This weekend is Grand Prix Pittsburgh, which means we are less than seven days from a new understanding of the meta. However, before we can have an interesting discussion about what did well at Pittsburgh, we have to reach the event. This week I want to look at some of the things that should be on your checklist heading into Grand Prix Pittsburgh and go through the same checklist for myself. Using a checklist is an easy way to itemize major things you should have done or at least be working on with less than a week to go for any Grand Prix and give yourself the best chance at the event itself.
The purpose of the checklist is to have you prepared to answer these questions in-depth and with a full understanding of the sacrifices you are making in playing one deck over another or one card over another. This goes back to the idea of having prepared utterly for an event.
1) Deck Choice
The first thing on the checklist is the most basic question for playing Magic itself: do you know what deck you are playing at the event? Hopefully, since Modern rewards players for having accurate and complete knowledge of their deck, you have known what deck you were playing for months. The best piece of advice I can give with the Grand Prix being this weekend is you should have your deck chosen already and you should only be adjusting small things. Tweaking numbers, fixing slight awkwardness, and mastering the deck is all you should be doing this week. If you are still trying to figure out what deck to play, play something you know well, because you are not going to get the needed reps in with any new deck with less than three days until the Grand Prix. Even if you played games constantly from this moment until the Grand Prix, it is likely that some number of those games would be sub-optimal due to you trying to learn the deck and then master certain aspects of it within such a compact period of time. Decide your deck and start your more technical prep, and do not walk into the Grand Prix with less than a week’s practice with your deck. I implore you.
I thought that was going to be me as I have played Abzan since I began playing Modern, but as I mentioned in my article last week I truly do not believe Abzan is the deck to bring. After talking to many people I respect and through some limited testing, I am taking Amulet Bloom to the Grand Prix. There are numerous reasons I believe taking Amulet Bloom is the right choice, some of which I mentioned last week. In short, it has one of the most explosive starts of any deck with turn two kills and massive advantage through Primeval Titan arriving much earlier than people expect. In addition, the deck has a very high skill ceiling, so the number of lines you can take is massive. I enjoy decks like this since they reward practice and mastery and I love solitairing the deck and grinding out games to gain experience. For me, this is a deck with insane power level that rewards a deep understanding of how the deck interacts with itself and the rest of the format. I suspect that if people had to write why they are playing their GP Pittsburgh deck on their deck registration form, the majority would consist of card availability, comfort, experience with the deck, and a few that said their deck was the best deck in the format. I feel like I can safely say that Amulet is the best deck for this Grand Prix, and that's why I've been practicing the deck extensively.
Similar to knowing what deck you are playing for the Grand Prix, can you specifically state what each card in your sideboard does to improve specific matchups? Are there cards floating in those last one or two slots that are filler you could optimize? You need to test them and find out what they actually should be. With each little improvement, you move closer to finding the optimal list while chancing over-tweaking, so be careful not to let your testing get too inbred or circular. This is why I like thinking about this process over a longer period of time and test each slot if I can until I figure out what cards are hidden gems and which deserve to remain hidden.
Now that you know what deck you are playing and you have optimized your sideboard versus the meta, the next box to check off is running the deck through a gauntlet of Modern staples. This is different from the learning phase since this is not about how you play the deck but how the deck plays. Can your deck beat Burn, GBx, UR Twin, Affinity, Infect, Zoo, Tron, etc.? What matchups are very hard game one and what matchups do you need to dedicate more sideboard slots for? Why are they hard and can we adjust play to improve game one? Most importantly, do you know how to approach each match up? What is your role and does it change as the game goes on? Once someone plays their second land, if you do not know what you are against and how to play against it, there is a good chance your opponent has the advantage. Running through this gauntlet to figure these things out is a very wise use of time for this last week before the Grand Prix. However, it does have the downside of potentially exposing your deck's weaknesses and tempting the dreaded audible that works out poorly so often it is the subject of a Charles Dickens story.
