Deconstructing Constructed – Tales From The PTQ: Running With Plans

Read Josh Silvestri every Tuesday... at StarCityGames.com!
This weekend I attended the first PTQ in Northern California of the season, because it literally wasn’t even scheduled until recently. To get the obvious out of the way, I lost. I went 3-0 then 0-2, drop, because I was so annoyed after round 5 that I most likely would’ve just played like garbage the next two rounds anyway. I played W/G Aggro heavily metagamed against U/G and Pickles. I’d been working on it for the past few weeks, tweaking for the expected metagame…

This weekend I attended the first PTQ in Northern California of the season, because it literally wasn’t even scheduled until recently. To get the obvious out of the way, I lost. I went 3-0 then 0-2, drop, because I was so annoyed after round 5 that I most likely would’ve just played like garbage the next two rounds anyway. I played W/G Aggro heavily metagamed against U/G and Pickles. I’d been working on it for the past few weeks, tweaking for the expected metagame.

Here’s the list I played:

I’ll go over deck specific choices later, but at least now you have a clear view of what I was playing. For now, here’s a quick n’ dirty report. Sorry, but I didn’t keep my notes after the PTQ, so this is mainly memory with no names attached.

Round 1: Relic Teachings
Game 1: He doesn’t make any major mistakes and blows me out.

In comes Disenchant and Rebuff the Wicked.

Game 2: I rush him down with Tarmogoyf and Griffin Guide. He can’t get Urborg until late, where he finally casts Damnation, but I finish him with Stonewood on a Griffin Guide token.

Game 3: He keeps a risky hand of two land and Relic, and draws the 3rd to play Relic, but I have the Disenchant. Saffi, Tarmogoyf, and Serra Avenger knock him down to eight. He then finds the 4th land and goes for Tendrils, but I Rebuff it and swing for lethal.

Round 2: G/W Mirror
Game 1: I get a Griffin Guide on a large man first. I win shortly after.

In comes the Rebel package.

Game 2: I end up in a long stalemate; after dropping consecutive Llanowar Reborn and then accidentally fetching a Forest instead of a Plains, which makes me play a two-drop instead of a Calciderm on turn 4 (Nice. Play.). Despite the setback; and the phantasmal nature of my Beasts, the 6/6 Calciderms allow me to hold off a significantly sized army until I can get Serra Avenger and Griffin Guide out to help force damage through.

Finally I get out an Amrou Scout, and I can finally gain some card advantage and start handling the board position. My opponent then casts Timbermare and bashes me down to five, while laying his second Goyf to join about four other large monsters. I untap, Bound his Goyf, swing for eleven, and then Stonewood for his remaining life.

Round 3: U/G Aggro
Game 1: This is a freebie, as he arrives about five minutes after the round has started and gets a game loss. Apparently the Italian place near Parkside Hall in SJ is slooooooow; just a warning for those heading to the GP this weekend.

Real Game 1: His only relevant play is Looter-Il Kor after I sweep his Cloudskate back to his deck, and I quickly beat the crap out of him with Griffin Guide and Avenger.

Round 4: U/G Shifter
My opponent ended up making Top 8 with an interesting Shifter build that was like Mono-Blue Pickles, but with Llanowar Reborn, Wall of Roots, and Tarmogoyf instead of some of the, ahem, “weaker” Mono-Blue Pickles cards. It was an interesting plan and threw a big monkey wrench into my typical plan of senseless violence, since Wall of Roots can block handily.

Game 1: I mull to five. He plays Wall of Roots. Figure it out yourself.

In comes Disenchant for Arrows and the fourth Sunlance.

Game 2: Once again I must point out that his deck runs Wall of Roots. He has two of them, and a twice-grafted Vesuvan Shapeshifter. I lose quite badly when he can copy any of my men and have it be much bigger than the original.

Round 5: G/W/R Justice (Predator)
This opponent actually made the finals of the PTQ (Phillip Lam, I believe) and was probably the cleanest technical player I saw in the tournament (other than Web).

