I had told myself I was quitting Magic. I was tired of the roller coaster of emotions in winning and losing rounds. I started skipping PTQs, and just came to hang out with friends. I stopped waking up at 4am to play MTGO, and would sleep in and cook myself nice breakfasts instead. I decided I was going to give up flying to all corners of the world, and maybe raise some chickens in the back yard. I didn’t know it wasn’t going to last. The problem with trying to quit Magic is that the players you meet become friends, and you just want to see them and spend time with them. I went to Oakland to hang out with people I enjoyed coming from other parts of the country; it wasn’t about the game anymore. However, the game is there, and how could you not just pick up some cards and play once you get there?
Extended is probably my favorite format. Enough cards to support a diversity of strategies, and yet a ruthless ecosystem in which only the strongest will thrive. A nice feature is that the consistency in the card base means that the format has a strong continuity from year to year, such that if you knew what was going on the year before, you probably have a good handle on what is going on this season. I started planning by looking at the results from the last Magic League Master’s tournament, and a handful of recent PTQs from around the globe. The top 8 of the Master’s was 4 Thopter-Depths decks and 4 Zoo decks, which told me for sure what many authors had said: there were only 2 real tier 1 decks in the format. Since I had a ton of experience playing Zoo in the past, and my impression was that Zoo had a favorable matchup versus Depths, I thought a Zoo deck designed to maximize those strengths and which could deliver in the mirror match should do quite well.
I started poking through all the existing Zoo lists, and wasn’t quite happy with any of them. I took parts of each deck that I liked and tweaked a bit based on my own experiences with Zoo to come up with the following:
I’ll explain each of the card choices…
4 Path to Exile, 4 Bant Charm – Since Dark Depths is the top enemy, having 8 solutions to Marit Lage seemed important. 8 cards means 89% of opening hands will have one, and the chance of drawing one is around 13% per card. There aren’t a lot of cards that can deal with an indestructible creature at instant speed, which is why I think there have been so few alternatives to these two cards. These cards are also incredibly good in the Zoo mirror, since it tends to revolve around which player can play and keep the largest creature on the table. Path is an efficient solution, while Bant Charm can eliminate your opponent’s best or protect your own.
4 Qasali Pridemage – Zoo decks often have a creature in the two-drop slot that impedes opposing strategies. Gaddok Teeg and Meddling Mage have gone here lately. Teeg wasn’t looking very good for the Oakland metagame since the combo decks you might face were Thopter-Depths, Elves, Hypergenesis, Living End, Scapeshift, and Dredge. Teeg only could stop the last two, which were not very popular. Pridemage paired with Bant Charm made 8 solutions to a Thopter Foundry/Sword Of The Meek combination, which made me feel comfortable that I would have some game 1 disruption of whichever plan the Depths deck was up to. I saw a lot of lists with only 3 of these, which I guess made sense since it’s one of the weaker cards in the deck, but it’s not legendary, it gets stronger in multiples, and is as good an attacker as Nacatl.
20 Land – Zoo mirrors are generally attrition matches. Creatures and removal get swapped back and forth resulting in generally stalemated boards. There are cards which break this parity, but another way to help yourself do this is to play fewer lands. When I first started playing Domain Zoo two seasons ago I copied Takayuki Koike’s Valencia Top 8 list. He played 20 lands in a deck that curved up to cast Vindicate. This season most Zoo decks seem to feature 22 lands, which I think is too many. 20 has always been the number needed to cast spells with a CC of 3 or less. I understand the desire to make sure you can play your spells, but with only Bant Charm and Knight of the Reliquary at the top you’re not too much slower even in the rare case where you miss your third land drop for a few turns.
