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Planar Cleansing the Invitational (7th)

The SCG Invitationals are some of the most enjoyable Magic tournaments of the year. The split format and the high number of rounds make for quite an adventure: highs and lows, satisfying wins, tough losses, narrow escapes, and typically a handful of very exciting moments. However, despite my affection for the events, and the two byes that I’ve been fortunate enough to have recently, it had been quite a long time since I’d put up a Top 8 finish.

The SCG Invitational features eight rounds each of Standard and Legacy. For the Standard portion, there was no mystery what my problem was: I simply wasn’t doing a good job of preparing. While there’s money and prestige at stake at the Invitationals, they’re often scheduled either shortly before or shortly after the Pro Tour. It’s simply impossible to devote yourself a hundred percent to preparation for every single event—there aren’t enough days in a week—and for me, it’s the non-Pro Point events like the Invitational that suffer as a result.

My problem in Legacy was a little harder to put a finger on. At first, I thought I was simply choosing bad decks. However, how could that possibly be the case when I’d tried such a huge variety of decks over the past year? B/U/G, R/U/G, Jund, Bant, Elves, Miracles, Pox, Reanimator—they couldn’t all be bad! My conclusion, in the end, was precisely the opposite, that I was working too hard trying to find a broken deck, and not hard enough on mastering the deck I’d chosen. I laid out my thoughts on the subject in this article.

Either way, this time around I was determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

In Standard, I would put in the hours and test extensively.

In Legacy, I would switch decks one more time…

But wait! Don’t give up on me yet! What I really wanted to do was to set myself straight in Legacy. Win, lose, or draw, this tournament would set me on the course of sticking with the same deck through as many events as possible. Therefore, I turned to the deck which, in my personal opinion, is most rewarding of the time you devote to it: Miracles. When playing Miracles, you put your fate in your own hands much more than with other decks. To use my previous deck choice as an example, Reanimator is going to be great for you when the metagame lines up correctly, when you get the right matchups, when you get good hands, and when you dodge sideboard hate. If I was going to lock in the same deck for a long period of time, I wanted fewer question marks, so I returned to an old favorite in Miracles.

I actually felt tremendously nervous about the Legacy portion of the event. I knew playing Miracles would be best for my long run success, but given that I was rusty in my gameplay and didn’t have a perfectly tuned deck list, I wasn’t sure how things would go. Miracles is probably the most challenging deck I’ve ever played, in any format, and that quality is magnified by the fact that you have to play lightning fast in order to avoid draws. To say the least, I was nervous to play control mirrors against the tough level of Legacy competition that the SCG Invitational brings.

Day One: The Standard Rounds

So it was disappointing to me that my two byes came in Standard and not Legacy. Just as I’d intended, I played Standard for hours nearly every day for two and a half weeks preceding the event. For regular readers of my column, it will come as no surprise that I settled on U/W Control.

The deck list in general, and the Planar Cleansings in particular, were a concession to the recently-popular Jund Monsters archetype. Not only did I expect Jund Monsters to be one of the most played strategies, but I expected many of the strongest players in the tournament to choose it. Monsters is a bad matchup for U/W Control, and in my opinion, unfixable if you cling to Detention Sphere and Banishing Light.

Answering their permanents at sorcery speed after the fact is simply a losing battle, and you cannot beat their best hands with that strategy. Planar Cleansing gives the deck a little bit more power in general and offers a better chance of beating Jund Monsters’ good draws. With this deck list, I felt I’d brought the matchup up to about 50/50.

Round 3 Against Trevor Humphries

After two byes, I faced off against Trevor Humphries, who in game one appeared to be playing U/W Control with a large number of off-color black scry lands. I won a pretty long game one, but then things took a turn for the worse. Trevor was both a strong player and extremely well set up for the mirror match, having both Elixir of Immortality and Aetherling in game one. In addition to the normal suite of counterspells, after sideboard he also had multiple copies each of Dispel, Negate, and Gainsay. He had multiple copies of Jace, Memory Adept and multiple copies of Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver off his black splash.

