Always a Way to Win (A GP: Baltimore story)

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Standard is at a very strange point right now, in that all the good decks from before Dark Ascension are still good despite a whole new set being printed, and it has taken people the better part of a month to realize it. Huntmaster of the Fells may have won the ProTour, and while I agree that the card is really good, the strategies that use him just don’t adapt well as formats age. This, plus the fact that people are finally realising that Drogskol Captain is just awful when everyone is playing very specific pinpoint removal and sweepers make for bad times all around for him and his gang, is reverting the metagame back to pre ProTour levels. With this logic in mind, and the prediction that control would be popular again in order to fight off all these ‘new’ decks. I decided to load my deck up with Geist of Saint Traft and all of his favorite counter spell buddies.

Grand Prix Baltimore is over now and Delver of Secrets has re-established himself as top dog in the format and I can’t really say that I am surprised. Unfortunately it was not me lifting the trophy, but I made the right deck choice for the event, and played well enough to put myself in the money, so that is enough of a consolation prize for me. I felt like I was going to put up a much better result than I ended up finishing with, but sometimes you just can’t win them all.

I was initially going to write an actual tournament report for this article, but I felt I could get a whole lot more across through different methods. The event, as a whole, wasn’t all that interesting. When I had a good or favorable matchup I won, and when I didn’t I lost. There’s more to it than that but in the end that’s what it really came down to. Instead, I would like to talk about a few of the important games that I played and talk a bit about why they are worth pointing out. This is an idea suggested to me by Alex Hayne before the Grand Prix. Apparently, he feels there is something special about the way I play every game out and that it’s worth putting on paper so I guess we’ll find out if this article turns out to be worth reading or not. Hopefully, something I put on paper here is going to be useful for one or some of you in the future and you learn or think about what is written here in future events.

Alright so the list I sleeved up for the Grand Prix is as follows..

This is the list I sleeved up for the event, it served me pretty well and I was happy with it as a whole. Only thing I would change is to remove one Pike from the main deck and add in another Sword of War and Peace. This was a last minute change I made with zero testing to defend it. Pike was good against the control decks, but this deck is already favored against them and you never want to draw two of them. Had I had the second Sword of War and Peace I probably could have avoided at least one of my losses if not more.

Alright, moving forward. There were three games in particular that I recall pretty vividly and I think are worth mentioning, the first one being round 9, the last round of play before cutting to day 2. I was already 7-1, so I wasn’t playing for a spot on day 2, but the match was still pretty important. It was game 2; I was against RG ramp, the same deck that had won the ProTour a few weeks previous. My first turn Gitaxian Probe revealed that his hand consisted of a Huntmaster, Inferno Titan and Green Sun’s Zenith along with all of the ramp he would need to get the ball rolling. I cast a Ponder to complete the turn and start setting up the game as I wanted it to play out. On top of the deck was a Delver of Secrets, a Snapcaster Mage and another Gitaxian Probe. I still had yet to find a Mana Leak or any other kind of permission spell, so if he were to jam out one of his cards I would just lose on the spot, but I wasn’t going to shuffle this away. On my second turn I pass after immediately playing a land to give the illusion that I was sitting on counter magic. On his turn he cast a Rampant Growth to which I pause to think about (or give the impression I was thinking about it). On my turn I played out a third land and cast a Delver of Secrets, still representing a counterspell and sure enough on his turn he neglected to run out his Huntmaster, instead, he played out a land cast another ramp spell, obviously afraid of losing one of his threats to a Mana Leak.

On this note, I’d like to pause the play by play and talk about my actions as every single turn in this exchange ends up being integral to the way the game ends. The hand I kept was a very good one under normal circumstances and it only got better after I cast the Ponder. Because of how threat dense his hand was, there would, under normal conditions be zero ways for me to win this game. This game is a very good example of how deep games of Magic can go. From the outside looking in, it all just looks like we’re playing a game with creature and spells and that the person who draws the best hand wins and everything else in between is (in the end) irrelevant. But I think that is a very poor way of looking at the game. You make your own luck, and by taking different actions within the game, you can shape the game to play out as you want or need it to be played out.

