When it comes to PPTQs, you just have to take the good with the bad. It’s bad that if you want to qualify for the Pro Tour you have to first win a Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier and then finish very close to the top of the subsequent Regional Pro Tour Qualifier. This just in, winning two tournaments is a lot harder than winning one. Also, winning one tournament isn’t the easiest thing to do. On the plus side, there are a lot of opportunities, especially around larger population centers, to play in a lot of these smaller PPTQ tournaments. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where I call home, you can play in a PPTQ almost every Saturday without driving more than half an hour. You can often play in another one on Sunday the same weekend. Also, these PPTQs are not particularly crowded.
On one recent scorching Saturday in July, my son and I battled in an Hour of Devastation sealed deck PPTQ. In the old Pro Tour Qualifier days, a sealed deck qualifier would bring in at least eighty players. Today’s event attracts only twenty sealed deck players. There are mitigating factors. The store running the event charged $40 and doesn’t have the best reputation for prizes. The event was not well advertised. The store hosting the tournament moved into a shopping mall a little while ago and lots of folks don’t know how to find the place. In my neck of the woods, very few Magic tournaments have taken place in shopping malls. Word on the street is that this mall is on its way down and rents have gotten a lot cheaper, so much so that this particular game store found the prospect appealing.
Imagine my surprise when I journey into Vista Ridge Mall on Saturday morning and find that the new location of Chronicles Games, Toys and Comics to be beautiful, spacious and clean. I’ve known the owner for nearly twenty years, all the way back to the beginning of competitive Magic in Dallas. It’s a bit of a hassle to park outside of a giant mall and walk a decent distance into the mall to find the store, but I have to say the store looks great and feels very inviting.
We have a decent amount of space for play. A pair of very good judges have driven all the way down from Oklahoma City to officiate. Now, Texas, and especially North Texas, has never had more sanctioned judges than it does right now, and it seems strange that the store owner ends up enlisting talent from the territory to the north, but that’s another story for another time. As far as today’s tournament is concerned, we have a very good venue and a very capable staff. Now all we need is some cards!
Here is the pool that I opened:
None of these cards scream ‘play me’ but there are enough solid cards for white to be a possible second color for the deck. I’m crazy about Solitary Camel because I think lifelink is unusually valuable in the current limited formats. Sandblast and Desert’s Hold are solid enough removal cards that they could possibly be splashed if white doesn’t end up being one of the two primary colors of my deck.
I know it sounds obvious, but my son Lawson blew my mind recently when he pointed out that the color you have the most cards of in a sealed deck pool will usually be the best color for the deck. As a matter of fact, I have seventeen blue cards in my pool today. Unfortunately, I have to admit that I have a bit of a blind spot for blue in the current limited environments. I’m a big fan of blue cards in the game of Magic in general, but in limited formats I tend to be underwhelmed by blue as a main color because the creatures are either somewhat brittle flyers or else rather defensive in tone. These blue cards are actually fairly interesting. I’m crazy about Curator of Mysteries and intrigued by the 4/4 flyer Angler Drake. Striped Riverwinder is better than it looks. In Amonkhet sealed, Scaled Behemoth taught us how dominating a large hexproof creature can be. Striped Riverwinder is almost as big and can be cycled away for one blue mana when you decide you would rather have a different card. Labyrinth Guardian has earned my respect. Players don’t typically have enough spells to “waste” using them targeting Labyrinth Guardian. Also, Guardian’s embalm ability is cheap enough to be very useful. Riddleform is a cool card if you can afford to include enough non-creature spells in your deck. It’s a much better card for draft than sealed. Aerial Guide is the best blue common in Hour of Devastation. In short, I should be more excited about the blue cards in my pool, but I’m just not. Blue’s best limited synergy in the current limited formats is with red, and this synergy is better in draft than in sealed deck.
