Better Lucky than Good Part 1: Grand Prix Montreal

After I won the Boston City Champs and the Massachusetts 2HG State Champs, people began to ask me if I think that I have become a better player than I was a year ago. I always answer that, in my opinion, I am as terrible at Magic as I have always been. I keep making mistakes that would disgrace a professional player. But if you play Magic long enough, you will eventually hit a lucky streak, and that is what happened to me this year. While you can't win a tournament without at least some skill, the majority of your games are still decided by luck, whether it is a lucky pairing (against a good matchup), a lucky draw, or your opponent mulliganning to four on the play. Some people will disagree with me - they want to think that they, and not blind luck, are responsible for their victories. Yet these same players, when they lose a match, inevitably complain how their opponent "drew the nuts" or their own deck let them down. The weekend of Grand Prix Montreal showed me again how luck is factor number one in Magic.

I had a lot of doubts about which deck to play in Montreal. I started the Block Constructed season playing Tomoharu Saitou's mono-Red deck from Grand Prix Strasburg. It soon turned out that I could not beat a well-tuned U/B Teachings deck with mono-Red. After much thinking, I decided to switch to Teachings. I generally have a love/hate relationship with the Teachings deck. I really dislike decks which have multiple one-ofs and two-ofs because you often get to draw the wrong one-of for the matchup you are playing (like Extirpate versus mono-Red or Slaughter Pact versus mono-Black). This attitude cost me dearly two seasons ago, when Gifts Ungiven was the deck to beat in Kamigawa Block Constructed. I felt the Gifts deck was bad, because it played only a single copy of seven or eight cards. I played mono-Black aggro in that format, and suffered a string of defeats. The memory of that fiasco made me think that I should not turn away from Teachings simply because they have many one-ofs. I am also a control player at heart. So, with many misgivings, I decided to run the following list at Grand Prix Montreal:

U/B/w Mystical TeachingsMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
5 Island
2 Swamp
1 Plains
4 Terramorphic Expanse
3 River of Tears
3 Calciform Pools
3 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
2 Tolaria West
2 Urza's Factory
1 Academy Ruins

2 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
2 Draining Whelk
1 Triskelavus

4 Prismatic Lens
3 Phyrexian Totem
4 Mystical Teachings
3 Careful Consideration
4 Damnation
3 Teferi's Moat
2 Take Possession
2 Tendrils of Corruption
1 Slaughter Pact
1 Pact of Negation
1 Extirpate
1 Temporal Isolation

The list is pretty standard, with only a few basic deviations. I did not run Cancel in the maindeck because I expected a metagame full of aggressive decks, and Cancel is bad versus aggro. Instead of Cancel, I ran a singleton Pact of Negation as a target for Teachings. I played three maindeck Teferi's Moats, because this card is not only insane against Red and White Weenie, it also stops mono-Black (answering their Korlash, Totems and Twisted Abomination), and it is great against Zoo. Once you name green, their Tarmogoyfs, Calls of the Herd, Predators, Saffis and Riftsweepers immediately go out of business. Phyrexian Totems have also been great in my playtesting because they put your opponent on a fast clock and let you win quickly once you're in control. True to my nature, I relocated many situational one-ofs (like Pull and Haunting Hymn) to the sideboard. One decision that I was not sure about was the choice of Draining Whelk over Aeon Chronicler. Both cards are lame against aggro and great against control, but I finally decided that the Whelk's ability to end the game quickly is more important than the Chronicler's long-term card advantage.

My high constructed rating gave me two byes at GP Montreal, so I whiled away the first three hours in a side draft with friends. (On a side note, Grand Prix events routinely start half an hour late, but the Montreal organizers broke the record by being over an hour late. The reason apparently was that they were unable to sort out the byes in advance.) At about a quarter past one, the pairings were finally posted for the tournament's third round, the first one I had to play.

