“I’ve never played a good deck at a Pro Tour.” These words echoed through my head for about three weeks leading up to PT Dark Ascension. To be honest, I started to panic. I was stuck at school with very few opportunities to playtest live, and there was no Dark Ascension on Magic Online either.
Let’s back up for a minute. Dark Ascension would be my fifth Pro Tour, and I’d yet to finish in the money. In short, I was sick of lackluster performances, and I’d long gotten over that I was missing days of school and friends to be there. It wasn’t even enough to come back with a positive record and slightly thicker wallet; I wanted a result. “It’s time to put up or shut up,” I told myself.
I played W/U Humans to a top 64 finish at Grand Prix Orlando, but I was also very concerned about playing that deck in a field filled with Sword of War and Peace and Huntmaster of the Fells. Playing 25 or more creatures also made me feel like I was again leaving my fate up to the decisions of others.
With this in mind, I fired up Magic Online and began playing with U/W Delver, and I started winning. More importantly I now felt in complete control of every game I was playing, although this often (especially at first) meant that my mistakes were being punished. After 30 or so matches, I realized this deck was exactly what I wanted to be doing in any format. For every other deck I thought about playing, there was someone in the back of my head saying, “You idiot, why would you play that?” I knew that when playing Delver, a bad Standard record would be the result of my play, not my deck.
One major trap I’ve noticed myself and others falling into when a new set comes out is overvaluing the impact of new cards. While I think you need to use new sets to break a format wide open, I’m not sure it’s worth it if that means you’re sacrificing hundreds of practice games to do so. People that are able to do both, like the Finkel/Chapin beach house or Team Channel Fireball are in the best position of all. Looking at their results, it’s pretty hard to argue against hiding out for a week before an event and testing nonstop.
Lastly, I realized I was now in a position to play a nearly mono-blue deck in a Pro Tour. If that’s not the dream, I don’t know what is.
Here’s the decklist I registered the morning of the tournament.
Thought Scour is the only Dark Ascension card in the 75, but it does a surprisingly good job as cantrips numbers nine and ten. Previous iterations of the deck in testing (without Dark Ascension) always seemed to have one or two cards in the maindeck that I wasn’t very happy with. Thought Scour simply allowed me to play a 50-card deck without worrying about having too many narrow or low-impact cards in all of my game 1’s.
The sideboard may seem a little random, but the beauty of playing a deck with so many filtering spells is the ability to find your sideboard cards. The presence of Snapcaster Mage also has a huge effect on deckbuilding because drawing a one-of instant or sorcery gives you access to a virtual second copy during a game.
The last card we added, at the suggestion of Jason Ford, was a Consecrated Sphinx. Sphinx provided the role of finisher against mono-green and R/G aggressive decks that seemed to be picking up in popularity. It’s difficult to rely on equipment against these decks, particularly R/G ones with Ancient Grudge. Between Timely Reinforcements and Vapor Snag, getting to six mana isn’t nearly as daunting as it appears.
Two of my good friends and roommates for the tournament, Jason Ford and Ben Friedman, played the exact same maindeck as me, while Ben had one or two sideboard differences from the 75 Jason and I played.
Now on to the tournament itself!
Waking up unnaturally early due to jetlag, Jason, Ben, Justin Desai, and I went down the street from our hotel to a cafÃ© for breakfast. There was a middle-aged man working behind the counter, and he seemed so genuinely upbeat and happy to serve us. It’s little things like this that make my day, and I honestly believe his attitude had something to do with how I felt during the tournament.
Spoiler: I insisted on going to the same place the following two mornings as well.
As for the rounds themselves, I’ll give a quick recap of each, while making sure to highlight any particularly interesting situations.
Round 1: Diego Mediano, Delver with Lingering Souls
I always get first round jitters, no matter what tournament it is. I’m starting to believe this is more because of coffee than any actual nerves on my part.
I never felt in real danger either game, despite him flipping a Delver by turn 3 in both. Sword over performed through Lingering Souls in game 1, and I took game 2 off of an early Geist and enough removal spells to prevent him from ever blocking it or putting pressure on.
Round 2: Arnaud Duval, Tempered Steel
One thing we noticed while putting together the sideboard for this deck was that there are accidentally about ten cards to bring in against Tempered Steel between artifact removal, Timely Reinforcements, and creature removal.
