PioneerStandard

USA Regional Championship Tournament Report

I’ve struggled with my relationship with Magic: the Gathering this past year. One on hand, I’ve enjoyed growing my local Limited community, fostering play at house drafts, weekend brewery drafts, and a Team Draft League alongside organizer extraordinaire, Alex Elliot-Funk. On the other hand, I still have the competitive drive to perform well and make the Pro Tour, an accomplishment that has still eluded me. It’s a tough relationship to balance, as at times I see myself wanting to immerse myself in my local community and at others, a grinder.

A week before the USA Regional Championship at Atlanta, I spent a weekend in NYC, visiting who else but my sensei and podcast partner in crime, Mike Flores. On Saturday we met up in Downtown Brooklyn with the other Flores Disciples: Lanny Huang, David Tao, and Rebell Son. The plan was Kbbq and my introduction to Pre-Modern Magic, but spoiler alert, after getting my ass handed to me from cards like Phyrexian Dreadnought and Goblin Lackey (and the Kbbq hitting my system) I opted to nap and work on my Standard deck for the following day’s store championship event instead.

Hanging with Flores and the Disciple crew was a warm reminder that Magic is first and foremost about “the gathering” more than anything else (cliche as that is). While at times during my career I’ve thought to be about winning a number of tournaments or making the Pro Tour, the time spent with friends will always be the most important aspect about Magic.

Flores and I made our way to The Brooklyn Strategist Sunday morning for store champs. Luckily I was able to borrow four copies of the only card I desperately was missing, Get Lost, and had a functioning 75. After a long day of Magic, here’s how it went:

While Azorius Control isn’t really a deck in today’s Standard meta, I chose to play it for a few reasons. Azorius Control is probably my favorite constructed archetype (outside of Boros Burn in Modern) and with the RC only a week away (and zero Pioneer practice under my belt) I figured jamming the deck in Standard would at least give me familiarity with some of the cards that are in the Pioneer counterpart. The tournament wasn’t entirely smooth sailing, however.

Mike was sure to point out every mistake I made throughout my top 8 matches, and while I would have rather celebrated my win instead of the criticism, ultimately I appreciated the feedback. One aspect about my gameplay I need to perfect is my sequencing. We recently did an episode on Ancestral Recall called “Picture This,” which discusses how to better craft your gameplay so that when the game is over the board state is exactly how you’d envision it. For Azorius Control that looks like running your opponent out of cards, having a lot of lands in play while you beat down with whatever God given threat you have access to. I had punted two games in the semifinals (one bailed out of a topdeck Jace to mill for exactsies) to this hole in my play.

While Azorius is an easy deck to play, its sequencing is incredibly important. At times I’m liable for not impacting the board as much as I could or spinning my wheels when I could be managing my resources and my opponent’s cards better. This is an important lesson that Mike pointed out to me and one I was very aware of in my matches at the Regional Championship. While it may seem a bit silly, winning store champs gave me the confident boost I needed going into the RC weekend, as I was still unsure on an exact 75 and had done very minimal practicing. Two days before the event, I settled on this list with help from SoCal local, Nick Johnson:

As opposed to the other two Regional Championships I played in the last year, this time I was submitting my deck with ample time before the event (and not an hour before submission), which is an improvement in my book. It may not seem like a big change, but it felt nice to not have to think about Magic during my travel day to Atlanta. Although I didn’t actually play any games to playtest my deck, I did spend a considerable amount of time on deck crafting. Here are some important aspects about my list:

Maindeck Dream Trawler – This is probably the best deckbuilding decision I made all weekend. Maindeck Trawler felt like a house against the surge in Rakdos variants, especially the aggressive Inti versions that I saw in MTGO results. I also figured Izzet Phoenix would be a large part of the metagame, and luckily they have no way to really answer a Trawler maindeck, with only a few marginal answers postboard. Trawler felt like a nice swap for the fourth Memory Deluge or first Quick Study.

Settle the Wreckage – While I hadn’t seen this card in any Azorius Control lists recently, Settle is one of my pet cards and I love how it plays with The Wandering Emperor. If your opponent attacks into four open mana and you cast an Emperor they’re way more likely to follow up their next attack with even more creatures. This exact scenario came up on day one where I won a match against Gruul by sequencing and Emperor and getting them with the follow up Settle. On the flipside of this, the tournament being open decklist meant that opponents actively played around my one-of copy, even in situations they shouldn’t have. My round one Boros Convoke opponent actively didn’t attack one turn due to my four open mana, but I got to cast a Deluge and find pertinent answers to his board. In that case, my sideboard one-of Settle gained me a considerable amount of life. Overall Nick and I talked about how this card could be pretty powerful if it earned its keep, and that it did!

