There And Back Again – My Story (PT Philadelphia 20th)

What’s it like to have Brian David-Marshall, Pro Tour historian, ask you, “So, what’s your story?” What’s it like to get within a hair’s breadth to Top 8ing your second Pro Tour?

“So, Josh…what’s your story?” — Brian David-Marshall, Round 14, Pro Tour Philadelphia

Odds are you’ve never heard of me. The truth is that there isn’t really much to say. I’ve been playing Magic: The Gathering for about fourteen years, and I managed to qualify for Pro Tour Philadelphia by crashing through Stoneforge Mystics and Jace, the Mind Sculptors with Primeval Titans and Summoning Traps. This was my second Pro Tour, and I was determined to make a run for it. (My first Pro Tour dreams were crushed Round 1 by a Mr. Steve Sadin in Hollywood back in 2008.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to devote to the testing: I was mostly focused on studying for the MCAT, but I still found some time to brainstorm and spend a marvelous five days at Gen Con for Nationals (if you haven’t been, I highly recommend it; there is something for everyone!). I met up with Alex Majlaton at Gen Con, and we decided to spend some time testing the new format once things in our personal lives calmed down. I told him I was interested in jamming 75 cards that contained a lot of Bitterblossoms, Stoneforge Mystics, Thoughtseizes, Timely Reinforcements, Dismembers, Mental Missteps, Ancestral Visions, and Jace, the Mind Sculptors. Then something wonderful happened; almost all of those cards were banned, and we were given even more sets to play with!

I was testing Living End pretty extensively, but the Cloudpost matchup was only about 50%, and Living End wasn’t beating any of the U/R combo decks. I don’t own any cards, but I have the best of friends, and they were already helping me gather the cards needed for the Living End deck.

Enter Jarvis Yu aka the Pro Tour PTQ Killer. Jarvis Facebooks me Wednesday before the Pro Tour and says I should be playing a U/R combo deck. When I tell him that he needs to narrow it down (there are about four or five at this point already), he says that Splinter Twin has been performing very well for him. I’m skeptical, but I talk to Alex Majlaton who is also on board. I message my friends at midnight on Wednesday with about 90 cards and a smiley face. Thursday afternoon I stop by my buddy Harv’s place to find a metal deck box with a red ribbon on it. Did I mention that my friends are amazing?

On the drive to Philadelphia and later that night while driving to stay with another friend of mine in Delaware, I spoke with Jarvis and Alex regarding the Splinter Twin deck and the numbers we were looking at playing. Jarvis and Alex were interested in playing Disrupting Shoal to protect the combo, but I wasn’t too thrilled about it because you never seem to be in a good position to hardcast it, and I ended up using most of my resources to set up the combo and control the board. It was never going to be countering four-drops when it needed to, and it just seemed like setting ourselves up for two-for-ones wasn’t the best game plan in this format. Force of Will it is not.

We quickly dismissed Pact of Negation because it can’t be used very well unless it’s on our turn, and by that time the game was usually well in hand. I goldfished the deck a bit and decided that I wanted Spell Pierces in the maindeck. I had been playing Pyromancer Ascension in Standard with an Exarch/Twin sideboard, and Spell Pierce was always impressive. This format seemed like it was going to be a lot more like Legacy than Extended, and games were going to be decided during the first few turns. I wanted something that let me protect my combo and interact with my opponent, and Spell Pierce was excellent.

After agonizing over the rest of the numbers and making last-minute changes, I played the following list:

I feel like this was the best deck to play for the tournament, minus Sam Black Infect deck, which seemed insane. I would rather play something that wasn’t quite so all-in on the combo, and I’d absolutely play this deck again. Splinter Twin forced our opponents to interact with us when they didn’t want to and allowed us to interact as well. The list I played was absolutely not perfect, but there were some things that we got right that others did not, particularly lots of Vendilion Cliques.

I was very happy with most of the maindeck, but I wasn’t really impressed with Remand, which was sided out whenever it seemed slow (on the draw against pretty much everything, and on the play against most everything else), and I usually cut one or more Thirst for Knowledge.

