Mixed Results & Lessons Learned At #SCGINVI

In this week’s article, Sam shares the information he gleaned in Standard and Legacy this past weekend from #SCGINVI that he hopes to utilize at #SCGMKE this weekend.

This weekend past I went to the SCG Invitational in Charlotte, where I won the maximum amount of frustration and the minimum amount of money, but I learned enough that I think the trip was worth it. It’s the near misses that sting the most, but that sting pushes you to try to learn everything you can from what happened in an effort to reclaim some of the value you barely missed. I’m going to share what I learned with you so that we can all get something out of my trip.

Between my failure at Pro Tour Born of the Gods and my current Pro Point standing with some help from an unsuccessful Grand Prix Cincinnati, I’m currently functioning on some embers rather than a full fire for competitive Magic. I’m sure I’ll reignite soon, but for the moment I’m content to take it easy, resting on my current laurels.

As a result, I haven’t been spending much time looking ahead and planning future trips, so I realized that there was an Invitational coming up that I should go to around two weeks ago. I bought a ticket, and then at GP Cincinnati I found some people (Morgan Chang, Jeph Foster, and Joe Pennachio) who also didn’t have a hotel room yet.

After a dismal showing in Cincinnati (2-3 ignoring byes), I felt like I didn’t want to play Mono-Blue Devotion again. Even though that’s an extremely small sample size to give up on one on of my best performing decks of all time (maybe even my best), the format had changed since my good run, and friends Jasper Johnson-Epstein and Greg Ogreenc, who I traveled to Cincinnati with, and had also played Mono-Blue Devotion and not fared particularly well. It looked like it was time for a change.

I spent the last week trying to find a deck I liked in Standard. The decks I tested all started out promising, winning an eight-man or two on Magic Online, and then things kind of fell apart. The day before I left for Charlotte, I had no idea what I wanted to play in either format but disliked everything, and given the weak embers my competitive drive was operating on, I really regretted my decision to attend this tournament.

When it came time to pack, I was faced with the big decision: choose a deck or bring an outrageous number of Standard cards. Not wanting to have to do a bunch of sorting and packing, I decided I’d just play Mono-Blue Devotion again. After all, it was just one tournament. I did have an idea for how I could fix the Esper Control matchup, and I had no reason to believe I’d run into Bant Control with Mistcutter Hydra again.

Here we come to some extremely important lessons, which mostly just reinforced things I already knew:

  • If you’re going to put time into brewing, there’s a good chance the decks you work on won’t pan out. You need to have a fallback plan if you’re going to really go out on a limb. At Pro Tours, I have teammates who generally put most of their efforts into tuning good decks. This means that I can waste everyone’s time testing nonsense without anyone getting too punished with a chance I stumble on something useful. Currently, it means that I’m happy enough playing Mono-Blue Devotion and am comfortable enough with the deck that I really don’t need to test between events, so I can put my testing time into wacky U/B Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver / Master of Waves decks without really getting punished. If you don’t have a solid backup plan, only test decks you know are good.
  • Play what you know. I’ve considered switching to Mono-Black Devotion or Esper Control, but the fact of the matter is that I know that I can’t play black like Owen Turtenwald or Esper like William. Even if I could figure out most of the plays, I definitely don’t know exactly how to sideboard. This point was crystallized for me when an Esper opponent asked me how he should sideboard against me and I realized I had no idea what that deck is supposed to take out. I lose way too much of the edge that I’ve built up over many tournaments learning exactly how every matchup with Mono-Blue Devotion plays out to want to give it up to play a stock deck suboptimally.

I was afraid of Esper Control, so I did what I could to beat it. I cut two of the worst cards in my deck (Rapid Hybridization) for a card that would be great against it (Syncopate). I like my sideboard plan against them, but game 1 is really bad. It’s hard to win matches when you always start down a game. The problem is that even if things are going well unless I somehow have a board with multiple permanents that includes Thassa, God of the Sea, I can still just lose to Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. Supreme Verdict forces me not to overextend, but that gives them enough time to find Elspeth. Sometimes I draw the right threats to force things to work out, and sometimes they stumble. But that just isn’t a good place to be. With Syncopate in any game where I would have drawn a dead card, instead I can counter their first Elspeth, which will often leave them dead.

