Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #188 — U.S. Nationals

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I’m in Baltimore, for U.S. Nationals. It’s hot. I’ve got a couple hours to kill before I start work. I think I’ll head for side events and some drafts, but before that I’ll try to give you an update on the evolving Standard format. I’ll also give you a little bit of the feel of judging at an event like Nationals.

[Editor’s Note: It seems that Nationals, exams, and other commitments have thrown a spanner in the works of this week’s scheduled programming. There will be a few temporary scheduling changes from now until Friday. Hopefully, we’ll be back on track sometime later this week. — Craig.]

I’m in Baltimore, for U.S. Nationals. It’s hot. I’ve got a couple hours to kill before I start work. I think I’ll head for side events and some drafts, but before that I’ll try to give you an update on the evolving Standard format. I’ll also give you a little bit of the feel of judging at an event like Nationals.

First off, Baltimore is hot. It has been really warm, and extremely humid. The humidity is due to that big wet Atlantic thing. The hot is because there’s a firefighter convention next door, or something. Whatever, it’s uncomfortable for a Wisconsinite like me. Heading outside is like getting hit in the face with a wet mattress. It’s not as bad as it was in 2005, but it’s not nice.

That said, Thursday I was assigned to work the late grinders. I had the morning free, so I spent it doing tourist things, like walking all around the inner harbor. I put in 6-8 miles. It may be hot, but I don’t get to see Baltimore all that often, and Nats means I will be spending a lot of time in air conditioning this weekend.

Thursday is grinders day. The grinders started roughly every two hours from noon until 6pm. I was working the fifth grinder, interspersed with running a dozen or so drafts. The grinders are single elimination tournaments, with the top four people winning qualifications for Nats.

The single elimination format has some effect on the decks played. The grinders have a maximum of 256 players and cutting that to a final four means six rounds — and to be successful you need six wins. All matches must finish; no draws are allowed. If players are tied at the end of extra rounds, the game is decided on life totals. If life totals are tied, or if players are shuffling up for a third game when time is called, the match is decided by the first life total change. A life total change can be either gain or loss of life. As Chris Richter pointed out, Forest, Essence Warden, go is a nice start. Horizon Canopy, Essence Warden, is not. The ping from tapping the Canopy for Green does indeed cost you the game, match and chance at qualification.

Yes, I did have a judge call like that. Even good players make mistakes — especially at the end of a long day. I was Feature Match judge on Friday and watched some very good players make mistakes — including the player who, at one life tapped four mana for Venser – with a tapped Centaur Omenreader in play. The only person who caught it (other than myself) was Bill Stark, who was doing coverage. Bill had the biggest problem — he wanted to make sure I had seen the problem, while not missing plays and without tipping off the players.

Maybe some other spectators saw it, too. It is easier to watch than to actually play the game.

Actually, bonehead plays happen even in the early rounds. Here’s one from the main event: Players are shuffling up, and one player comments on the other’s sleeves. He picks up what he thought was one of the empty sleeves that had been used as tokens in game one, then flips it over to look for the Ultra Pro hologram. Turns out it wasn’t an empty sleeve, but one of the cards his opponent was boarding out.


Players do stuff like this all the time. My advice: don’t think of this sort of thing as a mistake, think of it an opportunity to meet one of your judges. On a more serious note, this really does happen all the time, at all levels. Just don’t get bent out of shape over it. As both of the Craigs have noted, going “on tilt” screws up the later matches.

Back to the grinders. Because the grinders are single elimination, the metagame is slightly skewed. The conventional wisdom says that you have to play beatdown. That is not quite true. What you do have to play is a very consistent deck. You cannot afford a deck that fizzles, or dies to its own mana. Most aggro decks, with a lot of redundant threats and a nice flat curve, are very consistent. However, so are a lot of the control decks that feature a lot of card drawing and some solid resets.

Now that Tenth is legal, a lot of players brought aggro decks to the Grinders. One of the most popular was Gruul, either with or without Greater Gargadon. Here’s a typical examples:

The second most aggro popular deck looked to be Rakdos. Here’s an example:

Another quick note: judging does not always give you the best overview of the metagame. True, unless you are the head judge, you are on the floor all day, watching matches play out. However, you are watching for problems, mistakes and so forth, and handling judge calls. More important, you are often busiest during the first few minutes of the round, doing deck checks, distributing match results slips and other, administrative stuff. As a result, judges generally note what decks are being played mainly late in the round. By that time, the aggro on aggro matches have generally finished. Judges tend to register, and remember, the control decks disproportionately. That said, I think the Aethermage’s Touch / Momentary Blink decks really were out in force. Here are three examples from the grinders, but they were also quite common in the main event.

