Bearing A Grudge

You think you’ve seen it all from Mike Flores. Brilliant theory. Fantastic decks. More hype than a Don King promoted boxer. But you have not seen this!

To the best of my knowledge, there has never been an actual Team Constructed event, at least not one on as large a scale as the upcoming PTQ season. As such, I am pretty sure this article – and the implementation follow-up that will hit these pages tomorrow – will be the first attempt at tackling the format from the standpoint of general strategy. This is not to say that we don’t have data, because even though the format has yet to be used for teams, the former Neutral Ground/Your Move Games Grudge Match utilized the Unified format to crown its five champions.

To catch you up in case the terms “Grudge Match” and “Unified” format are meaningless to you, walk back with me to the spring of 1999. There were no MTGO 8-man queues at the time, and Brian David-Marshall, then owner of Neutral Ground, noticed that the art of deck construction was sadly decaying. The “Standard” format was not standard at all… it was played at Regionals and throughout the Championship season, but there were huge gaps in the practice of what was supposed to be competitive Magic’s default setting. Along with Rob Dougherty of Your Move Games, Brian created a giant cash tournament. Each store would have a series of qualifier events to its $2000, twice-annual championship; the Neutral Ground and Your Move Games Champions would then duke it out in a best-of-three matches brawl for another $1000. The Grudge Match – at least from the New York side – proved to be a great success, producing such decks as Napster, Parallax Replenish, and ZevAtog before the conclusion of the series after its fifth battle of champions.

The reason the Grudge Match is interesting to us is that the actual $1000 heads up match utilized the Unified format. That is, the Neutral Ground Champion would build three Standard decks – but could utilize between these three decks only four total copies of each non-basic land card – with which he would defeat Your Move Games’s champion (who approached that battle of wills with the same design strictures). Though the definition of Standard has changed with the past six or seven years of set rotations, the lessons we can learn from successful Grudge Match Champions can be bent into general rules for the upcoming Team Pro Tour PTQ season, and perhaps inform the approach to the Pro Tour itself.

Two Basic Models for Deck Selection

The simplest way to approach Teams is the obvious one: pick three reasonable decks that don’t overlap in color. This model will yield (ostensibly) three decks, any of which can compete, without diluting the efficacy of any one. An example of this style would be to play one R/G beatdown deck, one U/W fortress with counters and life gain, and one Mono-Black Control. When you are lucky, the format will lend itself to actually picking the best decks in order without conflict.

A more aggressive – and arguably more interesting – model is one suggested by my friend Steve Sadin, “I’m just going to figure out the best x cards in the format and divide those among three decks.”

I don’t think that either one of these models is perfect in and of itself, but it is interesting that you can mix and match elements of objectively strong decks and objectively strong cards. In some cases, you will have to water down a deck to a degree where you would not consider playing it in an individual tournament, and we will discuss at cases where this has happened in the past and whether it was a good idea or not, and to what degree.

Starting at the Very Beginning: Grudge Match 1

The format for the first Grudge Match was the Standard I think that I understood the best. Not that I had a better understanding of that Standard than everyone else, but rather that I had the best concept of what was going on, what decks were good and cards appropriate, when compared to other formats. Like I think I had quite a good understanding of last summer’s Standard as well, but I am sure that I would get a lot of dissenting voices were I to give my opinion of the best decks to play in 2005; not so with midsummer 2000.

The format for Grudge Match 1 was Full Urza’s Block + 2/3 Masques Block + then-Core Set Sixth Edition. In my opinion the best decks of the day were:

[1. Tinker]
1. Napster
2. [Angry] [Son of] Hermit
3. Replenish
4. Accelerated Blue
5. Bargain

(Tinker is a special case and therefore holds the phantom First. Definitely after Worlds 2000 and the Jon/Bob mirror, you would have to be crazy to say anything else was the best deck, especially after the failed Kibler/Williams shenanigans in Round 1. However Grudge Match 1 took place before Worlds, in a format where, after U.S. Nationals, Napster looked like the best deck, at least until the Blue version of the same strategy reasserted itself.

Remember that first set of possibilities I gave?

