Lessons from Las Vegas – Tips for a MTG Grand Prix by Rich Hagon
It’s now almost a week since an intrepid group of Nottingham-based Magic players returned from playing in the largest GP ever, in Las Vegas. Modern Masters is a format that many of you won’t have played (or at least not extensively) and it’s certainly a format that most of you won’t be playing again (ditto). Rather than wade through a blow-by-blow tournament report, therefore, I’m attempting to bring you something a bit more useful and long lasting.
So, here are some of the takeaways from the trip…
1. Hard Work equals Results, though not necessarily results on the scoreboard.
For this event, I set aside the previous three weeks, and essentially did nothing outside Modern Masters. From (literally) the hour the full set went up on dailymtg, through to the close of the GP, my entire focus was on the event.
As most of you know, I spend my working life on the game, meaning that I almost never get to play competitively. This was a chance to reconnect with the players who so regularly put themselves on the line with no guarantee of success. To that end, I didn’t want to go to Vegas simply ‘for fun‘. The joy of the event was in the preparation, not the execution. To agonise over hundreds of Sealed pools, to dissect dozens of drafts, to talk with talented friends about finding angles on the format that could give us the edge, this was where the real value of the experience lay.
There were four of us on the trip. James Osborn was largely there on vacation, with a bit of Magic thrown in, and he didn’t fare well on day one. James Thanangadan had a good pool, and ended 3-3 on the day. He’ll get a takeaway lesson later. Neil Rigby had one of the worst sealed pools we’d seen (and we’d looked at more than 250), and didn’t make day two. There’s a takeaway from his pool later too. I, meanwhile, found a solid pool with multiple possible decks, but the hard work had shown us where the best options lay, and I built a hyper-aggressive Black-Red Goblins deck that took me to a 7-2 record on day one (more here), enough to advance (woohoo!).
Even though only one of us made day 2, the hard work certainly wasn’t wasted. We went into the event knowing we were well ahead of the general curve, especially once we listened to other people who hadn’t tested as extensively. Knowing that you know more than your opponent is a very good feeling, and not something that comes easily without a ton of work. We put in that work, and were rewarded.
2. Don’t be scared of big events.
With GPs now capped at 15 rounds, you will only ever play that many opponents. You could simulate that in a round robin tournament of just 16 players, so there’s nothing inherently scary about 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 – they really are just numbers, and your personal experience will be pretty similar regardless of the size of the event.
3. Don’t think you’re not good enough for GPs.
So, trying to be realistic, I’m a better than average Magic player. I’ve cashed a GP, played in two Pro Tours, I’ve been ranked in the top 10 in England, and obviously I have access to all the best players in the world through my work. That doesn’t make me a typical 1-3 / 2-2 FNM player. Nonetheless, I can say hand on heart that I was almost certainly a better player than seven of my nine day one opponents (not all of whom I beat, incidentally) and only felt that there was one player who was clearly better than me (and he didn’t just win the match, he won the match by being better).
We have a tendency in the UK to think we’re a ‘bad’ nation at Magic. My experiences both at Vegas and Toronto in 2010 suggest something very different. With some hard work, there’s no reason that many of you reading this shouldn’t be making day two of GPs, and heading on up the standings towards the top 8 and beyond.
4. Find the better players around you, and use your ears.
The whole team in Nottingham were incredibly supportive of our Vegas efforts. Every day at the store there were people willing to test sealed, play drafts, log decklists, sort cards, group draft on MTGO, and just talk talk talk about the format. If you’re planning on a GP foray, don’t sit there behind a keyboard all alone.
There were probably 25-30 people involved in the Vegas project, and it would have been a far more miserable – and almost certainly less successful – project without them. It’s a two way street too, of course. If you can’t get the time to travel, or don’t have the funds, don’t let that put you off being part of a testing group.
The difference between casual play and when something’s truly on the line is huge, and if you want to start taking ownership of your own MTG destiny, and your mistakes along the way, being part of something like this is a great way to do it.
5. There are very small margins between winning and losing.
This is how James Thanangadan subsequently felt he’d missed a trick. I won’t bore you with all the details, but the gist is that he could have stolen a Reveillark from his opponent via a Planeswalker, and then when the Reveillark was sacrificed at the end of turn, he would have got the benefit of returning creatures. It wouldn’t necessarily have won him the game or the match, but ‘use your creature to get my creatures back’ isn’t intuitive, and is exactly the kind of play that many, many players won’t spot.
6. 6-3 is not a winning record.
If you expect to go 3-6 on day one of a GP, getting to 6-3 is a great achievement. Truthfully, 6-3 (with no byes) was where I thought my ‘average’ performance might be. At 5-4 I would have been properly disappointed, at 6-3 I’d have shrugged and thought it was about right, at 7-2 I would have been pleased, and at 8-1 ecstatic.
However, in the context of the event, only 7-2 or better are the records to consider. This is where we revisit Neil’s pool. It was, as I said, truly terrible. He built a Dampen Thought mill deck with precious few ways to make it happen, and I built an alternative deck from his pool that looked much more solid and respectable.
We agreed that my build would, on average, win more games than his. However, averaging out at 5-4 rather than 3-6 wasn’t the goal. My build would almost certainly not have made day two. Neil’s didn’t either, but by building a deck that interacted with the format on a completely different axis to most decks in the field, he bought himself a lottery ticket.
The Dampen Thought deck just might have got him there, through a series of good draws, ‘free’ wins, and opponent stumbles. My build of his deck would merely have made more of his games more competitive, before not making day two. Understanding the goal of the tournament can help you make correct decisions in building.
7. Pick your spot.
It’s no coincidence that I’ve targeted two Limited GPs for my last two major forays into competitive Magic, nor that those events came right at the beginning of a ‘season’ (although Vegas was also the end of that season!).
There was very little incentive for Pros to test for Vegas. It wasn’t part of their ‘big picture’. The actual cards were hard to come by, and costly. Both of these added value for people willing to test relentlessly. The next time this comes into play will be once Theros hits the shelves. At the first PTQ of the season, many players will have built one or two Sealed decks. Let’s suppose for a moment that you and three friends are interested in qualifying for the PT. Go to all five Pre-Releases. That’s twenty Sealed pools. Go to another Sealed event the following week, and get another eight pools built.
Now log all twenty eight sealed pools on a spreadsheet. Build all of those alone, in twos, in your group. Now switch individual boosters around. You now have near-infinite Sealed pools at your disposal. Go online to a site like Copper-dog.com/mtg-generator/, and download sealed pools every time you have five minutes spare.
In Vegas, my day one pool was number 259, and the difference between that and looking at the cards for the first time is ridiculous. Truthfully, if you turn up to a PTQ with genuine hopes of doing well, and you haven’t been doing this kind of work, you’re crazy, and more importantly, kidding yourself. Pick your spot, put the work in, and great things can happen.
I think that will probably do for now. Vegas was a wonderful experience, and about much more than the GP itself. I know that at least one of my travelling companions will treasure defeating Shuhei Nakamura in a Modern Masters draft the day after the GP, and having dozens of Pro Poker players watching us draft in the Rio (home of the World Series of Poker) is something I won’t forget in a hurry.
I hope somewhere in here you’ve found something useful for your future development as a competitive Magic player. I can’t leave without profound thanks to all the well-wishers during the weekend, the huge team behind us at Chimera in Nottingham, and of course to Manaleak, who helped us with sponsorship. It was quite a ride, and I can’t wait to do it again sometime.
Thanks for reading,