Team Cabin Crew (Martin Juza, Ivan Floch, Frank Karsten to only name a few) got together in a cabin in the woods in Czech Republic once Battle of Zendikar came out. Having responsibilities at home, I wasn't able to attend the Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar preparation. We organized a Draft night in Toulouse with Grand Prix Prague winner Eliott Boussaud (I mentioned him a couple times before, when I was testing Loam Pox for Grand Prix Copenhagen) and the members of "Team Mindtrick," a group of talented local players. I had played the Prerelease and the two Drafts of that night would be the only physical Drafts I would play before Grand Prix Madison. I initially thought the Grand Prix would be good Limited preparation for the Pro Tour. Unlike in other formats, I had a good feeling with that one.

I won the first Draft we played by playing a U/G token deck with a black splash for two Swarm Surge. My deck had 21 commons and felt unbeatable. That is exactly how I like Draft formats, with sleeping bombs that no one likes as commons. The previous time I had Top 8'd a Grand Prix was in Limited in Prague during M14 (yeah, that was a while ago), and my strategy was to draft G/W or R/W with small creatures and as many Fortifies as I could get. My strategy worked out until the Top 8 where my two right neighbours opened white rares in the first pack (you can find the report here).


Day 1

Here is the pool I opened:

You can open it on Magic Online and build it yourself with the following decklist.

DECKID=1252209

It's one of these pools that basically builds itself. The rares are in the same colors as the good cards (Drowner of Hope and Scatter to the Winds in blue and Akoum Firebird in red), both colors are quite obviously the best two colors of the pool with not only enough playables, but also choices to make.

There were a few cards I decided not to play and that could have made the cut:

- Valakut Invoker, Tunneling Geopede, and Makindi Sliderunner: All of them are fine cards, but I already had enough two- and three-drops that fit the colorless strategy better, specifically talking about Nettle Drone here. You know your Sealed Deck is a quality one when you can leave that many good cards in the sideboard.

- Wasteland Strangler: With the help of Evolving Wilds and Sunken Hollows, the splash was quite easy to make. I also had enough enablers for the "processing" to be viable (Bane of Bala Ged, Titan's Presence, Benthic Infiltrator, Horribly Awry, Vile Aggregate, Touch of the Void). When I was at the table building the deck, it wasn't clear whether the splash was worth it or not. After some playtest games, I figured out it was and I boarded it in pretty much every game.

Here's the deck I ended up playing:

7 Island
8 Mountain
1 Spawning Bed
1 Skyline Cascade
1 Evolving Wilds
1 Breaker of Armies
1 Coralhelm Guide
1 Vile Aggregate
1 Akoum Firebird
1 Incubator Drone
1 Bane of Bala Ged
1 Nettle Drone
1 Kozilek's Sentinel
1 Benthic Infiltrator
2 Eldrazi Skyspawner
1 Drowner of Hope
1 Murk Strider
1 Kozilek's Channeler
1 Horribly Awry
1 Titan's Presence
1 Touch of the Void
1 Processor Assault
1 Stonefury
1 Outnumber
1 Scatter to the Winds
1 Tightening Coils

Out of my six opponents on Day 1, I played two Grand Prix Champions (Michael Majors and fellow TCGplayer columnist Adam Yurchick), a Hall of Famer (Ben Rubin), and eventual 9-0 Ashwin Ugale (who beat me in round eight).

I've been battling with below average and average decks for a while and it felt very strange to be handed an overpowered deck. It sure was nice.


Day 2, Draft 1

Coming into Day 2 I had my strategy planned out. I was going to aggressively draft U/B or B/G with a bunch of colorless creatures and Swarm Surge. I basically wanted to Draft as many early devoid drops as possible to deal the first damage and set up the kill with Surge. It doesn't matter if the creatures seem bad and that's why playing cards like Blisterpod or Salvage Drone can be important to fill the beginning of the curve (pretty much like Soulmender back in M14). I would also try to pick Ingest creatures to fuel my Murk Striders and other processor spells.

I was the only player with a loss at table one, with six players at 9-0 and one at 8-0-1. The Draft was recorded here:

I opened and first picked a Sludge Crawler, followed up by picking an Eldrazi Skyspawner and a Mist Intruder. I took my first Swarm Surge pick seven in pack one. In pack three I opened a second Swarm Surge but took a Ruination Guide over it, hoping the Surge would wheel. I was still lacking removal spells and chose a Murk Strider over another Swarm Surge 3rd pick (hoping that one or the other would wheel). I was then highly rewarded with a 4th pick Wasteland Strangler. The first Surge didn't wheel, but the second one did.

