Got There

Get excited to play Standard at #SCGINVI this weekend by reading about how Brian-Braun Duin won Grand Prix Louisville with Mono-Black Devotion!

I got home from Dublin at around 9:30 PM on Tuesday night. I was jet lagged and had work on Wednesday morning, but like the addict I am, I couldn’t resist firing up Magic Online to play a few games first. It’s just a couple of games. It can’t hurt. I can stop whenever I want to.

Gotta get my fix.

Grand Prix Louisville was in a few days, and I knew between work, catching up from the Pro Tour, and writing my article for the week that I was going to have almost no time at all to test for the event. The important thing was going to be finding the right deck quickly and then trying to get in a precious few games with it to see if I wanted to tune anything.

I know a lot of people assume I just spend all day playing Magic, but that’s actually pretty far from the truth. Between working a full-time job, writing articles, traveling to a tournament almost every weekend, and spending some time doing non-Magic things, I actually have a really busy schedule. It’s hard to fit time in there to actually test and prepare for events as much as I’d like.

For that reason, I wanted to make sure that the limited amount of testing I was going to be able to do was going to be focused. I wanted to quickly identify a few frontrunner decks, play a little bit with each deck and hopefully go from there. The three decks I identified were Junk Midrange, B/W Midrange, and Mono-Black Devotion.

I knew I wanted to play Thoughtseize and Hero’s Downfall. From that point, it just became a question of which of those decks was the best at it.

Junk was the deck I felt I needed to test with the least. I played Junk at the Pro Tour and was very familiar with how it played against the majority of the common archetypes. I would definitely want to update the list to deal with the change in the metagame toward Mono-Blue Devotion, a deck we hadn’t tested against when building the PT list, but overall I wouldn’t need to alter too much.

That left B/W and Mono-Black. I decided to start with the Mono-Black Devotion list that Kentarou Yamamoto took to the Top 8 of the Pro Tour. I didn’t have to play any games to know that Mono-Black would be a great choice if people started to move toward more midrange removal-heavy decks like B/W and Junk to combat the format’s reliance on the devotion mechanic. I had already learned that lesson the hard way.

A number of people asked me at the Pro Tour what the worst matchup was for my Junk deck. The answer I gave was Mono-Black. I was something like 0-7 against that deck in testing on Magic Online for the event. I wasn’t even close to winning, and I couldn’t figure out why it was so bad. I had Blood Baron of Vizkopa! I was assembling Obzedat and Whip and still losing against them.

I was also annoyed that so many people were playing a "fringe" deck on Magic Online when I was trying to get in some "real" testing. Thankfully, Mono-Black Devotion did end up being a fringe deck at the Pro Tour, and I didn’t have to play against it.

"Mono-Black is the worst matchup. Thankfully, that’s not a real deck, and I don’t expect to see it at the Pro Tour, so I’m not worried about it."  If this were a cheesy sitcom, I would look at the camera and wink knowingly as I said that last line.

For some reason I never really drew the connection that if I couldn’t even beat Mono-Black Devotion while playing the most hateful card in the format, Blood Baron, then maybe I should just consider, you know, playing the deck myself at the Pro Tour. Todd Anderson even sent me a Mono-Black list the night before the PT. While I was very happy with my testing and the deck I did play, it’s still a good lesson to always keep an open mind.

I never made it to testing B/W Midrange. I kept saying to myself that I would start testing it out once I hit a rough patch with Mono-Black Devotion. I never hit that rough patch. Over the couple hours I spent playing lots of quick matches with Mono-Black, I only lost a few times. Most of those losses were to Mono-Red Aggro, a deck that is always popular on Magic Online because of how cheap it is. Mono-Red was not a deck I expected to see in Louisville because it has huge issues beating Mono-Blue Devotion and the R/G decks.

One of the first changes I made to the deck was cutting the Xathrid Necromancers in the sideboard for Nightveil Specters. I assumed that Xathrid Necromancer was in the sideboard to come in for Lifebane Zombie in matchups where you didn’t want Lifebane. It seemed like Nightveil Specter was just better in the majority of those matchups. I don’t think Xathrid Necromancer really does anything against Mono-Black or Mono-Blue Devotion, whereas Nightveil Specter is one of the best cards against both of those decks.

An aside on Nightveil Specter: last week, I posted the following on Twitter.

This tweet served a dual purpose. One of them was to shamelessly brag about how I got it right. When you get it wrong as often as I do, you have to share your triumphs with the world!

More importantly, though, I’ve been growing more and more fed up with the prevailing attitude I see in a lot of Magic players where they will instantly bash a deck or a card choice without really giving any consideration to how it could be good. When you write an article and do a video each week, you get to see a lot of people critiquing your every move, and I was seeing a lot of people sharing this dismissive attitude when it comes to Magic cards. It annoyed me when people attacked me for playing those cards. I thought they were wrong, and I thought they were being shortsighted by instantly rejecting two playable cards solely because they were bulk in the previous format.

