Are you familiar with the popular 1990's band Third Rhino Blind?
The answer should probably be no. Because it doesn't exist. The band is actually called Third Eye Blind, and they had a hit single called Semi-Charmed Kind of Life. Third Rhino Blind? Hah. Who would name their band such a dumb name anyway?
Besides myself, of course. Third Rhino Blind. Catch us in our 2015 Tour in select US cities. We're taking the nation by Siege. It'll be the 3rd or 4th best show you see this year. Book it.
I'm here to tell you that I've taken that Third Eye Blind hit single to a new level. It's time for the Remix featuring DJ BBD: Semifinal Kind of Life. It won't be the best single on the charts. But it'll do pretty well.
So what's the Semifinal Kind of Life? I think you know. You do rather well in a tournament, but you don't actually win. It's charming. Semi-charming. It's what I live for, and I'm about to give you an exclusive backstage pass to the behind the scenes life and times of a chronic semifinalist. Buckle your proverbial mental seatbelt. Because this airbag might not be fully functional.
Preparations U through W Have Failed
The Players' Championship was no ordinary event. Nay. It was more. This was no jog through a dimly lit alleyway in the shady part of town. This event was a peaceful stroll in a nice, warm, sunny meadow with birds chirping and butterflies flittering around making heavenly flapping sounds. This was something big. Something that doesn't happen often.
This was the minor leagues.
As soon as they announced the Players' Championship last year, I knew one thing, and one thing only. Without a shadow of a doubt, I was going to be in Roanoke, VA the weekend of December 20th-21st. It was the weekend of the Players' Championship, and nothing was going to keep me away.
Because I live there and lead a very boring life in rural Southwest Virginia. Where else would I be?
Fortunately, I was also able to lock up the Season One qualification for the Players' Championship and rest easy for the remainder of the year. I really was going to get that all-expense paid trip to Roanoke that I wanted. I was qualified, and I had the entire year to think about the Players' Championship and how awesome it was going to be.
I spent that year durdling with zero regrets. Gotta live a little. And sometimes living a little means literally doing little. I'm okay with that. It's part of the Semifinal Kind of Life.
After the results of the Season Four Invitational, however, it was time to kick into high gear to test for this event. At this point, I knew everyone who was qualified and what decks they were likely to play. I had an expected metagame, and it was time to exploit that. If I was going to get close to winning, but not actually do so, I was going to need to have a good deck, but not quite the best deck, and that takes work. Not a lot of work. But some.
In Standard, I expected a lot of W/U Heroic, Whip decks, and Jeskai Tokens.
Turns out, I wasn't far off. That's basically exactly what the tournament was.
The first deck I wanted to test was a version of W/U Heroic that Jon Stern proposed to me at GP Baltimore. He hated Heliod's Pilgrim, and from my previous experience with the deck, I did as well. The card is just slow and doesn't do anything. One power, two toughness is the holy grail of Magic creature size, and Heliod's Pilgrim is a stain on the legacy of 1/2s everywhere. Squire. Stoneforge Mystic. These pioneers of the one-two punch look down their nose at Heliod's Pilgrim and rightfully so. It felt like a complete blank in every game I played with the deck, and I knew I did not want to go near it for this event.
Jon Stern suggested a different three-drop. One with a bit more power. It was the hero we needed. You. Reader. Write this down.
It doesn't take long for a Fabled Hero with an Aqueous Form to get the job done. Not long at all. I wanted a W/U Heroic list that could go under other W/U Heroic lists, and I ended up settling on something like this:
I really liked this deck against other W/U Heroic decks. I also loved Triton Tactics. It was a huge blowout every time I cast the card. Aqueous Form was a sweet option against the green decks that aim to block your creatures with their own giant ones. They bait you into proactively using your protection spells, which gives them an opening to off your creature with one of their few removal spells. Aqueous Form means they can't block, they're not winning the race, and they have to play right into your Gods Willing.
Unfortunately, I just didn't like the deck itself. It had some neat aspects to it, but I wasn't winning that much with it, and it didn't feel more powerful than any other deck I could play. Sometimes I drew all creatures, and sometimes it was all spells. You really wanted an even mix, and I wasn't about to live that life. That was asking for trouble.
W/U Heroic was nixed.
