Lessons from Worlds, Part One: Don’t be Cocky

Craig “The Professor” Jones’s preparation for Worlds was not as exhaustive as one might expect. With mere hours to go before the start of play, he audibled from his pet Reb/Back Pact Husk deck into what is inarguably the most powerful deck in the format – Dragonstorm. His Day 1 performance, while hardly blistering, smoldered along merrily. He learnt a few important magical lessons on his way to a 4-2 record, lessons he shares with us today. Fancy playing Dragonstorm in the current Standard? Prof has the tricks for you!

In which our hero gives some practical advice on the care and husbandry of dragons following his experiences at the World Championships. He also offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of overconfidence.

I think an alternate title might also be: “If a deck looks stupidly broken, then just play it.”

Dragonstorm is a bit of an enigma to me. The deck is ludicrously powerful. It is statistically possible to win on turn 1 (although you need to draw three Rite of Flame, Seething Song, and Dragonstorm, not two Rite and two Seething Song as one of my online opponents discovered) and fairly likely to win by turn 4. It contains one card that both protects it for a turn while digging a card deeper and another card that single-handedly trumps most control strategies. The only other chink in the armor can be solved by a single sideboard card that cantrips.

Yet despite having all these things going for it, the murmurings online were fairly negative about the deck.

This puzzled me. While I was messing around with Husks, Gargadons, and Goblins at the secret Scunthorpe testing session, the stock Dragonstorm deck we’d taken from Karsten’s deck-o-pedia was consistently beating the other stock decks better than fifty percent of the time.

Our testing results said Dragonstorm. Everywhere else said its day in the sun had passed.

So what was going on here? Were we missing something? Were there a whole bunch of decks out there we didn’t know about that beat the deck to a pulp? Or was this some Machiavellian misinformation campaign to try and dissuade people from playing the deck at Worlds?

Fast forward to the 2006 World Championships in Paris and the Monday night before player registration. Preparation had not gone well for me. Instead of settling down and practising with a solid deck, I’d wasted a lot of time playing occasionally powerful, but mostly flimsy decks I knew weren’t competitive. The last week had shot by and as a result my Extended testing was non-existent, and I’d gone 2-7 in practise Time Spiral drafts. I hadn’t even built up any decks and had instead brought all my Standard cards (all 17kg worth or so!) in the hope that inspiration would strike.

So there I was in a hotel room with Craig Stevenson, Ben Coleman, and Rich Hagon. Roy Williams had given me the Welsh Boros listing including maindeck Wildfire Emissaries that were surprisingly effective. That was going to be my backup, except it just didn’t seem strong enough.

The other Craig thinks we dropped the ball here and I think he’s probably right. Running Boros up against Dragonstorm is a fairly pointless exercise and the other deck we had was Stu’s Husk-Glare deck (which I imagine he’ll talk about soon). Boros is onto a hiding to nothing there. Both Nicholas Lovett and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa both went 6-0 with Boros, so it’s definitely better than “we couldn’t get it to beat anything.”

Stu’s deck looked solid, but I kept making a mess of it when I played it. I didn’t feel I’d had enough practise with that kind of deck.

But we still had the Dragonstorm deck on the table, the one I wasn’t really that interested in playing.

And this was what Rich Hagon couldn’t understand. Here was a blatantly unfair deck. As he put it, “the other decks play Magic… this doesn’t.” On turn 4 it puts multiple enormous dragons into play and fries the opponent to a crisp. It was also doing this fairly consistently, so why the hell wasn’t I interested in playing the best deck?

My defence was flimsy but had some validity. Basically, we just had a stock version of the deck with nothing new or techy in any way. Surely other groups would have worked from the same starting listing and come up with either better versions or ways to beat it. Going into a tournament with an existing deck you’ve only played a few times against people who may have played many test games against the same listing doesn’t feel like a good plan. I was also very scared of sideboard hate. The deck does feel like a “one-trick pony”, and once you shoot the pony there isn’t a lot left.

