This year’s #SCGPC was not my finest weekend. Despite entering the tournament with three decks I was happy with, I emerged with a 2-5 record and my first missed day two on the SCG Tour® in 2015.
Finishing poorly in a big tournament is always deflating, and when you entered with confidence it often leaves you feeling confused. Where did it all go wrong? Did I just get unlucky or was there something off in my preparation?
With the benefit of hindsight, the answer is almost always both. Just like it is impossible to win a tournament without some amount of good fortune, it is near impossible to bomb out without some degree of misfortune. Newer players too often use this reality as an excuse to dismiss their mistakes, stagnating their progress as a result. This phenomenon is so well-known that it is often advocated among more experienced players that in order to improve you should never acknowledge the role of variance and always assume you misplayed.
Both of these approaches are too dogmatic in my opinion, removing the difficulty of dealing with a game as complex as Magic by biasing yourself entirely in one direction. With the benefit of hindsight I have uncovered what I believe are many potential errors in my preparation, which combined with the errors in my play are likely the chief causes of my poor tournament.
But in doing so I will also acknowledge places where fortune simply did not favor me. What is important to keep in mind is that my bad luck in certain spots was to some degree counteracted by good fortune in others, and even if I can legitimately say that I was unlucky in the tournament, it does not absolve my mistakes. The best players are those that both take advantage of the tournaments where they draw well and make the most of the tournaments where they do not. I could have put up a better finish than I did solely by changing my own decisions. I did not maximize my potential in the tournament.
What I aim to do by acknowledging the points of negative variance is to show how to best gain an objective picture of your tournament performance. It is important to not be biased by results and make a poor decision in the future because the correct decision burned you in the past. This would be akin to mulliganing a great hand because you kept it last round and proceeded to draw all lands and lose. These things happen, and failure to acknowledge them only leads to overcorrection and further mistakes.
The goal here is to isolate my mistakes from the sea of noise that is a Magic tournament. This process is incredibly difficult and one that no one will be able to do perfectly, especially without outside help. But honing your skills in this area is vital to improving as a player, since it trains you to be dispassionate and humble in your analysis without burdening yourself with an undue share of the blame.
Now let’s get to the Magic.
Weeks before the #SCGPC, when I began thinking about which decks I would like to play, I decided I wanted to make myself less predictable than I had been last year. In that event I registered Jeskai Tokens and Elves, and was not particularly happy with either despite my good performance.
I knew that most players would put me on Storm after my performance at the Open in New Jersey, but with the potential for Eric Hawkins, Caleb Scherer, and Jim Davis as other Storm pilots in the field, I saw the potential for a sea of hate. Moreover, the presence of Tom Ross, Todd Anderson, and to a lesser extent Brad Nelson, meant a higher than likely chance of Infect, which is not a great matchup for Storm. I quickly started looking for other options.
The obvious choice here is Elves. Despite the fact that it is the deck I am most known for, I had not actually played it since the previous #SCGPC, a fact which I am sure the rest of the field was aware of. So my old haunt presented an intriguing opportunity for a hiding in plain sight trick. However, the same marks against my playing Storm also held for Elves—Storm is a bad matchup, so its increased presence is an issue, and players preparing to beat Infect would naturally be prepared for Elves. Joe Lossett even played a maindeck copy of Submerge!
I next looked at Sultai Delver, which was the deck that was largely responsible for my top 8 at the Season One Invitational in Richmond. The combination of cheap creatures, free counterspells, and discard makes it potent against Storm. It also tends to be favored against other Delver variants due to how good it is at winning the Tarmogoyf war, and I expected a sizable number of Delver decks to show up.
However, given that Delver was certain to be the largest chunk of the field, I looked for something different. I eventually landed on the two Griselbrand decks as top candidates: Reanimator and Sneak and Show. Few remember this, but I played Sneak and Show for six months during the latter half of 2013, when it was at its peak in popularity. I eventually returned to Elves but always enjoyed the powerful combo deck.
The mana acceleration of Lotus Petal, Ancient Tomb, and City of Traitors gives you good game against the mana denial plan of Delver decks, and the power of Griselbrand gives you an edge against opposing combo decks as it will typically find you the necessary disruption to effectively end the game even if it does not literally do so. That you can cast a Show and Tell by turn 2 or Sneak Attack by turn 3 regularly means you typically come out ahead in the race while having enough space for a healthy disruption suite of Spell Pierce and Force of Will.
