Levelling Up – Inside An Extended PTQ

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Friday, February 15th – Portugal’s Tiago Chan, currently slugging it out in the hot Malaysian sun, is now eligible for PTQ competition. He recently returned to the trenches, hoping to pick up a Hollywood plane ticket to go with his invitation. Sadly, he never made it, but he saw a lot of interesting plays along the way. This is his story…

Writing in a hotel room in Malaysia, in the early hours of the morning (thanks to the jet lag), I look back and remember the past weekend… my last tournament in Portugal. I’m not going back there anytime soon. The tournament? My latest PTQ, the first one in many years.

When I wrote “Back to the PTQ Trenches,” where I sat besided a friend and watched him run play-by-play the whole PTQ with my decklist, I was convinced that when time came for me to play PTQs again, I would be done with Magic. The reason is this: if I was ever careless enough to fall from the Pro Tour, I clearly wouldn’t have the fire, the will, or the mental strength to spring back, as it’s much harder to get in than to maintain your place. However, due to some recent changes in Wizards policy, my 24 Pro Points from last season mean I can play all the PTQs this year even though I’m still qualified for the Pro Tour.

Most of you probably don’t know this, but before achieving Level 3 in 2005 I was a fierce PTQ competitor. New Portuguese players don’t remember seeing me play in PTQs, but old school guys know that I won fifteen, maybe twenty, back in the day. The question they keep presenting me was simple: Can I still do it in 2008?

I wasn’t exactly excited at the possibility of playing Extended PTQs. I wish I’d played the Kuala Lumpur PTQs, but I couldn’t (thanks to bad Wizards’ communication).

I have many problems with the Extended PTQs. First, Extended is by far my least favorite Magic format. Second, I think Onslaught Fetchlands are a problem in so many ways. Activating them during a game, searching for a land, and shuffling your deck steals active time from the round, especially when both players do it several times a game. It also creates a window for free Vampiric Tutors to those players with a more elastic sense of morality. Plus, it is painfully annoying to playtest Extended, thanks to all those fetchlands activations [Tha’s why I run Affinity — Craig, amused].

The reasons above are mere logistics; let’s look at the strategic reasons. Having access to both the Fetchlands and the Ravnica Block Dual lands, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t create innovation and more decks. It leads to monotony: all decks can play all colors, and therefore all cards. As usual, they tend to pick the best ones, like Tarmogoyf. A good example is the Domain Zoo deck, or the Vedalken Shackles deck, both playing with four or even five colors. I think this creates a metagame where Tier 1 decks run Tarmogoyf (and the Dredge deck), and Tier 2 decks are the ones that don’t (like Goblins, Affinity, or Ideal).

I was also tired of playtesting Constructed, and I wasn’t going to profit from playtesting Extended. There’s no Extended Pro Tour in the immediate future. I wasn’t going to play the Extended Grand Prix tournaments, or even the PTQs outside Lisbon, so I decided I would just attend the ones in my area. I planned to ask for a decklist from one of my friends some days before the tournament, playing my first game with it in round 1. The only stipulations I demanded were no Dredge and no Goblins. This was what I got:

This decklist was given to me by Tiago Fonseca and Marcio Carvalho, two of the top Portuguese players who play a lot online, espeically Online Extended. I’m not sure where they got this list, so I’m not intentionally mis-crediting it. Tiago played a very similar list himself, with plus one Sensei’s Divining Top and plus one Counterbalance. I decided against it, as I think four Counterbalance is too much, it’s redundant in multiples, and not a good card without Top (I did not counter a single spell with Counterbalance in the tournament), so I had one more Hierarch and one more Chrome Mox. As usual, my main concernes involve avoiding manascrew and beating the aggro decks. If you can escape both pitfalls in the first turns of the game, then a deck like this should be able to win from there.

Márcio Carvalho tried and failed to get Tarmogoyfs, so he had to settle for Goblins. That’s also a problem – the secondary market – but there’s nothing that any of us can do about it. A guy walked into the local store once and tried to buy a playset of Tarmogoyfs. The shop had none. He shouted and offered 100 Euros (that’s $150) on cash right away for the playset. Even though people had them, they refused to sell. I guess the dream of the Pro Tour helps maintain prices and markets, even for those who aren’t Pro Players.

I wished this was a happy story in which I could tell you that I won or came close, packed with lots of action, but the harsh reality is that I took a savage beating. The PTQ had around 100 players, and 7 swiss rounds. A 5-1-1 score was probably good enough, but it wasn’t guaranteed to Top 8. I was nowhere close; I ended 2-2, easily winning against a Garruk / Death Cloud GB deck and a Green/Blue Elves Opposition deck, but getting absolutely crushed by two Domain Zoo decks.