Only thirteen black cards, but they call out to me as soon as I see them. You look to black for removal, and this group of cards delivers with two copies of Torment of Venom as well as with Lethal Sting. Cartouche of Ambition often kills an opposing creature and is always a must-play. Festering Mummy and Ruin Rat are troublesome early game plays that give opponents problems. I feel just about the same way about the pair of Wretched Camels. They block and trade with a 2/2 and then require your opponent to discard a card as long as you have a Desert in play or in your graveyard. Because the Camel often causes a discard to happen so early in games, I notice my opponent generally acts like throwing away that basic land from his hand has no negative effect on the rest of his game. I assure you, every lost card means something in Magic. If you have Deserts in your deck, Wretched Camel always pays dividends, one way or another. Baleful Ammit, Accursed Horde and Horror of the Broken Lands are all powerful uncommon monsters intended for a certain kind of deck. But these are good enough to play on their own even though they would prefer to be, in order, in a counters-matter black/green deck, a black/white Zombies deck and a black/blue cycling deck.
At first glance, I like the red cards, but it doesn’t take long for me to see the weaknesses. A pair of Firebrand Archers would be awesome in a red/blue spells deck but I don’t think I have enough of the pieces. Just playing them as 2/1 Bears would be a weak play. Bloodlust Inciter is for extremely fast decks only. I have friends who like Blur of Blades in the main deck, but I think it’s strictly sideboard material. Open Fire is red’s best common in Hour of Devastation, but I’m afraid I won’t play enough non-creature spells to make the most of Magmaroth. These cards are just too weak to build around. Hard to see the value of splashing red in a deck. I don’t see anything to splash for other than Open Fire. As good of a common as Open Fire is, it can only kill a certain range of creatures.
While Sandwurm Convergence is a well-known sealed deck bomb, the green cards in my pool are otherwise not very sexy. They don’t have to be, every single one of them is more than adequately playable. Pride Sovereign needs white mana to be more than a Bear. The Sidewinder Nagas need Deserts in the deck to be more than barely playable. Green has always been the go-to color for the beginning sealed deck player simply because the creatures are generally good and the strategies are straight-forward. However, in Hour of Devastation, green is also a smart way to go whether you are sticking to an efficient creature plan or because you are ramping and color-fixing your way to late game bombs.
I can’t help myself, I feel like I have to share a little bit about every one of these cards. Honed Khopesh doesn’t get much respect, but I think it’s an excellent card that should be played more often. I think you want it in decks with at least fifteen creatures, which is about the only reason I don’t play it more because I seem to play a lot of decks with thirteen or fourteen creatures in this format. If I were making a lot of token creatures, that would be another reason I would want to play this card. If you plan on attacking a lot from the very beginning of the game, that would be another reason I would want Khopesh in my deck. I understand it is often hard to cut a non-creature spell in order to keep the Khopesh, but I hope you’ll give it a try if you haven’t already. Traveler’s Amulet is a great tool for fixing your colors, but like Evolving Wilds, it shouldn’t be considered an absolute must-play for all limited decks. If you aren’t playing a third color, it’s easy to leave these cards out. Sunset Pyramid has become a real favorite of mine and I’ve played it in every limited deck where I’ve had the chance. I haven’t been burdened with the problem of having two of these in my pool, so I don’t know if a second copy is as good as the first. This little artifact may look a little slow, but it has been a great insurance policy for many sealed decks for me, helping me draw out of bad situations when the mana didn’t come soon enough. Some would argue that you can’t afford to play it on turn two and then use it to draw a card on turn three. True, you don’t want to use it that way most of the time. However, when you keep a two land hand and then don’t reach a third land by turn two, Sunset Pyramid can save the game for you by letting you reach your third land a turn sooner than you might have without it. I doubt there are many times that you would choose to use the scry ability before you exhausted all of your draw-a-card activations. Luxa River Shrine is terrible. Lifelink and other life-gaining cards are better than average in this format, but you have to draw the line somewhere. I draw the line at Luxa River Shrine. I would never play it. Wall of Forgotten Pharaohs is a defensive card that has become a favorite of mine anytime I have enough Deserts in my deck. I will happily play two copies when I have them, in all but the most aggressive decks. Graven Abomination seems fine as a 3/1 for three mana but I rarely risk playing it. There are enough ways to deal one damage, or put a single -1/-1 counter on a creature, that I don’t play one-toughness creatures unless they have an upside. The ability to remove a card from an opponent’s graveyard when I attack with this creature is not enough of an upside for me. I’m sure there might be a time when it would be, but this isn’t a card I put in my main deck unless my curve simply demands it. Abandoned Sarcophagus is a build-around rare in sealed deck and draft AT BEST. I think most blue/black cycling decks would rather have another card with cycling than Abandoned Sarcophagus. Mirage Mirror is a really powerful card for limited, something I didn’t know until playing with it. It feels like the kinds of powerful cards that existed twenty or so years ago, like Mirage Mirror could have come straight out of Legends or Antiquities. God-Pharaoh’s Gift can’t dig you out of a giant hole, but it will end stalemates. Luckily, this sealed format is just slow enough to allow a seven-drop to make a big difference for your deck even though it by no means wins the game for you on the turn you play it.
