Reflecting Ruel – My French Nationals

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Monday, August 9th – Hall of Famer Olivier Ruel played Polymorph at French Nationals. While he wasn’t as successful as his brother Antoine, he certainly gave it a good effort. In his report today, he outlines his preparation for the tournament, and shares the highs and lows from the tournament floor.

The French National Championships were held in Reims a few weeks ago, and you could say that the tournament was… weird. Some players will remember it because there were fewer players attending. Some will remember it because the prizes were much smaller than usual. This year’s team competition was just horrible, and half of the individual Top 4 was not even played. On the other hand, we can focus on the pretty high standard of the Top 8 and of the national team, and on the many fresh decks which appeared.

For over ten years, we’ve held a French tradition: hold a Team Nationals. It was always open to anyone interested in the past, but for the second year in a row, the tournament (which takes place during French Nationals) regroups the winners of the 8 Regional Qualifiers. As I was on holidays in the south of France in early January, I wasn’t able to attend my Regional, but Raphael Levy insisted that it would be nice to play together in the Toulouse qualifier. As I was only a two-hour train ride away, I stopped by, and we won our place in the Top 8 alongside Raph’s old buddy (and probably more of a Magic veteran than I), Laurent Cestaro.

I was thinking this event would make up an important part in my report, but it won’t. It doesn’t deserve it. The prizes were bad (designed so second place won more than first, and without a trophy), the organization was a disaster (players were told to show up at 8:50 when the event wasn’t scheduled to start until around 11:00-11:30; The match was concluded on life totals after an hour to compensate for their own delay; table judges were giving players advice in the final, and so on).

The final was an Foil Alara Rochester draft. After one pack was opened, all the spectators left, never to return. They understood we were drafting with the organizer’s leftovers, and thus the final wouldn’t be interesting at all.

In the end, we took the title, but it was really hard to feel proud or satisfied about it. I guess I would just have to focus on the real thing: the individual event. The tournament was so long that I couldn’t find anyone to draft, which was problematic considering I hadn’t opened a single pack of M11 at that point. My first draft would occur in the tournament the following day. Anyway, if it was nearly as simple as M10, preparation was not really necessary.

For the standard portion, on the other hand, I did a lot of testing. While Antoine came up with an interesting Polymorph deck pretty quickly, I tested a bit of everything else.

It was pretty obvious that the new metagame would be all about four decks: Jund, Red Deck Wins, Bant and UW. But soon enough, we came to understand that Bant would not be so popular (too expensive, too bad against Red Deck Wins), and we realize that we had overlooked one card which had the potential to be a key card in the format: Primeval Titan. The card seemed to be optimal in three types of deck: UG Turboland, Eldrazi, and Valakut. Concerning Valakut: the deck had just won a PTQ in Japan with the following build:

I tested the deck and found it pretty cool, but still not good enough, particularly against Mono Red (against which its stats were far from enough). Therefore I chose to cut 4 Siege-Gang Commander – the weakest card in the deck – as well as one Cultivate and one Avenger of Zendikar for three Burn options (either Burst Lightning or Lightning Bolt, which are very close in this deck) and three Obstinate Baloths. As a result of this, I reached a 50-50 ratio against the deck I was expecting to be the most popular at my National Championships. This was decent, but not enough, as I weakened it against everything else. I quickly forgot about the deck, and wasn’t too surprised to learn that this tournament only saw 24 players, and that it featured an amazing total of 80 Primeval Titans. From this kind of event, there is not much of a conclusion to draw, except that Ramp decks were getting popular.

The next option was to run the deck based on Eldrazi. There again, we have two options. First, you can build a version which over-expands quickly enough to dominate any non-aggro deck, like this one :

The deck is pretty good, and it beats Jund easily, but never wins a game versus RDW.

The other option is to aim at a version which does have a chance against a Mountain-based deck. In this case it’s too slow against Control, decent against Jund, and still a bit slow for RDW. I won’t share a decklist here, as the versions (GW and Mono-Green, mostly) I had in testing were just not good enough. The global problem I had with Primeval Titan decks is that I had the feeling they were 40-60 against the field. Decent, but not good. The card would have ruled over Standard a few weeks ago, but Mana Leak makes it a lot weaker. Then, concerning the Turboland version, I let Antoine the care of testing any deck which features Plains and Islands, and would wait for his decision on what was better between Polymorph and Tuboland.

For the same reason, I quickly passed on the decks which were based on heavy sorcery-speed spells (RGW Planeswalker-Destructive Force, UW Tap Out). I also gave up pretty quickly on RDW and Jund (two strong decks, but not fun to play in a tournament in which half the rounds are already M11 Limited), and Bant, as I don’t see the point of running a deck that gets demolished so badly by RDW.

