Nicholas here, and welcome to my first article for the Forbidden Alchemy! I hope fans of the Alchemist will also enjoy reading about the Spikier side of deckbuilding and tuning as I share with you my preparations for a big tournament coming up in March.
As I described in my introduction post, I am qualified for the last Regional Pro Tour Qualifier (RPTQ) under the old Magic: the Gathering Premier Play structure. This qualification system has been around since Dragons of Tarkir released in 2015. Since then, each region has held one or two invitation-only tournaments in different major cities every quarter, with top finishers earning a trip to the Pro Tour.
I played in my first RPTQ in Bangkok, Thailand in 2016, and have played in a total of six qualifiers so far, three using the Standard format and three playing Sealed. For players like me who compete locally but haven’t had a breakout performance at a Grand Prix, winning or reaching the finals of an RPTQ is the only way to reach the Pro Tour. As you might expect, each RPTQ I’ve played at has been stacked with the best players in Southeast Asia, with each round feeling like a struggle to outwit and outplay your opponent.
While I imagine most qualified players from the region will be flying to either Hong Kong or Bangkok for the final tournament, I have chosen to compete on Magic Online on March 10. I qualified for the RPTQ too late in the season for me to book a flight and accommodations, so I’m happy to take advantage of this digital alternative.
Standard Operating Procedure
Ravnica Allegiance was released on January 25. If you count the preceding week when the set was Standard legal on Arena and MTGO, there are roughly six weeks between RNA dropping and the RPTQ. With the set so fresh, I knew it would be difficult to begin testing and tuning a list properly for the qualifier. Instead, I spent the first couple of weeks playing Limited, testing out small upgrades to existing decks, and trying out new strategies I thought were interesting. I didn’t keep track of my results; this period was more about getting a feel for the format before the first Standard MagicFest and Star City Games Open debuted the best new decklists. I also made sure to follow the pros’ thoughts on the new format by reading articles on Channel Fireball and Star City Games Select and by listening to Standard-focused podcasts like GAM.
My biggest takeaway from testing different lists early on was that this edition of Standard was incredibly fun to play! I was astonished at the number of different strategies and color combinations that were not only playable, but competitive. You could play anywhere from one to four colors and you could spend anywhere from $50 to $500 on a deck and you’d have as good a shot as anyone to take down a tournament.
A lot of my tournaments this season have come down to how prepared my sideboard was for the field or how I navigated the many different matchups. Standard has felt fresh and full of possibility, in pretty stark contrast to some earlier formats where there was clearly a dominant deck, or where the same three decks played rock-paper-scissors against each other all tournament long. To be clear, I’m not one to complain when the metagame is small. I love mastering one deck through repetition and leveraging that experience and familiarity to grind the win out in the mirror or against the other top deck.
Whereas Standard is usually defined by decks or archetypes, this format is all about powerful but flexible build-around cards. Reid Duke’s article on the Pillars of Standard is an excellent place to build an understanding of the format’s building blocks. But rather than just looking at Sultai or Control as Tier 1 decks, I think it also makes sense to consider Hydroid Krasis and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria as two of the several Tier 1 cards that you can form a plan around.
Sultai is definitely one of the best decks in Standard right now, but there are also Bant or Temur lists built around Krasis that have done well so far. I’ve faced a local player who has succeeded with Jeskai control even when the accepted wisdom right now is that Esper is better. You could play 10 games against opponents playing Nexus of Fate and see different combos and set-up cards each time. It’s important to understand all your options when testing for a tournament as important as the RPTQ.
I expect a lot of great players to bring Sultai to the RPTQ. I won my invitation playing Golgari Midrange before Krasis was released, so I’m comfortable with the deck. But while I will definitely keep it in mind and continue testing with it, I’m hesitant to lock it in as my choice for the tournament. As much as I enjoy grindy midrange mirrors, the RPTQ will be so competitive that I’d like to play a deck with favorable matchups against the green decks, rather than play Sultai and hope to turn that 50% expected win rate in the mirror into a place in the Mythic Championship.
With help from my teammates, I quickly found out that strategies built around Pteramander could be very strong against Sultai and other midrange green decks. I tested a lot of Izzet Drakes and Mono Blue Tempo decks during the first two weeks of Standard and found the midrange matchup quite favorable. Whether you choose to play Red for removal and the Drakes package or play only Islands to power up Tempest Djinn, core cards such as Spell Pierce and Dive Down are very effective at protecting your threats from the clunky and expensive removal in Sultai.
I especially like the Drakes deck because the sideboard has ways to improve your matchups against both aggro and control. Against Esper control, I bring in Treasure Maps, additional counterspells, and Niv-Mizzet to out-value them, and for aggro I can augment my Shocks and Lava Coils with Shivan Fire, Fiery Cannonade, and Entrancing Melody. Every matchup feels winnable, especially if you master the deck’s interactions and lines of play.
On the other hand, Drakes can be quite inconsistent, and it often takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions, especially when you’re out of gas but you need another two spells to kill your opponent. You could just as easily draw a Chart a Course and “combo” your opponent out or hit a land pocket and die without much of a fight.
After a week or two of more serious testing with Drakes, Mono Blue, and Sultai, I was pretty close to locking Izzet in is as my choice. I knew that having a deck in mind early on would help my preparation a lot as I’d be able to start running the deck through MTGO leagues without wasting money on brews or suboptimal lists.
But, the Standard format had other plans for me and I found myself falling head over heels for another archetype, one that reminded me of all the value-based grindy decks that had brought me success in the past. I knew that this was the Hero I had been looking for since Ravnica Allegiance dropped that would give me the best chance to finish well at the RPTQ.
Next time, I’ll talk about the Esper Hero archetype that RNA introduced to Standard, how it has evolved since the first SCG Open, and how the deck works and matches up against the rest of the format.
Before I end my first article, I want to thank Anthony and Kevin for helping me discover Esper Hero and get comfortable enough with it to bring it to competitive tournaments and to Magic Online.
One more thing: I implied earlier that I wanted to be confident in a deck before I played it competitively on MTGO. At this time I believe that running your deck through Competitive Leagues on Magic Online is still the best way to test for a big tournament, even when Arena lets you build and play for free.
On the other hand, I’ve already offloaded most of my MTGO collection and have invested in Arena, so playing multiple MTGO Leagues can get pretty costly unless I run particularly well and win my the entrance fee back. In the end, I guess we “grinders” do what we have to do to get that big break, even if it means dividing your resources between paper, Arena, MTGO.