The first SCG Invitational was a big deal for me. It was my first event testing with a group IRL, like a team, and our (relative) success there gave me a lot of confidence in my ability to grind for a living, which I was new to at the time.
By the time the second Invitational came around, I had grown an unwieldy ego, and I stumbled on my overconfidence. I took a few decks on recommendation, didn’t put in the time to test, and failed to make day two. After that slap in the face, I resolved never to let complacency hold me back again.
Cue the current season. I knew the third Invitational would be larger than ever, and I started preparing a full month ahead of time. I chose my standard deck early and ground as many games as possible with it. Basically, it was the Esper Control list that Jeremy Neeman played at worlds with only a few minor changes.
My first alteration was the addition of [card]Timely Reinforcements[/card] to the maindeck, shaving a [card]White Sun’s Zenith[/card] and a cantrip. Since Worlds, the format had retained a fairly high level of aggression, and I wasn’t happy with hoping to win games two and three. I didn’t expect many control mirrors, so rather than focusing on beating them maindeck I’d handle them post board.
I really liked the black splash. [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card] does a lot to make up for the deck’s low threat density, as at a certain point I can start binning the lands and taking the threats. As the deck gets thinned, the Zeniths keep shuffling back in, so while the deck will consistently start with a pile of efficient answers it can still convert into a mana-hungry, threat-dense late game.
While [card]Doom Blade[/card]s are one of the best [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] targets, it’s not a reliable early game spell due to the manabase, which features a mere eight sources of black. In the mid game, I was fine with [card]Ghost Quarter[/card]ing myself, but for another cheap removal spell, as well as a Snapcaster target, I squeezed in a miser [card]Dismember[/card]. This meant that when I was digging deep in the late game against poison I’d actually have some live removal, too.
My last change was the addition of a maindeck [card]Ratchet Bomb[/card], which synergized well with the [card]Timely Reinforcements[/card]. Basically, you can nuke the opponent’s board while leaving your tokens in play, giving you a win condition of sorts. Moving the Ratchet Bomb to the maindeck gives me another out to Shrine of Burning Rage while clearing a spot in the board for the control matchups.
[deck]3 Ghost Quarter
3 Drowned Catacomb
2 Darkslick Shores
2 Isolated Chapel
4 Seachrome Coast
4 Glacial Fortress
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
3 Snapcaster Mage
2 Consecrated Sphinx
2 Oblivion Ring
2 Timely Reinforcements
1 Gideon Jura
1 White Sun’s Zenith
3 Think Twice
3 Forbidden Alchemy
4 Mana Leak
3 Day of Judgment
3 Doom Blade
1 Ratchet Bomb
1 Ghost Quarter
2 Timely Reinforcements
1 Day of Judgment
1 Ratchet Bomb
3 Nihil Spellbomb
2 Phantasmal Image
1 Blue Sun’s Zenith
1 Volition Reins
1 Karn Liberated[/deck]
Much of the sideboard is mine. I like [card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card] over [card]Surgical Extraction[/card] because against a [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] deck you can just leave it in play. Most players will sandbag the Snapcaster Mage, hoping you’ll burn the Spellbomb early. This means that your last spell counters their last spell, and you draw a card off of it. Often this comes with some side benefit, like removing creatures for [card]Moorland Haunt[/card] or hitting a stray [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card]. Also, all future Snapcaster Mages will have less to work with.
Something that you can’t see on paper is that the [card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card] preserves a card in play, like a bank account that can be cashed in later. This is relevant on the draw in the control mirrors when you might want to cast [card]Think Twice[/card] and flash it back to hit land drops. Without a turn one spellbomb, your flashback is actually looting as you discard with eight cards in hand. With it, you retain actual card draw.
I like [card]Blue Sun’s Zenith[/card] a lot in the Esper mirror. The opponent taps out at the end of your turn to flashback a [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card], and you respond by drawing six. It doesn’t matter what threat the opponent resolves on his turn, as you probably have drawn an answer to it in six extra cards. While less relevant against the aggro decks, and thus a worse maindeck card than [card]White Sun’s Zenith[/card], the blue counterpart is better at breaking parity in control mirrors and thus makes a better sideboard trump.
[card]Volition Reins[/card] and [card]Karn Liberated[/card] were added late in testing as trumps for the Solar Flare matchup. I was still losing to Flare, but the cards showed their worth in other matchups too, and I thought they had enough value to keep them around, particularly [card]Volition Reins[/card], as I was stealing Karns, papa Garruks, and [card]Hero of Bladehold[/card]s with regularity.
