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. 

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