By Dom Harvey
I was fortunate enough to have a front row seat for the Eldrazi invasion at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch. I’m staying true to my preparation style by writing this hurriedly two months later; by now, the takeover is complete and we mortals can only wait for Aaron Forsythe, the highest power, to nuke the aliens from orbit and make Modern great again. Until then, let us huddle around the fire and tell tales of a Pro Tour gone wrong.
I’ve been playing competitively for a long time, but only in the sense that I was physically present at tournaments. I wasn’t good enough to break through on talent alone, and I did nothing to help myself: I didn’t practice properly, my deck selection was poor, and I had no real connections in the UK Magic scene. I resolved to fix as much of that as I could for my only chance to play on Magic’s highest stage.
When I won the RPTQ in November, I felt lucky to qualify for this Pro Tour in particular. I had pressing commitments as a student but I could be more flexible than someone with a full-time job and spread my preparation over the three months before the event. Modern was an established format that I knew well, so I didn’t face the usual challenge of diving into a new Standard, and the new set surely wouldn’t change too much! I hoped this would lessen the downside of not working with a team, and even that problem was solved for me when Scotland made another Top 8 at the World Magic Cup. I couldn’t ask for better circumstances.
My failure to use my time effectively is even more frustrating with that in mind. I can make excuses – health problems didn’t help matters – but I’m responsible for the final outcome. Hopefully this will serve as a useful guide, to myself as well as others, for what not to do next time.
Preparing for Modern/Thoughts on Affinity
Before the Eldrazi arrived to paint Atlanta in fifty shades of grey, Modern appeared to be a known quantity. There’s a lot of room for innovation, and some decks turn out far better than expected – Amulet went from circus freak to format breaker very quickly – but the basic terms of the format were established long ago. Battle for Zendikar barely registered on the format, and the ‘Eldrazi deck’ was just a Magic Online experiment with Wasteland Strangler and Scrabbling Claws. At this stage, there were no signs that Oath of the Gatewatch would add much more. I resigned myself to another tournament full of Twin, Jund, Burn, Affinity…
The one change everyone saw coming was bad for me. I qualified playing Amulet which, despite what Reddit insisted on telling itself, was the best deck in the format by a ridiculous margin. It was so good that winning with the deck fostered a kind of imposter syndrome: can I only win a tournament if my deck is hopelessly broken? I was confident the deck was getting banned.
I didn’t expect Splinter Twin to join it, but I wasn’t floored. Tom LaPille predicted a Twin ban in an interview he gave after leaving Wizards, and it would be hard to hype up the tournament if the same deck won a third Modern Pro Tour. Twin’s removal did its job by invalidating old assumptions about the format (as much as I enjoyed the ‘for the sake of competitive diversity, Splinter Twin is banned in Modern’ meme – or ‘for the sake of Eldrazi, competitive diversity is banned’, as some had it – it’s too early to judge the full effect of the Twin ban until Eldrazi joins it in exile). Lots of people who were loudly ignorant about Modern were scared of a Tron takeover, but the consequences of Twin being gone were clearly bad for Tron even if you thought Twin was a bad matchup: the Burn, Infect, and Affinity decks that Twin kept in check would rise, and combo decks that were strategically dominated by Twin were unleashed on the format. Decks like BW Tokens that couldn’t beat Tron were still appealing because we expected everyone to come to the same conclusion; and indeed, the few brave Tron pilots in Atlanta performed poorly.
I had to find a deck, and I had no idea how to make that choice. I wasn’t confident in my level of play, and I was about to compete in my first Pro Tour as one of the easy marks. That led to a mess of contradictory thoughts. I could pick a ‘safe’ deck with proven strength; there’s no shame in sleeving up Jund or Burn. These decks are popular for a reason and it’s arrogant to assume I can do better. However, every player in the room will have a plan to beat the established decks and the hate cards in Modern are lethal if people choose to play them; the choice to play a known linear deck displays its own form of arrogance in assuming that the wider field won’t come well prepared or knows less than I do. Then again, everybody always thinks they beat the best deck and it continues to do well and keep that title. If I do play a stock deck, where’s my edge? My list will be less well refined and I’ll play it at a lower capacity, so why would I be the one to do well with it? Maybe I should look for a new strategy or one that people won’t prepare for, but I can’t compete on that front with experienced deckbuilders and teams. It was a weird epistemology problem with no easy answer.
