Howdy doo! My name is Daniel Nguyen. I play Elves! I hail from the hallowed grounds of Renton by way of Bellevue just outside of Seattle, the sacred home to our beloved Wizards of the Coast. I got eighth place at SCG Legacy Open: Seattle last weekend, and I played to a seventh-place finish at a SCG Legacy Open in Seattle last April.
As you can see from my Top 8 photo, I am a fan of the card Boldwyr Intimidator. He is our official team mascot. One of our team’s founding members, Jordan Aisaka, used to chant "cowards can’t block Warriors" right before he made a risky play. After all, risky plays are the most rewarding. It was a way of reminding himself that sometimes you just have to go for it. Warriors do not fear defeat. They only fear a death absent glory. And cowards never win. The Boldwyr crew has adopted "Cowards Can’t Block Warriors" as a kind of Litany Against Fear to keep us pumped during tournaments. Ever since our little team was created about two years ago, Jordan has been my most reliable tournament partner and one of my closest friends.
Are you brave enough to block me?
I have been playing Legacy since before Legacy was a thing. It has always been my only format. We gray-bearded elder mages once called it Type 1.5. I have always had an Elf deck built and ready to battle ever since I discovered the stupid Timmy power of Priest of Titania + Timberwatch Elf + Staff of Domination. I was off to the forest and haven’t looked back since. This was back in the days when Volcanic Islands retailed for $25 and I bought a Force of Will from a mall for $12. The meta was essentially Landstill versus, Goblins and people called for the banning of Goblin Lackey.
So when I sold my collection (sans Elves) a year before the creation of the SCG Open Series circuit, you better believe I still loved those Elves. And when I decided to get back into the format after the SCG phenomenon (which I really do appreciate and love) made buying back into that format something of a nightmare, you better super believe I really, really loved those green little Elves because that was the only deck I had! I used Elves to win my way back into the format. It took quite some time, but now I can build almost anything—yet I still continue to play some variation of Elves. There’s some deeper life lesson in there about finding contentment in yourself and not in aspirational possessions. Or something. But who has time for that? Let’s get to the tournament and the list!
- 2 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Wirewood Symbiote
- 4 Quirion Ranger
- 1 Viridian Shaman
- 1 Birchlore Rangers
- 4 Heritage Druid
- 4 Nettle Sentinel
- 4 Elvish Visionary
- 2 Craterhoof Behemoth
- 4 Deathrite Shaman
Elves just so happens to be an excellent choice in the current Legacy metagame. It has the tools to beat nearly any deck and can do amazing things with the right hands. I like the flexibility it allows as far as game plans go. I can switch from a grindy value-minded game plan immediately into a combo finish once I find or create the proper opening. Where other combo decks might rely on Silence or discard, Elves can bait out countermagic with proper play and a sick read or two without having to change the composition of the deck too much.
When you combo off, if you fizzle, you’re still left with a bunch of dudes on board to attack with. Elves is also the best home for Deathrite Shaman with all the untap effects available to you. You get an insane amount of value from opponents missing on-board interactions as well. Even experienced players can miss the many small tricks that this deck contains. But that value may diminish if the deck becomes more popular. The deck is also fairly complicated to pilot optimally, so that may hold back the adoption rate a bit.
After experimenting with several builds, some of which went all in on four Birchlore Rangers to make the deck faster at the cost of resilience, I took a few cues from Reid Duke (THE GUARDIAN OF GAEA) and his winning list and decided to bring a more stable build to last weekend’s SCG Open. Reid’s mana base is geared toward minimizing the need to mulligan, which can be troublesome for Elves. Current builds only run thirteen or fourteen real lands (we are excluding the four Gaea’s Cradles and one or two Dryad Arbors, as you never want those as your only opening land).
