Regionals 2004: Are you ready?

Okay, it’s pretty early. You still have a solid month to prepare for Regionals this year. You’re probably going to need it, too. The format is very diverse, and the top decks are tough to play, offering tons of different game play choices and subtle deck building options that could mean the difference between top 8 (and a qualification for Nats), or 2-2 drop. In any metagame, you really have to know the matchups, but this one in particular is very unforgiving of errors. So what’s a guy to do? Well I’ve got nine steps to help you out and then a discussion of what I’ve discovered during playtesting.

Okay, it’s pretty early. You still have a solid month to prepare for Regionals this year. You’re probably going to need it, too. The format is very diverse, and the top decks are tough to play, offering tons of different game play choices and subtle deck building options that could mean the difference between top 8 (and a qualification for Nats), or 2-2 drop. In any metagame, you really have to know the matchups, but this one in particular is very unforgiving of errors. So what’s a guy to do? Test, test, test. Rebuild and then test some more.

The key is to go into the tournament with the correct build of a good deck and give yourself all the tools that you will need to win any given match. Since Regionals is such a large tournament, the amount of bad players is at a record high. Whenever there are bad players, there are sure to be bad decks as well. Either bad decklists or bad rogue ideas that really can’t stand up to the tier 1 decks. The best piece of advice I can give anyone planning to play this year in hopes of qualifying for Nationals would be to play a powerful deck.

I see way too many people putting up claims that the deck they are playing absolutely crushes Affinity, Goblins and Slide because of whatever blah blah blah reason. Once you read these words in an article or hear them out of someone’s mouth, you should automatically know this person is either – A) Full of crap, B) Stupid, C) Bad at Magic or D) actually correct (Highly unlikely, but if the person is a good player, and I don’t mean good player as in wins FNM every week, I mean something more like a player who has played on multiple PTs, you might be able to trust them… even then, probably not). Regardless, it can never hurt, if you have enough time, to try out an idea from an article or from a friend that seems good. The operative phrase here is to try it out, though. Don’t just believe that person or article. Chances are, there is something flawed with this person’s testing or they are just making up numbers.

Metagame decks are very tough to make, and generally give up a lot of raw power in exchange for a lot of various cards that happen to be good against the tier 1 decks. In my opinion, the tier 1 decks are Goblin Bidding and Ravager Affinity, with a nod to W/u control and Astral Slide. To build a deck that beats all of these archetypes regularly would be nearly impossible. They are all very strong, they all play powerful cards that are synergistic with each other and they are all proven, tested, and finely tuned. I’m not saying that you can’t win if you play a rogue/tier 2 deck, what I am saying is it’s gonna be an uphill battle, and at a tournament as big as Regionals you are almost sure to face something that you didn’t expect at least once.

So, what’s the first step? Glad you asked.

Step 1:

Well, obviously, you have to put together a gauntlet. If you are reading this article, you are probably familiar with the term, but for anyone out there that isn’t, it just means a few test decks that you expect to face and that you want to try. This should include all the tier one decks at the very least. Don’t make too many decks at first, though. You want to focus more on the decks that you are more likely to face. If you want to try new ideas, that will come later. For now, just take what you feel are the best builds from tournament results. Good places to look are Regionals from other countries. Looking at the top decks from Germany and Hong Kong should give you a decent idea of the metagame and get you a good build of all the top decks. Don’t Change Any Cards. I am making that very big so you can hear me better (since you can obviously hear my words on the screen). If these people have tested their decks and won with them, there is a probably a good reason they are playing the cards that they have in the list. Try it as is at first. There might be some interaction that you are missing, or some reason they are playing x card that will become more obvious once you try the deck out and play for a bit. Once you have that done, it’s on to the next step.

Step 2:

Test the top decks against one another. Make sure you test sideboards! Most people don’t do nearly enough of this. I’m sure you’ve read this before, but more than 50% of your games will include sideboards, so be ready.

