Levelling Up – U/B/R Control at Grand Prix: San Francisco

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After powering out to a 6-0 start at Grand Prix: San Francisco (albeit on the back of three byes and three great matchups), Tiago needed a simple “win and in” result to qualify for Day 2 play. Today’s Levelling Up examines where the wheels fell off the wagon. He also looks at his preparation for the GP, and explains why he spends a great deal of his time traveling to play Magic…

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then,

but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning…”
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

People ask me why I attend so many Grand Prix tournaments, spread all over the World. To the Far East to Kyoto, and to

the Far West to San Francisco. I’m not looking for money, Pro Points, success, or acceptance.

But just like Jay Gatsby, I too have something that I wish, that I”ve dreamt of in the past. Something that I can only

see as a green light at a distance, but something I will continue to focus on in order to reach it. I won’t be

repeating myself, but I just wanted everyone to know that my goals for this season weren’t “material.” They were to

capture that green light that’s off in the distance. And so I traveled to San Francisco.

Since everyone I know was uninterested in Block Constructed, either because they were playing Standard for Nationals or

just sick of the Block format, I had no option but to test alone. I decided to continue the work I had done with U/B

control. This is the last build I presented you here at StarCityGames.com:

I started playing eight-man queues on Magic Online, although they took around 40 minutes to fill during the Tenth

Edition Release period. Gradually, I started making some changes.

I added Coalition Relic because it’s such a poweful card.

I added spells that become stronger with the inclusion of Coalition Relic, such as Aeon Chronicler and Haunting Hymn.

I cut the Slaughter Pact to a single copy in the main, to be fetched with Tolaria West or Teachings, because there were

fewer Griffin Guides and Red Akromas.

I added a Tolaria West and cut an Urborg. The extra Tolaria was to compensate for one fewer Urborg and one fewer

Slaughter Pact, while the cutting of Urborg was because I went down to 26 lands with the Relics and couldn’t risk

having four Legendary Lands.

I added Void because it was awesome against Tarmogoyf based decks and good against almost every other deck. At some

point, Void was the best card in the block.

With the addition of Red, I cut the White splash, removing Pull from Eternity and Aven Riftwatcher. They were mainly

for the Mono Red matchup which was decreasing in popularity. Plus, I had played against the deck four times in Grand

Prix tournaments and did no better than two losses and two draws.

These additional cards asked a price, which was paid by losing most of the deck’s countermagic. I went from four

Cancels down to one Cancel and one Venser, Shaper Savant. Venser is such a good card and tutor target, and I’m never

unhappy of drawing it, and it was very important in some Take Possession / Urza’s Factory battles. I still wanted to

have one piece of pure countermagic because many times the deck achieves control but loses to a timely topdeck from the

opponent. Usually that happens far past turn 7, so it shouldn’t be hard to hava mana open for Teachings and Cancel.

Even if you do want to keep playing spells, just play Teachings for Cancel in one turn, so you only have to keep three

open everytime.

I debated about running Pact of Negation instead of Cancel. The clear bonus is you can either play Teachings for the

missing piece of Haunting Hymn / Pact of Negation to force the opponent to discard four cards in the mirror. I stuck

with Cancel because it’s a better card if you happen to draw it early on, and if people see one, or if you tutor for

it, they’ll assume you play many copies. But I’m not sure on the argument. I may be playing Pact of Negation the next


During mid August I spent a week visiting my parents in the South of Portugal. I decided to check the last PTQ in

Portugal, held in the same region. As soon as I arrived, my good friend Frederico Bastos, which you may remember as my

2HG teammate at PT: San Diego, asked me if he should play Mono-Blue or Red/Green Mana Ramp. I answered it wouldn’t

matter, as he would do badly with either. His last individual Pro Tour was the first of 2003, and since then he never

stopped playing or missed a PTQ season, so I guess if I werer a betting man he would be a tough guy to back.

But, always the nice guy, I challenged him to play with my latest version of U/B control, this time splashing Red for

Void. I told him, if he was going to win a PTQ, it was with this baby. Since he wasn’t very confident in either Mono

Blue or R/G Mana Ramp, he accepted… and ten minutes before the start of the PTQ we went scrambling for the cards we

here missing. (See the section “People who ask to borrow decks” from last week’s article.) This was cool because it

allowed me to ask for those very same cards I’d need for GP: San Francisco.

Long story short, I spent the day playing with my deck against multiple matchups and opponents, and it proved to be

extremely useful. I’ve already stressed how much I learn by playing paper Magic. Frederico also won the PTQ, which

generated an enormous hype: the return of the King of Portuguese Magic. This gave me much confidence, and extra

motivation to play the deck. For the rest of the time before the GP, I played a few eight-man Magic Online queues,

although not many because they never filled. Here’s what I ended up playing at San Francisco:

I don’t think this is the optimal list, but it was the one I arrived at while testing alone and playing some ocasional

queues online. The good thing is that it has many similarities to the version Luis Scott-Vargas, Paul Cheon, and Paulo

Vitor da Rosa designed. I feel happy to have reached it by myself, to draw some of the same conclusions as them. The

bad thing is that it has some differences. Since they tested for longer, with more people, and achieved better results

than I did, I’m going to assume they have a better version.

