Man, it feels fantastic to type that title! While I’ve gotten more than a few condolences on my finish (since 2nd place also means you were this close to 1st place), personally I’m just thrilled to have returned to the Top 8 tables of States after way too long. States has always been my favorite tournament, a big event that’s got a strong casual vibe running through it. Nearly every opponent I played was there primarily to have fun, and you just can’t beat that atmosphere.
Many of you have already seen the deck I played in the deck database for Virginia Champs Top 8, and it’s obviously quite a bit different from what I wrote about last week. When I shipped the column to Craig, I was still holding on desperately to a strong landfall theme. I had recently been sold on the power of Emeria Angel in decks without nearly the landfall shenanigans that I was packing. If it was good for them, it had to be awesome for me, right?
Then on Friday, Cedric Phillips dropped the bomb on me with his G/W decklist:
- 3 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 4 Qasali Pridemage
- 3 Master of the Wild Hunt
- 4 Emeria Angel
- 4 Lotus Cobra
We shared the same core creatures: Lotus Cobra, Knight of the Reliquary, Emeria Angel. Yet Cedric’s list just looked flat-out more… powerful. He had a lot going on here, and I particularly liked the Master of the Wild Hunt and Eldrazi Monument. I was particularly interested in the cards he mentioned being so good against Jund and Boros Bushwhacker, since those were the decks I was most concerned about. The one issue I had with his deck was the lack of creature control outside of Masters – I was pretty sure I’d want some number of Paths in my build. Anyway, I started stripping out some cards from my landfall deck and adding in some ideas from Cedric, and ended up with this for Friday Night Magic:
4 Noble Hierarch
3 Path to Exile
4 Lotus Cobra
4 Khalni Heart Expedition
4 Knight of the Reliquary
4 Emeria Angel
3 Master of the Wild Hunt
4 Conqueror’s Pledge
3 Eldrazi Monument
2 Rampaging Baloths
4 Marsh Flats
4 Verdant Catacombs
2 Sunpetal Grove
I wasn’t 100% happy with this list, and was strongly considering playing a radically different deck for States that a friend (who’s an awesome rogue deckbuilder) shared with me, but it ended up that I didn’t have some of the rares I thought I owned and was unable to scrounge them up in time, so I went with this.
I went 3-1 in the Swiss (losing, again, to Jund) and made the cut to Top 4, where I lost in three games to Michael Rooks’s Grixis Control deck (he made Top 8 at States as well with the same deck). After he finished up in the finals, I bugged him to take a look at my deck and make any suggestions to improve the list. “Martial Coup,” he said, and we smiled. I know that Jay Delazier’s been trying to get me to play Martial Coup for a long time now, but I’ve resisted because… well, seven mana is a lot. But not in this deck, I reminded myself. There was some Magical Christmasland explosive mana potential still left in here. It also addressed my feeling that I still didn’t have enough creature control… and it has the ability to break games wide open. In a deck that’s all about generating a lot of creatures, your opponent is not going to expect Martial Coup from nowhere clearing the board and filling your side with soldiers.
I ended up cutting the Khalni Heart Expeditions down to three – basically, they stand-in for the 3 Birds of Paradise in Ced’s list. Since I’m playing Martial Coup, I like the explosive acceleration KHE provides, but I don’t necessarily want or need to draw more than one early in the game. Knight of the Reliquary means that even if you rip one in the mid- to late-game the KHEs are still not a bad draw, basically providing you with two more 1/1 soldier tokens eventually. I also like that they can be used to “store” two landfall triggers for later without costing you any mana (which is why I like them much better than Harrow).
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 2 Thornling
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 3 Qasali Pridemage
- 3 Master of the Wild Hunt
- 4 Emeria Angel
- 4 Lotus Cobra
In a nod to the dearly missed Grinch, I buy new Ultra Pro sleeves sporting Sphinx of the Steel Wind. For luck!
We have 148 players, with eight rounds of Swiss to cut to Top 8. Below is a rundown of how the tournament went to the best of my recollection, though let me apologize in advance to my opponents if this old fella doesn’t get the details 100% correct. I’ll try to be as accurate as possible.
