Pro Tour Magic Origins And My 2015 Season

While the story of #PTOrigins may feature the breakout decks of Mono-Red Aggro and U/R Thopters, Pro Tour Champion Ari Lax had very strong results just running good old G/R Devotion… and he looks back at his past year of Pro Tour and Grand Prix decisions as well.

The Deck

I basically put all of my trust in Brad here.

OK, I actually did test some, but G/R Devotion just smashed all of the stuff I wanted to work on. It’s really hard to beat something that just makes threats like Xenagos, the Reveler and Whisperwood Elemental this fast while also threatening turn-four or turn-five Dragonlord Atarkas.

What I did trust Brad with was all of the tuning, and everything he said just made perfect sense so I ran with it. Here is the list we settled on for the Pro Tour:

The first big thing was cutting Courser of Kruphix from the deck for Shaman of Forgotten Ways. Courser of Kruphix was just terrible every other time I had tested G/R Devotion, and I had often suggested trimming it down before and been met with a lot of resistance. If there’s one thing I know inside and out it’s how to build a linearly powerful deck, and Courser of Kruphix is not linearly powerful. It isn’t threatening when it’s on the board and it only provides you with mana a small percentage of the time. Do you know how bad it feels to flip your top card to Courser and miss a land drop in Abzan? It’s multiple times as bad in the deck that is trying to capitalize making windows in the early turns to jam overpowered threats through. Removing Courser of Kruphix also makes the deck better against Dromoka’s Command. The card is still good, as it kills those key mana accelerants, but you will never get auto-lossed by the two-for-one sacrifice your Courser, fight your Elvish Mystic play Command has previously represented.

Previously there wasn’t really a good replacement, but the G/R lists really loves access to Shaman of Forgotten Ways. Turboing out a Dragonlord Atarka is just so absurdly good. Shaman reduces the number of cards you actually need to cast a turn-four Dragonlord Atarka, reduces the deck’s reliance on Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, and randomly gives you a mana sink that can win some of the stranger races the deck can face. It also plays well with Genesis Hydra, which is much more of a nine-mana threat in G/R Devotion than the nineteen-mana tutor it was when we played it in G/W Devotion. It also still blocks random creatures fine as a 2/3, especially with Languish holding off Fleecemane Lion and company. It’s not like Courser of Kruphix’s fourth toughness mattered against that Den Protector or Deathmist Raptor anyways.

We also considered Nissa, Vastwood Seer, but in the end she turned out to just be too low-impact. You aren’t playing the grindy game that Nissa represents. You are playing a game of threats that kill fast and positioning them in order to force your opponent into unfavorable spots.

Also, as per the above note, we are playing four Dragonlord Atarkas. It’s the best thing the deck can do by miles and it falls into exception one for playing four copies of a Legend or Planeswalker: if they don’t kill the first one, they die.

Nykthos mattering less thanks to Shaman has an additional trickle-down effect: you don’t have to play four anymore. Drawing two copies of Nykthos in this deck is painful. This isn’t G/W Devotion where you would want to make eight million mana and manifest your whole library and gain 20,000 life and spend three hours of everyone’s life playing Game Ones. Dragonlord Atarka is almost as effective for a fraction of the cost. Drawing two Nykthos would just cost you some of the games where you needed to hit your fourth or fifth actual land when your mana creatures are under attack and you need to play both of the Whisperwood Elementals you have in hand. With three copies, this now happens way less often.

With only three Nykthos, you still have room for the fourth value land. Tuan Nguyen opted for a Haven of the Spirit Dragon when he won the Open Series in Chicago a couple weeks ago, but the Rogue’s Passage we played was just awesome. Getting to Atarka the second time is usually a big deal, but if Dragonlord Atarka dies it is often exiled by Abzan Charm. Rogue’s Passage gives you a huge new angle, allowing a massive Genesis Hydra or Polukranos, the World Eater to break through stalled boards.

Also worthy of note: No terrible Rugged Highlands. We cut all the crappy lands, tested it out, and it all worked fine. No missing on-curve drops due to tapped lands unless you get a free scry out of it.

