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Practice Makes Perfect: A Pioneer PTQ Top 8 Report.

Written by Zach Cramer on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Pioneer

Practice Makes Perfect:  A Pioneer PTQ Top 8 Report.

Zach Cramer

Zach is a Northeastern Magic grinder who specializes in eternal formats. When building decks, he has a strong preference to Blue cards, toolboxes and combo decks. With a recent RPTQ finish just short of an invitation, Zach hopes to take his skills to the next level and play on the Pro Tour.

Greetings all! I’m back from my trip to New Jersey and want to talk about the tournament and the preparation that led to my decision. As I’ve alluded to in several of my articles, Magic is not something that can be at the forefront of my life at the moment. Through a chaotic weekend on-call structure, learning to care for my new dog, and a partner who does not have a lot of free time between school and work, I’ve delegated Magic to the back burner and been very okay with that decision. The peace I’ve made with this has to do with the idea that each tournament I miss will not be my last opportunity. Instead, I make time to go to tournaments that can fit into my schedule and meet my goals. This means I place a high priority on Magic Fests within a reasonable driving distance that offer me two to three opportunities to PTQ. Although my relationship to Magic has adjusted slightly, my goals and my thought process have remained unchanged. I want to play Magic on its biggest stage. I want to qualify for the Pro Tour, Mythic Championship, whatever the **** you call it. I want to be there. Because of this, I take my pre-event preparation very seriously because I know I don’t have as many opportunities as I used to give myself.

Going into the event, I knew three things were going to be important:

#1: Pioneer is a fresh format that has players largely leaning on the results of recent tournaments or their own brewing prowess. Because of this, it was very important to have a good idea of what to expect in a Pioneer tournament and to play something that could easily clean up the chaff.

#2: On top of being a fresh format: a new set was releasing any day now and players would flock to new and powerful cards, which would lead to a format shift that would include modifications to old decks, emergence of new decks, and alter a lot of previously made heuristics.

#3: The best way to fight both of those things was to play a deck that is objectively powerful and proactive.

My initial mindset for the event was to either play UR Ensoul or Mono Black Aggro. I fiddled with other decks but I appreciated that both decks offered an aggressive opening with solid interaction. Mono Black felt most suited to engage with what others were doing while Ensoul felt primed to put a lot of early pressure on decks. Both decks had a solid plan for the combo decks and other decks that didn’t feature a lot of their own interaction. However, Ensoul seemed to struggle against the more interactive decks while Mono Black seemed to not struggle against many decks but did not have many very favorable matchups besides UW Control. This changed slightly with the adaption of 5 Color Niv by notable grinders and the excitement about the Heliod/Ballista combo. I played probably 15 leagues between Ensoul and Mono Black in the two weeks leading up to the PTQs. I decided that I would bring both decks to the event but opted to lead with Mono Black. I ended up playing Mono Black in all three PTQs, but, I quickly want to speak about Ensoul.

I worked closely with several friends on UR Ensoul and UR Breach in the days leading up to the event. Specifically looking at the last 4-5 cards in the Ensoul maindeck. I believe that most decks have a lot of cards they HAVE to have in their sideboard but Ensoul felt very flexible in how it could deploy its matchup plans. I believe the best way to build Ensoul right now is by utilizing Brazen Borrower as your interactive card along with Shock (not Wild Slash) in game 1s and then finding a way to break serve against the 1:1 interactive decks by playing 2:1s like Pia Nalaar or hard to interact with cards like Hazoret. The counterspell number and type is largely a question of preference, to me. One major piece of technology I missed with Ensoul was the ability to have Rampaging Ferocidon versus the Heliod decks and other decks that gain life. I’d like to experiment with that strategy more. If I were to play Ensoul in the near future, I would not play maindeck Counterspells and instead play a Pia Nalaar and 2 Brazen Borrowers. I think Shadowspear is powerful but also mana inefficient. I think I’m comfortable with 1 Shadowspear and 1 Aethersphere Harvester. One card I was also impressed with in testing was Direfleet Daredevil against the Thoughtseize decks. It provides a solid 2:1 effect for a low mana cost. I’m interested in messing around with that card more. 

