The Quest For Level Five #1 – Drafting Mono-Color in Time Spiral

Raphael Levy, extreme Magic Road Warrior and new inductee to the Magic Hall of Fame, presents the first of what promises to be an exciting article series. Committed to scaling the dizzy heights of the Pro Player Club Level 5, he will be chronicling his experiences here. Today’s pages from his Magic Diary look at his preparation for Athens and Kobe, and include some interesting ideas on drafting mono-colored decks…

This will not be your average article series…

From now until early December (after Worlds), I’ll be sharing my experiences of anything related to Magic. That includes logistical issues and preparation for the events, tournament reports, and much more. It should give you a little insight into what happens behind the scenes, and what goes through the mind of a Magic Pro like myself. There’s going to be plenty of hardcore Magic action in the next few weeks… and if you’re interested, I invite you to read what it takes to capture the coveted PT Points…

From now on, this will be my “Magic Diary”. I hope you’ll enjoy it!

September 12th, 2006:

I’ve been home for five days. Home is Sweden for me now. It still fells weird to say that. I had been away for a month, but I’m still recovering from the jetlag from Grand Prix: Phoenix. I learned about my induction into the Hall of Fame in good company in Amsterdam a week ago and I still have a hard time leaving my “little cloud!” Everything went too well. I don’t really know what I am feeling; people are congratulating me, and I want to celebrate. I plan to do so at some point near the end of September, at the same time as my birthday (in Brussels).

Australia’s own TBS (Ben Seck) came to congratulate me on MSN. We met in Indianapolis in August, and he told me it was looking pretty good for me. Back then, I just wanted to keep my ears away from any rumors, good or bad, as they would have probably changed my expectations. He added “I told you it was a sure thing!” Guess I’ll have to trust Aussies more in the future. Not that I thought they couldn’t be trusted before…

Anyway, he asked me if I was going to Sydney for the Grand Prix. After all, I went to Phoenix to play… why wouldn’t I go to Sydney? The idea never really entered my head until that very moment, and I answered that it was too far, too expensive, and too much of a pain to travel to Australia. He offered to shelter me for the weekend of the GP. I appreciated the offer, and said I would keep that in mind.

September 16th, 2006:

Why does the planet have to be so big!

For the last three days, I’ve had only one thing on my mind: how can I get to Sydney?

I have made some calculations: I currently have 28 PT Points.

I need 12 points to level up to Level 5, and 22 to make Level 6. Twelve points, which is the same as eight extra, as Kobe and Worlds will give me two each.

From Level 4 to Level 5, the difference is worth about $9000. From Level 5 to Level 6, it’s about $5000.

GP: Sydney is a week before GP: Athens, which is itself a week before PT: Kobe. The plan I figured was to fly to Athens first. From there, take a plane to Sydney. Stay about a week there, to visit some friends (so I don’t only fly for the GP), then fly back to Athens and play the GP. Then fly from Athens to Kobe, play the PT, finally flying back home passing by Athens.

Definitely a pain. But definitely possible.

When I first checked for flights three days ago, Athens to Sydney cost about 1000 euros. Quite a lot for a Grand Prix. Two days of flight… and the same on the way back.

I tried to convince former “fellow idiot” (European who went to Phoenix) Julien Nuijten to come along with me. He said, “find a cheap flight or a way to get there for less than 700 euros, and I’ll come along”. I did everything I could. I asked around for some sponsorship, with no real success. (Except for StarCityGames, who supported me their way!)

By the time I looked for a way to get funding, the price from Athens to Sydney went up. It wasn’t not 1000 any more, but 1300, and it was now three days of travelling: the plane would leave Athens at 5pm on the 3rd of October, would land in Dubaï around 11pm on the same day. The next flight would leave at 9am the day after, and would arrive in Australia the day after that (in the morning). Talk about jetlag!

So it all comes up to this…

Is the trip worth it?

I do want to go, but I’m not crazy. I’m not undertaking any stupid trip if it’s not worth it.

With the help of Jaybee, my old pal, we made some more calculations:

1 – How many GPs are still attendable until the end of the year?
2 – How many point do you expect to get at each event?
3 – How much is a PT point worth?

