Shizo Fine, I Lose My Mind: StarCityGames Amateur Challenge *3rd Place*

Although it was nearly 90 degrees on Saturday, the temperature isn’t what got my blood flowing: It was the 137 competitors coming together for StarCityGames’ Amateur Challenge. Packing a huge variety of decks in one of the most fun and fulfilling formats seen in recent history, these hopefuls converged in a colossal struggle for the coveted Amateur Challenge trophy or, failing ultimate victory, a piece of the fifty-box prize pool.

On July 4th weekend, it was hot in Charlotte. But although it was nearly 90 degrees on Saturday, the temperature isn’t what got my blood flowing: It was the 137 competitors coming together for Star City Games’ Amateur Challenge. Packing a huge variety of decks in one of the most fun and fulfilling formats seen in recent history, these hopefuls converged in a colossal struggle for the coveted Amateur Challenge trophy or, failing ultimate victory, a piece of the fifty-box prize pool.

I entered the fray. I tasted the competition. I took third place. This is my story.

So, why are you reading about it now, a month after the tournament? Some communications problems between Craig Stevenson (who deserves a healthy Congratulations!) and me resulted in this report “slipping through the cracks.” It’s been found, though, and comes to you late but still alive. Regardless of this article’s tardiness, I think that the deck you’re going to read about is still a strong choice for FNM and other local tournaments and that it will be a deck to keep on the radar in the future as well. As well, next week I’ll post some thoughts on how Coldsnap might be able to find a home in B/W.

Ever since I saw the Amateur Challenge advertised on this site, I knew I wanted to participate. I’ve always loved Standard, but the current Kamigawa/Ravnica Standard truly excites me. The incredible deck variety alone makes the field extremely interesting, and the cards available are simply fun to play. I’ve always been a Blue/White control player at heart, but with so much territory to explore in the current Standard (and with the confused Azorius guild being what it is), I knew I’d have to try my hand at a new deck in order to have a shot at the top tables.

So, I scoured the Internet for different builds of different decks. I stumbled upon a Black/White deck that caught my eye, and, though I can no longer find it on MagictheGathering.com, I present it to you now (with the changed sideboard I played):

My first impression of the deck was, “Wow, this looks strong.” When I found this deck, I already had more than twelve Standard decks proxied up, including two Black/White ones, but this just felt superior to what I already had. I decided to give it a try to see if it would make the cut as my deck of choice for the tournament.

As I’m sure you can guess, the deck did in fact prove itself worthy. I’m sorry to say that I can’t accurately remember much of my playtesting, and I hope that the match-by-match report that follows will help make up for that deficiency. However, I do remember that my primary goal in playtesting was to answer the question, “Why are there so many three-ofs in the main deck?”

The answer, as I came to discover, lies in my first impression of the deck. Its ability to remove threats from the hand and from the board, refueling with Confidant/Arena card advantage while leaning on the near indestructibility of Ghost Council of Orzhova and the ever-amazing Umezawa’s Jitte for the win makes the deck, simply speaking, strong. The fourth-copy sideboard strategy helps to capitalize on the areas of strength that are particularly effective against a specific deck while adding in any additional “sideboard” cards as well.

For example, against a non-Red, non-Black deck, I side out the three Paladins and bring in a fourth Descendant and Jitte, perhaps a fourth Wrath of God or some other more effective card. Against fast beatdown decks (Zoo in particular), I would side out all four Castigates and bring in fourth copies each of Paladin En-Vec, Descendant of Kiyomaro, Umezawa’s Jitte, and Wrath of God before moving on to the rest of my sideboarding. Against Heartbeat, I’d be able to side out all the Wraths and a Paladin for a fourth Descendent and a fourth Jitte in addition to the Cranial Extractions.

Thus, the deck proved itself to have a broad base of strength that can be laser-focused to exploit opponents’ weaknesses as much as possible. Although much of this strength is probably self-evident, some of the cards deserve particular recognition:

Ghost Council of Orzhova and friends

The Ghost Council is by far the best card in the deck. The power of this card has been touted since Zvi Mowshowitz first previewed it months ago. However, recent history has not quite shown the Council to be the new Masticore. Although the card’s been included in many decks lately, Mike Flores noted of the top Pro Tour: Honolulu decks, “Generally speaking, the most beatdown-oriented and the most control-oriented decks do not play Ghost Council of Orzhova. The quick decks usually run Umezawa’s Jitte as their ‘four drop,’ and the expensive decks don’t have the creatures to make the Ghost Council great. As good as a 4/4 for four mana is, without a team of creatures willing to sacrifice themselves to join the club, the Ghost Council is just harder to cast and less effective than, say, a Loxodon Hierarch.”

And he’s exactly right. Zvi made the same observation when the Ghost Council made its public debut: “The key to the Orzhov guild is that all of its pieces work together. Ghost Council is solid in any deck with the mana to cast it and some disposable creatures, but the rest of the Orzhov toolbox makes it a lot stronger.” It’s utilizing his friends that makes the Ghost Council so strong.

