It is a beautiful morning – blue skies and shining, summer sun. Alan and myself leave my part-time Reading residence at the crack of dawn (a lark in attendance) and drive to Guildford – shining Southern metropolis and home to this year’s English Nationals. I should emphasise that they are the ENGLISH Nationals ( as some of you may have already witnessed the raging pedantry of posters on uk.games.trading-cards.misc with regard to this matter), and not the UK Nationals.
Anyway, we stopped off at a garage to stock up on crisps, drinks, and "indeterminate parts of the pig" pies, and find the venue shortly after thanks to a) my excellent navigation skills, b) good sign-posting, and c) asking the bloke in the garage where it is ! The Spectrum Leisure Centre is enormous, and we shall be located on sub-level 2 for the duration, next to the Ice-rink, the Nuclear reactor, and the 300 entombed colonists. It has a burger franchise (mercifully free of slightly-scary clown mascot-age), a swimming pool (with a giraffe slide, for Cliff’s sake !), a bowling alley, and a coffee bar that opens 8.30AM on the dot (no exceptions!).
Note: My t-shirt for today is currently a scanned image of BUOYANCY, with the phrase: "I Wouldn’t Wipe My Arse On It" across the top.
We play a couple of games with some young chaps in the coffee area; one (Ben) has a ‘casual’ green decks with lots of high CC phatness but they are missing staple cards like Llanowar Elf, three extra Rancors, River Boa, Treetop Village etc and its very inefficient (note: a little while later, The Fighting Hellfish, the team I have recently joined, will spend a good 15 minutes getting those required cards and adjusting said deck with Ben’s approval – he plays in the grinders but fails to get in; I think he had a good weekend, though)
I should point out that The Fighting Hellfish is composed of the following fine specimens of the human race: myself, Brett Antill, Russell Henley, Jamie Moles, Neil Yates, Caroline Mutton, and ‘Jimmy’ Chung. At 9AM on day 1, only Brett and Caroline have qualified, while Jimmy played in the Welsh Nationals and is, therefore, not allowed to try – that leaves four of us, plus honourary stickleback-of-the-day Alan Paull (my driver ;-)).
We pay 10 English pounds and sign up for the first grinder of the day – SEALED LUCK ! Hoorah ! We sit, we open, we build – I am eminently satisfied with 2 x Massacre, 1 x Cateran Overlord, Power Matrix, blue flyers, Ballista Squad etc but lose to my nemesis Matt Green (of Team Spike UK) in the first round – mainly due to mana screw (3 land only in game 1). Matt goes all the way and qualifies with relative ease (it was only an 8-player grinder, unbelievably !) – he also has the best t-shirt in the building; it’s basically a shirt with a horizontal strip of velcro across the middle of the chest and a bag of ‘sticky’ letters.
I swear and curse and wander the building in search of cappuccino until I decide to make another t-shirt (I brought some spares) to take me into the afternoon:
a. take 1 plain white t-shirt
b. put t-shirt on; draw circle around left nipple
c. remove t-shirt and cut hole (using circle drawn in step b. as guide)
d. write "What’s Wrong With Being Sexy ?" above hole.
I decide to enter one of the standard grinders using Russell’s ROCK AND HIS MINIONS / MILLIONS / ONIONS (whatever it’s called) deck – this I proceed to play excruciatingly-badly against Mr Garcia (sorry, forgot your first name) including horrific mis-reading of Diabolic Servitude, which lets me win (neither of us notice until I am chatting with Russ after the game – it’s too late to do anything, as I’d still get the win anyway, but we’d both have received warnings) – I am urinated upon from a great height in the subsequent round by a mono-red Nasticore deck, which is justice I ‘spose. At this point, I am hungry and have learned the following lesson: don’t borrow someone else’s deck if it is complicated or you have NEVER played with it before.
My brother-in-law arrives shortly after this debacle – I greet him with a hearty "halloo" and send him upstairs to the café for some drinks ! It’s now mid-afternoon, so I enter another standard grinder (they’re free, after all), and use Brett’s BEAR-GO deck – much more simple to play, and comprising the following cards (I’m listing it, because it becomes very important later on !):
Main Deck: 4 x RAMOSIAN SERGEANT
4 x FRESH VOLUNTEERS
4 x LONGBOW ARCHER
4 x STEADFAST GUARD
4 x MOTHER OF RUNES
4 x PARALLAX WAVE
4 x CRUSADE
3 x REVERENT MANTRA
3 x ARMAGEDDON
2 x DISENCHANT
4 x RISHADAN PORT
20 x PLAINS
4 x WRATH OF GOD (vs Green and weenies)
2 x ERASE (vs Replenish)
2 x SEAL OF CLEANSING (vs Replenish)
3 x DEFENDER EN-VEC (vs Mirror / Rebel Weenie)
2 x TANGLE WIRE (vs Replenish)
1 x Something I never used
1 x LIN SIVVI (vs Rebels in theory – just needed the extra card for the SB)
In the first round I’m against Replenish, which he plays exceptionally well. I lose 2-0, but saying I got him down to 2 life in both games won’t mean a lot, will it ? I thought not !