Round 1 versus Josh playing Green/White/Black landfall
Josh is the fine fellow who did Magic-themed caricatures at Grand Prix: Richmond some years back, and did one of me while I was gunslinging next to him that I still have hanging up in my cubicle. Every time I see him he seems to be smiling, and a great opponent to start the day off. It’s quickly apparent that he and I are playing a lot of the same sorts of cards, though he’s still got more landfall stuff in his deck than I do currently (for instance, Ob Nixilis comes calling at one point). The game goes a bit long, but I finally cast a Martial Coup for a lot of tokens and finish the game off. Game 2 goes differently, with him calling on Planeswalkers to help him out this time. Martial Coup doesn’t do much against Elspeth and Soren Markov! He gets a Baneslayer Angel in play that I’m able to hold off with Bird tokens for a while (he goes up to 30 life at one point), I finally cast a huge Martial Coup, followed by a Monument to knock him back down, but he gets rid of the Monument and sticks another Baneslayer that has to play defense because he’s stabilized at 11 but I can swing back for a lot of damage if he tries to race. We go to time and I actually think we drew the match, until he reminds me we’ve only played two games and I won the first one.
Win 1-0, record 1-0
Round 2 versus Ben playing White Weenie with Scepters of Domination
Ben’s playing an interesting aggro/control White Weenie, with fast weenie beatdown followed by a ton of White removal like Journey to Nowhere and Scepters of Domination. Reminds me almost of a “Fish” strategy, where you disrupt the opponent’s strategy (in my case, playing blockers) long enough for the beatdown to win. He gets me to 10 life before I stabilize the board with blockers, Emeria Angel’s Bird tokens force him to put more pressure out there, and Martial Coup blows the game open. Game 2 he gets the pure control draw, nullifying my first couple of creatures with enchantments. I play World Queller on turn 4, and on the following turn it begins to chow down on enchantments, then lands (he’s a bit shy on mana), and then creatures to clear away his blockers.
Win 2-0, record 2-0
Round 3 versus John playing White Weenie
John’s playing just the White side of Boros Bushwhacker, with additional weenies, the new Crusade, Elspeth, Pledge, and Brave the Elements to push things through. It’s incredibly fast and I’m scrambling for defense the entire time before I play Martial Coup to wipe the board and stabilize at 2. He makes a mistake by playing a Lynx, which prevents him from having the mana to activate his Gargoyle Castle, which could fly over my dudes and kill me before I draw a flier and close that avenue to victory. The second game he destroys me, despite my best efforts with Wall of Reverence. The third game Wall of Reverence and Thornling get there.
Win 2-1, record 3-0
Round 4 versus Chris playing Jund
The first game, Chris has to mulligan and keeps Oran-Rief and Dragonskull Summit, but only draws a Forest and is unable to cast the Red/Black spells that accumulate in his hand. The second game he draws better, hitting me hard and getting me down to five life before I stabilize. He then starts on about a five-turn streak of drawing lands from the top of his deck, while I draw threats and finish things. Whew, better lucky than good!
Win 2-0, record 4-0
At this point, there are three Richmond Comix regulars who are 4-0: me, Michael Rooks with his Grixis Control homebrew, and Joe West playing Eldrazi Green. We give each other encouragement to hold strong and cross our fingers we don’t have to play each other.
Round 5 versus Jamie playing Rampant Jund
We shuffle up and present our decks, when a judge pops up and grabs our decks for a deck check. Great! As if my deck doesn’t have randomization problems enough with all the sac lands and land searches… I get my deck back and it’s fine, but Jamie’s deck registration has an error on it that results in a game loss. When we finally start and he leads with a Savage Lands, I’m glad to have a free win. It doesn’t matter; he Rampant Growths into turn 3 Bloodbraid, which of course hits Blightning, and he quickly runs me over, killing all my guys and smashing my face. For the last game I have to mulligan, but I get a decent hand if I just get a second to breathe. No chance – he’s got removal for my early creatures and hits me with two Blightnings — which, on the play after a mulligan, is pretty much game over. That’s why people play this deck, because of its random blow-out potential. Oof.
Lose 1-2, record 4-1
While it would have been exciting to be 5-0 at this point, I can’t complain about escaping from Jund matches at 1-and-1. I keep positive thoughts in my head, since not losing until round 5 still leaves me in a darn good position if I can rack up a couple more wins.
