The story of Pro Tour Dominaria last weekend was all about Goblin Chainwhirler. Seven of the top 8 decks all played four copies and the lone outlier, an Esper Control deck, was defeated in three quick games. 100% of the games in the Top 8 of the Pro Tour were won by a Goblin Chainwhirler deck. The Pro Tour itself was won by Wyatt Darby piloting a 24-Mountain Mono-Red deck through a top 8 full of black-red strategies that Mono-Red had a slight edge against.
It's pretty easy to look at this and come to the conclusion that Goblin Chainwhirler is busted and that it would be foolhardy to play anything other than a Goblin Chainwhirler deck. And while that seems like a reasonable conclusion to draw, I'm not so quick to give up. Chainwhirler is good, but it is not unbeatable. More on that later.
This Pro Tour was a weird one for me. Do you ever have a situation where you pretty much know what is going to happen but are completely powerless to stop it?
That's how I felt going into the Pro Tour. I knew my deck choice, White-Blue Approach, was worse than just playing Mono-Red or Black-Red Aggro. I also was pretty sure that the card Approach of the Second Sun was going to underperform in the deck. However, I felt powerless to stop the wheels of fate, and I still registered the deck and still registered the card.
Why did I do that? The answer is that I know myself and I know my limitations. I was pretty sure that I could play White-Blue Control to something like a 6-4 or 7-3 record, and while playing a Chainwhirler deck likely had a higher ceiling I personally know that I am very bad at piloting those strategies and would likely get outclassed in mirror matches and lose a lot throughout the tournament.
I was pretty sure that Chainwhirler decks were the best decks in the room and would likely perform very well, but I also knew that I was unlikely to be one of the players who would perform well with them. So I accepted my fate and played a deck that I knew I would do better with, even though I figured that it would not be good enough to win the tournament with.
This may sound stupid, but it's basically how I felt going into the event and I was at peace with it. Some formats and some tournaments are just not yours to win and this felt like that kind of event for me. Formats where Bomat Courier or Heart of Kiran are the best thing you can do are formats where I have struggled immensely over the past two years and this was another one of those events. In hindsight, I'm quite happy with how I finished, considering my expectation level going into the event.
I had a lot riding on this event. I needed a 9-7 finish to lock myself for Platinum status for next year. I also was in second place in the running for Constructed Master, a slot that awards a World Championship qualification to the winner. I needed to likely go something like 8-2 in the Constructed rounds to earn that award.
I did not expect to win Constructed Master and I hoped to do well enough to achieve Platinum, although again my expectations were low. This may appear like a character flaw or lack of confidence, but I assure you that it is not the case. I was fresh from back-to-back GP Top 4's over the previous two weekends, so confidence was definitely not an issue at all. As for low expectations, I think it is perfectly ok to have realistic expectations for yourself. I always hear people talking about how you must set your sights high and expect greatness and so forth. I think setting goals for yourself is great, as is working hard to achieve those goals, but I don't think it's healthy to expect something that isn't realistic. That leads to bitterness, entitlement, and disappointment.
I expected my teams of Brad Nelson and Seth Manfield/Martin Muller to do really well at the team GPs, and we did, and I expected that I would have a fairly average Pro Tour, and I did. It may seem like I created a self-fulfilling Prophecy, but I think in reality I've just gotten pretty good at being able to realistically assess how prepared I am for an event as well as how good my deck is for that event and make accurate predictions off of it.
As for the Pro Tour itself, I did end up going 9-7, which is a slightly above average result, but it was exactly the result I needed to lock Platinum status for next year, so I was quite happy. I was even more happy than I normally would be because I started the tournament with an inauspicious 1-4 record. I had to win my last three rounds in a row on Day 1 to even make it to Day 2 at 4-4, and I battled through some tough games and tough matchups to do so.
I had the literal worst record and tiebreakers going into Day 2. I started 3-3 and found out that with four losses in Constructed by this point, I was dead in the water for winning the Constructed Master slot. However, I was still live to win my last two rounds and earn Platinum and so I was hyper-focused on playing those the best I can.
I ended up winning both and earning Platinum status for the thirrd year in a row. My Platinum from the previous two years were both earned on the back of winning the World Championship, which makes this the first year that I earned Platinum the hard way, by actually getting 52 Pro Points in a season. This means that this is the best year I've ever had, which actually came as a surprise to me as I thought I was having a pretty bad season. Maybe I'm not as good at these realistic assessments as I thought!
While 9-7 is a pretty average result, I was really proud of myself for sticking it out and battling for every inch after starting 1-4 and being on the wrong side of some variance early in the event. I did not give up, lose sight of my goals or quit putting everything into each of my games, and that's all you really can do. Reid Duke is the perfect example of this kind of mentality – he started 1-4 as well, but won 11 straight rounds to finish 12-4 and in the Top 16. That's more impressive to me than Top 8'ing the Pro Tour, because it takes an extremely high level of mental toughness to battle back from that level of adversity.
That's the kind of mental toughness I hope to emulate. You don't have to win the tournament to have a good result, and what constitutes a good result is different for every player and every situation. For me a good result was 9-7; I busted my butt off to achieve it and I'm proud of how hard I worked for it, even though to someone else 9-7 would have been a disappointment.
Reid also beat me playing for 3-0 of our draft pod on Day 2 by casting two different copies of Jaya's Immolating Inferno on the same turn to lethal me after I countered the first copy in a nailbiter of a game three. That's just a great story, even though I ended up on the wrong side of it. Beats.
