Feature Article – Grinding Into Nationals *Top 8*

Read Feature Articles every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Friday, August 8th – U.S. Nationals is a tournament with a proud pedigree. When the Top 8 is paired, there’s always a tale or two to tell. This year’s U.S. Nationals was no exception… but perhaps the talk of the tournament was grinder Carl Dillahay, who powered all the way to the final table after three days of sterling Magical play. This is his story…

My name is Carl Dillahay. I’m the guy who made Top 8 of the recent U.S. Nationals, and I’d like to thank everyone who showed me support and were rooting for the underdog. I’ve grown up, like many of us, idolizing and emulating all the previous Magic champions, and this weekend I was fortunate to find out how it feels. This is my story.

I currently reside in Syracuse NY, and I set off with a group of local friends on Wednesday evening for an eleven hour drive, timing it just right to maximize the amount of grinder time that we’d have in Chi-town. I drew the last straw for the late night driving shift, and was so pumped about going out to Chicago that I couldn’t power nap it, so ended up pulling the all-nighter… a true grinder! We arrived about 9:30am local time, and I signed up for a Sealed grinder as I feel I’m a much stronger Limited player than Constructed.

My pool ended up being weak overall, with Dusk Urchins, Biting Tether, and Mistmeadow Witch as highlights. I won the first two rounds in game 3s, and knew I needed a miracle to win two more. I finally faced “the nuts” deck, and was blown out. In between rounds, I, like many, were scouring the Standard areas for new tech and metagame breakdown. Mono-Red was clearly prevalent, burning the little Faerie menace round after round. I decided to play a Red deck with a better sideboard, a deck that splashed the best creature ever printed while keeping a consistent curve. The format was also wide open and with lots of angles of attack, so although I’m usually a control player, I felt aggro was the right call for this event. Here is the list I played:

The Figure of Destiny was really the MVP of this first event, clearly being the best one-drop creature in the format. This guy is just all kinds of scary. He was an obvious upgrade over the fragile angry Tattermunge Maniac. If I could get four points of damage with Maniac, he was worth it… but he lost his job, and Figure was employee of the month right out of school. The deck feels a lot like old-school Sligh, in that the 18 burn spells / 20 creature package is a very focused aggro staple.

Round 1 I ended up playing Faeries, which is the best matchup for this kind of deck. I remember my opponent hiccupping over a couple of land drops in game 1, and game 2 Magus of the Moon came down early for the blowout.

Round 2 I was paired against the Seismic Swans deck, which was a little scary initially, but, as for any deck that wants to beat mine, everything has to go just right… and both games he got awkward one-sided combo draws. I boarded in Krosan Grips, but they were never relevant.

Rounds 3, 4, and 5 saw me luckily paired against Mono-Red decks, each varying slightly on whether playing Ashenmoor Gouger, Skred, Stigma Lasher, and Blood Knight, while all of them carrying the Demigod package. My sideboard plan to bring in Dragon’s Claw was a little narrow, but the gamble paid off. Tarmogoyf got big quicker than Demigod, and I was always ahead of the race. My round 5 opponent was clearly upset after his loss, and I wished him better luck next time.

I made it in!

High fives all around.

I received my first Magic backpack, for which I’m grateful. Sadly I’ll never use it, given its flimsy poor quality.

I was the only one of my crew to grind in, and we decided to have a few brews at a local Hooters before retiring at the hotel with indigestion. I didn’t know I was eating so much fried food, as I was distracted… somehow. I ended up getting about two hours of sleep after bar hopping a little, coupled with sharing a dark hotel with too many occupants and constant chatter coming from some corner or other.

We arrived on Friday early for Day 1 competition, and I decided to run the same list from the grinders; the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rule applied here. I sat down at the players’ meeting with Antonino DeRosa and Melissa DeTora, and, as I’ve seen them many times before at Grand Prix tournaments and more, we chatted for a while. After a short review of RLE, expectations, and itinerary, our pairings for round 1 were posted, and the Cinderella story began…

Round 1 I was paired against Christopher O’Bryant playing RG Mana Ramp. As you can imagine, it’s one of the worst matchups I could possibly face. He won game 1 with an early Loxodon Warhammer equipped to a Cloudthresher. I boarded in my Krosan Grips for game 2 but despite a nice early start I ran into two Kitchen Finks and another Warhammer without seeing removal or a Kavu Predator to keep the fight even. I lost 0-2.

