Saturday, September 3, 2011

Standard Deviations #20/Of Limited Interest #34: A National Disaster (Part III)

Hello ladies and gentlemen; I hope you are enjoying the last few days of Summer as much as I am and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  Unfortunately I have to start today's article off with a confession and an apology to the many readers to have emailed me asking for part 3 of my Nationals report.  The truth is that I've started to write this article at least 15 times in the past week and ultimately decided that each version was unpublishable for essentially the same reason.  When I started to write this report my goal was to keep the content "fun", "vaguely humorous" and "completely honest"; after all since I didn't win the event itself I felt that my actually feelings and experiences of the event would be far more relevant than a simple round by round match report.  Who wants to read about the 6-5 CawBlade mirror match on table 28 anyways?  This was actually pretty easy for the first two parts of the report and I've been told by a number of readers on Twitter that it's some of my best writing.  Unfortunately whenever I sit down to write the 3rd part it just comes out "blah blah whine whine I hate mulligans" and frankly that isn't the kind of work I want to produce on this blog; I wouldn't read that crap so why should you?  Sadly however I'm the stubborn type; even though I've failed innumerable times I can't seem to write *anything* else until this report is finished.  In light of this I've decided to give it one last try, doing everything in my power to focus on the good side of mulling into oblivion at the most important Magic tournament you'll play in all year.  Please bear with me folks; this apparently isn't easy.

Editor's Note:  For those of you who have no idea what Nina is talking about the previous two parts of her Nationals report can be found here: Part I and Part II.

A Day (of Judgment) late and a dollar short:  After about a half hour delay to allow the judges to reset up the tables and create draft pods I was eventually seated at a table with Alexander Hayne, Andy Van Leeuwen, Matt Mealing and 4 players I didn't know.  At this point I was feeling pretty confident but 6 rounds of Magic and a draft were starting to take their toll; I wouldn't say I was tired but I certainly wanted to get this draft over and get some sleep for Sunday as soon as possible.  In terms of the actual experience itself the second draft was very much like the first draft except that for whatever reason the judge calling the second draft wanted to finish the packs in roughly half the time.  At first this wasn't a real issue but as the picks went on he actually managed to speed up; at one point I recall being told to pass my pack before I'd even examined the 8 cards remaining.  I was initially a little worried that I was the only one struggling to keep up until I noticed that *many* other players in the room were murmuring quietly for the caller to "slow down".  Eventually things reached a breaking point sometime during pack 3 when the judge began calling the picks so quickly that he actually forgot which pick we were on and told everyone to pass "5 cards to the left" when we had 7 or so left in the pack.  At this point the murmurs became audible complaints and he was finally forced to slow down.  In my opinion however, the damage had been done; while I don't think the speed of the draft affected my picks too much the truth is I spent almost the entire draft nervously trying to keep pace with the judge.  Simply passing/receiving the packs on time became my primary goal and this left *significantly* less time to consider my picks and the deck I was building while making them.  More importantly; drafting at that speed was absolutely 100% "not fun" and by the time the draft was over I actually wanted to have a cigarette just to calm down.

Unwrapping pack 1 I was naturally hoping to open some sort of disgusting game winning bomb I could plan my entire draft around; as were all 7 of my opponents no doubt.  Unfortunately my first pack turned out to be fairly mediocre; the rare was Reverberate, there was a Shock, an Assault Griffin, a Belltower Sphinx and a whole pile of average to poor cards.  After eliminating the Griffin because it would be ineffective against both of the other "good" cards in the pack I eventually settled on the Belltower Sphinx.  My logic was actually pretty simple; in the first draft and during numerous practice drafts (both real and MtGO) I consistently found that red was heavily over-drafted.  This meant that I was really only prepared to draft two types of red cards pick 1 pack 1; high impact cards that could potentially win me a game by themselves or above average removal spells I would be happy to splash as my only red card.  Shock doesn't actually qualify on either front and what's more would be completely incapable of killing the Belltower Sphinx I would be passing instead.  Alex then proceeded to pass me an average pack with a lot of solid creatures, no good removal and a Stingflinger Spider.  Without a moment's hesitation I snapped up the Spider and resigned myself to playing U/G again in the second draft.  Naturally when pick 3 produced a Merfolk Looter I was pretty pleased with my previous two choices and felt that things were working out "just fine" once again.  Unfortunately it would be the last relevant blue card I'd choose that pack as Alex and at least one other drafter to my right began heavily cutting the color throughout pack 1.  My next 6 selections were actually green cards; Giant Spider, Trollhide, Garruk's Companion, Titanic Growth, Hunter's Insight and Trollhide #2.  Finally I rounded out the pack with a Fiery Hellound (in case there was no blue in pack 2 either), a Brindle Boar I had no intention of playing, a Plummet for my sideboard, Dragon's Claw and a 14th pick Lifelink.

Going into pack 2 it's pretty safe to say I was a little nervous; the first pack had been something of a complete disaster and while I had drafted some decent cards none of them told me very much about what kind of deck I was building.  I knew for sure that said deck was green and had some Spiders in it but otherwise I was headed into the second pack essentially blind.  Unfortunately around about the start of pack 2 is when the draft caller became so fast it was all I could do to keep up with his instructions to pick and pass.  I simply did not have enough time to memorize the other cards in the pack as well as I would have liked and now almost 2 weeks later the information is completely gone.  I know I first picked an Oblivion Ring with the intention of either splashing it in my U/G deck or switching into white as my second color entirely.  Matt then passed me a second copy of Oblivion Ring and I was pretty sure the switch to G/W was complete.  I third-picked an Arachnus Web and then actually passed a Skywinder Drake to take an Arbalest Elite simply because I was *that* sure I wouldn't be playing any blue cards in my deck.  Pick 5 was a second copy of Giant Spider and continuing the transition to G/W I grabbed a Roc Egg out of a very average pack pick 6.  Pack 7 however featured a bunch of incredibly marginal cards and a Chasm Drake; this confused me quite a bit but since there were no quality green or white cards to speak of I took the Drake.  Frankly I had no real idea what the presence of the Drake meant and I was still pretty sure I'd end up in G/W when all is said and done.  The next two packs were pretty dead; I ended up taking a Llanowar Elf I knew I would play and an Ice Cage I was hoping I wouldn't.  Thankfully nobody else at the table wanted any cheap green creatures because I somehow managed to pick 4 consecutive (picks 10-13) Runeclaw Bears and a random last pick Demystify.

Things were certainly starting to look grim headed into pack 3; not only was I still trying to figure out what my second color was but my entire deck was populated by crummy Bears and Spiders.  On the plus side I had come out of pack 2 with an Arachnus Web and 2 Oblivion Rings I knew I'd play even if I ended up going U/G so it wasn't all a loss.  Naturally of course I opened a pack 3 Vengeful Pharaoh, a bunch of quality but not first pickable green creatures (Rhino, Sacred Wolf) and another Arachnus Web I simply couldn't pass.  Somehow pack 2 was actually worse; I can't remember most of the cards in this pack but I do remember that absolutely none of the G/U/W cards were main-deck material and I ultimately decided just to "spike" a Chandra's Outrage even though I had zero chance of playing it.  Picks 3 and 4 would finally decide that I was a G/U deck splashing white for Oblivion Rings when I snatched up a Skywinder Drake and followed it up immediately with a 2nd Belltower Sphinx.  To be perfectly honest it wasn't exactly a difficult choice; there were no good white cards in any of the first 4 packs and the Drake/Sphinx were actually better than most of the green creatures I'd already drafted.  Unfortunately pack 5 would ultimately typify the kind of draft I was having when I spread out the cards only to find a Sacred Wolf, a Stampeding Rhino, a Greater Basilisk and an Acidic Slime.  What's more most of the non-green cards in the pack were pretty bad so even if I *was* the only green drafter at the table I knew none of these cards would make it back to me.  Eventually I took the Acidic Slime simply because it was the most powerful card in the pile and I figured I might be able to table the Wolf/Rhino from pack 1 anyways.  My next pick was a 2nd Llanowar Elf out of a pack with basically nothing followed up by a Carnage Wurm I took mostly because all of my creatures were 2-3 power weenies at that point.  Unfortunately the remaining packs pretty much dried up after that and I closed out the draft with a Spirit Mantle, a Vastwood Gorger I should have main-decked but didn't, a Distress, a Gladecover Scout, a Pride Guardian, a Bountiful Harvest and a Taste of Blood; ick.

