The Beautiful Struggle – What Can You Do?

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Let me tell you a little story. It is a story about how much I love playing Magic. It is a story about receiving good cards from good friends and good decks from good players. It is a story about how well-prepared I was for Regionals, and how right I was in last week’s article. It’s a story about matches in which Daybreak Coronet and Basal Sliver were played by my opponents…

Let me tell you a little story. It is a story about how much I love playing Magic. It is a story about receiving good cards from good friends and good decks from good players. It is a story about how well-prepared I was for Regionals, and how right I was in last week’s article. It’s a story about matches in which Daybreak Coronet and Basal Sliver were played by my opponents.

Sadly, it is not a story of Regionals success.

While I was at the tournament I wrote about half of this article on my phone. Or, if you prefer, I was taking calls and sending texts from my word processor last Saturday. I bought the nifty device that does all of this with a combination of poker winnings and money from my family, on my 30th birthday last week.

It’s a funny thing, going to Regionals just a few days after turning thirty. When I started playing Magic again in my mid-twenties, I thought it would be a brief thing, and that I would lose my taste for it by the time I turned thirty. I guess I have lost the taste for playing physical Magic a bit, but that’s only because I can play Magic Online any time I want. Beyond that, I love playing this game more than ever. I had never been so excited to show up for Regionals as I was last week, despite the fact that my deck choice was unclear up to the very last moments.

I had to choose between three options. One of them I had done some work with on Magic Online; the others I had proxied up and shuffled on my very own desk. The first was a base-Black control deck. Originally I was high on the Solar Flare build from last week’s article; Patrick Sullivan even mailed some cards across the country for me to use if I decided upon that deck. In related news, Patrick Sullivan is awesome.

However, almost as awesome was the deck from Patrick Chapin article last week. I wasn’t afraid of switching to that deck at the last minute because I had proxied up the similar Go-Sis deck designed by Mike Flores, so I was willing to game with this list on Saturday:

However, the deck was popular and Korlash was in short supply. Among the dealers I could only find one copy for $10, so I decided to scrap the deck. (Yes, I know, I should have just ordered them from StarCityGames.com. No need to rub it in.) Being the well-prepared fellow that I am, I had a backup deck in hand, which I had played with on MTGO. It was the Gruul deck originally sent to me by Patrick Sullivan, and later modified by Steve Sadin:

I originally just wanted to play Sullivan’s deck, which didn’t bother with the Gargadon/War Marshal combo and had Skarrgan Pit-Skulk and Shock instead. However, Sullivan’s deck was no secret in the Mid-Atlantic. I showed up at Dream Wizards on Friday, and master of horror Stephen King was playing it; when I showed up at the tournament site on Saturday, Tommy Ashton and Jeff Powelson were testing the Sullivan.dec mirror. I asked Tommy how so many people had the deck, since Sullivan himself had requested that I give it to no one; Tommy said that Sullivan had given it to Mike Flores, who had given it to “one of his barns,” who won an MSS event with it. Good security is hard to find.

Anyway, I wanted to switch to Sadin’s deck, which has a great match against other Gruul decks thanks to the Gargadons, but I couldn’t. The problem was again one of card availability: I was a couple of Tarmogoyfs short to play the deck, and I didn’t want to replace them with something else (Tarmogoyf might well be the most important card in the mirror). Fortunately, I had a second backup deck, Richard Feldman Orzhova Suicide Squad:

Yes, I tweaked the deck a little, cutting the two Faith’s Fetters in Feldman’s build for a fourth Mana Tithe and a Grim Harvest. I wanted to give myself a little game against control by being able to recycle the creatures in my deck. I wasn’t worried about running into graveyard hate because it is only a one-of, and the deck performs well against control anyway.

My tendency for tweaking decks I see elsewhere has drawn some criticism in the forums here. It’s a fair criticism; if someone else has a deck that has tested well or posted a good tournament result, then why mess with those results? However, one thing that I’ve noticed is that decks which often post good results early in a format are not the best expressions of that idea that they could be. As an example, I would point to Antoine Ruel Psychatog deck from Pro Tour: Los Angeles. That deck is fine work, to be sure; not only did Ruel anticipate the Life From the Loam control engine that exploded into prominence during that tournament, but he realized that his ‘Tog deck didn’t even need it. However, the graveyard decks got better during the season, and Affinity was more of a factor than it was at the Pro Tour. So, in this great article, Feldman tells the story of how tweaked the ‘Tog deck to improve its matchups in those areas.