The Thirst for Knowledge were quite good—they were basically Impulses with an upside. I never discarded the Spellskite, but instead I mostly discarded redundant combo pieces or two lands. The Boomerangs should have been Echoing Truths, which I talked about during the Video Deck Tech after Round 14.

The Twisted Images were cute and were functional, but two Ancient Grudges would have made several of my matches a little easier. Vendilion Clique was simply amazing, and three is the perfect number.

I was also very happy with Slagstorm, but I can see Firespout being another option. I think the ability to choose to have the damage go to players and knowing that you’re always going to kill fliers wins out over Firespout, however. Taking all of that into consideration, the following is closer to what I feel would have been an ideal list:

I don’t know that I would change anything else without heavy testing, but this is where I’d feel most comfortable as a starting point. I think the Kibler Zoo matchup is better than the numbers would indicate, but I’d have to test more against Infect Combo to see how difficult that matchup is. On to the tournament!

It’s all so surreal. I hadn’t played in a Pro Tour since 2008, and part of me was still wondering if I even deserved to be there. I vividly remember crashing and burning back in Hollywood, and I was incredibly nervous when I sat down across from my first opponent.

Round 1: Zhao, Yisong [China]

Yisong was playing Punishing Fire Jund, which should be a bad matchup. The Punishing Fires don’t really matter, but Tarmogoyf and Thoughtseize effects can really put the pressure on the combo deck. Luckily I was able to find and protect both pieces and put the match away fairly quickly.

Round 2: Mueller, Andre [DEU]

Andre and I briefly talk about the best places to visit in Europe (Germany during Oktoberfest—which isn’t in October), the places you don’t want to tell your girlfriend you’ve visited (Amsterdam), and the places with the nicest people (I think he said Belgium). Andre is playing mono-green Cloudpost and never sees a Forest in game 1. In game 2 I have to fight through Lodestone Golem, triple Thorn of Amethyst, and Gaddock Teeg, but Kiki-Jiki breaks a mirror into a million Deceiver Exarchs which end the game in a hurry.

Round 3: Wescoe, Craig [USA]

As we’re shuffling, I mention to Craig that I was following his articles on Birthing Pod in Modern and that I’m interested to see what he decided to play for the Pro Tour. He mulligans on the draw and plays a Temple Garden tapped. I get to cast Boomerang on turn 2 for the first time of the day on his only permanent. A few turns later it’s clear that he’s playing Birthing Pod, and he completely taps out for a Ponder, but he does have two Wall of Roots in play, which were already used for mana this turn.

I have the combo in hand, and I’m debating showing him Spell Pierce to counter the Ponder. I don’t think that he has any outs, but if I show him Spell Pierce here, he might play around it next game, and I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea or not. I eventually Spell Pierce his Ponder and make lots of hasty attackers.

In game 2 he plays a Birds of Paradise on turn 1, and I have the Twisted Image for it. I’d rather hold the Image for a Spellskite, but I don’t have a Spell Pierce for a potential turn 2 Birthing Pod or a Lightning Bolt for his turn 1 play. He plays another Birds of Paradise and a Noble Hierarch on turn 2. I Ponder and play a fetchland.

He misses a land drop and plays around Spell Pierce by not playing a Birthing Pod, but misses an attack for one. He Vendilion Cliques me when I crack the Scalding Tarn at the end of his own turn, and I show him a hand of Deceiver Exarch, Splinter Twin, and Vendilion Clique. He takes the Exarch, and I naturally draw a Spell Pierce. Next turn I take four from the Clique and Pierce his Birthing Pod. I Clique him on his following draw step and let him keep Kitchen Finks, Wall of Roots, and lands. When I’m at one life on turn 7 and he has lethal in play with a Qasali Pridemage, I finally draw another Exarch. I play my seventh land, Deceiver Exarch untapping a land, and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, all on my main phase for the instant win.

