Looking Back at U.S. Nationals

Josh takes an introspective look at his own personal performance at U.S. Nationals. While his Standard deck was undoubtedly powerful, both Coldsnap and RGD draft supplied hidden pitfalls that prevented him going far in the tournament. So, what went wrong? And in the harsh light of day, what steps can be taken to put things right?

Rather than talk about my Standard deck from the event itself – Mike Flores is covering that in great detail, in a series that will probably rival Zvi’s “My Fires” articles (just kidding… it will surpass those, but not in quantity) – I’ve decided to give you a brief recounting of my experience at Nationals. It was a monster disappointment, and here’s why…

This year I played in my third U.S. Nationals, and I had my worst finish of the three. It doesn’t feel too good, I can tell you. After last year’s unfortunate running-into-Neil-Reeves while playing for a spot on the team/alternate/whatever, I was really hoping to get a second chance at the National Team. By now, you probably know that didn’t happen.

Traditionally, I have excelled at the Limited portion of the tournament. Not to mention that, at the very least, I had a good Standard deck to compliment whatever performance I managed in the Limited portion. I can’t say this year was any different… except that I sucked.

The draft rounds consisted of two booster drafts – a four-round RGD draft and a three-round Coldsnap draft. I don’t think I was the only one dreading the Coldsnap rounds. Coldsnap is miserable. It isn’t fun or interesting or exciting, and if you draft a “regular” deck – one that doesn’t attempt to foray into the ridiculous (Ripple, Kindle, Krovikan Mists — all gambles) – you don’t even have a chance. I had a pretty good-average deck. It was Red/White with a lot of the cards you need to beat down. I had an abundance of Goblin Rimerunners, since everyone undervalued them. I had two Gelid Shackles and two Skreds. I had an Adarkar Valkyrie at the top of my curve, and I had pretty decent in-betweens. But you know what I didn’t have? I had absolutely no shot to win. I played two very lopsided games in two rounds before dropping, as Coldsnap was the second of the drafts and I no longer had any chance to win anything.

In the first round I got destroyed by Surging Might, being a little shy on lands in the first game. In the second round I had no way to beat Darien, King of Kjeldor, and when my opponent played his Adarkar Valkyrie with mine already in play, all I could do was wait until he decided to attack me so he could kill me with 3 Kjeldoran War Cries. I know it sounds like all I’m really doing here is complaining, but I want you to know that I know I have no one to blame but myself. I didn’t commit to a ridiculous strategy and I got punished for it. I am lamenting the format. That is all.

If you do have to draft Coldsnap for the Top 8 of a Pro Tour Qualifier, or for Day 2 of a Grand Prix, I suggest you bone up. While it is completely uninteresting and dull when you’re playing, the actual drafting of the format seems to be more complex than many are giving it credit for. I am not trying to reverse my position – I still hate it – but it seems if you are very focused and practiced at getting one of the underdrafted archetypes, you will find success in this format. I know of at least one person who forces Mono-Blue to a more-than-reasonable success rate. I doubt you’ve even heard of anyone forcing Mono-Blue — that’s what I’m talking about. Practice, find something, and get good at it. However, I do not suggest average Red/White to be your deck of choice.

Before we were forced to draft Coldsnap, we had a chance to draft a real format and play the extra round there. RGD Draft is still an excellent format, maybe one of the best of all time — it’s certainly up there with the front-runners. Any format with that much mana flexibility in every draft certainly has to be considered. I drafted a reasonable deck, and I made a pretty bad mistake in round 3 of the draft to lose game 3 and the match, costing myself a reasonable 3-1 record (I’d already lost to Tim Aten). At that point I was realistically out of contention for the Top 8 due to my own bad play, a little bad luck, and a few other factors that I will certainly talk about later in the article.

The draft itself wasn’t very interesting. My opening pack contained Disembowel, Belltower Sphinx, and Followed Footsteps. After deliberation, I decided on Disembowel. My next pack had Last Gasp and Faith’s Fetters, and after choosing the Gasp a few more Black cards came my way, although I made a poor decision (worked out fine) when given the choice of taking Dimir House Guard and staying Mono-Black or taking Viashino Fangtail around fifth pick (I took the Fangtail.)

