Dead Last At The Invitational *8th*

Drew Levin placed 8th at the StarCityGames.com Invitational in Baltimore. Rather than a round-by-round tournament report, he recounts the most interesting stories that happened throughout the weekend.

“Remember that conversation from Dallas? You only ever want something until you get it. You think that getting to that point will make you happy, but once you get there it doesn’t. This doesn’t stop.”

Rather than talking about a 5-4 record in matches played in Legacy, about a 3-1 record in U/W Delver mirrors in the Invitational, or about how disgustingly good two byes are at a three-day tournament, it seems better to remember the stories. After all, the top finisher at the Invitational after Swiss rounds was Ben Friedman who went 13-2-1. The next best finisher was Nick Spagnolo who went 12-3-1. Neither of those records is good enough for a Grand Prix Top 8 nowadays.

The catch? Ben and Nick accomplished those records in a tournament with 143 people, not 1,430 people. Everyone who made Day 2 had to play against fully 10% of the field, ensuring that any player making a deep run in the tournament would battle the best that the StarCityGames.com Open Series circuit had to offer. In many ways, this was a tournament as much about stamina as about skill since a record of 11-4-1 made the Top 8. In a culture where players are used to giving up after their third loss, it’s hard to imagine fighting as hard for a win after picking up a fourth loss.

But enough about the Invitational’s unique structure and demands. Every tournament weekend has its stories, and this tournament weekend started on Friday morning, so it stands to reason that there would be even more stories to tell. To start off with a gem…

Patrick Sullivan Walking Corpses

When the inimitable PSullivan asked to stay for the East Coast Invitational, it was clear that there would be no shortage of good times. This visit was fresh on the heels of a memorable Grand Prix Indianapolis Saturday night on the town that Tom Martell, for the first (and only) time in his life, turned down in favor of sleep.

After arriving on Thursday morning, Pat began sussing out his Standard deck selection for the Invitational. His initial choice was R/G Aggro with Hellrider/Huntmaster, but that was too…green for him. Zombies, on the other hand, is a real red deck. You get Mortarpod (which is basically a fairer Goblin Bombardment), Geralf’s Messenger (your Fireblast in conjunction with exhibit A), and Walking Corpse.

Wait, Walking Corpse? Over Standard standouts like the Innovator’s Dross Hopper? Well, a quick Gatherer search had turned up relatively few Zombies with which to work, Pat was already maxed out on Highborn Ghouls and Mortarpods, and Skirsdag High Priest makes you want to hold back. Also, who plays Squire when they can play Grizzly Bears instead? Come on. Easy call.

The only problem? No physical Walking Corpses resided in his famed Red Box, so the bat signal went up on Facebook. Everyone was delighted to see such a request, but eventually a kind soul came through and promised to bring them to the Invitational the following morning.

The rub, of course, is that that person didn’t show up. With ten minutes to go until Pat had to come off of his round 1 bye to enter the fray, no Corpses were found to be walking about the tournament hall. The moment of truth had arrived: it was time to channel the inner Gerard Fabiano and crack some packs.

Pat slammed down a $20 bill, and it was on. A crowd gathered fairly quickly, as people knew what the game was at this point. Whereas many pack-crackers slow roll their rare, here it was proper to slow roll the commons section. First pack up? Liliana of the Veil, no Walking Corpse. Rats. Rebuy another seven packs with the Liliana, crack the remaining thirteen. One Walking Corpse, a few dual lands, not much else.

Another twenty-dollar bill, another seven packs. Crack, crack, crack. More dual lands, another Walking Corpse on the scoreboard. That is time in round 1, players! Active player, finish your turn. There are five additional turns. Time to sprint over to the buyers and see what they can do. Total value for the rares up to now? Twenty bucks in store credit. Back over to the booster column, seven more packs.

SCG Legacy Open: Washington, DC champion Austin Yost had joined in on the fun, so Pat tossed him the first of the seven new packs. Again, no Walking Corpse. Snapcaster Mage and foil Geist of Saint Traft were just a mockery at this point. Next pack? Snapcaster Mage, no Walking Corpse. Almost all of the matches were done, but Pat only gripped two of his four Walking Corpses. The next four packs each had Skeletal Grimaces and no Walking Corpses. Players, pairings for round 2 have been posted. Please find your seats. Finally, in the last pack, the third Walking Corpse!