Round 4: Vavra, Vit [CZE]

I win the die roll and Preordain to set up the turn 4 win, but Vit opens with Ornithopter, Springleaf Drum, and Signal Pest on this first turn. I have the combo, a Spellskite, a Remand, and a Dispel, but I’ve only seen four lands so far. I remand his Master of Etherium on turn 2 and play Spellskite on turn three. When he attacks with his team, the math looks like I’ll have to throw Spellskite in front of his new Frogmite (a 4/3 thanks to the Master of Etherium that he replayed and the Signal Pest) in order to survive until turn 5.

On his turn 4 he plays Master of Etherium number two, and I play Pestermite with a blue mana up to tap the first Master. I don’t draw my fifth land to combo with Dispel backup, but I have to go for it, and he has the Galvanic Blast, and we move to game 2.

He mulligans and gets his first three plays Spell Pierced. Spell Piercing Springleaf Drum is absolutely amazing in this matchup, as it usually buys two turns or more. In this case, he didn’t draw any more mana sources, and it bought me the game.

Game three we trade resources back and forth, and I actually kill him with attacks from 1/4s and three Lightning Bolts.

Round 5: Snepvangers, Bram [NLD]

Bram and I talk about the Hall of Fame, Europe, and his accent, and we set off to game, with me on the play. Bram is also playing Affinity and has a draw that is featuring Arcbound Ravager, the Fairy Godmother itself.

When he runs Arcbound Ravager out and goes to combat I cast Thirst for Knowledge. I have my maindeck Spellskite and lean forward while trying to distract him and read his Ravager upside-down style. I discard a land and a spell because I actually get the impression that I can trick him into it…and I do.

When he runs his Frogmite and team into me, I calmly block his Frog with my Spellskite. He tanks, and then he sacrifices his Springleaf Drum to Ravager and Ravager to itself to modular to the Frogmite. I can’t pay two life fast enough, prompting him to read Spellskite, and I combo him not much later. Game two involves him trying to break through a Spellskite and a few 1/4s with Atog, but it’s not quite enough.

I couldn’t believe this was actually happening. I was playing well and catching the breaks I needed, but going 5-0 in the Constructed portion of a Pro Tour was amazing! I didn’t expect the draft to go so well; I’d only drafted M12 twice before PT Philly, both times were during Nationals to 2-1 records. I was just happy to be here and playing in this event, and I already had Day 2 locked up!

I won’t go into my draft too much except to say that Dungrove Elder is the absolute nuts, and when I see it fourth pick it’s a clear sign that my deck will have 12+ Forests (it had thirteen).

I finished the day at 7-1, losing a match where I had a very difficult decision to trade a Stampeding Rhino for a Warpath Ghoul because of Onyx Mage, and I probably chose wrongly. The draft the next day was nothing worth going into detail about except to say be sure to count your cards!

I was in Pod 1, and my second pack had thirteen cards. The replacement pack had Sorin Markov, so I’m not complaining, but be sure to actually count them—this is the second time I’ve gotten a pack with thirteen cards at a Professional Level event. After going 2-1 in another draft with another mediocre deck, I squared up against the other Josh in Round 12.

Round 12: Utter-Leyton, Josh [USA]

Game 1 I miss some land drops, and I have no real outs to the Knight of the Reliquary that Josh has on turn two. I take long turns, trying to decide what cards I can afford to play around with my limited resources, and Josh hurries me along, concerned that I may not be playing at a reasonable pace—a perfectly understandable concern.

I eventually have to tap out with a Spellskite in play and only two life to go for the combo, and he has the Lightning Bolt to give my brain a break, which moves us to Game 2.

In the second game I set Josh up to tap out on his turn to prevent me from trading my Pestermite for his Gaddock Teeg in his combat step. On his turn 4 I play a Pestermite during combat after he attacks with Gaddock Teeg and Wild Nacatl. He taps out and gets his removal spell countered. The plan was simply to trade with Teeg, but because he tapped out I can spike a land on my draw step to kill him with Kiki-Jiki, so I take five damage.

I miss the land, but I hit Slagstorm, and win about 6-7 turns later with the combo through minimal disruption. Game 3 ends up being a grind, and I lose with a Splinter Twin in my graveyard and three in my hand against a Gaddock Teeg with ten lands in play. This makes me realize that at least one Twin should come out against Zoo during sideboarding, as I simply needed any other relevant spell.

