It all started as a joke.
"Making the US National Team is the only way Reid Duke would ever team with me."
As I went deeper and deeper into US Nationals, that joke started to look like it might become reality. After I won my semifinals match to secure my spot on the team, I ran over and hugged Reid. When I sat down across from Oliver Tomajko in the finals, our third teammate, I immediately high-fived him.
Our team was great.
Unreasonably excited to represent USA alongside Reid Duke!!!— Gerry Thompson (@G3RRYT) October 15, 2017
Reid quickly set up a group chat for the three of us, offering up his services. Soon we went to work trying to find a playable configuration for Unified Standard. While this Standard format leaves a lot to be desired, especially in Unified Standard, I truly think Unified Standard could become one of the greatest formats. It's deeply interesting to try to find suitable combinations of decks, and it's more compelling to watch on coverage than always having an Energy deck facing off against a red deck. I hope the format gets more support in team tournaments going forward.
As a good team captain does, Reid also booked us a sweet Airbnb near the site. Before I knew it, the tournament snuck up on me, and it was time to journey to France. I met up with Reid on Monday and we waited for Oliver to show up on Tuesday. In the meantime, Reid Duke did Reid Duke things.
So far, @ReidDuke has perfectly navigated us to bus that is taking us directly to our airbnb (that he booked), bought my bus ticket, and helped a stranger figure out where their hotel is. Best team captain ever.— Gerry Thompson (@G3RRYT) November 27, 2017
Our tentative lineup for Unified Standard wasn't particularly unique. "Ramunap Red, Energy, and a U/W deck" was a common combination and it didn't seem like you could do much to break the format. In hindsight, that might not have been true. Sam "Chiralane" Rolph's U/B Control deck looked sweet, and we didn't explore a combination of Ramunap Red and Mardu Vehicles, but we definitely should have.
As of Tuesday, we liked where we were at, but I really wanted to spend as much time as possible helping the team and tuning my deck so I didn't let the team down. I don't take weeks off from creating content. Sometimes I won't do a video or podcast if it's not convenient due to me being away from my desktop, but I will basically always turn in a (great) article. My due date was looming and I knew we still had a bunch of work to do, so I emailed Danny and told him I couldn't submit something that week.
That's how much I cared about this tournament.
Ramunap Red was what Oliver had been playing lately and he was absolutely killing it online, so we liked that as our baseline. Originally we felt like Temur should be the other deck, but splitting the red cards between the two decks wasn't free. Reid suggested Sultai instead of Temur, which I was apprehensive about due to how poorly the deck seemed to match up against Glorybringer and Chandra, Torch of Defiance. Thankfully that seemed to be overstated. Both Reid and I are capable Energy pilots, but I hadn't been winning too much with Energy decks. Switching to Sultai changed that dramatically.
Of the U/W decks, God-Pharaoh's Gift was by far better than Approach or Drake Haven. Both of those U/W control decks are fine, but Gift seemed like it had a better matchup against the combination of Ramunap Red and Energy, whereas the other two struggled against the former. Originally, I was the one testing the U/W decks, but Reid got ahold of the God-Pharaoh's Gift deck, tuned it to his liking, and started winning with it. I convinced him to add a land (which I did to my deck as well), and we had our decks locked in.
We knew going in that the non-Energy, non-Ramunap Red deck was going to be the weakest deck, but Reid was comfortable with that. As a team, we were happy with Reid having the deck that played a long game.
By Thursday, we were set on our decklists and even had time to spare.
Gather Your Allies
The World Magic Cup is an odd one. It's similar to any three-person team tournament — there's camaraderie and an extra layer of tension where your wins are celebrated more heavily with your friends and your losses cut more deeply than most because you feel like you let down not only your team but, in this case, your entire country.
Each team has a unique dynamic with a compelling storyline. Maybe the teammates know each other, which is common in smaller countries with a more insular Magic community, but sometimes you end up teaming with someone you've never met before. The communication aspect is important and it's difficult to utilize without knowing your teammates well.
I've never represented my country in such a way before, and I don't take that position lightly. Even more than usual, I felt a pressure to conduct myself positively and professionally. Being that version of myself comes easy, even to the point where I don't think about it. That feeling wasn't entirely on my mind during the World Magic Cup, but it did matter to me and I hope I did a good job of it.
In the end, we lost playing for Top 8 in a pretty crazy set of games to Wales.
I went 8-1 with this Sultai list:
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 4 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
- 3 Hostage Taker
- 4 Longtusk Cub
- 4 Rogue Refiner
- 4 Winding Constrictor
- 1 Rishkar, Peema Renegade
- 1 The Scarab God
This list isn't too different from the one Seth Manfield used to win Pro Tour Ixalan, or even the one that Andrew Jessup used to win #SCGDFW.
