How to Siege a PPTQ *1st*

Magic’s brand new PPTQ system began for me on a chilly Saturday in December, at Flat Land Games in Wixom. I was sick, and had refused rides with fellow attendees from Gamer’s Gauntlet in exchange for more sleep. I barely made it on time, and ferociously and feverishly sleeved up the Abzan Constellation deck I had put together, after getting some inspiration from the deck Boris Pan played to a second place finish at the Fall GGCS. The deck I ran at that PPTQ was not born of the knowledge of the format, which I would later acquire, but rather out of a simple complaint of my beloved G/B Constellation deck:

Why are there no Siege Rhinos in here?

Golgari Constellation is without a doubt the most fun deck I’ve played in the short time I have been playing Standard. Having any combination of Eidolon of Blossoms, Doomwake Giant, Whip of Erebos, and Pharika, God of Affliction just feels fantastic. However, any large tournament I had been to before the Wixom PPTQ had seen me take a swift exit at the hands of Dimir Control, so I felt the need to add pressure, a task Siege Rhino handles with aplomb. But, considering that the GGCS was the only tournament larger than an FNM I had experienced success in since Khans of Tarkir was released, I was hopeful, but realistic. The PPTQ season was long, and I would play, gather information, adapt, and improve for another day.

The day began on a fantastic note; I mulliganed deep round one game one against an unknown opponent. I kept four cards on the draw, a Courser of Kruphix, a Sylvan Caryatid, a Windswept Heath, and a Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. My heart sank when my opponent Thoughtseized me turn one, taking the Caryatid. My next two draws, however, were a Courser and a land, and my opponent did little after Thoughtseize. I ended up winning on a three card hand, and took the match in turns of game three.

The Wixom PPTQ went well; I played against my feared matchup of Dimir Control only once, and managed to beat it, I defeated a proto-Jeskai Tokens deck, squeaked out a lucky defeat of a Sultai Whip deck in that deck’s early stages, and defeated a weird four-color control deck. The only match I didn’t win was a draw against Mike Remnar’s Abzan Midrange, in a great match. He defeated me game one after yet another mulligan to four, and game two he got an early Stain the Mind, naming Hornet Queen. Mike was later quoted as saying that, if you take a whip deck’s Hornet Queens, “You can’t lose.”

Challenge Accepted.

I ended up beating him on the virtues of Eidolon of Blossoms being a great card, and I had three cards left in my deck by the end. It did, however, take me quite while to do it, and we went to time before game three, so we ended with a draw.

I lost in the top eight to the four color control deck from earlier. I misplayed, forgetting he had an Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver in hand, and letting him get two Hornet Queens beneath it thanks to an Aetherspouts. I was upset with my self for that loss, but excited that the tournament went so well.

I was pleased with the way the deck performed, and was happy to sleeve it up again for the next PPTQ, at Game On in Midland.

The spread of different decks at Wixom, combined with my daily regimen of grinding on Magic Online, gave me much more confidence than I had the previous week. The only real changes that I made were to put Dead Drop in the sideboard. This was a hedge made entirely to beat Dan Cato, who played Azorius Heroic, and I feared running into him without a plan. There are probably better plans than Dead Drop, which I’ll get to, but I was a desperate man, and I never accept that matchups have to be bad, but rather think of any possible way to improve it.

Naturally, I played against Heroic in round two (a mono-white breed), and while I was thrashed game one, game two I was able to cast two Dead Drops. It was great, and I felt like I solved the problem. However, I didn’t see them game three and lost soundly again.

While Dead Drop wasn’t that bad, I do think that having an offensive game plan against them to win the race is more important, which I didn’t account for.

After an early loss, I was bummed, and had an uphill climb to make. I did make the climb, however, beating Jeskai, Mardu, Green Devotion, Golgari Constellation, and Dimir Control. I went into the last round x-1, expecting to draw into top eight. I was disappointed to find that I was paired down. I made some decisions while letting the tilt affect me, and lost the match, coming in 9th on the day. What a heartbreak.

The day, however, was not a complete loss. Some members of the team did get together and play The Resistance very loudly, while screaming “EBAELA!” every two minutes, which is the best way to spend your time while waiting for Joel Gagnon to spike the event. Joel unfortunately got second, but I was sure that he would find a way to win one of these one day.

