What a ride.
This year was a whirlwind of emotions, both inside and outside of Magic. And I'm personally happy that it is almost over. But, as many of you know, the ride isn't over yet. After the fireworks at the
I was out.
After getting 17th on tiebreakers thanks to an abysmal start to my tournament (1-3, thanks Grixis Control), and having Jund carry my broken body across the finish line (8-0, Jund great), I was officially exhausted. Emotionally, I put a lot into this year in terms of tournaments, all with the hope that I'd do well enough at the events to give me enough points to qualify for the Players' Championship. For some, it was easy. A good start to the year meant you didn't necessarily have to grind out points for the last nine months. For me, it was a year-long struggle that ended in defeat.
Except there were two situations where I could still get in…
At first, I thought either Jacob Baugh or Jim Davis winning would open up one more at-large spot for me to grab. I was later informed that Jim Davis winning the Invitational meant second place would get the qualification. Now, all my eggs were in one basket: the man I'd been fighting with tooth and nail for most of Season Three: Jacob Baugh.
I've known Jacob for quite some time now. He's been a regular face on the SCG Tour®, often putting up solid results. It wasn't until the last few months that he started to turn on the heat, and he ultimately ended up flying by me with the huge boost in points from Top 8ing the Invitational. So, at the end of it all, the one person I'd been struggling to keep ahead of for the last three months held my fate in his hands.
So you already know the rest of the story. Now, a new path begins. Preparing for the Players' Championship in the past has been some of the most fun I can remember. Trying to decipher all the information over the last year to determine what people will play in such a small field is not only challenging, it is rewarding when you get it right. For the first Players' Championship, I was on the outside looking in after getting ninth at the Las Vegas Invitational, but I decided right then and there that I would help Brad Nelson win the tournament.
- 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
Fortunately, he knew what decks he wanted to play already and had already submitted decklists. Since his decklists were locked in, we basically had to find the best configurations for him to beat what decks we thought would show up. The deck we thought many would play: W/U Heroic. We started out with the best configuration of Heroic that I could build, accounting for some curveball cards coming from Tom Ross, and got to work. After Brad had won the first set of games 7-3, he thought that was good enough.
Me: Sit back down.
Brad: What? Why?
Me: My draws sucked, that's why. Sit...back...down.
I didn't really understand what was going on at first. I was numb. Missing out on the Players' Championship sent me reeling. I didn't have anything else except this. Brad was an extension of me, and I was going to beat him senseless with Ordeal of Thassa until he knew every single possible outcome.
It took hours of grinding games with W/U Heroic against Sultai Reanimator to figure it out, but it paid off in spades. After getting put into a pod featuring multiple copies of W/U Heroic, Brad ended up demolishing them on his way to Day 2. And for me, that was enough to justify what I had become: a practice dummy. A taunting, relentless, unbreakable practice dummy for Brad to learn everything he needed to know. I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember learning just how good Kiora, the Crashing Wave was against me. I remember losing over and over again. And I remember feeling a sense of pride in those losses, because I was giving Brad what he needed to win.
The next year, I qualified. I got to work with the friends that I had to watch from the sidelines during the previous year's tournament. And I tried to return the favor with Jeskai Black. Unfortunately, we failed as a unit to win the tournament because we realized too late that it would have been better for us to play different decks. And Jim Davis cut us down without mercy.
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 2 Den Protector
- 4 Jaddi Offshoot
- 2 Oblivion Sower
- 2 Dragonlord Atarka
- 4 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
So here we are. The final Players' Championship for the foreseeable future, and I scraped in on my hands and knees. It is a strange feeling to have something given to you that you had no part in winning. So much of my career, so much money and potential glory, all out of my hands and in those of another.
During the drive home on Sunday, I had Brian Braun-Duin tell me exactly what was happening in each of Jacob's matches. I wanted to know every detail. I wanted someone or something to blame if I wasn't going to make it to the Players' Championship. I was clenching onto the steering wheel for dear life. I was a wreck.
When they said that he found an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger from the Aetherworks Marvel in the final game, I started yelling, cheering, almost crying. So much frustration and tension had been building up inside me for months, and it all came rushing out in one loud burst of emotion. It was the happiest I've been in quite some time.
A strange feeling indeed.
After having such a disappointing Standard deck, thanks in part to my stubborn stance against playing “the best deck” as well as my affinity for all things card-draw-y, I was left with one shot at keeping my Players' Championship hopes alive: Modern. And if that isn't a sentence that scares the crap out of you, then you haven't been keeping up with me in Modern over the last two years.
