Friends in PA: A Team Standard PTQ Report

by Tom Fowler

As soon as it was announced as a Pro Tour format, Team Constructed has generated a lot of buzz in the player community. Team Limited was always a popular format, mainly because players got to play Magic with their friends. What was a solo exercise, a mano a mano magical duel, became a group endeavor, with fates depending on what your friend could topdeck to get himself the win. Team Constructed promised all of this, plus the chance to play decks you actually like and have (presumably) spent time testing and tweaking.

With the Unified Deck Construction rule in place, teams faced a serious design constraint. Splitting a good card between two decks would make both of them suboptimal, so the ideal configuration is three decks with zero overlap. With seven dual lands (and all 10 painlands), deck choices hinge upon decks not being needy when it comes to their land bases. Greater Gifts, for example, eliminates the Beach House Deck, Zoo, Selesnya Aggro, and the B/W variations. And maybe a few other decks.

My teammates were Steve Utter, who recently played in Pro Tour: Honolulu, and Rich “Cartman” Herbert, a popular figure in the northeast Magic scene. We tested together for GP Boston in February of 2005 and managed good results. This time, however, we didn't have nearly the time to prepare that we did for Boston. The PTQ in West Chester, PA was early in the season, and the environment was still very much undecided. We sent a lot of emails back and forth and spent as much time testing as we could. It wasn't nearly as much as we would have liked, but we’re all pretty good players, and it would just have to do.

We finalized our deck choices and decklists Friday night. Here’s what we ran:

Magnivore, Steve Utter, Seat AMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
3 Magnivore

4 Sleight of Hand
1 Genju of the Spires
4 Eye of Nowhere
3 Tidings
2 Boomerang
4 Compulsive Research
3 Mana Leak
3 Wildfire
3 Pyroclasm
4 Stone Rain
3 Demolish

7 Island
1 Oboro, Palace in the Clouds
1 Minamo, School at Water's Edge
6 Mountain
4 Shivan Reef
4 Steam Vents

Heartbeat Combo, Rich Herbert, Seat BMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
4 Drift of Phantasms
1 Maga, Traitor to Mortals

4 Sensei's Divining Top
4 Remand
4 Heartbeat of Spring
4 Early Harvest
4 Muddle the Mixture
4 Kodama’s Reach
1 Train of Thought
1 Recollect
1 Savage Twister
1 Weird Harvest
1 Invoke the Firemind

10 Island
10 Forest
1 Swamp
1 Mountain

B/W Metagame, Tom Fowler, Seat CMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
3 Plagued Rusalka
4 Dark Confidant
4 Kami of Ancient Law
4 Hand of Honor
4 Paladin en-Vec
3 Ghost Council of Orzhova

4 Last Gasp
4 Mortify
4 Umezawa's Jitte
3 Bathe in Light

1 Eiganjo Castle
2 Shizo, Death's Storehouse
4 Caves of Koilos
4 Godless Shrine
7 Plains
5 Swamp

A couple of quick things we learned:

-- Heartbeat is a very good deck.
-- Many Heartbeat players, however, are very bad.
-- Ghost Council of Orzhova is the nut high.
-- Almost no one knows how Shining Shoal actually works.

Damn it feels good to be a gangsta...
We settled on Heartbeat and B/W early. The B/W was heavily metagamed to beat other B/W decks. We expected a lot of Plains and Swamps, between Ghost Dad, Hand in Hand, and B/W Aggro. With a dozen pro-Black or White creatures after sideboarding, I was confident in my ability to win anything approaching a mirror match. Train of Thought was Rich’s idea, and was a late switch for Compulsive Research. It digs much deeper if you have a Heartbeat in play, and you can tutor it up with Muddle the Mixture. Magnivore became our third deck because none of us really liked U/R Tron very much, and Magnivore should be good against that and the aggro decks.

So, why did we put the three decks where we did? Conventional wisdom says to put your best player in the B seat and give him a quick deck. This way, he can be finished early and use the new team communication rules to talk to both of the wingmen. Our expectation was that most people would try this configuration, so we went with something different. We put Heartbeat in the middle, since it goldfishes against aggro decks which don’t draw a lot of 4-damage burn spells. Expecting Heartbeat on one of the wings, we put Steve (who’s our best player) in A with Magnivore, which has a favorable matchup against Heartbeat. My B/W deck in the C seat doesn’t have the disruption maindeck to stop Heartbeat, but my chances improve after sideboarding. Besides, this deck beats the bejeezus out of Ghost Dad, and we (correctly) expected a lot of that on the wings.