Ravenous Rats is a great two-drop: He chumps in front of Hierarch, he threatens with the Jitte, he enables Ninjitsu from the board, he demoralizes opponents trying to hold back resources in a hand already pillaged by Castigate, and he helps keep the Ghost Council kicking. Shrieking Grotesque is everything the Rats are but twice as big and in the air — what a superb creature! Dark Confidant is excellent in the early game, netting card advantage and points of damage for several turns. And when little groundpounders can’t do the trick anymore and Bob Maher is grinning at you while you lose life each turn, Ghost Council not only protects you from yourself but makes the Confidant help with one more two-point life swing before hitting the road.

With all of this backup, Ghost Council does everything you want it to do. That is, it helps you recover from early damage, it stops opponents’ creatures from hitting you, it swings for four, and it can sneak in a couple extra points of damage for the win. I was never unhappy to see the Ghost Council in my hand, and even when I was holding two extra copies, I wasn’t dissatisfied — that just meant that if my opponent found some way of removing my Council (who escapes even the Wrath of God), I’d have more awesomeness where that came from. The deck is named after Ghost Council for a reason: Everything in the deck works to make him win you games.

Umezawa’s Jitte

I don’t have to tell you why this card is good. At least, I shouldn’t. Nevertheless, the number of decks including the Jitte in the maindeck was surprisingly small. I have maintained for a long time that Jitte on the board will almost always lock in a win — the card is just incredible. I don’t need to discuss its synergy with Shrieking Grotesque or Paladin en-Vec, but I’ll just emphasize again for the doubters out there: Jitte has not lost its edge.

Descendant of Kiyomaro

The Descendant surely isn’t foreign to the tournament scene, but I was the only person I know of who included him in his deck this weekend. He works well in this extremely synergistic deck largely because of the discard theme. He helps recover from early life-loss due to Confidant, Shrine, Caves, and opponents’ beats, and he stops said beats in their tracks. He even allows for some significant psychological advantage if I have one more card in my hand than my opponent at the end of my turn. When my opponent draws, the Descendant will be a 2/3 — but as soon as he lays a land or casts a spell, he becomes a 3/5 Spirit-Linked (sort of) pounder. So, my opponent is put in the uncomfortable position of making my creature strong simply by playing his own game. I really love this card, and I don’t think the deck would work nearly as well without it.

Eiganjo Castle and Shizo, Death’s Storehouse

The Kamigawa-block legendary lands are almost universally included in decks because they’re often simply “better” than basic lands. Their almost-automatic inclusion, however, leads players to become complacent about them. Let me emphasize to everyone net-decking out there: Don’t forget that these lands have special abilities! I used them to secure the win in at least three matches, and another opponent could have taken the match from me if he had remembered Shizo’s ability. Mike Flores wrote in what Mark Young considers the best non-tournament report article about the importance of capitalizing on the small things that turn into huge factors — remembering the second line of text on each of these cards is certainly one of them.

So, in summary, I took to Charlotte an extremely synergistic powerhouse of a deck that maximizes its efficiency after boarding and utilizes specific and global removal effectively with Ghost Council of Orzhova to seal the win in several different ways.

Let me be clear that this deck is not Ghost Husk — there is no Nantuko Husk and no Promise of Bunrei. That version of the deck is trying to do something different. Either it spreads out to flank the opponent with an overwhelming number of Pontiff-pumped creatures or it zeros in and fires with the Husk, slicing through an opponent’s defenses for the win. The deck I brought (which I may refer to as “mine” but which I do not claim to have created) instead applies solid, constant pressure to all of the opponent’s resources, resulting in overwhelming Jitte and/or Ghost Council force.

Speaking of what the deck is not, the sideboard was created more-or-less on-site as I got a feel for the metagame of the Charlotte tournament. It quickly became evident that the major decks I would face included Ghost Husk, Izzetron, and Heartbeat Combo. A quick look at my sideboard shows what I was planning on facing:

3 Cranial Extraction versus Heartbeat Combo (and maybe Kokusho)
2 Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni versus Greater Good and other decks featuring Yosei and friends
2 Okiba-Gang Shinobi versus Izzetron, UR Control, other control decks I might face
2 Worship versus Zoo and other beatdown
2 Nekrataal versus Zoo and other beatdown
1 Paladin en-Vec — part of the strength-focusing strategy
1 Descendent of Kiyomaro — part of the strength-focusing strategy
1 Umezawa’s Jitte — part of the strength-focusing strategy
1 Wrath of God — part of the strength-focusing strategy

I have to put a shout-out here to James Long, who reminded me of Cranial Extraction versus Heartbeat and traded me the two I needed (though I’m not sure it wasn’t just an elaborate plot to strip me of my Wasteland).

I’ve told you the story of the cards in the deck. Let me now tell you the story of how those cards made their way to the semi-finals of the Amateur Challenge.

After an hours-long playtesting session on Thursday, June 29, my friend Ed Bowman and I felt ready to head down to Charlotte. I was just a few cards away from completing my Granddaddy Ghost Council deck, and he was all set to take his FNM star Zoo. We pulled out of Roanoke, VA at about 2:20 pm on Friday, pushed through the traffic in Blacksburg (home of Virginia Tech), Mooresville (Racetown USA), and Charlotte and made our way to the Howard Johnson on exit 6 of I-77. We quickly checked in and then navigated our way to Underground Games outside Charlotte for some FNM practice before the big day.

