Breaking Dawn: Top 8 at MTG Las Vegas

“The darkest hour is just before the dawn…”

About a week ago I wrote an article detailing my concern with Crimson Vow Limited. A format with an ungodly amount of bombs looked somewhat worrisome to me. My fears felt confirmed when I only ended up having a 50% win percentage at paper prerelease events. By the time MTG Las Vegas was only a few days away I was set on throwing in the towel and subjugating myself to side events for the weekend. Then a few days later I made Top 8 of the Limited main event. 

Top 8’ing MTG Las Vegas is by far my most important Magic accomplishment to date. For years I strived to make Top 8 of a major tournament, playing in over thirty Star City Games and Grand Prix events. I found myself short of a Pro Tour invite at dozens of events, being in contention for a Top 8 in rounds 12 or 13 – but I never got there. After almost ten years of playing in major Magic events, I finally fulfilled my dream. 

There’s so much to talk about in this article, both about Crimson Vow Limited and my journey up until this point – it’s honestly still such a whirlwind of events that I can’t even believe are real. To really understand this story in its fullness, let’s flashback to Prerelease weekend.

I got absolutely crushed during Prerelease. In my first two matches of the format I played versus Halana and Alena and then a deck with By Invitation Only and Avabruck Caretaker – some of the best rares in the format. At 0-2 I was checked out. I even won my last two matches of the night with my four-color deck, with rares: Olivia, Crimson Bride, Dreadfeast Demon, and Ulvenwald Oddity. 

Honestly, I built my deck wrong. Surprising, right? I ended up splashing White off of a Weaver of Blossoms for the few removal spells in my pool: Valorous Stance and double Sigarda’s Imprisonment – but this splash cost me and I ended up being short of colors in multiple games. I honestly should’ve stuck to a Golgari Build and splashed Olivia and the Rending Flame that I had. 

Lesson Learned: Don’t over-splash, especially with little fixing

I took a number of losses throughout the four Prerelease events that weekend, and while I did win games (some to the few bombs I opened, my opponents’ mistakes, and pure dumb luck), I was still unhappy with the end result. I was crushed, my worries about the format seemed true. There was no way I could do well at MTG Las Vegas if I didn’t open up stone cold bombs. After a rough work week I saddled up with local player Alex Elliot-Funk, and we drove off to Vegas. 

On the drive to the event Alex played a bit of Sam Black’s podcast, Drafting Archetypes, where Sam analyzes different two-color combination strategies in Draft. Sam made a clear mention of the format being defined by its bombs and narrow removal. However, this didn’t dismay Sam – rather, it encouraged him to find the appropriate way to solve the format. This softened me up to the idea of playing the main event. While it’s so easy to whine and complain, ultimately there are still things to learn in Magic, no matter how a format might be shaped. You can still learn from your mistakes and improve, a quality I’ve admired in dozens of Pros I’ve watched playing this game over the course of a decade. 

I ended up registering for both main events. I took trusty ol’ Burn to the Modern main event, but after five rounds I had a swift exit. Sure, I lost to some Kor Firewalkers and Weather the Storms, but ultimately I made a ton  of potential game-ending mistakes. I was rusty, frustrated, and physically exhausted. I ended up going back to my hotel room, almost regretful I had signed up for both events. I took a few hours to recharge, and before I knew it I found myself at deck registration with this pool laid out before me: 

MTG Las Vegas Sealed Deck (8-0) 

Creatures (15)
1
Dawnhart Disciple
1
Drogskol Infantry
1
Parish-Blade Trainee
1
Militia Rallier
1
Oakshade Stalker
1
Resistance Squad
1
Torens, Fist of the Angels
1
Weaver of Blossoms
1
Child of the Pack
2
Heron of Hope
1
Hookhand Mariner
1
Angelic Quartermaster
1
Cloaked Cadet
1
Flourishing Hunter
Spells (7)
1
Abrade
1
Fierce Retribution
1
Valorous Stance
1
Witch's Web
1
Rending Flame
1
Wolf Strike
1
Lacerate Flesh
Enchantments (1)
1
Sigarda's Imprisonment
Lands (17)
1
Evolving Wilds
7
Forest
2
Mountain
7
Plains
Cards (40)
Sideboard (60)
1
Ascendant Packleader
1
Cobbled Lancer
1
Concealing Curtains
1
Gift of Fangs
1
Lantern Bearer
1
Lantern of the Lost
2
Piercing Light
1
Snarling Wolf
1
Undying Malice
1
Unholy Officiant
1
Voldaren Epicure
1
Bramble Armor
1
Cemetery Gatekeeper
1
Cradle of Safety
2
Doomed Dissenter
2
Hungry Ridgewolf
1
Mindleech Ghoul
1
Parasitic Grasp
1
Parish-Blade Trainee
1
Sanctify
1
Skull Skaab
1
Sporeback Wolf
1
Sure Strike
1
Toxic Scorpion
1
Vampire's Kiss
1
Wedding Invitation
1
Archghoul of Thraben
1
Belligerent Guest
1
Blood Servitor
1
Brine Comber
2
Daybreak Combatants
1
Desperate Farmer
1
Fearful Villager
1
Howling Moon
1
Nature's Embrace
1
Pointed Discussion
1
Runo Stromkirk
1
Sheltering Boughs
1
Stitched Assistant
1
Syphon Essence
1
Vampires' Vengeance
1
Wanderlight Spirit
1
Witness the Future
1
Bloodcrazed Socialite
1
Cruel Witness
1
Diregraf Scavenger
1
Innocent Traveler
1
Lightning Wolf
1
Supernatural Rescue
1
Diver Skaab
1
Frenzied Devils
1
Moldgraf Millipede
2
Skywarp Skaab
1
Unhallowed Phalanx
1
Dreadlight Monstrosity

