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DINOSAURS, PIRATES AND PREPARATION GEORGE CHANNING 15/11/2017

I recently returned from Pro Tour (PT) Ixalan in Albuquerque (ABQ), New Mexico where I finished 98th with a 9-6-1 record and secured myself Bronze Pro status for the season with the additional five Pro Points from that finish. This article will delve into my preparation for the tournament and the processes used in the lead-up to the Pro Tour in terms of deck choice and drafting.

This PT was unlike previous PTs in that it took place significantly after the release of the new set, which meant that the level of preparation was going to be higher across the board and there was a much lower chance of niche drafting strategies or broken new Constructed decks making an appearance. This event was going to be about having a solid understanding of both the draft and Standard format and putting yourself in a position to get the edges on a micro scale rather than a macro one. I believe that this extended period prior to the PT gave me a much greater chance for success than the old timings as I could do extensive preparation and research on the Standard metagame, which I consider a forte of mine. It also meant that I would have more time to play the substantial number of drafts typically required for me to get up to a decent level in Limited; as I am a usually quite slow to improve in new Limited formats.

Given the way the timings of the set release, major events and the PT worked out, the best management of time seemed to be to focus on the Ixalan draft format and wait on Constructed until after Worlds. I was still keeping a close eye on Standard on Magic Online and the StarCityGames circuit but it was merely an eye rather than active engagement. The pre-release was the first chance to get to play with the extremely flavourful cards from Ixalan and predictably most people were excited to play Dinosaurs.


Dinosaurs are awesome. The idea of casting huge Dinosaurs and smashing them into the red zone turn after turn was appealing to both me and to the majority of players it seemed. However, it became apparent to me as early as the pre-release that these hulking monsters were quite exploitable in the format by tempo-based strategies or decks which went under them significantly. The things which most impressed me from the pre-release were the aggressive Pirate strategies but pre-releases are not the best place for anything beyond an initial impression of the format and so my preparation naturally moved to Magic Online as soon as draft leagues were available.

Before discussing the demise of my Magic Online tickets at the hands of draft leagues though, I’d like to mention something which is frequently a difficult issue for non-regular PT players: Testing teams. The Pro players all have a substantial network of players they are either on a team with or can use to create groups when preparing for a Pro Tour. However, the non-regular PT players and non-Pro players don’t have the same luxury; most of your usual network of players you know and interact with won’t be PT regulars either and won’t be attending the same PT you are. This doesn’t mean they won’t be able and willing to help you but having a proper group to do live testing with in the lead-up to the event is critical if you want to succeed. I am extremely lucky to have Team Axion Now to help me with testing for events and we’ve consistently had several members qualify for each Pro Tour, meaning we can group up and find other similar groups to test with. I was also extremely lucky to have Eduardo Sajgalik very kindly allow me to join his group for my first Pro Tour, something for which I am eternally grateful.

This time around Team Axion had four players qualified, although Niels Molle would be testing with his Team Series team due to his status as a Gold Pro and having different requirements to the rest of us mere mortals. This left Tom Law, Francesco Giorgio and me alongside friend of the team Dan Burnand to find a like-minded group to test with in ABQ. Francesco reached out to Italians because he knows all of them and Niels reached out to the wide swath of European players he is connected with. Our eventual group contained Gold Pro Mattia Rizzi and a group of Dutch players who have had a string of successes recently in Europe: Bart van Etten, Jelco Bodewes and Leon van der Linden. They all ended up being incredibly nice people and great players and I consider having had the opportunity to test with them for this event very beneficial and a great pleasure.

Drafting has never been the strongest aspect of my game and my results at the first PT I attended bore this out with my eventual record being 2-4, going 1-2 in both drafts with unimpressive decks. This is not really acceptable if you want to compete and do well at the PT so I made it my aim to improve and get a better draft record. This led to me drafting a huge number of times in Magic Online Intermediate Leagues to get a feel for the format, determine the power level of cards and identify the most successful archetypes. Fairly early on, Team Axion recognised that the auras were significantly more powerful than would usually be expected in a Limited format. We were all having a lot of success with taking One with the Wind and Mark of the Vampire highly and in multiples, simply jamming it on a creature and riding it to victory. Drafting Mark of the Vampire or One with the Wind and some copies of Dive Down to protect the enchanted creature quickly became known as ‘the combo’ and was our preferred style of drafting. It also seemed fairly clear that the Green based Dinosaur decks, whilst popular, were not very successful and we were not drafting them that frequently but were being paired against them and easily dispatching them quite a lot.

