“How are you doing?”
“No, I meant how you are doing in general. How are you feeling?”
“It’s the weekend of a Pro Tour. My record *is* how I’m feeling.”
The last pro season was a tough one for me. I had my worst ever PT result in Dublin, where I managed to win only a single match, followed by a pair of
middling finishes in Valencia and Atlanta that left me just outside the money. My Grand Prix results weren’t much better. I didn’t go to all that many
events and didn’t do terribly well in the ones I did attend. I only ended up with three finishes that earned me any pro points – one Top 16, one Top 32,
and one Top 64. Even with my points from last year’s World Championship, I came into the last Pro Tour of the year with just 21 pro points to my name,
which meant I had to make the finals in order to earn Platinum status again for next year. No easy feat, to be sure.
That goal seemed particularly daunting given the circumstances of the Pro Tour itself. The Standard format was one that had been heavily explored over the
past year, thanks in no small part to the StarCityGames Open Series. Despite multiple new sets coming out over the course of the year, the same decks
remained on top more or less the entire time. The fact that someone could show up to the last Pro Tour of the year playing the deck that won the first and
it would be a totally reasonable decision seemed fairly absurd. Trying to tune a new deck to compete with powerful and consistent stock lists that had a
nine month headstart was a challenging proposition, to say the least.
That certainly doesn’t mean I didn’t try. My testing began in earnest about a week and a half before the Pro Tour when I joined the rest of my team at Eric
Froehlich’s house in Las Vegas. When I arrived, I found their outlook was much the same as mine–a general distaste for and frustration with the format.
This is never a good thing, because it means people are less excited to actually sit down and play games, which leads to less actual work getting done.
People didn’t even seem particularly excited about the draft format. Normally, our playtesting days involve jamming a bunch of games of various Constructed
matchups until enough people get bored that they can convince the rest of the team to draft. This time though, people were more likely to drift off to
non-Magic activities entirely. The general consensus seemed to be that the draft format was pretty straightforward. The cards that looked like they were
good were the ones that were actually good, and there wasn’t a ton to learn by drafting more once you were generally familiar with the card pool.
It was a strange position to be in. I certainly wasn’t alone in my need to put up an especially good finish at the Pro Tour, and yet no one seemed
particularly excited to actually play any of the formats for the event.
I built a bunch of different decks but never really liked any of them. My first few attempts were various G/B brews, both aggro and midrange. The most
important cards in M15 seemed like the lands, and I hoped that maybe Llanowar Wastes would be enough of a shot in the arm to get Golgari to work. My hope
was that the extra dual land would be enough to allow the deck to play with Mutavault, which could potentially give it a significant edge over similar
decks from other color combinations.
I abandoned some of these decks before I had played more than a handful of games with them. Even with twelve dual lands between Overgrown Tomb, Llanowar
Wastes, and Mana Confluence, I still couldn’t consistently cast double-colored spells with any significant number of colorless lands.
Without Mutavault on the table, Golgari wasn’t nearly as appealing. While you did get access to Thoughtseize, your creature quality was lower than a deck
like G/W. Lotleth Troll and Dreg Mangler are fine creatures, but they don’t compare favorably to Fleecemane Lion, Voice of Resurgence, and Loxodon Smiter.
Most importantly, the Selesnya creatures line up much better against Lifebane Zombie. Losing a creature from your hand is bad enough, but when you’re
playing G/B, the zombie is big enough to block and trade with pretty much everything in your deck, while Smiter is too big, Voice trades profitably, and
Lion can potentially go monstrous.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of G/W though, is Selesnya Charm. In G/B, you have to play dedicated removal spells. I found myself playing Hero’s Downfall
and Abrupt Decay the most, since they were the most flexible, but even with these it was easy to end up with draws that were glutted with removal and
unable to really apply pressure effectively.
Charm, on the other hand, acts as a removal spell for the creature you’re most concerned with – Desecration Demon – while also serving as a threat in a
pinch. Additionally, the combat trick mode allows you to keep the pressure on against opposing blockers that could otherwise stop you in your tracks, and
can finish off a troublesome planeswalker (or a troublesome opponent) with a burst of trample damage. Basically, the card does just about everything an
aggro deck could possibly want, which made me question why I was trying to build one without it.
