Livin’ The Dream: My Pro Tour: Los Angeles Report, Part I

My testing took place in a relative vacuum — with help from friends back home, but little to no access to pro testing information, I pieced together a fairly accurate picture of the metagame and I built my deck accordingly. I want to make sure that everyone who wants it — the PTQ win, the PT, the gravy train — really understands that it is possible.

It’s Monday morning and I’m writing this as I fly from LA to New York — but honestly, my feet haven’t touched the ground in the last thirty-six hours. A little more honestly, and I’ll tell you that there were a few rough landings Sunday afternoon, but it wasn’t until waking up today with a sore ankle that I really noticed.

(A brief ankle-inspired aside: Nick West, in the midst of a two-day drinking binge after failing to Day 2, decided he needed to climb a tree. I can only hope the idea came from one of the many bums in the neighborhood — who, having been ignored by Nick one too many times, angrily suggested to Nick that he “go climb a tree.” It’s a good and pleasant thing to have small hopes. It’s an even better thing, and much grander, to have a friend who is really pretty freakin’ drunk, enthusiastically trying to climb any and every non-human thing he can find.

(So Nick gets a running start at a deceptively slow-moving tree and, well, runs into the tree, which had obviously decided at the last moment to stand completely still, correctly anticipating that Nick, a little confused by the current game state, would overthink the play and choose not to jump.

(Tree 1, Nick 0. With no chainsaws in Nick’s sideboard for games 2 and 3.)

I’m eager to talk about the Top 8, especially game 5 of my match against Chris McDaniel. Really, everything I write about until then is just stalling and slow play; however, after having bribed a level 3 table judge at a Pro Tour (and I can’t imagine why I’m the first person to have tried this), I’m perfectly willing to bend the rules quite flagrantly in a casual competition like this. Also, I hate — absolutely loathe — newspapers with their top-down, piss-on-the-little-man, inverted pyramid schemes. So the real meat of this report will have to wait.

I’m starting at the damn beginning.

Before The Tournament
Early in my testing, as soon as most of Ravnica was leaked, I realized that Life from the Loam was broken. I had a pre-Ravnica Rock list that splashed blue for Gifts Ungiven to power up Oversold Cemetery. I still fancy the idea of recurring Ravenous Baloths and Kagemaros, Sakura-Tribe Elders and Ghost-Lit Stalkers. I’ll probably look into it for Worlds.

That was sarcasm, incidentally.

Anyway, along comes Life and I make the obvious logical jump to the cycle lands. As a draw engine, Life and the lands are amazing; you draw three cards for five mana with a built-in layaway plan. The engine was also blatantly abusive as a graveyard enabler. All in all, it was a package the Rock and his tool friends were thrilled to get their hands on.

(If you’re wondering why I’m rambling on about my thought processes three months ago like I think anyone will care, it’s not because I placed 2nd at only my 3rd Pro Tour, or because I was playing what more than a few have called “the best deck in the format.” I share because I love. I share because my testing took place in a relative vacuum — with help from friends back home but little to no access to pro testing information, I pieced together a fairly accurate picture of the metagame and I built my deck accordingly. I’m sharing because I want to make sure that everyone who wants it — the PTQ win, the PT, the gravy train — really understands that it is possible. )

What I sound found impossible was keeping Psychatog out of any deck that I wanted to play. Lame innuendo #8*: The Cookie Monster absolutely refused to let go of my Gifted package. Seventeen years later, I still can’t watch Sesame Street without blacking out or wanting to sleep with some family member I thought I could respect and trust.

That’s more sarcasm, incidentally.

After this weekend, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Tog is once again the best creature in Extended. Long live the King, or some such. (I do need to stop fraternizing with the Brits. ) Tog was great in the Rock deck, and the only reason I didn’t finish building and testing it was ‘cuz I didn’t.

So after I saw the Life thing, Step 2, was figuring out how to break the Tog/Life interaction wide open, running out turn 4 kills like it was nothing. Step 2 ends when Ravnica is actually released, revealing Life from the Loam’s embarrassing glaring weakness. The stupid thing only dredges three cards! My Tog deck moved to a control build that didn’t worry about killing until turn 6 or later. Very fair indeed.

