The Expectation Age

The SCG Invitational Champion speaks! Join Aaron for a look at her big SCG CON experience and her explanation on how she sawed through the field toward the trophy at the end!

We are in the information age. The amount of knowledge at our fingertips is
far more than anything ever seen before and this, more than any other
shift, has changed the way we play Magic. The average player is more
skilled, more knowledgeable, and more prepared than they were even a short
time ago and this has lead to an exciting time in Magic, a time where
anyone with the time and drive can find the information that is out there
and apply it. A time where you can guess your opponent’s plan, maindeck,
and sideboard by the time they play their third land, because in this time,
decks and ideas are spread and tuned to near perfection. This is where the
beauty of the new age comes in. Not only is this the information age, but
the expectation age.

One of the hardest things in Magic is knowing when to change. I know I have
problems with it. Look, I’ve been playing the same Modern deck for the past
four years. Change is hard. I’m going through a lot of change. The past few
weeks of my life have been a hectic mess. About a month ago I decided I was
going to Orlando to live with my girlfriend. Unfortunately for me, the Pro
Tour was looming and I knew time constraints would be very real. I decided
my plan would be this: fly to Grand Prix DC, find a ride down to Richmond
where I would test for the PT with my ragtag group, fly home Sunday night,
pack a truck Monday and drive over Tuesday in time for my girlfriend’s
birthday. Lastly, I leave my house Friday morning at 4:30 to catch my
flight to Roanoke so I can play the event. All this change didn’t leave me
much time for decklist change so I ended doing what I do best: attacking
and burning.

During the PT my team decided that we wanted to attack. The control decks
of the format were very good at closing the door on ways to win the game,
whether through Teferi activations or through The Scarab God taking over.
Once the control deck’s five-mana mythic came online it often felt like all
hope was lost.

The other end of the format was various mono-red and R/B decks that had
done well thanks to the addition of Goblin Chainwhirler. These decks are
where we wanted an edge and would be willing to give up points elsewhere to
gain it. After playing with the various red builds that had done well, from
the lowest to the ground Flame of Keld decks to the largest red decks
maindecking Rekindling Phoenix and Glorybringer, I came the conclusion that
only two things mattered: Hazoret the Fervent and burn spells.

Many of the red decks were shaving on cards like Lightning Strike and Shock
and adding more large threats to help make themselves topdeck better when
in the red mirror, or cutting large threats for the quick Wizards package.
This caused the bigger red decks to have a problem turning on Hazoret early
and caused the little red decks to be unable to beat a few early removal
spells on their minimal threats. We ended up finding a middle ground
between the two with a deck that had the Wizard cards but also had the
power of Hazoret for the games against red. These two plans ended up
working incredibly well together as the Wizards allowed the deck to play
twenty one-mana spells and made turning on early Hazorets incredibly easy.
The increase in small threats also led to a much more explosive start
against the control decks that allowed them to be burned out by the deck’s
increased burn count. These changes and advantages do come at a real cost,
however, as the matchup against the various green-based creature decks
become much worse. The red deck’s small creature size and lack of powerful
flyers caused early four toughness threats to be a real problem, as they
could grind the game to a halt and even with the deck’s increased reach, it
could have a hard time closing out games. Time ran out on our Pro Tour
testing and we ended up submitting a suboptimal list.

I went 0-4 in Constructed at the Pro Tour, due to some misunderstandings of
the deck. For our testing we were attempting to make Ghitu Lavarunner a 2/2
as often as possible, leading us to play weak cards like Renegade Tactics
and Built to Smash. This left the deck with too low of a threat density. We
also ended up maindecking Abrade, a card I was never happy with in testing
as it seemed to go against the deck’s main plan. My sideboard plan also
left something to be desired as I realized I was boarding out too many of
the aggressive elements too often.

I came to the conclusion that the correct choice was to accept the fact
that Ghitu Lavarunner was a 1/2 that allowed the luxury of adding four
copies of a virtual Lightning Bolt into your deck. Ghitu Lavarunner also
had the actual power of being a 1/2 which was the perfect size to be a
one-drop that was acceptable to play in the Chainwhirler metagame. With
this in mind I was able to cut the weak spells to add a few more threats.
The Abrades were relegated to the sideboard, and I cleaned up some numbers
that allowed me to cut all of my one-toughness creatures in any red
matchup, as well as make sure I could keep my average cost down to turn on

Vance’s Blasting Cannons is my favorite sideboard card that I haven’t seen
gain a whole lot of love in recent months. The card is similar to Chandra,
Torch of Defiance but has the very real advantage of being unremovable by
both the red decks and the B/U decks. This allows you to play it with
confidence on parity or ahead and know that it will gain you incremental
value as long as the game goes on. Ultimately, my list probably isn’t
perfect as I didn’t get a whole lot of testing with this exact build. I
only got to play a handful of leagues, so when I accomplished the 5-0 I
took it as a sign and got it together in an attempt to gain as many hours
of sleep before my early flight the next day.

