Black Magic – Pro Tour Philadelphia *3rd* Place

Sam’s initial doubts about running poison at the Pro Tour were quickly wiped away after trying out the deck. Read about his first Pro Tour Top 8 at Philadelphia and the journey to his amazing finish.

Black Magic — Pro Tour Philadelphia *3rd* Place

It’s hard to know where to start.

In the week leading up to the PT, I thought about writing an article with a title something like “A Modern Approach” about how to understand the chaotic new format that was Modern. It would be about classifying decks and understanding which broad groups of strategies were good against others and why. It would have given “Tribal”—anything from Combo Elves, to Goblins to Affinity, where the strength of the deck is based on compounding synergies—potentially a little more weight than they ended up deserving based on how the tournament played out. Anyway, I didn’t end up writing that article, mostly because any time I would have set aside for it, I devoted to actually testing instead. Can’t say I regret any of that in the least.

This article won’t be that article, but I will discuss my understanding of the driving forces in the format leading up to the PT a little.

In Pittsburgh, Patrick Chapin said he thought the format had an evolution from Wild Nacatl to Cloudpost to Preordain, and then back to Wild Nacatl with Knight of the Reliquary. In our testing, we got to Preordain and stopped and couldn’t find any reason not to just play the best Preordain deck. I guess maybe Josh Utter-Leyton’s deck was an example of this mysterious fourth step, but I was quite happy with where we ended up.

The format looked pretty straightforward. The banned list at first seemed to hit everything but Zoo, so Zoo was the obvious best deck. In a world where Zoo is the most obvious deck, combo seemed like a good place to be. Well—I’m getting slightly ahead of myself.

When I first saw the list, my inclination was to try to build a sweet Reveillark deck. Reveillark hasn’t generally been great, but it’s generally been kept in check by Bitterblossom, which wouldn’t exist. It seemed easy to grind an advantage against Zoo.

Then I realized that Scapeshifting for Cloudposts would allow absurdly fast Emrakuls. I knew other people respected Cloudpost, but I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t want to Scapeshift for them. I think the answer ended up being that Through the Breach was better.

Either way, Cloudpost looked to be very good against Zoo, but we couldn’t get it to keep up with any of the combo decks that beat Zoo.

We quickly found that Zoo was “good” but lost to combo and Cloudpost, and Cloudpost lost to combo. Combo lost to… maybe other combo? The format seemed confusingly straightforward, and for almost all of our testing we were tuning combo decks and trying to figure out what we were missing.

Anyway, two weeks before the PT John Stolzmann found me on Magic Online and said he had a deck that could kill on turn two that he was excited about and wanted to test, but first he had to know if I could keep it a secret. That was awkward because I was already committed to working with the team I always work with, but I figured it probably wasn’t anything special, and I wanted to help him out, so I agreed.

He played an early version of the Mono-Blue Poison deck against me. It seemed cute, but it looked like it couldn’t beat Zoo. He said we should try it, and I put together a Zoo deck, and we played some games, and he was able to win a surprising number of them. I was impressed. The deck definitely needed some work, but it was really promising.

I built my guess as to how it should look and played a bunch of solitaire games on Magic Online. These were my notes:

turn 4 with muddle backup

turn 3 with pierce on turn 2, or going off later with pierce/muddle backup

turn 3 with probe same turn and options on turn 4 with muddle

turn 3 with pact and shoal on 2 backup

turn 3 with pact backup

turn 3 with probe same turn and a lot of play

turn 3 with muddle

turn 4 with pierce and probe (and 3 preordains and a muddle if i have to go long based on probe)

turn 5 with pierce :( — tolaria west slowed things down a lot

turn 4 with 2 pierce and a pact backup (and seeing their hand on turn 1, and a second nexus)

turn 4 with pierce and dispel backup

turn 2

turn 3 with pierce backup (and an extra shoal/king in case they just had a counter)

turn 2

turn 3 with muddle + pierce backup


mulling once to make up for modo giving the draw:

