Battle Royale Round 9 – The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Icefall

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After last week’s Battle Royale articles went live, the forums were convinced that Sean was doomed to failure in three swift games. While he didn’t quite take down the mighty Jeroen, he certainly didn’t disappoint in the entertainment stakes…

Going into this week’s matchup, I’d apparently painted myself into an interesting corner: my basic strategy seemed to be outwitted on every level by Jeroen’s Red-centric land destruction deck, and it looked bad enough “on paper” that pundits on the Forums declared the match 0-3 in Jeroen’s favor before a single card was flopped. Fortunately, I had come to realize a simple fact: while Jeroen could punish my Karoos, destroy my lands, and use Martyr of Ashes to sweep the board clean of my tokens, actually killing me was going to be a difficult chore he was not going to perform quickly.

Gain tempo and destroy my resources all you want; if you don’t punish me with the hard-fought resource advantage, you’ll find I don’t care. That said, in this case it was quite clear I was going to be the beatdown by a mile, and Jeroen was going to be trying to backpedal after he’s spent a land destruction spell or two. It’s quite possible I might just push him off the table if I get a solid start… in the exhaustion fight we were rearing up to battle, buying back Sosuke’s Summons was going to be at least as crucial as buying back Icefall, and probably a good deal moreso. Working on the sideboard strategy, I wanted to punish Jeroen’s artifacts (Phyrexian Ironfoot and to a lesser extent Coldsteel Heart) in order to let my snakes through in a timely fashion, and I wanted to swap dead cards for less-dead cards… stuff like Hokori, Shisato, Glare of Subdual and Hour of Reckoning coming out, and stuff like Naturalize and Faith’s Fetters coming in.

The goal was to gain the tempo advantage, as Jeroen wastes his time destroying my lands, and kill him with Snakes despite his initial mana advantage. This was going to be much easier game 1 than 2, and afterwards, as his sideboarding gives him the critical mass of LD spells actually needed to hold me down, while mine trades marginal stuff for less expensive marginal stuff that might not work out but at least it’s not useless off the bat.

And it started out so well…

For the first game, Jeroen won the die roll, and mulligans to five. I start with Snakes with buyback, playing two Summons and buying them back with Patagia Viper, while Jeroen takes some damage and destroys my Karoo. Jeroen blows the first token wave out of the way with Martyr of Ashes, but I make a second wave and he’s short on cards, life, and time; the life and time promptly ran out. As simple as that, I’m up a game in a match already deemed to go 3-0 by those claiming to be “in the know.”

For sideboarding, I pulled -3 Glare, -3 Hour, and -1 each of Azusa, Shisato, Time of Need, and Hokori. This bought me +4 Fetters, +4 Naturalize, and +2 Stomphowler… they may not work out, but at least they have a better chance of it.

Now here’s where I made a critical, crucial mistake… and something of an amusing one, I guess. I was typing on MTGO as I subbed in and out, writing in the text bar each substitution so I could copy it over to Word as I was keeping a blank document open for purposes of keeping notes during play… after all, I expected this match to play out in a rather complex fashion, and I was never going to remember it all (unless I did, in fact, get trounced in three, in which case I’d be remembering a blur of motion as I painfully died over and over again). Now, MTGO is interesting and f***ing insistent sometimes, and as I was transcribing this over on Word, I pressed the enter key on Word. MTGO flashed up, insisting I click something or do some-such, and I accidentally squealed my sideboard strategy in Jeroen’s direction.

My sideboard plan wasn’t necessarily a surprise, but telling Jeroen its extent did show him that I was just going to kill any artifact or enchantment he played, so he’d better not have anything besides Seal of Fire in after sideboarding. He apparently played it cool, not subbing out all of his artifacts until the third game after I squatted on his Coldsteel Heart to try and buy more time before getting Martyred or Stone Rained out of the game, but still… one has to figure that was a pretty embarrassing mistake, and I’d just accidentally ceded the miniature sub-game, the information war. I’d wanted him biased and keeping hands in which Coldsteel Heart actually helped out his mana production, or Phyrexian Ironfoot profitably stalled the board, so I could then blow those games open. Maybe this information SNAFU only costs me, say, 5% of the “margin” as Mike Flores likes to say… but it’s five percent I dearly needed to try and hold onto, and I’d just embarrassingly blurted it out for all to see.

