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Eight Things I Learned Losing in the Top 8 of the Last Lame Goose PTQ

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Humility

"If you aren't at least 25% brew, you've got no heart. But if you aren't at least 25% netdeck, you've got no brain."

-Patrick Chapin

I am a genius of Magic: The Gathering, I thought to myself.

Not just a run-of-the-mill genius. Not merely a once-in-a-generation-Musk-type genius. A Shakespeare genius. An Einstein genius!

I even had the post-PTQ Tweet lined up.

"Sorry for taking so long to break the format," it was going to say, captioning my Unbeatable Bant Control deck.

In other news: I had an email thread entitled "Unbeatable Bant Control deck".

The whole thought of it was that we could predict and angle, if not the entirety of the weekend's upcoming PTQ (actually true), at least the majority of the Top 8 (also true). The underlying thesis, as with many so-called "solved" formats before, was that even if there were some cards that were better (e.g. Oko, Thief of Crowns) if we could predict their overall configurations, we could generate a meaningful advantage.

No one will know the exact configuration of the Unbeatable Bant Control deck, I congratulated myself. They will foolishly side in Veil of Summer.

I was going to come with Beanstalk Giant into Realm-Cloaked Giant. See the combo? It was going to be Time Wipe looping Realm-Cloaked Giant; but Beanstalk Giant would be fine anyway. Not as busted maybe, but still a huge advantage.

But how to solve the puzzle of Sultai Cat Food? Might that make us unbeatable suddenly?

Craw Giant

Not merely a "once-in-a-generation-Musk-type," remember! We would have two Planar Cleansings main deck, to demolish their machinery; and two more in the sideboard, alongside this man:

Apostle of Purifying Light

If there is one thing that tickles the ultimate fancy of the overconfident Magic: The Gathering player, it's that feeling of feeling smarter than the opponent. That "I know something you don't know" that pre-dates thinking you're not merely a once-in-a-generation-Musk-type genius. The Cat goes to the graveyard, see? Before the Food appears. It's before the colon! So the Food is still on the stack but the Cat is already in the graveyard. They can't respond because they don't have the Food yet!

Can't you almost hear Vizzini from The Princess Bride? "Inconceivable!"

The Apostle can eat the Cat fast enough that the Food can't save it. Almost all their stuff is Black, which is great; and even if they have Oko (assuming you don't Planar Cleansing it) you can always Time Wipe the Apostle / Elk back and reload. Anyway you have four.

Whew.

Thank God. Thank God I had that brief moment of humility, of clarity a bunch of Hall of Fame friends who - legit geniuses - are smarter than I am, and more forthright. Patrick reminded me of having no brain; and Zvi called me a "fool" in text. "Play Oko, fool" to be exact.

I actually owned all the Oko cards, and had been playing them happily at FNM and Showdowns for weeks. And doing great against other local Oko players! At the end of the day did I want to feel clever* more, or hoist the Blue Envelope** more?

Overstatement

One of the big storylines coming out of Mythic Championship VI was the superiority of Sultai Cat Food. Sultai Cat Food was a true outlier, probably better than Caw-Blade if you can believe that. The Simic-adjacent Food decks were great against non-Food at Mythic Championship VI, but Sultai Cat Food was crazy. Beat up on Food. Absolutely slaughtered everything else. Even won the Grand Prix (over Reid Duke and his Food deck, no less) the next day.

I had a suspicion that the results were a little too good. Not only were they against all the Food decks that showed up at Mythic Championship VI, but benefitted from being a little surprising once there. People might not have had the right sideboard cards. Maybe more importantly, just look at the decks at the top of the Mythic Championship Finals. Both PV and Strasky played more lands and two Mass Manipulations. Different folks had different details, from Ugins to Lilianas to nothing at six... But Mass Manipulation goes over the top of... like... everything.

I had a lot of cute ideas, Planeswalker ideas... But any Food opponents with knowledge of what actually performed at the Mythic Championship - something folks playing in it wouldn't have had beforehand - should have Mass Manipulations themselves.

So we tested.

I was a little worried about how to get the Cat Food cards on relatively short notice. Also I didn't know the Cat Food play patterns. There was an awful lot of bookkeeping! Goose that Food, use the mana to dig with Trail of Crumbs. Any Trail of Crumbs trigger, really. Super wide boards mostly full of garbage. This was exactly the kind of Magic I'm not good at.

