Diary of a Madman #2: The Song Remains the Same

March 28th, 2013

Welcome back, team. I can’t tell you how great it was to get all the positive feedback from those of you who really enjoyed the first installment of Diary of a Madman. A bunch of school commitments mandated I take a few days off, but I’ve stayed abreast of the goings on, and I’m ready to let you all know where we’re at going into this weekend’s PTQ.

First, some bad news. I’m only going to have the time to play one of the two MTGO PTQs going on this weekend. We’ll simply bring our A-game to tomorrow’s PTQ, and we’ll have to be satisfied with that.

Trust me that when I began this column, it was not designed to be Junk Rites Weekly, but this past week’s results pretty much confirm what we were all thinking last week: Junk Rites is very clearly the top dog. The good guys took down three of the four weekend PEs, the SCG Open, and finished second in the MTGO PTQ, losing to Naya Blitz. If only amazingPhil had packed his [card]Divine Reckoning[/card]s.

I don’t think anyone can seriously suggest that people were unprepared for Junk Rites this past weekend. The issue was exactly what I had anticipated happening. People were relying on sideboard graveyard hate to fix their match-up against the format’s boogeyman. This is just a losing proposition on everyone’s part. Junk Rites is, in terms of its role in this meta, the UW Delver of the format. It forces you to alter the very construction of your deck if you want to have any chance of success. In the same way that putting a few [card]Gut Shot[/card]s in your SB was not fixing the Delver match-up for your deck jammed full of expensive sorceries, [card]Rest in Peace[/card] is not going to carry your durdly creature deck to success today.

This being established, where does the format need to go to move on from here? As is usually the case, GerryT has tipped off the masses.

[deck title=Bant Auras by Gerry Thompson]
3 Breeding Pool
2 Glacial Fortress
4 Hallowed Fountain
3 Hinterland Harbor
2 Overgrown Tomb
4 Sunpetal Grove
4 Temple Garden
4 Avacyn’s Pilgrim
4 Fencing Ace
4 Invisible Stalker
4 Geist of Saint Traft
2 Silverblade Paladin
4 Abundant Growth
4 Ethereal Armor
2 Gift of Orzhova
4 Rancor
3 Spectral Flight
3 Simic Charm
4 Strangleroot Geist
2 Gift of Orzhova
4 Ground Seal
3 Rootborn Defenses
2 Sigarda, Host of Herons

This is very clearly the deck you do not want to see across from you as a Junk Rites pilot. As my list stands now, I have almost no way of interacting with this deck short of hoping to get a speedy Behemoth online. If this deck rises to prominence, we will likely have to turn to some combination of [card]Paraselene[/card] and [card]Ray of Revelation[/card] to have any real shot, and I am sure we will still be an underdog versus a skilled player with a reasonable draw. This forces us to give up precious sideboard slots for a solitary match-up, weakening the deck as a whole.

There’s a couple other decks I think people who are looking to beat Junk Rites should seriously consider moving forward. Aggressive [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] decks are the reason I walked away from Junk Rites temporarily during the middle of last season. Besides making our [card]Lingering Souls[/card] look very silly, we just have no good answers to a Hellkite short of an [card]Angel of Serenity[/card], and god forbid the dragon is in the mix before your angel is ready to come online. In many ways, it’s the absurdly fast Naya Blitz decks that are keeping the hasty dragon out of our midst for the time being. They simply present a faster clock than traditional “zombie” lists can deal with, but I can envision a Rakdos deck a little overloaded on removal that could hold pace with the speedy humans. Perhaps something like:

4 Blood Crypt
4 Cavern of Souls
4 Dragonskull Summit
3 Rakdos Guildgate
9 Swamp
4 Diregraf Ghoul
3 Falkenrath Aristocrat
3 Geralf’s Messenger
4 Gravecrawler
2 Hellrider
3 Knight of Infamy
2 Rakdos Cackler
3 Thundermaw Hellkite
2 Pillar of Flame
4 Searing Spear
2 Crippling Blight
2 Flames of the Firebrand
2 Ultimate price
3 Gloom Surgeon
3 Rakdos Charm
1 Flames of the Firebrand
2 Human Frailty
2 Bonfire of the Damned
2 Traitorous Blood
2 Vampire Nighthawk

A deck of a similar nature that we could consider is a modified version of Efro’s PT Montreal Naya deck. I actually have quite a fondness for the cantankerous champion of the bourgeoisie’s creation, and could see myself sleeving up something similar to this in the days to come:

