Hi everyone. I'm Erik Smith, born and raised in New Jersey and winner of the StarCityGames.com Invitational in New Jersey. Despite the fact that I originally began playing Magic over thirteen years ago, I only began playing at a competitive level over the last year. I'm going to start off with an overview of my history with the game, as it is integral to understanding what drives my passion for it. Here is the long road that led to winning the first Invitational I qualified for.
I was introduced to Magic sometime in the winter of 2000 by my best friend Vincent DeFalco ("Goblin" would later become his nickname). I was immediately attracted to the flavor and strategy of the game and could not wait to crack open the Portal: Second Age Starter Box that my father brought home to me after a trip to Florida. At just eleven years old, I immediately immersed myself in the cards. I constantly reorganized my collection, scoured the Internet for articles, and read through the old physical encyclopedias, memorizing every detail about every card. My friends and I spent our recesses at school and our free time at home battling.
After a few years, the amount of time I spent playing the game began to dwindle to the point where I was only playing on Magic Workstation. Eventually, I ceased playing entirely; a few years later, around the release of Zendikar, a random urge to install Magic Online hit me. I began drafting like a fiend, but it wasn't until Innistrad that I touched Constructed. I threw together the Illusions deck on Magic Online around the time of Worlds 2011, and I stuck with it through all of its incarnations as it became the dreaded Delver of Secrets deck that dominated Standard.
Playing so much Magic Online rekindled the itch inside of me to play paper Magic once again. I contacted some friends that I knew might be interested and attended a midnight Prerelease for Avacyn Restored. Shortly after that, I attended Friday Night Magic for the first time in a decade and started to get my old group of friends back into the game as well. Vinnie in particular wanted desperately to get back into the game, and I saw it as an opportunity to help him get back on a positive track in his life. I immediately ordered the cards for U/W Delver and was back to playing Magic nonstop.
I had an incredibly fun summer playing Magic that year, and it culminated with attending my first Grand Prix in Worcester at the end of August. I was lucky enough to open a strong Sealed pool featuring Garruk, Primal Hunter and rode it into Day 2, where I eventually was knocked out of the money. However, finishing in the Top 150 of what was at the time the second largest Grand Prix America had ever seen really boosted my confidence.
About two weeks later, my world was shaken. I got a call that replays in my mind often—my best friend Vinnie had passed away. I was devastated. He was responsible for introducing me to practically every hobby I have, including Magic, and without him I wouldn't be anything like the person I am today. For weeks I spent hours upon hours going over everything that he said to me that summer. Nobody ever thought more highly of me as a Magic player than he did. He always insisted that one day I'd make the Pro Tour. His passing truly ignited a fire inside of me, and I made it my mission to make something more of this game.
While the dream of making the Pro Tour has not yet come true, this summer I reached one of my first goals of making the Top 8 of an Open, as I finished in fourth at the Legacy Open in Worcester in early July. I had already qualified for the New Jersey Invitational on Open Points prior to Worcester thanks to cashing all but two of the non-team StarCityGames.com Opens I have played. Worcester locked up two additional invites for me, so I threw myself into testing as I aimed to cash the Invitational and set myself up well for the final two Invitationals of the year in Indianapolis and Las Vegas.
There's no doubt in my mind that winning this tournament was a direct result of two key ingredients that had not been present for any tournament in the past. For one, the Invitational was the first tournament that I put an incredible amount of preparation into. In the past, I had simply relied on my constant playing as my practice for tournaments. For the Invitational, I tested my decks of choice against various matchups for weeks leading up to the event, and it no doubt paid off.
Secondly, the weekend of the tournament was the first weekend in a year that I can say I was honestly in an excited and incredibly happy mood. Dealing with an unexpected break-up immediately followed by the devastating loss of my best friend put me into a rut that I couldn't seem to pull myself out of. However, recently some amazing people have entered my life, in large part thanks to Magic, and with that my mood has changed radically from negativity to positivity. I don't consider it a coincidence that my greatest success so far came on the heels of a shift in my mood and confidence.
I began my preparation for the Invitational as soon as I reached the required fifteen Open Points. I'm a firm believer in sticking with what you're comfortable with and know best, which was a big driving factor in my deck choices of Jund in Standard and U/W/R Delver in Legacy. After spending the first five months of the year jamming U/W/R Flash in Standard, I decided to try out Jund in the Standard Open in Baltimore. I made Top 16, and the deck felt incredibly powerful. I knew from that point that this would be the deck I'd stick with for as long as possible, and I began practicing with it as much as I could.
