Feature Article – From The Jaws of Victory: Dave’s 2009 States Report

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Friday, December 18th – Those who have read my intermittent ramblings in the past might remember that winning States has been my grail, my dream, my nigh-unattainable goal over the many, many years I’ve been slinging cards. I have come close, oh so close, in years past, making many Top 8s or missing them by whisker-thin tiebreakers. My precious, it taunts me so, but I shall have it…

Those who have read my intermittent ramblings in the past might remember that winning States has been my grail, my dream, my nigh-unattainable goal over the many, many years I’ve been slinging cards. I have come close, oh so close, in years past, making many Top 8s or missing them by whisker-thin tiebreakers. My precious, it taunts me so, but I shall have it…

This year, however, I didn’t hold out much hope. When you’re a graybeard like me, there’s a lot of distractions and bills to pay, so luxuries like unlimited free time to test and discretionary income to spend are things of the past.

But I did have a few things working in my favor. For one, since moving back to central Oregon, I now have access to an actual playtesting group, with actually good players with equally voluminous collections that I can borrow cards from, as need be. Also, in States of years past, the tournament is held scant weeks after the release of a new set, with strategies and archetypes in flux, and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I’m not that great a player at picking out the best deck from an unknown metagame.

This year, the metagame is fairly rock-solid and getting the cards is not difficult — unless you need Baneslayer Angels. If you were smart, you got them early when they were halfway affordable. I wasn’t.

Therefore, when my playtesting group began building decks, I had two strategies:

1) Find something to play besides the obvious (Jund), and
2) Find something that didn’t require getting Baneslayer Angels

I really didn’t want to play Jund. I don’t like playing decks with giant “hate me out” signs pinned to their backs, and besides, every time I brought it out for playtesting, everyone else’s concoctions were taking it behind the woodshed for a sound thrashing.

So I tried other decks, ones that sadly, did require Baneslayers should I go that route. G/W, Bant, TurboFog, Eldrazi Green, Naya Lightsaber…

But a funny thing happened.

I kept going back to Jund. Maybe I was getting better at playing it. Maybe I just ran into a bizarre pocket of bad luck in earlier weeks. But in our last week of testing, I was rolling everyone with good ol’ Jund.

And, of course, I had the cards for it.

Jund it is, then:

4 Savage Lands
4 Rootbound Crag
3 Dragonskull Summit
4 Verdant Catacombs
4 Swamp
3 Mountain
3 Forest
4 Putrid Leech
4 Sprouting Thrinax
1 Borderland Ranger
4 Bloodbraid Elf
3 Broodmate Dragon
3 Garruk Wildspeaker
2 Terminate
4 Lightning Bolt
3 Bituminous Blast

3 Jund Charm
4 Goblin Ruinblaster
2 Terminate
3 Great Sable Stag
3 Malakir Bloodwitch

The maindeck is exactly what Marijn Lybaert ran for Worlds. In the sideboard, fearing TurboFog a bit and wanting something a bit more anti-random-scrub, I added the Great Sable Stags.

It would have helped if I remembered Unstable Footing is also a good anti-Fog card, but I didn’t, so…

Since I have no good road trip stories from this adventure (other than that I’m getting less and less enamored of three-hour drives in sub-zero temperatures in my dotage), let’s move onto the tournament report proper, shall we?

Round 1: James Nelson (Jund)

What, you mean there are other Jund players? I’m shocked to learn this, shocked. Here I was thinking I’m flying under the radar. It cracked me up during the day to hear other players bemoaning how “their deck did great against everything but Jund.” Have people been living under a rock for the past six months or something? What am I missing here?

While Jund is not known for coming out with guns a-blazing, James comes out with a molasses-slow start, playing lands and cracking fetchlands, while I at least have some board position with a turn two Putrid Leech and turn three Borderland Ranger, no stranger to danger he. His first play of a Master of the Wild Hunt — too slow, in my testing — gets bolted from my healthy hand of removal. One mildly comical play — perhaps not correct, but I went with it — happened when James bolted my Thrinax, then went to Pulse away the tokens. Well, we can’t have that, so I Bolt his Thrinax in response. If I can’t have tokens, you can’t have tokens. So there.

So, just when it looks like I have things under control on my end, James roars back at a precarious seven life. Bloodbraid into Thrinax makes an instant army and a Blightning empties my hand and kills my Garruk. But that was his last hurrah in the game, as I topdeck a Bit-Blast for the Elf, draw a Thrinax to block with, then win with beast tokens from a second Garruk and a Blightning.

