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Smells Like Team Spirit - GP San Jose and Pro Tour Seattle

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Richard Bland
Richard Bland

About Richard Bland

Richard is an English pro player. He started playing Magic on a foreign exchange trip to Germany in the dark days of Darksteel, and was running sick homebrew Shared Fate decks at FNM while everyone else was playing affinity mirrors. While he has learned better since then, he still retains a soft spot for combo decks of all hues.

  • Platinum Pro Player
  • 98 Lifetime Pro Points
  • 2nd Worlds 2011
  • 2nd GP San Diego 2011
  • 3rd GP Barcelona 2011
  • 3rd GP Madrid 2010
  • 2nd Great Britain Nationals 2010

Smells Like Team Spirit - GP San Jose and Pro Tour Seattle

Hello everyone,

I’ve just returned from an eventful couple of weeks stateside, and there are so many things to talk about. Let’s get to it.

I flew out early on the week before the Pro Tour to take part in Grand Prix San Jose, and the triumphant return of the team limited format to the GP circuit. Joining me there were the other 5 members of my regular PT testing group: Daniel Royde, Eduardo Sajgalik, Andreas Nordahl, Sveinung Bjornerud and Andy Ganz.

GP San Jose

The flight out was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Having the ‘talent’ of being able to fall asleep pretty much anywhere and the key window seat, I was asleep before the plane even left the runway at Heathrow. When I woke an hour or two later, I found myself with my head and arm feeling like they were frozen to the window of the plane. The side of the plane and the area around it had become bitterly cold for some reason and I felt like death. After moving to an empty center seat and burying myself in my jackets and some blankets, I spent the rest of the flight shivering intensely and downing painkillers, trying to remember what warmth felt like. Thankfully, once we landed and I got to breathe some non-recycled air and walk around properly, I felt much better. Definitely one of my least-pleasant travelling experiences of the past few years – I figure the United flight must have been on an older model jet that didn’t have particularly good insulation.

I was fully recovered just in time for the GP, and it was a good thing I was, as the event was staggeringly huge; 571 teams. Day one started on-time and the round had no significant delays, but when there were eleven rounds on day one, all the efficiency in the world can’t help things. The last round finished around 1am, and with an 8-3 record, the team of Eduardo, Dan and myself failed to make the cut. Andy, Andreas and Sveinung did make it through, however, and finished in the money.

The team limited format itself is great fun, and pools are challenging and rewarding to build. Our pool left us with many powerful Golgari and Izzet cards, no Rakdos at all, and a smattering of powerful Selesnya and Azorious. Our decks ended up as Izzet aggro, with multiple copies of one of my personal favorite commons, Pursuit of Flight, a Golgari control deck with removal, solid creatures, a good late game plan with 3 Ogre Jailbreaker + scavenge, and the infamously unfun rare Pack Rats. The third deck was a cobbled together Wgu build with such platinum hits as Seller of Songbirds, multiple Selesnya Sentries, Concordia Pegasus and other highly mediocre men. The deck did have a few bombs to give it a chance though, with Collective Blessing and Angel of Serenity being the most common way to make up for my rather poor creature quality. I played this deck of castoffs and managed a respectable 5-4 record, though I felt I could have done better.

Team Spirit

With European Team event GP Utrecht scheduled in March, I have mixed feelings about the team format. It was a really fun event to play, and I had a great time team drafting and playing sealed with friends, and getting to shout at Dan Royde to stop being terrible and just play the damn card legally in an event is priceless, but with San Jose attracting roughly 150% of the usual GP turnout for the area and hitting 11 rounds, Utrecht looks like it might be a very long tournament indeed. The 2-round drafts on day 2 really cap the day 2 rounds at 6 and we might be left with up to 12 rounds on day 1. With such late finishes on the Saturday and early starts on Sunday, this structure doesn’t really seem feasible in the long-term.  I talked to a good number of players, judges and Wizards’ staff over the weekend and the suggestions of how to deal with the attendance problem were varied and interesting. Some were in favor of 3-day events, others on holding multiple GPs in the same area to divide the playerbase. Other suggestions included scrapping teamdraft day 2’s in favor of more sealed, changing the top-8 requirements to the double-elimination x-1-1 rather than the current x-2-1, or even scrapping byes altogether in favor of awarding matchpoints to those who would have byes, allowing tournaments to virtually eliminate the bye-rounds. All of the solutions have problems, and I’m honestly not sure how Wizards is looking to solve them, but when a significant portion of the players aren’t playing a single round until 4pm, or when you have people playing 20 rounds on under 5 hours sleep, or 1am finishes, you have a problem that isn’t going to sort itself out on its own.

