Indulge me today in a little tournament report.

You may have already seen (and if numbers are any indication, probably favorite'd) this Tweet:

For those who have been asking, my winning #RPTQ deck. More later friends! :) pic.twitter.com/mdNDmaLueN

— Michael Flores (@fivewithflores) April 26, 2015
Just Encase


T(ournament)-minus 14 Months

I return to TCGplayer.com with Make the Play Monday and Flores Rewards Friday.

I just wanted to do something different.

Competitive Magic content is largely articles purporting to be either "strategy" (rather description) or just decklists; I came to the conclusion that focusing on those kinds of articles myself was not the way I could continue to best help the average player. The average player can just look up a good decklist on any of several big websites. Technology leaks so quickly and there are so many great deck designers actively writing articles -- Patrick Chapin, Tom Ross, Gerry Thompson, innumerable others -- that there are just way more great decklists than tournaments to play them in. With so much great content coming from that direction, if I was going to continue to contribute to this community I love, I needed a new need to fill. The less-addressed problem players have is what to do with those great deck lists once they're actually sitting down at the table.

I decided that to fill that different niche. I wanted to focus on table tactics. Where are the gaps that are actually costing all of us games? What are the situations these come up in? Are they repeatable? If so, can we learn to avoid those problems in the future?

Tactics.

Decision-making.

These were the areas I thought I could do something that would continue to be helpful. Hopefully to you.

Enter: Make the Play Monday.

But I knew I was not capable of doing this task at any level of competence alone. So I recruited a truly humbling array of co-collaborators who I am thankful of every single week.

Enter: Flores Rewards Friday

This change in focus to tactics ended up helping me as well. If Patrick Sullivan disagrees with you on the line to take with your big burn spell, you're probably wrong. If Brad Nelson says you played the wrong land last turn, you're likely wrong. If Matt Sperling, coming off his nth Grand Prix Top 8, says your Sorin, Solemn Visitor should have three less loyalty than it currently does, you're dead wrong. If the godfather of card advantage says you should have swung with your man-land when you drew cards instead, guess what? YOU'RE WRONG

(And by "you" I mean "me.")

You know what's great about being wrong?

You were wrong.

But you might not have known you were wrong.

And now you know you were wrong!

Next time you have that much of a better opportunity to choose what's right.

In that sense Flores Rewards Friday has been at least as enriching for me as it has been for any of our weekly $25 winners. I've been improving too.


T-minus 6 Months

I start the Top Level Podcast with Patrick Chapin. Longtime readers (and listeners) probably know I have been doing the Top 8 Magic Podcast with Brian David-Marshall for a deckade. The Top 8 Magic Podcast, besides being my first love, has been great for thousands of listeners over those ten years. We started the "two guys who just like talking about Magic" craze, spawned Grand Prix Champions like Matt Wang and Steve Sadin, and were instrumental with connecting Tom Martell -- one of the most dominant players on the Pro Tour -- with the competitive draft scene here in New York City. In fact, our own editor Frank Lepore got his start in Magic media blogging as a fan of Top 8 Magic before making the jump to what y'all know and love on this here website.

Yet Top 8 Magic is largely rooted in New York City and our local culture; the street corner Brian and I often record from, legendary figures like Hook Hands, or rushing out of restaurants in the middle of the night as we are subject to gas attacks. It's about TV and basketball. It's about music and comic books. Sure, it's about Magic more than any of those things, but Magic on many levels. The love of Magic. The struggle of Magic. Cartoony or painterly Magic art. Magic from the standpoint of the Pro Tour Historian coming back from the big show. Brian has been one of the best partners I could ever have had and we are going to do Top 8 Magic forever if I get my way.

But with Top Level Podcast Patrick and I (again) wanted to try something different.

Magic. Just Magic.

Not just "just Magic," but uber-focused Magic. Focused on one strategy. Focused on one deck. Focused on one card. Different.


T-minus 71 Days

Patrick and I -- quite by accident -- brew the UB Control list. You can listen to it here. Patrick doesn't even know we're recording at first!


T-minus 62 Days

After a combined 3-7 in PPTQ competition, I win a PPTQ 4-0-2 / 3-0 with the aforementioned UB Control list. Go me. Go us.


T-minus 57 Days

My wife urges me to play in the smaller-projected New Mexico rather than a Philadelphia expected at 80+. "Give yourself every chance to do this thing you love," is her message. Jeez, what a wife.

