Doing It For The Points – A Grand Prix: Phoenix Report *T8*

In his quest to reach the mystical Level 4 of the Pro Player Club, Raphael Levy was willing to venture forth to the sweltering climes of Phoenix, Arizona, for his first taste of a U.S. Grand Prix. His trip was worth it… This report takes a final glance at the passing of Ravnica, and shares each of Raphael’s Coldsnap drafts. The Hall of Fame Pro Tour stalwart proved to himself that he can still rumble with the best. The best players, the best writers… only at StarCityGames.com!

Desperately looking for Pro Tour points in a summer short of events, the Dutchies (Frank, Julien, and Jelger), Geoffrey, and I decided to attend Grand Prix: Phoenix and try to collect what we need to level up. After two disappointing Pro Tours — Honolulu and Prague – where I scored 4 points in total, I knew I wasn’t safe. I could scrub out twice in a row in the next two PTs. Needing only two extra points to level up to Level 4 this season (it’s actually six points, but I have four secure with both Pro Tours), I didn’t want to skip one of the few opportunities we had left to score some. We all had our own reasons to attend, though they were largely the same, and we booked our flights to arrive on the Friday and to leave on the Monday. No sightseeing planned. Fifteen hours of flight, twice, to play a Grand Prix… we needed to have some motivation there! That was the second GP I’ve played in the U.S. The first one was in Columbus for the Team Grand Prix where I played with the two brothers, a week or two before Worlds in Toronto. It was on the way, so it didn’t take that much investment to go.

So there we were! Phoenix, Arizona! 40-50°C (100-120°F) in the middle of… well, nowhere! For a European, walking a mile to find the first store is a loooong distance. But it was definitely an exotic trip for us. Europe was rainy at that time, and it was comforting to see that the good old Sun was somewhere.

We all arrived at different times and had one night to recover from the jetlag.

Let’s start talking about some Magic!

We’re at the tournament site, at 10:20am, and we’re given our Sealed decks. After a deep sight, I opened mine, because it can all come down to this…

Here’s the deck I built:

Relevant sideboard cards:
Sundering Vitae
Sporeback Troll
Odds / Ends
Guardian of the Guildpact
Vedalken Entrancer
Might of the Nephilim
Surveilling Sprite
Torch Drake
Scatter the Seeds

A few things about my deck:

It had a solid manabase, and overall good quality cards. It was missing bomb rares.
The splash for Faith Fetters and Seal of Fire was efficient, as the deck was short on removal and they do a pretty good job when Dowsing Shaman is around. They were not so hard to cast, thanks to my two Terraformers (including a foil one), the dual lands, and my Signets. Even though I had Civic Wayfinder, playing a Plains and a Mountain would have been a mistake as there’s a lot more chances that those lands hinder my manabase than they actually help my two-card splash. In the end, I never had a problem.
The last cards I cut from the deck before giving the decklist back: Sporeback Troll (that I really like with Shambling Shell), Surveilling Sprite, and Scatter the Seeds. I like all these cards, but I couldn’t find any room for them.
Odds / Ends: I tried to figure if I had a way to include that one in the deck. But with no Plains and no Mountains, that would have been a dead card most of the time. The rest of my pool didn’t include enough playable White and Red cards, so I just left it aside.

The only changes after sideboard I made during the rounds were:

Cutting the Skysweeper for a Scatter the Seeds against decks with very few/no flyers and ground beef.
Cutting a Signet for either Scatter the Seeds or Surveilling Sprite… when I felt like it!

I played the following guys on Day 1:

Round 4 : Brian C. Smith *61st*
Round 5 : Jonathan E. Sonne *17th*
Round 6 : Riad S. Mourssali *28th*
Round 7 : Noah B. Sandler *58th*
Round 8 : Michael B. Jordan *66th*

I had good matches that day, against nice opponents, all good sports. I lost my one match of the day to Riad. Michael, my last opponent, unfortunately didn’t make it (he finished 66th) after I declined to draw into Day 2. The games themselves were interesting, but they wouldn’t sound as good as in real life (and the format is essentially dead), so I’ll spare you from them.

