This will either be one of the hardest or easiest articles I’ve ever had to write. I don’t know which one it will be yet. I guess we’ll find out together.
It seems like only yesterday that I sat down at my kitchen table helping Brad Nelson prepare for last year’s #SCGPC. I wasn’t qualified, and watching him win was incredibly bittersweet. It was the first time I had really ever helped someone prepare for a tournament I wasn’t qualified for. A sense of both pride and jealousy swept over me as I watched him take home the trophy, and I swore that I’d be there alongside him next year.
I can’t describe what it felt like, week in and week out, to travel to Magic tournaments. The long nights and early mornings came and went like they always did, flooding my body with alcohol and Red Bull. It was certainly a great year, both in terms of memories and results, but it is not exactly the type of life I’d wish on anyone else. I feel as if I’ve aged ten years in the last three, and I truly appreciate the sheer will it must take to be a commercial driver.
What I will remember from this year is willing a dream to come true. While a dream of battling in the #SCGPC isn’t quite the same as a dream of world peace, it is a dream that I knew was tangible. And in my small monkey-sphere, it was one of the things that mattered most. Recognition from peers inside the game I love and a heavy chunk of change was enough motivation to push me harder and harder as the year came to an end. I’ve been playing at the top of my game over the last few months, and all I wanted was a chance to prove it.
But what does winning the #SCGPC matter if I’m not even playing on the Pro Tour? The sacrifices I had to make earlier in the year in order to qualify for the #SCGPC were brutal. At one point, I actually skipped a Regional PTQ for an Open. On many occasions, I leaned heavy on Opens over Grand Prix, even flying to Kansas City when there was a Grand Prix in driving distance.
Of course, you could argue that this sacrifice wasn’t really a sacrifice. In all honesty, I’m deathly afraid of failure. I know that the SCG Tour® is “safe,” where my history on the Pro Tour isn’t exactly a shining success. Pro Tours and the occasional Grand Prix are the only times where I ever need to play Limited, which means I don’t play Limited more than a few times a year. I don’t like Prereleases. I don’t like to Draft all that much. I absolutely hate Sealed Deck more than any other format, and am regularly disgusted when a MOCS or Grand Prix within driving distance forces me to open six booster packs and get to work.
So it seems only natural that I would be drawn to the SCG Tour® and all that it has to offer. Each weekend, I get to play one of the three formats I love for a large cash prize. While the SCG Tour® isn’t the Pro Tour, it does give me a stage to stand on. I try to tell myself that I don’t mind being a big fish in a small pond, but the truth is that it does bother me from time to time. I wonder what my place is in the Magic community, and if I will ever ascend to the top on the Pro Tour circuit. If that answer is “no,” then I hope I can comfortably live with it. If the answer is “yes,” then I hope I am strong enough to go out and take it.
I know that I am a solid player across many formats, but I also know my limitations. Overcoming those limitations has always been my goal, but it is much more difficult when incentives exist for me to ignore them. Becoming a better Limited player is so much harder when there is so little incentive for me to play any Limited at all. I envy those who are naturally gifted at Magic. Those who can “see between the lines,” and those who learn through a multitude of practice and go about the game in entirely different ways. I know that, in the past, I’ve learned to become a better player through experience, whether that means format or deck of choice. This Standard season, I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy into Jeskai Black. I’ve lost my fair share of matches with the archetype, but each week I feel like I’m getting closer and closer to solving the puzzle. But in actuality, the puzzle isn’t one we can solve, as the size and shape of the pieces are constantly in flux.
So maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s my strength: I get to look at the box and see what I’m supposed to be building, and I only have so much time to get it as close to right as I can. Sometimes that means cutting most of your win conditions. Sometimes that means playing a few more. Metagaming with a deck like Jeskai Black is rather difficult, because many of the pieces are so polarizing. Some weeks, a creature like Monastery Mentor or Mantis Rider can feel like the worst card in your deck. At other times, it will feel like you can’t possibly lose when you cast it. The supporting cast also has to change based on your card selections, and your manabase must be built to sustain all of those changes.
From week to week over the last two months, I’ve been deep on Jeskai Black in many forms. Many people thought I was crazy for cutting Mantis Rider. Others complained that they got too many unintentional draws with my list. Well, I didn’t make that version of the deck for you. I made it for me, and I know that one of my strengths is how fast I can play just about any deck.
Just over a week ago, Gerry Thompson and I were staying in a hotel room in Las Vegas, preparing for the #SCGINVI, working on Jeskai Black. A lot of what Gerry had to say made sense, but my gut told me that a few of the things he wanted to change weren’t where I wanted to end up with the deck. And if I’ve learned anything over the last few months, it’s that I should trust myself. After coming up with a great sideboard plan for Abzan Aggro that featured Monastery Mentor, we headed to bed.
Fast forward two hours later, and I’m wide awake thanks to some nerves and a little bit of snoring from another roommate. If Abzan Aggro was going to be popular, why shouldn’t I be playing Monastery Mentor in my maindeck? After a bit of tinkering, I came up with the following list.
I went 7-1 with the above list, along with two copies of Arashin Cleric in the sideboard, losing only to Ross Merriam’s Abzan Aggro deck. What you didn’t see was me defeating Abzan Aggro five other times in the tournament, with a lot of the credit going to Monastery Mentor. In all honesty, Monastery Mentor should have probably been in the deck all along, acting as both a realistic clock and a means to pressure Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Alongside big draw spells like Treasure Cruise and Painful Truths, you can keep the hits coming, making more and more tokens and attacking for an unprecedented amount of damage.
