The Beautiful Struggle: Interview With a Champion

States didn’t go so well for me this year; just your standard 2-2 drop filled with your standard play errors and your standard deckbuilding mistakes. Some interesting stuff did happen which caused me to re-assess my mental game, and I may write about that at a later point, but for now I bet you’d like to hear about someone doing well at States. Thank goodness for Sean Vandover.

States didn’t go so well for me this year; just your standard 2-2 drop filled with your standard play errors and your standard deckbuilding mistakes. Some interesting stuff did happen which caused me to re-assess my mental game, and I may write about that at a later point, but for now I bet you’d like to hear about someone doing well at States. Thank goodness for Sean Vandover.

When I un-retired from Magic just in time for Maryland States 2002, my first-round opponent was a shaven-headed fellow playing one of the mono-Black decks that splashed Red for a Burning Wish to be copied by Mirari. That was Sean, the Friday Night Magic judge for DreamWizards (the store which hosts most of the major Maryland events), who whipped me like a dog because my own rules knowledge was not in such great shape.

Sean, a 30-year-old who has been playing “since Revised was the in-print set,” would make his first States Top 8 that day. Two years later he won Vial Affinity States by employing a U/G control deck featuring Vedalken Shackles. He has qualified for four Pro Tours, and a week after his first PT money win (Kobe, 65th, $500), Sean was again victorious at Maryland States. Through IM and e-mail I arranged for him to let you know the details of his success; Sean’s comments have been edited only such that I could piece them together and make the article coherent; otherwise, the words are his exactly. Enjoy.

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first. Decklist?

I went to Kobe planning to ask a Japanese pro for a good Standard decklist, and got what I needed from Masahiro Kuroda, who gave me a nice U/W/R aggro-control list. It was like a cross between Solar Flare and the deck Flores won NY Champs with.

How you were able to get a decklist from Kuroda? The story is that he never leaves Japan for events.

When I was in Kobe, I spent my time in between rounds Day 2 wandering around the side event area, looking for deck tech among the players. I saw Masahiro Kuroda and his girlfriend (who is drop dead gorgeous) putting together a deck that looked really cool, including Lightning Angels, Akroma, and Bogardan Hellkite. Later that evening, Kuroda’s girlfriend was in the semis of a Standard amateur tournament playing the deck. I took notes for a little bit trying to get the decklist, before I finally just went over to Kuroda and asked him about the deck, and if I could get the list. He said sure, and gave me the list on the spot…

Okay, but that wasn’t the deck you actually played.

When I got back to the states and saw the Solar Pox list, I knew I had to test it. Justin [Simpson], Brad [Taulbee], Simon [Semion Bezrukov], and I tested during the week leading up to Champs, and found that Kuroda’s deck was awesome, but had problems with certain cards (Glare of Subdual among them).

I ended up switching to Solar Pox because I felt it had more ways to deal with cards on board than the Kuroda deck, and I didn’t want to lose just because my opponent resolved a problematic card. The one weakness the deck had was that it could not beat the Kuroda deck in our testing.

Solar Pox v 1.1

4 Wrath of God
2 Haakon, Stromgald Scourge
4 Court Hussar
1 Condemn
1 Peace of Mind
1 Skeletal Vampire
3 Orzhov Signet
3 Mortify
2 Angel of Despair
2 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
2 Darkblast
3 Compulsive Research
4 Smallpox
1 Phyrexian Totem
3 Dread Return

2 Hallowed Fountain
2 Ghost Quarter
4 Flagstones of Trokair
4 Watery Grave
2 Dimir Aqueduct
2 Snow-Covered Swamp
1 Snow-Covered Plains
1 Snow-Covered Island
4 Godless Shrine
2 Orzhov Basilica

3 Circle of Protection: Red
2 Deathmark
1 Condemn
1 Peace of Mind
2 Faith’s Fetters
2 Nightmare Void
2 Trickbind
2 Willbender

I just used the winning decklist from the SCG $1500 Open, with a tweak to the main and some changes to the sideboard. I took out the Gemstone Mines and put in two more bounce lands, mainly because it really feels like cheating when you get one in your opening hand, making it effectively eight cards. Also, on the draw it gives you more discard outlets for Haakon, always good for this deck. Plus in control matchups, which I expected to see in the later rounds, you can’t afford to miss a land drop, and more bounce lands helps you make all your drops.

