We begin this step of the adventure in Kuala Lumpur, fresh off not making the second day at the Grand Prix there. Brian Kowal and I were both a bit in the dumps about coming so far only to scrub out. We made this up to ourselves seeing monkeys, eating delicious curries, and receiving massages, but those are all stories for another day (next Wednesday likely being the one). The coffee shop next to the tournament site had attracted every Magic player not yet departed with its promise of free wi-fi and adequately large tables. Kizuya Mitamura (“The Chief”) was grinding out Zoo matches against a faeries player under the watchful eye of fae master Yuuta Takahashi. (The combined Pro Levels in the shop were staggering, with Yuuya Watanabe, Shuhei Nakamura, Sam Black, Brian Kowal, and Mat Marr also sitting around the room.) The Americans began discussing the Japanese metagame with the people who would know it best. Mitamura told us that the field would be a lot of Zoo and Faeries with combination decks of all kinds; there would be some DDT but not as much as in the U.S. We birded his playtest games for a while, deciding we didn’t really like the Stoneforge Mystic for Sword of Light and Shadow package he was running (presumably to edge out the Zoo mirror with protection from the biggest creature and a good source of card advantage). We asked how his testing was going and he told us, “Small Zoo is good against big Zoo, big Zoo is good against other decks because it’s hard to counter.” Not what I was expecting to hear, I filed this information away in the back of my head. Armed with some information about the metagame our test and travel group began grinding out test games with all sorts of Zoo decks to find which one we liked best.
I’ll spare you all the mis-steps, agreements, discussions, and arguments along the way and skip to the deck I ended up running:
4 Kird Ape, 4 Loam Lion, 4 Wild Nacatl: Brian Kibler and I shared a room in Kuala Lumpur and were discussing the merits of an all-out attack in a format with unknown combinations. He thought 12 aggressive animals seemed correct, and I agreed with him. I had enjoyed the speed boost of Noble Hierarchs in powering out three-drops in my previous build and quickly emptying a hand, but had been disappointed at how often they just sat on the table as yet another useless mana source later on against combo and control decks. (I loved Exalted in aggro mirrors, they did a good job there.) I had considered Goblin Guide for some of these slots, or possibly in the sideboard to put even more pressure on control decks. I think this might not be a bad choice considering the only reason I do not really want them is for the Zoo mirror where they are mostly a blank, but that I plan to side out 4 animals in Zoo mirrors anyhow. However, I expected to face a fair amount of Zoo, and did not want to surrender that EV in game 1.
4 Qasali Pridemage: Pridemage can be a difficult card to play. Unless your problem is an artifact, he can never save you while you’re behind. On the other hand, he is a great aggressor, can break up stalemates in your favor, and is the best Disenchant an aggressive deck could ever have. I like playing a card that can save you from a variety of problems, whether it be a Blood Moon, a Chalice blocking your one-drops, or someone who thinks Worship/Troll Ascetic is a good idea. He remains an effective tool against Thopter Foundry and saves you from enemy Umezawa’s Jitte, as well as being quite a clock. Since I expected to be the attacker more often than not, I thought his weakness on defense wouldn’t hurt me, and all his abilities would help keep anti-aggro plans in check while my one-drops did their work.
4 Tarmogoyf: This guy can still be awkward when he is played on turn 2, but his late game power generally makes up for it. If there weren’t Zoo mirrors I would consider going down to 3 copies of him to make room for something more aggressive, but as long as animals keep battling animals I want to have maximum copies of the largest animals available to me.
4 Knight of the Reliquary: This guy is the new best creature in Extended. (Sorry Tarmogoyf, I still love you!) Not only does he get ridiculously large, but he fixes your mana, can accelerate you, and gives you access to a very powerful toolbox. I generally do not want to play 3 mana creatures in a format where combo decks are goldfishing on turns 2-4, but the fact that he can get me a disruption effect if they are going off slowly means that I can even justify him in those matches as the means to get my “silver bullets”. (By contrast, unless I had a very good plan for stopping combo in my deck, or good acceleration, I would never want to play a Woolly Thoctar.) This guy also just dominates Zoo mirrors and can close out a game fast if unanswered, what more could a wizard want?
