My Magical Life: Scrubbing Out at Grand Prix: Phoenix

Billy’s experience at Grand Prix: Phoenix was a good one. Not for the playing – he performed hideously – but for the company, the side events, and the good times. Today’s rollercoaster article chronicles each high and each low in the customary Moreno style, and shares his GP cardpool for those who wish to play along at home. “Moreno Monday” comes two days late this week… but we forgive him!

First things first, I have to apologize to Craig and to the StarCityGames readers for turning this article in two days late. But really, it couldn’t be helped. As most of you know, Grand Prix: Phoenix took place this weekend, and since this column is meant to chronicle the life of a professional Magic player, I couldn’t really submit another rambling piece about MTGO drafting into the wee hours while my fiancée cried herself to sleep and cursed my name. I mean… I could, and it’d be pretty funny. Not verbally, but existentially. At the very least, I’d giggle.

Anyway, GP: Phoenix (like all tournaments) was more than the sum of my 0-3 drop. Four hours of somewhat unfulfilling sanctioned matches inevitably spill over – way over – and I was in no condition to write this report until today… Tuesday afternoon.

I want to communicate this point (yes, I know it’s a point that has been made many times before… but I think I, and everyone else who has made it, avoid cliché simply because we mean it) – as invigorating as winning is, as draining as losing can be, as much as these weekends are about playing Magic, they are even more about not wanting the weekend to end, about trying to cram dozens of friendships into as many hours, and always about trying to win just enough to be able to show up next time. Wherever the next event is, whatever the format, I know I spend most of my time and effort testing for Pro Tour: Neverland.

Back to reality… the weekend was busy and full of stories, so I’m just going to start telling them. My mother’s 50th birthday is coming up soon and my younger brother, Rush, is having a baby soon, so Amber and I are taking a trip down to Texas. Actually, we’re on our way from Austin to Houston to celebrate her mother’s birthday, so it’s looking to be a pretty busy fortnight. We flew from New York together Friday afternoon, and I left her in Texas before hopping on my plane to Phoenix. I ran into Debbie Cohen on the flight, a high-school junior from Austin who I’ve known since she was in junior high. Debbie’s mom switched seats with me, so Debbie and I could talk… about Magic. Because really, Magic players have a hard time talking about anything else. It’s not a matter of social ineptitude; it’s just really hard not to. Some have frat life and poker to talk about, and some are preoccupied with figuring out how to get drunk later, but even then it only takes the slightest push, the lamest pun, or the awkwardest transition to translate any story into the Magical metaphor it was always meant to be.

Landing in Phoenix, I meet up with Kyle the Sahn-chez. Wandering around the baggage claim area, we run into Gabe Walls plus entourage. Seagal, who grew up in Phoenix, was completely incapable of telling us how to find a limo leaving the airport. I guess he didn’t start living the jet setting lifestyle until he moved to Indianapolis. We ended up leaving Gerry T behind because, well, who needs a Gerry T when you have a Mike Krumb? Mike spent the entire limo trip (because that’s how GWalls rolls) dutifully shooting down Constructed ideas and telling Gabe and I we were stupid because Gerry wasn’t around to say it himself. Anyway, my stupid idea is that Counterbalance plus Top is stupid good.

I’ve been testing various decks that sport the combo, and one thing remains consistent. Any time you have the two in play together, in almost any match-up, you are a favorite to win the game. Also, I think Muddle the Mixture is the second best Counterbalance support card available in Standard. I’m also inclined to say that the best Standard deck to play for the remaining Nationals tournaments is the deck that best takes advantage of the Counterbalance engine.

At the hotel we hook up with Paul Reitzl, Ted Knutson, Chris McDaniels, and Josh Ravitz. We try eating at the Mariott restaurant, but, as Americans, we are once again outplayed by the invading Japanese contingent that monopolize the waitstaff. We decide that Gabe should take everyone out to eat at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. Since he’s about as smart as I am, Gabe falls for it. We credit card game the sumptuous $810 meal for appearances, and Gabe thinks he has a chance of not paying when he reaches the finals against Kyle the Sahn-chez, but the karmic fix is in. How do I know karma was involved? Because the universe understands that I can’t afford to pay for my own food. And because Ravitz had to pay for his. Believe this: the world works.

Drafted some Coldsnap that night, trying to finalize my plan for Day 2. And then make it to bed by 3am, which is really 6am. But even then I’m not really tired.