As I wished him luck for the rest of the day and walked through the crowds, I gazed around to get a feel of the metagame… and of course, his was the only Mana Ramp deck I saw within a 50 seat radius. I was off to the loser’s bracket, but I held my composure to avoid tilting after round 1… there was a lot of tournament left. I liked the deck I was playing, but was definitely looking forward to the Limited portion of the event. I hoped to go 2-1 in Standard and then prove my worth at the drafting tables.

In round 2 I had the pleasure of playing a known player that holds some renown in my Magic life: Adrian Sullivan. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to play against him, he’s a trip. You sit down and see the little Powerpuff Girls box filled with random trinkets, nuts, and bolts, and immediately start to wonder if this guy is serious. He seizes the opportunity and uses a coin to decide who goes first… an oversized penny with expected weight that at first glance I thought was a clay disc used to stretch the lower lip of tribal folk. I declined to use the coin, simply defending my choice that if he decides he likes it, then I can choose to dislike it. I lost the die roll and he decided to mulligan to 6 before we got started.

He opened with Thoughtseize and took Flame Javelin. I proceeded to draw spell after spell while he never got enough Elves to stick, as I burnt them all and clear the way for Tarmogoyf and Kavu Predator. For game 2 I boarded in Magus of the Moon, but he mulliganed to five before starting off slowly. I played a turn 1 Figure of Destiny that was Terrored while acting as a 2/2, and we went back and forth for a few turns. Magus stuck and took advantage of his single Forest draw, and we started to build boards as he was low life and couldn’t attack. I made a second Figure and turned it into the scary 8/8 before he drew his second Swamp for Profane Command, and rode it all the way.

We chatted for a few minutes about his deck building accomplishments, and what we thought of the current metagame. He’s a very nice guy; a seasoned gentleman.

Round 3 I had a Faeries matchup against Michael Gurney. We had a little friendly chatter about our roots and qualification routes, and he made a point to try to intimidate me with “qualified on rating” talk.

Game 1 I had a nice curve… turn 1 suspend Rift Bolt, turn 2 Keldon Marauders. This was against his turn 1 Ancestral Visions into turn 2 Bitterblossom. I ended up winning this game quickly as I had all the right tools. Game 2 I needed to find out what his answers to my solutions were, so it was a game to learn information. He boarded in Bottle Gnomes and Redcaps for my Magus, and I ended up Krosan Gripping a Gnomes which caught him off guard, but he stabilized at one life with double Mistbind Clique, and I drew no burn to finish him off. Game 3 I got a nice start with Magus of the Moon and Krosan Grip on Bitterblossom. I remember him being at low life and Flashfreezing my Flame Javelin in his endstep, only to have me untap and point another one at his dome for the win.

Michael was a very nice guy, and he checked in with me all weekend to follow my progress. He was very thoughtful and took losing like a champion. I enjoyed this round… it cemented a nice 2-1 start, as I had hoped.

Next, were off to the drafting room!

As far as SSE drafts are concerned, I learned almost all I know from my very first draft at the prerelease… it was very common to draft aggressive mono colored decks with a small splash if necessary. I opened Demigod of Revenge with a saucy pack of Leech Bonder, Aethertow, Safehold Elite, Safehold Sentry, and Sickle Ripper. I took the gamble on the bomb because the rest of the pack was Red-free. I was shipped a Boggart Ram-Gang, and I knew I had made the correct choice. I ended up with this decklist:

1 Demigod of Revenge
1 Boggart Ram-Gang
1 Noggle Bandit
1 Battlegate Mimic
1 Bloodmark Mentor
2 Tattermunge Duo
3 Sootstoke Kindler
2 Intimidator Initiate
2 Manaforge Cinder
1 Slinking Giant
1 Noggle Bridgebreaker
3 Flame Jab
1 Giantbaiting
1 Incremental Blight
1 Jaws of Stone
1 Rage Reflection
4 Swamp
13 Mountain

The triple Flame Jab and double Intimidator Initiate was the work engine behind this deck’s success. I came out the gates quickly, as everything either had haste on its own or via the triple Sootstoke Kindler. Demigod reared his ugly face a lot, and it was usually a blowout.

