More To Winning Than Playing Well: Breaking The Barrier

I can’t believe I made it to the semi-finals for the four-way prize split in the OBC tourney; I have the actual crisp, green bill in my hands, and I still can’t believe it. But it wasn’t my amazing play skills that brought me to the peak.

I can’t believe I made it to the semi-finals for the four-way prize split.

I have the actual crisp, green bill in my hands, and I still can’t believe it.

Despite bad plays, several less-than-stellar draws, and some suboptimal sideboard choices, I squeaked into the top 8 and took out the top-seeded, undefeated player from the Swiss rounds.

At this point in the tournament report, you might typically see some exclamation along the lines of "how lucky!"

Believe me – there was no luck involved in this OBC tournament. At least not good, at any rate.

So how in the world did I do so well?

Let me start off by giving you the physical details of my victory in a tournament report:

Tournament: Odyssey Block Constructed

Number of Players: 64

Rounds of Swiss: 6

Since this tournament wasn’t long after Origins, I expected to see a lot of people playing Quiet Roar, the deck so far considered the best in the environment. I decided that G/W Madness had the best answers to this type of metagame. Below is the deck I decided to play:

G/W Madness

4 Basking Rootwalla

2 Benevolent Bodyguard

4 Wild Mongrel

4 Patrol Hound

4 Anurid Brushhopper

4 Arrogant Wurm

4 Roar of the Wurm

4 Glory

4 Elephant Guide


4 Sungrass Prairie

10 Forest

9 Plains


3 Krosan Reclamation

3 Squirrel Nest

3 Ray of Revelation

2 Vengeful Dreams

2 Phantom Centaur

2 Aegis of Honor

Do you ever have images in your head of cool unexpected tricks you can play on your opponent by maindecking a certain card against the expected prominent deck of a tournament? I did. My SUPER-SECRET TECH card had me conjuring up visions of being tapped out, one card in hand, my Quiet Roar opponent attacking with all 3 of his 6/6 flying Roar tokens. Then I’d smile, pitch my SUPER-SECRET TECH card to my untapped Mongrel, turning him white. Then I’d tap the Mongrel and cast the SUPER-SECRET TECH card to prevent all damage from the now-impotent Wurms. I’d laughingly attack for the win on my turn. I’ll give you three chances to guess what card I am talking about. I’ll even give you a hint – think white Moment’s Peace.

Like all great imaginative scenarios, though, this never came to pass.

But the tournament did.

And so it begins.

Round 1 – Chris Goodwin, U/G Quiet Roar (the Threshold version)

Game 1 – We both start off with decent hands, him dropping Basking Rootwalla and Wild Mongrel turns 1 and 2, me dropping Benevolent Bodyguard and Wild Mongrel. The stalemate starts as we both plop out various fat Roar tokens. I draw into my Glory, but need to first cast another creature before I can pitch Glory and attack with everything for the win. Chris is out of cards, and I feel like the game is all mine.

On Chris’s turn, he draws… Wonder. Pitch to the Mongrel, take seventeen. I lose.

I already feel like this is going to be one of those looooooooooooong days.

Game 2 – I think I have a great opening hand with a sided-in Krosan Reclamation to stop the speculation. Except I have no land. I mulligan, and see two lands plus a Reclamation again. I keep, and proceed to beat down with turn 2 Mongrel, turn 3 Arrogant Wurm. I stop the Roars early, and throw down a couple of more creatures before finishing him off.

Game 3 – This looks like Game 2 with another mulligan, but the same result – opening Krosan Reclamation. We both get early Wild Mongrels, but he has the advantage with a Wonder in the graveyard. I draw into three Krosan Reclamations, keeping him from ever casting his Roars until Glory rears its ugly head. Chris tries to Krosan Reclamation the Glory back to my library after I pitch it to the Mongrel – but this is where he learns that the Reclamation doesn’t stop the activated ability of Glory.


Round 2 – Jonathan Cassidy, U/B ‘Tog with Mists of Stagnation

A good player in his own right, Cassidy likes to try and get his wins with his own creations which are more often than not fairly successful for his style of play.

Game 1 – I get out an amazing start with a consistent one, two, three and four drop. Cassidy learns the power of Prismatic Strands (oops, I mean SUPER-SECRET TECH card) as he attempts to block my fourth-turn Roar token with his ‘Tog and empties his library to only to see the green dice turned to six still on the board. It ends quickly with me doing the only damage that game.

