On the third Saturday of the month, I run a nightclub in Bath. We generally kick out early (you need a special license to keep going after midnight) and I’m normally all sorted out and home by 1 a.m. Of course, the day after our April night happened to be the only other Regionals I could make it to, so things weren’t going to be that simple.
The night started badly – we thought we’d run out of drinks – but soon kicked off, and we had the biggest number of people through our doors we’d had so far in our six-month history. More people means longer to get out. I also had a few friends down who might stop over; when friends stay, you don’t go straight to bed.
I finally settled down around 3 a.m., but couldn’t get to sleep until 5 a.m.
When my alarm went off at 8 a.m., only three hours later, I wasn’t in the mood for the Regionals. I rang Chris, told him I’d lend him the cards he’d need and that he’d have to come and pick them up, ‘cos I wasn’t going to go.
Two months of testing, one Regionals, two tourneys, countless evenings playing different decks – and I wasn’t going to go.
I got the cards together and looked at the stuff I’d packed for the day: Deck, Pens, Paper, spare decks, and cards for friends, counters, and dice. All of this would be sitting here, all day, with me – as I waited to see who qualified.
At 8:30, Chris arrived to pick up the cards, I stepped out of the door with my kit, and we started walking. Chris looked at me, waiting for some explanation:
“There’s no way I’m going to throw away all that bloody effort.”
“Nice one, mate.” Chris grinned back at me,”Why didn’t you want to come?”
“Not in the mood, really, but you can’t do what you like all the time.”
I’d had a great night, but a big disappointment at the end: A friend had really let me down, badmouthing me to another mate behind my back. Needless to say, I couldn’t sleep because I was so angry. When I woke up, all I wanted to do was sit around and mope about all day, but the thought of missing out on my only chance to get to Nationals – and therefore the Nationals themselves – gave me a much-needed kick in the backside.
We got a lift to the tourney, and by the time I got there I was out of my mood and ready to play Magic, if a little tired. Here’s the deck I chose in the end:
This is the deck I should have taken to the first Regionals I attended. I didn’t because of the rise of Braids decks, and the mono-Black aggro decks my friends had were causing me problems. Taking R/G Beats was a mistake: it has no counter spells; it can’t deal with Spiritmonger or other Togs.
I spoke with a number of people about the deck, both in real life and by email. Sean McKeown and Zev himself were kind enough to answer a few emails and Sean and I went over the Sideboard in some detail before I decided on the fifteen cards above. Sean disagreed with some of my choices, and I disagreed with some of his, but he was a great help. If you’re ever over here, Sean, I owe you a pint or two.
The deck above is very like many other versions, so I’ll only go into my own choices. I play only 24 land because 25 seemed a touch too many. I only lost one game to mana screw throughout the day, although I had to mulligan quite a few times. The Coliseums were great all day, but did deal me a lot of damage in some games.
I wasn’t happy with only eight counters in the deck – and so I dropped a Fact or Fiction and a bounce spell for two, with the 25th land giving me the third slot. Fact or Fiction is a great card, but in most matches I don’t want to see it in the first few turns when I need bounce and cheap counters. The beginning of the match is also when you’re most likely to lose it to a Duress. The one Skeletal Scrying can come in against other control decks as a”fourth Fact” after sideboarding; it also helps neuter Haunting Echoes by allowing you to remove key spells from your graveyard and draw a few more in the process.
I added one Recoil for a Repulse because of my fear of holes. A hole, to me, is something your deck can’t deal with. In the case of Tog it’s an early enchantment or artifact that slips through your counter defences. Upheaval will deal with anything later on in the game, but the early game could cause problems… So in came the Recoil. That’s also why there’s one Rushing River in the sideboard – fear of holes.
My counters were four each of Counterspell and Syncopate, with three Logics to help out. The Syncopates were great all day before turn 6, and afterwards I wished that they were Logics. If I played the deck again I’d play three Syncopates and four Logics instead. After boarding, you have three more Gainsays to bring in to help out, giving you fourteen counters in total!
