If you've paid any attention at all to the title, you already know I spent my time at Grand Prix Strasbourg counting to ten a lot. The result is a tale of terrible plays, miserable defeat, and a shining beacon (or should that be a dark pillar given my deck choice?) to reverse my fortunes in the end. But let's start at the beginning.
I arrived in Strasbourg early and met up with my hotel benefactors (thanks Kai and Joni!) in front of the site to get rid of my traveling gear before hitting the grinders. I wanted to begin by playing my own version of Tin Fins, a list that looked utterly ridiculous to me but hadn't been battled-tested yet. Take a peek:
This deck is the result of me realizing that Tin Fins' combo has a lot of similarities to the old Flash decks, and I modeled the list after those (amusingly enough, another Berlin player had the same idea and came to a nearly identical list independently). However, a grinder and an eight-man later, I had only three and a half words: Don't play this!
Sadly, it turns out that something looking sweet isn't the same thing as it actually playing out that way. The deck proved far too inconsistent and susceptible to hate to be anywhere near the level of raw power the old Flash lists had. I guess I should have believed the good guys on mtgthesource—blue disruption simply doesn't work in Tin Fins.
With the last hurdle out of the way, I knew what I would be playing on Saturday. After all, if I'm limiting myself to only discard as protection, I might as well play the deck that is very consistent and a lot more fun to play, right?
I unfortunately didn't manage to win our Berlin GPT this time—three times in a row would have been admittedly a bit abusive—so I knew I'd have to play the full nine rounds going in. That in itself eliminated U/W Miracles as a choice for me even though I have a sweet new list—more on that another time—because I really didn't feel like getting draws, especially against the less experienced and therefore slower players during the early rounds. That left me with my favorite broken deck in the format: Cabal ANT. Here's what I registered:
As far as the slightly unusual choices are concerned, the third Underground Sea instead of the second Island is a result of my conservative fetching. I generally try to get a basic Island into play as soon as possible, which resulted in me having trouble finding the black mana I needed too often. I run Sea over Gemstone Mine because I think Gemstone is just a terrible card in this deck. I often sit around for a while cantripping, and you never ever want to kill your own lands while you're setting up. The more lands you have in play, the easier it is to play through all kinds of taxing shenanigans.
The Grim Tutor is probably the worst card in the deck, but I feel you need another business spell to consistently hit one of them early enough to race aggressive decks, which the all-out cantrip list hasn't been doing for me.
In the sideboard, Sensei's Divining Top is the best option against Jund's heavy discard I've found so far—Ignorant Bliss costing two makes it useless on the draw—because just dropping your artifact mana into play while digging for business with Top generally results in them being unable to do anything about you winning.
Surgical Extraction was a concession to Reanimator and Tin Fins, two decks that are actually faster than you are and too resilient to just beat with discard, not to mention it has other applications as additional interaction if the Storm mirror comes up.
As far as the Xantid Swarms are concerned, they're a reaction to the Griselbrand decks and especially Sneak and Show having Leyline of Sanctity. You essentially can't beat a Force of Will that's protected by Leyline, so a way to just sidestep all those annoyances is much appreciated. It also has the nice side benefit of shutting of Miracles' annoying "float a Force with Sensei's Top" plan.
Now that you're up to speed on what I played, let's get to how things went, shall we? Sorry to all my opponents, but I didn't take any notes so I don't remember any names and some details are hazy. I might even be mixing up the order of the rounds, though not by much. For what it's worth, the truly interesting situations are seared into my brain, though. Pain and pleasure have some utility, I guess. Enough babbling. Ready? Let's go!
Round 1: Aggro Loam
His keep seemed somewhat sketchy, but I guessed my trusty Angel token had claimed its first victim already. You see, I used an Angel as a deck/sideboard divider for the tournament and made sure an opponent sneaky enough to look for information would be able to see it before I started shuffling up.
He died soon after, but not before revealing a cycling land and a Loam to let me know what I was up against.
From his game 1 hand I expected more of a Loam-Jund hybrid than a true Aggro Loam deck and decided to only board in the Tops to hedge against discard. The deck can win through Chalice on one, especially if I get a Top down first, and even if I lost this game, I still had the third to pull it out.
Obviously, he started off with double Mox Diamond, Wasteland, and Chalice on one. I looked at my hand of lands, a cantrip, a Top, and a Cabal Ritual but figured that at least I'd have time—he had one card left.
I played my first Ponder, and he gave me a shrugged ok, though when I moved my hand towards the deck he pointed to his Chalice. I also shrugged and agreed that he didn't actually miss his Chalice trigger. I played my one-drops into the Chalice anyway to build threshold and over the course of the next four or five turns drew LED and Grim Tutor so I could go ahead and win already. When I killed him, he showed me that he had drawn two Thoughtseizes and an REB—thanks for playing that Chalice!
Round 2: Four-Color Cascade
He didn't interact with me so he died rapidly.
