So for anyone clamoring for my Secret Deck (tm) in the forums last week, sorry to disappoint you but I just played my R/W deck (tuned with the help of Tsuyoshi Fujita and Patrick Sullivan, masters of the Lightning Helix):
Tsuyoshi convinced me to play Umezawa's Jitte main ("Paladin plus Jitte is the best combination in Standard... Too many easy wins..."), and sideboard Pacifism (he actually wanted them main). Overall, I was super happy with this deck, and I thought (and still think) it was the right choice given the information I had.
I estimated (as I have said in every article for the past couple of weeks) that Regionals was going to be "diverse," but I still thought that the top four decks from the PTQ season would matter the most (Vore, Heartbeat, Heezy, and Husk). This deck is ahead against all four, with Heartbeat and Husk being virtual byes in Game 1, Heezy being somewhat stressful but not really in terms of the W/L column, and Vore being the hardest to beat but still favorable. I actually had my worst week in MTGO 8-Mans since winning my first match; I have been off MTGO Standard for a while preparing for the Invitational, and my four tune-up queues were underwhelming at best (with zero tournament wins); I lost in a finals or two to Tron Wildfire (queue foreshadowing), but considered the performances overall to be anomalous, especially as I lost to the same terrible Caryatid/Kokusho deck in two queues... and decided that B/W was still going to be the most common deck (maybe I should be reading Blisterguy). Cue foreshadowing. Ultimately I chose the R/W for a combination of reasons:
1) It's the best deck against the predictable metagame of decks I foresaw.
2) Against a hodgepodge of random opponents - probably with horrendous if expensive mana bases - you can't go wrong with a maximally efficient beatdown deck and a fist full of burn cards. Julian said that his average opponent did four to himself with his lands, and that is like letting us draw two extra cards.
The major structural change from previous incarnations (saving Jitte of course) is -4 Flames of the Blood Hand +4 Seal of Fire (my only nod to Guildpact or Dissension... but I played Masques Block Seals). I decided there weren't going to be any Hierarch decks, given that there were none in the Top 6 or so most popular PTQ decks and that the sexy new color combinations did not have "Loxodon Hierarch" spray painted all over what would or should be the defaults, so I cut Flames. If I expected a lot of Hierarchs I would have either kept Flames or not played this deck at all. Flames was good when I had it, but mostly I was siding it out in MTGO tournaments and I just wanted another one mana card to prevent the virtual mulligan on the draw (two lands but one is a Garrison with no one drop). Generally I found Flames and Hidetsugu's Second Rite to be redundant, and decided that Second Rite would give me Flames-style outs in sideboarded games without requiring a fairly narrow maindeck burn spell.
New York State Champion Julian Levin has a 100% win percentage in tournaments where we play the same deck (Julian beat me in the finals of New York States in the Jushi Blue mirror, the only time this criteria has ever been tested), so we played same 75.
Round 1 - Rogue
I played versus a non-archetype. He had a lot of crazy cards and Karoos and dual lands, but his deck wasn't very focused... easy win for me. Julian lost one of only two games he would lose in the Swiss this round, versus U/G/W control that gained 16 life off three Hierarchs and a Fetters in Game 2, but he pulled it out in the third.
Round 2 - Greater Gifts
Here is the bad beat round.
Game 1 my opponent taps five for Kokusho. I call the judge. We walk through it and he has 10 lands tapped and no cards in hand. His story is that he drew Farseek, tapped two for Farseek (three lands tapped including the Overgrown Tomb he found), Topped Miren post-Farseek in to Kokusho (four), flipped up Kokusho (still four), and tapped six for Kokusho (ten). I say he Topped on upkeep because - whether or not I actually remembered when or how many times exactly he Topped (he definitely tapped Miren for the post-Farseek Top) - I counted five lands getting tapped when he was actually casting it... that I know (but to be "fair," his board was a jumbled mess). Arguing followed by Judge! followed by appeals takes about 20 minutes, and the ruling goes in his favor, which I obviously wasn't happy about. We get three minutes extra time.
