Beyond the Norm: Top 8’ing GP Washington DC
(Note: This is all from memory, so I apologize if a couple of minor details are inaccurate.)
Every Friday night, I am given the choice to play either Draft or Constructed (Standard or Modern). Every Friday night, I choose to play Constructed, which I prefer to any kind of Limited. Leading up to GPDC, I had done two Sealed Prereleases, going 4-2-2 overall, and zero drafts. You can see why my hopes for GPDC were not high.
Nonetheless, most of my friends were going, and it promised to be a fun time. As someone who tries very hard to make traveling for Magic as cheap as possible, I woke up at 4am on Saturday morning to catch a 6am flight out of Boston into Dulles. My wife, also playing the GP, values sleep far more than the cost of a hotel room for one additional night. She was understandably less than thrilled.
My wife and I hung around the convention center, played some Modern (I won 2-1 *fistpump*), and chatted with our friend Mainn. While we did, I asked Mainn a question that would be far, far more important than I was aware.
“Mainn, I heard there are infinite combos in this set. What are they?”
Mainn then shared that Altar of Dementia + Putrid Goblin + Good-Fortune Unicorn would mill out an opponent. I realized that you could swap the other sacrifice outlet in the set, Sling-Gang Lieutenant, to do infinite damage as well. I wanted to know about them on the off-chance they were in my pool or so I would be aware if an opponent was trying to set up the combo.
Our group of friends went to open our pools, and Mainn and I sat across from each other. As I opened my pool, I took notice of a gorgeous, foil Serra the Benevolent. As I have not really played much of this set, none of the other cards stuck with me, though I did also notice a Good-Fortune Unicorn.
When I laid out my cards, I noticed that I had a combo. I had two copies of Putrid Goblin, two copies of Sling-Gang Lieutenant, one copy of Good-Fortune Unicorn, and one copy of Eladamari’s Call to serve as an additional copy of whichever of the three I needed.
Luckily, the rest of my white and black cards seemed playable. Because it was release weekend, we were given additional time to build, and I took all but two minutes of it, iterating builds over and over. Eventually, I settled on this.
I was heavy on four-drops, but I did have a Talisman to help get me there a bit more quickly. I showed my deck to my friends. One commented that he had an infinite combo the night before and went 1-5; the other commented that he thought my Jeskai cards looked good, particularly as I had two copies of Thundering Djinn. I asked my wife to play a couple of games; she agreed, promptly beating me 2-0.
At this point, I was worried. I laid out UW splashing R, but was too short on playable creatures. I felt a little bit more optimistic that I might’ve not totally butchered building my pool, and away we went into the third round! (I had two byes.)
Round 3 – The Round in Which I Cast Serra Twice (2-0)
Game 1: I made the skillful play of casting Serra on Turn 4. I ticked her up, my opponent couldn’t deal damage to her, and then I Worshipped. He kept playing, allowing me to overrun the board with Buybacking Recruit the Worthy tokens, and then conceded.
Game 2: I had a three-drop in hand, a Force of Despair, and a Serra. I opted not to make a Turn 3 play (my opponent also had not made any plays) so that I could Force my opponent’s play and stick Serra on an empty board. This plan worked perfectly, he played a Sword on his Turn 4, and then I Worshipped and won.
I let my friends know that, in case they weren’t sure, Serra was a good Magic card, and moved onto Round 4.
Round 4 – The Round in Which I Cast Serra Once (2-0)
This is the only round that I don’t remember (I didn’t take notes), but I know I won one of the games with Serra. Don’t worry, this is the end of the Serra storyline; I didn’t even draw her again for most of the tournament. I think my other game was won off casting double Sling-Gang and double Lightning Helixing my opponent.
My friends give me a hard time for just casting Serra and winning every game, and I complained that I just wanted to combo somebody once that day. Just once, please!
Round 5 – The (First) Round in Which my Dreams Come True (2-0)
Game 1: Without Serra, I found that my deck gummed up the ground very nicely, as many of my creatures generated multiple bodies, and, in the late-game, Recruit the Worthy was kind of bonkers (especially with Good-Fortune Unicorn). My opponent and I found ourselves in a bit of a clogged board, though I was ahead and would probably close in a couple of turns. But then, I was offered an opportunity I couldn’t refuse: with a Sling-Gang Lieutenant on-board, I drew Putrid Goblin into Good-Fortune Unicorn. I demonstrate the loop, and my opponent is wowed by how cool my combo is.
