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In Development – Gifts and Goals at GP: Oakland

 

Our focus on short-term goals often obliterates our understanding of what actually matters.

The day before Grand Prix: Oakland, I happened to be discussing the idea of “medicalization” with one of my friends. Medicalization is the practice of taking what used to be thought of as a mildly problematic or even normal state of being, telling people that it’s an illness, and then selling a medication that targets it in some way. One of the pitfalls of medicalization is that the treatments often fall short of taking care of the real problem.

Consider “Restless Leg Syndrome,” something you may have seen television ads about. The chief complaint in this syndrome is that the restless legs keep you awake, which naturally leaves you tired during the day. GlaxoSmithKline has made a hard push for their drug ropinirole as a “cure” for restless legs. Indeed, ropinirole does have a modest calming effect on restless legs. Unfortunately, one of the major side effects is fatigue.

The tactical win over the short-term target of “restless legs” completely misses the point, since the real problem was tired people.

More humorous – or perhaps more depressing – are erectile dysfunction drugs. You’ve definitely seen ads for those. Although Viagra manufacturer Pfizer likes to tout an 80% success rate in achieving erections, in clinical trials, only about half the users can actually keep it up through the end of sexual intercourse.

Do you suppose the 30% who don’t make it all the way took the drug with the goal of having an incomplete and assuredly embarrassing experience?

Probably not.

Keep this idea in mind, as I think that valuing short-term gains over long-term strategy is an area where we can all stand to improve – and I think I made one of these strategic errors in round four at Oakland.

But first, let’s check in on what I brought to game with.

You just like to Gifts for good cards

Jon Loucks and I were trading deck notes after round two, and that’s how he summarized the list I brought to the GP. I think it’s a fair summary.

Ghost Gifts

Dark Depths decks (here meaning the combined Dark Depths / Thopter Foundry build), which I expected would be abundant at the GP.

Following the first Extended PTQ of the season, I wanted to shift my Gifts build to be less cute and more effective against the field. I felt that my Gifts frame was utterly solid against Zoo, which I imagined would continue to be a major player, but that it needed improvement against [card]Dark Depths[/card] decks (here meaning the combined Dark Depths / [card]Thopter Foundry[/card] build), which I expected would be abundant at the GP.

I was also interested in the possibility of attacking my opponents via methods that were generally non-interactive. I explored many of those – such as channeling Arashi yet again, or using Split Second cards – and finally fell in love with the idea of Ghost Quartering people out of the game. A Ghost Quarter plan also had the secondary benefit of leaving me with built-in hate against Dark Depths itself, assuming I could run enough Quarters to simply draw them reliably across enough games to matter.

This all suggested that the one thing I could not do was run four colors. I spent a lot of time fiddling with UBG and WUG builds, but in the end, WUG won out on the basis of letting me have both Path to Exile and Bant Charm in the deck. The contrasting weight of UBG’s enhanced graveyard hate was not enough to sway me in that direction, so WUG it was.

Then I was horrendously sick for much of last week, and managed to not only not write my column, but also not to be able to coherently think about much of anything. I came back to myself about two days out from the GP and built the deck list above. I’ll cover the highlights here:

The anti-aggro shell

Ghost Gifts features my current default package of four Kitchen Finks, one Selkie, and one Loxodon Hierarch. This lets me immediately Gifts for a lifegain creature if I need to. In addition, I have seven targeted removal spells and four sweepers.

Go team Trinket

The Trinket Mages let me hate out my most powerful opposition while retaining flexibility across a number of matchups. Main deck Trinket Mage targets are Aether Spellbomb, Pithing Needle, Relic of Progentius, and Engineered Explosives. Spellbomb was excellent across the entire GP, letting me threaten to bounce a Marit Lage to stall a Dark Depths player, as well as bouncing a number of random attackers from Zoo decks. Pithing Needle was awesome, but I desperately wish I’d packed a second one in the sideboard, as I lost multiple different games to having my single Needle killed, and me with a Trinket Mage in hand to fetch up its nonexistent backup.

Over in the sideboard I have Chalice of the Void as a measure against Hypergenesis and Living End decks, and a Tormod’s Crypt so I can double up on my graveyard hate.

