One of the recurring themes of this column is the ongoing struggle of players to get from one level to the next. I often talk to PTQ winners about their tournaments and how they'll prepare for the Pro Tour. It is not uncommon for me to look at the top regular players on the Pro Tour who have yet to reach a Top 8 at that level—notable people in those articles over the last couple of years include Owen Turtenwald, Reid Duke, Gerry Thompson, Ivan Floch, and Ari Lax. Recently, I have been looking more at players who are posting solid GP results and hoping to break out on the Pro Tour stage.
One, 28-year-old Seattle transplant Eric Pei, just qualified for his second Pro Tour in three Grand Prix attempts with his Top 4 finish at Grand Prix Los Angeles. He had previously qualified for Pro Tour Journey into Nyx with a 3rd-place finish at Grand Prix Sacramento. Pei (in a refreshing change from so many of the people who I interview in this column, who have been playing Magic since they were Kindergarten age) has only been playing the game for a handful of years.
"I started playing at the end of Rise of Eldrazi, when one of my friends brought a box to my workplace to draft," said the two-time GP Top 8 competitor. "My good friend Brett Parise is the perfect motivator to get better. I never ever want to lose to that guy."
Parise needs to get on the motivational speaking circuit because, just a couple of years later, Pei was cruising into the Top 8 of Grand Prix Sacramento playing Theros Limited. It qualified him for his first Pro Tour, which was to be Block Constructed. He would end up preparing for that event with the person who finished one spot ahead of him in that Grand Prix.
"I actually tested primarily with Phil Yam for the Constructed portion of that Pro Tour and Team Magic Traders for the Limited portion. Phil was a great test partner, but there is only so much our small team could do. Brett Parise, Jimmy Dela Cruz, and Joseph Pei all helped out and Joseph got me to last minute audible into the masterpiece I ended up playing for that Pro Tour. I believe I had the best Constructed deck in the room and could have finished much better if I had simply played better." Pei saw some similarities between his Block Constructed deck and the Standard deck Ari Lax won with in Hawaii just two weeks ago.
I was curious about the impact of Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir on his Grand Prix decklist. There were not many streamlined mono-red decks with plenty of one-drop creatures to be found in Hawaii, and certainly none in the Top 8. Tom Ross did win a State Championship that same weekend playing the deck that inspired Pei, who felt that the results from Hawaii left the door wide open for a horde of screaming Goblins to rush through.
"I knew right off I did not want to play Jeskai in a world full of Siege Rhinos. I was not interested in making a 'big' Jeskai list to trump other Jeskai decks. I considered Abzan, but my brother claimed that one and we don't have enough cards for two Abzan decks," admitted Pei. But card availability was not the deciding factor. "Green-Black Devotion was notably absent and that is the worst matchup for Mono-Red. Anger of the Gods and Drown in Sorrow were very poorly positioned in that Top 8 as well. I expected decks to trim not only those, but other two-mana removal spells (such as Bile Blight). I believe it was just a good metagame call."
Pei now finds himself qualified to play in his second Pro Tour. He has proven himself capable of swimming on the deep end of the GP pool in both Standard and Limited and has posted a positive record in Block Constructed at his first Pro Tour. He was understandably reserved about the format he faces at Pro Tour Fate Reforged.
"Modern is a different animal. We will see."
Pei recently moved from the Bay Area to Seattle and I had to wonder what impact being uprooted from your play network while finding and settling into a new one had as you gear up your Magic career.
"The move itself went very smoothly and didn't affect much at all," said Pei, who was without his normal network of players for Grand Prix Los Angeles. "Magic players are used to travel all the time! That being said, Magic in the Bay Area and Magic in Seattle is quite different. Seattle has great Legacy players, but the Modern/Limited/Standard scene in the Bay Area is significantly stronger. I decided to rely on Magic Online and theory-crafting to prepare for this tournament. And, of course, Tom Ross's decklist."
Speaking of Legacy...
