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Feature Article – Teaching Zen in London (Top 8)

“I hate my deck.“

This was my most-used sentence on day one of Grand Prix London when asked about my Sealed Deck. Even when Rich Hagon sat down to interview me after finishing the first day 9-0, that was the first thing I had to say. You see, I was forced to play an aggressive deck, which is a strategy to avoid in the current format (and, from the first looks, one that gets even worse when New Phyrexia comes out. But more on that subject in another article). I managed to open one of those very rare pools that contained not a single bomb and only one or two playable rares.

My pool in all its glory (honestly though, I just want you to feel the desperation I felt when I opened it):

[Deck]
[White]
1 Sunspear Shikari
1 Kembas Legion
1 Leonin Skyhunter
1 Masters Call
1 Razor Hippogriff
1 Loxodon Partisan
1 Fulgent Distraction
1 Tine Shrike
1 Glint Hawk
1 Seize the Initiative
1 Priests of Norn
2 Leonin Relic-Warder
1 Myrsmith[/White]
[Blue]1 Mirran Spy
1 Quicksilver Geyser
1 Vedalken Certarch
1 Vivisection
1 Vedalken Anatomist
1 Turn the Tide
1 Steel Sabotage
1 Distant Memories
1 Spire Serpent[/Blue]
[Black]1 Virulent Wound
1 Flesh Allergy
1 Fume Spitter
1 Instill Infection
2 Caustic Hound
1 Painsmith
1 Flensermite
1 Relic Putrescence
1 Phyresis
1 Phyrexian Crusader
1 Tainted Strike[/Black]
[Red]1 Molten Psyche
1 Into the Core
1 Kuldotha Ringleader
1 Burn the Impure
1 Vulshok Heartstoker
1 Kuldotha Flamefiend
1 Galvanic Blast
1 Crush
1 Spiraling Duelist
1 Ogre Resister
2 Kuldotha Rebirth[/Red]
[Green]1 Alpha Tyrranax
1 Tel-Jilad Defiance
1 Unnatural Predation
1 Glissas Courier
1 Pistus Strike
1 Lifesmith
1 Copperhorn Scout
1 Untamed Might
1 Blunt the Assault
1 Cystbearer
1 Tel-Jilad Fallen
1 Bellowing Tanglewurm[/Green]
[Artifact]1 Bladed Sentinel
2 Shriekhorn
1 Vector Asp
1 Rusted Relic
1 Trigon of Rage
1 Livewire Lash
1 Semblance Anvil
1 Chrome Steed
1 Clone Shell
1 Training Drone
1 Flight Spellbomb
1 Nihil Spellbomb
1 Knowledge Pool
1 Dross Ripper
1 Phyrexian Digester
1 Piston Sledge
2 Glint Hawk Idol
1 Myr Sire
1 Strider Harness
1 Saberclaw Golem
1 Accorders Shield
1 Mortarpod
1 Glimmerpost
[/Artifact]
[/deck]

Oh,boy…

Sometimes, having an easy pool to build means you have the nuts.

This time, not so much.

With every other color having two cards worth playing at best, Red and White are the clear winners.
From here, we need to identify a gameplan that can get us there.

[card]Rusted Relic[/card] and [card]Chrome Steed[/card] make me check whether a Metalcraft theme is something worth looking at, but we really only have about eight quality artifacts. Our lack of bombs, coupled with a good number of aggressive two-drops means that we can’t realistically hope to contain any deck out there in terms of card quality. We need to race them. This leads us to the following aggressive RW build:

[deck]
[Creatures]
1 Bladed Sentinel
1 Kuldotha Ringleader
1 Sunspear Shikari
2 Glint Hawk Idol
1 Leonin Skyhunter
1 Razor Hippogriff
1 Loxodon Partisan
1 Myrsmith
1 Kuldotha Flamefiend
2 Leonin Relic-Warder
1 Ogre Resister
1 Saberclaw Golem[/Creatures]
[Spells]
1 Trigon of Rage
1 Into the Core
1 Burn the Impure
1 Galvanic Blast
1 Livewire Lash
1 Piston Sledge
1 Crush
1 Mortarpod
1 Accorders Shield[/Spells]
[Lands]10 Plains
7 Mountain[/Lands][/deck]

With only nine artifacts, Glint Hawk doesn’t help our plan of putting our opponents under as much early pressure as possible and closing the deal with our good removal spells.

