“Just mulligan the bad hands.” Matt Costa's timeless advice to me a few days before the Grand Prix in Orlando really distills the essence of tight play for me, and I kept repeating it to myself all through the tournament as a way to refocus on the important decisions. Though I eventually fell short against Conley's Black Sun's Zenith and failed to snag a qualification for PT Barcelona, I couldn't be happier with how I spent my last two weeks, playing Magic and hanging out with some of the best people I know in sunny Orlando.
It all started with my decision to attend Austin and Orlando over my winter break, which I knew would be awesome when Matt, Jason Ford, Matt Ferrando, and Greg Jolin were slated to be in my room. You can read about some of our antics, including my humorous phone conversation with a gentleman from tech support named Kirk, in Jason's tournament report. There was no shortage of awkwardness trying to find healthy vegetarian food at IHOP and Denny's, but fortunately, our tireless waiter, who we also christened “Kirk,” made a good faith attempt to make a vegetarian dish after realizing that the Denny's was out of veggie burgers. A 50% tip was definitely in order for this guy, and Jason's praise for the waiter is absolutely deserved.
As for the tournament itself, I was fairly unprepared for Sealed, and after receiving a middling pool, I built an average U/W deck starring two Deranged Assistants, three Rebukes, a Sturmgeist, a Snapcaster Mage, a Silent Departure, and a Feeling of Dread. It sucked to leave the Heretic's Punishment on the sideline, but there were very few playables in other colors, no fixing, and I was barely at 23 playables in U/W as it was. Fortunately, my opponents for the first four rounds either had mana difficulties due to not mulliganing the bad hands, or they flooded, or maybe my deck was better than I thought because I was sitting at 6-0 and on the cusp of playing in day 2.
Then, in round 7, I didn't play around double Ranger's Guile and managed to blunder away a game that I could have won, as well as playing a Rebuke in the third game too conservatively. I was trying to save myself some life, but I didn't need to. I should have just killed my opponent's Elder of Laurels, and I ended up drawing that match in a losing position. That loss didn't exactly tilt me, but I definitely wasn't ready to play the next two rounds, where I made a severe mistake in role assignment in the last round to end up 6-2-1 and out of contention for day 2. Surprisingly, I wasn't extremely upset; rather, I was disappointed in myself for losing focus because of my low expectations coming into a Limited event. I wouldn't say I exactly played loose the whole day, but, to paraphrase Matt Boccio, loose play was definitely in my range at that tournament. At least I was able to salvage the evening with quality Mexican food at Serrano's, which was pretty awesome despite not being Chipotle.
The next day, I decided that I'd play the StarCityGames.com Invitational Qualifier side event with Wolf Run, and I went 6-2, making top 16 and losing to two Forbidden Alchemy decks. My game plan in the matchup was clearly off in some way, as I waffled between playing conservatively and aggressively casting my Titans into open mana, and I kept getting beaten by Elesh Norn. I knew that I was going to need to tighten up for Orlando, but Matt reassured me that we'd be in fine shape after a week of testing and drafting on MTGO. I wasn't as confident as he was, but I was ready to jam a format I knew better, and according to Matt, our hotel was going to be sweet.
“Sweet” might have been an understatement because I was used to chilly Baltimore winter temperatures, and getting to playtest at a poolside bar in sunny seventy-degree weather was just about the best thing ever. The resort even had a Jacuzzi! There was a pseudo-Chipotle restaurant called Lime Mexican Grill within walking distance, and to top it all off, Gerard Fabiano, Matt Boccio, and Reid Duke all showed up the next evening to hang out and playtest. Now, many of you may know Gerard as a commentator on SCGLive, but let me tell you, the man knows how to turn a mundane activity into a ton of fun.
