I went into the second day of play at the Season Four Invitational with low hopes. Three losses is not where you want to start, but there is always a glimmer of hope deep down. You just have to find it. Unfortunately, that glimmer is often snuffed out like a dying candle when your next loss inevitably comes. For me, that loss was to Joe Lossett in a W/U Heroic mirror. What a way to go.
But I kept fighting. Well, fighting isn't the right word. I kept playing, because I didn't really have much else to do. After all, I could still win out and make $1,000, which is nice chunk of change. But that drive, that killer instinct to win, tends to fade when you know you aren't going to be holding that trophy at the end of the tournament.
So I kept playing, and I won my next match. And the next. And the next. Until finally, going into the last round of play, I saw that my name was on the standings in 12th place. Everyone ahead of me was going to make it into the Top 8, either by drawing or winning their match. I was destined to get 10th or 11th place even with a win. Everything was playing out like it had in my head earlier in the day, but I wasn't playing for peanuts.
And then I noticed something. Nearly everyone who was ahead of me in the standings had already played each other, which meant a lot of people who could normally draw into Top 8 were forced to play their last round. And if the people who were ahead of me in points beat the people tied with me in points....I just might have a chance. And then I heard my name being called for a feature match. The feature match. On the Jace banner. On camera.
And after a hard fought match against U/R Delver in Legacy with my Jeskai Pyromancer deck...
I had to sweat for half an hour. I wanted to know. I wanted to get it over with, like ripping off a Band Aid. I was getting my hopes up, minute after minute. I could feel it growing inside my stomach, a lump of anticipation slowly forming like a knot. I couldn't stand it.
"And in 8th place..."
My breath caught short, stuck in the back of my throat as they announced...someone else's name. Coming in 9th place in a Magic tournament is like a swift kick to the gut. And for the entire day, I didn't get my hopes up. I didn't get nervous. I hadn't thought about winning the tournament, because deep down I knew that it was so unlikely.
But there I stood, right before the round, with so many pieces of the puzzle coming together, and I couldn't help but start shaking. A sudden rush of adrenaline will do that to you. But this time...this one...
This one really hurt.
I started to come apart at the seams, just a little. I walked over to my wife, Kali, and I just stood there shaking my head. I knew that my chances at the Players' Championship were dead. I knew that I would have to sit at home while a lot of my friends got to play in the tournament I'd been gunning for all year. I knew I had failed, and maybe that's why this anti-climactic ending to a mediocre year cut so deep.
A short night of sleep and a long flight home. Phone calls while running to my gate. Like everything else on the weekend, things were not exactly ideal. And as I sat there, stuck on the tarmac waiting for my plane's gate to open up so that I could make my next flight....wait, that's funny. Wow, my plane is literally taking off right now. How long have I been stuck here?
As fate would have it, there was a direct flight home waiting for me after I got off the plane just a few hours later. One less leg of flying and one less bit of stress. I decided to settle my stomach with some Chipotle and a good book.
I finally arrived home around 10pm and received a phone call from Brad Nelson, who you may know as Bard Narson, who I know as my best friend and one hell of a Magic player.
"I need you to do me a favor. I need to test out some of my ideas this week before the Players' Championship...if you have time."
Huh. Well, I didn't have much else to do. What do I care?
"Sure, I'll play some games. Let me know when, where, format, and decks."
And so it began.
"I need to work on my W/U Heroic matchup a bit. I'm going to try out a different version of the Sultai deck."
And so we battled for hours. Pre-board games. Post-board game. Different sideboard strategies from both sides, trying to figure out the best configuration from Brad's side of things. Occasionally we would take a break to play in a Legacy tournament on Magic Online (if you can really call that a break). I tried to convince him to play my version of BBD's Grand Prix New Jersey winning deck, Jeskai Stoneblade, but he wasn't exactly comfortable with the archetype. And with so much work left to be done in Standard, he was leaning hard on Sneak and Show.
