situation will change soon.

End aside

A time to heap up stones

I should remind you about my SCG Search semifinals article—”From Russia with Love” (I can’t believe it was so long ago).

This article was about teamwork with my own team used as an example. Unfortunately, at that time, the article lacked a significant part—description of major tournament success attained through teamwork. Thanks to Philly, now I have something to say.

Spring and summer were good times for #teamsputnik. We gained back three of our members who had previously retired from Magic—including a much-needed, good deck designer—and spent a lot of time partying and testing for different tournaments including Nationals, PTQs for Philadelphia, and the Pro Tour itself.

Nationals in Russia were the last tournament before the ban of Jace and Stoneforge Mystic, so I chose to run Vampires while the rest of the team was as follows: one Valakut, one RDW, and three Caw-Twins (developed independently from US sources of the deck). My tournament was relatively bad (despite a 3-1 record against Caw-Blade), but one of our Caw-Twins, Andrey Kochurov, added a Nationals Top 8 appearance to his resume, already boasting one National Champion title. Unfortunately, he lost in the quarterfinals.

A PTQ Philly held in Voronezh (a city about ten hours by train from Moscow) was in a brand new format—with M12 just released, Jace recently banned a very short amount of data available. We spent two weeks in preparation—24-7 talks about tech and ideas, nights spent testing, and a very limited amount of sleep. I really wanted to build a Smallpox deck, but it didn’t happen, so our lineup consisted of three Valakuts, two Tempered Steels, a Splinter Twin, and an Equipster.

Aside on different decks

You may notice that I always mention more than one deck when speaking about actual tournament choices—in contrast to most “Pro teams” that usually build one deck and go to the tournament with the same seventy-five (or at least seventy-two). This is because, unfortunately, none of us is Patrick Chapin or Brad Nelson who can enter a tournament with effectively any reasonable deck and post good results. For middle-class players (i.e. the larger part of PTQ-level players), it is usually more profitable to take personal preferences and strengths into account. If you can’t win the most popular deck’s mirror against a good opponent, you’re probably putting yourself into position where you can’t win the tournament. This is the main reason to try rogue decks and to brainstorm great tech.

So, our preparation normally starts with testing all the ideas of our Designer, all decks found by the Scouts—literally everything we have to test. The decks are divided into four categories in the process:

  1. Crap;
  2. Decks to keep in mind and to test against;
  3. Decks to recommend for some members of the team;
  4. Decks to recommend for all.

Over time, the third category becomes smaller (and categories one and two grow), and we finally come up with two or three decks for us to play. This step (intensive testing) is mostly performed by two or three members chosen as “test slaves,” while others concentrate on finding tech.

The core part of testing is when everybody has one or two potential choices to test and to tune. Team briefings shift from discussions of deck ideas to matchups and tech ideas at this time. The main problem is staying focused and remaining open to new ideas and rumors. This is what we failed to do for PT Philly. But we’ll come back to Philly later.

The last part is to try to refrain from last-minute changes! Yes, even if they look good. I have a large experience with them, so just don’t do it. If the metagame is not clear—prepare two different builds (with 65-70 identical cards) and choose one of them right before the tournament. The deck is seventy-five cards, and slots to side in and to side out must be carefully balanced, so if you make last-minute changes (especially massive), it’s very likely that you’ll find yourself with unbalanced sideboard and not matching the number of cards to side in and to side out.

End aside

I leave the story just before the PTQ. We did good work, pushing three players into the Top 8 and the fourth to a disappointing ninth place. And then something unexpected happened: Andrey Kochurov came to the PTQ with a mindset to win and to go to the beach Pro Tour (he was still very excited from his participation in PT Honolulu two years ago), but accidentally he talked between rounds and revealed that… he confused Philadelphia with Florida. He was disappointed, crushed, broken, and even willing to drop. After a little talk, we convinced him to continue playing, so he ended up conceding to Egor Khodasevich in the finals.

Then the guys got a well-deserved rest while I started Extended and Modern investigations for upcoming articles. I concentrated mostly on Extended, but one day I was awakened by a phone call “OMG they’ve banned Valakut!” So, Modern investigations and PT preparations started.

Twelveposts at the Pro Tour

I ended up not being involved in Egor’s actual deck design—I tried and tested different decks that were mostly “Ohh, another crappy rogue concoction” (when I was not trolled about my obsession with Greater Gargadon). My largest failure was that I overestimated control decks and tried to build something that had a reasonable matchup against them. The result was an underestimation of U/R combo decks (which actually turned out to be a serious problem).

The largest failure of the team was that our preparations were intensive but a little bit chaotic. We spent an infinite amount of time on online testing, but offline sessions (that are crucial to an overall and unified understanding of the format) actually looked like this:

I still think that we underestimated Pyromancer Ascension because of bias towards Brian Kibler Ascension. But, to be serious, our team is obviously not a group of Level 8 Pro players, so we didn’t break the format, and Egor got on a plane with a carefully tuned Twelvepost list with four Damping Matrices as a last-minute measure against the recently discovered Splinter Twin.

