When the elimination bracket was done narrowing the last person standing was PTQ veteran Ari Lax. Ari's name last appeared in this column when Gavin Verhey—more on him shortly—gave him credit for the formation of Team Unknown Stars. Congratulations Ari and good luck in Kyoto. You can find all the Top 8 draft decks here. Normally, I would interview the winner but for this coming PTQ season I want to look forward to the Weeks That Will Be and try something a little different.
With the season—for the vast majority of us—kicking off in earnest this coming weekend, we are going to attempt to follow a small handful of players throughout the coming PTQs in their efforts to earn a spot at the first PT of the 2009 season. Who better to provide insight about qualifying for the highest level of competition than players who fight in the PTQ trenches and have earned more than just Top 8 pins for their efforts. The four players, scattered throughout the United States, have all been to the Pro Tour, a couple are even qualified for Berlin, and most have appeared in this column in the past.
Here are the participants:
Occupation: College Student
Current HQ/Hometown: Edmonds, Washington
Pro Tour Experience/Magic accomplishments: Top 16 at the 2005 & 2006 Junior Super Series Championship, Top 32 at the 2007 Magic Scholarship Series Championship, (about $8,000 in Magic scholarships total), 12 PTQ Top 8s with two wins, second at City Champs this year, two Regionals Top 8s with one qualification, forming Team Unknown Stars, and a ton of local and worldwide community building (many might know me better as "Lesurgo"), and my first Pro Tour will be Pro Tour–Berlin at the end of this month.
Favorite color/color combination and why: Any blue-based combination of color(s). When I play a blue deck, I get to play a strategic game that (hopefully) slowly shifts in my favor over time. I like having options in gameplay and almost always having cards in my hand just lends me more options. I dislike having to play pure beatdown (although I will do it if I think it's the best choice; I advocated Affinity for most of last Extended season) because it's almost like you play some threats, launch some burn spells, and hope that gets it done before the other deck does what it's trying to do, because now you're out of cards. Ironically, in Limited I love the goofy beatdown strategies though—thanks to Steve Sadin I don't think I ever passed a Skarrgan Pit-Skulk after that strategy debuted in Ravnica Block.
Favorite format: Booster Draft in Limited play, and either Standard or Extended in Constructed play.
Favorite card: Annex!
Favorite shard so far: Esper. While a very linear shard and probably not the best in this Limited format, I like how the shard works and feels while playing it.
Occupation: Higher education consultant
Current HQ/Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
Pro Tour Experience/Magic accomplishments: Attended PTs: London ('05), Los Angeles ('05), Prague ('06), Charleston ('06), Kobe ('06), San Diego ('07), with plans to attend Berlin in a month. GPs: 9th St. Louis ('06), 16th GP Indy ('08), numerous Day Twos and cash finishes.
Favorite color/color combination and why: Red. I like aggressive decks and burning people's faces.
Favorite format: Limited. I prefer Draft, but I'm better at Sealed.
Favorite card: Necropotence. From crap rare to refilling people's hands, to acting as a draw-engine for combo, Necropotence has seen it all. The card has serious history behind it. It was a key staple in the early Pro Tour and it taught the community as a whole a lot more about the game than any other card I can think of.
Favorite shard so far: Naya. I prefer aggressive decks and that is one thing Naya does well.
Occupation: Medical Student
Current HQ: Las Vegas, Nevada
Pro Tour Experience/Magic Accomplishments: 4 PTs, 1 Nationals, Top 16 (15th) Charleston
Favorite Color/Color Combination: Green-white because fast creatures and pump spells just wins.
Favorite format: Ravnica because it was the best.
Favorite shard so far: Bant
Occupation: Operations Director at Immigration Equality, a small non-profit
Current HQ/Hometown: Brooklyn, NY for the last year. Before that, Portland, OR.
Pro Tour Experience/Magic accomplishments: 10th at GP LA '02, 22nd at GP Madrid '08, I've played in 4 Pro Tours, finishing 32nd at Houston in '02 and 59th at New Orleans in '03. I won a PTQ recently and will be playing in Berlin. I also finished 2nd at the Top 8 Magic Mockvitational in 2007.
Favorite format: Block Constructed is my best format, but like everyone I love to draft.
Favorite card: Psychatog.
Favorite shard so far: I haven't drafted nearly enough, but I'll say Bant for now.
BDM: How did you first start playing Magic?
Gabe: I joined the chess team as a freshman in high school and my teammates taught me to play. Two years later I quit the team because Magic was the only game I wanted to
Sam: I began in the 8th grade when a kid who had picked it up over the summer at Boy Scouts brought some cards in. It was huge that year (despite the school banning the color black) and probably a third of the boys in the school played it.
