Grand Prix Yokohama *3rd*

Sam Black traveled all the way to Japan to play in a Gatecrash Limited Grand Prix. Read about how he built his Sealed deck and drafted his way to Top 4.

From the top:

Why did I fly to Japan for a 2000+ person Grand Prix?

First of all, I obviously didn’t know it that many people would show up to play in it. Second, I didn’t know I would only have 22 Pro Points.

Well before Pro Tour Gatecrash, I’d looked at the prices for some international GPs and decided they were each too expensive to fly to. I hadn’t really intended to fly to foreign GPs this year because there were so many American GPs anyway.

But at some point, Christian Calcano posted on Facebook that he was going to Yokohama, Verona, and Utrecht. I asked him about his ticket, and it turned out he’d found a ticket that covered all of them for around $1500, which was barely more than what I’d found for just Yokohama. It left from New York, but I could fly there from Charlotte for the same cost as flying home and stay with Gaudenis Vidugiris for a few days. This meant I got a free trip to New York out of the deal, which I gladly took.

I had to book all of this before the Pro Tour, when I thought I’d be using it to try to go for Platinum, but then I earned the minimum number of points at the PT. This meant that realistically I was trying to make sure to hit Gold, which I should have been able to do anyway, but missing would be so bad for me that I really didn’t want to risk it.

So after spending a couple weeks away from home preparing for and playing in Montreal, I had five days at home before leaving for almost a month. Between getting caught up with my girlfriend, writing, recording my weekly video, and preparing another for the next week to minimize the number I’d miss while traveling, I didn’t end up having time to play any Sealed events on Magic Online to prepare for the Grand Prix as I’d hoped to.

I flew to Charlotte feeling like I was setting myself up for a month of losing. I was leaving for a tournament in a format I hadn’t played (non-Prerelease Gatecrash Sealed) followed by playing in a different tournament every week, meaning I’d have minimal time to prepare and maximum jetlag for each of them. I was not optimistic about what this would do for my Pro Point situation, but my flight had been booked. This is what I do, so I was committed.

I built an overly aggressive Boros deck in Charlotte. It was too much like a Draft deck because I didn’t know enough about this Sealed format yet. I lost the last round playing for Day 2. I wasn’t too worried about it, as I hadn’t really expected to do better than that in a tournament that large.

After having a reasonably good time in Charlotte watching some friends do well on Sunday, I flew to New York.

Gaudenis had skipped the Grand Prix because his wife was giving birth, which I suppose is a legitimate reason. Also, days before that, the only case he’s ever worked on in his three years as a lawyer settled, so he was taking a week or two off to spend time with his newborn son Vejas. That meant Gau had some time while I was there because it turns out that newborns spend almost all of their time sleeping.

I spent two days playing Dungeon Lords with Gau and cubing with the #finkeldraft crew with Dan OMS’s physical Magic Online Holiday cube. This was fun but not what I’d expected when I’d originally planned to stay with someone who has a full time job, which would have left me with plenty of time to play Sealed events on Magic Online to prepare for Yokohama.

After that, I flew to Yokohama and arrived Thursday afternoon. When you land in Japan, the form they make you fill out asks the address you’ll be staying at. I hadn’t booked a hotel because I hadn’t really wanted to think about it. I was dreading this trip more than I was looking forward to it, and I didn’t want to spend thinking about it than I had to. Besides, finding hotels in Japan online can be annoying, and I’ve gone there without a hotel and had their tourism agency help me find something successfully plenty of times before.

I knew about this form and intended to just write the address of the site. I loaded the event info page on my phone so that I’d have it. When I went to fill out the form, my phone tried to reload the page, and then it was gone (this happens sometimes but not consistently), so I wrote “Yokohama” as the address on the form. The worker at immigration wasn’t impressed. He said he needed more of an address than that. I told him I couldn’t get the address for the place I was staying without an Internet connection, which I couldn’t get. Eventually, he decided I could just write the name of the tournament I was playing in because that was all the information I had.

After getting through immigration, I asked a worker at the airport if there was somewhere I could use Wi-Fi in the airport, and she gave me a brochure that explained how to connect to the free network there.