The FNM field was definitely close to what I was about to face in the Amateur Challenge. I played two BW decks, an Izzetron, and a Greater Good deck. I didn’t make the top four, but Ed did and was able to take home a couple Yoseis with his prize store credit. I was happy for Ed and wasn’t pessimistic about my prospects for the next day; after all, I didn’t have my fourth Paladin en-Vec yet, and that card could have made all the difference in the two matches I didn’t win (0-1-1, 2-1-1 for the whole night) against the BW decks.

After FNM, Ed and I enjoyed our customary breakfast-for-dinner at IHOP, which shared a parking lot with our hotel. Let me take a moment to say a few words about IHOP — after FNM, Ed and I often head out to the International House of Pancakes for Mental Magic and other casual games. We sometimes sit there for hours until 2 or 3 in the morning … and never once has an IHOP employee been anything less than respectful to us. In fact, several times we’ve been approached with general interest from the IHOP employees who find it refreshing to have something new to see in their restaurant late at night. IHOP’s one of my favorite restaurants, and this isn’t the least of the reasons why. That IHOP was located on-location at our hotel was also not the least of the reasons why we stayed at this Howard Johnson.

However, this time, we simply ate our delicious pancakes and hit the hay — we had a big day ahead of us.

Saturday morning, we were up, showered, and had eaten breakfast by the early hour of 7:30, at which point we headed to the Charlotte Convention Center. Charlotte’s a nice place — big buildings but without all the congesting traffic of New York City (at least, not on weekday mornings). The Convention Center was huge and filled with geeks and geek-like activities (remember, Heroes Con was there this weekend). We arrived really early and so had some trouble finding the Magic area in the labyrinth of large halls — but once we did, we joined the dozen or so other folks who had arrived with the opening of registration. It was at this point that I was able to trade for the last Paladin en-Vec I needed; then, I just had to finalize my sideboard and I was ready!

The head judge announced that 137 players had signed up for our tournament (with another 50+ in the Vintage Power Nine tournament) and that there would be eight rounds of Swiss before cutting to the top 8. My deck was itching to be broken out, and at 10:32 am, we began our long journey to the Top Table.

Round 1 versus Julian Delossantos (Greater Good)

Julian was a pleasant young man who had traveled to Heroes Con with his whole family. His parents were vendors at the event, and Julian was hoping to supplement their sales with a victory of his own. Unfortunately for him, his deck never got working against me (this round…). In fact, I told Ed after the match that I had played against “Greater Good without the Greater Good.” In retrospect, I recognize that he simply was never able to draw the spell he could have used to great effect.

In Game 1, I quickly realized the strength of discard in this deck, though perhaps to an absurd degree. Over the course of the game, I cast Ravenous Rats three times and Shrieking Grotesque once. I believe that I played Castigate twice, and Julian was left with one card in his hand for most of the game. Having achieved great position and with lots of critters to keep the Ghost Council happy (I pinged Julian with the Council about five times), I easily rode in for the win.

Game 2 was also heavily influenced by discard, though he was largely able to break through it. However, his casting of individual threats was never enough to gain the advantage he needed. Twice he played Yosei only for me to destroy the legend and not suffer any major consequences on his “free turn.” I sat for several turns with an Ink-Eyes in my hand, waiting for an attack step with enough creatures to get past his couple blockers. At last I broke through his beefy but sparse defenses and robbed him of a Yosei. Three turns later, it was all over.

The opening of the tournament was thus quite exciting for me. I got “real life” experience of my deck “doing what it does.” The theory behind discard-induced card advantage and the sheer strength of Ghost Council began to assert itself in reality, though admittedly luck played a significant role in this match.

Matches: 1-0
Games: 2-0

Before Round 2, I met some of Ed’s friends that we weren’t expecting to see in Charlotte. In particular, we spoke to Chris, who was also playing BW but a very different build from me. We exchanged decks and checked out what the other was playing. He was more or less playing a regular Ghost Husk deck with maindeck Pithing Needles for Jitte. Chris admitted that he liked my deck a lot more than his own and expressed his dismay at not owning any Paladins. Nevertheless, he had won his last match and was hoping for a strong showing. Pairings for Round 2 went up, I wished him and Ed luck, and went to find my next victim.

Round 2 versus Chris Badawi (Ghost Husk)

Imagine my surprise when I sat down across from the same Chris with whom I had just exchanged deck lists. I was encouraged by his impression of my deck and was secretly hoping that Paladin En-Vec would win the day for me.

Game 1 would have been an easy victory except for his shutting down my Jitte with Pithing Needle early. I kept a hand that relied on the Jitte, and I couldn’t overcome his Promise of Bunrei tokens and other threats without the removal and lifegain that the artifact would normally provide me. Although I got him all the way to 1 life, he was able to eke out the win.

Game 2 was another very close one. Once again, his numerous threats from Rusalkas, tokens, and Pontiffs were going toe-to-toe with my card advantageous Rats, Grotesques, Confidants, and Ghost Councils. I found myself topdecking like mad, and I needed every resource I drew. Paladin En-Vec was solid but wasn’t able to go all the way because Needle shut down my Jitte once again. This time, Chris got me down to 1, but I was able to get a big Descendant of Kiyomaro active, putting myself out of harm’s reach with lifegain and a second Descendant. The pair of them put the win out of his grasp and sealed the second game.

