Making Top 8, and Examining Block Constructed

Quentin Martin looks back at his successful season, littered with Grand Prix Top 8 appearences and capped by a Sunday showing at Pro Tour Prague, and shares the highs and lows of his wild ride. The Limited expert waxes lyrical on the RGD Draft format, and touches on the Block Constructed format for those attending Pro Tour Charleston.

The writing of this has been long overdue. I am finally a free man again. The self-imposed shackles of pre-submissions and revision have ended, sadly along with university life that attends them. I’m off travelling the world on Wednesday for four months, so I thought what better time to talk about what’s been happening in the Magic community to me since I last wrote. I figured if I was going to write something before now then it had better be for the degree that I was likely to fail, rather than the hobby I love to fuel. I’ve never been one to truly dedicate oneself to work, and the last few months have been no exception; managing to naughtily rear my ugly head at a few of Grand Prixes and Pro Tours. Much has happened, much has changed, and it’s been quite a ride.

It all began before Nagoya, a long time ago. I was riddled with self-doubts — was I any good, did I really have a future in this game, was I deluding myself, why wasn’t I winning? The answer to all of these questions seemed to be that I sucked. I could never post that breakthrough performance into the elusive and glory filled final eight. Be it Nationals, Grand Prix or Pro Tours, all I ever managed was that oh-so-close-yet-never-enough top sixteen. Sure I was doing it almost every time, but what was it that was needed to finally break the barrier? Whatever it was, I didn’t seem to have it; but I endeavored to try. Midway through my second year I put Uni to one side and dedicated my waking hours to the game, picking endless Eye of Nowheres and Kabuto Moths until it felt like Kamigawa cards were fused to my eyelids. I was P.R.E.P.A.R.E.D. for Nagoya.

I crashed and burned.

I had gone too far, and done too much. Everything had become routine, every game seemed to pay out like one I’d already finished. There was no edge, no glimmer of the eye or trap well laid. I was depressed. My all-out attack on the cardboard world had been an abysmal failure, so I buried myself in the depths of Plato and Descartes; Magic was left strewn by the wayside.

But the fire was still alive. When Kant left me napping and Rawls roiling (alliteration can be taken too far), I would crank up MTGO, brushing the dust and cobwebs aside for a few hours of respite. A blistering while later, I would be beaming ecstatically at the six digital boosters I had won, wondering how it had happened. It was the freshness and change that lent me what I needed to see all the angles and start winning again. On a whim I purchased a cheap flight to Bologna to play a format I had only played at the pre-release, but mainly to feel the sun and see some missed friends.

Day 1 failed to live up to expectations. I picked up an early draw against Antoine Ruel in a one-game match I should have won, and lost the subsequent round. My lives were up, the pressure was off; I needed to go undefeated in the last three rounds just to make the second day. I managed, and crawled my way into the draft rounds. I still needed to 5-0-1 or better to make it to glory, and went to sleep indifferent to the tournament ahead.

The sun drenched me, tears streamed ecstatically down my face and my girlfriend was whooping celebrations over the phone. We did it! The 6-0 had happened. It was the highlight of my Magic career. Nothing that has happened since has eclipsed that moment. I lost in the quarters, but hardly cared.

Whatever it was that had held me back for so long had vanished. My Limited game somehow came together and I started to win again. And keep winning. There was a confidence in my play that hadn’t been there before. I knew I could do it. I made Top 8 at my next two Limited GPs, with only a minor hiccup in between.

I choose to ignore Nottingham, due to the condition I played in. Ruud has photos to prove it, but it is never a good sign when you throw up before deck construction. My pre-tournament preparation as far a food and sleep is concerned is always constant- I get the sleep I need. Friday night promised to be a good’un, and when it was time to return to the hotel after a few mellow pints, the allure of the Nottingham nightlife and the pull of good friends became too much. Ruud and I decided that on a coin flip we would either stay until last orders or sensibly head to bed. Needless to say that when last orders came another flip was needed to decide whether the spectacular would again triumph over sense. We staggered home from the club late and without memory. I missed day two on tiebreakers, having thrown my first two matches because I was still totally wasted.

