(Metagame Archive) A Pro Circuit Atlanta Tournament Report, Part 1

By Graham Van Leeuwen

Who am I? Most of you probably don’t recognize me by name, and I don’t blame you. I am not a professional player, nor am I a pillar in the Vs. System community. In other words, I’m a scrub. I’m just one of the common players, and not a very good one at that.

However, I have always had a dream of becoming a professional player. While some players won’t readily admit it, almost everyone who plays Vs. System wishes to be among the ranks of the game’s elite—the best of the best. Pros can be hated on just like everyone else, but the majority of the attention they receive from the community is positive. My friends have always told me that I have a strong drive to succeed, so it was inevitable that I wasn’t satisfied playing Vs. System casually. I wanted to have my name known by everyone. I wanted to be successful playing among the best of the best. I wanted to be a pro.

But I was just some random kid. How was I going to go from Average Joe to Amazing Pro? The deck was stacked against me and I knew it from the start. It wouldn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t going to be easy, but it was something that I really wanted to do, so I was going to give it my all.

If you want insight on the Marvel Modern Age format, you should ask a real professional player who knows what he or she is doing. If you want to know how to get better at Sealed Pack, again, ask a real professional player. I’m not here to talk about either of those things. I’m here to tell you how every single Vs. System player can steal the spotlight and become something great. I’m here to tell you why the Pro Circuit will be the best four days of your life and why everyone needs to go to one. I’m here to tell the story of a scrub, the common player, a face in the Vs. crowd, and how even such a player can find success in the world of professional competition.

For most of my Vs. System career, I have been a member of Team Online. Serious testing was performed from time to time, but more often than not, the games played on our server consisted of a unique, creative deck against another original concoction. No one on our team had a $10K or PC Top 8 to their name, but we were still determined to make our mark on the game. Anyone was allowed to join the team, but eventually that got out of hand. There was never an accurate roster, and we didn’t know who was an active player and who had left the team or quit. Despite our disorganization, the team held itself together. We had a strong sense of pride, and although we had never met each other before in real life, we quickly became very good friends.

When news of a Pro Circuit in Atlanta surfaced in November, Team Online finally decided to make a showing at a large event. Previously, the only events we had managed to attend were Sneak Previews and local PCQs, but a handful of us were qualified and decided to start getting serious about how our team played Vs. System. Of course, if I ever wanted to become a professional player, I had to go to this PC and make myself known. I figured that Atlanta was the closest the Pro Circuit would ever come to where I live (central North Carolina, better known as the middle of nowhere), so if I missed this opportunity, chances were that I wouldn’t be able to attend another one. I had to go; it was my only chance to prove myself.

Being a younger player has always been a huge disadvantage, because without a driver’s license, there are severe limitations on where and when I can travel. My parents don’t allow me to hitch rides with any of my friends from other areas of North Carolina, either, so I’m forced to rely on my folks for transportation. Coincidentally enough, my spring break started on Friday March 24—the same day as the Pro Circuit. After much groveling and arguing, I talked my parents into taking me down to Atlanta for a weekend. However, I hadn’t even been to a PCQ at this point, so I had to qualify somehow in the next three months.

Obviously, I had to start going to PCQs immediately, so I looked up the schedule on Upper Deck’s website. There weren’t any in the immediate future that I could make it to in North Carolina, but there was one in Roanoke, Virginia. My dad agreed to take me, and I began a frenzied testing session with Team Online in an effort to find a deck that could take me to the Top 8.

In the end, I decided to run our “secret” build of Child Lock that had been performing pretty well against the post–Pro Circuit LA metagame. It was phenomenal against anything without Doom, so I figured that if I could dodge Common Enemy and New School, then I could easily Top 8. The problem cards for Child Lock were Doom and Reign of Terror, but Common Enemy can’t reliably hit Doom and double-Reign on turn 4. New School can usually hit Doom and clear the board, but we figured only a few people actually knew how to play the New School / Child Lock matchup anyway, so it wouldn’t be much of a problem if I ran into a few bad New School players.

At the end of the Swiss, I squeaked into Top 8 in eighth place. Coincidentally enough, I was paired against Hal in the quarterfinals, the only New School player in the whole tournament. I didn’t think there was any way I could win that match because I had played Hal in the Swiss rounds and he knew what he was doing. I decided that the best strategy was to play my best game and hope he missed Doom.

