You Lika The Juice? – How I Won U.S. Nationals *1st*

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I’ve been playing Magic for nearly 14 years now, and I’ve always dreamed of going to Nationals. Since I haven’t ever qualified, I could really justify the expense of flying to Florida or California just to hang out, since what are the odds of actually qualifying through the Grinders? This year though, Nationals was in Baltimore, a short three-hour drive from Richmond, Virginia, so I knew I had to go…

I’ve been playing Magic for nearly 14 years now, and I’ve always dreamed of going to Nationals. Since I haven’t ever qualified, I could really justify the expense of flying to Florida or California just to hang out, since what are the odds of actually qualifying through the Grinders? This year though, Nationals was in Baltimore, a short three-hour drive from Richmond, Virginia, so I knew I had to go…

Of course, I didn’t actually win U.S. Nationals; today’s title was a bit of an homage to my “tournament report,” How I Won Nationals *1st* back in 2001, which stirred up a bit of controversy but was quite fun to write and wade through the reaction. Sadly, the link to CMU’s Andrew Johnson’s reaction on another site no longer works, but John Rizzo weighed in here (Enter the DCI). I didn’t actually go to Nats that year, I just pretended I went… and won. Sorta.

While I didn’t compete in Nationals, I was able to finally go this time, and I’ll chalk that up as a win! When I found out Nationals was going to be in Baltimore, I knew I wanted to go up there for at least one day. Major car repairs sucked away a large chunk of my disposable income, so a full weekend of Grinding, side events, hotel and restaurant costs was definitely out. While looking over the available shifts in July for my part-time job, there wasn’t much available… except for the weekend of Nationals. Of course! So my original plan was to take a vacation day from my full time job on Friday to go to Nats, and then come back and work my part-time job Saturday and Sunday. Before I ran that plan past my wife, I found out she’d made plans that Friday to go to Busch Gardens with her sister, thus requiring me to pick up the kids from day care and watch them that evening. Curses!

Since I’d already volunteered to work Saturday and Sunday, I decided to try and find someone to work my Saturday shift (giving up the $100 or so I’d get from working it, ouch!) and drive up for Saturday. But I couldn’t find another part-timer to take my shift…

Wednesday night I find out that my sister-in-law had to cancel on the Busch Gardens trip, so suddenly I’m now able to go Friday! I get approved for the vacation day, get the van all cleaned out, gassed up, and ready for the road trip. Whoo-hoo, I’m on my way!

My intention was to hit the road by 8am so that I’d be past Washington D.C. traffic before lunchtime, but while getting ready in the morning — and already late — it occurred to me that I didn’t have a Dredge deck together. If I ran into someone who reads my stuff and they ask to play a game against my Dredge deck, I’d be completely embarrassed if I have to shrug my shoulders and proclaim I didn’t have one with me. So I spent the next hour or so putting together my style of Dredge, which actually didn’t seem too bad in an environment with no Dragonstorm, and finally hit the road around 10am.

Of course, nobody asked to play against my Dredge deck. Ah well.

Leaving at 10am, I hit the D.C. area just in time for lunchtime traffic.

I like driving in my car

The trip is pretty miserable, with frequent periods of sitting on interstate highways masquerading as parking lots. Once I actually get to the Baltimore Convention Center, it actually takes another 30 minutes of driving around to find parking; for some reason, there are no signs near the Convention Center to show you where parking is available, so I had to drive around and around in larger concentric circles from ground zero before I saw this small, chest-level “P” sign for a parking garage tucked behind a building.

It was $16 for one hour, $19 for two hours, and $21 for three or more hours. $21, ouch! I was also warned that the garage doors locked down at 11pm, which meant if I didn’t get my car by then I’d be stuck in Baltimore until the morning, and get hit with the one hour rate in the morning to get the car out.

Obviously, I’d need to make sure I retrieved my car by 11pm.

The important thing though, I was finally here!

I have to say, U.S. Nationals was by far the nicest gaming venue I’ve ever experienced. For one thing, it was incredibly roomy, with tons of space. For another, it was climate controlled and comfortably cool, no small feat for a hall full of gamers in the heat of July.

They had a “parent’s lounge.” How cool was that?

Parent's Lounge... or room for dwarven Magic players?

They even had a Goblin King lounge, provided your loincloth properly covered the appropriate body parts.

While you're down there...

