Salutations, everyone! My name is Matt Higgs, and I would like to share my experience regarding a somewhat impromptu decision to attend the StarCityGames.com Open in Cincinnati last week. I’d been following The Magic Show for years, read up on strategy and casual articles on the site, and finally had the spare time and means to make the trip and sling cards with some of the best players in the country. I was excited to compete in a high-power environment, something I’d always hoped to do. Now, fortune saw that I could get my chance!
Cincinnati, Ohio is a mere ninety minutes up Interstate 71 from my own stomping grounds in Louisville, Kentucky. I just so happened to be heading to Cincinnati that very weekend to visit my old college housemate on his birthday. On Saturday, I loaded up my blue Volkswagen with my pizza box-shaped trove of cards, my trusty backpack of more trades, and decks, and I drove up before our shindig that evening just to see what an Open Series event was like and to maybe get in a casual game or two before meeting up with my old pal. I don’t have a “competitive” Standard deck, and any of my Legacy “decks” would get laughed out of a tournament. So, as you might have guessed, Limited formats are by far my favorite. The Draft Open on Sunday, then, was the tournament I was gunning for. Though I’ve been playing Magic for the better half of a decade now, my "serious" tournament experience is pretty scant. In attending the Draft Open, my goal was just to Top 8; I could leave happy that I’d gotten that far, and I’d win $50, which would cover the cost of gas and the entry fee.
Day One at the Open
I arrived at the convention center, grabbed my cards, and strolled into the exhibit hall. Immediately, I was struck by the sheer size of the event. It wasn’t long ago that I attended Prereleases and Release Parties that would number in the hundreds, which have now shrunk to double-digit attendance. Here, I was astonished to see about a thousand players in the vast exhibit hall slinging cards, talking shop, mingling about, watching games, and looking for (mostly Legacy) trades.
Holy capacity, Batman!
At the time, the Standard tournament was well underway, and it drew some 600 players by itself (much more than my Friday Night Magic of about 30 competitors the night before). I wandered by the very extensive vendor booth (seventy feet long easy), and I came to the side events table. It so happened they were doing a small, $10 draft where the winner gets to draft again for free. I signed up and was quickly seated to give it a shot. My tablemates and I ripped open our packs and I drafted a durdly Blue/Black Zombie deck (with a third pack windmill-slammed Geist of Saint Traft for my Standard deck sitting in the sideboard). In the first round, it performed admirably against a cheery and adventurous fellow named Michael who shuffled up a five-color brew that combined (naturally) a wide variety of cards. I got the match 2-0 and afterwards, I happily traded a few of my M12 dual lands for his newly minted Snapcaster Mage. Next, I played against Chris, a well-tanned fellow proudly wearing an Ohio State hoodie. An old hat to Magic, he’d been playing since what he called the “Dark Ages,” i.e. Homelands, which many have affectionately dubbed the worst Magic expansion ever. Anyway, he battled me with some White/Blue Spirits, and we traded crushing games. His game win came on the back of a Drogskol Reaver that just wouldn’t stay dead. I eventually edged him in game three after a close match. Finally, I fought a fellow whose name escapes me with certainty, but I believe it was Daniel. Although Evil Twin got him in game one, he rallied and knocked me flat for games two and three with a muscular, Jund-flavored pile. Pleased with a second place finish and suddenly not pleased with the utter lack of runner-up prize, I went off to spend an evening with my college pal.
Day Two: Magic, the Thrashing
After staying a night at my buddy’s kindly offered residence on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, I woke up at dark thirty, as my sister says, early Sunday morning and enjoyed a breakfast of champions in donut form. Then I was off to the convention center. The bitter cold cut straight through my new pair of jeans, and I layered up in my Volkswagen to fend off the teenage temperatures.
A hop across the Yellow Bridge on I-471 and twenty minutes later I was there. I signed up at the first possible opportunity for the Draft Open and found a place to sit in the currently vacant hall to de-sleeve from the previous day’s draft. I sat beside some nice folks from Wisconsin and Chicago who were also participating in the Open. We chatted, battled, and traded for a while. Then, like soldiers to battle, we were called to the Draft Open over the loud, booming speakers.
