Levelling Up – Back to the PTQ Trenches

Read Tiago Chan every Friday... at StarCityGames.com!
No, you’re not misreading the title… Tiago Chan, Level 6 Mage, spent last weekend at the front line of competitive Magic, supporting friends in their quest to qualify for Pro Tour: Valencia. Today’s Levelling Up sees Portugal’s finest walk us through the PTQ from his two friends’ perspectives, as they battle valiantly with U/B Teachings. He reminisces over the sights, sounds, and smells of the Portuguese PTQ scene…

I won a lot of PTQs, back in the day. Every time I scrubbed out at a Pro Tour, I had to go to PTQs and qualify again. I have a lot of experience on how to qualify. If I could, I would play the current Block Constructed PTQ season, just to have my game stay sharp, and to ensure I’m ready to face new tech or situations. But I can’t, so the way I interact with the PTQ scene in Portugal is by helping my friends with their decks, and looking out for the the Top 8 decklists when the dust has settled.

Then it ocurred to me…

Last weekend for the PTQ in Almada, which is a town opposite Lisbon, my good friends Frederico Bastos and Goncalo Pinto piloted my Blue/Black control decklist. They blindly trusted my decisions regarding the deck and the sideboard. The day before the PTQ, another friend of mine asked me if he could pass by my house Saturday morning to borrow some cards for the tournament, so I asked him if I could join him at the PTQ. I decided to check on my friends Frederico and Goncalo, watch them play, and work out the following conundrum: if I were playing this PTQ, could I win?

I woke up very early on Saturday, after sleeping just three hours, and tried to convince myself that this was just like having to wake up to play a PTQ. I was very close to giving up and falling asleep, but since you’re here reading this, it’s safe to assume that I hardened my resolve. There were 96 players in attendance at the PTQ… usually PTQs in the Lisbon area have around 120 players, but I guess summer vacations dropped the number, as there were no players from the north of the country. They weren’t the only ones missing: Frederico Bastos also didn’t made it because he overslept, and called us when seatings for round 1 were already posted.

During registration, another player I’m familiar with – Fabio Pombinho – told me he subscribed to StarCityGames.com Premium just to read my Blue/Black articles, and he was playing my decklist as a result. I immediatly added him to the team I was going to cover. For most of the tournament, I stayed behind Goncalo Pinto watching him play… so here is the decklist he used:

It’s 73 of the 75 cards I presented in my last two articles. We replaced an Island and one Tendrils of Corruption for a second Tolaria and one Spin into Myth. We wanted to try a second Tolaria, and Spin into Myth seemed a better choice then Tendrils #3 for this metagame.

This is it… after playing two Grand Prix tournaments, and having tested (and written about) this deck in the past weeks, this was the moment of truth… I was back on the PTQ circuit (sort of).

Round 1

Goncalo Pinto versus G/W Goyf
Fabio Pombinho versus Mono-Black

The matchup against G/W Goyf is one I had covered before, and my feeling going in was that Goncalo still didn’t have the notion of when to play Damnation. However, it should still be a decent matchup for Blue/Black. In the first game, the Goyf deck starts with Llanowar Reborn and Saffi plus Griffin Guide, which is a possible kill on turn 6 just on the back of these cards. Goncalo has Damnation but is behind on tempo and had taken a lot of damage, so the first game goes to Goyf. This happened a lot in playtesting – Green/White wins the first one, having won the die roll and with a very solid draw, but after sideboard things get better for the U/B player.

In game 2, Goncalo missed his third land drop twice, so he fell too far behind to recover. While this happened in my series of six, it didn’t happen in the same match where I’d lost game one.


Fabio Pombinho played against a weak Mono-Black deck, with Withered Wretch, Deepcavern Imp, Mirri the Cursed, Korlash, and Pit Keeper. He won easily 2-0, as Damnation and Tendrils in both games did more than enough.

Goncalo: 0 – 1
Fabio: 1 – 0

Round 2

Goncalo Pinto versus U/B Teachings
Fabio Pombinho versus U/B Teachings

Goncalo mulligans a two-land hand with many expensive spells, and keeps his next six on the draw; it contained a decent amount of lands. Soon they realize they’re playing the mirror and his opponent stalls on three lands for quite a while, without storage lands, while Goncalo had plenty of lands including a pair of storage lands. Eventually, his opponent draws land number four and down comes Korlash and Careful Consideration. Korlash resolves and Goncalo steals it with Take Possession, but only for a very short period of time, as his opponent finds an Urborg to kill Goncalo’s copy, and (as a consequence) the Korlash.

