This past weekend, I competed at the 2022 NRG Championship and finished in 5th place. I would have loved to win the event, but I was stoked to see my RIW teammate Raja take it down! The stacked 16-player tournament was one of the most fun I’ve ever played. Everything from competition, preparation, and atmosphere the Nerd Rage Gaming staff provided made this an event I will be shooting to qualify for again in the 2023 season.
While I didn’t achieve the result I wanted, I learned a lot from my preparation process that will help me prepare for future tournaments, both small-field invitationals and open events! I hope it’s able to help you, too.
PREPARATION FOR NRG CHAMPIONSHIPS
A couple of hours after my victory at the team showdown in St. Louis, Piper Powell (who was qualified from Season 1 showdown) asked if I wanted to prepare for this tournament together. We locked it in during the Regional Championship in Atlanta and set our sights on having the two best decks in the room. Shortly before Christmas, we convened in a Discord call after thinking independently about what the metagame would look like. We knew most of the players in the tournament fairly well, and only one or two had played more than one deck in Modern regularly throughout the year. Here’s what we came up with:
The big expectation was there would be a lot of grindy decks, with many of them featuring counterspells. With three dedicated control players and Maxx all but guaranteed to play Murktide, my initial thought was Cavern of Souls may be strong. I played test matches with Derrick Davis’s Elementals list ( he used to win NRG Louisville, and found I didn’t love the 2-drops, as your slow deck generally gave opponents enough time to answer them efficiently. Given I expected some variant of Underworld Breach to be the most played deck, I decided on something a little bit more proactive and less value-oriented. https://www.mtggoldfish.com/deck/5283706#paper
After our first discussion, Piper thought that with two potential Amulet players and three likely Underworld Breach players, we wanted to look for the best Blood Moon deck. We tried out a RG midrange list from Felix Sloo (xfile MTGO), which we thought would be strong against those two decks and would have staying power against control by playing Wrenn and Six plus Urza’s Saga ( We decided to use Breach as our litmus test: if we could consistently beat stock Jeskai Breach, we would be willing to try the deck against other things. About three matches in, it became clear a deck might be able to beat Breach some of the time, but it didn’t do enough outside of resolving Blood Moon to actually close the games before Breach executed the combo. The session ended when we captured the following chat log: https://www.mtggoldfish.com/deck/5302700#paper.
With RG Midrange out, Piper realized RB Scam may be exactly what we were looking for. With its main deck Blood Moons, eight pieces of hand attack and a fast clock, we thought it would be an excellent choice in the metagame we expected. The only problem remained the control matchup: we weren’t sure if the fragile Grief → Undying Malice plan would work well against a deck with Solitude, Counterspell and Leyline Binding. I played a few matches with Nam Dang and lost nearly every postboard game. Without a good plan B, I wasn’t sure how to handle control.
It was only by getting into the Modern leagues for some practice I realized how we could fix the grindy matchups. The list I was playing with was several weeks old, and I started losing Scam mirrors to opponents who would out-grind me with Fable of the Mirror-Breaker.
We adjusted the deck and made a sideboard plan involving going up to 4 Blood Moon, 4 Seasoned Pyromancer, and 4 Fable of the Mirror-Breaker against control. I played a short set against Piper and won nearly every postboard game. We also realized going all-in on the scam plan on turn one was unlikely to win games (losing if they had a single removal spell or Teferi, Time Raveler). Boarding out the majority of our Undying Malice/Feign Death effects for more robust cards made it so we could comfortably play a one-for-one game before pulling ahead with value 3-drops. Feeling more comfortable against control, we decided to work on Scam.
We got to a comfortable place against Four-Color Omnath, UW Control, and (obviously) Amulet. We thought the Breach matchup was closer than we would have liked, but we still felt structurally favored against them. My experience with Breach is Blood Moon is usually hit-or-miss on whether it’s actually good, but Scam’s combination of 8 hand-attack spells and Dauthi Voidwalker means Breach has a hard time reliably comboing that it needs to get value from its Urza’s Sagas. We knew UR Murktide and Hammertime matchups were unfavored, but we expected there to be three players playing the two decks, and knew we couldn’t play a deck favored against everything. I felt comfortable having a couple bad matchups, because with the MVP pod swap I could give myself a majority of good matchups during the first round of in-pod play. With how correct we ended up being about the metagame (everybody except for Andrew and Jesse played one of the two decks we predicted for them, and Temur Breach should still be favored for us even if it’s better than Jeskai), I still stand by saying we had the best Modern deck in the room.