I talk about a possible NM trip on-air and am immediately accosted by multiple Utah area players including the old man of Magic media, Jack Stanton. "If you're going to go out West for a smaller RPTQ, you might as well come to Utah," Jack says.

Utah and New Mexico are going to be about the same size, but in Utah I get to stay with Jack and hang out with Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Aaron Muranaka, whom I have not seen IRL in 15 years.

Easy game.

Utah it is.


T-minus 27 Days

Lan D Ho wins the first Season 2 PPTQ with GW Devotion. The second PPTQ season has started? Argh! What the!?! By the time I realize what is happening I miss most of the NYC PPTQs. Which is obviously my own fault.

In response I resolve to become the best GW Devotion player I can in advance of April 25. If you read my Flores Rewards Friday with Brad Nelson, you know I have some room to grow on that front.


T-minus 19 Days

Chris Pikula instructs me to clear my assumptions and stop practicing.

Lan did great but there is just no point in choosing a deck before the Pro Tour.

Chris will join me in Utah.


T-minus 10 Days

I espy Bryan Raymer's monoblue deck in a Gerry Thompson article.

DECKID=1236599

This is my favorite deck, rogue or no, in a long time.

This deck sings to me. I email Gerry about it. Is it truly viable? Some of these cards seem pretty sketchy, but I love how it harkens back to my own Tap-Out Blue strategy from 10 years ago.

"Play Master of Waves in your sideboard," says Gerry.

I bring it to Patrick.

"Underpowered," says Patrick, "But I like that you like it. Try Crucible of the Spirit Dragon!"

We go over three different Dimir-ish decks that made Top 8 at the Pro Tour, in the abstract, in relation to each other, in contrast to Raymer's deck. But man, that Crucible of the Spirit Dragon...

This is all on-air as well. In a sense "my" deck was born during Fun with Polluted Delta.


T-minus 8 Days

Bryan Raymer reaches out to me on Facebook.

He has heard our podcasts, and like a future champion, taken all the comments as clarion calls for improvement rather than negative criticism. He believes in his deck but sees where we can make advancements.

Watch this kid.

For real.

Over the next week-and-change I grind, iterate, grind, re-iterate, grind... Hours a night on various decks.

As you might have read last week, I spent a lot of time working on GW Aggro. I think the strategy could be good, but I am not good enough (yet). I just never built the myelin as a player to eke out every point. I once saw Andrew Boswell Slaughter a turn two Pack Rat with one and two-drop green creatures. Effortlessly. Just not a talent I have developed yet. Despite the urgings of the aforementioned Andrew -- one of the hottest GW or Abzan Aggro players of the last few years -- I refuse to play Mana Confluence.

Boz appreciates an Icefall Regent when I post Raymer's list, though.

Time to try Patrick's crazy Crucible of the Spirit Dragon idea.

At first I try it as a straight addition to Raymer's Monoblue, including Radiant Fountain...so tons of colorless lands in an otherwise Monoblue deck.

I am liking what is going on, and even with just crappy Icefall Regent (crappy versus Esper that is), I am posting good results due to the power of the storage land.

I try adding white just for Dragonlord Ojutai. If Icefall Regent is powerful at five, what happens when we add a "real" Dragon?

I add Temple of Enlightenment, Flooded Strand, a Plains, and Tranquil Grove to the mana base. I am crushing many styles of opponents; in particular Monored, Jeskai Tokens, and Esper (i.e. the opponents I want to beat). I email Raymer, initially out of consideration.

Patrick tells me that I am not thinking exotically enough. "Our fundamental assumptions about what a deck is capable of changes when you have eight Dragon lands," he says.

Patrick and Raymer independently cut Ugin, the Spirit Dragon for Dragonlord Atarka. Quite unexpectedly, Raymer has become my new brew partner over Facebook.

I figure out the mana base. No Radiant Fountains. Tons of Temples; in fact tons of Temples that make blue and cast our Dragonlords! I post a 12 Temple version with eight Dragon lands but only two Polluted Deltas. This is the deck that does most of the heavy lifting in late testing.

I am grinding three to five hours a night. Tweaking one card. Tweaking one other card.

Separately BDM is playing the deck, too; he is my conscience; keeping me from getting "too" excited; thankfully confirming my results. He is invaluable, as always. He is BDM, as always.