Before asking a tourism agency for hotel information, I did a quick hipmunk.com search to see what I could find for myself and found a $16 a night capsule hotel that had wireless. I’d never stayed at a capsule hotel, but after getting off the plane, I was looking to go straight to sleep. The capsule hotel was very cheap and would give me a uniquely Japanese experience, so it sounded pretty good. Since I didn’t know what it would be like, I didn’t want to commit to spending the entire weekend there, so I booked one night only.

A capsule hotel is basically like a hostel. (A hostel is a place you can stay at where you rent a bed rather than a room. The bed is usually a bunk bed in a room with 3-20 other beds, and it has shared bathrooms.) Instead of bunk beds, a capsule hotel has bunked sleeping pods, which are little units with enough room to sit or lie down but not enough room to spread your arms out. They gave me a locker that wasn’t wide enough to fit my suitcase, so I brought my suitcase into the pod with me. The pillow was a beanbag, and I could hear a few people snoring. Other than that, it was fine, and I slept ok.

There really wasn’t anywhere in the building to play Magic Online, and it wasn’t good enough for sleeping that I wanted to sleep there before the tournament, so I used their wireless to book a $50 a night hotel a ten minute walk away and headed over there.

I got there at noon but couldn’t check in until three, so I checked my suitcase and left to find something to eat. Finding food in Japan is something of a nightmare for vegetarians since basically everything has fish, and they don’t really understand the idea of trying to avoid eating fish. They generally don’t think of things like fish broth as containing fish, so you can’t even reliably ask if something has fish.

Luckily, I passed an Indian restaurant on the way to my hotel, so I walked back there and ate a remarkably filling mediocre Indian meal for under $8, which let me avoid most of the ordeals of trying to eat in Japan. I successfully managed to eat all of my meals at Indian restaurants, filling in with snacks from convenience stores.

I went back to the hotel and used the computer in the lobby to do research for my Daily Decks column on dailymtg.com. I checked in, went to my room, and spent the rest of the day playing phantom Sealed queues on Magic Online and writing Daily Decks. I went 11-1 in the Sealed events using what Andrew Cuneo had told me about the format: that you want to be B/W/x Control as much as possible. After that, I went to bed.

I woke up the next morning and walked half an hour to the site. On my way there, I felt good. My trip was going pretty smoothly, the weather was nice, and I felt like I really understood this Sealed format even though I’d only gotten a day of practice. It all just made sense, and none of my pools online were particularly special. I hadn’t had a lot of bombs; I’d simply won over and over with solid decks.

The event info said registration would be open from 8:00-9:00 AM and that the event would start at 9:30. I registered at 8:50. At 9:00, they announced that anyone who was not in line or already registered would not be playing in the event. At 9:37, they posted seatings. That’s insane. Seriously. Grand Prix Charlotte started over an hour after schedule. Despite crushing the attendance record in Japan, there was no delay.


A bug with reporter printed off the same pairings on white and green paper for the two sides of the tournament, so half the people didn’t have seats. This took quite a while to fix. Still, tournament organizers in the US should definitely look to emulate Japan if they want to begin to successfully deal with tournaments of this size.

Anyway, long story short, I got my pool, and I was delighted. Not only did it have much more removal than I reasonably could have expected, but it had two of the best possible bombs in Assemble the Legion and Angelic Skirmisher. I’d already felt like this was my tournament to win, but now it seemed like it would be easy.

My Pool:

To use the Sickbrew Sealed widget, click (don’t drag) individual cards from the pool into either the Junk, Pool, or Deck sections. You can click multiple cards at a time to move them all at once! Sort by cost, rarity, and color.


My Gruul deck:

I misbuilt my deck slightly. Red was my splash, but I wanted to play enough red mana that I could splash two Muggings and cast them early. Once I had five red sources, I felt like I could play more red cards. I “splashed” two Muggings, Cinder Elemental, Wrecking Ogre, and Assemble the Legion. This made my deck need all three colors to win too often. If the splash had been just any three of those cards, I would have been unlikely to have multiple stuck in my hand with no red and could still win off the virtual mulligan of having drawn a card I couldn’t cast. But with five, I was likely to have a card I couldn’t cast if I didn’t have red mana, and getting stuck with multiples was fairly likely.