After being jostled awake by a lady in the window seat, I accepted my fate
of no more plane sleep and realized I needed to make my final decisions for
my Modern list. I had gone 11-4 at the Open in Louisville a few weeks prior
and had liked the overall feel of my numbers in the list. The main things I
enjoyed from that event was the 21 lands in the main deck as a concession
to the increased number of Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, only four artifact
destruction spells as it felt like plenty with the lack of must-kill
artifacts (think Chalice of the Void and Ensnaring Bridge), and the two
copies of Shapers’ Sanctuary in the sideboard. Shapers’ Sanctuary is a card
that I have had a love/hate relationship with in the past. It’s the most
powerful card in the grindy matchups in the format, but it suffers from
being a poor topdeck in the matchups where topdecking well is most
important. I’ve grown to look at it as the real green Leyline. Ultimately,
the card is powerful enough to warrant the potential downsides as the games
you have it in your opener feel so much easier than the games you don’t.

Once you start playing a deck like Infect you learn to love a feeling; it’s
a feeling that not everyone gets to experience. No, it’s not the feeling of
holding a trophy, that one only happens on rare occasion. What you do feel
is that “gotcha” moment. The winning of unwinnable games. That look on your
opponent’s face when they realized they messed up and it’s all over, or
that they never stood a chance in the first place. It’s a drug that once
you get your first hit you’re not gonna want to stop. I’m always looking
for the next good gotcha.

This time it took the form of Magic’s greatest ghost. Geist of Saint Traft
is a card I have played with in the past to some success, but the format
became hostile for it and I shelved it in the interest of other matchups…
but I hadn’t given up the ghost. It’s always in the back of my mind waiting
for the right moment for another spook. To see the look of a Jeskai player
who is excited for a good matchup turn to fear as things go horribly wrong.
This was the time. With Burn and Zoo decks low in the metagame and decks
like Jeskai at a high, it become clear that Kitchen Finks was not what the
plague doctor ordered. It was time for the ghost to return to our world.

My plane landed in Roanoke at 9:00am. I find my way to the venue tired and
feeling ill; unfortunately for me, SCG CON was a roaring success as the
hall was quickly full and quite warm only leading to more headaches and
misery. I sit with my RPTQ teammates, Emma Handy and Jadine Klomparens, as
we discuss our decks and last second choices. Our plan is that assuming
none of us top 8 the Invitational, we will drive to the North Carolina RPTQ
on Sunday to play. The event starts and we bid each other good luck and
head our separate ways.

I dispatch a Humans opponent round one only to find myself playing against
Emma in round two. Knowing she is on Storm, I am elated.

“Two good matchups in a row? Must be my day!”

We banter about how poor the matchup is for her as we are called to the
feature match. As is justice for my many daggers I provide at her expense,
I am quickly dispatched on turn three twice. Feeling sick and dejected
after losing a positive matchup, Emma and I decide to go grab lunch where I
joke that it would be rude to beat me out and then not be able to RPTQ with
Jadine and me. I am able to beat two more good matchups in Humans and
Affinity before we head to the Standard portion. Now at this point my head
is pounding, and I feel like I might vomit at any moment. I take some
medicine, but it doesn’t seem to help and I contemplate dropping from the
event. I don’t really feel like playing, and I don’t have great confidence
in either of my decks due to minimal testing. In the end I decide to
struggle through and not drop until I actually drop. I’ve never been one to
let anything get between me and an event, and I wasn’t going to start now.
Fortunately by the time the last round rolls around, I feel a little
better. I go to dinner with friends and eat a great pizza while everyone
else complains about how much they dislike what they got. I chock it up as
another win on the day.

Somewhere in my dreams I decide losing isn’t for me this weekend as I wake
up fully refreshed and with no signs of ailment. I start off the day with
some quick wins against Valakut and G/W Hexproof before finally getting to
put my Geists to the test. An unlucky Jeskai opponent mulligans to five in
game one where I can easily beat him followed by a game two where I have a
turn one Shapers’ Sanctuary and three different Geists they need to deal
with, a strong combo to be sure. The last round of Modern I am paired
against the nightmare matchup, Mardu Pyromancer, on camera. This match is
my favorite of the tournament and involves many very important lessons
about how to play matchups like this and Infect, in general.

