The most valuable skill a Magic pro has today is identifying which cards will be banned soon and building decks that can utilize them.— Owen Turtenwald (@OwenTweetenwald) June 13, 2017
Last weekend, I stayed in lovely Allentown, Pennsylvania for the weekend. I had an RPTQ in Philadephia, and a friend from way back owns a shop in Emmaus, so I planned for a full-on Magic bender of a weekend — FNM on Friday, Standard PPTQ on Saturday, Sealed RPTQ on Sunday. My coworker Allie accompanied me to Pennsylvania; if you've ever submitted a ticket to TCGplayer customer service, odds are she's seen the ticket, if not answered it outright.
I was very, very excited to play this deck at FNM:
I had no intention of doing well in Standard on the weekend; I've had a love affair with Gonti, Lord of Luxury since the Kaladesh prerelease. It's a fun card made better because it drives a specific kind of opponent absolutely crazy. I don't know what it is, but certain people lose their minds when their opponent resolves Gonti, Lord of Luxury. Here's a sequence of plays from my Kaladesh prerelease:
ME: [cast Gonti, Lord of Luxury]
OPPONENT: [exaggerated sigh] "Yes, sure, WHATEVER"
ME: [exiles their Aviary Mechanic face-down]
ME: [cast their Aviary Mechanic]
OPPONENT: "[REDACTED - cursing]"
ME: [return Gonti, Lord of Luxury to my hand, recast it, exile their Wispweaver Angel]
ME: [cast their Wispweaver Angel]
OPPONENT: "[REDACTED - lots of cursing]"
ME: [target Gonti, Lord of Luxury with Wispweaver Angel, exile their Multiform Wonder]
OPPONENT: [angrily scoops up their cards]
You get the picture. If you're looking for an effective dollar cost : opponent tilt ratio, Gonti, Lord of Luxury currently retails for less than a dollar. Unfortunately, Gonti, Lord of Luxury plays out less favorably in Constructed.
Here's how FNM went:
Round 1: Lose to white-red budget aggro deck
Round 2: Lose to Sultai Marvel
Round 3: Lose to Madcap Experiment / Combustible Gearhulk
Round 4: Beat U/R Control
The Madcap Experiment deck was, quite obviously, the coolest deck of the bunch. It was a Mardu brew with Carthartic Reunion, Refurbish, Noxious Gearhulk, Combustible Gearhulk, Metalwork Colossus, and of course, Madcap Experiment. I couldn't get enough of a clock going and died to Madcap Experiment hitting Combustible Gearhulk a bunch of times. Let me tell you, Combustible Gearhulk does not care about Planeswalkers in the slightest. The closest I could get to racing was with a Glorybringer, but I died to Combustible Gearhulk anyway. I tell ya, if it doesn't get you with the milling, it gets you with the card draw. This was probably more because of the deck I was playing than anything else, but it was a fun match either way.
I was pretty surprised to beat U/R Control, but if Gonti, Lord of Luxury resolves against them once, your advantage snowballs. Getting to play countermagic against a deck with so few threats is a game-changer, and both wins came on the back of Liliana, the Last Hope / Gonti, Lord of Luxury shenanigans.
In the back of my mind, I knew an Aetherworks Marvel deck was a good option for Saturday's PPTQ, but I'd already played the deck at GP: New Jersey and felt I had a good idea of how it worked. I wanted to keep playing the black-red deck, so Allie stayed up dutifully with me jamming games. For me, playtesting comes from jamming games over and over until patterns reveal themselves to my dumb brain. It's not until I play a ton of games with a deck that I can understand how it ticks, what's good and bad about it, and what needs to change.
After eight or so games with the black-red deck, it was clear that it sucked. A bunch of my friends at FNM told me the same after I gleefully handed them the deck to show them was I was battling with, but I really needed to see it for myself. I'm generally hesitant to believe snap-judgments about decks, especially ones that performed well at Pro Tours. If I'm going to say a deck sucks, I want it to be because I've done my due diligence.
All the threats cost too much mana. Once you're in the midgame, the deck's hand is glutted up with four-mana spells. Against Allie's U/R Control deck full of Disallow and Negate, all I could do was play one spell a turn until I died. This happened over and over. The games I won were the aberrations, and they happened when she flooded out or got mana-screwed. If our draws were at all comparable, I died easily. The threats cost too much mana; by the time I'm able to deploy multiple threats in a turn in order to "get around" countermagic, she's resolved 2-3 Glimmer of Genius and I'm getting smacked around by a Torrential Gearhulk.
The decision to audible to Temur Marvel was easy because of two things: Brad Nelson's confidence in his design & comprehensive sideboard guide, and the fact that Aetherworks Marvel was an obvious favorite to be banned. An impending ban is a huge incentive to play a deck, especially if you already own all the cards.
