Team Axion had six players qualified for the Regional Pro Tour Qualifier (RPTQ) in Stansted at the weekend and had hopes of performing well after a solid but unremarkable set of finishes at GP Manchester. The team had a lot of experience in the Shadows over Innistrad (SOI) limited format having had a team house for GP Barcelona, several players extensively testing for Pro Tour SOI and a couple of madmen rapidly incinerating play points on Magic Online in preparation.
As is customary for the team before a big event we had a long Skype call to discuss the format, collate our thoughts and try to fill in any holes in any given individual's knowledge or perceptions of the format. The meeting raised several interesting topics, including but not limited to; Steve's incredible luck at opening Sealed pools, if Blue was ever viable, how aggressive the format was and if Tom and George could viably choose to draw, as they are very greedy. The conclusions we came to were that Blue should be avoided, most pools lend themselves to a Green/White build due to the depth of playables in those colours, the quality of your pool was paramount and if you didn't have a very strong pool then you had to think outside the box in order to give yourself a shot at Top 8. The Sealed pools from the previous weekend's RPTQs had been posted on the mothership and some study of them indicated that G/W was, as suspected, the most successful combination. However, it also showed a surprisingly high win rate for Blue/White strategies and some scrappy Red aggressive decks. This was something we paid close attention to and having these archetypes at the forefront of your mind when building with a less than perfect pool proved to be very helpful. The final key thing we discussed was Auras. These are almost always dismissed out of hand in every format as they expose you to the dreaded two-for-one. In this format though a lot of the removal is damage or stats based and often combat and combat tricks serve as the pseudo-removal. This means that increasing the size of a creature substantially can often make combat very hard for your opponent and as such Equestrian Skills and Hope Against Hope were cards we would play if the need arose.
The RPTQ had 93 players and we sat down to open our pools for the day after enduring Jack Doyle's masterfully crafted puns. I was prepared to open a mediocre pool and ready to build a grindy value deck, an all-in aggro deck or to put enchantments on Kessig Dire Swine and hope 'Big Pig' got there. Cracking open the first pack and fanning it out for the player opposite me to verify it and note the rares and dual-faced cards (DFCs), I was unsure if I was pleased to see an Olivia, Mobilized for War as my first rare. It is certainly a very powerful card, it has evasion, great text, a good body for the mana cost but it is not in the ideal colours for Sealed and is a gold card. The next pack provided another high quality rare, Markov Dreadknight, and the gentleman opposite me raised his eyebrows in appreciation of my luck thus far. Little did he know that the next four packs would show him a second Olivia, a Sin Prodder and a very solid Black/Red creature base and removal package – his eyebrows ended up almost at the ceiling as he asked “Happy?”, I replied “Yup!”. Having not been nervous for almost any Magic event or match in the past I suddenly thought to myself that I was potentially looking at a ticket to Australia and had to take a couple of minutes to mentally calm down and actually build a deck. Blue was quickly dismissed as it was the usual nonsense of medium to poor cards, White had a Hanweir Militia Captain and some solid evasive spirits but was shallow, Green had quality creatures but limited removal and no Bombs. Checking the other potential builds for a bit I finally started on the Black/Red deck and called a judge to check how long was left on building... I was done with twenty minutes to go. This is not how things usually go, typically there are three or four minutes left as I agonise over the 23rd card so I double-checked everything, triple-checked and finally submitted my decklist.
“How is your deck?”, my brother Henry asked as I walked over to join my friends; very quietly I got the deck out of my bag and whispered “I think it might be the literal, stone cold nuts, be very quiet!”