For example, one night, we went to a local bargain and souvenir store, and, being the value-seekers we are, the $1.99 shirt rack beckoned to us. I picked up a shirt, and lo and behold, it had a seashell stamped awkwardly on the lower front half, rendering it fairly goofy and ridiculous looking. Well, as it turned out, this was the case with all of the shirts on the $1.99 rack. Gerard, of course, began picking up various shirts, covering a part of it with his hand, asking, “This shirt looks okay, right? Oh, wait,” and revealing the ridiculous shell or square or otherwise undesirable print somewhere on the shirt. Now, I guess you had to have been there, but this was absolutely hilarious. Everyone joined in the game, and I'm sure it was a sight to see, five young adult men giggling like schoolgirls and holding up shell-printed shirts for one another's amusement. To be fair, those shirts did look hilarious because who would buy a souvenir shirt with a random seashell printed right in the middle of the front side? Well, Gerard and Matt Boccio did, and they seemed quite pleased to rock that unusual style during the week.
Another time, we went to a Walgreen's, and Gerard decided that we would play an impromptu game of secret Santa, with a $3 spending cap, and the best gift would win. Well, it just happened that immediately after we scattered to find gifts for one another, I found a Seinfeld trivia board game that had been discounted from $15 to $5. I knew I was breaking the rule, but I thought that this present was so good that it was worth it. After trying unsuccessfully to bargain down to our $3 spending cap with the cashier, I decided that even though it disqualified me from the competition, someone in our group was getting this Seinfeld game. As it turns out, Reid won the prize, and he actually knows Seinfeld trivia fairly well. How lucky for Reid! I personally won socks that said “I'm too sexy” from one Matt Boccio, which I thought was a great gift. Try this game at home with your friends; it's definitely the best way to kill an hour in a mall or department store.
Anyway, as for that card game thing I'm supposed to write about, we battled Humans and Delver against each other and came to the conclusion that the matchup was fairly even pre-board, and with Mortarpods, Dismembers, and Timely Reinforcements, it was slightly in Humans' favor post-board. The best way Delver was winning was with a turn 1 Delver into turn 2 flip, or a Sword of War and Peace. If their Sword was removed with Revoke Existence or Oblivion Ring, Humans was fine. Also, a Mortarpod on the play does wonders for Humans' ability to win the Spirit token battle. I thought that the Hero of Bladeholds were too clunky against a heavy Vapor Snag deck, so I knew that I'd be cutting them, although Matt disagreed with my logic. He claimed that the matchup slowed down and got grindier post-board, so some board-dominating cards were necessary to break the stalls, but I didn't like the opportunity for huge Vapor Snag blowouts. Going forward, I'd still cut Hero of Bladehold in post-board games, but you can tailor your sideboard plans to whatever fits your play style.
Costa also determined that Humans was fairly favored against the control decks, mainly due to Doomed Traveler and Honor of the Pure. Humans just has so much capacity to grind out a game that many control decks can actually be outgunned going into the mid-late game. It's the same with Delver, but Curse of Death's Hold trumps their game plan more than it trumps ours. For a few runs through the MTGO Gold Queues, he even got to play the delightful game of “take Ben Stark's money” when Matt beat Ben several times in a row playing Humans against U/B Control. Ideally, landing a Doomed Traveler and an Honor of the Pure in the first few turns will set you up nicely to keep them off-balance the whole game. That start will win 80% of your games against any U/B Control deck, just because of the difficulty they have in actually answering a measly Doomed Traveler. Call him the Greg Jennings of Standard because this guy definitely puts the team on his back.
We battled Delver against Wolf Run and Humans against Wolf Run for a while too, and it turns out Humans isn't as behind as one might expect. A Hero of Bladehold on the play actually makes it hard for Wolf Run to win, just like in the old days against Valakut. If you play a Hero, and they then play a Titan, and you have the Oblivion Ring, you will probably win that game. Also, they can always just not draw their Slagstorm, and you can just crush them with a Geist of Saint Traft. Obviously, with its higher concentration of counterspells, Delver is a little better against Wolf Run than Humans, but not by much. They may have more disruption, but they put less pressure on Wolf Run if they don't have a turn 1 Delver, and that gives Wolf Run more time to set up its unbeatable haymakers.
With that knowledge, Matt Costa, Matt Boccio, and I chose to play Humans, while Reid battled with his trusty U/B Control deck, and Gerard brewed up a sweet B/W/G Birthing Pod deck. Here's the list I played, which differed a tiny bit from the Matts' list because of my inclusion of Elite Vanguard for a slightly lower curve.