The one round of Sealed I lost was because I had three red cards stuck in my hand in the first game; despite that, I was not far from being able to win that game anyway.

Cinder Elemental is nowhere near enough better than Syndicate Enforcer that it was worth taking that risk, and I probably should have cut either the second Mugging or Wrecking Ogre too, as odd as that sounds. Fortunately, I recognized this quickly in the tournament and almost always sided down to three red cards (never cutting Assemble the Legion, of course).

Even if I remembered my rounds, there wouldn’t be much to say. I beat people very easily when I drew a reasonable ratio of lands and spells and all my colors of mana. That happened very rarely. I regularly drew substantially more lands than spells and often won anyway. I did well because my deck was insane, not because I was getting lucky in my games. I lost several games to these issues but never twice in a round, and I was never really worried. My sideboard helped a lot too. Against control decks, I’d cut a Mugging or two unless they had multiple Guildmages and bring in Purge the Profane and Undercity Plague (which was great every time I drew it). Against aggressive decks, I usually cut Cinder Elemental and Wrecking Ogre for Daring Skyjek and Syndicate Enforcer. Against one aggressive Boros deck with a lot of 2/1s and no Madcap Skills, I sided into my Gruul deck for game 3 when I was pretty sure every card in my deck matched up perfectly against his.

Speaking of which, I think a lot of people would have played the Gruul deck. It had a great curve, a good amount of removal for Gruul, excellent creatures, and great bombs in Domri Rade, Wrecking Ogre, and Ghor-Clan Rampager. This deck was a trap. My B/W deck beat a deck with Aurelia, Foundry Champion, Molten Primordial, Truefire Paladin, Sunhome Guildmage, and good commons. Gruul never would have been able to do that. The red removal can beat the decks you expect to play against in Draft. The Gruul deck actually would have been amazing against Draft decks, but in Sealed, cheap red removal that is great at killing commons and breaking up aggressive starts doesn’t let you deal with all the rares people are building their decks around.

If I’d wanted to play Gruul, I would have had to play my Prophetic Prism, Boros Guildgate, and some Plains to splash Smite, Angelic Edict, and Assemble the Legion. Honestly, I hadn’t considered that build until now, and it might have been reasonable. But once I’m playing that way, my aggressive creatures get a lot worse, so I’d still rather play Orzhov.

It’s also worth noting that I easily had enough playables for straight Orzhov, but I believed the mana worked and the card quality went up if I splashed. The straight Orzhov deck wouldn’t have had any bad cards, the mana would have been a little better, and it still would have played out very similarly. I’d like to say that I won because I correctly realized I needed to be a little greedier or something, but really, either deck would have been excellent. I’m not sure how much splashing the red mattered.

At the end of Day 1 I was 8-1, which is good, but I was still extremely frustrated about my loss because it had been such a good matchup for my deck and I’d really wanted to go undefeated in Sealed. I was very happy that I’d get to play two more rounds of Sealed the next day. This is the only format I’ve ever played where I’ve felt more comfortable in Sealed than in Draft, and I knew I had one of the best decks in the room even if my opponents were also at the top of the standings. After winning two more matches, including the last match against the insane Boros deck mentioned above, it was time to draft.

Nate Price was watching my first draft, but just as a spectator, not for coverage. I like black a lot in this format, but I knew that I didn’t want to force anything. I wanted to try to draft straight up, but my leanings would likely put me in Black. I opened a very strong pack with Grisly Spectacle, One Thousand Lashes, and a lot of good cards I would never take over those. I counted it out, and it looked like there was a reasonable chance Balustrade Spy would table. There were also no good mono-blue cards in the pack, just a Simic Charm.

I took the Grisly Spectacle to stay open and noted that I’d be happy to go into Dimir. My second pick was Angelic Edict out of a pack where nothing else really tempted me, and then I took another white card. Orzhov felt open, and I never saw a Dimir card. Simic Charm tabled with the Spy and Zameck Guildmage tabled after it, but there was no way I could switch at that point even if I didn’t hate Simic and love Orzhov.

