It has been a couple of good weeks for twenty-four-year-old Iowan student Josh McClain. He burst onto the Top 25 Rankings last week courtesy of a Top 16 finish at Pro Tour Born of the Gods. This week, he nudged three players down a peg with his Top 8 finish at the staggeringly large Grand Prix Richmond as he climbed into No. 16 in the Pro Rankings. McClain is no stranger to the Grand Prix Top 8 bracket, having been there twice before—once losing somewhat improbably to Reid Duke before besting Duke the next time they met in the finals. McClain's Grand Prix win came in Modern, as did his Pro Tour Top 16 and his most recent Top 8. In fact, all three of those finishes came playing Melira Pod—a deck that many more established players have vocally eschewed because of how hard it is to play optimally.
Long before McClain would start investigating the intricacies of Birthing Pod, he was just a kid at school trying his hand at a variety of TCGs. He was looking for a game that would satisfy an innate competitive nature. He bounced around all the usual suspects before he landed squarely on Magic: The Gathering—and has never looked back.
"Magic had and still has about everything I could want in a card game," said McClain, of the end of his search for a game that would continually challenge him. "The strategy aspect is great, the community is awesome, and there is always another important tournament to try and win."
There is no question about what psychographic profile fits McLain. He is a Spike through and through, and has been for as long as he has been playing the game.
"As bad as it sounds, I was always more focused on winning than having fun, even from day one. Even if it was just FNM, I would always try and figure out the best Draft strategies or try and have the best Standard deck," said the no.-16 ranked player, who is living out his teenaged fantasies about competing on the biggest stage. "I remember back in my early high school years reading coverage of PTs and GPs just thinking how awesome it would be to be able to go to these tournaments."
It was not long before McClain was a fixture on the PTQ circuit, with plenty of Top 8 finishes but no proverbial blue envelope to show for his efforts. In 2011, he finally broke through onto the Pro Tour when he qualified for Pro Tour Nagoya 2011, playing a white-blue Caw-Blade deck in Extended. While he started out 4–1 in the Constructed portion, an 0–3 at his first Pro Tour draft left him out of Day Two and eager for another ride on the horse after having a surprising "aha" moment.
"My favorite part of that PT was meeting a bunch of people who I am now good friends with," he recalled of his first experience on Tour. "I went in expecting to win maybe two or three matches; after starting 4–1, I realized that when you boil it down, you're still just playing Magic. It gave me a lot of confidence knowing that I stood a chance playing at the highest level there was."
McClain began attending more and more Grand Prix—he has played in close to two dozen as of this writing—and had a couple of near misses before finally breaking through at Grand Prix Miami and coming tantalizingly close to winning his finals match against Reid Duke.
"I still remember the insane feeling I had when I was up a game and he was in the process of mulliganing to five in Game 2. I thought I was winning this GP for sure," he said. "Another thing I remember is Game 3, facing down his Olivia, where my only outs were basically the three Angel of Serenity left in my deck. Every draw step was a rollercoaster of emotions. I knew that if I could peel an Angel, I'd be in very good shape to win, but in the end Olivia got me."
A chance at revenge is pretty rare in Magic and that is even more true at the Grand Prix level, where so many people get churned through the Swiss and into the Top 8. It is pretty rare to have two players meet in the finals twice, but that is exactly what Josh McClain and Reid Duke did later that year when they squared off again in the finals of Grand Prix Detroit. This time, armed with his trusty Melira Pod deck that he would come to be identified with, it was McClain who was victorious. Top Magic Pros always try to remain as neutral as possible about their wins and losses, but was there any measure of score-settling to be had for the Iowan?
"After losing in the finals of Miami, I really had the fire to win a GP. All I could think about for the next few weeks was how I sideboarded incorrectly and how I really wanted another shot. Playing against Reid again in the finals, while at the time I didn't feel particularly great about—it is Reid Duke after all—ended up being just icing on the cake," he admitted.
McClain jumped on the Modern bandwagon almost immediately. Knowing that it was a format that would let him play with his favorite card over multiple set releases did not hurt either.
"Before Modern came out, my favorite format had always been Extended," McClain explained about his affinity for the newest format. "With Modern being similar, it quickly became my favorite format. As long as Birthing Pod remains legal, I will almost for sure be playing Melira Pod."
There was some speculation in the weeks leading up the most recent banned and restricted announcement, that preceded Pro Tour Born of the Gods, that Birthing Pod could have been a victim of McClain's success with the card. As he and the rest of Team Face to Face Games prepared for the Pro Tour, there must have something of a sweat going on as it came down to the wire about how the Modern format would be changed.
"Very much so," admitted McClain. "The weeks leading up to the announcement, it was all I could think about. I still remember that Monday night, from 10:55 onward—the announcement was going live at 11—I was sitting on the mothership spamming refresh waiting for it to appear."
In the end, Deathrite Shaman was the only ban and Bitterblossom and Wild Nacatl were reintegrated into the format. It worked out well for McClain and his teammates. Not only did he finish 11th with the deck, but Jacob Wilson finished 2nd with the same archetype. McClain piloted the deck this past weekend in Richmond to another Top 8 and all but locked up Platinum status, once you take into account the guaranteed points from the remaining Pro Tours.
"Working with Team Face to Face is great. This was my third PT in a row with the team. Our preparation went well. The Constructed testing was a little scattered, but Modern sort of leads to that happening. I think we had some very good Limited prep, and I think it paid off, as a lot of us posted some very good Limited results," said McClain, who went 5–1 in his two drafts at the Pro Tour.
"For Atlanta, we are trying a different approach. Our main goal right now is to get a team of players who are going to be qualified for multiple PTs so we can build up trust with the same group rather than constantly have four or five people we have never worked with before," said McClain, who will have a solid core of himself, Wilson, Alexander Hayne, and Jon Stern already able to be on that list, having either Gold or Platinum.
"Getting to Platinum means everything to me," said the player who dreamt of just this when he was in high school. "I'll be playing in just about every GP I can feasibly get to once I start getting Platinum benefits, so next year will be a pretty crazy one. The next step is going to be trying to make the World Championship."
What advice does he have for the young Josh McClain reading this article and wanting to master the Modern Melira Pod deck?
"Practice," he said simply. "Nothing is more important with this deck than knowing all of your options and how each one will play out two turns from now. The best way to get familiar with the deck is just to play more games."
February Player of the Month (#MTGPoM)
To the surprise of exactly no one, the February Player of the Month is Pro Tour Born of the Gods Champion Shaun McLaren. It is pretty difficult to dislodge a Pro Tour winner from this award and it is even more so in a month with fewer days than any other. In a thirty-one-day month Owen Turtenwald would have had another GP finish to bolster his Sunday Super Series win and Pro Tour Top 16; Christian Seibold would have had a GP victory to augment his Pro Tour Top 8; and they may have been able to offer some resistance to the McLaren juggernaut.
Congratulations to McLaren, who will no doubt be the focus of some feature match attention this weekend at Grand Prix Montréal as he looks to pad his narrow lead over Alexander Hayne and Jon Stern to be the Canadian National Champion.