However, it is very powerful and I didn’t seem to have any other options, so I wrote down a list of the cards I was missing and hit the trade stands the next day in search of Teferis and Trickbinds. I felt the listing should try to do something clever after boarding, but I had no idea what that was and had no time to figure it out. So in the end I went with a fairly stock listing and a sideboard that concentrates on just trying to protect the combo.

The deck has been talked about ad nauseam so I’ll try and avoid retreading old ground wherever possible. I’ll also try and avoid going into my games in any detail as I’ve already gone through these in the live player blog I did for MagictheGathering.com here.

Round 1 was exactly what I feared. I was paired against Rasmus Sibast (Big Oots) with a Black/White deck that looked custom-made to take Dragonstorm to pieces. Fast beats with hand disruption are scary, but then after boarding he had Temporal Isolation, Wraths, and Persecutes. I couldn’t beat him even after he mulliganed to five. Looking around I saw StarWarsKid running something similar, and immediately thought, “Sh**, so this is the metagame call. I’m going to get butchered by all the pros (again!) who’ve thought that one step further.”

Round 2 was a feature match against Darwin Kastle. I’ll come back to that in more detail later as it’s sort of what this article is about.

Round 3 and I have a very sloppy moment when I just wave a Gigadrowse at two land and a signet in my opponent’s upkeep. He wants to Remand a copy and he wants it to be the one targeting his Karoo land. His argument is that I pointed to the other land first so that must be the target for the original. Personally I think I just waved a Gigadrowse at his three permanents and told him to tap them all. I let it stand as it was a fairly sloppy play on my part, but on reflection I should have probably pulled a judge over. Just because I haven’t correctly announced my targets doesn’t allow my opponent to effectively decide them either. The game should then get backed up to where the moment of confusion occurred (and I’ll probably get a warning or at least a stern ticking off for being an idiot). I didn’t because I’ve seen people pull this kind of trick before, and it always feels like cheating to me.

He then got to cast his Compulsive Research and Persecute me before I could go off. But as his deck was a Solar Flare variant I had a lot of time and managed to reassemble the combo before his two Angels killed me.

From then on I finally tightened up my game, won the match and then went on to win the next three rounds. Early rounds have always been my bane at these events. Whether it’s nerves or not getting into a game state of mind fast enough, I’ve always had problems with the first few rounds of major tournaments.

Round 4 was against Boros. This was fairly easy as they don’t really disrupt you and are a turn slower.

Round 5 was against Stuart Wright. We’d already played this match out a few times and it was heavily in my favor as Ignorant Bliss gave me eight ways to defend against his disruption before I went off. It didn’t play out that way and was actually decided more by Stu’s grotty mana draws.

Round 6 and it was a mid-range Lightning Angel control deck. They don’t have enough permission and they aren’t fast enough to stop you.

So back to round 2 and my feature match against Darwin Kastle. Darwin is playing the Blinking Snake deck. I think this is a matchup that is very hard for me to lose, but to explain why I’m going to talk a little about how Dragonstorm plays.

Everybody is familiar with the explosive element of the deck. You suspend a Lotus Bloom turn 1. It comes in turn 4, you cast two other rituals and then cast Dragonstorm to fetch four Bogardan Hellkite out of your library to fry your opponent to a crisp. So far, so simple… and probably why the deck is disliked so much online.

“Nice deck, you can count to nine. How clever.”

Okay, so that sounds nice when beating up goldfish and other assorted aggro decks that can’t disrupt you, but surely you’re stuffed when you run up against a real deck with counter-magic, you might think.

This is one of the arguments I find totally hilarious:

Dragonstorm can’t ever beat control. They just counter the last Seething Song or something and the Dragonstorm guy burns for loads.”

If you think this then you need to get better playtest partners, seriously.

If I’m playing against a control deck with an aggro deck I don’t fire a Char at them in my main phase even if they are at four. Against counterspells the aim is to get them to fight on your terms. Rather than mindlessly throwing critters or burn at their head whenever you draw them, you need to time the threats, try and engineer a weakness in their shields.

