Playing For The Honor – A Portuguese Nationals Report

Tiago headed into his Nationals adventure with a clear goal in mind – to become the first ever two-time Portuguese National Champion. While his efforts proved ultimately fruitless, his take on the metagame was perfect. This report describes the ups and downs Tiago faced in the tournament, and provides some advice for those players yet to make their own Nationals journey.

At the end of my Daily Series, I left in the air the possibility of writing something about my Nationals that would be taking place on the following day. As I expected, my performance was average (to say the least), but in the end I was proven right as an exact 75-card copy of the deck I played in Standard won the National Championship. I’ll cover my Standard rounds, as well as both my RGD and Coldsnap draft, trying to find out what things worked out and what things went wrong, as well as giving you some introductions about the most prestigious event in Portuguese Magic and the characters you usual find.

Portuguese Nationals are the most prestigious event one can play here, as Grand Prixes are rare in Portugal; I believe we’ve had three in the past seven years. Our National does not award any money, so it’s like a big PTQ for Worlds. The reason why it’s so special to the average player is because it’s an invite-only event. So, during Spring, many players who don’t care much about Magic and won’t even attend PTQs try to qualify for Nationals.

Playing Nationals is mostly for the fun of it, and for the honor, as there’s no money or pro points at stake. The honor is relative. On the international scene, it barely counts for anything that you’ve won Portuguese Nationals. Many players won’t see it as a great accomplishment, and will assume you won an easy Nationals from a third world country. But in the National scene, players who vaguely heard about the Pro Tour will recognize the Champion, as well as the media, newspapers, magazines and even TV will mention the National Champion every now and then when they talk about Magic.

One of the reasons why I think Nationals is such a prestigious event is because of the names attached to each year’s victory. Almost all of the previous winners were some the best, if not the best, players at the time. I do believe that a Championship awards honor to the person who wins it, but I also believe that the quality of the winners, either at the time or what they’ll eventual accomplish, gives credit and honor to the history of the Championship.

For me, Nationals is a great chance to meet old friends and people I met playing this game who live somewhere else, as they gather together for this event, but I was lacking some motivation for winning. I am already qualified for Worlds. There were no Pro Points at stake, and no prize money. I could play for being on the National Team and have my travel expenses paid, but it’s unexciting, as Worlds is in Paris this year, and with all the respect for my country, the Portuguese Team has no chance of winning the Team competition at Worlds, no matter what three Portuguese players you pick. As an example, last year’s team had both Worlds Top 8’ers at that event, Marcio Carvalho and Andre Coimbra, and the team failed to win any money.

Without the right motivation for winning, it’s hard to find the motivation to playtest, so I was little careless regarding testing. My main, and probably only, motivation was to be a two-time National Champion, something we’ve never had in the history of the Championship.

The Metagame After U.S. Nationals

The big story from U.S. Nats was Solar Flare. I played some tournaments with it on MTGO and real life playtesting sessions, and I loved playing with the deck. There was so much raw power in the cards: Wrath of God, Compulsive Research, Persecute, Angel of Despair, but most importantly, Court Hussar. Just by looking at it, you realize it’s an excellent card, but like many others before him, it might fail to find a home (a deck that can use it)… Spiritmonger comes to my mind. Court Hussar doesn’t seem to have a place in U/W aggro, because of his low attack power, and it also doesn’t fit in classic U/W Control strategies that rely on a single creature for the win and don’t want to tap out. But Solar Flare is the perfect home for Court Hussar, being the obvious "search" spell and 1/3 body, as well as extra life for Miren and an enabler to Ninjitsu Ink-Eyes. Some Magic players that knew me advised me that Solar Flare was the best deck for me, because in the current Standard it’s one of the decks that interacts the most with the opponent’s cards, and the more interaction between your cards and his, more chances are the best player comes out on top.

The problem was Solar Flare has a really bad time against Heartbeat, Magnivore, and Owling Mine. It also had problems against Zoo and B/W Aggro, as well as control decks with permission spells. I’m not claiming it can’t win, but there are many matchups where it’s not a favorite, as it can’t handle very well any kind of disruption: Land Destruction, countermagic, or even burn spells.

My second choice was either Heartbeat or Owling Mine – metagame choices. The way I predicted the metagame, I think one of these two decks was a good choice, with Heartbeat being the safest, and Owling Mine the bold one. My prediction for the metagame involved five decks.

