Extracting Bad from Bad – A GP Torino Report

While Grand Prix Torino is naught but a distant memory for most, it still lingers in the darkest depths of Craig Jones’s fractured psyche. Luckily for us, the format is still very relevant – the qualifiers for Pro Tour Kobe are all RGD Sealed Deck – and so the Professor’s take on the Limited format is welcome. Add to this the fact that Craig’s report is packed with the usual good times and excellent writing, and we have a sure-fire winner!

In which our hero finally gets to play his first Grand Prix in around five years only to find Fate waiting with a bad attitude and a deck that smelt of week-old fish. “You may have charmed my twin sister on the Pro Tour, but I am mistress of the Grand Prix and it’s time to take your punishment…”

Way back in the dim distant dark ages, where creatures still had Banding and enemy-color pain lands had black borders, I used to write a series of Grand Prix reports called “Travels with my Shark.” Back then I got lucky with a Red deck and decided to use it as an excuse to try my luck in foreign fields. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the full requisite of byes, especially at Limited, so obviously I got crushed.

Actually, I’m going to go off on a little aside. A lot of the GPs I actually went 5-2 with somewhere between 1 and 0 byes. Back then the numbers weren’t quite as ridiculous as they are today, but because the judging teams were still evolving into the well-oiled machine they are nowadays, they could only fit seven rounds in and still had to hope the day got wrapped up before midnight. Throw in the busted benefit byes gave to tiebreakers and you had a totally unfair bye system.

Generally, what happened was all the players with 3 byes made the cut on 2-2, and all the players who had to slog their guts out over seven rounds for 5-2 didn’t. No matter how good you were, going better than 5-2 required an unholy amount of luck. Assuming you had a reasonably playable deck and piloted it with some degree of competency, the rule was you always lost one round to freak broken deck and lost the second to double mana screw/flood. Which, of course, left you with a finish somewhere between 65 and 80 on tiebreakers and nothing better to do on Sunday expect play in the PTQ or go sightseeing.

Falling in to a burning ring of fire

The Bye system is still unfair, but thankfully greater efficiency has meant more rounds on day 1 and in some cases a chop to top 128. X-2 is now usually good enough for anyone (although it often needs to be 7-2 rather than 5-2). Or rather I think so — flame shields at the ready for the horde about to prove me otherwise in the forums.

Okay, so end aside. In short: I went to some GP’s, got battered and then wrote about it afterwards in a series of articles. Back then there was a regular raiding party of Brits and always plenty to talk about outside of the tournament (such as the time I emptied a posh restaurant in Cannes after I got bored and decided to dissect the remains of the fish I had for main course — I couldn’t get at the brain, but the lenses I took out from the eyes were very pretty). Then I took on the role of regular Sideboard reporter, and “travels with my shark” sort of died. Without any actual strategic content there wasn’t enough to hang on an article, no matter how many taxi drivers Ben Ronaldson chose to bite.

But I bet you guys out there are thinking, “enough with the history. What’s the article about, man? Wasn’t Torino, like, weeks ago, anyway? I didn’t see your name in the Top 8, or the Top 16, or… hey where did you finish exactly?”

Urm, moving swiftly on…

Yeah, this is kind of late. Work, moving house, and another PT (expect an article from that soon) intruded. I’ve managed to stay out of reach of the University military research drones, but recently teams of covert Goblin operatives have been making attempts on my life. I have no idea why, for some reason they seem to think I’m a clone or something. Oh well, on with the report…

So, Torino. I wasn’t really sure about this one. Italy is usually quite expensive to get to from the UK, and Torino’s geography meant it was easily accessible for most of Europe. Because of this I expected an astronomical turnout. Even with three byes, day 2 is hard to reach when you’re in a field of a thousand players plus. I ummed and ahhed for a while and left it to the last minute before finding out Martin Dingler was going and was looking for someone to share a hotel room to knock the costs down. He’d also found a reasonable flight from Luton airport.

We arrived sometime around mid-afternoon. I hate taxis. It’s always more challenging to grab a map from the information desk and then try and figure out how to get there using the local public transport (Not recommended for the UK — our public transport system is an over-priced, unreliable joke).

Our hotel was conveniently in the center of town. The Venue, Lingotto Fiere, was rather unconveniently located somewhere in the north and just out of walking distance at around 45 minutes plus. Fortunately, there was a free bus that went there about a couple of blocks away from our hotel. I say free, but in reality we couldn’t figure out to pay for it and no-one checked anyway.

