This weekend marks the end of the Pro Tour–Austin qualifier season. There will be a Grand Prix in Prague along with the requisite Sunday PTQ, two weekends of Japanese PTQs, and the aptly named Last Chance Qualifier in Austin for those of you still chasing an elusive invite to take part in Pro Tour–Austin.
It has been a long season of Standard—with a smattering of Limited via the Grand Prix circuit—and players have been turning out in record numbers. Here in the Northeast corner of the United States, attendance has ranged between 250 and 320, and nine rounds has become the norm. I heard about one event in Alabama that had so many more players than expected that the event spilled out onto the street and shut down traffic. I wanted to catch up with a handful of players who successfully qualified for Austin and get a sense of how the season shaped up, how the metagame shifted, and what you need to do to safely navigate passage through the white waters of eight or nine rounds of a PTQ—and sometimes even a Top 8.
Josh Wludyka is a Chicago student who has played on the Pro Tour a couple of times, with his best finish coming at the last PT–San Diego, where he placed 23rd. He has had to pass up on a few invitations due to school commitments but is a fixture on the North American Grand Prix scene. He placed 9th at GP–Kansas City last season and has finished in the money at Seattle/Tacoma and Boston of late. With formidable PTQ competition in his area such as U.S. National team member Adam Yurchick, GP–Columbus finalist Owen Turtenwald, and rising star DJ Kastner, Josh was happy to get his hands on a blue envelope early on in the PTQ season before the metagame closed in on the best decks.
"Luckily it was the first PTQ of the season, so I played something aggressive that let me punish unfocused decks and slow draws," said Wludyka of his PTQ win. He apparently dodged a bullet in the last round of elimination. "I really hadn't been playing much Magic at the time so I was unaware of the Cascade Swan deck's existence and was pretty fortunate to defeat it in the Finals."
While Mandee Peralta had made Black-White Tokens popular with his week-one win it bore only a passing resemblance to the deck that Josh won his event with a couple of weeks later.
"I played Kithkin with black for Zealous Persecution," said Wludyka, who confused more than one pundit with a card in his sideboard that could only be played from beneath a Windbrisk Heights in his deck—not that he actually ever sided it in. "I think it was unique that I played Kithkin and not the traditional Black-White Token deck. I also thought my sideboard was largely irrelevant, so I threw in a Violent Ultimatum for kicks."
When asked about who he would be preparing with for the upcoming event, Wludyka replied, "Primarily Adam Yurchick, but definitely a lot of other Midwesterners like Owen Turtenwald, DJ Kastner, and Michael Jacob. There's also a recently formed house in Cincinnati that features studs like Yurchick, Ervin Tormos, Zack Hall, and Ben Ashman, so hopefully I can fly in for a visit before the Pro Tour."
When you consider that he played what is essentially a joke card in his sideboard, it may not come as a suprise that Wludyka thinks the key to winning a PTQ does not lie in the deck choice but in the head of the deck's pilot.
"I'm a big believer that most decks have roughly the same chance of winning a PTQ, so your real edge is your mental game," Wludyka advised players gearing up for the next year of PTQs. "Just make sure you're mentally ready to win the tournament."
All the way on the other side of the season, after the introduction of Magic 2010 to the Standard format, Lucas Siow won a 246-person PTQ in Edison, NJ. I first met Lucas on his way to attend Pro Tour–Honolulu when we pulled together an ad hoc team draft waiting at the gate of the San Francisco airport. It was certainly not apparent from his confident demeanor or play skill that he had barely been playing the game for two years at the time and was heading to only his second Pro Tour.
"I am originally from Toronto and started to play Magic, after a brief stint during elementary school, about two years ago in college when GP–San Francisco was in my backyard," said Siow, who recently moved to the East Coast an Economics Graduate Student at the University of Pennsylvania. From that jumping off point it did not take him long to qualify for the Pro Tour. "The first was Kyoto, where I got 33rd. I qualified for Kyoto at the last PTQ of the season. I started 3-0 at Honolulu but bombed out due to some bad luck and bad mulligan decisions."
