Constructed Criticism – A Grand Prix: Oakland Report

SCG Open Richmond!

Thursday, February 18th – Hello everyone, and welcome back to Constructed Criticism. I’m a bit late this week due to the fact that I was in attendance at Grand Prix: Oakland. It was a great time, with awesome new friends and old friends alike…

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Constructed Criticism. I’m a bit late this week due to the fact that I was in attendance at Grand Prix: Oakland. It was a great time, with awesome new friends and old friends alike. If you have never attended a Grand Prix before, it is very hard to describe other than a gigantic nerd party, which I have grown fond of over the last few years thanks to events like DragonCon and attending Pro Tours. Grouping yourself together with other individuals who are as die-hard about a particular game as you are for multiple days in a row can lead to some glorious times. Hopefully, this tournament report and subsequent story will give you a bit of an idea how to enjoy the Magic life, as well as paint a picture as to why you should probably go to one of these things at least once in your life.

The sickest part of this whole experience for me has been my wife. I cannot describe how important she is to me, and how awesome she has been at facilitating my Magic lifestyle. I try to work as much as possible, upwards of 30+ hours a week (which is actually a lot for working in a restaurant) to make her happy and help pay the bills. But the lifestyle we live just can’t support flying me around the world playing all sorts of events, not to mention flying her around as well. We are lucky if we get to attend one Grand Prix per year, and this one was kind of a special exception. Kali knows that I am absolutely in love with the game, and there is nothing I would like more than to qualify for the Pro Tour, and eventually get on “The Train.” For those of you who don’t know what “The Train” is, the best way to describe it is that you get to fly around the world and get paid to play Magic. There are plenty of other professions that can offer you similar perks, but none of them can even come close to getting paid to play the best game on the planet.

But, just to let you know how awesome my wife is, she booked me a flight from our hometown in Birmingham to Oakland, CA to attend the Grand Prix. The Pro Tour for San Diego is pretty close by and is happening next week, so we were able to do a big round-trip flight from Birmingham to Oakland to San Diego and back home again, over the course of 10 days. We were able to do this mostly because of the big tax return we received, but I know that she wants to start trying to save money so we can eventually buy a house. The sacrifice she is making to let me go might sound like I am on some sort of leash, but I don’t make nearly enough money to justify going on a trip like this with my own money. She’s watched me grinding this entire PTQ season, coming so close so many times, and giving me this opportunity to go and play and get my name out there is just better than any other gift I could ever receive. I love this game and I love my wife very much, and I want everyone to know that I have her to thank for everything.

Now, after packing my bags and getting ready to leave last Friday morning, my friend Blair picked me up from my apartment around 8:30am. We got some breakfast and chatted about Standard, and he dropped me off around 9:30am at the Birmingham Airport. The weather channel had predicted snow the night before, but it rarely snows in Alabama so I just laughed when there was none on the ground in the morning. However, the snow started to fall around 10:30am, which made me think that my flight might get delayed. However, the snow didn’t start to stick before we took off, so luckily I was able to get out of there and make my connecting flight in Fabulous Las Vegas! Unfortunately, the entirety of my trip in Vegas consisted of me eating Sbarro pizza and reading some Magic articles on the Airport’s free wifi. After connecting and getting to Oakland, all I had to do was take a shuttle and a train, all of which cost about $4.75, to get to the event site hotel. I met up with a few friends, including Gavin Verhey, Brad Nelson, and Conley Woods, to talk about decks and the format in general. It was pretty much a consensus that everyone wanted to play Dark Depths, but I was just not sold. The mirror could just be abysmal, and while I knew how to win, I didn’t know if I could consistently win more than 70% of those mirror matches. Additionally, if I had to face a Zoo deck with enough hate cards, I don’t know if I could even hope to win. I talked with a lot of my friends who literally just dismissed the versions of Zoo I had been playing, mostly due to the fact that Dark Depths was Gerry Thompson creation and he made very convincing arguments.

Needless to say, their sideboard plans were all rather… weird. Exile into Darkness became a $3 uncommon, since it somehow “beat” Zoo by winning the attrition war. I could not disagree more, as a 5-cost removal spell was just absurdly slow against Zoo, on top of being shut down by the problematic Gaddock Teeg. Additionally, most versions they were running cut back, or altogether, on Beseech the Queen. For what reason other than trying to fit in different utility spells, I will never know. I set out on my task of building my deck from friends and vendors (one nice vendor in particular). First, I sat down with a decklist in mind, and got to work on my numbers, much like I do for every major tournament. I’ve played a lot of Zoo over the last few weeks, but had yet to play with Loam Lion, since Worldwake is not yet on Magic Online. Luckily, I knew that Kird Ape was good, so figured Loam Lion would make casting Meddling Mage a little easier, so it couldn’t be too bad. After crunching some numbers, here is the decklist I ended up with:

Let me explain a few of the changes, since not all of them are obvious. I realize that Loam Lion dies to Deathmark, but not having to play a Kird Ape on the first turn helps you cast more of your spells while sitting on two lands. Multiple times in the past, I’ve had to fetch up an early Stomping Ground, or had one in my opening hand (since I usually played two of them), which kept me from being able to play my Meddling Mages in a timely manner. With Loam Lion, you can effectively play more Temple Gardens, allowing you to cast Meddling Mage a bit more easily after Game 1. The ideal lands for casting Loam Lion, Gaddock Teeg, and Meddling Mage are Sacred Foundry Turn 1, and Breeding Pool turn 2. While this keeps you from being able to cast Lightning Helix, I find that I’m usually siding out Lightning Helix when I’m siding in Meddling Mage. This is true about 90% of the time. There are many different combinations of lands you can fetch out, each route giving you access to the mana you need but potentially keeping you from playing all of your spells. Just make sure you think about this decision tree early on, usually when deciding on mulligans, so you don’t give your opponent too much free information about what you are holding in hand.

The second main change was cutting the Qasali Pridemages for Gaddock Teeg. After testing for hours, I felt like Qasali Pridemage was just not cutting it as much as I would have liked. Additionally, with more one-drops in your deck, your opener will often consist of casting three one-drop creatures on the first two turns, making Exalted functionally useless. Pridemage is fine if you are expecting a ton of Thopter Foundry combo decks, but he is just a bit clunky and his ability doesn’t matter as often as it should. It is also helpful to note that most of the Thopter Depths decks I saw in the room had seriously cut back on some of the Thopter Combo pieces, which gave me the notion that having Gaddock Teeg against my bad matchups was probably better than having Pridemage against solid matchups. My whole line of thinking for playing Bant Zoo was so that I would be able to consistently beat Dark Depths, while still having cards that are really good for the mirror, and versatile for matchups that I might not expect. Gaddock Teeg is great against the decks that I have a really tough time with in Game 1’s, while also providing a body to attack and block in the mirror or against control decks. Gaddock Teeg singlehandedly shuts down decks like Mystical Teachings, UW Thopter, Scapeshift, and Hive Mind, buying you an incredible amount of time. He also acts as a way to disrupt the control decks relying on Cryptic Command to save the day, and does some attacking as well.

After 15 rounds of play with Zoo, I won’t go into every gory detail since it is safe to assume that most people know how Zoo works, and that it usually wins by attacking. After waking up refreshed on Saturday morning with two byes, I registered my deck and ate some breakfast before the tournament started. As an aside, I lost every die roll in the tournament except for two, and lost both of the matches where I won the die roll. Maybe I should decide to play last?

Round 1 *Bye*
Round 2 *Bye*

Round 3 against UW Thopter

My opponent informs me that he had no byes coming into this tournament, and I ask him what he played against earlier in the day. He said he beat two good matchups: Zoo and something he failed to mention. I wasn’t sure what I was up against, but didn’t really expect him to lead with a tapped Hallowed Fountain. He was obviously playing either Mystical Teachings control or UW Thopter, and I put him on the latter because the former deck is not very popular and very difficult to play. I opened up the game with a Wild Nacatl, followed by a Tarmogoyf that got countered. I was holding a Gaddock Teeg that I sandbagged so I could lock him out if he tapped out. After I played a few more threats, he used Trinket Mage to tutor up AEther Spellbomb, which I was positive he was going to use post-combat so he could cast a Wrath effect. However, I put him in the position where he died to Lightning Bolt if he didn’t use the Spellbomb mid-combat. He opted to take the damage, hoping I didn’t have anything, and he promptly died to the 1-R instant.

Game 2 starts off a bit worse for him, as he is stuck on two lands for quite some time. However, he eventually draws out of it and is able to cast Day of Judgment. I use Ranger of Eos to reload, and have enough mana to play out both of the Wild Nacatls thanks to some Path to Exiles from my opponent earlier in the game. He plays a Kitchen Finks, but I’m able to race through the damage and Negate a removal spell for the win.

After this round, Glen Goddard, the founder of the current U.S. State Champs program, gave out a few awards to Gavin Verhey, Brad Nelson, and myself for our articles written about the State Champs program a few months ago. Gavin received $1000, while Brad Nelson and I each received something much less valuable (I think a case of Magic Jones Soda). It was pretty awesome, and I felt honored to be recognized in helping to build such a great program. Things like States are the reason why I write articles; because they are just great programs that help inspire people to reach greater heights, including myself. Now, back to the action!


