Ideas Unbound – A PTQ Report

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Friday, April 16th – Ever had a PTQ coming up in a few days and not been sure what to play or how to prepare with your limited timeframe? This report is for you.

Ever had a PTQ coming up in a few days and not been sure what to play or how to prepare with your limited timeframe? This report is for you.

I’m one of those weird people who actively enjoys the process of playtesting, of grinding out games and finding the key interactions of a matchup, swapping cards in and out, trying new things, and solving the puzzle. Because of this, I go to most PTQs with a deck I’ve been tuning for a while and am very familiar with. However, I’m finishing my last term of college and haven’t had a whole lot of time to play Magic recently. When the last PTQ of the season rolled around, I wasn’t particularly prepared. I’d played Dark Depths earlier in the season and was planning on just updating my list, but I wasn’t really sure what I was doing in the mirror nor was I sure what the best sideboard plan was against Zoo. Normally, I don’t advocate last-minute deck selection and feel that people should usually seek percentage by playing a deck well rather than playing an unfamiliar deck because of some perceived advantage against the field, but sometimes circumstances warrant switching decks.

So when Gavin Verhey got back from Houston and told me how sweet Patrick Chapin update on his Grixis deck was, I jumped ship pretty quickly. Chapin had cut Gavin’s Blood Moons and Wrecking Balls to add some counterspells and Cruel Ultimatums, and had found room for a ton of extra card draw as well. I am pretty much all about playing lands and drawing cards, so I was pretty stoked. Still, it was Tuesday, and the PTQ was Saturday, and I didn’t have a whole lot of free time. How best to prepare?

Chapin’s list was included in the coverage from GP Houston, so I started playing games against myself with it on Magic Workstation. I was playing short six-game sets pre- and post-board against the major decks of the format; Dark Depths, various Zoo lists, Scapeshift, Hypergenesis, and so on. That sort of testing isn’t optimal when you’re trying to tune your deck and figure out a perfect seventy-five, but it is very good for learning the basic interactions in the matchup and what sort of hands to keep and which spells to prioritize. I was willing to trust that Chapin’s list was more or less optimal, and was more concerned with learning to play it correctly than swapping some numbers around and potentially changing the deck for the worse.

Testing showed that the Zoo matchup was pretty good; Chrome Mox and Dimir Signet were important if you were on the draw and didn’t have Smother, but all of Grixis’ fours are pretty brutal, and I was winning most of the games where I got to cast them. If I just hung out evoking Mulldrifters and casting Thirst for Knowledge without addressing the board I would lose in a hurry, but Smother and Gatekeeper of Malakir would buy me a lot of time to get ahead on cards while Damnation was usually a backbreaker. The Boom/Bust Zoo lists were easier than the Tribal Flames lists because all of the Moxen and Signets made my mana really resilient, and having four Boom/Busts and three Blood Moons lowered the Zoo deck’s threat density considerably. I played a few games against several versions of Zoo instead of several games against a few versions because I wanted to have a feel for what I would need to do differently against Zoo with Bloodbraid Elf as opposed to Ranger of Eos or Elspeth, Knight-Errant or Negate, which all required sequencing removal and card draw in subtly different ways.

Grixis was also pretty far against Dark Depths in testing. If Depths moved in on a turn 2 20/20 I had to show Repeal, but unless they had the full fix with Thoughtseize they generally had to respect the possibility of a blowout and wait to set up Muddle. However, once in the midgame, the Grixis deck had a very powerful answer to Marit Lage: Gatekeeper of Malakir. Dark Confidant was responsible for most of Grixis’ wins, so Smother kept growing in importance as I played more games. The Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek combo was pretty impotent if I ever found Night of Souls’ Betrayal, so I wasn’t as concerned with 1/1 beatdown and knew to focus on containing Vampire Hexmage and Dark Depths.

