I really never expected to cast Wild Nacatl at Pro Tour: San Diego. Jace, the Mind Sculptor, sure. Cruel Ultimatum, why not? And, if all else failed, maybe even Sprouting Thrinax. But really, Wild Nacatl? Of course, it wasn’t until pretty late in the game that Wild Nacatls were even on our radar, so I really should just start from the beginning.
Our initial test group for the Pro Tour was basically just what I had been doing for the past year. I took the core of myself, PV, Web, Josh Utter-Leyton, and GerryT, and added all the local qualified players that we could test with. Pretty simple, and heavily reliant on face-to-face testing, since I have been not impressed with online collaboration, especially since Magic Online generally doesn’t have the latest set used in each Pro Tour. In this case, there were a bunch of local players, since qualifying for a “local” Pro Tour seemed to get everyone properly motivated, so we had Tom Raney, GP: Oakland Champion Matt Nassty, Phil Yam, Brandon Tabaldo, and Iaiaiaiaian Bartolomei on the list. Testing started like it usually does; a bunch of kind of loose ideas thrown around in email, until the set comes out and decks get built.
The initial batch of decks we had included the following:
Vampires (nice deck)
UW or UG Progenitus Polymorph
Guess which deck I spent the most time on? If your answer included the cards Cruel Ultimatum and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, you win the prize.
I really wanted this deck to be good; it had all the sweet cards in it. Jace, Cruel, Calcite Snapper, Treasure Hunt, removal, everything. I tested Blue-based control more than anything else by far, with UWR Planeswalker control being the other sweet Blue deck. I think I got this list pretty well tuned, although it certainly went through many modifications, but in the end I wasn’t satisfied. I was well aware of the danger of playing a deck just because I wanted to; forcing the issue can often lead you down a very dangerous path. I’m very glad that I kept that in mind, since as much as I wanted to play the deck, I just knew it wasn;t good enough. This format seems to lend itself much better to being proactive, and if you look at the Top 8, there aren’t any true control decks. Jund and Naya can both take the controlling role, but they can also beat down if needed, unlike Blue decks, and even Niels’ deck is an Open the Vaults combo/control hybrid. I suppose it definitely does lean more towards the control end of the spectrum, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend playing it, at least until a few more lands get added. Nassif did just barely miss Top 8, so it is certainly possible that the UW deck he played is sweet, but I haven’t really taken a look at it.
The counterspells are just too bad and the threats to good, and we at least were not able to put together a control deck that I was comfortable registering at the Pro Tour.
About this time, I got a phone call from GerryT. Apparently, Gabe Walls was feeling a bit restless, and decided that it was time for him to play a little Magic, so I was informed a week and a half before GP: Oakland that Gwalls and GerryT would be arriving in San Jose in two days. Needless to say, that was good news. I managed to arrange things so that they flew into the airport that was 10 minutes away from Superstars, so I actually drew into Top 8 of a GPT and then picked Gabe up during the last round. Gerry had gotten in a bit earlier, so despite my offer of a ride, he decided to take a cab. We did plenty of burdling during the week, and a few days later PV showed up, who was staying at my house, while Gabe and Gerry stayed at a hotel two blocks away. Every “morning” I would pick up the donks to go eat lunch, and we would test/MODO for most of the day, either at my place or Superstars. An exhausting schedule, but we got a decent amount done, even if we hadn’t found anything too insane yet.
I know I have said it many times, but it bears repeating: testing is a multi-part process, and experience testing the format is extremely valuable, even if you aren’t testing any of the decks you end up playing. The matches spent battling Grixis vs Jund, or Vampires against Mono-Green, or whatever, all add up, and all of them provide you with understanding of the format. Knowing card interactions, knowing what cards most decks will play, finding better lists for your gauntlet: all of that is what it takes to really prepare for a format. We only had three days to work on Boss Naya (although much of the work had obviously been done by Tom), and if we hadn’t put in countless hours testing up until that point, those three days would not nearly have been enough to make it as good as it was. Testing is a whole article by itself, but I just want to point out that there is no substitute for playing actual games. Near the end of the process, theory becomes extremely important, since you just can’t test everything, but in order for you to form correct theory, you need vast amounts of experience. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but let’s just say that none of us ever saw a Cunning Sparkmage in play before the PT, yet we were all confident that it was insane.
