Vegas, baby! All I could think about on the flight to Las Vegas for the SCG Invitational last week was the car commercial where two guys take their test drive straight to Vegas.
"Vegasssss . . . "
Apparently, Las Vegas is a happening place. I personally wouldn’t have known one way or another if it wasn’t for last weekend. I am what some may call a "degeneracy noob." Prior to last weekend I had never been to Vegas, never stepped foot into a casino, and never gambled a hundred dollars on the flip of a few cards or the roll of a dice.
Outside of playing the credit card game from time to time—and never for significant amounts of money—the most degenerate things I can recall doing involve keeping one-land hands in high-pressure matches. Sunpetal Grove, Avacyn’s Pilgrim? Snap it off! Judging by how often I "get there," you would think I’d fit in perfectly in Vegas. Never mulligan!
My first taste of the city was at the casino where I was staying, El Cortez. Now, I feel like a lot of readers probably aren’t avid Spanish history buffs, so I’ll give you a little breakdown about El Cortez. Loosely translated, El Cortez means "The Cortez." Therefore, a little logic dictates that this isn’t your average run-of-the-mill Cortez we’re talking about. This isn’t simply "a" Cortez. This is "The" Cortez.
Let me tell you more about The Cortez. I have to imagine Cortez was a salty, bitter, curmudgeonly old man because "The Cortez" is the place where dreams go to die. I would say at any given time the average age of people inside El Cortez was about 63. That was taking into account me and the couple of other Magic players littered around. The place was filled with the sensation of cigarette smoke and depression.
Question: What did the people at El Cortez have in common with my parents’ backyard in late October?
Answer: They were both getting raked.
It’s a weird combination, but Vegas was both exciting and depressing at the same time. The thrill of winning is exhilarating. When I was winning hand after hand of blackjack, increasing my bets each time, it was fun. It was exciting. Yet the entire city was filled with the sinking knowledge that eventually you would lose your money. There was some sort of implicit understanding that while you may be winning now the city would eventually take it back from you.
Thankfully, I got out before that could happen to me. All the games at casinos are based on the idea that the house has a small advantage. You might win a round or two, but eventually the house will take more than they give. I won about $1,000 playing blackjack and poker on Saturday, and thankfully I managed to get out before wasting too much of that getting my ass beat on Sunday. If I had stayed another day or had less self-restraint, I might have lost all that and more.
I had fun, but I also had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind telling me how awful it was. I don’t like playing games I can’t win. In Vegas if you’re playing against the house, you can’t win. For the most part I decided that I was going to stick to playing a game I could win: Magic.
Ah, who am I kidding? That’s still a game I can’t win!
Two weeks ago I wrote an article about Esper. The deck might be called Esper Control, but it’s really more of an Esper Midrange list. Rather than focus on countermagic or excessively grindy win conditions like Elixir of Immortality, I wanted to play a more proactive game plan. I wanted to play powerful planeswalkers and threats like Elspeth, Sun’s Champion; Jace, Architect of Thought; and Blood Baron of Vizkopa. I wanted to use Thoughtseize and cheap removal spells to set the tone for my powerful cards to take over the game.
Generally speaking, when I write about a deck, it’s something that I’ve played with and feel comfortable with. One of my biggest annoyances in life is when people talk authoritatively about a subject they don’t know anything about (unless done in jest). It’s usually easy to figure out when that person has no clue what they’re talking about, and once you’ve shattered their facade of knowledge, it becomes increasingly difficult to ever trust anything they say again. I don’t want to be "that guy."
As it turns out, I had played lots of games with that Esper list before writing that article. I played lots of games with it after writing the article. Despite loving the deck, I constantly had a nagging feeling that the deck wasn’t that good and that I shouldn’t trust my results. To be clear, the results were good. I would win three consecutive eight-player events on Magic Online with it and then lose in the second round of another before winning another three in a row. I was winning more with Esper than any other deck and by a pretty large margin.
