(Written before Grand Prix Atlanta)
Wow, a lot has happened since my last article. This first thing that happened was I saw this.
In this picture, my good friend Christopher Stefaniw (C0d3x) has been reduced to a groveling Shawn Bradley, nothing more than the background of an epic picture posted in some thirteen year-old’s bedroom. I write on Chris’s wall to give him a hard time, he immediately calls me, and we get to talking about Extended. I’m going nowhere still, but Chris thinks he’s on to something. Apparently the deck he is playing in the picture is a Grixis Pestermite combo deck. Since then he’s moved on to a RUW Pestermite deck that is having good results and says he’ll pass it to me in a couple days.
In the days in between I try it out for myself, mostly trying to make Fulminator Mage + Splinter Twin happen, to no success. By the time he sends me the list I’ve already moved on.
I never like C0d3x’s Constructed decks. I don’t know why. This is the guy that won a MTGO PTQ by cutting CHROME MOX for Duress in his Dark Depths deck. He went on to top 64 GP Houston with the defunct Swans combo deck that same season, with no byes. That Swans deck looked so clunky and slow, and every time I walked over to see how his match was going his opponent was getting inexplicably screwed, with no apparent explanation of how things had gotten there.
I guess I just don’t get his decks- he’s a Picasso of deckbuilding. I don’t like it, but Chris tells me another local player, Alex Ledbetter, thinks it’s insane and is working on it for the PTQ coming up. I keep that in the back of my mind and move on.
The next thing that happened is I saw this card in a daily list:
First, let me tell you about my deckbuilding process. Whenever I have an idea for a deck, I go through the gatherer, try to find the relevant cards, and throw whatever I come up with against the top couple of decks in the format. I only test game ones. If my deck can’t take a lot of game ones from the top decks, I scrap it and move on immediately. None of those thirty decks from my last article even made it through this process. Sometimes I find something awesome right away, sometimes it takes me forty attempts. At this point I still haven’t explored elf combo, so I give it a try.
I start off by adding 20 forests to my deck. I don’t know about you, but I like to cast my spells and I don’t like to mulligan, so playing Arbor Elf and Ranger of Eos in the same 19 land deck doesn’t make any sense. Next, I max out on this combo:
In the very first hour of playing game ones I steal my Jund opponent’s lands on the fourth turn and win after taking an Emrakul shot to the face. Do I feel powerful? Yes, yes I do. During my free time in the next week I spend time thinking about the deck and continue to test game ones in order to figure out what cards work in the deck and what cards don’t work. At some point I max out on Joraga Treespeakers because the extra acceleration is incredible. This gives me access to this combo:
I have a huge breakthrough with the deck when I realize I don’t want Nettle Sentinel. This deck wants cards that either produce mana or do something awesome when you have a lot of mana, and Nettle Sentinel does neither of these things. This deck is not a Glimpse of Nature deck, and Nettle Sentinel has no place here.
After about a week, and a week before my first PTQ, I turn to the sideboard. Sideboarding is absolutely the most important element of constructed tournament Magic. If you are prepared and your opponent isn’t, your deck will be better than your opponent’s and you will win. It’s almost as simple as that.
When I sideboard, I like to be proactive. What I mean is I want cards that not only answer the cards I’m worried about, but are also useful when they don’t draw them. I don’t want to have drawn a bunch of Mark of Asylums when my opponent never draws Volcanic Fallout (or even boards it in!). As a last resort, sure, but there are always greater resorts.
For Fallout I decide to answer with Leatherback Baloths, Vengevines, and Chameleon Colossuses (Colossi?). For Linvala I choose Beastmaster Ascension rather than Plummet, Brittle Effigy, or Lignify (which I actually missed).
While practicing, I make sure to make my results either realistic or worse than realistic. I let the opposing decks go first, let them mulligan up to seven, let them start with their best cards. I don’t want to bias myself, and this is the easiest way to do it.