Back to the preparation! During the week before GP: Oakland, we obviously spent some time on Extended, what with the GP, but Standard was the top priority. By that, I mean that me and Gerry just played Extended on MTGO while Gabe and PV made all sorts of sweet Standard decks, like Naya Land Destruction, RG Warp World, BG Bloodghast Eldrazi Monument, and more. Web even won a PTQ while at my place on Thursday, which was kind of funny. I actually wish we just played most of the PTQ deck sideboard in the GP, since the four Deathmarks from the PTQ would have helped in my two Zoo losses at the GP, where I only had two Deathmarks. As soon as the PTQ finals ended, we left to pick up Ben Stark from the airport, making our playtest group nearly complete.
The Grand Prix went well enough, even if Top 32 isn’t that exciting, and it was pretty sweet that Matt Nass took it down. I do kind of wish that the title of the coverage page was “Matt gets Nassty in Oakland,” and let me tell you, that phrase may have been said a few times since. If we had a better sideboard, maybe we would have had some good finishes, since as is I think our deck underperformed. I do apologize for not being able to get an article up last week, but my time just vanished, what with the Pro Tour and everything else (and playing host / driver to all the out-of-town people and all that). It came down to all of my time just being accounted for, and since I still had to make sure all the other articles went up and all the other stuff happened in terms of logistics, and my own article kind of fell through the cracks.
After Oakland, it was time to really focus, and we didn’t have anything too exciting. Luckily, we had the Boss on our side. As expected, just about everyone who was playing in Pro Tour San Diego came a week early to play in GP Oakland, and that included some of the other writers for Channelfireball. Brad Nelson we had already been in contact with, and once the Boss (Tom Ross) showed up, we had a good group of people to test with. We did a lot of battling, ran some mock tournaments (which I liked), and talked a lot about our perceptions of the decks and the format. The tournaments in particular helped us get a better feel for the decks, especially since it made playtesting conditions much tighter. Normally, playtesting is kind of loose, since both people are talking about plays, figuring stuff out, etc, which is all fine, but by making the format into a tournament, we had some good serious games too. We also played more with sideboards, and saw how the games played out. The tournament results were not nearly as important as how the games played out, and what the feel of the matches was like. After losing a bunch with Grixis, I finally gave it a rest.
The Boss is going to be talking more in-depth about his Naya list, but this was the point where we started to really work on it. He played it in the mock tournaments on Monday night, and Gwalls instantly thought the deck was insane. That was surprising, since it was not the type of deck a Gwalls would normally be attracted to, which does mean something. On Tuesday we met at Superstars again to keep playing, and this time we built three copies of Naya. After a day of facing Jund, Vampires, and UWR, we were all pretty sold. It wasn’t like Naya was crushing them all, but it was doing well enough against everything that it seemed like a solid choice. After all, this is Standard, so there isn’t some insane 80/20 deck that just breaks the format. Unlike most of the non-Jund decks we found, Boss Naya seemed to be either 50-50ish or better in almost every matchup but some specific Jund and UW lists, and that was good enough. Sadly, I played against one of those Jund lists in the Top 4 of the Pro Tour, but that comes way later.
If we had another week we probably would have all had the same 75, but we didn’t have quite enough time to completely hammer out the maindeck and sideboard lists, so there were some variations. My “spice cards” were as follows:
Other cards people played were one maindeck Dauntless Escort, a maindeck Naya Charm, a third maindeck Ajani Vengeant, and sideboarded Great Sable Stags, Qasali Pridemages, and a third Dauntless Escort. I was really happy with the Baneslayer Angels, and would cut the maindeck Elspeth for one and leave the other two in the sideboard, possibly even going up to 3 in the board.
Here is the list I registered:
Knight of the Reliquary, Bloodbraid Elf, and Ranger of Eos are the cornerstones of the deck, with the Nacatls and mana accelerators there to basically enable them. This deck is sweet because it can play both aggro or control reasonably well, and has a ton of card advantage mechanisms to make sure it flows smoothly. The mana can be a little dicey against decks that aggressively kill your one-drops, but if they do that they run the risk of losing to a Knight, so most decks can’t afford to kill everything.
