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The Gathering


Last year's 2022 North American Premodern Championship was the best Magic: The Gathering event I had attended in twenty-four years.

This year was its superior in nearly every way.

It is difficult to describe to someone who has never played Premodern just how much better it is than every other Magic: The Gathering format. But I'll try, using the deck that Dr. Flint Espil used to make Top 4 this year.

"The Bet"

Flint is one of the Princes of Premodern, a duo who hold sway over the Premodern Showdown Series (the "PSS"); a small, invitation-only, event that I was lucky enough to participate in last year. I made Flint a bet about how good my rw Lightning Rift deck would be in the PSS... And I ended up with lots of egg all over my face (and other assorted Flores-parts) on the way to the bottom finish. Losing the bet meant that Flint would be able to pick my LobsterCon deck.

After showing me his take on Fluctuator, he did, kindly, give me an out.

To many, Fluctuator is the simplest - maybe dumbest - sixty cards in the format. The "easy mode" way to win is to just land the card Fluctuator and then start cycling. Traditionally you can win outright on turn two, thanks to a solo Lotus Petal [that Flint plays in the sideboard].

When everything is coming up Espil, the Fluctuator deck feels close to deterministic. Almost everything cycles for two, so you just keep going until you hit more-or-less the last card of your library. Even the catalyst of its kill - Dromar's Cavern, the one untapped land source of colored mana - keeps your combo moving by returning a cycling land to your hand when you play it. You run out Songs of the Damned with 20+ creatures in the bin, make a ton of b, and end the game as Garfield intended.

Drain Life

More conventional Fluctuator decks run cards like Lotus Petal and Haunting Misery in the main; this gives them more angles and capabilities and options around hate. Flint cut both: His changes make the kinda sorta Mono-Blue deck a full turn slower at peak, but dramatically more consistent on specifically turn three. Almost any seven-card hand with Fluctuator will win on turn three uncontested. A seven-card keep can't typically be jammed up by drawing too many cards - Fluctuators, Lotuses, or kill spells - that slow the card draw process down. Even the "deliberately" more ponderous version of Fluctuator is the fastest deck in the format. Allegedly soft to permission (though you'd never know it from Flint's record), Fluctuator annihilates Burn, Elves, and almost any mid-range creature control strategy.

This specific build is a triumph of deck design. It's like the long-running cartoon The Simpsons at its best. On one level, anyone can laugh at a Homer "Doh!" Any competent player with the game plan can run out a turn two artifact and start discarding cards. But like The Simpsons at its best, Fluctuator really is the work of Harvard-educated geniuses... Or I guess in Flint's case, a Stanford Psychology professor.

Look at the creatures in this deck. There is a 3/4 creature for five mana. Isn't Barktide Mauler - a 4/4 creature for five mana - just better? Why might you opt for three power instead of four?

Sandbar Serpent
Barkhide Mauler

It's not like you want to be attacking very often, but there is only one reason why you'd really opt for the 4u over 4g version: It's Blue. Given that on one hand every single creature in the deck is exactly as good as every other creature, the main difference is simply that it reinforces the Misdirection-laden sideboard. This deck will go from the fastest combo deck in Premodern to an eight-Counterspell Stop Sign that can legitimately defend itself with little disruption to the primary engine. Misdirection is effectively Force of Will against an opposing Counterspell deck. Miscalculation has almost no deck-building cost: Miscalculation itself cycles.

If you're a serious deck designer, it's quite difficult to look at Flint's deck and see anything but a laudable work of cardboard engineering. Its strategic advantages are old hat... For anyone but the unfortunate Planeswalker across the table.

"How do you beat Fluctuator?"

"Easy," says whoever Level One. "Just side in Tormod's Crypt."

Is it easy?

Tormod's Crypt costs a whopping zero mana and is widely played in the format as a result.

"Just wait for them to play Songs of the Damned," continues Level One. "You respond by activating Tormod's Crypt and they will generate zero mana."

What is flabbergasting to me is that Level One here already knows Flint has drawn essentially his entire deck upon activating the Tormod's Crypt and yet doesn't realize he can just cast a second, sideboarded, Songs of the Damned in response.

It is difficult to describe to someone who has never played Premodern just how much better it is than every other Magic: The Gathering format. But I'll try. At some point during his long run to Top 4, Dr. Espil faced a Tormod's Crypt during his opponent's turn. He responded with Songs - inexplicably maybe, as he would have been unable to cast Drain Life. The opponent responded with a second Tormod's Crypt, which elicited - you guessed it - the second Songs. Then with loads and loads of mana in his pool, Flint played an instant speed Twilight's Call, with Miscalculation backup.

