Second Chances and Last Chances in San Juan

Posted in The Week That Was on May 28, 2010

By Brian David-Marshall

By the time most of you are reading this on Friday morning, the second leg of the 2010 Magic Pro Tour season will be underway in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Hot on the heels of the nearly 2000 player Grand Prix–Washington DC, many players have made the short trip to the island and have been preparing for the event in between bites of mofongo—a local comfort food—and weaving in and out of the picturesque streets of Old San Juan. Following a tradition that goes back to the first Pro Tour in Hawaii, several different groups of players have been here the entire week and eschewed hotel accommodations to rent a beach house for the week. Or in the case of Patrick Chapin, Brian Kibler, Ben Rubin, Paul Rietzl, Matt Sperling, and Ben "TBS" Seck, a townhouse in Old San Juan which they converted into a Magic brewery in order to distill the Zendikar Block Constructed format down to a 75-card elixir that will possess the same lower-case-M-magical properties as Patrick's blue-white deck that has been so dominating in the wake of San Diego or—better yet—Ben Rubin's Zoo brew that earned Brian Kibler the Pro Tour Austin trophy last season.

Ben Seck—affectionately known as TBS (which stands for The Ben Seck) to most—was right in the middle of that distillation process as he prepared for his first individual Pro Tour since 2005. The Australian expatriate, who has been playing the game since 1994 when Legends was released, first qualified for the Pro Tour all the way back at the second Pro Tour in Rye, New York.

"It was Mirage Sealed," Ben recalled of that long-ago PTQ that started his Pro career. "In the draft Top 8 I won with the black-red flanking deck with Fallen Askari and Suq'Ata Lancers. I actually 0-6'd my first Pro Tour. My first two rounds were against David Bachmann and Arto Hiltunen."

By Ben's estimation he has qualified for the Pro Tour roughly two dozen times and played in about three-quarters of those events. His best finish came during the 2003 Pro Tour season when he made the Top 8 of Pro Tour Yokohama in a stacked Sunday field that included Hall of Famer Jon Finkel, the vastly underrated Mattias Jorstedt, future Hall of Famer Masashi Oiso, the recently resurgent Tsuyoshi Ikeda, Limited superstar Rich Hoaen, the always entertaining Jose Barbero, and Benjamin Caumes. (We know that Ben and Ikeda will be here this weekend but at least two other members of that Top 8 will be playing this as well and one of them will be especially exciting to those of you following along at home.)

"I still have not won any money on the Pro Tour other than that finish," said Ben of his Yokohama Top 8, although he has made the Top 8 of a Grand Prix twice and won both times; once in Cape Town and more recently in Melbourne.

The cost of pursuing the Pro Tour has always come with an additional tax for Australian players in terms of travel expenses and Ben was no exception but, ironically, it was a move to the States for a job with a game company that demanded his full attention. While he kept a toe in the game—or 20 toes, since he did play in the Two-Headed Giant Pro Tour—Ben stepped away from chasing the Pro Tour in 2005. When the Pro Tour came back to San Diego earlier this season Ben decided to play in some Public Events and had his eye on the Sunday Draft Challenge or perhaps one of the Magic Online events but found himself playing in a 200+ person Extended PTQ with a version of Gerry Thompson's Thopter Depths deck that was so dominating throughout that qualifier season.

"When I started playing in PTQs in Australia you would get 30 or 40 people basically, and now you can easily have 200 person PTQs any Saturday in California," said Ben when asked how PTQs have changed in the 15 years since his first qualifier. "I would say that 70% or 80% of the field have good decks and people's basic knowledge today of how to play Limited is much higher. Between the size and the skill of the field you can basically afford to take one loss (in order to make Top 8). I remember playing in PTQs where X-2 would make Top 8 and that is just not the case anymore. People's knowledge of how to play the tournament has changed as well. There was a time where people may have known how to play their deck but did not know how to approach a tournament. Players today have been to the Pro Tour or a Grand Prix and know how to be in the zone."

"Being in the zone" would be a good way to describe Ben's run through that stacked PTQ in San Diego, as he did not lose a single match en route to qualifying.