Despite that I still struggled to pull the trigger. My plan was to use a PTQ I played at in South Carolina the week before the Invitational to give me an indicator of how Esper would stack up in a real tournament. I went 5-2 and finished in ninth place. The PTQ left me feeling the same way about Esper as I did before. The deck felt powerful, but I was still worried that something was missing.
I brought both Mono-Black Devotion and Esper along with me to Las Vegas. I constantly second-guessed myself and considered pulling a classic Gerry Thompson move—just playing the same two decks I played in the last Invitational even though a few months had passed.
Ultimately, I decided to quiet my inner demons and just stick with what I knew and what my results were showing. I settled on Esper. However, I knew changes needed to be made.
I originally built the deck to combat the devotion metagame. From my testing on Magic Online, I was winning a significant amount of the time against devotion decks of any variety. However, I knew that the deck was weak to various control decks. After U/W/x Control put a lot up a lot of good finishes in both GP Vienna and GP Dallas-Fort Worth, that’s not where I wanted to be.
Yet I didn’t feel comfortable altering the maindeck without any testing, so I decided to just run a list that I knew couldn’t possibly win a game 1 against another control deck. I had no counterspells and no win conditions against a control deck. Blood Baron eats it to Supreme Verdict, and I can’t interact with an opposing Detention Sphere for an Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. Without Dissolve or a way to remove a Detention Sphere, I was simply at the mercy of my opponent’s draw. Once they start casting big Sphinx’s Revelations that I can’t counter, I know the game is over.
Playing a list like this seemed like a foolish plan in a format where I expected to play against a lot of other control decks, so I loaded up the sideboard with a plethora of anti-control hate. As bad as my matchup is against other control decks in game 1, it becomes just as good in post-board games. While I still lack any countermagic, I have so many efficient threats that pressure them from unique angles. They can’t counter everything, and eventually something will slip through and finish the job.
We were going to battle some Magic in Sin City. I’d rather be the one collecting on the sin than the one sinning. I loaded up on Sin Collector in my sideboard. Sin Collector is a very powerful threat in a post-board game against U/W Control or Esper. Not only does it exile game-winning cards like Sphinx’s Revelation, but it also serves as a huge annoyance by pressuring their life total and pressuring Jace, Architect of Thought.
I also liked that Sin Collector wasn’t symmetrically as powerful against my list as it was for me against other control decks. Between Nightveil Specter, Aetherling, Sin Collector, Blood Baron of Vizkopa, and my seven planeswalkers, Sin Collector actually had a reasonable chance of missing against me, and the body was far less relevant since it can’t attack through cards like Blood Baron; Nightveil Specter; or Elspeth, Sun’s Champion.
Overall, I felt very far ahead in any post-board game against opposing control decks, and that’s how the tournament went for me.
I had two byes in Standard and went 6-0. I didn’t exactly play a very diverse cross-section of the metagame. I faced three different variants of Mono-Black Devotion, winning 2-0 against it all three times. I played twice against U/W Control and once against Esper Control. I lost game 1 to all three control decks but won every single post-board game to take down those matches anyway.
In essence, my Esper list performed exactly how I expected it to and hoped it would. I crushed the devotion decks, including winning twice with a turn 2 Pack Rat that went the distance, and I beat the control decks in post-board games after losing the unwinnable game 1.
As skeptical as I was about Standard, I felt extremely confident about Legacy. When I looked at the Top 8 of the SCG Open from Oakland the week before, I saw a bunch of decks that struggle to beat Sneak Attack and Emrakul, with the exception of Death and Taxes. I felt like people were completely wrapped up in the power of True-Name Nemesis and that I was probably in a good place just playing a deck that didn’t care about what is effectively a Trained Armodon. Chris VanMeter and I both took the Sneak and Show plunge.
In a Versus video last month, I played a Sneak and Show list with twenty lands and four Spell Pierces. I flooded out a lot in that video, and I was also flooding out a lot in testing. I felt like four Spell Pierces was too many considering the card isn’t always very good. I decided to cut the fourth Spell Pierce for a Misdirection to provide another free counter that also has some upside against cards like Hymn to Tourach, Thoughtseize, and Swords to Plowshares. I also cut the twentieth land for a Sensei’s Divining Top.
