“That’s what learning is, after all; not whether we lose the game, but how we lose and how we’ve changed because of it and what we take away from it that we never had before, to apply to other games.” — Richard Bach
I’ve been losing a lot this year. And by a lot I mean more than half my matches. Unfortunately, I was not learning. I was blaming my losses on the lack of time I had to prepare. When I took my fourth loss at Nationals last Saturday, because of a stupid mistake nonetheless, Geoffrey Siron came to me and said: “It’s fine, man. Sometimes you gotta take one for the team. At some point you gotta lose to become better.”
Now for those of you who don’t know Geoffrey Siron (the only Belgian to ever win a PT), the guy can talk a lot of nonsense, but this time he seemed to be serious. I thought for a while and figured that instead of blaming my losses on the lack of preparation, I should look for what I’m doing wrong and learn from it.Â
Belgian Nationals came only three days after my honeymoon to Costa Rica. I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time to tune my Standard deck so I figured my best chance was to consult some people who had been playing Standard.
Martin Juza: “So we have tested DI for our Nationals and came up with a lot of different decks. I played Tempered Steel and made a sweet Vampires list. Both decks were pretty sweet. Valakut is quite good too. Splinter Twin and UB are bad I think. UB can’t even beat Squadron Hawk.”
Kazuya Mitamura: “I played UB at Nationals. Your matchup against UW, Twin, Mono Red, and Steel is good. Against Valakut you are 50:50. Vampires and Vengevine decks are your worst matchups. If you think these last two are very few, this deck is good.”
Matej Zatlkaj: “I haven’t played a lot, but I have a sweet UB brew…”
Nick Spagnolo: “Play our deck. Our Caw-Blade list is just ahead of the whole field.”
Secretly I was just hoping for everyone to say “Play Mono Red; it’s the best deck by far,” ’cause that would’ve made for an easy choice. No luck though. Instead I got four completely different opinions, and it was Nick (and his 20-0 record at the SCG Open) who convinced me the most. I played some games against Valakut and Mono Red and felt the deck to be really powerful. I didn’t like the fact that it didn’t have any clock though and that most games took pretty long to win (or lose). Nick suggested adding two Mirran Crusader (as it doesn’t die to Dismember), but people at my local club told me Hero of Bladehold was just very good. I took both cards with me on Friday and would just decide whatever felt right at the time.
On Friday morning, Vincent Lemoine, our eventual champ (big congratulations to him btw!) and the one I trusted the most in the whole room, came to me and told me he was running Caw-Blade with Hero of Bladehold and Blade Splicer. It didn’t take him long to convince me, and this is what I ended up sleeving for Belgian Nationals 2011:
For people who hate round-by-round explanations and just want to know what to play in the next tournament: my list was pretty good. The only card that really disappointed me was Blade Splicer. I sideboarded them out in most of my matches, and in the matches I did keep them, they were pretty awful. The Heroes however were really good for me and won me several games (although it could be that Emeria Angel is just as good). For future tournaments, I would cut the 3 Blade Splicer for another Spellskite, another Into the Roil, and a Consecrated Sphinx. In the sideboard, I would cut the third Day of Judgment for another Timely Reinforcements (as that is just your best card in a lot of matchups).
Round 1 (vs. BGW Birthing Pod)
On turn 3 the board is empty (my three lands to his two), and my hand is Mana Leak, double Sword of Feast and Famine, Oblivion Ring, Hero of Bladehold, and Gideon Jura. I have the choice of playing out one of my Swords or keeping up Mana Leak. I know my opponent is running Birthing Pod and know the deck relies heavily on that artifact. I’m holding Oblivion Ring however, and as I’m not holding a fourth and fifth land, I play out my Sword. That way, if I draw a fourth land, I can play Hero and don’t need the fifth land to equip the turn after. If I don’t draw a fifth land, I’ll still have Mana Leak up on the next turn.
In the second game, I curve Squadron Hawk into Hero of Bladehold, while my opponent plays some random guys (Nest Invader and Viridian Emissary). When he copies my Hero of Bladehold with Phyrexian Metamorph, I have the choice of playing Oblivion Ring on his Metamorph and attacking or playing out two more Hawks and waiting another turn. The first play wins the game right away, but if he has Nature’s Claim at that point, I just lose.
I go for the safe play, and when he taps out on his next turn (for Archon of Justice), I go for it and put him at one with five guys on the board. His double(!) Nature’s Claim on the next turn gives him another turn (bring back Metamorph copying Archon and kill it with the second to gain four), but the turn after he scoops to my army of Caws and Soldiers.
Round 2 (vs. Valakut)
My opponent has a one-turn window to draw his sixth land before my Hero seals the deal, but he hits, and double Titan takes the game.
My five land, Hero of Bladehold, Sword of Feast and Famine is a clear mulligan, but for some reason I think that if I don’t play anything before turn 4 he’ll just wait in fear of counters. I keep and just lose when my opponent curves Explore into Oracle into Titan.