While his opponent slowly starts to recover, Goncalo is busy playing Teachings and Careful for card advantage. I would’ve played diferently, with the more agressive charging of lands, or the creation of Factory tokens. It’s not vital to set up the “unbeatable” hand, as with only four Cancels, if your opponent has lands then you can’t counter everything. You can only force your win, and if you don’t have any pressure you won’t be able to contain them. Goncalo starts making tokens to attack into his opponent, but his opponent stabilizes thanks to Damnation and Tendrils. It soon seems that his opponent has more gas. The key play is when Goncalo has some Factory tokens, and his opponent resolves Teferi on his turn, leaving him without mana to play a factory token. Goncalo steals Teferi with Take Possession #2 and attacks for the win, without the possibility of the opponent playing Tendrils because of Teferi, or making a factory token because he had no mana.

There is no story in the second game: time is called in the early stages, so Goncalo gets a 1-0 win. Both players admitted after the match that they’d made multiple mistakes – perhaps Goncalo’s opponent made a few more than our hero… still, in his defense, he was a very young player at only his fourth sanctionated tournament, with a untuned version of the deck.


Fabio Pombinho played all three games of the mirror, because the first two were split and very fast. Game 1 Fabio played end of turn Teferi on turn 5, which resolved, and Fabio had Teachings for backup, which could now fetch creatures for more pressure, or cards to protect Teferi. He lost game 2 to manascrew. Game 3 was decided by Take Possession – Fabio drew them, and his opponent didn’t… and he revealed later that he wasn’t playing with any because he either didn’t own them or could find them before the tournament.

Goncalo: 1 – 1
Fabio: 2 – 0

Round 3

Goncalo Pinto versus Green/Red Mana Ramp splash Void
Fabio Pombinho versus Poison Slivers

Green/Red starts with mulligan to five. Goncalo Cancels Harmonize, then plays Damnation on Quagnoth and starts the beats with Triskelavus racing against Quagnoth #2. One turn Goncalo made end of turn Teferi, and then suspended Aeon Chronicler for one at the end of the following turn, untapping and attacking for the win. Goncalo allowed all the land destruction spells to resolve, since he had plenty of lands and Prismatic Lenses, and thus he countered other spells during the game: all the relevant stull, except for the Quagnoths (of course).

Game 2 sees Goncalo’s opponent start with plenty of acceleration and an Avalanche Riders, which he pays the echo for. Goncalo is taking two every turn from it, but always doing nothing representing Cancel mana. His opponent doesn’t play anything other than mana acceleration spells, because he doesn’t want to run into Cancel or lose two for one with Damnation, so one turn Goncalo plays Haunting Hymn and forces the discard of his opponent’s land and putting him in topdeck mode – as he didn’t had Quagnoth. The Rider, however, dealt almost twenty damage, as Goncalo had Tendrils but no Urborg, and we didn’t want to waste Damnation on a single Riders. When Goncalo finally draws something – a Triskelavus – he already had the Ruins, and he eventually drew Urborg to regain life with Tendrils.

At the same time…

Fabio Pombinho plays turn 2 land and Lens, and Slaughter Pact on Virulent Sliver; turn 3 he pays the Pact and lays a land; turn 4 Damnation; turn 5 Tendrils, win. I didn’t watch this game, but I assumed there were no Frenetic or Dormant Slivers. If that’s the case, then it’s just a creatures deck that dies horribly to Damnation. Game 2 sees the opponent stall on two lands, and Fabio kills both Gemhide Slivers. The opponent concedes after a while, as he didn’t draw lands.

Goncalo: 2 – 1
Fabio: 3 – 0

Round 4

Goncalo Pinto versus White Weenie
Fabio Pombinho versus White Weenie

Goncalo gets a free win game 1 when his opponent presents a 59 card deck. Game 2, and his opponent applies savage beats to Goncalo with turn 2 Blade of the Sixth Pride, turn 3 Griffin Guide, turn 4 more pressure. Goncalo plays Damnation, and his opponent follows with Calciderm, and then another one when he senses that Goncalo has second Black Wrath. For game 3, Goncalo’s opponent was on the draw, and got a much weaker draw.