Everything came together beautifully, and I ended up with this:

It was one Shadow Slice short of exactly where I wanted it to be (I passed one that I reasonably could have taken, but I don’t remember what I took over it). I wish I had the Shadow Slice because I had a lot of evasive creatures but none of them had much power. I’d have to extort people out the long way whereas a Shadow Slice would have let me end games very quickly, which was the one thing my deck couldn’t do.

My first round was the dream matchup: he was Dimir with Cloudfin Raptor and lots of Metropolis Sprites and Hands of Bindings. His plan was to race with small evasive creatures, which would get his cipher cards through to win the race. Everything about my deck trumped every part of this strategy. His evasive creatures couldn’t get through my Spies, and if he stuck a cipher card on something that could get through, I could kill it. If he had something like Dimir Keyrune to get through, he still couldn’t really make progress through my extort triggers.

Next, I dismantled a clunky Boros deck that had Spark Trooper and an absurd number of five-drops. His deck simply wasn’t very good, and it certainly didn’t match up well against Dutiful Thrull.

My last round was actually extremely close against a very good Gruul deck, but I managed to pull it out in the third game.

Now, I just needed to 1-1-1 to Top 8 (and it turns out I likely could have made it with a 1-2).

Nate Price watched my draft again, but this time he actually covered it.

(After landing, I looked at the coverage, and it’s pretty thorough. I recommend checking it out here.)

My version from memory: I first picked a Syndic of Tithes, which left me open to go Orzhov or Boros. My second pick was between Madcap Skills (with Massive Raid in the pack) or Smite. I’m sure there was a time when I would have taken the Madcap Skills, but I hadn’t won that much with Boros, so I took the Smite to stay open. Third pick there was an Executioner’s Swing and some other reasonable red card, but I’d passed the Madcap Skills so moving in wouldn’t be great. I think Executioner’s Swing is actually awesome in this format (I listed it as the most undervalued common in the coverage), so I took that. Fourth pick, the pack had something good for Orzhov and a Stolen Identity. I’d never played Stolen Identity but knew that it’s insane, and I felt like it being in the pack fourth was an extremely strong signal, so I took it.

I spent the next few picks waffling between whether I wanted Guildgates, Prisms, or Keyrunes to fix my mana, but I think I managed to end up with a reasonable mix. I had Dimir and Orzhov Keyrunes early, so I was looking for more big spells to ramp into. This led to me taking a Treasury Thrull over a Killing Glare later in the draft, which was one of my hardest picks.

My deck ended up looking like this:

I should have played Smite over the Sapphire Drake, but the deck was incredible. I won my first match very easily with an unanswered Simic Manipulator in both games and then drew my next match to lock Top 8. I took the opportunity to go to the mall across the street to pound some Indian food before the Top 8.

I came back just as pairings were going up and went to my table. My opponent didn’t have his deck out. I asked him about it, and he said, “Draw?” I said no, and he asked why. I said I was a lock. He looked horrified.

I actually hated that I had to beat him in this position, but the Top 8 play/draw rule meant that drawing with him rather than winning would mean lowering my own chance to win the tournament. I felt like I owed it to myself to not do that, and maybe if I were friends with him, I would have drawn. However I had no personal incentive to draw here, and it would have bitten me in the Top 8.

This is why I’ve always been a supporter of allowing collusion in situations like this. Not allowing it means that it still happens—but only when there can be an unspoken understanding between players, which rewards people with more connections and creates something of an old boys’ network. Unfortunately, allowing collusion looks bad and makes the public perception of tournament integrity worse, so it can’t really be allowed.

Anyway, I won very easily. It turns out that Soul Ransom and Treasury Thrull, each excellent alone, are completely absurd together. He was tapped out, and I had him dead on board. I animated my Keyrune to get the last two points to kill him and called a judge. When the judge came over, I asked to verify that this tournament was using the rule that high seed gets to choose to play or draw. The judge informed me that this is now the rule for all competitive events, which I didn’t know before. I finished out the game, killing my opponent.