The few options left were UR Ascension (for which Matignon had given me a list), UW, Esper, Naya, Polymorph, and Turboland. I built UW the wrong way and overlooked Sun Titan, which resulted in me having a deck that was simply not good enough. Then comes Esper:

The deck wasn’t good enough for me to feel too enthusiastic about it, but I was still having good results with the version above, and I packed it for my trip knowing it would be a solid choice if I couldn’t think of anything better. Antoine told me he was very happy about Polymorph, and I trusted him when he said the deck was the deck to play, rather than a more classic Turboland. He just needed to think of a solid plan to beat RDW after boarding. I kept on testing, deciding I’d probably go with his choice if he did end up doing well against RDW, and if I couldn’t find anything else that seemed too good.

I really liked the Naya deck Brad Nelson posted a few days before my Nationals Championship started:

I always hated the more common Naya Boss (less stable mana, not enough power cards), but I did like this one a lot more. At first, with Cunning Sparkmage maindeck, the deck does pretty well against Bant. Despite the many small guys the deck has, it’s still going about 50-50 against RDW. And most importantly, it makes great use of Fauna Shaman, and its synergy with Vengevine will win many matches against UW. Even Mono Red will kill it almost instantly just in case (even though its impact is not actually huge). However, the deck has the same old problem as always: a horrible manabase and the highest rate of bad draws in the format. The one-mana guys force you to play many Forests or Green fetchlands, and each one you play will lessen your chances of getting your three colors, while having the right mana and starting off with tapped lands will often make you lose the tempo advantage your smallest guys were supposed to give you. The deck may be good enough to run, but I can’t think of a deck any worse than one with three colors and a Limited-style manabase.

The last three options were to either entrust Guillaume and his Ascension deck, Antoine with his Polymorph, or go with Esper. It is pretty interesting to observe the similarities between both Antoine’s deck and Guillaume’s. I tested exclusively with Antoine, Alex Peset, and Maxime Giusti (a friend from Lille who wasn’t even qualified), while Guillaume and I only discussed the metagame we were expecting. However, he did share his decklist, looking for a second opinion from someone who actually is a specialist in running combo decks no one would run. Despite the fact they had probably not been talking at all about the format, Antoine and Guillaume came to two similar and decisive conclusions:

– With a total of 8 Ponder effects, there must be a combo deck that can work.
– A countermagic-based deck will win against all the ramp decks and do well against most of the control options.

Therefore they both created decks which were fast enough for aggro, but also with lots of counters and drawers for control. And they both ended up doing excellently.

As I hadn’t seen Guillaume’s deck in action as much as Antoine’s, I went with Antoine’s choice.
Here is the decklist we both ran:

Now is a fast report of my tournament, which wasn’t interesting enough in itself to justify a long reading session.

I start with a 1-2 record in Constructed, with a loss to a horrible matchup (RG Monument), a win against a near-bye (Valakut), and a loss to what should have been an excellent matchup (WG Eldrazi), as I don’t see a single Polymorph in game 1, nor in game 2 despite using the Brainstorm ability of Jace, the Mind Sculptor FIVE TIMES, always with a fetchland played in between.

My first draft doesn’t go too well. I first-pick Acidic Slime, but quickly understand Green is not open, and end up with a decent UW deck featuring 3 Aether Adept as MVPs. I lose my round 4 and cross the “Drop” mark on my paper slip. Then I decide to walk around for a while and cool down before turning my slip to the judge station, in order to ensure I was making the right decision. After all, even if 9-0 from there is not enough for Top 8, I may concede to Antoine or a friend with a better breaker, get some pro points, and try to go funky in the following draft. I decide not to drop in the end, and win the next two, after having zero play to think of for the whole three rounds.

The second draft makes me think M11 may actually be a much wider format than it looks. But hopefully, we will discuss much more about that in Drafting With Oli, which returns soon.

I open Triskelion and Serra Angel, and choose to go for the artifact in order to stay open. In pick two I follow up with Chandra’s Spitfire, with already a pretty nice combo. Pick 3 is Fire Servant and pick 4 Lava Axe, when pick 5 makes me consider changing my super aggro plans with Destructive Force. I pick a few Blue cards, a Lightning Bolt, and not much more relevant, when pick 3 pack 3 arrives… a second Destructive Force! I decide to go for the Control deck from there. I pick Pacifism (over good UR cards, but with 20 lands I should be able to splash), Pyroclasm, and end up with a sexy but still very uncertain deck:

10 Mountain
8 Island
2 Plains
1 Pacifism
2 Destructive Force
1 Fire Servant
2 Earth Servant (nice combo with Destructive Force)
1 Pyroclasm
1 Lightning Bolt
2 Chandra’s Spitfire
2 Mana Leak
1 Vulshok Berserker
1 Negate
1 Ice Cage
1 Call to Mind
1 Combust
1 Chandra’s Outrage
1 Diminish
1 Triskelion

After winning the first two (including one to Christophe Haim’s crazy double Mind Control double Serra Angel deck), I play my final against my left neighbor, who’s playing Mono Black. After a twenty minute (and pretty intense) first game, I lose to not finding a Red mana after Destructive Force (I had to keep a Plains while I was holding Pacifism, and I have more Red lands left in the deck). My opponent then says he wants to play in a Legacy event… he extends hand and concedes!