Siow has posted three money finishes on the Grand Prix level in addition to his Top 50 in Kyoto, which qualified him for Honolulu. He also lists completing the 24-land challenge among his accomplishments.
"The 24-land challenge was first brought to my attention by the Facebook group Modophotos and involves drafting the basic land out of every pack and then 3-0ing," explained Siow.
Back in the real world, his finish in Hawaii put him back on the PTQ grind for Austin—almost immediately.
"I played 4 PTQs and Top 8ed two of them," said Siow. "Two were before M10—one was the day after I scrubbed out of Honolulu."
He went 1-2 playing Faeries, 8-2 and Top 4 playing Elves, and 2-3 playing Time Sieve before rattling off a 10-0-2 record at the PTQ in Edison playing good ol' Five-Color Control.
"Looking at the PTQ at GP–Boston, the field was very varied and even though Five-Color Control had just taken Nats, almost every archetype was well represented," said Siow, recounting metagame shifts through the season. "A week later at the PTQ in Philadelphia, Time Sieve showed up en masse. At that same PTQ, Blue-Black-Red Faeries and Five-Color were the other two big players. Unfortunately for the Time Sieve players—including myself—everyone was ready for Time Sieve, and I ran into Red Decks with Pithing Needle / Thoughtseize, as well as a Cascade deck with a post-board setup including Identity Crisis, Duress, Thoughtseize, Thought Hemorrhage, and Austere Command. Two weeks later in Edison I expected a lot of Jund, Five-Color, White-Blue Baneslayer, and Faeries. Instead I was faced with Jund, Kithkin and, Baneslayer."
While Five-Color Control has been a staple of the Standard format throughout the qualifier season, Siow liked the way the deck was able to be tuned to fit its pilot's preferences and shifts in the metagame.
"At the time playing 4 Baneslayers wasn't that common, and I was also maindecking Vendilion Cliques over Plumeveil," he explained. "The list wasn't anything groundbreaking, but since there are so many choices available when playing Five-Color Control—such as whether to maindeck Jace Beleren, Mulldrifter, Path to Exile, Ajani Vengeant, Broodmate, Runed Halo—almost any list will come out unique."
Since relocating to the East Coast for school, Lucas has played in two PTQs that were about 70 players larger than the events he had grown used to in Northern California—although Pro Tour luminaries lurked in the shark-infested waters of both coasts.
"Last October in Shards Limited during the first PTQ, I had to play Luis Scott-Vargas in what was basically a 'win and in' round," recalled Siow. "He crushed me before deciding later that month he would rather just win PT–Berlin than play PTQs. When you play against the best player in the world—at least in my opinion—you lose the fear pretty quickly. But when I first started PTQing many of the other California stalwarts seemed insurmountable to me. People like Josh Utter-Leyton, Rafael Solari, Marshall Fine, Kenny Ellis, Kevan Emami, and Standish Choi. I haven't really had the opportunity to play many people on the East Coast in a PTQ environment, thought I do see many semi-pros such as Osyp [Lebedowicz], Gerard Fabiano and Jacob Van Lunen wandering the Swiss. Josh Ravitz and Brett Blackman are some of the few players who I have both talked to and played against, and are people I have a healthy respect for."
If you are looking to make the leap from the PTQ ranks to the line for registration at Pro Tour–San Diego next year, you should heed the advice of someone who has been able to make that leap in less than two years since starting to play the game seriously.
"There are a few things I try to tell new players when they start playing at the PTQ level," said Siow, who also wrote about his PTQ win for ChannelFireball.com. "First is to play a deck you're comfortable with. Playing well is more important than anything else in Magic, and playing what you know contributes to that. I also would suggest that people interested in PTQing start trying to get involved in the local scene. Not only does practice make you better, but being able to hear about ideas and borrow/lend cards are valuable things that a playgroup can provide."