4 Noble Hierarch – To abet my low land count, I opted to play Hierarch over Kird Ape. He doesn’t hit as hard by himself, and isn’t as good at attacking as part of a group. However, he does open up the ability to get turn 2 Knights of the Reliquary out, and can also help ensure that your 1 drop hits for 3 or 4, which is a nice form of pseudo-haste. What really sold me, though, is that combined with Qasali Pridemage, the Exalted mechanic in the Zoo mirror meant that your opponent was in a pretty bad way. Usually one can hide behind their Tarmogoyf and buy some time, but with 8 Exalted creatures there would often be one or two on the table to make Loam Lions and Wild Nacatls come in big enough to kill a lhurgoyf. Opponents would often have to double block to deal with this, and get blown out by instant removal when they did. Turning all of your creatures into must-answer threats is pretty excellent in an attrition match. Many thanks to Billy Monero including a single Akrasan Squire in last year’s Zoo builds to open my eyes to the power of Exalted in a Zoo mirror.
4 Loam Lion, 4 Wild Nacatl – These guys are just the most efficient one-drop beaters in town. Loam Lion was new with Worldwake, and just works better with the basic Plains in the manabase than Kird Ape did. Avoiding damage in some matches is important, and being able to play this guy painlessly really helped versus Burn and enemy Zoo decks. Originally I was planning on playing Steppe Lynx, thinking that getting to be 4/5 would allow him to break through stalemated boards. However, Jed Dolbeer pointed out to me that if I counted the damage over most games, Lions would do more, and that they also could block. Testing quickly proved him right, and I made the swap to the newer card. This is especially true given my low land count, but would probably still be so at 22 lands.
4 Tarmogoyf, 4 Knight of the Reliquary – I think any Zoo list which isn’t maxing out on these creatures is wrong. These two guys get to dominate every other creature on the table. When your opponent has one and you don’t, if you don’t have a removal spell you’re going to have to start making bad trades, chump blocks, or putting yourself in situations where you can get blown out. Knight is particularly important since he gets to be the biggest by the midgame. Lots of mirror matches are won and lost based solely on who draws more Knights, so give yourself the best chances by having all you can.
4 Lightning Bolt, 4 Lightning Helix – Having a little bit of reach is good for Zoo, as is having removal that doesn’t give your opponent a land too early in the game. I was torn between including Lightning Helix in the deck or tweaking the manabase a little to support Tribal Flames. I figured Flames was a sorcery, so it made Goyf bigger, offered a lot more reach, and could kill Goyfs and undeveloped Knights of the Reliquary. However, having never played the deck I was building, I worried that my mana might be too inconsistant, or that I would find not having the lifegain or instant speed might bite me in the end. Ultimately, I chickened out and played Helix since it was the safe bet and everyone seemed to be running it.
4 Meddling Mage, 4 Negate – A few decks have strategies that revolve around one card. If you can stop that card, you can avoid losing to them. Decks like Elves, Hypergenesis, Living End, Dredge, and Thopter Foundry all found these to be unpleasant thorns. I almost wanted to main deck them since they came in so often, but Mage in particular is unexciting versus aggressive strategies, and Negate can have dangerously little effect on an empty or defensive board position.
3 Ravenous Trap, 1 Bojuka Bog – I’d heard Cedric was tearing up MTGO queues with a Dredge deck, and had experienced in the past that not having a little hate for a powerful strategy could lead to disaster. I probably should have selected a few different cards that each hated on the graveyard, but I had heard Relic of Progenitus and Tormod’s Crypt didn’t always get the job done and had no Black mana to cast Extirpate or Yixlid Jailer. Jailer would have been a nice choice since he beats down while disrupting them. The Bojuka Bog turned out to also have high utility in the Zoo mirror. It could be “tutored” up with a Knight of the Reliquary to turn enemy knights into 2/2s again, or mess up the size of a Tarmogoyf.
2 Umezawa’s Jitte – This card still dominates creature mirrors when it stays on the table. My hope was that my high count of Pridemages and Bant Charms would mean that I could keep opponent’s Jittes off the table so that they wouldn’t be able to Legend rule my own. Bant Charm up even meant that I might be able to save it from enemy Bant Charms. This card just wins lots of games by itself, and is worth playing for that reason. I tend to stay away from 3 copies in Zoo since getting a creature to live with it on can be hard, and the Pridemage and Bant Charm environment can make it hard to keep on the table.
