Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze Tournament Report: 50th

Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze was held in San Diego on May 17th-19th, 2013. This block constructed and draft format tournament included 388 of the world’s best players competing for $250,000 in cash prizes. These prizes are paid out to the top 75 players, with 1st place earning a whopping $40,000. In addition, this was the season’s last opportunity for players to amass enough pro points to earn silver, gold, and platinum status. Platinum status, in particular, is highly coveted because platinum players receive approximately $20,000 in benefits from Wizards. The majority of this value comes from the $3,000 appearance fees granted to platinum players each time they compete in a Pro Tour. Wizards also covers airfare and hotel for platinum players attending a Pro Tour, and they provide a $250 appearance fee for Grands Prix. Pro Tour winners are automatically granted platinum status. Thus, for your random PTQ winner, first place is worth about $60,000, plus an invite to the Player of the Year championship tournament.

Another important cutoff is Top 25. Players who place in the Top 25 receive, in addition to their cash prizes, an invitation to the next Pro Tour, as well as airfare. Typically, a record of 11-4-1 is needed to place in the Top 25, with a few players squeaking in on breakers at 11-5. At Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, which was held about 6 months ago, I was 9-4 with three rounds left to play. My breakers were excellent, which meant that a 2-1 finish would put me into Top 25. Unfortunately, I went 1-2 instead, which dropped me to 53rd. This was particularly painful because 75-51 win $1,000, while 50-26 win $1,500. Winning one more match over the course of the tournament would have instead had me win $2,500, plus invite and airfare to Montreal for Pro Tour Gatecrash.

My goal for Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze was Top 25. Of course, winning (or even making Top 8) would have been a dream come true, but I would have been ecstatic with Top 25. A Top 25 finish at Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze would have earned me 10 pro points, which would have combined with the 5 pro points I had earned at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica to give me 15 Pro Points, or exactly enough for pro level silver. Because silver level includes qualification for one Pro Tour in the season, Top 25 would have earned me, in addition to the cash prize and a flight, the alluring “Double Q,” or qualification for two Pro Tours in the upcoming season. Anything less than Top 25, however, would leave me without an invite. Sadly, I again came up short, losing Game 3 in Round 16 to miss Top 25 and instead finish 50th. If we value a flight to Dublin at $1,000, and a Pro Tour invitation at $500, my experience at Dragon’s Maze ended with me losing a $3,000 game of Magic ($1,000 difference in cash prize + $1000 flight + $1000 in Pro Tour invitations). Nobody said the Pro Tour was easy.

I did not join a “team” for this tour. The reason was that, in the past, working with a team was not very productive. For my first Tour, Paris 2011, I did not work with a team. I prepared on my own and finished 34th. For my second Tour, Nagoya 2011, I prepared with a group of Australian players. The team did not work together very well and we did not have any notable finishes. I went 4-4 and did not make Day 2. For my third Tour, Seattle 2012, I prepared with a group of Dutch players. Again, the team did not work very well together; of that group, I was the only player to finish in the money, earning $1,000 for 53rd. This time, I decided to playtest with a couple friends who love but have never qualified for the tour. Part of my motivation for this decision was that my wife and I were scheduled to move from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Nashville, Tennessee, on Tuesday, May 22nd, and I wanted to maximize the time I spent with local friends.

I tested for two days with one friend, then for two days with another friend, and then we all came together for a 5th day of testing. Because I was the only one qualified, I was able to make all the decisions regarding which direction our testing went, which I found to be very productive. By the end of this testing, we had narrowed down the deck choice to three possibilities: Esper Control, BRW Midrange, and Selesnya Aggro. Because Esper seemed like the deck to beat, I was least inclined to play it. If possible, I want to avoid playing the deck with a target on its back. Also, I did not want to play a hyper-aggressive deck because those decks lose to Selesnya, and I expected the addition of Voice of Resurgence and Advent of the Wurm to make Selesnya a popular choice. Thus, if I could get BRW Midrange or Selesnya Aggro to work, I would play one of those.

The next step in testing was to build BRW Midrange and Selesnya Aggro on MODO and run them through some queues to see how they performed against a broader range of decks. This was extremely productive. I immediately found that BRW Midrange had a lot of trouble against hyper-aggressive decks. In part this was because the mana in 3-color is so bad, but more importantly it was because the board sweeper for BRW is Mizzium Mortars, which costs 6 mana. Thus, I gave up on BRW and tested Selesnya Aggro. If this deck’s results were solid, then that is what I would play; if they were not, then I would play Esper.

Fortunately, Selesnya Aggro performed better than expected. In my online testing, I was handily beating red-based aggro decks and was usually beating the midrange decks. Control was more difficult, whether it be Bant, Esper, or Patriot, but I won a decent proportion of the time and it seemed that control matchups were winnable with decent draws. I had found my deck! Ultimately, the list I played is as follows:

This deck was built to be balanced against the field. The idea was that the maindeck should be tuned primarily against the weakest matchup (control), while the sideboard would ensure victories against midrange and aggro. In the maindeck, cards that are particularly good against control include Experiment One, Voice of Resurgence, Loxodon Smiter, Scion of Vitu-Ghazi, Advent of the Wurm, and Rootborn Defenses. Postboard, I would take out Trostani for the 3rd and 4th Scions.