"I went to San Diego just to hang out with some friends and play in the super draft for Magic Online," said Ben, who missed that event and audibled to the Extended PTQ. "A friend lent me his GP Oakland deck and it was very satisfying to win such a big event. Even more satisfying was having so many friends around me. Having been on the Pro Tour for such a long time—and the event being at a Pro Tour—it was great to have so many friends high fiving me after the event."

With almost a half a decade between this weekend and his last individual Pro Tour experience, Ben explained that he would be sitting down for Round 1 a different man than he was in 2005.
"The difference between me now and me a few years ago is that my temperament has improved," he said. "I am not really fazed by playing on the Pro Tour. My career is going really well so there is not as much pressure for the Pro Tour to be (a financial) cornerstone of my life, which means it is a much more relaxing experience. I can come back to the Pro Tour with a much surer head on my shoulders than I had previously. At the same time I am approaching the event a lot more methodically since time is at much more of a premium."

Part of making the most of his time involves working with a group of players that have been near the top of the standings at seemingly every event they attend for the past two seasons. Brian Kibler and Paul Rietzl made the Top 8 of the last Block Constructed Pro Tour with a rogue Esper deck created by Ben Rubin. Patrick Chapin put blue-white control back on the map with his performance in San Diego. Kibler, of course won pro Tour Austin last season while Sperling posted a solid Top 64 finish at that event.

"It is very reassuring to have so many friends doing well and being at the top of the game," grinned Ben when asked about his playtest group for this event.

"There is quite a lot of information out there," he said of the Block Constructed format that he was looking forward to. "The format is noticeably missing a combo deck which is great for my play style. A lot of sound Magic principles are involved as opposed to complicated combo interactions.

As of this writing, the team was still not settled on one deck with two or three different options on the table.

"The format comes down to a few power cards—Jace, the Mind Sculptor being one of them and Gideon Jura being the other—these are cards that no one is going to be surprised by their prevalence in the format," said Ben, with little fear of giving away any big secrets. "You have to be either well placed against those specific cards or ... "

While there were some obvious cards that fell into the "if you can't beat them join them camp" Ben did feel that there was room for innovation in this event.

"I think you will see some surprising cards," promised Ben.

    DC to LCQ

Ben Seck qualified for this Pro Tour at the public events during PT San Diego. PTLA finalist Billy Moreno was hoping to qualify for this event at the public event that preceded the main event Thursday. I am always surprised when I meet players who do not know that you can attend a Pro Tour without being qualified for the event. There is so much stuff to do even if you don't earn a berth at the Last Chance Qualifier—I have even heard stories about players who had to make a conscious decision between winning an LCQ slot and taking full advantage of the public event schedule. Just last weekend Billy went and earned three byes for Grand Prix DC the night before that event and hopes he can replicate that success in the LCQ.

"I played the Aggro Spread 'Em deck that I ended up playing in the main event—there's a deck tech on it in the event coverage," said the notoriously out-of-the-box deck designer of his GPT weapon of choice. "I wanted to play Spreading Seas and I spent the last few weeks experimenting with different ways to do that. I ended up with this blue/green/red tempo deck; I liked the idea of being able to keep the slower decks like Jund and White-Blue Control variants off of their plans while steadily advancing my own by using Lotus Cobra and Nest Invader to power out cycled Resounding Waves and early Roiling Terrains. With 4 Lightning Bolt main and a few tools in the board, the deck smoothly assumes a board-control position."

Billy Moreno

Download Arena Decklist

Billy started out by going 8-1 in the nearly 2000 person tournament on Day One. Things did not go as smoothly on Day Two with a 3-5 record that Billy felt he could have inverted had he not made game changing mistakes in two of those matches.

"It was pretty frustrating after I got my hopes up for the weekend," he said before turning his attention to how the deck could be adjusted going forward. "I haven't decided what changes I would make yet, but I'm reevaluating the white-blue plan. Now that the deck is a known quantity, smart White-Blue players can pick up a lot of percentage points just by understanding the match-up and what's important—hint: it's white mana. I'd like to make some adjustment that recaptures a comfortable White-Blue Control edge. Surprisingly, I'm probably playing Jund. I like Owen's list from the GP and I've played enough with the archetype in testing that I'm comfortable switching to it on short notice."
Billy has been on the road since the Tuesday prior to the Grand Prix after he had a cash windfall at a local $2K tournament with the same deck he played in DC.