Modern and I have a strange relationship. At times, I'll have a deck that I really like, and usually it is pretty good at interacting with my opponents. Those decks may or may not always contain the card Tarmogoyf.
Let me tell you 'bout my best friend.
But occasionally a card will get banned from the format that changes the texture of the field. Losing Birthing Pod actually hurt Temur Twin because it opened up the format a lot. That meant less sideboard space for matchups that were tough and more decks like Jund and Abzan cropping up.
But I kept trying. And eventually, I got my Modern deck back to where I loved it again, only to have Splinter Twin banned right out from under me. But still, I carried on with Temur, trying out Delver and other variants. But little did I know that I was slowly turning my Temur deck into a worse version of Jund…a version of Jund that didn't play Liliana of the Veil and didn't have removal that could kill Tarmogoyf reliably.
Only after they printed Grim Flayer did I decide to give in and give the deck a real shot in a tournament. It felt like playing Delver, to be honest.
The one difference came with playing discard effects instead of counterspells, but you all probably know just how bad Remand is in a field full of Burn, Infect, Affinity, and a lot of other cheap, linear strategies. It wasn't that hard for me to fall in love with Jund the way I'd fallen so hard for Temur. At their core, they were doing the same things, except Jund just had more powerful cards. Let me tell ya, you haven't lived until you've cast Liliana of the Veil.
Holy crap, is that card good.
The joke is that I'd been beaten by Jund countless times in Modern. I hated it when my opponent would lead with an Inquisition of Kozilek and steal my Snapcaster Mage. That isn't Magic! I should get to play the cards I draw! (Said the guy playing Remand, Spell Snare, Cryptic Command, and the occasional Mana Leak.) And don't even get me started on trying to beat a resolved Liliana of the Veil. It is basically impossible.
“Nice try, soldier.”
So once I realized that Jund wasn't so bad, I started to have fun playing it. Discard is just a much better way to interact with people in Modern. And since people are so caught up in playing decks that don't interact with the opponent, Dark Confidant survives more often than not. Do you know how demoralizing it is for the opponent to draw a card from Dark Confidant? What about two? Or three? Against an opponent looking to beat you before you accrue enough resources to pick them apart, Dark Confidant is the killer.
Well, maybe not so much against Burn, but you get the point.
But even though Grim Flayer is what brought me to Jund in the first place, it didn't take me long to realize how mediocre it actually is in the deck. If you want to turn on delirium, it requires playing some...less than ideal Magic cards. While stuff like Seal of Fire, Nihil Spellbomb, and even Mishra's Bauble is serviceable, they are not all that good. And for the
But while Grim Flayer was in the deck, I didn't exactly love it. In fact, I hated it. It was rarely a 4/4, and I chose to side it out on numerous occasions. The core of the deck is as follows:
Everything else is situational. Removal spells change based on the metagame. Certain creatures are added or cut based on their usefulness. But for me, these twenty cards are set in stone. Everything else is negotiable.
But those other sixteen cards are important. You need a few more threats to close games and a healthy number of removal spells. I'm just never actually sure what those numbers should be. On paper, the above list made sense when I was building it. Grim Flayer was solid, but not good enough to play four copies of. Scavenging Ooze is great against Dredge and other fair decks but seems rather weak against combo decks. Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet? Honestly, I never drew it, but I did sideboard it out in nearly every matchup. When it's good, it's really good, but four mana is a ton.
The sideboard is also a big point of contention, and especially so if Dredge remains a major culprit of the format. But to be frank, I haven't played against Dredge in the last two tournaments. I've gone roughly twenty or more matches without playing against it, and in those twenty matches Leyline of the Void was rotting in my sideboard. Cards like Anger of the Gods are more flexible. Even something like Grafdigger's Cage or Nihil Spellbomb could have helped me out against Collected Company and Snapcaster Mage, both of which I played against a number of times.
There is danger to playing “gotcha” sideboard cards in Modern. Shatterstorm and Leyline of the Void and their ilk are less flexible than Ancient Grudge and Nihil Spellbomb. Everything has a price. It just depends on whether or not you're willing to pay that price. With the recent uptick in Dredge in Modern, I thought it was worth it to play Leyline of the Void instead of those more flexible options, and especially so when they're likely already bringing in Abrupt Decay to fight Scavenging Ooze.