After a quick flight and a nice cube match against Gwalls on the plane (where he tried to lethal me twice, and both times got destroyed by Lightning Helix), we were in San Diego! We headed to the site, and it was closed until 4, so we went back to the hotel and started battling. A good session against UWR control later and we had our board pretty much figured out. The player “dinner” was nothing of the sort, and there was literally no food left when we got there like 20 minutes after it was supposed to start. From what I heard, even the meager amount that was put out was limited to some cold cuts or something, which is a bit disappointing. The dinner at PT: Honolulu was so awesome last year, and I was looking forward to what San Diego had to offer. I really love the San Diego location, and wish there was a PT there every year, but the food at the player dinner is always abysmal for some reason. We decided against drafting, and just headed back to the hotel after eating at The Spaghetti Factory. Speaking of which, I want to mention the “new” credit card game.
For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the credit card game is a way to make dinner a bit more entertaining. At the end of the meal, everyone who wants to game throws their card in the ring, and one by one the cards are eliminated randomly, until the last card standing pays for the meal. It’s a fun way to not have to worry about splitting the bill, and theoretically should break everyone about even if everyone orders similar things. Nobody has to play, and many people choose to buy out and just pay for their portion. Now, the new game takes it to the next level. Normally, the “winner” pays for the meal minus the buyouts, so if 8 people game a 20 dollar meal and two people buy out, the winner pays 120 dollars. Under the new rules, the runner-up (the 2nd to last person eliminated) keeps all the buyout money, and the last person standing pays the entire bill. It doesn’t change the overall odds, but it makes the game infinitely more exciting. Now, if you are eliminated early, you are safe, but you know you won’t be up money, which is way cooler, and it makes the finals much more interesting. In this case, Gabe and Josh U-L faced off in the finals, with Josh walking away with like 70 dollars and Gabe paying the whole bill. This was especially sweet because when Gabe ordered his meal, he asked for a Caesar salad on the side instead of the one you get for free, and specifically requested an upgrade to “whatever costs more” just to up his value in the game.
Alright, enough durdling. I’m sure everyone wants to hear more match reports and less talk about Gwalls buying dinner, as entertaining as it was to everyone involved.
We decided last minute to add two Baneslayers and the Elspeth, and I happened to borrow the Elspeth from none other than”¦
Round 1 vs Phil Yam
He mulliganed game one and I was on the play, both of which are pretty big in the mirror. I had a pretty good curve, obviously including a one-drop, so after a few turns of beatdown he was dead. That sounds pretty boring, but our games were pretty lopsided.
Sideboarding is really tricky with this deck, since in most matchups there are like 70 of your 75 cards that could theoretically be good, and you have to cut 10 of them. The only cards I knew I didn’t want were the Manabarbs, the Goblin Guide, and the Dauntless Escort, so I went from there. I ended up cutting down to 1 Wild Nacatl and 1 Ranger Eos, since my other fours were just better, and the Nacatls and Rangers can’t compete with either Knight of the Reliquary or Cunning Sparkmage + Basilisk Collar.
The Birds also get cut because of Sparkmage, since I didn’t want to have too many 1-toughness guys.
It was my turn to mulligan in game two, and he had turn two Knight, turn three Woolly Thoctar, turn four Woolly Thoctar. I tried to battle with an Ajani, a Path to Exile, and some guys, since my draw was decent, but the second Thoctar was the nail in my coffin. Elspeth + Basilisk Collar was pretty sick, and it would have been enough if his draw was just a little slower. The Collars did make me reconsider boarding out the Rangers, since having a stream of deathtouch Nacatls seems good, but I had to cut something, and they can always Oblivion Ring Collar, at which point the plan kind of falls apart.
Game three was much better for me, since he decided to start with five cards in hand. Again, the game was decided by the person on the play churning out a bunch of guys, which is definitely how some mirror games go. I don’t think they all go that way, since if both players draw a good amount of removal, the game heads towards a much more drawn-out state, with lifelink equipment and Baneslayers being a pain to overcome. In any case, our games were pretty quick and we ended the round with time to spare.
