Lessons Learned in Atlanta

KevinJones

I’m repeatedly checking my phone and running, luggage rolling behind me, towards the American terminal at Philadephia International Airport. 7:45 departure. 7:39, 7:40, 7:42, and in the door! The check in machine tells me that it is sorry, my flight has already departed.

Lesson 1: I always take longer to get anywhere than I think. I should probably admit this to myself.
I think I have an ego problem. I stubbornly maintain that I am a temporally efficient traveler. I’m not. I take 12 hours to make 9-10 hour drives. I turn a 2 hour ride home into a 4 hour odyssey. I’m just a slow, meandering, creature of habit. But I rarely get punished for this. I’m constantly late and I’ve felt direct repercussions from my lateness a single digit number of times. This time I thought I was screwed. I got on standby for the next flight and didn’t get on. The second flight was full as well and I was 9th in line for standby. I notice a man arguing with the gate agent. The man’s ticket won’t scan cause it’s messed up for some reason. She says that he must go down to customer service and get a new pass, likely not in time for the flight. So he would get put on the next one. He’s approaching livid at this point and says that he’s getting on the plane. The gate agent says he’s not getting on the plane. Unsurprisingly, the gate agent is 100% correct. Guy goes away and shortly thereafter they begin calling standby people up. People waiting with baited breath are called up to board. A few people on the standby list are nowhere to be found. I’m resigned to my fate though, I’m 9th in line which is pretty deep. The frustrated guy who I’ve seen throughout my customer service/standby odyssey is called up. Finally, they say they’ll be taking one more standby. “Jones, Kevin Jones?” “Ahhhhhh we did it!” I scoot up to the gate, my behavior rife with ridiculous fist pumps and jumping patterns. The messed up pass guy was the difference maker. A few hours of slightly bumpy travel later and I’m in a rainy, gray Atlanta.

Here’s another amusing travel anecdote about me doing everything wrong and making out just fine. March 2015, I have an early flight to Miami for the Grand Prix. Ross Merriam is also leaving from Newark and is staying in Jersey. I pick him up on the way and we are late. We get to the airport 30 minutes before our departure time. I still haven’t flown much so I don’t really understand how ridiculously late we are by air travel standards. I stroll up to the check in counter while Ross is running harriedly towards security. I grab my boarding pass and head towards the security line. There’s an intense amount of security today. Including special officers with dogs right there in the line. They rerouted everyone to a different checkpoint and after asking nicely to skip a few people since my flight was minutes from leaving I make it through and hightail it to the gate. I board the plane with time to spare and Ross is nowhere in sight. My phone pings and he says to hold the flight for him, he’s running. I tell the lady and a few minutes later a sweaty, disheveled Ross stumbles to the gate and we leave for the GP. Show up late, ignore Ross’s requests to hurry, get caught up in heinous lines that Ross attempted to avoid while I was oblivious to their existence. All these things and I beat him to the plane by roughly 20 minutes! When we arrived in Atlanta at the hotel this past weekend I see Ross in the lobby and mention that I missed my flight and obviously got one just a few hours later. He has an incredulous look on his face, punts my suitcase, and yells something garbled that sounded like “never ever punished, just unbelievable!” Hope you guys enjoyed that tale, back to the regularly scheduled Jeskai propaganda.

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Lesson 2: Ramp doesn’t suck. I don’t understand why a deck like this is the archetype that they chose to push. I don’t hate ramp (okay I kinda hate ramp) but it just seems like the opposite of what they want to foster in the format. People generally enjoy interactive games with attacking and blocking. Most magic players love midrange decks. Ramp decks being good can strictly mitigate the viability of midrange creature decks, the type of decks that I think have the most widespread appeal to people who play at least somewhat competitively. I guess if you print a bunch of ten mana creatures you’ve got to make them really good otherwise they won’t sell. I definitely think they should sell their cards but I don’t believe that ramp decks being dominant (or even perceived as dominant) is a good place for a format. End rant. And truth be told ramp isn’t dominant. It’s just good. It’s another top tier deck in the format but it was the most popular deck amongst my opponents this past weekend. The cards being new and so pushed made everyone who was waffling on choices just decide to play it. This sets up a bizarre format for week one. Here’s a quick breakdown of the archetypes I played at the Atlanta open.

