This past weekend I took a trip out to Chicago to play in the TCGPlayer Championship. I had been playing in TCQ tournaments for most of the year, trying to get enough points to qualify. Unfortunately, after the last qualifier I played in, I was still four points short. However, enough of my friends were qualified that going out to Chicago seemed like it would be a fun adventure whether or not I was Qed. So we packed our bags and headed off to the Windy City.
We landed in Chicago O’Hare airport. As we checked into our hotel, I was eager to get to the site and play some cards. I knew I had to make at least top 4 of a grinder to qualify, and fortunately we got there with enough time for me to play in a few. I tried not to think about what record I’d need, though, and just focused on the round ahead of me.
I decided to play Red Deck Wins in the grinder, as it’s the deck I’m most familiar with, and thought it would be the best choice. I sat down to play round one and quickly discovered that my opponent was playing U/B control. I won the match in three games, none of which were particularly close. Luckily for me, round two I got paired against a friend of mine who was already qualified, and he decided to concede to ensure that I qualified for the main event. I continued playing in round three, but lost to a U/R/B Splinter Twin deck, which wasn’t a huge deal seeing as I already had the points I needed to qualify. With my work there done, my friends and I decided to go to Portillo’s for a late dinner. After some excellent Italian beef and a good night’s sleep, I felt ready to play the next day.
Saturday 6 pm
We arrived at the event site with an hour to register and write out our decklists. The 7 pm starting time was unusual for us, but also nice because we got to explore Chicago… or we would have if there hadn’t been a downpour that day.
For the past two weeks leading up to the tournament I had been switching between different decks I thought would be good. At this point, I had narrowed it down to three decks: Red Deck Wins, Valakut, and Caw Blade.
I was 100% sure Caw Blade would be a good deck to play. The results have proven that it’s still definitely one of, if not the best deck in the format. However, I didn’t feel that I could pilot Caw Blade well enough in the mirror, so I decided not to play it.
Valakut was another deck I considered playing. It’s not a deck I’ve consistently done well with, but I thought it might be a good choice for this tournament because people wouldn’t be expecting it. I decided against Valakut in the end because I felt I hadn’t played with the deck enough to know the interactions and matchups.
So, Red Deck Wins was the deck I settled on. The reason I was debating playing Caw-Blade or Valakut was because I wasn’t sure whether Red Deck Wins was well positioned to win because of Timely Reinforcements. However, I decided that it was the best idea in the end because out of those three decks it was the one I felt the most comfortable with. I knew I was going to have an uphill battle, though. I had to figure out how to beat decks with Spellskite and Timely Reinforcements. So, after a lot of contemplating and debating about card choices, I settled on this 75:
I’ll go over some of the card choices now.
When Chandra’s Phoenix was first spoiled I was skeptical about whether it was good enough to make the cut in Red Deck Wins. Three mana seemed a little slow to me, especially next to the other things you can do in red.
After playing with it I realized I was totally wrong. The card is really powerful for a lot of reasons. For one, it provides card advantage, which is something that red decks lack. It’s so easy to recur it with value using cards like Searing Blaze, Forked Bolt, and Staggershock. Additionally, flying is especially relevant now because it means your creature can get past commonly played cards that would otherwise be problematic, such as Soldier tokens, Spellskite, Deceiver Exarch, and Overgrown Battlement. Pretty much any creature other than Squadron Hawk.
This card was a late addition to the deck as an answer to Timely Reinforcements, and I was so happy to have him throughout the tournament. He’s obviously awesome against Timely Reinforcements, but he’s also good against a lot of other decks. He lets your ground creatures attack past the same creatures that Chandra’s Phoenix flies over.
Spikeshot Elder over Furnace Scamp:
I was running Furnace Scamp until the day before the tournament. It occurred to me that it wasn’t a good idea. There are so many creatures around that he has trouble getting through in the early turns. Yes, Spikeshot Elder can’t get through most things on its own either, but for the tournament, it was better because it kills Squadron Hawks and Soldier tokens. At least if you can’t attack with him, you can just shoot your opponent. Another advantage is that it’s not as bad of a topdeck late game as Furnace Scamp, and it combos well with Teetering Peaks.
This card is just nuts in this deck.
