Morning has come too early. The road is wet, but the rain has stopped for now. I am on the road headed north in The Pod wishing I had the time to stop for coffee. The truth is I have time to stop, but I avoid caffeine before a tournament. Doing so seems to help my concentration, but it could just be a superstition I’ve developed. Not sure, but I don’t care.
Thinking about the coffee is taking my mind off my son, who seems to be coming down with the flu. He was up and down all night coughing and crying. Consequently, so was I. His mother insisted I go play this morning. I’m probably not in the best frame of mind for Magic, but I have been looking forward to this tournament. For the umpteenth time I check my cell phone to make sure it is on in case she calls.
That’s when the squirrel jumps out from nowhere.
Time slows down. Emergency synapses fire. It seems I might have time to write a novel before the rodent passes under my tires. Why does he freeze like that? C’mon, squirrel. Turn around and run out of the way.
Hitting the squirrel is probably my safest course of action. I am driving a little faster than I should be. The Pod is not exactly a high-performance vehicle, either. It isn’t engineered for sudden lateral moves. However, if I swerve to miss the squirrel, it is bound to come back to me. Karma is a little more than two colorless and two White.
I swerve hard right, and back to the left. My tires manage to stay in contact with the asphalt. Time returns to normal, and I can hear the engine again. I take a deep breath and continue north towards my fate.
“Dude, you’re an action hero.”
“Jumpy this morning?”
“I was just looking over my tournament report.”
“When are you going to realize nobody reads these things, dude?”
“People still read, Jack. Your cynicism isn’t welcome here right now.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll behave. For what it’s worth, the opening isn’t as terrible as it could be.”
“Thanks, Jack. You’re a true friend for saying so.”
“Anytime. So, how did the big tourney go?”
“It wasn’t a big tournament. Just another PTQ. I’ve been skipping tournaments while I focus on other things, so this was a big deal to me but not a big deal in general. Actually, the turnout was very low. There were only fifty-two players for this one.”
“That’s not a lot of folks.”
“You could have assigned seating using a deck of playing cards, though. That’s kinda funny.”
“Oh, hey. Don’t mind me, dude. I’ll just flip through your common binder while you write. I’ll be quiet as a church mouse.”
“I appreciate that.”
“Or should I say church squirrel?”
“That’s pretty clever for a guy without a degree.”
“Heh. You’re pretty chipper for a man without a job.”
“Is this your deck? The one in the black deck box?”
“Yes, that’s my build of Aluren this year.”
“Can I see it?”
“Have at it.”
Aluren – PTQ for Kobe December 13, 2003
4 Polluted Delta
3 City of Brass
4 Yavimaya Coast
4 Hickory Woodlot
3 Birds of Paradise
1 Wall of Blossoms
4 Living Wish
2 Wirewood Savage
2 Raven Familiar
1 Brain Freeze
1 Cloud of Faeries
1 Vodalian Merchant
3 Cavern Harpy
3 Cabal Therapy
1 Maggot Carrier
1 Soul Warden
“I’m still packing a Maggot Carrier in the main so I don’t have to resolve the entire stack to cast a sorcery if I’m not in a position to do so. That came in handy at least once last year. I did cut one of the Soul Wardens to make room for a single Brain Freeze as a back up plan in case something terrible happens to disrupt my main strategy. I managed to upgrade my Wall of Mulch to Wall of Blossoms this year.”
“Would you care for some mana with your damage, sir?”
“Yeah, there’s a lot of pain in that mana base, but the deck isn’t designed for the long game.”
“Your sideboard looks different than it did last year.”
“Well, I ran a lot of crap last year in the sideboard that looked like it might come in handy and never did. This time around I left in the combo pieces and the tools I found myself going to get the most.”
“Man, why does that sound like you built a sideboard to tackle last year’s field to me?”
“Not so fast, Jack. In the end, I cut the City of Brass from the sideboard to open up a slot. I wanted seven slots devoted to disruption of some kind. Most of the time I went fishing for the City because I was missing a color. The Yavimaya Coasts were helping with that problem, anyway.”
“Let me explain. I am overly fond of Stifle. I think it’s a great card. I started thinking about the broken decks that cleaned up in New Orleans this year. In this field of combo decks, Aluren is in the slow class. So, either my deck needs to speed up or the broken decks need to slow down. Stifle can slow some of them down by a turn.”
“Stifle the imprint from Chrome Mox. Stifle the Goblin Charbelcher ability. Stifle the Goblin Welder ability. None of those is guaranteed to win the game for you, but they may give you one more turn. Often that’s all I’m looking for.”
