Constructed Criticism – Accepting Your Punishment

StarCityGames.com Open Series: Indianapolis on March 13-14
Tuesday, March 9th – An incorrect assumption about the metagame, or players in that particular metagame, is generally where I fail in tournament Magic. Before Austin, I had plenty of time to playtest real decks against real people, and that testing helped a little, but ultimately I disregarded everything I had learned.

An incorrect assumption about the metagame, or players in that particular metagame, is generally where I fail in tournament Magic. Before Austin, I had plenty of time to playtest real decks against real people, and that testing helped a little, but ultimately I disregarded everything I had learned. I knew that Dredge was a real deck, and that Hedron Crab was pretty insane, but ultimately out team went with a deck that was just not up to snuff. We played Affinity, and here’s why.

At Pro Tour: Austin last year, the rumored big decks were Hypergenesis, Dredge, Zoo, and Dark Depths. Affinity has an inherent advantage against Dark Depths, because you have multiple creatures that have flying and can block Marit Lage, but you also put incredibly large threats onto the board very quickly. The problem with that is that we assumed Dark Depths would be a much larger part of the metagame than it actually ended up being, and none of us actually played against it a single time. Sure, we were doing broken things just like everyone else, but our broken draws consisted of attacking with creatures that had a Cranial Plating on it, while others consisted of activating Mindslaver on turn 4, making 20/20’s on turn 2, or making a million Thopter Foundry tokens, and our deck was just not suited for that tournament. I remember my first opponent of that tournament was playing Hypergenesis, and killed me on turn 4 through a Chalice of the Void, which was possibly the most disgusting thing I’ve ever been victim to. I might have been able to win if not for Bogardan Hellkite killing my team, but his large monsters were just too big for my measly 1/1’s, 2/2’s, and 4/4’s. The next two rounds saw me losing to Thopter Sword, and UB Tron (where he activated Mindslaver on Turn 4).

Now, with that said, I will likely never play Affinity again in a sanctioned match of Magic, but I really wanted to give you a visual of how I lost in that tournament, and why I did. I lost because I made incorrect assumptions about that particular metagame. Whenever there is a Pro Tour, usually there has just been a set released right before that tournament begins. That isn’t always the case, as Worlds does count as a Pro Tour, but usually the format is brand new, and Austin was no exception. Zendikar Fetchlands and Vampire Hexmage changed a lot about that format, not to mention that no one had really played much Extended since the release of Alara Reborn, where cascade let you do broken things. At Austin, people came much more prepared than me, even though I thought I had a firm grasp on what most people were going to try to do. The problem with assumptions is that they make you look foolish when you are wrong, and there is no substitute for playing with other players who have good ideas. When I heard about how Brad Nelson, LSV, Tom Ross, and GWalls all prepared for San Diego (basically just battling with new ideas and mock tournaments at the local store), I became incredibly jealous. In Birmingham, there has rarely ever been more than one person qualified for a Pro Tour, and that hasn’t happened since I’ve been trying to hop onto the train.

I feel like live testing is invaluable, and I just don’t do enough of it. Once a set has been released on Magic Online, it doesn’t really matter that much, as I do tons of battling with different ideas there. The 4-Round tournaments are great practice, and can help hammer out the last few sideboard cards or just give you a bit more practice with the deck. I’ve been playing Thopter Depths for a good while now on MTGO, and that is pretty much the deck I’ve resigned myself to playing in the next few PTQs. However, just because a deck is powerful, and likely the “best” deck in a format, doesn’t make it correct for you to play it at a particular tournament. I’ve said it a lot of times before, but when people bring hate to the table that is incredibly difficult to beat, it is likely that you should just play a different deck. Damping Matrix is a card that can be insanely tough to get around, and usually requires a bounce spells ala Echoing Truth combined with either Thoughtseize or Duress. Sometimes you can create a window to make a 20/20 after bouncing it, but then you are vulnerable to Bant Charm and Path to Exile. Additionally, Blood Moon is a very large problem for you early in the game, and can spell disaster if played on Turn 2. You have a few more outs to Blood Moon, since you have Basics and Chrome Mox, on top of your bounce spells. But the card is very annoying and you could be stone dead if they have a Wild Nacatl or Tarmogoyf in play.

Before this weekend, I was planning on doing a tournament report, because I was confident enough in myself and my deck to do well. However, after an absurdly poor 3-3 performance, I knew I needed to write about something different, and really needed some kind of wake up call. It was pointed out to me last night that I dismiss certain cards or decks completely before I give them a try, or really even a second thought. That was pretty evident this weekend, when one of our friends made the Top 4 of the PTQ with a UW Hater deck. I’m not entirely sure what all was in it, but I do know that he had cards that were just insane against Zoo and Dark Depths, but not really much else. He had a few counterspells; Path to Exile; Temporal Isolation; Oblivion Ring; Jace, the Mind Sculptor; Aven Mindcensor; Meddling Mage; Baneslayer Angel; and a few more goodies. When he presented the idea, it was more of an “I’m just trying to find something to play,” which is why I originally dismissed it. I felt like a jackass when he made the Top 4, but mostly because Evan is a really nice guy and I didn’t give him the benefit of taking him seriously. That may be because we spent a small part of the trip up talking about what cards to name with Meddling Mage, but I think that was a large contributor to his success. He played pretty well, and played against virtually nothing but Dark Depths and Zoo all day.