Once again the players in my pod were separated for the "deck build" portion of the draft but this time I needed almost every single alloted minute to complete my deck.  This is the list I submitted just as time was expiring:

"Bear Necessities" - G/U/w Aggro:

Creatures - 17:

2x Llanowar Elf
1x Garruk's Companion
1x Merfolk Looter
4x Runeclaw Bear
1x Skywinder Drake
2x Giant Spider
1x Acidic Slime
2x Belltower Sphinx
1x Chasm Drake
1x Stingerfling Spider
1x Carnage Wurm

Spells - 6:

2x Arachnus Web
2x Oblivion Ring
2x Trollhide

Lands -17:

7x Forest
7x Island
3x Plains

Analysis:  The simple truth is that this is a pretty average deck in M12 Limited.  Generally when you play a U/G aggro deck it's because you've got some ridiculously powerful cards in those colors; Mind Control/Overrun come to mind as a pretty good example.  Unfortunately this deck doesn't really have any cards on that power-level and even the two best cards in the deck (2x Oblivion Ring) are actually splash removal spells.  What's more because the deck has no mana fixing and no card-draw outside of the Looter the mana base itself is pretty bad; you want 10 forests to support your Elves/Companion but you need a significant number of Islands/Plains to play your Looter/Oblivion Rings.  My biggest problem with this deck however is it's complete dependence on drawing Trollhide, Chasm Drake or Carnage Wurm to actually win games.  For a deck with 17 creatures this build was surprisingly bad at applying the "beatdowns" because the vast majority of it's monsters topped out at 2 power unless you could stick a Trollhide somehow.  In retrospect I don't think I correctly estimated just how big of a problem with would be during my matches and as a result I probably built the deck wrong.  I typically found myself siding out a Rune Claw Bear and 1-2 Trollhides for some combination of Vastwood Gorger, Titanic Growth and/or Ice Cage in game 2.  Despite these shortcomings the deck wasn't a total loss; the removal package was actually quite good (2x Arachnus Web, 2x Oblivion Ring, Stingflinger Spider, Acidic Slime and sideboard copies of Plummet, Ice Cage and Titanic Growth) and the sheer number of early (1-2) drops made it pretty easy to adopt the aggro role in most match-ups.   
Match Reports: Unfortunately even though I remember all 3 matches in great detail the truth is that my second draft was pretty much a dud all around.  My first round opponent was rocking a very solid U/W control deck and although I had no idea who he was at the time I later found out he was one of the best players in Western Canada; he certainly played like it.  Game 1 started out fine as I flooded the board with "bears" and managed to stick a Trollhide early.  Unfortunately my opponent seemed to have an endless supply of Unsummons, Ponders and Divinations so my enchantment didn't last very long.  Eventually I managed to claw him down to 6 life with more than lethal damage on the table; unfortunately I'd also played every single card in my hand and when my opponent dropped the Day of Judgment he'd been drawing towards I knew my goose was cooked.  He naturally proceeded to cast 3-4 white creatures over the next 2 turns (including a Serra Angel) and when I could only respond with lands we were headed to game 2.  In between games I sideboarded out both Trollhides and replaced them with a Plummet and a Titanic Growth; I'd seen at least 2 unsummon effects in game 1 and I had a funny feeling my opponent had at least one Aether Adept in his pile to boot.  Unfortunately game 2 saw me mulligan to 6 and keep a fairly slow draw while my opponent rolled out some Ponders, a Mana Leak (I think, it was a counterspell of some kind) and a Divination.  Eventually however I managed to draw/play enough creatures to force him to cast a Peregrine Griffen and another blocker (I honestly can't remember).  This situation continued for a number of turns until I finally had him on 7 life with 4 cards in hand; one of which I was absolutely certain was a Day of Judgment.  My hand at this point consisted of a Belltower Sphinx, a land and a Carnage Wurm but I didn't have lethal damage on the table unless I were to cast one of those creatures.  After tanking for a few seconds I eventually cast the Belltower Sphinx and shipped the turn back to my opponent; this was not a popular choice with the crowd watching behind me based on the murmurs I heard but I was absolutely certain that my opponent was sandbagging his Day of Judgment.  Like clockwork my opponent untaps, draws a card and drops a Day of Judgment on me in about 3 seconds flat.  More disturbingly however he also plays a 2nd Island and passes the turn with 2 Island and a Plains untapped.  Now at this point I absolutely knew I was walking into a counterspell but when I drew yet another land to start my turn I really didn't see how I had much of a choice but to find out.   My opponent still had 3 cards in hand and it was a pretty fair assumption that at least one of them was a 3-4 power flyer; if I shipped the turn back he would likely just cast a creature and ship the turn back to me with his countermagic still available.  Mustering up as much confidence as possible I threw my Carnage Wurm on the table and tried not to groan openly when he responded with a Cancel.  Out of cards and out of options I could only watch in horror as my opponent cast 2 flyers on his next turn (Skywinder Drake and Assault Griffin I believe) and when I drew nothing relevant I was forced to concede a couple of turns later.

Fortunately for me, round 7 marked the end of day 1 at Nationals.  I was tired, frustrated and more than a little shaken from my last loss and at that point I was pretty sure I'd drafted a deck so poor that it would single-handedly eliminate me from contention before round 9 was over.  Thankfully several of my friends and fellow competitors were around to talk me down from the ledge and eventually I went home to a warm shower before spending roughly an hour and a half goldfishing my deck and examining possible sideboard options for day 2.  I don't actually remember falling asleep that night but I certainly remember waking up at 5:30 the next morning and wishing the organizers would hold big Magic events less than an hour away from "civilization".

Going into the first round of day 2 the one potential opponent I was hoping to avoid was Alexander Hayne.  Not only was he one of the best players in my pod but because of Mana Deprived's coverage of the event I knew Alex was playing a *very* strong U/B control deck that would likely make short work of my "pile of cheap creatures + Trollhide" build.  Naturally of course I would be paired against Alex but a funny thing happened on the way to my eventual defeat; Alex could not draw lands of his second color in either game.  Game 1 he played 4 Swamps and actually made a reasonably go of holding me off with a Royal Assassin;  until I dumped my hand and swarmed him to death.  Game 2 was worse as after mulling to 6 my opponent kept a 2 Island hand with a Merfolk Looter and managed to miss his 3rd land drop before playing yet another Island on turn 4.  Unfortunately my draw was actually very fast this game and Alex conceded with a 4 card hand that probably had as many good cards in it as my entire deck.  I can not stress enough how disappointing this match was to me personally; Alex is one of my favorite players in all of Canada and his deck was easily much better than mine.  I never go into a match hoping/expecting to lose but in this case I couldn't help but feel terrible for Alex; he didn't deserve to lose that round any more than I deserved to mulligan into oblivion for the rest of the day.

