Feature Article – The Road to Nationals

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Wednesday, April 21st – With Nationals Qualifier season ready to commence around the world, Quentin Martin wades into the waters of intense preparation. If you’re looking to qualify for your country’s Big Show this year, Q has some sage advice on how to gain an edge on your opponent.

Nationals are the best thing there is in competitive Magic. Pro Tour and Grand Prix tournaments are phenomenal, and you can certainly win more, but there’s just something about Nationals that sets them apart. It could be pride – a certain form of patriotism, of being the last one standing amongst your peers. I think it’s because you are competing for all the marbles with your friends. Knowing almost everyone else in the room, knowing almost all of your opponents and having fun the whole time; apart from winning, Nationals is about hanging out with friends.

When that’s all said and done, I for one know that winning is what I want to do! I’ve played in over ten Nationals now, and for some reason have never posted a finish better than third. Every year it will be different, and each year I’m left with vivid memories of all the little errors I made that cumulatively contributed to that trophy not finding its way to my mantelpiece. The road to Nationals is not just paved with good intentions, it is paved in preparation.

Winning Nationals starts in different places for many people. A few of us lucky ones are already qualified, for one reason or another, for the rest — it’s time to grind it out in Regionals. No matter where you begin, I think playing Regionals is a great place to start. Getting tournament experience of the Standard format, and more importantly with the deck you want to play, is so vital.

Many years ago, I hatched a plan to qualify my little sister, then ten, for Nationals. She had never played Magic in her life, but I thought it could be done. Why? — Because that was back in the day when Mono-Black Necro was Standard legal. Back in the day when most matchups could be measured as 70-30 rather than today’s industry standard 55-45. Back then, the deck you chose to play was almost more important than how well you knew how to play it. Sadly, those days (for Standard) have almost certainly passed. Just as sadly, I never got around to teaching my sister, but I reckon she would have qualified.

Knowing Your Deck Is More Important Than Playing The Best Deck

So, the most important thing about Nationals is knowing your deck! You need to know every match up, what you’re sideboarding in and why, and how each match plays out. This might often mean taking a subpar deck into the tournament, if only because you are more comfortable with it. Even if you know that Jund is the best deck, if you’ve played no matches with it and have played lots with Mono-Red, then you would be a fool to switch.

I like to think of a Constructed match as containing lots of little mini-games. These games progress and you have to understand the importance of each to win. Once you deal with the first mini-game, the next becomes a priority and so on. Some decks will just lose to their opponent’s final game plan (e.g. a disruption-less combo deck versus a counterspell deck), whereas others cannot win if they do not succeed in their first few (Zoo successfully connecting with its early creatures before Thopter Foundry does its thing).

Let’s look at the Jund versus Boss Naya matchup. Jund is almost always in the driving seat. If it opens with Putrid Leech it can be the aggressor. If its hand has a Broodmate Dragon and a Siege-Gang Commander, then you can afford to play the slow game. The first mini-game or ‘cog’ of the match up, after Putrid Leech, is Naya’s Knight of the Reliquary. If they have it, then it forces Jund to find a Terminate or Maelstrom Pulse immediately. If not, then Naya can untap and nullify the next removal spell with Sejiri Steppe. If Jund has the removal, then the next and almost final cog to overcome is having a Pulse for Behemoth Sledge. If the Knight goes unanswered, Naya can win; if it’s answered and it finds a Sledge, then it can still win; if this is answered too, then Jund almost certainly has it.

Once you understand this (knowledge that can only really come about through playtesting), you know the priorities of the match up. As the Jund player, you’ll be looking for Leech and solid removal in your opening hand. You’ll also know that Blightning is very weak in this matchup. As the Naya player, you’ll be looking to have a Knight and access to Sledge. This might sound simple, but Naya will need an answer to Leech before they will really be concerned about getting their Sledge online. Likewise, if Jund doesn’t have a Leech, it will be looking for its removal and then a Dragon.

I’m simplifying things to try and get a point across, but I hope you understand what I mean. If you look at the various mini-games of the matchup, you’ll see that most of Jund’s focus is on having good removal, so it is no surprise to see that bringing in Deathmarks after sideboarding should massively tilt the match in their favour. Knowing the matchup will teach you the value of each of your cards, and each of theirs! It will let you know if your Blightning is golden or garbage, if you should be killing their Birds of Paradise on sight or ignoring them.

Having all this experience will let you play better too. If your Jund opponent doesn’t open with a Putrid Leech and their first play is a third turn Pulse, you can be certain that their hand is all late game (they didn’t mulligan it for a reason). Likewise, having playtested, you will know that Naya runs few maindeck answers to Leech, so has little reason bluff attacking into it and will tend to always have the Lightning Bolt if they actually do swing.

Interestingly, this then opens up the continuing circle of bluff and double bluff, but most players aren’t good enough for this. The best rule of thumb, I find, is Occam’s Razor — when presented with two explanations for something, the simpler will tend to be true. If it looks like a spade, it’s almost certainly a spade.

Your Sideboard Is More Important Than You Think

Frank Karsten taught me an important lesson many years ago – you will play more sideboarded games of a matchup than you will play without. In testing, Frank would have us play the maindecks against each other only four times before sideboarding and playing six more.