I was looking forward to Prague. I was playing my A-game and it was likely that it would be just after my finals so I could party hard. When the dates of my finals were finally confirmed, I was crushed. I had decided that even if the Pro Tour were close to my exams, I would still attend. The only day that would stop me was if an exam fell on the Friday beforehand. It did. Not only the Friday, but also the Thursday, and the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday after! I resolved that somehow, I would still attend. I spoke to my department to see if anything could be done about changing the Friday exam. Armed with official documents that Andy Heckt had sent me that stated that Magic was an international sport of mental excellence, my department consented that there was indeed a solution. I could sit another paper. Phew!

My nightmare was slowly getting worse. I obviously had hardly attended any lectures or done any work in the three years I had spent “learning,” and what I had done was the bare minimum. Although a myriad of different subjects were available, I had only learnt exactly enough to pass my exams. In short — there was no other subject I could switch to! I chose the one that sounded the most interesting, and decided that a few days reading an idiot’s guide to the subject would be enough for me to pass it. My dad thought me mad, my mom disowned me, my girlfriend ceased speaking to me, but I was determined — to Prague I would go.

My wall calendar for June was a daunting sight — exam, PT, PT, PT, exam, exam, exam. 50% of my entire degree and an untested Pro Tour comprised my week of hell. I ran out of my Thursday exam to make my flight just in time, and prepared to draft a format I had never played. It could not have been any more different from my Nagoya preparation. Neither was my result.

I was off to a good start when the only person I recognised in my first pod was the Cak. He managed to pick up a loss somewhere along the way, and my “2-1” deck managed to go undefeated. I continued to dodge players I feared, when all my next pod contained was Jan Doise and Frederico Costa. I drafted an incredibly solid deck with a few bombs, so when I lost in the first round to an awful deck to double screw, I was somewhat disappointed. I guess getting beaten down by two Skyhunter Trainees will do that to someone with only a single land in play. The deck did what it was supposed to after that, leaving me 5-1 and already comfortably in Day 2. It was the next draft where it all fell apart.

This pod was much more typical of the Pro Tour, with Bernardo Da Costa Cabral, David Jensen, Bram Snepvangers and Wesimo Al-Bacha. I felt confident against the last three, but Bernardo, other than being a great friend, is probably the best contender for the “I can’t believe he doesn’t have a Top 8” award, and I would rather not play him if I could help it. The draft went downhill from the very first pick. Although I had never played the format I had spent the night before grilling my roommates — Swap, Bernardo and Raph, – on what had changed. There were four very important things to remember:

1) Don’t play Selesnya.
2) Pick Karoos and Signets incredibly high.
3) Take the best cards, preferably non-color committal, and stay flexible.
4) Eidolons were really good.

My first pack offered me the choice of Faith’s Fetters and Loxodon Hierarch. In RRR and RRG, the elephant was the better pick, but now, where removal had a much greater premium and GW being the major stains, the Fetters is definitely the way to go. My next pack was dry. It contained a Veteran Armourer and a Golgari Rot Farm. This was the only dual land of the tournament that I did not pick when I should have. Some people may balk at the thought of picking the Karoos this highly — I first-picked three, and fifth-picked a Watery Grave; I cannot stress enough their power and importance, but more on strategy later. With the Hierarch and Armourer in my arsenal and my head filled with scathing self-criticism, I made the mistake of sticking to my early picks instead of abandoning them for the average Blue cards I was being passed.

I was tempted to ask a judge for a razor blade during deck construction. I ended up WGbu without a single removal spell of any kind. I had a Hierarch, a Witch-Maw Nephilim, and a Leafdrake Roost as possible win conditions. It’s normal for a four-color deck to be chock-a-block with goodies, but I was running Vesper Ghouls, a Gruul Nodorog, three Magemarks, and an Azorius First-Wing. I mention the First-Wing amongst the bad cards because the worst thing about the deck (yes, something worse than so far mentioned!) was its manabase. Including bounce lands and Signets my base was 6/5/4/4, and the total color symbols in the respective colors were 9/8/7/6! The best performance I might expect from the deck was 0-3; I’d be lucky with that — it was such a pile that it is probably this kinda thing that makes people cheat in the first place!

I played Bernardo in the first round and was crushed swiftly by his vastly superior cards. It was a difficult thing to return to our apartment happy knowing that I would wake up to an 0-2 and the knowledge that the Top 8 was firmly out of reach.