Pairings for the first round went up and I had to face the Big Rig, the PTQ end boss and widely regarded as one of the best limited players in the country, Neil Rigby. Luckily for me Neil mulliganed to four in the first game, which somehow still turned out to be an actual game, and was overwhelmed by my rares in the second. Round two matched me against a U/R deck which looked solid but was unable to compete with the power level of my deck. The third round was where it started to get interesting—my opponent, Greg, made a Vessel of Nascency and cracked it in the early turns setting up Delirium for his Inexorable Blob follow-up. I played a Bloodmad Vampire and with Uncaged Fury and some removal in hand felt confident I could win the race out of nowhere without Greg suspecting anything. This plan back-fired somewhat when Greg stole my 7 power vampire with Malevolent Whispers and killed me from 14. Oops... I wrote down “!THREATEN!” on my notepad and proceeded to sideboard in a Merciless Resolve. Game two saw Olivia on turn three and Greg died in short order. Game three was another close race and on what was clearly one of the final turns of the game I had the option to put Greg to 4 by casting a Crow of Dark Tidings and hasting it with Olivia's ability or a Pale Rider of Trostad which would make every creature lethal on the following turn but leave me with just one card in hand. I thought about the decision for a while and given my knowledge of Greg's deck from the previous games decided that his haste threats I knew about and likely combat tricks wouldn't kill me in one turn if I played the Pale Rider. The one trick Greg could have to kill me from this spot was the Malevolent Whispers again and he untapped and quickly slammed it on my Pale Rider, which would give him a lethal attack. I cast my last card in hand: “Merciless Resolve, sacrifice the Pale Rider, I draw 2?”. Greg attacked for a non-lethal amount and extended the hand. Phew! Round four I was paired against a friend and excellent player, George Burrow, he kept a two-land hand on the play game one and never got there. In the second game, George played cautiously and very technically sharp to establish a daunting board presence. Luckily ,I drew rares; both Sin Prodder and Markov Dreadknight showed up and chipped away at George's life total as I chumped his large green men and beasts. I blocked his Quilled Wolf to force him to tap out to pump it, activated Dreadknight to get it to 7 power, Uncaged Fury'd it and swung for 16 and George was dead.
Everything was going according to plan so far, I was drawing well, my deck was outstanding and I was playing tight. Round five was the first win-and-in as a 5-0 record would make it possible to double ID into the Top 8. I was paired against fellow Team Axion player, James Allingham, who had seen my deck and claimed his might be even better. In game one, my draw was lacklustre and James ran me over with a very Unruly Mob directed by Thalia's Lieutenant. In game two, I mulliganed and James made a Tireless Tracker and Ulvenwald Mysteries, neither of which I could answer and was promptly buried by them. I took a loss but James was locked for a Top 8 spot so I wasn't that unhappy with the result and remained confident in my deck. The sixth round was against a Scottish player I recognised called Brandon. His deck was, outstanding; it was the archetypal Green/White pool that we'd all wanted to open, featuring Ulvenwald Hydra, Tireless Tracker, Pack Guardian, Duskwatch Recruiter, Rabid Bites, Gryff's Boon, Soul Swallower and some other goodies. In game one, I stumbled a little and quickly found myself at a low life total before drawing back-to-back rares to stabilise as my Olivia threatened to kill Brandon if he decided to attack with his Hydra at any point. Brandon found a Gryff's Boon and the recursion left me in a spot where I was dead on his next turn. I tanked on a way to win through a 12/12 reach and a combined toughness of over 20 on the other side of the board. I activated my Mad Prophet and found a second Uncaged Fury, maybe I could steal it if my Pyre Hound wasn't sufficiently blocked. The team, such as it was, came rumbling across and unfortunately the 11 toughness blocking my Pyre Hound meant I could only put Brandon to 2 if I cast both Furies so I decided not to show them and conceded. At this point I called a judge for a quick toilet break and when I returned Brandon decided to do the same, the judge then decided as he was there anyway he would 'randomly' select us for a deck-check so the second game didn't start for a while. When it did Brandon mulliganed and died without offering up much resistance. In game three, he had a turn two Duskwatch Recruiter, to which I had no answer. I drew Dead Weight for the turn, which likely won me the game, and dispatched his mythic uncommon. Turn three Olivia, turn four Spiteful Motives it, get ya! Brandon's Soul Swallower was unable to get out of range of my Reduce to Ashes in time and I was in the Top 8!
