Stories And Strategy From Pro Tour Prague

RGD Lessons from Pro Tour: Prague!

Jeroen went into Pro Tour Prague with a clear head and definite plans. He knew the colors he wanted, and he hoped to make Top 8. Unfortunately, his plans backfired… and his head wasn’t clear for long. In this enlightening report, Jeroen shares the sights, sounds, and smells from the Pro Tour Lounge. He also gives us some of the tips he picked up from rocking the side drafts. Wanna sample the true Pro experience? Then read on…

While checking my email for my weekly column (send your letters to [email protected]), I found the following:

What’s the best way to avoid catching infectious diseases when traveling with a sick, withering individual? Is there some way to be sure that you won’t catch the plague from the infectious host?

Also, what’s the best way to piss someone off so that he wants to fight you when he’s trying to hit on chicks in a club?

John from Brooklyn

Now, this is clearly an inside joke, and to be honest I was tempted to run it anyway, since the stories I get to tell from Pro Tour Prague are so awesome. Then Ted Knutson started bugging me about writing a report, despite not doing well. He was there for a lot of the preparation, and knew that I was enjoying the format. The combination of having some insights about the format, as well as some great stories, prompted me to write something I have never written before: a report about a tournament at which I performed badly. I’ll be sharing some strategic tips, and I’ll try to explain what “John from Brooklyn” is hinting at in the process…

It all started long before the PT, when all of us found out the tournament involved drafting with Dissension. This meant we had a very tight timeframe to do anything at all. We were all staying in Hawaii (in the Beach House) at the time, and the decision was made to try and set up a second colony somewhere in Prague – or even in my own country, the Netherlands. As usual, it proved impossible to get Magic players motivated to do anything concrete. As I was trying to set this up, no one would actually commit to anything. My good friends John Fiorillo and Craig Krempels were checking out air tickets at that same time, and found out that it didn’t cost much more to fly to the Netherlands before going to Prague. I told them to just do that, since we would be sure to be drafting round these parts. They booked the flight.

A week later, I talked to my Dutch colleagues about the plans for Prague preparation. I contacted Julien [Nuijten], and learnt that people would be drafting at his place the week before the Pro Tour (because his mom was on vacation). I was invited to attend. This was great, as drafting with the best Dutch pros is always good preparation, but then I found out Julien has a cat…

Immediate flashbacks hit me, reminding me of the time we tested at Olivier Ruel place. He had received a cat for his birthday.

If you have ever seen an uneven battle in Magic — something like, say, Owling Mine versus Zoo – let me tell you, it is nothing compared to my allergies versus the smallest, cutest little pussycat you’ll ever see. I literally die as soon as I set foot in a room that a cat has occupied for five minutes ten days previous, so staying at a place where there was going to be a cat, and drafting indoors for days, was sadly not an option. I tried to get the guys that were staying at Julien’s house to draft elsewhere – somewhere I could breathe, preferably – but they were very unwilling… and so that plan was a no-go. Bollocks.

This meant that I had to find a different place to prepare for the PT, and I had picked up two buddies as well… I had made the plans with John, and Julien said he’d rather test with his own teammates than my friends, and he had eight people already. Luckily I know a lot of people, and plans were quickly re-made, as I heard Anton Jonsson, Johan Sadegpour, and the entire Scandinavian army formerly known as Punisher was going early to Prague to test and draft all day. They also needed at least two or three people to get their number up to eight, which was perfect.

We set up a new colony in downtown Prague. Anton, Johan et al had rented an apartment through some company Nicolai Herzog had found. We quickly did the same, making sure we would be close by.

After that was set up, my trip basically started Monday morning. I was supposed to meet up at Amsterdam Airport with Craig and John, who would fly in at around 8am. I booked us a flight out around midday, which would give us plenty of time to meet up and grab some food. Everything worked out as planned, and I quickly found the pair sitting at Burger King, watching SNL’s best of Will Ferrell on John’s Laptop. I then bought Ted a Dutch Soccer Team Jersey, which he asked me for, and we headed to the gate.