Anyway we tested. Game 1s, at least.

Cat Food didn't seem grossly favored at all. Truth be told, Simic just won most of the games. The big problem was that in Game 1 they couldn't do anything to disrupt your hand. No hand destruction; no permission. So even though they'd often get the full regalia going, they couldn't actually stop you from eventually drawing and casting Mass Manipulation, which - thanks to their many powerful Planeswalkers - would typically be enough to win the game.

All good on Simic.

Luckily / coincidentally, I already had those cards.

Solution

One of the things that is ultimately super gratifying about Magic: The Gathering is that even when there is an ostensibly solved format with a consensus best deck... There is consistently still room for innovation.

I started with PV's second place deck and made one important change to the main:


Mystical Dispute
Aether Gust

The reasons were twofold:

  1. Sometimes I could just catch the opponent's turn two Oko, Thief of Crowns on the draw.
  2. If you look at the default main decks, there is no way to stop the opponent from playing Mass Manipulation. One of the matchups we tested was the Simic mirror (one deck with two Aether Gust and one with two Mystical Dispute). The Dispute deck simply won more for (1) above, and (2) that it could actually interact with the card Mass Manipulation. Since the games tended to go very long, whoever resolved the last Mass Manipulation was usually the winner. We even had a play-test game where all four Mass Manipulations between our two decks got cast! Crazy, right? Well, if one player can stop Mass Manipulation and the other can't... That player has a huge advantage in Stage Three.

I also won a Game in Top 8 by Mystically Disputing Massacre Girl, but I probably would have won anyway (as I happened to have Disdainful Stroke in my hand).

The sideboard is a little further afield but still largely true to PV's excellent shell.

I decided that I would rather just have access to 4 Aether Gusts even though I never sided them in after Round Two (Round One I played against Jeskai Fires). Aether Gust seemed like the most compact way to interact with Edgewall Innkeeper, Embercleave, or any assorted fast Gruul or Mono-Red beatdown draws. My Aether Gust + your Rimrock Knight was the kind of combo I could get behind. My strategy was always going to be to try to get a body down (hopefully a Wicked Wolf, which is just game against the non-Blue Green decks), and then have 100 cheap 1-2 casting cost interactive spells to hold my lead. This never came up, but the strategy worked against Cat Food.

I joked the deck was "horrendously mis-built" as I sided out Paradise Druid every round of the tournament.

First of all, I had been siding that card out in demi-mirrors for months, but it is particularly bad if you think your opponent is playing either Deafening Clarion or Massacre Girl. There are literally games where the opponent doesn't have a Cauldron Familiar in play! If you give them the first 1 toughness creature, it's kind of your own fault!

I won some of my Game 1s against Sultai decks, some of my Game 3s, and ALL of my Game 2s. This is what I sided most rounds:

Mass Manipulation is great in Game 1 when they don't have Duress or Veil of Summer, but I was repeatedly Duressed on turn one in this tournament, and everyone had like 4 Veil of Summer.

Slow-playing Questing Beast with Veil of Summer up, or simply untapping Breeding Pool and trucking with Nissa + Disdainful Stroke would mess up Murderous Rider and Massacre Girl. Like I said, I won all my Game 2s, and think this is largely a good sideboard strategy, at least given Once Upon a Time + the London Mulligan. I ended up having to discard a Mystical Dispute once, but like I said before... I did catch a Massacre Girl with it in the previous game.

In most of my testing I was playing Growth Spiral over Paradise Druid. If it weren't a lame Goose format I think I would explore 4 copies of Temple of Mystery and this line; however there are two things that caught me on this plan:

  1. Sometimes you miss. Paradise Druid, despite sucking a lot of the time (and, embarrassingly, getting Wicked Wolf'd a bit often for an allegedly Hexproof creature) never misses.
  2. uuuu is kind of ambitious without Paradise Druid. I'm an ambitious guy, but not enough that part of my ultimate humility didn't include conceding that the preponderance (71.31% to be exact) of the Pros didn't at least think about this before registering the 2/1.