Formats change. Cards change in playability.

The response I got to that tweet actually shocked me. The most common response I got was people basically doing the exact same thing again! A lot of responses were people saying that Nightveil Specter and Frostburn Weird are still bad cards and that they are only good in the Mono-Blue deck and only because they provide devotion. I couldn’t believe that I was trying to prove a point about people being narrow minded in card evaluation and the response was just more of the same.

It almost became personal. I knew Nightveil Specter could make it outside of just Mono-Blue Devotion. I consider winning a Grand Prix by playing Nightveil Specter in a different archetype to be sweet justice. Don’t worry Nightveil; I won’t let anyone besmirch your honor. I’m here to defend you to the bitter end.

As for Frostburn Weird? Eh. I’m over it.

It didn’t take long before Nightveil Specter was maindeck and Lifebane Zombie was in the sideboard. G/W had basically completely disappeared from the metagame, which meant that Lifebane was only really at its best against R/G decks or decks playing Blood Baron and Obzedat. Nightveil Specter wasn’t great against R/G, but it wasn’t much worse against the B/W decks and was better against pretty much everything else than Lyndon Baines Zombie, former U.S. President.

Brad Nelson, Todd Anderson, and Chris Andersen (Chrandersen) were all planning on playing Mono-Black Devotion as well. I didn’t have a chance to test with them, but I did send my updated list with Nightveil Specter main and Lifebane in the sideboard to Brad so he could play with it in grinders before the Grand Prix.

Brad crushed in the grinders, and he made some great suggestions for ways to improve the sideboard that I quickly agreed with. One of them was having four Pack Rats between the maindeck and sideboard to combat the mirror match, which we expected to face. I had already put a third Pack Rat in the sideboard for that reason, so it didn’t take much to convince me to go for the fourth Rat and a Dark Betrayal as well. Unfortunately, I never saw Chrandersen in the short period between when we finalized those changes and when decklists needed to be handed in, so he got stuck playing an older version of the list.

I felt the deck was nearly invincible, and the only thing I was really scared of was the mirror match and losing to cards like Pack Rat. A lot of things aren’t always readily apparent to me without seeing it in action first. I didn’t realize how good Pack Rat was in the Mono-Black Devotion mirror until the card came up in a match I played on Magic Online leading up to the event.

It was game 2 of a Mono-Black mirror match, and my opponent Thoughtseized me. My hand was three lands, Pack Rat, and Underworld Connections. Underworld Connections was the card I assumed was simply the best card in the mirror match. It felt almost impossible to lose if you had an active Connections and your opponent did not. My opponent didn’t have a removal spell and was forced to take the Pack Rat. I then proceeded to beat him silly with Underworld Connections.

At that point a light bulb illuminated over my head. "Holy shniekies!" I exclaimed loudly to any who could hear me. "It’s Pack Rat! Pack Rat is the answer!" Pack Rat was so scary that my opponent had to just let me have an Underworld Connections and hope he could win a game where I was up a card on him every single turn because Pack Rat was too strong.

Time to pack it up. Time for them to pack it in.

I ended up playing the following list:

The only difference between my deck and the one Brad and Todd played was that I had a fourth Mutavault over the first Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx.

With Nightveil Specter, it’s hard to play a lot of colorless lands. Playing four is already pushing the boundaries, and it often causes you to do awkward things. A surprising amount of time I cast Underworld Connections on Mutavault on turn 3 so that I can draw into a Swamp to play a Nightveil Specter on turn 4.

It’s awkward that Nightveil Specter, which is so good with Nykthos, is actually the card that makes it so that I don’t want to play Nykthos because Nykthos can’t cast it on turn 3.

Mutavault is one of the strongest cards, and I don’t want to cut any even for a Nykthos. Nykthos is great at letting you generate enough mana to start playing multiple cards a turn later in the game. I just don’t think that effect is actually that necessary. Generally speaking, when you’ve hit a point in the game where you have a lot of cards and are just figuring out which ones to play each turn, you are already ahead. Nykthos might seal the deal quicker, but I don’t think it’s actually needed to do so.

Overall, I was extremely happy with the way the list looked, and I couldn’t wait to see how it stacked up at the Grand Prix.

The Grand Prix

I went in to the Grand Prix expecting to Top 8. In retrospect, that sounds a bit lofty of a goal. It’s fifteen rounds of Magic in a tournament with over 1000 players. Anything can happen. Regardless, I was treating this tournament as a PTQ. After Pro Tour Dublin, I was determined to get back on the Tour. Right now is quite possibly the hardest time in Magic’s history for a player who isn’t on the Pro Tour train to get on the train. If I could loop a few Pro Tours together, I might be able to scrape together enough points to hit Silver and get another qualification as well. I was taking every opportunity seriously.

