On The Outside Lookin’ In: Lessons Learned From Regionals

Close. So close. What could I have done to change my final, one-short-of-the Top 8 standings? What could YOU do?

So how did The Weasel do at Regionals?

Well, we had a record attendance here for Alaska – almost fifty people. We had a grueling SIX rounds of play before we cut to the Top 8! My God, the stress! And crowds of up to two people swarmed the entryway at one point, meaning that we had to wait an extra twenty seconds before the game started.

We all grumbled about the ridiculous overcrowding here, but what are you gonna do?

The sad thing is that I’m not being entirely facetious. Last year we had a Regionals with only ten people in attendance, and I’m pretty sure I could have made the Top 8. (Apparently the guy organizing the tourney utilized the advertising genius of saying, at around eleven o’clock on the night beforehand, "Oh yeah – we’re holding Regionals here tomorrow." Surprised, people just sort of stayed overnight and played to see what the heck happened. This is quintessential Alaska.)

I took a heavily-modified CounterRebels deck to the tourney, having practiced more-or-less exclusively with it for a solid month:

4x Brainstorm
2x Dismantling Blow
1x Disenchant
2x Wrath of God
1x Rout

4x Counterspell
4x Absorb
4x Power Sink

2x Ramosian Lieutenant
2x Defiant Falcon
2x Defiant Vanguard
1x Thermal Glider
1x Rebel Informer
3x Lin Sivvi, Rebel Wins-The-Match
1x Jhovall Queen
1x Ramosian Sky Marshal

4x Coastal Tower
4x Adarkar Wastes
9x Plains
9x Islands

2x Gainsay
2x Misdirection
2x Tsabo’s Web
2x Teferi’s Response
2x Dominate
1x Dismantling Blow
3x Liberate
1x Honor the Fallen

This is a tricked-up build created to deal with a field that I anticipated to be heavy with Black/Red control. The maindecked Thermal Glider’s strong in any number of situations against Fires or B/R Control – and in a worst-case scenario, it’s two points of flying damage, which never hurts.

It’s also extremely counterspell-heavy, running twelve counters as opposed to eight or nine… Which flummoxes people. "How many counters do you HAVE?" I’d hear frequently, as people assumed that I was topdecking like a madman… When in reality, it was just a more controllish build.

I found in my testing that eight or nine counterspells combined with a light chain meant that I never seemed to have enough "no" when I needed it. And I needed it against heavy removal (Fires, B/R) or repeated global effects (U/W Control, G/W Blastogeddon, inferior builds of Jokulhaups), since I frequently had my Rebels plowed under while everyone else went on their merry way.

I traded extra Wraths and disenchant-style effects for extra counters, and it’s also missing Tsabo’s Webs in the maindeck. This was a conscious (and correct) choice as you’ll see, given a Port-light field and that with four Power Sinks I still have a decent chance of tapping ’em out in the early game… But the loss of a fourth Wrath really did hurt me.

A note on the sideboard: The Gainsays were a big mistake; I’ll get to that. The "Honor The Fallen" was anti-Zombie and mirror match tech (recursing Lin? Not any more, thanks for the life!) – but I never saw it in any match, ever, so I can’t tell you how it’d do. In retrospect, I’d probably throw in extra Wrath or a Mage, but I can’t tell you how much I hate Pyre Zombies. Grrr.

One card I will defend, however, is Liberate.

For those of you who have forgotten what this little white sucker does:

Remove target creature you control from the game. At end of turn, return that card to play under its owner’s control.

It is, effectively, a white counterspell against a lot of decks and a pounding against B/R. It saves creatures at instant speed, it yanks something out of the way of a global effect – and, best of all, nobody’s expecting it, so they never Port your white mana at the wrong time. And it also generates the same reaction, no matter what useful circumstances it’s played under:

"Wrath of God?" "Liberate Lin-Sivvi." "What’s that do?"
"Urza’s Rage that?" "Liberate it." "What’s that do?"
"Obliterate?" "Liberate the Glider." "What’s that do?"
"Tsabo’s Decree?" "Liberate the Jhovall Queen." "What’s that do?" "It kills you."


Some might say (and have) said that Parallax Wave is a better choice… But it’s more mana-intensive with a double-white (making me nervous in a Webless deck), and it doesn’t bait out removal the way Liberate does. It may just be me, but I was never unhappy to see this when I had a creature out. Particularly creatures that got other creatures for me.

Enough with the suspense; I’m not writing "My Rebels, Part Seventeen" here. I finished 4-2, which with my tiebreakers put me in…

Ninth place.

As Sheldon said when announcing the results… "On the outside, lookin’ in… FERRETT!" Frustrating, to say the least. And I certainly COULD have gone 4-1-1, since I was one game up in a Rebels-on-Rebels match, but the first game took thirty minutes. I definitely could have stalled to a draw. I might have, even, given a reasonable hand, been able to stall my way to a win… But that’s not possible.

