Lessons From Baltimore

Brian Braun-Duin shares the lessons he learned at SCG Open Series: Baltimore, where he narrowly missed making Top 8 in both Standard and Legacy.

Drain and brain. [Editor’s Note: Sigh . . . ] It’s a term I use to describe the process of Obzedat coming into play—drain—and then Obzedat subsequently smashing for five points of damage—brain. I’m not sure what the Obzedeezy’s favorite band is, but it’s probably Staind. He loves a good rhyme.

Drain and brain was also the goal for me last weekend at the StarCityGames.com Open Series in Baltimore. Both of my decks were designed with one singular purpose. You lose two life; I gain two life. In Standard, I played my B/W Midrange deck, which I like to call Orzhov Guildgate. At the center of that deck is Obzedat, Ghost Council, my favorite card in Standard and one of my favorite creatures of all time.

In Legacy, I decided to diversify my portfolio and play a deck I never played before. In fact, I am pretty sure this was only the second time I ever played a combo deck in any format ever. The first time, I went 1-3 in a Modern PTQ with Splinter Twin. This time, I played Ad Nauseam Tendrils, or ANT. At the center of that deck is Tendrils of Agony. You lose two life; I gain two life. Then it happens nine more times.

I had four win-and-ins over the course of the weekend. I lost two of them. I drew two of them unintentionally. They don’t call it a “win-and-in” if you can draw your way in. So, as I’m sure you can surmise, I didn’t make Top 8 of either event. I had four chances and didn’t capitalize. I was close. I couldn’t close.

I could walk away from the event bitter and angry. Instead, I chose to learn from the experience and walk away with some new viewpoints. I feel like I am a better player now than I was a week ago, and hopefully I can share what I’ve learned to help you improve as well.

Lesson #1: Don’t Run From Your Problems; Fix Them

About a week ago today, I had an article go up about a B/W Midrange list. In the period between when I wrote that article and when it showed up on the site, I could barely win a match with it. I played in numerous events on Magic Online, and I lost almost all of them. I was growing increasingly frustrated. I wanted to give up and call it quits on B/W. My record against the G/R Aggro deck was something like 2-15. Every match ended the same way. I would stabilize in game 3 at a low life total. I would need them to not draw a Thundermaw Hellkite or Hellrider for one turn. They would draw it, and I’d lose. Another close match. Another loss. How could they always be so lucky? How could they always have it?

I also kept losing to the new U/W Control deck that was becoming increasingly popular. If I didn’t stick a turn 3 Liliana. If Obzedat didn’t resolve. If I didn’t draw either card. There were so many situations where they would start to pull ahead and then resolve a huge Sphinx’s Revelation, and after that I couldn’t possibly win anymore.

Now, I’m not saying you can solve every problem. The nuns in The Sound of Music never figured out how to solve a problem like Maria. I know that Big Red deck I was playing a while back couldn’t possibly solve a problem like Predator Ooze with Unflinching Courage on it. I could never solve the question of which flavor of ice cream to get at Baskin Robbins when I was a kid. Some problems are unsolvable.

It turns out that both of the problems I had were solvable. Interestingly enough, they were both solved by the same card. Now, if I had just given up on it and moved on, then I would have never have figured it out. I would have told people that the B/W deck was bad and that it couldn’t beat U/W or G/R. “Don’t play it.”

It turns out that I really liked this deck though. Not only did I like it, but I had invested a lot of time into it. I had written an article about it. I was determined to fix it. I looked through every Standard-legal card that was black, white, or colorless. I wrote out a list of all the ones I could conceivably consider playing. I trimmed the list down to a reasonable size. I started testing.

One of those cards was Blind Obedience. I wasn’t losing to G/R’s creatures. They would all die eventually. I was just losing to the quick burst of damage they would provide before I had a chance to deal with them. It was the three hasted damage from Flinthoof Boar. It was the three extra damage from Hellrider. That damage would keep adding up until eventually I would stabilize at around three life but would be dead to any big creature off the top. They have a lot of big creatures to draw off the tizzy. I lost a lot.