Disheartened, I enter a MM/NM/PR draft side-event, picking up a Waterfront Bouncer, black removal, and phat Black and Green monsters – I go…wait for it – black/green with a splash for the Bouncer (he’s just Some Good, obviously) – oh, and did I mention I pulled VITALIZING WIN (deliberate typo) ? Unsurprisingly, I am untroubled throughout and come away with a victory and four boosters for my trouble.
Energised, I meet up with fellow Hellfish Jamie and we play some standard games (Bear-Go vs Goblin Nonsense) – I proceed to beat him up a great many games in a row and sign up for the LAST grinder of the day (and the build-up) – what an evening was to follow !
Round 1 of Last Grinder (vs Sebastian, a genial French chap):
He goes: Plains
I go: Plains
He goes: In your end phase, Enlightened Tutor for a Marble Diamond…
I go: (mentally) BOLLOCKS !
No prizes for guessing which deck he is playing – my heart sank. Game 1 is over 15 minutes later after resolving some horrendous Parallax Wave dementia.
I side in Tangle Wire and Erase and Seal, losing the Mothers and a Fresh Volunteer and get a turn 3 ‘Wire followed by some Bears followed by Armageddon – he can’t recover and dies.
Game 3 is much the same, though a little tighter; he gets a Seal of Bounce out, but a well-timed Reverent Mantra (to protect the bounce target) followed by more bears and an Armageddon ‘seal’ it for me !
Yahoo ! I beat replenish and I get through to the next round – please don’t let me have to play Jamie (who is in the grinder also)!
I have to play Jamie.
I am paranoid, thinking that the beatings I gave him earlier on will now be returned in spades when it actually matters ! Game one is horrific, he gets a god draw and proceeds to kill my guys whilst smacking my be-atch mouth with his Goblins. However, MVP Parallax Wave clears the way for more traditional Bear-Go action in games 2 and 3 and I’m in the semi’s.
I have to win one more match to qualify. I am playing a chap called Martin Swan – I have heard the name before but never met him. He is playing a more conventional rebels deck (2/1 flyers, Lin Sivvi, more Parallax Waves etc). I don’t remember much about these games, to be honest, it was late (11PM), and I was very tired (not to mention horrifically nervous!) – suffice it to say that the end result was 2-1 to me after Reverent Mantra and Armageddon do their stuff. I can hardly believe it – I have qualified (for the first time ever) for the English Nationals !
None of the other grinding Hellfish made it that day – so three out of the six of us isn’t bad ! Now I need to sleep and prepare myself for the big day ahead PLUS I have to ring my wife and tell her I won’t be coming home Sunday, as originally anticipated, because I’ve gone and done the business ! I leave Alan in an all- night Prophecy pre-release and go back to my brother-in-law’s place in Guildford somewhere.
I can’t seem to get the camp-bed to unfold, so I sleep on the thin mattress on the floor.
Wake up refreshed, despite only 5 hours sleep – I kept waking and thinking about the draft. As I’m putting things away, I try the camp-bed again out of curiosity and it unfolds/folds away gracefully, easily, and without a single hitch – go figure.
Meet Alice Coggins and Phil Mattingly of Team Spike UK, and they present me with a ‘Happy Nationals’ greetings card – it’s a glittery pink and yellow monkey with the following poetic gem inscribed within:
They say you draft like a monkey
But you know it’s not true,
The Simian stays in his colours,
More often than you.
I laugh and thank the guys – I’m touched; apparently, it is one of the ‘nicer’ cards they’ve sent out. They had assumed, however, that I’d pre-qualified, and were unaware of my late-night shenanigans !
And so it begins.
We sit and listen to 10 minutes of rules run-down, and I’m getting more and more nervous as about 4.7 million questions are asked in response (remember this is my first premiere event); it doesn’t help that the questions sound muffled and the responses given with the Judges’ backs to us, so they might as well have been speaking Croatian for all I heard and understood !
Draft Pod #1: I open Clear The Land (!) with Ramosian Sarge and Thermal Glider; I pick the Glider, as I am reluctant to commit to any sort of Rebel nonsense this early on. First cards passed to me contains an Overtaker (!) – wha ? Isn’t this card some kind of broken ? I take it and pass the thirteen. In fact, the rest of the draft is uneventful, with me picking up loads of blue and white from both directions (go figure again).
It’s a pity that my play did injustice to the cards I’d drafted – I needlessly gave the first match away to my opponent…as follows: we are at one game each; he is on two life and I have drake hatchling in play; he has no flying blockers and I hold Counterspell in hand; he casts Skyshroud Cutter for free (giving me 5 life) – it is not a flyer; at this point I am possessed by the spirit of Joe Stupid and counter the cutter !!! He proceeds to cast Venomous Dragonfly and re-gains control – what an idiot ! At the end of pod#1, I am on 1-2 (3pts).