Already in this fourth game of the tournament was I starting to realize the importance of maximal playing. For a while, I had been holding Chris’ Ghost Council at bay with my Paladin En-Vec while his other creatures were able to poke me down to 1. I knew that all Chris had to do was activate his Shizo on his Ghost Council to take the game and the match, but Chris was already in the mindset of “Ghost Council meets Paladin.” He had put himself in the state of mind that prevented him from stealing the win, and I was able to capitalize on that.

On to Game 3 with not much time remaining. Once again, I kept a hand that relied on Umezawa’s Jitte to be effective, and without batting an eye, he locked the sword down with his Pithing Needle on the first turn. I struggled to stay afloat, but things weren’t looking good. He amassed a horde of Spirit tokens and other Dudes and could have come over for the win … but didn’t. I put myself just out of reach the next turn with Descendant, and the game ended in a draw with me at one life.

Why didn’t he attack? Personally, I wasn’t sure whether my blocking Descendant would save me from death (it wouldn’t), but Chris told me that he knew the rule — so the reason that he didn’t attack remains a mystery. Perhaps he forgot my life total or went through some other miscalculation, or maybe Fate was just lending me a hand in my hour of need. Whatever it was, I managed to sneak my way out of a match loss twice this match and make off with a decent tie for the round.

The major lesson I took away from this match was how important the little things are. In Game 1, Chris was at one life before winning; the same was true of me in Game 2, and Game 3 ended in a draw with me at one. Realizing this emphasized for me the importance not only of capitalizing on my own resources (Shizo, Ghost Council, etc.) but also of capitalizing on my opponent’s mistakes. As I mentioned above, this BW deck is very strong and is capable of muscling past many defenses, but it really shines when it’s able to maximize its advantages and focus on them for the win. This strategy would continue to inform me for the rest of the tournament and no doubt serves as a valuable play lesson in general.

Matches: 1-0-1
Games: 3-1-1

Round 3 versus Clay Smith (Heartbeat Combo)

Clay was an extremely pleasant fellow with a very interesting story. He had driven to Charlotte from Georgia, having decided at the last minute to participate in this tournament. So, around midnight that Saturday morning, he and his friend started the 4.5 hour drive, sleeping in their car after arriving in Charlotte. Of course, the complication of his having work the next day was solved by Clay quitting his job! He said he had enough money to get by, and being a waiter wasn’t exactly the most fulfilling career prospect — so here he was 1-0-1 in the Amateur Challenge thirteen hours after deciding to attend!

The first game was the most boring game of Magic I played the entire day. I drew nothing the whole game … and so did he. He kept casting spells to fetch lands, searching harder and harder with his Divining Top to find something to transmute. Meanwhile, I kept dropping lands and discard spells waiting for a threat to come. It never did, and Clay went off before a single point of damage was dealt on either side of the table.

Game 2 was much more interesting. My deck turned aggro as I got out a Shrieking Grotesque with a Jitte on it. I mounted an impressive defense and knocked out his back-to-back Iwamori and Meloku with two copies of Mortify, flying over for an easy victory.

In Game 3, I drew the sideboard card that James had encouraged me to include: Cranial Extraction. A turn or two before casting Extraction, I Castigated into Remand, Pyroclasm, two Muddle the Mixture, and three Heartbeat of Spring. He had no Blue with two Forests on the table. I hadn’t tested heavily against Heartbeat, but I knew what it was and how it won. I took the Remand and started thinking about what to Extract. He dropped an Island and said go.

My options for the Extraction were, in ascending levels of importance to his deck, Heartbeat of Spring; Early Harvest; Invoke the Firemind; and Maga, Traitor to Mortals. I knew that picking Maga wouldn’t do the whole trick because of the second win condition. I also knew the rule of picking Early Harvest over Heartbeat of Spring. However, with some threats in my hand, I knew that I could win if I had enough time. I also knew that double mana wouldn’t help me very much, and if I started letting him cast a bunch of Heartbeats, that could spell danger very quickly. As he had no second source of blue, no land-fetchers, and no Drift of Phantasms, I picked Heartbeat of Spring, denying him that out as well as making my Descendent of Kiyomaro more effective at putting me out of Maga range.

Clay was quite surprised when I named Heartbeat of Spring and passed his hand over to me. As I looked through his deck for the fourth copy, I made a startling discovery: Clay wasn’t packing Invoke the Firemind. If I had named Maga, that would have been game. Instead, I still had some work to do to put this one away.

The rest of the game was characterized by Clay trying to cobble together the pieces for a difficult Maga while I slowly picked away at his life total. As the end of the match approached, Clay realized that he wasn’t going to be able to pull this one off, and in a stunning display of honesty and even kindness, he conceded to me instead of trying to hold out until we had a draw. Clay and I had already discussed the merits of playing Magic honorably, preferring the karmic long-game to the cut-throat short-game, and he showed his sterling character by conceding to the opponent who he knew had bested him. Kudos – and many thanks – to Clay!

What I took away from this game had less to do with Magic than it had to do with life. The Magic lessons were basically to pick wisely what you wish to Extract, and that Jitte makes Heartbeat cry. More importantly, though, I came in contact with a genuinely nice person who simply loved the game of Magic enough to quit his job and drive hundreds of miles to try his hand at a title. His fun-loving and people-appreciating attitude was a real refresher, and I’m glad to have met him. I don’t know how he fared, but I hope he did well in the tournament and returns to Georgia with bright career opportunities ahead of him!

