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.


Monday, August 8, 2011

Of Limited Interest #33 - Dancing with Myself

Hello ladies and gentlemen out there on the "Intar-webs"; welcome to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  Before we get started today I'd like to apologize for the long delay between this and my last blog post.  As regular readers of this blog may already be aware I have qualified for the 2011 Canadian National Championships; which are being held on August 19th-21st in my hometown of Toronto.  To be perfectly honest with you I'm more than a little terrified about playing in this event; while I've been playing Magic for a *very* long time, most of my tournament experience comes from LGS 8 man drafts and FNM events with 12-25 people in attendance.  While it's true that I played in GP Toronto amongst a field of 1300+ people it's also true that I left that event 4-2 after becoming incredibly sick over the course of the day.  Simply put I expect that Nationals will probably the hardest tournament I've ever played in and as such I have been spending nearly every waking moment practicing for this event.  I'm drafting M12 every single night on MtGO, I'm averaging 75 or so games of Standard a week against a wide variety of decks/opponents and I've even been cracking open sealed pools and battling to get a head start on preparing for GP Montreal.  Unfortunately playing somewhere around 125 games of Magic a week doesn't leave a lot of time for writing and worse still I can't really write about all the Standard games I've been playing.  Several of my friends are attempting to grind into Nationals on the Friday before the tournament and may well end up playing one of the 6-8 decks we've been play-testing as a group so I've been sworn to temporary secrecy.  All I can really say is that we've been testing a lot of variations on Caw Blade, Red Deck Wins, Tempered Steel, Valakut, 2-3 different types of Twin decks and several RUG builds; with and without Birthing Pod.  At one point I was also tinkering with U/B Control (again with and without Tezzeret) but since it showed absolutely no signs of every beating even mediocre Caw Blade decks I quickly gave up.  Editor's Note: as I say this Ali Aintrazi is crushing David Ochoa in the U/B on Cawblade match-up in the finals of the US National Championships.  I have two possible answers to this contradiction; either my Caw Blade opponents draw much better than Dave (not hard) or Ali is a way better U/B Control player than I am (also not hard).

Thankfully I *can* still talk about M12 Limited and now that I'm a few weeks into the format there are a number of things I've noticed that weren't so obvious when I first starting playing it.  While most of these observations consist of minor tweaks to my master pick order lists, some of them have fundamentally changed how I look at M12 Limited formats as a whole.  Unfortunately as this article covers tips for both M12 Sealed and Draft it's a little "ramble-y"; please forgive me, playing as much Magic as I have been recently does funny things to your brain.  Let's get things started by talking a little bit about Sealed:

Two-Fisted Sealed:  Okay so I'm not going to bore you by going over the basics of Sealed deck-building here in this article; by now everyone knows you want to play as many of your bombs as possible, to try to prioritize "power" over curve, don't be afraid of going 3 colors, play control over aggro unless you open "the nuts", etc.  This is actually pretty solid advice for when you open a pool with a comfortable mix of bombs/removal/creatures in 2.5 colors but in my opinion Sealed deck is the easiest format to "solve" in Magic when you open a *good* pool.  The problem of course is that you aren't always going to open a good pool; sometimes you're going to be stareing at 6 packs worth of garbage and trying to figure out if you can really win games with 3 Fiery Hellhounds and a Goblin Tunneler (the answer is yes; but it won't be easy).  Naturally this has lead to the common assumption that Sealed Deck play is all about luck and opening/being passed a good pool. This assumption however doesn't hold up to scrutiny when you examine the results of high level sealed tournaments (mostly GP level events); the same players consistently fight their way to the top over and over again despite having a new pool at each event.  No rational person in the world can assume that these players simply "always" get lucky and rip an awesome pool so clearly there's some sort of skill involved here that allows these players to win with what others consider "bad cards".  What's more if it truly *is* a skill that means it can be practiced and learned by anyone willing to put in the time and effort to do so.  Unfortunately practicing for sealed is actually pretty hard in a traditional sense; not only are there way fewer Sealed events held for you to attend it's typically hard to talk a bunch of your friends into plunking down the cheddar for 6 packs to play 2-3 practice rounds of Sealed.  In fact I personally never really enjoyed practicing for Sealed events in the past simply because I never really felt I was getting "value" out of the 6 packs I opened; if you can't sell an idea to a MtG junkie like me who can you sell it to?  Thankfully one night while screwing around with M11 Sealed my boyfriend came up with possibly the single greatest idea he has ever shared with me: what if you had to build 2 decks with the same 6 packs and play each of them against each of your opponents decks?  Once I'd picked my jaw up off the floor we spent the next 45 minutes arguing about the rules of the format and eventually "Two-Fisted Sealed" was born:

The Rules:
  1. Each player has 6 packs from which to build 2 completely separate 40 decks; standard Sealed deck-building rules apply and players will be provided with as many basic land as they require to build their decks.  Once you assign a card to one deck it may not be moved into the other deck for post sideboard games.              
