Pro Tour Theros

Sam Black tells you about how he settled on playing Mono-Blue Devotion at Pro Tour Theros, where he made the Top 4. Check it out before SCG Standard Open: Seattle this weekend!

As you’ve probably heard, last weekend I finished third in Pro Tour Theros, and the rest of Team StarCityGames.com did exceptionally well too. There’s a lot of information out already about our preparation, deck, and tournament, much of it blogged at http://www.teamstarcitygames.com/ and also throughout the main event coverage by Wizards here.

My preparation began before I got to Dublin with a good number of drafts in Madison. Every release weekend Ben Rasmussen hosts a solid weekend of drafting at his house and usually gets around 20-24 people so that we can have three drafts going at a time. Getting a lot of drafts in person with a group of people you can discuss the results with is a great way to get a jump on the format and certainly set me on the right path to learning what Theros Limited is really about, particularly coupled with the research I’d done for my preview article on Theros Limited.

After that weekend I went to New York to stay at Jon Finkel apartment with Reid Duke, William Jensen, Owen Turtenwald, and later Patrick Chapin. Testing in New York always feels like a bit of a trap—several players on the team live there, so they encourage others to come there to prepare, but since they’re in their homes they’re not really dedicated to testing yet and don’t end up being available much, so we usually waste quite a bit of time. We managed to get some drafts in, and this is where Patrick started testing the B/W deck that he and Paul Rietzl played. This is also where I learned that the aggressive Heroic decks I’d been optimistic about couldn’t really stand up to removal, though I still loved Soldier of the Pantheon.

Zvi Mowshowitz was able to work with us in person some while we were in New York, and his perception was that this tournament would be all about Esper Control—it had been the deck to beat in Block, and the scry lands helped it the most. U/W Control was also strong, but it couldn’t compete against a similar strategy that had access to Thoughtseize and Sin Collector.

Patrick Chapin believed the format really revolved around Thoughtseize. In some ways, this is an evolution of Zvi’s position, but the next step is to realize that Sphinx’s Revelation isn’t really the best strategy against Thoughtseize and that while Esper is going to be the best control deck because of Thoughtseize, it might not be the best Thoughtseize deck.

The quest to find the best Thoughtseize deck is what led Patrick to build the B/W deck.

I was enamored with the power of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx as a way to go bigger than the other midrange decks, but Patrick convinced me that playing a bunch of cheap spells to power Nykthos and a couple expensive spells to take advantage of the mana wasn’t a reasonable plan against Thoughtseize, where they could just take the expensive spell if you had Nykthos and rob you of your payoff.

I was coming around to just wanting to play a consistent, proactive monocolored deck that would have good mana and could play Mutavault. Mutavault offers a huge advantage, as most decks can’t do anything special with their lands and being able to get some kind of utility out of lands rather than not is just a huge difference. Mutavault was particularly well positioned due to the importance of people able to threaten planeswalkers, especially Jace, Architect of Thought.

So the cards I was most drawn to were Thoughtseize, Soldier of the Pantheon, and Mutavault, all of which were in Patrick’s B/W deck, which was performing pretty well against everything in testing. I was happy to have that available as a backup plan in case I didn’t find anything else.

When we got to Dublin and met up with the rest of the team, Brad Nelson and Matt Sperling had been working on R/G and were each very excited about it. Brad had a few cards in his deck that the rest of the team didn’t like, most notably Satyr Hedonist, which he knew wasn’t likely to be good enough, and I think Sperling suggested Flesh // Blood (apologies if this was Brad’s idea), which performed really well, giving the deck a lot of kills out of nowhere with Ghor-Clan Rampager. This deck was good and Polukranos, World Eater in particular stood out as an exceptionally powerful card, but it’s just not the kind of deck that’s easy for me to get excited about.

At some point Kai Budde and Gabriel Nassif started looking at Mono-Blue Devotion/Aggro, and I figured they’d look over some cards for a while, they’d put something together, it would fail, and they’d move on to something real. I’d looked at the deck and wanted it to be good, but it just looked like it didn’t do quite enough.

