Reflecting Ruel – Extended Thoughts From Oakland

StarCityGames.com Open Series: Indianapolis on March 13-14
Tuesday, March 9th – Extended, it seems, is not going away any time soon… and that means Zoo and Dark Depths are still on everyone’s minds. However, for Grand Prix: Oakland, Oli wanted to try something more… fun. So he set his sights on a cool Tezzeret build packing Pulse of the Fields. His Day 2 performance, and stories from the tournament floor, are contained within!

As I’m writing my thoughts and report from Grand Prix: San Francisco (or Oakland or whatever), I must absolutely thank someone. At the previous GP in SF, I met a girl called April. She introduced herself with the following words, words I doubt I’ll ever forget:

Olivier Ruel? Will you marry me?”

I didn’t take it seriously until I went back home and found out she had written a song for me (which you can find here). I didn’t get the chance to thank her afterwards so April, if you read this by any chance, a big thank you for the song. I listened to it a few times when I was feeling blue, and it happens to be quite a good remedy!

Now, back to present day. The new season has just started, as far as the Magic year is concerned. After a Grand Prix and a Pro Tour, I’ve achieved a total of 3 Pro Points. Not exactly what I had been dreaming of, but not a major failure either. The thing is, this year I see Magic differently.

For the first time in a decade, I will no longer be a Road Warrior. After several years going as far as I could with the game, I fell to level 6 after a horrible second half of 2009. At first I was very disappointed with the news, as even though I had been a level 8 mage for two years, I had barely been making any money with Magic. My favorite hobby could no longer possibly be a job, and I just had to get used to the idea I would have to change my lifestyle. Two months without a tournament later, I feel great! I now have the feeling that not making it to level 7 or 8 was actually the best thing which could happen to me. By putting too much pressure on myself, I was not enjoying the game so much, and I was putting so much effort into preparing for events, and so much time into travelling (about three months a year) that it would make me miss things outside my Magic life. This dedication is surely not something I regret, but it is just not something I’m willing to do anymore. Now, I’ll only travel to the events I really want to play. Two thousand players at a GP for Legacy, when I have three formats to prepare for in the two weeks running up to it? I don’t think so. An M11 Limited GP? Very unlikely.

However, I wouldn’t have missed the kickoff of the Magic season for anything in the world. Not only is Oakland near from one of the best places I’ve been to in these 12 years of tournaments – San Francisco — it was also extremely close to the location of the following Pro Tour. I arrived in SF three days before the tournament, and met RaphaÔl Lévy, Lucas Florent, and a few other French guys there.

The day before my departure, I started testing BG Dark Depths, and left for the U.S. with that deck, alongside the Bant deck I had been testing with Antoine. Unfortunately, I faced an annoying problem with both decks. Dark Depths was more inconsistent than ever, while Bant was, well, no fun at all. The deck is clearly good, but it was losing to Zoo, which we expected to be the most popular deck, and I just didn’t enjoy playing the deck at all. And this weekend? I wanted to have fun. What did I have left? Thopter/Depths? I just didn’t like the deck at all. It’s one of the worst decks I’ve played with in a while.

On the eve of the GP, I still hadn’t made up my mind. I tried Guillaume Matignon Zoo, a list with 22 one-mana guys including Goblin Bushwhacker. One thing I’ve learnt through the years is that, as far as analyzing the metagame is concerned, Guillaume is one of the most reliable people there is. When he explained to me that he was running his deck because Chalice had disappeared from the format, despite being one of the best cards there could be, I actually came to the conclusion the best thing to do would probably be to run a deck using multiple Chalice of the Void, and the best deck to do that was probably Tron. I searched through decklists online, and tried some of those which had performed well at Worlds, but I wasn’t really satisfied with any of them. Time was running out… it was midnight, and I still didn’t have a deck. Then I remembered my priority for the weekend: having fun. I decided to look through online decklists until I could find a cool control option. When I eventually found a deck which had Tezzeret in the main and Pulse of the Fields in the sideboard, I knew I had found exactly what I needed. I mean, who wouldn’t want to play a deck running Gifts Ungiven, Cryptic Command, Trinket Mage, Tezzeret, and Pulse of the Fields? The deck, designed by Rob Wagner, was an UW Thopter Foundry deck which would win most games with the combo.

