Deja Vu

Team SCG member and Hall of Famer Gabriel Nassif tells you about how he continued his streak of near misses at Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze, where he played Bant Control to 13th place.

I’ve been part of PokerStars’ French online team for the past year and a half now, and I’ve had a few more obligations than in the past. I was part of a TV poker reality show and flew to the south of Portugal fifteen days before the Pro Tour to coach the contestants for a week. I’ve also been on a fairly long downswing, and I felt like putting a ton of volume in was one of the keys to getting out of it. Add a slight addiction to Dota 2 and you don’t have much time left to battle on Magic Online.

The truth is, though, that I think I’ve lost my motivation to playtest mostly because I feel like no matter how hard I try, I’m going to end up making a blunder and will fall short in the end like I have a few too many times in the past four years.

Ironically enough, I started that streak of near misses in San Diego back in 2010 when I began off the tournament with a perfect record of 8-0 before drafting a horrible deck on day 2, going 0-3, and losing my first round of Standard as well. I managed to rally, beating my good friend Paul Rietzl in round 15, and I was given a chance to redeem myself since a couple of players with four losses would make it into the Top 8. I threw that chance away by taking a poor line in the deciding game against the Netherlands’ Jeroen Kanis in the last round of the Swiss.

I had put in a lot of testing for that tournament, working with Patrick Chapin and Mark Herberholz, but I wouldn’t be as prepared this time around. I was hoping it wouldn’t hurt as badly if I didn’t feel as invested. I also knew I could rely on my teammates to come up with something good, and they definitely delivered. I would play the same deck in a heartbeat.

I played my first draft with the new set on the Friday before the Pro Tour and hadn’t played a single game of Block Constructed before I got to San Diego, but I still felt confident in my chances to do well in the tournament. For the first time, our entire team was running the same deck, and even Sam Black wasn’t even really brewing anymore by the time I joined them. Unsurprisingly, it looked like I was going to be battling with Jace by my side yet again.

#TeamSCG had rented an incredible beach house for the four days leading up to the PT, and even though I didn’t get to enjoy the hot tub, Jelger and I enjoyed a nice run on the beach on Thursday morning.

I also felt like I had a decent grasp on the Draft format despite very little practice. My strategy is the same as it has been for almost every Draft format: to not force any specific colors and to try stay open as long as possible, hopefully resulting in a well-curved two-color deck or two colors with a small splash. I felt it was a shame I didn’t have any experience drafting the Four/Five-Color deck aka “full mongo,” but I was fine with it.

Herberholz, who lives in San Diego now and works for Stone Blade Entertainment alongside Brian Kibler and Patrick Sullivan but wasn’t qualified for the Pro Tour, picked up Jelger, Chapin and me on Wednesday night and went out to dinner, but he wasn’t allowed to hang out with us back at the house because of an overly paranoiac fear of him leaking information.

I obviously vouched for him and would have understood the reaction if it had been few weeks before the PT since it might have made his interactions with his coworkers a bit awkward at times when discussing the format, but there was no chance of him leaking anything about our deck with one day left. I decided to let it go, though, as I didn’t feel it was my place to force the issue with how little I had been involved in the testing process. If anything, Mark’s presence and hindsight would have probably been profitable to the group.

We played all day on Thursday. I got a couple of drafts in, as well as my first handful of games of Constructed. I liked how the deck felt and the fact that there weren’t too many complicated choices. Not everyone agreed on the last few slots in our maindeck and sideboard (you can listen to a conversation about it here), but this is what I ended up playing:

I woke up feeling pretty good on Friday morning and found out I was at the featured draft table when seatings were posted. You can go through my draft here.

My toughest pick was the first pick of the draft, and I decided to go with Rubblebelt Maaka even though I think Alive // Well and Kraul Warrior are better cards. I was hoping to either dip into white and cut Boros pack 1 to get rewarded in the second pack or go into Rakdos or Izzet if I got some good cards from those guilds late in the first pack. Gruul was out of the question given the next five best cards in my first pack were green. I hesitated with a few other picks during the draft, especially Ember Beast over Sepulchral Primordial pack 2 pick 2 and Rakdos’s Return over Frostburn Weird pick 1 pack 3, but I think I ended up making the right choices.

