"I’ve never felt this awful before a tournament."
I remember saying that out loud on Thursday, the night before I made the trip from Las Vegas to Miami. It wasn’t exactly that I was experiencing a low point in confidence or self-esteem. The reason for my Negative Nancy attitude was simply that a day, a week, and a month prior, I’d been viewing Grand Prix Miami as an exceptional opportunity for me, and suddenly I wasn’t so sure.
Innistrad/Return to Ravnica Standard has been my best format of all-time. Standard Jund and Bant Control have been the decks that have brought me the most tournament success of my whole career. When I first saw Standard Grand Prix Miami scheduled, I knew I could have as good a chance to win as anybody out there! I’d test both Jund and Bant, and one of them would give me the strength to make it to a Grand Prix Top 8 or maybe even better.
The story of how on that Thursday night my friends found themselves in the dubious company of Debbie Downer is a strange one. I’d spent the week playing Bant Control endlessly on Magic Online, taking small breaks to eat and sometimes sleep. While my original plan had been to divide my time between Bant and Jund, I eventually abandoned that strategy since Bant had been so good to me. Monday through Wednesday, I boasted a win rate of about 75% across a reasonable sample of thirty matches against the diverse and challenging Magic Online field.
But I woke up that Thursday and suddenly couldn’t win a game. While my previous four Daily Events were 3-1s and 4-0s, Thursday’s were 1-3 and 0-3, in addition to doing awful in eight-player tournaments and heads-up matches. It’s difficult to evaluate such a losing streak, as there can be a number of factors at play. In fact, I sometimes try not to play Magic at all the day before a tournament just to avoid the dangerous emotional distress that something like this can cause. However, if you’re a religious person—or alternatively, if you believe that Magic Online director Worth Wollpert sits in a golden palace deciding, along with the Olympian Gods, the fate of all Magic players [Editor’s Note: He does.]—then you might say that a higher power was telling me to put my faith in Jund for Grand Prix Miami.
Bant is not a bad deck, and I’ll continue to work on it in the near future. In fact, as you’ll see, I faced Bant Control deep in the undefeated bracket of Grand Prix Miami. However, with my faith shaken, I wasn’t sure if it was the deck for me for this tournament. After considering all factors, in this particular case I went against my normal policy of never audibling before a tournament. I had a backup deck in which I had a good amount of faith and confidence, so I switched from Bant to Jund
After consulting with my typical counselors, particularly Pat Cox in this case, this is the deck I settled on. Pat would have played a fairly similar list, with the deviations that he wanted to cut Ground Seals from the maindeck and diversify the removal suite rather than playing so many Tragic Slips. Unfortunately, Pat’s flight was cancelled, and I ended up riding into battle alone—who can guess how such a skilled player might have done with the same Jund deck?
Owen Turtenwald and Huey Jensen decided to play a Jund Aggro deck of Brian Kibler design. While on the whole their deck had a different approach to the format, I was able to adopt one piece of new technology from Brian’s deck: Ruric Thar, the Unbowed.
The most popular control deck right now by a large margin is U/W/R. Before Standard players fully adapted to Dragon’s Maze, I was a fan of Sire of Insanity (especially in combination with Cavern of Souls). However, these red control decks now play Warleader’s Helix and Turn // Burn as instant speed answers to creatures like Sire. Ruric Thar, at a beastly six toughness, is quite difficult for red burn to kill. In the best case, they can answer him at the high cost of six life. More often, though, he just bashes blue players into pieces.
Round 4: Charles Zhang with Jund
Right off the bat (after my three byes), the frustration of the previous Thursday faded into oblivion. I played a Jund mirror and was fortunate to have a solid draw with Rakdos’s Return, the best card in the matchup. After emptying Charles’s hand, I won game 1 with Olivia Voldaren, employing a trick I’d learned from a commenter on one of my Jund videos right here on StarCityGames.com. I passed the turn, allowing Charles’ Huntmaster of the Fells to trigger, but in response I made it a Vampire and took control of both the creature and the corresponding trigger.
