No, this isn’t an expose of Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 bid to become President, but the story of my Pro Tour: Ixalan meltdown is nearly as dramatic, with almost as many twists and turns, and a conspicuous lack of Russian meddling. My campaign to become a Pro Tour champion looked quite promising at the start, but (like with Mrs. Clinton’s campaign) a few things did not go according to plan, and I was left on the sidelines about as quickly as possible. To elaborate, while Pascal Maynard got delightful presents from the God-Pharaoh all the way to the finals of the tournament, I got nothing but coal (and a handful of non-competitive losses) in my stocking. The only question to answer here is, well, what happened?
The first order of business, and really the first decision any player makes for a Pro Tour, is the deck taken into battle. My choice, as made clear in my (somewhat embarrassing, in retrospect) article from last week, was none other than Dimir God-Pharaoh's Gift. The list shifted ever-so-slightly in the last few days leading into the event, but the 75 I registered ended up being essentially the same as the list I promoted heavily in last week’s article:
U/B God-Pharaoh?s Gift ? Ixalan Standard | Ben Friedman
- Creatures (27)
- 1 Trophy Mage
- 3 Minister of Inquiries
- 3 The Scarab God
- 4 Champion of Wits
- 4 Gifted Aetherborn
- 4 Hostage Taker
- 4 Kitesail Freebooter
- 4 Walking Ballista
- Instants (2)
- 2 Fatal Push
What a beauty. Even after playing badly (partially due to the mini-depression resulting from a 0-3 draft performance), she still looks beautiful to me, and I won’t hesitate to do this deck better at Grand Prix: Atlanta this weekend. Working with other members of the Team MGG conglomerate to fine-tune the deck was a pleasure, and I’ll be tweaking it in response to the new metagame as we round the next corner in Standard’s metagame.
That being said, it was not my Standard performance that sank the ship, but rather a string of bad beats in Draft that left me reeling mentally and unable to pick up the pieces in time to play better games after the changeover. Let’s start at the beginning, with the clock striking 9:00 AM in Albuquerque on Friday morning, and the first draft getting underway.
I was seated in a draft pod with Steve Rubin and Shouta Yasooka as the two big-name players, with Shouta on my left and Steve three seats to my right. The draft started with Steve opening (and revealing to all players) a Legion's Landing that he immediately slammed down, as I assumed he would. This interesting wrinkle that we only encounter during live draft play meant that it was clear to all players at our table that Steve would be trying to assemble Vampires, generally regarded as one of the best draft archetypes (as well as my preferred color combination in this format). I looked down at a pack that contained no truly powerful cards except for my own White rare, Bishop of Rebirth. This was occasion to sigh. Of course, theory dictates that I should take the Bishop and attempt to make my own copy of the Vampires archetype, recognizing that the two players between me and Steve were highly likely to avoid playing those colors in deference to Steve’s obvious first pick.
With the timer ticking down and no truly compelling alternatives, I took the most powerful card in the hopes that the draft might unfold as I hoped, and that Steve and I might end up being the only drafters in at the table. A second-pick Wanted Scoundrels was a welcome addition, and in the third pack the only relevant card to was the narrow (but powerful) Anointed Deacon. I took it, hoping to gain some information in the next two packs about if my gambit would pay off.
Pick four, of course, came to me without a single White or Black card in the entire booster. Not one. The best card in the whole pack was Raging Swordtooth, a complete departure from the cards I had been picking, but a clear signal that a trainwreck was approaching this entire side of the table, and it might be very wise to jump the tracks with a beatdown deck. I took the Swordtooth over a Run Aground and not much else, and then saw a second pack with no strong White or Black cards, but with a late Tishana's Wayfinder (which I picked over a Sleek Schooner in an attempt to about-face and start cutting Green as hard as possible.) A Sure Strike, an Unfriendly Fire, a Grazing Whiptail, and a Tilonalli's Knight showed me that I was in the right place, and I felt absolutely vindicated about my leap of faith out of Vampires and into the open colors. In pack two, Shouta even passed me a Charging Monstrosaur, which made me giddy with anticipation, and in pack three I wheeled a second Raging Swordtooth for the full icing on the cake. For a guy who usually learns only one or two archetypes per Limited format, I felt nothing but pride at my ability to navigate a draft and take calculated risks that paid off. The deck was reasonable, though a bit heavy on 5-drops with two Swordtooths, a Monstrosaur, a Storm Fleet Pyromancer, and a pair of Unfriendly Fires at the top. Fortunately, I also picked up a Drover of the Mighty and a New Horizons to help accelerate out some of the powerful top-end, and the deck had a full six 2-drops to hold the fort until the more impactful cards could take over a game. I fully expected a 2-1, with 3-0 well within the realm of possibility . . .