Let me state again that I have never been in a truly competitive draft like this, and honestly, not even a competitive tournament like this. Instead of ripping open packs like I’d done a million times before with my college chums or shop pals, I sat down to find a neatly organized stack of forty-two cards inside a hard plastic box where they were portioned into fourteen card “packs.” On the clear lid, a number was scrawled in Sharpie. Inside, three stacks of fourteen cards lay, each in a loosely fitted paper band labeled with either “Pack A—DKA,” or Pack B (or C)—ISD.” We each were assigned a table and a seat, and the judge explained the rules of a competitive draft. Each pick was timed, and after each pick you had to count out the cards in your pack in view of your pack’s recipient, something that I perennially forgot to do. The judge read firmly from what appeared to be a script with a loud, but strained voice. I felt like I was in grade school taking achievement tests again, but I suppose that kind of rigor is necessary when there’s $1100 at stake. I was also fairly green to drafting with Dark Ascension; I had only ever drafted Innistrad and, although I played Sealed in the DKA Prerelease at my local shop, I hadn’t drafted the expansion.
The draft was structured with three rounds of Modified Swiss, then cut to Top 8. This means you pretty much need a 3-0 record to get in, with the slight possibility of 2-1-1 records making it in too, so long as there were less than 64 players (we had 55). This is a tall order in a normal draft, but an even taller one in a competitive draft where everyone wants that cash and glory as badly as you. Once we were told to, we slid the band off our first pack of cards, counted them, revealed our conspicuous flip cards overtly to our pod of eight players, then proceeded to draft in a timed fashion. Personally, I found it pretty nerve-wracking. I felt hurried, and I didn’t get to enjoy looking at the pack, judging signals my neighbors were sending, and other things I try to do in a casual draft. But then, this wasn’t a casual draft. This was for realsies.
As I thumbed through my first pack, I reminded myself to remember my training and experience. Settling on what felt like the most obvious choice, I first picked a Falkenrath Aristocrat and hoped to settle into Black/Red Beats, a pet archetype for me in the new Innistrad Limited field. Although I’ve heard some people say that Dark Ascension has slowed down the format, I disagree; I believe there are plenty of tools for more aggressive color combinations up and down the curve. If anything, I think the tempo aspect has become more important. Cards like Dead Weight and Geistflame seem to have gone up more and more in value to keep your opponents’ creatures off the lawn.
Anyway, back to the draft. I struggled to pick up more relevant red cards (namely removal) and decided to branch into blue by the middle of pack two. I was rewarded with an 11th pick(!) Murder of Crows and a pair of Silent Departure. In my third pack, I opened a Grimgrin, Corpse-Born and easily piled it onto my manicured stack, content to be blue/black splashing red. As the last pack went on, though, I picked up very little else and was left with a Grixis-hued mess. Nervous that this pile wouldn’t even make it past the first round, I swallowed my fear and grabbed a deck registration sheet.
As I pored over my cards, I saw that the blue/black theme I had planned was actually pretty unsustainable, giving me awkward defensive options like Vampire Interloper and Diregraf Ghoul. After much deliberation (and getting within thirty seconds of the time limit for build and registration), I settled on a slow but reliable blue/red build splashing black for my Falkenrath Aristocrat and Grimgrin. I had two fixers and considered it unlikely that mana would end up being a real problem. Red curved out better than the awkward blue/black, and blue’s color weight was substantial enough that I didn’t feel comfortable doing a completely even split. I quickly selected my M12 lands from ordered stacks at the registration table and hustled to my paired table.
Here’s what I settled on.