Suffice it to say that I honestly have no idea what I'm doing when building Jund. Everything is theorycrafting, but that's the part of Modern that I love most. So much goes into building the “perfect” maindeck and sideboard. There is nothing I love more than tinkering for an hour or two on three sideboard slots, trying to find the best configuration to fit all the pieces together. For me, building decks like Jund or Temur revolves around playing to your strengths. I know that if I give myself the tools to win, I can come up with a creative configuration to get the job done. And having the ability to play all those tools given your deck of choice and color configuration is what draws me to these midrange Tarmogoyf decks.
I like to play Magic. I don't like sitting across from an opponent and casting Gitaxian Probe and seeing there's no way I can possibly win. That's the feeling I get when I play Infect. That's the feeling I get when I play any combo deck that falters against hyper-interaction. And that's why I'm starting to love Jund.
And did I mention that Liliana of the Veil is messed up?
As for the Standard portion of the Invitational, I did what I always do: self-sabotage. At the time, I thought I was building a deck that could beat Aetherworks Marvel while still having a good game against both B/G Delirium and W/U Flash. But instead of choosing two of those three to try and beat, I chose to be mediocre against all three. And it really showed in my results: 3-4-1. While I defeated one each of B/G Delirium and W/U Flash during the tournament, I also lost to one each and had an unintentional draw with B/G Delirium. As many of you know, it is rare that I get a draw, and it bugs me to no end that I've gotten two unintentional draws this year.
I tend to play pretty fast (and loose).
While my results were mediocre against the top decks in the format, I also didn't give myself the necessary tools to beat the rest of the field, losing to both G/R Energy Aggro (thanks, Bristling Hydra and Shaun McLaren) and W/R Vehicles.
I definitely punted some of the games I lost, but the deck wasn't nearly powerful enough to justify the complexity. In almost all of the matches I won, there was no room for error. Some might say that is what makes a deck great, but I say that any deck without a margin for error needs to be the undisputed best deck in the format...by a lot. Playing on razor-thin margins with medium-strength strategies is definitely within my range (Jeskai Black), but this just doesn't feel like the time for that.
- Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is format-defining and leads to a lot of free wins.
- Ishkanah, Grafwidow fits into nearly every green deck and buys you enough time to find a better win condition.
- Aetherworks Marvel rewards you for building your deck to hit consistently and salvage when you “miss."
Grixis Control doesn't do any of that. If your opponent sneaks a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar onto the battlefield when your shields are down, you're dead. If your opponent resolves Emrakul, the Promised End or you even have the ability resolve, you're dead. If your opponent casts three creatures on the first two turns and you haven't drawn a sweeper, you're dead. So what makes me want to play Grixis Control?
Consciously, I thought it would be a good choice. Counterspells are great when everyone is midrange, and W/R Vehicles was definitely on the downswing. Subconsciously, I think I wanted something to blame that wasn't myself if I was going to miss out on the Players' Championship. Once the tournament started and I lost three of my first four matches in Standard, my self-fulfilling prophecy was coming true. But somehow, some way, I dug deep and didn't give up.
Even after going 4-0 in the first Modern portion, I knew that the second day wouldn't be easy. I had no real dream of winning the tournament, as I didn't think it was possible for my Grixis deck to win four matches in a row. But I knew that if I could scrape out a 3-1, I'd have a shot at the Players' Championship. If I could just make it out alive into the Modern portion, trusty old Jund could carry me home. When I walked out of Standard with a 2-1-1, drawing a game that I could have won given just a few more minutes of time, I wasn't thrilled but I wasn't dead yet. I figured that a few people at 11-4-1 could make Top 16, so why not me?
After Caleb Scherer got enough points to keep me out of the Players' Championship and my inevitable seventeenth-place finish, I honestly didn't think I deserved to go. I chose a deck that, given a clear head, I would rather have taken a 4-4 record instead.
And for that reason alone, I hated myself.
I did the same thing with a full scholarship. I did the same thing with job opportunities in the past. I've done it at Pro Tours. Deep down I don't think I deserve happiness, so some part of me convinces myself that doing this disastrous, stupid thing is right. In fact, not doing it would be an injustice.
But no more. I will play the best deck. I will stop listening to that part of me that says “screw it, just do what you want.” I'm going to make the hard decisions to give myself the best possible chance of success. Not just for me, but for my wife, and for those around me who care about me. I'm sick of throwing it all away because I'm stubborn, or sad, or just unable to see the big picture. I have people who are willing to help me, and I'm going to start trusting them. Otherwise, what's the point?
Wish me luck, world. I'm going in.