At this point I turn around and see someone I hadn’t seen in years – Kevin Davis! Kevin was with me when I travelled up to Charlottesville to win States in 1999. I hadn’t seen Kevin in a couple years; he dropped out of Magic after finally getting the chance to play at Nationals due to life getting in the way (wife, kids, National Guard duty in Iraq). He tells me he’s nearly finished with the Guard, that his job schedule has changed around so that he now has Friday nights and weekends off, and he’s interested in playing Magic again. He randomly decided to come down to States to see who was playing and try to pick up some singles. A strange feeling washes over meâ€”10 year anniversary since my win, an old friend I hadn’t seen in years shows up, someone who was with me when I won… is destiny on my side today? Am I going to repeat?
Round 6 versus Charles playing Naya
Charles won the Jay Coffman Memorial Tournament a few weeks back playing Naya Lightsaber, and I ask him if he’s playing the same thing? He doesn’t let on, but Hierarch into Wooly Thoctar tips his hand. A timely Path to Exile helps me stabilize at 12 life while an Exalted-fueled Emeria Angel flies through the air to take four-point chunks away from his life total. For the life of me, I can’t recall exactly how the second game wentâ€”he’s gaining 3 life points a turn, while I’m dealing damage back to him, with a trampling Thornling at some point. I win by taking him from 21 to 8 to zero.
Win 2-0, record 5-1
Round 7 versus Justin playing G/W tokens
Justin’s the reigning Virginia State Champion, I remember watching him and my friend Michael Rooks battling it out in the finals last year where Michael totally had game 3 in hand but drew land five turns in a row to see victory slip away. As we play, it become obvious that Justin’s playing something very similar if not identical to Cedric’s G/W token deck, and I get a bit excited – if any deck is going to get crushed by a surprise Martial Coup, it should be this one! I managed to get a pretty aggressive draw and he gets a slow one, drawing a couple of the Graypelt Refuge while I smash in with increasingly larger threats, culminating with Thornling backed with two Exalted bonuses swinging in as a 10/2 indestructible trampler. The second game I get another aggressive start and he’s shy on mana, stalling on two lands for a long time before drawing a third and playing a Knight of the Reliquary. Now, I’ve stalled on three mana for a while and need to use my own Knight to make four mana for Emeria Angel, but instead I’ve been going aggro to try and finish him before he recovers from his mana hose. I can hit his Knight during his upkeep with Path to clear the way, and then swing in for lethal next turn if he doesn’t draw a land and play a threat… or I can sit back and develop my side hopefully quicker than he can and swoop in for the final points of damage. I decide to push the advantage, and Path his Knight. He draws a land and plays his own Emeria Angel and stabilizes, soon clawing his way back out of the hole with Baneslayer Angel. I had him down to three life, he ends the game at 29. As we’re shuffling up someone points out we have like five minutes left, I draw my hand and have one Plains as my only land, so I give it three good riffle shuffles, present back, he cuts, I mulligan to six… and have no land. Cripes! I do a fast and sloppy pile shuffle, riffle a few times and this time I have a playable five (another fine aggro hand actually), but time is called and we draw.
Unintentional Draw, 1-1-1, record 5-1-1
Oof. I was so convinced I was going to win this match 2-0, destiny and all, but reality brings me screaming back to my senses. Now I’ve got to win the last round of Swiss to make it into the Top 8. Focus, Smith – focus!
Round 8 versus David playing Boros Bushwhacker
David and I have some friendly pre-game banter. He asks if I want to concede to him since I’ve already won States before and this will be his first States Top 8. Yes, I’m vulnerable to the Nice Guy Card… but I so want to make Top 8 again. I’ve got Kevin Davis and destiny on my side, and I can’t let them down! I tell David I won’t concede to him, but if he beats me I’ll be happy for him and will cheer him on to win the whole thing.
He leads with a Plains and a Lynx – uh oh! I lead with a Hierarch, and on turn 2 he plays a fetchland and attacks. With no blocks, he cracks the land and smacks me for four. I’ve got the KHE into Martial Coup draw, I’ve just got to live long enough to implement the plan. He gets me down to 5 points of life when I sweep the board clean except for seven 1/1 soldier tokens (thanks to a couple Path to Exile), which takes him from 19 to 12, then to 6 as he chumps one, and then death. Whew! I’ll feel much better having Walls of Reverence and Leotau in my deck for the next game or two.
The second game he gets the crazy Bushwhacker draw, reusing Bushwhackers and playing Rangers. He takes 3 points of damage all from his own sac lands.