You can call him lucky, you can call him awesome, and you can even call him a master, but all I know is that a lot of things came together just right, and it ended in him doing very well at that tournament. But, isn’t that what we are all striving for when we attend a Magic tournament? Don’t we all want things to come together perfectly for us, ultimately resulting in us winning the tournament? If that happens, then we feel good about ourselves, our friends are proud of us, and we feel justified in winning because we were right about all of our assumptions. In that perfect scenario, you are on top of the world, whether it be a PTQ, Grand Prix, or even a Pro Tour. My assumptions at the higher levels have generally been incorrect, as I lack both the drive and resources to test enough with other people who were qualified. Sure, before Austin I could have driven up to Huntsville to playtest some Extended and Zendikar draft, but I didn’t. I didn’t have the drive. But you can bet the house on it if I qualify for Pro Tour: San Juan, or whenever I qualify again, I will be doing everything possible in my power to build decks, play against other people who are qualified, and maybe even fly in to San Juan early to meet up with new friends to do battle. I will be prepared. And that is all you can be.

While Extended is still running hot off the results from Grand Prix: Oakland, Zoo and Dark Depths continue to rise in popularity. Elves is not really the most popular of decks, and for a few reasons. For one, it is incredibly difficult to play, and you can accumulate multiple missed trigger penalties throughout the tournament and end up losing because of it. Additionally, the lines of play you can come across sometimes will result in your killing yourself for a wrong decision on turn 2. I have also seen people say “gain infinite life” with Essence Warden, Cloudstone Curio, and a Glimpse of Nature resolved. For those of you who don’t know what that means, they drew their entire deck, plus another infinity cards. These small mistakes people make, like not paying for Summoner’s Pact, drawing extra cards on accident, forgetting to untap Nettle Sentinel, all can be grueling if you haven’t played the deck before. While powerful, it is susceptible to hate, and more susceptible to misplay than any other deck in the format (Dredge is pretty close, though). With that said, I have been brewing a lot lately with local friends who like to PTQ, and my friend Blair showed me an altered PChapin deck from a few weeks back. The most immediate problem I saw was that he could just not consistently win within the time constraints given at a PTQ. If your opponent played really fast, then maybe you could finish three games. However, if you lost game 1, you were likely getting losing the match or getting a draw. Luckily, there is this creature in Extended that can literally be added to any deck to make it faster, and it rhymes with Blarmoboyf. Here is the list we came up with after testing for a few hours, and I battled with it in a few online 4-Round Tournaments:

This sideboard completely ignored the presence of Dredge, and I am 100% okay with that. Dredge, while it is a real deck, will often lose to itself or other opponents who pack a ton of hate. However, when everyone thinks like that, that is when Dredge usually will blow the lid off of a tournament. Cedric Phillips came really close to winning the Grand Prix in Oakland with Dredge, and might have smashed the Top 8 if not for a few bad tiebreakers. While this deck probably could use a ton of work, I have had the most fun playing with this deck than any deck in a long time. Before playing with this deck, I had cast the new Jace exactly twice in playtesting Standard after Worldwake. Those two times, he died instantly to Maelstrom Pulse from Jund, and I wrote him off. However, it is much easier to protect him in Extended, and he is just absolutely amazing. Brainstorming with Fetchlands feels so much like cheating, and this deck does some really disgusting things.

First up, let’s talk about the manabase. There are two Breeding Pools because you can’t afford to have it die from a Ghost Quarter, and then not be able to cast Life from the Loam or Tarmogoyf. Having two gives you outs to the minor amount of Land Destruction that is present in the format. Grove of the Burnwillows and Punishing Fire is the core of PChapin’s deck from PT: Austin, but he lacked the Tarmogoyfs necessary to finish his opponents off quickly enough. Additionally, Tarmogoyf can give you a few “I win” draws that weren’t present in the deck before. While it may not be the most skill intensive card, and it may be superfluous in a vacuum, I think that at the PTQ level it is necessary.

We changed his list from Thirst for Knowledge to the much more efficient (but much slower) Ancestral Vision. While we don’t have a ton of counterspells, we do have a ton of answers and not a lot of artifacts. Ancestral Vision was tested out for a little while over Thirst for Knowledge, and we have never wanted to switch back. Gifts Ungiven is the deck’s “other” draw engine, but really it just ends up giving you Thopter Foundry, Sword of the Meek, Life from the Loam, and Academy Ruins. Against any control deck, that is usually game over if it resolves, since you will be able to eventually get your Thopter Sword combo into play. However, if they have pressure, this might be a bit too slow, and you can grab Grove of the Burnwillows or Punishing Fire in there somewhere. Gifts often acts as just a draw spell, giving you the necessary gas to put a game away.

