Recurring Nightmare – Armpit of America

Gather round, and I’ll unfold the story of this past weekend, in which tournaments occurred, and people won money. It was a trip to the Armpit of America, the state we so love to hate, the New Jersey. Land of milk and honey – but really, the land of odd smells and gas station attendants. Where you park when you want to go to NYC, and where you avoid when you want to go anywhere else.

Actually, Star City coming to New Jersey couldn’t have been a better location for me – other than my own city, of course. My good friend Carl Dillahay has just moved back to Union NJ from his temporary home in Syracuse, so we had a place to stay lined up just minutes from the event center where the tournaments would take place. With a free place to sleep, good friends to see, and expectations to be dashed, I headed out on Friday with Alex Artese and Andre Segarra to meet our destiny on the Jersey Shore. Or, rather, in a big room nowhere near the ocean.

Upon our arrival, we broke out our Standard decks and immediately got to testing. I was pretty certain I wanted to play Tezzeret, and had an amalgamation of Martin Juza’s list and Patrick Chapin’s. Basically, it ran the Forgemasters, but still splashed red for Galvanic Blast, Pyroclasm, and sideboarded Crush. It was a solid deck, but I don’t have any real idea of what I’d be facing in the Standard event, so we tested for a while until we decided our time would be better spent playing Commander. This decision took approximately six games to arrive at. We’re committed to advancing the format, for sure.

Once we were sick of playing, we decided food seemed good, so we headed out to a parking lot at Rutgers University and hit up the GreaseTrucks. If you aren’t familiar with the place, you should be. It’s basically four or five different food trucks that are parked in a parking lot, offering the most ridiculous food items to drunken college kids on their way home from the bars. The signature food item, the “Fat Bitch” sandwich, is a Philly Cheese Steak topped with Chicken Nuggets, Mozzarella Sticks, French Fries, and Ketchup. Five dollars well spent. There are other variations on the theme, but the basic premise is the same. If it sounds like something you’d cram together at an at-home rendition of Epic Meal Time, you’re in the bailiwick of the GreaseTrucks.

Once we arrived at the venue on Saturday, I made quick work of discussing my list with a few players here and there. Eli Kassis was playing a similar list, but had some different choices. I trust Eli’s judgment in deck construction, as he’s proven that skill time and again. The fact that he had actually tested for this format, and I had played six games pre-sideboard against Caw-Go made my decision to run his list an easy one. I scrambled for cards for a few minutes, and registered my deck.

The four rounds of Magic I played on Saturday were all against Caw variants. Rounds one and four were against UW, and two and three were the red splash. I lost the matchups where my non-red opponents had Tectonic Edge, and won the two where the manabase prohibited that land. The connection seems significant. The highlight of my day of Standard was absolutely the back to back matches in which I stole a Gideon Jura from my opponent via Volition Reins. It seems that Gideon is just as difficult for Caw to beat as it was for me to beat it on their side. After I picked up my second loss in round four, I decided my time was better spent Cube Drafting and working on Legacy.

I had about 6 rounds left to do little but railbird my friends, so I got plenty of testing in to tune my list. I began with the Uwb Tezzeret control deck that I had been working on, but it needed some help. I enlisted the aid of Eli Kassis (in between rounds of his money drafts), who has been putting up some… decent results lately. He and I went over the deck card by card, and discussed the role of each. We almost immediately discarded the Tezzerets, as they simply weren’t as good in this deck as we wanted them to be. It’s unfortunate that I didn’t have the ability to get them where I wanted them to be, but that’s brewing sometimes. If you’re still interested in playing Tezz in Legacy, David Gearhart’s build is more in the Tezz direction, and I suggest that as a place to begin. Once the Tezzerets were gone, we decided that the artifact land base was still worthwhile, as Mox Opal is still the best acceleration we could use in the deck. It’s much better than Chrome Mox’s card disadvantage, or Mox Diamond’s land requirements, and I think it’s really the type of mox control has been looking for. Certainly you sacrifice mana stability to get there, but it does help to alleviate those concerns at the same time. Wasteland is still a bad card to face, and Null Rod was going to be a beating anyway, but these are the prices you pay.

