The Story of Ink-Eyes, Gifts Ungiven, and the Little Flower That Could

Once Knutson’s only barn, Star Wars Kid (Chris McDaniel) has since graduated to Featured Writer, Level 2 Pro, and a solid slinger of spells. Today this Taking Back Sunday team member gives you a look behind the scenes at the development of the winning Pro Tour: Philadelphia deck, shows you the humble beginnings of his version of the deck, and explains why sometimes it’s just not possible to get a good night’s sleep before the Pro Tour.

Another Pro Tour finished, another American champion. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? This isn’t a story of Pro Tour glory, far from it. This is a story of mediocrity, hopefully qualifying for U.S. Nationals, being fortunate enough to grind in to my third PT, and even more fortunate to have been on the “other list”, and winning almost $800 for my troubles. This is also a story of a pretty little flower.

What now seems like a long time ago, I was on MODO and happened to be talking to the Cak (John Pelcak, for those not familiar with the nickname). Betrayers of Kamigawa had just been released online and I was looking forward to playing Block Constructed as much as I could. The fact that I wasn’t even qualified for this Block PT didn’t slow me down one bit. Block has always been my favorite format – it’s just a shame that to qualify for it, you have to win at Extended… a format I despise. At least until the fall, anyway.

Cak was starting a mailing list for qualified players (which I guess has now become known as “Taking Back Sunday” or some other such shenanigans), and I joined it, even though I wouldn’t be playing at the PT. Yes, I like Block enough to waste my time testing for it, even when I am not qualified. I also enjoyed playing the old Wake on Wake mirror match, and Millstone decks in 10 round tournaments… I’m a glutton for pain. [I first met SWK in round 10 of one such tournament, and he was in fact, playing a Millstone deck. – Knut]

My first little bit of block success was qualifying for the IPA tournament through a Block Constructed premier event. I threw together a decklist a few minutes before the tournament and limped my way into the Top 8 before losing in the semis, but my mission was accomplished. I had found the basis for a deck I enjoyed, and one that seemed powerful. Now all that remained was tuning it. The first list I had all those weeks ago looked a bit like this:

4 Kodama’s Reach

4 Sakura-Tribe Elder

4 Kokusho, the Evening Star

4 Hana Kami

4 Final Judgement

4 Horobi’s Whisper

4 Hideous Laughter

3 Sensei’s Divining Top

2 Soulless Revival

2 Wear Away

1 Ethereal Haze

4 Plains

10 Forest

10 Swamp


2 Nezumi Graverobber

2 Ethereal Haze

3 Cranial Extraction

1 Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni

1 Honden of Life’s Web

2 Honden of Cleansing Fire

2 Honden of Night’s Reach

2 Yosei, the Morning Star

I can’t believe I ever played that deck, it looks so bad to me now. I’m showing this list not to demonstrate how bad I am, but to show just how far a deck can come. What started with a horribly inconsistent (and bad) list, slowly evolved and helped me realize a few things about the format.

First, I came to the conclusion that White Weenie really wasn’t that great. All the doomsayers arguing that Jitte was going to define the format and probably be banned were wrong, and the Pro Tour has since proven that. Jitte isn’t even the best Artifact in block – Sensei’s Divining Top beats it by a mile, maybe more.

Sometimes the control decks would get a less than stellar draw and the WW deck would punish them for it. That had more to do with the builds of control decks people were playing online. They just didn’t have the tools necessary to be successful in the format.

Second, past game one, Cranial Extraction is pretty bad in the B/G/x mirror match, and so are other slow, controlling such cards such as the Hondens. You still want to have an Extraction in your deck, but don’t go overboard. The mirror and matches like the mirror come down to beatdown. You know, plain and simple fatties. Legendary fatties, but fatties nonetheless. You want to be the one dropping the legends, and you want your opponent scrambling to contain them. Game one however, the Extraction is needed to disrupt their recursion, as you don’t have the beatdown necessary to stop them once they get going. I can’t believe how many times on MODO I’ve been hit game 2 with an Extraction on Extraction, and just laughed as he got my one or none and I bashed with fatties for the win.

Third, that creature diversification was crucial. Not only did you want Kodama of the North Tree and Ink-Eyes, you wanted other legends, ones that many people might not be playing. You want to be able to play your duplicate legends to kill theirs, but you also want to have some legends that they just won’t be able to kill without a good old-fashioned removal spell. That is why Yosei is the best dragon, no matter what the circumstances are – it’s almost never a good thing for your opponent when he dies. Of course, things are usually bad pretty bad for the guy sitting across from you when he’s in play too.

Slowly the deck began to change, and eventually lost all the White elements from the main deck, moving the Ethereal Haze and Plains to the sideboard. This was all done to squeeze in a combo card that’s power level seems to increase in every format. It’s a card that I’ve come to play whenever I can, and it’s essentially always a one-card combo. That card is Gifts Ungiven.

Yes, this “fixed” version of Fact or Fiction and Intuition can often be superior to its broken cousins. It doesn’t look so bad on the surface because it gives your opponent the choice of which cards you get. Of course, as anyone can see by now, the choice often doesn’t matter a whole lot. It provides the illusion of choice, similar to someone letting you choose the method of your own execution. [Cake or death? – Knut]

What Gifts Ungiven did for the B/G deck was allow it to play one and two-ofs in order to search out cards necessary to disrupt your opponent and set up inevitability. It gave the B/G deck a slight edge in a somewhat unknown metagame. Against other control decks you have Cranial Extraction, removal, and an infinite recursion engine, all of which can be set up easily thanks to Gifts Ungiven.