As I drafted more and became more comfortable with various different archetypes I also identified that Black/White decks did not have to strictly stick to a heavy Vampire theme and that generic good card midrange strategies in these colours seemed to be viable as well. This is exactly the kind of thing which is extremely important to be aware of going into an event such as the PT because it gives you a wider range of draftable decks and allows you to salvage a draft which doesn’t appear to be going well.

My win rate was quite high in these leagues and my understanding of the format was becoming more developed so I decided to take my winnings and spend them in the Competitive Leagues. The Intermediate Leagues had often given me matches where I felt my opponents weren’t correctly blocking or racing or were mis-assessing their role at various points in the game and that led to a lot of my victories. The first few drafts I did in the Competitive Leagues left me feeling that I was now the one making all of these errors and despite being happy with my drafting in most cases I was losing frequently because the format required a very high level of decision-making around combat and racing. I carried on drafting only in the Competitive Leagues from then on to try to tighten up my play and because the level of opponent was much greater in terms of playskill, which seemed to be the area lacking most for me. These experiences also led to me placing an ever-increasingly high value on cheap combat tricks and interaction as the games were so frequently decided by tight races. During this period Team Axion were posting all of their online drafts on our forum with draft logs and a few comments on each draft and deck so that we had access to a greater range of information, which was very helpful to get a handle on how the archetypes should look and what successful decks generally contained.

After Worlds took place, the Standard metagame looked pretty set as there were only three decks at Worlds and if the best players on the planet spent a month trying to break it and decided that they couldn’t and the answer was just Temur, then that was probably what I was going to end up playing too. This was actually quite reassuring to me as Francesco, Tom and Dan had all qualified for the PT at the English RPTQ by playing a Temur Black list we’d worked on in the lead-up to that tournament. Francesco had then taken a similar list to a 12-3 finish in Grand Prix Turin and my brother, Henry, had a lot of experience with the archetype as well. This meant that I knew I’d have access to a strong Temur list and resources to call on if I did end up playing a Temur deck. With this knowledge, I decided to see if I could find a gap in the metagame or innovate something to take advantage of a relatively defined format.

At the end of the previous format, I had become aware of a Red/White Vehicles deck which Alain Bardini piloted to success at French Nationals and was then also piloted by Quentin Martin to a fourth place finish at English Nationals. I felt that this deck was something which could be adapted, despite the losses of the powerful Gideon and Avacyn, into a strong contender in the metagame. I spent some time working on a Red/White Dwarves deck, utilising Aethergeode Miner, which had repeatedly impressed me with its interactions as a crewer and blocker and potential for the flicker into crew interactions. The deck went through some testing and changes a few times and I decided to try it out at a local PPTQ where I eventually conceded in the Top 8 to my brother (before beating him in friendly games of course) as I expected to make Bronze during this PPTQ season and the win meant much more to him. This was the list I ran at that event with a 4-2 record in the Swiss losing to Temur and being soundly beaten by Ramunap Red:

The deck was pretty good and Heart of Kiran was still an incredibly powerful card. I had been impressed by Depala and Aethergeode Miner but underwhelmed by Bomat Courier and was concerned that whilst the deck could win matches, it was a huge underdog to Ramunap Red and wasn’t beating Temur as consistently as it would need to in order to be a viable choice. I spent a few more days trying to tune the deck and test out various other inclusions such as Fairgrounds Warden, Inventor’s Apprentice, additional removal, changing the removal, bigger threats and anything else that came to mind. Unfortunately even with the inclusion of several more high impact sideboard cards specifically for the match up I could not make the deck good against Ramunap Red and it wasn’t beating anything at a high rate when the opponent was the masterful Grand Prix Champion Kayure Patel. After a little more tinkering with a possible Naya Vehicle deck using similar concepts but with beefier Green creatures I gave up on the deck, slightly disappointed it didn’t worked out but pleased to have had the opportunity to try it. It also maintained my belief that Heart of Kiran was one of the best cards in Standard and that if the right home could be found for it then that deck may well be excellently positioned. The obvious home was Mardu Vehicles but we simply could not get around the mana issues or the problem with Bomat Courier being so bad in the deck but also requiring a cheap artifact to pair with Toolcraft Exemplar.