  2. Each player must assign his remaining cards to the sideboard of either one or the other deck.  This rule is designed to prevent someone from building 2 horrible decks and then simply sideboarding into all of her good cards for games 2 and on.  Yes, I thought of doing this the first couple of times we played the format; really.
  3. Match play consists of a series of best of 3, 5 or 7 game battles between each of the opposing player's decks.  This then produces a series of 4 matches as Player X plays his Deck A against Player Y's Deck A, then Player Y's deck B before switching to his Deck B and so on.  Typically it is customary for the loser of the first match to switch decks first.
Advantages:  Well for starters you can play Two-Fisted Sealed with as few as one other player; in fact if you're playing best of 7 matches I highly recommend avoiding adding too many other opponents to the event.  Additionally you simply get more value out of this format than traditional sealed; the purchase of as few as 12 packs can gain you as many as 28 games of Sealed Magic.  Probably the most important advantage this format has over traditional Sealed however is that it *forces* you to learn to gain value from all of the marginal cards you normally wouldn't include in a "good" Sealed deck.  Simply put it's going to be a rare set of packs that can produce 2 well rounded decks full of good to excellent cards for you to battle with.  What's more in order to build two functional decks you'll probably have to splash into all 5 colors which in turn will force you to learn more about mana bases, card draw effects and splashing in general.

Strategy:  After playing Two-Fisted Sealed a couple hundred times I've found that deck-building basically comes down to 2 formal strategies.  Either you divide your cards into two equally powered decks to give yourself the best possible chance to win each and every single match, or you build one super-powerful deck that's guaranteed to stomp opponents into the ground and try to eek out match wins with your weaker deck "by any means possible".  There are advantages and disadvantages to both styles of play and typically your pool will play better one way or the other depending on the cards you open.  As a general rule however I feel it's usually better to build one "good" deck and one "hope I don't lose" deck so at least you get *some* quality games out of your packs no matter what.

As a final note I should mention that when my friends and I play this format we usually break our decks down after all of the matches are complete and build a "normal" best sealed deck out of them as well.  This is important because while learning to play with marginal cards is a vital skill in Sealed you also want to know how to build the best decks possible out of 6 packs.  Additionally this allows us to play yet *another* matchup and get 3-7 more games out of the same 12 packs; value is value.

The Number 4:  As longtime readers of this blog will already be aware I'm a firm believer in the concept of size-based "tiers" regarding creatures in a given limited format.  This is basically a fancy way of saying that in every format there's a certain basic stat combination that automatically makes a creature more valuable than smaller critters in the same format.  Typically this will be caused by a combination of the majority of other creatures in a set being smaller and the available removal spells that can contain these larger creatures being somewhat scarce.  If you can't easily kill it and you can't profitably trade with it in combat even a vanilla "X/X" creature with dominate the board for entire turns at a time.  Here in M12 I've found that opponents will typically struggle to deal with any creature that is 4/4 or larger; this isn't to say that casting these creatures will automatically win you the game but in my experience the first 4/4 to hit the table quickly outclasses/invalidates most of the "weenies" already in play and immediately signals that the contest has shifted into the "mid-game".  The 4 power is key because it enables a steady 5 turn clock that forces your opponent to block while simultaneously tearing through the various 2/4 "Walls" common to virtually every Limited format in MtG history.  Alternately the 4 toughness is important because it allows your creature to freely attack into defending weenies of which a surprising number have 3 power here in M12.  Simply by casting a random 4/4 "badboy" you will force your opponent to take one of 3 actions; cast his own 4/4 or larger creature to threaten a trade with yours, spend a premium (Doom Blade, Pacifisim, Fireball, Chandra's Outrage, etc) removal spell or block with multiple creatures and risk a potential in-combat blowout.  If he does not you will likely maintain board control with this single creature and eventually grind out the win; all other things being equal.  While naturally evasion, printed keywords or activated abilities will play at least some part in your pick rankings the fact is that in M12 Limited just being "4/4 or bigger" is enough to give a card extra value in this format.  Let's take a look at the list of common and uncommon creatures here in M12 that match this description:
  1. Serra Angel: This card makes the top of the list primarily because the combination of Flying, Vigilance and a 4/4 body for 5 mana is pretty hard to beat.  Of course you didn't need me to tell you Serra Angel is a good card and consequently she's be going around about where she should go in both the "real life" and online drafts I have been playing in; 1st-3rd pick at the latest.