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 4 Doomed Traveler
- 3 Elite Vanguard
- 2 Fiend Hunter
- 4 Grand Abolisher
- 4 Hero of Bladehold
- 2 Leonin Relic-Warder
- 2 Mirran Crusader
- 3 Geist of Saint Traft
I was fairly pleased with this list, as I had a decent amount of testing playing with and against it, and I got to spend most of Friday at the GP grinding matches against Brian Braun-Duin piloting Delver. The fact that I was losing most of my games to a Sword hook-up, a flurry of Vapor Snags, or a fast Delver flip convinced me that I needed to slim down my curve and prompted me to try the Vanguard. To be honest, he worked exactly as well as you might expect, allowing me to pressure opponents faster at the cost of occasionally being a weak topdeck in the midgame. I was fine having him in the deck, especially considering the good work he did against the various Delver decks I faced throughout the weekend.
Really, the extended playtest session the day before the GP taught me that the expensive cards are just very big targets for Vapor Snag, and you really don't want them in the post-board games. Also, Honor of the Pure and Mortarpod make your Doomed Travelers and Moorland Haunts insane going long, so as long as you keep from getting smacked with a Sword of War and Peace, a Runechanter's Pike, or a Geist of Saint Traft, you will win the post-board grinds with Delver. Vanguard is therefore a precaution so as not to fall behind too far in tempo, although I could see cutting it and putting more cheap removal in the sideboard to pick up his slack in the post-board games.
Though Matt thought I was crazy and that I had gotten the fear because I was running Elite Vanguard, I think it was a defensible choice, and I'd probably do it again, if I had to run the tournament back. Anyway, after a relaxing lunch at Whole Foods during my two byes, I sat down ready to battle.
Round 3 was against U/B Control, and after getting stomped by removal into a Curse of Death's Hold, I had a nice draw on the play in game 2, and in game 3, my opponent kept a two-lander with a Think Twice and a Pristine Talisman. Despite the fact that he almost certainly should keep that hand, he bricked on land, and I punished him severely for his stumble. It sure was nice to start off with a win, and my opponent was quite courteous in defeat.
The next round was against Tempered Steel, and I had a Leonin Relic-Warder game 1 against his clunky six-card hand. I managed to win that one, and after boarding into Dismembers, Mortarpods, Timely Reinforcements, Revoke Existences, and an extra Oblivion Ring, I took game 2 without much fuss. One thing I like about Humans is how good it is against other creature decks, based on its ability to trade and slow the game down, then grind them out with Traveler, Haunt, Mortarpod, and Honor of the Pure.
Round 5 was against a very cool Grixis Tezzeret Metalcraft brew, and unfortunately for my opponent, Tanner, he drew pretty awkwardly, never casting a Tezzeret, and quickly lost both games. After the match, he showed me what his deck was supposed to do, and I was impressed at his ingenuity and his innovation with cards like Mortarpod, Whipflare, and Etched Champion.
Right after this round, Matt, Reid, and I were talking about how we hadn't played against any Delver decks up to that point and how we thought the deck might not be making up as large a percentage of the field as we had predicted. We were about to get a lesson in waiting for a larger sample size before drawing a conclusion, and not a moment too soon! Delver, Delver, and more Delver waited for me in rounds 6, 7, and 9, with only Patrick Chapin providing a break from the monotony. My match against Pat can be found here: http://www.wizards.com/magic/magazine/article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/eventcoverage/gporl12/day1#9
I may have made a mistake or two in my choice of what to counter and how to play out my spells game 1 (why would I protect a 1/1 Champion with Mana Leak, seriously), but I had a nice series of perfect ripostes for Chapin's haymakers and got there game 1. In game 2, Patrick bricked turn after turn after turn, and my Mirran Crusader hit him over and over until he lost.