Unraveling Mummy is the only multi-colored card in my pool. It’s just about the best card in Hour of Devastation for black/white Zombie decks. It’s not dead, no pun intended, in black/white decks without a bunch of Zombies because it can target itself. However, it doesn’t have a chance of making the cut for me today, there just aren’t enough playables in black and white to make a good deck.
There are four non-basic lands in my pool: Evolving Wilds, Survivors’ Encampment and two copies of Desert of the Indomitable. I’ve heard of people playing off-color Deserts in their decks but I’m not in favor of that plan. If I want to make use of Deserts-matter strategies I would have to play green in order to justify the use of Desert of the Indomitable. That’s not much of a leap with a card pool that includes Sandwurm Convergence. Survivors’ Encampment is a much better land than people are giving it credit for. It just depends on how badly your deck needs to access a third (or fourth, or fifth) color.
And here’s the deck I built:
A few specific card comments regarding this deck. It’s not that I think Wretched Camel is a great creature but he probably makes most black decks simply for its ability to fill in your curve. He causes your opponent to lose a card or two from their hand as well. You were going to play Deserts in your deck anyway, right? As long as Deserts are happening, it’s hard to say ‘no’ to Wall of Forgotten Pharaohs. Once you get over the fact that you’re putting a Wall in your deck, he’s all upside with a big toughness and the ability to ping your opponent each turn once you have found one of your Deserts. Ruin Rat slows down aggressive opponents.
Baleful Ammit, like Quarry Hauler, isn’t quite as good he was in Amonkhet sealed when there was a tremendous amount of add-a-counter-remove-a-counter synergy in black and green. In this deck, Baleful Ammit is more of a defensive creature, just a guy to trade with a fairly large opposing creature while gaining me a little life. Pride Sovereign is a mistake in this deck, since I can only activate it when I have Survivors’ Encampment in play. After I realized this in round one, I nearly changed the deck to include a white splash. There are a few cards that would be good to play in that color. I think a better move was to just sideboard out Pride Sovereign and replace it with Wander in Death (in most cases) or with another small creature. In a green/white deck, Pride Sovereign is pretty good though slow. Cartouche of Ambition remains the best black common in Amonkhet and you just automatically play it when you have black cards in your deck. Lifelink is more powerful than usual in this limited environment and you often are able to kill a one-toughness creature when you play it. Lethal Sting is very good removal, among the options available to black in this format. While you have to jump through one very important hoop in order to play it (you have to have a creature than you can put a -1/-1 counter on) this card allows you to destroy any target creature. Most of the removal in this format is more situational than this. Mirage Mirror was a mystery to me until I played it in this deck. I can’t believe how good it is and how versatile it. It’s amazing on offense and defense and it can duck a removal effect. The trick is to always have two mana available to activate it. This card is less useful early in games but always very useful late in games. If you don’t have a creature worth copying, your opponent does. Or a land, or enchantment, or another artifact. Opponents aren’t very happy when you play Sandwurm Convergence and then copy it a turn later with Mirage Mirror. In one game that went very long, I used Mirage Mirror to copy a 7/7 Wurm and attacked with it. Later in the game I turned it into a copy of my opponent’s Oketra’s Monument so that I would get a free 1/1 Warrior token when I played a creature. Still later in the game I spent two mana to copy Sandwurm Convergence and get a second free Wurm token. Mirage Mirror is a bomb! It’s important to remember that there are some limitations on this card. Once its ability resolves, the permanent that it becomes no longer has the Mirage Mirror text so you can’t use the ability again until after the end of the current turn. I think I may have abused this card not understanding that limitation.
