This is it. Nationals is here.
This tournament feels important. I don’t want to be the guy that only goes to one Pro Tour, never to return again. I felt like I was that guy after my finish at Pro Tour: Honolulu. Sure, I was happy with 74th at my first Pro Tour, but I left the tournament just as far away from my next Pro Tour as I was before.
At least I was, until an unexpected Nationals invite from rating brought me just a little bit closer. It was like a scene right out of a movie. The hero, the quarterback, the musician, fails at their one big chance to impress the girl, the scout, the critics. Down and out, sad music plays in the background, and they return to their humble life alone, in the country, in their one-bedroom apartment. That’s when the letter comes in the mail. From inside the mailbox we see our hero open the flap, pull out the mail, flip to the back, and pause. It couldn’t be – heart stops. Dropping the magazines and junk mail, they tear open the letter. Eyes widen. Congratulations! it says, you made it to the wild card round, the alternate team, the last chance audition.
You are invited to 2009 United States Nationals based on either your Top 100 Composite or Top 100 Total DCI Rating.
This is it. I can’t just do well, I’ve got to win. I know I shouldn’t set myself up like this, placing so much importance on one tournament, but I can’t help it.
We tried Turbo Time Sieve, but couldn’t combo fast enough. We tried Five-Color Cascade Reveillark, but couldn’t stay ahead. We tried Goblins, but couldn’t beat little white men. We tried Time Sieve Fog, but couldn’t beat the burn.
Enter Mike Flores. In my last article, I mentioned Enlisted Wurm possibly being better than Reveillark. Cascade is definitely above the curve, and I wanted to break it. That’s when, thanks to twitter, I found Flores’s oddly named “Rhox Meditant“ deck. It was cascading, and every card was a two-for-one. My kind of deck. Sometimes a rogue has got to lay down their homemade crossbow and grab the gun. Here is Flores’s original list, pre M10:
Luckily, Borderland Ranger picks up where Civic Wayfinder left off, and we don’t care about the tribe (unlike those Wren’s-Run Vanquisher whiners). I picked the deck up, started testing, and was loving it. It looks like a midrange deck, love them or hate them, but it’s doing one of the most powerful things in the format by cascading. Games where you played turn four Bloodbraid Elf, turn five Bituminous Blast, turn six Enlisted Wurm were insane. You’ve cast so many spells over those three turns that it’s rare anybody can keep up.
There were a few things that I didn’t like about the deck. I bugged Flores for a few answers, which he gave, but I didn’t manage to get the one-on-one fireside chat I needed for him to explain the reasoning behind all the choices. What matchup are the four Ajani Vengeant for? Four Primal Command? Why four Exotic Orchard? Is Captured Sunlight worth it? And why oh why can’t the deck do anything in the first two turns?
Eventually I had to start driving based on my own assumptions and experience. (I guess Zaiem helped, too.) First, we cut Captured Sunlight, because we never really found it worthwhile, and casting that spell on an empty board is pretty terrible sometimes. I felt like the four life was useful, sure, but more of a crutch than anything else. I distinctly remember the first time I was taught the crutch lesson. Back in the days of Mirari’s Wake control, I was reading an article about the deck and they cut Flash of Insight from the sideboard. Being able to reuse certain blue instants by removing them from the game with Flash of Insight and then Cunning Wishing for them was certainly useful, but was almost never necessary if you just played correctly. That’s how I felt about Captured Sunlight, so I cut it. I can hear Flores scoffing in the background, muttering something about Anathemancer or whatnot, but we don’t have that kind of time. Nationals is next week, so there’s got to be cutbacks.