While I wasn’t exactly unhappy with my pool, it did have a few things going for it. I did have some cards I thought were solid: Angelic Quartermaster, Heron of Hope, and Torens, Fist of the Angels. I had access to more than seven removal spells maindeck with the option to board into Piercing Lights against aggro decks. I even had a backup Grixis deck that utilized my Red removal in case I found myself up against a deck I thought could easily outgrind my aggro deck on the play. I wish I could’ve seen my face when I saw my name at the top of the standings after eight rounds. 

“I shouldn’t be 8-0,” I kept telling my friends. I had no bombs in my deck and was 8-0 – clearly I had to be doing something right? Right??? Thinking about it now there are a number of reasons why I was able to clinch first place going into Day 2: 

  1. The Removal Package – While I wasn’t casting any bombs of my own, I did have access to over seven hard removal spells. I played versus Manaform Hellkite each of the first three rounds of the event, and while I did drop two games to that card, the other games it was swiftly met with either a Valorous Stance or Rending Flame, crippling my opponent’s game plan. The amount of removal my deck had access to meant I was able to maximize my fast draws and put pressure on my opponent, especially if their gameplan revolved around them sticking their bomb. The majority of the decks I played against were either three-color decks that maximized bombs or two-color hyper aggressive decks with lots of two-drops – my removal package and midrange deck was perfect at answering both these strategies.
  2. The Curve – I had a solid curve of two drops that could either grow or provide value in the late game. The games where there was a board stall on the groundI defeated my opponents with my flyers. One game in particular I killed my opponent with all three of my flyers on a battlefield of twenty or so creatures. My Heron of Hopes left me at a comfy 54 life at the end of that game. 
  3. Versatility – Even though I didn’t board into the Grixis deck that much throughout the day, I did win the few post-board games I sideboarded. The Grixis deck was ultimately worse than the Naya deck, but I did win games where I figured it could out-grind my opponents gameplan. Again, having access to so many removal spells in my deck and ways to be more defensive left me in good spots versus decks that were similarly aggressive but lacking removal.

Lesson learned: I originally had registered another Parish-Blade Trainee and Supernatural Rescue maindeck, but boarded them out every game for Abrade and Lacerate Flesh. I definitely didn’t build my deck correctly and learned I should always play all of my good removal, especially when splashing for it. 

At 8-0 I was extremely excited, but also incredibly nervous. What did calm my nerves however was how overwhelmingly proud I was of my format protege, Etai Kurtzman for also landing himself at 8-0. Who would’ve thought two players who battled in drafts all the time at a small game store in the East Village would find themselves side by side at tables 1 and 2 to end out the day?  

Making sure we didn’t end up in the Venetian at a Blackjack table in the wee hours of the morning, Etai and I settled for a humble dining experience: the Las Vegas McDonalds. We reminisced a bit about our time in the Big Apple and then both went off to bed. There was more Magic to be played. 

