The glow from the cigarette lit up his face, and for an instant, his eyes were brimstone.
"I honestly don't think anyone else is as capable with Splinter Twin as I am. The deck is ludicrously good and criminally underplayed because people just don't know what they're doing." My words came out reluctantly, sounding hollow, much in the same way that they had spilled out a hundred times before. But this time, something felt different. I wasn't talking to someone worse than I was. I wasn't trying to convince someone else to play the deck. I was trying to convince myself, but it all just felt wrong. Deceiver Exarch was my crutch. It made my life easy, and I was tired of grinding every game out until the bitter end.
"So you're really good with the deck, right?" Brad Nelson posed the opening question with an air of cleverness, and the words seemed to impregnate the air along with the smoke. I left his question unanswered. What was I supposed to say? "But just ask yourself this: If you had to play against yourself, one side with Splinter Twin, and one side with Caw Blade, which side would you rather be on?"
His words rang in my ears as my alarm buzzed on and off again at 3:30 am. I had booked a last-minute flight through United Airlines to Chicago for the TCGPlayer Invitational, and a groggy Kali awoke beside me, frowning. She wanted to get out of bed about as much as I wanted to lose a match of Magic, but a dutiful wife she is, and my diligent wife drove me to the airport with little complaint. She wished me luck and yawned her farewells, and I watched as she drove back out into the darkness of the morning. I picked up my bags and headed for the gate.
As I arrived at the airport in Chicago, I called my friend Dylan Beck, who had apparently flown up a few days prior to mingle with some of his friends. We had arranged for a pickup when I landed, but he wasn't answering his phone. I started to prepare for the worst, but he sleepily answered the phone on the third try. "I'm sorry, man; I didn't get back until about 3:30 am from the casino."
The words horrified me. I hadn't planned for there to be a casino nearby, and I am notorious for my gambling addiction. It has already caused problems for my marriage, not to mention my pocketbook, but I made a vow to stand strong against temptation, and I didn't budge. Thankfully, Dylan had the good sense to keep me away from anything remotely resembling a poker table.
We called around to a few hotels looking to get a good rate for the night to come, but check in was still hours away. We decided to get some breakfast, chowing down on some parfait from McDonalds, and inquired about an early check-in. Thankfully, we didn't have a problem checking in early, and we set about taking a late-morning nap. It would be better for the both of us to get some sleep, as the first set of grinders being held at the store was sure to be perilous.
As it turns out, I was really tired, but sleep wouldn't come. Doomed to spend the rest of the day grinding on a paltry hour-and-twenty minutes of sleep, I sat up and started to think about what I was going to play.
"Which side would you rather be on?"
When we arrived at the site, the first person I ran into was the always-jovial Jody Keith. The big man from Louisiana has a knack for driving long distances to tournaments. He called out to me upon our arrival and asked if I wanted to battle some games. Jody was not set on any deck as of yet but was definitely leaning towards Ali Aintrazi's UB Control deck from U.S. Nationals, and we sat down to play some games.
I had my trusty Splinter Twin deck at the ready, and we grinded about ten games before I finally got sick of the matchup. I was winning about half the games we played, but was that enough? Every turn felt like a chore. Every card he played was another hoop I had to jump through. It was never easy, and often it wasn't possible to win.
With only about an hour before the grinders began to fire, I found myself at a crossroads. I jokingly asked Craig, a friend of mine and one of Jody's companions from Louisiana, if he had a Caw Blade deck I could borrow to grind with. Turns out, he did, and it was basically LSV's list from Nationals. Since it already had most of the cards I needed, I was able to get into one of the early grinders with a solid-looking list.
During the grinders, I was able to analyze much of what I did and didn't like about the deck and some glaring weaknesses the deck had to certain strategies. For one, Vampires is a deck that can just grind you out with Bloodghast, no matter how many Timely Reinforcements you draw. Additionally, people were coming prepared with cards like Hero of Oxid Ridge and Marsh Casualties, so I figured out that I needed a little more than just a few Dismembers and Into the Roils to slow them down long enough for me to take control of the game.
The day lasted long, and I finally won my second grinder around 11 pm, giving me an extra bye for the main event. However, the most valuable part of the experience was the playtesting. I learned a lot in the matches I had played and found out that I really did love to grind people out with Squadron Hawk. Perhaps it was time to retire Deceiver Exarch, if only for a little while...