I lost a very drawn out game 1 where he eventually stuck an Etched Champion, and I was always one artifact behind getting it off the table and a creature short of racing him.
Games 2 and 3 went much more smoothly, as Revoke Existence kept Tempered Steel off the table and Geist proved too much for him to handle. In particular, I remembered winning game 3 with Day of Judgment still in hand. (This becomes a theme throughout the tournament.)
One thing to note about playing Delver is how much better Geist becomes post-board against aggressive decks, because you have so many more removal spells to keep them from putting pressure on or amassing any sort of board presence.
I felt comfortable at this point. The jitters were gone and everything seemed fluid.
Round 3: Andreas Nordahl, W/U Humans
Despite being a traditionally bad matchup for Delver, I felt pretty confident about my Humans matchup having played both sides of it so much in recent months.
I won the die roll and flipped Delver on turn 3, while he had a traditional start with two Champion of the Parish. Vapor Snag on turns 2 and 5, along with Sword of War and Peace allowed me to win fairly comfortably.
I got rolled game 2, as he started on Champion, next turn Champion and Doomed Traveler, and then Honor of the Pure and Champion on turn 3. I managed to stay alive with a Timely Reinforcements, but a second Honor came down and ended the game.
Game 3 was weird since he didn’t play very many early threats besides a Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, while I played Timely Reinforcements on turn 4. Eventually I resolved a Geist, then later a Sword, and managed to again win the game with Day of Judgment still in my hand.
Locked in, escaped a match where I got nut-drawn.
Round 4: Paulo Vitor, R/G Ramp
This match is covered in detail here.
Martin Juza also had a feature match this round, and I’d played Martin in Orlando (when I was on Humans), so I figured there was a reasonable chance Paulo thought I was still playing the deck. This proved to be true as I Probed him on turn 1, to his surprise. His hand was Whipflare, Slagstorm, and lands, which I forced him to cast on the most awkward turns possible.
The end of game 3 was fairly interesting and caused a bit of chatter on the internet after our match. The last turn of the game, I attacked with a Spirit, Geist of Saint Traft, and an Angel. Paulo blocked and Galvanic Blasted (with metalcraft) the Angel, but I had Mutagenic Growth to deal him exactly lethal.
According to the internet (and even the coverage reporter), Paulo Blasted the Spirit token. I talked to Paulo about it later in the day, confirming my understanding that he had targeted the Angel. I guess at some point we had mentally switched the two tokens in play, even if that wasn’t apparent to everyone watching.
That being said, the whole thing was a little scary for me. It would have been catastrophic mistake for me to Mutagenic Growth there, if for some reason he was actually targeting the Spirit. After this round, I made sure to go get the proper tokens from a judge.
Round 5: Benjamin Leitner, R/G Aggro
Benjamin was a young (14 I believe) player from Austria. He was playing an aggressive R/G deck, similar to the version played by Matthias Hunt and Kyle Stoll.
Game 2 was my closest win of the day as he got me down to nine with a bunch of cards in hand. On my upkeep, he played three Incinerate, but I Mana Leaked the last one, attacked with Geist and Snapcaster, and dodged any topdecks by him.
Going into the first Draft, I was feeling on top of the world. I’d never been in such a commanding position going into the Limited portion, which is where I generally feel the most comfortable.
I managed to lose this draft deck, but you can see my picks here.
My draft was drastically impacted by the player to my left, who opened Huntmaster of the Fells. I spent most of pack 1 trying to position myself for Innistrad, knowing I wanted to be white, and open to drafting either blue or black. Dark Ascension was a fairly weak pack for the entire table, and when the same player opened Bloodline Keeper and passed it my way, I was forced to switch into black. I ended up a couple cards short of the deck I wanted in the end.
One of the most disappointing things about this deck was that I ended up short enough on playables that I didn’t really have many impactful sideboard options. Having good sideboard cards is an underrated aspect of Limited and definitely way more valuable than people give it credit for.