I ended up with pretty much the exact deck I wanted:

2 Sludge Crawler
1 Salvage Drone
3 Culling Drone
3 Mist Intruder
1 Eldrazi Skyspawner
1 Ruination Guide
3 Dominator Drone
1 Wasteland Strangler
1 Mind Raker
1 Incubator Drone
2 Murk Strider
1 Clutch of Currents
2 Swarm Surge
1 Demon's Grasp
1 Spawning Bed
8 Islands
8 Swamps

I proceeded to 3-0 with the deck and was going to Draft at the first pod again where a 2-1 record would likely put me in the Top 8.


Day 2, Draft 2

I started the second draft with the same plan in mind. I even opened a Guardian of Tazeem in my first pack. I had a second pick Culling Drone to put me in the colors and got passed a Catacomb Sifter. I picked it in case blue was going to be cut (and it was) and continued to build a B/G deck that wasn't exactly what I was looking for. I drafted two Swarm Surges and that alone saved my deck as nothing really came up for me. For some reason, blue only came in the third pack when I was already strongly in B/G and it was too late for me to switch back.

I ended up with this:

1 Sludge Crawler
2 Blisterpod
1 Culling Drone
1 Oran-Rief Invoker
1 Snapping Gnarlid
1 Dominator Drone
1 Voracious Null
1 Catacomb Sifter
1 Malakir Familiar
1 Hagra Sharpshooter
3 Call the Scions
1 Skitterskin
1 Silent Skimmer
1 Eyeless Watcher
1 Territorial Baloth
2 Swarm Surge
1 Demon's Grasp
1 Bone Splinters
1 Grip of Desolation
9 Forest
8 Swamp

Notable sideboard cards:

Plated Crusher
Earthen Arms
Void Attendant
Dominator Drone

I got beat pretty badly by Andrew Maine with his almost perfect R/G Landfall deck. I don't think I managed to deal him a single point of damage and I found my back against the wall. My deck wasn't great: it lacked good creatures and had a very good chance to draw the cards in the wrong order (the mana curve wasn't exactly smooth).

Things can be pretty odd at table ones of Grand Prix as people don't have the same amount of points going into the Draft. I got paired against Joe Lavrence who had won his first match. I won an incredibly close match, finishing game three at one life, and therefore playing the last round for Top 8.

That time I was paired down against Pierre Dagen who was even less confident in his deck than I was. In that round I got the upper hand on my rival for last year's WMC captaincy and was most likely locked for Top 8.

Even though my strategy kinda fizzled in the second Draft, I still managed to 2-1, mostly thanks to my two Swarm Surges.

After a year and a half without a Grand Prix Top 8, I finally made my 20th appearance in the elimination brackets.

Jérémy Dezani also Top 8'd and he was to Draft at my right, which might or might not be an advantage. I hate knowing people at the Draft table; I knew he was into drafting B/W allies, and he knew I liked U/B devoid. But how would that translate if he was to open a blue bomb? Or if I was to open a white bomb? For these reasons, I told him (and usually anyone who asks me what I prefer to draft), that I'll draft whatever comes to me. Telling your preferences to people before the Draft is allowed (as long as you're not at the Draft table), and it's also the best way to mess up the Drafts of all the people involved.


Top 8

...and I opened Woodland Wanderer. With no other contender in the pack, I went for the rare. I got passed a Grovetender Druids. The third pack didn't really offer anything and I went for a Kalastria Healer (it did feel like I goofgrabbed that one). And the most surprising thing happened in the next pack: I got passed a fourth pick Dragonmaster Outcast! How did that happen? At that point I was trying to figure out toward which colors I would go. I kept getting some average white, green and red cards.

In the end, I made my deck mostly out of average picks that went well together. Fliers, pump spells, a few tricks, some removal, that's usually a recipe for success.