1 Mardu Green
1 Bant Midrange
1 Mardu Tokens
1 Abzan Aggro
1 Abzan Midrange/Control
1 BW Eldrazi
1 Atarka Red
1 Esper Dragons
1 Jeskai Burn
1 GU Ramp
2 4C Rally the Ancestors
3 GR Eldrazi Ramp

I finished 11-4 in the open. Losing to two GR Ramp decks, the GU deck, and a weird Abzan deck with Sylvan Advocate, Flip Nissa, Duress, and a bunch of creature lands. He also had Rhino, Tasigur, Gideon, Hangarback, and Abzan Charm. Never saw a Warden or Anafenza. My opponent aggressively saved and pumped his Sylvan Advocate with Abzan Charm. I didn’t draw any of my Valorous Stances until way too late. If I played this match more times I think I would win over half the time but that’s neither here nor there. I was more frustrated by my 1-3 record against the ramp decks. I built my deck to be good against GR Ramp and 4C Rally while also knowing that it would be good against red aggro and random midrange decks as well. I expected to lose to Esper Dragons and be anywhere from 50/50 to unfavored against Jeskai Black. Instead I beat Brad Nelson playing Esper Dragons and lost to 75% of the ramp decks I played against. The Abzan deck I lost to was such an isolated incident that I don’t much factor it into my evaluations as I prepare for next weekend. Oh, you want to see what I played? Look it up! You know how hard it is to type out decklists?! Okay, kidding, here you go.

