I honestly did not have very high expectations for Grand Prix New Jersey. I had grown very comfortable with my Elves list in the pre-Khans metagame and would have gladly played it had the GP been a few months earlier. While U/R Delver is a fine matchup for Elves, although worse than the previous variants, I expected many players to try to go underneath Treasure Cruise and exploit the lack of mana disruption and Spell Pierce in the new Delver iteration by playing combo decks, which Elves fears more than anything else. Moreover, Treasure Cruise had seemingly pushed the midrange attrition decks (Shardless Sultai, Jund, Deathblade) that Elves preyed on out of the metagame, leaving few great matchups to counteract the rise of combo.
With some time to look into other decks and some extra motivation to expand my range before the Players' Championship in December, I looked for some other options with the knowledge that I could fall back on Elves if need be.
Few people remember this, but I spent many months in 2013 playing Sneak and Show to some middling finishes before moving back to Elves for Grand Prix Washington D.C. due to the rise of Death and Taxes.
Sneak and Show appealed to me due to the combination of speed, velocity, and protection that could also serve as disruption against opposing combo decks. However, with the printing of Dig Through Time, I thought it possible that Omni-Tell would be able to overcome the natural inconsistency of playing a three-card combo to be the better option. I played the deck in the trial for Legacy Champs in October, with the strong possibility of playing it in the main event.
Simply put, Dig Through Time was not enough. It wasn't even good. The primary issue facing Omni-Tell now is its speed, as U/R Delver has a very fast clock. Dig Through Time exacerbates that problem. Dig would be an excellent option in a format filled with hand disruption since it adds an incredible amount of resiliency, but discard spells have been largely pushed out by Treasure Cruise. Disappointed, I went back to Elves for Legacy Champs and next looked at the more explosive Sneak and Show.
I put together a list that would be as fast as possible, eschewing some of the slower cards (Intuition, Sensei's Divining Top) that I had previously played for a couple copies of Daze in an otherwise stock list. After a miserable showing in a local Legacy tournament the week before the Grand Prix, I felt somewhat lost. The Show and Tell decks felt much too inconsistent and in spite of my expectations, I did not see a notable increase in combo decks.
If there was not going to be the spike in combo that I expected, then what was I so afraid of? A few extra Forked Bolts? It is certainly good against Elves but not a deal breaker. Containment Priest? Its most natural home, Death and Taxes, is an awkward fit because of Aether Vial and a very good matchup beforehand. Trying to learn any new deck in a week would have been a losing proposition so I locked in on Elves and hoped for the best. Even though I felt there was a good chance my deck was behind the times in the metagame, it was the deck I knew best and that matters more than anything, regardless of the format.
After a pair of byes I was ready to ride the little green men as far as they would take me. A couple close games against Burn and I was settled in at 3-0. Losing the first round is always deflating, and it was nice to play some intense but mechanically straightforward games in which I simply won the race.
I was quickly brought back down after losing round four to U/R Delver, falling prey to Pyrokinesis in the postboard games. My fears about being behind the times crept back inside my mind. If I couldn't beat U/R Delver, the default best deck, what was I doing?
A few good matchups, several great draws (That's a lovely Containment Priest you have there. It would be a shame if I ripped the one copy of Craterhoof Behemoth in my deck) and some solid if uninspired play left me at 7-1 and a lock for the second day. But I came to get back to the Pro Tour and/or make the top 8, so the difference between 8-1 and 7-2 is huge. Round 9 saw me paired against Kurt Spiess, which almost assuredly meant Lands.
Before Thespian's Stage, Lands was a fine matchup since Elves has the tools to disrupt Punishing Fire and win an attrition battle when the opponent presents essentially no clock. However, the combo element of Lands has turned the matchup significantly in their favor. This particular match was even more lopsided. A turn 2 Marit Lage ended the first game while a turn 1 The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale stunted my development just long enough for Gerry Thompson to once again rear his ugly head.
"Hello there, Ross."
At 7-2, I was disappointed but unsurprised. Everything about the event felt average. Boring. I was much more invested in those around me than in my own results. The entire time I felt detached. I knew that I needed to 6-0 the second day, but I was expecting to go about 4-2 for an unsatisfying min cash.
