Breathe. You Got This.
Those were the words I repeated to myself throughout my weekend competing in Pro Tour Ixalan.
This became a mantra of mine the first time I qualified for a Regional Pro Tour Qualifier. A group of friends and I trekked all the way down to Lincoln, Nebraska where I managed to squeak into the top eight. I lost handily in the first round, but learned a valuable lesson. After losing, I let out a huge sigh. I don’t know if I had taken a single regular breath that entire match. About a year later I found myself in the finals of another RPTQ. A white envelope with “CONGRATULATIONS” sat next to our table. My hands were shaking. I was playing the Mono-Red mirror, which I knew was basically a coin flip. I looked down at my life pad, and wrote one word:
The Week Before PT Ixalan
Dylan Gauker of Tower Games in South Minneapolis, Minnesota had reached out to myself, Jackson Hicks, Scott Markeson, Daniel Weisser, Matt Sikkink-Johnson, and Alex Johnson in order to put together a group for the PT team series. Scott was a legend, crushing one of the biggest GPs of all time in Las Vegas 2015, in addition to Alex who had also taken down GP Minneapolis in 2016. Matt had played on the PT before, along with a GP top 8 to his name as well. Jackson and Daniel were grinders, Daniel with a GP top 8, Jackson with the eternal Ninth-Place-Curse™.
I’m really lucky to have been teamed with them, and I credit most of my success to the skill of my teammates and the quality of our testing.
By some fortune, I was able to a take a week off from both school and work. I flew into GP Phoenix on Friday, a week before the Pro Tour. I went from 5-1 to 5-4 on day one, missing the cut for day two a crushing three matches in a row. While this may seem like an unfortunate finish, I feel that it actually opened up the door to my success the following weekend.
I hadn’t played much Standard since the release of Ixalan, and Temur decks were everywhere. The standard PTQ the next day was the perfect chance to test a bit more with my time-honored all-star, Mono Red. After losing to multiple Temur decks in a row, it seemed the matchup against the boogeyman of the format was weak. I knew I’d have to find something else to play in Albuquerque.
Speaking of, our flight from Phoenix to Albuquerque was on a small commuter jet, and more than half the passengers were fellow Magic players. Our team reconvened at our AirBnB, well outside of the center of town before we ate at a “nearby” restaurant for our dinner that the Lyft driver recommended, which by Albuquerque standards was 15 minutes away by car. The city was beautiful, with the Sandia Crest filling my entire field of view with hot-air balloons dotting the sky.
Team Tower Games spent the week testing. Along with us, Max Mcvety, Ray Huang, Ian Birrell and Matt Stankey stayed at the house as well. We didn’t spend much time drafting. Most of the team had done extensive amounts of drafting on Magic Online, and we all felt we had a very strong sense of what was good in the format. I personally felt like I knew this draft format very well, and knew that I could perform in any pod as long I stayed focused.
We would spend somewhere from six to ten hours playing game after game of Standard: pre-board, post-board, and trying multiple lists that had done well in previous tournaments. We adapted. It was clear that the deck to beat was Temur Energy. But what was the key to that victory? (definitely not Key to the City, another card we tested to little success.)
It dawned on us that in order to beat Temur, we had to be able to deal with the big creatures they were playing. It seemed that their path to victory was killing us with huge Longtusk Cubs and Bristling Hydras while building up a board of thopters that could chump most attacks. Mardu, a deck that had fallen out of favor, became the perfect home for Dusk // Dawn—it only killed our worst creatures, or the ones with recursion. Another advantage to this deck is that it didn’t just fold to Mono-Red, whereas most decks with wrath effects still did. Here’s our list:
Mardu Vehicles by Sam Ihlenfeldt, Pro Tour Ixalan, 4th Place
2 Walking Ballista
2 Bomat Courier
4 Inventor’s Apprentice
4 Toolcraft Exemplar
4 Scrapheap Scrounger
3 Veteran Motorist
2 Pia Nalaar
3 Hazoret the Fervent
3 Fatal Push
4 Unlicensed Disintegration
4 Heart of Kiran
2 Aethersphere Harvester
2 Aether Hub
2 Canyon Slough
4 Concealed Courtyard
4 Inspiring Vantage
1 Ramunap Ruins
4 Spire of Industry
2 Magma Spray
1 Pia Nalaar
3 Rampaging Ferocidon
1 Chandra, Torch of Defiance
3 Dusk // Dawn
Most of the team was on Mardu, and it was time for the Pro Tour. I was tired and nervous that Friday morning. I hadn’t slept well the night before, and probably wouldn’t have slept at all if not for a sleeping pill. I wore a pair of socks selected specifically for the tournament, with a man riding a dinosaur, inscribed with, “I got this.” I knew I was prepared though, so when we arrived at the convention center I just sat in my chair and tried to stay calm.