I started Day 2 off by punting my draft. Consuming Tide was not what I wanted to open as my rare in pack one, and a Splendid Reclamation in pack two even muddled the direction of my deck even more. Here’s what I ended up in: 

http://www.streamdecker.com/deck/sMD9D32Ck

MTG Las Vegas Draft #1 (1-2) 

Creatures (18)
1
Traveling Minister
1
Dawnhart Disciple
1
Panicked Bystander
1
Toxic Scorpion
1
Vampire Slayer
1
Apprentice Sharpshooter
1
Catapult Fodder
1
Distracting Geist
1
Oakshade Stalker
1
Spore Crawler
1
Weaver of Blossoms
1
Heron of Hope
1
Rural Recruit
1
Angelic Quartermaster
1
Heron-Blessed Geist
1
Unhallowed Phalanx
1
Flourishing Hunter
1
Bramble Wurm
Spells (3)
1
Valorous Stance
2
Witch's Web
Enchantments (2)
1
Wedding Announcement
1
Dormant Grove
Lands (17)
1
Evolving Wilds
7
Forest
7
Plains
2
Swamp
Cards (40)
Sideboard (18)
1
Alchemist's Retrieval
1
Ollenbock Escort
1
Undying Malice
1
Unholy Officiant
1
Bramble Armor
1
Cradle of Safety
1
Sanctify
1
Serpentine Ambush
1
Bloody Betrayal
1
Crushing Canopy
1
Honored Heirloom
1
Bleed Dry
1
Cruel Witness
1
Innocent Traveler
1
Markov Waltzer
1
Frenzied Devils
1
Nebelgast Beguiler
1
Unhallowed Phalanx

I was by no means happy with my deck. At some point in the draft I either should have stuck with Selesnya or made a swift jump into Golgari after picking up a Catapult Fodder and Dormant Grove. I even chose to snatch up a Bleed Dry and Innocent Traveler in pack two. I got too caught up in my love for Selesnya after Day 1 however, and ended up in a mediocre deck because of it.

I lost to Etai on a solid Azorius Spirits deck and the other 8-0 player with a Sultai Exploit deck utilizing Dying to Serve and Selhoff Entomber. I did defeat a Boros aggro deck, going over the top with my flyers and stompy Green creatures. I learned a lot about the format in just three matches though. 

Crimson Vow Limited, especially Draft isn’t about just opening bombs and removal. The other 8-0 player, Scott Atler, pointed out that there are lots of enablers across colors that fit into multiple archetypes. A card like Selhoff Entomber isn’t exactly the most powerful card (discarding a tangible spell for a random card that could be just a land) but combined with a card like Dying to Serve can provide some serious advantages. Scott was able to pitch Disturb creatures to draw a card and make a 2/2 and I found myself severely on the backfoot on just turn three of each game. This Draft format isn’t easy, and when you don’t have bombs you have to strive to find connections between cards in the draft portion.

Lesson Learned: When you don’t open a bomb look to the packs to find what color combinations may be open. Then, try and find enablers that help payoff your color combination archetype.

My head was pounding after the first draft had finished up. I was somewhat frustrated that I had squandered two matches to my own lack of preparation. My energy was low and as I sat down for the second draft I pleaded to the Magic gods to open a card that would point my draft in the right direction. Certainly after opening up nine packs of Crimson Vow and having no bombs, this would be the one, right? Thankfully, it was.

I opened Halana and Alena as my pack one pick one. I slammed it on the table, consigned myself to taking every good Gruul card I laid eyes on, and ended up in this build for Draft #2:

MTG Las Vegas Draft #2 (2-0-1) 

Creatures (17)
2
Snarling Wolf
1
Blood Petal Celebrant
1
Hungry Ridgewolf
2
Runebound Wolf
1
Sporeback Wolf
1
Apprentice Sharpshooter
1
Blood Hypnotist
1
Fearful Villager
1
Spore Crawler
1
Halana and Alena, Partners
1
Hookhand Mariner
1
Lightning Wolf
1
Cloaked Cadet
1
Falkenrath Celebrants
1
Wolfkin Outcast
Spells (4)
1
Flame-Blessed Bolt
2
Massive Might
1
Lacerate Flesh
Artifacts (1)
1
Honeymoon Hearse
Enchantments (1)
1
Stensia Uprising
Lands (17)
8
Forest
9
Mountain
Cards (40)
Sideboard (19)
1
Alchemist's Retrieval
1
End the Festivities
1
Unholy Officiant
1
Bramble Armor
1
Reckless Impulse
1
Sanguine Statuette
1
Serpentine Ambush
1
Bloody Betrayal
1
Boarded Window
1
Crushing Canopy
1
Honored Heirloom
1
Runo Stromkirk
1
Into the Night
1
Rural Recruit
1
Sawblade Slinger
1
Moldgraf Millipede
1
Flourishing Hunter
1
Grisly Ritual
1
Pyre Spawn

I hadn’t played much of this archetype but according to 17lands.com, Gruul was the second-best performing draft archetype on Arena. I was happy that my deck had the pieces it needed: solid early plays, a good combat trick, removal, a bomb, and ways to eek out damage in the late game. I defeated my round 11 opponent in quick fashion. A Selesnya player, he ended up casting Sigarda’s Imprisonment on my first two big creatures. Then, after drawing Honeymoon Hearse I trampled over in a few turns. Game two he was stuck on three lands and Stensia Uprising was enough to prompt the concession.