Oh right, if your opponent lets it go unchecked, it can win the game by itself. Also, when you have it in play, all of your burn spells become more powerful. Lightning Bolt becomes a Flame Javelin. Staggershock becomes a Lava Axe… plus a Gut Shot!
Forked Bolt was a last-minute inclusion. I had been playing Arc Trail and was fairly happy with it, when my friend Anthony convinced me to run Forked Bolt instead. After I heard his reasons, it made a lot of sense to me, and after playing with it, it was crystal clear. In the build of Red Deck Wins that I was playing, I had a lot that I wanted to do with my mana every turn. Whether it was activating Spikeshot Elder or Shrine of Burning Rage or casting a recurred Chandra’s Phoenix, I always had plenty of ways to spend my mana. Being able to play a Goblin Guide and play a Forked Bolt on turn two was huge.
Act of Aggression was there for Splinter Twin and Valakut mostly. Manabarbs was for Caw-Blade, U/B Control, Birthing Pod decks, and Valakut. Manic Vandal was for Tempered Steel, Puresteel Paladin, Birthing Pod, and Caw-Blade, but only if I saw that they were running Sword of War and Peace. Dismember was for Splinter Twin, Valakut, Puresteel Paladin, and pretty much any other deck I thought would be playing Spellskite. Vulshok Refugee was for the mirror and Goblins.
Now that that’s over, on to the matches!
Round 1: Brian David-Marshall playing U/G Infect
Game 1 Brian won the die roll and started with a Forest and Glistener Elf. I contemplated for a minute whether to Lightning Bolt it on his turn or mine, to play around multiple pump spells. I decided it was better to do it on my turn to make him waste his pump spell and to save it at a time when I wouldn’t take extra poison. He played two Mutagenic Growths to save it. I ended up winning that game by burning all his creatures and killing him with a couple of my own.
I found out after the match that if I hadn’t Bolted his Glistener Elf on my turn I would have lost on turn two, as he had enough pump spells to kill me!
It might have been incorrect to sideboard out Goblin Guide against him, but I honestly hadn’t thought about how to beat this deck, so I wasn’t sure. I knew for certain that I needed to kill every creature he played so Dismember seemed right. Goblin Guide isn’t as good on the draw against aggressive decks anyway.
I had to mulligan game 2, and my starting six wasn’t that impressive. One thing I did not expect to see? Livewire Lash! He played it, and as soon as he got it to stick on a creature, I couldn’t target it without dying.
Game 3, I sideboarded out a couple of Shrines, as they didn’t seem fast enough against him, and brought in my Manic Vandals to deal with Livewire Lash. I ended up winning the match, as he didn’t have a lot of action other than an Inkmoth Nexus attacking me for one each turn. Eventually I had enough mana to safely play Hero of Oxid Ridge with some other creatures out.
Round 2: (Don’t remember my opponent’s name, sorry) playing Valakut
Game 2 I didn’t have a lot of action early, and even after I resolved Manabarbs, he played an Obstinate Baloth and then Green Sun’s Zenith for Thrun, the Last Troll. I died quickly after that to an onslaught of creatures.
Game 3 I started off with a Goblin Guide, which revealed a Pyroclasm. My opponent drew, played a land, and passed. I had a Teetering Peaks and another one-drop, but I decided not to play it and just swung for four, not wanting to overextend into Pyroclasm since I didn’t have to. He played a land and a Battlement and passed the turn. I Dismembered it right away, and on my turn I cast Chandra’s Phoenix. Goblin Guide flipped over an Explore, and he went to ten. He chose to play his Explore rather than Pyroclasm away my Guide and Phoenix and didn’t draw a land. I won soon after that, while he never played a third land.
Round 3: Jason Brinkman playing U/R Splinter Twin
Game 1 I was on the play with a Goblin Guide. I could tell by his apprehension that he was keeping a risky hand. He played a Grim Lavamancer, a Gitaxian Probe, and passed the turn. I Forked Bolted his creature and attacked before playing my own Lavamancer. The game continued with me eventually winning a turn before he would have been able to kill me (or so he told me).