The major change to the list came when we discussed the idea of cutting Counterbalance. I’ve been incredibly underwhelmed with the card over the last few weeks as the metagame shifts to a point where more expensive spells are being played and decks shift to aggressive creature strategies rather than control/combo. Aether Vial continues to be a staple in these decks, and we’re seeing more and more of it across the table. The combination of these factors weakens the relevance of Counterbalance “lock,” so we looked into cutting the card entirely. Ultimately we decided that it’s still really strong in a few matchups, and you want access to one as an Enlightened Tutor target. Once we cut two Tezzerets and three Counterbalances, the blue card count for Force of Will was a little low, so we swapped two Enlightened Tutors out for Lim-Dul’s Vault (which was not difficult for me to be convinced of at all), which fills a similar role but has some additional flexibility in this deck. The life loss is an issue on occasion, but you can usually gain it back via the Thopter/Sword combo, or negate the issue by tutoring up Moat or Ensnaring Bridge.

By the end of the Standard event, I had tested the list against a number of matchups, and it seemed incredibly strong. At the time, I had three Ponder and an Auriok Salvagers in the deck, but was unimpressed with the Salvagers backup plan, so I decided to cut the creature and a Ponder for two Counterspell. I kept the Lion’s Eye Diamond in the deck, however, as it had a number of solid interactions with various cards – you can use it to power out three tokens from Thopter Foundry, get hellbent for Ensnaring Bridge, combine it with a tutor + Brainstorm/Top as a virtual Black Lotus, etc. There is synergy there that I didn’t expect, but was impressed with. Ultimately, the list I registered for Sunday with was as follows:

The sideboard was about as good as I could hope for, over the course of nine rounds I used every card except a Tormod’s Crypt, which was arguably relevant in at least one matchup, but I chose not to board it. I never actually got a Cursed Totem in play, but I’m convinced it’s one of the best cards in the entire 75. You are literally unaffected by it at all and many decks are completely cold to it – See: Cephalid Breakfast.

With the decklist basically set, I played matches against anyone who had a Legacy deck handy, and had Eli watch and comment on my play. In the hour or so he spent with me, I became about 10 times more proficient with the deck than I had ever been before. I learned more from that hour than I had from any number of testing sessions I’d been involved with in the last few years, and I can’t believe how beneficial it was. Magic is HARD. You need to keep track of a nearly infinite number of things in any given game, and something as small as having a Sensei’s Divining Top in play makes the nuances of the game far, far deeper.

“If you aren’t a pro, or near that level, I would suggest never playing Top. You’re going to hemorrhage mistakes with it in play, and you’re better off just playing a different deck.” – Eli Kassis

(I recognize the barning I’m doing here. Whatever. Eli is that good.)

After Saturday’s event, we headed back to Rutgers, and more Fat Bitches were consumed. We asked Bertoncini to come along, but he had other fat bitches to slam.

Sunday morning, with an exciting list in hand and newfound confidence in my ability to play it, I felt prepared for the event.

The Tournament

Round 1 – Josh Stein, Affinity

Josh was a good player who was obviously not all that familiar with Legacy. In our first game, he got off to a decent start but was colded by a Moat. Eventually I assembled the combo and won. In our second game, I was running behind on board, and I had to make a drastic play to win – I had a Thopter but no Sword, and had blocked a creature with a token, and noticed that Josh failed to use his Disciple of the Vault when my token died. I used Lim-Dul’s Vault, going to one life, to find Sword, and had to pray that he wouldn’t realize what was happening. I played the Sword and Sacrificed it, and he changed my life total to two, instead of zero. Once I knew the coast was clear, I went up to seven and didn’t look back. After the game, I asked if he realized that the Disciple triggered on my artifacts too, and he said he did not. As it’s a “may” trigger, there’s no reason for me to tell him that during the game, so I had to play for the mistake there – otherwise I’m dead for sure. Josh wasn’t upset at the error, but thanked me for letting him know how the card worked. Hopefully from that round on Josh realized how to play the card and benefited from his error.

