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High-Level Learning: My U.S. Nats., Part 2

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Read last week's Part 1 here

I believe any tournament is an excellent opportunity to learn. The higher the level of the event, the greater the opportunity to learn. Ideally, I would easily go undefeated in every tournament, and the main things I would be learning would be how to be a good winner, how to stay humble despite great success, and how to enjoy victory. This is rarely the case, however. U.S. Nationals was a good example of this for me. After a somewhat humbling 2–2 finish in the first Constructed portion, I entered the first draft intending to end Day 1 on a strong note.

This was my first Magic 2012 draft deck of the event:

2 Tormented Soul

1 Blood Seeker

1 Onyx Mage

2 Child of Night

1 Warpath Ghoul

2 Devouring Swarm

2 Drifting Shade

1 Vampire Outcasts

1 Zombie Goliath

2 Sengir Vampire

2 Wring Flesh

1 Distress

1 Consume Spirit

2 Druidic Satchel

1 Crown of Empires

1 Greatsword

17 Swamp

Like many people, I’ve spent countless hours mastering Scars of Mirrodan Block Draft, but I wasn’t satisfied with the amount of practice I had in M12 draft. This is partly because I do much of my testing on Magic Online these days. Most of the RDW testing I did was on MTGO. M12 was only an option on MTGO in the last couple days before Nationals. I was able to determine that I wasn’t a fan of Green, but that I was a big fan of R/B Bloodthirst and U/W flying. I was also open to certain monocolored archetypes: White, Black, and Red. It’s hard to know when to go monocolored, but when I got a Consume Spirit with five cards left in Pack 1, I felt this was the right time, especially since I had been drafting primarily Black up to that point.

Round 5: DeQuan Watson – U/G

One of the biggest weaknesses of my deck is a lack of removal, and this was completely exposed in my first game. DeQuan played a turn-one Phantasmal Bear, a turn-two Phantasmal Bear, and a turn-three Skinshifter. This was a start that my deck just couldn’t handle. Game 2 was much longer, but the result was the same. At least there were a couple interesting decisions. The first was when I played Distress. His hand was Skinshifter, Frost Breath, Plummet, and Arachnus Web. If I had had more removal, I would have had better options; as it was, I took the Skinshifter, which bought me some time. In the end, the other three spells were all pretty powerful against me.

As the game progressed, I drew lots of land and used a Satchel, while hoping to draw my Sengir Vampires and my Consume Spirit. Things started to become desperate for me when he played a Sphinx of Uthuun. The five cards he revealed were Jade Mage, Divination, Greater Basilisk, and two lands. While I wasn’t excited about giving him any of the spells, I decided that the Jade Mage was definitely the biggest threat, and I put it in a pile by itself. My decision to make a 4–1 split was vindicated when he took the Mage. Sadly, my evaluation of what a threat it was to me was also correct in that he won shortly afterward.

Round 6: Phillip Coon – U/B

Phillip was attempting a decking strategy using cards like Jace's Erasure and Merfolk Mesmerist. Unfortunately, this strategy is generally really bad. It’s a little like Infect: Some of his cards are designed to kill me, and some are designed to deck me; thus, his deck isn’t focused enough. In Infect, if you get your opponent to 8 poison counters, but have your last Infect creature killed, your investment in poisoning him was wasted. Decking me doesn’t hurt me at all unless you completely deck me. While he wasted time milling me, he got overwhelmed by my flyers both games.

Round 7: Conley Woods – U/G/R

My girlfriend Rada recently asked me if I knew what Conley Woods was like in person. Now I can at least give a little feedback. (He’s pretty cool.) The theme of the match seemed to be Distress getting my hopes up. I played Distress on turn two, while going first in Game 1. His only permanent was a Forest, and this was his hand: Cudgel Troll, Lurking Crocodile, Warstorm Surge, Mind Control, two Forests, and an Island. With the mana he had, only the Troll was a big threat, so I took it. Naturally, on his turn two, he drew and played a Coral Merfolk. So, his turn-three Crocodile became much more threatening. Since he didn’t have a Troll to play on turn four, he played a Giant Spider instead. Thus, it was no surprise when he played a second Island and the first of two Mind Controls on turn five. I tried to put up a fight, but the second Mind Control and the Stingerfling Spider killing one of my flyers was too much for me to overcome.

In Game 2, I drew my second Drifting Shade after he killed the first one with his Spider, and it went all the way. In Game 3, I played Distress when his only permanents were an Island and a Forest. This time, his hand was Cudgel Troll, Chasm Drake, Warstorm Surge, Djinn of Wishes, Brindle Boar, and a Mountain. I considered taking the Boar in hopes that he would completely mana-stall, but I figured that was too optimistic, so I took the Troll, especially since I didn’t consider the Boar that threatening.

Once again, he played a Spider on turn four, and when he played a second Island on turn five, I braced myself for his Djinn, but was horrified to see Jace, Memory Adept instead. As Conley immediately started to mill me for ten cards a turn, I was forced to desperately attack Jace, giving Conley time to play Surge and Djinn, thus giving him an insurmountable advantage. Getting rid of Jace was another Pyrrhic victory for me. In the end, it was just a question of whether he would kill me or deck me first. For the record, he decked me with Jace's Archivist.

