Pro Tour Qualifier Born of the Gods *4th* and Big Red’s Evolution
This past weekend I played in an M14 Sealed Deck Pro Tour Qualifier in Madison, WI. My previous experience with the format was three prereleases, a local store’s sealed tournament, and a brainstorm practice session of sealed pools with a few friends. The format was interesting for a core set because even though it contained the usual ho-hum simple strategies revolving around basic creatures and bombs, there is some variance created by the ability to find combos and the power level of some of the commons.
That all said, I wasn’t looking forward to a Sealed PTQ season. It always seems like such a crapshoot depending on your pool, and it really tests your building skills. It’s so easy to misbuild your deck and lose enough game 1s to make it matter, not to mention the superior deckbuilding skills that a lot of pro players have. But to not compete is to not have a chance, so I rolled the dice and it paid off. I finished 4th in the qualifier, losing in the semi-finals of the top 8 and getting very close to a free trip to Spain to play on the Pro Tour. It was my best tournament magic finish and I’d like to cover some of my thoughts on the format as well as ending with notes on where I’m at with Big Red.
I can’t remember my exact pool, but Green, Red, and White were the strongest colors. Since White is usually the weakest color according to most pros and my only real reason to play it was Devout Invocation (which by the way is an auto-win in Sealed), I chose to stay focused on Green/Red. Being a big Mono Red Aggro player I’m familiar with the archetype both in Constructed and Limited, and I had already taken a similar pool to 4-0 at the first prerelease I attended. Everyone around me, including the various Pros in the room (Adrian Sullivan, Matthias Hunt, Matthew Severa, Greg Ogreenc, Bob Allbright, Brian Kowal, etc, etc) were hyping up Blue and Black, so I knew that I might be able to gain a slight advantage on those decks by playing underneath them and ensuring that my last spell or two in hand be a trump for whatever they had in mind to slow me down. It also helped that my pool was just insane for Green/Red, as soon as I opened it I smiled a bit because naturally the Mono Red player would get pure red goodies. Here is my final deck and a few of the commonly used sideboard cards:
1 Shimmering Grotto
1 Elvish Mystic
2 Voracious Wurm
1 Predatory Sliver
1 Deadly Recluse
1 Goblin Shortcutter
1 Young Pyromancer
1 Rumbling Baloth
1 Canyon Minotaur
1 Maurading Maulhorn
1 Pitchburn Devils
2 Giant Growth
2 Flames of the Firebrand
2 Chandra’s Outrage
1 Thunder Strike
1 Act of Treason
2 Academy Raider
1 Dragon Egg
1 Megantic Sliver
Yeah, this was no joke. As soon as I saw four burn spells and two Giant Growths, I knew that this pool had potential to go very far. My biggest worry was that this was a format cluttered with 1/3s, really good blue five drops, and some terribly scary bombs that could dismantle most of the little bears of the deck. To combat some of that, I ran most of the 2/2s I could and cut a few 2/1s (to try and make Wring Flesh not quite as awful), keeping only the essential ones such as Goblin Shortcutter and Young Pyromancer. I made sure to play my Act of Treason just incase anything crazy came down (which happened many times) and because it’s an excellent card in general. The real hard part came with the sideboard, and as it turns out I used most of the cards listed there on a regular basis in games 2 and 3. I often sided out Elvish Mystic, Fireshrieker, and Canyon Minataur, because while they all serve great purposes in the deck, this allowed me to fit in faster cards against the slower decks. Trollhide comes down quicker with a bigger impact on the game than Fireshrieker (despite Fireshrieker being absolutely insane at times), and Academy Raider is not only hard to block but can give enough gas to make sure the guys never stop hitting the board. I’m a big believer in board presence; one of the things my state championship chess coach used to always stress was to establish control of the board in order to have the rest fall in place. In the case of chess, that meant controlling the middle of the board, and advancing your push. If you can do this, it’s very difficult for an opponent to overcome you even if he’s the better player or thinks of a few good moves. I’m sure a lot of people will think I’m out of my mind for not playing Trollhide and Megantic Sliver in my maindeck, but I can’t tell you how many times Trollhide would have been blown out by a combat trick (versus Giant Growth or having additional bodies in the main) and how many games ended before Megantic Sliver would have been able to get online (let alone not being able to play another crucial spell that turn).
