How to Win a Mythic Invitational Qualifier and Improve as a Player

Hello again!

This time I will write about a concept I never have before: Gameplay Theory!

I was lucky enough to qualify for the Zendikar Rising Championship via the Zendikar Rising Qualifier Weekend. My plan is to explain to you guys how to deal with losing streaks and still keep a winner’s mentality, how I prepared for the Zendikar Rising Qualifier Weekend and what you can do to find success as well. I will also give you some insights about my first experience at a high level tournament.

How to deal with losing streaks and getting into the right mindset

To give you a bit of background about me: my name is Alexander Steyer and I started playing Magic competitively when Amonkhet was released in paper.

This isn’t the first time I have qualified myself for something big – I was able to win a similar qualifier last year and got to participate at the Mythic Championship VII in Long Beach, where Piotr “Kanister” Glogowski was able to bring it all home with Jund Sacrifice. You’re thinking: wait, why don’t I know you then? Is this guy even telling the truth?

Well, here is the reason:

Further proof:

Photograph by Drew DeGennaro for Wizards of the Coast

The truth is, I got absolutely blasted at that event. I wasn’t able to make it to Day 2 and didn’t get any screen time because of that.

I wasn’t able to get a single win – and there was no end to me losing, too. Wizards of the Coasts later announced Mythic Point Challenges: additional Arena-only tournaments paired with the usual Mythic Invitational Qualifiers. ChannelFireball also announced that there will be a new tournament series called MagicFest Online to compensate for the cancellation of Grand Prix events on paper. I played a lot of tournaments / qualifiers after I scrubbed out 0-4 at the Mythic Championship VII, and I was barely able to even get a positive win% in any of them, not to mention making Day 2 or Top 8 – in over 50 different tournament settings.

Why am I telling you this?

I want you to realize that losing – and even losing a lot – is part of Magic and is nothing to be ashamed of. I also want to break the belief that you need 10+ years of experience to become good at magic. The one thing you have to always keep in mind though, is to always realize what you have done wrong and to improve.

Magic is not about winning…

… It’s about giving you the best odds at winning. You want to give yourself the highest win-% and everything else is luck. All these lost qualifiers and tournaments were important for me in order to grow and become better. I’ve watched a lot of my own recorded games and was able to pinpoint a lot of mistakes I had made – mistakes I wasn’t aware of while playing. Being critical and being even a bit harsh sometimes towards myself made me improve a lot. It also made me realize that I wasn’t ready at all for a huge tournament like the Mythic Championship VII. It was still one of the best experiences in my life, but frankly my skill wasn’t there – yet. My goal is to become one of the best players one day and for that reason I will accept all the losses on the way.

This always sounds easy, but I can tell you that these huge losing streaks certainly affected me mentally. At some point I started telling myself: “What if I am not good enough to compete at such a high level? I can’t even win in lower stakes tournaments.” This all stopped when I realized that I made a lot of mistakes – and until I wasn’t fixing them, I wasn’t allowed to complain. Even when those mistakes don’t matter because you would’ve lost the game either way because your opponent just steamrolled you with their perfect hand – never be satisfied with your performance when you are misplaying.

Magic is not a physical sport, but all competitive sports share this one thing: your mental game needs to get to a high level.
I remember that I watched a lot of gameplay by professional players like Seth Manfield, Reid Duke and Luis Scott-Vargas and I thought: “Wow, these guys have wills made of steel! They never get upset or tilted even after losing or getting super unlucky.”

And this, my friends, is not true.

When I arrived at the Mythic Championship, I was completely overwhelmed. All these professional players that I respected and that I had only seen inside of my monitor were there, right in front of me. 

The first thing I did was run to all of them, including Reid Duke and Seth Manfield, introduce myself and show my excitement. I was extremely nervous overall as well, so I told them the following: “Hey, any advice on how to fix the nervousness? You guys seem to have nerves of steel and you’re never upset”.

Their reaction was unexpected: Seth Manfield raised his eyebrows and had a bashful little smile; he clearly didn’t think of himself as being that image of mental fortress that I had of him in my mind. Reid Duke told me: “Eh, I don’t know. I do get upset, too”

And that’s when I realized: professional players do get nervous and distressed. They are just able to handle that and not let that influence their gameplay. In that moment I knew: mental fortitude does not mean getting rid of your nervousness – it’s the ability to deal with it. And I was going to try my best and adapt my own mental fortitude going forward.

Much like becoming better at the game and not making as many mistakes, adapting a professional mindset is something that will take time. Always remember this, especially when losing: if you always play well at tournaments, you will win sooner or later. It will happen eventually. Until then, keep improving!

Preparing for the Zendikar Rising Qualifier Weekend

I usually prepare for tournaments like this:

  1. Play the “best” couple of decks
  2. Try to find or build decks that beat these “best” decks
  3. Conclusion: Does your build beat the best decks, or can you find the best build of the “best deck”?