“It sounds good when you say it, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.”
“Well, I ran with it. After I made up my mind to run Stifle, I started thinking about how to board it in. Then I started guessing what the field would be for the PTQ. It basically came down to whether there would be more aggro decks like Suicide Black and The Red Deck or if the broken combos were the order of the day.”
“How would you figure that out?”
“Well, my local store was sold out of Mana Severance. Of course, I don’t know how many there were in the case in the first place. Also, I knew people had been coming into the store looking for Ancient Tomb.”
“How did you know that?”
“Because I asked.”
“So I ran the deck in its game-two-against-combo-configuration, thus three Stifles main and two Walls and a Bird waiting in the board.”
“Dude, you could go get the bird if you were missing a color, so cutting the City didn’t matter.”
“Or if I needed a cheap critter to sacrifice for Cabal Therapy.”
“Level with me, dude. You didn’t expect Aluren to win this thing, did you?”
“My theory is since the format is so degenerate, I should just play with whatever I enjoy playing and let the rest of it take care of itself.”
“Sounds good to me, man.”
“Once the bannings take effect in January, the lightning fast combo decks are gone. Nature abhors a vacuum, so the top tier has to get filled with something.”
“No, other decks.”
“Oh. Go on.”
“I don’t know all of what will wind up on top, but it’s a safe bet that Psychatog and RDW will be in the top tier. Both of those decks performed well in New Orleans although they did make appearances in the top 8.”
“Red Deck Wins, Jack. The Red Deck.”
“Did your pet deck come through for you again this year?”
“Let me give you the play by play.”
“Couldn’t you just finish the report and let me read it?”
“It’s not finished yet.”
“Just fill in the gaps, dude. Let me read the rest.”
“Okay. I get to the venue and register etcetera. Pairings go up, blah blah blah.”
“I recognized my first opponent, but I don’t know him by name. I also am not sure who he’s friends with and what kind of deck he likes to play. He’s basically a stranger as far educated guesswork goes.”
“You already wrote this part, dude.”
“Oh. So I have.”
“Just let me read it.”
Round One – Psychatog run by a man with a Hawaiian shirt- Loss 1-2 (Loss, Win, Loss)
Game One: He plays a second turn Isochron Scepter imprinted with Counterspell. Well, that’s a clue I’m up against Psychatog. Wait, let me phrase that correctly: That’s a clue I’m losing to Psychatog. So much for Good Squirrel Karma. I Living Wish for Uktabi Orangutan on my turn, but I never get enough leverage to force him through or use him as a sponge before a second Scepter hits the table imprinted with (you guessed it) Counterspell. I wait to see the Tog before I scoop.
Game Two: My opponent is a little light on land and I am able to get the combo rolling fairly quickly. He doesn’t scoop. He wants to watch the combo in its entirety so that he has all the information before sideboarding. A wise man.
Game Three: This game goes into the extra turns, and the best I can hope for at that point is the draw. My last turn is turn four. I have a BoP on the table. I am holding Maggot Carrier, Soul Warden, Stifle, and two Cavern Harpies. I am staring at a Powder Keg with two counters, two Psychatogs and plenty of cards in his graveyard. I am at twelve life.
Bad play alert: I tap the Bird for White to pay for Soul Warden. He counters it.
I obviously made a mistake here. The better play is to drop the Maggot Carrier and leave the bird untapped since what I really need is two blockers. The life loss from Maggot Carrier would not have mattered. It did not make a difference in the game, since countering one creature is as good as countering the other, but it was an error on my part. All of this came about because I didn’t do the logical thing and carefully count my opponent’s graveyard. Instead, I estimated he had enough to finish me off, but still played as if saving one life point through Soul Warden or Stifle would help me survive. That’s just poor play.
Wanting an outcome to be possible and having it be possible are two different things. Don’t waste everyone else’s time.
“Dude, you’re kinda hard on yourself there, aren’t ya?”
“Not at all. The information was right there for me. I just had to ask my opponent to see his graveyard and count. Not doing so achieved nothing but holding the tournament up for another minute or so while we played out the last couple of turns.”
“He has to show you his graveyard?”
“Yes. Of course he does.”
“Man, I wouldn’t let you see it.”
“You’d have to, Jack. It’s in the rules.”
“I’d punch you in the face first.”
“That’s also in the rules.”
“I can’t punch you in the face?”
“No. It’s against the rules. And you’re too slow.”
“I’m not slow, dude. I’m faster than you are.”
“Yes, but I’m old.”
“That’s your excuse for everything, loser. This story isn’t getting any shorter. What happened next?”
