Lessons From Worlds, Part 2: Don’t Be Intimidated

Last time out, Craig “The Professor” Jones shared his thoughts and findings on the Worlds Standard format. After posting a creditable 4-2 performance with Dragonstorm, he took to the field on Draft Day with a heavy heart. After all, Limited is not his strength. The forty-card decks he produced were built out of the wreckage of his carefully laid plans. One was so bad it was banned from the official coverage! Intrigued? Then read on!

In which we move onto to the draft section of Worlds and get to wince as our hero clowns his way through the draft and yet somehow emerges reasonably intact. As a bonus, the lost coverage from Worlds 2006 has been recovered and is now presented here for your viewing pleasure in all its glory.

Wow, this has been a hectic week for writing, what with my mini-epic in the SCG Daily section as well as this series…

Now it’s time to look at events in the more recent past, namely the World Championships from just a couple of weeks ago. Last week I covered my Day 1 performance in Standard with Dragonstorm. Today it’s time to move onto the draft portion, and with a great deal of treading carefully.

Limited is not my specialist area. In fact, I always feel like a fraud when I write any articles on draft. Bearing this in mind, you might want to skip this entire article and go straight to Drafting with Rich (but then of course you’d miss all the great humor, and I’m far better company than the “grumpiest man on the Pro Tour.” Actually that’s a bit unfair on Rich. He was perfectly friendly and even smiled during our feature match, but this might have been because I was doing a passable impression of a goldfish trying to assault a Panzer tank… on dry land. Watch it, I’ll fin you. Sigh.)

So after Day 1 I’m on a 4-2 record and in reasonably good shape going into the draft portion. Unfortunately this doesn’t mean a great deal. I’ve been in the same or similar position before at two World Championships (’99 and ’01) and then managed to torpedo my chances by 1-5’ing the draft day. Last year was a bit of an aberration as I managed to walk out with 4-2 (well actually 3-2 – I got a bye, but no-one needs to know that), but this was scant consolation as I was only on seven points at the start of the day.

For the record, my drafting is actually improving. I’ve even got money finishes to prove it. A lot of this is because I now actually get to practise on MTGO, whereas before I lived like a hermit in isolation (translation: Shropshire) and never really got the chance to draft. I’m not an instinctual genius when it comes to Magic. I can’t weigh up the cards in the abstract like the very best players, but I do learn very quickly what works when I see the cards in action.

For all this, the draft day still terrified me. Going 2-7 in practise drafts the week before the event hardly inspires confidence. I mentioned my fears to Pete Norris before I set off.

“Well, it’s hardly surprising. You haven’t drafted the set that much.”

“Er, I think I’ve done nearly thirty Time Spiral drafts since the set came out.”

Athens and Kobe gave me a lot of information about the format. For starters it is brutally fast, and suspend is really really good as it gives you plays on the first couple of turns you might not otherwise have. Decks needed to be fast, with very low mana curves, and tempo oriented. And also ideally full of Islands and Blue cards, and preferably with very few Green cards and Forests.

I knew these rules, and yet for some reason spent a week just losing. What was worse, I couldn’t work out whether it was because my rules were plain wrong or because I just happened to have a series of very bad draws. Trying to draw inferences from games where your eighteen-land deck still stubbornly refuses to cough up a third land is quite hard, as is trying to work out if a decent looking White/Blue deck is bad because your opponent manages to comprehensively nut it with a combination of Wildfire Emissary, Prodigal Sorcerer, and Sedge Sliver (as well as always drawing all three basic lands).

The night before the draft day I did a practise draft with the English team and assorted hangers-on. While I prefer Blue/White or Blue/Red, the signals were just too strong and I moved into a fairly solid Blue/Black deck. And then it seemed like my jinx in the format was continuing, as English team alternate Paul Gower busted out Akroma with Gauntlet of Power. But then I finally managed to put the nonsense behind me and remember how the annoying Black cards like Urborg Syphon-Mage and Trespasser il-Vec could be used to win games that looked lost. The Syphon-Mage had broken my back a few times in the past, and I was able to use it to successfully race Akroma in game 3. Finally sanity had returned – maybe it wouldn’t be so bad tomorrow after all.