  2. Vampire Outcasts: Coming in right behind Serra is one of the cards I feel is being most undervalued in M12 draft right now; Vampire Outcasts.  A 4/4 beat-stick with Lifelink absolutely should *not* cost 4 mana; the commitment to double black and the necessary work to turn Bloodthirst on is more than worth it when you drop this guy onto the table in his full glory.  In a recent MtGO 8-4 I managed to grab 2 copies of this guy to go with 2 copies of Doom Blade and I have no problem saying that overall the Vampires were the better card.  They were particularly effective at shutting down the Bloodthirst and/or Aura-based aggro decks I often face here in M12; my opponent could not outrace me and at 4/4 on turn 4 it easily outclassed the various "bears" they were running.  Right now this card is sticking around in packs as late as 4th or even 5th pick and that makes no sense; this is a 1st pick card in an average pack and should be going absolutely no later than 3rd.
  3. Sengir Vampire:  Another classic Limited staple, Sengir Vampire makes this list primarily because he's a 4/4 flyer that happens to be immune to one of the best removal spells in the format; Doom Blade.  Big, evasive bodies are hard to deal with in Limited and at 5 mana this card is pretty easy to cast in your traditional 17 land deck.  In terms of pick value he's just a little bit behind the first two cards on this list; you could easily pick him 1st out of an average pack but if the packs were particularly hot I could see Sengir going as late as 4th.
  4. Gorehorn Minotaurs:  I really, really struggled with ranking the Minotaurs this low on the list.  After all if 4/4 is the cutoff line for a solid "beater" in the format how amazing is a card that trumps all of your opponent's 4/4's *and* laughs in the face of Chandra's Outrage?  The answer is very, very valuable indeed and I have first picked this card out of a pack without hesitation on a number of occasions so far here in M12 with satisfying results.  It certainly doesn't hurt that picking up an early Minotaurs firmly cements you into red which happens to be the best color overall in the set.  By the way; have I mentioned that you get all this for the ridiculously low price of 4 mana?  Helllooo Blastoderm!  Unfortunately the lack of Flying or Trample keeps this card from being truly game-warping which explains the #4 ranking on this list.  In many situations however the Gorehorn Minotaurs can actually be better than the cards listed above it and as a result it's a pretty solid 1st to 4th pick.  As recently as 36 hours ago I was passed a 7th pick Minotaurs in pack 2 and there is just no way that should be happening at this point in the format.
  5. Cudgel Troll:  Coming in significantly behind Gorehorn Minotaurs but at the top of our list of "2nd tier" 4/4 beaters is the reprinted favorite; Cudgel Troll.  Okay so he's not really a 4/4 but the fact is that he can attack profitably for 4 damage and with the expenditure of a single green mana come home to talk about the experience with his pals.  This can often make him *better* than your typical 4/4 since he productively trades with them in combat; only a desperate man would throw a Bonebreaker Giant in front of your Cudgel Troll if you had mana available to Regenerate it for example.  The downside of course is that Incinerate still kills him like a bug and he'll spend all day stareing down a Blood Ogre wishing he had 4 toughness.  Additionally his double green mana cost and activated ability force you into a color that is considered "less desirable" in M12; although to be fair I think this is a much smaller drawback than most people believe it is (more on this later).  As far as pick orders go I'd never want to take a Cudgel Troll higher than 3rd in a pack but he probably shouldn't last longer than pick 5 either.