We got to the Best Western at about 9:25, in plenty of time for the 10:00 start time. We had filled our decklists out the previous night, in case Gray Matter decided to use the hideously bad idea of a unified team decklist. Thankfully, they did not. The unfortunate thing about this date was that there was also a PTQ in Rockville, MD on the same day. This gave us no chance to do both, which we would have definitely done had the scheduling worked out.

Armed as you see above, we set off for our first match.

Round 1: Steve, Ghost Dad

Nothing like starting the day off with a bye. Really, the matchup is that good. They have serious problems in the first game, and 12 protected men in subsequent games is just too much. This bore itself out in game 1, as Paladin en-Vec was my superstar. With the Paladin and an active Jitte, he was in a bad way. I went down to 7 life, mainly from my own Dark Confidant and a few Thief of Hope triggers, but the writing was on the wall when Paladin #2 came down, and he scooped.

IN: 4 Hand of Cruelty
OUT: 3 Plagued Rusalka, 1 Bathe in Light

In the second game, I have removal for his early Tallowisps, which is huge. My complaint with Ghost Dad is that it seriously suffers if it doesn’t get a Tallowisp going. My opponent still managed a Dark Confidant and a Plagued Rusalka, while my Paladin en-Vec stared down the evil Swamp dwellers. He swung with both. Figuring he had Shining Shoal (which he had used to kill a Paladin in the first game, by redirecting its damage to itself), I declared no blockers . . .

Me: No blocks. I take 3?
Him: Hold on. (fingering lands and looking at hand)
Me: (thinking) He obv has Okiba-Gang Shinobi, so I’m considering my discard options.
Him: Play Shining Shoal, redirecting my Dark Confidant’s damage to your Paladin.
Me: . . .
Him: (after a pause, in a defeated voice) It’s still damage from a Black source, isn’t it?
Me: Yessir.

This misplay put him on tilt, as he found a Tallowisp, but missed two triggers over the next three turns. I doubt that it would have mattered. At one point, I swung with a Jitte-equipped Paladin, and he pushed both Tallowisps in front of it. After first strike damage, the Jitte got two counters, one of which went to immediate use in killing the Wisp I’d assigned the 2 damage to. The Paladin lived thru the exchange, and Last Gasp and Mortify mopped up his men from there.

1-0 (2-0)

Rich and Steve both won their matches, making us 1-0 (3-0) so far. Rich won a Heartbeat mirror, meaning other teams were trying to metagame their seating assignments like we were.

Round 2: Marty, Heartbeat Combo

This was Justin Morcate’s team, featuring three very solid players. Unfortunately, there’s not much to tell this round. I mulliganed on the play in game 1, got a Kami of Ancient Law down on turn 2, then stalled for land. The Kami beat him all the way down to 6, while he had a trio of Remands for the other Kamis I was trying to play. Meanwhile, he had been stockpiling combo elements in his hand, and went off easily at 6 life.

IN: 4 Castigate, 4 Hypnotic Specter
OUT: 4 Last Gasp, 3 Bathe in Light, 1 Plagued Rusalka

My sideboard was something of a gamble. I wanted to include Terashi’s Grasp, figuring Heartbeat would run the Bottled Cloister plan against any B/W deck to nullify their disruption. However, I liked the sideboard we settled on Friday, and Terashi’s Grasp would only be really useful against Heartbeat. It could randomly pop a Jitte or some other artifact, but I wasn’t really worried about those. If I never faced Heartbeat, I’d have three cards in my sideboard that did nothing all day. So we went without Terashi’s Grasp. Now, facing Heartbeat, I had to hope he either didn't have the Bottled Cloister plan (unlikely), or just never drew one.

I got two early Castigates in the second game, snagging a Heartbeat and an Early Harvest and removing them from the game. I was hoping to draw a Hippie to really rip his hand apart – there’s really nothing Heartbeat can do about the meddlesome Specter except burn it out with Savage Twister or Invoke the Firemind. Alas, I didn’t see a Hippy, but he did see Bottled Cloister. Undaunted, I kept up the beatdown until he was at 5. He started to go off, and I responded to an Early Harvest with a Mortify on his Heartbeat. That meant his Maga wasn’t quite lethal, but it was still for 20. I went to 22 life from 2 Jitte counters, then fell to 2. Maga’s ability might not have killed me, but he was still a 20/20 creature.

