Hi there. I just played in Grand Prix: Philadelphia. The tournament went great, the city itself was awesome, and I’m proud of my deck choice. Walk with me.
My preparations for the Grand Prix took place almost entirely on Magic Online. First, I played Blue decks of every known level in eight-man queues, and no matter what I did I failed to win games. I couldn’t beat Tron decks because they had bigger and better spells than me, I couldn’t beat Lotus Bloom decks, and I had too much trouble against modern aggressive decks. Once I reached the conclusion that I was not going to be playing a Shackles deck, I flailed around for a while looking for a home. Dredge was my first attempt, but that deck just took too much control out of my hands for me to actually play it. My next try on a whim was Domain Zoo. I was frustrated with losing to Blue-Green Tron and I knew that Zoo was really strong against it, so I borrowed some digital objects from Adam Prosak and started battling. I did indeed crush Tron with it, but I also surprised myself by crushing everything else too. I only lost two matches in seven queues against a wide swath of the field, so I settled on Zoo. This wasn’t the most scientific process I’ve gone through to pick a deck, but it’s more important to me that I am able to win with the deck I choose than that my deck be good in the abstract, and I sure was winning.
Because Zoo was such an established deck, almost all of my deckbuilding had been done for me by the universe already. The only cards that PTQ Top 8 lists were not in consensus about were the third Isamaru, the third Gaddock Teeg, the fourth Grim Lavamancer, the third Gaea’s Might, and a possible twenty-first land. Isamaru is pretty terrible compared to the other one-drops when you aren’t racing and drawing two of it is a disaster, so I only played two. Teeg is too important against Lotus Blooms and Urza’s Towers to not play three. Grim Lavamancer is awesome and gives you tons of late game flexibility, so I played four. The last decision was the third Gaea’s Might against a Breeding Pool. I still don’t know what is better, but I ended up going with the third Might because I didn’t want to get flooded.
The only real piece of technology in my list was the spectacular Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender. I needed a card against Red decks, and I wanted it to be a card that was serviceable against both burn and Red Deck Wins. I considered Sun Droplet, Dragon’s Claw, Circle of Protection: Red, and Armadillo Cloak, but Arizona-based next level master Adam Prosak recommended that I try Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender. At first I was skeptical, but then I played some games against Red Deck Wins, and the Little Kithkin That Could was just beyond amazing. It was also good enough against straight burn because it bought a turn by eating the last burn spell, so I went with it. What did not occur to me then was how awesome the card would be across the board. It’s obviously fine against dredge because it removes all of their Bridge From Belows, but the real surprise was that it’s also awesome against Lotus Bloom decks that play Fire/Ice. That’s normally their out to a Gaddock Teeg, but when Mr. Teeg has a Forge-Tender playing bodyguard, those Fire/Ices aren’t going to get Teeg out of the way. It also stops Devastating Dreams out of the Loam decks. Forge-Tender was amazing for everyone who played my list, and I highly recommend it to those who play Zoo in the future.
I drove to Philadelphia from Columbus with JR Wade, Ben Wienburg, and Brian Christeson. We had a fairly uneventful drive; it was long, but the chats about Magic, life, and obscure Romanian pop-core music made the time fly. We arrived in Philadelphia with enough time to grab authentic cheese steaks at Geno’s, and see someone almost beaten to death after taking napkins from the Geno’s condiment stand while holding a Pat’s sandwich, before going back to the site for the last-minute trials. JR lost a heartbreaker in the finals of one of the trials with my Zoo list, but he felt great about the deck and was determined to play it. Ben wasn’t planning on playing Zoo, but he audibled Friday night after failing to win games with other decks. A few quick phone calls later for cards, and he was ready to go.
The list we all played was:
- 4 Mogg Fanatic
- 2 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
- 4 Kird Ape
- 4 Grim Lavamancer
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 3 Gaddock Teeg
Some quick notes: Gaea’s Might should be sideboarded out against almost all opponents that are not playing pure combination decks. It’s really bad in wars of creature attrition because it doesn’t do anything productive unless both players are involved in a combat step, which is rare after sideboarding when both players board in more removal. This does not mean you should cut Might from the maindeck, since it is uniformly awesome in game ones. Isamaru is the worst card in the deck by far, but playing two is a required concession to the speed of the format. Be careful with how you fetch Ravnica dual lands; you want to be able to play all the gold cards you have without taking unnecessary damage, so for example don’t get Godless Shrine and Stomping Ground if you need to cast Vindicate on turn three. Just think your first few turns through before you get your first land and you’ll be fine.