(By the way, logofascist Dave reminds you that it’s pronounced “bih-TOOM-in-us,” not “BIT-ih-miss” – four syllables, not three. Bituminous means “containing or referring to bitumen, a substance you won’t find often outside of Appalachian coal mines. So now you know. And knowing is half the battle.)

The second game is nowhere near as close. Turn 3 Ranger ensures I have the mana for a turn 4 kicked Ruinblaster, killing his Savage Lands. Following turns of Bit-Blast into Blightning and Bit-Blast into Thrinax seal the deal.

Well, that’s not a bad start, methinks.

Round 2: Tom Lapp (G/R Elves)

As we’re shuffling up, a judge comes over to inform Tom that there’s a mistake on his deck registration sheet; there’s only 56 cards on it. Tom is given the chance to correct the mistake, but is given a game loss. Beats a match loss, I guess, but this is why I always try to have my decklist done before I leave for an event. Be prepared and all that, and, yes, I was a Boy Scout.

I figure out what he’s playing as soon as I see the Elvish Visionary, and a turn 3 Archdruid is not good news for me, and it’s killed on sight with a Lightning Bolt. I drop a Thrinax and Blightning and start forcing him to chump block with his team, but he keeps topdecking Archdruids — fortunately, I keep topdecking Terminates. He does manage to rally a bit at four life, but he’s too far down at that point and I’m able to steamroll over for the win.

Since he received a game loss, that’s game. Just for fun, and since we have plenty of time, we play a couple of sideboarded games, and he smokes me both times. Be thankful for small favors and hastily written decklists, I guess.

Round 3: Chris Fox (Bant)

Well, time to lose, I guess. Chris is one of the guys who drove over with me and is running the G/W/u “Bant” deck of Manuel Bucher. Really, the only “Blue” card is Rhox War Monk, it’s really G/W Midrange. Let’s call it that, mmmkay? Anywho, he’d been beating Jund’s hide with it, so I figured I was going to have to get lucky, or at least be good for Chris’s tiebreakers.

Game 1, surprisingly, is all Jund. Putrid Leech and a Ranger hold off some early beats while I build up to my big hitters. Lightning Bolts and Terminates eliminate any dangerous threat Chris drops, and when I Bit-Blast a blocker into Bloodbraid into Blightning, Chris scoops.

Against G/W decks, my best strategy, I’ve found, is to go large: out go the obvious Celestial Thrinaxes and a Leech for Bloodwitches and Terminates. Probably should have brought in Charms, too, but elected not to.

Game 2, I’m presented with a two-land hand full of gas. What do I always say? When in doubt, throw it out? Who’s advice do I never take? Who doesn’t draw a land for four turns? I’ve got two Pulses in hand and a Swamp and Forest on the table, facing two Stewards and two Honor the Pure. C’mon, one more land, one more…

Sigh. Game 3 it is.

The rubber match gives me a much nicer opener, three lands, my lone remaining Leech, Borderland Ranger, a Dragon, and Terminate. Highly keepable. Chris gets off to a pretty bomby start though, dropping Knight of the Reliquary, Emeria Angel and Captain of the Watch to start threatening a token-y overload.

While Chris was building his army, I drew lots of lands, Terminates and Dragons. Seriously, I had all three Broodmates in my hand while building to six mana. After the Captain hits play, I Terminate him, then draw a sixth land for my first Broodmate, keeping Chris’s token army reasonably at bay — he dinks me next turn for a few damage, but it costs him several smaller members of his ground force. Next turn, I drop Dragon #2. When I swing with my four dragons, Chris chumps with Bird tokens and Emeria Angel, and when he tries to save his squad with Brave the Elements, I Terminate both the Angel and Knight in response to end anymore landfall shenanigans. When I drop the third dragon, Chris has an “I-hate-this-game” exasperated look on his face that I know very well.

Chris draws a second Emeria Angel, but reduced to chump blocking an army of dragons, lo and behold, I’ve beaten a very difficult matchup — yes, there was copious amounts of lucksacking involved, but a win’s a win.

Perhaps I’ll walk out of this with a few packs after all. Color me as surprised as anyone.

