Reflections: Michigan State Championship
By Chris Jobin on November 20th, 2008 · Filed in Standard (Type 2), Tournament Report · Comments not available just now
The State Championships for this game are typically known for being just glorified FNMs, but not here in my home state of Michigan. Each year the best players this state has to offer converge on Pandemonium in Garden City, MI for a shot at the title. Michigan, like New York, New Jersey, and Illinois, is noted as one of the biggest states for competitive Magic. Team RIW (made famous by Mark Herberholz) alone is worth talking about, but we also have a host of professional players that include Mark Herberholz (obviously), Brian Demars, Michael Jacob, and Patrick Chapin himself. I know what you're thinking: with a cast like that, how could this event NOT be an epic battle of pros? Well, mostly because none of them played. Chapin was hosting a AAA draft "tutoring" session all weekend in preparation for GP Atlanta, so he and the others didn't end up playing in the competition. I guess Heezy was in Kentucky or something anyway, so we can scratch another off the list. Chapin and company showed up after round seven to draft, but until that point it was pretty...unprofessional? Gosh, I'm so gosh-darned funny.
Anyway, before I jump into the article, I'd like to clarify what exactly this is and what it is not. This is not your standard round-by-round tournament report. Why, you ask? Well, let's just say I finished in...not first. That said, this article will be less about my amazing performance at States and more so about the metagame, notes I made, decks I saw, and predictions I have based on all of it. At the time of this article's publication, all the Top 8 decklists for each States event across the country will be on www.deckcheck.net, but there's more than just Top 8's to discuss, especially at a state like Michigan. There were a lot of surprises, and I plan to talk about each in their entirety.
The Road to States
As always before an event, I spent the weeks before States testing every conceivable option for my deck. Michigan's States competition is often less of the "everyone plays aggro" stereotype that other places seem to get stuck with, and more control-focused. This line of thinking was especially true this year, as Michigan's headliner, Patrick Chapin, had spent the last month on Star City talking about Cruel Control. I not only expected that deck in droves, but also a host of decks designed to beat it. Knowing the Five Color decks as well as decks designed to attack its manabase (Lark, specifically) were going to be popular, I made the decision to play Faeries at States. I initially was going to play Cruel Control myself, but the sheer frustration of having to play mirror matches all day with the deck made me make the switch. I sleeved up UBw Faeries and began a long, grueling testing gauntlet. I was pretty convinced after a few days of testing that Faeries without Mutavault was pretty awful, so I quickly dropped white and pressed on.
I always say that changing your deck choice after a certain point is simply incorrect. In this case, the point of no return is about two to three weeks before the event. When I reached this point, I was feeling really good about Faeries. It had consistently proven itself to still be the format's top deck, and I knew that I wasn't the only one who would make this realization. The mirror match would likely be pretty common for me, as well as the Red deck. I tested long hours against RDW, and decided that ultimately it was useless to try and make that match-up winnable without taking up a large amount of sideboard space. To remedy this, I decided to instead just punt the match-up altogether. The fact was, whenever I would win a match against RDW it was because his draws were bad and mine were good, not because "Bottle Gnomes got there." This logic I felt was pretty damned sound, and allowed me to open up much-needed room in the sideboard.
Because Cruel Control and Reveillark were positive match-ups, I next focused on improving my most important one: the mirror. By now everyone knows how to win the mirror: Bitterblossom and Thoughtseize. The idea of maindeck Thoughtseize seemed to work really well, so I chose to use it as a preemptive counterspell for opposing Bitterblossoms. This way, I could rip away Bitterblossoms from my opponent's hand on the first turn or take away the counterspell they have for mine (though if I was on the play their counters were irrelevant). The basic idea here was that no matter if I was on the play or the draw, I could "counter" Bitterblossom. I could also take away key cards in other match-ups, like Spectral Procession from Kithkin or Cryptic Commands from Merfolk and Cruel Control. At the side is my final list that I took to States.
I swear, I always get this turn two.
