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Utter Beatings – *Top 8* in San Diego

My Pro Tour started with this:

[draft]blood baron of vizkopa[/draft]

When life gives you lemons, you are supposed to make juice or something, I don’t really know, but I know that when life hands you a Blood Baron, it’s time to get big and fly.

After first picking the Blood Baron, the draft continued going perfectly. I snapped up a [card]Profit // Loss[/card] and [card]Tithe Drinker[/card] before getting a surprisingly late [card]Orzhov Guildgate[/card], double [card]Rakdos Guildgate[/card], and two [card]Ubul Sar Gatekeepers[/card] to go with them.

Thanks to cutting Orzhov hard from the first pick, pack two was similarly fantastic. I picked up the usual aggressive Orzhov suspects, plus a [card]Sunhome Guildmage[/card] that was a freeroll off my Gates. Pack three went worse of course, but still yielded two more Gates, an [card]Auger Spree[/card], and good bodies to fill out my curve. In the end, I had an aggressive deck with both a low curve and a lot of power—it really couldn’t have been much better.

My games, however, didn’t start out as smoothly as the draft. In the first game of the tournament, the board became my [card]Rakdos Drake[/card] and [card]Rakdos Ragemutt[/card] against my opponent’s [card]Leyline Phantom[/card] and freshly cast [card]Beetleform Mage[/card] with five mana up. I was at 26 to his 7, and at the start of my main phase my hand was [card]Righteous Charge[/card], [card]Grisly Spectacle[/card], and an [card]Ubul Sar Gatekeepers[/card] with 7 lands in play (two of which were Gates).

My opponent was very unlikely to tap out on this board, so killing the Mage with my Gatekeepers was not realistic. I could trade my Drake for his Mage with assistance from the Gatekeepers, but then I would have to Spectacle the Leyline Phantom or the board would be stalled.

Instead, I decided to just Spectacle the Mage. Having decided that, I then thought to make him pump the Mage first, as I figured seeing two extra cards in his deck was more relevant than potential scavenge or anything else since I was so far ahead this game. So, I attacked with Drake, and then cast Grisly Spectacle on the Mage after he pumped it. The obvious problem with that play is my opponent’s five open mana, which would let him eat my Rakdos Drake for free if he has a card to save his [card]Beetleform Mage[/card] from the [card]Grisly Spectacle[/card], such as [card]Dispel[/card] or [card]Rootborn Defenses[/card]. He ended up having [card]Spell Rupture[/card], and I was left feeling appropriately stupid as I binned my Drake.

From there my opponent did tap out to get a hit in with [card]Leyline Phantom[/card] and cast [card]Agoraphobia[/card] on my Ragemutt, letting me Gatekeepers the Mage. That turn I drew [card]Seller of Songbirds[/card], the perfect card. It let me cast [card]Righteous Charge[/card] the next turn, hitting my opponent to 1 while he was forced to block Gatekeepers and return his Phantom. My opponent had the spells he needed to deal with my board, but did not have enough mana, as he had to replay Phantom and move Agoraphobia over to my flyer. In game two I just curved out perfectly, winning the match despite my best efforts.

I routinely play worse in the first round of a tournament than any other. You would think that, knowing that, I would do what I can to counteract that and start the morning with some warm-up games to get myself focused on playing. Well, this was the last straw, and I am certainly doing that from now on.

Round two, I faced Brad Nelson in two very exciting games. The first came down to the following position:

Brad: 16 life, three cards in hand

[card]Thrashing Mossdog[/card] [card]Greenside Watcher[/card] [card]Volatile Rig[/card] (tapped)

Me: 14 life, [card]Auger Spree[/card] and [card]Profit // Loss[/card] in hand
[card]Rakdos Drake[/card] [card]Blood Baron of Vizkopa[/card] 2 [card]Knight’s Watch[/card] tokens

I sent the team, and Brad cast [card]Burst of Strength[/card] on the [card]Volatile Rig[/card]. I had 7 mana and colors weren’t an issue, so I could play [card]Auger Spree[/card] and Profit or Loss, but not [card]Auger Spree[/card] and fused [card]Profit // Loss[/card].

I’m just going to run through each reasonable option available to me at this point:

1a) [card]Auger Spree[/card] [card]Volatile Rig[/card] in response, Rig blows everything up.

