Nationals: Not The Plan

Nationals turned into a disaster story for Brad. He brought David Ochoa’s Caw-Blade deck to the event and went 4-0 in Constructed, only to go 0-3 in draft. Then it all went downhill. What comes next for Player of the Year?

Nationals did not go according to plan. This tournament was another chance to make the team and become part of something I have dreamed of for so many years. I can say there is always next year, but before that, I should talk about every mistake I made this last weekend in Indianapolis.

Preparation for Nationals was very good. I tested Caw-Blade as much as possible and was very happy with two different lists.

This list is prepared for Valakut, Birthing Pod, and Splinter Twin. Torpor Orb is a very good card in these matchups and allows this deck to play a much slower game against them.

I thought that Birthing Pod decks might pick up in numbers with the more skilled Magic players. I say skilled players in particular because it’s very difficult to pilot Birthing Pod but also gets much harder when up against Caw-Blade.

That is the actual secret of Caw-Blade that often goes unmentioned. The most powerful aspect of the deck is that there is no clear card or strategy that beats it. There’s no sideboard card that can improve the matchup by itself. It takes play skill and a long list of cards to do the job.

Birthing Pod decks have the tools to win this matchup, even through a Torpor Orb. There are a ton of one-ofs that let you pull so far ahead that not even one of Caw-Blade’s most powerful spells can bring it back.

There are a ton of problems with this decklist because of Torpor Orb. The biggest of them is being forced to play Oblivion Ring to be able to deal with Primeval Titans and Birthing Pods. Adding Torpor Orbs to the deck means that the overall speed of the list will be slower. Adding such a reactive spells means tempo will be much more difficult to control, forcing the deck to have even more controlling spells.

The other list is the one that Owen, Luis, and Ochoa all Top 8ed with and the one I went with.

I did make one change by swapping the maindeck Jace Beleren with a sideboarded Azure Mage. Same 75 still.

Everything in this list I agreed with except for the sideboarded Mental Missteps. I did not want to play them, but I promised myself I would listen to LSV more often after my terrible deck choice in Nagoya.

The tournament started, and I quickly found myself at 2-0 playing against Kyle Boggemes. This was a very sick match—well, game three was at least. Instead of perfect play, it was full of mistakes commonly made by players who overthink themselves.

Game one started with my getting pummeled by Hero of Bladehold and Gideon Jura because every fifth land drop I made came into play tapped, not allowing me to play my own copy of the walker.

We moved to game two, and I kept Jace on the board. Kyle missed a single land drop, giving me information. My hand was Sphinx and some decent spells while we were trading off Swordless Hawks.

I decided to leave Jace Beleren on one counter for multiple turns. The reason is that I didn’t want him to make any land drops, nor did I need any more spells. I would either have to play something or discard anyway. This allowed me to have a Jace in play if he had his own as well as set up a draw three with Sphinx. The latter happened, and I found my way to eight mana to protect the mythic with a Mana Leak, and we moved on to the decider.

Down to game three, Kyle opened with Colonnade and Coast. Not playing a Squadron Hawk made me think he had to have a Mana Leak. This would have made playing my own Hawk a big mistake.

The surprising thing was that Kyle then played a third land and dropped his Squadron Hawk on the table. I was very confused at this point. This line meant that he could have topdecked the Hawk but was not afraid of my Mana Leak. This could be true because he had more powerful sorcery speed spells like Mirran Crusader and Hero of Bladehold.

The other line might be that he had Spell Pierce in his list and kept it in post sideboard. I really don’t know where he would find the room, but this is the line that I put him on. This made me feel that he had Mana Leak and Spell Pierce in his hand.

Plays like this rarely happen but are very impressive when they do. You open a hand in the mirror with Squadron Hawk, Mana Leak, and Spell Pierce and decide to try to catch your opponent’s Hawk before playing your own. I don’t think it is always very smart to try to run this, but it makes more sense for Kyle to be on this line of play than simply deciding to run a topdecked Hawk into my Mana Leak.

Regardless I didn’t have the Leak, and I just played my own Hawk and a tap land. Kyle decided that he wanted to push forward with Hero of Bladehold. Scary thing is it was going to work since I had no way to beat it. I drew a second copy of Gideon Jura and no more action besides an Azure Mage.

I played out two more Squadron Hawks and said go. I still thought two of his last three cards were Spell Pierce and Mana Leak so I felt the game was over. This is when Kyle gave me my first opening. He tanked on five lands, so I felt the Sword of Feast and Famine in his hand.

I did the math, but then he threw the Sword on the Hero instead of a Bird, so that changed my calculations. I wasn’t expecting that move—fear of Dismember made little sense since I would have cast it last turn. He attacked with the Hero, and I blocked with a Hawk, taking four.

Gideon came down and dealt with the Hero of Bladehold. He suited up the Hawk and bashed Gideon with it and the tokens. Gideon went to two counters, and I had just a Hawk left.

