Riding In Minneapolis, A PTQ Top 8

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Riding In Minneapolis, A PTQ Top 8

16 years ago (at least according to Wizards), I attended my first Pro Tour Qualifier for Magic the Gathering.  This past Saturday, I attended my last.  It was a memorable journey, and a lot was on my mind going into the weekend.

For starters, this qualifier season was for a trip to Brussels, Belgium.  I’m a quarter Belgian and have relatives I’ve never met who live right near there, so it would be unique opportunity to get to see them and also live out a childhood dream.

There were two options being considered in the weeks prior, Grand Prix Memphis, and a regular qualifier in Minneapolis.  I was originally not planning to do Memphis at all, but had picked up some side jobs for extra cash and knew a number of area pros who were going.  There were also others in my playgroup interested in a trip of some kind, so I started scouting out what it would take.  I was on the fence, but the costs still looked overwhelming with a minimum of 2 nights in a hotel, twice the entry fee, and twice the food and gas costs.

So as it stood, we began planning for Minneapolis.  We had 8 interested parties, and potentially 3 vehicles at our disposal.  In the end, as usual with everyone’s busy lives these days, those numbers cut down as we hit Friday.  While at work, I got a few IMs from folks saying they wanted to do Memphis still and were planning to leave at 3pm.  I just couldn’t make it work with my schedule and knew it was going to still be way too much cost-wise.  I briefly entertained the idea but decided to stay on course at the end of the day.  I used that extra time to playtest a bit after work online, and was going into the tournament with my guns set on playing RW Aggro.

It’s now 3AM Saturday morning.  My alarm goes off waking up my wife and I, and I figure I’ve probably had about an hour of sleep.  There’s no sunlight out, and everything feels lethargic.  On top of that, I’m feeling a little flu-ish, and my mind starts racing as to whether or not its worth doing this trip.  But as usual, I push the concerns aside, shower, grab my cards, and go to meet my crew.  We stumble into our Minivan, bleary-eyed but excited to sling cards one last time at this level.  I’m in the far back seat, I can’t hear anything our driver is saying, the heat is blasting so hot I’m stripping down, and classical music is rocking the suburbs.  Ultimately things are adjusted and we start talking about all the different decks in Standard, what is to be expected, and what seems like the best trump.  The group mostly believes they’ll be seeing a lot of RW Aggro, GR Devotion, RG Aggro, and a splash of everything else.  At least that’s what results the prior weekend would indicate, as well as the trending all those archetypes have been seeing in general.

I was a little disappointed at the time with RW, not in that I thought it was a bad deck, but that the metagame might be adjusting.  It’s one of those level zero decks that is always fairly good, even with a target on its head, but a few games against GR Devotion had unnerved me, as they were either able to ramp into something ridiculous too early in the game or stonewall my early aggressiveness.  That, combined with the fact that it was completely left out of the top 8 of Grand Prix Seville was giving me second thoughts.  Whisperwood Elemental in particular felt like the best card in Standard.  I’d played many games both with it and against it, and the card was just absurd.  If he’s not killed on the turn he’s played, most opponents have little chance of a comeback.  I quickly talked my carmate playing Abzan Midrange into jamming it into his list, and post-tournament he indicated that he was happy with the choice.  Meanwhile on my side of things, I asked if anyone had the cards for GR Devotion, but it sounded like a longshot.

On the last leg of the trip, I started reading Martin Juza’s article on his top 8 finish at Grand Prix Seville.  Jeskai, as I had mentioned in previous articles, was always a deck I liked and one that my teammate Brad and I had worked on quite a bit.  He’d had some strong finishes with it, and as I’m reading Juza’s article I kept thinking more and more about how good it would be to fly over all these ground stalls and just orient myself with a little more burn.  Juza mentions that he beat RW Aggro 4 times at the Grand Prix, and if that was to be the expected field, that seemed like a fantastic position to be in.  I wasn’t wild about Treasure Cruise in his list, and he suggested changing it with Outpost Siege (or at least playing more Siege), so I made that change along with running another copy of Dig Through Time.  My carmate Kyle who wasn’t settled on a deck decided to hop on board, and we both put together the list at the tournament site when we arrived.