Going up to twenty lands allows you to keep more hands at the cost of hurting your Glimpse chains later, but if you can’t get into the game enough to Glimpse because you mulled to four, then the possibility of a poor Glimpse chain is really a moot point. Where Reid ran the twentieth land, I ran a Viridian Shaman. While testing this build I kept track of the times when I would have preferred that Shaman be a land instead, and those times were too few for me to make the switch to twenty. I’m not sure if that is a scientific way of making wizardly decisions, but I tend to play with my gut more than my head sometimes.
(Aside/#Humblebrags/MTG Advice: I tend to do well with whichever build of Elves I am running at the time, and I have run every build under the sun. Your exact 75 is much less important than your understanding of your deck, your understanding of the format, and your ability to read your opponent. Focus on those first and worry less about perfecting your 75. You will win more games because of play skill than because of optimal deckbuilding.)
One addition people may not be ready for is Ruric Thar, the Unbowed. When I first saw this guy suggested on The Source, I thought it was kind of wishy-washy. But after enough testing he has proven his slot. Ruric Thar’s biggest problem is actually his cuteness factor. He has what I call "Notion Thief Syndrome" aka The Danger Of Cool Things. When Ruric Thar is good, he is extremely good. But when he is bad, he is the worst thing ever to be printed on cardboard. You just have to rid yourself of the impulse to board him in every chance you get. People like stories. That’s half the reason we play Magic instead of chess. And Ruric Thar is definitely a story maker. But making stories and winning games at the same time can be tricky.
My hard-learned lesson about Ruric Thar—bring him in only against decks that have trouble removing or blocking him (i.e. VERSUS COMBO ONLY). That seems quite simple, but my story-making urge has taken me down dark and embarrassing paths. I once had a Ruric Thar killed by a blocking (since Ruric Thar must attack) Germ token plus Dark Confidant. And by a Delver plus Bolt. That is miserable value for something that very well could have been a Natural Ordered Progenitus. Don’t get greedy when dealing with an Ogre Warrior. That said, if your meta is infested with hard combo, then you should think about running Ruric Thar in the main.
Cowards actually can block this guy. And that can get awkward.
Going forward, if U/W/R Delver becomes the de facto U/X/Y deck the way Shardless BUG has been for a while now, then Elves will need to adapt. I feel like the U/W/R Delver matchup is a problem, while the Shardless BUG matchup is essentially a bye. This shift in the metagame if it indeed is happening may force Elves players to rethink the way they approach the format.
R1: Death and Taxes 2-0
R2: Junk Depths 2-0
R3: Shardless BUG 2-1
R4: U/W/R Delver 0-2
R5: Merfolk 2-1
R6: Tin Fins 2-0
R7: Ad Nauseam Tendrils 2-1
R8: Omni-Tell 2-0
R9: Affinity . . . ?
I felt that I played well for the most part, although I will admit to running fairly hot against the combo decks I faced while they ran pretty cold, but sometimes that’s the only way for Elves to beat a faster combo deck. I’ll also admit to somehow winning on turn 2 much more often than I statistically should.
I got value all day from people not seeing on-board interactions and specifically from my most favorite land: the FTV printing of Dryad Arbor. People attacked into it only to see me bounce before damage with Quirion Ranger. Or they miscounted how much mana I had access to via Gaea’s Cradle and Quirion Ranger’s untap effect. Or they forgot that I could flashback Cabal Therapy via fetch land into Dryad Arbor. The land is deceptive, as is the entire deck.
I can also attack through a Blood Moon! Wheee!
My buddy Jordan was featured for a deck tech with Glenn Jones and discussed his deck in a very reserved and calm way, which is not at all normal for the usually animated Jordan. Before that interview I don’t think I had ever once heard Jordan quietly speak the words "Izzet Charm." He only knows how to shout them. But it was cool to see a close friend receive that kind of honor while also doing well in the tournament (he was 4-0 at the time). Jordan is one of the most competitive people I know, and his desire to win fuels my own. Today was going to be good!