3 Clifftop Retreat
2 Mountain
4 Rootbound Crag
4 Sacred Foundry
4 Stomping Ground
3 Sunpetal Grove
4 Temple Garden
4 Boros Reckoner
4 Burning-Tree Emissary
4 Flinthoof Boar
4 Gyre Sage
3 Hellrider
4 Loxodon Smiter
1 Thragtusk
3 Thundermaw Hellkite
2 Pillar of Flame
4 Mizzium Mortars
3 Domri Rade
3 Blasphemous Act
3 Boros Charm
2 Garruk Relentless
2 Nearheath Pilgrim
2 Pacifism
3 Purify the Grave

Despite having some ideas as to what can beat us, trust me when I say that I am still very much committed to Junk Rites for this weekends PTQ. Regardless, it’s a wise idea to have an exit strategy before the time actually comes to jump ship.

Tomorrow: PTQ #2

March 29th, 2013

Before we get to today’s PTQ, a deck popped up in my Facebook feed that I would be remiss not to include in my list of Junk slayers:

[deck title=Fognidoor by Travis Woo]
2 Glacial Fortress
2 Hallowed Fountain
1 Watery Grave
1 Blood Crypt
4 Sunpetal Grove
1 Temple Garden
1 Godless Shrine
3 Overgrown Tomb
1 Woodland Cemetery
4 Breeding Pool
4 Hinterland Harbor
1 Steam Vents
1 Alchemist’s Refuge
1 Kessig Wolf Run
3 Snapcaster Mage
1 Thragtusk
1 Borborygmos Enraged
3 Fog
4 Farseek
1 Negate
4 Chromatic Lantern
1 Dentention Sphere
3 Increasing Ambition
4 Urban Evolution
1 Terminus
1 Omniscience
1 Enter the Infinite
1 Rakdos’s Return
4 Sphinx’s Revelation
1 Dispel
1 Fog
1 Negate
4 Supreme Verdict
2 Thragtusk
1 Psychic Spiral
3 Terminus
2 Rakdos’s Return

This is very clearly a Woo brew. I usually don’t give much credence to Travis’s crowing about his new lists since he tends to get overexcited about his creations, but this deck will very clearly be advantaged against your standard Junk Rites list. It just goes so far over the top of what Junk Rites is doing while also packing a one-mana counterspell ([card]Fog[/card]) against the otherwise realistic out of a fast Craterhoof. Like the Omni-Door decks from last season, this is likely not a long-term contender in the meta, but when things get very mid-range-y, going big is always going to yield a nice win percentage.

Moving on, it’s time for tonight’s PTQ! It’s unfortunate that this is our one shot for the weekend, but I plan to make the most of it. We are playing:

[deck title=Junk Rites by Bryan Gottlieb]
2 Cavern of Souls
4 Sunpetal Grove
4 Temple Garden
2 Godless Shrine
1 Isolated Chapel
4 Overgrown Tomb
3 Woodland Cemetery
2 Forest
1 Vault of the Archangel
4 Avacyn’s Pilgrim
2 Arbor Elf
2 Deathrite Shaman
2 Loxodon Smiter
2 Restoration Angel
4 Thragtusk
3 Angel of Serenity
2 Craterhoof Behemoth
3 Mulch
4 Grisly Salvage
1 Orzhov Charm
2 Lingering Souls
2 Garruk Relentless
4 Unburial Rites
2 Divine Reckoning
1 Rhox Faithmender
2 Ray of Revelation
2 Purify the Grave
1 Sever the Bloodline
1 Dark Impostor
1 Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice
1 Centaur Healer
1 Vraska the Unseen
3 Abrupt Decay

Players: 354. Rounds: 9. Slightly better. Let’s do it!

Round One: Bant Auras
Opponent goes: turn one [card]Breeding Pool[/card], [card]Abundant Growth[/card], and I contemplate suicide. The rest of the match reveals my opponent to be on a bevy of unusual card choices though, as I see [card]Champion of the Parish[/card], [card]Think Twice[/card], and [card]Elgaud Shieldmate[/card]. Regardless, it still takes my opponent getting mana-screwed combined with a timely [card]Ray of Revelation[/card] to find victory in round one. Let’s hope this isn’t a recurring theme.

Round Two: UWR
Won a hard-fought game two to push the match to a third game, but in that third game I never found a black source and die because of it.

Round Three: Mirror
Won in a fairly easy two, where all of my cards designed to give me an edge in the mirror did exactly that.