Since I was down to only 1 rating bye, I signed up for the grinders early on Friday, and began stalking down more free wins.
Grinder 1, Round 1 (Hypergenesis) – This is one of the matchups were Zoo isn’t favored. I wasn’t expecting to see a lot of Hypergenesis since I thought it was a dog to Dark Depths, but that’s how these things go. My opponent got a quick pair of Bogardan Hellkites to clear my team. I killed them with some Paths and Bant Charms, and laid out a Tarmogoyf. My clock was too slow, and an Angel of Despair came out to kill off my Tarmogoyf. Sideboarding: -4 Path to Exile, -4 Bant Charm, +4 Negate, +4 Meddling Mage. I go all in on trying to stop their combo and beat them down as quickly as possible. I mulligan my first hand looking for some hate, don’t see any in the second and just run it since 5 cards are likely not to get there. I lose, and am eliminated from the grinder.
Grinder 2, Round 1 & Grinder 2, Round 2 – I don’t remember the details of the second grinder. I beat my first two opponents, I think one of them was on Zoo because I remember a satisfying sequence where my opponent was on two life with mana for Lightning Helix, and I held my own Helix. I waited until he cast his on my end step a turn later to kill him at instant speed. My third opponent was Gerry Thompson playing Dark Depths.
Grinder 2, Round 3 (Thopter Depths) – Gerry Thompson was piloting the Thopters. I kept a hand of Path, Path, Bant Charm, Pridemage, and 3 lands. I figured I had two answers for each of his combos, so if I could draw into any pressure I could probably get there. Also, if Pridemage lives he’s not a horrible clock. Gerry Thoughtseized a Path to Exile, which made me feel more likely he was on the Marit Lage plan, since Pridemage seems like a better target if he’s on Thopter unless he’s sitting on something like Smother, in which case the Bant Charm would go. I get my Pridemage down and he plays a Thopter Foundry. I bit on it with my Bant Charm, which proved fatal when he hit me with another discard effect and then Marit Lage. Michael Jacob pointed out after the match that there’s no reason to cast the Bant Charm until I actually see a Sword of the Meek on the stack, which seems right in retrospect. It’s important to conserve your answers to their combos until they are absolutely needed. Sideboard: -4 Lightning Bolt, -4 Lightning Helix, -1 Steam Vents, +4 Negate, +4 Meddling Mage, +1 Ghost Quarter. I get several hands with no mana or Steam Vents and Green spells, and not until I hit 4 cards do I get something playable. “I wish all my Zoo matches went this way,” Gerry reflected. If wishes actually came true, it seems better to wish for all matches to go that way.
Grinder 3, Round 1 (Bant Midrange) – My deck played out exactly like I wanted it to. I got to play some early Nacatls and Loam Lions, and follow them up with Noble Hierarchs and Qasali Pridemages. Even though my opponent had Rhox War Monks, it didn’t matter since my guys were big enough with Exalted to attack through them. Sideboard: -2 Noble Hierarch, +2 Umezawa’s Jitte, -1 Breeding Pool, +1 Bojuka Bog. Breeding Pool is only really needed when you bring in Meddling Mages, and Bojuka Bog can easily win most Knight versus Knight stalemates.
Grinder 3, Round 2 (Thopter Depths) – This round I didn’t mulligan to 4, or blow my load prematurely. I just played some animals, turned them sideways, and picked apart combo pieces when needed. Sideboarded the same, and came out ahead in game 2 as well.
Grinder 3, Round 3 (Faeries) – I’d tested a few Zoo decks on Magic Workstation to see if I liked a few other builds, and most of my runs had ended badly against Fae. I’d be winning, and then suddenly they played a Jitte and I’d lose the game. It’s what had first convinced me that playing 4 Qasali Pridemages would be a really good idea. Like the Bant deck, against Fae I just get to play my basic plans of little monsters attacking over the board and killing the few fae that really matter. Path to Exile or Bant Charm feel very good versus a Mistbind Clique, and splattering Bitterblossom tokens appears to be a popular hobby amongst Cats. I mostly made sure that I could immediately answer a Jitte if it came down, and avoided playing into obvious counterspells when possible. (Though, sometimes it’s right just to draw out the spell and get on with your game.) Sideboard: -2 Lightning Helix, +2 Umezawa’s Jitte. Fae don’t have that many guys a Lightning Bolt is efficient against. Jitte is as good for you as for them, so ideally you deal with theirs with other spells and then get to use your own against them. I think I got to do just that in game 2.