Splinter Twin Count: 1
Game 2: I literally had an opening seven with all three pieces of the combo. The only downside was my lack of green mana. YOLO! On Turn 2, I cast Putrid Goblin. On Turn 3, I did nothing. On Turn 4, I cast Sling-Gang Commander. My opponent then tapped out, and on Turn 5, I cast Talisman and Unicorn, winning the game. Luckily, my opponent is still just impressed by how cool my combo is, choosing to dwell on that instead of the fun and interactive Magic we just played.
I gush to my friends about how dope Splinter Twin is. I sure hope I get to do it again!
Splinter Twin Count: 2
Round 6 – In Which I Discover that my Deck is Capable of Playing Normal Magic (2-0)
G1: My opponent was on a really solid UG deck. He had Fact or Fiction both games, Genesis, and Crushing Footfalls. In the first game, he built up a strong board, but my Valiant Changeling held off most of his attackers as I went wide. When he cast Fact or Fiction, I tricked him into picking the pile that did not include Webweaver Changeling so that, the following turn, I could cast and flashback Battle Screech and pressure him in the air with the tokens and a Vesperlark. The plan worked, and though he picked off a couple of tokens with removal, the birdies and slinging goblins at his face were enough to get it done.
G2: Another stalemate emerges, and I’m just hoping to survive long enough to draw the combo. I assemble Sling-Gang and Good-Fortune Unicorn, but mostly just draw land. Without any fliers to pressure him, we were left staring at each other – until I drew Recruit the Worthy. With thirteen mana, I was able to generate three 2/2’s during each of his end steps (thanks, Unicorn!) and he eventually conceded as he had no way to actually kill me through my fifteen or so 2/2’s alongside the rest of my board. (Also, my next card was Putrid Goblin, so I was SO CLOSE to getting another Splinter Twin victory! Alas.)
My friends congratulate me on luck-sacking my way into Day 2. #BetterLuckyThanGood
Round 7 – In Which I am Reminded that I am but a Mortal (0-2)
G1: My opponent was on a fast, aggressive BR Goblins deck. He just absolutely ran me over. However, I had Sling-Gang on-board and a Unicorn in hand, so there was hope. I played the Unicorn, he killed it on his turn, and I drew Putrid Goblin on my next turn. So close!
G2: I mulliganned to six, and he played a Pashalik Mons on Turn 3. I had a Force of Despair in hand, but WWB available to me. Already down a card, I could have exiled my Turn 4 play from my hand (Sling-Gang) to kill the Pashalik Mons, but then I was real low on cards. My opponent didn’t currently have any other Goblins in play, so I decided to risk it. Two turns later, he drew Changeling Outcast, which got his engine going. He was able to activate Pashalik Mons twice a turn soon after, rendering me completely incapable of building up any kind of board or setting up the combo.
Round 8 – In Which I Discover Other, Non-Infinite Combos (2-0)
G1: I went T2 Putrid Goblin into T3 Talisman into T4 Silumgar Scavenger, exploiting the Goblin for haste. My opponent played Kess, Dissident Mage, and I played T5 Sling-Gang Commander. I sacrificed all four goblins to Sling-Gang after my opponent declared no blocks, pumping up my Scavenger and Lightning Helixing my opponent. He drew his card the following turn and conceded.
G2: My opponent mulliganned to five cards, but did a surprisingly effective job of gumming up the board. Without fliers, I struggled to deal damage, and his blue draw spells started to catch him up on cards. Luckily, I drew Eladamari’s Call to tutor for my Unicorn, the last combo piece, and Splinter Twin’ed him for the win.
Splinter Twin Count: 3
Round 9 – In Which My Opponent is Really Tired (2-1)
We sat down and both discussed how tired we were. It was around 9pm at this point, I’d woken up at 4am, and he’d woken up around 6am. We were both looking forward to going to sleep. Unfortunately, this would be my longest match of the day.
G1: My opponent had a grindy, grindy UG deck flush with powerful cards like Deep-Forest Hermit, Genesis, and Trumpeting Herd. He played the Hermit, it Faded away, and then he bought it back with Genesis. He then began Cycling Windcaller Aven to give his Krosan Tusker flying, and I fell to the overwhelming force of forest-dwellers.
