Grand Prix Toronto was my tournament to win. I started 10-0 and almost everything on the weekend broke my way. But a few things went very wrong, I failed to overcome them, and I finished a sad but respectable 38th for $250 and two pro points. I came in with only one pro point this season, so I couldn’t have backed my way into a Bronze qualification even with a win, but I did throw away a qualification for Pro Tour Albuquerque just a six-hour drive from my home in Denver.

That burns. I know the hot days don’t come often–for me it’s been a couple tough years. I was one win from the top 8, and I threw it away with poor play. Even so, I learned much and grew tremendously as a tournament Magician. “We can build on this.” Here are important lessons that can help you and me improve in this Limited format and more generally.

Make Sure Important Factors in Your Control are Perfect

I need sleep to think clearly and play at a high level. At 36 years old, I can’t run on four hours of sleep each night, and honestly I never really could for more than a day or two. Being well rested at traveling grand prix is of paramount importance to me. If I can’t get a good night’s sleep before each day, my odds of doing well in the tournament are low. I know this, and for that reason I try to stay in nice hotels even if I’d prefer to save money.

For Grand Prix Toronto, I couldn’t find a good hotel I liked, so I found a loft to rent for the weekend. I usually don’t use those services (I’m not mentioning which because I’m still dealing with them on the mess I’m about to describe) but the price and location were perfect. I’ve been to Toronto enough times that I felt comfortable not just going to a known hotel. However, the management company for the loft I rented was hard to get in touch with, and I was nervous that something would be amiss when I arrived. I should have investigated more thoroughly, but I didn’t.

My flight was delayed and I arrived in Toronto at 2am Saturday. I got a cab to my loft easily, but the box where I was supposed to pick up the keys was empty. Two hours of trying to get help later, I had no answers and no place to sleep. All the hotels in the area were booked solid, and I couldn’t even get into the hostels I knew from my younger days. So at 4:30am I camped out in a Tim Horton’s and watched Grand Prix Kyoto coverage on my phone while I charged and ate some breakfast. At 7:30 I walked down to the convention center, cleaned up in a bathroom, sold a few cards for Canadian cash, and went to build my pool.

I don’t know yet what the hell happened. Did I get scammed? Did someone screw up massively? Was it me? I can probably get my money back, and maybe something extra for the expensive hotel I had to book last minute for Saturday night. But I knew as I walked into the tournament hall Saturday morning that I was practically drawing dead to win the tournament without sleep. I had a similar experience at Grand Prix Orlando earlier this year, and it went very poorly.

I vow not to let this happen again. It may still, just from random misfortune, but I knew this might happen when I left home on Friday and I shouldn’t have put myself in that position. For you, maybe the quality of your sleep isn’t important. But something is—the food you eat, or your morning exercise routine. When you travel to compete, make absolutely sure you handle those priorities every time.

Build Your Sealed Pool to Your Strengths

As we went to build, Richard Tan told me I was due for a great pool to crush the tournament as karmic retribution for my overnight ordeal, and my recent run of bad luck in Sealed grand prix more generally. He was right. The pool I got had a ton of power, most of it in the Esper colors that I know how to play well even on little sleep. I struggled a bit on the final build, leaving a lot of great stuff in the sideboard, but this is what I registered.

Esper Control

Creatures (13)
Proven Combatant
Wretched Camel
Khenra Eternal
Banewhip Punisher
Baleful Ammit
Carrior Screecher
Soulstinger
Shimmerscale Drake
Unesh, Criosphinx Sovereign
Angler Drake
Striped Riverwinder

Spells (12)
Grind // Dust
Pull from Tomorrow
Supreme Will
Wander in Death
Trial of Ambition
Cartouche of Ambition
Torment of Venom
Countervaling Winds
Manalith
Traveler’s Amulet
Lands (15)
Desert of the Mindful
Survivors’ Encampment
Island
Swamp
Plains

Sideboard (24)
Unsummon
Cunning Survivor
Tragic Lesson
Kefnet’s Monument
 Compelling Argument
Compulsory Rest
 Forsake the Worldly
Vizier of Deferment
Hour of Revelation
Aven of Enduring Hope
Angel of the God-Pharaoh
Mummy Paramount
 Solitary Camel
God-Pharaoh’s Faithful
Act of Heroism
Graven Abomination
Grasping Dunes
Razaketh’s Rite
Torment of Scarabs
Doomed Dissenter
Trespasser’s Curse

My green and red also had solid options, including a River Hoopoe, but I don’t like wasting card slots on mediocre fixing, and with so much card advantage I’d rather just draw good spells with clean mana. Forsake the Wordly probably should have been in there, or maybe Compulsory Rest, and I sided them in along with Unsummon and Vizier of Deferment often, usually taking out the two Torment of Venom. I loved this deck and would sign up to play it in any Hour/Amonkhet sealed tournament ever and take my chances against anything.

