Where to begin? Well, I suppose we can just start here.
I guess you could say that Tom Ross is starting to infect me. I feel like in every format, every deck choice I've made recently has been partly due to him. Bant Heroic in Standard, Infect in Legacy, and now Infect in Modern. I keep running these decks into the ground until I know them inside and out. And once I do that, we actually get to have real conversations about the archetypes.
And we did just that before the Open Series in Cincinnati. We didn't arrive at our hotel until around 2 a.m., but we immediately began putting our decks together. Sometimes you just need a like-minded individual to bounce ideas off of. I hadn't played Infect in Modern recently, sticking instead to my tried and true Temur Twin. But I have played Infect a lot in Legacy, so I am comfortable with playing the role of villain, putting my opponent on an invisible, blistering fast clock. I know the basics, and the minute details are usually sorted out during the games. How do you play around Liliana of the Veil? How do you beat Remand plus Lightning Bolt? Do you go for it when they have the ability to kill your creature?
As is often the case with decks like Infect or even Heroic, trying to figure out if your opponent has the answer or not is a fun sub-game. Decks like Heroic and Infect are often much worse on Magic Online because the real-life advantage of being able to look in your opponent's eyes and read their soul is absent. You can pick up on tells early in a game or match that you can use to your advantage later. You can even bait them into reacting exactly how you want them to, just by how you present yourself during the game.
Watching Tom play these decks helps a lot in learning what you can and can't get away with when it comes to bluffing. You have to feel your opponent out each time, but you also need to read the situation. Taking a long time to make a decision could give away priceless information, but it is important to consider every avenue of attack. Knowing when to take your shots to put the most pressure on them is also an important aspect of playing a deck like Infect.
Working with Tom is a delight. He doesn't talk much, but what he says usually has a lot of weight behind it. At times it can be difficult to sift through his “jokes,” which usually come in the form of a bad card or deck suggestions. But then again, his jokes turn into reality when he does something like play Soul Sisters at Grand Prix Charlotte (it's about sending a message). But when Tom brings a great idea to the table, you'd be foolish not to listen.
But like most people, Tom is also stubborn. This isn't exactly a negative thing. I'm stubborn quite often when it comes to certain cards or decks in a given format, especially so if I've been doing well recently. That's just the nature of the beast. But he's logical, calculated, and trusts himself above others when it comes down to the wire, which can be all the difference.
Before the event, we went pretty deep on figuring out what cards to play in the deck. His initial list didn't have a single way to kill a maindeck Spellskite, which is one of the most problematic cards to face with Infect. I suggested playing two, but those two needed to be versatile. Nature's Claim was too narrow, but Twisted Image and Dismember can be great in a number of situations, though you don't want to overload on either. We settled on one of each. I don't know enough about the numbers to explain why it was right, but it just felt right. And sometimes, you just have to trust your gut.
I was skeptical of the Spellskites in our maindeck but ultimately conceded that they were worth it against Burn and the like. It is also randomly insane against G/W Hexproof, the mirror, and is a preemptive way to protect your threat from Abrupt Decay. They were fine blockers against other aggressive decks, buying you time to find what you needed to close the game. They stopped Arcbound Ravager tricks, Splinter Twin, and a few other annoyances while doing what they were designed to do in the first place: provide a buffer between your opponent's removal and your more important creatures.
I also hate Might of Old Krosa in theory. I don't want my opponent to know what I'm about to do, so playing things at sorcery speed is not exactly ideal. But Might of Old Krosa is one of the easiest ways to kill people on turn 3 with protection, which is great for the combo matchups. One of the biggest strengths of Infect is how explosive you are against decks that can't interact with you, and cutting all of the Mights would be a mistake.
I'm also not a fan of Mutagenic Growth since it doesn't protect any of your creatures from Lightning Bolt and doesn't actually do all that much extra damage. There is probably a version of Infect that wants to overload on Mutagenic Growth and Become Immense to kill the opponent faster, but I really hate drawing more than one copy of Become Immense. I can only imagine how gross it would be to draw multiple copies of Mutagenic Growth without the Become Immense, though.