To test the list, I ground. It’s not often that I find a list that’s consistent and generally powerful enough for the random splattering of metagame that magic online throws at you, and I hadn’t really ground the gold two mans since Caw Blade, but this deck definitely had what it takes. Over the span of eleven daily events, I 3-1’d seven of them and 4-0’d two of them, for an almost exactly 75% win percentage. My gold win ratio was comparable, and in St Louis I managed a 7-2-1 record, the draw being in the mirror against Brandon Nelson and the two losses being versus Solar Flare, which was looking like my only miserable matchup. I had a strong X-1 deck on my hands, though X-2 and X-2-1 were certainly in the range.
For legacy, I had been considering two different decks, a mono white Stax list that included [card]Hero of Bladehold[/card] as a method of applying a quick clock, and a BG Nic Fit deck that I’d written three articles on. To make the decision easier, I played the Stax list in the St Louis Open and, while the deck performed reasonably, I only etched out a disappointing X-3 finish, with my friends Zack Strait 7-2ing and Craig Wescoe 1-2 dropping, respectably. A group of legacy types I play with on Monday nights made the decision easier by talking up the BG deck, citing its consistency and their dread of playing against it every week.
When a person I respect gives advice, I listen with a grain of salt. When a group of people I respect give advice, I have to be certain I’m correct to go against them, and since I was on the fence they swayed my decision heavily. Thanks, guys.
This is the deck I registered for the legacy portion:
[deck]1 Wooded Foothills
1 Phyrexian Tower
1 Dryad Arbor
4 Verdant Catacombs
4 Misty Rainforest
2 Eternal Witness
1 Wickerbough Elder
2 Grave Titan
4 Veteran Explorer
1 Kitchen Finks
1Thrun, the Last Troll
2 Scavenging Ooze
1 Deranged Hermit
1 Wall of Blossoms
3 Maelstrom Pulse
1 Liliana of the Veil
1 Go for the Throat
3 Hymn to Tourach
4 Green Sun’s Zenith
4 Cabal Therapy
2 Sensei’s Divining Top
3 Pernicious Deed
1 Kitchen Finks
2 Liliana of the Veil
1 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Nihil Spellbomb
4 Mindbreak Trap
1 Gaddock Teeg
2 Faerie Macabre[/deck]
Unfortunately, it’s not the list I presented to my round one opponent, who was a laid back guy piloting UW. After the round, I was called aside for a deck tech, and about halfway through ranting about how amazing [card]Skeletal Scrying[/card] was, I noticed it wasn’t actually on my deck list. I checked and, sure enough, I had presented sixty one cards to my first round opponent (technically round three with the byes.) I wasn’t too surprised, since until the night before I’d been testing papa Garruk and I’d been tweaking all my numbers, right down to the ratio of basics. While I’d gone through my deck list to make sure I had sixty, I hadn’t accounted for an extra card.
Note that had I knowingly presented 61 cards during the match, it would have been cheating, but I didn’t realize until I was doing the deck tech in between rounds. A friend informed me that my options were to fix my deck to match the list (the remedy judges imposed when I misreged with mono black Vampires in Boston, since it wasn’t noticed during the actual round) or, if I was willing, I could talk to a judge and get the list to match my deck. This would involve both accepting a game loss and playing sixty one cards for the rest of the event.
The fact that I tanked very long on possibly taking a game loss attests to the sheer power level of the card. There were plenty of blue decks in the field, and [card]Skeletal Scrying[/card] was nothing short of a miracle at breaking those matchups. No card they have, not even Jace, can compare with drawing five or six cards at instant speed. In the end, though, there were only four more matches of legacy to play, so I sighed and slid the Scrying in my binder.
The only changes I would make to the above list are -1 [card]Hymn to Tourach[/card] (weaker with all the [card]Spell Snare[/card]s in the format) and -1 [card]Wall of Blossoms[/card] for +1 [card]Liliana of the Veil[/card] and +1 [card]Skeletal Scrying[/card]. While the cards I’m removing are just fine, the cards I’m adding are jaw-dropping amazing.
My next round was vs. Andrey Yanyuk with UR burn. I lost after not playing a land drop to resolve [card]Pernicious Deed[/card] through a second [card]Spell Pierce[/card]. My logic was that I would’ve had to play a [card]Misty Rainforest[/card], losing at least one more life to a possible [card]Price of Progress[/card], and if the Deed had resolved I could’ve blown up two [card]Veteran Explorer[/card]s, fetching plenty of basics without costing the life.