A key Hymn to Tourach off a Shardless Agent hit an Infernal Tutor, which then got topdeck Surgical Extracted in response to a Ritual when I was finally through with finding discard for his Mindbreak Trap, ripping my other tutor out of my hand. I didn't recover in time.
I Duressed him on turn 1, and he had two Mindbreak Traps and a Brainstorm but not much else. I took the Brainstorm and set to sculpting with my cantrips while he wasn't doing much of anything. When I finally found more discard to get rid of the Traps, the game ended.
Round 3: Sneak and Show
My opponent started with an Island, and my turn 1 Gitaxian Probe let me know he was playing Sneak and Show. In my experience, this is a really good matchup for Storm pre-board, but that assumes a somewhat less nutty hand on their side of the table. Here's what I saw:
Unsurprisingly, I didn't beat the turn 2 Griselbrand with double protection.
I Duressed on turn 1 and took his only business spell from a hand of double Preordain, Sneak Attack (the business spell), Emrakul, Scalding Tarn, and Ancient Tomb. He Preordained and kept both. I looked at my hand that had no more library manipulation but could win on the spot. Obviously, the odds were in favor of just going for it given that he could sculpt and I couldn't, but I just felt in my gut that he found a Force of Will.
I considered things for a moment and decided I wasn't likely to draw well without any cantrips and should go for it. He had the Force of Will. Should have trusted my read.
This is something I definitely have to work on. I don't trust my intuition enough and lose games to it because I reason myself into taking a line that would be correct if my instinctive read were wrong—which it usually isn't.
Round 4: Omni-Tell
This game went more like what I'm used to. I Duressed him and took his business spell early, set up for a couple of turns, and killed him after finding more discard for his countermagic.
The one thing I want to say about this game, though, doesn't really fall into usual lines of play territory. I cast Grim Tutor to help me set up and decide for a card, put it on top of my hand—without me touching the other cards—then decided I wanted a different card, grabbed it, and tried to put the first chosen card back on top of my deck.
Once it touched my library, my opponent stopped me and told me he wasn't sure what was going on and insisted we call a judge. He was right to do that, and after we both stated what happened, I got a well-deserved warning and had to keep the Duress.
There's no good excuse for me to muddle up the game in that way, and I really should know better. I consider myself well warned and will make sure I never put my tutor targets anywhere close to the rest of my hand from now on before I'm actually done fully resolving the tutor. That way, if I change my mind, at least there's nothing unclear about the situation. Sorry once again to my opponent for having caused that unnecessary disturbance.
I inexplicably decided that Omni-Tell was unlikely to have Leyline of Sanctity in the board and only brought in Xantid Swarm. Unsurprisingly, my opponent mulled to five and put a Leyline into play. I scooped them up. I probably would have won this game, too, given that I had a solid seven that included Xantid Swarm.
Now armed with Chain of Vapors, I planned on making a real game of it and even have the Xantid Swarm to pit SB tech against SB tech since he had Leyline again. Sadly, I didn't find a win (or Chain) before he could Burning Wish for Pyroclasm my Swarm, and I lost to Emrakul two turns down the road.
Well, two matches and a couple of mistakes against what I usually consider a good matchup and I had my back against the wall. Time to tighten up!
Round 5: Goblins
He did what he does, and I did what I do. Guess who won.
I think I lost this because I was unable to find a black source in four or five cantrips. Happens sometimes.
I had a likely turn 3 win hand that had a Chain of Vapor, Brainstorm as the only cantrip, land, and a fetch. He, however, opened on Mountain without any mulligans, which smelled suspiciously like Red Elemental Blast, so I decided to hold back the Brainstorm (with fetch in play) until his upkeep to force him to decide between Thalia and REB. He chose Thalia (correctly in my opinion) but paid the price as I Chain of Vapored the Thalia on my turn and cast Ad Nauseam with B floating. I didn't actually hit a win when I was at four life but did have a Cabal Therapy, so I ended up discarding his Thalia (seeing the REB I suspected) and saying go. Goblin Warchief took me to two, but he didn't topdeck another Thalia and I won with hard cast Probe plus Therapy protection next turn.
Round 6: Maverick
He mulliganed a bunch of times to find a form of disruption, but Abrupt Decay on Teeg during his turn 3 attack made sure that one hate bear wouldn't be enough to stop me.
Round 7: Sneak and Show
I boarded correctly this time and had a hand of roughly Chain of Vapor, Infernal Tutor, Grim Tutor, two Dark Rituals, Cabal Ritual, Lotus Petal and a land while my opponent mulliganed to five and dropped a Leyline into play. I went with my read this time and Chain of Vapored his Leyline, and once that resolved I Tutor chained him on turn 1 after quite a bit of thought trying to find a line that beat both Daze and Surgical Extraction but not finding one. I decided to play around Surgical Extraction instead of Daze after some deliberation—though that might have been wrong given that there are significantly more Sneak and Show decks with Daze than with Surgical. On the other hand, I would have expected him to Daze my Ritual if he'd had the Daze, so Surgical seemed like a more likely threat.
My opponent—who clearly had nothing but the Leyline—didn't appreciate all the thinking I did before easily killing him turn 1 and complimented my play with a "very good player!" that dripped sarcasm. He also delayed signing the results slip for as long as possible, packing all his stuff away in a furious temper to keep me waiting. I smiled and took my win, politely reminding him he had to sign the slip before he could stomp off fuming.
Round 8: Infect
I Pondered on turn 1, and my opponent opened on Glistener Elf. My turn 2 Gitaxian Probe revealed that he was a Forest away from killing me on turn 2 (he had Noble Hierarch, Invigorate, and Might of Old Krosa in hand but no second green mana), but luckily my Probe drew an Infernal Tutor, which made his topdecking skills moot since I could win on my turn 2.
A ton of discard left the game as such: he had nothing but a land and a Force of Will in hand and Noble Hierarch and Blighted Agent in play with me at two poison. I could Ad Nauseam now with no mana floating or during his upkeep. As the only thing that killed me was topdecked Brainstorm into double pump spell, I decided I was more likely to die from having to discard after a terrible Ad Nauseam than him hitting, so I went with the latter and stopped flipping at seven life, safe in the knowledge he had to run incredibly well to get there. When he actually cast Brainstorm, my heart skipped a beat, but he ended up only hitting for two. I Duressed him on my turn and killed him—Brainstorm hit three land. Whew!
Round 9: Esper Stoneblade
This was by far the most painful experience of the entire weekend for me, and the only thing that makes the stupidity of my mistake bearable is the knowledge that I was really too tired to still be playing something as complicated as Tendrils of Agony.
On turn 4 I Probed him, seeing Jace, Force of Will and Spell Pierce. After Probe I had three lands, a hand of Dark Ritual, Dark Ritual, Cabal Ritual (with threshold), Lion's Eye Diamond, Brainstorm, Preordain, Ad Nauseam and Tendrils of Agony. He had just cast Lingering Souls and had one mana open.
I counted my mana and realized I could cast my Rituals and the LED followed by Ad Nauseam and Brainstorm into Preordain to cast the natural Tendrils for lethal. So I cast Dark Ritual, and this is where everything goes horribly, horribly wrong. He Spell Pierced, I counted my mana and realized I had eight if I paid—not enough for Ad Nauseam followed by Tendrils without the LED. I thought about a number of possible lines involving Brainstorm or Dark Ritual in response to the Pierce but finally decided to bait the Force by paying for the Ritual.
He didn't bite, and now with BBB floating I thought, "Well, there should be something I can do with that mana, right?" So I decided to count again. BBB floating, Dark Ritual is six, Cabal is nine...sweet, Ad Nauseam plus Tendrils for the win!
If you paid attention, you've already realized that Dark Ritual only adds two more black, not three—something I'd already figured out before starting the whole line of play, which is really the worst thing about this chain of events. I obviously trusted my wishful thinking and blew all my mana acceleration before realizing that only made eight as I'd figured before. I cast Ad Nauseam to at least pull his Force and Jace but now had to hope to cantrip into mana and business before he could find new protection. I didn't.
Somewhat (actually quite badly) tilted from my inability to do grammar school math, I kept a sketchy hand for game 2:
If I hit a land of off one of the Probes, this hand would be quite ridiculous, and a Ritual or LED made this a turn 1 win, so I still believe this was probably a fine keep. Obviously, I didn't actually hit the land or mana and ended up dying without doing much of anything after having to blow a Petal to Ponder and missing.
Time to Sleep
Thus endeth the first day of Grand Prix Strasbourg, at least for me. Disgusted about screwing myself out of a day 2 with one of the dumbest mistakes I've made—I could deal with counting wrong, but doing so after first figuring out the line doesn't work really hurt—I decided I might as well try to salvage something the next day by playing in the Sunday Legacy Challenge and registered for that.
Afterward, I remember I'd planned to ask the coverage crew if they'd like me to help out on Sunday in case I didn't make it and found Rich Hagon to talk about it. He was really friendly and helpful about the whole thing, but, quite reasonably, Wizards needs to take care of a number of formalities before letting people join content production for the site and wanted me to at least sit in on a few feature matches to get a feel for what I was getting myself into before doing actual work.
I was offered the chance to do just that and would've really liked to, but there was the Legacy Challenge. When I mentioned it, Rich told me to play and to hit him up once I made it to another GP—or if I was out of the Legacy Challenge—to get that feature match feel experience. I definitely will, and I was happy to realize Rich is just as nice a guy in real life as he is on screen.
Heartened by the friendly reception and the knowledge I might get to do some coverage at some point—it seems like a lot of fun—I started the trek back to the hotel (a rough ten minutes). I fumed a little more about my stupidity and whined about it with my roomies before going to bed to be well rested to crush on Sunday.
But that's a tale for another day, as we're already above 3000 words and I want to do the good day of the tournament justice. Join me next week (yes, actual next week!) for the rest of the Strasbourg story, more games with Storm, and appearances of Magic celebrities like Tomoharu Saito and Timo Schuneman!
Until next time, whenever you make a mistake, remember I've probably made worse!