The sideboard games were an uphill battle, and Trevor decked me in game two with his powerful planeswalkers.

We ran out of time in game three. Even after extra turns, we were still a ways away from ending. I was an underdog to win the game, but it wasn’t decided to a degree that I felt comfortable conceding. (I’m not trying to imply that anyone is obligated to concede when a match goes to time, the issue is very complicated). In the end, the match concluded as a draw.

2-0-1

As a side note, this match brings up an interesting question about deck construction. On the one hand, sideboard cards for control mirrors tend to be quite potent, and therefore worth devoting slots to. On the other hand, it’s a shame to devote a lot of sideboard slots to matchups that may not be able to play to their natural conclusion anyway, due to the clock.

So right off the bat I was in the draw bracket, which was a scary prospect given that I was playing glacially slow decks in both formats. I’d considered conceding the match to stay out of the draw bracket, and I also considered a last-minute deck switch in Legacy, since we hadn’t yet submitted our Legacy deck lists. However, I feel pretty confident in my game play abilities in control mirrors (particularly in Standard in the case of this tournament). Also, due to the split format nature of the event, I might face opponents in Legacy who’d gotten their draw in Standard, or vice versa. I decided to stay the course, but accepted that it was going to be a pretty long and brutal tournament.

Sure enough, in round 4 I played a U/W mirror match, but escaped with a win and was on to the Legacy rounds.

3-0-1

Day One: The Legacy Rounds

For reference, here’s the deck I played:

I felt like a genius right off the bat when I played my maindeck Relic of Progenitus against my Reanimator opponent in game one of round five. Unfortunately, he wound up looking like a genius, and me like a fool when he then cast his maindeck Show and Tell and took the game. Fortunately, that matchup gets substantially better sideboarding and I ended up winning a close match.

4-0-1

I lost round six to Storm master Bryant Cook. I’ve found the Miracles vs. Storm matchup to be close overall, but pretty bad in the absence of Counterbalance. Bryant won the die roll, had two strong draws, and I was never able to play Counterbalance. He made short work of me.

4-1-1

To finish out the day, I won two Legacy control mirrors. First was a W/U/r Miracles mirror match, although my opponent was playing the build popularized by Joe Lossett, featuring maindeck Vendilion Cliques and Venser, Shaper Savant. Next was Esper Stoneforge, where I was able to stick an early Counterbalance in both games and leverage it into a huge long term advantage.

6-1-1

Six wins with one loss and one draw is a pretty good record, but when I reflected on my two byes, it felt just about average. I was still very much in the tournament, but I’d have to do even better on Day Two.

My hope was to 4-0 the Standard rounds, where I felt very confident, and take some of the pressure off my Legacy deck. That’s not the way things played out.

Day Two: The Standand Rounds

I started the day by winning a close game one against Jund Monsters, which felt great. Now I got to employ the sideboard plan that I’d tested so extensively, and only needed to win one out of the next two games. Unfortunately, I mulliganed in both the post-board games—this is doubly disappointing because for one thing U/W Control mulligans quite poorly, needing a large quantity of cards to operate, and for another, I’m virtually willing to keep any hand with two or more lands in it! Nevertheless, you have to do your best with what you’re given. I fought hard, but came up a little short of winning the match.

6-2-1

The next round was more of the same, as I won game one against B/W Midrange. The challenge of the black matchups is that you need to prepare to win a long grind against Underworld Connections and a million Thoughtseize effects. However, if you overprepare for that type of game, you risk losing to a quick Pack Rat. This is exactly what happened to me, as both games I stared down at 12 points of Pack Rat damage with a hand full of Sphinx’s Revelations and Deicides.

6-3-1

This was definitely the low point of the tournament for me, as I’d had high hopes that’d nose-dived straight into the ground. Also, I’d tried my absolute hardest to build a winning Standard deck, with which I now had a 1-2-1 record! I was technically still in the tournament, but I already felt defeated.

