I am no Jeff Cunningham, no Paul Rietzl, no Mark Herberholz. I’m not generally one to write tournament reports that focus on the matches, but this past
weekend I found myself involved in more matches that I usually am at a Grand Prix. I did play a few interesting games, though â€” plus, I haven’t
actually gotten to enjoy the gut-wrenching pain of losing in the top 8 of a Grand Prix in quite some time, so I figured, “Why not live a little?”
My testing for the Grand Prix in Pittsburgh
this past weekend was actually just the testing I did before US Nationals, as detailed here.
Michael Jacob and my RUG Pod deck worked well for me there (I
was 9-1 on the weekend), so I felt pretty good about running it again. Additionally, every hour of testing for Standard last week was an hour better
spent testing for Modern, if you ask me. MJ had been pleased with the deck as well, only struggling at Nationals as a result of a bad draft. Here is
the version we settled on for the Grand Prix:
- 1 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 2 Acidic Slime
- 4 Lotus Cobra
- 1 Cunning Sparkmage
- 3 Sea Gate Oracle
- 2 Vengevine
- 2 Inferno Titan
- 1 Obstinate Baloth
- 1 Sylvan Ranger
- 1 Sylvok Replica
- 1 Hero of Oxid Ridge
- 1 Urabrask the Hidden
- 1 Phyrexian Metamorph
- 1 Phantasmal Image
The changes from our previous version are primarily a reflection of Tempered Steel falling off the map. We cut two Nature’s Claims and the Tuktuk
Scrapper from the main, replacing them with a Lotus Cobra, a Vengevine, and an Act of Aggression. We moved one Claim and the Scrapper to the sideboard,
as well as adding a Grim Lavamancer for added percentage against Caw-Blade and various green creature decks.
A lot of people ask me why we don’t play Tuktuk the Explorer. He would be a great card against Mono Red and Vampires, except that he produces an
artifact creature token â€” and a lot of those people are already bringing in Manic Vandals against us anyway. Tormentor Exarch is another reasonable
suggestion, but we just didn’t find enough matches where he was actually needed, as opposed to just “fine.” We still think it’s reasonable to
play him; we just didn’t want him this time around.
Grand Prix: Pittsburgh featured something like 1,435 players, so we knew we would be in for a long weekend of gaming. After successfully defeating the
bye three times straight, it was time to get down to business!
My opponent reveals a Mountain while shuffling. I can’t even tell you how many players pick their deck up and shuffle it towards their opponent.
Because it’s such a natural way to shuffle, players often get used to doing it in playtesting. Then, when they’re in a real match, they do it without
even thinking about it, leaking information by the bucket. Even if you show just the bottom card of your deck to your opponent once, what if it’s a
Goblin Guide? A Valakut? A Celestial Colonnade? This information is very valuable to your opponents as they make their mulligan and play decisions.
Anyway, I play Birds on turn 1, to which my opponent plays a Forest of his own. I play a Lotus Cobra and a fetchland, but do not crack it. My hand now
contains another fetchland, another Lotus Cobra, and an Inferno Titan.
Why didn’t I play the second Cobra? What if he has Pyroclasm? And what do I gain by playing another Cobra? If the Titan sticks next turn, an extra
Lotus Cobra on the table isn’t likely to swing the game, especially since I deal exactly twenty on turn 4 without it. The main reason I’d want to play
the Cobra is to be able to pay for Mana Leak â€” but an opponent who’s already revealed Mountain and played a Forest on turn 1 is far less likely to have
that than a Pyroclasm.
He plays just a Verdant Catacombs on his turn and passes the turn. What a strange hand to keep from a Valakut player! No Explore, no Overgrown
Battlement, no Cobra, no Expedition, no Rampant Growth. Additionally, playing two green on the first two turns means it’s unlikely he has a Valakut or
Terramorphic Expanse in hand. If that is the case, what’s his hand?
Obviously, at this point I’m assessing what else he could be. Jund, maybe?
I play my Titan, to which he laughs. He looks at his top card and concedes. So no Doom Blade, either? If he was really playing a Jund deck, would he
really have no Raging Ravines, no Lavaclaw Reaches, no Copperline Gorges, no Lotus Cobras, and no Doom Blades?
I decide Valakut is more likely and sideboard against it.
Flame Slash isn’t that good if he’s playing Florida-style Valakut (a la Pat Cox and Ben Stark), which has no Overgrown Battlements â€” but since I don’t
actually even know that he is playing Valakut, Flame Slash is a nice hedge (since it is reasonable against basically every other green deck).
…turns out we’re playing the same deck!