The deck was generally good against aggro because its creatures are so big, but 4x Centaur Healer and 3x Druid’s Deliverance did a great job locking up the aggro matches in case the anti-control maindeck allowed an aggro deck to steal Game 1. I would also bring in a 3rd Trostani. In those matchups, the general idea was to lower the curve, so I would take out 2 Scion, 4 Advent of the Wurm, 1 Rootborn Defenses, and 1 Grove of the Guardian. Advent was particularly bad against red-based aggro decks because of Legion Loyalist.

Midrange such as BRW and BGW (Junk) were a little more difficult. Against these decks, the idea was to go bigger by bringing in the 3rd Trostani, the 3rd and 4th Scion, and 2 Collective Blessings. What came out depended on the specifics of the matchup. If the opponent played Voice of Resurgence, then Rootborn Defenses came out, but if the opponent played Mizzium Mortars then Rootborn Defenses stayed in. Frontline Medic usually came out in these matches. The plan against the mirror was similar, except that the 4th Trostani came in because it was the only way to beat opposing Trostanis.

My teammates wanted me to play all 4 Scions of Vitu-Ghazi maindeck and to put all 4 copies of Trostani, Voice of Selesnya in the sideboard. This is because Scion is better against control than Trostani. Scion is good against control and midrange, while Trostani is good against midrange and aggro. Staying on-plan with the anti-control configuration would mean including Scion over Trostani. However, I ultimately decided that Trostani was so much more of a silver bullet against aggro and midrange than Scion is against control that including two Trostani would do more to increase my win rate against the field. I won two Game 1’s against aggro and midrange because of Trostani, so I think this was the correct decision.

Grove of the Guardian is a powerful card that works well with the deck’s populate theme. It is best against mid-range and the mirror, and can be useful against control and aggro. Having options at the end of your opponent’s turn amplifies the power of instants such as Advent of the Wurm, Druid’s Deliverance, and Rootborn Defenses.

Including the second Grove of the Guardian is a choice that I did not take lightly. I am still not sure whether it is correct, but here was my reasoning. When I ran the math, I discovered that having 1 Grove of the Guardian gives about a 20% chance of having Grove by Turn 6. Having 2 Grove of the Guardian, however, increased those odds to about 37%. This number had to be compared to the chance that the extra Grove would cause you to miss a color in your opening hand, which would often mean needing to mulligan. This build has a 90% chance of having green in the opener, and an 88.3% chance of having white. Playing an eighth Plains over the second Grove would add 1.7% to the odds of having white in the opener. I decided that an additional 17% chance of having a Grove by Turn 6 was worth a 1.7% lower chance of having White in the opener. If we assume that ½ of matches go to Game 3, it is expected that your average Pro Tour competitor who makes Day 2 will play 25 games of constructed in the swiss rounds. This means the second Grove was expected to cause me to not have white in the opener for less than ½ a game during those rounds. I did lose a match by having Grove in my hand rather than a white source, but I also won a match with Grove, so it was a wash.

The major regret I have about this deck is that I cut Dryad Militant for Frontline Medic. This decision was largely motivated by teammate feedback. Medic could counter Rakdos’s Return, Sphinx’s Revelation, and Syncopate. The indestructible ability was particularly good against mid-range decks and the mirror. Also, Medic is good at pumping Experiment One to 3/3, which is especially important against the control decks, and Medic is a solid blocker against the red-based aggro decks. Medic seemed like an all-around good card. Dryad Militant is good against control, but is terrible against mid-range and does very little against Legion Loyalist.

All in all I was very pleased with the deck. I finished 7-3 in constructed, going 5-0 in constructed on Day 1. I defeated 3 Esper Control decks, 1 Patriot Control deck, 2 Junk Midrange decks, and 1 Naya Aggro deck. I lost 0-2 to Patriot Control (my draws and mana were awful), 1-2 to Junk Midrange (piloted by Brian Kibler, where I probably should have mulliganned and did not hit white until Turn 5 in Game 3), and 1-2 to Esper Control (in round 16, to barely miss Top 25). Barring the adoption of Wescoe’s Judge’s Familiar/Civic Saber plan, the only change I would make is to play Dryad Militant over Frontline Medic.

As a sidenote, one might say that cutting Dryad Militant turned this deck from Selesnya Aggro to Selesnya Midrange. I don’t think it matters much what we call the deck, but I think of Selesnya Midrange as trying to go even larger than this deck, so will continue to call my deck Selesnya Aggro. The Selesnya Midrange decks that I have seen play Armada Wurm, and sometimes Angel of Serenity. These decks usually play Gyre Sage as a way to ramp into their big drops. I was unhappy with this strategy as it seemed more vulnerable to control. Gyre Sage, in particular, was a great way to lose material against a Supreme Verdict. Selesnya Midrange plays better against aggro and midrange, but is worse against control, and that is a tradeoff I was not willing to make, especially considering how Selesnya Aggro’s matchup already is against other aggro decks. Given that I played against 6 control decks and 4 aggro/midrange decks, I am happy with this decision.