Baltimore also marked my first ever Legacy tournament. I borrowed U/R Delver from my friend Lucas and finished 35th. Thanks in large part to the fact that Delver was the first deck I played when getting back into Constructed Magic, I've always had an affinity for the card and the tempo style decks that it lends itself to, so I knew that Delver would be my choice in Legacy from there on out.
I didn't let a poor showing at the Open Series in Philadelphia stop me. After seeing my friend Ryan Phraner Top 8 the Legacy Open there with a version of Delver that played white for Geist of Saint Traft and Swords to Plowshares, I knew that that was the deck I wanted to pilot at the Invitational. I borrowed the deck from my friend John Casale for Worcester, and Jund and Delver served me well, as I finished in the Top 16 yet again with Jund and I made Top 4 with Delver in Legacy.
My testing for the Invitational involved weekly sessions at one of my local stores, Time Warp Comics and Games in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, with a group of friends including John Freiler, Tony Clarke, John Casale, Kyle Shane, Curtis Sheu, Ben Glancy, Ali Mirghahari, and Billy Walmsley, as well as Standard practice on Magic Online. It also consisted of discussing theory and card choices with other good friends such as Gerard Fabiano, Rob Lopuski, Eric Kreiter, and Ryan Phraner.
My Jund deck was relatively stock; the only significant change I made was the addition of Lifebane Zombie to the sideboard, which has now made its way into the maindeck of most Jund lists. That change was made the day prior to the event at the suggestion of John Casale's friend Jeremy Stowe. John, Kyle, and I played the same 75 in both Standard and Legacy. Here's the Jund deck I played to a 5-3 record during the Standard portion of the Invitational as well as took down the Top 8 with.
As for Legacy, we decided to make one innovative change to the Delver deck that I played in Worcester, which was the addition of the Stoneforge Mystic package. With the changes to the legend rule, I was concerned with finding a way to beat the Geist of Saint Traft mirror. In an email chain discussing the rules changes as well as card choices, we threw about various ideas, going as deep as Spectral Flight and Mutagenic Growth.
Rob Lopuski brought up Stoneforge Mystic, which would give the deck a long game and the ability to seriously threaten the board with a bomb like Batterskull. I did some research and found a list that made the Top 8 of the Legacy Open in St. Louis in June piloted by Andrew Lozano that combined Mystic with Delver of Secrets. That was my starting point. I cut the Snapcaster Mages, a land, and a Geist of Saint Traft; added Mystics and equipment; sleeved it up; and tried it out.
Throughout most of the testing, I happened to not draw the Stoneforge Mystic very often, so I couldn't really get a grasp of how strong it was. However, I thought my theory behind its addition was sound. I already really liked the deck's combo matchup, and adding Mystic did nothing to weaken the deck against combo. If anything, having access to Sword of Feast and Famine improved it. On the flip side, I was a bit wary of the deck against RUG Delver, creature decks such as Goblins, and fair decks such as Esper Deathblade. I reasoned that having my own access to Umezawa's Jitte as well as a big trump in Batterskull would improve my game against all of these decks. Despite not having any validation one way or the other on this in testing, I stuck with it.
I faced primarily fair decks during the Legacy portion of the Invitational, and Stoneforge Mystic was my MVP. I went 7-0-1 with the deck and firmly believe that without Stoneforge Mystic I would not have fared nearly as well. I have heard people express dislike of the combination of Delver and Stoneforge, reasoning that while both are powerful cards, they lend themselves to different style decks that don't combine particularly well together.
While I can see where the concern comes from, I think the combination provides the deck with two very powerful game plans and that it's up to the pilot of the deck to identify which plan to take based on the opening hand and opposing deck. It also gives opponents trouble as they need to be prepared for both angles of attack. The tools necessary to beat the Delver tempo / mana denial strategy aren't necessarily the same tools necessary to beat the midrange Stoneforge Mystic plan, and that puts the pilot of U/W/R Delver at a significant advantage.
There's really no way to dispute that the power level of this deck is incredible, and the results it put up that weekend bear that out. I played it to the only undefeated record during the Legacy portion of the Invitational. Kyle Shane and John Casale only played the first day of Legacy matches, but combined they had 7-1 record. While I had the Top 8 to play on Sunday, I lent the deck to Gerard Fabiano, and he rattled off a 12-0-1 record en route to winning the largest Legacy Open ever. You can read about his experience and thoughts on the deck here. All told, along with John's record in the Legacy Open, the four of us put up a 31-4-4 record on the weekend. That's no accident—the deck is powerful and I'm going to continue working on it and playing it at the upcoming string of Open Series in the Northeast.
