You know your readers are all going to hate you.
Asher “ManningBot” Hekt
I am deep into The Game, a New York Times bestseller thrust upon me by ghweiss and others. The particular edition in my possession belongs to Ravitz, who dumped some kind of gigantic trash bag full of The West Wing seasons and mind control devices on top of me at the PTQ at Neutral Ground two weeks ago.
The PTQ at Neutral Ground two weeks ago was basically the toughest PTQ in human history. My deck was a monster, but required difficult decisions. It pained me to move Ith and Sacred Mesa to the sideboard. Most of my good White cards were enchantments, and seemingly all my White creatures were Kestrels. Anyway, I needed to play the copious removal of Black, including Faceless Butcher, a card that some players would add to their decks Big Cheats style in its original block.
First round I had Sadin. Yes, that’s right. One of my good friends and one of the best players in the tournament. He ate Disintegrate both games.
Second round I had Chad Kastel, who I started hanging out with for PT: Charleston testing and the NAC. I played really well against Steve and I played really well against Chad. Up a game in the second, I had answered his Ephemeron and had one of my own in play, along with another 2/2 flyer. He was on three. I was on eight. Eight, huh? Phthisis it is! Game 3 was off the top for most of the game… I didn’t hold on long enough. Chad made Top 8.
Third round I had Zvi. Yes, that Zvi. Now I will never claim to be the tightest technical player but I was running very well the first two rounds. Game 1 against Zvi I kept running. Zvi was manascrewed.
That’s when it hit me.
Don’t let it hit you.
Mercy is the silver bullet, wolfsbane, kryptonite, running water, holy water of Magic players. Oh, It seems innocuous enough. It isn’t. Never let the thought I feel bad because my friend got manascrewed ever, ever enter your vocabulary. In this match, that thought – that sliver of a thought – was the equivalent of tilt.
Game 2 maybe I could have won, who knows? I tossed three cards. Game 3 Zvi legitimately got his draw. Maybe it shouldn’t have gone to three. Mercy. Damn you, mercy.
So anyway, it’s Friday and The Game has resurrected some youthful memories of pre-married skirt chasing dodging in my old bones. I am recounting one of infinite stories from my first years in New York, specifically contrasting my onetime easy / natural approach… yet commensurately inept middle game and utter inability to close during the same epoch.
This particular story was, I believe, Tuna’s birthday party in 2000 (yes, Joshua, the summer we started hanging out… and don’t think that you and Paul didn’t ruin it all for me). My then-one-itis (actually kind of a fake one-itis) and her boss (herself HB9) brought a go-go dancer (HBdirtyblond) to the party and somehow at the bar they ended up fighting over who had the better abs (HBdirtyblond ultimately conceded to then-one-itis (“no bumps”) but had more than sufficiently flat abs). HBdirtyblond and I ended up in the bathroom and God bless it, I have no recollection of why slash what pretense, only that I followed up on an abs check but didn’t come close to closing – not even number closing – and she ended up bouncing to some other club, presumably for a booty call with more or better game. HB9, who was like my older sister but whose ship had at various times bumped, not bumped, and brushed past my own on various occasions in ’99 and ’00, was alpha to both then-one-itis and HBdirtyblonde; she instructed fervently that I follow HBdirtyblonde or lose her forever. (I’ll save you the suspense: Never calling her until the end of a summer, travelling up and down the East Coast with Josh and Paul, I lost her forever.) I reminded HB9 that thanks to a referral she gave me earlier that week for an illustrator, I was buying her drinks the night and could not leave. HB9 was both disappointed in me and quick to order a bottle of Dom. Cluelessly, I never stopped smiling.
I am three-fourths into the lavatory abs check when Burger King IMs me.
Burger King: Deck me.
Me: Busy (“busy” LOL). Download Julian’s deck from the Top8Magic Podcast.
… five minutes later…
Burger King: This is just Solar Pox!
Me: Um… It’s actually KarstenBotDIReBuy. Because, um, Karsten made the Haakon engine, and the deck rebuys DI!
Burger King: Shut up. You’re not playing this, are you? Your deck is awful. Play this: [ships some deck]
Me: Um… Okay?
Julian IMs me.