At the end of round 12 I felt unbelievably numb. I was 10-2, two wins, if not one win away from my first Top 8. I had been in this situation so many times before, and failed. “I have to win the next one” I thought to myself. Instead of walking aimlessly throughout the crowded hall, I found someone who I had been planning on meeting up with the whole weekend: Covert Go Blue. 

If you don’t know CGB – why aren’t you following him? Dude’s got like 140k Youtube subscribers! And also, he’s a fan of my podcast so I’m not biased in any way. CGB had recently recorded with my mentor, Mike Flores, so I had been planning on chatting with him at some point during the event, and now was the perfect time. Immediately upon hearing my record CGB whisked me out of the main hall into a quiet area of the food court and presented me with an abundance of snacks. While I refilled my energy tank we talked about ladder, podcasts, and our love of watching competitive play at the highest level. Magic events are always so fun because you get to make new friends, and that short break was all I needed to give round 13 my all. After a game win on the back of Halana and Alena, a swift game loss to Henrika Domnathi, and a close game closed out by my Runebound Wolf, I was 11-2. I was almost there.

My round fourteen opponent chose to draw, despite me being a lock and him not, and after the most stressful hour-long wait of my life, I heard my name announced on the loudspeaker. I had finally achieved my goal of Top 8’ing a major event.

As I mentioned before, making Top 8 of a major had been a dream of mine ever since finding out what the Pro Tour even was. While this event wasn’t exactly a traditional Grand Prix, nor did it honor an invite to a Pro Tour, it was satisfying to finally break the glass ceiling. I received so many texts, calls, and comments online after posting I was locked that it was hard to keep up with it all.

After a tough draft where I didn’t open any solid rares, I was booted out of the quarterfinals by eventual winner Nathan Holiday and his solid Selesnya midrange deck with rares: Cultivator Colossus, Ulvenwald Oddity, and Cemetery Prowler. I had an okay-ish Simic self-mill deck, but after seeing no solid removal in the draft at all, I was at a severe disadvantage. I ultimately built a deck that self-milled too quickly, and even though it had Bramblewurm and Screaming Swarm, it was ultimately too difficult to break through Nathan’s creatures. At that point in the day I had exhausted all my willpower and while it stings to lose, I left the match on a positive note. Kudos to Nathan, a player I had watched back during his Mono Blue Devotion days to return to competitive Magic as skillful as ever.

Honestly, despite my success in this event I definitely made a lot, if not countless mistakes throughout the weekend. I misbuilt my Sealed deck, drafted the incorrect color pair in Draft 1, made a few pick mistakes in Draft 2, and could’ve drafted better in Top 8. That being said, I learned a ton, not only about Crimson Vow as a Limited format, but as myself as a player. While I definitely could have been better prepared for drafting and deckbuilding, I was happy with my play for the most part and attitude during the event. I took each game one by one, aiming to find the best possible lines and maximizing my luck. I stayed hydrated and ate snacks, and after working with a physical trainer of the last year I was in the best shape I’ve been in to sustain myself over the course of a long Magic event. I took my losses in stride and tried not to put too much pressure on myself as I inched closer and closer to Top 8. I’m so happy and proud of myself for this finish. For the first time in a long time my love of the game has never been stronger. 

I would be seriously remiss if I ended this article without thanking the people that have helped me get to this point in my Magic career. There are seriously way too many people to thank and while I would love for this article to be another two pages long I don’t think my editor will stand for it!

Thanks to:

  • Kenny Siry, who got me into this crazy game over 11 years ago. When I missed a Pro Tour invite at a GP once, Kenny mentioned: “It’s not about if, but when.” I’m glad he was right!
  • Mike Flores, my Magic sensei who’s taught me so much about the game, but most importantly to believe in myself
  • Team Collector Legion and Grim Valdimor for giving me a home in the LA Magic community.
  • My family who always gave their utmost support in my Magic-playing adventures. 
  • My LA Magic peeps, members of the LA Draft Crew, especially Andrew Nare and Alex-Elliot Funk
  • My personal trainer Emmanuel, who’s helped me get over so many barriers in my way

Finally thanks to KYT, the folks at F2F Games, and readers like you! I’m grateful I have an outlet to talk about my Magic accomplishments. Here’s to more Top 8 tournament reports in the future. 

And in traditional Mike Flores fashion…

LOVE

ROMAN

@roman_fusco