In order of popularity:

1- B/W aggro
2- Solar Flare
3- U/R Tron
4- Zoo (or Zoo-like decks)
5- Heartbeat

Based on this, you have to assume Heartbeat and Owling Mine are the top choices, as both decks have very good game against the three most expected decks. This is how I based my predictions, as I’m familiar with Portuguese reality.

The top Portuguese players – let’s say around six or seven out of my Top 10 – will play Heartbeat. Some of them played Heartbeat during the whole season, in Extended and at Team Standard PTQs, while others realized it was the best deck and the best metagame choice.

Then you have Marcio Carvalho who shapes metagames, as many players will simple copy/paste his decklist. This is a small country so everyone knows each other. Marcio decided early on that he was playing B/W aggro, and his confidence in his deck extended to some of our friends who were unsure about which deck to play. As soon as the word spread that Marcio was playing B/W, believe me, the deck rocketed in popularity.

Despite many flaws, you can’t dismiss the impact of Solar Flare at the U.S. Nats. Many players will ignore those flaws, or not test enough to discover them, and will guide themselves by the results of USA. Many players claimed they weren’t testing, as it was useless with U.S. Nats a week before ours. So I assumed that many players would play Solar Flare.

Finally, you have the results from Portuguese Regionals, where the top contenders were U/R Tron and Zoo. Some players just stick with their own deck the whole season, especially if it won them slots at Regionals. Tron also had good results in U.S. Nats, and there are players who will always play an aggro deck no matter what.

I decided my deck the night before Nationals. I wanted to play Solar Flare, as it was the deck I enjoyed the most, but it had problems against four out of the five more expected archetypes, with the other one being the mirror. But since I was so sure in my metagame read, I decided that Heartbeat was the best metagame choice (and best deck), with my friend Rui Mariani playing Owling Mine.

The deck I played:

In the morning, just half hour before we had to turn in decklists, I was still unsure about my sideboard, but there was one person I wanted to talk to: Kuniyoshi Ishii. Basically, we talked on the phone the previous night, and we agreed on settling on a sideboard in the morning. I told Kuni my opinions on the metagame and we settled on this sideboard, with the Cranial Extractions being the innovation. I was very well impressed by them. Having the final tuning on my sideboard with Kuni raised my Faith for this event, and in a matter of faith I named my deck Kuni-Beat hoping to repeat the victory of 2003.

My maindeck is the Heartbeat from French Nationals, with Invoke the Firemind replacing one Weird Harvest. With the rise in popularity of Castigates and Cranial Extractions, we didn’t want to risk having only one winning condition. I was willing to take that risk, as I think Weird Harvest accelerates you by one turn, and usually Extraction names Early Harvest. Castigate taking Maga was still a problem. In the round for Top 8, "Kuni" – Kuniyoshi Ishii won by casting Invoke on him for six or seven, so it was more than win condition number two.

As you may have guessed, Kuniyoshi Ishii is a Japanese name, but like me he was born in Portugal and doesn’t speak any Asian languages. Kuni was the 2002 National Champion. When he was active we played a lot together, and he designed (or rather he tuned, because nowadays no one really designs new decks) many of the decks I played. The most notorious one was the Kuni-Tog that I used to win Nationals 2003, going 9-0 with it. He was without a doubt the best Magic player in Portugal around 2002, but then he went to College and realized partying and going on Campus was more fun than playing Magic.

Funny thing, Kuni is very much like the stereotype of Japanese Magic player. He is a magnificent Constructed Player and a very skilled deck tuner when it comes to Control decks. During the peaks of his Magic career, people were anxious to see how Kuni would build his Psychatog deck, so they could make the changes like him. Kuni also has a Grand Prix Top 8 in a Block Constructed format, but is an unknown to the rest of the world for two reasons. One, he never went to a Pro Tour. Despite winning several PTQs, there was always something preventing him. Two, he was average at Limited (like the Japanese players used to be), although he claims he’s "not bad at Limited, just better at Constructed."


Round 1: Tiago Fonseca, Firemane Control
The first round brought me a very tough opponent. We were chosen as the first feature match of Nats. "Kid-Tiago" is the future of Portuguese Magic. We playtested together for this Nationals, with him choosing Firemane the night before. Kid-Tiago is addicted on MTGO, and he’s often mistaken as me due to having the same name. He’s always online and knows everyone on the Magic Online world, but strangely he hates playing Magic in real life, always wanting to drop to go play the next 2x Premiere Event.

