Lessons from San Francisco

Last week, I visited downtown San Francisco for the first time to compete in what may be the last full-sized Magic World Championship. With a finish of 7–10–1, I didn’t exactly end in glory. While playing eighteen rounds in three different formats at the highest level of competition, I did learn many lessons:

Alcatraz Island looks beautiful. At least from the outside. Wizards of the Coast chose a beautiful site for Worlds. It was right on the waterfront, and every morning, we were treated to breathtaking views of the island and the Golden Gate Bridge from the heights of Fort Mason above the venue.

Conley Woods is awesome. He treated us to an incredible run through the Swiss rounds at Worlds as he rode the top of the standings for three straight days. While obviously someone has to be in first place at the end of the event, what he did was incredible. Staying atop the standings of an event packed with the world’s best players for eighteen rounds is amazing. Doing it while playing three different formats is astounding. Well done, sir. Too bad the story didn’t end with a championship. It’s reminiscent of the 2007 New England Patriots.

There’ll never be another Kai Budde. For most players, just winning a Friday Night Magic tournament is a big deal. Winning a Pro Tour Qualifier can be a dream come true. Most newly minted pros arrive at the tour, take a beating, and then go back to playing in PTQs. Top 8’ing in a Grand Prix is an accomplishment players treasure. Winning one is a memory to cherish for a lifetime (I know I do!) Winning a Pro Tour is the pinnacle of Magic competition. Winning Player of the Year is the stuff of Magic legends that will usually lead to a spot in the Hall of Fame. Kai Budde did all that and much more. As I was killing time between rounds at Worlds, I was reviewing the wall of champions. Kai won Player of the Year four times in five years. Given the amount of variance in the game, this is an almost impossible feat—one I doubt will ever happen again.

Pro Tour fantasy drafting is fun. Especially if you have Conley Woods on your team. My girlfriend Rada participated in two of these for Worlds and was smart/lucky enough to have Conley on both of her teams. She won one of her pools with a roster that included Conley, Luis Scott-Vargas, and Josh Utter-Leyton. She had me on that team, too, but I can’t really claim any of the credit for her win. I’ve been playing fantasy sports since they were called “rotisserie sports,” and I love this trend. Rada isn’t much of a sports fan, so it warmed my heart to watch her studying player stats, tracking trends, and planning draft strategy.

Food trucks can be cool. One drawback of the venue was that there wasn’t a food-service area or adjacent restaurants. The upside was that we were treated to a couple different food trucks each day. Here on the East Coast, I’m used to food trucks merely offering second-rate burgers and hot dogs. In San Francisco, they seem to have made food trucks into an art form. There were Asian-inspired tacos, gourmet grilled-cheese sandwiches, German bratwurst, fried chicken, Cuban sandwiches, and so forth. There was even a van full of free chocolate milk on Sunday!

Steve Guillerm is pretty good. He kicked way more butt than I did, and he wasn’t even invited. Steve wasn’t playing in the main event, but he was completely owning the public events. He picked up an iPad by winning a Modern tournament with the Affinity deck I used on Day 3. Then, on Sunday, he crushed a 128-player field full of pros in the 3K Draft Challenge without losing a match. I’m looking forward to seeing how this promising rookie from Boston does at Pro Tour: Honolulu.

San Francisco has great pizza and chocolate. Rob Dougherty, Steve, and I were staying at a hotel near Fisherman’s Wharf. We were surrounded by impressive culinary options. San Francisco has an almost European feel to it, with many restaurants even featuring front men competing to attract your business with their hustling sales pitches. We tried many different options, from In-N-Out Burger to upscale seafood right on the water. We were probably most impressed with Fisherman’s Wharf Pizza, which we were repeat customers at, although that might be in part because of a dearth of great pizza in the Boston area. Rob and I also enjoyed an excellent ice-cream sundae with dark-chocolate fudge at Ghirardelli Square, home to some of America’s best chocolate.

Taking away Pro Tour side events seems crazy. As usual, the public events at Worlds were packed with excited players. Organizers were able to run PTQs while simultaneously running large-scale Constructed events of various formats. We were sure to show up an hour early to register for the Draft Challenge, because we knew that it always sells out all 128 slots. Pro Tours are traditionally impressive events, not just for the pros but for amateurs as well. I’ve known many amateurs (such as Steve) willing to fly great distances to join in the fun, especially if there is a Last Chance Qualifier being held. This will affect pros, too. With no side events to play in, when it becomes obvious there is no longer any chance of making Top 8 and nothing for their potential travel companions to do, they will be less likely to attend. I would recommend to local organizers that whenever the Pro Tour is in town, you rent a space nearby, set up some big events that same weekend, and promote the heck out of it.