I fought back quite a bit because I thought that Sneak and Show was a less-than-ideal choice considering how many Pyroblast effects were running around. But I did appreciate that he was going with his most comfortable archetype in Legacy, which is something I stress about Eternal style formats. Knowing every aspect of your deck can give you a significant advantage in Legacy.
So we hung out all day. We argued (politely). But most importantly, we played a lot of games, and were both learning a lot from them.
"You are just the best test partner on the planet. Even when there's nothing at stake, you can't stand losing!"
Oh, how little you know, Summer child.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
"I talked a bit with Gerry, and I think we found a few interesting changes."
After just a few games of playing Kiora out of the sideboard against both W/U Heroic and Abzan Aggro, it wasn't a very hard sell. Having access to Kiora alongside Murderous Cut and a number of other removal spells made "going ultimate" rather easy. And I can safely say that making a 9/9 Kraken every turn is pretty difficult to beat. It kept happening, game after game, until the idea of playing Kiora was no longer an idea, but a sure thing.
But we kept playing, kept talking, kept trying out different plans and ideas from both sides of the matchup until we were confident that the plans we were coming up with were solid enough, yet also fluid enough should any Heroic or Abzan Aggro players mix it up a little bit.
And Thursday night...
Well, there were a lot of Magic players in town for the Players' Championship, and it did feel like a great time to let off some steam with some Karaoke! No one was particularly impressive, but no one seemed to care. We were just a bunch of nerds having fun in a bar, and it was awesome. Brad and I might have hustled a few people in shuffleboard, but you can't prove it in a court of law.
Decks were locked in. Players were nervous. Ready. And since decks were locked in, we could do nothing but look at the 150 cards that Brad registered and figure out the best sideboarding configurations for each of the decks.
- 2 Hornet Queen
- 1 Reclamation Sage
- 4 Satyr Wayfinder
- 1 Soul of Innistrad
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
- 2 Doomwake Giant
- 4 Sidisi, Brood Tyrant
- 2 Pharika, God of Affliction
Brian Braun-Duin set up a dinner at Smokey Bones for everyone involved with the Players' Championship. It was...quite the gathering. You could tell everyone was happy to be there, but there was also a sense of quiet tension. The nerves were evident in everyone involved. And at that moment, after hours and hours of testing with Brad, it finally began to sink in that I wasn't going to be playing in the tournament. My heart broke, for just a moment, but my work wasn't done yet.
I woke up earlier than my alarm clock. I was actually excited. I wanted to watch the Players' Championship, and it did not disappoint.
I scouted every single deck that they talked about, put on camera, looked for strange maindeck or sideboard inclusions. I wrote them all down, and I sent them to Brad. I wanted him to know everything he could possibly know just in case he ended up losing his first pod and had to play against someone outside of his pod in an elimination match.
But he didn't lose, and after just three short rounds Brad and BBD came over to my house to watch the rest of the competitors fight to the death. It was actually a little surreal.
"Watching a tournament from home that you're still playing in is weird, but also awesome."
And watch we did. Every game. Every match. It was enthralling, how the structure of the tournament meant that every single result mattered. And suddenly, I could feel it. The weight of the entire year, going to tournament after tournament, crushing down on me. I missed it.
That night, after it was all said and done, Brad went home, but asked for one more favor.
"If you could, I'd really appreciate if you just wrote down how you would sideboard with Sneak and Show against all of the other decks left in the tournament."
"I really appreciate everything you've done for me this week. Even this. This will help tremendously, just hearing what you have to say about each matchup. I'm going to sleep, but I'll read it in the morning over coffee."
"If the roles were reversed, I'm sure you'd be doing the same thing."
And here is what I wrote to him.
(If you are a fan of Sneak and Show, the following section might be helpful for sideboarding in future tournaments.)
Reid's list is very counterspell heavy, with only Peacekeeper as a sideboard permanent that you have to deal with. Overmaster and Defense Grid are the nuts, and you want to put an emphasis on playing those along with Boseiju, tapping out basically every turn to find them or cast them. That makes the idea of Flusterstorm and maybe even Force of Will not that great to me. Force is probably fine for helping you jam your stuff early, but the game will likely go long, making Force and Lotus Petal both pretty mediocre.