He was devastated. He dropped his head on the table, and after the match, he spent the rest of the round wandering aimlessly around the room. Michelle Cove asked if doing that to someone affected me. I said that it made me unhappy with the system more than anything else. Later, Calcano looked at the standings and determined that it was very likely that my opponent was going to make it even with a loss. Christian found and told him, and he was delighted, of course.

When the Top 8 was announced, he made it (I believe in 7th place), and there was much relief. Despite Shahar Shenhar’s protests, I went to congratulate him and said I was really glad he made it. I wanted it to be clear that it was nothing personal.

Anyway, there was still another draft to do.

I opened a pack in which Truefire Paladin was the only pick I could possibly justify and got passed a Skyknight Legionnaire. Passing the Skyknight could lead to disaster by sending someone behind me into Boros unnecessarily, and it was the best card in the pack, so it was another easy pick. After that, I got a Boros Elite (but there might have been some other card first), and Boros generally felt open—for the first half of the pack. Then it was gone. I ended pack 1 with eight playables, but they were good ones.

Pack 2 didn’t go much better, and I was left scooping up three late Gruul Guildgates that tabled in case I opened something like Clan Defiance or if Boros just wasn’t there.

Looking over my cards for pack 3, I realized I was dangerously low on creatures and that I’d have to basically take any creature over any spell. In the third pack, the only creature I could possibly play was Zhur-Taa Swine, so I took it, and then I got passed Rubblehulk again, with nothing in straight Boros, followed by Crowned Ceratok. I managed to avoid taking any green cards after that, so I could keep it as a late game splash, and I ended up with a deck I was pretty happy with.

My quarterfinal match was over in under five minutes of game play. Both games I curved out with Hellraiser Goblin, and he was unable to put up any resistance. In the first game, the first creature he cast was Adaptive Snapjaw. In the second, he tried to race, but I had too much haste and a Martial Glory to seal the game when he was forced to go on defense.

You can read about my semifinal match here.

The coverage is missing a few things.

I was shocked when I lost the second game. I felt like I had it won. I think I did, but I can’t remember everything well enough. Let me see what I can reconstruct here.

The turn where I attacked with the Crowned Ceratok and it died to Aerial Maneuvers is the turn I most likely punted the game. My hand was Zarichi Tiger and Holy Mantle. I had Crowned Ceratok, Truefire Paladin, and Bomber Corps in play. If I attack with everything and hit him for one, he goes to six and has to block Truefire Paladin as far as I know. In reality, he could block Ceratok with Cartel and Bomber with Screecher, play Maneuvers, and extort me for one. If he does that, I still lose the Ceratok in the same way, but he takes an extra 3 damage (one from Truefire Paladin and one from Bomber Corps’ trigger. I still play Zarichi Tiger next, and he probably still plays Purge the Profane to make me discard my Holy Mantle (this was all omitted from the coverage). He would have been at five after extorting me and taking that damage, and then he would have gone to eight after the Purge the Profane and extort.

The next turn I drew Massive Raid. My play was to attack with Truefire Paladin. I thought that he’d block it with Cartel Aristocrat, sacrifice the Bat, and I’d Raid the Aristocrat in response, but he foiled that by playing Shielded Passage. Again, I’m not really sure why I didn’t just attack with everything—maybe I did? If I attack with everything after doing that the previous turn and I shoot him with Bomber Corps, he goes to seven. Then he blocks the Corps with the Bat again and Paladin with Cartel and plays Passage. He takes two from the Tiger but still has plenty of life, and I still don’t have anything great to do with the Massive Raid.

I thought earlier that I’d figured out that I could have won, but now I’m not so sure. I currently think that I played badly but that I still would have narrowly lost if I’d played better. I wish there had been more precise (i.e., video) coverage so I could make sure.

Either way, I need to learn the same lesson I always need to learn: that I have to be more careful when I feel like I’m ahead because a lot can go wrong in a game of Magic. That’s almost always when I get sloppy and lose.

In the third game, I mulliganed and kept a hand with two Mountains, a Mugging, and nothing else I could cast, and I died before I drew a Plains. It was a very disappointing way to go.

I’m happy with my finish, but it’s reminded me that I’d really like a trophy someday.

Thanks for reading,


@samuelhblack on Twitter