This… could be going better. Still, I’m up a game, and I’d just broke serve. If this then plays out the way one would assume it should from there on, I win the third and fifth games because I get to go first, and the match is mine… assuming everything else plays out as per normal, no egregious mulligans or ridiculous draws. So, up a game, I had reason to be optimistic… and game 2 starts with me playing wimpy early creatures while Jeroen starts with Coldsteel Heart and a third-turn Stalking Yeti. I’ve got a Karoo-heavy draw, which is fine so long as I can find some way to keep up, after all they’re basically lands he has to kill or else he falls too far behind on his strategy, and if he misses one I get a huge mana boost… so the “card advantage” of a Karoo is more than worth the risks of getting stranded with too many and having them blown up. It doesn’t even look like I’m in the second game, because while I follow up the Stalking Yeti turn, my Karoo then gets Wreaked, and the board I’d accumulated falls to Martyr of Ashes. The second Karoo I play is then Icefalled, and I stop playing lands altogether while the Yeti attacks. When my token resistance is killed by Yeti with Buyback, I’m done-for.

Still optimistic, I get to play first for the third game, and this should be one of the games I pick up if things are going normally. I start with Forest, Sakura-Tribe Scout, just like I’d done all three games against Billy, and it’s looking good: I untap with it in play, which is a cardinal sin for Jeroen’s deck. This lets me tap my Forest for Green, play a Karoo, and re-play the Forest with Scout to follow up with Selesnya Guildmage. Jeroen comes back on his second turn by Blazing the Scout, which is better than just leaving it there, but still… I’m already a land drop ahead, and his second turn accomplished what should have happened on his first, so it’s almost like +2 turns… on turn 2.

My best for this third turn is to attack and cast Sosuke’s Summons, prepping to buy it back later. Jeroen’s third turn is a Stone Rain of my Karoo, and I get another swing in as I re-play my land. Jeroen stops on three mana, and plays Coldsteel Heart followed by Seal of Fire. Coldsteel Heart gets Naturalized, and the Guildmage falls to Seal of Fire… but I am getting damage across, and accumulating threats that still need an answer. I play another Guildmage, and Jeroen has no fourth land drop, so the second Guildmage gets Blazed. I’ve snuck myself a Chancery into play and so actually get to keep my Patagia Viper, buying back Sosuke’s Summons. Jeroen’s draws a fourth land, Scrying Sheets, and his play is to blow up my Karoo with Icefall, and use Frostling in combat to kill a Snake token and take down the Snake on a Plane as well. Doing so sees him fall to three life with three tokens left, and I’m making more progress still in the mana department as I play yet another Karoo. On Jeroen’s turn he activates Scrying Sheets, and reveals a big fat Dragon, then Skreds one of the three tokens. I attack him to one, and play Patagia Viper #2, earning the concession.

Now, this is an interesting game… because by the situation Jeroen has painted himself into, he’s up a fraction of a card since he killed an extra token, but put himself facing lethal damage on the board that turn by taking five. He could have instead blocked and just killed the Viper, going to five with four tokens in play, preserving his life total a bit… and this could be relevant because his real out is a Martyr of Ashes or Stalking Yeti, and he’s got a Skred as backup still… but trading one-for-one with 1/1 tokens isn’t exactly profitable. Saving some life might let him recover if he draws one of those two cards, as he’d get to Yeti a token, Skred a token, and block a token, taking one against just one token… or play a Martyr and pop it, killing all the tokens. But he’s dead unless he draws one of those cards, and taking extra damage gives me a better chance of actually pushing him off the table that game… so I was a bit surprised when he made that play, as it seemed like it worked out better for me, not like I minded.

Here, then, I’m up 2-1… and wishing the Battle Royale were best of three, because while I felt I had a decent chance in the game I was going first in, Jeroen’s officially wise to my Naturalizing ways (after all, I could have been lying), and I’m going to be hard-pressed to break serve against him in a post-sideboarded game. There’s always the mulligan, or just a bad draw, but game 4 is outright unfavorable and the monkey is on my back for game 5, to draw well while on the play.