I hate cutting spells that dig through your deck, but it might be necessary to alleviate the pressure of Counterbalance and Top, which I'm sure he'll leave in just because you have Overmasters as additional cantrip effects. Reid doesn't have Karakas, which means you probably don't need Omni, and he doesn't have Pithing Needle either. His deck is incredibly reactive, without a lot of ways to actually put pressure on you. This will make your sideboard cards fantastic, but your Game 1 might be pretty tough. He does have Vendilion Clique, which also makes Omniscience worse.
BBD has Clique over True-Name Nemesis, which might make this matchup a little more difficult than we thought, but still not all that bad. He also has an additional Spell Pierce, so keep that in mind. He is likely to board in Meddling Mage, Containment Priest, Flusterstorm, and Pyroblast. Surgical could prove problematic if you are all-in on jamming your Show and Tell.
I wouldn't bother with Omni here, because he only has the one Containment Priest, and your Pyroclasms are sure to come in anyway. I would lean heavily on Pyroclasm, Defense Grid, and Boseiju to help force through stuff, but if you think Omni will help then that's fine too. I just don't want to get locked out of the game with Meddling Mage on Show and Tell getting Omni stuck dead in my hand.
Try not to run into counterspells early in the games, as you don't want his Snapcaster Mages to be great against you. Brian might bring in Council's Judgment, so boarding out one Emrakul over one Griselbrand might be correct, if you want to side out a monster.
Not sure about the texture of this matchup from your side. If you think you'll have time for Dig Through Time, you can cut some Preordains, but again I would recommend caution against boarding out too many cantrips against anyone, and especially so if you want to bring in the other Dig Through Time.
Omni might not end up being a bad sideobard plan, but just trust your gut.
Tom is Tom. You know his deck and you know the important things to keep in mind and play around. The good news is that Crop Rotation doesn't do much against you in Game 1, but he does have a Karakas (and a second Crop) in the sideboard, so be careful of that. I would recommend Omniscience in this matchup, as a naked Show and Tell can sometimes just kill you if he puts a Blighted Agent into play, though it is rare.
His counter suite is much better against you than other versions, but nothing really new. He went back to two copies of Berserk, so he can kill you much faster than normal. Become Immense shouldn't be that much of an issue, but just keep in mind the combination of spells he can cast to kill you on the spot, and which combinations you can/can't play around.
Flusterstorm should be bananas at both forcing your combo through and keeping him from killing you, but you won't have much time before he kills you. His sideboard is basically just Force #4, Crop Rotation, Karakas, two more Spell Pierce, and maybe 1-2 disenchant effects. You can't afford to side in Defense Grid, because he is a faster deck than you most of the time, and you need your Forces and Flusters to be defensive as well as offensive.
I am not completely sold on this sideboard plan, as you might rather cut a monster or Sneak Attack instead of Preordains, but you can't afford to be slow against him. Drawing too many cantrips could be your undoing. Overmaster is also pretty mediocre since he has so many copies of Pierce, Daze, and other soft counters to effectively counter it.
Gerard's deck is interesting, but the lack of Force of Will should be his undoing. Thoughtseize is solid against you, but Daze and Counterspell are easy to play around. I wouldn't worry about Top or Counterbalance too much, since it will almost never counter your relevant spells.
I might be wary of tapping out for Sneak Attack, as he does have access to Golgari Charm, and he will likely bring in the second copy. I think that Omniscience is perfect for this matchup to help play around his Liliana and Jace. Leyline is probably not worth it, as it will only brick six cards in his deck.
*As a side note, this was all I wrote about Gerard's deck because I underestimated it. Awkwardly enough, this was Brad's one loss in the tournament.