Round 4: Adam Bettiol (5-color Cascade)

This, Adam informs me, is his first “big” tournament, and he’s quite proud of his deck. When he opens with an early Arcane Sanctum, I’m thinking something Esper-ish. Then a Rupture Spire, then Scalding Tarn. When his fourth turn reveals Captured Sunlight into Blightning, now I get the clue: Five-color Cascade.

I’m not entirely sure how to play against this deck, it’s yet another archetype that was not a part of our playtesting gauntlet. So I just play to smash face. Putrid Leech and Sprouting Thrinax beat down early, and Bloodbraid Elf into Blightning empties his hand. I just play my hand out quickly to nullify his discard and win the game in short order.

Game 2, he cascades into multiple removal spells and sticks a Baneslayer when I have no removal in hand.

Game 3, I see a hand of Forest, Swamp, Putrid Leech, Goblin Ruinblaster and Terminate. You would think I’d have learned from my last match, but seeing a turn two Leech that’s going to beat down plenty, I get greedy. So, of course, no lands are forthcoming for three turns — but an Esper Charm from Adam at least keeps me from having to discard due to having too many cards.

It looks like I’m dead meat, but a funny thing happens: Adam gets me down to single digits with Bloodbraids and Blightnings, but then he stops drawing business spells; meanwhile, I’m beating down with a Putrid Leech and drawing into a few lands. It looks like the Leech might actually go the distance when Baneslayer hits the table, representing a win if it swings next turn.

My hand contains two Lightning Bolts and a Malakir Bloodwitch, but only have four lands in play. I need a non-come-into-play-tapped land or I’m toast. Survey says: basic Mountain! I could drop the Bloodwitch to chump, but then I’m dead to a Bit-Blast. I double Bolt the Angel, swing with a surprisingly long-lived Leech, and win the next turn.

Round 5: Nathan Sallie (G/W/b)

So now we have, again, G/W Aggro-Midrange, this being the “junk” variant splashing for Pulses. I like this matchup better than the other potential matchup I could have faced, someone running the “Spread ‘Em” cascade deck, this version running both Shifting Seas and Shifting Mirage. Talk about drinking the haterade.

In the first game, I get a few early beats in with a Leech and Beast token but get stalled against a Wall of Reverence. Pshaw, I eat those things for lunch. He can gain one life per turn all he wants. Eventually, it meets a post-combat Bit-Blast to finish it off. He never really mounts any offense, and a combination of beaters and Blightnings does the job.

Game 2, I open a little slow, staring with a Garruk, but then a nigh-unstoppable Malakir Bloodwitch. Nathan’s been cracking fetches like mad and gets two Stewards of Valeron and a beefy Knight of the Reliquary into play. In an effort to get rid of Garruk before he goes nuts, Nathan swings into him with both Stewards and a 6/6 Knight. Now, I think, hey, I can use this Jund Charm to nuke his graveyard, eat the Knight, then only lose two counters, then I realize, hey, why not just kill everything like a smart player? One Pyroclasm effect and pro-white blocker later, Nathan now has zero creatures in play and the Bloodwitch and Beast tokens rumble across an empty red zone for the win, putting me at 5-0 and likely in position to draw into the top eight.

Man, that wasn’t just a beating, that was a Deliverance-style ass-whuppin’ (I’d use another word other than “whuppin’,” but this is a family site. You’ve seen Deliverance. You can figure it out.)

Round 6: Vincent Davis

Shall we take the draw, good sir, and get some food while the opportunity presents itself? Yes, lets. You’re playing Jund too? You don’t say!

Round 7: Daniel Solivan

I’m paired down to a 5-1 player. Now, win and I’m in, lose and…well, my tiebreakers are awesome and should be enough to get me in. Still, 5-0-2 is a guarantee, and I offer the draw. He agonizes over the decision, and makes it clear he really does not want to play my deck. Ultimately, he accepts the draw.

When the final pairings go up, I’m in 7th place. My round 7 opponent finished 9th. I do feel a little bad about that. A little.

For those interested, the Top 8 was four Jund, two G/W/b, one Boros and one U/B/R Control. Yeah, Jund will be hated out, riiiight…

Quarterfinals: Jason Nugent (G/W/b)

Well, if my round 5 match was any kind of indicator, I should be the favorite here. Not during the first game, apparently. I open with a quick Leech and Ranger again (a familiar refrain), and Bolt an Emeria Angel before it starts spewing birds. An Elspeth does look like it will present some problems, but the favorite play of Bit-Blast into Bloodbraid into Pulse takes care of multiple problems on my end.