I played some practice games after the player meeting and then grabbed a quick lunch at the amazing Reading Terminal Market across the street, and then it was time to battle.
Round 4: Justin Brinner, Doran
Doran is a surprisingly good matchup for Zoo. Zoo’s creatures and removal spells are just far more efficient than Doran’s, and the matchup feels to me very much like playing a Zoo mirror except that my opponent’s spells all cost one more than mine. We both cast spells, I kill his creatures and attack, and then they die to my creatures. If the Doran deck gets off the back foot I am in trouble because their cards are all higher-impact than mine; on top of this, if they don’t have to cast spells every turn their Treetop Villages become relevant, which is basically a disaster because the Zoo deck’s lands never do anything useful other than cast spells. This match was a joke, however, since my opponent mulliganed to a miserable six in game 1 and four in game 2. His cards were really nice though; about half of his deck was foil, including all the Tarmogoyfs I saw. Regardless, this was a fine way to start a Grand Prix.
Win 2-0, Record 1-0
Round 5: John Moore, Counterbalance
I recognized John from PTQs; the last time I saw him was at the one I won in Pennsylvania, and here he appeared to be playing the same Counterbalance deck with maindeck Loxodon Hierarch that he had then. The Zoo deck’s goal in the matchup is to simply win as fast as possible before Vedalken Shackles, Counterbalance, and in this case Loxodon Hierarch take the game out of reach. You’ll board in Ancient Grudges and Kamis of Ancient Law to deal with Vedalken Shackles and Threads of Disloyalty respectively. Also look out for opportunities to use Ancient Grudge on Sensei’s Divining Tops in response to fetchlands; without Top their deck is much less frightening.
In game 1, I got John down to five life before a Hierarch and Shackles took over. In game 2, John mulliganed and I got an essentially perfect draw with Kird Ape into Dark Confidant on the play. He stuck a Counterbalance and tapped out for a Trinket Mage to find the Top while he was at seven, but the card on top if his library was another Trinket Mage and my two Lightning Helixes put him away before he could complete the lock. Game 3 was frustrating on both ends. He got an awkward mana draw that started with Plains, Forest, Island, and Academy Ruins and was tapping out for spells to try to find action. I had kept two lands, Isamaru, Kird Ape, and Vindicate, so I had something like a seven turn window to find a third land and go after his lone Island. Of course, I never got there and eventually John dug out of the mana screw with a Top. I was frustrated at the time, but in all fairness I only played twenty lands. With that kind of a manabase getting mildly screwed is going to happen sometimes, so I can’t be angry.
Lose 1-2, Record 1-1
Round 6: Christopher Schaut, Enduring Ideal
The Enduring Ideal matchup is all about Gaddock Teeg, for obvious reasons. That’s their big spell, and it’s awesome to make them not be able to cast it. Also useful are Vindicate and after sideboarding Ancient Grudge to attack their fast mana; Vindicate goes after Invasion sacrifice lands, while Ancient Grudge goes after Pentad Prisms and Lotus Blooms. The Ideal player’s goal is just to cast an Ideal, using Fire/Ice to get through Gaddock Teeg if necessary. Zoo is in a unique position among the aggressive decks in the sense that it can actually win after an Ideal is cast thanks to Vindicate. Your goal is to get the Ideal player low enough on life that they have to find Solitary Confinement instead of Dovescape when they cast Ideal, and then Vindicate the Confinement and kill them anyway. You actually board in everything but the Terminates in this matchup, since Kami of Ancient Law nails enchantments and Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender protects Kamis and Teegs from Fire/Ice. This matchup is very good for Zoo.
Awkwardly, I messed up game 1 pretty badly. I had the game planned so that I would kill him on turn 4, but I was Chanted without kicker on my fourth turn. This kept me from playing the Mogg Fanatic that I needed to play to kill him, so I left him at one life, he cast Ideal, and I didn’t have Vindicate immediately so I died. I could have easily played the Fanatic earlier, but then he would have known that he was dead next turn; I should have known that he would have assumed that anyway. Games 2 and 3 went according to plan with Grudges, Vindicates, and Teegs, and I won them fairly easily. There was an awkward moment in game 3 when my opponent cast Seething Song and then attempted to Enduring Ideal while I had Teeg in play; he was forced to just play a Confinement and burn for three instead, and then he died after I killed it with a Kami and sent a Tribal Flames at him.
