Chatter of the Squirrel – A Grand Prix: Indianapolis Retrospective

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Wednesday, June 25th – Lately, my event recaps have been (cutely?) sentimental, capturing some sort of feeling that washes over me after either a) scrubbing out or b) bashing face. Now, though, I’m sitting in Adrian Sullivan’s car after a Top 16 at America’s largest GP ever, brainstorming whether or not you should lower the curve on the Kithkin deck to fit in, yes, Niveous Wisps. So you could safely say my brain’s fully fried. As such, emotively I’m a wet dishrag, and therefore I might just have to talk strategy. Man.

Lately, my event recaps have been (cutely?) sentimental, capturing some sort of feeling that washes over me after either a) scrubbing out or b) bashing face. Now, though, I’m sitting in Adrian Sullivan car after a Top 16 at America’s largest GP ever, brainstorming whether or not you should lower the curve on the Kithkin deck to fit in, yes, Niveous Wisps. So you could safely say my brain’s fully fried. As such, emotively I’m a wet dishrag, and therefore I might just have to talk strategy. Man.

You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you? I just talked to Aten, by Crikey! I have to self-referentially point out how much white space I’m filling up aimlessly in real-time even as I do it. Seriously, that’s the start of a career. Kids, take notes.

Single greatest piece of advice I can give you if you want to become successful at large events where a) you know people in attendance, b) there is someone you respect at the event with whom you eventually want to network/hang out with/whatever, and c) you haven’t really managed a high-profile finish yet: do not make poor decisions based on what you think people will think of you, directly or otherwise. This happens constantly. I sit down at the table, my opponent’s hand is vibrating like the reed of a woodwind instrument, the sweat collects on his fingertips like dew on a leaf, and I know I’ve just got the game in the back before it starts. Why? This guy isn’t just nervous about the result of the match, but he sees people watching and God forbid he make a mistake and someone think he’s SUCH A HUGE DONK.

Breathe. Say it with me.

It. Doesn’t. Matter.

Or you’re at X-2 going into round 9, you’ve been playing like a master with a very mediocre sealed deck, and it’s one of your very first GPs, and the opponent offers you a draw, and you take it because wow I made Day 2 and this has never happened before and what will my friends think and maybe just maybe I’m suddenly becoming legitimate. Or, worse: you’re an emergent player with a couple solid finishes, maybe a PTQ win, and you take the draw because I mean, how bad ARE you if you can’t even make the second day? Listen: you’re playing to win. You paid the $35 entry fee because you wanted to win the tournament, you wanted to be a Grand Prix champion, and there aren’t any actual bonus points you get for Day 2 other than a quickly-fading warm fuzzy feeling and a negligible amount of money.

Sound different from the Chatter of a few short weeks ago? The “finish doesn’t really matter to me, I just want to hang out and help my buddies, maybe write some coverage?” Thing is, it’s not really. It all depends on what your priorities are and where the gains lie. Winning has still taken a back seat to fun for me. Difference is, I now realize that if I am going to play, I don’t, pardon me Craig, need to half-ass my way into mediocrity. I at least need to want to be there, and I definitely can’t settle simply for a passable finish. This advice applies generally. For the overwhelming majority of people (read: people who don’t just need one more Pro Point for level six or whatever), if you’re in, you’d better be in. You’re not playing for what people think about you, or how you’re going to look if you punt, or whether you can demonstrate you yourself that you have a place in the Magical pantheon. That’ll come eventually if it’s meant to happen. For now, you owe it to yourself to win first and deal with the ramifications later.

For me, that means I don’t need to allow myself to make excuses just for convenience’s sake. I decided to attend this event literally fifteen minutes before Adrian’s car pulled up to my house – thanks, unexpectedly-light Friday Indonesian workload. But I didn’t say “oh, well I haven’t prepared, I can just mess around now.” I playtested the night before, slept, concentrated, adhered to my own standards of how I should be performing in a “serious” situation, and sure, opened a completely and utterly ridiculous Sealed Deck. For someone reading this, it means getting over the fact that you may not be an “established” Magic Pro, that the people you’re drafting with may think you’re a complete random. You don’t have anything to prove. Winning matches proves a whole lot by itself.

Man, snuck that retrospective in there anyway.

But – and Sam Stoddard and I talked about this at the event – sometimes it’s as simple as not giving yourself an excuse to lose. The last three Limited GPs I’ve attended, I’ve made Top 16 twice and Top 8 once. And yet before every event I’m like “it’s not going to be worth it, it’s not going to be worth the time, blah blah blah.” Well, at some point, it is!

So Magical content. Isn’t it annoying that you can’t draw actual cards in Block Constructed Faeries? I’ve been trying to do something about that for awhile:

There are a number of things going on with this list that I want to talk about. Some may be correct, some may be progressive but ultimately fruitless, and I really hate not having Nameless Inversions maindeck so there has got to be something we can do about that. But it’s always struck me as problematic that the way to fight the Bitterblossom war after sideboard has been through one-drops like Ponder (to draw more Blossoms) or through Thoughtseize (to take theirs). Why is that risky? Well, your manabase isn’t what it is in Standard. Mutavaults, Sunken Ruins, and the alternative basic land don’t cast your appropriate one-drop, so it becomes less about “just drawing Thoughtseize” and more about “drawing Thoughtseize and being able to cast it on turn 1 right when it matters or having no outs otherwise.” With Wispmare, you can cast it whenever you draw it, and deal with the Thoughtseize problem as it happens.

