In the last PTQ I played, I ended one victory short of Top 8-ing an online PTQ with more than 400 players. While the stakes haven't changed (we're still hunting the Blue Envelope!), several other things were different for my next shot at it, this past weekend: first of all, the PTQ was not online but in a real, live store. This also meant that there were less participants, though we were still 160-something players. This meant that there would be one less round of swiss than last time (no ninth round) before the cut to top eight. There is also the possibility of draws that does not exist on MTGO, making it harder to predict the record necessary to make top eight. Perhaps the 6-1s can draw in in the last round, and perhaps not. 6-2 was almost surely not going to cut it.
Oh, and the format was no longer M13 Sealed, but Return to Ravnica Sealed. The additional complexity from playing in an expert set is something I consider an advantage to the more skilled players and deckbuilders (among which I, perhaps arrogantly, count myself).
Waking up at 6.15 to drive to San Diego after judging a 5-round FNM last night without breakfast so that my friend (who was driving - and judging at the event) could make the judge call at 8.30 meant that I was in a less-than-perfect physical fighting shape, but I had known that from the start and it did not deter me. Neither was I concerned about the fact that Pro Tour Gatecrash overlaps with a concert (back in Denmark) for which I've already bought tickets with a friend. Someone else will benefit from that if I should make the cut. Giving yourself an excuse to lose is the first step on the path to actually losing.
The same goes for judging your Sealed pool prematurely. I sat opposite friend and fellow judge Chad Havas during the deck registration once the tournament had finally kicked off, and while both of us went through the process in silence, the people besides us seemed intent on discussing the power of the pools we had registered. The pool I had registered was by no means amazing, but it had some powerful cards. Chad commented that the pool he had opened seemed a little lackluster, and having gone through it during verification, I agreed with him. As fate would have it, the redistribution of pools had us passing the pools to our right three times, passing it across the table if we had no-one to our right. There was only one person to Chad's right - and I ended up with the "bad" pool that both Chad and I had been through already. I dived in to deckbuilding looking more carefully at the contents of the pool and determined to find the best deck in a pool that seemed to lack direction. This is the pool I was looking at:
Take a careful look over this pool. It should become apparent fairly quickly that Red is completely unable to be a main color, providing only a single creature, which makes the two powerful Rakdos uncommons (as well as the Keyrune) hard to play unless you couple Black (not a very deep color and one with some curve issues) with another color, Green being the obvious selection due to the five solid Golgari cards. If this had been a three-round tournament, I could see a Golgari deck with an overpopulated four-mana slot including Deadbridge Goliath and Desecration Demon, perhaps touching Red for Rakdos cards and some removal/burn or (more likely) touching White (easier because of the guildgate) just for the two Trostani's Judgments and possibly the Risen Sanctuary.
