Randy Buehler Lied To Me: How To Scrub Out At Your First Grand Prix, And Other Observations

You may notice that it’s basically the same as Gabriel Nassif’s deck from the Standard portion of Worlds, except I took out the Phyrexian Plaguelord and the two Shambling Swarms for three Nekrataals. This is a classic amateur mistake: Net-deck one of the pro’s decks, then”improve” it. This almost always turns out badly, and my case is no exception. Of course the Swarm is the best anti-creature card in Nassif’s deck; the only time Nekrataal is strictly better is if your opponent has a Roar of the Wurm token out, and Wonder in the graveyard, and he’s not holding Circular Logic. The Swarm makes Wild Mongrel cry, turns Gempalm Incinerator into a badly-costed 2/1, refutes an active Sparksmith, and is a major pain in Siege-Gang Commander’s ass. And that’s before I even get started on the nuttiness of Swarm + Cabal Therapy….

Although I first started Magic during Beta, several factors kept me from taking what the Wizards of the Coast call”the best opportunity” to play with the pros, the Grand Prix series. First was that I grew up deep in the American Midwest, where the Grand Prix has rarely gone. Second was college, and the pseudo-poverty it brings eventually forced me to sell off all my cards and quit the game. And finally, there was just plain bad luck, which had kept me away during the year or so I had been back in the game.

All of that is my roundabout way of saying that although I claim to know a thing or two about the game, Atlanta was my first time playing in a major tournament. Like most players at their first-ever Grand Prix, I didn’t do too well. I can only hope my blunders can entertain you, and maybe set an example for all the other non-bye-having folks out there as to what not to do.

Hubris: Starting Out Scrubby

I had decided during the plane flight to Atlanta to play mono-black Zombies in the main event. This was because I expected a lot of Wake, and a lot of U/G as a reaction to Wake. The zombie deck had tested okay against Goblins, although the more burn the red decks were packing, the worse off I was.

That choice was probably my first mistake. Although the pros can play Zombies in their three-bye metagame (because it’s reasonable to assume that B/W control and Wake, two good matchups, will be 3-0 going into round 4), there are a whole lot more beatdown players in the zero-bye category. Zombies may not have been the best choice against them. Anyway, the deck:

4 Blackmail

4 Cabal Therapy

4 Withered Wretch

4 Nantuko Shade

4 Smother

4 Rotlung Reanimator

4 Graveborn Muse

3 Nekrataal

3 Mutilate

1 Gempalm Polluter

2 Unholy Grotto

23 Swamp


4 Cabal Interrogator

3 Infest

2 Slay

1 Mutilate

3 Ghastly Demise

2 Haunting Echoes

You may notice that it’s basically the same as Gabriel Nassif deck from the Standard portion of Worlds, except I took out the Phyrexian Plaguelord and the two Shambling Swarms for three Nekrataals. My reasoning was that this would improve the matchup against Goblins, since I only get to use the Swarm’s ability if he’s already dead (and thus unable to block a hasty Goblin Piledriver) while the Nekrataal can 187 somebody and then serve as a first-striking blocker (thus killing said hasty Piledriver). Plus, Goblin Sledder can help the red player get around the Swarm’s effect, but not the effect of the ‘taal.

This is a classic amateur mistake: Net-deck one of the pro’s decks, then”improve” it. This almost always turns out badly, and my case is no exception. Of course the Swarm is the best anti-creature card in Nassif’s deck; the only time Nekrataal is strictly better is if your opponent has a Roar of the Wurm token out, and Wonder in the graveyard, and he’s not holding Circular Logic. The Swarm makes Wild Mongrel cry, turns Gempalm Incinerator into a badly-costed 2/1, refutes an active Sparksmith, and is a major pain in Siege-Gang Commander’s ass. And that’s before I even get started on the nuttiness of Swarm + Cabal Therapy….

I like the sideboard modifications, though. Nassif attacked Wake at its land base, with Braids, Cabal Minion and Rancid Earth. That can work, but it can backfire just as easily, considering Wake runs twenty-seven land and Compulsion to draw into it. I prefer Cabal Interrogator to attack the Wake player’s hand, and to pump up my Graveborns. Ghastly Demise is better than Chainer’s Edict in the non-Patriarch’s Bidding Goblin matchup, where you may need to kill something like Clickslither or Blistering Firecat at instant speed.