Blind Obedience changed everything. Now Strangleroot Geist comes into play tapped. Now if it sacrifices to tap down my Desecration Demon, it can’t also attack. Flinthoof Boar? Hellrider? Thundermaw Hellkite? Tapped. Blind Obedience was like the spirit of Evan Erwin caged in a two-mana enchantment—tapping those cards so you don’t have to.

Blind Obedience moved from the sideboard to the maindeck. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I started also winning a lot more against the U/W deck. Against that deck, it’s almost impossible to successfully attack them with my creatures. If I attack with Obzedat, it will simply die to a Celestial Flare or get removed by an Azorius Charm followed by a counter on the way back down. If I send in a Geralf’s Messenger or Mutavault, it will be ambushed by a Restoration Angel. I was getting in awkward board states where I had to try to find a way to beat them without being able to profitably attack. That’s not a good plan against a deck that plays four Supreme Verdicts and can easily dig through their entire library.

That’s not the case anymore. Now I just have to cast spells. Each spell is going to deal an additional point to them. They have no pressure and give me nearly infinite time to win, especially when I’m gaining a point of life each time I cast a spell. Something as simple as a resolved Obzedat that never attacks along with a Blind Obedience can drain them out of the game regardless of how many Revelations they cast. In fact, the first game I cast a Blind Obedience against U/W, I ended the game at over 50 life. My opponent resolved three massive Sphinx’s Revelations and ended the game dead with less than twenty cards in their library. Obedience and Obzedat obliterated them.

An early Blind Obedience won me both games I played against U/W Control in Baltimore. In game 1, I was able to drain him out with it while he struggled to hit the land drops he needed to play big Revelations. In game 2, he had a Ratchet Bomb on two but opted to save it and use it to deal with a later Underworld Connections instead. Blind Obedience dealt him a lot of damage that game, and it also allowed my Mutavaults to get in some free points of damage when I knew he had Snapcaster Mage in hand since it enters play tapped.

Another problem I was having with the deck was that Lifebane Zombie was absolutely terrible and did literally nothing every time I cast it. That solution was also pretty easy. I cut the card and never missed it. Vampire Nighthawk has been leagues better, and I haven’t regretted the decision for a second.

I’ve gotten a lot of weird looks and questions about my deck. “So you’re a B/W deck that doesn’t play Unburial Rites, Lingering Souls, Vault of the Archangel, or Sorin? You’re a Restoration Angel deck that doesn’t play Lifebane Zombie or Sin Collector? Not even in the sideboard?” Frankly, though, none of those cards are good in this deck (besides Sorin in some matchups), and it took a lot of time, practice, and dedication to solving my problems to figure that out.

I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.

For reference, here are the lists I played last weekend. My Legacy deck was very similar to a list that Carsten Kotter wrote about a few weeks ago. The only changes I made to his list were cutting two Sensei’s Divining Tops for two Preordains and altering the sideboard some.

Lesson #2: Don’t Give Up

It’s game 3 of round 1 of SCG Standard Open: Baltimore. I have a Liliana of the Veil on two counters. I have two Vampire Nighthawks and a Disciple of Bolas in play. I have three cards in hand (all Swamp). My opponent has no cards in hand, six lands in play, and that’s it. I’m at 32 life. He’s at eight life.

His next draw steps are Thragtusk, Unflinching Courage, Assemble the Legion, Thundermaw Hellkite, Arbor Elf, Selesnya Charm, and then another Assemble the Legion.

Thragtusk blanks my Liliana. Unflinching Courage races my Nighthawks. Assemble puts a resilient threat into play. Thundermaw taps down my team and lets him gain life with his Unflinching Couraged creature without losing it to a Nighthawk. The Charm lets his 1/1 token trade with a Nighthawk, and then the second Assemble just ices the game in case I draw an Oblivion Ring for the first.

I draw eighteen of my 25 lands, never cast another relevant spell, and slowly die to his Assemble the Legion.

I was very frustrated after this match. I couldn’t believe how unlucky I had gotten. If he doesn’t rip four amazing spells in the perfect order in a row. If I draw a single relevant card (any Obzedat, any removal spell for the Couraged creature, any Oblivion Ring for Assemble). If this. If that.