Grand Prix Torino was billed as the first Mega Grand Prix. The weekend coincided with a National holiday in Italy and it was hoped that would bring out a bumper attendance. The venue was open all day Friday — a rarity for European Grand Prix — and there were all sorts of events taking place including a massive (300 or more I think, maybe 400 player) PTQ for the masochistic.

In the end, the attendance was a much smaller 656. One of the reasons touted was, perversely, the National holiday. On a hot summer day many potential players might have been otherwise engaged in trips to the beach or visiting family. But as we’ve just had a Grand Prix in France with under 700 (or even under a 1000) players, this might indicate a downward trend.

I don’t think this is any reflection on the popularity of the game. My gut feeling is the European scene is undergoing an adjustment. Players are less likely to travel as trying to compete for $2,000 when the field is likely to be around a 1000 competitors is not very enticing.

Also, all the GPs in Europe this year have been Ravnica Sealed Deck. Players might have started to get fed up with the format — although you can probably discount this as the whinings of a Constructed specialist. Despite loving the draft format I’m not overly enamored of Ravnica Sealed, especially with the addition of Dissension. It doesn’t feel right for some reason, and my suspicion again lies with the print runs. I’ve opened a lot of decks recently that just seem to get battered no matter who I’m playing against. In past formats, the problem was being beaten by stupid cards few decks could deal with (I’m looking right at you, Mr. Jitte). With Ravnica, it seems to be you either get cards that form a deck and you win, or you get a pile stretched across all five colors that doesn’t even beat the 1400 scrub at the local store. Of course, it might be that I’m not very good at this format (which is most likely), although I’m curious to find out the opinions of others on this.

The big shame about the decreasing attendance is that the European staff are doing a fantastic job at the moment. There are plenty of good ideas and enthusiasm for the game, and I expect we’ll see some exciting developments on the European circuit in the near future.

One of the new developments was present at GP Torino in the form of Mox Radio. Rich Hagon and David Sutcliffe (designer of the Red deck I won Birmingham with, if anyone cares) were new additions to the coverage crew. Their jobs were to provide live podcasts of the Grand Prix. I dropped over to chat, and also laugh at them when I discovered the judge/staff hotel was on the other side of Torino, about twice as far away as our hotel. This was brutal on the judges, who would need to leave the hotel at around 5:30 in the morning tomorrow. Good info to have as it’s never wise to wind up a tired and grumpy judge. It was kind of unfortunate as it reduced the Mox Radio boy’s opportunities for nights out to just the hotel bar. I could sympathize as I used to hate the GPs where I never got to do anything other than cover the event and have a couple of drinks in the hotel afterwards. No beer and no play makes Prof a homicidal maniac, and all that.

Later on, Martin Dingler and myself got to shock a few locals and some very drunk French people as we entered a side event, but that’s the whole point of Grand Prix, right? To play against people from other countries? I channeled the spirit of Takuya Oosawa and blatantly mispicked a Golgari Rotwurm over a Last Gasp first off. I’m fairly sure it’s incorrect, but it felt like more fun and I ended up with a nice fatty-boom-boom deck featuring Sisters of Stone Death and Rakdos, the Defiler (to those that haven’t realized it yet: this card is actually a bomb). One of the Italians was overjoyed to have the chance to play against me in the final (this fame thing is weird), but unfortunately his deck crapped out on him and he mulliganed to 5 both games.

Unfortunately, this meant I had already burnt through my allotted good fortune for the weekend, which was rather foolish of me. Note to self — save up good fortune for tournaments where it really matters.

Oh wait, a popup has just appeared on my screen…

This player, Craig Jones, is banned from complaining about bad luck in the game of Magic: the Gathering for the rest of his natural lifespan.
Olivier Ruel, 03/05/06

Afterwards I bumped into Stewart Shinkins. Shinkins, formerly of Ireland, currently hails from Austria. Austrian players are pretty hot at Limited apparently, and Shinkins was waiting for his friends to finish in the PTQ. Because of this they were going to have to spend the night sleeping on the grass outside the venue, as there was no way they’d get back to the campsite they planned to stay at in time. Rather them than me.

I headed back into the center with Martin and a couple of Irish guys, where we grabbed a pint or four at a bonafide English Pub (hooray — there is actually something we can export). I say bonafide, but the toilets were like nothing I’d ever seen before.

Urinal, check.

Cubicles, check.

Toilet in cubicle, ch… hey where the hell am I supposed to sit down?

Instead of a toilet there was just a hole in the ground. I’m guessing number twos involved squatting and taking careful aim. I’m only guessing as, while I’d like to regale (or more probably revolt) you with tales of my fecal accuracy, in reality I wimped out and held it in until I got back to the hotel.

Okay, so onto the actual Magic related stuff. Here comes my card pool. Are you ready…?