This was not, however, a three-round tournament, and I don't think that such a build would be near the top of the 160-man field in terms of power nor consistency. Azorius looked like a more promising build, sporting a Mythic bomb in Angel of Serenity and one of the most powerful rares in Supreme Verdict, a few powerful uncommons such as Soulsworn Spirit, Syncopate and Blustersquall, and a few standout commons in Hussar Patrol, Voidwielder and the two Trostani's Judgments. Beyond this, though, the card quality declined pretty sharply and while I would not call the pool "bad", Chad's impression of it as "unimpressive" was certainly not misplaced. "Impressiveness", however, is not necessarily the main characteristic of a "winning deck". Sometimes, you have to settle for something "solid". Realizing that none of my colors had the capacity to reliably pressure my opponents in the early game, I decided to focus firmly on the long game and ended up submitting this deck:
There are several things that might seem controversial about this build, but most of them are direct products of the focus of the deck: Fencing Ace, while inherently more powerful than cards like Armory Guard and (arguably) Seller of Songbirds, does not at all fit with the defensive plan of the deck and has literally no way of having its power increased. Runewing is unimpressive both as a blocker (replacing itself is not worth it if you are chump-blocking) and as an attacker (a 2/2 flier for four is unsatisfying). The inclusion of the "dorky" Street Sweeper as well as playing six spells at six or more mana only makes sense within the paradigm of playing for the late-game. Sometimes, having a 4/6 still standing after all is said and done is enough, even if you are at a measly 6 life to your opponent's 16. This top-heavy curve also necessitated putting in the 18th land (instead of the second Eyes in the Skies, the last card cut from the deck). The defensive speed of the deck might not be flawless, but a turn two Azorius Arrester can keep you from being overwhelmed very easily, and the four toughness of the Doorkeeper duo makes them exceptional blockers, while their ability gives the deck a way of beating decks that are as good as (or better than) the deck at controlling the game. Detaining an attacker with a turn 4 Soulsworn Spirit only to block with it and Dramatic Rescue it next turn in preparation for a Supreme Verdict might seem clumsy but forces an aggressive opponent to overextend and lose two or three cards on the deal in exchange for six to eight points of damage. Avenging Arrow is "clumsy" but can, ultimately, deal with everything that can hurt you, and having two unconditional answers for late-game bombs as well as a counterspell that works well on turn two as well as turn ten gives the deck the ability to maintain its lead in the late-game. The only relevant sideboard cards were Dispel (brought in one match against Cyclonic Rift) and Inspiration (which could replace Azorius Arrester in slow match-ups but seldom actually did so).
I won my first match against a slow-ish Golgari-centered Jund deck that sported a Necropolis Regent which I had to take a hit from in order to destroy with an Avenging Arrow in game one and which made my opponent keep a sketchy hand in game two where it came down too late to stop my aerial assault. My second match was against a Rakdos deck that got off to a fast start with Rix Maadi Guildmage into Dead Reveler in game one, using turn four to put down an Underworld Connections which I had to deal with if I wanted to win the late-game. I luckily had my Street Sweeper and played it as soon as possible instead of my Skywatch. My opponent attacked everything into it and I had to block the Guildmage (which was also a problem creature). A postcombat Mizzium Mortars devastated my board and left me unable to stabilize nor deal with the Connections. A similar scenario in game two (early pressure, Underworld Connections, overloaded Mizzium Mortars and a finishing Rakdos's Return for good measure) left me at 1-1, needing to win at least the next five and possibly a sixth round from there to make top eight.
I clenched my teeth and prepared for round three. I played against one of the players who had been sitting at the same table as me when registering, a very friendly woman who had brought her small daughter (who diligently kept life totals on her own little notepad - adorable!). She was running a Naya-color deck that had little action outside of a Grove of the Guardian that she got online in both game two (where I could not answer it) and game three (where I could), though she twice forgot to tap her creatures as part of the activation. I politely reminded her though I knew I should have called a judge on her if I was really that dedicated to winning. I ended up beating her in three games and decided that the last five rounds, I would not be that soft (I also didn't play against anyone else who brought their children, which made this easier!). I beat a very anonymous deck in round four and an insanely powerful one in round five (sporting an Armada Wurm, a Palisade Giant, Martial Law, a Pack Rat as well as his own Angel of Serenity), beat an Azorius mirror-match (though my opponent splashed Green) in round six by milling my opponent out while answering Blustersquall with Blustersquall and the Cyclonic Rift that had lost me game one with a saved-up Syncopate in game three. In round seven, my opponent got stuck on two Forests in game one but promptly destroyed me in game two on the back of triple Golgari Longlegs, and I eked out game three by letting him overextend into Supreme Verdict which he had not yet seen from me. Sitting at 6-1, I was excited at the possible prospect of being able to draw into Top 8. When the standings came up, two players were sitting undefeated at 19 points, with eight other people at 18 points. My tiebreakers had me at ninth place and my opponent at tenth. We would have to play it out.