turn 4 with d shoal on 1 or 2 backup

turn 3 with no backup or turn 4 with spell pierce and pact of negation

turn 2

turn 3 with pierce backup

turn 3 with dispel backup

turn 4 with peaks (on a mulligan that i might not have had to take if i could have seen my whole hand, and options on delaying a turn for pierce backup)

turn 3 (mulligan)

turn 3 with pierce/shoal for 1 or 2 backup

turn 4 with peaks and shoal for 1 backup

turn 2 with peaks and pact of negation backup

That looked unreasonably good, and it quickly became a frontrunner for the deck I wanted to play. John would text me regularly about changes he wanted to try, and after a couple days I said it wasn’t fair to my team to put serious time into this deck if I couldn’t talk to them about it and convinced him to let me email it to them.

I believe John will be writing an article about the details of the evolution of the deck, but the important thing is that in testing, it was beating everything I could realistically imagine people playing.

It seemed like it couldn’t possibly beat Doran, because Spellskite, Thoughtseize, Gaddock Teeg, and Doran, the Siege Tower himself are all nightmares for us, but how could anyone play that deck? It didn’t seem possible to give it game against Cloudpost.

Martin Goldman-Kirst had a build of Grixis Teachings with Tectonic Edge, Ghost Quarter, and Vendilion Clique that I had a horrible time beating, but I just didn’t see anyone trying to build a control deck for this particular tournament. The field was just too open. Still, finding that weakness is the exact reason my sideboard had two copies of Jace Beleren.

Let me try to get a little chronological with the days leading up to the PT:

After Pittsburgh, I went to New York City to test for the PT, mostly because going home to Madison and then back to the east coast didn’t make much sense to me, especially since people were getting together in New York. This made things slightly awkward for Lex, my girlfriend, who I had suggested coming with me to Philadelphia, since her parents live near there.

She got the weekend off work and flew to meet me there, but her parents live over 45 minutes from downtown, and I was busy with the tournament, so I wouldn’t really get to see her much. My plan was to finish the tournament on Saturday, have her and her parents come to maybe watch my last round and see what the tournament looks like, and then go home with them and hang out with them on Sunday. That plan didn’t really work out.

Anyway, New York. We drove there on Monday after GP Pittsburgh. It was a pretty long trip, so we didn’t get in until fairly late in the evening. We (Alex West, Lauren Lee, Brian Kowal, and I) went straight to Zvi’s to meet up and test with Zaiem Beg, Martin Goldman-Kirst, and Tom Martell. Zvi was already asleep.

I was planning to stay in Gau’s apartment, but he had accidentally left the volume off on his phone when he went to sleep, so I went to Jon Finkel with Tom Martell that night instead. Jon was already asleep when we got there, but I slept on some of his chairs. When he got up in the morning, he said I could move to his bed—I should note that the night before the GP I couldn’t sleep, so I basically hadn’t had a reasonable night’s sleep in 5-6 days at this point. I slept for a couple hours before BK showed up and we started testing; then people started showing up to draft in the evening. I watched a few drafts, did horribly in one draft, and tested while they drafted.

Most of the team was planning to play the Grapeshot Storm deck Ben Dempsey (who built the Mono-Black Infect deck we played at the last PT) had built. It was a good deck, but aside from a slightly better Zoo matchup, it didn’t seem to have a lot going for it over the poison deck to me, and it seemed like it might get hated out. They figured out adding Pyromancer Ascension to the deck over some of the backup bad storm cards (Ignite Memories/Empty the Warrens), and that change looked really good to me, but it still wasn’t enough.

I encouraged people to build new decks that went in directions we hadn’t gone yet, just to make sure we’d tested against anything that might show up. I learned that Poison did well against Affinity even though they have flying blockers and a clock, which was something I’d been worried about. BK built a midrange Lightning Angel control deck with Disrupting Shoal, Compulsive Research, and cheap removal. I thought it had enough of a clock, plus removal, counters, fliers, Vendilion Clique specifically, that it might be a problem, but I somehow managed to go 5-2 against it in our first games and decided it would be alright since other people wanted to try playing storm against it.

