I’m not that competitive. Except when I am.
I’m well past the days of feeling like I had something to prove to anybody else, though now and again I feel compelled to prove something to myself. With the exception of the generally neglected Standard format, I haven’t been feeling any of the competitive Magic formats lately. This is part of why I was so excited for the week of Vintage Cube Supreme Draft on Magic Online (MTGO). When the week finally came and I found myself crushing in the queues, a question that I had never seriously asked myself before started invading my thoughts.
To 3-0 more drafts in a “season” than any other player on MTGO is no easy task. We can assume some bar for quality of play and win rate, but more than that the amount of time that you’re willing to play will make or break any attempt at such a feat, not unlike grinding the Arena ladder. The trophy leader is usually Jonathan Brostoff, and he usually accumulates enough trophies to make me wonder if he ever sleeps.
I’m way too big on sleeping to take on TeamJbro in the average season. Supreme Draft week was different though. I 3-0’d my first draft. And my second draft. And my third draft. It wasn’t until my sixth attempt that I failed to trophy. It turned out that my assessments in my Supreme Draft article were pretty spot on. The one issue with that piece is that for some reason uncommunicated, this run of Supreme Draft didn’t allow duplicates.
It was after my second draft that I started to really notice that I hadn’t seen any duplicates in my decks or anyone else’s, and it was quickly confirmed by other players on Twitter that this was the case. It remains unclear if this was a bug or by design, but it was interesting all the same. The possibility of having any number of Black Lotus in a deck is exciting, but the fact that players couldn’t have more than one copy of any card was gameable. Once I realized that we weren’t all just spinning the wheel but rather playing a bizzaro 40-card version of Singleton Vintage Constructed, I was much more confident in my ability to win any given game.
Suddenly there were metagame considerations beyond just what the best card in a pack was. Tinker for Blightsteel Colossus was good, but exploitable by a handful of bounce and steal effects. Tinker for Bolas’s Citadel was the ideal case, and Tinker for Inkwell Leviathan starts to be a huge play under these parameters. Of course, you couldn’t always get a Tinker or a good Tinker deck, and even when you did, you still had to pass a Force of Will / Force of Negation check or a wider range of counterspells when on the draw.
The best opener in my experience was Turn 1 Mox plus Urza’s Saga. Interaction with lands and enchantments is sparse, and getting some big threats and tutoring up additional fast mana can win the game without much help. Similarly, I don’t believe that I saw a Turn 1 Library of Alexandria lose a game until I was fifteen or so drafts in.
Beyond specific cards, the gameplay broke in interesting ways revolving around the draft process. Drafting eighteen packs with no duplicates means that you see exactly half of the Cube. All of the decks that I trophied with were blue decks, and overwhelmingly I would expect that most winning decks in the field were also blue. This wasn’t a universal truth, but you could still draw some interesting conclusions based on the process of drafting.
For example, if you draft half the Cube and nobody ever passes Black Lotus, then the average deck has .5 copies of Black Lotus. Given this information, I went into the first game of a match assuming that the opponent was very likely to be doing something powerful, but I wouldn’t make many specific assumptions until I saw specific cards or saw a reason to play around them.
This heuristic led me to mulligan hands that were nothing remarkable beyond lands and spells, but also to keep hands that didn’t have overwhelmingly powerful plans because I figured my opponent was flipping a coin to have access to the sort of hands that would cause me to mulligan to Force of Will anyway. That said, I would keep nearly any hand with a Force of Will or Force of Negation on the draw that could make some land drops because that should leave me at least a little time to set up.
I Tweeted every deck that I 3-0’d with during the week in this thread, which is neat both to show my approach to the format and to reconstruct the timeline. From here, I’m going to recount my run at the trophy lead day by day.
New Cubes go live on MTGO around noon, but I don’t usually get my first drafts in until after dinner. On Wednesday nights I watch All Elite Wrestling with some friends online, which runs on my other monitor while I draft. I took up brewing beer as a pandemic hobby, which meshed well with my pre-pandemic hobby of drinking beer. My current batch is a Dunkelweizen that I consider generally unremarkable. Wrestling that night was similarly unremarkable, but it was good backdrop to have a couple of beers to and rack up my first three trophies.
Between my second and third drafts I confirmed the lack of duplicates in the current implementation of Supreme Draft, and decided to start experimenting with cards that I believed increased in value by nature of the format offering high access to power while remaining singleton. It was in this third draft that I discovered that casting Empty the Warrens for six or eight Goblins was surprisingly difficult for many blue decks to beat, which is in some ways similar to how Urza’s Saga easily won games when it showed up early. It was just another threat that was resistant to counterspells. I didn’t end up playing Empty too many times, but it was useful knowledge to have in my back pocket.
At this point I was more enjoying playing the format and excited to explore it than considering the trophy race. Not excited enough to stay up until midnight though. Sleep is important, gamers!