Monday, December 15th was in the books, and I was no closer to my goal. I had a few short days remaining, and my only course of action was to turn my attention to the rhino in the room.
Episode VI: Return of the Rhino
Tuesday, December 16th shall henceforth be known in all lands as "The Day of the Rhino." For it was upon this fateful day that MTGO user BBD rediscovered Siege Rhinoceros and tore through the land with a ferocious rampage never before seen. He stood atop the Sandsteppe Citadel and laughed as he smote the ruins of his enemies upon every Daily Event within range. Death. Destruction. Carnage. That is what remained. Devastation was everywhere, and all who lived to tell the tale could speak only of the great beast who wrought such annihilation to the realm.
"Siege. Rhino," was all they could croak out. If you leaned in closer, you might hear them whisper one last choice phrase. Their eyes dilated with a madness that was indistinguishable, but their words were crystal clear. "Play a Rhinoceros strategy. Play Siege Rhino." For some, it was the last words they would ever speak. But it was a message not easily forgotten.
If you didn't know what to play in this tournament, you could do a lot worse than just playing a Siege Rhino deck. Playing the best Siege Rhino deck could hardly be a bad choice, and I was prepared to take that leap.
It wasn't a particularly big leap, as it does weigh a literal ton. But it was a leap regardless, and I won't have anyone belittling Siege Rhino's vertical. Turns out, white meat can jump.
I figured that Abzan Reanimator was probably the best Rhino deck, and the best way to find a good starting point for Abzan Reanimator would be to check the decks that performed well at the Season Four Invitational and the subsequent Standard Open in Seattle that took place the following day.
It was there that I stumbled upon a gem. I sought Abzan Reanimator, but I found something better. I found an old favorite of mine and reignited an old flame. Lions, Rhinos, Cat Demons, Oh My.
Andrew Tenjum and Thea Steele got ninth and tenth with this list.
I only had to look at it once to know it was exactly what I wanted to be doing. A full set of Anafenza was the perfect threat against the Whip decks. It attacks past Courser of Kruphix and it wrecks their ability to grind you out with Whip of Erebos.
Bile Blight was the perfect removal spell to handle two extremes of the format. On one hand, it beat Hordeling Outburst, which was the hardest card to handle from the Jeskai Tokens decks. It also cleanly swept up Hornet Queen, which was by far the hardest card to beat from the various Whip decks. The rest of their creatures could be outclassed, but even a raided Wingmate Roc isn't getting past a Hornet Queen.
And then there was Siege Rhino. Do I even need to say anything about this sweet hunk of cardboard? I didn't think so.
I've loved Abzan Aggro since Michael Sigrist made top 4 at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir with the deck. I played it in GP LA and have tried to make it work ever since. It's a proactive deck with powerful cards. What's not to love? I don't know the answer to that question.
I'll tell you what I do know though. This deck is phenomenal.
I went 4-0 in my first three Magic Online dailies with this list. I was smashing every deck that I faced and it felt dirty. My opponents on Magic Online were asking me, "What's the bad matchup for that deck?" And all I could say was, "I haven't found it yet." I won my first fifteen matches with this deck, and I showed no signs of slowing down.
The only matchup that I legitimately feared was Jeskai Tokens, but thankfully I was able to get in some test games against CVM and Ross Merriam the day before we had to turn in decklists, and while game 1 was bad, the post-board games were quite good. Drown in Sorrow and Bile Blight along with Glare of Heresy for Jeskai Ascendancy meant it was hard for them to keep up.
I submitted the following:
I felt untouchable in Standard. And with Standard accounted for, it was time to turn my attention to the other format, Legacy.
Run It Back
It wasn't that hard to convince me to just play Jeskai Stoneblade again. After winning Grand Prix New Jersey with the deck, I have continued to battle with it on Magic Online and have put up good results in most of the events I've played. While the deck hasn't really picked up that much steam since the GP, it still felt powerful and exactly what I wanted to be doing.
I tried out early versions of the Jeskai Ascendancy deck, but I didn't like it. However, I did really like a lot of aspects of that deck, namely Young Pyromancer in a very spell dense control shell. I was winning most of my games that way, and so I decided to just cut Jeskai Ascendancy and Fatestitcher and work on a build that looked to maximize delve as much as possible while also having a proactive gameplan in Young Pyromancer.
