From Heartbeat to Heartache – My Pro Tour Los Angeles Report *4th*

Magic: the Gathering Extended Tech!Fresh off his 4th place finish at Pro Tour Los Angeles, Chris “Star Wars Kid” McDaniel returns to discuss the powerful Heatbeat Combo deck, recap his entire Pro Tour experience and offer his perspective on the controversial semifinals match against Billy Moreno!

A lot can change over the course of a year in the game of Magic. I am not just talking the Pro Players Club, Player cards, change in formats, and new payout methods, but a personal change in the way you play and see the game. A little more than a year ago I was just getting my first small taste of Magic success; I came in 9th place in GP New Jersey and thus lost my amateur status and qualified for my first Pro Tour.

Instead of taking things seriously and getting down to really testing the format for last year’s Extended PT, I just messed around and ended up going a miserable 3-3-2. This further increased my dislike for the Extended format, I have always hated how large and diverse the field was. I love small formats, block being my all time favorite, I like being able to go into a tournament and know what to expect to play against. I hated how I could choose a deck I really liked and just get smashed around by playing against 10 completely different decks in 10 rounds. It seemed so random, how could one possibly prepare for such an experience?

In truth I feel I was just looking at things from the wrong point of view. In Jersey I played a Tooth and Nail deck. I loved Tooth and Nail and had been playing some variant of it since it first reared its head at the Mirrodin Block PT. I knew that Affinity was the best deck, but that didn’t stop me from playing the deck I loved. I played it over and over again on Magic Online until I felt I knew the deck inside and out. When it came time for the Grand Prix even though I picked up a different version of Tooth than the one I had play tested all those hours with. I still saw the same deck at its core. Despite playing against many weird concoctions over the course of the tournament, I was able to react to any situation that came up and pull out a win a good portion of the time. I knew my deck and I did well. The same type of situation came up during GP Chicago, which was team limited, with Champions of Kamigawa being the only set. I had logged many hours in the MODO drafting and playing sealed with Champions; at the GP my team placed a solid 7th to finish in the money and I managed to only drop one match all weekend. For PT Philadelphia I practiced with Gifts constantly, even though I was not even qualified for the tournament, I enjoyed how the deck played so much that I just played it for fun. Luckily I was able to grind into the PT, made about $800, and qualified for Nationals.

See what I was doing? I gave up on Extended before I even gave it a chance. It is not like there wasn’t a pattern to when I did well at a Magic tournament. Sure, I did fairly well in those non-Extended tournaments but what about GP Detroit, where I finished day one in exactly 64th place in the Champion/Betrayers limited format and then managed a pathetic 1-X? Or PT Atlanta, where I felt I really let my team down, and did not have near the same experience I had in Chicago. There were several other tournaments like this in between. Was I just unlucky at these tournaments? No, the simple truth was I had not tested NEARLY as much as I had for the other events. The fact remains: you generally need to test to do well. I tricked myself into testing for PT LA.

I managed to qualify in the first PTQ I played. It was Kamigawa Block Constructed and I ran Gifts again. I went undefeated through the Swiss and 2-0’d my first two matches in the Top 8 before reaching the finals against an opponent who did not plan to attend the PT. Cool. I had qualified for my fourth PT of the season and my fourth PT ever. For once I had plenty of time to actually test the format and try to manage a decent performance. I even had the TBS mailing list to help.

Yeah, well, that fell apart quickly. The list kind of disintegrated early on and I was left on my own. I discussed a Desire deck very much like the one I ended up playing at the PT with a few people online, some of whom seemed fairly interested, but nobody seemed to really take any initiative with it, and I became more and more dejected about Extended and the upcoming event. I had really only started playing the Desire deck around the time Champions came out and only as a way to play with my new favorite card—Gifts Ungiven. I started with a Singleton Desire deck to play for fun while in draft queues, and quickly became addicted. I noticed I kept winning game after game whenever I cast Gifts Ungiven, as it allowed me to always get the tools necessary to win the game so long as I had the needed mana. I switched over to an Extended version of the deck in order to cast Gifts more often. I had a blast playing the deck and would log onto MODO for hours just to play the deck over and over again against anyone who would play against me. I wasn’t testing Extended; I was simply playing my singleton deck without the restrictions. Good thing I didn’t realize I was actually testing for the tournament, I may have stopped myself.

