Three Rhinos And A Dream

The World Championships is Magic’s largest stage and its hardest tournament. Even getting into the event is a serious accomplishment, but Brad Nelson didn’t want to rest on his laurels when there were twenty-three other mages standing between him and the title.

Competition exists to test ourselves against others. To sharpen the blades of our weapon of choice, walk the battlefield the journey has led us to, and strive to defeat those who stand in our way. At every level, competition brings out the best in people. It gives us an outlet to dream the unfathomable and strive for perfection even though we know it’s impossible. Competition is the air I breathe, the water I drink, and the thoughts I dream.

Qualifying for the World Championships has been a dream for me ever since its introduction to the community. I won Player of the Year too early to be able to glide into this event, then year after year I found myself falling further and further away from the possibility to compete against the best to become the best. Years slipped by me as I scrapped together a year of Silver status while watching the titans of the game play on center stage for the masses to enjoy. I never missed a minute of the action while it unfolded, and I wanted it more than anything. I wanted to compete for the title of World Champion even more than I wanted to become it. I ached for the journey. I lusted for the competition. I strived for excellence just to have the opportunity to earn it.

I obtained it.

I did the impossible and found myself qualified for Worlds, an accomplishment I never saw myself obtaining. From the cheap seats some would think it was foolish of me to have such little faith in myself, but staring into the mirror is a different story. Magic is tough. I may be “good” at the game, but my skills to earn that title was hard work and dedication. I have no natural talents in this game. Everything I am, have done, and will do, all of the secrets to approaching the game that I’ve learned, have come only through repetition and dedication. I respect Magic and those who play it. I work harder than those around me to get what I put in. This changes when you put the title of World Champion in front of 24 players. Each and every one of these players are going to work just as hard as me, yet many will have more natural talent, a background in how to approach the event, and a very good track record in our personal encounters.

I didn’t know how to approach this tournament. 24 players preparing for four different formats. Teams of four began emerging, which greatly changes how to properly metagame. For example, if two teams show up with the same deck, that will make up 33% of the field. This would make a bad prediction almost tournament-ending.

I wasn’t discouraged though. I decided to treat the World Championships like my very first Pro Tour. I was going to put my everything into this event and just see what happens. I wouldn’t emotionally invest in my finish, but rather I was going to treat this tournament like the competition it is. You compete to see how your abilities compare are to those around you. If you attach some sort of personal worth to a competition, you are effectively doubling down. Each good finish will feel like nirvana, yet every poor performance will come with a sense of bleakness. Instead, I would just play Magic and let the chips fall as they may.

I prepared for the event with my comrades from my Pro Tour testing team. After Pro Tour Fate Reforged, Chris Fennell and I decided to join forces. He needed to learn Standard while I was in desperate need of understanding forty-card formats. Together we assembled a great team that ended up putting four players into the World Championships. I can’t actually take any credit for this since those three players were already well on their way before I crossed paths with them. In all honesty, if anything this crew helped step my game up to get there. Seth Manfield, Steve Rubin, Ari Lax and myself would combine forces and try to take down the world!

We began testing by independently trying to explore the formats. I was pretty sure I would end up playing Jund in Modern regardless of all evidence telling rational people not to since I had always under-preformed in the format and decided to intimately learn one deck which ended up being the ever-faithful Jund. This gave me more time to prepare for the other three formats. I rolled up my sleeves and built this beauty.

This deck might look quite odd, but it was the results of a theory. I originally started working on Jeskai for the event, but never liked how the deck would draw. Cards like Mantis Rider are important when trying to turn the corner, but sometimes too many of those cards would show up when you needed to still be reactive. My opponent would simply go over the top of me due to how many aggressive cards would be stuck in my hand. The theory of this Jeskai Control deck was that the inevitability of Ojutai’s Command and Soulfire Grand Master was all you needed to win the game.

Well, that and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon!

So what happens when you never actually try to win the game? Well you still win the game, but it takes a very long time. Sometimes you get a free win with an Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, but odds are all the planeswalkers you cast would gain card advantage but not close out the game. You would usually finish the game off with Soulfire Grand Master and a flurry of removal spells. It would take roughly seven attacks on-and-off to win the game. This was doable when Worlds didn’t have any time restraints, but soon afterwards I found out that the tournament would in fact have a sixty-minute timer on each round. This is reasonable for most decks, but not this one. Maybe if both players played fast, but not under the pressure of this event. Turns would take slightly longer than those in a less stressful event which would cause for way too many potential draws.

I gave up on this deck while still in production so I do not suggest playing this exact 75. I do suggest however tweaking it for your local metagame if making your opponents life completely miserable while casting every card in your deck multiple times is something you are interested in!

Luckily I had a backup plan when I realized we would be timed. I actually really liked the core behind G/R Dragons when playing it in London, but the list needed some tweaks. By this time I found myself locked in a hotel room in Seattle with Ari Lax and our newest teammate Matt McCullough. We battled extensively with G/R Dragons against the field and came to this list.

Easily my favorite moment in testing was when we realized that Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker was good again. I was building multiple decks with Stormbreath Dragon and instead of making proxies for all of them I told Ari that I would just use my set of Sarkhan, the Dragonspeakers as proxies for Stormbreath Dragons in our Jeskai Dragons deck. He then made a comment about how it was the new Pyschatog. Not being that cultured in the history of Magic, I asked him what he meant.

He then went on to tell me how Shadowmage Infiltrator was all the rage before people realized that Psychatog was simply better. The odd way of realizing this was to just use Psychatog as a proxy for Shadowmage Infiltrator. At some point they just looked at the Atog in play and realized they could actually block and interact profitably with their opponent, and decks began to be built around the powerful uncommon instead of the flashy rare.

