There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with writing for a niche market. As long as the target audience is appreciative, or the author is writing to order as part of a wider purpose, the sheer weight of readership doesn’t necessarily matter. Nonetheless, I’m very aware that writing an article that could in theory be useful to either one person or nobody, depending on whether Neil Rigby reads my article this week, is taking things to extremes.
The good news is that, some biographical details aside, much of what I’m going to set forth this week could apply to you, providing that you’re going to be playing at Pro Tour: Amsterdam. Hmm. Once again, I appear to be setting bounds on my usefulness. Time for some more good news. Most of what I’m going to say this week can apply to any of you who ever qualify for a Pro Tour and would like to win it, or at least do well. See? My audience for this week is widening by the second.
In truth, it’s possible to apply most of the things I’m going to say to any player at any level of the game. There are, in fact, only two real requirements to take advantage of this 90-day plan for excellence. First, you have to actually want to improve your game. And second, you have to display some perseverance and dedication to making that happen. I now believe I am addressing the overwhelming readership of this website, players who would like to get better, and would like to find the means to do it. So, with thousands of ‘Neil Rigby’ now onboard, here’s how you’re going to win Pro Tour: Amsterdam.
Neil, by the way, is a British player of some renown. He’s a classic bully at the table, running rings around players he knows he’s superior to in skill, and going into his shell when he’s the underdog. He’s played in eight or nine Pro Tours, with limited success. Three times he’s gone to Worlds via the GB Nationals route, where he’s annually expected to be in the mix. Outgoing, cheeky, and appearing at times to be the walking definition of arrogance, the real Neil is a much quieter, introspective character, who doesn’t truly expect success for himself. Since he’s also one of my best friends in Magic, ever since we split the final of a Pre-Release many years ago, this is my attempt to help him (and you) to Pro Tour success.
As I write this, it’s Sunday 6th of June. According to Magicthegathering.com, on the 5th of September at 4.45am Eastern Time I shall be starting the pre-game of the Pro Tour: Amsterdam Top 8 Webcast. It’s useful to have a diary on the web telling you where you’re going to be in three months time. Well, technically, a little less than three months. That means Neil, that if you’re serious about winning Amsterdam, you need to start right now. Today, if possible.
To my mind, Amsterdam is going to be one of the least ‘random’ Pro Tours for a long time. There are certain edges that Pros have over other Pro Tour participants, and several of these will be negated in Amsterdam. Most of these revolve around the two Formats that will decide the event. First up, we have Extended. Like Legacy and Vintage, Extended is a Format that benefits from a vast amount of widely-held knowledge. Part of that comes from historical background. You can look up the shape of the Extended Metagame from multiple large-scale events every year, and the Format tends to evolve quite slowly, with each rotation taking away one or two specific strategies. A couple of other perennial favorites get a turbo boost. Then, depending on recent expansions, a couple of hot new strategies come into focus.
In all these scenarios, the amount of data is manageable by someone who is prepared to read widely, listen carefully, think deeply, and prepare properly. Compare this with the recently-played Pro Tour: San Juan. Any time you have a ‘virgin’ Format such as Block Constructed, you are absolutely set up to fail if you aren’t part of a major testing team. The California-based crowd headed up by Luis Scott-Vargas did a phenomenal job in San Juan. Five members of that testing group made the Top 16. You could correctly observe that Brad Nelson chose a different deck than the rest, but it’s no coincidence that the deck he ported across to at the last moment also came from a Superteam, this time spearheaded by Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz.
When you look at the Kibler-Rubin axis, or the two Guillaumes (Matignon and Wafo-Tapa), it’s pretty clear — if you can get yourself into a heavyhitting Pro team you have a vastly superior chance of success when it comes to unexplored Formats. Extended is not an unexplored Format.
We’ll come back to Extended in a moment, but let’s look at what else Amsterdam has in store for us. After five rounds of Constructed, we move to Limited, and play six rounds of Draft (assuming we’re making day two after the first three.) The Limited Format for Pro Tour: Amsterdam is M11. M11 will be available in real life on July 16th. I don’t have any prior information about what will be going into M11, but all the evidence from previous core sets suggests that the Draft Format will follow many conventional rules of Limited play — curve will be important, removal will be important, Blue-White flyers will be a good deck, bad players will continue to pass you Goblin Artillery…
In a way, what the specific rules are isn’t relevant. What’s key is that these rules exist, and will be clearly evident to anyone who cares to take the time to learn them. Just as important as learning and acting upon these rules is to know what’s likely to be missing from M11, judging again from previous core sets. Put simply (pun intended), M11 will be straightforward. There will still be combat tricks, but you will be able to learn them all in approximately 10 minutes. There will be a few genuinely intriguing interactions, inevitably, but the very fact that there are likely to be only a few of them means that their very uncommonness will mitigate against them being kept secret. In M10, about the only one I can think of looking back is the interaction between Illusionary Servant and Fireball.