Pandemonium is located in Garden City, which is in the Detroit area. My hometown is in Flint, about an hour and a half from Garden City. The problem, of course, is that I am off to college in Grand Rapids, on the other side of the state. Friday morning I had an exam, so I took it and then headed off downtown to meet up with my friend Ben so we could make the long trip eastward. Ben lives in Grand Rapids, but was heading to Detroit for the weekend to draft with Patrick Chapin. We parted ways in East Lansing, and I went the rest of the way to Flint without him. Despite testing for two months with the new metagame, I decided that I was going to play at FNM at my old store just for the last-minute confidence-booster. One of the players at my store, Mike (registered as weatherguy here on the forums), was the one driving the next morning, and he protested my decision. He argued that we should get some sleep the night before rather than stay up until 2 AM playing FNM. Considering my track record for such things (I’ve never gotten more than four hours of sleep before a large event, oddly enough), I ignored his pleas and forced him to play.
He went 3-2 (if I recall correctly) piloting a RW Kithkin list of my design (and the same one he’d be playing the following morning), and I went 4-1 with my Faeries list. My only loss was to the mirror, which was definitely not something I needed to see happen. Still, beating a red deck in the first round and having my deck perform really well all night made me feel better about things, so I concluded that no changes needed to be made to my list before the morning. I collected my prize, then headed home. I didn’t end up going to sleep until around 3 AM (being a moderator on this site can sometimes be taxing), which didn’t bode well for my well-being. I had to be up at 6 AM to get ready to leave, so I knew it was going to be a rough day.
In the morning, Mike and I headed out. We stopped for McDonald’s breakfast, which had become a sort of ritual for me (Steak, Egg, and Cheese Bagel meal with double hashbrowns). I purchased a 4-pack of Red Bull, hoping to bolster my energy for the long tournament ahead. I downed one on the way to the event, all the while driving Mike crazy by going on and on about how to make the right plays with his deck and whatnot. This was his first large event, so I was trying to talk him down. In the end, I suppose I was only burning energy, since I couldn’t shut up the entire trip. I like Magic a lot, folks. I like to talk about it. It makes me happy.
We arrived a little early, and had to wait before we could go inside. We walked to the McDonald’s down the road to kill time and use the restroom, then went back to the car hoping that the store was open. It was, and we headed in. After registering our decks, I took my sleeves to be inspected by the head judge (Dave is the best judge in the history of the world ever, by the way). Sure enough, he told me I had to change them. Stupid sleeves. Seriously, if I buy a pack of sleeves they should ALL be the same color. I bought some new sleeves (the Japanese ones, obviously) and resleeved my deck.
It was at this point that I decided to go take a look around. At the table I was sitting at, I knew most of the decks already (these were my friends, after all). Of that group, we had two Fae decks, a Bant aggro deck, a RW Kithkin, and later we had three Five Color decks and a UW Control deck. The rest of the table consisted of red decks and Kithkin decks. I walked around and noticed something unsettling: nearly every table in the entire venue was host to at least four Faerie decks. I was in for a long day of mirror matches, that was for sure. I also noticed a healthy amount of Kithkin, which was of course not a great thing. The red deck wasn’t too popular, as I only saw a handful of players registering it, though I still feared that many players might choose to audible last-minute due to the sheer number of Faerie decks infesting the place.
One thing I noticed was the absence of jank, something I found quite shocking about a tournament like States. There were Quillspike decks, Tokens decks, Planeswalker decks, and lots of Lark decks. I estimated by the end of my journey that at least 85% of the meta that morning was a combination of Kithkin and Faeries, with Faeries likely having slightly higher numbers. It was pretty interesting to say the least, but the most intriguing part about the whole endeavor was that the only Five Color decks I saw were the ones that my friends had brought with them. Considering that Chapin had spent so much time talking about the deck, I expected at least the Pandemonium players to be running it.
Team RIW was there in full force (minus its best pro talent, of course), and they were all basically playing Faeries. I thought at first that Kyle Boggames was playing something else, but Mike informed me after the first round (they were paired together) that he was indeed playing the winged menace. I’m sure there had to be a few of them playing something else, but the only one I saw running anything but Faeries was Ari Lax with his unorthodox mono-white weenie deck. No matter how you slice it, it looked to be a great day to be playing red (unless of course you got paired against one of the zillion Kithkin decks).