Draft Open #1: Grixis
1 Screeching Skaab
1 Stitched Drake
1 Makeshift Mauler
1 Murder of Crows
1 Falkenrath Noble
1 Forge[/author] Devil”][author name="Forge"]Forge[/author] Devil
1 Reckless Waif
1 Ashmouth Hound
1 Hinterland Hermit
1 Kessig Wolf
1 Afflicted Deserter
1 Falkenrath Aristocrat
1 Grimgrin, Corpse Born
1 Manor Gargoyle
1 Geistcatcher’s Rig
The Draft Open
As I sat down for round one, I was hurriedly stuffing my cards into my matte green Ultra Pro sleeves as the judge went over the rules for reporting and whatnot. My opponent, Rick, was about directly opposite from me in my eight-person pod, perhaps seat four to my seat one. A light-haired fellow with glasses, he shuffled his stack quietly, focused on the match ahead.
At the bell, we went at it; he snap kept a hand of seven, as did I, though mine was decidedly slower with about four lands and a Falkenrath Aristocrat. I hoped I’d draw into a low-end creature or some such. He, however, opened on the play with a Reckless Waif.
He got to flip it as I drew some expensive, uncastable creature after he passed to me. He bashed in for three damage turn after turn as I desperately hoped to draw some kind of answer. I did not, however, and I had to throw my Falkenrath Aristocrat under the Werewolf bus. As the dust settled, I was at one life, and he was at an unscathed twenty. As I finally played enough lands to cast my bigger cards, I cobbled together some defenders. Although a Silent Departure from his side put me dangerously close to dead on board, I always managed to have one too many creatures for him to get one through. After some very conservative play (which makes my Boros heart sad to think about) and the ever growing fear of Rick top-decking a Geistflame, Artful Dodge, a second Silent Departure, or just about anything, I eked out a close win from the brink. Game two was somewhat more in my favor. I hit my curve more solidly and I was able to put the match away with some on-time Departures.
Relieved to come back from the edge, I prepared for round two. I sat and shuffled for a spell until my round two opponent sat down across from me. Joshua, also from my pod, was a young and tall African-American guy with glasses and an easy smile, perhaps a few years my junior. Clearly a skilled and eager player, we made some small talk discussing the number of years we’d played Magic, which were about equivalent. In game one, his white/black/red deck assembled some Spirits and small creatures, but Manor Gargoyle on my side made it difficult for him to get in effectively. A Grimgrin landed on my side and, supported by cast-and-sack Reap the Seagraf tokens, he effectively eliminated my opponent.
In Game 2, Joshua got a much more aggressive start as my early Waif was met with a firm Rebuke, and his army of Lingering Souls plus a Rally the Peasants put me precariously low at nine life. He then flashed back his Souls to bolster his fleet post-combat.
Luckily, this made my Blasphemous Act in-hand live. I happily played the sweeper and flattened his army. I was able to amass my goons on a fairly empty board, and Joshua picked up his lands a few turns later.
I felt confident as I went into round three, but I knew that I still had to win this matchâ€”a positive record alone was not going to be enough to get into the Top 8. I had to shutout my last opponent, who surely would be my hardest yet.
Jittery and excited, I sat down across from Levi, a pleasant and soft-spoken fellow comparable in age to myself. With our eyes on the prize, we went to work. The first game was pretty cut-and-dry; he couldn’t resolve much that had an impact on the board besides the occasional (but solid) removal spell, and I bashed in for a pretty solid win.
The second round was much more tedious and tense. He actually had quite a lot of removal and kept me at bay for a while. He twirled my spindown die to single digits while I had my single Manor Gargoyle out. As I animated him for the attack, a Smite the Monstrous flew from his hand to, well, smite it. I cast Cackling Counterpart, prepared for such shenanigans. It resolved, and my Manor Gargoyle’s spawn watched as its progenitor went to the bin. After some Altar’s Reap digging on his side, a second Manor Gargoyle materialized from the flashbacked Counterpart. Eight power of flying stone overwhelmed him, and back-to-back Silent Departures kept his Silverclaw Griffin equipped with an Avacyn’s Collar from causing a problem; he scooped.
