Turning Bronze To Gold: Third Place At Pro Tour Ixalan

John Rolf made his Pro Tour breakthrough in Albuquerque, jumping from Bronze to Gold with one great finish! Read about his process, his latest Ramunap Red list, and how to sideboard with it at Grand Prix Atlanta!

This past weekend, I made Top 4 at Pro Tour Ixalan, going from Bronze to locking myself for Gold and many foreseeable Pro Tours, and I only need eleven Pro Points in eight months to get Platinum! It was a dream come true that is only now sinking in. People keep asking how I did it, so I wanted to share my story and some tips that I found particularly useful in going from long-time Magic grinder to Top 8ing a PT. Some of the tips may sound trite, but I’m including them because I think they’re particularly valuable and worth reexamining in all of your individual Magic careers. They aren’t meant to be a complete list—merely ones I think must be considered.

Before 2017, I had an objectively weak Magic resume. I had a lot of premier event win-and-ins but was never able to capitalize on them. I had played PTs before but hadn’t done well in any of them; in fact, I hadn’t even made Day 2. I thought I was a strong Magic player, but it felt like there was always a barrier between me and the success I wanted. I decided to cut back on Magic while I pursued school in 2014. I figured dreams of Top 8ing a premier event or getting a Pro level like Gold or Platinum were over.

In June 2017, I had just graduated from school and decided to play GP Omaha, since it was in my hometown and seemed like a freeroll. I started out 10-0 with Aetherworks Marvel, but lost back-to-back win-and-ins and found myself in the Top 16, on the outside looking in. All I could do was laugh and say, “Yup, this is me.”

My friends Brandon Ayers and Nathan Smith still had faith in me, though, and told me to keep playing and get that Top 8. They suggested we play Team Trios. Together, we had cashed all the team events we had played before that, so I decided to do it. Day 1 at Grand Prix Cleveland, we finished 7-2, but on Day 2 we went 5-0 and ended up making Top 4! Along the way we beat many pro teams, including CFB and the dream squad of Martell-Hayne-Hoaen. The result qualified me for PT Ixalan and locked Brandon for Gold.

Tip 1: Surround yourself with people who are better than you and believe in you.

Next was GP Denver, and I wanted to prove I could get an individual Top 8. I decided to play Ramunap Red. (I used to prefer Islands until Wizards of the Coast decided to print Hazoret the Fervent.) Nathan and I worked on a list designed to completely transform post-sideboard: we gave ourselves access to 25 lands and even Hour of Devastation in our sideboards!

I lost the first round of Swiss and finished 7-2 on Day 1, just like in Cleveland. Day 2, I went undefeated again, and just like that, I was in the Top 8! Brian Braun-Duin knocked me out in the Top 4, but I was qualified for the second PT of the year and was even in the Top 10 for the Player of the Year race behind my good friend Corey Baumeister. Corey joked that he was happy for me as long as I didn’t catch him. I hit up GP Indy and GP Providence (trios) after that. Providence netted me another 3 points, and it fueled my burning desire to continue the success and stay in the Player of the Year race going into the PT.

Tip 2: “Use the fire when you have it. It won’t always be there.” – Matej Zatlkaj

With these words of wisdom from Matej in mind, I started gearing up for Pro Tour Ixalan. I decided to focus primarily on Limited, since I already knew Ramunap Red extremely well. This involved a lot of losing on Magic Online and birding other people’s drafts. It became clear that the format was hyper-aggressive, so cheap tricks and creatures had higher value than usual. I had to adjust my normal Draft strategy of staying open as long as possible, forcing myself to commit to a tribe in Pack 1.

At that point, I didn’t have a team despite the solid summer. Enter Team Metagame Gurus (MGG). Ayers and Smith were already on the squad, and they needed one more to fill out the roster for one of their two teams, MGG Moon. Ayers mentioned me, and Ben Friedman and Travis Woo decided to take a shot on me. I snuck onto the squad as the objectively weakest player.

Tip 3: Results are important, but they don’t define you. It’s more important to focus on how you are playing currently and what you can do to improve.

