Riki Hayashi approached me just after the start of round 1, while I was calmly watching a friend’s match as I enjoyed the first of two byes. Riki’s demeanor demanded attention in a casual, cool way. His eyes eagerly awaited the answer to the question, one that seemed so familiar and yet so…odd.
Are you going to win this tournament, Todd?
I pondered the question, one that had been asked of me many times by many different people. One that I usually answered quickly and without much thought. Simple. Elegant. Frank. So I thought for a moment and came to somewhat of an illogical conclusion, but one that felt correct. Yes. A thoughtful look appeared on his face, and he smiled and walked away.
For the most part, I felt comfortable going into the StarCityGames.com Invitational in Atlanta. Gerry Thompson had brewed up a very good Standard Delver deck, primed to beat Zombies and Thragtusk decks with the help of the humble Mirran Crusader. What once was old is new again. After tinkering around with the deck some on Magic Online and talking to Gerry and the rest of the crew, we had all pretty much figured out our lists, though some people deferred to Solar Flare.
This version of Delver felt like nothing I’d played in Standard in quite some time. It was the first time in recent memory where my opponent cast Thragtusk against me and I was in no way afraid. Mirran Crusader and Spectral Flight drastically changed the green-based matchups, allowing you to swing past their ground-pounding army with both Mirran Crusader and Geist of Saint Traft.
While the rest of the deck was mostly the same, I feel like it needs to be mentioned that it is very important to find the hole(s) in your deck and fix it. For Delver, Thragtusk and Zombies were a huge problem. Mirran Crusader was a pretty obvious fix that I had just forgotten about for months! I will say that when Gerry is on his game, he is really on his game.
The deck did exactly what I expected it to do, but it was still pretty soft to the mirror. Talrand, Sky Summoner was particularly annoying, since they will still usually end up with a few Drakes even if you are able to kill him immediately. I briefly considered altering my sideboard significantly to include Talrand, but that also meant I would need to play more copies of Thought Scour, which was not something I wanted to do.
In a tournament like the SCG Invitational, it is fairly easy to discern what the most popular decks are going to be. Going into this tournament, we felt like Delver, Zombies, Thragtusk, and Solar Flare would be prevalent. While Delver mirrors could occasionally be a crapshoot, we felt like Mirran Crusader was better than Restoration Angel and Hero of Bladeholdâ€”since it costs less manaâ€”but worse than Talrand. We also felt that maindecking Mental Misstep would help protect us from opposing Vapor Snags and give us an edge in the early game of the mirror. Many hands from Delver rely heavily on Ponder, so having a Mental Misstep to counter it early could cause your opponent to stumble greatly.
Mental Misstep was a powerful tool for the deck, helping to slow down the green decks by countering Avacyn’s Pilgrim and Birds of Paradise. It also protected our Mirran Crusaders from cards like Pillar of Flame out of the Zombie decks. Mental Misstep was one of the reasons why the deck did so well (for me) because it was so good at gaining tempo and forcing your opponent to fall behind while you bashed them over the head with a Spectral Flight.
As for Legacy, it was an entirely different story. I didn’t know what deck I wanted to play right up until the Wednesday before the tournament. I’d been playing Maverick for the last few months on and off, but something just didn’t feel right about it this time. I kept playing against Show and Tell decks with Omniscience on Magic Online and falling short over and over. Time and time again, they would set up the perfect turn, and I would be left just feeling helpless. I couldn’t apply enough pressure or disrupt their game plan enough to stop their combo.
I was also afraid of the glass cannon combo decks since I didn’t have any way to interact with them until the second turn! If they were just faster than me or I didn’t draw any hate cards, I was dead in the water. This left me with a pretty sour taste in my mouth because I really wasn’t used to losing so much with Maverick. I kept trying different configurations, including going up to FOUR Oblivion Rings after sideboarding at one point. I still couldn’t beat Show and Tell consistently enough, so I decided it was time for a change. Something needed to change, and I didn’t think I had time to test adding another color to the deck for Spell Pierce or Thoughtseize.
