So Many Insane Plays – The View From Valencia: Demystifying the Pro Tour

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In today’s article, Stephen reflects upon his first Pro Tour experience as seen through the eyes of a Vintage player, and reveals his 2007 Magic Invitational submission! As you can probably guess, it’s pretty strong… but if made, would it see Vintage play?

At this moment, the finals of Pro Tour: Valencia are about to begin. I’m sitting in a wicker chair in the player’s outdoor lounge enjoying the spectacular view of the Ciudad de Artes y Las Ciencias (a.k.a. the Pro Tour hall) with Adrian Sullivan.

Here is my view from the edge of the player’s lounge.


“The Pro Tour”

To the average tournament Magic player, those three words carry quite a bit of weight, most often unspoken. To some it holds dreams of riches and glory. To others, it is a useful reference site for the appropriation of new technology and ideas tested against skillful field. To others still, it is an opportunity to travel the globe with friends.

To the casual player, those three words may carry weight, but seems contrived, even arrogant. To other casual players, it may be a foreign concept entirely.

For me, the experience of the Pro Tour can only be described as a demystification process.

This all began about a month ago. As a byproduct of being honored with the R&D selection for the Magic Invitational, I was automatically qualified for Pro Tour: Valencia. For those of you unaware of the Magic Invitational, it’s sort of an all-star game tournament for just 16 players. What makes this unique tournament so special aren’t the players, but the formats. From the creative mind of Mark Rosewater springs some of the most fun and imaginative Magical formats. These formats have been chosen to highlight formats that the creators of Magic think are worth playing, but may not see sanctioned play or can’t be played online. The hope is that you’ll find some of these formats interesting enough to try them on your own and with your friends. The players are the lure to draw attention to the formats, not the other way around. It’s also a powerful and important reminder of Magic’s roots as a fun game beyond sanctioned play for profit.

My experience so far is a case in point. After Winston drafting Lorwyn quite a bit, I can safely say that I love it. Many of the elements I enjoy in Vintage are, to a surprising degree, represented in Limited: dynamic complexity and compressed, high impact, high opportunity cost decision-making. Lorwyn is already a fun set to draft, but if you are a fan of Limited, you have to give Winston draft a try.

So, the formats for the Invitational, which begins with the Deck Auction as this article goes live, are: Vintage, Bring Your Own Standard (any two blocks and any single base set using the Legacy and Block banned lists), Auction of the People, Lorwyn Winston Draft, and Cube Draft. Evan Erwin and Tom LaPille have both written about Cube, and you should read what they have to say. Mixing things up further, Wizards has announced that Lorwyn would be legal for the Standard and Vintage portions of the Invitational.

As a consequence of my preparation for the Invitational, I completely sacrificed Extended. The only testing I did for Extended before arriving in Valencia was one and half games playing Counterbalance against Zoo after the Lorwyn prerelease.

Having to learn four new formats demands a lot of work. You would have to think me a super human to have prepared thoroughly for the Pro Tour and learn four new formats for the Invitational. Some of the comments in the MTG.com forums in response to my feature match seem to assume as much. Preparing for the Pro Tour, even for one minute, was simply beyond the time I could fairly devote to Magic after my girlfriend, work, and friends.

As if testing and building for Bring Your Own Standard or Winston Drafting an entirely new set wasn’t time consuming enough, just testing most of the Auction decks has taken up well over 10 hours of my focused attention at this point.

The Imperfect Extended Storm

In lieu of genuine preparation, I ripped a TEPS decklist that Tom LaPille posted on our team boards and made only two minor changes to the sideboard. I included two Hunting Packs as a solution to Orim’s Chant. Most of the mana in the deck produces Green, and with Lotus Blooms Hunting Pack is eminently castable. It is a surprise if someone goes to Chant you and you respond at a crucial moment with Hunting Pack. Theoretically, you could also play it on the end of an opponent’s turn in which they played a critical mass of spells, untap, and kill them with beasts.

I also ran 4 Tormod’s Crypts in my sideboard for Dredge. I was surprised at the number of Pro Tour competitors who had not considered the merits of the standard 6-7 Leyline plan as a solution to Dredge. While many of the competitors ran Leyline of the Void, Leyline of the Singularity does much of the work that Leyline of the Void performs. Flame-Kin Zealot is no longer a win condition if Leyline of the Singularity is in play. The Bridge From Below tokens instantly destroy each other, and Narcomoebas and Ichorids become anemic.