Somehow, I had a good night’s sleep and wok up refreshed. I had a long phone call with my girlfriend and was thoroughly reprimanded for my negative outlook. She made me recall a game I had played in GP Helsinki. I had a Blinding Beam in my hand and was on something like 4 life against a vastly superior board position. I spent my turn trying to work out what I had that could possibly win me the game. I needed multiple exact topdecks for several turns, and my opponent to draw four consecutive land in a row, to just have a chance. I decided that the odds were far too ridiculous, and I was better off not casting the Beam and saving it for another game in the match. I passed the turn without attacking with my 1/1 Nim Shrieker, which was the correct play were I to cast the Beam. In my opponent’s turn I berated myself for my negativity and bit the bullet and cast the Beam. Live the dream. I then topdecked like I have never ever done before or since, ripping the specific cards I needed whilst he drew the required land or insignificant cards. I had stabilised the game with us on one apiece, and my board position was lethal in the next turn. He drew a Pyrite Spellbomb and killed me. Had I attacked with my Shrieker on the Beam turn, I would have won.

With Saimah’s encouraging words in my mind and Rage Against The Machine filling my ears, I was determined to turn things around.

My first opponent, a really nice Brazilian called Pedro, was unfortunate enough to receive a game loss for forgetting to register his Karoos, and my deck gave me the exact amount of gas I needed to finish him off thanks to the power of a Helium Squirter. Meanwhile, Bernardo was tearing his way though the pod, having just defeated Wesimo and his incredibly powerful WRb removal monstrosity; it was obvious whom fate would pair me against next.

In the first game, I was on the play with a turn 3 Signet-powered Vigean Hydropon and grafted Plagued Rusalka; followed by a Transluminant and a Veteran Armorer, and then two more men on turn 5. I think that was as close to a god draw as my deck could possibly get. In the second game, the board was nearing a stalemate with me being slightly ahead. There were multiple ground creatures on both sides clogging things up, whilst I had a Silhana Starfletcher and a Screeching Griffin holding the sky against his Demon Jester, Mourning Thrull, and Courier Hawk. Amongst my men were a Veteran Armorer, a Shambling Shell and a freshly cast Helium Squirter that threatened to shift the game in my favor. All my land were tapped, thanks to the Squirter, and all my men untapped due to the stall. Wesimo’s draw allowed him to empty his hand pre-combat to turn on his Jester and it swing into the red zone. I couldn’t believe what had happened. Neither one of us had any cards in hand; at first I figured he had to have something on the board that I was missing. I wasn’t — I tapped my Starfletcher to give me Squirter flying and sacrificed my Shell to make it a 4/5 because of my Armorer, and took the Jester down. Wesimo muttered a torrent of German expletives at the on the board trick, and lost all heart for the game. Despite him transmuting a Brainspoil for a Hellbent Twinstrike, the game was mine a few turns later.

I had done it. Somehow my pile had gone 2-1, and the dream was still alive. I was happier with that three round result than my final finish; after that I was riding high. I continued to surf the wave in the next pod. I had really wanted to be RUG in this format, but I hadn’t been able to pull it off in the previous drafts. I was mono-UG coming into Guildpact and prayed that Helmut Summersberger to my left wasn’t Red. My booster was empty of playables until I reached the back, where a Burning-Tree Shaman lurking. I reached for Helmut’s pack willing with all my heart that there would be a clear sign that Red was open and that it wouldn’t be a pack containing a Debtor’s Knell and a Pillory. I picked the pack up with closed eyes. When I opened them, the first card staring back at me was a Gelectrode, and I let a smile play across my face. I was ready for more goodness and I was rewarded with an Electrolyze. At this point I was eager to see what each new pack would contain, and nearly fell out of my seat when I was offered an Invoke the Firemind fourth pick. I’ve never reached for a booster faster than I did for the next one. I knew it would contain something special. There was another Gelectrode waiting for me, as well as an Ulasht, the Hate Seed! I’d never played the rare, but knew it to be good, I knew I had six or seven Red and Green men already and that my only spells were the Invoke and Electrolyze so, as I often do when in doubt, I took the rare.