Another thing a lot of people don’t do is test the mirror. Try not to overlook this. Change your sideboarding strategies and cards and see what the best configuration of the deck is for the mirror. Do this for a while to get a good feel for how the decks play. Questions you should ask yourself are:

  • What cards are good in each matchup?

  • What should your game plan be when playing each deck? Keep in mind that the game plan and roles change even when playing the same deck. It’s all dependent on what you’re playing against.

  • What is the best way to implement your plan?

  • Should you be playing for the long game or the quick kill?

  • How do you sideboard for each matchup? And don’t cheat and start taking out one of this and one of that. That’s generally a bad way to board.

Step 3:

Now that you’ve played with all the decks, you should have a pretty good idea of how each of them work. You are now qualified to make changes. Lay out each deck with your partner(s) and start discussing, card for card, how the deck would be built optimally. Which cards were never good for you? What cards were good against you when you were playing that deck? Are there answers that could be incorporated? Build it to have the best game possible overall against each of the decks and still have enough of the raw power so it will crush any of the weird stuff you will face. Try not to include any cards that are too narrow. Even if they can be good in specific situations, they have to be good all the time. Will you always be happy if this is in your opening hand? Do you want to draw these in multiples? Is at least one a must in order to win? These questions will help you decide how many of each card will work best.

Step 4:

Test again. It’s like two layers of testing. A little tedious, but you have to find out now whether the changes you made were for the best. Did it work how you expected? If so, great, if not, change it back. This should get you the best build of each deck. Record all your results separately from the original builds. Compare them to see what worked and what didn’t.

Step 5:

At this point, you should have a very good idea of what is going on with each of the decks, how to play them, and how to play against them. What would be an effective strategy? Now is the time to start trying some of those weird tier 1.5 and tier 2 decks. Take some lists and use your knowledge of the format to configure them as best you can. Try them against the top decks. Can they really stand up? Or is the matchup against one or more of the tier 1 decks lopsided? If you are performing well against two out of three, and you can sideboard enough to combat the third deck, you might have a good strategy here. Work on it. Try to tweak it and see what you can do. Make sure it is versatile and powerful enough to play against other tier 2 decks. See what kind of results you get. Also, ask yourself are there any cards that really wreck this deck that you see often in the metagame? Just things to consider. Even if a card isn’t part of your gauntlet, it doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t see them in other people’s decks. This is Regionals – expect the unexpected.

Step 6:

Choose your deck. This should be based on win percentages and feel. What deck do you enjoy playing? Which deck fits your play style best? Which do you feel has the best shot of standing up to the field? If you are playing the most powerful deck expect a lot of hate. Can you handle it? Usually, I find the answer is yes. Even this year, there is a ton of artifact hate and Affinity keeps putting up good numbers. If you expect a lot more of one deck than any of the others, play a deck that has the best chance to beat that deck. If your Affinity list is beating Goblins 65% of the time and you expect 40% of the field to play Goblins, I think the choice is clear.

Step 7:

Play with your deck as much as possible. Play against anything and everything. Continue to adjust your maindeck and sideboard to include what you need. Just remember not to stray too far from the original builds. You need artifacts in Affinity and goblins in Goblins. Learn every trick your deck can do. Learn to abuse the stack and beat unprepared opponents who aren’t aware how certain cards interact. I don’t like to play for at least a day before the tournament ( I heard this from a friend and always follow it now). Make sure you get some sleep, eat breakfast, yadda yadda yadda. You know the drill.

Step 8:

Play tight and win. Don’t let anything throw you off your game. You’re ready, and you shouldn’t be afraid to play anybody.

After playing the format a bit, I would have to say Goblins and Ravager Affinity are the real deal. Both of these decks are excellent in their own right. Affinity is extremely fast. Whenever I play that deck and someone that hasn’t played too much with it is watching they say -“wow, I didn’t realize how fast that deck was.” It can kill you on turn 3 with the right draw, and if not, it most likely will on turn 4. Sometimes it’s hard to put up a fight against that kind of strength. It makes Goblins look like slow motion. That’s crazy, when you think about how fast that deck used to seem last year.