Syncopate is worse than Rapid Hybridization against every single other deck, but I thought that because people wouldn’t expect counterspells from me, I’d be able to get enough mileage out of it that it wouldn’t be much worse. With the popularity of Esper Control, I thought it would be worth it.

As luck would have it, I only played against Esper once. It turned out that everyone decided to beat them rather than join them, and the field was full of black decks tuned to beat control and green or red creature decks. Luckily for me, Mono-Blue Devotion is outstanding against all of those things. With the metagame breaking my way, I was able to cruise to a fairly easy 8-0, even with taking a game loss for failing to hear the start of one round.

As for Syncopate, it was about what I expected. I got to counter some Polukranos, World Eater and Desecration Demon, and it was a generally functional Magic card. I always sided in Rapid Hybridization but often wanted Syncopate in game two, so that worked out. Part of why I wanted Syncopate is that I really didn’t give myself a lot of options—I wanted to board up to an absurd eleven counterspells to beat Esper Control, which meant I had very few other tools to work with. For example, I had no Domestication in my 75, but I’ve always liked that card less than other people.

Now for the worse part of the tournament. You see, despite the fact that I didn’t drop a match in Standard, I didn’t win a dime in the Invitational. Legacy did not go well.

I spent the week before the tournament playing Standard, but I didn’t know what I wanted to play in either format. After my successful tournament at Grand Prix Washington DC with Bant, I played it again at the last Invitational in Las Vegas and got destroyed by people playing Esper who were more prepared for the True-Name Nemesis fight than I was. I didn’t play a game of Legacy after that. I knew I didn’t want to play the decks I’d played before, but I didn’t know what I wanted to play instead.

The card I most want to play in Legacy is Cabal Therapy. It’s always been great for me in Zombies, and I think the card is just outstanding against combo and Stoneforge Mystic, which is most of the format. The trick is finding a shell that gets the most value out of it. It’s probably at its best in Dredge, but I’m not really in the market to lose to a single sideboard card.

My next guess was BUG. Shardless Agent, Baleful Strix, and Snapcaster Mage are reasonable creatures to sacrifice, and the deck can reasonably play Thoughtseize or Gitaxian Probe to see the opponent’s hand. The problem is that if your creatures are basically cantrips and half of your real spells are discard, Ancestral Vision is terrible because you just draw cards that cycle into discard when your opponent’s hand is already empty from your first wave of discard and them casting spells. I can fix this by just not playing Ancestral Vision, but that only goes so far. I’m still cascading and cycling into discard. Every deck I looked at was just too full of discard and air and couldn’t really beat a fair deck in the midgame.

The solution is probably to just play regular BUG and sideboard Cabal Therapy, but that’s not what I decided to do.

At the last Invitational when I was losing to Deathblade, the deck looked great, and I decided that’s what I should play. I looked at recent results and found Stefan Bottcher’s deck from Grand Prix Paris. I liked that he was playing three of most of the creatures, like my deck from GP DC. Entreat the Angels didn’t make sense to me so I cut it for another True-Name Nemesis, and I changed the sideboard. I also cut the Academy Ruins because I couldn’t easily find one and having a second basic Island seemed fine, enabling me to cast all my spells off basics if I needed to.

I hated this deck. There’s a ton of play to Legacy, and I’m sure this build was probably pretty good for the way Stefan wanted to play the deck. But the way I wanted to play the deck involved using my mana enough that Spell Pierce was terrible. I could have slowed down a turn to leave it up, but I feel like slowing the game down is a pretty bad way to play with a counterspell that goes dead late. I didn’t really leave the tournament feeling like Deathblade is a bad archetype though.

I lost five rounds, and in four of them I made plays that lost me games. Sometimes making the better play would have won, and sometimes making the better play would have just let the game continue. I’m not sure the deck could have beaten most of my opponents, but I do know that I was responsible for most of my losses. I got punished a lot for a lot of small things, but they were mistakes. I was definitely off my game. I didn’t know my deck well and was out of practice with the format, and my heart wasn’t in it.

Moving forward if I were to play the archetype again, I’d probably play with Force of Will in the maindeck, wouldn’t play with Spell Pierce, probably cut Dark Confidant, definitely play Liliana of the Veil, and probably play the fourth Stoneforge Mystic. Even with those changes and with better play, the deck still felt like it’d be "fine" rather than being anything great.

