Ups And Downs Of Gatecrash Limited

Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz ran the tables at GP Pittsburgh before landing in the Top 32. Read about his strategic decisions, draft picks, and stories from the weekend.

Grand Prix Pittsburgh was the finale of Gatecrash Limited. It’s a format that has gotten the thumbs down from a lot of professional players. They bemoan the lack of play, the mandatory aggressiveness, and the lack of options during Drafting or Sealed Deck construction. They hate the repetitiveness of the mechanics, especially extort.

These are valid complaints. Casual players love the aggressiveness, the ability to get a handle on what they should be playing and doing, and the ability to do powerful and impactful things. They don’t feel lost or overwhelmed and want to keep coming back for more. These are very strong positives. It’s no coincidence that Gatecrash has led to the largest tournaments of all time!

I know this first hand because I took my wife Laura Baur along on the car trip to Grand Prix Pittsburgh, where she got her DCI card, a mediocre sealed deck that she built only one non-mana card off of how I would have built it, and a 4-5 record. She has the fever! She played in several side events during the second day and is looking forward to Dragon’s Maze.

For a below average sealed deck and a first tournament experience, that’s pretty sweet. It was a unique chance for me to see the other side of Magic’s tournament scene where players show up to have fun and test their skills with no expectations of a payoff beyond the thrill of victory and staving off the agony of defeat. It’s a very different atmosphere, and it was clear that most people involved were there for the right reasons. I am very proud of her. Of course, that sets the bar high—next time I’m going to see about getting her a winning record!

Gaudenis Vidugiris drove us and did an admirable job, although our navigation skills left a lot to be desired.

He also chose Red Lobster as the place to stop for dinner, of which I need say no more.

What Laura loves about Gatecrash are many of the things that pros dislike about it. I think that in these cases, for the most part, she and the other amateurs are mostly right, and the pros are mostly wrong.

Giving players the chance to come out fast and be aggressive is fun for the whole family, as is drafting such decks. Limiting the options of players can be stifling, but it also breeds creativity. We need to figure out how to navigate a world in which we must worry a lot about what will be taken fifth out of our pack and allows us to dig deep in figuring out how to build a deck that can navigate the matchups it will have to face. Managing your curve and creature count throughout the draft and finding ways to ensure you get what you need become the new focus. There’s still a lot of room for me to improve my game in this format, if I want to do that, and I doubt anyone else has figured everything else out either. The top players are still debating a lot of questions large and small.

There’s also the hidden bonus element of Gatecrash that doesn’t get enough respect, which is that the rares and mythics don’t take over the format. In many formats you’d lose a lot of games and matches to players simply because they had cards that were vastly better than anything you had access to, and there was nothing you could do. There’s still better and worse, and there are still bombs, but the bombs are much more manageable. Obzedat is likely the hardest card to beat, and I’ve done so reasonably often. The top of the Sealed standings involved a lot of powerful rares, but people forget how much worse it can be.

A lot of that is the speed of the format: I can use my well-built engine to overcome your defenses before you can leverage or sometimes even draw your expensive bomb cards. The rest of it is that the cards are well-designed to be strong but not oppressive. Does anyone remember Crosis, the Purger? No? Then how about Pack Rat?

Pros think there isn’t a lot of play to the format, and in terms of the number of turns they are right, but I still feel there are lots of decisions, and those decisions matter.

Many games are decided by which two-drop to lead with on the second turn and whether to trade off early drops with your opponent’s. Should I lead with the better creature to get early damage in or the worse one to get a better trade? When should you give up a better creature for a worse creature? When should you take extra damage to set up a battalion? When can you read your opponent for being unwilling to trade creatures and get them to take extra damage? Can you trade a creature that won’t matter later for one that does? Often the better two-drops are a disadvantage because players will refuse to trade them off. Syndic of Tides can end up being too awesome to use, but it’s not better than Gutterskulk if one of them attacks for two and the other says no blockers!

The results of the Grand Prix reflected this. The better players found a way to win matches, and the worse players found a way to lose them. My final draft table was the most extreme Pod of Death I’ve ever been a part of at a Grand Prix, and there’s no question we ended up with a worthy champion.

Some players missed out on the second day because of poor Sealed pools; I was sitting with Sam Black as we tried desperately to find a way to make Tom Martell pool playable without success. However, there weren’t more cases of that then there would otherwise be for a tournament this large; in fact I believe there were far fewer.

