Flow of Ideas – All I Want For Christmas Is A PTQ Win

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Wednesday, December 23rd – I want to play on the Pro Tour again. Badly. After a narrow miss in the Standard season I maximized the number of sealed qualifiers I could attend, even finagling my way to the PTQ in Phoenix. I also tested the format a lot – the actual sealed format as well as booster draft – to try and stay ahead of the curve.

Dear Santa,

Please ship me a busted sealed deck.



… No, really. That’s how I’ve been feeling this entire limited PTQ season.

I want to play on the Pro Tour again. Badly. After a narrow miss in the Standard season I maximized the number of sealed qualifiers I could attend, even finagling my way to the PTQ in Phoenix. I also tested the format a lot — the actual sealed format as well as booster draft — to try and stay ahead of the curve.

How did that work out? Well, I managed to play an alright sealed pool to a 6-2 finish at the Pro Tour: Austin PTQ because not everybody had caught on to the speed of the format. While I was ahead of the curve I was doing fine. But other than that, my only notable finish was 7-2 in a Magic Online PTQ — a result obtained mostly because of the absurd quantity of playable white X/3’s in my pool coupled with Ob Nixilis and double Trusty Machete. As you can imagine, winning with that pool was like slicing bread with a steak knife — or at least it was until I ran into the opponent’s wielding harder loaves of bread.

Overall, I found myself without a single chance to run through the Top 8 this season.
As a result, I began thinking about all of the sealed decks I’ve opened in the past few months and the matches I’ve played with them. The string of poor finishes has to be accounted somewhere, yet most people I ask come within a card or two of my build. While I’m sure I’m making some mistakes, however subtle, there are always respectable players I trust watching my matches. When asked, none of them felt like I was making any egregious play errors.

I vividly remember when Mike Gurney was watching me play my win-and-in match at the Zendikar sealed PTQ at Pro Tour: Austin. After winning game one with a combination of drawing well and making perfect attacks, I fell to mana screw and mana flood in subsequent games. I looked to Mike so he could tell me where I messed up, and he shrugged his shoulders. “There was nothing else you could do,” he said. “Those were both fine keeps.”

But there has to be something else I could have done. My Magic philosophy — adopted from Jon Sonne — is that if you lose it’s always because you always made a mistake somewhere, whether in play, mulliganing, deck construction, and so on.

The way that philosophy fit into this situation was the maxim I have followed for a long time, and one that was made more apparent by this mix of soul searching slash magical reflection. Most of your sealed deck games are decided far more on deck construction than on playskill. That was nothing new to me though, and, as I mentioned earlier, nobody who looked at my decks felt like I had been significantly misbuilding them. There still has to be something more.

Still on my self-reflective journey, my mind traveled to Mike Flores seminal article “How to Win a PTQ,” where he says that Limited PTQs are not very skill intensive. Perhaps to an extent, and certainly more so a hundred times over than constructed PTQs, but there has to be some other kind of skill involved. Otherwise what is there to separate me from the Juzas and Watanabes, people who can always Day 2 a Grand Prix regardless of pool strength?

And that’s when it hit me like a bag of unripe bananas. I hadn’t made Top 8 of a Limited PTQ since Time Spiral block.

Despite amassing several successful runs in Constructed formats, my Limited PTQ and GP results had consistently fallen short.

That train of thought brought me back to Ravnica block sealed where I made Top 8 of nearly every PTQ I played. Of course, that was (and I hope we can all agree) a much better Limited format. Still, what was I doing differently then? Where was the gap of play? Was it just a product of the format?

So I went back to look at my decks from that era. Whenever I would make Top 8 of a sealed PTQ, I would keep my deck around for later reference, just in case of moments like these. A lot of what I found was typical. The occasional Glare of Subdual, plenty of bouncelands, a couple of Demonfires. All heralds of a card advantage format long past, left to exist only in waves of memory and nostalgia.