The single Firespout used to be a third Engineered Explosives, but felt like having the Firespout could make your Goyfs bigger, on top of giving you another target for Gifts Ungiven. When you gifts for Explosives, Firespout, Tarmogoyf, and Path to Exile against Zoo, you are likely going to win unless the game has degenerated into an unwinnable situation. But, with your counterspells and removal suite, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. A lot of the newer versions of Zoo have a lot of trouble against Punishing Fire, since they run Qasali Pridemage, Noble Hierarch, and sometimes even Meddling Mage or Gaddock Teeg maindeck. Punishing Fire acts as both a win condition as well as a way to machine gun your opponent’s creatures, and isn’t that hard to assemble with your Gifts package, as well as your Ancestral Visions. Muddle the Mixture can also be used to tutor up the Punishing Fire in a pinch, giving you virtually 5 copies if you need them badly enough.

Speaking of Muddle the Mixture, this card has been invaluable. Occasionally, you will draw one of your Thopter pieces, and Muddle will let you assemble the combo without having to cast Gifts Ungiven, which is infinitely faster. Second, Muddle the Mixture is a hard counter against many of the format’s best cards. Scapeshift can rarely beat a Muddle the Mixture with any backup, since their counterspells usually consist of Remand and Cryptic Command. You can also win counter battles against opposing Cryptic Commands, or even counter an opposing Ancestral Vision.

The sideboard might need the most explaining, and I don’t have a dedicated “guide to sideboarding,” nor do I really believe in such things. However, I can tell you what cards were considered over what we have, and for what reasons. First of all, we ignored Dredge. That might have been a bad idea, but between the two of us we had played against Dredge all of one time in about 40 sanctioned matches. We originally had a plan that involved Gifts for Ravenous Trap, Tormod’s Crypt, and Relic of Progenitus, but even that wasn’t good enough at fighting their post-board hate. If I were to play anti-dredge cards, it would be 4 Ravenous Traps, and just try to counter their Thoughtseizes. Ravenous Trap is the most annoying for them to deal with, because it requires them to play around something in play, and makes their Ancient Grudges into dead cards. Leyline of the Void is stronger in general, but incredibly more obvious (and also impossible to physically cast). They can play around it, and just draw off the top of their deck until they hit an Echoing Truth or Wipe Away (most versions don’t play Wipe Away though).

The Ghost Quarter comes in against any deck that has troublesome lands, since you can use it aggressively with Life from the Loam. It is also a great way to hold off Dark Depths from killing you “the old fashioned way,” while you build up resources and ways to handle Thopter Foundry. Celestial Purge doubles as a way to handle both sides of their combo, and can also be randomly good against Blood Moon decks, although you will have to float mana in response to the Blood Moon resolving.

Kitchen Finks and Firespout are great at helping you beat Zoo, or at least buying you enough time to set up your Thopter Sword combo. Engineered Explosives is great in combination with Firespout, because it helps you kill their early guys and mid or late game creatures. Firespout can hold off their aggressive start while Explosives kills their Tarmogoyfs or Knight of the Reliquary. Your Tarmogoyfs are great at playing defense early in the game, but try not to let him die to Lightning Bolt. If they use Path to Exile, that is fine, because you are ramping into your Gifts Ungiven or something similar, but there is no good excuse for letting Tarmogoyf die to Lightning Bolt.

Shadow of Doubt is almost primarily for Scapeshift, since it lets you counter their game ending spell even under Boseiju, which is one annoying land. You can also tutor for the Shadow of Doubt with Muddle the Mixture if necessary, giving you more virtual copies of it. Ghost Quarter can be used in tandem with counterspells to help get around Boseiju, but Scapeshift is probably one of your worst matchups overall. Negate helps a ton if they don’t have Boseiju, as well as being incredibly efficient against all other combo and control decks. Negate was a very late addition to the deck, and it has given me new hope when fighting against opposing Thopter Foundry decks, Mystical Teachings, and various other combos like Hive Mind. Lastly, the singleton Ancient Grudge is there so you can tutor it up (either with Muddle or Gifts), and has use even when they put it into the graveyard. It is great against opposing Thopters, and can singlehandedly blow out Affinity if you can just draw it, or tutor it up quickly enough. With Path to Exile as the best removal in the format, I don’t think Affinity is a very good decision for any upcoming tournament. That is something I had to learn the hard way.

If you want something new and interesting to play with, pick this deck up. It is incredibly fun, and can lead to a lot of interesting games. I’d recommend this for any die-hard control freak, as it gives you a ton of control over each decision tree, and gives you the ability to regularly outplay your opponent. I love this deck and I think you will love it too, even if it isn’t the “best” deck in the format. Sometimes you just need to have a little fun.

Thanks for reading.

strong sad on MTGO