Basically, my testing in NYC made it clear that the deck was much more resistant to removal and any other “hate” people might actually play than it appears on paper. I’d finish playing a set against something, announce my record, remind everyone that I’d been beating everything, and move on to the next opponent. No one except Zaiem seemed to care much though.

I was mostly interested in figuring out what I could possibly lose to so that I’d know what I needed to sideboard.

Spellskite, one of the first cards Jon suggested that he wanted, always looked like it would be awesome, so it was an easy four of. Whenever we played a deck with Vendilion Clique, the card dramatically overperformed. It didn’t seem to have much of a home in this format, but it was an absurdly powerful card in itself. That was enough to convince me that I wanted access to it against other combo decks. Jace was my answer to control decks, and from there, it was just about making sure the other cards would give me a way to have an out to anything that might be a problem.

Right before the tournament, Alex West and BK finally got a little curious about the deck. Alex borrowed my copy to play around with, but convinced himself it didn’t have enough creatures or blue sources and that the deck just didn’t work. I’d played over a hundred games at this point, so I wasn’t too worried about it; I knew how well the deck worked.

Sometime while I was in New York, we saw that Blazing Shoal decks had started popping up on Magic Online. I was disappointed because I’d hoped people wouldn’t know what was going on when I played a Blighted Agent, but I’d been testing assuming people knew what I was doing and just assuming that things might go even better than that in the real tournament. However I was happy with the numbers even without surprise value, and besides, the lists online looked worse than mine, especially their sideboards.

The fact that the secret was out meant that I could play a few matches on Magic Online with the deck without really hurting anything. I won all of them, which helped me feel better about my deck choice.

Thinking about the fact that no one had written about this deck, but that it had just started to show up on Magic Online, I started to worry that maybe this tournament would be Berlin all over again, but with Poison instead of Elves. Unlikely, but I grabbed some Gut Shots from Gau’s collection in case drastic measures had to be taken when I got to the tournament. At least I’d have Spellskites, Jaces, and Vendilion Cliques either way.

When I got to the tournament site, I found Cedric playing a game with a Blighted Agent in play. I immediately pointed and yelled, “Same deck!” and asked if he wanted to discuss it. The meter we parked at was about to expire, but he and Ben Lundquist—who wasn’t qualified but had worked with Cedric—walked to the car with me, and we discussed the differences in our decks. He was splashing black for Thoughtseize and a pair of Plague Stingers. I told him Disrupting Shoal was awesome and that I was playing Spell Pierce over Pact of Negation so that I could interact with my opponent’s game plan more.

I think I also told him about Peer Through Depths, which I don’t think he was playing. Then he told me about Snapback. I’d completely forgotten about this card because it’s never been the bounce spell people go to in Constructed for their combo decks, probably because it only bounces creatures, but the fact that you could transmute for it and then play it for free was huge. I was a little scared about cutting Echoing Truth for it because I wouldn’t be able to answer resolved non-creatures in game 1, but there were very few of them that I was worried about, and the upside was huge. Besides, Snapback, unlike Echoing Truth, could actually bounce an opposing Nexus.

That was the last change to my deck, but it was a big one. Thanks again, Cedric. It directly won my second match of the tournament, against Paulo, and was better in a number of other places as well.

I woke up early the morning of the tournament and wondered if Cedric was right about Thoughtseize and thought that maybe I should be splashing black.

When Zvi woke up, I asked him what I should do, and he said black was definitely wrong. Good enough. I was more comfortable with my deck as it was anyway.

I felt good in the morning on the way to the tournament. Confident in a way I haven’t been in a long time, and more motivated to do well than usual.

On our way to the tournament I explained to Tom Martell that if I get a “one time,” I would want to use it on this tournament. I felt good about it; I liked my deck; I’d actually played enough Constructed, which is rare; I definitely needed the points this year; and my girlfriend and her mom would be there, and it would be awesome to be able to impress them.