Worlds was not the only event relevant to Standard on that weekend though as there was also an Online PTQ which I was keeping a very close eye on. I typically track the Standard metagame from week to week (during periods when it is relevant) for Team Axion and produce an outline of the metagame from the weekend with comments on interesting decks, tech or the direction we’re heading. This is the one from that weekend:

As it happened, the Tokens decks were having their breakout weekend and having watched some streamers play it, including English National Champion Autumn Burchett, I was very interested. I acquired the deck online and started to run it through some leagues to great success. This felt like The Deck; it was good against the top archetypes, hard to interact with and when you were going off with it, you felt like you weren’t even playing the same game as your opponent. However, the online metagame adapts extremely quickly to these breakout decks and within a few days people were playing better against it, packing sideboard cards and my win rate was going from impressive to merely acceptable. The speed with which this happened indicated to me that once the deck was a more known quantity it would not hold up under metagame pressure and I dismissed it with the expectation that it would have good results the next weekend in paper but not perform in subsequent weeks.

This expectation was met to an extent with the results from the US Nationals and the next Magic Online RPTQ as tokens showed up but didn’t perform that well; Temur continued to look good and on that weekend Ramunap Red had a bit of resurgence. It was also at this point that I noted there was a single Blue/White Gift pilot repeatedly performing well on Magic Online but didn’t take that any further.

I flew to the US two weeks before the PT to spend a week with a friend in Texas before flying to join the testing team in ABQ for a week. I didn’t play or study much Magic over that week but any ideas or interesting decks I wanted to know more about, including Mardu, I asked Team Axion and they would deliver some thoughts and feedback having tested it for a while. This kind of feedback from people who are strong players and you know you can trust is invaluable and I’d like to thank my brother Henry, Raoul Zimmermann and Kayure Patel especially for help in the lead up to the PT. I also asked my brother to give me a stock three colour Temur list to work from once I arrived in ABQ as I believed that the straight three colour version may be better positioned against potential upticks in aggressive decks I expected at the PT.

Once I arrived in ABQ it was time to start some serious testing. My primary focus was to be on live drafting as I wanted to get a sense of the pod dynamics in this draft format, as I felt this was especially important in Ixalan. It is critical to know how many drafters of each archetype a table can typically accommodate and how much hate-drafting will influence your draft as neither of these can be ascertained from Magic Online leagues. Our Dutch contingent was more concerned with Standard testing as they were still unsure on what they’d like to play at the PT. We decided on a system whereby we’d do a draft first and then a varying number of rounds depending on who wanted to continue or switch to Constructed. Then we’d lay out our decks at our seat on the table for review and have a discussion period before switching to Constructed. The first draft was very instructional for me, as I repeatedly took higher quality three drops over random two drops in a Blue/Red Pirates deck and ended up with almost no two drops in the deck as they had been snapped up around the table. I knew that two drops were valuable in the format but didn’t realise that once you sat down with PT level players you were going to have to draft them almost as soon as you saw them. Other notable points from our drafts were a draft where I opened a Regisaur Alpha and then was also close to the only Green drafter at the table and still despite my deck appearing very good I struggled to beat the hyper-aggressive deck I faced or the slow control deck I faced. This solidified my dislike for Green dinosaur strategies as it had been coupled with a draft exercise we did where I insisted Ripjaw Raptor should be taken and we should move into Green and then my hypothetical draft train-wrecked whilst the more conservative pick ended up with a solid draft. These exercises and drafts alongside some discussion with Limited mastermind Niels Molle gave me a good level of knowledge of the format within pods and with live drafting.

