One of the side effects of doing coverage and commentary is that I don't have as many opportunities to play Magic competitively as I did before I started this gig. I still draft whenever I can, but it is hard to get away for additional weekends to play in PTQs on top of working coverage for Grand Prix, Pro Tours, Nationals, and the odd convention during the year. I managed to find a clear weekend this past summer and tried to earn a spot for Pro Tour–Honolulu. I came up short but was able to stay through the bitter end to provide an anatomy of a PTQ, from the car ride to the final match, which saw Osyp Lebedowicz lose to Nick O'Connor. (Osyp would go on to win a spot the following weekend at Nationals.) I should be able to get in at least two PTQs over the break, and I am hoping for better results.
This article originally ran on July 24, 2009.
I recently realized that I had not played in a PTQ in almost a year—maybe even longer than that. I had been looking forward to playing in the Pro Tour–Kyoto qualifiers but the scheduling did not work out for me. Up until 2003 I would play in multiple Limited qualifiers a season, multiple team qualifiers, and more than a few Constructed ones. I would even qualify once in a blue moon. My last Pro Tour was Boston in 2003 when I played with Mike Flores and Tim McKenna in team Limited. We scrubbed out early in that one and ended up getting conscripted by the coverage team to help out. I have been to every Pro Tour but one—Kuala Lumpur, which I missed due to illness—doing feature match coverage, blogging, Twittering, introducing the game's greatest players as they are inducted into the Hall of Fame, providing video coverage from the Tournament Center, and ultimately commentating on Sundays alongside Hall of Famer Randy Buehler.
Its been a pretty amazing ride around the world and I can't wait to see what amazing places the Pro Tour will take me next year. Not that I wouldn't like to get there again riding the fabled blue envelope (back in the early days of the PTQ scene the paperwork for the invite was contained in a blue envelope, in case you ever wondered about the origins of that particular phrase). I decided that with the release of Magic 2010 I would play in the first Standard PTQ that was within easy traveling distance. In the past year the PTQ scene in my area has swelled from the mid 100's to the mid 200s. We even had one PTQ that crossed the 300-player mark this season. I wanted to dive in and see what the average Northeast PTQ was like and what went into pulling it together. Mike Errante is an event manager for Gray Matter Conventions and he agreed to keep some notes for me about the event so I could provide some additional insight about what it takes to get through a nine-round PTQ from both sides of the event registration table.
The biggest hurdle for me was in deciding what deck to play, and I looked at a lot of different lists, articles, and spoilers in advance of the event. I knew I didn't want to play Faeries because it seemed like it was too late to be showing up to that party. I did not think I could cram with the deck enough to catch up to players who have been grinding with some version of that deck for the past year. There seems to be a fusion of deck and pilot that I was not going to be able to match. Plus, it is not the type of deck I typically enjoy playing. Neither is Kithkin. I honestly should have played Combo Elves—or as I prefer to call it "Combo" Elves—but I was looking for a deck that I would really enjoy playing. I really liked the Walk Hard list, a Planeswalker control deck that ran 4 Time Warp, Savor the Moment, and Sleep, that Kyle Sanchez posted in his column and sent him an email looking for an updated list. He replied back and suggested the following deck instead:
It was love at first sight. Alright, maybe not first sight but once I made a turn three Garruk AND Jace I knew there was no other deck I would be playing. With a Martial Coup in hand, a turn-three Garruk represented a turn-five kill. It was also pretty easy to protect the combo (aka Garruk) with a Essence Scatter, Path to Exile, and Bant Charm on the turn you played him. And even better, I could test the deck on MTGO by swapping out Essence Scatters for Remove Souls and just forsaking the Gargoyle Castles. On the negative side I only had two days to pull together the cards I needed, playtest, and possibly make refinements to the deck. As it became apparent that Elves Combo was going to be a serious deck for the tournament Kyle suggested swapping some cards around and the decklist I wanted to register—provided I could find the cards once I got to the site—was as follows:
The change was mostly to the sideboard to take Elves into account. According to Kyle a well-aimed Silence after a Regal Force would let you untap and play one of your Wrath effects followed up by an Ethersworn Canonist. I ended up driving to the event with Paul Jordan, Gabe Carlton Barnes, about 40% of the cards I needed for my deck, and a box of stuff to trade to the dealers for Great Sable Stags, Gargoyle Castles, and Silences. For staple stuff that I was missing I was counting on borrowing some cards from friends. Paul was planning on playing the same Cascade deck that Mike Flores has been advocating—and was going to be playing. Gabe was playing Faeries and was toying with the idea of putting Time Warp in the deck. We got an early start—around 7:30 from near the Lincoln Tunnel—to head to the event with enough time for everyone to scramble for their cards.