Here was what I ended up playing:

Jeskai Aggro – by John Galli 5th Place, Pro Tour Qualifier Legion Games

4 Seeker of the Way
1 Soulfire Grand Master
4 Goblin Rabblemaster
4 Mantis Rider
3 Stormbreath Dragon

3 Outpost Siege
2 Dig Through Time

3 Wild Slash
4 Lightning Strike
1 Jeskai Charm
3 Valorous Stance
4 Stoke the Flames

4 Mystic Monastery
4 Flooded Strand
3 Shivan Reef
3 Battlefield Forge
4 Temple of Triumph
2 Temple of Epiphany
2 Island
2 Plains

Sideboard
4 Disdainful Stroke
1 Negate
3 Anger of the Gods
1 Glare of Heresy
1 End Hostilities
2 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker
1 Valorous Stance
2 Brimaz, King of Oreskos

Post-tournament I would change a lot from this list, but it sufficed in being reasonable at what it does.  Over the course of the day I would play a myriad of archetypes, from RW Aggro, Jeskai Mirror, Sultai Control, Sultai Ramp, Abzan Aggro, etc, with the only blemish being a second round loss to one of the two Sultai Control decks.  In that match, he had some fantastic hands to fairly medicore ones of mine, and overall I felt the new build of those decks is much better than it used to be.  Early Ashioks gave me some trouble along with having all the removal and counters he needed everytime I jammed a threat.  Furthermore, he verbally rubbed it in while at the same time taking my Soulfire Grand Master and buying back Hero’s Downfalls with it.

Yeaaah.  It was pretty ugly.  He was from Mankato, Minnesota and had brought a crew, who I ended up running into all day.  Fortunately, I got my revenge and dismantled two of his carmates.  The third of which would come in round 6 where I had a camera match against RW Aggro.  I expected him to be on Sultai Control, only to be staring down Outbursts into Rabblemasters and quickly getting buried in game 1.  Games 2 and 3, my Rabble + Mantis prevailed though, along with keeping removal spells up and controlling the tempo.

An important note on this match, along with my sideboarding all day, was that I think it’s important not to follow a hard and fast plan.  I often, as well as other writers, emphasize this when laying out a guide.  I typically tend to board into a more controllish package, and I think against RW you probably even want most of the counters if you expect them to do the same, but many times during the day I just added a smidge of extra sweepers/removal and kept most of my aggro.  One of the issues with the mirror or psuedo mirros is that you can fall behind on tempo even if you brought in this great endgame package.  Sure, once you hit 5 mana you have plenty of great things to do, but if they’re miles ahead of you on board state you won’t have time to catch up.

A single unanswered Rabblemaster or Mantis Rider can make all of the difference for either side, and the threshold for getting “burned out” is something that you need to be conscious of on every turn.  One of my carmates and I later discussed this when talking about my top 8 match, where I held up burn instead of playing Outpost Siege.  It was an extremely debatable line, but the turn I would have played Siege would have let him hit me for 10 with the Rabble and tokens he had out in combination with a presumed Stormbreath in hand.  As good as Siege is at card advantage (and it was for sure the difference in that match overall), I would have just been dead far sooner had I played it.  I felt the possibility of him bricking on his Siege for a turn was higher than me losing to burn after taking 10 damage.

After my camera match, I was 5-1 with one round left.  They posted standings and I was at the bottom of the X-1 bracket, in 10th place.  There would be no draw into top 8 for me.  I was paired against Dave Yetka, a pro player who’s always a fairly congenial guy when I’ve seen him at events or heard stories.  He was playing Abzan Aggro and I had just watched him lose to fellow pro Ryan Hipp who was playing Jeskai too.  I knew Abzan in general was a dogfight, but the Aggro version felt much better because of the lack of heavy Coursers into Planeswalkers.  This turned out to be the case, as game 1 I got about as good a hand as I could ask for and steamrolled him with Seeker into Rabble into Mantis into removal.  Game 2 he got stuck on lands and soon enough there was a handshake and a top 8 for me.

top8standingsMinnesota

The top 8 was somewhat unknown, but we knew there was a mix of Jeskai, Abzan, and Devotion.  As it ended up, I was paired against Ian Birrell playing RW Aggro.  Game 1 was the critical one in my mind, and I wish I could rewind to that moment and play better.  I was running on fumes, being powered on by soda and convention food which is never the right place to be with an hour of sleep.