In the first game he dropped Zur’s Weirding and I was locked. I only have four Remands to delay it.

In the second game, I played end of turn Early Harvest to enable a Gigadrowse for all his lands, I thought it was game, as I knew his decklist, but he sideboarded in Rewind, so he left mana floating and countered the last of the Gigadrowses copies. With only four mana untapped I tried to go for it anyway, but all the cards in his hand were either counters or Odds/Ends, which are really good when targeting Early Harvest. I fail to go off, but I still have a very good shot at it next turn… but there was no next turn, as he had a Demonfire as the remaining unknown card in his hand.

0 – 1

Round 2: Joao Abreu, U/G Graft
Despite losing the first round, and playing in a Nationals with 150 players, I met another friend and tough opponent. Joao Abreu Top 16ed both GPs he played last season. I know that he always plays aggressive decks, so I wasn’t in for another permission war. Unfortunately, it was U/G graft, which is one of the bad matchups for Heartbeat, with the worst being probably Sea Stompy. These decks have pressure and are backed by up to eight counterspells, with sideboard Naturalizes and, in Joao’s case, Pithing Needles.

I was able to combo him in Game 1 playing around his two open mana, but I got wrecked by his Needles in games 2 and 3. Game 2 I played Sensei’s Divining Top and he names it with Needle, with me drawing two more Tops in the next four draws. Game 3 I went first and said go. Joao played Needle, and since I didn’t played a Top, he makes a very good guess on Sakura-Tribe Elder, which I had two. I also had Crime/Punishment in hand, so if he’d named Drift or anything else I would’ve probably won, but he had an excellent call there.

0 – 2

Round 3: Artur Montez, Zoo
Artur is another friend, but he’s not playing Magic any more. He just attended Nationals because he was qualified on rating. We showed each other our decks before playing, and I was a little concerned as Zoo was the matchup I least wanted to play from my Top 5 predictions. Usually the round is 50-50, going to 65-35 to who wins the die roll. I lost the die, but Artur mulliganed, claiming he was having a bad day. He kept a decent hand but with no White mana, preventing him from playing Kami of Ancient Law which made going off for me much easier.

For Game 2 I mulligan to five on the draw, and keep the following hand: three lands, Maga, and Weird Harvest. I was so close to mulligan to four, but I figured my chances were roughly the same as keeping this one. Looking back, I should have definitely mulliganed. My first two draws were Remands, and his first play was a turn 3 Burning-Tree Shaman that I’m able to Remand twice. With such a slow start I managed to find a Heartbeat and combo him. Afterwards, he tells me that he kept with two non-White lands, three Kami of Ancient Law, and Burning-Tree Shaman.

1 – 2

RGD Draft

I had estimated the cut for Top 8 at 9-2-1, so I needed to win nine straights since the end of round 2. One was done, but now was the format I feared the most, RGD. I was quite decent at RRR and RRG, but since Dissension was released I almost never X-0 a draft. The problem is, of course, colors and manabases. No matter how many RGD drafts I make, I never quite seem to get it. Every time I try to stay two colors and a splash, every time I have infinite bouncelands and Signets, and every time my opponents just play better cards against me. For example, a Blue/Red/Green deck once won with a splashed Debtors’ Knell, off three Plains and one Wild Cantor.

We do a lot of four-on-four team booster drafts here, and since Dissension, my usual scores are 1-3 or 2-2. I started noticing a pattern. When I drafted Blue decks, I was able to 2-2, and every time I didn’t I ended 1-3. For Nats, I settled on forcing Blue, mostly Blue/Black splash Red, Blue/Green splash Red or Blue/White splash Red. I need to have two colors that I consider the core of my deck. I refuse to draft three colors evenly balanced (with what I call the 6/6/6 manabase), and I am more likely to go four colors, with two main colors and two splashes. But then again, I wouldn’t follow my advices in RGD. If you are losing at RGD it’s probably because due to the same problem as me. It’s all about power and not consistency.

I arrived at my draft pod where I didn’t recognized any face or any name, but it was probably my fault. Since I stopped playing the PTQ circuit I fail to recognize new emerging players from other regions. I was very confident in Coldsnap Draft and in my Standard deck, so I was just praying: come on RGD draft, just this one time!

