I was as ready for US Nationals as I was ever going to be. Since my move to New York, I’d spent many an afternoon drafting at Neutral Ground with the likes of fellow Deadguys Chris Pikula and Tony Tsai, along with Neutral Ground regulars like Erik Kesselman and Brian David Marshall. I was definitely on top of that part of my game. Spending hours playing Magic each day does wonders for your abilities to draft and play.
But Standard was still a bit of a puzzle. In the weeks leading up to US Nationals, I had gone through many decks in an attempt to find that silver bullet. I made a mono-red beatdown deck which carried me undefeated to the top 8 of a Neutral Ground Grudge Match qualifier, only to lose to a Blue/White control deck in the quarterfinals. After much playtesting, I discovered that the red beatdown deck, while surprisingly good against Fires, had a horrible time against blue control Â— and that was bound to be a popular deck archetype. Still, it didn’t stop a number of people from playing it in Nationals around the world, including Mark Ziegner, who piloted it to a 3rd place finish in German Nationals, and Takamasa Fukata, who managed a 6th place finish in Japanese Nationals.
After my obligatory attempt at mono-red beatdown, I gave an aggressive Black/Red beatdown deck a try. My version was similar in many ways to the popular”Machine Head” deck, but it differed in two important ways. To reduce its reliance on Dark Ritual and to give it a near-autowin against Rebels, I ran Shivan Zombie. This dramatically improved its win percentage against Rebels and also helped put the nail in the coffin in the matchup against blue control. In addition, I decided not to run Terminate and Vendetta, opting to use my favorite sort of creature elimination spells, Urza’s Rage and Ghitu Fire, which are not only flexible forms of removal but can go straight to the opponent’s head. For a few days, I thought that I’d found the deck. It beat almost every deck in the field. By almost, I mean it only lost to Fires. And how! My first game win percentage was 20%, which improved to around 40% after Flametongue Kavus came in from the sideboard. It was going to be pretty difficult to win a match against Fires with those numbers.
I was fairly certain that Fires was going to be the dominant deck type at the tournament, followed shortly by blue control. Both of my favorite decks just rolled over to one of these two matchups. What to do? I was loathe to play either blue control or rebels, because I feared that the draw potential in the blue control mirror match, rebel mirror match, and rebel vs. control matchups could significantly hurt a person’s chances at making top 8. In a tournament like US Nationals, where three losses was assumed to be the cutoff for top 8, a draw was as bad as a loss in many ways.
The answer would have to wait until after Day 1. First, I needed to do well enough in the draft to give me a reasonable shot at the top 8.
I sit down at my first draft table, and it features some top-caliber players like Billy Jensen and Justin Gary, as well as some lesser known players who clearly know what they are doing like David Leader and Tim Aten. As far as first round draft pods go at US Nationals, this is a tough one.
Billy Jensen is sitting two to my right and Justin Gary is three to my left, so I’m not getting the Pro Tour squeeze or anything. My very first pick of the draft is an Aggressive Urge, with the player on my right having taken a red card and the player on my left picking up blue and white cards on the wheel. I’m fully prepared to draft Green/White or five color green Â— until the person on my left seems to give up on red, drafting blue and white cards himself. At this point, I go for it and start drafting a Red/Green deck, and the person on my right doesn’t stray back into red except for a fairly late Firebrand Ranger. Lucky for me, he sticks to the plan and I end up getting some busted red cards in Planeshift, namely a third-pick Tahngarth and a second-pick Magma Burst. In the end, I think I have the strongest deck at the table, with a red/green deck splashing black for Plague Spores.
2 Quirion Sentinel
2 Kavu Recluse
2 Kavu Climber
Tahngarth, Talruum Hero
Breath of Darigaaz
Fires of Yavimaya
In the first round of the draft, I’m paired up against David Leader. Things get off to a bad start when he asks me not to look at his deck while I’m shuffling. He is not using sleeves, and I’m riffle shuffling his deck with the cards facing him, giving HIM a full view of his own cards. The only reason I’m keeping an eye on his deck is so that I manage to put both haves together while shuffling and not spray them across the table. I politely inform him of this fact, continue shuffling, and present the deck to him. He is playing base Blue/White with one of the two Crimson Acolytes at the table. That little Acolyte can cause me problems, but I manage to beat him nonetheless, and I feel hopeful that I can win the table.