Goblins is just a great deck too. Mostly because it doesn’t have any real weaknesses. It can come out quick and finish strong. It can draw cards, kill things, and has a late game auto-win card. If you resolve a Bidding with a Warchief and a Sharpshooter in your graveyard, you will win on the spot 99% of the time. The trick is getting to that point against Affinity. It’s not easy. You have to resort to extreme amounts of hate. Something like ten cards on your board. Sparksmith supposedly goes a long way in helping here, but I haven’t gotten a chance to test it enough to confirm or deny that. Against White control, though, Goblins is a nightmare. It’s just one thing after another. You have to save your hard counters for Bidding and somehow survive the early game and stop Skullclamp. No easy task. Your best bet is Damping Matrix. This card is an MVP against this deck and must be dealt with at any cost.

White control is not dead. Personally, I feel W/u is a very strong archetype, and I was actually enamored with the deck for at least two or three weeks. I was putting up great numbers against Affinity and was doing okay against Goblins. I thought I could tweak the deck enough to come out ahead against Goblins, but it was harder than I thought, since the deck is so hard to attack. Once I put maindeck artifact hate in my Goblin deck to kill a Matrix, it was all but hopeless for me. I was putting up dismal numbers and have yet to find a way to swing that match up in my favor other than to hope that my opponents have bad builds. Pulse of the Fields is amazing and Damping Matrix is great against Goblins and Affinity, but somehow it doesn’t seem to be enough. If the Goblin deck can play around Mana Leak, you only have a few real counterspells, and they have to go towards stopping a Bidding. Once you have to start countering Siege-Gang Commanders and Goblin Piledrivers to stay alive, the game is all but over.

Astral Slide has always had a pretty good game against the early Goblin rush, but now, with Bidding being so popular, Slide players have their work cut out for them. If you get an early Astral Slide and Lightning Rift, that’s always good, and you can steal some games with an Exalted Angel here and there. The problem is that the Slide deck’s main game plan is to control the board and build up a ton of card advantage and mana to win the game with a bunch of Rift shots or a huge Decree of Justice. Once you get to the late game, you have no way to deal with a Bidding. Damping Matrix plus Starstorm is fine, but that’s only if your Matrix doesn’t get killed. The two-tiered assault is the problem. They can Sharpshoot you out, or attack for a billion after a Bidding, so you need two pieces of a puzzle to combat just one of their Biddings. If you only have the answer to half of their plan you’re a dead man.

You also have no counters and you probably can’t kill them before the Bidding, especially since you are just trying to stay alive in the early game sometimes. Against Affinity, Slide also has a tough match. I love reading articles from people that say they are crushing it. You tap out for Slide on turn 3 and half the time they just kill you on the spot. I don’t know how great that is. Again, you can win, but you will have to be heavily reliant on Damping Matrix and an early Wrath.

As far as tier 2 goes, I am not too worried about anything. The Oversold Cemetery deck looks promising, and I have been working on it a bit. I am not sure if it has what it takes to beat both affinity and goblins. Sounds kind of like a broken record doesn’t it? With two extremely aggressive and powerful decks with such different game plans, it is very hard to hate them both out. They are just so tough to attack. You can build to beat one or the other easily enough, but since they are so different, it’s quite a chore to find something that can stand up to one or the other.

Not to say that it’s hopeless. There are answers available, especially in Green/Black, but they really have to come together perfectly. Over nine rounds, that isn’t too hot. I’m not lucky by nature. I don’t like your chances against a Bidding. I guess your best answer is Withered Wretch, which isn’t too bad, but, it doesn’t do that much against the rest of the decks, so I would assume he is sideboard only. Game 1 would be impossible, because a resolved Bidding is game over. Then you have to go the next two games hoping that you draw into a Wretch before they either overrun you or Bidding you out. You also get Infest to help here. It’s no easy task, but it can be done.