G2: My opponent sideboarded into somewhere between 4-6 counterspells. My Serra died, my important cards got countered, and he built a board. I was eventually able to slow him down by Returning a Valiant Changeling to hold off his attackers. Despite this, I was still behind, and my opponent probably should’ve been attacking me. There’s no way I could win this game through normal means, so I sat there and hoped to draw my third combo piece (two are onboard) before he attacked me. Luckily, I did, stealing the game.
Splinter Twin Count: 4
G3: We started this game with somewhere around five minutes on the clock. As our last two games had gone over twenty minutes each, I was hoping to get a fast combo win, as otherwise, the game (and match) would most certainly be a draw. We went back and forth, adding pieces to the board. I assembled Putrid Goblin + Sling-Gang Lieutenant, and time was called in the round. We went on to turns, and I drew Eladamari’s Call. As the game would otherwise be a draw, I went for it, casting the Call to put Unicorn into my hand. My opponent, with an Island, a Forest, and a Prismatic Vista available to him, let it resolve. I got the Unicorn and showed it to him. I untapped and cast the Unicorn. I was more than a little surprised when the Unicorn also resolved. “Kill you…?” I said uncertainly. My very tired opponent’s friends cried out, and my opponent put down his hand, which included both a Prohibit and a Spell Snuff. He’d simply missed that I already had the other two combo pieces assembled on the board. Yikes.
Splinter Twin Count: 5
I finished Day 1 at 8-1, and mentally prepared myself to get destroyed in draft the following day.
That night, a friend let me know that my standing is incorrect; the website had me at 7-2 instead of 8-1. I woke up EXTRA early the next day to go down to the venue, and the judge team got it sorted out; someone had simply entered my Round 9 incorrectly.
This also gave me a chance to google “Modern Horizons Pick Order” so I had some sense of what I was doing.
I first-picked a Trumpeting Herd, as that was a card that had impressed me every time an opponent cast it against me Day 1. My second pick was an Ice-Fang Coatl, and then I started getting handed Man-O’-Wars. While the Snow support was slightly lacking and a couple Snow cards weren’t wheeling (I was right to suspect there was one other drafter in Snow), the blue was open enough that I could cobble together an aggro-tempo UG deck with some light Snow.
Upon building it and showing it to friends, we all had the same reaction: meh. It looked… fine, but unexciting. Would probably end up 1-2 or 2-1.
Round 10 – In Which I Cast Man-O’-War (2-0)
G1: In the first round of the draft, I was paired against the other Snow drafter, who was in Sultai. He had more Snow lands than me and seemingly more of the high-impact Snow payoffs (Frostwalk Bastion, Frostwalla). I leaned hard into the tempo plan, using Man-O-War to put him behind on board even though his draw spells put him way ahead on cards. As he Scoured all Possibilities, flashed it back, and cast Fact or Fiction, I just kept hitting him. A lot. When he tried to deploy some blockers, I Ninjitsu’d back a Man-O'-War to refuel the bounce-o-rama, clearing the way for lethal.
G2: This was very similar to the first game. He had more card advantage and overall better cards than I did, so I just played very aggressively, attacking and trading where I could, using Elvish Fury as a surprise removal spell, and bouncing stuff to get my guys in. As in the first game, my scrappy team of 2/2’s managed to close out the game.
Round 11 – In Which My Opponent Forgets Our Life Totals (2-0)
G1: I don’t remember much of this one. I remember that I felt like I really understood that my deck was an aggro-tempo deck, and again leaned into it. I killed him quickly, as he was unable to mount any real defense. I did miss lethal once because I tapped wrong and couldn’t Monstrous Chillerpillar after casting Winter’s Rest, which made me sad for a moment, but I shrugged and closed the game the next turn.