Blake Rasmussen actually featured my draft, and you can find his article here.

I got paired against Pablo Criado from Spain in round 1. Pablo was playing in his first Pro Tour, and I think he attacked way too aggressively in game 1, taking a lot of damage for no reason. He also misplayed his Runner’s Bane, enchanting my Riot Piker when I probably would have had to “chump attack” it into one of his guys. Game 2 he just got screwed, and I won a Pro Tour first round for the first time in a while and ensured my tiebreakers wouldn’t be the nut-low for once.

I got the text feature match against Martin Juza in round 2, which you can find here.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t as lucky in round 3 against Swedish phenomenon Denniz Rachid. He blew me out with a Golgari Charm in game 1, getting my Madcap Skilled Riot Piker as well my Spike Jester, but I was able to dodge one of his few removal spells in game 2 after I went all-in on that same Spike Jester and made him an 8/2 with Madcap Skill and Deviant Glee.

I mulliganed into oblivion game 3, but I’m not sure I could have won that game even if I picked the Top 10 cards of my deck since he led with Kraul Warrior into Give // Take and also had an Augur Spree to prevent any Aura shenanigans.

I was happy with my 2-1 record since I felt I had the kind of deck that has a lot of potential but can easily fall apart and 0-3 if you don’t’ draw well enough.

Round 4 vs. Per Carlsson (Sweden)

Per was playing the Swedish Maze’s End deck with a ton of maindeck removal spells, and I was able to kill him a turn or two before he could assemble the Gates in game 1 mostly thanks to a timely Aetherling and the fact that he missed his fourth land drop for a few turns. I was a bit worried since I barely got him despite him missing land drops, but the extra counterspells helped and I was able to win my first Constructed match.

Sideboarding: – 1 Angel of Serenity – 3 Detention Sphere – 4 Supreme Verdict, + 2 Advent of the Wurm + 2 Cancel + 1 Syncopate + 2 Dispel + 1 Maze’s End

Round 5 vs. Patrick Sullivan (USA)

I expected Patrick to be playing an aggressive deck, and I was happy to keep an opening hand of seven with a two-drop and at least one three-drop. He won the die roll and led a one-drop into Burning-Tree Emissary + Firefist Striker, but I was able to Detention Sphere two Emissarys when he played another one on his third turn. He added another creature to the board, but I drew a Supreme Verdict to clear the board while still at a fairly healthy life total. He didn’t have an answer to my follow-up Loxodon Smiter, which stabilized the board, and he conceded when I resolved a Sphinx’s Revelation for a large amount.

He got a reasonable draw in game 2 and almost finished me off with Dynacharge and Boros Charm but was a bit short, and I won the game with a Revelation for infinite after we both flooded for a while.

Sideboarding: – 1 Angel of Serenity – 2 Aetherling – 2 Syncopate – 2 Plasma Capture + 2 Advent of the Wurm + 3 Centaur Healer + 1 Detention Sphere + 1 Selesnya Charm

Round 8 vs. Rodrigo Borba (Portugal)

Rodrigo was playing Golgari but splashing blue for at least Dispel after sideboard. He was a topdeck away from finishing me off in game 1, but game 2 was a bit anticlimactic since he stumbled on mana.

Sideboarding: – 1 Aetherling – 2 Plasma Capture – 2 Syncopate – 4 Supreme Verdict + 2 Angel of Serenity + 2 Advent of the Wurm + 3 Centaur Healer + 1 Detention Sphere + 1 Selesnya Charm

And just like that I found myself in 11th after day 1, having not lost a single game in the Constructed portion. I went to dinner with Jon Finkel and Josh Ravitz before heading back to my hotel room for another decent night’s sleep.

Ironically, Bob Maher and I were the two players on the team that had performed the best on day 1 and also the ones who had tested the least. We found ourselves at the same draft pod to start day 2 alongside a group of solid players. Once again our pod was chosen to be featured, so you can see how I drafted here.

