The Beautiful Struggle: No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn

Mark brings us the sights, sounds, and smells from the Neutral Ground prerelease, including a whopping five Sealed pools for us to build. Looking for some tips for your approaching PTQs? Look no further!

“I told mm_young he could come up and do Time Spiral with us…”
Mike Flores, on the Top8Magic.com podcast

There are some who say that traveling to New York ain’t cheap, but I guess they haven’t traveled with mm_young: the hostel I found actually cost me less per night than it would have cost to stay in Richmond for a StarCityGames event. Plus, the other players in my local poker game really, really, really wanted me to go, because they were happy to cover my costs. And that’s how I found myself on the Amtrak train on Friday evening after work, ready to take a little trip.

I tried to skimp on costs by not having a hotel for Friday night, so I could already tell that I was going to be counting the hours until I could crawl into bed on Saturday. Thus, I have decided to steal a technique from the Sports Guy and count the hours literally with a running diary. Start spreadin’ the news … I’m leavin’ today …

7:20pm, Friday September 22: The obvious college student directly across the train aisle from me was on his cell phone. “I was just on the phone with Dad… why did he wait until I was 18 to start being a father?” Seriously, has the cell phone removed all concept of privacy from our lives? Although it’s not as bad as hearing a conversation regarding the burning sensation “down there” (actually happened to me in a convenience store last winter, no lies).

9:00 pm: Big sign, visible from the train tracks: “TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES.” Such a cheerful place, New Jersey. Welcome to Trenton, where we work our butts off every day of our lives, and get screwed!

9:40pm: Arrival at Penn Station, which is less than a mile from Neutral Ground and is also adjacent to basketball’s Mecca, Madison Square Garden. Where does the name “Madison Square Garden” come from, anyway? Because it’s not shaped like a square, it doesn’t contain a lot of greenery, and it’s not a rich suburban teenaged white girl.

10:30 pm: Friday Night Magic time at Neutral Ground, whoo! I watched someone lose despite drawing seven more cards than his opponent, one of those cards coming from a kicked Ribbons of Night.

Around this time one of the store employees, whose name I don’t even know, called me by my first name and asked, “Is BDM here?” (He was in Seattle; he would get back into New York in time for Sunday events.) This just proves that I possess a level of name recognition in the community; that name recognition in turn disproves the existence of a just and benevolent God.

11:00 pm: A brief break here, to describe the rules. The hostel I found online is charging half the nightly rate of its nearest competitor, but there are many issues with that deal. One of them is that I can’t check in until 2pm on Saturday afternoon. For those of you who don’t do the math so well, that’s a minimum of fifteen hours from now that I will go preferring Magic over sleep, and I’ve already been up all day. It won’t be pretty.

12:00 am, Saturday September 23: The tournament was not even remotely close to starting on time. The line of potential players at midnight was out the door and into the elevator room. The good people at Neutral Ground were willing to store my luggage for me, which was a good thing, because when the crowds get this big is usually when stuff gets stolen.

12:15 am: Seatings. Actually not as bad a wait as I expected.

12:45 am: Apparently, Hashim Bello is playing today, because the tournament director pointed him out to us. “That man is a legend, and if you beat the legend, you get something!” Like a tongue-lashing from The Dream, I bet.

1:10 am: Here’s the first Time Spiral Sealed Pool I ever saw:

… and Antoine Ruel.

Tell you the truth, I now think B/G was probably the best way to go; the Black guys and removal hold the fort early while Phantom Wurm finishes late. U/G might also work, although I’m a little leery of the upkeep on that one-drop with Shadow.

However, tempted by the return of flanking, I built a W/R deck, choosing Red as the support color due to the burn spells and the double “Rain of Embers on a stick” in the four-slot. The problem with that is that the Black removal is just as good and there’s more of it, while the Red creatures did not impress at all (the Shambler killed more of my guys than of anyone else’s). So I sideboarded into this after every game 1:

1:15 am: Time to play.