Day 1 starts out like this (I’ve cut out the chaff):

White cards:
Conclave Equenaut
Absolver Thrull
Freewind Equenaut
Auratouched Mage
Guardian’s Magemark

Blue cards:
Copy Enchantment
Mark of Eviction
Tattered Drake
Tidewater Minion
Torch Drake

Black cards:
Roofstalker Wight
Stinkweed Imp
Douse in Gloom
Seal of Doom
Vesper Ghoul
Shred Memory
Poisonbelly Ogre

Red cards:
Fiery Conclusion
Goblin Spelunker
Ordruun Commando

Green Cards:
Greater Mossdog
Golgari Brownscale
Gather Courage
Goliath Spider
Root-Kin Ally
Petrified Wood-Kin
Gruul Scrapper
Utopia Sprawl

Gold cards:
Golgari Rotwurm
Shambling Shell
Skyknight Legionnaire
Twisted Justice
Pillory of the Sleepless
Consult the Necrosages
Dimir Doppelganger
Thundersong Trumpeter
Wee Dragonauts
Experiment Kraj
Trygon Predator

Hybrid cards:
Boros Guildmage
Selesnya Guildmage
Minister of Impediments

Boros Signet
Golgari Signet
Golgari Rot Farm
Selesnya Sanctuary
Gruul Turf
Azorius Signet

When building RGD Sealed decks, I think I use a fairly common method. Towards the beginning of the build, I eliminate the definite chaff, leaving cards like the Poisonbelly and Shred Memory in my working pool. I identify my mana-fixing, especially Karoos and Signets, but also various Vespers and Sprawls. I also push my hybrid cards toward these piles. At this point I try to figure out my base colors and hopefully a color or two that I won’t be playing.

Looking at this card pool, I think a few things are obvious. Red provides almost nothing. That said, I have at least a Signet and a Karoo to produce Red, so we can’t rule out all of the cards. Looking at the fixers again, it’s clear that Green is a free color no matter how much I decide to play. And finally, Black and White provide a solid but not spectacular creature base and more importantly, seven pieces of strong removal.

I settled on Black and White as my base colors so I could have consistent access to the removal suite. I splashed Red and Blue to supplement that suite with Fiery Conclusion and Twisted Justice, picking up Skyknight Legionnaire along the way. And I picked Green as my main splash because I needed some bulk. In RGD Sealed, it’s definitely important to have a handful of six- and seven-drops; creatures with butts bigger than four, able to impact the late game. I wrestled with how much Green to play, and this is what I ended up with:

Even during building, and especially after spending my byes battling Tim Aten, I was worried about flooding out too much, having nineteen mana sources in the deck and not a lot to do with them. I decided to board in Shred Memory and the Poisonbelly for the U/W Signet and Twisted Justice. It felt wrong cutting the spell, but I was getting to cut a fifth color, add another Guildmage to my deck, and cut an unnecessary mana source.

Rounds 4, 5 and 6 were pretty uninteresting. First, I played Ken Ho, losing games 2 and 3 to mana flood. One of the games featured this spectacular sequence. Ken sends a 4/4 into my board of 3/3, 2/1, and 1/1. He has an active Ghost Warden, so obviously I block with the 3/3 and the 1/1, quickly realize my mistake, and just stone face it like nothing strange was going on. We bin our creatures and he passes the turn. As I’m drawing, tapping, doing whatever… realization hits Ken hard. He doesn’t say anything, just kinda shakes his head, and I say, "Yeah." A game later, he was a winner, I a loser, but we are forever bonded in awkwardness.

Round 5, against Craig Edwards, I lose to a Nodorog twice, and mana flood once.

Round 6 is one of those funny matches where nothing even matters. Not only did my opponent admit to being drunk; not only did he call me sir and reprimand Gabe Walls for his lack of class and manners (which I respected) before telling us stories about punching Magic players in the face (which we laughed at); not only did I know his whole deck list because he had approached me outside and told me how awful it was; not only did he send a 2/2 Helium Squirter into my Absolver Thrull, "oh yeah. I’m drunk", and pass; he also beat me in two games that weren’t particularly close as I flooded out. Then I dropped.

I keep emphasizing the mana flood, not because I feel I was particularly unlucky (after guaranteeing a Top 16 to Ravitz and other), but because my unluck was a result of deckbuilding mistakes that led to deck weaknesses that I recognized and took the wrong steps in correcting. There were two problems with my deck: the lack of fat, and the lack of things to do with my mana. In hindsight, two cards stand out as obvious solutions to both problems: Petrified Wood-kin and Goliath Spider are both huge fatties that can dominate a table and use a lot of mana doing so. As seven- and eight-drops, neither puts any real strain on my manabase. I think Roofstalker Wight and Vesper Ghoul are the easy cuts for that switch.