Thursday ended up being an even earlier night for me, and I actually spent more time birding other people drafting than drafting myself. I messed around a little with splashing more colors and Prismatic Vista started to be a high pick for me out of unexciting packs in case I end up wanting to splash an Oko and a Dack. The mana was rarely great in these spots, but it was often good enough.
The reason I stopped playing this evening was mostly due to the realization after playing a match that I had intentionally played a Bolas’s Citadel in a deck that could not realistically ever put it on the battlefield. You’ve gotta know when to walk away, even when you’re winning.
As I recall, the trophy leader at this time only had like seven trophies. So even though I was calling it an early night, I was feeling great about being 15-0 in matches and was starting to consider making a push for the trophy lead. The big hurdle to this was my Friday schedule. I have a number of obligations on Fridays, including running a D&D campaign that starts pretty promptly after dinner and runs until bedtime. My prime drafting hours!
I managed to sneak two drafts in Friday afternoon, one trophy and one unsuccessful attempt. The trophy deck had a castable Bolas’s Citadel which turned out to be a really smart innovation. Some other conclusions were that Ebondeath, Dracolich was playable by virtue of having flash and that Emry, Lurker of the Loch was dramatically better when your deck was a coin flip to have a Black Lotus.
I also started taking a hard stance against cards like Mox Diamond and Vampiric Tutor. Initially I valued them somewhat highly, but as more and more games revolved around Force of Will and Mana Drain, it became increasingly clear that any card that asked you to go down a card was putting you more in a position to outright lose to one counterspell. I would later start to get immensely frustrated any time I cast a Timetwister and my opponent got the better end of it, but the ceiling on that one was high enough that I could never talk myself completely out of drafting and playing with it unless I was relatively light on fast mana.
After these drafts I spent a few hours giving some heavy exposition regarding the world of Curse of Strahd to my D&D group as other drafters really started getting busy with the weekend upon us. Starting the day behind and not making much progress that day isn’t great in terms of racing, but I wasn’t looking to significantly disrupt my everyday life.
I believe that the trophy leader had ten or so trophies when I woke up on Saturday, which wasn’t outlandishly ahead of my six, but it was a significant gap. While I was able to get a couple of drafts in this afternoon, I had promised my partner that I’d watch Encanto with her, so I wasn’t able to just draft from dawn until dusk. I did manage two trophies in the afternoon though.
This is when I landed my first 3-0 6-0 draft, which was an encouraging data point. It was with something of a Storm deck, which seemed difficult to consistently draft but likely the best thing you could be doing when it came together. I consider trying to force Storm a sucker’s bet, but hedging towards a light Storm package and shoving when it’s appropriate seemed a sound strategy.
Really the most significant conclusion I had drawn at this point was that Time Walk was the singular card in the Cube that was best at either coming back from otherwise impossible situations or putting your opponent in impossible situations itself. Whether I was casting Time Walk myself or facing it down, it was a much bigger deal in Supreme Draft than in regular Vintage Cube, given that you were so much more likely to easily convert an extra turn into a win with some combination of threats and answers.
Beyond that, this made cards that recurred Time Walk something to look out for to maximize the drafts where you won the Time Walk coin flip. There’s the obvious ones like Snapcaster Mage and Spellseeker to tutor for the Time Walk, but something that you wouldn’t necessarily normally play like a value Yawgmoth’s Will to recur Time Walk was now on my radar.
I started dropping from drafts when I had one loss, but the real killer was all the finals losses. I had somewhere in the ballpark of eight 2-1s over the course of the week, which abstractly means I was drafting well, but they were frustrating to think about in the context of being down three trophies on the leaderboard.
Encanto was super good if you haven’t seen it. I generally found myself needing some time away from MTGO at this point and suggested the completely bizarre double feature of Scream after we finished watching the movie. To my slight surprise this suggestion was deemed agreeable. It was a really delightful evening.
After the movies I talked myself into one more draft, and with a belly full of popcorn and beer I picked up trophy number nine. I was still behind in the race, but I was getting into striking distance.
We record The 540 on Sunday evenings, which doesn’t take all that much time, but there is a fair amount of preparation and mental energy that goes into that sort of thing. It was a rough afternoon in the queues and I was only able to pick up one trophy before we recorded, though I did nab another after.
This would have been around the time that Ari Zax took a firm hold on the trophy lead, with fourteen being the approximate target. I queued into him twice over the weekend and lost both bouts. While I don’t remember the specifics, I want to say I made some boneheaded error that cost me in our first meeting, with the second being a matter of me getting Black Lotused into the ground.
I had never had the feeling of another player being my kryptonite, but given that reversing those outcomes would lead to a huge swing on the leaderboard, I was considering giving up at this point and just admitting that he had my and everyone else’s number. It didn’t help that the games were really starting to blur together. I frequently had to check my decklists to remind myself if I had access to Time Walk or Force of Will, and despite keeping social and up on my professional obligations, I was starting to wonder if I was cut out for this absurd level of grinding.