Round 6: Robert Jurkovic, B/W
Game 1 demonstrated the power of Gavony Ironwright, a card which I think is very underrated. I chose to draw, and he put on pressure with Vampire Interloper and Screeching Bat while I began to amass a force of ground creatures. The game got complicated when he knocked me down to four life, since I had two lifelink creatures, but the life gain also put me out of fateful hour range. After Fiend Huntering a flyer, I used Bonds of Faith to get in for six points of lifelink and eventually won the game with two 2/5 Spirit tokens after he knocked me below six again.
6-0, 1-0 Draft
Round 7: David Gleicher, U/W/R
David played an early Jar of Eyeballs in game 1 and began to mill himself with Selhoff Occultist. Eventually, Moorland Haunt came down, and just when I thought I’d stabilized with Wolfhunter’s Quiver, he played and flashed back Rally the Peasants to kill me from fifteen.
I played Bloodline Keeper on turn 4 of game 2 and began to make tokens. David used Rally the Peasants to hit me down to exactly five while I had Ironwright in play. I attacked and when he blocks only one of my four vampire tokens, I flipped Bloodline Keeper to kill him.
We both mulliganed in game 3, which began with limited time on the clock. He Silent Departured my Bloodline Keeper on turns 5 and 6, and by the time it eventually resolved I was at seven life. At this point, my opponent had one card and attacked me with Moon Heron and Selfless Cather to my board of just Bloodline Keeper.
This decision was probably my toughest of the tournament. I noticed during the match that my opponent had at least two red sources, which meant that it’s entirely possible he had more than just Rally for red cards. In addition to Rally, he had also shown me Skillful Lunge, which I ruled out since I would lose regardless of how I blocked. My hand at this point was Abattoir Ghoul, Elgaud Inquisitor, Altar’s Reap, and a Rotting Fensnake. I had four lands, and he had six lands including a Shimmering Grotto.
I decided to block Moon Heron since that would leave me on six life facing just a Selfless Cathar with Abattoir Ghoul and a lifelink creature in hand. This block also meant that I survived Rally the Peasants or a topdecked removal spell the following turn. As it turned out, my opponent’s card was Chapel Geist, and after he followed it up with a topdecked Midnight Haunting I was finally dealt my first loss.
6-1, 1-1 Draft
Round 8: Thoralf Severin, U/R/G
My opponent’s deck was a slow control deck with cards like Think Twice, Desperate Ravings, and Faithless Looting. I think the matchup was very much in his favor, since I had lots of defensive cards and very few ways to take advantage of his lack of early plays.
Game 2 I managed to play some early creatures and had a removal spell for his attempt to stabilize.
Game 3 he played his splashed Daybreak Ranger on turn 3, and I didn’t play a third land.
6-2, 1-2 Draft
I’m very dejected at this point, but a number of people remind me that I would’ve gladly taken 6-2 if you offered me it at the beginning of the day. Still, there’s a pretty big difference between winning and losing the last round of any day, and I was definitely feeling it.
One thing that always keeps me going during a big event is the constant stream of texts and encouragement that I get from people watching the coverage. I’ve met so many amazing people playing this game, and it’s pretty awesome to have what feels like a veritable army behind me.
Same coffee shop. Same exceptionally friendly barista. Same uplifting experience.
I started the draft with back-to-back Skirsdag Flayer and followed them up with Loyal Cathar to cement myself in Black/White (and made sure everyone knew it!). I opened Falkenrath Noble pack 2, and my next four picks were Dead Weight, Dead Weight, Mausoleum Guard, Dead Weight. It got even better in pack 3 when Jelger Wiegersma passed me Geist-Honored Monk and Slayer of the Wicked. My deck ended up looking like this:
1 Typhoid Rats
1 Doomed Traveler
1 Loyal Cathar
1 Unruly Mob
1 Silverchase Fox
2 Skirsdag Flayer
1 Elder Cathar
1 Midnight Guard
2 Chapel Geist
1 Slayer of the Wicked
1 Falkenrath Noble
1 Mausoleum Guard
1 Elgaud Inquisitor
1 Geist-Honored Monk
Relevant sideboard cards:
Gravepurge definitely over performed in this deck between Slayer, Noble, and Monk.
Round 9: Tom Martell, G/U/B
This round was fairly anticlimactic, as we never actually played an interactive game.