However, those three rounds had little to do with my actual weekend.

Tim Aten was arranging a dinner trip to P.F. Chang’s after Day 1 was over. I had a little over an hour to kill, so Taylor Putnam (who has feelings, ya know) and I put together a two-on-two RGD draft. Annalyn and Derek from Austin were the two other players. Derek beat me at GP: St. Louis, and Annalyn has been known to outsmart the average genius. Two-on-twos are weird, and I’m not familiar with the subtleties of the format (like savage hooks and such), but I couldn’t beat a pinger or draw a Carom, so Annalyn and me lost.

Dinner was pretty fun. Highlights involve underage drinking, heavy smoking, and of course, stir fried red peppers. Kenji Tsumura, the current Player of the Year and self- proclaimed Level 3 Smokemage, was masterfully outdueled by yours truly. Richie Hoaen, who might have a crush on said Kenji, wanted him to eat one of those insidiously hot peppers that Chinese restaurants hide in their food like culinary terrorists. Kenji said no. I just popped one in my mouth, chewed on it, smiled, and held back the waiting-to-pour sweat by pure strength of will. Kenji bit. And chewed. And we found him laying around on the ground out front ten minutes later. Richie proceeded to eat eight or nine of the things, proving once again that he had outplayed everybody.

Back at the hotel, everyone in the group was going to sleep but Aten, Putz, and I wanted to draft. Really wanted it. We circled the lobby, where some random players were preoccupied with a multiplayer free-for-all. We roamed the 11th floor, checking out a rumor that fellow draft addict Luis Scott Vargas was currently haunting it. Finally, we found someone back in the lobby who might have two more people who wanted to draft. He had to go check his room. And Tim had to have donuts. Are you freaking kidding me? Everything you always wanted is in your grasp, if only you can show a little restraint, but instead you want to cynically decry that potential draft as a pipe-dream so that you can wander around the desert chasing Krispy Kreme brand Paoti? Sounds like a self-destructive streak to me, sir.

We follow the hotel clerk’s loose directions, spend an hour looking for donuts that don’t exist – at a gas station that does with a bathroom that doesn’t – and finally come back to the hotel lobby, which has been fully emptied. Seriously, it reminds me of that time in Honolulu where I lost four rounds straight.

Of course, I came back to win seven straight, only to miss out on the Top 8 due to tiebreakers, and this Sunday would be no less thrilling. I showed up at the site early – just before noon – to play in a 2HG iPod tournament. I was supposed to be teaming with Kenji… so much gas, I know. Then I saw him at the table registering with someone who spoke the same language he did. Oh well. I resigned myself to drafting all day, when I saw the Sahn to my Chez. Of course, we had to defend our title. We signed up and received a really busted pool opened by Jelger Weigersma and Frank Karsten. We had one really strong U/B/w control deck with a bunch of removal (including Hex), a good mill package, and a ton of card advantage. To support that, we built a R/W/g deck that was full of fat, some decent removal, and non-creature answers.

I think 2HG is a really interesting test of a player’s ability to adjust, because card valuations are just so far off from the normal Limited formats which form the bulk of a player’s experience with those cards. Because a team starts with forty life, efficient early drops are largely ineffective. Even if they do ten damage before it happens, they will always be outclassed in a game. I’m pretty sure you want your two- and three- drops to have late game capabilities before you consider playing them. Our builds provided an extreme example. Because our removal and long game was so strong, we cut Civic Wayfinder for Phytohydra. Also, answers are really important. If possible, every enchantment or artifact destruction spell is worth considering for play. If it’s attached to a body, it has to make a deck. We even played a Sewerdreg over something slightly more powerful, because we wanted an answer to graveyard recursion, and it even came up. During one game, I got to eat a Recollect-targeted Debtors’ Knell with a Absolver Thrull-haunted Sewerdreg, taking down a Fetters in the process. We went 4-1, losing a super-close game in extra turns thanks to me playing a Duskmantle one turn late. We were paired down in the last round, so of course we miss the Top 4 on tiebreaks. Like I said, Honolulu all over again. Thanks for the Coldsnap packs.