The same is true of combo decks like this. You don’t have to try and go off as soon as you’re able. Against aggro you might have to as it’s a straight race, but a control deck is unlikely to put you under a fast clock. For this type of matchup you have time to try and set everything up, it would be foolish not to use it.

Dragonstorm is actually very good at playing the waiting game. Some variants run the Tron to enable them to hard cast the Hellkites if necessary. The new storage lands from Time Spiral are probably better for this task as they also produce Blue mana. Don’t forget the Bogardan Hellkite has flash so he can nip into play at any time. For a control deck this is a nightmare as, unless he has Teferi down, a substantial threat can come rushing out of your hand at any time. The other nightmare for counterspell decks is that the deck can start rolling from just one land. Can they tap out to Remand that Seething Song when you can just as easily cast a Rite of Flame off your one remaining land and go off from there?

So now let’s look at Blinking Snake. For starters it has straight counter-magic in the form of Mystic Snake. It might also have Voidslime, which is considerably worse for Dragonstorm as it can “stifle” the storm trigger. The other aspects of the deck can also be annoying. Glare of Subdual can switch off Lotuses before you ever reach the main phase and prevent our dragons from ever attacking. Being able to attack with dragons becomes important if they resolve a Loxodon Hierarch and go above twenty life. After boarding they might even have Grand Arbiter to reduce the effectiveness of our rituals and make it too expensive to go off.

That’s a lot of game, but despite all of it the Blinking Snake deck shouldn’t stand a chance. It’s dead to one card: Gigadrowse.

For me Gigadrowse is the card that really pushes the deck over the edge. To counterspell your combo they need untapped mana, and to tap your Lotus or dragons they need untapped creatures. Gigadrowse gives them neither.

It reminds a little of a match I played at the English Nationals a few years back. I was playing the Ironworks deck that used Myr Incubator to put about twenty Myr into play. In one of the rounds I ran into a Blue/White deck that was supposed to butcher my deck.

After I beat him he started to lay out Stifles and other assorted hate, basically saying, “look at all these cards that wreck you, how the hell did you just beat me?”

Fairly easily as it happened. I just tapped down all the relevant lands in his end step with Early Frost and then went off unhindered in my main phase.

If Gigadrowse isn’t enough, then there is always Teferi to fulfil the same role. Basically you’re attacking their shields at a weak point in order to force the combo through during your turn. The advantage of this is that reactive strategies such as Trickbind and Shadow of Doubt are taken out of the game. If a counterspell deck brings them in it’s essentially trying to fight you with the same game plan, only you’ve moved to a different ball park.

To fight Dragonstorm properly you have to go after it pro-actively with something that stops it accumulating the pieces in hand. But what makes the deck even nastier is the sideboard even gives it a way to fight hand disruption such as Persecute. Ignorant Bliss basically counters any attacks on the hand and, to really rub salt in the wound, digs the combo deck a card deeper as it does so.

And so after all this evangelizing we’re back to my second round match against Darwin Kastle. While it would be nice to offer this up as an example of perfect strategy in action, the reality is I’ll be using it as an example of how no amount of favorable strategy can save you from play error, in this case overconfidence.

In the first game my hand was too weak and I missed the fourth turn window. After then I needed to draw a Gigadrowse. I didn’t and was prevented from going off by a Blinking Snake. In the second I got the fourth turn kill and this set the match up nicely for a decider.

My hand for the third game was very spicy. I had a Gigadrowse, Dragonstorm, and Rituals. I couldn’t really ask for a better hand. It didn’t really matter what Darwin had. He wasn’t going to beat me down quickly and that meant at some point I was going to tap down all his mana at end of turn and then go off in my turn.

Yet I still managed to lose. What happened?

The game had a very cautious start. Darwin used Demand to fetch a Glare. I was expecting him to look for Grand Arbiter, but the reason became clear when he cast Arbiter with one mana open. This made the Math very complicated. I couldn’t go off with the cards in hand. I attempted to Repeal the Arbiter at end of turn and Darwin dodged it with Momentary Blink. This tapped him out and while I couldn’t muster the ten mana I now required for Dragonstorm, it did allow me to hard cast Niv-Mizzet, my tech card against Glare decks.