I get an aggressive start, then manage to use a couple Act of Aggressions to tempo him out. He later asked me if I always sideboard the Act of
Aggressions against the mirror (as he was surprised). I admitted that I had sideboarded against Valakut, but that I do like at least one Act of
Aggression against just about everyone (which actually means everyone with Inferno Titan, Frost Titan, Primeval Titan, and sometimes Sun Titan) â€” which
is why MJ and I moved one to the main!
I should have suspected something was amiss when I saw my relatively low table number. I finally figured it out, though, after the judge stopped our
match in the middle of game one and pointed out that I was two hundred tables away from my real table.
After a bit of conferencing, I was sent to my real table, where I received a game loss for tardiness. Fortunately, my opponent was playing traditional
Caw-Blade, so I won very easily. Still, I need to tighten up. I knew I was very tired, but this is just embarrassing.
I sideboard differently, depending on things like Mirran Crusader, Spellskite, Blade Splicer, Jace Beleren, Emeria Angel, Oblivion Ring, Sun Titan, and
Consecrated Sphinx. Against an unknown Caw-Blade player, I would default to bringing in Grim Lavamancer and Nature’s Claim, boarding out Obstinate
Baloth and Act of Aggression. If they have Emeria Angel, I usually like to use at least one Combust. If they show a Hero of Bladehold, I like at least
two Combusts. If they play Mirran Crusader, I like all three. Nature’s Claim stays out, if I become convinced they don’t have Oblivion Rings. Same with
Sylvok Replica. Forked Bolt generally stays as they usually have either Jace Beleren or Mirran Crusader, but it can definitely be cut.
I came, I saw,
just another caw
with a broken jaw.
My opponent is playing the legendary Mono-Black Control, meaning the swarms of people that gathered around us were obviously rooting for him hard-core.
I take a double mulligan in game one, and am then hit with Duress into Distress. His Gatekeeper leaves me relatively defenseless, allowing the
Persecutor on turn 4 to have his way with me. Not wanting me to be under the impression the game was close, he plays a Lashwrithe and equips it to his
Abyssal Persecutor. Fortunately, I remember to crack my fetchland while I still have more than zero life (a common mistake against Persecutor, since
you can’t pay life you don’t have). Unfortunately, he has a Geth’s Verdict for himself and we are on to game two.
Game two, he begins with Duress again. I still manage a quick Vengevine, which no amount of Doom Blades seem to be able to stop. This prompts him to
pull seven cards out of his deck box to swap for game three. I’m betting this is the Extraction type of cards…
He starts the third game with another Duress, revealing my hand of Copperline Gorge, Forest, Birds of Paradise, Preordain, Ponder, Ponder, Birthing
Pod. He tanks, and decides to take the Ponder, then immediately Surgical Extracts the other. If you’re in a similar situation, remember you generally
want to wait for your opponent to draw a card for their turn, so that there’s a chance they draw another Ponder and you get a free card.
I miss my land drop, so his Gatekeeper of Malakir next turn is especially rough. The following turn, Mono-Black plays Memoricide, naming Inferno Titan.
He passes the turn, but I call a judge to find out if I have to shuffle my library. He did not search my deck, and failing to find is no problem, but I
suspected that the text of Memoricide made shuffling my library mandatory (which it was).
My opponent plays a second Gatekeeper of Malakir as a Runeclaw Bear, so I’m sure he has more removal in his hand. I drop Urabrask, to which he plays
his third Gatekeeper. After he attacks, I’m at three life with five land in play and a Wurmcoil Engine in hand. I draw…
This time, my opponent was Mono-Red. I deduced this from my losing game one inside of ninety seconds, as this is how it always seems to go.
Game two, he plays a Torpor Orb on turn 2. In my infinite wisdom, I have sideboarded such that I have no outs.
This is bad not just in retrospect, but because you’re supposed to have Sylvok Replica instead of Tuktuk Scrapper in your deck because of both
Manabarbs and Torpor Orb. It’s okay not to sideboard in Nature’s Claim against unknown Mono-R â€” but once you know they have Torpor Orb, you
certainly want it (which for all I know, might be all of them, now).
Mono-Red plays a Shrine of Burning Rage on turn 3. My opening keep of Pyroclasm, Pyroclasm, Flame Slash is looking pretty rancid at this point. A few
turns later, he plays another and we are quickly reaching the point at which I am mathematically unable to win or avoid dying to the two Shrines. How
can I get him to Shrine one of my creatures? I have no clock!
Finally, we reach a point where he has a Shrine at seven and a Shrine at four. He tanks on my end step, saying he’s deciding whether to hit me with the
Shrine or not. He has five land in play and multiple cards in hand. My life total is fifteen to his eighteen. At this point, I’m picturing a handful of
burn and he is just playing around everything he can. He smiles and says, “not yet.” It was then I realized…
…this dude is slow-rolling me!
