The Dragonmaster's Lair - My Nationals Report
Another U.S. Nationals has gone by and for yet another year I will be watching from the sidelines during the team competition at Worlds. I didn't have particularly lofty expectations going into Nationals this year - as I mentioned in my article last week I wasn't even sure I could go until the last minute - but I held out hope that maybe this year would be my time.
I flew out to Nationals the Wednesday before the event intending to spend Thursday railbirding the grinders to get a sense of the field and get in some last minute testing. I got in late Wednesday and caught the train from the airport with Gavin Verhey in whose hotel room I was staying until my own reservation was available the following day. We spent the ride discussing Standard and M11 draft and seemed to share many similar thoughts on both which was somewhat comforting given my level of preparation for the event.
I was leaning strongly toward playing some kind of Fauna Shaman deck and was initially leaning toward a NLB-style deck with Squadron Hawk but heard a lot of rumblings about old-school Mythic Conscription turning up in significant numbers. Shifting back in that direction made a lot of sense since the Sovereigns plan is one that goes bigger than even the Titans. I talked last week about how important I felt it was to have a plan against big-spell decks in this format and Mythic's plan of "attack you with a double digit power creature on turn 4" even has Mana Leak as backup to handle the new hotness.
Mythic was historically the toughest matchup for an NLB style deck simply because they're doing incredibly powerful and explosive things before you can get your attrition plan online. I didn't want to go into the tournament on the back-foot against a deck I expected to be among the most popular so I decided to explore other options. I messed around a bit with an Esper Control deck similar to that which Patrick Chapin ultimately ended up playing but it just felt too reactive and too inherently fair. With no mana acceleration I was casting spells on the turn they were supposed to be cast and that just didn't seem to stand up to all the crazy things that are possible in Standard these days. I wanted to be doing unfair things of my own not just trying to stop my opponent from doing so.
I was in the middle of a practice draft when I saw Ben Swartz of GGSLive fame playing in the Top 4 of a grinder with a Fauna Shaman Naya deck. That alone wouldn't be enough to catch my attention but the Eldrazi Monument he used to power past opposing blockers did. In my admittedly limited testing it always felt like Naya had too many low impact cards and was about one turn too slow against many of the big spell decks. Monument seemed like the perfect card to punch past Titans and Avengers of Zendikar or just break ground stalemates against other green decks.
Here's what I played:
- 2 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Bloodbraid Elf
- 1 Cunning Sparkmage
- 4 Fauna Shaman
- 1 Inferno Titan
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 2 Lotus Cobra
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Realm Razer
- 1 Siege-Gang Commander
- 4 Squadron Hawk
- 4 Vengevine
- 1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
I cut most of the Fauna Shaman tutor targets for the Squadron Hawk package. I'd much rather be using my Shaman activations to amass Vengevines and Bloodbraid Elves than get cute with cards like Dauntless Escort and while fetching an Obstinate Baloth in response to a Blightning is a lovely dream how often are your Shamans really going to live against Jund? Squadron Hawk on the other hand provides fuel for Fauna Shaman helps bring back Vengevines serves as an evasive threat that can help kill planeswalkers and gives you something to easily sacrifice to Eldrazi Monument. The Hawk also lets you make the amusing play of filling your hand up on turn 2 and discarding Vengevines only to bring them back on turn 3 with a Hawk and a one-drop.
All told I was pretty happy with the deck though I'd certainly make a couple of changes. I felt the deck had too many tap lands and I'd probably cut a lot of the manlands for M10 duals. With Fauna Shaman and Squadron Hawk along with the higher cost tutor targets you have a lot of mana sinks and rarely have the opportunity to activate your manlands. The format is really fast and falling behind because your first few lands enter the battlefield tapped is a serious problem. I'd also probably find room for a single Tajuru Preserver in the sideboard. Mono Green Eldrazi decks are likely to increase in popularity after Conrad Kolos's third place finish and they pretty much cannot beat you if you can stop them from wiping your board with All is Dust.
In any case - on to the tournament!
In the first round I played against a Bant deck and I was able to search up an Inferno Titan in the first game to pin down his resources and he could never recover then do much the same in the second. I think Inferno Titan is certainly the most underrated of all of the Titans. It can absolutely dominate games on its own and can end them in short order.
