Fumbling Towards Adequacy

Bad Player Flores publically revisits a recent string of mistakes in order to better explain many of the theoretical concepts he has discussed in the last year and hopefully make us all better players in the process. Don’t be ashamed for Mike folks, just learn from him and try not to make the same mistakes he does.

A few weeks ago, I played in a Team PTQ with my friends Brian David-Marshall and Tim McKenna. The three of us, playing as “Dave Price Fan Club” won an Onslaught Block Team PTQ last summer, and hoped to recapture our PTQ magic in the besieged land of Kamigawa.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. In Team Sealed you need a minimum of two and a half decks – that is, two full decks and a halfway good third deck – in order to escape the Swiss. We only had two decks. Now sometimes you can have exactly two fantastic decks and you give them to your two best players and your third just sort of doesn’t show up all day, but we only had two decks in the sense that we had one deck capable of winning and two half-decks, neither of which would win reliably; the way that worked for us was that I won every round and Brian and Tim would win every other round… unfortunately they always won in the same round, which doesn’t help you advance.

Tim got a G/R deck that was out-classed by other G/R decks all day (i.e. Tim’s cards weren’t all that bad, but he played against opponents who had cards with type “Legendary Creature – Dragon Spirit” in the rare slot and “Instant – Arcane” in the common slot and just couldn’t keep up with his multitude of common cards with type “Creature – Snake Warrior” and so on. His finest soldier was perhaps a Kami of Fire’s Roar.

Brian’s U/W deck actually had a very solid upper curve, with double Teller of Tales, double Sire of the Storm, and Ghostly Prison, but no tempo and no real way to win or break stalemate. Now I know what you are thinking, but you are only thinking that because you don’t have sufficient experience in Team Sealed. Randy Buehler used to say that there is “a different scale” for Team Sealed; regular Sealed Deck and draft analysis doesn’t apply. The teams that advance have a combination of tempo, creatures, and removal in their good decks, and Brian’s forty cards were considerably lacking, despite his wealth of 3/3 flyers. Like Tim, Brian ran into other mirrors all day, and for the most part got beaten by decks with, say, a Consuming Vortex (or perhaps some reliable drops under mana cost five).

I actually thought that we should run G/W and U/R instead of the more traditional G/R and U/W decks. White had two Indomitable Wills and the Hound of Konda, which would have given good boost to the Green, and U/R would have been better able to break through with spirit-based damage sequences, but our decks probably weren’t good enough to advance regardless. What was plain to all was that we couldn’t split black.

This is the deck I got:


Cruel Deceiver

Cruel Deceiver

Cursed Ronin

Cursed Ronin

Dance of Shadows

Gibbering Kami

Hideous Laughter

Kami of Lunacy

Kami of Lunacy

Nezumi Ronin

Nezumi Ronin

Pull Under

Pull Under

Rend Flesh

Rend Spirit

Scuttling Death

Scuttling Death

Soulless Revival

Swallowing Plague

Thief of Hope

Waking Nightmare

Wicked Akuba

17 Swamp

The above listing is accurate within one Gibbering Kami. I think I had Gibbering Kami but it was probably an Ashen-Skin Zubera (though I seem to recall access to only three two-drops); maybe it was a lame Distress or something. Chalk it up to things that don’t matter for the purpose of this story.

This deck was actually quite ponderous, lacked many of the basic common cards you want in a Black deck, and was short on offense… but it had a ton of removal. I built and played the deck in a particular way, often holding back so that I could Splice my Soulless Revival several times in a game (I actually ran the Raise Dead six times in one game). While creature-poor, the deck had a good deal of Soulshift as well. Along with Soulless Revival, I was able to milk my short run of creatures past decks with fifteen or more creatures with ease.

Through the first four rounds of the PTQ, my team went 2-2. However, as an existing Pro team, we elected to keep going against the other morons with two losses for purposes of rating. During the first four rounds, I went 8-0 in games while my teammates struggled in bad mirror matches. One of the neat things about my deck was that while I played against “better” Black decks all day – you know, the ones with cards like Nezumi Cutthroat – they were usually two colors. I could always block their 2/1 fear threats, and even toyed with siding in Rag Dealer, while they could scarcely contain my 17 Swamps and two Cursed Ronins.

In Round Five, I finally imploded.

My opponent played a turn 4 Honden of Cleansing Fire and followed up with Nagao, Bound by Honor and Kitsune Healer. I had Cursed Ronin, but knew that I had to get some serious damage going if I planned on winning the game. I automatically underestimated my opponent because he had Kitsune Healer in play… and lost because of it. My first attempt was to run my Cursed Ronin into Nagao and pump it to five power (one for Nagao’s Bushido, and one for the Kitsune Healer’s ability). Who knew that it protected all the damage?

