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Careful Consideration – The Opponents Continue to Burn: a PTQ Winner’s Report

 

To say that I’ve been frustrated with Standard recently would be a huge understatement.

Since Extended season ended the weekend after Grand Prix Houston, I’ve been durdling and burdling with various Standard decks, and just haven’t been able to get a good hold of the format. I did discover that I loathe playing Jund mirrors, and I also discovered that when I don’t play Jund, I tend to play decks that get real bad if the other guy ever casts Blightning. Jund is powerful, but Jund mirrors also often came down to who cascaded better, and how many cascade spells they drew.

Jund is obviously a tier one deck, and play what you know, right? It seems like every tournament I would play around with different ideas on Magic Online all week, but ultimately when it was tournament time, every deck registration sheet started the same:

 

Well, this weekend I was going to shake it up. I was working a little bit with Conley Woods on the Esper deck that he played this weekend at the SCG Open in St. Louis, and it was… a deck. It did decky things, and I was sort of winning with it, but it had its bad matchups, namely Turboland. Jund wasn’t great, but not bad. Mythic was reasonably solid, but not unloseable by any means. So this weekend when we had a 2.5k Saturday in Seattle followed by a PTQ on Sunday, my plan was to Esper it up on Saturday for testing, then play what I thought gave me the best chance to win on Sunday.

When I got to the venue Saturday, many people were asking to borrow Time Warp, Avenger of Zendikar, Khalni Garden, and [card]Explore[/card], and I was looking at my deck registration sheet with all those Esper Charms and thought it was going to be a long day. So I crumpled it up, grabbed a new deck registration sheet, and wrote:

 

Oh, Jund. I just can’t quit you.

Things didn’t pan out at the 2.5k, and I wanted to set myself on fire.

Then I had a moment of inspiration. What if I just set other people on fire?

Watching the World Burn

I noticed that two people made Top 8 at the Channelfireball Spring Series 5k with red decks, including Jeff Huang. Jeff’s a pretty smart guy and it’s obvious he knows what he’s doing (he and LSV stayed with me a couple of weekends ago during the Seattle SCG Open and it was clear to me he’s a sharp guy), and if he felt like it was a good choice for this environment, he probably did so for some valid reasons – plus I know that if it was bad for whatever reason, Luis would have talked Jeff out of it.

My friend Dwayne St. Arnauld also has been playing a lot of Mountains on Magic Online, and he told me that the black splash was unnecessary. He was the final piece of the puzzle to convince me to play Mountains, so very late that night after dinner (the service was abysmally slow) I pulled the winning list from the St. Louis SCG Open as a starting point, really liked the redundancy of the maindeck, and I wasn’t a big fan of the sideboard and promptly made it worse.

I didn’t get to sleep until very late, got less than six hours of sleep, and when my alarm went off, I strongly considered sleeping in and showing up for the Legacy side event instead. Against my better judgment (I really don’t enjoy Standard), I showered, threw on my favorite Channelfireball.com t-shirt, and registered my deck:

I expected a fair bit of the mirror, hence the Dragon’s Claws. I thought one Banefire would be good as a late game against Path to Exile-based control decks. Quenchable Fire was there for Naya, Jund, decks that didn’t play blue. Obsidian Fireheart was for Jund, control decks, and the mirror (as I was told the mirror was a really big attrition war), Forked Bolt was for decks with Lotus Cobra, Birds of Paradise, and other mana dorks, and Punishing Fire was in theory for Vampires, opposing Dragon’s Claws, and Kor Firewalker.

This sideboard was also terrible; it was one of the worst sideboards in any deck I’ve ever played.

So let’s recap:

– I audibled to a different deck the morning of a tournament, something that I am very well aware gives up a huge edge and vowed never to do,
– I got very little sleep,
– I had a pretty random, and generally awful sideboard… and I was trying to win a PTQ.

What could possibly go wrong?

Enter Jared Porter, my good friend and eternal optimist. He told me that he had a dream that he was going to meet me in the finals of a Standard PTQ this year, and that he was going to concede to me and send me on my way to Amsterdam. Sure, Jared.

And off we went.

I’m not going to go into the details of every match for two reasons:

1 – I didn’t take great notes. I had no plans to write a tournament report.
2 – This deck isn’t really all that interactive. That’s not to say it’s not skill-intensive; I had way more decisions to make with this deck than I did with Jund for the most part, but most of the decisions were me figuring out what my opponent could have, play around it, and maximize my damage while making the most efficient use of my mana.

