It all started with a vow.
Before Grand Prix: Oakland, Conley Woods showed me his Bant deck and I opted not to play it. Naturally, Conley made Top 8 and I didn’t make Day 2. But this wasn’t the first time that had happened either. I thought back to other Grand Prix when Conley had sent me a deck and I had chose not to play it, then he subsequently made at least top 32 while I failed to cash.
What in the world had I been thinking? One of the world’s top innovators and deck designers had been sending me decks to play, and I had been making excuses to set them aside. It was like being told which stocks to buy this week by Jim Cramer, or what the new book in Oprah’s book club was going to be a week early. Not playing Conley’s decks was just crazy, no matter how madcap or underpowered they may have looked at the time.
So I made a decision. I made a vow to myself and locked myself in. The premise was simple. The baggage was heavy. The trust was immense. But I had to try it. No matter what happened, no matter how much I was lured into temptation or hated the deck choice, I was going to play whatever 75 cards Conley Woods registered for the tournament. Maybe I would go down with him. Maybe I would do well with him. Either way, I had to know what would happen if I followed through.
Little did I know what this would entail.
One would imagine that having made this agreement, I would walk in, have a deck handed to me, and that would be that. No extensive testing and tweaking. No last minute decisions. But unlike every time Conley had sent me a deck in the past, this tournament wasn’t going to be so easy.
It deceivingly started off that way, though. Early in the week, Conley sent me a U/R Jace-Blood Moon deck similar to the one Brandon Scheel made Top 32 with, or that won the Little Rock PTQ, only less refined. I played some games and the deck was alright. Certainly above average, with a lot of matchups that were. But it had a lot of do-nothing cards and draws with unwanted redundancy.
Still, if Conley thought it was a good choice for the format I wasn’t going to doubt him. I had decided to play whatever he was going to play, whether I liked it or not. Still, that didn’t mean I couldn’t help improve the deck. I sent back feedback, and we switched up several things. And that’s where we were at until Friday.
I had been thinking about the deck a lot on my journey to Houston, and tweaks that could be made, playing games and figuring out matchups. After waiting to the Colorado crew to wake up from a nap on Friday morning, I met up with Conley in his room.
I expressed my concern that I didn’t think Blood Moon was going to be very good at the Grand Prix because people were setting themselves up to be able to beat it. I also was not happy with the Zoo matchup, a matchup I really wanted to be better than it was. I played some games in the corner with their roommate Patrick, and Conley mulled over what I had said, deep in a Gatherer search. When he emerged from his submersion in Gatherer, he couldn’t find anything to help the matchup in the ways I wanted help in.
That’s when the spark came.
I finished the game I was in and looked back at Conley. His hand was on his chin and his eyes were entangled with the windows on the screen, opening and closing drawers of ideas. Every so often the click of the mouse or the clatter of keys being pressed would sound from his direction. I began to talk, and Conley shut me down.
“I’m brewing. Give me twenty minutes.”
The master was at work.
My playtest partner left to go grind, and, true to his word, Conley flipped his laptop around 20 minutes later. “Come look at this, but don’t laugh.”
I read the list and my reaction was far from laughter. “I love it,” I told him.
He nodded and rattled off a list of matchups, and how the deck performed in each. Without playing a game, he could tell me how it was going to perform in each matchup, what was important, and how to play it. “I didn’t play a single game with that Bant deck either,” he reassured me. “It was all theory.”
We immediately built it up and played some games. They panned out exactly as Conley had listed them off.
Now, I’m able to build decks and tell you what the matchups should be like. But seldom can I create a deck and tell you immediately with such accuracy how the deck was going to perform. Working with Conley on a last minute brew created at 4pm the day before the GP was truly awe-inspiring. We determined so much is such a small span of time. And, we created a deck which was quite impressive for both of us.
The deck, which you may have seen by now, was “Guess Who?”
