Luis Scott-Vargas is no stranger to winning having captained last year's U.S. National Team and hoisted a trophy when the Grand Prix circuit visited his home state of California. Shockingly, he was a stranger to the so-called Sunday Stage of the Pro Tour having never emerged from the Swiss rounds with even a single-digit finish. Top 32 was familiar territory but the Top 8 eluded him until this past weekend in Berlin.
Once he got there it looked like a quick exit was looming as he fell into a two-game hole against Kenny Öberg and the Tezzerator but as Luis continued to tinker with his sideboard strategy he finally added all the copies of his Umezawa's Jittes to his deck transforming the blazing fast Grapeshot Elves from combo deck to green beatdown deck. Luis came back to win three straight games and then went through the same emotional rollercoaster in the semifinals against five-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor and reigning Player of the Year Tomoharu Saito. He did not need any extra games in the finals as he dispatched his opponent Matej Zatlkaj in the minimum number of games and a total of roughly nine turns during the match.
I caught up with Luis by phone after we had both returned to our respective coasts and interviewed him about his breakthrough performance, his version of Elfball versus the other versions in the Top 8, and what it was like to work with the Super Team that included Paul Cheon, Manuel Bucher, Patrick Chapin, the Ruels, and the Guillaumes (Matignon and Wafo Tapa).
BDM: When did you start working with the "superteam" and how did that come about?
Luis: When I went to Grand Prix–Rimini we met up with the people who were going to be involved. The plan we made was that everyone would test with their local players or do their normal testing and then we would meet in Berlin about two weeks ahead of time and at that time start testing as a group. That way, because we were fragmented at first, we didn't have any sort of inbred metagame. Everyone had different ideas and we would combine and see what we came up with. In the beginning Paul was testing with his roommate. I was testing with the guys who were qualified here [in California] and then we all met up in Berlin.
BDM: You have to feel like that worked out brilliantly, I would guess.
Luis: Part of the idea of meeting somewhere that wasn't home was that we didn't have any distractions. We can't just go online and waste time there—we don't have our normal patterns to fall back on. We were all in a hostel and really besides ping pong and chess tables there was nothing else to do [but playtest] so we just did it. When you're at home it's very easy to test for two hours and then start watching TV and not do any more.
BDM: When you were approaching the new Extended format what were the key card changes in your mind; whether they were rotations, bannings, or the additions from new sets?
Luis: Dredge for the most part was gone which opened up a lot of sideboard spots. One thing we noticed was that creatures were really good be they Wild Nacatl, Dark Confidant, or Tarmogoyf. The removal spells—the control spells—were all really bad. The only good counterspell you have is Spell Snare and the only good removal spell was Engineered Explosives. Our natural tendency was to play some kind of blue control deck but we found that it was an uphill battle just to begin with. Not having Sensei's Divining Top or the card Counterspell made it so that strategy was just a lot weaker.
BDM: So what did your early playtesting gauntlet look like?
Luis: The old Extended format of last year had a lot of viable decks and one of the legs of the format was the blue control deck. Sensei's Divining Top's banning by itself knocked that deck out. Dredge was gone too so those two pillars of the format were gone leaving you Affinity, Zoo, and Storm combo. Initially those were the only decks that I thought were tier-one viable.
The only deck we were really, really concerned about beating was Zoo. If your deck couldn't beat Zoo there was no point in bringing it to the tournament. The other decks were decks we would play against once we established that it could beat Zoo. Most people—when they estimate percentages of decks going into the tournament—are always high. Pretty much everyone we talked to and all of us thought Zoo was going to be 25% to 30% of the field and if I recall it really was 30% of the starting field.
We drastically underestimated the amount of Elves that were going to show up. It was kind of an odd situation where everyone had the deck but no one was talking about it because they were hoping no one else had it.
BDM: Apparently all the different groups that ended up with the Elf deck can point back to the same list from the same website that did fairly well. Is that where you guys found it?
