Nationals comes but once a year,
Two days packed with abject fear.
We metagame, we read the sites,
Practice matchups through the night,
Choose our decks, cross our fingers,
Pray our fading fortune lingers,
Reach the venue, take our bearings,
Register and check the pairings,
Pile shuffle, roll the die,
Draw our seven, curse the sky,
Draw our six, send ’em back,
Draw our five, land we lack,
Our four, our three, our two, our one…
Top-deck loser, chances gone.
Close our eyes and count the screams.
Nationals: Field of Broken Dreams.
I played, as I have for the previous two years, at the English National Championships. I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped. Going into the event, I was ranked 12th in the country. Leaving the event, I presume I’m ranked considerably, and perhaps more realistically, lower.
Last year’s Nationals saw six rounds of Constructed followed by six rounds of Limited. As a confirmed Constructed specialist (i.e. someone who sucks at Limited), I managed a healthy 5-1 and found myself on table one for the first draft, along with three other members of Team Leeds. After going 2-1 in that pod, I managed a fantastic 0-3 in the remaining draft, roundly cursing my luck, my lack of talent, my family, and anyone who had the misfortune to look at me. But I finished 25th overall, which felt pretty cool in the long dark teatime of the soul. This year, with the 3-Constructed 6-Limited 3-Constructed format, I hoped to go one better and make top 8.
In Constructed, sans Skullclamp, I tested regularly with the other members of Team Leeds. We concluded that the new metagame would consist of Blue/White Control, Affinity, Green/White Slide and the ever-present Goblins (with their changing faces of Mono-Red, Red/Green and Bidding). After twenty seconds of soul-searching, I did the honorable thing and plumped for the Little Red Men. Here’s what I ran:
4 Goblin Sledder
3 Skirk Prospector
3 Goblin Piledriver
4 Goblin Warchief
4 Goblin Sharpshooter
4 Siege-Gang Commander
4 Electrostatic Bolt
3 City of Brass
4 Wooded Foothills
I predicted a healthy dose of Control, so played Piledriver main in an attempt to compress the mana-curve. The Naturalize served double duty, being gold against the Green/White Slide decks and pretty passable against Affinity (if weaker than Oxidize due to Welding Jar). The Starstorms and Goons were for the mirror, with Starstorms helping the Ironworks/Incubator matchup, and Goons easing the battle with any Red opponents as a happy bonus. And of course, the majestic Sulfuric Vortex kept anyone playing White firmly in check.
Well, that was the plan. As you’ve probably guessed by the melancholy dirge that kicked off the report, the plan failed.
I’d make considerable changes if I were to play the deck again. I’ll discuss these after I give you the breakdown of the first three rounds of Constructed. In fact, a Red/Green Goblin deck made top 8… if you want a decent build I suggest you check out that listing.
Anyway, I’d better insert the obligatory build-up here:
Blah blah blah two-hour drive to Birmingham yadda yadda excellent venue feedle-dee dee massive robot-arm playing the drums ooga booga booga huge spaceman guarding the Imax yoo-hoo-hoo gaping bum-crack on exiting the lift bingley bongley boo irrelevant mention of Kai Budde muh muh muh muh pairings posted ding-dong-doo and that’s all the weather.
Round One: Nick Aubrey, playing Red/White Obliterate.
Nick had the good fortune to grind into the tournament the previous evening, piloting the self-same deck I now faced. He’d qualified very late in the day, and was ragged through lack of sleep. We’d last played in the quarters of an Extended PTQ; I had the upper hand that day. Nick is a pleasant guy with a smiling demeanor, and perhaps the whispiest beard in Magic.
Game one saw me mulligan to six, and keep a two land hand, going second. The goblins came down quickly, but the third land didn’t appear until Nick was in fine shape to keep control of the game. A Pyroclasm cleared the board once, a Wrath of God made that twice, and an Obliterate cleared the table for a third and conclusive time. With Darksteel Ingots and Citadels, Nick soon dropped an Eternal Dragon which screamed”Scoop It Up” in letters of flame a mile high.
