How Many Mistakes Does It Take To Win A PPTQ? (Sealed PPTQ Winners Report), by John Hancocks

tireless tracker

How Many Mistakes Does It Take To Win A PPTQ? Shadows Over Innistrad Sealed PPTQ Tournament Report

I want you to think about the last game of Magic: The Gathering that you lost. Why did you lose? Was it mana flood, mana screw, colour screw, your opponent’s topdecks, your opponent always having the tricks, no bombs in your sealed pool? Now there are some hands in Magic we just can’t win with – a mulligan to 3 with a 7 drop and 2 lands probably just can’t cut it, but at every point before and after saying ‘Keep’ we have to try and give ourselves the best possible chance. These decisions are an active skill. If every pool you open is an unplayable mess, maybe your deck building could be worked on. If your opponent ‘always has it’, play in such a way to force them to use tricks sub-optimally (without hampering your own game plan at the expense of an imagined threat). If your double land, 2 drop, 3 drop, double 5 drop, 7 drop hands keep not getting there, review your mulligan strategy, maybe mulligan more aggressively. To the contrary, if you consistently mulligan to oblivion looking for key pieces, maybe those speculative four land, 3 drop, 5 drop hands might get you there.

The important thing to note is that these are all aspects under your control. Always writing off your losses to luck or ‘variance’ is a recipe for long term disaster, when you could instead use each of these moments as an opportunity to reflect on how you played. I’m sharing with you a list of mistakes I made on the way to winning a Sealed Shadows over Innistrad PPTQ to demonstrate that:

A) How we all need a little luck to win a tournament.


B) How we can constantly review our plays to evaluate whether they were the right one, regardless of the result.

We’ll start the mistakes off nice and early with the deck building, where I registered this:

Duskwatch Recruiter
Moldgraf Scavenger
Ember-Eye Wolf
Veteran Cathar
Bloodmad Vampire
Convicted Killer
Ulrich’s Kindred
Tireless Tracker
Solitary Hunter
Intrepid Provisioner
Hulking Devil
Thornhide Wolves
Watcher in the Web
Ulvenwald Hydra
Skin Invasion
Confront the Unknown
Dual Shot
Rabid Bite
Dance with Devils
Arlinn Kord
Reduce to Ashes
Burn from Within
Warped Landscape
Stone Quarry

What a great start, chock full of bombs and even two of the most card advantage-inducing rares this set can offer in the form of Tireless Tracker. The trouble is, once pen’s put to paper this is the Game 1 list I’m stuck with. So what’s wrong with this? Well, that sub-par Hulking Devil is sat awkwardly in the 4 drop slot next to some pretty awesome non-creature creature-generating spells that I hadn’t taken into consideration when looking at my curve.

My deck would have been happy to play an 18th land instead since I had a bunch of great mana sinks (and it’s rare I could flood out if I turn my land drops into cards with Tireless Trackers). I also chose to play Thornhide Wolves over a Cult of the Waxing Moon in my pool. I thought the 5 toughness might be more relevant to playing a longer game, where I could see more of my powerful cards, and I didn’t think I had enough Transforming cards to benefit from the Cult’s ability. In hindsight, the 5 power and potential for additional bodies would probably have been more valuable.

The final deckbuilding hurdle I question is the possible inclusion of a Traverse the Ulvenwald from my pool, which would likely have taken the place of an 18th land, had I not played Hulking Devils. I’m not sure taking a turn off to fetch a land drop I needed was where I wanted to be, nor could I enable Delirium easily enough for it to be a late-game tutor. Of course, the questions I can ask of myself and my deckbuilding are limited to my skill level, it’s possible and entirely likely there was something else in my pool I missed out on playing, but these are the ones most evident to me.


The PPTQ Sealed Deck Matches

Onto the matches, where my memory fades and only some of the more obvious mistakes linger. Every play I made was made in the context of the plays that got me into these positions to begin with, which are guaranteed to be far from perfect. We can only work with what we’ve got though, until we practice, play with superior opponents, practice against better players, and practice some more in order to attain a higher level of skill.