The night before the PT, where am I? Well, at home obviously, I don’t have a plane ticket yet. A mad dash to the airport and I am able to fly standby at the last possible minute for only $59. Planning ahead? Hell no, procrastinating is definitely the right play there. I get to LAX sometime around 11 PM and realize I have no clue where the tournament site is. I try calling around but nobody seems to be answering their phone. I decide it’s time to so I get a cab and tell the driver to take me to the LA Convention Center. “But it is almost midnight,” he tells me as he stares inquisitively at me. I shrug and fall asleep on the short drive. It is midnight and the convention center is dead. No signs, no banners, no hordes of gamers walking around. All that can be seen are the seedy streets of downtown LA and a bunch of homeless people walking around. “I can’t let you out right here, you’ll probably die,” the genuinely concerned looking cabby says to me. By this point I’m pretty nervous, I’ve traveled across the country and I don’t know where I am supposed to be, if I leave now it is likely I may miss the PT just because it would take too long the site. I look around frantically, yet all I see entirely are a bunch of lazy hobos.

Wait, that one under the balcony. Baggy clothes dirty, carrying a tattered backpack, moving slowly and smoking a cigarette. That’s a Magic player if I’ve ever seen one. I get out of the cab and run as fast as I can to the safety of the convention center, however I have to dodge some street warfare and some panhandlers along the way. I arrive just in time to see Patrick Sullivan LCQ in on the back of Frenzied Goblin, which swerves ever so nimbly around Meloku. It was truly awesome. I wander around a bit, it’s too late to really go anywhere so I retreat to the vending machine room in the convention hall where I spend the rest of the night feeding an addiction of mine. That’s right, I played Worlds Of Warcraft for a few hours, and when the sun began to rise I went to the tournament hall and began searching for a deck.

I decided I would just play Desire since that is what I had the most experience with, and since it allows you to randomly get lucky sometimes. I saw Tim Aten registering a list, so I naturally just copied his as it was really close to what my current version was anyway. What I was on the fence about was whether or not to run a Gifts Ungiven in the sideboard, or just to run all four main. Tim’s version had all four main with the fourth Fact or Fiction in the sideboard and now I can say that this is absolutely correct.

While Gifts is the most powerful card drawer in the deck, it is Fact or Fiction that is the best card at bringing the game back for you when you are in need of restocking your hand in preparation for going off. With no cards in your hand drawing the Fact or Fiction is generally better because to try and get something going with Gifts you end up having to thin your deck of the four best cards thus decreasing your chances of drawing into more gas. Gifts is a card that gets better if you have more cards in your hand while Fact or Fiction can be just as good with one card in hand as with seven. The really important thing is each card’s interaction with Nostalgic Dreams. While Nostalgic Dreams turns Gifts into a true quadruple Demonic Tutor, Fact or Fiction usually can be even better. You are guaranteed if you want, to have at least three cards in your hand when you cast the Dreams and it is particularly brutal when another Nostalgic Dreams is flipped off the Fact or Fiction as you are often given a 4-1 split, which is just gravy. Also, if you are stuck on four mana, Gifts will be pretty atrocious at building your mana base up, while Fact or Fiction can easily get you your desperately needed land. Also, against the aggro decks you really aren’t going to have the time to Wish for Gifts, but you really are going to want to draw it, so playing four copies maximizes your chances. Not once during the entire tournament did I ever wish that the Fact or Fiction in the sideboard was a Gifts Ungiven.

I really like the general list I ran at the PT, but the main deck is obviously at least a card off I think. The Echoing Truth should be a third Rampant Growth, but other than that there wasn’t really a thing I would change. The deck is naturally very good against aggro decks because it can kill quickly, and it can stall the game if it needs to. The Mind’s Desires make it decent against control decks as well; it becomes a threat that can cause many players to play incorrectly against you just out of the fear of your ability to go off. Heartbeat of Spring is the card that has the biggest bullseye on it against decks packing Counterspells as it negates their ability to stop you from killing them. It is not their counters that limit your ability to win; it is the amount of mana available for you to use.