I made a few forays into other decks, like Jund Monsters and Planeswalkers, but found myself pretty much set on playing G/W several days before the
tournament. Most of the rest of the team was still vacillating between a number of decks, most notably Brave Naya and Red aggro splashing white. I
considered playing the Naya deck but didn’t like how weak many of the threats were on their own. I felt like the G/W deck was better positioned against
removal heavy decks like Mono-Black Devotion and U/W Control, as well as other aggressive decks, while the Naya deck was much better against Mono-Blue and
Mono-Green Devotion. Since I thought Mono-Black Devotion and U/W Control were more important parts of the metagame than blue and green, I went with G/W.
Here’s the deck I played:
- 4 Loxodon Smiter
- 4 Experiment One
- 4 Voice of Resurgence
- 4 Fleecemane Lion
- 3 Boon Satyr
- 4 Soldier of the Pantheon
- 2 Sunblade Elf
My list was fairly stock, only a few cards off from Scott Lipp’s Standard Open winning deck from the weekend before the Pro Tour. The differences in the
maindeck are that I played one fewer land, Banishing Light, and Advent of the Wurm; I played one more Ajani, Selesyna Charm, and Loxodon Smiter.
The strength of this deck lies in its ability to curve out and relentlessly punish any stumbles the opponent might make. There are three main ways this
plan can go awry. You can have mana problems, with either too many or not enough lands to operate. You can draw too many expensive spells, leaving you
unable to build a board presence early. Or you can draw too many reactive cards and have a hand glutted with removal and no threats. To avoid these, I
wanted to cut down on some of the most expensive cards in the deck – especially the reactive ones. With only a few cards in the deck costing more than
three mana, I felt like I could safely cut a land, since I found myself losing to flooding out more than having too few lands. By adding a Temple of
Plenty, I ended up with the same number of sources of each color, and the appropriate colored mana was really what the deck needed most to operate.
I also played four copies of Soldier of the Pantheon and only two copies of Sunblade Elf, in large part because of the former’s power in the mirror match,
which I expected to see represented reasonably heavily.
My sideboard varied a bit more. The most important difference is that I played the full four copies of Setessan Tactics. This was probably the most
impactful card in the entire sideboard. One of the major weaknesses of any G/W deck is its inability to interact effectively with opposing creatures.
Selesnya Charm offers some of that maindeck, but can’t deal with things like Tidebinder Mage or Master of Waves, which can prove to be a huge problem.
Most G/W decks seem to play a bunch of Skylashers and just a couple copies of Tactics, but that’s absolutely backwards. Not only is Tactics more useful in
other matchups, but it’s also just a more powerful card against Mono-Blue Devotion. Skylasher just attempts to delay the inevitable. It’s never going to
kill them on its own, since between Mutavault, Rapid Hybridization, and Domestication, it’s easy for them to block it with a non-blue creature. Eventually,
a Master of Waves for some huge amount or an unblockable creature courtesy of Thassa is going to end the game, and there’s nothing a Skylasher is going to
be able to do about it.
Setassan Tactics, on the other hand, puts the blue opponent on the clock. With just a few creatures in play and some extra green mana laying around,
Tactics does a great Plague Wind impression, clearing the board of troublesome Tidebinders, Masters, and more.
Mono-Blue Devotion isn’t the only matchup where Tactics is great at wiping out opposing utility creatures. Green devotion decks can be rough in game 1
because you don’t have the tools to disrupt their mana ramp, but once you have Tactics (and Hunt the Hunter) in your deck, things change dramatically. Not
only can you use Tactics to fight their Elvish Mystics and Voyaging Satyrs and the like, but it also serves as a potent combat trick that can punish them
for trying to block with Caryatid and Courser. Sometimes just pumping to kill a blocker can disrupt them enough to win the game, since you’re mostly just
looking to sneak in enough damage to kill them with a big Ajani hit.
Speaking of Ajani, the two different versions in the sideboard are there for completely different matchups. Ajani Steadfast is mostly aimed at opposing
aggressive decks for the +1 ability to give lifelink to a sizable creature. I like Ajani Steadfast over Unflinching Courage because of its flexibility, and
also because it matches up better against cards like Chained to the Rocks.
Ajani, Mentor of Heroes, on the other hand, is for attrition-based matchups like black devotion. Most black decks will sideboard out their Underworld
Connections for extra spot removal, which means that you can sometimes use Ajani to win longer games. Unfortunately, Ajani is vulnerable to being attacked
by both Desecration Demon and Lifebane Zombie, which is why I didn’t play more of them.