However, I realized the next morning something was amiss: the deck didn’t have any good answer to Damping Matrix, a card which had been played a lot lately on Magic Online. I expected to face the card a lot at the GP. As I considered all the options, thinking about running 1 Disenchant, 1 Terashi’s Grasp, and 1 Solemn Offering (in order to get three targets to go for with Gift Ungiven), Guillaume Matignon was the guy with the best idea: Oblivion Ring. I feared the Disenchant effects would be too slow and random against an aggro deck, which may not even have Matrix in the board, but Oblivion Ring would be nice against those, as it can remove any guy. It is also pretty good against combo decks. I didn’t know it at this point, but the card will be the MVP of the weekend.

Here’s the decklist I ended up running.

When the judges came to collect the decklists, mine was still not complete, and I had 60 cards main deck and 16 cards in the sideboard. As I couldn’t decide what to cut, and as I had the feeling all of the cards were necessary, I put the Chalice in the main deck the second before the judge collected my decklist. And surprisingly, no matter how awful this decision may seem, it may actually be good.

Playing 61 cards is not something you should do… 99% of the time, at least. Here is what you need to achieve in order to get a possible advantage from it:

– Tutors to fetch the additional card (here, Trinket Mage, Tolaria West, and possibly Gifts Ungiven) in order to raise the chance that you’ll draw it when you need it much higher than the odds you’ll draw it when it is bad.
– A deck in which games are slow. And this is the fun surprise about this deck: it makes every single non-Zoo non-Burn matchup pretty slow. And still, in both matchups, the double X artifact can be pretty useful.

With a format which features Depths/Foundry, Zoo, Elves, and the Cascade decks, adding the card seems relevant. I am not saying it is optimal to play 76 cards, as the best would obviously be to identify the weakest link and remove it from the deck. However, as I hadn’t tested the deck for more than 10 games, I had no clue what to cut, and I had (and still have) the feeling that removing the card pretty much at random would turn out to be a lot worse than adding a decent number 61.

And finally, the tournament started.

Round 1: Bye, test against Zoo and go 50/50

Rounds 2 and 3: Bye again, draft this time, and Japanese Ramen restaurant

Round 4 – Nomer Conrad Sison (UG Scapeshift)

While we don’t do anything for the first few turns, I think on how the matchup should be, and realize don’t have much of a chance. I need to gather my combo pieces really quickly, AND he can’t draw either his combo pieces (or “combo” piece) and disruption. In game 1, his Scapeshift leaves me on one life, but most of his deck kills me at this point, and it is without much surprise that I die to a freshly drawn Mountain three turns later.

In game 2 I bring in most of my sideboard in order to have a slim chance, as all my guys, Pulse of the Fields, and Cranial Extraction make it to the maindeck. The creature fight is close. I even manage to put him down to 6, but I eventually die to his second Scapeshift (as I had countered the first).

Match 0-2, Score 3-1

Feature matches are announced, and two guys I barely know are called. Cool, I’m probably not playing a big name. So, let’s see the pairings:

Ruel Olivier 9 – Yasooka Shouta 9

Round 5 – Shouta Yasooka (UB Thopter-Tron)

Man, I know I haven’t been doing well lately, but playing against one of the 10 best players in the world and not making it to the feature match area has got to be some kind of a failure.

In the first game, as he has Blue and Black lands, I cast Trinket Mage and search for Chalice of the Void in order to disrupt his combo. On the next turn he plays Urza’s Mine. Oops. My mage puts him to 12 until Sundering Titan stops my pseudo beating, as well as taking the game. The second is pretty close too. With a Duress, he chooses to leave Tezzeret in my hand as he’s confident Extirpate will stop my combo. He’s right on that one, but my Tezzeret allows me to search for crappy artifacts and produce the tokens that I’ll end up winning with. I realize in that game that his UB Tron deck is using the Artifact combo as well. In the final game, we both combo off, but at some point he finds his Tron and makes a lot more tokens than I do, overwhelming me with his Thopter army.

1-2, 3-2

My back’s against the wall after only 5 rounds, and I’ve still no idea how good my deck is as I haven’t really been facing any of the matchups I was expecting. As I am currently preparing for the Paris Marathon (taking place on April 11th), I decided to run all the way from the site to my hotel in Chinatown for practice, the moment I’m out of Day 2 contention. I’ve no idea how long it will take, and I don’t even know if it’s possible to get on the bridge by foot, but it surely motivates me a little more to make it to Day 2!

Round 6 – Lance Gehring (Doran)

Another deck I had not expected to be facing today. Lance is a little land screwed in the early game, while I combo off quite fast. In the second game, Dark Confidant hurts him a lot and helps me win the race with Vendilion Clique without too much trouble, while Oblivion Ring and Path to Exile deal with the actual threats.