Game 2 – I don’t get out the critical early start against him, waiting until turn three to cast anything. This hurts me, as he manages to plop down a Mists lock at five life before Upheavaling. The worst part about this match, though, was holding a Vengeful Dreams the entire game without finding a second source of white mana to get the lone attacking ‘Tog out of the game. I was also holding all three Strands in my hand with the Benevolent Bodyguard. A held-back Circular Logic kept her from getting on the board to do her duty with combat tricks. Chainer’s Edict says bye to the Basking Rootwalla I madness on the board, and it is all over.

Game 3 – A great starting hand against the deck – two Basking Rootwallas, a Wild Mongrel, a Patrol Hound, a Brushhopper… And a lone forest. Although tempting, I have no choice but to mulligan. I need to come out strong to get under its defenses.

Curiosity will always get the better of me, so I look at the top of my library and see no land for 4-5 turns. Whew!

I shuffle, draw six. Almost the exact same hand, but with a Plains instead. Somewhere, whatever logical reasoning I used to mulligan the first hand deciding to go into hiding. Not wanting to be at a two-card disadvantage, I chose to keep. I madnessed out a Rootwalla before ever seeing another land. I don’t even need to look at the big letters scribbled across the page to remind myself never to do something this foolish again in such a critical game.


Round 3 – Troy Smith, U/B with Web of Inertia

Troy was just visiting some family in Denver when he heard about the tournament and decided to have some fun for the day. He had to scrape together what he managed to bring with him to build his deck, so he was lacking in many four-ofs for an optimal build. But the foundation of a decent U/B deck was there.

Game 1 – Seriously mana flooded, he can do nothing but watch as first a Patrol Hound comes after him, then Wild Mongrel alongside, and a Rootwalla helps finish it off. He doesn’t get Web of Inertia on the board until he has one turn left to live, which is much too late.

Game 2 – The Web of Inertia comes out right away on turn 3. Although a great card against many creature-based decks, my deck is designed with a built-in discard engine. With a Brushhopper, Patrol Hound, and Basking Rootwalla on the table, I start pitching land to get damage through. I don’t pay madness on the Rootwalla I pitch to get the final points through.


Round 4 – Tommy, Mono-Red with Rites/Blitz

His Mississippi accent is so thick it takes me about three tries before I understand his greeting. Although I’ve never met him and his buddies before, he’s already been told that he’s going to lose to me. It’s amazing how little you have to do to get a reputation… But that’s a topic for another day.

Game 1 – I have a Forest and a Plains in my opening hand. I play a Mongrel, and then another Mongrel. I never see another land. Just to make sure I don’t get anymore, Tommy wishes for an Earth Rift, and knows how to use it. My hand becomes Mongrel food as I desperately pitch creatures left and right to keep the dogs alive. They are getting blasted from all sides by Fiery Temper, Firebolt, and Volcanic Spray. One Mongrel manages to hang on long enough to weaken Tommy down to four before I finally draw another land. Unfortunately, four Browbeats is more than I can handle, and I go down.

On the plus side, I feel mildly justified for deciding it was worth putting two Aegis of Honor in the sideboard against the Punisher decks I suspected to see at least one of today. This was another of those imaginative moments where I was hoping to plop down the Aegis on turn 1, have my opponent cast Browbeat, I activate Aegis in response, declare I will take the damage, and have it smack him in the face for five.

Of course, that never happened.

Game 2 – I sagely mulligan. My start is slow with no creatures until turn 3, but it doesn’t take long for an Elephant-Guided Anurid Brushhopper to finish an opponent off.

Game 3 – Annoyance. I have to mulligan all the way to five before I have a decent opening hand. I do get a Guided-up Mongrel swinging, happily holding two Prismatic Strands in my hand while at a precarious eight life. I can see Tommy calculating a way to finish me off in one turn, indicating the Blitz/Rites combo in his hand. I almost make a critical mistake and cast the Roar in the graveyard on my turn – but manage to take a step back and realize I have no choice but to cast the Brushhopper if I wish to survive a possible one-turn kill. Sure enough, he has the combo and attempts an alpha-strike. I pitch the Strands to the Mongrel, tap the Hopper, and prevent all red damage for the turn – not to his surprise. I take him out for the win on my turn.


Round 5 – Jonathan Job, U/G Quiet Roar with Catalyst Stones

Jonathan Job is probably one of the best Magic players from the Colorado Springs area. Knowledge of my opponent’s skill level is usually enough to put me in a mindset to play well. Some horrible cloud of stupidity managed to overwhelm me this match, though.