The Grand Prix started very well for me, as I went all the way to 6-0, but it wouldn’t last. The rise started with a

Round 4 match against Willy Edel. What’s with the tough first round pairings? I always seem to play against players

that I know in the first rounds of Grand Prix tournaments, so I tracked down some evidence to support this:

GP: Stockholm РRound 4 Arnost Zidek, Round 5 Andr̩ Coimbra

GP: Strasbourg – Round 4 Julien Nuijten, Round 5 Shoota Yasooka

GP: Montreal – Round 4 Antoine Ruel

GP: San Francisco – Round 4 Willy Edel

The amazing thing is that these matches are all crossed in the win box, so clearly I’m not losing Grand Prix tourneys

because of playing better/Well-known players, as I’ve proved I can hold my own against them. What happens most of the

time is that in some key rounds everything goes as wrong as it possibly coud, and I can do nothing except brace for the

loss, As if I’m involved in some sort of Grand Prix tragedy.

But enough ranting, as I got lucky in my first three rounds (four to six). Thanks to the inclusion of Void, the matchup

against Tarmagoyf became better, and that’s what I was paired against in my first rounds.

I won the match against Willy despite being on the draw both games, and despite missing my third land drop in one of

them, because Willy had to mulligan three times and started with weak draws. In the one he mulliganed to five I had a

sketchy Haunting Hymn hand, but since he wasn’t playing much, the Hymn hit him for exactly his four remaining cards.

In the next round I was paired against a U/G Aggro-Goyf deck splashing Black for Shadowmage Infiltrator. It’s a tougher

matchup, but still favorable. I won the first quite easily, but was totally dominated in the second where he started

with Looter and Shadowmage. I tried for Damnation on turn 4, but he Delayed it. Tendrils of Corruption on turn 5 met

the same fate. His board was growing huge and I really needed my suspended Damnation to resolve on turn 7. By then my

life was really low, but I managed to get the Cancel in my hand either by drawing it or fetching him with Careful

Consideration or Teachings, so I was ready to fight for the Damnation. The Damnation was put in the stack and he played

Venser on it, which he later admited being a mistake, as I let it resolve and just replayed Damnation, clearing the

whole board plus Venser.

My final win that took me to 6-0 was against another G/W/R Goyf/Predator/Justice deck, and my opponent also didn’t have

an explosive draw. I didn’t need to play Void in the first game, and he was wrecked by it in the second, where a Void

for four killed a Calciderm on the table plus two Mystic Enforcers in his hand.

After Round 6 there was a much-needed Lunch Break (at 6pm). Players used this free time to refresh themselves, while

judges had to work through some problems. People usually point out to judges when things don’t go perfect, but I

respect them because they work at these events under a great deal of pressure, sometimes more than pro players. While a

player can allow himself to have a bad day, everyone expects judges to have a flawless tournament. and as a consequence

they wake up much earlier, go to sleep much later, and work non-stop all day. A big thank you to all Judges who help

sustain Magic tournaments!

From here, all I needed was one more win for Day Two, the sooner (and the more) the better. Unfortunately I was paired

against a bad matchup, one I had never won at a Grand Prix: Mono Red. I even almost gave up on testing it because it

was decreasing in popularity, and I couldn’t win even with a lot of sideboard space, so I had exactly one card to bring

in: Strangling Soot.

I even got a 1-0 lead by playing Damnation on three creatures. He followed with Stormbind and went all in with that

plan. I followed Damnation with Aeon Chonicler and finaly played Take Possession on the Stormbind, which I used the

following turn to kill him. Games 2 and 3 were really close. I had a fair loss in game 2, but in game 3 I could’ve won

had I played differently near the end. Both possible plays are long and complex to describe, because they involve

reflecting about the game state, cards in play, life totals, and planning one or two turns ahead, but without perfect

information I couldn’t figure out which one was the best. After thinking about it for a while, I went with the one that

I thought was safer, since it allowed me to play Tendrils of Corruption for life gain. After discovering what he was

holding at the time, I now know I would’ve won if I had followed the other avenue of attack, so I had to blame myself

for not examining the situation fully, or I can blame my intuition for failing to hit in a 50/50 shot.

At 6-1 I still had some room to breathe. I was paired against a U/G aggressive deck with Looter il-Kor and Goyf, but

with so much countermagic. Delay, Venser, and Mystic Snake were present, to name a few, and he splashed for Momentary

Blink to give they counter-guys an extra spin. We split the first two thanks to alternate weak draws from each of us.

