Facing Ulysses

Find out how Mike’s tournaments went last weekend with U/R Delver in Standard. He also provides you with the deck he’d play if all his Delvers and Snapcaster Mages were stolen. Give it a try in Worcester!

Part 1: Conservation of Ego

Last weekend wasn’t a complete failure in terms of playing Magic: The Gathering.

I kind of scrubbed out of the Diamond main event in Edison, NJ (I guess they used to call them $5Ks), but I dropped out and played in a later (6 PM) Bronze event, where I lost a close one to finish in second place. I won, like, a playmat.

I ran essentially the same deck I posted on Flores Friday last week, with just three small changes:

I cut two Evolving Wilds and played one Steel Sabotage over the Manic Vandal.

Some of you may know why (I don’t want to get into it here), but I probably wasn’t in the best frame of mind in terms of winning a huge Magic tournament last Saturday. I had exhausted most of what makes me a good and thinking being (and still haven’t recovered). The week as a whole was rough, and by the first round I was already choosing on the wrong side of close plays.

As I look back on a career that has maybe not been one of the very best but has had its share of tournament victories, all the good stories involve some matches where I was able to reign in my destructive autopilot and keep my chin clean. You know, not tapping out to waste my last removal spell well before the deciding Stage. Stuff like that.

Hold on a sec. Let’s do something before we go on.

What do you see here?

Most of you—at least the North Americans among you—have already correctly identified the above image as an electric socket.

Some of you…maybe forward thinkers, maybe because I tricked you to start with this article’s title, see a face.

Got that?


Look at it again:

Try really, really hard.


Put all your effort into it…

Can you not see a face? Is that possible for you?

Here, let me help:

See how helpful I was?

I specifically told you you are NOT looking at a face! Now go back to the original picture. Sure you won’t see a face Face FACE instead of [just] an electrical socket:

Got that?



Of course you’re not. No matter how hard you try, especially after the second picture with the red writing in the mix, you can’t help but see a face. Too often players—whether good, or great, or players who think they are better than they actually are—say something like, "Why don’t you just play right?" or "Why don’t you just concentrate on what matters?"

Just as you can’t un-see the face in the electrical socket, most of us—once we have gotten to a particular place in terms of our unconscious skills—can’t un-see particular play patterns. Can we choose a different path and make another play even if we can’t avoid seeing the pattern? Absolutely… But…

Attack for ___.

Bolt the ____.

Another one bites the ____.

You can do it. You can do the right thing! But you have got to summon up a tremendous amount of ego to break the pattern, and we all have limited reservoirs of ego. Like I said, the tournament hadn’t even started yet and I was running on fumes.

So here is the spot:

In the first round I was up against Grand Prix Top 8 competitor Ty Dobbertin with G/R Jackie Lee. I got game 1 pretty handily, and in game 2 we were in a Batterskull fight. I juked Ty, felt like I was "winning" on the table, got myself a decent opening, and realized I was one Vapor Snag from blowing the game wide open.

I drew Ponder!

I played Ponder with six lands in play and saw these:

What’s a girl to do?

I was either at eighteen or twenty but had already played a land. I ran through my options. I could play Delver of Secrets but with the knowledge that it was not going to flip any time soon. I had six lands in play, but one of them had been tapped to Ponder and I only had five left.

What would you do?

I chose to shuffle.

Ultimately, I drew four straight lands, and Ty drew five straight spells. He won, sent it into game 3, and won a much less interesting game.

So this was the first round.

I think that given an 18-20 point life total I could maybe have played for the Consecrated Sphinx.

So what went wrong?

Whatever I ultimately chose, I couldn’t avoid seeing patterns any more than you could avoid seeing the face in the electric socket. It is clearly the case that, despite seeing the not-useful patterns, I could have kept. 18-20 life with a Batterskull and a little fodder should buy a girl some time. I could have gone Delver (maybe draw a removal spell) into tapping out for Sphinx the next. But I saw Delver-no-instant-or-sorcery and six-drop-I-can’t-cast…and probably went the wrong way. I got unlucky, sure, but I still probably went the wrong way given my life total and giant lifelink.

From that point I won some, lost a weird one (kept Delver, Delver, Snapcaster Mage + Pillar of Flame), and lost to Lingering Souls-into-Mulch-for-double-Unburial Rites as my Delver somehow never flipped. I had never been so unhappy to peel three Snapcaster Mages… Not just because I never drew any fuel for them (or to flip Delvers), but because he eventually got Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite.