Grinder 3, Round 4 (Saito Zoo) – The four players left were three Zoo players and a Dark Depths player. We felt kind of bad for the guy with the Marit Lages, since we all felt we had favorable EV on him. Our game 1 goes fairly long. I get in a few good plays where he chooses to stack block against an Exalted Wild Nacatl and I get 2-1s off my instant speed removal. Eventually this, coupled with my low land count, gets me enough edge on the board that I grind him out. Sideboard: -2 Noble Hierarch, +2 Umezawa’s Jitte. I go back and forth over whether it’s better to take out Loam Lions or Noble Hierarchs. The problem is that Hierarchs can’t block, and getting run over at the beginning of the game is a real fear. Though, Loam Lions only block their own kind, so unless your opponent is on both Kird Ape and Loam Lion, it might be better to board those guys out instead. Either way, I get an active Jitte going and that’s all she wrote.
Grinder 3, Round 5 (Saito Zoo) – As expected, Dark Depths lost to the aggressive deck, and here we are in the finals. We agree to split such that the loser gets the box while the winner gets the byes. Though I feel confident about winning most of the time, I like to set things up so it isn’t a complete blowout when one loses. Once again I get good Exalted draws and my opponent is often on the back foot, even though all I’m attacking with are Loam Lions. I follow my usual sideboard plans and he appears to bring in Bloodbraid Elf, which makes me nervous that he also has Blood Moon somewhere in there. I think he wins game 2 on the back of getting more Knights of the Reliquary going. I take it in the third, carefully fetching basics, while he draws into a bunch of lands.
Though things started off shaky, the field was mostly what I expected and the deck seemed to be performing well. Losing to an uncommon and bad matchup and to a mulligan to 4 against a famed PTQ End Boss didn’t seem overly problematic. The only thing I really wanted to do was figure out how to get Tribal Flames into the deck in place of Lightning Helix. I’d noticed in the Zoo matches that Tarmogoyf was only a 3/4 in my deck, and a 4/5 with a resolved sorcery. Since no one was playing Seal of Fire this year, he just didn’t get up to be the 5/6 that he was back then. I also noticed Knights of the Reliquary were often 3/3 or 4/4 when they hit the table, and a Tribal Flames could get rid of them before they became too strong. Having the maximum answers to large creatures generally wins the Zoo mirror, so I thought it would be a solid upgrade. I meant to work it out before going to bed, but just zonked out as soon as I got back to my hotel.
In the morning I went over to the event site and sat down with Jon Louks, Gavin Verhey, and Brian Kowal. I was still trying to work out my manabase for Tribal Flames, but nervous that if I cut the wrong land my manabase might just start fizzling out on me. Each pair of dual lands supports specific pairs of cards. Nacatl/Helix needs Red and Green mana separate from White, Helix/Meddling Mage needs Blue and Red mana seperate from White, etc. What I didn’t recognize is that cutting Lightning Helix for Tribal Flames would have made it all very simple, since I no longer cared about keeping Red and White coming from different sources of land. Having failed to solve the puzzle before the event, or heed Kowal’s advice to just cut a basic and add any Black-producing dual, I decided to just register what I’d had the night before.
GP Rounds 1 – 3 (Bagels) – Byes. BK, Louks, and I went to get breakfast. We helped Jon figure out sideboard plans with his Gifts/Project X deck while eating at the only restaurant we could find that was open. Oakland is a bit of a Ghost Quarter, tons of shops that never appear to be used.
