Never Had A Chance

Harry Corvese talks about his recent experience at a Theros Limited PTQ, where he made the Top 4 and learned valuable lessons about Sealed and Draft.

It was always going to be difficult for me to write an article this week. This Saturday brings with it Grand Prix Washington DC, which marks the midway point in an eight-week parade of events scheduled to take my mind off of the past three months. As a result, most of the stories that haven’t already been told are yet to come. Hell, I’m going to Vegas for the first time in December. And while it may feel fantastic to return to what I love and win a Standard Open my first week back, that story has already been shared. As any good competitor knows, Magic is a game of "what have you done for me lately?"

This time the story comes in the form of a Pro Tour Qualifier this past Saturday and how I lost in the semifinals but never really had a chance.

Ligonier, Pennsylvania is a tiny town best suited for a snow globe about an hour east of Pittsburgh. At 9 AM on a Saturday, the birds are chirping, and the church bells are ringing. Middle-aged couples are power-walking in nylon jumpsuits, and I am speeding with reckless abandon through the center of town. The tournament is only 45 minutes away, but still I am late. There are some benefits to the hometown PTQ; I know the judge staff and the owner, so if worse comes to worse I can call ahead and beg for them to wait for me. It’s probably a coin flip on whether or not they would do it though; this is the first major event in a new store location (which is a giant tournament center), and first impressions on the public don’t have second chances.

Once I hit the Turnpike, life becomes a blur of fall colors and people driving too slowly. It’s a straight shot all the way to Monroeville, and outside a crowd of smokers with backpacks linger to guide my way. Inside the walls are bare, the glass display cases are empty, and the ceiling still smells of the spray paint used recently to touch it up. 162 players have arrived, and as we sit down for the player meeting, all I can think about is Voyaging Satyr.

Recently, the Tournament Decks file on my Magic Online account has read like a timeline of evaluating green cards. It extends all the way back to early October, when Theros first came out and I couldn’t stop crushing the Prerelease events with ham sandwiches G/U decks. The green creatures with the best power/toughness-to-mana cost ratio (Nessian Courser, Nessian Asp) coupled with blue bounce and evasion was enough to convince me that I had discovered a powerhouse archetype. Voyaging Satyr takes this plan of casting fat monsters, which is already on par with the tempo of the format, and speeds it up by a full turn. With Voyaging Satyr as a common, I felt I could rest on the fact that for at least a little while longer; I had a plan to beat most opponents.

The Pro Tour in Dublin came and went. I stayed home because I had commitments; loyalty is both a strength and a weakness. I shared my thoughts with one of the team captains, Ari Lax (an old-school lover of Alpha Tyrranax), who confirmed most of them and added that he thought green was also particularly deep for drafting purposes. When the Pro Tour ended and everyone came home, I started focusing on Constructed formats. Every time I got an itch to play Limited, I would pair green creatures with spells of all colors, win some and lose some, and be satisfied.

In the end, the pool I got at the PTQ had enough green cards to make me happy but only Karametra’s Acolyte for mana acceleration. Red offered a Stormbreath Dragon to go along with some Lightning Strikes and Ill-Tempered Ones, which kept me from playing a blue package that included Voyage’s End and Griptide. It was a close call between the two support colors, and I did board in the blue to combat some of my green mirror matches. But the extra reach of the red cards helped me to win a few games that the blue cards would have lost.

The Swiss rounds went by with few moments to remark upon. In round 4 I lost my only match to a misplay in game 1 that was difficult to see and deserves elaboration because it’s rooted in theory.

There is a school of thought that says in a game of Limited that one should only use a removal spell on a creature if it is absolutely positively killing you. Now killing you can mean a few different things, but suffice it to say that if a creature represents a large chunk of damage every turn, an evasive source of damage you will never be able to stop, or has a reasonably relevant activated ability, you should kill that sucker. If not, it can wait a turn; go and see what the draw step brings.

So what was my misplay?  I cast Lightning strike on a Lagonna-Band Elder, and then my opponent cast a Setessan Griffin. Five turns later, I was dead, and he was smiling as he prepared to mark himself down to two life from my attack and deal his final three points in the air.