Game 1: Guys swing into one another and look menacing at times. Eventually I have to beat a Kavu Predator (3/3 plus Grove in play), Tarmogoyf, and Mire Boa while I have a Serra Avenger, Tarmogoyf, and Scryb Ranger. He’s at 17 and I’m at 12. I set it up so I make Timbermare, use Scryb untap my Avenger, and swing for eight. He swings back and, by using the Scryb’s untap ability and another flashed Scryb for blockers, I fall to six or so. After that, Timbermare dies and I rip Stonewood Invocation like a champ. He has four open mana, including Red, and one of his lands is a Horizon Canopy. I swing with my living Scryb and my Avenger. Now, the proper play is pretty simple here. Just cast Stonewood on Scryb to prevent him from being able to use Dead off Canopy cycling and deal 9 for the game. Instead, my brain thinks about the unlikely possibility that he has Dead in hand, in which case I get blown out completely when he bounces Avenger.

Of course, this is unlikely, and the more pressing matter is to go for the throat here, because if he rips one of 7-8 cards off his next two draws, I die. My brain shuts off, and I make a poor play: I cast it on Serra Avenger. He cycles Canopy, and the Dead is on top (obviously). I lose my Scryb. Despite this set-back, I still had Avenger and Goyf as blockers, and enough life to survive an opposing alpha strike (assuming he had no more burn). Then Timbermare in my hand comes down and finishes the game anyway.

He untaps, thinks for a few minutes then swings with everything. I block what I have to in order to live – big Preds and Goyf – and take two from Boa, and one trample damage… and then get hit by Disintegrate. I appreciate the fact that he took the time to think of any outs I might have with one White mana at instant speed (none), and making sure a burn to the dome for one less than my life total at the time would’ve done me in post-attack, but still. After the mistake I’d made, this was some sort of karmic retribution. I was made to sit there for a few minutes*, with a faint hope that I could salvage my terribleness. Instead, I die anyway.

* P.S. Demonfire you

Game 2: He has removal and I don’t. This tends to matter in a long game.

I drop. Wheeeeeee. At least I don’t have to play block any more! … Oh right, Grand Prix in San Jose next weekend. Damn.

The reason I configured the deck as I did was so I could be sure to smash U/G Aggro and Pickles, both of which I expected en masse. Also, the Rebel sideboard in could come in against the G/W mirror, and Amrou Scout is better than Riftsweeper in any non-Blue match. The quad-Stonewood and triple-Timbermare were my choices to give the W/G deck “reach” against control builds, and just finish off an opponent in a turn or two if the board stalemated and the opponent’s life was low. The maindeck Sunlance was largely because it would kill Morphs, Slivers, etc – basically a lot of the creatures that aren’t handled well by Isolation. Not to mention that “dead” is better than “gets Disenchanted or bounced down the line.”

Am I going to play this deck minus some of the insane amount of Pickles hate? Possibly. Maybe I’ll just go with the G/W/R deck and hope the mana doesn’t catch up with me over nine rounds.

The top tables of the PTQ and the GPTs all season have been very diverse, ranging from Teachings to Pickles to G/W/R Goyf to R/G Scryb & Force to U/G Shifter, and so on. There’s slightly more Pickles and G/W (or G/W/R or G/R) Goyf near the top.

As for people I met at the PTQ, there was the usual suspects you see at every major Nor Cal tournament. LSV was judging, which meant I got to hassle plenty of people throughout the day. I also met Brainburst Writer / Editor / Judge Riki Hayashi, who was also judging at the PTQ. Chatting with him was good fun, after wracking my brain for the PTQ (and considering the depressing end to it all). I don’t have any crazy Sanchez stories though, so I’ll just leave with the note that my friend Mark continued his unbeaten streak against opponents that don’t show up.

As for the second part of this article, it was something I picked up on after playing in a number of Tenth Edition Sealed pools, and it was reinforced at the PTQ. When you’re playing an opponent, you always want to have a plan in mind and a general idea of what the opponent’s plan is, or you’ll be at a major disadvantage throughout the match from a strategic point of view.

People are typically either really stubborn with their plans, or they don’t even come up with one to begin with. In fighting games, that part is pretty simple. You figure out what the opponent’s strategy is and apply one that’s likely to trump or counter it. Of course, this takes out a sense of execution, but at least it gives you an idea. The point is that, in high-level fighting games, opponents are simply going to bash your face in with the most damaging, safe, and efficient combos available. This is because they’ve already thought of a plan before the game has started. This would be the equivalent of having a “deck plan” that you’re trying to accomplish. It’s the characteristics you gain by playing X or Y deck in the first place.