The other major slip I made in the Diamond main event was against Wil Rosario with U/R Control. If I had played right I could probably have finished somewhere in the Top 32 or even Top 16, but I didn’t.

Wil and I played a long game 1, which I eventually got after a long, long grind.

I felt like I was winning in game 2 but let it get away from me. Wil played a Wurmcoil Engine, and I had everything from Steel Sabotage to Vapor Snag to Phantasmal Image to Zealous Conscripts. I could have stopped it, but given my multifold answers, I let him have it, and he immediately played his own Phantasmal Image (which would have Wurmcoil Engine’s two-body durability). I considered bouncing the Engine but I had a Snapcaster Mage on the battlefield, which would have given him a plenty good target, so I decided to save my many resources. Instead of playing the dominating control game I was expecting, I had to play from behind.

I stabilized down with my Image, got kind of a worthless swing in with a Conscripts-for-Wurmcoil, but at least I wasn’t getting blown out. The main issue was that his Image-for-Wurmcoil was highly resistant to my Sabotage and Vapor Snag. The longer-term issue was that where I had Thought Scour, he had Desperate Ravings and Think Twice. In the first game I was very surprised to have been able to take the control game; eventually he was going to out-land or outright kill me.

Nevertheless, I worked to set up Cavern of Souls for both Human and Sphinx (Human being the reason I got the Conscripts down, not that it was ultimately determinative); to make an already long story short[er] I got the Sphinx…

…and he had Mind Control!

This put a huge amount of pressure on my Vapor Snag, and basically we got into a Snapcaster Mage fight but he had multiple Mental Missteps.

I even considered, for a spell, to try to deck Wil and his Think Twice / Desperate Ravings deck with Thought Scour. The plan came to me too late.

I kind of got to parity by playing my other Consecrated Sphinx, but the situation was very odd (which I am sure you can tell from my description thus far) and he played bomb after bomb-diggity.

Okay, here’s the end game:

Even after all this, I wasn’t dead. Will got an active Tamiyo, the Moon Sage and a Frost Titan, but I had built up quite a life total from the stolen Wurmcoil Engine. Neither one of us was stalling; they called time. I could theoretically wait him out and win 1-0.

With five cards left in my deck I played the first Delver of Secrets of the match. I had won game 1 without a Delver showing up and now I played all four. Then blah Blah BLAH we are in extra turns and I can definitely survive.

Basically without considering the consequences, I sent a Delver at Tamiyo and Wil had enough tapping between Tamiyo and his Frost Titan to lethal me with zero cards in library on turn 5 of 5. No attack, 1-0 win; yes attack, 1-1 draw.

So what went wrong?

Part 2: Everybody’s Superpowers

I generally believe that almost every competent player, given sufficient tools and time, will find the right play.

Forget the "tools" part for a moment; there are funny stories out there of PT Top 8 competitors who don’t know that if you Slide out a face down Exalted Angel it comes back as a flying 4/5.

Assuming you have the tools…what keeps you from making the right play? In this case, why did I send a Delver at a non-ultimate Tamiyo leaving one-too-few blockers to defend myself from his legion of my-Consecrated Sphinx, his snowman, and assorted less gigantic bodies?

1. Focus – Kai Budde once did an interview where he said that whatever else, when playing at his height he never lost focus. Like I said earlier, my focus was all over the place last week, and this game was getting increasingly complicated with death-by-damage and death-by-decking dueling with Sphinx dominance, numerous other sixes in play, the counters ticking up on his Tamiyo, and an altogether unfamiliar kind of game (my first Delvers showed up with five cards left in the second game!)… How do you even know "what matters"?

2. Willpower – Most of us have an automatic response when we see a planeswalker start to get big. "That is bad." I don’t think we can control whether or not we have that response. It’s like seeing the face in the electrical socket: you don’t get to pick that. You get to pick what you do next, sure, but it requires you to spend from a limited pool of willpower. I think that one of the reasons that good players—especially players who are a little bit older—continue to do well overall, especially given the landscape of competitive Magic in 2012, is via deck selection. Guys who were playing The Prison or Forbidian in 1997 are attacking with huge Invisible Stalkers or laying out enormous Lingering Souls tokens in 2012.

A few weeks ago I said to never play The Rock. There is actually a very mathematically measurable reason you should listen and an obvious division between The Rock and Caw-Blade. The Rock is a progressive card advantage deck that, on average, takes 20+ turns to win the game; over the course of a win, The Rock asks you to make dozens of relatively not-rewarding decisions. You played right! Great! Your reward is you get to play another turn of 2/1 guys for three and not attack!

