How A Relative Nobody Made Top 8 Of GP Vegas

Justin Nguyen tells the tale of how he made Top 8 of the largest Grand Prix in the history of Magic and shares his thoughts about Modern Masters Limited.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.



My name is Justin Nguyen, and I’m a student at UCSD that plays Magic for fun. Throughout my childhood, I always played some sort of trading card game. Whether it was Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh!, I enjoyed collecting and playing cards with my friends. I started playing Magic when I was 16 after the Yu-Gi-Oh! scene at my store died. I remember playing my first matches of White Weenie against players in Orange, California like it was yesterday. One of my fondest memories of my beginnings in Magic was my victory over one of the better players at my local store, James Gates. I had previously lost to him and his U/R Fish deck countless times until I was able to break through and finally win one for myself. This lone win really sparked my interest to start attending larger tournaments to seek better competition.

Fast forward to the weekend before Grand Prix Las Vegas. I decided to go to the Grand Prix, not expecting much except to have fun and play in the largest event in Magic history. I wanted to be a part of something special, and this event was shaping up to be that kind of thing with the amount of hype surrounding the format and the location. Preregistration was put in place for a more orderly method of getting everyone in the tournament, and sometime during the week before, I heard that the amount of people who had preregistered was well over the attendance of Grand Prix Charlotte!

I knew I was a small fish in a big pond because there were many sharks and people better than me in attendance. I did all I could do: just fought my way through the crowd one round at a time. I even brought my stack of pro player cards to the tournament to get signatures from pros that I looked up to. I got Shuhei Nakamura signature before building my Sealed deck and was thrilled. I was happy to see so many of the people I’ve read articles and taken advice from.

Sealed Deck

Here is the deck I registered for day 1:

One weakness I found in my Sealed deck was that I was vulnerable to bouncing quality cards that had enters-the-battlefield abilities. If my opponent played Cloudgoat Ranger or had an Eternal Witness, my deck was significantly weaker. Bounce effects are good to tempo out your opponent and advance your board, but if bouncing the creatures allows them to gain incremental advantages by recasting their creatures, then the tempo advantage can be nullified.

On the flip side, the strength of my deck was that it had a lot of tempo. Having three Aethersnipes, one Vedalken Dismisser, and one Riftwing Cloudskate allowed me to bounce my opponent’s big creatures while advancing my board position. Vedalken Shackles is also a strong card even with only two or four Islands in play. The ability to steal key flying creatures and Rebel searchers was relevant throughout the day.

Here is a summary of my day 1 rounds:

Round 1-3: Byes, 3-0
Round 4: Joseph Hoang, 4-0
Round 5: Humberto Rivera, 5-0
Round 6: Jason Schein, 6-0
Round 7: Lance Garbarger, 6-1
Round 8: Brandon Johnson, 6-2
Round 9: Sammy Tukeman, 7-2


My preparation for the Draft portion did not involve discussing any strategies with pros or doing extensive drafts at local stores. I did not have a testing group like many people did, so I talked with a few friends who played Magic Online. Not enough drafts were held in my area to practice for the event, and the price of drafting many times in real life was not very enticing. I turned to phantom Modern Masters drafts on Magic Online for the bulk of my preparation.

I’m a person who learns a lot by constant grinding. I learn what works and what doesn’t based on collective data. I took notes of every archetype I drafted for fifteen drafts and recorded the records I had in each single-elimination draft. I think it’s important to take records of your testing for an event because it gives you a great overview of what you have been successful with over a long stretch of time.

It was evident that B/W Rebels, Five-Color Domain, U/W Flyers and U/B Flyers were the best archetypes in the format. Fringe decks like Storm were very difficult to assemble, and even if you could obtain multiple pieces of the deck, fringe cards like Raven’s Crime easily beat those strategies. Red was also a color to avoid since it did not provide any real source of card advantage. With so many powerful creatures in the format that have enters-the-battlefield abilities, killing an Eternal Witness with a Rift Bolt does little over the course of the game since the advantage has already been gained. In different formats, a 2/2 flyer with no other ability is fine to kill with a Shock effect. However, the flyers in this format have a wide range of abilities that are relevant when they enter the battlefield.

I drafted a good U/W Flyers deck to go 3-0 in my first pod.

Summary of my day 2 rounds:

Round 10: Jiachen Tao, 8-2
Round 11: Mark Festini, 9-2
Round 12: Kar Yung Tom, 10-2
Round 13: Josh Utter-Leyton, 11-2
Round 14: Brittany Fulton, 12-2
Round 15: John Kassari, 13-2

Four Exciting Matches

Round 5

I played against Humberto Rivera in round 5. My tendency during long tournaments is to not be as sharp during the earlier rounds as I am at the end. This is evident by the fact that I went 7-2 on day 1 and then 6-0 on day 2 to Top 8. The match against Rivera involved a complex board full of big green creatures and Saproling tokens. I saw this type of board state many times throughout the weekend when a green-based deck was involved.