Round 4 against Brian Kibler

I was really hoping this would be a feature match, since I was playing against Kibs, but there were two other matches with higher level mages battling it out in the opening round for people with 3-byes, so we were just regular combatants. Kibler was playing a similar version to Brad Nelson Zoo deck, which features maindeck Woolly Thoctar and Negate in place of certain cards like Qasali Pridemage, Gaddock Teeg, or Lightning Helix. Noble Hierarch also replaced other one-drops like Loam Lion or Kird Ape in order to help him cast his three-drops a bit faster. Luckily, I think my list is favored in the mirror, because I have a much greater chance of drawing my “blowout” draw, which includes multiple 1-drops followed up with some key removal like Path to Exile or Bant Charm. I’m also pretty confident that most Zoo players don’t maindeck Ranger of Eos, which gives me a mid-game advantage if the board becomes stalled, or I start to fall behind.

Game 1 we both kept hands full of removal since we knew what the other was playing. He opened with tapped duals, while I opened with Kird Ape and Treetop Village. He cast Elspeth, Knight-Errant, which I definitely wasn’t expecting, and I made a crucial misplay. I Bolted Elspeth during his end of turn, and used a Lightning Helix to kill Elspeth after I attacked her with a Kird Ape, which was blocked by Kib’s Soldier token. I could have just activated Treetop Village and attacked, but I just blatantly punted. After a few more turns, he played multiple Knights of the Reliquary with Negate backup, but I drew pretty well with two Path to Exiles and a Bant Charm to take them down. He was dead after a few more turns of attacks.

Game 2 I sided in a few Meddling Mages and the Ranger of Eos for the three Gaddock Teegs, since I can safely name things like Woolly Thoctar. But that doesn’t mean I should always name Woolly Thoctar, as there are plenty of scenarios where I could only lose to one particular card (namely Ranger of Eos or Path to Exile). Ideally, I would like to have a few more cards for the mirror in order to cut the Gaddock Teegs for games 2 and 3, but there just wasn’t enough room in the sideboard for cards like Umezawa’s Jitte. When the game started, Brian led off with Wild Nacatl, followed by double Noble Hierarch but no Red sources. I just played a few threats of my own, and eventually just used a few removal spells to kill his Baneslayer Angel and Wild Nacatl. There was a point where I was dead if he drew a red source, so I named Lightning Bolt with a Meddling Mage, but ultimately won by attacking with a huge Knight of the Reliquary with Bant Charm to counter lethal burn. We both played pretty badly, making a few obvious mistakes, but it was a close match nonetheless.


Round 5 against Thopter Depths

Round 5 I play against Thopter Depths, and game 1 he literally does nothing of real value. His draws weren’t the best, and I just played creatures and attacked. Gaddock Teeg might have been important to lock out his Beseeches or Repeals, because he ended the game with 3 cards in hand and no threatening permanents. My hand contained Bant Charm and Path to Exile when I won.

Game 2 I sided in a couple of Negates, Meddling Mages, and Damping Matrix and cut the Lightning Helixes, Gaddock Teegs, and a few other cards. He had sided into a plan that included Threads of Disloyalty, which stole a Tarmogoyf, but I just used Ranger of Eos to roll him with threats after I used Bant Charm to nug the stolen Tarmogoyf.


Round 6 against Thopter Depths

Round 6 I play against a nice guy playing Thopter Depths again, and I lose game one pretty handily when he has both Thopter combo and Hexmage Depths combo by Turn 5. I couldn’t draw a 3rd land for Bant Charm, and just lost to the 20/20. I had another Bant Charm for the Thopter Foundry, and but just didn’t draw lands when I needed to.

I sided just like I had before, leaving in Lightning Bolts. Game 2 he mulligans to 5, and keeps an opener with a Turn 1 Dark Confidant, but no other real play. I use Bolt on his Confidant, and he’s pretty much dead when I resolve a few threats and Negate his Thirst for Knowledge.

Game 3 was pretty close, but I had answers for his turn 3 20/20. I bluffed like I needed to topdeck something by knocking on the top of my deck, but I had Path to Exile all along. If he had waited to untap and protect his 20/20 with Thoughtseize or Muddle the Mixture, there wouldn’t have been much I could do, so I felt like doing that could give me a bit of an advantage if he fell for it. Afterwards I mopped up with a few more creatures and burned him out from 6 life.


Round 7 against Bant Zoo

This round my opponent knows what I’m playing because he saw me the round before. He says he’s playing an older version of my deck, and he thinks mine is better. However, game 1 we just trade guys and removal back and forth until he plays Ranger of Eos. I get flooded and lose pretty quickly. Ranger is ridiculously powerful in the mirror, and there are few cards that can really match his impact on the game as far as the mirror is concerned.

