Down & Out In Dublin

Brian writes about his testing process for Pro Tour Theros, tells you how it went, and offers some valuable advice for how to handle not doing well at a tournament.

At Pro Tour Dublin this past weekend, I finished 408th. I only won a single match. At 1-5, I posted by far my worst ever result in my entire history playing on the Pro Tour. While I’ve had some less than stellar finishes before, like missing day 2 last year at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, I’ve never done nearly this badly.

I did not expect to do poorly in this event. I spent a great deal of time preparing, coming out to Dublin the weekend prior to practice and adjust to the time difference. Even before that, I spent the prior weekend in Las Vegas testing with the rest of my team at Eric Froehlich’s house.

As I discussed in my last article, I had been doing reasonably well in our practice drafts, and I felt like I had a good grasp of the Limited format. I had several of the team’s Limited experts watching over my shoulder during my Magic Online practice, and they tended to agree with all of my picks.

As for the Constructed portion, for the first time since we started working together, our entire playtest group decided to play the same deck. One might think that this would be a sign that we had gotten something right. But given that we all put up generally poor results, with an overall win rate barely over 50%, the reality is that we collectively got things quite wrong.

So what the hell happened?

It’s not that we never tested the decks that ended up doing well in the Pro Tour—to the contrary, we had a Mono-Blue Devotion deck very similar to the winning list in the first few days of our testing, and we tested Makihito Mihara’s deck almost card for card later on. The problem with our testing was that we began with flawed assumptions about what the metagame would look like and never got around to reevaluating those assumptions when information that might cause us to question them presented itself.

Like many others, we thought that Standard in Dublin would be defined by Sphinx’s Revelation decks. Esper Control was the most popular deck by far at the Block Constructed Pro Tour in San Diego, which contained most of the building blocks of the new Standard format. Revelation decks were the most successful strategy during the first StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Worcester, which gave players solid templates from which to construct their decks. And last but certainly not least, Revelation decks are the kind of decks that many pros like to play because they’re powerful and controlling and spend a lot of time winning in the games they’re ahead.

As a result, our testing heavily featured Esper Control as a sort of "level one" of the format, meaning that any new deck got played first against Esper (and then against Mono-Red Aggro) to see if it was worth exploring further. Our earliest decks were almost all devotion based since we identified Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx and the Gods as extremely powerful and wanted to see what they could offer, and they struggled with the removal-heavy Esper decks, especially with Supreme Verdict.

I think how heavily our early testing featured Devotion decks helped color our view of just how good Esper Control would be. Most of our initial testing featured untuned versions of decks reliant on board presence against largely establish builds of a deck designed to kill everything an opponent played. With that dynamic, the Esper decks are going to pretty clearly overperform and give us a skewed idea of how effective they are likely to be in the metagame at large.

We started tuning our decks to beat Esper Control early on. One of my earliest decks was Green Devotion, and the very first thing I did after putting it together was add red to the deck for Domri Rade. I knew I wanted more Supreme Verdict proof threats, and Domri is among the best of them. We went in a similar direction with our other decks. Josh Utter-Leyton had been working on a Red Devotion list, and he added Domri Rade to that, which gave the deck a wide variety of resilient threats between Domri, Hammer, and Purphoros.

I spent most of my testing time working on G/B decks. I felt like Abrupt Decay and Thoughtseize were likely to be excellent tools in the format since they are effective against both creature and control decks. Control decks in the current format play much more to the board than they used to, with Detention Sphere serving as a key removal spell for all of the many problems you might encounter. Similarly, much of their consistent advantage comes from planeswalkers like Jace and Ashiok, which makes Hero’s Downfall another excellent tool at fighting against them.

I put together an aggressive G/B deck very early on, but it seemed to lack creature quality. Cards like Lotleth Troll and Dreg Mangler just don’t stand up to Voice of Resurgence, Fleecemane Lion, and Loxodon Smiter. On my flight to Dublin, I typed out the following decklist:

The idea behind this list was flexibility. Voice of Resurgence and Fleecemane Lion are both great threats against control and great defensive measures against aggressive decks, much like Abrupt Decay and Thoughtseize are also multipurpose answers. Sylvan Caryatid is both a mana fixer and excellent blocker against many aggressive decks, and Whip of Erebos (which I just accidentally typed as "Whip of Obzedat") is both a great life-gain tool against beatdown and makes your Obzedats largely unstoppable against control thanks to the fact that exiling it to its own ability satisfies the Whip’s insistence that the creature end up in exile if it ever leaves play.

Ultimately, despite biasing the list significantly against control with things like Sin Collector maindeck and Advent of the Wurm over other potential creature options, I didn’t like how the deck was performing against Esper Control. It could easily have been that the list wasn’t well tuned while the Esper deck was much more refined, but I wasn’t winning. Perhaps I should have taken more time to tune the list—playing a full set of Hero’s Downfall, for instance, would have made the planeswalkers I was struggling with much easier to beat—but I decided to try a different direction entirely.

