A Scrub Brushes Up, #3: Championship is a State of Mind

It was, charitably, a disaster. Though my venture at the Two-Headed Giant Limited State Championship ended in the Top 4, the Individual Limited Championship last Saturday saw my Two-Headed teammate David and I collectively going 2-7-1 over the course of the main event and two side drafts, with our friend Chris contributing an additional 2-3. I myself managed to play two rounds in the main event and another in a side draft without winning a single game.

[This article series details the author’s ongoing efforts to improve his game at the Qualifier, Trial, and Grand Prix level and the lessons learned along the way.]

It was, charitably, a disaster. Though my venture at the Two-Headed Giant Limited State Championship ended in the Top 4, the Individual Limited Championship last Saturday saw my Two-Headed teammate David and I collectively going 2-7-1 over the course of the main event and two side drafts, with our friend Chris contributing an additional 2-3. I myself managed to play two rounds in the main event and another in a side draft without winning a single game.

The week before, all three of us made the Top 8 at a Grand Prix Trial in Springfield… with, I’ll admit, 11 people in attendance. I went 3-1 in the Swiss with a pretty tasty Sealed pool (my only loss in the final round to the guy who went 4-0). The three of us then successfully avoided being paired against each other in the first round of the draft – and all promptly lost. Still, we got 9 packs each and a free draft for our efforts, and I picked up one dual land in the Sealed and another in the draft. No complaints there.

No Top 8 this week, though, in a field of 70. Not even close. I don’t think my Sealed pool was especially bad, and other than some questionable mulligan decisions (3 Swamps + 3 Green cards = throw it back, genius), my play wasn’t any worse than usual, either. So what went wrong? To answer that question, this article will be half tournament report, half Sealed pool autopsy, and half draft strategy discussion – and if you’re thinking that adds up to 150%, it’s because I am just that dedicated to bringing you the goods. Also, I am bad at math.

Part I: The Tournament Report
Or, Let’s Just Get This Over With

We have to go to Chicago even though there’s a Championship in Indy, because only a hoosier would want to be the Indiana State Champion. I have a pretty good rant about the Illinois toll system cooked up, but this is neither the time nor the place. Long story short, every time we go to Chicago, Governor Rod Blagojevich personally flips us the bird. Really.

Chris and I are sitting near each other for deck registration, and the guy sitting next to him and across from me has absolutely no idea how to register a Sealed pool. They took no particular efforts to explain it, so I can’t really hold it against him. We tell him to sort it by color, then figure out that he’s sorted it by color without sorting it by set, so we help him get it worked out. Better that than see him get a game loss, be miserable, and probably never come back.

The actual deck building goes fine for me (we’ll get there). My deck is B/G/U with a tiny Red splash for the sheer madness that is Hit / Run. There’s a guy near me who tells his friends that he’s running “the Five-Color Special.” I’ll be intrigued to see how he does.

Chris once again advances his theory that RGD Sealed is completely decided by your pool – not by the power cards, which are plentiful, but by the mana-fixers. His Grand Prix Trial deck had no signets whatsoever, and it struggled to a 2-2 (Top 8) finish despite having plenty of gas. I’m not sure that he’s completely right, but one definitely needs to give the mana-fixers at least as much weight as the power cards in arriving at a build. We will, I promise you, get there.

My first round opponent is… Chris. Fan-freaking-tastic. He has a W/G/r/b deck with a host of weenie flyers, and his airforce overwhelms me in game 1. In game 2, I keep the aforementioned hand of 3 Swamps and 3 Green cards because one of them is Trophy Hunter, which would wreck his whole team (if I had any Green mana), and because I really, really hate going to five (but a fair five beats a sucky six). Meanwhile, he has the aforementioned two-Plains start, but my awful hand gives him the chance to eventually play flyers, get Benevolent Ancestor online to make Trophy Hunter’s job almost impossible when it finally hits the table, and limp through for the win.

0-1 / 0-2

Round 2, I play the gentleman with the Five-Color Special. I would ask him how it’s going for him so far, but here in the 0-1 bracket such questions are considered somewhat rude. He does mention that his problem in the last match was with mana flood, and that he actually got all his colors online by turn 4 both times. He must have the Lexus of mana-fixing suites.

His mana once again comes easily, and I’m soon facing a Vedalken Entrancer and the best removal all five colors have to offer. He plays Peel of Reality saving his Entrancer from Brainspoil and bouncing my Drift of Phantasms, which I transmute into Sunforger to try to go for the win. Galvanic Arc on the Vedalken Entrancer kills my Sewerdreg and holds off my Elves of Deep Shadow and a Sunforger-wielding Saproling token (the lone survivor of a Scatter the Seeds). He has a few other guys, but I play Mortipede and draw Hit/Run. He is at 12, and with one more creature, Run will be lethal. His Skyknight Legionnaire takes me down to 6, but ultimately it’s that lone Entrancer that wins the day. After three lands in a row, I draw and play a Silkwing Scout for a desperate, Run-fueled finish, but it’s too late. I would win with my next attack, but he mills my last two cards and passes the turn.