At this point I made a vague plan: explore the radical options and commit to one if it seemed good, with the Burn/Infect/Affinity trifecta as a default option. I wanted enough repetitions with Infect that I could comfortably pick it up for the Pro Tour without extra work; I didn’t do this, which I count as a massive error even though I’m glad I didn’t pick it. I began with Goryo’s Vengeance, which many people expected to get banned and eventually will be: the card already pushes the boundaries of the format, and it limits their ability to print splashy legendary creatures as headliners for new sets. Specifically, I was intrigued by Goryo’s Vengeance with Emrakul, which has always been one of the most powerful things you could do in Modern but never found traction thanks to Deceiver Exarch. The Twin ban also removed the only natural home for Dispel, the most effective answer to both Vengeance and Through the Breach. If Modern became an aggro vs. combo shootout as expected, the fastest combo deck in the format was the place to be. Finding a good shell proved difficult, and Burn and Infect were too popular for how swingy those matchups were. I was very close to playing it, though, and it’s a deck I’ll come back to when Eldrazi is banned.
This exploratory phase of the plan never got off the ground thanks to poor time management. Scanning MTGO matchup data, I saw that Elves and Green Devotion both put up shockingly good numbers and were glad to see the Twin ban; Green Devotion even had a new toy in Oath of Nissa. I never put the work in to see if anything was there. BW Tokens had solid stats and seemed like a great metagame call if Tron didn’t show up, but my list wasn’t well tuned and it was the fairest deck in the most unfair format. The Death’s Shadow deck was also doing very well, and I had noticed Team EUreka members playing it online, but before long I knew I wouldn’t be able to learn it in time. When we were told that Become Immense was popular at the vendors and EUreka showed up all playing the deck, I felt vindicated but also embarrassed for not at least trying it.
Cute ideas that never made it out of a notebook included the 5C Ancient Ziggurat/Pillar of the Paruns deck (which gained Reflector Mage in Oath), hyper-aggressive Kiln Fiend decks, and various Rally the Ancestors/Return to the Ranks shells. I did my best to raise Amulet from the dead, but it was not to be.
If I’m honest, I think I was always going to end up on Affinity. It won me the PPTQ that set the whole process in motion, so there was an emotional attachment there. That was my first time playing the deck, and it performed way above expectations. I shelved the deck soon after but gained a lasting appreciation for it.
So, when I still didn’t have a Modern deck on Thursday night, I bit the bullet and borrowed Affinity. I felt regret about the process, but happy with my choice. Affinity has been a fixture of Top 8s since the format’s inception: the same 75 that Top 8ed the first Modern Pro Tour is still legal today. Even when the popular decks were bad matchups, Affinity routinely put up a 52-53% win rate; now, with Twin gone and Burn/Infect in the ascendant, things looked even rosier. The deck scores a ton of free wins, which I knew would be crucial for beating more skilled opponents, and can steal games against bad matchups with good draws. It also excels at punishing opponents’ misplays, which occur even at this level.
Yes, there’s hate. I wasn’t scared – and I always find a reason to worry! Even at the Pro Tour level, people don’t respect Affinity; that was true for Pierre Canali in Columbus over a decade ago, and it’s true today. Affinity was the default best deck, so people ought to come prepared, but the results of previous Modern Pro Tours made it clear that they don’t. The hate that people play is low in quality, quantity, or both. The decks that load up on hate do it because they have to: their pre-board matchup is bad enough that they have to overhaul their deck to win both post-board games. Life as an Amulet player had also steeled my nerves: I often beat decks that ran Blood Moon, and won multiple times against a resolved and unanswered Blood Moon (including in the deciding game to make Top 8 of the RPTQ). Blood Moon – or Stony Silence, or Rest in Peace, or whatever the nuclear option is – is effective hate, but for hate cards to work there are a few conditions: you have to play them, you have to draw them and resolve them, and they have to do their job.
Registering them proved too hard for some players. You’re not that likely to draw one of your 3 Stony Silences in your opener; are you going to mulligan a hand that’s good for your deck’s plan but lacks the hate you thought you needed enough to spend slots on it? Would you keep a 1-land + Stony Silence hand that’s dead if it bricks for a turn, or a hand that has nothing beyond the hate card? Even if you get your Stony Silence down, sometimes they drew some lands and an Etched Champion or Ghirapur Aether Grid and force you to have something else. There’s a strong rational case for not being scared of hate, even though the hate cards in Modern are ridiculously powerful. I knew that I was probably going to get Shatterstormed out of a match – maybe even the entire tournament – and wanted to be ready for it. For this tournament, I didn’t need the illusion of control. It was liberating!