Temporary Lockdown – This is a card that’s been impressive in both Standard and Pioneer as of late, but I wouldn’t get too attached. I always want to draw the first copy of Lockdown in the matchups I want it in (Rakdos Inti, Amalia Combo, Boros Convoke, etc.) but I feel like I don’t want to be loaded on 3 or more copies maindeck, which is why I had the one copy in the board. The Settle would’ve been the fourth Lockdown and I’m happy where I stand with my numbers. I think all in all you just want to have a diverse set of answers as a control deck. Which leads me to…

The Wraths – After combing countless Azorius lists this was the breakdown of wraths that I wanted. The Sunfall being an exile effect and leaving behind a threat was very relevant, and the Farewell was great against both Amalia and Phoenix on the weekend. With Settle already being outstanding I think this is the split I’d play, alongside the number of Temporary Lockdowns, at any upcoming events in this meta.

Now, let’s talk about the tournament. I’ll be brutally honest, this event was probably one of the most emotionally taxing events of my Magic career. At the same time, I felt somewhat emotionally removed from everything that happened. It’s hard to explain but hopefully what I explain in these next few paragraphs makes some amount of sense. My start in the event was one of the best I’ve ever had, and it blew my other two RC performances out of the water. I climbed my way to 6-0 after beating some solid players like Oliver Tomajko and Alfredo Barragan. I felt like my list was perfect for the decks I was facing. In the first six rounds I beat Boros Convoke, Rakdos Inti, Gruul Aggro, Izzet Phoenix, Amalia Combo, and Mono-Black Midrange.

While I had the perfect start to my day, the wheels fell off and I ended up losing four matches in a row. Losing my tournament in a few rounds just after having my personal best start at a Regional Championships was definitely heartbreaking, but I was able to calmly assess some of the major mistakes I made in every single match. My first loss was to traditional Rakdos Midrange, and while I did get Duress’d into oblivion in both games, we still had some grindy games that I probably made some errors in. I can’t pinpoint any exact errors in this match, but I know I made a mistake somewhere.

I actually lost to the victor of the event on Azorius Control (Yorion). While regular Azorius is at a disadvantage in this matchup (mainly due to Yorion as a companion being able to flicker Omen of the Sea) we went to three games. In game three I played way too aggressively and chose to be on the play. I had an opening to kill a Wandering Emperor that I elected not to put enough damage at in a combat step. My opponent was able to flicker it with Yorion two turns later and get some serious value out of it, creating a sub-game that ate away at my time and resources. I could have chosen to be on the draw to gain an extra card and also managed my opponent’s board better. It was a tough match to begin with, but I definitely did not play my best.

In a match versus Gruul we went to three games, I had an opportunity to Change the Equation a Rampaging Ferocidon, but had a wrath in my hand I wanted to use instead to clean up the board. I ended up not getting any life from my Regal Caracal and tokens during combat and lost to a topdecked Voldaren Thrillseeker a turn later. In the past I would have chalked up this loss to luck, if I had been more aggressive with my counterspell and gained life from Caracal instead of trying to get greedy with my wrath, I could have played around this exact scenario.

Against Amalia Combo I kept a hand on the play that was too slow and lost to the exact three-card combo on turn three. I also tapped out for Rest in Peace when I should have left open mana, insinuating I had some sort of interaction. While it was round 10 (10-rounds day one!), I should have definitely mulliganed to a better hand, or at least played in a way that implied I had a removal spell.

So there I was at the end of ten long rounds. Defeated, definitely out of a Pro Tour invite, and emotionally and physically exhausted. However, while I did have such a terrible end to my day one, I looked to the positives of my performance to clear my head before a short four-round day two. Luckily my roommate for the event picked up some food for me and I had some time to talk through my losses. I wasn’t angry or salty, just disappointed in my performance.

Like I said earlier, this tournament was a mix of emotions for me. One on hand I haven’t really cared as much about competitive Magic in recent months, and haven’t had much interest in constructed formats. At the same time I wanted to keep my win streak and believe in a chance that I might finally make the Pro Tour. I was disappointed in my play yet could pinpoint a lot of aspects about my tournament that I tackled well.

It’s funny, during the event people kept commenting that I had picked a great deck for the tournament, or that my build had some great inclusions (Dream Trawler, I’m looking at you). The truth is, I only played Azorius because it’s a deck I just genuinely enjoy playing, and I thought that would give me the biggest edge regardless if the deck was good or not. While I played zero games of Pioneer to playtest for this event, one thing that I at least did to prepare was to scour all the winning Magic Online decklists a few weeks prior and base my deckbuilding decisions off that. I was heavily prepared for Rakdos Inti, Izzet Phoenix, Boros Convoke, and Amalia Combo, which were the majority of my matchups throughout the event.

