From the Sidelines to First Place

Wednesday, November 17th – Read about how Donnie Noland came to his B/U/G Control deck and how watching other players as a tournament organizer helped him learn about the format and dominate the Kentucky Open this past weekend!

Being a tournament organizer, and store owner, is a lot more work than people realize. I normally spend about seventy hours a week working at the store or on an upcoming event. So the time for me to play Magic is very limited. Don’t get me wrong; I love promoting events, helping kids build decks, and seeing my business grow, but I love to game as well. During the late 90s I’d travel the country in search of Pro Tour Qualifiers, Grand Prix, and the occasional Pro Tour or Nationals (yes I remember when Nationals had as big a prize payout as the Pro Tour).

For the last few years, I’ve still attended the random GP or big event, but I wasn’t dedicating time to being a good player. With Grand Prix Nashville in the final stages, I knew I wanted to take some time off and have fun again, but doing so meant I had to become a better player. So how do you do this? Observation is the easiest route.

One of the best things about being an organizer for events is it lets me observe people, their attitudes, and the mistakes they make handling games and friendships. This works very well with my personality, as I’m not the most boisterous person you’ll find. Being one of the people that blends in allows you to experience all of the same fun as your friends, and normally when someone makes a complete buffoon of themselves, you aren’t that person.

Take for instance in 2009 at Grand Prix Tampa, my friend, Gerard Fabiano, was trying to get me to hit the town for a night of celebration in honor of Steve Sadin turning the big 21. I’m usually down for something like this, charging through the night with friends in search of laughs and stories that will be told for years to come. This trip was an exception though, as I was in town with my lovely wife and two beautiful daughters, so I had to decline.

The next day at the site, the stories from the celebration were unreal. Now, Gerard can tell a great story, but some of the things from people were unbelievable. During the middle of it, I looked at Steve and said, “Dude where were you during all this?”

Steve responded, “What do you mean? It was my birthday.”

“I know,” I replied, “but during all of legendary adventures I just heard none of them involved you going bananas.”

Steve laughed it off, saying he had a blast even though he didn’t hog the spotlight even though it was his party. Now I think he may have understated his participation somewhat, but he made a great point. Not only can you learn a lot from watching other people, but you can benefit just as much even if you aren’t in the spotlight.

So how does this affect Magic? Well I’m glad you asked. So knowing I’d need a deck for the StarCityGames.com Invitational, I went about creating a better mousetrap. I used the SCG Open in Charlotte to test out a RUGVine deck that a couple of local players had been working on. The deck is very fast and resilient with Vengevines giving you staying power against control decks.

Still the top deck was R/U/G Control which did extremely well winning Dan Jordan back-to-back SCG Opens for Standard and was quickly becoming the next Jund Deck. Since I don’t get to sit around testing hours a day, I decided I’d watch some coverage and see what the strengths or weaknesses were for the deck. The deck can explode in the early game and still has big finishers like Frost Titan and Avenger of Zendikar. R/U/G does have some problems against mono-black, and sometimes U/B decks of a more aggressive nature. I decided I didn’t like the red part of the deck for a couple of reasons.

1.       Goblin Ruinblaster, while great against Valakut or the occasional mana screwed opponent, isn’t great in a control deck.

2.       Lightning Bolt doesn’t kill anything really big, and it takes two + a total of six mana to kill a Frost Titan. You may not have realized this, but Frosty is the best Titan around right now.

3.       Raging Ravine is great if your opponent has no blockers or removal; that doesn’t happen a lot in the real world.

4.       The sideboard for red cards was fairly weak, and Pyroclasm did very little against a lot of the aggro decks in the format.

 As I walked around the top tables at Charlotte, I observed a lot of R/U/G Control and watched how it interacted in certain matchups. Black cards seemed to be the bane of the deck: four-mana kill Frosty (Doom Blade) and four-mana take all your Jaces (Memoricide) and put them in never-never-land. When you add in blue to the deck, a Jace on the board was never safe from a Creeping Tar Pit, thus altering an opponent’s game process if they played Jace.

All of these things were great, but U/B Control just isn’t explosive enough to keep up with R/U/G. Oracle of Mul Daya literally ripped the deck apart, giving the R/U/G player an extra land or sometimes two, each turn. Although the solution seemed simple, make U/B more explosive, it really is hard to accomplish. Everflowing Chalice is good for mana acceleration but doesn’t really affect card drawing like Oracle does. Explore is another card that just gives other control decks fits. If you Mana Leak an Explore, you’ve been baited, but if you don’t, that same Mana Leak will be worthless in a few turns.

So I came up with my solution, by taking the standard R/U/G Control, and removing red replacing it with black. Doing so allowed me to get all of the benefits of playing U/B Control, with very few of the drawbacks. You can still run eight on-color sac lands. Your manlands now go unblocked. Doom Blade actually kills big critters. The sideboard cards are much more stable with Memoricide locking opponents out of a spell and Consume the Meek actually killing Elves or Goblins or whatever else you may find yourself against.