I misread the Blood part of Flesh // Blood as Fight, which doesn’t even make sense since it can target players, and went with Kraul Warrior even though I think Fluxcharger is also a better card. I decided to stick to the plan and not get greedy though. I then went with Rubblebelt Maaka over Zhur-Taa Druid because I wanted to still be able to let my first pick go if green dried up. I also think the two cards have a similar power level. I picked my second Weapon Surge over Beetleform Mage pick 10 to keep my red and green card count high in case the packs broke out in a way that I didn’t have to splash blue. Even if I ended up playing blue, I wanted to try to keep it to a small splash at that point.

I decided Pit Fight was a more solid pick then Madcap Skills pick 1 pack 2, especially because of my two Fluxchargers. The second pack seems to be messed up on the draft viewer as I clearly recall debating between Gruul Guildgate and Crocanura for my fourth pick and would never pick Incursion Specialist over Frilled Oculus in U/R/G in a million years. I basically struggled to decide which two colors I wanted as my base, going back and forth, but things ended up working out in the end. I think some of my picks were close, but after looking over them I’m fine with most of them.

Round 10 vs. Craig Wescoe (USA)

I lost the die roll and kept a hand of Kraul Warrior, Kraul Warrior, Thoughtflare, Hands of Biding, and three Forests but never got there, and he beat me down with Grim Roustabout + Madcap Skills. My draw in game 2 was decent, but Craig curved out into Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch and left me drawing to a one-outer: my one Hands of Biding. I drew it on the last possible turn, but it wasn’t enough as he still had all these (Shadow Slice and Tenement Crasher).

Round 11 vs. Oliver Pollak-Rottmann (Austria)

Oliver was playing Golgari splash blue. I won game 1, with a Fluxcharger doing most of the damage after he used two removal spells on a 3/3 Nimbus Swimmer and on the Mercurial Chemister. My Kraul Warriors and lower curve made the difference in game 2, as I managed to out-tempo him and put him in a chump blocking position when I played my sixth land.

I was happy with my 2-1 record, which put me in a better position than three years ago. I knew the matches weren’t going to be as easy as on day 1 with probably more control-on-control matches, which I didn’t feel especially confident about, but I knew the Top 8 was within reach if I could keep making good decisions and stay focused for four or five more rounds.

Round 12 vs. Andrew Shrout (USA)

Andrew was playing U/W/R Control and won game 1 fairly easily with more early-game card drawing spells. I boarded out all my removal spells for game 2 and mulliganed into a Voice of Resurgence, double Loxodon Smiter draw, which backed up with a couple counterspells was enough to force a deciding game. I saw him go back to his sideboard after game 2 and figured he was bringing back in some number of Supreme Verdicts, so I didn’t feel like I needed to make any changes myself. My draw in game 3 was really good again, but he managed to switch things around with back-to-back Boros Reckoners, which I had no good answer for. I eventually managed to clear the board, forcing trades with my Smiters and Voices, but then I completely misplayed.

I was holding a Syncopate and a Jace, Architect of Thought. Rather than playing aggressively like you are supposed to in that situation, I decided to sit on my counter because I got paranoid and thought he might be holding an Aetherling or a Thoughtflare, which was unlikely given how the game had played out thus far. I bricked for a couple turns and let him draw into an Aetherling, which he was able to back up with the Dispel he had been holding. Had I played the Jace right away, I would have been able to activate twice and probably draw into something good enough to take over the game.

I’m not sure how you want to sideboard in the matchup, and it might depend on whether you’re on the play or the draw. Supreme Verdicts come out for sure, but you probably need to keep some number of Detention Spheres.

I was really upset but tried not to let it affect me. I was standing with Chapin just before pairings were posted, and I told him I was worried with so many control decks left in the field. Not that I thought they were bad matchups, but I would rather play against creature decks since that’s what I felt more confident against. He said he’d love to play against all control decks. Sure enough, his wish was granted, as we got paired for a round 13 text feature match that you can find here.

