Once again, I had to qualify for the Pro Tour.
While the Team Deadguy reunion tour was a success, with Chris Pikula, Tony Tsai, and myself qualifying for the Team Pro Tour in New York on rating, I wasn’t in the clear yet. After a lackluster year of Magic, aside from an eighth-place finish at US Nationals (which got me no Pro Tour points) and some decent Grand Prix finishes, I found myself dangerously close to falling off the PT point”gravy train,” as its often called. After picking up three PT points at the World Championships in Toronto, Canada and being assured of two PT points for showing up at PT: New York, I found myself two points short of a definite invitation to Pro Tour: New Orleans. Sometime between now and the end of Pro Tour: New York, I needed to get those two points, win a Pro Tour Qualifier, or cross my fingers and hope to get invited on my Constructed Rating or on the frozen Extended ratings from the past (which is the most reasonable, as I’m forever locked in 80th place).
Nothing to do but brush off the old block cards and head to the PTQs. Going into it, I knew nothing about the format except that Spectral Lynx was going to be a defining card. For my first attempt, I broke out a Red/Green deck and made some changes, mostly for the worse.
I reasoned that with Spectral Lynx at my opponents’ disposal, I needed Scorching Lava in the main deck or I would find myself with an inability to deal creature damage. In order to fit in Scorching Lava, I couldn’t bring myself to take out burn spells, so I took out the creature that would most likely suffer most at the hands of creatures with Protection from Red and Green: Raging Kavu.
4 Blurred Mongoose
4 Thornscape Familiar
4 Kavu Titan
4 Thornscape Battlemage
4 Flametongue Kavu
4 Scorching Lava
4 Urza’s Rage
4 Ghitu Fire
4 Shivan Oasis
1 Keldon Necropolis
While my reasoning might make a bit of sense, I turned out to be horribly wrong. The lesson that I learned is that Red/Green beats sucks without Raging Kavu. I’m not sure why that little guy is so important, but he is. He’s vital for getting in the early beats that put the opponent on the defensive and he allows you to burn them out. If I had to play this deck over again, I would leave the Scorching Lavas in the sideboard, cut some of the Flametongue Kavus, and make the deck far more aggressive. On top of that, I’d be tempted to splash blue for Fire/Ice and Prophetic Bolt, but that’s another story entirely.
In my first PTQ attempt, I went 2-2 with a substandard Red/Green deck. Not a good start on my quest to qualify for PT: New Orleans.
In those four matches in my first PTQ, I played against one Blue/White/Red control deck, two Blue/White/Black”solution” decks, and one Blue/Green beatdown deck. If I was going to win a PTQ, I was going to have to beat the Solution – that U/W creature deck made famous by Zvi Mowshowitz, which now splashed black to regenerate Spectral Lynx and often to cast Vindicate, Dromar’s Charm, or Death Grasp. After talking with Mike Flores, who often dreams up quality PTQ decks, I decided to give a version of his Red/Black deck a try. It was said to crush the U/W creature decks, and it seemed to have a decent shot against the rest of the field.
This attempt fared better than the last. With seven Protection from White creatures, Plague Spitters for Stormscape Apprentices and Spectral Lynxes, a healthy amount of removal and disruption, and Void in the sideboard, the Black/Red deck did well against the Solution. It wasn’t an autowin, but it was a good start. I played this deck in a PTQ at Neutral Ground: NY and I went 5-2. My two losses, however, were to a Solution deck and a U/G beats deck, and neither of those opponents played particularly well or had well-tuned decks. That worried me. I looked around and many good players played a version of Black/Red, and none of them did well. While I intuitively liked the deck, a little voice argued that if a half dozen good players play this deck in a PTQ and can’t make top 8, while its best matchup continues to win and makes up six or seven of the top eight decks, it can’t possibly be the right deck to play.
What’s a guy to do?
I had a break before GP: Denver, as the World Championships was going to interfere with my PTQing for a week or so. In the meantime, I mulled things over and tried to come up with a plan. One of the decks that I repeatedly lost to with whatever deck I played was Blue/Green beats, even though it was often in the hands of a weaker player and it contained mediocre cards like Temporal Spring and Rushing River. When I played against this deck, I often felt powerless; once I got behind, I found it impossible to catch up as my spells would get countered by 2/2 creatures and Excludes (allowing my opponent to draw more cards), compounding the problem. Tony Tsai, sharing a dislike for Temporal Spring, made a U/G beats deck with a splash of Red for Urza’s Rage, instead. Soon after, a similar deck did well with Fire/Ice instead of the Rushing River, another card from the original Blue/Green deck that I wasn’t too excited about, and I became even more excited about the deck.
As I played my new U/G/r deck, I was for the most part pleased, but I often had trouble killing my opponent when I lost momentum – the Urza’s Rages and Fire/Ice weren’t always enough to finish the job. In addition, I became somewhat dissatisfied with Fact or Fiction. Oftentimes, it seemed that the problem was not getting cards into my hand, but getting cards on the table (or removing my opponent’s cards from the table). Not only that, but it was becoming clear how important very specific cards were in certain matchups, like Blurred Mongoose in the mirror match and against control decks, Gaea’s Skyfolk against Eladamri’s Call decks, and Kavu Titan against Green/Red. For only one red mana, Prophetic Bolt seemed like a significant improvement over Fact or Fiction. It gave the deck more burn to finish off where the creatures left off, it still allowed you to fish for that one amazing card in a particular matchup – almost as effectively as Fact or Fiction – and it had an effect on the board, which is very important in a deck so reliant on momentum. Instead of using a turn to simply draw cards, Prophetic Bolt either removed an opposing creature from the board or threatened the opponent as well, both good things.