With Modern settled, we set our sights on Pioneer. This was the format where I wasn’t as happy with our process. We decided early on Lotus Field may be an excellent choice, because of how we expected the meta to break. We expected RB midrange and UW control to be the two most-played decks (with higher numbers of RB). Lotus Field is favored against both (as it is against most slow, fair decks). We expected some people to make the same predictions and engage in a midrange arms race, with several players bringing RG Boats or GW Angels to go over the top of RB decks. The only deck we were truly scared of was Mono-White Humans, but we believed people would identify Boats and Angels as good choices and stay away from White as it struggles against those two.
This ended up being an incorrect prediction: only one person played each of Angels and Boats, and Mono-White was the most played deck in the tournament with four copies. I think we made two mistakes. The first was we felt we could predict peoples’ decks as well as we could in Modern. With Modern, we had a long track record for most of the competitors, and knew many of the decks they played required some higher levels of understanding and expertise, making it unlikely players would switch. In Pioneer, more decks rely on solid fundamentals than specific expertise, and so people have more flexibility, making it harder to make accurate predictions. Second, we thought everybody would make the same metagame assumptions as us. We had a specific read for the level-one metagame, assumed others would make the same predictions, and tried to level-up the people trying to level-up the level-one players. Instead, a full quarter of the room played our worst matchup!
Now that we had our decks, it was time to battle! I got into town on Friday evening and went to Gators, a wing restaurant close to the NRG store, with Adam, Will, Theo, Maxx and Derrick. While we waited for our food, a man approached and asked if we wanted to see some Friday night magic. We were confused, thinking he may have recognized one of us from coverage and knew we were Magic players. It ended up being way better: he gave us a really fun magic show that included pulling a card with Will’s writing out of a closed box and reading Adam’s mind, somehow predicting a time he had secretly written down beforehand. After a magic show and some delicious chicken, we turned in early and got ready to game.
When we got to Nerd Rage, we realized there were some fun surprises in store. They set up a table that had a jacket and a shadowbox for each player, featuring our name and three of the cards we had done well with over the course of the year. Although my box could have realistically been three Mono-Green Devotion cards, I got Omnath from all of the Elementals I played before the Yorion ban, and Expressive Iteration for some close misses with Grixis Shadow and UR Delver, to go along with the Cavalier of Thorns. This was an amazing surprise that made me feel really cared about: just a small, personal touch that further shows how NRG really cares about us, the players.
As cool as the shadowbox was, the real prize for me was sitting next to it. My Player of the Year plaque was waiting for me, and I let myself take it outside for a few minutes to reflect before putting it back on the table, face-down. I was happy with myself, but didn’t want to let myself feel satisfied until day one was completed.
Round 1 was something everybody had been hoping for: my match against Nicole Dubin. Norm, the owner of NRG, announced us as the feature and then assured everybody “we didn’t plan for this! We swear!” After some trash talking on Twitter, I had swapped her into my pod because I believed I would be favored against her likely Modern choice of Underworld Breach. I was incorrect about Breach, but still felt good about my Omnath matchup. I didn’t play my tightest game one: I believe that my turn 1 Thoughtseize selecting Omnath was a mistake, and I should have taken Wrenn and Six instead. In my head, I was thinking we were going to play a longer game, and Omnath is really strong if I’m trying to exchange resources. She didn’t have a fetchland in hand at the time so the Wrenn didn’t represent any immediate value, but I didn’t really slow down to process. If she was going to cast Omath on turn 4, it would almost certainly involve her drawing a fetch land or two. She immediately drew a fetchland and proceeded to beat me in a drawn-out game.
In game three, I kept a strong two-land hand on the draw that was able to play magic, but needed to draw a third land to really make use of Blood Moon and Fable. I didn’t draw one until around turn 8, with her putting no pressure on me. I was frustrated, and let that affect my play: there was a turn that I got a hit with a dashed Ragavan and immediately used my treasure to cast a Thoughtseize. If I had slowed down a bit more to think, I would have realized that having a guaranteed Fable or Seasoned Pyromancer on the following turn was better than Thoughtseizing what was likely a removal spell, because she hadn’t been developing any creatures or planeswalkers for several turns.
I was really frustrated with myself after losing that one. Our match went long, and I let the pressure of not backing up my trash talk get in my head and make myself lose a couple of games I probably could have won with better play. I took a few minutes to go outside and cool myself down, knowing in a field like this, I couldn’t count on easy matchups.
Despite being in a mentally bad place, I managed to play some excellent Magic for the next few rounds. In the rest of the Modern matches, I was able to beat Zach on UW Control (splashing Wrenn, of course) and Adam on Amulet, two matchups we came well-prepared for. In my game one against Adam, I put him to four life with four Grief (with a counter) attacks and passed the turn knowing he had two lands in hand (but two Amulets in play). Always one for a good time, Adam knocked the top of his deck, flipped the top card, and laughed at me as he showed the Summoner’s Pact to deal 20 with a single attack. Luckily, Blood Moon + Grief were able to carry me in the postboard games and I escaped Modern with a 2-1 record despite feeling I could have gone 3-0.