Genius

One round I joked that I just played Gilded Goose on the first turn; Oko, Thief of Crowns on the second turn, and killed my opponent with them.

"You're a genius," my friend said. "Did you think of that all yourself?"

"No no," I retorted. "I don't think you understand! I made a Food with the Goose and then turned that Food into an Elk [to attack with] using Oko the next turn! You can like never run out of gas. You don't even have to play any more cards!"

Irony: See below, "Dumbstruck"

This combo is probably a little too good for... Standard Formats.

Gwen Stefani

"On one side of the line, Gwen Stefani. The No Doubt front woman, impossibly beautiful, impossibly fit from the age of 11, possessed of the energy - twice the manic energy - of a rock star half her age... Wearing something, some patchwork combination of midriff-revealing Picasso-esque shapes, hair piled into the flying buttresses, the twists and turns of a long season of 24... On the other side of the line, a homeless man.

"What is the difference between the indomitable fashion icon and the other? Why is it that Gwen can strap herself into a black plastic garbage bag and be 'right' instead of desperate? Why is it that a master can make the same play as a grinder and be 'right' ... when his opposite number gives up the game with the very same choice?"

-Me, from The Official Miser's Guide

Round Five.

Likely playing for Top 8.

The gent to my left is in the process of drawing into Top 8, and glances over at my hand.

"Keep," I say.

He has a hard time controlling his facial expression. I certainly wouldn't have kept, I imagine him thinking. Or maybe I hope I'm paired with this scrub in Top 8. I chuckle to myself.

The opponent plays first turn Gilded Goose. At this point in the tournament I assumed everyone had Gilded Goose into Oko, more or less, whenever they kept seven.

I drew and played Once Upon a Time, so see if I could pair a Gilded Goose with the Oko in my hand. In order to mitigate any information leakage, I quietly took a basic Island and laid it down.

The Enemy followed up with a second Forest and, predictably, Oko, Thief of Crowns.

"Mystical Dispute?"

Gent-to-my-left gets up, smiling now; even though his opponent hasn't shown up to sign the slip yet. Swapping I wouldn't have kept to Wow, good one.

The conventional wisdom is that you have to mulligan into great hands only in the current Standard. I spent the last few months with Gilded Goose and Arboreal Grazer, Oko and Teferi main deck. It was easy to force-mulligan into second-turn bomb action. But I think there is a question of what if I force a great hand... That will lose?

Going first is less relevant in this format because the games go so long, but if you end up in just an Oko fight, going first - especially on the back of a Gilded Goose - you're often just going to lose to Elk.

I knew my hand could produce a third turn Oko (and had great follow up with Nissa); it actually turned out that I got him to burn his Food and ended up ahead early in the Oko fight. What's important is to understand the terms of engagement so that you can be Gwen Stefani with your weird fashion choices instead of making them randomly.

I played deliberately slowly, and even wore a vacation themed t-shirt that said "Slow Down" during the PTQ. Paradise Druid ends up being air for the opponent if you can snag their big spell with a counter, so you can end up with more action a lot of the time, without necessarily increasing your average casting cost. It's certainly not the only way to approach Food play, but having an atypical plan - while still understanding what your opponents' baseline plans will be - can create extra win percentage. They expect Rock. Be Scissors.

Dumbstruck

Round Six.

He's locked and refuses to draw.

I'm probably still in with a loss; he's deliberately playing for position, though.

Game 1 is l o o o o o n g.

I feel ahead for most of the game. The first Hydroid Krasis has the benefit of Nissa, Who Shakes the World. The second Hydroid Krasis might not... But there is a second Hydroid Krasis.

I'm ahead for most of the game.

But the game is long. I mean l o o o o o n g.

I don't know how it's crept up on me but I no longer have any non-land permanents. I have no cards in hand. He's got a couple, plus the full regalia. Cat access, a Witch's Oven, and a Trail of Crumbs. Worse yet, there is an Oko, Thief of Crowns with something like 11 loyalty and a small Liliana, Dreadhorde General now. Lilly has killed our last two guys, including a giant, allegedly indestructible, Wicked Wolf.

I make my mistake.

Is it a mistake?

"Judge!" I call. "How many minutes left in the round?"

"Eighteen."

Eighteen?