From the board came the Vortexes and the Goons, in place of the useless Electrostatic Bolts and the Pyroclasm-bait Piledrivers. The Sparksmiths stayed in case an Angel hit the deck, and the Naturalize stayed to combat any COP: Reds (or to take down the maindeck Damping Matrices).
Game two was infinitely better. The Red men curved, baby! Turn 1 guy, turn 2 guy-swing, turn 3 guy-swing. Turn 4 Wrath? Sure. Untap, guy-guy-swing. Second Wrath? Fine. Guy-guy-swing. Defensive Obliterate? Sure. Land-guy-go. Swing, are you dead yet?
The Goons were great in this matchup, fat-ass bastards that beat down like Tyson. And best of all, I hadn’t needed a Sulfuric Vortex, keeping their inclusion a secret (if not a particularly well-kept one).
Game three was, for want of a better word, splendid. I make a Prospector on turn 1, a Sparksmith on turn 2. Turn 3, with choice of Vortex or Warchief, I drop the Vortex. Nick seems a little concerned by this. After I swing, he untaps and Pyroclasms the guys off the board. No problem, I think… Untap, land, Warchief, swing. Nick, fearing the Siege-Gang Commander and with the Vortex ticking, casts a second Pyroclasm the following turn. I untap and drop a Goblin Goon, looking California. Nick untaps and casts Wrath, and I’m feeling Minnesota. Luckily, Nick is low on cards, and I’ve held my best weapon for such an eventuality. Untap, Siege-Gang. With the constant poke of the Vortex, Nick is looking shaky. If I get to untap unmolested, I win the game. Sadly, Nick has the second Wrath.
Even so, I’m still not out of options. I drop a freshly-drawn Goon the following turn. A third Wrath here would be obscene, but luckily Nick simply untaps and passes. As I swing with the Goon, Nick cycles the expected Decree of Justice for two guys to hold off the big bully and keep him on a leash. On his next turn, Nick swings with his two guys and clears the board with Akroma’s Vengeance. So the Vortex hits the showers… but Nick is at three life, and tapped out. I have naught but land in hand. I untap, close my eyes, and pray for the Clickslither…
Nick untaps, lays a land and wheel-slams a Dragon. As the long-dead Vortex is a fickle mistress, I fall the following turn.
I don’t mind losing games that way. It was nip and tuck, cut and thrust. We both played well, and…
Who the hell am I kidding?! I was gutted.
Losing’s a bitch.
Matches: 0-1. Games: 1-2.
Round 2: Tom Price, playing Goblin Bidding.
I’d not met Tom before. He was a player from the South of England, and therefore our paths haven’t crossed often. However, I didn’t recognise his name, and as I like to think that I know the names of most of the strong players this country has to offer, I felt relatively confident.
I lose the dice roll.
I mulligan to six.
I keep a two-land hand.
I fail to see a third.
Turn 3 Warchief, turn four Siege-Gang, turn five Piledriver Piledriver.
For game two, out come the Naturalizes and Piledrivers. In come the Starstorms and Goons. And I’m going first in this game, which is obviously important. Wisdom has it that of the three Goblin contenders, Bidding should lose to the glorious Green/Red Goblins the majority of the time. I wasn’t overly concerned.
This time, I keep a three-land, Warchief, Double-Siege-Gang, Starstorm hand. A little slow, perhaps, but more than acceptable. Let Tom cast his early threats, Starstorm them away then retaliate with force.
Tom leads with a Skirk Prospector, follows it with an annoying Goblin Sledder. The third turn, I expect the Warchief, but there’s nothing coming. So far so good. I hold off on my Warchief and Starstorm the board when Tom attacks, mostly to get rid of the Sledder. Tom drops another Prospector and passes the turn. I’ve not drawn a fifth land, so I’m mildly concerned when Tom Bolts my attacking Warchief. Still, another land will be along in a minute, I tell myself.