Back to the room, and Geoffrey, Julien, and I were all 7-1, while Frank and Jelger failed to make Day 2. I felt pretty satisfied with my day. After a month without playing too much Magic – I was travelling, visiting some friends in Europe and my parents in France — it felt that the Magic was flowing again. Maybe that’s the secret of the game after all. Stop playing for a while — maybe not more than a month — then play a few training games before the tournament, and discover the game all over again. It seems to have worked for me every time. Every time I do that, I felt good about my play. My senses are sharper, and my automatic plays don’t trap me into mistakes (as there’s nothing automatic any more). I guess it only works with a format you know by heart already. I don’t really see myself doing that before a Pro Tour with a new set… that would be suicide!

My strategy for the Coldsnap drafts was quite clear: try to draft the War Cry deck if possible. If it doesn’t work, go for anything else! To me, it seems that in this format you can draft almost anything, as long as you know what you’re doing and keep focused on the end result.

Pod 1:

Sean Inoue
Carlos Romao
Gadiel Szleifer
David Hayes
Brian Brockway
Raphael Levy
Sam Stein
Shu Kumoro

My first pack offered me no White cards, but there was a Surging Flames. This card has become underrated, and as I personally like it, I grabbed it. There were probably some better Green cards in the pack but I just didn’t feel like drafting Green. I had a good feeling about Red.

I managed to draft most of the bears I needed, but there were no War Cries to be seen. After a few picks without a single War Cry, I adjusted my strategy and went for R/W Beats. I picked three more Surging Flames in the two other packs, and opened an Adarkar Valkyrie in my last pack.

I liked how the deck ended up:

4 Kjeldoran Outrider
1 White Shield Crusader
1 Squall Drifter
1 Ronom Unicorn
1 Jotun Owl Keeper
1 Kjeldoran War Cry
2 Swift Maneuver
2 Boreal Griffin
1 Adarkar Valkyrie
2 Goblin Rimerunner
3 Orcish Bloodpainter
1 Lightning Storm
4 Surging Flame

The deck was fast, with two very good creatures: Adarkar Valkyrie and Jotun Owl Keeper. The curve was solid: seven two-drops and six three-drops. I had enough tricks to handle myself well in combat, Rimerunners to sneak some damage when the ground was stalled, and Bloodpainters to deal with bigger guys and ping away. There was evasion with a pair of Boreal Griffins, and a smattering of direct damage for the kill.

Round 9: Sam Stein *4th*
Round 10: Gadiel Szleifer *6th*
Round 11: Brian Brockway *47th*

Except for myself, no one was really convinced when I showed the deck around. It did perform quite well.

Against Sam and Brian, who had both slow B/G decks (Brian’s deck wasn’t that good; he was 0-2 when I played him in the last round, as he was 8-0 in the Sealed portion), my guys were just too fast, which made both of these good matchups.

It was a different story against Gadiel, who had drafted a Martyr/Icefall deck. His deck was pretty good, but I felt like I could pull out those games.

I got game 1, thanks to my Squall Drifter and Owl Keeper. Both of them bring a flying assault, and that’s where Martyr deck is vulnerable. Game 2 and game 3 were both close games, but Stalking Yeti on Gadiel’s side was a bit hard to handle for my White men.

I was quite happy with my 2-1 result, and I needed to win two in a row (or 2-1 the pod, which should be enough with my tiebreakers) to make Top 8. I was a single win away from Top 16, and the two points I came for.