I do some quick math. It will take me at least five minutes to sideboard and shuffle. Can I really win Game 2 in ten minutes? Eighteen? Shoot.

"I concede."

Remember when I said that I had no non-land permanents a moment ago? One of my remaining loyal forces was Castle Vantress. I could have peeked.

On top?

Mass Manipulation

Yeah.

I would have easily had his Liliana, Oko, and Massacre Girl. The tapped Witch's Oven would have become an Elk, and given the fact that I still had the Castle Vantress, I suspect I would have been extraordinarily likely to come back, being at 19 or so at the time.

Was this the worst way to lose?

I got Game 2 under the usual sideboard script. Put Sultai on their heels with Questing Beast. Rely on Veil of Summer and Disdainful Stroke for their relatively few ways out of it.

"Do you even want to play Game 3?"

He says to shuffle up.

There are fewer than five minutes on the clock when we go to sideboards. I side my Wolves and every fast response card back into my deck. It's not that I'm not playing to win, exactly; it's that I expect there to be maybe two minutes on the clock when we're actually done shuffling. Wicked Wolf is good in that situation. I'll be locked into top half with a draw; we'll probably be 2-3 or 2-4.

He's a genius.

First turn Goose; turn two Oko. Miraculously kills me with it, pumping two Food per turn (thanks to a second Goose) right around turn four of extra turns.

I'm barely done sending sad emoji texts before they announce I'm Top 8 anyway.

Whew.

I'm going second against Jordan Berkowitz. Jordan had a Pro Tour Top 8 - with the best deck of the tournament, mind you - back when Osyp won Onslaught Block. He's come all the way from Philadelphia to win this PTQ.

Game 1 goes to him. The math is long because he has one turn to find Massacre Girl. He does with a Trail of Crumbs. There is a 13/13 Hydroid Krasis in play so it takes every mana on his side to finish it.

My Mass Manipulation is for two cards but kind of putrid. His comeback from one life nevertheless impressive.

Game 2 goes how it has all day against Sultai. Questing Beast leads the charge; I have double permission spells to cover his Massacre Girl. There is no point in arguing with all these Cat Food players (5 of the Top 8); I had beaten many other Cat Food players to make Top 8.

Was conceding with the win on top of my deck the worst way to lose?

I had simply forgotten.

I kept two lands, Once Upon a Time, Oko, and good interaction.

Jordan had nine land in play and I still had three. Oko was keeping me in the game, miraculously. I discarded a Mystical Dispute. "I don't even have any blue cards... Other than Oko!" I reminded him I had Disupted his Massacre Girl the previous game.

Land four! Finally!

The Questing Beast in my hand was so tempting. No. I needed five for Beast + Veil or Nissa + Disdainful Stroke. How was I even still in this game?

Another Questing Beast!

I broke.

If it had been anything else, I probably would have discarded my second Hydroid Krasis like a good soldier. This was a test and my discipline simply failed. I cast the Questing Beast.

Predictably he played Massacre Girl for my board and Vraska for my Oko. Now I had nothing. He had been desperately flooded (seeing as I was still in the game at all), but had wisely held his powerful semi-soft locks back. Jordan is, besides being a PT Top 8 competitor, a noted poker player, and had been playing against his opponent, and his opponent's hand, instead of just his own.

So I left dumbstruck. Was conceding with Mass Manipulation on top of my deck - and discoverably so - the worst way to lose? Or was missing eight straight land drops and discarding to oblivion two wins from a PT slot worse?

VOTE IN THE COMMENTS BELOW!

Spoiler: They both suck.

Serenity

I have to say, I liked playing the lame Goose format.

I guess I understand why they did what they did, but there is something to be said for a Standard where players for the most part have the time to develop their game plans, see a lot of cards, and do exciting things.

I get it. 7 Oko decks out of 8 in a Top 8 (or 6/8 like at the actual Mythic Championship) might not be a great look. But I don't think it was a terrible format from a game play standpoint.

Embercleave or Doom Foretold next, do you think?

Fire

Losing in Top 8 stinks.

There is only one solution I know of, though. Like I have to tell you.

LOVE

MIKE

*Not pictured: The possibility of not actually being all that clever.

**Also not pictured: The possibility of not actually hoisting the Blue Envelope.