The rest of my sideboard was standard Wish targets: Tendrils, Empty the Warrens, Channel the Suns, Sins of the Past, Duress, Eye of Nowhere, and the like.

Fortunately, since Friday of the Pro Tour was cancelled due to a flooding, I had an opportunity to actually test a half dozen or so games.

Playing TEPS is essentially puzzle-solving. Every game is a puzzle. Consider this game. You are on the draw against Dredge and they are ready to kill you next turn, their third turn.

Here’s your hand and board state:

In play: two untapped lands. A Geothermal Crevice and an Irrigation Ditch.

Here is your hand:

Chrome Mox
Chrome Mox
Seething Song
Burning Wish
Sins of the Past
Infernal Tutor
Mind’s Desire


You have a different number of puzzle components, both tools and obstacles. Against the decks that interact, you have to navigate your way around Spell Snares and Counterspells. Against the decks that don’t interact, you have to find the absolute quickest path to victory, often a turn or two before your Lotus Bloom finds its way out of suspended animation.

The sheer number of options means that you can find ways around most obstacles so long as you can produce enough mana. It’s very reminiscent of Vintage. This was the reason that teammates recommended the deck. They knew of my affinity for storm combo, and even the most complicated storm puzzles in TEPS is modest compared to average Vintage combo.

Attempting the Audible

On Friday night, a group of guys went out for a few drinks at a nearby bar. We had a blast hanging out with players from all over the globe. I decided in that hazy moment to audible into Counterbalance/Goyf.dec. The more I thought about it, the more “right” it felt. Over the last few weeks, I was telling my teammates that while they were suggesting TEPS, the Counterbalance deck just “felt” right.

First and foremost, Goyf/Counterbalance is essentially the direct equivalent of Vintage GroAtog in Extended (to which Tom LaPille replied with the comment “fair” on multiple occasions). Counterbalance is UBG. GroAtog is core UBG. Instead of Quirion Dryad you run Tarmogoyf. Instead of playing Tutors, you have Trinket Mage. And instead of running Gushes and other broken Vintage draw, you have Dark Confidant and Thirst. Instead of Force of Wills, Misdirections, Duress, and Red Elemental Blasts, you run Counterspells, Stifle, Counterbalance, and Venser. After this tournament, Venser’s value will reach new heights. The card is simply amazing. I’ve even found myself wondering about Vintage and Legacy applicability. Taking a spell off the stack is something nothing else does aside from Time Stop. Venser beats uncounterability. Venser can stop an Obliterate.

Second, TEPS may be a good deck, but had it ever actually won a tournament? It doesn’t matter how good any given set of matchups are if the deck has no realistic chance of winning a tournament once in Top 8.

Third, according the stats being posted on MTG.com, Counterbalance was the best performing deck in Extended.

Fourth, although TEPS is not a super-linear like Dredge, it isn’t nearly as flexible as the core Blue decks. Blue decks perform very well once they enter Top 8s primarily because they end up being the most flexible. The Enduring Ideal combo deck in the finals is a very good deck. However, the Counterbalance deck sees so many more cards. It has more options, more lines of play, even if those lines of play are less “objectively broken.” Venser, anyone?

Let me explain by way of analogy: Several people asked me before the PT began: “why didn’t you play Dredge?” or “what do you think of Dredge?” Without having any real knowledge of the operation of Dredge in Extended, I just said this:

“Dredge has a virtually unstoppable (by conventional means) and highly consistent turn 2 kill in Vintage. Dredge never wins Vintage tournaments.”

From those two points only one of two conclusions can be drawn: Vintage is faster than a consistent and unstoppable turn 2 kill or there is some huge flaw in the Dredge game plan that is causing it lose. While the old stereotype about Vintage being the land of turn 1 combos is not entirely false, it’s not true either. The problem lies with Dredge.

Here’s what Dredge does in Vintage:

Turn 1:
Bazaar of Baghdad.
Draw two, discard some cards.

Turn 2:
Upkeep, use Bazaar to dredge. Draw step Dredge. At this point you have anywhere from 17 to 20 cards in your graveyard. You’ll have hit some combination of Narcomoebas and Ichorids that will let you Therapy to generate more men with Bridge From Belows to Dread Return the Cephalid Sage.