Nathan: I first played Magic at summer camp when I was 11. Legends had just come out and I got in during Revised.
Gavin: Wizards of the Coast Store employee suggestion.
BDM: What role does Magic occupy in your life beyond as a player?
Gavin: Magic encompasses every aspect of my life. It's taught me crucial skills for school and personal relationships such as discipline, hard work, perseverance, looking ahead, quick decision making, critical thinking, innovation, and far more. A lot of concepts in Magic are applicable elsewhere; for example, I often think of conversations in terms of "Who's the Beatdown" (no, really, think about it), and tons of the psychological side of Magic that I've learned is applicable in an academic and real world setting. I've also met a lot of really great people through Magic that connect with me on a mental level, who I will probably be friends with for as long as I can see. Magic is full of great people, and harbors a great community. Many people can say they're part of Magic, but not so many can say that Magic is a part of them, which I feel it is for me.
Gabe: Magic has been a huge part of my life over the years. Like everyone, I've made countless friends that I would never have met otherwise. I've been mentored in life and in Magic by other Magic players, and have mentored others as I've gotten older. I actually moved to New York in part to explore my own potential as a Magic player, as the community of players here is huge and talented. I'm also working on a documentary about competitive Magic, so the Magic world has become an extra creative outlet in that way.
Nathan: It's helped me make many connections and great friends I never would have made had I never played Magic.
Sam: Magic has given me a great place to meet highly intelligent and fun people. In fact, I've met a good majority of my closest friends playing the game. It has let me travel cheaply to several great countries and given me a reason to go all over the U.S.
BDM: When did you first start playing with an eye toward the Pro Tour and what changed to make that happen?
Nathan: I've had an eye on the Pro Tour or high level play ever since I picked up the cards. I used to get the old Duelist Convocation right when it came out and I got one of the first DCI numbers (3870) back when it was nothing more than a piece of paper with a handwritten DCI number on it.Gavin Verhey's victory festooned playmat
Gavin: There was a point when I just realized that Magic wasn't just for kitchen tables, Friday Night Magic, and the occasional Prerelease. It was larger than anybody can possibly fathom when they buy their first booster, with a community of fantastic individuals. After being inspired by the pros, listening to people talk about the events, seeing the games community, and having a ton of fun while doing it, it was hard for me to not be interested in playing Magic on a professional level.
Sam: When I first started playing, many moons ago, I was your typical group gamer. One of the people who frequented my store, Jess Means, won PT—LA 2, Juniors division. After that I began to pay more attention to PTQs, and ended up playing in my first one in the Fifth Edition/Visions qualifying season. By the time Tempest came out, I was Top 8ing PTQs. I qualified for the first PT—London, but the $125 I received for splitting the finals of a two-slot didn't QUITE get me there. I started college when Mercadian Masques came out and quit most of my traveling for PTQs. I still did okay, Top 8ing one or two a year, but couldn't win one. I was goaded into going to Indy for the first Champions Block Limited PTQ, won it, and then all of a sudden started doing really well.
Gabe: I played in my first PTQ in 1996 and dabbled in them whenever I was home from college, but I didn't really get excited about the Pro Tour until after I graduated. I was living in Seattle, I was unemployed, and an old friend got me shuffling the cards again. We played a ton of Invasion Block Constructed and I decided to go to a PTQ. It was a two-slotter, and I qualified. I've been fascinated by the PT ever since.
BDM: How many PTQs do you think you need to play in to feel like you have a reasonable shot at qualifying?
Gabe: One. Any other answer is the wrong attitude!
Nathan: 3-4 if I have a good grasp on the format.
Gavin: In Limited, it's hard to say because there's so much variance. In Constructed it can only take two or three because you can playtest, pick the right deck, and know all of your matchups inside and out, but in Limited you can be the victim of bad Sealed pools, train-wreck drafts or simply having a good deck and losing to the one ridiculous deck at the table, facing two people with ridiculous sealed decks, etc. I'd say probably around five PTQ's. The skill level is so high in North America these days that there are tons of people who have the skill to win a PTQ, but there's only one slot to play for. A lot has to go right to win a PTQ. Not to discourage anybody from going though; PTQ's are a lot of fun!
Sam: For this season, I'd feel comfortable with about five or so. At that point, I think I'd have a better than 50/50 shot of qualifying.
BDM: How many PTQs do you think you will be playing in for Kyoto and how far will you travel for them?