1 Woodland Wanderer
1 Grovetender Druids
1 Dragonmaster Outcast
1 Ondu Greathorn
1 Kor Castigator
1 Oran-Rief Invoker
2 Makindi Patrol
1 Resolute Blademaster
3 Shadow Glider
1 Tajuru Beastmaster
1 Snapping Gnarlid
1 Cliffside Lookout
1 Stone Haven Medic
1 Territorial Baloth
1 Earthen Arms
2 Sheer Drop
1 Encircling Fissure
1 Infuse with the Elements
1 Stasis Snare
3 Mountain
6 Forest
8 Plains

When I sat down to build my deck, I had no idea if my deck would work. Turns out, I didn't drop a game in the Top 8.

Semis

Finals

I understand that a report of a Limited tournament is quite...well, Limited, and you may not find the piece of information you need to understand the format. I could tell you how good some cards are like Sheer Drop that saved me big time in two games in the Top 8 (semis and finals), or how Infuse with the Elements won me the quarterfinals and the finals, but I would advise you to watch the videos to find out for yourself.

What I would like to share with you is the lesson I got from all this.

Winning a Magic tournament doesn't come often and it feels like I won the Grand Prix for a reason. My previous article for TCGplayer was about losing and how to handle it. While I try to think positive, acknowledging the random factors and my mistakes, it's tough to get back on top after a long streak of losses. I also mentioned that I needed to write that article as a form of therapy. I was explaining what to do, got inspired by some of the comments, and here I am: only a couple of weeks after I expressed my concern about not winning anymore, I won my 5th Grand Prix title in Madison.

Coming into the tournament, I didn't have any expectations. I had a plan if it came to drafting and I had the right amount of Magic played before - not too much, not too little - to be fresh and play well at the tournament.

To win a Magic tournament things have to go your way, and that's not something you have too much control over. The best you can do is to put the odds on your side. Throughout the tournament, I did make a couple of mistakes but, fortunately for me, none of them cost me a game or a match (like they usually do). I can point out a few things that could have changed my whole tournament if they had gone any other way:

- Even though I lost before the last round on Day 1, I had the best tie breakers of the 8-1s, which meant I would Draft with players with more points. That meant that after round one, I had a chance to play against someone who lost even though I had won my match. And that's exactly what happened as I played Willy Edel in round two of Day 2; he wasn't happy with his deck while I was extremely happy with mine.

- With that, I was almost sure my tie breakers would hold up. My first round opponent on Day 2 already had one more point than I had. At the end of the day, when three or four players didn't make Top 8 with 13-2, it made a big difference.

- On the last round of the first Draft on Day 2, I got to play a rematch from Day 1 against Ashwin Ugale. The 3rd game was extremely close and he got me dead on the following turn. I was down to two outs on my last turn and flipped one of the two Dominator Drones I had in my deck for the win. Sure, it was a fortunate draw, but I played into it (it wouldn't have worked if I left him at 3 life or if I had traded my creatures on the board). My tournament could have ended here, but that draw kept me alive.

- Being paired down with a subpar deck on the last round for Top 8 against Pierre and his even worse deck was also pretty fortunate. I could have been paired against three or four other players who had much better decks and lost my chances for Top 8. But I wasn't.

There are so many little things like that. You can find the replay of many of my matches on Twitch where little things happened and turned in my favor. Another example, against Michael Majors in round seven of Day 1.

A two-minute video is worth a hundred words, have a look at the end of this game:

Here's the board state:

He's on three life and beating me down with a Felidar Sovereign, a Kozilek's Channeler and an Ally token and has me dead next turn. He keeps one of his allies up (along with the Sovereign) to block next turn. I block and sacrifice an Eldrazi Spawn so he doesn't gain life with his Sovereign. He plays another creature (a Drana's Emissary). I counter it with Scatter to the Winds, awakening one of my lands, draw a Murk Strider, bounce his sovereign, kill his untapped Ally token with the Outnumber I was holding in my hand and attack for lethal (with the 3/3 land).

That play would not have been possible if: he hadn't played a spell on his turn and I hadn't drawn a Murk Strider for his Sovereign...

As I said, a lot of things went my way during the tournament. Not all of them, but most of them. I played well and did my best to be in positions where I could actually be rewarded by being on the right sides of the odds, and it paid off. When you let things get to you - frustrations, bad decisions, bad beats - you put yourself in situations where there can't be a good outcome for you.

I'm stoked that I won that tournament. If it wasn't for the will to overcome my own frustration and writing that article last month, I don't think that would have happened. For that, I'd like to thank you all for reading, supporting me as a player and as a writer, and hopefully I can repeat that as often as possible.

Raph
Twitter: @hahamoud