This is perhaps the most brutal part of competing at PTQs: Though I had effectively been eliminating people from the tournament since my loss in round two, it somehow felt a lot harsher in the final round, against an opponent who, like me, had left the last match hoping he could be guaranteed a place at the draft table. Yet if you want that spot, if you really want it, you have to go through this. Playing for top eight at a large tournament is very much cutthroat Magic. You can like it or not, but you must get used to it if you want a seat at the top table after the swiss.
Suffice to say, I beat my opponent (who was playing Bant) in three games, the last one by milling him out while taking two damage a turn from a Vassal Soul, the ground being locked down and him frantically searching for the Collective Blessing that we both knew would instantly close out the game. During his last turn, with four cards left in his library, he had me at 4 and had still not drawn it, and I overloaded a Blustersquall before combat just to be sure of the victory. He extended his hand and wished me good luck.
I just got into my first PTQ Top 8!
I want to touch briefly on something before moving on to the draft. During the swiss rounds, I had called a judge in three of my eight rounds (and, as I touched on earlier, should have done so at least one other occasion). In my second round, my opponent was taking a little too long in making his moves. Having reminded him twice verbally and having lost game one in around 15 minutes, I called a judge on him and asked to watch for slow play a little into game two. I needed him to play faster if I were to win the two games before time. Being destroyed in a matter of minutes after the call did not change this, and my opponent went as far as thanking me for calling the judge on him. Don't be afraid to call a judge on someone if something is the matter.
This goes for yourself, too. During round five (against the ridiculous White-Black-Green deck), I pulled a stunt in game three where I Dramatic Rescued my detained Skyline Predator and immediately thereafter cast it to block an attacking flier and eat it. During my next turn, I realized I had forgot the life-gain from the Rescue. I wasted no time in calling the judge even though I was sitting at a somewhat comfortable 10 life. If you catch yourself making a mistake like that, call a judge. Not just because it might win you the game (that 2 life is definitely a relevant part of the spell's effect), but also because you'll grow better at the game and you'll feel better about it. I got a warning for Game Rules Violation and my opponent for Failure to Maintain Gamestate.
The last judge-call was in the final round of the swiss. I had cast an Isperia's Skywatch to detain my opponent's 5/5 Wayfaring Temple, which he had Aerial Predationed out of the way and he was now attempting to attack with said Temple. I could have - like in round two - merely reminded him that he was doing something wrong, but I have to admit, things were not looking that well in that game (I think it was game two, which I lost, but it might actually have been game 3) and I knew that the warning for Games Rules Violation that he would get could be upgraded to a Game Loss and seal the deal if he had received a warning any time prior to this round of the tournament (or if he committed the same mistake again later). But I also knew (and indeed, still know) that the warnings system is there to catch people who try to get away with these minor rule-breaks. Letting an opponent get away with this without a warning means letting him eliminate you or one of your friends in a tournament where he might already have gotten a warning. And letting people break the rules is bad for the game as a whole. Thinking not only of winning the game but of helping the game is essential to me: I want my eventual success at the game to be meaningful.
Cut to Top Eight!
Butterflies were fluttering in my stomach when I saw my name third from the top of standings after the final rounds of Swiss. I was excited, and I was tired, but through an exercise of willpower (at this point, I've been running for 14 hours on five hours of sleep, a breakfast bagel and a swig of water) I determined not to let it get to my head. I pushed concerns about logistics regarding getting the flight ticket accepted from Denmark (instead of California) should I win and other impracticalities like that off my mind. I also semi-consciously noticed that I did not feel a sensation of pride. I like to think this is a good thing. Thus focused, I went into the draft.