I got stuck on mana in game 1, and he ran me over with a bunch of green creatures and blue fliers.
6-3, 1-3 Draft
If 6-2 was rough, then I was feeling pretty awful at this point. I thought my draft deck was awesome, but I had managed to lose to a deck that Martell was admittedly pretty unhappy with.
However, there was a bunch of time left on the clock, so I put on my iPod and went for a walk outside the convention center. Initially I thought I had some destination, but I ended up just wandering around for a while.
Brief aside: Walks are awesome. Not just for Magic tournaments, but in general for getting focused. With technology the way it is, we’re constantly barraged with information and people. It’s really nice to shut off your cell phone, go for a walk, and just think with no interruptions.
I mentioned I thought my draft deck was awesome. Luckily for me, it was.
Round 10: Elias Watsfeldt, G/W
Elias had a pretty strong draw in game 1, with Gather the Townsfolk, Gatstaf Shepherd, and Travel Preparations. I traded Typhoid Rats early and started to attack in the air with Chapel Geist. Burden of Guilt took care of a Gallows Warden from him, and I managed to stall the board with Mausoleum Guard and other ground creatures while riding my fliers to victory.
I was stuck without black mana in game 2, but I had the board relatively stabilized when he used Urgent Exorcism to free his Warden that was again Burdened then used Travel Prep to make it a 5/5 and kill me.
Falkenrath Noble pulled its weight considerably in game 3, as it always does against green/white. I race him in the air with Noble and Spirits from Geist-Honored Monk, and Skirsdag Flayer utterly decimated his team.
7-3, 2-3 Draft
Round 11: Kai Burnett, U/W/B
Kai was playing an aggressive deck with four Delver of Secrets and two Grasp of Phantasms among other fliers and tempo cards. He mulliganed on the play in Game 1 and stumbled, as I won without him ever even attacking me.
We both mulliganed for game 2, and he led with a Delver of Secrets which flipped on turn 1 revealing Bone to Ash. I had Plains in play since I had Loyal Cathar in hand, but I Dead Weighted his Delver the next turn before it got out of control. He played Lingering Souls on three while I only had Cathar. The next turn, I led with Mausoleum Guard into his Bone to Ash, which he countered immediately but had no follow up. I played out the Falkenrath Noble and Elgaud Inquisitor that I was sandbagging. I took a while to win this game, made sure that I couldn’t lose to any combination of Feeling of Dread and Griptide, and eventually ground him out with Flayer and Noble.
8-3, 3-3 Draft
For the first time in my life, I felt great about returning to Constructed at the back end of a tournament.
Round 12: Dustin Flora, U/B Heartless Summoning
I stumbled early on in game 1 and succumbed to a pretty quick Massacre Wurm followed up by Havengul Lich. I also noticed in this game that he has lots of blue and black basic lands, so I figured he’s not playing the combo version with Priest of Urabrask.
I probed him early on in game 1 and had a Revoke ready for his turn 2 Heartless Summoning. At end of turn, I started pressuring him with one Snapcaster Mage and then a second. When my turn six Probe revealed he’d drawn basically nothing but lands, I sped up and put the game away.
Similar to Game 2, I Revoked his turn 2 Summoning and resolved a Geist while playing around the Phantasmal Image I knew he had. He was stuck with two Tragic Slip and a Go for the Throat while I rode my hexproof guy to the win.
9-3, 6-0 Constructed
Sometimes this deck makes you feel like you’re playing a different format than your opponent.
Round 13: Dominic Morel, G/W Humans
Two early Probes revealed that Dominic was stuck with three Hero of Bladehold in hand after leading with Champion of the Parish into Doomed Traveler. I flipped an early Delver and Mana Leaked a Fiend Hunter knowing I could kill him before a Hero ever got to attack. My next turn was Geist, Snag Hero, and I put the game away pretty quickly from there.
He kept a slow hand after mulliganing in game 2, while I set up to Day of Judgment. However, he seemed to not be playing many creatures, which scared me since he might have some sort of larger trump that I couldn’t deal with. I played out a Geist and started to beat him down, and my read proved to be correct as he played Gideon a turn later. This didn’t matter since I had Snapcaster to bounce his blocker and kill Gideon. I again won a game against aggro with Day still in hand.