Tom untaps and draws a card. He taps three mana, and my world crumbles.
I look at the ceiling, and a little bell rings in my head. Oh yeah, a silent voice chimed. THAT’S a good card for the Goblin matchup.
Like a fool, I’d forgotten all about this widespread technology. And I was heartily punished for it. Through the resultant beating, my sidelined Naturalizes drank tequila and partied. It didn’t matter that I never progressed past four land: the match was lost right there. I was beaten to death by a 1/1 with a big stick.
Smiles, handshakes, good-lucks, goodbyes. Even though he was a nice bloke, and the match was fair and above board, I felt cheated.
Screw you, Tom. Screw you and your superior sideboard.
Matches: 0-2. Games: 1-4.
Round Three: Graham Baker, playing Green/White Aggro-Control.
At 0-2, I can only afford one more loss in the remaining ten rounds of play. And I’ve six rounds of Limited, my Achilles Heel, still to face. Things were not looking good for our hero.
Graham was an older guy with a tidy grey beard, perhaps late-thirties/early-forties. He wore a baseball cap, a bright yellow t-shirt and a smile a mile wide. From the outset, it was obvious that this match would be a friendly one. Indeed, the banter and chat flowed like wine while we battled it out with magical cards.
I lost the die roll again, something that didn’t change until round one of the second draft. Graham led with a Windswept Heath, and I relaxed immediately. I’d tested the Goblin/Green/White matchup extensively, as three of my team-mates were playing the deck at this very event. But it soon became apparent that Graham’s deck, and indeed Graham himself, was a little eccentric.
The first game saw my spells come out in the wrong order. I made a turn 2 Sledder, a turn 3 Sharpshooter, and never even saw the big guns, the duel cannons of Siege-Gang and Clickslither. Graham Wrathed away my first (and as it turned out, only) wave of guys, then laid… a Silver Knight.
I was shocked. Closing my eyes, I offered up a silent prayer.
Oh gracious Lord, I whispered, I’m not an evil man. Why do you torment me so?
“Silver Knight maindeck?” I enquired of my friendly opponent.
“Of course,” he replied with a smile.”There are Goblins everywhere.”
“Not in my deck, apparently” I answered with a grin, revealing a fistful of land and scooping my cards.
I think it was this game that made me realize that although I professed nothing but love for our little Red men, they actively hate me. While I sing their praises to all who’ll listen, they rip out my heart and take a dump on my soul.
In came the Vortexes. Out went the Electrostatic Bolts. Hell, I’d take my chances against a turn 3 morph.
Game two started well for me. Turn 1 Prospector, turn 2 Sparksmith. Graham replied with a turn 2 Silver Knight. While it wasn’t quite clutching my heart, the icy grip of 0-3 was unbuttoning my shirt. On turn 3, I turned the Prospector into a land and dropped a Clickslither. It was obviously blocked, but the tabled Sparksmith provided trampling juice.
For his turn 3, Graham played a card face down. I winced.
Turn 4 saw more 1/1 goblin food for the hungry Clickslither. As Graham untapped, I buckled up and waited for the fourth land…
Three turns and no land later, Graham was downed.
After the match, Graham told me he had the Worship (again, maindeck) in hand since the second turn.
So we’re in game three. I’ve been beating down, albeit slowly. As I’ve only a Sledder and an active Sharpshooter when Graham takes his fourth turn, he doesn’t Wrath them away. On my fourth turn, I take him to fifteen (Sledder beats and sac-land damage) and tap out for a Goblin Goon. I have nothing but land and Naturalizes in hand, and will be sorely pressed to recover from a Wrath of God.
On his fifth turn, Graham taps four mana. I grind my teeth in anticipation.