He then untapped and attacked for something like 50 damage.

I watched Flint force a uw player to Wrath away the Sandbar twins - Merfolk and Serpent - beating down, giving Espil the mana advantage necessary to land Fluctuator. Impressive? That wasn't anything.

Every round Flint won, he gave his opponents a signed Stabilizer! Because they'd have needed one, you know?


That, and for being unwitting cogs in the machinery of his silly bit, Flint bought 'em a beer.

I would have liked to watch Dr. Espil more, but I was over on the other side of the room during one of his pivotal rounds. I knew from the deafening roar that my friend had taken his Top 8 match, though. He's beloved.

Who was I watching?

My primary play-test partner for this one: Lanny Huang.

Lanny wrote Iron-Man vs. The Hulk, probably the best first article any aspiring Magic content creator has ever penned. It even got the seal of approval from one Luis Scott-Vargas!

Lanny was without reservation the single most prepared player in the entire Premodern community for this tournament. I am confident I play the most live paper Premodern of anyone on earth at present; and more than half of that is with Lanny. But he plays another 150% on top online, often with the best Premodern players around the country and the world via Magic Online's Casual Freeform rooms.

When Lanny made Top 8 this year - equaling my third place in 2022 - it was this weird moment. The world made sense. The world - the entire world - is so often random. You don't need me to tell you that bad things happen to good people. The worst people on earth can become the American President. Sometimes, you're manascrewed. But Lanny fighting through the Swiss, losing only to eventual Champion (and 1998 World Champion) Brian Selden, was like two LEGO bricks snapping hermetically into one another. At least for one day.

Lanny was playing his signature deck, Oath Parfait:

Those Scroll Racks, Enlightened Tutors, and Undiscovered Paradises belong to Our Hero BTW.

I've fought with Lanny publicly about the card Land Tax for several weeks. It's too good. Lanny and Rich Shay (another Parfait assassin) argue that there isn't enough data to say it's too good; while some others just argue that not everyone has $4,000 lying around for Mox Diamonds. If you only have three-and-change, you might want to get yours here at CoolStuffInc, saving 5% using Promo Code "Flores" though. Just saying.

Lanny's deck layers the synergies of Mox Diamond, Land Tax, and Scroll Rack to create a powerful draw engine - often seeing nine or more cards per turn for only one mana - while stunting the opponent's ability to play land or progress their own plan. Between four copies of Oath of Druids and four copies of Swords to Plowshares, it is extremely difficult to lose to creatures.

However I feel about the card Land Tax, I was still cheering for my friend in Top 8.

But his quarterfinals Game 3 looked terrible.

The opponent started on Goblin Lackey... And Lanny did not have Swords to Plowshares. He opened on Land Tax and followed up with Oath of Druids.

But before he could trigger either, literally the worst thing happened: Tranquil Domain. Wow, what a two-for-one. "Two-for-one" somehow seems insufficient in language. One Land Tax trigger is three cards. One Oath trigger at least one card.

Regardless: Goblin Lackey brought along a friend.

Lanny cast Enlightened Tutor on his upkeep for a second Oath of Druids.

It was met with Naturalize. Another two-for-one.

Another Lackey hit.

The third Enlightened Tutor-for-Oath stuck, and Lanny clung for dear life with Shard Phoenix.

But even Oath and Shard Phoenix barely cooperated. Lanny turned over Fire // Ice, Engineered Plague, the one Zuran Orb and the one Ivory Tower... But no Gaea's Blessing. An opposing Tormod's Crypt GOT. THEM. ALL. He lost the Phoenix, too. That meant Lanny would have to navigate an end game against a deck that could do 50+ haste damage in a single turn with no access to life gain and one kill spell total.

Balancing a game I'm honestly doing no justice here on a pin, Lanny managed to pull it out. The world made sense.

Remember how I said the world can be random?

One of Lanny's online testing partners is Tom Metelsky; arguably the most feared player in all the Premodern community. Tom narrowly missed winning the last PSS; but was victorious in a seemingly unwinnable Monthly final against consensus Red Deck master Aaron Dicks playing his signature Urza's Baubles. Not one man could probably have stopped Tom last weekend.