One thing I’ve always had trouble dealing with is deckbuilder’s paranoia. I’m always worried that if I let anyone see my ideas it’s only a matter of time until the whole world knows. This is not reality. Even when the whole world knows my decks, few competitive players actually end up playing them (although this is beginning to change!). My brother, Elliott, asks if he can use my deck online to see if he wants to play it in the PTQ. At first I’m resistant, but I keep thinking about what my Introduction to Entrepreneurship teacher has been stressing- if you want your idea to reach its full potential you need to network and talk to as many people as you can about it. It’s true, so I decided to let Elliott play it online, which is a big step for me.
A couple days before the tournament, with my deck mostly fine tuned, I decide to play a few online matches myself, to get tournament practice and a feel for the actual metagame.
In my first online match I’m paired against C0d3x. I couldn’t believe the odds. How improbable. He is playing his Splinter Twin deck, and I am playing my elf deck in a rough rematch of the modophoto at the beginning of this article. I smash him (although not quite as bad) and he complains about his endless bad luck streak on Magic Online. I try to console him, but in the back of my mind I’m wondering if his Splintermite deck isn’t just terrible.
I continue playing matches, and the metagame experience I gain causes maindeck Colossi to jump from a 1, to a 2, to a 3, to a 4.
This deck is just awesome. Most of the decks in the format have a lot of comes into play tapped lands, but this deck has none, and can usually use the extra mana for acceleration immediately. I can’t really describe how fun this deck is, so I’ll let you figure out for yourself.
I don’t like to keep hands that don’t have Llanowar Elves, Arbor Elf, Devoted Druid, or Joraga Treespeaker. I’m okay with keeping hands without big-time mana sinks though, because once you are ahead on board you can draw one at any time and win. I’m okay with keeping a lot of one land hands, but I’m actually more inclined to keep them when I’m on the play because I have more time to develop with my mana elves before they can disrupt me.
When sideboarding with this deck you have to be aware of what your opponent is doing. You may have won the first game with an easy combo kill, so your opponent is going to sideboard accordingly. He is going to bring in whatever spot removal and sweepers he has. This means you are going to have more trouble assembling a combo kill and more trouble actually casting spells because even your accelerators are in danger. Usually the answer is to invalidate their sideboard plan by siding in some big, hard to kill threats. Because of this you are going to want to have a lot of lands in your opening hand in sideboarded games, which gives you a little more flexibility in keeping hands.
Keep in mind that a sideboard is situational. If there isn’t much Wargate around, you don’t need Deglamer. If there are a lot of Sower of Temptations in your area you might want Cloudthresher or Lys Alana Bowmaster. By the time you read this, the 75 I have is probably not perfect (like it ever was).
I’m not going to promise that this is the optimal way to sideboard. It’s really hard to cut cards with this deck because each card works in a system with each other card. There are no “bad cards” for each matchup. This is what I’ve been doing:
Primal Command is awesome in the first game when they struggle to disrupt your first mana guys, but in sideboarded games it’s important that all of your mana is spent impacting the board. Leatherback Baloth sits on the bench because it’s not a big enough upgrade over anything to risk losing it to Sower.
Hands with a quick Leatherback Baloth, Vengevine, or Colossus are what you’re looking for. They might try to sandbag their spot removal so that they can get value from their sweepers which will actually help you.
4 Primal Command
(With Arc Trail)
They usually can’t interact with you without Linvala, which means you can keep your original plan so long as you can answer Linvala. I’m starting to think Lignify might be a better answer even though it’s not very proactive, but I’m not ready to make the switch.
Against Omen decks
If you think they’re on Firespout instead of Day of Judgment, you probably want to fit in Leatherback Baloth, but I’m not sure what you want to cut, but it’s not Primal Command. Command can slow them down and shuffle away an Omen if you need it to.
This is a matchup where you’re especially looking for hands that have at least 2 lands, and preferably 3.
I realize there are a lot of other decks out there too, and for those you’re going to have to improvise. Sometimes you want to bring the sluggers off the bench, sometimes you don’t. You can usually tell, but it’s not always easy. Sometimes you want Beastmaster Ascension. That’s a card I like to bring in against control decks alongside Vengevine sometimes.
The night before the PTQ I got to First Pick Games, the store local to the University District. I finish my deck with cards from my friends Martin, Joey, and Paul (thanks guys!), and get my mind off things by playing some SSB64 (gogo Donkey Kong!).