The Cabal Therapies clear the way so that no combinations of counterspells can possibly stop the Dread Return.

And mana denial strategies do nothing. What good is Trinisphere against a deck that doesn’t have to play spells to win the game? Ichorids and Narcomoebas will quickly find their way into the red zone.

And yet, in spite of all of that, Ichorid never wins Vintage tournaments. If Ichorid can’t win under those conditions and with that sort of objective advantage, how could one think that Ichorid would be a good choice in Extended? Well, I think that assumption was burst as a result of this Pro Tour. No matter how “resilient” you build it, it’s just not a tournament winner. That doesn’t mean you can’t do well – you can, but it never wins large tournaments. The problem is that Ichorid is easily hated out. A vast majority of the field had some sort of Ichorid hate post-board. And that’s precisely how it plays out in Vintage. Ichorid wins almost every game 1, but loses almost every match. Go figure.

Finally, I found Tom LaPille, who initially had the extra cards so I could play Counterbalance/Goyf, but he sadly informed me that he had just loaned out the entire deck. I was stuck with TEPS.

And although I think the deck is actually a little bit too slow and definitely too inflexible to be a genuine tournament contender, even in the hands of an expert, it was a blast to play.

A Vintage View of the Pro Tour

Primarily, I come at Magic as a member of the Vintage community, and the broader Eternal community of which that community is a part. Each of our communities intersects, overlaps, interlinks, and interconnects with the patchwork of communities that agglomerate to constitute The Magic Community. The community I inhabit has many links to the Pro Tour, and many of our members have experience on the Pro Tour, but it is not something that is talked about or discussed frequently, so it is something of a mystery to me, despite being one of the few weekly Magic columnists. It is a giant domain of Magic experience that I know very little about. What would it be like? What would it feel like? I tried to anticipate, but the Pro Tour was both more and less than I expected.


The Pro Tour was more than I expected. Beyond the incredible set up that Wizards threw tons of cash at, the players were much more professional than I anticipated. I expected, perhaps unfairly, a greater degree of unprofessionalism and childish behavior, like people not cleaning up after themselves or making rude remarks such as the comments by JoshuaWLudyka in reply to my Lorwyn Set Review. Here’s what he wrote:

Perhaps you realize that as a “vintage expert” your time is up when you’re exposed as an embarrassment at the PRO TOUR. You can masquerade in your fake formats where the players are notoriously “loose.”. It will truly be a pleasure watching you struggle in Spain. It’s a joke that you were invited in the first place…

That reply was disheartening to read. The writer says it will truly be a pleasure watching me get beaten. What sort of personality “takes pleasure” from watching a person get beaten that he doesn’t even know?

In any case, I told him that I wouldn’t be embarrassed no matter my performance. Although I probably shouldn’t feel compelled to defend myself, I take such attacks personally if not viscerally. I explained to him that every win for me on the Pro tour was a sort of “immoral” victory since I could do no legitimate preparation in a format that I know Pro Teams spend weeks trying to unravel.

But enough of that. My point isn’t to highlight or give voice to that sort of commentary. Quite the opposite – I was impressed with the Pro Tour. I saw none of the childish, petty behavior. Perhaps it was the modesty that comes with fierce competition, but I think it was more than that.

Near the beginning of the tournament, I managed to run into Steve Sadin. Steve Sadin is possibly one of the nicest guys I’ve met in my Magic encounters. If you ever listen to the Top8 podcasts, you already know that the guy is a sweetie, but in real life it’s no different. Most of my interaction with Steve this weekend was awkward, but that was entirely my doing. I have a giant man crush on Mr. Sadin. He is for me precisely what a Pro level player should be: courteous and professional.

I don’t think Pro Tour players, or anyone for that matter, has a duty to be nice. But I do think that there should be some level of professionalism, particularly in public.

I told Steve that I listened to some of the Top8magic podcasts and I was most struck by how Flores sounds. I think Flores makes a lot of overbroad assertions or says things that don’t really add much to his commentary. For instance, he predicted that I would finish dead last in the Storyteller ballot. He also seems obsessed, at least in the few segments I listened to, with drawing up player hierarchies much in the way one might rank a Limited card pool. Both of those things are turn offs, at least to me. One of the reasons that Evan Erwin is so popular and so successful is that he manages to project a likeable and charismatic personality. I told Steve that if Mike did the same, I think he’d have a lot to gain. That doesn’t mean he has to be a nice guy, but his attitude and off-putting remarks do him no favors.