The ride to the PTQ is one of my favorite Magic experiences and this ride did not disappoint. I am struggling to find one story or joke from the car ride that is in some way publishable but the best I can muster is that Gabe, Paul, and I will never look at a lamb chop quite the same way again.
While we were heading to the event so were hundreds of other players, a gaggle of judges, and the man who would be responsible for making sure the event went off without a hitch.
"The night before the event I pack the car so I don't need to do it in the morning. The less I have to rush in the morning the better," said Mike Errante of his pretournament prep. "In the morning I get up, grab some coffee, double-check the car for the essentials, and get a move on. Sometimes I have a judge from my area in the car with me, most times not. I'll usually run through the potential problems we may have just so I have some idea how to deal. This time it was thinking about how to order the tables in case we got more than the last PTQ this season. And how to give out the Jones soda that filled my car. I enjoy the promos that we get to give out as premiere organizers, this one was larger, heavier and more delicate than what we've had in the past."
Needless to say, Mike was the first person to arrive on site in Edison:
"I arrived an hour before the registration is supposed to open and unpacked the car with some of the judge staff, set up the computer, put out the registration materials, and got ready for the crowd. I like this part of the day. I get to interact, albeit briefly, with the players that I have been dealing with for years. The Magic friends list of my Facebook is a third longer than any other list that I have. A lot of them are people I met sitting behind a table taking money and checking DCI numbers."
After a brief stop for a 7-11 breakfast we pulled into the parking lot of the event just in time to help Mike unload the Jones Soda cases that had missed their delivery window for the M10 Prerelease. I made a beeline to a dealer's table and quickly laid claim to the M10 cards I needed, leaving my box of trade stuff for collateral. From there I began the search for a Hallowed Burial, Cloudthreshers, Garruk Wildspeaker, and a smattering of lands. Hallowed Burial was one of the hottest cards at the event and they were just not anywhere to be found. I ended up playing the deck listed above but with one fewer Burial in the main deck and one extra Martial Coup. It was close, but I just managed to complete the decklist thanks to Garret Schier, Brett Blackman, Matt Ferrando, Josh Ravitz, and Gabe. I was pretty excited to see how the deck would fare under actual game conditions. It was performing well as I played some test games out while the last of the players signed up, and Gabe seemed pretty enamored of the deck—what is not to like about being able to play Cryptic and Primal Command in the same deck? Every time I played the deck I seemed to learn something new about how to play it. That was good but it also concerned me that I was playing a deck I was still getting acquainted with. Despite that qualm I was excited about the prospect of playing tournament Magic as the judging staff made their way around the room with seating for the player's meeting.
For Mike, that moment when all the players get into their seats is one of the few lulls in what promises to be a very long day with over 270 players signed up—a number that could have easily crossed the 300 mark if it was not the M10 Launch Party weekend.
"Once the players are seated and the event is officially started I help check deck lists for errors so they are done by the start of the second round," said Mike. "Once that is done I take a breath or two since this in one of the few chances I get where I have relatively nothing to do. I'll chat with our vendors and any players that are done quickly and call Glen (the owner of Gray Matter Conventions) to let him know the player count and that nothing is on fire—or that the fire is out now in some cases. I'll figure out prize breakdown and then it's time for side events!"
For Round 1 of the event I was paired with Ethan Sturm who was playing Green-White Tokens. In the first game he came out fast with a pair of Steward of Valeron and managed to whittle my life total down as far as 6 before I climbed back up with a Primal Command. I was able to set up Garruk and Martial Coup and we moved onto Game 2. This game was the first time I got to witness the power of Kyle's trademark Arbiter of Knollridge as I went from 4 to 22 in one turn. I cleared Ethan's board of creatures, but he was gaining life from an Ajani while rebuilding his forces. I fell to 2 life but was able to hold out for a couple of turns with Cryptic Command and a Garruk on the table. When I drew the Martial Coup, Ethan just scooped in the face of 52 points of trample.