  6. Volcanic Dragon:  While I'm hesitant to jump aboard the "M12 is an aggro format" train it's pretty hard to argue that the divide between 5 and 6 mana in the set is pretty huge.  This isn't to say that 6 mana cards are uncastable in M12 but they are significantly harder to play in a format where it's so easy to maintain both early and constant pressure.  Typically by the time you are on 6 mana you will either be firmly in control of the game or being swarmed by numerous smaller creatures that demand an immediate and overwhelming response.  In the first situation Volcanic Dragon is pretty much the ideal card; 4/4 flying and haste can end games quickly before your opponent can respond.  In the second situation however Volcanic Dragon is pretty average; he's a good flying blocker but Haste compares poorly with Serra's Vigilance or Sengir Vampire's ability to get bigger every time he executes an attacking weenie.  This isn't to say that the Dragon is a *bad* creature; 4/4 flying beats is still a pretty decent bargain even at 6 mana.  With that noted however I consider this card to be slightly weaker than Cudgel Troll and as such would prefer to draft it around picks 3-5 in all but the most marginal packs.
  7. Phantasmal Dragon:  Possibly the ultimate boom or bust pick in M12 Limited, I have been treated to exactly two experiences in the format every time I cast Phantasmal Dragon; either my opponent does not have a near worthless targeted effect and I immediately set about winning the game or my opponent *does* have such an effect and my monster dies posthaste.  There is absolutely no in between with this card and I find that when it *is* going to die my opponents have an uncanny knack for drawing their most marginal spell immediately after I cast the Illusion; there's nothing more humiliating than losing a 5/5 Flying Dragon to a Divine Favor or a Consume Spirit for zero damage.  In particular I find the card almost worthless against blue and white decks; cards like Gideon's Lawkeeper, Aether Adept, Frost Breath, Ice Cage, Alluring Siren, Mighty Leap and Unsummon make it frighteningly easy to destroy your Phantasmal Dragon.  Naturally of course if your opponent has to spend an actual *good* removal spell to kill the Dragon (Doom Blade, Chandra's Outrage, etc) you're far less worried and on the occasions your opponent can not answer the Dragon at all you win the game extremely quickly.  Personally I find the Illusion mechanic in M12 frustrating/annoying; which explains why I'd rank a flying 5/5 beatstick behind Gorehorn Minotaurs.  In my opinion this card is no better than a 3rd pick and I could easily see it sliding as far as pick 6 in a very strong pack.  With that having been noted however I have both won and lost games in M12 on the back of Phantasmal Dragons and I couldn't fault someone for liking the card more than I do because of it's tremendous potential to win games.
  8. Stampeding Rhino:  While arguably a somewhat generic "fatty", Stampeding Rhino is blessed with one of the most relevant traits in M12 or any limited format for that matter; Trample.  This seemingly innocuous keyword has a habit of shaping entire games and helps the Rhino come in comfortably at the top of our "3rd tier" 4/4 monsters and #8 overall on this list.  While I obviously wouldn't go so far as to suggest he was as good as a flyer, Trample does act as a form of "psuedo-evasion" because your opponent can very rarely chump block profitably with his various early game weenies.  This not only shortens your clock but it puts increasing pressure on your opponent to deal with the Rhino or eventually find himself "trampled under it's hooves".  This is an absolutely tremendous value for 5 mana and right now I believe this card is being *criminally* undervalued at draft tables everywhere.  Stampeding Rhino plays on the table like a 4th-7th pick card and yet can easily be had as late as 8th-10th in almost every draft I've participated in so far.  There is absolutely no way this guy should be going later than Garruk's Companion and Sacred Wolf unless you have some serious problems with your mana curve at that point in the draft.   