The board is empty, and it’s my [card]Profit // Loss[/card] versus Brad’s two cards (presumably not lands—he missed his 6th land drop) and he gets the first turn. I’m a huge underdog.

1b) [card]Auger Spree[/card] [card]Volatile Rig[/card] in response, Rig does not explode.

However Brad blocks, Loss kills his two creatures (and not blocking doesn’t get better for him). I win the game from here close to 100% of the time.

2a) Cast Profit, then [card]Auger Spree[/card] [card]Volatile Rig[/card], Rig blows everything up.

Casting Profit saves my Baron in this case, leaving Brad at 7 with no board and me with [card]Blood Baron of Vizkopa[/card]. However, I have no cards in hand to Brad’s 2, and he has no shortage of green creatures, plus the Mossdog in the graveyard to scavenge. I’m favored, but the game is close.

2b) Cast Profit, then [card]Auger Spree[/card] [card]Volatile Rig[/card], Rig does not explode.

Brad is then free to double-block Baron, and the board is my [card]Rakdos Drake[/card] and two 2/2s to his nothing and 7 life, but he has 2 spells in hand to my none. I’m a favorite, but we definitely have a game.

3) Let [card]Burst of Strength/[card] resolve and let him block.

There are multiple blocks Brad could make, but the most obvious is to put the Rig in front of Blood Baron, and each of the other creatures in front of another attacker. With this or most any other potential blocks, fused Profit // Loss is a straight-up [card]Plague Wind[/card]. Then Brad gets the Rig flip to see if he wraths me back or not.

Compared to line 1), this play leaves me up an [card]Auger Spree[/card] in hand in the case where Rig does not explode (obviously better, though mostly irrelevantly so, as I’m near 100% to win regardless). In the case where Rig does explode, this line leaves me with an [card]Auger Spree[/card] in hand rather than a [card]Profit // Loss[/card], which is a huge upgrade on an empty board. I’m still an underdog, but the game is much closer.

So option 1) can be eliminated, but it’s real close between 2) and 3). 2) locks up a slightly favorable board position (roughly estimating 70% to win), whereas 3) gives a 50% chance at winning the game on the spot and a 50% chance at being a little behind (guessing 40% to win). These estimates are little more than wild guesses, but they do illustrate how close this decision is. I can’t say for sure which line is better, but I definitely know which one is sweeter.

No gamble, no future.

Brad made the expected blocks. My [card]Plague Wind[/card] resolved.

What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin flip?

Well, my answer is NOT a [card]Blood Baron of Vizkopa[/card] and three other creatures. #GAME

While topping that game is not very realistic, game two of the match did make a noble effort. Brad came roaring out of the gates, and the board was looking bad for me when Brad played an [card]Unflinching Courage[/card].

On my turn, however, I had [card]Traitorous Instinct[/card] for the [card]Unflinching Courage[/card]’d creature and a [card]Cartel Aristocrat[/card] in play to sacrifice it to. Suddenly Brad’s tempo advantage just evaporated, and I was right back in the race.

A few turns later, Brad had two [card]Kraul Warrior[/card]s and a [card]Golgari Longlegs[/card] to my [card]Basilica Screecher[/card], Aristocrat, and [card]Ubul Sar Gatekeepers[/card], with me at 11 to his 8. Brad sent his team, and my Aristocrat and Gatekeepers each blocked a Warrior.

Brad pumped the one blocked by Aristocrat, so the Warrior and the Aristocrat traded, I took 5—a good exchange for Brad, but he might have been able to do better. If he had sent only one Warrior and the Longlegs, I can either not block and take 10, or, much more likely, block both and lose a creature but take 0. Compared to Brad’s play, that means he essentially sacrificed a Warrior to deal 5 to me. That could have been correct on that board, but making that play did cost him the game given my hand. I had [card]Righteous Charge[/card] (with extort) to kill him exactly, whereas if he had an untapped Warrior it’s unclear who would have won the game.

In the draft “finals,” I faced Andrew Cuneo with a very fast Rakdos deck. We both had great draws in the first game, but a turn where [card]Mugging[/card] allowed Cuneo to play two spells meant I was a turn behind for the rest of the game.

I spent three turns in a row killing a creature, taking a hit from another each time. Just when I thought I had stabilized at 7, he fused [card]Toil // Trouble[/card] to kill me exactly.

Game two was over in an instant, as neither of us could do any blocking (his creatures were bigger, but were unleashed). Between being on the play and having a [card]Traitorous Instinct[/card], I won the race easily.