I was, of course, very fortunate to have a strong pool. I got the pool that got the player registering it to remark about how amazing it was and bemoan having to give it away. I won’t list the uninteresting part of my sealed pool because there was no second option. Here is a picture of my deck:

Relevant Sideboard: 1 Prophetic Prism, 1 Skarrg Guildmage, 1 Zhur-Taa Swine, 1 Gruul Charm, 1 Beckon Apparition

This is an amazing first twenty-one cards. It’s only two colors; it’s got a great curve; and it’s got the bombs too: Frontline Medic, Firemane Avenger, and Angelic Skirmisher. It’s also set up very well to get domination of the air, with tons of flyers and cards that can clear the way for flyers. There was, of course, a slight problem with the fact that I needed twenty-four spells rather than twenty-one.

I don’t especially want to have to play Shielded Passage, Beckon Apparition, or Foundry Street Denizen, but there was nothing else in Boros left in my pool. Shielded Passage is fine because the deck has lots of men, and Sealed matches with a deck like this are going to involve a lot of early creature combat where you can trade Shielded Passage for a creature. Plus you can sometimes use it to protect your bomb creatures. Beckon Apparition was another flyer, which is good, but this deck doesn’t naturally put things into the graveyard, and it’s always awkward playing a one-drop that doesn’t work on turn one or two. I had a second one in my board, which was pretty much my only board card, and I fake sideboarded by exchanging them between games along with a basic land.

Foundry Street Denizen is also highly questionable. Sam Black agreed that in my deck I probably had to run it but wanted to find excuses to sideboard it out as often as possible. One of his big lines about this Sealed format is that no one has ever gone 10-0 with a maindeck Foundry Street Denizen despite many Boros decks doing so. It became part of my motivation to prove that rule wrong!

The other option I had was to splash green for Skarrg Guildmage, Zhur-Taa Swine, and Gruul Charm off of the Boros Guildgate, a Prophetic Prism, and perhaps a Gruul Keyrune. This would allow me to play without all my bad cards at the price of about three Forests, which was a price I was not willing to pay. Even in the absence of Truefire Paladin, Boros decks cannot afford to not draw both colors and usually have to mulligan hands that don’t have access to both red and white. This makes splashing an extreme cost, and this deck is far too strong to introduce green lands as a failure mode. If I’d had a Gruul Guildgate, the decision would have been closer, but I think it’s still not quite enough.

After deck construction, I went to see how Laura was doing. She had a Gruul deck that had to play some cards one would rather avoid and had chosen to finish off with a Furious Resistance. She thought I’d have wanted her to play Orzhov with her card pool, since she assumed it was a better deck, but was more comfortable with Gruul. It turns out that the Gruul deck was clearly correct except for that last card, so a quick swap in of a Plains, a Boros Guildgate, and a Prophetic Prism allowed her to replace it with a Foundry Champion.

Much better! After that she was off to battle. My watching made her nervous, so after round two I stayed away, and she emerged victorious more than anyone expected; she thought I was crazy when I said I expected an average of three wins.

Meanwhile, there was a Grand Prix to win. After beating an unusually strong deck and player in round four, the decks I faced in Sealed got steadily better, as they usually do when one gets to 8-0. I faced Melissa DeTora in round six, which was featured; she had poor draws two of the three games, getting overrun in those and winning the game where I was flooded by Mind Grinding me out. I made the mistake of not counting the lands beforehand to see if I was dead, needlessly showing her the remainder of my deck, a mistake I will hopefully learn from and not make again.

In round nine at 8-0 I faced Ari Lax, who had a deck very similar to mine. He had his own three Daring Skyjeks, his own Frontline Medic, and a complement of other fine Boros men and spells. I won one game by outdrawing him, and he won two games by outdrawing me, with mulligans being a big part of that. That sounds like the nightmare version of the format, with everyone playing the same deck and seeing who gets a good curve and some bombs.

That’s not entirely fair though because there are still decisions, especially when to mulligan. Would you keep a hand with Plains, Mountain, and two offensive three-drops that had no two-drops and was otherwise awkward on the draw against another insane Boros deck? I didn’t, and I believe strongly that I was right, but Ari Lax said he would have snap-kept. When I told him more details later he took back the snap, but I doubt he’d have taken back the keep.

If there’s one round that cost me the tournament it was round 10, the last round of Sealed. I played against an Orzhov deck splashing red, with the first two games decided quickly by mulligans and each of us getting overrun in turn so I didn’t know much about his deck.

In game three we both mulliganed to six, and I played out a Daring Skyjek and a Frontline Medic. He made his first play, a fourth-turn Zarichi Tiger. My hand is Firemane Avenger, Shielded Passage, Ripscale Predator (or Angelic Skirmisher, I drew the other the next turn), and a fifth land.