“Breathe. You got this”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The draft started. I valued One with the Wind, Pirate’s Cutlass, and Mark of the Vampire over most other commons. I was very lucky to have opened as well as I did, wheeling some pretty bad one and two drops (who are just as happy to wear enchantments). After battling 4-color Ramp, RW Aggro and UR Pirates, I went into the Standard portion with a 3-0 start along with my teammate Matt Sikkink-Johnson. Did I really just 3-0 my first draft pod at the PT?
I played against a huge variety of decks in the Standard portion of day one, including UB Control, 4 Color Energy, Temur Energy, Mardu Vehicles, and Ramunap Red— which was my only loss on the day. I got to see a lot of the format, but more exciting than what I played against was who I played against. Almost everyone I played was some level of pro player, and the one person that wasn’t was also at his first Pro Tour. He also played Mardu Vehicles, coincidentally. (Mirror match on multiple levels here.) We had a great chat about our experiences, decks, and said hello to each other as the weekend went on, even after I pulled out a close victory against him.
My match against Paul Rietzl was particularly exciting as it was the first time I had the opportunity to use my sideboard tech. Paul was friendly, and chatted with me about being a professional Magic player. I asked him how many Pro Tours he had been on without realizing he was in the Hall of Fame! I was already nervous against him, and had to remind myself to breathe more than once. When I cast Dusk // Dawn in game three, he looked at the board, looked at the card, looked back at the board, then once more back at the card, and sorrowfully put his Hydras in the graveyard.
At the end of the day, five of the six team members had made day two. We went out and celebrated, talked about our experiences, and got ready for the second day. This is where things get spicy.
With a 7-1 record, I started day two in the featured draft pod. Unfortunately, this was the lowest point of my weekend. I realized fairly quickly that being in the spotlight was something I didn’t know how to do, and my picks suffered for it. My first two picks were Raging Swordtooths out of very weak packs, with the next best option being an Unfriendly Fire in both packs (a card that I play less than 50% of the time in my red decks). Pick three, I opted to take a River Herald’s Boon over an Anointed Deacon. Fortunately, I quickly realized my mistake and pivoted into black. Unfortunately, passing the Anointed Deacon was a signal, and my second pack ended up being very weak. My final draft deck had a bad curve, too many five drops, and not enough interaction.
My first match was a feature match against Guillome, who, like all the previous pros I had faced, was really friendly and chatted with me after I punted away the match. The match never made it onto camera, but the nerves still got to me and I lost by not playing around a card I knew he had. My triple-Mark of the Vampire deck matched up poorly against his 3 Depths of Desire.
I vowed that for the rest of the day I would not make the same sloppy misplays, taking the time to stop and do the math. I went 1-2, which I was happy about considering the quality of my deck. The rest of Team Tower did better in Limited, and no one who made day 2 had less than a 4-2 record over both days.
During the course of the Constructed portion, I continued to play against a wide swathe of decks. I got incredibly lucky against one opponent who seemed so tunnel-visioned into keeping his Hydra alive that he didn’t make a lethal number of thopters at the end of my turn. Towards the end of the day, I had 2 feature matches in a row. The first was against John Rolf, and it was a win-and-in for top 8.
John had the best attitude of anyone I have played against in a Magic tournament. He even went so far as to ask me, sincerely, what my secret was so that he could learn from it. I showed him my self-assuring note on my life pad, told him I played well, and I got lucky. I was promptly crushed, but I didn’t mind because John was so excited to make the top 8 that losing didn’t bother me.