Round Two vs Maxim Zrelov
Uh-oh, a Russian. I am currently 0-5 lifetime in Premier Events vs Russians, although four of those are against Nicolay Potovin, who unfortunately hasn’t been able to make it out to any big events recently (although I guess lucky for me, even though I would rather him be battling again).
I kept an unexciting hand of Lightning Bolt, Ajani Vengeant, Ranger, Bloodbraid, Forest, Mountain, Terramorphic Expanse, which is fine in the dark. The Bolt makes it keepable, since it should buy me enough time to hit my powerful four drops. Unfortunately, Maxim was playing Grixis, and my hand all of a sudden got much less exciting. He did make the somewhat odd play of attacking with Creeping Tar Pit on turn four, which I promptly Bolted. I then drew Sejiri Steppe, and I hadn’t drawn any other lands yet, so I had to play it and ship the turn back. I’m pretty sure that if I slammed Ajani there the game would be almost over. He laid another land and passed back, so I led with Bloodbraid Elf. It only cascaded into a Bolt, and immediately died to his Bolt.
On his next turn I thought I was dead, since he had the sweet play of land, Time Warp, land, Time Warp, which got him directly from five to seven mana! Luckily, it became apparent that he was lacking the Cruel Ultimatum, since he just played his seventh land and shipped the turn back. At this point I thought I might be ok, since his four cards obviously weren’t any sort of real action. I dropped Ranger, which resolved, and got Scute Mob and Wild Nacatl, although I was still on four lands. On his turn he only had an eighth land, and nothing else.
I tried an Elspeth precombat, and he instantly Negated it, since he was probably pretty happy to use his mostly-useless Negate. I bashed for three, but his Bolt killed my Ranger. I didn’t know he didn’t have Earthquake by any means, since he may have been slowrolling it to get Scute Mob, but I was on borrowed time, since a peeled Cruel would just end the game. I decided to just drop a Nacatl for now, and force him to do something to it. He again laid a land and did nothing, which was a good sign.
I drew a Bloodbraid, which was sweet, and hit with that plus Nacatl after cascading into Bird. I again decided not to play Scute Mob, since Earthquake would blow me out. He peeled a Jace, and Brainstormed, but that was it. Since he was pretty low, I just hit him, but his Agony Warp stopped me from getting any damage through. With Jace out, I couldn’t really waste any more time, so I just played Ajani and Scute Mob, and Ajani’ed him down to 3. He could no longer Earthquake my whole team, since my Wild Nacatl was a 3/3 (he killed Bloodbraid over Nacatl with Warp due to Jace’s Unsummon ability). On the last possible turn, Jace found a Cruel Ultimatum, although the game was far from over. He also had to hit removal for my Scute Mob, but sadly did that as well.
I still had a Nacatl and Ajani out, and those plus a peeled Ranger (nice timing, Antoine) forced him to rip another Cruel, which luckily he did not. Whew, what a grind. I like that until the Cruel, I had more cards in hand than him at all times, since Ranger and Bloodbraid are just that sick.
I kept the two O-Rings in for Jace, although I declined adding the third.
Game two was much less close than game 1, since he kept a hand without Blue mana. He did manage to kill my first couple guys, but after I untapped with Bloodbraid in play and him on 12 and tapped out, the Manabarbs I slammed just ended the game. He picked it up, read it, frowned, read it again, and took his turn. On his turn he played his fifth land and second Blue source, and read Manabarbs again, presumably looking at his four Time Warps and Cruel Ultimatum in hand with dismay. He smiled and said that he couldn’t beat the Barbs, which has been me in every other match where Manabarbs has been on the table.
Round Three vs Alan Comer
This was a feature match, which was covered here.
I didn’t know what Alan was playing, although I suspected it was some combo deck, since that seems to be his sort of thing. I was pleasantly surprised when he played a Noble Hierarch on turn one, since our Green matchup is pretty unreal. I killed his first two mana dudes, dropped a Knight and an Ajani, and just bashed. His Rhox War Monk plus Finest hour wasn’t nearly enough to get him in the game. Now that I think about it, I lost zero games this tournament where I untapped with Knight of the Reliquary in play
Game two was equally lopsided, as my plays in succession were: Knight, Ajani to kill Rafiq of the Many, Path on his Baneslayer, Bloodbraid into Sparkmage, and Basilisk Collar. The Bant matchup isn’t particularly close, since you have 10 must-kill guys (Knight, Sparkmage, Baneslayer) and they don’t have many removal spells.