That’s why I make modifications to decks; I’m just trying to build the best deck for the format I’m expecting. In this case, I cut the slowest card against Gruul for a combo that would be a little better against control while still giving me some gas against Gruul: if I can survive long enough to get that combo going against Gruul, there should be no way I can lose.

There were at least 292 players at Mid-Atlantic Regionals, because I was at table 146 and I am always at the last table (except at Grand Prix, where Adam Yurchik and Mark Zaidjner have me covered). Late arrivals might have taken us over 300.

Round 1

My opponent was a congenial fellow who recognized me and said he read my articles. In game 1 I had a decent hand with a turn 1 Martyr, and Castigate, Temporal Isolation, Paladin, and three lands including a Basilica. I was on the play and dropped the Martyr. My opponent played a Hallowed Fountain untapped and laid an Icatian Javelineer. This was a problem, because what I really wanted to do was Castigate on turn 2, to remove the countermagic that I assumed he was playing. However, if I do that then I lose my Martyr for no value against a beatdown deck; not a good place to be in. Plus, when the heck do I play that Basilica? If he’s running White beatdown then I don’t want to give up a lot of tempo to him.

What I decided to do was attack with the Martyr, then sacrifice it whether he blocked or not, and play the Basilica. He didn’t block, so I went up to 29 and he went down to 17. Then my opponent played a Flagstones of Trokair and a Suntail Hawk. I Castigated the following turn, seeing:

Unstable Mutation
Daybreak Coronet
Jotun Grunt

I knew two things immediately: (a) I was probably going to lose this match, and (b) I had surely made the wrong deck decision. I figured I would lose because when you lose in round 1, it’s always to something you didn’t expect – U/W fliers with Daybreak Coronet seems to fit that bill. I mean, I was still going to give 100% effort to win, but as soon as I saw that Coronet I felt that fate was not on my side that day.

The deck choice was a more serious problem. I adopted Feldman.dec as my backup deck because I liked the Gruul matchup and didn’t see myself as an underdog to much else. That’s the wrong way to look at it, though. As Jonathan Greenspan told me later, it’s more accurate to say that I was playing a deck that does not have a lot of margin for error: the small mistakes can be very punishing, especially against random decks that I might not have been expecting. The deck doesn’t get blown out by much, but it doesn’t blow anybody out either: basically, I was playing the Rock in Extended. Argh!

Better to play a deck with a lot of raw power, that would forgive the mistakes that inevitably come up over a long day of play. I probably would have been better off playing Chapin’s deck with only one Korlash (I could just fill the empty slots with Detritivores or Persecutes or something).

Anyway, the Castigate play here is obvious: take the Grunt, and then when he commits the Mutation and Coronet to one guy, I play Temporal Isolation on that guy and get a three-for-one. I went into the tank a little bit, just so I didn’t telegraph that I had the removal spell, and then play proceeded exactly that way. He gave one of his Hawks some pants, it got one hit in, and then I Isolationed it and played a Paladin en-Vec the following turn. I then drew five lands in a row while he drew Knight of the Holy Nimbus and Jotun Grunt, both creatures that basically treat my Paladin as a blank card. I lost that game from 29 life and my opponent was never in danger.

I boarded out Crovax, three Castigates, and the Mana Tithes for Worship, the fourth Martyr, and Mortify. In game 2 I had a turn 2 Dark Confidant on the play, and my opponent did not have a Javelineer. The Confidant drew me into a perfect mix of creatures and removal and I won without much incident. At one point, Bob revealed a Ghost Council, putting me at four life; if my opponent had Psionic Blast right then I would have died. He didn’t have it and I was able to play the Council, sacrifice Bob to it, and win.

In game 3 I made a questionable keep: Temporal Isolation, Slaughter Pact, and five land. On the play I would have sent it back, but I figured the extra draw step was likely to give me the creatures I needed. My opponent had a Javelineer on turn 1 and two Suntail Hawks on turn 2. I had to use Slaughter Pact on a Jotun Grunt, and when he put Unstable Mutation on one of the Hawks on turn 3, I put Temporal Isolation on it. After drawing a couple more lands, I drew a Withered Wretch that I thought would race his Hawks. He then played a second Javelineer, which killed the Wretch next turn. I then drew seven lands in a row.

And that’s how I lost to Daybreak Coronet.dec in round 1 of Regionals last weekend.