It took Five Guys.

On the way up, Tom, notable streamer fpawlusz ("Fran"), and I stopped at Five Guys Burgers and Fries for dinner. Of the three of us, only Tom was hapless enough to have eaten the lettuce. Lettuce! Even Homer Simpson would have known better ("You don't make friends with salad.") Tom ended up in the hospital! Hours later Fran - another of the strongest players at the event - was knocked out, literally, by a migraine headache after Round Two. Fran spent the next several hours sequestered in a darkened library while Day One rolled on.

But young Etai Kurtzman - the third leg of Hot Dog State University - met his mentor, Lanny Huang in the Top 4. While Fran was taken out by that migraine, Etai was repping his baby, uw 12/12.

Remember how I said the world is random? Etai was playing his first real Premodern event. In some sense, he is the anti-Lanny. Where Lanny had put in more work than any two other players combined, Etai was a complete newcomer. What he does have is a pedigree as a great player, with a Top 8 at MTG Vegas when The Gathering first returned after the pandemic.

"This was not my first 'first seed out of the Swiss'" he would later tell me.

uw 12/12 is Fran's evolution of the Mono-Blue 12/12 archetype. It has much the same core game plan. Pair Phyrexian Dreadnought with Stifle or Vision Charm. Put the opponent on a two-turn clock; usually with Counterspell protection. The addition of Meddling Mage makes it arguably the strongest deck in Premodern, at least in the abstract. Fran's deck is very slightly slower than Mono-Blue, but far more resilient. Naming "Swords to Plowshares," especially on the play, goes a long way toward beating its most predatory matchups. It can almost never lose against its more established Mono-Blue cousin.

The sideboard is a spider web of interlocking and overlapping subtleties. Two Last Breath? That's one more than the one Last Breath that Fran had figured out before the rest of the community. Usually uw 12/12 wants to play Meddling Mage on Swords to Plowshares... But what if the opponent responds with Meddling Mage on Phyrexian Dreadnought? If you're only on Swords to Plowshares it becomes a battle solely about 2/2s running into one another. Flash of Insight? You actually want to get this into the graveyard "for free" by discarding to an over-draw with Gush at some point in the middle turns. 12/12 has a bad reputation as a turn-two combo kill deck but it can actually grind out long games due to the extraordinarily low mana costs but high density of its cards. Flash of Insight is a mid-game instant speed Demonic Tutor when X=18 or so, which can find the one Brain Freeze or whatever you need to set up a perfect turn.

As I walked up toward the Feature Match podium to watch two of my friends and housemates battle for the honor of losing (again) to Brian Selden, Lanny looked over his shoulder and told me he had reversed his position on Land Tax.

The world made sense.

I wrote about seeing 1998 World Champion Brian Selden for the first time in over twenty years last LobsterCon. He once cheered me up when I was super down. But despite my comparatively weak showing this year (4-2-2, both draws unintentional), I was all smiles.

That is the secret of The Gathering. I was genuinely happy for all my friends, even though I didn't repeat Top 8. And in the "the world makes sense" category, Brian beat me in the LandStill mirror in Round One.

I knew what he was on because we had chatted a bit in the weeks coming up to LobsterCon, and I knew I would be at a disadvantage. Principally, Tom Metelsky and I played only one Dust Bowl and only two copies of Decree of Justice. Our deck beats Elves and Red Decks consistently (Brian himself just lost in the Top 8 of the Spring Fling to Mono-Red)... But that one Dust Bowl and that one Decree of Justice present indescribable domination in a slow matchup where both players will see so many cards, and the killing threats are so few. One Dust Bowl can kill basically all your opponent's creature lands, so having twice as many not only increases your chances of doing that, it doubles your chances of catching the opponent's one Dust Bowl preemptively.

Brian followed up his MichaelJ mauling mercilessly: He was Lanny's only Swiss loss, then Etai's. He beat Flint in Top 4 and Etai again in the Finals. As a Pro Tour Champion-turned-Premodern dad who is active in all the Monthly events, he's a heck of an ambassador for the year.

Incidentally, how insane is it that none of my guys faced each other in Top 8, and all of them won their quarterfinals matches?

Would it be more or less insane than what happened Day Two?

"Jeez Mike, Who Would be Stupid Enough to Play The Rock?"

We got home super late from post-tournament dinner. And did what you're supposed to do at 2am. We play-tested more Premodern.