Win 2-1, Record 2-1
Round 7: Hans Mahler, Enduring Ideal
I recognized Hans’s name from a PTQ win earlier in the season with Ideal, so I wasn’t surprised when he suspended a Lotus Bloom. I dutifully played out creatures in the first game, but he had Burning Wish for Deathmark for my Teeg I and assumed that I would die when the Bloom hit. However, he was thinking a lot, so I thought something was up. I was right; he didn’t actually have the Ideal, and his plan was to use his naturally drawn Confinement and Honden to stay alive until he could actually find an Ideal or Dovescape. I found a Vindicate for the Confinement the turn after he played the Honden, and then he died. I can’t remember details about game 2, but I assume I lost to a quick Ideal. Game 3 was straight out of the Zoo textbook; I played three one-drops by turn 2, Teeg on turn 3, and Ancient Grudged his mana on turn 4. He didn’t have the tools to go off through that.
Win 2-1, Record 3-1
Round 8: Kyle Boggemes, Doran
I had played a bunch of practice games against Kyle during the first three rounds and had won most of them, and Kyle had the look of a defeated man through the entire match. I found out later that he was feeling pretty sick at the time as well, and I don’t know how much that had to do with his mental state. Happily, he managed to recover and battle his way from the bottom of the standings on Day 2 and into the money.
I started the first game with Kird Ape and Tarmogoyf into Vindicate on Doran, which put Kyle way on the back foot. I attempted to punt the end that game by using Gaea’s Might to kill Kyle’s Tarmogoyf instead of just, uh, killing Kyle with it, but I still won next turn. Game 2 was the kind of game that Doran gets to win; Kyle started with mana acceleration, a quick Hierarch, and a few removal spells for my Tarmogoyfs. He also had the time to leverage his Treetop Villages, which as I mentioned before is bad news. My notes for game 3 are sketchy, but I can tell you that I won through a Hierarch.
Win 2-1, Record 4-1
Round 9: Brett Blackman, Doran
The contrast between the match against Kyle and this one was very obvious. Brett may come in a diminutive package, but he is a fierce competitor and his desire to win was palpable. This didn’t stop me from overrunning him in five turns in game 1, but in the second game his Birds of Paradise on turn 1 survived and accelerated him into two Loxodon Hierarchs. Later, one of them made a return trip to play thanks to Eternal Witness. I never got him below eighteen life until my alpha strike the turn before I died. Game 3 of this match was one of the few places where I think my mistakes caught up with me this weekend, since it was very long and intricate and I died when Brett was only at four. I’m very out of practice with attacking and blocking due to having played Blue control decks for the past few months, and I’m fairly certain I could have found four more damage somewhere in that game. I would love to be able to replay it, but live play doesn’t let you do that. Good beats.
Lose 1-2, Record 4-2
Round 10: Jeff Zandi, Red Deck Wins with Quirion Dryad
Jeff is an old-school writer whose name I recognized. The matchup against actual Red Deck Wins decks is somewhat odd for Zoo; despite the fact that Zoo hurts itself so much with its lands, it still is the control deck in the matchup. You want to use your Vindicates and Tribal Flames to deal with their Green creatures, Mogg Fanatics and Lightning Helixes to deal with their small Red guys, and eventually win with Tarmogoyfs. It’s very important to use the right removal spells on the right creatures; Vindicating a Kird Ape is very often wrong if you can use anything else to kill it, since when they find a Tarmogoyf you’re going to need to kill it immediately. Terminates and Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tenders cement you even more in the control role by giving you better tools to sit back with.
I executed perfectly on the control plan in game 1 against Jeff, then mana flooded horribly and lost when I had all eight of my mana-producing lands in play. Game 2 was funny in that I never played a creature. Instead, I used Terminates and Vindicates on his creatures while building up to six mana. His first two turns had been two fetchlands and an untapped Stomping Ground, and as soon as he blinked and sacrificed a third fetchland to put himself at fifteen life, I threw three fully powered Tribal Flames at his face. I mulliganed in game 3 into a draw that only had Steam Vents and Stomping Ground for mana, but I had two Forge-Tenders and two Lightning Helixes that would easily take over if I found a White mana. I never drew a White or Black source until I was at three life. Once again, I could blame this match on mana screw, but I am only playing twenty lands and no card drawing. I made this bed, and I’m happy to lie in it. This match and round 5 were the only times my manabase really came back to bite me, and that’s more than acceptable in twelve rounds of play with a four-color attack deck.