The main difference is the extra land (my trademark) and the swapping around of the various pieces of interaction. I've written about how to approach how much interaction you want in various matchups and when, but this deck really puts that into practice. Cards like Vraska's Contempt are things you play to solve certain issues, like The Scarab God and Hazoret the Fervent, not because of their efficiency or raw power level. Fatal Push's value varies tremendously based on whether you're on the play or draw.
My justification for adding an extra land was mostly to increase the range of keepable hands, as I found myself mulliganing a ton of hands with one land or none. It also gave me an additional black source, which was nice for casting Fatal Push (and Duress) on Turn 1. With all four Walking Ballistas, flooding out isn't a huge concern.
Rishkar, Peema Renegade didn't perform well and I would have been fine with cutting it entirely. Every opponent is trying to remove your first two-drop, so it's very rare that Rishkar actually provides an early advantage. Instead, it's a card that clogs your hand when things aren't going well, and Sultai doesn't need more of that.
The Scarab God is a card that many people play as a one-of in the deck for late-game situations that Sultai sometimes finds itself in, but I'm not a fan. You don't have enough interaction to necessarily prolong the game that much. Five mana ends up being too much, especially with a mana-intensive ability and a low land count.
I wanted to play a Bristling Hydra or two in the spot of The Scarab God to give me more traction against Temur and Ramunap Red, but my teammates vetoed that idea. Going forward, I would probably make that change regardless.
For the sideboard, I wanted to cover my weakness to the various U/W decks that Sultai has in Game 1. You can run away with the game sometimes, but most of the time you'll end up losing to their sweepers and late-game. The sideboard desperately needed to address that.
Also, since the format was Unified Standard, we figured there would be a tad more randomness, which led to me playing two copies of Appetite for the Unnatural. After playing against U/W Cycling in Round 1 of Standard, I thanked Reid profusely for the suggestion. Past that, they were useless, though.
Essence Scatter is a card that I'd like to have more copies of, mostly because it's situationally great against Ramunap Red and Temur Energy. It's also probably the best card to fight the mirror match. Still, I didn't want to flood on them, so one copy felt right, but I could easily see playing more in the future, especially if Sultai picks up in popularity.
If I were playing in a PPTQ or Grand Prix, I would change my Sultai list slightly, but I'd be happy to play it in any regular tournament. The full Sultai primer will have to wait until Friday, but there is one secret that I'd like to share now because it was a big part of why I was so successful.
I spent a few days and a couple testing sessions against Oliver, trying to get a handle on the Ramunap Red matchup. My online testing was going well and I was basically only losing really close games. I needed some tiny edge to be able to win those games, and it felt like it was because of how I was approaching the matchups, not necessarily with how I was playing.
After a few post-sideboard games, it quickly became clear that Rogue Refiner needed to stay in the deck. The early turns are about gaining traction, and while Rogue Refiner is poor at doing that on its own, since it dies to Shock and doesn't profitably block anything, Sultai needs the velocity and the extra resource to keep things going into the middle stages of the game. Having an extra source of energy is highly relevant against Ramunap Red also.
There are also situations where you'll flood on interaction, but not necessarily the kind you need. Fatal Push is tough to use against three-drops in this deck, and sometimes you have Die Young with very little energy.
I started by trying a playset of Greenbelt Rampagers, planning to play two maindeck and the other two in the sideboard. They were great at holding down the fort early, but would frequently lose to the "go big" sideboard plan of Chandra and Glorybringer. Next, I tried a couple of copies of Bristling Hydra and those were excellent. While I was now much better at stabilizing the early game, I still had the lack of velocity issue, so that's when I started keeping in more Rogue Refiners.
Adding the fourth Walking Ballista back in gave me something great to do on Turn 2 against their best draws and allowed me to save my premium two-drops for Turn 3 alongside a Blossoming Defense. Soon, I was winning the vast majority of the games on the play but was struggling somewhat on the draw. The Greenbelt Rampagers weren't necessary.
My teammates convinced me that with my new plan, The Scarab God might be the sticky combination of threat and answer I wanted from Bristling Hydra, and that ended up being very true. Suddenly, Ramunap Red couldn't play a longer game than I could, and it was very likely that they wouldn't know that. Going long with Rogue Refiners and The Scarab God put me in a fantastic position, especially against their sideboard plan.
This was my final sideboarding plan against Ramunap Red, which I stuck with the entire tournament.
Depending on the play or draw and how my opponent sideboarded, I would often sideboard differently as a result. If they wanted to play a slower game, I could keep in some Glint-Sleeve Siphoners and remove a Fatal Push or two. If they wanted to stay aggressive, I wouldn't lean on the slower cards like Essence Scatter or The Scarab God as much.
My sideboard plan wasn't groundbreaking or anything, but it went against the hive mind and significantly changed how well I did in the matchup.