Round Four: Esper
Paired against Wafo-Tapa this round, I’m forced to mull to six and keep a one-lander ([card]Sunpetal Grove[/card]) on the draw. The Frenchman makes a fine read when he [card]syncopate[/card]s my turn two elf. He then proceeds to devour my next, and is way too far ahead by the time I draw my second land. Game two: I mull to five, but manage to pull out of it in a long fight that sees me winning the game when my looping Angels overwhelm Wafo’s defenses. Game three: Wafo is land-light, and I’m able to use a Garruk to fill the board and slam Craterhooves on consecutive turns for the win.

Round Five: Efro Naya
I allow myself to get killed from 30 life, again getting blown out by Aurelia. I should make her my background or something so I don’t forget about her. Anyway, the rest of the match is uneventful as we make some guys and swing back and forth, but my guys turn out to be just a bit better.

Round Six: Bant
In a format that appears to be dominated by a single deck, it’s gotta be noteworthy that I’ve faced six different archetypes so far. Anywho, in a deciding game three, I show the futility of the [card]Rest in Peace[/card] plan to my opponent. His turn-two RIP must have seemed good at the time, but I simply went: Garruk (off Pilgrim), [card]Thragtusk[/card] (with [card]Cavern of Souls[/card] naming beast), [card]Thragtusk[/card], and from there it was only a matter of time before I hit eight mana for my Craterhoof.

Round Seven: UWR Delver
The first truly innovative list I’ve come across all tournament. My opponent was packing Geists, Delvers, [card]Mugging[/card]s, and other such goodies, but Garruk proved to be his undoing in both games. I’ve been incredibly impressed with Garruk so far today. Certainly a worthwhile addition.

Round Eight: Turbo Fog
Remember all that stuff earlier in the article about how you beat Junk? Well, this guy has it way more figured out than I do. His deck was just a bunch of walkers (Gideon!), Wraths, card draw, and [card]Fog[/card]s, and it felt like there was no way I could possibly win. I managed to steal game one while he was mana-light, but in games two and three I don’t think I can say I ever had a shot.

So, we went a bit deeper this time, and I think we had a really sharp list for today’s meta. Take note, though, we ran into two hateful lists designed to prey upon us. It seems likely that things will continue to move further in this direction as time goes on. At this point, I would have to at least consider something else in an online PTQ, while still assuming Junk Rites is the best choice for the slower moving paper metagame.

Tomorrow: Moving Forward

March 30th, 2013

Writing this Saturday night, I bring some bittersweet news to the table. #TeamYang luminary and Junk Rites grand-pappy Joel Paradee brought the same 75 from last night’s PTQ to today’s SCG Classic in Massachusetts, sadly falling to Jund Aggro in the top eight. Joel sent me some thoughts on how the list played out for him today that serve to illuminate the reasoning behind the changes we’ve made since last week.

In general, Joel was very positive about the list:

“I loved the deck all day. It wasn’t like playing it the first weekend of RTR where it felt like I couldn’t lose, but I also thought I could win every game I played. I didn’t run particularly well, meaning that I mulled a bit more than I expected and I never really nut drew anyone.”

As you know from the list above, we have altered the  main-deck by: -1 [card]Angel of Serenity[/card], -1 [card]Mulch[/card], -1 [card]Sever the Bloodline[/card], +2 [card]Garruk Relentless[/card], +1 [card]Orzhov Charm[/card]. Joel had this to say about the new cards:

“[card]Orzhov Charm[/card] — It was nice to have spot removal; however, this is a bit cute. [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] might be better: still kills the creatures you hope to kill and has the added value of hitting any random three-drop or less.”

Joel and I disagree strongly here. When we first debuted Junk Rites, I believe we were successful mostly because of the streamlined nature of our deck. There weren’t cards in the deck just because they dealt with X or Y; every card advanced us towards our devastating end game of [card]Angel of Serenity[/card]. Now that the meta has evolved, this streamlined approach is no longer realistic. If we jam our deck with too many straight removal spells, we are doing so at the expense of our primary plan. However, there are now creatures appearing in  main-decks that we simply have to kill. [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card]s and [card]Somberwald Sage[/card]s are creeping in to Junk Rites lists, and a  main-deck way to kill Obzedat and [card]Angel of Serenity[/card] is not irrelevant. What makes [card]Orzhov Charm[/card] the clear winner is its second and third modes. In the PTQ, I returned an Elf to get to Angel mana, returned a milled [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] at end of turn to snipe a Junk Rites player’s [card]Unburial Rites[/card], and bounced and replayed a [card]Thragtusk[/card] after it swung in for five. If you are going to trim core cards like [card]Mulch[/card] and [card]Angel of Serenity[/card], you have to demand versatility out of this spot, and [card]Orzhov Charm[/card] provides that in spades.