The combo matchups were much harder, and game one against both Scapeshift and Hypergenesis was pretty difficult. Still, after I got to board in a ton of Extractions and Flashfreezes, both matchups improved considerably, particularly after Chapin’s article went up outlining the importance of aggressively going after Scapeshift’s mana ramp with Flashfreeze and Countersquall. If I let them get to eight mana with some counters of their own or Gigadrowse or Boseiju they could usually construct a window to resolve Scapeshift, but attacking their Searches with Countersqualls and Flashfreezing their Tribe-Elders usually forced them to stall out around five or six lands and fall behind. It’s actually pretty hard for Scapeshift after boarding, because it’s difficult for them to ramp their mana with any sort of speed without exposing themselves to Cranial Extraction or Sadistic Sacrament. They also can’t actually draw any cards, so a few Thirsts would usually put me way ahead.

Similarly, Hypergenesis wanted to use Compulsive Research to hit land drops to cast their fatties once I showed I had boarded in enough permission to handle Hypergenesis itself, but tapping for Research would let me punish them with Extraction. Meanwhile, if they just held up Outburst mana, I would just outland them naturally and eventually start end step Thirsting with two mana up, and they would be hard-pressed to win. I was losing the most to sequences involving an end step Outburst on turn three and another cascade spell on four, but Damnation was picking me up a few wins against those draws; I felt like a moderate underdog but that the matchup wasn’t unwinnable.

That was all of the preparation I managed to do before the PTQ; I got wrangled by Gavin Verhey and threw Zoo variants at him for a few hours on Friday afternoon while he decided what to play. I was still fairly comfortable even though there were wide stretches of the format I was relatively underprepared for; against Bant, for example, I could treat them like a slower Zoo deck that had more Negate variants and no burn. Familiarity with the Depths matchup got me some mileage against the Blue-White Thopter decks, and I could rely on raw power to get me through matches against attrition decks like the Smallpox deck that finished in the top eight at Houston.

I only made a few changes to the deck. Originally I had wanted Compulsive Research over Mulldrifter, but that proved pretty bad when I went to cast Cruel Ultimatum, and being able to buy a bear was more valuable than I had expected against the aggressive decks. Similarly, when I started testing I’d wanted to change some of the numbers around, but figured that I didn’t have enough time to fine-tune everything and that I would only make changes when presented with issues that actively came up during games. I added a fourth Smother over a Deathmark in the board because casting Deathmark on turn one without taking damage was difficult and I wanted more answers to manlands, and added a second Lavaclaw Reaches over the second Blood Crypt because I virtually always played Blood Crypt tapped and never wanted to fetch the second one even for Cruel Ultimatum; Watery Grave or Steam Vents would do in almost every case. I considered adding a second Dreadship Reef, but Reef didn’t play well with Ultimatum unless I drew a Signet, and I never won any games in testing exclusively due to charging Reef, so I didn’t.

The PTQ was eight rounds:

Round 1: Philip, UW Merfolk

Game 1 wasn’t too close. His draw wasn’t particularly aggressive; his first plays were Windbrisk Heights and Suppression Field. Eventually he ran out Silvergill Adept and Lord of Atlantis. I killed them with Damnation, had Gatekeeper for his next creature, and then played Jace, rebought Gatekeeper, and began fatesealing him. He conceded when Jace went ultimate.

Sideboarding: -1 Flashfreeze -2 Night of Souls’ Betrayal -1 Countersquall; +1 Smother +1 Damnation +1 Deathmark +1 Cryptic Command

In game 2, I kept Smother, Damnation, Mulldrifter, and lands. He played Heights and Silvergill Adept, which I Smothered before evoking Mulldrifter. I might’ve pulled the trigger on Damnation too early; I cast it when he played Adept showing Stonybrook Banneret, Stonybrook Bannaret with four mana. While fatesealing him in game one I’d seen Sage’s Dousing, and I was convinced his next turn would be lord, Dousing, so I Wrathed him. He untapped and played Wake Thrasher. My hand was all lands. Hmm. I peeled Cruel on the next turn, but by then he had Cryptic up and waiting.

