One step backwards.
Two steps forwards.
At least that’s what I keep telling myself. I’ve been trying something new lately involving Lightning Bolt. Instead of using it to kill an oncoming Goblin Guide, or even just the threat of it to keep a Putrid Leech smaller, I’ve actually started casting it targeting my opponent. On purpose, like that was the plan all along.
Sure, we’ve all been there before. They have no chance of winning, and in an effort to move along to game two faster you Bolt their face and kill them with some dragon or an Earthquake on the next turn. As a control deck it’s rare that you have time for lunch, so the fact that Lightning Bolt can end a round faster is just icing on top of a delicious removal spell-shaped cake.
Except some people out there play Lightning Bolt for the sole reason of pointing it at their opponent’s face. “Bolt you” they say smugly, as if everything was going according to plan. How they embraced such inherent card disadvantage boggled my mind. “Sure, if you want to practically mulligan” I would think to myself while I marked my life total down to a precarious two. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades!
Unfortunately, all too often I would be signing the slip in Lightning Bolt guy’s favor. That two life easily turned into a negative one life with the second Lightning Bolt, and that was that. Maybe there’s something to Lightning Bolt after all. Maybe it’s time that I try it for myself?
In my quest to be a better Magic player I realized I need to embrace all strategies. If my deck or preferred strategy couldn’t get it done, I needed to be able to switch it up if I wanted to win. LSV himself was recently in this exact situation and had this to say:
“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 [Grixis control] deck, I just knew it wasn’t good enough.”
Luis eventually settled on the Naya deck that propelled him to a record-breaking undefeated record in the Swiss, so I’d say it worked.
For me, however, I’ve never really played this way before. Sure, I’ve dabbled with the strategy here and there, but I haven’t seriously looked at what it means to play aggro. I know this is the weakest part of my game (where before it was limited) so I’ve taken it upon myself to get better at playing the aggro deck. If anything, understanding aggro will help me better beat it in the future.
That’s what led me to playing the red deck at the Pro Tour. Ok, so maybe the Pro Tour wasn’t the best place to try out a new strategy, but I honestly think my deck was ok. It wasn’t earth-shattering, and was probably a bad metagame call (as it has a hard time against white) but the deck itself wasn’t bad. I’m sure some of my inexperience with two-drops had something to do with my performance.
When it came time for the PTQ the next day Zoo was my deck of choice. (I talked about this a little last week, but I’m going to go into more detail.) I asked around about different versions of the deck, and eventually Brian Kowal gave me a version I liked. It ran Noble Hierarch, Punishing Fire, Grove of the Burnwillows, and a few Baneslayer Angels, and the sideboard was very sideboardy with Blood Moon, Damping Matrix, Extirpate, Thought Hemorrhage, etc.
I started off 3-0 and I could feel the power in the deck. I was making a few marginal mistakes here or there, maybe a few questionable judgment calls, but the games were still panning out. Then I ran into the mirror and my inexperience began to show through. There was actually no way I could lose game three as I had him locked out with Punishing Fire and Grove of the Burnwillows, but I was playing too slowly to finish the game in time. I had to spend too much time on every decision, which I blame on my unfamiliarity with the strategy. He drew Path to Exile to kill my Baneslayer Angel when time was called, nabbing the draw.
In the next round I battled against Dark Depths/Thopter Foundry. I locked him out of game two with Blood Moon, and game three looked very much in my favor. His hand didn’t pan out, and he essentially skipped two turns when he had to play Dark Depths as his land drop and then missed his next land drop. I proceeded to make four bad choices in a row – one of those series of events that if I had made the other choice in just one of those, I would have probably won the game. First I didn’t cast Baneslayer Angel for fear of Damnation. He drew a land and cast Vampire Hexmage. Then I cast the Punishing Fire from my graveyard using a Grove instead of just casting the one in my hand. Then I made a bad attack. One thing led to another and (of course) I came up one point short and was one mana away from winning, all my fault. Brian Kowal was even standing there watching my final game (embarrassing) and then sat there while I beat myself up about it afterwards.
In the next round my opponent was UB Thopter Foundry with Tezzeret and I never felt like I was in the match. In game one, he Mana Leaked my first two threats, then had all the time in the world to find his combo. In game two the same thing happened, only now his deck was full of removal spells, so I could never get a threat off the ground. I’m sure I sideboarded incorrectly here as this particular matchup wasn’t in my notes, but I wasn’t even close to winning a game.
This was all after a disappointing finish in the Pro Tour, so I was pretty upset with how I was playing that weekend. I just keep telling myself that it is just a temporary step backwards before I get a handle on things and can start playing aggro decks like the people around me that keep qualifying with them.
