Sideline Reports

Posted in The Week That Was on May 25, 2012

By Brian David-Marshall

Every Magic player with even a shimmer of competitive fire has at one point or another fantasized about playing in the finals of the Pro Tour. When the jagged edges of reality begin to poke into that fantasy you realize how much has to happen for you to get there. First of all, you need to qualify—something hundreds of other people in your area are also gunning for every Saturday. Then, metaphorical blue envelope in literal hand, you need to find a team of like-minded and motivated players to work with. With new cards coming out just weeks before the event, you and your team have to not only find a deck but accurately gauge what everyone else is going to be playing. And then... assuming you have qualified, you have found the right team, and your team has found the right deck, it needs to be your turn.

Alexander Hayne, Pro Tour Avacyn Restored Champion 2012

For Pro Tour Avacyn Restored winner Alexander Hayne and his finals opponent Gaudenis Vidugiris, it was their turn. Watching from the sidelines were their teammates and deck collaborators David Caplan and Sam Black. Caplan, who worked with Hayne on Team ManaDeprived for the past couple of events, had his turn at the World Championships in San Francisco when their Red Deck Wins take on Standard carried Caplan to the Top 8. StarCityGames Black teammates Black and Vidugiris have long been collaborators and constants on New York-based Hall of Fame teams that have coalesced around the likes of Zvi Mowshowitz and Jon Finkel. They have each had a turn in the Top 8—Vidugiris with Mono-Black Infect for Pro Tour Nagoya and Black with Blue Poison at Pro Tour Philadelphia.

"I've been building decks forever, but it's helped a lot to have great players to work with," said Sam Black of his deck building resume. "I went undefeated at Regionals in 2006 with a Chord of Calling deck of my own design, and then the 'Win a Car' event at Worlds with my Goblin deck. I always try to build a lot of decks, but recently they've been successful a higher percentage of the time—Poison Shoal, Esper Spirits, and Stalker Spirits most notably."

Neither player stood alone on the sideline either, as they were both part of large teams. Black worked with the all-star team that put two players into the Top 8 and featured himself, Vidugiris, Jon Finkel, Patrick Chapin, Alex West, Tom Martell, Zvi Mowshowitz (not attending), Kai Budde, Jelger Wiegersma, Gabriel Nassif, Paul Rietzl, Andrew Cuneo, and Reid Duke. With so many players and the level of success each of them has had it should come as no surprise that there were plenty of options on the table when it comes to decks.

Black said about the deck that placed two members of the team into the Top 8: "I know a lot of people had been working on Stalker/Savagery decks. I think the main thing that made ours work better was figuring out how to do the mana properly, which was mostly a product of a lot of work I'd done with various three- and four-color green decks. Other testing we did to figure out that Wolfir Silverheart was one of the pillars of the format and one of the cards we were most interested in getting the most possible value out of was also very important."

Drogskol Captain | Art by Peter Mohrbacher

There were plenty of other decks on the table right up until the eleventh hour, with strategies as diverse as Mono-Red Aggro, Multicolor Control, and Laboratory Maniac Combo/Control all having advocates on the team. In the end, a Hall of Fame pedigree made the decision simple for the most successful wing of the team in Spain.

"Kai played a few games against himself and decided it was good enough," said Black of the deck he, Finkel, Budde, Vidugiris, and Martell ended up playing. Taking a concession to another player down the stretch out of the equation, the deck performed to the tune of a 70% win rate for the team. Combine that with two players in the Top 8 and one of those players making it to the finals, Black was proud of what he and his teammates accomplished. And yet...

"I knew I was happy with how I'd done, no matter what, but I really wanted the deck to win the tournament, or, better yet, to meet in the Finals," said Black. Had Jon Finkel won Game 5 against Alexander Hayne in the quarterfinals he would have been on a finals trajectory against Vidugiris. "That would have led to a much better narrative, and a lot of the value of PTs is in making history."

Instead, the history book records that Alexander Hayne became the first Canadian to win an individual Pro Tour since the late nineties. It was a win shared by every single person on the much-less-ballyhooed Team ManaDeprived. The roster of Canadians—Hayne, Caplan, Pascal Maynard, Doug Potter, Jason Yorgason, Greg Dolan, Francis Toussaint, Matt Mealing, Noah Long, Dan Lanthier, Robert Smith, Marc Anderson, and Daniel Grenier—was supplemented by honorary Canadian Adam Yurchick, and all of them hung on every potentially miraculous draw of the card from the Player's Lounge, which was playing the live webcast.