  9. Bonebreaker Giant:  The "ham and cheese sandwich" of M12 Limited, Bonebreaker Giant is all about giving you what you need with no extra frills.  This guy is probably the ultimate example of what I mean when I say that simply being "4/4" is an ability in it's own right here in M12 Limited; with absolutely no relevant keywords or traits whatsoever the B.B. Giant will still usually become the immediate focal point of any battlefield he's cast onto.  Besides being 4/4 his other primary attribute is that he's a red card which means he makes a nice pick-up after you've finished drafting Gorehorn Minotaurs and removal spells.  In terms of true value  B.B. Giant feels like a solid 5th-7th pick but I've frequently seem him handing around packs well after pick 9.  Once again the comparisons to other cards in this color that are frequently drafted ahead of the Giant are somewhat comical; Fiery Hellhound, Manic Vandal and Goblin Piker are all considerably worse creatures and yet I've seen them consistently chosen before Bonebreaker Giant.
  10. Griffin Rider:  To be fair when this card is actually functioning as a 4/4 flyer for 2 mana it's probably worthy of a much higher ranking than this.  Of course the fact that you have to have *another* creature that says "Griffin" in play to make it a 4/4 is what's holding it back.  Furthermore most of the cards that *do* say Griffin in this format are pretty underwhelming on the table despite looking fairly decent at the outset of M12.  Assault Griffin is too fragile for it's 4 mana cost, Peregrine Griffin needed 5 toughness to be an effective blocker in the format and Griffin Sentinel quickly goes from super Hawk/Wall to "annoying distraction" the moment someone drops a 3/3 Flyer.  Finally of course unless you have multiple Griffins in play at all times you will constantly have to live in fear of your opponent destroying your enabler and blocking the now 1/1 Griffin Rider; likely generating a blowout in the process.  Despite these many drawbacks however it's pretty hard to ignore the potential power of attacking with a 4/4 flyer on turn 3 and as such this is a card that should remain constantly on your radar.  Personally I value it in the 5th to 9th pick range; ideally I'd like to get my first Griffin Rider late in pack 1 around picks 8-9 but as the draft continues and I accumulate more Griffin cards I'm likely to ratchet that up all the way to a 5th pick or so. 
  11. Carnage Wurm:  To be frank I'm starting to think this might actually be a pretty bad card in M12 draft; while I've had great success running it in Sealed decks I have now drafted this card 3 times and on every occasion lost at least one game that night while stareing ruefully at the Carnage Wurm and repeatedly counting 5 or 6 mana on my board.  What's more every time I was able to cast him he promptly met a Doom Blade or was part of a game I was already winning by a very wide margin without even playing the Wurm.  Simply put 7 mana is fine when I'm getting a 5/6ish flyer with a bonus Fact or Fiction/Diabolic Tutor but it's just not a good value for a random "big trample" guy in a pressure based format like M12 draft.  Personally I wouldn't want to draft this card before pick 7 or 8 but I often find myself cutting it out of packs for signaling purposes as early as pick 5.  Considering that I tend to sideboard it out for game 2 against all but the slowest decks it's real value is probably more like pick 9-10.
  12. Vastwood Gorger:  In a pinch this card can serve as a reasonable "bomb-like substance" in a deck that has a *lot* of other, better cards.  For example if you used your first 3 picks in every pack to draft a sick removal spell there's a pretty good chance you missed out on all the "good" beaters and you might have to resort to a card like Vastwood Gorger to finish your opponents off in a timely manner.  Otherwise however this is a pretty marginal card; as previously mentioned 6 mana is somewhat awkward in this format and in this case the payout of a blank 5/6 creature is really not worth it.  Personally I'd rate this card as a 10-12th type pick but I could see it going around pick 8ish in pack 3 if someone was just that desperate for a fatty.
  13. Harbor Serpent:  There is basically one situation in M12 limited where Harbor Serpent is playable; you have a deck with multiple copies of cards like Merfolk Looter, Divination and Azure Mage that simultaneously lacks relevant "finishing" creatures that don't cost 6 mana or demand that 5 Islands be in play to actually attack.  In this situation it is perfectly acceptable to maindeck exactly 1 copy of Harbor Serpent and hope it helps you "mise" a game or two over the course of the tournament.  Otherwise this is a devastating sideboard card in the blue on blue match-up and I will often make a point of selecting 2 copies of this card before the draft is over entirely because of this.  In terms of pure value this is a 10th-12th type pick but I occasionally find myself taking it much higher (8th or so) in pack 3 once I'm sure I have significant competition for blue at the table.   