I like the minor changes that Gerard made to the deck for the Open, which consisted of cutting a Geist of Saint Traft to move Vendilion Clique from the sideboard into the maindeck as well as adding Submerge and Rest in Peace to the board. We've discussed the deck further since then and are going to try out Elspeth, Knight-Errant out of the board along with a twentieth land in Karakas to bring in along with it. Elspeth was another card we floated around when discussing ways to beat the Geist mirror, and I could see it being a strong post-board option against grindy matchups like Shardless BUG.
Stoneforge was responsible for some of my most memorable games, including a specific turn I had against a Jund player that probably was the most brutal turn I've ever put together in a game of Magic. My opponent had been playing around Stifle the whole game, which led to his board consisting of Wooded Foothills, Grove of the Burnwillows, Deathrite Shaman, and Tarmogoyf. I had resolved a Stoneforge Mystic, dropped a Batterskull into play, and had five lands in play, one of which was Wasteland.
My opponent finally had to crack his fetch on his turn, which I Stifled, and he passed back to me. I drew a second Stoneforge Mystic, played a sixth land, cast the Mystic, and fetched Sword of Feast and Famine. I used the previous Mystic to put the Sword into play, equipped onto the Germ token, and swung in for an unblockable six damage, forcing my opponent to discard a card while allowing me to untap all my lands. Post-combat I used Wasteland on his Grove and cast an Engineered Explosives to destroy his Deathrite Shaman, absolutely wrecking his board and leaving him with nothing but a Tarmogoyf in play.
That's the power of Stoneforge Mystic.
I would recommend this deck to any player that likes to play tempo-based strategies as well as enjoys flexibility and the challenge of piloting a deck that requires very precise play. As Gerard mentioned in his article, a lot of games with the deck are very tight and require a lot of skill to pilot through. As an inexperienced Legacy player, I think my fondness for tempo decks played a significant role in helping me play a skill-intensive deck in a metagame that I'm relatively unfamiliar with.
I'm going to shift gears back to Standard, as that was the format for the Top 8 where I had to play through the maximum fifteen games in order to win the title of Invitational Champion. On Saturday night, I spent a few hours testing my quarterfinals matchup against Bant Hexproof with Kyle, Gerard, Curtis, Steve Tortora and Tom Riker. That testing session left me feeling very confident heading into Sunday. I really liked my post-board matchup, and with a best of five match, the importance of the sideboard is significantly greater.
I thought I was a heavy favorite, but my opponent, James Buckingham, made it difficult for me. The match went to five games and, fortunately for me, James's deck provided him with just two lands in the deciding game while he sat on a hand of Geist of Saint Traft and triple Unflinching Courage. Had that third land came or had I not had the removal to deal with two Avacyn's Pilgrims, he would have easily defeated me in game 5. No one can win a tournament at this level without luck falling in your favor a few times along the way.
I was paired against Dave Shiels in the semifinals. I've had mixed experiences with Jund against his deck, U/W/R Flash, which has led me to believe that the matchup is one of the most even ones in the format. There are times when I feel like I can't beat it and times when I feel like I can't lose to it. I do, however, think that more so than any other matchup the U/W/R Flash one depends heavily on the skill of the U/W/R player. As a former U/W/R player, I had always looked to Matt Costa, Gerry Thompson, and Dave Shiels as the foremost "authorities" on the deck, much like I now look towards Reid Duke and Owen Turtenwald when it comes to Jund. Because of that, I definitely felt like an underdog heading into the match.
I dropped the first two games, putting my back against the wall. After taking down game 3, Shiels had an unfortunate mulligan to four, though he still put up a hard fight as I forced a fifth and deciding game. In the fifth game, Dave made a crucial misstep that he pointed out immediately after the match. On turn 3, I attacked with my Scavenging Ooze, which he put on top of my library with Azorius Charm. This gave me an opening to resolve Liliana of the Veil, which put pressure on his hand until eventually ultimating as a double Stone Rain. After the match, he said that the correct line would probably have been to take the damage and use Izzet Charm at end of turn to kill the Ooze, assuming he didn't need to spend it on something like the aforementioned Liliana. Had he taken that line, the game would have changed dramatically.
On to the finals I went, where I played against Andrew Tenjum and his Naya deck. I feel like this is a very even matchup, and yet again it took me the full five games. Timely Bonfires and a solid mix of spot removal early in the game are key to allowing Jund to overtake the Naya deck with life-gain animals.