You have the luxury of picking the pace of the game—they don’t get to decide when you have to combo off, they usually don’t have that kind of pressure or a big enough threat, so you can just wait until you have seven cards before going for it during their end step. If Heartbeat is out then it probably won’t matter how many of your spells they can counter, you lead with a Mana Short, or Cunning Wish (with the threat of getting a Mana Short or Brain Freeze) and wait for their responses. If they successfully stop you from going off during their end step then you just untap and try again; no doubt they will be low on cards and mana, since when you are going off you can essentially hijack their counters and use them for your own good, upping the storm count of your Desire or Freeze.

If they try to kill you too quickly, they risk tapping too low and allowing you to combo off during their moment of weakness; if they wait too long, you have time to sculpt the perfect hand for beating them. Desire is the best shot you have at killing them when they go for a fast start, even when you don’t have Heartbeat out, as long as you have Early Harvest and a recursion effect or Wish you are pretty well set. A Desire for four is pretty iffy, but a Desire for five gives you a pretty strong chance at getting what you want. You can hit a Harvest or another Desire to just go broken, but if you whiff completely (not likely to hit 5 land) you just thinned your deck of five horrible cards. If you hit a single draw spell you increase your chances of winning later because Nostalgic Drams makes cards in the yard a better storage place than cards in your library.

After checking and rechecking my list over for something else I could add I was ready for the tournament to start. At this point I expected a 1-4 drop, maybe I could luckily get two match wins in there, but I was doubtful. I had played my deck a lot but just not very recently. For quick reference this is the list I played:

Round 1 Antonino DeRosa Affinity

Round 1 pairings go up and I am paired against Antonino DeRosa, who has been on quite a streak, playing Affinity. My opening hand has a Gifts, Harvest, and a Desire. I keep, draw lands on my first four turns, and die on turn 4 without casting a spell. The next game, I again die on turn 4 and realize that I really need to change the way I am playing, I just wasn’t in the right mindset round one. I however am reminded of GP New Jersey where I played round one against Osyp after he had just won the previous GP of that format. I got smashed two quick games there and it had caused me to change the way I played for the rest of the tournament where I ended up finishing with a X-2-1 record.

I wish I could say that the rest of day one was eventful but when you are playing a solitaire deck such as this it is hard to remember many details from individual matches as your hands and plays tend to blur together, except that I can remember my only other loss in the swiss quite well.

Round 2 Reanimator

Won 2-0

Round 3 G/B aggro

Won 2-0

Round 4 Dave Williams Zoo

Won 2-0

Round 5 G/B/W

Game 1, I went off without much trouble.

Game 2, I had the opportunity to go off, but it was a bit risky to do so as I couldn’t guarantee a win on the turn, he doesn’t have anything really but small pressure and I have fogs. I pass the turn and he untaps and top decks Global Ruin. It’s okay, as long as I draw my first land of the game beyond my opening hand I still can just win the game as I have a Heartbeat of Spring in play. Alas, I do not.

Game 3, I keep a three lander with Gifts, Fact or Fiction, Heartbeat and like a Harvest or something. He gets rid of the Heartbeat with disruption, I still haven’t drawn another land by turn 4 and he casts back to back Vindicates on my land and I still don’t draw more land so I lose.

Lost 1-2

Round 6 Rock

Won 2-0

Round 7 Affinity

Won 2-0

Round 8 Tog

Won 2-1

Round 9 Ervin Tormos Boros Deck Wins

Won 2-1

Round 10 Affinity

Won 2-0

Round 11 Shuuhei Nakamura Boros Deck Wins

Won 2-0

Round 12 Kamiel Cornelissen U/W/G/B Gifts Control

Draw 1-1-1

Round 13 Jeff Novekoff Rock

Won 2-1

Round 14 Ryuichi Arita Scepter Chant

Won 2-1

Round 15 Tsuyoshi Fujita Boros Deck Wins

Won 2-0

Round 16 Kenji Tsumura

Intentional Draw 0-0-0

20051103McDaniel01.jpgOver the course of the entire tournament I had to get pretty lucky a few times, though obviously I was playing a deck that had the ability to get lucky to come back from a far down position. The luckiest I think I got was in the middle of day one when my opponent had the second Cranial Extraction of the game (thanks to Eternal Witness) to remove all my ways of winning, but not the mana to cast it. I untap and draw a land. I only have Heartbeat of Spring and Desire in my hand. I cast Heartbeat, flashback Moment’s Peace, and tap out to cast Desire for a mighty three, and what a three they were. Early Harvest, Nostalgic Dreams, and Mind’s Desire to allow me to easily combo off that turn against a rightfully surprised opponent.

