I won the PTQ at Neutral Ground - New York last weekend. It's not really that interesting of a story. I actually played pretty badly yet felt like I should have won every match on the day. Weird, huh? The secret, if you can call it that, was that the deck that I built and tuned was so effective for the metagame. I got the initial idea for the deck from some previously qualifying players, but made some key changes to shore up the difficult beatdown matchups and also landslide the favorable control ones.
I saw vestigial versions of U/G Control and Mono-Blue Control via the Top 8 lists from MagicTheGathering.com and started working from them. While I liked the machinery behind both decks, certain lists had awful cards in them that for some reason stuck around for the remainder of the season. Case in point: Sakura-Tribe Scout. This card is worse than Elvish Pioneer! The best thing I've ever heard about Sakura-Tribe Scout is that - if you draw a particular three-card combination and sufficient mana in your opening hand, mind you - you can play a third turn Kodama of the North Tree or Meloku the Clouded Mirror. I mean that's nice, but it's not exactly consistent. If you don't have Meloku or one of the hyper-aggressive draws, Sakura-Tribe Scout is basically a Llanowar Elf that works 1/3 of the time and doesn't help you very much against Hokori. Overwhelming Intellect is a card that Pat Chapin had me putting in decks from the beginning but was just too greedy to be good. It was consistently in my hand when I lost to White Weenie in testing in the early going and didn't make it to the transition I talked about last week.
Basically I practiced on Apprentice for about three weeks before I started playing on Magic Online. After I got MODO, I played Block almost every night and never lost a single match with my deck (no lies). I lost some game ones and got disconnected twice but I never actually dropped a three game match, which, even just in the Casual Play room, was very helpful in cementing my deck decision for the PTQ. Here's the version I was testing on both virtual interfaces, more or less:
My design philosophy in general is when you play a deck like this, you want to play for maximum redundancy. This is the Trix of the format: you have the best late game of any deck and the counters to stop Gifts Ungiven; you only lose when your draw is inconsistent... so minimize those inconsistent draws. If you are losing to Black Hand or White Weenie primarily when you are on the wrong end of Umezawa's Jitte advantage, the answer can’t be to play only three Jittes like some lists. I found Hisoka's Defiance to be so insane in every matchup it seemed foolhardy not to run all four main.
The weirdest card in the deck, and the most impressive innovation if I do say so myself, is Gnarled Mass. The U/G deck is not particularly sound against either White Weenie or Black Hand fundamentally. Both of those opposing decks has better early game drops, and can retain enough tempo either via evasion or mid-game spiritcraft to beat the U/G deck's bombs if it hasn't stabilized. Therefore the goal has to be to take that early game tempo away. Gnarled Mass is basically better than every drop in either Black Hand or White Weenie; Black Hand is happy to play essentially the same cards as Gnarled Mass (but infinitely worse versions), while White Weenie has 2/2 creatures at one-, two-, three-, and four-drops... Surely a 3/3 creature for three is going to be good against them, even if all it is doing is containing a Bushido two-drop. Gnarled Mass is actually great in every matchup and I wish I played more main.
I also chose to play two Wear Aways instead of the three Rending Vines I had in the earliest version of the deck. Basically I dislike having defensive cards in an aggressive deck at all; I would never sideboard in Wear Away against a deck just to fight for Jitte advantage. Case in point: I played against a White Weenie who brought in Terashi's Grasp and died with two copies in his hand. The reason I picked Wear Away is that there are some weird cards like Honden of Seeing Winds that cost a lot of mana... I just can't ensure that I can Rending Vines some of those cards. Moreover, should I have to play against a weird deck like Enduring Ideal, Wear Away would let me break every late-game Kodama's Reach and even Consuming Vortex to out-last the enchantments going long.
Prior to the tournament, Josh Ravitz pointed out that Isao, Enlightened Bushi at the same drop as Gnarled Mass can successfully fight Kodama. If all I really want to do is trade in the early game, Isao is just as good (you just can't be too attached to keeping your men alive). Isao is infinitely worse when you're on the wrong end of a Jitte fight, but he's so much better with Threads of Disloyalty after boards that the change just had to be made (you get to steal and regenerate the other guy's Hand of Cruelty or Samurai of the Pale Curtain in case you didn't figure that out).
At the actual tournament, I changed the deck a little bit.
- 4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
- 1 Isao, Enlightened Bushi
- 4 Keiga, the Tide Star
- 4 Kodama of the North Tree
- 4 Meloku the Clouded Mirror
Sean McKeown suggested the name change AT the PTQ and I thought his was cooler than "Gas Mass," so I'm keeping Sean's name here.
Before the PTQ (and the Grand Prix), Josh played Gas Mass in a MODO 8-man and lost to Deck-X in the finals. I figured I wanted a little more oomph against Hokori, Dust Drinker, and added Consuming Vortex. I was only siding Minamo's Meddling in against Gifts Ungiven, a matchup I was never losing, so I figured I had a little percentage to give. This turned out right because the lone remaining Minamo's Meddling ended up the only card I never sided during the tournament. Somehow, some way, I won a PTQ having never faced Gifts Ungiven, the most popular deck and the best deck in the format... which also happens to be my best matchup. So much for the rogue choice in the established metagame.