For me, in this specific scenario, this meant:

  1. Play Mono-Red / Rakdos Goblins, Sultai / Bant Uro, and Jund Citadel / Collected Company
  2. Ideally, find a Deck that has either a good or even matchup against the decks I just mentioned. This was not an easy task, as all of these strategies were quite different. They did have one thing in common: Grafdigger’s Cage was either good or okay against them. More on that later.
  3. Conclusion: since it’s tough to find a Deck that has a good matchup against all 3 of these decks, can you find a deck that’s good against 2 of them? Is it possible to “fix” the third matchup and make it at least even or close to even?

A few days before the qualifier took place, the Mythic Invitational started. These are the win rates from that event:

At that time, the top 8 was already locked, too:


In the era of online Magic, analyzing these kinds of tournaments is exceptionally important. People adapt way quicker and will let this data influence their deck choices. And it should! I am not saying that professional players and their deck choices are always right, but there is a reason why this is their profession. These guys know what they are doing, and it’s always a good thing to take a look at their decks and see how they approached the metagame. As you can see, Goblins did not have a good run. Mono-Red Goblins was barely able to get over the 50% mark, and Rakdos Goblins was at an embarrassing 38%. People complained a lot about Goblins and in particular, Muxus, Goblin Grandee before, but I think it’s fair to say that Goblins had a poor performance overall, considering it was the most played archetype by far. That was due to the fact that everyone knew that it was going to be a popular Deck – Mayhem Devil is excellent against Goblins, and the Sultai players had managed to find a version that could beat it.

I am not going to analyze the metagame too much here, but I will say this: it was pretty obvious that people would want to play Jund Sacrifice or Sultai going forward. The participants were able to find versions of their decks that could beat Goblins, the most popular deck and these decks were already strong on their own. Rakdos Arcanist was also an exceptional outlier here with almost 60% win rate, and that deck was quite popular based on my ladder experience. I did not care about the other decks that were shown in that archetype summary, because I figured that people only wanted to play the best performing decks that they already had experience with, as they wouldn’t have much time to prepare if they chose a deck from this statistic. I was also pretty sure that decks that had a below 50% win rate would not be popular at all.

All of these points influenced my deck choice and I was confident that I was ahead of everyone else, even though my deck had the worst win-% at the Invitational. That’s right, my deck choice was Azorius Control: find my definitive guide to the deck here!

My Deck Choice

Grafdigger's Cage Art by Daniel Ljunggren
Grafdigger’s Cage Art by Daniel Ljunggren

Historic Azorius Control by Sorquixe – Zendikar Rising Mythic Qualifier Weekend – Day 2 – 7-1 Record

Let me tell you some facts about U/W Control first, which will answer some of the questions you might have already:

  1. As already stated in my guide, I believe that Bant or Sultai are not better just because they have Uro. Uro is of course completely busted, but that does not mean that he’s a perfect fit for this shell. I preferred having a clean mana base and having no downside when playing either Grafdigger’s Cage or Rest in Peace (Uro is essential for Sultai and Bant, and losing the ability of escaping it is rough). Having only 2 colors also meant that you could narrow down your card choices and had more room to play more copies of counterspells, Shark Typhoons, and Castle Ardenvale. But more importantly, Sultai or Bant Uro just didn’t click with me. It’s important to not just play the “best deck”, but the one you can pilot and understand well. With Bant and Sultai, I honestly wasn’t able to find a version that suited my playstyle, so I gave up on them. Playing the deck that works the best for you is always going to be the right thing to do in my opinion.
  2. I cut Kaheera, the Orphanguard because it gave away too much information for my opponent in game 1. Jund plays Claim the Firstborn, Rakdos Arcanist plays those too + Shocks, and the Uro Decks usually play a large variety of removal. In Azorius Control, you don’t have any creatures – do you really want your opponent to know that they can mulligan away their hand full of removal? People also say that having a companion makes you have a 8th card in hand, but that doesn’t change the fact that Kaheera is incredibly expensive for only having vanilla stats. I just mentioned that your opponent has a lot of removal game 1, so Kaheera would usually just give your opponent value because they now have a target. Last but not least, even when you have a lot of mana in the late game, it’s usually just better to keep a lot of mana open and use your Search for Azcanta or Castle Ardenvale.
  3. The worst matchups for this Deck are Azorius Auras and Goblins. I figured that both would not be very popular, as they didn’t have impressive showings at the Invitational. The matchup against Jund and Sultai on the other hand was pretty good! Which means that I successfully found a Deck that was good against the “best” Decks in the format – as Goblins was not going to be a huge factor anymore. And indeed, I only faced 1 Goblins player in the whole event.
  4. 2 Grafdigger’s Cage main deck won me over half of my games. I figured that people would just copy paste lists, and the deck that I faced the most by far was Jund – and these lists don’t have an answer to it in game 1 and it’s just so back-breaking against them. Grafdigger’s Cage also made it possible to have a chance against Goblins in game 1, even though that matchup was never going to be too great. You might say that it’s not great against Sultai, but shutting down your opponent’s ability of recasting Uro over and over was actually quite relevant, as their whole “grind out your opponent until they pass out” plan was quite dependent on the Simic titan. The whole rest of the deck is quite easy to beat, as Control decks excel when they play against expensive threats. This made the deck choice even better – not many Decks have the ability to play Grafdigger’s Cage main without hurting their own strategy.