Round 1: BRW Lark
G1: I hit him with turn 3 and 4 primal commands. On turn 5 Ezuri verifies his Buzz Lightyear status when he takes me to infinity and beyond. Thanks!
Round 2: Tom Huteson, PTQ champion with Faeries
Earlier in the week Tom was talking all kinds of smack about how we were going to get paired and he was going to knock me out of the tournament. Let’s goooo!
G1: I hit his Bitterblossom with consecutive Primal Commands to keep him off of Sprite mana so that I can stick Chameleon Colossus. He ends up drawing enough Sprites and Mutavaults as blockers to race me. EXCEPT on my last draw step Ezuri shows up to carry the team. I’ve never seen a guy put the team on his back like Ezuri since Greg Jennings (youtube keyword: Greg Jennings Broken Leg).
G2: By the time Tom makes his fourth land drop… no. Tom never makes his fourth land drop. He misses it once and he dies.
In between rounds Mark Jung asks me to play a game of mental Magic. I don’t really want to exert the mental energy, but I cave and figure I’ll combo off and kill him early. I go for a turn 3 kill with Pyromancer’s Swath into Grapeshot, but his last card is a Funeral Charm. I Guerilla Tactics his Dark Confidant and we are left with board parity, except Mark is drawing first and I have a Pyromancer’s Swath in play (=(). I would rather be resting up between rounds, but you should know better than expect me to ever quit.
I can’t come up with an easy way to get rid of the Swath, so rather than go deeper into the card disadvantage hole I decide to play proactively and focus on board development. On turn twenty-something my aggressive play has Mark down to 1 life, although I’m still handless due to Swath. Unfortunately the next round starts before we can finish.
Round 3: Wargate Omen
G1: I think I win this game off of Ezuri infinite.
G2: A turn 3 Oracle of Mul Daya lets him take over early with Prismatic Omen, but not before his Oracle reveals Day of Judgment and other goodies.
G3: He t3 Wraths my Vengevine but the plant comes back. On his last turn he goes for Omen + Scapeshift, but I have him with Deglamer.
Round 4: Reliquary Naya
G1: Frankly, none of my opponents can interact with me in the first game. Spoiler alert: I win my first EIGHT game ones.
G3: I empty my hand of guys on the 4th turn. On his fourth turn: “Oh crap, Linvala, one of the hardest hitting sideboard cards in the league!” I knock my deck and hit the Ascension. Beast mode! Ascension puts the team on his back like Marshawn Lynch. (youtube keyword: Marshawn Lynch True Meaning of Determination)
Round 5: Faeries
G1: I think this is the first g1 I win without Ezuri infinite. I stick an early [card chameleon colossus]Colossus[/card] who goes all the way.
G2: I get everything relevant [card]Disfigure[/card]d. I try to extend the game by bluffing a [card]Cloudthresher[/card] that wouldn’t even save me but it doesn’t work.
G3: I get my [card]Leatherback Baloth[/card] stolen by a Sower when I have stacks on stacks of [card]Vengevine[/card]s. I choose to be results-oriented after this and learn to sideboard differently.
So someone finally takes me down, but only because he steals my card and uses it against me.
While waiting Mark and I start another game of mental Magic. As soon as we start the next round is announced, but not before I’m able to [card]Divert[/card] his second turn [card]Stone Rain[/card].
Round 6: Jed Dolbeer with Faeries
G1: On the play I mulligan into:
I lead off with [card]Llanowar Elves[/card]. Jed [card inquisition of kozilek]Inquisitions[/card] me and first goes for Arhcdruid but changes his mind and goes for the Devoted Druid when he realizes he can’t counter a Primal Command. I topdeck a Forest to play the Archdruid and bury him in his own lands.
G2: Jed uses discard and a [card sower of temptation]Sower[/card] to take my early relevant plays. Fortunately, my last card is [card]Regal Force[/card] which Jed is unable to take with Inquisition (would have lost if it was [card]Thoughtseize[/card]). [card]Regal Force[/card] gives me enough guys to make Ezuri infinite the turn before he can kill me. I think if he had been able to Sower a Leatherback Baloth instead of [card]Elvish Archdruid[/card], I would have lost.
