Winning Pro Tour Ixalan

Feature Article from Seth Manfield
Seth Manfield
11/8/2017 11:01:00 AM
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Wow! I'm still trying to take in the fact that I am a Pro Tour Champion. Seriously? Why did I win instead of someone else? Clearly, I didn't play perfectly – just watch the Top 8. But I did enough, and ran hot enough to win the tournament. Winning a Pro Tour is something every professional Magic player works so very hard to achieve, and is one of, if not the single greatest accomplishment in Magic.

I have been asked by friends how I continually put up the results that I do, and there is no easy answer to this. I consider myself a strong player in both Limited in Constructed. In many ways, for this particular Pro Tour I feel like I took advantage of my teammates, without giving them the help they needed in return. We all showed up in Albuquerque on Monday, three days before the Pro Tour, and we exclusively focused on Standard.

Having just played a Limited Grand Prix and having drafted a ton on Magic Online, we did zero live drafts. This is very different from our traditional testing process. Christoffer Larsen (the huge man throwing me up in the air after I won the Pro Tour) is always encouraging a couple live drafts each day. Even though I did win the Pro Tour, our testing process wasn't perfect, and while this ended up being to my benefit, it didn't necessarily help the team as a whole.

I have always thought of myself as having a God-given talent that many players have to work very hard to achieve: the skill of booster drafting. I have always thought of myself as one of the top drafters in the world, knowing exactly what card to take out of each booster. In Ixalan, there is a very real danger of having a complete train wreck, especially when drafting with a lot of strong players. This meant relying on drafting on Magic Online was a big problem.

If even there is even one inexperienced player in a draft, it becomes so much easier to have a good deck. My testing team didn't leave enough time for testing, and what ended up being taken away from the testing process was live drafting. This hurt most of my teammates but didn't affect me, since I believe that to be one of my greatest strengths. We did meet up and have a lengthy discussion about pick orders for every card in Ixalan, but that isn't enough.

Wait, if most of Genesis bombed Limited, how are we in first place in the Team Series right now? Well the answer is that we CRUSHED Constructed. Four of my teammates had eight wins in Standard, and I had seven alongside two draws. I believe that was easily the strongest showing of any team in the Constructed rounds of the Pro Tour. On the flipside, there were teammates who only got a single win in six rounds of draft, so we will do our absolute best to change this for the next Pro Tour. I blame myself for not sharing my knowledge of this Limited format well enough with my teammates.

Okay, so back to winning the Pro Tour. Flash back to Thursday night. I had what I believed were two very good decks to choose from: the Sultai Energy deck, or the straight Temur Energy deck Brian Braun-Duin and Martin Muller ended up playing to very strong results. I had been testing a lot of Ramunap Red and Mono-Black Aggro, but I felt like they weren't quite strong enough when put up against the power of the energy decks. Even though I had more experience playing Temur Energy, I put my faith in the strongest deck builder on the planet (in my opinion): Brad Nelson.

The Sultai Energy deck had been performing so well in our testing that even though I wasn't super comfortable with it, I thought it would be the best deck for this tournament. The worst conceivable matchup was our Temur Energy list featuring a full playset of Glorybringers and multiple copies of Chandra, Torch of Defiance. That matchup feels like a coin flip, but once players start taking Glorybringers out of their deck and adding the fourth color, the energy decks become much easier to beat from the Sultai side.

Even though Sultai Energy is the name of the deck, I think of it more as Sultai Aggro. This deck wants to come out of the gates and knock out the opponent in the first few turns of the game with super strong creatures, backed up by protection in the form of Blossoming Defense.

I dropped one match against Ramunap Red with this deck, but also beat that deck twice during the event. Ramunap Red was a deck I expected to show up in large numbers, based on playing against it a ton in Magic Online Leagues, and I was not wrong. While some teammates had a full playset of Hostage Takers and Walking Ballista in the main deck, I did not. I moved two copies of Vraska's Contempt to the main, because I wanted a clean answer to Gods.

Having to rely on Hostage Taker to get a Hazoret the Fervent off the table is pretty risky. Many times your opponent will be able to immediately kill the Hostage Taker and you lose the game on the spot. I plan to go over each matchup more extensively in a future article, but honestly there is no deck in the format I am really afraid to play against with Sultai Energy. That said, when I drew into Top 8 and heard I was going to be paired against Jeskai Approach, I thought that would be bad for me.

However, once I realized the decklist of Guillaume Matignon didn't have Fumigate, I realized I was the favorite. All of the energy decks are going to have some dead cards against a deck like Jeskai Approach, as creature removal is mostly irrelevant before sideboarding. Having a Fatal Push in my opening hand was essentially already taking a mulligan. However, I was still able to win the first two games before sideboarding.

Matignon was plagued by mulligans, while I realized that Settle the Wreckage was the card that he was relying heavily on, so I should never attack with more than two creatures. The two-drop creatures like Longtusk Cub and Glint-Sleeve Siphoner can get out of hand pretty quickly if they aren't immediately killed by Harnessed Lightning. I was pretty happy to get out of the quarterfinals since I didn't play great that match.