- 1 Sphinx of the Steel Wind
- 1 Sire of Insanity
- 1 Tidespout Tyrant
- 1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
- 4 Griselbrand
This version of the deck is strange, but still mostly plays the same as they used to. He only has Daze and Force of Will, so any draw featuring an Overmaster should be pretty good in game 1. Sneak Attack is also the nut. There are no Thoughtseizes in the maindeck, and you can beat a lot of draws that feature Careful Study or Firestorm instead of Entomb, as two of his Reanimator targets are bad. That doesn't mean you can let Careful Study resolve all the time, but just use your best judgment.
If he's on the play for Game 1, his deck may be slightly anemic since four of his lands tap for colorless and are legendary. There will be draws where he can't combo in the first few turns. Flusterstorm should be great, since he doesn't have Thoughtseize maindeck, though it doesn't do anything against Animate Dead so be mindful of timing your counterspells.
For the most part, always counter Entomb unless you somehow know he has a second copy and only one reanimation spell.
The sideboarded games will revolve around your Cage and his Pithing Needle, as Needle can shut down your main avenue of attack. For the most part, a Show and Tell into Omniscience should end the game quickly. Don't be afraid to just jam Emrakul into play early if you have enough counterspell backup and can play around Daze. Be very aware that he can Thoughtseize you, taking your Griselbrand, and use his spell to get it out of your graveyard. You should probably side out at least one Griselbrand.
- 2 Birchlore Rangers
- 2 Craterhoof Behemoth
- 4 Deathrite Shaman
- 4 Elvish Visionary
- 4 Heritage Druid
- 4 Nettle Sentinel
- 4 Quirion Ranger
- 4 Wirewood Symbiote
- 2 Dryad Arbor
His maindeck is par for the course as far as Elves goes. Natural Order, Green Sun's Zenith, and Glimpse of Nature are all much worse against Flusterstorm than your normal Spell Pierces, and I would much rather keep those in after sideboard to fight Cabal Therapy and the like, where you would normally side out Pierce, but you might have to cut it in order to make room for everything you're trying to board in. The problem is that Cradle can outclass it quickly, though you will likely be able to slow him down with it in the first game.
Cage is obviously good, as is Pyroclasm, where anything revolving around beating an opposing Force of Will is probably bad (Overmaster, etc). I don't think Dig Through Time is necessary, but the games could end up being one big grindhouse thanks to his Cabal Therapies and you having ways to interact with him.
The one Pithing Needle and six discard spells could be problematic, and might warrant consideration for Leyline of Sanctity. Preordain is fine still, as his deck will tend to slow down after sideboarding. There may be some consideration to cutting one or two Force of Will, and just trying to jam your combo down his throat. He will probably slow his own deck down in order to find room for the six discard spells, but that isn't a guarantee. Keep it in mind for Game 3 if you feel like his deck is anemic.
Dig Through Time isn't bad, by any stretch, but I'm not sure you'll actually have enough time to cast it. And be wary of Reclamation Sage, as he might bring it in against your plan of Show and Tell and Omniscience/Sneak Attack, or just to kill Cage.
His maindeck has a lot of creatures and very little interaction. Overmaster will be priceless, but he is pretty fast, so make sure you don't waste too much time in digging for stuff. Aggressively shuffle away more cantrips with your Ponders and the like. Use your mana efficiently.
His sideboard is more soft counters and a Pithing Needle, so just put an emphasis on resolving Show and Tell, like always. Show plus any monster will almost always be lights out. I'm not a fan of Flusterstorm in this matchup, since you aren't trying to fight off Stifles or discard effects, and you want to bring in Defense Grid.
This was the day where I got to see my best friend win $20,000 and the title of Players' Champion. I was on the edge of my seat for hours on end, sweating right along with him. As he started to pull ahead in the last game against Gerard, I rushed down to the StarCityGames Center. I wanted to be there when he won. I wanted to see it for myself. I wanted to see the look on his face.
"The Champ is here!"
I yelled out into my packed living room, full of friendly faces and bittersweet smiles. It had been a long week. A long year, for all of us. And as we began to meander to my front lawn, filling cups with champagne along the way, I knew that there was no place I'd rather be. My life is pretty damn great.