Near the Goblin King lounge was the gunslinging area, which had Alan Comer on one side (with Mr. Comer nowhere to be found), and on the other side – Dr. Richard Garfield! Sweet! I went off to a table to retrieve my deck from my backpack, when an announcement was made that Dr. Garfield would be signing cards. I made it back in time to avoid some of the crowd, a little disappointed I wouldn’t get to play a duel with Dr. Garfield, but at least I could get him to sign a little something from my Magic shrine:

The Legend

Big Lotus

Afterwards, I wandered over to the judges area, where I bumped into some friends — Sheldon and Becky — and chatted a while. I asked Becky whether she knew if Lara Bain, who works for Wizards’ PR firm, was there today. I work closely with Lara in my work for Scrye, where she coordinates Sneak Previews, Wizards interviews, and Set Reviews for upcoming expansion sets in print magazines. In one of our emails she’d mentioned she’d be going to Nationals, so I was hoping to stop by and meet her in person.

I was in luck! Becky directed me to the photographer, who told me Lara was over in the VIP area, so I wandered over there and introduced myself.


Lara the perfect PR person – personable, attractive, and full of energy. She also surprised me by saying, “let me get your press kit!” It wasn’t my intention to be there as a representative from Scrye, but she wanted me to have the kit anyway, just in case I needed to get access to any areas as a writer that I might not be able to get to as a Magic player. So I got a nifty press badge to wear around my neck, a Magic jump drive with various press releases and Magic information on it, a Magic visor, a play mat and a booster pack from Tenth Edition, Time Spiral, Planar Chaos, and Future Sight. Sweet!


Check out the rares I opened from Planar Chaos – my foil was a rare (trash rare, but still), my rare was Red Akroma, and my planeshifted card was Damnation! Whoo-hoo! Since I already have a playset of Damnations, I figured that Damnation was good for a Tarmogoyf, considering how ridiculously expensive those damn things are now (and me with only one so far).

While I was chatting with Lara, these two characters walked over to me.

BDM's double-arm elbow mutation has Alan Comer on the verge of vomit

“Hey, Bennie – haven’t we met before?” asked BDM. I reminded him that we had indeed met at Grand Prix: Richmond, but he’d been so busy with coverage — and me so busy with gunslinging for Pete — that we hadn’t been able to do much more than shake hands and say hi. We chatted a bit, and he told me about a Mono-Green Standard deck that had been doing well online that I should try and hunt down. He also introduced me to Alan Comer, and I told him it was an honor to meet him and thanked him for providing some content in my old Into The Aether column on magicthegathering.com… and yes, he’s back working at Wizards. It’s amusing to hear “they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse” in a British accent. I also told Alan I was hoping to meet him for a game over in the gunslinging area, and he said, “Why wait? Let me go get my decks.” So we pulled up a table and played a few games.

I was playing my G/W Saffi deck, something I built for fun in order to enjoy some of the new cards from Tenth, such as Troll Ascetic and Treetop Village.

Alan was playing an infinite Walk the Aeons deck. Hmm, against my deck that’s not exactly super-fast beatdown, and with little disruption outside of four maindeck Harmonic Slivers. Alan didn’t go infinite on me (rumor had it he had a Mirari in there, and likely a couple Gaea’s Blessing), but he did take enough extra turns and draw enough extra cards that a few hits by Aeon Chronicler took me down.

Attacking FTW

Alan showed me some mercy by playing against me with his Tenth Edition “box league” deck; the guys at Wizards are playing a league where you get a box of Tenth Edition, pop the boosters and build a deck out of that card pool. You can trade with other league players for the cards in their pool too. He had a nifty Seismic Assault deck chock full of card drawing to both find the Assault and to fuel it with drawn lands, but luckily my enchantment-killing Slivers came to my rescue in time and allowed my Troll Ascetics, Treetop Villages, and Epochrasites to take him down.

With that, Alan went back to work and I went back to wandering around. I decided to sign up for the Zune Amateur Challenge, a Standard event open to non-pros, with a grand prize of a Zune mp3 player. Seeing as my mp3 player is a little number I got for free when I signed up for Internet through my cable provider — that only holds 22 songs or so — I certainly could use the prize! Here’s what I played:

I had enjoyed the synergy of Magus of the Disk and Loxodon Hierarch at States last fall, but it didn’t come up enough to really push things over the top. Now we’ve got Troll Ascetic and Treetop Village to make Flavor Flav even more interesting, especially fetching him end of turn with Chord of Calling (of course, after seeing the winning deck from Nationals, I see there are more interesting creatures to fetch with Chord of Calling, such as those that tap to draw three cards…). Ghostway is also a nice card to play in response to activating the Disk.

I liked having the Wraths in the board since my deck was already resistant to its effects, and in retrospect I think maybe having at least a few of them in the main deck might not be a bad call.

Tech alert! I’ve been kicking around the notion of running Vesuva as a random answer to Urborg-fueled Tendrils of Corruption, since it can also play the part of 5th Llanowar Reborn, Treetop Village, or Selesnya Sanctuary (handy for resetting your Llanowar Reborn). I didn’t run into any Urborg decks, so I’m not sure how techy it would be, but it sounds good in theory, no?