The card I missed was Master of Waves. It radically overperformed. It shouldn’t be surprising that the way to fix a deck with a solid core that doesn’t have enough power is to just move the curve up a little and put more powerful cards in, but somehow that solution hadn’t occurred to me. I was surprised by early reports that the deck had been doing well, but I was definitely excited about it—it’s exactly the kind of deck I’d love to play if it’s good enough.

As others got on board and it started to become the strongest candidate for the deck most of us would play, I worried that I personally hadn’t played enough games with the deck. When everyone’s interested but not completely sure, it’s hard to decide exactly how many copies of the deck people should be playing with at once and who should be playing each side of the matchup.

Also, when we told Tom Martell that it was the deck we were excited about by email since he wasn’t at the castle yet, he told us about a U/W Control deck with Master of Waves that had done well at States. Huey said he’d been wondering about a deck like that and that it looked good, so I put that together to try it out and it felt reasonable. I had no idea how I’d get enough games against the field in with both this U/W deck and with Mono-Blue Devotion to make an informed decision, and most of the team was getting increasingly sure that they’d just play Mono-Blue Devotion.

I decided to play the decks against each other; the U/W deck just felt a lot worse, and that was enough for me. I gave up on it and decided to play Mono-Blue Devotion.

Both up to that point and afterwards, most of my "testing" of Mono-Blue Devotion was just watching games rather than playing myself, but I tried to pay close attention to really get a sense of how the deck worked (unlike most of my teammates, I don’t actually like just watching Magic for hours on end and can rarely focus through an entire game as a spectator). I liked the deck and thought I "got it," but I definitely wasn’t sure if I could make it perform for me going into the Pro Tour.

I felt really good about my Limited preparation in the castle. It didn’t feel radically different from what we’d done before, but I personally had been doing very well in our drafts and had some conversations with people over Magic Online drafts such that I understood some of the preferences of others on the team, knew what people generally liked, and felt like I had a reasonable sense of how to draft most archetypes. We also had a great conversation about Limited two nights before the Pro Tour to talk through any final uncertainties.

When the Pro Tour started, the first thing I did was open an Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, as the first three rounds were draft. That seemed like the best possible way to start the tournament, and already I liked my chances quite a bit. The rest of the draft went really well; I got a lot of cards much later than I thought I should, and I was absolutely giddy by the end of the draft (a common experience really—I was excited about a lot of my drafts over the week of testing at the castle, but the ones I liked usually did well).

My first match was closer than I expected. My mana didn’t cooperate in game 1, and my opponent didn’t play a second land in game 2. I won game 3, but my opponent was just one mana short of killing me despite the fact that I had Elspeth, Sun’s Champion in play. I was relieved to win the match but worried that the deck might be more beatable than I’d thought.

I managed to win the next two matches more convincingly, and on the second day I did an interview about the deck I put together that you can watch below.

In the first round of the Constructed portion, I sat next to Owen, who was playing the same deck as me, and both of our opponents were playing G/B Aggro decks that looked extremely similar. I was amused to look over after four or five turns and see that Owen’s board looked almost exactly the same as mine—both of us were winning.

In the fifth round, I had a feature match against Olle Rade, which you can read about here. He was playing G/R Midrange, and it was an excellent match. The second game was particularly exciting, as I had basically nothing going on at one point and was debating between buying a turn or two with Cyclonic Rif, and just conceding because I still basically just had a 1/1 flier that certainly couldn’t kill him before he replayed all his giant monsters. I decided to play it out and almost managed to take the game. I lost, but it still felt like a real testament to the power of the deck and made me feel like I was playing pretty well that day.

In round 6, I beat eventual champion Jeremy Dezani in the first of four mirror matches throughout the Swiss.

