Chatter of the Squirrel – Lessons from Daytona Beach

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I want to caution y’all not to be too concerned with issues of tempo in Sealed Deck. This extends far beyond the fact that drawing first is better in this format the overwhelming majority of the time. In Draft, mana curve is one of the first things I look at. In Sealed, though, it’s just not all that important…

I never in a million years thought I’d be playing Magic while staying at a beachfront hotel.

Okay, motel – Super 8, no less – and the legion of cockroaches that lived in our alarm clock threatened to abduct Owen Turtenwald kicking and screaming from his comfortable perch on the floor. But we could walk out the back door and feel sand on our feet. Hear waves. Splash water. That sort of thing.

The tournament itself was awesome, if weird. To be honest, I don’t know yet whether it’d be better to write about Daytona, or Sealed Deck, or Draft, or how Sealed differs from Draft in this particular format, or what. Instead I’ll just cover them all. Such a Chatter thing to do, I know. Can’t make up my mind. Ah, well. Sue.

Results-wise I’m extremely thrilled. A 12-3 record with both Baby Chamby and Lieberman (two of my losses) finishing in eighth and ninth respectively bolstered my confidence, made me remember that I could really do this. I took to heart my own advice from last week and put the final result out of my mind, ignored the impulse to focus on what would need to happen for me to Top 8. Instead I just played each match for itself, largely unconcerned about the ramifications of wins or losses, trying my hardest to focus only on the game at hand. It showed. I felt attuned to the board presence in a way I haven’t in awhile, and strangely a lot of the undue stress I put on myself in the “tense” rounds faded away. In my match against Shouta I was playing against one of the best players in the world for a chance at Day 2, and yet it just felt like another match. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the way a player who feels he’s capable of winning, who feels like he’s got nothing to prove, approaches the game.

You know, maybe that’s it. Maybe the last few months I’ve been preoccupied with “proving myself,” living up to some kind of reputation I feel compelled to match. Looking back to before I put up results (as limited as they are, to be sure), before people began to play my decks even, I still thought that I was better than my results would indicate. But I realized that nothing defines me as “good” except for my results. I didn’t somehow “deserve” to finish higher or lower than I actually finish at a tournament; rather, whatever happened, well, happened. This isn’t to say that I don’t get screwed sometimes or that I don’t profit when my opponents mulligan to five, but the point is that if at every tournament I attend I play to the maximum of my ability, over the course of a season my results will reflect that ability. Therefore there is no “pressure” for achievement, no poorly-defined goal for success I have to set for myself. There’s simply the match at hand, and if I win that match I’m a step closer to where I want to be.

I just interrupted myself by reading Wikipedia articles about Drawn Together for thirty minutes, and I completely forgot where I was going.

I frequently rag on Alex Kim in here because he’s an easy target, but the boy really is very good at Magic. A particular play he made while we were MTGOing before embarking on the roadtrip to Nashville stuck with me, and it influenced the way I played throughout the weekend. We had out two random dorks and a Moonglove Winnower, and our opponent had played a Kinsbaile Skirmisher before missing his third land drop. On his fourth turn, with eight cards in hand, our opponent swings with the Skirmisher. Steven and I are all about blocking, but AKim insists on taking two and simply attacking back for more.

Now, I don’t understand this at first. If we block with the Winnower we’re getting a guaranteed two-for-one and we still have other threats on the board. I don’t understand what possibly can go wrong if we block. His argument, though, is that we’re way ahead in the race and it’s extremely likely he wouldn’t have attacked if he had another creature to play given that the attack just begs a block on its surface. Meanwhile, if we keep our Winnower (despite the possibility of a two-for-one on our side) we might be able to go ahead and kill our opponent before he ever recovers from his land stall.

As it happened, we kept attacking and killed our opponent despite drawing literally no more spells for the rest of the game. He drew land and stabilized, and very likely might had lived had we not been so aggressive with the Winnower. The kicker, though, is that the turn after the turn I just described, he discarded a Blades of Velis Vel as his eighth card. Had we blocked, the exact same situation would have arisen, except that all of the sudden his two-drop would trade for our four-drop. Awkward.

Watching Alex not even have to think about avoiding the block there made me more cognizant of opportunities to play aggressively – times where it would become necessary not to switch roles, but for me to have to take counterintuitive actions to ensure that I’d remain in the proper role, if that makes sense. I credit this incident largely with my solid performance in Daytona.

Of course, my double-Planeswalker Sealed Deck didn’t hurt!