That was the thing about Ted's new job... the money was great, but the uniform SUCKED.

I booked our flight with a budget airline; we have a lot in Europe these days. I had waited so long to book that this was our only option. The gate looked budget, to say the least, as it was abandoned when we got there… not a single person, no plane, nothing. This was only an hour before the flight. The plane then rolled up, as we could see through the windows, and it actually looked like it was made of plastic, with in huge orange letters the name of the company on the side, Smartwings. Of course, flying an airline with the name that sounds like a crappy superhero didn’t strike confidence in my buddies’ hearts. This got worse when the airplane was stripped of the on-board phones. There were empty holes in the seats in front of you, and even pieces of carpet missing.

John quickly fell asleep, and Craig and I both pulled out a book from our backpacks. Craig loves pretending he is very smart, and was reading Dostoyevski. I, of course, one-upped him… by pulling out my copy of Mike Flores Deckade.

Let’s be honest… who’s smarter there?

It was at that point that Craig told us both about how he had hung out with Jon Sonne the day before. Apparently, Mr Sonne was coughing non-stop that day, having been sick for at least a month without doing anything about it. Craig was afraid he’d caught something, as he had a nasty cough already. We told him not to worry, as he had a bigger chance of dying during the flight than from anything Sonne might have given him.

Luckily, we did survive the flight, and arrived in beautiful Prague. I had arranged for a car to ferry us to out apartment, and against all expectations the driver actually stood there waiting for us (with a little sign saying Remie). He was under the assumption that we were all Dutch, so wasn’t particularly talkative. That is, until he found out that John and Craig were American, and then he went completely crazy.

It turned out that our driver was one of the biggest America Barns we had ever seen, and between talking about Johnny Cash’s Walk the Line, putting on said CD when we admitted we didn’t mind Johnny’s tunes, and almost crashing the car yelling “DO IT, DO IT” in regards to Starsky and Hutch… he still found enough time to pretend to be a Dragon, once again emulating his great American movie idols. The ride was only bettered by the fact that the apartment was next door to was an actual game store called Outpost! This trip was gearing up nicely.

By this point, Craig started coughing up some gray and green stuff. He figured he really had caught an illness from Sonne. We then did what is always a surefire way to find your friends in a strange city: we wandered around outside. It took us 10 minutes to find Nicolai Herzog, ambling through the streets with one Simon Carlsson. They are both full-blown Poker Pros now, and were just here for old time’s sake (and to have a fun time hanging out with buddies). Simon was actually qualified, because he miraculously turned out to be a Level 3 member of the Pro Player’s Club… but Nico wasn’t.

During the day we picked up Tomi Walamies, Anton, and Johan. That was eight, and we started drafting. That means I’ll take a break from storytelling and head right into the strategy part of this report.

This format is very tricky. You will often try and cut colors in the first pack, only to discover that this didn’t matter as your neighbor moved into those colors because of their first picks. This means that there is no real way for you to force or command a draft, and you need to read what is coming pack by pack.

I didn’t like this at all, and devised a draft strategy to make sure I could dictate my own draft instead of being dependant. What it came down to was start drafting with the plan to force RGU. This meant that in pack 1 you could (mostly) pick up all the good cards, as Black seems much worse as a color in RGD. It’d also ensure you were in good position. The guilds in pack 1 are not very good in the abstract; Selesnya wants to have a theme that is made impossible by the other sets (Convoke needs lots of tokens and lots of convoke cards, which are almost impossible to get from one booster), and the other guilds are sub-par due to mana issues. Green and Blue have the best mono-color cards in Ravnica, and are what you will mostly pick up. Then in pack 2 you will get two guilds to choose from, which means you will always get something. The Gruul cards are fine with Graft in the last set, and will come most of the time, and the Izzet cards are simply the best of all the guilds. This means that you’ll always get something in pack 2.