Surely, Caw-Blade got to the point where it was playing 30-turn games too…against the mirror. Sure, Caw-on-Caw could get hairy. The best players figured out they could take a Sword of Feast and Famine hit and when to sneak in the Day of Judgment heard round the world. But when it wasn’t the mirror? You might be playing 20 turns but many of those were functionally decided on turn 4 or so. The other guy would be chewing off his nails for sixteen more turns, expending all his willpower in futile resistance, and your hardest decision was whether to Unsummon his guy to Sword of Feast and Famine it, smash with a 3/3 Squadron Hawk to The Abyss him while drawing three, or humiliate him with 20 turns of Fateseal. Aw shucks, why not do all three?

Whatever parallels a really creative (but in this case not remotely accurate) pundit can draw between two completely un-like decks, one of them grinds un-rewarding small margins across a tightrope repeatedly and over the entire game and the other rewards perfect play in unprecedented fashion while chopping down most opponents’ willpower with every two-drop swing and causes heart palpitations with every small surprise. Willpower out versus not so much.

Look, I get it.

I get it more than almost any of you. I—me, Me, ME—won the first Extended PTQ ever with Sol Malka’s The Rock. I got MikeyP to play The Rock, and he simultaneously won the GP. I grok The Rock.

The Rock does the one thing that is most dangerous for me. I have one core motivation that is more powerful than everything else. It is what has me writing these articles, it’s what makes me good at my day job, and it’s what makes The Rock so tempting. I love being told what a genius I am (even if I don’t get that validation every time). I love running circles around competitors with $50,000,000 budgets. I love feeling smart.

When you win with The Rock, you feel smart. Why? Because it is hard. Grinding out 1,000 small advantages when any mistake is lethal is hard. "You mean instead of combo killing someone on turn 4, I can set him up with one Duress, then gain two life with a Spike Feeder to stay over 20 and use Volrath’s Stronghold to grind an extra card every three turns, building up to eight so I can Duress-into-Pernicious Deed with four open? SIGN ME UP!"

I won a GP Trial and PTQ executing on that plan 28 times. I was legit dead on turn 4 every time if I didn’t play perfectly. My opponents had access to a two-mana Ancestral Recall / Opportunity. I was spending about six mana to get one extra card EVERY THREE TURNS. Believe you me, when you pull it off you feel smarter than the other guy. That is a powerful motivation for some people.

… One, if you want to be your best, you should learn to resist.

Why? Because even if you are super good and make all the right choices—like I said, I have been lucky enough to do so before—it’s a lot harder to close the deal when you’re running on fumes at the end of even the best day. Even if you are a perfect strategic / sequential executive, grinding this stuff out every match is exhausting.

In my case against Wil, my Delvers not showing up forced me to expend way more mental energy than is usually required for a deck like this. I had to use tons of ego and willpower I didn’t have because I couldn’t just blind flip a Delver and kill him from turn 2. On another day it might not have mattered. These are all things that given a different physical state or a bigger reservoir of brain would have gone a different way for even the same player on a different day.

I wrote about a similar topic a few years ago when I noticed myself losing my win-and-in repeatedly after playing well all day (but knew a lot less about psychology and human excellence than I do today). It is interesting that what I noticed and how I diagnosed a fix relative to my approach today: The Physical Reality of Magical Spells.

Part 3: Tool Set – Five Things to Do with Thought Scour

I love to use the example of Tony Dobson, one of Magic’s most dominant combo players for a good stretch (PT Top 8 / GP Top 8 / GP Top 8 / Masters Grinder miser in one eye-blink), not knowing how Astral Slide works because it is so jarring if you have any understanding of the card Astral Slide. "But that’s the basic functionality of the deck!"


So if one of Magic’s more successful combo winners didn’t know what his cards did in combination all the time… Look bro (sis), we’re all human. None of us has all the answers. Part of my job is to help broaden your map and expand your tool set, though. Here are five things you probably never thought to do with your Thought Scour. It really is a surprisingly powerful card.

1. Thought Scour + Ponder 1 in "Miracle Street"

Often you Ponder up, take something awesome, and put your Bonfire on top so you can miracle face next turn. But wait! He just did something awesome! (He played an Intangible Virtue or Drogskol Captain or just tapped out and has his pants down for a temptingly vulnerable Geist and you now have a huge open.)

What’s a girl to do?

Most players don’t see the obvious because they think of themselves as the base target of Thought Scour.

