The U.S. National Magic Championships. Some say it is the 6th Pro Tour. Some say it is a glorified Grand Prix. Regardless, it is a prestigious event that brings together the best active players in America to compete for the right to represent America at the World Championships.
I knew going into things that this competition would not be as difficult as an international event, due to the absence of superstars from Japan and Europe. On the other hand, it would be difficult for me, due to the fact that the main portion of the tournament would consist of seven rounds of Limited, as well as seven rounds of Standard. I am at the top of my game in Constructed, these days. However, I still need to get back to a level of Limited play that I am happy with. I don’t play on Magic Online, so I only practice drafting on the local level, and I admit that my game is not as versatile as I would like. Back when I was experiencing success in Limited Pro Tours, there were maybe fifty great drafters on Earth. Now, there are probably 50,000.
My preparation for the Limited portion of this tournament consisted of random drafts from time to time. Nothing special. I don’t really have too much insight to offer here. I like to force Blue, but it is nothing like when I forced Black in Urza’s-Saga-only Rochester draft.
Actually, the Urza’s Rochester Pro Tour in LA was the one where I made a reputation for myself by being known to take Blood Vessel over Arc Lightning. I made it clear to everyone I could that I was forcing Black to the death. If you sat next to me, I would ship you any colors you wanted, as long as you stayed out of my way. I would never hate draft, but if you fought me for Black, I would intentionally switch into your colors, dooming us both if necessary.
Black was so unbelievably good in that format, I could afford to share it with many people, but my reputation for Black over anything led to me averaging 2.5 to 3 people’s worth of Pestilences, Corrupts, Expunges, Befouls, Skirges, etc. This obviously worked out well, and I made Top 8. Unfortunately, that was nine years ago. It is a tougher world out there, these days.
My preparation for the Standard portion was more interesting. I had tested the format a fair amount leading up to Regionals, where I played my Korlash Control deck. Since then, the format has seen the changes brought about by Tenth Edition, as well as from a more evolved metagame as a result of Regionals, incredible amounts of MTGO battles, and the Kentucky Tournament where Gabe Walls and Jerry T. made a splash with their U/G/w Blink deck.
From what I could tell, the major players going into Nationals were R/G (such as Sadin-inspired Red decks with Tarmogoyf), U/G/w Blink decks, Rakdos, Project X, and mid-range decks such as Solar Flare, Angel Fire, Korlash, Pseudo-Pickles decks, and any random combination of three-color Blue decks using mana acceleration and good stuff.
I have maintained that Dredge is not “good” since before Regionals, and it is just silly to play it in a tournament where the Top 8 is played best three out of five. This is not the time for it, although there is so much potential with Goblin Lore. Dragonstorm lost Sleight of Hand and Seething Song, obviously, and while I tried to make it work, I could not find a suitable set of replacements. Grinning Ignus is just not going to cut it.
Originally, I worked on updating Korlash, perhaps going more of a Mishra route like Flores did here, perhaps more traditional like I did here. What I found was that Mishra had trouble with the tempo decks like U/G/w Blink, and that traditional Korlash was hurt greatly by the loss of Persecute (one of the most important cards in the deck... and no, Head games and Agonizing Memories are not suitable replacements), but more so by the change in the field, such as the decline of combo and control and the rise of ultra tempo-oriented decks.
Mark Herberholz and I put our heads together in an intense brainstorming session where we talked about the various major players in Standard, the new changes, and the general feel of the format. Mark’s conclusion was that we should either play R/G if it is just the best, or we should play Mystical Teachings if we can’t make R/G beat the metagame. Mystical Teachings is a fantastic card drawing engine that combines power with consistency. Traditionally, Mystical Teachings decks are very strong against mid-range strategies. If we could find a Mystical Teachings deck that could hang with R/G, we would be money.
Did I mention that Heezy is a genius? His intuition about formats is so strong. He is also a rare breed that is just as comfortable tapping a Stomping Ground for a Kird Ape as he is with tapping a Watery Grave for a Counterspell.
I thought about what he had to say. I knew what he was saying was true, but I did not want to play R/G. Sadin R/G is basically how I would want to play R/G. Where would I get my advantage? Mystical Teachings, on the other hand, is exactly the type of strategy I was looking for.
I started by building an ultra-controlling build that was inspired by the basic strategy that Brian Demars plays in most formats. It is somewhat reminiscent of the Adrian Sullivan Baron strategy that has been experiencing success this Block season. One incarnation can be found here, where I talk about ICE, which was extremely potent, although weak against Stomping Grounds, Dark Confidant, and Time Limits.
I told Flores about my deck, and he promptly dismissed it as exactly the type of deck that always tests well, but in real life conditions suffers hidden problems. Aside from having to deal with time limits, there are also the issues of beatdown decks attacking from unexpected angles and not being able to walk through every play, like you do in playtesting.