On the note of the free scry, that was a huge boost to this deck. The Vancouver Mulligan rule where any player who mulligans gets to scry after all mulligans are resolved meant we just had perfect curves almost every game. When your deck is super redundant, relatively immune to being down a card, and just needs to assemble a couple key pieces, a six plus a scry is really close to keeping a seven.

Side Rant: This new mulligan rule is terrible for Constructed. The cost of playing a linear deck that isn’t counting cards (ie. Not Burn) is just massively reduced. You know how sometimes you would just say “Well I can’t beat a nut draw if they are on the play, but against their average one it’s all good?” They now have to brick twice on that draw. Instead of interactive games where both players are scrapping for resources, the Vancouver mulligan promotes players executing their game-plans in a super non-interactive way over and over. This is not interesting Magic. Homogenizing mana flood and screw also comes with the price of homogenizing the rest of the gameplay. In Limited this rule is fine, and especially so in this Limited format where things snowball out of control very quickly if your hand is missing an early piece, but I really hope I never have to play Standard let alone any Eternal format under this mulligan rule again.

Moving to the sideboard, the Trail of Mystery plan was some serious genius from Brad. We wanted something that beat control, and that card crushed it. It’s hard to immediately see what happens when that card is in play, but the small advantages just add up really fast. You can’t lose in the traditional way where control cuts off your mana creatures with sweepers since even a small threat like Rattleclaw Mystic now connect for a significant amount on the first hit, and eventually you reach the same stage as Abzan where you start making ridiculous unbeatable loops and are eventually always drawing gas because you have removed all twelve basic lands from your deck.

The rest of the sideboard is basically all spells so that you can pair the Den Protectors with them and loop an overpowered effect like every other Den Protector deck. Crater’s Claws is there to race the non-interactive matchups and kill planeswalkers out of Abzan. Roast kills everything except Dragonlord Ojutai and Mantis Rider, while Rending Volley kills those two plus Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy (we expected more Jeskai and Esper Dragons). Those two spells also help you keep Heroic on a slower clock that you can easily race.

Really, building this sideboard is just a matter of picking what you need to beat. Abzan you beat with Den Protectors and Roasts, Jeskai you beat with Den Protectors and Rending Volleys, G/R Dragons you beat with Arbor Colossus and Plummet, control you just Trail of Mystery and Den Protector out, Nylea’s Disciple and removal handle red, and Disciple and Unravel handles Thopters. You only have fifteen cards, so you can only fit things for about 75% of these decks. The joke is that your maindeck is just powerful enough to jam to at least even against the rest, so choosing poorly isn’t the worst thing in the world.

I ended up going 7-2 with this list before conceding the last round to a player who needed the invite, Phillip Arcuni, who was 8-1 with good ole Temur at that point. I lost to Thopters off of very fast Ensoul Artifact draws two games in a row and a Red Abbot Burn deck and beat two red decks (one with Abbot of Keral Keep, one with Atarka’s Command), Abzan Control, a cool W/R Heroic deck with Call of the Full Moon, Jeskai Ascendancy Combo, Rally the Ancestors Combo, and Sultai Control. I really struggled to remember the exact matchups I played because the wins with this deck all look the same. Mana accelerant, four-drop, four-drop, Atarka your stuff, oh it’s over? Thanks, better luck next time beating the same ole nut draw.

This deck is still just as good as it was before the Pro Tour despite the big reveal of Burn and Thopters, it just needs some minor adjustments to the sideboard. Rending Volley should go and Nissa, Worldwaker and Crater’s Claws can be trimmed down in order to fit in some mix of Unravel the Aether, Seismic Rupture, and Nylea’s Disciple. I can’t say I’ve worked out the exact numbers just yet and it’s possible more things need to be trimmed, but that’s where you start. This deck is probably my frontrunner for Grand Prix San Diego and it isn’t hard to see why. You just keep doing stupidly overpowered stuff real fast and your opponent has to try real hard just to answer it, never mind get themselves into a position where they can start winning.

