I had exhausted all my options not three days before decklists were due for Mythic Championship III. My fate was sealed as I opted into playing Brian Braun-Duin’s take on Esper Hero. You see, I wanted to play a variety of other things, but The Bald-Headed Brawler kept dismantling me with his deck, cackling the entire time. When it comes to Magic, I always subscribe to the “If you can’t beat them…” mentality, and I was definitely not beating the basement-dweller that sat opposite of me.
Our take on Esper Hero did come with some risks for this tournament. Around the time of deck submission, Esper Control variants started popping up that seemed poised to win mirrors. They were filled with multiple copies of Search for Azcanta, The Elderspell, and Command the Dreadhorde all in the maindeck. This density of great cards in Esper mirrors meant that our matchup against them was abysmal, as it was almost impossible to win Game 1s. Even if we had a slight advantage in sideboarded games, we’d always need to win both of them to take the matches.
I was scared of Esper Control but didn’t expect too many copies to be played as I found the Esper variant underwhelming against most green decks which I expected to be played in high numbers.
My heart sank when I saw this metagame breakdown, as I realized my fate was tied to how many Esper Control decks made it to Day 2. Why was this relevant, you may ask? Well it’s because both Brian and I were already into Day 2 of the competition thanks to winning our divisions in MPL Weekly Play. That meant only twelve players would make it through to Day 2 of the competition, as four MPL Division winners were already there waiting for them. Seth Manfield and Kai Budde, two of our teammates, also registered the same deck, which meant they would have to navigate through the rocky waters of Day 1 to meet us there.
I was still in high spirits even though one of our bad matchups was 25% of the field. I just didn’t think the Esper Control build was that good of a deck. I wouldn’t register this exact 75 again knowing what I know now, but I’d still play Esper Hero if I had to play the tournament again. I would’ve just had a couple more cards in the maindeck that were good in the mirrors.
I simply believe that Hero of Precinct One is the best way to build the deck, as the other versions are too exploitable given the opponent never has to worry about the aggressive element. I know there are many who disagree with this, but we’re at the end of this specific format so it doesn’t really matter anymore. Plus it’s not like I’m going to play this deck anymore. With one week of Fandom/Red Bull tournaments left, I’ve decided to just play Sultai variants and have some fun.
We were the only players in the tournament who played Elite Guardmage over Basilica Bell-Haunt. I’ve written a ton about this choice in the past, and if you’ve ever watched Brian’s stream you know he’s gotten the question a time or two, so I’ll be brief about this:
Basilica Bell-Haunt is a better card in the mirror and sometimes against Nissa, Who Shakes the World, but that’s about it. The discard doesn’t matter sometimes, and other times can be a serious detriment to the deck when facing off against Izzet Phoenix or Gruul with Nullhide Ferox. Elite Guardmage also works better in Esper Hero as the deck is trying to gain velocity as much as possible.
Esper Hero plays a lot of cards that are good, but not great. It’s a deck full of decent cards and amazing answers to powerful threats. A ton of games come down to having answers when they are needed and a constant stream of card advantage. Eventually most opponents will only have a small handful of cards that are good off the top of their deck while the rest of their cards have little-to-no effect. Elite Guardmage is much better in these games, as the deck is trying to mitigate flood by drawing into more spells before the opponent can find their small handful of game-changers.
This is also one of the reasons why we played Hostage Taker. The Human Pirate helps mitigate flood as you’re casting your opponent’s cards. It also works really well in Esper Hero, as you have seven spells that can return it to your hand, allowing you to get more and more of your opponent’s creatures to fight for you. Not playing Hostage Taker in a deck with Teferi, Time Raveler and Tyrant’s Scorn just seems wrong to me, especially if you expect to play against Izzet Phoenix, Gruul Midrange, Mono-White Aggro, anything with Hydroid Krasis, or even Mono-Red Aggro for that matter. The card’s just great in this deck!
Ever since Brian and I both won our divisions, I started referring to Day 1 of this tournament as “my favorite day of 2019.” How would it not be? I get to sit in a hotel room with my best friend while we watch an entire day of amazing coverage of a tournament we’ve already advanced in. Of course it’s crazy we got such an advantage in the first place, but no sense in worrying about that in the moment. I’d just be kicking my feet up and relaxing as we watched everyone else scratch and claw for their chance to join us on Day 2.