Before sideboard, when Valakut doesn’t have Nature’s Claim and you have only four counters, it can actually be right to keep that hand. But after boarding, this hand is a clear mulligan, and the mistake costs me my first loss.
Round 3 (vs. RUG Pod Splinter Twin)
Game one is a pretty long affair in which I end up winning by a topdecked Gideon. Around turn six I have Spellskite equipped with Sword of Feast and Famine on the board, holding a second Spellskite. Instead of playing the second Spellskite, I attack with Colonnade and pass with all my mana up. On his turn, my opponent plays Viridian Corrupter, destroying my Sword. I promptly redirect to Spellskite, but that has no effect since Spellskite has protection from green from the Sword (apparently it is legal to use the ability; it just doesn’t have any effect). My opponent draws Birthing Pod after that, and all of the sudden he is back in the game. Good thing I draw a Gideon just before he can get a six-mana dude, and Colonnade attacks for lethal the turn after.
To be honest, I had no idea at all what to take out. I knew I wanted some Day of Judgments, but three seemed too much. I wasn’t sure about Jace, but since he’s good against Splinter Twin, I thought he would be good against RUG as well. I probably wouldn’t sideboard him again. Having Blade Splicer in my deck was always a relief when sideboarding. Every time I didn’t know what to take out I just searched for my three Blade Splicers and put them on the sideline.
Game two, turn 3 Thrun puts some serious pressure on me, and my opponent wisely never taps out against my Day of Judgment. Hero of Bladehold never shows up, and after some time I have to start chumping with my Hawks.
For game three I put back one Gideon and one Sword of Feast and Famine to have some outs against Thrun (turned out this deck was only playing one). This time my opponent doesn’t draw his singleton, and I take the game by playing patiently, always keeping up at least four mana to counter whatever he tries to play. My four Hawks eventually kill him while I counter all of his important spells with Flashfreeze, Mana Leak, and Deprive.
It usually takes me about ten drafts to fully understand a format. Having done only two before Nationals wasn’t really comforting, but at least I knew what I wanted: a white-based aggro deck, B/R bloodthirst, or mythics.dec.
First pack, no mythic :( but a Grim Lavamancer, which I take over Chandra’s Outrage and Acidic Slime. It’s possible that Chandra’s Outrage is the better card, but with bloodthirst around, I think Lavamancer is the right pick. Second pack, I take Goblin Chieftain out of an empty pack but see no red cards for the rest of the pack. In the middle, I have the choice of going blue or white (Merfolk Looter or Assault Griffin) and unfortunately go for the Griffin. Instead of keeping my options open in pack two, I immediately take another red card (Chandra’s Outrage) and again receive not a single red card. Pack 3 brings me another Lavamancer (over another Chandra’s Outrage) but again nothing spectacular comes to me. My deck ends up being a nearly mono-white deck splashing my three first picks. Turns out I was in the middle of five guys drafting red.
Round 4: (vs. BR triple Lava Axe double Consume Spirit)
Game one my draws are very slow, and I die to Consume Spirit followed by a Lava Axe. Game two I curve Griffin Rider into Griffin Sentinel into Swiftfoot Boots (equip Sentinel). At turn 6 my opponent is at eight life (thanks to Child of Night), and I’m holding Guardian’s Pledge and Siege Mastodon. Since I can’t think of anything except Doom Blade (in which case I lose anyway) I play Guardian’s Pledge and attack for nine in the air. Unfortunately, Sorin’s Thirst (which I had passed him) brings my opponent back to ten life, and I die on the counterattack followed by a Lava Axe.
Games like these happen all the time actually. The player in the driver’s seat loses focus because he thinks he has already won and makes the mistake by not playing around the combination of cards that beat him. Sure, my opponent needed the Sorin’s Thirst and the Lava Axe here. But I was still at eleven life, facing a 3/3, a 3/1, and a 2/1. Siege Mastodon was in so many ways the safer and better play. Just remember that next time you lose to a topdeck (or to a combination of cards); don’t whine about it. Try to find the line of play that would’ve allowed you to play around these cards.
Round 5: (vs. a very slow UWG deck)
I lose in three games as my draws are very slow, and my deck can’t handle his Greater Basilisks and/or Spiders.
Round 6: (bye)
Not really comforting to get a bye at the end of day 1, but it did mean that I still had an outside shot at Top 8. Day 1 had been a rollercoaster of good and bad plays, and I knew I’d have to focus more and win everything if I wanted to make Top 8. I didn’t give up though. Caw-Blade was clearly the deck to play, so if I could survive the draft portion, anything was possible.
A pack with Incinerate, Sengir Vampire, and Pacifism stares at me at the beginning of day 2. I knew from several people that red was being over-drafted on day 1, so I take the Pacifism. Second pick I take Assault Griffin over Shock and third pick another white card over the two red bloodthirst guys. After that, I receive some more white and blue cards, and my deck is already looking much better than the one from day 1. The rest of the draft is pretty straightforward. I pick up another Pacifism, an Oblivion Ring, and several fliers for a solid UW deck.