Here will be a necessary quotation from Egor’s report (full text available only in Russian, sorry).

Testing process gone awry has its own rules, its own canvas based on five consecutive stages.

1. Denial. You deny the mistakes you made, tell yourself that there is no Zoo in Daily Events because MODO players have no money to spend on playsets of Tarmogoyfs or because everyone is afraid to play with their actual PT decks and a lot of “because.”

2. Understanding and acceptance—awareness of the mistakes made; this stage very shortly transmutes into the next one…

3. Fear. The most important goal is to prevent this stage from stretching and making you waste the short amount of time still left before the tournament.

4. Fire hose stage—the apogee of any tournament: you lose, despite everything. Screw, flood, mulligans (understanding that these concepts are illusions will come later), opponent’s topdecks—doesn’t matter how, you just lose. The fire hose that put stress on you is slowly, inch by inch, extracted from you.

5. “I couldn’t care less” attitude.

We went through them all.

This list can be found in the PT coverage.

Notable things are a playset of Damping Matrix (which allowed Egor to run 2-1 against his worst matchup) and sideboard Gaddock Teeg against not only Splinter Twin, but also the mirror match, potential control decks, and Blazing Shoal. Lack of red with Through the Breach was another deckbuilding mistake caused by miscommunication and insufficient data on available tech. Instead, Gaddock Teeg was used to suppress the opponent’s Scapeshift and Green Sun’s Zenith. Interesting tech to keep in mind for the future is Primal Command—the card is actually good and deserves two slots between maindeck and sideboard.

Egor ended Pro Tour in 18th place, with a 6-3-1 record in Modern (he IDed in the last round) and 5-1 in Draft, being the second Breach-less Twelvepost pilot after Jesse Hampton and one of three pilots who made 18+ points. This result qualified him for PT Honolulu, and, by his rating, to Worlds. The last benefits of the Elo rating system in action. But Planeswalker Points will have their place later, and now it’s time for another big aside.

Aside about tilt and support

We agreed to meet at Egor’s apartment during the first day of the Pro Tour (which started at 5 pm on Friday in the Moscow time zone)—to root for Egor and to spend some time in good company with board games and a PlayStation 3. I came in the midst of the second round and realized that Vicky (Egor’s girlfriend and an important member of our team) had prepared homemade pizza and a wonderful apple pie to improve our morale.

In the hours between 6 pm and 3 am was infinite F5-ing of all possible sources of data (with Twitter being the most important one); millions of nervous cells died during that time, especially when Egor lost his third round in a row. He went 2-0 and then converted it into a disappointing 2-3. I believe that it was mostly because of tilt and bad mood. It is super important to keep good mood and fighting spirit during the tournament—maybe even more important than concentration and rest between the rounds. We tried to cheer him up via text messages, but cheering unfortunately was not very effective, and the bad mood was finally broken only after the draft.

Egor drafted a relatively bad deck (R/W control), but finally came to an understanding that he was about to ruin a month of teamwork; so, after four hours of endless Twitter scouting, Four-Booster Sealed on MTGO (pretty funny format, try it!), and some board games, we received the last message “Did it, Day 2 as promised.”

Day 2 started for me (I was at home) with a text message, “I drafted the best deck I’ve ever seen in M12.” An hour later, there were messages, “lost to Jace + Gideon” and “Zaiem freaking Beg.” He was on a verge of total self-destruction, so it was time to do something—Egor had no chance to Top 8 anymore, but his goal was to get to top 50 and earn an invite to Honolulu, and this goal was very real.

Everything he needed, as we discovered, was a mental strike of the shovel across his back. Vicky was against such measures, but now I was alone, and nothing prevented me from sending Egor a message that can’t be quoted here because of an infinite amount of obscene words. The message shortly and perfectly expressed my thoughts about the Pro Tour, about Egor, about losses, and about Zaiem Beg (sorry Zaiem, nothing personal, just business). Thirty minutes later, I received, “Okay. Smashed him.” Egor did not lose a single game until the very of the tournament.

End aside

Pointing at planeswalkers

Okay, that’s all the namedropping for today; let’s look at the future. My own actual goal still is winning a PTQ, and I see myself spending a lot of time testing for Worlds and Honolulu anyway. This is a good thing about the Elo rating system—Planeswalker Points will not offer two qualifications as a result of a single great Pro Tour.

Moreover, the entire PWP system isn’t great for players like me. I rarely have time for infinite FNM grinding because of my work, and I unfortunately can’t attend every PTQ (just because some of them can be 4000 miles away—Russia is a big country). Okay, it’s my own problem, and nothing has changed: I still must win a qualifier to go to Nationals, and I still must win a PTQ to attend a Pro Tour.

But there is still a system failure. Imagine a mid-year Grand Prix in the USA, where a great amount of players have two and three byes (just because they’ve attended all ten GPs of the spring season). Then imagine a GP in Europe that takes place in the same weekend.

First, attendance is significantly higher—this is a common point of all European GPs, and I think that the difference will be even more drastic with ten GPs in America and only three in Europe.

Second, a significantly smaller amount of players have two or three byes—just because all top-300 are Americans who attended ten GPs during the previous season.

