Tournament Report — Grand Prix Pittsburgh

Hello again, to whomever might be reading this. I write these reports mostly for posterity. Writing a blog is like standing outside on a crowded street corner, closing your eyes, and talking to yourself. Maybe somebody listens to you. Maybe they don't. Either way, you come across as mentally ill and nobody wants to see you ever again. Or maybe not.

Anyway, as my tournament experience was disappointing (5-3), I'll try to keep the match reports brief. More interesting to me is the process behind developing the deck I ran, along with the analysis of the choices we made. Appropriately-labeled spoiler tags are provided for your convenience.

To kick things off, I was extremely close to pulling the trigger on this deck:

Yep, turbofog. Real quick in case you haven't seen this deck before: You play a draw engine as quickly as possible and then fog them out every turn for the rest of the game. Your win condition is decking, or Ulamog out of the board.

It was close between this deck and the Bant turbofog deck, which had the advantage of being able to run Jace (who is really powerful in this deck) and Stoic Rebuttal. Yes, Stoic Rebuttal. Mana Leak presented the conundrum of helping you get set up, but then being totally useless after you were. Stoic Rebuttal was nice because sometimes you actually did get the discount. It also had the significant disadvantage of having terrible mana. I'm not actually sure which is better.

Anyway, I put in way too much time building and testing both versions of this deck. Way too much. And let me tell you, I was real mad when this came out. I was convinced to abandon this deck by mostly everybody who I brought it up with. The deck was good though. You could never lose to an aggro deck, and leylines made sure that you could never lose to monored or Valakut unless they had a maindeck enchantment removal spell. Even then, it was still favorable.

You aren't even that bad against splinter twin. I goldfished this deck under the constraint that I had to start fogging on turn four or five (I forget which) every turn until I won by decking. This was successful a reasonable percentage of the time. The issue is against the blue decks like twin that can both present a lethal clock and have countermagic for your fogs. Those are the hardest matchups. I think the sideboard should reflect this somehow (I'm really not sure what the missteps are for anymore), but the specifics are mostly irrelevant.

After durdling around with various standard legal decks, I came upon Sun Titan and Phantasmal Image. This is obviously an unreal combo, and I set about crafting the very best deck I could that would abuse it.

Me being me, this is what came out of that brew session:

The list was inspired by the old Flickerwisp deck from extended last season. (Obviously inferior to the Stoneforge Bant list that I ran to back-to-back PTQ T16s. I'm not writing any reports on that deck though, sorry.) This deck was sweet. Again, it was good against the aggro decks, defeated caw-blade very easily, and was generally fun to play. Unfortunately, it had an absolutely horrid matchup versus Valakut. And by horrid, I mean that out of about 20 games against different builds, I won at the very max two games. And, true story, one of these games involved my opponent mulliganing to five, keeping a hand with no green sources, missing for five turns, and basically doing nothing until turn six or seven. I still almost lost. He misplayed pretty badly and I was able to squeak out a win. Against a deck that did NOTHING for six straight turns.

This deck didn't last long. It was awesome in Extended because it could run eight cards out of the board for the Valakut decks, which used Scapeshift instead of Primeval Titan (which still just feels bad), but the standard version had no such luck. Oh, and I did try out Leyline of Sanctity. Even a version with leyline AND arbiter AND 4x flashfreeze still just lost every game. I'm serious. Your clock is nowhere near fast enough. I'm not sure how to artistically foreshadow so let me tell you right now: the previous sentence is foreshadowing.

Up until this point my playtesting and brainstorming had been done with one of my friends, who is not exactly a high-caliber player. Not that he's bad, but he's basically isolated from the competitive scene. Bad testing includes playing against his mono-color brews featuring such hits as maindecked surgical extraction, Grand Architect, and various Eldrazi. Of course, constantly switching over to manaless dredge or my Null Profusion deck (dubbed "Null and Tell") to easily defeat his goofy standard decks didn't help things.