The downside? Vivid lands and an absence of one-drops, but that might be the way to go anyway.

With Vivids and Drifters, Spellstutter Sprite isn’t getting cast in the first couple of turns anyway, and in general I think the card’s more of a midgame spell (especially absent Pendelhaven) that I’m not terribly anxious to have it in my opening hand. It’s only particularly relevant a) after a Bitterblossom or b) against the Kithkin three one-drop nut draw, and the frequency of times that happens (and you’re on the play to stop it) is probably well within the frequency that you’ll just draw one of your three remaining Stutters anyway.

Three Mistbinds is more difficult to explain, since “that’s the best card in Faeries,” but it’s another one of those that’s exponential better with Blossom and kind of awkward to have in your opening hand without. Mannequin gives you effective multiples of the card if they manage to deal with the first one, and Mulldrifter will draw you to the Cliques when you need them.

I go with two Vendilions because there are so many cards (like Cloudthresher) in Block that you actively want to get out of their hand, and I wanted some more Faeries in the deck so that the possibility of beating down is still real.

Now, the sideboard is also very Zac Hill in its one-of-edness, but there really is a lot you want to do in the Faerie matchup. Having Wispmares is just huge, but you also get to go up to 26 lands. Shriekmaw and Mistbind Clique are all relatively unexciting, so there’s a lot to board out. I’d board in 4 Mares, Gate, Oona, Nameless Inversion, and Negate on the play / Vendilion Clique on the draw for a Cryptic Command, 3 Cliques, and 4 Shriekmaws. Note that I still really want another Nameless Inversion somewhere. Potentially a ‘Maw in the main should start Inverting.

Against Kithkin, depending on the build, you can go big with Oona, sit to varying degrees behind Incremental Blight, use Vendilion Clique at opportune times to take Lieges and Mirrorweaves, and get another Inversion for appropriate spot removal. Finally, against those pesky five-color decks, you basically want to fight wars on their end-steps over threats to set up an extremely powerful and game-ending Mind Shatter, and that’s why you need the extra Negate as additional ammunition.

It strikes me that this build is far more powerful against random decks, too, because you’re less all-in on a certain plan. Like certain Five-Color Control builds, you still have the option just to overwhelm people with recurring comes-into-play effects. At the same time, you have all of the traditionally-powerful Faeries cards that are as good as they have ever been. There’s even access to catch-alls like Oblivion Ring or Crib Swap if you want them.

A final word before I head out re: Limited, since after all I’ve been mired in a morass of pack-cracking gamers for the last two days. Everyone hears: focus on what matters, but this tournament epitomizes how brutally essential that maxim is yet again. During the Sealed Deck portion of the event, I watched people misuse such ridiculously swingy spells as Firespout and Incremental Blight in the name of the Three For One In The Abstract, only to lose because the opponent then would play a threat that they actually couldn’t handle afterwards. Spectators commented to me more than once that it surprised them when I took, in one case, two separate Spawnwrithe hits just to (eventually) get an extra card out of a Firespout, and in another waited more than ten turns so that I didn’t have to give up any actual cards to Spectral Procession tokens. But I recognized that the long game was going to favor me regardless, so there was no reason to create a situation where things could go wrong. The ultimate goal of the game is not to gain card advantage, or create tempo swings, or whatever. The goal is just to win, and so if your advantage in the short term is going to make you vulnerable to a threat that’s definitely looming but isn’t immediately present, you need to rethink your gameplan.

Playing for Top 16, I won in the 2-0 bracket of my pod because my opponent randomly cast Flame Javelin on a just-cast Loch Korrigan before attacking. His reasoning was that he couldn’t deal with that card if I untapped and sat back on all my mana, but he failed to understand that to do so would just not be feasible for me. It was turn 4, and to essentially Orim’s Chant myself in the name of defense would put me too far behind to ever recover. Development is too important. That play, which is fine on the surface – one-for-one, three mana for four mana, clears a path to attack – lost him the game because it expended a variable that mattered – Flame Javelin, which pretty much by definition always matters – for one that didn’t, namely that Korrigan. I felt similarly in the Sealed portion, when people would play random 2/2s only to have them trumped by the two-or-so random hybrid 3/3s that are in every single Sealed deck. As I’ve said many times before, in this format, if your 2/x can’t interact in some meaningful way with (or at least avoid interacting with at all via evasion, or some other such) a 3/3, you’re basically wasting a card.

Then again, I sideboard in more Loamdragger Giants, so clearly my opinion must be invalid.

I’ve had too much fun this weekend… now back to the hellish 14-hour-workdays of this language program. Yay. Until later!