After that weekend, I received a phone call from Brad Nelson, telling me that he was finally going to play Jeskai Black. Sweeter words these ears have never heard. All I’ve wanted for months was just one other person in our playgroup to jump on board with the deck. One person who could throw some input into the mix. Aside from Gerry Thompson’s wisdom on the night before the #SCGINVI, this was the first time since I picked up the deck where I really had someone to talk to about it. Michael Majors and his writing were huge in helping me regain faith in the archetype, giving me the courage to build a version that leaned heavily on Soulfire Grand Master, but now I had one of my best friends on board and willing to put a lot of work into the deck. And since I had just locked up an invite to the #SCGPC, there was no better time for it.
We quickly realized that Monastery Mentor was the key to beating Abzan Aggro. Having a cheap threat that could kill Gideon without too much effort, as well as providing blockers for all of their non-trampling minions was a boon. Tasigur, the Golden Fang was no longer necessary, as it gave them a juicy target for Abzan Charm while also putting more pressure on the graveyard than I would have liked. If you play Tasigur, that means less Treasure Cruise/Dig Through Time/Murderous Cut, all of which have significant value in a deck like Jeskai Black. With your graveyard being a major resource, you need to choose your delve spells wisely.
At #SCGDEN, I went pretty hard on Murderous Cut, but I wasn’t exactly impressed by it. At the #SCGINVI, I tried the above version without Murderous Cut, and was mostly fine with the change. But with an increase in Monastery Mentor, as well as a few days to test various iterations, we came up with a new list that showcased just how powerful Monastery Mentor could be.
Lowering the curve to make Painful Truths, Treasure Cruise, and Monastery Mentor better was paramount. Cutting Ojutai’s Command was a necessary evil, and much easier to do once you are no longer reliant on Dragonmaster Outcast to do your dirty work. The card is powerful, but cumbersome, and does not reward you for playing cards like Mentor, Treasure Cruise, or Painful Truths. A line had to be drawn, and Ojutai’s Command got the axe.
In addition to lowering the curve, we wanted to make sure we could interact with our opponent with two or even three spells on the turn following a big draw spell. This meant adding additional one-mana (or equivalent) spells, and making sure that some of those spells could be cast on an empty battlefield to aggressively push the power level of Monastery Mentor. More copies of Duress came as a result of this change, with Dispel and other counterspells falling to the wayside.
But what we changed to fight Abzan Aggro ended up killing us in the G/R Eldrazi Ramp matchup, and was the main reason we all got obliterated by Jim Davis on Day Two of the #SCGPC. His version of ramp was well-suited to fight our metagame-heavy Jeskai Black, punishing us for playing zero copies of Infinite Obliteration and Disdainful Stroke. Not having access to either of those cards was a necessary risk in our deckbuilding process, but ultimately caused our downfall. Tom Ross, Brad Nelson, and myself all fell at the hands of the Eldrazi overlords, as it was evident we were not prepared for the matchup.
While a conscious decision, I think it was made with good information. Ali Aintrazi was the only person in the field that we thought might play some form of ramp in Standard, while almost everyone else had been playing either Abzan Aggro or some form of Jeskai in recent weeks. It is no surprise to me that a ramp deck won the tournament, given that it was a perfectly placed deck given the information leading up to the event.
Moving forward, I will be changing the Jeskai Black deck in order to compensate for how I believe the metagame will shift. There aren’t many Standard tournaments left before the Prerelease of Oath of the Gatewatch, but I will be writing about the deck over the next few weeks in regards to spoilers, as well as posting a few sweet decks of my own. For now, it’s time to relax and enjoy a few weeks of rest.
I can’t describe how amazing it has been, living this life over the last few years. My wife, Kali, has been my rock. Each time I think about throwing in the towel, she’s there to pick me back up. For years, she’s been the only thing keeping me together. This wonderful life we lead takes us around the world and back again, home to a warm house with a cozy bed and three obnoxiously adorable cats. I couldn’t ask for anything more. To do so would be selfish.
My career as a columnist at StarCityGames.com has been a wonderful ride. Nearly six years of pouring my heart and soul into these pages, week after week, wondering if what I’m doing is actually helping people. Your warm messages of encouragement and success as a result of my writing has kept me doing what I love: teaching. Many of you don’t know this, but I originally went to college wanting to become a teacher. I had little guidance, and a knack for destroying the good things in my life, and I ultimately ended up with nothing to show for a full scholarship.
Shortly after dropping out of college, I met my future wife, Kali. I knew from the moment I met her that she was “the one.” I wouldn’t call it love at first sight. After all, what we had to go through to end up being together was absurd. And our relationship after we started dating tested both of us, time and time again. Our faults are what pushed us together, and what tried to pull us apart. But any good relationship, and any good marriage, is not kept together through love alone.
And as we grow older, as we’ve grown older, even she will tell you that love is easy. When you just start out, it is simple to forget the world around you. You grow closer, almost too quickly, and learn to drown all the rest out. But slowly, the rest of the world comes back into focus, and you have to learn how to love someone all over again, despite all the little things that drive you crazy. And eventually, you learn to love those parts too.
I couldn’t have asked for a more caring, supportive, and loving wife to have by my side. We’ve been together almost a decade, and even now, I can’t remember what life was like without her. My memories of life before Kali feel like a movie I watched long ago. I remember the plot, the characters, and a small bit of the dialogue, but it doesn’t quite feel real. Living with her in Roanoke, having this become my career…this is what’s real. This is the life I’ve wanted for so long. And despite everything we’ve been through, I wouldn’t want it any other way.
It had flaws, but what does that matter when it comes to matters of the heart? We love what we love. Reason does not enter into it. In many ways, unwise love is the truest love. Anyone can love a thing because. That’s as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them too. That is rare and pure and perfect.
Thank you, everyone. It’s been a wonderful year, and I can’t wait to see what the next one brings.