1-1 (2-2)

Unfortunately, Rich and Steve also lost, so we got the brooms taken to us this round. At this point, I figured we had to win out to make the Top 4, with a chance to have good tiebreakers and be able to draw in the last round. 1-1 (3-3)

Round 3: Mauro, Ghost Dad

Our opponents came all the way from Montreal to play in this PTQ. The first game did not start well for me, as I mulliganed on the play and kept a hand that was keepable, but certainly not stellar. He got his Tallowisp and Thief of Hope both online, and things were not looking good for the home team. I was able to keep the Thief out of the red zone with a Hand of Honor, and I caught a break when he tapped out with a Ghost Council in play, giving me a beautiful window for Mortify. It was the last break I’d catch for a while, as my Dark Confidant got a Pillory of the Sleepless put on it, then another.

So here’s the scenario: I’m at 3 life, he’s at 16. I have Bob double-Pilloried. He can sit back and do nothing and watch me lose the game. After the Pillories put me to 3, Bob flips up . . . Hand of Honor. Ouch, down to 1, and now it looks even bleaker. Needing a nice topdeck, I draw my card for the turn.

Remember above, when I said Ghost Council of Orzhova is a house?

Eat it, Ghost Dad.
I slammed down the Spirit Lord to go to a robust 2 life. I also played the Hand of Honor, leaving 1 mana open. He played a spirit to trigger his Thief of Hope, sending me back to 1. He shipped the turn, at which time I informed him I had something to do during his second main phase. Dark Confidant was sacrificed to the Ghost Council, both Pillories went away, and I was again at 2 life. My next draw? Hand of Honor number three. I sent the first two into the red zone and played the third one. Confronted with a protected Ghost Council and three pro-Black creatures, my opponent packed it up.

Whew. Games against Ghost Dad aren't usually so tense for this deck.

IN: 4 Hand of Cruelty
OUT: 3 Plagued Rusalka, 1 Bathe in Light

Game two was more along the lines of how the matchup is supposed to go. I played some guys he couldn't do anything about, and he fetched up Pillories because they’re still useful as fodder for both Shoals. At one point, I swung with a Jitte-wielding Paladin en-Vec, and he Shining Shoaled the damage back to the Paladin. I shrugged, sent the Paladin to the bin, and put two counters on my Jitte. My opponent objected, saying the Shoal prevented the damage. I pointed out that it does nothing of the sort, merely redirecting the damage without changing the type or source. BTW, my opponent was also a Level 2 judge. I really think there are very few people, players and even judges, who know how Shining Shoal actually works. I’d consider starting a club, but We Understand Shining Shoal is abbreviated WUSS, and I think that hinders any membership drive. Anyway, another Jitte-wielding Paladin took him from 11 to 1, then mopped up the rest next turn.

2-1 (4-2)

Meanwhile, Steve beat a Gruul deck in the A seat, and Rich tangled with U/R Tron. He won a game in which the Tron player cast Wildfire not one, not two, but three times. With the combo pieces in hand, he would transmute Drift of Phatasms for Kodama’s Reach, ensuring that he would have the lands he needed to go off. Eventually, that’s exactly what happened. Brooms again, but this time, we were doing the sweeping. 2-1 (6-3)

Round 4: James, Elves

Yes, Elves. Really. I’m not kidding.

His first turn consisted of playing an Overgrown Tomb tapped, but he followed that up with Elvish Warrior. I had been telling Steve and Rich that I knew someone who had built a respectable Elves deck with Elvish Warrior, but I don’t think they listened to me. The problem with Elvish Warrior (besides the horrible “Elvish” instead of the much more aesthetically pleasing “Elven” in its name) is that it’s a 2/3. The only guys I have who can really handle that in a fight are Hand of Honor and Ghost Council. He played another Elvenish Warrior, which just made things worse for my board of Dark Confidant and 2x Kami of Ancient Law. Finally, I drew a Hand of Honor. I figured he was playing Giant Growth and read him for one, which he had, but I had Last Gasp to keep things in my favor. That was brief, however, as he just kept putting out guys, including Elvish Champion and Selesnya Guildmage to really muck with the combat math. Even Ghost Council wasn’t enough to save me from the mob of Elves.

IN: 4 Hand of Cruelty, 3 Slay
OUT: 3 Plagued Rusalka, 3 Bathe in Light, 1 Paladin en-Vec

I needed the extra Hands just because of the bushido. Paladin en-Vec was a good man all day, but he can’t tangle with a 2/3. Both Hands brawl with 2/3s and come out on top, so I boarded them in. They definitely helped in this game, as did the pair of Slays I drew. He surprised me with Might of Oaks, taking me from 14 to 5, but Jitte showed up and allowed me to start taking over the game. A Ghost Council was just too much for him.