The group of guys I ended up staying with came with some advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage is that Morgan Chang travels with an incredible Legacy collection, so I was able to decide what I wanted to play from a fairly wide selection at the last minute and borrow most of it from him. The biggest disadvantage was that there was a lot of snoring in the room. I generally try to stay with people who I’ve stayed with before and who I know don’t snore, but most of the people I usually stay with at GPs didn’t come to this tournament so I took a risk here.

Fortunately, this is where I learned another lesson.

The snoring definitely kept me up a little but less than usual. Snoring usually makes me angry or extremely frustrated, and I think it’s that stress rather than the actual noise that keeps me awake. It seems like people who are dating or married to people who snore are generally perfectly happy to sleep with them despite their snoring, and I think that’s because they just don’t get mad at their partner for snoring so it’s not a problem. I wasn’t too worried about this tournament, and I was happy to have people to stay with (outside of the cost, I genuinely hate being alone—I wouldn’t take a hotel room to myself at the same cost of sharing it with someone else because it would just feel weird).

Also, Morgan was already doing me a big favor by lending me a Legacy deck, so I was inclined to be forgiving. Without the stress of trying to fall asleep urgently or raging at the situation, I was able to fall asleep with minimal difficulty. It’s all about your state of mind, but I don’t know how easy that is to control in the moment.

Anyway, on Sunday I wanted to play something else. Miracles sounded like a good deck, but I was afraid of getting draws. I didn’t trust myself to play it fast enough, so I decided to give one of the other known Cabal Therapy decks a try: Elves. Morgan had two full copies of the deck and was planning to play it on Sunday. I asked him to borrow one around half an hour before the tournament started. He handed me his decklist and deck box and decided not to play. I thought I was asking for his extra copy, but maybe he’d already lent it out. I’m not sure, but he’d been talking about skipping the tournament anyway. I think he didn’t feel like he was in a great state to play a tournament after the Invitational.

I’d never played Elves in Legacy before. I worked with the deck in Extended a lot leading up to Pro Tour Berlin and played the deck in some GPs and Worlds since then, but that was a different animal and around six years ago. I knew I’d be a little out of practice.

I wasn’t even entirely sure how the Legacy deck played out. I knew what you’d expect to know from having played the Extended deck and having played against the Legacy deck a few times, but I didn’t know how most matchups would actually play out—when I’d end up "going off" when I’d end up beating down, and when I’d end up just Natural Ordering to kill them most often in each matchup. I also had absolutely no idea how to sideboard. Game on!

Legacy is an incredibly hard format to test. Very few people own decks, the Magic Online metagame is pretty different from reality, and getting a particular deck on Magic Online can be difficult or expensive even with my fairly large online collection. As a result, I use Legacy Opens as my primary testing grounds for the format to prepare for Invitationals and GPs. So this was my testing with Elves.

I liked this deck a lot. You get a good number of free wins, the deck has a pretty solid ability to topdeck a win out of nowhere when things are going badly with Natural Order, and I like the deck’s fair game a lot. I love decks with a lot of small tricky creatures and a lot of play to them, so Elves is pretty great. Sideboarding ended up being more intuitive than I thought, and after some discussion about sideboard plans with Morgan Chang and Jarvis Yu after round 1, I understood what was going on well enough to go "off book" for game 3 when my opponent presented the right kind of hate in game 2.

I narrowly lost to Miracles after making what I think was a game-losing error in game 3 after my opponent made a game-losing error in game 2. Miracles is a horrible matchup, but I still could have won. All of my other matchups felt pretty good. I lost to RUG Delver, but the matchup didn’t feel particularly bad; I just had some bad draws and some mulligans, and my opponent had an outstanding draw in game 3. I conceded to Shahar Shenhar in the last round because he was more likely to need the Open Points than me and finished in the Top 64. 6-3 isn’t terrible for my first time with the deck, and I might find myself buying some more copies of Gaea’s Cradle and Natural Order in the near future.

There are a lot of plays at #SCGINVI that I regret, from my deck selection and card selection to several of my in-game decisions, but despite being one of two players to finish 11-5 and miss Top 32 in the invitational, I don’t regret attending the tournament. I hope to use what I learned to put up some solid finishes in Milwaukee this weekend.