This sets me up with a less-hard pod#2, paving the way for a magnificent 3-0 (4-2 overall) – the second deck drafted is much more homely; I get passed two Spidersilk Armours, phat green, and 2/3cc Mercenaries PLUS Intimidation. The final deck is much more of a no-brainer to play, and I end my first day at the Nationals on 4-2 (38th position, one behind the veritable Ms Coggins).
The dilemma that now smacks my pert cheeks is the fact that I won’t be home on Sunday night, as I had pessimistically assumed the night before, and have to ring up my wife to let her know that I shall be staying away for one more day ! Having suitably grovelled and prostrated myself, I return with Brett and Caroline (fellow Hellfish-ers, you will remember) and discuss decks to play in the Standard portion of the event.
I decide Bear-Go (see previous listing), with some tweaks to the sideboard, for the following reasons:
a. it’s a no-brainer; I haven’t time to ‘learn’ a more complex deck
b. it’s solid, and should go 4-2; after all, the Sarge is beats versus blue if dropped on turn one (an uncounterable grizzly bear every turn after turn 4 !)
c. it can work under Tangle Wire or Rishadan Ports, if required
d. it’s easy to play
Caroline has dropped after day 1, while Brett flagellated himself into the early hours before deciding on the double-fudge sundae that is Antill Squirrel-Prison.
We cruise on back to Guildford the following morning in blazing sunshine and gorgeous blue skies. Deck lists are handed in and we mooch and mingle for a while…
(speeds up description of matches)
Match One (vs Stupid Fast Green) – my opponent has main deck Treetop Bracers as anti-White Weenie tech; this is a bitch because a) my mothers are now useless, and b) I also decide that drawing land is a bad idea – I’ll make up for this later, I assure you ! (0-1)
Match Two (vs Suicide Black) – Flesh Reaver is some good, no ? In both games we step down our life totals 4 points at a time, and then Reverent Mantra does the business and I finish off with little trouble (1-1)
Match Three (vs Suicide Black) – my prayers are answered and, although things were a little more involved (two Negators hit the table in the last game), Parallax Wave and Reverent Mantra seal his fate in two games. (2-1)
Now I’m feeling quite buoyant – I could be looking at 4-2, maybe 5-1 at the end of the day. But after the rise of the Boydell empire comes the fall…
Match Four (vs Blue with main-deck Somnophore) – I am playing fellow Star City CCG writer Kevin O’Connor, and we have been selected as one of the two Feature matches (how cool is that for a scrub such as myself ?). This is just an insane match, and it is the turning point of my weekend: in about turn three of the first game, Kevin draws a REPLENISH which is a hang-over from a friendly thing he had had between rounds – consequently, the Head Judge gives him a game loss. So, I’m one-nil up and looking to drop a turn one Sergeant to force my opponent into his scoop phase.
It wasn’t to be.
Somnophore beat-down follows, with me unwilling to cast anything but a Mother of Runes and a Steadfast guard – things are difficult, because I’m anticipating the old ‘Dominate your mother’ routine. Game three could’ve been all over for Kevin had I not decided that five plains in a row was infinitely preferable to a creature with which to beat him. At some point he introduces me to a 4 casting cost Urza’s Destiny artifact creature, and it’s back to the slums for Tony With-the-Big-Ideas ! (2-2)
Match Five (vs Stupid Fast Green) – a team-mate of my first opponent of the day, this chap ALSO has anti-Mother tech in the shape of Treetop Bracers. I am not worthy. (2-3)
Match Six (vs Rogue Green Thorn Elemental Horror) – wallowing as I am amongst the rogue decks of the day, I am royally shafted by two Thorn Elementals with Might of Oaks (one in each of the two games); my only hope is Parallax Wave, but he is playing FOUR Tranquil Grove main deck as anti-Replenish tech – when the stuff hits the fan, it really sticks in the motor, don’t it ? (2-4)
And that’s the end of my English Nationals experience – I am 6-6 at the end of competition, that’s 18 points and 54th place. I have played some of the best (and worst) Magic of my entire career, but it was one hell of a ride !
1. The Fighting Hellfish for their support, their abuse, their encouragement, and their Malboro Lights.
2. Brett and Caroline for a) Bear-Go, and b) a place to kip for the night
3. My brother-in-law, Tom Lee-Hynes, for the magnificent folding/not-folding camp-bed, and severe quantities of capaccino (oh, and a lift back to Reading on Monday evening so I could pick up my motor-bike)
4. Alan "Am I Hallucinating Yet?" Paull, for staying up the entire weekend and for giving me a lift to Guildford in the first place.
5. Paul Barclay (Head Judge) for running an extremely efficient tournament – I may not be involved in this sort of thing very often (understatement alert!), but everything seemed to go to plan.
1. Prophecy drafting – this is just such a silly environment – and you thought triple Nemesis was bad ? Try MM and double Prophecy – it is insane !
2. The attendance – I guess the big hall felt a little empty; more traders and non-Magic side events would’ve been good, plus maybe some artist signings / special guests ?
3. Nothing else, really – I spent most of the weekend wandering about in a state of amazement !
Normal service will be resumed next time.