Knowing about this won’t stop you losing to it, of course. If I have triple Illusionary Servant and Martin Juza has Fireball, my guys are going to die. It’s the other way round that matters. In more complicated sets, the Pro player (or just the better player, since Pro status is just shorthand for that) can have a legitimate expectation that a lesser player may not yet know all the funky interactions. In the case above, Juza knows that I will not be devoting four points of damage to kill one of his Servants. Just like the other way round, they will all die. That’s one less edge Juza and Co have over the lesser players.
So, we know the Formats. Now it’s time to put in place the masterplan that will lead to Pro Tour success. It’s important to say what we mean by ‘success’, because anyone genuinely expecting that there is a path to follow that can guarantee you Pro Tour victory clearly hasn’t been paying much attention. It’s one of the great frustrations of Magic that there is no guarantee of victory. No matter how much better you are than your opponent, no matter how favored the Metagame towards your deck, no matter how broken your Draft decks, you can still lose. And will. Often. The success we can point to has relatively little to do with wins and losses in one specific event, although I’m prepared to say with confidence that if you, Neil, follow this plan, you will have one of your best ever performances.
Success, in this context, means arriving at the Pro Tour better prepared than ever before. It means having 100% confidence in your deck, and your ability to manipulate it to the maximum of your skill, and to the point where you will rarely be outthought in a mirror match. It means knowing what every card in the Draft Format is, does, and most importantly, can do in combination with everything else in the set. The final outcome, is, after all, about cards, and cards can come in strange orders once the shuffling’s done. Still, let’s leave as little to chance as possible.
Right here on this website there are aggregate decklists for all the major archetypes currently played in Extended. Find versions of all the major archetypes, port them into Magic Online. OK, I appreciate there are a few problems here, particularly if you don’t have an endless Online budget, but you’re planning on being $40,000 richer. Plus, you have friends, and they probably have all the cards between them. If you can’t get financial, get creative. Here are some of the decks you probably want to put together:
That’s a baker’s dozen to be going on with. Now, you have 90 days to get amazing at Extended. You’ve played, Neil, for many years, and have played in dozens of Extended PTQs and know a ton about the evolving Format. Now, this next piece of advice isn’t one I’d give to everyone, but if you’re not going to be part of a wide testing group at the highest level, it’s certainly one I’d give to plenty of you:
Choose your deck now. Right now.
That idea may horrify you, but it could turn out to be the best thing you ever do. Of course, you’re not going to choose at random. In fact, you’re not going to choose at all, because I’m going to do it for you. First things first, you’re not going to play a Control deck. That puts far too much pressure on you. If you’re going to be one of the best Control players in Amsterdam, you’re going to have to know intimately the workings of every major deck in the Format. How do they win? What are their key cards? What are the spells you simply must counter? When do you move to being the Beatdown? You could spend a week just looking at one particular matchup before you truly understood it. No, if you were ready to play Control as a master, you’d be on Tour full-time by now.
Playing Aggro is going to be problematic for the same reason, and has a deckbuilding component to add. You only need to look at all the different versions of Zoo out there at the moment to know that it’s quite possible that somebody will come up with a definitive version for Amsterdam, and that that somebody probably won’t be you. Just like for Control, you really need to know everything about all the decks in the Format. How hard should you be pressing in the red zone? Where should your burn spells be going — clearing a path, or going to the dome? When do you have to risk overextending?
For you, Neil, it’s Combo or bust. At this point there are a number of options you could try, but, for the sake of argument, let’s just go for it with Dredge. This is a deck that has been a notable performer ever since the archetype became available. It’s a deck that completely rewards practice, and is the kind of deck you can goldfish hundreds of times when there’s no opponent available, allowing you to work out how the deck performs without interference.