Now, my opponent was a great sport, and despite the poor outcome I actually enjoyed our match, in no small part to his friendliness. It’s not his fault that I drew terribly or that he had the cards he needed to pull it out. Still, I couldn’t help but be very frustrated by it.

After my abysmal record against Thundermaw Hellkite decks on Magic Online leading up to this event, I was devastated. I just couldn’t beat those decks, even with a huge board advantage. My deck sucked. Magic sucks.

At some point, I decided to just suck it up. Instead of moping about my loss, I decided that I couldn’t control variance, and I was just going to play my best and see what happened. Later that weekend someone approached me and asked me how I deal with losing early in a tournament. Honestly, it’s not easy. The easy road is to give up. Your tiebreakers are going to be terrible, and you can’t lose again all day.

The solution is to not worry about it. If your attitude about Magic is to just play your deck as well as you can and see how things turn out and simply not worry about the end result, you will perform a lot better. The tournaments where I don’t have big expectations, where I don’t have something to prove, where I just let things fall how they will are the tournaments I perform the best at.

The tournaments where I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well are generally the ones where I fail. Going into the tournament, I felt pressured. I wanted this deck to be good, and the test of whether or not it was good was going to be how I fared here.

After losing round 1, the pressure was off. From then on, I was just going to play the best I could and see how things went.

In game 3 of round 2, I had my opponent at two life. I drew six lands in a row after he had drawn two consecutive removal spells for my two Obzedats and then an Aetherling to pressure me. I could feel it slipping away from me the same way it did in round 1. I was so far ahead I couldn’t possibly lose, and now here I was losing.

This time I drew the Sign in Blood the final turn to kill him.

Eight rounds later I was 8-1 and playing for Top 8. Never give up.

Lesson #3: Pay Attention To The Little Things

I have a problem that happens a lot. Sometimes I get so caught up in the big picture and overarching strategy I want to employ in a game that I lose sight of the minor details. Only they aren’t always so minor.

I’m sure anyone who has played Legacy can relate to a situation where you’ve set up a perfect plan to win the game through the cards your opponent has. You’re going to stabilize at one life and win the following turn. You play your cards in the right order, and then you go to crack a fetchland so you can find the land you need to activate your Deathrite Shaman.

Then you realize that you forgot to count the damage from your fetchland into the equation. Now you’re just dead.

I had a few awkward situations come up for me last weekend. In a game against my final opponent in Standard, I cast an Obzedat off of three B/W duals and two Mutavaults. In this deck, I have grown accustomed to the fact that if I have two white sources I can cast Obzedat. In fact, the only situation where it’s not possible is this exact scenario when I have both of my two Mutavaults in play. Regardless, I should have planned ahead for this situation by playing an Isolated Chapel the prior turn instead of my second Mutavault. Making repeated mistakes like this can lead to a game loss and could end up being the end of your tournament.

Likewise, I had an awkward situation in Legacy. There was a turn where my opponent played an extra land, and it wasn’t noticed until he pointed it out the following turn. Honestly, it’s easy to see how this could happen. A lot of things can happen in any given turn of Legacy, and sometimes you simply just miss a minor detail like that. Or at least I would agree with that in a normal circumstance.

In this case, it happened on turn 1. Yep. My opponent played two lands, a Lotus Petal, and then cast a Show and Tell to put in Emrakul on turn 1. I was so focused on how I was going to find a way to beat Emrakul that I simply didn’t even realize that he played two lands on turn 1. He was the one who pointed it out and it’s clear he had no intention of cheating me and simply made a mistake, but this situation could still have easily been avoided if I had just paid attention.

After a ten-minute judge call, we were able to reverse the game back to the point prior to the Emrakul, and I ended up winning the game despite taking a hit from the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The floor judge ruled that the situation was not reversible, though, and if my appeal had not been successful, then my opponent would have been left with a turn 1 Emrakul, and I would have lost.

Pay attention to the details.