During the lunch break, we went for food and discussed Magic. I told Goncalo how he should play against creature decks without burn spells, and helped with the basics of trading life for board or card advantage. To be fair, it was the same stuff I wrote when I covered the match against Goyf, because I think he made some some bad decisions in that matchup. Aparently he learnt his lesson, as the opponent didn’t know, but Goncalo always had control over the game. He could choose which creatures would die, and when they would die, even though his life total seemed to be going down.

At the same time, we have the same matchup at a higher table…

Goncalo may have had a free win game 1, but Fabio offered a free win instead. After a pair of Damnations and regaining life with Tendrils, Fabio was attacking with Triskelavus. He then played a Slaughter Pact… which he didn’t pay for in his next upkeep.

According to Fabio, game 2 was a replay of game 1, but no Slaughter Pact was played. Game 3 saw White Weenie stall on three lands, so Calciderm never got into play, and Fabio won the round.

Goncalo: 3 – 1
Fabio: 4 – 0

Round 5

Goncalo Pinto versus G/W Goyf
Fabio Pombinho versus U/B control with Relics and Void

Goncalo had this to say:

In both games I controlled the board just like you taught me, I always had more card advantage, and my life totals and possible threats were under control.

I wasn’t checking Goncalo this round, so I guess it’s easy to talk big without witnesses…

Just kidding!

According to what I saw in his games against White Weenie, I believe Goncalo learnt from his mistakes in the first game against Goyf.

Fabio Pombinho said he lost the first game by having his Urza’s Factoty stolen with Take Possession, in a very long and exhausting tussle. His opponent’s list played no countermagic, so he resolved an early Teferi in game 2 and had multiple counterspells as a backup to ride him for the win. In game 3, Fabio also has an early Teferi. His opponent plays Damnation, Fabio responds by suspending Chronicler for one, so on the next turn he continues to attack. Sitting once again on a hand full of countermagic, it’s quite likely that the Chronicler will go the distance, but in extra turns his opponent topdecks Take Possession to steal it and leave the match without a winner.

Goncalo: 4 – 1
Fabio: 4 – 0 – 1

Round 6

Goncalo Pinto versus U/B Control
Fabio Pombinho versus G/W Goyf

Goncalo’s mirror went to the late game, just like many others, and his opponent had the advantage with Triskelavus plus Academy Ruins. Goncalo ended the fun with Take Possession on the Ruins and then cleaned up all the mess with a Damnation. He later found a Triskelavus and reversed the situation for the win. Game 1 took a lot of time, so Goncalo sideboarded all his removal since his opponent had to side in all the creatures, and he managed to survive game 2 to secure the 1-0 win.

Fabio lost a relatively easy matchup. Game 1 saw his opponent draw three Mystic Enforcers. At one point he had one on the table plus two Call Tokens, and with Thrill of the Hunt he manages to force enough damage through. In the second game, Fabio kept a very strong hand with a mere two lands. He drew the third on turn 5, and the fourth one on turn 8.

Goncalo: 5 – 1
Fabio: 4 – 1 – 1

Round 7

Goncalo Pinto: Intentional Draw
Fabio Pombinho versus U/G Pickles

Fabio’s opponent started with plenty of mana acceleration, double Search, and Edge of Autumn. When he tried for Brine Elemental, Fabio Cancelled… but his opponent had Delay to protect things, and soon Fabio was locked. In the second game, Fabio kept with two lands and Prismatic Lens, and lost to manascrew.

Top 8: Quarterfinals

Versus G/W splash Red Goyf

Goncalo started the game slightly manascrewed, but played Shadowmage Infiltrator twice. His opponent killed them with Fiery Justice, giving Goncalo some more life to work with. He drew lands just in time to start clearing the board, and luckily there was no Enforcer to follow when Goncalo was tapping out for Damnation.

The second game went very long. Goncalo drew almost his entire deck thanks to multiple card drawing spells, but the game wasn’t over because his opponent was keeping up with the card advantage by drawing no lands past his fifth, eventually cycling Edge of Autumn for even more gas. But he was only playing one spell a turn, and the all-importnat Enforcers were Cancelled. The other creatures kept under control with removal or Factory tokens. When Goncalo finally hit sixteen mana, he could make two tokens a turn and win from there.

Top 8: Semi-Finals

Versus U/G Pickles

In the first game, a couple of Damnations always killed many creatures, and afterwards came Shadowmage Infiltrator. Some attacks and a Careful Consideration, the card advantage was too much to overcome, and the opponent conceded when he saw Triskelavus.