Game 2 I side two Negates and the third Ranger of Eos in for the three Gaddock Teegs. Game 2 I mulligan on the play, which is actually the first time I mulliganed all tournament. I have a six-card hand that is reasonable, and we are off. I play a few threats, and he matches with removal and threats, but again has the game-breaker in Ranger of Eos off the top when we both unload our hands onto the table. He also has Treetop Village as one of his lands, so I’m really far behind, and just die after topdecking land and a useless Negate. My sideboard plan for the mirror wasn’t the best, but I figured Negate (and sometimes Meddling Mage) is better than a 2/2 with no relevant ability.


Round 8 against Bant Tribal Zoo

This version of the deck is a hybridized version of my deck and Steppe Lynx Zoo, playing Tribal Flames and Bant Charm to have more ways to kill Tarmogoyf and Knight of the Reliquary. He isn’t playing Steppe Lynx, and leads off with a few Loam Lions and Kird Apes, which just stare at my Wild Nacatl and Loam Lions. Eventually he just floods while I am stuck on three lands and plenty of threats. I use Knight of the Reliquary to “accelerate” me into Ranger of Eos, still sitting on three lands. He draws stone nothing for a few turns in a row, and I kill him with 3/3s.

Game 2 is pretty similar to the first, and I never really get below 15 life. Ranger of Eos was MVP again, and I use some beaters to take down his life total after getting rid of his blockers. It is pretty clear that Ranger of Eos is the best card in the mirror, as every mirror match so far has been decided solely upon who has drawn more Rangers of Eos. While this isn’t always true, as getting stuck on 3 lands means drawing 4-drops is irrelevant. However, Path to Exile usually ramps you in the mirror into your Ranger of Eos. While he is not great against the combo decks, the mirror is too important to cut from the maindeck. A few more weeks of Extended might change things, but Zoo and Dark Depths were clearly the two most-played archetypes at the Grand Prix.

Round 9 against Pat Cox playing Bant Zoo

Pat is a friend of mine from Florida, and we were both playing a very important match that could mean one of us being virtually eliminated from Top 8 contention. 13-2 is a lock for Top 8, and even 12-1-1, but starting off 7-2 makes it so that you have to go undefeated in the last 6 rounds during Day 2, which is incredibly difficult. We talked about one of us potentially conceding, but there was no real point since obviously both of us really wanted to win. We wished each other luck and sat down to battle.

Game 1 began with me taking a mulligan into a solid hand with Tarmogoyf, Knight of the Reliquary, and Path to Exile with some lands. He started with a Wild Nacatl, which I was virtually forced to Path to Exile, since I didn’t want to run my Tarmogoyf blind into a Lightning Bolt. This ramped him into Ranger of Eos, and I was literally dead after just a few turns when I drew lands and he drew a second Ranger of Eos.
Game 2 I sided like I had been siding before, bringing in the Negates to protect Knight of the Reliquary and Tarmogoyf. This game I mulliganed again, but into a hand with Knight, Ranger of Eos, and Lightning Helix. It was pretty solid, and I used the Helix on his early beater and played a 4/4 Knight. He had Path to Exile, but that ramped me into Ranger of Eos. He had his own Ranger of Eos, but also a few Tarmogoyfs. He ended up playing another Ranger of Eos, that put him way too far ahead on board. After the game he gave me a “still had all these” in a joking manner, showing me the third Ranger of Eos in hand. I wished him luck and I went on my way.

After a pretty good Day 1 to the GP, I was 7-2, not losing until Round 7. I felt like my Zoo list was really good, but just needed a few more cards for the mirror. Having Bant Charm and Ranger of Eos in the mirror was just not enough. In hindsight, having four cards to hate out Dredge was probably a bad idea, since there were probably less than 10 people in the room playing it. Even with hate, Dredge is still a bad matchup for Zoo, so I’m not sure if even having the hate was necessary. Those cards could be dedicated to beating some of the more difficult matchups like the mirror, or possibly fringe strategies. Threads of Disloyalty was pretty good in testing for the mirror match, since Tarmogoyf can get very big very quick, but Threads is really bad when most people are playing Qasali Pridemage. Umezawa’s Jitte suffers from many of the same problems, but Jitte can be really good against Elves (which ended up winning the entire tournament). With so many different (and interesting) archetypes in the Top 8, this format is shaping up to be awesome.

Tune in next week when I finish up the report, and tell you an amazing story including some Blue Drank, Cantonese Restaurants at 3am, amazing new beer, and awesome friends from all around the world. Thanks for reading!

strong sad on MTGO