I ended up winning another grinder the next day but learned even more about what cards I needed and what cards I didn't. After going 8-2 in grinders with various Caw-Blade lists and talking to some of the better players in the room on the day of the main event, I settled on a list that I liked for the Invitational. Taking my three byes into consideration, I made some small changes, but here is what I ended up playing:
Considering I had three byes, I decided to lower the count of Timely Reinforcements, adding the Phantasmal Image to the deck as a 5th Squadron Hawk of sorts for the mirror, as well as an insane target for Sun Titan recursion.
Overall, Phantasmal Image did some really cool things, but I think you only want him for the mirror. As far as the removal is concerned, I felt like Oblivion Ring helped answer a lot of problems that the deck couldn't answer on its own. Sure, Into the Roil could gain you tempo and remove any permanent from the board temporarily, but that wasn't always enough. Aggro decks would just re-jam whatever threat you bounced and continue with their plan of attack on the next turn.
Playing Caw Blade gives you many more decision trees to follow than most decks in Standard. There are times where some plays seem correct, but ultimately lead to failure for various reasons. Sometimes it is correct to sit back and play defensively, while others you should go for the jugular and play as many threats as possible. Caw-Blade, much like Faeries in formats of old, can swing games in a heartbeat with Gideon Jura and Celestial Colonnade. Sword of Feast and Famine only adds to their woes, allowing you to untap and protect your board from sweepers, as well as cast some strong follow-ups.
While Splinter Twin has been my favorite deck to play in the last few weeks, it just isn't good enough when everyone knows how to beat you, and everyone has the tools to beat you. Dismember alone doesn't do it, but a combination of pressure and disruption is generally the road you need to follow to beat them. It seemed like the field was full of a lot of interesting brews, and everyone was gunning for Splinter Twin and Caw-Blade, but the decks are really hard to hate out. Though Birthing Pod and Valakut can boast solid percentages against Caw-Blade, it takes a pristine pilot on the opposing side of the field to gain any real advantage. But to be fair, the same can be said about any matchup in Magic's history. Solid play is usually rewarded.
The matches I played were pretty standard. I didn't do anything incredibly dazzling, and my opponents all seemed fairly competent, but I felt like my deck definitely gave me an advantage over most of them.
Rounds 1-3: Bye
Round 4: GW Aggro
The first game revolved solely around Emeria Angel. I was able to get aggressive with a Sword of Feast and Famine, all while making blockers that actually traded with most of his threats. Gideon Jura ended up stalling his board long enough for my Emeria Angel, bird tokens, and Celestial Colonnade to finish the job.
The second game had him start on a double mulligan, and leading with a Llanowar Elves. I played a Squadron Hawk on two, while his only other play was a Birds of Paradise. He decided to attack into my Squadron Hawk with his Llanowar Elves, signaling that he had plenty of lands, and I declined to use my Tectonic Edge on his dual lands, saving them for Stirring Wildwood. Luckily, we didn't make it that far, and he conceded after I dropped a Gideon Jura and he showed me a handful of lands.
Somehow, I didn't think the rest of the tournament would be nearly as easy.
Round 5: Mono-Green Control
This matchup was frightening. I saw Gerry Thompson lose with Caw-Blade to this guy in the second round with cards like Acidic Slime, Beast Within, Thrun, and Karn Liberated. A control deck can handle only so much destruction of its mana resources, not to mention threats that are impossible to kill.
The first game, he ramped with Overgrown Battlements and Cultivate, ending in a hard-to-counter Primeval Titan when he had nine mana. I used an Oblivion Ring to take care of it, but his Beast Within gave it back to him, allowing him to fetch out the full four Tectonic Edges to blow me out.
The third and final game, he failed to play a third land but landed two Overgrown Battlements and a Birds of Paradise. Luckily, Day of Judgment bought me an absurd amount of time, and I was able to race him with Emeria Angel, even with his pair of Dungrove Elders bringing the beats (once he recovered and played more Forests).
Round 6: Illusions
This deck was getting all kinds of hype during the tournament. His list was nothing like the list from the StarCityGames.com Open in Richmond this past weekend and featured old favorites like Renegade Doppelganger and new goodies like Phantasmal Dragon. I was not surprised to lose the first game quickly, since he was able to stick a Lord of the Unreal and a Phantasmal Image to copy it, protecting himself from Day of Judgment with Spell Pierce and Mana Leak.
The second game involved me bluffing a Dismember early on, even going so far as to write down a four-point life change on my life-pad, only to scratch it out. His board contained a Lord of the Unreal, and I was positive he also had a Phantasmal Image, but he didn't want it to become a copy of his only other creature in play: Renegade Doppelganger. Instead of continuing the ruse on turn six, I casually played an Oblivion Ring with mana to play for Mana Leak and was able to use Gideon Jura and Squadron Hawk to brick the rest of his team.
