As I'm sure you're already aware Magic in the UK is pretty different from Magic over in StarCityGame.com's homeland. We don't have many game stores with play space (instead mostly gaming in pubs/bars); PTQs are rarely attended by more than 100 players; and calling someone “squire” is curious yet polite rather than an obscure Magic-based insult.
Also our Nationals qualification structure is completely different from that of other countries which is particularly relevant at this moment in time – our first NQ having taken place Saturday just gone March 19.
To qualify for US Nationals you either need to be top 75 on rating (i.e. a pro) Top 8 one of the huge regional events taking place on April 16 or win one of the new smaller tournaments taking place on the weekends of April 23 and 30 (details on this change here). So in reality three chances at ten Nationals slots total.
In the UK we also have the top 75 slots (with far fewer taken by PT players) and not just three weekends of events but a five-weekend NQ season at stores and games clubs around the country. And it's not a very big country remember – at least one event each weekend will be only an hour-odd away in the car/on a train rather than the epic voyages US grinders undertake.
At each of our NQs it's not just the winner who qualifies: there's one slot per eight players in attendance. This means someone who plays only the closest event each weekend in the season has five chances at something like forty slots total giving even the average Magician a fighting chance to play at Nationals.
Hence I've done just that the last two years – in 2009 qualifying on my fifth attempt with W/b Kithkin and in 2010 on my third try after picking up Lewis Laskin's Super Friends. Obviously I'm hoping this trend will continue and I'll get to go again this year.
But to do that I'll need a deck to qualify with. So what would be a good choice for these tournaments?
The UK NQ metagame:
The average NQ here is similar to the average PTQ in size (50-120 players) but quite different in composition – take away 10% PTQ ringers who'll be auto-Q'd and another 10% of people who won't travel that far for non-PTQ events; add 20% random quality locals.
As such the field has a much higher percentage of homebrew/budget decks with card availability having a large effect. Of course the “regular” players of UK events will mostly be bringing netdecks usually carbon copies of those from recent Open Top 8s with some minor changes.
“I don't actually believe the UK has a meta; people just play random decks depending on what cards they have or can borrow and some people just play their favorite deck.” – Gary Lynch future New Zealand National champion/mascot.
So how does a metagame such as this with a lower percentage of players playing well-defined and tiered archetypes (such as you might also see at a local store or Game Day) affect our choices and plays?
We're not playing to win the tournament just be better than 7/8ths of the field. As such we only need worry about the Swiss portion of the tournament and finishing fourth is just as good as first. You can handle a loss to one of the “real” decks so long as you can beat a couple others and all the lower-quality random decks.
Playing many objectively powerful cards that are useful in many scenarios and that play well together will give you the best chance of success. Consider this a brute-force approach rather than “solving” the deck choice puzzle – we want to be attacking with a giant hammer not a well-placed scalpel.
You almost certainly want to be playing a known archetype (“netdeck”) rather than something cute of your own design.
Given the diversity of decks you could play against favor general answers over the specific. Disfigure might be a pinpoint maindeck choice in a tightly defined meta but considering we could play against anything we want broader answers like Doom Blade or Go for the Throat.
Likewise when it comes to mass removal Day of Judgment is king. Pyroclasm Slagstorm and other damage-based sweepers have their place but don't do anything against the mono-green opponent who curves turn 3 Leatherback Baloth into Turn 4 Ondu Giant. These days I always want to play a deck with such mass removal because occasionally you play someone who'll always overextend into it for a nice free win plus the fields are typically more aggro than control.
Regarding choices such as the aforementioned Doom Blade and Go for the Throat – it's not one or the other; it's clearly a split of the two. Playing only Doom Blade (say we've cribbed Gerard Fabiano's Darkwing Duck list) will be pretty embarrassing if we run into a mono-black deck. Equally if you play all Go for the Throats and run into standard Tempered Steel. Tweak such slots in netdecks accordingly.
How will your opponents respond to counterspells? Some less-experienced opponents will either not consider or respect open mana from a control deck at all always playing their quality cards into potential counters or at the opposite end of the scale they will greatly fear your keeping 1U up. In the former case you're required to always have the counter at the appropriate time whereas in the latter you needn't even have it in your deck as you can bluff them. In short [the threat of] counterspells may be much more or less effective than you'd expect.