Round 1, Erik, Jund
I played against Erik round one on Saturday, too. Both tournaments were eight rounds, so those are some pretty slim odds. He’s a quality player (and a pretty quality person based on the relatively little interaction I’ve had with him). The day before he beat me round one with Mythic when I played Jund. We both wondered out loud if the other person was on the same deck as the day before.

When I won the die roll and played Mountain, Goblin Guide, and he revealed a Swamp, both of us knew that things got changed up, and we had a little laugh about it.

Then I set him on fire (with spells, not matches and kerosene; I’m pretty sure the latter falls under some sort of unsportsmanlike conduct).

1-0

Round 2, Mark, Mono-Red
I stalled on two lands and Mark burned me a lot while I was on casting just one spell per turn. Game two, I drew and played a Dragon’s Claw on turn two, and we played a long attrition battle, but with me gaining a total of 17 life over the course of the game. I always call out each life total change to avoid any confusion, and a walking passer-by knew all he needed to know about how the game was going when I said, “Rebound Staggershock, I’m at 27 and you’re at 6″

Mark didn’t have Dragon’s Claw in his board, as he wasn’t anticipating the mirror. We played the attrition game in game three as well, Obsidian Fireheart ate two Lightning Bolts (card advantage for me!) and Dragon’s Claw didn’t trigger much because Mark didn’t draw many spells.

2-0

After the match, I sat down with Jed Dolbeer and Dan Hanson, both Seattle-area ringers, and we talked about the mirror and we all agreed that it’s correct to draw in the mirror, and that my decision to play against Mark was probably incorrect.

Round 3, Ben, Next Level Bant
Ben was the first opponent on the day I didn’t know, but I did have the benefit of running the big scouts, as I happened to be sitting behind him as he was defeating Gavin Verhey. He seemed like a pretty pleasant person, though.

I burnt him a lot game one.

Game two things got awkward for me when he untapped with Baneslayer Angel. Elspeth and an enormous Scute Mob didn’t help, either.

Game three I got to be on the play, and though he made a valiant effort to race with Vengevine, more burning happened.

3-0

Round 4, Brent, Naya?
I honestly don’t remember much about this match, except my notation on my scorepad tells me he won on a mulligan to five on the play, and I won the next two, presumably by burning him with dudes, spells. I think he was playing Boss Naya, but the memory is fuzzy.

4-0

Round 5, Michael, Jund
Michael had come up to me and had (re-)introduced himself the previous round. We played at a GPT a year or so back, and we talked a bit about that tournament and what he played, and how he won the GPT with a pretty sweet aggro Grixis deck. And he beat me in that GPT.

Revenge, sir. Revenge.

Game one much burning happened, but he was expecting the mono-red deck and had [card dragons claw]Dragon’s Claw[/card] in his board. So in game two when he played not one, but two early Dragon’s Claws, I fought and fought to try to kill him, but he ended the game at 22. We’re heading in the opposite direction on life totals, boys.

My brilliant counter strategy to his Dragon’s Claw plan was to hope he didn’t draw it. Tech!

In game three, he kept a six card hand that would have been pretty strong had he drawn a third land, but [card]Goblin Guide[/card] revealed nonland after nonland after nonland, and none of those nonland cards was Dragon’s Claw.

5-0

Round 6, Jesse, Jund
This is the point of the tournament where things get interesting.

Jesse did not have Mono-Red in mind when he made his decklist, and double Goblin Guide on turn two made for a short game. In game two, I was stuck on two lands, and every turn Jesse made things awkward by playing Sprouting Thrinax after Sprouting Thrinax after Sprouting Thrinax. I was trying to Earthquake for value, but I counted the damage and found that he would successfully race me if I didn’t first deal with the Thrinax some other way, then Earthquaked the tokens. I dealt with his first two, fell way behind on life totals with my two lands in play, and by the time I drew my third land, Ball Lightnings and Hell’s Thunders didn’t do enough.

Game three I got severely flooded, and with him at 7, he Duressed me, he saw a hand of Quenchable Fire and Lightning Bolt. He took the Quenchable Fire, I drew Bolt, land, land, and died to Putrid Leech beatdown.

I like Jesse, and if he makes even a small mistake, he loses that match. “You had to get really unlucky to lose that one,” he told me.

5-1

Round 7, Tristan, Red-Black Burn
Not to be confused with Tristan Shaun Gregson, this other Tristan was stationed near Seattle by virtue of being in the Navy. I kept a four spell, three land hand, and my draw steps in this match went:

Land, reveal land to Goblin Guide, land, reveal land to Goblin Guide, Burst Lightning, land, land, land, land, land.

END GAME ONE

Land, land, land, reveal land, land, land, land, reveal land to Goblin Guide.

END GAME TWO

Drawing one spell in that match is no way to win an attrition war.

Tristan wasn’t sure if he could go to Amsterdam if he qualified, so with me facing lethal damage in game two, I asked if he would concede, and he said no. Some people would have been miffed, but nobody’s entitled to a concession, or even an intentional draw, so if he doesn’t want to concede, then oh well.

But after starting 5-0, I was out of the tournament. Crushing disappointment, because I thought I was playing pretty well for the most part. I was reminded of Grand Prix Houston when I started out 6-0 and was in first place after six rounds, only to crash and burn in rounds 7, 8, and 9 and narrowly miss day 2.

I was pretty close to dropping, but I might as well play another round to get some prizes or something. Jared told me it didn’t matter – that an X-2 would make Top 8, it was going to me, and I was still winning this PTQ. I love Jared to death, but he can be a little blindly optimistic sometimes. Still, he was good for lifting my spirits, and I stayed in the tournament – if for no other reason but to humor him.

5-2

Round 8, Josh, Naya
No 6-2s would make it, as it turned out. There were enough 5-0-1 and 5-1s that they could all draw in. Sigh. So close.

Josh and I played a “had our souls crushed” match. I don’t remember a lot about what happened, except that his face was burned game one, he outraced me with Vengevine and Bloodbraid Elf game two, and in game three he mulliganed to 5 on the draw and never got to play Magic.

6-2

While this was going on, round 6 opponent Jesse got paired down against round 7 opponent Tristan, and if they both drew, they would be in Top 8. Jesse decided to play it out, since he didn’t want to face a red deck in the Top 8, so he was making his matchups better. Also, while this was all going on, Max McCall, at 5-1-1, got paired down against a 5-2.

Jesse won. Max did not. This was the only scenario in which a 6-2 could get in.

Jared, who had drawn into Top 8, said, “I told you. The dream is still alive.”

I wasn’t sure about my tiebreaks. I wasn’t thinking about it – I would just wait until the standings went up. I was pretty sure I was getting 9th or 10th. I’ve gotten 9th twice before at X-1-1 when some extraordinary things had to happen to my tiebreakers in the last round in order for me to miss Top 8, and it’s a pretty awful feeling. Maybe the universe would do me a favor.

Jared ran up to the standings sheet and started jumping up and down and pointed at me. I got in at 8th, and would face Jesse in the quarterfinals.

“You’re in. You’re winning this. Also? We’re in opposite brackets. I’ll see you in the finals!”

I went to Jesse, gave him a hug, and said, “eff you for beating me, thank you for getting me back in, and now I’m going to crush you.”

Jesse: “I know.”

Quarterfinals, Jesse the Dreamcrusher, Jund
The match played out the way he feared it would. Game one is pretty horrible for him, and game two he boarded in a bunch of removal, but my hand had infinite burn spells. When he Duressed me and said, “wooow, that’s a good hand,” it looked pretty grim. I burnt him to a crisp, and Jesse seemed unsurprised and unupset, and told me to win the PTQ. Cries of “justice!” were heard all around.

Our match was over pretty quickly. Jared unfortunately lost his quarterfinals match, but it didn’t seem to faze him in the slightest. “I was never going to win this tournament anyway. You will.”

Semifinals, Kasey, Naya
Fatigue was setting in a major way at this point, and after a longish delay between the end of my last match and the start of the semifinals, I was running on fumes. I autopiloted the deck a bit in game one, and I kept a sketchy hand that fortunately materialized very well. I honestly don’t remember anything about this match except that in game two, I attacked a 2/2 Goblin Guide into his 4/4 Knight of the Reliquary, and prayed he would block it. He did, tried to activate the Knight, and I pointed out that it had just come into play, so his 4/4 Knight remained a 4/4.

I Earthquaked for two, killing his Knight, Bloodbraid Elf, and Noble Hierarch, but he drew Bloodbraid Elf and cascaded into another Knight, and I lost.

