I guess you can’t win them all.
Worlds was a tough tournament for me. After my Top 4 finish in Minneapolis, I had high hopes for Rome, since the extra points I picked up from the Grand Prix meant that I only needed a Top 32 finish to secure Level 8 next year in the Pro Player’s Club. I felt like I had a solid understanding of the Limited format — a feeling that my results in Minneapolis helped confirm — and had played enough Standard that I had a good sense of what to expect going into the tournament, even if I didn’t decide on my deck until the night before — a process which I discussed in my last article. I came into Worlds fully expecting to do well, and I felt like I was as well prepared as I had been for any other tournament this year.
And then the jet lag hit.
This tournament was the first time that I’ve been outside North America in five years. Back when I used to travel all the time for tournaments, going to Europe was always especially rough. In retrospect, I don’t think I’ve ever done well in a European event. All of my Top 8 finishes have been in North America. I’ve done reasonably well across the Pacific, with decent finishes in Japan and Australia, but I’m not even sure if I’ve ever made money at a single European event in the course of my entire time playing on the Pro Tour.
I arrived in Rome on Tuesday morning after about 14 hours of travel from Minneapolis via Philadelphia. I wasn’t able to get much sleep on the plane, so I tried to tough it out until that night before succumbing to my exhaustion so I wouldn’t completely throw off my sleep schedule. I ended up going for a walk with Riki Hayashi to get food and find his hotel, which turned out to be much, much farther away than either of us realized. After a cab ride with him and Josh Utter-Leyton to a completely different hotel that I’d hoped would be near mine, but turned out to be even farther away in the other direction, I finally broke down and took a cab back to my own hotel, only to get a text message from Ben Rubin telling me that he was at yet another hotel testing with Nassif, Herberholz, and Johan Sadeghpour — this one a 30 Euro cab ride completely across town. During rush hour. Sigh.
Despite my exhaustion, I knew I needed to get some gaming in, so I made my way to their hotel, nearly falling asleep in the cab on multiple occasions. Ben and Johan were pretty set on playing Boros, while Nassif and Herberholz were looking for some kind of control deck, struggling to find something that beats both Boros and Jund consistently. I was undecided, and while I would have preferred to have found a deck off the radar to play, I wasn’t about to fall into the trap of playing a largely untested deck in the biggest tournament of the year. I wasn’t happy with any of the control decks we’d found, which led me to lean toward Boros, but I was still looking for another answer.
While I was debating between Boros and Patrick Chapin 4CControl deck, I had a conversation with Ben that helped tipped the scales of my decision and that I think is good advice on deck selection in general. In formats where the control cards aren’t extraordinarily powerful, while it’s often possible to build a control deck that can beat your gauntlet, you’re often going to find that your deck is weak against the field at large. If you pack your deck with Earthquakes and Lightning Bolts for removal, your deck may be solid against Eldrazi Green and Boros, but it’s going to have trouble with White Weenie with Honor of the Pure and Brave the Elements. If you play Day of Judgment, you’re going to struggle with Jund and planeswalkers. Control decks nowadays — in both Standard and Extended, I think — struggle with narrow answers to a very broad range of threats. If your pairings come up right and you play against the field you metagamed against, you may do well, but you’re much more vulnerable than an aggressive deck to running into something you didn’t prepare for. Unless the best cards in the format are control cards, like they were when Cryptic Command was kind, the best defense is a good offense. When in doubt, go beatdown. As Dave Price famously said — there are no wrong threats, only wrong answers. These days, that philosophy has never been more true.
So here’s what I played in Standard:
- 1 Akrasan Squire
- 4 Ranger of Eos
- 2 Hellspark Elemental
- 1 Elite Vanguard
- 2 Goblin Bushwhacker
- 3 Goblin Guide
- 4 Plated Geopede
- 4 Steppe Lynx
I felt like the deck was good, but not great. I ended up 4-2, splitting my matches against the four (!) Jund decks I played while beating a W/G/B Junk deck and the mirror. I talked about the list in my last article, so if you want more details on the specific choices, check it out here.
I played reasonably well in the Standard rounds, though I did still make a few misplays here and there, but nothing huge. I felt like I got reasonably unlucky against my Jund opponents I lost to, mulliganing a lot and still ending up with weak draws (including a match where my first play each game, despite mulliganing for aggressive hands, was Ranger of Eos on turn 4) — but then again, the Jund opponents I beat had their share of mana troubles, so it’s possible I was running at about expectation. We had White Knights and Baneslayers to beat Jund Charms, but at least one of my Jund opponents had Burst Lightning and Malakir Bloodwitch, so it’s possible we were one step behind on the technology for that matchup anyway.
Day 2 was when jet lag really started to catch up to me. I woke up around 4am and couldn’t get back to sleep. I drafted a solid G/B deck in my first pod, and piloted it to 2-0 pretty readily before running into Terry Soh hyper-aggressive B/R deck that just wiped the floor with me. In the second draft, I took a first pick Disfigure and got passed a pack with Day of Judgment and Journey of Discovery and an uncommon missing. I was fairly certain that the player to my right had taken Vampire Nighthawk, so I took the Day of Judgment with the intent of abandoning my first pick. I picked up a few decent White cards in the next couple of picks before getting passed a late Mind Sludge. I know many players don’t respect Mind Sludge very much since the format is very fast, so I didn’t want to read too much into it as a signal, but I took it to keep my options open, since Disfigure was still the only good card I had of a second color. I generally don’t like W/B, but with the right cards it can be a fine deck, and Day of Judgment and Mind Sludge are the sort of cards that complement each other perfectly. Opening a Vampire Nighthawk of my own in pack two sealed the deal to put me into Black, and I spent the rest of the draft filling out my deck with mostly defensive Black and White cards. Toward the end of the draft, my deck felt like it was short on ways to win, so when I saw a Hedron Crab late in pack three, I picked it up to splash off my three Refuges. My deck was a bit awkward, but I felt like with some good luck and solid play I could escape with a winning record.