My choices were to cast Firemane Avenger or to attack first with both creatures, and if he blocked to use Shielded Passage. My thinking was that if I attacked now, he might take the damage or he might block. If he took the damage it was a free three damage. If he blocked, I could use Shielded Passage, but that would mean no Firemane Avenger. Given I had no other plays before six, I was unlikely to lose tempo. It meant I couldn’t threaten a game-ending battalion, but he was Orzhov and hadn’t played any other spells, so the chance the Avenger would live seemed low, so I didn’t want to let the Tiger start buying him time or enable him to Smite my Frontline Medic if he didn’t have another creature. I also was always looking to trade off Shielded Passage, since one of the ways I lose is if that card doesn’t play.

So I attacked first, he blocked, and I used Shielded Passage. He played a fifth land and said go; I attacked, and he took six. No creature, no removal. I’d drawn Armored Transport for the turn. I looked at him, and my brain told me:

Merciless Eviction. He has it.

It made sense. Why else would the game have played out like this? His deck is good enough to be 8-1; there’s a good chance Eviction is in his deck. It was a poker type read as well, as he didn’t seem to be as down about the situation as he should have been. Something was up.

Could I choose not to play the Firemane Avenger? He was at eight, so he would have to pull the trigger next turn if I cast Armored Transport and might have to even if I didn’t cast anything. I thought about it for a while and ultimately decided that it was too costly to go with the read.

If I didn’t put him on the clock, he could play any other six-drop, and it was likely to be a good one like Angelic Skirmisher. When playing Boros against Orzhov, time is not on your side. There were too many scenarios where I could get punished for holding back, especially if he was holding spells he’d chosen not to cast, as hard as it is to believe Frontline Medic wouldn’t be worth a kill spell.

He had it.

After that came a long attrition war. I think he played it poorly, but I drew at least two lands too many, and he grinded me out, leaving me at 8-2. I knew that my deck was capable of going 9-1 or 10-0, and I knew that I’d probably had a way to win that last match. Because I hadn’t, I’d have to win all my matches on day two, and your decks don’t always cooperate even if you do everything right.

The top tables were full of Boros decks, Orzhov decks, and decks splashing the remaining color. A handful of good decks could play the other guilds, but it was increasingly rare over time. The power levels of the guilds in Gatecrash are not remotely similar in a Sealed Deck context, and white in particular has a huge edge over the other colors.

In Draft this is fine because it creates interesting dynamics, with players tempted to take several white commons over every common in other colors, in turn creating fights over the color. In Sealed Deck it’s a huge problem.

Day two I sat down to draft looking to follow the philosophy I’d developed online, which is heavily biased in favor of red and in paying very close attention to the cards you pass along and are passed.

It’s not about taking the best card out of the pack; it’s about setting up people to get into train wrecks while you get the open guild. This goes hand in hand with the rares not being back breaking, which goes double for the aggressive decks. You’d love a Clan Defiance but can do fine without such cards. The best Gruul common is Zhur-Taa Swine, and you can often get it sixth in pack one. Other star cards can go similarly late if no one wants them.

I was worried that playing with and against Boros and Orzhov decks all day would bias players into disrespecting the other guilds, so I was looking to go Gruul and Simic more than usual. Thus, I decided to take Skarrg Goliath out of the first pack, passing Firefist Striker and Boros Elite to the left, as Orzhov ran deep in the pack, and I could strip the pack of all Simic cards and all the red cards except for Firefist Striker.

I also thought that taking a green card was the best way to dodge any possible conflict with teammate Andrew Cuneo, who was on my right and is the only person I trust to draft Dimir in this format. I have no idea how he drafts a guild that doesn’t exist.

I again had a voice in the back of my head telling me I was being dumb and to take the card I really wanted, which was Firefist Striker, but I’d thought this through.

I never took another non-Boros card the whole draft except for Dutiful Thrull and a few end-of-pack cards. It was obvious it was open even before I got the fifth-pick Firefist Striker and later an eighth-pick Sunhome Guildmage. I even took a second-pick Orzhov Guildgate over a Simic Manipulator when I got passed a dead second pick in pack two, in case I wanted to regenerate the Dutiful Thrull I had and to avoid taking a Simic Manipulator away from Cuneo. It was far too late for that card to be playable for me in any case.

The second pack was then all Simic. This didn’t make any sense since I’d passed plenty of it to the left and knew I’d cut Boros after the first pack, but sometimes the packs are very strange.

I learned in pack three that it was almost certainly just strange packs, and later I would confirm it by talking to the other players. I was short of two-drops for most of the draft and spent the whole second review period determined to focus on fixing that, but the third pack delivered on that big time. It was clear I was the only Boros drafter when I picked up the Sunhome Guildmage eighth.

I can’t currently find the deck to transcribe its contents, but it had a solid and aggressive curve with high quality cards and was almost entirely creatures.

Deck construction offered some interesting last card choices. Sam Black recommended running Foundry Street Denizen number two over Ripscale Predator, which I think was right, and Angelic Edict over Act of Treason or Aerial Maneuver. I certainly had built this deck in a quirky fashion.

