This past weekend I managed to find myself at the last of the true PTQs here in Colorado. Obviously PPTQs and the new system are taking over which means the typical lifestyle of the PTQ grinder is changing quite a bit. It felt right, from an EV perspective of course, but also as a gesture in memory of the many amazing weekends I have had traveling around the country in search of a blue envelope.
It is far too early to tell if some similar subculture will rise up to accommodate the PPTQ scene, but due to the smaller venue sizes and the scattered nature of which stores are hosting an event, I doubt that the atmosphere will be the same.
While some things change though, others certainly stay the same. Today, I wanted to talk about how to approach a PTQ, or now PPTQ season and also touch up on my updates for Four Color Dictate, which is what I ended up playing here in Denver.A Different Kind of Journey
A PTQ season is very much a living, breathing thing compared to the majority of tournaments you can enter. When you sit down for an FNM or Grand Prix, you are prepared to play a tournament, which is great, but a PTQ is very rarely isolated. Instead, if you are attending a PTQ, you are likely doing so again within a week or two. PTQs are all about taking your shot at the Pro Tour and then doing it all over again should that not work out.
Often, a PTQ crew would stay together for a long time. While a member or two might rotate in and out, in general, you would find a similar group of friends willing to trek 400, 500, 800 miles away in search of that plane ticket to the Pro Tour. This was probably the best part about a PTQ season as it would always leave you with a ton of memories that could care less about how you finished any given tournament.
This is something that the PPTQ season likely lacks. While there are definitely tournaments every weekend, for the most part, they are probably more like 30 to 60 minutes from your house as opposed to multiple hours. This sort of breaks down the traveling band of heroes that PTQs formed, which affects the social dynamic of the event, but how different should we be looking at these smaller PPTQs strategically?
To answer that, we must first define what sets the PTQ season apart from any other given tournament. In my opinion, this attribute was continuity. Rather than any given PTQ being the focus of a grinder's attention the way that a Grand Prix, Pro Tour, or Open might, a PTQ is simply a dot along a timeline. It cannot be your full focus because the following week, you have another shot.
Just because any given PTQ might not be your focal point does not mean you are not still focusing on a single thing though, it simply shifts where that focus is. Because now, rather than placing all of your hopes and aspirations behind the result of a single tournament, you instead get to do so behind a deck.
While you are in no way bound to play only a single deck across multiple PTQs, I have found that this practice can be extremely helpful. Instead of going into each tournament with a blank slate and having to learn everything from the ground up, by bringing a single deck to multiple tournaments, you get to compile data, strategies, tips and tricks, etc. and then carry that through with you to each future event.
Your deck becomes the focus and you look to adapt and update it accordingly as you learn and grow more with each PTQ you enter.
One season, I was deadset on playing Battle of Wits. This had to be the 2007 era when Dredge was the best deck in Extended by a mile. That deck would often put up turn two wins through multiple pieces of hate and the general consensus was that if you did not have at least seven pieces of hate for the deck in your sideboard, you might as well go home.
The idea of Battle of Wits came up because it was one of the few decks that could actually run Dredge hate in its main, and quite a few more pieces of hate in the side. Dredge decks were just not prepared for a Trinket Mage or Tolaria West grabbing Tormod's Crypt in game one situations, which would lead to free wins. Maybe it was a Cunning Wish for Extirpate or an Idyllic Tutor for Collective Restraint. The deck had a surprisingly large number of ways to not only interact with Dredge, but to just shut it down altogether.
While the concept began as a joke, the more and more I looked at the cards that would go into this 250 card beast, the more and more excited I became. I ended up settling on an Esper shell that splashed lightly for green and red to have access to things like a Pernicious Deed or Blood Moon should the situation call for it.
My very first tournament in Albuquerque with the deck saw me doing pretty well. I took out an Affinity deck and then a Dredge list, all as planned. I saw myself at 5-1 and battling for a potential Top 8 slot when I ran into a Heartbeat of Spring list. At the time, the deck was a blue/green combo deck that generated a ton of mana and then eventually stormed you out with Brain Freeze. Being a 250 card deck, the match up seemed relatively easy for me as there is little chance I was putting all of my cards into my bin.