Third one down!
I went undefeated! How exciting! I was very blessed to open some solid rares and grabbed some solid finishers despite my initial concerns. What my deck severely lacked in removal it made up for in endgame. My only “removal” was a Dead Weight and two Silent Departure, but they turned out to be enough. Big beaters, like Geistcatcher’s Rig, Grimgrin, and Makeshift Mauler filled the gap, but Silent Departure was by far the MVP of my deck. Only occasionally during the Open was I at a comfortable life total, so those little sorceries rang true. Thrilled to have met my goal, I moved on to the Top 8. We were given a one hour break, in which time I tested my Open deck against Tehl, a fellow pod member that I didn’t play in the tourney; he wanted to gauge whether or not he would enroll in the second Draft Open later that afternoon. After enjoying a soft pretzel from the concession stand, the Top 8 gathered around a round table to form our single pod.
Top 8: The Big Dance
Like before, we drafted with urgent strictness. This time, my draft was much less certain; I first picked an Immerwolf, but I didn’t see any Werewolves of any quality come around. This was a silly mistake, as we all revealed our Werewolves at the beginning of the pack, and none of them were that impressive. At the end of the pack one, I looked to be going white/blue, having picked up a Burden of Guilt and some undying Skaabs. Pack two proved to stop that plan, however. An unusually large amount of red removal came around and I scooped it up, gathering a pair of Brimstone Volley and a Geistflame. White was MIA, and so was blue. I panicked, debating what I should be doing as we went into pack three.
When I flipped over pack three, I saw Olivia staring back at me.
That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.
An irrefutable sign from the booster gods, I “quietly” windmill-slammed her (desk fan-slammed her?) without question. Now I just needed creatures to protect me long enough to cast her while maintaining a favorable board state. I had to pass some premium removal (Brimstone Volley, Geistflame, and a Victim of Night) in order to fill my ranks with bottom-of-the-barrel creatures and wrapped up the draft with a very anemic deck that had a cornucopia of removal and a pair of Unburial Rites earmarked for Olivia, my only real card.
We were each given our own round table to build, and judges Swatted away curious onlookers so that we could concentrate on registering and building. I felt kind of like a king with a bodyguard, or maybe just a rapper up in the club. Anyway, I looked at blue and, although its cards were perhaps better in the abstract, they required a much stronger color commitment, one I was not comfortable to make with removal in white and Unburial Rites’ flashback. I ended up mostly black with a good deal of red and a dash of white.
How I wish I could have used my Open deck for the Top 8! It had plenty of action, it had fixers, and its curve was roughly one million times smoother. This pile of forty was clumsy, top-heavy, and hilariously inconsistent. No fixers, either. However, I knew that with tight play, I still had a shot. Maybe the others got cut out of their colors and were forced to splash, too!
Here was my less-than-stellar stack.
Top 8 Deck for Draft Open #1
1 Elder Cathar
1 Niblis of the Mist
2 Manor Skeleton
1 Skirsdag High Priest
1 Rotting Fensnake
2 Feral Ridgewolf
1 Hanweir Watchkeep
1 Skirsdag Cultist
1 Rage Thrower
1 Olivia Voldaren
1 Geistcatcher’s Rig
I would also list my sideboard, except sideboards require that one has more than the bare minimum 23 playables.
It was time for the quarterfinals. I sat down across from John (I believe it was John, I’m sorry if it wasn’t, the ol’ memory can let me down). The best way to describe him sounds silly; he was a huskier fellow with Will Ferrell’s face and a backwards ball cap on. He wore a blue MythicMTG team shirt, as did his neighbor, who also cut to the Top 8 with us. We shuffled up and made a little bit of small talk, but it was time to get serious. Actual money was on the line this time.