In the second round I played against Conrad Kolos and he took the first game with a turn 4 Primeval Titan followed up by a turn 5 All is Dust. I won the second with a surprise Eldrazi Monument attack that left him at three life and when he cast All is Dust the next turn I dropped a Manabarbs to seal it. In the third game he had a start fueled by Joraga Treespeaker that powered out Primeval Titan and I answered back with an Eldrazi Monument attack but he had Fog to stick around. I attacked him down to two the following turn but he ripped the All is Dust to clear my board and the rest was academic.
In the third round I played against Jason Imperiale who I'd previous lost to in a match to stay alive in PT: San Diego. There he'd had a brutal Mono Red deck featuring Basilisk Collar and here he had Dredgevine. We were featured on the GGSLive stream and I didn't put on much of a show in the first game as I conceded on his fourth turn when he had three Vengevines and three Bloodghasts to my single Knight of the Reliquary. The second game was much more interactive and we fought back and forth as I tried to maintain my life total and get Fauna Shaman going. Once I did I was able to fetch Inferno Titan and this time I was the one with Basilisk Collar. It only took a few turns of mowing down Jason's board and gaining 9+ life that we shuffled up for the next game. Despite the epic second game the third was anticlimactic as I kept a hand with two Forests and two Fauna Shaman along with various other action and failed to draw another land for several turns. When I searched for a Bird Jason Mana Leaked it and when I drew a Lotus Cobra Jason had his one sideboarded Blister Beetle to kill it and keep me from searching for (and casting!) Inferno Titan the following turn.
In the fourth round I played against another Naya deck played by a friendly gentleman who was unfortunately late to the round. Eldrazi Monument showed its value in creature mirrors here as despite his pair of Knight of the Reliquaries and Baneslayer Angel I was able to overwhelm him with an army of indestructible flying creatures.
Not exactly where I was hoping to be going into the first draft but still not out of it. My pod was fairly strong for a 2-2 pod with both Eric Froehlich and Gaudenis Virdigirus at my table. My general strategy was that I wanted to draft Blue. Blue is by far the deepest color - its tenth best card is better than most other colors' fifth best card and you can pair it effectively with any of the other colors. Even if the players around you are drafting Blue you can still get solid picks and if their evaluations are off compared to your own you can often get some of the top Blue cards just like you had first pick out of those packs.
My deck ended up decent but unspectacular. I first picked an Azure Drake and got passed Platinum Angel then picked up some mid quality Blue cards until I got passed a very late Chandra's Outrage. I'm not a huge fan of U/R but it can be solid if things come together correctly. I opened a Prodigal Pyromancer and Lightning Bolt in pack 2 and picked the Pyromancer. I now think this was a mistake. M11 is much more tempo oriented than previous Core Set draft formats and has fewer one toughness utility creatures so the efficient removal spell is more important than the pinger. My deck ended up with a reasonable amount of removal countermagic and bounce but was a bit on the low end of creature quality which is a risk that comes with drafting Red. I had to play two Berserkers of Blood Ridge which I generally only like in removal-heavy B/R decks where you don't really have better options.
I went 1-2 with the deck losing the first round to a very solid U/W deck winning the second against a B/R Act of Treason deck and losing the third after a miserable game 3 that may have been one of the least pleasant games of Magic I've ever played. I start with a double mulligan and then keep a very good five-card hand. My opponent's first play is Assault Griffin on turn 4 which I answer with Conundrum Sphinx. On turn 5 he plays a Whispersilk Cloak equips and attacks and I'm content to trade four damage for three over the next few turns as my hand fills up with removal. Then he Lava Axes me and I draw Cancel the very next turn. I go from winning the race with Unsummon Combust Ice Cage Aether Adept and Chandra's Outrage in my hand to dying to five attacks and a Lava Axe to the face having interacted with my opponent in absolutely zero ways. Fun.
I'm somewhat frustrated to end up 3-4 after the first day an out of Top 8 contention but I stay in the tournament for a shot at some PT points and a few dollars. But I'm not going to let the prospect of 7-0'ing for some cash keep me from enjoying myself! After an excellent dinner with Tom Martell Gaudenis Misha and Stephen Neal for which Stephen was gracious enough to pick up the tab I head out to meet up with a group of Madison gamers plus Zac Hill for drinks. Drinks at one place turn into drinks at another which turned into getting pulled into a car as I was almost back inside the hotel and going to have drinks at yet another place. Sometime after all of that I make it back to my room and flop into bed for a few hours of sleep.
I shockingly wake up the next morning before my alarm and make my way to the tournament site with far less of a hangover than I might have expected. I sit down for my draft and open a pack with nary a Blue card to be seen but with one of my favorite non-Blue cards in the format - Cudgel Troll. The next pack offers up another Troll and the third pack a Blinding Mage. While the White dries up I keep getting more and more juicy Green until by the end of the draft I have a deck sporting five copies of Garruk's Companion along with a Fauna Shaman just in case I need to cash them in for one of my two copies of Blinding Mage.
I think G/W is quite underrated in M11 draft. The removal colors don't actually have that many removal spells and many of them get snapped up as splashes regardless so you're rarely going to end up with a deck with multiple Doom Blades or Lightning Bolts. There's no Merfolk Looter in the format so there is less demand for removal that actually kills a creature. Sure there's Royal Assassin and Prodigal Pyromancer but the former is rare and the latter doesn't have a huge impact against a Green deck. Pacifism and Giant Growth are on the same level as the removal in the other colors and Blinding Mage is like a removal spell that can target a different creature each turn. All in all a fine color combination.
My deck was excellent and I thought I had a decent shot of 3-0'ing my pod to remain in the hunt for that elusive PT point. I won my first two rounds then lost a close one in the last round. In the first game I had my opponent at three life when he ripped Serra Angel then I proceeded to draw six straight land while he continued to draw action cards. I won the second game then in the third my opponent dropped Armored Ascensions on his fourth and fifth turns to kill me on the spot.
And so I was out. But my Magical weekend wasn't done! I spent some time hanging out at the Champion Challenge area where I got to play some EDH (I still need to finish my own EDH deck!) and a few games with the duel decks. My favorite was when a father brought over his daughter who couldn't have been older than seven to play against me. We played Garruk versus Lillana and after killing my early Rancored creatures and forcing me to discard my hand she was able to use Lillana's ultimate to bring back something like a dozen creatures and kill me. About a half dozen people took pictures while she was beating me down and she came up to me later in the day to give me a picture she'd drawn for me. It was adorable. Thanks Emma!
I spent the rest of my Saturday playing in the 2HG event with Ben Rassumussan who picked me up because his usual teammate Lissa Jensen was still playing in the PTQ. We had an absolutely obscene card pool and won many of our rounds in under ten minutes thanks to Serra's Ascendant and decided to head to a nearby bar after every win so we'd be ready to go out right away by the time the event ended. At 5-0 with five trips to the bar we drew in then lost in the semifinals in decidedly anticlimactic fashion when I stalled on mana. But that just meant we had time to get ready for a night on the town!
And what a night it was. Nate Price had mentioned the previous evening that there were plans for karaoke on Saturday but I didn't expect it to turn into quite the crew it did. When we first showed up the place seemed a bit ramshackle and crowded but once people started singing the vibe was just amazing. At one point a chubby ginger rocked out to the most amazing rendition of Meatloaf's "I would do anything for love" that I'd ever heard - literally if I hadn't seen him singing it I would have assumed it was on the radio. Then gamers started going up and all hell broke loose.
All of a sudden the bar was a rocking dance party featuring the likes of Patrick Chapin Zac Hill Sam Black and Zvi with Dave Guskin belting out an impressive duet with Gregory Marques. Then Zac Hill belted out a powerful rendition of Pearl Jam’s "Last Kiss" and I not to be outdone performed my magnum opus:
Ice Ice Baby.
I'll just let that one sink in for a moment.
There's video evidence out there (which I'm sure someone will link to in the forums) but suffice it to say that after I finished the song girls were coming out of the crowd asking to have their picture taken with me. If I don't make it into the Magic Hall of Fame at least I have the karaoke hall of fame to fall back on!
The night went on with more stellar performances including Lissa Jensen singing "Dream On" and a group of local Magic players belting out "White and Nerdy". The MC unceremoniously cut the festivities of just before Zvi was supposed to go up which led to - I kid you not - the entire bar chanting "We want Zvi!" Sadly this time The Man got his way and we had to leave without hearing Zvi perform. I have heard that he is in training for his next karaoke performance however - he wants to show me up!
So I may not have done all that much winning at Nationals but I did a whole lot of having fun. And if I can fly around the world playing a game I love hanging out with cool people and having the time of my life - well I can't ask for much more than that.
Okay maybe I can. Next year I want to win.
Until next time...