The end result was a deck that looked like this:
I was performing extremely well in daily events with this shell. By cutting Stoneforge Mystic and focusing on spells instead, I was able to remove a lot of the clunky kinds of draws the other deck could get--the kinds of draws where you have too many creatures and not enough spells to support them.
The combo matchups were a lot better. The only matchup that seemed to really suffer from a lack of Stoneforge Mystic was against other True-Name Nemesis decks and against U/R Delver. I got scared about playing against those strategies and ended up audibling out of this list. I think it was a mistake, and I should have just stuck with playing this shell that I spent so much time on.
The night before the tournament, without any testing whatsoever, I registered a version that was a full five maindeck cards off of this deck. In Legacy, that's actually a pretty enormous difference. I crossed my fingers and hoped it would work. I jammed two copies of Stoneforge Mystic back into the deck along with a Batterskull, and I cut the copies of True-Name Nemesis for Vendilion Cliques to help hedge against the combo-dense field I expected.
While slightly better against U/R Delver and Jeskai Stoneblade, I think this version is just worse than the one I was testing. Since we had to turn in our decklists by Thursday morning, I didn't have a chance to test the new version and just had to hope it worked out.
The Players' Championship
This event was phenomenal. I had a lot of skepticism and negativity surrounding the structure going into the event, and I'm willing to admit that frankly, I was just wrong. The event was great, and I loved the fact that every single round mattered. There were a lot of people complaining about the structure on Twitter, but I think that was mostly because it lacked a clear explanation and not because the structure itself was bad.
There were also some complaints about how early players would get eliminated from the event. You start 1-3 and you might just be out. That sucks, but...
If you start 1-3 in a normal tournament, you're out. Hell, you're dead at 1-2. If anything, this tournament gave you more chances to capitalize on a bad start. Tom Ross started out 0-3 and was down a game in round 4. He got eliminated by Brad Nelson playing for top 4.
Reid Duke started 1-3 in this event and did make top 4. You can bounce back from early defeat, but you also can't rest on your laurels either. A few early wins aren't going to lock up anything, the same way a few early losses will only make your road harder but won't eliminate you.
I thought the structure was great, and the event had the level of intensity that an event of this caliber should have. I was more nervous for some of the games I played in this tournament than I have ever been in Magic before. It was crazy. Every match was super stressful and every time I won, it felt like I had just accomplished something important. And I had.
My stomach had butterflies throughout almost the entire event, and I wouldn't want it any other way.
If I was going to make the semifinals of this event and then lose in heartbreaking fashion to miss the finals, I was going to need to advance past day 1. My testing was going to need to pay off for a fairly solid period of time before ultimately failing me in the end.
I was going to need Abzan Aggro to propel me through my initial pod and lock up a spot in day 2. I was going to have to trust that Siege Rhino would be good enough to carry the day.
Pretty easy to do, honestly. Card is good.
The sixteen players were split into four pods of four. You would play each player in your pod once, and then players would advance based on how well they did in the pod. If you won your pod, you automatically made day 2. If you got second place, you made it to bracket play in the afternoon. If you got third or fourth, you had to play a single elimination match just to stay in the event.
Things got intense. Quickly.
In round one, I was paired against Jim Davis, playing U/W Control.
We had a really interesting situation arise in game 1. Jim is at four or less life and has just resolved Elspeth and used the -3 to destroy a Siege Rhino. He's tapped out with Elspeth on one. I have access to six lands on my turn and my hand is a Rakshasa Deathdealer, a Bile Blight, and a Hero's Downfall. Jim has roughly 3-4 cards in hand. Jim has been missing land drops, so they are all spells, but it's unclear which spells they are. He has already cast two copies of End Hostilities, and from studying up on his list from the week prior, he only runs three copies in the maindeck.
There are two options. I can cast Rakshasa Deathdealer and Hero's Downfall the Elspeth without regeneration mana open and hope he doesn't have the third copy of End Hostilities. Alternatively, I can cast Deathdealer with regeneration mana up, and pass the turn with the intention of destroying the tokens with Bile Blight, which might surprise Jim and steal a win.