I think the most common versions were either the ones splashing red for Hellkites, or just U/W. The versions splashing Black for Skeletal Vampire were few and far between. I would like to supply a decklist for the U/W versions, but since I am writing this early Saturday morning, I only have access to the grinders decks.

Speaking of decklists I don’t have, I wish I could get Stephen Neal’s Pyromancer’s Swath / Grapeshot list. I was walking the aisles and watched him cast Grapeshot, Remand it, then cast it again. This was probably about turn 4 (based on lands in play), and the combination, plus storm count, killed Patrick Chapin. I would also like to check out Patrick Chapin’s list — I’m pretty sure I heard him talking about how good Beacon was there. From context, it sounded like Beacon of Immortality. That would be an interesting innovation. [Check out Patrick’s article today… – Craig.]

Saturday morning I started work on the deck check team. Round 1, I was counting decklists. That’s not surprising: during round 1 every judge that can be spared is counting decklists. The goal is to check every single list to ensure that the cards are all legal, that no one violates the four-of rule, and that every list has the correct numbers of cards. In theory, that means that judges get a decent cross sample of the metagame. In practice, all you remember were the standout things — and the decklist errors. For example, I remember that one player had the rotated-out Silklash Spider in his sideboard — but I don’t remember what sort of deck packed it.

I do remember that Dralnu decks are once again packing their namesake. I saw a number of copies in the various versions of U/B control. Here’s an example:

I was on deck checks for most of the day Friday. I was working with a good team. We were turning around deck checks in five to six minutes — sometimes faster. That’s actually pretty fast, considering everything involved.

First, someone has to “swoop” the decks. Swooping means stopping the game at the exact moment that the players present their decks, before opponents can cut them. The trick is to be close enough to intervene, but not close enough that players expect to be deck checked. Judges try a lot of tricks to make that happen, but I think Aaron may have done the best job of camouflage this weekend. He was supposed to swoop on table 26 — and managed to get a judge call at table 25 while the players are 26 were shuffling. The players at 26 certainly did not see that swoop coming.

Judges work in pairs while doing deck checks. While one judge is swooping, the other is pulling the decklists to be checked. Deck checks are usually random. For the first checks of a round, the random table number is generated by the same program that creates pairings and calculates tiebreakers. Later in the round, the judges keep an eye out for a table that is just beginning sideboarding, then one judge hovers while the other goes to pull decklists. At large events, the judges generally print out pairings by table number to help find decklists.

Once the swooper has the decks, the judges retreat to a table that is not in view of any of the players and start the deck check. The first thing I do is set the deck on the table and look closely at all four sides. I’m looking for marked or worn edges, card sleeves that stick out, and cards that are not fully pushed down in their sleeves. I also pick up the deck and drop it from an inch or two off the table. If certain cards are bent, or sleeves tampered with, the deck will often shift or offset at that point. Shifting happens fairly often, but it is usually benign — just normal wear and tear. If I do find that I can repeatedly cut to a certain card, I check to see what the card is. One of fourteen forests is probably not a problem. A Tarmogoyf, bent so that the opponent would often cut it to the top of the deck, is another story.

My next step is to pick up the deck and just feel the edges. I’m looking for anything unexpected. If I can identify particular cards by feel, I’m going to be doing some investigation. If it just feels like a deck of cards, I flip it face up and look at the distribution of the cards. I’m looking for patterns and stacking.

All of the above checks should not have taken more than thirty second or so. With stopping the match, explaining to players what’s happening, grabbing decks and sideboards and finding a table, we are probably a minute and a half to two minutes into the deck check.

The next step is to lay out the whole deck. At this point, I am going to match every card in the deck to the decklist. Then I am going to match the cards in the player’s sideboard to the sideboard listed. If I am doing a mid-round deck check, I am going to keep the cards the players have sideboarded in with the deck, and those sideboarded out with the sideboard. I will just make sure that every card I see is listed somewhere. I don’t want to make them sideboard again — deck checks take too much time already.