Barn Julian the N’Sync Intern a.k.a. Mother Superior IV Truth-Teller (Hoolian): I have a half day. We going to lunch?
Me: I have this sick deck.
Hoolian: Whatever it is, I’m in. I hate that Solar Pox anyway.
By now we are adamant in our adoption of Burger King’s deck. I am soft on U/R/W decks with no counters since Steve’s deck in Charleston and Chapin Flag Burner (Pat has been pushing me for this style of deck for weeks). All that remains is to spread Angels among the group like herpes.
Hoolian: Call Paul.
(( RingRingRing ))
Me: Are you with us or not?
PJ: Obv! Is that even a question? … I was actually not expecting this call for four hours.
Paul, unbeknownst to any, has no interest in Solar Pox KarstenBotDIRebuy and is looking for any reason to jump ship.
Me: Shut up. You have work to do. I am coordinating cards from Sadin [I had previously guilted Sadin into a two hour trip out of his way down to deepest darkest Brooklyn from Sarah Laurence in Bronxville, NY under the pretense that I deserved to win PT: Charleston and that he let me down… No, I still don’t understand why any of these people will even speak to me, especially Hoolian, whom I once forced to Volcanic Hammer himself when we first met (“I’ll call the judge!”), or Paul, whom I ditched for teams three different times (sadly he kept making money and playing for Day Three without me)… Yet somehow I am the best man at Paul’s wedding and all these people love me like their big brother. I guess big brothers are all assholes.], but you have to barn from Tony Tsai. Also Burger King’s mana needs work. I need you to fix it. Too many pain lands… I’m thinking four Karoos…
Paul has a magic Magic spreadsheet that makes Ravnica mana. No, I don’t know how it works. If I did, I would be the one with the magic Magic spreadsheet! I just know that when I make a three-color deck’s manabase and contrast it with Paul’s or Jonny’s, my deck doesn’t even have the same dual lands or Signets.
(Some stuff has happened between lunch time and dinner time but none of it as far as I recall has anything to do with Magic: The Gathering.)
I meet Sadin, Asher, and Mark Schmit (Schmithead) for dinner. We have Waldy’s. Waldy’s is like the best pizza you’ve ever had, but twice as good. No, I don’t want your lip. I live in New York. Please. You’ll have to trust me on this.
Mark claims to have plans but cannot escape the personal gravity of the black hole that is me. Even Hoolian, who had a family dinner, is drawn to Waldy’s like a moth to Sol. No, I have not yet tested the deck (Hoolian claims to have, but only against Snow Control). Schmithead is reluctant to switch, even though along with Hoolian, we were three-for-three in the Top 8 last year, losing only to each other. Schmithead’s Zoo deck will ultimately fail to follow up on his victory in the toughest PTQ in human history two weeks ago.
Sadin has clearly been practicing his PT: Kobe routine in front of a mirror non-stop since the Pro Tour. His delivery is worthy of… well… me (and on a good day). He wants nothing more than to burst out all over the table Tucker Max-style and has been “threatening” us with “Japan stories” over IM non-stop. Steve’s account of the gentleman’s gentlemen’s club in Tokyo is nine trillion times funnier and more painful to hear than Kyle’s version. As such, it cannot be reprinted here, even in part. Well done.
Asher decides he wants in. He burgles the cards he lent me for his own deck and goes on a trading rampage, closing the entire deck of obscure and expensive rares in 20 minutes. We test about three matchups (Solar Pox, Rakdos, B/W discard) and win them all easily.
I am rifling through the sea chest of ancient cards that serves as the coffee table in my living room. Battlestar Galactica “Collaborators” is on, but I switch the television off so as to not distract myself from finding the cards I need. Battlestar Galactica is among the finest hours currently broadcast on television YouTube.
Main deck spells are 35/37 BK’s. Land and two Azorius Signets belong to Paul. Sideboard is me with Mana Leaks from Burger King. Basically it is Kowal’s deck with minor refinements, and one of his best efforts since he put Dave Williams into his first PT Top 8, the earthly manifestation of Brian’s soul.