R1 vs Jamie (UB Investigate) 2-0

Jamie’s slow UB deck barely troubles me in G1, as I start off with a Tireless Tracker growing huge, followed by an Arlinn Kord. Maybe I could have applied more pressure to him, as I still had a pretty large grip of cards, and put the game away sooner? But by not spilling my entire hand I am gaining an advantage for G2 by not showing him more information than I need to (how much Win % this adds is probably negligible).


R2 vs Matthew (GWr) 2-0

Mistakes for both of us here. I’m lucky to start off with Tireless Tracker into Tireless Tracker (after he answers the first one). Later in the game, I drop my Ulvenwald Hydra, fetching a Stone Quarry to activate my Veteran Cathar. I remember to trigger my Tracker, but then make my land drop for the turn and quickly pass the turn (missing out on a second precious clue). I attack with my Hydra and Tracker, he chumps the Hydra and lets the Tracker in. I crack a clue and give the Tracker double strike to take my opponent from 14 to 2 in one hit, after he missed the fact I could activate Veteran Cathar! My mistake next: on my turn I alpha strike with everybody, forgetting about his Watcher of the Web. I’m on 14 and his board can almost kill me if he draws his Burn from Within or even an Uncaged Fury. Luckily he draws neither and I put it away.

In G2, I start off with another Turn 3 Tireless Tracker. He has a Thraben Gargoyle and then a Cathar’s Companion, which he attacks me with. On my turn 4 I make my land drop and a Clue, and attack with my Tracker. He casts Tenacity, making his Companion block as a 4/2 Indestructible Lifelinker. I have Confront the Unknown to give my Tracker +2/+2, then I crack a clue to make my Tracker 6/5 until end of turn. I believe that, despite not killing his Companion or advancing my board, the Tracker is so incrementally valuable to have alive that it’s worth using my combat trick here. I don’t even really spend a card, as I can crack the clue to replace the card.


R3 vs Yuri (UW Spirits + Humans) 2-1

Yuri’s second round match was next to mine, so I knew he was on UW Flyers going in. I have Arlinn Kord this game, who puts insurmountable pressure on him, though I misplay by forgetting Arlinn gives haste and could have gotten more damage in.

In G2 after I mistakenly ‘trade’ early on for a Harvest Hand we stall out and he takes me to 10 with a flying 3/3 and 2/2. I find Watcher in the Web which I promptly lose track of, seeing as it has Gone Missing, and he takes me to 5. I replay the Spider and pass. When he attacks with both Flyers I make the choice to block both and kill the 2/2. I was worried about instantly dying to Strength of Arms or similar and I at least wanted to kill one of his Flyers, though this is probably super-conservative when I had no indication he had this kind of effect. One good mistake deserves another. I’m on 2 life facing the Stormrider Spirit when I draw and play my Ulvenwald Hydra. His Scrounged Scythe is still lying around, so he equips it to his Spirit and attacks with his Menacing spirit alone. Unfortunately for him, Scrounged Scythe only gives Menace to Humans, and I snap-block to eat up his flying threat.

G3 sees Yuri start with Thalia’s Lieutenant again who gets a few hits in before I find a Burn from Within for it. My Tireless Tracker trades blows and we’re pretty much at parity until I drop Arlinn Kord, at which point he’s seen enough.


R4 vs Mik (RB Aggro) 2-0

Again, I knew what I was facing (in the form of some RB Aggro beats) after sitting next to Mik in round 2. I mistimed my Dual Shot, choosing not to kill his Olivia’s Bloodsworn as soon as possible, and curve out instead. He plays a Stromkirk Mentor and pumps the Bloodsworn to continually deal me 3 flying that my Dual Shot can’t deal with. I even take an opportunity between games to confirm with the judge that there’s no way to deal 2 damage to one creature with it! It’s a really close race, and I eventually manage to kill off his flyer.