Patrick O'Halloran-Gannon ("POG"), unsung third of Hot Dog State University, stayed up testing David Tao's Hermit-FEB deck beyond the point that I petered out. Hermit-FEB is the most complicated deck in the history of Magic: The Gathering.

The number of different combinations and ways to win are myriad in this deck, and I won't do it justice. The easy mode is just getting Volrath's Shapeshifter in play with Survival of the Fittest, putting Phyrexian Devourer on top of your deck, giving the Shapeshifter 20 +1/+1 counters, discarding Triskelion, then killing your opponent in one shot.

How you get to that point often involves understanding the graveyard order of Great Whale and Unearth, not to mention just managing your life total with all lands that deal damage to you.

Why play such a hostile mana base?

There are many ways to activate a Hermit Druid. You can cast one. You can make a Shapeshifter into one. You use Shallow Grave to escape the violence of a Lava Dart for one critical turn. But all of them dump your library into your graveyard. This deck has no basic lands, so no matter how you get him on the battlefield, Hermit Druid has only one setting. Hermit FEB is one of the few decks that can fail - not fizzle, but fail - after you've successfully executed the combo. It's just so intricate.

Some lines ease into making your Shapeshifter into a Psychatog; you give it +2/+2 repeatedly by changing your graveyard order before the 'Tog eats itself, gives you an Angel on top, so that you are now attacking with the biggest vigilance flyer ever to rip past removal. Others where you start a multiple action turn with consecutive Karmic Guides (or Karmic Guide copies). See the one Coffin Purge? That's there exclusively to remove Volrath's Shapeshifter from the top of your own graveyard in the case that you have two Shapeshifters both copying Akroma, Angel of Wrath; but where The Legend Rule forces you to bury one. The dead "Akroma" will return to Shapeshifter-state as the top card of your graveyard; so you need that Coffin Purge to make the remaining Shapeshifter into a death machine again.

The MOST complicated. Fail, not fizzle.

But on Saturday, David did not fail.

LobsterCon is traditionally an Old School event. Premodern Championships were grafted on the Friday preceding only years later. Premodern is probably more popular now, but Saturday remains for the Old School players. The hardcore Premodern guys play in a smaller event. David started his championship run by going through Yours Truly Round One.

So as not to bury the lede, I won out, but had to take POG out along the way. The Top 8 included Fran, David, and me. In the Top 4 I was up against another regular of the New York scene, Spencer, who has a fully foiled out Elves deck. A not-foil Elves deck is over $5,000 even if you use promo code "Flores" so I'm not sure how many banks Spencer had to knock over for his. Spencer had finished 9th on breakers the day before, and was jones-ing to vindicate Elves in the Saturday event.

I won Game 1 largely due to Spencer's flood. He won Game 2 but it took an hour. Thank the Dealer for untimed rounds, am I right? Just this long slog of a game where I had dealt with Survival of the Fittest but he was discarding Squee, Goblin Nabob to Masticore every turn.

Having secured his spot in the Top 2, David approached the table and told me that it had been a childhood dream to face me in the finals of a large tournament. After the long Game 2 I simply "woke up". Fran LITERALLY started to play the Rocky theme on his phone as the crowd gathered around the last match.

"I'm sorry," I told Spencer. "I'm not playing for me any more. I'm playing for thirteen-year-old David Tao. You're ****ed."

Game 3 was the fastest game The Rock has ever won.

David beat me in the Finals using completely different combinations than he used to beat me in Round One. Given that the world makes sense now, that can mostly be chalked up to me being stupid enough to play The Rock.

I think I would have been less happy if I had actually proven victorious.

Post-Script: The Bit at the House

Flint Espil was not the only magician armed with a sick bit.

The house obviously performed insanely well. Two in the Top 4 on Day One; three in the Top 8 Day Two (both Finalists). We went out carousing afterward to hang with Aaron, Mano, the Princes of Premodern and infinite other mages and Planeswalkers who live far away. The kids Uber'd home early.

When we got to the kitchen in the wee hours, they were predictably at the play-test table. It warmed my heart! Like the night before, when POG was training up David, right? No. Not right. Not right AT ALL.

"Is that a companion?" I leered. "And a Ragavan approaching The Red Zone?"


If we weren't all in such good spirits (some of us also full of spirits), steam might have been coming from Our Hero's ears.

But it was a bit.

I learned later Etai had set it up, presumably just to bully me. Bigger win than Day One, that one.



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