This means that you have to know what they will sideboard in against you, and how this affects the match. Most people sideboard to beat what their opponent as trying to do with their maindeck. This is a mistake. You should be boarding to beat their sideboarded deck! This is why so many control decks bring in Baneslayer Angels and why so many inexperienced players lose to them — because they are not prepared for them, they have taken out all of their removal, etc.

This mean that you really should be testing the sideboarded games and paying extra attention to your sideboard, rather than nonchalantly throwing it together at the tournament site from cards in your binder that look good. To return to our example matchup, Naya will probably be boarding in more Baneslayer Angels. However, our plan of Deathmarks already takes this into account, so we have no problems — but we have already thought about it! This is no happy coincidence. Likewise, the impact of everybody running 4 Goblin Ruinblaster in their sideboard caused Jund players to react by adding more land/Rampant Growths/Civic Wayfinders to their maindeck. As a side, I never advocate boarding in additional land that you couldn’t fit in maindeck.

Whilst I’m talking about sideboarding, I’m seriously considering maindecking Goblin Ruinblasters in my Jund deck. However, this is a decision that I will leave to make just before Nationals itself because it is based purely on what I think the metagame will consist of. Eldrazi will be out by then (I’m writing this waiting for my local pre-release to start) and will shake the metagame up quite a bit. When the time comes, I will look at the deck’s bad matchups (heavily taking the mirror into account) and compare this to what percentage of the metagame the Ruinblaster will be good against. If both these factors look favorable, then I will more the Goblins maindeck.


My first ever draft was at my first Nationals. I was a young, cocky kid. I’d read a lot about Limited and reckoned that I’d be pretty good, having run loads of draft scenarios through my mind and generally kicking arse in all of them. The draft was triple Saga (a format I’ve been reminiscing this week online — if you’re not Black, you’re a fool!). I wound up without a Black drafter to my right and landed two Corrupts and two Pestilence. Two rounds later and I was unbeaten, playing the UK #1 Warren Marsh in the pod final. It was intimidating, playing one of those guys you’ve read about and respected, but my deck pulled through and I was suddenly 3-0. The next draft was announced and I was in pod 1. Hail the conquering hero!

Here, being an upstart kid, was where it all went to my head. I probably couldn’t stop smiling and one of the English pros dubbed me ‘Smug.’ Still beaming, I continued forcing Black, as was my wont. It was Rochester, and I completely missed the signal that there were two Black drafters to my right. Three rounds later, I was 3-3 and my dreams had crumbled.

The moral of this story, to give it some weight beyond fond reminiscing, is again to be prepared. I should’ve gone to my local store/FNM and done some practice drafts. Not only that, but it was tournament experience that I lacked. It can be very difficult to get high pressure draft experience as, apart from Nationals, your only other options as a beginning player are if you Day 2 a Limited GP or Top 8 a PTQ. But had I done as little as one warm-up draft, I would have been much more ready. Maybe even milking out that one extra win I had needed to eke out the Top 8.

I reckon people are a lot less ignorant of drafting now than that punk kid was. With Magic Online, everyone has probably done a bunch of drafts, and even read some articles on Limited to back it up. Technology has moved forward so much that there are now drafts recorded that can be viewed, like Oli’s column. Even still, get some more practice in. Try and be as experienced as possible. There will always be a new difficult pick for you to make. They can throw you — if your first pick is really tough and you end up picking Journey to Nowhere over Kazandu Blademaster, don’t spend your whole draft thinking about what life would have been like had you picked the Ally.

There are some other fantastic things that can be done to get ready. You can railbird the draft of someone who’s better than you. You can even ask that local pro to discuss a draft as he does it, so you can be party to his decision making and, hopefully, learn a thing or two. I love discussing Limited. In the car on the way to a drat event, I often pester my colleagues about this pick or that; postulating as many whacky pick situations as possible to glean whether how much I value a card is ‘accurate.’

What’s the best common? What’s each color’s best and second best common? What’s the best card in the format? What are the best uncommon, and do you pick any of the aforementioned commons over them? Is it possible to force Allies? What colour combinations do you prefer? Are there any you try to avoid? What do you think the most under/overrated cards are? Have you ever had any success with ‘insert obscure rare’? Why do you value X over Y? Are there any curve issues in certain colors that I should be factoring in? How many lands do you play in this format? When do you pick fixers in draft? Is five color viable?

The list is endless, but each answer learnt will leave you in better able to make the right decision when the time comes. Discuss things that happened to you in the past. Talk about play situations and whether you made the correct call. It might sound negative of me but normally, you will not have done. Asking about it is going to do you more good than if you don’t. Your mistakes are your best teachers.


To sum up:

• Pick a deck you know and play it a lot
• Get as much tournament experience with said deck as possible
• Draft as much as you can — both formats this year.
• Believe in yourself
• (Play Jund)

I’ve not talked too much about self-confidence in this article. It turns out that if you play a deck you know, play with it a lot and in a tournament environment, you will become very confident. You will inevitably start to succeed with the deck; you will make continual improvements that should lead to a better build; and the knowledge that you have succeeded will cause you to succeed when it really counts.

Do your best…