1 – Four: Sydney, Athens, New Jersey, Yamagata.
2 – I did pretty poorly in Pro Tours this year, collecting only ten points in three PTs, an average of 3.33 each… but I expect to get a fair few more in the next two. I did very well in Grand Prixes this season, collecting eighteen points in nine events (a two-point average), but I don’t expect to do that well every time. So I would say that every GP gives me one point.
3 – I need eight points. Eight points is worth $9000. That makes the point worth $1100.

I have to take into account the jetlag: Recovering from a three-day trip isn’t so easy, and it could be worse on the way back. I may not recover from the jetlag in time for both Athens and Kobe.

The trip would cost about 2000 euros, with everything included. I have the night to think about it…

September 17th, 2006:

It’s been a tough decision, but I decided not to go. I booked my other flights today, though:

I will fly from Gothenburg to Athens, stay for the GP, then fly from there to Kobe. After the PT, I’ll go back home, passing by Athens.

I feel a bit disappointed not to have found a way to get there without all the trouble. But reason came back to me just in time, I think. Grand Prix: Sydney definitely seems like the easiest of the four Grand Prixes left (in term of size, and number of pros), but what if I’d gone and done terribly? It would have sure been a gamble, and a terribly risky one. Would I have had the strength and will to bounce back and do my best in Athens and Kobe?

The whole process gave me a burst of motivation…

My goal was set: I’ll try to reach Level 5! For the glory… and yeah, for the money!

With three GPs and 2 PTs left, it is still realistic! Of course, one big hit in a PT would solve my problem right away, but PT Sundays and I are not really getting along. I’m keeping it real for now. Maybe something great can happen, but either way…

… The quest is on!

September 24th, 2006:

I’m in Brussels. Yesterday was my birthday party. As the city is central enough between France and the Netherlands, most of my closest friends could attend. I had much to celebrate, and enjoyed it as much as I could. I also missed the Time Spiral Prerelease. Not a big deal, as I would have never traded my party for a Prerelease! It may seem serious, given the fact I just set new goals that I’m not going to achieve if I don’t put some work in. But well, there are some priorities in life!

We woke up quite late and decided to catch up on what we missed. “We” being Bernardo (Da Costa Cabral), Geoffrey (Siron), Mathieu (Poujade, a close friend of mine, now working for Wizards Europe), and I. We headed to the Greenwich, a bar in downtown Brussels where they were holding a Prerelease. We managed to get some packs from players, and started a draft.

I had never seen the cards before, and wanted to try out the new mechanics. The first deck I drafted in the format ended up like this:

I had no clue how the deck would do. I wanted to try out Suspend, so I drafted as many Suspend cards I could – some Timebugs, some Clockspinnings. Along the way, I caught some Slivers. Actually, I caught a lot of them. During deck construction, I cut the Clockspinning that definitely didn’t seem too exciting. Timebugs seemed a lot sexier, especially with Ivory Giants (Remove the last counter during your opponent’s turn). I liked those guys with Momentary Blink

Together, the Slivers seemed pretty sweet.

During the games, I realized that my deck was lacking a bunch of things. Tricks, removal, bounce. The Slivers weren’t all that good. The Telekinetic Sliver is probably a first pick, and probably worth drafting a deck around, and the Psionic Sliver works fine along with the Watcher Sliver

Overall, the deck did fine; the player, however – who was far too tired – didn’t play his best Magic.

With some tweaking, the Suspend archetype should certainly work well, with more Momentary Blinks, some bounce, some Temporal Isolations. I’ll try the Slivers again, in other decks. Maybe I should have focused more on what I wanted to do exactly with the deck: drop the first suspend spells, stall some turns, and win. The Slivers weren’t too good at stalling my games. But that’s what practice drafts are for… Practice.

My first impression of Time Spiral draft is that you need to focus on your end product more than ever. The overall power of commons is stronger than any other set, and many times you will have the choice between good playable cards in your colors. You will have to pick wisely.

There seems to be many viable strategies in the format… There are three weeks left before GP: Athens, and four weeks before Kobe. I need to see as much Time Spiral as possible.

I’m back to Sweden tomorrow. Hopefully there will be some draft action next week in Backstab

October 1st, 2006:

I got back to Sweden six days ago, and I’ve only drafted once. Today, Backstab held a prerelease tournament.