"Money in hand, committing to the trip was a no-brainer. I've been trying to figure out how to get to DC pretty much since I started playing again in the last months. Writing over at lets me prioritize Magic in a way I haven't been able to recently, and I really wanted to compete and get my name out there again. I arrived in DC on Tuesday, super early for a Grand Prix, but that was my only option because of blackout dates on my flight credit. Spent the weekend there, including the traditional last-night all-nighter where no one books a room since they're just flying out in the morning. I'm in Puerto Rico now, looking to grind into the PT. It was basically a free flight from DC, so I couldn't pass it up," he said, outlining his itinerary.

While Billy has to navigate Standard in order for the work to be relevant to him the compulsive deck designer has been hammering away at the Block Constructed format.

"There's not really any work to be done in Standard right now, nothing that's worth spending time on before the LCQ at least. And I can't help it; I have to be brewing and testing. Hopefully, I can help someone else out even if I don't end up qualifying (knock on wood). But even though I'll be busy playing Standard all day tomorrow, I'm pretty sure someone will help me out with a deck if I get to that point and still need one," he said. "My initial impression is that there are four main decks: White-Blue Control, Eldrazi Ramp, Red Deck Wins/Boros, and Blue-Red-Green along the lines of what Brad Nelson won the Magic Online Champion Series tournament with. Valakut, Vampires, Allies, and White Weenie will be minor players. Nothing got nearly as many new toys as the green big mana decks, and right now it seems like the ultra-aggressive lists are the only thing keeping them somewhat honest. My sense of how those four main decks interact is in a state of constant flux right now as I try to tweak various lists and attack the different pressure points."

When he was not playing Magic this week, Billy has been enjoying the tropical paradise.

"I've heard some complaints about the weather, but if you book a trip to a tropical island you should be expecting the heat and humidity," he said of the hot, wet climate. "In fact, I'm pretty sure every tourist who isn't here for a Magic tournament considers the weather a selling point. I could honestly eat Puerto Rican and Spanish food every day. Anyone who hasn't had mofungo before should find some ASAP.

    Hall of Fame Deck Analysis

One player who did not need to worry about qualifying for this tournament was recently inducted Hall of Famer Frank Karsten. Frank was last seen at the World Championships celebrating the lifetime invitation that comes with the induction by playing a highlander deck in the Extended portion of Worlds. He skipped San Diego but is planning on playing this weekend. If Frank Karsten is playing, then you can count on him doing a detailed analysis of the format—just look at "The List" from Pro Tour Kobe or aggregated Faeries from Worlds two years ago. Frank has been crunching the data on Block Constructed from online events on Magic Online and elsewhere. Compiling that data, he has taken the following snapshot of the format:

    The Metagame

  • The Zendikar Block Dailies on Magic Online: every 4-0 deck archetype gets 4 points and every 3-1 deck archetype gets 2 points.
  • Other: first place gets 4 points, second place gets 3 points, third and fourth place gets 2 points.
  • Add up all the numbers for each deck archetype and turn them into a percentage of the total.
  • The "Other" category includes deck archetypes such as Green-White Tokens, Green-Blue Summoning Trap, White-Blue-Black Control, Emrakul Revelation and Blue-Red Control, i.e., mostly various flavors of Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
Deck archetype Percentage
White-Blue Control 38.2
Devastating Red 15.7
Vampires 11.3
Mono Green Eldrazi Ramp 6.9
Boros Equipment Aggro 6.4
Blue-Red-Green Comet Storm 4.9
Green-White-Blue Control 3.9
Red-White Allies 2.0
Red-Green Valakut 2.0
Green-White Summoning Trap 1.5
Mono Red Eldrazi Ramp 1.5
Green-Blue-Black Control 1.0
Green-Blue Control 1.0
Black-Red Sarkhan 1.0
Other 2.9

He has also pulled together expected deck lists for the most popular archetypes based on the actual cards played in the events. When assembling these averaged lists, Frank counted winning deck lists twice, to give more weight to the winning deck lists. Here is a peek at the two most played archetypes in the online metagame.

