Lessons From London

London was no Barcelona. I didn’t expect it to be, since before my Top 8 in Barcelona I’d had plenty of practice and knew the format cold. I had tested every card, knew what I wanted to draft, and knew where I disagreed with other players and was happy to have them go the other way. Champions/Betrayers/Saviors is a different format, and I knew I was behind the curve. Presented for your edification are some of the lessons I learned – the hard way, sadly – at Pro Tour: London.

London was no Barcelona. I didn’t expect it to be, since before my Top 8 in Barcelona I’d had plenty of practice and knew the format cold. I had tested every card, knew what I wanted to draft, and knew where I disagreed with other players and was happy to have them go the other way. Champions/Betrayers/Saviors is a different format — and while I would have felt solid in a CCB Pro Tour, I knew I was behind the curve. Getting old and married and having a kid and starting a company will do that to you.

(Okay, I was still old before Barcelona — but Trish and I didn’t have a baby and I was taking a big chunk of time off from work, which let me practice almost as much as I could want.)

So why should you take lessons from a guy who went 2-4? Beats me; go ask the editor.

Here are some of the lessons I learned at Pro Tour: London. They aren’t all new, but just as Tal used to practice by reviewing basic endgames, the best lessons are worth learning over and over again.

The Scarce Resource
I’ve written a couple of articles about the scarce resource because I think it is an incredibly important concept and one that is seldom discussed in Magic theory. In simplest terms, the idea behind the theory is that whenever a set of resources is working towards a goal, there is one resource (occasionally two) that is relatively scarce and which thus determines the capability of the entire group. If you identify and attack that resource (or protect and enhance it if it’s your own), you will have a disproportionate impact.

If you look at the Sideboard coverage of my feature match against Itaru Ishida, you would almost think I had a chance in game one. I wasn’t, but I sure could have been if his draws had been reversed. I mulliganed to six, but it was an excellent six: two lands, Shinen of Life’s Roar, Kodama’s Might, Explosive Growth, and Rootrunner. A lured Kami with two pump spells can be a nightmare — especially for a deck like Ishida’s, which I knew (having been feeding him in the draft) was likely full of small Blue fliers, and once I hit four lands I’d have a Hill Giant that could soulshift back my Shinen while regaining the card I’d lost in the mulligan.

Persecute, Naming Ellis Then Ishida cast Mox, Dark Ritual, and Persecute, naming Green.

Okay, technically he just cast Psychic Spear…. But the effect was the same, because once the Shinen was gone my remaining cards weren’t just worse — they were meaningless, and in fact I don’t think I ever cast any of them. Without the Shinen to force blocks, my pump spells were just wastes of mana. Even assuming I hit all my land drops, my Rootrunner was just a Hill Giant in a fight where I was always going to be behind on tempo. I wouldn’t be able to force him to block and I certainly wouldn’t have the spare time to sacrifice it.

The Shinen was the link holding my hand together. In the plan to take out Ishida’s early drops (hopefully stranding some 1/1s and Ninjas in his hand), it was the scarce resource and by removing that one card Ishida did as much damage as a turn 1 Persecute would have.

Play Your Game
This is a pretty broad thing to say and it can be true in many different ways… but the thing I’m thinking of most is not allowing your opponent to push you around outside of the game. After losing to Ishida, I consoled myself with the likelihood that I wouldn’t be playing Katsushiro Mori, the other Japanese superstar at my table.

Welcome to the difference between “likelihood” and “certainty.”

Thankfully, my game one draw was better and my deck did what it was supposed to do — grab tempo and keep it until my opponent was dead. Game two, however, Mori tried especially hard to take the initiative himself, in ways that had nothing to do with Magic. He began by shuffling faster and then by playing faster. When I cast a Kabuto Moth on turn 4 (with one Forest untapped), Mori was untapping even before I said, “Go.” We clarified that it was, indeed, his turn — at which point he drew a card and attacked with his 2/1 flyer and marked my life total down by two, almost simultaneously.

Granted, it’s not often that a Kabuto Moth with summoning sickness blocks a 2/1, but it’s certainly not illegal either. Given the possibility of Ninjutsu on his part or Kodama’s Might on mine, I had every reason to think for a few moments before announcing that I was or wasn’t blocking.

Mori is obviously a strong player as well as someone who doesn’t speak fluent English. Either one of these might cause someone to choose not to make an issue of his rushing the turn — especially since I decided not to block in any case. Don’t let that happen to you. Instead, gratefully notice that he doesn’t have a Ninja (since he didn’t use it) but insist very clearly that he wait until you’re ready to move on to the next phase of the turn.

Keep all your Possibilities Open
In round one of the second pod, my opponent had what can only be considered a God deck. He dominated game one with Kumano, Master Yamabushi but his deck also included Ghost-lit Raider, two Waxmane Baku, two Moonlit Striders, Faithful Squire, etc., etc. After game one he commented on how good his deck was in that way that we sometimes do when the matchup feels like the other guy is playing Block Constructed and we’re playing Vintage.

Game two was extremely tense. I hit him hard with Genju of the Spires before he got his defense set up and got him down to two life. My board was Frostling, Burning-Eye Zubera, and Scourge of the Numai against his Kitsune Healer (with summoning sickness), and the-flipped-Faithful Squire-into-Kaiso, Memory of Loyalty (with two counters) and Ghost-lit Raider (without summoning sickness).