Lose 1-2, Record 4-3
Round 11: Zach Mutolo, Affinity
The affinity matchup is another one where you take the control role. You have twelve awesome maindeck removal spells and seven more in the sideboard, so just sit back, eliminate Cranial Platings and Ravagers, and sit behind Tarmogoyfs until you can wear them down to nothing and come through with your creatures. This matchup is very easy after sideboard when you get Ancient Grudges and Terminates on top of the cards you already play; just sit back, don’t die, and you’ll probably win.
At this point, I was out of Top 8 contention and I needed to win out to make the Top 16. Zach sat down with a bag of dice and didn’t seem particularly experienced based on his card-handling mannerisms, so I assumed affinity. I was right, but then he got a sick draw and completely overran me in game 1 after my mulligan. In game 2, I mulliganed to six, mulliganed to five, and then picked up six cards instead of five, which meant I had to mulligan to four. With my back against the wall, I had nothing left to do but get the perfect four cards: two lands, Dark Confidant, and Ancient Grudge. The Confidant kept giving me enough gas to play against his impressive draw, which was slow but included all four Thoughtcasts and three Arcbound Ravagers. I eventually found all three Grudges with that Confidant, and that was enough to easily crush him even from four cards. Game 3 was close; I operated only off of Godless Shrine and Stomping Ground for almost the entire game, using Lightning Helixes, Terminates, and a Tarmogoyf to barely survive two Cranial Platings. I eventually eliminated all of his creatures that could carry a Plating when I was at two life, and two Tarmogoyfs came across to kill him.
Win 2-1, Record 5-3
Round 12: Anthony Izzo, Burn
My opponent showed up about a minute late for this round, which meant a game loss. I was obviously happy about that, but even more so when he started with Great Furnace and Spark Elemental. I can’t actually beat a burn deck because of how much damage I do to myself with my lands. My only hope is to get a draw with quick Tarmogoyfs and Lightning Helixes while never putting a land into play untapped ever. The match is a pure race other than that, since they will never point any burn spells at your face. In sideboarding, Dark Confidant has to go and Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender serves as a Time Walk by countering the last burn spell that would kill you.
Happily, I won the one game we played. Anthony put me to four with various burn spells while he was at nine. I untapped with four power worth of creatures holding only fetchlands, drew a miracle Tribal Flames, attacked him to five, then used a fetchland to get the Steam Vents and threw five damage at his face for the win. Awkwardly, the one card in his hand at the time was a Lava Spike that he just didn’t use the turn before. If he had Spiked me, I would not have been able to find the Steam Vents using a fetchland because I would have been at one life, and he would have drawn another burn spell to kill me while he was at one. This was a nice dodged bullet.
Win 2-0, Record 6-3
Round 13: Mitch Tamblyn, Zoo
The Zoo mirror is incredibly random. Most of the time games go in the favor of the person who draws fewer lands. The only exception to this is when someone manages to have Dark Confidant stay in play for a while, in which case they will almost always win due to having more gas. Otherwise, it’s essentially a die roll if both players have the same sideboard. Terminates and Forge-Tenders come in for the Gaea’s Mights, Gaddock Teegs, and an Isamaru. Forge-Tender doesn’t seem great, but it is good enough since it blocks Red creatures and counters a Tribal Flames or Lightning Helix.
Game 1 was really stupid. I mulliganed, then stopped drawing lands once I had four. Mitch failed to do this, and continued to draw lands. I won easily. I out-sideboarded Mitch in game 2, since he had Armadillo Cloaks and Umezawa’s Jittes in his deck. My Terminates kept him from having real creatures out to leverage those creature-enhancers, and I drew a whopping three Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tenders to keep him from burning me out.
Win 2-0, Record 7-3
Round 14: Zack Hall, Blue-White Tron
I mentioned above that one of the big reasons I tried Zoo is that it crushes Blue-Green Tron decks. Blue-White Tron decks are stronger against Zoo than Blue-Green, but I’d still rather be on the Zoo side of the matchup. Gaddock Teeg is important, but instead of turning off their entire deck it only turns off Wrath of God. Of course, that is clearly a noble cause so that’s fine. They have Oblivion Ring to deal with him, but that taps them out in the early turns so you usually have a window to hit it with a Vindicate if you have one. After sideboarding they get Threads of Disloyalty, but Zoo gets Kami of Ancient Law so you’re still fine.