This speaks to one of the biggest issues I see at Legacy tournaments over and over. Many people claim that all the players in Legacy tournaments are terrible. I disagree. I think a lot of players at Legacy tournaments are bad, but a lot of them are simply unfamiliar with the cards in the format, and even in their own decks. The number of interactions you run into in this format is staggering, and there’s no reason to handicap yourself by not knowing what your own cards do. You NEED to read your cards. If someone hands you a deck to play before the event, read every single card in the deck. You’re filling out a decklist, do it while you’re sorting the deck for that. It’s such a simple thing, but I constantly see people misusing the basic interactions within their own deck, and it can and will cost you games.


Round 2 – John Gatza, R/b Goblins

This was a tight match featuring some interesting technology. In our first game, Josh hit two Goblin Ringleaders for 4 cards each. Must. Be. Nice. I landed a Moat, but had to use the Top/LED trick for the mana, and doing so took me off Metalcraft for my Mox Opal. While that slowed him down, it didn’t stop him, and before I could find another White source for the three Swords to Plowshares in my hand, he found a Siege-Gang Commander and killed me with it. Our second game was awkward when I played an Engineered Plague on Goblins, and an Ensnaring Bridge. Unfortunately, a pair of Piledrivers showed up, and I was still taking damage. A second Plague appeared to stem the bleeding, but I was surprised to see John drop a Boggart Shenanigans, and begin doming me with his kamikaze goblin team. Low on life, I found a Thopter to begin gaining enough life to offset the cards he was drawing, and eventually I found an Enlightened Tutor and a Sword. In our third game, he finally bricked on a Ringleader, and that gave me time to assemble a quick Thopter Sword and win.


Round 3 – Nick Wilbur, UGr Tempo Thresh

Another deck that is nearly cold to Moat or Ensnaring Bridge game one. The key to this matchup is containing his Vendilion Cliques and Lavamancers. In our first game, Nick played very well, and we were in a position where we both had very few cards in hand (his two to my one), and I had a Top in play. He played a Jace and Fatesealed me, and I responded by drawing with Top. He put the Top on the bottom, and on my turn I played the Thopter Foundry I drew with Top, the Sword that I had drawn that turn, and the Top that was my last card. What a beating. From there, I pulled ahead of his Jace by swinging into it, and despite his Stifles, amassed enough tokens to kill him.

In the second game we battled over a Jace on his turn 4, but my combination of two Forces and a Spell Pierce beat his double backup, and I untapped into a Jace of my own. I kept him off drawing spells for the rest of the game, and played around Stifle until I was sure I could beat him anyway. He didn’t have the Stifle, and his library became four cards. And not in the good way.


Round 4 – Calosso Fuentes, Cephalid Breakfast

I’ve known Calosso for a long time. Back when Legacy was just a tiny format no one played, Calosso liked to travel along with the Hatfield brothers and the rest of the Northern Virginia crew to events on the East Coast, and believe me, he was way more of a punk back then than he is these days. That’s saying something. The last time we played was a few years back where he beat my Thresh deck in the mirror when he resolved a turn 2 Blood Moon two games in a row. As this was my first Star City Open feature match, I was resolved to not allow a repeat performance.

In our first game, I had turn 1 Top while Calosso opened with a Trop into Vial, and I had the Force of Will, and so did he. Unfortunately I had another, and he begrudgingly put the Vial in the yard. After missing his second land drop, I hit a turn 3 Jace and fatesealed him out of the game. In our second game, I assembled a Pithing Needle on Kiki-Jiki followed by an Ensnaring Bridge, followed by a second Needle on Nomads En-Kor and a third Needle, again on Kiki-Jiki. When Calosso used Vial to put a Sky Hussar into play, I sent it farming, and was positive he had no outs. He eventually came to the same conclusion.