Sheridan went over the expected meta moving forward, but I expect that for the Grand Prix Twin, Bloom, Affinity, GBx, and Merfolk will be out in large numbers due to their dominance at different points this seasonPeople feel comfortable with these decks and as I mentioned some of the most common advice for a large event is play what you know. In a format such as Modern, not knowing how your deck operates on every level and in situation is a quick way to be playing side events on Sunday. Even though the deck you know best may not be the best deck for the event, at this point, learning a new deck from scratch is not helping your win percentage any more than playing old faithful hurts it. With that said, I want to echo my article from last week that most of the decks I listed above are going to need a solid overhaul to handle the influx of Zoo and Knight of the Reliquary specifically, along with the big mana decks that have started showing up more often. Go in knowing your plan and how to beat their plan and you will at least fight at maximum, while going in blind folded to the format is a disadvantage no one can win a 15 round tournament with.
3) Functioning at the Tournament
With everything set for the tournament itself, let us talk about small things you can do during the Grand Prix to improve your performance. These are tips that people hear frequently, but like most great advice, it is not followed very often. The most obvious is to make sure you have all the cards you will need, your travel arrangements are set, and you have pre-registered. I have seen some horror stories of sleeping in friend’s cars and this time of year, a bed is a lot warmer and more restful. You really don't want to have to buy cards at a premium on-site, especially when availability is not guaranteed. Don't leave arriving at the tournament ready to play to chance.
On tournament day wake up early to shower, go to the bathroom, and eat some breakfast. There is at least some truth in the cliché and breakfast truly is the most important meal for any Magic player before an event. The difference between having gone through a morning routine with some food and going in groggy, freshly out of bed hungry and without coffee or water is night and day for round one. The first two or three rounds played are the hardest to acclimatize to and going in without the proper preparation is the same as walking into a tournament without any practice. Eat and get ready to battle or lose to someone who did.
Once you have eaten breakfast, made it to the tournament site, double and triple checked your deck list, make sure you have a water bottle and locate the convention center’s bubbler. Drinking lots of water helps to keep you focused and often allows you to retain that mental edge that tends to dull through a long day of intense Magic. Dehydration is your enemy and will kill your concentration. I often carry a 16-ounce water bottle and try to refill it every round. Yes, you will have to pee an excessive amount of times, but especially since there is not time to get food throughout most of a Grand Prix, keeping yourself hydrated and focused can be huge. In the same vein, buying some trail mix or other snack food that is calorie dense before the event is a good idea for those long rounds where your blood sugar and focus can dip if you do not eat anything. In combination with a constant intake of water, you can improve your focus throughout the event and avoid that sluggish tired feeling that leads to misplays late in the day during the most crucial rounds of the day.
3a) Keeping Your Head
Another thing that often gets forgotten at Grand Prix is to focus on each match individually and have a goal for the day as a whole, but do not let that be your driving factor. If you walk in with two byes and every match is “Five more matches until Day Two…” when you eventually reach seven wins, you are likely to play worse and lose yourself within the context of individual matches. A Grand Prix is 15 individual rounds against skilled players, and looking at the big picture is a good way to trip yourself up and fall into the classic trap-game example from most sports. Do not forget about the game at hand because you only need to win one of the next two matches to make Day Two, that is a recipe for a 6-3 record.
Obviously many of these suggestions are things some of you have internalized, but keeping them fresh in your mind going into an event allows it to become habit. Once you do these small things for every larger tournament, they begin to feel a little more comfortable, a little easier and you will play better. Nerves at a tournament of this size are a major factor and the more you take care of the little things, the easier it is to block out the nerves and do well.
Now that you have picked your deck, tuned the last few sideboard slots, run the gauntlet, and prepped a list of things to do at the event what is next? Be sure to acclimatize yourself with the venue to relieve any headaches about where you are supposed to go for matches. Being unfamiliar with the venue can make the middle of the day irritating, especially if the tournament organizer has not done the best job staking out the sections or marking down where the tables start.
Last, remember to have some fun! This is after all a game and no matter how good you are, sometimes you are going to lose, you are not going to make Day Two, and you are going to feel like you wasted some money, but that is part of the game. Even if you have a bad day at this Grand Prix, you can always crush the next one so long as you keep trying and keep working at it. Stay safe and get ready to crush the Grand Prix Pittsburgh!