We started off at about the same pace, deploying our dudes and swinging in with about even racing, he with his Walking Corpse and me with my two Manor Skeletons (yes, very embarrassing); I eventually got a little edge and, although I had Olivia in hand, I wasn’t sure I would even need to show him my Vampire. However, when he landed a Geist-Honored Monk, my assault ground to a halt. I cast Olivia the following turn, bummed that I had to give him that information. Our game was quite close besides that. We each had Hanweir Watchkeeps out; his was getting tapped by a Burden of Guilt and mine was bound with Bonds of Faith. His Pyreheart Wolf made blocking a challenge, especially with some assorted flying Spirit tokens and Screeching Bats where Olivia was my only flyer. Although I eventually pinged and stole the Monk, he cast Corpse Lunge on Olivia and the Monk rejoined his ranks. Thankfully, a peeled Unburial Rites resurrected her. She pinged away the offense and she swung in for game next turn.
Game One took a long time; the Top 8 was untimed, and the other three matches finished long before we finished game one. In game two, I was able to gain a more significant upper hand where I resolved powerful hitters and a Rage Thrower to punish his token use. After getting some good hits in, he swung all, attempting to hit me as hard he could. Although his Pyreheart Wolf made blocks awkward, I was able to send five total creature cards and tokens to our respective yards, and Rage Thrower flamed him down to negative life.
I had now exceeded my goal; I would have been happy even if I lost the quarterfinal, but now this was just gravy!
Before the second round began, one member of the Top 4 called for a split, where each player agrees that, no matter the finish, they split the remaining winnings evenly. With a total of $900 left in prize money, that would have been $225 apiece. Although three of us were fine with this proposition, one was not, and that was that; the decision to split must be unanimous. I respect that, as he said, “I just want to play.” Isn’t that the reason we all got into the game in the first place?
Regardless, I was excited and full of hope for the next match. I sat down for round two, checking my well-worn sleeves (which were deteriorating at an alarming rate as this was their third draft in 24 hours). The gentleman across from me, the dissenter in our split pot negotiation, was dressed in a sharp suit with a blue shirt and a black tie. Another celebrity doppelganger, he looked just like Justin Long in about every way. In fact, I almost called him Justin multiple times due to the uncanny resemblance. A man of good humor, he jokingly claimed he had been told that before. His name was actually Patrick, and he was quite a nice guy. However, I could tell that he was a very tight and confident player as he quickly and adeptly shuffled up his deck and my deck for cutting purposes. He was on the play, and I kept an awkward hand of two lands and medium-cost spells.
The first round was exceptional for Justin Long, as he curved out perfectly with his platoon of Spirits and tokens. I missed land draws, instead drawing blanks and a Hanweir Watchkeep which Silently Departed the battlefield the turn after I cast it. It wasn’t even close.
I cursed not so under my breath as we shuffled up for game two. He was empathetic, and I didn’t want him to feel guilty for steamrolling me. My deck just couldn’t make it happen, and I should’ve been more hesitant to keep my opening hand. Now I was quite nervous; another hand like that could put me out of the running. I shuffled well, pile shuffling twice, and drew my starting seven on the play. It contained an off-suit land and awesome spells, but years of chewing glass with a single basic land out turn after turn has taught me to never under any circumstances keep a one-land hand on the play. I threw it back for six which, after much more shuffling and cutting, produced six spells and no land. Frustrated, I shipped it away for five. Although unsatisfied with my five, I couldn’t go to four on the play; that’d just be suicide.
Thankfully, I was rewarded with acceptable land drops and semi-relevant spells, if you can call Manor Skeleton a relevant spell. Finally, as I dropped my fourth land I resolved Olivia right on time. Patrick was stuck with just Plains in his White/Blue Weenie deck. As it came around to his turn, he flicked his cards furiously in hand, clearly attempting to think of the best answer. He made a Mausoleum Guard, and after a turn or two, I compelled her over with Olivia’s second ability. Later, as I swung in for lethal with my X/X Olivia and a Persuaded Guard, he flashed in a Nephalia Seakite to block. I should have just triple-pinged the Seakite with Olivia before blocks and won the game, but I just let the block happen against his tapped out board; I immediately informed him of my misplay, and he agreed. Even when the next turn brought Claustrophobia to my "Femnarch," she still pinged away blockers for days, and I got game two.