I decided to lead with Mono Black because I felt Thoughtseize was the best card for an unknown metagame. I felt like I could get an idea for what people were playing and then adapt my deck accordingly. Mono Black also offered a relatively streamlined main deck. I knew I would be locked on:

With some larger removal and some larger threats put in. However, I really took issue with the way the last slots were being used. The list that had top 8’d the challenge played Ultimate Price and a couple other lists played Cast Down. I think it is ridiculous to register either of these cards over Grasp of Darkness in your main deck. The only reason that these cards have any advantage over Grasp is their mana cost which can easily be adjusted by playing the 2nd Urborg, which is secretly excellent at giving you another way to trigger Revolt and giving you a wider range of 2 land keeps, if only by a small margin. Just play two Urborg. Additionally, there was a lot of discussion about Gutterbones versus Dread Wanderer and Spawn of Mayhem versus Rankle, Master of Pranks. In my view, Gutterbones and Dread Wanderer are a shade below where you’re looking to be with your creatures and so maxing on them didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I liked having access to 10 one drops for aggressive purposes, but, often found myself shaving my aggressive creatures in the post-board games to take on a more controlling role. I ended up playing 2 Gutterbones and 1 Dread Wanderer to play around Legion’s End and Detention Sphere. I found situations where both impressed and both disappointed. I used the one extra slots devoted to a 1 mana 2/1 on Gifted Aetherborn. On Sunday, I cut the 2nd Gutterbones for a Graveyard Marshall, which impressed as well. Fun Fact: Graveyard Marshall can eat Murderous Rider with the trigger on the stack. Graveyard Marshall and Gifted Aetherborn also very good at attacking through Sylvan Caryatid and better at crewing Aethersphere Harvester when first cast. I believe making these small adjustments gives your traditional one-drop draws a bit more reach. 

Moving into the discussion about the larger threats, I believed that Rankle was in a class by himself. There’s just so much that the card was capable of doing that it seemed to fly circles around Spawn of Mayhem. Specifically against decks with sweepers, the ability to deal up to 4 damage the turn after my opponent tapped out for their Verdict barely made it a competition. Spawn felt like a great card when you were already in a commanding position, but, Rankle felt like a card that could catch you up and pull you out of spots that no other card could. Let me offer a couple things that my Rankle did over the weekend:

-Killed my opponent at 4 by dealing 3 and then having them draw a card and lose 1 life after they Wrathed my board
-Edicted my RW Heroic, BG Scales and Soulflayer opponents while they had hexproof or the ability to grant protection. Edicting Blood Baron is also pretty nice.
-Forced my opponents to discard cards after I had gone hellbent to put them into a topdecking position when I had lethal on the table.
-Legend-ruled itself to turn on Fatal Push with Revolt to kill my opponent. 

I’m sure there are more things, but, that Faerie is excellent in my book. To go back to Spawn, it’s not so much that the card was not impressive as much as it felt like it was not doing anything unique. So, I cut the Spawn of Mayhem slot for 1 Kalitas and 1 Aethersphere Harvester. I felt like both cards gave me extra points versus the red decks and ways to continue to fight through other decks. I found Kalitas to be especially potent versus the Niv Mizzet decks, as well as the aggressive creature decks and I found that Harvester allowed me to race while providing some nice counterplay against sweepers. The best thing these cards did was offer me two extra sideboard slots as I knew that I wanted to play 2 Kalitas and 2 Aethersphere Harvester in my 75.

Most Mono-Black decks I’ve seen play the full set of Duress, 2 Kalitas, 2 Aethersphere Harvester, some Leyline of the Void and 4 Self-Inflicted Wound. I think that the traditional Mono Black sideboard is a pretty good formula save a couple factors:

#1: I think Duress is not as well positioned as people believe. Duress missing key cards against UW, Niv, and even the entire combo against something like Inverter of Truth really showcases how much more Pioneer shares with Modern than it does with Standard. I played various different discard spells throughout testing. I found Drill Bit to be potent at taking creatures and supporting the 12 one drop strategy, I found Davriel as a good way to tax resource-intensive decks that are looking to play a land and a spell every turn, but, I didn’t find the best card until Sunday: Agonizing Remorse. Agonizing Remorse is a phenomenal discard spell because it has applicability across multiple matchups and can take anything from hand or graveyard, and you don’t even have to choose until you see the hand. The best thing that Agonizing Remorse attacks is Rekindling Phoenix and most importantly Uro. My Quarterfinals loss included getting absolutely annihilated by UG Ramp. I wish I had registered many Agonizing Remorse to address that matchup. Instead, I used my extra sideboard slots to register the following decklist:

Please don’t register Damping Sphere! I was needlessly scared of the Underworld Breach combo deck and I wasted those slots on a narrow card. I believe the rest of my sideboard was largely excellent. On Sunday I cut 1 Duress and 2 Damping Sphere for 3 Agonizing Remorse which is the same strategy I have been using on MTGO since I returned. In terms of other deviations, I strongly favor cutting the 4th Self-Inflicted Wound for a less narrow card that can come in against Red and Planeswalker strategies. I think Wound is a great KO versus a large swath of the format but I don’t believe it scales as well into the mid-game. Even playing a Noxious Grasp over the 4th Wound has some value as it can hit specific cards. The best thing that Wound does is stop Sylvan Caryatid from giving Niv a mana advantage. Many of their hands rely on Caryatid or Paradise Druid fixing their mana and therefore Wound can be crippling. 

I don’t have much interest in providing a sideboard guide with an exact in and out requirement but I wanted to share some specific heuristics I used throughout the weekend:

-When you cut down your curve, I was very happy to cut a land: 4th Castle or 14th Swamp depending on how aggressive your opponent is.
-Self-Inflicted Wound is very good against UW as you can expect: Fiendslayer Paladin, Lyra Dawnbringer, Dream Trawler or other cards. It is simply fine versus Monastery Mentor but I like having a Hero’s Downfall to be able to check that card.
-I’ve brought in a Single Leyline of the Void against several decks that lightly touch on Delirium or other recursive elements like Uro or World Breaker/Cavalier of Thorns. I think being able to stop those things provides a lot of equity and I don’t think you lose very much.
-I often found myself cutting Scrapheap Scroungers when I wanted to transition into a more controlling plan. I think Cutting Scrounger versus a deck like Mono Green makes a good bit of sense. Being able to play a one drop into removal is much better than having to decide between a removal spell and a threat on turn 2. The main time I cut one drops is against decks that have Knight of the White Orchid and Thraben Inspectors where I have trouble being able to trade up. Scrapheap also has a large toll on the creatures in your graveyard.
-Duress is generally fine versus Soulflayer and Ensoul. Agonizing Remorse is also strong versus both of those decks.
-Boarding out and trimming on Thoughtseize is something that I’d recommend, but, not at the level you would in a format like Modern. Sometimes Thoughtseize is just a good exchange. Particularly in matchups where your removal cannot kill a specific threat: Soulflayer, Heroic, Heliod or any Indestructible God. I like Thoughtseize versus Mono Green and Bigger Red decks. 

Top 8ing this PTQ felt very rewarding. One thing I love about how deep Magic competition goes is that as I have progressed as a player, there are some many things that I no longer believe I am incapable of doing. Getting this monkey off my back is just another obstacle standing in the way of the goal that I will reach: it’s going to happen and it’s getting closer every day. Shout outs to Evan Appleton who Top 8’d on Friday and helped me understand some of the finer points of interaction against the Niv deck. Additionally, shout outs to the boys in my favorite discord who helped me test and theorize for this event. I felt comfortable and confident all weekend because of the discussions we had, the games after dinner, and the constant good vibes you all shared. If you have other questions about the deck or the decisions, please leave a comment or message me on Twitter.

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