During my two byes, I fought with Florian Koch of Germany, who crushed me pretty hard with his very average BG deck.
Instead of being pessimistic about my chances, I just shrugged and said another sentence that I would go on to repeat a couple of times throughout the weekend: “I don’t care, decks don’t win tournaments. Let’s just play Magic and see what happens“

(Yeah, I know, I’m so incredibly Zen, I should open a monastery and teach people how to chill and be awesome like me)

Turns out, a handful of rounds later, both me and Florian would sit at a cool 9-0, so you can look up both our average decks here.

A couple of interesting things on my way there:

– For the relative weakness of my pool, I sideboarded an unreal number of cards. Here are a couple of sweet ones that were great in their specific matchups: [card]Master’s Call[/card], [card]Myr Sire[/card], [card]Priests of Norn[/card], [card]Tine Shrike[/card], [card]Phyrexian Digester[/card], [card]Kemba’s Legion[/card], [card]Vulshok Heartstoker[/card]. More so, [card]Seize the Initiative[/card] and [card]Fulgent Distraction[/card] were even better, winning games where no other card in my pool would have.

– [card]Into the Core[/card] was responsible for a number of blowouts, most importantly against Stuart Wright in round 6, where I did not topdeck it like the coverage says, but held onto it until I could maximize its damage, taking out a [card]Strata Scythe[/card] and a [card]Copper Carapace[/card] and killing his two attackers, meaning a cool 4-1 trade.

– in round 7, I had a 3/2 Germ token equipped with [card]Piston Sledge[/card] and [card]Mortarpod[/card] and a [card]Bladed Sentinel[/card]. His board consisted of two creatures, one with toughness four and one with toughness five. I fiddled around with my token, declared it as an attacker along with the Sentinel and mumbled something along the lines of “take six?“, trying to indicate that I thought my creature was a 4/2 or a 4/1. He didn’t block (though I didn’t actually deal six at that point). Next turn, I attacked the same way and he blocked with both guys. I dropped my [card]Kuldotha Flamefiend[/card] and cleared his board, losing only a Germ token and a Piston Sledge. This is interesting because of a number of things.

First, the inconsistency of his actions. Either he bought my bluff or he didn’t, but changing his opinion from one turn to another doesn’t make a lot of sense and made him take five damage, only to face the same decision again the next turn.

Second, I asked a couple of friends who were watching my match whether or not my bluff was obvious. You see, sitting there, knowing that I have a Flamefiend in hand, it feels like my bluff is nothing but a childish act and there is no way he doesn’t see through my plan. My friends told me differently though. Apparently, I had sold the bluff pretty well, my tonality and actions made even them think I had just misread my cards and made a horrible mistake. What this teaches me is that it’s only natural to feel like your bluff is easy to see through, as you are the one who has all the information.
The tough part is trying to put yourself in their situation, being on the other side of the information and then thinking about whether a bluff is happening or not.

– One strength of my deck that I realized only later in the day was that I was practically immune to being blown out by [card]Arc Trail[/card] (a card that most X-0 deck had throughout the rounds), with only [card]Myrsmith[/card] having a toughness of one. In similar fashion, my two [card]Glint Hawk Idol[/card]s always made my opponents sweat, making them use their [card]Slagstorm[/card]s and Spread the Sicknesses on guys they were not actually dying to.

– I couldn’t afford to wait and use my two [card]Leonin Relic-Warder[/card]s as hard removal. Rather, I would have to use them as aggressive two-drops with little advantages built in, slowing them down a couple of turns by eating a Myr here and there. This proved to be the best way for me to pursue my gameplan.

In the end, I really had to use every card of mine to maximal value while pushing through as much damage as possible. While I couldn’t compete with any deck out there on sheer power, I had a stream of cards that would build up my tempo little by little, making me beat all my opponents’ bombs the turn they came down.

I did get a number of “still had these two ridiculous bombs in hand“ after my matches, confirming my belief that it was imperative for me to grind out all those little advantages early on and then closing the deal. In one sentence from my interview with Rich:

“I have to be aggressive, which I don’t really like, but I guess my deck is good for what it’s trying to achieve… but I still hate it!“

Since me and my travel partner, Johannes Aldinger, were lucky enough to have a place to sleep at his cousin’s, and since the London Tube is pretty awesome in getting you anywhere quickly, there was enough time left to enjoy the greatest dish in all of Britain: Chicken Tikka Massala with Naan. The price was ridiculous, I bit my lip and am still hurting a week after, but I didn’t care, I was in heaven.

On the subject of Indians in Britain. I can’t say that I’ve seen a lot of the country yet, but from my last trip and this one, I can’t remember to have seen a single shop clerk, metro ticket salesperson or Subway sandwich maker that didn’t seem to be from India or Pakistan. At least for me as a visitor, this has to be the biggest socially segregated country I’ve ever seen. What’s happening here?

A couple of hours later, I was sitting at my first draft of day two, with a booster containing these three cards and not much else:

[draft]Victorys Herald
Leonin Relic-Warder
Blightwidow[/draft]

I’ve come to like white as an underdrafted color in SSM; when you can get [card]Leonin Skyhunter[/card] and [card]Divine Offering[/card] as late as 8th pick and receive the goods in the next two packs. This time though, I didn’t feel like fighting my neighbour one or two seats next to me over the worst color in the format, so [card]Blightwidow[/card] was an easy pick for me.

This turned out to be a sweet decision, as they guy to my left had first-picked a [card]Victory’s Herald[/card] of his own and then snapped the one I passed, while my next packs each were very very weak, with an infect card being the best overall card in most of the packs throughout Mirrodin Besieged, leaving me with a nice shell of eight infect creatures and one pump spell before my second pack.

I opened and picked a Skithiryx before being passed a [card]Plague Stinger[/card], a [card]Hand of the Praetors[/card] and a [card]Grasp of Darkness[/card] as my next three picks. After opening a Strata Scythe in pack three, I left the draft table with this beauty of an infect deck:

[deck][Creatures]1 Hand of the Praetors
2 Ichorclaw Myr
1 Cystbearer
1 Plague Stinger
1 Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon
2 Blightwidow
1 Flensermite
2 Scourge Servant
1 Corpse Cur
1 Phyrexian Digester
1 Tel-Jilad Fallen
1 Rot Wolf[/Creatures]
[Spells]1 Strider Harness
1 Strata Scythe
1 Instill Infection
1 Tel-Jilad Defiance
1 Untamed Might
1 Unnatural Predation
1 Grasp of Darkness[/Spells]
[Lands]9 Forest
9 Swamp[/Lands][/deck]

While certainly not a perfect iteration of an infect deck, this was just two or three removal spells away and certainly nothing to complain about. A 3-0 seemed very possible, especially after having seen very unexciting packs throughout the draft. As I said though, “Let’s just play Magic and see what happens“ is where the truth is at.

My matches against Florian Koch and Louis Deltour were very close, with Florian nearly getting me with an underwhelming deck but a [card]Liege of the Tangle[/card] that nearly took two games and Louis Deltour taking game one in blazingly quick fashion with an aggressive draw fueled by [card]Kuldotha Rebirth[/card], before barely losing the next two.

The 3-0 left me in a very weird situation where I had a Top 8 seat secured four hours before the actual Top 8 draft would even start.

The coverage has a cool entry that covers my second draft as well as the unusual situation I was in here.

The crazy thing was that I actually hated opening the [card]Massacre Wurm[/card] and [card]Myr Battlesphere[/card], as I didn’t really need them the slightest bit.

One thing to note about the draft is that I cut black as much as possible after the first pick, going so far as picking a [card]Dross Ripper[/card] third to make sure that nobody near me would get any ideas of fighting me for black.

The resulting deck was insanely fun to play with, which was probably the biggest reason I tried going for the 15-0 instead of taking the easy way and ID twice. Here’s the sweet 40 that I would go into dreamcrusher mode with:

[deck]
[Creatures]
1 Perilious Myr
1 Kuldotha Forgemaster
1 Moriok Replica
1 Silver Myr
2 Dross Ripper
1 Phyrexian Rager
1 Fume Spitter
1 Bladed Sentinel
2 Abuna Acolyte[/Creatures]
[Absurd Bombs]1 Massacre Wurm
1 Myr Battlesphere
[/Absurd Bombs]
[Spells]
1 Mirrorworks
1 Grasp of Darkness
1 Trigon of Corruption
1 Ichor Wellspring
1 Origin Spellbomb
2 Nihil Spellbomb
1 Revoke Existence
2 Divine Offering[/Spells]
[Lands]7 Plains
10 Swamp[/Lands][/deck]

The next two rounds had me controlling games, digging through my deck and finishing with either of Massacre Wurm, Myr Battlesphere or Mirrorworks and getting me to 14-0 while defeating Louis Deltour for a second time that day.