In pack 3 you get to pick from the best guild, Simic, as well as the great mono Blue, Red, and Green cards. The best part about this strategy is that it is very flexible, since Green means you will always have a way to splash other colors if you open bombs, and you can always drop one of your colors if you have to.

I decided I wanted to draft this during our first drafts during prerelease weekend back home, and I figured this was the perfect time to work it out, test it, and see if my assumptions were correct. It worked perfectly, as I did really well in all the test drafts, sometimes losing to Nicolai, who won most of the test drafts (ironically), or Simon, who really didn’t care for manabases and just played every playable he saw (which was pretty annoying, let me tell you.). I never went worse then 2-1 though, so I had a lot of hope for the Pro Tour.

Here are some tips I figured out before, during, and after the PT, about the RGD draft format in general and RUG in particular:

Draft a Curve
In general RUG, Signets aren’t very good, as you want to put as much pressure on your opponent as possible. This means drafting two- and three-drops, so you can curve out successfully. Turn 2 Signet, turn 3 Assault Zeppelid is a good start, but having a hand full of four- and five-drops against an opponent that plays multiple spells each turn is suicidal.

Watch Your 5-Drops
I have noticed this a lot: the best creatures in your deck are all five-drops. Streetbreaker Wurm, Ogre Savant, Bramble Elemental, Izzet Chronarchs, Helium Squirters… the list is endless. This means that if you stick to the best card every single time, you will eventually end up with a very clunky and slow deck. Sometimes you have to suck it up and pick that Sell-Sword Brute.

Pick Your Colors Early
When drafting the RGU archetype, you will always want to be a combination of two colors with a third as a mere splash. If you pick up two early Viashino Fangtails, this means that you will be mainly GR splashing the Blue power cards. Don’t get trapped in the last booster by taking early Coiling Oracles and such, since your manabase will not be able to support it. Know what is a splash, and what is not.

Don’t Overestimate Cool Plays and Combos
In a lot of drafts, people get excited by a cool combo like Dowsing Shaman and Seal of Fires, or similar. In reality, this never really works out (unless you are Raphael Levy). The format is all about trading now, and playing a five-mana card that you’ll never risk in an attack or block (such as the Dowser) with put you so far behind in tempo. Even if you do manage a Shock every turn, you can’t really win. This is, of course, still a great combo in the late game if the board is stable, so don’t avoid playing it… but don’t over-depend on it, and don’t be afraid to simply trade or block with that Shaman.

Synergy Over Power, Always
This is taking that Sell-Sword Brute when you have to, but it’s also a little more complicated than that. When you have a deck that is heavy on the Bloodthirst and Graft, it is often better to take a card like Simic Initiate or Aquastrand Spider over “better” cards like Simic Ragworm. Of course, it’s the other way around when you have an Ocular Halo and a Hypervolt Grasp in your deck.

But I am starting to drift off here. Back to the report…

Vomiting for fun and profit

During all this, Craig’s eye had started to get infected (adding another thing to his list of illnesses). We needed to hit a pharmacy, and quick. There, after hours of standing in the wrong lines and trying to make people understand us, we got one-dollar eye drops. We had little faith in Craig ever making the next day. This was the point that we started calling him the disease carrier, or Infectious Host. We are Gamers, and what we do is rub it in and kick people when they are down.

Wednesday rolled around, and we had made plans to go out, but as Craig was sick and I really wanted to get up early and be fit for the PT, I decided to keep Craig company indoors. John then came back with plenty of stories. He’d been out with Jelger, Ruud, Antonino, Osyp, Justin Gary, and a bunch of others, to one of the local clubs. Apparently, he was then hitting on what can only be described as a perfect female specimen; people that know John know that he has the magic to handle these situations. Of course, right at the moment that John was “closing the deal,” he was pushed in the back by his good friend Antonino. Ant poked him and pulled him and threw his jacket in his face, to show John that the group was leaving and he was expected to come with.

