I have now played on the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour. I even won a couple matches. My stat line was a disappointing 2-6, going 1-2 in draft and 1-4 in constructed. Maybe I suck at Magic, but I don’t think that’s the case. Regardless, I had a great time at the tournament, learned a ton, and plan on winning a lot more the next time I qualify.

So how did it all go down? What were the highlights? How does it feel to scrub out of your first Pro Tour? Did I come home and book a trip to Grand Prix Vancouver? Do I have anything valuable to say despite finishing in the bottom 10% of the field? See for yourself below.

Going into the event, I did not have great expectations for my performance, at least in my honest internal mind. I could definitely have been more prepared, and I knew it. To put it simply, I moved to Denver right after I qualified and real life concerns have taken away much of my time to practice for the Pro Tour. I could have made different financial decisions to practice much more thoroughly, but I didn’t and I don’t regret my choice.

While I didn’t have a ton of time to play matches of Magic over the last few months, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the games I have played. I felt my grasp on the two formats, Modern and FKK draft, was solid and I wasn’t too surprised by much I saw at the tournament.

pt phantoms

These were my guiding principles on the Modern format after the recent banning of Treasure Cruise, Dig Through Time, and Birthing Pod, along with the unbanning of Golgari Grave-Troll:

  • Blue is the worst color in the format. All of the efficient card advantage is banned, and the 2/1 body provided by Snapcaster Mage isn’t useful enough to make it great. The only “blue” deck worth playing is Splinter Twin.
  • Abzan midrange is the default best deck. Many people will play it and most others will choose decks that at least theoretically play well against Abzan.
  • Aggression will be the name of the game. Decks will either try to get under Abzan with fast creatures or try to combo off before cards like Siege Rhino and Lingering Souls become relevant.
  • Control is horrible. There are too many different aggressive strategies to have good answers to all, you can’t really expect to lock down the game against most decks, and you don’t apply a fast clock to close the door under a soft lock. Control also can’t reliably beat Abzan in a long game, and decks like Tron go over the top.
  • Graveyard decks might be better with Golgari Grave-Troll, but the strategy of attacking on turn three with a few Vengevines doesn’t seem impressive enough to build around.
  • The most important factor for success in Modern is familiarity with your deck and how it matches up with the other popular decks.

Knowing that I would not get to grind infinite Modern games, I wanted to pick a deck I already had some comfort with. While I haven’t played a ton of Modern over the years, I have played some. The decks I had experience with were Jeskai Control, Scapeshift, Gifts Tron, Affinity, and Delver. Of those, Affinity was the only one that I thought had any claim on being tier one in the expected Pro Tour metagame. I considered playing Abzan, and finally biting the bullet to get two more Tarmogoyfs to complete my playset, but I didn’t like what the deck was trying to do.

I had dismissed Splinter Twin a bit because of the expected ubiquity of Abrupt Decay and Thoughtseize, but that was a mistake that might have been corrected if I had spent time testing the deck. (It turns out asking the questions is better than having the answers.) I chose Affinity as the aggressive deck I most wanted to play. I know the deck is very difficult, and I would classify my skill with the deck as moderate, but it is also fun and I like challenges. Unfortunately the worst matchup Affinity has against the other top decks is Splinter Twin. That would come back to bite me.

As for the new draft format, I felt quite good about it after my cram session in Brooklyn. Fate Reforged really opens up the Khans format, taking off some of the pressure to slot into one of the five clans. The new format rewards staying open and evaluating cards properly during draft. You can play any combination of two to five colors and have success as long as you build a good deck and have sufficient power level. Five color is not really worth the risk, but a two color deck that splashes any number of the other three colors for power cards is generally where you want to be. Two color aggressive decks are more viable and can be amazing, but the format is still fundamentally hostile to aggression, at least when people are properly preparing for it. You can run over the tapland-tapland-morph decks pretty easily, but it is not hard for slower decks to incorporate relevant turn two plays that swing the aggressive matchup back in the slow deck’s favor.

Deep_Analysis

So that’s where I was as I sat down for my first ever Pro Tour draft on Friday morning. I had a reasonable-looking draft pod for a pro tour: Denniz Rachid and Yuuki Ichikawa to my left, Andrew Baeckstrom to my right, a couple other people I recognized, and a couple I didn’t.

I opened Alesha, Who Smiles at Death in my first pack. I’m not super stoked to draft red, but Alesha is great and was easily the pick out of an otherwise weak pack. It turned out all of the Fate Reforged packs I saw in the draft were weak. My next two picks were both Douse in Gloom, not much else impressive came around, and going into Khans I was not excited by my deck.

The second pack started with a Siege Rhino and not much else. I might have taken a strong Mardu card over the rhino, but there really wasn’t anything close in power level, so I took the sweet rare. I was semi-rewarded for my openness for green by getting passed a fourth pick Duneblast in pack three, but the only green land I saw was a Jungle Hollow pack two pick three that I passed in favor of Dead Drop. Here’s where I ended up:

I Need a Jungle Hollow Dot Deck

Creatures (15)
Chief of the Edge
Mardu Skullhunter
Alesha, Who Smiles at Death
Abzan Falconer
Hooded Assassin
Sage-Eye Harrier
Ponyback Brigade
Woolly Loxodon
Sidisi’s Pet
Canyon Lurkers
Siege Rhino
Mardu Warshrieker
Salt Road Patrol
Unyielding Krumar

Spells (7)
Douse in Gloom
Rakshasa’s Secret
Dead Drop
Duneblast
Mardu Charm
Mardu Ascendancy
Lands (18)
Bloodfell Caves
Wind-Scarred Crag
Swamp
Plains
Forest
Mountain

Sideboard (18)
Dismal Backwater
Alesha’s Vanguard
Sibsig Muckdraggers
Rite of the Serpent
Grave Strength
Tasigur’s Cruelty
Hooting Mandrills
Return to the Earth
Fierce Invocation
Temur Battle Rage
Trumpet Blast
Shatter
Timely Hordemate
Abzan Runemark
Write Into Being
Whirlwind Adept
Fascination
Taigam’s Scheming

The mana is wonky, and I knew I was taking a risk that I would lose games to drawing the wrong lands, but the power level of the deck is quite high. Chief of the Edge looks a bit aspirational, shall we say, but I chose to run it because it’s better in the late game anyway, especially as I was not a beatdown deck. Alesha is quite good here, fetching back half the creatures in the deck including the dream card Ponyback Brigade.

I ended up going 1-2 as I said at the outset, but I think that was on the low end of my expected outcome with the deck. Round one I lost almost solely to Savage Knuckleblade. My opponent, Jessica Buchanan, had two copies of that beater, including the one I opened in pack three that got to her fifth pick. She drew a copy both games and I couldn’t deal with it, so I lost. Round two I lost in three close games to Socrates Rosakeas, who I recognized from the Greek World Magic Cup team. He was on Abzan, and had two copies of Abzan Ascendancy. I didn’t see one until game three, when he top decked it after I used Rakshasa’s Secret to empty his hand while I sculpted a win around the Duneblast in mine. He was able to pressure me with Abzan Skycaptain and despite my turn four Siege Rhino my Duneblast plan was completely trumped by the ascendancy and I lost. Round three I faced Jeskai and won easily in two, my deck being a bit strong for the 0-2 slot of the draft.

Going 1-2 in draft was painful. I felt like I lost straight up to two random rares that my deck could not easily deal with, and that was that. Otherwise my deck felt great. I lost one game in round two to mana issues, and if I had top decked a Swamp the turn before I died in the first game of round one I might have won with the Duneblast in hand, but so it goes. You have to run well to 3-0 a draft at the Pro Tour, and I simply didn’t. At least I didn’t waste my luck at a tournament where I was well-positioned to compete.

Here’s the Affinity deck I submitted. It’s fairly close to the base Frank Karsten had been using prior to the Treasure Cruise era, and other than tweaking the sideboard a bit to attack a more defined metagame (which I plan to do in a couple weeks in Vancouver) I’m pretty happy with the list.

Affinity

Creatures (27)
Ornithopter
Memnite
Signal Pest
Vault Skirge
Arcbound Ravager
Steel Overseer
Master of Etherium
Etched Champion

Spells (16)
Cranial Plating
Mox Opal
Springleaf Drum
Galvanic Blast
Thoughtcast
Ensoul Artifact
Lands (17)
Darksteel Citadel
Inkmoth Nexus
Blinkmoth Nexus
Glimmervoid
Island

Sideboard (15)
Thoughtseize
Ancient Grudge
Etched Champion
Spellskite
Dismember
Illness in the Ranks
Rule of Law
Whipflare
Spell Pierce
Grafdigger’s Cage
Tormod’s Crypt

The deck needs a little help against Splinter Twin, like for example to avoid playing against it. Unfortunately for me, I started off round four facing Todd Anderson and his Grixis Twin deck running main deck Grim Lavamancer. Turns out that card is good against Affinity. Who knew? Todd was a great opponent and his deck impressed me. I like Terminate in this meta a lot more than Lightning Bolt or Path to Exile, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang is basically a better version of Tarmogoyf in the Twin shell. Anyway, Twin combines too much removal and disruption with the fast clock necessary to keep Affinity from winning either the short or long game. I lost in two.

After that I managed to get my first win in constructed over Abzan. My opponent mulled to five both games, and I had good draws. This was what I hoped to do with Affinity and it felt good to at least do it once. But then I faced another Twin deck, this time of the Tarmogoyf variety. I lost to turn four infinite faeries both games. And then I got paired against Greg Orange, who I knew had to be playing Jeskai Control. Sure enough he was, and he destroyed me. Jeskai was a bad deck for the field, which is why I wasn’t afraid of facing it with Affinity, so no surprise I met it in the 2-4 bracket.

I played out round eight against the mirror, which was close until I punted game three. He had mulled to five and I chose to try for the turn three Ensoul Artifact on my Vault Skirge when he had one card in hand. It turned out to be Wear // Tear and I let him undo his mulligan and then go on to win. I should have played more carefully and pressed my card advantage to a likely win, but I was tired and impatient and that was that.

After losing my last round, I wandered over to find Abe Lusk deep in battle against a dredgevine deck, fighting to go 6-2 on the first day of his first pro tour. The match was the final one to complete on the day, with Abe winning on turn five of turns off the one sideboard Ajani Steadfast pumping his Lingering Souls tokens enough to bust through the life gain from Gnaw to the Bone and helping his Siege Rhinos beat past the sea of Gurmag Anglers on the other side. I wasn’t the only one watching the match intently. Hugh Kramer stood beside me, part of the team I would have been on had I stayed in Brooklyn instead of leaving for Denver. Evan Husney, another Brooklyn Magic player who happened to be making a documentary of the event for Vice peered over at the match as well. And to the side stood one Dave Humpherys, lead developer for Wizards of the Coast, pointing at Gurmag Angler and nodding approvingly. In this moment I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and togetherness. My losses faded away, and all I could think about was what I would need to do to get back to this place again.

Brendan McNamara (MTGO: eestlinc, Twitter: @brendanistan) used to play Magic in the old days. His favorite combo was Armageddon plus Zuran Orb. After running out of money to buy cards and friends who were willing to put up with that combo, he left the game. But like disco, he was bound to come back eventually. Now he’s a lawyer by day and a Dimir agent by night.

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