The next week’s tournament brought me to Warriors 3. By now, Gerry Thompson’s Abzan Whip deck was catching on, and I was swept up in the fever. I cut copies of my dear Eidolon of Blossoms and Banishing Light to more closely match his list. I have this exact copy of this decklist:

By the Warriors 3 PPTQ, I was feeling very comfortable with the deck, and with my knowledge of the metagame, a great side effect of playing in a large tournament every week. I went undefeated in the swiss again, benefiting from the popularity of Jeskai Tokens that week by playing Doomwake Giant, Bile Blight and Drown in Sorrow. I also managed to defeat Azorius Heroic twice, which made me feel unstoppable. I also noticed the meteoric rise of Dan Cato, and the burning wreckage of his defeated opponents. I knew eventually we would play.

 

A very wild Cato appears!

A very wild Cato appears!

It happened round five, and who ever won could draw into Top 8. Cato was playing Red Sligh, a very difficult matchup, one I really can’t win without winning the die roll, which I managed to do in dramatic fashion. Eschewing Cato’s T-Rex die roll technique, I used Pterodon style, a decision that allowed me to win the match. All in all, we were loud, joking, Cato even getting the head judge in on the fun. All of the team that was dead for Top 8 gathered around table one, and it was probably pretty distracting to those around us, so I don’t recommend it.

The first round of top 8 at Warriors 3, I played against Kyle Boggemes. He was probably the highest profile player I had ever played against. I relished the opportunity to try my skills out against him. He was playing Four-Color Soul, a deck which I had previously only seen online, and hadn’t afforded much respect to. We had an epic match, the kind that can only happen when Temples of Malady face off without the constraints of round time. In this sort of matchup, I was as unimpressed by Soul of Theros as I was impressed by Eidolon of Blossoms. While Soul is a powerful card, it gains most of its strength from having a lot of creatures, or when in a racing situation. In these midrange matchups, Eidolon seemed the most powerful thing to be doing. I won the match, then lost in top four to the mirror, which I was underprepared for. The raw power of Erase impressed me, being able to undo a lot of what makes the deck work for one mana at instant speed. I knew it was something I wanted to include in future builds.

Afterwards, I chatted with Kyle, and he critiqued my deck, and gave me a lot of valuable insights. If I’m going to have a land in my sideboard, it should probably be a temple. The Murderous Cuts should be Abzan Charms. The Eidolons should be Anafenzas. Dead Drop is pretty bad without Commune with the Gods.

I took some of his advice, but with the success I was getting, I learned to trust myself, and kept some of my deck’s more unique aspects.

It was my intention to pause magic for a time, to save up for a new car. But everyone I talked to convinced me to parley the success I had into the actual PTQ the following week. Who was I to go against the will of popular opinion?

It didn’t go well.

I had been very happy adapting my deck every week, improving it as my knowledge of the format increased. That week, I took a pretty drastic change, cutting the white, and adding a devotion theme to my constellation shell. I beat Brian ‘Baller’ Leithead round one, and played Boggemes again round two, once again winning in the Soul of Theros vs Eidolon of Blossoms head to head. Eidolon just runs away with midrange matchups.

I proceeded to get two draws to Temple of Malady decks, and a loss to control. I wasn’t too familiar with the deck, which I’m sure contributed to the draws, and I absolutely abhored playing with four Nykthos, because I seemed to always get two in my opening hand. Frustrated with myself and the outing, I snuck out of the convention center and left without talking to anyone. It was a childish and prideful move, and I recognize that I need to learn to take defeats better. I’m never snarky to an opponent after a defeat, but I do start to question why I play at all fairy quickly after getting a second loss.

After the PTQ debacle, the next stop was Columbus, for an SCG Open. While I orginally wanted to grind out another PPTQ, because making it to the Regional was very important to me, the only one I knew about was a Modern event, and, even if I could borrow a deck, there was no way I could compete on the level I could for Standard. So, instead I found myself trying to disguise the fact that I was sleeping in the car while Kozmor drove like a madman down to Ohio, damning us for making him late the whole way.

That week, the new breakout deck was Abzan aggro, and it didn’t take much testing to figure out that 3/3s for two and 4/4s for three do very well against 2/2s for four. I had to bench my dear, sweet Eidolon of Blossoms. But what would take its place? I couldn’t play Constellation, so I tried the Four-Color Delve deck that was picking up steam. I hated it; either the mana was a turn slow or it wasn’t there at all. I don’t think that it improved my worst matchups quite enough. One card that did grow on me, however, was Soul of Theros. After disregarding it the entire season, I finally saw that it was just what I needed. It does good things against all my worst matchups, gaining me life and making races favorable against Heroic and Abzan Aggro, and providing another large beater against control. Here’s the list I ran in Ohio:

 

The night before, I tested with Kozmor, who instilled a healthy fear of Goblin Rabblemaster in me, and the day of, I tested with Steve Houk, who crushed me with his Abzan Midrange deck every single game. It wasn’t the confidence boost I wanted, but when the tournament actually started, things went well for me all day. My matches were:

W vs Abzan Whip
W vs Abzan Aggro
W vs Jeskai Tokens
W vs Azorius Heroic
W vs Temur Monsters
W vs Jeskai Aggro
L vs Grull Monsters
W vs Abzan Whip

 

I loved playing the mirror both times I played it that day. I made sure to load up on tools against it since I expected it to be popular. The Grull monsters deck I lost to was terrifying, he produced either a turn two Goblin Rabblemaster or Fanatic of Xenagos every game, and managed to Hunt the Hunter every Siege Rhino I played.