I tested almost exclusively against Gifts Ungiven and White Weenie on Apprentice (with a little Black Hand thrown in). I figured they were the extremes of the metagame and the two best decks to boot. Once I starated testing on MODO, I played against a greater variety of decks... if you count Mono-Blue control every night.
This matchup is pretty much a bye. In game one you get any clock with Umezawa's Jitte or any Legend and you pretty much win from there. With your Tops you have much more control than Gifts can hope for because you have eight counters starting and they have precious few threats. I experimented with a variety of strategies, including letting Gifts Ungiven resolve, burying all the reanimation cards, and just countering the Hana Kami; it didn't matter what I did. I always won. If you counter Kodama's Reach with Hisoka's Defiance or simply stop Gifts Ungiven itself from resolving, that can be pretty effective, but you want to make sure you can prevent recursion late game because your primary threats are better than Gifts Ungiven's late game as long as they aren't going off.
I usually sided out 1 Keiga, 1 Gnarled Mass, and all the Jittes for Jushi Apprentice and Minamo's Meddling, but with only one Meddling in the Critical Mass version, I think I'd leave Isao (the Mass proxy). Steve Sadin actually sided in his extra Masses in this matchup, saying that they were better than Keiga. I'm not sure if he's right or not because if you win no matter what you do, it's really difficult to figure out the optimal sideboard strategy.
Incidentally, I actually can't imagine why other U/G players didn't figure out Jushi Apprentice... It's just too much for Gifts Ungiven or any other slow deck (Maga, Mono-Blue, etc. etc.). With Jushi Apprentice down, you basically have all the advantages of Mono-Blue Control... but much better mana and threat development.
This matchup might favor White Weenie slightly in Game One, but it depends on if they have Hokori. If they don't, they aren't going to win. If they do, it's a shootout. Game One is an attrition fight which revolves around your stabilizing the early game and then advancing to one of your bomb five-drops. Kodama of the North Tree is very good against White Weenie and Meloku is usually game over for them (though Jitte advantage, a Dust Drinker, or your having a tiny lift total can change this).
Sideboarded games are all about Hokori. If they don't have Hokori, they will win either because you are manascrewed or you block wrong. There is no way White Weenie should win against four Threads of Disloyalty and multiple Gnarled Masses unless you screw up. Incidentally, my only loss of the tournament was to White Weenie (when I was up a game); I pulled a Brian Davis and scored a 3-0 loss, basically blocking an Isamaru over a Pale Curtain with my Kodama once (which allowed him to play a second Isamaru to set up perfect lethal damage two turns later), and not realizing that he could pump two different creatures with his Jitte once. Holy two mana, Batman! Both of my losses involved over-committing with Meloku by exactly one Illusion when I should have won otherwise.
I mixed up my sideboarding strategy a lot based on the opponent's specific configuration, sometimes bringing in both Wear Aways if I saw Promise of Bunrei and tons of equipment. The main swap was 2 Sensei's Divining Tops, 2 Kodama's Reaches, and all the Hinders for 2 Consuming Vortexes, 4 Threads of Disloyalty, and 2 Gnarled Masses. I also sometimes shaved Kodama of the North Tree and up to all four Keigas. If I were on the play I'd be more likely to leave in Kodama's Reach, and if I knew I were playing against Pithing Needle, I would be most likely to cut the two Tops.
This is basically White Weenie but without Hokori. I was leaving Hisoka's Defiance in a lot because of Sink Into Takenuma, but permission isn't really that great unless they have a slow opening draw. Usually Black Hand will only beat you with Fear or Jitte advantage. All your cards are simply better than all of theirs. After boards they have no Blessed Breath, Kami of Ancient Law, or Otherworldly Journey to match your Threads of Disloyalty, which means that if you take a Hand of Cruelty, you turn off all their usually dangerous Nezumi Cutthroats unless they are willing to go two or even three cards down with a removal spell.
My Top 4 matchup against Black Hand was actually my most exciting match of the day. I won the first game easily; the second game I had a Threads of Disloyalty on the draw and a couple of Tendo Ice Bridges... and lost without ever seeing an Island. In the third game I went to six and had only an Umezawa's Jitte for action. My opponent Tim Gilliam worked me with Manriki-Gusari so I basically started two cards down on the play (nice odds). I had Sakura-Tribe Elder into Meloku; he killed it and smashed me with Ink-Eyes, stealing my Meloku. It looked pretty bad for me, but I ran out Keiga and Isao, which slowed him down. I deuced Meloku with my own, and Tim came across with an Ogre Marauder with two Manriki-Gusaris, playing sundry additional weenies of the two power for two mana variety. I just sacrificed my Isao and traded with Keiga, stealing his Ink-Eyes. The top of my deck let me Threads a Hand of Cruelty so the big, bad, Rat Ninja came back at his master, and traded for two more weenies. All of a sudden it was my Hand and a newly-cast Kodama against nothing, and Tim made all his lands go away with enough mana to attach a Manriki-Gusari. He had exactly enough damage to race me in two turns... but the top of my deck gave me Consuming Vortex on the last possible turn and that was all she wrote for Urami's last gasp... Who needs Top when you can rip like that?