As before I won’t go into too much detail on my matches as the live blog from the World Championships already does this.

I’m kind of also reluctant to post my decks, as these are by no means the kind of decks you ever want to be drafting in TTT.

Okay, so we’ll start with the Sliver breakfast. Actually after The Cak got publicly eviscerated in the forums for daring to post an article on drafting Slivers, I’m a bit nervous to even to put up this list. I didn’t mean to draft Slivers, honest. I just saw the Pulmonic Sliver and… it sort of happened.

This was the deck Frank Karsten said he’d rather shoot himself than play, and Geoffrey Siron said was the worst deck ever.

It’s not a good deck, and I’m not about to claim it is.

For someone like me, one of the worst cards I could possibly open is Pulmonic Sliver. Rather than stick to tried and trusted strategies that I’ve played before and know work, the Johnny player in me suddenly lights up and says, “ooh, why don’t you…” and “hey, wouldn’t this be a good time to go for that Sliver strategy you’ve never played before. Go on, go on, you’ll know it’ll be cool. Go on, please. Slivers…”

I really should ignore that voice. Better, I should tear it out by the dripping ganglions and roast it slowly over a fire.

But no, I’m a little child at heart and take the Sliver. It gets even better when I’m passed an Essence Sliver third pick. Of more interest to me is that there was also a Telekinetic Sliver in my first pack with the Pulmonic Sliver. Telekinetic Sliver is one of the most variably rated cards I’ve seen in the set. Sometimes it gets taken really highly, other times it goes really late. If this is one of the latter occasions and the Telekinetic Sliver tables then I know Slivers is completely open and I’m going to get an insane deck. The Telekinetic Sliver doesn’t come back, and now I have to worry I might be fighting someone else for Slivers.

Because of this I really wanted to angle more for a conventional Blue/White Blink deck with Sliver sub-theme rather than a full-on Slivers deck. This is probably why the deck looks like an awkward mish-mash of the two strategies. I didn’t really get the early bears (Cavalry) and Blue morphs that are important components of the Blink strategy, and the deck doesn’t really have enough Slivers (and some of the Slivers — Venser’s and Shadow — are downright shocking) to be a proper Sliver deck.

What the deck does have, however, is raw power, and that was enough to propel me to a 2-1 finish. To be honest, that shouldn’t have been enough, and I think I was fairly lucky with how the match-ups dropped as well.

Round 7 was against a White/Green deck that didn’t really get a fast start in either game. Without that I knew he wouldn’t stand a chance, as I’d be able to accumulate a critical mass of abilities within my Slivers without him being able to disrupt it with removal. This is pretty much what happened, as Pulmonic combined with Quilled, Essence, and the Fury to administer a truly savage beating.

Round 8 and I was up against a very slow Red/Green deck splashing for Black removal. I gained a healthy new appreciation for Lotus Bloom in draft after it was used to bust out Havenwood Wurm (my gut tells me Bloom shouldn’t be good, but as tempo seems so much more important than card advantage in this format it might actually be a player), but ultimately the ability to take most of my creatures to the air was too much.

Round 9 and I finally lost to a “real” deck. Or rather variance caught up with me at last. There is a really large vein of plain mediocrity in there, and probability dictated I had to draw it at some point.

Still, I was 6-3 overall and in good shape.

And then we have the second draft. This is where the whole “don’t be intimidated” motif comes in. Sitting on my right and passing to me was Shuuhei Nakamura, while on my left was StarCityGames.com very own resident draft expert, Mr. Richard Hoaen. Talk about being caught in a pincer. I could almost feel the pressure crushing me from either side.

This is just plain silly though, just like I find it very amusing when players get intimidated when playing me, just because I happen to be very good at drawing Lightning Helix at just the right time. Sure, they’re both incredibly talented players, but I should just put that out of my mind and play my own game.