"The tension was extraordinary," said Caplan of watching the three historic rounds on Sunday play out. "The Canadians all arrived quite early to ensure we could save the front three rows, where we stayed all day to cheer Alex on. Having tested the matchups so much, the whole team would yell their opinions of what they think Alex should do, and discuss opponents' lines of play and sideboard strategy. When Alex won his matches the team went crazy, we were so proud of Alex and his deck was so exciting to watch!"

Caplan made the trans-Atlantic cruise with Hayne to prepare for the Pro Tour in luxury and worked closely with him on the deck. Caplan had just graduated from school and Hayne "had nothing better to do," so they decided to take a fourteen-night boat ride to the PT.

"While we did get quite a bit of testing done on the ship, we spent a lot of time sightseeing, swimming, and playing a variety of other games," said Caplan. "Our testing was very efficient and we built almost every deck we expected in the format. We'd spent a few hours each day running decks from the gauntlet against our sixteen-miracle monstrosity, slowly getting the list closer to the final version."

Invisible Stalker | Art by Bud Cook

Caplan has had some success over the years as a deck designer, most notably as the name most often associated with the Legacy deck Canadian Threshold, but he was quick to deflect ownership of that design away from himself.

"Originally created by Legacy teammate Lam Phan, I tweaked the list over the course of many years and my list was considered the stock list of one the best decks in the format for those years," Caplan elaborated. "Another deck that I have had success with is an alternative Delver list maxing out on the two-card combo with four Sword of War and Peace and four Invisible Stalker, winning me a recent MOCS."

Caplan gives all the credit for the design of the miracle deck to the Pro Tour winner, preferring instead to take some credit for the fine tuning of the list. He likened the deck to cascade, which required an optimal build to minimize the variance of what cards you could hit off of a Bloodbraid Elf.

"If we maximize the number of miracle cards in the deck, we increase the value of each and every draw step," he explained. "As with every other deck I've worked on, I was the tweaker who makes sure that each and every slot is maximized, that the deck has the right number of cards to board in and out for each matchup. It took us a while of piloting the deck, but my insistence to change numbers of cards in the deck and keep others fixed ensured that we came into the event with what we thought was going to be a perfect deck."

Things worked out perfectly for Hayne, but it did not work out as well for other members of the team—and it did not start out well for Hayne, who got off to a 1–3 start before rattling off eleven straight wins down the stretch.

Entreat the Angels | Art by Todd Lockwood

"Most of the players who played it had a negative record in Constructed," admitted Caplan. "The deck's style is now casually referred to among our testing group as puzzle-control. While the list seems intuitive and there are certainly some games where you hit the correct miracles on the correct turns and win, the deck is actually incredibly difficult to pilot. Among our group, Hayne is commonly jokingly referred to as a computer, quick at calculating odds and executing a strategic game plan, which is why there is no doubt in my mind as to why he did so well and the others trailed behind."

When you get to be the member of your team who makes it into the Top 8 it is nice to have the support of your mates to make sure you are well armed and—more importantly—well rested. Hayne had enough confidence in his Team ManaDeprived cohorts that he was able to get a sound night's sleep while they played late all night and into morning.

"The team stayed up all night with multiple copies of each Top 8 deck built and spent the night determining a sideboard plan and prepared a series of notes on important cards and strategies within his matchups to brief him on in the morning, ensuring he got enough sleep," said Caplan. "He trusted his team implicitly for the preparation, never having played a game of the matchups himself."

It was truly a collaborative breakout performance for Team ManaDeprived.

"Our team has many people with many functions. Hayne and Noah (Long) are the creative brains of the operation, providing many rogue and outside-the-box ideas, while others take these lists, test them, tweak them, and report back with ideas and thoughts. Through this process we find the most powerful cards and strategies in the format and can focus tuning on those lists," explained Caplan as he looked forward to team's upcoming agenda.

"Well, right now our extended Euro-trip brings us to Amsterdam for a few days of sightseeing and relaxation," said Caplan, knowing his relaxation was nearing an end. "After this, we have a lot of work to do. I need to qualify for Seattle, having missed Gold by a few points this season. We also need to whip up something awesome for Alex to play at the Players' Championship, and we even get to test Cube drafts for a relevant event! I'm very excited for this year, and I am expecting that you will see much more of Team ManaDeprived!"

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