There is a saying amongst my people: Never say never. It's hardly a motto to live your life by since if nothing else anyone who recites it clearly isn't taking it seriously. Despite this there is a useful principle embodied within: that in living one's life by self-imposed rules one loses a valuable flexibility and it is surely a better thing to allow oneself to be seized by the spirit of adventure than to discard opportunities for no better reason than one's own prior word to oneself.
The dark, cold Winter of 2002 was fast approaching when I decided to once again play the game we know as Magic the Gathering. Not since Ice Age had I turned so much as a single card sideways. Being now an old man, I had the knowledge to understand the dangers of the Magical cards. My reasons for approaching that dread Pandora's box were strong (and a tale for another day), but I knew I must be wary. So I made a simple resolution: I will not attend tournaments.
Fast forward to 2006. I was wandering the grey and frosty streets of London. My thoughts were muddied by the fine beverages I had consumed the previous night and I contemplated finding a coffee house to acquire caffeine. Then I heard a cry for help. As a gentleman and a programmer it was my duty to assist! I ran to the scene and discovered the proprietor of the local alehouse fleeing for his life. At first I saw no signs of his pursuer, then a tall figure loomed out of the mist.
It was none other than Armada of Furyondy, returned from the Americas. His greatcoat and polished buttons did not fool me - I knew him to be of that most dangerous breed of gentleman scholars, possessed of such prodigious skills that they would be wasted on any constructive task. Instead, he busies himself with cryptic crosswords, obscure films, insulting beautiful maidens with his barbed wit and studying the oriental art of karaoke-jutsu (with which he has murdered several songs, I hear). He also plays Magic.
"Bateleur!" he greeted me, "Did you see a scoundrel run past?"
"Armada!" I doffed my hat and bowed to my old friend, "Indeed I did not, only a fat publican fleeing for his life from some imagined horror."
"That was he!" Armada shook his fist, "A scoundrel of the first order! His pub quiz featured a disgraceful excess of sports questions. It violates every law of civilized society! That such a thing should come to pass in the city of London!"
This was a serious matter indeed and the dispute could only end in the death - or at least utter humiliation - of the poor landlord unless Armada was swiftly distracted.
"I have heard it said," I swiftly remarked, "that Wizards of the Coast have made a change to the Magic the Gathering Championships this year. Not one but three tournaments are to be held. Furthermore, one of them will be Two-Headed Giant."
"Alas, I have only one head," Armada lamented, returning his attention to scanning the street for his escaped foe.
"I have one head also," I offered, "We could enter as a team. Who could stand against our combined Magical skills?"
So it was that I found myself attending a tournament. On Saturday March 18th I made my way to the County Hotel. Being an early riser, I rode an earlier train than I had planned and passed through the vaulted halls of Waterloo and on to Euston with a clear half hour to spare. So it was that I wandered a while in Tavistock Square gardens and there I chanced upon Mahatma Gandhi. This gave me pause for thought. Here I was, prepared for war. Surely turning monsters sideways to smash face was not in harmony with the principle of ahimsa (rejection of all violence) Gandhi both advocated and exemplified? I resolved to win my matches by peaceful protest wherever possible.
Arriving at the venue itself, I found traders hawking their wares and was silently horrified by the prices. Spending so much time online had forever altered my perceptions of value. Curious as to whether these prices were just for the tourists I attempted to haggle with one of the traders. I forced him down as far as a pot-bellied pig and four sticks of sealing wax for his foil Ghost Council of Orzhova before admitting I didn't really want it. Besides, I had another task to began before the tournament started - I needed a DCI number.
I wasn't joking about it being my first offline tournament.
I heard a scuffle in the foyer and the sounds of things breaking. A moment later, the door was flung open and Armada strode into the room. Several of the assorted miscreants lurking about the room immediately recognised him and nods of recognition were exchanged. Speaking of said miscreants, I was rather surprised by who I found in the back room of that hotel. I let been led to believe by the scribblings of self-styled internet journalists that tournaments were populated in large part by the very young and the socially hopeless. This turned out not to be so. The modal age was not much below my own thirty three summers and there was no odor of neglected bathing about the place. Indeed, there were even three young ladies present none of whom had moustaches and whom I must say I would hesitate to throw out of bed if I were a single man.