With the tournament starting in a few hours, I laid out a stack of artifacts on the table and got to work. Here’s what I registered:
The first major change I was sure about was the full set of Master of Etherium over Etched Champions. Against the ‘big three’ of Burn, Infect, and the mirror, Master is excellent – or at least better – while Champion is awful. Champion is great against Jund/Abzan, but that matchup is already decent and you have to make some sacrifices. Master also helps you race combo decks and random stuff, such as a format-breaking monster with mono-colourless creatures. When I spoke to Eduardo Sajgalik, whose coaching was very helpful, I was more happy about his choice of Affinity than he was. I was glad to see quad Master in his list, and in other lists that did well.
The more radical change was the removal of Memnite/Springleaf Drum. It’s hard to disagree with established wisdom, especially the group of Affinity minds behind the list that Pascal Maynard took to the Top 8, but I can only speak to my experience: Memnite is terrible in Affinity. All of your creatures either have evasion, are big enough that they can attack on the ground, or perform some other function. Every deck – even a control deck with Jace or Snapcaster - has creatures that render Memnite useless. It’s not good at blocking either – two of the primary aggressive decks are Infect, which can attack into or through it, and the mirror, which laughs at it. It’s like an anti-Leyline: you never want to draw it outside of your opening hand, but it’s often not good there either!
The argument for Memnite is that it gives you more nut draws in conjunction with Mox Opal and Springleaf Drum. Any 0-cost artifact does the same for Mox Opal, and I’d sooner play Welding Jar, Mishra’s Bauble, or Chalice of the Void. It does good work with Springleaf Drum, but Drum actually makes a lot of your draws worse. For Memnite + Drum to get you ahead, your hand needs to have all of Memnite, Drum, at least 2 lands in your 16/17-land deck (missing a land drop means that Drum = a land but at the cost of a mana), and a high-impact 3-drop (Plating + equip iff you have another creature, Master/Champion/Grid). This is great when it happens but a more common situation is that your one creature gets Bolted and now you have to take a turn off for a replacement just to turn on your Drum, or you have only one land or multiple Drums and your draw is clunky, or you have to tap a creature that really wants to attack. Drum is also worse than land against sweepers, as your follow-up plays are harder to cast. It’s often likened to Birds of Paradise in this deck, but Birds stands on its own and doesn’t force you to play bad cards to optimize it. Most Affinity pilots shave Memnite when sideboarding anyway, so for those games their configuration is similar but reliant on Drums that are now even weaker.
Running more actual lands also makes you much better against Stony Silence and gives you added insurance against Path and Ghost Quarter - which I found I wanted myself in a ton of matchups. Spellskite was solid against Burn/Infect/the mirror and helps against Kolaghan’s Command and other removal from the fair decks, so in it goes. I’ve never liked the fragility of Steel Overseer but it’s the most important card in some matchups; I like Ensoul in small numbers as another payoff card that messes up their racing maths and runs away with games. Again, I wish I had tested any of this, but the judge asking for my decklist wanted to move on with their life.
But first, there was Limited.
I’m a Constructed player at heart; it’s what I played as I learned the game, and what I still prefer to play now. I usually dip my toe in the format on the release weekend, and often that’s the last I think about it. From the moment I qualified, the nightmare scenario was clear: a predictably bad finish in the draft, tilting and being unable to focus for Modern, and the whole experience ending in failure.
Luckily, I found OGW/BFZ draft more fun and intuitive than many formats. My love of Cube was useful here, as it felt very much like a low-powered Pauper/Peasant Cube with some rares sprinkled in. A well-designed Cube asks you to look for unexpected bridges between colours and strategies. The strong gold uncommons in Oath, the commitment that colourless mana demands during the draft for ‘gold’ cards like Blinding Drone, the large gaps in power between colour pairs, and the lack of support in Oath for themes from Battle combine to create a strange dynamic where this habit is very useful.
I wanted to try the full range of strategies at least once – BR and UB Devoid, BW Lifegain, Allies, and so on. Every time I wanted to try something new, I found a reason to go into green instead; the first drafts I did before leaving and the two drafts on Day 2 of GP Vancouver all saw me end up in green. This was a strong vote of confidence in Oath’s green cards given how weak the colour is in Battle, but I felt it was justified. By the time I was drafting with the Scots at their Atlanta house, we were all so high on the support-heavy green decks that they were over-drafted in our practice drafts. This threw up a new set of problems: if we were right about green’s power level, don’t we need to branch out in case lots of drafters are fighting over the colour? If we were wrong, isn’t that another good reason to try out other decks?