The third round of the second draft would once again see me paired against someone I had no desire to play in what amounted to an elimination game; this time it was local ace and all around "good guy" Andy Van Leeuwen.  As it turns out Andy was playing a W/R "min-maxed" aggro deck with a number of very very good cards and some "random bodies" to fill out his back 40.  Unfortunately what I didn't know at the time was that it really didn't matter what Andy was playing; I was about to embark on the single worst string of mulligans I have *ever* experienced in Magic and learn a whole new meaning for the word "variance".   Game 1 started out poorly; I lost the roll and then mulled into a slowish hand with a Runeclaw Bear and a Giant Spider as my only creatures.  Andy responded by casting an early Gideon's Lawkeeper and following that up with a turn 3 Fiery Hellhound.  Unfortunately I drew nothing but land and 5 drops and for a couple of turns Andy was able to tap out my blocker and swing freely for 4 damage with his pumped up Hellhound.  Eventually I managed to stabilize somewhat and I even had a Stingflinger Spider ready and waiting when Andy cast his Serra Angel.  Unfortunately I didn't have another answer when he followed that up with a Flameblast Dragon and I scooped as soon as he played the necessary land to "Fireball" me out in a single shot.  After the game I couldn't resist counting up my graveyard; I'd played 9 land and 5 spells in a 9 turn game.  Game 2 saw me board in Plummet and Ice Cage over a Runeclaw Bear and a Trollhide but I once again started the game by mulling to 6.  When my hand came back Plains, Island, Forest, 2x Oblivion Ring, Arachnus Web I actually wanted to mulligan again; unfortunately down to 6 cards on the play I simply couldn't turn down 3 playable removal effects at that point.  Sadly my first few turns really weren't much better; I drew absolutely no land and only one castable creature in my first 3 turns.  Andy also had a much slower draw this game but was easily able to Shock my only blocker and start getting in with a Goblin Piker and eventually a Lightning Elemental.  Missing land drop after land drop I was eventually forced to cast all of my removal spells on poor targets before I finally managed to hit 4 mana and cast a Giant Spider.  By this time I was hovering around 7 life and clearly out of legitimate removal spells so Andy dropped his Flameblast Dragon and shipped the turn back.  I did actually have one last play; I cast an Ice Cage on the Flameblast only to watch Andy "Shock" it on his mainphase and declare what would be a lethal attack.

The measure of a (wo)man: After game 2 I quickly signed the match slip and managed to wish Andy good luck in his future rounds before escaping the room for a quick smoke break.  Though I was doing my best to appear calm on the outside, inside I was upset, frustrated and most disturbingly of all; a little scared.  At this point in the tournament it was hard to tell what the cutoff line for the top 8 would be but everyone was pretty sure X-4 was right out and that any X-3 players to make it would most certainly need strong tiebreakers to do so.  Upset and on the verge of tears I was seriously tempted to just drop and go home immediately.  Thankfully my friends Tommy and Kelly were still with me and after convincing me to calm down the 3 of us started to go through the math together.  While at least 2 of my previous opponents had dropped almost everyone I'd played during the first draft was not only still in the tournament but doing exceptionally well; it might have taken a miracle finish but I was not mathematically out of the running quite yet.  Additionally Kelly reminded me that my original plan had been to "play Magic until the organizers kicked me out of the tournament hall" and as of yet that had not happened.  Hardening my resolve with a rare second cigarette I decided to make good on my promise and somehow "find a way" to run the table during the last 3 rounds of Standard.  As we walked back in the doors I even remember saying to Tommy that "at least it'll be easier, Caw Blade is a much more reliable deck than that pile I just drafted."       

Standard Deviations:  Unfortunately folks this is the part of the story that's sad, boring and repetitive.  As anyone who's heard me whining since Nationals knows I proceeded to lose all 3 rounds of Standard while constantly mulling bad hands into not appreciably better hands.  Frankly I've run through each of these games literally hundreds of times in my head and I can see absolutely nothing of value in sharing anything but the barest of details with you the reader.  My opponents were playing mono green elves, caw blade and caw blade respectively; to a man they were all extremely polite and respectful of my mana/mulligan issues and if I had to lose painfully while drawing no lands I could not have picked 3 nicer guys to do it against.  In fact after game 2 with Nassim Ketita we chatted pleasantly for a few minutes together about our match; I admitted that at that point after mulling yet again my heart was no longer in it and he offered some advice on how I might take my game to the next level.  To be completely honest by the final round I was just going through the motions anyways; I probably should have dropped after hitting 6 and 4 but I decided to keep my promise and forced myself to continue playing.  If there is one lesson I have learned from Nationals besides "variance kinda sucks sometimes" it's that I am not nearly as good a player when my heart isn't in the game.  Sometimes my emotions get in the way of playing "perfect" Magic but they are also a very important part of my core game as a Magic player; *shrug* guess I'll never be a robot from the future after all.  In lieu of a round by round match report that features the word "mulligan" 11+ times I would like to submit the following song as an accurate reflection of both my last 3 rounds and my general feelings about them: 

No fetch-land no cry, no fetch-land no cry
Say, say, said I remember when I used to hit
All of my land drops, right on time
Shuffa, shuffa, shuffle than head to six
As I wonder how this thing could happen to me
Good games I’ve had, and good games I’ve lost
But not this wa-ay
No cards, no future
The Japanese had it wrong
So shuffle up and pray

No fetch-land no cry, no fetchland no cry
Oh my little Angel; don’t make no birds
No fetch-land no cry

Say, say, yes I remember hitting six on six
And casting Con Sphinx for the win
And then Jace; he would draw cards all night
As it is; there is not a land in sight
That’s when I took, third mulligan
On Twitter; share with you
Can’t win mirror on just three lands
I guess that’s why I’m so blue
Hope that I’m wrong…

Every game gonna mull to 5, every game gonna mull to 5

No fetch-land, no cry
No, no fetch-land, no cry
Hey now my little Angel; don’t make no birds
No fetch-land, no cry.

After signing the match slip for round 12 I suddenly felt both very sad and extremely tired at the same time.  The fact that my journey was over and had ended so poorly after such a promising start was beginning to sink in fully; sapping whatever energy I had left after 2 days of Nationals that included 12 rounds of Magic and two separate drafts.  I took a last few moments to wander around the room and say goodbye to as many of my friends as I could find.  Finally, after excusing myself from several post-tournament dinner invitations I jumped into a cab with Tommy and started the long ride home.  Overall I would have to rate my Nationals experience as a positive one.  While I certainly wasn't happy with finishing 6-6 I learned quite a bit about myself as a player; including the fact that I actually *did* belong in that room as a Magic player after all.  While I can't speak credibly about the future I can say that right now I have every intention of earning an invite back to this tournament in 2012; and I intend to win it next time.
Well gang that's about all my fingers can take for the moment; there's a lot of humidity in the air here in Toronto and I may be developing a mild case of arthritis because my joints are starting to ache.  As always thanks for reading and I'm sorry this wasn't the most "fun" article I've ever written.  It's actually pretty hard to write about losing at Magic without sounding like a whiner; I intend to avoid losing in the future as a method of avoiding this experience. :)  Until next time guys and gals remember that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger and keep it weird folks.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Standard Deviations #20/Of Limited Interest #34: A National Disaster (Part II)

Hello everyone and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  For those of you just joining us this article is the 2nd part of my 2011 Canadian Nationals report; to read part 1 click here.  When we last left off I had just completed the 1st Standard portion of the event with a 2-1 record.  Though I certainly would have preferred to be 3-0 at that point I was finally starting to settle down and find my legs as a competitor by the end of the third round.

