As you know, Grand Prix: Philadelphia was this past weekend. As a result, I didn’t get back to Michigan until late Monday night, so thank you for giving me a couple of extra days to put together this tournament report.
I have been working with my RIW teammates all season on Extended, particularly on perfecting Counterbalance strategies. DJ Kastner, who made Top 16 at Grand Prix: Vancouver with Next Level Blue, and Kyle Boggemes, who won a PTQ with his version of Domain Zoo, were testing with me quite a bit in the weeks leading up to the GP. I also tested extensively with Eric Froehling, Michael Jacob, Paul Nicolo, Phil Cape, and Brian DeMars, covering everything from new brews to Next Level Variations.
About a week and a half before the Grand Prix, Luis Scott-Vargas flew into Detroit to stay with me for a while. Obviously the times were insane, and we broke the format twice over.
LSV and I alternated between kicking it with the RIW squad and going out to clubs, although whenever drafting came up, I usually just left him to go at it, while I hit up the Goth-Industrial Club.
LSV began by running his gauntlet of brews against the locals, never winning with anything ever. As a result, he switched to Next Level Blue to try experimenting with this new-fangled Counterbalance strategy. Meanwhile, I worked on a variety of experiments ranging from 5-Color Control to Gaea’s Blessing in NLU to Domain Zoo with Tops to Rune Snag in Tooth and Nail (Snaggle Tooth).
Finally, I put together an aggro Counterbalance deck that sort of looked like a hybrid of Chase Rare and Doran. It was playing very well and I could tell that this was the one I needed to work on.
At one point I called Steve Sadin and asked him for a Serendib Efreet. His response? Vendilion Clique. I tried it, and it was excellent. Throughout testing, a variety of other options were tried and talked about, ranging from Thirst for Knowledge to Putrefy to Doran to Shadowmage Infiltrator to Meddling Mage to Jitte to Stifle.
In the end, this is what I, along with Steve Sadin, Paul Nicolo, EFro, and Owen Turtenwald played in Grand Prix: Philly.
LSV and I met up with Paul Cheon, Gabe Walls, Gerry Thompson, and Cedric Phillips, and we all carpooled to Philly. During the car ride, a variety of topics were discussed. One of the most relevant to me was LSV’s announcement (with no prompting) that he knows every Magic card.
This is a hell of thing to say to a guy like me, for two reasons. One, I actually know every Magic card, and two, I am the type of guy who would like to put a claim like this to the test.
I called his bluff and we determined to get to the bottom of things by playing a game of 20 questions. Twenty yes or no questions is more than enough to deduce any card in Magic and if you actually know every card, you should win every time.
LSV added the disclaimer that he does not know Portal or Unglued cards, but that is fair I suppose. I knew I could get him with the regular cards. I asked him if he cared to place a friendly wager. He declined, knowing better than to bet against me.
Gabe Walls was not so wise.
I offered Gabe odds, putting $10 on me being able to fool LSV, versus $4 of his if I am right. The game began, but it was not long before LSV was a broken man. It was determined that the card in question was a two-casting cost enchantment from Alpha that is not Extended legal, nor Power Surge, nor Raging River.
The answer? LSV did not get it, but as it turns out, the answer is…..
LSV demanded a chance to defend his honor, and I gave a couple more easy ones for free, trying to set Gabe up. Finally, Gabe is convinced that Smoke was a fluke and agrees to bet back.
Very quickly, LSV deduces that the card is a 1UU creature from Fallen Empires with a power of zero. He then spends his next ten questions trying to prove it is Sea Singer, despite me continually telling him it is not Sea Singer.
Finally, I offer Gabe a bit of a buyout, if he agrees to place another bet on whether or not LSV can even name the text once I tell him the name. I suspect he cannot. It turns out, I was correct.
Seriously. Just name the text for Vodalian War Machine right now, then go look it up. I bet you don’t get it.
We get to Philly late Friday night and finalize our decks. As I said, several people ended up Cliquing. LSV and Cheon finally tried Next Level Blue and demanded to know why I didn’t tell them about it sooner. They may be a little behind, but it is good to see they have finally reached the Next Level.
Saturday morning I wake up and go register. I had three byes, so there was plenty of time to grab breakfast and scope out the sight.
Finally, the tournament begins for me. Round 4, I play against John Alesi-Mullen. He is playing a Spire Golem Blue deck with Jittes, Sowers, Trinket Mage, Venser, and Riptide Lab.
The deciding game comes down to when I have a 4/5 Tarmogoyf and not much else. John has a Spire Golem, lots of land, including a Lab, and several cards in hand. I Clique him during his draw phase and he reads the Clique a couple times before putting his hand face up on the table.
Stifle, Stifle, Sensei’s Divining Top, and Trinket Mage.