In game 3, he had a turn-2 Elvish Warrior for the third game in a row. All I could do was smirk and shake my head. I started gaining board advantage, however, as the Bushido Gang was turning up in droves. He attacked and played another Might of Oaks, but I was ready for that tricksy pump spell, and the would-be recipient was Slain. The Bushido Gang was a problem for his small men, and Ghost Council showed up at the end to make sure everything was kosher. Elves are really afraid of the Ghost Council when he walks out of Shizo. 3-1 (6-3)

Steve wins his match, and Rich wins a Heartbeat mirror because his opponent is apparently bad at counting mana. If you can play Heartbeat (and I mean play it well) at this early point in the season, then for the tentacled love of Great Cthulhu, DO IT. A lot of people have no idea how to play the deck yet. Not only did Rich encounter people who couldn’t count, he also played a mirror where his opponent played a couple spells, then tapped out for Hearbeat and shipped the turn. I could almost see him doing a dance as he won on his turn. 3-1 (9-3)

Round 5: Jason, B/W Aggro

In the first game, he mulliganed on the play, and both our first turns were Swamp, Plagued Rusalka. When he swung into me, I made the trade, since I was up two cards on him already. I maintained the creature advantage with Paladin en-Vec, which took him a while to off with Shining Shoal. It came down to him, at 6 life with a Ghost Council in play, against me, at 16 life with a pair of Paladins en-Vec. Ghost Council might be a house, but not so much there. I swung with one Paladin to knock him to 4, and he scooped after drawing nothing to help him.

IN/OUT: Just like rounds 1 and 3.

For the second game, my opponent chose to draw. I think this was a terrible decision, probably brought about by his mulligan in the first game. He plays more hand disruption than I do, so he needs to start on it as soon as possible. Giving me the first turn does not help that strategy at all. He had to mulligan again, while I came out of the gates strong. He was having mana problems, and had to play a Shrieking Grotesque with no mana from the Swamps to be seen. His board was the Grotesque and a Plagued Rusalka, against my two Hands of Honor and a Ghost Council. I played Bathe in Light on the Council, naming White, and that was that.

4-1 (11-3)

Meanwhile, Steve lost to Owl, and Rich went down to Greater Gifts, after drawing eight lands, a Top, and two other unimportant spells off a Train of Thought for 11. Anything good would have reversed the outcome, but sometimes, those are the breaks you get. Our plan of winning out had been foiled, but we did get paired up in round 3, so that meant our tiebreakers were good. The odds of making Top 4 looked very long, though. 3-2 (10-5)

Round 6: Tim, Warp World

Yes, you read that correctly. Warp World. Who expects Warp World at a PTQ?

Let's do the world warp again...
I had no idea what he was playing for the first few turns, since his lands were Sacred Foundry, Forest, and Tendo Ice Bridge. He played a Wood Elves or two, and when he dropped the Forbidden Orchard, I had a feeling what I was up against. I also had a feeling that I had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the game. I had to read Warp World when he played it the first time. I ended up flipping nine cards, with only one (a Last Gasp) being a non-permanent. Of course, two of the cards I flipped up were my two copies of Shizo. What are the odds? Instead of having three lands in play, I had only one, which stranded potential permanents in my hand. My opponent, meanwhile, was very skillful at finding Loxodon Hierarch and Anarchist off Warp World. He even found two Hierarchs the second time he played it. Another Warp World saw me pack it in for the second game.

My sideboarding options were interesting. The first thought I had was to go as heavy on permanents as possible, which would mean boarding in my eight creatures for eight non-creature spells. However, I really wanted to have Castigate, so I realized that I would have to board disruption and hope for the best.

IN: 4 Hypnotic Specter, 4 Castigate
OUT: 3 Bathe in Light, 4 Last Gasp, 1 Plagued Rusalka

At least I netted +3 permanents in the deal. In the second game, I was able to disrupt him enough with a Hippy while helping the beatdown cause with a Jitte. He gained some life from a Loxodon Hierarch, but I was burning thru Jitte counters with each attack, pumping the Hippy to 6/6 just to kill him before he could try and play Warp World. Thankfully, it worked, and we were off to the rubber game.

In the third game, I played a quick Confidant, which he blasted from the mortal coil with a Blaze for 1. I had no problems with him using Blaze like that, and played another Confidant. A Castigate on the next turn showed three relevant cards: Heartbeat of Spring, and Warp World x2. Later, Steve told me he walked away at this point, telling Rich I was losing the game. I obviously removed the Heartbeat from the game, and had four turns to deal with the pair of Warps. I played a Hippy and swung with it. He had two cards in hand (the two Warps), and a Top in play. So he spun the Top to draw a third card, making his hand Warp World, Warp World, Mystery Card.

I found out quickly that Mystery Card was Forbidden Orchard. Sigh.