In the second round I’m paired against Mike Baughmann, the other Red/Green mage at the table who took a Power Armor over a Fires of Yavimaya, letting me get that card fairly late. To be fair, he benefited from my mistake in the draft, where I picked a Kavu Aggressor over a Kavu Runner. No one’s perfect, I guess. My deck is great for the mirror match, with replaceable fatties like Kavu Climbers and a number of other powerful creatures and removal spells. In the first game, I keep a hand consisting of Forest, Swamp, Quirion Sentinel, Gaea’s Might, Tahngarth, Tribal Flames, and Viashino Grappler. I’m playing first and if I draw even one Mountain relatively soon, my draw will be outstanding. I play second-turn Sentinel, kill one of his creatures with a Gaea’s Might, and later trade my Sentinel with his Sentinel. I end the game with a Forest and a Swamp in play, being overrun by his hordes of creatures. In the second game, I’m playing first again and I get four two-for-ones over the course of the game (although he manages a two-for-one himself with his Thornscape Battlemage). I cast two Kavu Climbers, trade one of my creatures for a Maniacal Rage’d Kavu Recluse, and Breath of Darigaaz away both a Rogue Kavu and a Quirion Sentinel, leaving my side of the board intact. Despite all of my card advantage, I end the game with about a dozen land while he stopped drawing land after his sixth. He simply drew too many action cards for me, and I lose to his creature beatdown.
I’m a bit disappointed at losing to Mike Baughmann, but I know my deck is quite good and I can win the third. I get matched up against Tim Aten, with a decent Black/Red deck. He ends up getting mana-screwed in both games and I run him over quickly with a horde of green and red creatures.
This table looked even harder than the last one, with Pro Tour regulars Mike Pustilnik, Alan Comer, and Zvi Mowshowitz, as well as familiar names Lee Steht and Craig Wescoe. From the start, things were tenuous. My first card of the draft was a Vodalian Serpent (to my right, Lee Steht drafted a black card, leaving me with the thought of going Blue/White) and Mike Pustilnik to my immediate left takes a black card and then a blue card on the way back. Fighting with me for blue can’t be good for him, but it also means I won’t get any good blue late picks, weakening the quality of both of our decks. I stick to the plan of drafting Blue/White, only straying to pick up a Pincer Spider in the first set of packs, which is an easy splash with my two Elfhame Palaces and Irrigation Ditch. Things are getting crazy as everyone seems to be in everyone else’s colors, so I know that I’m going to have to play more than just two colors to make a solid deck. Fairly early on in the draft I get a late pick Phyrexian Lens, which can do wonders to fix mana and that helps put my mind at ease.
Meanwhile, Alan Comer is the only one at the table not fighting with his neighbors over colors. He is drafting Red/Green/White with two Rith, the Awakeners. At this point, he is my biggest fear; in order to win the table, I think I’m going to get through Alan. Lee Steht, meanwhile, is having a hell of a time. The person to his right opened up Ghitu Fire and took it for his own deck (despite not having taken a red card up to that point) and Lee is outraged, as he was expecting to get the Ghitu Fire for his Black/Red deck. To make matters worse, I open up a pack with Teferi’s Moat, Tower Drake, and Agonizing Demise. I already have a Phyrexian Lens and my green splash requires no basic Forests, so it’s not unreasonable for me to be able to splash the Agonizing Demise. While Teferi’s Moat is a powerful card in Blue/White, I’m unsure of quite how powerful it is, and I’m also fearing Alan’s double dragons. I take the Agonizing Demise, which puts Lee Steht on tilt Â— and for the rest of the draft, he is taking my blue cards when there is nothing left for him. In the end, largely because of my mana fixers, two Elfhame Palaces, Irrigation Ditch, and Phyrexian Lens, I’m able to draft enough powerful cards for my deck. Every time Lee took a blue card from me, I was left with either another powerful blue or white card or a Gerrard’s Command, which was quite easy for me to play.