Trinket Mage would destroy me when combined with his Lab, so I happily take it. It ends up winning the game for me, which is interesting because it was not just how good the Clique was that won it for me, it was also the fact that it was underestimated. I mean, it has to hurt to Stifle a Clique, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
Round 5 I play Michael Farrell, who is armed with the Spark Elemental/Keldon Marauder deck.
Game 1 he leads with Blinkmoth Nexus to try to sell the Affinity bluff. When he follows it with a Barbarian Ring and a Marauder, I know what I have to do. I do not have the kind of hand I need to fight such an attack, and quickly lost the first game.
Game 2, I lead with turn 1 Counterbalance, turn 2 Sensei’s Divining Top, Turn 3 Circle of Protection: Red. He’s not expecting this and had not sideboarded properly. On to game 3.
I play a turn 1 Circle of Protection: Red, but don’t have much else. He finally plays Pithing Needle on it, as well as a Sulfuric Vortex, but I swing the momentum in my favor with a Vendilion Clique followed by a Loxodon Hierarch to race with. I set up Counterbalance-Top and finish the job.
+4 Loxodon Hierarch, +2 Circle of Protection: Red, +2 Krosan Grip, +1 Counterbalance, -4 Dark Confidant, -3 Sower of Temptation, -2 Threads of Disloyalty
My round 6 opponent is Alec Nezin. Alec is on Previous Level Blue. He has a lot of trouble with the Counterbalance-Top combination. I wish I could give you better match accounts, but I am still extremely exhausted from my trip. I played against a lot of Blue decks, so the matches kind of blur together.
The important thing to remember about this match-up, as opposed to Next Level Blue, is that you want to keep more creatures in instead of bringing in Extirpates.
Round 7 I play Zechariah Maples. He is playing Next Level Blue. He plays Counterbalance-Top by turn 2 every game, but somehow I fight my way back.
Game 1, I am locked before I can even cast a spell, but he eventually shuffles his library, so I start casting spells and manage to somehow pull off the impossible.
Game 2, I am locked and never break free.
Game 3, he locks me, but I eventually Krosan Grip his Tops and Extirpate them. A Counterbalance of my own finishes the job.
+1 Counterbalance, +2 Krosan Grip, +2 Extirpates, -2 Gaddock Teegs, -3 Tarmogoyfs
Round 8, my opponent is Brandon Nelson. Brandon was playing TEPS, a great match-up for me. Can you imagine responding to a Seething Song with Vendilion Clique?
Both games are blow outs on the strength of Dark Confidant plus Vindicates.
Round 9, I play Matt Hansen in a feature match. He is playing LSV’s G/W Tallowisp deck with Armadillo Cloaks and Phantom Centaurs.
Game 1, I blow him out with turn 1 Confidant followed by a Threads and a Sower. On the final turn, I enter the red zone with Chameleon Colossus, Gaddock Teeg, Sower of Temptation, Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, and Vendilion Clique! Beating down is fun!
Game 2, I keep a no-land hand on the draw with Chrome Mox and Top. I don’t draw land, and when I Top on my second turn’s upkeep, I fail to find a land.
Game 3, my quick Confidant is too much and I am consistently able to do two things a turn, such as play a Goyf and Counterspell his Phantom Centaur.
Saturday night, I am unable to sleep, despite feeling ill from exhaustion. I get sick that night and end up throwing up (on LSV), as well as only getting about two hours of sleep. I was not drinking or doing anything else that would have brought this about, except that I had been pushing myself too hard for a couple of weeks now and was sick as a result.
I get up to play Day 2, needing a 3-2-1 record to make Top 8. Unfortunately, I was not in any sort of mental position to make this happen.
Round 10, I have a feature match with eventual second place finisher Adam Yurchick. He is playing U/W Tron. U/G Tron is actually a pretty good match-up for me, but U/W is much harder as he has answers to a lot of my hate.
I win game 1 on the strength of Dark Confidant, Teeg, and Vindicate.
Game 2 I mulligan and my poor draw is unable to deal with his Control Magic effects and Fatties.
Game 3 I was so close to being in a great position. I miss my land drop on turn 3, but will have a total lock on the game if he just doesn’t break me next turn. He plays Urza’s Mine and Sundering Titan. Frown.
Despite feeling ill at this point, I don’t think there is anything I could have done to win this one.
Steve Sadin is my round 11 opponent, which is very unfortunate as we are playing the mirror. Game 1, I have a great draw on turn 1 Bob, to which he plays a turn 1 Bob of his own. I Vindicate his Confidant and am looking pretty good until he follows up with a Threads of Disloyalty. I have no good answer and eventually fall too far behind.
Game 2, we Grip each other’s Tops, but it looks like I am going to win, as I have a second Top for a while. Unfortunately, I am consistently Topping into triple Chrome Mox, or Forest, Plains, Swamp, while Steve draws five Control Magic effects without one. I still would have won, had Steve not drawn a second Grip for my Top.