Friends in High Places:  After the 3rd round of Standard there was a much longer break than normal so that the judges/staff could set up the room for the draft portion of the event.  Up until then the overall pace of the event had bordered on "breakneck" and though I'd seen many familiar faces in the crowd I really hadn't had a chance to socialize.  After Kelly reminded me to grab some water we spent the next 30 or so minutes wandering around the room "making with the introductions"; in particular I was excited to meet the many members of the Mana Deprived team from Montreal and Ottawa whom I'd never met in person.  As it turns out Alexander Hayne is just as smart in person as he seems online, Phil Samms is just as funny and KYT is of course a straight up baller; the man was using $50 bills to clean the dirt off his sleeves between rounds I swear!  Probably the coolest person I met all weekend however was Nic Leblanc (@plaindude on Twitter).  In a room full of people taking themselves too seriously Nic was calm as a cucumber and I couldn't help but be a little jealous of his ability to crack jokes and stay "normal" even when the pressure was on.  Perhaps most importantly Nic seemed to be having a lot of fun and even though I was nervous about the tournament itself it was pretty hard not to have fun with him; his attitude was infectious.  Unfortunately I didn't get to talk to Justin Richardson much over the course of the tournament because whenever we were seated near each other the judges had specifically instructed players not to talk; hopefully I'll get more of a chance to chat with Justin next year if I qualify.  In addition to the Mana Deprived crew I also had a chance to hang out with Canadian MtG podcast icons Scott MacCallum (@mrscottymac) and Chris Lansdell (@lansdellicious) in the lobby outside of the tournament hall; unfortunately they along with Ben Clinton (@benc86) had to listen to my bad beat story from round 3 (Minbreak Trap?  Really?) but they were kind enough to keep chatting with me anyways.  Finally just before the draft portion of the event was about to start I managed to properly say hello to both Charlotte and Duncan who were judging in the event; though I consider them both personal friends I also knew they had major responsibilities in the tournament and I went out of my way to find a moment when they weren't busy to say "hi".

Hunting Dragons: Sitting down for the first draft bordered on a surreal experience; as previously mentioned I had never been to an invitational tournament before and thus was unfamiliar with how draft events work at a Competitive REL.  For starters I was assigned a specific pod and seat number before the draft even started and when I arrived at my table I found all 3 packs clearly labeled with both my pod and seat number on the table in front of my chair.  What's more the packs had been pre-opened to allow the judges to replace any foils, remove the land/token cards and finally stamp each card in the pack with a pack-coded symbol to make it literally impossible to cheat by adding cards to the draft.  Personally I thought this was pretty cool but I suppose in retrospect it's the only obvious way to absolutely guarantee a fair event for everyone involved.  As the other players slowly made their way to our table I was more than a little shocked by the strength of our pod; while I didn't know everyone there Nic Leblanc was immediately to my right, Brian Wells was on my left and a few seats right of me was Noah Long.  What's more even the players I didn't know seemed loose and confident; clearly this was not going to be an easy draft.  Once we were all seated the head judge came on the microphone and instructed everyone to remain completely silent and to avoid touching their packs until they were instructed to do so.  Naturally at that exact moment I was quietly making a poker/fish joke with the other members of my pod while holding my first pack; mortally embarrassed I quickly complied with the judges instructions and mentally reminded myself not to look like such a "newb" in the future.  Once the draft began I discovered the other major difference between a draft a Nationals and a Thursday night 8-man at your LGS; the draft was timed and controlled by yet *another* judge on the microphone.  Players were instructed to count their cards, given a specific amount of time to look, draft a card and then pass the pack to the next player spread out in rows of 3 to allow easy counting.  At first this was a little daunting but once I got used to the overall pace of the picks (they give you less time later in the pack just like MtGO) I managed to keep up quite easily.  Finally of course players were strictly forbidden to touch or look at their previously drafted cards while making actual picks; there was a brief review period after packs 1 and 2 but otherwise players were forced to rely on their own memory when making their selections.

My first pick out of pack 1 was a Mind Control which I snapped up very quickly; though my memory is usually pretty good when it comes to draft picks I was understandably quite nervous/excited so I didn't memorize every other card in the pack like I normally would.  What I do remember is that by taking the Mind Control I was probably closing off both Red and White as potential pairings; I know I passed a couple of very good red cards (Minotaurs, Shock?) and a pack full of good but not amazing white cards you'd never take over a Mind Control.  My opponent to the right passed me a pack with a bunch of random green creatures and an Aether Adept and then a pack with numerous playable but unexciting cards in all 5 colors.  I decided to keep signaling that blue was not open by taking a Divination even though it wasn't necessarily the best card in the pack.  I'm pretty sure my next pick was a Skywinder Drake and it was a 5th pick Giant Spider that ultimately put me on green to begin with.  My next 4 picks were Sacred Wolf, Turn to Frog, Llanowar Elf and Stampeding Rhino (though not necessarily in that order) before I closed off the pack with 2 Harbor Servants for my sideboard, a Merfolk Mesmerist in case I was screwed for playables and a Diabolic Tutor/Flight that I had no intention of playing.

Going into pack 2 I actually felt pretty good about my deck; opening a Mind Control early had made it pretty easy to cement myself into blue and based on how late I'd drafted my 4 green creatures I was pretty sure the color would be wide open for the rest of the draft.  Unfortunately the pack I opened had a bunch of good cards for other colors, no splashable removal and a bunch of fairly marginal creatures.  The rare turned out to be Jace's Archivist however so I decided to take it on the off chance I needed a backdoor "mill" victory condition and to continue signaling that blue was most definitely not open.  My opponent then proceeded to ship me an Azure Mage which I took ruefully over an Aether Adept primarily because I wanted to draw into Mind Control.  At this point most of the blue dried up in the next few packs and I started building on my green creature base by adding a Sacred Wolf, Lurking Crocodile and a Garruk's Companion to my pile.  The 6th pick in pack 2 saw me reach for a Cancel because I was worried about my blue playables while pick 7 handed me a Titanic Growth I was genuinely surprised to see in the pack.  Unfortunately the rest of the pack was pretty barren; I grabbed a late Greater Basilisk and a Naturalize for my deck in between taking a bunch of cards I had no intention of playing with (Thran Golem, 2x Merfolk Mesmerist, Lifelink, Levitation).

During the review period after pack 2 I started to become a little worried about my deck; while I certainly had the beginnings of a solid build the overall thinness of pack 2 had mostly undone all the value I'd generated in pack 1.  At this point I was basically hoping I'd signaled blue/green hard enough to pick up about 6-7 good cards and maybe another 2 solid playables.  Otherwise I'd be forced to main-deck cards like Harbor Servant and Cancel; a prospect I was not overtly excited about to be fair.  Naturally of course I open a pack with Overrun and after noting the Vengeful Pharaoh I was passing added the game-breaking green sorcery to my pile.  Flipping through the 2nd pack I was pretty excited to find that Nic had shipped me a bunch of quality blue and green cards until I hit the end of the pack and saw a Fireball waiting there.  I probably tanked on this decision for about 5 seconds total before I snatched up the Fireball; the fact is any time you have a chance to play with the 3 best uncommons in M12 Limited (Fireball, Mind Control, Overrun) you pretty much *have* to go for it.  This decision seemed even better when the next pack showed me a 2nd Azure Mage to go with my Divination.  Unfortunately at this point the picks become a little blurry in my memory; all I can remember is that both green and blue were apparently wide open and astoundingly deep in pack 3.  I grabbed an Aether Adept, a Belltower Sphinx, another Giant Spider, a Frost Breath, 2 Stampeding Rhinos, a 2nd Greater Basilisk, a Runeclaw Bear, an Unsummon, a Negate for the sideboard and a 14th pick Reclaim that was almost but not quite playble in a deck with Overrun, Mind Control and Fireball.

After the draft players were instructed to avoid talking with anyone about their selections and the judges were apparently pretty serious about this point; I got a stern reminder to keep quiet while I was talking to KYT about my deck at the land station up front.  I told the judge that we weren't even in the same pod but he replied "it doesn't matter, don't talk about it". Thankfully I really hadn't said anything particularly relevant and the judge seemed to understand instinctively that this was my first nationals but I felt a little bad for screwing up so many little things at that point.  Eventually I was assigned to a seat far away from the other members of my draft pod to register my card pool and build my deck.  This is the list I eventually submitted:

"Uncommonly Stompy" - U/G Aggro:

Creatures - 16:

1x Llanowar Elf
2x Azure Mage
1x Garruk's Companion
1x Runeclaw Bear   
2x Aether Adept
1x Skywinder Drake
2x Sacred Wolf
2x Giant Spider
1x Belltower Sphinx
1x Greater Basalisk
2x Stampeding Rhino

Spells - 7:

1x Unsummon
1x Titanic Growth
1x Divination
1x Frost Breath
1x Mind Control
1x Overrun
1x Fireball

Lands -17:

8x Forest
7x Island
2x Mountain

Analysis:  While I won't go so far as to say this is the best deck I've built here in M12 Booster Draft it's probably fair to say that it's just inside the top 10.  Anytime you can combine cheap fast aggro with card draw and multiple game-winning "bombs" you know you've got a good deck on your hands.  While obviously not every opening draw would dictate the same line of play, the basic idea was to flood the board with early aggressive creatures while generating momentum with key tempo cards like Aether Adept and Frost Breath. Once your opponent manages to stabilize (assuming he does) you start turning on the Azure Mages and go fishing for a game-winning bomb.  To be fair the deck would have been stronger with a couple more flyers, an Arachnus Web or two and maybe a Jade Mage to combine with the Overrun but all in all I felt it was about as good as one could expect when playing a color combination like blue/green.

