Mayhem at Midnight: Grinding at U.S. Nationals

After sleeping for the first half of the flight from Washington, DC to Kansas City, I finally wake up and pull out my notebook. Since the first grinder begins in about six hours, I should probably come up with my decklist. The maindeck looks pretty good, at least on paper. I haven’t actually tested it yet. But finalizing the sideboard is the hardest part. After much scribbling and scratching out, it finally looks good.

After sleeping for the first half of the flight from Washington, DC to Kansas City, I finally wake up and pull out my notebook. Since the first grinder begins in about six hours, I should probably come up with my decklist. The maindeck looks pretty good, at least on paper. I haven’t actually tested it yet. But finalizing the sideboard is the hardest part. After much scribbling and scratching out, it finally looks good.

My friend Andy-Maryland State Champion 2003 for those of you who haven’t heard of him-leans over and offers his help.

“You can’t have sixteen cards in your sideboard.”


Sure enough, I have one card too many written down. And damn, the sideboard looked so good. Over the next half-hour Andy and I hash out sideboard choices and strategies. He gives me the final boost of confidence needed to ditch Scrabbling Claws, and he insists that I’ll want the full four copies of Circle of Protection: Red versus Goblins. He almost gets me to ditch Sacred Ground, but I hold onto it just barely.

We get to the hotel without incident and I take a much-needed nap.

Then all of a sudden I’m at the tournament site, and midnight opener is about to begin. Just a few minutes left before my deck is officially registered. Do I really need those Sacred Grounds in the sideboard? It seems like Weathered Wayfarer would do the job and help versus control decks. But I have the fear, and its name is Flashfires.

Maybe if I had finalized my decklist earlier, instead of designing it on the flight to Kansas City, the right answer would be clear.

I’m really tired. Last night, I drove over six hours (roundtrip) to see The Shins. I only got about four hours of sleep before getting on the plane. But it was one of the best rock concerts I’ve ever seen. But I digress… [The Shins are amazing. Go see them if you get any chance at all. – Knut, longtime fan]

Back to Kansas City.

Why am I playing a control deck? I ask myself for the hundredth time,”Why don’t I go with something simpler and more forgiving, like Japanese Goblins?”

Because I played straight-up Goblins at Mid-Atlantic Regionals, and I hate so many games coming down to top-decking threats. It seems like once aggro decks lose momentum, or your opponent stabilizes, you’re basically screwed. Control decks, however, can always rip that Pulse of the Fields, Wrath of God, or Decree of Justice to suddenly swing games around.

So I returned to my roots, and here’s the deck I registered for the first grinder:


12 Plains

1 Forest

4 Windswept Heath

2 Mirrodin’s Core

4 Cloudpost

3 Temple of the False God

2 Solemn Simulacrum

2 Mindslaver

4 Eternal Dragon

4 Renewed Faith

3 Pulse of the Fields

3 Wing Shards

4 Wrath of God

4 Akroma’s Vengeance

4 Decree of Justice

4 Oxidize


4 Purge

4 Circle of Protection: Red

3 Sacred Ground

3 Duplicant

1 Mindslaver

Designing the Deck

What are the two most efficient spells that wreck Affinity’s early game on the most consistent (read: who cares about Welding Jar) basis? I kept coming back to two cards over and over again: Oxidize and Purge.

This led me to experiment with W/G Control builds for months. It started off as pure Mono-White. But I got too frustrated with sitting back and watching opponents get several free Skullclamp activations early in the game before I could drop Damping Matrix or cast Akroma’s Vengeance. And the match-up versus Elf and Nail was horrid.

Then I tried the Mike Flores build with Oxidize, Viridian Shaman, and Akroma. The Affinity matchup got better, but I really missed having an explosive mana base and ambushing people with Soldiers from Decree of Justice. And Elf and Nail remained was still really rough.

I moved from there to a more creature heavy build, sporting Silver Knight and Exalted Angel in addition to Eternal Dragon and Decree of Justice, dropping the Viridian Shamans but keeping Oxidize. Worship in the board shored up the Goblin matchup. Exalted Angel swinging on turn 4 gave Elf and Nail a pretty good race, and I had plenty of early plays against Affinity. But my deck was having an identity crisis. Pulse of the Fields no longer worked as well, and I killed a lot of my own men with board sweepers.