Round 2 I was paired with a player from my local group of players, Christian Calcano. Christian was playing Five-Color Blood and we had a three-game slugfest that I ended up winning behind an Empyrial Archangel despite him casting Bloodbraid Elf four times in Game 3. It helped that he flipped a Profane Command—a blank—on the last one.
I have always felt that the absolute weakest area of my Magic game comes during the decisions to mulligan or not. I mulliganed all three games we played and felt really good about having the fortitude to throw back some marginal hands that I am always tempted to keep simply because they have land and spells or could be good if I draw just one more land.
As the second round started to wind down, players began to drop from the event. With nine rounds of play on the docket, even if a 7-2 player made the Top 8 it wouldn't be someone who lost the first two rounds. Mike Errante's lull had come to an end.
"I start to take signups for drafts and 8-person Standard for a box for the next bunch of hours, all the while chatting with players as they get done with their matches," said Mike, who has heard more than his fair share of bad beat tales from across the registration desk. "I get a laugh when you ask someone how they are doing as a general life-type question and you get their current win-loss ratio and a summary of the last round's bad beat or fantastic smash. This lasts for hours since signups start Round 2 or 3 and last until Round 8—or 9 these last few events. I hope to grab lunch at some point during this. I'll cover for the scorekeeper if needed when they take lunch or just need to take a break."
As Round 3 started I saw I was paired with Phil Napoli, who seems like 50/50 to win any PTQ he is in. I knew from talking to him earlier in the day that he was playing Five-Color Control, and I girded myself for a long match. I mulliganed my opening hand and looked at a six-card hand that had two Fertile Grounds and one land. I sighed and decided that I would rather take the chance on drawing the land than go down to five cards and I had not drawn another land by the time a pair of 4/4 dragons hit the board a few turns later. Game 2 went more smoothly as I mulliganed a similar one-lander into a hand that saw me resolve a turn-three Jace and turn-four Garruk to ramp out Empyrial Archangel. Game 3 was my first really bad mistake of the tournament when I did not appreciate how dominating my Glen Elendra Archmage was against Phil's spell-heavy deck. I had one on the battlefield and decided to use one of its activations on an Esper Charm. Thinking I could win a turn later, I played Martial Coup only to have my team of tokens "put on the bottom of my library" with Hallowed Burial Phil was now able to clear my hand with another Esper Charm, Cruel Ultimatum me, and finally play Haunting Echoes to strip my deck of all but a pair of Essence Scatters. Had I drawn one of the two over the next two turns I still could have countered his Broodmate Dragon and won with Gargoyle Castle but it would have been much easier to win the game by just hiding behind my Glen Elendra Archmage. Lesson learned.
Next up for me was Matt Lackey playing Kithkin—a deck I saw on all sides of me at this point. Matt mauled me Game 1 with plays on his first four turns culminating in Ajani Goldmane, and we were right onto Game 2. Arbiter of Knollridge gained me 19 life in that game and I was able to find the pieces I needed to trample over for the win. In Game 3 my inexperience with the deck came home to roost. I was well behind in the game with an Arbiter of Knollridge in hand. I should have sequenced my plays to get the maximum number of turns out of playing the Arbiter, but I jumped the gun and played it while I still had a double-digit life total. I drew Martial Coup the next turn—a card I should have been biding my time for by holding off on the Arbiter until the last possible turn to reset my life to 20. I don't know if I would have won the game had I played it right but I certainly would have had a better shot at it. As it was, Matt's deck spit out three-for-one after three-for-one and Ajani closed the game out. I also realized after the game that I should have been siding in all my Cloudthreshers so I would have a way to deal not only with Spectral Procession but with Ajani Goldmane as well. Another lesson was learned but this time it was more costly as I was essentially eliminated from making the Top 8.
Prizes were being paid out to everyone with a 7-2 record or better and plenty of people were still slugging it out for prizes. I won my next round against David Rivera with Kithkin—thanks to a well-timed Cloudthresher in Game 3 that was better than a Cryptic Command, taking out tokens, blocking Figure of Destiny, and killing Ajani in one fell swoop. I lost against Five-Color Control a round later and dropped from the tournament to draft with some friends and wait for the Top 8 to start. I was disappointed but excited to have played in the tournament and learned more about the deck and the format along the way.
The tournament moved briskly toward the elimination rounds, and all but the last eight players and their friends began trickling out of the hall to make their way home as side events wound down with the Swiss rounds.