Round 5 came the play of the tournament for me. We’ve all been there… we’re faced with a situation in which we change the way we play slightly, sometimes for the worse, because we’ve thought of a situation that could arise if we draw a particular card off the top of our deck… and we rip it like a pro. My friends and I call this “Da Vinci.” Ol’ Leonardo was an artist, and a dang good one at that… he was good at drawing. So every time you draw well… Da Vinci!

I’m at 2 life, and my opponent has a spirit token from a Beckon Apparition removing the first Flame Jab. He also has Ballynock Tapper and Ballynock Cohort. He swings with the Cohort and flier, and my board is Rage Reflection, tapped Tattermunge Duo, Bloodmark Mentor, Intimidator Initiate, and Manaforge Cinder. I make to block the Cohort with the Cinder, but then think about how the Reflection gives all my guys double strike… it makes more sense not to chump block with him, as if I drew Incremental Blight then I might actually win this game. My lands were five Mountains and one Swamp, so his ability was relevant in that situation.

I untap, draw… Incremental Blight!

I give out a little girly whelp at the end of this one, as I had only one other out (Jaws of Stone). I had no business winning this one but hey, we all need wins like this to get to the Top 8, so I’ll take it.

Round 6 I play the other undefeated guy, who had sat next to me at the draft table (to my right)… only to find he was the other Mono-Red player in the draft. Strange. I remember this one being close too, but I ripped Demigod to finish him off just in time. He was a nice guy named Nicholas Spagnolo. We ended up rooting each other on for the whole event, and became pseudo friends. Gotta love this game.

The last round of the day paired me down in my pod, which had to happen, and I ran into a white deck that was too slow for my shenanigans. The format was pretty fast with SSS, but now it’s even faster with better removal. You don’t necessarily need bombs in this format; I like curve even more, but of course it helps to have both.

The day ended and I was in 6th place with 18 points. I needed to go 4-2-1 to make Sunday… or so I thought.

I liked my chances for Top 8, so I decide to get some sleep early that evening after only one team draft and some fast food. I knew my draft pod for Day 2 was going to be stacked, and that Mono Red aggro was the deck to draft, so I knew it would be overdrafted. I went to sleep with the gameplan of staying flexible and not taking too many risks. My goal was to 2-1 the pod or better.

I opened pack 1, and it was weak overall, but with the bomb enchantment of Armored Ascension. I think it over for the full 35 seconds before taking my first risk. It ended up faring rather well, as White is very deep in Shadowmoor and I was able to get many playables. I opened Prison Term in pack 2 as the only White card, and picked up three copies of Safehold Sentry before cracking Fire at Will and being shipped Archon of Justice. I was happy overall, and despite my Draft1 deck being better, I felt very confident that I could 2-1 this pod. My decklist:

1 Thistledown Duo
1 Archon of Justice
1 Flickerwisp
1 Augury Adept
1 Mistmeadow Witch
1 Battlegate Mimic
1 Bloodied Ghost
3 Safehold Sentry
1 Medicine Runner
1 Elvish Hexhunter
1 Niveous Wisps
1 Curse of Chains
1 Prison Term
2 Fire at Will
2 Cenn’s Enlistment
1 Turn to Mist
1 Aethertow
1 Beckon Apparition
1 Armored Ascension
3 Islands
14 Plains

I had a semi relevant sideboard of Mercy Killing and 2 Apothecary Initiates for the White mirror. I was paired against eventual finalist Sam Black in round 8, and his deck was an awkwardly slow four-color retrace affair. I placed Armored Ascension on Augury Adept both games, and I was actually +3 life on the match. I wished him luck.

Round 9 paired me with my round 1 opponent Christopher again, and I told him it’s time for revenge. We had a close match, with me curving out on the play game 1 and getting flooded for game 2. Game 3 we stalled out on each other, him hoping for one of his two Corrupts but me drawing Armored Ascension a turn before. Revenge is mine!

Round 10 I had the opportunity to play against Sam Stein, but despite having a better deck overall, I drew eleven lands and five spells in game 1 and a similar lopsided ratio for game 2. He played some Mimics and Hatchlings, and had Cache Riders to return his creature that I’d Prison Termed. It was kind of a blowout, but I was okay with a 2-1 from this pod. We returned to Standard for the last four rounds, and I still believed I’d have to go 2-1-1 to make Top 8.