I went into the Pro Tour with this in mind. The trip to Albuquerque started out rocky, though. Literally:

We eventually made it to the airport only to find out our flight was delayed and we would miss our connecting flight. Ayers somehow missed a 2PM flight out of Denver, while Smith and I were scheduled for a 7:30 flight, well after on-site registration. When we landed in Denver, we were told one spot had opened up on the 2PM flight and were asked which one of us wanted it. Not knowing what to do, we decided to rock-paper-scissors for it, and the customer service rep was clearly tilted that we were holding up the line. I held my breath and ran rock like always (I feel it’s +EV) and got there! The customer service lady just looked at us like we were fools (spoiler: she’s not wrong) and we continued on our way.

Ayers and I landed in Albuquerque and immediately met up with Team MGG. We took pictures and discussed the metagame. I was introduced to T.J. Rogers and Sam Tang (the team managers), and we crafted a plan for the weekend. Next, I headed over to Brandon Burton (aka sandydogmtg)’s hotel to hammer out the Ramunap Red list. He had just binked the Magic Online PTQ with it the week before and he is my go-to for any questions I have on Red. I consulted my brother David as well, since he was playing Hazoret Red before Earthshaker Khenra and Ramunap Ruins were even printed (insane, I know).

After some lively debate, we decided there wasn’t much point in changing the list too much but did decide to give ourselves access to four copies of Abrade in the 75 and add the third Pia Nalaar in the sideboard. At some point, we Facebook chatted with Austin Bursavich (aka SneakyHomonculus), who was also on Ramunap Red, and he suggested adding the second Scavenging Grounds in the maindeck over a Mountain to help against God-Pharaoh’s Gift and The Scarab God. This immediately appealed to me, as I ran that exact manabase in Denver and had no issues. With the deck set, we got some sleep to prepare for Day 1.

Tip 4: Reach out to people in your network who have specific knowledge that you can draw upon. It’s no secret that Brad Nelson is often in contact with grinders who are experts on a deck when he is making a choice as to what to play at a GP. This isn’t because these grinders are even close to him in skill; it’s because he wants as much information as possible to make the most informed decision.

We woke up bright and early and headed to the convention center. I ate a good breakfast and made sure I was hydrated. Soon the first draft was underway, and I ended up with a decent B/R Pirates deck. I believed it to be a 2-1 deck on average. I lost the first round to a busted Merfolk deck. “Not another PT like this,” I started thinking to myself, but I quickly blocked out the thought. I stayed confident and won the next two to end up 2-1.

On to Standard with my trusty Ramunap Red deck. The matches were kind of a blur, but I do know that I cast a lot of Hazorets and managed to 5-0, beating a lot of Temur Energy decks and a mirror along the way. I credit being able to beat Temur to the way I sideboarded, but think the matchup is super-close. The die roll is extremely important.

At this point I was 7-1 and needed food badly. Although I started off the day well with breakfast, I had not eaten since. This is something I’m trying to get better at, but I don’t find myself hungry during tournaments, which often complicates things. We went out to eat, and I tried to get to bed, but I couldn’t fall asleep and kept thinking about the next day. I think I got two to three hours of sleep total.

The next morning, my draft pod included Ben Stark, Mike Sigrist, Pierre Dagen, and Tomoharu Saito. A pod like this would previously tilt me into oblivion, but not anymore. It’s not that I was happy having such great players in my pod, but I no longer get down on myself when I see strong competition. I’m ready to take it one match at a time and draw on the experience I’ve gained this past summer.

Tip 5: Don’t let playing strong players change your game. Even the best in the world only win about 65% of their matches, and there is no reason you can’t be part of the 35%.

I ended up having to play Saito into Dagen into Sigrist. I went 2-1, with Sigrist beating me in the third round. He truly is a Limited master, I can tell you that. One of the games I lost to him was extremely close, and I was able to buy myself some turns representing a bounce spell as I tried to peel Lightning Strike for lethal. In the end, I didn’t get there and revealed the lands in my hand as I congratulated him on 3-0ing the pod.

Before the Standard rounds, Brian David-Marshall interviewed me and mentioned that I was in a good spot to Top 8. I tried not to think about it and just to focus on the cards. I looked to the pairing board, and it’s Seth Manfield. Things weren’t getting easier, that’s for sure! He got me in three close games, and just like that, I had no more losses to give.

