Where we last left off, our hero retreated from the Great Scrubbing in Japan to safer, digital waters. I was able to hit the ground running, putting
myself in pretty good position in the first two Magic Online Championship Series events, but was feeling a little iffy on the third season.
First, grinding is really hard with a full-time job. It’s pretty easy to get the full three byes even with only having nights and weekends open. It’s
impossible, however, to do well when you’re not completely focused on it for the full month. Second, it’s starting at an awkward time for the east
coast (6 pm), and the format is Scars Block Sealed, which is a lot of faith to put into your booster-opening skills when you’re starting that late at
night. Third, the promo is the alt-art Ajani Goldmane; I mean, Pernicious Deed, Wasteland… Ajani?
Standard in Washington: Tweaking U/W Mystic
Coming out of Paris, I knew the baseline for Standard would be the Squadron Hawk–Stoneforge Mystic deck. The MODO metagame acted as a petri dish, where
any dollop of success let the deck mutate through multiple generations in a matter of days. There were a bunch of cards bandied about to break the
mirror: Sun Titan, Baneslayer Angel, the second Sword of Feast and Famine, Elspeth Tirel, Emeria Angel. The two major differences from Paris were that
people were now gunning for your swords and also that, while Paris was about locking up the game after you Famined them, now it was about hitting them
in the first place.
I picked up the deck and moved the Sword of Body and Mind main: with games going longer, being able to diversify threats or make a huge dude was
important. A Sun Titan made its way into the sideboard, then into the main, then into the side again. While recycling squawks to block or Tectonic
Edges was good, it was really there to restock swords. Pre-board games were usually locked up by the time you hit six mana, since Sword of Feast and
Famine compressed the early game so much. The last maindeck change we made was to add Tumble Magnets. Magnet was a viable way of answering an opposing
Stoneforge Mystic on the draw, good at pushing through blockers or protecting Jace. I was trying to decide on Emeria Angel or Baneslayer but ultimately
went with Emeria Angel as the post-board threat.
What happened? There’s not much value in going over any of this in further depth, since the story out of Washington was clearly Gerry and company’s
breaking Angry Birds build. As far as the games went, I won a very long game 1 in the mirror round 1, lost game 2 quickly, and ended with an
unintentional draw, dooming me to mirror matches for the foreseeable future. I ended up scrapping together a middling record, splitting the mirror,
then losing to a couple of Boros decks. It became apparent to me that my tweaks, while seemingly in the right direction, had made the deck worse
against both the mirror and Boros. How awful.
Lesson: Tweaking a deck is necessary, but it’s vitally important to know what you’re trying to accomplish. The matches I played were enough to let me
know how the deck works roughly but not really enough to know how the matchups worked. The tweaks made sense in theory, but more games with it or the
stock deck would’ve shown me that they weren’t right and maybe how to make them right.
Legacy: Is that even a real deck?
The subtitle “Is that even a real deck?” is primarily meant as a jab at Legacy. There are usually a number of decks of completely unknown value, where
it’s hard to know firsthand whether they’re awful or the next big thing (e.g. the Cloudpost/Vesuva/Emrakul deck). On the other hand, it’s a testament
to how wide open the format is. While some archetypes will always be viable, small tremors in the metagame and cardpool can launch fringe strategies to
the big time or sink previous best decks into Takenuma. One day, your deck may leave all contenders smoldering in its wake; the next, its every hope
For Legacy in Washington, I took an old standby off the shelf: Counterbalance with green for Tarmogoyfs, red for Firespout and Pyroblasts, and white
for Swords to Plowshares. While most matchups are competitive, I had enough hours logged with the deck from MODO to feel I could grind out wins in
What happened? The deck didn’t seem to be quite there. Counterbalance only has a few matchups that feel better or worse than 60/40 or 40/60, but
hitting the bad matchups can make you feel as though you’re just diving through the murk. And dive I did. I was also a little rusty and got greedy with
keeps and fetches, not bothering to fetch basics when I had land-light hands, only to get dominated by Wastelands.
One interesting thing happened that highlighted my inexperience with paper Magic. I had a Counterbalance on board against a Merfolk player. I had also
just played Trinket Mage, searching an Engineered Explosives (intending to blow up his double Aether Vial). On his turn, he vialed in a Merrow
Reejerey and then cast another Merrow Reejerey and then said nothing, Reejerey trigger nowhere to be found. I knew that if he let it go, the optional
trigger would disappear. The problem is that it was kind of awkward for me to resolve my Counterbalance trigger, since his trigger would resolve
second, but the target should be locked in. After tanking, I ended up blurting “trigger?” and pointing towards his Reejerey. It turned out that he
thought it was an enters-the-battlefield trigger and resolved the trigger after I flipped a blank. The trigger untapped his Aether Vial, putting into
play another lord, and I died to some large men.
After many discussions with judges as to what was or was not possible, the “answer” is that I could flip a blank Counterbalance and say, “Resolves,
okay?” If he confirms, then it’s too late for the trigger. This line could give him a strategic advantage because he could choose a different target
depending on whether the Counterbalance hits. If I’m worried about that, however, I can just ask him what he wants to target before moving forward.
Asking non-judges, the consensus answer was “call a judge.”
After dropping, I entered a draft and got a pretty sweet R/G dinosaurs deck with a Sword of Body and Mind. One of the other matches was taking forever,
so Phil Yam sat down and offered to play a match, sharing my draft deck. I drew my seven, happy to get two of the Alpha Tyrranaxes. After I landed one,
Phil drew and played and equipped the sword, swung past my dinosaurs, and milled me for ten. Milled us for ten. So now we were racing to the bottom of
the deck. We counted the remaining cards and found Phil would be first to deck. He drew the second-to-last card, tapped four mana, and threw down the
Sylvok Replica while simultaneously targeting his Ichor Wellspring. This all happened mid-windmill, as my Tel-Jilad Defiance slammed onto the table. I
drew the last card; Phil died to the Wellspring trigger, holding head in hands and muttering to himself wondering how he lost that game.
Lesson: Counterbalance wasn’t the right deck, this time at least, but it’s hard to tell given poor play.
Lesson: Call a judge.
Lesson: Register in the 2 pm Draft Open early so you can do something once you’ve scrubbed out of the main event.
Lesson: Sword of Body and Mind is bad when you’re sharing a deck.
Standard in Edison: Wall of Tanglecord in every format
Coming out of Washington, I was leaning towards playing Valakut. Valakut was still very much a real deck, and while Kibler was very bullish on Mystic’s
percentages (thanks to Sword), it seemed like a properly built list could react well. On top of that, I knew there would be a lot of people on the
Angry Birds bandwagon, since not only was it a techy build, but it was a GerryT techy build, which happened to take down the trophy. I know Gerry
didn’t really buy into the conventional wisdom that it was weak against Valakut, but the shortage of counters and answers to Valakut (the land) seemed
like a pretty wide opening.
The first thing I did was add back Summoning Trap. While it was completely awful to miss on Trap, the fact is that it’s one of the only ways to cast
two threats in one turn. Where the previous U/W decks could afford to hold up a handful of permission to handle both, the new decks have too much to do
with their mana that they probably wouldn’t even if they drew multiple counters. The pushy Jarvis Yu pushed Inferno Titan on me and forced me to play
two in the main, two in the board.
On Wednesday between Opens, Karl Kahn (a founding father of Ghost Dad and ex-MODO ringer extraordinaire NicotineJones) found some pretty sweet tech:
Wall of Tanglecord. Wall was a cheap spell that basically blocked everything with a sword, even two. U/W Mystic had no way of removing it before turn
4. Not only that, but it even pumped Overgrown Battlement. Turn 2 Wall of Tanglecord, turn 3 Zenith for Battlement, and you still get Titan mana on
turn 4. How sweet is that? There was a gathering of NY Magic players at Katz’s Deli that week, and I spent the entire time evangelizing the word of
Wall, succeeding in getting BDM to adopt it for his U/G Genesis Wave deck.
I ran the following list, cards graciously provided by our own Reid Duke:
- 2 Avenger of Zendikar
- 1 Joraga Treespeaker
- 4 Overgrown Battlement
- 2 Inferno Titan
- 4 Primeval Titan
- 1 Wall of Tanglecord
I lost the first round to Mystic, won the next four against three Mystics and one G/W Quest, then lost to Mystic and then to BDM, knocking me out of
contention at 4-3.
Despite playing U/W Mystic five times on the day, I didn’t have a great opportunity to evaluate Wall. Two (?!) of my opponents sided in
Sparkmage-Collar against me, which, despite being completely wrong, made my walls pretty awkward. One had the Paris build with Ousts, which wall was
pretty poor against, and it never really showed up in the other two matches.
I think this deck is still awesome but is also flying under the radar, despite being a dominant deck for a fair portion of last Standard season. If I
were to play it again, I’d cut the Avengers for just four Inferno Titans main. It’s not good anymore just putting out a huge threat; you also need an
immediate board impact (Plants don’t count in a world of protection from green). Also, Inferno Titan was amazing, clearing boards, slaying Jaces,
firebreathing for eleven. I don’t really like Cultivate, but I think it’s necessary to buffet land-light draws. Unfortunately, your two best ramp
spells (Explore and Expedition) get significantly worse if you don’t draw lands. I know some small children might just push up their land count upwards
of 30, but I think Cultivate is the unfortunate answer.
Also, getting hit by Sword of Body and Mind really sucks, and you leave it to chance whether your deck has enough gas to seal the deal, so I think
Nature’s Claim is the answer. Acidic Slime doesn’t have the same punch as it did against the control decks earlier in the season.
Back to paper development. In two consecutive rounds, my opponents played extra lands. The first played a land, Edged me, attacked, played a squawk,
and then played a second land. The other time, my opponent, after Jacing into a desperation Day of Judgment, played a squawk and then his second land.
My read was that both were unintentional, and both agreed with my take on the game state with some brief replaying. Then again, in both games, it
would’ve given them a significantly non-zero advantage had it stuck, so maybe the judge call was correct?
Lesson: Call a judge?
Punts: I had two Khalni Heart Expeditions in play, missed a drop, then topdecked a land and slammed it, saying “go” then surreptitiously (sheepishly? I
forget) knocking my die to three. Of course, my opponent reached over, read the card, made a curt comment about how it’s a “may,” and pushed it back to
two. Missed triggers indeed.
Legacy in Washington: Death of Counterbalance
I played four-color Counterbalance again, both due to familiarity and card availability (thanks again to Jarvis Yu, Gerry, the victorious Alix
Hatfield, Kenny Mayer, and that other guy whose name I forgot for the card borrows).
The day started off significantly better than in Edison. Round 1, I played against someone with Merfolk who appeared relatively new to either the deck
or the format (a pretty easy read when he tries to Cursecatcher my turn 1 Top).
He killed me pretty quickly game 1, but I managed to win game 2 in a squeaker. I was forced to break a Standstill but did it when he was choked on mana
and thus was able to follow with a pair of rather largish Tarmogoyfs. He quickly emptied his hand of Coralhelm Commander, Cursecatcher, Lord of
Atlantis, Silvergill Adept, and five lands (including a Mutavault). I swung, expecting him to trade, but he took all the damage, then countered a third
Tarmogoyf, leaving me facing potentially twenty damage on the crack back. I had fourteen life, a Top, a Tundra, and a Scalding Tarn. My only chance was
to kill one of his lords, leaving Swords to Plowshares or Pyroblast as an out. I cracked the Tarn for a Mountain, blindly drew with the Top, and
luckily found one of my outs with Cursecatcher mana available. He was surprisingly content to hold back and then muffed a combat step, eventually
forcing him to crack his own Standstill and leading me to the win.
Game 3, I was able to use one-for-one removal to keep the board in check until I could land my trumps.
Matches 2 and 3 I played two tough players piloting U/W/G. I lost game one of each but was able to scrap together wins in the remaining games to remain
undefeated. Where the deck had sputtered in D.C., it and I were running smoothly. I pushed through Jaces that were particularly important to find
answers, clear the board, or provide a pretty quick clock. I was setting up Top-less Counterbalances with Jace Brainstorms that hit two turns running.
I did, however, receive the first warning of my paper career for Forcing a spell before resolving Brainstorm. Later, I was so immersed in a decision
tree that I let my opponent Spell Pierce an Engineered Explosives activation (he caught it and called a judge on himself).
Match 4 was a feature match on camera against the bounding Gerry Thompson. We both knew what we were playing from earlier discussions, but I didn’t
really have that great a sense of how the games would play out (i.e., how hopeless it would be if Doomsday resolved). Game 1, I stuck an early
Counterbalance that depleted his resources, leaving room for Jace to be trumps.
Game 2 was home to my first major punt of the match. I landed a Counterbalance and tapped out (I think for Trinket Mage?), to which Gerry played
Doomsday. I blind-flipped Krosan Grip to counter it, leaving him with one card in hand and Top on board. I immediately drew Grip and hit his Top,
notwithstanding that his deck was basically cold to floating a three under Counterbalance. Of course, Gerry resolved Doomsday and killed me in short
Game 3 was home to my second major punt. Gerry let a Pithing Needle resolve with Verdant Catacombs in play. My hand was Spell Pierce and some gas, so I
figured that if I could just slow him down a little bit, the Pierce would give me time to stabilize.
