Battling to Qualify: A Modern Experience
The struggle to reach the professional tour in this game is real. It’s a tale that’s told by the look on a face, the projection of a tone, the desperate travel plans made at the 9th hour, and the perceived desire in ones words. This Sunday I went to a Pro Tour Qualifier in Chicago, and this time it felt different. They always stir up familiar emotions and passions, but this particular one covered a lifetime of experiences in one very long day. The good, the bad, the ugly; they were all there.
A few weeks ago I was talking with local grinder Louis Kaplan, and we were comparing our endless string of “almost” getting there tournaments. And by “there” I mean that coveted blue envelope that means more than the world to many competitive Magic players. Making the Pro Tour has been one of my biggest dreams since I was young, and while time is against me, the fire burns as bright as ever right now to try and fulfill that dream.
Last Monday I was browsing Facebook, when I noticed a notification pop up. I clicked on it to read “Alan Hochman with Pastimes Games is hosting a $5,000 Prize PTQ in Chicago”. I haven’t seen PTQs mixed with cash payouts before, although other players were quickly informing me that these things have been around for a while. Regardless, this was a very reasonable reward for your time and effort if for some reason you don’t get to make a dream come true. I shared the post with my town’s MTG group, and discussion started on who all was going. There were a few of the regular grinders who already had it planned, along with hitting either Minneapolis or St. Louis the day before for a double-PTQ special. Sadly all the cars were full, and most of my usual crew were in complete boycott of Pastimes after their experiences at the recent Grand Prix.
I looked in my wallet. Heck, not even a ball of lint. Credit Cards stretched to the brim as usual, savings tapped, bills to pay. Brakes on the car squealing. Just finished the tail end of a two-week long move across apartments. Work crazy as usual. My playtesting of Nicholas Heal’s GP Minneapolis Red Deck Wins build had been going poorly. I’m thirty years old, and probably starting a family in the next few years, and the last thing my wife needs is another weekend where I’m running away to play a game that I’ve played since I was ten.
Those are a few of the million reasons I had not to go. But the dream. . .
I hopped on Cockatrice. It’s not the greatest testing tool, but it lets you put yourself through the paces of a deck easy enough and you can scour for good opponents if you’re patient. I eventually settled into playing a few games with a guy and we started having some conversation in chat. He was from Finland, and he was looking to play in his country’s WMCQ soon. He was worried he wasn’t going to have enough Planeswalker Points because there was only one other big tournament in his area and it was two weeks before the WMCQ. It was 100 miles away and there literally weren’t any other major tournaments over the course of an entire year except for these two. This made me pull up my DCI number online to compare some things, and I clicked over on the history tab to relive some nostalgia. My first big tournament listed was a PTQ from January, 1999. Fifteen years ago. My god. FIFTEEN YEARS! It just seemed so unreal even though I remember the days. But more importantly, it reminded me, this isn’t “just a game”, this is a dream. I know I’m coming across super serious in this article, but this look back hammered it home for me. There’s no point to let all this time, effort, and passion go to waste, you have to keep battling to get what you want. And here I’ve been given the opportunity to play in multiple high level events every single weekend. Of course like anyone with an actual social life outside of Magic I can’t do that, but it still gives me no excuse to let chances slip through my fingers if I can make something happen.
I messaged my good friend Travis to see if he had some fetches I could borrow. He did. I got ahold of a few judge friends in my area who were going to be involved in the event and was able to secure a ride for Sunday. At this point there was no turning back. Now I just had to find a list to work with. If you remember from my last Modern article, there were choices and I wasn’t certain what direction to go (surprise). Every time I have to figure out my list these days, this is what I feel like:
I thought, if anything, I kind of like what the local pros who I really respect have played or listed recently, so probably best to crowdsource them and see what feels best to me. I messaged Jasper Johnson-Epstein and Adrian Sullivan to see where their updated Burn lists were at. Adrian messaged me back briefly but didn’t sound terribly confident about the deck. Jasper messaged me back an updated build and sideboard plan, and things looked good so I began to assemble the cards. I tested online a bunch over the course of a day or two, and then at 11pm after a long afternoon of drinking with friends I got a little Facebook ding from Adrian right as I was about to hit the hay. The gist of it was, I should play his GR Burn list because it was better positioned, had Ghor Clan, and while he still thought Burn wasn’t a good choice at the moment, it was the better list. I respect the hell out of both of these guys after watching them ascend to greatness many times, and because they’re both excellent Red mages. My brain was racked, so I wasn’t sure what to do and went to sleep.