The reason we decided to play this deck is simple: Like I said in Blunt, the format was not showing any edge. We certainly liked some decks more than others (G/W, KarstenBotDIRebuy), but even those decks had glaring holes. I was at the point where I had swallowed most of Luis’s Kool-Aid after the second Mock Tournament and was nearly down for Son of a Beach House. I wanted to like Flag Burner more than Brian’s deck because Pat’s arguments made so much sense theoretically (even more “Demonfire” and not presenting targets), but Flag Burner took a round 1 loss in Sixteen and was spotty against my U/G deck in testing (I figured U/G would be very popular). Kowal assured us that his deck beat aggro, with a close (about 60/40) matchup against U/G. I looked at the list and didn’t see how it could ever lose to control. That left combo. Grand Arbiter beats Enduring Renewal outright. It makes life really really difficult for Dragonstorm… They need ten if not eleven actual mana in play to go off. The Kowal deck is not the fastest beatdown deck, but an eleven-turn clock? Doable.
Round 1: Sam (Space Stormy on the boards) with Mono-White Control
He is playing Paladin En-Vec, a 2/2 for three. I am playing Serra Avenger, a 3/3 for two. I have the miser’s Confiscate, which was supposed to wait for Sacred Mesa, but I fire it for Story Circle to finish. He draws too many lands.
This matchup is pretty impossible if he gets his tools. He has several different kinds of problem permanents (Sacred Mesa, Ivory Mask, Story Circle), which are all enchantments, and I have basically one Confiscate to deal with everything he can possibly draw. Angels got winner winner because, as strong as his cards are in the matchup, non-Blue control decks are incapable of regulating their draws. Definitely the matchup is better when I have four cantrip answers that can set up offense and Demonfire, but Sam would have been in much better shape if he could have pitched extra land to Compulsive Research in Game 1, or dug to it in Game 2.
In broad terms, control matchups go like this:
Blue versus multi-colored, the deck with the most Blue wins.
Multi-colored versus multi-colored, the deck with the most colors wins.
Round 2: Derek with Dragonstorm
He seems a good man. He sticks around to watch me play through the finals.
I mull. He has two Lotuses on the play. Dragonstorm isn’t actually that impossible if you think out the matchup. If all they have is Storm = 4, you can Helix them to stay above water and then Wrath of God the team. They are usually so spent after pushing their resources for nine mana and Storm = 4 that you can recover and win before they reassemble a real offense. Sadly this game, Derek had Storm = six on turn four.
I mull into third turn Arbiter but have to go to eighteen. That’s okay, Helix puts me to 21. He can’t assemble critical mass in time before my repeated three mana Lightning Angels do it.
I Mana Leak a Seething Song and buy some time with Repeal on his Izzet Signets. Eventually one of them peels me Grand Arbiter and I buy a little time. I am on the verge of losing every turn as the game drags, but at the end, I have UUU open and two or three Leaks assembled, so there is probably margin. It feels close, though. Really close.
Round 3: Michael with U/G/W Control
Michael beat Hoolian in Round 2 with Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree and Mystic Enforcer. This is not a great matchup. They have a kind of non-interactive inevitability with Vitu-Ghazi and a bigger man in Mystic Enforcer… and counters where the U/R/W mid-range deck has none. Meanwhile Loxodon Hierarch is staving off the burn kill.
He is ahead on card draw the whole game, but misses some drops so I know his grip is flush with Voidslimes. I drag it out but should probably scoop instead of letting him kill me, because it takes a while. As it is I have fewer than ten minutes to take Game 3.
I take nine trillion points on turn four when I have to turn on two Signets with Izzet Boilerworks (stranding mana), and then play up Hallowed Fountain and tap Adarkar Wastes for White mana to run out two Serra Avengers. I don’t put him on Wrath, and I am pretty sure he will have to Condemn one and the other will get in. This is what happens and I know the Firemane is safe when he taps for Loxodon. Uh-oh, Circle of Protection: Red. I swing and Helix, Helix, Demonfire through the Circle like it’s not even there.
Round 4: Evan with U/W Control
I have to respect the Urza’s Factory. He stifles my early game and gets the 2/2 machine online. Two-twos? Really? Those are bigger than Saps. I manage expectations with some Wraths and start aiming the Demonfires. McKenna points out I should have sent the first Demonfire for X-3 because it bites a Leak and I could have Trished a card there. Second Demonfire sticks. Third Demonfire is off the top when I’m Hellbent and sticks (but I think I could have won with the two Firemanes and ten mana anyway).