So next time around, I ran my Cursed Ronin into Nagao and set up a Swallowing Plague follow-up play. I only had enough mana to pump the Cursed Ronin to four first, meaning that I would lose it, but that seemed like a small token to get rid of Nagao (especially with Soulless Revival in my hand). What do you mean it prevents all damage this turn?

Luckily, I had a Rend Flesh left for the next turn, ready to Splice my Soulless Revival and bring back my big Black beater. Unfortunately he played Soratami Rainshaper first. This was a classic case of auto pilot; I was so focused on an end-of-turn Rend Flesh that I totally missed the fact that I wasn’t going to get the opportunity against that rather commonly-played flyer.

So I made three mistakes (at least that I noticed); the absence of any one of the three would have reversed the outcome of game one. Rather than the loving support you might expect from a friend and compatriot, my teammate Tim rejoiced at my finally losing a game. With BDM dropping a game to his opponent’s skillfully played Kumano, Master Yamabushi, I was ready to be embarrassed.

Luckily, I took the next two, and we advanced to the final round of the Swiss with three 3-0s and two 1-2s. Our Round Six enemy was the team of Chris Manning, Chad Ellis, and Bruce Cowley, an excellent PTQ team by any measuring stick, even if Chad Ellis is a liar and Cowley didn’t even go to Harvard. My opponent was Bruce Cowley, a former PT Top 8 player. In the first PTQ I ever won, I made Top 8 by beating Bruce in the last round of the Swiss; for his part, Bruce won a PTQ the very next day. He was by a mile the best player I faced, not to mention one of the best players I have ever faced.

In Game One, I elected not to mulligan a two Swamp draw with Thief of Hope. On the draw, I figured I’d have mana in time, and I couldn’t recall ever losing a game with Thief of Hope in play. Just as the word “keep” left my lips, I was thinking “This is right… as long as he’s not Red.”

Well, right or not against an unknown enemy, I stopped on two and Bruce was indeed playing Red. By the time I recovered from my mana stall, he had my meager forces vastly outnumbered on the board. Bruce’s curve was superb – Hearth Kami, double Samurai of the Pale Curtain, Kitsune Blademaster, double Kabuto Moth… and after running every possible drop-and-block sequence, I decided to scoop. The best block would have left Bruce with three guys and me on two life. I checked my top card… it was Hideous Laughter. Red or no, Bruce would have been playing off the top and I was holding Cursed Ronin. Nice one, michaelj.

I was understandably kicking myself as we went to Game Two.

Game Two, I once again kept a two Swamp hand, and once again stalled on two mana. Bruce had a great curve draw, including double Kabuto Moth and a Ronin Houndmaster. I made a queer triple block with my Wicked Akuba on three land that forced Bruce to double pump to keep his Houndmaster; he immediately realized his mistake. Right off the top of my deck came Swamp number four, and Hideous Laughter was already in my hand. Bruce’s formidable x/2 creatures all jumped into the bin and I recovered quickly enough to win the game.

But it is Game Three that I have been replaying in my head for the past several weeks.

For the third consecutive game, I kept a two Swamp hand, this time with no two-drop. Though the hand didn’t have any quick creatures, it was superb from a defense/card advantage perspective. I picked up lands on turns 1 and 2, so I had access to four quite quickly.

Bruce’s curve was a little off, and he had only a Hearth Kami and Indomitable Will going into turn 4 (I seem to remember killing something). Though I had nothing proactive going into my own fourth, I had the wheels turning, playing out the next several turns out in my head. I was planning to Befoul the Hearth Kami on turn 4 for a two-for-one and then start Splicing. Unfortunately, my deck coughed up Cruel Deceivers on both turn 3 and turn 4, so I could play what seemed like a much better sequence.

My turn 4 would be double Cruel Deceiver; I could either double block and then recoup (saving me a Befoul), or one would chump the Hearth Kami, setting up fifth turn Waking Nightmare + Soulless Revival (getting two in if Bruce failed to make another creature drop). Bruce’s deck had better early threats than mine, but I would crush him in the card advantage game every time. The second option would let me chump again on the following turn, possibly get two points in, finally playing Befoul + Cruel Deceiver or Kami of Lunacy on turn 6. Either way, I had both options and a strong reload ready.

This all came crashing down when Bruce played a pre-combat Samurai of the Pale Curtain before making his fifth turn attack.

So because I had already decided that I was going to play for the long game card advantage plan, I let Bruce hit me for three, while my Cruel Deceivers sat there for a ridiculous two turns. I removed the Samurai and went about my plan.