Nope, no small children here.
Nope, no small children here.
Armada and I exchanged the terse, mumbled greetings popular amongst the English then settled down to wait for our cards. As it turned out they were delivered to our table. I inquired of my friend whether we were expected to tip for this service, but he assured me the entry fee we had paid would cover it.
Without further ado, let me introduce you to our cards...
Armada had mentioned to me but I have not yet mentioned to you that he had barely played any Ravnica and no Guildpact whatsoever. This did not trouble me unduly. Although one does not enter a tournament without hoping to win, it was indeed the case that we entered without expecting to win. As a young man, I found myself eager for conflict, for any clash of steel that might prove me the better man than my hapless opponent. These days, I have long since ceased to worry about proving my skills - or even having any worth speaking of. Instead, I find I value the rich diversity of experience that is social gaming. Competition, for me, is like salt on food. It brings out the flavor of the game, ensuring that all participants are trying to play well.
There is also the fact that Armada is secretly a very fine player. The social commentators of this world often divide mankind into the modest and the arrogant. And yet Armada and I are two perfect examples of the two ways in which this classification fails. I myself am evasive and sly and quite capable if I choose of giving every appearance of modesty whilst in truth I am prodigiously arrogant - although I prefer to say "self-confident". Armada by contrast will pick a fight with any man so long as the battlefield is a verbal one and will argue the poor fellow into submission with such passion and force that ladies and clergymen would feel compelled to leave the room. And yet on those rare occasions when he is not jesting with anyone he seldom has a single good word to say of himself and prefers to be his own fiercest critic, staring gloomily down into whatever drink some sympathetic wench has bought for him that day. My point is simply this: he may never have seen the cards, but I had no real concern he would play badly.
Armada's extensive apologies in advance did have one effect. They persuaded me that if one of us was going to take a more controllish deck it should probably be me, since a knowledge of the environment can be helpful for such decisions as might arise.
Those of you who wish to build decks for yourself should finish the process before taking a look at ours...
|Bateleur's So-called DeckMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards|
1 Instill Furor
1 Induce Paranoia
1 Muddle the Mixture
1 Flight of Fancy
1 Compulsive Research
1 Halcyon Glaze
1 Dimir Signet
1 Izzet Signet
1 Orzhov Euthanist
1 Steamcore Weird
1 Vedalken Entrancer
1 Crystal Seer
2 Izzet Chronarch
1 Ogre Savant
1 Greater Forgeling
1 Tattered Drake
1 Living Inferno
1 Boros Garrison
1 Izzet Boilerworks
|Armada's Awesome B/W Manafixing CollectionMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards|
1 Devouring Light
2 Pillory of the Sleepless
1 Elvish Skysweeper
1 Elves of Deep Shadow
1 Golgari Guildmage
1 Dryad Sophisticate
1 Vinelasher Kudzu
2 Silhana Starfletcher
1 Benevolent Ancestor
1 Daggerclaw Imp
1 Stinkweed Imp
1 Shrieking Grotesque
1 Restless Bones
1 Mausoleum Turnkey
1 Keening Banshee
1 Ghor-Clan Savage
1 Golgari Rotwurm
1 Conclave Equenaut
1 Primordial Sage
1 Guardian of Vitu-Ghazi
1 Sisters of Stone Death
1 Godless Shrine
2 Orzhov Basilica
1 Selesnya Sanctuary
1 Vitu-Ghazi, the City Tree
1 Orzhova, the Church of Deals
If you're wondering why we're not running any enchantment removal it's because you didn't examine our options properly.
It was my view that our cardpool was exceptionally disappointing. As soon as I saw it I felt there was no possibility of us making Top 4 amongst a field of 30 teams. Furthermore, the dreaded no wins then drop seemed like a very real risk. Being seated at table 13 for our deckbuilding did little to allay my fears. Furthermore, Armada was having some difficulties with his crossword, an almost unprecedented state of affairs which did not bode well.