Round 5: Zac with Zoo
Straight beatdown is deader than deaderson. There is one Zoo and one Rakdos still in contention. Luckily, I draw the Zoo.
He wins the flip and has Kird Ape into Watchwolf. I have Wrath but he pummels me with Moldervine Cloak. He has Burning-Tree and Dredges the Cloak. I put three consecutive Firemane Angels in front of it. At eight mana I will Wrath, play Lightning Angel, and be through the woods. Sadly, he has Char.
I have Repeal.
Checking… Checking… Yep. Check. I still have Repeal.
Game 1 was anomalous. Had I won the flip, I probably would have taken it from fifteen life. Zoo is this deck’s good matchup provided they don’t have a land destruction transformation (see Paul’s match here). I will tend to bring in Mana Leak because Angels can afford to play a little inefficiently just to make sure the opponent still has no chance. With Repeals in the deck, there is just one more way to stave off early beats, and an ace against Moldervine Cloak, which can otherwise be a difficult card to deal with easily.
Round 6: Max with Solar Flare
He got me with a decent Persecute but I still should have won. All day I played sloppy on Firemane Angel points and here, with Solar Flare, is the matchup the two I missed should have mattered least. Max untaps and plays Akroma to deal me exactly twelve with Despair and Hussar. If I had remembered those points, I could have untapped with eight mana in play and run the Wrath with Max tapped, and gained life to four (out of immediate danger given Lightning Helix). His remaining cards were the third Remand and Angel of Despair, but he had Negator Totem in play. This would have bought some Helix action and at the end of the turn, I’d be up six life and he’d be down as many as seven permanents.
… But of the sixteen or so Firemane points I missed on the Swiss, one of those two was the only one that really mattered.
Round 7: Douglass with G/W Glare
He has a wicked start with Vinelasher Kudzus and multiple Terramorphic Expanses and puts me to four. I have the Wrath just in time. Of course I miss more Firemane points, but the card advantage is enough. I buy a little time and end this one on 28.
Round 8: ID with Solar Flare
Thank God I’m not paired down.
Top 8: Christian with b/U Snow Control
Christian is the only other Neutral Ground regular to make Top 8. He is playing Snow Control, which is unplayably bad against Zoo (no aggro at the top tables) and a coin flip against me. We agree whoever wins this match must carry the banner for Neutral Ground.
Julian tested with Christian on Friday, and teaches me not to play mid-game Firemane Angel (it will just bite a Draining Whelk that will quickly prove impossible), but instead to get it in the graveyard and slow play on ten mana. Firemane in the graveyard is what you want in this matchup, but a lot of the other cards are reasonable (for example mid-game Serra Avenger). You can’t really avoid playing into the counterspells, so the goal is to just hit mana through the endgame with your card draw. If you haven’t played against Teferi… practice.
This one is super close. Basically he is on three and I’m on two with two Vigilance blockers and a tapped, Confiscated, Draining Whelk. I go for the Helix. He has the answer. I can’t stack anything cleverly due to Teferi. He bounces or Ronoms all my men and Teferi puts me to -1.
I slow play the Firemane and grind it out. It takes much longer than the two seconds you took to read those nine words just now, but you really don’t want to hear about it.
We play attrition and he has me covered six-nil on cards. We are both developing but I have two things going for me: Christian lets my Signets hit, and even though he’s got a Scrying Sheets or so, misses a couple of drops.
Middle turns, he is up three Compulsive Researches to my one. He Time Walks me on ten mana twice by aiming Wipe Away at Boros Garrison. It takes forever, but I have Firemane Angel and he, eventually, excruciatingly, has three life. End of turn he flashes Mystical Teachings and gets Rimefeather Owl (Teferi down). My turn I draw a card (spicy) and swing. Predictably he taps to UU5 down to UU1 and crushes my Angel with the Owl mid-combat. I flip Compulsive Research and say “You might as well pack now, because I’m pretty sure there is a Demonfire in the top three.” It’s third down.