Game three started off with keeps from both of us on seven. He would play first, and he got out of the gate with a turn one Delver of Secrets, which is just hope-atrophy without removal or flyers in hand. I played out lands for a couple turns, but I wasn’t drawing live cards. He cast Gather the Townsfolk on Turn 2, and proceeded to make more attackers in subsequent turns. I looked at my pile of green-sleeved cards, wondering if that Blasphemous Act would be on top. If he had no removal or disruption (unlikely), it was my only answer and I could cast it; he had five creatures on board and I would have five mana next turn, and the Act would cost 3R. Boy, that’d be clutch! As I sat at 6, I said a small prayer at my upkeep and ripped, hoping to see that red sorcery blaspheming from within that venerated sleeve.
Well, suffice to say it wasn’t. My first spell of the game turned out to be a Hinterland Hermit (read: Goblin Piker), and it was my last; he followed up with a Claustrophobia and had exactly lethal on the board. After he resolved his blue enchantment, I quickly extended my hand in sincere congratulations having already calculated the damage in case of fire.
He was a gracious and humble winner, and I wished him the best of luck in the final. I went to the stage to claim my very acceptable $100 prize and returned to watch the final.
The $500 Man
The final two competitors, Joe and Patrick, sat down to do battle; they had nearly finished game one when I got back from the stage, and it was significantly in Joe’s favor. His deck of Black/Red Beats had all the creatures I had needed so badly. It seems that in our pod, I got all the removal and he got all the creatures. His deck was far superior to mine, as was his play, and he clinched game one.
In game two, Patrick was on the back pedal for much of the race, though he somehow kept making blockers in the form of Doomed Traveler and Mausoleum Guard and then their spiritual brethren. Sadly for Patrick, Joe had a suite of sweet removal (see what I did there?), and he was able to swat away those pesky Spirits. Joe’s creatures were quite underpowered, featuring such greats as Russet Wolves, Chosen of Markov, Erdwal Ripper, and Vampire Interloper (which is fairly useless against Spirits). Nonetheless, the consistency and pressure of his bomb-light deck was still enough to overpower the token-based offense of Patrick’s deck. In a humorous but ultimately irrelevant misplay, Patrick enchanted Joe’s unflipped Chosen of Markov with a Bonds of Faith while at six life. Naturally, Joe did not flip his creature at the end of the turn, and he proceeded to bring his squad of three over with a newly-Bonded Gray Ogre. Patrick looked down in amusement as he assumed that, because it was black, it couldn’t be a Human. Even playing it on another target would have only delayed the inevitable, though, so the error was purely aesthetic. Joe won the match 2-0 and with that, he won the Draft Open! You can see his picture with his plaque in hand on the Cincinnati Open coverage section of the home page.
I was nothing but ecstatic to come in fourth at the Draft Open. Despite having awkward decks, they still made wins, and that’s about all you can ask for in any Limited format, right? On a broader note, I’d also like to say I was very encouraged to see such a large number of casual (or at least not completely hardcore) players there taking their shot at gold. I’m still an overly giddy Timmy at heart, and I admit, I was afraid that when I went I’d find only the super-competitive, take-the-game-out-of-the-game kind of players. I was grateful to be proven wrong.
For my first experience at a StarCityGames.com Open, I’d chalk it up as a glowing success. I had a lot of fun, got a lot of practice, met some nice folks, and got to execute strategies and tactics I had learned by participating in dozens and dozens of drafts, watching countless videos, reading a myriad of articles, and with furious testing in simulations. I’ll definitely go again, though I may have to wait until Indianapolis in June to make the drive from Louisville seem reasonable. I can’t wait! Until next time, this is Matt Higgs, reminding you: don’t forget to untap!
– Matt Higgs
CaptainShapiro on Magic Online
Magic Blog @ untaptargetplayer.blogspot.com