Andrew is a gifted player and was a great opponent. Our finals match can be watched here.
It was a bit disappointing to see him mulligan to five in the deciding game, though he drew well enough to make it an exciting match despite the mulligan. I was very happy with my opening seven, which consisted of three lands, two Farseeks, a Putrefy, and a Huntmaster of the Fells. With my opponent down to five cards, I thought I was in a very good position to win.
Andrew "miracled" a Sacred Foundry on turn 2, which combined with his turn 1 Arbor Elf allowed him to play Domri Rade and make it into a tight game. I figured he was stuck on lands, so I spent my second turn killing the Elf with the Pillar of Flame I had drawn rather than Farseeking into a turn 3 Huntmaster. The mana problems mitigated Domri's potency, as he couldn't take advantage of the cards it was providing, although he was able to get the planeswalker up to six loyalty and threaten to ultimate within two turns.
On turn 4, I could have used Dreadbore to kill Domri, but I thought that the better line was to just Farseek and leave up Putrefy for the Loxodon Smiter in his hand in the event that he peeled the needed third land. Given that I didn't have a guaranteed seventh land to play and allow me to cast both Huntmaster and Putrefy the following turn, this line, despite allowing him one more uptick with Domri, would open the door for me to destroy Domri and play Huntmaster into a non-threatening board the following turn. He whiffed on the land that turn, and I was able to lock up the game with a second Huntmaster and a lethal Bonfire from my hand.
Watching the coverage, I saw how Burning Earth was pretty awkward out of the board for Andrew against me. Burning Earth is particularly powerful against Jund if you can get it into play while ahead on board, but Jund is very capable of creating a strong board presence. Because of that, I don't think Burning Earth is a very strong sideboard option for Naya against Jund. I was able to battle through one, and two other times it was stranded in Andrew's hand since he wasn't enough ahead on board to spend a turn playing the enchantment. While I like the card in Andrew's sideboard against control decks like U/W/R Flash, it's possible that our match would have played out differently had he declined to bring it in.
Honestly, two weeks later I'm still not sure if winning the Invitational has really even sunk in. It still feels a bit surreal. As most of you know, one of the prizes for winning this tournament is a token created in my likeness. More than anything else this prize makes me the happiest, as I am able to honor my late best friend Vinnie by making a Goblin token in his memory. I made sure to wear a shirt we had printed in his memory for my Top 8 matches, and I always carry around a Raging Goblin card in my wallet so that he is with me whenever I play. StarCityGames.com was gracious enough to agree to also put his likeness in the art, and I'm incredibly proud to reveal it to the world now:
I know that Vinnie would have lost his mind with happiness if he were here to witness this win, and I can't think of a better way to honor his memory and thank him for introducing me to Magic than by immortalizing us together on a token of the creature type that led to his nickname. Kristen Plescow did an amazing job with this piece, and I could not have asked for a more fitting tribute. I had not mentioned it when discussing the art, but one of Vinnie's hobbies besides Magic included graffiti art. He would sketch pieces often, including his "Goblin" tag that would be printed on one of his memorial shirts. Needless to say, it came as a wonderful surprise to me to see Vinnie "tagging" the cave wall behind me. It fits him perfectly.
I've reached a pretty high point relatively early on in my career as a competitive Magic player, and I have no plans to slow down. I'll be attending all of the Open Series and Grand Prix that I can reasonably travel to as well as all of the future Invitational tournaments that I am qualified for. I've got a whirlwind of travel planned out through the end of the year, and I could not be more excited for what the future holds.
Thanks to all of you for reading this article. There are so many individual people that I want to thank for supporting me, both throughout this past year and at this tournament. I honestly wouldn't even know where to begin, and I know that I would undoubtedly forget some people without meaning to. I obviously owe a lot to every person I've already mentioned that prepared with me for the tournament. Everyone contributed something, and I would not have been able to win if not for each and every one of them. I also want to thank the communities at both my local stores, Time Warp Comics and Games in Cedar Grove, NJ and Gamer's Edge in Kearny, NJ.
I cannot fail to mention my parents, Tim and Denise Smith, as they are the best I could ever ask for and always support me even if they don't always quite understand how the thing that I have the greatest passion for is a card game. Most importantly, though, I want to thank Garrett and Louis DeFalco for getting their little brother into this great game, and I want to thank that amazing kid, Vincent DeFalco, for introducing me to Magic, having confidence in my ability, and inspiring me to be the best Magic player I can be.
This is all for you, Goblin.