Round 12 I am paired with Kenneth Cordell playing some Level of Blue. I have always loved playing Blue mirrors, and even in my frail condition, I manage to Counterbalance lock him.
It also helped that he Ancestral Visioned into three land once. Also, in another game I played a Counterbalance with no Top. He played a Blastminer, which I blind countered. Next turn, he played a Spell Snare on my Goyf, to which I blind revealed a Top. You can see where this is going.
Round 13, I play Joshua Schneider, playing another Previous Level Blue variant. I am feeling very ill at this point.
In the deciding game, I have him Counterbalance locked, but there are only a few minutes left. I play a Vendilion Clique, which he Counterspells. I straight up forget that the top card of my library is Counterspell, and shuffle my deck with a fetchland.
In the end, I have control of the game, but there is not enough time to finish the match. This one was obviously my fault for forgetting the top of my library, but I am in pretty bad shape at this point, physically.
Round 14, my opponent is Brian Siu. Brian has an interesting control deck featuring Ancestral Visions, Fact or Fiction, Deed, Smother, Counterspell, Voidslime, Stifle, Spell Snare, Force Spike, and Quagnoth.
He destroys me game 1 with card drawing and one-mana countermagic. His removal also denies me the ability to get ahead with Bob.
Game 2, I quickly Counterbalance lock him, and with a Bob in play, he concedes to ensure he has time for game 3.
Game 3, I make a strategic blunder. I Extirpate his Counterspells, which was great, but I see that he has a Spell Snare. For some reason I still fetch up a Black land to cast my Bob into it, but this means I have no Green mana. If I had drawn Green mana in any of the next 8 turns I would have easily won with Krosan Grip, as my Vendilion Clique knocked him to one and was only stopped by a Deed that was sitting in play for many turns.
I should have won this match for sure, but I was not thinking clearly at all at this point. Certainly disappointing.
In the final round, I play against my teammate Kyle Boggemes. I am so out of it at this point that I actually think he is playing Domain Zoo, when I know he is playing Doran. I win game 1 with a turn 1 Confidant. He played a turn 1 Confidant of his own, but I had a Threads. You can imagine how this game went. He had a great draw, but Doran’s best draw is still very vulnerable to Counterbalance.
Game 2, he has too much momentum on account of me not having a Mox and him going first.
Game 3, I play a turn 1 Confidant again, while he plays a land and a Bird. I Vindicate the Bird and bash in. He misses his land drop and plays another Bird. I Vindicate his Bird again, and bash in again. He Therapies me and is not happy to see another Vindicate in my hand. Dark Confidant wins the race against itself, and I end the tournament at 11-3-1.
I suppose 18th place is not bad, but I was certainly disappointed with my Day 2, especially after dominating on Day 1. I just did not play well at all on Day 2, but I learned some valuable lessons.
First of all, I need to go to greater lengths to take care of myself both before and at tournaments. I can deal with a few days of little sleep, but before this GP I had not had a good night of sleep in two weeks. I am an old man. I just can’t roll like that anymore.
Second, working with Paul Cheon and LSV was great. We were very happy with how things went, and Paul and LSV will be working with Nassif, Herberholz, and I for Hollywood. That should be a lot of fun.
Third, I am blessed to have so many people that care about me. Between Pam and Kim (from RIW) making sure I always had Mountain Dew, cards, socks, and toothpaste, and Antonio DeRosa making sure to track me down and return lost cards, I am very fortunate. I love you guys.
I was also amazed at the positive energy I received from readers who introduced themselves at the tournament. I appreciate all of your kind words, and am glad that I am able to be of service to you. It is always a pleasure to meet someone new who is a fan of this column. It makes me feel really good to know that people like what I have been doing here.
Despite such a terrible performance on Day 2, countless people offered words of encouragement and I am sure I would not have won a single match had I not been continually reminded by friends new and old that I need to focus and do the best I could. Giving up was never an option.
I apologize if this article is a little scatterbrained… I am back in Michigan, but I still feel very ill. I wanted to make sure to get this report out in time for anyone who may want to use anything presented in it for the PTQs this weekend. I think the Vendilion Counterbalance deck is a great choice, although I would cut an Extirpate for a third Grip.
Counterbalance-Top is the best strategy a good player can bring, and this deck dodges hate from cards like Boil and Grudge, as well as taking advantage of well positioned cards like Dark Confidant and Vindicate.
With the Extended season winding down, please let me know in the forums what you guys would like to see me take a look at now.
Good luck this weekend! I will be back on my regular Monday next week, hopefully in better health. I am sure I am forgetting all sorts of important stuff about the GP, as well as all of the interesting stories, so maybe I will have a little more next week. I will see you all then… take care!