Game 1 – Easy win for me, as a Guided-up Mongrel on turn 3 goes all the way.

Game 2 – A timely Aura Graft puts my Elephant Guide on his Mongrel, which turns my early rush into a ground stall on both sides. Both of us are searching for our kill card – him the Wonder, me the Glory. He decides to hard-cast the Wonder instead of pitching it for fear of Krosan Reclamation. I am at twelve life, with a Prismatic Strands and Vengeful Dreams in hand, Jonathan with a Safekeeper on the board. All I need to do is draw one of four Glories for the win.

Land, land, land, land, Patrol Hound, stave off damage from the Wonder with the Strands for a couple of turns, land, land.

I decided to make an all-out attack on my last turn before the Wonder would kill me, to see if he’d block with the Safekeeper so I could use the Dreams on the Wonder. Of course he didn’t. It wasn’t until then that I realized my creatures were much larger than his, and I could have attacked several turns ago to force the unfavorable combat matchup. The Strands could have easily kept down his own counterstrike.

That’s what happens when you focus too hard on only one avenue for the win.

Game 3 – I mulligan yet again today, but manage to have an opening hand with Krosan Reclamation. Jonathan has mana problems early, and the Reclamation stops the first Speculation. He manages to recover from the Deep Analysis still in the graveyard. He goes on to Speculate again. The Reclamation is still in my graveyard. He finds the green he needs, and casts Catalyst Stone. The Reclamation is still in my graveyard. He casts one Wurm. Then I realize that I’ve completely forgotten about the Reclamation. During my turn, I finally flash it back and put the other two Roars back into his library. But it is too late, because he has stemmed the attack at nine life. We both struggle for a little while to gain control, but the clock runs out and it is a tie.


Because of a stupid little mistake, I go from a possible easy berth to a slim chance of making it in to the Top 8. After standings are posted, we can clearly see that one of the 3 people who manage to go 4-1-1 will not make it in. Sitting at 10th, it looks my only hope is to get paired up.

I don’t. I play against the person who has the worst tiebreakers at 3-1-1. I’ve already resigned myself to getting stuck at the agonizing 9th place if I win.

Round 6 – Ben Morris, Monoblack Control

Game 1 – His removal can’t deal with double Elephant Guides, and the game is over in a handful of turns.

Game 2 – He gets going a little better this game. I knock him down to three before my side of the board is devoid of creatures. I then cast Benevolent Bodyguard and Glory at the same time. On his turn, he decides to Morbid Hunger the Glory to stave off the damage for a little longer. Almost letting the Hunger resolve, I ask to back up and sacrifice the Bodyguard to give the Glory protection from black. Ben must’ve realized he couldn’t win anyway, as he was gracious enough to let it through and give me the win. Not that my play skills were doing much to show I deserved it.


After turning in the match scores, I decide to stick around anyway to see my final standing. Being a self-flagellant at heart, I guess I felt I needed something to lord over myself for poor playing that definitely cost me games, if not matches.

Someone calls my name, and tells me that I’m in the Top 8. What? I look at the standings – and sure enough, I edge out the other 4-1-1 player by two percentage points. Enough of my opponents won in the last round to give me the boost I needed.

At this point, you’re probably expecting me to say "how lucky!”

Not a chance. She’d been kicking me in the face all day, now matter how many times I table shuffled my deck, shuffled, and table shuffled a different way. It was about time I got a break from her loving caress.

Quarterfinals – Justin Bryant, Monoblack Control

Obviously, being stuck at eighth seed, I play the top-seeded, undefeated player… Well, if you count my one loss being to poor play and my one draw to my own stupidity, my deck is undefeated as well. With the Elephant Guides as extra insurance, I shouldn’t have a problem winning this matchup. I hope.

Game 1 – Turn 4, my creatures get Mutilated off the board. Turn 5, he casts Mind Sludge, and removes a powerful hand of about four creatures. Turn 6, he Haunting Echoes to remove more than 50% of my library. A Nantuko Shade and Laquatus’s Champion do the rest of the damage.

While we are sideboarding, one of Justin’s buddies starts laughing hysterically. Apparently, Justin had a mediocre opening hand and managed to topdeck first the Sludge and then the Echoes. Pretty good, considering the one or two copies of each that are usually run in this type of deck.

Game 2 – A good hand keeps a Wild Mongrel on the table long enough to get a Roar of the Wurm into play on turn 4. The Wurm and Brushhopper inflict the final points of damage before Justin can get going.