“Garruk — I’m in love. It was good in the mirror and versus blue decks as long as Resto didn’t come down right after it. You can play in a way that makes sure that you don’t get blown out. Also huge as a way to preemptively stop opposing [card]Garruk, Primal Hunter[/card]s.”

Joel echoes my own sentiments about this card pretty well. Garruk is another versatile concession to what I consider to be the new requirement of  main-deck removal. Garruk just won me more games than any other card I could have potentially played in this spot, either by flooding the board with wolves, searching up my fatties, or killing troublesome guys on my opponent’s side of the table. He’s not going anywhere.

Moving on to our new sideboard we see we are: +1 [card]Abrupt Decay[/card], +2 [card]Ray of Revelation[/card], +1 [card]Vraska, the Unseen[/card], +1 [card]Sever the Bloodline[/card], -2 [card]Garruk Relentless[/card], -1 [card]Selesnya Charm[/card], -1 [card]Oblivion Ring[/card], -1 Obzedat from last week’s list.

Joel again had positive things to say about our new additions. The additional [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] is a response to people trying to sneak beneath us and also might serve to steal us a game versus Bant Auras if we can pick off a key enchantment or [card]Silverblade Paladin[/card].

The Rays of Revelation are a direct response to the rise of Bant Auras, but they have been incredibly strong for me in my games against Esper as well. I don’t mind bringing one in against UWR, since they are almost all packing [card]Assemble the Legion[/card]s and sometimes an [card]Oblivion Ring[/card] or [card]Detention Sphere[/card] or even [card]Rest in Peace[/card].

Finally, Vraska has been an incredible weapon in both the mirror and against all the other slower decks in the format. She is great as a another way to pick off opposing Angels of Serenity, but it’s against [card]Detention Sphere[/card]s and [card]Oblivion Ring[/card]s that Vraska truly shines. The Charm, Ring, and Obzedat that left the sideboard had simply proven themselves too ineffective to justify further inclusion.

Perhaps the most important thing that Joel had to say about the list was in regards to his future plans with the deck:

“I have now played this deck in five sanctioned events and have a great winning percentage (7 total losses in at least 33 rounds of Magic). I do not want to stop playing this too soon.”

This statement gave me something to think about. While I can see the metagame starting to twist against us, the fact remains that my lists keep winning. Maybe I need to strongly consider just plugging away until my results demand a change.

Tomorrow: Magic-Life Balance

March 31st, 2013

Lately there have been some goings-on in my personal life that have me reflecting a bit more about Magic’s place in my world. I recently applied for the position of Editor-in-Chief of my school’s Law Review. It’s a position I think I am wonderfully suited for, and am wholeheartedly hoping I get to hold when the next school year comes around. What, you may ask, can this possibly have to do with Magic?

If I end up in this role, it is likely that the incredible demand it will place on my time, combined with school, a new wife, and various other scholarly pursuits will likely leave me too busy to head to PT: Theros. The very premise and motivator for this column would just be off the table regardless of my qualification and free plane ticket. Now when it comes to choosing between professional goals and my desire to return to the Pro Tour, I am at a point in my life where the real world simply has to take precedence. Despite this, Magic, and competing at the highest levels of the game, remain inextricably tied to my very being. I am a bit dismissive of the cardboard world at times, but make no mistake about it: I’ve been playing this game since 1994, and I will likely play it until the day I die. My performance in every single tournament I enter is very important to me. In pursuit of a successful balance between my two lives, I’ve developed some tactics which have allowed me to make peace with Magic and the Pro Tour’s subservient place in my world, while still stoking the flame of competitiveness required to succeed.

Find a Buddy:

Simple, right? One of the great things about Magic is how it allows people of all ages to form friendships. As a thirty-year-old man, I really didn’t think I’d be making new friends with nineteen-to-twenty-one-year-olds, or spending time with unemployed slackers content to live in their mom’s basement. But it turns out some of the closest friends I’ve made in my time with the game have fallen into these categories.

Despite this fact, it is very important to have an anchor to remind myself that these people are operating on a different set of values than me. Sometimes these friends can’t understand why I simply can’t take an 8 hour road trip to Pittsburgh, or don’t want to buy a flight to the invitational in Atlanta even though I have the disposable income and am qualified. It just doesn’t make sense to them. This is why I advise you to make a friend who is looking to get the same things out of the game that you are.