I had tested with teammates Rick and James, and I liked my matchup against everything except a red deck running Sulfuric Vortex in the main, and the red-green deck that Josh Wagener eventually took all the way to the top 8. Anyone planning to netdeck Nassif’s build should note its poor matchup against R/G.

I was not so naive that I thought I would win money or get Pro Points, but I thought I was sufficiently well-prepared to make day 2. Any high school kids out there who are starting classes in Shakespeare, take note: This is a real-world example of hubris.

Rounds 1-3: I Get False Hope

Round 1, I faced someone running some sort of red-black deck. If he had Cabal Therapy, he never drew it. If he had land destruction, he never drew it. The only creatures I saw were Undead Gladiator and Rukh Egg. I won 2-0 on the strength of Graveborn Muse; in game 2, I had two Muses on the board at once. That’s gassy, in a Necropotence sort of way.


Round 2 I faced a mono-red goblin deck with Burning Wish (for Patriarch’s Bidding, among other targets). In the first game, I Nekrataaled a Sparksmith and a Piledriver, right according to plan. Then I realized the flaw in my plan when he cycled Gempalm Incinerators to kill the ‘Taals on each subsequent turn. When he cast Goblin Warchief I did not have Smother, and I died soon afterward.

In game 2 I Parised to five, and kept a no-land hand with double-Infest and Smother. Three lands came off the top in the first four turns to keep me in the game. I Infested away his team, and then we both hit big mana pockets. Unfortunately, early in the game he had Wished for Hammer of Bogardan, so I got Hammered down to three in short order. I did not draw Withered Wretch and scooped; he showed that he was going to Wish for Bidding if I had played on.


Round 3, I faced a Reanimator deck. The guy was not in a great mood anyway, but when I pulled a timely Withered Wretch off the top in game 1, his vocabulary changed to something that I can’t print. When his turn 1 Therapy in game 2 revealed two Wretches and an Interrogator, he got downright rude. I won the game, signed the sheet, and tried to stay as quiet as possible. 2-1

Interlude: Y’Know, That Guy With the Sweatshirts

As my Round 3 opponent walked away, cursing, someone playing on my right said,”Yeah, I’ve played that guy before in local tournaments, and he can be a real a-hole.”

“Well,” I replied,”I guess that’s why he’s dropped from the tournament and Kai has three byes.”

A puzzled look, and the question:”Who’s Kai?”

Rounds 4-6: The Gut Punch

I was feeling okay at this point. Maybe the Nekrataals were a mistake, but I was playing well and planning to play around my deckbuilding oversight. I was still thinking Day 2 was a remote possibility, and even if I didn’t make it, I would get quite a few rating points for 5-3.

Hey, kids taking Shakespeare: That’s Hubris again.

Round 4 was straight Goblin Bidding. I should have sent my hand back in game 1, as it had no removal and the first creature would hit on turn 3. Again, my Nekrataals were trading only one-for-one, as they got Gempalmed to death after hitting the table. This cleared a path for the other men, including a Siege-Gang, who didn’t even need haste to finish me off. Game 2 I did not see a Withered Wretch in time to stop a Bidding. The Bidding brought a Nekrataal into play for me, 187-ing a Warchief; my opponent just waited one turn and then swarmed me with men. Yeah, Nekrataal = bad.


Round 5 was U/G Madness. I kept two-land hands in both games. In game 1, I stalled on two land and got crushed after using my lone Smother. In the second game, my two lands were Swamp and Grotto, with the promise of Wretch and Muse; my first card off the top was another Grotto. Six turns later, a Phantom Centaur finished me off as I stared at two Mutilates in hand and only two swamps and two Grottos on board.


Round 6 was Goblin Bidding again. My scoresheet says I won 2-0; I honestly remember nothing else about this match, in the same way that you don’t remember your first breath after getting hit hard in the diaphragm. I assume that I drew Mutilate and Infest for the post-bidding situations, as my scoresheet says”Bid” once for each game.


Interlude: These Are Not the Toilets You’re Looking For

I had lunch sometime during rounds 3-6; afterward, I had to use the restroom (in a related story, I am gonna sue the nuts off of Dairy Queen). When I went in, there was a Star Wars stormtrooper helmet on the floor in the adjacent stall. As I sat down, the toilet flushed in that stall.