Game 2 I blow him out (nothing to see here, etc.).
Game 3 he has no cards in hand, a bunch of lands in play, Yosei with my Pacifism on it, and six life. I have a tapped Garrison, three other tapped lands, two 2/2s tapped, and a hand of 2 Lightning Helix and 2 Char. Too bad we only got three minutes of extra time.
Just as an aside, this highlights the importance of Operations Management. I couldn't do anything about the ruling going the wrong way (for me), but I still could have kept a level head and gotten more than three minutes of time extension. I could make the argument that my average MTGO match takes seven minutes, but the time extension part was at least partially under my control, so while I can complain, it's a screw-up mitigated by my own inaction.
The net: draw bracket, how awful.
Round 3 - Vore
Game 1 I mulligan twice but pull out a close one. Vore is simply the deck you don't want to mulligan twice against, but I had my strategy locked down 100% for this game despite being, and stating that, I was on full-blown tilt... I guess it comes from playtesting with Steve so much. He had the multiple Eye of Nowhere draw, but I had a quick drop and was clocking him every turn until he set up Wildfire (which, thanks to many hours of playtesting, only got three lands), so while he was ahead on the board, he wasn't ahead on cards. By the time it mattered, I was sandbagging land so that I could go for the burn kill. It was actually pretty hairy at the end because when I played my second post-Wildfire land he had a Genju online and I could have run out Kami of Ancient Law but I instead Hammered him. He played a fourth land and the Vore, tapping out, so I ended it with a topdeck into another burn spell (i.e. "whew").
Game 2 I lost somehow. I don't remember. I think I mulliganed twice again but was on the draw and he destroyed all my permanents or something, which is pretty plausible if you think about it.
Game 3 I tried to run this great "these are not the droids you are looking for" sleight of mind, but he refused to comply. He used Threads of Disloyalty on my Hand of Honor, which I answered with a Kami of Ancient Law. He swung, I blocked; prior to damage I sacrificed the Kami on the Threads, which gave me back the Hand. I asked if he had Pyroclasm, at which point he tapped for a sorcery costing R1... But it was Volcanic Hammer instead. The trick would have been great fun, because the Hand's Bushido would have saved it. Oh well. Anyway, I burned him out when he tapped for a second Magnivore. All in all, this game was a little messy. I used a Seal and Lightning Helix on his first 5/5 Vore when I could have used Pacifism and saved five points of burn, but I had 4 Paskins overload anyway, so I guess it doesn't matter; the game only looked close.
Round 4 - Tron Wildfire
I ran two or more mulligans almost every round of this tournament, but this round I was a genius (the "J" is for genius) and kept two straight one-land hands (I had two and three one-drops, respectively). The net net is that I discarded seven times, and was kind of a jackass towards Ben Lundquist when he suggested I should discard again (when I was finally down to seven due to a made land drop), but this loss was probably under my control at least somewhat. I was actually off my game and made some non-mulligan-related mistakes on timing (I could have played a Kami of Ancient Law pre-combat to get back a Jitte that had Confiscate on it in order to gain enough life to live through a single Keiga hit) but it turned out he had Demonfire on top so that mistake was non-relevant. Also it turns out he had Wildfire and no Melokus so I sideboarded wrong (I left in Char, and I should have had a three Pacifism-on-four Dragons set of answers instead of three-drop burn), but ultimately being stuck on one land for forever both games probably meant more to my overall demeanor and colored my play past anything that actually went on in the games. I certainly didn't deserve to win.