I kept a sketchy hand in game three: two Swamps and the nut draw if I hit a Plains. I whiffed on not just the Plains but also any lands at all, missing my third land drop. I got there the next turn, but at that point I was too far behind to make much of a game out of it.

In Constructed I picked up a loss against Golgari aggro, but beat [card]Maze’s End[/card] fog and three control decks to head into Day Two at 6-2.

In draft two, I once again got to start with a five-drop bomb, this time in [card]Scion of Vitu-Ghazi[/card]. I second picked a [card]Haazda Snare Squad[/card] out of a weak pack, and was then passed a pack with [card]Putrefy[/card] and [card]Tithe Drinker[/card]. This was by far the most important pick of the draft, and I think most people would just snap up the [card]Putrefy[/card].

[card]Putrefy[/card] is for sure the more powerful card, and is a great splash. It’s also less committing than [card]Tithe Drinker[/card], as you can play it in either Selesnya or Orzhov (assuming base-white), whereas [card]Tithe Drinker[/card] only leaves you with one color combination.

The problem with taking [card]Putrefy[/card], though, is that it doesn’t really leave you open to Orzhov, as you are passing a [card]Tithe Drinker[/card]. [card]Tithe Drinker[/card] was the next best card in the pack, and passing it here is pretty likely to create an Orzhov drafter on your very near, if not immediate left.

In a normal draft format this is a far bigger problem for the person you are passing to than it is for you, but because the payoff for Orzhov is in pack two, it’s unacceptable to create that downstream Orzhov drafter and draft straight Orzhov yourself.

So really, [card]Putrefy[/card] is as committing to Selesnya as [card]Tithe Drinker[/card] is to Orzhov (again, assuming base-white—not a concrete assumption to make, but it is going to take a lot to get away from playing [card]Scion of Vitu-Ghazi[/card]).

This isn’t just a pick between the two cards, but between the two guilds. Not only is Orzhov the stronger guild, it also has the benefit of being in pack two. As Ben Stark says, it’s better to be in a Gatecrash guild than a Return to Ravnica guild, as you have more control over it being open. On top of that, it really is much better to be straight two colors than not, so taking a splash card over a great “on-color” card is not really what I wanted to be doing.

I took the [card]Tithe Drinker[/card] and never looked back, drafting a solid straight Orzhov deck. The deck didn’t end up nearly as strong as my first—it was somewhat close on power level, but instead of an aggressive curve like I would have preferred, I had a motley collection of more defensive bodies. [card]Righteous Charge[/card], an all-star in my first deck, was now languishing in my sideboard. [card]Mind Rot[/card] and [card]Purge the Profane[/card] were now the complements to my creatures and removal.

More controlling decks have a higher bar for card quality and removal count to be successful, but I liked my chances.

The first round really put my deck’s power level to the test in two long games against a strong 5-color deck. In the first, facing a [card]Leyline Phantom[/card] and [card]Zhur-Taa Druid[/card] at 7 life, I attacked with my team of two 1/1 Bird tokens, [card]Concordia Pegasus[/card], and [card]Haazda Snare Squad[/card], tapping the Phantom. That took my opponent to 7, and I played a [card]Tithe Drinker[/card] and passed the turn.

My opponent had an [card]Explosive Impact[/card] and made the seemingly obvious play of killing [card]Tithe Drinker[/card] and attacking me down to 1 with a [card]Zhur-Taa Druid[/card] in play, then replaying the Phantom. That played right into my sandbagged [card]Purge the Profane[/card], however, pulling me out of Druid range and stripping my opponent’s last two cards—one of which was [card]Sphinx of the Chimes[/card].

The Sphinx was the 5th creature in my opponent’s graveyard that I needed to kill [card]Leyline Phantom[/card] with [card]Death’s Approach[/card]. Just like that, my opponent went from a dominant board position and gas in hand to no cards and no board, facing lethal.

Game two the board stalled out early and I eventually grinded through [card]Thoughtflare[/card], [card]Mystic Genesis[/card], [card]Sphinx of the Chimes[/card], and [card]Archon of the Triumvirate[/card] largely thanks to drawing several less lands than my opponent.

Another draft round two, another battle against Brad Nelson. I drew much better than he did to win an uneventful game one, but in the second I found myself a little flooded. My saving grace was a [card]Perilous Shadow[/card], holding off Brad’s board.