We named our team Pisces Aurei, primarily on the basis that the task of naming a team was something we might easily spend all day on if left to our own devices and so we had best get it over with.
There are more comments I could make on our decks with hindsight, but in the interests of keeping events in chronological order let us move swiftly to the first match.
Match 1 vs David and Farhan
Our opponents seemed to be agreeable fellows and our match began with none of the tension one might expect in a one game match. Ah - I didn't mention that before. Two-Headed Giant involves only a single game per match. There are no sideboards.
Our decks both offered us moderately slow starts, but Farhan had different ideas. His deck came racing off the blocks with a variety of Gruul antics. I peered at his bloodthirsted Skarrgan Pit-Skulk. Surely, I thought to myself, that card cannot be good in this format? As a player of Limited duels I spent a few more turns wincing at the hits. However, it was simply not a relevant amount of damage. Pretty soon, only his Goblin Spelunkers were still swinging.
I must apologise at this point if the drama of this match report is stimulating for you, because there really isn't much more to relate. Armada deployed a Pillory of the Sleepless onto the Spelunkers. David tried to Repeal the Spelunkers, but I decided to Induce Paranoia. The match ended in an amusing fashion when I played Flight of Fancy on Armada's bloodthirsted Ghor-Clan Savage mostly because I wanted to draw two cards. As it turned out the opponents lacked an answer to this. Repeatedly. Until they died.
Is it really a good plan to give this guy wings?
Is it really a good plan to give this guy wings?
The good news was that 1-0 up is by far the most dignified way to start a tournament. The bad news was that our decks really hadn't had much of a workout.
Match 2 vs Smeagol (Paul and Ben)
Why? Because Ben does the Gollum voice from the movie, that's why. We didn't ask for a demonstration, but apparently one gets a free demonstration just for facing them in a match. How wonderful! Actually, Ben was quite convincing. Hurrah for completely useless trivial talents, that's what I say. Still - we were on table 1 now. Where else were we going to find talent if not table 1?
This time our opponents knew what they were doing. This was a shame, because after accelerating nicely to a turn three Vedalken Entrancer my deck decided that a mana flood would be a fine plan. This was bad timing, because despite the fact that 2HG games allow a free mulligan (that is to say, one's first mulligan is again to seven cards, not six) Armada had been forced to mulligan to five.
This time we had a proper 2HG game in that it was all about the evasion and removal. Sadly, the latter was all theirs. Thanks to the usual Orzhov tricks their life actually went up and before long we were looking at being dead very soon indeed unless we drew some sort of bomb we didn't have.
The one thing in our favour was that I'd been consistently milling the opponent opposite me. Unfortunately he'd been counting his library and after my last mill of the game he still had four cards left and knew we were comfortably dead next turn. I don't know if Armada had seen my hand or not, but he managed to maintain a marvellous aura of confidence. Somehow, his hand clearly contained a hitherto-unheard-of instant speed version of Hex, or maybe Hour of Reckoning. At least that's the best reason I can think of for my opponent casting Scatter the Seeds at the end of our turn.
"Know your outs," they say. I'd been down to exactly one "out" for the last five turns as far as I was concerned. Fortunately it was in my hand, so I responded with Induce Paranoia for the win. My opponent took it well under the circumstances, as did the giant's other head. No use crying over spilt milk, after all.
So, our decks had been utterly crushed, but we were still at 2-0. That seemed just fine to me.
Match 3 vs Battle Ants (Joss and Mike)
With our opponents at 2-0 I was somewhat nervous. Surely these would be powerful decks, probably piloted by shrewd and merciless players.
Things started reasonably well for us as I Disemboweled their Lurking Informant before it informed on us too much. Armada also had a respectable start but it soon became clear that our decks just didn't have an early game. Superficially we were keeping up, but our life total was going down and theirs was not.