The specifics of the format are irrelevant now, but I never found a reason to stray from my first impressions: draft WB if you can get it, GWx or GBx if you can’t, and stay away from blue and red. The UR Surge deck doing so well at the GPs piqued my curiosity, but it never looked impressive in our house drafts. Moving in on the two worst colours without a clear idea of what to do while in your first Pro Tour draft seemed like a quick and easy route to the 0-3 start I feared.
I heard one piece of advice from everyone I asked: Limited is the key to doing well. It’s hard to have a massive edge in Constructed and, even if you do, Limited is the difference between glory and a good finish. We remember this Pro Tour for Eldrazi’s dominance in Constructed, but its pilots who made Top 8 did so because they also did well in draft. Lee Shi Tian may be a Modern master, but he’s quietly one of the most consistent drafters too.
The Pro Tour
The trip itself got off to a strange start. After a wonderful trip to GP Vancouver, I touch down in Atlanta after a long flight and begin every traveller’s favourite ordeal: finding your Airbnb in a sketchy area of an unfamiliar city late at night. I had a vague memory of the photo from the listing, and there’s a building on the right road that looks like it – at least in the dark. I see someone standing outside and walk up to ask him about the apartment. He looks at me quizzically and slowly asks me to repeat myself. When I do and it’s clear he doesn’t know anything, I figure I have the wrong house and move on. As I go round the side of the building, I see the sign near the door: it’s a transitional facility for recently released convicts! The guy had probably seen a lot of stuff in his life, but a posh-sounding Brit with a suitcase accidentally trying to check into a halfway house must be a new one.
My actual destination was billed as ‘The Art House’, and the pictures online suggested a quaint and quiet place that would be a nice backdrop for our stay. As I saw the exterior I thought something was amiss and, sure enough, I’m met with a house filled top to bottom with nude paintings and sculptures that looked like it came from an amateur horror story. I decided the Scottish team’s couch was a better place to be for the rest of the trip and they were kind enough to tolerate me. Thanks guys!
Testing with a group for the event was an odd experience. Everyone else had locked in their Modern deck before we arrived, wisely choosing to play what they knew with a few adjustments for the expected field. They couldn’t help me with my indecision, and I couldn’t help them. We made a token effort to build an Eldrazi deck, but the list I built was weak and got itself dismissed quickly. Looking at the dominant UW and RG lists now, they seem so ‘obvious’ in retrospect; in practice, though, if I had an extra two months I still wouldn’t have looked at Eldrazi Skyspawner. It’s some consolation to think that many of the game’s best didn’t get the memo either. Still, it would have been nice to be in on the joke! We spent most of our time drafting, and felt good about that side of things.
A welcome feature of the coverage this time was a look at the out-of-game aspects of the tournament. I watch the Pro Tour coverage religiously but had never seen the tournament hall on camera; you only see the feature match area, which often looks like a theatre tech went overboard with a dry ice machine. The venue in Atlanta felt right: large enough that the event felt important, but small enough that you could walk around and take it all in. The ‘open house’ segment took us inside the Pantheon’s testing, which was unremarkably professional and mostly made me feel embarrassed about my own. I like to think a segment about our testing process – no structure, unloved draft commons fighting for table space with empty Natty Light cans – would be more representative.
A lot of first Pro Tour reports describe the thrill of hearing that seat assignments are up for the player meeting and knowing your name is on that list – if only for this one event, players you know and look up to are your peers, and you are in the position that all of them started from at one point. After the late-night scrapheap challenge of building Affinity and all the stress of preparation, I wasn’t relaxed enough to soak in the atmosphere and enjoy the moment. Luckily, that moment turned into several minutes as the taxi bearing some of the Asian players was delayed and judges began debating how long to wait before starting the draft anyway. They came up with a sensible fix, and the sight of Tomoharu Saitou and friends charging frantically through the tournament hall was only a brief distraction.
Before we began, the head judge asked all the first-timers to stand up for a round of applause. It was a nice gesture that helped the newbies to calm our nerves and the seasoned players to mark their prey. I took some comfort in not being the only one standing at my table, where Chris Fennell and Shaun McLaren were the only two names I recognized.