In poker, there’s a well-known trap called “fancy play syndrome.” This recognizes that there is a great temptation to make splashy “get you” plays, but
they tend to be significantly worse in the long run than just executing the standard game plan in a standard way. If I had thought it through, I
would’ve realized that while one Needle on Shelldock Isle is a marginal annoyance, the second one requires significant hoop-jumping to answer, and
Gerry is not going to let me Stone Rain him if he doesn’t need the mana.
Surely enough, I drew a Trinket Mage, which found me a second Pithing Needle. Gerry eventually pushed through a Doomsday, except he untapped into Sea,
Sea, Bayou, Shelldock Isle, needing three blue mana to both Wipe Away my Needle and activate Shelldock in the same turn. If he split it over two turns,
he needed to Doomsday again so as not to deck, except my Trinket Mage unexpectedly represented lethal if he did.
(The punch line is that Gerry had Carpet of Flowers, which gives him basically infinite blue mana and which both of us apparently forgot. He ribbed me
later that if we played on MODO, there was basically no way he could make that punt.)
My hopes were dashed, however, in the next two rounds facing consecutive G/W/B Rock decks. Jack Wang got me good with Elspeth and Green Sun’s Zenith.
Kenny Mayer landed multiple cheap threats while Duressing away the Jaces that he was amusingly unaware he was lending me (received via Gerry as
broker). Both had way more threats than I had answers, and it’s significantly harder to rely on Counterbalance when facing varied casting costs.
I know this was already covered in Drew Levin article last week, but
Counterbalance is just bad right now. I wasn’t too discouraged after Edison despite facing tough matchups like Goblins and Merfolk. They were known
quantities and winnable. My losses here, however, were indicative of a fundamental metagame shift away from Counterbalance’s strengths. The success of
Junk (and my virtual loss to Doomsday) showed the inflection point in the mana curve is no longer two, but three. Knight of the Reliquary is a serious
threat to the existence of Counterbalance, since it outclasses both Firespout and Tarmogoyf, two cards that previously were trumps against creature
And if three was a problem, four is a disaster. Jace, Natural Order, the previously mentioned Elspeth, etc., etc., etc. basically all spell doom if
they land, and available counterspells are slow, conditional, or bad in an attrition war.
Lesson: Counterbalance is dead. It’s still good to great in some matchups, but it’s no longer the plan A against the field it used to be. Jace,
however, is the real deal.
Things I’ve learned so far
I feel like my paper play is catching up to my digital play. I’m feeling the flow of the game, and when I think about plays, it’s about the actual
plays and not organizing cards or how many shuffles is sufficient randomization. I’ve gotten a couple reads or blinks or whatever you want to call them
that I’m not sure I would’ve gotten a couple months ago. Similarly, my punts are all variations on punts I’ve made in the past and not exclusively due
to the transition to paper. I’m still a little sloppy with my triggers, but so far, I’ve only gotten one unintentional draw.
Some of the advice I’ve received that has been the most helpful has been the following:
1) Know where the water fountains are, know where the food is (or bring your own), and look at your watch from time to time. Like being in solitary,
you’ll lose track of time. The endless rounds will blend into each other, and you’ll start to feel like crap without knowing why until you notice it’s
two hours past when you usually eat lunch.
2) Get to your seat early so you can grab the chair facing the clock. I believe this was originally a Zvi tip relayed to me by the Benjamin William
Peebles-Mundy. Peebles notes, however, that if you get to your chair first, it’s easy for your opponent to walk around you and sneak a peek while
you’re shuffling, so keep that in mind.
3) Pile-shuffling is awful. I understand that counting one’s deck and an opponent’s deck is best practice, but I’ve just gotten lazy and started
counting it straight up. It’s quicker and less prone to flipping cards.
4) Just write down how big a Tarmogoyf is. Scribble the initials of binned types somewhere on your pad (discretely if you think your opponent will
punt) because it’s infinitely easier to glance over at LCIA (land, creature, instant, artifact) and know it’s a 4/5 without having to do simple game
accounting every other turn.
Being limited in my ability to travel means I won’t have much opportunity to play more paper events, so it’s back to the MODO waters for now. I’ll
almost certainly be at Grand Prix Providence to see if I can put my Legacy lessons to good use.