I finally decided to ask a more qualified person for help. Not Rich Shay this time, but another friend who is much more in tune with the standard metagame than my previous playtest partner. To sum up and greatly shorten various FB conversations:
Me: Sanity check this deck for me? [see list above]
Him: Your deck is bad and so are you.
Me: I hear modern's a pretty cool format.
Him: I love casting Stoneforge Mystic too much to play modern.
Me: I want to run this deck at the GP.
Him: I'm just going to run Caw-Blade. Why don't you just put blue into that deck for real and be caw-blade.
Me: Wait, that's actually unreal. Phantasmal Image and Sun Titan are so good, and isn't Mortarpod unbeatable in the mirror?
Me: Oh man.
Me: Timely Reinforcments with Mortarpod.
Him: I'm in.
Me: Now I'm actual excited.
Him: In in in in

So that's how we came upon the idea to run Image + Titan in the deck. Simultaneously, around the world, others came to this conclusion as well. This made me feel both awesome and annoyed. Awesome because, hey, I came up with this sweet combo that the pros are running all on my own. Annoyed because it wouldn't be "secret tech" anymore. (Not that it isn't a glaringly obvious combo that can literally be drafted in M12.)

At this point I'll just slip in the final list we ran:

You have every right to be disappointed by seeing that after I said that turbofog was a deck I was willing to run.

Individual card choices:
Consecrated Sphinx: Conspicuously absent. We decided that Sun Titan + Image was just better value. I never ever wanted to be in the position of casting a sphinx and having it killed or bounced on upkeep. With Titan, you get value basically no matter what they do.

Mental Misstep: This card was very good. It's not as good as it is in Legacy, where you have infinite sweet one-drops to counter, but it's still got a lot of good applications. This is a powerful Magic card.

Psychic Barrier: My friend got a lot of the inspiration for the card choices from various GerryT caw-blade lists, which ended up working well. Psychic Barrier in particular is very good. Unlike with mana leak, you can't actually play around a psychic barrier. 9 mana isn't good enough to resolve a titan.

Timely Reinforcements: This got cut from two maindeck to just one. I liked it against all of the aggro, but we needed to make cuts somewhere and this was one of the worst cards game one against the control mirrors.

Day of Judgment: I insisted on two of these. It's the only good answer to Sun Titan + Image, Grave Titan, or hordes of guys.

Mortarpod: This was the last piece of "secret tech" left, and either the greatest strength or the biggest mistake we made with the list. As it turned out, the card may have been better in the sideboard. The advantages of this card are that it is extremely good in the mirror, against tempered steel, against any deck that relies on a Bird, Elf, or Cobra for mana, or against any other deck that produces x/1s (or sometimes even x/2s). It also combines well with Emeria Angel or Reinforcements to sometimes just burn them out.
The disadvantage of mortarpod is that it is dead against several widely played archetypes, namely Valakut and UB control.
This is where I learned an important lesson about testing. I misread the metagame. More accurately, I didn't test the deck fully. I skewed my testing toward decks where I knew that "the card choices we had made" (i.e., Mortarpod) would perform well. The rationalization being that against the other decks I could just sideboard Mortarpod out.
Not that it was totally misguided. When mortarpod is good, it is very good. But when it isn't, it's useless. That's sort of the hallmark of a sideboard card unless the metagame is itself skewed toward the mirror and the aggro decks, particularly tempered steel. I'm not sure what the archetype breakdown at the event was (I can't find it in the coverage), so I can't say whether or not it was actually a good choice aside from how my matchups went.

Sword of Feast and Famine: Also absent. This is/was a trend in the caw lists lately. I'm not sure exactly why, but it probably had to do with every single deck being able to run Dismember and having the ability to blow you out if you tapped out for a sword+equip. I will say that I did not miss sword much except against the decks where it is good. Coincidentally, those are the decks where Mortarpod is bad.

The sideboard should speak for itself, though I want to mention that my friend ran a fourth Misstep in the board in place of my Celestial Purge.

After some more testing (which included running the deck in SCG Boston), we determined that we were set.
After busing in from campus to the event site, lending out the pieces to a UB control deck, and registering, I was ready to jump right on in to the event and start battling.

Round 1: BYE
Well, ok, really I was ready to use my sole rating bye to go get breakfast. This was a good decision.