In game 1, Hal did draw horribly and I managed to attack for the win with Silver Surfer. However, I was still thinking that if he could Reign of Terror my board in the next two games, I was as good as dead. As I was building on turn 3 of game 2, Hal sort of surprised me and fell asleep. After I passed, he woke up and continued playing, obviously a little sleepy. Apparently, he had a grand total of three Reigns in his hand, but when he fell asleep, he forgot to flip a Team-Up and failed to bring out Doom on turn 4. After that, his game fell apart, because forgetting to flip that one Team-Up prevented him from curving out starting on turn 4. I won 2-0 and released a sigh of relief that almost blew my cards off the table. In the semis, I played Avengers, and my opponent turned a shade of purple because he couldn’t do anything to stop my lock. I won 2-1 and got to the finals on a totally empty stomach and burned-out brain, and just decided to split it and take the points to be safe. Just like that, I was qualified, and my wildest dream had come true; I was going to Atlanta.

The night of the X-Men Sneak Preview, the members of Team Online rushed home and began testing for Marvel Modern Age. Because we do essentially all of our testing online, we needed to get an X-Men patch up and running to begin our six-week session of Modern testing. In just one night, we had everything completed and we were ready to roll.

The three decks we tried first were ones that had seen success in Golden Age—Avengers reservist, Squadron rush, and Faces of Evil. Right off the bat, we deemed Faces a poor choice because the lack of Birthing Chamber made the deck run out of steam before the kill turn. As Pro Circuit Atlanta and $10K Austin revealed, we were totally off the mark on this one. People on our team even suggested teaming-up with X-Men and adding Mob Mentality and Brave New World, but for some reason, we didn’t listen to them.

Eventually, we tried some of the new X-Men cards, as well as Kang Council from the Avengers set. Of all the decks we tested (which ranged from Physical rush, to Hellfire, to Mental / Energy), we still found the most success with Squadron and Avengers. We couldn’t find any tech for either deck, and the Squadron / Avengers matchup was pretty much 50/50 depending on who had the odd initiatives. To solve this, we decided just to play the Squad mirror and the Avengers mirror and see which matchup was easier to win.

Ten Squad mirrors later, I was convinced that the mirror was entirely a coin flip, and I didn’t feel like relying on my random luck to get me to Day 2. Everyone but one person on our team going to Atlanta settled on reservist hybrid because the mirror was easier to play and the Squad matchup was sometimes winnable if you were stuck with the even initiatives. Our testing showed that it was the only deck available that could reliably Day 2 all of us, so we went with it. Obviously, we were wrong, seeing as Day 3 was an all-Squadron final. We had a Squad build nearly identical to the one that Vidi Wijaya won the whole thing with (including the Enemy concept and Firestar, Hawkeye, and Speed Demon), but for some reason, we went with the reservist build that didn’t place at all in the Top 8.

I think the reason we shot down all of the other deck ideas was because we didn’t test them against a solid gauntlet. I remember playing against Squad / Brotherhood, Thunderbolts, and Kang decks in testing, which basically neutered the effect of testing in the first place. When you test jank decks against other jank decks, the results you get don’t reflect how your deck will do in the metagame. All you know is that you can beat other jank decks, which means nothing if you plan to Day 2 the PC. I feel that Team Online could’ve set a more rigid testing schedule, but in the end, I was proud of how we had worked together as a team and of our diligence throughout the whole ordeal.

To prepare for Draft, Team Online drafted online as much as we could. From the beginning of January, we drafted about once a week, but there were a few things wrong with our process. First of all, we didn’t talk about the drafts afterward, so we really didn’t get a feel for the format or any of the subtle strategies within the set. The decks we marked as strong were JLA ally, Secret Society, and Injustice Gang to an extent, but nothing exotic like JLI / IG concealed or the stall-to-turn-8 strategy. Sometimes, all we did was draft, build our decks, and then disperse to do something else without even playing any games. I’ve never really considered myself an amazing deckbuilder or strategist, but I felt that my grasp on the important mechanics of Sealed Pack, such as formation and attack steps, was good enough to win a few games if I made Day 2, even though I wasn’t getting much out of our practice drafts.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was and am still one of the worst reactive drafters in this game. I don’t understand “signaling,” and I don’t realize that I’m being cut off until it’s too late. The only thing I know how to do is force a team from the first few picks. Sometimes forcing is the best option, but at the Pro Circuit level, it’s important to know how to switch teams when you need to. My lack of reactive drafting skills would inevitably come back to bite me, but before Atlanta, I really didn’t think it was a big deal.