Monkey, May I?: U/G/r beats
The name”Monkey, May I?” comes from an old Type 1 deck created and played by Mario Robaina. The deck contained cheap threats like Kird Ape, countermagic, the usual restricted card drawers, and some burn spells. It was the original aggro-control deck, casting threats on the first few turns then sitting back and countering the opponents answers, removing their blockers, and often finishing them off with a well-timed Lightning Bolt.
One of the favorite plays that I saw Mario make with this deck was attempt to cast a Kird Ape, his opponent would attempt to Mana Drain it, and he would cast Arcane Denial on his own Kird Ape, allowing him to draw three cards and preventing his opponent from getting the mana from the ape. At GP: Denver, Billy Jenson reminded me of this in a roundabout way – and a similar situation came up in my match against Darwin Kastle, who was using an almost entirely creatureless deck. I had two Excludes in my hand and a Gaea’s Skyfolk, and I suspected that Darwin had an Exclude of his own. I cast my Gaea’s Skyfolk, Darwin attempted to Exclude it, and I Exluded it myself, allowing me to cycle my Exclude and preventing him from gaining card advantage from the play. Not quite the Ancestral Recall that casting Arcane Denial on my Mana Drained Kird Ape would be, but it was still a strong play.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I loved the deck, I loved Prophetic Bolt, and the deck did very well against the Solution, control decks, and Red/Green beats. Its weaknesses were Domain decks, Eladamri’s Call decks, and discard, especially Ravenous Rats.
On the first day of the Grand Prix, the deck couldn’t have worked better. I had two byes – and over the course of the five rounds after that, I defeated a Blue/Green deck, a Blue/Green/Red deck, a Red/Green deck, a Solution deck, and a Black/Blue/Red control deck. I was on fire! I’d had a surprising number of undefeated records on day 1 of Grand Prixs, though, and they often failed to get me to the top 8, so I wasn’t counting my chickens yet. Still, I was quite pleased with the deck’s performance, as well as my own. I was playing well and I liked that.
Day 2 rolled around and I started off with a win against another Black/Blue/Red control deck and then a draw against Alex Borteh, also with Black/Blue/Red control. It was a close match that you can read about on the Sideboard. We both played as fast as we could in an attempt to finish the match and I was close to finishing him off (and he was close to gaining control) in the third game, when the time ran out. The top 8 stayed slightly out of reach as over the next few rounds I lost to Danny Mandel playing U/G/W control and Darwin Kastle playing U/B/R control, and beat Brock Parker playing the Solution. Going into the last round of Swiss, I was in 8th place. My record was 9-2-1 and I needed to win in order to clinch the top 8.
I sit down across from the last opponent and he begins by playing a Shivan Oasis. I draw and play a Shivan Oasis of my own. He says,”Hmm, I wonder if we’re playing the mirror match.” I think to myself, this has got to be the only person in the room who doesn’t already know what I’m playing. And then he says,”or maybe you’re playing Blue, too.” Thank God! He plays a Forest and a Kavu Titan with no kicker, and I’m relieved to be playing against Red/Green beats, perhaps the Blue/Green deck’s best matchup. Before boarding, I have an advantage. After boarding, I have an even BIGGER advantage. You can read about the match on the Sideboard at http://www.wizards.com/sideboard.
So I win the matchup easily, two games to none. At 10-2-1, having won after I was eighth seed, I was sure that I’d made top 8. I called Lauren Passmore, Chris Pikula, and Tony Tsai to tell them that I had made the top 8. A number of people congratulated me – and even the feature match reporter believed that I would make the top 8.
When all was said and done, I was in 9th place. I was astounded. I looked over my tiebreakers and the standings to see if there had been any mistake: There was no mistake. I had won my match and dropped a spot in the rankings. Five of my previous opponents had drawn into the top 8, destroying my tiebreakers. Two others had lost. Everyone ahead of me intentionally drew, leaving them with the same point total as I had and better tiebreakers. Meanwhile, someone also won and passed me by. I suppose I could blame it on the fact that I only had two byes, so I played against one more person with the potential to not do great, but it still seems crazy that I would lose out on tiebreakers after starting off 8-0, then 8-0-1. But I did.
If you had told me going into the tournament that I would finish up in 9th place and I would qualify for PT: New Orleans, I would’ve been thrilled. As it was, with the shocking final standings, I was quite disappointed.
But such is life. There was no use getting upset about it, as there was nobody who deserved to be the target of my anger and disappointment. Dan Grey and Scott Larabee certainly didn’t deserve it, and I couldn’t blame the people ahead of me who decided to ID into the top 8.
All a guy can do in this situation is shake his fist at the sky, at the gods of fate or lady luck or whoever is in charge of this sort of thing. So I did that and I told myself that I’ll get ‘em next time.
King of the Qualifiers