Golgari Grave-Troll, who was excellent in the Rock deck as an engine and an enormous recurring beater seemed too narrow for Control Tog. I was right about that — but wrong, obviously, about not being able to run the Troll outside of the Rock. My list was close to Kenji Tsumura, mainly missing the Force Spikes, but that seemed to be enough to give me a less than desirable matchup against Goblins. And if there’s anything to take away from this weekend, it’s that there are no excuses for losing to Goblins. With limited time and testing availability, I scrapped Control Tog because I didn’t want to spend all my time on it and not be comfortable with the final build.

Traditional Madness with some mix of Umezawa’s Jittes and Pithing Needles had been a solid (but not spectacular) gauntlet deck. But with the banning of Aether Vial, I felt that being the only aggro deck with instant-speed creatures made Madness well worth looking into. I also think that with the mana stability provided by the new dual lands and the old fetch lands, Madness gained as much as any deck in rotated extended. Madness has always played with better cards than other aggro decks…. Except for Affinity.

And what’s changed since the last time Affinity popped in extended and invalidated Madness? Exactly.

After the bannings and the new set, Madness has better guys and spells and the mana to support it all. (I should note that after this weekend, I’m not sure I would run any more basic forests. Sure, they’re more resilient but they can’t be fetched, unlike the islands in the deck. )

Have you seen the Taco Bell commercial where some guy is eating one of their grilled burritos at home, and randoms keep showing up at his house asking if he’d been grilling, trying to get in on his action? As soon as I put black in the deck, ol’ dumb-ass Tog showed up just asking for cards to eat. Whatever. Get in there. And bring Life with you.

(It’s funny, I’m on line at the airport McDonalds and who should be standing next to me but a real live, supafly, purple-velvet-wearing, permed-out pimp?)

First, we tried cutting ‘Moeba for Tog, but that has never worked in the entire history of Magic. Plus, Aquamoeba’s a beast. Really. So we trimmed an Arrogant Wurm and the third Roar. It worked fine. This is the list I tested until the night before the tournament.

4 Wild Mongrel
4 Aquamoeba
4 Basking Rootwalla
3 Arrogant Wurm
2 Psychatog
2 Wonder
1 Genesis
4 Careful Study
4 Circular Logic
3 Umezawa’s Jitte
2 Roar of the Wurm
1 Gifts Ungiven
1 Life from the Loam
1 Darkblast
2 Deep Analysis
2 Chrome Mox
4 Polluted Delta
2 Bloodstained Mire
2 Island
2 Forest
2 Overgrown Tomb
2 Watery Grave
1 Centaur Garden
1 Cephalid Coliseum
4 Yavimaya Coast
1 Lonely Sandbar

I was fairly nervous the week before the event. At Columbus and Philadelphia, I was underprepared and playing with nothing to lose… And I made Day 2 at both those events with awful decks. Now that I was confident in my deck, I found the personal expectations of success a little unnerving.

I arrive at the site after registration and find Nick as I’m leaving the venue. Back upstairs, I show him the deck, as well as a Goblins deck. (You know, just in case the metagame told me to play Goblins. Roger that, metagame, loud and clear. Moreno out.) I was already skeptical about the Roars and Genesis; the only reason they were still in the deck at this point is that barring a better option, I didn’t think I’d mind more business spells to dredge into.

That said, Roar is terrible. You will never want to tap out for a 6/6 that dies to everything (even a Darkblast and four cycling lands). Genesis wasn’t bad — just slow, clunky, narrow, redundant, and overall just outclassed by Cephalid Coliseum. After some discussion, the Roars made for Tog #3 and Arrogant Wurm #4. Merfolk Looter subbed in for Genesis, since I was worried about an abundance of Pithing Needles, so having Looter as a fifth distinct madness outlet seemed reasonable. It was fine but cuttable, as well as a surprisingly good turn 2 play against Boros Deck Wins as it demanded a burn spell immediately, allowing you to win the later attrition wars that took place when Wild Mongrel hit the board.

Apparently, everyone but Jon Becker thinks I’m stupid for playing sixty-one cards among other things. I am silly and occasionally absent-minded, but never dumb. I’m, not afraid of playing against the odds, either. Seriously, some of you guys are such bitc — um, girls.

However, I must insist that I was right based on the odds to play sixty-one cards this weekend, even though I would probably cut the sixty-first card — the single Lonely Sandbar — in hindsight. A little math for you Einsteins: what does a sixty-first card do to the odds of me drawing other cards I need during a tournament? How about when that card has the option of cantripping away or being laid as a land?