Others made similar suggestions; it was clear what the weaker cards were but not clear which ones to leave and which to cut. Sideboarding would be based on who I was facing, so my decisions were basically final—no matter what I was cutting Aerial Maneuver and Act of Treason against Orzhov and Dimir and having them against Boros and Gruul.

My top eight dreams were crushed in the very first round. I used Act of Treason to take out his Undercity Informer the turn he played it, then sacrificed it to mill him, but he turned around and got it and a milled friend back with Immortal Servitude. That put me behind, and I proceeded to flood out and be unable to finish him off from one life. I won game two in five turns but then had more mana problems and suddenly had lost to a very poor aggressive Dimir deck. To go from 8-0 to 8-3 is always deflating, but there was still a glimmer of hope since I hadn’t done the math and a top 16 to go after.

The third round of the draft was essentially a bye, as my opponent seemed to have no deck and no plan, tossing away creatures for no gain and sitting around waiting to be killed. That led me into my second draft, which was the above-mentioned Pod of Death:

33 Lax, Ari M * [USA] 30 75.73%
34 Stern, Jon * [USA] 30 74.61%
35 Shenhar, Shahar * [USA] 30 72.17%
36 Mowshowitz, Zvi S * [USA] 30 71.99%
37 Christiansen, Nico * [USA] 30 71.59%
38 Demestrio, Joe * [USA] 30 71.37%
39 Turtenwald, Owen * [USA] 30 71.32%
40 Gonzales, Roberto J * [USA] 30 71.29%

My lord. Ari Lax pointed out that arguably of all of us he’s had the worst year. This was also one of the most fun groups I’ve had to sit with pre-draft. There’s something about playing for ninth (or as it turned out, twelfth) to lighten your spirits. Once he realized we were playing for ninth, Roberto Gonzales called shotgun, since if anyone’s going to get ninth it’s obviously him.

After my last experience, I was very inclined to go Boros and certainly to go red. When I sat down to the left of another teammate, Owen Turtenwald, I knew I would likely get my wish since he’s a big Orzhov fan and knew my preferences.

Coordination is hard, but in some cases it’s pretty easy.

I took a Guardian of the Gateless first passing only an Ember Beast in white and red; he passed me a Wojek Halberdiers second and a Skyknight Legionnaire fifth, so I figured things were easy, but the quality of the green cards kept getting steadily better rather than worse as the draft progressed.

I confiscated two Crocanura in otherwise dead packs, one of them in pack one, so when I opened Ghor-Clan Rampager and nothing else impressive, I considered going Gruul instead but decided to stick to my guns. I then had to pass Skarrg Guildmage, a bunch of the best green and Gruul commons, and then finally in the third pack I was passed Clan Defiance. I thought about taking it, but splashing is too painful in Boros, so I stayed on target.

Simic cards were flying around the table as well, cumulating in a tenth-pick Zameck Guildmage I had to pass up to take a Boros Guildgate I needed. Before that I’d been convinced that Ari Lax had gone Simic, which he had, but that one definitely made me pause.

I ended up with this:

I wanted to get people’s opinions on the last few cards, but everyone I wanted to ask that I saw was in the pod! Eventually I got a few second opinions, but again what I was up against would tell the tale anyway.

The first round I was up against Owen, who as expected had an Orzhov deck. He drew poorly; I drew well; and it wasn’t much of a match.

Next up was Joe Demestrio, who had what he said was the best deck he’d ever seen in the format. I knew what I’d passed, and I believed him. Game one I didn’t have white mana for a while after a mulligan and considered scooping without showing him, but I figured he wouldn’t believe that I was Gruul because of what cards got through me so why pretend he’d had competition? He thought for a while about where I was at the table, since he had multiple cards that would kill me and decided to show me a copy of Clan Defiance, since I knew about one of them, and this wouldn’t tell me about the other one. His deck was kind of nuts. Game two I came out after a mulligan with a truly terrifying curve and ran him over, and then game three he mulliganed to five allowing me to take the match.

In the last round I scooped to Shahar Shenhar, since he’s a friend and needed the points in the race for the Players Championship, which is very high value even though he’s likely in either way—whereas the Hall of Fame makes Gold irrelevant to me. I think there might be a scenario where this causes me to miss Platinum if I get second in Portland and then win San Diego. I’m willing to take that risk.

We drove back together with Hashim Bello, and all concerned were excellent times, getting back to New York at about two in the morning after a slight detour due to a navigational error that I was probably responsible for—although letting me navigate is also a pretty terrible decision given I’ve never driven a car in my life and get dizzy on the road.

Overall, a great trip, with my only real complaint being the lack of video coverage. How will I relive the Magic?