The Event

  • Vancouver is a great city. Mani Davoudi is a great tour guide. Miku is the best sushi I’ve ever had. I’ll definitely be back for the Grand Prix here in February.
  • I 1-2’ed my first draft with a deck featuring four Consul’s Lieutenant. I stupidly played only eleven Plains instead of taking every artifact or white card possible once I had the fourth copy and trying to play thirteen or more. I won every game I played the card on turn two and lost every game I didn’t except one.
  • My second draft started with me opening Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Neal Oliver opening Kytheon, Hero of Akros to my left, and the player to his left opening Liliana, Heretical Healer. We obviously all took the planeswalker. I was disappointed to only 2-1 with a great deck, but I guess I’ll have to settle for taking all of my opponent’s creatures with Willbreaker and Jace, Telepath Unbound’s +1.
  • If you have to play against Rally combo, deciding how and when to kill their creatures with Dragonlord Atarka and in combat is a big deal. If they have a Morph, remember it could be a Grim Haruspex, and if their Rally isn’t lethal leaving a Fleshbag Marauder in play might just be better so you don’t have to sacrifice something to it a turn later.

The Season

Looking back at the goals I set at the end of last year, I’ve been doing a real nice job. I’ve pulled out a lot of matches from outside of Top Eight contention, turning a 1-3 start in Vancouver and a 2-4 start in DC at the start of the year into 10-6 finishes. That’s close enough to the two cashes I was looking for, though I missed the actual money on tiebreaks one time out of two. I’ve also had three teammates qualify for Worlds and was already getting testing together for that event in July, so I would say I’m way ahead of the game on getting that infrastructure into place. I was still technically live in the Player of the Year race with three rounds of Magic left to play in the year, which sounds pretty competitive to me.

But what about actually getting better? That’s the hard one. Where have I failed, and how can I fix it?

I’ve lost my edge in Constructed Grand Prix. Prior to the last year or two I was averaging over two Pro Points per Constructed Grand Prix lifetime, and this year I never was in a position to get more than one from any event. I’m stretching myself too thin on them. My testing time is too brief, my sample sizes are too small even by my standards, and I never get to iterate my selections. Next year’s Grand Prix schedule is less hectic, but I’m going to start accepting that I can’t test for everything. I’m going to look at the schedule and pick my spots, trusting my teammates to carry me when I know I won’t have the time to fully explore the format. I’m going to do dedicated matchup testing when I do have the time, and hopefully I can return the favor and help everyone with deck selection for Modern.

My draft skills need some sharpening. I’ve gotten way better at adjusting to signals, but there’s a lot of other areas I need work. I’m good at seeing subtle interactions in the deck build process, but I struggle to do so mid-draft. I’m not talking about linear decks, but small things like the “draft to play thirteen Plains with four Consul’s Lieutenant” I talked about earlier that make huge differences. As I get better at reading signals, I also need to get better at knowing what a good deck of each archetype looks like. It doesn’t help you to know that R/B Act of Treason is open thanks to a fourth-pick Blazing Hellhound if you don’t know that you need to take Nantuko Husk over Fetid Imp in pack two or something similar.

I still need to get better at evaluating good attacks and blocks on larger boards. I’m good at finding immediately profitable options (thanks Momir Basic!), but I often miss something that should be obvious that involves multiple moving pieces. I make a trade that looks good at face value but actually costs me a good counterattack that would make my clock a turn faster, or wanting these creatures on the battlefield so I can triple-block the attack next turn to play around a trick that doesn’t matter this turn. I overvalue cards like Rhox Maulers in draft because they let me just shove instead of think, I need to get better at playing good Magic without obvious trumps.

I need to get better at keeping up with the small technical play decisions in Standard over the course of a year. I can learn them in a short time, but it really skews my testing if I don’t know what I’m doing.

There’s probably more things I don’t remember or don’t know at this point, but this is a good start. I don’t know how to approach each of these issues, but just knowing they are there is the first step. If I understand the issue and think about it more, a solution should eventually become evident.