In game 3 there’s nothing on the table, but there’s a suspended Riftwing Cloudskate with two counters. He has mana

open, so I assume he has Mystic Snake. I played Mystical Teachings at the end of his turn, assuming that if he has

Mystic Snake it will also be bad for me when the Cloudskate comes into play. He countered it with the Snake, and had

more of the same to protect the beatdown. Maybe I should’ve stayed quiet. I’m not sure it would help me win… it’s

just another possibility.

At 6-2 I’m forced to play an elimination match for Day two. My opponent starts. Interestingly, I went 0-6 in die rolls

at this Grand Prix, which has happened a couple of times before at other Grand Prix tourneys, and also twice at Worlds

(which used to be six rounds each day). It’s still a far cry from my greatest streak of 0-14 in die rolls, which

happened on Magic Online, but hey, this one’s still alive going into Grand Prix: Firenze. I’m be very happy to break

the 0-14 streak there, especially because that would mean I am playing on Day 2.

The first land he plays is Terramorphic Expanse which he cracked before his second turn to fetch an Island. His second

play is Grove of the Burnwillows.


The next two seconds slowed right down.

“Oh God, Terramorphic Expanse for Island and Grove of the Burnwillows… I know what he’s playing, I know! I even wrote

an article on this matchup! Man, it was so bad when I tested it! I hope it isn’t what I’m thinking…”

Down came Gemhide Sliver. Followed by turn 3 Dormant, and turn 4 Firewake plus Frenetic Slivers. On my turn 4, I played

Damnation. Unlike the die rolls, this time the statistics worked right. Two of them died, and two lived. Gemhide and

Firewake went to graveyard, while Dormant and Frenetic returned at the end of turn and drew him two more cards. He kept

playing more Slivers and drawing cards from them. I played an early Take Possession, thanks to Coalition Relic, on the

Dormant to try to stay alive… on the very same turn he cycled for Psionic Sliver, played it, and used a Sliver to

kill my Dormant, and attacked me for something like thirty damage and fifteen poison counters.

For game 2 I had a better hand, with card drawing, Cancel, and Spell Burst going first, so I could counter the key

Frenetic and Dormant Slivers. He started with turn 1 Virulent and turn 2 Two-Headed. I don’t have removal for either,

so I cast turn 3 Shadowmage to dig one card further if I need to. He played turn 3 a second Virulent Sliver and

attacked, putting me at five poison counters and able to deal me six next turn. His untapped lands are Mountain and

Terramorphic Expanse. What to do in my turn?

I was holding lands, a second Shadowmage, Cancel, Spell Burst. I am dead next turn, if I don’t nullify one of his

attackers. I think I have two plays, both very risky.

1- Try to be really lucky: attack with Shadowmage, hoping to draw into a Damnation to clear his three Slivers, or at

least a removal spell for one of the Virulents.

2- Play a second Shadowmage and don’t attack. This way I can block one of them, receiving only four poison counters

staying at nine. If this happened and he attacks, he would lose the Two-Headed Sliver, so the board would be two

Virulents, which can’t go through two Shadowmages anymore, so he has to play something else. If I’m again in the risk

of losing the turn after, I can attack with both Shadowmages for two extra cards, plus the card of the turn… that’s

three fresh cards.

Play number 2 seemed a little better, or at least safer. I played the Shadowmage and passed. He cracked the Expanse to

get an Island, played a second one on his turn, and played Telekinetic Sliver. He passed, and on my upkeep he tapped

three of my four lands. I took mana, hoping to draw into a removal spell, but the game was lost. Even if I killed the

one of the Virulents to stay alive, chances were I would stay locked long enough for him to win. He would have to deal

six more poison counters, one at a time, but the chances of him not having more slivers, or for me to draw more instant

removal, were slim I drew Damnation, and lost.

The funny thing is, the Damnation was indeed at the top of my deck. If I went boldly and risky for play number one, I

could’ve won, or at least lived much longer. Sometimes the cards, be it our own or our opponent’s, are indeed at the

top of our decks when we need them. But that’s not enough. We have to play for them and position ourselves for them to

be useful when we draw them. That Damnation one draw step after was useless, while it would’ve been demolishing the

turn before.

Some people claimed the Poison Slivers matchup was really good, like 90%-10% favouring Blue/Black. I still don’t

believe that. It seems a beating every time Blue/Black has the right answers for the different threats Slivers play,

but if you have the wrong ones at the wrong, which is quite likely since they have four or five different angles of

attack, then lose.

In retrospect, I regret not making the other call against Mono Red, and not making play number 1 against Slivers. I

don’t regret going to San Francisco despite scoring nothing. In San Jose I ate the best food ever on American soil.

Side drafting was great, as usual. Cube drafting was a fun and new experience. Every Magic player I met, for the first

time or as an old friend, provided great times. I’ve heard some American players are coming to Grand Prix: Firenze next

week. I’ll be really happy to see you all here for a Grand Prix in Europe, and I’ll do my best to return the

hospitality… you’ll be most welcomed.

See you all in Firenze,