It may not have been a story to equal Craig Jones Guildpact picks in the first pod of Skeletal Vampire, Debtors’ Knell, Debtors’ Knell, Debtors’ Knell! But Shaman, Gelectrode, Electrolyze, Invoke, Ulasht comes pretty close. My deck was insane, and it swiftly crushed everyone to leave me in fifth place going into the last draft. My draft can be followed here. The two real picks of interest were taking Viashino Fangtail over Last Gasp second; part of my reasoning was that Shuhei to my right really liked Orzhov, and partly because I really wanted RUG. The other pick was my first of Guildpact, where I had the option of a Gelectrode or a Skarrgan Firebird. Normally I take big, bomb rares, but I was lacking in removal, my deck was already heading towards being heavy, I think I ended up playing eight four drop creatures, and the Gelectrode complimented the Fangtail nicely.

In my feature match against Terry Soh, we threw the first two games to each other, me by not casting Incite Hysteria in the first when upon reflection it was obvious that Terry wasn’t holding a removal spell, and he gave me the second when he tried to bluff me with a Helium Squirter attack. We had only six minutes to play out the last game, and despite a mulligan my deck came out quickly and Terry’s inferior cards couldn’t keep up.


We did it!

I got the two IDs I needed in the next rounds and made it. A celebratory meal and an early night’s sleep later, and morning came. I woke up clear headed and refreshed, and made my way to the venue by myself after breakfast. I was listening to my upbeat tunes playlist on my iPod as I entered the venue. As I approached the descent into the stadium, Battle Without Honor or Humanity from the Kill Bill soundtrack started to play. The world slowed and became zennishly clear. I strode down the steps in Matrix-esque bullet time, and the opening credits from Reservoir Dogs (where they are all walking in suits down the road) filled my head. Definitely, the single coolest moment of my life.

I may or may not have made some mistakes in the final draft, which can again be viewed here. My draft looked a disaster after Ravnica, but during the review period I played the picks back through my head and realised that Rakdos was going to be really open, so I focussed on effectively ditching what I had in the search for Orzhov and Red cards. It was only when I laid my cards out in deck construction that I realised the power of my deck. From dubious uncertainty I began to realise my deck could definitely win it. I had a ridiculous amount of removal and enough men to get the job done.

I don’t really want to go into my quarters in too much detail as they were expertly covered here. In the second game, I am criticized for “missing” sacrificing my Pilloried Slaughterhouse Bouncer, but I was content to leave it on the table because I could have emptied my hand if I drew a land and a cheap spell, or another land, within the next two turns, giving me a free removal spell for the two life it would cost me. I drew neither, and also realised that I had enough gas in hand to play around his Savage Twister, so I would never become Hellbent. All of the games were frustrating, as my deck was the more powerful of the two and I failed to get good draws. I drew Lyzolda only once – when he was screwed – and most of my removal only once and some of it never, nor could was I really able to keep up in topdecks. Irrespective of that and of his multiple mistakes in earlier games, I made two mistakes in the final game as some less polite writers have been so apt to point out, and for those mistakes I will forever chastise myself. Still, $10k is nothing to sniff at.

Another victory was Johan Sadegpour finishing 14th. He was in contention for almost the entire tournament, and is definitely one of the best Limited players in the world. During the drink-fuelled celebrations of Heezy’s win in Hawaii, I stared offering odds that Johan wouldn’t win Prague. At something like 468 to 1, Sam Gomersall, Gabe Walls, and Johan (ship it, guys) himself all took me up for £10. Had Johan made Top 8 too, I might well have lost money from the tournament!

In looking back at my recent success, I can only really find two reasons. The most important factor was the confidence that my first Top 8 brought me. It takes away some of the stress, and lets you focus on the more important things. The second is that I’ve taken a friend of mine, Johannes Kotze, under my wing so to speak. I won’t hold any blows; when we first met, he was atrocious, with a Limited rating of around 1500. His MTGO rating now hovers around 1750. His rise has little to do with my influence and more to do with the fact that we’re drinking buddies. We would often get completely wasted at home whilst drafting multiple times. It was in teaching and explaining what it was that makes cards good, and why one should make certain picks at certain times, that I too improved. It was only a few weeks of steady drinking before he was correctly criticising some of my picks and plays. It was when I had to examine why something was good that let me appreciate that there is a wealth of reasons to do with the draft environment and signalling that people often fail to appreciate. It is common knowledge that playing with better players drastically improves one’s play, but I had never truly realised how tutoring someone can lend one a greater understanding of the game.