I started the draft with first pick Peel from Reality over crap, and then got shipped Blue, so my plan was actually working. I was more or less settled in Blue/Red. I first pick Train of Thought in Guildpact. There wasn’t any Izzet goodie, but I like the card since I play multiple bouncelands and some Signets. I got rewarded with a second pick Gelectrode and a fifth or sixth pick Ogre Savant. Other relevant cards were Izzet Chronarch, Douse in Gloom, Wrecking Ball, and Seal of Doom.

I ended with a Blue deck with six cards with Black in the mana cost, and five with Red. The mana was excellent too, with three or four bouncelands and double Izzet Signet. Unfortunately, I’m writing this from my parent’s house as I’m staying a week with them and I left the drafts decks in Lisbon – my fault. I even kept them (I was so close to throw them against a wall), because I was planning on writing this report, but I forgot to pack them.

The deck was only “good” cards, but it was lacking on win conditions. I had twelve creatures and twelve spells. The best finishers I had were Belltower Sphinx and Snapping Drake, as the ground creatures like Ogre Savant or random 3/3 were unlikely to get the job done.

Round 4: Blue/White/Black
I easily won the first game with my fliers, and won the second game by milling with Vedalken Entrancer and Enigma Eidolon. The second game was much closer due to his multiple fliers.

2 – 2

Round 5: Green/Blue/Red/White
I drew DI cards with Ocular Halo and Bloodletter Quill, but they were all lands so I was losing board position as I was facing a growing army. Eventually I stabilized, but I was very unlikely to win the game by damage, as the board was even and I sat at seven life (he was close to twenty). Since I drew many cards, I had one less card in my library than him (after calculating all the cards that I could mill until the end of the game with Enigma Eidolon). I figured I was okay, because I had Vedalken Entrancer in the deck. With little time remaining I was thinking I could get another win by decking, but when I drew my second to last card, I’m pretty sure I yelled some unpleasant things and threw my cards down. Turns out that the Vedalken Entrancer was the last card in the deck, so I was losing this game to library death, with no chance to come back as there was around seven minutes remaining.

It occurred to me to get up and go home, and not touch a Magic card until Pro Tour: Kobe. After the initial shock, I calmed down and decided to swallow it. Starting with my opponent – and this extended to all other people in the room – no one cares about the Vedalken Entrancer being the bottom card. What matters is winning and losing, so I might as well accept the losing and not act like an idiot who can’t take a loss.

Usually I would’ve dropped, but at this point I decided to stay until the end. I was actually enjoying the tournament, even with many losses, so I decided to not let this small incident take away my joy.

2 – 3

Round 6: Blue/White/Black
I lost game 1 to his multiple evasion creatures. He had at least three Azorius First-Wings and two Dimir Infiltrators, backed up by some bounce spells like Repeal and Vedalken Dismisser. Like my friend stated after the game, I had Bloodletter Quill in both games and I never had the chance to activate it once, because the games were so fast. I could have – and should have – won game 2, but I misplayed it. I should be angrier about this loss (my fault) than the previous round (no one’s fault). I was down one game with time running out, so I didn’t do the math. I played Chronarch, Peeled Chronarch and one of his blockers, and attacked, winning next turn for sure. I could’ve won right there, as my opponent had attacked recklessly… had I done the math, I would’ve Peeled the other guy, played Douse in Gloom on another creature in such a way to allow my Enemy of Guildpact to deal lethal damage. This way, I gave one more turn to my opponent… who topdecked Blessing of the Nephilim, burnt it on Dimir Infiltrator for a +2+2, bonus giving him the win.

2 – 4

I ended the RGD draft 1-2. No surprises for me here. This time I even extended myself to a little more than two colors and a splash, and had a lot of power in my deck, but I learnt another lesson. Power is important, but so are the big guys, because sometimes you need to deal damage quickly, or just win the game.

Coldsnap Draft

We were playing twelve swiss rounds, split into seven rounds and both drafts on Day 1, and five rounds plus Top 8 on Day 2, so I still had another round to play. Unlike RGD, I was pretty confident with RGD draft, as I tested a lot the cards in Beta. The only downside is that I’d never seen a bad Coldsnap draft. No matter what you do, you will still end with a playable deck, so you need to draft a good or ridiculous draft to win the pod. This time I recognized one or two faces from the tournaments, although I didn’t know the names of anyone. I knew one guy from his IRC nickname, but I had no clue on his real name.