That said, a Baneslayer on the table while I have no removal in hand is bad news. A topdecked Bloodbraid gumps me into a Terminate — hurrah! – but a second Angel is too much for me that game.

In this matchup, out go the easy Path/Purge targets, in come the Bloodwitches and extra removal. The second game is more to my liking. I double Blightning early, drop some Bloodbraids and cascade into removal for any threat Jason has.

The third game, now, that was fairly intense. I use an early Jund Charm to clear out two creatures, but then face down the dreaded Great Sable Stag. Bloodbraid next turn cascades into Blightning, and our two creatures swing past each other for a few turns — racing, perhaps not the best plan, but that’s what we went with. Eventually, the Stag and Elf trade with one another and I replace it with a second, but this one gets me a less than stellar Maelstrom Pulse with no legal targets. Bother.

Things look pretty bad when Jason drops Elspeth on the table, but once again, the luck of the cascade saves me: I Bit-Blast the token, which cascades into Jund Charm. I use the seldom-used +1/+1 counters ability, pump the Elf, and destroy Elspeth.

Everything — the game, the match, the bright shiny new red car with the radio – then comes down to this: I have a 5/4 Bloodbraid Elf and am tapped out for the turn. Jason has a Birds of Paradise and Noble Hierarch, is at 12 life and has no hand. I swing with the Elf, he chumps with the Hierarch.

Jason topdecks Thornling and plays it, leaving a Bird and Gargoyle Castle untapped.

My grip consists of two Bituminous Blast, Malakir Bloodwitch, Maelstrom Pulse and Jund Charm, and I have eight lands so I can cast two spells this turn. I also know that I cannot allow the Thornling to attack or I’m toast.

So what’s the correct play? I go into the tank for a very, very long time, and this is what I decide to do. I’ll use Jund Charm to Pyroclasm, then Bit-Blast when he tries to make the Thornling indestructible with Birds mana, and then hope that the Blast cascaded into either more burn, a Terminate or a Lightning Bolt.

I swing first with the Bloodbraid, trying to coax a block, but Jason isn’t buying it. He takes the damage. At the end of the 2nd main phase, I Charm the board for two. Jason responds by adding a green mana to his pool.

I announce that I’m ready to go to the end phase.

Jason says okay, or something to that regard, neglecting to make the Thornling indestructible.

When I then go to Bit-Blast the Thornling during my end step, Jason tries to use that green mana, and I inform him that he let the turn pass without using that mana in his mana pool, and his pool is now empty. Since a judge was sitting at the table watching us, he confirms that Jason allowed priority to pass and his mana pool emptied.

So, yes, once again, Dave is a lucksack that his opponent made a fundamental mistake. Oh, and I got a Blightning out of the cascade, so next turn my Elf won the game.

Was this the correct play, or could it have been accomplished more elegantly? Yeah, probably. But, it worked. No complaints here.

Semifinals: Tyler Crawford (Grixis Control)

I have no idea what my winning percentages are here. I suspect not great, since he already steamrolled another Jund player. I suspect I’m just going to have to play around Double Negative as best I can and force him to use that spell suboptimally.

Game 1, Tyler builds his manabase while I beat down with both a Thrinax and a Leech I sneak into play. My refusal to pump the Leech while Tyler is fronting Lightning Bolt is clearly problematic. I’m more than willing to throw out must-counter spells, like Garruk and Blightning, which tap him out for Leech beats. Eventually, he falls too far behind and game one is mine.

How do I sideboard here? I want to keep the early beats in, so out goes much of the expensive (and rather pointless) removal for Ruinblasters.

The game starts out well for me. Leech and Thrinax are quick off the top, but my Garruk is countered and Agony Warp, followed by Earthquake, decimates my squad. A Ruinblaster helps, but Tyler’s card drawing quickly overcomes that and he drops to two Sphinxes to end that game right quick.

Once again, it all comes down to this, and once again, I get not only quick beats with Leech and Thrinax (stop me if you’ve heard it before), and a Ruinblaster wrecks hits a valuable Crumbling Necropolis.

While I do have creatures, my deck is delivering nothing but lands off the top. This is bad, I need to kill him before he gets to Sphinx mana. Agony Warp on my Thrinax does reduce my team to a collectively bad one toughness, but I am able to get Tyler down to one life on my next attack step, nullifying Earthquake.