Game 2 was pretty uneventful until the middle/end. He had a Deceiver Exarch out, and I had a Spikeshot Elder in play, with Act of Aggression, Lightning Bolt, and Hero of Oxid Ridge in my hand. He cast Splinter Twin targeting his Exarch with one mana open. I had four mana available, so the correct play would have been to Lightning Bolt his Exarch and then shoot it with Spikeshot Elder. If he countered the Bolt, I could Act of Aggression it in response and win. Instead I cast Act targeting his Deceiver, and it resolved. I think it was a combination of being unfocused, tired, and actually not knowing the correct way to win from doing that, but either way I didn’t make any tokens with the Exarch. I just gave it back to him at the end of his turn untapped. On my turn, I made the only play I had left, which was to kill his Exarch with the Lightning Bolt and Spikeshot Elder. I passed the turn back, and he seemed to not have anything left to play. I played Hero on my next turn, and he conceded.
Everyone around me was so baffled that I didn’t just kill him with the Exarch that had Splinter Twin on it! Even though I won, I was lucky to get out of a bad situation. My friends grilled me for 30 minutes on the way back to the hotel about how to use Act of Aggression correctly, so I wouldn’t do it again. Valuable lesson learned from that match: make sure you really understand completely how to use your cards.
Sunday 9 am
Round 4: Bronson Magnan playing Caw-Blade
I don’t remember what happened in this match except that I lost 1-2 and made a big mistake by not casting Manabarbs in game 3 while he was tapped out.
Round 5: Dean Fenstermaker playing Valakut
Game 1 I had a really explosive opening hand with two Goblin Guides, and he didn’t get his Primeval Titan out fast enough before I killed him.
For game 2 I sideboarded just like I did against my opponent in round two. He fell behind quickly due to double Goblin Guide again, and even after he played Urabrask the Hidden, I had a Dismember for it. I played Manabarbs the following turn and won shortly after that, as his life total was too low for him to safely play a Titan. Let’s face it; there’s not a whole lot any deck can do against that many Goblin Guides!
Round 6: Kevin Correia playing Mono-White Control.
Game 1 I lost to a maindeck Sword of War and Peace, which I had no answer for.
I was pretty surprised to see this deck, and I didn’t have a sideboard plan for it. But, based on the cards I saw and what I thought he’d bring in, this is what I came up with.
Game 2 I kept a reasonably good starting hand, but lost because I drew nine lands in a row.
At that point, I thought I wouldn’t be able to draw or lose another match and still make top 32. I started feeling pressure because that meant I had to win the last three rounds. I tried not to think about it though and just focused on the next game I had to play.
Round 7: Jonathan Alvarado playing Twin Blade
I won game 1 with a really fast starting hand, and he wasn’t able to slow down the assault.
Â He won game 2 because I never drew a fourth land to cast the playset of Heroes in my hand.
Game 3 I still hadn’t seen any red mana. Until the middle of the game, that is. I had a lot of creatures early and got him to a pretty low life total. He then played Scalding Tarn and searched for a Mountain. I stopped to think for a second, and then it hit me, and I blurted out, “Oh, no… you’re not playing Splinter Twin are you?”
He then played Deceiver Exarch, as I feared, on my turn pre-combat to stop some damage. I started to wonder if the last card in his hand was a Splinter Twin, which I would be completely dead to, as I didn’t have an answer in my hand. Thankfully, he didn’t draw Splinter Twin or something else to save himself before I won.
At that point, I was just standing around waiting for round 8 pairings to be posted, when this guy named Darwin walked over and started talking to me about Red Deck Winsâ€”I assumed because we were the only ones playing that deck at the top tables. He told me about his build, and I thought it sounded pretty good. He seemed like he knew what he was talking about so I listened to what he had to say and then went on to play my next round.
Round 8: Jack Vargas playing U/B Control
I won game 1 because my hand was just too fast for him to deal with.
Game 2 he was able to somewhat stifle my fast start, but not before my creatures had dealt him a good amount of damage. I resolved a Shrine of Burning Rage after that, which was really bad for him. There was a lot of draw-go because I didn’t want to tap out after my Shrine was over five counters, just in case he had Into the Roil. He played Liliana Vess and made me discard a few times. I still couldn’t tap out, so I just kept on waiting for my Shrine to have enough counters on it, which I could afford to do as he wasn’t doing anything very threatening.
