Black Magic – Reflections on Austin

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Tuesday, October 20th – Sam Black tells a Texan tale today, sharing his preparation and choices for Pro Tour: Austin. While his performance didn’t set the tournament alight, the lessons he learned before the event are helpful to all. He also highlights the strength of drafting Mono Red in Zendikar Draft…

I’m writing this from the passenger seat of Brian Kowal’s car while we drive from Austin to Atlanta, where we’ll be spending the week before heading to Tampa. I don’t currently know where I’m going to sleep tonight, or for the next few days. Austin was forgettable and a bit disappointing. The deck I played was nothing special, but not terrible, which could also be said for its 3-2 performance. My draft was a 1-2 that could easily have been a 3-0 if cards had come up in a very slightly different order, or if I’d won a die roll. It would be easy to put the tournament behind me and move on, but I think there’s actually a very important lesson for me to learn from this tournament, specifically about tournament preparation.

For this tournament, I basically just worked with Gaudenis, with some input from Brian Kowal and other Madison players. We started with a pretty solid Zoo list, and played 10 game sets with it, against whatever random decks we heard people talking about or whatever I tried to build. The Zoo deck won at least half the games in every session against every deck we played against it, so we played that. There was a Merfolk deck I built that played out pretty well that I was interested in working on, but we didn’t feel we had time or a good enough reason to make sure it was good.

In our testing, I feel like we didn’t really miss any general ideas or powerful things going on in the format. I built a Blue Punishing Fire deck and a Naya Punishing Fire deck. We tried Dredge, Hypergenesis, Tron, Burn, various Goyf Blue decks, Gifts, 5cc, 5cZoo, Dark Depths, and some other things. We knew Martyr of Sands was good against Zoo and could beat other decks, but we didn’t want to put much time into it because we both play pretty slowly and we thought we would get too many draws if we played it.

The problem with our testing was that we didn’t put enough effort into making good lists for our test decks. We were modeling our Dredge decks off last season’s list with Magus of the Bazaar, and “upgraded” it with Burning Inquiry and concluded that it was slow, inconsistent, and terrible. We should have understood that Dredge was a very powerful strategy that just got a lot of new tools, and worked to build a version that actually worked before dismissing it.

The same thing applies to Hypergenesis. The list we started with didn’t have good enough creatures or mana, and the deck just never won, even if we did manage to play a Hypergenesis, but we were mostly losing to Path to Exile, and didn’t bother trying to upgrade our creatures to Iona or Progenitus. When I built Punishing Fire I wanted to build a late game Naya deck with efficient removal to take us there (I quickly concluded that I wanted Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile in any deck I played that wasn’t a combo deck). I figured Eternal Witness would be great at returning such efficient cards, and that Kitchen Finks would be a good way to get to the late game. Neither of those cards does enough for 3 mana in this format, and Punishing Fire by itself should give me enough card advantage that I shouldn’t be wasting mana trying to grind Eternal Witness as well in the same deck.

I had also realized that I felt like it was hard to build a deck that really had inevitability in this format, because the removal is so efficient and the threats are so powerful. Blue decks could stabilize and resolve an Ancestral Visions or two, and then hit a clump of lands and lose anyway. Tarmogoyfs were good, but would often just get Pathed. My Naya deck was having the same problem, where even when it made it to the late game, I didn’t have enough power to be sure I’d win. Baneslayer helped a lot, but I wasn’t playing Knight of the Reliquary, which was definitely needed in that deck to actually finish a game.

I think the problem stemmed from our goal of just getting sets of 10 games done rather than trying to build the best versions of every deck that we could. I should have taken time after every game to reevaluate our list and change a few cards based on how the deck was playing out, and not worried about results until I couldn’t find anything else to change. I knew before we finished the 10 games that Eternal Witness wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do, but I didn’t just stop and take it out, even though I had already had a similar experience with Trinket Mage in testing.

Part of this, I think, is that we were too afraid of missing something big. We wanted to try as many different decks as possible because we didn’t want to get caught up on a few lists and totally miss whatever new best deck came out. In hindsight, I think we would have been better off working with good versions of half of the field than bad versions of everything. At least then we’d be testing our deck against some real opposition.

The list I settled on was the exact same 75 card maindeck that we first started our testing with, suggested to us by Jasper Johnson-Epstein, a local player who’s played a lot of Zoo and played this list at the PTQ at Nationals and loved it. We played:

The list is basically built around the idea that Treetop Village is awesome against other control and creature decks, but a little weak against combo. Relative to other Zoo decks, Woolly Thoctar, Bloodbraid Elf, and Treetop Village are all there to make things as hard as possible for Blue decks. Bloodbraid Elf is probably worse in the mirror than Ranger of Eos, and Woolly Thoctar is probably worse than Knight of the Reliquary, but neither of these is always true, and Treetop Village is very good. Treetops make the deck a little slower than other Zoo decks, which is why we went with Thoctar and Bloodbraid Elf. They are faster than the other options, to keep our combo game reasonable. The list played out very well and felt pretty reasonable to me, but it wasn’t doing anything for which other people would be completely unprepared.

In the first round of the tournament, I beat an extremely unlucky Martyr of Sands player who mulled to 5 in game 1 and never drew a second land, so all I saw was Godless Shrine. I didn’t really know what he was playing, so I sided out my Jittes for Oblivion Rings. In game 2 he played a few removal spells, but didn’t find any real card advantage or life gain, and I killed him.