The game stopped looking like a mild tempo advantage to them and started looking like a loss for us when Joss managed to attack with a Smogsteed Rider given Swampwalk by Restless Bones. At this point I received a black mark in my capacity as our team's Ravnica block expert - I had never noticed that Smogsteed Rider reads "each other attacking creature". In Two-Headed Giant that's not at all the same as "creatures you control". Oops.
A brief digression - earlier in the match I had allowed our opponents to take back some trivial action they had performed wrongly. I forget exactly what it was. I realise that tournament players soon learn to equate charity with foolishness, but not being what one would call a serious competitor myself I would rather wait and see if I can beat my opponents at the game than do it with rules pedantry. Later I made a rather hasty blocking assignment and asked if I could reverse it. In fact, since we had not finished declaring blockers and had not passed priority I'm not at all sure I needed to ask. This didn't stop my opponents from disagreeing with each other as to whether to permit this, which I found quite amusing.
With both opponents tapped out it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to try to kill the Smogsteed Rider with my Gelectrode. I pinged it once, then noticed that with only three mana open the opponents had nothing I could Repeal. As (bad) luck would have it, the only suitable card on our side of the table was Armada's Vinelasher Kudzu with four counters. I'd have to be crazy to bounce it, but I had seven mana on the table and Living Inferno in hand. I really didn't want to be dealing with the Rider next turn if I drew another land. "Is it OK if I bounce your Vinelasher?" I asked Armada. He looked profoundly puzzled and offered a cautious OK.
At this point let me offer you a piece of life advice which has served me well over the years. If you have a choice between two courses of action and you are initially unsure as to which is the better choice, pick the one which will leave you with a good anecdote.
I bounced the Vinelasher, topdecked a land, resolved Living Inferno and somehow untapped with it still in play. Since it was at this point unclear whether I would get more than one activation out of it I left it untapped for the moment. My opponent dropped a bloodthirsted Skarrgan Skybreaker. I assumed that meant the end of my Living Inferno, but of course he wouldn't want to fire it before the Inferno activation since I could respond with that anyway. Fine. I activated the Inferno targetting the Skybreaker and some random small thing (I forget what it was). To my astonishment, he fired the Skybreaker at my head instead of at the Inferno. This in turn meant that the Inferno lived, so I untapped with it again.
Of course, all this time I've been talking about me, me, me (and my permanents). Armada hadn't exactly been sitting on his hands all this time. He had Primordial Sage out. In a deck with that many creatures in, that's no small thing. He'd been quietly drawing creatures and building quite a board presence. To this, he now added Sisters of Stone Death.
Time was called on the round as our opponents desperately tried to salvage what had so recently looked like a won match for them. They cast not one but two Blind Hunters, very nearly killing us. All they needed was a sac outlet... With Inferno now unchecked, I toasted large sections of their board. As luck would have it, the five extra turns started with us. However, with our opponents' life total in the 40s, this was going to be hard.
At least, I assumed it would be hard. Our first attack did 24 damage and removed a Blind Hunter from the game to play for the good guys. Our second attack finished the job.
Amusingly, I'd started the round bemoaning to our opponents how awful our decks were and they now assumed I'd been joking. "So many broken rares!" they lamented.
We had about a dozen spectators by this point, so the contents of our decks were now known.
Against all the odds, we were at 3-0.
Match 4 vs Daniel and Arthur
Win this one and we could draw into the top 4. Appealing idea. On the other hand, I still found it quite hard to imagine our decks winning any match, never mind against a team at 3-0.
Our opponents didn't play perfectly. Arthur neglected to attack with his Stinkweed Imp one turn. "This sort of thing is why you normally play gay control decks!" his partner fumed. I should apologise on his behalf here for any implied insult to our homosexual readership, who in reality are no more prone to holding their Stinkweed Imps back unnecessarily than the rest of us. Besides, what they do with their Stinkweed Imps in the privacy of their own homes is their own business. On the subject of which, teaming up with another man to pretend to be a two-headed giant is not a statement about one's sexuality. It is an act of consensual gaming and nothing more.
Sadly, the grievous error with the Imp was as bad as our opponents' game got.
