Best of the West – Preparing for San Juan, Part 1

StarCityGames.com Open Series: Philadelphia June 5th - 6th
Thursday, June 3rd – I desperately want to get to Level 4 this year. You could call me a man on a mission. With 8 points so far for the season from two GP top 12s, I decided the best plan of attack was to go on a swing of Grand Prix: Washington D.C., Pro Tour: San Juan, Grand Prix: Sendai, and Grand Prix: Manila.

I desperately want to get to Level 4 this year. You could call me a man on a mission. With 8 points so far for the season from two GP top 12s, I decided the best plan of attack was to go on a swing of Grand Prix: Washington D.C., Pro Tour: San Juan, Grand Prix: Sendai, and Grand Prix: Manila. The Pro Tour would be the most important of those four events, so I wanted to maximize my preparation time to focus on that event. Looking at the previous Pro Tour, it seemed like there were four sources of new decks on the American scene: the LSV team (Naya), Patrick Chapin (U/W Control), Conley Woods, and Zvi Mowshowitz (Mythic). I wanted to work with one of these groups for the upcoming PT, since Zendikar Block would be a brand new format where deck builders would be rewarded. I also wanted to work with Brian Kowal, since he is all around a blast, and we found we worked very well together on Zoo during our swing through Asia earlier in the year.

The solution presented itself when it became clear that Kowal was going to hook up with Zvi, Gaudenis Vidiguris, and Sam Black to prepare for San Juan. He initially proposed that I be invited to the team, which Zvi nixed based on the fact that I lived in Seattle which is too far to effectively work together. I wrote Zvi to let him know that I had the time and freedom to come to Madison and New York to spend at least a month preparing for the Pro Tour, which was enough to persuade him that I would be good to work with for the upcoming event. By the time I joined, I found out Tom Martell, Matt Ferrando, Chris Calcano, Jacob Van Lunen, Brian-David Marshall, and Jamie Parke were on as part of the New York squad, and Steven Neil made a late join from Madison. The eleven of us worked together over a message board, starting to sketch out decklists and thoughts on the format right away, and the conversation didn’t really die down at any point during the preparation period. I suppose this article will be about how I chose to get ready for this most recent Pro Tour.

The weekend of the Rise of the Eldrazi pre-release (mid-April) I bought myself a new rolling suitcase, a new laptop, and packed everything I thought I’d need for two months into my bags. [A short segway on the wonders of the rolling suitcase: For years I have stubbornly refused this new-fangled technology of suitcases on wheels. In my mind, real people carried their luggage wherever they went, and in the first years they were catching on I saw so many suitcases fall over on their sides (because they had four bottom-mounted wheels) and people stooping over to grab the handles (they hadn’t invented the extenders yet) that they just didn’t look like they were helping anyone do anything but look annoyed. However, on my last trip to Japan I spent 6 hours checked out of my hotel touring the sights while carrying my luggage, and it got very, very heavy. Meanwhile, a lady who can easily masquerade as a stick-figure hauled twice as much luggage around with narry a complaint due to the wonders of the wheel. Yes, it made a ton of noise when we walked down the serene gravel path to the Buddhist temple, and yes, we might have been asked to leave, but the point was we both got to the place we were kicked out of and back with a lot of convenience.] I flew out to Madison, which has a reputation for breaking draft formats open and jamming as many drafts as possible into a weekend.

I stayed at Brian Kowal’s place, and let me assure you that place is a palace of gaming. Every shelf in the living room was littered with colored boxes of board games, graphic novels, rule books for role-playing games, and the requisite console for video games. What really impressed me was that this was not enough space for all the games! I was set up with a bed and desk in the basement, and saw that half the shelves in the basement were also overflowing with paraphernalia and more board games. (There was even a 3’x6′ collage of a phoenix in the basement made entirely of “pixils” of magic card pictures!) The final sign of Kowal’s complete degeneracy, though, is the fact that even some of the cabinets in his kitchen have games in them. In my mind these were just more signs that I was spending time with a kindred spirit, how could I go wrong hanging out with someone who loved games perhaps more than even I do, combined with a gift for comedy and love of great food?