In game 3 I played a Signet into turn three Jace, bounce your Silvergill Adept. Normally, bouncing Adept is not that awesome, but casting Gatekeeper every turn sure is, so things worked out. By the time he drew a Mutavault and played a second creature with a mana up to feed Mutavault to Gatekeeper, I had Cryptic Command to counter it and bounce his Mutavault, then made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. (link: Cruel Ultimatum)

Round 2: Mike, Zoo with Bloodbraid Elf

I lost the roll and kept land, Mox, Signet, fours. I drew exclusively sevens and fours for the rest of the game. He was Zoo with Bloodbraid Elf.

-2 Countersquall -2 Night of Souls’ Betrayal -2 Cryptic Command; +1 Smother +1 Deathmark +1 Damnation +3 Flashfreeze

In game 2, he kept seven cards with no one drop. He did, however, have Ancient Grudge, which made my Mox/Signet hand more than a little awkward. I Evoked Mulldrifter to find some lands, and he played Bloodbraid Elf and cascaded into Tarmogoyf, so I had to play a land, Mox, Wrath, then lose my Mox to the other half of Grudge. I Smothered his next guy and hardcast Mulldrifter before putting him away with Ultimatum.

In game 3, I had triple Flashfreeze, so despite taking nine from a Tarmogoyf over a few turns before finding a window for Smother, I stabilized pretty easily. He found a fourth land for Bloodbraid Elf, but cascaded into Bant Charm. I killed it with Deathmark, reloaded with Thirst for Knowledge, killed a couple more guys, and got him with Ultimatums.

Round 3; Mike Thompson, Tribal Zoo

Mike is well known in the Northwest for playing Meddling Mage whenever it is legal, so I knew he was on Zoo. My opening hand was four lands and three spells. None of them were removal. I shipped. Six cards was four land, Mulldrifter, Cruel Ultimatum. There was basically no chance I could win with that hand, so I sent it back too. I think most players are terrified of mulligans and use the wrong standards when they evaluate their opening hand. Usually, people ask themselves how it can improve and what their chances of having a better six are. That’s not the way to evaluate a hand. You should mulligan hands that won’t let you win the game. I mean, sure, four lands and two spells is better in the abstract than three land and two spells, but if I keep Mulldrifter, Cruel, and lands, I basically have to draw Deathmark or Smother, and then Mulldrifter into Wrath or I can’t possibly win. It’s certainly true that I might mulligan into oblivion and lose, but I’m not going to win by keeping a miserable six either.

Five cards was Watery Grave, Gatekeeper, Thirst, Mulldrifter, Damnation. Mike came out with Wild Nacatl and Noble Hierarch. I drew two lands and sent in Gatekeeper to extract a toll. Mike sacrificed Noble Hierarch and played Knight of the Reliquary. I peeled my fourth land and Wrathed. Mike didn’t have another creature, and I got a window to start drawing cards. By the time he found more creatures, I was well in control, and he conceded a few turns after I cast Cruel Ultimatum.

-2 Countersquall -2 Night of Souls’ Betrayal -2 Cryptic Command; +1 Smother +1 Deathmark +1 Damnation +3 Flashfreeze

Game 2 was considerably more exciting. Mike had Loam Lion and Tarmogoyf, but had to Bolt my face on turn three to upgrade his Tarmogoyf from Squire to Elvish Warrior. I Smothered it and fell to thirteen from Lion. He played Knight of the Reliquary and a Noble Hierarch. I played a Gatekeeper, ate his Hierarch, and passed. The turn after I Gatekeepered him, I used Cryptic to fog and rebuy Gatekeeper, getting the Lion before chumping the Knight. I untapped and cast Cruel Ultimatum, but Mike had the Negate and attacked me down to two. Thirst for Knowledge found Damnation and got the Knight. Mike drew a land and passed. I untapped and sent the turn back with Flashfreeze and Smother up. He cast Loam Lion, and I drew a Gatekeeper for it and went into Counter-Sliver mode while Gatekeeper went the distance.

Round 4: Steven Birklid, UGR Scapeshift

Steven is Alaska’s finest export. I knew what he was playing since I’d lent him most of his deck, but that didn’t really help me in game one; I kept a hand full of Thirsts and Mulldrifters because I wanted to have velocity while drawing into permission to manage his acceleration while we raced to see if I could Cruel him before he got to Scapeshift. Instead, I drew a million removal spells and he defeated me handily.