My “perfect day” got interrupted when they asked us to come in for interviews, including a live segment with Maria Bartholdi (what a prosperous request!). Now I’d have to miss rounds of the tournament to walk maybe ten minutes’ worth to the tournament area and then talk into a camera with one of my favorite coverage personalities?! Did they not know how important this day was for me?!
Walking into the player’s lounge on Day 1 was an emotional experience for me, though. So many players had taken rough starts, and the stress and tension could be felt in the air. Until then, I may have taken my hard-earned bye into Day 2 for granted, but that washed away when I saw firsthand how the tournament was going. No matter what you say about these events, they’re stressful on the players. There’s just so much on the line that every match carries so much weight. I almost felt ashamed of being in the room, as if I was mocking the players with my very presence. Brian told me it was all in my head, but I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could just so I did not disturb the other competitors.
That said, I had a ton of fun doing my interviews and Brian and I went back to our hotel room to continue watching the coverage. By the time we got back, the matches were coming down to who would advance. These were the important matches for us, as it would give us an idea of who we would have to play against, and also opportunities to root against Esper Control players. Again, not the worst matchup, but I’d rather them all not make Day 2, as I felt like our deck was great against the rest of the field.
While some Esper Control decks did make it into Day 2, Kai did as well, which was awesome! We tested against the few matches we wanted more information about and then eventually met up with Kai to do one final sideboard meeting for the remaining thirteen players in the field.
I should have taken a less “GOATesque” picture, but this is what I have to work with…
I was finally ready to battle. I got to the site just in time for them to announce the brackets. Sadly, they didn’t give them to us the night before, but that’s honestly a good thing, since it would have given the four of us who didn’t play on Day 1 a competitive edge, as we’d be able to test our matchups the night before while everyone else would be too tired to do so after an exhausting day at the office.
Brian and I were not too happy, as we saw what I called “bracket hell.” Both of us would have to face off against one of the remaining four Esper Control decks as well as run of playing it a second time in Round 2. Sadly, that’s exactly what happened to Brian, as he lost his match to Marcio Carvalho, and then a mirror to Kai Budde. Weeks of testing, days spent in Vegas, and now Brian was yet again eliminated from an event after only two rounds.
I know that’s the system and I know he already had such an advantage being in Day 2 already, but it still sort of sucks, you know? Not complaining or anything, but I just didn’t want to see my best buddy go out like that again. I mean, he is leading the MPL in Mythic Points and just Top 8’ed his very first Mythic Championship in London, so I don’t feel too bad for the guy! In the end he was a little disheartened, but he took it in stride as he quickly transitioned into support for Kai, Shahar, and me.
Luckily that wasn’t my fate. In my first round, I found myself beating John Rolf on Esper Control. In Game 3, I had the option of spending my energy interacting with either Search for Azcanta or Narset, Parter of Veils. The enchantment is obviously a bigger threat, but the upside of allowing John to transform it was that I could go all in on The Elderspell plus Teferi, Hero of Dominaria on my seventh turn, which would almost certainly win me the game. I took this line, as I thought I’d have a higher chance of beating his top five cards instead of his entire deck at that point, and it worked out for me – I started exiling his lands until he conceded.
In Round 2, I faced Shouta Yasooka on what I considered the best deck in the entire tournament.
I actually beat Shouta in Game 1, which made me feel really good, but that feeling went away quickly. In Game 2, I was way ahead and getting excited until Bolas’s Citadel entered the battlefield on Turn 6. I never even took my sixth turn, as Shouta put seven unique permanents onto the battlefield before I emoted “GG” and packed it in.
Luckily for me, I was able to control the pace of Game 3 with Hero of Precinct One, which gave be the opening to once again combine The Elderspell with Teferi to give myself a huge advantage. Shouta continued to play it out until I was able to combine the two cards, once again allowing me to exile all his lands.
I mean it when I say Shouta most likely brought the best deck to the tournament. I really don’t even know how Kai and I both beat him, but that’s what happened. I’d be shocked if Shouta wasn’t a little disheartened by his finish, as he really showed just how amazing he is at building decks. It’s also a rough go for him, as I’ve become his kryptonite over the years (but more on that later…).