For reference, I registered:

In the first round I sat next to Martin Juza; before we started playing, we both flashed each other Blazing Shoals… Wow, was it really happening? Was this just going to be Blazing Shoal’s tournament?

Good thing I bought 25 of them on Magic Online, I guess.

An aside on speculating: I’m quietly the worst trader/speculator in history. The last card I tried speculating on was Knucklebone Witch. Right after Lorwyn came out. At one ticket each.

For this tournament I finally figured it out. Wait until I have a deck I know is awesome, then buy the key card in it, then play it in a PT to a notable finish. 3,000% profit. Easy game.

Anyway, back to the tournament. I saw Martin’s hand. He was playing G/B Poison with Glistener Elf and Spoils of the Vault. Game one, he mulliganed to five and won on turn 2.

Meanwhile, I was struggling to beat Zoo.

He won his next game on turn 3, and I started to worry that I was just going to get crushed by this faster poison deck. The drawback was that they had to spend life—I couldn’t punish them for that at all.

I managed to win my first match. It wasn’t easy, and it went to three games, I think. Zoo’s always such a grind.

Next round I had a feature match against Paulo. Time to see how my deck would do against this faster Poison deck. I hoped my counters were good enough.

Only it turned out he was not playing Poison. He was playing Zoo. Still not the matchup I was looking for, but I managed to narrowly win in three games again.

I loved my deck, but I really needed to work for it. Couldn’t I just have a relaxing easy match against Cloudpost or some other non-interactive deck?

In round three I played against Splinter Twin. I won game one. My sideboard plan for this match was to assume that neither one of us was ever really going to be able to win. It’s hard for either side to win if the other has Spellskite, and we both had more counters and removal than actual threats. I sided in Jace, Vendilion Clique, all the removal—almost my entire sideboard, and dramatically decreased the combo in my deck.

I got stuck on three lands. I was going to have to discard, so I tapped out for Jace. I thought it was pretty safe. I had Spellskite in play, Slaughter Pact and Snapback in hand, and I had a Dismember that I’d be able to cast if I drew a land.

I didn’t draw a land, and he Echoing Truthed my Spellskite and cast Splinter Twin on his Deceiver Exarch with two Dispels to protect it. It was pretty clear that we wouldn’t have time to finish game three.

There was one turn where I could draw one of my few remaining combo pieces to kill him in extra turns, but it didn’t happen, and I moved into the draw bracket.

So of course, in the draw bracket I played against Affinity. Game one both of us had really slow draws. He put his hand into play, but it was just some random dorks that attacked for four a turn. The turn before I was going to kill him, I had Muddle the Mixture in hand with two Islands untapped. The only cards he could draw that did anything were Cranial Plating and Arcbound Ravager, either of which killed me. He drew Ravager. Game 3 I managed to get to a point where I had a pretty large number of cards I could draw to win, didn’t, and lost.

Round five I was playing against Zoo again, and this time with Thoughtseize. I hadn’t tested against maindeck Thoughtseize, but it turns out it’s a complete nightmare, and I lost pretty handily.

A disappointing 2-2-1 start with a deck I was pretty sure was awesome, and I needed to 3-0 my draft to make day two.

I could do that. It’s draft.

I opened Mind Control and got passed Jace’s Archivist. Things went downhill a bit from there. Blue wasn’t completely open, and I wasn’t seeing a clear second color. I took a Llanowar Elves and a Carnage Wurm, but mostly I was just getting a lot of unplayables, but at least it was mostly because the packs were just weak. Pack two I opened Jace and, I thought I took 14 blue cards. Pack three I opened Grim Lavamancer, which would be much better in what was shaping up to be a dedicated mill deck.