The adrenaline of knowing I had the pool to crush day one helped me focus, and I did exactly that. I lost two games all day and both were to poor decisions I made in game twos. In the first, I used Wander in Death for Banewhip Punisher and Angler Drake instead of two Striper Riverwinders when I knew my opponent had two sweepers and tons of removal, and I got decked by Ipnu Rivulet. And in the other, I tapped out for Unesh instead of holding up Forsake the Worldly to stop God-Pharaoh’s Gift, and I lost to it.

Maybe if I had opened a broken Glorybringer plus The Scorpion God pool I would have crushed with it too, but I think my love and familiarity with this sort of control deck helped me get through an arduous day one. Play to your strengths. If they are too narrow to rely upon, work on broadening your strengths. But you will usually play better with a deck you love than a deck you hate.

Cards that Overperformed in Sealed

Grind // Dust is the best non-God or God-Pharaoh in the set. I exiled three gods (Scarab, Bontu, and Rhonas), five Crested Sunmares (never faced a horse token!), and all sorts of other strong creatures. I knew it was great, but it blew away even my high expectations.

Supreme Will was almost as good as Pull from Tomorrow. If your deck has good spells, it’s hard to lose a game where you resolve both—another reason not to pack your deck with mana fixing. I let a lot of solid cards resolve so I could dig into my top four cards, but I also countered everything from Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh to Hour of Revelation to Ahn-Crop Crasher.

Cartouche of Ambition continues to impress me. It is the best cartouche, the most powerful common in this sealed format, and it has determined many matches for me in both directions over the life of Amonkhet and into Hour sealed. It doesn’t get a ton of respect, but it should.

Finally, Proven Combatant earned its name. I played it as a solid early blocker that could give me a free body in the late game. My deck had tons of card advantage, solid interaction, and good threats, but I mostly won by attacking with a four or five power creature on an empty board after fifteen turns or so of exhausting my opponent of their resources. The extra 4/4 was invaluable. In addition, it helped fix my mana with Survivors’ Encampment, ate counters from Soulstinger and Baleful Ammit, wore cartouches, teamed up with Wretched Camel on some value double blocks, went to the yard for free off Unesh’s trigger, and otherwise did yeoman’s work all day. It honestly felt like Thraben Inspector does in Mardu Vehicles.

The most surprisingly useful synergy for Proven Combatant was with Striped Riverwinder. Like I said, I often won by beating down with it at the end of a long attrition battle. When I drew and played the one drop in those situations, it provided insurance against both wrath and edict effects, which were the only ways my opponents in those spots could hope to remove the hexproof serpent. In general, there’s value in “crappy” creatures (as Jon Loucks called them on Limited Resources) that your opponents don’t want to kill. Proven Combatant proved itself. Blue is great in Hour of Devastation limited, and you shouldn’t overlook it.

Draft Uniquely Powerful Cards when you Can

I was in pod one for both drafts on day two. Sadly I went 1-2 in each, but I mulliganed almost every game, bricked on key draw steps for many turns, and ran into the bad variance I had missed on day one. I bricked on the rare slot in all six packs I opened. Even so, I did have some good luck:

In the first draft, I took blue and red cards in pack one. Others were fighting for the consensus best deck, but I got enough to be comfortable I’d get there, and I didn’t see much else worth moving into. In pack two, I opened Capsize plus Abrade and Bloodwater Entity. I dismissed the gold card, as it was the one most likely to get passed to me later in the pack, and if fact one did. But I tanked on Capsize or Abrade until I had to choose. Financial value aside—this invocation is no foil Tarmogoyf—I ultimately decided that Capsize is uniquely powerful and irreplaceable, and I’d be a fool to pass it and play blue. It works well with Riddleform, Firebrand Archer, prowess creatures, all of which I had. And at worst it’s a three-mana Boomerang, which is still great if not quite Abrade-level.