I changed the board to give it a little better ability to deal with threats in play, like Akroma, through an extra Faith’s Fetters. The Willbenders were added after seeing them in the sideboard of a Japanese build of Solar Flare in Kobe. I really liked the idea of deflecting LD, Demonfire, or Compulsive Research.

What kind of field were you expecting, and did that lead you to choose Solar Pox over any other deck?

I expected to see a very mixed field, since the format is so wide open. This also led me towards Solar Pox, as it always seemed to have answers, and was by far the most resilient deck I had played, being able to recover from almost anything. In detail, I knew I would see some aggro, and had to be able to beat it, but expected to see more control in the later rounds as the aggro decks got weeded out.

A lot of people I’ve talked to thought the original Solar Pox list was a little sloppy and they wanted to cut a lot of the one- and two-ofs. Mike Flores, for example, cut the Peace of Mind, the Darkblasts, and the Phyrexian Totem to go up to three copies of Condemn, four copies of Compulsive Research, and four Signets. Any particular reason why you wanted to keep these cards in?

My opinion on the one- and two-ofs in this deck, or in any deck I haven’t extensively tested, is that they are in there for a reason, even if I am not immediately sure what that reason is.

In a wide open field I like the one I anticipated at Champs, I would rather have a wide range of answers to meet the wide range of threats, rather than a more focused suite that might be off the mark. If I knew coming in that I would see only Akroma all day, then I would have played three Condemns and no Darkblasts. Or if I was expecting all aggro, the Fetters in the board would probably have been something different. But I feel most comfortable in a wide-open field knowing that while the answer I draw may not be the best answer, at least it will work as an answer for the problem at hand.

Peace of Mind specifically was awesome all day, whenever I drew it, even though it was best versus decks with burn, keeping me out of their range. While it may not be the best answer against every deck, it is at least a fairly good answer against any deck that wants to reduce you life total to zero, and it is the best answer that also helps the Haakon engine of the deck to get going. The Totem as well, although not the best at anything it does, is the only card that does everything it does. It is nice to have an accelerant that doubles as a late game threat, and I even won Game 1 of round 5 versus Zoo with it. Against any deck without burn it is a beating, and it also was an answer to my opponent playing end step Teferi, as I could always have a blocker if I was willing to pay the price.

I am a huge fan of having cards that perform double duty in my decks; I played one Blinkmoth Nexus often in my aggro Rock builds in Extended, because it was nice to get one more creature without giving up a land. With all that said, I am sure the deck could use some tightening up… the fourth Compulsive Research would be nice, and the removal suite can easily be modified to match up better with a more defined metagame. However, over the course of the day I used every single card in the deck and would hate to lose any of them.

Were the Willbenders ever relevant? You see this a lot in wide-open formats, where people build their sideboards expecting situation X, but they never encounter X all day. For example, I had four copies of Shadow of Doubt in my board to beat Dragonstorm, so of course almost no one in Virginia played it (and I ended up losing in a side event to Enduring Renewal combo, against which Shadow of Doubt is useless, heh).

How would you build your sideboard today, knowing what you know now?

The Willbenders. *sigh* They seem so sexy, at least in theory. They were certainly very confusing to my opponents, and strictly based on the surprise factor kept Zoo off me two extra turns in the finals. It was also nice knowing I never had to worry about Stonewood Invocation in my matchup with Glare. I never ended up deflecting anything however, with my one opportunity coming against Zoo in the finals but my opponent having no Plains in play to [be targets for a deflected] Cryoclasm. I am not sure if I would keep them in now, because I would rather use the slots to shore up the matchups against combo or pure control decks. I think now I would lean towards Persecute or some other cards to help out against decks gunning right for me.