One from Bristol Bant-master @ADT7: “ Play more bombs – Bad players will see more things as 'must answer' and if they waste their answers and you still have bombs you'll win.”
I'd agree with the premise though for a slightly different reason – playing cards that win you the game singlehandedly (Baneslayer Angel perhaps) punishes opponents who have the wrong/not enough answers and saves you from having to grind out wins “the hard way.” You can also apply this idea to your entire deck employing “whoops I win” combos such as Kuldotha Forgemaster for Blightsteel Colossus or last year's Polymorph deck.
Even if an opponent is playing a known deck it doesn't mean they have this week's list – laziness and issues of card availability mean they may be using one from a month ago. Don't just assume your opponent is playing the latest update and decide “they must/can't have x” – for example the (non)presence of Summoning Trap in Valakut decks or whether they're playing last week's Edgar Flores or Ben Stark's original PT Paris build of U/W Caw-Go.
Play a deck you have experience with! More a reminder than breaking news here: a Tier 2 deck you know inside out beats picking up a slightly better one you've no experience with every time. Just ask anyone who ever played Kithkin in Standard to some success!
Finally some very applicable wise words from Brian Kibler: “ Metagaming too heavily against the 'best decks' at the expense of versatility and natural deck strength can cost you when you sit down across from the guy playing his homebrew G/R ramp deck Mono-Black Control or Big Red. It's particularly important to play a solid deck that can deal with a wide field in these kinds of events.”
So what deck to play? I'll answer that question after a review of my most recent (and disastrous) foray into Standard...
U/W/B Tezz at Game Day:
To explain the deck and card choices:
I didn't want to just play Juza's straight U/B combo list as while it was clearly good I wanted to be a bit different while retaining the big “combo” finish of a fast Blightsteel Colossus. I got a Tezz/Mystic hybrid from @smi77y and liked the color combo but the Mystic package seemed out of place so I switched this for more artifacts after discussions with @daiches2.
The white I reasoned was necessary to have a “really definitely kill everything sweeper” in Day of Judgment plus to satisfy my man-crush on Gideon and giving the deck more planeswalkers makes it more like Super Friends which is the most fun deck I've ever played. Oh and you get Divine Offering sideboard too.
Onto the games:
Round 1 vs. Matej (Boros)
Game 1 I got out the big daddy BSC for an easy turn 6 win.
Game 2 I kept myself alive for several turns with Gideon + Jace looking for a sweeper. I lost the Gideon and the game as a result of my misplay – blocking Plated Geopede with an Inkmoth Nexus and killing Steppe Lynx with Go for the Throat rather than the other way around – forgetting the Geopede had first strike.
Game 3 in extra turns I had the win on board (his end-of-turn Forgemaster for BSC) but he topdecked the Lightning Bolt he needed to win. A double-dose of punishment for my game 2 misplay!
Round 2 vs. Charlie Grover (RUG w/ Destructive Force)
Game 1 I Inquisition of Kozilek turns 1 and 3; the second time I see no counterspells so I go for a turn 4 Jace. He's topdecked the Mana Leak for it then gets Destructive Force with several more lands than I do and with Garruk in play.
Round 3 vs. Aron (Flores Pyromancer Ascension)
At this point I figure I may as well play out the day for some experience with the deck even if I do end up 0-5.
Game 1 a turn 2 Inquisition takes a Pyromancer Ascension (I think) leaving behind two lands Archive Trap Foresee. The turn after he resolves Foresee I respond to his hardcast Archive Trap by Forging out a Myr Battlesphere (BSC in hand); then he has three more Archive Traps. LOL. I ask if he's playing Flores's list and he says yes but I forget exactly what's in it so this isn't vitally helpful.
Game 2 I Ratchet Bomb away two Pyromancer Ascensions then counter Foresees and build up my mana for several turns. Then I Inquisition his four-card hand and he Spell Pierces. I pay; he casts another one; I pay again; he throws two burn spells at me. I'm pretty sure when I have so much mana the right play is to either let it just resolve or just throw the burn at me and let me take one Pierce. Then a couple turns later I hardcast BSC with Stoic Rebuttal backup.