I've thought a lot about this situation since this point, and I'm still not fully convinced what the right play was. By Hero's Downfalling the Elspeth, I might entice Jim to tap out for a second copy of Elspeth and then wreck him with Bile Blight. But I also leave myself open to a removal spell like End Hostilities. If I don't cast Hero's Downfall, I might lull Jim into a false sense of security behind those tokens and steal a win that way. He might have something like Banishing Light and just not cast it, intending to chump block for a few turns instead and get blown out by Bile Blight.
I think the right play is either to do exactly what I did, or to cast Deathdealer and then pass the turn. At the end of Jim's turn, assuming he doesn't play anything, I should cast Hero's Downfall on Elspeth (not Bile Blight). Since Bile Blight is then the more important card, I want to entice Jim to cast Dissolve on Downfall to protect Elspeth. Then I can untap, cast Bile Blight and swing for the win.
Regardless of which was right, the end result is that I lost and might have lost to the Pearl Lake Ancient either way, as it wasn't long after when that big boy showed up to party.
I ended up winning game 2, and game 3 was covered live. We ended up running afoul of one of the awkward rules in this tournament. If a game would have been a draw at the end of the 60 minute rounds, instead it was decided by the sudden death rules, which means the highest life total wins.
Towards the end of game 3, it was clear that one of two things were going to happen. Either I was going to manage to kill Jim, or we were going to run out of time, in which case it would come down to life totals. I ended up winning the game to the life total rule, thanks to gaining huge chunks of life with Sorin's +1.
It was awkward, because Jim was most likely going to win the game if it played out from that point. However, I also took a lot of lines of play that were actively bad unless I am playing specifically to achieve the highest life total. For example, I used Glare of Heresy on a Banishing Light to get back a Nissa so I could gain more life with Sorin when a more optimal use would have been to just get rid of his Elspeth, which was the only way he could win.
I also used Sorin's +1 every single turn instead of doing things like alternating between the +1 and the -2 to create evasive threats that Jim would be required to answer. Ultimately, I accepted my win from the life total rule, and didn't feel bad about it. That was the rule for the tournament, and I am going to play to the rule if it's my best chance to advance. We all knew this was a possibility. It just sucked it came up so early.
Round 2 I played against Derrick Sheets on Abzan Reanimator. His draws were pretty unimpressive, and despite a few...unorthodox...mulligan decisions, I managed to advance. In game 2, I kept a hand without a green source and didn't get there. In game 3, I kept six lands and Abzan Charm. I led with a Temple of Silence and saw Fleecemane Lion on top. Game. A few topdecked Rhino's later and I was 2-0.
In round 3 against Logan Mize, I actually did elect to mulligan. I can't remember what the hand was, but it must have been strictly unplayable, since it's clear at this point, I'm willing to keep nearly anything. We were both 2-0. The winner would claim the pod.
Game 2 was off to a similar start, but he managed to stabilize at one life behind a Stormbreath Dragon. I either needed to draw a removal spell to clear out his Dragon so my 3/4 bird could swing for the win, or I needed to draw a Rhino to just finish the job.
Only one of two things was going to win this game. A mise, or Logan Mize.
The top card of my library was Siege Rhino. Death. Destruction. Carnage.
I was 3-0, and on to day two.
Day two was Legacy. I felt like I had a good combo matchup with my Jeskai Stoneblade list, but that was immediately put to the test when I was stuck in a pod with Brad Nelson on Sneak and Show, Joe Lossett on Reanimator, and Gerard Fabiano on Sultai Control.
Unlike day one, if you finish last in the pod, you're just straight eliminated. There was even more pressure to do well in pod play this time around.
I ended up losing round one to Gerard. I really liked how I played game 1. I set up a gameplan to hide information and bait Gerard into making plays that seemed right but would ultimately benefit me. Unfortunately, I lost to the classic flaw of cards like Gitaxian Probe. You can't play around the top of their library. Gerard kept drawing the perfect card each turn to thwart my plans. Despite losing this game, I felt like it was one of the better ones I played all tournament.
Game 2 wasn't close when I just never drew a Lightning Bolt, Swords to Plowshares or Supreme Verdict to sweep up a pair of Deathrite Shamans, and they just ran away with the game. Even though I got destroyed in this match, I think it is actually a much closer match than it appeared. My draws just happened to line up extremely poorly against Gerard's. My game 2 hand would have been great against his game 1 draw, and vice versa. As it was, I got slaughtered.
