Black Magic – Junktrolling at Worlds

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Tuesday, November 24th – Sam Black went to Worlds with high hopes of a fantastic finish. Unfortunately for Sam, the wheels fell off his wagon early on in the Standard rounds. Today, he tells the tale of his tournament failings, focusing on one thing over which he had a modicum of control: his preparation.

“Junk… junk? Anyone have any junk?”

That’s right, I’m a Junktroller. I managed to pull the legendary 0-6 in Standard at Worlds. In fairness, I beat my opponent in the last round before I conceded to help his chances of hitting 15 pro points for the year, as I wasn’t going to be able to do anything for myself with a 0-5 start, but 1-5 is pretty bad anyway.

I guess it’s time to talk about dealing with such a terrible result at the biggest tournament of the year.

At first, it felt like I just couldn’t catch a break. I’d almost win, but not quite, and it just kept happening. I’m not one to accept that I just got a little unlucky, and that’s all there is too it. It can feel like that in the moment, but that’s not what this tournament was about.

From the beginning…

I actually managed to test a reasonable amount for this tournament. I’ve played with most of the major decks, and against almost everything. I had a pretty good idea of what I liked and didn’t like about each of the decks, and generally how a lot of matches played out… almost. In all that testing, I barely got around to using sideboards, so I really knew very little about matches. I’ve frequently said that testing sideboards is extremely important, and that it’s not really worth testing at all if you’re just going to play game 1s, and that you’d be better off only playing post sideboard… but then I put physical decks together, and just never got around to making sideboards for them. I’m not doing that again. Really. I mean it. I hope.

Anyway, I spent Sunday at Grand Prix: Minneapolis playing Standard against Kazuya Mitamura, and his Jund deck was beating everything I played against it. Eventually, I decided I had to just play that. It was playing so well.

So I played:

I think Gaudenis and Raphael Levy played the same 75, but they might have been off by a card in the sideboard – the Terminate/Burst Lightning split was a last-minute decision. I told both of them about it while we were seated for the player meeting, but I think they went with it.

The sideboard is different than Mitamura’s because we didn’t really like the sideboard he suggested, particularly Thought Hemorrhage. Gau and I built that sideboard the night before the event, and hadn’t played it. I like the sideboard and the maindeck… I blame my losses primarily on not knowing what to take out in each matchup.

The deck is a very top-heavy Jund build, clearly. The idea is that, by having more powerful spells, you’re favored in the mirror, and that Siege-Gang Commander is good enough against aggro decks to make up for what you’re giving up in speed there. Really, the changes seem to be based on the idea that Siege-Gang Commander is insane in the format right now. He’s pretty reliable card advantage, and he makes pro-Black creatures much less of a problem.

After the tournament, Gau and I both felt like the deck needed one more land. Rampant Growth really is as awkward to cascade into as it looks, but I’m not really sure what can be done about that, because it really is what the deck would most like to be doing on turn 2. Maybe it should just be 2-3 more land instead. But 28 is a lot, though…

The Vampires in the sideboard were my addition, mostly because I just love Vampire Nighthawk. I mean, he’s an actual superhero, so what’s not to like?

The idea was that if Boros is siding out their Lightning Bolts against you, which I was told they do, then they might not be able to kill a Nighthawk, particularly if they’re on the White Knight rather than Celestial Purge plan. If they can’t kill a Nighthawk, he’s probably awesome. The same applies to basically anyone that tries to skimp on removal against you. His best matchup, however, is against Mono Green, where he deals with all their planeswalkers without you needing to use different removal spells on each of them, and he helps keep you out of range of a single lethal attack from Eldrazi Monument.

Malakir Bloodwitch is there because it stacks up so well against Baneslayer Angel, and many decks just don’t have any real way to deal with it.

Necrogenesis is there for attrition matches where you want to go heavy on removal and make the game go long, as it can easily win many late games. It doubles as dedicated graveyard hate against “The Crab Deck.”

So, how can I really expect you to take me seriously when I say the deck I 0-6’d with is actually pretty good? Well, while I was playing it, I felt very much the way I did in Honolulu – like my deck was competitive, but nothing special, and it didn’t give me the edge I’d like. I was just playing a reasonable 75, nothing broken. I could still lose. And that’s fair, but I think that’s where decks are in this format, and I think a lot of value can be extracted from that list.

When I got to Rome, I ran into Ben Stark (among many others), and he was talking about Jund versus Mono Green, explaining why he felt like Mono Green was a reasonable choice for the tournament. He said it loses to Jund if they use all of their removal spells on exactly the right targets, but if they ever Bolt an Elvish Archdruid or something, then they just die. This idea was interesting to me, so I talked to him about how he thought the matchup should be played.

Only the Planeswalkers, Monument, Ant Queen, and Master of the Wild Hunt really matter. The rest are just filler dudes that don’t really do anything. The Green deck doesn’t care about attacking in most matchups—they’ll do it, but it’s never Plan A. Plan A is to make a bunch of guys and win in a single huge attack. Whatever random creatures Jund plays will eventually stop Green’s creatures from attacking until something real happens. Even Great Sable Stag doesn’t matter much if it doesn’t have a +1/+1 counter, because it can’t get through a Bloodbraid Elf.

You need to save Blightnings for Planeswalkers, Bolts for Planeswalkers and Masters, Terminates for Masters and Ant Queens, and Pulses for Monuments. You have to ignore the rest.

I thought about this, and considered its applications to the deck and the format as a whole. I went into the tournament telling myself that, in playing the most top-heavy Jund deck, I was playing the control deck, and this was a situation in which I had to follow the “play around everything” rule. I was going to focus on being careful with my removal spells.

(An aside: At Nationals in 2008, I told myself that I was going to focus on making a plan to win the game, specifically, figuring out exactly what had to happen to set up a lethal Profane Command with my elf deck whenever possible. I did well at that event, and since then, I’ve felt like having a mental exercise to focus on while I play helps me stay focused… so this time it was “use removal spells conservatively,” more or less)

So, round 1, game 1. I’m on the play, and I play a Sprouting Thrinax. My opponent, who played Rupture Spire on turn 2, also plays a Sprouting Thrinax. I correctly put him on playing the big cascade deck, and decide that his deck is probably better late than mine is, so I decide I need to be aggressive. I have a Terminate. If I kill his Thrinax, I can attack with mine, and the best he can do is block with all his tokens, and then I’ll have 3 tokens and he’ll have nothing. If I attack first, we’ll both have 3 tokens, and terminating a token certainly won’t be any good… So I Terminate his Sprouting Thrinax.

When people asked me what happened throughout the day, as they would after asking my record and hearing I was 0-x, I told them the string of stories through each round. My entire story for round 1 was, “Round 1 I Terminated a Sprouting Thrinax. Round 2…”

I went into the tournament telling myself I was going to be careful with my removal spells, and the first thing I do is throw one away. What about all that talk of being aggressive? Didn’t that work?

Well, no, of course not. I mean, he could have just played a Bloodbraid Elf the next turn and my play would have looked terrible, but he did nothing and I got in for 3 damage. Then I played a Siege-Gang Commander, and he played Day of Judgment. A little later Baneslayer Angel showed up, and I didn’t have an answer.

Am I sure I would have won that game? No, I’m not, but I had some dragons, and things would have looked pretty reasonable.

So how did I make such a terrible play immediately after specifically telling myself not to do that? I believe I just hadn’t started thinking yet. It was the first real decision of the tournament, and for some reason, I was not yet at the point where I was making decisions. My first real decision would come sometime later. I was on autopilot. The Terminate was getting played, I just had to decide the target, and the Thrinax was better than a token.

I suck.

The rest of my rounds were less about play mistakes, and the stories can sound a lot more like bad beats. I cascaded into Vampire Nighthawk when my opponent was at 6 and I was getting through with a dragon that turn, so Lightning Bolt, Burst Lightning, Jund Charm, and Blightning were all good for the win. The next turn he played Brave the Elements and exactly killed me with a million tokens, so Maelstrom Pulse also would have been good for this win. Sprouting Thrinax wasn’t in my deck at this point, because his deck had a ton of 2/2s with protection, so I needed anything other than 3 Nighthawk, 2 Terminate, 2 Rampant Growth. That’s not why I really lost that game, though. I really lost that game because I left Blightning in my deck in a matchup where I probably needed a more proactive card against a deck that needs a small specific combo to win and can safely discard excess resources. If I had had a more relevant spell in my deck instead, it’s likely that I wouldn’t have been low enough for him to kill me there.

There was another round where I emptied my opponent’s hand and killed all his creatures while I still had four five-drops in my hand and four lands in play. That one was looking pretty good, but he kept drawing spells and I couldn’t find the land to play anything in time. When I finally did, I made a slightly risky play of leading with a Bituminous Blast, which hit Rampant Growth, and then I was basically dead. If I’d lead with Terminate or Siege-Gang Commander I probably would have been able to stabilize and win, but that decision wasn’t definitely wrong. The decision that was wrong was whatever lead to having Siege-Gang Commander, Malakir Bloodwitch, and Bituminous Blast all in my deck at the same time. Those cards might have all been pretty good against him, but my sideboard plan probably needed to be a little bit more aware of my curve, so that I’d be less likely to lose by sticking on four lands.

I’m not really trying to write a tournament report, and I didn’t really want this to be a story of all my close losses, so I’ll spare the other details. I was hoping to focus more on coping with the feeling of getting so thoroughly crushed and how one can go about processing and dealing with that, but I think that’s a much harder story to tell.

I stayed in to draft, more or less just for fun. I wasn’t really trying to win at that point; I didn’t want to have to play Extended. That’s the last mood one would ever want to be in to try to compete in a tournament, but I was no longer really a competitor.

I was playing in Worlds, and I really do just love Magic. I drafted decks I’d have fun playing, and was in a jovial mood all through Friday, even while not doing especially well in the draft. At a certain point, everything has gone far enough astray that you can’t let it get you down, you just have to laugh and get past it… after learning what you can from it, of course. I won’t play another deck that I don’t know how to sideboard. I will continue to try to build physical decks before tournaments, but I will always build sideboards when I build the decks.

This trip has gone totally awry. I’m currently sitting in the common room in a hostel in Rome. I won’t be flying home until next Monday, and I’m not with anyone here and I have no idea what I’m doing until then. Some plans fell apart, and things weren’t able to be rearranged as I would have liked. This was happening in the days leading up to Worlds, so perhaps I was already too much in the mood to just roll with the beats rather than trying to fight it, but I don’t really blame that – I blame my preparation.

Anyway, I’m hoping to make the most of the next few days, and enjoy whatever adventures a life of travel can lead to, even when things go wrong. Just today I almost had my suitcase with all of my clothes, cards, and Gau’s cards stolen, but I managed to chase down the thief just in time.

Wish me luck, and thanks for reading.

Sam Black