I will be hopping on a train early this Saturday morning and making my way to the Philadelphia Convention Center. While you might assume I was doing this just to get a DiNic's Roast Pork Sandwich, I am actually heading there to be part of the commentary team for Eternal Weekend. Joining me throughout the weekend will be an impressive roster of Eternal masters, such as Chris Pikula and Pro Tour Hall of Famers Bob Maher and Randy Buehler.
Saturday is the Legacy Championship and Sunday will be the Vintage Championship. The prize for each event is a stunning new original art piece for the winner. The Legacy Champion will receive Gaea's Cradle and the Vintage winner walks away with new art for Mox Pearl. While we get to see plenty of face-to-face Legacy being played each weekend at the Open Series, it is rare to see face-to-face Vintage played for such high stakes. Randy Buehler has been doing his best to change that with the Vintage Super League, which streams Vintage on Magic Online every Tuesday, with the format's best players going at it in round-robin style. I turned to him for a quick Q&A about what to expect if you tune in to the coverage this weekend.
BDM: What was the last set to have as big an impact on Eternal formats as Khans of Tarkir ?
Buehler: We haven't seen this big a shake-up to Vintage since Mental Misstep was printed in New Phyrexia, and before that you'd have to go back to Lodestone Golem showing up in Worldwake. We've only seen Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time in the Vintage Super League, but Treasure Cruise alone is having a big enough impact that folks are starting to wonder how long it will be legal to play with four of them.
BDM: Do you know if any of the VSL competitors will be playing in the Eternal Championships?
Buehler: Over half the league will be in attendance this weekend. Steve [Menendian], Rich [Shay], Bob [Maher], and Dave [Williams] are all competing in Sunday's Vintage championship while Chris [Pikula] and I will be in the booth doing commentary. Meanwhile, for Saturday's Legacy championship, Bob will be joining us in the booth.
BDM: Can you give us a quick lay of the land for Vintage? We don't usually get a chance to see face-to-face Vintage getting played live, what should we expect?
Buehler: The best deck is probably a Mishra's Workshop deck. That archetype has been underplayed in VSL because the game plan of just locking the opponent out of ever casting any spells—with plays like turn-one Lodestone Golem—isn't exactly a fun or interactive way to play Magic, but that doesn't make it any less effective.
The scariest deck is probably Dredge. Bazaar of Bagdad allows the deck to fill its graveyard and win the game as early as turn two, but everyone knows they need to devote at least half their sideboard to beating Dredge, so it rarely actually wins big events.
Meanwhile, there are a ton of ways to build good blue decks, ranging from three-color Mana Drain decks to aggressive Merfolk decks (and it was a "Fish" deck that took 1st last year). All will include Force of Will and Mental Misstep, and there should be enough of this running around that you won't see many first-turn kills or many combo decks making a run at Top 8.
The new hotness is definitely the two delve cards from Khans. Treasure Cruise is the easier one to use—you just stick it into an aggressive Delver and/or Young Pyromancer shell, season to taste with Gush and possibly Fastbond, and you know your deck will be good. Dig Through Time seems to me to be the more powerful effect, though, so if someone can figure out a good way to break it that person might get to walk away with the title.
BDM: Legacy is much more explored. What are you expecting to see from the format and who do you expect on the top tables?
Buehler: We'll definitely see a lot of Delver with Treasure Cruise. This is another format where I am eager to see if anyone can break Dig Through Time, maybe in a combo deck like Sneak and Show or even my personal favorite—Omni-Tell—which cheats Omniscience into play using either Show and Tell or Dream Halls so it can then cast Enter the Infinite...the little kid dream of having your entire library in your hand while all your spells are free is a real thing in Legacy!
BDM: Give me a bold prediction for the weekend.
Buehler: Newly minted Pro Tour Champion Ari Lax defends the Legacy Championship title he won at last year's Eternal Weekend.
Unfinished Business: September Player of the Month (#MTGPoM)
Congratulations to Grand Prix Salt Lake City Champion Brandon Nelson on being the Magic Player of the Month in September. In the whirlwind of the Hall of Fame induction ceremony and Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, the announcement got lost in the shuffle and I apologize to the Minnesotan Magic player who waited through a string of near misses before finally breaking through into a star-studded Top 8 and emerging with the first trophy at an major event in his career.