After reading about Death’s Shadow and talking to Gerry about the deck, seeing as he had won a Magic Online Premier Event with it, I was intrigued. Death’s Shadow itself is a cool card, and everyone knows just how much I love Gitaxian Probe (and paying life for spells), so I was instantly hooked. Snuff Out seemed so insane, especially so when I was able to grow my Death’s Shadow! There were some obvious drawbacks to dealing yourself too much damage because it made it much easier for the aggro decks to kill you, but that type of deck was definitely appealing to me and my love of Delver. It had been quite some time since I had cast a Brainstorm, and it felt good. Really good.
After playing some matches with the deck, I noticed a few flaws, ones that I thought I could fix. I kept playing against Brad Nelson with the (admittedly sweet) RUG Delver list he had worked on with Gerry. Again, I kept falling short, and I didn’t know what to do. His deck included the usual RUG nonsense, a full set of Stifle, and Sylvan Library! I had played a bit with Sylvan Library in the past, but rarely in a deck where I could make good use out of the extra cards. In a deck like Maverick, you are just drawing mana producers and Grizzly Bears, so it isn’t all that impressive. However, when you’re drawing Force of Will, Delvers, Nimble Mongooses, and Tarmogoyfs, the experience is quite different! I was, again, intrigued. This time, it stuck!
This card singlehandedly won me the tournament.
I want that sentence to sink in for a moment, but it is absolutely true. I played against at least four different players playing blue control decks, and Sylvan Library was one of the main reasons I was able to beat them. Sylvan Library shines when your life total doesn’t matter and you are able to abuse the ability by drawing a lot of extra cards in a short period of time. It is even nicer when your opponent is relying on Swords to Plowshares to do most of the dirty work for them, making Sylvan Library even better! While there are times when it is just a pseudo Sensei’s Divining Top, the games where you get to draw two to four extra cards it’s just bananas.
When you’re playing against a control or combo opponent, the ability to draw into Force of Will, Daze, and Spell Pierce by paying (basically all of) your life is amazing. Of course, it comes with a heavy price. You’re playing with a spell that doesn’t flip Delver of Secrets, costs two mana, and isn’t that good against dedicated aggressive strategies. When you can’t afford to pay the life for extra cards, the mana and card investment for Sylvan Library just isn’t worth it, which is why we opted for just a singleton maindeck and a second in the sideboard. The card is very good, but I highly recommend trying it out for yourself.
As far as why I "abandoned" Maverick, RUG Delver could do everything that Maverick couldn’t do. It could interact with combo decks! Sure, you have Thalia and Gaddock Teeg, but those spells aren’t free, and RUG Delver has a real clock. While both seemed to have pretty solid matchups against control when built properly, I still thought RUG the favorite. For the Maverick side, you needed to include healthy numbers of Gaddock Teeg and Choke to win, but the inherent disruptive nature of the Delver strategy was already halfway there. With cards like Daze, Force of Will, Stifle, Wasteland, and Spell Pierce, it is really tough for the opponent to play around everything.
Subsequently, when you have disruptive elements in your deck like this, people tend to play around them even when you don’t have them in hand. Sometimes, they play around them even when they’re not in your deck anymore after sideboarding! This can be a great mental edge against a lot of opponents, as they will continue to play around something like Daze while you get to use your resources efficiently every turn. It can be a game of cat and mouse in which they try to guess what you’re doing while you manipulate their perception of what you may or may not have. A simple pause here or a "that ability is on the stack" there and they will seriously reconsider running their Jace into a Daze or Engineered Explosives into a Stifle.
RUG Delver is definitely the deck I recommend going forward, but obviously people will adapt. Stifle will become worse as a result of being a known entity, but every opponent in the Top 8 knew my decklist and Stifle was still amazing. There are so many abilities to counter aside from lands, and having access to the full set was awesome.
A lot of the cards in my sideboard were theory driven. Envelop was quite a sweet one, and something I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find once we got to the site. Luckily, a friend of mine had randomly bought four copies from SCG and had them shipped to the event site, and I was able to procure two copies for myself! While it isn’t the most diverse counterspell, it does wonders against Terminus, Entreat the Angel, Perish, Show and Tell, and even Time Spiral. There are a lot of cards in the format that Envelop wrecks, but there is a reason why I only had two in the sideboard. It is the very definition of the word "narrow."