G2 I pass turn 4 with 4 mana to flip my Convicted Killer, and end of his turn do the D.A.N.C.E. with Devils. I attack for 5 with Branded Howler and a devil. He plays his own Dance with Devils, double blocking my Werewolf hoping to double ping and finish it off, unaware how I can optimally assign my combat damage. I assign all 4 damage to the first Devil, keeping my Werewolf alive and causing us to ping off all our Devils. After his loss of tempo, I play an Ulvenwald Hydra and end it quickly.


R5 & R6 – ID

I make potentially the best play of the day by getting lunch in during a couple of IDs. No mistakes here. Onwards to the top 8!


The Top 8 Shadows over Innistrad Draft

Straight back on the mistake train. The set has only just been released so I was confident I was exactly as experienced at drafting it as the rest of the top 8 (which is to say, I hope nobody else had drafted this set yet!). It starts with a tempting double Mythic pack, and I’ve got to take one, right? My most well practiced skill of the day, and the best skill to have for Limited, continued. And by that I mean opening good Rares, seeing a Wolf of Devil’s Breach and foil Descend Upon the Sinful. Still contained in a Sealed mindset, and having been perpetually half-worried about Wraths throughout the day, I took Descend Upon the Sinful. At the very least, knowing it was in my deck could let me sculpt a favourable game and play to an impressive out. A UW Controlling shell that could reliably get Delirium online would likely be the best bet for this Wrath, however the good Green cards just kept coming my way!

My left-hand neighbour first picked a Hinterland Logger out of the first pack, but I was happy to have the lion’s share of Green cards from Packs 1 & 3. A 7th-ish pick Rabid Bite let me know I was in the right place (or at least that everybody else was in the wrong place).

Packs 2 and 3 contained lots of good GW aggro options, even managing to pick up a Bygone Bishop. In pack 3 I got a late Veteran Cathar and two Angelic Purges, which would be great to push through my fantastic curve. I misbuilt my deck however, underestimating their value towards my strategy and their contribution towards Delirium, by only playing 1 of them maindeck.

Here’s the finished product:

Moorland Drifter
Duskwatch Recruiter
Veteran Cathar
Byway Courier
Dauntless Cathar
Paranoid Parish-Blade
Bygone Bishop
Inspiring Captain
Intrepid Provisioner
Briarbridge Patrol
Watcher in the Web
Emissary of the Sleepless
Kessig Dire Swine
Vessel of Nascency
Confront the Unknown
Rabid Bite
Vessel of Ephemera
Angelic Purge
Descend Upon the Sinful

I had another couple of Clue producers, which made Confront the Unknown an appealing option. However, I should have played the second Angelic Purge (a true removal spell) over the mediocre combat trick. On to the games! I was pleased with the Human synergy in the deck, and the potential to curve out really well.


QF – John (UR) 2-0

I get in a few early beats and he doesn’t see his second colour for a long time. When he does see his Blue mana, he starts milling me with Manic Scribe and buying time with multiple Press for Answers. However I manage to get a couple of flyers out (including Delirium-induced Moorland Drifters) and beat through the air.

In G2 he starts off with a Turn 2 Vessel of Volatility into Turn 3 Goldnight Castigator + Lightning Axe my Byway Courier! What a start! I have a 2/2 and attack him back to 16. I get down to 8 life with no Flyers in sight and he’s got the Castigator and a Runaway Carriage. I need my opponent to make a mistake to have a chance. I attack with Dauntless Cathar, needing him to block it to get the chump blocker and get his Carriage out of the way. He opts to do so, I make my token and chump on his turn. I attack him for 8, and play an Emissary of the Sleepless to chump the last hit. Unable to answer or block enough damage, he scooped them up. It turned out he was only playing 14 or 15 lands, yet still managed to flood out against me in G2!