Editor's Note: I purposely left Thran Golem off the list because I knew we'd be talking a lot about him in this next section.  In terms of functionality he's basically the same card as Griffin Rider except the payout is better while the support cards (Auras vs Griffins) are worse.  I also left Crumbling Colossus off the list because in my experience he's not actually very good at grinding games out in m12; on the table he tends to act as a very big "Wall" that eventually turns into a burn spell.
Disenchanted:  Based on my experiences in numerous recent MtGO drafts I suspect that what I am about to say may shock and hurt many of you.  Unfortunately it's for your own good and frankly for mine as well because playing so many *bad* decks online is starting to drive me a little batty.  Okay, ready? The truth is that even though Auras are definitely a sub-theme here in M12 Limited for the most part they are still pretty bad.  Now before you start yelling at me please give me a moment to explain myself; I am not saying that all Auras are bad or that there is no reason to draft or include Auras in your deck.  For starters, Pacifism (and to a degree Arachnus Web) is still a very early pick and it will be fairly rare draft where I'd be willing to ship an Angelic Destiny.  Additionally it's hard to deny that on the right creature (specifically something with Hexproof) a card like Trollhide or Spirit Mantle is more than capable of winning you games.  The key here is it *has* to be the right creature; Hexproof is not exactly a common ability in this format and throwing a stat-pumping Aura on "any ole random duder" is just as good a way to get 2 for 1'd here in M12 as it was in previous formats.  I simply can not count the number of games my opponent has dropped a Goblin Arsonist on turn 1 and followed it up with a Goblin War Paint on turn 2 to "get in there" for 3 damage here in M12; surprisingly enough I have lost precisely zero of these games.  Even the Hexproof trait isn't always enough to make a given stat-boosting Aura worth playing; putting a Divine Favor on a Gladecover Scout really doesn't make either card in this equation any better for example.  Probably the worst offender however is the much-beloved and highly overrated Thran Golem; look I love a Flying, Trampling, First Striking 5/5 Flying beatstick for 5 mana as much as the next gal but in my experience the effort and risk you put into creating a "super-Golem" *rarely* actually leads to this outcome.  What's more because the Golem itself looks so powerful on paper he will almost always be over-drafted in this format; along with the Auras required to feed him.  I don't know about you but losing 2 top 5 picks to a single Doom Blade doesn't sound like a great way to win drafts to me and in my personal experience this card has actually bordered on bad when I've seen it played.  Just the other night for example my opponent dropped a Dark Favor on his Thran Golem and crashed into me for 8 damage only to watch me top-deck an Acidic Slime; I suppose you could argue that damage was worth 7 mana and 2 cards but considering I finished the game at 11 life I'm not entirely sure how valid that argument would be.  So when are Auras good?  When they give a creature that's already hard to kill both a stat bonus and an additional ability; this is what makes cards like Spirit Mantle/Trollhide good (but not great) while cards like Divine/Dark Favor and Goblin Warpaint remain extremely "marginal" cards.  In my opinion the simple truth is that Auras are a powerful but relatively minor theme here in M12 Limited; they're nice when you combine the right Auras with the right monsters but overall the theme is simply not deep enough to build entire decks around.  In other words putting a Trollhide on an Aven Hexwing is a *very* good play but selling out to play an Aura based strategy without a *significant* number of quality Hexproof creatures (Fleetwin, Sacred Wolf, umm Dungrove Elder; this is not a long list folks) is most certainly not.  At best a given 8 person draft table can support two players running an Aura based strategy and right now it seems like every table I sit down to draft at has *twice* as many people drafting Auras as there are quality cards to support the theme.  Finally I should mention that with so many people over-valuing Auras in the format it becomes a very smart idea to load up your sideboard with "Disenchant" or "Bounce" effects to help contain these cards.  While you may have to waste a mid pack pick or 2 on an Unsummon if you're in blue, cards like Naturalize, Stave Off and Demystify can be just as effective at controlling enemy Auras and can usually be snapped up *very* late in M12 packs.  In fact if you're running short on playables it's probably a good idea to include any one of these cards as your 23rd card over marginal "bodies" just to fill out your curve; right now people have gone so Aura happy it will actually be *hard* for you to find a match-up where you can't gain value from these cards.