The Top was actually just insane for me all tournament. Every time I drew it I was extremely happy, and I even accidentally kept a hand once where I thought Emrakul, the Aeons Torn was that Sensei’s Divining Top. Still won that game! Play tightly. Get rewarded. You haven’t lived until you’ve spun an Emrakul. "You spin me right round, baby, right round. Like a denizen of war-torn Zendikar, baby, right round round round."
In the sideboard we decided to go with a somewhat unconventional approach by playing Ashen Rider instead of a card like Echoing Truth. The two most prevalent hate cards in the format against Sneak and Show are Karakas and Ensnaring Bridge. I like that Ashen Rider can answer both cards and serve as a surprise. Echoing Truth is expected. Despite Chamillionaire’s best efforts, there still isn’t anyone who expects you to be ridin’ dirty. "Ashy Larry" Rider is also pretty sweet with Sneak Attack since you can exile two permanents, one when it comes into play and one again when you sacrifice it at the end of turn.
Echoing Truth provides an opportunity to beat a card like Humility that Ashen Rider can’t deal with, but I felt like Ashen Rider simply had more upside. For one, playing Echoing Truth means you have to essentially kill your opponent the turn you Echoing Truth their problematic permanent. Echoing Truth also doesn’t do that much against a deck like Death and Taxes, where Karakas is the linchpin card in their strategy to lock you out of the game. If you can do something like Show and Tell in an Ashen Rider to blow up a Karakas, not only have you set yourself up to annihilate them with a Sneak Attack or Through The Breached Emrakul the following turn, but you’ve also provided a creature that is tough for them to attack through.
Similarly, if you consider a scenario where your opponent has something like Ensnaring Bridge against your Sneak Attack, Ashen Rider lets you surprise kill them without having to worry about playing through cards like Force of Will or Pyroblast.
I’m not certain it’s the best card for the job, but I feel like overall it’s a useful tool for the sideboard. One trap that I would definitely avoid is siding it in too often though. Just like I wouldn’t sideboard in Echoing Truth in the mirror match, I wouldn’t bring in Ashen Rider either. Post-board the mirror becomes entirely about Through the Breach and Sneak Attack, meaning you can’t reliably expect to have a situation where Ashen Rider actually does anything other than rot in your hand.
I ended up going 4-3-1 with the deck, intentionally drawing in the last round to lock up Top 8. It was a lot worse than I expected, but thankfully my Standard deck overperformed, enabling me to compete in my fourth Invitational Top 8. I think at this point only Shaheen Soorani and Gerry Thompson have more. My hope is to eventually claim the honor of having the most Top 8s. Now that Gerry is working for Wizards of the Coast, the only thing I need to do is keep making appearances in the Top 8 and make sure that everyone is properly prepared to beat Lingering Souls since we all know Shaheen will never stop playing it regardless of how unplayable it is.
I ended up losing to Jund, Death and Taxes, and Deathblade. I think Jund and Deathblade are both typically good matchups, but anytime you are playing against a Thoughtseize deck you can sometimes just get your hand completely ravaged and lose. A turn 4 Hymn to Tourach completely destroyed me against Jund in game 1 when I actually had a pretty solid plan for winning the game in place. My hand was two Sneak Attacks and the land needed to cast them. Regardless of what I discarded, I was put back at least two turns from doing anything. Even before the Hymn to Tourach, I still needed to draw a monster, but after it resolved I was simply drawing dead.
My match against Death and Taxes in round 15 was actually quite close. In game 1 I was able to sneak in an Emrakul attack, but after a lot of bricking afterward I nearly ended up losing the game anyway. Thankfully I found a Griselbrand on what was likely my last available turn to find something and pulled out the win. Game 3 I was almost able to win with an Ashen Rider, but a Swords to Plowshares off the top meant that I couldn’t stall long enough to find a second red source to go with a Sneak Attack and an Emrakul in order to fight through Karakas via a double Sneak Attack activation.