Yes, Tarmogoyf

Although I felt kind of dirty doing so, I finally decided that I had to run Tarmogoyf. I’m not a fan of the Goyf much of the time, as it’s just a big, dumb beater. That said, I wanted the deck to have a two drop that could be either a wall or a speedbump against aggro decks. Wall of Roots is an excellent combination of blocker and acceleration, but after a bit of quick testing, I realized that I just didn’t have enough ways to plain old kill my opponent if I had four walls in the deck.

For those of you despairing of getting your hands on this pricey Extended and Legacy staple, I’ll reiterate something I said when I urged you to play in a PTQ. Someone you know probably owns a playset of this card and isn’t using it in this tournament. I don’t own any Tarmogoyfs, and borrowed this set from my good friend Mike.

Considering the current popularity of Dark Depths in Extended, there’s a reasonable chance that one of your friends who’s on the Marit Lage plan has a playset of Goyfs just lying around, waiting to be borrowed. It never hurts to ask.

Killing Marit Lage

Ghost Gifts is well stocked with Marit Lage solutions. Note the four copies of Path, three copies of Bant Charm, single Aether Spellbomb, and, under certain circumstances, Selkie Hedge-Mage. In one of my test games, I managed to live for one turn against Dark Depths with an active Marit Lage by chump blocking with a Stirring Wildwood. I was then able to follow up with Selkie to bounce the token and continue on to win the game.

We hate lands

By limiting myself to three colors, I suddenly found myself able to run three copies of Ghost Quarter in the main deck. This makes it reasonably likely that I’ll simply draw a Ghost Quarter and can stall the Dark Depths half of the Depths / Foundry assault nearly indefinitely.

The really fun associated plan, however, is Crucible of Worlds. With Crucible and Ghost Quarter, you can grind away your opponent’s mana base while continuing on with the rest of your game plan.

But we also love lands

In the past, I might have run a single Treetop Village in this kind of deck. This time around, I was able to run two copies of Stirring Wildwood because it both fixes my mana and gives me additional attackers and blockers. Those two traits combined make it worth having two tap lands in the deck.

Also, remember that Crucible is effectively Emeria for Wildwoods.

The sideboard

The remaining parts of the sideboard were there to fine-tune some matchups and bolster others that I was a little paranoid about. I had four Kor Firewalkers as well as the Worship plus Wall of Denial plan out of my fear of hitting a succession of Burn decks in the early rounds. Otherwise, the additional Bant Charm was there for Dark Depths, the Negates largely for Scapeshift, and the Pridemage as a utility card for the occasional problem enchantment.

How I win the game

This is a pretty classic control deck. It doesn’t combo out to end the game. Instead, it takes control of the game and beats the opponent to death with some kind of creature. Note that it does offer a soft-lock scheme in the form of Crucible plus Ghost Quarter. Many decks in Extended run very, very few basic lands, meaning that after just a few Ghost Quarter activations you are irreparably crippling their mana base.

Eight rounds in Oakland

I went into the GP with no byes, as I don’t do much to protect my rating and made it to all of one GP Trial. That makes for a tough day one, but I was still looking forward to it.

Although I normally don’t include last names in tournament reports, I’m going to do so for this one since it’s so easy to just find them in the Wizards coverage anyway.

Round one versus Mike Hill playing B/G Bloodchief Pox

Mike is a nice guy from the Sacramento area, whom I know from some prior PTQs. When he opened with Verdant Catacombs into Swamp into Thoughtseize (taking a Trinket Mage), I put him on some variety of B/G Pox. He followed up with Dark Confidant, then Putrid Leech, then Jitte, while I had a Kitchen Finks to buy me some time. I traded a Ghost Quarter for his Mutavault, then pushed out a Gifts for Engineered Explosives, Wrath of God, Day of Judgment, and Academy Ruins. He binned the Ruins and Explosives, not knowing I had Crucible of Worlds in hand. I cast Pithing Needle naming Jitte to keep him away from a dramatic recovery, and then did a bit of a double take when he played Bloodchief Ascension, a card I wasn’t expecting to see.