The draft started well, featuring Sylvan Advocate as the best card in the pack and a good incentive to be in green. I picked up some decent black cards, including a pair of Vampire Envoys and a Baloth Null, but the second Oath pack was a bust and I was light on playables going into Battle. Brood Butcher was a nice start, and the fixing I had picked up came in handy when I was passed Drowner of Hope and moved into blue. The rest of the pack was kind, giving me some solid Awaken spells and a Hedron Archive as well as a Skyrider Elf that was perfect for my deck.
The obvious weakness here is a lack of ways to interact with creatures. I was ready to put a premium on middling removal like Demon’s Grasp, but nothing came; I had to play an awkward Bone Splinters just to have an out to bombs. The deck had powerful cards and could conceivably win games, but I wasn’t optimistic. I resolved to play as well as I could and escape with a win.
My first ever opponent on the Pro Tour was Aaron Webster, a fellow robot warrior. The nerves I’d expected to feel were kicking in, but within a few turns everything I’d heard was confirmed: this was still Magic. Anyone can draw the nuts, mull to 5, or overlook something crucial. Wiping a stacked board with Rising Miasma on turn 4 was a nice start to the Pro Tour, and from there my deck’s late-game power took over; I missed on-board lethal with Drowner of Hope, but thankfully it was still there when I saw it next turn. With that mistake, the nerves were gone and I settled into the rhythm of the tournament, taking the match easily.
After beating a friendly American named Taylor, I found myself playing for 3-0 against Chris Fennell. He wasn’t thrilled with his deck but made it look good, dominating the first game with a Steppe Glider I couldn’t answer. Brood Butcher took over Game 2, and my draw in the decider was solid. Things quickly went south when his 3/4 Tajuru Stalwart became Infused with the Elements, and suddenly I was drawing to two outs that never arrived. This match highlighted the weaknesses of my deck and showed how Chris did well to salvage his, finding ways to enable nut draws to cover for his low average card quality. It stung to lose with 3-0 in sight, even though I hadn’t expected to be in that position. Chris reassured me that I hadn’t made any obvious mistakes, which was a nice confidence boost heading into Modern.
A quick aside: scheduling quirks and the structure of Modern meant that lots of players – not only top GP finishers but an entire cohort of RPTQ winners – qualified for the event playing Modern and could play the same deck in this Pro Tour. There were other, high-profile players whose preferences in Modern were well-documented. I could make an educated guess about the deck choices of a good third of the room based on public information, and initial scouting filled in a lot of blanks.
But not all of them. As I find my seat for the first round of Modern, I see LSV shuffling next to me. He asks to borrow a piece of paper – a habit of his, I’ve learned! – and looking over I see what I’m pretty sure is… Matter Reshaper?! This Eldrazi thing is for real, then? If one of the elite teams thought the deck was good enough to play, there must be something there, but as I sat pondering this I had no idea it would be the most dominant deck since Caw-Blade – and this wasn’t even the best Eldrazi deck in the room!
My opponent arrived – recent Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Stephen Neal – and we got down to business. I was in good spirits, in part because Stephen was amiable and welcoming but mainly because Burn is a stellar matchup for Affinity. Burn punishes the painful manabases popular in Modern but Affinity does the same to Burn while taking no damage from its lands. Vault Skirge threatens to put the game out of reach if pumped, and Burn is often forced to throw burn at your creatures to stay afloat. In discussions with some English players who chose Burn for the event, I argued that Burn needs heavy-duty hate – Stony Silence, Shattering Spree – to salvage the matchup. I faced none against Stephen and took the match despite losing a close Game 2 that I felt must have been winnable with tighter play.
Next up was renowned globetrotter Christian Calcano playing Jund. The matchup depends heavily on the amount of hate they have, and I expected Christian to be well-prepared. I felt a strong pressure to win Game 1, and the robots duly delivered. Game 2 was close before Etched Champion arrived to tilt it in my favour, and after fading Shatterstorm for a turn I was clear.
My Round 6 opponent showed himself to be playing GW Hatebears, which was another good omen. The matchup is very good for Affinity, and they have to play a lot of hate and draw it on time to stay competitive. He had the ideal pre-board draw, landing Leonin Arbiter and Ghost Quartering two of my lands, but without a fast clock I was able to draw out of it and land Steel Overseer, which stopped him ever attacking again. I take the usual sideboarding precautions and, sure enough, I’m facing down a second turn Stony Silence. The extra lands let me cast Master of Etherium, and then another, but he ripped a second Path to Exile and the game slips out of reach. Stony Silence came down again in Game 3, but he blew it up!