My alarm went off at 5 A.M., although since it was the night before a PTQ I was already up at 4 A.M. with the hamster wheel spinning thinking about what to play. I met up at a parking lot to catch my ride down to Chicago, and when we got to the tournament site after our two hour drive, I started working to put together Adrian’s list. I still liked Jasper’s, and had it sleeved, but Adrian was really trying hard to convince me otherwise the night before. Something felt unpolished about it though, and ultimately Jasper found me, sat by my table, and detailed out all the reasons why playing more creatures and Ghor Clan in this “style” of a deck was not the place I wanted to be at the moment. Modern is currently a removal heavy format, and you just want to play along that all familiar Burn axis that they can’t defend against. I had more experience with Jasper’s list anyway, so I crossed out the differences on my registration sheet and re-sleeved his deck. Yes, the schizophrenia was in full fever friends. Thankfully, I think I made the right choice (at least for that day), and I was happy playing it throughout. Here is the list that I played:
R/W/B Burn, 56th Place, John Galli, deck design by Jasper Johnson-Epstein
4 Goblin Guide
4 Vexing Devil
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel
3 Grim Lavamancer
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Bump in the Night
4 Lava Spike
4 Rift Bolt
1 Shard Volley
4 Boros Charm
2 Searing Blaze
1 Marsh Flats
4 Arid Mesa
4 Scalding Tarn
1 Blood Crypt
4 Sacred Foundry
4 Blackcleave Cliffs
2 Rakdos Charm
2 Searing Blaze
2 Volcanic Fallout
1 Stony Silence
1 Sudden Shock
1 Grafdigger’s Cage
Sideboard Guide from Jasper (rough, from his older list so ignore cards that aren’t in the current build but I adapted it as I played):
It’s fine to cut a Mountain on the draw much of the time, but not great when bringing in three-mana spells and/or Searing Blazes.
Zoo: +2 Searing Blaze, +1 Skullcrack, +1 Flamebreak, -4 Goblin Guide
Affinity: +1 Electrickery, +2 Rakdos Charm, +2 Searing Blaze, +1 Skullcrack, +1 Stony Silence, +1 Sudden Shock, +2 Volcanic Fallout, -4 Goblin Guide, -4 Vexing Devil, -2 Boros Charm
UR Twin: +1 Spellskite, +2 Combust, +2 Rakdos Charm, +1 Skullcrack, -2 Lightning Helix, -2 Searing Blaze, -1 Rift Bolt, -1 Rift Bolt (play)/-1 Mountain (draw)
URg Twin : +1 Spellskite, +2 Combust, +2 Rakdos Charm, +1 Searing Blaze, +1 Skullcrack, +1 Sudden Shock, -4 Goblin Guide, -4 Vexing Devil
URw Twin: +1 Spellskite, +2 Combust, +2 Rakdos Charm, +1 Skullcrack, +1 Volcanic Fallout, +1 Sudden Shock, -4 Goblin Guide, -4 Vexing Devil
UWR: +1 Skullcrack, +1 Sudden Shock, +2 Volcanic Fallout, [+1 Flamebreak if they show Geist], -2 Searing Blaze, -1 Vexing Devil, -1 Vexing Devil (play)/-1 Mountain (draw), [-1 Vexing Devil if they show Geist] Combust isn’t usually good here, but some builds have Baneslayers and Restos along with the Colonnades, so season to taste.
Storm: +1 Grafdigger’s Cage, +1 Rakdos Charm, +1 Rakdos Charm (draw), -2 Searing Blaze, -1 Mountain (draw) Skullcrack isn’t great, and Fallout has some real utility if they show Empty the Warrens.
Jund: +2 Searing Blaze, +1 Skullcrack, +1 Sudden Shock, -4 Vexing Devil
Blue Moon: +1 Skullcrack, +1 Sudden Shock, +2 Volcanic Fallout, +1 Rakdos Charm (draw), -2 Lightning Helix, -2 Searing Blaze, -1 Mountain (draw)
Infect: +1 Spellskite, +1 Electrickery, +2 Rakdos Charm, +2 Searing Blaze, +1 Sudden Shock, +2 Volcanic Fallout, -2 Lightning Helix, -3 Skullcrack, -2 Boros Charm, -2 Rift Bolt
Melira Pod: +1 Grafdigger’s Cage, +2 Rakdos Charm, +2 Searing Blaze, +1 Skullcrack, +1 Sudden Shock, +2 Volcanic Fallout, -4 Goblin Guide, -4 Vexing Devil, -1 Lightning Helix (Electrickery?)