This was mistake number one of the match.

Kyle should have equipped the Squadron Hawk, which would have me block it and not his Hero. I would have taken three extra damage with everything else being the same. If I drew a Dismember on the following turn, that would changed things, but that is the only situation where I see his play being better.

Later in the game I was far behind. I just used Gideon to kill a Mirran Crusader and had three cards in hand.

Gideon Jura
Azure Mage
Into the Roil

He still had two cards in hand and had never gone lower than that, continuing the illusion that he had Mana Leak and/or Spell Pierce. I had two mana left over and would get hit with his last Hawk if I didn’t Into the Roil. I could either take it and discard the Into the Roil to set up Gideon Jura with Azure Mage to dig or see if he actually had the Leak.

If I Roiled and he did have Leak, I would be forced to discard Azure Mage and out-draw him to win. Tunnel vision got the best of me, and I decided to play the Into the Roil. It got Mana Leaked.

The problem with this line was that I knew he had it, but for that split second, I just wanted him not to. Just like he did earlier in the game. He thought about one spell I might have and played accordingly even though logic said I didn’t have it and wouldn’t get it.

The last mistake was the deciding factor. The board was Mirran Crusader, Spellskite, and two Soldier tokens against three Soldier tokens and a Gideon Jura at four counters. We both had a token with a sword, and neither player had a card in hand. Also, we each had a Colonnade and Inkmoth Nexus, but my trump was an untapped Tectonic Edge.

Kyle attacked with everything—Mirran Crusader at my Gideon and the Soldiers at me, since I was very low on life. The problem was he forgot to attack with Spellskite.

I have been in these very complex board states before and made mistakes like this. The clock is winding down, and the board looks better for your opponent if he survives a couple turns. His deck is better in the late game, which means more topdecks will come off his deck. You do all the math and figure out the best play, but after doing more thinking, you forget to attack with the zero-power creature, because it has zero power. The mind just doesn’t go over every detail full circle, and something gets missed.

He told me after the match that he thought about it after he attacked, but it was too late at that point. I was able to kill off the Mirran Crusader with Gideon, and the game quickly went in my direction because I was able to attack with a Colonnade holding Sword and still block without losing any board.

It was an intense game, which doesn’t happen all the time, and I was very happy to come out of it alive.

The Standard portion was over, and it was now time to draft. I had gotten a decent number of drafts in but still felt very weak in the format. This is very different from my usual preparation for a tournament. Most draft formats are online for me to grind close to 100 drafts before an event, but I was only able to play a couple days of M12. I was going in scared.

To make matters worse, I was under the camera. I don’t buckle under the camera, but it is still daunting to know people are watching me when I don’t know what I am doing.

The draft is not yet on the internet; when it is, I’ll do a video talking about it. The reason for this is it was singlehandedly the worst draft I have ever done at a professional event. It was my first 0-3. I almost got out with a win, but the luck was on my opponent’s side.

4-0 turned into 4-3, and I was crushed. People told me that x-3 would not make Top 8, and instead of doing the math myself, I believed them. My fire had been burning so brightly before the event started, from my desire to win this title, but it was now completely extinguished. I bought into the talk of not being able to Top 8.

The truth is every x-3 made it besides Patrick Chapin. My breaks for day one were much better than his, which makes me believe if I had pulled off 7-0, I would have made Top 8. It was a long shot, but in the realm of possibility. I have done it before.

Instead of getting a good night’s sleep, I went out for a few drinks to shake off yet another bad tournament. One drink turned into two, and I found myself waking up an hour after day two had started. At the time, I was very angry at myself for doing this, but it got much worse when I found out I still could’ve Top 8ed.

Last year’s Brad would never have allowed any of this to happen. My heart was 100% into the tournament, and I always gave it my all. This tournament showing was just pathetic. I was playing good Magic, and I allowed one bad draft to derail me. I was playing with emotions, and they got the best of me.

So how do I fix this? I took a couple days to figure this out, and I came out with an answer. I am going back to the way I liked Magic in the first place. I want to just play the best possible Magic and let nothing get in my way. I want to become the machine again and will do anything to make that happen. Good Magic is all I’ll be worrying about for the rest of the year, and what comes of it comes.

I just hope I can get myself into fighting shape before Pro Tour Philadelphia.

This weekend, I will be in Richmond doing commentary with one of my best friends in the world, Jacob Van Lunen. Jake and I have been the best of friends since my first Nationals, and I am looking forward to this weekend as if it were a Pro Tour. We will be having a ton of fun, and you should either be watching or participating in this great event. You don’t want to miss it!

Next week I want to do an article answering your questions. Whatever you want to ask is fine. I just think it would be a ton of fun, since I saw Paulo do it a few months back. Please send your questions to [email protected], and I will be sure to answer most of them next week. Thank you so much for everything!

Brad Nelson