To make matters worse, three weeks prior to Atlanta, I didn’t get a single draft in. Some days we couldn’t round up eight people, and other days I just had too much homework even to attempt a draft. I knew if I Day 2’d I’d be rusty, but there was nothing I could do about it. Like I said, I believed my general Sealed Pack ability was above average from what I had seen in local PCQs, so I was still pretty confident in myself. The easiest way to make money at the PC is get really good at drafting. All you need for Constructed is a deck that can 6-4 you, but if you’re a great drafter, you can go 7-2 or better on Day 2.

The PC slowly crept closer, and after limping through all my end-of-quarter exams, Thursday March 23 arrived and I was out of school for ten days. Immediately after I got home, my family and I began the eight hour drive down to Atlanta. When we finally arrived at our hotel after getting through some big-city traffic, I was exhausted. I met up with my teammate Matt Hendell, who was staying at the same hotel as I was, and played a few last-minute games to make sure we were ready. Afterward, I went up to my room and tried to get some sleep, but anxiety kept me awake for most of the night.

The next day, I got up at 7 AM and met with Matt in the lobby. My dad gave us a ride to the convention center. When we got there, I wandered around the convention hall for a few minutes, eventually meeting up with the rest of the Team Online members in attendance—Ryan, Greg, and Anthony. After talking with them for a few minutes, the player meeting began, and I went and found my seat.

So far, I was really enjoying myself. The convention hall that the PC was being held in had gigantic Thing and Batman figures and a rotating spotlight that displayed the Bat-Signal, the Fantastic Four logo, and the Green Lantern Ring. There were posters with information on the previous six PC champions, and another chart that displayed all of the $10K champions. The gigantic feature match area loomed over everything with Wolverine and Sabretooth suspended in mid-air above it.

However, I thought the greatest thing about the Pro Circuit was the people gathered there. Every single pro player was there, FTN had their own customized jerseys, Metagame reporters were setting up the feature match area, and players from all over the world were preparing to prove themselves among the best players of Vs. System. Rian Fike, better known by his online alias stubarnes, was strutting around in a pretty awesome black suit, complete with his trademark Longshot card in the brim of his hat. Card artists would also be there later in the weekend to sign play mats and create new art. People have described the PC as one huge party, and I couldn’t agree with them more. I knew I was in for the best weekend of my life, no matter how I finished.

The player meeting began, and I was pumped and ready to go. I never keep detailed notes during matches, and I’m not very good at remembering something unless it was game-breaking; I won’t be doing a play-by-play, but I’ll give a general summary of what decks I faced and what happened during the games.

In the first game, I played against Squad. I said to myself, “Okay, as long as they don’t hit nuts, I’m good.” Of course, my opponent hit more than just nuts, he hit everything. I had no chance, especially because I lost the die roll. In round 2, I played against a Mental deck resembling the Mental / Energy build Team Online had tested minus the Energy characters. Sage milled through about ten extra cards, and my opponent hit all of his drops. What irritated me about this opponent was that he played the whole game with his iPod headphones in, and whether he was listening to it or not, it was kind of distracting. I don’t know if there’s an official rule on the PC about headphones, but I think it’s just polite to take them out while you’re playing in a game.

I missed a few of my drops so I ended up losing, but Anne-Marie Cortez was definitely the MVP of this game. I revealed a 2-cost Chrome each turn, which essentially shut down all of his plot twists. At the end of the game, he showed me his hand and row full of Mental Dominations and Turnabouts. I think I lost this game mainly because I didn’t know how to react to the deck—I had never seen it before that round. One of the main reasons I don’t like Modern formats is that the metagame is essentially unknown before the tournament. I’d rather go into a big tournament having a really good idea of what’s going to show up and not having to second-guess what I’m going to play.