Kiki Pod: +1 Grafdigger’s Cage, +1 Rakdos Charm, +2 Searing Blaze, +1 Skullcrack, +1 Sudden Shock, +2 Volcanic Fallout, -4 Goblin Guide, -4 Vexing Devil
Bogles: +1 Spellskite, +1 Electrickery, +1 Skullcrack, +1 Flamebreak, +2 Volcanic Fallout, -2 Vexing Devil, -2 Lightning Helix, -2 Searing Blaze
Goryo’s Vengeance: +1 Grafdigger’s Cage, +2 Rakdos Charm, +1 Skullcrack, -1 Lightning Helix, -2 Searing Blaze, -1 Lightning Helix (play)/-1 Mountain (draw)
Scapeshift: (my own notes since Jasper didn’t have them in by accident) +1 Sudden Shock, +2 Skullcrack, -2 Searing Blaze, – 1 Mountain (draw)
The tournament site was an old standby that I had been to several times, the Odeum in Villa Park, IL. Let’s just say this thing was not built for a Magic tournament, yet because the greater Chicago area is apparently “limited” with regards to affordable venues, it’s used over and over again by Pastimes. I went to a Regionals there in the early 2000s, and Magic players were playing Soccer on an indoor Soccer field. Only, this was the same indoor Soccer field that the Regionals event was also being played on. Yeah. . . . .
It was hot in the main event room at this current PTQ. So much so that I was literally sweating through my shirt and having trouble concentrating for a while. Granted, I’m on the heavier side, although certainly no Boggart Ram-Gang. But the dream. . .
Round 1 vs B/G Rock
This matchup seems to favor the Burn side, but it’s a tough deck and can go either way depending on draws. I was playing against Greg who is a reasonable player from the Chicago area, and the games were very close. The main thing here is that you’re faster than them, and you want to dump your initial hand as fast as you possibly can so that you can avoid them getting any value out of their Liliana once it comes down. Scavenging Ooze and Discard are your worst enemies, followed by Obstinate Baloth and Batterskull out of the sideboard. Thus, Skullcrack is very live, as is Sudden Shock since it kills Ooze at times before it can get out of control. Sometimes you run out of gas, but if you don’t, they usually can’t keep up. Vexing Devil is pretty awful here other than providing tempo, so following the Jund sideboard plan worked well for me. Fortunately I had been casually testing this matchup with some friends before the tournament started so this was the perfect deck to line up against in Round 1.
Round 2 vs Affinity
The Affinity matchup is absolutely nuts. Both decks are balls to the wall and are trying to out maneuver each other. Burn in this format definitely can’t afford to kill many creatures, so the more Searing Blaze “effects” you have, the better. Arcbound Ravager, Cranial Plating, and Vault Skirge are all major thorns in your side. In game 1 of this match, my opponent got two Signal Pests, a Memnite, and a Vault Skirge down within the first turn or two, and I was soon backpedaling trying to deal with the Skirge before the life imbalance cleaned my clock. Sadly killing creatures runs you out of gas and his army just kept piling on until I was very dead. Be willing to take a lot of damage in this matchup and stay dedicated to burning them. You only care about a few creatures, and if they have Etched Champion you’re probably in trouble.
Game 2 you get to bring in almost your entire sideboard, so that helps slow them down quite a bit. Stony Silence shuts off all the modular madness and Cranial Plating, your sweepers gain you critical value, and you have a lot of redundancy to try and make sure your removal sticks. Beware though, they often bring in Welding Jar or Spellskite, so you may need to save removal for these if you have enough to go around. In fact, game 2 of this match came down to just that, as I was piling on the burn to the point where my opponent was very low, only to watch him double galvanic blast me, play a Spellskite which I was forced to respond to with a Shard Volley, and then cry as I couldn’t draw a second land again to play my lethal Skullcrack in hand over the course of the next three turns. Also, be sure to be extremely careful with how you play out the lands in your hand; both the damage from your Shocks/Fetches and the ability to cast Searing Blazes on time are incredibly relevant.
Round 3 vs Burn
The burn mirror isn’t pleasant with this build because there’s really not a good sideboard plan for it and you have a lot more ways to damage yourself then they do (assuming they’re more Mono Red or strictly RW). You have to play your lands tapped as often as possible, trust your knowledge of the archetype, and put strength in the fact that you have higher impact / a greater redundancy of burn spells than they do. The Burn mirror could have its own detailed article all by itself, but in this round it really came down to who was on the play.