In the last match I got paired against the #1 player in the world: Reid Duke. Neither of us thought the match meant anything, except to play for top 16. Despite this, with all the top tables drawing in, we were the featured match. The match-up was very close, but in the end Dusk // Dawn was the incredible card I needed it to be. When the match was done, a representative from the tournament staff asked me to stay around the stage because there was a chance that I could get into the top 8. I had done the math though, and my friends back home had done the math too. Unless my tiebreakers jumped and something wild happened, I was locked for 9th place.
Imagine my surprise when they said the 8th place player was from the US, and that it was his first PT. I looked around to see if that description fit anyone else. Then I heard my name. I cheered louder than I had ever cheered in my life, and gave John Rolf a huge high five. My team and I went out for dinner that night, and as is tradition, I paid the bill.
In order to let me get some sleep, my team tested, and tested, and then tested some more, late into the night. Over 30 man hours went into testing for the top 8 from the time it was announced to the time I played my first match. Sideboard notes, strategies, tips, everything was prepared for me by my amazing team. A poor night’s sleep later, my stuff was all packed and I was heading to the convention center, armed with the knowledge that I’d have to change my flight if I did well.
I was all nerves. I could hardly watch the other quarterfinal matches, and just spent the morning pacing back and forth around the convention center. When it was the time for my match, I sat down and just smiled. It kind of took me by surprise, but I was so ecstatic to be sitting at that table across from Mike Sigrist. I told him I liked his hat, and he mentioned he wore it to block out the spotlight. In what may have been one of the most important moments of the day, I ran to my backpack and grabbed my own hat. Coupled with the noise cancelling headphones, suddenly everything felt more in focus. I wrote myself a note:
“Breathe. You got this.”
It was game time. In testing, the team discovered that the matchup was favored pre board, so the goal was to get a 2-0 advantage and then try to win one more after sideboarding when the matchup becomes a lot more even. We also figured that he would be siding out his Hydras, since our Dusk // Dawn tech was public knowledge. Instead of bringing in the full three copies, we would just bring in one. They go down in value quite a bit if they aren’t killing Hydras. We knew his route to success was aggression, since it was hard for us to beat a turn 1 Attune with Aether, turn 2 Longtusk Cub.
He took one of the pre-boarded games which made winning a lot less likely. However, losing game 3, I felt a certain clarity. How often would I have the opportunity to sit across from one of the game’s greatests and play a match like this? I looked down at my lifepad and took a deep breath. Game 4 was close, and I just barely managed to win.
I know for a fact Mike Sigrist will be thinking about that game five for a while. As his energy reserve began to run low, Mike chose to play more conservatively. On the final turn of the game, I had him dead on board, but I was dead so long as he swung out. By a stroke of luck, he made the mistake of thinking his Longtusk Cub had summoning sickness and left me at 1 life with lethal on the crack-back. I won the match! Mike seemed frustrated, but not at me, and he later gave me a hug and we chatted about sideboarding. Team Tower was right about the Hydras!
During lunch, I saw Seth Manfield practicing. It seemed as if he knew the matchup better than anyone. The match-up looked grim and I knew that I needed some pretty good draws in order to win. If he had an aggressive start, I was in a poor position, and my sideboard was not suited to deal with Sultai Aggro/Energy. His deck wasn’t playing any copies of Bristling Hydra, instead opting to play the problematic Hostage Taker. When we sat down to play, he was quiet and dignified. As always, I started with the following on my lifepad:
“Breathe. You got this.”
As it turns out, I didn’t actually have that one. Seth’s deck had a blisteringly fast start all 3 games, not missing a single point of damage, even killing me on turn 4 in game three. Longtusk Cub, Winding Constrictor, and Walking Ballista make for a hell of a team, and I lost faster than I could say “you got this.” It was one of the most satisfying losses I’ve ever experienced, and I am glad I lost to the champion.
It wasn’t all bad news! My quick defeat meant that I got to the airport just in the nick of time. Plus, I went from zero pro points to Silver in one event, which means hopefully you will be seeing me back at the top tables in future events.
I really love this game and I can’t wait to play at the next Pro Tour.
Samuel Ihlenfeldt is a competitive Magic player and PhD student from the Minneapolis area.