Probably the matchup I tested most once MODO became part of the equation, Mono-Blue may be the easiest matchup in the metagame. In Game One, you can lose if the opponent gets Jushi Apprentice online before you have anything, but that's about the only way they can win. I won online a lot with just a Gnarled Mass or even Sakura-Tribe Elder, never casting anything out of my hand, never missing a land drop due to the Top, until my opponent had to commit with a five- or six-drop. Then I'd just counter and play my real bomb, generally with counter backup. There's not really much Mono-Blue can do once a real threat deck has a Legend online, even less when facing another counter deck.
Even though Jitte is actually quite saucy against Mono-Blue because all its creatures are pathetic in size, I pull it out and shave some Legends for +4 Jushi Apprentice, +4 Threads of Disloyalty. Usually the Mono-Blue player loses Game One with Threads of Disloyalty in his hand and sides his out, meaning you cream him with massive Jushi Apprentice advantage. You have Jushis he can't answer whereas with Threads in your deck, you take away his only real way to win (early game Jushi advantage). In sideboarded games, U/G is basically the exact same deck as Mono-Blue... except you have twice as much mana and better threats. This is anything but a fair fight, espeicially as you have Sensei's Divining Top in addition to Jushi Apprentice for selection and they just have the kindness of the topdeck.
I actually got in arguments with BDM and Becker about this matchup last week. They were under the impression that Mono-Red has a chance. Basically Mono-Red has no chance if you play right. They can start damaging you seriously around turn 3; you are about a turn behind in that department, but can match or best them on damage with basically any clock. The difference is that, without Pulse of the Forge, they can't keep up with actual creatures. They run out of cards while you keep damaging with the same cards. That means that when they go for the endgame flourish... you show them the counters and they are left with no cards in hand.
After boards, when you have Gnarled Mass in, your clock speeds up by a turn or two. Moreover their removal isn't actually very good against Gnarled Mass; either they blow Yamabushi's Flame or go one-for-two... whereas you keep advancing your mana.
In the PTQ I elected to take a five point Gaze of Adamaro when I could have just countered it because I was pretty sure that my three cards could beat his four cards when I was on 15; my subsequent Keigas, North Tree, and Defiance were right. In Game Two, I went to five against a curve of Genju of the Spires, Ishi-Ishi, and Zo-Zu and won with 10 life to spare.
Jitte is of course terrible for them in any game.
In case you are wondering, this is how my actual PTQ went:
1: White Weenie
Won the first, screwed up the second, screwed up the third. Good man and fellow borrower of Tony Tsai's cards, he made Top 4.
2: White Weenie
2-0, don't remember any details.
3: Black Hand
Game One he shredded me with 2/1 Fear Rats. Games Two and Three his team were all working for michaelj care of Threads of Disloyalty.
4: Mono-Blue Control
Game One he actually made an error to give it to me when he was up maybe 20 cards with Azami and all the Jushis in the world. He was on 2 facing my North Tree. He was discarding extra cards every turn but I had a pair of counters myself. After a long time, he brought with Keiga and I went to 15. He attempted to untap his Dragon, not noticing that I had Minamo in play since the early game, and hence couldn't run that play. He drew five, didn't like what he saw, and I won. Game Two I just had Jushi advantage, per the plan.
Won the first; won the second on five cards. I greatly admire any Mono-Red players in this format. The existence of Jitte and the lack of Pulse of the Forge or any serious racing burn keeps even loyal Mountain tappers like myself from the deck.
6: White Weenie
I won 2-0. In Game Two, I kept triple Defiance, Jitte, and three lands, assuming I would draw into something. I figured you only lose to White Weenie when they have Jitte advantage or multiple Dust Drinkers and I had the optimal draw for dealing with that. I drew into Meloku and a Top and that was all she wrote.
Top 8: Black Hand
I made an embarrassing attack in Game One to let him have it. I won Game Two with Threads of Disloyalty, and ripped Umezawa's Jitte on the last possible turn to keep from getting Nezumi'd out of the Top 8 in Game Three. How lucky.
Top 4: Black Hand
See the above "losing my Meloku to Ink-Eyes" story. Very lucky topdecks in Game Three to win another close one.
Finals: Black Hand
The split was a very good one for me, so I have the Blue Envelope. We'll see how that goes.
Anyway, I hope this will help those few of you who still have PTQs or are heading to Mexico City. I really think that Critical Mass is the best in the format; its only bad matchup is Deck-X, which I never played, and I actually think that with Consuming Vortex, the matchup can't quite so bad any longer.
Good luck and have fun,