Round 2

I won the roll and led with lands. My opponent played a Terramorphic Expanse (finding a Forest), Urborg, and Wall of Roots, after which I Castigated him. I saw:

Wall of Roots
Basal Sliver
Telekinetic Sliver
Evolution Charm

I guess I should have foreseen what was coming, but instead I just figured he was a Sliver deck that was color-screwed. I took the Evolution Charm, and when he tried to play Wall of Roots into Basal Sliver the next turn I had Mana Tithe for the Sliver. I played Ghost Council, and my opponent answered with Necrotic Sliver. When I played a Withered Wretch the next turn, my opponent could have blown away the Ghost Council with the Necrotic while the Wretch was on the stack (I had no other creatures). He thought for two minutes and then let the Wretch resolve. My now-unkillable Ghost Council won the game soon afterward.

I boarded out the Castigates and Mana Tithes for removal and Worship. When my opponent stalled on a couple of lands and a couple of Birds of Paradise while I Mortified some random Slivers and beat him down with a Martyr and a Confidant, he complained, “I’m really starting to hate this deck,” at which point I thought I had the match well in hand. Then he drew a couple of running lands and completely surprised me with Wild Pair.

Crap, I thought, I guess I was a little quick on the trigger with those Mortifies.

I beat him down to three, and then played a Ghost Council, meaning he had to win right away. That turned out to be easy for him; he played Whitemane Lion three times in one turn to assemble an army of Slivers, including Might Sliver + Psionic Sliver + Essence Sliver to put his life total out of my range.

I realized Worship was useless against him – he’ll just Psionic Sliver all of my creatures to death – so I boarded it (and one Paladin en-Vec) out in order to bring the Castigates back in. On turn 5 of game 3 I had a tough decision: with a Paladin and Martyr in play against his board of Gemhide Sliver and four lands, I could Castigate him or I could play a Ghost Council. I decided to play the Ghost Council and get my beat on, because even if I Castigate him he can still just assemble an army of random Slivers and beat me down with them.

However, he went land and Wild Pair on his next turn. With the power of hindsight I can see that Castigate was the better play, because my hand had no Mortifies and a couple of Temporal Isolations. Once Wild Pair resolves, I’m almost guaranteed to lose as soon as he draws a creature – if he doesn’t have one already. The “random Sliver beatdown” I was concerned about clearly can be held off by the Temporal Isolations in my hand.

At any rate, the game was not yet over. I Castigated him on my next turn and saw:

Dormant Sliver
Firewake Sliver
Watery Grave

I took the Dormant Sliver, which can search Whitemane Lion via the Wild Pair and make it impossible for me to win. He played the Firewake Sliver his next turn, which searched up a Sinew Sliver, and played a land. He looked nervous; I figured he was out of creatures and I thought I could still win this game. I put one of my Isolations on the Sinew Sliver and attacked him down to ten with my team. He peeled his top card slowly… and looked skyward in thanks. He sacrificed his Sinew Sliver to the Firewake and played the freshly-drawn Dormant Sliver. It found Whitemane Lion, which bounced itself, and he went off.

And that’s how I lost to Wild Pair, thus knocking me out of Regionals. I guess I could have stayed in, but I was so badly on tilt that I felt it was the right time to go home.

I guess the title of this article says it all. I felt ready for the field I was expecting, and I saw that field all around the room. While I was losing these two matches, the adjacent tables were taunting me with four decks apiece that I had prepared for – Gruul, Angelfire, Solar Flare, and so on. Instead I got paired against the two strategies that were the worst possible things to see across the table: cheap White fliers, and a creature deck that is immune to Temporal Isolation.

During the sideboarding between games 1 and 2, my first-round opponent said something along the lines of, “I’ll bet you think this is a bad deck.” I responded, “Well, I might take issue with some of the cards, but it’s not a bad strategy.” Beating down with cheap White creatures backed up by Delay is a legitimate idea, not so much different than the U/G beatdown decks that you see from time to time. It might lose to Sulfur Elemental, but you have to take some risks with your matchups; what’s to say his idea is any riskier than playing a deck which scoops game 1 to Dredge?

Sure, I’ll mock those Daybreak Coronets a bit, but in the end it’s just like I said last week: “You might think it’s a bad deck, I might think it’s a bad deck, everyone in the friggin’ room except the guy across the table might think it’s a bad deck. Doesn’t really matter if he beats you.” What can you do?

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