The last cards in the sideboard are two copies each of Back to Nature and Gods Willing. The former is largely aimed at U/W Control decks to deal with
Detention Sphere and Banishing Light, along with any Nyx-Fleece Rams that may happen to pop up. If the Planar Cleansing version of the deck gets more
popular (and Constellation doesn’t experience a resurgence), Back to Nature is a likely cut from the sideboard.
Gods Willing is mostly aimed at Mono-Black Devotion, since their plan against you revolves mostly around one-for-one removal, and countering a Hero’s
Downfall for one mana can give you the tempo advantage you need to win the game. While protection from a color is useful, it also has other uses, like
pushing through damage in a stalemate situation. I could see swapping these for Ajani’s Presence if Planar Cleansing U/W gains a lot of popularity in the
wake of Ivan Floch’s win, since striving a Presence to counter a Quicken’d Verdict on your team is pretty damn powerful.
As for my results with the deck, I ended up 6-3-1 in Constructed after taking an intentional draw in the last round with Shouta Yasooka thanks to our
terrible tiebreakers. My tiebreakers were so bad because I started the Pro Tour 2-4 before battling back to 4-4 to make day 2, and then going on a 6-1 run
before taking a draw in the final round, leaving me at 10-5-1, good for 49th place.
While 49th place isn’t what I was hoping for going into the event, it’s a respectable finish, especially given my rough start to the tournament. I actually
have something of a history of getting easily deflated after a poor performance early, since I often lose focus once I’m out of contention for Top 8 or
whatever my goals for an event might be.
In this particular case, I managed to bounce back from a pretty terrible match in which I made several mistakes that all revolved around my opponent’s
Nissa. I was playing against Tzu-Ching Kuo in the second round of Constructed with both of us at 2-2. I lost a long close first game after a fortunate
series of draws on Kuo’s part, and then won the second pretty decisively. In the third, my first mistake came as early as the second turn, when I drew an
Experiment One (having traded my Sunblade Elf with his Burning-Tree Emissary) and played it instead of the second Sunblade Elf in my hand.
This let Kuo play a Nissa off of his pair of mana creatures, and left me with just a 1/1 creature in play and Hunt the Hunter in my hand without a second
green mana to play both the Elf and Hunt the Hunter in the same turn. If I had correctly anticipated the possibility for Kuo to play Nissa, I would have
played my Sunblade Elf on turn 2, allowing me to use Hunt the Hunter to fight one of his mana creatures and making my Elf into a 4/4 to attack and kill
That wasn’t the end of my mistakes involving Nissa in that game though. A few turns later, after I’d drawn a second green source and ambushed one of his
lands with Advent of the Wurm, I decided I was to use Hunt the Hunter to take out the other animated land with my Experiment One, so I played a Fleecemane
Lion to evolve it – and then found out that the lands animated by Nissa are actually colorless and not green at all, and I couldn’t make the play that I
had planned. This means I not only committed my turn to playing Fleecemane Lion to evolve my Experiment One, but I’ve also revealed Hunt the Hunter to my
opponent so he can play around it for the rest of the game. I ended up literally losing the game by one life several turns later.
When I lost my next match to Ben Stark after two straight games of mana troubles, there was a part of me that was just ready to quit. I felt like I’d
thrown away my entire Pro Tour with my mistakes in the previous match. But I managed to scrape together a pair of wins to close out the day, went and got a
good night’s sleep, and then came back in the morning to 3-0 my draft pod before finishing strong in the second half of the Standard rounds.
Despite the fact that I’ve been playing Magic for over twenty years, and playing on the Pro Tour for nearly that long, maintaining focus in big events when
things aren’t going my way is still something I struggle with. It would have been easy for me to just write this tournament off after I was 2-4. After all,
it was the last event of the year, and I was already out of contention for Top 8, so there was no way I could reach Platinum. There wasn’t anything really
left for me to fight for – except to prove to myself that I could do it. And that’s exactly what I did.
I didn’t win very much this past season. I missed both Platinum status and the World Championship for the first time since they existed in their current
form. I didn’t make Top 8 of any Pro Tours or Grand Prix. But I was at least able to conquer something that has plagued me for my entire pro Magic career
by turning things around at Pro Tour Magic 2015 and finishing in the money for the first time all season after starting 2-4, and I’m counting that as a win
in my book.
And hey – next year Lifebane Zombie is gone. Who’s going to stop me then?