I was also attracted to Sneak and Show and Reanimator because they do not succumb to the same hate as Storm does. Your more robust manabase make Sphere effects less of an issue, and Arcane Laboratory type cards are horrible. I expected few copies of Karakas and similar answers to big creatures, which would make Griselbrand very well-positioned.
There was some evidence that Sneak and Show was underrepresented in the Legacy metagame leading up to the #SCGPC when it won the MOCS qualifier and took fourth in the Legacy Classic in Las Vegas.
However, this also made me wary that others would catch on, making Reanimator, the more explosive cousin of Sneak and Show, attractive. Ultimately, my expectation of Grixis Delver as the most popular Delver variant and the associated presence of Deathrite Shaman along with my familiarity with Sneak and Show led me to choose it over Reanimator, ultimately registering the following list:
The maindeck is stock, as there is not much room to innovate with such a straightforward shell. The sideboard has a few notable inclusions/exclusions that I will overview here:
Pithing Needle – With no Blood Moons, I needed a different solution to Karakas, and this seemed like the best one since against Miracles, it could also stop Sensei’s Divining Top, thus mitigating the risk of Terminus.
Omniscience – This started to become popular late in the heyday of Sneak and Show as a powerful answer to opposing hate and is especially good against other Show and Tell decks as it allows you to win immediately.
Ultimately, Sneak and Show did not prove to be a good metagame call because of the surprising choice by Brad Nelson, Todd Anderson, and Tom Ross to play Death and Taxes, and while I came close to dodging them all during the normal rounds, only running into Todd in my destination match, the deck did not play out very well in matches that should have been fine.
I finished with a 1-2 record in my pod, losing to Caleb Scherer on Storm and Danny Jessup playing Temur Delver while earning my lone win in round three against Logan Mize on Grixis Delver.
I was only able to assemble one “combo” before turn 4, which was on camera against Todd, giving me a brief glimmer of hope that I could escape Legacy with a guaranteed spot in day two. In most of my games I was left struggling to do much of anything before my opponents killed me, with my other game wins coming from fortunate draws of a creature on the final turn to steal a game even after attacking with an Emrakul.
I had put in some work with the deck during the previous week, but not as much as I had for Standard given my previous experience with the deck. In my testing the deck still seemed like the powerful but often erratic deck it was back in 2013, and I certainly saw more of the latter than the former last weekend. Still, there are some things I believe I overlooked in making what I think was a poor decision, even disregarding the unexpected presence of Death and Taxes.
Sneak and Show Has Not Improved in Two Years
It is essentially the same deck it was back then. While we may be reverting to a simpler time in Legacy now that Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time are banned, you can never truly go home again, and the metagame has evolved from the days Show and Tell and Griselbrand were generating ban discussions.
This was one of the reasons I moved on from Elves after so long with the deck, and it is possible the same is true here. Miracles has a better clock than ever with Monastery Mentor, Grixis Delver gives you a new set of issues dealing with both Daze and Cabal Therapy, and there are fewer midrange decks to prey upon. When taken individually, these are all minor considerations; however, when viewed in sum, they represent a significant decrease in the deck’s win rate against the field. In my quest to find a deck that would be ahead of the metagame, I may have found one that is two years behind.
Sneak and Show is Too Straightforward
In a field that only contains the best players, even if they come to the table unprepared to see Sneak and Show, it is not as though I will be showing them something that they will not be able to dissect and find a plan against. It does not get much simpler than assembling a two-card combo and resolving one of them, and that means it does not get much simpler to play against.
I hoped to overcome this with a combination of power and a field of unprepared sideboards, but perhaps that is not enough. Counters and discard spells are still quite good and unlike with Storm, it is nearly impossible to bait someone to counter a non-essential spell because your essential spells are always the same.
I Should Have Mulliganed More
Given that my chief advantage over my opponents was explosiveness, I should have tried to take advantage of that by aggressively mulliganing to hands that could win early, especially given the new Vancouver Mulligan rule that did not exist the last time I played the deck. Instead, I kept several slow or otherwise incomplete hands that needed too much time to set up without the necessary payoff of an easy win if I found the necessary pieces. Needless to say I was soundly punished by some fast Delver draws and Caleb Scherer’s tight play with Storm.