There were a few mistakes my opponent made too, but in game 1 I won with him having lethal in hand, game 2 he did the same back to me, and game 3 I switched it up again. I experimented a lot more than I should have with my sideboard in this match, going so far as to bring in Spellskite to neuter all of his 3/4 damage burn. I don’t like that it’s an unaggressive card here, but the tech worked out in the game that I played it since he otherwise would have been able to kill me were I not able to reduce a lot of damage. Eidolon is something you have to be very careful with, but it’s an absolute monster when you’re on the play or if your opponent stumbles. It can also be a liability when you’re behind, so I’d like to hear thoughts on how others play it to get a gauge for different strategies. Personally I feel very comfortable playing him as I’ve been jamming it in Standard for a long time now, but I see many mages backing themself into a corner.
Round 4 vs Tron
This matchup honestly feels like it is a bye to me. They have scary scary cards that they can play, and turn 3 Tron is absolutely a thing, but if you have a half decent hand they don’t really have much of an answer. Wurmcoil Engine is the end game, so get your Skullcracks ready. I won this match very quickly with little trouble at all. Just be aggressive and know what cards are important and when they’re going for them.
It isn’t always pretty though. I went over to watch Jasper playing against Gifts/Tron the following round, and as I come over I see chaos unfold. In game 2 Jasper’s opponent tries to cast a Sphinx’s Revelation which gets Skullcrack’d, he then tries to Unburial Rites an Elesh Norn into play but has his graveyard exiled by Rakdos Charm, and then his opponent follows up with a Wurmcoil Engine which then leads to Jasper top-decking a Lava Spike to kill him before the Engine has a chance to attack. Game 3 is even crazier as I see a Karn sitting on 11 counters, followed by an Oblivion Stone blowing up the world, leaving Jasper with 1 land in play and nothing else. Jasper then proceeds to Bump in the Night his opponent twice and that was all she wrote.
Round 5 vs Faeries
Ah, the Fae. Any Red mage playing during Lorwyn/Shadowmoor will remember this awful menace of a deck, and its only become stronger in Modern. Now they have access to Pack Rat, along with better counter-magic and removal. In fact, another fellow Madison native Matt Severa made top 8 with it, and a different pilot that I don’t know was in the finals as I was leaving. It’s the ultimate tempo deck, but fortunately for you it plays Bitterblossom which is just the absolute worst against Burn, and you have a suite of sideboard cards that are uncounterable. These games were the most intense ones of the tournament for me, but it was a lot of fun.
Both of you are largely playing at instant speed, and Grim Lavamancer + Eidolon of the Great Revel are beasts if left unchecked. Your spells are cheaper and have a higher impact, but they have a lot of cheap counter magic that can potentially run you out of gas. My biggest advice here would be to make sure you sandbag your uncounterables until the very last minute, and stretch each card as far as it will go. Your creatures are excellent diversions here, as all of them are either must kill or act as removal spells vs many of their creatures. Also worthy of note; do not bring in Combust unless you see some insanely specific reason for it. You want all damage cards here if possible to keep up with the pace. The only creature Combust kills that you even lightly care about is Mistbind Clique (or the Faerie it’s championing to be correct), and if that card is coming down most of your other burn spells can respond to it, or you simply don’t care at that point in the game. Rakdos Charm can be important too if they have access to Swords, Batterskull, or just as a finisher.
Round 6 vs UR Twin
I found Twin to be a difficult matchup, although Jasper is confident that it is not. As you can see from the sideboard notes, there are intricacies depending on the versions. The hardest part about playing against any deck like this, is if you play cautiously in anticipation of the “combo”, they can just attrition you out through native means. Game 1 I had no idea what was going on, I thought he was on UR Aggro which is seen a lot on MTGO (Delver, Pyromancer, Lavamancer), only to have him combo kill me six turns in. Game 2 we sparred blows and I was holding Rakdos Charm for his combo, but an early Spellskite was preventing my creatures from getting through. I held onto Charm too long (although he did have the combo in hand), and the game slipped away from me when it may have gone the other direction if I had immediately gone after Spellskite and then tried for the win the next turn. This was also a match where I kept a sketch one lander in game 1, and it did not pan out well. At least I didn’t feel too bad when my opponent went on to top 8, and we later had a discussion about how he too was a big grinder without a blue envelope.