If you thought that the readers were the only ones who learn from my column, you were wrong!
Game 2 Charles mulliganed to five cards and missed land drops. Off a Rakdos Keyrune, I dropped a quick Ruric Thar, who is not very nice to walls, weaklings, flying creatures, or mana-screwed opponents.
Winning a mirror match against a mana-screwed opponent may not seem like the best achievement to inspire confidence in a deck. However, it only took King Arthur holding Excalibur in his hands to recognize that he was in possession of no ordinary weapon. For the first time, I was excited to be at the tournament, and I felt that something good might happen to me if I could play well enough to let it.
Round 6: Diego Coelho with The Aristocrats: Act 2
Game 1 my Jund deck played out as it had been all day, serving up a great draw and winning in convincing fashion. Game 2, though, I opened on a hand full of removal and lost to Diego, who had employed a fairly extreme (though not bad at all) sideboarding strategy of bringing in Underworld Connections and lots of five-drop creatures (Zealous Conscripts and Obzedat, Ghost Council).
For game 3 on the play, I made the executive decision to have all three Rakdos’s Returns in my deck. Often, I cut them all against aggressive decks, but I typically keep one or two against W/R/B to keep them honest and make sure they can’t set up complex Blasphemous Act or Mark of Mutiny combos. I started out behind, as I didn’t have a creature, and Diego quickly played a Lingering Souls and a Sorin, Lord of Innistrad. With me still having no nonland permanents, Diego bumped his Sorin up to five counters and dropped Obzedat, Ghost Council. For the first time in the game, something worked out in a convenient way for me, and I was able to Putrefy it before Diego blinked it out at the end of his turn.
Now a second thing worked out in a convenient way. Five counters were on Sorin, and five cards were in Diego’s hand. I drew my card:
I looked down at my lands and saw that I’d be playing my seventh that turn—perfect to clean up the mess that I was in! After that, all Diego could do was flashback his Lingering Souls, which quickly fell to the Bonfire I’d been saving.
I think Rakdos’s Return was one of the few ways I could have gotten back in the game. Between us, I like to tell myself it was that third copy I’d sideboarded in that came off the top for me on that turn.
Round 7: Jon White with Naya Blitz
I ended up winning this round 2-0 with good draws. However, it was memorable because it marked my first regret of the tournament (which is to say the first substantial mistake that I noticed myself make).
Jon came out fast, and I was low on life by the time I could untap with Olivia Voldaren. I killed Jon’s Mayor of Avabruck and Firefist Striker. With me at five life, Jon crashed in with a Lightning Mauler bonded to a 2/2 Experiment One and a Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. I had no particular reason to kill Thalia, so I decided to block Experiment One, reasoning that at two toughness it would be the most inconvenient to shoot down with Olivia the following turn.
The flaw in my logic, though, was that I didn’t carefully think through what my next turn would be. Jon was clearly spent on resources, so my goal was to carefully shut all doors on the game and make sure he could not topdeck to finish me off. This meant first and foremost that I didn’t want to lose to a Searing Spear or Boros Charm off the top. So I left Jon with a couple of one-toughness creatures, but when I untapped I realized that I needed to cast Thragtusk in order to play around topdecked burn; I did not have the luxury to use Olivia. I should have blocked the Lightning Mauler and left the innocuous Experiment One on the board.
I’d left Jon with an unbonded Lightning Mauler, freeing up a whole new world of bad things that could happen to me. The next turn, it gave a fresh Firefist Striker haste, which made my Thragtusk unable to block, and Jon attacked me down to two life. On my turn, I played a Huntmaster of the Fells, going up to four and stabilizing the board, but now I would be dead to a topdecked Boros Charm.
Fortunately, I dodged the bullet and won the match, but I was not pleased with my narrow thinking and lack of forethought in that match. Plan ahead!