Not to ruin the suspense or anything, but my opponent Bruce ended up qualifying, handing Julian his third and fourth game losses in the Round of 8. His play was actually masterful. I think that he beat Julian on this bluff:
Julian mulliganed (he actually mulled both games, in what was rather a disheartening theme for the two of us), and it was the third turn. He had connected with Kami of Ancient Law already and test spelled Isamaru, Hound of Konda. Bruce answered by a tap out for Remand. Now I smelled "swindle" a mile away, and Julian should have played his third land for Jitte, which would demand pre-combat Pyroclasms for each and every single creature until six mana appeared across the table (at least). However Julian mis-read it as a sign of weakness and replayed the Hound... Not only did he waste a mana, but he also lost both his guys. His next 2/2 also ate Pyroclasm, and he didn't find a fourth until after a free turn Tidings.
In Connecticut they have this queer practice of showing you your opponent's deck list (I mentioned this in my PTQ reports, I think), which I think is awful. Julian saw that Bruce only had three Pyroclasms, and that colored his incorrect play. The reason I don't like it, though, is that I always have clever cards in my sideboard (Hidetsugu's Second Rite in this deck), and showing the opponent your deck list really takes the edge away from the best deck designers.
Like I said, I didn't deserve to win this round, and I didn't.
Round 5 - Battle
Game 1 he was on 12 when he tapped five on turn five for the raw dog Battle of Wits. I spent a Lightning Helix and on my turn and swung with two Lions, zero tigers, and two bears to put him to 1. I was like "Man, it looks like ya got me..." and then slow rolled the Kami of Ancient Law. What a jackass I am!
Game 2 he had turn 1 Pithing Needle on Kami of Ancient Law, turn 2 Signet, and turn 3 Ivory Mask, which blanked most of my hand. I swung some (again with the four dudes) and with his back against the wall he ripped Kagemaro, First to Suffer... Unfortunately with only one card in hand and only three or four life [after all that early game action]. I lost two Lions but had two beaters left (and a hand full of zero). So he had maybe 11 outs in more than 200 cards and didn't draw any. One more attack did it, even given the Mask.
Round 6 — U/W Control
I was in the draw jungle for going on four rounds, and despite some close calls against the hated Steam Vents, I hadn't really hit a troublesome White deck yet... It was just a matter of time before one of the decks that could earn itself a time limit draw was thrust upon me. I tested against a similar U/W Control with Sean McKeown and found the matchup dreadful.
Game 1 I mulligan but play an absolutely perfect game to win, one of the few in recent memory. He has only an Adarkar Wastes for White for most of the game, but hits all his drops and plays 2-3 Condemns to slow down the beats. I still have a guy, but as you can see my deck only plays twenty, so the game is going to go in his favor if I give him too much time or I run out of offense and he starts drawing 2-3 cards per turn. My board is just a Kami of Ancient Law, but I peel a Hound of Konda... I think about it a lot, count his hand, graveyard, and removed from game pile (Disrupting Shoal for my Jitte was a prequel to the heartbreaker that was this match), and decide that he has 11 White sources left in his deck (maybe a few more), out of about 46 cards. Even if he has 20 in his deck - which he clearly doesn't - the right play is obvious. By my estimate, 11/46 means that he is less than 25% to draw one (he was definitely representing WW trump... I suspected Wrath of God from his flustered demeanor), and I should run the Delayed Blast Fireblast but quick. The right play was to play the Hound (my last creature) because getting four damage in would be like drawing two cards, and if I hit it that turn, even if he had Wrath the next turn, I would win on one burn spell. He peeled and played a Jushi off the top and I exclaimed "Go math!" A lot of the time people play according to some "feeling" they have, but a lot of the time you can actually just do the math and figure out what the right play is. I am going to be smiling about the quick subtraction and division problem I ran this round for a while, even though I didn't end up winning the match.
Game 2 was the real heartbreaker. Attrition put him on zero cards on my turn, and I had two guys to his one Jushi apprentice (sick). He peeled and passed. I swung and he didn't block, putting him from 14 to 10. He tapped all his Adarkar Wastes (for colorless) to use the Apprentice... and in response, I cast Hidetsugu's Second Rite.
On his turn, he had drawn a Remand.
I hit four mana for once... where is my free win?