Now, I was in there awhile, maybe ten to fifteen minutes. I heard quite a bit of zipping, cloth rustling, and plastic adjusting in there, but the person never left. I finished my bidness, washed hands, etc., and looked back; the boots had not moved. I stood twenty feet away and watched the restroom door for another five minutes, until I had to go for the next round. I never saw a stormtrooper leave.

Sounds like a design flaw in that whole full-body-armor concept, eh?

Rounds 7-8: Randy Buehler Lies to Me and Steals My Pride

“Okay,” I’m thinking by now,”Finish 5-3, do the side events tomorrow, go home with my pride intact.”

Do I even need to say the H word?

I don’t blame Buehler, or anybody else in Wizards R&D, for game 1 of round 7. My W/U opponent drew Glorious Anthem and Battle Screech, Spurnmage Advocate to stop my attacks, and flew his 2/2 birds over for the win. I held Cabal Therapy so I could check his hand for countermagic and then Mutilate the board – but I never drew the Mutilate. That’s Magic; these things happen.

In game 2 everything is according to plan. I go Blackmail-Therapy to strip his hand, InfestMutilate to wipe his creatures, and then we both have empty hands and land-only boards. My first rip is the best I could hope for; Graveborn Muse. His is a little bit better: Karma. I will now hand it over to Randy Buehler, in his February 22, 2002, column for magicthegathering.com:

“I don’t like it when you simply fill up your sideboard with hosers and then dump the appropriate ones into your main deck once you know what your opponent is playing. I’m not opposed to hosers in general, I just want them to be at a power-level where it isn’t always obvious that they should go in your ‘board and when you do bring them in, you don’t automatically win the game just because you drew a sideboard card.”

Whatever, man. Whatever.

I went on to lose in the most embarrassing fashion: The best card in my deck is on the table, and it’s completely useless. Take six, draw two cards, go. My opponent didn’t have to cast another spell before I scooped. Note that there is no Black or Artifact card in the Atlanta format that can deal with Karma – not even Braids, because one can’t sac enchantments to her. It doesn’t matter if it’s me or Carlos Romao (to name just one Pro Tour Champion who was with Zombies in Atlanta) playing in that situation; we both lose as soon as the card hits the table. That should not be Magic; these things should not happen.


I won 2-1 in round 8, but I remember nothing about the match. My scoresheet says I played against Blue-green madness, but losing to Karma is the image that I took with me. I’ll need some time to get over that.


I heard that some players have fun stories of Atlanta’s nightlife, but I wouldn’t know. I just couldn’t go out. It’s one thing to lose. I didn’t just lose, I was humbled. Humiliated. All my hopes for day 2 seemed like silly posturing from a lowly scrub.

On my way out of the site I had to negotiate the crowd of Dragon*Con people, dressed up in every way you can imagine. I noticed a black kid over against the wall. Not African-American, but black, as though he had smeared charcoal all over his body. Dressed entirely in black; shirt, pants, shoes. Two blue eyes peered out at passers-by, otherwise he was a living shadow. I don’t know who that kid was supposed to be, but I returned to my hotel room feeling as dark inside as he looked on the outside.

Sunday Morning: I Spot the Sucker, and It Ain’t Me

A new sunrise, and all of the news both good and terrible that CNN brought from around the world, is good for perspective. But I was here for a reason, and I still had nothing to show for my tournament. To make matters worse, I had realized the night before that I had left my W/U Block deck at home, and thus I had nothing to play in the New Orleans qualifier.

I almost went to a dealer and bought the cards to make a goblin deck, but the cost discouraged me. As soon as I saw people playing poker, I gave Magic up, at least for the morning.

For many people, poker was the side event on Sunday. I don’t want to say much about these games, out of respect for the financial privacy of the people who played in them. But, I will say this: Don’t go into these games thinking that you know enough just by having watched the World Poker Tour coverage on cable. Even the small-money games can be tough – and that’s coming from a guy who paid for his entire Atlanta trip with poker winnings. On the other hand, I had a fun time and got to meet several pros whom I was in no position to meet through actual Magic play.

I won one small tournament, but the others were rough and I ended up just breaking even. When certain players started to antagonize me, I decided to leave without pushing it further and going on tilt.

Sunday Evening: I Regain Confidence

At this point I left, and decided to try my luck in an eight-man Standard event. I bought four Shambling Swarm and a Phyrexian Plaguelord; I pulled the Nekrataals from the main and replaced them with Plaguelord and two Swarms, and I pulled two Ghastly Demise from the board and replaced them with the other two Swarms. I won the event outright.