These two points make European GPs much more random, which, I believe is not good.

Second problem is the qualifier season. Imagine: you and your friend have two goals—to qualify for Nationals and to grind some byes for next season’s Grand Prix. There are four qualifiers near you, and your friend won the first one with an X-1-1 record (and is therefore forbidden to play in more qualifier tournaments), while you played three qualifiers to Y-3 records (unfortunately not enough to hit the goal) and finally qualified from the last one with X-1-1.

Question number one is “which of us has more chances to get the byes for a GP?”

Question number two is “does the answer to the first question make it worth conceding in the last round of the Nationals Qualifier to be able to play in more tournaments?”

I do not like a system that encourages players to drop from tournaments.

Now stop whining, time for work.

Brief look at Modern

I don’t want to speak about potential bans/unbans that are expected on Tuesday—there is great article about it, written by one of my favorite writers, players and deckbuilders—Zvi Mowshowitz.

I totally agree with Zvi’s point, and I really want the format to support some control decks. I also expect some changes caused by Snapcaster Mage (he’s just insane, even if he can’t give you the second shot at Ancestral Vision). But all musings about Modern should happen after the release; now I just want to post a list that would have been good at PT Philly, but nobody actually played anything similar.

The deck has everything to fight combo and Zoo. Twelvepost is also a comfortable matchup (even if not very good). I didn’t use Tidehollow Sculler during pre-PT tests because we overestimated the inertia forcing people to play Punishing Fire, but he’s actually good—he can disrupt and attack combo decks, and he is good against Twelvepost.

One more significant and totally underestimated card is Mana Tithe. This card can take any combo by surprise, and it is good against early stages of Twelvepost development. I do not know if this deck will be viable after September 20 and after September 30, but if I had a time machine, I’d probably convince Egor to play something similar at the PT.

Horror lurks within

Innistrad release is in a matter of days, so it’s time to think about new Standard. Rotation periods are always challenging for deckbuilders and are very exciting for everyone—it’s time to evaluate new cards and to reevaluate old ones, to find new interactions and to blow off the dust from unused ones. Many cards haven’t been uncovered right now, so it’s hard to build actual decks, but I have significant points to share.

First point is mana. We lost manlands (which also were additional dual lands), so two-colored decks should run more basics now. New rare “colorless” lands are great, and I expect that all of them will see play (I didn’t see B/R, but I expect it to be similar to Rix Maadi, Dungeon Palace). Rules of three-colored mana bases also change with new duals instead of fetchlands—we can no more splash for an RR spell in an U/W deck with only two Mountains.

The second point is Snapcaster Mage. I don’t really expect him to break Eternal formats, but he can be an important card in both U/W and U/B control. The ability to reuse discard and removal spells, alongside a nonzero body to carry the sword, is too good to ignore.

Third point is evaluation of old strategies and Block decks. A notable Standard deck is Birthing Pod—in still undecided colors, but I think that Skaab Ruinator is a strong reason to play blue. I also see Deceiver Exarch to be an alternative third drop in this deck because of its ability to jump from Viridian Emissary to Solemn Simulacrum in one turn.

Most important decks from PT Nagoya are Tempered Steel, Puresteel Paladin, and Big Red. The most interesting of them (at least for me) is the idea of the Puresteel Paladin deck, which can be easily combined with the newly introduced Human tribal theme. My first sketch is something like the following. (Attention! Very rough!)

This list is a sort of a mish-mash, and it can develop into White Weenie (if we see more incentives to go heavier into the Human tribe), or into an engine white deck (but Puresteel Paladin’s value strongly depends on Mortarpod’s efficiency in the upcoming format), or into a sort of Mentor of the Meek-based mono-white control. Splashing green for a pair of Gavony Townships also looks like an interesting idea (even if no green spells will be actually used).

The last card from Scars block I’d like to mention is Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas. A blue planeswalker who can dig into the library, create dudes, and win the game by himself—he just can’t be bad. I still have no decklist for him (mostly because I want to wait for the B/R rare utility land), but I can see Tezzeret in heavy U/B Control as well as in something like Patrick Chapin deck from PT Paris.

The last point for today’s article is the seven Titans that will probably keep aggressive decks in check. Reprinting the five Titans in M12 may be one of the worst mistakes to be relevant in 2011-2012 Standard. Primeval Titan and Inferno Titan were reasons Vengevine was bad in Zen-Mir Standard. There is no more Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, but the other four Titans (with Wurmcoil Engine and Consecrated Sphinx) are still here. The overall decrease of creatures’ raw power in Scars of Mirrodin and Innistrad will probably lead the format to be a little slower and much more diverse, but I’m afraid that many decks that otherwise would be good will fail the “Titan test.”

Every other aspect of the upcoming format looks interesting and encouraging for me (while vertical arbalests still hurt a lot). My next article is scheduled for the 30th of September—which is exactly the first day when Innistrad will be legal—so I’m planning to provide some good stuff just in time.

Valeriy Shunkov

@amartology on Twitter

valeriy dot shunkov at gmail dot com