And this is the important part: what are the odds that in nineteen rounds of play, at a tournament where dredge is widely understood to be a broken mechanic, where the graveyard may have been the most important zone of play, and where Life from the Loam provides me with a winning game plan against almost anything…What are the odds that I will not run into a single graveyard hate spell other than Withered Wretch (which Sandbar admittedly does nothing against)?

Improbability factor: 1,000,000,000 to 1 and falling. Oh and look, you’ve all turned into giant whales in mid-air plummeting to the earth. Sorry about the trip. But for my mother’s sake, I must spiritedly defend myself at least a Li’l Bit.

On a serious note, she was thrilled to be watching the Top 8 Sunday, and broke down in tears when everyone booed after my sloppy win over Chris McDaniel, a.k.a. StarWarsKid. For myself, I understood the booing and I really could care less. But for my mother? Shame on all of you.

Anyway, the single Sandbar trumps everything but Wretch; it beats Coffin Purge, and Scrabbling Claws, and Haunting Echoes, and whatever else. There wasn’t a single card I’d cut for it, and I would’ve been very disappointed if I needed it and didn’t have it. And no, Coliseum does not provide the same resistance. You can afford to expose Sandbar to further removal; Coliseum just isn’t that expendable.

The sideboard was the same except there were four Engineered Plagues and three Cabal Therapies until Nick confirmed my suspicions that goblins was absolute dreck.

I also really wanted a third Chrome Mox, so when I saw Zvi walking around the next morning I grabbed him (and no, I’d never met him before) and made him tell me what to cut for it. What’s that, Zvi? Aquamoeba #4? I just gotta say the other three seemed more into me, more willing to put out. I hope you guys aren’t bitter. And hey, nice ass — too bad you still die to everything in Boros Deck Wins.

Day One:
….And we’re off.

Mostly, I’m going to talk about my mistakes during the weekend for your benefit and mind. Plus, I want everyone to know that I am fully aware of most of them, and have been since shortly after they were committed.

Round 1: Mind’s Desire
Game 1: He’s on the play, and I almost lose because I didn’t run out Mongrel on turn 2. It was my only outlet and he had Island, Forest up. Still not a judgment call. If he’s playing U/G Control with Mana Leak and not Mind’s Desire, then I guess I’m screwed… But I was wrong to not play the dog, and the extra turn it gave him almost cost me the game. I won in two.

1-0, 2-0

Round 2: ?
2-0, 4-0

Round 3: ?
3-0, 6-0

Round 4: Antoine Ruel, U/B Tog
Going into Round 4, I’m 6-0 in games and obviously feeling great. Then again, as it turned out I was 0-5 against Antoine this weekend — and the final game of the finals was not the first time I blew a win against him.

In the first game, I get an aggressive start so he runs out a tog to stop the madness. I untap with ‘Walla, ‘Walla, ‘Moeba in play, Gifts, a fourth land in hand, and Wonder in my library. Do I:

Play Gifts before combat, fetching Wonder, Life, Coliseum, and Ringo Starr, allowing me to win before Antoine finally resolves his own Gifts six turns later for the Wonder win, or:

Do anything else — like maybe swing and lose ‘Moeba, Gifts post-combat for my long-game package of Life, Coliseum, Centaur Garden, and Deep Analysis?

Whatever, I may be a little bit John Lennon at times, but then I’m definitely also my own Yoko.

I lose game 2 after he turbos out a turn 10 or so Meloku while I’m stuck at two land.

3-1, 6-2

Round 5: Micah Amado, Aggro Rock?
If you’re afraid of turn 3 Spiritmongers twice in a match, don’t play my deck. It has no outs.

3-2, 7-4

Rounds 6-7: Affinity
I played Affinity twice, and I don’t remember anything significant. I lost one game in the two rounds, where apparently I didn’t do anything but Lightning Bolt myself. It was one of those turn 2 Myr Enforcer, turn 3 Thoughtcast, Arcbound Ravager draws. Fortunately, Affinity struggles against me after board, what with the eight Terminates and all.

5-2, 11-5

Round 8: R/B/g Goblins
I’ve made Day 2 already, but obviously I’d like the win here so I can set up my eventual run. My opponent is playing R/B/g Goblins, splashing green for Pernicious Deed. I’m not sure about the list, but he was one of the few Goblin decks to day 2, so who knows? It’s another strong matchup that’s hard for him to win after boarding, what with the six Wrath of Gods and all. Jitte is just stupid.