But it wasn’t the rares and obvious cards that needed to be considered as much. No. It was exactly the opposite. All this time, I had been looking in the wrong place. I had been a victim of misfocus, like in Dupin’s “map game.”

You see, in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Purloined Letter the famous detective Dupin — a precursor to Sherlock Holmes who operated in a similar style — talks about an alleged children’s game called the “map game” as a prop to highlight his situation. The game, if one could call it that, is simple: name a location on a map and see how long it takes the other person to find. Dupin continues to say that the most obvious place to look is the hardest city to find on the map. However, he ends by saying the best strategy is to pick something incredibly easy to find — a city capital, for instance — because it’s the last place someone with a mind for the game would look.

In more modern terms, Dupin leveled his opponents — just like how I had accidentally done to myself. I was looking at playing different colors and trying to maximizing my ability to play my best cards overall. Instead, I think the mistakes I have been making — and I think many of you have too — were of a different breed entirely.

Ready for the takeaway that the previous 1,000 words of this article have built up to? Back then, my card choices were scrappier.


Let me explain. Sure, some of my decks had all of the usual suspects of a Top 8 caliber pool. But with many of them, I had to fight hard to be able to pull out a win and used unusual cards to do so. The obvious playables were in the deck, but the last few cards were cheap, scrappy (not to be confused with crappy) cards you could win the small fights with.

I maximized my ability to attack from different angles by playing cards like Carrion Howler or Centaur Safeguard in a format typically much slower than those we know today. Courier Hawk was one of my favorites, and would usually make my deck. I also played cards like Vertigo Spawn in my controlling decks so I could buy as much time as possible. Convolute was one of the cards I wanted to open the most in the entire format. None of those cards are that exciting, but they gum up the works enough in a typical strategy to provide a whole for your other cards to come online. Sure, my first 18 cards were on par with my opponent’s first 18, but, while my last six cards may have been worse per capita than my opponent’s, they were going to be better over the course of an actual struggle to reduce my opponent’s life points to zero.

The takeaway? I should be playing Shieldmate’s Blessing in Zendikar Limited a lot more than I have been. In a format defined by its speed, you need to outspeed them. You need to be scrappy and level them even if your cards are a little worse.

The Hedron Scrabblers the Shieldmate’s Blessings, the Kor Outfitters, and the Bold Defenses of the format are all cards you can use to out-scrap your opponent. If your pool is weak, you just need to overload on a different strategy than usual. As you get deeper into the PTQ, you’re not going to win if you and your opponents both build decks in a typical fashion but your pool couldn’t support that fashion as well as your opponent’s. You have to take a chance and move in a different way.

This all connects in with something I had never been able to understand, yet always noticed. You see, there are a few different levels of Limited skill. You have the bad player at the bottom, and then the rising players above them who are beginning to understand Limited but still play weak cards. Near the very top, you have the experienced Limited player. This is a player just like you or me, who devours Limited strategy, has an idea of pick orders, which cards they don’t want to play, and color preferences. This is where the majority of players peak.

But there is a level above that.

Only few players ever reach it, and they’re mind-boggling to see in action. These are the Charles Duponts and Ben Starks of the world. If you have ever seen either of those players play, maybe you’ll know what I mean. You can also see it high up on Pro Tour draft tables. They will play cards that many of us never will because they always play with scrappy cards.

I swear, one of Charles Dupont’s favorite cards in this format is Tempest Owl. A terrible 1/2 flier for two with an ability that is seldom relevant. But perhaps when you want to sneak some damage in or block an oncoming 2/1 creature, his body isn’t that bad. And Charles’s Tempest Owls do just that. I have seen those Tempest Owls win him so many matches because he is willing to play with them to fill a role in his Blue deck.

And really, how different are Charles’s Tempest Owls from my Courier Hawks?

I’d be happy to answer any questions about this topic in the forums or via e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com. Next week I’ll be back to reintroduce you to extended before the first round of PTQ’s, but until then I hope you have an excellent Christmas (if you celebrate it) and I look forward to talking with you soon.

Gavin Verhey
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else