After not enough sleep, I caught another huge break when my round ten opponent decided not to show up. I could not help but laugh at the incredulous looks from the players around me but hey, I'll take 'em how I can get 'em.
The breaks continued in round eleven when my opponent cast a turn 1 Thoughtseize and declined to take the Glimpse of Nature that easily led to a turn 3 kill. Having seen only the one spell, an Island, and an Underground Sea, I thought he had to be some sort of combo deck at first. However, ignoring my Glimpse of Nature and not playing a single cantrip led me to believe he was playing something much slower, perhaps a rogue midrange deck. I brought in Sylvan Library, Progenitus, and Reclamation Sage.
As it turned out, he was playing Reanimator, making my sideboarding choices woefully inadequate. Unfortunately for my opponent, he started the second game on five cards, and I quickly ended the game after drawing the Reclamation Sage for his two Pithing Needles. During the game he played the Needles, a few cantrips, and a Force of Will pitching Show and Tell. I did not actually confirm he was Reanimator until he revealed his hand after the match ended.
After those two rounds, everything changed. The end goal was in sight. I was locked in. Things were breaking my way in a big way. I couldn't help but think about the possibilities of what lay ahead of me. This would be my breakthrough tournament or another entry in a growing list of agonizing failures. After each round the possibilities became increasingly polarized and my emotions grew in kind. I defeated Sultai Delver, U/R Delver, and Deathblade. Every game was close and I am proud to say that some of my best Magic was contained in those three rounds. In the third game against U/R Delver, my opponent cast three Forked Bolts, two Electrickeries, a Lightning Bolt, a Grim Lavamancer, and a Grafdigger's Cage.
Not good enough.
Elves is such a great deck. I'm sorry I ever doubted you, baby. This week we'll go out to some place nice. Just the two of us.
Every win brought a sense of relief in the moment. My chest swelled with excitement, but I was quick to remind myself that the day was not done. The time between rounds fourteen and fifteen was particularly brutal. As much as I wanted to stay calm and focus only on Magic, I could not help but run through the possibilities in my head. Would I run into the one Belcher player in the field? Would I mulligan five times in two games? Or would I rattle off a couple turn 2 kills? At least my imagination was never boring.
In the lead up to the final round I was asked several times about my chances at making top 8. Were my tiebreakers good? I had no idea nor did I want to know. I had to win in the first place for them to be relevant, and the Pro Tour invite mattered to me so much more than anything else that I figured a top 8 would simply be a bonus.
After waiting for approximately 382 hours, pairings for the last round were posted. This was it. Another PTQ Finals.
I search for my name on the pairings sheet: 12 Ross Merriam.
My mind raced as I walked to the table:
"12 is pretty low so I guess I'm not making top 8."
"So much for focusing solely on the match at hand."
"Why do I fixate on such irrelevant things?"
"Focus, you idiot."
I sit down and take a few breaths. My opponent arrives shortly after. We shake hands and begin to shuffle. To my surprise, we are called to the feature match area, at the Nissa table.
My mind continues to wander:
"Nissa, huh? That's where I played against Kurt yesterday."
"Of course, I'm about to get smashed again. This should be fun."
"Good job, idiot. There's nothing better than a defeatist attitude. You don't even know what he's playing."
"I wonder if he'll take the seat Kurt was in yesterday?"
He did. This was either going to be the worst deja vu of all time or sweet redemption. Oddly enough, despite the scattered thoughts above, I was calm as the match started. I confirm with the judge that as an off-camera match we will be on the same clock as the regular tables. It was very unlikely to matter, but I wanted to free myself from any distractions.
He wins the die roll and elects to play. It's not Manaless Dredge.
"Plains, Aether Vial," he says."Death and Taxes," I think. "That matchup is great!"
But the doubt creeps in from the back of my mind.
"Isn't this the matchup that you always lose to for some inexplicable reason? You were supposed to go back-to-back in Providence until Dave Shiels and Progenitus formed an unholy pact to steal your trophy. Death and Taxes knocked you out of contention last month at Legacy Champs. Is this really happening again? Am I on the strangest episode of Punk'D ever?"
I do a quick Ashton Kutcher check. He must be well-hidden. Time to play some cards.