People who talked to me during the weekend wanted to know why I was always looking so miserable, even as it started to look like I might top eight. For one thing I was quite tired, I maybe got 6 hours of sleep total for the four days combined. The other thing is that with the U/G Desire deck, you are losing every game until you win, that is if you are going to win. It is very rare that you will dominate a game completely and never be in a position to have your opponent steal it away from you. It is more likely that you will be the one snatching games from the jaws of defeat, so you need to play your games that way. It is very important to predict your opponent’s likely moves at least a turn in advance, usually calculating how the worst-case scenario will affect you, as those are usually how things play out. I never took any game for granted; I always had to be afraid that my opponent could still win a game even when I had everything I could possibly need. Any card in someone’s hand or a draw phase coming up is a danger. Over the course of a large tournament this can be quite draining, all you are doing during games is crunching numbers trying to figure out how long you have to live, how much disruption you are likely to face, how you can stretch your cards further, which play gives you the best chance of winning, and what you possibly could have overlooked. With cards like Gifts Ungiven you have to be very careful when trying to figure out how your opponent is likely to react to the selection of cards you give them, if your opponent ever gives you a Gifts split different from the one you expected, it should always be to your benefit. If it is to your detriment it means you made a mistake most likely.

20051103McDaniel02.jpgNow…the issue that some of you probably have been wondering about, the semi-finals. Oof. Up two games and getting a hand that Mike Flores calls “unbeatable” in game 3. How did I lose? Partly, I am assuming, is due to bad play on my fault. While I haven’t poured over any of the coverage I have to assume that I messed up somewhere in games three and four that I just didn’t see. Sure, both those games he drew triple Circular Logic which is basically the only card in his entire deck I need worry about if I have a decent draw, despite him having the nuts in those games I still almost pull both of them out, even when I draw something crazy like eight lands or search effects in a row (Game four I top deck Cunning Wish on my last turn of the game with 14 lands out, the Fact or Fiction I would have retrieved would have revealed Minds Desire, Nostalgic Dreams, Early Harvest, Heartbeat, draw spell). In game three you can see I even write down after he flashes back a Deep Analysis the words “Naturalize, Wurm, Logic” on my pad, as cards all to play around. I almost cast the Early Harvest with untapped lands, just so if he counters it I’d be able to still cast the Moment’s Peace on his next turn. As the next turn or so progresses his asking how much mana I had available and the amount of cards in my hand causes me to suspect that he couldn’t possibly have the third Circular Logic. It seemed he was making it a bit too obvious. All I do by relying on fog is give him more time to draw into the goods, so I decided to just go for it.

So that leaves him with two triple Logic draws and us onto game five. This is where things hit the fan. I cast turn three Heartbeat of Spring with pure gas in hand, I am so mad though, as I am sure he has the Naturalize as he didn’t name it with his Cabal Therapy when he had done so before. Turn three for him and he taps three lands and I am sick as it is clear he pools six, casts his beaters and then the Naturalize, taking the match from me. My spirits soar however when he simply takes one point of damage from his Cephalid Coliseum and casts Psychatog, and passes the turn tapped out. What?!? He forgot about the Heartbeat of Spring, he doesn’t have a Naturalize, he doesn’t flashback the Therapy, and he doesn’t have the mana available to cast a Circular Logic, I just win right? Well that clearly didn’t happen. I look to the judge who doesn’t seem to notice anything and I point out that my opponent takes three from mana burn. That’s right, I am the one who pointed out my opponent should mana burn. Even though I have no way to win games through damage I had all weekend reminded my opponents that they lose life from mana burn when they had forgotten about Heartbeat, even though this meant that they would remember use the excess mana in the future. It would cheating for me to not make my opponents lose life even though it brings their mistake to their attention so they won’t make it again.