What matchups did you face in each round, including the Top 8?

Round 1: Ghazi-Glare

My opponent wasn’t playing the list from the Kobe Top 8, as he had Congregation main. This matchup was a breeze, with him never really having a chance. Highlight was in game 1 where at the end of turn 2, having played a bounce land, I announced my intention to discard. He says "okay," and I discard Haakon. He then tries to tap three and play Congregation, when I inform him that it is too late. He realizes I am correct, and just makes the play at the end of my next turn. Immediately after which I play Flagstones, which he had in play, and he shuffles away the other 2 Hierarchs he had tutored up. He played well however, I saw him in the 4-1 bracket later in the day.

Win 2-0

Round 2: Kuroda U/W/R

This round was against a DreamWizards regular who had got the Kuroda list from a friend of mine. I wasn’t really happy that he had it, and basically put myself on Full Blown Life Tilt ™ as a result. The games weren’t pretty, with me losing to angels to the head both games, and really playing very poorly.

Loss 0-2

Round 3: U/G Aggro

His deck had Birds, Elves, Looters, Vipers, and Cloaks. That’s all I saw, because Darkblast on Birds followed by Smallpox to kill his Cloaked Viper ended game 1. Opening hand Darkblast in game 2 sent all his little Elves to the ‘yard, and he never developed at all.

Win 2-0

Round 4: Boros

Again, neither game is close. Opening hand Darkblast, Wrath, and Peace of Mind sealed game 1, while Deathmark, Condemn, Wrath, and CoP: Red sealed game 2.

Win 2-0

Round 5: Zoo

My opponent this round claimed he was very tired, and he definitely was. Again, not really close, especially when he failed two turns running to attack into my Phyrexian Totem with a Call token, only to swing into my Akroma with it on the following turn.

Win 2-0

Round 6: B/W Haakon Knight Control

This was the first deck I saw that I felt was really original. When he ran the turn 2 Smallpox on my one-bounce-land board, I thought I was done for, but he didn’t have immediate gas. Then when he drew Phyrexian Arena, I immediately topdecked Mortify, and my own Legendary Knight turned the tide. Game 2 he had a turn 2 Seek to remove one of my Akromas and gain eight, but again my card advantage worked better than his, especially when he never drew Arena.

Win 2-0

Round 7: Zoo

Unfortunately, I was paired this round with Jon Greenspan, a friend of mine. Although he could probably have drawn, I could not, and we played two fairly quick games. They were the closest yet of the day against aggro, but he couldn’t finish me off either game.

Win 2-0

Top 8: Solar Flare

I finish the Swiss in first, and get paired against Solar Flare in Top 8. Also, if I win, the Kuroda deck looms in Top 4, as he hadn’t lost a single game all day.

My opponent mulligans to six on the draw, and his second turn bounce land is met with Smallpox, when I already have Flagstones in play. He apparently has no more land, and three turns later plays a second bounce land – which I also Smallpox away, again with a Flagstones in play. He concedes shortly thereafter. Game 2 Haakon and his card advantage stole the show, enabling me to find Nightmare Void, make sure he had no more Condemns in his hand each turn, and win with Akroma.

Win 2-0

Top 4: Kuroda U/W/R — The Rematch

I had been worried about this since Round 2, because we had found the matchup to be so bad in testing. However, after some discussion with my testing partners, I felt I had a solid game plan. My problem was that he has four maindeck Akroma (two from Resurrection), and I only have five maindeck answers (four Wrath of God and one Condemn). So I needed a way to keep Akroma from beating me. My decision was to aggressively Smallpox to attack his land base, and use Angel of Despairs as LD. As long as I only Smallpoxed when I had Flagstones in play, I would end up ahead on the land count, and I knew he wouldn’t make a move without some backup, meaning that by controlling his lands I could dictate the pace of the game. The plan worked fine game 1, with two early Smallpoxes, both with me having Flagstones in play. He also discarded an early Akroma, meaning I only had to deal with three more. My Angels of Despair started killing his bounce lands, and I was able to steal the game.