Other pluses to choosing Dredge three months ahead of time include the fact that the deck itself is unlikely to change too much between now and the starting line. Equally, it’s relatively unlikely that the Format is suddenly going to become unfriendly when M11 arrives on the scene. I suppose it’s possible that half the creatures in M11 will have the keyword ability Dredgehate, which empties all graveyards at the end of every phase of every turn, but I consider this a dubious scenario. Yet another plus is that it’s pretty unlikely that there are going to be individual cards printed in M11 that are going to hate Dredge more than what’s already out there. Learn what to do against Tormod’s Crypt, and Yixlid Jailer, and Leyline of the Void, and there shouldn’t be too many other surprises.
If we’re prepared to go down this route of picking the deck this early, our Magic Online plan can become much more refined. Go and get the cards you need for Dredge, and then head for the Tournament Practice room. If you’re going to be playing Dredge the whole time, you can scout amongst your friends for people who own the cards for a specific deck, and then spend an evening testing just that one matchup.
It sounds very straightforward to say that if you practice a lot with a deck you will get better, but how many games can you realistically squeeze in? Neil has a fulltime job, so we have to work around that. By my reckoning, it should be easily possible to play half a dozen matches each evening during the week, and up that to ten each weekend day. That’s fifty matches per week. If we did that for the full thirteen weeks, we’d be up over the 600 match mark. To put that kind of number and experience into some kind of context, that amounts to maybe 25% of a long-time Pros entire Sanctioned career, put together over ten, twelve, fifteen years. And you can do that around a fulltime job in three months.
That said, once we get to August, you’re going to want to switch your attention to M11 Draft. There are three things you’re trying to achieve here. First, working out the archetypes that you’d like to play in Amsterdam. There’s no shortcut to this. You simply have to play a lot of M11 Draft in Magic Online, or in real life if you have that facility. Remember, though, that purely in terms of efficiency, Magic Online is hard to beat. You’re not going to spend any time organizing eight players, you won’t lose travel time, and, unless you’re in an amazing test group, the chances are that a typical Magic Online 8-4 Draft will be at a higher standard than your real life friends.
That said, I wouldn’t play in 8-4s to start with. Instead, I’d play in the Swiss queues. As long as you remember that you probably won’t get such good decks against the Pros in Amsterdam, you can certainly work out very quickly what works and what doesn’t by playing in the Swiss events. One of the best reasons for playing in these events is that you still get to learn if you lose your first round to misfortune, a bomb Rare, or mana issues (although you should be learning from those experiences too). Over three rounds, you’ve got a great chance to properly evaluate your deck. Also, if you’re sitting at 0-2, that’s a good time to try some of the fringe cards you drafted almost by accident, and see if they can be put to good use.
The second thing Draft practice needs to accomplish is to work out those strange interactions that aren’t always apparent when a new set comes out. Once you know them, they seem obvious, but until you see them in action, they can be counter-intuitive. For example, casting Journey to Nowhere to get rid of something like Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. Emrakul has protection from colored spells. Journey to Nowhere is colored, and a spell. It doesn’t matter. Journey to Nowhere sets up a trigger. The trigger isn’t colored. Emrakul goes away. As we’ve said, there should only be a few of these, and talking to friends should quickly get you up to speed with all of them.
The third thing you want to know is what all the main archetypes look like, and how the Metagame as a whole is going to shape up. This is where having a large buddies list comes in handy. Suppose you recruit twenty buddies to help out. They agree to note what color combination they play in every draft, and their record. Even if only half of them play each day, that’s seventy each week, or roughly three hundred by the time the PT rolls around. As long as your buddies are at least halfway competent, that’s the kind of data you can take some serious conclusions from. More than any Draft Format in recent memory at a Pro Tour, Amsterdam is going to be all about understanding what people are going to want to be playing, and where the holes in the Format exist, ready to be exploited.
If you’re looking to make a breakthrough, Amsterdam is an amazing opportunity. You can play hundreds upon hundreds of matches in Extended, with the backup of a huge knowledge bank online to help you. You can play more than enough M11 draft to bring you up to speed. All that is required is for you to decide to devote yourself to the game for the next three months Neil. No partying, no spending the next month in a pub watching the World Cup, no wasting your talents in the vain hope that somebody British is going to give you a deck the night before the Pro Tour that’s going to carve up the field. For the first time in your Pro Tour life, you have the capacity to simply take control of your own destiny, and become a vastly different, and vastly better player, than you’ve ever been before.
As to whether or not Neil actually wins Pro Tour: Amsterdam, well, I know where I’m going to be at 4.45am ET on the 5th of September, I’d like to think Neil will be there, and I hope you’ll be there too.
As ever, thanks for reading…