Round 8: David Irvine with Wolf Run Bant
I kept an opening hand that was something like three lands, Farseek, Bonfire of the Damned, and two removal spells. It’s not reasonable to mulligan this hand in a game 1 under any circumstances, but it does happen to be pretty poor against a control opponent. I wasn’t able to put much pressure on, and David comfortably steered the game to a point where he could Sphinx’s Revelation for six. Trying to battle back from behind, I was fortunate to draw a Garruk, Primal Hunter and a Rakdos’s Return in the midgame, which are two of my primary maindeck tools against control.
The game came down to me having a ground army thanks to Garruk and a Huntmaster, but David had a Restoration Angel with lots of mana and a Kessig Wolf Run, not to mention 35 life! He attacked and pumped for a bunch, putting me to six. I untapped, flipped my Huntmaster into Ravager of the Fells, and drew my card. I still had no answer to the Angel, so I sacrificed my Garruk to draw four cards—still no answer. All I could do after attacking was to cast a Huntmaster—up to eight—cast a second Huntmaster—up to ten—and pass to flip my Ravager—up to twelve. Twelve was the amount David could swing for if he didn’t make his land drop and had nothing else.
Unfortunately, David did have something else; he end of turned a second Restoration Angel, untapped, and played a land—representing more than lethal.
Recently, I’d had a conversation with Huey Jensen where he taught me that a contributing factor to a successful career is an unwillingness to concede even when the most likely outcome is that you’ll lose. As long as you’re sitting there with life points on your pad and Magic cards in front of you, you never quite know what can happen.
What happened in this case was that David attacked me and pumped his Angel up to make his attack worth exactly twelve damage. He left three mana up. I never asked him exactly what he had; a Syncopate would’ve made sense, or maybe David just didn’t see a reason to overkill. I tapped one of my three open lands (I could pay for Syncopate), and Tragic Slipped his Angel to turn it from a 9/4 to an 8/3, and survived the turn at one life. I untapped, attacked with everything, and finished David off with a Rakdos’s Return, completing a long-shot comeback from six life against 35!
In game 2, David mulliganed to five cards, and Liliana of the Veil eventually ticked up to ultimate, spelling defeat for the mana-hungry Bant deck.
My most epic matches of the tournament came against my friends and teammates: Brad Nelson and Matt Costa. Matt ended up being my only loss of the tournament, but on any other day Brad may have split our matches 1-1 or even 2-0ed me. I give major props to both of them for showing true mastery of their respective archetypes, and I feel flattered to even be mentioned in the same breath as them when it comes to Grand Prix Miami accomplishments.
Round 11: Brad Nelson with Junk Aristocrats
After splitting the first two games, game 3 turned out to be a wild back-and-forth affair. I started with a turn 2 Farseek on the play, but I not only had no turn 4 play but also missed my fifth land drop for a number of turns! Brad came out strong with Garruk Relentless, two copies of Voice of Resurgence, and Obzedat, Ghost Council. I had to spend a Bonfire and a Pillar of Flame just to keep Garruk from getting out of control. Beyond that, I struggled to tread water with a couple of Huntmaster of the Fells.
The keys to this game were that Brad drew lands (and an uncastable second copy of the legendary Obzedat) at the critical times and I was able to flip my Huntmaster on his turn without falling behind on tempo. Finally, I started hitting my lands and cast out my full hand of powerful cards. I made the decision to hold a Farseek even though I had spare mana to cast it and was rewarded with one final Huntmaster flip by casting Farseek and Curse of Death’s Hold in the same turn.
Brad and I found ourselves in one of those fairy-tale moments that really define Magic tournaments. I was at one life and Brad had Obzedat exiled, but he was spent on resources and unable to defend himself from whatever came off the top of my deck. I knocked the top and drew Kessig Wolf Run! It allowed me to attack for lethal and end the game before Obzedat could come back to finish me.
[Editor’s Note: This is one of the most amazing matches of Magic I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out at the link provided at the bottom.]
Round 12: Matt Costa with U/W/R Flash
I stole game 1 from Matt when it looked like he was the favorite. After a pretty poor start, I managed to kill him on the dot with a miracled Bonfire of the Damned followed by a hard cast Bonfire of the Damned just before he was able to stabilize the game with his Think Twices and Sphinx’s Revelations.