My sideboard plan for the mirror was still rough, as it wasn’t a matchup we’d actually tested. I knew Master of Waves was important and that I wanted to be aggressive. I decided that it was important to be ahead on devotion to have the better Masters; I left all the cheap permanents in and tried to just get in under him and sided out Jace, Architect of Thought and Bident of Thassa. I was worried that the deck might be a little underpowered this way but decided I had to race. I didn’t want Jace because I felt like it was too easy to be behind on fliers, and then they could just kill it or if they had Thassa could just kill it. I believe that in our match Jeremy played Jace and I felt like it was going to be a huge problem and win him the game, but then he used the -2 ability and gave me a window to kill it. I managed to take the match.

Afterward I talked to Kai about the mirror. He’d played against a German playing the deck and said they felt that Jace, Architect of Thought and Thassa, God of the Sea were the keys to the mirror. I identified life totals as being extremely important; since Thassa makes things unblockable, it’s important to be the one who wins the race if you both just put mana into getting guys through and doing damage. I failed to appreciate just how much Jace could slow the opponent down in this scenario and how difficult attacking into Jace is when both players have a few creatures. I adjusted my sideboard plan appropriately, cutting Judge’s Familiar instead of Jace because it just doesn’t do anything against the other fliers.

I don’t remember what I played against in round 7, but in round 8 I beat Pierre Dagen, who would eventually get his revenge in the Top 4.

My second draft went well too. After the first draft, I was disappointed to "only" start with Griptide, one of the best commons, and following it with a Vaporkin and Voyage’s End felt like a solid but not exceptional start. Prophet of Kruphix fourth pick felt like a huge gift, and I could only assume other players in my pod didn’t know how good that card is. Following it with a Horizon Chimera meant that I felt great about my deck and my position and optimistic about my ability to do well in this pod despite the stiff competition from Paul Rietzl, Jon Finkel, and Makihito Mihara among others.

You can check out the rest of my draft and the rest of the table on the draft viewer here. I particularly recommend checking out Mihara’s draft, as he won the table with an incredible deck.

In round 9, I beat Paul in a relatively uneventful feature match that was determined largely by mana issues, and then I lost to Mihara’s excellent deck in three games, again with mana issues playing a huge role in the match. In the eleventh round, I beat Lukas Tajak’s B/W deck, and again I believe he had mana issues in a least one of the games, while my draw was outstanding. But I might be misremembering; it might have just felt like he had mana issues because the game was pretty one sided.

I felt pretty confident, finishing the draft 2-1 after my 8-0 start. The Top 8 was starting to look in sight.

Next round I played against Mihara again, and again he beat me. I won the second game with an overloaded Cyclonic Rift cast off a Nykthos that I stole from him with a Nightveil Specter, but his explosive draws and Polukranos, World Eater were just too much for me to take the match.

It’s amazing how fast your standing can fall in a large tournament, and while I knew I was still in pretty good shape, it was becoming easy to imagine how I could miss Top 8 from here.

In round 13, I played against Joel Larrson’s blue Devotion deck that splashed black for Thoughtseize and Doom Blade. I felt like this would probably be a good matchup for me because I think the lands punish you in the mirror. He left Thoughtseize in his deck after sideboarding, which I think is wrong, though there are legitimate arguments for it. Doom Blade is good, but I don’t know that it’s worth the cost here.

The problem with Thoughtseize is that Mono-Blue Devotion was chosen because it’s good against Thoughtseize—yes, there are some high-impact cards that we’re leaning pretty heavily on, but in the mirror match there are a lot of them (Nightveil Specter, Jace, Thassa, Cyclonic Rift, Master of Waves) and many of them are legendary or expensive enough that the issue can often be having time to play them rather than drawing them. Thoughtseize is another spell in your deck, which makes you synergies weaker, and the life cost is extremely relevant. Also, both players are generally playing out their hand, so the fact that it’s a bad topdeck in the midgame is a very real cost, as is the fact that taking a redundant Thassa or four-drop often simply won’t help.

This is the same reason I was shocked when Yamamoto Duressed me after sideboarding in the quarterfinals. That’s just not what the game is about.

