I’ve been riding something of a cold streak lately. A PTQ Top 8 this season, in which I went 12–3 in games during Swiss, gave me a little hope that I might have been doing something right, but if I’m being honest, my deck pretty much carried me in spite of myself all the way to the Top 8. That deck was ridiculous. It had two Hanweir Watchkeep,* two Avacynian Priest, two Bonds of Faith, Geist-Honored Monk, and Heretic’s Fucking Punishment. Never in my life had I felt so invincible at an event that wasn’t a JSS qualifier. Even after I dropped Round 4 to some guy with a million rares spanning four colors and who started off with Stromkirk Noble both games, I was still positive I’d make the Top 8. My deck was just too good. Of course, I drafted like an untrained animal once I got there, so the whole point is moot, but ever since that weekend, I’ve been searching for that feeling of invincibility—that genuine confidence in your deck. To my disappointment, none of the non-Caw-Blade decks offered that invulnerability. Honey Badger came close, but it still fell a little short.
*I’m not sure if this qualifies in every situation, but I know that I won a lot of games by following up a turn-three Hanweir Watchkeep by just playing a land and passing on turn four. Obviously, cards like Midnight Haunting and Rebuke made this line of play better than it should’ve been, but I often felt very safe by sandbagging business spells and just seeing if the opponent could deal with a 5/5. Much more often than not, he couldn’t. Just figured I’d pass on some Limited advice.
My last FNM win came in week seven. Since then, it’s been an embarrassing trudge through the weeks. I’ve played good decks every week, but I just haven’t been able to put the wins together. I haven’t felt really in tune with any of the decks, and I feel that this is primarily because of the nature of the column—I’m playing something different every week. It’s the good Magic players who can just be handed seventy-five cards and make them work. Middling-to-bad players like me need a lot of time with a deck in order to understand and take advantage of its interactions within the context of its format. I can also recognize, to an extent, that my experiences with these decks are more or less suffering from small-sample-size syndrome, but I still feel that I should be good enough to achieve more wins than I do.
This week, I played the U/R deck that came in second in Las Vegas.
It looks and plays a lot like the Legacy deck I played a week ago, except that it has the tools to go straight to your opponent’s dome once he exhausts your limited countermagic suite and deals with your initial threat. Simply put, I was only faced with my own mortality once the entire night, and I won that game. This deck is the truth, and I wouldn’t change a single card—at least not right now. Once my sample size becomes a bit more realistic, I’d probably look to mess with the sideboard a bit (Steel Sabotage seems like a worse Vapor Snag to me), but I really can’t complain about how the deck performed.
I showed up to Cloud City pretty early on Friday and finished up my deck. It was fully pimped out, so that felt pretty good.
A lot of articles (including more than one of my own) reference pimping out decks, but none of them make any attempt to give a definition of what that entails. Simply put, pimping out a deck is the process of making your deck the most aesthetically pleasing version of itself it can be, but without sacrificing card quality. The way to pimp out a deck is different for everyone. Some people like foils, some people like foreign cards, and some people just go for the most expensive version of a card. I’m not going to get into the reasons that people try to pimp out their decks, mainly because my thoughts on this are still pretty half-baked at this point, but my deck was totally pimped out . . . to my standards.
Like I said, everyone has different standards of pimping. My particular system is: oldest version of the card, no promos, no foils, no Portal or Starter, English only. My defenses for English only are that (1) I want my opponent and me to be able to read all of my cards whenever we want, and (2) English is the “pimp” language of choice in other countries, so it makes no sense to me to Japanese your deck out only to play in a GP or PT in Japan and have your deck suddenly look shitty like everyone else’s. So, I go with English, because I can read it.
So for example, my Grim Lavamancers were from Torment, my Incinerates were from Ice Age, my basics were Alpha, my Mana Leaks were Stronghold, my Ponders were Lorwyn, my Flashfreezes were Coldsnap . . . you get the picture.
After a few test runs with the deck against random regulars, I felt pretty good about the deck. Turn-one Delver of Secrets represented a very real clock, it transformed consistently, and Ponder certainly helped keep the pressure on. The most disappointing card was Brimstone Volley, which was still very good, and to me, that says a lot about the deck.
While sitting around before FNM started, I overheard a conversation between Aaron and Kevin, the creators of the Honey Badger deck I played last week. They were already planning on splitting the finals, which they’ve done consistently for weeks now, and shipping their promo Go for the Throats to their friend for his birthday. I didn’t say anything. How could I? I hadn’t even won an FNM in Cloud City yet. It was becoming a sort of running joke:
“What are you playing this week, Jon?”
“Good luck with that!”
. . . or . . .
“How’d you do, Jon?”
“Well, at least you get to play something else next week, right?”
Round 1: Aaron Garritillo
This pairing bums me out. Aaron is the part-owner of the shop where I’m playing, and he’s among the better players in the room tonight, if not the best. I hate getting paired against good people Round 1. He’s playing the Honey Badger deck I played last week, and I know he’s packing Spellskites, so I don’t really expect this match to go that well.