It was not a pretty way to win, but the mirror is really dumb and frustrating. I was lucky the coin fell on my side, and I was hoping to make it count.

Round 14 vs. Makihito Mihara (Japan)

Makihito and I got the video feature match, which you can watch here.

We were both flooded in game 1, and it was going to come down to who resolved an Aetherling or a massive Sphinx’s Revelation. I drew the Shapeshifter first, but he was ready with the Syncopate. When I had to use my Plasma Capture to prevent him from resolving a Blood Baron of Vizkopa, I was left helpless when he drew his own Aetherling a few turns later.

Sadly, history repeated itself, and I made a huge and stupid mistake in game 2 when I didn’t realize I didn’t have UUGG up for Plasma Capture and played my Temple Garden tapped on turn 5. He used that window to resolve an Obzedat, Ghost Council, and I couldn’t recover even though it’s possible I could have by taking a way different line.

I was crushed but thought I might still have a chance to make Top 8 since I had the absolute best tiebreakers in the tournament and was in 12th with two rounds left to play.

I pumped myself up and won an epic match against Ken Yukuhiro in which I hit my third Angel of Serenity off my last Jace, Architect of Thought activation and was able to kill him on the last turn of extra turns. I felt like I played super tight to pull it off and was convinced I was going to have a chance to play for Top 8, just like I had had in 2010 but I found out the bad news when the standings were posted.

Craig Wescoe and Rob Castellon had 39 points, and the next six seeds all had 36 points (I had 33). I had to convince Craig and Rob to “dream crush” in the last round, and Chapin told me Castellon was going to play, which gave me a shot. I found Wescoe and showed him it was a freeroll for him to play too. In the end, though, Rob took the draw, as did Wescoe after he dropped game 1 to Mihara, so my round 16 opponent, David Sharfman, and I ended up drawing too since an extra point both locked us up for Top 16.

I was really bummed and couldn’t stop thinking about the two matches I had thrown away on day 2, even though I tried to console myself with the fact that I might have still lost them.

Justin Gary and John Fiorillo were having their birthday party in one of the bars downtown that night, so everything wasn’t lost. Everyone had a blast that night, and Sunday night was just as fun but in a different way. Some genius decided to organize a game of Werewolf at the players’ hotel, and we ended up playing from 7 PM till 3 AM. I went on stone tilt in the first game, convinced Chapin was one of the wolves, and lost our team the game. [Editor’s Note: Watching Chapin and Nassif try to convince everyone to kill the other every single day was the highlight of my weekend.]

I also thought I might qualify for the Magic World Cup as the French captain, but Levy and I ended up in a tie and he got the slot on tiebreakers. The first tiebreaker was the number of PT Top 8s, which we both had none of this season. The second tiebreaker was the number of GP Top 8s, and they decided to count his 5th place finish in one of the team GPs as a Top 8.

Everyone I talked to thought this was ridiculous, but WotC hadn’t thought of that scenario and decided to just stick to their poor wording. I don’t blame them, but I feel like it could have been preferable to come up with a better way to break the tie, even if it meant deviating from what was written in the rules. I’m sure Raphael would have been fine with it too. It was a bit frustrating because I have the best Pro Tour finishes, with a 13th place finish in San Diego and a 10th place finish in Seattle, so it didn’t feel quite right.

All in all, it was a good week, and the PT itself was a thrill. I’d like to thank #TeamSCG for the work they put in. I feel like we had one of the best decks if not the best deck in the tournament. I haven’t played much Magic this year, but the fever might be back. I think I’m going to skip a few World Series of Poker events to play in Grand Prix Las Vegas, which I hadn’t planned on originally.

I’ll also be in Dublin in October for Pro Tour Theros. It’s time to end the streak.

Gabriel Nassif

P.S. I’ve started making videos that I want to share with everyone. The first is for Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze, and the second is from Pro Tour Gatecrash. Let me know what you think!

Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-85jihJ8mo

Pro Tour Gatecrash = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITaVrKT1_H0