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Compulsive Research – Stories and Lessons from Grand Prix: Seattle

by Zaiem Beg

What a weekend.

No, make that what a week.

Having a Grand Prix in my home town (well, essentially) was an amazing experience. I got to meet a lot of people who had come here to play Magic, I got to see people I hadn’t seen in a while, and as is always the case with Grands Prix, I had a blast. Intermingled are stories from the weekend, as well as me learning quite a few things myself.

Trusting my instincts

I was having a discussion with a friend over the weekend that deck choice is largely irrelevant, and that play skill matters more. He pointed to people like PV, who made the semifinals of two Grands Prix in as many weeks with two different decks. Even if that’s true to a point, I find it difficult to believe that deck choice is completely irrelevant. As an extreme example, if I handed the best player in the world a deck of 56 Plains and 4 Paladin en-Vec, he is not going to do a lot of winning.

With the exception of Lorwyn Block season and Extended from two seasons ago (the season with Dredge), I’ve generally been able to get a pretty good feel of the metagame, and have been able to select a reasonable deck as a result. (My play skill rather than deck choice has been the limiting factor in my own success.)

Right after Regionals, I saw the Swans deck and started testing it for the week-and-a-half prior to the Grand Prix. I had considerable success with it in Magic Online queues and grew comfortable with the deck, its limitations, finding the correct lines of play, and I felt like I understood the mirror fairly well (having played the mirror over and over and over again in the queues on Magic Online). Still, I was not particularly happy to see the success the deck had in Barcelona, as three Swans decks made the Top 8 of that Grand Prix.

(Though it’s fair to say that my being upset at PV’s success in the Grand Prix is backward; PV was one of the originators of the deck and it got leaked to the public, which in turn made him upset that he wasn’t able to sneak up on the field in Barcelona. I was actually part of the problem.)

I went to the site the night before to take a look around and see what people were playing in the Grinders, and I saw decks that were either Swans or decks that had a very strong plan to beat Swans.

I had a quandary on my hands. The two decks I put the most time into were B/W Tokens and Swans. I had played a little with the Jund aggro decks and I played R/B aggro before realizing it wasn’t well-positioned, but I didn’t feel like either of those choices were the greatest.

Usually I would go with “play what you know,” but Swans seemed like a horrible, horrible choice. I saw people’s sideboards and most had no fewer than eleven cards to bring in against it. Swans isn’t such a powerful deck that it can power through the hate, and I realized this. B/W Tokens didn’t sound much better, as its Swans matchup isn’t great and I expected that to be a popular deck at the GP. I felt very, very bad about my deck choice, but I allowed a couple of unnamed channelfireball.com editors to tell me in soothing tones that everything would be okay and convinced me that it was a reasonable choice.

The whole time I kept thinking, “I should be playing something else. This is a bad choice. This is a bad choice.”

I settled on LSV’s list rather than PV’s list, as LSV’s list was better in the mirror post-sideboard with the land destruction plan. 71 of the cards were the same as LSV’s deck in Barcelona, with the two Wrath of Gods becoming Wickerbough Elders, and PV convinced me the two Sunken Ruins should be something different, which we made into a Shivan Reef and a second Sulfurous Springs. Though to PV’s credit, he did put in the disclaimer that he thought playing something else entirely might have been a better idea.

Was I wrong? A brief tournament report.

My first opponent was Cedric Phillips (in round four, as I had three byes), whom I had met earlier in the week.

He ran out a Meddling Mage early in the game naming Seismic Assault. Oh dear. I was unable to power through his U/W Kithkin, and when he boarded in eleven cards against me (plus the maindeck Meddling Mages), I was in for a fight. I had a window where I could go off, but when I finally got rid of the Mages and the Pithing Needle (on the top of his deck courtesy of a Primal Command), I hit two consecutive spells off my Swans and died a couple of turns later.

Round five didn’t go much better. My opponent was a name I recognized as one of the better players in Utah. I kept a six-land hand with Seismic Assault on the draw, and a turn one Thoughtseize made things awkward. He played multiple Putrid Leeches and by the time I was drawing spells, my Deny Realities were too slow to keep him from killing me. He boarded in Thought Hemorrhages, Pithing Needles, Everlasting Torments, and Shriekmaws (I saw him desideboard after the match and I believe it was another eleven cards) and I put up a good fight, but there was a lot of disruption and I was unable to fight through it.

