Arcane Teachings – Grand Prix: Vancouver Postmortem

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Wednesday, February 27th – Going into the tournament, I suspected that the metagame was changing in a way that was bad for actual Counterbalance decks. The card Counterbalance itself is best against the mirror and against midrange decks that actually give you time to set up a lock, and quite bad against decks that are very fast, play spells that cost tons of mana that you can’t use Counterbalance to stop, or both.

One might say that Vancouver didn’t go very well for me. Here’s what I played:

Gaddock Teeg replaced Global Ruin because none of the big mana hate I tried actually allowed me to beat Enduring Ideal decks. Gaddock Teeg was the best answer against all of the other big mana decks I expected, which were specifically Tron and Death Cloud. Tsabo’s Decree is an obvious bullet against Goblins, but it probably should have just been Engineered Plague. I didn’t have time to test much against Goblins and Gerry assured me that I had time to get to six mana; I now disagree with that, and Plague has a strong effect on the board even if it can just get Krosan Gripped. Alternatively, you could just run Pyroclasm. The Engineered Explosives in the board was actually an artifact of card access — I really wanted to play a Sunbeam Spellbomb but no one had one. Awkward.

I had three byes on rating. In the fourth round, I played against a little Red deck. I won game 1 easily with a Spell Snare and Threads of Disloyalty for his two Tarmogoyfs. Game 2 was an awkward affair; I was able to quickly establish control with a Counterbalance lock and cast Threads of Disloyalty on a Grim Lavamancer that represented his last aggressive tool and dig for Counterspells with Sensei’s Divining Top and fetchlands. However, six turns later he used two Krosan Grips to kill Counterbalance and the Threads and then he killed me once I had burned through the two copies of Counterspell I had found. It’s possible that I should have been more aggressively searching for Tarmogoyf, but I wasn’t expecting Grip. In game 3, my opponent played Kird Ape, Grim Lavamancer, and Mogg Fanatic by turn 2. I had to tap out for Trinket Mage to find Explosives, but then my opponent played a Sulfuric Vortex on turn 3 and a Blistering Firecat on turn 4 that I couldn’t stop and was enough to kill me.

I met another Red deck in round 5. I won the first game handily, then mulliganed to five and died in five turns. Game 3 felt eerily similar to the third game of the previous match, except that my opponent’s turn 3 play was a Gathan Raiders that he unmorphed by discarding Ancient Grudge on turn 4 after emptying his hand. I could kill his three one drops, but I needed Vedalken Shackles to deal with the Gathan Raiders and the Grudge meant that I could do nothing better than chump-block with 4/5 Tarmogoyfs and then die in three turns.

My round 6 opponent was playing Domain Zoo. I don’t remember many details; I know that I mulliganed in the first game and died in a fire, then my opponent went to five in game 2 and fell in unspectacular fashion to my Tarmogoyfs. The third game was interesting in that I played it close to as well as I possibly could and was still extremely lucky to win. I kept a hand on the draw that had Chrome Mox and a fetchland as the only mana sources. His first turn was just a Firebolt at my face. I played Mox and the land on my first turn expecting to Spell Snare his turn 2 creature, but instead his second turn play was Ancient Grudge on my Mox! Normally I’m happy to fight over my mana instead of have him play creatures and try to actually kill me, but in this case I didn’t actually have many lands to fight over. I Spell Snared the Grudge, searched out my Breeding Pool, and played a Tarmogoyf but no second land. My opponent could have taken me right out of the game by flashing back the Grudge on my Chrome Mox, but instead he Vindicated the Tarmogoyf. This allowed me to play my second Tarmogoyf on the next turn as well as rip a third land that put me back in the game. He eventually created some board presence and finally flashed back the Ancient Grudge three turns later, but by then I didn’t need the Mox. I don’t remember the rest of the details, but I do remember runnering at least three cards at the end of the game to win in time.

Round 7 put me against Goblins. Vedalken Shackles is the best weapon Counterbalance has against Goblins, and one of the better ways they can get around that is to have a draw that includes lots of Mogg War Marshalls and a Skirk Prospector. That’s exactly what happened in game 1 even though I was given one turn more than I should have had to try to stop the swarm. He had a similar draw in game 2, but this time a Krosan Grip and an Ancient Grudge made sure that my Shackles never actually survived for more than a turn so I was unable to put up any resistance.