Just then, Gerard came by and uttered the sweetest words known to man. “Hey Pat, you need a Walking Corpse, right? Might have one in a binder.” Fifteen seconds later, Pat was running off to the pairings board with four Walking Corpses in hand, foil Geist of Saint Traft and two Snapcaster Mages in his pocket, and forty fewer dollars in his wallet.

Naturally, Highborn Ghoul saw less playing time than Walking Corpse. Three people read Walking Corpse on the day, giving Pat the opening to tell them, “Look, man, it’s just a story—there’s a battle going on here!”

As always, well worth the price of admission.

Another card that deserves its own story on the weekend, though, is Sulfur Elemental.

Jarvis Yu’s Sulfur Elementals

In the weeks leading up to Grand Prix Indy, it was pretty clear that the three major decks of the format were U/W Stoneblade, RUG Delver, and G/W Maverick. As a tier one metagame, it was surprisingly exploitable—G/W was a favorite against both RUG and U/W, RUG was a favorite against U/W, and U/W was still popular because not enough people played G/W to punish everyone else for playing U/W.

That changed as the Grand Prix got closer. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben made her way into the G/W lists, solidifying a good matchup against RUG Delver and making a close-but-favorable matchup against U/W Stoneblade that much better. As RUG Delver was still a fine deck and Nimble Mongoose was still a great card, several people were still trying to make the deck beat G/W Maverick.

The problem with the matchup is straightforward: Delver can never kill a Knight of the Reliquary, so it has to race. It can’t realistically do the full twenty with creatures, so it has to hold onto its burn so that it can go upstairs with Chain Lightning and Lightning Bolt later in the game. The problem, quite simply, is Mother of Runes.

Mother of Runes roadblocks a Mongoose or a Tarmogoyf early and protects a Knight of the Reliquary late. Game 1 is pretty close to unwinnable for RUG outside of an early and unanswered Delver of Secrets. After sideboarding RUG has access to Submerge, which is an amazing card if Mother of Runes isn’t in play. So how can RUG beat a Mother of Runes and a Thalia, Guardian of Thraben?

Jarvis Yu came up with Sulfur Elemental as a joke, but it stuck around. Sulfur Elemental seemed a little too narrow to play in a format where it was basically only good against one of the top three decks as a way to set up your actually good sideboard card. So it got shelved.

This weekend was different, though. The rise of Lingering Souls (thanks Tom Martell!) meant that U/W players went extinct in a weekend, replaced entirely by Esper Lingering Souls players. Being able to board in Sulfur Elemental against both non-mirror top-tier matchups—Esper and G/W—meant that playing three Elementals was a very realistic proposition. Submerge could come in against the mirror and G/W, Sulfur Elemental could come in against G/W and Esper, and those horrific Counterbalances and Tops could get out of the deck because the format was defined (yet again) by three-drops.

So how did Sulfur Elemental perform at the Invitational? To put it simply, its presence was always the decisive factor of a game against Esper or G/W one way or another. Sulfur Elemental is worth playing in any RUG Delver sideboard for as long as Lingering Souls and Mother of Runes continue to dominate in Legacy.

If you’re not interested in Sulfur Elementals, though, perhaps you’d enjoy the perspective of someone who’s a bit new to Legacy combo decks and doesn’t understand what all the hubbub is about…

Ben Isgur’s Doomsday

After the conclusion of the Swiss rounds on Saturday, Pat Sullivan led a group of people out to dinner. Ben Isgur, a WoW TCG grinder and two-time Invitational Top 16 finisher, was considering what to play in the SCG Legacy Open the next day and considered playing Storm aloud. He asked the table, “Why doesn’t Storm win that often? It seems like a deck that just crushes all the fair decks. It can’t be that hard to play—it’s all basic math.”

Pat chimed in, “The problem with Storm, really, is that goldfishing is easy but interacting—that is, accounting for their Daze or Spell Pierce or whatever—is way more mentally taxing than you think it’ll be.”

“Why don’t people play Doomsday? That seems like a good card that no one uses.”

“Well, tutoring five times and stacking your deck is harder than it sounds, and it sounds pretty hard to me.”

“It still seems pretty easy to kill people every time.”

Naturally, Ben came over on Sunday and owned up to having just executed a sequence involving Lion’s Eye Diamond, Infernal Tutor for Ad Nauseam, and passing without casting his five-mana spell. The moral of the story? Combo is harder than it looks, folks. Ari may make it look easy, but that doesn’t make it so. Most mere mortals should probably stick to attacking, blocking, and Brainstorming—you know, the easy stuff.