He draws his card for the turn, plays a land, then pops the Shrine for eight. I look at his life pad, seeing he does in fact have the score correct,
with me at fifteen. What is his game? He really is just slow-rolling me. I wanted to concede right then and there, and not give him the satisfaction;
but it was only my burning desire to make him have to actually admit that he had been slow-rolling me, so that we would both know what time it really was, that forced me to go on.
I have never in my life had such a raging need for something to finally happen so that I could not react to it.
“I take seven.”
Now with a Shrine at five, I let myself go for just a moment. For just a split second, I entertained the fantasy that he was going to shoot me again.
The dream was over. I should never have dared to dream it. Mark Herberholz would be proud of a slow-roll this epic. To add insult to injury, I draw a
Birthing Pod (with no creatures in play), which I tap four of my five land to play, leaving me with just a Flame Slash in hand.
He ticks the Shrine up to six, draws his card, then shoots me. Is he trying to get me to drop from the event? This will only be my second loss, so
wouldn’t he want me to keep winning for his tie-breaks? Why destroy my spirit completely?
“Okay, I take six. Down to one.”
He says, “Oh man, I am so bad at math,” then laughs and plays Grim Lavamancer.
Obviously I am already walking dead, but the adrenaline starts pumping. Could there be…? Is it really so audacious to imagine…?
He draws and ships the turn!
I draw… Vengevine! I attack with Vengevine, fully expecting to get Lightning Bolted in response. When he got a look of concern on his face, it was
like I had been in outer space and just zoomed in from a satellite view to the fifty-yard line of the Super Bowl.
He draws his card, plays a land, then ships the turn. I draw another blank, attack for four, then upgrade my Vengevine into an Inferno Titan (which
kills in one hit, unlike Wurmcoil, making it a better target). My heart is racing! The impossible dream!
…and packs his cards! Unbelievable! This had to be one of the ten dead-est I have ever been, and somehow pulled it off! Absolutely amazing.
Now, in my opponent’s defense, he was a Magic player fourteen years ago and has only recently come back to the game. Everyone makes silly mistakes, and
he certainly kept a positive attitude about it. His positivity was rewarded, as you know the only way a story like this could end.
-1 Phantasmal Image, -2 Lotus Cobra, -1 Hero of Oxidda Ridge, -1 Phyrexian Metamorph, -1 Acidic Slime, -1 Inferno Titan, -1 Act of Aggression
+2 Obstinate Baloth, +1 Nature’s Claim, +1 Wurmcoil Engine, +3 Pyroclasm, +1 Flame Slash
My round nine match wasn’t as interesting as my round nine opponent’s deck â€” a Bant-Pod + Caw-Blade hybrid. He has a poor draw in one game, I have a
poor draw in another, and in the “fair” fight, I manage a win with a surprise Act of Aggression.
After calling it a night early, I’m feeling a bit better, though I’m still very fatigued. Fortunately, I have been only drinking caffeine on occasion
(such as when competing in events) for over a year now, so I actually benefit from the temporary boost from drinking a Red Bull.
Another Caw-Blade player. He was a nice guy that looked like he was in a good spot, but the math from Urabrask + Inferno Titan can really sneak up on
Another Mono-Red player, so I get another game one loss, but I win the second game very easily with a couple quick Baloths.
The deciding game is looking rough, but I dig and find some red removal to buy myself time. After a grueling grind, I manage to get ahead and can end
the game next turn if I just get an Inferno Titan. Still, I thought I could afford to play around Act of Aggression, so I took three turns to kill him,
instead of one…
…which was a good thing, as he had the Act of Aggression the whole time!
Inferno Titan is awesome against Mono-Red, no question, but MJ and I generally like to board one out since it does open you up to this exact play.
My first feature match of the weekend, against my friend (and former National Treasure) Josh “Wrapter” Utter-Leyton. He’s playing the Conley Woods
style of Caw-Blade, with Mirran Crusaders, Emeria Angels, and a more aggressive angle.
Sadly, there are no real key plays or anything â€” just three hard-fought battles. Wrapter is one of the absolute best players in the country and is
always a very tough opponent, so I was very fortunate to have had the edge in this matchup.
Another feature match, this time against my good friend, Eric “Efro” Froehlich, armed with Goblins. I have the one Forked Bolt main to gain an
advantage game one, especially with him stuck on two lands.
Game two, I have multiple Pyroclasms, which are particularly devastating for Goblins as compared to other red decks, and pull it off.
Another match against a friend, Osyp Lebedowicz â€” who’s making a comeback and was looking for that top 16 spot. We’re playing the same deck, though
he’s made a few modifications.