There was also an interesting judge call during this match. My opponent pile shuffled me before game 2, noticed a sleeve that had a differentiating mark from a production defect on the back side, and called a judge to investigate. The judge came back after having found a second sleeve with the same defect, gave me a warning for Marked Cards — No Pattern, and asked me to replace those two sleeves. My opponent then appealed the ruling. Up to this point, my opponent was entirely within his right. However, when the head judge arrived and upheld the previous judge’s ruling, my opponent started to fish for a bigger penalty, saying that I was clearly cheating because there was no way that a mark like that could be an accident. He continued to argue this while the head judge became increasingly agitated and repeatedly explained his reasoning. I completely understand wanting to get the situation checked out and appealing is completely within the rules, but perhaps the worst thing you can possibly do if you are attempting to rules lawyer your way to a win is to force the officer of the law to defend your opponent’s side of the dispute. I’m actually shocked that the head judge did not snap and hand down some kind of penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. I’m completely certain that my opponent only did this to put on a show because of the things I’ve written about in this column, but he quite obviously did not know how to handle himself with a judge if he was actually trying to get the ruling to go in his favor.

My final record was 1-3 in played matches. What went wrong? With apologies to John Rizzo, remember this line.

Going into the tournament, I suspected that the metagame was changing in a way that was bad for actual Counterbalance decks. The card Counterbalance itself is best against the mirror and against midrange decks that actually give you time to set up a lock, and quite bad against decks that are very fast, play spells that cost tons of mana that you can’t use Counterbalance to stop, or both. When I qualified, the only popular deck that fell into the latter category was Affinity. Now, there were Death Cloud, Tron, Ideal, Little Red Deck, and Goblins to deal with that all don’t really care about a Counterbalance.

I knew about the non-Counterbalance Mono-Blue deck that Paul Cheon won with; as far as I am aware, Gerry Thompson and Luis Scott-Vargas did most of the detail work on it, and it is possible that I should have just played that deck instead. I took it for a spin on Magic Online in the week before Vancouver, and I simply didn’t ever win with it; that deck is a much more traditional sort of control deck and it is sufficiently different from Counterbalance that I was doing enough things wrong to produce unacceptably poor results. When I returned to the Counterbalance deck, I started winning again, and I realized that I needed to just play what I knew how to play.

My suspicions about the metagame were confirmed at the Grand Prix itself. There were huge populations of Goblins and Little Red Decks and surprising amounts of Death Cloud. I lost in ways that I knew were very real possibilities; two Red Decks just killed me twice before I could get set up, and I got swarmed over by Goblins. It seemed that the world had just passed Counterbalance by. Had I played the Mono-Blue deck like Cheon did, I might have fared better. I just made a poor deck choice, and you can’t get away with that at a Grand Prix like you can at a PTQ.

With more apologies to Rizzo, read the part in between the dots again, but add “or not” to the end of each sentence.*

I should have played a different deck? Sure, try telling that to the two guys who made the Top 8 with Counterbalance decks. You could also try getting DJ Kastner to agree with that statement; he played a list that was a close descendant of Patrick Chapin most recent list, and he made the Top 16 to qualify for Hollywood. My maindeck was three cards off of his, and he did quite well. Blaming my losses on the deck seems fairly shortsighted.

I should have played Cheon’s deck? Sure, try telling that to Gerry Thompson, Luis Scott-Vargas, and Brandon Scheel, all great players who played the same deck and had unspectacular results. Neither Gerry nor Luis made the second day; Scheel started 7-0 but then only managed to make the Top 32 from there. Gadiel Szliefer also had the deck and made the Top 16, and Cheon won the whole show, but enough strong players did poorly with the deck that the blanket statement that I should have been playing it instead of Counterbalance is not obviously correct at all.

The format went wrong for the deck? Sure, I played against decks that weren’t great for me, but I definitely didn’t play perfectly and my sideboard for goblins was wrong. If I had tried to kill my round 4 opponent in game 2 instead of settle in for a long game, I may have put him away before he found both Krosan Grips. Perhaps if I had Engineered Plagues or Pyroclasms instead of clunky Tsabo’s Decrees, I would have won my round 7 match. It’s impossible to know what would have happened in either of these cases and DJ Kastner reported playing against much more favorable matchups on day 2, so it’s entirely possible that had I gotten there I would have done well.

Happily, everything else about the trip was awesome. Max McCall was our transportation to Vancouver and back from Seattle, and he was gracious enough to wait for Adam Yurchick and me when our arrival was delayed by six hours by ice storms in Columbus. Noah Sandler, a Magic Online shark and a gentleman, let Adam and me stay at his house in Seattle on Sunday night on essentially zero notice and drove us to the airport on Monday morning. I had a great time in Vancouver in general and a fascinating Saturday night, and now I want to go back sometime when I won’t be occupied by Magic. It was also interesting to be part of the MagicTheGathering.com online coverage team on Sunday, and as always I picked up some more foreign cards for my cube. All in all, it was a fun trip while I wasn’t playing in the actual tournament.

I wish I had more developed thoughts about my own performance, but I really don’t know what to say about that or the format in general at the moment. Playing Magic is really hard, and analyzing it in hindsight is often harder. I am, however, looking forward to Philadelphia. Perhaps you will be there too?

Tom LaPille

* I shamelessly stole this device because it worked really well here. Rizzo did it first.