Round 11 was an Elves matchup, which I had beaten earlier, but mulligans got the best of me in games 1 and 2. He played creatures and man lands, and I was forced to discard. I was rather upset with this one, but after a little walk and a drink of water I decided to focus and tighten my play. My deck was good, and this round saw the only mulligans I’d taken with the deck all weekend.

There is something to be said for feeling in The Zone with a hyper-sensitive awareness of Magic plays, because for the next three rounds I was a human juggernaut.

Round 12 was a Faerie matchup against John Penick. He was very quiet, very reserved young man, completely uninterested in small talk. We only announced game states when necessary. I was interrupted by about turn 6 by a photographer. He asked my name and proceeded to flash away. I was wondering why my opponent didn’t get any camera love, but decided not to inquire. I won in two short games, with Pestermites tapping my Figure of Destiny precombat. Magus of the Moon came down after Bitterblossom in game 2, and I baited him with suspended Rift Bolts and end of turn Incinerates into more damaging Flame Javelins. I was certainly in The Zone. We all know by now the plays Faeries have and what we need to do to make them play our game. Faeries is the best deck when you are uncomfortable facing them, but if you know what’s up, it’s a winnable matchup for a lot of decks.

Rounds 13 and 14 were the first feature matches of my career, and I have to tell you that I love playing in them. The hardshell playmat that’s very official with the designated red zone is like trying on Cinderella’s slippers before the ball. This was the stage I’d been aiming for my whole life, and now I was there.

I was upset at having to face Melissa DeTora, as she’s one of the players I root for, and after this tournament she’s become a good friend. She pulled off a miracle game 2, as she can be expect to do. Fortunately for our hero, I got the nut draw against her in game 3.

Her birthday was on Sunday and she wanted to win Nationals on the shared birthday of both her and the game itself. I don’t blame her.

I waited for the standings to see if I could draw in, but there were two too many people on 30 points, so we had to play. I got the feature match against Tim Aten. I asked my friends what he was playing: Kithkin. I was surprised and wondered immediately if he was running Mana Tithe and Sunlance.

We sat down, and he steamrolled me in game 1 with an explosive start. I boarded in Firespouts, which wrecked him game 2 when I made a 4/4 Predator and a 4/5 Tarmogoyf. At the end of the game he said,” I thought I had the best deck in the tournament until that game… geez, what did I do to deserve this?’ He was very comical and extremely challenging to play against, as he is dry and reserved and tough to read. I thought game 3 was going to be a blowout when he used Rustic Clachan on Goldmeadow Stalwart that was threatened by Tarfire, and then my Firespout met Mana Tithe to talk things over about board control. I burnt two guys a turn for the next couple turns, and his onslaught slowed despite me being at three life. I dropped a Kavu Predator and a Figure in one turn, and then Tarmogoyf the next, and he ended by drawing four lands in a row. I knew he felt cheated and upset, but he apparently didn’t get the memo that this was my breakout tournament. I won next turn, and proceeded to dance around like a giddy schoolgirl, leaving the high fives aside to upgrade to manly hugs.

Next, I was whisked off for interviews with staff members and documentary filmmakers about how it feels to have ground in and made Top 8. We headed outside for pictures, and there were congratulations everywhere I looked.

I had done it!

I’d made Top 8 of U.S. Nationals, and when I received the brackets and deck lists I immediately felt happy that I’d placed the Dragon’s Claws in the board. They’d been useless all tournament, but they’d be golden for this Red-stacked Top 8.

I tested for 3 hours that night, and came up with the “burn your face” gameplan for my quarterfinal match, and the results were good. Dragon’s Claw made the games unfair, and every spell my opponents played were rendered weaker by the Red-spoiling artifact.

You can read the coverage that Brian David Marshall wrote here

So, in a tournament in which I’d taken only two Constructed mulligans, I double that in my quarterfinal match, and the Big Game 5 was no exception. But hey, that’s Magic. I’d played the best tournament of my life, and competed on the Grand Stage, and took out some named pros to earn my spot on this year’s roster of top U.S. Magic players. I play competitive Magic every day of my life, and that will not stop until I have done it all. I love this game, as anyone who has seen me play can attest.

Thanks for reading, and thanks to everyone at the event that cheered me on and carried my struggles with them. The Magic community is full of great people. I’m always up for conversation on any format, and will always play a game when asked. Feel free to contact me on MTGO or AIM… I‘m “carlitobunz.”

Until next time…

Carl Dillahay