The Justice League – Coming Off the Sidelines into Day Two

Thursday, September 23rd – A fish out of water, judge James Elliot jumps into the arena of Grand Prix Portland after vowing to redeem his brethren.

What do you tell a judge playing in a Grand Prix after 2 p.m. on Saturday? “Never mind - there are plenty of side events you can try your luck at!” So I went to GP Portland to play and vowed to not live up to standard perceptions of judges when playing.

So there I was, watching players rip open packs of M10 at GP Boston last year and thinking “Damn! I wish I was in their shoes.” And so a seed was firmly planted in my brain to play in the next Sealed event on the coastal United States.

Of course, by the time Boston rolled around I was already signed up for the remaining GPs of the year, but I was happy to wait. The past two years have been crazy.  I’ve volunteered for an incredible number of American GPs - fifteen in a row, in fact. It all started as a gag when fellow judge and L3 guru Shawn Doherty joked to me that he had the unofficial record of thirteen GPs in a row. “Mwoo hah hah!  My record will never be beaten,” cackled a confident Doherty, as he devoured another piece of birthday cake at GP Chicago (and I never got any birthday cake either, I might add).

Never tell me I can’t do something!

The buildup to Portland had involved a fairly intensive two months of playing Magic Online with M10 (and eventually M11, when it became available in August). Normally, my judging commitments make it difficult to play more than two or three tournaments per month, but while I was off work from teaching in the summer, I spent about eight hours a day, four days a week playing Magic Online (or MTGO, as they say).

Interestingly, before the switch from M10 to M11, I was drafting mainly U/G decks. I’d draft the most efficient green creature deck I could build and picked up the odd “Christmas present” in blue that came my way – cards like Sleep and Mind Control. However, afterwards I was quickly convinced of the wealth of good cards in U/W combinations. Not that I tried to force these colors, of course, but U/W is just so rich in cheap creatures with flying. I also feel that a Blinding Mage on turn 2 is either one of the best plays for you, or one of the most annoying for your opponent!

So I arrived on Friday via Denver and had some modest hopes of giving a good account of myself at the tournament.

I played in a grinder on Friday afternoon – but just when I was poised to win my second-round match, my opponent hit me with two Sleeps two turns in a row! Unsurprisingly, I didn’t survive that encounter and switched to the Friday Night Magic tournament in the hall instead. While hardly the same level of competition, I did have a lot of fun and went 4-0 for the night – thanks mainly to some star performances from cards like Triskelion, two Stormfront Pegasuses, and two Wild Griffins.

I’d hoped to get some cards signed by the artists on Friday, but they were long gone by this time. It’s one of the things I admire most about GPs run by Tim Shields: he always goes to great lengths to have a galaxy of artists on hand for autographs and improvised artwork on cards and play mats. I think we had more than a dozen big names, which just goes way beyond the efforts of any other Tournament Organizer I’ve ever seen. A lesser known fact – but still hugely appreciated by judges – was the quality of the designated judge area for the weekend. If you happened to be at GP Portland and look up, you would’ve seen some huge glass windows in the corner above the hall entrance that looked into a very plush-looking room with comfortable sofas and a steady supply of drinks and cookies. Yep - that was the judge area, folks, and I can’t thank Tim Shields enough for providing a room like that. It also served as a comfortable spot to catch up with and talk to the many artists that were present for the weekend.

So I took my place at the player meeting on Saturday morning and was pleasantly surprised to see Scott Elliott sitting next to me. He’s a former DCI judge but now works directly for Gen Con and came down to Portland to give away free four-day passes to Gen Con 2011 for anyone that could beat him in the GP.

Once the swap was finished after registration, I got the first tingles down my spine as I examined the card pool. Things looked good. They looked U/W super-duper good! So I ended up some fifteen minutes later with a deck that looked like this:

1 Aether Adept
1 Air Servant
1 Augury Owl
2 Azure Drake
1 Cancel
1 Cloud Elemental
1 Foresee
1 Harbor Serpent
1 Mana Leak
1 Mind Control
1 Stormtide Leviathan
1 Unsummon
1 Wall of Frost

2 Assault Griffin
1 Blinding Mage
1 Day of Judgment
1 Elite Vanguard
1 Siege Mastodon
2 Wild Griffin

10 Island
8 Plains

So in the first round, I played against a very nice man called Dan Schomburg. We were probably only five minutes into the first game before I managed
to make my first mistake. I remember Nicholas Sabin writing
an article last year

under “The Justice League” banner and mentioning how hard it was to “not screw up.” One thing I learned from practicing online this summer was how I narrowly lost an alarmingly high number of games because of single mistakes.