Once I hit 10 lands and could two-shot Brad with the Shadow, I decided it was time to race. He took the first Shadow hit, and sent back with everything. I had [card]Orzhov Charm[/card] and chose to not kill an attacker, assuming Brad was going to play a chump-blocker that I would then kill, winning the game. Brad’s chumper turned out to be [card]Centaur’s Herald[/card] though, destroying me. I couldn’t attack, and we returned to a board stall, only now I was dangerously close to dying to an alpha strike if Brad drew more spells than me. Happily, the opposite happened, and in a few turns I was able to start sending the Shadow. Brad soon succumbed to [card]The Abyss[/card].

The final draft round started with my double-[card]Tithe Drinker[/card], double-removal curve quickly defeating my opponent’s poor draw.

Game two proved more interesting, though on the surface it looked about as close as the first. My opponent curved out two-drop, three-drop into [card]Gruul War Chant[/card], but I was able to keep up with creatures of my own. Each turn, my opponent would send one creature into two blockers, and I would block and trade one of my guys for his.

He was able to get a 2-for-1 off of a bloodrushed [card]Rubblebelt Maaka[/card], but still wasn’t able to pull ahead and start getting damage through. Between my opponent drawing a less useful second [card]Gruul War Chant[/card], a backbreaking [card]Purge the Profane[/card] from me hitting two creatures, and a couple of removal spells, I grinded through every single one of my opponent’s guys. I also assembled quite the army of my own, winning the game in very convincing fashion.

The game might have looked very different with different plays from either side, though. My opponent could have declined to offer to trading creatures, instead building up a bigger board. Then when he later attacked, I wouldn’t be able to block everything, and while the same trades still likely happen then, he is able to get big chunks of damage in.

Even the turn where Maaka traded for my two blockers, my opponent was probably better served just playing a creature instead of attacking. Then he could get the same exchange in a future turn, while also pushing damage through. From my side, it would have been reasonable to try to avoid bloodrush blowouts, and instead attempt to race.

I think many players in my spot would have done just that, but it would have been worse even though I did get “gotten” by Maaka. I was well set up to absorb a 2-for-1 in an attrition game, and pretty poorly positioned to win that race. While I think I outdrew my opponent by enough towards the end of the game that how we played would not have mattered, the game was close to being close.

Back in Constructed, I beat Naya aggro in an on-camera feature match.

The first game was a tight race that culminated in an alpha strike from my opponent. I had left a [card]Frontline Medic[/card] back to block so that I would go to 1 through a bloodrushed [card]Ghor-Clan Rampager[/card] or a [card]Boros Charm[/card]. I was 1 point short of lethal on the board on the swing back, but had a [card]Boros Charm[/card] of my own to close it out. In the second game I quickly put away my opponent’s 5-card, all-land opener.

I then faced Rob Castellon’s four color midrange deck, and this Tweet really sums up the match:

The one interesting spot was in game two, when I was one card away from assembling my infinite life combo. For reference, my deck list:

[deck]Main Deck
4 Foundry Street Denizen
4 Rakdos Cackler
4 Legion Loyalist
4 Burning-Tree Emissary
4 Firefist Striker
4 Gore-House Chainwalker
4 Frontline Medic
4 Boros Charm
4 Mizzium Mortars
3 Legion’s Initiative
3 Plains
10 Mountain
4 Temple Garden
4 Sacred Foundry
Sideboard:
4 Viashino Firstblade
1 Legion’s Initiative
4 Boros Reckoner
2 Electrickery
2 Act of Treason
2 Arrest[/deck]

My “combo” was Castellon attacking [card]Alms Beast[/card] into my [card]Boros Reckoner[/card] and open mana. [card]Boros Charm[/card] would have won the otherwise unwinnable game on the spot by gaining infinite life (an indestructible, lifelinking [card]Boros Reckoner[/card] that takes damage can shoot itself repeatedly to keep gaining life). Sadly, I didn’t have the Charm (and had actually boarded them all out), and so I lost that fantastic story (and the match).

The next round, Reid Duke got mana screwed the first game and flooded the second, and so I found myself playing against David Sharfman for Top 8 and Player of the Year. The match was fully covered on camera and you can watch it here (with a gem of a game between Tom Martell and Martin Juza following my match). Game one I had an essentially perfect curve on the draw, and at the start of my third turn main phase the game looked like this:

Mortars on the [card]Experiment One[/card] this turn is an 8-point burn spell (compared to not casting it, and not attacking this turn), or a 2/2 and a 2-point burn spell (compared to not casting it, and sacrificing a [card]Burning-Tree Emissary[/card] to deal 6).