Actually, it's Pretty Easy Being Green: Okay so this point is almost entirely about MtGO 8-4 tournaments but as it pertains to color valuations in M12 Limited at large I feel it's useful even if you never play MtGO. To put it bluntly; I and nearly everyone else who said green wasn't any good in M12 Limited was wrong. Not completely wrong; the fact is green is still pretty thin at the top compared to the other colors in the format. It is however *much* deeper than I had originally expected and as a result using green as your secondary support color and a way to get undervalued "beaters" passed to you later in packs is actually a very smart idea here in M12 drafts. What's more because everyone seems to believe that playing green in an 8-4 is a fate worse than death it's being woefully under-drafted right now online!  Just recently I found myself playing in 3 consecutive drafts where an early Overrun (1st-2nd pick) forced me to go into green and I quickly found myself absolutely flooded with amazing cards from both directions.  In one draft I was passed a 4th pick Stingflinger Spider, a 9th pick Garruk's Companion, a 10th pick Arachnus Web and most unbelievably a 13th pick Lurking Crocodile.  The next two drafts were more of the same; 5th pick Acidic Slimes, very late Arachnus Webs and random Stampeding Rhinos lying around like they were Goblin Pikers.  Probably my greatest coup however was in the 3rd draft when already rocking 2 Overruns and a Fireball I was actually shipped a 4th pick Arachnus Spider to go with the 2 Arachnus Webs that had been passed to me earlier in the draft.  Needless to say I won that draft without losing a single game; although a couple games were very close because I have an uncanny ability to mana flood constantly while playing MtGO.  Naturally of course if you do go into green you'll want to pair it with some solid removal cards in another color but right now this is actually pretty easy to do; if people are going to freely pass solid green creatures late in any given pack you can simply use your early picks to snatch up all the good removal in other colors and just ease into green when the Rhinos/Wolves/Basilisks start tabling.  I should mention at this point that I'm hardly recommending that you try and force green in your next MtGo 8-4; the color remains short on both "bombs" and "removal".  What I am suggesting however is that building the very best draft decks is still about gaining as much value as possible with your later picks and if people keep passing cards like Giant Spider picks 5 and 6 it would behoove you to jump into green to take advantage of your opponent's miss-evaluation of the format.  This is particularly effective online where "sliding into green" seems to be pretty comparable to "farming for Magic packs" at this exact moment.

Drafting Like Al Davis:  For those of you who don't follow professional football; Al Davis is the owner and some would say complete dictator of Oakland's professional football franchise, the Raiders.  He's also one of the most brilliant and important men in the history of football or at least he was until he apparently went stark raving mad sometime during the mid 90's.  In Al's defense he's 82 years old and has a long history of seeing opportunities where others see trash and eventually making these gambles pay off.  Unfortunately this hasn't translated to his football team recently because while drafting/signing players for his franchise Al has become the ultimate gambler; eschewing conventional wisdom year after year Al directs hist team to draft high variance "boom or bust" players *long* before other teams would even consider taking such a gamble.  Sometimes this pays off of course but most of the time Al and the Raiders end up choosing a pretty poor football player and the team suffers because of it.  Look up the names Jamarcus Russell, Todd Marinovich or Bob Buczkowski for an idea of just how badly these gambles have typically paid off for the Raiders.  Okay so what does this have to do with Magic you ask?  Simply put right now I'm seeing a *lot* of people who are building draft decks like Al Davis builds football teams.  In particular I've watched an absolutely huge number of drafters waste early picks on "boom or bust" rares that could *potentially* win games while willfully passing solid removal spells/beaters that *will* help you win games.  Let's take a quick look at what I feel are the top 5 rares people shouldn't be first picking in the format right now but probably are:
  1. Solemn Simulacrum:  Like most of the cards on this list the Simulacrum isn't a bad card by any definition; this doesn't however mean that he's a particularly *amazing* card here in M12 Limited either.  While it's true that it's hard to beat Simulacrum for overall value the simple truth is that he's not actually very good at any of the 3 things he does individually; mana ramping is nice but unless you're holding a 6 drop or an off color splash card it's really not something you're all that excited about to do on turn 4.  Combine this with the fact that the Simulacrum is only a 2/2 in a format dominated by 4/4's and that his leave play ability only draws you 1 card when he dies and you have a magic recipe for a card that looks much better in the pack than it plays out on the table.  This isn't to say that the Simulacrum isn't a decent card here in M12 Limited but on sheer value alone he's more like a 3rd or 4th pick and certainly shouldn't be going ahead of Flying 4/4's or premium removal; right now he is doing exactly that.