Round Four vs Leo Facca
I was glad to dodge some of the Boss’ other employees, since PV, Tom Raney, the Boss himself, and I were all 3-0.
Leo led with Plains after a mull to six, then didn’t play a land on turn two, then again on turn three, at which point he scooped. I wasn’t sure what he was playing, but I thought it was way more likely that he was some sort of GW or MonoW deck than UW control, since UW control just can’t keep a one-land non-Blue hand, whereas GW or especially Mono-W could definitely run it. I sideboarded like I did against Bant.
He ended up being WW, which I was definitely a fan of. All his guys were smaller than mine, and I had more removal and Planeswalkers, so the only thing I was really worried about was Conqueror’s Pledge.
It was my turn to mulligan game two, and I kept Birds, Forest, Plains, Sparkmage, Baneslayer, Path. He dropped an Elite Vanguard into a Sigiled Paladin, which I was pretty happy to see. After eating his dude with my Sparkmage, the game took a turn for the worse. He played Kor Skyfisher, Knight of the White Orchid, and Honor the Pure, and had a Harm’s Way when I tried a Lightning Bolt. Once my Baneslayer got Pathed I was just dead.
About two minutes after shuffling up for game three, it was over. Turn one fetchland, Hierarch, turn two Knight, turn three Bloodbraid into Knight. The only thing I could lose to was Day of Judgment, and even then I would have gas in hand against his two cards and low life. Turns out he didn’t have Day, and had to chump block my 7/7 Knights on turn four. Nice draw etc.
Round Five vs Gaudenis Vidugiris
This was another feature match.
Sweet, another Bant deck! I knew Sam Black was Bant, so I obviously put Gau on the same thing.
He thought a little about keeping his hand game one, and after playing a Lotus Cobra but no third land on turn three, it was obvious why. I instantly killed the Cobra, then killed his follow up Knight, and ran him over with a Bloodbraid and a Knight.
Sideboarding: +4 Sparkmage, +1 Collar, +1 Mystic, +2 Baneslayer, +1 O-Ring
-4 Ranger –4 Nacatl, -1 Elspeth
Game two was strange, and would change how I sideboarded for the rest of the tournament. It was the most drawn-out game of the tournament for me, since we both drew a million lands. After he Bant Charmed a bunch of times, I realized that I probably shouldn’t board out all my Rangers, since it was more of an attrition war than I previously thought. I got him to seven with a Collared Mystic, but he eventually stuck a Knight and searched out a never-ending succession of manlands to kill me.
I reboarded for game three, cutting three Bolts for 2 Rangers and a Nacatl. Bolts only killed his Cobras and Hierarchs most of the time anyway, and I had Sparkmages for that.
There wasn’t much attrition game three anyway, as it turned out. I had Birds turn one, Stoneforge for Behemoth Sledge turn two (since I already had Collar), and simply land, go, turn four. He played Knight on his turn three, and I dropped Collar into play with Stoneforge Mystic’s ability, then went land, Sparkmage, equip Collar, which killed his Knight. After I edged his only non-Green mana source, he packed it up shortly.
After going 5-0 in the first set of Constructed, I was dreading drafting. While I had been doing better in drafts since my terrible run at the end of last year, I still wasn’t really happy with the format. It is too fast and too aggressive for my liking, and for reasons other than “I want to always play control”. If anyone stumbles at all, most games just end, and that isn’t good. Swingy cards like landfall guys and ridiculously fast games just make it really hard to win on a consistent basis, and this is a complaint that many players have echoed, even some who have been winning. That all being said, I did feel like I was drafting the format something approaching correctly, as I had given up on any hope of not being the beatdown.
My first pod was as follows:
1 Goldman-Kirst, Martin [USA] 15 72.00%
2 Kitayama, Masaya [JPN] 15 72.00%
3 Ford, Jason [USA] 15 68.00%
4 Gardner, Daniel [ENG] 15 60.00%
5 Wescoe, Craig [USA] 15 60.00%
6 Elfgren, Bertil [SWE] 15 60.00%
7 Raney, Tom [USA] 15 58.66%
8 Scott-Vargas, Luis [USA] 15 57.33%
I knew Tom, of course, but the only other names I recognized were Craig Wescoe, and Masaya Kitayama. When I sat down I realized that Dan Gardner was the former Great Britain National Champ, but the rest of the table was still unknown to me.