Matches: 2-0-1
Games: 5-2-1

Round 4 versus Robert Gathings (Ghost Husk or Ghost Dad)

Unfortunately, there’s not much to say about this round. Game 1, I saw two lands, and I was stuck on off-color and too-few lands for most of Game 2. In the second game, I managed to hold my own fairly handily given very limited resources, and I actually knocked him all the way down to 2 at one point, but there was no way I could overcome his numerous beats, and I folded fairly quickly.

Still, there’s always a lesson to be learned. This was my first manascrew with the deck, and though Game 1 was really harsh, I found myself still fighting hard in Game 2. I was playing very tightly and waiting for an opportunity that never came. Still, I believe that if I had gotten a windfall – say, a fourth land and a Wrath and a threatening follow-up and my opponent not having anything in hand to come back with – I would have been able to fight my way out of it. I didn’t lose my cool, and I was calmly waiting for my opportunity to arrive. It never did, but I was ready for it — and I take that as a good sign of my ability to play through adversity.

Matches: 2-1-1
Games: 5-4-1

It was at this point that I knew I’d have to win every match from here on in to make it to the Top Eight. I knew that manascrew could happen again or that I could be outmatched — still, I didn’t count myself out. Anyway, the top 32 were receiving prizes, so I certainly wasn’t out of the running yet. Unfortunately, Ed ran into one too many Loxodon Hierarchs by this point and was ready to drop, leaving me as the sole representative from Roanoke trying to bring the boxes back to the home market.

Round 5 versus Darrel Haddock (BWG Control)

Darrel was playing a very interesting deck that sometimes reminded me of my deck but sometimes looked totally different. For example, we were both playing Castigate, Dark Confidant, and Wrath of God, but whereas my spot removal was merely Mortify, he was packing Putrefy and Faith’s Fetters. I win with Ghost Council whereas he also packs Kokusho. The deck definitely made for an interesting matchup.

In the first game, Darrel and I exchanged Castigates twice (for a total of four Castigates between us). With our hands significantly hindered, he and I each played off the top for a little bit. Eventually, I was simply able to draw my threats before he did, and I took the game.

Game 2 was perhaps the most important game of the entire tournament, though its measurable effect was actually quite small. To put it bluntly, I can’t remember the last time I played Magic so sloppily. I forgot to lay a land twice, forgot to attack once, and forgot to play a Descendant of Kiyomaro once. The sheer stupidity of these mistakes was quite frightening, as was the repetition with which they occurred. In my first match of what needed to be a four-match winning streak, I was playing simply terrible Magic.

Now, in the end, I don’t think it cost me the game. I was drawing far too many lands and not nearly enough creatures to pull off a win, but that didn’t excuse my behavior. Of course, he took the game, but unlike in my manascrewed game against Robert, I don’t think that my play could have earned me a win even under the best of circumstances.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when Game 3 revealed some of my strongest Magic playing of the entire day! The game was long and tough, and I had to struggle through several obstacles including breaking through Darrel’s card advantage with my Criminally stolen Phyrexian Arena. Basically, I was able to win through with Ghost Council of Orzhova, generating several small life-swings that really made the difference. He fought back with life gain from two Faith’s Fetters, and things were looking so good for him (in that I had no active threats) that he locked down my Shizo just for the life gain. All Darrel was doing, however, was setting me up for the Play of the Day.

We’re in extra turns, and Darrel’s at four. I have Ghost Council out, staring down some White blocker(s). In a move that visibly startled Darrel, I Mortified his Fetters, gave the Council fear, and terrifyingly strode over for the win. Darrel picked up Shizo to read it (though of course he had it in his own deck), looked at the board, and admitted defeat. He must have felt that the game would end in a draw, but by keeping an eye on my resources (which really shouldn’t be all that difficult), I pulled it out. This was a great way to recover from my miserable play Game 2, and I was ready to continue with a hot streak for the next three hours.

Still, I berated myself for playing so poorly in Game 2. I told myself that that behavior simply wouldn’t do and that I had to keep playing on the level of my performance in Game 3 if I wanted to make it anywhere. I didn’t win this matchup through luck but rather through being able to manage the advantages of my deck in a smart way, and I knew that if I wasn’t able to keep up that level of play, I’d be done for.

Matches: 3-1-1
Games: 7-5-1

Round 6 versus Chris Landis (Ghost Husk)

This is a different BW-playing Chris than I faced in Round 2 and was much less talkative. In fact, he hardly said anything the entire match. It’s understandable, though, since in Game 1 he mulliganed into manascrew with a single Caves of Koilos as his only source of White, easily handing me the win. So, I don’t necessarily blame him for replying to my “Good luck” with “I’ll play” before Game 2 — and maybe he simply didn’t hear me.

Anyway, Game 2 wasn’t any better for him than the first, as he mulliganed to 5 and got manascrewed again. He had out a couple Spirit tokens, but they don’t go well toe-to-toe with Paladin En-Vec. A particularly nasty turn sequence went like this:

Me: Swing for 2 with Paladin En-Vec, play Paladin En-Vec to block.
Him: Not much.
Me: Swing for 4 with 2 Paladin En-Vec, play Paladin En-Vec to block.
Him: Cringe.
Me: Swing for 6 with 3 Paladin En-Vec, play Paladin en-Vec to block.
Him: Curse his luck.