Anyways, back to the game. On my fourth turn, I draw another land and cast my Gitaxian Probe drawing into a Ponder which I then used to find the Flashfreeze and the Negate that I needed. It was at this point that I had finally locked up the game and could now let him play out his threats. I sat in my chair considering my options, pretending to tap my lands to show that I was considering different plays on my main phase, hoping I could get him to commit to one of his threats the next turn. Sure enough, he bit, and ran out his Titan on the very next turn, but it didn’t matter as I had delayed as long as I needed and could now just attack him every turn and deny every single one of his spells.

After the match he complained about how lucky I was to have drawn every single counterspell when I needed it and wished me the worst of luck for the very next day. While I can understand his frustration, his complaints couldn’t be further from the truth. I don’t think I could have played a more technically precise way and I’m sure many people in my position would have lost the very same game.

The second interesting game that I wanted to talk about was actually the very next round, except it was also the very next day. Again this one came down to the knowledge of knowing exactly what was going on thanks to Gitaxian Probe. It was game 3 of the mirror match, which is very important, since we’ve already sideboarded meaning that most copies of Mana Leak and Vapor Snag are probably out of the deck. I saw that he kept a reasonably slow hand with Delver of Secrets, Geist of Saint Traft, Sword of War and Peace, Gut Shot, and a bunch of land. A pretty harmless hand overall, so I played a land and passed the turn. On my third turn, I had the option of casting my Geist, but he could just cast his own (which any reasonably intelligent person would do) and kill mine off leaving me with no threats. I had to find a way to make him commit his Geist to the board first so that I could kill it with my Phantasmal Image, by doing this, it would allow me to take the aggressive position in the match and put him on defense, which his hand was not well ‘equipped’ to do. In the end, I decided to pass my third turn. I took a hit from an Insectile Aberration, and he played his Sword, which I quickly destroyed with a Divine Offering. I cast the Geist on my fourth turn, keeping an Island up so that I could Vapor Snag my own Geist when he cast his, which he did. I untapped, cast the Phantasmal Image and followed up with the Geist again, which quickly led to his death.

This situation might seem normal or unspectacular, but the important thing to note is that because of the way the game had progressed early on and because I was able to see what his line of play was going to be, I was able to determine how best to prevent him from doing what he wanted to do, and made him do what I wanted him to do. If I had just ran out my Geist on the third turn I would have lost the game because I wouldn’t have had anything going for me and have zero ways to attack him back. Instead I was able to make him play into my Geist so I could turn it around and get ahead. Again, this is another example of how games aren’t just resolved by determining who has the better draw. It’s all about figuring out how to gain your edges and determining what exactly it is you need to do to win the game. Just something to think about next time you sit down to play game.

Lastly, I wanted to mention something that happened a few rounds later in the event. I was playing against UB control, it was game 3 of an extremely tough match where I had already mulliganed five times in the 3 game set. I started this game at six cards on the play so I knew I had to get the most value out of my creatures as possible because these games usually go long and their deck is filled with sweepers. I ran out a Delver of Secrets on the first and second turns of the game. One of which ate a removal spell but I had a Moorland Haunt out so I was able to turn him into a Spirit. The other one transformed into an Insect and I was able to start attacking for four life a turn. In most situations, the Delver deck is more than content to sit on one or two guys and just Mana Leak everything the opponent tries to cast but if he drew a Doom Blade at any point all of my pressure would be gone and I would have to grind out the rest of the game. In order to win this game I would need to apply a ton of pressure to the board and make him waste one of his Black Sun’s Zeniths early. I tapped out on my turn four to cast a Snapcaster Mage and flashback a Ponder, which conveniently enough found me a Geist of Saint Traft, and sure enough he tapped out and used this Zenith. This allowed me to drop the freshly drawn Geist and coast to victory. Had I allowed him to draw a bunch of cards and set up, the game would have slipped away from me very fast and I would likely not have been able to keep up. He showed me his hand after the game, containing a Doom Blade, a Grave Titan, and a Curse of Death’s Hold among other things. With the Geist on board and permission in hand, I was able to play the tempo game which UB is not well equipped to play and I was able to win.

The main point of this article is to point out and bring to your attention that there is always a way to win a game, you just have to figure out the best way to accomplish that. Most of it involves making your opponent believe one thing and doing the other, or setting up a game state that you are able to take advantage of that your opponent is not. It might appear that Magic is a very simple game, but there are a lot of little things going on underneath the surface that really make it the most interesting and most complicated puzzle that I have ever dealt with.

Hope you enjoyed the read, be back soon!

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