With Crucible out, however, I was able to play Ruins out of the graveyard to recover the Explosives and clear the Ascension. I followed this up by stripping away his manabase with a recursive Ghost Quarter and then killing him with a Kitchen Finks.

Game two felt initially dicier as Mike used Chrome Mox to make an aggressive start with a first-turn Putrid Leech. Although I dealt with the Leech and subsequent Kitchen Finks, by the fourth turn I was down to a mere 6 life with an active Ascension on the field and the dim hope of living long enough to cast Trinket Mage, hunt up Explosives, clear the Ascension, and recover. Conveniently, I drew explosives instead, cleared the Ascension, played Loxodon Hierarch, and took control. This game went to time, giving me the match win.

Heavy discard combined with land destruction can be pretty bad for Ortho Gifts, but the combination of Trinket Mages and Gifts Ungiven gives you ample bounce-back capacity if you can make it into the midgame.

In this match, I think I would have conceded game one significantly earlier than Mike did, as he played until I had actually no-permanented him. With so much time burned on a lost first game, I only had to “not lose” game two to win the match.

A win is a nice way to start any major tournament. Only eight rounds to go, right?

Round two versus John Balla playing Zoo

When John mulliganed to six and then opened with Marsh Flats into Temple Garden into Steppe Lynx, I did a silent cheer. As is the way with Zoo, John took me down to 12 life before I did something about things by playing a Kitchen Finks. I followed that up with the Selkie, bouncing one of his creatures and gaining more life, and then another Kitchen Finks, followed by an Engineered Explosives to sweep away his wall of one drops. I followed that with a Primal Command to gain life and find an Eternal Witness to bring back Primal Command, and so forth. He eventually conceded when I started to beat down with a Loxodon Hierarch. I’d gained 27 life over the course of the game, which is a hard barrier for a stock Zoo deck to overcome.

John began his second game with an inauspicious mulligan to five followed by a Thoughtseize to clear Primal Command from my hand. I honestly think that was not the best choice, as I had several cheaper “business” cards in hand at the time. Having kept a five-card hand with very little action, John was never really in this game, and conceded soon after I presented him a Gifts package of Wall of Denial, Worship, Crucible of Worlds, and Academy Ruins.

Round three versus Winston Kwong playing Zoo

Winston followed John’s lead by mulliganing to six and leading with an undercosted beater, which I immediately removed. He didn’t have a quick follow up, which gave me time to land a Finks, chump block once, land another Finks, and then sweep his board with Wrath. I eventually killed him with a particularly aggressive Eternal Witness.

In game two, Winston also mirrored John’s play by mulliganing down to a shockingly poor three cards. I don’t know what his initial seven cards held, but Winston told me his six cards had one land, followed by zero lands in the five- and four-card hands. Regardless, this game had the kind of result you’d expect from that mismatch off opening hands, and I ended it on 30 life.

Winston was a great opponent, and that surely counts as a genuine bad beat.

Round four versus Robert Jurkovic playing Tricked-Out Faeries

This is one of the fun parts about attending a GP, or a PTQ held on day two of a Pro Tour – getting to play against someone whose name you recognize from PT or GP coverage.

Robert opened with a River of Tears into a Thoughtseize, so I immediately put him on Dark Depths and dropped Pithing Needle naming that deck’s namesake card on my first turn.

He wasn’t playing Dark Depths. Like Jon Loucks did last week, Robert decided to trick out a Standard Faeries build with the Thopter Foundry combo and Dark Confidant.

Game one looked potentially ugly until I played my maindeck Relic, which drew a raised eyebrow from Robert. He, however, had Dark Confidants and a Bitterblossom, so the board was mucked up in short order and I had to spend my time killing off the occasional Vendilion Clique to keep from dying. Eventually, I found myself stuck in the unwelcome position of just hoping Robert would die to his own Confidant triggers before a swarm of Faerie Rogues killed me. Unfortunately, he had a Repeal for one Confidant and a Smother for the others, and that was that.

The first game took a while, and I think retrospectively it might have been right to concede earlier.