The conversion on Coldsnap to RGD is horrible, a complete reaming, and yet, I’d do it in a second if only Evan Dean weren’t so awesome and generous. After trading out sets, we sit down for a three-on-three. Ravitz says the teams are unfair because StarWarsKid and I are stuck with the Sahn-chez ("stuck" is Josh’s word, not mine). Jelger tells him it’s okay, because Gerrard never wins a match. Josh agrees, then grumbles about not paying any pride bucks if his team loses because them losing would be too ridiculous. To his credit, he finishes with the best record on his team, going 2-1 as they get romped, 6-3. He pays up after I poke him a million times. StarWarsKid steals the foil Bobby from the spoils. He likes to say he tricked us, but he’s actually a dirty thief, as will be proved later.

Next on the docket is a six-on-six survivor draft. This was my first exposure to the format, so I’ll explain it to you how Ravitz, Rich, and Aten explained it to Sahn-chez. After the draft, everyone plays one round and then Kyle gets voted off. Then another round gets played and someone else gets voted off. And so on, and so on, until one team reaches the requisite amount of wins. Then everyone on the winning team, whether they survived or not, gets to celebrate. Also, if you’re over 21, you can drink during all of this.

My deck was awful. I admit this. As I’ve noted before, in my Daily Series I think, I have lingering feelings toward Psychic Drain. Josh passed me one eighth pick, and I hesitantly shipped it, taking a Fiery Conclusion instead. Another Drain followed, and then a 10th pick Entrancer. Still, I tried drafting a U/B/R control strategy with no particular milling plan, but I didn’t see anything in the second pack. In Dissension, I moved in, taking a Blue Eidolon first pick. I got another Eidolon and a Skyscribing as a proxy-drain. Really, the deck was terrible. But it was focused. And I won my first round, and most of the decks on the other team were slow so they were good match-ups for me, and Pelcak was playing the only deck I couldn’t really beat, and I got really unlucky to lose to him, and please don’t vote me off, but they did. We won anyway, as the quite humbled Ravitz and Aten put their faith in Kyle the Sahn-chez’s bomb-packed deck, voting him through to the end of the draft.

The weaklings thinned out and we set up another survivor draft. A five-on-five. The teams were me, Kenji, Derek (from the two-on-two earlier), SWK, and Big Putz against Kyle the Sahn-chez, Jelger, some guy I played a few times with this weekend and don’t know, Julien Nuijten, and little Debbie (who was being shadowed by Aten). Once again, I get forced into a silly mill deck as my early Ravnica picks are Black and Blue and no other plan really comes together. Actually, the deck was a card-advantage packed Eidolon control deck, featuring quite a bit of removal, four Eidolons, and about nine gold cards. Interesting, U/B/r/w Eidolon Control was actually my plan for Prague, but everyone got so excited about Simic towards the end that I hopped on the bandwagon and missed Day 2. Debbie, who was sitting to my right, somehow ended up with three Gruul Guildmages and a Simic one.

We battled through the night. Kenji and Jelger begged to be voted off as dawn crept closer. SWK and Julien slept standing up while they waited for the next round (every round took forever because my deck won so slowly). In round 2, I narrowly beat Debbie, the Musketeers, and D’Artagnan, burying them under an avalanche of recurring 2/2’s and card advantage. Runeboggle was an MVP. Julien, with his Eidolon-less control deck, smartly assesses the situation and votes himself off the team. SWK and Putz, who have both been cursing me for hours for Debbie’s mad guildmages, both tag out. Debbie and I square off for an epic showdown. (Quick side note: it’s really cool seeing the young kids from my Texas crew getting to hang out with the player’s they used to read about. It also creates some interesting situations, like Sahn-chez being ragged on hard for his impressive streak of Friday Night Magic wins, or Debbie clamming up tight and barely saying a word during the survivor drafts because the people there made her nervous. I think they’re both handling themselves really well.) I mulligan to six every game; she mulligans just a little bit more. She blows me out on the mulligan to five. The other two games play out the same way they did earlier, with me just piling on card advantage and blunting her attack after early damage. A well-timed Convolute, a Steamcore off the top, an Eidolon or two, and SWK was able to pay for his shuttle ride to the airport.

Thank god.

It was Monday morning. I hadn’t slept in 24 hours. And I wasn’t nearly ready to leave Neverland. I never really am, so it was good to have someone to share the shuttle ride with. Plus, Chris really does remind me of one of the Lost Boys.

Until next time, "ERuhERuhERrrrr!"

Billy Moreno