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.


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