Our message board spat out the first decks that we thought might be reasonable in the format. Jacob Van Lunen proposed a mono-Red deck that he thought was obvious, and very powerful:

Zvi proposed two decks, a mono-White Eldrazi deck and a mono-Green tokens deck:

All of these decks are what might be called “native” or “natural” decks. They have a strategy and go about pursuing it without regards to what else might exist in the format. This is usually the right place to start as these decks tend to be powerful, and tell you what the boundaries of the format might be. The group bashed these decks together and found that the Mono-Red deck was beating both other decks reasonably handily. Messages went out essentially to the effect of: the format so far as we know it is defined by Red aggro, the first bar any deck must beat in order to exist is to be able to beat Red.

Kowal and I started browsing through gatherer for effects that seemed strong against Red decks: Kor Firewalker, Consuming Vapors, Vampire Nighthawk, Nissa Revae, and Pelakka Wurm were the only cards that really looked like they could make the cut. I tried out a Mono-White landfall deck based on Craig Wescoe white weenie deck from Pro Tour San Diego, but warped a bit to beat the Red deck:

We were fairly impressed to find that the Kargan Drgaonlord could easily race the deck, even when Kor Firewalker was in play. Additionally the Basilisk Collar was virtually useless since any other guy who tried to equip it just died in a fire of one kind or another. Essentially any deck that was going to fight against red was going to have to do it with very large creatures. Other aggro strategies looked like they were going to be poorly positioned in the format since small creatures were always going to die to red removal spells.

Brian thought it would be interesting to explore a deck that just went bigger than the little red decks. In red mirrors, tradionally all the small creatures die, and only “dragons”, anything large eniough to survive the burn, stay on the board to close out the game (usually pretty fast). He brewed up a deck that crushed the smaller menace:

At the time I was very interested in Polymorph strategies in Standard; Kowal and I thought it would be interesting to try to cheat out fatties with Summoning Trap in Block and that Pelakka Wurm might be the right silver bullet against Red. We brewed up a few variations until we came up with the following:

We found that the Pelakka Wurm lived up to our expectations, and though red still won some games racing with Kargan Dragonlord that the wurm could do a lot of damage very quickly and change the terms of the race with the shift in life total. We felt like the only way a deck could be viable and in this archetype was with a full set of wurms and traps because those were the keys to destroying the aggressive decks. We initially had started with higher casting cost men like Eldrazi, but eventually settled on things like Avenger of Zendikar because it had a reasonable casting cost. We were excited to have what we felt was our first piece of tech: a 7 mana creature that somehow made aggro matchups winnable. We then took this deck and played against Brian’s Dragon Red list and found that we had a favorable match there as well, and now we had a second deck we felt could be a legitimate part of our format gauntlet. (You might wonder about the lack of Everflowing Chalice, but we were pretty sure we needed all the incidental blockers made by Battlement, Nest Invader, and Growth Spasm for slowing down the Red strategy while we developed our mana and/or worked our planeswalker.)

We found we were still losing games where our opponent had a Kargan Dragonlord going and we didn’t have a Jace to bounce him. That guy is huge, powerful, and can race hard.

Having got about this far into the block (determining Red aggro and Summoning Trap were the only real things in the format so far), we hung up our work for the weekend when Patrick Chapin would be coming to town to join the draft frenzy of the Eldrazi release weekend. At various houses different hosts qued up a seemingly endless stream of Madison players and Rise of the Eldrazi packs. I believe over the course of the weekend we did ten total team drafts of 4 on 4. We chose teams randomly after drafting in order to minimize the strategic card cutting that can be an important part of normal team drafts. Since each player does not know who will be on their team they have incentive that most closely resembles that of an individual draft. In my opinion the really sweet thing about team drafting is that you have several other players telling you what they would and would not play in your deck, how they would build their manabases, what you might want to sideboard, etc. Likewise you get to help build several other decks, often built in a style which you might not come up with on your own. All told, there is a lot learned by sharing the deck construction experience with other people who are highly motivated to help each other.