So I’m clearly doing well here… after all, I’ve already broken serve and recouped from him winning the die roll, which I expected to be a very critical factor on the entire outcome of the match. I’m up 2-1, and just need to have it work out once out of two games. But I’m not foolish enough to do a victory dance, because this is still not exactly what one might consider “favorable” even if I’ve picked up some margin by going balls-to-the-wall aggressive just like Mama (well, Seth Burn actually) taught me.

I even get to start the fourth game with Forest, Scout… opening up the chance for a critical failure on Jeroen’s part, because if I am ever able to get a Scout to live, things get a lot less pleasant for him… after all, instant-speed Karoos counter land destruction spells admirably, and end-of-turn Karoos dodge sorcery-speed LD just fine too. Unfortunately, Jeroen has the answer… and it’s Blaze, making me wish that I were on the play just that much harder, as I might have actually gotten a use out of him then, just like last game. I follow up on turn 2 with a Plains and Sakura-Tribe Elder, and we play the game of LD versus Fetch. I have nothing to accelerate to after Jeroen casts Stone Rain on my Plains, which saddens me… after all, he’s only got four three-mana LD spells, and the third turn is another place where his draw can stumble by not drawing exactly perfectly… he needs to have an accelerant on turn 2 for any four-mana LD spell, and now that he’s boarded out the Hearts, he has to have the right mana on turn 2 to cast Into the North, or have an actual literal Stone Rain in hand if he wants to destroy a land on the third turn. So it seems like his strategy is a perfect foil, but it is still something that is disrupted by turbulence in its flow, and it’s only at its most effective when the LD comes fast right out of the hose.

With nothing to accelerate to for turn 3, it’s Sakura-Tribe Elder beatdown time. I play another Forest and get my one point in, then follow up with Scout #2. This sees Jeroen playing Martyr of Ashes and popping it for one, revealing Wreak Havoc; I fetch myself out a Plains and consider myself lucky to have to make him blow one of his four sweepers just to kill a Scout. I have no play with that three mana, and my fourth land comes into play tapped, so I drop a Chancery with no other play. Cleverly, Jeroen hits it with Stone Rain… after all, he still hasn’t gotten to four mana yet, I assume he revealed the Wreak and used Stone Rain first because he expected to draw the fourth and spend the more expensive card as his first LD. And here I’d gotten all excited that he didn’t have a fourth land, because I was going to untap and drop Meloku. Instead, I just play a second Chancery, bouncing a second land instead of re-playing the bounced Plains, because I need to get to four (thus have the bounceland help out) instead of re-playing “just” land #3. Jeroen follows this up with Frostling, still lacking the fourth mana needed for the Wreak Havoc on my Chancery.

This opens the opportunity for things to go very right, as I re-play Forest #2 and use the four mana to cast Sachi, which is downright sexy because I’ve got Meloku in hand still. If I can just dodge a Stone Rain for another turn, I’ll actually be able to cast her, which is basically a win… Jeroen has to trade removal spells one-for-one with each flying token, or have enough time to get to use Yetis, or (even less likely, with him stuck on three mana) get a Dragon working. Since he can always, well, just Skred it, getting it with Sachi up means getting to make two tokens with the extra two mana, which is a wonderful thing… but if he misses a land-drop one more turn, he can’t Skred it alone – he needs for snow permanents to take out Meloku with Skred. Cleverly, Jeroen draws a fourth land, and it even comes into play untapped and thus contributes to seeing my Chancery go to the graveyard. I follow up with re-playing the Plains, giving me access to five mana, and drop a Stomphowler.

Jeroen has just a Frostling and a rather depleted hand, so his Martyr of Ashes is pretty good next turn. I’m about to lose some guys, and foolishly attack with both Sachi and the Stomphowler, missing Jeroen’s best play… block each with a 1/1, sacrifice Martyr of Ashes revealing two red cards, sacrifice Frostling to deal the fourth damage to the 4/4. Jeroen has two cards in hand, so it’s pretty likely that they’re both Red. (Especially with all the artifacts in the sideboard, and the fact that if Jeroen had Into the North, he would have cast it much earlier.) Fortunately, Jeroen misses it right back and takes an extra damage, and kills one less card with his Martyr of Ashes for two. Considering I was an idiot who just wanted to attack for one, I got pretty lucky… it worked, and I didn’t lose my double-Elf against an LD deck.