 

Day two was not quite the triumph day one had been. I was too excited, didn’t get much sleep, and just sat in the convention center for a couple of hours before the hall actually opened. My matches were:

L vs Boros Beatdown
L vs Abzan Aggro
L vs Grull Monsters
L vs Azorius Heroic
W vs Azorius Heroic
W vs Abzan Whip

 

What a letdown. Every match I lost, I felt like I had the tools to win, but either didn’t draw them or kept poor hands. I blame myself. I had gotten a feeling of destiny, of inevitability, that I couldn’t lose no matter what hand I kept, and was punished for it. I finished the day in 29th place, far and away better then any previous showing I’ve had at an Open. While I was disappointed that day, I do feel pretty good about the record in hindsight.

The following week, I was ready to return to Columbus for the last PTQ WoTC would run. I packed my bags, downloaded an audiobook for the trip, and made some slight changes to the list (-1 Caryatid for a Commune with the Gods, -1 Bile Blight for a Glare of Heresy).

Naturally I overslept.

Waking up a 6:30, there was no way I was making it to Columbus on time {EDITOR’S NOTE: You can, in fact, if you’re willing to face potential death and almost certain ticketing. I’ve done it and lived to tell the tale}. I did a quick scan of alternate events, and instead made the trip to Ann Arbor, to compete in Get Your Game On’s PPTQ.

I was pleased to see some familiar faces at the event, but it was overall the smallest PPTQ I had been to, with only 51 people. This could only help.

The matches were a good swath of the metagame, and my only loss in swiss was to Sam Jakivmovski, piloting Abzan Aggro. The room was full of that deck, the top tables especially, and I began to get worried as the Top 8 began to take shape. In the end, there was one Sidisi Whip deck, one Abzan Midrange deck, my Abzan Whip deck, and five Abzan Aggro. I decided there to take a look at the deck after the tournament.

The first round of top eight pitched me against Sidisi Whip. Game one ended, as so many do, by my opponent either forgetting I had a Soul of Theros in the graveyard or forgetting what the card did. It’s not a strategy you want to lean on, but highly effective against the uninitiated. Game two, I mulliganned to three, still managed to kill the Ashiok my opponent played on turn three, and then hit my fourth land drop before he did. I ran away with the game while he was mana screwed. Sometimes, you just have to take the luck given to you.

The semifinals was against Abzan Aggro. The games always started with trading Thoughtseizes and removal spells for creatures, and ended when I could successfully leave my opponent without removal for a Soul, or without a Bile Blight for Hornet Queen. Both of those can stop aggro in its tracks. In my post-board games, I felt my opponent erred by removing too many creatures to deal with a perceived threat, when, perhaps, he should have just been the beatdown, and just try to counter my answers with Thoughtseize or his own removal.

The finals was against another Abzan Aggro deck, but this one was a weirder one, with Herald of Torment, Erebos, God of the Dead, and Bow of Nylea. I was skeptical of the quality of deck, despite his placing (he had beat Kyle Boggemes the round before when Kyle had deep mulligans on two games), and, in the end, I still have no idea what the deck was trying to accomplish. I just played my own threats and won with little drama for such an important game.

I had done it! Over a month of learning the format and adapting accordingly, and I had been rewarded for the patience and dedication in the end. While in-game decisions are obviously the backbone of good Magic play, my favorite part of the game is tinkering with lists, and sideboarding effectively against my opponent. By the time this report goes up, it is likely that Fate Reforged will have been released, so a sideboard guide or primer would be largely obsolete. Just remember to stay flexible, and always adapt.

What is the future of the deck? With the release of the new set, I don’t see playing Abzan Whip, at least not immediately. Sultai Whip, 4-Color Delve, even UB, BR, or Grixis Control are things I’d want to try first. But the deck has treated me well, and I don’t believe it gets significantly worse post-rotation, so one day, I may sleeve it up again in hopes of repeating this terrific run.

Drew White Rhino