In the last round of the swiss against Daniel Royde, I had already taken game one, when he managed to win game two despite me having played both [card]Massacre Wurm[/card] and [card]Myr Battlesphere[/card]. My Massacre Wurm cleared his board, but then had to jump in front of a [card]Flameborn Hellion[/card] the next turn, and the Battlesphere was dispatched by [card]Divine Offering[/card] and a [card]Sunblast Angel[/card].

With just ten minutes remaining in round fifteen, I didn’t feel like fighting way into the extra turns, so I took the result slip and handed an ID to Daniel, who was ecstatic to have gotten there after being denied his request for an ID numerous times. Truth to be told, I probably would have scooped him in anyways with lethal damage on the stack, and my other two opponents from rounds 13 and 14 both made it into Top 8 anyways, with Louis getting there at 12-3 and ridiculous tiebreakers after playing me twice.

That had me enter the top 8 at 14-0-1, with people telling me I had done the right thing, as 15-0 would’ve gotten me nothing but the “Kevin Grove curse“ and a swift defeat in the quarterfinals.

If I was to believe in such things, though, I clearly hadn’t dodged it.

That might have explained the trainwreck that my top 8 draft ended up being…

I opened this pack to start the draft:

[draft]Into the Core
Blisterstick Shaman
Blightwidow
Fangren Marauder
Creeping Corrosion
Morbid Plunder[/draft]

Since London, I’ve asked a dozen people about their opinions on this pick. The consensus pick was [card]Into the Core[/card]. Not a single one even thought about going with my pick:

[draft]Morbid Plunder[/draft]

“Yeah, I know. Yes, no, yeah, you’re right. I know. I know. I don’t know what I thought. Well, I do. Yes. I didn’t wanna fight over green. I mean, Into the Core is certainly stronger in Sealed then in draft. Yeah. No. I don’t know, maybe I criminally undervalued it. I most certainly did. I do like UB or BW a bit, and Plunder is sweet there. I’m an idiot.“

To summarize this transcript of my next couple of conversations:

[card]Into the Core[/card] is the clear pick here; [card]Morbid Plunder[/card] is cool, but far from being the pick.

I got passed a [card]Viridian Corrupter[/card] in the next pack, with not much else in there. A [card]Blightwidow[/card] and a [card]Scourge Servant[/card] followed, leaving me with a decent start for an infect deck. Throughout pack one, I picked up some solid role-players for my infect-deck to be in [card]Virulent Wound[/card], [card]Plaguemaw Beast[/card], [card]Mirran Mettle[/card], [card]Brass Squire[/card], [card]Copper Carapace[/card], [card]Pistus Strike[/card]. I expected to be able to pick some quality black in pack two but not much green, and good green in pack three after having been passed Viridian Corrupter and Blightwidow.

I open a pack of [card]Koth of the Hammer[/card] and [card]Heavy Arbalest[/card] in Scars of Mirrodin, cursing myself for not taking [card]Into the Core[/card] (a recurring theme) and picking the Arbalest which of course is very solid in infect.

Cool plan, except, no infect was anywhere to be seen. Wait, no, let me get that right: No black or green either. Nothing.
Apparently, Daniel Royde to my left had opened a [card]Black Sun’s Zenith[/card] and picked the [card]Creeping Corrosion[/card] I had passed him, while Nicholas Taylor to my right had opened a Skithiryx in pack two, which, along with the two playable black cards he had picked up in Besieged, made him go black as well.

Every couple of picks, I would try and evaluate my situation and forge a plan, just to be denied throughout the whole draft. An [card]Acid Web Spider[/card], [card]Alpha Tyrannax[/card] and a [card]Fume Spitter[/card] had me changing my mind to BG dinosaurs, only to be followed by two Corpse Curs and a Throne of Geth for my terrible infect deck.

After opening a [card]Steel Hellkite[/card] in pack three, I tried to save the draft as best I could, which is tough when you know you’ll end up with a bad mix of infect and non-infect. If you feel like having a laugh at my expenses, here’s the deck I had to battle with.