Lesson 3: Being aggressive is never that bad week one. Mantis Rider is sweet. Goblin tokens and Atarka’s Commands won the tournament. There was one actual control deck in the top 8 (Gerry Thompson’s Jeskai Black) and a grindy midrange deck in Joe Lossett’s 5C Bring to Light. The lone control deck in the top 16 was Jeff Hoogland’s BW Walkers deck. This deck is arguably just a midrange deck anyway. It’s a tap out control deck if its a control deck at all and is a far cry from an answers filled blue heavy control deck. Basically, the point I’m trying to make is that the control decks will rarely fare well the first week since their answers suite is yet to be defined. Its hard to figure out exactly what you need to deal with in the first week of a format. Consequentially, the control decks that are successful week one tend to have aggressive slants to them. Going into this tournament I knew Jeskai Black would be powerful. The deck got some new tools and was already one of the best decks. I was worried that without Mantis Rider the deck would be unable to adequately pressure ramp decks. However, the inclusion of Mantis Rider in Jeskai Black seriously inhibits the number of spells you can cast. Gerry didn’t play Goblin Dark Dwellers in his Atlanta deck because he didn’t think the body would matter enough. It was a 2 for 1 where one of the cards was a 4/4 and his deck just couldn’t adequately use the 4/4 body to maximize its worth. I tried building several decks that cared about the body and the spell. I had been trying Dark Dwellers in Grixis Prowess because the worst case scenario was often flashing back Slip Through Space or Expedite. I had tested Grixis Prowess for weeks straight and was pretty close to playing it. Friday night I was crushing people with prowess and mentioned offhandedly that I would probably get scared and play Jeskai anyway. Harlan Firer was sleeving up his Mardu Green deck and he said something about how Jeskai sucks and that I shouldn’t play it. “Rabblemaster rotated, just let it die!” I don’t want to let it die so I took out my straight Jeskai deck, basically the deck from the Players’ Champs with Dwellers over Wingmate Roc. I lose the first game we play, rather convincingly. But I win the next two. Then we play another match and I win that one 2-0. The deck has a diverse threat base, efficient removal, and can attack from different angles. Dwellers wasn’t good though, I rarely had a spell to flash back. I switched them for Wingmate Rocs and put the deck away, playing some more games with prowess before calling it a night. I woke up at 10:30 and hung out during my byes, enjoying the extended rest afforded by my high standing. Just kidding, I don’t have byes anymore. I woke up at ten to nine and showered and hustled over to the site to grab the Sphinx’s Tutelages and Chandra, Flamecallers I was planning on boarding in the prowess deck. As I sat down to write out an ambitious sideboard plan where I boarded my tempo deck into a mill deck to dodge removal I got scared and asked my GP Detroit teammate Hayden Bedsole if he had two Wingmate Rocs. He did so I audibled to old school Jeskai. It was a safe bet as I figured the deck would pressure ramp well. I knew the maindeck negates would be great against Jeskai Black and Rally. I already knew the archetype was solid against Abzan and red aggro. As long as I didn’t play multiple Esper Dragons decks I thought the deck would be fine. I ended up being really wrong about one thing. I got absolutely crushed by ramp 3 out of the 4 times I played it. I think that was because my deck isn’t quite explosive enough. It’s aggressive but does so with resilient and efficient ground threats for the most part. Also, they have such a redundancy of ramp that negate is rarely anything other than “counter the first of three Ugins they play.” It’s not feasible to think you’ll be able to mana screw them with a timely negate. I expected my Hangarback Walkers to beat them since they don’t have a great plan for it. I did get a walker up to 5/5 but died before I could kill it. I found Kozilek’s return to be greatly overrated. I also think most people who played the card agreed. The highest finishing ramp deck didn’t even play red. For these reasons I’m planning on testing the deck with Pia and Kiran Nalaar over Wingmate Roc. Roc was too slow to matter against ramp and it’s cost is prohibitive if you also want to leave up counter magic. Chandra’s parents add a cohesive element to the deck and make Gideon, Jeskai Charm, and Hangarback Walker all much better.
Chandra FlamecallerLesson 4: Chandra, Flamecaller is insane. I was wildly impressed with the new Chandra. I played two in my sideboard and boarded them in for grindy slower matches and whenever I needed to increase threat density or diversity. Very much like the way I used to board in Elspeth, Sun’s Champion in the previous format. I never lost a game where I cast the card and it seemed to be miles better than any other fair things people could be doing. Much like Elspeth. Chandra is one of the best answers to opposing planeswalkers, especially a flipped Jace. I expect the midrange 3 and 4 color decks to move towards a couple Chandra at the top end. This is one of the easiest ways to randomly steal games from ramp without having to play corner case sideboard cards like Infinite Obliteration or rely on Transgress the Mind and Duress or countermagic. Not to say counters are bad, more to the point that Chandra is just very flexible in its application. This is pretty unusual for a 6 mana sorcery speed spell and again echoes Elspeth in function. The card’s one weakness is Siege Rhino. Well, more generally, 5 toughness creatures. The most played of these is Siege Rhino but Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Sylvan Advocate are also potentially troublesome. The flexibility of Chandra’s abilities is interesting because Jeskai and similar strategies often have tension in their mana curves and can have trouble flowing into the midgame when they don’t have a high enough density of cheap spells. Usually you can’t board in more than one or two expensive trumps because the danger of getting bottlenecked is too high. Few things are more frustrating than dying to a more efficient combination of spells before you can deploy your expensive powerful threats. This card is a wrath effect, a planeswalker killer, and insurance against mana flood. That means there’s fewer situations where a board exists onto which you can’t cast your Chandra. Very good sign for red players in standard. Onto the last lesson!