I figured that if the Pro Tour was likely to be heavily Esper Control, I should try something similar to my Pro Tour San Diego deck, which was built for precisely such a field and performed quite well there. My thinking was that a more aggressive Junk deck would be able to put sufficient pressure on with hard-to-deal-with creatures that it could seriously punish decks relying on Supreme Verdict and that the black removal spells available would give it excellent option against other creature decks.

Here’s where I went:

This deck certainly did what I set out to do, which was beat Esper Control. It didn’t just win the matchup—it was absolutely dominant. Virtually every creature in the deck causes serious problems for control, to the point that I cut down over testing from four to three to only a single copy of Thoughtseize in the maindeck and was still winning in convincing fashion. Experiment One; Lotleth Troll; Voice of Resurgence; and Varolz, the Scar-Striped all threaten to survive Supreme Verdict, as can Lion eventually, and Dreg Mangler comes down immediately afterward to keep the pressure on.

However, this deck had several problems:

1) The Mana

Mana in this format is much worse than that to which we’ve grown accustomed over the past few years. This is the first time since before Scars of Mirrodin that we’ve been limited to four allied-color dual lands that can enter the battlefield untapped—we had the Scars lands plus the M10 lands until we had the Ravnica shock lands with the M10 lands. Now we’re left with only the Ravnica lands that don’t stunt our mana curve, and that’s a serious problem for an aggressive deck. This is a deck that wants to curve out 1-2-3, but it can scarcely cast its spells without playing a tap land at some point. That’s a problem.

2) Creature Stalls

This deck is built around cheap, resilient creatures—not powerful ones. If the board stalemates against another creature deck—and it frequently will—this deck doesn’t really have great tools to break through. You can assemble a giant Lotleth Troll with Varolz, but investing that much into a single creature leaves you very vulnerable to removal like Selesnya Charm. I found that I would frequently end up reaching a ground stall and then not be able to break through before losing to something like Stormbreath Dragon; Brave the Elements; or Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice.

I tried to remedy this by playing Gift of Orzhova in the maindeck for a while. The idea was that Gift can create a flying lifelinker that can break through a board stall but isn’t necessarily big enough for an opponent to remove with Selesnya Charm. In a best-case scenario, I could play it on Fleecemane Lion, keep it out of Charm range for a while, and then make it monstrous before piling a bunch of counters on it with Varolz. While the Gift plan proved to be pretty good, it was much worse against decks with a variety of different kinds of removal like Naya, who could kill my Gifted guy with Mortars, Charm, or Domri, which made it a lot harder to find a good target and moment of opportunity.

3) Soldier of the Pantheon

Playing all of the best gold creatures across three colors gives you a lot of powerful cards, but it also makes this little fellow very powerful against you. Soldier was nearly unbeatable, especially in multiples. I wasn’t sure how popular Soldier would be, but I didn’t like the idea of my opponents having an impenetrable wall that was also unblockable.

I worked on testing this deck and variations of it until Wednesday before the tournament, when I felt like the deck’s mana instability and other difficulties made it too difficult to justify playing, especially when I was having inklings that the field might not be as control-heavy as we originally anticipated. I decided to play the same R/G Devotion decklist as the rest of the group:

As an aside, my general philosophy when it comes to tournament preparation is that it’s best to have people focus on building and tuning a few decks that they are interested in and working to refine those decks until they are the best they can be. A lot of people give me flak for playing similar kinds of decks at tournaments, but the reality is that I spend a great deal of time testing and tuning those lists while others tend to bounce around toward whatever collective opinion seems to suggest is on top at the moment. That kind of method tends to result in a bunch of mediocre decks that don’t fully explore the options available to them.

While it’s certainly true that the kind of decks I tend to focus my efforts on might not be the best to play in any given event, I am certain that I’ll be able to find strong builds for them if they are, which is much more valuable to a testing process than everyone jumping from deck to deck.

I feel like this was part of the flaw in our testing process this time—too many people working on too few decks. We didn’t have anyone building and tuning good versions of a number of different creature decks, and as a result we didn’t come to the conclusion that Esper Control’s matchups didn’t look great across the board. It wasn’t until a few days before the Pro Tour that we even played much with Esper against Naya and got clobbered—Ben Stark went so far as to say, "Every card in that deck would be the best card in another deck against me," referring to just how difficult it was for control to deal with the combination of Voice, Domri, Lion, etc.

If we’d spread out our efforts earlier, we may have come to that conclusion before spending the majority of our testing time playing with and against Esper and may have realized that control wasn’t going to be the default strategy for most players at the Pro Tour that we assumed it would be—which would have altered our process dramatically as a result.