Answer: Thought Scour them.

You know what’s on top, don’t you? Welcome to Miracle Street!

2. Thought Scour + their Delver in "Avoiding Blowouts"

Super simple.

They reveal a card on upkeep. It flips Delver! Wah! So sad!

"Well now I’m going to get blown out by that Bonfire of the Damned / Vapor Snag. He’s so lucky!"

Not so fast, chief.

Answer: Thought Scour them.

He still has an Insectile Aberration, yes. You might still get blown out, unfortunately… But not by THAT particular nasty instant or sorcery.

3. Thought Scour + Their Delver + Their Ponder in "Neener Neener Neener"

You’ve seen it before. They Ponder into a Delver, or have a 1/1 Delver already and draw a Ponder to set it up. You really don’t want to take three and have to deal with an Insectile Aberration.

Answer: Thought Scour them!

The opponent might still blind flip Delver, but he kept for a reason. His random card is probably worse than what he set up, and at least this way you’ve erased the constructive guarantee of taking three.

4. Thought Scour + Your Delver in "Anything But Here"

Your Delver reveals a land (or other undesirable card). The next few words are probably already obvious. Of course, like when we went thought the exercise of the electric sockets, you know what you should do (or at least consider doing) next.

Then why don’t you just do it, dummy?

(I know some of you do, and others are not even wooden dolls that sit on a ventriloquist’s lap).

Thought Scour, like many instants, has extra text on it that reads "use only at the end of the opponent’s turn, or if you are in topdeck mode and draw me." In reality one of the cool things about instants is that you can use them at any time, not just in the opponent’s end step any more than just your own main.

Obviously you have to evaluate your mana situation, but you should at least consider clearing a guaranteed bad topdeck, even if you don’t get the freebie flip.

5. Thought Scour + Ponder in "Best of Three"

Earlier I mentioned finishing second in the consolation Bronze event. I lost only to the eventual winner, Andrew, playing GerryT Perfect Delver.

In game 1 I routed him. My deck has a tremendous natural advantage over U/W Delver; it’s very mirror-ish, but I can 1) kill all his guys and 2) present an uncounterable Sphinx in game 1 (or any Sphinx, really).

Going into game 2 I sided out two Vapor Snags; Gerry himself has sided out Snags and discussed whether that is right. This is a case where my game 1 natural advantage came back to bite me because with all my Pillars and Geistflame, I relied on solo bounce less.

Anyway, I worked Andrew into a corner, won repeated trades, and resolved Consecrated Sphinx with six cards in hand. Andrew had ONE. It was his ONE Sphinx.

I had to draw much harder to get to Vapor Snag, so by the theory of more-sies, Andrew had me badly covered in the Snag-on-Snag sub-game. With us both essentially drawing limitless (he gave me 32 triggers one turn) it was down to Snags, and he simply got his, and more, faster.

Going into game 3 was a bit of a dilemma; my deck has an advantage, but I have to keep in all my Mana Leaks to fight Geist of Saint Traft and Restoration Angel (as well as Sphinx if it comes to that). Andrew had the initiative early and had a good board including Geist, Tiago, and five open lands. I mean, he was basically waving a neon sign that said, "I have Restoration Angel." He had out drawn me two Leaks to nil at that point and with life running low, I had essentially no choice. I had to go for a burn sequence soon or die to a Geist that had already lived through two Bonfire attempts.

I drew Ponder.

Snapcaster Mage

I kept Tiago and put the Islands on top.

"Pillar your Snapcaster Mage?"

Restoration Angel! (no surprises there)

I played my Snapcaster in response (a convenient Geist-blocker), targeting Thought Scour; Thought Scoured myself.

That is the #5 tidbit, obviously. You keep a marginal "one good card" Ponder and Scour the crap.

Island down.
Island down.

Come on, Mana Leak!

Nope :(

Surprised? You shouldn’t be; I already told you how this one shook out.

Play was still right, though, and the Thought Scour + Ponder tool is one you should keep close. It will reward you.

Part 4: Another Universe

Lauren asked me to propose a deck I might run if for some reason vandals came and stole all my Insectile Aberrations and Snapcaster Mages. Twist my arm!

I found this deck—inspired separately by Todd Anderson, Owen Turtenwald, and Pro Tour Avacyn Restored—to be surprisingly rewarding to play and fun. And I get to play Borderland Ranger!

It’s pretty straightforward and more than good enough to crush your FNM. Videos coming next week.

Stuff to note:

[Much nicer resolution, hopefully] videos next week :)