Opening my first pack, I saw a Teleportal in one of the uncommon slots and trash rare Counterflux towards the end of the pack, but after that, there was a foil card... And it was Mythic Rare. I browsed through the pack a second time and noticed that there was also a solid Izzet common (probably Goblin Electromancer or Frostburn Weird, but I don't remember). I looked back at the foil mythic rare. I separated it from the rest of the pack. I put down Jace, Architect of Thought face-down in front of me and took another look at the rest of the pack. I was passing a serious Izzet signal but could comfortably cut Blue and go into Azorius. Being passed a New Prahv Guildmage made me believe this was the right choice and I picked up a late Hussar Patrol as well as a couple of Cancels. In pack two, I opened an unimportant rare - I think it was a Pithing Needle that I took for the sideboard on the wheel and was passed another New Prahv Guildmage from the opposite direction - a good sign. I got another late Hussar Patrol but was barely at 10 creatures counting an unimpressive Phantom General going into pack three. The pack I opened was devoid of anything worth picking for Azorius, so I let myself hate-draft a (Vraska, The Unseen) that I knew I would have trouble dealing with. Luckily, I was passed a Skymark Roc, a third Hussar Patrol, and a few other creatures to fill out my curve during the later picks. This is how my 40 ended up looking:
I was fairly content with how this deck shaped up, though it could obviously have had a more efficient early-game and a more definitive late-game. I think it was extremely solid and would not be surprised if I walked into the quarterfinals with the best (or at least, most consistent) deck of the top eight.
In the quarterfinals, I faced a Rakdos deck that backed up attackers like Rakdos Shred-Freak and Gore-House Chainwalker with multiple Traitorous Instincts. Between my instant-speed Hussar Patrols and Dramatic Rescues this proved extremely inefficient, and in game one my opponent also had to attack through (or, at) an active Jace. I think I win this matchup nine times out of ten, and sure, I managed to pull off a 2-0 and be the first to advance to the quarterfinals. My opponent (who was #1 in the swiss standings) had been able to choose to go first, a privilege that I as third in the swiss would almost surely have for the next match.
Sure enough, my next opponent was sixth in the Swiss standings and turned out to be playing a Jund-colored deck that came off as very aggressive in game one, which I lost (I kept a hand of seven that I still think is right but which is a very close call - Judge's Familiar, Dramatic Rescue, Voidwielder, two Islands and two Plains, but proceeded to draw four lands straight). I took game two on the back of two Hussar Patrols and a well-timed Cancelling of a Stab Wound. In game three, my opponent got to play first and got in with a turn three Dreg Mangler. I played a turn three Seller of Songbirds and my opponent developed with a Wild Beastmaster. I chumped the Mangler with the Seller, buying time for my Voidwielder to come down and block it all day long, not wanting to remove it with my Avenging Arrow since the 1/4 could not hold off something scavenged with it, especially not the beastmaster. My opponent ended up attacking the Beastmaster and the Mangler into my Bird token, and forgot to announce his trigger. I traded with the beastmaster. I got my Voidwielder out there and bounced the Mangler (not very effective, but the only alternative was a Trestle Troll which did even less). I had fallen rather low (maybe to a Rakdos Keyrune? I can't remember) and was at five life. My opponent counted up his mana (7, including the Keyrune), and then sacrificed the Trestle Troll to Launch Party my only blocker and put me at three. Then, the Dreg Mangler came back in for the game.
I think I win that matchup six times out of ten, but it was not to be this time around. I am confident in my mulligan and play decisions though I do not claim to have played perfectly (very few people do, and even then only sporadically). The unconscious and fluent way I played this weekend felt like a symptom of player strength and I feel that my getting that far in the tournament supports that conclusion. I plan on attending another PTQ in Riverside two weeks from now and will definitely keep at the Hunt for the Blue Envelope.
Getting the most out of being practiced with the format (both the set - Return to Ravnica - and Sealed as a format) and in good "shape" mentally as well as being motivated - as I think I am - is important. Putting yourself in the position to win, even if your Sealed pool looks like an unlikely candidate, fighting on despite an early loss in the swiss and being confident in your decisions and abilities are all important to getting this far.
Looking back at my performance this weekend, I like the way Patrick Chapin put it in his book, Next Level Magic: "I am content, but never satisfied". The Hunt continues!