I breathe again. But even though the Baloth is infinitely preferable to divine retribution, it’s still a huge chunk o’ lovin’ for my opponent. He’s still on fifteen life, effectively nineteen, and it’s the fifth turn.
I untap, and draw a Siege-Gang Commander.
Tapping five, I cast the Gang. The boys are back in town. Pinging the Baloth with the Sharpshooter each time, I sac the three Goblin tokens to pump the Sledder. The Baloth is sacrificed for life at the fourth activation, and I swing in for ten.
On his sixth turn, Graham again taps four mana. And again, I grind my teeth in anticipation.
I smile with relief. But again, the Baloth is a tricky customer. It buys Graham a few turns, a few turns in which a Wrath of God spells disaster. I untap and draw a card.
Swing and ping for the match.
Sometimes the Goblins are unstoppable.
Matches: 1-2, Games: 3-5.
My match with Graham was the most enjoyable at the tournament. Not because it was my first win, which was admittedly a relief, but because Graham was a genuinely fun opponent. The banter flowed, and laughter lightened the 0-2 mood down in the doldrums of the low tables. As Graham packed up his cards, he shook my hand.
“Thanks for the game,” he said,”and good luck for the rest of the tournament.”
“Same to you,” I smiled. He looked at me.
“I like your attitude,” he said, as he wandered off.
Well Graham, I return that response with a doff of my cap. It was a pleasure, sir.
Three rounds of Constructed down, and I’m sat at 1-2. Things look pretty bleak.
Now, an aside on Goblins:
Goblins are my weapon of choice the majority of the time. I’ve won PTQs with them, and love the little Red guys. Indeed, any mono-Red beatdown strategy gets a hearty two-thumbs-up from me.
Or at least, it did.
After their performance in my hands at this year’s Nationals, I hate them with a frigging passion.
As the ultimate aggro strategy, this current crop of Little Red Love is far too streaky to make playing them anything more than a lottery. For game after game in my three-match atrocity, they bummed me like a Chinese tiger. On three mana, I’d pull repeated Clickslithers. On four, I’d pull repeated Siege-Gangs. When mana was abundant, I’d pull land after land. Turn 2 one-drops, multiple Naturalizes with no targets, the Electrostatic Bolt a turn too late… They were taunting me, pure and simple.
Of course, I knew this. The goblins are in control: they either choose to play or they choose to stay home. And usually, this chaotic nature is perversely appealing. But when entering a big tournament like the National Championships, placing your faith in the hands of the Red guys is dangerous. You’ll either win, or you’ll lose; the strength of your playskill is a negligible influence. At the big shows, the Pro Tours and the annual tourneys, you’re better off with something a little more consistent, something that actively rewards tight play.
This year, I put my faith in my supposed Red friends. And they slapped me down. Well, not any more.
So here’s my shot at the Goblins, red in tooth and claw. I’ll pull no punches, and let Ted sort it out…
F*** You, You Little Red Pieces Of Sh**! F*** You In The Ear! You Feckless, Fickle F***tards, With Your Evil F***ing Faces And Sh**ty F***ing Toughnesses. I’m Through With You. I’m Tired Of Losing When You Stay In F***ing Bed, Tired Of Winning When I’ve No F***ing Business Doing So. Tired Of Placing My Eggs In Your Red F***ing Basket, Only To See Them Smashed Under A F***ing Hammer Time And Again. I Swear To F***ing God, If I Pick Up Another F***ing Goblin Then The General Public Has My Express Permission To Bum-Rape Me With A F***ing Cactus. Pass Me My F***ing Islands, I’m Joining The Dark Side.
I feel so much better now… Ted, the above paragraph may need a little editing. [How very understated. – Knut]
And of course, I don’t mean a word of it. I’m simply venting vitriolic steam. I’m sure that, come the next big tournament, I’ll be making monkeys and swinging for two.
What would I change, if playing Green/Red Goblins again? I’d change my luck, if I could. I’d change the very chaotic nature of Goblins. I’d change the Mountains to Islands, and the goblins to counter-magic.