Round 11 Against Kevin Jones

Kevin Jones is a local player and a friend of mine. He typically plays control, and plays it well, so I knew I was in for a challenge. He was also 6-3-1, so a draw would knock us both out of Top 8 contention, and we knew we had to do our best to determine a winner.

In game one, I played pretty tight until I incorrectly cast Dissolve on Kevin’s Elixir of Immortality, leaving me with Negate as my only remaining counter. Like Trevor on the day before, Kevin had both Elixir and Aetherling, and resolved the devastating creature when all I had was Negate. Fortunately, if the Aetherling is not backed up by permission, Elixir of Immortality has no problem beating it, as you can simply recycle your Sphinx’s Revelations and Azorius Charms until the game is out of reach for the opponent. Again, I wound up winning a very long game one.

Game two went about as poorly as possible, which is to say that the game remained quite close for a long time. If I’d mulliganed to five cards or missed my third land drop, I might’ve known to concede and save time, but this game was a back and forth matter, and Kevin didn’t emerge as the clear winner until we only had about thirteen minutes left on the clock.

So we started game three with only eleven minutes on the clock, both determined to have a winner and both playing at lightning speed. When turn 5 of extra turns came around, the situation was essentially the reverse of my round that had gone to time on Day One. This time, I was a heavy favorite to win the game, but it was clear that the game would take several more turns, if not more, to actually have a winner.

Given all of the circumstances, Kevin generously conceded the match to me, so that at least one of us could stay in contention for Top 8. Something felt a little wrong that I’d taken a draw once when I went to time and was losing, and received a concession once when I went to time and was winning. However, I guess it’s best to view every match as an independent event, and different circumstances require different decisions. I’d have conceded the match to Kevin in that situation if he’d been very clearly ahead.

7-3-1

Despite the strange ending to round 11, the match refreshed me in some small ways. For one thing, it had been a long, close, complicated match where I’d played pretty well and had a lot of fun. For another, I wanted to make sure Kevin’s generous sacrifice counted for something.

In the final round of Standard I beat a black devotion deck splashing blue. Despite the fact that my opponent never actually drew a blue card, the match was interesting in that his Watery Graves forced me to play in very strange ways so as to not get blown out by cards like Notion Thief and Negate.

8-3-1

Day Two: The Legacy Rounds

“Are you ready for your Legacy Daily Event?” Dave Shiels asked me at this point in the tournament. If I went 4-0 with Miracles, I had a great shot to make Top 8. It was just like a Magic Online Daily Event; I’d gone 4-0 in those before!

In round 13 I played against Michael Braverman with B/U/G Delver. I won the match easily, in a way that did not reflect the caliber of player that Mr. Braverman is. In game one he mulliganed and grudgingly kept a hand with two Wastelands and no sources of colored mana. I played basic lands, and Michael never drew another land. In game two, he resolved a Sylvan Library and I resolved a Blood Moon. We waited around for a while until I drew a second Island, then I started playing threats and Michael conceded.

9-3-1

Next I beat Elf Combo, which is an excellent matchup for Miracles, and in fact a very good reason to play the deck. Elves is a popular choice among strong players on the SCG circuit.

10-3-1

Round 15 Against James Buckingham

James was playing Shardless B/U/G, which is a scary matchup for a number of reasons. They have Abrupt Decays for my Counterbalances and they have planeswalkers to which I have very few answers (particularly Liliana of the Veil, since she cannot be Red Elemental Blasted). Moreover, this is a deck that’s tailor made to outvalue other fair decks in a drawn out game.

True to form, James took me apart in game one. The presence of Ancestral Vision often means no Dark Confidants, so I frivolously wasted a Swords to Plowshares on a Deathrite Shaman, only to find myself with no answer to a surprise Confidant that buried me.