Round seven was safe to ID and so I promptly did so and went to get some coffee and something to eat, whilst desperately asking everyone I knew to teach me to draft before the Top 8 commenced. My experience in drafts at Barcelona had been good, going 2-1 in both of my pods but in the team house I had been by far the worst performing member and wasn't confident in my drafting at all. James and I discussed it during the downtime and having to win only a single round rather than the whole draft was comforting; James told me to just avoid drafting a trainwreck, hope I curved or drew better than my opponent and just get there. Raoul Zimmermann and Steve Bains were also playing win-and-ins this round, Raoul with a scrappy R/W aggro deck and Steve with a Bant deck featuring Tireless Tracker, 2 Ghostly Wings and an Equestrian Skill. Raoul won his match to secure a seat at the draft table whilst Steve sadly lost but having three team members in the top 8 was a great result for the team.
The other Top 8 drafters were: Raoul Zimmermann (fellow Team Axion member), James Allingham (fellow Team Axion member), Duncan Tang, Matthew Foulkes, Alan Meany, Jason McKay and one of the front-runners to be WMC captain for England, Francesco Giorgio. The draft was randomly seated and as it was an elimination draft you were paired across, I confirmed this with the Head Judge and looked across to see James... At least one of us makes the Pro Tour, eh? James is a very strong player and I knew he would draft Green/White if at all possible, which we both believe to be the best archetype. I opened a mediocre pack one but was happy enough to take a Quilled Wolf, valuing 2-drops very highly. The second pack was also not stellar but I was again fairly happy to take a Thraben Inspector and look to be in G/W. The third pack had nothing in Green or White but had a Dead Weight and an Olivia’s Bloodsworn indicating Black might be open. I wavered on taking a lower power white card but eventually did the disciplined thing, which Tom Law would tell me to do, and took the Dead Weight. From there I drafted a B/W deck with some good cards such as Dreadknight, Tenacity, From under the Floorboards and a solid curve of creatures. It wasn't a trainwreck, it wasn't the best, hopefully it could win exactly 2 games and I could pack it away.
James and I sat down to play and he led on a Lambholt Pacifist (ut-oh), I kept calm and played out my spells to stop it from transforming and managed his board with my removal, whilst trying to turn on Delirium for Topplegeist. James' draw appeared to not come together too well whilst I drew the better half of my deck and eventually ground out a win. Game two James has a turn two Duskwatch Recruiter (ut-oh again!), which he follows up with a Lambholt and prompts me to complain that bringing a Constructed deck isn't really fair. The game develops and I fall further behind as James' parade of high quality creatures continues with a Dauntless Cathar and Nearheath Chaplain. James continually attacks in such a way as to represent Puncturing Light so I continue to take chip shots. Eventually, I am forced into blocking and using my closely guarded Tenacity, at which point the Puncturing Light comes out and I don't recover. James' deck is excellent but I won the first one and I'm finally on the play, maybe my Oxen can get there. James mulligans to 6, has only a True-Faith Censer on turn two (yay!) then plays a Veteran Cathar. I am able to Dead Weight it and continue to build out my board of medium creatures. James finds a Vessel of Nascency and immediately cracks it to find his missing White mana, he plays out a Deathcap Cultivator next turn and passes with two open mana. I attack for lethal, James blocks and has Clip Wings to survive but I have Tenacity to seal the game and the flight to Australia!
The excitement at getting to go to the Pro Tour and Australia is almost, overwhelming; I'm writing this some time after the RPTQ and still can't really believe it has happened. A lot of people congratulated me at the time and I was a bit shell-shocked so I didn't thank you all properly, so thanks! Congratulations to Raoul for winning his draft round and joining me at Pro Tour Eldritch Moon. Also, a huge thank you to Team Axion for their support, advice, time, effort etc. etc. and to Axion for their support and sponsorship (as well as all their great events like this RPTQ!).
About George Channing:
George has been playing competitively since 2014 and is a true grinder; with a huge number of competitive events under his belt, his results have been improving year on year. With a Grand Prix Top 8 in Modern and a few Pro Tour appearances, he aspires to become a regular on the biggest stage. George’s role on Team Axion is frequently related to metagame and decklist analysis, whilst also providing a lot of raw testing data. He most enjoys Standard with the speed and frequency of the metagame developments keeping it interesting.