2 Elfhame Palace
2 Samite Pilgrim
Disciple of Kangee
Angel of Mercy
2 Gerrard’s Command
Fact or Fiction
While the deck looked a bit sketchy, it ran great. The mana was wonderful and the Gerrard’s Commands won me more games than I could have imagined.
In the first round, I played against Lee Steht and the match was over quite quickly. In the first game, I beat him down with the help of Obsidian Acolyte. In the second game, I raced his ground creatures with my efficient fliers, and that was helped by my gaining fourteen life with Honorable Scout, playing it, gating it, and playing it again. If you haven’t tried boarding in this little guy against Black/Red, then you are underestimating him.
In the second round, I was paired up against Tuli Jacobson. He was playing Green/White with a splash of Red for Ghitu Fire and Shivan Wurm, and his deck turned out quite good, despite the horrified facial expressions from Zvi during the draft as Tuli took card after card that Zvi felt should be in his own deck. The first game was quite close, with me starting out by double mulliganing and Tuli’s failure to play aggressively enough cost him the game. At one point, if he had attacked with everything he would have put me in an unwinnable position, but he only attacked with one big creature, allowing me to block with Tower Drake and pump up his toughness, then Exclude the next creature that he played (something I hadn’t been doing previously, because I couldn’t pump the Tower Drake up enough and still keep Exclude mana up). Tuli managed to run me down in the second game, but in the third game, my flying beats were too much for him. I had the Agonizing Demise (and the Phyrexian Lens) for his Shivan Wurm and there went his last hope of racing me.
At 4-1, my final match of the day was against Mike Pustilnik. Luckily, someone else had taken down Alan Comer and his two Riths earlier and I didn’t have to deal with that mess. Instead, I had to play the Blue/Black player sitting to my left, so my deck was a fair bit better than his. I won’t bore you with the details, since Aaron Forsythe did a wonderful job reporting on the match for the Sideboard at http://www.wizards.com/sideboard/article.asp?x=USNAT01849fm6a
I ended the day at 5-1 Â— well within reach of the Top 8.
Both of my roguish decks had a fatal flaw, and I had already decided that blue control and rebels were out of the question because of time constraints. That left me with only one choice: Fires.
Despite every deck that says they crush Fires, Fires has such a versatile array of main deck and sideboard cards that you just can’t count it out. Running main deck Yavimaya Barbarians turns the matchup versus Orbosition from an almost autoloss into a matchup where Fires has the advantage. Similarly, despite its weakness first game versus blue control, after sideboarding it is very much in the game. So I decided to run Fires, believing that all I needed was a 4-2 record on Day 2 to get me into Top 8.
4 Karplusan Forest
2 City of Brass
4 Rishadan Port
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Llanowar Elf
4 Yavimaya Barbarian
4 Thornscape Battlemage
4 Flametongue Kavu
2 Shivan Wurm
4 Saproling Burst
4 Fires of Yavimaya
2 Urza’s Rage
My first round opponent was Sam Fog, a very good player playing a deck that does very poorly against Fires. He was a running a mono-black deck with Vendetta, Snuff Out, Persecute, Ascendant Evincar, Thrashing Wumpus, Plague Spitter, and Dark Ritual, among other things. Much to his credit, he managed to take a game off of me with a well-played Persecute and an Ascendant Evincar that destroyed my horde of green mana creatures… But in the end, I beat him two games to one.
In the second round, I was paired against Trevor Blackwell, also running Fires. It was a feature match which the reporter decided not to write up, since it consisted of Trevor getting mana screwed, then me getting mana screwed in two games. That’s the way it often goes in the Fires-on-Fires matchup. Trevor won two games to one.
In the third round, I was paired against Billy Jensen Â— and once again, Aaron Forsythe did a wonderful job of covering it for the Sideboard at http://www.wizards.com/sideboard/article.asp?x=USNAT01823fm9b
The match was incredibly tough and I had the win in sight in the third game, so I went for it. Unfortunately for me, not only did Billy have an Aura Mutation for my Fires of Yavimaya to prevent me from attacking with Rith for the kill, but he had a Saproling Burst sitting on top of his library to wreck me the next turn. If I had played the last turn differently, I would have won, but such is life. I made a decision and it turned out for the worse.