"Once the last round starts I get prizes set up," said Mike. "This event was bad since I really never expected to run twelve M10 drafts and two 8-person-for-a-box events that I gave out M10 for as prizes. That used up a good portion of the new core set everyone wanted so I didn't have enough to give out past Top 8 without being unfair in some way. Around now is when people stop by to thank us for running a good event and I always like that part. I give out prizes for the players outside of Top 8, pack up everything that we don't need, and then wait for Top 8 to get done. Some nights we get done early enough that I go out with some of the judges, vendors, and players for a late dinner. Other nights, like last night, it's straight home since it's technically tomorrow already."
Here was the Top 8 bracket after nine rounds of Swiss (You can find the Top 8 decklists here):
Nick O'Connor defeated Tim Landale to advance to the finals to play against Osyp's Combo Elves. Osyp had defeated another Kithkin player in Countryman during the semifinals and seemed poised to earn back-to-back invites to the Pro Tour at PTQs, but he fell in Game 3 to a double mulligan and an anti-Elves sideboard from O'Connor that included Unmakes and Ethersworn Canonists. Osyp was thwarted. O'Connor will be attending his first ever Pro Tour in Austin and assures he will not be sporting the twirlable mustache pictured here. It is an EBM—an Event-Based Mustache—that he has been growing for a friend's Western-themed wedding.
- U.S. Nationals: Freshly Ground Deck List
If you are a long-time Magic devotee, it is likely that the grinders at U.S. Nationals hold a special place in your heart. Long before there were Last Chance Qualifiers at Pro Tours, the so-called Meat Grinders that preceded U.S. Nationals were the only opportunity for an unqualified player to come to a big event and slug it out for a berth in that event. Back then the grinders were 256-person single-elimination monstrosities that qualified the last four people standing. There would be four or five of them over the course of the day. For a player lasting late into a tournament only to fall short, that result could be made all the more crushing by hearing the seating go up for the last grinder of the day before he had a chance to sign up.
Modern grinders are a lot more civilized, firing off any time 32 people sign up for either Standard or Sealed Deck. They are still single elimination but there are plenty of opportunities to play as there will be close to 30 events firing off before they come to an end. As of this writing Thursday afternoon, there were already 14 Standard Grinders firing off and another 7 Sealed with three hours left to go.
The first of those events just wrapped up and I had a chance to cover the match between Wisconsin's Matt Severa and an unknown opponent who may or may not have filled out his match result slip from the previous round incorrectly. As the players returned from meeting with the judges, crisis averted, I was not the least bit surprised to see none other than Adrian Sullivan sit down opposite Severa to battle for the first invite to be given away on the day. It turns out that Matt and Adrian had driven here together with Brian Kowal and Ben Rasmussen, who was seated to Adrian's right and trying to decide where his loyalties lay.
"I don't even get to root for anyone in this match," laughed Rasmussen who had opted for neutrality.
"You can root for me," Severa disagreed.
Adrian led off the game with Glacial Fortress and revealed that his deck was Merfolk when he cast Silvergill Adept flashing a Wake Thrasher on turn two. Matt was playing Elementals and parlayed Ancient Ziggurat and Reflecting Pool into Bloom Tender. Adrian cracked for two with his Adept but declined to play the Wake Thrasher, instead leaving mana open to cast Sage's Dousing when Matt attempted to summon Ranger of Eos. Adrian cracked for another two with the Adept and played the Wake Thrasher that had been previewed a couple turns back.
Severa had another Ranger waiting in the wings and it resolved into Soul Warden and Flamekin Harbinger. Matt only played the Soul Warden, having tapped all his lands for the Ranger. Adrian untapped into a 6/6 Thrasher and considered attacking with everyone—an everyone that included Mutavault—to activate his Windbrisk Heights from the previous turn. Instead he sent in only the Silvergill and Wake Thrasher. Matt nudged his Ranger in the path of the Adept and a carefully aimed Harm's Way took out Matt's Bloom Tender. Adrian played another Adept and Sygg, River Guide.
Matt played his Flamekin Harbinger and an Incandescent Soulstoke—going up to 14 from his Soul Warden—and passed the turn back to Adrian and his soon-to-be 7/7 Wake Thrasher. Adrian wasted no time attacking with everyone. Matt shrugged and put his Harbinger in the way of the Thrasher.