Game 2 I have a Drift of Phantasms holding off his early Moroii. He plays two 2/2 flyers (Demon’s Jester and the Legionnaire), drops Pillory of the Sleepless on the Drift, and promptly starts swinging for 8 (plus one). I’m dead in 3 turns.

0-2 / 0-4

I drop from the tournament in utter ignominy and sign up for a side draft, wondering what went wrong. Did I misbuild my pool? Was it just weak to begin with? Let’s take a look.

Part II: The Postmortem
Or, CSI: Sealed Deck

This is a complex and difficult pool, with the good cards spread across all five colors and nine of the ten guilds. It is, in short, your typical RGD Sealed pool. Quit whining and start building.

Green and Black look too good to pass up, but Blue and White both offer attractive options as support colors. The Red is mediocre, but any build of this pool that can’t cast Run is probably suboptimal. It really is that good.

Notice that I have three creatures with graft and another two that gain or give +1/+1 counters. Although I don’t like Sporeback Troll or Simic Basilisk for their low cost-to-power ratio alone, this is a pool that could make graft synergies really hum.

Here’s what I ended up playing:

I’ll say right off the bat that the exclusion of Compulsive Research is basically inexcusable. I was making some late cuts and didn’t want to cut creatures. Writ of Passage was the obvious choice, but I was a little too amused at the prospect of its interaction with Dimir Cutpurse and with Sunforger (which works if you forecast the Writ then equip Sunforger). I can’t decide whether these are legitimate synergies or the stupid neat things that we try to do instead of actually winning, but probably Compulsive Research would have done vastly more for me.

Macabre Waltz is a card that I dismissed at the time, but I’ve reevaluated it since being wrecked by it during a draft. One turn I’m wiping his board with Savage Twister, the next I’m facing down two Shrieking Grotesques with a stripped hand. It’s not pretty. I’ll be considering this card a little more closely in the future.

Don’t let Crime/Punishment fool you. Punishment is not Pernicious Deed, no matter how much you want it to be. The only two times I’ve played it so far – once at the Grand Prix Trial and once at the Championship – I set X to 6 to wipe out a single Conclave Equenaut that would otherwise have killed me. It’s mass removal, don’t get me wrong, but it takes a lot of finesse to make it work without waxing, say, your own Faith’s Fetters, and there are times when you’d actually rather have Disembowel. Crime, meanwhile, takes absolutely no finesse and can do some amazing things, but unless the creature or enchantment in question will outright win the game, one usually ends up playing Punishment.

As you’re probably aware, Sunforger is an entirely legitimate choice even without the Red and White, as a 7/3 Assault Zeppelid will win some games single-handedly. However, I didn’t even notice that Sunforger can go fetch Hit/Run (it’s Red, it’s an instant, and Hit has converted mana cost less than four). Again, this may fall under the category of stupid neat things, but it could also steal games that I have no business winning. Unfortunately, Red and White are easily the weakest colors.

I fooled around with a few alternate builds after the tournament. The only one that seemed remotely viable was G/B/W/r, which gains Crime, Pillory, Oathsworn Giant, Conclave Equenaut, and the remote chance of activating Sunforger but loses four two- or three-power flyers, Compulsive Research, and Drift of Phantasms.

The other issue, of course, is that the meager mana-fixing really doesn’t support any viable color combination but the one I’m running. The Red splash is “free” if you’re in Black and Green, but good luck getting White in there. I honestly don’t think the colors could have gone any other way. Chalk one down for Chris’s theory of RGD Sealed.

However, I definitely got some specific card choices wrong. I’ve been playing around with the following changes:

-1 Dimir Cutpurse
-1 Writ of Passage
-1 Sewerdreg
-1 Simic Basilisk
-1 Swamp
+1 Macabre Waltz
+1 Torch Drake
+1 Sporeback Troll
+1 Compulsive Research
+1 Forest

Sewerdreg and Dimir Cutpurse just didn’t hold their own as maindeck cards, Writ of Passage was too cute, and Simic Basilisk was too clunky. With the reduction of double-color costs, I’d be free to skew the mana base slightly toward Green, alleviating some of the problems of the dreaded even split. After a few test games, I’m convinced that this is a noticeably better deck. It’s still not a great deck, but I really think this pool deserved better than 0-2-drop.

Thus, lessons learned:

1. Beware the lure of cool things.
2. After you’ve built your deck but before your pen touches paper, look over every card very carefully to see if it’s really, truly worth a slot. I had some lemons that I had decided early on were auto-includes, and a quick reevaluation might have weeded some of them out. Also, look through your sideboard for cards that really shouldn’t be there (Torch Drake and Compulsive Research, in this case).
3. Mulligan aggressively! This is a lesson I already knew, but in practice, I’m still keeping hands that should go. A few bad experiences mulliganing to 4 have made me cautious, but if the hand is bad, you’re almost always better off taking a trip to Paris.