GP Round 4 – Kevin Grove (Tezzeret Control) – When he started playing Blue lands, it wasn’t clear which control deck he was playing. I went all in on an early start, with Nacatl into Noble Hierarch into a bunch more dudes. I’d considered briefly whether that Steam Vents meant Firespout, but if he didn’t have one I figured he was dead in a turn or so. In the past I’ve gotten burned for playing around cards I hadn’t seen yet, so I went with something I once heard LSV say, “When in doubt, assume they have nothing.” I overextend, he Firespouts my team, and then follows up with Jace, the Mind Sculptor to bounce my expensive guys, and Tezzeret the Seeker to start gaining card advantage and shuffle when the Brainstorming starts. When he started fatestealing me every turn, I decided I was better off not showing him any more specific cards since I was pretty much locked out of the game.
Sideboarding: -4 Lightning Helix, +4 Negate. I was tempted to exchange Pridemage for Meddling Mage since I saw some powerful cards I wanted to shut down, but I was afraid of something like a Vedalken Shackles closing out the game.
Kevin drew 2 lands in both games 2 and 3, making my swarm of creatures with Negate backup hardly necessary. He was one of the most gracious people I have ever played against, remaining upbeat despite getting completely screwed out of two games and thus the match.
GP Round 5 – Brent Cash (Saito Zoo) – Brent was playing a Zoo build virtually identical to mine save that he had Kird Apes instead of Noble Hierarchs and a few more lands in place of a couple Lightning Helices. Early on I had a Noble Hierarch, a Qasali Pridemage, a Loam Lion, and a Wild Nacatl staring down a lot of 2/3s. I attacked with the Nacatl, which he then Lightning Bolted, and I realized my error. Any creature but the Hierarch would break through on an attack step (or force a dangerous stack block), but only the Nacatl could stop him from swinging back at me. I had given him the opportunity to both take away one of my attack steps as well as my best blocker. I should definitely have swung with my Qasali Pridemage or my Loam Lion, whichever I thought was more expendable. Probably the Pridemage, since another 2/3 could block on defense but a 2/2 wasn’t going to help a lot there. In the end I was drawing a lot of Hierarchs and not much in the way of large creatures to block with. I ended up having to chump a bunch and got attritioned out. This probably would have worked better if I hadn’t misplayed, but also reveals one of the potential pitfalls of the Noble Hierarch plan. Certainly if they had been Kird Apes I would have been able to stay in the game and block without losing guys. However, I think the overall wins gotten from Exalted were greater than the just this one game loss from drawing 3x Hierarch in one game.
Sideboard: -2 Noble Hierarch, +2 Umezawa’s Jitte, -1 Breeding Pool, +1 Bojuka Bog. I reasoned that I didn’t need the mana because I was playing an attrition match, that Loam Lion would block his 8 2/3s early on, and that Jitte was more effective at breaking stalemates than a Hierarch was.
Game 2 I got two Knights of the Reliquary going while Brent didn’t see any or any answers to one. Game 3 was a long attrition-based affair. I drew heavy on land and the Nacatl I couldn’t find an answer for eventually got me. Interestingly, for most of the end of the game my opponent was at 5, and a Lightning Helix used to kill a creature on his side could have closed it out if it were a Tribal Flames.
GP Round 6 – Jeff Huang (Saito Zoo) – Jeff and I split the first two games. Zoo mirrors can take a long time, and though we’d both tried to play at a reasonable pace, we only had about 5 minutes left for game 3. Near the end of time I’d asked of he’d be willing to concede, and he said he’d think about it. When we got to the end of time I asked again, since a draw is about as good as a loss to both of us. Jeff considered for a while, and said he would scoop. I appreciated being paired against someone in the know.
GP Round 7 – Bertil Elfgren (Tezzeret Control) – Bertil is one of the top rated pros in Europe, and currently has the highest Constructed rating in the world. His deck seemed well designed to eat up Zoo decks and mine was little exception. Game 1 I ran into assorted countermagic and I think a Tezzeret that ended up serving a Vedalken Shackles that I had no answer for.
More hateful cards like Engineered Explosives and Firespouts showed up, and I just didn’t have the gas or reach I needed to get there. I think, had I had Tribal Flames, I would have stolen game 2, since he was willing to go down to 5 but not 3.