There were tons of other played decks viable to one degree or another from this era, including Trinity Green, which was one of the most successful Standard decks pre-U.S. Nationals, Rebels, Magpile, Merfolk, and The Rock and His Millions. Many of those decks would reasonable choices, with card availability dictating half of one’s choices and common sense the other half. Certainly I think the default configuration for the format is something like Napster/Angry Hermit/Replenish, which has essentially no strategic conflict between decks; the version of Napster that placed at the 2000 Amateurs (where the eventual champion that inspired Son of Hermit debuted) didn’t even play Rishadan Port!

Armed with the summer’s results, some of your decisions should essentially be made for you. For example, despite its success in the early part of the 2000 Championship Season, you can’t reasonably play Trinity Green. Both decks lose to Napster – which you should assume your opponent will play – and Trinity Green is just worse than Angry Hermit, which has a very real chance of beating Napster, and the advantage in almost all the other tier one matchups; clearly your Forests are best spent there.

What about Steve’s method for allocating decks? For the balance of this article I am going to limit myself to the top 10 cards in every format, but summer 2000 is, like its best deck, a special case, which you should quickly see with the alleged top 10 list:

Yawgmoth’s Will
Dark Ritual
Vampiric Tutor
Grim Monolith
Rishadan Port
Yawgmoth’s Bargain
Academy Rector
Parallax Wave
Tangle Wire
Plow Under
Ramosian Sergeant

Notice how this list lacks Rancor, Yavimaya Elder, Gaea’s Cradle, Phyrexian Negator, Dust Bowl, any additional fading cards, and Avalanche Riders (which I am not sure is better than Yavimaya Granger or Uktabi Orangutan). It lacks not only the three classes of free counters, but any counters other than the important one… despite the fact that many of these cards would be top 10 – certainly top 20 – in almost any other Standard format. Additional huge omissions include “the Urza’s Destiny rares” package beyond Masticore (i.e. Powder Keg and Treachery) that allowed Blue decks to so effortlessly beat the beatdown in this age. I had Stroke of Genius as high as #11 at one point, but for Standard. You get the picture.

Especially as this site has a high percentage of Type I players, I don’t think I’ll get a lot of disagreement on my pick for #1 card in the format, but I think every one in the Top 8 is completely unreal, and all but Rishadan Port have been banned in at least one format. [Actually, Port was banned in Masques Block Constructed. – Knut, keeping Flores for himself on the last day] That said, Rishadan Port could go as high as #2, evidenced by the glaring lack of polychromatic decks in the era… at least without Frantic Search (another card that has been banned, another suberb card that didn’t make the list).

To give you an idea of how strong the format was, Masticore and Morphling didn’t make the top 10, and Wildfire (which I will reference later), barely achieves the top 20 status.

What all of this should tell you is that – at the bare minimum – Napster is not only a default deck for the three deck format, whether or not you include Tinker, but should be 100% on your metagame radar of what the opponent will bring. Let’s see what the actual Grudge Match combatants brought to the table:

Your Move Games – “Tight” Tom Guevin
Deck A
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Birds of Paradise
3 Worldly Tutor
2 Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary
2 Masticore
1 Blastoderm
4 Deranged Hermit
4 Skyshroud Poacher
4 Fallow Earth
4 Plow Under
4 Tangle Wire

16 Forest
4 Gaea’s Cradle
2 Treetop Village
2 Dust Bowl

2 Thran Foundry
1 Treetop Village
2 Elvish Lyrist
3 Uktabi Orangutan
3 Blastoderm
4 Fecundity

Deck B
4 Stone Rain
4 Pillage
4 Avalanche Riders
4 Seal of Fire
2 Shock
2 Hammer of Bogardan
2 Masticore
2 Flowstone Overseer
2 Lightning Dragon
4 Earthquake
2 Ring of Gix

15 Mountain
4 Ghitu Encampment
2 Dust Bowl
4 Rishadan Port
3 Sandstone Needle

2 Cursed Totem
2 Thran Foundry
1 Hammer of Bogardan
2 Boil
3 Tectonic Break
3 Keldon Vandal
2 Cave-In

Deck C
4 Replenish
4 Opalescence
4 Parallax Wave
2 Seal of Cleansing
4 Brainstorm
4 Tolarian Winds
3 Frantic Search
4 Attunement
4 Parallax Tide
3 Counterspell