Round six was against a hyper mana-acceleration Elf deck with Heritage Druids and Nettle Sentinels, but without the combo. He was playing Gilt-Leaf Ambush to accelerate into Cloudthreshers and Wilt-Leaf Lieges. I took a lot of damage early on, but I was able to kill enough of his creatures to keep me off taking lethal damage. The next turn I had the mana to play Swans and then combo off with the two lands in my hand.

I drew a spell, and then shot the Swans and saw Captured Sunlight and Seismic Assault–two non-lands–which meant I had to hit a land in my next two cards or I would not be able to combo off and I would die.

I used the second land in my hand and saw Deny Reality and Seismic Assault.

I passed the turn and died.

By this time, I was on hyper mega tilt. I honestly don’t remember much about game two, except I mulliganed to five when my seven and six-card hands were all lands, and I saw a flurry of Pithing Needles and I probably played poorly at this point and lost.

To my round six opponent – if I was a little surly to you, I’m sorry. I was having a bad day and if I was rude, I apologize.

Three rounds, six games, and I’m out of the tournament. I wanted to set myself on fire. I left the venue and went home and slept.

What I learned

It’s entirely possible I made mistakes during my matches. Actually, it’s virtually impossible that I didn’t make any mistakes.

I asked Cedric after the match if he noticed any mistakes I had made, and he said he did not, but rather the matchup was close to unwinnable for me. My next opponent said that he got the best possible draw he could have hoped for against Swans game one and that he felt very lucky. It was frustrating that every time I finally got Assault and Swans on the table without interference from a Pithing Needle, I hit two consecutive spells in my 40-land deck. I think I shuffle thoroughly, but I need to look back and see if I shuffle thoroughly enough.

Even so, the hate flowed strong, which is precisely what I was afraid of. Swans is a disruptable combo deck and people were gunning for it. Maybe in three weeks it’ll be a fine deck to play again, but for this Grand Prix it was definitely a mistake. I correctly realized this and then fell into the trap of plowing through anyway when virtually any other deck I had experience with would have suited me better.

Hey Zaiem, you’re about to fall over

What I also learned is that I tilt too easily. After my third round, I was looking for the nearest exit so I could get out of the venue as quickly as possible. On my way, I saw LSV and told him about my day, and he said the same thing happened to him at Vancouver last year–that is, 3-0 with byes and then going 0-3, dropping all six games. I actually watched him pick up his third loss, which came to Jon Loucks incidentally [playing Ninjas –Riki, who will never let LSV forget], and he handled it way better than I ever would have. Maybe outwardly he keeps his cool while on the inside he’s a fiery ball of rage, but I could learn a lesson from his demeanor.

Once, after round one of a Limited PTQ, I won the match and I still went on tilt because I played poorly.

Every time I do go on tilt, it seems like Gavin Verhey is nearby, calming me down. Gavin’s sort of become a bit of a spiritual advisor for me, identifying holes in my game and giving me honest, helpful criticism at virtually every point of my Magic playing life.

He understands my strengths and weaknesses as a player, and his patient, calm demeanor is exactly what I need when I need to be talked off the ledge. He usually pulls out a little beeper detector wand and waves it over me and tells me if I have The Aura, and if not, how close I am to having it.

(Okay, that last sentence isn’t really true.)

I came to the realization that I tilt a little too often when I realized I can’t remember how many times Gavin’s had to calm me down after a loss. He’s very good at it, but I shouldn’t have to go through this process whenever things go poorly.

To the PTQ!

After brief, irrational thoughts like, “Maybe I should give up Magic because I think I hate losing more than I enjoy winning,” I realized I had to go to the venue the next morning anyway because PV was staying with me and I was his ride, so I might as well play some Magic. I thought about sleeving up some Tarmogoyfs to play in an Extended event, or play in the Moustache Invitational (Alara Sealed – only people with moustaches are allowed to play), at which point Gavin called me and talked me into playing in the PTQ.

“Listen, if I give you a decklist, will you promise to play it?”
“Is it good?”
“Yes, it’s very good, and it’s exactly the sort of deck you would enjoy.”
“”¦fine. What is it?”