Back to my tournament. On day two I was met with the nice surprise of getting the coveted round one bye. This was great for my mental health to start the day, as I used this time to remove myself from the tournament hall and spend some time away from Magic. Luckily, one of my best friends and humans player extraordinaire Charlotte Lewis was visiting family in Atlanta this weekend, and brought me a bagel.

One of the best things you can do to keep up your energy in a Magic tournament is plan ahead for food and drink. This is another important aspect that is just as important as playtesting or deckbuilding. Ever since my return to tournament Magic after the pandemic, I always pack some sort of beef jerky or nuts snack packs in my bag, along with carrying a refillable water bottle. I even ran into one of my friends during day one who looked exhausted after a few rounds. I made sure to give them some almonds and after the next round they were incredibly thankful for the energy boost. It’s easy to forget that these tournaments are ten to twelve hour marathons that exhaust finite amounts of your mental and physical energy. So I’ll give myself a gold start in that department at least.

I ended up getting paired against Omnath Bring to Light and a Fires of Invention deck for my next two rounds, both which are great matchups for Azorius. I’m pretty sure I just decked my Omnath opponent after they drew and fetched for so many cards. My wraths were able to catchup with his threats and Dream Trawler was a hell of a beating as always. Fires of Invention was a little trickier, but Get Lost put in tons of work to slow them down.

I ended my day on a tight match against Abzan Greasefang. I don’t know if Greasefang is a good matchup or not for Azorius, but it seems pretty tough. Greasefang has a lot of built-in resilience and maindeck ways to remove Rest in Peace. Esika’s Chariot is another diverse threat that makes the matchup difficult. Overall Greasefang can fight on a number of different axis, whether it be beating down with 3/2 Raffine’s Informants, Esika’s Chariots, Can’t Stay Away, or just enacting the original combo. What won me this match was a lesson I had learned a long time ago about playing control decks from Jonathan Sukenik.

At a Grand Prix years ago I remember telling Jonathan about how the two styles of decks I play are Boros Burn (in Modern) and Azorius Control-type decks (in Standard). I laughed at the fact that the two decks couldn’t be more opposite, Burn being the “easy” deck and Azorius being the “hard” deck. Jonathan flat out told me it’s actually the opposite. Burn is the much harder deck to play due to its intricate sequencing and knowledge of combat, where control decks are easy to pilot because their gameplan revolves around sequencing disruption and removal until you run your opponents out of cards. This viewpoint changed how I viewed both archetypes.

While it’s not black or white which deck is easier to harder to pilot, one aspect about my play that I’ve had to get better at is sequencing. Control decks require you to play removal until you, well, gain control, but it’s about how you sequence your removal which matters the most. March of Otherwordly Light wants to hit a Greasefang so it can’t be re-bought with Can’t Stay Away. You want to hold open Dovin’s Veto when your opponent has access to four open mana to deal with Chariot. You have to be conscious of how your cards are going to successfully trade with your opponent’s when playing control. You want the board at the end of the game to look like an opponent that’s run out of the cards while you smirk across the table with an active planeswalker, Dream Trawler, or huge Shark token, while consequently holding a fist full of action.

At the end of a hard fought weekend I ended up at lucky number 49th – one slot away from a RCQ invite and a wad of cash. At least I got $100 to drown my sorrows in some Korean BBQ. After a weekend full of gut punches, highs and lows, and also laughs, I felt actually excited to keep playing competitive Magic. I’ll give myself credit where credit is due – I handled my wins and losses much better than I would have five or so years ago. I used to be so obsessed with qualifying for the Pro Tour and proving myself as a player. It would often cloud my judgement and lead me to bad play or deck building decisions. I had a rough time handling my losses and felt like I deserved more. The fact is I didn’t deserve to win any tournaments with a mindset like that.

I’ve been able to grow as a Magic player exponentially as I’ve turned my focus to having more fun, playing decks I like, and calmly assessing what ways I can improve my play. I have so much room to grow both as a person and player, and that’s what excites me about playing more Magic. While I’ve spent less time on competitive Magic than I have in previous years, I’ve been able to properly balance out Magic with other areas of my life, such as self-improvement and career-related goals. That’s why at the end of this long and arduous weekend I couldn’t help but feel pumped to play my next event.

I couldn’t be where I am as a player today without the multitude of friends, colleagues, and mentors I’ve met while playing this game. I don’t know what 2024 will bring but I’m going to face whatever Magic throws at me head-on.

This article marks my last piece of content for the near-future for Face to Face Games. It’s been an honor to write for this website and I thank everyone who has spent even a few seconds reading my work. It means the world to me. Know that whatever barriers you face in competitive Magic or in real life, you have the strength to get over them.

To the future,

Roman Fusco

@roman_fusco

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