While opening dangerous yet interesting rares that drag decks into uncharted waters is bad, opening flat out nothing is far worse. My first booster was horrible. Playable cards pretty much stopped at Empty the Warrens and Corpulent Corpse. This is very bad for me, as there’s always the danger of my butterfly-wing fragile mental state collapsing into the why-does-the-world-hate-me-so-much-and-always-screw-me full-on tilt mode. Giving up on a draft because your first booster is bad is really dumb when you consider how many occasions a powerful first pick gets chucked in the grumper because the color isn’t open.

The pick that really screwed me over was a fourth-pick Might Sliver. I think this might be another example of the “fear response” (in this case being on a draft table with good players) demanding more power than is actually needed. Sure, an excellent Sliver deck can be exceptionally good. However, a good Sliver deck isn’t all that good, and an average Sliver deck is truly abysmal.

If I’d just kept an even head I would have realised the signals from Nakamura were fairly clear that White was open, and I could probably pair it with Red. Instead the double whammy of weak opening booster and early “Johnny-cool” card had thrown my draft into a flat tailspin.

In the second booster I first-picked a Stronghold Overseer. This was a truly horrible pick. My reasoning was the first booster had been a bit of a train wreck and maybe I could start again by using the Overseer as a base and aggressively taking Black. That’s clearly the fear-response-I-must-risk-anything-for-power talking, and it’s talking absolute rubbish. For starters I’d passed at least two Corpulent Corpses from weak boosters, and sure enough Rich Hoaen was in Black, which meant there was no way that color would be open in enough quantity to support a change in the second booster. Secondly, the Overseer isn’t even that good. It costs six mana and doesn’t even block the turn it comes out. In most games that means you’re probably dead. Any reasonably decent card in either Red, Green, or even White (as I’d taken Castle Raptors a pick before the Might Sliver) would have been better than a wasted pick.

Again I didn’t pick up on the signals of White being open. There wasn’t much, as I think that our corner of the table opened a particularly poor set of boosters, but there was enough. With the boosters I had I don’t think my deck would have been particularly good (I don’t think there was any combination of picks that would have given me a shot at beating Timothy Aitchison’s Blue/Green monstrosity with Call of the Herd and splashing Red for Stormbind), but I would have at least given myself a better chance.

It’s actually funny. I was just checking the blog to cut and paste the decklist into this article, and it isn’t there. In fact the whole of the second draft is missing. I remember Ted Knutson saying at the time, “your stuff’s funny, but you’re coming across as a jackass.” I suppose it might have been edited out. Having someone blog as a “pro” player and then draft like an idiot probably doesn’t send out a good image, especially as I tend to be a little on the… frivolous… side when I write sometimes. More likely I probably forgot to pass on my memory stick to Kelly Digges in my traumatized state. Anyway, that’s good as I still have the original coverage I wrote at the event and can now unveil… drum roll… the lost chapters of the Pro Player blog from World’s 2006.

Featuring… another drum roll… oh dear the drum just broke.

Here it is:

The Deck That Was So Bad They Expunged It From MagictheGathering.com:

And here’s me in all my jackass glory:

And that will be my World’s campaign over, I reckon.

There really isn’t a great deal here. I think I’ll be lucky to win a match.

My first pick was Empty the Warrens, not for any techy reasons, but because it was the best card in the booster.

I think I might have been able to rescue the situation with a reasonable Red/White deck, but somewhere along the line I missed the signals when a fourth-pick Might Sliver caused me to drift into Green. With a collection of mediocre Red, White, and Green cards from the first booster, I first picked a Stronghold Overseer with the intention of maybe trying to get some mileage out of Black… but as Rich Hoaen was also Black/Red I never saw a hint of anything to give me that wiggle room.

A Jaya in the third booster rescued the draft from being a total abomination, but I don’t think she’ll be enough.

I don’t want to imagine what the deck would have looked like had I not opened Jaya in the third pack. The monitor’s gone all warped just thinking about it.

Dark times indeed.