4 Path to Exile: This card is dead against creatureless opponents, but thankfully the best combo deck and the mirror are both places where Path to Exile can shine. A very efficient answer to Tarmogoyfs, Knights, or even an early Nacatl likely to savage your life total proved itself time and again in testing.
4 Lightning Bolt, 4 Lightning Helix, 4 Tribal Flames: Since our plan is just to put our opponent’s life total to 0 as quickly as possible we’ve gone Back To Basics and put in a full suite of burn spells. In testing it kept seeming like life totals were mattering a lot in Zoo matchups, and that if a player didn’t have an early answer to Wild Nacatl, they were generally chewed up and swallowed by it. Initially I wanted to have some Bant Charms in these slots, but Brian Kowal kept telling me they were bad. I am a bit stubborn and in testing never made a build without them, but eventually (say, during registration before the tournament) I realized he was right. I just had games where I’d have too many 3-drops in my hand, or hands where I was holding Bant Charms and waiting for something to do with them. It’s a good card in the mirror and against Dark Depths, but does very little in most other matches. In the U.S. metagame it could still be right, but in this place where it wasn’t an ace against a combo deck I wasn’t so sure I wanted it anymore. I thought a card that more proactively closed a game would be a better way to go. Tribal Flames covered the ability to take out a Tarmogoyf or an (early) Knight of the Reliquary, while also offering the option of taking a huge gouge out of an opponent’s life total. Having a sorcery in the deck also powers up Tarmogoyf, which is pretty important. (We like a 4/5 a lot more than a 3/4.)
20 Lands: I continue my passion for running low land counts in this deck. At several points in the tournament and in testing people would comment how I kept drawing runners, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that after fetching a few times there’s just nothing left but gas. My biggest quandry was whether I wanted to add a manland since it meant that untapping with Knight of the Reliquary would translate directly to a useful card. Ultimately I decided that this deck was going to be very fast and that I would probably be so busy casting spells that I would rarely have time to activate the manland. I also thought I would have to cut a spell from the deck to make room for the 21st land, and there is no spell I wanted less than a Stirring Wildwood or Treetop Village. (I think I lean toward the dual land since it blanks most creatures in the mirror and can throw itself under Merit Lage to buy you a turn.) Part of my motive in not running Bant Charm was to allow me to keep this low curve (I don’t think you can get away with more than 6 three-drops on a 20 land manabase without the Hierarchs in the deck), and I have no regrets. I think Overgrown Tomb was a bad choice, and probably should have been a Blood Crypt or Godless Shrine making black instead (with the Tomb becoming a Breeding Pool), but I liked the idea of each of my fetches all being able to grab a basic. With no Noble Hierarch in my deck, I knew my vulnerability to Blood Moon had increased and I wanted to counteract it a little.
4 Meddling Mage, 4 Negate: Good against combo and control decks these cards let you turn off whichever cards your opponent leans on to win or protect themselves from you. Whether you’re shutting off Glimpse of Nature, Living End, Hypergenesis, Scapeshift, Thopter Foundry or Gifts Ungiven these cards are always the difference between being a turn too slow and disrupting your opponent just enough to get the last few swings in with your creatures. There are also few feelings as good as Negating an Engineered Explosives or Day of Judgment your opponent was relying on to hold off your swarm of animals from attacking him.
