It'd been a hectic month for me. Between lots of traveling and the challenges of testing both Modern and Sealed Deck for other tournaments, I was left with limited time to practice directly for the StarCityGames.com Invitational in Los Angeles. But that didn't mean I was going to be unprepared, just that I'd have to go with what I knew.
When people asked me about my plans for the tournament, my go-to line was, "I'd rather play a weaker deck well than play a better deck poorly."
I'm glad I took this approach. For one thing, I had a well-tuned decklist thanks to an accurate prediction of the field, my own knowledge of Bant Control, and the valuable advice of Andrew "Gainsay" Cuneo. Equally important, though, was the fact that I felt confident and experienced with the deck and generally knew how to sideboard and play in every matchup that popped up. Finally, it turned out that Bant isn't a "weaker deck" at all! While B/R Zombies is not a favorable matchup, it's still quite winnable, and every other popular deck in the format is a good matchup in my personal opinion.
My major change to the deck for this event was moving away from the Elixir of Immortality end game. While it made me sad to lose the "go infinite" aspect of Bant Control, it was clear that the games I was losing were the ones that ended in the first eight or so turns, not the ones where I was able to draw most of my library. Also, I wanted to include a maindeck Rest in Peace because even a single copy dramatically improves the U/W and U/W/R matchups, which I expected many of the tournament's toughest players to choose for their Standard deck. Rest in Peace is also great against Reanimator and has value against Zombies and most other decks.
It's difficult to understand how swapping a single card could change the U/W matchup until you play it for yourself. The key is that the matchup almost always goes long, especially when things are going according to your plan as the Bant player. This means that A) you have a very high chance of finding your Rest in Peace and B) your opponent is invariably going to draw many of their cards that depend on the graveyard. Yes, Rest in Peace only shuts down "half" of a Snapcaster Mage, but it's capable of shutting down "half" of two, three, or even all four copies of Snapcaster in the course of a long game. It also makes Moorland Haunt and Runechanter's Pike entirely useless, which are normally the U/W player's best tools against Bant.
To return to my original point, it wouldn't make much sense to try to reshuffle my graveyard with Elixir of Immortality when Rest in Peace is often going to remove everything from the game before that point. The other change that facilitated cutting the Elixir was Andrew Cuneo's addition of duplicate copies of Overgrown Tomb and Nephalia Drownyard. Drownyard is great against blue decks and (ironically) Reanimator, and I typically beat aggro decks with Thragtusks anyway, so the Elixir was no longer necessary. The only place I'd miss it would be against other Nephalia Drownyard decks, but that wouldn't be an important matchup, would it?
I tried as hard as I could to prepare for the Legacy portion of the tournament, but there are numerous challenges to playing Legacy on Magic Online. In the end, I was only able to get in about twenty games with my deck, which was enough for me to get a loose feel for things, but a magnitude off from what I need in order to feel like I have a fine-tuned list. Beyond that, my preparation consisted of endless discussions with a number of different people, notably BUG master Jarvis Yu.
In the end, I simply wanted to play a deck full of the Legacy cards I like the most. I didn't care to make my deck fit into the category of control or aggro, and I didn't want to gear it for any particular matchups. Deathrite Shaman, Brainstorm, Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, Hymn to Tourach, Abrupt Decay, Daze, Liliana of the Veil, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor are the best the format has to offer, and, predictably, they were all very good for me.
Looking back, I very much liked the deck, and the list I settled on was quite respectable. BUG doesn't exactly crush any matchup, but, as mentioned, every card is good on its own. It's a strong, balanced deck for an open field (and I've never played in a Legacy field that wasn't open).
Daze is one of my favorite Legacy cards. It's great when you start with a Deathrite Shaman since you can afford to be set back on mana a little bit; it's great with Wasteland; and it's great for fighting over planeswalkers. I wanted to play three Daze, but everyone I talked to encouraged me to cut them. (See "The Treetop Village Dilemma" from last week.) In light of my limited testing, I decided to cut down to a single copy. This may seem like a silly decision, but if you think about it, Daze is at its best in small numbers because your opponent can't make easy decisions about whether or not to play around it. The singleton Daze was amazing for me—in part because it was a singleton—but based on how well it performed, I would probably play two copies next time.