And so I put together the 5-color cascade deck that Michael Jacob ran to Top Eight. That particular build of the deck was a bit of a secret before Day Two, so some people weren’t familiar with it.

Gavin was right. I had never played a game with the deck before, but I immediately felt comfortable playing it. I had to be a little careful with my mana, but I just had to be careful and make sure that I was playing my lands in the correct order, and I was having fun playing Magic again. Because it turns out that I still love this game oh so very much, and despite my complaining, I actually love battling.

An encounter with Conley Woods

After four rounds of the PTQ (303 players, nine rounds), I was 4-0 with the Cascade deck and saw my next pairing was against Conley Woods.

Now, it just so happens that I knew what Conley was playing. Conley usually plays some pretty off-the-wall decks, but they’re also very good decks and some get folded into the metagame and become staples. I’ve played Conley Woods decks at GPs and PTQs before. And it also happens that the deck got mini-leaked to Jon Loucks the Friday before the GP while we were driving to the venue, so I heard about Conley’s decklist, which involved things like Soul Snuffers, Necroskitter, Everlasting Torment, Jund Charm, Dusk Urchins, Resounding Thunder, Bituminous Blast, and other wackiness.

I feigned ignorance, pretending not to know who he was or what he was playing. I picked up his cards and read them, and even made a derisive comment like, “How the heck are you 4-0 with this deck?” (Which, for the record, was not genuinely derisive. I love a good rogue deck as much as the next guy, and anything that’s different or out of the norm that works is a good thing, not a bad one. I really just didn’t want to tip him off that I had his entire decklist read to me less than two days ago, hoping he would make a mistake and think he had the element of surprise. Instead, I should have focused on playing good Magic rather than playing mind games.)

I had obviously never tested against this deck before, and ironically, I had been thinking about an article that Conley himself wrote for TCGPlayer where he said:

“I have a few friends who tend to have this exact problem with Magic. If you put a deck in their hands and test with them for 2 months prior to a tournament, chances are, they will do pretty well. But the instant they run into something that did not come up in testing, they often start to slip.”

Yes, sure enough, that was me. I was playing pretty tight all day, being careful to think through situations, but when I was facing a Dusk Urchins on turn three and racking my brain trying to come up with a plan how to beat the deck, I made about the worst possible play I could have made by attacking my Boggart Ram-Gang into his Dusk Urchins. Nanoseconds after I had done so, I realized the rules interaction that was about to happen, but it was too late. Conley couldn’t block fast enough and I had just five-for-oned myself as I watched my Ram-Gang go to the graveyard and him drawing four cards. Gross.

Game two went a little better, but I really didn’t have a good plan and I was feeling a little out of sorts. I [card]Thought Hemorrhage[/card]d his Necroskitters, but lost to Anathemancers (it’s entirely possible I should have named Anathemancer instead, although both cards are just horrid for me). And I kept thinking about that darn article my opponent wrote as he was beating me.

My second loss in the PTQ was against another deck I hadn’t tested against much – G/W Elf combo. The match was very close, but game three I kept a six-card hand on the play with a Volcanic Fallout (to kill his team), a Pithing Needle (to shut off the Burrenton Forge-Tenders he had boarded in), and some sketchy mana. I was able to cast the Fallout and Needle, but I ran out of Vivid counters on my lands and I got stranded with cards in my hand I couldn’t play. Again, I wasn’t sure what was important and I felt out of sorts. You’re playing Mistbind Clique and Cryptic Command? I have a plan for you. Dusk Urchins and Necroskitter? I have a hard time dealing with it.

Solutions to my problems

The mental aspect is a tough one. I think I need to be focused less on results and more on playing correctly. As long as I play correctly and do the right thing, then I shouldn’t worry what the outcome of the match is. If I win while playing poorly, then I should realize that I need to focus on not playing poorly. If I lose while playing well, then I am successful. Sometimes I’m able to shake off a loss, think about my mistakes, and then keep powering through. On Saturday, I was not in the right mental state to handle what was going on, which was brought on in part by my worrying and insecurity about my deck choice. Before I walked into that tournament, I was already tilting. There’s bad, and then there’s really bad.