The rest of the sideboard is easy. Demise comes in against R/G, as does Sickening Dreams. The Dreams help out against Black, too, and can be a devastating early-game Wrath against Frog in a Blender if they’re not prepared for it. Mana Short helps against Control decks, especially if you have a Familiar out to make things cheaper, as you’ll almost always tap them out – even if they win a counter war over it. Finally, Haunting Echoes helps deal with Ichorid, and is a great boon in the mirror match, as your opponent will often lose if you can get this off against them.
When registration closed, 84 players were playing for 19 slots. As in Bath, nearly a quarter of the field would qualify. The pairings went up and we sat down for game one of seven:
Round 1: Des Hinton-Beales, playing R/G/B Beats
I’ve not played Des before, so I had no idea whether he was good or not. In situations like that, I like to imagine that my opponent is really good; it makes me think more carefully.
Des started well with a Rootwalla and I let him hit me a few times with it as I countered and bounced a few of his other creatures. After a few Fact or Fictions I had an Upheaval, a Familiar to make things cheaper, and all the land I’d need. The next few turns I played out lands and made sure I wouldn’t die, eventually casting Upheaval on eight life, winning the turn afterwards.
Four Standstills seem too many when you’re playing second, as you rarely are lucky enough to drop one turn 2 and have a bounce spell. I dropped the more expensive bounce for creature removal – killing something is better than giving it back to your opponent – and dropped one Syncopate, too, as I could kill stuff that got past the counters.
Des started off badly, dropping two Mountains. His slow start gave me the chance to play out a few Familiars… But, expecting burn, it meant I had to let him have a few creatures to make sure my Familiars would live. A Terminate killed one, as I kept some counters back for more important things to let it die. Eventually, Des’s hand was looking very empty and mine very full and I managed to see Upheaval again. Des had two Mongrels and a Call in play to my singular Familiar, so the Upheaval put everything back the way it should be: Tog, a Familiar and an Island in play vs. no permanents. Des went from nineteen to zero life next turn.
Matches: 1-0, Games: 2-0.
That’s the kind of start I want. Last year I lost the first two games and qualified, this year, with seven rounds, I guessed that some people with four wins and a draw (thirteen points) might make it, as four wins and two draws (fourteen points) had qualified people at Bath with 109 players and 22 slots. One win out of the way meant I only needed three more and a draw for a chance; four more wins to make it a done deal.
Round 2: David Inker playing Mono Black Aggro.
I’ve played David a lot over the years, and he often turns up in Bath on a Thursday night for a nightclub called Discord, so we know each other a little and the banter is friendlier than against a stranger.
The first game started off badly, as a Blood Pet starts his attack. A Nantuko Shade quickly joins the Pet for a few turns before I bounce it back, and don’t let it come back. I got up to enough mana to counter an Edict, and so dropped a Familiar, another Familiar a few turns later, and a ‘Tog not soon after that. Even so, David kept dropping creatures, and I needed to keep a counter or two for the bad stuff.
My teammate Alan walked by, looked at the board, looked at my hand and frowned.
A few turns later an Upheaval joins the cards in my hand and one more turn sees a familiar turn of events: Upheaval, float two black and one blue mana. Cast Familiar, drop Island, and cast Tog. Discard, yours.
Dave went from eighteen to zero faster than .com shares dropping when the funding runs out.
Alan walked by again.
“Jeez, mate, I thought he had you there.”
“Nope, just waiting for the right amount of land – never a problem.”
It was a problem, but I wasn’t going to say so in front on my opponent, even if I do like him. Alan was letting the side down by wearing the psychological advantage away – the advantage you have from not breaking a sweat, not looking scared, and winning a game with a control deck. I couldn’t let that happen, so my reply had to rebut him.
Dave looked up and I was looking straight at him, cool as a cucumber. Hopefully he believed me.
Game two was a different story. Turn 2, Dave dropped a Shade. I didn’t see a bounce spell or a creature and died on turn five, with an Aether Burst in hand, but not the mana to bounce the Shade and counter an Ichorid who’d decided to come out to play and me on only two life.
We check the time and there were about fifteen minutes to go.
The third game goes much the same way as the first, as I eventually stabilise at ten life and Dave doesn’t see too many threats. Then time is called and we have five extra turns. I’m the active player and so I’m only going to get two more attacks. Dave is at nineteen life.