Two days before flying to Kansas City, I pushed the deck back to its pure control origins. Basically, I took Tony Gregg’s MWC decklist from Mid-Atlantic Regionals, cut Damping Matrix and Oblivion Stone, splashed Green, and added Oxidize.

The touch I’m most proud of is Mirrodin’s Core. In this build, with so few Green spells, the Core is better than Elfhame Palace. The only time that the Core hurts you is when you have to tap it for colored mana more than once in the early game. The times that you play the Core and use it immediately for colorless mana to sweep the board, return a Dragon to hand, or get an extra token with Decree of Justice vastly outnumber the rare instance when charging up the Core stalls your early game.

The other great thing is that the mana base is faster and more reliable than the other configurations more commonly seen in Mono-White decks. For example with 12 Plains, 4 Secluded Steppe, 4 Cloudpost, 4 Temple of the False God you have eight comes-into-play tapped lands, and you’re pushing your luck on Temple screw opening hand. Builds that use Urzatron, on the other hand, run a dangerously low number of White mana sources in a deck that cannot begin to function properly until it has double White.

In the meantime, metagame shifts opened up further potential for this deck. Goblin Bidding disappeared almost entirely – extremely helpful since handling Patriarch’s Bidding is almost impossible.

Some Elf and Nail decks started running Pyroclasm in the maindeck, a dead draw versus MWC+g. Some versions, such as the one played by Sameer Merchant, added Oxidize to the main, a card equally as helpful as Pyroclasm against control.

Affinity had to squeeze Somber Hoverguard into the sideboard to cope with Elf and Nail, but then it became tough to get everything else in the board, so the fourth Mana Leak often got cut and some people dropped it entirely.

And R/G Aggro Beasts came into its own as a foil to the perceived Affinity/Goblin metagame. Try watching Beasts handle a deck loaded with board sweepers, life gain, and unstoppable win conditions. It’s boring and hopeless. It’s no coincidence that Bill Stead went 3-0 in the top 8 against the Beast deck played by Michael Aitchison.

Alright, I’m going to stop now. It’s hard to let go of my pet deck. But the bottom line is that with Fifth Dawn legal and Skullclamp banned, we’re in a whole new world. MWC+g is no longer relevant. Let’s get to the Midnight Grinder and see what happened.

Round One – Bye

I’m kind of annoyed with the bye. I know, that sounds stupid, right? Well, instead of playing I spent most of this round sleepwalking aimlessly, afraid that if I sat down I’d pass out. A round of Magic would have worked my brain and kept me awake, primed for more action.

Interlude 1

Two of the guys I’m sharing a room with are playing in this grinder too. Andy came to Kansas City determined to play Affinity, but he couldn’t resist giving my deck a try since he likes Eternal Dragon and Wrath of God so much. His deck is practically identical to mine except that he is playing three Talisman of Unity. In theory, playing Solemn Simulacrum and Wrath of God on turn 3 is very good. In practice, the Talismans were a disaster, acting as bad lands that blew up very often.

The other guy playing is Ben Rose. He’s piloting R/U/B Affinity because it’s”the best deck in the format” and he’s not afraid of hate. Ben kind of gave me and Andy a hard time for going with our roguish control lists. Ben lost round one to the mirror match, while Andy pulled off the win.

Round Two – Brandon L Simmons with Ponza

I win the die roll and play first. It doesn’t matter:

Turn 1: Mountain, Chrome Mox, Slith Firewalker

Turn 2: Mountain, Stone Rain

Turn 3: Blinkmoth Nexus, Stone Rain

I cycle one or two cards and die to a massive Slith Firewalker, joined by a Blinkmoth Nexus. Not fair. Not cool. No way am I going to get knocked out of the grinder this early by a damn Ponza deck.