And then my round 10 match against Rich Hoaen:

Man down in the road after being hit with a truck. Move along, nothing to see here.

A fairly apt description. In game 1 Rich couldn’t understand why I didn’t cast anything. Mainly because I couldn’t. I’d drawn a Castle Raptors I couldn’t cast, and a bunch of pump spells with no creatures in play.

Game 2 was exactly the same. This time he had my lone Mountain locked with a Mana Skimmer, and my deck rather obligingly gave me Jaya, Orcish Cannonade, and of course the Castle Raptors I couldn’t cast (and never cast the entire day).

And then against Timothy Aitchison:

My abomination versus a proper Green/Blue deck with Stormbind and Call of the Herd… now that’s not fair.

And it started so promising as well. I saw Islands and Forests and thought Jaya would get to really strut her stuff. And she did for a while, before Stormbind came down. Even then I was still feeling healthy. Timothy Aitchison, the current Kiwi National Champ, was down to zero cards to feed the Stormbind, and my Uthden Troll was largely oblivious to it in any case. A suspended Halberdier was shot on sight, but as a spell that served to power out four goblins from Empty the Warrens. I thought that might be enough to overwhelm the Stormbind, but unfortunately I then preceded to draw land while Aitchison drew blockers including Call of the Herd and Fathom Seer (and we all know how good that dude is with Stormbind).

Game 2 Aitchison suspended a turn 2 Ephemeron, cast Call of the Herd, flashed back Call of the Herd and I … erm … killed a land with Mwonvuli Acid-Moss.

Oh, and the White splash for Castle Raptors? Not the best, unless you like drawing cards you can’t cast.

0-2, 6-5.

The 0-3 looms. It’s getting dark mama, I’m cold….

And then I finally got lucky and picked up a win against Benedikt Klauser. He had the classic “take early Ephemeron, take early Transmuter, hey where did all my Blue cards go, guess I’m R/G/u then” deck.

A brief interlude. My deck is so bad this time Frank Karsten refused to even look at it. Maybe he could sense the radiation oozing off it.

Surprise, surprise. Two decks with Forests in on 0-2. Do we foolish mortals ever learn?

Hmm, I guess this might have troubled the censors.

… Bzzz…

Green is nice. Green is lovely. Green in no way or form got less than its fair share of the color pie for Time Spiral.

… Bzzz…

Sorry, don’t know what came over me there. Anyway…

I’d spoken with current Austrian champ and blast from the past Benedikt Klauser after the draft, and his impression was pretty much “what the hell just happened?” So I figured he probably had a fairly bad deck as well.

Game 1 it didn’t seem too bad as my deck malfunctioned on mana (surely eighteen land should be enough) and Benedikt battered me with a Clockwork Hydra and Weatherseed Totem.

After drawing the Castle Raptors yet again without ever being able to cast it, I decided it was time to add a second Plains to the deck (and mainly because I was boarding in a Sliver sub-theme including Harmonic Sliver to smash his annoying artifacts). So I obviously never drew the Raptors. So for punishment the treacherous birdies will be fed to my pet kitten later this evening.

In game 2 the Sliver theme came through. Well the big one did anyway, and he smashed for a bit with the help of a Havenwood Wurm. So there is a use for drawing five land in a row after all. Harmonic Sliver played a cameo as it nipped in to eat a Hydra to let the last damage through.

The last game was weird. Klauser put six land on the table and said go a lot, while I hit him with two goblin tokens (Empty the Warrens with no storm — so powerful) and a Goblin Skycutter. Klauser hardly played a thing all game as I beat him to death with the goblins and then a Rager. Afterwards he showed me a hand full of land. That was just what the doctor ordered.

Yep, I think the definite conclusion to that draft day is don’t try this at home.

How I managed to walk out of that mess with a 3-3 record feels nothing short of miraculous. But it meant I no longer had a shot at Top 8 (and correspondingly no hope of hitting Level 5), and I would need a strong performance on the Extended day to stand a chance of making money.