As for those Delver matches, well, they all start to run together. I do remember telling sMann (Stephen Mann) that he was infamous for tilting off on Magic Online and then him being perfectly polite throughout our match, despite getting pretty bad draws. I guess something about being on Magic Online just brings out the worst in people. :P
Losing to Paulo on-camera sucked, but I had been running pretty good up to that point, so I guess I deserved a match where I mulliganed to five in game 1 and hit a string of about four bricks in a row to let game 2 slip away. Looking back on the footage, I think I played the match fairly well, although there was a debatable attack that I made after two turns of drawing lands that lost my 4/4 Champion at the expense of putting Paulo back down to two life. I don't know how much it mattered, as I could still have drawn the Dismember a turn or two earlier and put the game away, but everything just stalled a turn too long for me to take the game. Ah well, nothing a delicious all-you-can-eat Indian buffet couldn't fix! After pigging out with Max Jacob, Matt Costa, and Dan “Hey, RELAX” Jordan, there was nothing left to do but head back to the hotel room for some much needed rest.
The next day, up bright and early, I found myself battling Delver Round 10, and my plan of grinding out the opponent worked out yet again. We had one good game, if memory serves, where I had a Mortarpod and a Moorland Haunt staving off his Runechanter's Pike and Moorland Haunt, since I could just shoot the attacking token. Eventually, I pulled ahead in this stalled board state, and Honor of the Pure brought home the bacon.
Round 11 was against a Mage-Blade deck without Delver, and I managed to win in the waning turns of Game 3, deep in a time extension, with a topdecked Moorland Haunt to go with my on-board Honor of the Pure to beat his Gideon Jura. It really was an epic, back-and-forth game, and I'm still not sure how well I played it. There's video footage of it out there somewhere, so hopefully I'll get to dissect my play to figure out where I played suboptimally.
Round 12 was against Josh Martinez, a good Floridian player who I always seem to get lucky against when we play on GP day 2's. I topdecked an Oblivion Ring to put him away game 1, and game 2, he had a slow draw that I punished. He ended up losing his win-and-in to Ochoa, but his Jund deck was pretty sweet. It was more midrange than Conley's, and it was playing Thrun, Batterskull, Olivia, and Liliana. Like I said, an awesome pile of cards.
Round 13 was against Illusions again, and while we had one close game, there was another one where I just put my opponent away easily and locked up my top 8 slot. My good friend and “MTGDad” Branch Staton, who had been texting me all day with encouraging support, explained to me that he had expected nothing less and that I had to go win the tournament now. Well, with expectations like that, no pressure, right?
Round 14 I wasn't 100% sure I was in with a scoop and a draw, so I battled, and my opponent beat me in three games after a loose keep in game 3. To be fair, I wasn't playing as hard as I usually do because I was pretty sure I was in already, and my opponent was fighting for his top 8 slot. He ended up getting dream=crushed by Paulo in the final round and getting 9th on tiebreakers after being 12-1-1 going into the final round. Talk about a rough beat!
I, fortunately, was able to draw with Conley, and it turned out I'd be battling him in the top 8. Ugh, this was the matchup I was least confident in. Give me Delver, give me Solar Flare, give me Chapin's deck, but this G/B pile was going to mop the floor with me, and on camera, no less! Well, I gave it my all, and the match is on camera if you're curious, but he had the Grave Titan on the play after curving out perfectly game 1, and my triple Elite Vanguard start game 2 was crushed by Black Sun's Zenith. Just like that, my tournament was over, with no qualification for PT Barcelona to show for it.
So much for being a “rising star,” to use the term the official coverage chose for me. But, of course, there was no better way to get my mind off the disappointing loss than with a delicious vegetarian burrito bowl at the Mexican restaurant to cap off an awesome weekend. And that's how my Magic adventure went; Matt and I headed to the airport early the next morning, said our goodbyes, and went back to our regular, non-Magical lives.
For Matt, he had college starting the next day, but I still get to battle at the Open in DC this weekend! If you're looking for my recommendation on Humans for the Standard Open, I'd certainly consider playing it again, but I kind of want to play Sam Black's Delver Humans deck that he used to top 16 the GP. It's featured here, and it seems like a very streamlined mashup between Humans and Delver that really puts the hurt on other Delver decks with its maindeck Mortarpods.
If you see me at the Open, feel free to say hey, and I'll be back next week with a report from DC!
‘Til then, remember to mulligan the bad hands!
Thanks for reading,