I check my hand: Four cards, one a Sickening Dreams, one an Upheaval. I have six cards in my graveyard with a Tog and a Familiar in play. After trying three or four ways to make nineteen damage, the most I could get to was about fourteen, leaving Dave alive to kill me – so I can’t attack, and the game is a draw.
Matches: 1-1-0, Games: 3-1.
I was a little annoyed, I felt that I could have won the game with another few turns, but I guess that’s Magic for you. You have fifteen minutes; if you can’t win, it’s your fault and no one else’s. Mind you, I was still undefeated, and these days I’m trying to look at the positive things about matches to try to keep me in a good frame of mind for the next match.
Round 3: Jeremy Leech playing U/W/r control.
Jeremy is another player I’ve never played before, so it’s time to be careful again.
We both started laying land, but I played more and Jeremy seemed to be sitting back, waiting for me to do something. In a control-on-control match up it’s often the person who blinks first who loses, but you can force their hand by baiting them with Fact or Fiction in their end step. Either they let you have it, and you’re more likely to win, or they fight you and if you win they lose again. If you want to push something through you can often commit a Fact and a Counterspell to the deception, forcing them to choose to commit two counters, or write off the first.
Jeremy was a canny player; he didn’t fall for any of the gambits that work on lesser players… But after a while my Facts had resolved and his hadn’t. I dropped a Familiar and started going to work – a point at a time. A few turns later I dropped a Tog with backup and countered a Wrath, eventually forcing through an Upheaval to seal the win.
I took out a Syncopate because they’re not very good counterspells later on in the game, and I’m bringing in three Gainsays anyway. Hopefully I can wait and wait and then fight over a Mana Short. Scrying comes in over a Standstill because it can net me more cards – and cards are important in a control-on-control fight.
Game two went Jeremy’s way. I saw very little land after a mulligan and he dropped a Meddling Mage naming Psychatog and proceeded to beat my head in. I eventually saw a Familiar, but it got burnt; I got the second out, but Jeremy had enough burn to keep it tapped (as I regenerated it) and he won with the Mage.
I bought the Repulse back in to give me more varied ways of dealing with the mage, and I should probably have bought in at least one Demise. I didn’t.
Matches: 1-1-1, Games: 4-3.
Ouch. I was undefeated, with a good chance at qualifying. Now I can only lose one more game and must win everything else to have a chance (by my reckoning) of qualifying – and I reckon it’ll come down to tiebreakers. On the upside, I’m not out of the running yet; not by a long chalk.
Round 4: Jon Pearce playing Tog/Infestation Upheaval.
I started with a quick chat to Jon, and it turned out he ran a gaming shop in Swindon (a Town quite near to Bath). He said that it was his first tourney, and that he’d only been playing for a few months. I’m a suspicious person by nature, so I take talk like this at the start of a game with a pinch of salt, but he seemed nice enough and we sat down to play.
Game one I never dropped a point of life. I had a good hand and quickly dropped a Familiar or two. I countered Jon’s Fact or Fictions and he let mine happen. He didn’t spend any time considering whether to counter my spells or not, and so I decided that he probably was a novice control player. I quickly began to bait him with plays he would need to counter – but he let them happen and so I started beating him down.
When he hit twelve life, he tried to cast a few spells in his turn, starting with an Infestation – which I countered so that he could fight me for it. He did just that, leaving himself very little mana untapped.
In my turn I cast Upheaval, dropped a Familiar and a Tog and he played a Salt Marsh, then counted carefully the cards he was going to discard! I couldn’t believe it. My graveyard was pretty full, I had a full hand of cards, and he’s not getting on to the next game!
Mind you, who am I to argue?
Out came one Upheaval. To my mind, I’d probably only need to see one and I might even be able to win without it at all. I was proved correct, as game two was similar to game one with one major difference.
“In your end step, cast mana Short.”
Jon read it.
“That’s a bit mean; Circular Logic that.”
I looked at his graveyard.
“Hmm… Pay two, then?”
Jon looked at his graveyard. All game, my Logics had been for big numbers – and he hadn’t checked first.