The two copies of Torment of Venom were always very good. Even when playing one of these doesn’t kill a targeted creature outright, it always makes things better for you. It’s important that this card is an instant. Bitterbow Sharpshooters is a must-play in sealed deck and fits the top of most green booster draft curves. It’s just too useful, a big body with vigilance and reach.
The two big bombs of the deck seem like obvious plays, and I wouldn’t argue the point. Everyone knows how dominating Sandwurm Convergence can be by now. If Convergence only made big 5/5 fatty-boom-batties for your side of the board it would be worth playing, but the fact that it also shuts down your opponent’s flying plans make Sandwurm Convergence one of the best late game cards in the format. God-Pharaoh’s Gift was not clearly a bomb to me when I first saw the card. I had to play against it before I understood how powerful it can be. One thing that makes both of these big expensive cards true bombs is that they each deliver something to you on the turn you play them. At least, usually they do. I played the Gift in one game where I did not yet have any creatures in my graveyard. Also, God-Pharaoh’s Gift can only help you if you have decent creatures, and a decent number of decent creatures, in your deck in the first place.
This deck turned out to be one of the best sealed decks I’ve had in years and years, but I didn’t realize it until after I had played God-Pharaoh’s Gift and Mirage Mirror a few times. In round one I faced Luke Klopchic. He’s a good local player that loves to play in limited PPTQs as much as I do. We ran into each other twice at another sealed event just a month ago. On that day, I had to work hard to scrape out a draw in round two. Then we met again in the quarterfinals and I managed to get the win. Today things go my way. His blue/black deck is bomb-free and I win 2-0.
I meet another friend in round two, Wes Blanchard. Wes visits the Guildhall occasionally on Tuesday nights. He’s a pretty serious grinder who’s good at limited but a lot better at constructed. Wes mulligans to six on the play in game one. That’s okay, I mulligan to five as a matter of fact. Then I beat his green/black deck (splashing red and blue) 2-0 without losing any life points in game one and only losing two in game two. Wes mulliganed to a six-card hand in game two as well.
Scot Martin is waiting for me in round three. He and I have been friends and teammates for over twenty years. We happen to be two of the seven founding members of the Texas Guildmages. Today, we are two of five players with 2-0 records. We’re playing five rounds of Swiss today, and I spend some time thinking out loud about whether it makes any sense for Scot and I to intentionally draw in order to help both of us reach the top eight. It’s ordinarily not advisable to intentionally draw sooner than the point in the tournament when you are drawing all the way to the top eight. If we draw, we know that each of us would have to win one more of our remaining two matches. If we just play out this round, the winner of our match will be 3-0 and able to draw in the remaining rounds to get to the top eight. The loser of our match could win round four and then possibly be able to take a draw in round five. We decide to go ahead and play our match and I win the die roll. I win the match in two straight games over his removal-heavy red/black deck, but both games are fairly close.
There are exactly three players with 3-0 records, and for the auto-draw to the top eight to work, I need to be paired with one of the other 3-0s. Luckily, I am. It’s Dustin Betts. Dustin and I go a long way back as well, though we haven’t played together as much as Scot and I. Dustin is an occasional visitor to Tuesday night Guildmage meetings. Dustin and I choose to intentionally draw our match and spend the rest of the round heading to the mall’s food court for lunch. I haven’t had lunch in a mall food court in fifteen years! Dustin and I linger over the Great American Cookie Company’s booth for a few minutes, but I decide to stick to my current low-carbohydrate plan and get a salad with chicken on it from a non-franchise food location.
When Dustin and I get back to the game store, it’s time for round five. My son Lawson, and my pal Scot Martin, are each on the outside of the top eight bubble fighting for a last chance to make the cut. They inform me that it would help them if I didn’t draw with my upcoming opponent but instead battle with him. I inform my fifth round opponent, Kyle, that I don’t want to draw, that I want to play out our match. He asks if I would explain why. I tell him that I’m trying to help my friends reach the top eight. He’s not thrilled with my decision but says that he thinks his tiebreakers (he’s 3-1 going into the match) would allow him to reach the top eight even if he loses round five. Cool. Let’s battle. He is playing a fairly aggressive red/black deck and plays first. He gets me no lower than fifteen life before the couple of lifelink cards I have come into play. I’m back at twenty life when I win the game. Game two is much tighter. I have my seven and eight-drops in my hand and get stuck at six land for several turns. This is the first time all day that my deck has felt greedy. I get the seventh, and then the eighth land in time to put an end to the game. I won all four of my matches with this deck without losing a single game. I’d have to admit that Hour of Devastation is feeling like a bomb-based format than the much faster paced Amonkhet.
