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Initial Technology – Three Weeks of Magic

This has been a busy couple of weeks. I’ve gone from the Bay Area to San Diego to Paris, back to the Bay and then to Denver only a few short days after. I managed to lose playing for Top 8 of the Pro Tour, make day two of a Grand Prix at 6-3, and see one of my best friends come back and easily Top 8 the first Grand Prix he’s played at in three years. In short, this last month was awesome! There were definitely ups and downs, but the ups were both better and more numerous, and despite the fact that I’m now exhausted, I had a great time.

I have a lot of things to talk about today, and I’d like to go in somewhat chronological order. There have been big changes to every format with the introduction of Mirrodin Besieged (this has to be one of the small sets with the biggest impact that I can remember), and I look forward to the evolution of the Limited format especially.

Part One – San Diego

The real beginning of the season was when we all met in San Diego. GP Atlanta was just a warm-up, though BenS and Owen both decided to get a jump on everyone else and proceed to start the winning early. The entire cast of characters for our San Diego adventure was:

Me!
David “Web” Ochoa (the Mexicutioner, the Ocho, the Plataforma Champion, among other titles)
Josh “wrapter” Utter-Leyton
Brad “Fffreak” Nelson
Conley Woods
Owen Turtenwald
Eric “Efro” Froehlich

Plus the residents of the house: one Gabriel Walls, his roommate Kyle, and the winner of the 2011 San Diego Guac-Off, Chris (he narrowly beat me in a 2 to 1 judges decision when we compared homemade guacamole).

The theme of the week was Limited, as we probably spent 90% of our Magic playing time doing drafts. The problem with getting too deep into Constructed was that the Starcitygames Open was going to heavily influence the metagame, and testing against just our brews wasn’t incredibly productive. I’m not saying we didn’t do any work on Constructed, since we certainly got a bunch of lists fleshed out, but we didn’t really get into the hard testing until Paris. Conveniently enough, the absence of PV provided us a good excuse. After all, he was such a critical part of our testing process, so we might as well wait until we met him in Paris. Right? Right? The question “draaaaaaaaaaaaft?” certainly had nothing to do with our reluctance to play Constructed…

Lessons Learned in Limited

Unsurprisingly, I gravitated towards drafting control decks during our week in the house, often blue-based. However, I soon found that all sorts of archetypes were viable. If I had to distill the format to a few simple rules (as I tried to do with Cheon last week in Denver…more on that later), they would be the following:

1) Be flexible.

When I open a six-mana card in the first pack of Scars, I basically never pass it (by six mana card I mean Hoard-Smelter Dragon, Carnifex Demon, Sunblast Angel, and occasionally Volition Reins). You play so few colored cards in this format, so having your red be Hoard-Smelter plus Shatter is perfectly acceptable. I’ve on more than one occasion switched colors even as late as pack three, since the good cards in this format are just so good. In order to enable this, I also try to keep one of my colors heavy and one light, so I can drop the minor color if need be.

2) Don’t pass Fangren Marauder (also known as the Jurassic Park rule)

Seriously, don’t. This is easily the most underrated card in the set, and I’m probably doing myself a disservice by letting everyone know. In our second or third draft, Conley questioned the validity of any draft that let Fangren Marauder go 13th (as it did). We all made fun of him for that, but guess who got the last laugh? This rule is actually more general than it looks, since Fangren Marauder is the kind of card I like in this format. It doesn’t tie you into any specific deck, and is consistent and powerful. It’s no surprise that most of the people polled by Nate Price at GP Denver said Dinosaurs was their favorite deck.

3) If you are going to draft White, commit hard.

This might fly in the face of rule 1, but trying to draft a light white deck is destined for failure. In order to draft a good white deck, you are going to want 9-11 Plains in your deck, if not more. All of white’s good cards are both aggressive and heavy on colored mana symbols, making two-color decks hard to run unless you commit strongly to white. Sure, splashing Arrest and Divine Offering is fine, but trying to draft any real number of white cards without going the whole way is a tough sell. For an example of an ideal white deck, take a look at Martin Juza’s deck from the GP Denver Top 8:

Yeah, it’s the nuts. Even if you aren’t quite as skilled/fortunate/Czech as Martin, this is the sort of thing you should be aiming for. All the white decks that did well in our testing and the actual tournaments were aggressive heavy white decks that only played a second color for a couple cards. I like hedging as much as the next guy, but sometimes you just have to slam that Leonin Skyhunter and swing for the fences.