He made a bit of a comeback, and I was forced to use Day of Judgment to kill a Phantasmal Dragon, but he drew another, and I needed to topdeck to stay in the game. Luckily, Consecrated Sphinx was delivered off a Preordain, and I was able to take the game from there.
The third game was fairly close, and I punted horrendously to lose. During the middle of the game, I used a Mental Misstep to counter a Preordain, but I paid one mana with only two mana untapped, fearing the two damage might end up being relevant. His Spell Pierce broke the game open, giving him the window to dig for another Phantasmal Image to pair with the one he had in play copying his Lord of the Unreal, and the beats continued to rain down on me after he used Tectonic Edge on my second white source, stranding a pair of Gideon Juras in hand.
Had I paid the two life instead of mana for the Mental Misstep, I'm fairly certain I would have won the game, since people told me that he had put two Islands on the bottom of his deck with Preordain, and his hand was empty besides the Spell Pierce.
Round 7: Matthew "Lombardo" Landstrom with Vampires
Matt is a really nice guy who has an insatiable lust for the bloodsucking tribe. He's won a few StarCityGames.com Standard Opens with the deck and continues to put up good results. But before we go over the match, let's talk about something that happened in the previous round. At the beginning of the tournament, the head judge announced that anyone who turned in a slip marked incorrectly would not be able to change it after the fact. Once you sign the slip, your name might as well be written in blood. The result sticks if it gets entered into the system.
This round, I was supposed to play a Caw-Blade mirror against my friend Colby from Atlanta, but he had marked the slip incorrectly the round before, and Matt was the beneficiary of his mistake. Now, I'm all for making announcements and sticking to them, and I'm sure they had good reason, but the whole incident left a sour taste in my mouth. I don't blame Matt at all, since it was Colby's responsibility to turn in the slip correctly, and the tournament officials made that announcement clear beforehand, but it still sucks, and I felt really bad for him.
Hilariously enough, Matt had actually been my inspiration for adding Oblivion Ring and Journey to Nowhere to my deck. The day before in grinders, he had beaten me to death with Bloodghasts, and I felt like I really needed something permanent to stave off the bloodthirsty horde. They ended up being really good against him, and I luckily drew my Timely Reinforcements in the first game.
The second game he made a mistake, holding a land to "surprise" me with Bloodghast coming back (with haste), but a surprise of my own in Sword of Feast and Famine forced him to discard it, as well as giving me a spot to untap and cast Sun Titan. The large amount of breathing room gave me enough time to find a Timely Reinforcements to lock the game up from a perilously low life total.
Round 8: Michael Lapine with Valakut
This match was frightening, to say the least. The first game was an actual slaughter. He just jammed Oracle of Mul Daya and Primeval Titan until I ran out of answers. My clock wasn't nearly fast enough, and I just died.
The second game I used Azure Mage suited up with a Sword of Feast and Famine to put him under extreme pressure, forcing him to run his ramp spells into my Spell Pierces and Mana Leaks. Emeria Angel gave me enough fliers to kill him, even if he had stuck a Titan on the last turn.
The deciding game was a nail-biter. He had resolved a Primeval Titan, and I used Day of Judgment to kill it. Afterwards, I stuck a Gideon Jura and threatened lethal in a few short turns, but he had two Valakuts and five Mountains in play. He drew a Mountain and played it, sending me from 13 to 7, and passed the turn with no cards in hand. I played out some creatures, attacked him down to within lethal, and passed the turn, crossing my fingers. He drew his card, and scooped.
From this point, I was almost certain I could draw into the Top 8 since I was sitting with the highest tiebreakers of anyone with a single loss. I knew I'd get paired up from how the undefeated matches played out, and I called Kali to tell her the good news. I was finally bringing home a decent paycheck!
Round 9: ID with Phillip Yorren
During this round, I talked with some of the other players locked into Top 8, and everyone was pretty much ready to split $6,500 each and play it out for the glory. Unfortunately, we were told by the head judge and tournament organizer that any split needed to be made amongst ourselves. This caused pretty much everyone to want to play it out, since there were tax issues and trust issues involved. Oh well, at the very least I would end up with $3,000.
Top 8: Phillip Yorren with Grixis Tezzeret
Phillip is a friend from Atlanta who's been battling with Grixis Tezzeret for quite some time, but only recently got back into the serious side of the game at U.S. Nationals, where he started off 6-0-1 until his wheels fell off. He was running pretty good today as well, coming into the Top 8 undefeated. Before the match, we talked about a potential prize split, and we came up with one that we were both quite happy with: the winner would give the loser $1,000. No percentages, just cash.