2-0, 4-2

Round 7 – Brandon Houk (UB Dark Depths)

Eventually, one of the decks I was looking forward to playing against! In the first game, I Trinket for Chalice, play my artifact on two, and secure it with a Pithing Needle on Engineered Explosives.

After taking the first, I decide to take out my combo, as I consider my postboard deck should be able to deal with his.

In the second game, he opens with a turn 2 20/20 and I don’t have an answer.

Game 3 of my second elimination match is more interesting. I open with Aether Spellbomb before I follow, again, by searching for Chalice with Trinket Mage. In the meantime he opens with a turn 2 Confidant. He doesn’t have a discard spell, or any combo pieces, so he can’t do better than Bitterblossom. In the meantime, my Trinket Mage races with the Confidant, while Academy Ruins brings back Aether Spellbomb every turn in order to bounce a token. The race is quite uneven, as he loses damage twice a turn (as his 2/1 doesn’t reveal any land), and in a few turns he dies from not drawing Tolaria West or Engineered Explosives to deal with the Chalice.

2-1, 5-2

Only two more to go!

Round 8 РJos̩ Salas Salas (Burn)

José is running Burn. He totally destroys me in the first game, but I still feel happy about the matchup. Not that I have any idea how good it is, but the card which made me play the deck, Pulse of the Fields, is eventually leaving the bench for the first time! In game 2 he has an amazing draw, which I can luckily stop for a while with my combo on turn 3, but José would definitely have demolished me on the play. Game 3 starts, and I start shaking. I feel like I understand how it feels like to be opening Pocket Aces in the World Series of Poker. It’s right there, in my hand… Pulse of the Fields! When I play it on turn 2 to go back to 18, it’s pretty obvious the game is over. Still, José would have had a chance to take the game if he had shot himself with burn, instead of persisting on burning me when I would gain the life back immediately.

2-1, 6-2

Round 9 – John Skinner (Doran)

In the first game I combo off quickly, but he has Putrefy for my Foundry. I’m still able to control him long enough to find a second Foundry and win despite a few turns of resistance. That game was rather long, and I’m concerned I may not have enough time to win a possible game 3. I take a mulligan, and he opens with turn 2 Damping Matrix, followed up by Duress, to which I reveal the following:

Land #3 and 4, Day of Judgment, Engineered Explosives, Thirst for Knowledge, and Tezzeret.

As I see he’s thinking, I point Explosives as a joke as the card is a blank here… but, as he seems to be considering it, I leave my finger on the card, like the choice is obvious. He does remove my artifact and passes. On the following turn, he casts a Dark Confidant, which will most likely force me to Wrath, and adds a Tarmogoyf to the board, as a result of which God cleans the board on the following turn and he’s left with almost no resources. As he started drawing better than me here, just not playing the Tarmogoyf, or picking any other card on the early Duress, would have probably won him the game, but, in the end, I kept a small advantage for all the game and ended up playing Oblivion Ring for the win after I had gathered my combo.

2-0, 7-2

I’d start Day 2 in 72nd place, with a good chance of making money. Most importantly, I would save my run for the following day. This was good news, as I discovered on the way back that the bridge was only accessible to motor vehicles!

I’d like to return for a second to that 9th round. The rounds when you actually play for a cut (to make Day 2 at a GP, or to make a PTQ Top 8, for instance) are the ones in which people stress out the most. As a result, they will not only be unable to give their best, but every single small mistake they realize will upset them and make them play worse. One of the keys to becoming a good player is to be able to control your nerves at this moment. It doesn’t matter if you play well for the early matches if you end up throwing away the final one. Stress doesn’t count as an excuse in the face of the final standings; only the actual result matters.

I’m not saying it’s an easy thing to do, but you must be able to play the exact same way regardless of who your opponent is, what deck he is running, and what you are playing for. The ways to do so differ depending on the player, and experience surely helps a lot, but there are usually two major ways to deal with it.

You should either focus on the game itself as much as you can, so you don’t think of anything else but the cards and their interactions… or, on the other hand, just enjoy the moment and relax. You’re playing a big match in a tournament for your favorite game. If you are able to realize this and to savor the moment, to remember it’s just one more Magic match, then you should be able to avoid stress.

