Up until 3 weeks ago, Matej Zatlkaj was known as one of the many successful players that haven't quite managed to walk away with a Champion's trophy so far. Then again, with two appearances in the Pro Tour Top 8, a Grand Prix Top 8 finish and several more money finishes, his résumé was all but underwhelming - quite a few players wouldn't have minded trading places with "Big Z".
Could his victory in Stockholm now elevate him to whole new heights and would we continue to see Zatlkaj dominate the field? Could he finally overcome his fear of feature matches now that he had won several in a row? That were some of the many burning questions that were on my mind when I approached one of the most recognizable Eastern European players.
We started our conversation talking about Grand Prix Stockholm. When I asked him whether the victory had changed anything in his life, Zatlkaj went back in time a little further and he told me about his experience winning the World Magic Cup Qualifier. He stated that up until then, he never put much thought into the fact that he had yet to actually win one of the events "that mattered". Still, he enjoyed the feeling quite a bit and he decided that he would try to also win a Grand Prix.
Just a few weeks later, his dream came true and he became a Grand Prix champion in Stockholm. Despite his reputation as a gifted player, he said that it brought some changes with it. "More people will recognize you after you've won a major event."
He added that it's very ironic, considering how much more important (at least in Pro Points and, well, money) his second-place finish at the Pro Tour was, but "the community is heavily affected by an American way of thinking and they care a lot more about winners".
A very interesting theory and we could probably name drop quite a few accomplished players to back up this claim; we agreed that more people tend to remember the winners of a Grand Prix than the second place finishers in Pro Tours.
Matej Zatlkaj is one of the most successful European players!
Despite this tendency, Zatlkaj would prefer reaching the Top 16 of two Pro Tours in a season instead of advancing to the Top 8 of one Pro Tour. "Staying relevant is very important in my opinion; it also gives me a lot more credibility when I'm on commentary for the coverage."
Asked about some of the interactions that he has had after Stockholm, he told me that he has received a lot of congratulations from all over the world as well as some inquiries by players that he didn't know all that well before. Most of them asked him about his sideboarding decisions. "People still play the Jeskai cards and they wanted to know how to make the most out of them."
This brought us to our next topic: the current Modern metagame:
Where is Jeskai Ascendancy?
"I don't think the deck is that good. In my opinion, it is very overhyped. There might be a good version somewhere out there, but I didn't come across it so far."
That sounded quite like a death sentence for the deck, but Zatlkaj backed up his claims with plenty of reasons. According to him, the deck is not very well-positioned for the current metagame since Delver Burn and many U/R based decks (e.g. Scapeshift) can introduce so many sideboard cards in between games that it's pretty hard for the Jeskai Ascendancy player to reliably win games.
Speaking of overhyped, Zatlkaj added that he's come across a number of players that told him how "broken" the deck was in Modern, but whenever he asked them whether they playtested it all, they admitted that they didn't. So it appears like it looks a lot better on paper compared to how it's doing in fierce competition at the Grand Prix.
Asked about the format in general and the direction it's headed, Zatlkaj told me that he considers it pretty unexplored. In his opinion, plenty of players - among them some of the veterans - are still making sub-optimal decisions, like including Monastery Swiftspear in Mono-Red Decks just to list one example.
Unfortunately, the U/R based decks have a somewhat oppressive effect when it comes to innovating new strategies. "You really can't afford to play a grindy deck that wants to reach the later turns where it can win with a card like Liliana of the Veil or Gifts Ungiven because you won't survive long enough to win with any of these late game cards."
Slippery Bogles and Silver Bullets
He went with Slippery Bogles this weekend since he wanted to play a deck that wouldn't care too much about the game plan of the U/R based decks. Even though he went up against two very good players early today that came prepared for the direction the metagame has taken (by adding Enchantment Removal and cards like Spell Snare), he was able to overcome them by playing around those answers and staying on top of the standings.
Martin Juza was the one who suggested the deck in their team forum. While all members agreed that it would be a very strong contender, they were able to tweak four or even five different decks and come up with something that seemed extremely viable. In the end, it came down to each team member's respective preference in terms of controlish or aggressive decks and that lead to their choices.
I then went on and asked Zatlkaj about any super hot sideboard tech that he could give away. He didn't have to think long and he immediately replied "Guttural Response!"
Zatlkaj is maxing out on copies of the silver bullet that can turn the tables in a close match all on its own and while he didn't want to give away any more secret tech for the time being, we will publish his (and a few more) decklist tomorrow over the course of the day.
Always Come Prepared!
Last, but certainly not least, we talked a little more about his preparation process prior to the larger events. He told us about his team "Cabin Crew" that's named after a cabin in the Czech Republic that's owned by Martin Juza's parents. With the cabin being 15 minutes away from the next town, there aren't many distractions that can interfere with the preparation process of the group. Very often, they get up early in the morning, cook some food and for the next 10 hours, it's non-stop playtesting.
"This can really make the different in a Pro Tour. We always come prepare."
It appears the group is more motivated than ever after the great results they've had lately. This time around, the Facebook group proved more effective than ever with lots of members of the team participating and publishing their test results.
There are quite a few lessons to take away from this interview. One thing that has been brought up repeatedly was the fact that you need to come prepared to the larger events or you simply won't succeed. Players like Matej Zatlkaj know pretty much every match-up inside out and you will have a very hard time trying to surprise them with some unique inclusion. Make sure to also bring your a-game and playtest a lot during the weeks leading up to a Grand Prix or a Pro Tour.