Game 3 – A Guided-up Patrol Hound sends the beatings for a while, and Justin casts Skeletal Scrying for five in hopes to get the beast off the board. After one more attack that sends him down to three, he is able to clear the board. A Haunting Echoes makes sure to take out most of my threats, but Phantom Centaurs and Squirrel Nests are still waiting to be cast. It doesn’t take much more than a turn or two before a Nest pops into my hand from a much-thinned library. I get Justin down to two before he manages to put a Laquatus’s Champion into play. Soon after, I find the second Squirrel Nest. With him at two life and me with two active Squirrels in play, I pass the turn, not thinking now is the right time to attack. I quickly try to rescind the pass, but it’s too late. He doesn’t accept. Justin has drawn into a handful of creature removal, and wastes the two Squirrels off the table. Instead of trying the same thing over on my next turn, I decide to wait until I have built up enough squirrels to attack with. This gives Justin a net total of almost six turns for him to draw a real threat… Which he doesn’t. I’ve finally made him remove all his creature destruction, and he finally takes it in the chin.


YOU MAKE THE CALL: Knowing your opponent is playing monoblack control with five cards in his hand, would you attack with your squirrels or hold back? Your opponent is at threshold, and a Rancid Earth to get rid of the Squirrel Nest would force him down to one life. You are at nine life yourself, and can’t risk taking more than two damage in case he happens to draw into the second Laquatus’s Champion. There are already two Chainer’s Edicts in the graveyard. Another creature from his side, and you’ll be holding back until you can build up enough to kill him. I believe there is a breaking point on choosing which is the right action, but I think I missed my timing. I’d be curious to know what the rest of you would do in this situation.


At the semifinals, we all decide to split the $400 prize evenly amongst ourselves and go home for the day.

Those were the physical details of the tournament. You’ve seen my mistakes. You’ve seen my mulligans. Are you asking yourself the same thing I did at the end of the day?

How in the heck did I manage to make it all the way to the semifinals?

My play errors indicate it certainly wasn’t skill.

Deck problems certainly indicated it wasn’t luck.

What else could have happened?

This is where you need to break down any preconceptions you might have and understand that winning at Magic doesn’t solely fall into having the right combination of skill and luck (for constructed, that is. Don’t even get me started about limited). The tournament structure itself inherently causes some interaction between your ability to play and your ability to win. I can sum these up into two statements:

  1. Losing early isn’t necessarily a negative proposition. In a local Constructed tournament such as this one, you usually experience a mix of top-level, average, and poor players. Since the Swiss system pairs opponents based on current win records, most of the top-level players will win the first handful of rounds before they start facing off and knocking each other out of contention. If you happen to lose early for whatever reason, you will suddenly find yourself in a field mostly of lesser players before you start meeting the top players again. That can usually mean about two or three rounds of easier matches before you have to start really working for your wins. Your odds of posting a Top 8 record have suddenly been increased over those who need to fight play tougher opponents to post the same record. I had at least two easy matches before playing a good opponent again. Even my last match in the rounds of Swiss wasn’t a challenge compared to the others who had to play up in their bracket.
  2. Playing "the deck to beat" or playing "the deck that beats the deck" isn’t always the best solution to guarantee winning a tournament. Like betting, you have certain odds of winning a tournament based on what you play and what the field consists of. A wise gambler will tell you the best payoff lies with picking the team or horse that has a decent shot of winning… But the odds indicate that most people are largely ignoring a solid bet and going with the favorite. You can take the same approach to a Magic tournament. Sometimes, there truly is a "deck to beat" and there are no other contenders that could increase your odds of winning. Personally, I don’t like this scenario. Mirror matches, when piloted by good players on either side, usually end up in the favor of the person with the better draw. Playing round after round of mirror matches greatly decreases your chances of winning, sometimes despite your own personal skill level. Odyssey Block Constructed, still relatively new and in the nebulous stages of development, offers the potential for overlooked, powerful decks. Playtesting showed which decks were strong, and internet tournament reports gave a good indication of people’s preferences for certain decks. Green-White madness was doing a solid job of beating both Quiet Roar and Monoblack consistently. Green-White was touted by many columnists to be not much more than Tier 2. This was also reflected in the number of Green-White decks that showed up at tournaments. This was the deck that would be ignored, and increase my odds of winning.

The end result: Despite luck and skill level, I had increased my odds in other aspects of the tournament structure enough to win.

Although I don’t recommend purposely losing the first round of a tournament to get in a lower play bracket, I urge you to take into account some of these other factors the next time you decide to prepare for a tournament.

There is much more to winning than being able to play well.