Every extra bit of effort into tournament preparation ahead of time translates into making the actual event that much easier. Experience makes a player more confident and comfortable in-game, and allows for more accurate and timely decision making, with less wasted brain power on mechanics and mathematics. Experience allows one to more readily identify and seize opportunities, and Illuminates pitfalls to be avoided. Playing games, reading articles, studying tournament results and decklists, and thinking critically about the format are all components to the preparation process.
With Grand Prix Toronto looming, I spent last week focused on Standard.
Toronto is a mere 270 miles from home: a reasonable four-and-a-half hour drive away. I was eager to put some stamps in my passport, which has been stowed away for two years; by far the longest period I have ever gone without travelling internationally since I obtained the passport nearly a decade ago. I talked with some friends, and plans were laid for three of us to leave for Toronto on Friday night.
We would leave after our friend Ian got off of work, drive to Cleveland from Columbus, then pick Derik and I up, which we expected would be late, perhaps after midnight. I usually like to arrive at a tournament early the day before to get settled in and find time for valuable practice, but due to the relatively close vicinity of the event, and with my boyish sense of adventure, I was excited for our late-night ride to glory.
The weekend prior to GP Toronto, the SCG Open Series rolled into Cleveland, and I played my own adaptation on the Esper Dragons deck that was all the rage. I found many of the same card choices as Top-4 finisher Gerard Fabiano, including two maindeck Ashiok, the Nightmare Weaver. The deck was solid and I got off to a promising start, but it was an ultimately mediocre performance. While I was not extremely pleased with the deck, it was certainly very good, and I resolved to get more experience so I could play it at 100% effectiveness in Toronto. Playing Esper Dragons that week on MTGO revealed a metagame slanted to beat it, and I came up against decks intending to beat me, the most hateful being a Jund deck which featured Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector alongside Kolaghan's Command. Given my ambivalence on the Esper Dragons archetype and the fact that I did not want to play against a hateful field, I explored other options.
Seeing Owen Turtenwald smash the first day of the Standard Super League with an Abzan Aggro deck similar to the one Andrew Boswell has been winning with consistently all season drew my eyes to that archetype. I have enjoyed playing Abzan Aggro in the past, but I have not weathered the storm of metagame changes that define this Standard format. This week, however, with the popularity of Esper Control, I was eager to give Abzan Aggro another go. After testing, exploring more decklists, discussing things with friends, and doing more testing, by Thursday I was locked on Abzan Aggro and was quite confident for the Grand Prix.
Friday, May 1st
On Friday I spent the day playing in MTGO Daily Events. It was valuable testing for working out the kinks in my game. The deck was performing well, and when I was losing it was due to identifiable mistakes. I went 3-1 in my first attempt early in the day, 1-2 in the second after playing poorly, and planned to play the 9pm event if I was still waiting for Ian.
Friday was Ian's first day on a new summer catering job before he moved for school, and he wasn't sure what to expect. The text I received shortly after he started work at 4pm, which read "no outs," should have tipped me off that the plans had changed, but I stayed the course and planned to leave late that night. When midnight arrived, and I still had not heard back from Ian, and Derik had texted me for the third time asking what his ETA was, we jettisoned Ian and arranged for an alternate plan to leave by ourselves in the morning. We each had a bye and a sleep-in-special, which meant we would need to arrive by 10am. Derik would pick me up by 5am, and we would get on the road.
After I beat an Atarka Red deck in the final round of my Daily Event to finish 4-0, it was just past 1am. I sent Ian a futile text that told him to get to my house by 5am if he wanted to come to the GP. Aiming to get three hours of sleep, two full 90 minute cycles, I laid down, set my alarm for 4:20am, and rested my eyes. Swerve.
Saturday, May 2nd
Upon being roughly awakened, I had that sleep-deprived feeling of wanting to just go back to sleep and forget it all, but seeing a text from Derik, who was already awake, reinvigorated my spirit and spurred me into the shower. Derik arrived sometime before 5am, and with no word from Ian, we eagerly hit the road.
Travelling from Mentor to Toronto is a pleasant drive east along the southern shore of Lake Erie, up to Buffalo, past Niagara Falls, and then onward around the western end of Lake Ontario. This route runs right along and through the ancient lake bed of the Great Lakes, which makes it a very flat and consistent terrain that lends itself to easy driving, cruise control, and great conversation. The soil is prime for fruit growing so much of this drive is through a beautiful wine country, with rows of grape vines visible and the occasional orchard.
After an eventless border crossing at Buffalo around 7:40am, we headed north, and before too long we could see the Toronto skyline on the other side of the cusp of Lake Ontario: a surreal feeling knowing we still had more than 60 miles to drive. The easy drive soon became difficult as the main corridor into downtown Toronto was shut down, forcing us on a route that took us all around the outskirts of the city and into downtown coming from the North West side. As we drove through this very real look at Toronto, we discussed the neighborhood, which felt very much alive, yet gritty and worn; a sample of the cosmopolitan culture we would experience downtown. As the city grew nearer, the intensity of it increased until finally bursting into a world of skyscrapers and populace.