“Well, I got some water and thought about my little screw up at the end of the first match. Then, I moved on. Pairings went up, I went to my seat and prepared to defend my position in the ‘Echs One’ bracket.”
“Dude, you should start a band called the Echs Ones.”
“Jack, do you want to hear this or not?”
“No way. You wrote this part, too. See?”
“Huh. Let me see that.”
Round Two – Mesmeric Orb/Tinker run by a guy who knows how to have fun – Win 2-0 (Win, Win)
Game One: He gets the second turn Isochron Scepter (heart attack imminent) and imprints it with Enlightened Tutor (heart attack averted). He Tinkers for a Mesmeric Orb soon after, and I am intrigued. I combo out before things get too interesting. He seems amused by it once all the priority passes are clarified. Is he looking for the best window to disrupt me? Hmm.
Game Two: He plays an early Orim’s Chant to delay my progress. My karma is just good enough to keep that spell and Isochron Scepter from showing up in his hand at the same time. I am so glad I didn’t hit that squirrel. Two Orbs are on the table by the end of the game, but none of my important pieces end up running through the mill. I am able to end it without too much trouble. This match ended up a one-sided affair, but I really liked my opponent’s deck and may build a type II version to screw around with on Friday nights. It looks like a lot of fun.
“He obviously decided the environment was so degenerate that coming to the table with something he would enjoy playing took precedence.”
“I’d say so, dude.”
“Of course, he had some nastiness in that sixty card stack. Orim’s Chant under Isochron Scepter is as subtle as an iceberg. But think of the effect multiple Mesmeric Orbs. I had to put four cards in my graveyard after untapping two lands with Cloud of Faeries. This was just after putting six cards in there during my untap step. That’s a lot of a deck. Add Brain Freeze under a Scepter and you’ve got something. Maybe not something great, but something that will bother people.”
“I always say annoyance is its own reward. So you held your ground, dude. Great. Who was your next opponent?”
“I finally was paired with an opponent I know. Of course, he’s a really, really good player. My rating looks like a shoe size compared to his, but at least I know him.”
“Last year he played Psychatog in this format. I was fortunate enough to be sitting across from him when he received probably the worst draws ever from an Extended Psychatog deck. Ever. I mean bad, evil draws.”
“Happens to the best, dude. Part of the game.”
“I was certain I was about to be on the wrong end of revenge.”
“Dead man shuffling. I get it, dude.”
“All right, all right. The point is I know him well enough and have run into him enough times that I had a sense he might be playing something more interesting than Psychatog. He tends to play decks that are on the top tier but not in the limelight, and creativity seems to be a big plus for him.”
“I guessed Mind’s Desire.”
Round Three – Mind’s Desire run by a dude in (I think) a Tarheels cap. – Win 2-1 (Loss, Win, Win)
Game One: I win the die roll and open with Cabal Therapy naming Chrome Mox. I get one, and my foe is holding Mind’s Desire (Japanese, in case that cranks your engine), Burst of Energy, Trade Secrets. On flashback, he has Tendrils of Agony as well. I hit him with another Therapy. Despite all the hand disruption, he has enough card drawing and tutoring coming his way that I am completely destroyed. There’s Grim Monoliths and Gilded Loti comin’ and goin’, mana floatin’, general Twiddlin’, Diminishing Returns, and all sorts of other Dear Lordery. Eventually he gets a Desire off (for at least ten, but maybe it was a thousand) he flips two more Desires and I scoop, lacking Stifle.
The Wall goes out for Stifle. The Viridian Shaman, a BoP, and a Living Wish go out for three Duress. Since I may not keep a combo piece I wish for due to his Diminishing Returns, I feel like I can lose one of them and still compete. Anyway, that still leaves me with three wishes. Good enough for Aladdin, good enough for me.
Game Two: I don’t see as much disruption this game, but I don’t need it. I have at least one Stifle in hand with an open Blue source most of the game, and my combo pieces come quickly. Not hitting the squirrel helps out again.
Game Three: My opponent is very active in this match, but his deck is just not coming through for him. He casts Diminishing Returns twice, and I keep getting Stifle back. Burning Wish, Tendrils, and maybe a Desire get removed from the game with the Returns, so I am feeling pretty good about that. I ask him if I am going to get another turn, and he says I will. Then, he Tinkers in a Goblin Charbelcher. Didn’t see that coming.