Round 7 vs Scapeshift
They are a slower combo deck than you, and you have disruption for most of their stall tactics (Spellskite, Obstinate Baloth, Nature’s Claim, etc). Skullcrack for their lifegain and Sudden Shock for Sakura Tribe-Elder are the keys, along with having any kind of half-decent hand. Game 2 was pretty hilarious, I had quadruple Eidolon of the Great Revel and had to Lightning Bolt him in response to me casting the third one because I almost forgot that I would have been dead to my own Bolt otherwise. Fortunately I caught it in time, and then he died to his unsuspending Search for Tomorrow during his upkeep before he could cast a second Obstinate Baloth.
At this point it looked fairly clear that I would miss top 8, but top 16 was a reality. Cash payout to 32nd.
Round 8 vs RUG Twin
A chance at revenge. The RUG version seems a little more durdely, and for the most part I liked that he was focused on a beatdown plan moreso than the combo. Games 1 and 2 were close, of which we split when the other person had the kill the next turn. To be fair, in game 1 I was again stuck on another 1 land sketch keep, so that should play up the strength of Burn even more considering the battles these games were. Game 3 I was cruising along just fine looking like things were going to be wrapped up shortly when all of a sudden a Huntmaster of the Fells hit the table. I didn’t have ways to interact with it immediately, and as a result he unloaded a flipping fiesta of lifegain and wolves until I was buried to death by an army. It was a new card addition that he had made between the PTQ he had attended the day before and this one. Looks like the change paid off.
Make sure to note the sideboard differences on this one vs UR Twin. You play more creature removal here, mostly to keep tempo, but also for corner cases like this. I followed the board plan correctly, unfortunately I just couldn’t draw what was needed in time.
Round 9 vs Affinity
My opponent was really hyper this round and it was throwing me on tilt. He had the energy of a five year old boy and was trying to make cheesy jokes from the minute we sat down. He introduced himself as Dac Fayden and kept trying to get me to acknowledge it. I on the other hand was incredibly drained from the day and just focusing on trying to make a little cash. I like socializing before and during matches, but I just wasn’t prepared for his over the top excitement. We went to three games, with a lot of similar interaction to the previous Affinity match, but ultimately he nickel and dimed me to death with Blinkmoth Nexus and tried to ask me to pick a color for his Mox Opal when I was dead on board. Sigh. I definitely could have had a better attitude for this match, but it just felt like the entire tournament was falling apart during it. The grind is real. . .
(Loss) 5-4. My opponent finished in 32nd. I congratulated him on the cash and went to do what I do best; play Purphoros in EDH.
Switching back to a positive note, a reader and casual acquaintance from previous tournaments hung out with me over the course of the day and played a really sweet Mono Red deck to a strong finish. The list should whet the appetite of even the least dedicated of Red mages, this thing is just pure beauty:
Koths and Bolts by Davis Merced, 11th Place at PTQ Chicago
4 Boros Reckoner
4 Simian Spirit Guide
1 Magus of the Moon
3 Thundermaw Hellkite
4 Lightning Bolt
1 Red Sun’s Zenith
2 Volcanic Fallout
4 Koth of the Hammer
3 Relic of Progenitus
4 Blood Moon
21 Snow Covered Mountains
2 Scrying Sheets
2 Eidolon of the Great Revel
2 Anger of the Gods
1 Pyrite Spellbomb
1 Chandra Pyromaster
He had an article feature at Grand Prix Richmond for a strong finish with the previous iteration of the deck, it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in playing the archetype. There are some weaknesses vs non-interactive decks, but otherwise this list is impressive. Davis is a cool cat, a die hard Red Mage, and a fellow Bulls fan to boot, so I couldn’t recommend his stuff any more here. Dropping a turn 1 Blood Moon on someone is for sure a place I’d like to be in Modern. And if you don’t like Koth, I don’t think I can fix your problems.
The writeup can be found HERE
I know this article was a long one, but I’m sure a lot of it will resonate with my fellow grinders. And for all of you aspiring to become better Magic players and better Red players, please keep up the fight. Don’t give in to all the people telling you that you can’t win unless you play other decks. Practice, practice, and practice some more. That’s my biggest weakness despite how much time I do put into the game, but thankfully it’s always something that can be worked on. And while you should play other decks to gain useful knowledge from the process, when it comes to tournament time I always believe you have a better chance, well as Davis put it in the writeup, when you “play what you know”.
Keep Tapping Those Mountains,
– Red Deck Winning