My initial plan is to play the two fetchlands first to protect the Cradle from a Wasteland and guarantee a turn 3 Natural Order, but after I draw a Heritage Druid on the second turn I can play my entire hand of elves if I expose the Cradle, including both Wirewood Symbiote and Elvish Visionary. His turn 2 consisted of putting a counter on Aether Vial and casting a Stoneforge Mystic for Umezawa's Jitte, so in order to prevent a Natural Order he would need to answer both Gaea's Cradle and Heritage Druid and even then I would have Symbiote + Visionary to find more mana. I go for the explosive turn.
"Wasteland your Cradle. Vial in Revoker on Heritage Druid. Swords your Symbiote."
My hand is two lands and a Natural Order. My creatures generate a grand total of zero mana so I really want to fetch for a Dryad Arbor to turn on my pair of Quirion Rangers. As such, I elect not to return my Visionary in response to the Swords to Plowshares. I untap, play my fetchland and pass, hoping my opponent lacked any further disruption.
"Phew. One more. Just like Providence and Philly. Calm down and stop dwelling on the past you idiot. Those don't mean anything now. Just be mindful of Containment Priest and play your cards."
My opening hand has one land, two Glimpse, the singleton Null Rod, and some creatures. These include a Deathrite Shaman and a Quirion Ranger to generate extra mana. If he comes out with a Vial + Stoneforge or some similar non-interactive opener, I can end this game quickly.
He has a Vial on turn 1. Step one.
He Sunlances my Deathrite Shaman. Ugh.
He has Swords for my Quirion Ranger. I have another, but he has Phyrexian Revoker for it, followed by Wasteland on my Dryad Arbor. I spend a turn casting Zenith for Deathrite Shaman to try to set up a Glimpse turn rather than casting Null Rod to shut down his Vial. He has another Swords and starts using as Rishadan Port to further constrict my mana while he whittles down my life with Phyrexian Revoker.
I play a Nettle Sentinel and then a Birchlore Rangers to try and get some mana for a Glimpse turn but I am now very low on creatures in hand. Still, I can make an attempt with a Green Sun's Zenith for Wirewood Symbiote to start the chain. Even if I just find a few elves he has very few cards and still just the Revoker for a clock, having played a second copy of Aether Vial. I pass after playing my second land, once again hoping he has nothing.
He brings his Vials up to three and two counters respectively, draws his card, thinks for a second, and passes the turn. I am elated to have a chance to win this game that has been slowly slipping away from me. That is, until he stops me on my upkeep, and Vials in a Flickerwisp.
"Ugh, he is going to exile my Birchlore Rangers for the turn and get another draw to a disruption piece."
"Sure," I say, as he realizes his mistake and his head sinks. With a judge watching over his shoulder he accepts his mistake and allows me to continue with my turn.
The extra mana from Quirion Ranger combined with drawing Heritage Druid early on in the Glimpse chain lets me start drawing cards without using my land drop for the turn. I eventually flash Craterhoof Behemoth and Gaea's Cradle as my opponent extends the hand.
I let out a huge sigh of relief and lay back in my chair before quickly snapping back to reality to fill out the match slip. As it turns out, my opponent had thought about using the Flickerwisp on his turn to exile Revoker, effectively resetting it to Birchlore Rangers. He simply mixed up his lines in a high-pressure situation--a regrettable yet understandable mistake. I tried to remain respectful as I packed up my things before going to give everyone the good news.
Surprisingly, I was calm afterwards. In my imagination this moment had always been filled with exuberance and unbridled joy. Maybe my reaction was subdued out of empathy for my opponent or respect for the matches finishing around me. But even now I don't feel particularly different than on Friday.
I waited to see if by some miracle I would leap into the top 8, but it was not to be. I finished twelfth. "That's okay," I said. "I got what I came for. I'm not greedy." But maybe I am. I'm still missing a GP Top 8, and I would have liked a chance to play for a trophy.
Perhaps my opponent's blunder cheapened the accomplishment but I doubt it. This was not a result of my work leading up to the tournament. It was a result of my long-term efforts towards mastering my craft with a single deck.
The most likely scenario is my new reality has yet to sink in yet. And I don't think it will until I walk into a testing house for the best times this game can offer.
"What should my trophy pose at the PT be?"
"Slow down you idiot. The Pro Tour isn't for a few months and you have another GP this weekend."
I really can't help myself.