Round 1 versus Andrew Ting-A-Kee playing R/G Big Mana

This was one of only two matchups I had playtested (the other being mono-Red), and I found that my deck has an edge against it. Unfortunately, Andrew won the die roll and followed a Radha, Heir to Keld with Mwonvuli Acid-Mosses on turns three, four and five. In testing, this was exactly the kind of draw that my deck would lose to. Andrew proceeded to cast a Tarmogoyf and a morphed Akroma, Angel of Fury, and I did not have enough black mana for Damnation. Because of my mana shortage I also could not answer his threats one by one, and succumbed to the beatdown. In game two I mulliganned to six, and then kept a mediocre hand with Mystical Teachings, Tendrils of Corruption and a Take Possession, but only Prismatic Lens, Urborg and an Urza's Factory for my mana sources. We each played lands on turn one, then I played the Lens, and he had a 0/1 Tarmogoyf. On turn three, I had Academy Ruins, which I had drawn in the meantime. My deck just would not give me any colored mana, certainly not the blue mana which I needed to cast Teachings that turn. Andrew played a land and passed. I decided not to kill the Tarmogoyf with an end-of-turn Tendrils, which probably was wrong but would not have changed the outcome. I drew a Phyrexian Totem and played it, passing the turn without dropping a fourth land. Andrew now had an Acid-Moss for my Urborg, leaving me very short on colored mana. He attacked with the Tarmogoyf and passed. I drew a Careful Consideration and had to pass, unable to do anything. Andrew killed my Academy Ruins with Avalanche Riders, smashed for 4, and dropped a second Tarmogoyf. Instead of badly-needed land, my deck now gave me a Pact of Negation. I had to pass again, my only mana sources being the Lens, the Totem and an Urza's Factory. Andrew untapped, declined to pay echo for Riders, drew a card and cast Harmonize. He then blew up my Totem with a murderous Ancient Grudge and flashed it back to kill Prismatic Lens. Left with a lone Urza's Factory and facing two huge Tarmogoyfs, I threw in the towel.

Total matches: 0:1

Everybody hates to lose early in a Grand Prix, because this means you now have to get a long streak of wins to make day two. But I reminded myself that I also had suffered an early loss in GP New Jersey and GP Dallas, and I made day two in both those events. So I pulled myself together and prepared for the next round.

Round 2 versus Anna Noworaj playing U/W Reanimator

It is rare to see a woman playing Magic, and also rare to see a player in his or her forties, yet Anna was both. I had played against her once before, defeating her in day one of Grand Prix Toronto when neither of us stood a chance of making day two. In game one, she had a turn one Lotus Bloom, a turn three Bonded Fetch, and a turn four Resurrection for a discarded Bogardan Hellkite. My Damnations were nowhere to be found, and instead of answering the Hellkite I had to cast a Careful Consideration on my turn. She attacked me with the Hellkite down to 10, and then played Momentary Blink on the dragon and flashed the Blink back using the mana from the Lotus Bloom. The extra ten damage killed me where I stood. In game two, I led with a Tolaria West and River of Tears, playing Prismatic Lens on turn two. Anna had a Looter il-Kor. I was once again woefully short on mana - my deck just wouldn't give me the lands that day, so I had to play a Phyrexian Totem and pass the turn without playing a land. She attacked with the Looter and discarded Akroma, Angel of Wrath. I drew a card and was again stuck with Take Possession, Triskelavus, Teferi, Tendrils of Corruption, Mystical Teachings and Temporal Isolation, but no third land. For lack of better play I had to pass the turn.

Sure enough, Anna had a Resurrection for Akroma. My deck mocked me heartlessly: with just one more mana I could play Teachings for Extirpate, but I did not have that one mana. So Resurrection resolved, and Anna attacked me with the Angel and the Looter. I knocked out Akroma with a Temporal Isolation, making white mana with the Lens. I now drew another Phyrexian Totem, but passed the turn without casting it, preparing to play Mystical Teachings on her end step. Anna again had the vicious Momentary Blink, which released Akroma from the Isolation. She smashed me down to 11, dropped a morph and passed.