Top Eight Draft
The picture at the start of this article shows how we are randomly seated for the top eight booster draft. My chair is the empty one at the bottom right of the picture. Yes, that’s my “purse” sitting on the table next to my booster packs for the draft. Sitting across from me is Kyle, the guy I played in round five. He doesn’t seem to be holding any grudges against me for not drawing with him. The rest of the table is all buddies, all people that I have drafted with multiple times at my house on Tuesday nights. On Kyle’s left there’s Kevin Grubbs, he’s an attorney that writes legal documents for a living, then there’s Wes Blanchard, then Dustin Betts, then Luke Klopchic, Scot Martin and Michael Ewing. It’s a fun table with some good drafters. You could hardly ask for anything more.
I make it a habit to capture my picks for booster drafts. I wish I could also record each of the packs that I saw, but I haven’t figured out an easy way to do that just yet. Here is the record of the cards that I picked in the order that I picked them:
Pack One – Hour of Devastation
Abrade – happy to start with red, I haven’t been able to draft a heavy red deck lately
Sand Strangler – this tells me red might be open, this is a very high pick, but rare is gone…
Frontline Devastator – too high for this card, but I’m trying to stay in one color for now
Ramunap Ruins – you have to assert yourself where Deserts are concerned these days
Fervent Paincaster – best in blue/red spells decks, I don’t know yet if it will make the cut
Djeru, With Eyes Open – this card isn’t a good enough reason to go into white, but I took it
Scrounger of Souls – I’m crazy about this five-drop, I would be comfortable in black/red
Thorned Moloch – a top-notch red common
Granitic Titan – makes the cut most of the time, not a high pick though
Firebrand Archer – you only want multiples in blue/red spells, but he’s a decent Bear
Claim // Fame – would make the deck if I play black and have enough small creatures
Endless Sands – just taking a Desert, the ability is hard to use
Act of Heroism – good white combat trick
Life Goes On – I don’t think this is ever good enough to play
Pack Two – Hour of Devastation
Torment of Venom – take a removal spell over bad rare out of color (whatever it was…)
Ambuscade – uh, oh, it’s the best green common in the set, can I get green from this pack?
Bitterbow Sharpshooters – it’s time to make a decision about my second color…
Gilded Cerodon – plenty good as long as you have Deserts
Appeal // Authority – this is the Overrun card you don’t hear about, very good but needs white
Beneath the Sands – slow color fixing? Maybe.
Marauding Boneslasher – last chance for black to be my second color
Chaos Maw – took it but wasn’t excited about it, now I know it’s quite good
Gift of Strength – solid combat trick
Uncage the Menagerie – tabled this mythic, doesn’t make much sense in my deck
Resolute Survivors – I’m probably not going white, but it was the best available card
Pack Three – Amonkhet
Cut // Ribbons – will play for Cut, Ribbons only matters if I go heavy black
Electrify – perfect removal spell for the deck
Combat Celebrant – too easy to kill to call a bomb, but it’s a good creature for red
Naga Vitalist – more for slow ramp decks, I hope that’s not me
Mouth // Feed – excellent high pick for green
Colossapede – no abilities, just a giant 5/5 for 4G
Fling – absolutely in the deck, I practically windmill-slammed it onto the table
Shed Weakness – better than average combat trick
Colossapede – probably will play both
Soul-Scar Mage – just a rare pick, not something that would work in this deck
Cartouche of Solidarity – am I splashing for white?
Pursue Glory – doesn’t dominate combat that often, but cycling makes it easy to include
By Force – for the sideboard in case there are a bunch of artifacts waiting to hurt me
Spring // Mind – more ramping and mana fixing
Even though it felt like a walk in the park in pack one, I’m not feeling that great at the end of this draft. Actually, I’m REALLY not feeling good, as in physically. I hate to cast aspersions at the nice man in the food court who made my salad, but I have to give my unregistered draft cards to the judge and explain that I’m in intestinal distress. He understands and takes my cards under his protective wing while I rush to the bathroom. The bad news is that this store, because it’s in the mall, does not have its own bathroom. The good news is that there is a very well-maintained bathroom just down the mall a little ways. In ten minutes I’m back and feeling much better about my physical well-being. Now I can go back to worrying about this pile of cards I drafted.