Round 7: James “Kneesy” Knesser with Mythic
G1: James has two [card]Lotus Cobra[/card]s but he bricks on a fourth land for his [card sovereigns of lost alara]Sovereigns[/card] which gives me a turn to [card]Overrun[/card] him with Ezuri.
G2: On the fourth turn James has no Linvala, *only* a Sovereigns. On my fourth turn I fully level Treespeaker and combo off.
The tournament is a little over 200 players, which is big for an 8 round tournament, meaning every x-1 has to play it out.
Round 8: Robin with Ram-Gang Jund
G1: A third turn Colossus gives me time to start some Primal Command action. Robin has no way to interact with me, and my development explodes. Eventually I pass up an on-board kill in order to steal all of Robin’s lands with [card]Gilt-Leaf Arhcdruid[/card] (sorry, Robin). Instead of conceding she hands me her lands, I add them to my own, and play continues.
G2: Robin keeps a hand without [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] or [card]Terminate[/card] and misses her third land drop. She soon gets buried under Primal Commands, which give me access to all 4 Colossi for this game.
While the most important part of Constructed Magic is sideboarding, the hardest part is mulliganing. You learn sideboarding through preparation, and you generally know not to deviate from your plan. Mulliganing, sure, is another thing that can be “learned” through preparation, but mulligan mistakes are the most human. You can know that this hand is bad, this hand is not keepable, but you might still end up keeping this. Why? A fear of mulliganing. If you don’t mulligan, you can’t double mulligan, you can’t triple mulligan.
The rest of the top 8 is 4cc, Mono-Red, GW Trap, Ram-Gang Naya, Mythic, 5c Blood, and Cod3x’s Splintermite deck (!).
I’m paired against mono-red and open this hand on the play:[draft]2 Forest
1 Llanowar Elves
2 Chameleon Colossus
1 Gilt-Leaf Archdruid
1 Primal Command[/draft]
I see lands, an accelerator, and gas, so I keep immediately. I am scared to mulligan. It is my biggest weakness, and keeping bad hands is a problem that come up for me continually in important matches. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is action in spite of fear. I chose not to act and kept a hand that was unlikely to give me a chance to win the game.
My opponent bolts my Elf, I miss my third land drop, and it’s over.
In the second game. I get a good opener and my opponent keeps a 1 land hand and misses his second land drop for a turn. This gives me time to stick a Colossus and a Primal Command.
While he’s shuffling, I see flash a [card]Quenchable Fire[/card], and after seeing [card]Stigma Lasher[/card] in the last game I begin to wonder if he has the full amount of [card]Volcanic Fallout[/card]s, or any at all. I sideboard out some Colossi for some Heritage Druids. This might have been savvy improvisation but in reality it might have been a fearful move. Maybe I’m scared of getting stranded with a bunch of Colossi in my hand.
In the last game I open with this hand:
2 Joraga Treespeaker
Ezuri, Renegade Leader[/draft]
On the play I might have kept this hand, but it seemed like a really dangerous keep. I think I made a good mulligan and open with this:[draft]2 Forest
Ezuri, Renegade Leader
Not a very good hand, but it had two forests and a Leatherback Baloth, which is okay. I’m not sure but I think I made a good keep here. He kept 5 lands + Figure of Destiny, so I think the first hand would have been a winner. I miss my third land drop and by the time I’m starting to get it going Figure of Destiny achieves his potential and eats my face.
Losing was really, really frustrating because it was my own fault (when is it not?). The dreams of countless hours of playtesting slipped through my hands like grains of sand. Top 8ing a PTQ is nothing. How does it get me closer to playing in another Pro Tour? How does it get me to Japan? I would take a random result over 8th place, expecting a place of around 100, just because of the tiny chance of getting first.
Japan is a place I really want to visit. I skipped Worlds last year because of price and poor timing WHILE qualified WHILE sitting on 16 Pro Points. I would love to get a second chance this year.
Oh, and for those wondering, Alex Ledbetter won with C0d3x’s Splintermite deck. Credit should be split between the two.