The Gentleman’s Agreement
Going into the last round of Swiss, I was 7-1 and needed to win in order to get into the Top 8. I might be able to draw in. The math was fuzzy. Jordan had just dropped a match and was X-2. I was told that only X-1s could make it in, so that was unfortunate. I’m horrible at tiebreaker math, so I rallied a couple mathy friends and gathered their input after standings were posted. One person said I should take the draw. One person said I should play it out. I wasn’t sure what to do.
At the previous Open in Seattle last April, I was placed in the exact same situation with the exact same record and was luckily paired against a legendary Fishy mage, CML, who plays at my local haunt of Card Kingdom. We recognized (but did not at the time really know) each other, so we happily drew even though I have never lost a sanctioned match to Merfolk and believe the match to be heavily in my favor. But CML was a face I recognized, and hey, my mathy friend told me that a draw was a fairly solid lock for the both of us to make Top 8. And it worked out! I drew into seventh, and everything was hunky dory. With that in my mind, I was somewhat inclined to follow that mathy friend’s advice again and try to draw in. But then somebody who had scouted told me what the matchup was: Affinity.
I got this.
I have tested the matchup, and I believe I can only lose to that deck if my sleeves burst open and my cards spontaneously combust. This is basically a bye. I’m going to make Top 8.
I walked over to the off-camera feature table and prepared to meet my opponent. He came over, and I recognized him from other events in the Pacific Northwest area. I remember him as being somebody I Don’t Not Like, aka a cool dude. This felt just like the last time I was trying to draw into Top 8 with CML.
We greeted each other, and what happened next became my primary motivation for writing this article.
My opponent sat down and knew what was up. We had to discuss the potential draw. I told him that I was shaky on the math. He offered what he called a "Gentleman’s Agreement" by which we would play out the match as normal and if during our match we learned that the match below us on the standings ended in a specific way we would agree to draw. This would lock the two of us for the Top 8. I asked my mathy friend if this was so, and he along with a slew of other onlookers agreed that the math was correct.
I looked over to the relevant match beside us—it was Jordan versus his opponent Martin under the cameras. I was told repeatedly that if Martin lost we could both draw in to the Top 8. All we had to do was play this out for a bit while waiting to see whether or not Martin lost. It was all on Martin, and then it was all on us. My opponent asked again if I would accept this Gentleman’s Agreement. I thought about it for a moment and tentatively agreed, "Sure, that sounds fine then."
You know, if they named these things more accurately, they might be called Back-Alley Dealings, Drug-Runner Pacts, or Shady Mafia Hitman Tea Time. Calling it a "Gentleman’s Agreement" made me feel like dishonoring this tenuous and vaguely illegal agreement would make me out to be a rude guy. And I don’t want to be a rude guy. I like to think of myself as a very nice person, sometimes to my own detriment.
Just then a pair of judges came rushing over and a healthy crowd gathered around to watch the spectacle of my confusion.
They informed me that determining the result of our match based on outside information, like the result of Martin’s match, was A Very Bad Thing. Granted, players are allowed to draw for any reason and at any time during a match. But seeking outside information once players have been seated is A Very Bad Thing. The judges did not want me to do this Very Bad Thing because they did not want to disqualify me from the event. This was expressed to me very clearly. But it was also expressed to me very not clearly. Allow me to further explain.
Martin’s match was less than four feet away from us. We were not allowed to seek outside information once our match had begun. But if Martin were to stand up dejectedly and hang his head and if my opponent should then decide to apropos of nothing turn to me and offer a draw, then that was perfectly fine and legal. But at no point were we allowed to inquire about the match taking place just inside our peripheral vision.
My opponent gave voice to this obvious and yet still very murky loophole. The judges, perhaps reciting exact rules text, repeated themselves. "You may not seek outside information, but you are permitted to draw at any time."
My opponent asked, "Do you get it?" and several spectators stared at me with heads cocked to the side and eyebrows ever so suspiciously raised. People knew not to say something, but something was definitely said.