Pro players are worried about the future of high-level organized play. This was the most common topic of conversation among pros at Worlds. Much of the anxiety comes from lack of information coming from Wizards. Players don’t understand why major changes were announced if WOTC isn’t ready to give us all the details. To many, it sounds like they might be building a bridge to nowhere. While the changes have been increasing attendance at local events and generating some excitement for those trying to qualify for the Tour, what happens when those players realize that the thing they’re trying to qualify for is no longer as awesome as it used to be? Can WotC sustain such high levels of interest in GPs, PTQs, and FNMs if the events everyone is trying to get into at the highest level are no longer really exciting to qualify for?

Then, of course, there are the lessons I learned from actually playing in the event:

Standard

Green/White tokens probably wasn’t the right choice for me. If I had known in advance the decks I was going to play against, I probably would have either played my mono-White artifact/token deck or Red Deck Wins. Six different decks went 6–0 in Standard, and they included five different archetypes. The one that was most my style was David Caplan’s RDW deck. It was actually quite similar to the version I suggested in one of my articles leading up to Worlds. Given my vast experience playing Red, especially compared to G/W, I suspect I would have been better off running Red.

My White deck might also have been a good choice. Most of my opponents were playing some version or another of Blue control: U/W, U/B, U/W/B, or U/W/R. I also lost to an Illusions deck. My White deck would have been better in all of these matchups. Against Illusions, the fact that I would be main-decking four Dispatches and four Mortarpods would be a big boost, and once I sideboarded in four Timely Reinforcements and four Day of Judgment, it would become a great matchup for me. Against Blue control decks, I would have liked to have both Oblivion Rings and Dispatches. Then I could feel safe to use Oblivion Rings to get rid of my opponent’s Rings while saving my Dispatches for their various 6-mana creatures that need to be dealt with, like Consecrated Sphinxes and Wurmcoil Engines. It would also be nice to be bringing in four Grand Abolishers when sideboarding, with the mana to reliably play one on turn two.

Booster Draft

With the kind of decks I like to play, seventeen land is too many. In both my drafts in the main event, I went U/W. My curves were both low, with only one or two 5-drops and nothing more expensive. In my first match, I lost 0–2, getting mana-flooded badly both games. In my next two matches, I sideboarded out a land every Game 2 and 3, and I won both those matches. I made the same mistake in the second draft, in part because I was running a Moorland Haunt and multiple Flashback cards. Once again, I did better when I boarded down to sixteen land. I fell just one turn short of another 2–1 draft, instead finishing 1–1–1 in the second draft.

I learned my lesson in time for the Draft Challenge. I started with a sixteen-land G/W Human deck and then drafted a sixteen-land R/B Vampire deck. I even had three 5-drops in both decks, but sixteen lands turned out to be plenty.

The other big draft lesson I learned was from Steve Guillerm. He went undefeated in the Draft Challenge using a specific strategy. He drafted aggressive base-Blue decks focusing on cheap evasion creatures like Delver of Secrets, Invisible Stalker, and Lantern Spirit. Then he used his late picks on creature enchantments like Spectral Flight, Curiosity, and Furor of the Bitten. He used high picks on bounce, like Grasp of Phantoms and Silent Departure. While not one of the strategies I’ve really worked on in Draft, it obviously worked pretty well for Steve.

This is an example of something I’m a big believer in when it comes to Draft. Find a powerful strategy in which you can become an expert that makes use of cards you can get with late picks, thus allowing you to force it successfully on a regular basis.

Modern

Affinity doesn’t mulligan well, and it’s an easy target for opposing sideboards. I was happy with the Affinity deck I played in Modern, but not my 2–4 record with it. I was pretty excited after I crushed my first two opponents, but that quickly waned as I lost four matches in a row, 2–1. In those four Game 3’s, I had to mulligan every time, once to five cards and another time all the way to four. This isn’t a formula for success, of course. I was only running sixteen land, so it was a risk I knew I was running. I ran four Mox Opals and four Springleaf Drums, so I was using twenty-four slots on mana. Without the right draw, though, I still usually needed to draw more than one land.

There were nine Affinity decks that finished with at least four wins, and all of them were running even less mana than I was. None had more than fifteen lands, some as few as fourteen. Most only ran three Moxes and three Drums as well. In addition, Steve kicked butt with the same deck that I ran in the iPad tournament. Given the right draws, the deck can beat anything. I never felt that any of my opponents were playing a deck that was a really difficult matchup for me, but unless I get a good draw, I can lose to anything as well. This is especially true given the number of harsh anti-artifact sideboard cards most players were packing.

Despite my intense frustration at not finishing better in the tournament, I’m glad I attended Worlds, and I feel that it was a good learning experience. Like most players, I’m unsure what the future holds for the Pro Tour, but I hope there will be more cool events like the one just held in San Francisco.