He cast Liliana Vess when I was sitting with the mana for a Mana Leak in my hand. Now, I knew in my mind that I fully intended to use the Mana Leak - but somehow, I decided that it was more important to say, “Oooohhh, that’s a good card,” and stare at it for a fraction of a second. Talking to
my opponent afterwards, I might’ve even said, “Okay,” in response. I had to admit, that to say my communication had conveyed being
Mana Leak ready

was less than a convincing argument.

The DCI has very clear guidelines about communication and how judges interpret a player’s language. For example, from Tournament Rules section 4.2 on shortcuts:

If you don’t specify you are attacking a planeswalker when you announce your attack it’s assumed that your creatures are attacking the defending player only.

When a creature with trample attacks, it’s assumed to be doing the maximum damage to the defending player. This came up at an event once because the creature blocking had a shield to prevent the next two damage to it, and, because the attacker didn’t specify an extra two damage to the creature, I judged that the creature survived combat.

Although this gaffe with Liliana Vess cost me the game, thankfully it didn’t cost me the match. So I was off and running at GP Portland. And to my surprise, I kept running. It’s a bit of a blur, but I’d a lot of fun against some very gentlemanly opponents and went into round 6 with a record of 4-1. At this stage, the first tendrils of hope started to take hold that I might be able to make Day 2.

In the last year, the rules for GPs have changed slightly, and now anyone with an X-2 record is guaranteed a spot on the second day. So this meant I could afford just one more defeat in the next four rounds!

My deck had been very kind to me, with only one game that required me to mulligan. I’d worked hard to iron out some early wrinkles in my game, and had come to love and appreciate how valuable my two Azure Drakes and countermagic spells were to my progress.

Sometimes, I didn’t actually need any countermagic in my hand. As long as my opponent had already seen me use a Cancel or Mana Leak, if I went to great pains to keep a blue and one or two mana open, I could effectively slow them down and force them to try to play around the mere possibility that I had countermagic in my hand. It’s hardly a new trick, I know, but you really have to be disciplined in your nonverbal communication to sell it to your opponent. You can’t for a second allow frowns or unhappy looks to settle on your face when drawing your card for the turn.

A good example of this was in round 6, when I played Brett Shears. I’d cast a very timely Unsummon during the first game. In game 2, I took a bit of a chance and pretended to tap the wrong color of mana for a spell and then made a big fuss of changing my choice to leave a single blue mana open.

Understandably, Brett wanted to hold me to my initial choice – but I’m well aware that Magic Online allows such tapping and untapping as long as you haven’t actually announced any spell by revealing it. It’s a very clear line in the sand for Magic: once you announce a spell and tap mana, we’ll hold you to that mana choice. The judge was called, and it was ruled in my favor. The whole point of this was to convince Brett I was ready to pull the trigger on an Unsummon when I had no such card in my hand. He was so convinced I had it that he held off on a couple of spells for several turns, which allowed me to push home my advantage with Air Servant in game 2. Game 3 was very tight as well, and he took defeat like a gentleman.

From my vantage point as a player, there were a couple of interesting rulings I’d like to share from GP Portland.

A Royal Assassin being targeted with something like an Ice Cage or Chandra’s Outrage cannot be tapped in response to target itself and commit suicide. From the Comprehensive Rules (C.R. 602.2b), the player announces targets (C.R. 601.2c) before paying costs (C.R. 601.2g), like tapping the Assassin. So when you try to target the Assassin, it’s not tapped and not a legal target.

Diminish doesn’t work the way Ovinize used to on a creature! Since Ovinize’s glory days from Planar Chaos, the rules for interactions of continuous effects (layers, to you and me) have changed. From the Comprehensive Rules (C.R. 613.3):

Layer 7a:

Effects from characteristic-defining abilities are applied.

So cards like Tarmogoyf, Korlash, Heir to Blackblade, and Master of Etherium fit in here. Also remember that these characteristic-defining abilities are applied in

zones: the library, hand, exile and graveyard.

Layer 7b:

Effects that set power and/or toughness to a specific number or value are applied.

This is for effects like the activated ability of Gigantomancer, the second activated ability of Mutavault, and, of course, Diminish. So anything that happens

this point will overwrite Diminish. 

Layer 7c:

Effects that modify power and/or toughness (but don’t set power and/or toughness to a specific number or value) are applied.

So effects from things like Honor of the Pure, the activated ability of Bloodthrone Vampire, and Quag Sickness.