Lesson #4: Don’t Lose To The Clock

In round 10 of the Standard Open and in round 9 of the Legacy Open, I ended up picking up an unintentional draw. Both of those draws knocked me out of the Top 8. I had no clue that it was even possible for me to Top 8 in Legacy since I was X-2 going into the last round, but it just goes to show that anything can happen. Sometimes multiple tables decide to play it out when they can easily draw into Top 8 and 7-2 is good enough.

Had I simply played faster, it’s possible that I could have ended up in the Top 8 of both events. Playing slowly and running into clock issues is a problem I have dealt with in the past. I honestly thought that I was over it at this point in time, but that is apparently not the case.

I was playing a deck in Legacy that I was not terribly familiar with, and as a result I spent a lot of time tanking on how to play out my turns. Granted, that deck was Storm, so it didn’t matter most of the time that I took a while to figure out the right lines of play since the game would then end immediately afterward one way or another. However, in the final round in a very grindy matchup, it did matter. While it’s unclear who would have won the game, as my opponent had a great hand, I still had no chance of making Top 8 with a draw. If I had simply played faster, I would have at least given myself a chance.

On a similar note, always ask a judge for a time extension any time your match is stalled for any reason. In my feature match on camera in the final round of Standard, we had a judge call that lasted for a few minutes when I cast Obzedat off the wrong mana. While not 100%, I am fairly certain that we were not awarded a time extension for the period it took them to correct that problem. The only time extension we had was the one you get for the time it takes them to get the video ready before game 1 begins.

That extra five minutes could have been enough time to play a game 3. If my opponent stalls on three lands and never casts a spell, the game could certainly end by then. There are plenty of scenarios where even a slow, grindy deck like B/W could win in five minutes. Desecration Demon hits pretty hard against an opponent who isn’t playing stuff.

The moral of the story here is to keep track of how much time is left in the round and don’t let yourself run out. I’d rather lose to my opponent than lose to the clock. A draw is often the same as a loss.

Lesson #5: Trust Your Gut Instinct

There were a lot of periods throughout the event where I felt like my opponent had a card. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why, but I just knew they had the card. A lot of times, your gut instinct picks up on things that your conscious mind might miss. It could be a physical tell; it might be the way your opponent paused when they drew a card; it could simply be that any other card would have already been cast by that point in the game. Whatever it is, I have found that I should just always trust my gut. If I think my opponent has a card, they probably do.

I can think of three times over the course of the weekend where my gut was screaming that my opponent had a particular card. All three times they had the card. Twice I ignored my gut feeling. I lost both of those games. The third time I followed it and won. All three of those games happened on camera, and I actually had a chance to go back and watch them.

The first was against my G/R Aggro opponent in round 5. He made a slight noticeable pause on turn 2 or 3 when he drew a card. That put the idea of Bonfire in my mind. Later on in the game, I couldn’t remember why I thought he had a Bonfire; I just knew that he did. There was a turn where he played a Strangleroot Geist and attacked into my Restoration Angel. Now, I know that G/R Aggro generally doesn’t play any copies of Bonfire, opting instead for Mizzium Mortars, and I didn’t want to lose my Angel to a Ghor-Clan Rampager, which is the most likely reason for why he would send a Strangleroot Geist into a Restoration Angel. Yet I just knew he had a Bonfire. I blocked. He played Bonfire post-combat. I drew my fifth land the following turn to cast Obzedat and won shortly thereafter.

The next was against Ali Aintrazi the very next round. I have a long history with Ali. For one, I have never beaten him before in a sanctioned match. Before I had ever made Top 8 of an Open, Ali knocked me out in not one but two win-and-ins. He also smashed my dreams in a Sealed PTQ once by splashing a True Conviction off of four Plains and a Gold Myr and brutalizing me both games with it. Ali won that PTQ.

An easy splash.

Ali and I were also roommates for a period of time, and he actually gave me the push I needed to start losing weight. Between the two of us, we both lost 100 pounds. We shed an entire adult human combined. I consider it to be a huge accomplishment for both of us, and I know that I couldn’t have done it without his help.