4 Adarkar Wastes
8 Plains
12 Island

4 Seal of Removal
3 Wrath of God
1 Counterspell
1 Frantic Search
2 Seal of Cleansing
2 Misdirection
2 Miscalculation

Neutral Ground – Beau James Bradley
Deck A
1 Rapid Decay
1 Skittering Skirge
1 Stromgald Cabal
1 Thrashing Wumpus
4 Yawgmoth’s Will
4 Duress
3 Phyrexian Negator
3 Skittering Horror
4 Dark Ritual
1 Persecute
1 Eradicate
1 Engineered Plague
1 Stupor
2 Unmask
1 Massacre
3 Vicious Hunger
4 Vampiric Tutor

3 Rishadan Port
1 Dust Bowl
1 Phyrexian Tower
2 Spawning Pool
17 Swamp

1 Ring of Gix
1 Cursed Totem
2 Unmask
2 Stupor
1 Kill Switch
1 Phyrexian Processor
2 Perish
1 Massacre
2 Powder Keg
1 Rapid Decay
1 Thran Lens

Deck B
4 Wild Dogs
4 River Boa
2 Elvish Lyrist
3 Pouncing Jaguar
3 Albino Troll
3 Blastoderm
4 Llanowar Elves
3 Giant Growth
4 Rancor
4 Tangle Wire
3 Crop Rotation

2 Treetop Village
3 Gaea’s Cradle
1 Rishadan Port
1 Yavimaya Hollow
1 Dust Bowl
15 Forest

3 Vine Dryad
3 Phyrexian Processor
4 Uktabi Orangutan
3 Reverent Silence
2 Thran Foundry

Deck C
4 Temporal Adept
4 Lord of Atlantis
4 Coral Merfolk
4 Rootwater Thief
4 Sandbar Merfolk
4 Thwart
4 Counterspell
4 Daze
3 Foil
3 Seal of Removal

20 Island
2 Dust Bowl

4 Waterfront Bouncer
4 Gilded Drake
3 Chill
4 Annul

Beau’s deck choices are a bit unusual, but he had strong reasons for his choices despite what we think made sense. First off, Beau had a deep history with StOmPy, specifically the version he played. Beau came in second in the New York State Championships, and when the 1999 Champ got banned from Neutral Ground, was awarded de facto full honors. Beau won his Grudge Match 1 title with essentially the same deck, and had an intimate comfort level with the deck. Though StOmPy was awful against Napster, Beau’s version was much more robust with its Crop Rotations and Blastoderms than a deck like Frank Hernandez’s from Nationals; Blastoderm itself was a strong threat against Napster, and usually demanded a Perish all by itself due to the intense life loss the deck levied on itself.

His choice in third deck might seem very unusual but consider the pre-Worlds framework. More specifically, consider Beau’s Grudge Match Top 8:

Stomping on the Fish

Fish occupied three of the Top 8 slots in Beau’s tournament, taking out Pro Tour Champion Mike Pustilnik with Bargain and Pro Tour Champion Zvi Mowshowitz with Replenish (though neither was a Pro Tour Champion yet). Fish, unassuming as it may seem, was a powerhouse against a reasonable portion of the expected decks, fielding a strong matchup against the Blue (but not Black) Control decks and utterly crushing Replenish. All of this obviously made a huge impression on the Neutral Ground champ, contributing to a strong overall choice.

Not surprisingly, Beau won the Napster-Trinity matchup and broke serve to 2-0 Tom’s Ponza with his StOmPy. Beau liked the Ponza matchup due to his unique elements of Crop Rotation and Blastoderm, but even if he had lost (as most spectators would have assumed), James probably would have flattened Tom in the Fish v. Replenish pairing.

So was Beau just lucky? Certainly he couldn’t have scripted better matchups than Napster v. Trinity and Fish v. Replenish, but to be fair, “Tight” Tommy’s deck decisions were anything but. Almost anyone would have put the onetime Pro Tour finalist in the favorite’s seat, but Tom gave away any pregame advantage he had with some truly miserable construction choices.

This specimen appears to be partly broken

The thing that struck me as most surprising was Beau’s unseating of Tom’s Ponza deck. This matchup – admittedly pre-Blastoderm – came up a lot in Urza’s Block, and it was consistently bad for StOmPy. But looking at Tom’s deck list… He Split His Masticores! Of Course Tom didn’t beat the weenie deck! Hard as it is to believe for a deck with many different slots of dedicated burn and land destruction, Tom’s deck just didn’t have enough board control. The fact that there was not a single Powder Keg in the entirety of the Guevin lineup (I would have played four in Ponza of this era) speaks to a sub-optimal allocation of limited resources.