GP Round 8 & GP Round 9 – My notes from these rounds aren’t clear. I know one round was against Elves. Game 1 I put some pressure on the table the first couple of turns, and then just kept attacking while leaving mana up for my removal spells. My plan was just to kill any Heritage Druid that hit the table and not worry too much about any other spell he played. He ended up resolving a Primal Command to get Regal Force and gain some life, which set me back a couple of turns. Fortunately, he’d had to chump block a lot to live until that point, so he was only going to get four cards off Regal Force. The only vaguely techy thing I did was to Path to Exile his fatty while it was on the stack so he would draw one fewer card. Since that was the only blocker which was going to attrition my guys while I attacked, I was free to beat him to death, albeit slowly.
Sideboard: -4 Noble Hierarch, -2 Lightning Helix, +4 Meddling Mage, +2 Umezawa’s Jitte. Hierarch is pretty bad at the sort of mass swings into the opponent that are good in this match. Meddling Mage naming Glimpse of Nature or Regal Force can turn off their card advantage engine, at which point they are just a bad aggro deck. Pridemages and Bant Charms must stay in to fight their Jittes, as do the Jittes you bring in.
In game 2 I dumped a couple early guys and had mana up for Bant Charm. He went to Glimpse of Nature with a Cloudstone Curio and 5 mana in play, and I figured blowing up the Curio would stop him from drawing too many cards since his hand size was small. True enough, he only got to draw two off it and ended the turn with mana in his pool. The game went long, he got a Regal Force, and just when things were looking uncertain I ripped a Lightning Helix to dome him out. I apologize for not remembering what happened in the other match. It was probably another Zoo mirror that’s blended into the others.
I was pretty glad to make Day 2. The deck felt like it was performing well, and I’d been mostly fortunate in not having to mulligan much, having a hard match get mana screwed, and an opponent who was willing to not force a draw. Playing well and having a good deck helps, but a little luck goes a long way in these things.
Matthias Hunt greeted us in the morning with Valentine’s Day cookies, which were quite welcome. Seeing as the women in our lives were other places and we’d come to Oakland to game together, Brian Kowal and I exchanged cookies and declared ourselves Valentines for the day.
Round 10 – Corbett Gray (Saito Zoo) – Corbett is a pretty well known player up in Seattle. We battled and split games 1 and 2, I’m pretty sure he got flooded on one of them, which ended quickly. In game 3 I got a Jitte going facing off with Corbett’s Ranger of Eos and minions. I had been telling Corbett we needed to play faster most of the round, since I was worried we were going to time out, and he made a miscalculation and attacked his Ranger into my Nacatl equipped with Jitte and 2 counters. I think he was expecting to kill the Nacatl somewhere in combat, but ended up with a dead Ranger of Eos and me with more counters. It went downhill after that. At the end of the match he avowed he would never let anyone speed up his play again (I suppose except for a judge). I could sympathize; I once lost a round to David Irvine when he was hounding me to play faster. I think it’s important to play at one’s own pace, though certainly it would be ideal if that meant you didn’t risk running out of time in a match. I swore after that game with David I would never let anyone speed me up into bad decisions, and I haven’t since.
Round 11 – David Reitbauer (All-In-Red) – I really wasn’t expecting to see this deck in the tournament! It seemed like Dark Depths did a better job of putting a game-ending threat into play, and that Red gets “Splash Hate” in the form of cards that kill any creature for cheap. Path to Exile and Bant Charm just seemed really good here. My main fear was getting closed out by a Blood Moon effect, but I had the basics and Noble Hierarchs to help ensure I could cast my spells, and Qasali Pridemages to get rid of them. I should probably have been concerned about a big Empty the Warrens, since I had zero sweepers anywhere in my deck. Game 1 he could have played a turn 1 Demigod, but was worried I would have a Path for him. Instead he went for the turn 2 Magus of the Moon to try to lock me out of the game. I did have the Lightning Bolt, and was able to develop my board before the Demigod came out. I then played the Path to protect myself, and it wasn’t too close.