Remember when I said that I didn't think Chainwhirler was unbeatable? Let's get back to that. See, the thing is, I believe, perhaps foolishly, that control decks can compete with Chainwhirler. I feel pretty confident that you should either play Teferi, Hero of Dominaria or Goblin Chainwhirler in this format if your goal is to win the tournament, but I'm not convinced yet that it must be Chainwhirler that you play. I think Teferi decks tuned to beat the red decks can do exactly that. Are they sacrificing too much in other matchups to do so? Perhaps, but not necessarily. My goal in the upcoming weeks is to figure out how to appropriately strike that balance.
This is the Approach list I played in the event. It's one card different from the list all my teammates registered. They only played one Lyra Dawnbringer in the sideboard, but I was convinced that card was awesome against a number of strategies and refused to play less than two. The card was indeed awesome for me and I'm happy I had the second one.
The rationale behind playing Approach of the Second Sun was twofold. The first reason is because of the Black-Green Constrictor deck that was popular going into the Pro Tour. After sideboard, Constrictor can completely outclass White-Blue by just generating so much card advantage from Lifecrafter's Bestiary and Glint-Sleeve Siphoner along with presenting a bunch of really obnoxious threats like Walking Ballista, Nissa, Vital Force, and Vraska, Relic Seeker. Along with cards like Vraska's Contempt to take care of Teferi, Lyra and Torrential Gearhulk, White-Blue Control can struggle to generate any traction at all.
Approach completely ignores all of this. With Approach in your deck, you can just allow your opponent to draw all the cards they want, use Fumigates and Settle the Wreckage to keep your life total high, and then just win the game by casting Approach of the Second Sun, using the next turn to dig back to the Approach, and then cast it again for the win. We found this to be the best plan against Constrictor.
The other value that Approach of the Second Sun offered was game one in the mirror match. Approach of the Second Sun was surprisingly quite potent in the mirror. The games all went long, as Teferi is the only true card that mattered and both players have a lot of ways to deal with Teferi. Approach gave the deck another avenue to win. Once you've cast the first Approach, your opponent has to constantly respect you casting Approach again, which means they have less leeway to fight over things like Teferi. If they decide to fight over your Teferi or protect their own, then they open themselves up to just lose to Approach, but if they respect Approach too much, then you can just beat them with Teferi.
Constrictor didn't have a great performance at the Pro Tour and is unlikely to be a big part of the format moving forward. Constrictor strategies are pretty weak against the black-red decks, especially after sideboard. I played a lot with Constrictor in testing for the Pro Tour and I consistently struggled in those matchups. Constrictor is also a huge dog to White-Blue Control in game one and despite having a strong matchup against it after sideboard, you do likely have to win both post-board games, which offers no leeway for bad draws or hands that don't line up well.
What this means is that I don't think Approach of the Second Sun is worth it moving forward. I would lean toward replacing those cards with, well, literally anything else. Preferably, I would replace it with something good against red aggro. The question is what? It's rough to rely on a creature, especially in game one, as they will have a bunch of Abrades and Unlicensed Disintegrations rotting away. It's possible that the best list against red aggro plays only Teferi in the main deck paired with a lot of cheap interaction, and then sideboards into a mixture of threats that adequately attacks the red decks.
One card we played in our sideboard was Walking Ballista, which ended up being a very impressive threat and answer against other control and midrange decks. Ballista was great at pressuring opposing copies of Teferi and killing annoying threats like Glint-Sleeve Siphoner. However, Walking Ballista was pretty weak against red aggro, serving as an inefficient way to deal with threats like Bomat Courier, even though it was still worth having them in the matchup. Moving forward, Ballista is a card that I could potentially do without, despite its strength in Glint-Sleeve Siphoner matchups.
I could see a list like this being a reasonable jumping off point if your goal is to specifically attack red aggro. I would not recommend only three copies of Seal Away, but the plan of only Teferi in game one and then a sideboard plan of Knights and Lyra backed up by Negate seems strong to me. Negate is especially good against Black-Red Aggro, where it takes care of their entire sideboard plan based around cards like Chandra, Angrath, The Eldest Reborn and Duress.
Personally, though, I think it might be time to shift completely.
I'm a huge fan of this Esper list that Guillaume Matignon played at the Pro Tour. Guillaume has consistently been knocking it out of the park when it comes to registering control decks at the Pro Tour and this is no different. While playing three copies of Stink-o-pate makes me sad, the rest of this deck looks pretty great. Torrential Gearhulk is at its best when paired with Vraska's Contempt, and I think a blue-black base shell is the only shell where you can get away with playing more than a couple copies of Gearhulk. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is so unbelievably powerful at taking over and winning games that I think it is a huge mistake to not splash for it. I also think that White-Blue Control is a natural favorite against Blue-Black Control, with Teferi being a large reason why, so it makes sense to splash for the powerful walker to improve your game in...well...every single matchup because Teferi is insane.
I think this deck on paper looks like it would have a decent matchup against red decks. Fatal Push is the most efficient card at what it does and having Fatal Push allows you to keep pace with red in the early turns, which is something that white-blue is incapable of doing. The cheap countermagic should be able to handle red's turn 3-4 threats and then you reach a mid to endgame where Vraska's Contempts and Torrential Gearhulks seal the deal. It matters less for this deck to take three damage off an Unlicensed Disintegration on a Torrential Gearhulk, because better cheap interaction and the life gain from Vraska's Contempt means that Blue-Black control variants will generally stabilize at a higher life total.
Esper might be the future of control in Standard. Shaheen Soorani was right all along...you know...except for the fact that he played Blue-Black Control at the Pro Tour. Classic mistake.
- Brian Braun-Duin