Game 2 becomes much better for me, as I get a second Condemn and two Faith’s Fetters to help against his Akroma. What I hadn’t bargained on was Teferi. Late in the game, Teferi came out in my end step, followed by Akroma and nine to the face on his turn, leaving me at nine. This forced me to Wrath, then play Fetters on one of his lands, just to gain enough life to keep a second performance from killing me. Sure enough, two turns later, here comes Teferi again, followed by Resurrection on Akroma: nine more, down to four, and I Wrath again. But he was out of gas, with both Akroma and Resurrections in the ‘yard, and I win easily at that point.

Win 2-0

Finals: Zoo

Another friend of mine, Jon Biedron, another Zoo matchup. This match wasn’t pretty, as he mulled to five both games, and I drew Wrath twice. Even with the mulligans, both games were close, as he had one turn each game to topdeck burn for the win. Thankfully for me, he did not.

Win 2-0

As you can see from my game record (18-2) the deck is awesome. It has the ability to beat almost any deck, just requiring that you develop and stick to the correct gameplan for the matchup. That may be the hardest part of this deck, deciding what strategy to use against what deck, especially versus control decks.

You faced a lot of beatdown – five out of the seven Swiss rounds, and again in the finals. This is an interesting contrast with Virginia States, where I played.

Most of the players in VA had also been at the $1500 Star City Open where the Solar Pox debuted, and they were well aware of how awesome it was. As a result, States was a sea of control decks; lots of Solar Pox and lots of decks trying to out-control Solar Pox with countermagic (because Pox itself has no counterspells).

Maybe most interesting of all is that out of all that control, five aggro decks made the States Top 8, and the Japanese Ghazi-Glare deck with Thelonite Hermit won the whole thing, even though Solar Pox should, by all rights, destroy it. What’s your opinion on this?

I was very surprised to hear that Glare had won VA Champs. I know Kenny, and know he is a good player, but my own matchup with Glare was a walk in the park. I expected to see many players with Wrath in their decks at Champs, and felt any creature deck without a good plan to beat Wrath wouldn’t make it very far. Glare isn’t as fast as Zoo, and doesn’t really have access to anything disruptive, and I didn’t think it would hold up over the long haul. But apparently it did, and Kenny’s build seems designed to win very quickly once an advantage is obtained, and with Call and the one man army of Thelonite Hermit, he has ways to quickly recover from Wrath.

However, just because a deck has bad matchups with another doesn’t mean they will meet. I dodged all the Dragonstorm, Mono-White Tron, and pure control decks in the field all day at Champs.

This is your third States Top 8 just in the time I’ve known you. What advice would you give to players who have been struggling in their attempts at States?

My first Champs Top 8 was really kind of a fluke; I just happened to make a good deck choice for the metagame and played it well. For the other two (both wins) I tried to find the best deck from the previous Standard/Block Constructed fields, and played the updated version of that. Two years ago it was U/G Shackles, and this year it was Solar Flare.

I also think that for a tournament like Champs, right after a major rotation, it is very important to play a deck you are comfortable with. It isn’t very often that the new block will introduce a deck that completely obsoletes all the others, so a strong deck from the previous format is normally still going to be strong. Also, winning through a varied field requires you to be very familiar with your deck, as you are likely to run into at least one or two decks you’ve never seen or played against before (like the B/W Haakon Knight Control deck I played against in round 6). In an unknown matchup it is enormously helpful to be piloting a deck you already understand, not something you picked up for the first time that morning. Also, given the short amount of time between the new set’s release and Champs, you are probably going to be more familiar with the older deck than you can get with something brand new.

Thanks, Sean.

mmyoungster at aim dot com
mm underscore young dot livejournal dot com