I was terrified, by the way, of the fact that I was drafting a mill, since I’d never seen the archetype win a single match, but I knew the cards I had were very powerful. I was rewarded by my decisions to take the red card by another Grim Lavamancer, and I ended up with this beast of a deck:

2 Grim Lavamancer
1 Phantasmal Bear
3 Merfolk Mesmerist
1 Lord of the Unreal
2 Jace’s Archivist
1 Aether Adept
2 Aven Fleetwing
1 Bonebreaker Giant
1 Unsummon
1 Ponder
1 Turn to Frog
1 Mana Leak
1 Jace’s Erasure
1 Cancel
1 Divination
1 Frost Breath
1 Jace, Memory Adept
1 Mind Control
12 Island
5 Mountain

It should have been 11 Island 6 Mountain, and it probably should have had Crumbling Colossus over either Turn to Frog or the Giant, but it didn’t matter.

In the first round I played against a R/W deck with a lot of burn and an Elixir of Immortality. Fortunately, he misplayed in game three and allowed my Jace’s Archivist to kill him in response to his activating the Elixir.

My next two matches were both against U/W decks, which meant they had no real way to deal with my utility creatures, so I won easily, especially since the first one had a game loss for not registering his sideboard cards (because a table judge told him he didn’t have to—rough beat).

So I ended at a mediocre 5-2-1. Nothing to be excited about, but I was still optimistic.

My second draft started out much worse. I took a Wring Flesh first pick and then a Timely Reinforcements and some Deathmarks. (I think the powerful sideboard cards are generally underrated, and I’m pretty happy to use high picks on them even if I don’t plan to play them in my maindeck.)

Later in the pack I wasn’t really seeing any black or white. I got a sixth pick Azure Mage, which confused me, because aside from that, blue didn’t seem especially open. I rounded out the pack with some Rampant Growths and Manalith and figured we’d see what happened.

Pack two I started on Merfolk Looter and Jade Mage and settled into a multicolor U/G deck.

In the third pack I opened Inferno Titan, which was the one color I didn’t have any of, with Sengir Vampire and Acidic Slime. Obviously I took the Titan and second picked an Incinerate.

That left me with:

1 Llanowar Elves
2 Merfolk Looter
1 Runeclaw Bear
1 Jade Mage
1 Azure Mage
1 Sacred Wolf
1 Cudgel Troll
1 Giant Spider
1 Stingerfling Spider
1 Acidic Slime
1 Chasm Drake
1 Vastwood Gorger
1 Inferno Titan
1 Carnage Wurm
1 Ponder
1 Unsummon
1 Elixir of Immortality
1 Incinerate
1 Plummet
2 Rampant Growth
1 Manalith
1 Divination
8 Forest
6 Island
2 Mountain

I probably should have played the second Manalith over the second Rampant Growth.

I won both games in my first round with the second half of the lethal Sorin’s Vengeance + seven mana combo on top of my opponent’s library.

Next round I played against a G/W deck I felt I had a very favorable matchup against. In the second game I was set up to play Inferno Titan and a string of removal spells, but he Acidic Slimed my Manalith, which left me unable to really do anything. Dejected, I passed the turn without really thinking about it, and once I realized that I was going to have to Incinerate my opponent’s Acidic Slime, I realized that waiting until his turn was horrible. He had the Titanic Growth, and I died.

In the third game, he mulliganed to three cards, and my hand was awesome. Something like Forest, Forest, Manalith, Manalith, Merfolk Looter, Deathmark, Inferno Titan. I felt I had at least a 5-1 finish locked up here, and I was actually looking good going into the second half on Modern.

He passed the turn without playing a land on turn one. I played my Forest and passed.

On turn 2 he played forest, Llanowar Elves. I played my Forest and passed.

On turn 3 he played Garruk’s Companion. I discarded.

Somehow, five turns later, I was dead.

I won the last round 2-0 against a B/W deck that didn’t seem terribly impressive, and it was back to Modern, where I’d have to win out to top eight.

And honestly, I don’t remember the details.

It was a string of better matchups than I’d had before. Affinity, Storm, Post, Birthing Pod, and something else. For most of the tournament, I was able to not think too much about the tournament as a whole, just play my deck, which was very fun, and win pretty easily. My deck played pretty much how I imagined it would.