Match Reports:  Round 1 I was paired up against a primarily white aggro deck with a significant number of flyers and a smattering of red removal.  At least I think he was splashing red removal; to be fair my memory of this match is a little wonky due both to stress and excitement.  I do remember losing game 1 when my opponent rammed out back to back Gideon's Lawkeepers by turn 3 before eventually finishing me off with a Serra Angel.  Game 2 went in my favor primarily because of a mid-game Mind Control (again I think) before we settled in for a long, complicated game 3.  I was on the back foot for most of the game as once again my opponent managed to drop 2 early Lawkeepers; his mana was weaker this time however and I was hanging around and trading damage with ground-pounders while activating Azure Mage and playing my Divination. Unfortunately I was still falling behind at that point and eventually I decided to sandbag my 2nd Aether Adept simply because I knew I was going to need a big turn to pull this game out of the fire.  Eventually we hit the moment of truth and after putting me dead on board next turn with a Serra Angel my opponent began to count up my mana and potential Overrun/Fireball damage from cards in hand.  At this point I think he was somewhere around 12 life and he decided to tap 5 of his 6 mana to cast a Peregrine Griffin "just in case".  I had 8 land in play so basically my only outs now would be Mind Control, Overrun or a Frost Breath to buy another couple of turns.  I proceeded to draw and cast the Overrun, bounced his Serra Angel with the Aether Adept and declared combat.  He tapped something out and then threw his Peregrine Griffin under my Greater Basilisk before asking "So I take 10?"  I replied "no, I do 1 damage to the Griffin with my Deathtouch Basilisk and you take lethal".  He seemed almost surprised that I knew how Trample/Deathtouch interacted so I must've been radiating newbie at that point still.  To be fair he may also have just been playing to his only out; me making a dumb mistake when assigning damage.  Like any good competitor my opponent was understandably upset about losing such a close match when he'd been about to win; the wiseguy spectator behind me didn't help matters much by informing my opponent that I'd top-decked the Overrun.  This was of course strictly true but I'd cast Divination that game and drawn something like 4 cards off an Azure Mage so I was kinda due at that point. 

Unfortunately I really don't remember a whole lot about round 2; I was paired up against Noah Long and I must confess to being a little starstruck during our match.  For those of you who don't know Noah is easily one of the top 10 players in Canada at any given time, a perennial member of the Canadian National team and has been winning at high level Magic for a long as I can remember; no easy feat considering that I'm 34.  He was playing B/R Bloodthirst with what seemed to be not enough creatures overall; I kept a slow hand game 1 and eventually lost to a Fireslinger, Tormented Soul, Scepter of Empires combo.  I think he may have done the last 5 points of damage with a Fireball but again things are a little hazy. Unfortunately I remember almost nothing about game 2 except Noah didn't cast very many creatures and I opened with something like Turn 1 Elf, Turn 2 Sacred Wolf, Turn 3 Garruk's Companion and Azure Mage.  He played some removal along the way but I just never slowed down from there.  Game 3 is likewise a blur; all I remember is that late in the game Noah and I traded off a bunch of creatures and he tapped out to cast a Volcanic Dragon; leaving it back on defense because I was threatening lethal.  I Unsummoned the Dragon, dropped a Titanic Growth and my gracious opponent scooped.   For whatever it's worth I was genuinely surprised at how polite, calm and otherwise friendly Noah was during our match; his play-style can best be described as "effortless" and it's pretty easy to forget you're playing a high level game of Magic while chatting with him.  I don't think this was a tactic either; Noah just seemed to genuinely play his matches at Nationals the way you or I would play at the kitchen table.  I was thoroughly impressed.

By the time round 3 of the first draft rolled around I was finally "in the groove" of things.  While 4-1 certainly guaranteed nothing at this point I was playing well, drafting well and starting to feel like just maybe I did belong in this tournament after all.  Combined with a general lack of sleep this produced a heady, euphoric feeling that oddly enough seemed to make me sharper and much more focused than normal.  It also seems to have affected my memory a little bit because I honestly remember very little about my round 3 match.  I didn't recognize my opponent's name on the pairings sheet but based on our 3 game match I have no trouble believing that he's a very good player.  I do remember that he was playing Jund (B/G/r) with a primarily green/black base.  He also played Chandra, the Firebrand all 3 games and even though I eventually killed her every time it typically cost me a significant amount of resources to do so.  I'm pretty sure I lost game 1, he was fairly creature light game 2 and I managed to grind him out with both copies of Sacred Wolf.  At one point near the end of the game he cast a Sorin's Thirst on his own Tormented Soul to buy another card/turn but couldn't top-deck the answer and scooped.  Game 3 was a long drawn out epic battle; I remember him casting a turn 3 or 4 Lurking Crocodile into an otherwise stalled board and even though I had the Mind Control in hand from the opener I was forced to let the Croc drag me down to 9 life before I could finally steal it for my side.  Along the way I managed to kill Chandra right before she went ultimate with a Rampaging Rhino + Titanic Growth that my opponent sniffed out easily and thus did not block.  Eventually he started to top-deck lands and I kept drawing creatures until my opponent simply ran out of blockers and life.  After the game my opponent was kind enough to offer me some advice on playing high-level tournament Magic.  He said that I show my emotions too easily and that it was very easy to read me and predict my next play because of this.  In particular he cited the turn where I Mind Controlled his Crocodile and noted that he knew immediately that I'd drawn the Mind Control simply because of how excited I was when I untapped.  Of course he was sorta wrong; I had actually opened the game with the Mind Control and the excitement on my face was primarily about being able to *finally* use it to stop the annoying 3/3 Islandwalker without surrendering tempo.  To be fair however he had easily made several plays during the match that made it clear he knew what cards were in my hand/deck and there's really no arguing that I'm a pretty emotional person; even outside of playing Magic.  Against weaker players this has often proven to be an asset because my confidence, determination and emotional investment in my matches will often convince my opponents I have cards in hand that I do not have.  Unfortunately against stronger more seasoned tournament vets it appears to have the opposite effect and I'd like to thank my round 3 opponent (whoever you are, sorry I didn't write your name down!) for pointing this out.