I had another Hippy, however, and the next turn, both the Warps were in the bin. With both the Warps gone and two Hippies in play, this was an easy game, right? Not quite. My opponent had played three Loxodon Hierarchs to make me do a lot more work to kill him. Also, my Dark Confidant was very mean to me, revealing non-land cards for seven straight turns. My life went 20, 17, 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 2, and it was all from Bob. The jump from 6 to 2 was from Ghost Council, though, so I threw that out there to go up to 3. I had a Jitte going, but he answered soon enough with Pithing Needle. I used the four counters to kill an Elephant, which was a mistake (killing his Wood Elves also removes a blocker, and the other counters could have offed Bob and given me +4 life). Bob went to the bin during my opponent’s turn – another turn in which he failed to attack with any of his three 4/4 Elephants, I might add. Toward the end of the game, I don’t think attacking was the right plan, but he definitely missed some attacks earlier in the game. I’ll bet he also wanted that Blaze back – Anarchist wasn't an out for him here, since he didn't have the mana to play it and Blaze me out, and there was no way he was keeping a card in his hand with two Specters in play. Even with Jitte neutered, the Specters were too much for him to handle, and I pulled it out.

5-1 (13-4)

Rich had already won his match, and Steve lost to B/W when his opponent drew three straight lands after a Wildfire and played Ghost Council. Still, we took the match down and had to hope for the best in tiebreakers. 4-2 (12-6)

When we looked at the pairings for round seven, we saw that we’d been paired up for the second time. That was promising, but we’d fallen from the 9-point team with the best tiebreakers to a 12-point team in the middle of the pack. I looked at the standings and the pairings and ran some math, and my conclusion was that we had an absurdly small chance to get into the Top 4 if we won. Many things would have to go exactly the way we needed them to, and even then, the tiebreakers would still have to shake out in just the right way.

Our opponents were three guys we all knew. One of them used to go to the old game store that was in the area, and the others are tourney veterans we knew from the circuit. They were guaranteed in if they won. We talked about decks, and the match would have been a coin flip. After conferring amongst ourselves, we ran the scoop and let them into the Top 4. I later heard that they made the finals, but they fell there to Osyp's team. We didn't stick around to watch – the George Mason vs. Florida game was on.

Lessons Learned

I like the decks we took to the event. We've gone over a few possible changes to each one, and if we play these decks again this season, they’ll be a few cards different. Steve wants to add a third Boomerang to the Magnivore deck, for example, and I want to make room for Castigate in the B/W deck. I boarded out at least some quantity of Bathe in Light and Plagued Rusalka all day, so I should be able to get 3-4 Castigates out of those slots. That would free up sideboard space for Terashi’s Grasp, which would be tremendous against Heartbeat’s Bottled Cloister plan.

Speaking of Heartbeat, it really is a very good deck. I like the build we took to the PTQ, with Train of Thought subbing for Compulsive Research. Rich commented after the event that he thought the deck still needed one more draw spell – that one probably will be a Compulsive Research. If you’re going to play Heartbeat, however, practice with it. A LOT. We saw a lot of terrible Heartbeat players at this PTQ. I’m guessing the skill level of the Heartbeat players will improve as the season wears on, but if you’re good with the deck now, you can expect to win mirror matches at Team PTQs. One choice you'll have to make is to go with the Bottled Cloister plan or the Man Plan in your sideboarding (both are typically done against B/W). The fellow I played in round 2 went with Cloister; Rich's deck contained the Man Plan. Afterwards, he said he wasn't a huge fan of it, and he'll probably switch to the Cloister plan. My advice is to try both and go with whichever one brings you more success.

We all preferred Magnivore to U/R Tron, and I still prefer it today. Personally, I've never liked the Tron deck, since I think the idea of playing two colors with 12 colorless lands in your deck is courting disaster. Magnivore's mana is more consistent, and it doesn't need Signets to be that way. I think Ghost Dad is a poor choice for these PTQs – the deck is easy to metagame against, and opponents who know how to attack it can just beat it silly. Everyone seems to be down on the various flavors of Stomping Ground Aggro right now. We tried Zoo (it was Steve’s first choice), but the mana just wasn't consistent enough. He had to mulligan too often and lost too many games to fighting the deck's dodgy manabase. Heezy Street has more consistent mana, but never seemed as powerful. Don’t sleep on the aggro decks going into your PTQs, though – people will be playing them, and they can kill you posthaste if you’re not prepared.

Our next chance to play a Team Standard PTQ probably won’t be until the one in Richmond on May 6th. This gives us time to soak up the format and prepare for it. Charleston or bust?

Tom Fowler


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