After the match, I was kicking myself pretty hard. I had put a ton of time into my deck choices, and they weren’t letting me down. Rather, I was trying my hardest to throw the tournament away. I found Phillip Lorren, and he was kind enough to jam some games of Standard. It was Esper vs Illusions, a matchup I knew by heart, but playing the Open series had taught me that the transition between formats was a difficult one, and the warm up games went a long ways.
In the first round, I played against one of the Team Mythic guys with UW humans. He bemoaned his deck choice, and never really seemed in it. I have yet to lose to a member of this group, and like to think they have a picture of my face strung up to throw darts at between events.
In the second round, I played against Jesse Hampton, though I can’t remember what he was playing for the life of me. I would guess it was a ramp variant.
Chris Vanmeter with Illusions
This was a camera feature match. As we sat down, I asked him if he was still on Illusions. He smiled and asked me if I was still on Esper.
Game one was close, with me facing down lethal multiple times. At a crucial point in the game, he missed a Sphinx trigger, allowing me to obtain parity. After grinding through seemingly endless disruption, the second [card]Timely Reinforcements[/card] visibly shook him.
“TWO Timelys in the maindeck?!” Chris said.
“Necessary with all the blue burn decks floating around,” I said, nodding towards his deck.
“Yeah, it is pretty much a burn deck.”
Game two felt less close, but was still an interesting game.
This win tied my record against Chris at 1-1.
Dave Shiels with UW Humans
Shiels is best known for winning GP Caw Blade, which in my mind was one of the most definitively skill-intensive GPs of all time. Between then and the invitational, I’d played him twice. The first was in a Puresteel vs Tempered Steel matchup in the top eight of the Cincinnati Open. He was down a game for misreging, but made me fight through double Tempered Steel to shut him out.
The second time we played was for the top eight of the TCGPlayer invitational. Again I was piloting Puresteel, but he had moved back to Caw Blade. We traded close games, leaving a most epic game three. Despite mulling to five on the play and keeping a double [card]Flayer Hus[/card]k hand (which Shiels would later refer to as “an effective mull to three,”) I was able to slowly grind out a win with [card]Etched Champion[/card], dealing exactly lethal in the last possible turn.
Shiels and I exchanged some banter. He declared he would break my winning streak, and I responded with a questioning raise of the eyebrow, which I thought was more effective than saying anything. I won the die roll and opened the game up with [card]Mana Leak[/card] into [card]Mana Leak[/card] into Snapcast back [card]Mana Leak[/card] into [card]Dissipate[/card] into [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card]. Not bad.
“It sucks that you know what you’re doing,” he said.
“Yeah, you snap countered both [card]Honor of the Pure[/card] and [card]Doomed Traveler[/card]. The other control players I played against never wanted to do that.”
Game two was an actual game, and he ground me out.
Game three my plays were Snapcaster (trading with [card]Doomed Traveler[/card]) into [card]Day of Judgment[/card] into [card]Day of Judgment[/card] into [card]Day of Judgment[/card] into [card]Day of Judgment[/card]. David stared down at his last Hero of Bladehold hitting the bin and threw up his arms with exasperation. A judge, watching the game, actually had to stop us to remark on how incredible the series of plays was.
Despite the bad beats, Shiels was a good sport, and I have nothing but respect for him. That said, he fights for glory while I grind for dinner, so I don’t feel bad about having his number.
After I’d checked on my insano breakers, some friends, including the loudmouthed fellow Chicagoan Joe Bernal, snagged me to go grab some dinner at the food court a few blocks down the street. As we turned a corner, we saw a group of ringers listening to Shiels, who was standing above them, gesticulating emphatically.
“…and I can never beat him!” Shiels said.
“Woah, that’s some pretty bad tilt,” Joe said.
“I’m not tilting!” Shiels said.
“You’re ranting about your loss to a crowd while standing on a ledge!” Joe said, laughing.
We got some grease, one of my requisites for sleeping on the road, and retired early.
Due to the large amount of caffeine I’d drank the day before, I woke up early. To shake off the grog, I started with a few cups of coffee before moving onto my usual energy drinks. It’s important to note that I make sure my stomach always has some food and water in it, too, or the drinks will eat my stomach lining or dehydrate me, both of which go against the purpose of helping me play sharp.
Day Two, Standard
My day started with an early loss to Alex Bertoncini with Illusions. I played poorly, jamming Sphinx when I should’ve been more patient. Alex played tighter than me (despite missing a sphinx trigger,) and deserved the win.
I still have a lead on him in matches at 3-2, but he’s catching up. Sometimes he punts against me, sometimes I against him. While I would describe our matches as adequate, memorable even, the misplays keep them from being great.
The next round I played against Josh Napper with Ramp. He was a pleasant opponent, but suffered from some awkward draws. I had the hand to punish him, and the easy win helped me catch the fire and get my head back in the tournament.