In general, green is such a good color in Modern Masters because of the resilient creatures it provides. Penumbra Spider, Reach the Branches, Imperiosaur, and the Saproling generators are efficient defensive creatures, while the big creatures and secondary colors usually provide a way to punch through. Green is good when paired with blue for the bounce effects from Aethersnipe, Vedalken Dismisser, and Riftwing Cloudskate to get your big guys to get through.

In this match, I made a critical error due to not having played many matches to warm up yet. Humberto had four Saproling tokens in play, and I thought I had great opportunity to deal with all four via Echoing Truth. However, I failed to remember that the card bounces my three Saprolings as well. This mistake rattled me for a moment, but I slowed down, thought about my plays, and was able to produce more attackers than him and attack past his big board for lethal. This mistake helped wake me up and think through all situations before making plays. If I had lost due to this mistake, I would never make the mistake again. However, I was fortunate to win and will never make that mistake again.

Round 9

Round 9 I played against Sammy Tukeman. Both of us were 6-2; the winner would make day 2, while the loser would be stuck playing side events the next day. Previous experience in GP day 2s had prepared me for moments like this: playing pressure matches for high stakes. So going into the last round on day 1, I did not think of my current record or the possibilities of day 2. Instead, I simply focused on the match at hand. The long day had prepared me mentally to tune out the distractions around me and think about each individual play.

I quickly got stomped in game 1 by Sammy, and I felt like my chances of making
day 2 were over. However, he had mulligan problems game 2, and we were on to the final game. Forcing a game 3 calmed me down, and I told myself to play my game. One thing I’ve learned from playing Magic for a while is that you have to think positively. PST or Positive Self Talk is important. I told myself “you can do it” inside my head over and over again while shuffling.

The last game was intense, with both of us getting out powerful rares. He had his Reveillark, while I had my Vedalken Shackles. Shackles is one of the most powerful rares in the set; it navigated Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze finalist Dustin Ochoa through the Swiss portion as well. Relief came over me as I won. I looked over at my partner in crime for the weekend, John Kassari, who was watching my last match, and he had finished 7-2 as well (foreshadowing a showdown the next day). I felt excited since a Pro Tour qualification was in sight. Most of the people in the hall thought that a record of X-2 would not make Top 8, but a qualification for the Pro Tour would be just as great for me because I have never played at a PT before.

Round 13

Round 13 I was pitted against Josh Utter-Leyton, the reigning Player of the Year. My deck was a Four-Color Domain deck without red. I was base U/G with a splash for Executioner’s Capsule, Marsh Flitter, and Bound in Silence, and my deck had a lot of tempo cards like Aethersnipe and Vedalken Dismisser. After I won game 1, a crowd began to gather around our table, and I could feel the intensity rising.

Game 2 Utter-Leyton came out aggressively with two Amrou Seekers backed up with Syphon Life. He proceeded to aggressively Retrace his Syphon Life to drain me for two, which made racing difficult. Fast forward a few turns ahead and I was at two life staring down an Amrou Seeker and Blightspeaker and was dead to him drawing any land. I felt like we were headed to game 3, but in a series of critical turns, I was able to Petals of Insight into enough gas to remove his Amrou Seeker, Vedalken Dismisser his Blightspeaker on top of his deck to prevent him from drawing his final land, and then attack in with my large creatures. This in addition to him not drawing his final land for a couple turns was enough to get me the win!

A huge sigh of relief rushed through me since I felt like I played my best Magic of the weekend and ended up with a victory over one of the best players in the world. I had played some pros in the past before, but it was different from this time. During this match, I was a little nervous, but at the same time I was confident that I could do something special. Beating Utter-Leyton was something special for me, and it skyrocketed my confidence that I could obtain a Pro Tour invite over my next two rounds.

Round 15

The last and final round was against my friend John Kassari. We both were 12-2, and the winner would get the invite to the Pro Tour. At this point I’d had an incredible day, going 5-0, and I did not want to end the weekend on a bad note. During the draft, John was sitting to my left, so I had the luxury of knowing what I passed him for the majority of the draft. I figured he took the two Auriok Salvagers that I gave him in addition to some Spellbombs. He ended up with a good deck with two Aether Spellbombs and one Pyrite Spellbomb.

In game 1, my board of green creatures stalled against his gigantic board of artifacts. A timely Cryptic Command to tap down his entire team and attack in for lethal forced a game 2. Game 2 I was helpless to him when he assembled his Salvager and Spellbomb combo, and we quickly moved on to a final game for the invite to Dublin.

Game 3 was an unforgettable one. The board got clogged up really quick with his artifacts and my big green creatures. He was attacking me in the air with his Blinkmoth Nexus and Aven Changeling, while I was busy trying to stabilize. I was getting very low on life, but John still did not have a Spellbomb to recur. When I started to stabilize with flyers and bounce spells, John was able to come back with a topdecked Aether Spellbomb. I kept cool and knew he could not abuse his Spellbomb too much since I had killed his Etherium Sculptor early in the game.