He quickly mana burned, blanking my Second Rite, and I proceeded to draw back-to-back Second Rites, eventually losing the game with all of them in my hand while his game improved by net one card per turn. My kingdom for a Char!
Game 3 I mulled yet again but hit all my drops. Unfortunately they were my Castle and either four or all of my Plains. He beat me with basically just a Jushi Apprentice. In the end, I had two Seals, two Helixes, and two Chars in my hand... The Seals and one Helix were in my six-card two-land hand. Like I said, this is a bad matchup... but that first game and the infinitesimal margin by which he won the second game gave me hope... like the Cavs after Game 5 of the Pistons series. Super nice guy, by the way (Chris).
3-2-1 (man, that second round!) took me out of contention, but Julian made Top 8 this round. He lost only two games the entire Swiss with the same 75, the second one being in Round 6. The matchup was Ghost Dad and his opponent played 3 Shining Shoals in Game 2. I heard Julian could have won anyway, but didn't realize how Bathe in Light was going to affect, um, the opponent's White men. Per usual, he won anyway in the lopsided R/W on B/W, smashing his second set of Godless Shrines on the day.
Round 7 — U/G Legends
Game 1 I get the curve draw, and he answers with Kodama of the North Tree. I keep playing guys to keep Kodama home, but he has about 14 or so left. It takes him forever to draw a flyer (just Kira, thank goodness), and I have enough time to play one burn spell per turn around all his Mana Leaks and Remands. This game I really wanted him to get a Jitte, because all his non-North Tree guys were Llanowar Elves or Coiling Oracles, and I could have blocked with Isamaru with Eiganjo Castle in play, and I've never actually run that play (anyway, if he equipped Kira, it would have 'Walked four mana and I could have just Sealed her). It would have made Patrick either angry or happy (or maybe just shrug?)... I'm not sure which
Game 2, and the race is my two 2/2s to his Iwamori. I had to evaluate my hand on his quick 5/5 - which caused the raised eyebrow from him - but it turns out that I had already played my Isamaru on turn 1, so a second one wouldn't be a very good idea. He gets me to 6 and plays Kira with one card left. I swing with both and he doesn't block... Oh God, I think. He sees the kill on the table. I put him on a counter, but he only has two mana, so if it's Voidslime, he's kold. I Lightning Helix the face, and he says, "What am I at? Seven? Take it." He swings. I say "Okay, I'm on two." He's confused, then it dawns... The Helix! Argh!
My bears clean it up the next turn (whew).
Round 8 — B/W Rats with Descendents
One of the main reasons we played R/W is the complete domination of B/W; however, his version is the worst possible B/W configuration for me. The reason is that my deck is very good against B/W because they typically suck versus Protection from Black and I beat them up, prevent them from killing me, and then unload my hand... to the face. They can typically stay in games only via Shining Shoal, and I have Bathe in Light and 8.5 against those cards. However his version is packed with horrendous creatures (Ravenous Rats, Shrieking Grotesque, Plagued Rusalka)... and the nut-high three drops (Paladin en-Vec, but more importantly Descendant of Kiyomaro). He has a lot of discard, including Cry of Contrition with the Haunt combos, and that keeps me from being able to stockpile burn. My deck is basically a cheater deck that skimps on lands and focuses on late flurries, so cheap - if generally low power - discard really puts a crimp in my style.
Game 1 he gets a Descendent and a Jitte. Really, he only needed the Descendent.
Game 2 I get one of my 2/2 Protection from Blacks and a Jitte. He puts me on playing off the top, but I eventually get six or eight counters on the Jitte and give my 2/2 Protection from White with 8.5, and he scoops.
Game 3 he plays the first Jitte. I have one, but I was holding it because I had Manriki-Gusari. Anyway, he plugs 8.5 with the counters, which sucks, and I kill his Jitte with my remaining Kami of Ancient Law and M-G combo, leaving just Jitte in my hand. He tops a Cry of Contrition, which is the worst possible thing to happen. I top a Jitte immediately, which of course demoralizes him, but I don't think I needed it to win because Manriki is basically trump in any of the little creature matchups.