I spoke with some friends that had just arrived, and then we were called to the player meeting. After a humorous greeting (something about the quality of the promo card), the head judge laid down the rules and the pairings went up. I moved swiftly to my seat, Red Bull in hand, and prepare for my first match.
Round 1: Kithkin
Naturally, my first round was against Kithkin. He wins the die roll, and I keep a decent hand. He leads off with Figure of Destiny, and I let out a groan. I counter a Goldmeadow Stalwart, but over the course of the next few turns he overruns me with triple Wizened Cenn. Disgruntled, I begin sideboarding for the second game.
I bring in Infests, Stillmoon Cavaliers, and a third Sower of Temptation. I get out an early Stillmoon Cavalier, but he gets double Wizened Cenn and knocks my life down to the frightening-low levels. The next turn I make a pretty stupid play error (not that it mattered at that point), and end up conceding.
Tilted, I walked away from that match pretty upset. We were looking at a NINE round event, here. I'd have to go 7-2 at the very worst to even be considered for Top 8. I had some work to do.
Round 2: Reveillark
The next round I won my die roll and lead off with a turn two Bitterblossom. My opponent was clearly troubled by this, and answered with a Tidehollow Sculler, taking a Cryptic Command from my hand. I topdeck an Agony Warp and pass. He does nothing on his turn, so I nuke his guy and set myself up for a lockdown on the game. Bitterblossom tokens get there.
I'm in love with this card.
I bring in Puppeteer Cliques, Jace, and the third Sower of Temptation. He plays a Vivid Creek and passes. I Thoughtseize a Reveillark away on my turn, and he proceeds to do nothing on his turn. I rip a Bitterblossom off the top, and once again ride it to an easy win.
Round 3: Quillspike
This round I felt pretty good about, since I managed to stop all his Quillspikes from even coming into play. I get a Bitterblossom late and use it as well as a Murderous Redcap I stole from him to take the first game.
I bring in Puppeteer Cliques against him, hoping they'd do me some good. I get Bitterblossom turn two, but he does as well, much to my surprise. I asked him if he maindecked it, and he said he just didn't see it game one. I sigh a little, then press on. He eventually overwhelms me in this game, and we went on to game three.
I once again got a turn two Bitterblossom, but he matched mine once again as well as sneaking his combo into play by the sixth turn. A few counters and two Cloudthreshers later, I topdeck Puppeteer Clique facing down a full board. I cast it, snagging his Cloudthresher, then swing with it. The next turn he swings in at me, and I block with my flier. He dies, persists, and clears the air. I'm left a 3 life, and he's at 6.
His board position leaves him with only a Nantuko Husk untapped, and I think I can manage a win. He didn't know Puppeteer Clique kept guys until the end of MY turn, so I knew I could win it. He had a Devoted Druid in play, so I knew I needed to rip a Cryptic Command to tap the Nantuko Husk and bounce the Devoted Druid to win. I topdeck an Island and concede.
Round 4: Five Color Control
Not much to discuss here: game one I get a turn two Bitterblossom and out-control him. Game two, I resolved three Mistbind Cliques in succession. No problem.
Round 5: The Mirror
Game one he beat me, game two I beat him. Nothing more to really say about that. In game three, we both get turn two Bitterblossoms and start racing. Late in the game, the situation is like this: he swings, and I go to two life. I'm holding a Cryptic Command and a Spellstutter Sprite, and I know that he's got a Cryptic Command. If I can cast both on my turn could I win, no question. I go to set my plan into action, but then I look at my lands. I have three Secluded Glen, two Underground River, and two Swamps. I glance at my life total, then offer my hand.
The Top 8
After the fifth round and a failed attempt to make Top 8, I dropped from the event and went to play some matches with a friend of mine (roan_48435 on the forums). We eventually ended up just playing Mental Magic for a few hours while waiting for the Top 8. Chapin and company showed up just after the start of round seven, and began to get a draft going near the front door.