“Guess I played that a little wrong then.”
“Yeah, but you had to try something; if it resolves you’re probably going to lose.”
Matches: 2-1-1, Games: 6-3.
I had a quick chat with Jon, and he admitted that he hadn’t been playing ‘Tog for long. Some players at the local shop had pointed him in the deck’s direction and said that it was a really good deck. I think if he’d have played an aggro-control or pure aggro deck Jon would have done better… But who am I to judge? I played aggro last tourney when I would have done better with control!
Round 5: Duncan Palmer playing R/B.
Duncan sat down opposite me and we shook hands.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question? Are you Jim Grimmett that writes for Star City?”
Duncan went on to say how he liked my articles, but was now more than a little intimidated! Anyone who reads my articles should know by now that I’m just as capable of losing as anyone else… Plus Duncan knew all the cards in my deck! I reassured him that,”Just because I can write doesn’t mean I can play” and we kicked off for the first game.
It was hard, I’ll give him that. Duncan piled out a few little creatures and started nibbling away at my life total. I eventually dropped some Familiars, leaving the mana open to regenerate them, took a little more damage, and began to stabilise the board, bouncing a few creatures and countering them on the way back down. A few Standstills helped refill my hand (I’d had to mulligan) and eventually I saw an Upheaval and went for it. I was at only four life and needed a break.
I got it, Duncan couldn’t do much, and I quickly dealt sixteen damage for the game.
Game two Duncan came out of the blocks flying (after I’d mulliganed again). I tried to stem the tide, bouncing and countering, but never really got going as Duncan’s Terminates took care of early blockers. On to game three.
The Dreams weren’t helping as much as another Burst would do, and the Standstills would help me early on. Although Duncan seemed to have bought Pyre Zombie in against me, I felt that controlling the early game was more important than the Echoes.
This game I has a good hand and started well with a turn 2 Standstill. Duncan broke it, and I did nothing for a few turns before bouncing his creature, dropping a Familiar and another Standstill. Duncan broke it again, giving me a counter for his spell, and dropped some more small creatures. Luckily, I Fact or Fictioned into an Upheaval, which he placed on its own. I took it and won two turns later. I never really felt in danger in the final game, as I stabilised at fifteen life.
Matches: 3-1-1, Games: 8-4
Duncan was a pleasure to play, and it was really good for me to chat to someone about my articles face-to-face for a change. I get mail from all over the place, but actually talking to someone who liked my stuff was a really cool.
Being intimidated of top players, like Kai or Zvi, is understandable, but no one should be scared of me – or any writer – just because they write. After all, I’m not auto-qualified for the Nationals or anything, so I can’t be that good, can I?
Anyway, if you’re reading: Cheers, Duncan, hope to bump into you at a Bath tourney soon.
Round 6: Tom Cleaver playing Tog/Infestation Upheaval.
I’ve played Tom a lot over the years; he’s just started coming down to Bath and testing with us on a regular basis, and he’s the first person I look out for when I travel to a tourney. I’m at ten points and Tom is on only nine at 3-2. A draw will do Tom no good, whilst forcing me to win my last match.
We’d had a good chat about his deck earlier in the day and I knew that it contained main deck hate for me in the form of Engineered Plagues and Haunting Echoes, but the rest of the deck would be like facing a mirror match.
Game one was very slow, with me dropping a Standstill on turn 2 and both of us laying lands for a few turns. When I had a really good hand I played a Fact or Fiction in Tom’s end step, breaking my own Standstill. He had a full hand and would have to discard three cards, whilst I would get the Fact and be able to cast some small creatures next turn. Tom took the cards, discarded three, and moved into my main phase.
I cast a Familiar, then another, then another – leaving one, untapped Island for a Circular logic in my hand (I had plenty of cards in my graveyard).
Please don’t let it be a Plague. Please don’t let it be a Plague.
“Haunting Echoes you.”
Phew, not a plague….
Oh, hang on….
I attacked with the Familiars.
Tom dropped a ‘Tog, so I dropped attacked with my Familiars, regenerating one of them and dropped a ‘Tog of my own. Next turn, Tom dropped another Tog. So I attacked with my Familiars, dealing him one damage, regenerating two of them and dropping another Tog of my own – which was countered.