Scars of Mirrodin Sealed
My brother Elliott has not top 8ed a PTQ since 2005, but I think he’s played in about 5 since then. He doesn’t invest the time in Constructed and doesn’t want to invest the money in tournaments, but he plays off and on online which means he might play a bit more actual Magic than me. His raw potential is higher than mine in my opinion, so I always find it a little frustrating that qualifying for the Pro Tour isn’t really a priority for him (I realize there are other quantifiably more important things in life). When Elliott tells me he was playing in the online Sealed tournament the next day I get pretty excited. Such a rare occurrence must mean Elliott has a real chance of victory. I know that over the past couple months he has been absolutely dominating online. I still haven’t gotten a chance to see what he does, but he told me that he likes blue and green and drafts decks that are neither poison nor metalcraft. In these “goodstuff” decks he picks and plays [card]Cystbearer[/card]s highly, which isn’t something I’ve heard other people doing. Given a chance to draft, I think there is a good chance of Elliott qualifying.
Recovering from the day before, I sleep in really late, and by the time I talk to Elliott he is 3-0 with this
No big bombs, but forty cards that are very good at actually being a deck. “When I first looked at the pool I thought it was TERRRIBLE but it ended up being pretty consistent. I think every match I boarded out either the [card livewire lash]Lash[/card] or the [card sylvok lifestaff]Lifestaff[/card], most often for a [card]Trigon of Mending[/card].”
I didn’t have much to do so I figured I’d follow Elliott for a while. In the fourth round Elliott picked up his first lost, which is a dangerous time to pick it up. In watching his replays it looked like he was winning a lot of games through either higher value of his metalcrafted creatures and Heavy Arbalest. Eventually I leave for the library to do some reading before going to the gym. By the time I get to the gym Elliott texts me.
“6-1. I have good tiebreaks so I might be in with a win.”
After an hour and a few games of basketball I check my phone. Nothing. I text him.
“Lost a close one. I have the best breakers and it looks like two or three 7-2s make it so I’ve still got hope.”
I distract myself by practicing with my friend Bjorn, who is 6’6. In Magic you can borrow a playset of [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card]s, but in basketball you can’t borrow six inches for a tournament. With height comes a lot of things: weight, stride length, shot blocking, higher shot release, rebounding and so on, with the only real disadvantage being *slightly* higher dribbling with *slightly* higher chance of getting picked. Eventually you give up speed, but that doesn’t start to happen until you’re closing in on 7 feet. Yeah, this is a fair game.
“Got paired up and won. I still have the best breakers but only one 7-2 makes it so just gotta hope. My opponent chose not to go for the on board kill two turns in a row. I also got a crucial 3 damage in early with an absurd bluff attack. I think I am slightly favored to make it but the margin is sooooo small.”
Magic is many things. One of those things is a psychological battle won and lost by courage.
I love challenges, and practicing with someone six inches taller than me gives me experience that I couldn’t get any other way. Bjorn is a good shot blocker, which means I can’t even attempt a jump-shot unless I get him off his feet. My jumper is not falling, so I relentlessly drive on Bjorn, which is more effective than I expected, which builds my confidence. For a while I’m able to stop him defensively, but as he gets more comfortable posting a smaller guy he starts to score at will.
“Decent u/w evasion. I’m in the process of flooding out g1.”
“You’ll find a way to win.”
My jumper starts to fall, and my confidence is up. So is Bjorn’s. He bumps me off the dribble, drop step spins, and goes up for the dunk. This is surprising and awesome. We go back and forth.
Eventually the gym closes, I shower, and start the twenty-minute bike home. No text from Elliott. I fear the worst. He is a fast player and it has been forty minutes since his last text.
I log into Magic Online. Three matches completed, one match yellow. Time in the round dwindling, 3 winners wait for one straggling quarterfinals match:
Jaberwocki 1, Elliot 1
HE’S ALIVE! I look at the standings. In eighth place, Elliott is the only 7-2 in top 8. The only 7-2 out of TWENTY 7-2s. They say you need to play really well and get really lucky to win a PTQ, but this is a bit much. I kill time by looking at Elliott’s win-and-in replay. Elliott makes an early bluff attack, which his opponent is too afraid to call. Nearing the end his opponent has a [card]Golem Artisan[/card] and enough air damage to kill Elliott on board for two straight turns, but is afraid of Elliott’s last card. A card that he hasn’t seen. A card that he probably can’t even think of specifically. This gives Elliott enough time to draw out for victory.