I started with Surging Flame, then Ronom Hulk, and then I got passed heavy Blue. I ended with a strange archetype: an U/G snow deck with two Into the North and eight Snow Lands, splashing for three Surging Flames and two Skred. During deckbuilding, I noticed I had a Diamond Faerie that would be really cool in my deck. I also had the Green/White dual snow land and two Into the North, so I splashed the Faerie for fun. I was already out of contention for Top 8, but I planned to play until the end.

Once I decided on splashing the Red cards and the Faerie, I cut some playable cards to make room for two Survivor of the Unseen. They go very well with the Surging Flames, and even if I don’t have a second copy to put in on top, I can put a useless card (let’s say extra land or the Diamond Faerie) to get rid of it when I do the Ripple.

My deck looked fine, and I only regret not taking a Garza Zol, Plague Queen. I would’ve gone crazy with five colors and splashed her as well. Funny how I don’t go wild on colors in RGD, but did it in Coldsnap once I was out of contention. If I were playing for something, I would’ve stuck with the U/G snow deck splashing Flames and Skred. But like I said before, a solid deck is not enough in Coldsnap.

As expected, after the draft, 100 players were giggling like little girls about their drafts, and I was shown some ridiculous decks.

Round 7: Green/White
I’m still not completely sold on Survivor of the Unseen, but I played him in both games after I traded some creatures earlier. It won me the game, drawing 2 cards a turn. During the match, both my opponent and I are requested to go to the Judge Station. There are more than 30 decklists sorted out, with some comment written on top like "no basic lands" and stuff like that. Mine said: 39 cards. The Head Judge asked me to count the decklist, and I decided to drop. I mean, I can stand the tough beats and the losses, but this incident threw me down. I had to wake up very early the following day, to play for nothing, starting with a game loss or match loss. I read it as a sign from destiny saying: Drop!

3 – 4

Day 2

There was a friend of mine from Porto who was staying at my place, so I had to wake up early anyway to drive him there. Once they start playing I realized that perhaps I shouldn’t have dropped, but as time passes by I’m being joined by more and more friends who were dropping. Eventually we get a team draft going, and nobody wants me on their team, since we were drafting RGD. It is at this time that I realize I don’t have any more sanctioned RGD drafts to play, so I had a big smile on my face and proceed to 3-0 the draft. Right on time.

At the end of the day, after a Heartbeat on Heartbeat finals (no surprise to me), we had a new Champion crowned. His name is Kuniyoshi Ishii, the first two-time champion in Portugal, so I’m guessing I will have even less motivation for next year’s Nats. However, there were very few past champions that I would be happy for, had they accomplished the double championship, and Kuni was one of them. After Day 1 of Nats, I was feeling tired about this game, but Kuni’s victory brought back my faith. He’s a great guy and a great champion, and his win makes the history of the Portuguese National Championship shine a little more.

With this article I planned to show you a little about the meaning of Portuguese Nationals, and let you know a little about our new Champion. I also had the courage to pick my 3-4 record and write a report on it, as usually reports of bad tourneys have many lessons you can learn. To sum them up, here are a few for your Nationals if you are still playing.

Heartbeat is a very good deck, and it was the correct metagame choice for this tournament. The other deck that was successful was B/W aggro, which is the deck I’m currently playing on MTGO, though that’s all changing once Coldsnap becomes legal.

RGD Draft:
It’s all about power cards (the most powerful are the ones from these guilds: Izzet, Orzhov, Rakdos and Simic), but don’t forget to draft big (or good) guys. Big guys can be power cards in such a simple way. And no matter how good your deck is, you still have to finish your opponent.

Coldsnap Draft:
Since it’s much easier to get a playable deck, it might pay off to take some risks, like gambling on Mists/Sound the Call, or one of the ripple cards. If it fails, you can still salvage your draft, and you’ll need a little extra in your deck to beat the others.

Don’t forget to double-check the number of playables in your decklist. I always do this procedure: after I marked all the cards of my U/W draft deck (for example), I count the Blue cards on the sheet and write 10. Then I count the White cards, and if they’re 8, I write 18. Then I count the two artifacts, and write 20. And finally the gold cards, and I write 23. I do the same for lands, basic and non-basic, and if it’s 17, then I’m safe. You should always do this, no matter if it’s a Top 8 draft or a prerelease draft. I know all of you guys know this… actually, I’m talking to myself.

I find it very different to come up with ideas for new articles, so I appreciate (and will consider) any suggestions you might have.

Until next time,

Tiago Chan