A surprising card for me during the match was my Walker of the Grove. I had two in play that continued to attack his board, slowly chipping away as he was trying to recur his Aether Spellbomb to try to keep me off my flyers. In a crucial turn, I was able to have a total of three flyers in play, more than he could have mana to recur the Spellbomb to bounce all my guys and attack with his Blinkmoth Nexus. I also had lethal in play, and he was forced to dig for his Pyrite Spellbomb to deal me the final damage. He was unable to find it and extended the hand!

I shook his hand and was out of my mind. I had just qualified for my first Pro Tour! People around me congratulated me, and it was one of the happiest moments of my life. I’ve been playing competitive Magic since I was 16, and to finally have a Pro Tour invitation six years later is something I will not forget. I did not expect to get an invite at this large tournament filled with great players. Everyone seemed to have some sort of Pro Tour history or Grand Prix Top 8, which was a little discouraging going into day 2, but in the end I proved to myself that I belong among the best.

Top 8

Joy flowed through me as I qualified for my first Pro Tour. Our match was the last one to finish, and the result slip was hurried to the front. John and I started discussing our match while the Top 8 was being announced. When the announcer got to seventh place, he announced that there were two 39 pointers making Top 8. I half ignored the announcements because I knew I could not jump from 19th to 8th place after just one round. Sure enough, the announcer called Steve Cahill and Humberto Rivera as the last two spots. I did not mind since I was thrilled to qualify for my first Pro Tour. I planned on using the money from Top 16 to pay for part of my plane ticket, but…

One minute later the announcer said he made a mistake announcing eighth place!!! He said, “Actually in eighth place is Justin Nguyen!!!” John looked at me and said, “Hey, that’s you.” I could not believe it until a second person said, “Isn’t that you?” 

At this point, it set in. I had made Top 8 of the Grand Prix that so many people had said I could not since I was X-2. I started shaking and jumping up a down in joy. Not only had I qualified for the Pro Tour, but I also would now have airfare. Everything had to go absolutely perfect for me to Top 8 the event. The top seed knocked out the tenth seed, and multiple people had their Opponents Match Win Percentage go down while mine increased from 65.3% to 70.71%. I beat ninth place Rivera’s tiebreakers by 0.87%. Even the judges at the feature match were astonished that I had made Top 8 with a record of 13-2. The judges and coverage team rushed me over to the feature match area where I filled out information about myself and took pictures. It was surreal.

Given extra rounds to play, I told myself I would make the most of my opportunity. I’d had the most success online drafting B/W Rebels, so when I saw an early Blightspeaker I knew that was the direction I wanted to go in. I ended up with a solid B/W Rebels deck.

You can find great coverage of my Top 8 match is here.

Lance Harbarger, the person who handed me my first loss of the tournament in round 7, was my opponent. He was playing a green deck splashing red and white for removal. I won Game 1 off of a good curve backed up with removal. Game 2 demonstrated the strength of his deck against mine, as his green creatures were just bigger than mine and I was unable to punch through them. Game 3 I kept a hand of three Plains, Hillcomber Giant, and three black spells. In hindsight, I should have mulliganed this hand considering that Lance also mulliganed to six. The final game was unexciting; I got stuck on those three Plains for the entire game and got smashed by his big creatures.

Top 3 Scariest Cards in the Format

The card that I did not want to face the most throughout the tournament was Rude Awakening. Since there are no Fog effects besides Cryptic Command, a person holding a Rude Awakening could deal enough damage and calculate very easily how many lands they would need to be in play to overwhelm their opponent’s blockers. This card is stronger than Tromp the Domains in my opinion because it can come out of nowhere.

The second card that I did not want to face at all was Oona, Queen of the Fae. Josh Utter-Leyton had one in his deck, and it was incredibly difficult for me to deal with. Being black means you cannot Spellbomb it, and most of the red burn can’t deal enough damage to take it out of the game. One untap with Oona often leads to a loss.

Finally, the third card that scares me is Sword of Fire and Ice. This card is difficult to predict unless you’ve seen the player play it in previous games. The ability to make any creature into an absolute monster makes this card a card I would not want to see played against me.

Closing Thoughts About Modern Masters

I completely enjoyed Modern Masters Limited. I’m happy that WotC was able to produce such a set to reprint powerful cards while creating such a skill-intensive Limited format. The power level of this Draft format lies between a normal block set and the Magic Online Cube. I would say that it resembles Cube more since it has clear archetypes that can be drafted. I really hope that WotC tries another Modern Masters set down the line to recapture some of the awesome mechanics over the past decade that has made this game enjoyable.

As I complete this tournament report, I can say that I really enjoyed my time in Las Vegas. Getting to see my friends and playing Magic are two of the best things of my life. To be in Las Vegas at the same time and also be a part of the largest Grand Prix in Magic history is something special. When I answered the Top 8 questions in my profile of what it meant for me to be part of the largest Top 8 in Magic history, I couldn’t think of anything else but Praise the Lord. I have to first thank God for being my savior and giving me an opportunity to play this game. Las Vegas ended in a sweet way, and I look forward to the great adventures I will have in Dublin in October.