The last person standing in my way for Top 4 was Matias Leveratto. Our paths to this tournament were, frankly, as opposite as one could get. Thanks to being in the MPL, I was invited to this tournament, and thanks to MPL Weekly, I got a pass all the way to Day 2. That’s not even close to what Matias had to do to get here. He ranked up through Mythic on Magic Arena, played in the two-day MCQ to qualify, and battled his way through Day 1 of the competition to be in this exact spot.
Luckily for me, Matias played a little defensively against me in the match and I was able to string together enough spells to win it. With this win, I was locked into Top 4 and with it a chance for glory. Shahar had already clenched his slot in the Top 4 as well, so then we got to watch Kai win a couple of matches to get his seat.
When the dust settled, three of the Top 4 were from the same testing group and I couldn’t have been happier to be one of them!
I was stoked to make Top 4, so I decided to go celebrate and there’s no better place to do that than Vegas, baby! I went out for supper with Eric Froehlich, Cedric Phillips, and Brian Braun-Duin at a nice steakhouse. After that, the four of us really lit things up by spending almost a whole hour at a blackjack table before calling it a night. That’s right, I was out until the sun went down! 8:45pm to be exact. Finally, I took myself a nice bath and read a chapter in my book before falling asleep.
They say to never meet your idols, but they must not have idolized Kai Budde. As a tryhard myself, Kai was always my driving force before I got onto the Pro Tour. Sure, he stopped playing for a while right when I started, but I heard stories upon stories of his prowess. I read old match write-ups, tournament reports, and pretty much anything I could get my hands on. Players in my local store would characterize people as either a Kai or a Finkel and I was proud to say I was a Kai.
I met him in 2010 when we played in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Amsterdam. Me, a kid playing in his sixth Pro Tour, and him, the greatest of all time back on the game’s greatest stage after taking many years off from playing. I was terrified of having to face the guy who doesn’t lose on Sunday, but he never leveraged the fact that I was so nervous. Instead, he was calm, collected, and one of the nicest opponents I’d ever had up to that point.
After countless top decks, the match ended with an upset victory in my favor after initially being down 0-2. It was a memory I’d never forget and a moment in time I never thought I’d get to relive. No matter what direction my Magic career would go, I’d always being able to look back on that match and smile.
Nine years later I once again face Kai on the Sunday stage, and for him a back-to-back pairing against me, as Amsterdam was his last time there. Seriously, how crazy is that? I’d say this was scripted if I didn’t live it myself! Once again Kai and I would do Sunday battle, but this time we were both jaded old men and seasoned veterans of the game. We were teammates. We were friends.
The games looked exciting on camera, but Esper Hero mirrors are really just topdeck wars. I got the good end of it the first time we played and did so again the second time as well. That’s right – I beat Kai twice on this day, which accounts for 60% of his Sunday losses in Magic. Honestly, I wish it were in a different matchup, as I know just how random this mirror is, but at the same time I’ll gladly take it!
People may have been calling me “Kai’s Kryptonite” this past weekend, but honestly, I just got lucky in some very important matches. He’s still the greatest of all time in my eyes and I’ll forever cherish these opportunities to share the battlefield with him.
Honestly, the match is still fresh in my mind, and I don’t think I can really go into detail about it. I didn’t like the way I played, my nerves got to me, and everything lined up perfectly to inflict the most pain on me possible. The first match win, the Opt, the topdecked Nissa…
Ugh, this happy-cry is about to take a 180. I bet it made for some great entertainment, though!
I’m not bitter or anything. It’s just a tough pill to swallow, that’s all. Matias played great, chose a wonderful deck, and is a deserving champion. He’s also a really great guy, which I came to know after playing literally 50% of my matches against him at the Mythic Championship. That’s right, I played a total of eight matches this past weekend, and four of them were against Matias. Crazy, right?
In the end, Mythic Championship III will go down as my greatest Magic accomplishment to date, as it’s by far my biggest win. I’m so happy with how I finished, and I couldn’t be happier for Matias, who looks to be well on his way to etching his name in the history books as a seasoned professional.
As for me, I’m well on my way to having a great season and hoping to get to Worlds the hard way. Winning the finals would have locked that up, but my story never ends with that big win. My story is filled with near-wins on a pursuit for mastery. After all, success doesn’t mean anything if you can’t do it again, and again, and again.
Trust me. I’ll do it again.