In the second pack I first picked Izzet Boilerworks, after seeing zero Karoo lands in the first pack. I sensed that they were being over-drafted. The other choice was Repeal, and I don’t consider this to be a very hard decision — it wasn’t quite the Niv-Mizzet I was hoping for, but it was okay. Then I looked in my second booster, and Niv-Mizzet was actually there. Yes, I got passed Niv-Mizzet and went 2-2. I rounded out the pack with three Izzet Signets, a Wee Dragonauts, a Train of Thought, two Orzhov Euthanists, and a few other cards that I don’t really recall. I do remember not getting any Petrahydroxes back, which I lamented in private. Sort of a reverse celebration; I love Petrahydrox.

Most people will tell you flat out that Petrahydrox’s “ability” is a liability, but the few in the know will tell you that it is actually a feature.

In many matchups, Petrahydrox is unkillable. That’s pretty good. Against say, a Red/Black/Blue deck — such as one favored by StarCityGames.com own Richard Hoaen. They will have an impossible time dealing with Petrahydrox. It’s a little too big — it’s even hard to kill in combat.

Of course, with cards like Benevolent Ancestor and the like, you can really stick it to ‘em, controlling the flow of bounces and making Petrahydrox an all-star. I’m not sure if people are still underrating Petrahydrox. I just wish the people at my table did.

Pack 3 of the draft went pretty poorly. I didn’t get any Black cards. I got three Helium Squirters, which I ended up splashing for in my RBu deck. I chose to build it that way because of my Orzhov Euthanists. I had a Rain of Embers and a Viashino Fangtail, and the only good Blue cards I cut were Train of Thought and Surveilling Sprite, I wasn’t pleased to do that, but I had to build a deck that could win, even if I couldn’t.

Like I said, I went 2-2 in RGD draft. This left me on 4-3 for the day, needing to make an Antonino-style run (funny image, eh?). I needed to post a 6-0 or 7-0 to make Top 8, and I don’t think I had the heart at the beginning of the tournament. I certainly didn’t after throwing that match to an Eisel barn in round 6.

So the last thing to talk about is Standard. I saved it for last on purpose, partly because of how disappointing it was. I could almost cry — it’s been a rough week — but U.S. Nationals Standard… what a beating. Mike Flores already wrote part 1 of his series on the deck, so I’m not going to talk about it extensively… but maybe a little…

The bad matchups for this deck are few and far between. Heartbeat, which we predicted no one would play, is virtually unwinnable… and no one played it. Solar Flare, which we tested against in limited quantities, is also unwinnable. We came up with a solid sideboard strategy, but I’m completely unconvinced. The problem came when the deck was elevated from “worst-kept-secret” to “Australian National Champion.” This, of course, came the Wednesday before Nationals, courtesy of Blisterguy. It ruined the tournament for Steve Sadin and I. Steve stuck to his guns and played the deck regardless.

I can tell you that the other matchups are really good, given enough practice. Setting up Gifts Ungiven in a deck that has no automatic win and no Reclaim/Recollect isn’t the easiest thing in the world, and does require a bit of experience.

However, I cannot in good conscious recommend it. In the wake of U.S. Nationals, an event that is, if nothing else, more public than Australian Nationals, people will bring out their Vore Decks — which is good for you, because it’s a fine matchup. People will bring out their Heartbeat Decks, which is terrible for you because it is literally unwinnable. People will still play U/W/B Solar Flare, which is what it is… and that is very bad for you.

Before Nationals, we predicted a lot of aggressive decks: Sea Stompy, Zoo, even occasional Heezy Streets, Black/White in its various incarnations… We also predicted a lot of the Regionals players to play the deck that brought ‘em, so to speak. More often than not, that was going to be Tron. As it turns out, I was right about Tron being a good deck for the tournament. I wish I had followed through and switched to it. Looking around, table to table, I had flashbacks of Pro Tour: New Orleans 2001… In the 0-1 bracket I looked at Chad Ellis, who was playing Mono-Black with a card called Entomb, a card we hadn’t even tested. I felt like we were pretty much dead. You needed a good anti-control deck at Nationals, and I certainly didn’t have that — unless everyone was playing Tron and Vore. As you know, they weren’t.

Nationals was a very large disappointment in a string of very large disappointments. There are two Pro Events left this year, and I’ll probably attend two more Grand Prixes in between. I haven’t been happy with my play of late, and I can only hope that it improves in the near future. A few more disappointments like this, and well… who knows?

I’ll be back next week, talking about one specific deck.

Until then,

Thanks for reading.

Josh Ravitz