The field wasn’t a pushover, either; my Round 1 opponent claimed to have missed day 2 on tiebreaks. He was playing Reanimator, though, so I don’t know if his claim was true. Early Wretches in games 1 and 3 sealed the deal; I could have won game 2 except for the fact that I drew three cards per turn off of a Graveborn for three consecutive turns… And they were all Swamps and Blackmails.

My round 2 opponent was very tough; he made day 2 in the main event and finished forty-somethingth. He was playing Goblins with Firebolt, Volcanic Hammer, and Volcanic Eruption. After I lost game 1 – he drew two Eruptions to clear out my team – I thought I was screwed for sure; He was running even more burn than the deck that gave me fits in testing, and he probably had Sulfuric Vortex around also.

But in game 2, I opened with Therapy 2, Infest, and Mutilate. I wiped his board and we had the unusual situation where I was hard-casting a Gempalm Polluter each turn, he burned it or used”random Goblin + Goblin Burrows” to drop it, I used Grotto to get it back and re-cast it, and he summoned another random Goblin or cast another burn spell. After five or six turns of this nonsense, he started drawing land and the Polluter went all the way. In game 3 I started with the nuts: Therapy, double-Rotlung, Infest, double-Swamp, Grotto. He kept a no-burn hand and scooped while staring down four zombie tokens and an active Grotto.

My round 3 opponent was playing a land-destruction deck; I couldn’t believe that he had beaten two goblin decks to get where he was, but it was true. In game 1 I missed my third land drop, and it was all over. I scooped as soon as the Magnivore arrived. In game 2, he kept a land light on creature kill and I kept a five-land hand with Muse and Reanimator. Interrogator came off the top and soon I was drawing four cards a turn with impunity; a Shade spelled the end. Game three it was his turn to lose on the spot after missing his third land drop. Despite having two Stone Rains and two Braids in hand, he scooped on turn 5; Rotlung and Muse don’t need to work miracles against two land.

In the Italian Legends pack as part of my winnings, I picked up a Mana Drain, and sold it off for a nice profit. I asked my opponent how he had beaten Goblins with his LD deck, and he said simply,”Four Firebolts, four Chainer’s Edicts, four Innocent Bloods, and two Pyroclasms main.” Wow.

He went just 4-4 on day 1, though, same as me. Said he ran into too much Wake. Sounds like he and I needed to switch opponents.

Or maybe I could have just taken the damn Swarms and put them in the damn deck in the first damn place.

Winding Down: Where to Go From Here?

I walked over to the feature match area to watch Marco Blume take on Matt Linde in the final. Wake versus Black/White: The two matchups I wanted all day and never saw. If only I had put those Shambling Swarms in the deck yesterday, who knows what could have happened? How could I think that Nekrataal would be better than Swarm? How could testing not push me off of that? Maybe I just need more testing. Maybe that’s my problem

I watched Kai, Nassif, and a third person I do not recognize drafting against Ben Stark and two guys I do not recognize. I watched one Kai/BenS game; Budde loses as Stark repeatedly finds removal for the German’s Twisted Abomination, Echo Tracer, two Lingering Deaths, and all the while Stark is delivering body shots with a Needleshot Gourna.

“Hey Kai, maybe this guy is the next Kai!” someone calls out; it’s not clear if he’s referring to BenS, one of the other drafters, or someone at another table. Budde grimaced; I heard that he did not have the best of tournaments. Well, at least by his standards; I would have been delighted with a lesser result. Maybe that’s my problem.

I thought about tracking Kai down -well, him or some other long-time pro – and asking if they’ve ever felt the way I felt last night: Punked out and sitting at home with the blues, despite the most preparation you’ve ever done. But then I thought, what the hell would it matter if they had felt that way? Empathy won’t help me get on the Tour. Maybe I need to start to work on Q’ing for New Orleans, instead of feeling sorry for myself. Maybe that’s my problem.

Maybe my play is fine, and I just had bad luck Saturday. I did win that eight-man on Sunday, and those guys I beat were solid. Maybe thinking that I have a problem is my problem.

Or maybe I shouldn’t be thinking that my play is fine, which leads to overconfidence. Maybe that’s my problem.

Or maybe I need to go home, see my friends, start my classes, and stop worrying about what my friggin’ problem is.

Until next time, here’s hoping that you don’t lose to Karma. Comments can be PM’ed to Youngster on the StarCity forums. Later.