Casting it leaves me in great shape to kill him next turn with [card]Boros Charm[/card]—he needs to have a creature and attack only with [card]Gore-House Chainwalker[/card]. Even if he stabilizes, he needs to keep up with each creature/spell I draw with bigger creatures, as all of mine have first strike from Loyalist, making blocking much much harder. It’s certainly right to [card]Mizzium Mortars[/card] the [card]Experiment One[/card], so I do it, send the team, and then play [card]Sacred Foundry[/card] untapped and unleash the [card]Rakdos Cackler[/card].

There was just one problem with this line of thinking: I never even considered the possibility of dying on Sharfman’s turn. At 16 and facing 6 power, it just didn’t cross my mind. But I took 2 from the Foundry, left myself with no blockers, and 6 + 4 from Rampager #1 + 4 from Rampager #2 is 14. Dead.

At the time, I thought I had punted the game by not playing the Cackler as a 1/1. That would let me play around double [card]Ghor-Clan Rampager[/card] or double [card]Boros Charm[/card] (though still die to Rampager plus [card]Boros Charm[/card]—I certainly couldn’t beat that), while still presenting another attacker for my next turn. But the difference between the 1/1 and 2/2 attacker is beyond enormous. I needed 5 more damage. If I unleashed the Cackler, I would need one unblocked attacker on top of the Loyalist and Cackler, but if I leashed it then I would need two. Leashing the Cackler does beat two 4-point burn spells, but is so much more likely to lose to Sharfman just having a big creature, as it then makes me need to outdraw him by two relevant spells instead of one.

Playing Sacred Foundry tapped and just not playing the Cackler until the next turn was an option, and better than leashing the Cackler, as it keeps me from dying immediately without giving up the relevant attacker. However, that line is still so much worse against the majority of hands Sharfman could have that I think the optimal play is actually the one I made.

Like I said though, at the time I thought I straight-up threw the game away, and was extremely upset with myself. After I won the next two games, I felt half insanely happy to have made Top 8 and won Player of the Year, but also half terrible because I felt like I didn’t deserve it.

My Top 8 matches were very well covered, both on-camera and in written features here, and I don’t really have much to add as the games were mostly straightforward. I would just like to say how much I appreciated having LSV in the booth (and of course BDM and Hagon were excellent as always), as he was always able to communicate exactly what I was thinking. For example, when I suicided two creatures into the [card]Rootborn Defenses[/card] that I was quite sure Wescoe had in game one, it was pretty nice to have Luis there talking about how I couldn’t beat it anyway so might as well bash.

I was disappointed to lose in the semis, though the loss was far less disappointing than every other PT Top 8 loss for me. Part of that was due to most of the disappointment hitting me as I watched Wescoe defeat Prost in the quarters, as Wescoe’s deck couldn’t have been more perfect against mine. But a bigger part of that was because I had won Player of the Year, which left me exiting the tournament feeling little but overjoyed and satisfied.

And that wraps up my tournament, so I’d just like to leave you with some good old fashioned props and slops:

Props:

Team CFB – I’m the one who happened to spike, but POY is very much an award we won collectively.

Efro – Many thanks for housing everyone.

Honey

The secret to the team’s success.

[card]Burning-Tree Emissary[/card] – You were always there for me when I needed you most.

Brad Nelson – thanks for the two wins buddy!

Eric Levine – #robcastellonfacts made the PT even more enjoyable.

Slops:

[card]Legion’s Initiative[/card] – The one sweet card in my deck, and it just always killed my opponent without making me work for it. I had dreams of alpha striking into a clogged board and activating Initiative after first strike damage to save and untap my team, and bigger dreams of playing two Denizens and popping Initiative to give them haste and a bunch of +1/+0 triggers.

Lunch breaks at the PT – Look, I just want to play Magic.

Second lunch breaks – asdkfjbfkajwnkfdgjdgnakdsnkvnkdasfkqwe

No lunch break for the Top 8 lunch – Hey, that is a great looking spread. “Semifinalists, play resumes in five minutes.” Sigh. Sometimes you just can’t win.

And sometimes you just can’t lose.

Josh Utter-Leyton

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