Unfortunately, my play was far from solid. In fact, it was spectacularly poor. After winning my first round against an aggressive R/B deck, I played against Marcio Carvalho. We split the first two games, and in the third game I set up a board position in which I was able to play Day of Judgment with him at three life with no cards in hand to my 20 life and two creatures in hand, including a Crypt Ripper. Marcio draws and has nothing, while I draw another non-Swamp, play Crypt Ripper and attack, putting him at 1. On his turn, Marcio plays a Baloth Woodcrasher. I hold back my Crypt Ripper and play out my second creature, a Kor Sanctifiers. Marcio plays Savage Silhouette on his Baloth and I attack with both of my creatures. His remaining card is Inferno Trap to stay alive, and his block kills my remaining creature. I proceed to draw all land while he draws action and beats me.
While it may seem like I just got unlucky that Marcio’s draws after my Wrath were better than mine, the reality of the situation is that if I’d attacked with my Crypt Ripper and forced him to trade I could have cleared the board and then played my Sanctifiers, which puts Marcio in the same position — removal or die — without allowing that removal spell to effectively kill both of my creatures. Even buying a single extra turn would have been enough — at the end of the game, the top card of my deck was Hagra Diabolist, which would have been enough to do the single extra damage I needed to win. I probably would have just won with evasive creatures without ever casting the Day of Judgment, but my mind was in such a haze that rather than parse what cards he could possibly draw that would kill me if I didn’t clear the board, I just made a play that seemed good enough rather than figure out the best play. My next match was even worse — I was so tunnel visioned in on a particular line of play that I didn’t even notice that I had other outs when I drew them and threw away a game that was easily mine to win.
I hadn’t played any Extended since the Pro Tour, but I expected the field to shift considerably from Austin — away from the traditional Zoo decks that were easy prey for Punishing Fire and Baneslayer Angels and more toward combo decks that were resilient to the disruption of Ghost Quarter and Blood Moon. Rather than play into their hands by going with the same deck, Ben and I brewed up this little number:
4 Steppe Lynx
4 Wild Nacatl
4 Kird Ape
3 Jotun Grunt
2 Gaddock Teeg
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Tribal Flames
3 Path to Exile
2 Slaughter Pact
4 Molten Rain
4 Arid Mesa
4 Scalding Tarn
3 Marsh Flats
2 Verdant Catacombs
2 Stomping Ground
1 Sacred Foundry
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Blood Crypt
1 Godless Shrine
1 Temple Garden
The deck was something of an amalgamation between Martin Juza and Hunter Burton’s lists from the Pro Tour, focusing on aggression and disruption with Molten Rain. Path to Exile, Slaughter Pact, and Tribal Flames give the deck a lot of removal for big creatures, which helps a lot against our Austin deck, while Jotun Grunt is an efficient creature that does double duty against opposing Knight of the Reliquary and dredge decks. The sideboard was very versatile, with cards that can come in for a lot of matchups to gain a bit of edge. The obvious standout is Malfegor, which was a potential answer to Hypergenesis even if they went off — you could put it into play and wipe out their entire board. It’s possible just playing Ethersworn Canonist or Chalice of the Void might be better, since the deck is sufficiently aggressive to take advantage of the time window it takes for the Hypergenesis player to find an answer.
In any case, I ended up 2-4 on the day, with a full three of my match losses coming as a result of terrible plays. Against a Dragonstorm opponent, I had an Ancient Grudge in hand along with Extripate (with a Bogardan Hellkite in his graveyard) on the turn his Lotus Bloom came into play. Rather than kill his Lotus Bloom to keep him off Dragonstorm mana, I gave him the window to go for it and Extripated his Hellkites. He of course had another dragon in his deck and killed me. If I had used the Ancient Grudge that turn, there would have been no way he could have gotten to nine mana to go off, and I would have still had the Extripate if he got there several turns later — by which time he would have been at a much lower life total and I could have fought through his Karrthus and won anyway. Against a Dark Depths opponent, I cast a Tarmogoyf rather than a Gaddock Teeg the turn after he used Tolaria West to transmute for Dark Depths. On his following turn, he used Beseech the Queen to fetch Vampire Hexmage, and my Teeg looked pretty foolish in my hand.
Ben Stark and I had a fairly extensive conversation toward the end of day three about how frustrating it is to be able to see all of your mistakes after you make them. All weekend I felt like my brain was about thirty seconds too slow, since I’d make a play and then realize not long after that my decision had been wrong. I was playing in a fog, sleepwalking through my games. I can point to mistakes that were the reason for five of my nine losses on the weekend — and if I’d won all of those matches, I would have been in the Top 8. Obviously the result of any one of those matches differing changes everything after, but ultimately my point is that I feel like my fate in the tournament was in my hands. Every single tournament this year in which I feel like I’ve played at all up to my potential I have finished in the money. In three of those I have made Top 8, and in the two that I didn’t win I can point to mistakes I made along the way that contributed to my losses.
It’s a strange feeling to look back on a season in which I won a Pro Tour, made Top 8 at another as well as Top 8 in a Grand Prix, and wonder what might have been. This season has been my most successful in the entirety of my pro tour career and yet I absolutely know I could have done better. I feel like my understanding of the game is better than it has ever been, and I feel like when I’m on my game these days I’m playing at my absolute best. While I wish I could have closed out the 2009 season on a better note, I’m excited for what 2010 will hold. I came back to the Pro Tour with hopes of proving that I deserve a spot in the Hall of Fame. This year is my year to do just that.
Until next week…