Pro Tour Return to Ravnica

The trip to Seattle was less painful all round, and due to our super organizational skills we managed to take three different flights between the six of us, and yet, due to coincidental delays, arrived within a few minutes of each other. The house we rented was impressively decked out, with 5 bedrooms over 3 floors, 3 bathrooms including one with multiple sinks and a TV.

Seattle itself was a surprisingly steep city. It reminded me a lot of San Francisco, and I can’t imagine how bad it must get for pedestrians and drivers alike once the weather gets really bad. Our 7th team member, team Scotland’s Brad Barclay joined us and we got right into the most fun (and therefore the most important) part of testing. Lots and lots and lots of drafts.

Our limited testing threw up a number of interesting results. Firstly, that I was really not good at winning in this format. I failed to 3-0 a single one of the dozen drafts we did. Another key thing we learned was that the format was aggressive, both in the sense that it was fast, and that there wasn’t a good way to play control. Cheap removal was almost non-existent and making big guys was the best way to get through the playable 0/4 walls and 3/3 tokens that were commonplace.

Manafixing was quite limited, with the new guildgates being nowhere close to the old bouncelands in power level and only really useful for splashing a third color, and not even that great for doing that, as the enters the battlefield tapped ability could be quite clunky in multiples. Transguild Promenade was potentially very slow and clunky, and wasn’t enough to make multi-colored control decks viable. When compounded with the already slow duals and lack of cheap removal to offset the tempo-loss it makes the control decks heavily reliant on bombs to not just roll over to any average aggressive start. Cards like the guildmages, Scavenge cards, Golgari Decoy, Pursuit of Flight, Deviant Glee and Common Bond make it too difficult for the control deck to build a defensive wall to hide behind and cast big card-advantage spells, though Trestle Troll helps a little.

We came to the conclusion that, despite being a gold-colored format, you really want to settle into a single guild as quickly as possible, with only a minimum splash of a third color, if any. We recorded the results of our drafts by guild, and by the end of the week it was clear that Selesyna had the highest win percentage, with over 60% of matches won, followed closely by the mid-50 win percentages of Rakdos, Golgari and Izzet. The big loser was Azorius, with a mere 38% win percentage against the field. This felt in line with our general feel of the format, and most of us agreed that we would prefer to be Selesnya or Rakdos if possible.

Our constructed testing wasn’t as involved as in previous Pro Tours. Modern is a large format, and Return to Ravnica, while introducing several new cards and strategies, wouldn’t have anywhere near the impact it would on a much smaller format. We tested online in the week leading up to the Pro Tour, and tried new cards in various decks and ran our gauntlet decks against them to get an idea of which decks were likely to show up and which decks would beat them. We found that the most important decks in the format were what we dubbed the ‘big 7’ Jund, U/W, Affinity, UWR Delver, Scapeshift, RG ‘tron, and Birthing Pod.

We found that Jund was a strongly-performing deck all across the board, strong against random combo and aggro, as well as Affinity. It had bad matchups against RG ‘tron and U/W, and the mirror was on the random side. I liked UW a lot for its strong Jund and combo matchups and its resilience to hate after sideboard, in that there really wasn’t very much that opponents could sideboard against it. Affinity was somewhat of a problem, and RG ‘Tron was a very difficult matchup, but I anticipated a field of combo and Jund. Half the team agreed with this outlook on the metagame, and four of the seven of us settled on Blue/White. Dan and Sveinung opted for Jund, looking for a better game against the aggro matchups. And Andy played Storm, as Andy always does when he can, and there was nothing he could do to convince us to play it nor we convince him away from it. We were confident he had the best version of storm out there, but it was still a little too inconsistent and vulnerable to Jund Charms, Relic of Progenitus and other incidental hate that would be commonly played in sideboards.