“That’s easy!” you might say. “Ben didn’t have the mana to cast his spell. Anyone can lose from that spot. How about someone losing from a spot where they have their opponent dead to their combo?”

Well, if you insist…

Mike Flores Dread Return or Zack Hall’s Jedi Mind Trick

This one generated a bit of a buzz on Twitter after the Invitational. Jon Finkel went after Zack Hall on the social network saying, “It looks like Zack Hall cheated [author name="Mike Flores"]Mike Flores[/author] pretty bad. Haven’t heard his side but have heard enough to be willing to say it publicly.”

So what happened here? As heard from both sides, the facts are these:

  • It’s a round of the Invitational where people are playing Legacy. Flores and Hall were playing their sanctioned match.
  • Flores had an Aether Vial with one counter on it. It was Hall’s end step and Zack was tapped out. Flores Vialed down Nomads en-Kor.
  • Flores untapped, ticked Vial to two, Vialed in Cephalid Illusionist, and flashed Hall Force of Will and a blue card while saying, “I’ve got ya,” implying that Hall was dead to his combo.
  • Hall said, “Show me.”
  • Flores flipped over his entire deck—effectively shortcutting the three-by-three-by-three iteration of Nomads en-Kor targeting Cephalid Illusionist—pulled out his Narcomoebas, and showed Hall that he had the ability to Dread Return his The Mimeoplasm (removing Murderous Redcap and Lord of Extinction) to dome Zack for more than his life total.
  • Zack then pointed out that Flores was in his upkeep.

The upshot is that Flores lost that game to not being able to draw his card. Zack’s play was either brilliant, scummy, or outright cheating depending on your perspective. Here’s the major issue at play:

The phrase, “Show me [whatever you say afterwards],” has the implied suffix of “…and if you do, you win immediately.” By not conceding after using the phrase, “Show me,” Zack violated a part of Magic’s social contract.

Why is that part of the social contract there in the first place? Well, people hate playing Magic when they’re dead. It’s not fun for either person involved. As a result, the social contract of competitive Magic has evolved to circumvent unnecessary play. If Player A has Player B dead to Player B’s degree of satisfaction, Player B can agree to concede the game. The phrase, “Show me,” is coded language for, “You win if you have it.”

“It” can be a Tendrils of Agony, a Lightning Bolt, a Force of Will, or anything else. The phrase is also used as a way to verify that the soon-to-be-victorious player actually possesses the means of killing the interrogator. “Show me your win condition,” is a socially contracted request both because it saves the victor the time of going through the mechanics of actually killing the interrogator and because it provides the interrogator with the information of what mechanism they will be killed by—in this case, Dread Return for The Mimeoplasm removing Lord of Extinction and Murderous Redcap.

Zack’s play was either brilliant because he tricked his combo opponent (who had him dead) into committing suicide, scummy because he chose words that would create the impression of guaranteed victory in Flores’s mind, or cheating because Zack knew he couldn’t win unless he gave Flores the impression that he would concede by using very specific language and then not following through on his implied promise.

Zack surely could’ve chosen his words better, but Flores also could’ve just drawn his card for the turn and killed him. It was only because Flores was trying to save both his and Zack’s time that he lost, which is why public sentiment is likely to judge Zack harshly. Had Zack simply said, “Do it,” instead of using the meaning-laden phrase, “Show me,” this whole debacle could have been avoided.

And finally, as a fitting way to cap off the weekend’s event, the rare story about making money off of the town of Baltimore.

It’s Sunday night well after the parking garage’s attendants have left their booths. The car has been parked in the same garage for three days, so it’ll presumably cost around $60 to retrieve it. Of course, the garage’s lost-ticket price is $20, so it makes sense to shoot for that.

After driving down to an empty booth and pressing the button for assistance, a surly voice rings out into the garage:


No inflection, no question mark, nothing. Just a very tired, monotone, uninterested, “What.”

“Uh, yes, lost ticket?”

Silence. Then a *boop*. The screen that was demanding a ticket had changed to something fairly reminiscent of a Monopoly board:


Have a nice evening.”

The lever swung up, the gate ascended, and Pat asked for his seven dollars back. Goodbye, Baltimore.

Until next week,

Drew Levin

@drewlevin on Twitter