One of the takeaways from last year's cycle of Magic Online flashback drafts is that you come to do the things they don't let you do anymore. For example: in 8th Edition, there's this card called Samite Healer. One copy of them is mildly annoying. Two of them turn the combat phase into a dense maze chock-full of dead ends for you to run headlong into. Combine that with stuff like Crossbow Infantry and Angelic Page and suddenly you have a board state that's near-impossible to break through. These cards are all common, and they don't make cards like them anymore because they encourage abstaining from playing the game and instead waiting for someone to get impatient and make the first move. They also happen to be very good.
If the deck you're playing got banned, that's a good indicator that you're doing something right. That's little consolation for watching the value of something you paid good money for go down the toilet, but the flashback draft rule still applies: You come to do the things they don't want you to do anymore. It's a fine rule of thumb to select Constructed decks by at the very least.
That said, I put together Brad Nelson's Temur Marvel list for the PPTQ.
Here's how the swiss rounds went:
Round 1: BYE (!)
Round 2: Beat U/R Control
Round 3: Beat W/U Flash
Round 4: ID
Round 5: ID
Playing against two countermagic decks was annoying. The whole point of playing Marvel is to mise wins with a turn-four Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. That doesn't work against Counterspells.
I came into the event thinking U/R Control was favored against Marvels. It always felt great from the control side; watching opponents play Woodweaver's Puzzleknot — effectively a dead draw against a control deck — is like getting a free discard spell! Turns out Temur Marvel's got more game against countermagic than that — any game that goes long has to account for Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, and Nelson's Glimmer of Genius can pressure countermagic on an opponent's turn. This is all moot now that Aetherworks Marvel is banned, but I had fun during the event — both of my swiss rounds were interactive and I felt like I was able to leverage a little luck and a couple good decisions here and there into match wins.
In the Top 8 quarters, I played against a 14-year old kid in his first PPTQ Top 8, playing R/G Energy. The games weren't very close — I won them both — but he played well and, despite his energetic cheering section, stayed in the moment. It was just a bad matchup for R/G Energy.
Here's the scenario from my semifinal match against B/G Energy: They have four cards, a 12/12 Longtusk Cub with an Aether Meltdown on it, and five lands, none of which are Hissing Quagmire — Forest, Swamp, Swamp, Blooming Marsh, Blooming Marsh.
I'm at five life with six energy, and my board is Forest, Island, Mountain, Shrine of the Forsaken Gods, Botanical Sanctum, Spirebluff Canal, two clues, and a Chandra, Flamecaller with one counter on it that has already been activated (I zeroed it, digging for an Aetherworks Marvel. Zeroing before cracking a clue may have been a mistake, I'm not sure). My hand is Ulvenwald Hydra, Spirebluff Canal, Botanical Sanctum, and Harnessed Lightning. My deck is 39 cards, and there are three Aetherworks Marvel left. Three in 39 simplifies to a one-in-13 chance that an Aetherworks Marvel is the top card of my deck, so at that point, the question becomes, which line of play gives me a better chance to win: cracking a clue and hoping to hit Aetherworks Marvel, or casting Ulvenwald Hydra, fetching a second Shrine of the Forsaken Gods with it, blocking, and expanding next turn's set of outs to both Aetherworks Marvel and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. I ultimately determine Ulvenwald Hydra's the way to go and play a land, hoping to block and set up the win next turn.
I get another turn with Chandra, Flamecaller in play and everything and I lose, and that's the match. After gleefully dunking on every bad black-green deck for an entire weekend at GP: New Jersey, the loss stung a bit, but I couldn't complain. It was a fun day of Magic. The sample size — four matches — was itty-bitty, but I felt good about how I played.
For some reason, I thought the website said doors at 10:00, event at 11:00.
I stroll into the venue at around 10:20 and go upstairs to the play area. Two things occur to me immediately:
-It is sweltering up here
-Why are people building their decks 40 minutes early?
The judges agreed to let my dumb ass play in the tournament, letting me know that any extra time I took registering my pool would bleed into my deck-building time. In my harried, crazy state, I looked over at the big clock on the screen and assumed I had four minutes to build my deck.
A judge was assigned to help me register, and we sat alone at a table and did it really fast. I paid rapt attention as the judge opened the packs — I'd just have to write down my best rares on my deck reg and wing it. Archfiend of Ifnir. Never // Return. Mouth // Feed. Alright, great, we're black-green. I sorted by color alphabetically, trying to retain as much of the information as possible, while the judge helping me filled out my deck-registration sheet. As the helper-judge finished with my sheet, the head judge called out:
"That is time in deck registration!"