Raymer is playing IRL tournaments. Right before I go to Utah he wins his Thursday Night Magic without losing a game, makes sure I know everything there is to know before I leave.


T-minus 4 days

I bum two Master of Waves off of Andy Longo, but I just don't have time to borrow the last few cards for my deck. I buy the other two Master of Waves but the LGS doesn't have a fourth Silumgar's Scorn. I buy a $15 Dragons of Tarkir precon that has one. Little Silumgar's Scorn -- you are the lucky one. Thanks Andy!


T-minus 3 days

Lan calls me.

"This deck does not have enough ways to get cards in the graveyard. I keep getting stuck with too many Dig Through Time in my hand. This will be critical against aggro."

Ding Dig Through Time.

Another of our fundamental assumptions has been struck.


T-minus 2 days

Patrick calls me with three key changes:

The mana base has great ideas behind it, but has a secret flaw. I should cut two Temples (going

to 10 Temples rather than 12) in order to increase my Island count for turn two UU. It's not a question of hitting drops or even hitting U, but hitting untapped U on time.

(In hindsight I should have played one Temple of Epiphany and only one Temple of Deceit, but I didn't overthink which Temples to cut when I made Patrick's switch).

The second change was around Anticipate.

"I have talked to the Esper players I trust. You know, the good ones. No one likes Anticipate."

I make some intuitive changes and ultimately get down to two Anticipate making room for Nullify and Voyage's End. It should have been zero.

Going down to two Anticipate is highly consistent with cutting down to three Dig Through Time. Did I mention it should have been zero?

Lastly, Chapin, avatar of Luis Scott-Vargas and Michael Jacob (his office mates) urge me to play Dragonlord Silumgar over Silumgar, the Drifting Death maindeck.

"Silumgar, the Drifting Death is for people who want all of their Dragons to be hexproof. For you, the Dragonlord has flown on that. Move him to the sideboard."

I visualize a stolen Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and smile.


T-minus 1 day

Jack picks me up at the SLC airport.

Jack channels the Boz and beats me up for a few hours with his Abzan Aggro deck. I have not put much testing into the Abzan Aggro matchup, but the combination of him going first and having a Warden of the First Tree is almost always trouble. Jack wins at least 60% of the games but I don't keep a strict count.

Go me? :(


Tournament Day. Miracle Day.

Jack and I pick up Chris Pikula and meet Julian Ontiveros for breakfast; Julian is not qualified but is essentially the grand conductor of the Utah Magic scene. Though a new friend he proves a great one and his help is invaluable to me during the tournament. Chris finishes my blueberries.

DECKID=1236600

Round One - Travis with Atarka Red

If Jack has his druthers, it will be me, Chris, Aaron Muranaka, and Travis in Top 4. Well two of his four horses are dueling in Round One!

Travis wins the roll and I don't know what he is so I keep a hand that is okay-to-good in about half the matchups but poor versus Atarka Red on the draw.

He is all tokens, tokens tokens, tokens tokens tokens, with multiple Atarka's Commands while my mana is tapped. Game one is bloody.

No problem. I've been in this spot before. Not only that, but I have practiced against Monored more than any other matchup. I not only know my sideboard plan but have labored over it.

Out:
2 Perilous Vault
1 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
1 Dig Through Time
2 Anticipate
4 Dissolve
1 Dragonlord Silumgar

In:
1 Encase in Ice
4 Master of Waves
1 Negate
4 Omenspeaker
1 Silumgar, the Drifting Death

11 cards!

I actually had a positive game one win percentage against Monored in testing, but this matchup is highly draw dependent (as well as play/draw dependent) in game one. If you go first and they don't have a one-drop you will often just counter or Encase their first three plays and then go Icefall Regent + Dragonlord Dromoka (remember many of your interactive plays and land drops are fixing your "big turn" plays).

But if you are on the draw and your first interactive play is Dissolve you're in trouble.

I labored over the anti-Monored / Atarka Red sideboard plan and flirted with all black lands and Bile Blight / Drown in Sorrow but concluded that the Omenspeaker plan was just better.

Omenspeaker isn't a card: It's a combination of three life points and your next two turns. If you can execute on some combination of multiple Omenspeakers and / or Encase in Ices into a Master of Waves you are an overwhelming favorite against Monored. The plan is not to beat the opponent with Master of Waves. The plan is to put him in a situation where he has no profitable attacks long enough for you to stick any Legendary Dragon (but ideally Silumgar or Dromoka).