Soon we got word that the Top 8 was ready to go, so I went in to check out the lists. You can find all the lists here. It's a pretty standard Top 8, really. Four Kithkin decks, two Faeries decks, a Lark deck, and a Five Color deck (though not of the variety that I had expected). Things started off as expected: one of the Faerie decks beat the Lark deck, Ari Lax beat the Five Color Merfolk player (though not before falling victim to a number of hilarious Jewish jokes), the other Fae deck beat a Kithkin player, and the Kithkin mirror resulted in a win for the Kithkin deck (imagine that!). In the Top 4, the Kithkin decks both beat the Faerie decks making the Michigan State Championship Finals a mirror match!
The first two games were standard wars of attrition, but the match concluded with Ari getting stuck on two lands in the third game and watching as Russell Slack rolled over him. My personal congratulations to all the players who Top 8ed. They were great matches!
The unsung hero of MI States.
Better than it seems?
Before I get into the decks a bit more, I'd like to talk about a particular card. If you look at the Top 8, one card is seen in four of the lists that you don't normally see in such large numbers: Elspeth, Knight-Errant. I'm going to eat crow on this one - I was wrong about this card. She was definitely the unsung hero of Michigan States, and served the Top 8 well. Whether she was pumping little Kithkin or making Mulldrifters huge in Reveillark, she more than proved her worth. In reality, we're looking at a four-mana Planeswalker that starts out with four loyalty and just keeps adding more. I initially didn't like her mostly because her first and last abilities weren't that useful, but that's fine - her Angelic Blessing ability is pretty nuts. Making a dude is good, too, and that makes her worth playing. Her last ability is still terrible in Kithkin, but in Lark is takes on a whole new meaning. I actually overlooked using her in anything but aggro at first, but I'm definitely glad to be proven wrong. She rocked Michigan States, and I owe her an apology. I'd also like to point out Ari's use of Sigil of Distinction in his sideboard. We all know it's the best card in Shards of Alara Limited, but how about in Constructed? He said he normally played it for two mana, but obviously that wasn't its function. It does serve as a way to dump late-game mana in aggro decks into something useful. It allows one threat to become a big one, which played well into Ari's Exalted strategy. If nothing else, the card has great synergy with Elspeth.
There isn't a whole lot to discuss in the Top 8 aside from that, but I do know now what kind of a meta we're looking at going into Worlds. Decks like Faeries, Lark, and Kithkin are not only popular, but also undeniably strong in the metagame. Faeries and Kithkin are probably the best decks, however, as they posted the most results. Five Color Control posted a few wins, though it ultimately did far worse than I (and most everyone else) had anticipated. Perhaps it was the sheer number of Faerie and Kithkin decks swarming most venues, but things don't look good for Chapin's baby. I know one of the things that steered me away from the deck going into States was the idea of playing the mirror match. It's just so...boring.
Next we have decks like Red Deck Wins, Elves, Tokens, Planeswalkers, Backlash, and Mana Ramp. These decks will be ever-present, though I don't expect them to make a huge splash any time soon. I do, however, expect to see lots of UW Merfolk in the future. Because it can consistently take on Fae, Lark, Five Color, and Kithkin, I feel it might be the breakout deck for Worlds. Luis Scott-Vargas' list from California States is a good list to start from.
As for my deck, I think I realized that the sheer number of Kithkin decks in circulation kind of forced Jace Beleren out of the "maindeckable" category for Faeries. If I could do it all again, I'd take this list:
With better cards in the maindeck to battle Kithkin (Broken Ambitions for Spectral Procession, etc), I feel it would have done better that weekend. I'm considering fitting Terror into the 75, as the more weapons you have to stave off the little men the better.
All in all, States this year was pretty interesting, albeit a little sad on my part. I suppose I didn't go in with the best of health (sleep is needed when playing Faeries), but even still I expected to beat the Quillspike deck at least. I was definitely tilted after the first round, and I think my luck may have followed me up til the end. Still, I had a good time as always and it was a great way to usher in a new format.
Until next time,
Chris "Shinjutsei" Jobin
By Chris Jobin on November 20th, 2008 · Filed in Standard (Type 2), Tournament Report · Comments not available just now