In the fourteenth round, I played another mirror match against Matej Zatlkaj to secure my place in the Top 8. He had Claustrophobia and Domestication so I sided in Negate, which I generally hadn’t been doing, and in the third game, I got ahead and countered his key spells on turns 3 and 4 to take the match.

From there I drew twice to finish second. Looking back on this, I realize that while I had a great record for most of the tournament, it was very close to going the other way. Almost all of my matches went to three games—this wasn’t one of those events where you just dominate and sweep every round. I was definitely feeling the pressure of playing endless intense matches, especially with so many mirrors that I hadn’t tested outside of the event.

As soon as I was sure I’d be able to draw into the Top 8, I called my girlfriend Lex to tell her. She was supposed to have arrived in Dublin that morning but missed her flight and would be getting in early Sunday morning instead. I told her that she’d be here in time to watch the Top 8 and that she should come to the site to do so. This was the third Pro Tour that she was in the area for. The first was my first Pro Tour in Hawaii in 2006, and the second was Philadelphia, when I made my first Top 8. I was very happy that she’d be back to watch my second as well.

After the final standings were posted, when I learned that I’d be playing against Mono-Black Devotion in the first round, I started testing post-sideboard games and was quickly very disheartened to learn that it would be a very difficult match. I really wanted Lex to be able to watch me win.

Zvi said that he’d tested game 1, which was great for me, and that I should skip straight to playing post-sideboard games. I did that, and they felt really hard. Lifebane Zombie was a surprisingly big problem as an unblockable threat backed by a lot of removal to slow me down.

Zvi said he was still optimistic about my post-sideboard games, but the testing we were doing in person made it look quite bad. I tried a variety of sideboarding plans, including things that looked terrible to me, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. I concluded that I just needed all my cheap creatures and to try to put pressure on him and stay ahead of his removal since I could play threats that were cheaper than his answers and due to the nature of his removal he’d have to try to kill every one of them. That seemed to be a losing plan; just being the aggressor and using removal to win the race, as he did with Doom Blade and Pack Rat in the game he won, seemed to be a superior approach. I had to hope he’d overestimate how much he wanted to be the control deck in the match, and I can only assume since he had Duress in his deck that that’s what happened.

My semifinals match was covered here.

I knew I had a great chance to win this match. I was on the play, and thanks to sideboard Gainsays I felt that my deck was advantaged in the mirror and that I knew what I had to do. I started with a mulligan and lost the first game to an unanswered Master of Waves. Losing the first game was a big upset, but at least I’d have Gainsay for the rest. I played game 2 badly. I didn’t manage my mana properly, and I lost. I’m not sure if I could have won. I don’t think I could have, but it was still unacceptably bad.

I took a break to use the restroom. I needed to win three in a row. My opponent was a huge favorite at this point, but it wasn’t over. It was hard not to get discouraged, but I knew that I couldn’t give up my shot to win the Pro Tour.

I managed to turn things around and took the match to the fifth game. I was setting up a Cyclonic Rift that I was almost sure would win the game. I played Master of Waves, which was going to take the game, but he drew Ratchet Bomb to stay alive. Still, when my Jace, Architect of thought revealed the Island I needed to get my seventh mana to overload Cyclonic Rift, I thought the game was over, but he’d gotten me low enough that the Thassa, God of the Sea he drew the next turn was able to win the race by a turn. There was nothing I could do about it.

I was disappointed, but I was happy with how well I’d managed to fight back and with my finish overall. Still, third place is exactly the highest finish I’ve gotten before, and it’s not as special the second time. Every great finish is tremendously important, but now I feel a need to actually win a tournament that I hadn’t really felt before.

I’d been getting worried about not performing as well as others lately, especially in Pro Tours, and wondered if I’d have another weak year and thought maybe it would be for the best if I went back to thinking about trying to work for Wizards, having had my variance spike, made Top 8 of my one Pro Tour, and made Platinum once; maybe I couldn’t maintain that. Now I’m feeling a lot more competitive. I want to make Platinum this year, I want to make the World Championship, and I want to win a tournament.

I’m looking forward to Louisville.


@samuelhblack on Twitter