10-3, 7-0 Constructed
Clinched money, but I tried not to think about it. I couldn’t be content, and I couldn’t let my focus escape me.
Round 14: Eric Meng, B/R Zombies
This was the first round of the tournament where I really started to feel how close I was, which definitely added to the tension of the match.
That being said, he mulliganed to five in game 1 and kept a no-land hand (Probed him!). Naturally, he played Blackcleave Cliffs off the top and led with Diregraf Ghoul. This game ended up closer than I would’ve liked as my Delver stayed unflipped for a few turns, but eventually he succumbed to a Sword of War and Peace.
For the first time in my life, I called a judge to check my opponent’s deck. Something about the way he played that first land from his library really irked me, and I wanted to make sure I was protecting myself. The deck check came up clean, and I fully believe that my opponent was an honest guy.
Game 3 was one of the weirder games I’ve ever played. I mulliganed to five while he went to four. I Probed him on turn 1 and saw three lands and Ratchet Bomb. I jokingly ask him if his top card is Diregraf Ghoul after playing my Delver. He waited a turn before ticking Bomb up to one and playing a second one, but at this point I had a Snapcaster Mage in play. On my turn, I saw a Vapor Snag on Delver and sold my disappointment while choosing not to flip. I played Sword, and his Bombs go to one and two. Next turn he let my trigger resolve so I flipped Delver and equipped Sword to Mage, hoping that he would blow Bomb for two, catching the other in the process. He took the hit, and I played a second Delver. The next turn, he blew up my Sword and played one of his own, but I was able to close out the game quickly from there anyway.
11-3, 8-0 Constructed
Between deck checks and mulligans, there wasn’t much time left, so I had a pretty big crowd watching my match. I turned around to see Jason Ford performing hockey goal celebrations in front of the pairings board. Who knew someone could slide so far across the floor?
The nerves really kicked in at this point (as in my heart was pounding out of my chest at the end of that last match). At the same time, my constructed deck was making me feel invincible, and I was as confident as ever.
My good friend Dan Jordan was also 11-3 at this point, so we chatted a bit to make sure we knew what the rest of our bracket was playing.
Round 15: Lukas Jaklovsky, U/B Control
We got called over to the feature match area, which gave me a little bit of time to refocus and get myself settled down. This doesn’t work at all, and my heart is still pounding. I knew he was playing U/B from watching a few rounds previous. However, I hadn’t played against control yet in the tournament, so I needed to shift gears a bit.
I led on Probe after winning the die roll, and his hand was two Black Sun’s Zenith, Blue Sun’s Zenith, and four lands. I again couldn’t help but wonder if he had false information that I was playing Humans. I played Delver on turn 1, which didn’t flip and he Zenithed it on turn 3 while I resolved Sword. The next turn, I played Geist and equipped Sword. He Zenithed for three (I assumed that he had Curse or another Zenith to follow up the next turn), but I played second Sword, equipped, and dealt him twenty or so.
I caught smiles from Cedric Phillips and Justin Desai peering in from the rails. It really hit me how close I was.
The next game was weird as I get stuck on Island, Moorland Haunt for a turn early on but Thought Scoured my way into a second Island and then put pressure on with end step Snapcaster into Scour. In order to make this play, I had to discard a Vapor Snag (this is key later). I have two Mana Leaks in hand at this point, so I played out a Delver of Secrets with Island and two Moorland Haunts up. He went for Zenith, which I Leaked and then flipped my Delver. My hand was Leak, Pike, Sword, Snapcaster, and Vapor Snag. I did some quick Sword and Pike math while he’s tapped out, but I could only bring him to one or two. I attacked for five and passed. Next turn, he played Curse of Death’s Hold with four mana available. I Leaked, which he let resolve. He played Image and copied Delver. This whole line is pretty strange to me, so I tanked for a while to try to figure out what was actually going on. End step, I Snapcastered, assuming he was holding a Leak, but then I could just Snag from my hand and kill him with equipment. He let Snapcaster resolve so I killed his Image, and he conceded to Pike the next turn.