Round 7: (vs. BR bloodthirst)
My draw is pretty good, but Royal Assassin is not exactly my friend. My opponent doesn’t do a lot either, except for wasting some removal spells on guys that can’t attack anyway. After some time, I draw my Phantasmal Image, copy his Royal Assassin, and start attacking with my Griffin Rider, Griffin Sentinel, and Assault Griffin. Sengir Vampire puts a stop on that plan, but I draw Unsummon, bounce his Sengir, and attack for another eight damage.
However, when I look at my opponent’s board, the Sengir Vampire is still there and not in his hand. My opponent claims I had pointed at his (useless) Goblin Fireslinger and had taken that one in hand. Because I am already attacking, the head judge rules in my opponent’s favor, and Sengir Vampire stays on the board. Fortunately, they let me take back my attack so I don’t lose my Assault Griffin because of a miscommunication.
In some way, I can understand this ruling. Judges can’t base their ruling on the right strategic intent. It was very obvious that I was bouncing the Sengir Vampire, but I should’ve noticed it before attacking, and the judges had no way of knowing if I had targeted the Sengir or the stupid Goblin. What my opponent did was a little bit tricky though. He said several times that bouncing the Goblin didn’t make sense, but still he was convinced I had targeted the Fireslinger with my Unsummon (which seems unlikely, but he seemed like an honest man so you never know). What concerns me however is that any person can use this “ruling” to gain advantage, and there is no way for the judges to stop it once something like an attack has happened.
Anyway, I still win this game because my opponent suicides his whole army while putting me at six life.
In the second game, my opponent takes three warnings (one for casting Goblin Piker with BB, one for casting Goblin Grenade as an instant, and one for trying to gain two life with Sorin’s Thirst when targeting my Illusion), and I win a pretty tense match.
Round 8: (vs. RG double Act of Treason double Fling double Incinerate)
My opponent’s deck is fine, but he doesn’t draw very well, and my fliers win in two short games.
Round 9: (vs. GW double Stingerfling Spider double Arachnus Web double Acidic Slime)
Not exactly the matchup I am hoping for, but again my opponent doesn’t draw his good cards (or his fifth mana), and I beat him in two games.
Winning this draft boosted my confidence, and I felt like my little Caws could carry me to my second Top 8 at Belgian Nationals.
Some thoughts about M12 draft: the format is very fast, and it seems like white and red are the best colors, not close. However, both those colors have several commons and uncommons people are happy first-picking (Pacifism, Incinerate, Fireball, Serra Angel, the 5/5 bloodthirst guy…). People tend to stick with their first three picks because after that, most cards are vanilla creatures anyway, and they don’t care about taking fourth-pick Goblin Piker over Giant Spider because they’ll need bloodthirst anyway. Or they’ll pick Griffin Sentinel over the Giant Spider because they think they’ll get Griffin Riders if they cut white.
For those reasons, it seems to me that figuring out what your neighbors are drafting is even more important than in previous formats. You won’t get cards like Mind Control or Serra Angel in pack one, but once people have settled on their colors they’ll ship you the goodies. So if you open a pack with Pacifism, Serra Angel, and Assault Griffin, it might be wise to take the slightly inferior Chandra’s Outrage. Or if you open a pack with Grim Lavamancer and Chandra’s Outrage as the only playables, keep in mind that there is a good chance that the guy on your left will be drafting red, even if you pass him not a single good red card after that.
Round 10: (vs. Tempered Steel)
Things are looking good when I win game one on the back of turn 5 Gideon, and things are looking good in game 2 as well until I draw seven lands in a row. Game three is a very long game in which I trick my opponent into making several small mistakes. Unfortunately, I return the favor by attacking my opponent to one with Gideon before casting my Timely Reinforcements and thus not gaining six life.Â
I feel like I played really well in this round, except for that one very stupid mistake in the last turn, which cost me the match and a chance to make Top 8. I sat in my chair for several minutes thinking why I still bother if I make stupid mistakes like this. Whispers like “he doesn’t have it anymore” and “it’s not always the best player who wins” from the crowd didn’t help either. I felt like dropping, but with two more wins, I could still make Top 16 and pick up one pro point.
Round 11 (vs. Mono Red) and round 12 (vs. UW Control)
There was not much to win except that one pro point, and both my opponents were kind enough to concede to me. Thanks, Pascal Vieren and Robin Merckx.
8-4 and a 16th place at Belgian Nationals.
One could blame the lack of preparation for my failure. But that’s not what learning is about. I lost because I didn’t mulligan when I knew I had to in round 2, because I wasn’t focused in round 4, and because I didn’t think things through in round 10. At least this time I’ve learned something, and I’m eager as ever to do well at PT Philadelphia.
“Losing, in a curious way, is winning.” — Richard Bach
Thanks for reading. I hope you have learned as much as I while reading this article.