Expected White-Blue Control
(Average of 74 decks)

4.91 Plains
4.78 Island
4.0 Celestial Colonnade
3.93 Sejiri Refuge
2.66 Halimar Depths
2.59 Tectonic Edge
2.51 Everflowing Chalice
1.08 Arid Mesa
0.61 Scalding Tarn
0.49 Marsh Flats
0.43 Misty Rainforest
0.14 Kabira Crossroads
0.09 Evolving Wilds
3.89 Wall of Omens
2.96 Sphinx of Lost Truths
0.34 Sphinx of Jwar Isle
0.28 Iona, Shield of Emeria
0.05 Sphinx of Magosi
0.05 Pilgrim's Eye
0.05 Emeria Angel
0.04 Kozilek, Butcher of Truth
0.03 Sea Gate Oracle
3.91 Journey to Nowhere
3.86 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
3.85 Day of Judgment
3.46 Cancel
2.27 Gideon Jura
2.01 Deprive
1.43 Into the Roil
0.61 Spreading Seas
0.65 Treasure Hunt
0.43 See Beyond
0.24 All Is Dust
0.19 Rite of Replication
0.09 Luminarch Ascension
0.08 Oust

3.46 Kor Firewalker
1.77 Kor Sanctifiers
1.15 Pitfall Trap
0.86 Spell Pierce
0.77 Dispel
0.61 Spreading Seas
0.5 Deprive
0.19 All Is Dust
0.16 Rite of Replication
0.14 Into the Roil
0.14 Cancel
0.09 Journey to Nowhere
0.09 Demystify
0.08 Kozilek,Butcher of Truth
0.08 Emeria Angel
0.08 Domestication
0.07 Oust
0.05 Hedron Crab
0.05 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
0.05 Archive Trap
0.04 Ulamog, the InfiniteGyre
0.04 Perimeter Captain
0.04 Guard Duty
0.03 Sphinx of Lost Truths
0.03 Rest for the Weary
0.03 Iona, Shield of Emeria
0.01 Gideon Jura
0.01 Eye of Ugin
0.01 Day of Judgment
0.01 Angelheart Vial

Expected Devastating Red
(Average of 30 decks)

4 Arid Mesa
3.77 Scalding Tarn
2.97 Teetering Peeks
11.17 Mountain
1.87 Smoldering Spire
0.23 Evolving Wilds
4.0 Goblin Guide
3.9 Goblin Bushwhacker
3.43 Plated Geopede
3.17 Kiln Fiend
3.13 Kargan Dragonlord
0.13 Tuktuk the Explorer
0.13 Cunning Sparkmage
0.1 Goblin Shortcutter
0.07 Obsidian Fireheart
3.9 Burst Lightning
3.63 Searing Blaze
3.5 Devastating Summons
3.1 Staggershock
1.5 Forked Bolt
1.47 Flame Slash
0.6 Punishing Fire
0.13 Zektar Shrine Expedition
0.07 Elemental Appeal
0.03 Chain Reaction

3.47 Goblin Ruinblaster
2.03 Unstable Footing
1.23 Tuktuk the Explorer
1.07 Flame Slash
1.03 Punishing Fire
0.8 Obsidian Fireheart
0.6 Forked Bolt
0.53 Mark of Mutiny
0.47 Roiling Terrain
0.47 Lodestone Golem
0.4 Runeflare Trap
0.4 Journey to Nowhere
0.37 Chain Reaction
0.33 Hellkite Charger
0.27 Elemental Appeal
0.2 Mountain
0.2 Grotag Siege-Runner
0.13 Spire Barrage
0.13 Cunning Sparkmage
0.13 Comet Storm
0.1 Tuktuk Scrapper
0.1 Tectonic Edge
0.1 Stone Idol Trap
0.1 Plains
0.1 Devastating Summons
0.07 Traitorous Instinct
0.07 Surreal Memoir
0.07 Ricochet Trap
0.03 Chandra Ablaze

Be sure to tune into the Tournament Center all weekend long for a look at some more of the expected deck lists, feature matches, Tournament Center updates and deck techs with me and my cohort Richard Hagon, and of course the live top 8 webcast on May 30 at 10:45 am ET.

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