  2. Day of Judgement:  This is another example of a card that's actually pretty good but makes this list almost entirely because it's rarely the best card available in a given pack.  Look, I certainly see the value in taking a card that wipes out every creature on the table fairly highly; after all everyone knows that killing creatures is important in Limited Magic so how can a card that kills *every* creature not be awesome right?  The truth however is that the symmetrical board wipe effects can be kind of hard to take advantage of at the best of times; you have to slow roll your opponent into playing out more or better creatures than you, draw/play the Day of Judgment and then follow it up with a creature he simply can't just kill to regain parity.  What's more this is particularly hard here in M12 where white's creature base consists almost entirely of small, cheap weenies who want to flood the board and start bashing as soon as possible.  I'm not saying you should *never* take Day of Judgment first in a pack but unless you're already firmly in white shipping cards like Doom Blade, Fireball, Serra Angel, Vampire Outcasts and Chandra's Outrage to do so is almost certainly a mistake.
  3. Jace's Archivist:  The problem with Jace's Archivist is that while he's certainly potentially *very* powerful the fact is that situations where he's truly worth a 1st overall pick almost never come up.  I imagine that when most people 1st pick this card they are imagining a scenario whereby they spend the very last card in their hand and then activate the Archivist to mill their opponent's 5-7 card hand away and simply "reload" over and over until they win the game.  If this ever actually *happened* in a real game of Magic the Archivist would most certainly be worth snap picking but unfortunately most of the time when this card hits the table both you and your opponent will have 3-4 cards in hand.  If your opponent is seriously worried about you milling these cards away he will simply play out his hand or kill your archivist; if he isn't he'll probably thank you for milling away his "chafe" and giving him 3-4 new cards to look at.  Finally of course there's no guarantee that *you'll* want to mill away those cards if the situation ever does come up which makes the Archivist an extremely high variance choice.  He's pretty good in an aggro deck with a *lot* of cheap creatures but otherwise this card should be going around pick 4 or 5 in all but the weakest packs.
  4. Lord of the Unreal:  I really can't put this any simpler than what I am about to say; there are a grand total of 3 creatures that say Illusion in M12 Limited and one of them is a rare people are *highly* unlikely to pass you.  Additionally it is basically NEVER a good idea to build your deck around a 2/2 "bear" who's going to die almost immediately after you play him.  This is the first card on the list that I actually think is a genuine piece of garbage and not just "over-rated"; do not draft Lord of the Unreal.
  5. Sorin's Vengeance:  Frankly if you're first picking this card right now I highly doubt anything I'm going to say to you here will actually change your mind.  For some people the potential to end the game immediately and/or create a 20 point life swing will simply to too much to ever resist.  Unfortunately as "big" as this spell can be sometimes it's actually pretty worthless to you unless your opponent is at 10 Life or is putting virtually no pressure on you whatsoever.  In my opinion a 7 mana sorcery needs to actually *win* me the game for it to be worth inclusion in a deck; potentially winning me the game if I've already done 10 damage just isn't worth BBB4.  I should mention that this really only applies to the draft format; in slower Sealed deck tournaments Sorin's Vengeance absolutely *is* a bomb and should be included in your 40 if you're heavily enough in black to support it.
Honorable Mentions: Grand Abolisher, Call to the Grave, Goblin Chieftan, Birds of Paradise, Garruk's Horde, Adaptive Automaton, Quicksilver Amulet.

Well folks that's just about all the typing my fingers can take for the moment so despite having a million more things I could talk about in M12 Limited I guess I should wrap up the article here.  Hopefully it hasn't been too ramble-y and as always thanks for reading folks.  I have no idea how many more blog posts I'll find time for between now and Nationals but right now I'm shooting for 2-3.  Until next time always remember that if your first pick in pack 1 is a 2/2 "Bear" you probably aren't doing it right.  Keep it weird.