2 Elspeth, Knight-Errant: I was looking for a card to power up the mirror and deliberating between Elspeth, Ranger of Eos, or Baneslayer Angel. Without Noble Hierarchs pushing up my mana count, I thought Baneslayers might be stuck in my hand and not be able to be played until I was behind due to the lack of resources being available to me. Ranger of Eos is not very exciting in this deck since it lacks Noble Hierarchs. Being able to add two hasty damage with a Ranger, and also being a tool that leads to being able to grind your opponent down with big Exalted triggers is great, but more creatures that probably are smaller than a Tarmogoyf or Knight of the Reliquary seems suboptimal. It can be very hard to profitably swarm over your opponent to get in the last damage when he can kill multiple attackers with good blocks. Elspeth lets you just go over all the defenders on the board, almost acting as a burn spell for 3 plus your best creature’s power. With all the pressure on your opponent’s life total from burn spells Elspeth is a strong synergy with the rest of the deck’s plan. Against control decks without a strong proactive plan (like Thopter Foundries), Elspeth can also be a great tool against mass and spot removal plans. I don’t want more than two copies, both because of the legend rule and her relatively high CMC for the deck. I want to see her eventually, but pretty much never in my opening hand.
2 Umezawa’s Jitte: This card still wins creature battles if it is allowed to stay on the table. I figured it would bolster my mirror and burn matches, was a good tool against Elves, and would protect me from a Faerie deck trying to use it against me. I never want more than two copies, as in the early game our opponent is likely to have tricks and removal to make playing and equipping it a bad investment of time and mana. This card also works well with Elspeth, as she can make an infiinite supply of Soldiers to win Jitte counters with.
1 Bojuka Bog, 1 Ghost Quarter: Toolbox cards for Knight of the Reliquary. The more I play Bojuka Bog the more uses I find for it. Many attrition plans involve using the graveyard against you, and being able to clean that zone out is very valuable. Not to mention I thought there might be a surge of dredge as there was absolutely no sideboard hate for it in the wake of success other combination decks have been seeing. Ghost Quarter helps turn our Knight into a foil in the Dark Depths match, and can give us additional outs to plans that hinge on abusing a specific land like Academy Ruins or Emeria, The Sky Ruin.
1 Bant Charm: I wasn’t really sure what to do with this slot. I knew I’d made my Dark Depths match weaker in the main, and wanted something to help there. A Damping Matrix would probably be better in retrospect, but I liked that this instant was very flexible. Bant Charm is like the 5th Pridemage, or the 5th Path, or sometimes even the 5th Negate. These are all effects that I like a lot in some matchups and having access to a little bit more felt good to me.
When I was building this deck I thought of myself as getting back to the fundamentals of Zoo. Every season it evolves to beat specific threats in the format, but it ultimately dilutes the plan of playing the most efficient creaures and the most powerful burn spells to just take an opponent out before they are able to get their game plan going. To follow this philosophy completely would probably mean cutting Path to Exile and Knights and adding something like Goblin Guides and Rift Bolts, but the mirror becomes difficult if you get too small to handle the big threats your opponent can drop. However, this deck does not have a great level of dilution from the main plan, and the cards that violate the aggressiveness at the heart of the deck happen to be good against the metagame as well as the mirror. Such a return to the basic premise of Zoo I thought was the right place to be given a field with more variety of decks since all one wants to do against the unknown is to be fast and consistent.
Round 1-2 (Fish Triangles) – Byes. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to put together 3 byes for myself in the grinders this trip. Fortunately, I still had 2 byes on rating even after going 3-3 in played rounds in Kuala Lumpur. The convenience store built into the convention hall carried a number of triangular packages each with different colored writing on them. Brian Kowal and I each bought a variety of them in different colors and began cracking them open and taking big bites out of them to see what we had won. The best were definitely salmon and tuna, the worst was probably hundreds of small eggs from an unknown sea creature. All-in-all, I was pretty happy to run fish triangles these rounds and kept eating them over the whole tournament.