In game two, I killed an early Vendilion Clique and then managed some Witness and Finks beats while I got the Crucible plus Quarter engine online and started churning through Robert’s lands. He played an admiral defensive action while stuck at a mere one life, but his options were disappearing quickly as I cleared away his lands. With a Needle keeping Thopter Foundry at bay, I eventually managed to run out enough attackers to sweep past his chump blocking Spellstutter Sprites and kill him in turn five of extra turns, for the match draw.

This is where I made my key strategic error of the day. What do you think it was? Decide, then keep that thought in mind as you read through the rest of the report. I’ll discuss it at the end.

Round five versus J.P. Holwell playing B/G Bloodghast Pox

J.P. and I were deckchecked, giving us about ten minutes to chill out, watch our adjacent matches, and talk about careers. J.P. is a teacher who recently moved to the Bay Area both for the better job market and better Magic play opportunities. Those both seem like fine reasons.

Given our presence in the draw bracket and his mana base, I initially imagined J.P. was playing Death Cloud. As the game wore on, however, I realized it was probably just because he’d been playing a little bit slowly. Midway through game one, I asked him to play a little faster, and he was quite good about doing so.

Game one was marked by a major misplay as I tried to play faster than I wanted to. As you may recall, this causes problems. In response to a Smallpox, I cleverly used my own Aether Spellbomb to bounce my Tarmogoyf out of harm’s way where it was subsequently discarded because it was the only card in my hand. Ugh, and all that. I made the crucial error here of increasing my speed of play when the correct choice – which I made afterward – was to ask my opponent to pick up his pace. J.P. went on to kill me with some endlessly recursive Bloodghasts.

I was rattled enough that I made a similarly poor observational error in game two, missing the chance to nab an otherwise recursive Oran-Rief-powered Kitchen Finks with my Crypt when it made a pass through his graveyard. I never got another chance, as he equipped it with a Jitte and went to town.

My first match loss of the day came on the back of my own hurried play, when I should have been pushing my opponent’s pace instead. I was disappointed, but figured that just meant it was time to calm down and play on.

Round six versus Franklin Dean, playing Thopter Foundry

Franklin opened with multiple Duresses, so I put him on Dark Depths. As I had a Ghost Quarter in play, I played Pithing Needle naming Thopter Foundry. This turned out to be an especially good choice given that Franklin was playing a straight Thopter Foundry deck, splashing black for disruption and removal. Things went well in this game until Franklin cleared my Pithing Needle with an Engineered Explosives. I stared at the Trinket Mage I had in my hand, who sadly informed me that no backup Pithing Needle appeared on his inventory manifest. I wasn’t able to set up Pithing Needle or Engineered Explosives recursion before I was overwhelmed by a wave of Thopters.

As an aside, there’s been some discussion recently on the relative power of the Thopter Foundry combo in straight Thopter Foundry versus Dark Depths. The key differences I’ve heard cited are the mana, but another important differentiator is the increased number of random artifacts in pure Foundry builds. By simply having a random excess artifact on the battlefield – such as an artifact land – you can protect your Sword from Crypt- and Relic-based graveyard attacks.

Game two went almost exactly the same way, and I again lamented my lack of a backup Needle. In both games, it would have given me the win.

With two losses I was now strictly out of the running for day two, barring a major roof collapse to clear out the top tables. I decided to stay in if I could keep winning, however, as I really did enjoy my deck and I wanted to see just how well I could do.

Round seven versus Brian Zunter playing Dark Depths

Ah, normal Dark Depths. I held off our big friend Marit Lage with Ghost Quarter, and managed to defend against Thopter Foundry for a while with Pithing Needle. Unfortunately, Engineered Explosives and that whole “no backup needle” problem struck yet again. After a long game one, I eventually lost to Marit Lage after taking a calculated risk by using Ghost Quarter to kill his Academy Ruins to turn off Foundry recursion. He had Muddle for my Path, and that was that.

Brian’s pace of play was pretty slow in game one, and I’d already had to ask him to play a little faster.

Going into game two, I counted out Brian’s deck as part of my standard operating procedure. I noticed one particularly janky sleeve and pushed the card back to Brian, asking him to re-sleeve it. He picked it up and then did a double take – it was his Marit Lage token.