But beyond even the words he uses, his tone – the way he speaks in his podcasts – is painful for me. It’s interesting to hear Brian David Marshall and Steve Sadin defer to Flores when Mike makes a claim that is somewhat overbroad as a way of eliding a fight or coming at one from a softer angle.

As I told Steve all of this, he told me that Flores was “selling” an image. I’m not sure what image that might be, but there is a certain image that I think the Pro Tour could do without.

My assumption was that a lot of the bad behavior, name-calling, and snarkiness that I’ve seen from mid-level regular PT players is a consequence of age. Once people leave the student life and enter the business world, I think that there is a certain amount of growing-up that occurs. I just assumed that many Pros, being young, were fairly representative of the segment of the PT crowd that exhibits the negative qualities I described. I was happy to learn that I was wrong. Instead, what I observed in essentially 99.9% of the cases were respectful people who conducted themselves in a manner that I think comports with the standards for professional Magic players.

One interaction that left a bad taste in my mouth, however, was a comment made by Brian David-Marshall. I’ve always found BDM to be the consummate Magic professional. Just listen to him speak on the Top8magic podcasts or read his articles. When the Pro Tour was cancelled on Friday a highlight of my weekend was gunslinging with Brian in the makeshift hotel player’s lounge, and discussing my Invitational bid and preparation efforts.

At the end of the Pro Tour, as I was trying to round up my belongings and head out for Madrid, I ran into Brian and Randy Buehler near the security area. Brian wished me luck at the Invitational, but then moved closer to give me one piece of advice. He suggested that I tone down the chatter and exuberance in my feature matches. I asked him why he said that and he explained that he felt it hurt my play, adding that this was why I lost my feature match at GP: Columbus. When I reminded him that I won my feature match at GP: Columbus, he tilted his head backwards and squinted one eye skeptically. When I pressed on, reminding him that I beat David Gearheart in round 5, the feature match, he didn’t relent but said “there was something…” I reminded him that I forgot to have David take a point of damage to Disciple of the Vault after he blew Pernicious Deed. David ended up being at one life as a result for some time before I finally managed to eek out my game 2 victory.

I feebly tried to explain in the presence of Randy Buehler that Magic is a game of people. Personality is important. The personality we project has an influence on the mind of the people we play. Although this is a card game, it’s not solely about cards.

Brian’s comment may or may not be true. I don’t think it is. After my feature match, the feature match writer asked me if I was normally that talkative in my matches and I said “not usually.” Generally, I’m only talkative if it is a match that I am really excited about. My matches against the best players or in Top 8s tend to be of that order. My teammates have repeatedly described this trait as subtly intimidating and powerful. At various intervals over the past few years, we’ve spent some time and conducted some analysis discussing the psychological aspects of Magic.

In some ways I see myself as the opposite of the Poker player. I wonder if Magic has become so infused with poker milieu that we’ve lost sight of the fact that sitting stone faced (a.k.a. the poker face) in an effort to reveal as little information as possible may not actually be the best way to go about playing Magic.

Quite the contrary, I like to get excited. I exclaim when I’ve drawn a bomb or topdecked. I like to laugh at amusing, complex line of play I’ve stumbled across. I like to narrate the state of play. Hence the title of my column! I think this approach of exuberance enhances my game, gets me more focused and energized so that I gain psychological and motivational advantages, while also putting my opponents off balance. Even if they focus entirely on the cards, my personality becomes too big, too present to ignore. I am in their head (somewhere) whether they want me there or not. It’s true that I give away information, but not all information is giving your opponent an advantage. Quite the contrary, some information will lead them to second guess, make unwarranted assumptions, and play differently than they might be inclined to play against a quiet opponent.

Just as important, the degree of narration changes depending upon the deck I’m playing. Playing TEPS, there is very little room for bluffing. You either have it or you don’t. When I narrate the game, it strives to project a mental command over the game state. It is a way of framing the game state in a way that I see it. As many skilled debaters are aware, framing is key. It creates a common narrative that I share with my opponents.