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Lesson 5: Reflector Mage is way better than everyone thought it was, myself included. I was grinding through the middle rounds at the Atlanta open on Saturday, with a 3-2 record after 5 rounds. In the third game of round 6 against Joe Bernal’s Abzan Megamorph deck I was behind on board due to an unanswered Siege Rhino. I cast Reflector Mage to bounce the rhino and give myself a minor reprieve. The next turn he couldn’t cast the rhino so he only added a Deathmist Raptor after a Transgress the Mind, stripping my treasure cruise. I was incredibly lucky and drew a disdainful stroke to hit his rhino on the way back down. Reflector Mage was super important there. It gave me a turn to draw an answer while also providing a body. I started boarding my 3 copies in more often. I added them against ramp, rally, Abzan, and a BW Eldrazi deck I played against on day two. The card drastically overperformed. The tempo swing provided by the card is exactly what Jeskai decks needed to help them bridge the gap against other creature decks. The card is amazing in the rally deck as well as the Abzan Blue deck that Willie Pordes top 8ed with. Reflector Mage is one of the best answers to Jace in the entire format and gives Rally the Ancestors some much needed ability to interact. I would be remiss to neglect to mention the power of this card with Collected Company. I was testing a weird Bant Collected Company deck with Reflector Mage and Wall of Resurgence. The deck wasn’t quite good enough against ramp decks but it crushed creature strategies. The fact that a deck like that can even exist is a testament to how absurd Reflector Mage is. Some of my friends were lamenting that the card didn’t have flash when it was spoiled a while back. In hindsight, I’m almost glad it doesn’t have flash. It would be way too good. Imagine trying to play around Reflector Mage, Ojutai’s Command, Crackling Doom and something like Negate or Dispel? Counters are especially punishing because the mage gets you if you play a creature and the Disdainful Stroke, Negate, or Dispel gets the spell you tried to use to play around the Reflector Mage. Yeah, there’s no way it would’ve been okay if this card had flash. The power of mage will cause the viability of certain cards to increase in the same way that older formats have had the “Jace Test”. If the card isn’t good against such a powerful pillar of the format then it’s tough to play it. Cards that get better in a Reflector Mage world include, but are not limited to:

Mantis Rider – Haste makes the drawback less crippling while also holding the mage back on defense.

Thunderbreak Regent – Wanna bounce my dude? Take three!

Sarkhan, The Dragonspeaker – Turns back into a walker to avoid the mage. Gideon is good for the same reason.

Kolaghan, the Storm’s Fury – Dash avoids the mage and makes you really weigh the opportunity cost of tapping low.

Pia and Kiran Nalaar – Making thopters when you come into play is great insurance against the mage. This makes something like Whirler Rogue a reasonable consideration as well.

Den Protector – This one will get bounced when face down and won’t be seen as the same face down spell when you recast it. So you can immediately replay the Den Protector. If bounced face up you can still play it face down as soon as you can. Both ways this works make mage awkward against it.

Some other things got better as well, Wingmate Roc, Siege Rhino, and World Breaker. Basically anything with a comes into play ability. These cards got worse in the wake of the rise of Reflector Mage:

Hangarback Walker – Bouncing this is gross. I guess BR Dragons is the only real deck that can still afford to play it cause the rest of their deck is great against mage.

Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy – Another disgusting tempo play. The cheap mana cost is what makes Jace so good. Forcing the deck to tie up their 4th turn with a Jace instead increases the likelihood you can keep them off balance. They might not even have time in their curve to replay it on turn 4. One of the few things that is less than 3 mana and still worth bouncing.

Anafenza, The Foremost – The brutal efficiency of this card is what makes it so good. Wasting your third turn and having to replay it on 5, often wasting the other 1-2 mana you have left over (because of the problems with Abzan decks and their curves) is a deadly tempo swing that decks don’t necessarily need to be powerful to capitalize on. You can conceivably lose to a pile of terrible creatures and Reflector Mages.

Thought Knot Seer – This will exile a card on the way back down but the draw effect when it leaves and the fact that your opponent can just empty their hand before you can recast it (or at least empty their hand of relevant things) means this will have to take a lot of Reflector Mages with its trigger. People will seriously have to consider if this is worth casting when their opponents could have mage and another removal spell in their hands.

So, I have one more lesson before I get out of here for the week. Sorry, this one ran a little long but I hope you stayed with me the whole time! See you all soon, thanks for reading!

Bonus Lesson: Hotels with lemon-lime icewater in the lobby are the gold standard for American travel institutions. Stay at them whenever possible. I actually emptied the remaining half of my 3 dollar Smartwater to fill the bottle with fresh lemon water. No regrets.

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Kevin Jones

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