Seriously, I’d try and include some Gempalm Incinerators. It’s vital, in the mirror, to maximize the chances of killing an early Sparksmith. I’d also play the Goblin Goons maindeck, as I was doing until fifteen minutes before the tournament began. The Goons were savage, even in a field of White/x control decks. Of course, as the metagame solidifies, these would be a pure judgement call.
Oh yeah… I’d put Sword of Fire and Ice in my bloody board.
But enough of the Constructed rambling… onto the Limited debacle!
I’ve admitted it already: I suck at Limited. The reason? I don’t get enough practice. Team Leeds numbers about five players, so drafting is often out of the question. As I have very little net access, Magic Online drafts are an uncommon treat. We play Sealed Deck as often as we can, but actual draft practice is negligible.
Was I worried? Of course I was. But I’d read the sites, and knew the strong cards and archetypes. I knew how the pick orders for Mirrodin and Darksteel were affected by the third set, and I thought I’d be up to the task. With a little luck, of course.
My plan? Take the White spells. If they didn’t show, go for an affinity build. As for Sunburst… I respectfully declined that particular invitation.
I entered my first pod. What happened? I drafted Green/Red. Fat FAT men, sup-par mana accelerants and little removal. I needed to ramp to Pentavus and cross my fingers.
Round 4: Simon O’Keefe, playing White/Red/Black weenies.
Simon was a studious looking guy, and played a quiet game. I didn’t care, to be honest. I knew my deck sucked the proverbial badger’s tadger. It was too slow. Don’t get me wrong, it had quite a few three-drop guys, but they were strictly filler. If I didn’t see my mana accelerants, I’d be condemned to make terrible guys while my opponent played the good spells and repeatedly punched me in the kidneys.
Games one and two were depressingly similar. I led with lands and dropped a guy on turn 3, but stalled at four mana and couldn’t find more land, or my three-and-four-mana speed ramps. Unfortunately, Simon was playing a tight tempo-driven base-White Equipment deck, and he dropped quality guy after quality guy. Flyers took me down in both games, highlighting my lack of removal. And both games saw me die without the mana on the pitch to cast my overpriced bombs.
Matches: 1-3. Games: 3-7.
I played in PT: San Diego, drafting MMD with a little more experience. My first deck, which contained Molder Slug and double Grab the Reins, took me to an 0-3 finish. Again, the good cards were late-game. The deck, though packed with powerful cards, lumbered like an aging heavyweight. My second deck, drafted while out of contention for day two, was a tempo-based White/Red deck. True, it had powerful cards like Grab the Reins, but the curve was lower and much more consistent. This speedy deck helped me 3-0 the pod and rounded my day at an even 3-3.
The most important thing to consider when drafting this block is tempo. If your deck isn’t quick, you’ll be wearing your arse for a hat before you drop your game-breaking spell.
So, one and three. Another loss, and it’s Goodnight Irene.
Round 5: Ben Powell, playing White/Red equipment deck.
After the round finished, I hooked up with team-mate (and current draft-pod mate) Craig Smith. He’d drafted a passable four-color Green deck, and was smiling with stories of the beating he’d administered to his young opponent.
“The kid had eight pieces of equipment in his deck,” he said with a grin.”And he was only playing eight creatures.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” I laughed.”That way, they get a piece each.”
The pairings are posted. Guess who gets a shot at the slow Red/Green deck?
Losing the dice roll, I am forced to draw. Ben drops a Lightning Greaves on turn 2, and follows that with a turn 3 Skyhunter Prowler, which dons the Greaves and swings for one. I make an Darksteel Ingot, passing the turn. I have an Echoing Ruin in hand, but decide to hold off destroying the Greaves.
Ben then drops a Bonesplitter. He looks at his single, untargettable guy.
“Bugger,” he says.