Pod 2:

Andre Coimbra
Jonathan Sonne
John Pelcak
Nathan Bertelsen
John Sittner
Raphael Levy
Takuya Oosawa
Paulo Vitor Da Rosa

I wanted to stick to my initial plan and go for the War Cry deck. The second draft started exactly like the first one. I opened Surging Flames and no White cards, and passed Chill to the Bone. The pack I got passed had no White cards either, and I took an Ohran Yeti to signal I would be the one playing Red. I picked a couple of White cards on the way – a Surging Sentinel and a beloved Kjeldoran War Cry – just in case. But both families were not available for me in this draft.

I kept drafting Red… a lot of Red. Catching a Red Martyr late and wheeling all the Icefalls, I decided to go for that archetype. Instead of going blue like Gadiel, I went for Black for Grim Harvests, a Gutless Ghoul, and a Chill to the Bone. I opened a Stalking Yeti in pack 2, which went quite well with my almost mono-Red deck. I picked Sek’Kuar in that pack too, hoping I could splash for it. Pack 3 offered me two Highland Weald, including one that I first picked. I ended up with four Icefalls and three Martyr of Ashes (one or two extra would have been excellent).

8 Mountain
4 Swamp
1 Forest
2 Snow-Covered Swamp
1 Snow-Covered Mountain
2 Highland Weald
1 Sek’kuar, Deathkeeper
1 Chill to the Bone
3 Goblin Rimerunner
2 Surging Flame
2 Lightning Storm
1 Gutless Ghoul
4 Icefall
2 Ohran Yeti
2 Grim Harvest
1 Orcish Bloodpainter
1 Stalking Yeti
3 Martyr of Ashes

As you can see, the deck has a lot of synergy. Some spot removal for flyers, Martyrs to reset the board, four Icefalls for some disruption, Grim Harvest to get the Martyrs back and play around with the Ghoul, the Yeti, and Sek’kuar. The creatures were good enough on their own, in case the whole Martyr-Icefall plan didn’t work.

Round 12: Jonathan Sonne *17th*
Round 13: John Pelcak *20th*
Round 14: Andre Coimbra *7th*

Jon was playing a G/r deck with lots of fat. That would be the first test for my deck. Game 1, and my deck offered me a lot of lands. The Martyr couldn’t take care of all the creatures on the board. Fortunately, the only big guy he had in the beginning was a Phyrexian Ironfoot that I took care of momentarily by killing his Boreal Druid and destroying his snow lands. I eventually stabilized the board on 1 life, with Sek’kuar and Grim Harvest, bringing back the Martyr that I would sac for a 3/1 guy every turn. The only thing he could draw was a direct damage spell… But I drew Gutless Ghoul, and I’ll let you figure how insane that was at that point.

He sideboarded in more lands to fight the land destruction strategy, but in the second game, the creature part of my deck showed up. I swarmed him with Goblins and Yetis, while he was himself swarmed with lands.

I had my contract completed: I would go home with the two points I required. But while I was at it, a GP Top 8 wouldn’t hurt!

I played John in the next round, and the deck just ran itself. The synergy was amazing. All the cards were potentially reusable indefinitely. And when you catch the green mana to cast Sek’Kuar with a Grim Harvest back up in case he dies… you know that the game has to go horrendously wrong for you to lose.

I drew the last round into the top 8 with fellow idiot Andre Coimbra (when Frank emailed us about booking the hotel, he called anyone going to the U.S. for a GP “fellow idiots”). Geoffrey was locked in the round before, and Julien drew into the top 32 for an extra PT point.

It felt then that I had accomplished something. I didn’t go to Phoenix to rally more votes for the Hall of Fame, as the voting was already closed. But knowing and showing that I can still play – to everyone, but especially to myself – was something that reassured me.

I realized that, during my first draft, Shu was the one taking all the War Cries. I decided to quit my usual strategy and go for whatever came in the Final draft.

Top 8 Pod:

Carlos Romao
Sean Inoue
Raphael Levy
Sam Stein
Geoffrey Siron
Gadiel Szleifer
Andre Coimbra
Shu Kumoro

The draft was really strange. I didn’t want to draft Black, and thus picked Green fat guys over good Black cards (Stromgald Crusader and Krovikan Rot). And also I was relying on Red removal to support my fatties.

Unfortunately, except for Red creatures, I didn’t see much Red. No Red removal passed through my hands. If you check the Top 8 decks, only three Skreds and two Surging Flames were opened (give or take a couple). My deck, as a result, packed nothing but creatures! Oh right, I had one spell… a spell that fetches more creatures.

2 Boreal Druid
3 Martyr Of Spores
2 Boreal Centaur
3 Bull Aurochs
1 Ohran Viper
1 Earthen Goo
1 Goblin Rimerunner
1 Orcish Bloodpainter
2 Simian Brawler
1 Karplusan Strider
2 Thermopod
1 Ronom Hulk
2 Aurochs Herd
1 Hibernation’s End
1 Snow-Covered Forest
1 Mouth of Ronom
6 Mountain
9 Forest

The deck itself isn’t so good, but it has a good curve and fat creatures. I had ways to handle manaflood (two Brawlers), and some mana acceleration (two Druids). I left an Into the North in the board, as it wouldn’t have made much sense in the deck. I didn’t have a Snow-Covered Mountain, and I had other things to do on turn 2. Fetching the Mouth wouldn’t have been of much use either, as I don’t have so many ways to activate it.

If you check the decks in the top 8, you can see that even though my deck doesn’t look so good, the other decks definitely aren’t so good either. I had a shot.

Quarters: Andre Coimbra
Semis: Carlos Romao

Andre’s three-color deck just wasn’t fast enough. He swept my board twice with Martyrs in game 1, but I had enough resources to overcome that. His deck didn’t provide him with the right mana in game 2.

In the semis, I got game 1 against Carlos. Game 2, he mulliganed on the play, when I was holding a killer hand. He still totally destroyed me. I had a Magmatic Core in hand, that I had sideboarded in against his weenie Red and Black guys, but it didn’t help. Stalking Yeti and Chill to the Bone took care of my blockers, and he swept me in four minutes.

The last game was decided by one of my plays:

The Situation:

It’s turn 4.

My hand is Ronom Hulk, Magmatic Core, and lands.
My board is four lands, two Bull Aurochs.

His board has a Krovikan Scoundrel and a Phyrexian Ironfoot. He has five cards in hand.

I play the Core, hoping to draw into more creatures and put more pressure on him, while keeping my Core active (any creatures with casting cost of four or less, would do fine). The other plan was passing the turn and waiting another turn to play the Hulk. But it didn’t seem very appealing… especially if he was holding Chill to the Bone.

He played a Zombie Musher on the following turn, while I drew into more lands and was unable to put any extra pressure. He drew into Stalking Yeti, took care of my small guys, and started attacking with the Musher, walking into my Snow-Covered Forest I had played early. I didn’t think it would have been that decisive (the use of the snow land was for the Centaurs or the Mouth of Ronom, and I didn’t want to have to throw it to a Brawler). I took care of all of his guys (except for the Musher) before giving the Core up and playing the Hulk. It was unfortunately too late for it to do anything against Carlos’s grip, as he still held a bunch of blockers.

The plan to play the Hulk would have probably won the game. I played around a card he wasn’t holding, though my initial plan didn’t seem all that bad.

After a game, you always go through it all over again, and tell yourself, “Erf, if I had done that instead…” but it’s often too late. This is not useless, because it’s the way you learn.

And of course, it’s not all that bad! I’m back in the Player of the Year race, and aiming at Level 5 now that I’m locked for Level 4.

The weekend was great. I had a very good time with Geoff, Frank, Jelger, Julien, Andre, the Japanese, and everyone else. The GPs in the U.S. are a lot different from the ones we have in Europe, but I liked the experience. I’ll probably go back sometime soon… maybe for New Jersey!

Until then!

… And congrats to Carlos!