Q&A: CTQ Winner Justin Kessel

Casey Laughman   July 8, 2017   Comments Off on Q&A: CTQ Winner Justin Kessel

When CTQs were added to the Nerd Rage Gaming Championship Series, one of the goals was to give players another way to earn points and possibly qualify for the championship.

Justin Kessel is taking full advantage of that. Although he’s played in the CTs this year and top 8’d one of them, he currently sits in second place in the at-large points race because of his success in CTQs. Of his 25 points, 14 of them have come from CTQs, including the points he earned for winning a Modern CTQ in June.

His deck of choice for the event was Eldrazi Tron, a deck he enjoys playing and has had some success with. The deck’s ability to get out to explosive starts is almost unmatched in Modern, and a skilled pilot can play the long game with it, too.

Justin has proven he knows his way around the deck, and with a Modern CT approaching, you can expect him to be smashing some realities. But first, he took the time to do a Q&A about Modern, his background as a Magic player and his thoughts on the NRG Championship Series.

Casey Laughman (CL): How long have you been playing Magic? What got you into the game and what keeps you interested in it?

Justin Kessel (JK): I have been playing off and on since Ice Age with breaks around Onslaught block and again at original Zendikar. I keep coming back to it because no other game matches the depth, testing of skills, strategy, and overall feel of Magic. It also helps feed a competitive spirit in me and gives me something to set and achieve goals with.

CL: You’re doing this Q&A because you won a Modern CTQ. Where does the format rank for you and what do you like and dislike about it?

JK: This is going to be odd, but all those who know me already know this. Modern is my least liked format. Legacy is by far my favorite, and Standard will falter from time to time, dependent on what the current environment is. Right now, I would have to say I like Modern more than Standard, but I’m excited for the new Standard with Hour of Devastation. It’s also a little funny to note that most of my success has come in Modern.

The main thing I like about Modern is actually the deck I play. For a while I played Infect to great success, and I have found the same enjoyment in Bant Eldrazi and later in Eldrazi Tron. I never found myself saying “I want to play Modern!,” but rather “I want to play Eldrazi Tron!” It just so happens to be that the deck I want to play is in the Modern format.

The reasons I don’t like Modern would be the card availability, format staleness, and how weak control is. I know the card availability complaint doesn’t resonate well with my love of Legacy, but my case for that currently would be Mishra’s Bauble. Mishra’s Bauble spiked up in price when Jund Death’s Shadow started to put up more results. That’s a bit expensive for players, and I believe it’s one of the main reasons for Grixis Death’s Shadow growing in popularity. Grixis Shadow is cheaper to build, and thankfully, a better deck in my opinion. I wonder what innovations would or would not have happened if Mishra’s Bauble was inexpensive. It’s also nice that Wizards is reprinting some Modern staples, but the prices on the mythics haven’t seemed to really change much.

With the smaller card pool in Modern, we have fewer options than we would have in Legacy. There are many decks in Modern, but there are only so many viable decks out there. A ban will sometimes shake things up, but it feels to settle down rather quickly.

And control is just, well, probably never going to be good again. Or perhaps the Draw-Go control I grew up with and loved will never be good enough as the tools a deck like that would need will never be printed in future sets.

CL: What is it about Eldrazi Tron that makes it a good choice for you? How do you feel it ranks among the top-tier decks in Modern?

JK: Eldrazi Tron is a good deck choice for me mainly because I enjoy playing it. I love having threats that are a bit more difficult to deal with and that put your opponents against a wall. Something like Reality Smasher when they have no cards in hand is fantastic, as they can’t really deal with that for two turns (needing to draw the removal spell and then a card to discard to it). Or, if they can deal with it, they have to use up 2 cards. I like decks that give my opponent fewer “outs” and decks that punish them for slipping.

I feel that Eldrazi Tron is certainly one of the best decks in the current metagame. It can hit fast and be disruptive enough to secure a win before your opponent really gets moving. It also has the late game mana sinks that help tilt things back in your favor. Eldrazi Tron has weaknesses and if the metagame shifts enough I could see it becoming one of the worst decks. Chalice of the Void is great against Death’s Shadow, for example, but if other big mana decks or decks that don’t rely on 1 CMC cards come to the forefront, Eldrazi Tron would lose one of its main edges. Decks like Ad Nauseam or Titan Breach/Shift are difficult matchups for Eldrazi Tron, but those decks haven’t had as much representation lately. As long as Death’s Shadow and Dredge keep up their pillars and push other decks down, then Eldrazi Tron will continue to thrive at the top with them. But, Eldrazi Tron is becoming a known quantity now so I can see the format moving around a bit.

CL: Do you feel like Eldrazi Tron is pretty much set right now, or do you have changes in mind? If so, what are you looking at as far as possible updates?

JK: The typical Eldrazi Tron list seems rather set. There are some flex spots that I can see players playing around with to aim for specific metagames (like main decking Relic of Progenitus for Dredge and Death’s Shadow, or main decking Basilisk Collar for expected mirrors). The core lands and Eldrazi will most likely never change, though.