Dan Jordan with Ramp
I’ve never had the good fortune of playing Dan before, and while I enjoyed playing him his play was strong enough to make me scared to face him in the future. A dangerous opponent, to be sure.
He took game one off the back of a timely Thrun.
Game two I ran out [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card] early and aggressive, which is usually a strong play in the ramp matchup. He jammed Karn and ate my Sphinx with it. I ripped [card]Volition Reins[/card] to steal his Karn, and it ran away with the game (as Karn is wont to do.)
Between games I began deboarding in front of him, and he had to stop me to explain that we had only played two games, and that we were 1-1. I guess the long weekend was starting to get to me.
Game three he had a brain fart, tapped wrong, and let my [card]Day of Judgment[/card] eat his Thrun, giving me time to stabilize and take control of the game. After I had said control I blanked out on a Sphinx trigger, but Dan sat there, waiting for me to realize I had a trigger on the stack. I don’t know if he would’ve done that if the game was closer, but it was a classy move nonetheless.
Dan was my strongest ramp opponent. He knew what hands to keep, what threats were important, and maneuvered in a way to force me to [card]Ghost Quarter[/card] his Inkmoth Nexi instead of his [card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card]s, which is never ideal.
In my first round of the second day of legacy, I faced mono red burn. We had a very tight match, and had he ripped one more Fireblast he would’ve had me. I played some great magic, hitting with [card]Cabal Therapy[/card] when I needed to and pulling tricks like discarding creatures to Liliana to remove to [card]Scavenging Ooze[/card] in order to scratch out a win.
This was the first matchup that [card]Hymn to Tourach[/card] was good in, and even then not consistently so.
Gerry Thompson with GWr Maverick
I’ve played Gerry a few times now. While he’s a tighter player than me, I tend to beat him due to favorable matchups. His decks fall in my cross hairs, so to speak.
We met up under the feature match tent.
“I have no clue what you’re on,” I said.
“I don’t know what you’re playing either,” he said.
“This would be an awkward time to lose to Hypergenesis,” I said, referring to the scariest of his decks.
“Yeah, it’s a good deck.”
“Probably too high variance for this tournament though.”
I kept a hand with double [card]Veteran Explorer[/card], [card]Phyrexian Tower[/card], and some sweet threats to ramp into. Despite him wasting me, I landed a turn two Liliana, a Thrun, and then a [card]Pernicious Deed[/card] for his board, leaving my beater and Planeswalker in play. I played greedily, letting him handle the Liliana with [card]Punishing Fire[/card] when it should’ve traded with his [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card]. His Knight found a [card]Maze of Ith[/card], stabilizing at one life. I drew a second [card]Pernicious Deed[/card], took a moment to realize the Maze can’t target Thrun, and blew up the world for the win.
At the start of game two, I stared at a grip of
Green Sun’s Zenith
Historically, I have kept some atrocious looking hands against Gerry and gotten paid off for it. It’s not that I don’t give him any credit, I do, but I usually tend to be in a position where my deck is so well positioned against his that I can stumble and still get there. For example, in the legacy portion of Memphis I kept a pair of [card]Grindstone[/card]s, [card]Red Elemental Blast[/card], and double [card]Intuition[/card] with a single land against him playing [card]High Tide[/card]. The worst part? I was on the play. Yes, of course I got there. No, there is no justice.
Maverick in particular isn’t the fastest deck. If he applied the beats, I could chump with Veteran and be in good shape. If he didn’t apply pressure, I had time to draw out of it. Does this mean my keep was better than an average six? No, but I still thought my chances of losing with it were lower than my chances of possibly mulling to four. That’s how good the creature matchups are. My only risk in the match was mulling to oblivion two games in a row, so keeping a loose one lander with the backup plan of Dismembering my own Explorer was acceptable.
Game two was clunkier, and he got some hits in with a [card]Sword of Feast and Famine[/card] before I got enough mana to deal with it with the [card]Wickerbough Elder[/card]. [card]Damnation[/card] did some work, and [card]Grave Titan[/card] came down to mop things up. I sincerely wished Gerry the best of luck and hoped that he won his next round to top eight. He’d ground hard this season, and deserved to be there.
After he left, the realization that I’d made top eight hit me. I felt a wash of emotion, gratitude that my work had paid off. My buddy Drew Ideux came up to the feature match area with a questioning hand gesture, and I couldn’t find the words, only nodding to him. His smile back reflected my own feelings perfectly. I took a moment and leaned back in the feature match chair, letting the tension flow out as a bit of happy moisture welled up in my eyes. I had prepared for this tournament like one might prepare for a marathon, and it meant a lot to be in that first batch of runners crossing the finish line, to be considered among the elite. If none of that mattered to me, why would I choose this over any other job?