After a 5-1 start on Day 1, I was now 6-3, needing three straight wins to make top 8. There was no use crying over it, so I put on my game face and did what I did every round: Sat down and tried my best to win. Fortunately for me, I was paired against John Eardley playing a Black/Red deck, which I just rolled over. It didn’t hurt that he had some mana problems, but knowing how bleak his hopes of winning were, it didn’t help all that much either.
In the 11th round, I was paired against a very difficult matchup: Chris Armbruster playing Blue/White control with COP: Green in the sideboard. In both games after sideboarding, he played an early COP: Green. I won the first game, largely because of his mana problems, and both games with COP: Green in play were within reach. In the second game, I got him down to seven life with an Absorb in hand, and I needed to draw a land on the last turn in order to Urza’s Rage him with the kicker. Unfortunately, the land didn’t show up, so it went to the third game. In the third game, I kept his white mana under control with two Rishadan Ports and he was forced to Foil an Aura Mutation on his COP: Green and then later Thwart a Flametongue Kavu (which I had brought back in to have more red sources of damage). The loss of land due to Thwart allowed me to get in the final few points of damage that I needed to double-Urza’s Rage him out.
This tournament was full of ups and downs, from 5-1 on the first day to 6-3, to 8-3, fighting for a spot in the top 8. In the final round I was paired against a U/W Orbosition deck, piloted by Steve Jarvis. Josh Bennett did the coverage for the Sideboard at http://www.wizards.com/sideboard/article.asp?x=USNAT01810fm12
When the dust settled, I was 9-3, waiting on the outcome of the other matches to see if I made top 8 or not. A short distance away, Peter Leiher was playing against Brian Hegstad for a spot in the top 8. According to observers, both players were playing slowly until Brian got his victory condition into play, Mageta the Lion, which Peter couldn’t kill, with about five minutes left on the clock. At this point, Peter Leiher reportedly played slowly and Brian Hegstad, naturally, wanted him to speed up. Some players say it was a clear case of stalling, while others say that Peter was within his right to play the last minutes of the game at a similar pace to the earlier parts of the game. At the conclusion of time and the extra turns, neither player was the victor, so it seemed that a draw was awarded. In this scenario, I would be in 8th place, on even footing with the rest of the top 8 for the double elimination rounds on Sunday.
After thirty minutes of deliberation, the head judge upgraded a warning that Peter Leiher received for misrepresenting a card (attempting to play a Hull Breach as an instant during his opponent’s discard step as a means of slowing down the game) to a game loss, since it materially affected the outcome of the game, resulting in a draw instead of a win for Brian Hegstad. Instead of the draw that appeared to have occurred, Brian Hegstad was declared the winner of the match, putting him in the top 8, leaving me in 9th place.
I had mixed feelings about this, of course. On the one hand, I wanted to play in the top 8. On the other hand, I dislike stalling and am always happy to see the judging staff crack down on those who abuse the rules. Since I didn’t watch the match myself, I have only other people’s words to go by. Some people felt that Peter Leiher was clearly in the wrong, while others, like Shawn”the Hammer” Reignier, whose opinion I respect, seemed to think it was less clear because of the pace of the game prior to Brian Hegstad playing Mageta the Lion. Whatever the case, though, I had missed out on the top 8 and I definitely had no say in the matter or room to argue, despite getting the bad beat from the judge’s ruling.
Despite the outcome, I was in it up until the end and I was happy with my drafting, Constructed deck choice, and playing. I feel on top of my game once again, and I’m ready to give it my all to become World Champion in Toronto in a few months. The tournament will feature a dramatically changed Standard format and an equally-changed Extended format (after the fairly recent bannings in Extended), which should give those who put in the time and hard work an edge in the tournament.
So I stayed up late playing Magic back at the hotel, went to sleep and woke up the next day to discover…
That I had made top 8 after all, in a roundabout way. Casey McCarrel had been caught stacking his opponent’s deck in the top 8, and he was disqualified from the tournament with no prizes. Because of that, everyone moved up a place, leaving me in 8th place with a $2000 cash prize. Good karma, some would say. Despite the fact that I didn’t get a chance to play in the top 8, I feel a bit better in a way that while one act of a vigilant judge watching out for fair play kept me out of the top 8, I was put back in the top 8 by another such act.
I’ll get ‘em next time.