He doesn’t activate it and lets me have the turn. This is a small mistake in my opinion, as I am holding Aluren, Harpy, and Familiar. I Duress him before anything else, just to make sure I’m safe. He’s holding Tendrils of Agony, Mindslaver, and something else that doesn’t matter at this point. I take the Tendrils even though Mindslaver would be the better pick under normal circumstances. I start the combo, and he activates Charbelcher targeting the Raven Familiar to force me to use up another life point. I have to throw the Harpy back down to rescue my crow. I have already taken some pain from the bed of nails that is my mana base, so I can see his logic on forcing me into this. I am at nine life before I draw into the Savage to stop the bleeding.
This was a very fun match. It is akin to swimming in a river where the current is a little too strong, though. Wishing for a combo piece is still not a bad thing to do, but do not get too used to anything in your hand. You may soon be drawing seven new cards. The most important card to have in your hand is Stifle. Let that storm count get high and then shut down the trigger if you can.
“Yeah, but once you saw it you had to realize it could help you as much as wreck you, dude.”
“I did, actually. The problem with relying on that is you may very well not get another turn once DR is cast. I was lucky. I’m much more comfortable with the Stifle plan.”
“Hey, hold on a sec, dude. You held your ground again.”
“Yup. I just had to keep the streak going a couple of more rounds and I’d be set. I didn’t know my next opponent, though. And that’s not all.”
“What? You had to drop a deuce or something?”
“No, Jack. Don’t be silly. The problem was I had gotten a better look at the field. It really was a very mixed bag. Tinker was there, but my ‘assume something Tinker-based’ strategy needed to be revisited. But that will become clear once I tell you about the fourth round.”
“Too late. Read it, got the t-shirt, sold the movie rights.”
“You read it?”
“Dude, you really need to work on that memory. You finished it before I got here.”
Round Four – Red Deck Wins run by an Alabama man with a long drive – Loss 1-2 (Loss, Win, Loss)
Game One: I am under pressure very quickly from second turn Slith Firewalker. The Red Deck, my nemesis. As much as I don’t like facing Psychatog with Aluren, I’d rather run a field of Tog than face the Red Deck. I desperately dump Aluren into play and pray for a miracle. My opponent tries to play his Firecat as a Morph for free using Aluren’s effect EOT. The judge is called and sides with him. I immediately appeal.
Judge: It will be a while. We have to call California.
Me: That’s okay. I have time.
Another judge who happens to be around is asked about the ruling and offers the correct one. (Morph is an alternate casting cost, not the casting cost of the creature. Using the morph cost does not allow one to take advantage of Aluren’s effect.) Justice is served, so I die to Slith Firewalker a happy man.
Out go the Stifles, in come two Walls and a BoP. I must mulligan aggressively to win the match.
Game Two: My opponent keeps a hand that would be very strong if he drew a Red source, which he didn’t until far too late. My opponent wants to see how the combo works, so we go through the motions.
Game Three: My opponent goes to Paris twice and keeps his five cards. I keep my seven. Of course, he has the double-Wasteland, Pyrostatic Pillar hand. Maybe I should have hit that squirrel after all. I’ll bet that squirrel plays the Red Deck. Stupid squirrel.
By the time I have the Living Wish to go get Monk Realist, I have taken too much damage from beats and painful mana to have it make a difference. I get him anyway and put him in play, taking a total of six damage in the process (Yavimaya Coast for Green, City of Brass for White, four from the Pillar before it died). I was facing lethal damage anyway, so I decided to remove the card that most offended me.
I like looking back on this match because it is such a great demonstration of how important it is to assess your hand. My opponent may very well have won the game in two if he had a Red source. He took the chance and it bit him. He took fewer chances in the next game, opting to toss his hand back twice rather than keep cards he felt would not win the match. This is an area of my game that needs improvement.
“Dude, what is it with you and Mountains?”
“I don’t know, Jack. With the exception of my R/B control deck in Type II, Mountains hate me whether they’re on the other side of the table or mine.”
“You’d better buy a goblin some flowers or something, man. This can’t go on.”
“Yeah, you said it. Anyway, the best I could possibly salvage on the day would be 4-2, which would probably land me in the top 16.”
“Top 8 out of reach, eh?”
“Yeah. Red hates me.”
“Could have been worse, dude. You could have gone right back in the ring with Big Red.”
“Um…true. Did I already write this part of the report?”
“Uh-huh. Check it out.”
Round Five – Suicide Black run by a nice young man in a white shirt- Win 2-1 (Win, Loss, Win)
Game One: He only has one Swamp the entire game, but that Swamp cranks out three Carnophages. Well, he had a Wasteland early in the game, too. Mesmeric Fiend took my Living Wish (or Intuition, can’t recall). I am at one life when I topdeck Aluren for the win. At this point I am pretty certain that squirrel is in on the fix. In fact, I think he might be some kind of deity who is toying with my fate. I am hopeful this wrathful/playful god won’t allow me to lose to Sui Black.