I may have lost my PTQ, but I have a Pro Tour invite for this year. I want to save it for a United States Pro Tour, but if Elliott makes it through this draft, there is no way I’m not going to the Nagoya with him.
I go back to the current round. The match is finished. I watch the replays.
In the first game Elliott starts off with a combination of [card]Kemba’s Skyguard[/card]s and Strider Harness. For the first six or so turns of the game he is maximizing his mana by playing and attacking with flying creatures. Jaberwocki has u/b control cards, and he’s racing on the ground. Eventually Elliott starts missing plays and Jaberwocki advances his board. Stabilizing at 2 life and dead on the swingback, Jaberwocki takes the first game.
The second game Elliott starts off with [card]Neurok Invisimancer[/card]s and [card]Strider Harness[/card]. Jaberwocki has high card quality in Skinrender, [card]Trigon of Corruption[/card], and [card]Rusted Relic[/card], but it is a tight race. A combination of Strider Harness adding damage and [card]Trigon of Mending[/card] preventing it puts Elliott in a winnable position. Eventually, with an overwhelming ground force, Jaberwocki is on the ropes in the air. He has to Disperce a lethal Razor Hippogriff and Neurok Replica it a second time. After gaining perhaps twenty-something life off of Trigon of Mending, Razor Hippogriff, and Kemba’s Skyguards, Elliott puts Jaberwocki to exactly zero, while at 1 life.
Magic is a game of inches.
The third game Elliott starts off with a [card]Culling Dais[/card] and his signature Strider Harness. Jaberwocki has plenty of removal, and they trade back and forth until Jaberwocki misses a land drop. Elliott cashes in his Dais and hits Jaberwocki with a hasted [card]Indomitable Archangel[/card]. Elliott is ahead, and I start to hope. Out of nowhere, Jaberwocki wrenches control back with a [card]Volition Reins[/card] on Archangel. My stomach drops. Elliott answers back with a few more creatures, including a [card]Clone Shell[/card]. On the tenth turn of the game, I use the play by play to watch Jaberwocki agonize over blockers. His decisions could make or break the game. Jaberwocki tries a combination of blockers, before settling on a play that blocks Elliott’s 2/2 Clone Shell with a Myr, which will let Elliott free up the hidden creature by moving the [card]Strider Harness[/card]. At the last second, Jaberwocki changes his mind. Elliott’s aggressive attack reduces his opponent to four life. Elliott is dead on the swingback, but his play leaves back one blocker, two mana, and one card in hand. Elliott is indicating that his last card is [card]Disperse[/card]. This is the pivotal decision. Jaberwocki builds up the courage to go for it. He attacks, and the game is decided.
Jaberwocki 2, Elliot 1
“The games were all extremely close but I lost. I could have won the third but I think it was a matter of not playing perfectly rather than actually playing badly. He put a Myr on the clone shell which would’ve popped out a hippogriff to completely swing the game but changed his mind just in time. The really heartbreaking thing is I sided in the dais for a Disperse which obv would’ve owned the Reins.
I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better the past couple months. I have also gained a much better appreciation for how ridiculously difficult this game actually is.”
“Close but no Scalibrine.”
Bonus Macho Man Section
Affinity for Greens by Travis Woo
4 Mosswort Bridge
4 Arbor Elf
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Joraga Treespeaker
4 Devoted Druid
4 Elvish Archdruid
4 Oversoul of Dusk
4 Khalni Hydra
4 Summoning Trap[/deck]
Tentacle **pe by Travis Woo, Peter Beckfield, and Mike Thompson
4 Mosswort Bridge
1 Dread Statuary
3 Arbor Elf
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Joraga Treespeaker
4 Devoted druid
4 Elvish Archdruid
1 Coat of Arms
4 Oversoul of Dusk
4 Primeval Titan
4 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
4 Summoning Trap[/deck]
???? by YOU
Green Sun’s Zenith