One card in particular (besides the burn) put in a lot of work this weekend-
This guy is the freaking MAN. He’s so deceptive as a three mana 2/2. There’s so many times in this deck where you can play him on turn 3 after already playing a two drop, and then follow it up on turn 4 with another two drop plus pump or two more two drops. Thankfully I played Tempest limited (yes I’m old) so I remembered just how stupid he could be. Four damage a turn is a lot, especially against opponents casting Divination on turn three even though there’s no wrath in the format to lead up to (aside from Planar Cleansing which is in the most unused color in the format, is a rare, and is hard to cast). It’s also easy to keep mana up to save him using his pump ability. He can only use it once a turn, but that includes your opponent’s turn, and that helps him dodge half the removal available or make them use a removal spell that could have hit one of your other more important creatures.
The tournament started off horribly. In round 1 I was paired against a Chicago native who had come up with the Hotsauce Games team who I see constantly at all the big events in the Midwest. As usual with every tournament, I tried to be friendly and greet him, ask him about his travel and day, etc, before we got going on our match. He was pretty brief with his comments and looked like he wanted to get down to business so I ended it at that. As the games progressed, he was playing at hyperspeed, and was flicking/flinging his cards around in a really annoying manner. I’ve dealt with plenty of players like this, and I know you can just slow down your game and such, but it was excessive to a point where I actually said something during the match but he for the most part just disregarded it. He wasn’t doing anything warranting calling a judge over, but it was pretty close. Regardless, his behavior was enough that it put me on tilt a bit and that combined with some relatively poor hands of mine, and his 7/7 Scavenging Ooze both games curb stomped me within minutes.
So there I was, 0-1. Another day, another year (19 to be exact), another tournament that looked like I just wasted $30. It was only 11:30am, and I had no backup plans for Saturday. I had come to make the Pro Tour, or at the very least top eight. This wasn’t fair. This has happened too many times.
I pushed the thoughts aside. I told myself that I’ve played well recently and that I know my pool is good. I probably just ran into an awful matchup. At worst, play another round and see what happens. See if the deck plays out a bit more like it should, and maybe some hate can be dodged. I talked with friends, we all shared some sad luck stories, and then the next round was posted.
Maybe, just maybe.
I didn’t even know how many rounds were left, at this point I was just in the zone. The aggro was hungry, and Flames of the Firebrand had come to eat. Collosal Whale on turn 7 had been defeated. Air Servant had been engulfed in flames. Boards had gotten scary.
My matchup this round came down to game 3. I opened my seven card hand; No land. Crap. Mulligan. Opened my six card hand; No land.
Please no. Not another tournament like this. So much time, so much mental energy, battling an oncoming cold, please don’t let this tournament come down to this. My opponent had been happy with his 7.
I grabbed my five cards. These looked pretty good. 2 lands, three guys including Young Pyromancer. My opponent’s deck was better, it was going to be tough but I had sided into a really quick package and all I could do now was hope.
He drew 4 lands, I drew two burn spells and two creatures. VICTORY! Sometimes the “Gods” are on your side.
After what seemed like a ridiculously long wait, they post standings and then pairings. My opponent Greg Ogreenc does the math and we’re both a lock to draw into top 8. He had just top 8’d a Grand Prix with Modern Burn (infact I wrote about it on the site here), but it turns out had never top 8’d a PTQ. We were both thrilled and ready for more. After the dust cleared we had our top 8, which aside from the two of us included three pro players in Bob Allbright, Jerret Schultz, and Lucas Duchow. The other guys seemed formidable too, and I feel bad but can’t remember their names.