…with a Fracturing Gust.
Next I had to play against Death’s Shadow for the first time, in the hands of another American – Tommy Ashton, a name I recognized from his Magic Online results and recent Pro Tour success. The deck made a strong first impression when he killed me Turn 3 on the play, and he gains access to Stony Silence post-board, but it never showed up and my good draws carried the day in the other two games.
I’m already doing much better than expected, but this last round will set the tone for the rest of the event. At 6-2, I’m in a good position to chase cash and an invite; at 5-3, I’m on course for a mediocre finish. I know it shouldn’t matter, but ending the day with a loss after a good start can easily ruin your mental state – and your chances – in a multi-day event. The stakes for this match are high, even if only in my head.
Case, my opponent, was a nice, quiet guy who also won a RPTQ to get here. We split the first two games of the Affinity mirror, and I’m on the play for Game 3. My opening hand is dodgy, so I send it back; he joins me. My next hand is also weak, and I can feel the tilt starting to kick in. I send it back – but so does he!
I make a highly unusual move: I offer to draw the game and go to Game 4, so that we can both start with seven cards again. He immediately agrees, presumably wanting a more interesting and competitive game than we were likely to get on five cards. My thinking was that the advantage you get from being on the play – setting up a nut draw with cards like Overseer, Master, Plating, or Aether Grid – requires a minimum quantity of cards. Everything on that list gets better the more cards you have, and the Opal/Drum starts that let you jump ahead need cheap artifacts to enable them – hence my argument against Drum. With five cards, my board development is likely to be staggered in a way that gives up the initiative and lets him make use of his extra card. I don’t know how sound the logic is, but it worked out as my fresh hand produces a Turn 2 Aether Grid and he can never get on the board.
It’s an odd situation – if I’m making this offer, I must think it’s favourable for me in some way. Maybe I believe I have an edge on play skill or matchup positioning and want to minimize the variance that comes with smaller hands; maybe I prefer the feeling of getting to make decisions than hoping my draw is better than his. Maybe I go through the thought process above and it’s just wrong! Regardless, in pure EV terms it can’t be correct for both of us; his agreement amounts to a claim that I’ve overlooked something. Writing this weeks later, I’m still not sure if I found a creative solution or went out of my way to hurt my chances and won despite myself. Either way, I was thrilled to be 6-2 at the close of play.
The second draft promised a depressing twist on my original fear: instead of the draft ending my tournament before it began, it might ruin me when I was in a legitimate position to do well! Overnight I listened to the Limited Resources episode about LSV’s Pro Tour testing that had been embargoed until then. He was much higher on the colourless-matters cards than we were, and his views on a few archetypes differed from ours. One thing’s for sure, though: neither of us wanted to draft UG!
Naturally, after first-picking Sylvan Advocate again, the only playable cards in the next few packs were blue. A fifth-pick Saddleback Lagac gave me hope that green was open, but that well promptly dried up again. My card quality was high – multiple Blinding Drones and Prophets of Distortion, with Sphinx of the Final Word making it to me in Pack 2 – but the deck wasn’t cohesive and had no answers to common threats. I was picking up the ‘colourless’ manafixing for my blue cards anyway, so I was ready to move in on a splash colour in Battle. A late Jori En was encouraging but also biased me towards red, which proved disastrous when I passed a Complete Disregard and then a Demon’s Grasp. My deck desperately needed removal, and that was my only chance to find some.
Mentally, I began to slip into damage control mode, and the first round didn’t help. My opponent was Ben Weitz, an up-and-coming pro and member of the team that won the event with their UR Eldrazi deck. He was in WR with a small Ally subtheme, and my deck’s weakness to cheap creatures like Ondu War Cleric or Zada’s Commando was soon on display. I held on for while, but double (!) Goblin Dark-Dwellers made life difficult and an impressive Reckless Bushwhacker turn did me in. Game 2 is effectively over on the second turn when he plays Immobilizer Eldrazi; on the final turn, I have six creatures in play and none of them can block.
After a simple win against another American PTQer, I’m paired against Michael Majors for the final round of Limited. If I can somehow 2-1 this pod, I have a good shot of going 3-2 in Constructed for a solid X-5 finish and an invite.