My round 1 opponent was a nice enough fellow, but the situation quickly became embarrassing. He said I looked familiar, I told him who I was, and he displayed a level of enthusiasm that I didn’t even have when I shook hands with Jackie Chan in college. “Wait til I tell my friends I played you!” he gushes. I want to grab him by the shoulders and shout, “there’s a Pro Tour Finalist [author name="Billy Moreno"]Billy Moreno[/author] in this room!” I mean, I’m flattered by the attention, but I don’t really feel like I deserve it.

It got even worse when my opponent rolled over my color-screw in game 1 and got Merfolk Assassin + War Barge in game 2. I remember thinking that this might be the longest night in the history of Magic: the Gathering. About the only good thing was that War Barge activations cost quite a bit of mana, so it took several turns to kill my army while my opponent was unable to play useful men of his own. I topdecked Sudden Death for the Assassin and eventually won at 1 life, thanks to his not knowing that his Phyrexian Totem creature had trample.

Game 3 it appeared that he kept a bad hand, and I didn’t have much trouble. He drew the Assassin but didn’t find the Barge until I had the kill on table even after an Assassin activation … which displays the weakness in that combo, I suppose.

2:30 am: After figuring out how to sideboard right, I was ready to face my next opponent. He was ready for anything also, thanks to the ten or so removal spells I saw from his Red/Black deck during his game 1 victory. Fortunately, his creatures were subpar, so I tried to two-for-one him a couple of times since his removal spells were only one-for-one. Clockwork Hydra proved to be an MVP in the sideboarded games, and he got a removal-light draw in game 3, so I won without much trouble.

3:45 am: I played long-time pro Chris Manning, whom you may remember most recently from the Top 8 of U.S. Nationals 2005. I was later told that he played the midnight event because he was still on Japan time for some reason. He rolled over my double mulligan in game 1, but I was able to swipe game 2 with my sideboard Teferi’s Moat.

Game 3 was epic. I had boarded in Evil Eye of Orms-By-Gore, because all of the removal I had seen was Red, and none of it could easily deal with a six-butt. We both got off to slow starts, so I simply played Evil Eye on turn 5 and hoped to score from 20 with it. I was well on my way when Manning played Sarpadian Empires Vol. VII, his hot sideboard tech against Teferi’s Moat. Thanks to my slow draw I had a hard time blocking, plus Manning had drawn Errant Doomsayers to further mess up my blocks. I was also slightly mana-hosed, so that I had to suspend my Ivory Giant instead of playing him the hard way.

I made a costly mistake when, on a block with a Clockwork Hydra, I killed a token instead of his Doomsayers. Among many reasons this was bad was that the Hydra was a 2/2 after the block, so on the next turn it got tapped down by the Doomsayers and allowed more damage to get through than it should have. Eventually, it became clear that my Ivory Giant would come into play and Fog me for a turn by tapping down my Eye during upkeep, so Manning played to use this to his advantage and I tried to get out of it by killing Manning before it would happen. I would have succeeded, but Manning had Bewilder to stop a key Eye attack, the Giant fogged the Eye on the next turn, and between those two turns Manning assembled enough tokens to alpha strike me to death. Despite the loss, it was my favorite match from the weekend.

6:00 am: With an easy win in the final round – I’d tell you more, but my notes from that match took a hike – I locked up product. Next is the “official” prerelease, which starts at 8 a.m. It took me some effort to calculate that I had a minimum eight hours before I can get a warm bed, and realistically more like nine or ten. I walked the half-mile or so to Penn Station to get breakfast, even though there’s a Dunkin Donuts about a block from the Ground, because I figured the walk would do me good.

6:40 am: So much for that theory. I felt pretty good when I got to Penn Station and picked up some donuts, but as soon as I sat down to eat them and start writing this article, the flesh around my eyes obtained the consistency of a soggy-wet tube sock. I tried to calculate how long I had been awake, and I realized that I couldn’t quite do it.

We’ve reached the gut-check level now, kids. Time to separate the men from the boys. Just be careful Chong Li doesn’t separate your head from your body.

7:20 am: Neutral Ground was almost empty as the second late-night flight finished up. I grabbed a Pepsi and a table in the corner and resolved to write everything up until now. I’m reading most of it for the first time right now, same as you.

7:55 am: They kicked everyone out for a few minutes, so that the tournament room would be empty of everyone save judges when they started the main event. The elevator room just outside the Ground’s front door was wall-to-wall with human beings. One guy behind me got on the elevator and started riding it up and down between the fourth floor and the ground floor, just to waste time. He reported that the lobby of the building was even more insane than the cattle-car-esque elevator room.

8:20 am: The first flight filled up in a matter of minutes and I soon opened this product:

… accompanied by one Jonathan Magic.

This deck did not take long to build. The Black removal was insufficient and the Blue didn’t have Telekinetic Sliver, so I felt pushed in this direction:

I usually sided out the Rager for Psionic Sliver, which actually did win me two different post-sideboard games.

An interesting deck, because it seems like it should just stomp everything in its path. The double Flamecore Elemental is especially good at getting that done. However, I probably regretted cutting those two Greenseekers, because this deck needed its mana in a big way… and remember, I say that while also having Gemhide Sliver and Paradise Plume as acceleration and Terramorphic Expanse to fix my colors.

There’s always one card that I miss the boat on at a prerelease; at Ravnica, for example, it was Thundersong Trumpeter. This time around it was the Acid-Moss, which I opened something like four times on the weekend but never once played. It would have been especially spectacular in this mana-hungry deck, as we’ll see from my results.

9:00 am: By now the Gray Matter tournament staff are getting pretty ticked off about my luggage. I didn’t blame them, mainly because I didn’t have the energy to blame anybody for anything. You could have sat Saddam Hussein across the table from me right now and I’d be all like, “Homicidal dictator, huh? Betcha get good health insurance with that.”

9:45 am: My first-round opponent had, among other things, Bogardan Hellkite; Akroma, Angel of Wrath; and Evangelize. Fortunately for me, he was also suffering from what I’ll call the Ravnica Hangover; he was trying to splash the Hellkite (and maybe other Red cards I didn’t see) into a U/W deck without the sort of mana-fixing we have grown accustomed to over the last year.

As a result, he had some mana problems in games 1 and 3, and since I had seen the Hellkite in game 2 when it smashed my face in, I was actually able to play around it to a degree and win game 3 with an alpha strike the turn after the Hellkite resolved.

10:35 am: Just played Neutral Ground regular Luis Neiman. I met Luis when we played at the Deckade book signing; he’s a good player and also the proverbial Good Man. He got a fine removal draw in game 1 and stomped me; however, in game 2 I was able to prolong the game until I could buy back Wurmcalling for 7/7 tokens.

Luis’ Wurmcalling frustration was amplified in the third game, where I got a very hot “Gemhide Sliver plus other Slivers” draw and started buying back for 3/3 guys on turn 4. Luis put up a solid fight, hoping to block long enough to steer the game to a draw. However, I saw it coming and stopped summoning Wurms, instead using Might Sliver + Two-Headed Sliver to win the game on the third turn of the five-turn clock.

11:40 am: If you had to ask me what my big pet peeve is in Magic, it’s people who try to show up their opponents. This match was a good example; my opponent made quite a show of pumping the fist after his game 1 win via Honorable Passage, even though he would have won just as easily by alpha-striking into my color-screwed board. In game 2 he won after a double mulligan because I stalled on two land, and although he apologized for a win (which I also dislike; I accept mana-screw as part of the game when I sit down so there’s no need to apologize for it) he did so through an ear-to-ear grin.

Winning a match of Magic should be like when a football player scores a touchdown: sure, you can be happy, but you should also act like you’ve done it before. There’s a reason why defenses love to put extra-hard hits on notorious celebrators like Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens.

12:15 pm: You might notice that not much time has passed since the last entry. This is because I got thoroughly and utterly destroyed. In game 1 my opponent got Thelon of Havenwood and Thallid Shell-Dweller, so that after a while none of my creatures could attack; then he killed me at his leisure with Cockatrice. In game 2 I double-mulliganed and he blew me out by casting Mindstab the hard way.

I was highly, highly disappointed that this deck did not win product; I had thought it quite busted. Luckily, I would find out what “quite busted” is about later in the weekend.

1:00 pm: Well, I’m tired, but that last event put a very bad taste in my mouth. After appearing in this podcast with top8Magic’s own Matt Wang (wait until about halfway through, that’s when I show up), I felt almost compelled to participate in another event. I opened this:

… plus Olle Rade.

One of the most unreal card pools I’ve ever seen. It literally has less than five ways to remove an opposing creature. Of course, two of those ways are Magus of the Disk and Conflagrate, so I immediately looked at a W/R deck. However, I was put off a little by the lack of evasion creatures and tricks in general for that build; the opponent would see the Magus coming and have a chance to deal, and the same would be true of almost every single card in the W/R deck except Conflagrate.

So I put in the Blue, and started to like the deck a little more. It seemed a little tricksy, which is usually the way experienced players want to go in a prerelease, since tricks allow for the outplaying of one’s opponent. I went with this deck in the end:

2:15 pm: Just finished up with an easy win against a small child opponent. I think this “Blue” strategy was officially a good idea, although it’s hard to tell because my opponent had a serious Ravnica Hangover and did a total of three damage to me in the two games.

3:00 pm: I’m so tired that if I worked for a move studio I probably would green-light Waterworld 2. So what is the luckiest thing that could happen to me at this point? Mise well not have an opponent for round 2, amirite?




I wish I had some interesting story from the time off, but I simply passed out for an hour. My contacts did that nasty “sticking to the surface of my eye” thing when I woke up… is that interesting? I’m guessing not.

4:00 pm: My round 3 opponent had a serviceable deck, but he couldn’t really do much about my filers. In game 1 it was Stormcloud Djinn and in game 2 it was Dragon Whelp; in both cases the fire-breathing flier made my job easy despite my exhaustion.

5:00 pm: I intentionally draw, and prepare to get my packs and go. However, Gray Matter staff don’t pay out prerelease prize until all games in the round are over. Man, I would have been pretty upset if I could understand English.

6:30 pm: Got my packs, got to the hostel, got undressed. I should write something before I go to bed. There, I just did.

Sunday, September 24: I literally just slept twelve hours, from 6:30 to 6:30. Now I’m ready to get back to the Ground for more events. No time-by-time breakdown for today, because there’s no longer any reason for me to count the hours I’ve been awake. By the way, the final tally was 34.5 hours, and a 7-3 record plus a forfeit and an intentional draw.

“No luggage this time, huh?” said the TD as I signed up. Man, everybody’s a comedian! Well, except Dane Cook, which is ironic considering how much he gets paid to try.

The Ground wasn’t nearly as crowded at 8 a.m. as on Saturday, but it was still quite busy. The flight filled up by 8:45, and I opened product. I don’t have my sideboard – we’ll get to that in just a minute – so all I am able to give you is the deck:

… and a second Jon Finkel.

What a deck! Even if I didn’t have infinite removal and infinite card drawing, I had two utterly busted rares, Dralnu and Stuffy Doll. In most games where I played Stuffy Doll, the game was over right then and there, even if it lasted several more subsequent turns.

Round 1: I had an easy win where my opponent’s R/G/W deck suffered a Ravnica Hangover in game 1. In game 2 it quickly became clear that my opponent’s only out to Stuffy Doll was to have me block a flanker with it; fortunately I knew that rule and took the game in a breeze.

Round 2: We split the first two games, because I drew Feebleness for his Stuffy Doll in game 1 and he got the hot tempo draw to punish my flipping of Fathom Seer. Incidentally, the Seer is awesome, but it’s because of games like that one that I’m not sure how early I pick him in draft; in terms of card advantage he’s at least as good as Compulsive Research, but the tempo lost is more important here than it would have been in an RGD draft, since your opponent can obtain hot Shadow, Sliver, or Acid-Moss draws and blow you out.

In between games 1 and 2 I realized I had left my sideboard at a previous table, and somebody “found” it and walked away with it. After I conducted a brief search for it, the judge called me back. So, time was called early in game 3, right after my opponent suspended Errant Ephemeron, but I suggested that we appeal for more time. After all, my deck has infinite removal and some good creatures to race with, and a draw is bad for both of us anyway.

We received that extra time, I drew not a single removal spell during the suspension, and the Ephemeron finished me off from 20. Man!

Rounds 3 and 4 were uneventful, which is probably why I lost my notes for them. I won both by drawing infinite cards and threatening to block with Stuffy Doll. Also, by this point Mike Flores had showed up, and I got to watch and play in some test games with the decks he outlined in this article. Soon the second event started, and I opened:

… and Gabriel Nassif yellow hat.

Wow. I mean, just wow. Even the virtually empty Black has a bomb (Lim-Dul) and some playables. Even so, building this pool was pretty easy and I quickly assembled:

So I go from having all of the Black removal in the previous flight to now having all of the Red removal! Plus I have enough Slivers that Telekinetic Sliver is basically an Opposition, and I also have Ovinomancer for those hard-to-kill threats. This deck is completely unbelievable. I seriously did not expect to go below 15 life at any point during the tournament. We all know what happens when you allow thoughts like that to enter your head…

In Round 1 my opponent was returning to the game after a long hiatus, and he seemed like a casual player: he did the old “draw eight cards because I’m on the draw anyway” move that we always used to do around the kitchen table. He unwisely used his removal on creatures other than Looter Il-Kor, and I didn’t have many problems.

In Round 2 I easily rolled over my opponent in game 1; I had all three of my Slivers doing their Opposition routine on his face. In game 2 I stalled on two mana while he slapped Griffin Guide on Basalt Gargoyle and scored from twenty. In game 3 he played turn 2 Benalish Knight, turn 3 Griffin Guide, and had burn spells for both my Telekinetic Sliver and my Ovinomancer, so the Knight scored from twenty. After game 3 he claimed to have kept a hand with five mana and the two burn spells on the play, topdecking the knight and Guide on the turns he played them. Nice draw.

In Round 3 my opponent said “yes” when I asked if he had played on Saturday. That’s interesting, because he had two copies each of Knight of the Holy Nimbus, Benalish Knight, and Strangling Soot, as well as Conflagrate, Disintegrate, and Magus of the Scroll. He was also running those sleeves with reflective pictures, which are not allowed for PTQ play because you can see reflections of your cards in them.

I’m not saying he was definitely cheating. But, on the one hand, we all know how prereleases can be sometimes. One of my favorite articles in Mike FloresDeckade is the report from the Tempest prerelease, in which Mike writes that “there was more cheating, attempted collusion, bad sportsmanship, and general bullsh** going on than in any other tournament which I have ever participated.” On the other hand, I might have been a little paranoid because Maryland-area judge Sean Vandover and myself saw a certain player with an obvious homebrew at the Dissension prerelease. So if my opponent is reading this and wasn’t cheating, I apologize.

Anyway, on to the games. He was Red-screwed in game 1, so I managed to beat him with Conflagrate while his own Conflagrate sat dead in hand. Game 2 he curved out perfectly with Knights and Rebels and smashed me. In game 3 I got in a lot of early damage with Two-Headed Sliver + Bonesplitter Sliver, before he got some blockers and stalled the ground. I could have finished him with an alpha strike, if the burn spell that I had been saving for his Holy Nimbus hadn’t been forced to go to a Pentarch Paladin instead. Eventually I drew my sideboard Reiterate in a stalled board, so I was probably going to win as soon as he drew a removal spell; he got land-flooded instead, while I drew Conflagrate and wiped out his team.

I almost forfeited Round 4 because for some reason I thought Round 3 had been the final round. Once I resolved that question I easily destroyed my youthful opponent, who forgot to pay echo on creatures three times during the match.

So the good news is that I went 13-5 in matches played and won about a half-box worth of product. The bad news is that as soon as I started drafting with BDM and the Neutral Ground regulars, I lost most of it back. So if you want draft strategy, you might want to stick with Josh Ravitz or Nick Eisel [or today’s article from Benjamin Peebles-Mundy… – Craig], but hopefully my prerelease adventures have shown you a thing or to about building your Time Spiral Sealed Decks. Feel free to comment on my builds in the forums.

Watch this space in the upcoming weeks; the wide-open States format has inspired me to do a lot of deckbuilding and I hope to give you some interesting ideas for October 28. Until then, please don’t try to stay up 36 hours at a stretch; I’m a trained professional.

This article written while doing a variety of things, but mainly while watching “The Harder They Come.” Get your mind out of the gutter: that’s actually a classic Jamaican crime movie starring reggae legend Jimmy Cliff. Highly recommended.

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