I really want to clarify the point that you should always play the deck that works the best for you. If you had the highest win rate with Goblins, Sultai or Jund Sacrifice, then it would have always been a solid choice to play these decks. For me, I wasn’t able to find versions of them that fit me, and Azorius Control just always seemed to do very well for me. A suboptimal Deck can be the optimal choice for you, if you prepare well enough and if your reasoning is sound.

My specific list of Control is different from the other few Azorius Control players at the Invitational, but I felt like these few differences actually changed a lot. I didn’t play too many Narsets, because they would die to Sultai’s Eliminates a lot, and that would be the best matchup for Narset. I didn’t play Mind Stone and Sphinx’s Revelation because those cards are unnecessary and take up valuable slots in your Deck. I didn’t play colorless lands, because they were not effective enough in that metagame and I’d rather have less colored mana problems.

I talked to my friends and told them this: I never had this unique feeling of playing a suboptimal archetype while being so far ahead of the whole format. I decided to trust my gut – and locked in Azorius Control.

If you think that you found a list of a deck that isn’t Tier 1, but still well positioned, go for it! There is absolutely no guarantee that you will do well with any Deck that you submit, even if it is going to be the “best” choice. That’s just the nature of such a luck dependent game like Magic. The most important thing is that you are happy with your deck choice, regardless of the outcome. (This is something DoggertQBones, my testing partner and friend, taught me. Thank you, Bob). There is a world where 90% of all participants of a tournament play your best matchup and 10% play your worst and you only get paired against those 10%. Does that mean that your deck choice was wrong? Try not to be result oriented too much. It’s the same with keeping risky hands where you decide that it’s a hand worth risking the game for. In that scenario, it doesn’t matter if the hand worked out or not – it’s the logic that matters in the long run (thank you for that lesson, Martin Juza). I knew that I would be happy with my deck choice of Azorius Control if I went 0-3 or 15-0. And that is all that mattered to me, and that is all that should matter to you, whatever deck you’re choosing.

End Step

I am still learning and growing as a Magic player, but I am confident that my advice works – after all, these worked from me and I got them from the most renowned Magic players in the world. Here is a very short summary:

  1. Just because your deck isn’t Tier 1 it doesn’t mean that you can’t win events with them – but your reasoning has to be good.
  2. Especially now, always look at the most recent results of online tournaments – your rivals are doing the same.
  3. Every deck choice has a risk, because you never know what you’re going to face. Be confident and don’t be result oriented.

If you’re wondering what my newest U/W list would look like, it’s not much different:

Historic Azorius Control by Sorquixe – October 2020 Season

Historic hasn’t changed too much and you already have a lot of good cards against the rising Omnath decks. I swapped 1 Island and 1 Castle Vantress for 2 Crawling Barrens, because they have been quite effective. I didn’t like the modal lands too much, because you basically never flood with this deck and they have the downside of not having a basic land type, making your Castles and Glacial Fortresses worse. Also, Castle Ardenvale is still the best land in this deck. I changed one Seal Away for Narset’s Reversal, because the Sultai players have become aware of the great Sorquixe and his U/W Control and started playing Thought Distortion, and it’s such a blowout when you cast Reversal to throw it back at them; you can also sometimes copy Growth Spiral, which is nice.

Thank you so much for reading! I haven’t done an article like this before, so let me know what you liked and didn’t like. Next week, I’ll be looking to make the Standard ladder unsafe, so keep an eye out for some guides!

See ya!

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Robert Lee
14 days ago

Extremely well written and insightful. Nice job!

Raducu Ionut
Raducu Ionut
14 days ago

I was really looking around for an updated UW list and this looks promising. Any chance we can see a SB guide or something similar in the future ?

EdFrank
EdFrank
14 days ago

This is an excellently written article: accessible to many, insightful without being dense, and for me completely relatable and true.

I’ve only mostly played two archetypes competitively in the past year: Mono Red and Rakdos Knights and or Aggro. I’ve lost so many times during the Channel Fireball MagicFest Qualifiers, SCG qualifiers etc. and probably could have played better decks in so many situations but I’ve never regretted my choices because I truly love aggro and always have fun when I play aggro over lengthy tournaments. However you’re correct: you have to build and test understanding exactly why you’re making the choices that you are making in lieu of the best deck and not have unreasonable expectations. I think everyone can learn something from your article at all stages of competitive development: great stuff!

Last edited 14 days ago by EdFrank
gavinfitz81
gavinfitz81
13 days ago

Great article