The irritating thing is I’m fairly certain I’m not that terrible when it comes to Time Spiral draft. Sometimes the pressure of a big event can make you do things you don’t normally do.

It was quite funny. I entered a side event for fun on the team day, and was recognised by one of the judges. He immediately offered up an additional bounty of an extra booster to the person that took me down. I then preceded to draft a monstrous Blue/White deck with double-Riftwing Cloudskate, double-Blink, multiple-Cavalry (I realised I was finally understanding the format when I took the two casting-cost Benalish Cavalry over the seemingly more powerful but four casting-cost Cavalry Master without a moment’s hesitation.) and just about everything you could ever want for this archetype (I believe Stuart Wright would term it an “acceptable” Blue/White deck). No danger of that booster going anywhere.

“All your bounty hunters are dead.”

I also got to hand out a (fairly brutal) lesson to my young protege Keith Spragg (describing him as that will annoy him no end, hyuk-hyuk). He’d drafted a removal heavy Black/Red deck and thought he’d be able to kill everything I summoned. Unfortunately the correct Blue/White decks play more monsters than any deck has removal for, has monsters that are cheaper than all the removal, and Momentary Blink just gives the Red/Black decks fits in any case.

I also managed 3-0’s when I had friendly team drafts against Nicolai Herzog and some Scandinavians (with a deck that was almost mono-Blue with three Fathom Seer) and a humiliating 8-1 drubbing of the English National team (which I’m sure you won’t see as Craig will edit this out). [We all opened Pulmonic Slivers. Is that a good enough excuse? — The Other Craig.] Unfortunately those decks have since been dismantled so I don’t have any lists, but they were freakishly powerful and not something you’re likely to get in normal drafts.

I’ve done some online drafts (4-3-2-2s, mainly because I’m chicken) and there seems to be a lot of oddness going on. On a lot of occasions I’ve seen virtually no Blue cards from the first booster and then this sudden flood midway through the second. I suspect this is the point when all the people who wanted to force Blue from the start have given up and switched to Green. There may definitely be some merit to sticking to your guns and trying to tough it out, but of course if you’re next to someone with the same plan it’s time to bring on the stretchers.

I think I’m also seeing too many three or more color decks. My impression is that the format is very fast and the slightest mana hiccup will cause you to lose. In that kind of environment that card you’re splashing for better be really damn good (and not an effing Castle Raptors).

I also think there are a lot of contradictions in the format, as I tried to explain to Rich Hagon. He’d drafted a deck that he thought was good but actually turned out to be too focused on card advantage (it had three copies of Think Twice, a card I really don’t rate in draft) and therefore too slow. I said the decks needed to be very fast with low mana-curves.

“So you play sixteen land?”

“No, you play eighteen.”

This seems high, but I’ve had considerably more success with this number (it assumes you’re not playing Green and don’t have access to cards like Prismatic Lens). It gives me a much higher chance of curving out, and I’d rather take the risk of being flooded over failing to make a third land (a.k.a. Instant Death). If I know I’m on the draw I usually board a land out.

The other contradiction is that the format is fast, yet Suspend cards, which don’t actually arrive until turns later are actually really good. All of the one-mana suspend creatures are actually quality picks.

But I should also stress again that I am not a draft expert. These are just my impressions and what I feel comfortable with. Further drafts may reveal that these are incorrect. This is just what I’ve found works at the moment.

I can’t actually leave without mentioning Keith’s sterling performance in another team draft we did back at the hotel. Keith had come over to Worlds just to side event and went from leaving Mindless Automaton in the board (cuff on the ear) and losing in the first round, to inexplicably polluting a Blue/White deck with two copies of Screeching Sliver (another cuff on the ear), to losing in the final and then eventually going on to be the lynchpin of his team with a perfect 3-0 Red/Green deck. It was a triumph for all of us who’ve ever been selected last in P.E.

Oh and P.S. Jon Becker — We’ll be ready for you in Geneva.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back next week to talk about Extended, in what will hopefully be a more serious article.

Craig Jones