I did not give up though. I continued to work on my Teachings deck with Mark and the rest of Team RIW, including up and coming powerhouse DJ Katsner and Vs Superstar Michael Jacob. Eventually, I get a phone call from Flores.
PChapin: What up, Michael J?
MichaelJ: We are playing Teachings.
PChapin: Well, obviously I am playing Teachings. Why are you playing Teachings?
MichaelJ: I talked to Heezy, he says we are playing Teachings.
PChapin: I thought you didn’t like my deck.
MichaelJ: Mark says he is going to make you make it “not bad.”
You see what I’ve gotta put up with?
So, now Flores was on board and things kicked into high gear. I do some brainstorming with Adrian Sullivan, and he convinces me that we need more action in terms of creatures. We also get to talking about Spell Snare.
I get a phone call from Flores. He ships his version of my Teachings deck. His innovation was to add Twisted Abominations, Korlash, a Shapeshifter, and a Brine Elemental, a sort of hybrid of the European Korlash deck with my Teachings deck, with a number of Sullivan influences such as the Pickles Kill. He informs me that this build is amazing, but can’t beat Blink, which we had come to view as one of the most popular (and best) strategies.
There was much talk of just playing Blink ourselves, and Flores had already decided the plan for the grinders was to Blink it up. In his attempts to develop a sideboard to beat Blink, Flores stumbled upon The Greatest Deck That Never Was.
I came to NY on my way to Baltimore. I met up with Michael J. and after we discovered the flaw in our Rain of Gore/Beacon of Immortality plan, we went deep into the tank to find answers to the Blink problem. Flores suggested all sorts of craziness, ranging from Red Akromas and a Blink to Teach for to every combo we could find to exploit their inherent weakness to combinations.
Later, when hanging out with Jon Finkel, we eventually got to the subject of the Blink dilemma, and Jon asked me what the problem actually was. I told him that because everything in our deck costs four, and thus we could only play one card a turn, it wasn’t going to cut it versus Venser, Riftwing, Remand, and Blink. That is when I realized the solution. We need action for two mana, so that we could play a four-drop and a two-drop in the same turn.
What is the best two-drop in the history of Magic? Tarmogoyf. He would also help kill in time and improve the aggro match-ups (in theory). Jon proxied up the Blink deck and I loaded apprentice with my Teachings deck, now featuring both Korlash and Tarmogoyf. After a close fight, I determined the match was close to 50-50 if slightly favorable for Teachings. Keep in mind, this match-up was unwinnable before, so this was an incredible success.
I went to Baltimore, with my strategy all but finalized. My first day there, I met up with Flores, Sadin, and Paul Jordan, as well as my team RIW teammates. I showed my deck to Sadin and he and I worked on the finishing touches, while PJ and Michael J worked the grinders. Paul ended up winning one and was immediately impressed by what Steve and I were going to play (Steve was on board completely at this point).
We go back to talk to Flores to get some advice on anything else we should consider. He had lost a heartbreaker to knock him out of his last grinder, and was not a happy camper. He immediately went to work convincing Steve and Paul to play Blink, instead of my deck, mostly because they both had experience with it, as opposed to my Teachings deck which would require an incredible amount of play, without so much as a game of experience. I think Steve would have stuck with me, but his copy of the deck (Korlash, Tarmogoyf, Shocklands, Damnations... not a cheap deck) was left on top of a car (that went ahead and drove itself away).
I talk to Mark and get some final advice on sideboarding. This is what I play in Standard:
At the last second, Mark gets excited about a U/R/W Blink deck from Italy and jumps ship. Guess I am flying solo.
I will cover my specific matches next week, and cover all fourteen rounds of play, as well as go into the adventures while the tournament was not taking place.
To save you the anxiety of waiting for my results, I finished 10-4, one win out of Top 8. My Constructed record was 6-1 (and maybe I could have won the 1) and my limited record was 4-3 (I definitely punted a game, although to be fair, I was down 1-0 that match).
Some things to look forward to:
1. A $3,000 Mental Magic Money Match.
2. One of my teammates making the National Team.
3. Some “questionable” judging tainting the MSS Championship that should have been won by another Teammate.
4. The worst hotel room I have been in since Clinton was president.
5. Gerard demonstrating why he is widely regarded as a storyteller’s storyteller.
6. I almost got kicked out of the Top 8 of Nationals.
7. I won $2 off Flores (won $3, lost $1).
8. Michael Jacob taught me to board out Korlash against everyone. I even had one opponent accidentally mulligan to seven, causing a double mulligan. After the triple, he decided to run the “don’t play a card strategy” and just concede before I could see what he was playing to give him the edge in the sideboarding. I still boarded out all four Korlash, just bringing in one card for each match-up he might be.
Before I go, I will leave you with my new Standard deck, a good reflection of where I am at based on what I learned from Nationals.
Tune in next week for the tournament itself, as well as all the goings-on involved... and a breakdown of how to sideboard with both Korlash X and Innovator Relic. Later.