I went 6-2 in Legacy and would have won all eight matches if I had done a better job sideboarding. That's not an exaggeration, and I'm not being overly hard on myself. In both of my losses, I sideboarded in ways that directly caused me to lose very close game 3s because of my inexperience with the deck and lack of knowing exactly what my opponents' decks contained.
Against Jonathan Job's U/W Miracle deck, I sideboarded out my basic Forest, going down to 22 lands, with the logic that the matchup would go long, I didn't want to flood, and he would not be Wastelanding me. Well, sure enough, Jonathan slammed Dust Bowl on turn 4 and killed three or four nonbasic lands with it, keeping me off casting a second copy of Jace, the Mind Sculptor after our first ones traded. To rub salt in the wound, Jonathan cast Path to Exile on me after I had naturally drawn both my Island and my Swamp! The decision to cut a land was reasonable, but it should have been a fetchland and not a basic.
In the final round, I faced Nick Spagnolo's Four-Color (W/G/U/B) Midrange deck. Like me, Nick had seemingly brewed a deck with all of his favorite Legacy cards: Deathrite Shaman, Noble Hierarch, Knight of the Reliquary, Green Sun's Zenith, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and discard spells. I assumed his deck also contained Lingering Souls despite not having seen it. Lingering Souls is the single most difficult card to beat with my BUG list; according to my normal plan, I sideboarded in two Engineered Plagues, thinking that I could also take out his Hierarchs or Dryad Arbors if need be. Well, as I now know, Nick did not have Lingering Souls, but when game 3 came down to a topdeck battle, I drew both copies of Engineered Plague while Nick drew Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Good game.
If I'd had knowledge of my opponents' decklists and made proper sideboarding decisions based on them, I could have won all eight of my matches with BUG.
Including a round 1 bye, I finished with a 5-2-1 Swiss record in Standard. I went 3-0 in matches, 6-0 in games against very tough opponents (Orrin Beasley, David Thomas, and Adam Prosak) playing U/W and U/W/R, resolving the singleton Rest in Peace in game 1 in all three matches.
I received an unintentional draw against Angel of Glory's Rise Reanimator. I lost a long game 1 (if only I'd found my Rest in Peace!) and won a long game 2. My opponent stumbled in game 3 and wasn't able to get any traction early, which would have left my Bant deck in a commanding position if not for the time running down on the clock. After we both played Thragtusks, it was clear that I was going to have to win by milling if I was going to finish the game in time. However, in the Reanimator matchup, it's important to have the game well in hand before you start milling cards into their graveyard. I hesitated to use my Drownyard because I could allow myself to lose if I gave him too much value off of free flashback spells. I wanted to wait until I drew a second Drownyard or a Jace, Memory Adept to speed up my clock, a Rest in Peace to erase the value of his graveyard, or a Sphinx's Revelation or Wrath effect to be able to handle whatever he threw at me.
Finally, it the time came to start milling, but, alas, it was too late. When turn 5 of extra turns ended, my opponent had zero cards in his library, but he didn't have to take another draw step.
Though neither of us played slowly, we each had the power to avoid the unintentional draw. From my perspective, I could have faced my fears and started milling one turn earlier, and I'm still beating myself up over the way I decided to play the game. From my opponent's perspective, he opted to play out game 2 to the bitter end, the final stage of which was five or six minutes of Drownyard milling where he had no chance of making a comeback. This match upset me a lot, and it definitely had a negative impact on my play in the following round or two.
My other three matches were close ones against Zombies, where I ended up going 1-1 against the B/R build and 0-1 against Leon Kornacki's B/G version.
As I previously mentioned, I went 6-2 in Legacy, losing to Jonathan Jobs' U/W Miracles deck and Nick Spagnolo's Four-Color Midrange deck in part because of the way I sideboarded against them. I defeated Esper Stoneforge twice, RUG Delver twice, Charbelcher combo, and Todd Anderson with Shardless Agent BUG.
The Legacy matches were, without exception, fun and interesting. In particular, my match against Ben Wienburg's RUG deck was the closest and toughest of the tournament. However, the Legacy games were the type where each turn contained a number of minor decisions involving Brainstorm stacking, playing around Wastelands and counterspells, and trying to plan for future turns. It would be difficult to summarize them without leaving out key details. For example, take a look at my round 15 match against Todd Anderson here (starts around 5:49:00).