Liliana tutored a Peace Strider and then a Preordain allowed him to play it that same turn, giving him fifteen life to work with. However, after he did this, he didn’t have the mana to Into the Roil my Shrine if I tapped out.
I played Staggershock, which brought him to thirteen, and my Shrine up to nine. Staggershock rebounded, putting him to eleven and my Shrine to ten. With the extra counter from my upkeep, I won by sacrificing the Shrine for exactly lethal. POW!
“One more round to go,” I told myself. I was pretty exhausted by this point, but also very happy with how well I’d done so far and excited to play out my last match.
Round 9: Dean Kruse playing R/U/G Birthing Pod with Splinter twin
Before we started playing our match, Dean offered a draw and explained that we both would have a good shot at top 32 if we did that. Drawing hadn’t crossed my mind after round 6, and I hadn’t looked at the standings after round 8, so I wasn’t sure what to do. I wished I could have asked for advice, but I knew that I couldn’t since the round had already started.
Little did I know, back in New York, my Brother Ben was hoping that Gerry or Nick had advised me to draw, as he didn’t think I could make top 16. But I came to game, so I declined the offer.
Dean won game 1 because he was able to get Birthing Pod out quickly and started chaining his creatures. I didn’t have a great start, and he pulled too far ahead for me to catch up. At one point during the game, he had a Spellskite in play with a blue mana open. I played Teetering Peaks on my Goblin Guide, and he just redirected it to his Spellskite. Oops! Better not do that again.
I won game 2 because I had an explosive start, and he didn’t have time to stabilize.
Game 3 started with me playing a Goblin Guide on the draw. Exactly like game 1, he played a Spellskite and passed. This time, I played Dismember on his Spellskite before using Teetering Peaks on my Goblin Guide. “Oh man, you learn quickly,” he said as he flipped over the top card.
On my next attack, he tapped down my Chandra’s Phoenix with a Deceiver Exarch, saving him some life. After that, it didn’t look like he had much he could do, except Acidic Slime one of my lands. He missed his sixth land drop for a few turns, while I beat him down with two Chandra’s Phoenix. I was still just dead if he drew a Splinter Twin at any point though, so I had my fingers crossed. He drew his card, facing down a lethal attack, showed me that it wasn’t Splinter Twin, and conceded.
After I finished my match, I figured out from talking with my friends that by not drawing I was risking $1,250! I was very shocked to say the least because I hadn’t looked at the standings and didn’t know what I was risking by not drawing.
In the end, sticking to my plan of playing out the rest of my games paid off, but drawing is definitely something I should at least think about next time I’m in that position.
One thing I learned from that weekend (and something I’ve just learned from playing Magic in general) is that I always play better when I don’t think about or even don’t know what’s on the line. In the case of this tournament, by not focusing on what was at stake, I had more energy to focus on playing each game the best that I could.
Some people were telling me before the tournament that Red Deck Wins wasn’t a viable option because of Timely Reinforcements. Yes, Timely Reinforcements is an insane card against this deck, but it’s not unbeatable if you know how to play around it. You can play cards like Forked Bolt and Hero of Oxid Ridge that are really good against it. If you think you’d like to play this deck, don’t be turned off to the idea just because of one card. In my experience, changing your deck to be better prepared for what you’re weak against will give you a better chance of winning than if you just played the best deck out there and aren’t familiar with it.
There were a lot of obstacles and hate cards I had to fight through, but it was worth it for me to be able to play a deck I really enjoyed and am good at playing. Overall the deck performed very well, and I was happy I stuck with it.
When the final standings were posted, I was in 15th place, just making it into top 16! I was very excited seeing as my finish there was the best I’d ever placed in a tournament that big. I was very happy that Nick Spagnolo and Alex Bertoncini made Top 8 as well. Oh, and that Darwin guy I talked to made Top 8 also! His build was a little different from mine as you can see here, but since he Top 8’d, I’m guessing he knows a little something about Magic. Congratulations to you guys and everyone else who finished in the money!
The next stop for me will be GP Pittsburgh, and I’m looking forward to playing Red Deck Wins again. Thanks for reading, and until next time remember: don’t Teetering Peaks your creature with a Spellskite in play!