Game three we were racing, and I made a huge, huge error, and didn’t play around the most telegraphed [card]Path to Exile[/card] in the history of the universe. He could have made a sign pointing to his Plains that read, “THIS IS TO PATH TO EXILE A CREATURE” and it wouldn’t have been any more obvious that he had it. So instead of Staggershocking him, I played Ball Lightning, and I immediately realized that this was an enormous error. I said, “If I lose this, this is 100% my fault.” Yeah, he obviously had the Path to Exile, blah blah, get my land, etc. Kasey had a turn to draw a [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card], Vengevine, Cunning Sparkmage, or Lightning Bolt to kill me and end the match. He did not, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

The other semifinals matchup was going on for thousands of years, so I took the opportunity to go to the grocery store and get a couple of protein drinks, because I had nothing left in the tank. I was playing fairly tight all day, but things came apart a little in the semifinals. I pulled out of it, but both of my potential finals opponents were quality players, so I had to tighten back up if I wanted to win. I’ve never left a PTQ happy (even after my first Top 8, I wasn’t “happy just to be there”; I want to freaking win the tournament), so I needed to recharge and refocus.

The semifinals match took forever, and I had a long time to wait even after I got back from the grocery store. I took the extra time to figure out my plan with others about how to sideboard against each potential opponent, and the delay was a huge help. Some people were worried that the delay would “ice” me, but it had the opposite effect. The protein drinks kicked in, and I was feeling much better by the time the finals started.

Finals, Ryan, Superfriends
As far as player quality goes, I didn’t have a strong preference; both would be quality opponents. But Ryan’s deck was far scarier. Game one wasn’t too bad, but postboard he had Spell Pierce, Negate, Baneslayer Angel, Wall of Denial, and a third Path to Exile in addition to two maindeck Paths, plus Wall of Omens and Ajani Vengeant. (Thankfully he did not have Kor Firewalker in his sideboard, which made things slightly less scary.) Game one wasn’t too bad, but games two and three would be a dogfight with all those sideboard cards, especially because I had such a bad sideboard – I even had to leave in two Searing Blazes because there just weren’t enough cards to take out.

Game one went as expected; an early Hellspark Elemental got Path to Exiled, which ultimately gave me enough mana to Earthquake and then kick Burst Lightning for exactsies, despite him playing Ajani Vengeant in that game to Lightning Helix me.

Game two he kept a hand with white sources and double Path to Exile, but no blue. My first two Hellspark Elementals got Pathed, but my third Hellspark Elemental survived to deal six points of damage. Then he continued to not play blue sources. “Go to my discard?” He discarded a Jace. I mainphased Lightning Bolted him, then Staggershocked him the next turn. Still no blue. Staggershock rebounded. He was at 3. I was out of gas; my hand was a bunch of lands and a totally dead Searing Blaze.

Then he played Wall of Omens, drew his card off the Wall, discarded a card during his end step, and passed the turn.

No. Blue. Source.

Never has a red player been so happy to see an opponent play Wall of Omens. I played a land, then Searing Blazed his Wall, which also Searing Blazed his face. He made some comment in disgust about me leaving in Searing Blaze, but I didn’t have a lot of options. Thanks for the Wall of Omens, though.

Victory! I didn’t think game two would be quite that easy, but I’ll take it.

The best part wasn’t the feeling of winning after grinding for so long – it’s just the first step, after all. I have a lot of work to do if I want to do well at the Pro Tour. What was way more awesome was the way everyone around me reacted. Jared was practically giddy. People called me and they were legitimately excited. A ton of people wanted to see me do well, and I heard so many “I knew you were going to get there soon, I’m so excited for you”s that I lost track. Everyone seemed so genuinely happy. How can you stop smiling when everyone around you can’t either?

Yeah, I got very lucky in parts (especially the whole thing with the standings), but Brad Nelson and others pointed out that you have to get lucky to win a PTQ like this, but you also have to play well. And outside of the semifinals, I did so for the most part. Not perfect by any means, but at a reasonably high level.

As for the deck, I think it was good for this tournament, but it’s pretty easy to beat if you’re expecting it. I didn’t face a Kor Firewalker all day. Dragon’s Claw is a house in the mirror, but please don’t ever ever ever try to emulate the rest of the sideboard. Those two Punishing Fires might as well have been Bog Hoodlums or Chimney Imp. This was at very best, a 13 card sideboard. Obsidian Fireheart has the best reminder text of any Magic card ever, but I only drew it once all day and I don’t know how good it really is. A lot of the other cards like the Unstable Footing were marginal at very best. The maindeck felt very good though, although I almost never drew Kargan Dragonlord, so I don’t know how good he is. I was always happy to draw Earthquake, though.

And as far as Pro Tours go? It’s in Amsterdam and it’s a new Extended format. That’s a pretty sweet one-two punch.

Yeah, maybe Standard’s not so bad after all.

(Okay, I still don’t like it.)

Yours blue envelopingly,
-Zaiem
zaiemb at gmail dot com
zbeg on Twitter
zbeg on Magic Online

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