The last game he gets a slow draw, and I’m able to stabilize at 13 with a Wall of Reverence. I then rip a Thornling which goes to work, pushing huge trampling damage through while gaining me life from the Wall. Thankfully he doesn’t draw a Path here, though his boarded-in Baneslayer Angel buys him a little time. I finish the game at 30 life. I’M IN!
Win 2-1, record 6-1-1
The final standings are:
1st — 21 – Soorani, Shaheen – U/W Control
2nd — 20 – Shapiro, Mark – Jund
3rd — 20 – Dugard, Dave L – Naya Lightsaber
4th — 19 – Haid, Tom – Vampiric Control
5th — 19 – Bourroughs, Chris L – G/W Aggro
6th — 19 – Rooks, Michael D – Grixis Control
7th — 19 – Smith, Bennie C – Knightfall
8th — 19 – Warbington, Justin R – Knightfall
So we’ve got 3 former Virginia State Champs and a Mid-Atlantic Regional Champ that I know of, and it’s particularly nice to see a variety of decks, even if Green and White are over-represented. Shaheen and Rooks prove all the cynics wrong. Control isn’t dead; you just need to build to your strengths, play your ass off, and get a lucky break or two.
“Laziness and defeatist attitudes are why Jund is popular.” — one of my Tweeps
Looking at the Top 8 decks from some other states, it can be pretty depressing to see so many Jund decks, in some instances making up half or more of the archetypes. But seeing how Virginia shook out, and quite a few other States results, I think it’s clear that there are plenty of other options you can play and win with besides Jund. I know Kyle Sanchez has a totally rad Crab Ranger deck, and hopefully Adrian Sullivan will share what he played at States, which was totally cool. Jund is powerful but not infallible, and there are plenty of other choices out there if you try.
Top 8 versus Mark playing Jund
Speaking of Jund – here we go again! This is Mark’s first trip to the States, and he’s incredibly nervous. He’s got a slow draw, I get a Knight down and working landfall with Emeria Angel, he kills the Angel but I draw a Monument and go aggro with the Knight. I know it was agonizing having to choose between the Angel and Knight with his removal, and when he draws Maelstrom Pulse he instinctively targets the Knight with it. I say “okay,” and he puts the Pulse in his graveyard, and when I don’t put the Knight in my graveyard, he remembers the Monument and groans, realizing his mistake. The Knight kills him next turn.
The second game is tighter, he gets an aggro draw and I’m reeling a bit, I’ve got two Birds, a Hierarch, a Leotau and a Knight in play, and the only card I’ve got in hand is an Eldrazi Monument. Mark’s got me pretty low in life, and I could easily take burn to the face to kill me. I decide to drop the Monument and go aggro, but with Monument on the stack Mark’s got a nasty surprise for me – he plays Jund Charm and kills my little guys, so I’m left with just Leotau and the Knight, a hungry Monument and an empty hand. If he draws a hasty attacker or Bolt I’m a goner, I attack, he doesn’t draw what he needs, I sacrifice the Leotau and swing with the Knight for the win. Whew!
Top 4 versus Michael playing Grixis Control
While it sucks that we’ve got to play each other now instead of the finals, at least this guarantees that someone from Richmond Comix will make it there! Michael laments that he’s probably going to regret suggesting Martial Coup now, since part of his winning strategy is to tap out for Sphinx of Jwar Isle since it’s got Shroud, but Martial Coup gives me a way to handle it. Michael keeps a questionable hand (he tells me this later), and I get the “aggro-Cobra” draw, Hierarch into Cobra and start attacking for 3. When I drop Emeria Angel and Michael hasn’t drawn a third land he scoops. The second game his deck shows what it’s all about, killing off my creatures, smacking me around with Specters, and he kills me while he’s at a very respectable 15 life. The last game I again get the “aggro-Cobra” draw, and while he isn’t mana screwed I’m able to get him low enough in life that he can’t sweep the board with Earthquake without killing himself, and I eventually punch through.
Finals versus Chris playing G/W Aggro
Getting past Grixis Control I felt was the real hurdle to winning States, because I felt really good about my chances against either of the two G/W decks that were battling it out to see who made it to the finals. Neither deck plays much creature removal, improving the odds of me having an explosive start, and if that doesn’t put the game away I’ve got the incredible game-closing Martial Coup. Plus, I’ve got Kevin Davis and destiny on my side!
I suppose there’s a reason why we shuffle up and play, right?