Top 8 Draft
The reality of the situation here was that I had never drafted M14. I felt embarrassed and ashamed, because I knew that if I ever did manage to do good this season at a PTQ I’d have to draft. But I had already played so much Magic in the last few weeks and neglected real life important duties, that I just never could fit one in. Thankfully I had drafted the previous core sets, so I wasn’t completely in the dark, and I talked with a few of the local pros Daniel Cecchetti and Jasper Johnson-Epstein just prior to the draft. They stressed Blue. I told them I could play it, but that I’m really terrible with Blue and am just a lot better with aggro which is what I’m comfortable with. Still, they said I should really consider Blue and Black because both colors are strong. I had read all the Channel Fireball limited articles the day before and they stressed the same thing, while also pointing out that the B/R sacrifice deck and the G/R Aggro deck were viable options if Blue wasn’t open. I decided going in that I would trust my gut, that I have done well in draft most of my life and that my buddies have always reassured me of that. I’d absorb what the pros mentioned and take it into the decision process.
The first pack had 13 unimpressive cards and 2 cards I would easily first pick. One was Shock, the other was Sengir Vampire. While I highly value removal, especially like that, Sengir is an absolute bomb and I didn’t mind picking him up. So Black at this point was at least a consideration. The next few picks solidified me on that, giving me something along the lines of multiple Gnawing Zombies, Quag Sickness, and Doom Blade. I also picked up blue cards including a very late Air Servant and an Essence Scatter which is often referred to in this format as “the Blue Doom Blade”. I didn’t see any crazy bombs along the way and the green / red was completely dry.
In pack two, I don’t know if it was the first pack I opened or one of the first few, but I had a Nightmare and some other choices that were all very strong. Afterwards, Cecchetti and Jasper both said I should have picked the Nightmare, and this is probably the case (in fact almost assuredly) as he’s just nuts no matter how slow he comes out and it ended up giving someone else TWO of them. I picked a Blightcaster over it, which is absolutely insane in this format but is still no Nightmare. At the time I only had 1 or 2 enchantments including the Quag Sickness, but I knew many of them in the format were common so I figured I’d have stuff to combo with him by the end. I picked up three Sensory Deprivations in the third pack (almost in a row which was hilarious), so it did OK to have him.
In the end, my deck shaped up fine, it wasn’t great and I was hoping it wasn’t a total mess, but it had some pieces to make it playable. The main theme that I had been going for and what mostly played out was a U/B Tempo deck with an early set of creatures backed up by bounce and removal. I was hoping to run into some of the slower decks and time walk them with EOT bounce effects. Here was my deck and some sideboard cards used-
2 Shimmering Grotto
1 Festering Newt
1 Corpse Hauler
2 Gnawing Zombie
1 Tidebinder Mage
1 Blood Bairn
1 Undead Minotaur
1 Accursed Spirit
1 Nightwing Shade
1 Air Servant
1 Sengir Vampire
1 Armored Cancrix
3 Sensory Deprivation
1 Essence Scatter
1 Doom Blade
1 Glimpse the Future
1 Quag Sickness
1 Mind Rot
1 Mark of the Vampire
1 Mind Rot
1 Frost Breath
1 Spell Blast
There’s nothing fancy going on here, and the creature count is pretty low, but there’s a fair amount of removal and just a few trump cards. There’s also enough fliers to make it threatening if the opponent isn’t playing many.
I played against Lucas Duchow in the quarter finals. He was playing G/R Aggro.
From the looks of it, Duchow’s list had some bigger bombs, in both games his early creatures were on turns three and four, with a smattering of later two drops. In both games, I started off with Gnawing Zombies, other two drops, some evasion creatures, and enough bounce to keep his board mostly clear the whole way.
In game 2 of our set, I had a Nightwing Shade with 8 mana out and I knew at that point it was over. He could draw some outs, but I had three other guys on the board to his two, and he HAD to draw the right card to get out of it. He was at 12 when I hit him with the first attack. A minute or two later, he was dead.