I was still able to make Top 8 even with losing that match. I felt bad making Andrew Shrout play it out since I could have just conceded to him and made Top 8 anyway, but I wasn’t completely clear on the math and don’t like to take unnecessary risks with my tournament success. I’ve had a fairly high ratio of ninth-place finishes, and I hate leaving anything to chance. At any rate, I think our match was a very good one. It ended up being much closer than Sneak and Show versus Death and Taxes typically is, and I think having a post-board plan with Ashen Rider involved helped tremendously.
Even though I made some comically bad errors over the course of the tournament, such as drawing seven cards after mulliganing against Shaheen and thus being forced to ship a serviceable six back for five as well as the aforementioned scenario where I thought Emrakul was a Sensei’s Divining Top, I still felt like I played pretty well over the course of the tournament.
There were a number of situations where I read my opponent for a specific card and they ended up having it. For example, in game 1 of my win-and-in match against Elves, my opponent led with a Fyndhorn Elf on the play. I Gitaxian Probed him on my turn 1 to see a hand of Nettle Sentinel, Heritage Druid, Natural Order, and a fetch land. On his turn I expected him to cast the Sentinel, cast the Heritage Druid, and play the fetch land so he could search up a Dryad Arbor. My plan was to Force of Will the Heritage Druid and then Spell Pierce the Natural Order on the following turn.
However, he paused for a small period of time before playing his land after he made the line of Nettle Sentinel into Heritage Druid. He eventually played the fetch land, but that small pause suggested to me that he had drawn another land that he considered playing instead. The only thing I could think of was that he had drawn a Gaea’s Cradle, as it was the only land I could see giving him pause. When I untapped and drew a second copy of Spell Pierce, I decided to hold open for both Spell Pierces instead of casting a Sensei’s Divining Top so that I could still counter Natural Order with both Pierces even if he did have the Gaea’s Cradle. It turned out my intuition was correct—he had drawn Cradle, I was able to double Spell Pierce Natural Order, and I ended up winning the game as a result.
Sometimes small plays like that end up making all the difference in a big tournament.
While El Cortez might have been the most depressing place in Las Vegas, for us Magic players who stayed there it was like some sort of good luck charm. Three of the four people who stayed in my room—myself, Shaheen Soorani, and eventual winner Max Brown—all made Top 8 of the Invitational. Ross Merriam in the room next door nearly died of dysentery but made Top 8 of the Legacy Open on Sunday anyway.
Unfortunately, Shaheen decimated me in the Top 8. I think Shaheen and Alex Bertoncini were the two worst matchups for me in the Top 8, as I couldn’t reasonably expect to win a game 1 against either of them. They both had Aetherling maindeck along with countermagic and ways to handle my threats. While I felt like both matchups significantly improved for me in post-board games, it’s hard to start a match down a game and expect to win, even in a best-of-five match.
Games 2 and 3 against Shaheen could have easily gone the other way. In both games I managed to stick an Aetherling when I knew he didn’t have an answer, and both times he managed to draw what he needed to in the following turn to take control of the game back again. In both cases since his hand was so stacked, I felt that I had to take the risk of jamming Aetherling, but sometimes it just doesn’t pan out.
For what it’s worth, I don’t feel like I got that unlucky. While Shaheen did draw well against me, I still feel like he was favored in our match. I would have needed to either outplay him, which I don’t feel was the case, or outdraw him to win.
I feel like it wouldn’t have ultimately mattered either way, as it seemed like nobody was going to stop Max from winning the tournament. Going 9-0 in the Top 8 of an Invitational is quite impressive. I didn’t see a lot of people playing Mono-Black Devotion in the tournament, yet I played against it multiple times when I was X-1 late in the tournament, which meant that a number of the players piloting it were also doing well with it. That deck is still a real deck.
Ultimately, I think my Esper deck is still a good choice for Standard. If U/W/x continues to be a popular choice, then I think changes do need to be made though. It’s simply not feasible to play a list that can’t ever win game 1 in a control mirror if the control mirror is popular.