Game 3 after Inquisitioning and countering a few of his early key spells he has no gas and I have lucked my way into Venser + Prophetic Prism but time is called and I can't just grind out an emblem win. I masterfully play to my only out and sac two Forgemasters and the Prism to get Sphere of the Suns for my twelfth mana draw an untapped land and hardcast the BSC (again I've drawn) on turn 3; then on the last turn I make it unblockable with Venser to get around the Wurmcoil Engine he just cast.
Round 4 vs. Andras (semi-budget U/W Control)
Game 1 I Inquisition taking an Everflowing Chalice leaving lands Day of Judgment Baneslayer Angel. I cast another turn 3 and misplay by taking Mana Leak instead of another Chalice so I know (pretty much) my Forgemaster will resolve. This allows him to play the Baneslayer turn 4 and I die one turn before forging for BSC.
Game 2 I Memoricide for Baneslayer and take one from his hand and one from his deck and see the other two are in fact a Frost Titan and a Steel Hellkite; I also see several Revoke Existences and Steel Sabotages plus two White Sun's Zeniths. I question the lack of Jace: “Well there were two but I boarded them out because you have them too.” Okay... After several more turns I get him to seven poison with Inkmoth Nexus but I'm missing blue mana. I play a Prophetic Prism and decline to play the drawn Tezzeret that I can't kill with this turn. He attacks with Hellkite thinks for ages then kills the Tumble Magnet I've been using on the Frost Titan rather than the Prism I need to cast Tezzeret. Untap Tezz make Nexus 5/5 phew.
Game 3 I draw nothing and die to two Cat tokens after killing Baneslayer Angel.
Round 5 vs. Seth (U/W Proliferate – Phyrexian-aligned)
Game 2 he plays Allies he's just drawn on turns 3 4 and 5 after I turn 2 Inquisitioned away Umara Raptor leaving behind lands two Condemns Contagion Clasp and Jwari Shapeshifter. Even after Mindslavering him to buy a turn I die with two Gideons and Day of Judgment in hand having just draw a tapped second white source.
Total : 4-9 games 1-4 matches thanks for playing...
I felt a little unlucky with how bad some of my draws were/how good some of my opponents were but that happens sometimes and I'm getting better at shrugging this off.
Tezzeret as a card underperformed in my opinion rarely doing more than drawing another mana source. In post-board games I frequently didn't have quite enough artifacts in the deck for him either.
In many games I felt as if I was behind from the start and the score sheets agree – in most of the games I lost I didn't deal more than a few points of damage/poison. The fact I had to work so hard to win the games I did isn't encouraging either.
Having a lot of cards that do relatively little unless you have Tezzeret or Kuldotha Forgemaster in play means you can end up drawing a bunch of cards that do nothing to win you the game after one of the above is countered or killed.
The mana base wasn't nearly good enough and cost me at least two games. Five colorless lands was clearly too many and I should have run the full four Sphere of the Suns at least one more Prophetic Prism and cut the Tectonic Edges for lands that could actually cast colored spells. The lack of Preordain didn't help this matter either.
Contagion Clasp was decent against Boros and Tumble Magnet was better than I'd expected. Gideon was just as good as I remember and the one fluke time it came up Venser + Prophetic Prism was insane. Inquisition of Kozilek is just as good as everyone says. Hard-casting Blightsteel Colossus is surprisingly possible in a deck with this much artifact mana.
Overall though I got unnecessarily greedy through my desire to play something a little off the radar and it cost me.
Also at least here in London Game Day is nothing as casual as it used to be. The Top 8 was: two U/W/r Caw U/W Caw Valakut Boros G/W Quest RUG U/W Venser. As such I'm far less inclined to play my own concoctions at these events in future sadly.
Where do we go from here?
While I don't want to write off Tezzeret at this point in time I don't think it's what I want to be playing in National Qualifiers – even with the Forgemaster combos it felt much fairer than I'd hoped.
Looking at this list and other cards in-color that I know will be particularly good at these events (Day of Judgment Baneslayer Angel) and in a vacuum (Stoneforge Mystic + Swords Preordain) it's pretty clear that Gerry T's latest Caw-Blade innovation is where I want to be or perhaps some variation on Nick Spagnolo's Esper Control – and I'd recommend the same to anyone else.
Of course if you're not going to play one of these make sure you're playing the most powerful cards you can in your proven archetype of choice – promise you won't throw it all away with a janky brew when it really matters okay?
Thanks for reading (my now-named column)
BONUS! – UK MTG Events Bingo: