About two weeks ago, I knew two things about the StarCityGames.com Open Weekend in Indianapolis: I was excited to play in the Invitational, and I had
absolutely no time to prepare, with my attention appropriately focused on work and related responsibilities. With even my pervasive Magic Online (MODO)
drafting curtailed for a few weeks, I knew that my preparation for the event would rest entirely on reading articles (thank you StarCityGames.com!) and
embarking on a virtual tour of sites that I don’t often frequent (i.e. Twitter). This approach was especially risky because my total Legacy
experience prior to the Invitational consisted of two GPTs nearly five years apart, totaling eight rounds of fairly casual play—fairly irrelevant
to the current, highly diverse format.
What follows are “discussions in brief” of Standard, Legacy, and the Invitational format in general—specifically, a fourteen-round
tournament for 140 players.
After playing Grixis Twin in Louisville and finding it not
quite to my liking, I intended to play a Caw-Blade variant for the Standard portion of the Invitational. My favorite list was one that used Phyrexian
Metamorph as a catchall to copy whatever Equipment my opponent wanted to fetch with Stoneforge Mystic, though I hadn’t yet read about the
(apparently) excellent Gitaxian Probe tech.
On May 26, though, I saw a tweet from Zvi Mowshowitz to Mike Flores regarding the U/R Exarch Twin deck: “People have learned helplessness. They
won’t believe the Caw-Blade era is over until it’s battered into their skulls.” While we might read the statement as being 40% hyperbole in
reaction to Flores’s tournament success with the deck and 60% analysis (percentages that are completely arbitrary), its content should strike a
chord with us. It may be the case that Caw-Blade is the best strategy in the format, but it also seemed to be the case that U/R Twin is slightly
favored against Caw-Blade. Since I assumed that most skilled players in the tournament would choose to play Caw-Blade, U/R Twin seemed like a good
choice for an unprepared player.
I picked up Flores’s list featured in his article several weeks ago, changing only one sideboard card at the tournament site:
My first game with the deck was the first game of the tournament, though the deck has much more obvious lines of play than Caw-Blade and far fewer
choices, so I don’t think that the disadvantage was substantial. I played against a fairly diverse field of decks (summarized here prior to
Round 1: B/r Vampires WIN (2-1)
Round 2: U/W Caw-Blade WIN (2-1)
Round 3: U/W Caw-Blade WIN (2-0)
Round 4: B/r Vampires LOSS (0-2)
Round 12: Twinblade LOSS (0-2)
Round 13: RUG Twin WIN (2-1)
Round 14: BUG Birthing Pod ID (we played it out for fun, and I won 2-1)
The Vampires decks felt somewhat difficult to beat, but that may have been because I didn’t have a quick combo in either match (keeping a single
combo piece with control elements each game). While my theoretical clock is faster than theirs, they have a reasonable clock themselves (especially
when they begin with Vampire Lacerator), and they often maindeck disruption including Go for the Throat and Duress. It’s also dangerous to flash out a
Deceiver Exarch to block against Vampires because we run the risk of being surprised by Gatekeeper of Malakir in the second main phase. Hitting an
early Pyroclasm seems very important in the sideboarded games, and we might consider adding a fourth Pyroclasm or a similar card (like Ratchet Bomb,
which also deals with cards like Spellskite) to the board.
On the other hand, the standard U/W Caw-Blade decks felt fairly favorable. While I lost the game where I was on the draw and my opponent hit a turn 2
Stoneforge Mystic, I won every game where I was on the play (fortunately, three of the five) and a single game where I was on the draw when my opponent
had Squadron Hawk instead of Stoneforge Mystic. Caw-Blade decks, depending on how they are built, have a lot of elements that don’t interact
meaningfully with U/R Twin, and they can’t risk tapping out for early pressure using an Emeria Angel or Jace, the Mind Sculptor. This means that
they often run a long, conservative game in which the U/R deck often is favored because of the extent to which it punishes misuse of mana.
It may be the case that a fourth Mana Leak is more important to this deck than the single Pilgrim’s Eye. While the Pilgrim’s Eye
occasionally is an important role-player, the need to counter a Stoneforge Mystic on the play (or to deal with an early Titan from other decks) is
often more relevant than the ability to clog the air against Squadron Hawks while fetching lands via Splinter Twin.
The Twinblade deck seemed like the most powerful strategy against which I played during the tournament, and it was incredibly difficult to fight. In
the first game, I kept a shaky hand with Deceiver Exarch, Splinter Twin, two Islands, and two Mountains on the play. I didn’t see action at
first, so with my opponent at four (or possibly five) cards and Stoneforge Mystic/Batterskull in play but having played no Preordains, I felt that I
had to cast Splinter Twin into three open lands and ended up eating a Spell Pierce. I honestly have no idea if I should have tried to buy extra turns
in order to play around countermagic or removal like Dismember, but I knew that he was a good player, and every turn that I waited would have increased
the probability that he had more countermagic, while I was on a quick clock with no answer in sight.
In the second game, he began with double Stoneforge Mystic into double Batterskull, with Spellskite backup, but I was able to stabilize the board,
making use of his mana-light hand to resolve a defensive Inferno Titan while he had two cards in hand. He used fetchlands to get some Mountains, played
Deceiver Exarch, tapping my untapped Island, and resolved a Splinter Twin with his last card, leaving my jaw on the floor, as I hadn’t seen any
indication in the first game that he was playing red.
While I haven’t fully explored his archetype yet, it seemed incredibly powerful, and several highly skilled players spoke very well of the deck,
putting it at an amazingly high win ratio across the Invitational (something like 75%+). Since it didn’t go undefeated on the first day, the
lists haven’t been posted yet on StarCityGames.com, but they should show up at some point, given their success.
If I were to play U/R Twin in another tournament, I would make a few small changes to the list based on my experiences, but the core seemed solid:
Overall, I played Standard to a 4-2-1 (recorded) and 5-2 (functional) record, which, given my lack of facility with Legacy, wasn’t quite as good
as I had hoped.
My criteria for selecting a Legacy deck were two: it had to have a reasonable game against Force of Will and Mental Misstep (this being the
Invitational, I reasonably and correctly expected a lot of blue decks), and it had to be fairly intuitive to pilot. My eyes immediately were drawn to
Reid Duke’s Natural Order RUG (NO RUG) list from Grand Prix Providence, and my decision was cemented by an article by Todd Anderson published on June 2.
I took Reid’s list and gave it to a few local players to adjust for the metagame that they anticipated for the Invitational (neither was
qualified, but they intended to play in the Legacy Open on Sunday). This is what they came up with:
As was the case with my Standard deck, I didn’t have any working knowledge of the deck until the rounds started, and I played the deck
inefficiently, primarily because of my total lack of knowledge regarding the format (e.g., forgetting that Submerge was played). It is a testament to
the deck’s strength, then, that I was able to win the matches that I did.
Round 5: Versus U/W/r Stoneblade WIN (2-1)
Round 6: Versus Merfolk LOSS (0-2)
Round 7: Versus U/w/r Counterbalance LOSS (1-2)
Round 8: Versus Merfolk WIN (2-1)
Round 9: Versus NO RUG LOSS (1-2)
Round 10: Versus U/W Control (no Stoneforge Mystic) WIN (2-0)
Round 11: Versus U/W Stoneblade WIN (2-1)
Much of what I could say about these matchups has been said more elegantly elsewhere by other StarCityGames.com authors (notably Reid Duke and Todd
Anderson, among others), but we might benefit from examining the changes that my Legacy ‘advisors’ made to the deck.
First, the addition of a second Dryad Arbor (and consequently, a twentieth land) was very helpful because of my lack of facility with the format. A
skilled NO RUG player probably can pilot the deck very effectively with a single Dryad Arbor as fuel for Natural Order, but having a second copy both
covered for my tactical mistakes and allowed me to simulate a battle over the first copy with my opponent, divesting him of resources, while planning
to use the second copy to resolve Natural Order.
Second, despite the proliferation of Batterskull in the format, the Trygon Predator was unspectacular. It only enters the battlefield at sorcery speed,
meaning that the most significant effect that it will have on the game is forcing an opponent to return a Batterskull for three mana (assuming it
doesn’t get countered, hit by a Swords to Plowshares or Path to Exile, or otherwise answered). It felt like Vendilion Clique was a much more
elegant answer to the Stoneforge Mystic decks, and I consistently found myself wishing that the Trygon Predator were a fourth copy.
Several of the more prepared players in the tournament also had notable “tech” against the deck for which NO RUG may need to prepare. My
opponent in the mirror match substituted some of his less powerful cards for copies of Fire / Ice, which was spectacular against me. He indicated that
it was one of the better-performing cards in his deck, removing Noble Hierarch, Vendilion Clique, and other utility creatures throughout the
tournament. At least one of my U/W opponents also played Phyrexian Metamorph in his sideboard as an answer to Progenitus. While I was able to win both
games through careful use of Vendilion Clique, the ability to function as an additional Batterskull while also trumping Progenitus is utility-laden,
and I would be surprised if that particular tactic didn’t catch on.
Overall, despite clearly suboptimal play in a number of matches, I survived Legacy with a 4-3 record, putting my overall recorded tournament record at
8-5-1, good enough to finish in the money (I calculated that if I hadn’t offered an ID in the last round, my 9-5 record still would only have put
me in 17th-18th place, as the two individuals with 27 points who made the Top 16 had very good tiebreakers). This brings me to my third point.
The Invitational Format
While I heard some players voicing concerns that the Invitational was fourteen rounds in length with only 140 players, I think that it was one of the
better-structured formats in which I have played. In a typical tournament, there is room for players to succeed and/or fail over time due to variance
at the tournament level.
For contrast, let’s examine the final standings for the SCG Standard Open that was held on Saturday during day one of the Invitational.
Notice anything? There are 26 players out of 300+ who finished the tournament in the 21-24 point bracket. The difference between playing in the Top 8
for a minimum of several hundred dollars and a prize of $2,000 and leaving the tournament hall with $100 ranged from a maximum of two match points to a
minimum of zero match points and 5% opponent’s match-win percentage (OMW%). Further, the difference between leaving with $100 and leaving with
$50 and fewer open points was as little as 1.7% OMW%. In addition to the prize differentials, this means that players who hit a streak of bad luck in
the X-1 bracket, especially early in a tournament, often are eliminated from prize contention (or, in the more dramatic Magic terms of today, are
Now, I’m not suggesting that the SCG Open tournaments are poorly structured—far from it. The extension of prize payouts to
the Top 32 from the Top 16 works to take some of the sting out of “missing top X on breakers.” Additionally, it’s a daunting task to run
tournaments of this length so frequently, in addition to a three-round Top 8, and it probably wouldn’t be feasible to run longer tournaments for
these events, especially given that the prize structure, while generous, isn’t nearly as large as the one designated for the Invitational.
For a tournament where the prizes range from three to five digits rather than two to four, though, the extended tournament length was very meaningful.
Two players with four match losses across the tournament made the Top 8, and some players with five match losses were awarded $1,000. Such a structure
encourages persistence, resilience to “tilt,” and consistent play across a period of time more so than it encourages “going on a
run” for six or seven rounds and then drawing into the Top 8. Sure, some excellent players were eliminated early, but in a more selective field
such as the Invitational, this attrition is inevitable. I hope that the lengthy tournament structure is retained for future Invitational tournaments!