With that being said, I broke my winless streak against Gerry Thompson at the Invitational, and I was determined to break my winless streak against Ali here at this Open. In the first game, we reached a board state where he had a Jace, Architect of Thought on three counters and two open mana. I had an Obzedat come back into play and a decision to make of whether or not I should attack his Jace with it. For some reason, my gut was screaming that Ali had an Azorius Charm. I thought about it for a while and rationalized that Azorius Charm isn’t the kind of card Ali typically likes to play, opting instead to go with bigger and flashier effects.

He had the Azorius Charm and followed it up with a Tamiyo to lock down my fifth land and keep me from recasting Obzedat. I lost that game. I did end up winning the match, thanks to a timely Disciple of Bolas in game two and a turn 3 Liliana he couldn’t answer in game 3 that quickly ultimated. Curse broken.

When watching the replay of this match, I could see why my gut picked up on the Azorius Charm. Ali deliberately left open two mana both that turn and the prior turn, and he paused for a second when I attacked his Jace with a Vampire Nighthawk and a Restoration Angel the prior turn, suggesting that he was considering playing the Charm then. My gut figured it out, and I should have listened.

The final scenario was in the penultimate round against Jund. My opponent had a board of two Huntmaster of the Fells, a Scavenging Ooze, and a Thragtusk. I had an Obzedat come back into play and bring me up to four life. I drew a Mutilate for turn with three Swamps in play. I could cast Mutilate and wrath his board of everything except the Beast he would get from Thragtusk. For some reason, I decided to attack with Obzedat, cast Mutilate, and then blink out Obzedat. My gut told me that one of the two cards in his hand was a dead Bonfire. I ignored it, didn’t leave back Obzedat to block, and then died the following turn to an attack and that Bonfire.

When watching the video, I can figure out why my gut put him on Bonfire. If it was anything else, there is a decent chance he would have cast it already. Bonfire simply makes sense as a card that’s left stranded in his hand.

The moral of the story is that your gut is right. Don’t ignore it.

Lesson #6: Look To The Future; Don’t Dwell On The Past

I feel like I played better Magic last weekend than I have ever played before. I really do. I certainly made plenty of mistakes, but I also made a number of very good plays that let me win matches I don’t think I would have normally won. I think my game 2 in round 10 of the Standard Open and my game 3 against Chris Pikula in round 6 of the Legacy Open were two of the best games I have ever played. [Editor’s Note: Easily two of the best I have ever covered.] I somehow managed to win both of those games when it seemed like my opponent was an overwhelming favorite. I took some unconventional lines of play in those games, but it paid off. Both of them were on camera, and I recommend watching them because they really were some excellent games of Magic (and not just because I won). You can find them here and here.

Despite playing my best Magic, I didn’t end up in the Top 8 of either event. I could look back and say, “I truly played my best, and it wasn’t good enough. I’m not good enough at Magic to win.” I could look back and say, “I’ve made Top 8 of these tournaments before. I was playing better this weekend, and I didn’t Top 8. I must be unlucky.”

The fact is that it doesn’t really matter. Regardless of the reasons, nothing I can do will alter the reality of how I finished last weekend. What I can do is look at those results and figure out how I can use that information to help me moving forward. That’s the key part.

Did I lose because I made too many mistakes? I’m not sure, but if that’s the case, how can I prevent those mistakes in the future? Did I lose because of variance? I don’t know, but I can’t control it, so there’s no point dwelling on it.

The only thing I can do is move on. And move on I will. I learned a lot from last weekend. I learned about my decks and how to improve them; I learned about how to be a better player; I learned how to better handle defeat. Most importantly, I learned that there are a limited number of factors you can control in a game of Magic. The best you can do is to play those as well as you can and just let the cards fall where they may.

They may not fall in your favor. But if you keep working, keep trying, and keep struggling to improve, one day they will.

Will it happen for me next weekend in Cincinnati? I don’t know, but I’m certainly going to give it my best shot. That’s the best I can offer, and whether it’s good enough remains to be seen. I can only hope it is.

And if it isn’t, then I will accept it and move on.

Brian Braun-Duin
@BraunDuinIt on Twitter
BBD on Magic Online