I’ve heard all sorts of theories about how to best prepare for a major tournament – and I think I ignored just about all of them for Grand Prix Manchester.
Over the 48 hours prior to the start of the tournament I’d slept about ten hours in total, all of it crunched up on a sofa that wasn’t anywhere near large enough to accommodate me, played four matches by way of testing (none of them against format staple decks), and, frankly, drunk too much beer.
Manchester wasn’t just a GP for me – it was a homecoming, the first time in a year that I’d been back to the city I’d lived in for almost a decade, and the first time in a year that I’d seen several of my very best friends.
A few pints were inevitable, but even a fairly quiet night in the pub isn’t the best way to prepare for a pre-release, let alone the longest, grindiest, toughest tournament I’ve ever taken part in. Despite being scarcely awake for most of day one, I managed to put in a top 64 performance, for my first cash finish in only my second Grand Prix.
A bit of an introduction might be necessary here – I haven’t been playing for very long at all, and I’m only just starting to be a familiar face on the UK tournament scene.
I started playing regularly for the first time at the very end of last summer. A couple of months ago I took down my first PTQ in Milton Keynes to qualify for Portland later this year, and since then I’ve moved from seeing Magic as a hobby to something I’m taking very seriously indeed.
I travelled to my first GP in Warsaw a few weeks ago (finishing with a not-quite-respectable-enough 6-3 record), and came in to Manchester determined to make day two.
I really do believe that I’ve got the ability to play at the highest level, and I’m determined at the very least to prove that my shot at the Pro Tour isn’t a case of some new kid fluking out.
I think my play has come on in leaps and bounds over the course of the year – not that I haven’t got plenty left to learn, of course. For a start, I could learn that Magic tournaments are best attended completely sober.
Preparation was never going to be easy for this one anyway – like most players I don’t go near Block Constructed unless there’s a big tournament on, so my only concrete experience of the format was from watching the Pro Tour.
Work commitments prevented me from testing more than a few matches each night for a couple of weeks prior to the GP, so I was aware that I was unlikely to be going to Manchester with a complete understanding of any given deck.
Because of this, I decided that I wanted to play a deck that was proven, that suited my natural playing style, and which I felt didn’t have any legitimately bad match-ups, in the hope that my lack of experience of the format could be leveraged against a deck that had a clear, solid plan for anything thrown at it and which could top-deck strongly enough to get me out of any holes I dug myself into.
I decided to play an adapted version of Patrick Chapin’s Junk list which won Pro Tour Journey Into Nyx:
Patrick Chapin’s Junk
1 Agent of Erebos
1 Ajani, Mentor of Heroes
2 Arbor Colossus
1 Banishing Light
4 Drown in Sorrow
2 Feast of Dreams
2 Glare of Heresy
The most eyebrow-raising decision I made was to cut Brimaz, King of Oreskos from the deck – I hadn’t had the chance to test half as much as I would have liked but I frequently found the cat king to be decidedly underwhelming.
He doesn’t battle through many of the staple threats of the format, and I also wanted to improve the mana to the point where I only had to play three Mana Confluences to reduce the pain I was receiving from my lands.
I think my decision was proven right over the course of the weekend – there were very few times where I wished I had a Brimaz instead of the creatures I did play, and my opponents who did have the cat got scarcely any value out of him against me – he spent most of the time starting ruefully down at my bigger, better creatures, or bouncing off a decidedly unflustered Elspeth.
Herald of Torment, on the other hand, had evasion to give me a more reliable chance to provide early pressure as well as giving me a way to kill planeswalkers or simply my opponents when they weren’t expecting it. I won at least four games thanks to the Herald which I definitely would have lost otherwise.
In retrospect, the only change I would make to the main deck would be to cut Read the Bones for a second Ajani – the real king of the cats was a hugely influential card this weekend and could be backbreaking against other Courser/Caryatid decks, where the matches often go long. Very long.
This was, in fact, the longest tournament most people in the room will ever have played in. The Courser/Caryatid decks were so profuse that a high proportion of matches went to extra turns.
Add in the amount of added time people were being given as a consequence of the absurd number of judge calls for play errors made with Courser of Kruphix and the turnover time between rounds was often well in excess of half an hour (some unfortunate technical issues with the systems printing off the results and pairings didn’t help, but that’s nobody’s fault).
One of my judge friends told me on day one that he had personally given out 18 warnings concerning Courser – and this was around round seven. I actually got one myself, although that was for ham-fistedly flipping over an extra card when revealing the top one rather than any ignorance as to how the card works.
I have to admit that by the time I was finally able to put my cards away on day two, I found myself hoping never to look at a Sylvan Caryatid again as long as I lived.
Of the eleven rounds I played I was paired against ten Courser decks, with one RW Heroic deck the only variation I could enjoy all weekend (I had three byes and intentionally drew with Eduardo Sajgalik in the last round to lock up a cash place – and he told me that he was on a Courser deck as well).
Such repetition didn’t exactly leave me overly enamoured with the format, and neither did the fact that Courser/Caryatid ‘mirrors’ were invariably incredibly long, grinding affairs.