During one of my matches at GP Portland, an opponent targeted a creature of mine with Diminish during the combat phase. Unfortunately, I was apparently fast asleep at the wheel and started to reach for my creature, despite its being enchanted with Armored Ascension. Luckily, I caught myself and explained to my opponent that my creature would still get the pump from Armored Ascension.

Layer 7d:

Power and/or toughness changes from counters are applied.

This includes cards like Steel Overseer, the second activated ability of Ajani Goldmane, and damage from creatures with wither like Boggart Ram-Gang. 

Layer 7e

: Effects that switch a creature’s power and toughness are applied. Such effects take the

value of

power and apply it to the creature’s toughness, and take the value of toughness and apply it to the creature’s power.

This includes cards like Valakut Fireboar when it attacks and Inside Out.

For a full article on the interactions of continuous effects, take a look at
my article from last year


So I was 5-1 for the day and going into round 7.

I played against Greg Larson, who had a very fast White Weenie deck with a splash of red, thanks in no small part to three copies of Squadron Hawk. I almost stabilized in game 1, but I ran straight into his Triskelion, and he didn’t hesitate to use the Triskelion counters to finish off my Air Servant. In game 2, I managed to get both of my Azure Drakes out and countered his Triskelion when it tried to make an appearance.

Moving onto game 3, I was unable to keep up with Greg’s creature count, as I was holding back two blue mana each turn for a Mana Leak for his bomb spells. This made it difficult to get an Azure Drake and two Assault Griffins onto the battlefield quickly. I looked to be dead in the water and at three life with an army of creatures facing me down. Death was only a turn away when I got my luckiest break of the day by drawing into my Day of Judgment. Once Judgment hit, I was able to put down a flying creature for each of the next three turns (including a Stormfront Pegasus on the turn I used Judgment) and finished him off in about another four turns!

So there I was with a 6-1 record for the day, two rounds to go, and on the brink of making Day 2 in my first GP as a player. And the stress was starting to kill me!

As English soccer legend Kevin Keagan once said about chasing the championship, “It’s not the despair I can’t stand; it’s the hope!”

As a judge, I’ve always kind of assumed that players have it easy – sitting around all day and just playing. However, I was pretty worn out by the time round 8 was ready to start. I hadn’t been completely free of mistakes at this point and had even managed to pick up a particularly insane penalty for looking at extra cards. I’d used Foresee during an earlier round, but when I tried to resolve the spell, I somehow managed to pick up my deck and look at the bottom four cards.

Oh dear –


After the round, I was called over by L5 judge Toby Elliott, who gave me his best withering look of disapproval. Mind you, I wasn’t the only judge making mistakes that day; a fellow judge that was playing had filled in and signed a match slip backwards where it gave his opponent the win. He was lucky to catch it before it was too late to reverse it. To avoid embarrassment, I don’t want to mention the judge’s name directly, but I’ll give you a small clue and say that his name rhymes with “Andrew Veen.”

Round 8 was perhaps the most straightforward win of the day, probably because of an excellent draw for me and a poor one each game for my opponent, Michael Avanesian. We did get a bit bogged down with creatures on the board at one point, but my greater percentage of flying creatures and Air Servant eventually punched through his defense.

Yay, me! One round to go, and I was 7-1 for the day and guaranteed a spot in Day 2. Elsewhere in the hall, L2 judge William Laycraft was in contention for Day 2 but just missed out in the last round.

And this is where I took my foot off the gas and was given a real lesson by the gentlemanly skills and Jedi mind focus of Tom Martell in the last round of the day. I was elated to make Day 2 and completely off my game. Tom won game 1 as convincingly as I won game 2. At this point, Tom had also qualified for Day 2, also, but he was as focused as he’d no doubt been for the entire day. Every turn, his eyes were furiously scanning the board and checking for any hidden possibilities. In the crucial game 3, Tom got an early Ajani Goldmane and put it to work immediately to put counters on his three creatures. And although I was able to cast Day of Judgment a couple turns later, I’d lost too much ground.

Day 2 started with one last round of Swiss using the previous day’s Sealed deck, but I lost two close games to Andrew Braun. In game 1, I cast a Stormtide Leviathan that would’ve won the game next turn, but Andrew was more than ready with a Fireball after seeing me tap out. Game 2 was again close, and I cast Day of Judgment with the life totals twelve to three in my favor in order to prevent me from losing the following turn from an avalanche of creatures. He still had a Sword of Vengeance on the battlefield, mind you, but with Mind Control in my hand, I was poised to steal the first creature he cast and equipped to the Sword to kill him dead. Unfortunately for yours truly, his next creature was Liliana’s Specter, and I had to say goodbye to my Mind Control (as well as the game) a few turns later.