The first game was close. I started with Mogg Fanatic and Gaddock Teeg, while Zack’s only action was a second turn Signet. I used a Tribal Flames and Gaea’s Might to put Zack to eight on my third turn; he locked the Teeg under and Oblivion Ring, then cast Wrath of God next turn. I used Lightning Helix to put Zack to two life and played another Gaddock Teeg, but then he completed his Urzatron and cast a Sundering Titan, leaving me with only Godless Shrine for mana. Happily, I drew Isamaru next turn and Zack failed to find another blocker, so I was able to sneak through for two damage and the game. If Zack had left me Overgrown Tomb instead of Shrine, he would have won. The second game went similarly except that Zack’s mana draw only had Skycloud Expanses, Azorius Signets, and a single Urza land; this meant that he could only play one spell each turn, so I burned him out without much difficulty since he couldn’t cast spells on both his turn and my turn.
Win 2-0, Record 8-3
Round 15: Josh Jacobson, Red Deck Wins with Quirion Dryad
Josh and I were playing for Top 16. I got crushed in game 1; he drew lots of burn and I didn’t draw any resilient creatures, so they all died very quickly and despite my two Lightning Helixes his two Tarmogoyfs mauled me. I sat next to Josh while I played against Zack last round, and I knew that his plan against me involved some Blood Moons out of the sideboard. That card is incredibly awkward for me because I can’t actually board in Kami of Ancient Law to deal with it; he would just kill the Kami with any of his millions of burn spells, then cast the Moon. Given that, I determined that Plan A was for him to not draw Blood Moon and Plan B was for me to put so much pressure on him that he never had a convenient turn to play it. Happily, I executed perfectly on Plan A, and again Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender and Terminate were all-stars for me in the sideboarded games. Game 2 was a blowout in my favor; I played two quick Tarmogoyfs after killing his Goyf and Dryad and he couldn’t stop them. Game 3 was similar except that he would have been able to win with two topdecked burn spells in the last three turns, but instead he only drew lands and my Tarmogoyfs had time to kill him.
Win 2-0, Record 9-3, Final place 12th
Twelfth place was good for two pro points and $600. I’m proud of how the weekend went in terms of my performance and my deck; Top 16 is pretty good I guess, and Ben Wienburg played my list into the Top 8. Had things gone a little differently in the two matches I lost due to mana issues, I might have been in the Top 8 too. Of course, the same thing could have happened if I had just played game 3 properly against Brett, so I’m not allowed to be mad.
I feel that Domain Zoo remains a very good choice in Extended. You get what are essentially the best aggressive cards in the format regardless of color in one deck, and the mana is a little shaky but not enough that it’s going to cost you more than once a day. The deck is also incredibly powerful in the abstract. I thought that Counterbalance decks were a bad matchup for Zoo, but Ben defeated two copies of Chapin’s new list on his way to the Top 8. Also, every time I see Zoo lose to a traditional Counterbalance deck it seems to me that it’s because some kind of misfortune beset the Zoo player. I think the matchup is pretty even now, and it’s definitely favorable if the Counterbalance player doesn’t know exactly what he is doing.
* Adam Yurchick for being a Tron master
* Brett Blackman for giving me a Japanese Mana Tithe for the cube and being a JSS Superstar
* The StarCityGames box of foreign cards for a dollar for having eleven different pictures of Italian Chronicles Urza lands, an Italian Pillage, a Japanese Spite/Malice, and a Russian Scorched Rusalka
* LLM8 for being an awesome Romanian pop-core band
* Reading Terminal Market for having incredible food and being across the street from the site
* Magic R&D for making Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender
* Adam Prosak for giving me the idea to actually play Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender
* Judges, staff, and other behind-the-scenes folk at the Grand Prix for putting on a great show for almost a thousand people
* The pairing boards on day one; there were only three sets of pairings for almost a thousand people, so there were massive stampedes every round and I almost died a few times while attempting to find my table assignment. I would have liked to see the alphabet split into five or six groups instead of three.
* Tardiness game losses; if judges have to give out over twenty game losses in one round for people not being in their seat when the round starts, the round started too fast.
* The StarCityGames box of foreign cards for a dollar for not having the twelfth picture of Italian Chronicles Urza lands. I guess now I just have to try not to draw both of my duplicate Centrale Energetica di Urzas.
Have a good week!