My opening hand does indeed have the “explosive start” I was hoping for, but Chris has a pretty good start too – he draws the only two creature removal spells he has in his maindeck and sideboard, two copies of Journey to Nowhere, to hide away my Cobra and Angel, and suddenly my explosive start sputters to nothing. Then his creatures start getting feisty, with some Emeria Angels and Bird tokens knocking my life totals down. I scramble to keep alive long enough to get to 7 mana but don’t draw the Coup in time.
Game 2 I’ve got another explosive start, with a potential turn 3 World Queller, but he again hits my Cobra with a Journey and I have to wait until turn 4, and he drops a Knight of the Reliquary. During my upkeep I’m trying to decide what to do – get back my Cobra by eating enchantments, or destroy lands? If I pick lands, he’s got to both play a land and use his Knight to have Baneslayer mana this turn, and if he doesn’t play a land I can pretty much lock him out of ever playing Baneslayer. I’ve got another Cobra and a Knight in my hand, so I should be able to operate fine under the land tax. I decide to go for the throat and have each of us sacrifice a land, so of course on his turn he plays a land, uses his Knight to get an extra mana, and plays Baneslayer Angel. I tap the Lotus Cobra I’d just played and push it at the Angel. “Hissss! Lotus Cobra thinks the Angel is over-rated!” We all laugh. Then he plays a Master of the Wild Hunt. I start to feel the game slipping away, but I rip a Wall of Reverence to buy me some time if I play tight. So of course I play sloppy as hell. I target my Queller for the Wall’s lifegain the first time when my Knight of the Reliquary is a 6/6. I block his Baneslayer with my Wall when he’s got an Exalted creature out, so the Wall dies, when all I need to do is just keep making my Knight bigger and gain more life than the Angel is dishing out damage. Even so, Chris overextends to push his advantage, and I’ve got two turns to draw Martial Coup to turn the game right around… and I don’t draw it before I’ve got to extend the hand and wish Chris a hearty congratulations.
If I’d played things right, I would have easily had four, five, or even more turns to draw that Coup, but the little mistakes quickly add up when the pressure’s on. I’m reminded of reading about Kai Budde, and how it seemed he’s always draw the card he needed when he needed it, and then having analysts point out that it only appeared that way, because he played tight Magic and gave himself the time to draw the card he needed to win. I was definitely not playing anything close to Kai Magic on Saturday night.
Still, I was incredibly happy with my results and really enjoyed playing this deck. While Cedric is a great deckbuilder and a helluva player, I do think there are some advantages to playing my deck over the more “stock” G/W token decks. I’m also not sure if Eldrazi Monument really fits in my deck, since I’m not cranking out as many raw tokens as the Pledge decks do. I do think I need to play the fourth Master of the Wild Hunt – when he survived, he was simply awesome, and in multiples they become even more awesome. And the funny thing was, he often survived, because there are so many early creatures that often demand creature removal – Noble Hierarch, Lotus Cobra, Knight of the Reliquary, Emeria Angel.
I’m thinking an improvement to the deck would be -3 Monument, +1 Master of the Wild Hunt, and +2 Ajani Goldmane. Ajani strikes me as a good compromise, buffing up all your creatures and letting them attack but also play defense. In such an aggressive metagame, that strikes me as incredibly valuable.
I was very impressed with the Thornlings and think two is the perfect number to have in the maindeck. In a lot of ways, the card reminded me a little bit of Sphinx of the Steel Wind – he hits the board, and Jund just can’t do anything about it. Backed with an Exalted trigger or two — and maybe an Ajani +1/+1 token – he can quickly put the game away. It’s like he packs his own pocket-sized Eldrazi Monument, only it’s your opponent’s creatures that get sacrificed. He’s a great mana-dump in case you don’t draw your Martial Coup.
And of course there’s living the dream – making Thornling indestructible, then casting Martial Coup for five or more, wiping out your opponent’s team and then swinging with the Thornling! Hasn’t happened for me yet, but the potential is there for a heckuva story!
Props to StarCityGames.com, as always, for putting on a great tournament! Props to my opponents, all of whom were great to play against, win or lose. And special props to the guys who cracked Top 8 with their own interesting decks, making Virginia Champs the destination for interesting Standard technology!
With States in the rear view mirror, I can wind back down to more casual pursuits. Like EDH! I promise to have some EDH content next week.
Champs Top 8… it’s good to be back!
starcitygeezer AT gmail DOT com