At X-2, I could lose my last round and still make it, but was paired against fellow X-2 Reid Duke so we drew. After talking with Reid over the course of the tournament, I have a lot of respect for his character. The man is simply pleasant to be around, and I know I’ll be rooting for him in the future.
Had we played out our match, I’m sure the figuratively eight [card]Veteran Explorer[/card]s (including Green Sun’s Zenith) would’ve swung the Pox matchup, but who knows. I’ll worry about that if it ever comes up. I have been consistently impressed with Reid’s deckbuilding skills, to the point that I think his Pox list is worth sharing here. This is the Legacy Weapon, after all.
4 Mishra’s Factory
4 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
4 Hymn to Tourach
3 Innocent Blood
4 Inquisition of Kozilek
1 Nether Void
3 Cursed Scroll
2 Nether Spirit
4 Dark Ritual
1 Spinning Darkness
4 Liliana of the Veil
2 Pithing Needle
4 Engineered Plague
2 Leyline of the Void
2 Spinning Darkness
1 The Abyss[/deck]
After talking with Reid, I got the impression that the miser Pox was there for sentimental value, but he did say the card performed fine overall. With an archetype that hasn’t been revisited in a while, I recommend playing his stock list for good number of games before tinkering with it.
The top eight was reasonably strong, and included multiple ringers. I was paired against Kristopher Hackleman, a modo grinder who had been nice enough to scoop Gerry in last round, piloting Solar Flare, a deck I had up to that point been dodging all weekend. I had assumed it would be on the decline (it was, for the most part.) At least I was lucky enough to face it in the top eight, as opposed to being knocked out by it in the swiss.
We began our match, going through the familiar motions of cantripping, making land drops, and stocking our graveyards. At this point, a few judges told me that my graveyard would have to stay clearly separated to an isolated zone, even if it meant creating additional layers, which I was fine with. The main reason it tends to spread out is because that’s how I play on modo, with my graveyard popped out at all times. The deck is flashing back cards as often as it is casting them from the hand. While it might look strange, would you think it strange for a player to want to clearly see his hand at all times? Every spell in the yard is an option with a Snapcaster Mage in hand, and having my options in front of me makes it less obvious when I consider them, meaning I’m more difficult to read than if my yard was neatly stacked in one pile, as I would then have to dig through to consider my options. Also, it’s easier to keep track of what’s in my deck at all times, letting me make some decisions faster, which is critical for a clunky control deck.
A commentator made a comparison to dredge, and dredge graveyards tend to look similarly stretched out for exactly the same reason: every card is relevant, and keeping that information available is as much a courtesy for the opponent as it is for the player.
That all said, I had no problem “dredging” all the cards on the left, so long as they were all clearly visible at all times, and I started piling in rows (though a judge did remind me once more. Old habits, etc.)
I was roundly stomped in two games, despite the opponent burning Leaks on cantrips, which I’m almost certain is incorrect based on the control mirrors I’ve played with the deck. I have won games by locking out opponents with Dissipates on their Forbidden Alchemys, but trading a leak for half a card seems loose when it typically takes two leaks to trade for a Zenith in the late game.
Of course, try as I might, my frustrating 0% win percentage versus Solar Flare held up. I know it’s not an issue of control mirrors, since I tend to beat UW and the Esper Mirror. I think it’s a matter of threat density and who has inevitability (not me.) Perhaps a more proactive sideboard plan, like Geist of St. Traft in triplicate, or some more aggressive planeswalkers like Elspeth, would do more for this matchup than my current strategy of trying to wrest away inevitability.
Despite my disappointing loss, I still had a couple grand in my pocket, and was even included in the awards ceremony and given a neat little trophy. In all my top eights, I have no wins except for one MTGO PTQ, and that means no trophies, so even though it’s small I’m glad I have it. It’s not like I had some amazing athletic ability to pile up awards with in high school, you know?
Two members of my car, Joe Bernal and Ben Wienburg, managed to take down the draft opens. Craig was the only one to brick on the weekend, but his recent Worlds top eight should pad his roll for a while.
After the tournament I had a talk with Evan Erwin, and it looks like I’ll be added to the SCG commentator rotation. It shouldn’t interfere with my ability to grind Pro Tours, the Grand Prix circuit, and invitationals, so you folks can still look forward to following my struggle through the trenches and my weekly foray into brewing. Hopefully I will continue to improve at the highest stage of the game, the next test being Honolulu.