First things first. On Thursday, seven local players (including players qualified for Kobe) and I gathered for a draft. The average level here is a lot higher than in many places I’ve been to, and it’s usually a good training.

For my second draft in the format, I went for Green and tried to focus on one theme. Thallids sounded to be quite attractive, and I wanted to give it a try. The amount of good Green and Black cards passed to me revealed that I wouldn’t be cut, so I was free to draft whatever I wanted. My deck ended up with seven Thallids: two Thallid Germinators, one Thallid, two Thallid Shell-Dweller, one Savage Thallid, and one Deathspore Thallid. To go with them, I had Thelon of Havenwood and a few of removal spells: Strangling Soot, Assassinate, and Sudden Death.

The deck seemed quite nice, and I was eager to see how the interaction between the Thallids worked. Unfortunately, it didn’t go so well. I went 1-2, losing to what looked like very average decks (oh, and one game to Ith, too – this guy is just ridiculous…). Thelon was a powerhouse when it stuck around. You can’t really rely on him too much, as if he dies during your combat phase, you’re in big trouble. The Germinators were quite nice, but the whole token producing process just takes so much time…

To me, Thallids seemed a nice way to use Green. But they just aren’t that good. The only reason I would play Green would either be for Slivers or Penumbra Spiders. Further testing will prove if I’m right or wrong.

What happened today at the prerelease? There were forty players, which is quite a lot for an in-store tournament. My Sealed Deck didn’t give me bombs, but I had enough cards in both Blue and Red to make a good deck full of removal. I didn’t know what to think of Greater Gargadon at first, but now I know it’s a damn good card and it was the VIP of my deck. It takes about four turns to get there… you just sac your lands when you have the right window, and it doesn’t take much time for him to finish the job. But let’s move on to the interesting part: the Top 8 in draft.

I opened what I thought was a good card: Thelonite Hermit. From what I’ve seen so far, it hasn’t been breathtaking. But I quickly switched to Black, as there were no Green cards to be seen:

The card I wanted to try:

Psychotic Episodes

Finally, a deck that seemed really good. I’ll see in the future if I just got lucky with the packs – as I got almost all the Black at the table – or if mono-colored decks actually are viable archetypes.

I wanted to try out Psychotic Episode. On paper, it’s an instant Coercion. In practice, it’s an instant Coercion that drains for two or deals three damage. So yes, I was very satisfied with them. Ten Swamps lets you take full advantage of Tendrils of Corruption, and having five madness outlets (all commons) let you play the Gorgons and the Witherings easily. The synergy between all these cards was quite astonishing, and I won my first Time Spiral draft! Woohoo!

October 2nd, 2006:

Time to contact the fellow idiots and see what’s going to happen in November. After some research on different airlines’ websites, we found out that going to New Jersey and Yamagata for the GPs wouldn’t exceed 1000 Euros in plane tickets. Jelger and Julien have decided to tag along. Tiago and some others will decide later.

My month of November will be quite busy:

3rd: Paris
To play the French Team Cup, a big team tournament held every year.
Format: 2HG Limited and Standard.

6th-9th: Toulouse
To visit my parents, and my believed dog…

9th-14th: New Jersey
To play what will be my third U.S. Grand Prix.

15th-20th: Yamagata
Departing directly from New York to Tokyo, to play my first Grand Prix in Japan.

21st-28th: Toulouse
From Tokyo to New York to Amsterdam to Toulouse, to spend some more days at hooooome (If I ever recover from the jetlag).

28th-4th December: Paris

After Athens and Kobe in October, I have much to look forward to!

October 7th, 2006:

213 players in Sydney… Erf, maybe I should have made the trip after all. Oh well, it’s no use dwelling on it!

I drafted quite a lot last week, and tried many different things. Apart from the regular archetypes everyone has found – and because I hate to draft conventional decks – I kept in mind drafting mono-colored decks, with very few splashed cards. It worked out with Blue, Black, and Red. I saw a mono-White deck as well, but White is always so over-drafted that the concept of going mono-White just doesn’t seem too appealing.