Matt stole game 2 from me when it looked like I was the favorite. A Kessig Wolf Run, six other lands, and a Beast token faced down a Restoration Angel, four lands, two cards in hand, and a Think Twice in the graveyard. I cast Ruric Thar, the Unbowed. Matt fiddled with two lands, hinting at Azorius Charm, but decided to cast Restoration Angel instead of cycling the Charm. Matt drew and played a fifth land, and then I drew and played an eighth land and attacked with Ruric and the Beast token.
Matt double blocked Ruric, and I had no other play but to Wolf Run him for everything. Matt Azorius Charmed him, taking a grand total of nine damage on the turn but freeing up his Think Twice for the end of the turn. One of his two draws was a Counterflux, which stopped Ruric Thar from coming back down. One Warleader’s Helix later and Matt had won the game. I thought he played great, giving himself the necessary chance to get lucky, and won a game that few other players would have.
Game 3 started out in an interesting way, as we both had good draws. On turn 3, I Duressed Matt, revealing lands number three, four, and five; Renounce the Guilds; Sphinx’s Revelation; Syncopate; and Counterflux. I had three B/G lands in play, and my hand contained Cavern of Souls; Olivia Voldaren; two Garruk, Primal Hunters; and Rakdos’s Return.
I feel that any of Matt’s four cards could be reasonable options for what to take with Duress.
- The riskiest option is to take Renounce the Guilds and try to steal the game with an uncounterable Olivia Voldaren. However, Olivia is not one of my best cards in the matchup and represents a pretty slow clock. Matt has a large number of answers to her and even has the Sphinx’s Revelation to dig to them.
- There’s also the long-run option of taking away Sphinx’s Revelation. When in doubt, it’s often a fine idea to just take away the opponent’s most powerful card with Duress. However, if there’s any way for me to develop a commanding position early in the game, I’m going to try it in this matchup. The presence of Revelation, Snapcaster Mage, and Think Twice in Matt’s deck mean that I don’t particularly want to engage in a lategame topdeck war.
- The third option is to try to overload Matt’s permission. Given the texture of my hand—three powerful spells that usually demand a counter—it would be reasonable for me to just jam them one after another and hope one sticks and wins me the game. I decided that I’d leave Matt with the Revelation and try to restrict his resources by resolving Rakdos’s Return or at least force his back against the wall by the time he could cast it. I took Syncopate.
On turn 4, I again faced a difficult decision. I had not hit another land, so felt obligated to play Cavern of Souls so that I could cast Garruk on turn 5 if I drew another land. However, I also knew that Matt had Renounce the Guilds to immediately answer Olivia. Should I name one of my more powerful creature types and hope to peel it off the top? If so, should it be Ogre (Ruric) or should it be Beast (Thragtusk)? What about the fact that I was missing red mana? If I name Vampire, I can at least cast the spell in my hand, but maybe naming Human (Huntmaster) is the best compromise? Even if I do name Vampire, should I cast Olivia or sandbag her and hope something changes later in the game?
I decided to use my mana when I could, so I named Vampire and cast Olivia. As one of my weaker cards, I felt fine trading her for any card in Matt’s hand (especially with Rakdos’s Return hopefully coming soon) and for a small tempo advantage because Matt had drawn a Think Twice since the Duress.
Unfortunately, those decisions pretty much marked the end of the interesting portion of the game, as I did not hit my fifth land on time and my plan of jamming threats could not be executed. By the time I started casting Garruks, Matt had pulled too far ahead with his card drawing and comfortably took the game.
After one more tough win against Junk Reanimator, I made the Top 8 at 12-1-2. I was the fifth seed and ended up being on the draw throughout the Top 8.
The quarterfinals went smoothly; I had great draws to beat Sam Tharmaratnam’s burn-heavy U/W/R deck 2-0.
Semifinals: Brad Nelson with Junk Aristocrats (Again)
In game 1, I made a decision that I think earns the award of my worst Magic mistake to date. Brad played Voice of Resurgence and then Skirsdag High Priest. On my turn 3, I cast Vampire Nighthawk instead of Putrefying the High Priest.