Top 4: Jonathan with U/R/W Firemane
He has me covered seven if not eight to about three all game. I play only one Compulsive Research but it deposits two Firemane Angels on turn 3. I am pretty sure I will win when he points his first Demonfire at my Lightning Angel. I put him on three Demonfires because he shows way too many Think Twices, Remands, and Whispers of the Muse to play four. I bait the next two out and slow-play my Wraths to buy time. I’m on 30+ the whole mid-game. Finally I play the two Compulsive Researches in my hand… on him.
He is slow on mana and I get a pretty perfect distribution for my Firemanes.
All in all Jonathan makes a great comeback tournament for a guy who has been out for five years.
Top 2: Greg with stock U/G
I keep a hand that seems perfect, with Lightning Angel and two Lightning Helixes… but no Red. I have to play the control. He has an Elephant token. I draw Izzet Boilerworks. While my mana is mucked up, he sticks the Cloak. Finally I spring the Wrath. He has a Leak and flashes the Call. It’s more than enough.
I have Repeal to stall, and lock the board for Wrath.
While it’s no bye in Game 1, this matchup is close to ideal when you can swap in Repeal. Lightning Angel is the perfect foil to Call of the Herd and Lightning Helix seems made for frying up the icy Ohran Viper. U/G may be the control killer, but in this matchup, it has to contend with peer-or-better creatures, Lightning Helix, and the unknown. Greg finishes the tournament having lost only to this deck (me and Paul). Great job.
So I guess I move up one spot from last year, when I should have been State Champion.
One more thing:
Distraught over missing about half my Firemane Angel points, I picked up a pen and held it in my right hand during the entirety of the Top 8. As such, I had to either write down my life total or actively put the pen down before drawing. I missed only one Firemane point the entire Top 8, and it is the turn, on the last turn of the semifinals, that I was going to untap and win. I didn’t think anyone will notice, but Paul did, and wrote a brilliant summary. I actually thought Paul’s article was one of the best-crafted strategy articles in recent memory; well-written, and one of the very few that can actually make someone better at Magic. Sad to say, the vast majority make players worse.
Many times during the stressful quarterfinal and finals matchups, I recalled the paradoxical dilemma of Chris Pikula, of playing well and losing, of playing badly and mising. This time I played (pretty) well and mised.
Josh (not Josh Ravitz for once!): Mana Leaks
Everyone else who lent me cards (Tony, Steve, Dan, Julian, anyone I am forgetting): All the other cards.
Burger King: Awesome deck.
Katherine: For letting me play.
Everyone else: For not being bastards (non-bastards, that is).
Asher, Julian, and I sit back and have some victory BBQ at RUB (Righteous Urban Barbeque). I have burnt end dinner (charred fatty brisket tips), Asher has a short rack, and Julian, quintessential city child, orders cooked pastrami. It dawns on me that Julian + Asher may have a smaller sum of years than my thirty and my jaw drops. I almost drop my fork. Thirty-two? Oh thank God. This conversation becomes the backbone for Julian’s application essay to USC.
We finish with fried Oreos (don’t tell my wife). Four come, and Julian mises the extra one after an orgy of rock-paper-scissors.
I inform Kowal that the deck has already been named “Star Spangled Flores” without my consent. I beseech him for a better name to trump and substitute. His official entry is “Untapped Ladies,” which is just worse than his other nominee, “Star Spangled Go Anan.”
I still vote for “This Girl.”
Per tradition, we feast on the ice cream cake of victory. It dawns on us that ice cream cake from Baskin Robbins is actually vile. We all finish our slices, at least those of us with quejones. Many of us become actively sick, but not those of us with quejones. We do a draft and I go 2-1 with B/R, beating Julian (manascrewed) and Zvi (mana flooded), losing to Rich Fein. Rich 3-0s with Green (no, really). Zvi chuckles at the fact that because a legitimate deck designer played another deck designer’s creation to victory, that actual designer will never and can never get proper credit (sorry Kowal). He then asks me how I could throw away the forty or so hours spent testing different decks, running mock tournaments, building, and tuning in favor of a last-minute audible. I give him the only response I can:
I was right.