By the time most of you read this the U.S. National Championship will have already begun. At the time I am writing this I am not at all ready for that time to be here. A personal commitment on the same weekend as Nationals very nearly made me have to miss the event entirely but I managed to work something out in the nick of time to give me a chance to battle for a spot on the U.S. National Team. Now I have but a few days to finalize my preparations for one of my favorite tournaments of the year.
Nationals has always held a special place in my heart. Perhaps it is because U.S. Nationals back in 1997 was my first strong finish in a major tournament. I won the very last “meatgrinder” which in those days were truly a grind – my tournament finished at 5am the morning Nationals began! Despite nearly falling asleep during my draft rounds I finished in the Top 16 of the event narrowly missing the Top 8 with a loss in the final round in the Buried Alive mirror match to eventual team member Jeff Butz. The third game of that match is burned in my brain forever. My opening hand was Shadow Guildmage Buried Alive Fireball and three lands. Eleven turns later I still had drawn only those three spells to work with and my shot at glory slipped away.
I’ve always wanted to play on the National team. I’m not some kind of flag-waving patriot but I always root for the U.S. in any kind of international competition and Magic is no different. The idea of playing in Worlds with the entire American Magic community cheering for me seems downright awesome. Who am I kidding – I want to be the U.S. Champion and I want to take the world team title back home where it belongs.
There’s something special about being National champion. Justin Gary won Pro Tour: Houston but that doesn’t mean anything to someone who doesn’t know what the Pro Tour is. But the fact that he was National Champion? That’s something everyone can understand and respect! And the fact that the second time he made the team he lead the U.S. to the Team World Championship? Now that’s a story!
So far my Nationals story has been one of near misses. After my chance at glory slipped away in 1997 – the year Justin won in fact – I made Top 16 again in 2002 then back to back Top 8’s in 2003 and 2004 but both times lost my quarterfinal match. I played last year for the first time since that run and my performance just wasn’t up to par. I made some mistakes early on and let them stick with me and ruin my focus for the entire tournament. This year I intend for things to go differently.
But for that to happen I have a long way to go. So far I have literally yet to win a single match of M11 draft. In my first draft I had what seemed like a powerful Mono Black deck headlined by Nantuko Shade and a pair of Corrupts but lost in the first round to a White Knight I couldn’t stop and then a Serra Angel who made my Assassinates look really silly. My next deck was G/B fat with a pair of Cultivates to splash a Fireball but I couldn’t handle an opposing Cudgel Troll that held off my Yavimaya Wurms while I died an incredibly awkward death to decking by Traumatize. Then came a G/U/b deck where I threw away a game because I was playing on Magic Online and Unsummoned my opponent’s animated Forest from Awakener Druid during his combat step rather than end step which let him replay it and Giant Growth his Druid to kill my attacking Garruk’s Companion and stabilize when I drew virtually all the land in my deck. My last match featured a truly bonkers U/W deck with double Blinding Mage Pacifism Serra Angel Crystal Ball and a collection of solid fliers and tempo cards but I mulliganed down to four in the first game and then mulliganed in the second game and lost my only Plains to an Acidic Slime.
I can’t help but feel like those losses aren’t representative of my understanding of the format but they certainly don’t leave me feeling confident going into the event. I’d feel better if I had a killer Standard deck that I was waiting for the right moment to unveil but because I wasn’t certain I was going to be able to make it to Nationals I’ve been focusing most of my playtesting on Extended. Most of what I know about Standard comes from a few dozen games at Chapin’s house between Grand Prix: Columbus and GenCon or from reading the results of events online.
That said I feel like I have a decent grasp of what I’m looking for in a deck. As I mentioned in my article last week the current Standard format is built on four major pillars – Primeval Titan decks Fauna Shaman decks Jace decks and Jund. Despite the performance of Boros last weekend at Chinese Nationals I don’t feel like the metagame this weekend will shift in response. Nationals as a tournament is typically slower to respond to such information than Pro Tours. Since many players qualified via Regionals (or now “Nationals Qualifiers”) which is the same format as Nationals it seems that many are unlikely to switch to vastly different deck than that which they used to earn their slot.
With that in mind these are the major things I’m looking for in whatever deck I play.