The Big Sweat
I had an 11-3-1 record going into the final round of Swiss, which was a scary place to be. I sat down against Nick Spagnolo, who offered an intentional draw. Unfortunately, since I had very strong tiebreakers and no one else was going to end with a record of 11-3-2, a draw or a loss would result in the same final standing for me, which would be either 8th or 9th place depending on whether the Top 8 was a clean cut at 12-4. I insisted on playing it out and lost.
Then I had twenty minutes to sit in heart wrenching anticipation. It wasn't clear how things were going to turn out, but in my own mind I believed I was going to end up in 9th place.
"Next, we have a clump of players with 36 points. In third place, Todd Anderson..."
The head judge waited for the cheering to subside between reading each name.
"And in eighth place, on tiebreakers, with 34 points...Reid Duke!"
During the Swiss, I'd faced six of the seven other players in the Top 8. Great job by all of them for keeping my "opponents' match win percentage" astronomically high!
The Top 8
I was ecstatic! My unintentional draw hadn't cost me the Top 8, and neither had my blunders in Legacy sideboarding! The bad news, which dawned on me in my moment of celebration, was that I'd be seeded against Nick Spagnolo's Esper Control deck, which featured four copies of Nephalia Drownyard—the single best card in a control mirror.
That night, I proxied up Nick's deck, and Pat Cox and Ben Lundquist helped me playtest a few games. I won one of them...out of six...when Pat missed about five land drops.
The matchup looked grim, but I did have a few advantages over Nick. First, I had a mana advantage because of my four Farseek. Second, I had one additional permission spell. Third, Nick had no creatures, so I could safely cut all of my Supreme Verdicts and removal while Nick had to keep in some number of those cards in order to stave off my Thragtusks.
In the first game, Nick quickly played two Drownyards and started aggressively milling me; all I could do was try to race with Thragtusks. I got him down to two life with two Thragtusks and an Augur of Bolas in play. Nick thought for a long time on his turn, indicating that he wasn't holding the double Wrath he would need to easily lock up the game. He settled on playing and flashing back Lingering Souls for four blockers. I untapped and attacked, and Nick blocked my two Thragtusks. I said, "Okay," and Nick buried his two tokens. But during the oft-forgotten "end of combat step," I played Azorius Charm to put my own Thragtusk on top of my library, made an extra Beast, and then flashed back a Think Twice to redraw and recast the Thragtusk. Nick untapped, but when he couldn't miracle a Terminus, he conceded. I never saw Nick's hand, but the Azorius Charm play meant I could still finish him through a single spot removal spell (Azorius Charm or Ultimate Price).
Of the two sideboarded games, the final one was more interesting. Nick was milling me with two Drownyards, and I slammed down Pithing Needle, eager to name "Nephalia Drownyard." In response, Nick tapped out to mill me. At this point, I had eight untapped lands with a hand full of permission, my Jace, and a Thragtusk. The obvious play would have been to get Jace down while Nick was tapped out. However, my single copy of Jace was my best way to win, and I might not have been able to protect him if I tapped so low on mana that turn.
I decided to play the Thragtusk, which would put pressure on Nick in a different way and perhaps make him tap out again down the road. A turn or two later, we both had nine lands, and at the end of Nick's turn, I tapped eight of mine for a Sphinx's Revelation. Nick played Dissipate, and I played Dispel, allowing my Revelation to resolve. Nick took the opportunity, while I was tapped out, to resolve his own Revelation in his own end step. This time, I had a clean window to resolve Jace and enough mana to put up a fight when Nick tried to remove him. A few turns of milling later and I was on to the semifinals.
After defeating Nick, my confidence was restored, and I made it through two different Naya builds, traditionally good matchups for Bant Control, in the semifinals and the finals. Those matches can be found on video here. Fast-forward the video to the 50-minute mark to see a huge miracled Terminus!
On the whole, the StarCityGames.com Invitational is an awesome tournament, and I can't wait for the next one. The split format structure makes for a lot of variety and excitement and, in my opinion, three ways to leave feeling great about your performance (a good showing in Standard, a good showing in Legacy, or a solid showing in both). Also, being able to take a handful of losses and still be in the running for big money is a great change from the high pressure of PTQs and most other tournaments. I encourage everybody to try their best to qualify for the Invitational at least once!