I would go in-depth on this draft, but it was honestly just too easy. I opened Marsh Casualties plus nothing, and then second-picked Gatekeeper of Malakir over nothing. I did have a reasonably tough call pack three, where I took Vampire Lacerator over Shepherd of the Lost, but I don’t think taking the Shepherd is very good there. WB always does terribly for me, so I decided to not get greedy and stay focused. I ended up being the only Black drafter anywhere near me, and was rewarded with a fifth-pick Anowon, the Ruin Sage (over Smother even), which nicely rounded out the deck.
Round Six vs Daniel Gardner
Neither of these games were close at all, and both even went almost exactly the same. I had turn one Guul Draz Vampire, turn two Adventuring Gear, and on turn five he binned a bunch of cards. Game one it was because I had Mind Sludge for his whole hand after Smothering his Loam Lion, and game two it was because I cast Marsh Casualties to kill his Greenweaver Druid, Omnath, Locus of Mana, and Kor Hookmaster. Game two I even had the turn six Sludge for the full blowout. Dan ended up 2-1ing the pod, since his WG deck was pretty insane as well.
Round Seven vs Craig Wescoe
This was a feature match, but it wasn’t covered. After some good chats with Craig, we began to battle.
Game one was really weird, since he had a Basilisk Collar and two guys out the whole game, but never did anything. Of course, the two guys both being Calcite Snappers kind of explains that, seeing as I Sludged away everything else. I eventually found a Crypt Ripper and he just died.
I kept a slow hand game two, but his deck didn’t seem overly fast, so it was ok. He had turn one Collar, but didn’t play a guy for a while. It seemed likely he had Cancel, so I just kept attacking with a 1/1 Vampire of some kind until he tapped out for Sky Ruin Drake. At the point, I had a nice series of plays. I Sludged his hand and then played Anowon, which put him to very few outs. He even drew a bunch of creatures in a row, but losing one a turn was too brutal for him to overcome.
Round Eight vs Masaya Kitayama
Masaya had beaten Tom, so I knew he had a pair of Leatherback Baloths and was Mono-Green.
Game one was pretty sick, since we both got really fast draws. After curving out with one-drop two-drop, I Smothered his turn three Baloth only to see him drop one on turn four. Still, Anowon on turn five eventually ate all his guys, even though he did play a Khalni Garden. He never drew Predatory Urge to make his Baloth a monster, so I was able to stall long enough for The Abyss to do his job.
Game two was equally fast, and this time he had a Kitesail. Even though I had a solid draw, his flying Timbermaw Larva killed me way before I could muster a good offense. If I peeled Marsh Casualties maybe I would be fine, but I didn’t and died promptly.
I thought about mulliganing game three, since my opener was Anowon, Vampire’s Bite, Adventuring Gear, and four Swamps. I figured that Anowon was almost unbeatable, and the Bite + Gear should let me gain enough life to overcome my slow start. He had his classic turn three and four Baloth start, but I think he just straight up forgot to attack on turn five, as weird as that sounds.
His board was two 4/5’s, and mine was Anowon and Crypt Ripper, with me tapped out. He played Pilgrim’s Eye and shipped the turn quickly, which seems really odd. Either he thought Anowon was a 5/5 or he just forgot to attack, since there is no way he doesn’t offer the Baloth for Anowon trade there. Either way, that extra life helped, and one Smother plus a hit from a Vampire’s Bite-enhanced Anowon gave me plenty of life to survive until he had nothing.
I was pretty excited to 8-0 day one, since the only other PT where I went undefeated day one went pretty well (Kyoto). Further evidence of me running hot was dinner, where I got 2nd in the game, and walked away with like 35 dollars instead of paying for my meal! Raney and the Boss finished 6-2, with PV ending the day at 5-3.
Next week I will wrap up my PT report, and hopefully will have a good finish in Madrid to mention as well, as I get on a plane to Spain in about 12 hours!