At this point I didn’t think it was possible to lose the game. While Niv-Mizzet couldn’t attack through the Glare, his ping ability would keep Darwin’s side relatively clear of BoP’s and other nuisances while his card drawing ability would dig me deeper into more combo pieces. And I still had the Gigadrowse to give me the opening to go off.

But Darwin is in the Hall of Fame for very good reason, and he wasn’t about to lie down anytime soon.

Unfortunately impatience got the better of me, and I made a series of errors that turned the game from a certain win into a loss. Even with the Arbiter out I calculated I could go off on the next turn and so I aimed Gigadrowse at his board in his end step. Unfortunately my calculations had included being able to use my Lotus. Darwin used Mystic Snake to counter the copy targeting the Hierarch. Now he had two creatures to both tap down my Lotus and Niv-Mizzet. At this point I misplayed again, failing to switch plans and summon a Hellkite with the Lotus in response. I did hard cast the dragon later and then even managed to get a second out with Dragonstorm (Voidslime countered the storm trigger). Another misplay finally turned the screw. I shot down an Arbiter, but then forgot to use Niv-Mizzet’s instant draw-then-ping ability and instead sent the remaining two damage at Darwin’s head instead of killing his Ohran Viper. Leaving him an additional creature enabled him to hang on and keep my dragons tied up with the Glare. Worse, the Hierarch was now getting in for some hits.

In extra turns it now looked like I would be the one trying to hang on for the draw. I still thought I was probably safe, but then Darwin went for the massive play of tapping out on turn 3 to Supply seven saprolings to the board. With another Hellkite in hand I agonised over what to do on my last turn of the match, as a saproling tapped my Lotus Bloom in my upkeep. I tried to work out whether I could shoot all his creatures and calculated that I couldn’t. I finally made a correct call and brought out the Hellkite in my upkeep off of the Lotus in response. I sent the damage to his head. I still had enough mana to either cast the one remaining Hellkite or one of the three remaining Dragonstorms to fetch it. Unfortunately, although I drew a Telling Time, that didn’t dig deep enough to find any of my win conditions and I died on the very last turn of the match. Oh well, can’t topdeck all the time.

In truth I shouldn’t have needed to. I undervalued my Gigadrowse and basically threw it away, along with the strategic advantage it gave me at too early a point in the game. Because of this and the later errors, I managed to turn a strong game-winning hand into a loss.

Overall I was very happy with my choice. The deck is very powerful and has good answers to most of the strategies that attack it. I went 4-2 in the Standard portion, but felt like it should have been 5-1.

As further vindication of the Dragonstorm strategy Makihito Mihara took it all the way to become the 2006 World Champion.

I’ve included his list for comparison:

Personally I think he may be running too many Mountains, but there was an instance in both testing and the main event where a possible turn 2 kill couldn’t happen because I hadn’t drawn a second source of Red mana.

Mihara really understands the importance of the storage lands as he has three in his board. This may be overkill, but I think I’d like to squeeze an extra one into the maindeck.

I did like Niv-Mizzet versus Glare, but after seeing how the Top 8 went I can see where there would be occasions where you would prefer this to be a second Hunted Dragon versus decks with Wrath of God.

I did have one Grozoth in the version I played, but it might not be necessary. I used it once after my hand had been shattered by Persecute and boarded it out most games.

So where does Dragonstorm go from here? While I’m happy the World Championships was won with a deck that is very similar to the one I played, I think I would have rather Mihara didn’t draw that Rite of the Repeal in the deciding game of the quarters. Now that Dragonstorm has won the World Championships it’s going to be the target. I was looking forward to playing the deck on MTGO, but I suspect there will be a lot of hate waiting for it. While the deck is fairly resilient to disruption, the match against Big Oots showed me all too clearly that the deck can be taken down. Throw in the fact the Proclamation decks feel like a really bad matchup and we’re back to the usual jigsaw puzzle Standard has become.

It’s all about the matchups.

And of course, never get overconfident. Any game can be lost, no matter how strong your hand or strategy might be.

Thanks for reading.

Craig Jones