Never forget the damage plan.

Infect is a deck based around its namesake mechanic, but that doesn’t mean
it can’t win normally, even without the Geist of Saint Traft plan. Make
sure to get in your chip shots when you can. It’s often better to get in
your Noble Hierarch chip shot than it is to bluff an extra protection
spell. When your opponents figure out what you are on they will often take
excess damage because they don’t expect it to matter.

Trust in the heart of the cards.

I’m very much inclined to keep hands without an infector in discard and
removal-heavy decks. The quantity of cards required to win the game is
often very high, and you are more likely to win the game with a seven-card
Dryad Arbor plan than you are a five-card Blighted Agent one. You still
have twelve live infect draws in a game that you can expect to go quite a
few turns. It’s also fairly likely that your opponent will take your
creatures from your hand with a discard spell, so the quality of your
opener isn’t as important in matchups like these. Just play to your
possible outs and roll with the punches. It can feel bad sometimes, but it
will lead to more wins. In game three of my match against Joseph I kept a
spell-light hand that had both copies of one of the best cards in the
matchup in Shapers’ Sanctuary. This hand is dramatically more likely to win
than any average six and paid off in the end.

Play to the ultimate out.

Fortunately for us mortals, there is no supercomputer out yet that is a
master Magic player. We are all humans and we can and will make mistakes,
including your opponent. Infect is a deck that leans on this more than
almost any other deck in Magic. If your opponent plays aggressively and
taps out, they die. If they leave mana up and don’t apply pressure, they
die. If they play spells during your combat, they die. In my camera match I
had realized I could put Joseph to one with my Noble Hierarch after having
a rough start in a rough matchup, and if he decides to crack his fetchland
they die on the spot. I thought my odds were winning the game were fairly
low assuming he had more than one piece of interaction and got to untap, so
I decided to lean on the ultimate out of my opponent making a game-breaking
error. It paid off and I won the game. If he had waited to Fatal Push until
later, I imagine I very well would have lost the game.

Getting back to the Standard rounds I only needed one win to lock up
Sunday. I was able to beat Esper Control before taking a loss against R/B
Aggro and taking two draws to lock up a high seed. After seeing the top 8
bracket I’m thrilled. Green Devotion? Hexproof? Ironworks? Wonderful
matchups and on the play against all of them. Even the close matchups like
Hollow One and Jeskai aren’t bad; however, the boogeyman looms on the
opposite end of the bracket. Fortunately, Mardu is paired with a bad
matchup against Ironworks, and I’m left with a fairly simple bracket.
Things break my way and I end up winning with me playing ten total turns of
Magic in the finals.

It still feels weird to think about. I won the Invitational. I won one of
the hardest events in Magic. I won my face on a token. I won $20,000.

I won.


What does that mean for me? I think it means more Magic. I love the game. I
love the people. I love learning and getting better. My dream is to work
with games in some way, so I might as well see how far I can go streaming,
writing. I’m close to silver pro level, and I’ve got some points on the SCG
Tour. The most important part though is that I love learning more about
this game. There is always some takeaway from every event.

So what is the lesson learned here? Why did these decks work? Why did I win
the event over someone who played better or someone who prepared better?
Luck is definitely a factor, but I think there is another reason: the
expectation age. With the hive mind at work often being correct when it
comes to deckbuilding and play choices it can be daunting to go against the
grain and find changes, which ends with most people abiding by the norm.
There is nothing wrong with that; playing good decks is rarely wrong, but
it does leave a large portion of the Magic playing population exploitable.
This has lead to most of my success in the past. Take something people are
expecting and change an element, just enough to change the dynamic of a
game, and ride that as far as it will take you. Punish them for playing
toward the norm instead of playing to what is in front of them. Punish the
cookie cutter sideboard guides. Punish the people who can’t think on their
feet. This won me many games this weekend, and will gain you many wins
because habit is hard to break, including my own, but this is where an edge
can be found. Look for it. Change is hard, but it’s often there waiting for
those who take the time to find the good kind.

For the rest of you, expect the unexpected.

Thanks to my Pro Tour team for helping me get on the red deck. Some of your
work and discussion helped lead to what I played in the end. Thanks to Emma
and Jadine for being such good friends and teammates. Two of the best
people I’ve met through Magic.

I owe all of the people I’ve met who blew up my phone all weekend cheering
me on. I think everyone else was more excited for me than I was. It’s
incredible. This includes Robert Wright for helping me decide on my token.
Sorry to disappoint the Karn fans out there, but I went with 1/1 Soldier.
It’s going to be great.

And thank you to you for taking the time to read what I had to say.

With love.