Obviously, 3–4 wasn’t how I wanted to finish Day 1, but I never seriously considered dropping out. I mean, where better to polish my game than another seven rounds of U.S. Nationals competition?

I started Day 2 by drafting this deck:

2 Goblin Arsonist

1 Crimson Mage

2 Duskhunter Bat

2 Blood Seeker

2 Bloodrage Vampire

2 Devouring Swarm

2 Gorehorn Minotaurs

1 Drifting Shade

1 Volcanic Dragon

1 Shock

2 Incinerate

1 Doom Blade

2 Sorin's Thirst

1 Chandra's Outrage

1 Consume Spirit

9 Swamp

8 Mountain

For the most part, I was much happier with this deck than my Day 1 draft deck. Obviously, this deck was more vulnerable to color problems. Also, cards like Consume Spirit and Drifting Shade are weaker in this deck, but I was happier with my curve and with the amount of removal I had.

Round 8: Julio Fontanez – B/G

This was one of my most frustrating matches of the weekend. At a point in the Game 1 when I had two Mountains and two Swamps in play, Julio played Acidic Slime and destroyed one of my two Mountains. This was especially painful, since I had three spells in my hand with a rr requirement. All hope for Game 1 victory was snuffed when he played a second Acidic Slime and destroyed my remaining Mountain.

Game 2 wasn’t any better. While I was stalled at 3 mana, he played an Adaptive Automaton and named “Ooze.” I thought about the implications of this for a moment and then said, “Uh-oh.” Sure enough, the next two turns he played Acidic Slimes and destroyed all of my Swamps. Not that the form of death really mattered, but he finished me both games by playing Overrun. At this point, one of the things I was learning was to better appreciate the power of Green in M12 draft. I was 1–0 against non-Green and 0–3 against Green.

Round 10: Erik Landriz – U/W

After a Round 9 bye (usually a sign that things aren’t going well), I faced a nasty U/W deck. In Game 1, I was forced to mulligan a hand with three rr spells and no Mountains. On turn three, he protected his Azure Mage from my Consume Spirit with a Stave Off, allowing him to get further card advantage by drawing a card with it on turn four. On my turn six, I was able to kill it with Chandra's Outrage and play a pumped-up Duskhunter Bat, but then my hand was empty and he just kept playing more good creatures.

Game 2 wasn’t much better. On turn one, he played a Gideon's Lawkeeper, and I killed it with Sorin's Thirst. On turn two, he played an Azure Mage, and I killed it with Consume Spirit. Imagine the hit to my morale when on turn three he played a second Lawkeeper and a second Mage. At this point, we both start playing aggressive creatures, and on turn five, I had the difficult decision of whether to Shock his Mage, his Lawkeeper, or his Skywinder Drake. I tried to stop the bleeding by killing the Mage, and this seemed to work out pretty well, as we both ran out of gas and started just trading hits with what we had in play, Erik hitting me with two flyers and me hitting him with ground creatures each turn (except for the one being tapped). I finally played my Volcanic Dragon to win me the race, but he Mana Leaked it and counterattacked me in the air for the narrow win.

Round 11: Anthony Episcopi – RDW

After a surprising and demoralizing 2–4 in Draft, it was somewhat of a relief to return to Standard. This was theoretically a mirror match, at least in that most people would describe both our decks as RDW. There were many differences in our decks, though, and these differences favored me.

In Game 1, Anthony played creatures like Grim Lavamancer, Furnace Scamp, Plated Geopede, and Goblin Guide. He used cards like Arc Trail and Staggershock to kill my creatures. Since he had so many 1-toughness creatures, my Forked Bolts were amazing; since I didn’t have any, his Arc Trails were weak. They were basically a 2-mana Shock that couldn’t kill a Guide or Phoenix on my turn or even blow out a Dragonlord or Kiln Fiend. Staggershock was a little better, but horrible tempo compared to my 1-mana burn spells. In a traditional RDW matchup that’s all about attrition, Staggershock is excellent, but my Phoenixes blew the matchup wide open.

Anthony shocked me by choosing to go second in Game 2. He clearly considered this an attrition matchup, and was in for an unpleasant surprise. I played a turn-one Guide, and he couldn’t kill it until turn two, when he Arc Trailed it. He played a Shrine of Burning Rage on turn three, and then I just had to decide when would be the right time to play my Manic Vandal. I decided that he wouldn’t be able to just leave 3 mana open for a while, and I didn’t care if he used it on a Phoenix, so I held back the Vandal and hit him with a Phoenix. He Staggershocked my Phoenix, leaving me with a tough choice: play my Vandal, play another Phoenix, or say go, making him Staggershock me. I decided that there was little or no downside to him killing a Phoenix, and there was no need for me to Time Walk myself or to take 2 extra damage, so I played the Phoenix. He killed the Phoenix and played a Lavamancer. I Vandaled the Shrine and Forked Bolted the Lavamancer and him, getting back my Phoenixes. Proving that not only was his main deck not ready for the mirror but that his sideboard wasn’t either, he tapped out to play a Hero of Oxid Ridge. I traded my Vandal for it and hit him with a Phoenix. He Arc Trailed my Phoenix, and I Shocked him to retrieve it. Now I was at 6 mana, so I played both Phoenixes, and he scooped.