-2 Repeal -3 Smother -2 Night of Souls’ Betrayal -3 Gatekeeper of Malakir -1 Damnation; +3 Thoughtseize +3 Flashfreeze +1 Countersquall +1 Cryptic Command +2 Cranial Extraction +1 Sadistic Sacrament

(I left in Damnation because PV’s list from Houston had Oona in the board, and I wanted outs to it)

In game 2, I Thoughtseized him, saw Boseiju, Flooded Grove, Jace, Gigadrowse, two Peer Through Depths, and Search for Tomorrow.

“Such greeds?”

“Nah, I have a lot of outs.”

I took his Search. He missed his third land drop and I pulled ahead by evoking Mulldrifter. He drew his third land. It was Flooded Grove. I laughed at him and cast Thirst for Knowledge, then Seized him twice more taking Jace and Drowse. Eventually, Steven found Stomping Ground and was able to actually begin playing Magic, but he was way too far behind on lands and cards to catch up. I got his hand with Cruel Ultimatum and easily went ultimate with Jace.

Game 3 was much closer. He suspended Search on turn 1. I Countersqualled it on his third upkeep. He tanked forever and decided to counter it. On my turn, I played land, Mox, Jace and Brainstormed. He had his own to force the trade, but I had drawn another. We got into a pretty tense position where I was a little bit ahead on lands and cards, but most of my hand was blank and he had Peers and fetchlands to break up my fatesealing. I was Brainstorming frantically to find more permission, and when I hit my eighth or ninth land while Steven was still on seven, he Gigadrowsed me during my end step. I was still at twenty, so he’d need eight lands to kill me; I used Cryptic to bounce a land and hoped he didn’t have any way to ramp to eight. He didn’t, and passed back. At this point, I had a single Countersquall defending me from all of the Scapeshifts and Muddles in the world, and was Thoughtseizing aggressively to make up the difference. Steven was Pondering and Peering to find gas of his own, and tapped down to two lands on his turn with just Peer in hand.

I untapped and Brainstormed. The third card was Sadistic Sacrament. Hmm. How much is the kicker on that, anyway? Seven? How many lands do I have? Ten? That’s convenient. “This?”

Steven’s Valakuts were in play, but I was still able to strip all of his Mountains. And Oonas. And Jaces. Steven conceded when I started pulling the Tribe-Elders.

Round 5: Josh, Zoo

He won the roll; I mulliganed. He didn’t have a one-drop, while I had land, Mox, Signet. He played Qasali Pridemage; I ran out Jace and bounced it. He had the Bolt, but I cast Thirst and found Gatekeeper. Pridemage paid the toll, and I traded Lavaclaw Reaches for the next one. Gatekeeper and the second Lavaclaw went the distance with Smothers and Cryptic Commands watching their back.

-2 Countersquall -2 Night of Souls’ Betrayal -2 Cryptic Command; +1 Smother +1 Deathmark +1 Damnation +3 Flashfreeze

In game 2 I had Mox and Repeal for his turn one Loam Lion, then Wrathed away his squad on turn three, following up with Gatekeeper for his second-wave Tarmogoyf. From there I just sat on a bunch of Flashfreezes until I found Cruel Ultimatum.

Round 6: Gavin Verhey Guess Who? (UB Ninja Aggro-Control)

Gavin won the roll and played turn one Dark Confidant. Okay, fine; I have Mox and Gatekeeper, we can get through this. I played a tapped Watery Grave. He attacked, put Ninja of the Deep Hours into play, and Thoughtseized me.

Mama said there’d be days like this…

It was even more awkward because I hadn’t played my Chrome Mox on turn one because I liked all of my spells. If he took Mox, I couldn’t possibly win. I ran the bush league “yard Gatekeeper while revealing my hand” trick; Gavin took the Gatekeeper after tanking for a while and replayed Dark Confidant. I found a Damnation, but he had another Ninja. I Wrathed that one, too, and started to sculpt towards the Cruel Ultimatum in my hand. Instead of a seventh land, I found Night of Souls’ Betrayal when his board was Confidant, Mutavault. That should work.