Now that I’ve bored you all to death with a tedious tale of what’s been going on in my life. I’ll try and provide the nuggets of wisdom that I learnt in Prague. The most important factor in RGD drafting is where to pick Signets and Karoos. When you open a pack it will, once you know how to, be very easy to work out how high a Karoo should be picked. Packs have clear first picks such as removal, and bombs. It is equally apparent which cards are complete dross and can be ignored. In between are the mediocre cards that will make up most of your deck; they are normally Hill Giants, Screeching Griffins, and Grey Ogres, or weak combat tricks like Gather Courage and Seeds of Strength. The Karoos and Signets slot in below the first picks and above the mediocre; they are the dividing line. To illustrate this, have a look at Rasmus Sibast first pack of the Top 8.

Dimir Signet
Fiery Conclusion
Golgari Brownscale
Light of Sanction
Mausoleum Turnkey
Moldervine Cloak
Peregrine Mask
Selesnya Sanctuary
Siege Wurm
Wojek Siren

The good stuff floats to the top

If I were to rank this pack in order of how high each card should be picked, it would be thus:

Moldervine Cloak; Dimir Signet; Selesnya Sanctuary; Siege Wurm; Mausoleum Turnkey; Fiery Conclusion; Terraformer; Mortipede; Golgari Brownscale; and then the dross.

Almost every pack can be easily divided in this way. If you ever open packs for the rares, take some time aside to rate all the cards in Limited order and you’ll get a much better feeling for what I mean.

This pack contains few first picks, but shows how high the fixers should be picked. Normally I rate Karoos over Signets as they are vastly better cards, but in this pack I make the color preference of UB over GW; the only other times you should favor the Signet is when you either already have several land, or when you have many four drops that you need to accelerate into. They are completely free sources of card advantage; not only do they give you two land in one card, they also provide two colors and, importantly, once you have enough (say 2/3 land, 2/3 Signets/other fixers) you can shave land out of your deck, providing you with more spells.

I ran a deck a few days ago with two Signets, four Karoos and only ten other land; it had a Blazing Archon to give you some idea of how much mana the deck had available to it. I was either flooded or had perfect mana in each game. The maximum land you should be running is sixteen, and you should aim for most decks having fifteen and the requisite 4/6 fixers.

Siege Wurm used to be a much higher pick when Convoke used to be able to hold its own, but now it is much like all the other common Green fatties available — Streetbreaker Wurm, Golgari Rotwurm, Bramble Elemental, Gruul Nodorog, Cytospawn Shambler, and Ghor-Clan Savage. Much the same can be said about the other mediocre cards; they are all interchangeable, and as such are less important than the crucial removal, bombs, and fixers. I’d be tempted to rate Fiery Conclusion higher than the Turnkey due to color preference, but card advantage is hard to ignore. The main point here is simple – when there is not a great card in the pack, or you are unsure what to pick, then go with the Karoo or Signet. Sometimes in the draft you won’t have had the option to pick too many, and it is often the case that when Dissension comes you will have to take the Karoos over everything short of an insane bomb.

I remember looking through the Dissension spoiler and vastly underrating Eidolons. The White one is the only one that is really powerful, and is probably the second or third best White common in the set. It is comparable to Defender En-Vec with the effect it has on the game. Given enough gold cards (6-8+) they are almost always worth playing. In short, what it is that makes them good is that they are card advantage. Once you have drawn one, every gold card you draw becomes a cantrip. Cremate is now slightly more playable, and is definitely one of those cards you really want to have in your sideboard. There are also lots of neat tricks that one can do with them, my favorites being Petrahydrox (which is now a decent card thanks to the Eidolons) and either the Red or White one as they combine to give you an endless almost unbreakable loop where each element protects the other half. Shambling Shell, and other dredge cards, also combo very efficiently; dredging gets the Eidolons into your graveyard, and recasting the Shell continually retrieves them. It is very difficult to stop either of these, and once active should probably mean you win the game.