My only updates will pretty much be what I mentioned above. I played this CTQ with Emrakul, the Promised End, as she can swing games in your favor and she’s rather good against many matchups if the game goes long. But I’m not entirely sold on her yet. The core is amazing, though, and I wouldn’t advise changing it unless you have a very good and well tested reason.

CL: In a format such as Modern, is there a disadvantage to becoming known as “that Eldrazi Tron guy”? Or does familiarity with the deck overcome that?

JK: Well, for a while I was “the Infect guy” and then “the Bant Eldrazi” guy, so I could see this title coming along too. I never really saw an issue with that in Modern, as there are not many good and consistent decks to move around to. I could see some small disadvantage when opponents know what you’re playing and decide what hands to keep due to that, but in a small tournament your opponents may already know what you’re playing. So far, with the 100 person caps at CTs, the news of what you’re playing gets around. That’s also true for using the knowledge against your opponents. If you’re always known for playing a deck and then you switch it up for some tournament, people will know within a few rounds.

It’s very useful if there are 500+ people in the tournament, however, as fewer people can talk and spread information. The best example there is when the team of Justin Brickman, Justin Blackford, and myself played at SCG Louisville. We saw that we were playing against Emma Handy’s team and Justin Brickman and I immediately told Justin Blackford “She’s on U/R Delver!” I even signed off on Justin Blackford’s hand with an emphatic “That’s a great hand against U/R Delver!” Well, a Land Grant and a Goblin Charbelcher from Emma made us feel sheepish. The problem is that surprise “Gotcha!” only lasts for a few rounds. I think familiarity with matchups is far more valuable than surprising one or two opponents.

CL: You’re currently in a good position to qualify for this year’s championship as an at-large player. What’s your game plan for trying to qualify?

JK: I’m currently eying every single CTQ that comes up on the schedule. CTQs give a good amount of points right now and have helped a few of my friends get up on the leaderboard (take Brandon Lunt’s 4 CTQ top 8’s for example!) CTQ points might be a little too good right now, but that’s the current state of the series. CTQs are our “bread and butter” and the primary source for points so I’m going to try and attend every single one I can. I’m also going to play at every CT as well because winning one of those gives the obvious qualification. I stated at the beginning of the year that my goal is to qualify for the Championship and points matter!

CL: What is your perception of the CTQ system and the Championship series overall?

JK: I LOVE LOVE LOVE the Championship series. I used to grind on the Star City Games circuit with the main goal being to qualify for their Invitationals and not much more. There are a lot of phenomenal players in that circuit so it was a great place to hone one’s skills. But, as many know, SCG has scaled back their presence in the Midwest. I once had to juggle a large event every other week! Now, I’m waiting months for nearby events. I’m glad I discovered the NRG CT series on Facebook last year, as that has wonderfully filled the void SCG left. I can set goals, aim for them, and then consistently compete for them in this circuit. It has been successfully scratching my “competitive itch.” It’s also great that we, as players, can team up with NRG and invest our time and energy in building something up from scratch. It’s all exciting and fun, and quite possibly a different and unique experience than jumping on a well-established series. Not only do we get to play in this, we get to help create the initial history of the series. How great is that?

As for the CTQ system, I’m not entirely sure with it yet. There are a lot of points given out through them and the unexpected frequency of the CTQs has made a CTQ feel more valuable than a CT. I believe SCG had a similar points issue with their IQ tournaments. People who were already qualified for the Invitational would play in their local tournaments just to go after points to help their position on the leaderboard. That kept people who hadn’t yet qualified from qualifying, and created a lot of unhappiness.

The Championship Series doesn’t have the qualification prize for CTQs, but 5-6 points for first place is a lot. There are a lot of leaderboard shake-ups due to CTQs, which is nice from a viewer’s perspective, perhaps. People can stay more involved with more events instead of having to wait a month or two for the next “episode.” Maybe CTs should give out a ton of points to make them be the primary event and the CTQs can become filler to keep excitement going. I hope there’s a good balance out there as I do like having each tournament matter.

I hear that there are talks to handle some of this as the number of CTQs that were expected for the year was a vastly smaller number than what have already been booked. That’s great to know and I’m excited to hear where the Series will go. It’s a fantastic problem to have and I’m sure that Norm and company will communicate with players to find a proper solution for the 2018 season. That’s probably one of the best things with the Series right now. It’s small enough to allow the players to give feedback directly to the organizers and help influence the Series for the better. It’s almost like we players are the founding board members of the NRG Championship Series. What we help create here could last a long time and be enjoyed by many. I can’t wait!

Justin Kessel won a Modern CTQ in June and is in second place in the at-large points race as of this writing. Casey Laughman is editor of Nerd Rage Gaming. Email comments and questions to claughman@gmail.com. This transcript has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.