I was 6-3, and started thinking that maybe not dropping was the right choice. Two rounds and two great matchups later (UW Time Walk against which you just have to counter/bounce the Borderposts, and another Valakut), I know most people with X-3 will make it. But I am not most people, and if my math is correct, I am in contention for a place between 9th and 11th.

Pairings for Round 12 are posted and I face Guillaume Matignon. He has the best breakers of the 24 pointers, I have the worst, and he’s a good friend, so I naturally concede. In the last round, something interesting happens to me. Prizes go to Top 32, and here are the rankings

As you can see, Antoine is on the top, which is nice, but that is not what matters here. My opponent is Léo Facca… What should I do?

People consider it is for the best to have great breakers, and it is generally correct. However, it can also be very convenient to have the worst. In the last round of a swiss tournament, the pairings will always go as following, as long as players haven’t played each other yet:

1st in the standings versus 2nd
3rd versus 4th
5th versus 6th
7th versus 8th
9th versus 10th

And so on.

It is the only round in which not only points but tiebreakers determine your next opponent. Therefore, you should never find an opponent who won’t draw when you need to do so. With the worst breakers, I pass half the players between 15th place, Antoine Ménard, and me, meaning I’ll finish 23rd. Indeed, there is no way I catch up with any of the 27 pointers considering their breakers.

With a draw, on the other hand, I still pass half those players (If they don’t ID, of course), and I only lose places to the winner of 33rd versus 34th, and to the 35th if he can beat 36th.

I explained to Léo that we should draw no matter what if people around us were playing (as a massive series of draws would get us out of money). As no one seemed to draw, we filled the paper slip and played for fun. In the end, I came in 24th and Léo in 25th, one place lower than a win would have placed me. Thanks, awful breakers!

Also, if I had won the last two, I would have made 9th place, and as Guillaume had won the last one and was joining a Top 8 already featuring Antoine, Wafo, and Lucas Florent (a.k.a. Coluche for the Frenchies), I couldn’t be much happier about the turn of events.

With a train ticket booked for 8pm, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see anything further than the semis, so I really hoped Antoine and either Coluche or one of the Guillaumes would already be in the final at the moment of my departure.

My wish was close to coming true when the quarters ended, as the semis would see Antoine face Julien Parez on one side, and both Guillaumes on the other. Here are both of their decklists, by the way.

It is interesting to know that Guillaume went 6-0-1 in the rounds, while his fellow test mate Erwan Maisonneuve won a LCQ before going 7-0 in the National Championship with the very same version. The deck went 20-1 over the weekend, if you don’t count IDs; pretty impressive.

Eventually, as Wafo had obtained all the points he needed, and as Matignon needed an extra point to level up, Wafo scooped his semi. Not that he didn’t care about the team or the title, but knowing that a loss would cost a friend of his at least 1000 Euros, he didn’t really see himself playing from there. Also, as the Top 4 had decided to split the money from Team Worlds, and as the prizes from French Nationals were close to zero, the choice wasn’t even close for him. Then Antoine lost his semis 3-2 against Julien’s UW, and he would have to face Wafo for third place. I packed my bag, went to say goodbye and good luck to both, and witnessed something I didn’t really expect to happen:

Wafo: “How much do you care about being on the team?”
Antoine: “A lot.”
Wafo: “Okay… I concede.”

That may sound weird. No wait… that does sound weird. But after all the prize splits had been decided, and Wafo probably didn’t really see himself struggling for another two hours with nothing to win. Most importantly, I think he had a glimpse of how important it was for Antoine to be on the team. By the time I eventually had to leave (which should have been 15 minutes earlier, but I’m not so good with that catching trains thing), I asked Guillaume if he had any idea what it meant to Antoine. As he didn’t, I told him that, as far as pride is concerned, it meant more to him than a Pro Tour Top 8.

Antoine has won 3 GPs, a PT, an Invitational, even his Regionals. He is a Hall of Famer, but only once in fourteen attempts had he made it to the Top 8 of his National Championships, and he had lost in the quarters. And that was ten years ago! Being a member of the French team was pretty much the only thing his resume was missing until now, and he kept on reminding me about how much he would like to make it, year after year. Even though the victory was a bit frustrating, it was the first time in 15 years of playing Magic that I was touched enough to cry at the result of a match.

Congrats Antoine, and thanks to Wafo for being able to sacrifice himself for his friends, in particular when he had two very positive matchups. And congrats to Julien for his final win, and to Guillaume for his amazing season.

Before ending this article, let me share a few more decklists with you. First, the Jund deck who was closest to reaching the Top 8:

Teddy was 5-0 but lost the last two for Top 8. Still, his decklist is rather interesting.

Next, there’s Pierre Canali’s deck; he finished in 9th place with a Bant version designed to stand a good chance against Mono Red. This is why he is running 28 lands, in order to be able to keep playing even though all his accelerators are getting killed.

Until next time!

Olivier Ruel