What we learned, first and formost, was that Rise of the Eldrazi was the most diverse and deep draft format Wizards has made since Ravnica block. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Wizards of the Coast slammed this one straight out of the park. Over the course of many drafts we saw a myriad of archetypes emerge: W/U, B/W, and W/U levellers; G/x ramp, U/R tricks; R/G aggro, B/R aggro, B/R control, Grixis Control, 4-color control, and various token strategies centered around the Jund colors. People built decks out of unusual rares like Sphinxbone Wand, Gravitational Shift, or Splinter Twin, and we found uncommons that performed way better than expected like Lust for War. It turned out umbras were decent cards after all, and that even sketchy looking cards like Raid Bombardment or Shared Discovery had decks that they belonged in. The lesson that was beaten home the hardest for me was that White, Green, and Blue had a vulnerability to a few cards that they couldn’t adequately answer. Guul Draz Assassin, Drana, Brimstone Mage, Dawnglare Invoker, Wildheart Invoker, and Frostwind Invoker all could threaten to close out the game in ways that Smite, Guard Duty, Puncturing Light, or Narcolepsy had no way of interacting with. Domesticaiton was an out in some places, but for the most part these cards were format defining threats in my mind. For that reason I decided I strongly preferred to have a deck that included red or black, both so that I could play the best of these if I opened or was passed them, and also so that I could play the removal spells that handled them. Alternately, I made note that green had no removal at all, so green based strategies were going to have to include or splash a removal color to be able to play games. Because Dawnglare Invoker was a common that always saw play, Leaf Arrow seemed like a premium sideboard card for Green, and grew quite hard to find in packs because of how highly it was being picked. (For a time people were even maindecking it to fight the flying menaces.) After the weekend it looked like G/x ramp splashing removal and U/W levellers were the best decks, and G/W Aura Gnarlids was the most unexpectedly powerful deck.

Mostly sated, and much more savvy after the weekend of drafting we returned our gaze to Standard. We talked a little format with Patrick Chapin before he left, and he suggested that the Block format was defined by the pillars of mono-Red aggro with Devastating Summons for speed, U/W with Jace and Gideon as the control, and Summoning Trap as the combo manifestation. This sounded right as we had version of two of the three pillars built already and were fairly sure we needed to build some sort of U/W deck.

Before we got much further with our U/G build of Summoning Trap, an online discussion emerged about how many trap targets was the right number to avoid fizzling. The math looked like it was at least 10, and preferably 11. We thought we’d been whiffing a little too often, and had not yet decided how to fix it. Jacob Van Lunen proposed what would prove to be a very consistent solution to make the deck do what we had in mind:

Hellcarver Demon essentially assured that eventually the deck was going to find some Pelakka Wurms. This deck probably had the best record against Mono-Red of any of our trap decks, and was fun as you could actually get the cast triggers off of your Eldrazi. Having multiple builds that proved capable, we decided that Red was beatable, and wondered what else might exist in the format.

We experimented with some U/B control decks with Gatekeeper of Malakir, Jace the Mind Sculptor, and Prophetic Prism to tie the whole package together. Countermagic seemed reasonable in the format, and when coupled with Consuming Vapors, Vampire Nighthawks, and some Jwar Isle Refuges the deck seemed to have game against red. We thought Sadistic Sacrament might be a sweet tool against Eldrazi (since we thought most Eldrazi decks would just run one of each like Zvi’s deck) and that being able to rebuy Bloodhusk Ritualist with Jace would be pretty brutal against controlling strategies. We needed Consume the Meek to kill tokens and another card to kill a big guy and then another threat would come down, and it just felt like the answers weren’t as good as the questions that were being asked.

For some reason we kept putting off building White/Blue control, even though you could almost play the same deck in Block as was doing well in Standard. It wouldn’t be until I got to New York that Sam Black showed us just how wrong we were not to be looking at this deck. However, New York and developments there will come next week. For now I leave the story in Madison, having an inkling of how to draft, and the beginnings of the format as we imagined it to be.

Until then…