I soon realized where the good white cards went as three of my best creatures entered the Isolation Zone. The game was close throughout until he had a window to draw something to kill me. Rush of Ice leapt off the top to punish me for some arguably loose plays earlier, and I’m left with the familiar feeling of knowing I screwed up but not how or when. The second game went very long, with me having to manage my mana for Prophet, Blinding Drone, and Seer’s Lantern every turn and him looking for some way to break through. I was forced to trade off my Sphinx of the Final Word with a Kozilek’s Pathfinder to survive, and it looked like I might not have a way to finish him if I didn’t scry into something soon. With the clock ticking down, I made a big Skyrider Elf and evened the match.
The match could have ended in a draw with both of us playing at an acceptable pace, but that wouldn’t help either of us and we both had outs to win in the time we had left. I have a decent draw in Game 3, but he plays a bunch of beefy fliers and runs me over. I wished Michael luck and was glad to see he finished X-5 to lock Gold.
3-3 overall in Limited was disappointing on one level, but not entirely surprising. I’m not sure how meaningful it is that I beat the other PTQ winners and lost to the known players – the skill gap is higher in Limited, but the immediate cause of most of my losses was better draws from better decks and it’s hard to reflect on mistakes I may have made in the draft portion. It remains the area of my game that needs the most work.
Back to Modern, where I need 4-1 for an invite and 3-2 to cash. I was hoping for good matchups and opponents I didn’t recognize. Instead, I’m against Martin Clement, one of the Scottish guys I’d prepared with and whose sofa I was crashing on. I knew he was playing Storm with an eye-watering amount of Affinity hate. I’d also cut a lot of the generic combo hate from my board, with only Spell Pierce to stop him doing his worst.
Sure enough, he won the race in Game 1, and I was about to win even through a Shatterstorm in Game 2… except that I had stupidly thrown a Darksteel Citadel to Ravager on a previous turn rather than Mox Opal, so after my board was cleared I couldn’t cast the Master of Etherium I drew. Somehow he didn’t draw anything either, so eventually I found a third land and Master won me a game I was sure I had tossed away. In Game 3 I had a solid draw that can’t disrupt him – and, thanks to my lack of relevant sideboard cards, I can’t justify a mulligan to look for one. Shattering Spree showed up this time to fight for Shatterstorm’s title, and I could only watch as the past went up in flames.
I needed an quick win to de-tilt me and was fortunate to get one against East/West Bowl member Adam Boyd on UR Eldrazi. Adam was playing the deck of the tournament and didn’t lose again in Constructed, but in our match the scary draws powered by Eye and Temple never materialized and nor did his sideboard hate.
I began the home stretch by facing Jarvis Yu, also of East/West Bowl. I vaguely knew Jarvis from articles and forum posts but didn’t put a face to the name until a few days earlier, when he joined us at our house for some practice drafts. He’d made an offhand reference to Abzan Company, which I hadn’t registered as a possible deck choice until then; if somebody had handed me a full 75 at that moment, I’d have jumped on board. It looks like an even smarter pick in light of the PT and GP results, and is likely to be a good deck after the dust settles from the bannings.
The first game showcased a key selling point of Affinity: I felt lost deciding which combinations of cards to play around and possible Chord/Company targets and the right lines for each case, but my draw was powerful enough that it didn’t matter. In Game 2 my draw wasn’t that fast and, when I stuck an Aether Grid, I was already facing pressure on the board (as well as implied pressure from a possible combo). He found Reclamation Sage for my Grid and I made the other one, but by then his board was large enough that I couldn’t contain it with the few artifacts I have in play and Kataki forces me to take a turn off from shooting creatures. I could have bought some time by shooting his 2/1s instead of Viscera Seers, but I was worried that would leave a combo piece in play and give him extra Scrys to find the other pieces or something else that would put me away. I’m not sure what was correct, but should have thought more about it.
Jarvis quickly kept for Game 3 and I had the feeling I was about to face Kataki. I tried to sequence my plays to minimize the damage and saw Stony Silence instead.
Just like that, I was no longer playing for an invite and had to win my last two matches to cash. Jarvis unfortunately lost in the last round to miss an invite, but is still chasing Gold and will hopefully get there with a good result in Madrid.
I beat Merfolk in about ten minutes despite my best efforts. Alright then. One more!