- 4 Ninja of the Deep Hours
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 1 Sower of Temptation
- 4 Spellstutter Sprite
- 4 Vendilion Clique
- 4 Gatekeeper of Malakir
- 4 Abyssal Persecutor
I pulled for the deck name of “Going Deep,” Conley wanted “Smothered and Covered,” but Brian David-Marshall dubbed the deck “Guess Who?” and, despite his deck nicknames almost always never catching on, it seems like this one has stuck.
The premise is very simple. It’s a U/B aggro-control deck. It’s similar to Faeries, but with more of a beatdown element — and with cards like Gatekeeper and Confidant. Ninja of the Deep Hours lets you reuse your Sprites, Cliques, and Gatekeepers, as well as return your Persecutors.
With all of the ways you have to remove him, Persecutor is an all-star card in this deck. It’s surprisingly hard for most decks to deal with a 6/6, and when you mess up their plan early it’s very easy to put them far behind with a Persecutor. Not once did I lose because I couldn’t get rid of my Persecutor. Ninja works especially well with Persecutor, since, as I told basically everyone because I’ve been trying to find a way to make this relevant since Betrayers of Kamigawa’s release, you can pick up multiple creatures with a single Ninja by responding to Ninja’s activated ability.
This deck is almost all Conley. The pieces I added in testing were Smothers, Jace, Sower, and some mana revisions. Conley originally had Bitterblossom, which was fairly bad, and Cryptic Command, which I felt Jace was better than.
We played some sideboard games, ate some dinner, had last minute debates over Sadistic Sacrament versus Cranial Extraction, and I gathered cards then went to bed.
I woke up Saturday morning, showered, and put on clothes. I rummaged through my bag for the right shirt to wear and found it. “Make your own luck,” read part of the shirt. I gathered everything up, ate breakfast, and headed over.
I talked to Conley about adding another land, but he felt 20 plus three Moxes was fine. (A choice we would both later regret — the deck definitely wants 21 lands.) I scrounged up the last few cards I needed and sat down for registration. Time passed, and soon enough it was time for round 3 — my first match of the day.
Round 3 — Boom/Bust Zoo
We had tested “a lot” (where “a lot” is about ten games preboard and six postboard) against Zoo and found game 1 to be about 40%, but post-sideboarded games to be ridiculously in our favor. We didn’t drop a single one. Granted, none of them were against Boom/Bust Zoo.
He led on a Hierarch and then a Nacatl while I tried to get something going with a Dark Confidant. I killed his first Nacatl, and he put a land into play tapped and cast another Nacatl. Then he tried to back up and untap his land so he could also cast Tarmogoyf, which I told him he couldn’t do. The next turn, he tapped two lands for Boom and forgot to float mana so he could cast his Tarmogoyf. Despite essentially Remanding himself twice, my Dark Confidant kept flipping cards that weren’t helping, and the Boom set me back far enough that I was dead in short order to a couple burn spells next turn.
Game 2 is incredibly in my favor, just as Conley and I drew it up. Deathmark your first guy, Sprite your second one-drop, Gatekeeper the other one-drop you cast, Smother your guy next turn.
The game gets to the position where he has nothing, is at seven and I have a Gatekeeper and a Sprite; he’s dead in three turns. My hand is all removal: Deathmark, Smother, Wrath. He cast Stoneforge Mystic. That’s fine. He found a Sword of Light and Shadow. Whatever. Attack you down to 4 with Smother up to catch the Mystic when it attacks. He casts Sword and goes to equip. Yeah, sure. He went to attack.
And I realize what I did.
Protection from Black, you idiot!
I calmly take it as if it was what I intended, he rebuys a Nacatl, and passes.
I untapped, attacked him, and consider Wrathing his board just to make sure Sword doesn’t dominate me, but want to catch the Nacatl he casts next turn so he can’t just suit it up with the Sword. I pass.
My heart may have well detached from the strings that held it and fallen into a pool of venom.
He continues to play spells and cast cheap creatures, while I don’t see any lands and lose.
I gracefully signed the slip, got up, and slowly walked away. On a scale of tilt, from 0 degrees to 90, I was on at least an 85. You didn’t fly out all this way just to hand away your third round match, you idiot! I needed some time. I noted there were 20 minutes left in the round and walked out the doors, looking for solace and solitude. I walked down a floor to an area which was devoid of people. I sat down on a couch there, and tried everything I normally do when I feel tilt. I meditated. I paced. I breathed in, and slowly released it out. I thought about the game. I told myself everything was going to be okay and to just focus on the next round. Nothing was working. So I closed my eyes, and slumped.
Tilt is the worst feeling you can have when trying to focus. It’s a mix of rage and distress, a mix of sad tears and boiling blood. Losing, that I can do. Failing in the win and in round of a PTQ, or the ninth round of a Grand Prix. That’s something easy to deal with. But making such a rookie, obvious mistake caused by tunnel vision in my first round in such an important tournament is worse than just losing. It frightens your sensibilities as a Magic player, and scares you into feeling like you’re not good enough to be playing this game competitively. I feared I was going to have to play my next round like this and punt that one away too. I hadn’t tilted like this in at least four years.
That’s when I heard it.
They weren’t even words. It was a sound. One of the most pure sounds you can hear. One resolute and free from the scars the world gives you as you immerse yourself deeper in years. If tilt could ever have an opposite, this sound was it. Two young girls giggling and running across the floor, laughing at each other and tumbling around without worry.
I smiled and opened my eyes. Their laughter was like a dosage of penicillin in the mid 1900’s. I looked down. “Make your own luck,” read the cloth hanging off my body.
I took another vow. I was going to slow down my play and think for at least two seconds before every action either player made to make sure I wasn’t making a mistake. And for the rest of the tournament, I slowed down.
Losing is never good. But losing that match in that fashion to kick off the tournament might have been the thing I needed to fuel success.
It was time to go back. I reappeared in the tournament hall. My mind was free and calm. I was ready to play.
Round 4 — R/G Standard Valakut Mana Ramp
It would be easy to write this off as an easy win. A lucky fluke.
If you say that, you’re not thinking about this matchup hard enough.
This matchup is frightening. I’m set up well to beat Scapeshift, sure. But the actual card Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle? The deck doesn’t have any good way to deal with one. It kills every creature in your deck, even Persecutor, fairly easily. Their deck is all lands, ramp, and cards which are ridiculously hard to beat, like Siege-Gang Commander. It’s not easy in the least.
Needless to say, I was quickly on the back foot after Bloodbraid Elf hit a kicked Goblin Ruinblaster followed up by a Siege-Gang Commander.
Game 2, he didn’t have as much action and I managed to beat him the turn before he could start going crazy with Valakut.
In the third game, I have to mulligan my seven. My six comes up as Dark Confidant, Vendilion Clique, Thoughtseize, Abyssal Persecutor, Spellstutter Sprite, Chrome Mox.
My mind flashed back to the night before.
I was watching Conley play, and he was keeping some hands I would normally mulligan. He explained his mulligan process to me. “It’s a lot different than how a lot of other people mulligan. I just feel like you have to keep speculative hands a lot of the time. There’s no guarantee your next hand will be remotely playable, and usually the hand is good enough that if things break in your favor slightly you will be advantaged in the game. You can’t always play it safe. Sometimes, you just have to take risks.”
Make your own luck, eh?
Obviously my first draw was River of Tears.
Round 5 — Pyromancer’s Ascension Combo
He kept a slow draw, and I saw what was up with a turn 3 Vendilion Clique, sending an Ascension away. I equipped Jitte on my turn and bashed, but when I sent in next turn and pumped twice, both of his draws had been Punishing Fires and my Clique went down. On his turn he cast Blood Moon to make for a pretty nice combo with his Grove of the Burnwillows. I played a Spellstutter Sprite to give Jitte to, but unfortunately he kept drawing burn anyway. I couldn’t do very much despite finding a Mox to cast spells with because he keeps burning my creatures, and eventually he gets Ascension active.
Game 2 I kept two lands, Dark Confidant, Vendilion Clique, Archmage, Sprite, Thoughtseize. He drew a burn spell for my Confidant. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, though: by the time he finally killed me some six turns later I still only had two lands in play.
