Constructed Criticism – Leveling Up

Claim your territory at The 2009's State and Provincial Championships!
Monday, November 30th – Think back to the time when you first started playing Magic… Go ahead, wander down memory lane. You’d seen your friends play the game before, whether it was at school or at someone’s house. You thought to yourself that it might be interesting to try. You borrow a friend’s deck and get to battling. Obviously, never having played the game before, you get beaten pretty handily, but you learn…

Think back to the time when you first started playing Magic… Go ahead, wander down memory lane. You’d seen your friends play the game before, whether it was at school or at someone’s house. You thought to yourself that it might be interesting to try. You borrow a friend’s deck and get to battling. Obviously, never having played the game before, you get beaten pretty handily, but you learn. You get better. You evolve. You get interested.

After getting to know the basic rules and learning different things about the game, you decide to dive into the water. You go to the local comic shop to buy a starter deck, with the help of friends. They tell you what sets are new and what cards are good, and they’re more than willing to trade you their Craw Wurms for your Wrath of God that you ripped out of your first booster pack! Who needs to kill creatures? I want huge monsters! This kind of logic is where we all started. You have to start somewhere, so why not start here?

As you keep playing with your friends, you figure out certain important aspects of the game that others aren’t grasping. You learn about playing more lands in certain decks, and that attacking with creatures is the easiest way to win a game. You learn that playing burn spells is fun, but you also learn about resource management. You also learn that counterspells are very powerful, but usually not fun for the other person (and taboo in most casual games). You also learn that there is a bigger community of players around your town, and that you should probably be playing against different people if you want to get better. You also expand your ability to trade, and think of card prices rather than just what the cards do in the game. You become better with time, and eventually start beating all of your friends on a regular basis.

As you become the alpha male of your group, you decide that you’re probably good enough to enter into that local tournament that’s held every Sunday afternoon at your local shop. You go there to learn about different formats, including Standard. You aren’t prepared to play this week, because you’ve only just learned that certain cards aren’t allowed into your deck. No worries. You’re sure that you can change a few cards here and there and probably be okay, but you have to play the same deck. It’s your baby, your pet. You just beat your friends over and over, so why should these guys be any different?

This is the story of me and how I started playing Magic. I didn’t start off in an environment dominated by tournament sharks, but with my friends on a literal kitchen table. We used to play large multiplayer games into early morning hours, only to have our mothers get angry at us for staying up all night. I remember casting Sol’Kanar the Swamp King and Prodigal Sorcerer. I remember having incredible amounts of fun with my friends playing a game that was brand new to me. But, for me, this was not enough. Playing a game just to be playing it has never been my cup of tea. When I play a game, I want to win. So, what did I do to get better? I surrounded myself with people who were better than me, and learned about local tournaments. The first of which was a weekly Standard tournament that happened every Sunday, where everyone would pay $5 and the Top 4 would get a prize.

When I first started playing at my local shop, the better players were using it as playtesting for upcoming tournaments, and the format would mimic whatever tournament was approaching. At the time I began, States was the tournament on the horizon, and Standard was the format of choice. Invasion Block had just completed, and Odyssey had just been released. There were tons of popular decks at my local store, but my favorite was my Green/Red Kavu deck. It used Fires of Yavimaya, much like the deck that had previously dominated Standard with Blastoderm and Saproling Burst, but played tons of Kavu in place of the “better” creatures. However, I had some pretty sick combos, such as Horned Kavu to bounce Flametongue Kavu. On top of that, I used Horned Kavu to pump my Kavu Monarch, and swung over for tons of trampling damage. At the time, I couldn’t afford Birds of Paradise, so I used Quirion Elves instead. After doing pretty well at the small Sunday tournament, some of the new guys I had met were more than happy to help me tune my deck for upcoming events. Even though I couldn’t yet afford 4 Birds of Paradise, or even Karplusan Forests, I had new people to trade with! I’d opened plenty of Spiritmongers and Pernicious Deeds out of Apocalypse packs, and traded away my chase rares for cards that played well with my Green/Red deck.