While I’m working on my deck, reports are coming in from all around me from the other players at the table. There aren’t supposed to be “reports,” but these guys are finishing their deck registration and just talking out loud about their decks. Apparently there are four of us in a row playing green. I get it. There was no good green coming from my right in pack one. I might have been better off going red/black, but I have to admit the second pick Ambuscade in pack two made me want to play green. It’s a perfectly aggressive removal spell for this format.
As I lay out my cards, it’s all too obvious that I’ve got some problems. There are plenty of playables in red/green, but the curve is too high. Suddenly, I’m thinking about playing ramp spells like Beneath the Sands and the first half of Spring/Mind. These spells will be necessary to help me play four five-drops, one six-drop and one seven-drop. That’s a lot of fatties. That’s good news for late games but not for the early game. Playing these two ramp spells will also let me play a single Plains so that I can play Appeal/Authority. It’s an iffy play, though, because Appeal/Authority, while very good, is not really the kind of bomb play that makes it okay to risk the colored mana implications. Also, I only have two Deserts, strangling my Sand Strangler and turning my Gilded Cerodon into a gelded Cerodon. It’s clear that this draft went off the rails to a certain extent in pack two. Oh, well, nothing to do now but register the best deck I can and hope for the best.
This is the wrong kind of red/green deck for this format. Along with seventeen land in my deck, I have three cards that don’t do anything except produce mana or find lands. I can tell myself these are mana acceleration effects, but it feels like my deck is half mana. The mana ramp spells would be much better if they were advancing me to a seven or even eight-mana bomb. Chaos Maw is the closest thing in my deck to a card like that. I simply have too many cards in the five mana and above slots. I left Shed Weakness and Pursue Glory in the sideboard because my deck just isn’t aggressive enough. I’m happy about the removal spells and hope to finish games with Fling.
In the quarterfinals it’s me and Dustin Betts. He drafted tight black/blue deck but he’s not crazy about his creatures. I win game one easily but game two is a lot more grindy. I hit all the removal buttons exactly when I need them and win the match 2-0.
In the semifinals I run into my pal Kevin Grubbs, he just defeated Scot Martin. Kevin’s deck is also red and green. He’s playing to a bomb, Rhonas the Indomitable. This match goes three games, but the simple truth is I lost it in game one when, on the play, I kept a bad two-land deck and didn’t get a Forest until way too late. I had removal in my hands and figured I had time to draw one of my seven green sources. It was an embarrassing game. Game two goes great for me and is over quickly. In game three, Kevin lives long enough to have some creatures in play and enough mana to play and activate Rhonas. The trample gets me and I lose.
Here’s the deck that Kevin beat me with:
In the finals, Kevin meets Michael Ewing, a guy he has run into at least once when both of them were over at my house drafting on a Tuesday night recently. Neither of them has ever won a PPTQ. One of them is about to. It’s Michael Ewing, 2-0 with this white/blue deck:
Props and Probably No Slops
Congratulations to Michael Ewing, friend, financial professional and future RPTQ competitor. I’m happy for Kevin Grubbs for doing so well in this event, and to my other friends in the top eight including Kyle from round five. Thanks to mighty Matt Hoskins and the adorably capable and talented Sydney Townley for traveling three-plus hours from Oklahoma City to run this event. Along with being a cheery and knowledgeable judge, Sydney is also a professional artist with her own web comic. She draws custom tokens for players in her free time. She personalized my Sandwurm Convergence after the tournament. I’ll keep it forever! I’m happy for Russell Nibarger and his new store location in the mall, it was a very nice experience and I can’t wait to come back and visit the store again in the future.
The only slops go to me for my bad keep in game one of the semifinals. Now that I’ve seen Michael’s draft deck, I can’t even say if I would have been the favorite in the matchup had I reached the finals. If you know me, though, you can bet I’ll have to build his draft deck and try to find the answer.
Thanks for reading!
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