He took me down to seven, but there’s only so much a Black/White deck can do against four Paladin En-Vec without asking for the Wrath of God … and it just wasn’t coming for Chris that day. After he signed the slip, he silently got up and walked away. I imagine he was extraordinarily frustrated, and with good reason. Still, what could I do but be happy to have won?

Nevertheless, although this was an easy win, it delivered an important message: Don’t get cocky — this could happen to you at any time. I knew that my deck and my luck could just “blow up” at any time, and I also knew that I’d have to be sharp to win the next two matches that I had to win to make it to the Top 8. I was glad to have won, but I wasn’t overly exultant — I still had a long way to go.

Matches: 4-1-1
Games: 9-5-1

Since this match had taken the least time of any of my rounds so far (a mere 32 minutes!), I hastily made my way to the lower floor of the Convention Center to find Mark Poole. I had set aside several cards to have him sign, and I was hoping to squeeze him in before the next round. Although it was a zoo down there, I finally tracked him down, and as there was no line, I didn’t have any trouble getting him to sign my cards. He was quite pleasant, and I wish I had had more time to talk to him. Still, it was great for him to sign my hefty stack of Counterspells, Incinerates, Birds of Paradise, etc., and I thanked him and went to find my next victim.

Round 7 versus Adam Pendleton (Sizzetron)

Going into Round 7, I was in 14th place. I was thrilled at my accomplishments so far but was ready to excel even further.

Unfortunately, the match got off to a slow start as he took the first game. I don’t remember the specifics of the game, though my notebook displays a very interesting series of life totals:

Adam: 20, 19, 18, 17, 16, 15, 14, 10
Me: 20, 18, 17, 18, 12, 1

My only note for the match is “S-S,” and who knows what that means?

Anyway, Game 2 was much more memorable. I reamed him with early discard, hitting him with literally everything I had: Castigate, Ravenous Rats, Shrieking Grotesque … even the sided-in Okiba-Gang Shinobi to finish his hand off. With him living off the top and with me at a considerable advantage, I was in position to easily take the game. He managed to wear me down to just a Ghost Council, and he thought he was doing well when he cast Wildfire. Although I had a replacement Ghost Council in my hand, I saw no reason to sacrifice the one I had out … so I prevented two Wildfire damage with Eiganjo Castle. Once again, my opponent showed surprise at seeing my legendary Kamigawa land put to good use. I put all my lands except Orzhov Basilica, Godless Shrine, and Eiganjo Castle in the graveyard and asked him what lands he was going to sacrifice. His apparent discomfiture revealed his surprise at seeing my Ghost Council survive, and he ended up breaking his Tron and putting himself at a significant disadvantage. Two attacks later, the game was over.

Game 3 mimicked Game 2 in that discard played a significant role. I quickly reduced his hand-size, putting yet another Okiba-Gang Shinobi to good use. More Ghost Council tricks and Umezawa’s Jitte finished Adam off, leaving him handless and hopeless at the end of the match.

The brief notes I jotted down after the match reflect what I gleaned from Round 7:

Discard is strong.
O-G Shinobi!
Jitte 🙂
Ghost Council is AMAZING!

That pretty much sums it up.

Matches: 5-1-1
Games: 11-6-1

Round 8 versus Josh Serano (UR Control)

This was it. I was sitting at Table 5. Tables 1-3 all drew, putting those six competitors into the Top 8. A draw wouldn’t cut it, so the winner of my match and the winner of the match to my right (at Table 4) would go on to compete in the Top Eight. The pressure was on … though I didn’t really feel it. Surprisingly, I felt that I was sitting down to just another game of Magic. Perhaps because I was guaranteed some sort of prize, perhaps because I had already exceeded my own expectations, perhaps because I intrinsically knew that I’d have to keep cool to perform well, I shuffled up like any other match.

Game 1 was a fairly standard win for me. I got out Ghost Council and an Umezawa’s Jitte, both of which were trouble for the counter-burn across the table. Things looked good for him, though, when he played Meloku and was able to keep the flyer around for a while. He was down to six and kept a single Illusion back to block my scary Ghost Council. Unfortunately for Josh, the Council inspired so much fear that the Illusion couldn’t force itself to block, and I swung over for the win. Yes, once again, my opponent failed to see the value of Shizo. There was nothing he could do about my victory as I was at 16 when I won, but I’m sure he would have felt less robbed if he had known the end was near. (If I hadn’t had Shizo out, I definitely would have been in trouble, and that’s the situation that he thought we were in.)

However, in Game 2, Meloku came back for a second try. This time, although I did have Shizo and although I did use the land to get some extra damage in, I wasn’t far enough ahead to win the race. However, I did get very, very close. If Josh had attacked with one fewer Illusions, I would have been forced to use only one Jitte counter to stay alive instead of two. That extra counter would have given me the +2/+2 I needed on my fearsome Council for the win… but alas, it was not to be. As I’ve said many, many times, you have to be at zero to lose, and I just couldn’t quite force him that far.