I wanted to play a Rancor to help play “slowball” against decks with a lot of removal. Rancor is cheap, and it also lets Glistener Elf become a real threat against decks like Merfolk (or other creature-heavy strategies). It isn't quite Berserk, but Rancor did a great job for me in the Open. Tom opted to play his Piracy Charm, which I was not a fan of. I know that it can do a lot of different things for the deck, but Piracy Charm has never really inspired me. It doesn't do anything well, and instead does three or so things pretty terribly.
We were mostly on the same page, and it is pretty telling when this one small difference was the apex of dissent.
I kept making the same argument, one that I find to be true in a number of decks that Tom and I like to play: changing just one or two slots could significantly alter how your games play out. Infect is a base-green deck that is splashing blue. Every time Tom wanted to add another blue card, I kept telling him that it could affect how an entire turn plays out. The games where you're stuck with a single Breeding Pool and two blue spells in hand, unable to cast both in the same turn, could lose you that game (and match, and tournament). This was a major discussion point on Rancor vs. Piracy Charm, but also held true for Tom's love for Serum Visions. If we ended up with Twisted Image in the deck, it had to replace a blue card.
Our sideboard was mostly the same, but we hammered out a lot of the key spells and ended up with two flex slots. I opted for a miser's Leyline of Sanctity for Burn, Storm, and Liliana decks as well as Tom's suggestion for one Grafdigger's Cage for Chord of Calling and Collected Company. When two friends are playing the same deck, I am under the impression that you should both be playing the same 75. If you want to play something different, it is your responsibility to convince the other person that you are right. And if the other person thinks you're wrong, then it is their responsibility to convince you otherwise.
I think that I failed Tom in this tournament because I failed to convince him of the cards I decided to play that he didn't. If I had been more adamant about my decisions, he might have had a better tournament. But in the end, sleep is more important than arguing over two or three cards.
The Fear of God
There were a few times during the Open where I wasn't sure what to do, or failed to realize certain outs at my disposal and play towards them. But when it comes to putting the fear of God into another player, Infect is the perfect weapon. I've never seen anyone snap off a Lightning Bolt on my Glistener Elf so quickly than in this tournament.
Fine. It's dead. Here's a Blighted Agent.
Infect makes people play so cautiously, and for good reason. It is rare that you die on the second turn, but it isn't all that rare that you die on the third or fourth turn, even with disruption. Vines of Vastwood is a great Magic card that is tough to play around. Versatile spells in a deck like Infect give it a much wider range of attack than normal. Even Apostle's Blessing lets your threat be unblockable for a turn on top of protecting it from various removal spells.
But sometimes, when playing against Infect, you have to understand that playing scared will often lead to you dying about the same amount as playing aggressively. Putting a threat onto the battlefield so that you can start pressuring Infect while dealing with their creatures is usually a much better angle of attack than sitting on your hands and waiting to lose. Yes, you might be able to win the battle over one of their creatures killing you, but what about the next one? If you had put ample pressure on the Infect player before resigning yourself to playing defensively, you could have potentially stolen the game from them.
Picking your spots against Infect can often be difficult, and there are times where no decision you make will actually matter. It has fast, resilient draws that often overcome two or three pieces of removal. This is one of the reasons why Infect is such a great deck. There are certain cards or strategies that it has a tough time beating, but it isn't a rare occasion to find a route to victory. As long as you build your deck with the right answers, you'll do just fine.
I will say that playing Infect this past weekend was a metagame call. It ended up working out great for me, but not so much for Tom. If we had flipped all of our opponents, I don't know if I would have even made Day 2. Infect shines against a format full of people trying to do their own thing and being light on interaction. Merfolk, Affinity, Scapeshift, G/R Tron, Amulet Bloom, and a number of other solitaire-type strategies are often good matchups for Infect. You're a turn or two faster than them, and you can beat their disruption pretty easily with the right draws.