For all the marbles (specifically, $1,000) I would have to beat Rob Cucunato, who had some GP success with Affinity. Steel Overseer is amazing in the mirror and I regretted cutting the fourth copy as two of his teamed up to dominate the first game. My massive Master of Etherium, almost always the biggest thing on the board, had no hope of breaking through. I’d have to win two games, including one on the draw, with virtually no hate for the mirror – another decision I was kicking myself over.
The second game looked bad when I had to mulligan twice and soon became worse. Rob had a fast draw with Plating and Ravager, and I couldn’t hold off his attackers, let alone mount an offense of my own. I used Galvanic Blast to get Ravager off the board or at least force a commitment to it, and to my shock he moved in on a Signal Pest! I like to trim Signal Pests in the mirror because they die to a Nexus or Skirge in combat so easily and it’s rare that the bonus matters, and if the Pest were a more relevant card I was in big trouble. As it happened I was still in dire straits, needing to draw a blocker and equip my own Plating every turn just to stay alive. My deck was kind, feeding me a steady stream of Nexuses and Ornithopters, and eventually I was able to trade with the Pest and take down his other attackers. I eventually drew a Vault Skirge and suit it up, and after fading a Galvanic Blast for yet another turn I started attacking with a massive lifelinker. Had Rob maintained his board and kept applying pressure, I was drawing to very few outs.
As I was trying to complete a stressful comeback, another drama was unfolding beside me. Tom Martell was in bad shape against his Burn opponent who, much to Tom’s frustration, kept ‘missing’ his Eidolon trigger when casting spells. When Tom had to issue a stern warning, his opponent – Xin Sui, an Asian player who spoke passable English but was mainly communicating through gestures – claimed that Tom was making similar mistakes. Affronted, Tom called a judge so that his opponent’s sloppiness would go on the record. I wasn’t paying much attention yet, too busy trying to stave off my impending doom.
The judge came over and things suddenly took a strange turn. When asked about what happened, Xin Sui denied missing his triggers and seemed to imply some kind of misunderstanding. Tom instantly flagged this up as lying to a judge, turning what could and should have been a routine judge call into a DQ-worthy offense. The most bizarre aspect of the situation was that Xin Sui wasn’t going to receive any real penalty – and Tom was clear when giving his initial reminder that he didn’t suspect cheating – but he lied for no reason and at great risk to himself. He was facing a seasoned pro and professional lawyer who was sure to call him out on any shadiness, and lied in a spot where his having lied was the only thing that made sense; the only other explanation was that Tom had called a judge over in order to lie to him in some kamikaze bid to get himself disqualified. He also did this with a handful of spectators around – I didn’t have the level of certainty needed to approach the judge about the situation, but I could tell something was seriously amiss. When head judge Kevin Desprez arrived and didn’t escalate the penalty further, there began a lengthy debate at the table between him and Tom that didn’t change the result. Tom was forced to play on and was swiftly roasted to put him out of the money.
This was a somewhat distracting and unpleasant backdrop to my own money match. In a much less exciting Game 3 my Steel Overseer dies, I stall on mana, and Rob puts me out of my misery.
9-7 (aka dead last)
Walking out of the convention centre I run into Tom and offer commiserations that turn out to be misplaced. When the original judge and head judge compared notes later they realized his opponent was lying and retroactively disqualified him! Apparently he’d been banned several times in the past for similar behaviour. Tom got his win – plus the money and extra pro points that came with it – after all.
No such luck for me or for Martin Clement, who also lost playing for cash. We consoled ourselves with a visit to the Georgia Aquarium and its famous dolphin training show, which was very entertaining (some might say it was ‘deece’), but there was still some lingering resentment. The upside of writing this a few months later is that most of that has faded and I can reflect on what the event meant to me.
My weekend was a rollercoaster of emotions – I repeatedly did just well enough to get my hopes up and then badly enough to dash them. Despite that I felt weirdly detached from my progress, as if I was watching someone else from home; I didn’t feel the frustration that often comes from routine losses at local events or on Magic Online, even though the stakes were much higher. It helped that all of my opponents were professional and most were actively pleasant to play against – I kept in touch with Taylor and Case throughout the event – and two of the ‘worst’ losses were to Martin and Jarvis. I didn’t have high hopes, or a ‘team’ or cheering section that I was letting down if I lost, so I felt free to enjoy the experience without the burden of expectations. Part of me wants to redouble my commitment to the game and try to get back on the Pro Tour; part of me feels that I’ve done all I can there and would only set myself up for disappointment. I’m not sure which side will win out yet.
Thanks for reading, and I’d appreciate any feedback!