Luis: The original list had Coat of Arms and Taunting Elf and stuff and those cards are obviously not good enough. I think that is what helped camouflage the deck but I think a lot of different groups of people saw the main engine and either goldfished with it some or recognized the engine for what it was. They saw how broken it was and kind of went from there.
Luis: It seems kind of absurd but the fact is that the deck can and does kill on turn two and reliably kills on turn three. I don't know what the average kill turn is for the deck but I would have to guess that it is somewhere between three and four—and on the lower side of three. That's pretty fast.
BDM: What turns were other decks "going off" based on your testing?
Luis: Initially, TEPS was one of the decks we were considering and Zoo would kill turn four every single game. Between Nacatl and Tribal Flames it was a very reliable turn four kill and Affinity was pretty similar to that. They were both turn four decks. We got our TEPS decks to about turn three but it pretty much could not handle any disruption at that point.
BDM: Would All-In Elves—or any of the Elfball decks—have been able to exist alongside Sensei's Divining Top if it was still legal in the format?
Luis: It wouldn't be "not viable" but it would certainly not be as good as it is. It would be way, way worse. The fact that it can't beat an active Counterbalance plus Top plus the fact that the Counterbalance deck would naturally play a couple of Engineered Explosives—and if Elves were big it would go up to four—is going to be enough by themselves to eradicate Elves.
BDM: When did the Elfball deck first pop up on your radar and how long before the tournament did you know you would be playing it?
Luis: Basically Manuel B and Olivier first put it together and when we showed up in Berlin they had it and we started testing it. We actually didn't bring any of the cards for it so I had to have my roommate bring the cards when he showed up later. Pat, Paul, and I were involved from about nine days before the tournament. I don't know exactly how long before that they had it but I think it was like a week before that.
BDM: A lot of attention was paid to the fact that your group did not have Wirewood Hivemaster, Essence Warden, or Chord of Calling. Were those cards you guys missed or cards you decided not to play with?
Luis: We knew about them and made a pretty conscious decision not to play them – Hivemaster and in particular Essence Warden. Essence Warden is a card that I don't think is good in the deck at all. They don't speed up your combo at all. They kind of delay your opponent from killing you but if Zoo kills all your creatures they're just going to eventually kill you. Hivemaster is good in the sense that if you don't end up killing them right away it can spot you a bunch of tokens. It's actually still pretty good but Essence Warden wasn't a card we were very impressed with. Chord also seemed like a slower card and we just tried to make our deck as fast as possible. It was maybe not as resilient as some of the other decks but I think it pretty much accomplished what we wanted to which was to ignore the opponent and just try to kill them.
Mirror Entity was not something we had really. We just did not know about the Mirror Entity/Symbiote thing. Predator Dragon was something we knew about but since we weren't playing Chord it just seemed worse than Grapeshot. If I had known there were going to be so many Elf decks I probably would have played Brain Freeze instead of Grapeshot because it sidesteps Essence Warden. But even with Essence Warden/Hivemaster you get to kill them with Eternal Witness/Grapeshot unless they have three of them out. If they have any number less than three you, at some point, kill their Essence Warden with Grapeshot and then cast all your Glimpses, all your Weird Harvests, and all your Summoner's Pacts, and then Witness back Grapeshot and it should be enough.
BDM: Do you think the deck is truly good or were people just unprepared sideboard-wise? Now that the deck is known, will it be bad for future Extended events like Worlds, and further down the road, PTQs?
Luis: I think Worlds is going to be the final testing ground. At this Pro Tour people were clearly not prepared enough. Some of the Zoo decks did not have Fanatic or Seal of Fire which makes them almost byes. Not enough people were playing cards like Chalice or Explosives in the numbers they needed to. If at Worlds with people fully aware Elves still does really well, which it certainly has the capacity to, it will certainly get the axe—or at least some of it.
BDM: How long ago did you guys settle on the list you ended up playing? What were the final decisions that needed to be made?