Fortunately, my sideboard plan for the matchup is very good. Red Elemental Blasts allow me to win battles over Ancestral Visions and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Blood Moons threaten to steal games at the blink of an eye, and three copies of Entreat the Angels makes for an excellent late game plan.

I won game two by pulling ahead early, and landing a Blood Moon when James was tapped out.

Game three was brutally close, and James eventually pulled ahead with a Jace and a Liliana. When Liliana got up to six counters, James ultimated her to split my permanents. All I could do was tap all my lands for mana as a response. I kept the pile with my Sensei’s Divining Top, tapped it to draw a card, and miracled the Entreat the Angels I’d hidden for X=4. James had a couple of Brainstorms to dig for an answer, but couldn’t find one and I attacked for lethal on the next turn.

11-3-1

Round 16 Against Tom Strong

This was win and (hopefully) in for me, and I was against yet another strong player in Tom Strong and his U/W Stoneforge deck. Game one was as close and complex as it gets, as we both had Jace, the Mind Sculptor in play for half a dozen turns. Eventually, though, I had to face the music that Tom could attack my Jaces to death while I could do very little against his.

Tom killed one Jace, I played another. Then he killed that one, and I had almost nothing left. I took one final turn to draw a blue card for my Force of Will, and made a desperation play of Entreat the Angels for 9. Tom cast Force of Will and I cast Force of Will back. Tom stopped to think and for the first time in about five minutes I thought I might have a chance to win the game! But no, surely even if the spell resolved, Tom could find a Supreme Verdict or Engineered Explosives, or at least fight through the angel tokens with Swords to Plowshares and Snapcaster Mages (he was at something like 28 life). Tom could do neither of those things, and after a shuffle and a Brainstorm, he conceded game one, giving me a whole new appreciation for the ability “miracle.”

Game two went much better for me, as I resolved an early Counterbalance on a clean board. In matchups like this one, the long term advantage that Counterbalance offers is typically just too much. After I countered a couple of spells and resolved a Jace, Tom shook my hand and wished me good luck in the Top 8.

12-3-1, good enough for seventh place!

Top 8

Quarterfinals Against Jared Boettcher

My top eight match would be against Jared Boettcher, perhaps the hottest player in the game right now, with Black Devotion splashing red.

Max Brown, Gerard Fabiano, William Jensen, Owen Turtenwald, and Adrian Sullivan helped me prepare for the matchup, but things looked a little rough. Between main deck and sideboard, Jared had three copies of Rakdos’s Return and a Sire of Insanity that could end the game in a split second, but he also had the terrifying Pack Rat that I needed to prepare for. It wasn’t hopeless, but it was going to be a challenge.

As it turned out, Jared hardly needed to cast a red card the whole match, as he just beat me 3-0 with draws involving Thoughtseizes, Pack Rats, and Mutavaults.

What I gained in the Jund Monsters matchup from Planar Cleansing I lost in the black matchup from giving up Detention Sphere.

This was an ironic tournament for me, as I’d worked tremendously hard on my Standard deck, and had a mediocre performance with it. Officially, I went 5-2-1 in the Swiss, but if you subtract my two byes, add my loss in the quarterfinals, and consider the match that went to time against Kevin Jones as a draw, I went an abysmal 2-3-2.

On the other hand, in Legacy where I’d “winged it,” I went 7-1. I have to admit that I ran good, and that most of the close calls in the control mirrors went the way I needed them. Entreat the Angels (a very underrated card, by the way) won me a lot of otherwise unwinnable games. Nevertheless, I do believe that W/U/r Miracles is an extremely good deck, and will serve anyone well who puts in the effort to learn it.

Despite a small amount of disappointment in my Standard performance as a whole, and my anticlimactic loss against Jared Boettcher, I consider the tournament a success. Hopefully I’ve found a Legacy deck that I can stick with, and if I put in the same amount of Standard preparation for next time, maybe I can do even better at the next SCG Invitational.

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