For me, day one of Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze could not have gone better. I finished 7-1, with my only loss coming from a draft where I made the correct picks but got cut off and finished with an ugly 4-color deck that I thought was going to 0-3. I first-picked Turn // Burn over Unflinching Courage. I believe this pick is right for three reasons. First, Turn // Burn is fine in any deck with red or blue, while you have to play both green and white for Unflinching Courage. Second, although Unflinching Courage can win games, it can also give your opponents a 2 for 1, while Turn // Burn is often a 2 for 1 for you. Third, Cedric Phillips and Sam Black both agreed with me, and they are better players than I.

I then picked Haunter of Nightveil over Jelenn Sphinx. While these cards are close in power level, I think Haunter is slightly more powerful. Also, having just passed Unflinching Courage, it seemed better to move into Grixis and put the drafter on my left into Bant. Based on my experience of about 20 MODO 8-4’s (of which I had won about 10, if you count making the finals as ½ a win), the best decks in this format are 3 colors. The reason for this is because going 3 colors gives you access to 3 guilds’ worth of multicolored cards rather than just 1. Thus, if you can put the drafter to your left into a 3-color combination that does not conflict with your chosen 3-colors, you will be rewarded in pack 2.

Unfortunately, the drafter on my right had opened Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch and drafted Rakdos, cutting my Grixis plan. His draft went extremely well. He 3-0’ed with a deck that included Crypt Ghast, Exava, Mizzium Mortars, and Rakdos, Lord of Riots, none of which were cards I saw. I, on the other hand, had to begin taking fixing and ended with this pile:

I will never be able to explain how this deck went 2-1. It was a miracle. In Game 1 of Round 3, Ricky Sidher crushed me by opening with 2x Truefire Paladin, Tajic, Blade of the Legion, and Sunhome Guildmage, but I somehow won the next two games to take the match.

After going 7-1 on Day 1, I was in 5th place. I needed 4-4 to reach my goal of Top 25, 5-3 to Top 16, and 5-2-1 to Top 8. My day 2 draft went much better. It was streamlined Selesnya with Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage, Deadbridge Goliath, 3x Armored Wolf-Rider, 2x Pit Fight and generally solid cards. Contrary to my expectations, however, I only went 1-2. I crushed former world champion Uri Peleg 2-0, but lost a close match to a Rakdos deck with Exava and Hellkite Tyrant, and had mana problems against a solid Esper deck. I thought this draft would at least 2-1, but nothing is certain in Pod #1 on Day 2 of a Pro Tour. I ended Day 2 at 3-5, falling just short of my goal, but the 7-1 Day 1 start was good enough to keep me in Top 50 at 10-6.

It would be a lie to say that I am not disappointed at how the tournament ended. If my Rakdos opponent hadn’t topdecked to stay alive in Round 9, if I had drawn a white source against Kibler (or if I had mulliganned into a better hand) in Game 3 of Round 12, or if my draws had been slightly better in Round 16, I might very well be going to Dublin and beyond. As it stands, however, I will have to requalify if I want to play another Pro Tour.

Even so, there were some very good elements to my experience at Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze. I enjoyed preparing for this Tour more than ever before, and ultimately I felt more prepared for this Tour than for any previous Tour. I also had my best Day 1 performance yet, and won the most money that I ever have at a tour: I had the same record as in Seattle (at both events I went 7-3 in constructed and 3-3 in draft) but this time my breakers held on for Top 50 and an extra $500. I defeated a world champion in draft, and built a deck that was very close to the winning decklist. I maintained my Pro Tour match win rate of 62.5% (over 56 matches), which gives me pride because the best in the world are only around 65%. Although I fell just short of my goal, I am proud to have finished in the Top 50, which is an honor that can be claimed by less than 13% of Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze competitors. And, perhaps most importantly, I feel very good about how I played. Now it’s back to the grind.

  1. Do not play on the pro tour. It should be boycotted due to its awful prize structure.

  2. Congratulations on your performance, 50th is very solid, also 7-3 in constructed is great and 63% win in constructed on the pt is something to be proud of. Good luck in the future, I will be sure to follow your name on the pt.

    Also, how come dryad militant gets no love? Easy to cast, one mana 2/1, and has a relevant ability. I was glad to see you bring her up for discussion.

  3. I followed you during coverage, it was pretty rough to see you fall short in day 2 after that excellent start. Still, glad our deck performed well. Hope things are going well in Nashville, Michigan (Shitigan?) sends greetings, lol.

  4. This was a great article. I enjoyed reading about your experiences. I think teams can be helpful, but it’s rare to actually be on a good team. I agree that if your team is not good, and you’re a bright person (which you clearly are), you can often do much better using your own brain rather than using the one deduced by a committee full of morons. Thank you for writing your post.