I also knew the deck was insane. Kentarou Yamamoto broke the format the week before, and it was unclear how many people had figured it out. It felt awesome to be playing that deck and to be one step ahead with Nightveil Specters and Pack Rats for the mirror match. I couldn’t be more excited to get started.

It helped that I had three byes this time around. The last three Grand Prix I played in, I had two byes. I didn’t win round 3 in any of those. It was nice knowing that I wouldn’t have to deal with the dreaded round 3 and wouldn’t have to fight the curse of beginning my tournament with a loss there.

I began my tournament with a loss in round 4 instead.

After spending about an hour having Justin Uppal beat the crap out of me with the R/G Devotion deck as we played games during byes, I got paired in round 4 against Mario Diliberto also playing the deck. He also beat the crap out of me. Mario and I had played one time prior, when he handed me my only loss in the Swiss rounds of the nearly 1000-player SCG Open in Somerset, New Jersey. Mario is definitely a good player, and it feels like he has my number.

He did scoop in game 1 when I was set up to cast his Garruk, Caller of Beasts the following turn off of a Forest and an Elvish Mystic that Nightveil Specter was so kind to deliver to me. Despite losing the match, I counted it as a moral victory.

I didn’t feel like the matchup was that bad, but doubts started to creep in by this point. I couldn’t beat Justin Uppal in our practice games, and I couldn’t beat the deck in the first round. It didn’t help that the R/G deck was everywhere. I know CVM, who was playing the deck, played approximately 38 mirror matches in fifteen rounds. It was everywhere.

I tried to block the negative thoughts from my mind and just focus on playing each match one match at a time.

The rest of the day went a lot better for me. In round 5, I was paired against a friend of mine who didn’t realize that Nightveil Specter was a 2/3 and not a 3/3. He attacked me with three Specters and a Thassa for what he thought was fourteen damage. It turned out it was actually just eleven. I was at twelve life, and I killed him on the crack back. It wasn’t pretty, but getting the win that round was crucial to putting me back in a position where I felt confident.

I didn’t lose another match the rest of the day. I beat R/G Devotion twice, proving to myself that the matchup wasn’t as bad as my earlier results suggested. I also beat B/W Midrange and B/R/W Midrange, two matchups that are very favorable for Mono-Black Devotion.

After day 1, Brad was 9-0, and Todd, Chrandersen, and I were all 8-1. Ignoring byes, we had a combined record of 22-3 for the day. I’ve seen worse.

For day 2, our hope was that we could just dodge each other. I felt like if we were able to avoid knocking each other out of the tournament, we would have a good chance of putting a good number of us in the Top 8.

I started the first round of day 2 paired up against one of the undefeated players, Jack Fogle, piloting Esper Control. This worked out very well for me. For one, getting paired up can only help my tiebreakers. Secondly, he was playing Esper Control, which is one of the best matchups for Mono-Black Devotion. If you can stick an Erebos, God of the Dead or Underworld Connections to generate card advantage, it becomes almost impossible for Esper to ever beat you regardless of how many Sphinx’s Revelations they cast. In fact, Jack cast a few very large Revelations in the first game of our match, but without Aetherling in his maindeck, he didn’t have a way to close out the game, so I was able to grind it out anyway.

In the second game, I decided to take a Sphinx’s Revelation over a Blood Baron with a Thoughtseize since I had an Erebos to lock out Blood Baron from gaining life. That decision was almost assuredly wrong, as I still almost died to the Blood Baron just beating me down. "Almost" being the key word. Got there!

The rest of the day went fairly smoothly for me. I was able to beat the Mono-Blue Devotion deck twice by killing them with their own cards. Gaudenis Vidugiris died to his own Cloudfin Raptor, Judge’s Familiar, and two Mutavaults. I was one Island short of going ham with a Bident of Thassa as well.

In round 14, my win-and-in round, I barely raced my opponent game 1 with a growing army of Pack Rats. His start of turn 1 Cloudfin Raptor, turn 2 Cloudfin and Judge’s Familiar, and turn 3 Nightveil Specter was extremely scary against my removal-light hand, but thankfully his follow-up plays were just Jaces, so I had a chance to build my Pack Rat team and get the job done at a virtual one life.

Game 2 was my favorite game of the tournament. My opening hand was three lands, three Nightveil Specters, and a removal spell. Easy keep. My opponent just played a few Omenspeakers to start things off. He did have a Domestication for my Nightveil Specter, which slowed me down a lot. I was forced to just deploy another one. He opted to get in for some damage and sent his team in. I blocked my Domesticated Specter with my fresh Specter and took the damage from his other creatures. He played a Jace and ticked it up.

I figured that my hand wasn’t really good enough to beat his board by itself. I was going to need some help from the top of his deck. I sent in the lone Specter for one point of damage, leaving myself open to taking damage on the swing back.