Pulling a Pale Moon

Anticlimax … much?

Welcome back to the Grand Prix, Craig. After your five years of exemplary service on the reporting front, we decided to reward you with this great steaming turd of elephantine proportions. Don’t mind the smell, you’ll get used to it.

Oh, and by the way. Your job’s still open if you want to come back…

Cheers guys. Oh boy, what to make of this. Okay, so what have we got in the rares. Wit’s End, Mizzium Transreliquat, and Shadow of a Doubt. Oh joy. At least Primordial Sage is fairly decent. Dimir Doppelganger is a big question mark to me. I can see it having uses, but I can also see it sitting around as a rather unexciting 0/2, especially as I’m not exactly overflowing with removal.

Let’s look to the positives. I have the best Ravnica commons in each of White (Fetters), Blue (Compulsive Research) and Red (Galvanic Arc — although I’m a fan of the Fangtail). I also have the swishy Keening Banshee, but somehow failed to open a single other Black removal spell.

I chucked out the chaff and then tried to align the playables into something resembling a deck. White is probably the deepest color but after then it gets awkward. While I’d like to work in the Ickspitter and Banshee my general rule with Ravnica sealed deck is to only go where the fixers allow you. A few weeks before Torino I’d managed to come 4th in a 206 player online tournament. During the swiss portion a lot of my opponents had showed me hands at the end of the game containing Ogre Savants and Chronarchs that they claimed would have flattened me had they only been able to cast them. Not a problem … except they already had plains, forests and swamps in play. I also had a Chronarch and Savant (and a Gelectrode as well if memory serves me correctly), but they were sitting in my sideboard as neither Blue nor Red was deep enough, and none of Signets or Karoo lands produced those colors.

Unfortunately I ended up ignoring my own rules and registered this monstrosity:

Oof. You think you’re experienced. You think you’ve done this a million bloody times and still that clock catches you out. I got under time pressure and panicked. I knew it wasn’t right even when I was handing in my deck list and picking up the lands. At least the reduced field meant I’d only need to scrap through eight rounds, although I was doubtful I’d make it past six.

The biggest error here was including the Green. At one point I was going to run the Fertile Imagination. It got chopped at the last minute, but I still mistakenly thought I was base Green. There are more Forests than any other lands and yet if you look there are only two exclusively Green cards. Basically I allowed myself to get dragged into a color on the strength of a strong rare (Sage) and common (Evangel). Pre-Dissension the Evangel ruled the board, but now the format has changed and I’ve found a lot of times that the Saproling generation engine has been largely irrelevant against an opponent’s air-force.

If I’d have thought a bit more I’d have realized that Green didn’t really have the depth and benched my best rare. Fortunately the unfairness of byes means that while other players get to find out about their mistakes the hard way in the early rounds I get around three and a half hours to try and rebuild my deck into something I can sideboard into for games two and three.

The biggest problem with this deck is it is way too short of offensive threats. Too many of the creatures are walls or purely defensive and I don’t really have any game-breaking spells to justify that strategy. All it means is that I’ll hold on for a while and then lose when my opponent eventually draws his bomb.

With a Sealed deck it is really important to figure out a strategy. With a fairly substandard card pool your best hope is to build something fast and aggressive and hope to take them down before their better card quality takes you down.

With that in mind I looked to settle for straight White-Black-Red. After being battered some more I rejected this strategy. The lack of mana fixers really hurt. A beatdown strategy with an unstable manabase in Limited is doomed to failure. A higher quality card pool can take a few more liberties with its mana base as having to wait a few turns to find the mana to cast a card is acceptable if that card has a significant impact on the game. With a sub-par deck you have to get the dorks out fast. Losing a couple of turns while you wait for that Mountain to arrive is fatal, as all of a sudden you’re trying to fight Siege Wurms with Bloodscale Prowlers and that’s a fight you can’t win.

Overall, the multi-colored nature of Ravnica is very hostile for the “twenty dorks and hope” plan. The presence of so many guild cards means it is very hard to go for a tight curve and consistent manabase. I think this might be one of the weaknesses in the Sealed format as it doesn’t give weaker card pools an “out,” so to speak.

My eventual backup plan was to run a two color Black-White deck and splash the highlights from both Red and Blue.

It’s better, but it still isn’t pretty. Unfortunately there are too many cards requiring Blue or Red for these to be safely considered a splash. A deck can sometimes cope if it draws one of its splash cards without the mana to cast it. Draw two and you’re in danger, draw three and there’s normally no way to win.

While I think this is an improvement, it’s not the best build. While I was still struggling Raphael Levy came over, and after five minutes of flicking through my cards arrived at exactly the deck I wanted.