-2 Mindslaver

-1 Akroma’s Vengeance

+3 Sacred Ground (Glad I kept them in the board)

It seems like Oxidize should get sided out, but that’s definitely a mistake. Oxidize kills Moxes, Nexus, and most importantly Culling Scales, Ponza’s only answer to Sacred Ground.

Game two I keep an interesting hand that has Cloudpost, Forest, Eternal Dragon, Sacred Ground, and some expensive stuff.

I open with Cloudpost and pass the turn. Brandon plays a Mountain and I cringe, hoping there isn’t another first turn Slith Firewalker to contend with.

No Mox this time.

I follow up in true land-go style with my forest. Now Brandon plays the Mox and hits my Forest with Molten Rain. Hmm, I think to myself,”maybe there should be more than one Forest in the deck for situations like these.” Casting Oxidize is going to be really hard this game when my Windswept Heath can’t fetch Green mana. In response to the Rain, I tap out and cycle Eternal Dragon. Next turn I play Sacred Ground, feeling pretty good about the situation. What’s the probability that he has already drawn Culling Scales?

He casts Culling Scales on turn 3.

So much for Sacred Ground. I stay on the”cycle cards and make land-drops” plan. As soon as Culling Scales destroys my”hoser,” Brandon starts unloading the land destruction spells that were clogging up his hand. My lands take about three hits, but I manage to keep up the land flow, and he can’t find a threat to go with his disruption. This is a typical problem Ponza runs into. You need the ideal combination of disruption and threats for the deck to really work.

I get hit by the occasional Shock or Arc-Slogger activation, but none of Brandon’s threats stick. Eventually, I find a second Sacred Ground. Then I cast an Eternal Dragon, followed by a whole bunch of Soldiers for the win.

Game three has a harrowing start that reminds me of game one. Brandon doesn’t like his first seven cards, so he sends them back for six new ones. Slith Firewalker comes out on either turn 1 or 2, but it doesn’t matter because I get Sacred Ground out right away and this time Culling Scales is on vacation. The Firewalker grows very large, but it can’t win the race versus Pulse of the Fields. When Culling Scales finally appears to save the day, I have Oxidize ready. Brandon seems surprised, and I explain that Oxidize has plenty of nice targets against him.

After getting rid of the Firewalker, I have to cope with Avarax and its two cousins. Pulse of the Fields saves the day again, and after wiping the board I finish the games with a Dragon and Soldiers.

Matches 2-0, Games 2-1

Round Three – Raymond J Wilber with Aggro Beasts

I play first and mulligan a one-land hand. Fortunately, my opponent doesn’t keep his hand either. Seeing a Forest on the other side of the table makes me nervous, since Elf and Nail is really tough game one. When I discover that it’s actually Beasts, I breathe a sigh of relief.

This match-up is insanely favorable for me, the closest thing I’ve experienced to a 90-10 or 100-0 win percentage. I cycle Renewed Faith, cast Pulse of the Fields six times, wipe the board once or twice and win with some big flying guys.

-4 Oxidize

-2 Mindslaver

+3 Sacred Ground

+3 Duplicant

Few Beasts decks pack the big three (Flashfires, Decree of Annihilation, and Obliterate), but the matchup is so good that it’s foolish to not bring in some insurance against the only spells I have to fear.

We both go down to six cards again in game two. More land problems for me. Maybe the deck needs a 27th land. My second hand is clunky and slow. I cycle Renewed Faith and don’t do anything for a few turns, while a speedy Ravenous Baloth (turn 3) beats me down and is soon joined with friends. I can’t seem to draw the board sweeper I need. Things get so bad that I actually cast Renewed Faith to stay in the game at four life. I untap, knock the top of my deck, and draw…

Akroma’s Vengeance!

But Ray follows up with more pressure and knocks me down to five before I find Pulse of the Fields. He manages to get up to forty life by sacrificing creatures to Ravenous Baloth, but that strategy is really dangerous when your opponent has Pulse of the Fields and the ability to suddenly generate alpha strikes with Decree of Justice, so you can guess how this game ends.