For six turns straight, Ben untaps and makes a piece of equipment. Eventually, I reach an infinite amount of mana and cast a big fat monster. Ben refuses to draw one of his seven remaining creatures. When he dies, he’s laid so much equipment, I feel like I’m in B&Q.
For game two, Ben brings in some extra guys for his excessive equipment. Sadly for him, the result is pretty similar. This time, however, he makes two guys. One is sent into a pouncing Tangle Spider, and the other is relegated to defensive duty and trampled to death by a Predator’s Strike.
It was Ben’s first Nationals. I got the impression that he hardly ever played Limited, if at all. And yes, we’ve all got to start somewhere. At least he kept smiling as I smashed him to pieces.
Matches: 2-3. Games: 5-7
After the slip was signed, I helped Ben rebuild his deck from the cards he drafted. I smoothed the curve slightly, and relegated the sub-par cards to the board. Of course, Ben couldn’t keep the deck in my configuration, but at least he’d have a better chance after boarding.
We played a sample game.
In the first four turns, he reduced me from twenty to one life, increasing his own total to twenty-one. At this stage of the game, I had one non-land permanent in play: a Darksteel Ingot.
I shook his hand and went for a cigarette.
Tempo, folks… Don’t leave the draft table without it.
Round Six: Kamman Jampian, playing Blue/Red/Black.
Kamman, a pleasant chap from London, is a fine Limited player. He made top eight of GP: Birmingham, earlier this year. I’ve played him once before, in the closing stages of PT: San Diego. That day, I was the victor with some style. Not that it mattered, of course, as we were both out of contentions when we sat down and shuffled up.
At the end of that match, I said what I say to all the opponents I’m likely to face again:
“Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll get your revenge the next time we play.”
And man, I can still feel the tooth marks where that comment jumped up and bit me in the arse.
Game one, nine turns, two forests, battered.
Game two, I drop a few early guys. Every one is removed or assigned to block and killed with tricks. With a Viridian Longbow and a Leonin Bola working overtime for Kamman, I use a Creeping Mold to take down the Bola. At seven mana, I drop my Pentavus. Then I draw land after land while Kamman plays guy after guy, eventually overrunning me and pinging me to death as I sit with two x/1 guys in hand.
Should I have destroyed the Longbow? Maybe. But at that stage, the Bola was the more pressing threat. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, as we all know. In the long game, with the mana to equip onto multiple guys… the Longbow is insane. Not Jim Carey insane, Michael Jackson insane.
Matches: 2-4. Games: 5-9.
With four losses, I’m thoroughly out of contention. The lights dim, and the cheers fade from my mind. There’ll be no fat Scouser at the top table this year.
Oh yeah, I did the second draft, pulling out a much more tempo-driven White/Red deck, with two rare board-sweepers in Flamebreak and Granulate. It was a 3-0 deck, and I won my first (and only) match with it… but it meant nothing. I dropped after the last round of day one. After the long journey home and a fitful night’s sleep, I cheered from the sidelines and watched Wimbledon on telly.
So what did I learn? Not much, I suppose. But then, you’ve read the whole thing and you deserve a little more that”thank you and goodnight.”
So, for your amusement and ridicule, I present the Important Lessons I Learnt From English Nationals 2004:
1: When preparing for a Constructed tournament, it is not enough to merely throw your deck of choice against the probable tier one contenders. All manner of deck types will make their play at a large event such as Nationals. Your deck must be solid enough to tackle all comers.
2: When preparing for a Limited tournament, it is advisable to, y’know, actually play some frigging Limited matches. Otherwise you’ll be going home with your spleen in a bag.
3: Never ever make last-minute changes to your deck. Have faith in the testing you’ve done, unless you’ve not done enough. In that case, stay at home and watch sporting events. It’ll be easier in the long run.
4: Goblins can suck my fat one. And no, I’m not talking about my stomach.
You’ve been a wonderful audience.
Thank you and goodnight.