Although Ajani is substantially more awkward with only eleven creatures.

Just kidding. He’s still the high.

At the same time I talk about the virtues of “going aggro,” I do want to caution y’all not to be too concerned with issues of tempo in Sealed Deck. This extends far beyond the fact that drawing first is better in this format the overwhelming majority of the time. In Draft, mana curve is one of the first things I look at. In Sealed, though, it’s just not all that important. For one, people aren’t going to be able to tailor their mana curves throughout the draft, so it’s less likely you’ll be squaring off against decks with five or six two-drops. Because of that, nobody is usually going to be able to curve out on you to the point where you’re too far behind. Moreover, and this is a factor that most people fail to consider, you’re much more likely to have to play “dumb stupid creatures” in Sealed. Oakgnarl Brawler is the classic example of this kind of card. In Lorwyn Draft, you can usually afford to cut mediocre creatures who have very little synergy with your deck. In Sealed, though, you’re often stuck with what you’re given and must play warm bodies just to stabilize and win the game. Random warm bodies are very, very bad news for Grizzly Bears.

Now, this isn’t to say that you should disregard your mana curve entirely when constructing a Sealed Deck. Nothing could be further from the truth. For one, you need to make sure you have some action in case you play against the guy with 1) fortunate to crack the good aggro deck or 2) the idiot who plays all his awful one-drops to “try and swarm you.” If your curve literally starts at four, good luck. Also, a lack of early game makes your deck far clunkier in the midgame as you can’t usually cast multiple spells in a turn – not to mention that you make yourself increasingly vulnerable to cards like Mournwhelk.

What’s important, though, is that you compose your deck as largely as possible with cards that are relevant at every stage of the game. Increasingly I find myself approaching Sealed as a battle to see who draws the most blanks after it’s clear that everyone can survive. There’s some theory behind this waiting to be articulated, but I haven’t been able to spell out as yet what that theory is going to be. This, though, is why I love cards like Lairwatch Giant in Sealed. I’m not going to be chocking my deck full of infinite copies of that card, but when you play him you have the option of a relatively decent attacker (five power is five power) and a rock-solid blocker that will render most of your opponent’s ground force obsolete. Is he loose in Draft? Sure, he’s clunky and not big enough for the size. But you’ll always get to turn 6 in Sealed and it’s very likely that casting him will stabilize barring a removal spell. When the choice of a 22nd-23rd card is between something like him and, say, a Springjack Knight, oftentimes the giant will make for the better choice.

This is also why if I have to play a duder I’m going to look for clash cards like Paperfin Rascal. At the very least, if they’re “dead” when you cast them – which isn’t ever going to be entirely true in the first place – you can get a land off the top of your deck. In fact, somewhat counterintuitively, whenever I cast an Inkfathom Divers (the hotness, incidentally) I find myself scheduling for a land to be on top the turn I plan on clashing. Most of the time, gaining virtual card advantage through a relevant draw step is better than the 1/1 counter (or whatever) I’d get from winning the clash.

Forum-dwellers are going to go to town on my parentheticals.

Let’s see… other Lorwyn Limited tidbits. I agree with Alex when he says that basically every tribe is playable. I would recommend that if you’re going to draft White you really need to try and draft “mono” with a splash of two or so colors. In my second draft I splashed Briarthorn, Kithkin Mourncaller, and Glarewielder, and it worked out excellently. Obviously this one instance is not in and of itself a reason you should do something, but the broader point is that you’ve got a lot of double-White spells and you want to give yourself the greatest possible amount of reach that you can. A 10-4-3 manabase is perfectly acceptable, particularly if you didn’t pick up all the Oblivion Rings that you wanted. Also, I keep seeing Surges of Thoughtweft going very, very late. This is one card non-Kithkin drafters need to aggressively hate, as while it’s weak in non-Kithkin strategies it is absolutely brutal in that one particular deck. Pretty much always a blowout whenever it’s cast.

Okay, that’ll be it for now. Before I leave, though, and I know I’ll incur the ridicule of each and every one of my “pro” friends for saying this, I wanted to give a shout-out to everyone who came up to me at Daytona and told me they appreciated this column. Particular kudos go to the “playmat guys” with their sleeved Chatters and silver sharpies at the ready. It’s always good to know that I don’t e-mail this column to Craig – late, as I’m doing now – only to have it confined to the abyssal anonymity of the Internet. Knowing readers are readers, they react to what I write, learn from it, oftentimes critique it, tell me what I can do better, is nothing less than why I do this.

Thanks, y’all.