Strategically, this error carries almost necessarily to Tom’s Trinity deck. I think playing Trinity at all is skirting a violation of the Prime Rule, but excepting that, think about how terrible it is to force competition not just for cards but strategies. Forget about the 2/2 Masticore split… how can it be right to play two mana control decks and rob one of them of all the Rishadan Ports?

Look at how Beau split his Ports instead. James may have run the 3/1 split, but he allocated them to decks that could reliably search via Vampiric Tutor and Crop Rotation. Though his StOmPy had but one Port, Bradley would have been able to access it reliably… just think of it in response to a Stone Rain!

We can learn the most by what Tom did wrong and lost than by what Beau did right (but we’ll get to that). I think that the biggest problem on Guevin’s part was to choose poor archetypes. Ponza 2000 doesn’t make my short list, and neutering it is no help. Trinity Green is in fact a terrible choice in a vacuum (being almost strictly inferior to Angry Hermit), let alone minus all four copies of its best card. Tom’s Replenish listing isn’t optimal, but at least he had that lone undiluted deck.

New York 3, Boston 0: Grudge Match 4

New York took the next two Grudge Matches with Zvi Mowshowitz over Joe “Mouth” Kambourakis and Eric Ziegler over young Billy Di Johnson. Ziegler reprised his role as Grudge Match Champion by winning New York’s fourth title, this time going up against “Little Darwin” Paul Rietzl.

The format was Core Set Seventh Edition, full Invasion Block, and 2/3 Odyssey Block (so no Wonder). I would rank the top 10 cards like this:

Wild Mongrel
Fact or Fiction
Flametongue Kavu
Careful Study

“How can you not play all 20 of those first five cards?”

Josh Ravitz

I would actually have rated Upheaval higher… but then it would have screwed up Josh’s quote. Honestly how good is Upheaval? The card is basically the same as Time Spiral. It’s a six mana Blue card that, if it sticks, almost always wins the game. The only card that I really wanted on the list that didn’t hit was Circular Logic (see the lists below, for a chuckle).

As for the top five cards, the first four are too close to call. I mean we all say that Psychatog is the best overall and Wild Mongrel is the best beater, but which one is more important? How about Fact or Fiction and Flametongue Kavu? I rated Fact or Fiction higher than the FTK just because the former annihilates without discrimination as opposed to just spitting on little guys.

Top decks of the era:

1. Psychatog
2. G/R Beatdown
3. Goblin Trenches
4. Opposition
5. Battle of Wits

If the event had occurred after English Nationals, Deep Dog would have been a hard #2 deck, but the deck simply wasn’t known at the time and therefore can’t really be assumed for selection, even in hindsight (Tinker for Grudge Match 1, though not mainstream until after Worlds, was at least played at Canadian Regionals and was of course a known quantity from Block).

How did the champions solve the riddle of the format?

[All the decks are at http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=sideboard/gpnj02/grudge… just make sure you address Ziegler’s number of Psychatogs at 4 (his deck was listed at 57)]

Ziegler got a good pairing on A decks and squeaked out the B deck win. G/R was one of the premiere decks prior to the San Diego Masters, but had a lot of problems with superdeck Psychatog. Both players fielded Braids decks, which was largely a function of card availability. The really odd decision was Paul’s choice of Trenches over Psychatog. Trenches was a reasonable deck for the format for sure, but the old Scepter-Chant with no Scepter and no Chant and 61 cards doesn’t quite outweigh the best creature in the best deck of the age.

Ziegler and Rietzl were both very good players and had 2/3 of their decks essentially even. The breaker was a lucky pairing on the part of Eric where he got the soft G/R matchup with his dominating Psychatog deck… which also implies the lesson of the Unified fight. Paul couldn’t have gotten the pairing.

Had the matchups gone G/R on G/R and Braids on Braids (or G/R on Braids and Braids on G/R), Paul would have had the advantage (despite the fact that his Trenches deck didn’t spend the last two Urza’s Rage). The problem was that Eric Togs were ahead against both G/R and Braids (if slightly) whereas Paul’s Trenches was not legitimately ahead in any matchup but Psychatog; even there, Eric playing a non-Zevatog listing greatly limited even that advantage.