I swung and he made the natural block — Healer on Frostling, Kaiso on Zubera, Raider on Scourge. My goal at this point is mainly to get rid of both of the counters on Kaiso so I can kill his Healer (which otherwise makes Kaiso invulnerable). Getting rid of both seems pretty likely to happen — all I need to do is throw Frostling at Kaiso and he’ll surely save it and his Raider.

But is there something better?

There is. Instead of shooting Kaiso, I shot my own Zubera. With him at two life, this forced him to leave one of my creatures alive. He either had to spend a Kaiso counter on my Zubera, allowing it to live, or he had to use his Raider on my Zubera before combat damage so it would die with just three points instead of four — in which case my Scourge would still be alive. The resulting tempo gain was non-trivial in letting me re-establish my board position without allowing him to counter-attack in time.

Don’t Get Cocky
After losing game two, my opponent had seen something of what my deck could do, but naturally he still felt he had every chance of winning. Then I hit him with Psychic Spear on turn 2 of our next game. I hit Ghost-lit Raider, and suddenly his hand was just Shinen of Star’s Light. He topdecked a Blademane Baku and played it, and soon his two creatures were facing off against my Skullsnatcher and Frostling. He attacked with his first-striker; I let it in and swung back with both of my creatures. When he blocked my Skullsnatcher, I brought out Okiba-Gang Shinobi and it hit, forcing him to discard his last two cards.

Those cards were his fifth land and Kumano.

If he hadn’t attacked, that wouldn’t have happened. He would have been able to play Kumano — and as my deck’s only possible answer was Hanabi Blast, he would have had the game in hand. We didn’t talk about it, but it seems to me that he was so convinced he was going to beat me with his superior deck that when Kumano showed up he didn’t take the time to think of what could go wrong…. and thus left himself open to a rather obvious hit from a well-known common.

The end result was that instead of winning with Kumano, he suddenly had a lone 2/1 against my Shinobi in play and Frostling in hand. To make things worse, the rest of my hand was Scourge of Numai, Sokenzan Spellblade, and Kokusho…and I drew enough lands to play them.

And he would have gotten away with it if it wasn't for that Meddling MageSo you won, right? Unholy Pikula!

His draw from that point was something like Moonlit Strider, Waxmane Baku, Faithful Squire, spirit, removal spell, spirit, spirit, spirit. To my amazement, I was unable to do anything meaningful to him while he continued to swing for three in the air, drawing a spirit each and every turn to tap down Kokusho so I couldn’t even block. Sigh.

Still, if he hadn’t gotten cocky he wouldn’t have needed to show off his satanic pact.

Consider your Opponent’s Possibilities
Next round, I was again battling uphill. I lost game one but seemed to have turned game two around. My opponent’s hand was Plow Through Reito and an unknown card (I had hit him with Psychic Spear early on), and my board was superior to his, with a Kami of the Waning Moon to give fear and my loyal Shinobi waiting to empty my opponent’s hand if given the chance.

Unfortunately, I had two problems. Part of my superior board was Scourge of Numai with no Ogre to keep him company. The other problem was that I’d drawn four straight lands and was getting a bit desperate for something spiritcrafty, as trading a point a turn in the air is less fun when you’re also doing two damage to yourself and your opponent just played a Moonwing Moth.

I drew First Volley.

At this point I began to think, which is always a bad sign. For many turns I’d had to hold my team back because he would wreck me with Plow, but two of his key creatures had one toughness if he was out of mana (the Moth and Kitsune Loreweaver). Now he had just two mana available. If he tried to save the Loreweaver (or if he used the Plow), I could respond with First Volley and wreck him. So after careful thought of his most likely plays I sent my team in.

What happened? My opponent blocked, used one mana to save his Moth from my Kami, and let his Loreweaver die. Then on his turn, he swung in and killed me with the Plow.

I’d forgotten that Plow could be more than a combat trick. For most of the game I was well ahead on life and he was on the defensive. At that point, the Plow would only be used to win a creature fight and stay alive. After turns of me taking two from my own creature plus one from his Lantern Kami, however, I was in more danger of dying than he was. I knew this, of course, but in my head the Plow never shifted roles along with what was in play.

If I’d thought about it correctly — or, ironically, if I hadn’t thought at all — I’d have cast First Volley on his (tapped) Lantern Kami and given my Shinobi fear. That would have gotten rid of the Plow — and if the unknown card in his hand was worth protecting, he’d have been forced to return two lands to his hand in order to protect it. That would leave his Loreweaver and Moth helpless (unless he let the Lantern Kami did in order to Plow one of them), meaning I could send in my whole team. The game wouldn’t have been decided, but he would probably have been in trouble rather than just winning on the spot.

Never Drop from the Pro Tour
This is something of a point of honor for me. I worked hard to make it to the Pro Tour my first time. Qualifying isn’t as hard as it once was, but I know too many good people who are testing and testing, trying to make it to the greatest tournament of our game. Because of them, I didn’t go 0-3 or 0-4 during my last Block Constructed Pro Tour: I went 0-7. No matter how poorly I’m doing, I’m always going to play it out. So naturally, when I went 0-2 in the pod I needed to 2-1 in order to play on Saturday I was ready to find out whether I was going 1-2 or 0-3.

Now I have another reason never to drop — even when you 0-2 your pod, you might get a chance to play Kai Budde.

Hugs ‘til next time,