Matches 3-0, Games 4-1

Interlude 2

Andy is also undefeated after round three, and we’re both getting pretty excited about the deck. I’m a little worried too. What if I have to play the mirror in the finals? Will Andy concede since I gave him my decklist for the grinder? He is qualified for the JSS championship, so even if he qualified for Nationals he’d have to give up day 2 to play in the JSS. But what if…

Losing to the deck I designed in the last round. Sounds like something that would happen to me. How would the matchup turn out? Andy is an awesome control player. But, oh yeah. He has those bad lands in his deck, the Talismans. That means my Oxidizes aren’t dead draws, and they can actually work like land destruction. Game one should at least favor me.

Round Four – Daniel R Logan with R/U/B Affinity

Enough of this Ponza and Beasts nonsense, it’s time to play a real deck, one that I’ve actually metagamed against. My notes are sketchy for this one so let’s see if I can figure our what happened…

Game one I get knocked down to nine with a Frogmite, Arcbound Worker, and Shrapnel Blast, but then Pulse of the Fields sends me back up to seventeen. Oxidize hits an early Skullclamp, but two or three Welding Jars cramp my blow-up-all-your-permanents plan.

So I cast Akroma’s Vengeance twice.

After that, Solemn Simulacrum gets in a few beats, and then the twin-Angel cavalry provides an assist.

-2 Mindslaver

-1 Eternal Dragon

-1 Wing Shards

+4 Purge

Wing Shards is dead against Modular creatures, and obviously the Dragon and Slavers are way too slow. You leave in all the Decrees so that you can punish people for playing around Pulse of the Fields by mana burning.

Game two Dan doesn’t get the super explosive Affinity draw. With Purge and Oxidize, I easily keep his early threats under control until I bust out the big board sweepers. Early beats and a Shrapnel Blast take me to ten, so I cast Renewed Faith to play it safe.

An Arcbound Worker knocks me down to fifteen, and I cast another Renewed Faith at the end of his turn, going up to twenty-one. Then, I Vengeance away his side of the board with three mana to spare, playing around Mana Leak. The Sad Robot gets in some beats once again, and then a big Dragon appears.

After the match, I find out that Dan didn’t have room in his sideboard for Mana Leak, because he needed slots for Somber Hoverguard versus Elf and Nail. That’s music to my ears.

Games 6-1, Matches 4-0

Interlude 3

Andy is still undefeated. Qualifying for both JSS and Nationals, now that would be impressive. Could I have stumbled upon an archetype that can really stand up to this Skullclamp-infested metagame?

Round Five – Brandon M Scheel with Beasts

It’s time for a…

Deck Check

This is one of the scariest moments in the grinder for me. When you haven’t been sleeping much, and you finished designing your deck on the flight to Kansas City, suddenly you’re not so sure if what you registered exactly matches what you’re playing.

Brandon is a nice, easy-going guy and we chat while our decks are dissected. We’re both relieved when they get returned without any problems.

I lose the die roll, but my hand is ludicrous. By turn 5 I have triple Cloudpost and two Plains on the table. I make three Angels with my first Decree of Justice, and the next turn a make four more Angels. I win with nineteen life.

-4 Oxidize

-2 Mindslaver

+3 Sacred Ground

+3 Duplicant

Game two Brandon gets one of those all land and mana creatures but little gas hands. I win effortlessly with a Simulacrum and Eternal Dragon. Damn, the Sad Robot has been getting in some beats tonight.

Games 7-1, Matches 5-0

Interlude 4

I know all about my final opponent’s deck because Andy just lost to him. I’m up against a G/W Control deck that-strangely enough-appears like it is tuned to crush the mirror match. WTF? I know that there are some rogue decks running around, and I’m a big supporter of said decks, but I never dreamed that I’d have to face something like this.

Round Six – Daniel A Lawver with G/W Veggie Tooth

Game one starts off very well. Dan wins the roll and plays first, which seems like a mistake in the control-on-control matchup. Then he throws back his opening hand-more good news for me. Maybe I can do the impossible and actually win this one.

Any hope of winning this game evaporates by turn 4. I miss my land drop. What does Dan do on his fourth turn? Surely it can’t be that bad. I can still topdeck some lands and get back into this game, right?

Dan casts Explosive Vegetation. I’m against some sort of early Onslaught block mutated Veggies deck! What the hell is going on? Of all the deck to lose to! How the hell is he fast enough to beat Affinity and Goblins? Why’d I have to get paired up against this monstrosity of a deck?

I’m still land-screwed when Dan casts Tooth and Nail, searching out two copies of Darksteel Colossus. At least they put me out of my misery quickly.

-4 Wrath of God

+3 Duplicant

+1 Mindslaver

Again, it looks like you should drop Oxidize, but they’re better than Wrath of God. Dan might get desperate and play Mindslaver on turn 6. He might have Damping Matrix to shut down my Mindslavers, or Duplicant versus my Dragons. And Oxidize is useful against Darksteel Colossus when you need to storm up Wing Shards.

I shuffle up for game two, thoroughly demoralized after getting crushed last game by both his deck and my own deck (for refusing to cough up mana sources). I’m tempted to give up. It was a hell of a run for my first grinder, with a rogue deck, and lacking sleep.

I ship back a no-land hand. What the hell? This deck really needs another land. My next six are better, at least. I manage to make my first four land-drops, but after that I get stuck again and end up having to discard.

Meanwhile, Dan plays Rampant Growth on turn 2, Explosive Vegetation the next turn, Solemn Simulacrum the turn after, and then another Rampant Growth for good measure. It’s freaking ridiculous.

And I’m getting wicked pissed off.

But Dan’s having trouble finding the goods, and I drop my fifth land and start thinning all the Plains out of my deck with Eternal Dragon. Dan finds some action at last and hits me with Mindslaver, but my hand is so lackluster that it doesn’t really matter.

The land-go game goes on for a while. I can tell that he’s getting really annoyed, unable to find business cards. He’s also starting to give me some attitude. I find that especially annoying when your opponent is up a game and the matchup favors him to such a large extent.

I get in some beats with Solemn Simulacrum yet again, taking him down to seventeen because he cycles Renewed Faith a couple of times. Then I ambush him with seven Soldiers. It’s early, but my hand is short on stuff that matters, I have a second Decree ready, and I need to apply some pressure to distract him. The seven Soldiers move across the battlefield twice, taking Dan down to three. Then he wipes them away with Akroma’s Vengeance, and uses Pulse of the Fields to go back up to eleven life.

On my turn I mana burn myself like crazy to prevent his Pulse from getting any more out of hand. But the damage has been done. I probably should have mana burned earlier, but I was afraid he had his own armies of Soldiers. For good measure, I burn myself down to six life, just in case.

Right after I do all that mana burning, I draw my answer to Pulse of the Fields: Mindslaver.

He casts Tooth and Nail for double Darksteel Colossus. Then, miraculously, he only puts one of them into play. I guess he is playing around me hitting him with the Mindslaver, Wing Shards for two combo, which is exactly what I have in hand.

By now I have plenty of lands, so I easily Mindslaver him with Wing Shards mana open. On his turn I waste his only two copies of Pulse of the Fields, bringing him to 19 life. Then I swing his Colossus into my Wing Shards, tap him out, and take my own turn.

Lacking gas, I return Eternal Dragon to hand and play it. Dan casts the second Colossus. I’m looking at my six life, realizing that Eternal Dragon can’t stop the Colossus from trampling over for lethal damage, and I realize that mana burning down to six life was pretty stupid. Why couldn’t I have stayed at seven life, like a smart player?

Dan takes his turn and casts his second Colossus. At the end of his turn I cycle Akroma’s Vengeance, but don’t pull anything good. I uptap, and pull…

Another Akroma’s Vengeance. I cycle it into…

Wing Shards! Then I attack with my Eternal Dragon and Solemn Simulacrum. The Colossus takes out Jens, and I draw Decree of Justice when it goes to the graveyard. How lucky!

Dan attacks on his turn, smelling victory. I pretend to be concerned, channeling all my nonchalance and annoying calm into this moment. Then I cast Wing Shards with a grin. The Colossus gets shuffled away. And at the end of the turn I make a bunch of Soldiers to assist my Dragon. The Soldiers and Dragon take Dan down to one life. Now I just need him to not draw any removal or life-gain.

He draws, thinks, and passes the turn.

I send everyone into the red zone. Dan doesn’t have an answer and I pull off the impossible win. It’s about time that my inability to make early land drops is made up for with some vicious topdecks. Karma swings both ways, right?

We have about four minutes left on the clock when the final game starts. For the third game in a row I stare at an opener with mana problems. There are no White mana sources, not even an Eternal Dragon. My hand is:



Renewed Faith

Renewed Faith

Pulse of the Fields

Pulse of the Fields


I take a while to make my decision. My friend Mark is looking over my shoulder and I know he’ll be annoyed at me for what I’m about to do.

I keep the hand.

Dan starts off and cycles a Renewed Faith, digging for lands, I assume.

I miss my third land drop and have to discard Pulse of the Fields. That makes for a grand total of three games where I have to discard because of land screw. I miss my land drop the next turn and discard some newly-drawn creature removal spell.

Then my first White mana source appears and I’m back in the game. The fourth land appears the turn after that. But on the following turn I don’t draw another land.

I draw Solemn Simulacrum, the best land I never drew. Jens comes into play and gets my second Plains out of my deck, so now my mana base is fully functional. What a treat. Jens hits Dan once, but doesn’t stick around. I think Wrath of God did him in.

I could cycle Renewed Faith to dig up more lands, but I want the full six points of life, and I’m afraid of enabling Dan’s Pulse of the Fields. Just before we run out of time, I cast my first Renewed Faith, going up to twenty-six. By the time we hit the five-turn clock, I have exactly six mana sources in play, two of them White. The creature battle is almost nonexistent. Dan’s has a Simulacrum that chips away at my life total twice. Then he casts Kamahl, Fist of Krosa, which makes me nervous, but I have Duplicant ready.

What really matters, though, is the life gain. Over the course of my three turns during the five-turn clock, I cut loose with all my life gain spells, going all the way up to thirty-eight life. The game ends with me at thirty-eight and Dan at twenty. Since this is single-round elimination, I win the game, and therefore the match, based on life total.

Matches 6-0, Games 8-2

I leap up and I’m shouting and Mark and Andy are cheering. I can’t believe it. I’m actually playing in Nationals.


Having just finished my Masters degree and in the middle of searching for jobs, getting to Kansas City was something that I put off and didn’t take seriously. Without help from some key people, I never would have made it there. Mark, I owe you for all that playtesting time. Andy, thanks for pushing/pressuring me to go to Nationals with you and your cousin. And thanks to Andy’s mom, Susanne, for helping with flights and travel arrangements. Most important of all, thank you Maria, for supporting my love for the game everyday, no matter how many times you catch me surfing Magic-related web sites or scattering my card collection across the bedroom floor. Without all of you, there’s no way I would have made it to Kansas City. It’s really hard to grind in when you’re not even there.

The MWC+g Craze

The grinder ended around seven in the morning and not only was I feeling really good about qualifying, but I was starting to feel like a mini-celebrity. Tons of people were coming up to me and Andy to ask about the deck. My favorite encounter was one where this local player/judge I know came up to me and asked:

“Rick, what are you playing? I hear you have some insane deck.”

Knowing that the list was going to get posted on the Wizards website anyway, we passed it along pretty freely. Our friend, Ben Rose, gave up on Affinity and played MWC+g in two more grinders. In the first one, he went 5-1, losing in the final round to a mono-Black Death Cloud deck with Ravenous Rats and Chittering Rats. In the next qualifier, he went 6-0. So my deck sent both of us to the main event. Little did we know that it would come incredibly close to making Bill Stead the U.S. National Champion.

Here ends the beginning. Next time I’ll cover the main event, which is a tale of smashing face, getting smashed, and play errors galore. Guess which format I dominated and guess which one wrecked me. I’ll also provide insight on how I am one of the worst players to ever activate Mindslaver.

Take it easy,


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