For the next few turns I attacked for one a turn – costing me 2BB in regeneration costs – whilst Tom started counting cards in his graveyard.
“Seventeen,” he said. I looked at my life. Twenty. He must have a bounce spell for my Tog. I drew another Tog, and cast it. Tom countered, I countered back. Each spell I take from Tom’s hand is another 1.5 points of life I am away from dying, and each turn I’m getting Tom one point closer.
Eventually I drew into a Repulse and a Recoil and bounced one of Tom’s Togs, attacking with both of mine – leaving the Familiars back on defence. I could just about kill Tom, but he bounced them both with Rushing River. I recast them and he countered one.
Luckily I drew my final Tog, cast it and it stayed in play. Tom had two cards in hand, so I bounced his Tog and attacked. He showed me two land and reached out his hand.
“Your match, mate.”
“My game, Tom; two more to go.”
“We both know we haven’t got time to play two more games, we probably haven’t got time to even play one and a draw won’t help me or you. I’d rather you got the win and qualified.”
I couldn’t believe it, but I should have. Tom is a friend after all, but he did something very rare in this Magical world of ours – he thought of someone else.
“You’re a gentleman, Tom; thanks a lot.”
Tom signed the sheet, I signed, and it was official.
Matches: 4-1-1, Games: 9-4
Thirteen points, by my calculations at the start of the day, would be enough to get one or two people in, but fourteen would be certain. Checking the standings after round six we saw that fourteen would indeed be in, and two players on thirteen would probably make it for each two players on twelve points who drew.
So, if I’m matched up against another thirteen we can (I’m going to say it, brace yourself) ID and get in. If I’m matched up against someone on fourteen they’ll probably ID, but might play to get better prizes; if it’s twelve, we’ll have to play.
Luckily, my seventh round opponent, Russell Henley, was at thirteen and wanted to ID so I did and qualified, coming 15th of the 84 players that started the day.
I got four Odyssey boosters and I went and found Tom and gave him my prizes, he didn’t want them but I gave them to him anyway as the most honourable opponent I had all day. Hopefully he’ll be able to make another qualifier and get to Nationals, otherwise I’ll have to go along and play well for the both of us.
If I played the deck again, I’d look at two things: Firstly, I’d play four Circular Logics and only three Syncopates unless I thought there was going to be many more aggro decks than were there on Sunday. Secondly, I’d look long and hard at the sideboard.
Of the fifteen cards, I consider the following to be sacrosanct:
2x Mana Short
Gainsay is a must – maybe there should be four. Mana Short is also amazing against control. Demise is awesome against R/G Beats and gives you a great chance against Frog. Finally, Skeletal Scrying is your fourth Fact or Fiction that just happens to save your bacon from Haunting Echoes – maybe there should be two of them. The others are up for grabs:
The Rushing River really is just helping my mind out against the artifact/enchantment hole I dislike so much. With three Upheavals and one Recoil main deck, I’m not sure it’s really necessary – but it does make me feel better. Haunting Echoes never got cast. Many times I just cast Upheaval instead of the Echoes, denying my opponent any mana and coming in for the win (Ichorid don’t stick around to block very well). Against control, I’d rather have more control – and bringing in five casting-cost sorceries doesn’t seem the way to do it. In many ways, I’d rather that these had been Duress.
Finally, Sickening Dreams: When these work, they are awesome – it’s just that more often I have found them sitting in my hand when I don’t have enough cards to discard to them or when they’re going to do me too much damage. I’m really not sure about them and neither are a few other players I’ve spoken to who played them in their sideboards. For now I’m going to remain sceptical, but until something better comes along I think they have to stay in the sideboard.
So, I’m going to the English Nationals again. This’ll be my fifth year in a row and I’m hoping to get a better result than last year (38th). Thanks very much to all my opponents – especially Tom Cleaver – and thanks to Claire Williams and her judging team for setting up the tourney, the venue and an excellent day all over (we had a long lunch break and I was still back home by 8 p.m.).
I guess I have to get some more drafting practice in now.