Since an article about a deck without a decklist is like Daze without an Island, I’m obliged to give you the deck I played at the Kentucky Open to a first-place finish.

A quick look at the deck shows that it’s very similar to the stock R/U/G Control deck. There are a couple of one-ofs that seem cute, but they’re very effective. If you’re going to throw a one-of in a deck, it needs to either win the game or draw a ton of cards. Why does Ad Nauseam Tendrils only run one Ad Nauseam? When you cast it, you draw your deck. Why does R/U/G Control run Avenger of Zendikar? If he hits the board, you should win the game. Cute cards are cards like Volition Reins. While Volition Reins is an amazing card, I find it to be just a “Win More” card. Which means you were going to win anyway; Reins just lets you win faster, easier, or more epically. Most cute cards are at the center of bad beat stories. As an example, you’re standing around talking at the end of your match, and without fail, you get a friend that runs up to tell you how he got blown out by a random one-of card. Odds are he had lost the match already. The card he got “blown out” with wasn’t really that powerful; he just didn’t realize he was locked seven stories below deck on the Titanic.

Back to the deck, the one-ofs both draw a lot of cards, or win the game a la Avenger. The sideboard one-ofs are similar. Mono-Red can’t beat Wurmcoil, and tons of decks can’t beat Masticore. I tried out a lot of variations on this deck using Primeval Titan, Eldrazi, even more acceleration, and most of the time I found them to be just cute cards.

This gives us another point; you have to break eggs before you cook them. Meaning, don’t let your friends tell you something is bad before you try it. I heard this a lot while testing this deck from a variety of people. Just because someone says it isn’t good, doesn’t mean it isn’t. Guess what? People are sometimes wrong. That is a solid reason to surround yourself with knowledgeable people, who are willing to listen and give advice. Don’t let people just dismiss your ideas out right.  They may not know if splashing red in a stock U/W control deck is good until you control the board with an unexpected early Pyroclasm. They may also think that sparkling Vampires are the nut. Other people may tell you that the topdeck is always the one you should play to give you the best chance to win. They may also say Brazilian steakhouses are a terrible idea, which is great news for me, since they’re actually insane. The point is this: if you don’t try something out, you won’t know if it works. So don’t be afraid to take something for a spin.

Earlier I spoke about observing, and I want to touch on it again. At the Kentucky Open, I played R/U/G Control a few times before the Top 8. I knew I’d be taking out Lotus Cobra and Garruk, for the Memoricide and Flashfreeze. I watched players take out Lightning Bolt and Cobra each time; this led me to a decision in the Top 8 to leave the Cobras and Garruk in the deck. Playing Ben Wienburg in the Top 8, he sided out the Bolts as some of the other players did and allowed me to win with Garruk. I’d never know this if I didn’t engage my earlier opponents after the match and observe how they reacted to seeing the deck for the first time. Granted, Chris Andersen left his Lightning Bolts in during the finals, and it almost cost me the match, as I made a few greedy plays thinking he didn’t have them in.

Many times, when you aren’t directly in the spotlight, you can fly under the radar and gain valuable information. By no means am I a great Magic Player. I’m more like the St. Louis Rams of Magic. Even though I’m on a winning streak right now, I’m still making mistakes and slipping by on having a tank full of Run Good. By being engaging and a good listener, I’ve picked up on things I would’ve never thought about like playing the “additional” land first off of Oracle of Mul Daya or adding Wurmcoil to the side instead of a third Baloth. It’s the small things like that that the best players in the world think of commonly, while the rest of us are chasing the can on the back of the car, yapping all the way.

Taking a look back to the deck, I found Garruk very useful against some matchups. It became even better if Lightning Bolt was taken out in R/U/G. You’d be surprised how many people don’t have an answer for unblockable Creeping Tar Pits that attack for six damage each. Garruk also allows you some early action against rush decks, as you have multiple blockers. I’m surprised someone playing R/U/G Control hasn’t added Garruk to the arsenal. Why wouldn’t you add a Pro Bowl Wide Receiver to a Championship team… oh wait his name is Randy Moss? Well let’s say that guy is an anomaly, but you get the picture; Garruk is Strong like Bull!

I’ll leave you with this Random Public Service Announcement —

tell bad beat stories; I’ll be honest, none of your friends want to hear you get blown out. If they ask how you did, keep it short and simple: “Yep my opponent drew all counters; I drew crap,” or “I got hosed.” Whatever, just don’t drag the story out, and never hand someone your deck if they ask you to while telling your bad beat story; it may end up in the ocean.

Well that’s it for me. I hope you enjoyed the article and discuss it in the forums. If you happen to be at Grand Prix Nashville, stop by, and let me know your thoughts.

Donnie Noland
[email protected]