The last trick is used against opponent’s Eidolons. The return to hand ability is a “may,” and as such can easily be forgotten; it is your job to ensure that they forget as often as possible. When you realise they are casting a gold card, distract them by changing the topic or jape around like a monkey so they forget. The rules are to your advantage as well, if the gold spell resolves without them announcing the retrieval, it won’t happen. There are certain ways to encourage this; for example, if they Castigate you, immediately throw your hand face up on the table. If they start browsing through your hand they have missed their Eidolon, as they have acknowledged that the Castigate has resolved. These kind of mind games are much like those of old when you opponent had Vampiric Tutored; if you casually said “Sorry, what did you go for again?” people would often slip up and tell you! It didn’t happen often, but it did work so it was always worth doing, even if all you got was a laugh.

I’ll be sunning it up in Thailand when Charleston happens, and as much as I would love to attend, the ticket would to set me back around $2500, meaning I’ll be sticking to the sandy beaches. Little seems to be being said on the format, which surprises me as even though the Pros will be wanting to safeguard their scant testing, the format looks complex and fun enough to at least warrant an explanatory attempt even if its just for your own enjoyment. For the Pro Tours I haven’t been able to attend, I always love doing some work for them so that I can look at what people played and compare that with what I came up with, to see how far I was off or accurate I turned out to be.

There are several archetypes that just scream to be built, like Gruul, Rakdos, and Orzhov. Certain cards demand people at least try to build decks around them; cards like Dovescape and Eye of The Storm. It will be interesting to see how cards get divided, as all Blue decks will probably want to run Compulsive Research and Remands, so working out what decks to play in conjunction with each other is probably as difficult in working out what decks are good.

Most teams will probably run a beatdown deck. Initially, it seems like beatdown is not the way to go in a format with Faith’s Fetters, Ribbons of the Night, Savage Twister, and Firemane Angel, but if only one aggressive deck is played then you will want all of you decks to beat control as that is what they are more likely to play against. This means that they will probably have their less flexible removal cards in the sideboard, which opens up the door for the beatdown deck as everyone becomes less prepared for it.

Double Trouble

The card I wanted to try out is what everyone should be calling the new Morphling. Many cards have tried for this title, and only Meloku has really succeeded. No, I’m not talking about Windreaver, but Simic Sky Swallower. This guy is nigh on indestructible and will certainly influence the format as decks struggle to find ways to accommodate dealing with him and Giant Solifuge, the most efficient of which will be the Rakdos half of Hit / Run.

With the leviathan as my starting point, in what direction would my deck go? I’m a control player by nature, almost purely because I enjoy building control decks, so my choice was easy. I started throwing in all of the best cards I could think of, pretty much everything that could say “two for one.” It became clear that although the deck could definitely win playing only three Sky Swallowers, I wanted more threats – chiefly to be able to dominate the control mirrors. In keeping with the theme, I went with the untargetable insect itself, meaning that Hit and mass removal would be what a deck needed in order to stop me, and even then in multiples. I have no idea if this deck will be played because it might clash with cards your team-mates need, but it very powerful and the thirty or so games I played with it on Beta left it winning most of them. Alas, I am writing this on my girlfriend’s laptop, a computer determinedly free of any Magic software, so I don’t the exact manabase the deck ended up with.. but I shall try to remember as best I can, or rather, work it out all over again! I give you —

Not knowing a format means I cannot really build a sideboard, but those are most of the cards that I have at least played a few games with and have proven effective so far. The manabase needs a lot of work so you can cast Voidslime on turn 3 with out hindrance (hehe, VoidslimeHinderHinder-ance… I’m so droll…), and it has a lot of “comes into play tapped” land right now, but somewhere out there, probably with the addition of a few more basic land, there is a better combination. I wonder if it will get played… it’s difficult to say no to a deck with twenty-five sources of card advantage, but only time will tell.

Hopefully I’ve held your attention for the past 5500 words, but without branching into several articles I am at my limit, and I really should get around to packing. There’ll be no Magic for me until Kobe. I’ll be popping up in Kuala Lumpur for the Grand Prix, as it’s on my route, but other than that I’ll be signing off and returning to the realm of normality. Hope you’ve enjoyed reading, and best of luck with Nationals and whatnot.

Quentin Martin