Here’s the deal: I am so easily bored that I read books WHILE I DRIVE. I am not kidding. I prop a book up on the wheel – preferably something with big type – and sort of glance at it at stoplights, read paragraphs down long boring stretches of road, and may in fact finish a Robert Ludlum book during a particularly dense traffic jam. I have been doing this for twelve years, and have yet to get into any accidents because of it, although it terrifies pretty much everybody who drives with me.

But think – can a man who is so desperate for sensory input that he reads "Entertainment Weekly" while hurtling seventy miles an hour down icy freeways REALLY look at the same three cards over and over again for two minutes, saying "Hold"? I think not.

This is a pro skill that I fear I shall always lack.

So in the end, I came within a hair’s breadth of Top 8’ing – and the matchups consisted of a Nether-Go deck (good), three Fires or Red Zones (great), an G/W Blastogeddon deck (already beaten handily), and three PT Junk decks (ick).

But I didn’t.

Man, I long for the days of Team AWWAJALOOM support, back when I just knew I could have won if I’d really devoted the time to it.

Now it’s all just my fault.


So as a contender, I am not a winner – but I am an expert in losing. And as such, I feel I am eminently qualified to tell you what I would have done differently and how I could have won, had I only but known:

Know, Not Think.
Let me give you an example of a recent bozo play in a tourney:

I was playing in an Extended tourney, and was playing a Tinker deck that a friend had handed me last night. The deck was a hoot and a holler to play, churning out mana by the boatload. I was 2-1 when I faced a PT Junk deck.

With a Choke in play and down to sixteen life from a couple of Ancient Tomb hits, I had the opportunity to Tinker. I knew that I would have a single chance to Tinker, thanks to that Choke locking down all my islands; I had a Voltaic Key in play and knew that he had a Swords To Plowshares in his hand.

I Tinkered for a Phyrexian Processor, thinking that I could get him to Swords a creature from there first, then pump out a stream of large creatures.

I paid eight life, dropping to eight, hoping to get bumped back up to sixteen with the first Swords, then start really churning out unmentionables in a second.

Never got the opportunity. He popped out a Wasteland and Wasted my (tapped) City of Traitors, leaving me with no chance to make so much as a single token. Then, four turns later, he killed the Key, leaving me utterly up the creek. He Cursed Scrolled me out, naming – ironically enough – Swords to Plowshares.

Now in retrospect, it’s obvious I should have Tinkered for a Phyrexian Colossus. If he Sworded it, as he inevitably would, I’d gain eight life and bring me up to twenty-four, well able to endure a couple of hits from the inevitable River Boa – and if not, I’d get at least one hit in and then, in a worst-case scenario, pay life to untap and attack. And I should have guessed he was playing Wastelands, forcing me to topdeck lands until I could get a Monolith or a Thran Dynamo into play.

I should have thought it through.

But that’s the problem with Magic. If you had unlimited time and consideration, you would ALWAYS know what the right play is. (Hell, you always know what it is in the car on the way home, right?) But in the mosh pit of the tournament, in Round Seven, when you’re exhausted and tired and have to think through a head full of sand?*

You can’t afford to think in a tournament. There are some things you need to KNOW.

Let’s take another example: At Regionals, I went up against a mono-white Rebels deck, which I rolled handily due to the maindecked Rebel Informer I packed. I went second and kept a counterspell-heavy hand, thinking that I would be able to counter everything and roll him again.

Forgot about that first-turn Sergeant play, which flew in under my Power Sink shields. He chained up to an Informer and wisely did nothing else while attacking me under – including avoiding Porting me and chancing a Teferi’s Response (which I had, by the way) while I frantically searched for the Wrath or a Dominate which never came. I died being able to counter anything he did, which he didn’t, which sucked.

The proper move, of course, was to mulligan and find a hand full of searchers to race him when he was still low on mana – or, even better, keep a hand with a Wrath and a searcher and wait for him to extend himself.

If I had thought it through, I would have figured this out. But with ten minutes left in the match and thinking that I had this one in the bag, I didn’t think.

I should have known.

That’s what playtesting is for.

It’s not that a superior player really NEEDS to playtest. If he’s really good and has the stamina to play in twelve-hour events without getting exhausted*, he might be able to get by on sheer brute mental force, tabulating everything as he goes. I’m not saying it’s easy, but that’s why some guys can pick up any deck and win. They are that good.

But for the rest of us – the pseudo-scrubs who are merely talented – we need to decide what the optimal play is beforehand. We need to have an idea where we’re going, what the dangers are. We need to know what seems like an okay idea but sucks in reality.