Monday is my day off though, so I figured that would be my do or die day. I could quit any time I wanted. I just didn’t want to quit.
I went on an absolute tear on Monday, accruing six trophies. This included a particularly egregious deck that played 21 mana sources. Sometimes you just have it. I also had the pleasure of revealing Blightsteel Colossus to Dark Confidant. Didn’t matter. Still won. I was completely tuned in. Almost like a drafting machine at this point. The decisions were largely automatic and I had gotten most of the blunders out of my system. There would be no more drinking and drafting for the rest of the trophy race. Things were serious now.
Somewhere over the course of the day I was paired against TeamJbro and won pretty convincingly. From watching his stream he’s much more of a midrange player and his Courser of Kruphix deck wasn’t the sort of thing that my blue decks could realistically lose to. I took some solace knowing that the man who never sleeps wouldn’t be an issue as I made my push to become the trophy leader.
After that win I would go on to play the most stressful draft of the week. I was playing a deck with only one zero-mana rock and a Sol Ring, which is, weird to say, a below average amount of fast mana. My Round 2 opponent was Caleb Durward, who I assumed was streaming, which made me slightly anxious. For whatever reason, when I play against a streamer, I get this feeling of eyes being on me and the crowd being against me. He comboed the hell out of me in our first game with Bolas’s Citadel before more or less rolling over to mulligans and counterspells in the sideboard games. Then after that, with my anxiety still giving me grief, I was paired against Ari Zax in the match for the trophy.
I’ve had my heart sink before playing competitive Magic, but never at the reveal of my opponent and never with merely pride on the line. I had to win this match. Losing was unthinkable. Getting 3-0’d in a format that I understood better than most any other format I’ve ever played? In a format that I understood this much better than the average opponent?
I couldn’t recover from a loss like that, and I had to take my hands off the mouse more than once to check my breathing during this match. My ego couldn’t stomach losing here and my anxiety wouldn’t let me forget that fact. And so I didn’t lose. I don’t remember the particulars of the match beyond feeling like I drew better and my mental state being profoundly bad, but all the same the release I felt after claiming this one was incredible.
I was trailing slightly on the leaderboard at the end of the day, I want to say 17 to 19. I’d likely need Tuesday to be more or less a repeat performance, but I proved that a six-trophy day was in range for me, and I had finally won a match against my nemesis. I got to bed at my usual bedtime, but I’ll freely admit that I was pretty delirious after all of that Magic. I was committed to keep my efforts up the next day, but aware that it was in my best interest to tap out if I took many losses early on.
With the queues closing Wednesday morning, Tuesday night is about the most important leg of the trophy race. By the time I started playing on Tuesday, Zax had twenty trophies and was still on the grind.
I did draft the one deck that I didn’t bother playing any games with on this night. Zero Moxen, no Black Lotus, no Sol Ring, no Time Walk… No chance I’m going to play with that deck! It was kind of unreal not seeing any deck that weak until I was so deep in the trophy race, though I suppose that sort of thing just mathematically happens eventually. That deck didn’t even have Force of Will. Just nothing going for it.
There’s not a ton to report on this day otherwise. My decks that I actually played were just good and I won way more than I lost. Zax and I were both racking up trophies, but we dodged each other in the queues, and we both increased our trophy count. He got up to 22 before my bedtime, and I tied that number.
I was hanging out on Discord while I played my games and was largely just muttering quietly to myself. The amount that I had been playing was clearly taking its toll on me and there was no way I was going to stay up to try to officially pull into the lead.
Instead, I set an alarm for slightly before I normally wake up with the intention of sneaking at least one draft in before the entry closed at noon. The early bird gets the worm or whatever.
Wednesday, Part II
When I woke up to check the standings I saw that Zax had collected two more trophies, with the last one being around four in the morning. The good news from this timestamp, from my perspective, was that he was probably asleep. So I got to work.
My first attempt was a quite good Tinker deck that I actually lost playing for the trophy with. I got Stormed badly by Zach Dubin, and was disgusted at the idea of hanging it up there. I jumped right back into the queues and picked up back to back 3-0s and entered one last draft before the queues closed.
After I entered the last draft, Zax confirmed on Twitter that he was not in a draft or able to enter one, and the entire race came down to one last attempt by yours truly. My deck was good, not great, and I was lamenting the total lack of cheap counterspells, but it did have a lot of “I win” buttons, and sometimes that’s all you need.
Never in my life have I put so much effort into something that mattered so little, but for the purpose of saying that I can and that I did, I’m proud of myself. In case anybody is under the illusion that there is any meaningful prize for this, it’s really just a berserk MTGO Limited rating, some screenshots, and bragging rights.
Would I recommend engaging in a trophy race? No. Will I do it again? Probably not, but check back with me next time Supreme Draft is live. Most days I’d rather pursue a good night’s rest. I will say though, on that last day, I slept like a baby.