As for the tournament itself, it felt like something of a cosmic joke to me, starting in the draft rounds. I opened a pack with Agent of Fates and Voyage’s End as the best cards, picked the black rare, and then took a Nimbus Naiad over very little in the following pack. Third pick I had the choice between Lightning Strike and Magma Jet and took the Strike and then picked up an Observant Eidolon fourth to give me quite a few options for my colors—a position I actually like to be in because it gives me a lot of flexibility to read the draft. I then got passed Lash of the Whip fifth and sixth, which seemed to indicate that black was open to my right, and finished out the pack with a bunch of late red cards, largely solidifying me into my colors.

In pack 2, I opened a Shipbreaker Kraken and a Rage of Purphoros as the best card in my colors. I considered taking the Kraken, but I hadn’t seen any good blue cards after the Naiad in pack 1 and had seen a lot of red and black late, so I figured it would be best to stick to the colors that seemed to be opened. I didn’t get much exciting at all in the second pack—just filler really. I didn’t really get anything after my first-pick Abhorrent Overlord in the third pack, leaving me with a fairly average deck and wondering what had happened in the draft.

Well, what happened was that apparently both players to my right were drafting black—U/B and G/B respectively—and after passing me those super-late Lash of the Whips didn’t offer up much else. Gerry Thompson to my left switched into black for an Agent of the Fates he opened in pack 2 or maybe the Abhorrent Overlord he was passed—either of which would have ended up in my deck if he hadn’t. To top it all off, the player to my right hate drafted a Stormbreath Dragon first pick in pack 3 rather than take a Sip of Hemlock or Pharika’s Mender for his own deck, leaving me cut from all directions.

The actual games didn’t go much better. In my first round, I attacked my opponent down to three life with my 4/3 and a Titan’s Strength on my 2/2 flying lifelinker against his board of Heliod, Observant Eidolon, and Hopeful Eidolon. I had Erebos’s Emissary in my hand and five lands in play, so when I scryed and saw Lash of the Whip on top, I decided to put it on the bottom—if I drew a land, I’d win the game on the spot, and Lash seemed unlikely to do much good against his Heliod generating tokens.

He turned on his Heliod with the devotion token maker on his turn, making a bunch of Soldiers that would further mess with any damage getting through on the ground. I drew a 2/2 first striker instead of a land and played it, leaving me to attack him down to one with my flier—and then he used Time to Feed with his active Heliod to kill my flier and put the game out of reach. It was particularly frustrating because if I’d kept the Lash, which would have generally been useless on that board, I would have been able to use it to kill one of his creatures in response and turn off his devotion for Heliod, allowing me to attack with my Harpy for the win.

That was the best of the games I played in the entire draft. The next game I mulliganed, missed my second land drop, and died. The next match I flooded out horribly twice and died. After that my opponent drew three straight perfects in a board stall to my two lands and a 2/2 in game 1, and then in game 2 I never played a third land and died. A quick 0-3!

I won my first Constructed round in dramatic fashion, generating 40 mana in one turn before attacking with a single Stormbreath Dragon for twenty, but the others did not go so well. I narrowly lost game 1 of my second match to Naya thanks to a timely second Selesnya Charm on his part and then kept two lands, two Reckoners, and two Domris on the play in game 2 and never played a spell. In my last match of the tournament, I lost the first game, killed my opponent before combat on turn 4 in the second game, and then discarded without playing a spell and died after mulliganing in the third game.

So what’s the moral of this story? There’s a few I think. The first is that it’s important to question your assumptions going into a tournament when it comes to what people are going to play. The last event we got the metagame this wrong was Pro Tour Avacyn Restored early last year, and the results were similarly disastrous to our performance. In both cases, we never broke from our assumptions about what the field would look like because we focused too narrowly on too few decks.

Secondly, it’s important to realize that sometimes you just don’t win, and that has to be okay. I had a lot of people comment throughout the tournament that I was the happiest they’d ever seen someone be who was losing so much. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things that’s most important to learn if you want to be successful at Magic in the long term is how to handle losing because it happens a lot.

Am I disappointed in my performance? Absolutely. There are only so many Pro Tours in a year, and with the five Grand Prix, it’s worse than ever to have a bad result in one of them. But looking back on my tournament experience, I’m not going to bemoan my fate and complain about how unlucky I got because that doesn’t do anyone any good. I’m going to look back on the things that I have some control over, like my draft picks and our testing process, and ask myself how I might be able to improve upon those in the future.

But seriously—luck of the Irish? Give me a break! My middle name is McCormick, and I couldn’t go a single match without getting mana screwed or mana flooded once!

Sorry, just had to get that out of my system . . .

Until next time,