It’s a sign of experience that Levy was able to see this in five minutes while I’d been struggling for over an hour. I’m no greenhorn, but there’s obviously still plenty I need to learn when it comes to Sealed deck construction, and this is from someone who’s made umpteen PTQ Top 8’s in Limited formats.

The deck is still underpowered but it now has better mana and a decent curve. It also has focus. It’s going to make guys and turn them sideways, and when an opponent makes better monsters it’s going to use cards like Trumpeter, Plumes, Fetters, Repeal, and Peel to clear them out of the road. Unlike my first build this can fight against superior, but slower monsters.

Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to save me.

Rounds 1-3.

I’ve already told you what I was doing during this time. Fortunately, in the main event, opponents with the name ‘BYE’ were conceding before I even got a chance to sit at the table. Level three is a wonderful thing.

Round 4. Luca Covassin

Sitting down at this stage against a player with zero byes is actually quite scary, as it usually indicates they have a strong deck.

At least I never got to play with the bad deck. After a mulligan I was left with a one land, Signet hand on the play. I’d be wary of keeping this normally, but the mulligan forced my hand. I didn’t see land number two, and was flattened by a succession of bears.

Game 2, and it was switch to Levy.dec. To start with it seemed like a success, as I was quickly on the offense with Legionnaire and Ordruun Commando. I also had a Fetters in hand and was looking good in this race. Unfortunately, the first fatty I really wanted to Fetter was a Bramble Elemental. I was reluctant to give him a free Fists of Ironwood, and instead tried to race. A Rally the Righteous made that race look decidedly dodgy, and then a Pollenbright Wings from the top of his library for the Brambly was a hammer blow. I was forced to Fetters it but couldn’t deal with the Saproling army.

Damn topdecks.

Oh hold on, that popup has just popped up again.

0-2, 0-1

Round 5. William Cavaglieri

This was where I really noticed the real drawback of the first build. Not only did it not win, it was also a terrific time-guzzler as it was hard to break down. I had a fast start with a Screeching Griffin but then saw my aggro plan go out of the window to first his Sunhome Enforcer and then Firemane Angel. I dropped to one life before shoring things up. 25 minutes had passed by this time and I had to be realistic. My deck wasn’t offensive enough to beat the Angel, and it was only a matter of time before he found the random burn he needed to finish me. I conceded and hoped I had enough time to pull it out with the other build.

Game 2 was an epic where I saw another busted monster in Isperia. I can’t remember too much about this one except I think I managed to stabilize the board then eke out a win with Screeching Griffin.

We didn’t really have time for the third. My deck felt like it was totally outclassed by his. I would have probably scooped had we timed out with him in a dominant position. At the beginning that seemed inevitable, but my deck stabilized and began to pull it around to the point where it wasn’t really obvious at time how the game would play out.

1-1, 0-1-1.

Round 6. Luca Pezzotti

The first build played out exactly as I expected. I held on for a bit and then he made a good card, in this case Sunforger, and wrecked me with it. Again I had to scoop prematurely as we’d already played for twenty minutes.

Game 2 and the Sunforger again put in an unwelcome appearance. I’d switched to Levy build but with a Smash snuck in. The Sunforger still did a fair bit of damage but I was able to give it a healthy smashing. Conclave Phalanx and Fetters pulled me back from the brink and Bureacrats locked up the board.

At this point I was starting to get really antsy about the time. I had control now, and was slowly chipping away Pezzotti’s life with a Beacon Hawk. “Slowly” is the operative word here. I’m fairly sure Pezzotti wasn’t trying to stall me, but I also think he was unused to playing at this level and as a result was being very deliberate in how he went through the various phases.

Normally I’d say this was a good thing, but unfortunately you can’t finish a match if you play this way and the rules say you must play at a pace that allows three games within the allotted time. I don’t like hurrying my opponent as I think it’s both rude and unsporting. Instead, I called over a judge and asked him to watch the game. Unfortunately, as inevitably happens, the first judge was pulled away for a rules call, which meant I had to find another judge. The game went into extra turns and only afterwards did the judge tell my opponent he needed to play at a faster pace. This might have been of little consolation had I not found a Screeching Griffin and been able to kill him on the very last extra turn.

Still, it left us with a draw that knocked us both out. As the rules allow I asked him once if he’d like to concede. Why not, it seems to work for Quentin Martin all the time. I didn’t really expect him to, as calling a judge over to watch a game usually doesn’t really endear you to an opponent. I was rather surprised when he agreed.

On reflection, it was probably a bit mean of me. My deck was pathetically weak, and he probably had the slight edge in the slim chance of making day 2. But it’s much harder to concede out of a tournament when you’ve paid over two hundred pounds in airfare and hotel to get there.