G2: He sided into more defensive cards, including Wall of One Thousand Cuts. Eventually, we got to a board state where my opponent had an Enduring Sliver and a Wall of One Thousand Cuts untapped, and I attacked with a 5/5 Murasa Behemoth. My opponent was fully aware that I had an Elvish Fury in hand and had enough lands in play to cast it twice. My opponent, importantly, was at 9 life and had one card in hand. My opponent declared no blocks. I had my opponent on a brick in hand, but was still a little unsure as to whether to commit to double Elvish Fury. If I did, and he Mobbed my Behemoth in response to the second, I’d have wasted an entire turn and fallen behind. He might have been able to pressure me from there and kill me before I could rebuild. My opponent declared no blocks, which I know should have made me further inclined to believe that he had the removal spell, but there was just something off. I went for Elvish Fury, he said nothing, so I went for the second. He waved his hand and said, “Wait. The first one on the stack.” I said okay, and he consulted the life totals. “I’m at 9 and you’re at 12, right?” he asked. I confirmed that those were the life totals. He allowed the first Fury to resolve. I decided that either my opponent was the greatest bluffer in the history of the game, or he’d simply forgotten that he was at 9 life. I went for the second Fury, and he extended the hand.
Round 12 – In Which Synergy Beat Bombs (2-0)
G1: My opponent Ninjitsu’d in a Fallen Shenobi off an unblocked Gluttonous Slug. I used String of Disappearances to bounce it back to his hand, leaving his board clear and me with a little bit of pressure. From there, my opponent replayed his Slug, and I Winter’s Rested it to stop the Shenobi from returning. His next threat got Man-O-War’ed, and I generally tempo’d him out for the remainder of the game.
G2: My opponent mulliganned to six and cast Altar of Dementia on Turn 2. Here, I had horrifying flashbacks to the draft, where I passed not one, but two Hogaaks (proudly Pack 3 Pick 1’ed a Snow-Covered Island over the Hogaak #OnBrand). Applying pressure suddenly felt much more important, as my combo karma from the previous day threatened to catch up with me. Thankfully, he didn’t actually have all that much going on. He played a Hexdrinker, rebounded a Trumpeting Heard, and tried to set up defenses. As usual, a timely Man-O-War locked up lethal before he could grow his Hexdrinker into a Progenitus.
Still confused as to how I escaped the draft 3-0, I realized that I was live for Top 8 when a friend pointed out that I would probably be in the feature draft pod for the second draft. My friend was right, and I took my seat next to Shuhei Nakamura, fully prepared to be destroyed.
The face of a man embracing his inevitable demise at the hands of people who have actually drafted the set before.
In the first pack, I had the choice between Genesis and Trumpeting Herd. I know, Genesis is the obvious pick, but most of the games I’d played over both days had been too fast for Genesis to do much. Trumpeting Herd, on the other hand, had been consistently fantastic. Nonetheless, I picked Genesis because if I had a grindy deck, I knew Genesis was a powerhouse. My second pick was an Abominable Treefolk, a card I was absolutely thrilled to see. As the draft continued and more and more Frostwallas, Chillerpillars, Arcum’s Astrolabes, and Snow-Covered lands got passed to me and even wheeled, I was faced with the thrilling realization that I was the only Snow drafter at the table, and these packs were stuffed with good Snow cards. The remaining two packs confirmed this, and I even dipped into white for some removal and powerhouse uncommons. I ended up with what is easily one of the best decks I’ve ever drafted.
With 21 Snow permanents, three of which were Abominable Treefolk, I felt much better about my odds in this draft than the previous one.
Round 13 – In Which you Can Watch Me Lose on Camera (1-2)
At 5:41:03, you can enjoy watching me lose to Ben Weitz on camera! All three of these games were great and very close, and I recommend checking them out on video.
G1: My opponent was playing a low-to-the-ground WB Changeling Aggro deck. I managed to stymie some of his early aggression and set up with flying Chillerpillars. There’s a possibility I should have made a block that I didn’t, but in the end, the math works out the same and I lose either way. With both of us set up to have lethal on the other, I swung with both of my 5/5 fliers. Unfortunately for me, my opponent had drawn his one copy of Kaya’s Guile, bringing his life total up to 6 and generating a chump blocker for one of my attackers. He fell to 1 life and killed me on the crackback.
G2: While you can’t see it on camera, I kept a sketchy, sketchy hand of: 1 Snow-Covered Island, 1 Arcum’s Astrolabe, 1 Wall of Blossoms, 1 Springbloom Druid, and some other stuff. The first Astrolabe fails to find me a second land, as does my draw step, but my draw does provide me a second Astrolabe, which thankfully gets me an Island. A Forest off the top next turn let me deploy the Springbloom Druid and set up for my onslaught of Abominable Treefolk alongside Soulherder blinks to shut off my opponent’s board.