My general plan in the G/W versus G/W/R match is to gain air superiority and pop through as much damage as possible. They have more large creatures than you, but thankfully Mystic Enforcer is almost a non-factor if they don’t have Edge of Autumn in hand. They also have removal, which means getting into a stalemate isn’t a valid plan, unlike in the G/W mirror where a ground stall can lead people to make really terrible decisions if they believe they have the advantage in a combat situation.

For example, in game 1 my plan was to simply keep my life high enough and get a board position that looking threatening, so my opponent wouldn’t simply say “f*** it” and keep swinging into me over and over. My plan was to get to a point where I could alpha strike him out over the matter of, say, two turns [So, an Alpha and Beta Strike? — Craig.]. I got to that point because I was following that plan of aggression, and it would’ve worked if not for my own failings.

Another thing to consider is highlighted by a recent Tenth Edition Sealed Premier Even I recently played. I had a U/W/r build, and was up against B/U/R. The game came down to the fact that I was never going to battle past Looming Shade on the ground, but I had Faerie Conclave and Rootwater Commando, and a Lava Axe in hand. Then my opponent dropped Phage. The plan I had been working at for most of the game was “get him to five” to avoid his huge bombs down the road. My plan wasn’t going to change. Instead of moving to the “beat Phage” plan, like a lot of people would try (by trading most of their board position and thus dying to Looming Shade anyway), I simply modified my existing plan. I swung to take him to 9, played a blocker and kept Holy Day in hand. He cast Terror on my blocker and I cast Holy Day when he swung into me. My opponent merely blew up my Commando with a second removal spell and won the game next turn after I tried to lay another blocker. But at least I had a goal that could conceivably win me the game if he didn’t have that extra removal in hand.

The idea is that at some point you’ll modify your existing plan from time to time to cope with what the opponent throws at you. Too many times, especially in Limited, I see people waste valuable resources on stuff like tempo or card advantage, doing stuff that’s not directly advancing their plan. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t look for an opportunity to do this stuff, because sometimes it will advance your plan or allow you to pursue a different course of action. But so many people seem to treat games in some binary purely mathematical aspect. “I drop guys here, then I play a spell to kill that guy because I can, and… um… yeah.” For some reason, whenever decks don’t have tutors, it’s hard for some players to envision having a “plan” without it being as plain as the nose on their face.

Speaking of Tenth Edition Sealed, what the heck is the deal with most of the players in the Premier Events? I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people walk into Holy Day, fall for the Alpha Strike, or ignore the threat of Hail of Arrows before. It’s almost as if they know it’s coming too, considering how many people seem to like sub-par discard like Distress (or if they’ve simply been wrecked by it game 1). I’m pretty bad at reading if people have tricks, but sometimes I wonder if the opponents are even trying to think about possible tricks in hand (past the obvious removal bluffs). “Gee, my opponent has three cards in hand and a small board with seven untapped mana… my side is loaded with one- and two-toughness men, because I apparently think Goblin Piker and Grizzly Bears are the bee’s knees. Obviously I should swing straight into it; oh, and I’d better throw in the Giant Spider too… it has four toughness after all, so nothing can kill it!”

I’m not saying that everyone is like this, but a lot of sealed decks I’ve seen try far too hard to brawl in the early game. Sure, sometimes it’ll get you there, if you happen to have a solid pool with removal and you’re able to rush the other guy before he can stabilize. I’ve seen that happen quite a lot in replays, and it explains why a decent number of people doing well in the PE’s are on the play each game. Of course, when they run into a deck with say… oh, I don’t know, Walls… this strategy is big failure.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Congratulations to Peter Olszewski (DicemanX on TMD) for winning the Legacy Championships, and to Rich Mattiuzzo (Shockwave), Steve “Smmenycakes” Menendian, and Rich Shay for their performances in the Vintage Championships. I’ll be at the GP in San Jose (they really shouldn’t name it GP: SF… it’s not even close), so if you attend, come by and say hi.

Josh Silvestri
Team Reflection
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom