I’m sitting next to a woman with really big hands named Sun Ray. She appears composed, so she is, I suppose. Italian, given the shiny smooth dark hair with matching caramel-colored fake-baked skin; heels complementing her dark brown shorts and juicy thick legs; and tube of Molinari salami she whipped out mid flight to gag on. The pink fedora on her dome also matched her Gucci purse and lavish dangling accessories from her ear lobes and neck and wrapped haphazardly around every appendage imaginable (yes, perhaps even that one). If unnecessary jewelry was a sign of terrorism, this one should be shot up like Osama.
Despite the overall feminine nature, which interestingly led to a daydream on my 10-hour drive home from Chicago, her knees were spread as far apart as imaginable, stretching to the middle of the narrow aisle all the way into my severely intruded personal space. I suppose preambles like this are common for me on these magical adventures, but it’s been two years since I laced up these swiftfoot boots. I forgot the most important lesson when traveling and essentially “in limbo” as far as a schedule is concerned: take what life sends your way and have fun with it.
So, the two-hour flight was basically a war of attrition on my part to stand my ground on elbow and personal space; however, this backfired in a major way. I didn’t figure the piece of gum I offered when we were shooting through the atmosphere was going to be a lead item, but for some reason it apparently granted her permission to run her muscled fingers through my curly hair and exclaim her jealousy on numerous occasions. Bad play, I should’ve mulligan for another seat, but it’s not like I was flying Southwest and could sit anywhere. Damn Delta had me stuck in a rut next to a girl with nuts.
+ 1 Socialization
I remember a time when my gut wrenched in anticipation of each event, the next more crucial and important than the last. Chasing pro points to level up, chasing dollar bills to soothe a reddened bank account to enable another plane ticket, chasing life experience anywhere I could travel away from home to find it. The world was vivid in color, and my desires for Magic burned a bright auburn red, but ashamedly, looking back, I was just another mage lost in the shuffle.
Magic is a movie so crass, and awkwardly cast, that even YOU could be a star! The years will seem short, but the days will be long.
For what it’s worth, I find my colors elsewhere. In the muddled blue efficiency of my steadily progressing business, an aspiring orange to become a more dominant billiards player, in the ever-changing shades of brown consistency my Metamucil brings me each morning, in the warm hazel eyes of my love, and in the green prosperity that I see in my future as inevitability. A rainbow of potential all brought to me because learning Magic opened my mind to grander endeavors.
However, now there is a lack of color when it comes to Magic that can’t be undermined, at least from my perspective. Perhaps these chemical reactions going on upstairs just aren’t suited for the grind anymore. I’ve been away for what feels too long. The people are the same and haven’t changed at all. The names might; however at their core they’re grinders chasing those scattered Sunday appearances. The event hall is the same, the concessions somehow more expensive, and the format has a dominant deck, several tiers of action, and little ole me at the bottom trying to climb the ladder of brew-mastery all over again.
Evolving into a brew-master is a perilous, rigid affair: many years of format changes, many tournaments of tracking up and down trends, many bucks blown on entry fees only to run into that ONE HORRIBLE matchup early on that deflates your balloon of inspiration, many late nights in front of an illuminated screen or sitting on a hotel bed with the decklist laid out, working at squeezing those last couple cards you want in your deck.
The real core of a brewer is finding an under-appreciated interaction that people don’t respect yet, then trying out as many configurations to get a good balance around it. Many of the most dominant lists in the past follow this tradition, mind you, and what we live for is finding that perfect 60 that is still waiting to be configured. Perhaps it will only be good for a few tournaments, but this could be your shot at unparalleled greatness with something of your own creation and ingenuity.
Who thought Squadron Hawk could be good in a U/W control deck anyway, and wielding a sword in its talons no less. Who thought Ichorid would be a good call for an under prepared GP Charlotte back in ’05? No one respected a Spinerock Knoll until that fateful year at Worlds. What kind of sick adolescent-teased mind did it take to construct a legit PT deck that ideally played turn two Howling Mine before bouncing a couple permanents and landing an Ebony Owl Netsuke?
Grow up! Obscure interactions are the reason tournament Magic IS what it IS! Plus, the face on my opponent when I used four Archive Traps on turn two after only a Ponder and (Ancestral) Visions of Beyond is about the best feeling in the world.
Here’s a list of interactions I’ve primarily been toying with the past forty or fifty days with Nationals and the 75k in mind…
Birds + Turn 2 Sword
The lists weren’t exactly Thompson Blade pretty, but I’d play them at FNM, if I had time for such follies…
- 2 Gatekeeper of Malakir
- 4 Vampire Lacerator
- 4 Mortician Beetle
- 4 Viscera Seer
- 4 Demon of Death's Gate
- 4 Fume Spitter
- 4 Vault Skirge
Now, despite being a giant black pile of poop, this deck can actually jump on top of an opponent and really punish slow draws from them. I designed this one a long time ago when Standard first made the JTMS n’ SFM bans; planning to jump on top of Valakut in a race they can’t win. You’ve a massive one-drop slot, with 33 cards you can unload on themâ€”most of which have beneficial synergies within themselves to propel you to a lethal Demon on turn four, or have some ability to disrupt the opponent.
Fume Spitter in particular covers a lot of bases for a universally unplayed one-drop. He adds two counters to Quest, pumps Beetle, is a part of the 24 one-drop suite to give you a consistent Demon on turn two, kills Cobra, makes Goblin Guide pretty awful, and most importantly is a safety net for any Birds picking up swords on that crucial turn.
This deck also makes Dismember look pretty awful since all your threats are very cost effective. Timely Reinforcements is a sour pickle to play through; however if you’ve got a Viscera Seer and Quest out, it usually doesn’t hurt too much for them to gain six while you sac a couple dudes to make an EOT Zombie.
The biggest problem really is Timely Reinforcements, which is why I abandoned it several weeks ago, but it’s still a very fun deck to play, and if they don’t have one of the couple of removal spells in their deck to deal with the Demon, they’ll lose very, very quickly. The nut draw in particular is pretty great in combination with Flayer Husk to make Demon a 10/10 for a couple attack steps.
I’ve had several versions of this deck, involving cards like Sign in Blood, Kalastria Highborn, Death’s Shadow, along with other forms of removal like Dismember, Smother, and a Vampiric version with Feast in Blood. The mana is awesome, but unfortunately if the game goes long you end up drawing junky one-drops while they are playing actual spells.
I didn’t get time to do much sideboarding with this one, but it’s another fun times deck. You’ve got an option to play a combo, control, or aggro game plan, and Probe lets you decide which route is most optimal.
Playing with it actually reminded me a lot of U/G Madness, because you’d always need an Aquamoeba or Wild Mongrel for the deck to work effectively, which is its biggest handicap. You’re relying on a 1/2 and 1/1 to do all the dirty work, which makes you very vulnerable to any sort of disruption whatsoever; however the number of possible turn 3-4 kills is pretty inspiring, and I really like how scrappy the deck can be at times, fighting tooth and claw to edge out wins.
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 3 Acidic Slime
- 4 Lotus Cobra
- 2 Arbor Elf
- 4 Leatherback Baloth
- 3 Vengevine
- 4 Dungrove Elder
For a while, all I wanted to do was cast turn 1 mana accelerant, turn 2 Sword, and see where that got me in relation to what everyone else in the format was doing. Trying to have the quickest Sword deck, I came up with this. You’ve also got a high-powered package of plump attackers with Dungrove, Baloth, and Vengevine to give you a decent approach to attacking on the ground for some wins backed up by Overrun.
Hunter’s Insight is also pretty great. Drawing 3-4 cards on turn three from an Elder or Baloth is a great way to back up all the creatures you’ve played, and with the addition of Cobra, in the event of a Day of Judgment or something, you can drop an entire team on the next turn to keep pressure up. Vengevine is honestly the worst card in the deck, but it gives you a way to play profitably into Mana Leak and removal.
I expect to see some good things from Dungrove Elder; he’s incredibly hard to outmatch without a Sword of Feast and Famine on their side. For a while, I had a more prominent package for him, including a Bear Umbra to pair with F & F Sword so you could drop a Garruk after attacking, then draw lots of cards, but all that fun stuff didn’t win many games since you can’t race very well with clunky non-evasive attackers.
U/W/G LD Control
This one is a little crazy; first question usually is: “where is the Cobra??” He didn’t fit. The real interaction I was trying to abuse is landing a Venser, then blinking one of the two-drops of Journey, Wall, or Seas, then pulling ahead slowly over time before you ultimate. Beast Within also combos nicely with Journey and gives you lots of defense once you land a Venser.
Being a “control” deck and tapping out each turn can be very problematic in this explosive format though, so you’ve got Beast Within and Mana Leak to cover the bases on their turn. Explore also gives you acceleration while keeping card advantage up and potentially mana up.
At the end of the day though, this deck is a little too defensive minded for what I wanted to be doing. Playing a tuned control deck is nice in certain formats, but you really get punished if you don’t have the right answer at the right time in Standard right now, and this deck is a little too high on variance for me to stomach. For instance, if you’re on the draw, you feel like an idiot trying to cycle with Wall and Seas while they’re playing actual spells and progressing their board aggressively.
Beast Within is a very potent spell though, and I’m ashamed this was the best I could come up with, since I really want to be playing it in a control deck in the upcoming future. I just don’t think this is suited well to play against Caw-Blade every round.
Okay, enough padding the article with stuff most don’t want to read. Word is out on the street that I’ve retooled the art of mill, so here are some variations of the deck that led me to my caw-crushing brew with which I 4-0’d the hawks during the first Standard portion at Nationals before dropping after an abysmal draft to keep the list off the coverage. The intention was to keep it out of the public eye for the TCG 75k, but that tournament flopped for me as I went 6-3, only to finish in the absolute worst place, one out of the money at 33rd. For anyone who cares, I lost to B/R Vampires, that whack mono-blue Illusion deck, and embarrassingly to Caw-Blade, putting me at 6-1 in that matchup those two weekends. Clearly, it crushes Caw, but several mulligans to five in those three matches I lost just boned me.
The interaction I was most trying to abuse is turn 1 Ponder/Preordain, turn 2 Crab + fetch + Ponder/ Preordain, then on turn three you can sit back and play land go while having a small counter suite available and posturing to slow down the opponent. Here’s the core of the deck that changed very little from build to build.
Here’s the list that started my numerous mill decklists…
This was the first concept, an ultra fast mill strategy backed up by lots of cycling cards, Shrine to dig deep when you need it, which is especially effective against control decks, and Trapmaker’s Snare to get Whiplash to stop Twin decks along with ambitiously overextending creature decks.
This is what really showed me how favorable milling can be in this format; Caw, Pod, and Valakut can’t hang with this deck at all, and with so many fetchlands, I figured I could do better by expanding the mana base. The worst matchup by a mile was Mono Red, especially if they didn’t have any fetchlands. Mono Red with fetches wasn’t so bad since Archive Trap is still very deadly against them, and it’s feasible to actually race them if you can Trap them a couple times combined with some Crab action.
Playing Squadron Hawks and Hedron Crab wasn’t quite that good though. The plan wasn’t focused enough to let Hawks run wild with Swords like they do in Caw-Blade, and they often watered down the draws without really providing anything more than the mono-blue version already had going for it. Sure, Timely Reinforcements was great for red decks, but its usefulness is evaporating with everyone playing real decks now. So I came up with this U/W mill list that put up some good numbers for a while…
U/W Crabs w/ Blade Board
This was a little bit better ’cause you can board into a decent Caw-Blade deck to throw the opponent off, but still, you’re a watered down version with less removal than most lists, which is what gives Caw-Blade all the decisive options advantage while playing.
This didn’t work very well either, and with the fetchlands setting me up for RUG, I felt I had a good idea coming…
This was a deck I had a lot of fun testing. Chandra + Trap is really great, and she’s perfect for picking off Caws before they’re equipped, while also buying me lots of time to mill them. Chandra can’t win games on her own, which is her biggest chink, but she’s probably the best complementary planeswalker we’ve had, perhaps aside from Ajani Goldmane in B/W Tokens or Garruk Wildspeaker who performs similarly to his feline brother. Even copying an Explore to pair with the Crab while I’m mana flooded helped significantly.
The biggest innovation was sideboarding into Splinter Twin against the problem matchups of Tempered Steel and Mono Red. This gave me a lot of reach out of the board, while also letting me play lots of games with what kind of deck I was going to sideboard into.
This version opened my eyes to just how powerful, consistent, and quick a mill approach can be. I’ve also tried Pyromancer Ascension, Grand Architect, and straight U/G with Oracle of Mul Daya, and Primeval Titan, but those never proved as potent.
Here’s the refined final list that I proudly played at the big money tournament…
Combo in the main yields a great Plan B against more aggressive decks and can randomly assemble to surprise unaware opponents or be used to draw out removal or counters.
With Caws playing more fetchlands recently to pair with their Emeria Angels, they’re really exposing themselves to Archive Trap more and more. I’ve played 60+ games against blade decks, with various sideboarding strategies on both ends, which can lead to some very heady alterations like them cutting Caws and slowing down; me boarding into the full Twin package, a half twin package, keeping in Exarchs and boarding out Twins for posturing. Bottom line is, in those ~60 games against Caw players, I’ve lost 8-10 games total. This deck obliterates them, and I promise if you are keen enough on sideboarding and keeping your plan up in the air, there isn’t much they can do about it without boarding something crazy like a couple Eldrazi dudes and bunches of removal to cover the Twin package plan.
Maybe there is an Eldrazi Caw-Blade deck in the future, cutting Tectonic Edges for Eldrazi Temple, but until that happens, they have their back against the wall and are fighting an uphill battle against a deck that is flat out better than theirs.
Their best chance is to have a very heavy counterspell draw; however due to mana advantage on my side, this has rarely been a problem. You don’t need to run out a Crab on turn two if they have Mana Leak up. That helps their plan. Instead just keep digging and get an Archive Trap or two in your hand so you can punish them for cracking a fetch or prepping a Sword by landing a Caw. If they tap out for Emeria, you’ll have an opportunity to resolve a couple mill spells to get Visions active. Once Visions is active, you winâ€”in every matchup except those with direct damage. You’ll overwhelm them and put the entire deck into your hand within a few turns, oftentimes passing with a grip full of spells.
This deck is no easy task to play, and goldfishing doesn’t help you much like other combo decks might. What you play and decide to do is strictly based on what the opponent is doing. If they’re playing a removal heavy deck, wait until you can drop a couple Crabs, then follow it up with a Cobra, a fetchland, an Explore, and all of a sudden you milled them 24 cards and have Visions online. Knowing when you can “explode” and setting up a turn when you do so is one of the hardest parts of playing this deck; and it’s very crucial you maximize your Crabs every time you cast them.
Exarch maindeck gives you a lot of options to play around their counters also; an EOT Exarch tapping one of their 2-3 lands puts Caw decks in a bind, usually prompting them to use the mana to Dismember it as soon as it hits. Playing Archive Trap EOT is another way to prompt them to do something. They can’t let it resolve if you’re turning on Visions, and if they counter it, you’ve got free rein to explode with Crabs or drop a Jace and make them deal with it or lose very shortly.
Mental Misstep also isn’t as bad of a problem as Gerry might make it sound. Sure, there are lots of one-drops, but if they end up with several in their hand and you’re going off with Cobra, Jace, Exarch, and Twin, they feel pretty stupid.
The big advantage this deck has over Caw is how liquid and fluid it is. You do the same thing every game. Cast some cantrips, mill them a bit early with Crab, then follow up with the big five-drop mill spells, which activates Visions and puts you in a position to go off like a storm deck thanks to Cobra and Explore. They also can’t be the deck that sits there and one-for-ones you and then drops a Caw to wrap up the game because that plays into our game plan perfectly.
Sideboarding against them, the best spell for me has been Spell Pierce. It enables you to “one up” whatever permission or removal they have while not being as costly as Mana Leak. However Exarch is a close second since they always freak out whenever he lands and taps them out.
You’ll need to play lots of games against Caw if you want to play this deck. There are lots of counterintuitive plays and timing scenarios that you’ve got to really go through to give yourself the best possible percentage against them. Of course, you’ve also got those hands where they just can’t beat you no matter what they do.
Valakut is an actual bye. They really can’t win if you assemble any sort of a decent hand. They’ve got no permission, their removal is slow since most are opting for sweepers, and they search their deck nearly every turn, which helps mill them. On top of having an unbeatable game plan already, you also have the Exarch combo, which coincidently, they can’t beat either. DOUBLE WHAMMY!
This deck also does a ton of searching, perhaps more than Valakut. If they’re playing RUG, you’ve got to worry about the Twin combo, but aside from that, they don’t have a way to beat you. They take forever to kill, opting for a slow plan aimed to grind out Caw over time.
Plus, their Birthing Pods are pretty narrow when you mill away all their one-ofs that make the deck tick.
Goblins (like anyone plays it!)
This one is pretty awful, but you’ve got Exarch Twin to give you a decent shot at killing them before they kill you. Crabs are chump blockers, mulligan hands with multiple traps, and dig, dig, dig for those two copies of Twin.
If they have fetchlands you can really advance yourself into Vision pretty early; it’s hard to mill them completely with the time they give you though, so you end up using the traps to activate Visions to dig you to the combo most of the time.
I plan on having Creeping Corrosion and Fog in my sideboard this weekend. That, along with Nature’s Claim, and boarding out all the mill cards gives me a pretty decent game plan to win games 2 and 3 after they thrash me about game 1. Unless you draw an Into the Roil game 1, it’s going to be very hard to win and put up enough of a fight to dig to the Twin; however, you can always randomly win with this deck so no matchup is truly unbeatable.
Green Aggro Decks
This includes G/W pod, Elves, mono-green beats, and whatever Vengevine deck the kiddies are playing these days. Fog is a time walk against them out of the board, and they are usually too clunky anyway to take any games in a consistent manner.