I played the Teachings at end of turn, but did not have any decent choices. My only instant-speed answer to Akroma was a Temporal Isolation, and I had boarded in extra Isolations for game two, but with Blink in Anna's graveyard they clearly would not stop the Angel. I eventually decided to just get a Careful Consideration and try to draw Damnation. Alas, there was no Damnation in the five cards I drew on my turn (one for the turn and four for Consideration), but at least I found the extra lands. So I played an Urborg and passed it to her. She attacked me with Akroma, Looter and the morph, and flashed back Blink on the morph to make it a red Akroma. I was so frustrated with my bad draw that I conceded right there, forgetting that the Angel of Fury is now removed from combat and I will still survive this turn at 4 life. I only realized my error after I had walked away from the table, so there was no way to know if the life-saving Damnation really was on top of my deck. Even if it was, Anna had drawn several cards with the Looter, and almost certainly had another reanimation spell, so I would probably lose anyway. But I still regret giving up that game one turn too soon.

Total matches: 0:2.

My two early losses would now give me abysmal tiebreakers, which meant I no longer had a chance to make day two of the Grand Prix. But I decided to stay in, both to recover some of the rating points I had lost and to get some more practice with the deck I was playing.

Round 3 versus Bruno Cezar Daniel playing Mono Red Aggro

I was delighted when I realized that I am up against a good matchup. However, Bruno's draw was pretty decent, with Greater Gargadon followed by a Keldon Marauders and a Mogg War Marshal. I was able to sweep his board with Damnation, kill the remaining Goblin with a Teferi (which then died to Rift Bolt), and transmute a Tolaria West into a Slaughter Pact to be ready for the Gargadon. In other words, I had stabilized at 12 life and entered the mid-game, which in this matchup almost always means a win for me. However, Bruno surprised me with a maindeck Word of Seizing, which he cast on my Urborg to sacrifice it to Gargadon. He then sacrificed three more lands to bring the beast into play. I realized to my horror that I did not have another black source - I had not drawn either Lens or Totem that game - so now I was unable to play (and survive) the Pact of Slaughter. A turn later I succumbed to the enormous beater. In game two I had to mulligan down to five. I needed six mana to cast the Teferi's Moat in my hand, because my only white source was Prismatic Lens. Alas, Bruno's two Avalanche Riders foiled that plan and gave him enough tempo advantage to bring me within the range of a fatal Molten Disaster.

Total matches: 0:3.

At this point I would be paired against mediocre players until the end of the event, so I decided to end this nightmare and drop. I was incredibly annoyed at losing to a deck that I could beat 80% of the time in playtesting. Not only that, but I actually switched from mono-Red to Teachings because I thought Red was the underdog in this matchup. In any event, I clearly had some of my worst luck in this Grand Prix: I was constantly stuck on mana, and my opponents' draws were incredible. I decided to sign up for a Grand Prix San Francisco trial, which was just about to start. Only sixteen players enlisted in that event, and I managed to make top 8 with a 2-1-1 record. However, upon entering the quarterfinals I was defeated by another mono-Red deck, which just added insult to injury. (I did beat a Red deck in one of the previous rounds of the trial.) Utterly frustrated by the results of the day, I went back to the hotel.

Many players would blame their deck for such an abysmal performance. And if I had not playtested before the event, I would do that, too. But I knew that the Teachings deck is strong, and I just got screwed over by bad draws on that Saturday. Additionally, the only other deck I had brought to Montreal was mono-Red, and I felt that it had bad matchups across the field. So I decided to stick with Teachings in the Sunday PTQ. For about fifteen minutes before going to sleep I pondered whether I should switch the Draining Whelk for Aeon Chronicler. But, just as before, I eventually decided to stick with the Whelk, reasoning that the Chronicler would not make me win any of the games I had lost on Saturday.

On Sunday morning, hoping for a reversal of fortunes, I signed up for the PTQ for Valencia. As is usual for the PTQ on the day after a Grand Prix, the attendance was high - 154 players participated, which meant there would be eight rounds of Swiss, and some 6-1-1 people would not make it.

(Will Yakov’s luck change and his Teachings deck win the PTQ? Will he fall to mono-Red or a new contender? To be continued tomorrow...)


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