Here is the final list I registered:

UW Modern - PT Seattle

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Geist of Saint Traft
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The sideboarding for this deck is fairly intuitive.

Against Jund

-2 Mana Leak +2 Threads of Disloyalty

There’s not much need for a big sideboard against Jund – so many of your cards match up well against theirs at all stages of the game. Everything you do wins you either tempo, card advantage or invalidates their cards, and they have to have the exact right combination of removal spells and guys to interact with you favorably.

UW Mirror

-1 Mana Leak +1 Vendilion Clique

There isn’t much needed to change in the mirror match, everything is fairly useful. On the draw you might consider boarding in a Supreme Verdict for another Mana Leak. The mirror is often very grindy, and finding Sword of Feast and Famine to make your Angel bigger than theirs or Eiganjo Castle to protect your Geist of Saint Traft from Angels/Clique or Finks can be key.

Against UWR Delver

+2 Supreme Verdict +2 Threads of Disloyalty -3 Vendilion Clique/Mana Leak, -1 Sword of Feast and Famine

Spell Snare is good here, as they will have Lightning Helix and possibly Tribal Flames. Trade with their threats when possible and beware of using Dismember too liberally, but it’s too good at trading with a 1-drop to cut. Your Geist is there to wasteland theirs – Restoration Angel blinking Kitchen Finks is how you will win most of your games.

Against RG Tron

-2 Path to Exile - Dismember - 4 Kitchen Finks -1 Mana Leak +2 Negate + Stony Silence + 2 Annul + Vendillion Clique + 2 Aven Mindcensor

You’re not that favored against ‘tron. Their Pyroclasms and Relics do a surprising amount of work against you, and your Spell Snares and Mana Leaks won’t stop the cards that matter. If you can Vendilion them out of their last threat, then Tectonic Edge their Eye of Ugin, you have a chance, and hitting with Sword of Feast and Famine is obviously a big game. After board you want to be trading 1-for-1 with their cards when possible, and try and keep them off-balance with Mindcensor and Clique. Save your Spell Snare for Pyroclasm and keep a Path or two in for Wurmcoils.

Against Affinity

-1 Sword of Feast and Famine -3 Geist of Saint Traft - 4 Mana Leak/Vendilion Clique (Leaks out on the draw) +2 Supreme Verdict, +2 Annul +1 Stony Silence +1 Disenchant +2 Threads of Disloyalty

Game one is difficult, though Spell Snare can completely crush a Plating-centric hand. Post board you’re playing the control role and looking to grind card advantage with Snapcaster. Be very aware of Blood Moon and fetch basics when possible.

Against Scapeshift

-1 Dismember -4 Path to Exile +2 Negate +2 Aven Mindcensor +Vendilion Clique

Keep your life total above 18 at all times. Tectonic Edge Valakuts whenever possible. Geist isn’t as good as you might think due to Snapcaster. Try to counter their ramp spells early whenever you can, as you won’t be able to win the Scapeshift counterwar when they have 8+mana. Tectonic Edge is your best card against them. Post-board, you play the same game, drop and early threat and counter their mana development. Be aware of Volcanic Fallout, and try to resolve and protect the Mindcensor. You can often take 18 from a Scapeshift and still win the match if you draw Cryptic Command, Mindcensor or Finks and are presenting a clock. When games go long, they might well draw enough Valakuts and Mountains naturally that Scapeshift becomes a dead card. Be aware of this.

Against Birthing Pod

-4 Spell Snare - 3 Kitchen Finks +2 Aven Mindcensor +2 Supreme Verdict +1 Vendilion Clique + 1 Stony Silence + Annul

Game one can be difficult. They tend to flood the board with mana and your countermagic doesn’t do a great deal. If they resolve a Birthing Pod game one you pretty much lose. Post-sideboard you’re in much better shape, as you have trump cards in Mindcensor and Supreme Verdict and they often have to board Ancient Grudge in case you have Grafdigger's Cage. Attack through with Vendilion and Angel, counter what you can, keep Birthing Pod off the table and their deck shouldn’t be able to do a great deal and will often lose to its own inconsistency.

Next time I’ll cover the Pro Tour itself and our team’s overall performance,

Thanks for reading,

Richard

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