My simple mind froze up, and a soliloquy began:
"DANIEL. CAN YOU READ THE WINKS FROM ALL THE INVISIBLE EYES AROUND YOU? THERE IS CODED LANGUAGE HERE. ARE WE GOING TO GET IN TROUBLE? IS THIS COLLUSION? WE AREN’T EVEN SURE WHAT COLLUSION IS. ALSO WE ARE HUNGRY."
I asked the most pressing question on my mind.
"So . . . am I in trouble?"
The judges explained again that I was not in trouble. In fact, they were trying to keep me out of trouble.
Okay. I was relieved. No angry judges here. Everything is swell. We were told to begin play, and we did. I won the roll, while my opponent mulled to five. I played an Elf, and he played a Memnite with no land drop. On my next turn I Glimpsed and started to get a little crazy. In the middle of my combo turn, Jordan called over to me from The Forbidden Zone and said simply, "Dan." I looked over, and his face was stone cold. Confused, I responded, "Hi," and turned back to my match.
My Glimpse turn was good to me, but I wasn’t able to secure the kill. I passed the turn. My opponent drew and passed. On my third turn I cast the Craterhoof Behemoth in my hand and attacked with a slew of Elves and a single Hoof. I didn’t bother counting, but some spectators did the math and it came out to something around 120 damage. Elves is stupid sometimes.
We went to sideboard, and I thought, "This is going pretty well. If I win, I’m in. If I draw, I’m in. And I certainly cannot lose now. No matter what happens, I’ll be in Top 8 again! That’s pretty cool." I boarded out a few one-ofs in place of Abrupt Decay to tag my opponent’s Cranial Platings. While shuffling up, Jordan called out to me again.
I looked over. His poker face was unreadable.
I’m not supposed to know what is going on over there! A judge was nearby, and there were plenty of spectators. I did not want to get in trouble here. I responded with another simple, "Hi," and turned back to my match. We presented and cut. My opponent was on the play. I kept Deathrite Shaman, Bayou, fetch land, Llanowar Elves, Elvish Visionary, and two Abrupt Decays—a perfectly fine keep. My opponent led with land, Mox Opal, Memnite, something, pass. I led with Bayou into Deathrite Shaman and pass. My opponent cast an Arcbound Ravager and then Thoughtseized me, so I lay my hand on the table. He tanked.
Beside us there was a commotion. Martin and Jordan had finished their match. Apparently Martin lost. Everybody turned to watch them stand up, and then everybody turned and stared at me in my lonely seat. A crowd of almost strangers gazed into my cowardly soul. A couple of them wore the same shirt as my opponent, so they must be teammates. There were a few people I recognized from previous rounds. A slew of quasi-familiar faces hung before me like a wall of painted portraits, and my opponent asked, with his Thoughtseize still in his hand:
"Would you like to draw?"
I don’t know! Would I? I feel like I can win this game. But my opponent is a nice guy I kinda recognize. CML was a nice guy I recognized, and I drew with him. Why does this feel so different? I choked out a few unintelligible syllables:
"Eh, urh, I don’t . . . know?"
My opponent recoiled as if I had just stabbed him in the heart.
"Really? You really don’t want to draw?" He looked like he had been lied to—about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and most of all our Gentleman’s Agreement.
I looked around at the silent crowd. Where had all my friends gone? I couldn’t ask for advice. I had been playing Elves very well all day, making a million small decisions that lead to the part where I crushed my opponents. So why was this so hard? I just wanted to be a nice guy to this other nice guy. Win or draw, I get into Top 8 either way. Should I draw with him, as I kind of agreed to do earlier? Or should I crush him and try to forget that pained look on his face along with the undeniable feeling that I was being a Bad Guy? I get into Top 8 either way.
What would you have done if you were in my position?