“Judge!”

The judge came over, listened to the situation, and then counted out the rest of the deck, which came to the correct sixty. Since Marit Lage is not, technically, a “card,” the ruling was that Brian had not presented an illegal deck. He was told to de-sleeve the card “immediately,” and then we continued on to game two.

Game two was a pretty clean win for me, as I had an early Pithing Needle out as well as a Ghost Quarter and a Relic of Progenitus, with [card]Negate[/card] to protect the Needle. I killed him with a Stirring Wildwood.

Going into game three, I once again began piling out Brian’s deck to count it. I was surprised when he said, “Really? You’re doing that now with so little time left?” Given that he’d already played slowly and presented me with a sixty-one card deck, I thought neither our time concerns nor the need to count things out were my fault. I simply said, “It’s my policy. Every time after deck presentation” and continued the count. He said it was “rude” and I left it at that.

As I told my friend Mike, his Tarmogoyfs did right by me in this game. My opening seven held three lands, a Bant Charm, and three Goyfs. Brian opened with a Thoughtseize for Bant Charm, and I topdecked another Bant Charm and beat him to death with Goyfs in short order.

This was the only round I left without saying some variation of “Good luck in all your other rounds” to my opponent, as he spent the bulk of game three bad mouthing me.

Round eight versus Ricky Tipps playing Martyr

I knew Ricky was on Martyr the moment he Castigated me. Ricky asked if I’d tested the Martyr matchup and I just laughed. He agreed – apparently a friend of his wanted to test the matchup and Ricky told him not to bother, because no one else would be playing it. I figured my game plan would necessarily involved preventing recursion and then trying to knock off any attackers Ricky might have. Unfortunately, after a long game one an unanswered Baneslayer killed me.

Game two was looking good for me when I stuck the Crucible plus Ghost Quarter package, but that’s a slow win against a deck with so many basic lands. Our second game went to time before I could kill Ricky, and he won the match in one game, as Martyr tends to do.

At this point I dropped from the tournament, having hit my third loss.

My strategic error

So what do you suppose my strategic error was in round four? Here’s what I think I did wrong.

I didn’t concede.

More accurately, I didn’t initiate a conversation about concession.

At a GP, a draw is basically the same as a loss on day one. You need 21 points to make day two, which means seven wins, or the highly unlikely six wins and three draws. While a draw is technically better for your overall record if you make it to day two, you need to think seriously about what it means for you on day one.

This may seem like an academic discussion in my case, since I took two additional losses in the remainder of the tournament. It’s easy to say, “Hey, Alex, you would have been X-3 and out anyway.”

However, consider the flow of my tournament.

Round One – B/G Pox
Round Two – Zoo
Round Three – Zoo
Round Four – Faeries
Round Five – A slow player running B/G Pox
Round Six – Thopter Foundry
Round Seven – A slow player running Dark Depths
Round Eight – Martyr

By putting myself into the “draw” bracket, I gave myself a series of matchups that necessarily included either slow players or slow decks. This led directly to one of my losses when I rushed myself too much, and also effectively shunted me away from my best matchup. After all, how many Zoo decks are in the draw bracket?

Instead, I should have paused in turn five of extra turns, just before killing Robert, and asked him to concede to me. If he didn’t go for it – and traveling from Slovakia, I could see why he might not – I should have conceded. Sure, it would have been a loss, but it would have dramatically increased my likelihood of receiving good matchups featuring fast aggro decks. I could have crushed those all day long.

I admit I’m a little surprised, in retrospect, that Robert didn’t ask me to concede, either. It was an intense match, so perhaps we both got so focused on the near-term result of winning the match that we lost track of the fundamental goal of winning the tournament.

Overall, I was about 90% happy with how I played in this tournament. The deck worked well. I made a lot of good, on-the-ball plays. I was not shy about getting my slower opponents to speed up, and I didn’t deviate from my standard operating procedure even when my opponent made a fuss. My goal going forward is to remember to keep my eye on the true target – winning the tournament.

I hope to see you all at San Diego. I’ll be there, busting out Gifts yet again in the PTQs.

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