As far as evaluating situations and adjusting to them, I have regressed in this area some over the last six months, and it’s due to my neglect of Limited play. The best Constructed players in the area are also the best Limited players. The best example of this is Charles Gendron Dupont (known as Aceman022 on Magic Online), who did no testing for the Grand Prix, but has played more Limited Magic than anyone I know. Noah Weil top 16ed the Grand Prix and he also did very little testing.

I’m not saying that testing isn’t productive, or that I’m recommending doing 100 MODO drafts if you’re planning on winning your next Grand Prix, but Limited play makes for good play, and it shores up a lot of weaknesses.

Story from the floor #1: What on earth happened?

Some interesting anecdotes from the Grand Prix:

A friend of mine was playing in the PTQ and she cast a Path to Exile pretty early on (around turn three) on an opposing Putrid Leech. Leech went to the RFG area, a land was put into play, and play continued, with neither player doing much but play lands.

After a couple of turns, someone realized that my friend’s graveyard was empty. Where did the [card]Path to Exile[/card] go? A judge was called, and the Path to Exile was found on the bottom of her library. My friend was given a game loss.

Now I realize that it’s possible my friend cheated. However, it is extremely unlikely that she did so. There are people you know who are very trustworthy and you know would not cheat under any circumstances. She is one of those people, having demonstrated over a long period of time an impeccable and spotless record of integrity. So I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt here.

If you believe she cheated, then this situation becomes much less interesting. But if not (and I assure you, she did not), then what happened? This is a truly bizarre situation. There were no cascade or clash effects going on that might have caused someone to accidentally put it on the bottom of the library. The card was found face down, so it’s not like the library was put on top of the graveyard.

Adding to the intrigue was the fact that her opponent’s friend was sitting next to her while this was going on, and the opponent is a known cheater. A judge said he believed that the friend may have had something to do with slipping the card on the bottom of the library, but it could not be proven. [It has since come to my attention that Zaiem is completely mistaken about who his friend was playing this round. The opponent here was not the anonymous suspected local cheater. -Riki, apologetically]

This is also odd. I was thinking about this, and I was trying to figure out the logistics of this. How would one interfere with someone else’s match by taking a card from the graveyard and putting it on the bottom of the library? The mechanics would look very unusual and would draw attention immediately. I know if some random person started fiddling with my graveyard, I would notice something weird was going on.

We’ll probably never know what happened, but it’s a situation where there really isn’t a plausible explanation.

Story from the floor #2: You should know this, but I’m going to tell you anyway.

At a side event, a player was facing an opposing Dragon Broodmother, and his opponent kept missing the Broodmother triggers. The player said nothing, and won the game as a result.

After the match, the player informed his opponent that had the opponent simply remembered the Broodmother triggers, then the player would not have been able to win. A judge was called, and the player felt it was the opponent’s responsibility to remember the triggers, so although the player noticed the missed triggers, declined to say anything until after the match.

The player was disqualified.

This isn’t new information, but it’s worth reiterating that it is the responsibility of both players to make sure the game state is correct. Even if it doesn’t benefit you, you have to remind your opponent of mandatory triggers. If the guy blows through missing “may” triggers like putting counters on his Algae Gharial, that’s too bad for him. He can miss them all day long. But when he forgets to put in a creature that’s going to kill me next turn? You better darn well say something.

Story from the floor #3: Whoa, who’s that girl? oh, never mind.

My friend David was not planning on playing in the Grand Prix, but changed his mind at the last second. There was a concerted effort by most of the Northwest folks in Washington and Oregon to grow moustaches for the event, and they were out in full, hideous fashion.

David did not have time to grow a moustache, but he did show up to the Grand Prix and drew attention anyway by dressing up in full on drag, complete with makeup, nylons, a miniskirt, a platinum blonde wig, and smooth, shapely legs that many people were admiring before realizing that whoa, that’s a guy.

On at least three occasions, I heard people talking about “the hot girl in the miniskirt” and I didn’t have the heart to tell them. I guess when they got a closer look they would figure it out themselves.

Next stop: Honolulu
I’m off to Hawaii for a week of fun, sun, and Magic. I don’t know what I’m going to be playing next week, but regardless of what happens, I’m guaranteed to have a good time. Even if I scrub out, I’ll be scrubbing out in Hawaii. There’s really no way this can go badly.

If you see me, stop by and say hi!

Aloha means goodbye for now,
-Zaiem

zaiemb at gmail dot com

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