Round 5 – Mike Eisenhauer, Affinity

Mike was already seven rounds into his day, having played the entire Top 8 of the Standard event prior to any Legacy. He was feeling it a bit, but obviously (based on his eventual Top 8 berth) not enough to affect his play. In our first game, he opened with a Memnite and Signal Pest, and began to tick away at my life until he found a Cranial Plating to go along with his team. I put a Thopter and Sword in play and kept enough mana around to make enough blockers to live through any tricks with Galvanic Blast, and eventually pulled ahead. I believe a Moat sealed the deal.

In our next game, Mike opened with Memnite, Mox Opal, go. I considered for a moment before using Swords on his Memnite. This kept him off metalcraft for a turn, and he let me know I was dead if I hadn’t done that. He played a Great Furnace and passed. I said, “If this is a mind trick, you’ve got me,” and used Disenchant to kill his Furnace, and his shoulders slumped. He missed his next land drop, and we played draw, go for a few turns until I found a Top and began to filter my draws. I landed a Counterbalance before he made much headway, and used an Oblivion Ring to counter his Etched Champion.

He made a lot of commentary about how keeping Oblivion Ring in vs. Affinity is terrible, it’s terrible against Ravager, etc. Of course, Ravager is an issue for me, but not because of O-Ring – it’s because of Disciple of the Vault. Since my primary win condition requires me to sacrifice an artifact over and over, it seems reasonable that I’d need to keep the guy who kills me when I do that off the table. Oblivion Ring does that. If he boards in Pithing Needle, I need that off the table as well. Ravager or not, Oblivion Ring does that too. If I wanted Ring as a creature removal spell, that’s one thing, but that’s not the purpose it serves against Affinity. I did a lot of testing against the deck, and Oblivion Ring answers a number of problem cards that are not Ravager. Anyway, that debate aside, he stumbles on land for long enough for me to assemble an extremely strong board presence, along with plenty of gas in hand, and I lock it up.


Round 6 – Alix Hatfield, Permanent Waves

This match was covered by the GG’s live crew, so I won’t go into too much detail. In game one, the pivotal turn was when I tried to land a tutored Counterbalance. Alix had Merchant Scrolled for Force of Will, so I knew he had at least one. Since he used the tutor, I assumed it was his only disruption, and my own Force would get the Counterbalance down. Unfortunately, his subsequent Meditate found a second Force, and I knew the game was over. I hung in there for a little bit of time to see if he’d fizzle out or show any info I didn’t already have, but no dice. I said I’d concede to a Brain Freeze, and he showed me the Wish and a Freeze in the sideboard.

Even post board, this matchup is a joke, as I really only gain some Needles for Candelabra of Tawnos, some Spell Pierces (nice High Tide), and a single Ethersworn Canonist. I had considered an additional Canonist prior to the event, but didn’t expect all that much of this type of combo. Regardless, I hit an “early” (turn 3) Canonist, which bought some time, but had a critical decision to make with an end step Enlightened Tutor. Here’s the situation – I had used a Top to draw the Tutor. I had to, since waiting the turn to draw the Tutor naturally and playing it meant another full turn before I could play whatever I tutored for (this isn’t entirely accurate, but we’ll get there). I had a decision to make, which was between getting Counterbalance to attempt to disrupt the combo, or getting Sword of the Meek to up my clock and reduce the number of turns he had to go off. I originally went in looking for Counterbalance, which is why I did it end of turn. Ultimately I decided that trying to cut his window down to one turn was better, and I got the Sword. Because of this decision, I should have waited until main phase (you can still play the artifact after the Enlightened Tutor) and kept access to the Top. Either way, Alix had the Repeal for the Canonist at the end of the next turn, and went off easily.


I’m still not 100% on the decision between the Counterbalance and the Sword. Without a Top in play, I’m relying on the top card of my library to be a relevant number in order to do anything at all. Since I saw no additional cards, I did check what the cmc of the top card was, just for curiosity’s sake. It was zero. Yes, I recognize that’s not necessarily what it would have been had I gotten CB, but it does take some of the sting out of the choice.