After the first draft there was another longer break to allow the judges to set the tables/packs up for the second draft of the tournament.  During this "cool down" period I began to feel incredibly dehydrated and as a result spent most of the next 20 minutes gulping down water and picking at a Subway Sandwich that Kelly and Tommy were trying to get me to eat.  Over the course of the weekend I probably had about 30 glasses of water and I *still* felt a little dry most of the time; next year if I qualify I intend to buy several 1.5L bottles of Gatoraide just to deal with this problem.  Partially because I felt a little sick and partially because a bunch of my friends had dropped out and gone for lunch I spent most of the time before the second draft slumped over a table with a glass of water in my mouth.  While I was certainly tired I felt prepared, confident and ready to windmill slam another draft; at this point I can honestly say I had absolutely no clue that this would be the high point of my tournament.  As it turns out, dark clouds were already gathering and while I was busy dreaming of a top 8 finish the universe was unfolding an entirely different plan around me.
Well folks, according to the poor soul who edits my work this is as good a time to break as any.  Apparently I'm a little "wordy" and if I add an entire draft report to this part it will be "too long".  While I'm personally inclined to disagree I do have to admit that my articles can run on the long side and that it's something I've been trying to work on; although breaking up one long article into multiple parts feels like cheating to me.  While it was certainly never my intention to write a 3 part tournament report for an event I finished .500 in I must admit that writing about the experience has been both fun and somewhat therapeutic; assuming you're willing to indulge me I'm fine with finishing up part 3 tomorrow.  As always thanks for reading and remember folks; just because a card is green doesn't mean it automatically sucks in M12 Limited. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Standard Deviations #20/Of Limited Interest #34: A National Disaster (Part I)

Hello ladies and gentlemen; welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  Before we get started I would like to note that this is not the tournament report I wanted to be writing just after Canadian Nationals.  It had been my intention to keep detailed round to round notes on the event and share my perspective as a first time participant in this tournament.  Unfortunately destiny had other plans for me and as my tournament unfolded I stopped keeping proper match notes because I was too busy wondering how many times someone can have to mulligan in a single tournament.  To say that my tournament did not end well would be something of a mild understatement so rather than reliving the experience round by round I've decided to write about the decks I played/drafted, the people I met and the fun I shared with 140 some odd amazing Canadian Magic players.  Hopefully this doesn't get too "sappy" but if it does feel free to make fun of me in the comments section as usual.

The Final Score: For those of you who wish to know the gory details I finished the tournament at 6-6 after opening up with a 6-2 record.  While I certainly won't pretend that there was no good luck involved in reaching 6-2 I can say without a doubt that there was an amazing amount of bad luck involved in my sudden fall.  In my last 9 games of the day I took a mulligan a total of 11 times.  What's more, I rarely was able to obtain a better hand by doing so and in most cases was forced to keep a bad hand simply because "at least it has mana in both of my colors".  Finally my top-decks were utterly "nightmarish" which frequently left me missing land drops or skipping entire turns in a format that simply does not forgive these offenses.  All in all I have to say that day 2 of Nationals was without a doubt the *worst* case of "variance" I have ever experienced in all my years of playing Magic.  In fact my "luck" was so bad on opening draws and during the proceeding turns that it's actually forced me to question the role of luck in tournament Magic after a near lifetime of believing that it really wasn't a significant factor; or at least not as significant as most players made it out be.  This isn't of course meant to imply that I feel I would have gone 10-2 with more normal draws/mulligans; the simple truth is that room was literally bursting with talented Magic players and I may well have lost long, hard fought battles with some of them even in normal situations.  Unfortunately I was simply not afforded the opportunity to provide any resistance whatsoever in most of my day 2 matches because I could not draw either lands or relevant spells despite having many of each in my deck.  Probably the best example of how my day went comes from the 3rd game of my round 10 match-up with Mono Green Elves; after mulling to 6 (again) and keeping a hand of Plains, Scalding Tarn, Tectonic Edge, Timely Reinforcements, Dismember, Day of Judgment I managed to lose the game on turn 8 or 9 with 2 copies of DoJ in my hand and exactly 3 lands total in play.  My opponent was a credible pilot but even he would tell you his game 3 draw was incredibly slow compared to what his deck can do on a good draw; I was simply never able to challenge his deck in any reasonable way despite having multiple cards in hand that would do so if I had just drawn a couple more land that game.  To say I was disappointed by this turn of events would border on comical; I left the tournament hall quickly after my round 12 match and almost on the verge of tears.

The Road to Nationals: Truthfully my journey to Nationals actually began about 8 months ago after I dropped out of GP Toronto with a high fever.  At that point I decided I was going to try competitive Magic a little more seriously and ultimately my invitation to Nationals was a direct result of those efforts.  In a less abstract sense however my tournament really began on Tuesday morning when my friend Jared arrived all the way from Vermont to help me test for Nationals.  I've mentioned Jared a couple times on this blog in the past but for newer readers he's a former CCG designer who happens to be both a close personal friend and one of the best card players I know.  In particular he is an incredible combo player; which was very important to me because my environment is typically dominated by aggro and Valakut decks.  As a result I had played a frighteningly low number of matches against the Splinter Twin, U/B Control and RUG Pod decks I expected to be quite common at Nationals.  When Jared arrived at 11 AM on Tuesday morning we immediately began proxying up copies of these decks and started battling; in the span of roughly 36 hours we must have played at least 180 games of Magic in the form of full sideboarded matches.  While I predictably lost several of these matches at first by the time Jared was ready to leave Wednesday night I was consistently beating U/B Control and Splinter Twin because I knew exactly how to play post-sideboarded games.  Unfortunately I had also learned that even bringing in 8-9 meta cards I was still a serious underdog to well played RUG Pod but Jared assured me that I would do better against weaker opponents come tournament time.  I can not properly express how important this marathon testing session with Jared turned out to be for my overall performance; not only did I learn how to play against 3 popular decks I had rarely tested against but I also learned how to play endless matches of Magic without getting tired, stressed or frustrated.  This would turn out to be incredibly important over the course of a 12 round tournament that included 2 drafts and a couple of 9 AM start times I would not have otherwise been prepared for.  I dunno if you can do shout-outs on a blog but I'm giving Jared a shout-out anyways; thanks for helping me become stronger when I needed it most Jared. 

With a Little Help from my Friends:  Unfortunately after Jared left there were a number of logistical problems I had to overcome before the tournament.  The first such problem actually occurred on Thursday morning when I woke up to discover that the two new kittens who'd arrived at my home had found a hole in the wall roughly the size of a ferret's head and that one of them (Riley) was completely missing; likely trapped or hiding someplace in the wall/floor of our 100+ year old building.  This prompted a 5 person 9 hour search that included calling for Riley, leaving food and water just outside the hole in the wall, shaking a belled mouse near the hole and all around the walls, asking neighbors if a cat had climbed out of their walls, flyer-ing the neighborhood with missing kitten signs, tearing 4 holes in various sections in the wall and finally forcibly removing 2 square feet of ancient floorboards from an upstairs room.  At roughly 7 PM my friend and co-worker Rich caught a glimpse of him by literally climbing halfway through a hole in the roof and using a flashlight to catch a reflection off his eyes.  Finally just before midnight I managed to climb into the roof-hole myself and using a flashlight to scare Riley all the way to the end of the passage under the floor allowed Leon to pull up the previously mentioned floorboard and rescue my 4 month old kitten.  Through the entire ordeal I must admit that I was in an open state of panic because I was afraid Riley might be dead and without the help of my friends/co-workers (Rich, April, Tommy, Scott and Leon) I don't know if I could have rescued Riley at all; thanks guys.  Naturally of course I was very happy to have my kitten back safe and sound but the search had essentially cost me my last day to prepare for Nationals.  The second logistical problem revolved around getting to the actual event itself; Toronto is in fact a very big city with several smaller cities essentially stapled to it as the metropolis grew over time.  While I personally live right downtown by the water, the actual tournament would be held almost an hour away by car in the "suburb" of Mississauga; you *can* get there by public transit but it would take roughly and hour and a half to do so as far as I can tell.  Thankfully my friend, co-worker and fellow card-flopper Kelly had the entire weekend taken care of and when I say taken care of I mean he literally planned every stage of the trip out for me so I could simply focus on playing my best Magic possible.  After scoping out the location during the Friday grinders Kelly arrived at my house at 6:45 AM both days with coffee and words of moral support before hailing me a cab and escorting me to a meet-up point with mutual friend and fellow MtG player Seth Black for a ride directly to the convention center.  Once we arrived at the tournament Kelly would enlist the help of Tommy and the two of them spent the better part of both days helping me stay on track; not only did they bring me water, food and coffee as desire but both of my friends stayed with me between rounds and helped me deal with all the highs and lows competing in a National Championship event will bring.  I can honestly say that without my friends (Kelly and Tommy in particular) I highly doubt I would have made it through both days of Nationals; thanks guys, from the bottom of my heart.