Generally the B/W matchups are favorable, even when the opponent has Descendent/discard apparently. I just brought in Pacifism, which I wouldn't normally against Husk for example, to contain his three-drop White bombs. Descendent is a bigger problem for my deck than Loxodon Hierarch, and Paladin en-Vec is one of his only ways to contain my Paladin en-Vec.
At the end of the Swiss, Julian's record was 6-0-2, and mine was a 5-2-1 (including non-in-game operational bad beat). Despite no qualifications, I can't see many other deck builds challenging our 11-2-3 Swiss performance, especially with my record being at least a wittle bit contested. Even if you don't want to go down the speculative road of my being in a different bracket (I'll whine about it enough for both of us, so don't worry), as a realist, I think that 12-2-2 is a completely fair read on the records... Given the information I had, I would gladly play the same 75 and just pay better attention to the clock. I am not sure if Julian and I were just unlucky on land draws, but I do know that we had more than thirty combined mulligans, and the one round that I explicitly didn't mulligan (Round 4, above), I discarded a million times... but would have had a reasonable chance to win with just a second land (especially in Game 2). Julian suggested adding 1-2 lands, but I'm not sure how the math works on that. It's not just "what do you cut?" but whether your EV goes up or down if you mulligan one fewer time per tournament but have one fewer burn card to draw in every other game.
Our both losing to the same Tron Wildfire was not something I expected, but I at least understand what happened now. In Honolulu, Zoo was a tough matchup for our URzaTron (the version Osyp used to go 8-0, and eventually make Top 8). Zoo wasn't an automatic loss, but the opponent's mana base usually had to help Steam Vents out a little. Usually Zoo blew 'Tron out once, 'Tron won a close game, and the third game was decided by whether or not Zoo's mana base crapped out on it or not. When I developed the R/W, I thought it was just a Zoo with more consistent mana that could smash B/W instead of always losing to B/W. That's not precisely true... My testing was colored by the fact that I focused on the four big decks from the PTQs (Heartbeat, Ghost Husk, Heezy, and Vore), and that Vore (a somewhat favorable matchup) was the Steam Vents deck in that crop. Against Steam Vents, R/W is worse because the Zoo animals all have three toughness. Forget about our dismal mana draws and thousands of mulligans, or even getting Jitte Confiscated (a play Bruce used to take Game 1 against both Julian and myself)... In our matchups, we were beaten by Pyroclasm, a card that is poor against Zoo, but got 2-for-1 against both of us at least once.
Tsuyoshi Fujita, a master, a genius, a good man if ever there was one.
3 minutes. Man! That still stings.
Bonus Section: Budget Boros? Really?
Julian brought up that we were playing a deck that was basically legal at States, when our three-man contingent that played Jushi Blue finished 1, 2, and 8, only losing to each other... And we didn't play the R/W deck then, when there were two fewer sets. Why is R/W so good today? You'll notice that this deck doesn't resemble a Champs era Boros Deck Wins whatsoever. We don't have any lame 1/1 flyers for one that just make Meloku call up a hearty belly laugh, let alone eight of them. We don't have clunky cards like Glorious Anthem that only help you when you have a swarming creature advantage. We have lots of two drops, but they are a totally different creature set than the ones that you would have expected in late October. Conversely, we bothered to - how shall I say this - play four Chars (versus zero Shocks). Ultimately, I thought this deck would give us the biggest edge on the field that we could get, given how diverse it was going to be. If it were the States metagame, with lots of essentially White Weenie mirrors where the other guy has Glorious Anthem and spare lands, I don't think we would have had an edge at all. The other thing is that people hadn't embraced the whole “twelve-plus Ravnica duals per deck” yet, so we would not have been getting the same kind of value on our burn spells that we did on Saturday... In case you were wondering.