At this point, I was getting dejected, as it seemed like the wheels were falling off. I texted my friends and brother, who offered words of encouragement. I buckled down and beat the mirror and a Mono-Black Aggro deck, setting up a win-and-in against Mardu under the lights, facing Pro Tour upstart and good guy Sam Ihlenfeldt. I managed to get there!

When I found out I was able to draw the next round, I was elated and started getting emotional. All my friends were congratulating me. The work I’d put into a game I’ve played for so long had finally paid off, and the feeling was incredible. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. They announced my name, and we did photos and paperwork. The MGG managers made sure I was set for Sunday, and my mind was at ease. I tried to get as much sleep as possible, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the Top 8.

The Top 8 itself was a giant blur and a truly humbling experience. The white noise in the headphones combined with the surrounding crowd took me out of my element, and I played quite poorly as a result. These are things that can be managed with time and experience. All competitors have these obstacles, and they are part of being an elite Magic player. I’m disappointed that I couldn’t play my best for Team MGG, but I see this as something concrete that I can work on and tangibly improve my match win percentages.

I’m now more motivated than ever and plan to make it up to the team. I will move forward as a player and won’t let one match define who I am. In this vein, I’d like to say congrats to Pascal and Seth for killing the Top 8 and playing top-level Magic throughout. If I can play at a level anywhere near these guys in the coming years, I know I will have a successful Magic career. It’s truly inspiring.

As for the Top 8 games themselves, the quarterfinals played out like it normally does: Ramunap Red trying to finish off Temur Energy before it can turn the corner. I was able to break serve (I was on the draw throughout the Top 8 as the seventh seed), and in Game 5 my opponent mulliganed to five and I simply had the nuts.

Playing Pascal’s God-Pharaoh’s Gift deck in the Top 4 was much more challenging. I had neglected to test the matchup, which was sloppy on my part. During the match I was much too worried about the combo part of his deck, and he punished me by playing normal Magic and just hardcasting his Angel of Inventions. I prefer his version to its Esper counterparts, as it seems like it’s not as reliant on the graveyard (or God-Pharaoh’s Gift, for that matter), which makes hate cards much worse. It truly was a nice metagame call by him.

Sideboard Suggestions

I would be remiss if I didn’t include a sideboarding guide for people interested in playing Ramunap Red in the weeks coming up. You might notice this guide is different from what a lot of people suggest with the deck, but I’ve tried it all and this has given me the most success (especially against Temur). Seth’s PT-winning list seems particularly good versus Ramunap Red (with Vraska’s Contempts for Hazoret), but as decks evolve to combat his deck, they will likely sacrifice some points against Ramunap Red. Ramunap Red will never be a terrible choice because its cards are excellent and it is super-consistent.

Generally speaking, with this deck you want to be streamlined and aggressive when you are on the play and more removal- and top-heavy on the draw. That being said, you’ll notice I take out Soul-Scar Mage on the play as well as the draw. This is simply because it’s the weakest card in the deck.

Temur Energy, on the Play



Temur Energy, on the Draw



In testing for the Top 8, some people suggested Aethersphere Harvester post-sideboard. I haven’t had a chance to try this yet, but it might be something worth looking into.

Ramunap Red



Be extremely careful with your Soul-Scar Mages. The matchup is entirely about not letting your opponents use their mana efficiently. Ahn-Crop Crasher comes out because it can be answered by everything, and you can’t afford to pay three and have them Shock it.

Seth Manfield-Style Sultai Energy, on the Play



Seth Manfield-Style Sultai Energy, on the Draw



Maxing out on three-damage removal spells is important on the draw, since Turn 1 Attune with Aether into Turn 2 Longtusk Cub can win the game for them quickly. Shock is better on the draw than it is on the play, since it allows you to catch up.

Pascal Maynard-Style W/U Gift



You can consider keeping in a Hazoret or two on the play, but it matches up poorly against Sacred Cats and the small creatures his list has that can chump block it.

Mardu Vehicles, on the Play



Mardu Vehicles, on the Draw



Thank you everyone that supported me this past weekend, friends and members of Team Metagame Gurus. This run wouldn’t have been possible without you.

I’m excited for what’s to come! I’m hoping the people trying to go from grinder to Pro Tour competitor took away something useful from this. Go get ’em!