Gruul Guildmage, Goblin Spelunkers, Sewerdreg and Ethereal Usher... Armada and I easily had enough answers to deal with that lot. In our entire decks. The relatively pitiful subset we actually drew did little to stem the bleeding.
In was in this game that I realised a severe weakness of my deck: Izzet Chronarch is not a 2-for-1 in this format, because the 2/2 body it leaves behind is simply not useful in the way it can be in draft. When it was pretty much too late to matter I cast Living Inferno again. This time, it met the kind of fate that the card typically does, being bounced by a Vedalken Dismisser.
I'm trying to make this sound like a match report, but we really had brought knives to a gunfight here. We were obliterated. It wasn't close.
It was during our postmortem for this match that Armada and I concluded Daggerclaw Imp was not actually good in his deck. We were capable of making the late game our own, but to get there our early drops needed to do relevant things. Attempting to race was about the least relevant thing possible.
I also expressed the opinion that Orzhova did not belong in his build (we built the deck together, so this was more of a sigh of regret than a criticism). This was taken as a challenge by my friend who thereafter saw fit to point out every single occasion when Orzhova could have saved us. There were more than you might think.
Since we were now 3-1 I busied myself with mathematics trying to work out what we needed to make the cut to top 4. This was just my personal way of avoiding the fact that one of the requirements would clearly be to win our next match. Did I mention I had no confidence in our decks?
Match 5 vs Pawel and Konrad
"Are these the Russian mafia?" I whispered to Armada, who knew many of the local players from long ago.
"No, no," he replied, then added, "probably not."
When writing match reports there is always a certain tension between a desire to avoid extraneous detail and a desire to include everything such that readers may reconstruct the plays. In this particular article I am trying to focus mostly on how each match was won or lost rather than the precise details. As such, this particular match is quite alarmingly short.
Armada tapped out to cast Golgari Rotwurm. He already had a Stinkweed Imp in play. I cast a Signet and Instill Furor (which turns out to be quite good in this format - not something I was confident of when I put it in my deck). End of our turn Pawel tapped six mana for Pyromatics; two to the Imp, one to the dome. He then untapped and hit Armada with Twisted Justice.
Is that even playable? I don't know, but I had just lost a match to it. In fact possibly we'd just lost a tournament to it.
Armada later pointed out to me that in fact their decks had excellent synergy with the Sorcery in question. Indeed, before the match was literally over (as opposed to merely in practice) they were kind enough to cast Seize the Soul to demonstrate the principle.
The good thing about this match is that it was so blisteringly fast we had time to go and get a curry. It was a nice curry too. If you're ever at the County Hotel, go straight out of the main doors and turn right down the alley a few paces away. Less than half a minute's walk down there on your right you can buy a modestly priced dinner that's likely far more edible than anything the hotel serve. (The price is made even more appealing if the other head of your giant pays and you forget to pay him back. I shall do so next time I see him, I faithfully promise. And maybe also return his deck. Maybe even with the Godless Shrine still in it.)
Do you know what take away curry doesn't come with? Cutlery, that's what. Oops. This way fairly typically of my level of insight and forward planning throughout the day. We folded the foil lids in half and used them as food trowels. They were crude and hard to use, but at least I didn't spill any on the tournament tables. Because I wasn't eating curry illicitly in the tournament room. In no sense did I do that.
Match 6 vs Foo (Bar and Baz)
OK, you got me there. Our final opponents were not in fact named after metasyntactic variables, I just got sloppy and failed to take their names down. You may see why in a minute.
Armada expressed the view that 4-2 was a respectable finish, whilst 3-3 would seem somehow inadequate. So no pressure then. However, I felt we had a much better chance to win this one. Any team that could lose twice could surely manage to lose once more for our benefit?
Their turn two Selesnya Guildmage might have suggested the answer was "no". Fortunately my turn three Steamcore Weird took a dislike to the Guildmage on sight.