The third game, on the other hand, was an entirely different story. His deck just stopped, and my bouncy, life-swingy Ghost Council simply couldn’t be hindered. I betrayed some of my excitement in my post-game notes: “Ghost Council for the win! Crush Crush Crush.” Isn’t that cute?

At this point in the tournament, I felt so comfortable with my deck that the lessons I was being taught in Round 8 were all review: Don’t forget about Shizo, Jitte is amazing, Ghost Council is the primary win condition, discard is strong, etc. Mostly, I was glad to have kept my cool, and I was particularly proud of determining that I was one point away from winning Game 2 even if I wasn’t able to achieve it. I don’t think I made any real mistakes the entire match.

Matches: 6-1-1
Games: 13-7-1

At this point, my hopes were reasonably high for making the Top 8. I’m always a cautious person, though, and I wasn’t counting my chickens yet. Standings were posted: Seventh place! I made Top 8 of a PTQ last November, but the competition was much smaller than this tournament, and I felt particularly proud of my accomplishment. A few minutes later, the head judge announced that the standings had been corrected, and we were encouraged to recheck our placement. Somehow, everyone (or almost everyone) was bumped down a spot. Thankfully, that still put me in eighth place … but how disappointing would it have been to be robbed of making Top 8 altogether? Thank goodness for strong tiebreakers!

The head judge gave us ten minutes to relax, get some water, go to the bathroom, and prepare. I was pumped for the Top 8, and I had the trophy in my sights. I knew that winning was not an impossibility, though I was certainly pleased at having gotten this far. As the clock chimed 8:00, after having been in the Charlotte Convention Center for a solid twelve hours, I reported for my first match of the Top 8.

Quarterfinals versus Jonathan Gilley (Ghost Husk)

We weren’t allowed to see each other’s decklist, so I had to find out what Jonathan was playing the hard way. And believe me, it was hard. Game 1, I mulliganed down to five and kept a decent hand (whose only drawback was having only five cards in it). His deck started to do its thing, and I was struggling to stay alive the entire time. He started by bringing in the early beats: Plagued Rusalka and Dark Confidant, followed by an Isamaru. Jonathan proved to me that he was serious by summoning Ghost Council of Orzhova and Nantuko Husk and continuing the beats. He made some Spirits with Promise of Bunrei, and in a stunning feat of acrobats, used Orzhov Pontiff and Plagued Rusalka to devour my team and break two 3/3 Spirits through. I managed to topdeck a Council of my own, canceling his. However, even my second Ghost Council coming over twice was too little too late, and he finished me off while still sitting pretty at 8 (having dealt half of that damage to himself).

Game 2 was much more even. I got my discard groove on early and managed to slap a Jitte on a Paladin en-Vec. That put me in position to win, and Ghost Council sealed the deal. Everything went right for me this game, and Jonathan conceded in the face of my big Paladin and virtually indestructible Ghost Council. Once again, the game was a dance around the Ghost Councils as each of us struggled to keep one on the board. This was the fifth match I’d played against a BW deck, but I don’t remember any others being so dependent on the Council versus Council battles. Jonathan was an excellent player who knew how to make the Council count, but as his repeated (though good-natured) eye-rolls betrayed, things (such as my resolving Paladin En-Vec) just weren’t going well for him this game.

Game 3, as might be expected, also hinged around the Ghost Council. I got off an early Paladin and was facing down a mid-sized team with things going well. All of a sudden, Jonathan announces Orzhov Pontiff, giving my guys -1/-1 and then declares that he’ll sacrifice the Pontiff to Plagued Rusalka, targeting my Ghost Council. I can see where this is going: His next step is to sacrifice the creature that the Pontiff haunts to the Rusalka, finishing off my Paladin as well as forcing me to phase out my Council. I tell him to slow down and hold on, and I think about my options. I want my Paladin alive because it’s proven able to fly through all of his threats so far. There’s really nothing I can do to stop him from using the Pontiff to give my guys -2/-2 … unless I can stop it from being sacrificed this turn.

I ask the judge who’s been watching our entire match if the Pontiff is in play, and the judge tells me that we can go back to the Pontiff being on the stack since Jonathan didn’t really give me a chance to respond. I elect to respond by sacrificing my Ravenous Rats to phase out Ghost Council, leaving Paladin en-Vec as my only creature when the Pontiff comes into play. That meant that without decimating his own team, Jonathan wouldn’t be able to sac the Pontiff and whatever it haunted to the Rusalka, thus preserving my Paladin. Naturally, Jonathan chose to pump his guys with the Pontiff and broke through for some damage, but at the end of the day, I had both my Council and my Paladin instead of just the Council. A few turns later, he threw a Council of his own at mine, but by this time, Descendant of Kiyomaro has joined the fight and applied too much pressure. I was sending everything I had, including Ravenous Rats, against Jonathan, and even though he had a Ghost Council out, I overwhelmed him and finished him off.

Of course, I was thrilled to win, but I was legitimately happy that I didn’t disappoint Jonathan too much. He was tickled pink to have made it into the Top 8 (though he might not appreciate that exact metaphor), and he gladly collected his three boxes of product. He was a great opponent who both played well and didn’t get angry when the cards didn’t go his way. I’m glad he made it to the Top 8, and I hope he opened many a shockland in his three boxes.