Starting out 0-2, I didn’t feel that hot anymore. Greg and I were the only members of Team Online with no wins; everyone else was 1-1. We needed to start winning some games. In round 3, I played Morlocks, thinking that it should be an easy win. It was much closer at the end than I thought it should’ve been, but I managed to pull it out thanks to Hawkeye, of all cards. I began to question my deck choice, thinking that Squad was the right pick after all, but a win is a win and if I could snag five more, it wouldn’t matter what deck I did it with.

In round 4, I got a nice shock—Avengers team attack. I thought, “Who in their right mind would play that on the Pro Circuit? I’ll be 2-2 pretty soon . . .” I didn’t miss any drops that I can remember, but he hit Dazzler, Quicksilver, and a few X-Men weenies with a Team-Up in play. On turn 4, he team attacked into my Hawkeye, and I declared it legal. He passed, and I tried to shoot Dazzler, but he played Legendary Battles, a card I had totally forgotten about. Hawkeye went down, Quicksilver readied, my board was destroyed, and I was down to 10 endurance at the end of the turn. I couldn’t finish the game on turn 5, and I lost on turn 6, putting me at a depressing 1-3. Matt was also 1-3, Anthony and Ryan were 2-2, and Greg had dropped at 0-4. Things weren’t looking good for Team Online.

I had always been a firm believer in Jacobism. For those who don’t know, Jacobism is the belief that one should never team attack while playing Avengers reservist and should always refrain from eating for the duration of a tournament. Both “philosophies” come from three-time $10K winner Michael Jacob, who claims that if you go the entire day without eating but drink lots of water, your brain will function at its optimal level because more blood will be moving through your head than through your stomach. Because this method was what supposedly won me a PCQ and got me to Atlanta in the first place, I practiced it religiously with the impression that it would get me to Day 2.

By the end of round 4, I was starving. People around the convention hall were talking about how good the concession stand’s French fries were, and I couldn’t resist the urge any longer. I headed to the back of the room and bought a chicken sandwich and fries, and proceeded to wolf them down gratefully. Matt told me that I’d have to win five of my next six games to Day 2, which probably wasn’t going to happen, so it would be better to have a full stomach and not Day 2 than to miss the cut without any food. After I finished, the pairings for the next round were posted, and I half-heartedly went and found my seat.

Then, something amazing happened. I won six games in a row. I didn’t even play any “bad” decks; all of them were either reservist or Squadron. I didn’t win the die roll every game, and I certainly didn’t draw perfectly every game. Yet somehow, I managed to finish with a 7-3 record (albeit with a -10 for my first tiebreaker), and I’m convinced it was because I ate lunch. Forget Jacobism—french fries are what win games.

Most players have dismissed reservists as a poor choice for the Marvel Modern metagame, but I think they haven’t given it enough of a chance. Despite Team Online’s original testing results, it seems that reservists can beat Squad on either odd or even initiatives, and in the mirror, you just have to make sure you play your pumps at the right time. If you can stop Panacea Potion with Anne-Marie Cortez, then you can push for the win against Squad on turn 5 or 6, and Hawkeye certainly helps, too. Seeing as I didn’t play any Hellfire Club or X-Faces on Day 1, I really don’t know how reservists perform against them. I’ll admit that X-Faces is probably the best deck in the metagame right now, but reservists still have a decent shot at winning local PCQs.

The rest of Team Online didn’t make the cut; Anthony was sitting at 5-2 and then lost three straight (one of them to me; it always sucks to have to knock off your teammates to make Day 2), and Ryan and Matt lost their fifth game before round ten. Adam Ward squeaked in at 6-4, but Palmer was going to be $10K’ing on Saturday. I had to represent my team on Day 2, and I intended to win at least a few games and not make myself look like a total scrub.

Anyway, instead of rushing back to my hotel and drafting all night to prepare for Day 2, I rushed back to my hotel and collapsed onto my bed. Day 1 was a great experience, but it burned up all of my energy. My parents were amazed that I made Day 2, and I was glad that they were taking interest in my success. Soon I was asleep, content with my performance and hopeful that tomorrow I would get a feature match and some attention. I felt like I had just fallen asleep when I was awoken by the sound of my alarm clock. Day 2 would begin soon, and I was ready to show that I wasn’t just some random who got lucky on Day 1.   Check back for Part 2 next week!

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