My mono-Blue deck:

The cards I wanted to try:

Gauntlet of Power
Sage of Epityr
Deep-Sea Kraken
Gemstone Cavern

The deck was quite straightforward: Evasion creatures, some blockers, and countermagic. Most of the cards that matter are commons, and the archetype is definitely draftable. This deck misses a few bounce spells – Snapback and Temporal Eddy – and a couple of Errant Ephemeron. I only lost one of five matches, to a fast White/Red deck with rebel searchers, removal, and flyers. Probably the hardest matchup for that archetype.

The interaction between all the cards was impressive. The Sage that you get fifteenth pick was actually pretty good. You don’t always want to play the Drifter on turn 1, as you will want to play stuff on turn 3, so they are the creatures you want to drop first. They allow you to plan your next turns in advance, and calculate when you want to play your Drifters without having them hinder your curve too much. They are also good with Looters, as when you’re “hand jammed” you don’t want to draw too many good cards in a raw that you’ll have to discard (you can just save them for later). It’s a perfect target for the Dream Stalker. I would have drafted more Stalkers if I had known how useful they were in that deck. The Sages were also good to look for the Gauntlet, which was the absolute nuts. All your guys gets +1/+1 and all your lands are Mana Flared. I don’t think it’s too exciting in a two-color deck, though. I didn’t have so many ways to spend the extra mana I would get from the Gauntlet, and I wanted to try the Kraken. It was never any good, and I never wanted to suspend it – I always had something better to do, and anything I would draw after I played the Gauntlet was irrelevant as it dominated the games by itself. Add that any Split Second card played at the right time (when there’s only one counter left on it) takes care of the suspended Kraken, and that makes him a bit lame…

I loved Gemstone Caverns. In an aggressive deck in which you’ll have the right mana anyway (with twelve Islands, you will have your Blue mana), it won’t hinder your manabase, and having two lands on turn 1 is a huge advantage. Some people say that it’s like “mulliganing to play first”. It’s not that at all. You choose the card you don’t want, usually/hopefully an extra land, and you get to “start” with seven cards anyway (the card you draw on turn 1).

I drafted mono-Black a couple of times, splashing a couple of Red cards every time, especially for Strangling Soot and any Red removal – Lightning Axe or Rift Bolt. Along with the Madness engine, you can also go for the Reanimator engine, which includes Pit Keeper (at least two or three) and Calls to the Netherworld (two should be the right number), which gives you a good late-game plan with unkillable creatures and a good way to take back the decent guys who died in battle. Mono-Black abuses Tendrils of Corruption and Dark Withering, which doesn’t seem to be that popular for a black removal. So far, that is my favorite archetype.

I needed to try mono-Red too! The main idea of drafting mono-colored decks, or decks with at least 70% of cards of the same color, is that your signals will be very clear in the first pack, and you’ll get the goods in the second while always keeping yourself open to any good rare you would open and splash. Terramorphic Expanse must be picked early, so you can splash other colors easily.

I ended up with this beauty:

The cards I wanted to try:

Calciform Pools

My first pick in this draft was Strangling Soot, which I took over Sulfurous Blast. I’ve loved the Soot so far, and it doesn’t commit you to one color – you can either go Black or Red, and splash some Mountains or Swamps to play it. Sulfurous Blast is probably a better card, but it might end up in your sideboard if you don’t play Red. Passing the Blast wasn’t that a good signal (I didn’t know I would go heavy Red), but I basically took all the Red cards afterwards.

I had seen Evangelize played quite often, and it never really did anything, as there was always some bad creature on the other side of the board. Plus the fact that it can fizzle when you pay the buyback cost (that you almost never pay), this card looked a lot better on paper. But in that deck, with lots of removal, three Subterranean Shamblers (I love this card, it’s very underrated) to take care of the small guys, and the Calciform Pools to power up the buyback, Evangelize had its place, and worked terrifically.

I have a clearer idea of the draft now, and I’ve figured out the combinations I like and dislike.

These are the conclusions I’ve reached before Athens:

I like:
Any combination of Red, Black and Blue.
I will never draft Green.
White is good, but far too over-drafted.

October 11th, 2006:

I’m off to Athens tomorrow…

How will I do? Join me next week to find out!