Round 12: Jon Nelson – Eldrazi Green

Game 1, I played a Mountain and said “go.” He played a Joraga Treespeaker, and I Shocked it. Standard games are often decided by little decisions we make in the early game, and this was one of those times. I played a Kiln Fiend on turn two, thinking he might have more cheap creatures like the Treespeaker for me to burn out of the way with the Galvanic Blast I had in my hand, pumping up my Fiend. Worst-case scenario, I would hit him for 1 fewer damage than the Dragonlord I could be playing on turn two, and 1 damage wouldn’t matter, right? He played a turn-two Rampant Growth, and I played a Peaks to hit him for 3 and played my Dragonlord. He played an Overgrown Battlement, but didn’t block. I Blasted him and hit him for 6, bringing him to 9 life. On his turn, he played a land (bringing him to a rather important 6 mana), and said “go.” On my turn, I leveled my Dragonlord to a 4/4 flyer, played a Phoenix, and attacked with everyone. He Summoning Traped into a Titan and got two Khalni Gardens. He took the 6 in the air, dropping to 1 life (guess turn-two Fiend instead of Dragonlord did matter!). I tried to finish him in the air the following turn, but he killed both my flyers with Beast Withins. On his turn, he played Emrakul and I had to scoop.

In Game 2, Jon tried to buy himself time with two Wall of Tanglecord and an Obstinate Baloth. I was able to fight through them with a Fiend, two Dragonlords, a Phoenix, and a Dismember. By the time he Trapped into a Titan, I had already leveled up both Dragonlords, and it was too late for him.

Game 3 was also close. I had two Guides by turn three, but he had a Wurmcoil Engine in play by turn five. On my turn five, I played another Guide and attacked with all three. He blocked one with the Engine and one with a Plant, and let the third through. Since he was at 4, I Dismembered my Guide being blocked by the Engine and burned him for the win.

At this point, I was 4–2 in Standard, and starting to feel pretty good about Constructed. This didn’t last long.

Round 13: Justin Warbington – G/W

I kept a five-land hand in Game 1 because I had a Guide going first. Justin dealt with my creatures with Oblivion Ring while sucking up my burn with Lotus Cobras and Squadron Hawks. Things started to get really tough when he played a Sword of War and Peace. I still might have outraced him with my Phoenix, but he had a Spellskite to redirect my Burst Lightning when he was at 4, and then he killed me with an Overrun.

Game 2 started out scary when he opened with a Leyline of Sanctity in play. I destroyed his Spellskite with a Vandal, burned his Squadron Hawks, and killed him with a Dragonlord. Game 3 seemed good when I hit him with a turn-one Guide. He used Squadron Hawks to get him up to eight cards so he could discard a Vengevine. Thanks to my Guide, I knew he had a Sword in hand, so I sat on a Vandal. I kept Bolting his Vengevine, while Forked Bolting his other creatures and Dismembering his Spellskite. The game was close, but in the end, he won with another Overrun, pumping up a Birds of Paradise, a Vengevine, and a token from Timely Reinforcements.

Round 14: Charles Flores – R/U/G

At this point, I was expecting an opponent with a somewhat weak Standard deck, but no such luck. Charles had gone 0–6 in Draft and entered our match 6–1 in Standard. I had done so little testing against this version of Splinter Twin that I didn’t realize what I was playing against because he led off with a Raging Ravine. As a result, I made the mistake of tapping out on turn three, and he comboed me out.

I brought Dismembers and Combusts in for Game 2 and was able to remove his Spellskites and Exarchs while finishing him with my early creature pressure. The match ending up coming down to a combination of sideboarding decisions we made for Game 3. I decided to bring in Vandals for Phoenixes, because of his Spellskites and because I hadn’t seen removal. Of course, he now brought in removal in the form of Pyroclasms and Lightning Bolts. The game ended up going incredibly long, and I wished I’d left in my Phoenixes as we just killed all of each other’s creatures. Late in the game, after I had killed all of his Ravines, he played his third and fourth Exarchs. I made the mistake of using a Combust on one of them, but instead of using my fourth Combust on the last one, I used a Burst Lightning with kicker. This came back to haunt me when he played the last source of damage in his deck: an Inferno Titan. While I did have a Dismember and a Galvanic Blast in hand, my Combust was useless against his Spellskite, which I otherwise would have killed with Burst Lightning.




So my tournament ended on a painful note. While I didn’t know he had an Inferno Titan in his deck, I still should have been able to reason out that it would be the right play for me to Combust the Exarch and to save the Burst. The entire Nationals this year was about learning tough lessons for me. The lessons I learned in Standard seem to have paid off, since the very next weekend, I made the Top 8 in the TCGPlayer $75K Championship. I hope the Draft lessons will pay off, too, when I play that format again at Pro Tour: Philadelphia.

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