I get blown out in game one after a triple mulligan. Game two is an epic struggle, but I manage to win the race. Our third game is edging near time,
but Osyp doesn’t stall me out, despite a poor draw that leaves him with greatly reduced chances. In an attempt to stabilize, Osyp plays a Cunning
Sparkmage that he needs to Pod away. He shoots my Lotus Cobra, to which I respond by stealing his Sparkmage for the win.
Yet another Caw-Blade.
Unfortunately, my tie-breakers are not good (what else is new?), so I have to play my last round instead of drawing in. This is doubly disappointing,
as I have been paired up against another friend of mine, The Ben Seck (TBS), who was just looking for a top 16 to get back on the tour.
Our third game is a bit anti-climactic, as his draw is slow and I have removal for the Lavamancer he does play. I play around Act of Aggression again
and eventually grind him out.
I was thrilled to be in the my first Grand Prix top 8 since 2002 â€” but to make it even sweeter, TBS made the top 16 on tiebreakers. Everybody wins!
Since he’s playing Mono-R, of course he beats the tar out of me game one. Game two, I benefit greatly from having seen his decklist and knowing how
many Forked Bolt / Arc Trails he has, ensuring that I never get two-for-oned. Game three, he starts a little slow and I am eventually able to set up a
game-winning Wurmcoil Engine.
Coverage of this match can be found here .
Coverage of my semi-finals match against eventual champion Yuuya Watanabe can be found here. Game one came to
a head when Yuuya equiped his turn 2 Hawk with his turn 3 Sword of Feast and Famine. When he hit me with it on turn 4, I went into the tank and came
out by discarding Obstinate Baloth. After I let the Baloth sit in my graveyard for more than a couple moments, the judge points out that the Obstinate
Baloth trigger is mandatory and it has to come into play.
I’ve played Obstinate Baloth before, and I’ve had to discard it to Sword of Feast and Famine before â€” but I was definitely exhausted and had a bit of
tunnel vision, since the Baloth hadn’t factored into my game plan at all. Yuuya and I had a good laugh about it, and continued with our game. I played
a Vengevine on my next turn and the overwhelming assault was too much.
Game two my hand was a bit mana-light, giving Yuuya’s extremely tight play a chance to be rewarded. He was playing a Blade Splicer build of Caw-Blade,
one that I didn’t have much experience with. MJ told me later I should have had an Obstinate Baloth in my deck after sideboarding (since Yuuya makes so
many 3/3 first strikers, making Vengevine worse than it normally would be and Obstinate Baloth much better), which probably would have turned this one
around for me, despite Yuuya making ten birds with Emeria Angel.
Game three involves an epic struggle of Sun Titan + Phantasmal Image + three Blade Splicers + Colonnade, against Inferno Titan, Acidic Slime, Birthing
Pod, Vengevine, and a variety of miscellaneous bodies. I was a bit shy on mana, but I might have been able to pull it off with a different line. It’s
just so hard to tell in these super-complicated games where each of us had many different possible lines. I saw no less than sixteen different ways I
could have played that game, so being sure which play actually was the best (not just would have worked out best) is tough.
Obviously Yuuya went on to win the whole thing, making his last three Grand Prix a second, a first, and a first. What a monster!
The top eight of the Grand Prix featured three Caw-Blade, two Mono-Red, a Twin (with Lavamancers main), a Combo RUG-Pod, and me with Value RUG-Pod.
Overall, the general consensus was that the format is balanced and interesting with a lot of different and interesting decks viable. Just think of what
this Grand Prix would have been like if the bannings had not taken place! Sure, it took a little time to set it and Caw-Blade is still real strong â€”
but this is a healthy format. I think it is going to be real interesting to see what kind of numbers Caw-Blade actually put up this weekend,
percentage-wise. Yeah, it put three in the top eight, but I’m not so sure it has the best match win percentage. We’ll see…
Not surprisingly, I was quite happy with the deck and would play it again. Michael Jacob managed to win his last five in row to finish 13th â€” so also,
not surprisingly, he’s quite happy with the build. RUG Pod is challenging to play well, but for those that take the time to practice with it, it’s one
of the best Caw-Blade fighters in the format. I was definitely happy to dodge Splinter Twin all weekend (it’s not our best matchup, plus we cut the
Nature’s Claim), so keep that deck in mind when deciding if RUG Pod is for you.
Major thanks to RIW Hobbies for helping me get the cards I needed, and to everyone sending positive energy my way during the event! I definitely
appreciate it. It feels good to break the Grand Prix Top 8 dry spell â€” but third isn’t first, and Philly is the focus now. Gerry Thompson, Matt
Sperling, Paul Rietzl, Gabriel Nassif, Brian DeMars, and Drew Levin are waiting on me, so it’s time to get back to breaking it. See you on the other side!