G3: Another tight one! This game came down to the final turn, where I made a crucial mistake in not attacking with my entire team. I messed up the math and left myself exactly dead to a Silumgar Scavenger off the top, which is how I lost the game that I was very far ahead in. Had I attacked with everything, my opponent would have been one short on the crackback and died to my Snow creatures the following turn.
Round 14 – In Which Wall of Blossoms Is Great (2-0)
G1: My opponent is an almost Monored deck, splashing Green for Wrenn and Six, Bellowing Elk and a Green Sliver or two. I was lucky in that my opening hand contained a Wall of Blossoms, which protected me from his start of double Goblin Champion. Later, he attacked with a three-power creature into my Wall, and then played Wrenn and Six. Instead of killing the wall, he ticked up for no value, which I believe was a mistake, as the Wall continued to keep me alive. Though my life total is low and the game is close, I finish off Wrenn and Six with an Abominable Treefolk and a Dashed Treetop Ambusher, which Soulherder blinks end step to keep around. Thanks to the Unicorn I had out, it also had a +1/+1 counter. He then died to massive, massive Snowmen.
G2: He had a slower start here. I kept him to one creature on-board most of the time, and then double Snowman’ed to trample him dead.
Round 15 – In Which Lightning Skelemental Provides a Helping Hand (2-0)
G1: My opponent was playing a fast, aggressive RB deck with Yawgmoth, two copies of Lightning Skelemental, and three copies of Defile. Needless to say, I was concerned. Luckily, I spewed my Snow permanents onto the board quickly, putting him under enough pressure that, though he deployed Yawgoth, I was able to tap it down with Snowman and kill him the following turn.
G2: This was a longer, much closer game. He put me to 5 life through aggressive beats and Slivers that could tap to ping me. I played Wall on Turn 2 and then baited removal with Unicorn Turn 3. He bit, killing the Unicorn, which let me deploy Soulherder Turn 4 and start blinking Wall of Blossoms to draw extra cards. When Snowman came down, I then blinked that to keep him from killing me and try to set up a lethal swing. He Goatnapped my Frostwalla and played a Lightning Skelemental, then swung with both. I took a huge hit down to 5, but the Skelemental hit allowed me to discard my Genesis, which HAD SET ROTTING IN MY HAND EVERY SINGLE ROUND. This let me bring back the Snowman I had just chumped the Frostwalla with, and later return a Treetop Ambusher to repeatedly Dash it. Under my snowy mountain of value, my opponent couldn’t quite cobble together enough points of ping to kill me, and Elvish Fury on a Treefolk dealt the lethal two points of damage.
With the Round 15 win, I was excited to earn my second GP Top 8, lucksacking my way through a format I’d played twice before! Unfortunately, my luck ran out in the Top 8.
Top 8 Draft
This draft was horrendous. I started out in mostly-blue Snow again, but it dried up and I swapped into UB Ninjitsu. Somehow, in all three packs, I saw only two cards with Ninjitsu. As such, my deck ended up being filled with great Ninjitsu enablers, but only two payoffs. My plan became “Stick an Axe on an unblockable 1/1 and hope to get there.” That plan failed miserably, as I got paired against a super low-to-the-ground RW Aggro deck in the quarters, which ran me over in two games that were not remotely close.
Worst. Deck. Ever.
Even though I bombed in the Quarterfinals, I’ll be back on the Pro Tour at PT Richmond in November, where I will hopefully be better-prepared for all relevant formats. In the meantime, if you’re planning to draft Modern Horizons, remember these incredibly hot takes:
1) Splinter Twin is good.
2) Man-O’-War is good.
3) Abominable Treefolk when you’re the only Snow drafter in your pod is GREAT.
I would try to give more advice, but you probably shouldn’t trust me; after all, I’ve only drafted the format three times.
Ryan Normandin is a grinder from Boston who has lost at the Pro Tour, in GP & SCG Top 8's, and to 7-year-olds at FNM. Despite being described as "not funny" by his best friend and "the worst Magic player ever" by Twitch chat, he cheerfully decided to blend his lack of talents together to write funny articles about Magic.
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