6-2, 13-6

I finish the day in 20th place, feeling extremely confident (though slightly anxious). That night, I didn’t get much sleep because I was sharing a hotel room with my girlfriend, my lover, my future wife, my Amber. And, well, it was bit crowded in the bed.

Day Two:
Arriving in the morning hopped up on caffeine pills, I immediately take a picture of my name on the leader board, in case that was the first and last time it showed up there.

Round 9: Raphael Levy, Aggro Rock
Game 2 marks the first time in the tournament that I Circular Logic for zero, revealing not only my brilliance, but also my deck’s disappointing inability to undermine and invalidate my special genius. Also, thanks to Raphael for pointing out that I should’ve been attacking more aggressively.

7-2, 15-6

Round 10: W/U/B Wizards/Junk/Dump Truck
If my deck is good against aggro decks, it’s probably even better against aggro-control decks without Withered Wretches running creatures all of a single type. So Engineered Plague wasn’t completely useless this weekend.

8-2, 17-6

Round 11: Boros Deck Wins
Before I got distracted by Flores’ article about LA, I spent the past thirty minutes trying to piece together what happened in this round, not because it was a particularly important round, but because I don’t know if I won it 2-0 or 2-1, which means I can’t keep updating my game count.

I do think this was the first of four times that I beat Boros Deck Wins on the weekend. That’s right. I didn’t lose a match against four Boros decks, Goblins, Affinity twice and various aggro-control decks (except for the Spiritmonger debacle). Sounds about right for Madness.

9-2, oh well

Round 12: Craig Jones, Golgari Tog
At 9-2, I’m actually worried about getting my first Feature Match while I still need three wins. Fortunately, I’m nobody.

Craig Jones (of the English Jones), who 8-0’d day 1, had had a rough start, losing to Control Tog and Control Rock. I was happy to put off my Feature Match, but I was disappointed to have to play a friend at such a crucial point in the tournament. *** I had played against his deck a few times in the hotel the night before, and the deciding factor was the die roll. In about ten games, including the match, the deck on the play never lost.

I won the die roll and kept the tradition alive, winning 2-1.

There was some speculation the night before — and I’ve also seen the discussion pop up on various message boards — that his deck, which powers out turn 4 and 5 lethal Togs with Golgari Grave-Troll, replaces Madness in the format. My thoughts on that: although they’re very similar in the most important cards, the engines that power both decks are significantly different and they play out accordingly. Craig’s reliance on dredge demands that he play multiple copies of Life, Grave-Troll, and even Wonder. His deck’s primary focus is to combo out for a lethal Tog, Dog, or Troll. Because of Gifts, it feels like I have more room for stuff in my deck and am able to play a more flexible game. Against aggro decks, we both have strong game, although he was better able to win outright, whereas I had to win a war over a number of turns because I didn’t have Brawn. My early game just straight-up gave me a better match-up against control.

In playing against each other, the cards we shared had different strengths. His Togs are much better, his Dogs slightly. My Studies are better early, his late. And my Logics are significantly better because of the narrowness of his early game.

At the end of it, I still needed two wins to Top 8 and was hoping that I didn’t get a Feature Match yet.

10-2, and it don’t stop

Round 13: Tsuyoshi Fujita, Boros Deck Wins
I’m relieved to find that I’m playing Boros Deck in a non-feature match. After playing three of the best players in the world running versions of this deck, I’m fairly confident that it’s generally a good matchup.

Game 1 was interesting. I had a good hand, featuring a Mongrel and a Wurm. At first, I thought I lost that game fairly randomly to a Kataki, War’s Wage that caught me with a Chrome Mox out, forcing me to play the Wurm on my upkeep rather than as a critical Mongrel pump. Now, I’m pretty sure I should’ve paid the upkeep on the Mox and looked to draw a land (which I did that turn), leaving Logic mana up for the Helix that took down my Mongrel.

I won both sideboarded games fairly convincingly. Fujita spent one whole game trying to get counters on a Jitte, and I had enough removal that I never need to play the insurance Jitte that I was holding the whole game.

11-2, 22-4 (just thought I’d guess)

Round 14: Kenji Tsumura, Dredge-a-Tog
I’m fairly certain I’m going to get the first feature match of my life as I’m sitting in 1st place after starting day 2 5-0. Ted Knutson, having witnessed my stellar Logic play against Levy, saw me at table 1 the previous round and asked, “What are you doing here?”, obviously confused.