Here’s some things I learned from a month’s worth of playtesting with CounterRebels:

* Always keep a hand with a Brainstorm in it against Black, and save it for a Decree or (as is far more likely) that second-turn Addle.
* When facing Fires or Red Zone, don’t fear early Blastoderms or Wurms as long as you have access to a Defiant Vanguard. Save your counters for greater threats, like that Burst about to cave your head in or the Ghitu Fire aimed at your dome.
* If you have a lot of counterspells when playing Fires, counter the creatures. If you don’t, counter the Fires; it buys you time to find the critters or Wraths you need.
* When playing U/W Control, you need to mulligan to an aggressive searching hand to smack them before they get to seven mana; that’s when they can Rout or Wrath repeatedly with counter backup. If you haven’t gotten in at least eight points of damage by then, mise well call the game over. And even then it’s a bad matchup.
* Ports are bad for this build the first game, but that’s what the Power Sinks are for; they’re extra counters, and you can usually counter the early spells with a single-point Sink as long as they’re Porting you. Discard any hand without at least two blue mana sources in this case.
* When playing G/W BlastoGeddon, always keep a Counterspell ready for the Armageddon. Decks like this frequently throw out tons of creatures in the early game and rely on creature-based mana to try and establish a superior board position; let them, take the hit, appear as if you’re helpless… Then counter that ‘Geddon with a counter and a Wrath, leaving them decimated and you free.
* Getting a Thermal Glider out against any R/B Land Destruction deck is key. Do it quickly.

And that’s just a few things I learned. There were many more items hardwired into my system on that Saturday morning, most of which were learned through brutal experience.

You playtest to narrow down your options a week before the other guy shows up.

Just so you know.

Don’t Be Ashamed To Playtest With Fake Cards, Dammit.
David and I really wanted to playtest against Fires and Red Zone, but neither of us had the cards. So we wasted two weeks as everyone sat around waiting for me to pull together a Fires deck. I never did. Eventually I just got a bunch of Prophecy uncommons, wrote things like "SHIVAN WURM" and "PORT" on them in large black Magic Marker, and got the final week’s worth of testing in with them.

I’ve noticed this in other amateurs; the unwillingness to play against fake decks. Don’t be. That experience against Fires and other aggro-control decks was what allowed me to beat the two Red Zone decks I faced in the tourney… And think of what I could have done if I’d only playtested more decks, as witness my next point:

Playtest Against The WHOLE Metagame.
I went 4-2 that day, and my only totally unwinnable match was to a PT Junk deck. I rolled the first game due to slight mana screw on my opponent’s part… But the second game was hell thanks to not one, not two, but THREE Parallax Waves showing up in time (and me finding none of my sided-in enchantment destruction or Wraths), and my third vanished quickly down the maw of a double-Cloaked River Boa. I was serving for eight points of damage a turn, but it wasn’t enough.

Now what could I have done against that?

Probably nothing… But I don’t know. I didn’t playtest against PT Junk, mainly because it had only started to show in a major way in the last two weeks and I didn’t think the tech would have filtered up to Anchorage yet. (And neither did anyone else, apparently – three Junk decks made the Top 8.) I’m sure I had options, but I didn’t know what they were. Why? Because I wasn’t familiar with the deck… Which isn’t necessarily a flaw against a rogue deck that wins because you really don’t know what’s going on until you’re dead, but against a well-tuned net deck it’ll kill ya. I didn’t playtest against either Skies or Junk, and it cost me.**

However, note that the decks I DID play with a deck which is rapidly sinking in metagame effectiveness (how many CounterRebel decks Top 8’d, anyway?) and did okay with it. I feel that pioneering what may be a suck build of a newly-sucking archetype to a decent finish is severely All Right.

Scour The Metagame For Both Answers AND Threats.
I knew that some decks were siding in Meddling Mages, and I planned my deck accordingly: Note the fact that I maindecked two Wraths AND a Rout, and two Dismantling Blows AND a Disenchant, mostly for anti-Mage technology.

However, I was having a wretched time in the U/W Control matchup, and I thought packing Gainsays would help me to win the inevitable counter wars. But I was thinking of other decks in terms of threats, not resources. It never occurred to me that this was a fine tool against NetherHaups or PT Junk, and naming "Wave" or "Cloak" might have won the game. D’oh!

The Local Metagame Is Key.
I took a chance by betting that a lot of people wouldn’t be playing with Ports because they couldn’t afford them – and that in turn freed up extra spots for maindecked threats and counterspells. Kai Budde CounterRebels deck is excellent against a real Port-heavy field, but against the scrubbier Regionals I wasn’t expecting to face nearly as many Porting decks.

I was correct. This in turn won me a couple of games.

Now, would I have done this if I’d lived in Atlanta or Boston? Hell, no – I would assume the lower ranks would be scrubbier, but when I got to the upper rounds it would have thinned to the best decks and thus take the hit for threat reduction in the early rounds versus greater payoff in the upper levels. But I’m in Anchorage; I took a chance, based on what I knew of the field, and it paid off.


Signing off,
The Ferrett
Former member, Team AWWAJALOOM (http://www.theferrett.com/theteam.htm)

* — Have you ever noticed that the players in the Top 8 always look so exhausted and stressed? No wonder – they’ve been thinking for eight solid hours! My theory is that tournaments should start with the finals so everyone can game while they’re still fresh, then play down to the first round. This also has the advantage of allowing the folks who scrub out 1-3 to sleep in late.

** — I didn’t playtest against NetherHaups either, but frankly I don’t think it would have mattered. "Obliterate?" "Um…. Sure!"