I was on the play, and my first few opportunities in hand would be I believe a Rabblemaster, Mantis, and bigger threats later on.  I had a Wild Slash, but no followup burn.  On his turn 2, he played a Seeker of the Way and passed.  This was the first mistake on my part, I declined to Wild Slash it because I was concerned he would play a Rabblemaster on turn 3.  Even if he had, I could have fought through that or let myself draw to my outs.  Instead, Seeker of the Way started doing his job, and Ian was able to enable prowess on the next 6-7 turns keeping him alive in what was otherwise a battle much in my favor.  I was never able to Wild Slash it, and I followed this up by neglecting to play a Stormbreath Dragon when I hit 5 mana.  This one was unfortunately NOT on purpose, but simply me being tired and not even realizing it before I passed turn.  Had I played that, it would have ate the Stoke in his hand instead of me taking that damage, and I would have had enough to close the deal and be up a game.  Instead, at less than 5 life he stabilized and started out card advantaging me, and we were on to game 2.

Game 2 I came out blazing, he fought me off for a good while, but I was able to finish him with double dragons.  Game 3 I neglected to play a turn 3 Anger of the Gods hoping to soak more value out of it, missed my fourth land drop to play my Outpost Siege, and watched as he played an Outpost Siege and started winning the race.  I had a lot of good cards in hand, including a Stoke to control some of his creatures, but he hit solid plays every turn and I never saw that fourth land until it was far too late.  In the end, Ken Bearl took down the Qualifier with Jeskai, at least making me feel better about my deck choice.

Playing Jeskai in the Future and Looking at RW Aggro

Post-tournament I’m trying out the following Jeskai build.  My carmates and I began discussing the blue siege and I’m very curious to see if it’s better or worse than Outpost Siege.  The tempo advantage to Jeskai of having it be a three drop as opposed to four is huge, and Merfolk Looter was always an insane card in Sealed so I could see this being good in Standard.  Additionally, the “Frost Titan” ability of making them pay more to target your guys could be influential in a match against Abzan or Control where all of a sudden their Hero’s Downfalls essentially cost 5 mana.  Lastly, we may still want to add more Dig Through Time as the loot ability is great fuel to allow you to play it quicker.

Jeskai Aggro – John Galli, Post-Qualifier Build

4 Seeker of the Way
2 Soulfire Grand Master
4 Goblin Rabblemaster
4 Mantis Rider
3 Stormbreath Dragon

4 Monastery Siege

4 Wild Slash
3 Lightning Strike
4 Stoke the Flames
3 Valorous Stance
1 Dig Through Time

4 Mystic Monastery
4 Flooded Strand
3 Shivan Reef
3 Battlefield Forge
4 Temple of Triumph
2 Temple of Epiphany
2 Island
2 Plains

Sideboard
2 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
2 Wingmate Roc
4 Disdainful Stroke
1 Negate
2 Erase
2 Arc Lightning
1 Glare of Heresy
1 Dig Through Time

Besides adding more Digs, the Wingmate Rocs are still in testing.  Matt Light ran them in his board at Grand Prix Seville and I was discussing the option before Minneapolis.  I couldn’t figure out if I liked Elspeth, Sarkhan, or Roc better, but I feel against the Abzan decks I want a value card that is also easier to cast.  Elspeth at 6 mana can be really tough to get to, even if it’s probably the best choice otherwise.  Sarkhan just felt like redundancy, despite his ability to kill Dragons and Rocs.  Any of them could be correct, it will probably just depend on the metagame or your personal preference.

At the PTQ I was sorely missing Abzan Advantage or Erase, so that is coming back.  It’s just too important against Outpost Siege + Chained to the Rocks and against Courser of Kruphix + Frontier Siege.  While Glare of Heresy is a great card in the Metagame, it’s not solving all the critical problems and thus the numbers have to be spread out a bit.

Brimaz overperformed, I wouldn’t mind playing 3 of him in the board.  Any time I had a Mantis Rider and a Brimaz on the table I basically felt the game was unloseable.  Casting him wasn’t an issue with the manabase most of the time, and he’s still a card many decks have to 2-for-1 themselves in order to deal with.