23 Fun Facts About My Weekend
1: Reid, despite not winning a single match over the course of the weekend that mattered, was a bastion of positivity and encouragement. I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for him to get bad matchups, lose in ridiculous fashion, and feel like he was letting his team down, but he did an incredible job as team captain.
Very few people have a reputation as stellar and pristine as Reid's, and it is well-earned. Occasionally the myth becomes bigger than the man, but that's not the case here. It was an honor and a privilege to represent our country alongside him and it gives me a great sense of pride.
2: While maybe not as godlike as Reid Duke, Oliver Tomajko was an excellent teammate as well. He's a prodigy and was definitely our secret weapon.
Obviously age can be a factor when you're barely seventeen, but he's already more mature than a lot of the 25-year-olds I know in a lot of ways. While I did have to field a few concerned messages from his mom wondering where he was and why he wasn't answering her messages, hanging out with him was a delight.
Throughout the weekend, I had a bunch of deja vu feelings like I was hanging out with Gadiel Szleifer again. The two are remarkably similar. Oliver is capable of great things, even if he is bad at finding dessert in France. I look forward to seeing what's in his future.
3: Joel Larsson tricked Reid into letting him crash at our Airbnb for a night. It was a clever ploy to steal all our chocolate and Standard secrets, and Reid fell for it.
4: My teammates and I have basically the same eating habits, which was a pleasant surprise. Normally, people get sick of eating pizza and grilled meat for every meal, but not these two.
5: We decided that we would endure wearing headphones during feature matches if all they played was Nirvana.
Not having to use any headphones was a fine compromise, though.
6: Reid Duke is the final arbiter of all science. Basically, if Reid doesn't give it his stamp of approval on something, I refuse to believe it's true. Similarly, if Reid told me the earth was flat, I'd have to at least stop to consider it.
7: Reid laid two scathing beats on me over the course of the week, neither of which I'd like to repeat here.
8: If you tell stories about a particular friend, and most of them start or end with you feeling like you need to apologize for your friend or their actions, you probably need better friends.
9: When I felt a headache coming on, Reid had the aspirin bottle. That's teamwork.
10: Niconico always provides the best interviews! I thought I was in for an arm wrestling rematch against Big Show, but they decided to take it easy on us this time and have us draw our answers to their questions on a whiteboard instead. I got to put my artistic talents to use for the first time that weekend, although it wouldn't be the last.
If this whole Magic thing falls through, I think I have a promising career in card alteration in my future.
11: While walking to dinner on Friday night with our bandanas still on, we passed by a convenience store where several people were congregating for whatever reason. One of them saw Reid Duke and yelled out, "Hey, it's Captain America!"
All I could think was, "You're damn right."
12: Nadine replenished my sugar supply and then some over the course of the weekend. Unfortunately, she also used my hood as a trashcan.
13: Poor and/or inefficient communication cost us matches against Germany and Chile. While the only match that ultimately mattered was playing for Top 8 against Wales, it still set a bad precedent for us and could have impacted morale.
14: I asked one of my opponents, "Are you X on Magic Online?"
His jaw dropped. "How did you know that?"
"Well, I currently have a decklist that looks just like yours pulled up on my phone. Maybe you should consider dropping at 4-0 next time."
15: After the Wales team was eliminated in Top 8, they immediately shed their onesies, tossed them on a table, and left the venue.
16: When we were trying to figure out who sits where on our team and why, we joked about Japan having Bizarro Shota, who plays Mono-Red instead of control, except very carefully and methodically. Lo and behold, that's basically what happened! Still, real Shota shined through in the deciding game again Polish superstar Kanister when Shota managed to effectively draw ten cards in a single turn. He just can't turn it off.
17: Oliver Tomajko spent approximately four hours spread over the course of various trips searching for the perfect French dessert. On Sunday night, he finally found it, but deemed it too beautiful to consume immediately. He decided to save it for before his flight, but then left for the airport and forgot about it.
Although Oliver was beyond devastated, at least Ivan Floch and Thomas Hendricks were the ones who paid for the dessert.
18: After we lost to Wales, Oliver was so distraught by the Hostage Taker play and whether or not it was correct that he re-watched the game several times, and eventually fell asleep while watching coverage.
19: Oliver Polak-Rottmann is tangentially responsible for the best and worst thing to ever happen to me. His uncle invented Red Bull.
20: I'd been pestering Andrea Mengucci for the secret to his success for years. He finally told me what it was this weekend, but now I wish I had never asked.
21: For the next World Magic Cup I play in, my true goal is to win the spirit award for the United States. I don't care if we have to cosplay as the Statue of Liberty, Uncle Sam, and a bald eagle. It's going to happen.
22: Knowing what I know now about playing the World Magic Cup, I would pay a lot of money to run the tournament back with the same squad. We had a good chance to win it all and we squandered it.
This fact is significantly less fun than the others.
23: I made more friends in this tournament than in any other. Why the hell did nobody tell me how fun this tournament is?