Let me tell you, John wasn’t happy.

For the next couple of days, every time he saw one of the people from the group, all he could do was curse and mumble under his breath… “With friends like that who needs enemies?”

Apparently, this wasn’t the first time his “friends” had failed him in this regard, as Osyp himself had already “blocked” him on many an occasion.

Thursday was the player meeting, and after some more drafts Craig finally started feeling a little better… as he seemed to have passed some of his illness of to John, who had been sleeping next to him all these days. We had some beers, and after some chats headed back pretty early since it was far too hot and we wanted a lot of sleep before the PT.

I started out well at the PT, first-picking a Transluminant over Brainspoil. I ended up with a passable GRU deck, just as planned. My draws were sub-optimal in round 3, and that’s how I ended up going 2-1… mainly due to my second pick Savage Twister (which happened because I passed all that Black).

The second draft was horrible.

I opened Tolsimir Wolfblood, which is obviously fine… but then, when I started drafting GUrw, there were no early drops and my deck turned out to be far too slow. I couldn’t have done anything about it, they just weren’t there, and despite getting some Signets I got tempoed out in my next two matches, ending my PT early once again.

I feel like I should have been more flexible in my colors, as what I had learned during my practice drafts could well have been the result of inbred drafting, and the fact that my draft-mates knew exactly what I was up to.

After my quick drop from the tournament, I made a killing in the Side Drafts, going x-1 versus various opposing teams, with (usually) Craig and Billy Moreno on my side. Craig and John had both also failed to make Day 2. John had the worst story, as he started out his first draft 3-0 and then lost to Frank Karsten and Neil Reeves, before losing the last round to bad draws. The fact that John’s deck was very strong made him feel even worse.

We decided to drown our sorrows and go out on Saturday night to cheer us up. Craig, John, Justin Gary, Osyp, and I went out for dinner after Day 2 was over, and ended up at a Chinese place. I sent an SMS to Jelger to find out where he and the others were partying, and he directed us to a Club near the old town bridge. Upon arriving, we quickly figured this was the place to be, as there was a huge line outside.

Being the smooth talker that he is, Osyp proceeded to get us in the place while bypassing the line (yes, money was involved), and we quickly met up with the others. Of course, party animal Mark Herberholz was there, despite not being in his best form since his life companion Sam Gomersall was asleep at the hotel, as was Rich Hoaen. However, the man known as the Great White Hype, Dave Grant, was there in full effect. He tells everyone that wants to know that, besides being a huge party animal, he is the Next Big Thing to hit the Pro Tour Scene.

All I know is he is good times, and if the man wants me to mention him, he’s got it.

He’d brought some British drinking buddies with him, and it was clear that these guys had been going at it for a while. We got things started by drinking a great deal, and after downing a shot of Absinthe, most of the guys fell of the planet. The Dutchies appeared soon after; one thing led to another, and most people were embarrassed, hurt, or otherwise emotionally scarred. Even Gadiel and the Cack showed up, making the best of the fact that, for once, they were of legal age: they laughed at all the drunk Dutchies doing their best to look like idiots.

Being as drunk as I was, I passed on the more sordid opportunities of the evening, and fell asleep around 7.30am… only to be woken up around 10am because we were supposed to leave the apartment by 11. Let me tell you, after being that drunk, waking up still being drunk is the last thing you want, and the trip home was a disaster for all involved. We took a bus to the airport, flew back on some smart wings, and finally arrived home again… despite having a little souvenir, courtesy of Jon Sonne. Craig, John, myself, and almost everyone else I’ve mentioned has been sick for at least a week. That was not fun at all.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my regular scheduled column, with more strategy for all y’all out there. Keep in touch on [email protected].


PS: Yes, I know: the PT lifestyle is the best… (hehe!)