Round 1 I played against Matt, who ran aggro Rakdos splashing Green for Tarmogoyf. I won 2-0, in no small part due to drawing timely Epochrasites, Troll Ascetics, and Loxodon Hierarchs. First game I Chorded into Magus of the Disk to clear away his board while Saffi and Troll allowed me to keep board presence. Second game I played Ghostway at the end of my opponent’s turn, played Wrath of God during my turn, and then my team pops back into play during my end step. Mmm, Epochrasite + Ghostway is nearly as juicy as Epochrasite + Chord of Calling (or Epochrasite + Saffi Eriksdotter).

In this match though, Matt demonstrates how good Demonfire is in combating Epochrasite. Removed from game, eh? Not good for the eternal bug.

Round 2 I play against John with Angelfire. I manage to eek out this match 2-1 almost single-handedly on the back of Epochrasite, for which John admits he has little answer. Treetop Village helps quite a bit too. Ah, I so love to have a deck that doesn’t just roll over to Wrath of God!

Round 3 is against Kellen, who is also playing Angelfire. This time it’s a blowout for the Angelfire deck, with early Lightning Angels applying crucial pressure early both games and my deck failing to really get anything going in time. It’s here that I regret not running Glare of Subdual. Afterwards, Kellen comments on how pleasant an opponent I was, complaining that his last round opponent was a real prick. My round 2 opponent had said the same thing. C’mon people – yes, Magic tournaments are competitive, but there is no excuse for poor sportsmanship. Loosen up, remember it’s a game and the ultimate goal of a game is to have fun.

Round 4 is against John running three-color Loam/Assault/Goyf. I manage to win the first game with an early Chord into Stonecloaker, who gets played over and over again to clear away Life from the Loam shenanigans and shrink Tarmogoyf back down to manageable levels. Epochrasites gone large seal up the game. Game 2 is a shocker—John slams down a Magus of the Moon in the first couple of turns, pretty much making it impossible for me to do anything since I didn’t play an early Bird of Paradise and now only have four non-mountain lands in the deck. He does the same thing game 3 and it’s just a sad blowout. I congratulate him on the Magus of the Moon technology, something that’s completely unexpected coming from a three-color deck such as his.

So my dreams of a kick-ass mp3 player come to a crashing end.

Afterwards, a guy comes up to me and asks if I can sign a dredge card — Grave-shell Scarab — for his friend who’s a big fan of mine but isn’t there, which of course is incredibly flattering and puts a big grin on my face. I tell him I have a Dredge deck with me, and his buddy offers to play me. He’s actually a competitor at Nationals and smashes me with his Glittering Wish control deck (damn you misterorange!).

I need to find a better pet deck, methinks…

Keeping an eye on the clock (not yet 11pm!), I wander around some more and run into Chris Richter, a level 3 judge who helps me write Tapping the Knowledge Vault for Scrye (and who also does the Judges column for StarCityGames.com).

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I also run into Richmond pro Chris “Star Wars Kid” McDaniel; he ended up doing pretty well at Nationals, placing somewhere in the 30s out of 200 people. He looks a little disheveled at the time of this picture.

StarWarsKid, or chubby Christopher Walken?

I remember when little SWK actually played Decipher’s Star Wars at our local game shop. Now he’s taller than me, traveling the world playing Magic and schmoozing with all the cool kids on the PT. Man, I am old, aren’t I?

I make my way over to the singles retailer and pick up a few cards – some Radhas, some Elvish Champions, some Molten Disasters (see “need a new pet deck” above), and make my way back to the van. I roll out of the garage at 10:59pm, and just outside of Baltimore run across a Chick-Fil-A that’s open ‘til midnight (FTW!). Thus fueled, I make my way to across the Virginia border before I start to feel pretty damn tired and pull into a rest area. The Pepsi machine has five different sodas available, one of which…

Green Evil

… is the caffeinated beverage of the gods. Again, FTW!

Jamming to Romeo Void, Blake Babies, The Cure, and Screaming Trees, I make it to my house in what seems to be no time, but when my head hits the pillow and exhaustion overtakes me, the clock reads 2am. Ah, home again!

I would have loved to spend the weekend experiencing Nationals in its entirety, but I was pleased to get one day of action. Special thanks to Lara Bain and the guys with Wizards who were particularly kind to this old Magic fan…. even though I didn’t win a tournament that day, I chalk this experience up in the win column.

As I finish this up, I see that our own Craig “Professor” Jones has scored victory across the big pond – a hearty congratulations to you as the StarCityGames.com gang procures another trophy!

‘Til next week,

Bennie Smith
starcitygeezer AT gmail DOT com