Against aggro you have… Fog. Not just one fog, oh no. Infinite fogs. So for all those people who just knew White Weenie would dominate, that White Weenie would reign supreme, that a piece of equipment would be the card of the format, Haze just has one thing to say to you, “Nice Jitte.” After lots of testing against White Weenie, it seemed that what was needed to lose was a kept mediocre to bad hand for the Gifts deck, and a good to great hand for the weenie deck. Face it, the deck has a single card in it that stops you from winning the game unless you can get one or two 2/2’s onto the board and protect them with everything you have. Which is asking a lot. Don’t forget the fact that you can just go beatdown with Meloku and Kodama, and that they usually don’t have that great of a chance anyway if they don’t have a Jitte.

The final few changes made the deck resemble what we played at the PT, with obvious changes depending on personal preference of anyone playing it. There were fatties in the main deck plus more fatties in the board. Ethereal Haze and a Plains were thrown in the main, which gives you great game against most of the decks out there game one. Nezumi Graverobber and Ink-Eyes still serve as the best weapon against mirror matches and other slow control decks. And may I just point out, that I still dislike Nezumi Shortfang greatly and do not consider him to be very viable against the mirror or other control decks. He is slow disruption, does not provide a fast clock, and usually ends up disrupting you more than your opponent, as it ties up your mana too much to develop much of an early game. The deck as it existed for the PT is good – it can handle a lot of early beatings and snap back for a late game victory.

That being said, this deck is extremely difficult to play correctly [That is something Zvi and Top 8 member Steve Wolfman both discussed with me the day after the tournament. Steve gave Gadiel a lot of credit for how well he did in their awesome match just because he realized how tough a deck Gifts is to play right. – Knut]. Poor judgement calls and a few mistakes kept me from bettering my 5-3 record. Of course, I could just take the cowards way out and point to the fact that I had to stay up all of Thursday night playing nine long rounds of Standard, play another six very long rounds of block then off of no sleep, had another nearly sleepless night, and that my opponents had to get a bit lucky in order to beat me. I’m not going to kid myself – I probably messed up more times than I saw, and I doubt the lack of sleep had anything to do with it, plus I had more than my fair share of luck just getting to the PT… but it’s no fun being a good sport.

Anyway, after all that, this is the masterpiece the team ended up with:

So If You Weren’t Qualified, How Did You End Up Playing in the PT?

As I kind of hinted to earlier, I stayed up all of Thursday night playing in the Standard Last Chance Qualifier that ended somewhere between 4 and 5 a.m. [My cell phone said 4:28AM. – Knut, who was called and informed that someone needed cards for Friday at that time.] Hell, I was fortunate enough to be able to even attend the tournament… I wasn’t even going until about 10 a.m. Thursday morning when I was interrupted from math class with the news that I needed to catch a train in about an hour. A quick trip home to pack and I was off.

I arrived at the site about two hours before the tournament began and scrambled to find a deck and all the cards needed for it. Ted had told me to play some form of mono-Red, as it was good in the tournament (he gave me a Flores list I wasn’t to thrilled with), so I settled on playing Pat Sullivan’s list with a few changes (for the worse). I simply replaced the four Vulshok Sorcerers with four Seething Songs and realized I had 31 mana sources, so wisely trimmed a Mountain for a Forge[/author]“]Pulse of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]. Also, I cunningly could only find three Boils at the site, so I did the obvious thing and added a single Goblin Charbelcher to my sideboard. [To be fair, Pat’s build was almost exactly what I had ended up with while testing fast Red decks on my own that week, but SWK didn’t like that deck either… – Knut, who built the deck as Patrick but lacks the Red Deck resume]

Anyone who doesn’t see the sarcasm in those last few sentences should be shot. That said, I didn’t once bring in the Boils and the Pulse won me at least two matches, while the Charbelcher won me another.

Funny story: It’s game three of round three and my opponent drops an early Circle of Protection: Red with plenty of mana up and 15 life to spare. So I rolled over and died, right? Nah. Just Seething Song’d out a Goblin Charbelcher and hit him for 6 damage, 1 damage, and finally 8 damage. I’m clearly a master. Later I was actually asked by BDM and others why my deck was so random to which I responded that every LCQ deck since the beginning of time has been random and bad. I know every time I look at one online I ask myself, “How on EARTH could that win?” I figured there must be a reason for this, so I rolled the dice and randomness came up on my side. No, it had nothing to do with me not being able to get all the cards needed… nothing at all.

After the tournament I immediately went to work trying to come up with the cards needed for the list. I did however, take time out of my busy schedule to enjoy a delightful breakfast with our very own editor, Ted Knutson. The filet was just to die for, and the potatoes succulent. I’m sure Ted’s sugary and fattening waffle was equally good – may his arteries clog forever with it.

Just kidding.

Afterwards I went on to the PT where I performed a decent, but disappointing 5-3, coming in at just 66th place. It was however enough to give me exactly 10 PT points, which should qualify me for U.S. Nationals and Level 2 of the Pro Tour Players Club for the rest of the year, as well as net me $775 dollars. Not bad for a weekend that didn’t almost happen.

In the end, it was great that Gadiel was able to pilot the TBS deck to victory, finally taking back Sunday for America. It just goes to show what a “gifted” player can do with this beastly creation. From what I saw there wasn’t really a bad matchup for it in the field, but there were decks that you obviously would rather not face if given the choice. With Cranial Extractions, mana acceleration, card selection and card draw, you have the tools to dismantle any deck if given the right chances.


StrWrsKid on MODO

The thorn in Knutson’s side