"Finally, some practical advice," Siow concluded. "Get some sleep the night before, eat during the day, and don't be afraid to call a judge."
Perhaps the most unusual route to Pro Tour–Austin will the one Daniel O'Mahoney-Schwartz took to earn his invite. The 30-year-old has been playing competitive Magic for just about as long as it has been possible and his career has taken him around the world. He has five Grand Prix Top 8s to his credit, including a win in St. Louis alongside his brother Steven and their close friend Jon Finkel as Team Antarctica. That team also finished in the Top 4 at Pro Tour–Washington, D.C. and played for the ESPN cameras in a special team challenge during Pro Tour–New York in early 2000.
Dan attended Grand Prix–Boston with the goal of merely playing in one side event to keep his ratings active in order to secure a Composite invite to this year's World Championships. At the time he was optimistic that his brother would be attending that event as a Hall of Fame inductee and wanted to be able to play at a Pro Tour with Steve that weekend.
"I had planned to not play in the Grand Prix since I could only really risk a ratings invite to Worlds, and instead chose to play a side draft instead," said Dan of his road to Austin. "Friday evening I watched Eric Philipps, David Williams, Mark Lepine, Steve Hirsch, and my brother enter multiple trials all night, and their passion started to tempt me to join the Grand Prix to reactivate my rating, since I actually needed to gain a few points if I also wanted to qualify for Austin. Unfortunately from my observations of the Trials, I didn't find the Sealed Deck format to my liking and chose to just rest up and do a side draft after all. It should also be noted that my brother and I lived in Boston for five years and this was my first real trip back after being back in NYC for three years, so this was also a five-day trip to see old friends with the Grand Prix as a backdrop. Of course, it was great to see old Magic friends at the Grand Prix as well!"
"I had considered playing just one match in my draft so I could reactivate my rating without risking any rating points, but I decided to play out the draft because my deck was so much fun and I had nothing better to do anyway. I didn't realize at the time I had the opportunity to gain enough points to qualify for PT–Austin, as I thought it was an 8K event, when it was actually 16K, and I assumed that the cutoff for PT–Austin would move up a bit anyway," explained Dan. "Turns out I gained 6 points in my Total rating, which was enough for 91st place. So basically I qualified for PT–Austin by accident."
"I actually spent all day Saturday waiting for a Shards draft to start, since I have a lot of experience and success with the format, and find it a lot of fun, but everyone wanted to play M10, so eventually I caved and jumped into an M10 draft. Fortunately, it turns out that M10 draft is a lot of fun and skill intensive," explained Dan. "Before my draft started, I spoke with Matt Ferrando and he advised me to draft opposing colors, as they seemed to have the best synergy. He then told me about [your] favorite draft deck, which is just a bunch of cheap blue flyers—Zephyr Sprites, Sage Owls, Illusionary Servants—combined with Trumpet Blasts. I did not plan to draft the blue-red beatdown deck, but I did go in with the intention of trying the opposing color strategy. I don't remember the order of my picks, but I started with two Seismic Strikes and then was passed Merfolk Looter and went from there. I had two Looters and thought I was really lucky since I didn't realize they were common at the time. Fortunately I picked up a Sleep, which may be the best card for this archetype. The best thing about this deck is that the bulk of it is assembled with table scraps, though I believe people will catch on to how strong Illusionary Servant is, if they have not already."
"I haven't really planned for this much, as I hadn't even planned on qualifying for PT Austin. I don't want to speak for anyone before I speak to them, but I hope to test with the local NYC guys who plan to go to PT–Austin, such as Steve Sadin and Jamie Parke," said Dan, who did not even know for sure if he would be qualified until this Wednesday. "I'll check with them to see who else is involved and try to make as much of a contribution as I can. Hopefully there will be an opportunity to contribute to draft strategies, though I will gladly playtest and try to cook things up for Constructed as well. I am sure I will spend a lot of time talking to Mike Flores and Lan D. Ho in preparation for the event. I also have come across a lot of more casual players through work and friends lately, and may try to incorporate them into my testing. I think it will be fun to give these guys a chance to get a taste of competitive magic. For the draft portion, I will be drafting at Jon Finkel's place perhaps once or twice a week. Hopefully we can get back up to twelve drafts in a day when Zendikar comes out ...."