"That's all I have got," he deadpanned.
Adrian flipped a Merrow Reejerey out from under his Heights and used a Harm's Way to smoke the Soulstoke. Matt untapped for his next turn but his heart was not in it and the two players reached for their sideboards.
"There's the two players I drove up with," beamed Brian Kowal as he wandered up to see his carmates get ready for Game 2 and stand behind Matt Severa. Rasmussen took this as an endorsement of Severa and abandoned his previous neutral position.
"You can balance it out," said an obviously relieved Rasmussen who was waiting for his Limited grinder to get under way.
Matt could not keep his opening hand and Adrian announced he was fine with his. Matt kept his next six and they were off with Matt fetching Horde of Notions onto the top of his deck with Flamekin Harbinger. Turn two saw Bloom Tender for Matt. He chose not to play it on turn three, instead opting for a full-price Mulldrifter which gave Adrian an opportunity to summon a Meddling Mage and name Horde of Notions. Matt played Reveillark on the next turn but Adrian seemed to have the right answer every turn and he stole it with Sower of Temptation.
Matt's Ranger of Eos became Soul Warden and Harbinger, and the Harbinger promised Nameless Inversion on the next turn. Adrian was ready a turn later with Cryptic Command for the removal spell. He considered bouncing the Bloom Tender but eventually decided he would rather play with an extra card. Matt summoned a Mulldrifter and attacked with another. After combat he played Incandescent Soulstoke. Adrian cast Sleep to tap Matt's whole team and drop him to five. Matt hoped he could climb out of the hole by killing the Sower with Cloudthresher but Adrian had Harm's Way to save it and deal an extra two to his carmate.
Final result: Adrian Sullivan 2, Matt Severa 0
"Grinders!" laughed Adrian after the match when I asked him about the mystique of these events. "I have unfortunately been grinding more that I would like because if you are grinding then you are not qualified. Although these grinders are so much easier than they were back in the day."
I asked Adrian if playing in a single elimination event affected the choice of his deck.
"There is something different about having to win a single elimination deck. In a Swiss event you can afford a loss and can play a safer deck. In a grinder it pays to be willing to play decks that just beat people. Someone that has a great deck but has a loss...they're gone. It doesn't matter how good your deck was."
When asked how he arrived at his list for this event Adrian admitted to something borrowed, something blue, something old, and something new.
"It was a revelation looking at the Australian Top 8 lists—I think Aaron Nicoll may have misbuilt his deck slightly but Harm's Way is everything a Merfolk player could have ever wanted. Classically, if you have played Merfolk a lot you know that mono-red is an awful matchup. I put together my version of Aaron Nicoll's deck that I 'fixed' by making it more like Richard Feldman's States Merfolk decklist from earlier this year. I basically merged those two decks together and played a 20-set against mono-red and won like 90% of the games—and that was presideboard. How was a Merfolk deck winning 90% of the games against a four Volcanic Fallout deck? That kind of convinced me that this was something I could work with."
With a card like Harm's Way saving a Merfolk Sovereign or Merrow Reejerey from the Volcanic Fallout, the new white instant can often serve as a counterspell to keep the entire squad of merfolk around. The big change from Nicoll's list to Adrian's was the addition of the Wake Thrasher that had served so admirably in Feldman's version of the deck.
"The problem I had with Nicoll's deck was that it was too slow. Feldman's deck played more like Blue-green Madness when you drop that Wake Thrasher," Sullivan said.
Adrian pointed out that with the Reejerey he can often fool his opponent into thinking he can survive a hit from the Thrasher by untapping his lands as he plays out a series of creatures before attacking. Judging solely by those last couple of games the deck looked like it could be a formidable metagame call in the main event—especially since it has, according to Adrian, a great matchup against Elves.
- Firestarter: Druid To It
The Combo Elves deck has certainly made itself known within a few short days of M10's—and Elvish Archdruid's—release. It has to be the deck to beat this weekend as the Japanese who played it and Osyp all compared the speed and power of the deck to that of Affinity. How many Elvish Archdruids do you think will be in the Top 8 of U.S. Nationals this weekend? If I set the over/under at 15, which side of that bet would you take? What if I set it at 11? Share your thoughts in the forums—and good luck to everyone playing Nationals in France, Italy, the U.S., and anywhere else you might happen to be!