Matches: 7-1-1
Games: 15-8-1

So there I was, only four games away from claiming the Amateur Challenge title and walking away with eight booster boxes. I just had to send the Ghost Council in to clean up two more opponents and that would be that. And wouldn’t you know it, my next opponent was…

Semifinals versus Julian Delossantos (Greater Good)

… the same person I had played in Round 1! Looks like he did quite well for himself after a first-round match loss — and perhaps his solid record was responsible for my tiebreakers being strong enough to keep me in the Top 8. I remember Julian being a perfectly enjoyable opponent eleven hours earlier, and I was glad to see him here in the Top 8, even though he did declare (as genteelly as possible) that he had every intention of beating me this time around.

Game 1 was all about his Umezawa’s Jitte. He got one, and even after a mulligan, I never even caught sight of one of mine. The only damage I dealt to Julian this game was from Ghost Council coming into play twice — and Julian hurt himself that much with Temple Garden. The cards weren’t coming, but his Jitte-wielding Hierarchs certainly were. Time to shuffle up…

Despite this possibly being my last game of the tournament, I was relatively cool. I realized that losing wouldn’t be terrible, as I had come quite far and Julian and his family would be thrilled for him to proceed. (Julian’s mother was cataloguing his performance with a digital camera and never stopped smiling.)

Perhaps it was this attitude that led to my downfall in Game 2… but I rather believe that it was simply that I drew dead. The only life change on his side of the board was going from 20 to 24 when he cast Loxodon Hierarch. I may have made some bad decisions attacking with Jitte-wielding Dark Confidants into Selesnya Guildmage … but who could guess that he would cast Ghostway twice in a row? Sure, I had plenty of Confidants to replace them (I played four Confidants on four consecutive turns), but they never found me the land I needed to get out of the slump I was in. The entire game he had me dominated, and my six points of recovery from Descendant of Kiyomaro weren’t nearly enough to prepare me for a couple cracks in the skull with Kodama of the North Tree.

Matches: 7-2-1
Games: 15-10-1

And that was that. Eliminated in the semifinals of one of the biggest tournaments of my Magic-playing career. Not too shabby at all.

How did I get there?

First, I think I brought a very strong deck. Looking at the game count above, it might not seem that way, as my win:loss ratio was exactly 3:2. However, one of the major lessons I learned was that Flores is right: You have to be able to win the close games to come out on top. This deck has a lot of muscle but requires every point of leverage in the deck for the strength to come out effectively. The deck isn’t difficult to pilot, but it does require patience.

In other words, twenty life is a lot, and you can win with only one point left. Nevertheless, every life point is important, even crucial. Every time the Ghost Council makes its way into play, 5% of your opponent’s initial resource is gone, and you gain 5% back. These percentages add up, and in the end, they have to add up in your favor. That’s one of the reasons why I like Descendant of Kiyomaro. The deck takes a while to grab hold, but once it does, it can’t be touched, since I have plenty of attackers and blockers to go around. Of course, the discard helps keep the game on the ground where I like it, and Jitte, Mortify, and Wrath keep the ground clean of unwanted refuse (i.e., opponents’ creatures).

Thus, the synergy of the deck is really its key to success. The discard works with Descendent, who backs up the Ghost Council, who sticks around because of the discard creatures, who are also excellent with Jitte, which refuels the Confidant, etc. Even the pieces that one might overlook, such as Eiganjo and Shizo, are of vital importance to the deck as a whole, as they represent key percentages that the pilot of the deck needs to achieve victory.

Of course, I didn’t play flawlessly on Saturday. When I look back, I can see myself making mistakes like forgetting the intricacies of when Jitte gets counters. Mostly, I didn’t practice enough with the sideboard, and if I had one thing to change (or to suggest to others who want to pilot the deck), it’s to take a second look at the sideboard. I stand by the laser-focusing strategy of filling out the 4-ofs in the board, and I think Cranial Extraction, Ink-Eyes, and Okiba-Gang Shinobi all belong in the board. However, I never sided in Nekrataal, and I shouldn’t have sided Worship in at all. I believe that I’d change the Nekrataals to Eradicates for Yosei and Loxodon Hierarch, though I’m not sure what I’d do with the two Worship slots. I suppose a lot depends on the local environment, but the third Phyrexian Arena and Okiba-Gang Shinobi that were in the original decklist seem like solid choices.

In the end, I had a wonderful time. The tournament was very well-run, and I offer my highest compliments to StarCityGames and their terrific judging staff. I know they had a lot to attend to that weekend, and they performed marvelously. I want also to congratulate Julian for winning the entire tournament; I’m honestly glad that he took the title, and I feel that he really deserves it. It’s interesting that in a field so dominated by BW and UR, two GW decks (Greater Good and a Stompy variant) met in the finals. Also, special shout-outs to Ed Bowman for driving me to Charlotte, to Mark Poole for signing my cards, and to Zvi Mowshowitz for being right about Ghost Council of Orzhova.

So, next time you’re thinking about attending a Standard tournament, don’t forget the words of Vuliev of the Ghost Council, illuminated by the Culling Sun:

“Who truly runs this city? Look to the sky on hallowed days, and see whose sigil is stamped clearly onto the heavens.”

Daniel Crane
[email protected]