The detour erased our lead and put us at a crunch for time. As the navigation on our phones failed, things started to come to a head, but it was at this critical juncture that Derik demonstrated his expert navigation skills for the first time, remarking that he knew the tournament was to be held by the CN tower. He weaved the streets and headed towards the point in the sky, and in minutes the convention center was before us, and we worked our way into the basement of the parking garage in the final minutes before 10am.
We had arrived in Toronto, but had not arrived at the tournament, which was actually in a second convention center building connected to the first, which held our car beneath. We weaved through a labyrinth of escalators, stairs, and corridors before finally reaching the tournament hall. Derik, ever the casual player, headed immediately for the bathroom, while I, the professional, upon hearing the intense clamor in the tournament hall, and unable to accept a game loss for tardiness, pushed my bladder to its limit as I hurriedly walked directly to the pairings board, which revealed it was round one, not round two, that was starting, and the tournament had been delayed an hour.
I relieved myself, got checked into the tournament, and Derik and I headed to grab some breakfast. We found a nice row of restaurants, but only a 24 hour Subway was open. We sat down and had a bite of food before heading back to the tournament site.
The SCG Open in Cleveland earned me enough planeswalker points to reach the two-bye threshold, but due to their delay in reporting or Wizard's in updating, by the GP the event was not yet incorporated into my match history, and I was forced to play without my second bye.
My matches in day one went as follows:
R1: W - BYER2: W - Atarka RedR3: W - Bant HeroicR4: W - Atarka RedR5: W - Mardu DragonsR6: W - Ojutai BantR7: W - Esper DragonsR8: L - Atarka RedR9: L - Bant Ojutai
Day 1 Record 7-2
It was disappointing to lose the final two rounds of the day after an undefeated start, but I was pleased with my play and the result overall, and was eager to get some sleep before day 2. Derik finished 6-3, blaming only his many mistakes to losing games. Many thanks to Chad Kastel, Robert Vaughan, and Ralph Betesh for inviting Derik and I into their room, where I got a restful six hours of sleep before rising for the second day of competition.
Sunday, May 3rd
Members of our crew wanted to stop at Starbucks en route to the tournament site, and it was conveniently located around the corner. As we headed towards the tournament hall, the group realized that we weren't actually certain which direction that was. Derik, the navigator explained, "I know the site is to the east of us, and the sun is rising to the east", as he pointed towards the bright morning sun and thus towards the direction of the site.
R10: W - Atarka RedR11: W - Abzan MidrangeR12: W - Esper DragonsR13: L - RG DragonsR14: W - Abzan AggroR15: W - Abzan Aggro
Final Record: 12-3
In Round 13 I had a close match against RG Dragons, but ultimately lost and was eliminated from Top 8 contention. I was very happy with my play throughout the rest of the tournament, but I can't help but feel I had the tools necessary to win this match, and I did not use them properly. After reviewing these games in my head I have found better lines of play, and know that things could have gone differently.
In my experience, tournaments revolve much less around my opponents than they revolve around my own self-control and awareness. I have looked back at this match to identify reasons why I made a mistake.
In game one, my opponent played more quickly than me, and I fell into his frame. I tend to play more quickly than my opponents, often quite quickly and matter-of-factly, which I imagine throws some opponents off of their game. I find many opponents to be very slow, and I enjoy when opponents play quickly. On the other hand, in more complicated scenarios it's important to think deeply about decisions. I was against a deck which I had little experience against, against a strong player, and I was behind in the game. I should have slowed the pace of the game down literally and figuratively, figuring out a plan to win a game where I was behind.
I stabilized the board at seven life, but was out of threats and holding a pair of Dromoka's Command and Abzan Charm. I decided to draw two cards at end of turn, going to three life off of two painlands, looking for a Siege Rhino or another threat. I found the Siege Rhino and cast it to apply pressure, leaving one land untapped, but I was immediately killed by Crater's Claws. I could have been more patient, reading him for Crater's Claws and playing around it by leaving up Dromoka's Command. He would have likely went for the win, allowing me to counter it and safely deploy the Siege Rhino. In the unlikely scenario that he played around Dromoka's Command, my next draw step is likely to yield either a land, allowing me to play Siege Rhino and still leave up Dromoka's Command, or a cheaper creature that I could cast and still leave up two mana. Alternatively, I could have not cast Abzan Charm, opting to play a slow game, preserve my life total, and save Abzan Charm to be used as a removal spell.