Sam: It looks like I will be able to hit up about 5 this season. In general, I hit up every PTQ within 4 hours, which is Columbus, Louisville, Detroit, Pittsburg, Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Charleston, West Virginia. This season is a little light on the PTQs, most cities only have one and several of those cities didn't get any, so I may end up driving to Chicago or Nashville to get some more in.
Gavin: I usually travel to Oregon and Vancouver BC for the PTQ's there. Looking at the schedule, it looks like there will be three PTQ's—Vancouver's this weekend, Seattle's next weekend, and Portland's on December sixth—that I'll definitely be able to attend, with the possibility of others depending on my situation as the season progresses.
Gabe: If I don't qualify, I'll play in everything I can get to. That probably means 6 or 7, given the time of year.
Nathan: 2-4 and I might travel up to 400-500 miles covering, Utah, Arizona and California.
BDM: What is the key to winning a Limited PTQ—is it all just about opening well? How much do other things factor in like getting your mana right, mulliganing, etc.?Nathan in between Magic tournaments.
Nathan: To win Limited PTQs you need to have a few things going for you. One, you need to build your Sealed Deck correctly, or rather the best you possibly can incorporating both consistency and power. Too many people don't even give themselves a chance to win by building their Sealed Deck improperly. Two, you need to have a good grasp on the format: know all the tricks, what an opponent can play at any given mana cost, not letting yourself get blown out with a two-for-one. Bluff if you can, leave mana open, or attack into a vital creature with a bad one if you have green open when they are tapped out; they usually won't block if they need that creature. Don't be afraid to mulligan, and make sure you shuffle really, really, really, really, really well.
Draft well. Try to find colors where you aren't fighting with your neighbors. It's much better to have the best cards in a color you don't like, than to have third rate cards in your favorite color combination and of course...
...Open a good pool.
Gavin: I think that the key to Sealed, especially in a format like Shards with so many options, is deckbuilding well. A lot of games will have opportunities for you to outplay your opponents and make important mulligan decisions, but you will also be at the mercy of your deck a lot of the time because of the levels of greediness in this format. You can be too greedy and get mana screwed or not greedy enough and be run over by an array of gigantic opposing creatures and removal spells out of your opponent's four color deck. You have to find a balance. I believe that at least 70% of games in Sealed are determined during deckbuilding. Play the right colors, pick the right splashes, and decide what spells you're going to play and if you can support them... And do it wisely. Deckbuilding may be the first thing that happens during the day, but it's the most important. Don't rush through deckbuilding!
A little tip for the readers that's always applicable for Limited and has really helped my deckbuilding: if your card pool is strong, minimize the amount of chances you have to lose to random factors like manascrew or colorscrew by playing more lands and fewer colors. If your card pool is weak, you want to do the opposite because you need to maximize your risk vs. reward ratio: you're not going to beat the really powerful decks otherwise.Gabe works on a Shadowmoor Sealed pool.
Gabe: I've never actually won a Limited PTQ, only Constructed, but I've Top 8ed a few and finished 2nd at one last year. I think the way to win is to know the format, figure out how your Sealed pool can win, and stay focused. I had an amazing pool at a PTQ last year, but there were 9 rounds of Swiss and I would not have made Top 8 if I hadn't been very attentive to subtle sideboard changes and fought to win every game. More often than not, I have done poorly with great pools because I relied too heavily on my deck to do the winning. Never rely on your deck to win for you, and never let yourself feel defeated based on a perception of bad luck. You're in the PTQ until your record says different.
Sam: The opening part is somewhat format dependent. Good formats have a lot of common removal that deals with bomb rares. This format is a little light on "kill anything" removal, so Dragons are hard to deal with. With that in mind, I think that if you don't have a bomby deck, you need to run as tight and aggressive of a curve as possible. If your opponent gets up to 7 or 8 mana, you're going to have real problems.
Beyond that, your deck needs a game plan. Too many people have decks that can't decide if they are aggressive or controlling, sticking 3 Obelisks in an aggressive deck with one or two huge drops and a low curve. Your deck should have rhyme and reason for every card in it. Proper mana bases, mulliganing, and confidence are also important, but I could write you five thousand words on that. Possibly ten.
The secret to winning any PTQ though is determination. Go to every PTQ within four hours. Practice the format you are playing in two hours for every one you spend in the car. Get to know the PTQ regulars and form relationships with them. Within no time you will be playing better, having more fun, and collecting blue envelopes.
BDM: How do you prepare for a Limited PTQ season...do you build Sealed Decks or just practice drafting?