The Moment of Truth: To be completely honest with you by the time we arrived for sign-up and registration I was bordering on terrified; as I've mentioned on this blog before most of my tournament Magic experience comes from 8-24 player FNM events and LGS drafts.  I had never participated in an invitational event of *any* kind before this and realizing that I was going to enter a tournament composed entirely of the best and brightest players in Canadian Magic was more than a little intimidating.  Even the tournament room itself was a little scary; rows and rows of immaculately labeled tables covered in gleaming white cloth, a thick plush carpet so nice I kept thinking I should take my shoes off and finally at the far right wall was a giant judges podium that seemed to be set on a 3-4 foot platform over the rest of the room.  I was left with the sensation that I absolutely did not belong in this room on multiple levels; not as a Magic player and not as a ghetto hood-rat who's never even been to a nice hotel.  Thankfully my friends weren't going to let me back out at that point and after bumping into a couple of judges I know personally (Charlotte, Duncan) I settled down and found my seat for the player's meeting and our round 1 match-ups.  The player's meeting itself seemed kind of strange and pointless; mostly the head judge said a bunch of very obvious things about what was and wasn't legal at a Competitive REL event and the players rolled their eyes because you probably wouldn't be at Nationals if you didn't already know these things.  I also had no idea that my round 1 opponent would be the person sitting across from me during the players meeting but apparently this was somewhat common knowledge amongst the more experienced competitors. 

Once the player's meeting was over and the clock finally started on our round 1 match I honestly figured my jitters would pass; naturally of course I was very wrong.  Things started out dicey right away in game 1 as my opponent presented a deck for me to shuffle in brand new Silver Dragon Shields.  Now, I don't know if these sleeves are *designed* to produce warnings/game losses when your opponent shuffles but they are significantly more slippery than ultra-pros.  Despite my best efforts and direct attention to detail I managed to drop one of his cards onto the table; thankfully it landed face down so there was no need to call a judge over to explain that I can't shuffle Dragon Shields very well.  Once I'd returned his deck things improved slightly but I had kept a somewhat slow draw because I had no clue what my opponent was playing; as it turns out he was playing B/r Vampire aggro and after putting up a valiant effort I eventually succumbed to a horde of Bloodghasts and Pulse Trackers.  Sideboarding was pretty easy however and after shuffling/presenting for game 2 I was pretty sure I would sweep the next two games.  Unfortunately once again the "jitters" would strike; early on in either game 2 or 3 my opponent cast a Duress into a 1 land, 4 creature hand.  He tanked for a couple of seconds, gave me my hand back and said "go".  Naturally this excited me a great deal because he had failed to play a land, cast another spell or even attack with his Pulse Tracker so as I was untapping I said "thank you for that" and drew a card for my 3rd turn.  At this point my opponent says "I never said go" even though I distinctly heard him say just that; realizing that regardless of who is right (and I assure you I heard him say go, audibly) we were both in a bit of trouble now I called for a judge.  After explaining both of our positions to the judge I made a point of noting that I was not trying to deny my opponent his right to a turn and that my primary interest at this point is not being penalized for drawing a card "out of turn" when my opponent had clearly said "go".  Thankfully the judge agreed to allow the game to rewind to just after my opponent cast his Duress and we both proceeded to finish our match without further penalty or incident.  As I had predicted I won in 3; unlike some players I do not consider Vampires a "casual" or "non-viable" deck here in the post-bannings Standard.  It is however a pretty good match-up for Caw Blade in general and when I boarded in 3 copies of Celestial Purge, an Extra Day of Judgment, a 3rd Sword of Feast and Famine and 2x Mental Missteps there really wasn't much my opponent could do with that deck to stop me.  My round 2 opponent was one of the coolest people I met all weekend and openly admitted to me that he had recently returned to Magic after a long hiatus and was running a deck he was very unfamiliar with primarily because his test-team had said it was good in the format.  They were of course right; he was piloting RUG Pod which is probably the single worst match-up for the deck I was playing (Caw Blade) in Standard.  Unfortunately for my opponent his game 1 draw was miserable and I quickly overwhelmed him.  Game 2 saw a better draw for him but his unfamiliarity with the match-up began to shine through; on turn 3 he cast a Birthing Pod into my open mana to draw out a Spell Pierce and then repeated the effort on turn 4 only to meet a Flashfreeze.  Eventually I managed to stick a Sword of Feast and Famine and through judicious use of an Into the Roil and a 2nd Sword power past his Acidic Slime/Phrexian Metamorph combo to kill him with said Sword.  My 3rd round opponent was a pleasant young man from Red Deer Alberta who had traveled all the way to Toronto to participate in his 2nd (?) Nationals.  Unfortunately he was also playing U/R Twin and predictably I managed to lose game 1; although in this case it was primarily because I drew very few counterspells and missed 3-4 land-drops before having to tap out to generate some pressure and watching him combo off.  As is typical of the match-up game 2 was much more interesting and eventually our final board state looked something like this; my opponent had 7 land in play, one of which was a Scalding Tarn.  He was on 4 life and I had cast out 3 of my 4 Squadron Hawks; we both had completely full hands when I shipped the turn back to him and prepared for the ensuing counter war.  Sure enough my opponent dropped the Exarch at end step and on his turn cracked the Scalding Tarn for a Mountain and attempted to combo out with it.  Realizing that he had 3 mana open I decided to cast Mana Leak as my first answer; while his previous play had left no indication he'd be silly enough to actually pay the 3 mana I figured it wouldn't hurt to try.  Of course he did not do so and proceeded to drop a Dispell on my Mana Leak, to which I responded with a "free" Mental Misstep.  Not to be outdone my opponent responded with his own Mental Misstep which forced me to cast Mana Leak once again.  When my opponent responded with a Deprive I was almost 100% sure the game was mine; he was now completely tapped out and after letting all the counterspells resolve I went back to the top of the stack and cast Flashfreeze on the Splinter Twin.  With a huge grin on his face my opponent finally revealed his trump card and cast Mindbreak Trap for zero to win the game and match.  Laughing ruefully I could only stare at my 1 untapped mana and the Into the Roil in hand and wonder what might have been.  If the truth be told while I was unhappy to have lost the match I couldn't help but admire my opponent's preparation; in something like 100 test games against Splinter Twin I had *never* seen Mindbreak Trap played and yet looking at how most games between Caw and Twin end (5-6 card counterspell wars) it was the absolute *perfect* answer for that moment.   Overall I was fairly happy to be 2-1 after the first portion of Standard all things considered and I felt pretty confident about my chances in the upcoming draft portion of the tournament.  For those of you are curious this is the final 75 I entered the event with:

"Caw Blade Ver 5.0" - U/W Tempo:

Creatures - 9:

4x Squadron Hawk
1x Phantasmal Image
2x Emeria Angel
2x Consecrated Sphinx

Spells - 25:

4x Preordain
2x Spell Pierce
4x Mana Leak
2x Into the Roil
2x Dismember
2x Sword of Feast and Famine
2x Oblivion Ring
2x Timely Reinforcements
1x Jace Beleren
2x Day of Judgment
2x Gideon Jura

Lands - 26:

4x Celestial Colonnade
4x Glacial Fortress
4x Seachrome Coast
4x Island
3x Plains
2x Scalding Tarn
1x Arid Mesa
4x Tectonic Edge

Sideboard - 15:

2x Mental Misstep
4x Flashfreeze
3x Celestial Purge
2x Revoke Existence
1x Dismember
1x Jace Beleren
1x Sword of Feast and Famine
1x Day of Judgment