“After you draw, Vendilion Clique.”

Frown. He took Betrayal. I drew not a land and cast Gatekeeper. He sacrificed Clique. I found a Chrome Mox a few turns later. He Vendilion Cliqued me and took Cruel Ultimatum. I Smothered it, and he played Abyssal Persecutor. His board was Confidant, Persecutor, Mutavault with two mana up. I had Jace, Countersquall, Mox, Cryptic Command in my hand. I played the Mox intending to play Jace, bounce Gatekeeper, kill his Mutavault, then Cryptic fog plus bounce Gatekeeper and hopefully draw something to deal with Persecutor. He cast Spellstutter Sprite in response to the Mox. I countered it, bounced Gatekeeper, and got his Confidant on the way back down, but I didn’t draw an answer to his Persecutor and died.

-1 Flashfreeze -2 Repeal -2 Countersquall -1 Cryptic Command; +1 Smother +1 Night of Souls’ Betrayal +1 Damnation +3 Thoughtseize

Gavin had another turn 1 Dark Confidant in game two, but I killed it with Gatekeeper. He Gatekeepered me back, and started beating down with his Gatekeeper and a Mutavault while I was hitting land drops and drawing cards. I eventually Smothered his Mutavault and Wrathed his Gatekeeper, but then he found Glen Elendra Archmage when I was at six. He used Archmage to counter Jace, and I was able to race the 1/1 with Lavaclaw Reaches.

In game three, I mulliganed; Gavin had turn 1 Dark Confidant (…) plus Thoughtseize and it was never really close. I was able to Gatekeeper his Confidant eventually and Smothered some end step Sprites to keep him from ninja-ing me, but he played an Abyssal Persecutor that I never found an answer for.

Round 7: Seb Denno, Burn

He had turn 1 Goblin Guide in both games; I was dead on turn 5 twice.

-2 Night of Souls’ Betrayal -3 Damnation -1 Cryptic Command; +3 Flashfreeze +1 Countersquall +2 Thoughtseize

Round 8: BRG Aggro-Scapeshift

Game 1 was medium awkward. He flashed Search for Tomorrow while shuffling, so I kept two lands, Mulldrifter, two Countersqualls, Thirst for Knowledge, and Cryptic Command. His first plays were Kitchen Finks and Bloodbraid Elf cascading into Search for Tomorrow. I cast Gatekeeper; he sacrificed Finks. It persisted and he kept bashing. I traded Gatekeeper for Bloodbraid. He played another Kitchen Finks. I played Night of Souls’ Betrayal and Smothered his second Finks, and then a third. The fourth Finks plinked me down to six before I found Cruel Ultimatum. He hit seven mana, but fortunately didn’t have Scapeshift on that turn, and by the time he found one I had Countersquall waiting. I hit him with another Ultimatum and killed him with Lavaclaw Reaches.

-2 Repeal -2 Night of Souls’ Betrayal; +1 Countersquall +3 Flashfreeze

(Sideboarding was odd; basically all of my cards are good against him, but I didn’t want to be choked on Cranials while he was beating me down so I left them on the bench with a plan of re-evaluating if he set up Boseiju in game two.)

Game 2 was much more straightforward. He played Tribe-Elder on two, which I matched with Signet. He cast Thought Hemorrhage on turn three and named Cruel Ultimatum. I didn’t have one in my hand, so I didn’t particularly care, but I did counter his follow-up Cranial Extraction with Cryptic Command just for form’s sake. He Extirpated my Cryptic Commands. I asked him how many cards he had left. Two. I played Mulldrifter and killed him with Mulldrifter and Lavaclaw Reaches while he drew relative blanks in the form of lands and ramp effects.

Losing twice playing for top 8 obviously sucks, but Gavin won the tournament, which is awesome. I can write more about playtesting processes if that’s what people are interested in, but the next few weeks will probably involve lots of preparation for Standard PTQs and Regionals. And, of course, Rise of the Eldrazi. Have fun at your prereleases this weekend!

Max McCall
max dot mccall at gmail dot com