In terms of Constructed, we were starting to see some interesting decks at the extremes of the format with some incredibly greedy energy decks going to a full fourth colour and playing Glint-Sleeve Siphoner over Longtusk Cub, Ramp decks appearing and both Mono-Black and Black/Red aggressive decks popping up consistently. I asked the guys back home to look into some of these decks as potential options but with their lukewarm feedback I decided to stick to a three colour Temur deck trying to focus on being aggressive and consistent. We still expected Temur to be overwhelmingly the most popular deck at the PT and luckily I had Francesco on hand to school me in the ways of the mirror and pseudo-mirror matches. I felt fairly confident in my ability to pilot a midrange deck, even against the best in the world. To give myself the best chance, I wanted to make sure my deck would have the ability to compete with aggressive decks by being consistent and to pressure the decks trying to go over the top by having access to multiple Glorybringers and some maindeck Planeswalkers. The deck was played numerous times against a variety of decks within the house and the sideboard was adjusted to the expected metagame.

The tournament itself started out in almost the best way possible with my first draft pick being a Lightning Strike from a weak pack then being passed a Charging Monstrosaur. My pod had both Ben Stark and Lee Shi Tian so I was hoping to win two rounds then inevitably lose to one of them in the finals. In the end my deck ended up as an excellent Black/Red Aggro deck and I didn’t drop a game, winning on a mull to five in the second round and beating Hall of Famer Ben Stark in the finals.

 

 

Constructed went a little less well as I had awkward draws and a few mulligans in the first two rounds against two aggressive decks: Mardu and Ramunap Red. However, I recovered and won the next three rounds, all Temur mirrors, mostly on the back of casting Glorybringers over and over again. The second day started with a draft pod including Martin Juza and Owen Turtenwald and I cheerfully told Martin that as he’d beaten me in Constructed the previous day it was my turn to win if we played in draft. I was significantly less happy with how my draft went this time; I drafted a fine Merfolk deck but had passed an Imperial Aerosaur early in pack one to try to maximise on my first few picks and then saw several more strong Red/White dinosaur cards during pack one - all of which I passed to Owen. My first round of draft was against last year’s Draft Master, Martin Juza and my prediction came true as I beat him in a Blue/Green mirror. I was then paired against Owen in the feature match area and managed to win a nail-biting first game against his excellent Red/White deck. He won the second game handily and in game three on the play I played a Deeproot Warrior as he played a second Plains and passed back. I wanted to play around Slash of Talons as I’d seen it in a previous game and suspected he wouldn’t keep a hand without some early interaction so I cast One with the Wind on my guy and attacked. Owen cast Demystify on the enchantment and then the Slash on the Warrior. I did not recover as he cast back to back Aerosaurs and an Ixalan’s Binding. I lost the final round as well to some mana issues against an average Black/White Vampires deck and was back to Constructed.

 

 

I was paired against another energy mirror and had a gruelling first game, which took over thirty-five minutes to complete in my favour. Game two was shorter but we only had about seven minutes left to play game three. I managed to get significantly far ahead and was fairly certain I had lethal on the fifth turn of extra turns on a complex board state. Unfortunately I mis-sequenced my final attack slightly and allowed my opponent to use his last card, a Harnessed Lightning, to fall to two instead of zero and I picked up an unintentional draw. This led to being paired against Hall of Famer Gabriel Nassif on a Gift deck who I swiftly dispatched with Planeswalkers then a Black/White Tokens who fell in similar fashion. I had to win the last two rounds to attain an invite to the next PT but I was unable to overcome mulligans and mana issues against Sultai Energy and Four-Colour Energy and lost both. This was disappointing but not as disappointing as watching teammate Francesco Giorgio lose to mana issues in his win-and-in for Top 8.

Despite these losses at the end of the day and the ‘what might have beens’ I am very happy with how our testing group did at the tournament: we had a positive draft record across the board, we secured three re-invites to the PT and Jelco and Francesco finished 13th and 20th respectively. In fact, Tom Law calculated that if we had formed a Team Series team we would currently be ranked 4th in the series, which is a huge accomplishment for a group such as ours. I attained my goals of an improved draft record and I locked up Bronze for the season so the event was a success from my point of view. The Modern RPTQ is up next and I hope to qualify through that for PT Rivals of Ixalan in Bilbao and have the opportunity to write another of these articles!

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.