Sideboard: -4 Qasali Pridemage, +4 Meddling Mage. Though my calls were going to be blind, at least I could shut off his most damaging options (like Empty the Warrens or a Blood Moon). I left in Lightning Bolt and Helix for reach and to make Magus of the Moon less of a hazard.
Game 2 he mulliganed a couple of times, and didn’t get very far with what he kept.
Round 12 – Sami Tuomi (Domain Zoo) – Sami was the first Zoo player I ran into running Dark Confidant and Tribal Flames. Game 1 my Exalted minions got there; I think I forced him into a stack block with a Lightning Bolt to break it up and get a 2 for 1. I sideboarded as usual. Game 2 he stuck a Dark Confidant and I never found any of my removal spells. He just kept drawing gas in the form of sideboarded Deathmarks, and bashing in with his Confidant and friends. Game 3 he once again stuck a Confidant while I saw little in the way of removal. Fortunately for me I eventually got a Tarmogoyf to stick for a turn, and a Jitte on it. When I attacked, the counters finally relieved me of the Dark Confidant, and the Jitte went the rest of the way to carry the game.
Round 13 – Juan Carlos Adebo Diaz (Hypergenesis) – Juan was visiting from Spain, and one of the friendliest people I’ve met while playing Magic. We shared our feelings about being some of the few people over thirty actively playing the game, and some old back-in-the-day stories. We both got off to very slow starts since I only had a Loam Lion for early pressure with a hand full of removal while he seemed to have countless lands. Eventually I got a Tarmogoyf down to increase the pace, at which point he unleashed a Hypergenesis via Violent Outburst. Bogardan Hellkite and Angel of Despair killed my team and burned me a touch. I sent them off the board with a Bant Charm and a Path to Exile. We played draw-go for a while, and I started to run into a cache of creatures. Just as I was building critical mass, he hardcast a Progenitus. I did the math and realized that if I just kept attacking he would have to keep him back as a blocker, because I was winning the race. I ran with it and hoped he didn’t draw another fat monster to blow me out, and he didn’t. I felt very lucky to take a game 1 here.
Sideboard: -4 Lightning Bolt, -4 Lightning Helix, +4 Negate, +4 Meddling Mage. I think I sideboarded wrong here, reasoning that often Hypergenesis only got him one or two guys, and that being able to kill them was a better set of outs than just stopping Hypergenesis from going off in the first place.
We began deploying lands, and I put down a Nacatl to start. I didn’t have the right mana to cast my Meddling Mage on turn 2, but thankfully he didn’t have the land to go off on turn 3 due to a mulligan to 6. Turn 3 my Noble Hierarch went active, I set down a Meddling Mage on Hypergenesis, and he extended the hand.
Round 14 – Conley Woods (Bant Metagame Deck) – This round Conley and I were playing to see who would get to draw into the Top 8. Game 1 he slowed my early development with Path to Exile, stopped the next wave with countermagic, and then closed out the deal with Jace, the Mindhaper to bounce my last attacker and essentially sew the board up. At one point I could have killed Jace with a Lightning Helix, which ended up getting Mana Leaked while I was at two lands. I had just chump blocked earlier that turn with my Noble Hierarch, and realized rather than waiting for the end step (which is kind of automatic), I would have been better off casting the spell when I had enough mana to pay for the counter.