The first game involved me playing out some Squadron Hawks and playing some disruption with Spell Pierce and Mana Leak. However, when he hit six mana, he was able to Black Sun's Zenith for one and wipe my board, killing all of my Hawks. His Tumble Magnets proved worrisome, keeping my Sword of Feast and Famine from ever doing anything relevant, and his Creeping Tar Pits were my doom when I couldn't draw a single Tectonic Edge.
Game two went much more to plan. I was able to apply ample pressure with Emeria Angel and Squadron Hawk while countering his relevant plays. Contagion Clasp traded with a Squadron Hawk or two, but it didn't matter.
Top 4: Alex Bertoncini with Caw-Blade
Alex and I considered a split, but we decided to just battle it out since Tim Landale didn't want to split in the Top 4 either. No big deal. Just a few thousand dollars on the line. Alex and I agreed to the same split I made earlier with Phillip, where the winner would give the loser $1,000 to soften the blow.
This match was on camera, but it didn't last very long. Early in the game, I tried to bluff Squadron Hawk by tapping my mana, but took it back, "fearing" Mana Leak. I represented a Mana Leak of my own, but had neither. When Alex missed his fifth land drop, he jammed a Sword of Feast and Famine into play. I tried an Into the Roil on his Sword of Feast and Famine, and he used Spell Pierce to snag it, but it just gave me an opening to play Emeria Angel with him tapped out.
I was also able to use Tectonic Edge to send him down to three mana, unable to cast an Emeria Angel of his own, or a Day of Judgment. He played an Oblivion Ring on my Angel, but I used my own Oblivion Ring to bring it back.
Phantasmal Image copied it on the same turn, making quite a few Bird tokens in the process, putting Alex in a topdeck situation. Alex wasn't ever in it after that, and he never had Day of Judgment to clear the board, so Celestial Colonnade swung in with the Emeria Angel and Bird tokens, and we were on to the second game.
This one was almost over by the third turn, when I cast Squadron Hawk and used Spell Pierce on his Mana Leak. Alex didn't have a Hawk of his own, so I was able to roam the skies freely. My plays forced him to tap out one turn, allowing me to resolve a Sun Titan and bringing back a Squadron Hawk. However, he had two Dismembers to kill it, which left him at a precariously low life total. Squadron Hawk and Celestial Colonnade applied enough pressure to force some bad blocks, and a topdecked Dismember from me allowed my Colonnade to get in for the last few points of damage.
Finals against Tim Landale playing Valakut
I offered the split to Tim in the finals, $15,000 each, but he refused once more. Apparently he had a little gamble in him, and the recent destruction of the online poker business had him itching to play. I can't blame him, as the matchup is probably in his favor, but anything can happen, and there was a lot of money at stake. I wished him luck, and we were off.
The first game was a joke, but I almost came back. I battled through three Inferno Titans and luckily dodged Primeval Titan for quite a while. However, his Avenger of Zendikar off the top kept me from bashing him to death with Gideon Jura, and I was only able to get him to one life.
The second game went according to plan, with me landing a Squadron Hawk and Sword of Feast and Famine on the third turn. After that, I was able to beat him to death while making him discard, not to mention untapping my lands to cast even more spells. Only one game to go. One game for $10,000. No big deal.
The deciding game had me on the draw, and Tim played an early Khalni Heart Expedition, with the ability to sacrifice it on the third turn due to a fetchland and an Explore. However, once he cracked his Expedition and went up to six lands, he untapped and jammed a Primeval Titan. I used a Flashfreeze to snag it, but he failed to play a land.
I had a Tectonic Edge in hand and saw my opening. I used Tectonic Edge to kill his Valakut and continued playing Hawks to apply pressure. He was stuck on five lands, and I kept roaring out threats. He peeled... and played a Khalni Heart Expedition, praying for a land to come. But his prayers went unanswered, and he didn't draw another land and instead drew yet another uncastable monster. In a last-ditch effort to untap and stabilize, Tim tried to Nature's Claim his own Khalni Heart Expedition, but I was able to Mana Leak it and end the game on the spot.
As I sat there, dumbfounded, I fumbled my deck back into my backpack and hustled over to the coverage booth. Words escaped my mouth, but I wasn't listening. People were smiling and cheering, but I couldn't see them. All I could see was Brad Nelson, sitting on my balcony with brimstone in his eyes, smoke filling the air. I heard him asking me the question that mattered the most:
"Which side would you rather be on?"
Thanks for reading.
strong sad on MOL