Luis: The main deck was settled a number of days before the tournament which is a long time in the whole testing realm and then the sideboard was—as usual—the final thing. Even then we had most of the sideboard figured out a couple of days before the tournament. We thought TEPS was going to be a little more represented. I still managed to play three in the Swiss, which is a fair amount to play against one archetype. We settled on the four Thoughtseize and the two Thorns pretty early on. The rest was mostly trying to find the best plan against Zoo. We went through a lot of different iterations but we found Jittes to be the best. Jitte gave us a pretty good shot to beat other decks just by attacking.
BDM: You said in our deck tech segment that you did not care for the Nullmage Shepherd.
Luis: Obviously it was only a one-of so I wouldn't draw it that often but the fact that I never used Summoner's Pact to get it—or wanted to—says that it was not pulling its weight. The four Viridian Shamans were fantastic. I would probably play six if I could. It is funny because Krosan Grip looks like it does a lot of the same thing but between Summoner's Pact and Symbiote, the Shaman has so much value in the deck. It can carry a Jitte—it can do a lot of different things.
BDM: I have to admit that I was semi-shocked to realize that you did not have a PT Top 8 before this event. What was your closest finish previous to this?
Luis: It was London where I could have drawn into ninth or played for Top 8 and I obviously played for it because it seemed like the logical thing to do and I ended up getting decked by Hinder.
BDM: I remember that match vividly. You were playing against Tomi Walamies and the game literally came down to the last card to determine who would advance to the Top 8. Did you think it would take this long to break through that glass ceiling?
Luis: I was actually worried up until now that that was the closest I would have gotten—that it was my shot at it. Pro Tours have not gone as well as I would have liked. After that I Top 32'd a bunch of Pro Tours—Geneva and Yokohama. In all those cases I was not really in Top 8 contention for a number of rounds before that. A lot of times it would seem like I would make Day Two with two losses then pick up enough losses so I was out of contention at some point and then win my last three or four rounds to still Top 32. That feels very different than being in contention and then losing.
BDM: After you picked up your fourth loss what did you think your chances were of finally making it into the Top 8?
Luis: The last couple of rounds were really stressful. I was 11-3 and if I won my next round I could draw into Top 8. Thaler just crushed me. He won the die roll and killed me on turn three when I had the turn three. In Game 2 I mulled to a four card/no land hand and he Thoughtseized me so that game wasn't close either. Then I actually thought I was out of contention. It was such a big Pro Tour that I did not think that X-4 would make it—or at least not more than one.
When standings went up and I was in 9th playing against the 10th place guy, it seemed like I was in if I won. So then when I won my round and found out that because two players got scooped in I was not in unless Kenny Öberg won. He was going to Game 3 with five minutes left. At that point Olivier and I went out to get a drink so we didn't have to watch it. It was pretty stressful. Even when people were telling me I was in, I did not believe it until they actually announced it.
BDM: Does the possibility of finally breaking through affect you at all or are you able to—somehow—set that aside and simply play Magic?
Luis: I just played. I have come to the conclusion that worrying about the results of your matches is just not productive. I would like to think that even when I was down 0-2 in the Top 8 and Top 4 I didn't change what I was doing because I thought what I was doing was right. It wouldn't help me to change my attitude at all.
BDM: Your attitude may not have changed but you tinkered with your sideboard plan throughout that match. You had told me during the lunch break that you did not even intend to bring in Jittes against Oberg and then brought in two, then three, and finally by Game 4 had the full set of four. That was a big part of you defeating him.
Luis: I am lucky that the Top 8 matches are three out of five. It gives you more time to play with your sideboard. If Kenny had brought in Ancient Grudges—and I think he brought them in for Game 5—earlier it could have made a significant difference. In the Top 8 the Elf decks did not have a lot of room to play around with their sideboards in the mirror but against Kenny I changed my sideboard gradually throughout the match.
- Firestarter: Which Elf Would You Bring to the Ball?
There were three different builds of the Elf deck that made it through to Sunday—and even more versions that were played in the Swiss. Which version would you be bringing to a PTQ if you could play tomorrow? Head to the forums to share your thoughts on the different builds the Extended format has to offer and to congratulate Pro Tour–Berlin Champion Luis Scott-Vargas.