There was also an interesting judge call in round 5 when my opponent had Thassa, God of the Sea scrying away for a few turns but somehow was down a card overall. The floor judge was able to determine that my opponent had failed to draw a card somewhere along the line and issued a warning to him. The whole situation reminded me of a time many years ago when it was not unheard of for players to intentionally miss their draw steps and then accuse their opponents of having cheated by drawing extra cards. We’ve come a long way since then, and all should be thankful.

The rest of the Swiss rounds went smoothly, and I was able to draw into the Top 8 at 6-1-1 after a fortunate final pairing had me in seventh place but playing against the player in fifth place at table 3. Tables 4 and 5 had players with 6-1 records and poor tiebreakers, so they battled it out, and when the dust settled, we had a clean cut at nineteen points.

Before the draft began, I was confidant. I had a plan that I was going to stick by, and I could be seen strutting around the hall bragging to my friends about what cards I would first pick Voyaging Satyr over. Somewhere deep down inside I knew that there were some powerfully synergistic strategies at play in Theros Limited that laughed at my pitiful attempts to clog the board with large monsters. I mean my god, I could barely check Facebook without some status update from Gerard Fabiano bragging about 3-0 performances with thirteen and fourteen lands in his deck. "Gerard is a madman," I told myself, "and besides, he and his influence might as well be on the other side of the planet. This is Pittsburgh. We like to run the football and block. Lands are a privilege." 

And that’s when I first picked Nessian Courser over Voyage’s End.

For any normal person watching, the rest of the draft played out much like a high-speed trainwreck in slow motion. Not for me. I was happily slamming green card after green card all while chuckling to myself about how well I had done cementing myself in what was clearly the best strategy available. Sure, I picked up some spells of a different color along the way—red again this time thanks to a late Lightning Strike in pack 1—but the mission was clear. Rain down the fatties. My delusion carried strong as I dispatched a B/R opponent in the quarterfinals with a game 3 stream of Nessian Coursers that prompted a judge friend of mine to chide, "Yeah, why don’t you tell him when you picked that card?" as I dealt the final points of damage in increments of three.

My opponent in the semifinals was a quiet fellow with a U/W Heroic deck who was kind enough to pause to see if I had responses to the "Wingsteed Rider into Hopeful Eidolon?" questions he was asking me.

I didn’t. Nice Baneslayer Angel.

I did manage to take game 2 fairly quickly on the back of four creatures to his one. But I was still left hoping he didn’t draw the right mix of lands and spells again in game 3, so I at least had a shot.

It wasn’t even close. I mean, he was messing with the top of his library, casting spells that interacted with my spells, and playing creatures that guys on my side could only stare at; he was having a good old time. Because he was playing Magic and I was just counting numbers. He went on to win the whole thing.

"Three plus three plus two plus three plus . . . What’s that? Oh yeah, I’m dead." —The song of the Green Mage

The difference between green cards in Sealed and green cards in Draft comes from the difference in the quality of the card pools for each environment. In Sealed, while you may get a single copy of most archetype staples, rarely will you get multiples. This makes decks less focused overall and leaves room for a green strategy to overwhelm opponents with its depth of creatures possessing quality power/toughness ratios. In Draft, the ability to signal or cut the archetype you would like to play means that you have a higher number of archetype staples and therefore a more focused deck.    

I would say that Theros Sealed and Theros Draft are as far apart as any Sealed/Draft format I’ve experienced, but I seem to recall saying something similar in the not so distant past when we returned to Ravnica. What I believe now is that a different landscape between Sealed formats and Draft formats is a mark of a well-designed set for Limited play and something that we can use as a standard for evaluating Limited sets to come. Reducing the overlap in card evaluations for Sealed and Draft helps to keep the Limited environment fresh. I look forward to more of this in future set design.

At the end of the day, I may have been the player with the most experience in the Top 8 of this particular PTQ, but it wasn’t the right kind of experience. I have fallen into the trap of evaluating cards in Draft from a Sealed perspective before, and it cost me when I 0-3ed the first draft pod of Pro Tour Gatecrash. Now I’ve been fooled twice; shame on me.

The lessons I learned in the wake of Montreal led me to frequently draft G/R decks that skimped on lands and relied heavily on bloodrush creatures. Fifteen and sixteen lands became perfectly normal for me. These Draft decks were a far cry from the B/W Extort decks that dominated Sealed Deck play with blocking and grinding. I think the same thing is happening again in the Theros Draft environment, and while I haven’t quite arrived at a thirteen-land deck yet, I’m on my way fast.