For me, this has required someone who doesn’t get bent out of shape when I bail on a PTQ trip at the last second because I have too much work to do. In turn, I’ve respected a desire to not drive following a week long business trip, and we’ve both elected not to invite a load of people to split a hotel with us because the money is worth less to us than our comfort. These compromises and decisions were able to be made without hard feelings because of a mutual understanding of one another’s situation. Having my go-to travel partner support the decisions I need to make to have a successful balance with my non-Magic life has been a tremendous stress-reducer in the process, and low stress is almost always conducive to success.

Celebrate Your Accomplishments:

I had a string of large tournaments (mostly SCG Opens) in the heart of my academic year where I found myself in “win and in” situations in six consecutive events. Six times I stood on the cusp of a top eight and a solid chunk of change in my pocket, and six times I failed. This really played havoc with my mindset. I knew I wasn’t caving under pressure since, in all honesty, I just don’t feel nervous when I play Magic. I’m not boasting of my iron constituency or anything, but having previously been a regular and successful competitor in poker tournaments of a fairly high level, I’ve just learned to control this aspect of my mental state.

These failings led me to begin questioning my skill at the game. “Am I just not a top eight quality player?,” I wondered. Then a conversation with my fiancé kind of snapped everything into perspective. I had just finished the four-hour ride home from SCG Buffalo, and as I told her with obvious disappointment the tale of losing back-to-back win-and-ins again, she just said, “I don’t know how you can expect so much of yourself with everything you have on your plate. You should be proud.”

It took someone outside the Magic world, who couldn’t understand the disappointment of failing after having come so close, to grant me the ability to make a fair and honest assessment of my accomplishments. To me, a top sixteen finish at an SCG was like a Scarlet Letter: a mark that I wasn’t good enough. But to someone who was looking at everything I had going on in my life, it wasn’t that bad.

If this reads as me justifying past and future poor performance on the battlefield, well, it is. I think as you move further in life and thereby gain more responsibilities, accomplishment and success has to be viewed through a broader lens. I let myself be proud of my top 16s, because it was accompanied by professional success, an amazing relationship, great friends, and usually without a minute of actual play-testing. While I still hold the weight of disappointment every time I come up short, it lies on me much less heavily and I think this has benefited both my play and my attitude.

Don’t Go:

In some ways, the simplest of these tips was the absolute hardest for me to learn. Have you ever had that thought, as you finally lay down at 3am and set your alarm for 6am, that screams from inside your brain, “Oh my god, I do not want to do this!!!” What if I told you that you just don’t have to? That’s right. You can not go.

This just took forever to click for me. I’d drag my sleep-deprived brain to the venue I didn’t want to be in to play a format I didn’t want to play when I’d rather be doing something else. This pattern repeated over and over again. It just seemed like the right thing to do if I was a real PTQ grinder. I thought it was just part of paying my dues.

The choice we’ve made not to pursue Magic as a career liberates us though. We aren’t desperate for the pro points to make Platinum, and we aren’t concerned someone is going to take our spot in the World Magic Cup. So act like it! Play Magic when you want to, when it’s convenient for you to do so, and when it doesn’t hurt other aspects of your life. It’s an obvious switch that can completely alter your relationship with the game.

Forget About Recognition:

I think a lot of us hovering below the pro circuit are driven to make the big stage for the simple reason that we want everyone around us to recognize just how good we are. This is something I’ve struggled with in many aspects of my life. A need for validation is something that drives us all, but letting it shape our decisions leads us to lose our sense of self. If you are always doing things so someone else knows how good you are, it becomes very difficult to pull the joy from an unrecognized achievement.

Sometimes this need still gets the best of me. I’m only human. Lately I’ve found solace in the respect of a small group of peers whose opinions I hold in high regard. Many of you reading this likely have no idea as to my Magical accomplishments and whether or not I’m a gifted player. I’ve made peace with this. Some of you will think I have some nice insight, and some of you will say, “Why do I waste my time reading anything by this idiot?” Either way, the world keeps spinning, and some guy in Saskatchewan thinking I’m a n00b just doesn’t ruin my day anymore.

I hope I’ve given you all something to consider as you plan your own pursuit of a qualification this season. Come back next week as we try to squeeze in some more PTQ action, and wrestle with the decision of whether or not to send our beloved Junk Rites to that big deck box in the sky.

Bryan Gottlieb