Round 3 (Junk) – Game 1 I am on the play and lay down a first turn Nacatl, which is probably the strongest play in the format. My opponent plays a tapped pain land. The next turn I bash him to 17, and make a Tarmogoyf (setting up the ideal Hallowed Fountain/Stomping Ground mana) and leave up Lightning Bolt. My opponent plays out a basic land and a Tarmogoyf of his own. I untap, bolt his Lhurgoyf and send my team in to deal him 6 putting him at 11. I leave mana up for Path to Exile and pass the turn back. My opponent misses his land drop and send my Tarmogoyf to exile with a Path of his own. My Wild Nacatl gets in his face again sending him down to 8. He cracks a fetchland, and casts a Kitchen Finks trying to stabilize at 9. I Path them on the end of turn, attack with my Nacatl, and then feed him a Lightning Bolt and a Lightning Helix as I play a fresh Steam Vents. A turn 5 kill through a removal spell and a Kitchen Finks is pretty impressive, and I think showcases the power of the deck. Game 2 my opponent starts on a land into a Hierarch, and something about the way he paused a long time before keeping and played the creature hesitantly made me feel he was land light and needed the creature alive. I started using my Bolts and Helices aggressively against his mana creatures, and he ended up being screwed at 2 lands while my creatures bashed in repeatedly to kill him.
Sideboarding: -4 Kird Ape, -1 Marsh Flats, +2 Umezawa’s Jitte, +2 Elspeth, Knight-Errant, +1 Bojuka Bog.
Round 4 (Zoo) – In Japan there are a number of customs at the beginning of a game that don’t exist elsewhere. Players count out their sideboards to each other to show they don’t have extra cards. When the judge announces the round to the room all the players bow to each other and wish them good luck. This was my first event here, and I was somewhere between charmed, mezmerized, and perplexed by it all. I was trying to be extra polite since I wanted to be a good cultural ambassador, and chatted a little more and was a little more lenient about slower playing from my opponents. This opponent was on large Zoo, playing Wooly Thoctars and Noble Hierarchs instead of Kird Apes and Loam Lions. This plan is pretty strong in the mirror and I couldn’t handle his huge threats game 1. Game 2 I got a better removal mix and was able to keep his large guys off the board while my small ones bashed him down to about 7. It turned out he was playing Temporal Isolation, and I got him by casting a Qasali Pridemage, attacking with a Tarmogoyf with shadow, stacking the exalted trigger, and then after blockers were declared sacrificing the cat wizard to deal damage and pump the goyf a hair more. A Lightning Bolt followed the play to finish my opponent. Game 3 we were predictably short on time and when we hit extra rounds I had a Wild Nacatl with an active Jitte with Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile in hand to my opponent’s empty board and nothing in hand. He was unwilling to concede, so we each picked up a draw. I wasn’t so unhappy about this as I imagined the draw bracket was going to have better matchups for me than the tournament as a whole. It turns out this draw is probably the best thing that happened to me at the tournament.
Sideboarding: -4 Kird Ape, -1 Marsh Flats, +2 Umezawa’s Jitte, +2 Elspeth, Knight-Errant, +1 Bojuka Bog
Round 5 (Azorius Control) – My opponent this round was playing Wraths, Paths, and Explosives with a long game plan of Thopter Foundry. Game 1 I overwhelm him with speed and burn him out despite him starting on the play. The most important thing I did this match was to only make 2 of my 4 one-drops to comprise the first wave since I didn’t want to get blown out by Explosives. It meant I started out a tad slower than usual, but that I had action after he wiped my board out. Game 2 I manage to get him down to 1 life with a draw step to rip burn and finish him, but fail to seal the deal. Game 3 my opponent mulligans twice and has his mass removal spell Negated.
Sideboarding: -4 Path to Exile, +4 Negate.
Round 6 (Zoo) – My opponent appeared to be playing a burn-heavy version of Naya Zoo, featuring Incinerate and Rift Bolt. My Lightning Helixes paid good dividends in game 1, while I also had the advantage in drawing many copies of Wild Nacatl to beat him down with. Game 2 he had to mulligan twice while on the play and I was able to use my extra resources to put him out pretty rapidly.
Sideboarding: -4 Kird Ape, -1 Marsh Flats, +2 Umezawa’s Jitte, +2 Elspeth, Knight-Errant, +1 Bojuka Bog
Round 7 (Zoo) – Game 1 we are playing out a regular Zoo attrition match, and then I Tribal Flames him twice to kill him from 10 life. What a wonderful spell! Game 2 the board stalls out with me at 8 and my opponent at 5. Eventually I draw an Elspeth, give a guy flying, and he makes it across the table to end the game.
Sideboarding: -4 Kird Ape, -1 Marsh Flats, +2 Umezawa’s Jitte, +2 Elspeth, Knight-Errant, +1 Bojuka Bog
At the end of this round I started scouting around to see what other decks were in my bracket. It still looked like mostly Zoo, Faeries, and Dark Depths, which was a metagame I was pretty happy to be in the middle of. I did see one deck which interested me: a Krak Klan Ironworks deck piloted by Yuuya Watanabe which had multiple routes between Myr Incubator and Thopter Foundry of spewing tons of 1/1s on the table. I stopped to discuss the deck with Sam Black and Brian Kowal, as I figured I would play him eventually if I kept winning.
Round 8 (Krak Klan Ironworks Combo) – (Paired down.) Well, it turns out that I had anticipated a potential matchup correctly. We chatted a little about our prior matchup at GP Seattle where I had beaten him with Jund and then proceeded to the dice rolling. Game 1 I mulliganed a hand with Path to Exile and no one drops, since I was sure it was going to be too slow against Yuuya. The next one has 2 one drops, lands, and burn, so I decided to give it a go. I developed creatures while he played artifact lands, dropped a Sword of the Meek, and played card drawing spells like Ponder, Thirst for Knowledge, Thoughtcast, and Chromatic Star. My first Qasali Pridemage traded with a Thopter Foundry, though he did get a few Thopters into play. I was hoping I’d managed to avoid serious trouble, but he just followed up the next turn with Krak Clan Ironworks into Myr Incubator. On the end of my turn he removed 25 cards and bashed me to death on the next turn with a legion of Myrs. The next hand I mulliganed and decided to try to make the best of 2 lands, Negate, and 3 Tribal Flames. I figured him starting at 5 while I had disruption for his combination would be good enough if I drew a creature in the first couple draw steps. I did get a Loam Lion to start attacking with, and thought things were looking good when he Spell Snared a lethal Tribal Flames. Unfortunately, the next turn when he went to go off he had a second Spell Snare for my Negate, and the life gained off Thopter Foundry put him far out of burn range. In retrospect, perhaps attacking his draw spells would have worked better, seeing as he obviously had tested the match quite a bit and prepared a countermeasure for what I would be boarding in. That was an advantage he had earned by playing a rogue deck I had never seen or played against before.
Sideboarding: -4 Knight of the Reliquary, -4 Path to Exile, -1 Lightning Helix, +4 Meddling Mage, +4 Negate, +1 Bant Charm. (Knight is a little slow in this match, and I want to maximize my chances of disrupting his early sources of blue mana or shutting out his combo pieces.)
Round 9 (Dark Depths Thopter) – My opponent and I are both pleased to be playing for the second day with good records. I win the dice roll and I open on a Kird Ape while he develops into a land, a Chrome Mox, and a Dark Confidant. I’m torn as to whether to kill bob immediately with a Lightning Bolt or to let him rip down my opponent’s life total. However, I’ve seen the curves of the DDT decks coming down lately, so I think its even more right to kill the card drawing wizard even at the cost of development on my side of the table. I end up getting my opponent down to 4 before he stabilizes with a Thopter Foundry that I just don’t have an answer to. I had had a Lightning Bolt in hand, so maybe if I’d developed more at the beginning of the game or let Bob run a turn I might have gotten there. Or perhaps he would have comboed off a turn earlier… it’s always hard to say. Game 2 I kept a one land hand with 3 Wild Nacatls, 1 Kird Ape, 2 Lightning Bolts and a fetch. I figure if I draw any other land it’s probably the nuts in terms of speed and I should win. Well, it takes several turns before I draw a land, and he ends up Damnationing my first pair of Nacatls, but I have drawn the 4th and just keep making wave after wave of creatures. When I draw the 2nd land and power everyone up it’s too much for him, and I burn him out pretty quickly. Game 3 my opponent starts on Thoughtseize seeing a hand of Wild Nacatl, Quasli Pridemage, Meddling Mage, Knight of the Reliquary, Tarmogoyf and two lands. He takes the Meddling Mage, which I think is a mistake, and I suppose that he is probably on a Merit Lage based plan since otherwise Qasali Pridemage seems the better choice. I make my Nacatl while drawing a Kird Ape. The next turn he casts a Thopter Foundry which I decide isn’t very important, and cast my Qasali Pridemage to boost the damage on my 1-drop. On his turn he plays Deathmark, and I want to kick myself. I think I had told people to use Pridemage as a Vindicate, and here I was losing an important tool without getting to two-for-one my opponent. Moreover, we’d also determined in testing that Kird Ape is better than Loam Lion because it has the special ability of “Immune to Deathmark.” We play a while longer, me trying not to overextend into Damnation but to keep enough pressure on the board. Eventually I draw a Meddling Mage and name the mass removal spell. Unfortunately, my opponent rips a Sword of the Meek off the top, plays it, and begins to make thopters.
When I first started to play Magic I read a lot of coverage of various Legacy Championships at GenCon. Toward the end of the day people made some pretty disastrous plays, and there was a little voice inside me that said that I would never make misteakes like that. Well, that’s just arrogance, we all get tired or in bad mindsets to play from time to time. I had boarded in a Bojuka Bog for this round after watching a Bant player destroy Martin Juza’s Sword of the Meek when he tapped out, fetching it up with a Knight of the Reliquary. I figured I could use this tech and maybe improve my EV a little bit. Unfortunately, I had this tunnel vision that it would only work when my opponent had tapped all his mana. Thus, in game 3 when my opponent goes “Make a thopter” and I have an untapped active Knight, I didn’t just respond immediately with fetching the Bog up to force him to either let his sword get lost in exile or to sacrifice his Thopter Foundry to save his sword. I got stuck in the mindset of playing against someone who has an extra artifact to lose, where one actually must wait for them to tap out, rather than the actual situation on the battlefield. So, even though my opponent topdecked to get out from lethal, I still let him get there by playing my Pridemage at the wrong time, and then overlooking a sequence of plays that would have gotten me much further into the game.
Sideboarding: -4 Path to Exile, -4 Lightning Helix, -1 Forest, -1 Plains, +4 Meddling Mage, +3 Negate, +1 Bant Charm, +1 Ghost Quarter, +1 Bojuka Bog. (I had decided to gamble that my opponent would focus more on a Thopter plan than a Marit Lage plan since that seems to happen far more often in games. It ended up being a good bet, but may have been somewhat reckless.)
Having what I was sure was a losing record, I slumped into my chair and wished I had just stayed home. Kuala Lumpur had been a good time, but I just felt terrible for spending two weeks and a couple thousand dollars to fly to Asian GPs and scrub out twice in a row. I started feeling like any past successes were probably just flukes, and that my time spent playing Magic was just time that I was wasting. I expressed my feelings to Sam Black and Brian Kowal, and they both urged me not to quit. Sam in particular was adament that when you lose because you punt it is better than losing when the game is out of your control because it meant that you could get better, that your destiny was in your own hands and you could improve it. He had a point, but I just didn’t enjoy the anguish of being so close to a goal and then having it ripped away just because of one poor choice. (Even after making dozens or hundreds of good ones, one bad choice is all it takes to blank them at a tournament.)
Then the pairings went up. It turns out a number of people with 19 points would be making Day 2 after all, and I was going to be one of them. My spirits lifted. I jumped up and down a lot, shared high-fives with everyone I knew who was there, and may have done a victory lap around the tournament hall. (I mean, I claimed to be looking for LSV to go get sushi with us, but really it was just working off the elated energy that came with the relief of getting to play the 2nd day.) I wish Magic performances didn’t effect my emotions so much, but it’s good that at least the lows of losing are matched by the extreme highs of winning.
Dinner was had at this little place by a train station that compared to the United States was paying us to eat some really high quality fish. Paying only a couple dollars for some nice cuts of fatty tuna is hard to beat.
Round 10 (Faeries) – The draw bracket was continuing to deliver good matchups for me. Game 1 I had to mulligan since a hand of Qasali Pridemage, Lightning Helix and 5 land is essentially as good as a 4 card hand to me. My six only had one land, so I shipped back for another Qasali Pridemage, Lightning Helix and 3 lands. I didn’t feel too bad since I’d looked for something better, and still wound up with essentially the same hand. Even starting with nothing I was able to pressure my opponent down to 2 life before he stabilized with a Mistbind Clique and Umezawa’s Jitte after the pridemage had been ambushed and killed in the combat step. Game 2 I came out of the gates quickly with a pair of Kird Apes and burn spells for the fae he tried to block or counter with. With my opponent at 7 and two apes on the board he Vendillion Cliqued my hand to see two Tribal Flames and a land, realizing that no matter what he took he was going to take 2 from an ape and 5 from a sorcery and scooped up his side. Game 3 revealed his sideboard plan which appeared to be Basilisk Collar and Sun Droplet. I made 3 1-drops and began to apply pressure, while holding my burn spells since if the game dragged out the Sundroplet would regain all the life they took. I also wanted to be able to kill creatures he equipped the Collar to since I didn’t fancy his Bitterblossom tokens trading with my Wild Nacatls or Kird Apes. Fortunately I drew a Qasali Pridemage to blow up the Sundroplet around turn 4 when it has 6 counters on it, and the plan of burning each fae he equipped the collar to went well.
Sideboarding: -4 Path to Exile, -2 Tribal Flames, +3 Negate, +1 Bant Charm, +2 Umezawa’s Jitte
Round 11 (Azorius Control) – Game 1 my opponent wins the die roll but has to mulligan to six cards. They aren’t enough to contain my action and I essentially get to goldfish him, losing only one creature to a Path to Exile. Game 2 my opponent has awkward mana development in the form of a filter land followed by a Ghost Quarter. He plays another non-basic, floats mana from it, Ghost Quarters it to get a Plains to make White, and then tries to cast Explosives for 1 to deal with my 3 one-drops. Unfortunately for him I was sitting on a Negate and extinguished his hopes to get out from behind.
Sideboarding: -4 Path to Exile, +4 Negate.
Round 12 (Faeries) – In the first game my opponent wins the die roll but I start off on two Kird Apes. We get into a board position where he has a Bitterblossom, an Umezawa’s Jitte, and a Spellstutter Sprite to my Kird Apes and a Tarmogoyf. He is hitting me for 1 a turn with his Jitted Sprite, but has to keep using the counters for life since my Kird Apes will hit him and he wants to stay out of range of being burnt out at instant speed. I assemble enough extra action in my hand that I can play it all at once and overwhelm his ability to counter enough of it. The following turn I bash with extra guys and unleash some burn to close the deal. Who says you can’t beat a Jitte? Game 2 is less close since I have so many answers for his Jitte, and he doesn’t seem to have a sound plan against me.
Sideboarding: -4 Path to Exile, -2 Tribal Flames, +3 Negate, +1 Bant Charm, +2 Umezawa’s Jitte.
Round 13 (Blood Zoo) – I knew Boggemes Zoo deck could be real trouble for me. Blood Moon could shut me down if I had the wrong sequence of plays, and Boom//Bust could also put big holes in my manabase. Game 1 I started with an ideal hand: 1 Fetchland, Plains, 2 Wild Nacatls, 1 Loam Lion, 1 Lightning Bolt, 1 Ligtning Helix. I was prepared to go one-drop into 2 one-drops into Helix with Bolt for later. Unfortunately my opponent opened on a Hierarch. I was tempted to Bolt it to set him back a turn, but I thought maybe I could get very far ahead if I played my 2nd Nacatl instead. He proceeded to punish me immediately by playing a fetch and Booming my only source of red or green mana, and I never was able to get back into the game. Game 2 we got into a standoff where he had several Exalted creatures while I had a large Tarmgoyf, and both of us could attack and the other only had chump blocks to make. I came out ahead since I drew more creatures and burn spells to take care of his attacker than he did. I attribute this to having fewer lands in my deck, but it was still a very fortunate series of rips. Game 3 we stalemate out again, trading Jittes which we had apparentl each planned to use as trumps. My other trump, Elspeth, showed up and I started making soldiers since I thought he still had Bolts and Helixes to kill my Loam Lions and Wild Nacatls. I was right, and ended up maximizing my Planeswalkers usefullness by not +3/+3ing anyone until two 3 damage spells took out two of my men. He couldn’t find an answer for her, and she led my team to victory.
Sideboarding: -4 Loam Lion (Kird Ape is best here since he can be cast under Blood Moon), -1 Marsh Flats, +1 Bojuka Bog, +2 Umezawa’s Jitte, +2 Elspeth, Knight-Errant.
Round 14 (Dredge) – I asked Brian Kowal what my plan here was and he responded, “Pray.” Meddling Mage on Hedron Crab or Glimpse The Unthinkable is good if they haven’t started going off yet, and if they have you just want to name Dread Return. Game 1 I pathed my opponent’s opening Drowned Rusalka, and then my opponent hit 0 dredge outlets off his Glimpse the Unthinkable, which meant that he was just too slow to race my team of attackers. Game 2 he started off with a Hedron Crab and was able to dredge into 2 Putrid Imps, 1 Bloodghast, 1 Bridge from Below, and a Dread Return while I developed a Kird Ape, a Meddling Mage chanting Dread Return, and a Knight of the Reliquary. With a Lightning Bolt and a Path to Exile in hand I decided the best route was to get his Stinkweed Imps off the board so I could start attacking, and to empty his yard so that he wouldn’t get Bridge tokens off of them. I Pathed the first one, Bolted the second one, and then used my Knight of the Reliquary to remove his graveyard while the Bridge from Below had its triggers on the stack. Essentially starting over and having used most of the gas in his hand my opponent was unable to catch up before my animals swarmed him over.
Sideboarding: -4 Qasali Pridemage, -1 Forest, +4 Meddling Mage, +1 Bojuka Bog.
Round 15 (Dark North) – I was a little concerned since I’ve never won a feature match, and my understanding was that this was a rough matchup for my deck, but I was feeling pretty good. In particular, I was appreciating that I had a proactive card like Tribal Flames, since my opponent was likely to use a Duress or Thoughtseize to discard an answer to Marit Lage, or just Rite of Consumption him to ignore all my removal effects.
The match is recorded completely here.
Sideboarding: -4 Qasali Pridemage, -1 Forest, +1 Ghost Quarter, +2 Umezawa’s Jitte, +1 Bant Charm, +1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant. (I’m not sure about this sideboard, I think Pridemage is a good card here. Probably better than the single Elspeth?)
Having managed to 6-0 Day 2, I thought I was going to make it to the first Grand Prix Top 8 of my Magic Career! I was pretty excited to have gone from thinking I was eliminated to my best finish ever. Once again the reading of the standings would reverse my feelings, and I was disappointed to find that I wasn’t going to get to play in the elimination rounds after all. Lots of people congratulated me, and it was hard to be unhappy in the face of 4 Pro Points and at least enough money to pay for all the fish I’d eaten that weekend. After all, I’d finished 2 slots worse in Oakland, and it was the highlight of the month!
I’m not sure that this build will be right the the U.S. metagame, where having more cards against Dark Depths feels important. I want to test a lot to see just what is needed that to make the match positive, but it’s hard because there are so many different sideboarding plans each player has for that match. In any case, I loved my Zoo deck and think it was just right for the tournament I played. If you want to try it yourself, I would recommend the following small tweaks:
Best of luck to you all in your own endeavors. I’ll be writing next week about the non-Magical portion of my trip, and will be battling in Houston the week after!