It turned out that his deck was pretty good at beating itself. My first Specter hit got me a Cyclonic Rift to bounce my other Specter back to my hand, causing him to lose the Domestication and letting me replay the Specter on my side. My next two hits were Island and Master of Waves, letting me generate seven Elementals. After a Ratchet Bomb took care of those, I was able to get another Island and a Thassa, God of the Sea. A Gray Merchant of Asphodel dropped him to ten life. Nasty Thassy was active, and he was forced to scoop them up because he was just dead on board to me making my Thassa unblockable. That’s right. My Thassa. Scry me a river.

I made my first Grand Prix Top 8 by killing my opponent with Thassa while playing Mono-Black Devotion.

Going into most tournaments, I usually come up with some sort of achievement I want to unlock at it. It’s usually some sort of niche interaction that only comes up a few rare times. For example, at the Pro Tour, the achievement I wanted to unlock was to Thoughtseize myself, strip an Obzedat, and then Whip it back into play to kill my opponent with a hasted Deezy. It didn’t happen.

Going into this GP, my achievement was that I wanted to kill someone with an active Thassa.

Got there. Achievement unlocked.

I was able to intentionally draw with Bard Narson in the last round to lock up Top 8. Even though I was near a complete lock, I was still pretty nervous. There was a chance I could get jumped and finish in ninth if a specific series of events transpired and my tiebreaker advantage didn’t hold. Given my illustrious history of falling just short, I wasn’t taking anything for granted.

I didn’t get ninth. In fact, nearly every opponent I’ve played in the last three years won their last round, as my tiebreakers shot up enough to catapult me into fifth place.

That meant I was going to be paired against Brad in the first round of Top 8.

The Top 8

Making the Top 8 was kind of a surreal experience. It was my first Grand Prix Top 8, and it was already one of the most important finishes I’d ever had in a Magic tournament regardless of how I performed in the Top 8. People were congratulating me left and right.

What made it so weird is that I actually desperately wanted to win my quarterfinal match so I could qualify for the next Pro Tour. Since the GP had fewer than 1200 players, only the Top 4 would qualify for Pro Tour Born of the Gods. I was getting congratulated by people as though I had already accomplished something when in fact I was about to play a match that was essentially a PTQ finals against Brad Nelson on the draw in a mirror match that can easily be decided by something as simple as Thoughtseize into Pack Rat on the play.

It felt like being congratulated for getting paired against your worst matchup in a win-and-in match.

Fortunately, my deck delivered. In the first game, I drew a Pack Rat after Brad Thoughtseized me. I was able to follow up a turn 4 Whip of Erebos with that Pack Rat, and he couldn’t handle my growing team of lifelink creatures.

In game 2, Brad took an Underworld Connections over Pack Rat when he Thoughtseized me on turn 2. That meant he was sitting on a removal spell for sure. I ripped a Thoughtseize off the top to e-rat-icate Brad’s chance of winning. I stole his removal spell and then was able to kill him with that Pack Rat. Pack, Pack, Pack it in . . . YEAH!

I was extremely relieved. I was going back to the Pro Tour. This time I have a passport already. It’s almost too easy.

I was so ecstatic about winning the "PTQ" aspect of the GP that I had to remind myself that there were still two rounds left. I forced myself to buckle down and focus on the next matches at hand. Thankfully, I got about as good of a matchup as I could ask for in the semifinals against Alex Sittner on Esper Control. I got to strip, well, pretty much everything from his hand both games, as I played a total of seven Thoughtseizes in our brief two-game match. I was drawing very well in this Top 8.

That meant I was on to the finals against Jon Stern. Jon was a really pleasant opponent at the Pro Tour, where he destroyed me in two very lopsided games in round 8 of day 1. I was out to even the score this time around.

In game 1, he had to chump an 8/8 Pack Rat with a Polukranos, World Eater. So far, so good. Game 2 didn’t go nearly as well for me. He had an Elvish Mystic and two Domri Rades, so even a turn 1 Thoughtseize couldn’t stop a Domri from getting online. He hit a few times on the tick up, and I couldn’t find a Hero’s Downfall in time to kill it.

It all came down to the final game. When I saw that my opening hand was three lands, three removal spells, and an Underworld Connections I wanted to jump out of my seat. I got to cast the Connections on turn 3 on an empty board and rode the card advantage all the way to victory.

Not long after, I got to hear "Brian Braun-Duin is your Grand Prix Louisville Champion" announced over the loudspeaker. I’m not gonna lie—it felt pretty good.

That night we drove back to Roanoke. I went into work on Monday. I got back into my daily routine. I’m not going to have much time if any to test before the Invitational this weekend.

It seemed to work out pretty well last time. Same testing process means I should get the same results, right?

That would be terrific.