In game three on turn five I was put into a position where I had a once-leveled 3/3 Warden of the First Tree against his four lands, Sylvan Caryatid, Hornet Nest, Xenagos, the Reveler with three loyalty, and 2/2 Satyr Token. I had Ultimate Price in hand, and drew Hero's Downfall. The correct line here is to cast Ultimate Price on Hornet Nest, then attack Xenagos, the Reveler, which forces a chump block. Cast Hero's Downfall on Xenagos, the Reveler, which leaves the opponent without much of a board presence and still facing my threat and a hand with Abzan Charm and multiple Siege Rhino. This line is somewhat vulnerable to Stormbreath Dragon, but the fact that he could have cast it the turn prior meant that he was unlikely to hold it, and in any event, a pair of Siege Rhino could have potentially raced the flier. In the moment, I failed in this analysis, and took a greedy line that allowed him to keep his Xenagos, the Reveler, reasoning that I would easily overpower the 2/2 tokens in the coming turns. He instead used the +0 mana ability to power out Dragonlord Atarka, forcing me to Abzan Charm, and putting me too far behind to recover from an onslaught of Satyr Tokens and a finishing Crater's Claws.
In this situation I was met with a bit of information Overload and had a lapse in logic, because Fatigue from the weekend caught up to me. On day one I ate breakfast at Subway, along with bananas and some Cliff bars throughout the day to keep myself fueled. On day two I brought some almonds, but on the whole I did not fuel myself adequately, and while I did not realize it at the time, it affected me mentally. On day one I carried a bottle of water that I refilled throughout the day, but on day two I did not, had to make trips to the water fountain, and overall was less hydrated. I also need to start bring headphones and using them again, an old ritual that served me well but one that I have neglected in recent events. I'll be sure to be more prepared for my next event.
Derik spent his day two watching games and playing in Win-a-Box tournaments with his Monoblack Aggro featuring four maindeck Self-Inflicted Wound, which earned him a box-and-a-half of Dragons of Tarkir in his two attempts.
Derik says on the play, sideboard in a Swamp, and on the draw, cut one! This gives the deck the same odds of curving out on mana on turns one, two, and three.
The drive home from Toronto was as pleasant as they come, and Derik and I talked for its entirety about a variety of topics, including using Monte Carlo simulation to model games of Magic and draw conclusions about the metagame, standing up to and directly confronting anti-social behavior and bullying at local game stores in the name of encouraging an inclusive environment, the future of self-assisted and self-driving vehicles and their implications for the future of society, Derik's Sage of Hours / Sandsteppe Mastodon combo deck, and his experience with the fermented fresh-pressed grape juice that is common in wine-making regions during harvest season.
Abzan Aggro is very well positioned in a metagame filled with Esper Dragons, Megamorph decks, and Red Aggro. It is disadvantaged against Abzan Midrange, which put two copies into the GP Top 8 and won the event. If Abzan Midrange becomes more popular, which it certainly will, Abzan Aggro will be a worse choice and may have to adjust, but it will certainly remain a factor in the metagame. If Abzan Midrange goes on to dominate the metagame, then I would retire Abzan Aggro only to play it again when Whip of Erebos decks and UB Control decks rise again to combat the midrange menace.
Here's the deck I recommend going forward, and how to sideboard against the popular archetypes. The current decklist is already well constructed for combatting Abzan Midrange, so I don't see needing to make any changes, but perhaps including Glare of Heresy could serve the deck well as a way to stop both Siege Rhino and Elspeth, Sun's Champion.
Abzan Midrange-3 Dromoka's Command-2 Warden of the First Tree-1 Anafenza, the Foremost
+3 Self-Inflicted Wound+3 Den Protector
Abzan Aggro-3 Thoughtseize-1 Anafenza, the Foremost-1 Dromoka's Command-1 Hero's Downfall
+3 Den Protector+3 Self-Inflicted Wound
Abzan Megamorph-3 Thoughtseize-2 Hero's Downfall-1 Warden of the First Tree+3 Den Protector+3 Self-Inflicted Wound
Atarka Red-4 Abzan Charm-1 Mana Confluence-3 Thoughtseize
+3 Drown in Sorrow+3 Ultimate Price+2 Duress
Ojutai Bant-2 Hero's Downfall-2 Warden of the First Tree
+3 Self-Inflicted Wound+1 Thoughtseize
Esper Dragons-3 Dromoka's Command-1 Hero's Downfall-1 Anafenza, the Foremost-2 Wingmate Roc-1 Plains
+3 Den Protector+2 Duress+1 Thoughtseize+2 Self-Inflicted Wound
RG Dragons-3 Thoughtseize-2 Wingmate Roc+3 Ultimate Price+2 Den Protector
Heroic-3 Dromoka's Command-2 Wingmate Roc-2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor-1 Mana Confluence-4 Anafenza, the Foremost
+3 Self-Inflicted Wound+3 Ultimate Price+2 Duress+1 Thoughtseize+3 Den Protector
Mardu Dragons-3 Dromoka's Command-2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor-2 Wingmate Roc
+3 Ultimate Price+3 Den Protector+1 Thoughtseize
What are your experiences with Abzan Aggro? Does the deck need to go through any changes to combat a dynamic metagame? Where is the metagame headed? How do you prepare for a tournament? How do you stay sharp and focused throughout a tournament? Share your thoughts in the comments!