Of course, Jeroen draws Stalking Yeti off the top… after all, I know that the two cards in his hand are Blaze and Seal of Fire, but Sachi just ate hot Yeti. I get a Guildmage in play, and continue developing my land situation, getting up to five mana again. Jeroen attacks and sends the Yeti back to his hand, then plays Seal of Fire for my Guildmage, using it immediately. I get out a pair of Summons tokens, and one gets to eat hot Yeti before Sakura-Tribe Elder buys back the Summons and uses it again. Another token goes down to the second Yeti Jeroen plays, and the following turn Jeroen attacks with the Yeti, and I get to prove I have my stops set wrong… while going to block with Elder and three tokens, I instead accidentally sacrifice Sakura-Tribe Elder, and might as well get myself an Island in case Meloku is even vaguely a potentiality at this point. Instead of actually killing a Yeti, I have to contemplate actually chumping, because I am running out of life points here and there’s still a Blaze in Jeroen’s hand, if I don’t block at least one I am dead. Jeroen cleverly has Wreak Havoc for that Island, so still no Meloku shenanigans.

I was so in this game until that happened, even if it wasn’t pretty; when I saw my “blocker” going to the graveyard, I knew I’d just f***ed this game up completely. The “after declaration of attackers” stop is a brand-new addition to my MTGO settings, I think I added it in a week or two before because I needed it during a draft match, and having played a year of MTGO without it saw me pressing “OK” one time too few here… so I lose. Basically. The remaining details are still messy, but this was the mistake that basically cost the match, thanks to the difficulties of playing on the MTGO interface as infrequently as I do.

I play Selesnya Guildmage with GGGW up, thinking that the incoming Yeti will either (a) trade with my Guildmage after I pump the team in response, or (b) pick off a Snake token, which can be replaced with a fresh Saproling. It, of course, gets Skredded, and I get my Saproling, only to see the Yeti work on my team and be joined by his twin brother, Yeti #2. I run out of action entirely, despite having the means to cast a Faith’s Fetters if I draw one of the four I sided in for these sorts of problems. If my earlier attempts to block and trade off a Yeti had worked out, I might have been able to exhaust Jeroen’s removal before he exhausted my ability to actually do anything. C’est la vie.

So for game 5, I’m on the play again, and I don’t have nearly as good a start as I could have hoped for. I have Plains and Selesnya Sanctuary, and start with those two while Jeroen plays nothing; I have Sosuke’s Summons, and Jeroen has Stone Rain for the Sanctuary. Drawing something to kill a Scout, and drawing Stone Rain specifically by name, are both pretty key to the matchup when he’s on the draw, and I’m already behind because I haven’t, well, done anything noteworthy and now I have no Green mana. My next land is Azorius Chancery, and I swing for two, then see my only land in play hit with Wreak Havoc. I play the Plains and attack, and my Plains gets Icefalled. Fortunately, I’m still getting in for damage, even if it’s not nearly as much as I would have liked.

Somewhere in here, Jeroen plays Martyr of Ashes, and I play a Plains despite not having had a non-Karoo land in hand when he put me to zero lands still in play. That Plains gets Wreaked, and I get to attack Jeroen to 10 but have no land to play. Jeroen sacrifices the Martyr before I discard, getting back his Icefall, up five lands to my zero and now I don’t have any creatures in play… but it could have been worse, he could have not taken two. I rip a Forest and play Sakura-Tribe Scout, quite a threat if it lives, since I have two bouncelands in hand and might actually be able to come back at this point if I draw another real land right away and Jeroen doesn’t have something to kill it with. Of course, that’s a pipe-dream, as Jeroen hasn’t played a single pinpoint kill spell yet, and the Forest meets Icefall while the Snake dies in one of a hundred or so different painful ways. I’m dead if Jeroen has, well, any means to kill me, and after a turn or two of drawing non-land cards Jeroen has a Dragon and the fight is over.