But what about if he’d refused, would I have then scooped? Definitely not, you might be shocked to hear. My reasoning is fairly simple. He hadn’t played at a pace that would have allowed me a chance to overcome his 1-0 lead with a win in the third game. He had effectively not given me a chance to win; why should I reward that with a concession?

But enough, I’m fairly sure it was inexperience and nerves rather than any form of gamesmanship on this part, and he was courteous enough to throw me the lifeline when both of us were heading out.

2-1 (sort of), 1-1-1.

I was still alive and playing in round 7, which was a lot more than I expected from this pile. Unfortunately, I picked up some rotten news. They’d miscalculated the number of rounds. It would be nine rounds rather than eight. I supposed I could fluke my way through two rounds, but three? Day 2 looked a long way away.

Round 7. Germaine Reinier

At least I should now be below the really stupid decks.

Ha ha.

Game 1, and bless it if the first build actually put up a fight. Faith’s Fetters took out a dangerous Rakdos Guildmage, and the deck was purring. He followed with a Streetbreaker Wurm, but by this time I’d finally got the Beacon Hawk / Evangel nonsense going. Primordial Sage entered play and I was looking strong. The first build was actually pulling it of. I was going to …

He cast Savage Twister. For 5.

He followed up with Simic Sky Swallower.

So tell me again how you managed to pick up a loss and draw…

I didn’t think Levy.dec would cut it this time round. Either Twister or Swallower would destroy me. Instead I went to the Black and found the only card I had to answer it: Wit’s End.

I drew it in my opening hand in game 2 and while I’d love to tell you a story about how I got him to discard the Swallower before he cast it and then copied it from the graveyard with my Dimir Doppelganger, in reality Reinier didn’t even realize I’d changed decks until the first Swamp turned up around turn 10. By that time the Swallower was already on the table.

0-2, 1-2-1 and out, kaput and gone.

Never mind. It was a bad day for the other Brits and Irish with the exception of Stew Shinkins. Afterwards we went out for food and ended up deserting one restaurant when their waiters couldn’t get it together to even take an order for drinks. One of my all time pet hates is a sloppy attitude to customers. We’re a privilege, not a right. Unless you try to deal with any British rail company, as they know they’re a monopoly and have you by the bollocks. The only thing you can do with those bastards is make life hell for their customer service staff so they all leave. Ranting down the phone is kind of good fun, but a little slow. I’m looking to step it up a gear with a carefully orchestrated mass Anthrax mail…

Now where was I again…

Oh yeah, Beer. Obviously. And how bad I am at building Sealed decks.

Day 2 I was roped into a team draft with Olivier Ruel and Geoffrey Siron and various French types, and was rather shocked when I didn’t screw it up for the team and instead went 3-0 (It was a puzzle, but I suspect Olivier’s mana problems against me may have played a part.)

We tried to get the Mox Radio boys and scorekeeper Jason Howlett to come out for a beer, but they were understandably knackered and stuck in a hotel miles away from the center. In the end we went searching for a restaurant. Apparently Torino were playing for promotion, and that seemed to bring out the crazies. One guy was walking down the street kicking a cushion, while off the beaten track strange women were throwing bottles at car windscreens. An odd night in all.

We retired to the English pub for some grub, and randomly bumped into fellow Brit Keef Baker. Apparently Torino had been used as the setting for the Italian Job (the original, with Michael Caine and Minis) and he’d been looking around at all the sights that had featured in the movie.

I was a little disappointed with my performance. After putting in some decent finishes on the Pro Tour I was hoping to start doing the same on the GP circuit. The truth was I got a fairly rotten card pool and then compounded the problem with a sub-optimal build.

I’m not sure starting out with the optimal build would have helped in any case. It might be that the best I could have done with this pool as drop before actually playing and preserve my ranking (although ranking means little to me at the current moment). I’ve seen players do this and it seems dangerous. The one time I was tempted to do it myself I ended up creeping into the Top 8 of a PTQ (mainly on the strength of a well placed Stone Rain) and then winning the slot from the draft.

Many of you out there will be faced with a stinky pool over the coming weeks during the PT Kobe qualifying season, and in reality most of the time you’ll probably end up wishing you hadn’t bothered playing a round. Sealed deck isn’t a fair, level playing field and a lot of the time the better deck will batter you and there won’t be much you can do about it. The trick is to try and maximize the potential of your deck to at least give yourself a shot.

Good Sealed decks tend to build themselves. Getting something from the bad card pools is where the art lies.

Thanks for reading
Craig Jones