There is obviously more to Limited, but I generally try and keep my options open, as the above rules suggest. You would think that means I don’t draft white very often, but I ended up drafting aggressive RW decks in three of the four drafts I did at the Pro Tour/GP Denver. Hey, I might like my Sky-Eel Schools and Fangren Marauders, but you still have to go with what you are passed.

Once we got to the Pro Tour, it was pretty obvious that other people had different card evaluations than we did. In Web’s first draft, his first five picks were (or something very close, I may have gotten one or two switched, though it doesn’t really matter for the point I’m making):

 

The reason it doesn’t matter which got switched is that none of these should have been in the pack after the first two picks, barring some ridiculous rare + a Corrupted Conscience. Mortarpod in particular is for some reason a tricky card for most people to evaluate. Let me inform you now: it’s insane. It’s basically Contagion Clasp, but actually better in non-infect decks, and Clasp almost never gets passed (except to PV, sixth pick, like in the Pro Tour…). The fun didn’t stop at first picks, as Morbid Plunder routinely got shipped with five cards left in the pack, and it’s one of the best commons. Draft at the Pro Tour was fun times, and our record after Day 1 in draft was like 23-4 or something absurd. Day two was a little tougher, but we still emerged with some pretty sweet scores.

Finding the Blade for Standard

This ground has been pretty well covered, so I’ll try and keep it brief.

Backing up to pre-Paris, we had a lot of work to do. We touched down with a gauntlet of decks and a few thoughts, but nothing insane. Kibler was locked on UW from the get-go, but that was actually fine. If UW was good, we would have a very tested list, and having him dead set on it let us spend our time working on other things, knowing he would be testing UW.

While we did leave most of our Constructed testing until Paris, once we started testing Constructed, we really started testing it. We jammed a ton of games in a ton of matchups, switching out cards and changing decklists to gain more information. The real breakthrough came when Stoneforge Mystic and Sword of Feast and Famine were added to Caw-go. It didn’t take long before realized how insane it was. It started as two Mystics and one Sword, then became three and a Sword and a Bonehoard (though it sucked), and soon after that we were locked into four Mystics. As has been repeated many times, STONEFORGE MYSTIC IS BITTERBLOSSOM. It really is! Games with Mystic on turn two meant you never had to tap out mainphase again and they were under a fast clock. Those factors combined to make all the conditional counters just straight up ridiculous, since there was no way to outwait Spell Pierce or Mana Leak when getting slammed by a Sword every turn.

The next few days were all refining and tuning, and the resulting list was a testament to the hard work of pretty much everyone on the team. Even the Ocho put in his two cents, and gave us the Sylvok Lifestaff tech that proved critical in the aggro matchups. I can honestly say that this is the best Standard deck I’ve ever played in a tournament. Even the fact that other people got to the same idea (see the Japanese lists for examples) doesn’t take away from that fact. Every match I felt like I was head and shoulders ahead of the opponent, and only the Boros matchup felt really tough.

As you well know, the deck performed insanely well, putting four copies in the Top 16 and two in the Top 8, including a win.

As for my tournament?

I started 4-1, with my only loss being to Valakut, and in a pretty nice situation. I had him dead in three turns with Colonnade, with a Deprive in my hand against his empty grip. Unfortunately, he drew Raging Ravine (known in our group as Raging Levine, in honor of level three judge Eric Levine) followed by two Mountains, which combined with his singular Valakut was easily able to outrace the Colonnade. I don’t think I’m anywhere near a lock to win that game, but he did have to hit either two gas spells in three draws or the lone Raging Ravine (a card we thought was horrible in Valakutk, much to my bitter amusement).

Draft one was pretty sweet. I opened Kuldotha Flamefiend, stayed mostly in red pack 1, then slammed a [card]Sunblast Angel[/card] pick one pack two. That was followed by a second pick Sunblast Angel in the third pack, which combined to make my deck a pretty spicy number. I managed to 3-0 despite being Sunblast flooded in some games, and had to sweat out a pretty nice match where I was dead to the [card]Red Sun’s Zenith[/card] I knew was in his deck for around 8 turns (I knew it was in his deck because he Fireballed me for half my life total some turns before, figuring that was his best out).

I ended the day at 7-1, along with half the people in our dinner party (with BenS being 8-0 like a sack). The next day was a big one, so we crashed pretty early after dinner.

Day two was a grind. I again drafted RW, though this time my deck was way more aggressive. I beat PV
in a close feature match. Game one was especially tight, with both of us making some pretty tough attacks and blocks. At one point he chumped a Rusted Slasher with a 3/3 instead of a Wall of Tanglecord (my guy was at six power due to equipment), which ended up costing him. He drew Panic Spellbomb and would have had lethal, but instead got Necrogen Censer’ed out. I could have cast the Censer earlier, but him knowing he was at four less life would definitely have impacted his blocks, as he chose to take six the following turn. Sadly, that started PV on the path to 0-3ing the draft, despite having what we all thought was a sweet deck.

After beating PV, Shouta Yasooka destroyed me in roughly eight minutes. I actually love playing against Shouta (well, except for the part about him being insanely good). We both play super-fast, and all the matches have been enjoyable. I got pretty lucky against him in Amsterdam, and he more than took his revenge in Paris. I even sided in Concussive Bolt for some sweet mising potential, but when I went for it game two he had a metalcrafted Dispense Justice to completely own me. Arbalest + Soliton soon followed, and I was 8-2.

I won my last round very easily, advancing to 9-2.

Lest you think I’m being arrogant, let me explain some terminology we developed in San Diego. After Owen was asked who won between him and Gabe in a draft round, Owen answered “I won very easily”, since he seemed to have Gabe’s number that whole week. So, whenever someone asked one of us if we won or lost and we won, we would invariably answer “I won very easily” or some variant of that. It doesn’t matter if it was easy or not (and my third draft round was a tight three-game match), the answer was always “I won very easily”. Of course, if you lost, there was also an expression for that: “I got ranched”. Conley was the inventor of that turn of phrase, so feel free to ask him about the origins.

The last five Constructed rounds weren’t nearly as sweet as the first five. Not only did my record get worse, I also played a bunch of tough matchups. It’s like the later rounds of the tournament are harder than the earlier ones. Weird.

I got ranched by BenS in the mirror, beat two Boros decks very easily, and then beat Kamiel with mono-white, also very easily.

Ok, while the match against BenS was a complete ranching, both my Boros matches were the closest possible, as I won on one life multiple games. The games were insanely complicated, with some highlights as follows:

Against Matthias Hunt, I had to bite the bullet game one. I was facing down two guys, and could either play Jace and Brainstorm or bounce a dude. The problem was that I had no follow-up, so Brainstorming was my only good option. Do you know how agonizing it is to tap out for Jace when your opponent has you pretty much dead with any spell or any land? As it turned out, he could only get me to one, and never drew a burn spell in the next six turns. I managed to stick a Gideon on turn five, and between my two mighty planeswalkers, I was able to stop his creatures from killing me.

I was a little flooded game three, but instead of him casting Koth and destroying me, he held it, worried about counters. I had actually sided out all the counters, and him not knowing that completely won me the game.

The next round, I faced Kyle Stoll with what I learned later was a 75-card clone of Matthias’ deck, as they roomed together for the PT. I had a pretty sweet game one, as him not knowing my decklist again won me a game. At the end of his turn four, he passed with four lands untapped and just a Steppe Lynx in play. I put in a Sword with Mystic, then tried to equip it on my turn. He Lightning Bolted, but since I had the one maindeck Deprive, I was able to smash, play a Jace, and bounce his Lynx. His play was fine, since he was safe against Mana Leak and equipping would make me waste my turn, but I got him pretty well with that Deprive. Of course, if I didn’t have the Deprive there was no way I was equipping, since I could kinda tell what he had.

Game three was insanely close as well. Hero of Oxid Ridge put me to one (and it wasn’t the last time he would beat the crap out of me that day), after which I Wrathed and crossed my fingers. If he had ANY burn I was dead, though Gideon did stop Haste guys from ruining me. He followed that up with Koth + Spikeshot Elder, which I thought was odd. He only had two Mountains, so Elder wasn’t lethal immediately, but if he waited until he had one more red, I was just dead. Instead, I had the second Wrath, and again got to pass the turn. He missed, and I slammed a bunch of Hawks on the table.

Again, I was dead to anything. Every draw step he took was incredibly tense, since we were only two rounds away from the Top 8. He peeled his own Hawk, which turned into three Hawks. On my turn, I drew Sylvok Lifestaff and saw the light at the end of the tunnel. I put Sword and Staff on a Hawk and smashed. After he chumped with Hawk, I moved Sword off, killing my Hawk and gaining me three life in the process. Had he not blocked, I would have floated mana with the Sword trigger on the stack and activated Celestial Colonnade. Postcombat I would equip Staff to Colonnade and then Tectonic Edge it, a move I actually made earlier in the tournament against mono-red while at one life. After gaining three, I was pretty much out of range, and he even had to attack into Gideon on his turn, putting me to seven once I traded Hawks.

I was then 11-3, and had to play for Top 8 in the next round. I beat Kamiel’s mono-white deck, in large part thanks to Ratchet Bomb. My opening hand game three was Ratchet Bomb, Stoneforge Mystic, Day of Judgment, and four lands on the play. Yup, that’s the actual nuts, and I did in fact win easily that game (though games one and two were close).

At 12-3, I got plenty of congratulations, though I knew I wasn’t a lock, and certainly didn’t feel like one. I had been in this position before, at PT London in 2005, my third Pro Tour. I had the right number of wins and losses to draw in, but breakers betrayed me, and I was forced to play for it. The resulting feature match was pretty incredible, and definitely one of the best matches I’ve ever played.

Then we had this.

As soon as I heard the feature match announcement, I knew the facts. I would have to play for my Top 8 slot, and against none other than the best Boros player playing the worst matchup for Caw-go. Oh well, them’s the breaks (or lack of tiebreaks, in this case). Paul ranched me, killing me turn four on the play in both games one and three, with the second game being the only close one. At least I got the bad news rapidly, and could find solace in the fact that nothing I could have done would matter, as his draws just completely outclassed mine. Not the best way to end a tournament, and being disappointed at getting 10th may sound odd, but that’s how it was.

Still, we had awesome results, 10th is still a sweet finish, and BenS ended up winning the tournament, so I would say that Paris was a resounding success. I wish I could say the same about GP Paris and GP Denver, but I wasn’t able to put up great results at either.

Sealed

I liked both my decks at the Grands Prix, and wasn’t even that unhappy with how I built them. That didn’t stop me from going 6-3 at both tournaments, though that was good enough to sneak in to day 2 in Denver. I then followed that up with a 3-3 draft performance, which was again not great. The best part about Denver was watching Paul Cheon make Top 8 alongside Owen and Martin. Cheon was my roommate, playtest partner, and travel buddy for the first two years I was on the train, and we both leveled up together. Neither of us would have done well without the other, and when he retired I was pretty bummed out. Having him back, even for just a tournament or two, is completely awesome, and I can honestly say that I’m as happy with him making Top 8 as I would be if I did. Now, if I can only get him to go to Nagoya…

As for Sealed tips, here’s what I got:

1) Splashing is usually good.

Unless you have the nut deck, splashing a third color for removal or a bomb like Red Sun’s Zenith or Fangren Marauder is the best choice. Yes, Fangren Marauder is even better in Sealed, since infect isn’t as common. You have to beat such ridiculous cards in this format, so playing all the removal you can is just the best strategy.

2) Always play your best cards

Much like in draft, there are enough artifacts here to play any combination of colors. I’ve happily played black for just Carnifex Demon and Skinrender, and I don’t think I would almost ever bench a Hoard-Smelter Dragon. Unless you have equivalent bombs in three colors, there’s really no excuse to bench the best rares in your pool.

3) Don’t play much equipment

The only equipment I like in sealed is the kind that provides a huge advantage. Living weapons are fine, as is Darksteel Axe (since it doesn’t die), but the vast majority is just terrible. Playing equipment that is fine in draft is just asking to get Turned to Slag or just out-removaled, as games aren’t won by Accorder’s Shield or Piston Sledge very often. The abundance of removal and big threats makes equipment just a bad idea.

4) Draw first and play 17 lands max

The games go long and are attrition-based, so I like to draw and rarely play more than 17 land. Flood is a legitimate concern in the longer games, so going a little light on mana is a good call.

5) Open Hoard-Smelter Dragon

This one is pretty self-explanatory.

As for me, I’m looking forward to some time at home. I’m undecided on GP Kobe for the moment, and just like the fact that I don’t have to be anywhere anytime soon. Mirrodin Besieged coming out online on Thursday doesn’t hurt, since recording drafts will begin in full swing as soon as that happens. I know we have been light on video content recently, but that will be fixed in short order once the new set comes out.

It’s been a tiring couple weeks, but the times have been good and the team has done well, making me very happy with how it all turned out.

LSV

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