Part III: A Brief Word on Drafting
Or, Stupid Is as Stupid Drafts

I’m not going to lie to you; the main problem here is that I drafted like a hamster. I will spare you the decklists themselves, which are an affront to the fine art of drafting, but here are some highlights:

  • Neither deck contained more than 12 creatures, some of which were pretty marginal.
  • Both decks were base black and contained fairly absurd removal suites, but removal alone does not actually win the game. There are no wrong threats – stop me if you’ve heard this one – only wrong answers.
  • In the first draft, the guy on my right picked up a Skarrgan Sky-Breaker eleventh. Really.
  • I first-picked an Oathsworn Giant in the first draft, then thought I had first-picked a Psychic Drain – and drafted accordingly. Yes, really.
  • The first deck’s best route to victory, other than an unanswered Angel of Despair or Stratozeppelid, was – I am not kidding here – the killer combo of two Condemn and Tunnel Vision. Yes. Really.
  • Chris called my first draft deck the absolute worst pile he had ever seen drafted by anyone in our usual playgroup – and I’m not drafting at Finkel’s house, if you catch my drift.
  • In the second draft, I went basically B/u with one green card all through the first pack, then third-picked Savage Twister in Guildpact and built a terrible B/r/g/u deck. But… Savage Twister! I had to, right?
  • In that same draft, it became apparent that I don’t know how to play around my own mass removal. Two of the three games in round 2 (yes, I made it to round 2 and three games with this pile), the Savage Twister I had in hand caused me to hold back from a full assault, giving him time to assemble a full hand and recover completely after the Twister finally became necessary.

It should be apparent at this point that I had a very bad day of drafting. And as a friend of mine pointed out, this is not the first time he’s seen me do this. He looked over the miserable heap I had accrued during the second draft, trying to make sense of it, but eventually shook his head and said, “I’m sorry. I got here too late.”

So what the hell is my problem? I’ve done plenty of drafting, and even done well. Do I just have off-days? Have I failed to adapt to the rigors of drafting in Ravnica? Or is there something deeper going on here?

I definitely have a tendency to get greedy. After a brief early period in which I didn’t really realize the power of removal, I now pack every draft deck to the gills with it – at the expense of creatures, which really isn’t a winning strategy most of the time unless you are really prepared to play control. I also tend to just take good cards rather than actually putting together a coherent deck in terms of mana curve or color balance. I don’t know how highly I should value efficient creatures. In Ravnica, I don’t know how high the signets and bouncelands should go. Worst of all, no matter what I think I’ve learned, once I’m sifting through the packs, I’m back into hamster mode, nibbling at whatever cards happen to look tasty in that particular pack.

Let me reiterate that drafting control is a viable strategy and that there is a place for decks that are packed with removal. However, card evaluations have to change all across the board. Efficient two-drops like Aquastrand Spider no longer make the cut; creature recursion for your meager creature base becomes more attractive. I drafted about two thirds of a control deck’s needed removal and only a smattering of good support cards like Compulsive Research and Train of Thought. My decks also sported a control deck’s creature count, but the creatures in question were mostly incapable of pinning down a control strategy. In short, I suffered, and always suffer, from lack of clarity concerning the nature of my deck as a whole. Large numbers of control cards plus small numbers of aggro cards make for a deck that’s extremely, and often fatally, confused.

“I need to get better at drafting,” I tell Chris and David after the second draft. They tell me not to bother, as Ravnica draft is on its way out. “No, no, no,” I say. “I need to get better at drafting.”

I learned to draft during Mirrodin, and I think it warped me severely. I got used to picking colors halfway through pack 2 and basically taking whatever good cards came my way. I was good at Mirrodin drafting. When Kamigawa rolled around, it quickly became apparent that I had no idea what I was doing. Even when I did adapt, it was because I was learning that specific format, not because I was actually learning how to draft. I’ve had to approach each format on a case-by-case basis, figuring out what works, with no real sense of the strategies that make for good drafting in general.

I have no idea what I should do about this. Practice doesn’t help if I just keep doing it wrong. Reading up on drafting doesn’t help if I can’t actually apply what I learn on the fly. I’m wondering if perhaps some Core Set draft (blech) would help me learn the fundamentals, but I don’t like drafting online, and I’m quite sure I don’t know anybody who wants to draft 9th.

It’s my hope that triple-Coldsnap will prove to be a vibrant and interesting format that I’ll want to play again and again, giving me a chance to try out different strategies and archetypes in a format that isn’t overrun with gold cards. I’ve heard that the set has a large number of commons, so triple-Coldsnap should be slightly better than triple Guildpact or Dissension. If I have a major breakthrough, I’ll let you know.

Making excuses for long absences is one of many Magic writing cliches that I’m absolutely sick of, so I’ll just quickly apologize for the long break and promise that you’ll see another article from me soon. Really.

Kelly Digges
kdigges on gmail
never on MTGO