Once I have verified all of the cards in the deck and sideboard, I flip the cards back over and check the backs or sleeves. I’m looking for marks and markings. I know that I will find some — even in round 1, pre-game shuffling will leave some marks. I’m looking for patterns at this point — anything that identifies cards and could provide players an advantage. By far, then most common problem is badly worn sleeves. If cards are identifiable by wear pattern, but the identified cards are random (e.g. the most worn cards are on two Islands, a Forest, a Wall of Blossoms and a Remand), I will tell the player to replace those sleeves — and I may also give a marked cards — minor penalty. If the pattern is significant — e.g. all the marked sleeves hold copies of the same card, I may give a marked major, or I may be investigating for a DQ.

Marked cards is an area that does require a judge to exercise judgment. Think about the following situation: A player has small folds or creases in the tops of sleeves that hold his four Cryoclasms and the three copies of Ignite Memories he has maindeck. Other cards don’t show those markings. It is the start of round four. Is that a problem?

Does your answer change if you find out that he has played against Gruul for the last three matches, and when you asked him to demonstrate how he sideboarded, you saw that, to pull cards out of the sleeves, he stuck his thumb into the sleeve in a way that would cause such marks? Against Gruul, the cards he would be sideboarding out be those Cryoclasms and Ignite Memories.

That sort of sleeve markings is only visible when the card is on top of the deck, or when the deck is viewed from the top. Does your answer change again if the player sets his deck down with the tops of his cards pointing towards him, instead of his opponent? How about if you notice the player frequently running his fingers along all four edges of his deck?

Just some thoughts.

At this point, I am probably four to five minutes into the deck check. The swooper should be returning the decks to their owners about now. If no problems exist, the swooper will say so, and just tell the players to shuffle thoroughly. (Important, because we probably sorted the cards into like piles, so the deck is now completely stacked with all the land on the bottom.) If there are problems, we are probably talking to one or both players.

The final step is to grant the players a time extension. A deck check takes time — and that time is not charged to the players. Generally, I give a time extension equal to the time the deck check took, rounded up, plus two additional minutes for shuffling. If the players spent the first two minutes of the round shuffling and talking, they are not getting that time back — just the time for the deck check.

Generally, we don’t find many problems during deck checks — but that may well be because we do deck checks. The DCI recommends that at least ten percent of the matches be deck checked every tournament, and more if possible. We were pushing thirty percent on Friday.

We find a lot more problems counting decklists — and that is just dumb. Players can prevent all of those penalties — and game losses — by just double counting their decklists. Getting game losses for registering only 39 or 56 cards is just dumb.

Speaking if decklists, here’s another from the grinders:

Project X is a deck that often gets overlooked, mainly because it cannot be played on MTGO. It seems to have been doing reasonably well at the event. If anything, it is doing better in the main event than it did at the grinders. (Remember how grinders reward consistency over power? Project X is very powerful, but not as consistent.)

Best Project X play of the event: a Project X player had Saffi in play, but nothing else. His opponent tapped out turn 3 to play a Court Hussar, but had no white mana, so the Hussar died. The Project X player untapped, dropped a land and played Crypt Champion — then repeated the Saffi / Crypt Champion dance 50+ times. Since Crypt Champion requires both players to return creatures to play, if possible, the Court Hussar returned to play 50+ times — and the opponent drew his entire deck. The Project X player then simply passed the turn to complete the turn 4 decking kill.

I am so bummed that that sort of thing does not work on MTGO.

I have to get back to work now. My shift begins reasonably soon, and I want a little time to see Baltimore, get some food and — maybe — a draft. After the shift, a bunch of judges will probably go out for food. As a rule, the older judges — those with jobs and real incomes — tend to eat very well at these events. Despite walking literally ten miles or so Friday, I suspect that I will gain substance during the weekend.

Sheesh — “gain substance.” It must be time to go to work. That joke really had a judge feel — high on arcane rules content*, and sadly lacking in “funny.” Time to go to work.


“one million words” on MTGO

* “Substance”: Confused? Look here, and scroll down to the March 7, 2006 answer, or look at the current Oracle submission on Crown of Thorns. In any case, substance is an ability that certain cards have, and which has absolutely no impact on the game until it goes away. And speaking of going away…