My back was up against the wall. Still, I remained calm. I knew if I focused, I would be okay.
Round 6 — Elves
This match was one of the least close matches I have played in recent memory. Conley also faced Elves that week and called the matchup “as close to 100% as he could imagine.” Not only are you Faeries, but you’re Faeries with extra removal and a faster clock. Game 1 I destroyed his creatures and then him, and game 2 he mulliganed into a pretty poor hand and I ran over him.
On the plus side, my opponent told me he was a reader who had put my Elves sideboarding primer to good use. It’s too bad I had to knock you out, Richard!
Round 7 — G/B Smallpox
Game 1 I cast a turn 2 Confidant and he opts to Smother it in my upkeep, giving me a free card. He casts a Confidant of his own, but I conveniently draw the Smother — how fortunate I was able to draw an extra card off that Confidant — and kill his Confidant before it could get active. He begins to rip my hand apart with discard, but he has nothing to back it up. I find Persecutor and Jace to put the game in lock.
The second game he has a more aggressive draw and begins to attack my hand fast, then follows it up with a Nyxathid. I play Abyssal Persecutor with one card left and trade it with his Nyxathid, then draw another Persecutor to follow it up with. He does nothing and I draw another Persecutor. I think for a while to make sure I’m not making a blunder, then cast it to threaten to put him to 0 the next turn. I eventually draw Gatekeeper, Jace, to make sure my opponent is allowed to lose the game.
Round 8 — Dark Depths
Game 1 was decided on turn 2. I Thoughtseized turn 1, and his hand had two Smothers among all the other cards. At the end of his second turn I cast a Spellstutter Sprite. He shrugged. Whatever, right? I attacked. He picked up his pen to write down to damage. I held up my hand.
He had no good way to stop my steady stream of cards.
Game 2 I quickly Extirpated Thopter Foundry off a Thoughtseize and got Jace active. I forced him to make a 20/20 when I bounced his Hexmage, and then I stole the Eldrazi wannabe with Sower.
Round 9 — Living End
Unfortunately, I had to sit across from my friend Randy Williams this round. Only one of us would be able to make Day 2. Conley had said he thought Living End was a good matchup, but I was sure it was going to be close.
Game 1 he had a great draw. He cycled a bunch, Fulminator Maged away my third land, then resolved a Living End to finish me off. Not much to see here.
If he had his good draw game 1, then it’s only fair I have my similarly good draw in the second game, with Dark Confidant into Vendilion Clique, taking a Blood Moon, and then a Thoughtseize taking away his Living End so I could Extirpate. With no action and on a clock, he conceded when I cast Jace.
It all came down to this.
I Thoughtseized away a Blood Moon but didn’t have a turn 2 play, though I did have Vendilion Clique on the third turn. I took his cascade spell and he drew Fulminator Mage, cast it, and passed. I found a Confidant and played a land, and he had a second Fulminator Mage. I went for Persecutor which met Maelstrom Pulse, and my Clique fell to a Deadshot Minotaur on his next turn. I Gatekeepered him and he tossed aside the Minotaur, then after he destroyed two of my lands I managed to pick my Gatekeeper up with a Ninja on my next turn. He cast a Finks and I bashed into it, then I Extirpated the Finks so it wouldn’t come back and noticed something new to play around — Boom/Bust! He had switched up his deck for the third game. He didn’t do anything on his turn and I cast Glen Elendra Archmage, leaving a Blue up. He cast Deadshot Minotaur, halting my offenses, though I sent in with my 1/1 Archmage and picked it up with my Ninja, then recast it. I found a Gatekeeper the next turn, and that was enough to seal the win!
After a worrisome start, I had managed to come back and made Day 2. Conley had also made it at 7-2, and we looked forward to the next day.
Join me next week, when I cover Day 2, my thoughts on the deck, and what I would change going forward for all of you Extended grinders who have local and Magic Online tournaments to play Extended decks in. Until then, I’ll be happy to answer any questions in the forums or via e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com.
Talk to you soon!
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else