12-3, 9-0 Constructed
The match went by so quickly that I was forced to sweat it out for close to forty minutes before finding out I could draw. I made a quick call to Chase Kovac, but then shut my phone off partially to avoid reading too many positive comments that might jinx me. I couldn’t be less superstitious in most of my life, but Magic really does it to me.
Aside: Anyone who doesn’t find oneself consciously or subconsciously choosing a particular side of the table before a match is probably lying.
Round 16: Brian Kibler, Ramp
12-3-1, 9-0-1 Constructed
We drew. I was in. I thought my heart would stop beating so fast at this point, but obviously it was still pounding out of my chest.
After dealing with the administrative stuff, I headed out to dinner with Justin, Ben, and Jason. We brought the Top 8 decklists along a discuss strategy a bit, but I also tried to enjoy myself.
Top 8 profiles went up online, and Justin complained that they spelled his last name “Resai.” We spent the rest of the night calling him Mr. Resai.
The rest of the night was pretty weird for me, because it’s really difficult to keep the “not content” vibe going after making a Top 8. Inside, I was grinning from ear to ear, but I didn’t want to let it affect me.
Jason sleeved up a copy of Jon’s deck, and we started playing games. The matchup is really interesting, since Mana Leak is way better than in any sort of normal Delver mirror. The Spirits deck is surprisingly concentrated on sorcery speed spells and expensive creatures, so Snag and Dismember are quite good as well. We quickly deduced that Geist was one of the most important cards from my side of the matchup.
During testing, I tried to keep in mind that Jon would play the deck differently than whoever I was playing against. This meant I had to keep an open mind about how he would sideboard and adjust accordingly.
I tried to isolate myself in the morning and not get distracted in any way. They even gave out sweet leis to the Top 8, but I quickly tossed it aside and focused on the task at hand. In retrospect, I wish I’d held onto it.
Right before my match, Reid Duke gave me a quick pep talk about not getting overwhelmed and not doing anything differently than normal. I’d like to think this worked.
I always find it crazy how locked in I get during a match of Magic. I honestly believe that the building could be on fire around me, and I wouldn’t notice unless someone snapped me out of playing. I’ve heard lots of people comment about how daunting it must have been to play against Finkel, but in the moment it was hardly that way. To be honest, once we started playing Jon was just another nameless, faceless stranger on the other side of the table.
The match itself is covered in immense detail in a number of different forms, so I won’t go into the games themselves. Sideboarding focused mostly on wanting at least one Dissipate on the play, as well as always boarding in Dismember and Day of Judgment. I cut Runechanter’s Pike and Thought Scour. The one decision I regret was not boarding in Mutagenic Growth. The situation came up very frequently where my Geist of Saint Traft was blocked by many creatures.Â Growth would have been an important way to leverage my advantage whenever I was able to untap with Geist.
Game 4 was a little bit disappointing; after he kept a hand with zero spells, he managed to draw out of it in time to win. There was certainly a sour taste in my mouth to have the tournament end that way for me.
Still, I can’t feel bad about losing to the best ever in a Top 8 that many are calling one of the strongest of all time. One day, I hope I can actually contribute to that part of the statistic.
A week later, I’m still not sure the results of the Pro Tour have sunk in for me yet. I’m sitting on 36 Pro Points, and it’s looking very much like I’ll hit Platinum in the Player’s Club this year. If they were to cut right now, I’d even be invited to the World Championship this summer! I plan on making that my next goal.
Tournament Magic has the horrible and awesome quality of making you never satisfied. I remember it all: my first JSS, my first PTQ Top 8, my first PT Invite, my first GP Top 8, and now my first PT Top 8. All I can say is that I want more.
I’ll be in Baltimore next weekend playing Delver again. I’d love to talk a bit about it now, but I’m also bordering on a million words and don’t feel like I could do it justice. I’ll leave you with this: Dismember is getting better, Gut Shot is getting worse, and if you want to beat Ramp please play more than two Mana Leak in your blue decks.
Lastly, I’ve met so many amazing people through this game that I’ll never forget. I’m sorry I can’t slip in all of the namedrops I want, but it’s the people that keep me coming back time and time again. Escaping the real world for a brief adventure in “the matrix” is as amazing as the name would imply. Hopefully you’ll be hearing for me again soon. (Please, Lauren?)
Until next time,
_Cryptic on Magic Online