This clued me in to the fact that I would have the normal allotted amount of time to build my deck. Christian Calcano — had he been sitting there the whole time? — saw the relief wash over my face and burst out laughing.
I was extremely thankful to get an actual shot at building my deck; it turned out to be the toughest sealed pool I can ever remember getting. I'm still not sure I came even close to getting it right. Here's my pool, by color:
The pieces for two decks — white-red aggro and a bajillion-color greedy deck — are all there. The white-red deck would have access to Ahn-Crop Crasher and double Trial of Solidarity, while the greedy deck gets double Gift of Paradise, double Painted Bluffs, and a Naga Vitalist to power out Archfiend of Ifnir, Temmet, Vizier of Naktamun, and double Lay Claim. The nice thing about leaning on Gift of Paradise specifically to fix mana woes is that they allow you to splash cards with double-colors in their mana cost, like Lay Claim and Archfiend of Ifnir. Here are the two decks as I built them:
I deliberate a long time, ultimately going with the white-red deck. I don't trust the four-color deck's mana, it's low on removal, and Archfiend of Ifnir doesn't have access to enough cyclers to be very good. The white-red deck has it's own problems in the form of zero rares, but I thought trying to cheese wins by curving out in front of a Trial of Solidarity was better for my overall chances than trying to pilot the four-color deck. Worst-case scenario, if I see a bunch of Ancient Crab, I can always sideboard into the other deck in an effort to go over the top.
My round one opponent recently made the Top 8 a Pro Tour. They're playing blue, black, and green. Game one, my curve features noted unfair card Ahn-Crop Crasher and I beat their mana-screw easily.
Game two, they're at four life, staring at a Tah-Crop Elite and a Nimble-Blade Khenra (God, these creature names are the worst). I have a Manticore of the Gauntlet in hand, so if I can just get in with this Tah-Crop Elite one time, I'm good. They have a Prowling Serpopard and a smattering of lands. On their turn, they draw, slam a land, and tap out for Sandwurm Convergence, attack with the Prowling Serpopard, and make a 5/5.
I untap, draw a Irrigated Farmland, cycle it, and draw an Unwavering Initiate, which I play. At that point, a judge comes over and asks us to stop playing. It is brought to our attention that Sandwurm Convergence costs eight mana. My opponent had cast it for seven mana the turn prior.
The head judge determined that we were too far gone to go back, and that my opponent would get a seven-mana Sandwurm Convergence and we would both get warnings. My opponent appealed, disagreeing that we were too far gone to back the game up. I'm still not sure if my opponent appeals for the sake of optics, but either way, the head judge upheld his own ruling.
I would've likely lost the game anyway. They still had a Prowling Serpopard with a Destined // Lead in their graveyard to take out my Tah-Crop Elite, and a land on the following turn would've yielded the desired Sandwurm Convergence.
My instinct is that my opponent made an honest mistake, but I'm leaving their name out of this space anyway; it's nice that our community despises cheaters as much as it does, but the truth is that cheats and mistakes often look the same in Magic. Plus there's the off-chance that I'm misremembering something, so yeah. I'd rather not have the six people that read this column incriminate my opponent based on something they weren't there for.
I win the third game as easily as the first, and that's that.
It is pointless to complain about losing to rares in Sealed. My second round opponent's deck has Champion of Rhonas, Plague Belcher, and Honored Hydra, but I lose the match after keeping a three-lander and not seeing another land the entire game followed closely by a mulligan to five lands and an Ahn-Crop Crasher, a hand that never yields another spell.
This is okay! Lady luck doesn't care that what the tournament is. Not every match is your match.
Between rounds, I head downstairs, where the air conditioning's working, and sit at one of the miniatures tables. I hear one of the shop's employees' lament to a regular trying to get a draft going about the AC situation:
"It really sucks. You get all these people from out of town and they've never been here before and you want to make a good impression and bam, the air conditioner's broken. And that's their impression of us."
There really is no winner when the air conditioner breaks, but I've been in plenty of Upstate New York PTQs where they willingly don't air-condition their play space, so I'm comforted by the shop's employee's emotional investment in the situation.
Round three, I keep a five-land starting hand with Gust Walker and Unwavering Initiate, but no more pressure comes off the top of my deck. They're playing white-red, so I board into my control deck. Shuffling between games, I eavesdrop on the neighboring match:
"I actually love this. This reminds me of the old PTQs. You get to find out who wants to go home."
This is a typically east-coast viewpoint. Can't someone want both?
I lose game two with a lot of black cards in my hand and no way to cast them, losing the match. I drop from the tournament.
I don't feel bad about my tournament yet. I'm posting my entire sealed pool in the hopes that someone will show me where I messed up, so I can feel proper shame in missing an opportunity.
See you next week.