This is where I really started to hang out with my now-best-friend Blair, who ended up being the Best Man at my wedding. I was only 15 at the time, so he had to drag me around whenever there was a Magic tournament to attend, and we became fast friends, even though there was a pretty sizable age-difference between the two of us (I was 15 and he was 23). Blair helped me become a better Magic player, if only because he forced me to constantly evaluate the cards I played in my deck. I learned about maximum efficiency and playing the best cards possible. If I wanted to win, these were things that I must learn and must remember at all times. I was not even close to being perfect when it came to game play, and started off small. Blair taught me that Kavu were not necessarily the best option for a Green/Red aggressive deck in Standard at the time, so I changed my deck tremendously before States. It still had Flametongue Kavu and Kavu Titan in it, but no longer played the worse Kavu that I had so hopelessly clung to for no real reason other than familiarity.

This is where the two worlds of Casual and Competitive Magic collide. Casual players argue for cards that are more fun and provide more interesting game scenarios, while the Competitive players argue for the cards that ultimately end the game in your favor, even if those cards lead to particularly unfun games (see Stasis). The State Championships of Magic are a great place for these two worlds to mingle! States is a great gateway tournament for newer players, while still providing good competition and prizes for the more competitive players. This is where I really started to learn the rules, and where I had the toughest competition at the beginning of my Magic career. Newer players should come into a tournament like States expecting to have fun, do reasonably well, and hang out with new and old friends alike. If you do poorly, just shake it off! Learn from your experience and gain something from it! If you don’t get out much to tournaments, it can be a great introduction into the feeling of the tournament scene, while being much more forgiving than PTQs or Grands Prix. Most people are there to battle and have a good time!

At my first States, I can vividly remember waking up early for the 80 mile drive. Testing the night before had gotten me to the point where I really liked my deck, and felt confident in its strength. Before the tournament some weeks prior, an old friend of mine named Dusty Updike taught me that, in an undefined format, aggressive decks (particularly Ponza) were strong choices for medium sized tournaments. “There is no such thing as an incorrect threat, only incorrect answers.” While he did not originate that quote, it still resonates with me today, especially in our current Standard format. Control decks are really struggling, even though the format has been “defined.” When he told me that playing Green/Red Aggro was a good option, I respected his words, and especially so when he decided to play a very similar deck. Mind you, who wouldn’t want to play with Shivan Wurm? 7/7 Tramplers are so much fun to play!

In the actual tournament, I remember going 5-2, and my two losses were due to me making some huge errors in gameplay as well as judgment. For example, I got too excited when I had topdecked a Tangle to lock down my opponents two Spiritmongers and I literally didn’t wait for him to tap his creatures to attack. When he touched them with his hands, I slammed it down on the table, and he opted to keep his guys back on defense. I disputed, but the judge ruled in his favor.

I also remember in the same tournament using Earthquake to kill a Kickered Kavu Titan, Shivan Wurm, and multiple other creatures in one huge blowout. I remember watching my friend Blair lose in the finals to an almost carbon copy of my deck, even though he had beaten me pretty mercilessly in playtesting. I watched, learned, and decided that I loved this game enough to try harder. I wanted to be better. This was Ground Zero for my Magic career, and I remember exactly how bad missing out on Top 8 felt.

I remember having tons of fun playing this brand new game with brand new friends. Isn’t that what States is all about? States captures the essence of where Magic begins, as well as it can catapult you to new heights. Sure, winning doesn’t grant you entry into a larger tournament, but the prize this year, as well as last year, is huge for anyone attempting to really step up their game. The prize:

The winner of each State Championship receives free entry into all premier level Constructed tournaments until the next State Championships one year later.

This means free PTQs, free Grands Prix, and even free side events at big events (usually limited to one per day). Winning States last year was one of my best accomplishments in the game, and gave me the confidence I needed to start trekking around the Southeast, getting better and trying to qualify for the next Pro Tour. I literally played 9 Extended PTQs in 3 months, which is not a very easy thing to do. Considering they all would have cost me $25, I saved $225 in just a short period of time. If you calculate the entire year’s worth of Constructed events, you could easily save $1000 if you really try, especially if you can travel to larger events and play in Constructed side events.

This past year has been a whirlwind for me, and it all started with winning Alabama States. Having free reign to travel around the US, knowing that I’m saving tons of money, and playing against broader fields of competition really launched my game into the next level. I can thank States for that.