Yeah, back to those Zen-like sentences of mine: “I hate my deck“.

Honestly though, even though I knew that my deck had to be among the two worst at the table, I still didn’t have any doubts at all that I would go on to win the Grand Prix.

I was paired against Louis Deltour in the quarterfinals, making it our third match in about five hours. Game one he ramped up to cast a [card]Genesis Wave[/card] for seven while sitting at a comfortable life total with my [card]Steel Hellkite[/card] rotting in hand against his [card]Sylvok Replica[/card] in play.

Game two had an interesting situation where he had a creature in play and was beating me down. I played an [card]Alpha Tyrranax[/card] to defend.

He played another creature and passed the turn with two black mana up. Now, I knew from game one that he had a [card]Go for the Throat[/card] in his deck, and I was pretty sure he should have killed the Tyrranax had he had it in hand.

I had a gameplan. He had one poison, I had a [card]Tainted Strike[/card] and a [card]Plaguemaw Beast[/card] in hand. I could swing with the Tyrranax, Tainted Strike it, getting him to eight poison counters, play the Plaguemaw Beast and kill him in two turns with his clock being consideraly slower.

He didn’t block the Tyrannax. I looked at him and asked: “Do you have the [card]Go for the Throat[/card]?“. Immediately, he looked at his cards, shuffled one card to the back of his hand and said “Yeah, I do. I have four of them“. This is usually a tell that he does have the card. Now I had my gut feeling and a read that told me he had it. But his line of play didn’t make any sense at all. Had he had the removal, he should have killed my blocker, the biggest guy on the table and attacked me to a low life total and an empty board. Plus, if he had the [card]Go for the Throat[/card], he was probably winning this game anyways.

I chose to listen to the logical explanation. I played the [card]Tainted Strike[/card].

He had it. Obviously. I lost the game, match and was out of the tournament with a better record than the overall winner, Daniel Royde.

I left the table in great disappointment and with nobody to blame but myself. From the moment I had picked that [card]Morbid Plunder[/card], everything went downhill. It was a weird feeling. I finished the tournament in the exact same spot I had been in for five hours, with five Pro Points and $1000.00.

Speaking of Pro Points, this season could turn out to be the one where I finally get to a decent level. I’ve now played more tournaments in 2011 then in all of 2010 with a lot more to follow.

I’m looking forward to Pro Tour Philadelphia now, which will also mean another Grand Prix to be played in Pittsburgh the week before.

This makes me want to continue writing, which is why I feel like starting something that I’ll keep on doing throughout my next articles.

One more thing though on my tournament report. This is my first time writing one and I feel like I’m having a rather hard time trying to make it as interesting as possible. I’m very interested in how well I did and I want as much criticism as I can get here. I plan on having a lot more succesful tournaments to write about and the last thing I want is the reports to be boring and forgettable.

Things that you should be doing but most of you aren’t:

#1: Want a way to know your opponent’s deck before you even start the game? Check out his lifepad. A good portion of players don’t tear out the sheet from their last round. They’ll sit down in front of you and pull out their lifepad. Have a quick look while shuffling your deck. Check for the following: Which one is his life column, which one is the opponent’s. A decrease of the opponent’s life total in steps of three, six, nine etc. damage could mean your opponent is playing Valakut.
A gain of five life could mean they have [card]Baneslayer Angel[/card]s. This works best when you know the format well enough.

Another thing to look at: Did he write down the contents of his opponent’s hand? Maybe he’s playing discard spells. Does his life total decrease by one for a couple of turns? [card]Bitterblossom[/card] alert! Of course, none of those gets you a clear picture, but when it’s all about the little edges, this one can make decisions at the beginning of the match a lot easier. Even if you get an advantage only one match out of twenty, it comes at no cost and can have a big upside, so you should be doing it.

I had a hard time deciding whether or not I should write this report when everyone is thinking about New Phyrexia and I even thought about linking the report to a small outlook on the new set in Limited.

However, I’ve never been a fan of reading Set Reviews before having even touched a single card in the format. Those are good guidelines, but the general understanding of a format will jump within the first two weeks of its release. To me, that is the best time to have a meaningful format discussion on a decent level.

So in the end, I wrote this one because of the single reason that matters: I wanted to and I liked doing so.

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