Sam: I spend a little time doing Sealed Decks, but most of the time is spent drafting. I think drafting is better at helping you identify the good color combos.
Gabe: Usually I just practice drafting because it's more fun, cheaper, and easier to find accomplices for. For GP—Madrid, however, Steve Sadin and I built about 10 decks and it really paid off. We opened terrible sealed pools and were still able to make Day 2.
Nathan: I build Sealed Decks, mock Sealed Decks and just try to Sealed and or draft when I have extra free time. Also, rebuilding Sealed Decks, talking about cards and how good they are to other people, talking about mana bases, just trying to bounce off as many ideas as possible with other people. Don't be afraid to try cards you might think are bad, don't hold on to pet cards that really aren't that good just because it randomly won you games.
Gavin: By playing Extended. Wild Nacatl is good in both formats, right?
Seriously though, I try and practice both. Usually though, I just end up drafting a lot with the occasional Sealed Deck tournament being run on the week of PTQ's. It's hard to do that in this format though, because Draft and Sealed are almost like entirely different formats.
BDM: How are those two formats different when it comes to Shards of Alara?
Gavin: Sealed and Draft in Shards are completely opposite paradigms. Sealed is very slow with people playing turn three Obelisks and trying to outclass your opponent's fatties with your own fatties somehow. Draft, on the other hand, is a very fast format. The green decks and the exalted decks are both lightning-quick, and the Esper deck will put you behind so far a reasonable amount of time that there's a good chance a slow deck will have fundamentally lost even if that deck still has life to spare.
Gabe: I haven't played enough to say definitively, but Sealed feels really slow. You have all these mana fixers that let you play all sorts of powerful spells, but the likelihood that you'll get a selection of quality cards and appropriate mana fixers all within a single shard is really low, so basically everyone is going to be playing all their bombs and removal. In Draft, that extra control is going to make decks much more focused, fast, and efficient.
Nathan: I'm not sure yet, but most of the Sealed Decks I've done have been five colors—base two, maybe three colors, with two splashes. I pretty much get to play all my mana fixers. I find the mana for five color decks is almost as good if not better than for most three color decks because you get to utilize all the great fixers in this format. Draft has been "take bomb cards, then try to get the mana to work to play them all." Removal is always good of course.
Sam: There are three major draft strategies: Exalted-curve, Naya-curve and 5-Color Bombs. Sealed deck makes the first two hard without some sick opens. It's not hard to get 1-2 uncommon lands, 2-3 fetchlands, and 2-3 Obelisks, so the 5C strategy seems to be the default for Sealed.
BDM: When you are opening a Sealed Deck pool would you rather see a bomb rare or a concentration of solid cards in one shard and why?
Sam: A concentration in a shard, no question. I'd prefer a pool that is constant that I can have a solid game plan with than praying to draw my good card and that my opponent doesn't have an Oblivion Ring.
Nathan: I would rather see a concentration of solid cards in one shard because consistency—both in deck quality and getting the mana to work properly—is much more important for winning seven or eight rounds of Swiss than a bomb rare that might show up at best in a third of your matches and which you might not even be able to play when you've drawn it.
Gavin: I'd rather see a concentration of solid cards in a shard. The power of a single card will win you some games. The power of a strong deck will win you a tournament. You're not going to see your bomb rare every game, so I'd much rather have a very strong three-color card pool and good mana fixing to support it.
That said, does this question have an entwine cost?
Gabe: Concentration. With consistent mana and the ability to cast my spells, I can be in every game and have the opportunity to out-play my opponents, and that's when I do best. Plus, you need consistency to fight through 8 rounds of Sealed Deck without picking up two losses. Your bombs aren't going to show up every game, you aren't always going to be able to play them, and sometimes your opponent will have answers.
BDM: What do you believe the best common is first pick/first pack in Shards draft? Uncommon? Rare? Mythic rare?
Nathan: Common: So hard to pick, I'll say Resounding Thunder because it's ultimate is awesome and it's good as just a normal removal spell.
Uncommon: Any Charm
Rare: Flameblast Dragon!!!!!!
Mythic Rare: Sarkhan Vol
BDM: Who will you be preparing with/traveling with to the PTQs? How did your playgroup coalesce?
Gavin: Just with local Seattle area players; Jonathon Loucks, Zaiem Beg, Daniel Hanson, Mike Gurney, Martin Goldman-Kirst, and many more people who play at local stores. We all know each other because we see each other at events all of the time and have fun playing competitively together, so we'll share advice and probably do some testing... And there's always tons of ways to get in pick-up drafts. Once the set hits Magic Online, I predict I'll be playing it on there as well.