Analysis:  Believe it or not this is essentially the exact same version of Caw Blade I have been tinkering with since about 2 weeks after M12 was released.  At the time I considered it quite revolutionary; main-deck Timely Reinforcements, going back to Day of Judgment as a game 1 board-sweeper, Emeria Angel over Hero of Bladehold as a finishing creature and finally the inclusion of Phantasmal Image as a "1-of" catch all answer to both annoying creatures in the format and enemy Squadron Hawks in the mirror.  Unfortunately as those of you who watch the Star City Open series on a regular basis are no doubt aware virtually every one of these concepts have become part and parcel of the "standard" Caw Blade build on that circuit.  Watching the events leading up to Nationals itself was almost like watching my own deckbuilding process in fast forward; each week more and more "new tech" sprouted up on the circuit until after a mere 3 weeks nothing about my deck was a secret anymore.  To be fair I *also* learned a thing or two while watching those events; not the least of which is that Consecrated Sphinx wins more games, faster in the current format than both Frost and Sun Titan combined.  This naturally caused me to switch out my Titans for Con Sphinxes roughly 10 days before Nationals and the deck was essentially completed.  In terms of overall design philosophy I tried to focus on making the deck as strong as possible against a varied field; I really had no idea what kind of decks I'd see at Nationals and I wanted to make sure the deck I was playing could put up a solid fight against nearly anything I could possibly face in the tournament. 

What it's good at:  Like most Caw Blade decks running Timely Reinforcements, Day of Judgments and Gideons this deck excels against aggro strategies.  During testing I was consistently able to score pre-sideboard victories against RDW, Goblins, Elves, Vampires, R/G Aggro, anything Infect and G/W Aggro.  Tempered Steel was a much harder game 1 match-up but I could typically sweep games 2 and 3 post-sideboard quite easily.  This deck also tested out fairly well in the mirror and against other U-based control decks in general, including U/B, Grixis, U/R and Mono-Black control decks.  Naturally of course it rarely swept these matches but when played properly it was more than capable of stealing game 1 and winning 1 of 2 post sideboard with frightful consistency.  While I won't say it's "good" against U/R Exarch-Twin because the deck almost always loses game 1, but after literally 100+ test games with Jared I can honestly say that it's a 60/40, 65/35 post sideboard favorite in the match-up.  Of course these results were generated without the presence of Mindbreak Trap and I haven't had time to really consider exactly how much that card changes the game 2 and 3 match-up; at a minimum it makes me want to consider an additional Pierce/Dispell in the sideboard.

What it's not good at:  Frankly I'm starting to come to the opinion that Caw Blade decks as a whole aren't very good at "game 1".  While most of the problems I've experienced with the deck are easily answered in the sideboard the standard Caw Blade builds I've seen in tournament play will typically have numerous below-average to poor game 1 matches.  In this deck's case they are U/R Exarch-Twin, Tempered Steel, U/B Control, Mono-Green Elves, Pyromancer's Ascension and to a degree other Caw Blade decks with less creatures and more main-deck card draw effects (multiple Jaces, more Into the Roils, main-deck Azure Mages, etc).  It can also occasionally struggle with Vengevine based combo decks if you can't find/stick a Sword; although once again this becomes considerably easier post-sideboard.  The only really "bad" match-ups I came across during my testing were G/w Eldrazi ramp decks with Quicksilver Amulet and of course Caw's current format Nemisis; RUG Pod.  I wasn't exactly worried about the Eldrazi decks since they have a number of terrible match-ups in the format but frankly losing to expertly-play RUG Pod when you're siding in 10 cards (Flashfreeze, Dismember, Revoke Existence, Baby Jace, Day of Judgment) is pretty frustrating.  Despite the fact that I won my only round against this deck at Nationals I still feel RUG Pod is this deck's absolute worst match-up in Standard.

What the Sideboard does:  Much like the rest of the deck itself the sideboard was designed to cover as much ground in the format as possible with only 15 cards to work with.  To this end I focused on high utility answers like Flashfreeze, Celestial Purge, Day of Judgment and Jace.  This allowed me assemble a reasonable 5-9 card sideboard against virtually any deck in the format; although in many cases I would choose to maintain deck cohesion and leave some potential options in the sideboard as a result.  Here is a quick rundown of my sideboarding guide for Nationals:

Vs U/R Twin + 4 Flashfreeze, +3 Celestial Purge, +2 Mental Misstep, +1 Jace Beleren, +1 Dismember, -2 Day of Jugdment, -2 Timely Reinforcements, -2 Gideon Jura, -1 Phantasmal Image, -2 Sword of Feast and Famine, -1 Consecrated Sphinx, -1 Tectonic Edge

Vs U/B Control + 2 Mental Misstep, +3 Celestial Purge, +1 Jace Beleren, +1 Sword of Feast and Famine, -1 Phantasmal Image, - 2 Timely Reinforcements, -2 Day of Judgment, -2 Gideon Jura

Vs Red Aggro (RDW, Goblins) +3 Celestial Purge, +2 Mental Misstep, +1 Day of Judgment, +2 Flashfreeze, -2 Spell Pierce, -2 Mana Leak, -2 Into the Roil (sometimes Dismember instead if they are REALLY fast), -1 Phantasmal Image, -1 Jace Berelen

Vs Valakut +4 Flashfreeze, +1 Sword of Feast and Famine, +1 Jace Beleren, -2 Timely Reinforcements, -2 Into the Roil, -2 Dismember

Vs B/r Vampires +3 Celestial Purge, +2 Mental Misstep, +1 Sword of Feast and Famine, +1 Day of Judgment, -2 Into the Roil, -2 Dismember, -1 Jace Beleren, -1 Consecrated Sphinx  (against creature heavy decks with less removal/discard I leave the Dismembers in and board out the Spell Pierces instead)

Vs Tempered Steel + 2 Mental Misstep, +2 Revoke Existence, +1 Dismember, +1 Day of Judgment, -2 Spell Pierce, -1 Jace Beleren, -1 Mana Leak, -2 Consecrated Sphinx

Vs Pyromancer Ascension +3 Celestial Purge, +2 Flashfreeze, +2 Revoke Existence, +2 Mental Misstep, +1 Jace Beleren, -1 Phantasmal Image, -2 Dismember, -2 Timely Reinforcements, -2 Day of Judgment, -2 Gideon Jura, -1 Consecrated Sphinx

Vs Mono Green Elves + 4 Flashfreeze, +2 Mental Misstep, +1 Dismember, +1 Sword of Feast and Famine, +1 Day of Judgment, -2 Spell Pierce, -2x Into the Roil, -1x Phantasmal Image, -1x Mana Leak, -1x Jace Beleren, -1x Consecrated Sphinx, -1x Tectonic Edge.

Vs RUG Pod w/ Twin +4 Flashfreeze, +2 Celestial Purge, +2 Revoke Existence, +1 Dismember, -2 Gideon Jura, -2 Consecrated Sphinx, -2 Timely Reinforcements, -1 Jace Beleren, -1 Mana Leak, -1 Phantasmal Image.

Vs Caw Blade (Mirror) +2 Mental Misstep, +1 Jace Beleren, +1 Dismember, +1 Sword of Feast and Famine, -2x Timely Reinforcements, -2x Gideon Jura, -1x Day of Judgment

Vs Mono Black Control +3 Celestial Purge, +2 Mental Misstep, +1 Jace Berelen, +1x Sword of Feast and Famine, -2x Day of Judgment, -2x Timely Reinforcements, -1x Gideon Jura, -2x Into the Roil.
Well folks it's probably about time to wrap up part one here; the next 6 rounds of Nationals would be M12 Booster Draft format and writing about draft can eat through pages pretty quickly.  As always thanks for reading and be sure to check back in the next 24 hours for part 2 of my Nationals report where I'll talk about the two drafts I played in, meeting KYT again (and the rest of the Mana Deprived crew), playing against Noah Long and setting some kind of world record for mulling into oblivion on day 2.  Until then folks always remember the words of MtG sage Phil Samms; "it's just Magic."  Keep it weird.