SF – Yuri (RG) 2-1

Another tense match against Yuri of R3 fame. Game 1 is a scrappy affair where we’re both trading early removal spells and keeping the board relatively clear, however I’ve managed to acquire and crack some Clues. At some stage in the game (with me on 14 life and tapped out after an attack), I let him get a free land off of his Sin Prodder, forgetting I can just make him bin it. It’s his 9th land and he has 6 power on the board, so this puts me in lethal range of a potential Burn from Within, which is pretty sloppy.

Late in the game I’m on the offensive with my Watcher in the Web and a Byway Courier against his Mad Prophet. He’s low on life and blocks my spider with his Prophet and Fiery Tempers my Byway Courier, then Aims High on his Prophet to have it survive combat with my spider. I almost forget my clue from the Byway Courier, but a favourable judge call puts it on the stack as the game hasn’t visibly changed and I have Confront the Unknown to let my Spider kill his Prophet.

G2 I get steam-rolled under a lot of early pressure after mulliganing to a weak hand.
This is an anticlimactic game, as we both sit on 3 Forests for a few turns with a hand full of the wrong colour cards. I’m lucky to draw out of it first, drop some Flyers and there’s no way for my opponent to catch up.


The Finals – Misha (BGu) 2-0

In G1 my opponent gets an awesome set up of Graf Mole and Ulvenwald Mysteries. My Byway Couriers and Rabid Bites aren’t much good in this position, but I have a couple of Spirit tokens I’m chipping away at him with. At some point I foolishly attack with a ground creature, trade off with a guy of his and he gets a clue, 3 life and a 1/1 out of the deal. Not a mistake I want to make again!

I decide to keep committing to the ground and let my little Flyers do all the work. I have a couple of Moorland Drifters in play waiting for Delirium to seriously threaten him, and eventually I get down a Bygone Bishop to start churning through my deck. I play the Bishop a turn later than I could have, worried about potential removal. I should however try to draw the removal out if I can, and end up playing the Bishop into a fresh Sinister Concoction. Descend Upon the Sinful rots in my hand as my Flyers are enough to get there.

In G2 my opponent keeps a hand of removal but doesn’t see any creatures for a while. He deals with some of my early creatures but never draws in to the blockers he needs.
Whilst I made quite a number of mistakes, I worked on tightening up my game play throughout the day. Round 2 was a particularly good exercise in letting me know I could play better, instead of giving my opponent a huge opportunity to kill me. I don’t think I missed any more Tireless Tracker triggers after that point, but it was frustrating to forget a beneficial Werewolf flip trigger and almost miss a Clue in the Semi-Finals. There are always lessons to take away, and I know my deck building, play sequencing and threat evaluation can be improved upon.

I was immensely lucky throughout the day, and hopefully played well enough to put myself in such a position to make the most of that luck. I look forward to playing the same format at the RPTQ in June, and hopefully get to learn a lot more about it as it develops in the meantime.


Own Your Play Experience!

I hope you found this report interesting to see what kind of mistakes you might make and be able to improve upon, but it’s really about the mind set of looking for those mistakes in your own gameplay. Owning your play experience (rather than blaming luck) might be frustrating at first but will lead to your continued growth as a Magic player. Let me know your thoughts on any of the situations that arose during this PPTQ, I am particularly interested to hear peoples’ thoughts on my exclusion of Traverse the Ulvenwald, and the Shadows over Innistrad draft format!

Props: The event venue and staff, friendly locals, and the South West contingent of: Laura, Pete, Dom and Autumn for their support and help.

Slops: Arlinn Kord for having so much text.

Thanks for reading,

John Hancocks

How Many Mistakes Does It Take To Win A PPTQ? (Sealed PPTQ Winners Report), by John Hancocks
I want you to think about the last game of Magic: The Gathering that you lost. Why did you lose? Was it mana flood, mana screw, colour screw, your opponent’s topdecks, your opponent always having the tricks, no bombs in your sealed pool?

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