Lightning Bolt fit nicely into the Captured Sunlight’s spot, shoring up the deck’s early game problems. In all the testing I’ve done, I fell more and more in love with Lightning Bolt. After playing Five-Color Control for so long, I really appreciated the ability to play a turn one tapped land and a turn two tapped land and still be able to kill their one-drop. That’s such an incredible advantage decks with slow manabases now have. Based on Honor the Pure alone it looked like Kithkin (or other white aggro decks) were going to be even faster, so reacting in the first two turns was even more important. That fact got a few Shriekmaw added to the deck, which also gave our Primal Commands a little more utility. For a while I was running three Bolt and three Shriekmaw, but Lightning Bolt was usually the better card. Oddly enough Shriekmaw was often worse on the play than Lightning Bolt. With Lightning Bolt you can kill their two-drop on the end of their turn, then untap and cast a three drop. With Shriekmaw being a sorcery you have to spend your third turn removing their two-drop. Less cool.
Speaking of slow manabases, I was having some trouble with Flores’s mana. Games where you drew two Jungle Shrines instead of one Shrine and one Savage Lands were frustrating. I tried vivid lands instead, and they were much better. Because of the Borderland Rangers the deck’s mana works itself out in the long run, it’s just the early turns that can be awkward. The deck also has easy mana requirements on cards, at least in the sense that there are very few cards that cost double of a color, so once you have six mana you’re pretty much just using vivid lands for their natural colors anyway. I’ve very rarely used all my vivid counters, and they have yet to be a problem. Never again are Reflecting Pool and Savage Lands going to screw me out of white mana. If you control a Reflecting Pool and a land that came into play tapped, you should be able to cast anything!
Here’s where the list is sitting currently:
Games 2 & 3
As for the sideboard, I took note of what Flores was doing, but still changed it to fit my desires. His sideboard extended the maindeck by giving him access to four Ajani Vengeant, four Naya Charm, and four Primal Command. He also had four Hallowed Burial, four Cloudthresher, and a lonely Anathemancer. After seeing Nationals coverage this weekend, it looks like Faeries and Elf Combo are the big decks, with Kithkin doing really well in the grinders. Those are the three decks I’m trying to beat after sideboard, though I’d also like to find a plan that works against Five-Color Control if I have the room.
The Ajani Vengeants came out, mostly because I didn’t understand them, but also because I’m not a big fan of planeswalkers right now. Maelstrom Pulse and Lightning Bolt answer them too easily, so I’d rather not deal with that right now. I also wasn’t sure which matchup I wanted all four Primal Commands in, probably against Five-Color Control, but that’s not a deck I’m focusing on right away.
Against Kithkin the plan is to bring in the Hallowed Burials. Once you reset the board you’ve got time to let your cascading take over. Enlisted Wurm can come down and block, and Bituminous Blast can neutralize their new threats. Bringing in the third Shriekmaw helps survive to Hallowed Burial and is also one of the best cards you can have after the board clears. Shriekmaw lets you get aggressive and drives the game towards a conclusion before they can string Spectral Processions and Cloudgoat Rangers. To fit in those five cards I’m still not 100% sure what to take out. I’m going to try taking out four Bloodbraid Elf, based on Flores’s recommendation, but I can’t believe that’s ever right. I guess when your game plan is to Hallowed Burial, they’re just going to get swept away, and the opponent has some first strike anyway. Flores also suggests cutting Bituminous Blasts, but again, I can’t get behind that. This is the matchup that you play Bituminous Blasts for – they are playing creatures! Primal Command will probably come out instead. I need to test this matchup a lot more after sideboard to figure out which cards really need to come out. Fetid Heath will definitely go in, probably over an Exotic Orchard, but this really isn’t the matchup the Heath was for.
Elf Combo has suddenly sprung up as the deck to beat, and I don’t want to be unprepared. The main plan we came up with was Thought Hemorrhage on Regal Force to make them fight fair. Once Regal Force is taken care of, their cards are still good, but you’re playing on the same level. The next most dangerous card is Primal Command, and then whatever weird card they are running, like Gilt-Leaf Archdruid or Mirror Entity. From there you handle them like any normal aggro deck, with Hallowed Burial and Shriekmaw. Shriekmaw also plays a very important role as a card that can actually kill them. The post sideboard games were still a bit of a struggle until we came up with the awesome plan of taking out irrelevant cards. Smart, huh? Out come Kitchen Finks, Primal Command, and Borderland Ranger. Now every one of your cascades is hitting a removal spell or a Thought Hemorrhage, which is pretty incredible. Cutting all these three mana spells, especially Borderland Ranger, made me wary of my manabase, so I added a 27th land in the sideboard. (Fetid Heath can also switch with an Exotic Orchard against things like UW, where the Heath is just better.) It’s hard to cut an Enlisted Wurm, but if I’m worried about expensive spells, he’s the guy to cut for the land. Now. I’m hoping I still have enough ways to kill them after sideboard.