Remember: Our fundamental assumptions about the format and even Magic must be challenged. Yes - This is an unusual sequence of plays, but if you can untap with a Dragonlord and a reasonable life count, the Red Decks simply lack the firepower to finish you.

Sadly Travis draws seemingly nothing but Goblin Rabblemasters and Atarka's Commands. That means he has enough tokens to overwhelm me even though I draw two Omenspeakers and two Master of Waves with Atarka's Command allowing him to force through nine damage one attack, while saving Rabblemasters from dying in combat with Masters.

I get so excited when I scry into a second Master of Waves that I don't push my Dragonlord Ojutai to the bottom of my deck. I don't have the mana to cast it! I die, having drawn my planned sideboard cards, with a game-winning Dragonlord Dromoka stuck in hand due to an overly enthusiastic scry.

Focus!

0-1

I have no time to stew over losing to the matchup that I practiced the most having drawn the cards I wanted to draw.

I am immediately paired with another Atarka Red player!


Round Two - Dana with Atarka Red

I lose game one the same way (great hand versus midrange or control, no interactivity versus fast decks on the draw) and sideboard as the above.

I mulligan game two to five cards, aggressively. My first two hands have lands and Master of Waves but no turn two plays. Even with Master I don't think I can win, so I go to five, but line up Omenspeakers into Omenspeakers into the lockdown. The two card investment is well worth it; the plan comes together; I win both sideboarded games handily.

1-1


Round Three - Dante with Red Heroic

Three rounds, three Monored decks!

Game one is particularly ignominious as I lose to Dante who draws only one land. Well, one land is enough to cast heroes and pump spells!

I am reduced to Dissolving two Dragon Mantles that still trigger token production, which still triggers Foundry Street Denizen before landing an Icefall Regent who is simply outnumbered.

I alter my anti-Monored sideboard slightly as Dante is more likely to go wide or tall and does not play Atarka's Command, so I leave in a sweeper for the Negate.

Out:
1 Perilous Vault
1 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
1 Dig Through Time
2 Anticipate
4 Dissolve
1 Dragonlord Silumgar

In:
1 Encase in Ice
4 Master of Waves
4 Omenspeaker
1 Silumgar, the Drifting Death

The plan once again comes together with Omenspeaker outclassing 1/1 creatures on the ground while setting me up for my bomb permanents.

2-1


Round Four - Isaac with Temur

Isaac was one of the last matches to finish in round three so I knew what he was playing.

I kept this:
Anticipate
Dissolve
Dissolve
Nullify
Voyage's End
Haven of the Spirit Dragon
Polluted Delta

This hand is a slight gamble but I'm on the play.

He has no cards I care about in the first two turns (scariest threat being Rattleclaw Mystic) and I can get out on U1 with Voyage's End anyway.

I might just draw an Island, and I am highly likely to Anticipate into one if he leaves turn two without forcing me to react. Even if I have to react, Voyage's End helps fix my mana anyway. Once I get to UU1 my Dissolves will cleanly interact with him while further fixing my mana.

The secret of Temur v. my deck is this:

We both have powerful threats including Dragons and Planeswalkers. But where he has Elves I have sweepers and card drawing. Meanwhile he has Wild Slash / Roast / Draconic Roar / similar cards with little to no text. So as long as I can both interact early and hit my land drops, he is just going to flood out while I hit a bomb. Clockwork, right?

Not when your Anticipate doesn't show you any lands.

And your draw step doesn't either.

My deck has 27 lands! 19 of them produce blue mana!

I am forced to Voyage's End his Elvish Mystic main phase to try to scry into a land and gamble that he doesn't have a bomb. He "obliges" with Savage Knuckleblade and I never get out.

Out:
2 Anticipate
1 Dig Through Time
1 Voyage's End

In:
1 Disdainful Stroke
1 Encase in Ice
1 Dragonlord Atarka
1 Dragonlord Silumgar

Encase in Ice does the same work as Voyage's End in this matchup without a loss of card advantage. After how it screwed me in game one there was no way I was keeping Anticipate in in any game I had a choice about. With no copies of Anticipate, Dig Through Time gets weaker; and anyway I already have so many bombs to play for high mana.