I was waiting for the winner of Chang-Tsumura so I’d know who I was playing, quite openly hoping to draw Chang. Alas, Tsumura won. I was up against Control Tog with Deed and in no position to recover after I once again Logiced for zero, desperately trying to protect my Cabal Therapy.

This probably cost me that game 2, as I was unable to deal with the Deed in his hand without sacrificing my aggressive start. I decided not to flashback Therapy and just hoped he didn’t have Deed. Another mistake, as the duress was obviously meant to force the Deed the next turn. I spent the rest of the game trying to dig for land by dredging and playing Life with no targets. Sigh.

I still needed to win one of the next two rounds to Top 8, and I knew I’d be in at least one more feature match. Fortunately, I confirmed my suspicions that round that there was some amount of ice in my veins. Even after screwing up quite embarrassingly in a high pressure situation in front of a gallery of Magic players — as hyper-critical a group as any — I would be cool and still able to execute. I think it was this cool, as much as anything else. that allowed me to stay alive and win consistently, under high pressure and from bad positions.

…In later rounds, at least.

11-3, I went to put the game count here and Logiced it for zero. On top of that, I let Logic resolve.

Round 15: Chih-Hsiang Chang, Boros Deck Wins
Now the match-up I wanted last round — only it’s more difficult because I have to win this one so that I’ll be in even if I lose Round 16.

I have an excellent opening hand involving Mongrel, Wurm, and four lands, and one other business spell. After a few turns, Chang is pretty far behind. A six- or seven-card stretch of lands and Moxes allows him to stabilize. Forty minutes into game one, with Chang at one, myself at four, and me with lethal damage on the board (with a hard-cast Wonder), he domes me with the Char he’s been holding all game. Definitely the first game one draw I’ve had in a tournament. Lucky for me, as the winner of the die roll, I get to play first again. My draw is consistent and I win quite handily.

We start game 3 with about fifteen minutes left in the round. Should be enough for a full game, no? Once again, I establish an early advantage and he stabilizes with some burn and Flametongue Kavu… And now we’re in extra turns, starting on his.

I take four, lay a Mongrel, and say go. The board is Dog against that Kavu, with me at fourteen and him at two. I have only two cards in hand. He sends in the Kavu and I pitch Walla to chump. We stack damage with me not pumping, and I’m sure it seems like I’m just stalling for the draw (and the 1-0-1 win). He lays Lavamancer and passes. I Darkblast Kavu, dredge it back, and Darkblast the ‘Mancer. Of course, I was stalling for the 1-0-1 win; I was just doing it as thoroughly as possible. Suckas. Plus, I owed Chang for slow-rolling the Char game 1.

I’m in. I’m ecstatic. I’m on the phone for the rest of the night, give or take the last round of the day. I was a lock and it felt good. At 12-3 with the best tiebreakers, I was in even if I was forced to play.

12-3, nothing

Round 16: Berna da Costa Cabral, Golgari Tog
Bernardo had thirty-four points and needed the win, so we have to play. He’s playing a deck similar to Craig Jones, but with Eternal Witness. I’m pretty sure I won the die roll, and I’m pretty sure I won the two games where I was on the play. That’s a lot of the way the matchup goes.

He needed the concession and I considered giving it to him, but I couldn’t — not in good conscience. No, I don’t have any moral objection to conceding; that’s perfectly fine by me. But, coming into this weekend I had about $300 to my name, and I was moving from Texas to New York via LA on Monday morning. The difference between 5th and 8th was $3,000 — and though I would’ve loved to have been nice, I had to be responsible.

13-3, I wish I was more gangsta

Frickin’ hell. I just went 7-1 on Day 2 of a frickin’ Pro Tour. I’m sitting at second frickin’ place, and there are three (frickin’ three, if you’re counting) Boros decks in the Top 8. Obviously I’m biased, but I feel like I have the best deck in the room, and I’m loving my chances on Top 8 Sunday. In fact, that night, and looking back at it now, I didn’t think I had a single bad match-up for Sunday.

That night, I tested for a li’l bit, maybe five games against my first round opponent, got some suggestions on sideboarding possibilities. And soon went to sleep with four stunningly gorgeous women named Amber.

I love you, baby.

Coming soon… Part 2, The Top 8, and the Aftermath