Now the not so fun part. Nobody likes playing against Faeries, nobody! I’m hoping the Great Sable Stags are going to be enough, coupled with cascade spells clogging their countermagic. Primal Command is a liability against Cryptic Command and Broken Ambitions, so it comes out. Shriekmaw has a job to do, killing Mistbind Clique or Plumeveil (if they have it) but I’d rather have Maelstrom Pulse for that, so Shriekmaw comes out, too. In our testing the Stag has been really good, but not necessarily game over.
The one card that is always in the back of my mind and the tip of everybody else’s tongue is Volcanic Fallout. If the top three decks I want to beat are Elves, Kithkin, and Faeries, three small-bodied tribes, why don’t I play the best sweeper in the format? The problem I have with Volcanic Fallout is that Elves and Kithkin are very prepared to deal with it. After sideboard they will almost certainly have four Burrenton Forge-tender. I’d rather fight them on a different level with Hallowed Burial and let them mess around with their silly 1/1s for one. Kithkin is even better against Volcanic Fallout because one Honor the Pure makes their guys instantly big enough to survive. And, you know, Harm’s Way and stuff.
That being said, Faeries is the one matchup where I really miss Volcanic Fallout. Great Sable Stag is really good against them, but a Bitterblossom into a Scion of Oona can still race you. Volcanic Fallout shuts down that possibility, as well as halting any Mutavault shenanigans blocking your Stag. If I feel like I need to beat Fairies more, Volcanic Fallout is most certainly where I’ll turn. Then I’ll be faced with the interesting question, if I have Volcanic Fallout in my sideboard anyway, do I put it in against Elves and Kithkin? Probably yes, which makes it look like my sideboard really wants Volcanic Fallout. We’ll see.
Footbottom Feast, the last card in my sideboard. I was very excited when I first came up with this card. I was instantly imagining all the sick things I could do with the stacking. In the late game this card is a blowout. Imagine using it at the end of their turn, creating this stack:
I’ve actually done that, and it’s obviously insane. Game over. I was running one maindeck for a while, and while cascading into it early still draws you a card or gets back a Kitchen Finks, it was becoming a liability. A turn four Bloodbraid Elf that really needed to hit removal or a blocker would lose the game by hitting Footbottom Feast. It was better with the addition of Shriekmaw, but still not good enough.
Still, I loved the card, so I put one in my sideboard for the slower matchups like the mirror or five color control. Even if you hit it early and don’t get much back, you can always Naya Charm the Feast back later for a blowout.
The matchup I feel like I’m not giving enough attention is Five-Color Control. I’m trying to find room for [card]Identity Crisis[/card], but it’s getting harder with how much I need to devote to Combo Elves. Identity Crisis looks like the best thing you can do after a [card]Cruel Ultimatum[/card], and holding three other cards in your hand isn’t hard when Borderland Ranger is involved. I need to test that more, but the strategy seems sound.
So that’s my story, and that’s the deck I’ll probably be using.
Will our hero overcome all odds, avoid defeat, and crush his rivals? Will the elf menace tap seven untapped druids and spit on this boy’s dreams? With the pure be honored and the forge tended, or will a Hallowed Burial take Jon out of Harm’s Way? Will the stag of the great sable find his path, or is it elk season? And what will happen when Jon discards three cards, sacrifices a creature, and loses five life? Tune in to the official US Nationals event coverage to find out!
Thanks for reading.
Loucksj at gmail