That was definitely my game to lose, though, as one could argue that if I’d mulliganed into a Scout / Elder hand, or even just one with more than Plains / Chancery as its mana, I’d have been in a much better position overall. In retrospect, it was a terrible decision, but I was weighting the Faith’s Fetters and Naturalize I had in that hand, plus the belief that I would draw Green mana right quickly. A quick Mulligan might have done me worse off, it’s true, but most of the six-card hands I can think of probably do more than those seven did, and the lesson there to be learned was that Jeroen’s deck was not one to try and get lucky against (even though it did work, drawing the Green mana quickly enough, I didn’t have enough non-Karoo lands or any Snake-based accelerants). I kept a hand where I already had to get lucky to win, and didn’t try to do my “getting lucky” up front… while Jeroen’s draw was very solid overall, and against my at best token resistance it was downright unbeatable.

The common theory going around the upper echelons is that what makes a Pro a Pro is that he wins the game he’s supposed to win, every time, rather than giving up any games to blatant (or even just subtle) screwups. We both made mistakes, in tactics and via the interface, like Jeroen taking extra damage or me sacrificing an Elder at the wrong time… errors from the interface, and errors of strategic play (like the humorous exchange where I threw away a Sachi for no reason, then Jeroen threw her back to me because he, I don’t know, didn’t want to capitalize on the error). My screwups were from a disadvantageous position to begin with, and frivoled my chances of victory away; I don’t make very many mistakes, but I do make a significant number greater than zero of them. Some are hard and some are easy; mis-clicks happen (just ask Rich Hoaen, they even happen in real life sometimes!), and mulliganing is at best a vague art in which one takes their chances… and their lumps when it doesn’t work out. I’d even go so far as to say that our level of screwing up was equal, but he started with the advantage… if I’d played tighter, with a greater awareness of subtle nuances like the unexpected reappearance of priority for effects before declaring blockers, I’d probably have won. But I didn’t.

And so Jeroen gets to pass on and be the one to try and match Talen Lee record, while I get to go into the West along with all the other Elves (and Snakes?) who have seen too much war in the realm of Middle Earth. It was a blast, and actually learning how to go about getting cards at a reasonable price for deckbuilding and playing Constructed was a very positive experience, as it means I may be able to actually start playing Constructed on MTGO now that I’m aware of how downright reasonable some of the costs can be if you start it off by borrowing your manabase from a friend who already has the cards. It’s a testing tool I’d have more access to than actual live playtesting at Neutral Ground, and the deck I’m currently interested in for the upcoming Standard might be reasonable to pick up: besides the four pain-lands and four shocklands, we’re talking two Ghost Councils (3 tix total?), four Dark Confidants (fifteen tix for four might be reasonable), four Flagstones of Trokair (which might just start off reasonably cheap) and some Purple reprints (4 each of Funeral Charm and The Rack). Of course, while this deck is admirably affordable for IRL play (and no, I don’t mean for practicing for the Irish State Championships, despite the obvious ethnic origin of me last name), some of the Reprints are going to have interesting price differences online… after all, on MTGO, this is the first printing of The Rack, even if I can pick up Funeral Charms at .05 tix by getting the Visions versions. Because unlike IRL, MTGO doesn’t have thousands and thousands of copies of The Rack floating around, it’s going to be a rare as far as MTGO is concerned, and it’s one that is going to be “less common” than the actually-in-Time-Spiral Rares, which are one-in-80-packs versus one-in-121-packs.

I would leave you with the witty parting words of the obligatory RidiculousHat post-game chat log, but the Hat is offline for some time now thanks to lack of computer, and I’m less interested in making up a chat-log than I was in providing one alongside two weeks ago’s “victory dance.” I came, I fought, I made mistakes (but so did he), and I put up stiff resistance in a bad match-up before Jeroen rallied the last two games out from under me. It was damnably close to my victory, but instead it’s just defeat and another lesson learned along the way. When the bullet zigs, you’re supposed to zag. Instead, I merely got to apply a lesson I’ve already learned time and again: when facing a difficult task all you can do is make the best plan possible to give yourself the chance of victory, and improvise from there. The creative and innovative solution breaks the rigidity of “a bad matchup,” and even bad matchups can fold if you put the opponent under pressure. Even if it’s not pretty, and you’re not likely to win, it’s better than going down like a chump.

So remember, next time you’re facing down a long and difficult road: the enemy’s gate is down.

Sean McKeown
Speaker for the Dead (of Battle Royale, anyway)

This isn’t the last song
They don’t know us, you see
It’s only the last song
If we let it be…
Bjork, Dancer in the Dark, “The Next-to-Last Song”