Finally, more than a question of whether it helped or hurt, Magic is a game we play primarily because we enjoy it. The reason I play Magic is because I adore Vintage. One of the key reasons I enjoy Vintage is because it is so exciting. There are so many insane plays. The cards are busted and the archetypes dynamic and varied. You never know what’s going to happen. This was my first Pro Tour. When the round 3 feature match was announced, I couldn’t, nor should I have tried, to contain my delight. I was loving every second. I never had aspirations for playing on the Pro Tour – but there I was, my first Pro Tour, and I was already in a feature match playing a Hall of Famer. Why shouldn’t I enjoy it? I took nearly 80 hours off of work to travel to Europe to play Magic using up almost all of the vacation time I’d accumulated over the last year and a half. This was my vacation – not work. Why shouldn’t I do what makes me happy? Why stomp on my fun? Just because some people think Magic should be played with a poker face doesn’t mean that I agree. Perhaps, just perhaps, that is part of the problem with the Pro Tour vis-à-vis the Invitational. Perhaps that’s one of the reason that so many of you voted for Evan and I on the Invitational. You wanted to see something different. Although I was disappointed with the way the feature match played out, it was a consequence of the fact that:

Dredge beats TEPS virtually every game 1
My game 2 hand was solid but was predicated on me not continuing to draw lands. I couldn’t play the Infernal Tutor in my hand to combo out because I kept topdecking more Invasion lands. Hence my comment, “my deck hates me.”

Whether Brian’s comment is true or not, I felt it was rather unprofessional. If Brian was intent on giving me that particular piece of advice, there was a much better way to go about it.

The Pro Tour was also less than I expected. Beyond the strategies and card pool, beyond the place and format dynamics, beyond the player caliber, I thought for a long while trying to place the deep resonance I felt in playing on the Pro Tour. I was trying to think of the closest comparison to it. Undoubtedly any perception of the Pro Tour will be tinted by the opponents you faced, glossed by the deck you pilot, and augmented by the insularity of your own experience. Nothing seemed to ring true until Mike Ward, a PT competitor for South Carolina I roomed with, said that he thought this reminded him of Regionals. I’ve battled in two Regionals before in 2001 and 2002 and that is exactly what this felt like. I can’t explain why or how, but that’s the closest comparison I can muster.

It’s just another large tournament, but has a special name and is probably harder to get in than compete in. That’s a message I want to share to my many readers who have never attended the Pro Tour.

My Invitational Submission

Next week I’ll begin deconstructing my preparation for the Invitational and analyzing my performance.

But before I go, it’s time to unveil my submissions.

The runner up that I heavily considered was this:

Sacrifice –this-: copy target instant or sorcery with converted mana cost of 2 or less.

This card would be quite playable in Vintage. Copying Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, or Demonic Tutor seems quite powerful. However, I wanted something a little flashier, something with a little more pizzazz. Plus, I didn’t think that this card was any better than Dark Confidant or Meddling Mage, the two baseline awesome Invitational cards.

So here is my submission:

Twilight Tutor
As an additional cost to play Twilight Tutor, you must pay either G, U, W, or R.
If you paid G, search your library for a land or a creature; if you paid U, search your library for an instant; if you paid W, search your library for an artifact or enchantment; if you paid R, search your library for a Sorcery. Put that card in your hand. Shuffle your library.

The response to this card has ranged from shock to amusement. I think this card is inferior to both Grim Tutor and Merchant Scroll in Vintage from an objective perspective, and is probably most similar to Burning Wish.

First of all, you can’t Dark Ritual this card. That automatically makes it limited for storm combo purposes.

Second of all, one of the things that makes Merchant Scroll so good and Lim-Dul’s Vault unplayed in Vintage is the fact that you can go Mox, Land Scroll. The dual colors mean that this is going to be a turn 2 play in Vintage, which makes it slower than either Grim Tutor or Merchant Scroll.

Third, you have to play Black to support it, and not just Black, so although it’s a rainbow card, not every deck can or will play it.

I think it is strongest as a general utility tutor rather than as a raw combo part. Think Burning Wish in Extended. I think this card would be very good in Extended, but right to the edge of fair.

My hope is that it would see some play in Legacy and Vintage.

I can offer no comment as to its utility in Standard.

Beyond the analysis of its power, I think that one of the things that is so alluring about this card is its flavor. It’s flexible and multi-color. I think it would be a huge hit, popularity wise. So there it is.

Wish me luck this weekend.

Until next time,

Stephen Menendian