I started on Loam Lion, and followed up with Hierarch and another Loam Lion. My first Loam Lion went down to a Path to Exile. The next turn Conley put a Hierarch of his own in play, a tapped land into play and left one White up. I decided to play and equip a Jitte to my 2nd Lion, which decided to also follow the Path to Exile rather than earn me some counters. Conley destroyed my Jitte with one of his own, and the game was on. I don’t remember all of the plays, but eventually we got to a board state where I was at 5 with 2 Noble Hierarchs, a Wild Nacatl, a Tarmogoyf, and a Knight of the Reliquary. Conley had been gaining life on the back of some Rhox War Monks, so even though I’d done well over 20 to him, he was still alive with a Warmonk, a Treetop Village, and perhap a Tarmogoyf. At this point I did two things wrong. First, I attacked with my Knight of the Reliquary, thinking it was large enough that he would likely want to chump block it. My plan was to just take 4 damage and go to 1 if he attacked since both the Goyf and the Monk would be 4/5s. Before he drew, he said, “I’m thinking of a card…” and then he drew and played a Noble Hierarch. Now, rather than being able to just take the damage, I chose to chump block with one of my own Hierarchs. This would prove to be quite costly. (In retrospect I should have stack blocked, since I’m making a 0-1 trade anyway, and if he Paths a guy, that guy is getting Pathed anyway.) The other problem is that my Knight of the Reliquary is now no longer big enough with Exalted to get to 7/7, which is what it needs to be to win in combat versus two 3/x guys. I lose an attack step having to pump my Knight, and then he drops another War Monk to complete the board stall. I can’t remember how exactly I lost after that, only that I lost momentum and his more powerful cards ended up taking the game. In this match more than any other I wished the Lightning Helices were Tribal Flames, as being able to kill a War Monk with more cards would have been near-priceless.
One note is that late Sunday night I was playing Dominion (an excellent board game) with Brian Kowal, Gavin Verhey, and Gabe Walls. Gabe thought I was going to win game 2 versus Conley Woods, and pointed out something I hadn’t even considered. I had been using Knight of the Reliquary only when I was able to replace the sacrificed land with another land that produced mana. It was a bit of a mental trap, as really Zoo doesn’t need more than 3-4 mana sources, and I should have been sacrificing more to pump my Knights in stalled boards and to thin out my deck to draw more gas. I really love getting commentary from other players about mistakes I’m making, since sometimes we get so set in our own patterns and ways of thinking that we can’t even see some of our own play errors. It cost me versus Conley, but it probably hurt me in every other match I played in as well.
Round 15 – Ryan Broughan (Zoo with Venser) – I won’t go too much into Ryan’s brew since he wanted to keep it on the quieter side to maintain a PTQ edge later. We were both bummed to have been knocked out of Top 8 contention the previous round, ditto that we couldn’t draw into the Top 16 to both get PT qualifications. I took game 1.
Unfortunately in game 2 I had the perfect scenario to use it, where Ryan had two Knights of the Reliquary that were up to 9/9 or so, while I finally got my own active at around 4/4. One turn during the combat step I was excited about the prospect of blowing him out by fetching the Bog, but it turned out I was just going to chump block with my Loam Lion. Ouch. Once again during the whole match I’d asked Ryan to play faster so that we wouldn’t run out of time. He was doing his best, but it is true that there are many things to consider, especially when playing a trickier version of Zoo than most. Time was called during game 3 while it was unclear who had a better board position. (We talked later and determined it was going to be all topdecks.) While discussing who would scoop to whom and get the Q, Ryan innocently said, “Can’t we just roll for it?” I told him he couldn’t say this, and a nearby judge said, “Yeah, you really shouldn’t say that.” We continued talking for a minute or two, and then the judge, clearly pained, said, “Yeah, you can’t say that. Hold on, I need to go talk to the head judge.” The quick ruling was that Ryan would be disqualified from the tournament without prize. It seemed quite harsh for a comment made out of ignorance (he really didn’t know you weren’t allowed to say that), and it was a lot of money to lose, not to mention the first Pro Point he was going to have to his name.
Brian Kowal had been sitting at the next table over, and also finished at 12-3. “Good work, Valentine.” We exchanged high tens. “Beach house in San Juan?” “Hell yes!” I responded. I hadn’t done a very good job of quitting. Instead, it looks like another season of chasing victory spent in the best of company.
I was very happy with the build of the deck I played. I felt like if I’d had just a slightly better build and playtested with it ahead of time I might have had the extra edge to make the Top 8, but a Top 16 was a grand finish. Qualifying for the Pro Tour makes me very, very happy. If I were to do it again, I would have played this slightly different build:
Good luck in your own Magic adventures!