When we hit the late game, everything had fallen into place. The inherent vulnerability if an Indomitable Will against removal, the Hymn to Tourach-ness of Waking Nightmare, plus a Splice and Soulshift meant Bruce was playing without a net and on the wrong end of a three-to-none advantage on the board.

Cowley had ended up having a lot of gas before that point, though, so by the time I had control of the game, I was on three life.

Bruce hadn’t shown me either Yamabushi’s Flame or Glacial Ray in the first two games, so I thought I was good – after all, I was way ahead with a two turn clock. On what ended up the last turn of the game, Bruce had Frostwielder in his grip, but ripped Blind With Anger off the top and killed me with my own Kami.


I ran a lot of scenarios after losing this one. If I had dropped Scuttling Death instead, he wouldn’t have been able to win even with Blind with Anger, but why would I play a five-drop instead of a six with six mana open? He hadn’t shown me Blind With Anger. Even if he hadn’t drawn that premiere uncommon, I might have had some problems with that Frostwielder with three X/1 threats and only three life.

This game was winnable, but it all came down to turn 4.

I think that the absolute best play (i.e. the only right play) would have been to just Befoul the Hearth Kami + Indomitable Will and passed the turn. It was just the allure of Splice card advantage and the possibility of getting in for two that derailed me. Saving three or six life points would have been more than enough to keep from losing the game to the topdecked Blind With Anger, and given me a pretty good buffer against the Frostwielder. [One of Mike’s opponents who has been known to write on occasion himself might say that Mike trapped himself there with The Danger of Cool Things. – Prof. Knut]

My friend Josh Ravitz says that after making the wrong decision of playing the guys instead of the Befoul, I should have just double blocked, trading Hearth Kami and Indomitable Will for Cruel Deceiver and Cruel Deceiver. This would have been a two-for-two with both of Bruce’s cards being better than both of mine, even if it did mean shortening my Soulshift chain. I had blinders on in the Plan department, remembering the card advantage I had reaped all day with creature recursion. I made what I thought was a good argument – that if Bruce had a second trick, like Blessed Breath or Candle’s Glow – I was down two creatures for nothing, but Josh pointed out that this would have been much worse for Cowley when I directed my Befoul his Kami’s way the next turn. In any case, if he had had a trick, Bruce wouldn’t have deliberately discouraged the double block with a pre-combat Samurai.

What I played or what I should have played on that fateful turn 4 isn’t ultimately as important as Investment, but it is something that has been bugging me the past couple of weeks. Our end of the day outcome wouldn’t have been any different – Brian and Tim both lost, so we would have ended it 3-3 either way – but it did represent the difference between my personal 5-1 or 6-0.

It is empowering to realize that there is only one right play on every priority of every stack… more than just winning a game, gunning for the tightest possible plays is a goal that every Magic player can strive for. Most of the time when players disagree with this rule, it is because they are controlling their overarching decisions according to some non-traditional paradigm or “rogue” Plan. The surest sign of incorrect strategic Magic is a player who is certain of his long game strategy, but who is not properly taking into account the short-term interactions with his opponent’s cards. As we move into Extended, there will be tons of B/G players out there who assume they will beat Affinity or G/x decks with a successfully broken Pernicious Deed, who will subsequently be complaining to their friends about how the opponent topdecked them out, never understanding that playing into the Deed just doesn’t win a lot of the games that those players are resting on its admittedly broad shoulders. Did Cowley lucksack me with a topped Blind with Anger? Of course he did. But had I played a better early game, he might have just gotten a two-for-one, not the win.

The fact that I failed on that turn 4 is a direct result of my playing according to a “rogue” Sealed Deck plan. I wasn’t playing for the usual target of early game tempo, I didn’t have very many “good” creatures. I wanted Soulshift card advantage and abandoned any plays that wouldn’t give it to me. If I had just realized that Soulshift or no, given my resistance-strong hand, a 4-1 flyer v. nothing is race when you are in complete control of a game, I would have saved three or six life and maybe gotten that personal 6-0 instead of settling for the 3-3 5-1.

edt (back when he was still actively writing Magic articles) used to say that while any competent player could go for card advantage in Constructed, the best Magic players maximized card advantage “even” in Limited, but that I liked my creatures too much, and to get better at Magic, I’d have to let my pump knight die. It’s been almost ten years since he told me that. I still like my creatures too much.



Bonus Section:

Ironically, I apparently don’t like my creatures enough in Extended. During last week’s playtest session, Ravitz, McKenna, and Clair coined the new term “Floresing” a creature. That is when you can save a creature – typically an Arcbound Ravager or Wild Mongrel, but you let it die to a Volcanic Hammer (or some similar) because you don’t sac a bunch of garbage or toss some pain lands you don’t want to ever play, let alone tap. Just so you know.

Next Up: The Sordid History of U/G Threshold