The good thing about Two-Headed Giant as a format is that at all times you have your teammate on hand to give advice. The bad thing is, they might actually give some advice. Armada had one Green mana, an Elvish Skysweeper and a castable Putrefy both in hand. The opponents had a turn four Moroii that was hurting us. We had already Pilloried one of their other threats, so they were taking two per turn as well. Armada had three main options:
1) Putrefy the Moroii.
2) Cast the Skysweeper and kill the Moroii next turn if he drew a fifth land.
3) Wait for the fifth land first.
I was strongly in favour of option 3) on the basis that the power and versatility of Putrefy might be needed to stop some landwalker (or worse) later, whilst we could already see a solution to the Moroii. Armada favoured option 1), but I talked him round. He drew the fifth land on his next turn. Now he had three options:
1) Putrefy the Moroii.
2) Cast the Skysweeper and kill the Moroii with it next turn.
3) Wait for a second Green source first to stop the opponents from killing the Skysweeper.
I was worried about the number of cards in hand their Red player had and speculated that option 3) was again the right play. Armada expressed mild surprise, but allowed himself to be persuaded.
No second Green source was forthcoming for some time and eventually the pressure forced Putrefy on the Moroii anyway.
I drew some non-land cards and focussed on my own hand for a while. This gave Armada space to make some good plays while I wasn't looking. In fact what I'd been doing was repeatedly recurring Induce Paranoia to counter no fewer than three spells. Our opponents were almost out of gas. But "almost out" is not the same as "out". Savage Twister cleared my board and made most of the rest look pretty empty too.
At this point, the wily Mr Bar topdecked the following cards consecutively: Agrus Kos, Sunhome Enforcer, Master Warcraft, Excruciator. But before I could resign myself to scooping, Armada played Sisters of Stone Death. Mr Bar suddenly realised that despite the massive damage he had dealt us he was now in a most serious pickle. He couldn't attack, but he most certainly couldn't not attack.
Not long thereafter, Sisters of Stone Death had swallowed Sunhome Enforcer and spat it out again on our side of the table (sadly without access to Red mana).
The following turn, wary of Devouring Light, we decided to use Sisters as a super-wall for the moment whilst I dealt 6 across the open board with Greater Forgeling. We talked a little about whether I should fear burn and deal only 3, but decided we'd rather draw the removal.
Mr Bar had Boros Fury-Shield. We were on 6 life.
In a correspondence to me before the tournament during which he mentioned that he had played little Ravnica and no Guildpact, Armada expressed a concern than he might manage to let the side down because of this and that perhaps I should reconsider. I reassured him that even if indeed such a thing were to occur it would be of no consequence, for a gentleman never takes his pastimes too seriously.
It is just as well that I said this, for it was my error that lost us that final match. Did you see it?
If not, I suggest you read Greater Forgeling again. Boros Fury-Shield would not have dealt six to us had its target been gone when it arrived. Mr Baz was immensely relieved that I had not spotted this play, since he would have been obliged to ritually slaughter his partner for his crass error. There was, of course, no need to target the Forgeling since it would be simplicity itself to wait until the Sisters attacked or blocked before casting.
Each of our opponents had a mere one card remaining in their deck which could in theory defeat us from the hypothetical position after the Forgeling's death. One was Flash Conscription belonging to Mr Bar, the other was a Pillory belonging to Mr Baz. The odds were against them drawing either before dying, but we will never know.
A tournament veteran like Armada of Furyondy simply cannot finish 3-3 after being a game away from Top 4 without some regret. He offered little in the way of criticism. But if he expected my own conscience to punish me he was sadly mistaken. I had come here intending to enjoy myself and had done exactly that. Our seemingly poor cardpool had given me a day of fine drama. And as for the way it all ended? Not good for me perhaps, but good for the game - because in the end at least four of our six games were ultimately decided by skill (I say "at least" to allow for the possibility that we built our decks wrongly in some way). This is as it should be.
It was only as I shook Armada's hand and prepared to bid farewell to the dingy hotel and set out on the long journey through London to my own estate that he held me fast for a moment and asked the fateful question.
"That last game," he looked me sternly in the eye, "you do realise we would have won if I had Orzhova out, yes?"