Tempered Steel and this deck are my sketchiest matchups. They can assemble their combo more efficiently, protect it better, and disrupt mine better than I can do to them. However, after board I feel much more comfortable since I’ve got more instants to take them down. If I’m on the draw, I want to board all my mill out and try and play a better Twin game; if I’m on the play, I want to be milling them without Twin parts main and just removal for their combo with Spellskites, Nature’s Claim, and Spell Pierces. Opposing Spellskites can be a problem, which makes me miss Whiplash Trap a bit.
Blue Control Decks
This category is for U/b control and U/W control without hawks. They are all pretty easy. Not many slow-paced control decks can put a fight up against Crab, handle EOT Exarch or Trap followed up by Jace, or the mana advantage I get from Explore and Cobra.
This is the part of the deck that will change a bit depending on how you feel. Splinter Twin, Deceiver Exarch, Mana Leak, Spell Pierce, Mental Misstep, Pyroclasm, Nature’s Claim, Creeping Corrosion, Chandra, the Firebrand, Jace Beleren, Phyrexian Revoker, Into the Roil, Deprive, Whiplash Trap, Memoricide, Spellskite, Dismember, Fog, Oracle of Mul Daya, Primeval Titan, Inferno Titan, Summoning Trap, Trinket Mage, Lightning Bolt, Acidic Slime, Sword of Body and Mind, Arc Trail, Combust, Garruk Wildspeaker, Mind Control, Phantasmal Image, Phyrexian Metamorph, Surgical Extraction, Pyromancer Ascension, Flashfreeze, Wurmcoil Engine, and Elixir of Immortality have all been on my radar.
You can do a lot of small tweaks depending on what your specific metagame is like. You can even manage a Plains and some Timely Reinforcements if you’re swimming in a metagame similar to tomato soup. Just make sure you hold the Cobra until the turn you play Reinforcements so they don’t burn it and leave you with no white sources other than Terramorphic Expanse.
I’m not currently qualified for anything, which is a relief. Ever since I won a $5k in August 2010, the big money tournament had been on my mind the entire time. Which meant the necessity to “keep up” with what was going on in Standard and Magic as a whole. Randomly qualifying for Nationals was nice, but truth be told thinking about Magic costs me lots of money.
Which is a shame; I’d really like a chance to dedicate myself to the game like I never have before since it seems easier to beat people these days since everyone and their mother is netdecking, providing consistent metagames to prey upon. Unfortunately, I’ve got 12 employees and a $4,000 payroll every week to give birth to, and when family’s livelihoods are on the line, I feel guilty for taking time away to try and chase a novelty check that can’t even BEGIN to pay the bills I’ve managed to settle myself into.
Attending these two events was more problematic than I could have imagined, and it’s sad to say, but despite Magic being my hobby of choice, it’s just a fool’s dream from my point of view. I don’t foresee myself having enough time to commit to it like in my adolescent years when overhead was low and time a plenty.
Still, when I walk the events halls, particularly in Indianapolis at Gen Con, I can’t help but feel I can help all the lost souls wandering about. They piss and moan about the most inconsequential drub. I just wish I had time to hammer out what I envision to be a self-help book for Magic players who are caught up in the shuffling of it all.
It’s a tough lifestyle to be a grinding Magic player. The ups and downs financially can be extremely hard to stomach; however the ups and downs emotionally are the ones that leave lasting impression on your psyche. The psyche of a Magic player is very important if you want to perfect your game, understanding why you think the things you do, why your opponent thinks the things he does. The psychology of it all is something that has yet to be written about and is something that might be a little more important to people than, say, a random Magic rap album.
Honestly though, there seems to be a consensus around the fact that after the weekend is through and you’re done shuffling, Magic players don’t have much to venture home to other than a worn mattress at their parents’ house, and/or a low paying job, and/or existential loneliness because engulfing your mind in Magic hurts other aspects of your potential social life. I know from the experience of grinding myself, and from grouping my thoughts on MS Word documents.
YOU’RE BETTER THAN THAT DAMNIT! You’ve got all the tools to succeed in life planted in your brain via the seed of Magic; you just got to give it a little light and water, and it will grow!
Finding your own pace in this World is extremely tough to accomplish when you’ve got to prepare for competition each weekend and invest numerous resources into the event itself. The addicting allure that is Magic is a tough spell to overcome.
All that said, I truly envy those who chase their dreams to the far corners with backpacks filled with cards in an attempt at greatness. You grinders are what give the game life, and in this troubled uncertain economy, Magic is a flourishing tropical haven prevailing in fierce stormy winds.
Top 5 Picks
1) Imitosis by Andrew Bird
2) Sex Room by Ludacris
3) New Slang by The Shins
4) Waltz #2 by Elliott Smith
5) Postcards From Italy by Beirut