Against Affinity, your plan is to Viridian Shaman, Viridian Zealot, and Oxidize close to everything they play. Clean it up with a Bane of the Living, and then go into Zealot/Shaman recursion while beating with a Ravenous Baloth or some other random guy. I like this but, still, Affinity will have draws you just can’t deal with sometimes. Shrapnel Blast is your worst enemy here. If they have four of those, you are probably in a bit of trouble. Baloth helps, but that deck can do upward of forty damage in one turn sometimes. Also, I’m not really sold on how good the match is against White control. Akroma’s Vengeance hurts and you don’t have too many answers to a protected Exalted Angel or to a giant Decree. Headhunters seem nice, Withered Wretch can take out some Dragons, and that’s cute and all, but how amazing is it really?

Okay, that was a lot of stuff and I have more to say still. Let’s take a brief interlude. If you want to skip it, just shoot ahead for some more boring strategy. I want to talk about the best TV show ever. The Family Guy. I was lucky enough… no wait, I was blessed by the lord himself when I received the DVD set for Christmas from my brother. Best gift I have ever gotten. I have been watching these things non-stop for the last three months.

Last night, I was watching one of the episodes from season 3 called Lethal Weapons. It was actually the funniest thing I have ever seen. In this episode, the New Yorkers invade Boston to watch the leaves change. I was unaware of this particular tradition, but apparently it’s true. Seems pretty dumb to me to go to Boston to watch leaves change when they change here too, but whatever. They refer to these degenerates as”leafers” and they are not too happy to see them in town. They take over the bars, the roads and even the churches. Lois starts taking karate to get in shape, but as it turns out, she is quite the fighter. So Peter stands up to these punks and gets his ass kicked, only to be saved by his wife. Lois was worried that she hurt Peter’s pride by beating them up, but he was loving it and wanted her to beat them all up.

When she refused, he took her to the bar and told one of them that he slept with his mother. Of course, he tried to kick his ass and Lois stepped in to take the guy out. He called the next guy a homosexual, just like his refrigerator. Don’t ask. At which point he, of course tries to beat him up and Lois again chucks the guy through a table. So Peter just blurts out Jets suck, Rangers suck, Knicks suck, Yankees suck, and Lois is jumped by twenty of them at once. She beats all of them to a pulp and starts tossing them around like a bunch of toys. Peter still hasn’t seen enough apparently, and he goes and says that Krypton sucks. This really pisses off General Zod and his gang of Kryptonian outlaws who just happened to be sitting at the end of the bar. You know, the ones from Superman II with the black costumes? So they fly over and attack Lois too. She effortlessly flings the super villains into a piece of glass in which they will be trapped for eternity hurtling through outer space. That’s the taste of beach justice right there.

Now if that isn’t funny I don’t know what is. If you haven’t been watching this show, go kill yourself. When you’re done, go buy the DVDs or burn them and get crackin… up that is.

So anyway, back to Magic. The other deck that looks interesting to me is the Mono-Red deck. From the looks of it, these decks will be okay against Affinity, but probably have a hard time with the gobbos, though I’m not really sure. What is the game plan there anyway? To burn them out? I doubt that will happen, as you’ll probably have to waste a good amount of burn on their men. Flamebreak seems really good though, so it might have some merit. They might have what it takes to kill you before you can cast Patriarch’s Bidding, but to me this deck doesn’t seem too incredible. It really can’t do anything too broken. When Affinity can play 4/4s or larger on turn 2 and Goblins can outdraw you a hundred to one, I just don’t like your chances. I will try it, but I am pretty skeptical.

I will continue to test and write an article sometime soon with some card selections that seem to be working and some deck lists. Right now I haven’t found too much tech out there that you can’t find on the internet already. I hope this helps you guys prepare for the tournament, and I hope you enjoyed it. I am going to Columbus this weekend, so maybe I’ll write something more entertaining next time, like a tournament report. Those are always fun.

John Fiorillo

No cool nickname, no cool quote here.

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