I’m not an established pro, and I’m not even qualified for the next Pro Tour, but I have the heart enough to try. I’ve been grinding for years, and playing in two Pro Tours in a row didn’t get me on the Gravy Train, so I get to move back to square one. Luckily, I have a bit more knowledge and humility, as well as more friends and more drive. The fire in my belly will not be easily quenched, and I can honestly say that States is what started that fire, both in the beginning, and its resurgence last year.

States has always used the Standard format, and this year is no different. In previous years, States has been the proving ground for new decks, usually occurring right after the release of an entire new set, and the rotation of an entire Block. This year is a bit different, because there have been a few higher-level tournaments that will probably shape the format. This will surely have both positive and negative effects on the metagame, but if you can predict the metagame, you can build your deck to beat it. However, the decks in the tournament are much more likely to be fine-tuned than those in years past. Traditionally, that is how most tournaments are when you venture into brand new formats. It takes people a few weeks to carve out the best decks and best decklists out of what has been presented to them. This year, States will be much more of a “real” tournament, and probably much more difficult to win than in times past.

As far as the deck I am going to play, I still have no real idea. I liked the Eldrazi deck, but I just got steamrolled at Worlds. When people figure out how to beat you, it isn’t really that difficult, since your deck is so linear. Sure, you have synergy and powerful cards, but cards like Blightning and Earthquake are just so amazing against you. Jund is obviously a decent choice, because it has the highest consistency, and that is probably something you should look for in a deck like States, since you should be able to outplay your average participant. But, if everyone is playing the “Naya Lightsaber” deck, Jund might be a really bad choice. As it is the deck that won Worlds (even though the tournament was a mix of formats), it could be more popular than you might expect. It did beat a lot of Jund decks piloted by some of the best the players the world has to offer. Control decks are almost a joke, since simple aggressive decks with a few problematic or disruptive cards can put you really far behind. Goblin Ruinblaster alone has changed how people build their decks, much like Anathemancer last year. With the dual lands of choice being fetchlands, Anathemancer has really taken a backseat to the Avalanche Rider-Goblin.

So, the real choice you have to make is this: what deck beats all of the other aggressive decks? If you can find that answer, then you will probably be holding the plaque and playing free tournaments for the next year. Cedric Phillips deck from Worlds looked really strong, almost like the Eldrazi deck but much more explosive. Lotus Cobra is just a powerful card, and Cedric’s deck does a great job utilizing his busted potential.

I’m really hoping that this Standard format doesn’t degenerate into “who can play the best threats for as many consecutive turns as possible,” since that kind of Magic is very boring and can lead to stale and uninteresting metagames. The Eldrazi deck presented a few new ideas for people to consider, since Eldrazi Monument is an insane card that everyone was undervaluing. It just played monsters and attacked, but it did that very, very well.

Conley Woods Magical Christmas Land deck seems pretty incredible to me. I’m not sold on his straight land destruction plan, but swiftly accelerating into a turn 4 Violent Ultimatum is a very interesting prospect. There have been similar decks that tried to abuse Khalni Heart Expedition and Harrow using Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, but they were just too slow, and usually folded to Goblin Ruinblaster or Acidic Slime. Conley’s deck folds to neither, and usually puts the opponent into an unwinnable situation in a hurry, and especially so if they stumble on any of their early land drops. Lavaball Trap might be a card to consider adding to the deck, since it functions like a sweeper than also contributes to the land destruction plan. Rampaging Baloth and Ob Nixilis are fine win conditions, since your opponent will usually not have enough resources to deal with them after all of your lands end up in the graveyard.

Whatever deck you decide to play, just remember one thing: This tournament is all about having fun and learning about the game. It’s a great introduction to tournament Magic, and you should encourage all of your friends to come, even those that strictly play “kitchen table” Magic. States is a great environment, and the prizes are worth it. To boot, you usually don’t have to travel too far, since it is a State Championship after all (excluding California, Texas, and Alaska). I plan on coming into the tournament with a good attitude, and ready to defend my State title. Kali insists that she is going to crush me in the finals. We’ll see…

Thanks for reading.

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