Could my draws have been better? Certainly. But even given that stretch of poor luck, I believe I could have salvaged a 2-1 record in the group which would have given me a better shot of taking a spot in one of the Battle for Byes pods. And before that I was too hesitant to play Sultai Delver, which I think would have been a good choice for my expected field provided I put some work into the Infect matchup, which may have even biased me into being better against Death and Taxes.
All About Modern
My expectation for Modern was that Splinter Twin variants would be the most popular deck, with an expected rise in Jund and Abzan as a result. Given that I did not feel comfortable playing the Abrupt Decay decks and thought Twin would be poorly positioned, I ultimately landed on what I believe to be the next best deck in the format and one I have a fair amount of experience with: Burn.
My list, which you can find here, was once again nothing special. Given my expectation of a field replete with Lightning Bolts, I felt like Wild Nacatl would be poor and went to a more classical list, albeit incorporating the Mutagenic Growths that have become more popular recently into my sideboard. The Deflecting Palms in my sideboard were a nod to Infect and ended up being good in hindsight as several other players also decided to play Burn.
Looking back, I was happy with my decision to play Burn, but things simply did not break my way in the second pod. Going in, I knew Logan Mize and his Abzan Company deck would be a poor matchup, and I kept solid but not excellent hands, but I was unable to mount much offense against his army of walls and Kitchen Finks. This in a matchup where I needed to find Searing Blaze early (I cast zero in two games).
After making quick work of Ali Aintrazi and his Lantern Control deck, a great matchup in the second round, I was live to finish anywhere from first to fourth going in to round 3 against Kevin Jones and U/R Twin. This is a close matchup that requires tight play from both sides to consistently come out on the winning side, and in this instance, I thought I played my best match of the tournament, but Kevin played well to take the match in two very close games.
The first game started with me keeping a great two-land hand with a Monastery Swiftspear and four burn spells, but I drew three lands in my first four draw steps and was left a spell short against his early Bolt for my creature and a turn-6 kill with Dispel back up.
The second game had a less auspicious beginning as I took a quick mulligan. But my six-card hand was solid with a land, a Monastery Swiftspear, a Mutagenic Growth, and three one-mana burn spells. Kevin wisely used his first Lightning Bolt on his own turn, not allowing Mutagenic Growth to do any damage to his life total, and on the final turn of the game, he was at three life against my Atarka’s Command with the lethal Splinter Twin in hand along with a Spell Snare I knew about. However, he only had four lands and was facing down two creatures, so he had to go for it that turn. It all came down to him drawing a land, a draw in which I was a slight favorite. He drew Steam Vents, brought himself to one, and killed me.
I still had a backdoor shot into an elimination match had Logan beat Ali 2-0, but the opposite occurred and my tournament was over. In that moment, the times where you got unlucky certainly stand out, but I knew I had made some costly mistakes in preparation and those mistakes were what made it necessary for me to get a little lucky to come out ahead. When you are well-prepared you can take the negative variance and still succeed—you have some margin to play with. But when you put yourself behind to start, you need to catch up somehow, and I was not fortunate enough to do so.
Even if my deck choices did not work out this time, I am happy that I took a few risks as opposed to last year where I was completely safe. You need to try new things and make mistakes in order to learn and grow as a player.
Across both formats I played, I think a place I can improve going forward is in not biasing myself away from fair decks. I suspected that this year’s field would be more difficult to predict than last year’s, and that certainly was borne out with several surprise decks among those that were more expected. Because of the volatility in the metagame, I looked toward more linear decks that could overcome a less than ideal metagame with power and focus. But looking back I feel that decision could have come from a lack of confidence on my part.
This tournament featured the best players on The SCG Tour® from last year, and it would be tempting to not try to match up with them and instead try to “get luck” with a linear deck they are unprepared for, but if I am ever going to reach my full potential, I need to be confident enough to play against the best in the most difficult matchups. I could have tuned a Sultai Delver or U/R Twin list and played something that was more consistent in both formats, giving me more relevant in-game decisions.
I will certainly be looking over this tournament a lot in the next year, further analyzing it for ways to improve moving forward. I would encourage all of you to do this with yourselves, instead of moving on so quickly to the next tournament. While it is important to forgive yourself your mistakes, it is also important to never forget them lest you make the same mistake again.
After all, if I can turn this failure into a future success, than was it really a mistake, or was it just part of the process?