But even though Infect tends to struggle against Liliana of the Veil, Splinter Twin, Lingering Souls, and even Eidolon of the Great Revel, I beat all of those cards in the tournament. I mostly beat them because they weren't exactly sure on how to beat me. Well, I should say they weren't exactly sure how to “not lose.” Every opponent I played against this past weekend had one or two different turns where a single different decision could have potentially given them the upper hand. Instead, they walked right into what I was trying to do nearly every single time.
Against Eric Hawkins playing Grixis Splinter Twin, I purposefully started a fight with my Become Immense before declaring an attacker. By doing this, he tried to use Deceiver Exarch to tap my creature instead of just casting Remand, costing him one valuable mana that could have ended up foiling my entire turn. The Remand could have also given him another card that could kill my creature (Terminate).
Against Alex Hon in the semifinals, he chose to cast nothing on his turn 2 so that he could hold up Dismember and Spell Pierce, even though he didn't have a third land to play on his next turn. His other options were to cast Spreading Seas targeting my Inkmoth Nexus or green mana source, or play Lord of Atlantis. Since I knew the contents of his hand with Gitaxian Probe, passing the turn without a play was very favorable for me. Especially so because my hand was full of lands, while his wasn't. At a point in the near future, I would be able to cast three spells or so to his two, and I was perfectly fine playing the waiting game.
If he casts Spreading Seas, the correct target is my green source. He absolutely needs to draw a card, so having his Spreading Seas countered by Vines of Vastwood or Apostle's Blessing is really bad for him. If he casts Lord of Atlantis, he can start putting pressure on me. The likelihood of him dying to Inkmoth Nexus on turn 3 is almost non-existent. Taking one hit from it isn't the end of the world.
But that's my point exactly. You have to play against Infect the same way you would play against Burn or an oddball combo deck. You have to pick your spots, use your life total as a resource, and don't be afraid to take a hit or two from their creatures. As long as you don't have ten poison counters, you aren't dead. If you aren't equipped to win the long game, don't try to.
No Rest for the Weary
It's been a while since I've actually won a major tournament. Five thousand dollars is a lot of money, but I think I'm just going to let Kali figure out how to spend it. We might go on a long vacation. We might just remodel the kitchen. We might be adults and put the money towards our mortgage, but we don't exactly have a history of picking the boring option.
It looks like I'm going to be in a great position to make the Players' Championship at the end of the year after the points from this past weekend go through. But I'm not sleeping on those points. In fact, I've been considering booking a flight to Milwaukee for the Open Series next week. The race is going to be a very close one, with a lot of people all hovering around the same number of points. My win this past weekend in Cincinnati put me pretty high up on the Season Four leaderboard, but it won't take long for others to catch me if I take a few weekends off.
After missing the Players' Championship last year, I don't want that to happen again. It looked like a blast, and it was a pretty strange feeling helping Brad test for a tournament I wasn't qualified for. I have been busting my ass this year to make sure that doesn't happen again, and this is definitely not the time to be caught slacking.
There are two major Standard tournaments left before the Battle for Zendikar Prerelease. While I might play in one (or both) of them, I know my heart won't really be in it. I'm excited for the release of a new set and the rotation of quite a few old ones. I'm also looking forward to the new rotation schedule as it will keep Standard fresh and changing more quickly. I find that the bigger the Standard format gets, the more powerful the cards become as a result. I mean, you have to print powerful options to compete with the five or six sets before it.
Battle for Zendikar is shaping up to be a really exciting set. With the Expeditions, a sweet storyline, and a lot of cool cards spoiled thus far, it really has my creative juices flowing. My only hope at this point is that we get a Birds of Paradise or Elvish Mystic in BFZ so I can cast Undergrowth Champion on turn 2!