At the end of the day, I went to dinner with friends, and we went to the last non-fast-food open restaurant at this advanced hour: a small Cambodian place. When trying a restaurant type that is unfamiliar, people usually order the only thing they’re familiar with in the meal (for instance, RaphaÔl Lévy went for a classic Curry Chicken) and, let’s face it, that’s what most people do. On the other hand, when experiencing a new culture, I want to taste something new. As I love surprises, so I just went for the most interesting name on the menu without checking what was in it: the Trei Chlaing Chien Kroeung. Knowing that “chien” is French for dog, and that many people do speak French in Cambodia, some people may have found the choice risky. I’d rather think of it as adventurous. In the end, it only happened to be fish, but it was pretty good and, as expected, rather unusual. I’m not saying the tech works all the time and that it’s not so big of a gamble, but if 12 years of intensive travelling have taught me something, it’s that the best memories often come from the unexpected.

A good night of sleep later, Day 2 could now begin, with a 4-2 record needed to ensure finishing in the money.

Round 10 – Francis Toussaint (RG Scapeshift)

In game 1, I countered a Scapeshift but was absolutely unable to stop his flow of creatures. In game 2 I had a pretty good three-land hand but didn’t manage to draw the fourth one by turn 6, leaving (once again) his guys to do the job. Anyway, the matchup seemed pretty bad.

0-2, 7-3

Between Round 10 and 11, Selim Creiche, a friend of mine who has played in a few PTs (and was qualified for San Diego), told me about a weird story that had happened to him. In a game at his PTQ, his opponent played Path to Exile on one of Selim’s guys; after searching for a land, Selim gave two riffle-shuffles to his deck and handed it back to his opponent. Before the opponent had the opportunity to shuffle back, a judge extended the hand to stop the game and get Selim a Game Loss for insufficient shuffling. When he asked a judge what it would take to make it correct shuffling, the judge answered “7 shuffles, just like they do in Vegas.”

Let me make this clear: I think this rule is the worst to be introduced in over a decade. Well, after the damage on the stack thing, of course.

Basically, the rule says that in every single game of Extended (as there are fetches in every deck, and often Path to Exile), any player can get a free win if he’s an ass. Now, if the rule stays in place (and I’ve talked to many judges who globally like it, so it should), it could be mean two things:

A – When players eventually find out about the rule, every pregame shuffle, fetch land, Path to Exile etc. will mean a minute of shuffling. This means shuffles will be correct, but every single match of extended will be about 5 to 10 minutes longer. It’s up to you to decide if you want to play a slow deck under those conditions.

B – Things will remain in their current state, and some people win undoubtedly play with the morals behind the rule, which clearly abides by the law but goes against the spirit of the game. If a kid, a brand new player, only cuts his opponent’s deck, and the opponent calls over the judge for insufficient shuffling, then the kid will most probably receive a Game Loss sanction. And from there, who knows if we’ll ever see that kid playing Magic again?

I had an interesting discussion with a very nice judge (whose name I can’t remember) during PT: San Diego, and he told me that it would be bad for judges to give such a sanction every time, and that one should consider how much of his deck the player had seen, or whether the shuffles really seem random etc.

I must agree that, if this condition was respected, the rule would be good. Unfortunately, it is extremely delicate to rule, and most referees will tend to strictly abide what the penalty guideline recommendations and issue the player a Game Loss penalty. I’m not saying judges can’t do their work, of course; I even think judging has become a lot better over the last few years. My problem is that some decisions – like insufficient shuffling, slow playing, or confronting two players who tell different stories over one situation – are the same for judges as the most complex plays for players: extremely difficult, and far from being makeable by everyone. And as even the best players make many mistakes in complex situations, I fear many judges will have much trouble with this new rule, which is just not helping anyone.

Therefore, I fear it is bad for the players, bad for the judges, and bad for the game in general.

And now back to our main event.

Round 11 – Eirik Aune (Thopter/Depths)

In the first game, he has one part of the 20/20 combo missing on turn 2. Therefore I play Trinket Mage for Chalice, and will be in great shape on next turn if he doesn’t draw a discard spell or the combo (which I would have seen earlier in both cases). He draws Dark Depths, makes a token, and I don’t have Path. Harsh.

In game 2 I deal with one Foundry with Explosives, and by the time he draws another one I haven’t done much.

0-2, 7-4

Only two rounds, and already my back’s against the wall, just like the day before. I will have to win it all to make one tiny pro point and $200.