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Then I was waiting, watching the game of the tournament. I wish I could say that it was a game I was playing in, but that wasn't the case. Game five of Mike Sigrist versus Samuel Ihlenfeldt was pretty crazy, truly a back-and-forth affair. I wanted to know the winner so I could prepare for my semifinal match, and at one point I messaged the team to get a copy of Four-Color Energy together, as it looked like Siggy was about to win.

Samuel played it well though, using his Vehicles and Thopters to assemble an impressive attacking force in the air. This game illustrates that even the best players mess up – it happens. Sometimes it is the difference in the game, other times it's not. In this case it was. In this moment I felt bad for Siggy knowing how much this meant to him. At the same time, I was a little relieved to not have to play against SIggy. Mardu is a matchup I was quite comfortable with, and the games are not nearly as complex as energy mirrors.

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My goal against Samuel in the semifinals was to try to be as aggressive as possible, because I knew if I wasn't he would eventually get me in the air with a Vehicle or beat me down with a copy of Hazoret the Fervent. Both the first and third games felt like I just had a much better draw. I played a turn two Longtusk Cub against pretty much no resistance, and if I could afford to I would hold up Blossoming Defense in case of removal. In the second game, I didn't have a great draw – in fact, I only played three spells.

However, the spells I did play were very important ones. Turn two Winding Constrictor into a Rishkar, Peema Renegade is of the most explosive starts you can possibly have in Standard. That said, I was on the draw, and had very little to work with besides the Walking Ballista I peeled on turn four. The key decision of the game was whether or not to attack on turn three after casting Rishkar, Peema Renegade.

I decided to attack with Winding Constrictor there for four damage, and it ended up being the difference in the game. I knew if I attacked and Samuel cast Unlicensed Disintegration on Rishkar, Peema Renegade the following turn I was going to lose on the spot. That said, it felt like because I had very little action in hand I wanted to make the game into a race, and it ended up working out. Samuel is one of the nicest most fun guys I have ever met while playing Magic, so to play against him in the semifinals was a treat.

I felt like the finals against my good friend Pascal Maynard was going to be my most difficult match yet, and it was. This was the match, the match that I had been waiting for – the match that might only come around once in my life – the match that would determine if I would be a Pro Tour Champion. Then I quickly start off by punting the first game away, though I thought my decision was correct at the time.

The spot is that Pascal had played a Champion of Wits getting a God-Pharaoh's Gift into the graveyard. He was still at a high life total, but I did have a Glint-Sleeve Siphoner and a Winding Constrictor in play to allow me to draw an additional card each turn. The key is that Pascal had Search for Azcanta in play but no creatures in his graveyard, unless I decided to kill them by attacking or pinging his Champion of Wits with a Walking Ballista I was going to play for the turn.

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I ended up deciding to kill the Champion of Wits because I figured he would put more creatures into the graveyard with his Search for Azcanta, and there was a decent chance he just didn't have a copy of Refurbish in hand to bring back God-Pharaoh's Gift. If I leave that Champion of Wits in play for another turn, as it turned out, I probably win the game. Luckily, at the time I didn't realize how significant an error I had made, so it didn't impact my play for the other games.

In game two I had one of those busted Sultai draws, like the one I had in the third game when playing Samuel. These draws involve two-drops and backing them up with more threats on the following turn, putting a ton of pressure on the opponent. Pascal essentially needed a turn four Refurbish on God-Pharaoh's Gift to have a chance, and he didn't have it this time. I felt pretty good about splitting the first two games before sideboarding.

I hadn't tested much against God-Pharaoh's Gift going into the Pro Tour, especially the straight white-blue list of Pascal's. I knew I was going to have to go with my gut on sideboarding decisions. Even though I hadn't tested a ton of the matchup, I felt like sideboarded games would favor me since Pascal's Refurbish plan would be much more vulnerable. I had access to three copies of Deathgorge Scavenger, an all-star here as they not only can take God-Pharaoh's Gift out of the opponent's graveyard but also can deal with creatures that have returned from the graveyard.

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While I didn't know if Pascal would sideboard out some of his combo, it makes sense that he cut some copies of Refurbish and God-Pharaoh's Gift. The additional disruption I had access to meant he was forced to rely more on creatures like Fairgrounds Warden and Angel of Sanctions. I realized this, and chose not to board in Negate at all. I figured Duress and Deathgorge Scavenger would be enough to keep him off the Refurbish plan, and I didn't want to move too far away from my primary plan of attack.

In the end, I got there! Game five featured a Glint-Sleeve Siphoner on the play, which meant I was up a number of cards on Pascal while also being ahead in the damage race. On the last turn I miscounted by one damage – if that had not been the case I would have played the Blossoming Defense immediately (sorry if it was annoying for viewers), but the moment Pascal gave me that hug it finally sunk in that I was a Pro Tour Champion.

The Top 8 was full of great people and even better players, so I was very fortunate to come out on top. I do believe that I was playing the best deck, which was a pretty big advantage. It was really fun to celebrate afterwards with teammates and friends. These moments don't come around very often, so if they do, you better make the most of them! I am thankful for all those who have helped and supported me on this journey to get here! That said, I am still motivated to keep playing and do the best I can. Magic is great.

Thanks for reading,

Seth Manfield




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