Game two was very long, I thought PTQ Top 8 had time limit, but they let these guys play and play and play, which was cool because it was one of the most exciting games I watched in block. For a very long time, it seemed U/G was winning because Goncalo was low on life, facing creatures and U/G had two counters in hand.Then it switched back and forth the advantage. I thought Goncalo was going to lose at least three times, but somehow, he managed to dig himself out of the hole in all situations. The last one involved a topdeck.

Goncalo already did three Damnation, and the libraries are thin. He has an Urza’s Factory to defend himself with. His opponent has 3/3 token, Riftsweeper and Venser, plus Serrated Arrows, Goncalo’s life is one digit only, and he topdecks Shapeshifter killing the 3/3 token and Venser, putting the board at Riftsweeper and Arrows versus Urza’s Factory. Eventually Goncalo won with two Urza’s Factory.

Top 8: Finals

Versus Mono-Blue Pickles

I thought this matchup favored Mono-Blue, although it was a close call. What happened was far from being close. Goncalo was slightly manascrewed, but Mono-Blue was super-flooded in both games. I don’t think he played more than five or six spells in the entire match. Game 1 was won with a Chronicler, and game 2 with Triskelavus plus a hard-cast Shapeshifter copying the 4/4 ping machine.

After the tournament, here’s what the pilots had to say:

Goncalo Pinto

About the deck: “It is absolutely the best deck in the format right now (Tiago’s note: at least a version of Blue/Black, I’m not sure if my version is best). I think I was able to win the PTQ just playing it at 70% of its potential. Blue/Black only loses to manascrew, or when playing stronger or well-prepared players in the mirror match, or against aggro decks that have the perfect draw and win the die roll. I already knew this deck was good despite posting a 2-2 in the another PTQ. I should’ve won both the rounds I lost that day, but I played poorly.”

Overall Impressions:

– The Aven Riftwatchers weren’t useful
– I’m still not convinced by the second Tolaria West
Spin into Myth is okay. It’s better than Temporal Isolation and roughly the same as the third Tendrils
– The matchup against G/W is particularly good
– I’ve always sideboarded exactly as suggested in these articles, except for one game where I brought in all the removal I had to secure the 1-0 win

Fabio Pombinho

About the deck: “I will play it again this weekend at the next PTQ, as it’s the best deck in the format”

Overall Impressions:

Aven Riftwatchers were useless
– The second Tolarian is quite useful, not to fetch the Slaughter Pact or Urborg, but to get Academy Ruins
– The deck doesn’t lose if it makes an unmatched turn 3 Shadowmage Infiltrator
– The Pickles combo might be a problem for this deck

Valencia will be Goncalo’s third Pro Tour, all of them Constructed (Philadelphia 05, Yokohama 07 and Valencia 07). He is a reasonably well-known Online player, and is a member of a top clan with many online contacts.

For the Blue/Black deck, this was the third PTQ victory out of three so far in Portugal. The first one was one by Paul Cheon Korlash decklist, the same weekend as Grand Prix: Montreal. The week after, PTQ #2 was won by a deck similar to my list, running Shadowmages and Cancels. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but it seems that Blue/Black Control will be the deck people will remember when they look back at this Block, just like the Gifts deck was the deck to remember in Kamigawa Block. Will it be the one to qualify the most players? Only time will tell…

For me, it was great to go back to a PTQ. I loved every minute, from the early morning registration and late decklist changes, to the midnight finals. Ocasionally, if a PTQ is held in my city, I stop by in the afternoon to draft and then leave for dinner. I often look back at the PTQ scene with a smile… I’ve always wondered if, one day when I fall off the Gravy Train (i.e. drop lower than Level 3), will I be able to qualify for the Pro Tour again? Do I have the will to try to get back up there? Judging from what I saw, and at my current play level, I think I would have decent chances to Top 8 (although posting a 5-1-1 record is tight, there are multiple PTQs to crack), and once in the Top 8 everything’s possible.

Of course, if the day comes that sees me back on the PTQ circuit, my play level will be a lot worse than it is now, and I’ll probably be caring a lot less about Magic… but seeing Goncalo’s victory, I have hope that one day, in A not so distant future, I’ll be able to qualify if neccessary.

Good luck if you’re trying to qualify, whatever deck you’re playing.

Thank you for reading,