This matchup is about as un-winnable as it gets. A few iterations of the metagame ago, there was a similar matchup in Solidarity vs. Landstill. Landstill basically couldn’t win. Even with the combination of Counterspell and Force of Will, Landstill’s clock was just too slow to mount any kind of offense before the Solidarity player just hit so many land drops they could play through anything. This is nearly an identical situation. Alix had so many turns each game to set himself up that it was laughably easy for him to play through any of the hate I could muster. Had I resolved a Counterbalance in either game the case may have been different, but the decision to reduce the number of balances to accommodate the aggro metagame was a real weak point in this matchup. This round played out exactly as Alix and I had expected it to.

On a non-play note: I’ve know Alix for a long, long time, and I’m really glad he took this event down. We had a nice discussion before our match about our mutual history with Legacy, and it’s really been a great ride. We’ve been playing Legacy together since the late 90’s – when we were stoked to get 50 players together in a VFW in the middle of nowhere, or in the food court of a dirt mall, or in the back room of a Fuddrucker’s, and now we feel like we’re proud parents watching our baby grow up into what we’ve always known it could be. In my opinion, which isn’t all that much I know, Alix has always been the best “Legacy player” in the game, and he deserves this win and the respect of the community at large. I expect to continue to see good things from him. I doubt I’ll be disappointed in that expectation.

Round 7 – AJ Sacher, Ugw NO Show

Another feature match, the notes on this can be found here.

Look, I punted. I know I did, and I knew it at the time. Believe me, it’s worse than you think.

It’s turn whatever, and I’ve taken a hit from Progenitus, and used Lim-Dul’s Vault to find my Moat. I know that the top card of my library is Jace, and after resolving the Moat, I have a mana open with Top and Counterbalance in play. Why do I leave the mana open? To access Top, of course. Only, what am I hoping to counter? If he tries for Natural Order, Jace counters it. If he tries to Show and Tell Emrakul into play, I let it happen, and use Jace to bounce it next turn. If he tries to do ANYTHING ELSE it’s completely irrelevant. The only cards I need to be concerned about in this situation are:

Qasali Pridemage
Show and Tell for Terastodon

Unfortunately, I let the fear of the second convince me to ignore the first. I had seen white sources. All those Hierarchs in play. I knew the most likely out in the deck was Pridemage. I had a Needle in hand. All I had to do was play it. Tap that Opal, play that Needle. Name the Pridemage that wrecks you, go to game 2. Sometimes, you just screw up. To AJ’s credit, he did exactly the right thing – played Zenith for five, which is impossible to counter with Counterbalance, and hope I don’t have the Spell Pierce. I didn’t. Those were in the board. Good game, me.

I made a second mistake. I boarded out two Swords to Plowshares for Needles. This was a mistake because I was bringing in Cursed Totem, which is simply better against AJ’s deck. I was worried about protecting my Ensnaring Bridges (which are a HOUSE in this match), and still a bit tilted about my mistake. I also knew AJ was bringing in all his Needles, and really wanted to access Explosives on 1 to deal with them. Having my own Needles blocks the effectiveness of that plan, so I should have gone another way with it. Mistakes tend to snowball, and here it was totally true. AJ was on the beatdown plan with Goyfs, and all those Needles should have been Swords. A minor mistake was kind of the clincher, as I sacrificed the wrong card to the Thopter when AJ played his first Needle. I should have sacked the Thopter, and AJ may have named another card. I had Academy Ruins in play so he may have still named Thopter Foundry, but the offhand chance he names Academy Ruins lets the second Thopter in my hand be active, and the second Needle names Thopter, rather than Top, which keeps me in the game.

This round was a perfect storm of punts. I think this was just where my mental game fell apart, and as much as AJ played well to get the W, I let myself down in a big, big way.


Round 8 – Joe Brown – UB Doomsday

Now dead in the water, it was time to try and secure top 16. Joe led off with an Island and a Ponder. I put him on either Team America or Combo based on this, and his next turn’s Underground Sea into Preordain showed me he was some sort of Combo. I landed a Counterbalance and a Top, and he decided his hand couldn’t win through the lock, so we went to game two. Possibly a bit premature, but I’ll take it.