I almost pulled the trigger on playing Nightveil Specter main at the Invitational. I had tested a good bit with Specters main on Magic Online, but I still didn’t feel comfortable enough to go for it. My win rate was about the same with or without Specter, and I felt like I likely benefited more from having the element of surprise when boarding it in rather than having my opponent’s removal be more live in game 1 along with less of a surprise for the post-board games if they know to expect it.
I think the main change I do want to make is to maindeck Aetherling. I like having one copy main and another in the sideboard. By virtue of having other cards like Elspeth or Jace to bait counterspells along with Thoughtseize to push through, it should be reasonable to be able to resolve an Aetherling against control decks. Unfortunately, this likely means Elspeth needs to be cut to two copies, which sucks in most of the other matchups where Elspeth is a complete monster, but concessions do need to be made.
I also think that Pack Rat isn’t where I want to be in the sideboard. The card is absolutely exceptional against any Mono-Black or nearly Mono-Black strategy, but the problem is that’s really the only matchup I want it. I thought it might also be good against the control decks, but after seeing how miserable it was for me against William Jensen in round 4, I decided that it wasn’t worth it and never boarded it in again in the other control matchups I played.
I feel like another card, such as Fiendslayer Paladin, might be worth it to help hedge against aggressive strategies, and I might want even more hate for control decks. Perhaps something like Gainsay that can serve as a cheap counterspell and a very solid card against Mono-Blue Devotion would be a good substitution. Domestication might also be a sweet card to combat a number of strategies. Domestication actually seems strong against basically everything that isn’t a control strategy.
As for Legacy, I was honestly quite happy with the list I played. Grafdigger’s Cage can probably go, but I think that’s the only change I want to make. While the card is great against Elves, Dredge, and Reanimator and serviceable against Storm, I’m not sure those matchups are enough to warrant its inclusion since with the exception of Elves I don’t really expect to play against any of those on a regular basis. I’m not sure what to replace it with yet, but there are a lot of powerful cards in Legacy so I’m sure there are some great options. I’m considering a second Sensei’s Divining Top and perhaps Divert, but those might both be too narrow or low impact.
While I made Las Vegas out to be a depressing city—and don’t get me wrong, it definitely is—I still thoroughly enjoyed myself last weekend. Some highlights of the trip involve a dinner at Fogo de Chao where Mark Nestico introduced us to the "Kobayashi Shuffle," a wholly unconfirmed tale about how legendary food-eating champion Kobayashi would shuffle his body side to side and downward as he ate to help shift the food down to digest.
We took this technique to the logical next level—whoever was next to have a feature match on camera would need to perform the Kobayashi Shuffle during the match. Unfortunately that was me, and I didn’t have the guts to pull off such a prestigious tactic. I didn’t want to give off the wrong impression that I was taunting my opponent or making fun of anyone by randomly convulsing into an unsightly series of movements, but I still do suffer some pangs of regret in not pulling it off. Perhaps when I ripped my third Blood Baron against Todd Anderson I should have asked, "How’s it taste?" followed by showing him a bit of Kobayashi’s special ingredient: impromptu upper-body dancing.
I should have shuffled my deck and then shuffled my body. And I feel like I am less of a person for having failed that imperative.
Another highlight involved the extreme degeneracy of one Shaheen Soorani. It was actually fairly hard to fathom. We would be walking away from a blackjack table up a little bit of money, and on the way to the cashier’s table to cash out, Shaheen would randomly just throw his entire stack into some extremely loose bet on a fully luck-based game. Naturally, he’d win and then stop off at another table to try to lose it again before making it to the cashier. Naturally, he’d win that too. Shaheen was like a 19-year-old Britney Spears: lucky.
While I’m extremely happy with how this year ended, I can honestly say that the new changes to the SCG Open Series mean that next year I’m going to want it even more. Players’ Championship in Roanoke, Virginia? All travel expenses paid? Ship that $3.23 for gas, SCG! ‘Cause I’m going to do what it takes to be a part of it. Sign me up.