Moreno then fumbles for a hand a bit and pulls out a Naturalize, but I’m not worried, he had clearly passed the turn, right? Again, the judge does nothing so I tell him that my opponent in fact had passed the turn with three mana floating. He tells me that no, my opponent in fact, had not passed the turn. I see my Pro Tour Final debut ripped away from me as I untap and can only cast another Heartbeat of Spring without having a fourth. He attacks and drops an Arrogant Wurm which gives him exactly enough damage on the next turn to kill me thanks to his Cephalid Coliseum. My turn and I draw my third Mind’s Desire. I think long and hard on my turn, the first half of my thinking is just counting the cards in his hand and in his yard to try and figure out if he has lethal Tog, which I sadly find out he does. The rest of the turn is spent figuring out if I try to bluff like I drew the fog and hope I hit a forest after Nostalgic Dreaming back a Gifts Ungiven and Fact or Fiction. My opponent had declined to go lethal in game two when I had mana up, maybe he would do it again. My other option is to cast a Mind’s Desire for one and hope I hit either the last Mind’s Desire or one of three Early Harvests in order to have a shot (a shot with a Desire for two or three that is :/) at winning that turn. Based on his actions in game two and the fact that going out of the PT by whiffing on a desire for one seems pretty lame I go for the bluff. I do my best to look dejected when four non land cards come from the Fact, but when the fourth card is a forest I light up and quickly snatch the pile it is in and put it on the board to pass the turn.

Alas he goes for the kill anyway, and activates his Cephalid Coliseum to draw cards without threshold. He doesn’t get a game loss, which I don’t think he should in this situation and proceeds to kill me and move on to the finals. What a rough beating, triple Logic’d out of games three and four and the judge allowing my opponent to take back a passed turn. That’s not all though, check the lands my opponent had in play the turn he cast Psycatog in game five. He has a G/B dual land, Cephalid Coliseum, and a Yavimaya Coast, and yet look at how much damage he took by tapping all three of them for mana, one. Since he cast the Tog it meant he had to tap the dual for black, the Coliseum gives blue, and since he didn’t take damage from it, the Coast gives colorless. UUBBCC floating. No green mana, yet Naturalize is clearly a green spell. Not only did I have to get somewhat unlucky to lose games three and four, my opponent needed to be allowed to take back his passing of the turn game five, and STILL I would have won had anyone noticed that my opponent was unable to even cast the Naturalize. None of this seems to be mentioned in the coverage.

I do think I would have won, as does pretty much anyone I have talked to. If he simply burns for three from the Tog I untap with 6 mana available, cast Heartbeat number two and have enough mana for Fact or Fiction which not only gives me the fog to delay my opponent for several more turns (it prevents him from being able to all in with the Tog whether it’s in my graveyard or not) it gives me the land I need along with more cards to fuel a Desire turn or to pitch to Nostalgic Dreams. With draw phases and literally infinite cards I would have easily been able to fight through his lone Therapy and limited counter magic.

Yeah, I feel disappointed at the way I got knocked out of the tournament, as I stood a good chance at beating Ruel (congrats on the win!) in the finals (Tog can’t put on the fast pressure needed and Duress plus counter magic isn’t quite good enough against the additional Brain Freezes and Mana Shorts after sideboard) and it’s never fun being eliminated when you feel you shouldn’t have been. Not getting the additional money and Pro Points is bad as well. It’s not like I couldn’t have prevented it however; if I had played better or simply noticed he didn’t have the mana available for Naturalize, I could have pulled it out. At least the point was finally driven home for me and hopefully many others out there to ALWAYS appeal everything to the head judge, even when many other judges and staff are watching your game.

It’s not like I didn’t come out ahead on the weekend doing far better than I ever though I would. I got a cool $13,000 for my troubles along with level three status for all next year, things are looking pretty good in the way of Magic right now. I just hope that I’ll be able to repeat my performance in LA and make my way back onto the Sunday stage and maybe win a PT myself. HAHAHAHA. Oh well, I hope at least to be able to prevent myself from falling off the train, although it looks doubtful I’ll be able to attend Worlds this year due to school and the short time I’ve had to get ready for it.

I should be writing a strategy guide to playing Desire soon and also I hopefully will be attending GP Philadelphia to try and grind out even more points and money; every little bit counts. Good luck, if I can top 8 a PT then anyone can, just keep practicing.

May all your Desires lead to another…