In our second game, I played a turn one Top, and began spinning looking for gas. I had a Lim-Dul’s Vault but no black source, and I didn’t really have much else. On his third turn, Joe went for it, casting a Brainstorm, Dark Ritual, and Doomsday. He found his first four cards, but deliberated a bit on the final choice. Once he figured out his stack, I topped while he passed. I found the fetchland I needed, drew it, cracked it, LDV’d, drew with Top, played the Pithing Needle, and winced. He didn’t have Force/Blue Card as his last two spells in hand, and I named Shelldock Isle. He thought for a minute, and realized he hadn’t counted on that being what I was going for, and conceded. He showed me his hand of Dark Ritual and Cloud of Faeries, which would have had him attacking for 15 next turn, much to my chagrin. In this instance, I’m fairly certain he was dead to any number of cards I don’t play, and exactly one that I do. Once more I bow to the might of the Pithing Needle. Great card, or Greatest card?


Round 9 – Rob “Sparky” Anthony, Merfolk

In a cruel twist of fate, I’m paired against Sparky, who is one of the friends we’ve been staying with all weekend. As I’m higher in the standings, and my outside shot at Top 8 is slightly better than his outside shot, he concedes the match graciously. A stand-up move by a stand-up guy, and if I’m in the position to return the favor, he knows I won’t hesitate. He still managed to hit top 32, so we both made a little change on the day.

Aside from the blundering against AJ, and the questionable decision in Enlightened Tutor targets against Alix, I was pleased with my overall performance and play. I was even more pleased with the deck, as I feel it was within a card or two from being perfectly tuned for the event. With tighter play against AJ, who knows where my tournament would have ended up – but that’s how these things go.

Our journey home was an adventure that I’d rather forget. The weather was atrocious from central Pennsylvania through upstate New York, and we were on the road, going 30mph, for almost 7 hours before we finally decided to stop risking our lives and get a motel room for the night. I say night, but it was 4am by the time we found a motel that wasn’t completely booked up from other like-minded travelers, so we only got a few hours rest before we were up and slowly headed home again. In the morning, I managed to get forced into a snow bank by an overly aggressive truck driver, but managed to only get buried for a second before powering through it and back into the road. Small miracles. The drive that took 4 hours on Friday ended up spanning two days with approximately 9 hours on the way home. We stopped in the middle of the highway to help a stranded driver change a flat tire, we watched a tractor trailer literally flip onto its side in the southbound lane, and we almost died multiple times. Stressful.

After all of the ups and downs (and side-to-sides) of the weekend, going back to work seems like the vacation. If you can ignore the miserable trip home, it was a hell of a way to spend my first foray into the world of Star City Opens.

Self-indulgent name dropping section:

Thanks to
Carl Dillahay, Keith Palmer, and their roommates for putting us up for the weekend.
The SCG ringer crew (Poszgay, GerryT, Bertoncini, Drew Levin, AJ Sacher, etc) for being welcoming and generally approachable.
Chris Pikula for randomly having a Cursed Totem when no one else in the room had one. If I ever see you again, I’ll return it.
John Barber for lending cards out to half the tournament.
Megan Holland for being awesome and the friendliest person alive. (www.mtgmom.com)
Alix Hatfield, Eli Kassis, and Eric English. Represent.
Alex Artese and Andre Segarra for keeping me awake and being generally great dudes.
Sparks for being the man.
The ladies of Rutgers University.

It’s going to be hard to top this weekend for a while, but hopefully the string of tech keeps flowing, as Legacy continues to grow. There are big events happening nearly every week nowadays, so there’s plenty of time to showcase your own. Take advantage of our embarrassment of riches – it wasn’t that long ago that we were running our own “big” events, and one every month or two was the best we could do. Until next time, I hope you didn’t sleep on Candelabra, and remember – keep your stick on the ice.


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