In the second round, I narrowly lost in 3 games to a Bant deck. My draws in the second two games were pretty bad, and at one point in the third game we both had basically nothing, and he drew spells while I drew lands for several turns. It was a relatively interactive match for this format, particularly in game 1 when we both had a bunch of creatures in play. I took something Gaudenis had told me recently to heart, that the deck doesn’t need to play as if it just has to clock the opponent. It has huge creatures and can often just play for the late game, and in creature matchups, trading bad creatures for good ones and fighting for board control is more important that pushing damage. I managed to do a lot of that, sending exalted Wild Nacatls in to trade with Rhox War Monks, and making similarly profitable blocks, while letting him go from single digit life back up to 17 before I eventually took the game with a Jitte.

In the third round I played against Dark Depths. It was the first time I’d played against a reasonable build of the deck, and I think I didn’t play it well. He had the Dark Depths and Hexmage right away (turn 2), but I had 2 Path to Exiles in hand. At the end of his turn when he played the Hexmage, I Lightning Helixed him to go to 21 so that I could eventually live through a hit from Dark Depths rather than Forcing him to use the Hexmage. From there he played a much more controlling game than I was expecting, keeping his Hexmage in play and playing a Vendilion Clique, and making sure it was safe before using his Hexmage, so I lost. If I had just Helixed his Hexmage, there’s a reasonably good chance that I would have Pathed his token on the next turn and won that game.

In the next round I played against Dark Depths again and got pretty lucky. I forced him to use his Hexmage before my turn and played a Bloodbraid Elf and managed to hit Path to Exile to kill his token and win the game. In the last game I kept a bad hand whose only pressure was Gaddock Teeg, which immediately got Thoughtseized, but I drew more pressure and he didn’t draw his combo, flooded, and lost.

In the last round of the Constructed portion I played against Mono Green Elf Combo. In the first game he mulled and stuck on one land, and in the second game he didn’t manage to go off before I got a Jitte online.

In hindsight, it feels like I only won when I got lucky and my opponent’s draws were just terrible, but I guess I was playing a deck that’s supposed to capitalize particularly well on that. Like I said, the tournament was pretty forgettable.

Before the draft I had a short conversation with Patrick Chapin in which he mentioned that he wanted to be Mono Red, and suggested that he’d first pick Burst Lightning over almost anything. I thought about it, and realized that, overall, Mono Red has had an amazing win percentage in the drafts I’ve been in, and that, if it’s coming at all, it’s often the best deck. So when I opened a Burst Lightning, I was pretty happy to try to move in, but a little disappointed that Plated Geopede might have been the next best card in the pack. I second picked a Plated Geopede over a Journey to Nowhere, hoping to avoid a second color, and it basically worked out. I ended up a little short on playables, but I was pretty happy to be playing 19 lands anyway. My deck was:

1 Burst Lightning
1 Highland Berserker
2 Plated Geopede
3 Zektar Shrine Expedition
1 Goblin War Paint
2 Molten Ravager
2 Hellfire Mongrel
1 Slaughter Cry
1 Mark of Mutiny
1 Goblin Ruinblaster
1 Bladetusk Boar
1 Shatterskull Giant
1 Geyser Glider
2 Spire Barrage
3 Soaring Seacliff
1 Teetering Peaks
15 Mountain

I wasn’t sure how many Seacliffs I should play, but I figured with 19 lands I could probably play Mountains most of the time that I wanted to anyway, and I thought the Jump ability might provide some useful reach. Asking around, opinions varied on what I should have done. I sided them out when my opponents had fliers.

During the draft I passed a lot of extremely powerful cards including Emeria Angel, Sphinx of Lost Truths, Luminarch Ascension, and Rampaging Baloths, but I wasn’t too worried because they mostly seemed like relatively slow cards that my deck wouldn’t have much of a problem with. I did end up losing to Emeria Angel, though.

I would gladly try to draft that archetype again, and I liked the deck a lot. It’s trying to do exactly what I want to try to do in this format, which is win races, and it does it pretty well. I was particularly impressed by Mark of Mutiny, which I hadn’t played before.

I’ve almost never felt like a deck in this format has had too many lands. People I talked to seemed to want my deck to be 17 or 18 lands, but 19 felt right to me. 17 is crazy given how much landfall I had, even if I cut all the Blue lands, and with 19 I lost my second round entirely because I couldn’t hit my 5th land drop by about turn 8. The format is such much more about racing and tempo than card advantage that flooding a bit doesn’t usually matter that much, but missing a land drop puts you so far behind on tempo and damage that it’s often impossible to recover from it. It takes very little landfall in a deck to make me want to increase the land count significantly, and I think, even though 18 does seem to be the norm, that people haven’t fully adjusted yet.

I finished 177th, good enough to get the 3rd pro point to hit 30 (and level 6). From here I’ll be playing in a GP every weekend until Worlds to try to get 10 more points this season, so I hope I manage to find time to test a lot while traveling. I’m still not sure where to go with Standard or Extended, but I’m looking forward to studying results and figuring it out.

Thanks for reading, and I think I’ll see a lot of you at the upcoming GPs.