Krosan Grip underperformed and it came to a point where I wouldn’t even side them in against Stoneforge Mystic or Counterbalance decks. You just don’t have the time or resources to have reactive spells that cost more than one or two mana. Additionally, the Stoneblade decks have access to Inquisition of Kozilek now, making your answer unreliable. It is much easier to just Lightning Bolt their Stoneforge Mystic and keep them stalled on mana with Wasteland and Stifle. Daze and Spell Pierce help keep Batterskull off the table as well, and Stifle can even keep the Germ trigger in check if you need.
Rough / Tumble seemed pretty awesome, but I never actually cast it. I feel like it will be necessary in the future since it works so well against Goblins (which is on the rise in popularity). It was a card that I definitely wanted and will definitely play again. As for "why," it is a Pyroclasm that doesn’t kill flipped Delvers (in case that wasn’t clear).
I liked the theory behind Sulfuric Vortex going into the tournament, but the actual interaction between Vortex and Sylvan Library was pretty awkward. I wanted to side out my burn spells, which makes Vortex a bit worse. I also wanted to pay all of my life to just get ahead on cards. That plan worked pretty well. I only killed one opponent with Vortex in the entire tournament, but Lightning Bolt would have been sufficient.
Overall, the sideboard could probably use some work, but I’m not quite sure what direction I want to go just yet.
As for the tournament itself, it was a spectacle! Around me, a lot of the game’s top American players were vying for their share of the $75,000 prize purse. After making Top 8 and eventually taking down the tournament, I was prompted to go into the "booth" for an interview. I was ecstatic! But I was also stretched thin. I was…tired. Happy, but so very tired. In the interview, I was asked all sorts of questions, including what I thought about the Invitational, but everything seemed to spew out at once!
I had been talking earlier in the weekend with a few friends about the quality of the players in the Invitational and how we rarely get to play in such high-profile events with such high levels of competition. This was something I wanted to express, but instead I told the world that I thought this tournament was tougher than the Pro Tour. At this juncture, let me make one thing abundantly clear:
The SCG Invitational is not harder than the Pro Tour.
When someone sticks a camera in your face and your emotions are running high, sometimes you say some stupid things. I am obviously no exception. It wasn’t my intention to demean the accomplishments of anyone on the Pro Tour or anyone associated with it. I’m no stranger to that stage, and I know it is very difficult. My gut told me that this was the most difficult tournament I’d ever played in, but that doesn’t mean that other people hadn’t done things much greater than myself and taken down tournaments that were much harder than this one. This was a very personal experience for me, but I know I stepped on a few toes with my comments, and I am sorry.
However, for reference, the Invitational experience I had featured multiple opponents with a PT Top 8, a slew of Grand Prix Top 8s, a US National Champion, and some of the game’s best (admittedly American) grinders. This was not an easy tournament, but it is (of course) impossible for me to be unbiased in this observation. The SCG Invitational in Atlanta had the strongest set of opponents I’ve ever faced off against in any tournament. While not every opponent was a household name, I recognized every single one, which is a rare occurrence.Â
After much thought and a Twitter storm, I feel like I came out of this a bit rougher than I would have imagined. I said something stupid on camera, but all eyes were on me since I had just won the tournament, and it is my responsibility as a writer for StarCityGames.com to keep my composure. I want to thank everyone involved in making my victory possible, including the organizers, judges, players, and friends who helped me prepare. I also want to apologize to anyone I offended with my comments, as that was never my intention. I just wanted to express how great the StarCityGames.com Invitational is and how wonderful it felt to play at my peak against some of the best players around.Â
On a different note, if you’re looking for something awesome to watch, tune in tomorrow for another episode of Todd vs. BBD as we battle with B/G Zombies and RUG Control using proxies of cards in Return to Ravnica! Maybe I’ll finally win one of these things!
Thanks for reading.
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I am Golgari.
Hrmm…is it dead?Â
Well, can we salvage what’s left?Â