Round 13: Fedon, Antonio [VEN]

I keep a hand with Exarch, Preordain, and five lands on the play, Preordain, a land, and a Spell Pierce to the bottom, and draw another Exarch and five lands on my next six draw steps. Luckily, my opponent is doing basically nothing. He is playing lands, Ponders, Preordains, Peer through Depths, etc., but isn’t actually doing anything.

He then Peers Through Depths and shows me a red card…I know what Through the Breach looks like, even when it’s not English. I’ve been attacking with my Exarch since turn three, but now I know that I can’t play the other one in my hand for fear of being killed by a 15/15 wacky, waving, inflatable arm flailing Emrakul, the Aeons Torn.

I keep playing lands and eventually start drawing spells. I sneak a Pestermite into play to try to get him on a better clock than a 1/4, but I don’t ever tap out in case Antonio has multiple Remands for my second Exarch. Eventually I play Spellskite, and he responds by tapping my Exarch and my Pestermite a bunch of times with Gigadrowse using all of his lands. I play Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, who doesn’t care about Gigadrowse, and kill him.

Game 2 I play around Gigadrowse with a fetchland, and Vendilion Clique does its amazing job, and I go infinite after I tap two different Emrakuls on two different attack steps.

At this point I feel like I’m just living a dream. After playing Magic for so long and finally getting a shot at something like this on a Pro Tour…it was just incredible. The next round I got a feature match. I’ve never had a feature match, especially nothing like this. It was humbling, to say the least. I remember reading feature matches from when Finkel had blue hair and Ben Rubin played Hammer of Bogardan, and now it happened to me. Just incredible.

Round 14: DeMars, Brian [USA]

The coverage was pretty good, but Rashad always does a great job, and his hats are amazing. Not a whole lot extra to be said—the matchup was relatively easy, and I played him into tapping out in game 2 to squeeze a Kiki-Jiki with Spell Pierce backup into play on turn 5.

Brian David-Marshall, Magic Pro Tour historian and great guy, was watching my match. He walks up to me afterwards. “So, Josh,” he says, “what’s your story?” I didn’t even have an answer; I was so excited to be there, and I was still nervous to play my last two matches. I sort of babbled at him through my smiles. I was still in shock that I had finally gotten to this point. I love this game, and I’ve devoted a large portion of my life to becoming better at it, but the friends I’ve met along the way are easily the best part.

Now, as I’m starting to actually close and potentially hit the Top 8, I’m starting to feel the pressure. BDM and I do a deck tech where I’m still a little shocked, but I manage not to make a complete fool of myself, although I do tend to babble a little bit. Round 15 is called in the middle of the deck tech, but BDM tells me he’s going to walk me over to my match and grab a judge. No worries…

Apparently no one told my round 15 opponent, Samuele Estratti, and he’s jumping out of his seat because his round 15 opponent (me) didn’t show up, and he presumably just Top 8’d. Unfortunately, he suddenly realized that he was going to have to work for it, and he wasn’t quite so many smiles, but he was still a super nice guy.

It’s got to be difficult to go from crazy celebration time to realizing you might not get there after all, and then actually have to play for it, but he handled it very well.

Round 15: Estratti, Samuele [ITA]

Sam wins game one on the back of Kiki-Jiki, which is crazy in the mirror, no pun intended. The mirror match is incredibly skill intensive because even if you’re cold to your opponent, they typically have no idea. This really is a match where you have to play around everything, because if you go for it and you miss, you are almost always 100% stone dead.

The thing is, Sam tapped out for Kiki-Jiki like he knew the game was over, and this gave me a solid read that he had a free counterspell. I expected Disrupting Shoal, but the way he just knew he was good indicated Pact of Negation.

Great…now I have to play around Pact of Negation. Although I don’t think Pact of Negation is good in the deck, it’s incredible in the mirror match. I board out some of my Splinter Twins, as it’s the worst card in the mirror. You can’t afford to draw more than one, and it’s the easiest card to stop.