Ultimately, I think Eric did a better job selecting his decks, which of course contributed to the win; the only modification I would suggest would be to run Fire/Ice in either the G/R (like Dave Price did at U.S. Nationals that year), which would have improved his Psychatog matchup, or gone Red for the same in his ‘Tog deck (though the inability to fully incorporate Flametongue Kavu given the format was probably reason enough to avoid the eventual splash).

The Final Grudge Match: Grudge Match 5

Your Move Games finally got one with the victory of the mighty Lucas Glavin (then barely more than a MODO baby) over Dave Chung. The format for Grudge Match 5 was Core Set + Odyssey Block + 2/3 Onslaught Block.

Top cards:

Wild Mongrel
Mirari’s Wake
Careful Study
Circular Logic
Cunning Wish
Visara the Dreadful

How does this list not have Lightning Rift?

Top decks:

1. Mono-Black Control
[2. Mirari’s Wake]
2. Psychatog
3. Deep Dog
4. Astral Slide
5. G/R Beatdown

Mono-Black was known but not really played because most people didn’t know how to beat Compost (this of course made it a superb choice for Unified play); Mono-Black beat each of the three most played decks in Game One. Mirari’s Wake was the secret best deck that sort of creeped up on the metagame come Regionals, breaking up the three sided give-and-take of Psychatog, Deep Dog, and G/R.

I thought Chung should have played Mono-Black Control, a U/G deck (I told him Threshold), and Astral Slide. The reason was that Glavin had run through the Boston Open effortlessly with Psychatog and Chung was hopeless in a mirror. The above setup would have given Chung two good matchups against Psychatog (with a winnable third) and a minimum of two good matchups against Lucas’s projected Green deck. We weren’t sure what his third deck was going to be, but given Lucas’s eventual choice, Dave would have actually had two great matchups and an advantage with Threshold.

As it happened, these are the decks the combatants chose.

Dave got the worst possible pairing for his Psychatog deck, the only bad one, the mirror. Beasts would have been easy and it is unlikely Master A could have raced the Upheaval kill; sadly Chung was just out-classed by Glavin’s understanding of the mirror.

The B match was completely lopsided. Two decks, three same colors, one outcome only.

The C match was equally lopsided in favor of Glavin. Chung actually won a brilliant Game Two by tricking Lucas and decking him with Ensnaring Bridge, but once the Disenchants came in, the Clerics made the G/R beaters look positively foolish.

For Grudge Match 5, there was nothing particularly wrong with Chung’s baseline approach to his deck selection. I think he actually picked fundamentally better decks than those on Glavin’s side of the table. That said, the winner did some interesting stretching that we can analyze for both good and less successful elements.

Deck A – Psychatog

Like Beau Bradley at Grudge Match 1 and Zvi at Grudge Match 2, Lucas’s framework began with his Weapon of Choice. Lucas was unstoppable with Psychatog and knew he had the best chance with this deck. It was as obvious a choice to him as StOmPy was to Beau and My Fires was to Zvi. Winner.

Deck B – Beasts

This deck was “a metagame choice” by Gary Wise for the preceding Masters, designed to kill exclusively creature decks. Had Lucas gotten the G/R pairing, he probably would have come out on top, but Beasts had only 1 in 3 shot at a reasonably good matchup. It wasn’t beating MBC, Wake, Slide, Tog, or any deck but that G/R. It’s not clear that Beasts was ahead against Master A – both a creature deck and one of Lucas’s own choices – which makes this decision even more curious. Likely the Wild Mongrel slot would have been better spent on Wonders or Violent Eruptions. Loser.

Deck C – Master A

This deck seems terrible to me for similar reasons to Beasts. The difference is that he actually got the creatures pairing. This creates an interesting setup. Assuming Lucas wins any matchup with his Psychatog deck, he is only behind if Psychatog draws Dave’s Wild Mongrel deck. Objectively not the strongest possible deck, Master A, like Beasts, had a robust matchup with creatures while itself capable of presenting a clock. Unlike, say, Mono-Black Control, Master A didn’t have a Compost Achilles heel; in fact, when presented with its foil, the Cleric theme deck could pop an Ensnaring Bridge like an unwanted zit. Ultimately, playing one overpowered deck with which he was a favorite regardless of matchup and two decks that always creamed guys, implied a 2/3 advantage against most setups (note that the same could not be said for the decks I suggested Chung play). Winner and winner.

That’s it for the overview part of our introduction to Team Unified Constructed. Next up we will hit metagaming and some more modern applications for what we’ve learned in the various Grudge Match Finals.