Even though I still think this deck is quite powerful — it’s certainly a Tier 1 deck, and I’m grateful to the people who made it possible for me to play this decklist – I don’t think this was the best deck choice. In most recent metagames, I don’t believe there is a clear best deck for the field… but there certainly is a right deck for any one specific player. I felt I should have took a deck with a better game against aggro decks, as every game where I made turn 6 or 7 with mana and life, I knew I was winning it even if the board was even. For a deck with game against aggro, with little chance of mana screw and a strong late game, I should’ve settled for a version of Loam. That would’ve been my deck of choice if I was going to play another PTQ. For a Grand Prix or Pro Tour? I’m not so sure…

My favorite story of the weekend is fun, as the game was pretty much over. We both had no cards in hand, and in play I had Top, Counterbalance, Vedalken Shackles, Goyf (and a creature stolen from my opponent, plus three Fetchlands. He drew and played Pernicious Deed. I activated the Top, sacrificed the fetchlands, and saw four different sets of three cards, and still didn’t see a single card costing three mana with which to Counter(balance) Pernicious Deed… nor did I see a normal piece of countermagic. The Deed reset the board, but I saved my Top. The lifetotals were very much in my favor, and I still had the Top while he was down to zero cards, so I still managed to win.

After dropping from the PTQ I had plenty of time to watch the top tables playing, which allowed me to spot many interesting play situations (and some really bad plays) at the X-1 or higher tables.

Márcio Carvalho had a loss against Blue/White Tron that didn’t seem fair. His opponent had the Tron plus Hallowed Fountain or Skycloud Expanse in play by turn 4 in all three games, and he made multiple mistakes in all three games too. He should’ve lost 0-3 instead of winning 2-1, but timely topdecks took the win in game 1. Marcio had Warchief and some other irrelevant creatures, all kept at bay by Sundering Titan. Both players were in topdeck mode, but the Tron player drew Condescend. Marcio drew and played Mogg War Marshall. The opponent allowed it, so Marcio attacked with everything. He lost the Warchief to Sundering Titan, but he had lethal damage the following turn if his opponent drew a blank. His opponent drew Mindslaver, and had enough mana to activate it and use Academy Ruins for the Slaver lock. While topdecks happen, I think that not playing Condescend on the War Marshall was wrong, as it meant that he had to topdeck something to stay alive the following turn. And scry is good when in topdeck mode, I’ve heard.

In another game, Marcio was holding Patriarch’s Bidding as his sole card, but he had only four lands in play. He then drew Chrome Mox. The following turn, he drew another Chrome Mox – neither a land to play the Bidding nor a spell to imprint on Mox. On the following turn, the turn before he died, he drew Auntie’s Hovel. It was sad to see Márcio lose that round, as in one of the games he made a really impressive play after going into the tank, allowing him to shorten his win by one turn. Sadly, it’s too complicated to remember.

I watched a match for a Top 8 berth that was one of the most awkward games of Magic I’ve ever seen, featuring UW Tron against Mono-Blue heavy control.

Tron tapped out with six mana for Mindslaver, and Mono-Blue, holding Cryptic Command and enough mana to cast it, allowed it into play. Maybe he was going to bounce it at end of turn? No, he let his opponent untap with Mindslaver in play. Then Tron paid four mana and activated Slaver. Mono-Blue responded with Cryptic Command, bouncing the Slaver. Tron informed him that he couldn’t do that because there’s a sacrifice in the activation cost.

Mono-Blue doesn’t know the rules, so I guess this one was excusable. But how about this one?

Tron had Chalice of the Void for two, and Chalice of the Void for four. A friend of Tron asked, “why two and why four?” Tron answed, “because that means Mono-Blue can’t play either Cryptic Command or Counterspell.” As soon as he finished talking, Tron played a spell… which Mono-Blue attempted to Counterspell.

How about this one?

Mono-Blue was at 20, Tron was at 10. Tron had no permanents other than lands, while Mono-Blue had Spire Golem and an equipped Umezawa’s Jitte with six counters. Tron screwed up and played Venser during Mono Blue’s attack step targeting Umezawa’s Jitte. He should’ve played it in his own turn, or waited to see if Mono-Blue had some action before damage, as Tron had no Blue mana open after playing Venser and so was vulnerable. Mono-Blue let it resolve, and removed six counters from the Jitte. He used three to gain life, and three to pump the Spire Golem… when his opponent was at ten.

I was very confused with what happened over these turns.

In another match, I saw some more UW Tron plays.

Tron’s opponent cast Duress and forced the discard of Thirst for Knowledge, leaving Decree of Justice. He then attacked with Gaddock Teeg, a key card against Tron, into the Decree of Justice, losing the Gaddock Teeg. This wasn’t strategic decision… he just forgot about the Decree that he’d seen earlier that turn.

Why do I remember these plays, and why I’m I telling you about them? Because in all of them, the player making the mistake still won the game. Everyone, at all levels of tournament play, makes mistakes, but it’s so hard to actually gain any profits out of them. To win a PTQ, losing only one round out of 10 or 11, is hard, even if your opponents make mistakes against you. Your deck, your matchup, your draws, and your luck will also have an influence in a tournament situation… there’s only one winner out of 100 or more competitors. Nevertheless, sooner or later good players will win PTQs, as many of my friends complain they can’t win despite playing better than their opponents (which is relative), and they start to freak out about it. Luckily for me I’ve had earlier sucess, as I don’t know if would I make it nowadays. I realize that my winning streak of PTQs in days gone by is unmatchable under current circumstances, for me or for anyone. Fortunately I don’t desperately need to win my PTQs… so good luck to you all, and keep the faith!

Thank you for reading!