I also board out all of my Remands. I didn’t feel like I was getting any value out of them, and I’d rather have permanent answers to his cards; I played all four Lightning Bolts post-board to avoid dying to Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker.

I take game 2 by killing him with Vendilion Clique and bolting a Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, which seems to surprise him.

Game three I make two huge mistakes. I block a Deceiver Exarch, attack with Spellskite on his turn 4. I have Dispel, so I’m not afraid of Lightning Bolt, but he just ships the turn back to me, so I assume he doesn’t have it, and I play Exarch on his end step (he missed his fourth land drop).

He Remands my Exarch and Bolts my Spellskite (Mistake number one). Next turn he hits his fourth land and has Deprive + Dispel for my end-step Exarch. I untap with four lands in play and a land, a Dispel, a Spell Pierce, and a Kiki-Jiki in my hand.

I analyze his plays and put him on Splinter Twin, Land, Pact of Negation, and some unknown card in his hand. I tank for a while, but I just tilt on the spot and run Kiki-Jiki out there (Mistake number two), tapping out for no reason and die to the Splinter Twin that I knew he had.

I couldn’t believe that I’d punted so hard. Part of it was the difficulty of the mirror, but most of it was just the pressure. I typically do well under pressure, but this time was different: I just choked. I shook his hand and wished him luck, got up, and preempted any conversation with my friends with “I know, I know.” Then standings went up.

Round 16: Nakajima, Chikara [JPN]

The fake feature match rematch! Chikara had surpassed me in tiebreaks by less than two percent, but we were both ahead of everyone else in our bracket by more than three percent. Before pairings went up I knew that I needed Sam Black to get paired up and Chikara to lose to make the Top 8. When I was paired up against Nakajima, I knew the winner was a near lock. I was playing for Pro Tour Top 8 again!

I lost game 1 when I didn’t cast a Deceiver Exarch on his only land. I was trying to play around too many cards, and it cost me. He had Arcbound Ravager to put me to negative one life, and had I played differently I win unless he has either Galvanic Blast or Shrapnel Blast.

I took a gamble that he wouldn’t hit a mana source for one more turn, but he got me. I don’t know if it was wrong, but it potentially cost me the game. Despite seeing no combo pieces in game 1, Chikara brought in Torpor Orbs.

In game 2 I played a turn 1 Preordain into a Spell Pierce, but Chikara had the nuts with turn 1 Darksteel Citadel, Ornithopter, Mox Opal, Torpor Orb. So this was how it was to end. I thought I might somehow get him on damage, but when he had the Galvanic Blast for my Pestermite to force his Signal Pest through, I had to extend the hand. He played like a champion, for sure, and he deserved this Top 8.

So, that’s how a no-name like me almost entered the Sunday stage. I had two shots, and I ruined at least one of them, but it was an incredible experience, and not only did it qualify me for PT Honolulu, but also for Worlds in San Francisco.

It’s like I’m still dreaming, and the thing that stands out the most is that if it can happen to me, some random who lives in farm country, PA, it could happen to anyone. Maybe it’s already happened to you, and you were under the lights and got to experience the Pro Tour lights already, or maybe you’re still trying to grind out PTQ wins, or you’re new to the game, but it could happen to anyone.

When it happens to you, when Brian David-Marshall walks up to you with a smile after watching you play an amazing game and says “So, what’s your story?”, remember what this game really represents—friends and good times. Forget about the PT invite, the Pro Points, the money, and relax. Smile. You’re playing a game that you love with people that are awesome, and the most important thing you can do is enjoy every minute of it. It’s not some pipe dream; it’s real, and it’s yours. What’s your story?

Joshua Hakakian

I’d also like to mention that every single one of my opponents was cordial and polite. My opponents all shook my hand, win or lose, and wished me luck in the following rounds. They were all gracious in both victory and defeat and exhibited good sportsmanship. These players stood out as ambassadors of the game, which meant a lot during a professional level event. Thank you for making the Pro Tour such a great environment.