Round 12 – William Miller (Blue Doran? Dark Bant? I’ve no idea what it’s called, but you should have figured out what I’m talking about)

In the first, he doesn’t do a thing, while I’ve my combo on turn 3. Game 2 is pretty long. I find my combo pretty quickly once again, but he has Bant Charm for the Foundry. He tries to hit me back but, once again, Oblivion Rings are performing great from the board, and I find my second Foundry at some point. He has Bant Charm once again, but this time I had time to put several tokens in play, in order to stop his Finks beatdown once and for all. After drawing a lot, I manage to find the very last Foundry and cast it. William has Negate, but I have Spell Snare to counter back, resolve my spell, and take the match.

2-0, 8-4

Round 13 – David Larsson (Doran. Yes, again)

The first game is the longest I played in the tournament. His very strong start puts me under a lot of pressure, and I’ve a Cryptic Command (Draw + tap) and a draw step to find one of my Wrath of Gods to stand a chance. Luckily enough, the second card is a Day of Judgment. Just when I draw the combo and feel like the game is over, he finds Jitte in order to basically immobilize three of my lands a turn. It wouldn’t be so bad if only I had more than six lands and if he didn’t have two creatures. The game is still looking good (I make one token a turn), but I’m on five life and must draw lands or Mox fast to secure it. I do draw a land, fetch, and realize there is nothing left in the deck. I had indeed discarded three to Thirst for Knowledge! After this very embarrassing moment, I eventually start finding them and make an advantage he will never come back from. Still, the game was over 30 minutes long, and I’d better not lose the second one or I’ll probably be short for game 3.

Fortunately, I draw better than him and manage to get rid of all his early guys. I play Needle on Treetop Village (which would also have won game 1 without another Needle) in the early game, as well as gathering my combo on turn 6. As he’s tapped out, I make all my tokens at sorcery speed in order to avoid missing tokens to an Extirpate, but he doesn’t even have the Split Second card, and concedes a couple of turns later.

2-0, 9-4

Round 14 – Gabriel Rabin (and yet another Doran)

I’m curious to know how maybe people were running Doran in the room, but the big daddy tree and I surely have some kind of a connection. In the first, I play Tezzeret for Sword of the Meek but can’t complete my combo as he has Maelstrom Pulse for the Planeswalker. He still tries to get his guys in, but I’ve Day of Judgment and many draw spells to keep control. At some point I find Foundry and we get to game 2.

Game 2 is a lot faster. He mulligans and opens with a pair of Matrix. The card may be annoying, but I’m still far from losing to it and this start is not exactly annoying as he has no earlier drop to put some pressure on me. I set the combo up, keep the pace of the game and, when the game is completely under my control, end up playing a pair of Oblivion Rings for the win.

2-0, 10-4

Round 15 – Kyle Eck (WG… surprising)

Kyle and I will be about 36th with a win, and 64th with a loss. Therefore, we have not much interest playing and decide to id.

ID, 10-4-1

After agreeing on drawing, I’m still curious about Kyle’s deck, as he seems to enjoy it a lot. We play a couple of games for fun, which he both wins, and he gives me his decklist so I can publish it. The following week, he makes a PTQ Top 8 in San Diego with the same decklist, running all the most annoying guys of the format. Once gain, thanks a lot for the decklist, Kyle!

4 Noble Hierarch
3 Gaddock Teeg
3 Samurai of the Pale Curtain
4 Qasali Pridemage
4 Aven Mindcensor
4 Kitchen Finks
3 Knight of the Reliquary
2 Loxodon Hierarch
4 Path to Exile
3 Umezawa’s Jitte
3 Otherwordly Journey
4 Temple Garden
4 Misty rainforest
2 Sunpetal Grove
2 Arid Mesa
3 Ghost Quarter
1 Treetop Village
1 Stirring Wildwood
1 Sejiri Steppe
3 Forest
2 Plains

3 Baneslayer Angel
4 Ehtersworn Canonist
3 Celestial Purge
2 Loxodon Hierarch
2 Great Sable Stag
1 Bojuka Bog

The next morning, I eventually had my first big jogging session since the tournament had started, a semi-marathon from Chinatown to the Golden Bridge and back, under the blazing sun, and with the satisfaction of having played a pretty cool deck in a very nice tournament. The following day, I took off to San Diego for the PT. I’ll tell you about my trip there soon, and will not focus so much on my sad performance (3-4-1 starting 1-4-1 and no Day 2). Instead, it’ll be on the deck I played, UW Fog, which I’m convinced was pretty good despite the result I posted, and on the updates to my Tezzerator version, which I’ve tuned since the GP, and even cut down to 60 cards. Both will, of course, be supplied with In & Outs.

Today’s article was longer than usual, but I thought it was the least I could do to apologize to my readers and editors for my regular delays. Thanks a lot for reading, and have a good time!