This round I was paired up against Bob Allbright. Bob’s a good guy, I’ve known him since I was a little kid in Madison playing Magic. He’s played in over twenty Pro Tours, he used to play regularly with Bob Maher and Adrian Sullivan, and he still puts up strong finishes regularly. Bob had drafted the B/R sacrifice deck and had ALL the pieces you could ask for. Bubbling Cauldron, Festering Newt, Bogbrew Witch (which I stupidly passed), Barrage of Expendables, Tenacious Dead, Young Pyromancer, Flames of the Firebrand, and Chandra’s Outrage. It was pretty bonkers how much he actually was able to pickup. In game 1 I had a similar assault to what I put down against Duchow, and ultimately it came down to Bob and I topdecking. He put down an Awaken the Ancient, I put down a Tidebinder Mage. He draws a Fleshpupler Giant. And then we get to some state where I’m able to play a Gnawing Zombie (I could have recurred one with Corpse Hauler but missed it) and I’m able to sac enough guys to ping him to death. In game 2 we have another intense battle, and I get him down to four life but then he stabilizes with all the combo pieces. We parry for what seems like an eternity, mostly because I don’t scoop. We weren’t timed, so I just wanted to make sure there wasn’t an out or combination of cards which could create an out. In the end though he gained a zillion life and I eventually cough it up. In game 3, he assembles Bubbling Cauldron with Tenacious Dead within the first few turns and it was all downhill from there. I wish him good luck and then sit back to bask in the day and observe the finals.
In the finals, Greg who had drafted Mono Blue takes two games fairly easily from Bob. His deck was insane, x3 Scroll Thief, x4 Time Ebb, Elixers, Counterspells, Removal, Colossal Whale, Jace’s Mindseeker. I mean just the absolute stone nuts blue deck. Apparently in the Semis he cast Time Ebb EIGHT times in one game (using Elixers and I think Archaeomancer). He deserved to qualify, and it was nice to see someone getting their first chance even if I wasn’t getting one myself. It was easily one of the best days of my life, and a great experience. All I can recommend to others out there is to stay confident, keep practicing. If I can plow along for 19 years off and on in this game (obviously I enjoy it too or I wouldn’t play), it’s possible for anyone.
Big Red Evolution
Here’s where I’m at with Big Red at the moment (I should be playing in my win-a-box tonight)-
4 Ash Zealot
4 Chandra’s Phoenix
4 Boros Reckoner
4 Thundermaw Hellkite
2 Zealous Conscripts
4 Chandra, Pyromaster
4 Pillar of Flame
4 Searing Spear
4 Mizzium Mortars
4 Ratchet Bomb
4 Bonfire of the Damned
3 Burning Earth
2 Shock (or Electrickery or Rolling Temblor or Magmaquake)
I dropped the Flames of the Firebrand from the main because Mortars is more relevant at two mana and against a lot of nasty stuff in the field (like Blood Baron of Viskopa), although I’d tailor it to whatever your meta is. In the side, one of my readers suggested Reverberate and after further testing I really like having it as a cheap counterspell or copy of any number of good Standard cards. Possibility Storm is still the nuts, but being able to force through my other spells is also really good and usually the better route. Shock was added to give the deck some added speed against the Aristocrats and R/W Humans, mostly because those games are won and lost based on your first few turns. It also helps to kill Mutavault in other matchups.
The three matchups I’m having the most trouble with are Naya Midrange, R/G Kibler, and B/G Rock. That’s been the case for a while. I’ve tried Traitorous Blood, Volcanic Strength, Wrack with Madness, and a variety of other options but I just haven’t figured it out yet. For now I’d recommend exploring some cards yourself and seeing what you like, and always make sure that you’re playing tight. Misplaying is not an option in those games, and if you play well they are not auto losses by any means. This deck still has a ton of firepower, and you can beat those decks with your good draws many times. Make sure that you also put a clock on them, as otherwise you will almost assuredly fall behind.
I figured out some better ways to play the Aristocrat matches. I’m typically siding out Zealot, Reckoner, and Conscripts for Bonfires, Bombs, and Shocks. When playing the match, I’m making sure to only kill Xathrid Necromancer, Skirsdag, and Cartel (unless I have enough to kill the rest), because these are really the ones that create a board presence which causes you to lose the match. Your fliers in Chandra’s Phoenix and Thundermaw are typically just faster at winning the game than their ground guys, and sweeping the board without first removing the critical creatures just makes things worse. Hold your Ratchet Bombs at zero if you can afford to as you have enough spot removal to kill their other guys and then their tokens are useless. These particular changes have increased my win record online infinitely over the last week or so.
Minneapolis coming up quickly, stay tuned. . .
– Red Deck Winning