I could not resist a chance to ask Dan how he thought today's crop of Pro Players compare to the group he came up with back in the earliest days of the Pro Tour.
"I haven't played much against the new players, but I believe the Internet and Magic Online are in a way to competitive Magic what performance enhancers have been to sports," laughed Dan. "Back when we first started playing competitively in events like NY Magic and the early Pro Tours, you had to find random local tournaments to get your competitive fix and you had to troll forums for the latest technology. Now with Magic Online and so much great writing on competitive Magic, geography and time are becoming lesser barriers to aspiring Pro Players. My short answer is, I think us old school players are better than these kids!"
- Game Day Round-Up
Three weeks ago, hundreds of Wizards Play Network locations took part in Magic 2010 Game Day. The event culminated the series of new set celebrations that kicked off in July with Prereleases and Launch Parties for the new set. Now that the dust has settled, it's time to see how the events turned out.
"We kicked off Game Days with Magic 2010, and the initial worldwide response was impressive," said Reid Schmadeka, a content manager for Wizards of the Coast's Organized Play group. "Game Day generated hundreds of Magic 2010 champions and deck lists from across the globe that we could feature for our players. The Zendikar Game Day promises to be even bigger, with improved awareness of the event, brand-new promo cards, and a new Standard format as the Zendikar block rotates in to replace Lorwyn and Shadowmoor."
One such featured player, Pavel Bednarik of the Czech Republic, took time to share his experience. Bednarik played at Arkadyn in Vyskov, finishing 7th among the 21 participants. His friend Mates Vantuch had two decks for the event—Kithkin and Time Sieve— and Bednarik opted for Kithkin because he hadn't prepped much and wanted the easier deck to play.
After starting the tournament 1-1-1, Bednarik knew his Top 8 chances were looking grim. But a victory over Vasek Dorusak and his Five-Color Control deck (thanks to some mana problems in both games) gave him hope. With a spot in the Top 8 on the line, Bednarik faced Tomas Klic and Merfolk.
"I was worried of his Merfolk, but my Kithkin showed their best and in our first game I had an ideal hand and Merfolk were forced to chump-block. Tom used his Cryptic Command, a second Cryptic Command, and Sleep, but death eventually found him. The second game was even more sad for Tom, because he mulliganed to four cards. One cannot dare that against Kithkin, especially when I kept a good hand. So it was my third win and I am in Top 8."
Before the Top 8, the organizer Jiri Kopacek ran a match for one of the promotional t-shirts. Bednarik noted how apt it was that Libor Stastny won the shirt—"Such a fortune. 'Stastny' in Czech means 'happy' in English."
Bednarik's quarterfinal matchup was against his friend Ales Kovarik, who also ran Kithkin. However, Kovarik held the advantage due to two Stillmoon Cavaliers maindeck plus two in the sideboard.
"After our sideboarding he had four Stillmoons and I had only two, which had a huge impact on the game," Bednarik said. "His opening hand always contained the Stillmoon and a few good cards and my opening hand was always worse. So I lost, and my first opponent in Top 8 was my last opponent in the tournament."
Vantuch went on to win the tournament with his Time Sieve deck, defeating Kovarik in the finals. You can see the Top 8 deck lists here. For Top 8 lists from more than 50 Game Days around the world, click here.
- Firestarter: How to Snag a Watchwolf
September's FNM foil card is this snazzy new version of the preferred guard dog of the best Selesnyan homes—Watchwolf.
What deck will you be bringing to your local event this evening? And if you don't get a chance to answer this on Friday you can always check back over the weekend and let us know how you fared!