I love playing grindy games and most of the decks I play tend to push for the long game – but there are limits to anybody’s patience, and going right to the wire for time round after round against largely similar decks wasn’t the experience I was looking for. It was, however, an experience that was very valuable.
I kicked off in round four against Vincent Lemoine, a respected Belgian GP grinder. I was still suffering somewhat at this point, but thankfully my deck was very gentle with me, drawing me the cards I needed whilst Vincent (playing Jund) suffered some frustrating mana issues, allowing me to run to a largely comfortable 2-0 win.
After the game, I asked him about how valuable he thought Banishing Light was against him, trying to get some insight into later sideboard decisions. He explained he felt it was best to take all of them out – he sided Xenagos out leaving his primary threats as Polis Crusher, Stormbreath Dragon and Reaper of the Wilds, which needless to say all laugh at a Banishing Light.
What about Elspeth, I asked? Was he not playing that? Of course, he pointed out, he was playing Jund, not a deck liable to be running any double-white cards. My brain was short-circuiting from the lack of sleep and judging by Vincent’s face he left the match with the distinct impression that he had just lost to a complete idiot.
Prior to round five I was able to sort my head out courtesy of a bacon sandwich and a couple of bottles of water, and I managed to play well (and without saying anything overly stupid to my opponents) for several rounds, locking up day two by round seven.
For round eight, I was paired against Gabor Kocsis, another player whose name I knew and respected – but by now the fatigue was starting to kick in again. I took game one after we both mulliganed, but in round two I made my first needless error of the day, running a Courser of Kruphix out into a Destructive Revelry when I knew he had a Stormbreath in hand ready to be cast, all when I had a Hero’s Downfall available. I had put myself a long way behind the play in terms of tempo and I died quickly after that.
Game three was one of the toughest games I had played in a long time. I kept getting ahead, but couldn’t put it away – I have to say that Gabor played an absolute blinder this round, and whilst he did have a spot of good fortune (he found a Destructive Revelry the turn before I was able to bestow Herald of Torment on to my 7/7 monstrous Fleecemane Lion) you make your own luck, and Gabor richly deserved his.
He ground me out over a really hard-fought top-deck war, and eventually got there just as time was called on the round. I have to say he was very gracious in victory, but I was also quite frustrated by some errors I had made – Tamas Glied, the eventual runner-up who had been watching us, pointed out that had I attacked differently at one point, I would have been able to win.
He was absolutely right, and I had simply been too frazzled to properly assess the line on a very convoluted board state. I also lost round nine, although it was one of those games where I feel there was little I could have done – twice I Thoughtseized my opponent (on BUG), taking a crucial Prognostic Sphinx, only for him to find another Sphinx immediately on top of his library.
Such is Magic, and I was beaten in much the same way I had beaten Vincent Lemoine in my first match (although my opponent refrained from asking me if I had Emrakuls in my list, or anything of that ilk).
Day two continued the grind, but this time I was at least feeling rather fresher. I took a fairly comfortable first match of the day against Naya before losing consecutive mirror matches to knock me out of top 8 contention – in both cases the games I lost came down to top-deck wars, and it was my opponents who found threats that I couldn’t find answers to first.
I don’t feel like I threw any of these games, simply that I got caught on the wrong end of variance, and there’s no point in complaining about that. Sometimes both players play well, neither can gain an edge in the early stages, and ultimately the games are decided by the way the cards get shuffled on top of your deck – and you’ll win just as many of those as you lose.
It’s quite probable that I could have tuned my deck more tightly to improve my odds in these scenarios – or just to prevent them in the first place – but I simply hadn’t had the opportunity to test anything more than sporadically, so a lot of my deckbuilding was based on too small of a sample size to be completely confident that my decisions were correct.
Next time I find myself playing in a tournament in a format that I’m not completely familiar with, I’ll be sure to organise proper gauntlet testing, rather than simply throwing my deck up against whatever my opponents happened to have either online or in my local store.
My lack of experience against the big decks led me to make some sideboarding decisions that I know with hindsight were incorrect – and that definitely cost me an edge in a few games.
Happily I kept my play tight despite my running defeats, and was able to pick up good wins against Heroic and BUG in the next rounds to shake hands on a 10-4-1 record.
On the one hand, I’m happy to cash and pick up a solid result in a major tournament. On the flip side, with better preparation (and greater sobriety) I know I could have gone deeper in the tournament, and if I want to make it at the top level (and boy, do I) then I’ll have to be more disciplined and test more efficiently to make sure I’ve got as much of an edge as possible whenever I sleeve up for a tournament.
Unfortunately, the lessons I’ve learned about Theros Block Constructed as a format are pretty redundant now, as I’ve little desire to play the format again after Manchester – it’s on to Modern PTQ season, and time to get to grips with another format I’m under-experienced in.
I’m still uncertain as to whether I can make the Amersham tournament next Sunday, but I’ll definitely be at several PTQs later in the season and hopefully I’ll be able to put my experience from the Grand Prix to good use – I’m even more keen to qualify for PT Khans of Tarkir than I was for PT Magic 2015, given that it’s at the beginning rather than the end of a season, and more importantly that it’s in Hawaii!
Thanks for reading, and hopefully I’ll see some of you across the table over the coming months.