Soon after this discussion I was looking for one more threat for G/R Dragons. Ari sheepishly suggested Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker and we put it to the test. It didn’t take long for the both of us to be blown away by how good this card is in a shell filled with ramp creatures and cheap removal. It was an indestructible Dragon when they had Ultimate Price and it was Flametongue Kavu when they had a single threat. We were sold without much testing and I am still sold that this card is great. Give it a shot if you don’t believe me.

I was convinced this was going to be the deck I played at Worlds until Steve Rubin showed up. He sat across from me for as long as I wanted him to while bashing me with Abzan Control over and over again. Maybe our testing was slightly off, or we just didn’t play enough games. Regardless of reason, I was sold that Abzan Control was the deck to play. Steve Rubin has already designed an Abzan Control deck that won a Pro Tour so I can’t deny his abilities in high-level events. I sleeved up his exact list and finished up testing in the other formats.

All that was left was figuring out my last couple slots in Jund. Gerry Thompson was convinced that Hangarback Walker was Modern playable, and after seeing the card in Vintage I couldn’t argue with him until I proved it one way or another. I started testing and learned that the card was exactly what Jund needed to swing the Grixis Control matchup.

Scavenging Ooze seems like it should be good against any Snapcaster Mage deck, but not this one. Filled with Terminate, Lightning Bolt, and Spell Snares, Grixis Control could easily control the early, mid, and late game against Jund. I knew this was a rough matchup throughout the existence of the format, but never knew what could be done. Hangarback Walker was the answer giving the deck a threat that always had value against removal but also could be cast for four mana when trying to play around Spell Snare. This little artifact actually swung the matchup in Jund’s favor.

I thought the metagame would have a little Affinity and enough midrange decks to make playing Hangarback Walker a decent choice. It would be slightly worse against burn and combo than Scavenging Ooze, but that wasn’t that big of a deal since Jund always has some bad cards game one in every matchup. Here is the decklist I chose to play.

I wasn’t too excited about the Mountain, but I thought this metagame would have little to no land-based matchups. This meant that I would sacrifice any that showed up, but would not waste my time with Ghost Quarter and Fulminator Mage. This gave me an extra land slot which should just help me against the more aggressive matchups. This decision was solely based on having access to the mulligan rule and decklists. I would not have played the Mountain without both of these rules applying to Worlds.

The tournament itself is something I don’t really think we need to go into great detail about. Most of you probably were glued to the screen while Seth Manfield manhandled us all on his journey to first place. Testing his matchups with him and seeing him win was almost as good as winning it myself, but seeing how much it meant to him after he won diminished that thought. Seth is one of the greatest guys I’ve met in this game and I am not saying that because he is now our champion. He truly loves this game, maybe more than anyone, and just seeing him on stage holding that trophy proved to me that this game is more than just a game.

I did terribly in Limited and went 2-2 in both Constructed formats. I could say that any close call never went my way, but that’s how Magic goes. I played against the best and I got whooped. You know what?

I’m alright with that.

What really happened to my tournament was that I drafted and played scared. I didn’t go in with the best mindset and it punished me. Never before have I played and felt like an underdog needing to get lucky. I played with emotion even though I told myself I wouldn’t. I felt that I didn’t deserve to win, and my results proved that.

Magic is a unique game. There are so many variables that go into an event that you can never pinpoint exactly one thing that caused a result. Preparation, metagaming, decklists, mulligan decisions, draft picks, deck construction, sleep schedules, outside factors, topdecks, mulligans, die rolls, and a whole laundry list of other things that I can’t think of each influence how well you will do in an event. It would take me weeks to break down everything I could have done better to give myself a better chance to win this event, but that isn’t as relevant to me. Nothing matters more to me than the mental game and mine was off. There was no way to actually control that. Trust me, I tried.

Everything else clicks when you have a clear head. From the first day of testing to the last turn of a tournament, you can get it all to come together if you have the best mindset. Sometimes you bring a bad deck but everyone else does the same thing allowing you to take advantage of that. Sometimes you are good enough to bring the best deck, but it doesn’t matter because your draws were terrible. Whatever actually happens can be manipulated by the urge to never give up and fight for every percentage point. That was something I didn’t have this past weekend and it punished me.

The good thing is that this is something I can work on. I can pick myself up and put in the same amount of work I did to get there last year into this upcoming season. The reset button has already been pressed. All I have to do is give it another go and try my best to get there once again. This time I even have five extra Pro Points.

One thing I learned at Worlds this year is that I was stretched thin. I played in so many events in the past couple months that I should have taken more of a break before Worlds. This might have been one of the reasons for such a deflated mindset going into the event. Magic is a great game, but just like in everything in life, too much of it can be a bad thing. I was gone so much that I was even homesick when I was home. Instead of spending time in my own bed or out with my girlfriend, I found myself instead on the computer preparing for whatever tournament was next. That is going to stop for a while.

The rest of the year is rather clear for me, give or take a couple Grand Prix and Opens. I have the Pro Tour coming up in the next month and a few other events before the Players’ Championship, but I will be skipping some of them for my own sanity. That and I strive to put in more work right here at StarCityGames. My goal in the next couple months is to get back to what I do best: build awesome new decks for you guys to take to tournaments and enjoy. I have been traveling so much as of late that creating new decks has been a pipe dream. I’ve had to resort to playing decks like Abzan Control and G/R Devotion. Sure they might be good, but I don’t get to say things like “Chained to the Rhox,” or “Peddle to the Meddle.” I want to relive the days where I had enough time at home to actually discover some sweet interactions.

Before I go down that rabbit hole, I do have one more important thing to do. See family! I’m signing off now to go spend some quality time with my parents and grandparents before I make my way to Oklahoma City for a Modern Grand Prix. Can you guess what I’m going to play?