Anger of the Gods was good, but Arc Lightning seems better.  Resolved Hornet Queens will always be unfortunate, but killing your own guys or playing around it is also fairly terrible.  RW Aggro already plays Arc, and its never been bad for me there, so I think the transition is easy.  Ryan Hipp was also playing Arc, and he’s almost always right when it comes to the metagame.

The counterspells were straight-business all day, and if anything I’d consider some hard counters.  Maybe a Dissolve or a Dissipate, just something to say no to everything.  There’s so many games where you get an early board presence backed up by counter-magic and your opponent is just stone dead.  This happened in my last Sultai Control match where I landed an early Seeker and Mantis Rider and then sat back with Negate and Disdainful Stroke in hand.  On that same note, I’d keep some number of Valorous Stances in post-board against Control, as it’s a useful in allowing you to not burn through your counters early and instead save them for tough threats like Ugin which can be one of the only breakers to a perfect board state.

As for how I sideboarded, I pretty much never cut Seeker of the Way or Mantis Rider, as I always wanted to have the potential for an Aggro start.  Rabblemaster usually got cut on the draw, or trimmed, Valorous Stance was mostly cut against Aggro, as was Jeskai Charm, and occasionally I would cut Sieges or Digs when they felt awkward.  I’m not wild about losing card advantage, as both cards are usually the difference in a game, but sometimes you just don’t want to be as top heavy or you want to max out on threats.  Again, not hard and fast rules here, just ways to throw your opponent off or out-game them.  Against Control, I’d cut Wild Slashes and a Strike or Two, with the exception being when you value having something against more rampy/delvy versions (to clear out early blockers).  Lastly, I’d almost always go at least a little bigger than game 1, since everyone is planning to Blastoise the hell out of your early game.

If Monastery Siege ends up being very poor in testing or not your thing, then more Dig Through Time or Jeskai Charms are probably correct.  I like the added burn damage that Charm presents, as well as having more ways to deal with Whisperwood Elemental.  That said, it can be the worst card at times, despite its flexibility.

The last note of the weekend was watching the closing moments of the SCG LA Open and Grand Prix Memphis.  I was sad to see Ben Stark lose in the finals, but his list for RW is what you should be playing hands down.  It’s extremely close to Ken Yukuhiro’s list which several in my area have been top 8’ing PTQs with, and one that I always found to be strong.  I’m a little remiss at the lack of creature threats, but Ben’s board plan more than makes up for it, and Mastery of the Unseen has potential to be a breakout card if things trend the way they did this weekend.  Chad White over on the SCG side stuck to the stock list for the most part, but he displayed why even playing mostly stock can get there.  His three copies of Brimaz are one of the things I’d think about moving over to Stark’s list, probably in favor of a singleton Outburst or Removal Spell.

The Future

The future of Magic for me looks murky at the moment.  There are no SCG Opens or Constructed Grand Prixes planned in the area for another 4 months, and the PPTQs just don’t feel the same.  I’ve spent a lot of money on the game, and it may be time to start switching gears.  I’ll probably try and do a few PPTQs in March, and keep my loyal readers updated, but I was really hoping this weekend would be that final breakthrough I’ve hoped and dreamed for.  I’m happy to top 8, and that’s still a huge accomplishment to me, but the thirst for the ultimate goal just gets stronger.

I’m sure as usual though the addiction of turning Mountains sideways will prevail.  Thank you all for your readership and support,

– Red Deck Winning

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4 thoughts on “Riding In Minneapolis, A PTQ Top 8

  1. Hey dude, great post, I’ve been playing a very similar deck to yours. I also looked at Matrtin’s deck article and he said he played cruise to overpower the r/w lists that he would see. However, I felt dig was a better option because you’d have better card selection and it could be played as an instant. I also upped the siege count to 2 in the main and opted not to play and grandmasters. I brought it to my FNM to test it out and went 3-1, beating sultai control 2-0, narset tokens 2-0, some homebrew abzan 2-0 and losing to soulflayer chromanticore 2-1 (if i topdecked a burn i would have won). The addition of monastery siege definitely seems interesting and I would love to see how that works for you. Congrats for the top 8. Btw how was your matchup against abzan midrange because i haven’t played that yet.

    • Abzan midrange matchup is pretty abysmal, ya gotta basically hope the counter spells get you there. Still working on that one

    • Yeago thanks for the tip, I don’t have editing enabled on my WordPress but may consider the purchase now that you mentioned this option

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