As can sometimes happen in high-pressure situations, I thought I had coolly thought through the decision, but in reality I had just confused myself and missed how obvious and straightforward my play should have been. After my ill-advised move, Brad just cast a Cartel Aristocrat, sacrificed his Voice of Resurgence, and tapped the fresh token to make a free Demon token. It’s hard to win when you spot your opponent a free 5/5 flying.
Before this event, I had a mantra for the matchup: "Always kill the High Priest first."
Now I have a new mantra: "Always kill the High Priest immediately!"
But not to worry. After a few disappointing tournaments last year, the skill that I’ve been most intently trying to cultivate is the ability to recover (mentally) from an upsetting event. If I was going to go down, I was at least going to fight my hardest in the next two games and not just let myself crumble in the face of a mistake.
Game 2 I had a great draw on the play and won convincingly.
Game 3 may have been the single most exciting one of the tournament. Both of us had great draws, but by nature of being on the play and having the faster deck, Brad came out ahead. I had to cast a Huntmaster of the Fells into a Garruk Relentless, allowing him to flip into the deadly Garruk, the Veil-Cursed. My hand contained a few more creatures, a Putrefy, and a Curse of Death’s Hold. I made the judgment call to develop the board with creatures before casting the Curse because an effect like that is most devastating when both players have lots of creatures. Not to be discounted also is the fact that it’s more devastating when it’s a surprise!
Playing very carefully, I eventually landed the Curse, but Brad used his Garruk to search for first one and then a second Obzedat!
Once I began to take control of the game, Brad executed a desperate gambit in order to give himself the best chance to win. He sacrificed his Obzedat to search for a second copy of Obzedat with the goal of scavenging +5/+5 onto the resilient Cartel Aristocrat! Something that I only thought about in retrospect was that I should have responded to his Garruk activation by Putrefying Varolz. Although scavenge can only be used as a sorcery, by the time Brad had revealed the creature he was searching for, he once again had first priority, and I had no opportunity to kill Varolz. If I had successfully deciphered his plan ahead of time, it would have been on me to stop him before he searched his library and kill Varolz right then and there. Skillfully, Brad went quickly through the process of searching, effectively tricking me into waiting on my removal spell.
The next turn, though, I drew a Tragic Slip and used the two removal spells to get the Aristocrat off the board. Now, like our match in the Swiss, things came down to Obzedat against some random dudes and a Wolf Run. Brad had a turn or two to come back (on one turn Varolz would have scavenged for lethal if Brad had drawn it), but I played aggressively and won the game before giving him too many extra draw steps.
The finals was another brutally close though fairly uninteresting match against Josh McClain and his Junk Reanimator deck. I lost game 1 and mulliganed down to five in game 2, but you don’t need a lot of cards to win when lovely Olivia Voldaren begins to dominate the game. In both games 2 and 3, my better half showed up when she was needed most and carried me to the trophy!
In the end, not counting byes and draws:
3-0 vs. Junk Aristocrats
2-0 vs. Junk Reanimator
1-0 vs. The Aristocrats: Act 2
1-0 vs. Naya Blitz
1-0 vs. Wolf Run Bant
1-0 vs. Bant Hexproof
1-0 vs. Jund
2-1 vs. U/W/R (varying builds)
Even in such a long article, I feel like I like I could barely touch on the memorable and heart-wrenching moments of GP Miami! The list of people to thank for their help and support would also be too long to include here!
I’ll close, though, by extending a heartfelt congratulations to Josh McClain, Brad Nelson, and Matt Costa for a great finish and a job well done. Tough matches, like the ones from last weekend, against great opponents like them are what I live for!
You can find video coverage of some of my matches at GP Miami here. Round 9 against Peter Correa at 4h25min; round 11 against Brad Nelson at 1h37min; round 12 against Matt Costa at 2h35min; semifinals against Brad Nelson at 8h44min; finals against Josh McLain at 9h51min.