Dragonlord Silumgar and Dragonlord Atarka are useful for two reasons. One: The opponent plays bomb Dragons and Planeswalkers; those are best buddies with Dragonlord Silumgar! Further, Dragonlord Atarka and Dragonlord Silumgar are both non-white Dragons, which is essential for defending against the opponent's Stormbreath Dragon.

It turns out Dragonlord Dromoka was the hero of this matchup, turning off Counterspells and flash creatures while buying plenty of time to set up.

3-1


Round Five - Spencer with Temur

Another Temur!

Three red aggro and two Temur? What weird pairings. Pikula at this point had played against mostly green/black based decks!

"Your sideboard must be really good."

- Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Aaron Muranaka after my first four rounds

I finally won a game one!

Dragonlord Dromoka came down and helped to stall the board alongside Dragonlord Ojutai.

Spencer had accumulated quite the array of Satyr Tokens, 4/4 Dragons, mana creatures, signature Temur hasty guys, and Planeswalkers, but was afraid of swinging into the lifelinking Dromoka.

This bought me enough time to get the world's biggest RFG and lock out the late game.

Game two was weird.

I just never drew a Dragon!

As you can see from my match with Isaac I side up two additional Dragons against Temur. Basically I was in a spot where he could actually Negate Dragonlord's Prerogative, but at least that tapped him out to allow me to get down Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and largely take control of the board.

At the end of the game my hand was a Nullify and a Silumgar's Scorn.

Unfortunately neither of those cards counters Sarkan Unbroken or Crater's Claws when you don't have a Dragon. Super weird game where everything went right except for the basic thing the deck is supposed to do!

Game three was pretty interesting.

We got into a standoff between his two Stormbreath Dragons and my two Dragonlords, Dromoka and Ojutai.

Spencer refused to attack with one, leaving both back. I could not attack profitably so long as both were back, but I would blow him out if he attacked with one (one of my two cards being Encase in Ice).

Anyway "standoffs" that involve a blue deck on one side and Dromoka on the other side aren't really standoffs; more so ticking Time Bombs. Eventually I just drew into Ugin; his Dragons being fives and only 1/2 of my Dragons being [a] five the board quickly became ugly for my opponent.

And that was that!

4-1

ID into 4th.

4-1-1


Top 8 - Connor with Esper Dragons

Finally!

Esper!

And I was on the play!

Game one was largely academic. I had Crucible of the Spirit Dragon in my opening hand so was eventually able to cast Dromoka tapping only one land. Connor spent his turn trying to kill Dromoka with Forked-Tongue Invocations but I had plenty of mana up to defend with my two- and three-mana Counterspells.

This one took a long time to finish because I mis-tapped late. Holy Make the Play Monday, Batman! I greedily left up Crucible of the Spirit Dragon even though I had Dromoka already in play. So I was forced to stop Connor's Silumgar, the Drifting Death with a Disdainful Stroke instead of a Nullify (I needed UU open to cast my other hand counter). I didn't want to leave the window open for a follow up threat.

The game ended in super spectacular fashion.

Connor played Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, which "miraculously" resolved and wiped my board. I just put counters on Crucible of the Spirit Dragon. Then I untapped, played Dromoka on one land and cast Dragonlord Silumgar to steal Ugin, and with it, the game.

Out:
1 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
2 Anticipate
2 Encase in Ice
2 Icefall Regent
1 Voyage's End

In:
1 Disdainful Stroke
1 Dragonlord's Prerogative
1 Negate
4 Omenspeaker
1 Dragonlord Silumgar

On turn two of the last game I played Omenspeaker. Just say no to every Forked-Tongue Invocation for the rest of the game!

My opponent had me worried for a second by tapping three on the next turn, but it was just a morph, not Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver.

Many turns went by but the pace was set on that second turn. I played Omenspeaker with Crucible of the Spirit Dragon, and little Omenspeaker set up my next several land drops. Thoughtseizes and permission spells were exchanged. Dragonlords stared at each other across The Red Zone. Dust cleared. I was Q'd.

...along with round one Atarka Red opponent Travis and round five Temur opponent Spencer! Great job[s], opponents!

It's a long way back to NYC and I have to get this in to Frank, so I'm out for now. I'll be back Friday with an in-depth breakdown on the play of the deck and changes we would make moving forward.

LOVE

MIKE