We still had not resolved the Thoughtseize. My opponent leaned in. "C’mon man. Do you want to draw?" I grit my teeth the way a child might while getting their first immunization. Actually, let’s be honest. Even as an adult I grit my teeth any time I see a needle. I lurched in my chair. The feeling of being a Bad Guy became overwhelming, and I extended my hand the way you might jump into a pool of cold water. Let’s get it done. Let’s be the nice guy. And let’s all move on with our lives. We shook hands. I signed the match slip. This was officially a draw. I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. The crowd vanished.
That sense of relief was equally matched by a sense of dread when I looked up from my match slip and saw Jordan waiting for me. He asked flatly, "Did you draw?" I said, "Yeah!" while thinking that it was pretty cool to Top 8 again. Instantly his face screwed up into a hard grimace, and he turned and walked away with his shoulders slumped. Now I was really confused. What was going on? I’d just made Top 8 of an SCG Open for the second time! Things were great, right?
I asked the crowd what was going on. Somebody then explained to me that Jordan needed me to win in order for his tiebreakers to work out. He was X-2, and if he won his match and I won mine, somehow the math worked out where he would be able to make it into the Top 8. Those cryptic calls he made to me during the last round were attempts at Vulcan mind melding. He was trying to tell me something without giving away outside information with tons of spectators and judges around. But I’m an idiot. And it didn’t register. I had unintentionally dreamcrushed my friend, locking him just out of Top 8 contention.
Saturday, the night of the Standard Open, we went out to eat with the Boldwyr team, and as we all headed back to our cars Jordan pulled me aside. Near midnight, in the parking lot of a mediocre diner, Jordan said to me, "Let’s go take down that Open tomorrow. You and me. Top 8." I didn’t think it could happen. Statistically speaking, it’s kind of unrealistic. But Jordan wanted that Top 8 more than anything. He had been looking forward to this event for months. When I first made Top 8 back in April, Jordan was so happy for me. I wanted him to have his turn so I could cheer him on too. And Jordan is a much better player than I am. It wasn’t too crazy to think we could Top 8 together as friends. It would actually be very cool. So I humored him. "Yeah dude. We will crush tomorrow."
I quickly packed up my things and went to find Jordan sitting hunched at a table. I stood behind him and put my hand on his shoulder.
"I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Nobody told me—"
"Just get away from me."
So I left.
He was upset with me, and I was upset with myself. It hurts to see a friend hurt. And it hurts even more to know that you are responsible.
I walked around, coldly accepting congratulations from some while explaining to others that this wasn’t actually all that great. I know this is just a silly card game we play, but people invest their time, money, and effort into this game. This is more than a hobby. It’s an entire subculture. For some people, it’s a living. For others, a passionate pastime. Any competitive player knows that losing sucks. But to win as Jordan did and still not make it, that sucks even more. And I understood his anger.
For many Legacy players, the SCG Open Series circuit is the highest peak they can climb. Legacy GPs are few and far between, and WotC doesn’t officially support Legacy as a Pro Tour format. So why do people play Legacy? Other than the cool decks and interactions, what’s the point? They play to have fun with friends, for community respect, and for the glory of victory in what many people believe to be one of the most skill-intensive formats. The lack of official WotC support makes Legacy more community based than any other format. When was the last time you heard of people holding unsanctioned Standard tournaments in creaky basements and getting 100 players to show up? Probably never. But that happens in Legacy.
Jordan already has friends in the community and the respect of accomplished players. What he wanted was the glory. He was so close to legitimately earning it for himself. And I robbed him of that.
The Top 8 was announced, and as promised I was in as eighth seed. We took our Top 8 photos and filled out the paperwork, but the whole time I was dreading the ride home. Jordan and I arrived in the same car. The journey back would be extremely uncomfortable.