I win the roll, and I have no turn-one play, but I’m able to burn his turn-two Merfolk Looter. He misses his third land-drop and never plays a fourth. After he misses his third land-drop, I just start throwing all the burn in my hand at his face and get bailed out by a triple-Ponder draw. A Chandra's Phoenix late gets in for a couple of hits before he plays the Oblivion Ring on it, but my burn is able to close it out.
The next game goes similarly—I burn his turn-two Merfolk Looter, and he misses his third land-drop. This game, though, I also have an Insectile Aberration putting on big pressure alongside a Grim Lavamancer, while he bricks on all of his Dream Twists, hitting a lot of Sun Titans but no Phantasmal Images to represent any reasonable offense. This game is never ever close—my hand is full of gas, and despite all of his Feeling of Dreads, I’m in complete control the whole time. Eventually, Aaron plays a land and goes for an Unburial Rites at 7 life, tapping down to 1 open mana, and only returning a single Sun Titan. I let it resolve, burn his face a little bit, and swing for lethal.
I feel that Aaron got pretty unlucky to lose that match; not seeing a Spellskite against me is not great for him. He probably had a questionable keep in the second game (two lands and a Merfolk Looter). I think his chances of winning go up if he mulligans, if only because that’s another chance for him to draw Spellskite. I also don’t know if he’s supposed to go for Unburial Rites when he did. I had 5 damage on the table, and he was at 7. This is a little less obvious; it’s possible (and probably correct) that his only reasonable line is to go for the Sun Titan there and just hope I don’t have the win.
Round 2: Bret Weed
Knowing that I was paired against Aaron, Bret is pretty surprised to see me in the 1–0 bracket. Bret goes on to comment how he only ever gets paired against good people, how Magic hates him, why is he still playing this game, yadda yadda yadda. Regular Bret Weed. He’s on Bant Pod.
Game 1, I have no 1-drop . . . or any other creature. I pick off Bret’s initial mana dorks, but he says, “Land, go,” a lot, and I don’t have much land. I realize, after a lot of consecutive turns of Bret hitting lands, that the Mana Leaks I’m holding are now blanks. After he plays a Viridian Emissary, I take that as the invitation to start throwing fire at his face. The only turn I don’t send burn to his dome is because I have to triple–Mana Leak a Skaab Ruinator. Eventually, Bret stabilizes with a lot of guys, including two copies of Archon of Justice, and he has lethal on the board. He passes the turn at 5 life. My hand consists of one card: a Galvanic Blast. I put him to 3 life on his end step. I have a lot of outs. I plan on flipping the top card. I flip . . .
Time to shuffle.
We’ve drawn a small crowd at this point.
Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. Present deck to Bret. Bret shuffles and puts the deck on my play mat.
I flip the top card onto the top of the deck in one fluid motion.
It’s the Incinerate. The room erupts.
Game 2 is pretty close as well. Bret has a very aggressive draw with three lands and two copies of Viridian Emissary, neither of which I ever pop, opting instead to keep trading blows—his two Viridian Emissary against my Insectile Aberration and burn. At 5 life, he plays a Birds of Paradise with the intent of blocking my Insectile Aberration. Because I have a Grim Lavamancer, I also have the option to kill his Birds of Paradise and then hit him for 3. Unfortunately, my hand is devoid of burn. All I have in hand are some counterspells and a Snapcaster Mage. A Brimstone Volley in the ’yard represents exactly lethal, because no matter what I do, that Birds of Paradise has to die this turn, but I only have four lands in play—not enough to cast a Snapcaster Mage and flash back a Brimstone Volley. I need to rip a land or a Brimstone Volley.
Of course, I draw the land. After that first game, how couldn’t I?
Round 3: Holden Omans
Before the match starts, Holden and I share a little dialogue.
“Are you playing Blue/Red?”
This confuses Holden a little; he genuinely can’t understand why I won’t tell him what deck I’m playing before the match starts.
Holden’s playing G/W Humans, which is probably an unloseable matchup for me. Fortunately for Holden, his lifetime Constructed win percentage against me is a solid 100%.
Game 2 is much closer, but still not that close—I now have access to Arc Trails and Dismembers on top of a full set of Stromkirk Nobles, so Holden is never really in this game. My notes from this game read, “Pretty much killed all his guys, dealt 20 to him.” That sounds about right.
There’s a point early on when he resolves a Nihil Spellbomb, and then sits on it—ostensibly so he can “get me” when I play a Snapcaster Mage. Unfortunately for Holden, I already have a Grim Lavamancer in play. We run into the sticky situation where I go to target one of his guys or whatever with Grim Lavamancer . . .
“If I remove your graveyard in response, does my guy still take two, or is removing two cards part of the cost?”
“It’s part of the cost.”
A few turns later, Holden tries to sacrifice the Nihil Spellbomb to hit my graveyard while there are two cards in it, and I activate Grim Lavamancer in response. I’m not even sure if Nihil Spellbomb is even good to bring in against me. Obviously, this scenario is not the optimal way to play the card, but it just seems like a very narrow answer to Snapcaster Mage, and a downright bad answer to Grim Lavamancer. It’s fair to think that Holden couldn’t have known that Grim Lavamancer was only a two-of, but Nihil Spellbomb still seems pretty ineffective against it.
After the match, it dawns on me that I haven’t dropped a game yet. Aaron comes up and asks me if I’m finally going to shake the Cloud City monkey off my back. I shrug, but inwardly, I think, “Of fucking course I am. This deck is stupid.” I haven’t felt this since the PTQ—that bulletproof feeling of, “I have the best deck in the room, and I know how to play it.” There is no feeling of uncertainty; barring some act of God, I am going to win every game.
Round 4: Alex Zaranski
I used to work for Alex at a bottle return. For those of you who live in states where they don’t recycle, here’s how a bottle return works: Borderline homeless people bring whatever nasty garbage they find into the bottle return. Sometimes, there are bottles in there. My job was to count up the bottles and give them a nickel for each bottle returned. I had to sort glass bottles; a dude downstairs (plastic and cans went in a chute) sorted plastic and cans.
The job was actually pretty sweet; the only bummer was that it was in the summer, so it was really hot all the time, but since Alex played Magic, he was very understanding of me watching GGsLive on weekend shifts and taking weekends off for GPs or SCG Opens.
Alex is playing Wolf Run with Dungrove Elders. He wins the roll and promptly mulligans, and my one-two punch of Delver of Secrets and burn gets the job done while Alex is stunted on both lands and business. After the game, he lays his hand flat on the table: three Primeval Titans, three Beast Withins. I feel bad for him, but the Beast Withins in particular made me laugh—you want to spend a card to upgrade my creature? Sure thing, boss!
Alex mulligans again, and I start on a turn-one Delver of Secrets, which reveals a Ponder on its very first upkeep trigger. I can’t tell you how simultaneously awesome and obnoxious it feels when that happens; 1-mana 3/2 flyers are what I consider to be the baseline of unfair. I counter the rest of Alex’s spells, which aren’t much: a turn-three Dungrove Elder and a turn-six Green Sun's Zenith for 5. And I’m through to the next round.
To his credit, Alex takes the bad beat in stride, but this match bums me out because I actually like Alex, and I also would like an actual representation of what this match is supposed to look like. Instead, Alex gets unlucky and mulls a lot.
Round 5: Rich Bourque
Rich is a local judge, and he’s been around for a while. He only judges the bigger local events—like prereleases and Grand Prix Trials—but he’s known among all the locals. Rich is at 3–1, and understands that I can’t draw with him because I have an article to write, and I have to give him a lot of props for accepting that so readily; a loss here for Rich knocks him out of the prize pool. Rich is piloting Bant Pod.
I lose the roll and burn his first-turn Birds of Paradise on my main phase; Rich follows that up with a Viridian Emissary and passes back to me. I cast a Delver of Secrets and leave up Galvanic Blast mana for any Mentor of the Meek shenanigans, but he just attacks with his Viridian Emissary and passes the turn back to me, missing his third land-drop. My Delver of Secrets flips on its first trigger, and I ride it to victory, mostly because his Viridian Emissaries are never able to pop; I don’t touch them, and he never draws a Birthing Pod.
Game 2 is much less close. He keeps two lands and two Birds of Paradise, and after I dispatch both the Birds of Paradise, my Insectile Aberration (which also flips on the very first trigger) goes the distance. A Phantasmal Image makes an appearance as an Insectile Aberration, but I have the best answer I can possibly have to that specific card: Vapor Snag. He even has Brindle Boar, but the problem with Brindle Boar (and also Timely Reinforcements) is that it’ll never interact with Insectile Aberration, which makes it less of a crutch than against a traditional burn deck.
I’m not sure if the deck will continue to be good. I know for a fact that it was the right deck to be playing at that specific FNM; any time anyone kept a mana-light hand on the justification that it had some 1-drop mana accelerants, they were completely punished for it. It was also nice to not be completely cold to planeswalkers; all the burn in my deck ensured that I’d still have game against the speedy planeswalkers, while all the Karn Liberateds of the world didn’t ever matter because the opponents were always dead before they got to 7 mana. The miser’s Negate was a cute Game 1 answer to good cards like planeswalkers, Birthing Pods, and Timely Reinforcements; and Vapor Snag, apart from being totally clutch in my last game of the night, was a great utility card. It hit blockers, it hit things with Lifelink, and it was a damage source, albeit a slight one. The swing in tempo it gave was always huge.
Snapcaster Mage, like Brimstone Volley, was another one of those boom/bust cards. Like Barry Sanders, they were mostly awesome, but every so often, they’d get tackled 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The mana in the deck was really bad, and I worried about it a lot before the tournament started. But once I started playing with it more, I found that all you really needed was four lands to get rolling. Unfortunately, Snapcaster Mage flashing back Brimstone Volley costs 5, and five lands looked to be a pretty tall order for the deck. Then again: small sample size.
The only downside to pulling out the 5–0, 10–0 sweep of FNM is that I can’t play the deck again. The end of Round 5 was pretty bittersweet for me, but I hope that more sweet decks will pop up in Standard, because I’m sure as hell not brewing anything good any time soon. See you next week.