Before the last round I called Lex to tell her that I only needed to win one more round to top 8, and that if I did that, I should probably stay downtown so that I could test, and she might not want to bother coming down tonight. I said I’d call her after my next round, when I knew.

After winning my last round in an absurdly small number of turns, as featured here, I called her back to say I’d done it, and I’d be staying there tonight, but that it would be awesome if she could come watch my first top eight the next day.

Afterwards, all my friends and teammates congratulated me and offered to help test and asked what my plans were and if I needed them. I had no idea. I was overwhelmed and didn’t want to try to plan ahead. I needed food, and I needed to test, but I didn’t know when or where, and I wanted help from whoever could help me.

I did specifically ask one person if he’d have a chance to help me prepare: Jon Finkel.

He seemed like a pretty good choice for a testing partner for my first top eight.

The plan was to move straight to figuring out my semifinals matches, since my match in the quarters was so easy, but we decided to make sure it was fine after sideboarding first.

Jon played the Cloudpost side against me. He won games. Multiple games. There was actually enough removal that winning was hard, and Punishing Fire was a real problem. This was unacceptable. I had to win this match. We played a 20-game set so that I’d be sure I knew what to do. I won 12 of them. Not as good as I’d hoped, but still a very good matchup.

Meanwhile, Gau and Zvi were in New York working out the Splinter Twin matchup—the report wasn’t good. Zvi was playing the Twin side and quickly figured out that he should just leave all his mana up all the time and never try to combo, and Gau couldn’t win. Bad news. I guess I’d just have to hope my opponent wouldn’t figure that out.

Drew Levin, Tom Martell, John Stolzmann, and Alex West worked on the Zoo matchup in the room while I played Jon. That was sounding bad too.

I was disappointed that I couldn’t be the one playing my deck in all of these test games, since I already knew that other people were getting worse results with the deck than I was, but there was only so much time. I had to trust people on what they learned and hope that I could find a way to pick the percentage up a bit, but I was crashing and needed sleep.

Several people had lent me cards and decks to use so that we could have everyone testing. They were left scattered across the hotel room, so in the morning I had to pack all those up to bring with me to the site. I didn’t have a good way to carry them, so I had to bring my suitcase with me. This meant I was a little late, but it wasn’t too bad. I was still there well before we were supposed to start playing.

The top eight was covered in detail by Wizards.

Everyone’s question is why I chose to draw first. Drew texted me late Saturday night with the sideboard plan: -2 Island, -4 Muddle the Mixture, +4 Spellskite, +1 Slaughter Pact, +1 Echoing Truth, choose to draw.

He’d been playing the match, and at a certain point, if I’m going to delegate, I have to trust their results. More importantly, it all made sense.

Muddle the Mixture is slow and very bad against Aven Mindcensor. Without it, I only really need two mana to operate, so I could trim lands, but going to 17 lands on the play just didn’t seem realistic. Moreover, his removal was cheap, and he wasn’t going to play aggressively; he was going to side into a control deck. The game wasn’t about racing; it was about setting up answers to all his answers.

I wasn’t sure drawing was right—how could I be? I just knew that the reasoning made sense, and it was consistent with my plan.

It was disappointing to lose game five when I had been so confident I’d win when I cast Peer Through Depths at the end of his turn, but I can’t complain about this tournament.

I got my first top eight and the second Pro Tour my girlfriend was around for, the first being my first Pro Tour, Honolulu 2006. It was a huge honor to hear the crowd cheering when I won, and largely silent when I lost, especially with Lex and her mom present, so thanks to the crowd in general for your support. It meant a lot to me.

I succeeded with an awesome deck, and it was very fun. Honestly, a disproportionately huge part of what I’m happy about with this finish was having a chance to showcase this deck for the world in the top eight. It was an impressive machine, and a pleasure to introduce the world to it.

Huge thanks again to John Stolzmann for designing the core of the deck, Cedric for the last-minute Snapback tech, Jon Finkel and the others who helped me prepare for the top eight, my team for the tournament, and all the Madison drafters for helping me to prepare for the tournament.