#1 – Be competitive against Jund
Despite the printing of Obstinate Baloth and the huge gains other decks have received from M11 Jund is still a serious force to be reckoned with. Owen Turtenwald made it to the finals of the Midwest Masters Series at GenCon with Jund and the deck also took three of the Top 8 slots at Chinese Nationals. A new format is a time when people want to try all kinds of new things and many of those new things are weak to a powerful streamlined deck like Jund. Bloodbraid Elf hasn’t gotten any worse. Any deck I choose to play will be one that takes the threat of Jund seriously. There’s absolutely no chance I shuffle up for round 1 with a deck that I haven’t put through the ringer against Savage Lands and friends.
#2 – Have a plan against big spells
Standard right now includes some of the most powerful cards it’s seen in quite a while. The Titans are all enormous and can win games on their own. Destructive Force can similarly sweep away a seemingly dominant board position and turn a game around immediately. If your deck doesn’t have some kind of plan against big spell strategies you’re in for some serious hurting.
An obvious anti-big spell plan is countermagic as Mana Leak provides an answer that is especially good against expensive spells but is also effective early on to either stop opposing threats or protect your own depending on what style of deck you’re playing. More subtle plans are hand destruction plus threats like in Jund where Blightning can put ramp decks in the awkward position of deciding whether to hold on to their big spells and hope to draw the mana to get there or vice versa. Some decks like Mono Red or Boros just put the pressure on as fast as possible and hope to make untapping with a Primeval Titan in play a pipe dream. Others like Naya rely on a combination of slower pressure plus trumps like Manabarbs to keep the big spell decks in check.
Ultimately what this means is that I won’t be playing some kind of mid-range creature deck that doesn’t have some way to close out the game against someone who’s going bigger than me. Standard right now is not a world where Baneslayer Angel rules the board – in fact the Titans make her look downright puny. Sorry my dear – I know you’ve done so much for me but you’re going to be staying home this year.
#3 – Don’t scoop to Fauna Shaman
I have gone on record saying that Fauna Shaman the most format-warping card in M11 and I stand by that. Fauna Shaman is capable of winning the game essentially singlehandedly if left unchecked simply by chaining activations into an endless stream of Vengevines Bloodbraid Elves or whatever else you decide to use to wreck your opponent. If it weren’t strictly against DCI policy and capable of getting me DQ’d from the event I’d bet money that Fauna Shaman decks will make up a significant portion of the field at Nationals. There’s no way I want to sit down across from an opponent who plays a turn 2 Fauna Shaman and have my only recourse to be a demoralized slump in my chair.
This is a big hit against U/W in my mind. If it weren’t for Fauna Shaman U/W would be at or near the top of my list of decks to play. It has the best plan against most of the big spell decks and can certainly be built with Jund in mind. Yet a simple second turn Fauna Shaman gives you fits. You can’t really afford to just Path it right away because you’re giving your opponent a huge boost in mana early in the game. If I do play U/W I will almost certainly end up playing with some number of Journey to Nowhere in my list just as a concession to the necessity of dealing with Fauna Shaman the turn it enters the battlefield but overall I think my plan is to look elsewhere.
#4 – Be able to disrupt combo and control decks
Between Runeflare Trap Pyromancer’s Ascension and Turboland style decks – to say nothing of U/W – there’s a lot of decks in Standard that can put a serious hurting on you if you’re unprepared for them and unable to interact with what they’re doing. The common thread among many of these decks is their reliance on specific spells to their success. An aggressive gameplan mixed with disruption like Bant with Mana Leak or Jund sideboarding Duress should have what it takes to cover most of these bases. But again coming to the party with some kind of midrange good stuff deck just won’t cut it against these decks. Sorry again Baneslayer Angel.
So I may not know exactly what I’m going to be playing at Nationals but I have a good idea what it’ll look like when I find it so that’s a start. Chances are it will be some kind of Fauna Shaman deck of my own likely Bant but I’m not writing off anything just yet. The deck that solves all the problems in the format may be out there! If I figure it out in time maybe this year will be the one where I finally break through and win a spot on the National team. Hopefully Jeff Butz won’t be there to stop me. Wish me luck!
Until next time…