Round one, Game 1, my opponent mulliganned on the play. I looked down at Mountain, Mountain, Forest, Commune with Dinosaurs, Drover of the Mighty, Sure Strike, Unfriendly Fire, and began salivating. I drew Deeproot Warrior, Communed for a Swordtooth, and watched my opponent lay down a second Mountain and pass right back. I drew another Unfriendly Fire and elected to play Deeproot Warrior rather than Drover of the Mighty, in case my opponent had a removal spell. They used a Lightning Strike and untapped and cast Fathom Fleet Firebrand, missing their land drop. Score! I untapped and drew New Horizons, choosing to play my land and a Drover of the Mighty instead of the enchantment, hoping that I might be able to get more use out of the Horizons’ +1/+1 counter later. My opponent played a Captain Lannery Storm and attacked me for four. No block. I untapped and drew a Dinosaur Stampede (admittedly, the worst card in my deck, but a worthy 24th spell that most opponents would not play around), electing to play my New Horizons to buff my Drover. The opponent untapped, played a fourth Mountain, and sent in his creatures. I thought for a long time, and eventually chose to block the Lannery Storm, knowing that if my opponent did have a trick in his back pocket, I would lose to it if I sucked up the nine damage here (pumping Lannery twice with two Treasures, using them and the four lands to pump Firebrand thrice). Imagine I went to seven, then untapped, failed to draw a land, and played a Swordtooth. I’d be dead to a Sure Strike or Vampire's Zeal. If the opponent did have Zeal or Strike, I’d rather make them use it then and there, stay up around eleven or twelve life, and hope to draw a land to start dropping fatties. In fact, they did have the Zeal, I drew a Storm Fleet Pyromancer, and I took a massive hit to the face to die the next turn.
Was this incorrect? Well, to be sure, if I had taken the damage, untapped, drawn a land, and then played the land and the Swordtooth to hold up a 4/4 and a 5/5 blocker, I would have probably been okay (unless the opponent had Sure Strike and Unfriendly Fire, or Imperial Aerosaur, in which case I would have probably lost). I think given the likelihood of them knocking me down to eight, playing a third creature, and then having a trick or some reach to push through the last few points of damage was relatively high. In the end, it didn’t much matter which line I took, as I would have failed to draw the necessary land and been dead even if I had held back the Drover to cast the Swordtooth the next turn, but this would end up being my last relevant decision in the whole draft.
Game 2 saw me keep Forest, Forest, Mountain, Firecannon Blast, Charging Monstrosaur, Emperor's Vanguard, Dinosaur Stampede. This is just about at the bottom of my keep range, but the fact that it had both colors of mana, the best card in my deck, and a removal spell that would work if I drew one of my nine Red sources left in the deck led me to keep it. Additionally, I was on the play, and mulliganning a serviceable hand on the play is just not a winning recipe in most Limited formats. As it ended up, I did not draw a fourth land (or a Commune with Dinosaurs, or a Drover of the Mighty, or a New Horizons, or a castable creature) until turn six, at which point I was dead. What a way to go out! That was about as demoralizing as it could get for the first round, but Round Two was even more demoralizing, as I suffered from a mulligan to five + color screw game followed by a dramatic mana flood game against a very, very bad deck scraped together from the chaff behind Steve Rubin’s great deck.
Round three saw me suffer another mulligan + keep speculative hand + don’t get there game and then a loss to the curve of Wanted Scoundrels into Pirate's Cutlass, which basically left me numb for the next hour or so. I have never, in twenty-five Pro Tours, been so non-competitive in so many games in a row. It shakes one’s confidence to lose that much, even knowing consciously that sometimes variance swings hard in an unfortunate direction. I picked myself up enough to cobble together a win against an even more distraught opponent in the fourth round, but I knew I wasn’t playing my best Magic. I followed up with loss to Martin Muller when he topdecked a removal spell that I could have (and probably should have) played around, then got manascrewed in the second game, and by that point I was little more than a punching bag for my Round 6 opponent. I was out of the tournament before I even knew what had happened.
I tell you this sad story not out of a desire to arouse your pity (though pity is always welcome), but to give a small glimpse into the mind of a man who invested a lot emotionally into a tournament, who expected to perform well on the back of a thorough understanding of both Limited and Standard, and who got rattled by a streak of bad beats that left him completely incapable of battling back. Compare my story to that of our World Champion, Huey Jensen, who started off this tournament with the same 1-4 record as me, but stayed cool and collected and ended up with a stellar record of 11-5. Going 10-1 after starting off 1-4 is a remarkable testament to his mental game, and one that I hope to emulate moving forward. Generally speaking, I don’t invest quite as much psychologically in a single tournament performance as I did in this specific tournament, but it is clear now that such an investment can backfire when an initial bout of bad luck snowballs into self-doubt and self-pity. Usually, I am significantly more detached from an individual tournament’s results, but often that type of “Pro Tour Zen” leaves me uninspired and not scrapping to pull wins out of the jaws of defeat. The key seems to be a balance, where a fierce competitive spirit is not dampened by a few bad beats, and that is my biggest mental goal for Magic in 2018.
What happened at Pro Tour Ixalan? I wanted badly to break through to a first career Top 8, and I invested time into preparing for Limited and Constructed metagames I thought I’d be able to crack. That is something that any true competitor should strive to do, but in the process I allowed myself to become too attached to my initial results, and the astonishing rout I experienced in the first three rounds poisoned my ability to think clearly and to play well. Next time, of course, I hope to not suffer such a bad run in the first few rounds, but my goal will be to pick myself up and put that behind me in case it does come to pass again. The parallel lesson extends to all fields of competition, including, yes, politics. Reflecting on “What Happened” is fine for a brief time after a defeat, but it’s high time to start thinking about what is, and what will happen, and how to improve for the next contest. That being said, I’ll see you all at GP Atlanta this weekend, with a fresh take on Gift to bring me back into the winners’ circle!