One thing I will say is that Gerard played extremely well in this tournament. Fresh off of a GP win, he is on fire. He made a lot of really unorthodox plays that really leveled me pretty hard. I was impressed with how he played and felt that if he had won the tournament, it would have been very well-deserved.
Round 2 against Brad Nelson was a tight match. Game 1 was close. We were both basically empty handed, and I had him on a two or three turn clock with Young Pyromancer, but he found Sneak Attack to put in Emrakul before I could finish the game.
In game 2, I kept a no land hand with multiple Gitaxian Probes and got there. Brad's hand was something like Sneak Attack, Show and Tell, Griselbrand, Ancient Tomb, Scalding Tarn, Pyroclasm, Flusterstorm. He ended up also drawing two copies of Defense Grid pretty early on.
Treasure Cruise, Meddling Mage, and a near infinite supply of Spell Pierces later, and I managed to beat what looked like one of the best possible draws I could ever really have to face from Sneak and Show. Or at least, I felt that way prior to game 3.
Game 3 wasn't even a game. Brad had turn 1 Defense Grid, turn 2 Show and Tell for Griselbrand on the play. My opening hand was great, but it didn't have Force of Will, and I was dead before I got to play a turn.
At this point, I was 0-2 and feeling pretty down. I was going to need to beat Joe Lossett in the last round, and things were still going to need to break my way to keep me from being the one eliminated.
Not only did I need to beat Joe, I also needed Gerard to beat Brad despite having zero copies of Force of Will in his entire 75. Somehow, it all came together. My game 3 against Joe was on coverage and is one of the most exciting games I have ever played.
I don't want to spoil it for you, but you should definitely watch it if you haven't yet. I have a feeling it might eventually make the Best of SCG Live.
Somehow, I went from 0-2 to escaping my pod and facing an elimination match against Ross Merriam for top 4. Winner makes top 4. Loser is out.
I beat Ross in fairly convincing fashion to lock up the top 4. I felt that my match against Ross was the best I played in the entire tournament. While it looked like a pretty straightforward match where I just kind of steamrolled him, I still felt that I was actually faced with a lot of hard decisions and that I made the right ones. If nothing else, I can look back on this tournament and feel pride in how I played that match under the pressure of making top 4. I could have probably won both games even if I played worse, but I am still happy with the decisions I did make.
It wasn't an easy road, but I had made the top 4.
It was me playing Abzan Aggro, against three Sultai Reanimator decks. Good versus a triple helping of evil. I know in most stories, the good guy always wins. I was hoping it would be the same here.
It wasn't. I lost to Gerard in the semifinals. It was a Semifinals Kind of Exit. After winning games 1 and 2, he managed to steal games 3-5, in what I considered to be a good matchup. Frankly, I deserved to lose the postboard games, because I got out sideboarded. My plan against Eidolon, Doomwake, Whip decks was to bring in Back to Natures and just blow up all of their creatures and Whips while I clock them with creatures in the meantime.
This didn't work as well when Gerard got to see my decklist and had four post-board games to adjust against the plan. He sided out the enchantments and sided into a pure control deck. By the time I realized it, we were sideboarding for game 5. I think my deck configuration for game 5, which was bringing in all of my planeswalkers and just trying to overwhelm him with threats, was ultimately correct, but by then it was too late. A mulligan and weak six and I was out of the tournament. I figured out the puzzle, but it was too late. The clock had already reached zero.
I may not have won the tournament, but I am happy with my result. I felt like I made the right deck choices for me. I felt like throughout the event I played well. There isn't much more I can ask for than that. It didn't end up in a win, but I still pocketed $4k. I also had a great time spending the weekend with fifteen other great competitors and the other people from Roanoke who I've come to know and love. Best of all, I got to take part in an exciting event. It was the first of its kind, but hopefully not the last, for SCG or for me.
Even outside of the tournament itself, this weekend was a success. From the dinner Saturday night, to sitting around in the StarCityGames Center for the tournament itself, to the post-tournament party at Todd Anderson's house on Sunday, I couldn't have asked for a better weekend.
Turns out, I could get pretty used to the Semifinal Kind of Life. It may not be the best it can be, but it isn't too bad either. It's a respectable lifestyle.
And I can always be happy to know that I'm not living the Quarterfinals Kind of Life, because I've heard that really sucks. Nobody wants that.