In general, uniquely powerful cards are great picks in draft. Sweepers and bombs are the obvious examples, but a broken card from Magic’s dark days also fits the bill, especially with how well it complements the blue-red gameplan. Walking into day two, Richard and I went through the Hour of Devastation invocations to see which were worth taking first. Capsize was one of the few I said I hoped to open. Like I said, a lot of things went well for me.

I won round ten in a tight three-game mirror match against hometown hero and eventual top 8 competitor Doug Potter, and Capsize with buyback won games one and three. Doug wasn’t happy, and understandably so. We’ve feared that the masterpiece series would ruin the top draft tables at grand prix and the pro tour, and here was Doug picking up his first loss of the tournament to Capsize recursion. Fortunately he found his way to the top of the standings despite it. And I never drew it in my painful mulligan and mana screw/flood losses to Ben Weitz and Andrew Elenbogen to round out pod one. Alas, it would have been epic to ride Capsize to a top eight, as a draft one sweep (as Ben Weitz earned) would effectively lock a top finish.

Always Evaluate Your Turn To Start Your Main Phase

Despite my two losses, tournament size and my tiebreakers kept me in the first pod. I took good red cards early, saw that green would come back, and ended up with a strong and open red-green midrange deck with no bombs but solid removal. Red-green is my worst archetype generally in draft, and I wanted to avoid it after my second draft debacle at Grand Prix Richmond, but I didn’t have much choice. I won round thirteen over Eli Kassis in a tight match where I outraced his strong blue-red deck in game three off sideboarded Haze of Pollen and Limits of Solidarity.

Round fourteen was a win-and-in for top 8 with an almost certain draw in the final round. He had a decent white-black deck, and I consider that archetype to be worse than people think. Still, he was a solid opponent who played very well and used my bane, Cartouche of Ambition, to great effect. In game one, we were topdecking on an empty board with me up fifteen to four on life. Here’s how the next turns went:

  • He plays Tah-Crop Elite and passes.
  • I play Khenra Scrapper and pass.
  • He plays Cartouche of Ambition, shrinking my creature, and swinging for three and up to seven life.
  • I draw Ambuscade and quickly slam it on the table. He looks and me and says “okay.” Then I realize I needed to attack and exert to kill the flier with Ambuscade.
  • My life flashes before my eyes. Instead of fighting it, I tell him this: “You have to get lucky to make the top 8. You just got lucky.”
  • I go on to lose game one.

I rallied back to win game two easily, and I was set up to win game three but was stuck on a single red mana and kept drawing good red spells. I never cast more than one a turn for the rest of the game, got frustrated, made poor strategic decisions, and ended up losing. I was devastated, lost a quick mirror match to old New York friend Abe Corrigan in round fifteen, and headed to the airport disconsolate. At least I made it home to Denver by midnight.

Paulo Vitor gives great Magic advice, and he always says to stop and evaluate each turn after you draw before doing anything else. I know this and try to follow it. Perhaps the lack of sleep caught up to me. I don’t think it was nerves. If anything, I was losing focus and too relaxed. I never would have mistimed that Ambuscade if I followed Paulo’s advice. Maybe in other situations I could have caught myself in the act or convinced a judge to let me walk it back, but I didn’t have the energy to even try, nor was I sure if I should. You step on a land mine, you get blown up. I got blown up. At least I took it honorably. And I will never let myself make that mistake again.

The Atlanta sage Ludacris once observed, of the hard-partying life: “Believe me it catch up.” My lack of rest caught up. Maybe if I had made the top 8 I would have faltered there. I hope adrenaline would have carried me, but even if it hadn’t, the experience of competing in the final rounds would help me prepare to win the next one. I always improve a ton between the first and second time I do challenging tasks. My experience drafting in pod one twice on day two will help me the next time I get there. I just wish I didn’t have to wait for a next time.

I Leave You with This

Perfect everything under your control. Conserve energy on things outside your control. Maintain focus on each turn and each game. Show respect to your opponents. Recover from your mistakes. Rely on your instincts. Play cards you know how to play. Have fun. Play Grind // Dust. Play Proven Combatant. Love the game, love yourself, and get plenty of rest.

I’ll see you at Grand Prix Denver and Indianapolis. If we get paired, expect a battle.

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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