I knew the pairings had given me a good opportunity. Adam and Dubin were the only Mono-White players in my pod, so playing against both of them in the Modern portion meant I had three good matchups in the Pioneer portion, plus Zoe who would be slightly favored against me with Mono-Green Devotion. I defeated Derrick on UW in a three-game set that ended with me casting Omniscience, him letting it resolve, and attacking with my Elder Gargaroth to force him to fire up Hall of the Storm Giants to block, leaving him with only two mana left open. After putting my Gargaroth in the bin, I cast Behold the Beyond, he tapped out to play the Saw it Coming that he had foretold, and I showed him that my last card in hand was Mystical Dispute for the win.
In the next two rounds, I defeated Ivan on GW Angels and Zoe on Devotion to advance to 5-1. Maxx was my final match in the pod portion, and with him and I being the only players at 5-1, we realized that the tiebreakers were such that he could concede to me and we would lock up the top 2 seeds in our pod, meaning that neither of us would have to play the three-round knockout stage that evening, instead qualifying directly for day 2. I recognize that this sort of thing may rub some people the wrong way, but Maxx and I were teammates who qualified for the tournament together and wanted to see each other do well. I also can’t overstate how grueling it is to play so many matches against such good players, so any opportunity to take a round off and be able to spectate the rest of the field would be welcomed by anybody.
The winners of the “Pod of Death” were Raja and Jesse, meaning I got to celebrate with two friends and gloat that Team RIW came out on top of both, a fun way to spend a couple of hours. The knockout rounds were intense, and saw Andrew, Nicole, Zoe and Ivan joining the four of us in day two. Despite the high stakes, I can’t speak enough to how sporting everybody was. People were disappointed to get knocked out, but would still congratulate their friend for advancing in the tournament and wish them luck. Nearly all of the competitors are friends, so it was awesome to go and have a big group dinner at Yan Yan, joined by a friend in Justin Brickman as well as several of the competitors’ partners.
For the first round of day two, we were put into different pods and played three rounds of Pioneer. If you got two wins, you were through to top 4, and if you got two losses you were out. I got to be on the play due to my day one record, and had a rematch against Zoe. We’ve played a lot in the last year and always have fun chatting about the games. I played a really tight game in game one against her, using a hardcast Fae of Wishes to cast and re-cast several ciphered copies of Hidden Strings. It all came down to a game 3, and unfortunately I took a mulligan to four. I had a functional draw, but it was one where I didn’t have enough time to set up a way to play around Karn into Damping Sphere. I played my Lotus Field, told her that I hoped she wouldn’t have it, and gave her the handshake after just a few more turns.
With my back against the wall, I played against Ivan again. He had more functional draws than he did during our match on day one, but Lotus still remains really strong against Angels. His only hate pieces were two Deafening Silences and one Redaine, God of the Worthy, both of which are easy to break up. His best plan involved putting a fast clock in play and hoping that I didn’t have a way to interact. Fortunately for me, Ivan’s deck has no answers to Ugin, the Spirit Dragon on turn 4 and I got to live another round.
The fact I made it to my seventh round of Pioneer before playing against Mono-White Aggro was honestly a miracle. Jesse and I have played in some of the highest-stakes matches of my life in the last six months: the finals of NRG St. Louis, and in a Top 8 win-and-in in Louisville, which clinched my Player of the Year title. I was excited to do it again, but I knew it would be an uphill battle this time.
I knew boarding out my Ultimatum package and relying on all my sweepers+Elder Gargaroth was the way to go, but even with a good plan that matchup is really hard. She had a fast start in game one, and I had an early pair of Hope Tenders but couldn’t win before she assembled lethal on turn 4. I did some math wrong and thought I would be able to survive, but after re-counting I realized I had left myself dead on board by not exerting Hope Tender. Even if I did do my combat math right, my only line to survive was using Mastermind’s Acquisition to search for a Hidden Strings to untap both of my Hope Tenders as chump blockers. I wasn’t able to copy my Field, so I don’t believe I had outs. She went on to win game three, advancing to the top 4 and knocking me out of the event. I was obviously disappointed to lose, but was happy to see a friend do well, and at peace with it being a bad matchup. I also had faith that my teammate Raja would avenge me in the finals, and he didn’t let me down!
This was one of the most fun tournaments I’ve ever played in. Playing against friends nearly every single round and knowing I needed to play my best game to beat them was a truly special experience. I want to give a big congratulations to Raja for his win! I’m going to work hard in 2023 and try to be back so that Team RIW can have back-to-back NRG Series Champions.