Tyler draws and throws down his hand of worthless Swerves and Flashfreezes. Let’s hear it for early beatdown, and, holy crap, I’m in the finals!

Finals: Nathan Sallie (G/W/b)

As we shuffle up, Nathan opines that his chances are not good. I am not willing to agree audibly, but I’m definitely thinking that, yes, I like my chances after the round five beating I administered.

Game 1 is a joke. I bolt his turn 2 Lotus Cobra, and Nathan never gets off of three lands all game. He’s able to Pulse away a Bloodbraid Elf but otherwise is never in this game.

So I’m now one game away, and feeling pretty good, especially after I see an opening grip filled with removal spells, and, oh, I’m having a grand old time killing every creature Nathan plays. Lotus Cobra? Dead! Lightning Bolt. Second Cobra? Dead! Second Lightning Bolt. Knight of the Reliquary? Dead! Bit-Blast. Baneslayer? Dead! I want her family dead! I want her house burned to the ground!

How can I lose with this grip of removal? For the sheer irony of it, when Nathan drops a third Lotus Cobra, I fry it with my third Lightning Bolt, and we both share a good laugh over that.

As soon as I do that, however, I realize I am just a total @#$%ing idiot. Why waste a Bolt on that when I could use this Bit-Blast in my hand to cascade into more goodness, or why even bother at all when he’s got five lands and two cards? Who cares about landfall at this point?

Sure enough, a Great Sable Stag hits the table and the number of answers I have for it are dwindling. It starts taking chunks out of my life total bit by bit, while I dig fruitlessly for an answer — Garruk, Bloodbraid Elf or my lone remaining Bolt. 15, 12, 9, 6, 3…this is not good.

I topdeck a Bloodbraid which nets a Blightning, but when Nathan discards a Path and Purge, I realize the gig’s up. He Purges the Elf and I’ve punted my way to a third match for all the marbles.

At this point, I stop taking notes to concentrate — you could argue that I could have been doing that earlier, but such is life. What I do remember is the match came down to once again lucksacking — by both parties. At six life, with a Bloodbraid Elf and two Beast tokens on the board, I’m facing a freshly cast Baneslayer. The only removal in my hand is an insufficient Bit-Blast. Nathan swings, and I debate using the Bit-Blast then, however, I will be at one life afterwards, perhaps I will draw a Terminate or more burn. After combat, I’m at one, he’s at 18.

My draw is a worthless land. I swing back, dropping Nathan back down to nine. When he attacks, I go for it, Bit-Blasting the Angel, in hopes of cascading into a Lightning Bolt. The topdecks gods hear my plea and give me a Maelstrom Pulse! Yes! I’m still in this!

But the topdeck gods are fickle; they giveth, they taketh away, for a now handless Nathan raps the top of his deck and is rewarded with another Baneslayer — his third of the match.

Well, frak.

Do the topdeck gods reward me yet again?

Blightning is not the answer. Surveying the board, I extend the hand and concede.

So, yes, Dave punted in glorious fashion, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in a fashion that would make the most ardent Washington State University grad green with envy. The prize — the one prize I have truly lusted after in my fifteen years of playing this game — was easily within my grasp, and because I was too loosey-goosey in the finals, I gave it away, and I have no one to blame but myself.

Yet another reason (I think we’re up to 1,196 at this point) why I am not on the Pro Tour.

If I’d done this five or ten years ago, I’d probably still be beating myself over it. But now? Yeah, I screwed up, big time, but it happens. Yes, I am going to be mocked by my friends for months if not years over this one. Yes, that plaque would have looked really cool on my wall. But also consider this:

For fifteen years, this game has provided me not only with an outlet for my competitive urges, but has also brought me a circle of friends that I treasure to this day. It led to me co-owning a game store for a decade, and has helped keep my brain occupied and stimulated on a daily basis in a fashion nothing else ever has.

Over the past eighteen months, I’ve lost more than a few people very close to me. Last week, one of our Magic regulars here in Bend lost his battle with cancer. He was about my age, not a great player and he knew it, but win or lose, he was always having fun and had a smile on his face. He’d be telling me now that “hey, you lost, but you got second out of 128 players, a box of Zendikar to draft with, and your DCI rating’s going to go up another fifty points. That’s pretty good, right?”

When you look at it that way, then, yes, it is pretty good.