I was paired against the U/W/R Delver player who beat me in the Swiss rounds. Actually, he didn’t beat me. He destroyed me. He demolished me. He left me for dead in a pile of dismembered Elven limbs and laughed while I cried out for mercy. As we shuffled up for the quarterfinal match, I did not expect to win, and as you can read here I definitely lost. My mind was not in that game, and I played terribly, eventually losing to an extremely obvious on-board interaction. The entire time I was grumpy and cursing under my breath at the situation I had caused in the previous round. I apologized to my opponent and to Glenn Jones, who had to sit there in silence while I fumed. This picture tells the whole story.
This is the face of a frustrated wizard. Or a constipated Bulbasaur.
After I finished my match and profusely apologized to everybody around me for being so unpleasant, Jordan found me and in that short interim had decided to make amends, although he was still clearly distressed by the whole situation. We apologized to each other, but I continue to feel terrible. I’m not upset that he was mad at me, although that was frustrating.
I’m upset that I threw away what could have been a really great moment. My impulse to be a nice guy and draw when I was winning took away Jordan’s dream of both of us making Top 8 of this event. I stole not just from him but from myself as well. I wanted him to Top 8 almost as badly as he wanted it himself. Sure, if I had won and if Jordan had made Top 8, I likely would have been the top seed with him at eighth, and we would have been paired against one another. But that is actually kind of cool. I would have been thrilled to battle with him in such a situation, but it didn’t work out that way.
The Warrior’s Way
If you were to run the same tournament ten times with all the same participants, you would likely have ten distinct results. The Top 8s you see posted on websites and message boards are the products of extreme variation. People run hot or cold or intentionally draw to play the numbers. Pairings are favorable or unfavorable, and then of course your deck can sometimes just not want to participate, mana flooding or mana screwing you while your opponent topdecks runner after runner. A million little events occur and fracture into millions of others and somehow a Top 8 is born. In this sense, a Top 16 decklist should be respected as much as a Top 8 decklist. So often the difference is due to simple tiebreaker math or some fuzzy draw calculus. Who knows?
In tournament Magic, nobody can blame you for looking out for yourself. If you choose to play it out regardless of what happens, you really can’t regret the outcome of that result. You played the game the way it was meant to be played. The judges told me that in a perfect world there would be no draws. They want tournaments to play out as if the best player had won every time. But draws are unavoidable. And competitive players will find a way to get any advantage they can.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t draw or that I’m now suddenly against the practice. Just know that when you draw to help the guy in front of you that inevitably hurts somebody else you may not be able to see. There are only eight slots after all. And the numbers will never deceive you. Only you can do that to yourself.
Jordan played well and did everything he could to win. My opponents in both the final round of Swiss and the quarterfinals both played well and did everything they could to win. I can even respect the request for a draw in the face of an unfavorable matchup. Although my Affinity opponent’s wishes led to this unfortunate result (for me and my crew but not for him or his crew), I can completely respect what he was doing. He was looking out for himself. I have no hard feelings about that. He was doing exactly what he should be doing in a competitive tournament—whatever was best for him.
But I did not do what was best for me. If I’d won, I would’ve been top seed going into the Top 8. Elves on the play for every match? That is a dangerous thing indeed. Forget for a moment that I would likely have been paired against Jordan. I made the wrong decision in a vacuum with incomplete information when I should have been able to make the correct decision with the same restrictions. Or failing that I should have just been a warrior and crushed all in my path for every possible advantage. At least then I could feel at ease with my decisions, as they would have lined up with the philosophy of any competitive Magic player. When glory and treasures are on the line, we should take the advice of the Warriors and the reality show celebrities and remember that "I’m not here to make friends; I’m here to win."
Should you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I urge you to adopt the Boldwyr creed and remember that Cowards Can’t Block Warriors. I took what was at the time the easier route—that of a coward—and made a choice based purely on my discomfort, and that will haunt me. Adopt the attitude of a Warrior. A Warrior fights first and foremost for himself. And there is no shame in that.
Cowards can’t block warriors. Warriors never die. Cowards cannot win.
I was a coward, Jordan. And I am sorry.
danyul on The Source
@marginaldan on Twitter