I picked Zoo up again for the PTQ a few days ago in Portland, Oregon. I temporarily lost my nerve and tried to get Gifts Ungiven to work on the Thursday before the event, but I couldn’t beat Dark Depths consistently enough to justify it. Instead I grabbed the version of Zoo that the people around me (Zaiem, Gavin Verhey) said was good and that was similar to what Alex West made top 16 with in Oakland. I wasn’t convinced about the sideboard, and on Friday I came up with something I could really get excited about. Here is what I played:
You look at that sideboard and it does not look like it belongs to Zoo at all. Still, it had all the answers I was looking for packaged into a nice little 2/2. It all started when I was trying to come up with a better sideboard plan for the mirror than Ranger of Eos and Umezawa’s Jitte. I expected the environment to be hostile towards artifacts with Qasali Pridemages and Bant Charms, so Jitte was underwhelming to me. Then I thought about Engineered Explosives and how you could probably make the card do good things for you in the mirror if you maneuvered correctly, especially if they cast Ranger of Eos and drop their dorks immediately. Then, could a Zoo deck beat a recurring explosives with Academy Ruins? You run Knight of the Reliquary, so it’s not crazy to think you’ll get to the card. While we’re at it, let’s just grab the explosives with Trinket Mage! A quick artifact search later and I knew I had found my plan. Now I could have a sideboard against Hypergenesis and Living End (Chalice of the Void), Dredge (Tormod’s Crypt), Thopter Foundry (Pithing Needle), and the mirror (Explosives and Basilisk Collar), all in one card (Trinket Mage)!
Negates rounded out the sideboard for more against the cascade decks, but I’m not sure it was the perfect card. I didn’t have room for a Ghost Quarter or Bojuka Bog, which various people condemned or swore by. I was underwhelmed by the lands in theory and cut them, but have yet to actually prove/disprove their worth. Meddling Mage was prominent in the sideboard I was handed, but I liked my plan better.
The event played out very similarly to my last PTQ with Zoo. I started off 3-0, and so far my sideboard plan had pleased me as I got to Tormod’s Crypt a Dredge player. Then, just like the last PTQ, my streak fell when I played the mirror. I won game one by drawing more threats, and it looked like game two was going to go the same way. I fell behind a bit early and stabilized at 5 life when I kept drawing Tarmogoyfs. It was my three Tarmogoyfs and a Wild Nacatl against his single Tarmogoyf and a Nacatl. I didn’t want to trade a Goyf for a Nacatl, so I attacked with three 4/5 Goyfs when he was at 9 life. He blocked with just Tarmogoyf, went to 1, and then killed me with a Lightning Bolt and an attack on his next turn. I think he just drew the Lightning Bolt as he had good opportunity to use it earlier, but I could be wrong. I probably screwed the attack up, and I know I just straight-up missed an attack early in the game when I did Nacatl and exalted math incorrectly.
In the third game it looked like everything was going according to plan. I had Trinket Mage and Engineered Explosives and Academy Ruins. His first Ranger of Eos got blown out by an Explosives after he got an attack in with two 3/3s. Then he cast another Ranger of Eos, killed my blocker, and killed me before I could get the second explosives online. Looking back he had a pretty amazing draw, killing every single creature I played (I think five creatures) while also casting two Rangers. If I had just managed to get a Tarmogoyf to survive I think the game works out in my favor, so I’m not willing to dismiss my sideboard plan for the mirror yet. It at least deserves more testing.
In the next round I played against Dark Depths and Thopter Foundry and got blown out by Engineered Explosives in two games. In the first game he bounced his Tolaria West with Dimir Aqueduct, tutored for Engineered Explosives, then wiped my board. My relatively slow draw gave him enough time for these shenanigans that normally don’t work. In game three I mulliganed to six cards that relied on two Noble Hierarchs and a land, but got blown out by him naturally drawing his single Engineered Explosives. Oh well, I guess it happens. He also played turn two Vampire Hexmage off of Dark Depths and Urborg, blew my board up on turn three, then played another Dark Depths and Hexmage on turn four when his first 20/20 got Bant Charmed. Oof.
Another disappointing PTQ, but at least I’m learning. I feel like Zoo is a very powerful deck but I’m not playing at all optimally. It is like I’m years behind when it comes to Wild Nacatl, and it feels weird. It’s like I’m back at FNM trying to figure things out. I’m back to feeling like I’m behind the moment I sit across from a local I recognize. Hopefully I can take that step forward soon and be better for it. Until then I’ve got to keep casting Lightning Bolt – targeting you.
Thanks for reading,
Loucksj at gmail
JonLoucks on Twitter
Zygonn on Magic Online