Fast forward to a combination of three Remands and a million storm count and I was losing game one, the only game this particular match would have time for. My combo hate had been so heavily skewed toward beating Dredge that I did not have all of the tools necessary to beat other combo decks and if I did, I certainly did not know how to use them properly.
I went back to my deck and scoured the internet in search of better and new answers to problems I now knew existed that were not even on my radar before.
This is the dance that defines the PTQ season. While you certainly want to be testing and working on your deck based on the results of that testing, each PTQ is just further testing to an extent. Although unlike traditional testing, a PTQ puts you right in the line of fire. You get to see how your deck works under real tournament conditions and that is an invaluable resource to have.
For the remainder of that season, I ended up playing in three more PTQs with Battle of Wits. Each time I feel like I entered battle with an improved version of my deck more fit for competition with the actual metagame, as opposed to something built to beat the testing gauntlet we had established.
If I had switched decks three or four times for each tournament, upset at the result of the previous PTQ, I would have learned a little bit about a lot of different decks, but I never would have reached the level of intimacy that I did with Battle of Wits. That deep knowledge of the deck and being able to stay on top of the format with a single creation helped me to really understand the ins and outs of one of the most complex decks I could have been playing at the time and it taught me a different way to approach Magic.
Realistically, there is very little stopping this from happening at PPTQs as well. The key difference, however, is that the information you gain from any PPTQ is going to matter a lot more toward the next one you attend because the player base is going to be very similar. While traveling to Nebraska and then Kansas City and then Salt Lake means you will see a few of the same faces over and over, traveling down the street and then across town, and then to the local campus, is much more likely to see 50% or more of the same faces showing up time and time again. This means that while you get the information necessary to improve your own list, you also potentially gain information about what you are going to be facing, which allows for even further levels of customization.Dictated
Unfortunately, as I mentioned, the final real PTQ has come and gone for myself personally, but I had a good time, in spite of not finishing as well as I might have liked. For anyone following my Jeskai Dictate list, I took a variant of it to the PTQ and was pretty happy overall. I ended up running a four color version because I wanted access to the power of Treasure Cruise but also wanted answers to problematic cards, like large creatures and planeswalkers, a trait that black is pretty good at right now.
Here is the 75 I would recommend for anyone looking for a current list:
Utter End in the main deck provides us with a catch-all solution that does not present us with clunky permanents to be taken apart in the way that Banishing Light would have. We already have six sweepers for crazy boards that come at us swiftly and recklessly, but those triple Siege Rhino Draws or that turn three Ashiok can still be very problematic for a deck looking to prey on low toughness and I think this main deck is better suited to deal with that sort of issue.
I found myself beating up on a black/white control deck and then a planeswalker heavy Abzan deck in the first two rounds of the tournament. Both of those lists showed up with a ton of dead removal in their main decks, making game one rather difficult for them as they essentially had to mulligan to about three. My black/white opponent showed what he boarded out after the match and it looked something like this:
4 Hero's Downfall2 Silence the Believers2 Bile Blight3 Banishing Light2 End Hostilities
That is 13 cards that were just 100% dead (ignoring a sorcery speed Banishing Light on Dictate). The 13 cards he boarded in were not even particularly strong against me aside from Erase, but at least the cards did something, which is more than I can say for the above list.
I then managed to lose to an Abzan list. In game three, the dreaded scenario of each player mulliganing to five and then watching a turn four, five, and six Siege Rhino enter the battlefield played out. Without an End Hostilities in sight, I died pretty quickly. And a Naya tokens list knocked me out of the tournament as I found my removal overloaded by annoying walkers such as Xenagos, Elspeth, and Sarkhan along with a Purphoros who constantly gave my opponent free value as I could not find a way to get it off the table.
I should note that for the PTQ, I only had one copy of Disdainful Stroke in my sideboard but that was definitely a mistake. So many of the issues for our deck comes in at four or more mana, such as Whip of Erebos, Sorin, Solemn Visitor, and Siege Rhino, so I would have loved more answers to those cards.
But as I said, that is the beauty of a PTQ or PPTQ season. I get to take the knowledge I gained and move on, improving upon my list and then taking another shot at it again.
I wish the best of luck to anyone out there grinding away this holiday season. Just remember that a loss should not necessarily be discouraging, but rather motivating. You will have another chance, so make it count. Thanks for reading!