Gabe: I usually practice with Asher Hecht, Matt Ferrando, Christian Calcano, and various others around Neutral Ground for PTQs. This time around it looks like I'll be playing a lot with Jake Van Lunen, and Steve Sadin doesn't need to PTQ but he'll play Limited. I catch a ride to a PTQ wherever I can—Asher and I usually coordinate and end up in the same car. I met Asher, Matt, and Chris soon after moving to New York, as we were at the same events and pursuing the same goals, and I get along with all of them. I met Steve Sadin around the same time and we got on well, though we haven't been preparing for the same events as often. Steve introduced me to Jake, and we've been working with Jamie Parke for Berlin.
Nathan: Chris Higashi, Zack Lindler in Las Vegas and if I'm in LA then my old teammates Zack Smith, Nam Tran and the rest of our old WNM gang.
Sam: My current live testing group is Matt Kransteuber, Dale Dewood, Adam Yurchick, Brian Six, Dan McBride, and Reuben Bresler (when he's not in school). There are others too, mostly from the store I both FNM and borrow cards from, The Soldiery. It's where I got my start and over the years I've seen a lot of kids go from it to getting in to competitive play.
BDM: What is your favorite story from a PTQ in your career?
Sam: A PTQ for Charleston in Indy. Tom LaPille, Adam Yurchick, and I were qualified but found ourselves in Indy that weekend testing for Prague with Cedric Phillips, Brian Kowal, and Matthew Lackey. So, we played. No stress, just playing with friends. Seven hours later, we found ourselves in the Top 4 with several other friends in the other bracket. The plan was to get to the finals and scoop to our friends. So we won our match and they lost. I had won a PTQ, but Tom and Adam had qualified through a GP. We ended up with two plane tickets but Wizards refused to upgrade my seat to first class, no matter how many PTQs I won.
Gabe: At the first PTQ I won, I showed up broke, missing nine rares from my deck, and barely knowing anyone there. All the players I knew before college had quit when I came back to the game. I had briefly met two teenagers from Portland at my old store a few weeks before: Danny Flanagan and Chris Buker. They helped me fill out my deck even though they didn't remember my name, and as I made my run at Top 8 they joked with me that if I won the PTQ I was welcome to "join the team!" When I eliminated Chris in round 7, they were gracious, and hung around to watch me play. As a newcomer at the time, most of the Top 8 audience was rooting for my opponents, but Chris and Danny made sure my cheering section wasn't empty as I qualified for my first Pro Tour.
Nathan: I've got so many, but one good one was not losing a match with my teammates Zack and Nam as we went on to win our Charleston PTQ, but on the way we had to beat Ken Ho, PTR, and Ben Rubin in the semi's before winning. Ken was playing a Red-Green-Blue Wildfire Concoction against my Green-White Glare deck. Game 1 he accelerates into an early Keiga, the Tide Star. I tap out the following turn to play a Kodama of the North Tree. We both have about 4-5 lands in play each and his eyes get wide as he can Wildfire to Wrath of God and Armageddon my board and blow me out. When he taps out to Wildfire, I play Shining Shoal discarding a white card to redirect the 4 damage from the "untargetable" Kodama of the North to his Keiga, the Tide Star. He looks at me dumbfounded and in shock says, "You can do that?" After that point, neither of us had any lands, but I had a 6/4, untargetable, trample creature still in play. I won that one.
Gavin: There are so many great stories, it's hard to pick just one. One of my favorites in recent memory is probably from an Extended PTQ last season in Portland. I'm driving down to the PTQ with no deck choice made, just a bunch of playable Extended cards in my bag. I'm not sure what I want to play, and I just have this inner confidence that I'll figure it out. So I'm about halfway down and I start calling people at Grand Prix—Philadelphia to see how it's going. I eventually get a hold of Josh Wludyka who tells me about this Blue-White 'Tron deck that he and Adam Yurchick brewed up the night before and that they were going to play in the GP. He tells me the decklist over the phone, and it sounds pretty fun so I figure I might as well roll with it.
I build up what I can while driving down, get to the tournament site with about 10 minutes to go before the PTQ starts, frantically ask friends to borrow cards, buy a few missing cards from the dealers, and then finish building the deck right as the players meeting is called. I have absolutely no experience with this build of the deck whatsoever. I played extremely tight Magic all day and ended up making the Top 8 of that PTQ, and then 9th at a PTQ the next day. Adam Yurchick ended up in second place at the Grand Prix. Not bad for some last minute innovation and some confidence!