Game Two: Mesmeric Fiend, double Duress, Phyrexian Negator make me die. Homocide black, I should think. I didn’t see his Duress first game, so I’m not sure if he beefed up his hand disruption package between games or if I have yet to see his sideboard cards.
Game Three: Here’s a cool trick for you kids at home. Cabal Therapy. Next turn Nantuko Shade. Flashback Therapy by sacrificing Shade. Cast Unearth and bring back Shade. Sound fair? Of course it is. Add Phyrexian Negator and I only have one turn to live. The squirrel comes through for me by letting me topdeck the missing combo piece (Wirewood Savage) and I win the match. Oddly enough, my opponent did not scoop despite having no way to stop me. He just stared at me with a blank expression until I announced Maggot Carrier. He may have been in shock.
“That’s not so bad, dude.”
“Winning a match when you were never in control of a single game is an interesting experience. I wouldn’t recommend it as a nutritious part of a balanced breakfast, though.”
“So it isn’t as high up on the fun meter as a pop tart?”
“Definitely not, Jack. So, for the second time in as many tournaments I find myself playing the last match to lift myself into the top 16, where nothing awaits me except glory.”
“There’s glory in the top 16 of a PTQ, dude?”
“No. Not really.”
“Oh. Well, I haven’t read this part yet if that lifts your spirits at all.”
“I haven’t read it, either. Here, take it. Tell me how I finished up.”
Round Six – Red Deck Wins run by another nice fellow from Alabama- Loss 1-2 (Win, Loss, Loss)
Game One: He wins the roll. He’s beating me down with Jackal Pup and Slith Firewalker. My first two lands are Hickory Woodlot. I play a premature Aluren holding two BoPs and two Intuition. I drop the Birds on his EOT. Double Intuition completes the puzzle.
The Stifles come out, the two Walls and BoP come in.
Game Two: We both keep seven but he has the fast hand and I can’t keep up the blockers.
Game Three: Paris to six. Should have gone to five. The hand I kept does not insure victory by turn 4, assuming no disruption. Better to lose having tried to get better cards than claim the moral victory of laying land over the first two turns and praying for the topdeck. This is where I need to emulate players such as my fourth round opponent instead, of a sack of corn.
“So, I walk into the most degenerate environment ever, and I only face one degenerate deck. No Tinker, no Belcher, and I still end up in the middle of the pack.”
“C’mon, dude. You can’t kick yourself over 3-3 with that deck.”
“Hey! I like this deck!”
“Dude. You’ve said yourself a bunch of times it’s not the deck to play in this format. Especially right now.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m going to sit here while you insult it. This deck loves me.”
“If that deck loved you it would beat The Red Deck.”
“It will happen someday. Maybe.”
“Maybe one day when you don’t main deck Stifle over your other Walls. Whoa, dude. I thought you were switching to Tog.”
“I probably should. I need to get in the habit of playing control decks, anyway. I’ve blatantly ignored them most of my magical life.”
“You could play The Red Deck.”
“No. That will never happen. But it was a good thing to play against it twice in this tourney. The top tier is going to contain RDW, so I’d better be honest about my chances against it with Aluren or any other deck. I think I can beat RDW, but I need to be far more aggressive about touring Paris. That’s key.”
“What about Tog?”
“Assuming I change decks, Tog is where I will most likely end up. It’s top tier, and I should be focusing on running control decks at this point.”
“Dude, so looking at the format in January, you think a lot of folks will play The Red Deck and Tog.”
“You were goose egg out of three against those decks, dude. All of your losses were to those decks.”
“Yeah. I should trade up. Tog or something else, maybe whatever the new Mind’s Desire deck will be. Or something more roguish. What do you think, Jack?”
“I think you should see somebody about this squirrel thing.”
“Dude, imagining a squirrel is some sort of divine trickster is not healthy. You should seek help.”
“Why would I do that? I’m not seeing anybody about you, am I?”
“Too shay, dude. Too-shay.”
So it was not to be today. All things considered, it could have been worse. The top 8 decks weren’t all broken crud, so that was nice to see. There was Rock, Red Deck Wins, Psychatog, Mind’s Desire, and something else I can’t quite remember. Much more diverse than one might have thought. Still, it would have looked better with Aluren.
Squee bounced up and down.”I sees a horsey, an’ a piggy, an’ a-“
“If you don’t shut up,” hissed Mirri,”you’ll see a kidney and a spleeny.”
-from the flavor text of Aluren