I walk three blocks, and into a generic building next to a Chinese meat market. Up a flight and through a heavy steel door.
I see Christian Calcano and Ross Merriam already working. I see a very old friend of mine, Scott Nowers, whose friend is a longtime friend of Ross', and allowed us to playtest in his workplace for the day. It was weird to me at first because I knew Scott from my old days in the Electronic Dance Music clubbing scene, and the two worlds meeting under the same roof really put things into perspective for me. What we do at SCG is very much a privilege, and to have gotten the respect from people from all parts of different worlds is something that should always be appreciated, even when it doesn't seem like a big deal.
I sit down and begin proxying up the newest iteration of Mardu I've been working on:
- 2 Chandra, Pyromaster
- 2 Elspeth, Sun's Champion
- 1 Liliana Vess
- 2 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker
- 1 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
The main goal wasn't to work on this deck, however. We were preparing for the Players' Championship. We had a plethora of decks ready to work on, and our plan was fairly tame: find a deck he felt was good against the other fifteen competitors. For me, I took this session as a learning opportunity for how far my range goes. I cast a Siege Rhino for the first time that day, and I was wondering why I wasn't doing it sooner. Shortly afterward, I found the answer to that: I didn't know how I wanted to cast it. It was pretty obvious that the Whip of Erebos decks were completely busted when things got going, but I wasn't really interested in trying to "get things going". I wanted to try an Abzan Aggro build, but the voice of Andy Boswell was telling me how he wasn't a big fan of it. Now, I'm not saying that I'm just blindly listening to players better than me, but I'm blindly listening to players better than me. I'm just not a big fan of Monsters decks in general because of how much they have to fight to gain the smallest advantage, and they can still get brick walled pretty easily. After seeing how well Andrew Tenjum and Thea Steele did at the very first Open of the 2015 season, I decided to contact Andrew and see where he was at with the Abzan variety of Aggro.
We would both play this deck this past weekend, with me adding a second Mana Confluence in place of a Llanowar Wastes for cosmetic reasons, but also because I don't know what having a life total means. My first go at the deck was at a local FNM, where I mostly was trying to get a feel for the shell and how it operates. I quickly learned how to work my way around the sideboard, and in turn, gained much more confidence about the deck. I made sure not to give in to the temptation of making non-cosmetic changes to the deck, and I think that's a big mistake too many players make. If you're just picking up a deck that you have little to no experience with, don't change anything until you have a complete understanding of why cards are in the deck to begin with, what role or roles those cards play, and why those roles are important.
Ross and I worked on a bunch of different things during the single day of testing. We worked on a Temur list that Matt Costa won a PPTQ with, but quickly discarded it because we weren't really into the idea of dealing with the mana and opposing Whips. Calcano had Jeskai, and it was looking as strong as ever, as well as Gerry Thompson's Abzan Reanimator build. I have a tendency to try and go as deep as possible when working on different decks, but I made a conscious effort not to this time around. This was a very different process than a typical IQ or Open, and understanding my role in assisting Ross was of utmost importance.
The pod structure was a very relevant factor in determining our deck choice as well. Ross deduced the field even further, expecting much less Abzan, more aggressive slants, and a better positioning for Jeskai and Mardu. I made a slight push for Mardu, but he eventually opts for Jeskai. The big picture, from my understanding, was to lock up day two and be as safe and consistent as possible. The difference between making day two and not is enormous, and while the overall goal is to win the tournament, we wanted to make sure that we aren't being too wild.
Another thing I noticed during this session is how soft the Whip decks are to Hushwing Gryff. What if we just sideboard out the Siege Rhinos against the Whip decks and board these little fellas in? Sounds like something I don't mind doing. We don't need the 4/5 body or the lifegain as much as the Abzan Reanimator deck, and against Sultai, we don't want to fight on the ground anyway. This was an excellent time to try it out, so into the laboratory that is my room I went.
Coming out of the lab and into the tournament the next day. I wound up in the finals of the event, losing to Mardu in what seems like a rough matchup. The deck felt great all day, and the manabase was the only thing really beating me up. Often times, you'll hear about mana being slow or painful in this format. Well, here, the mana is both of those. I wound up losing a lot of games where my mana simply didn't cooperate with me, and the games I did win, I felt that if my opponent didn't have the slightest stumble, I was dead. Going down to 24 lands may be worth it, but changing some of the lands around may be worth it as well. We can recoup a lot of the pain with Siege Rhino and Wingmate Roc. I wouldn't mind a slight adjustment to the removal suite either, but I'm also working off of a completely misread metagame. I expected a lot of Jeskai Tokens, and there was only one in the room. There's also a good chance that I just didn't have enough experience with the deck and need to play a bit tighter and mulligan more so that I can get the draws this deck needs. For now though, as long as Whip of Erebos is going to be around, Anafenza is going to be excellent.
Another thing that I did throughout the tournament, at every point where it was applicable, was make a conscious effort to start attacking everything my opponents did. Not just their life total. Heck, not even things in game. I'm talking things like their scry patterns, their mulligans, and even their sideboard guides.
Once again, Brad Nelson came through with some words of wisdom in his Versus Video last week with Todd Anderson. Many, many players have this streamlined, static form of sideboarding, and sideboard guides are a catalyst for that. Well, attacking that form of sideboarding is a great way of getting further ahead of what they're doing. I went the extra mile at this IQ, and sideboarded out Siege Rhinos in every Whip of Erebos matchup for Hushwing Gryffs. This allowed me to sidestep their ability to use Disdainful Stroke and/or their own four-drops as a pivot, as well as leverage everything I was doing early into a potential blowout scenario, where their Sidisi, Siege Rhino, Hornet Queen, and even Satyr Wayfinders are just overcosted vanilla creatures. You don't need the life, the 4/5 body, or the ground game nearly as much as your opponent needs theirs, plus their sideboard is also configured to get into that type of battle, so morphing into a Death and Taxes style of deck where every creature you cast is another hurdle they need to get through was the plan all tournament. Eventually, if you put up enough hurdles, eventually they'll get tired. It's the sleeper hold!
This strategy was the primary reason for the deck's success on the tournament, and I'm looking for more ways to go right after the conventional wisdom, and taking the process that we've all learned to integrate, and throwing it right out the window. The format is way too diverse and fast moving to lean on a static strategy for too long, so instead, why not find a way to punish people for doing just that?
With the end of the year fast approaching, I'll be jamming some more IQs in preparation for the new SCG Open Series in January. I have a whole year ahead of me, and I'm going to be working even harder than I did last time to try and make the Players' Championship. From what I've seen so far, it's one of the best tournaments ever, and I'm even more motivated to make a run for it.