Coming out of the first draft of Day 2, I’d put together a White Weenie deck with a splash of red:

2 Ajani’s Pridemate
1 Armored Ascension
2 Cloud Crusader
1 Elite Vanguard
1 Inspired Charge
1 Mighty Leap
1 Pacifism
1 Serra Ascendant
1 Silvercoat Lion
2 Squadron Hawk
2 Wild Griffin

1 Canyon Minotaur
1 Fling
1 Prodigal Pyromancer
1 Vulshok Berserker

1 Crystal Ball
1 Triskelion
1 Warlord’s Axe

12 Plains
5 Mountain

Once the decklists were handed in, I moaned a bit to Sam Black about my rotten luck against Andrew Braun while we waited for the first round of draft to begin.

I played against Robert Koven and almost looked to pay the price for a land shortage in game 2 as I went down to three life. I stabilized thanks to my Serra Ascendant enchanted with Armored Ascension, and started knocking Robert down while keeping my life total up. It was Andrew who made the misplay of Diminish on my Ascendant that I mentioned earlier. Thankfully, the expert ruling of Nicola Dipasquale was at hand to clarify the situation (and, of course, Brian Kowal’s timely frown at me). A few turns later, Robert tried to Assassinate the Ascendant. I responded with a Fling and sacrificed the Ascendant, but he was ready with a Mana Leak. So my pesky Ascendant was gone, but I’d used up pretty much the last of his gas with the exchange. I brought in Triskelion to finish off some of his flyers and drove Cloud Crusader home for the win.

In round 2 of the first draft, I faced Michael Hetrick. He finished me in fairly short order with a Sacred Wolf enchanted with Shiv’s Embrace. In game 2, the Shiv’s Embrace was back and on a Awakener Druid, but I was able to hold it off for a while with two first-striking Cloud Crusaders, but they fell to Lightning Bolt and then a second Bolt when I tried to cast Inspired Charge to turn the tide.

Third round of draft one, I met the very sporting Joshua Howe. This match was very similar to the first round against Robert, with me being short on life before recovering with Serra Ascendant enchanted with Armored Ascension and using Triskelion against his main threats. I also had to survive two Sleeps during the last game but survived with a Prodigal Pyromancer enchanted with – yep, you guessed it – Armored Ascension.

In draft two, I was drafting G/B until a second pack Sun Titan switched me to W/G. A couple of late Cultivates in the draft let me put together a nice little ramp deck:

1 Ajani’s Pridemate
1 Blinding Mage
1 Cloud Crusader
1 Elite Vanguard
1 Infantry Veteran
1 Mighty Leap
1 Silvercoat Lion
1 Stormfront Pegasus
1 Sun Titan
1 Wild Griffin

1 Awakener Druid
1 Brindle Boar
2 Cultivate
1 Duskdale Wurm
1 Garruk’s Companion
1 Giant Spider
2 Llanowar Elves
1 Sacred Wolf
2 Spined Wurm

1 Assassinate

1 Whispersilk Cloak

8 Forest
7 Plains
1 Swamp

In draft two round 1, I played against Sean Bulthaup and powered through with a Sun Titan and Duskdale Wurm after a turn 3 Cultivate in the first game. In the second game, I had no answer to his Nightwing Shade. Game 3 saw the Sun Titan once more – with a Whispersilk Cloak to be extra safe.

Second draft round 2, Chris Mitchell executed me quickly with a W/R deck with burn. The second game in particular he had a combination of Infantry Veteran, Goblin Tunneler, and Elite Vanguard, which I had no answer for. By the end of game 2, I swung with Sun Titan – but couldn’t erase that last life point from him before the army went at me again next turn.

The defeat to Chris meant it pretty much impossible to take the top 64, but I was determined to go out on a high and win the last round of the draft. I faced Colin Miller and played to a close finish in game 3. Crucially in that third game, I hung on to a Mighty Leap and used it to protect my Cloud Crusader when he targeted it with Corrupt with three Swamps on the battlefield. His face said everything I needed to know and over the next three turns, the frown only got bigger as he drew nothing to help his plight.

So there it was – an 11-5 record on the books and eighty-first place for the weekend (going 2-1 in each of the two drafts). I suddenly wondered why it’d taken me so long to do this.

I sometimes worry about the divide between players and judges in our community and realized that a few more events like this with idle chatter between rounds can go a long way to make judges appear much more human. I’ll be back playing next year sometime and hope other judges break their duck soon at an up-and-coming Grand Prix event.

I think Toby Elliott summed things up best with, “Hey, James, not bad… for a judge!” May your next GP topdeck be a lucky one, my friends.