Round 2: LOSE 0-2 vs Puresteel Paladin
This is what I mean about not testing enough. This deck seemed to be quite difficult to beat for me. I made a probably-incorrect decision to triple tectonic edge him at one point, forgetting that his two-mana spells are much stronger than mine. Oh well. Sword of War and Peace, incidentally, is a beating.
I forget my exact sideboard, but it involved bringing in Revoke Existence.

Round 3: WIN 2-1 vs Mono-Red Goblins
In game one I made a risky play that (I think) involved me waiting as long as possible to cast my Timely Reinforcements. This did not pay off, as he drew up to two cards on his turn, cast Goblin Guide, attacked, and then threw it at me with Goblin Grenade for the win.
Games two and three involved me casting Timely Reinforcements and winning. Also, playing very carefully. I am, in general, a very careful player to the point where one of my friends has said that I "couldn't play an aggro deck if my life depended on it." I disagree, of course, having run various aggressive decks in the past (some with and some without mana leak), but it does pay off, especially against these decks where they can just kill you out of nowhere.
IN: 3 Timely Reinforcements, 3 Flashfreeze, 1 Celestial Purge, 1 Mental Misstep
OUT: 3 Mana Leak, 2 Jace Beleren, 1 Into the Roil, 1 Psychic Barrier, 1 Oblivion Ring(?)
It was something like this.

Round 4: LOSE 0-2 vs UB Poison
Yeah, UB poison. Game one appeared close. he cast a single Phyrexian Crusader and raced my Squadron Hawks. I apparently never drew a Day of Judgment, or maybe he countered it, but he defeated me with this one card.
Game two was really bad. He cast a turn two Black Knight. I let this resolve. Then he cast a turn three black knight. I'm not sure what my thought process was here, but I let this card resolve as well (I had a Psychic Barrier in hand). Possibly I thought the Day of Judgment in my hand would allow me to destroy both of these creatures and be right back in the game? However, he was a good player and just never tapped out again (and had the counterspells when I tried to do things). Two damage a turn is an annoyance, but four a turn is a clock.
In one of these games I tried to copy his creature with Phantasmal Image, but the weakness of this card reared its head when he just killed it immediately. I also never drew dismember in either game.
IN: 1 Deprive, 1 Psychic Barrier, 1 Azure Mage
OUT: 2 Oblivion Ring, 1 Timely Reinforcements
I took out some dead cards for some live cards.

Round 5: Win 2-1 vs Splinter Twin
Game one I let my guard down and he killed me.
Game two I resolved a torpor orb. He found a bounce spell and tried to go off but, I kept him under control with many, many counterspells. I then attacked him ten turns in a row with an inkmoth nexus until he died. Yes, ten. I believe he went for it again, but I was able to keep him under control.
Game three I went for a torpor orb on turn four with two mana up. This got mana leaked. I let that happen for some reason, probably because I had dismember in hand? Either way, I was able to attack him with colonnade this time after he tried and failed to go off, so I only had to battle him for four turns instead of ten this time.
In either game two or three during one of the battles he went for exarch in my end step. I attempted to counter. He responded with his own, and so on. Missteps, leaks, barriers, etc. At some point I have to let the exarch resolve and try to dismember it. He's tapped out, so I think I've got him. Then he throws down a Mindbreak Trap. Kind of annoying. I tap out to dismember again in response, and then he cracks two Shrine of Piercing Vision that he had been saving up. He digs through twenty one cards and misses on a second trap, and I get him. Mindbreak trap is awkward, since it costs 0 during these counter wars, but I had to play into him getting a second one because if I wait for his upkeep, he's able to dig for literally anything instead of a card I was mostly sure he only had two of in his deck.
Better lucky than good right? Not that I wasn't good or anything.
IN: 3 Torpor Orb, 3 Flashfreeze, 1 Celestial Purge, 1 Deprive, 1 Psychic Barrier, 1 Mental Misstep
OUT: 2 Mortarpod, 2 Phantasmal Image, 1 Emeria Angel, 1 Timely Reinforcements, 2 Day of Judgment, 2 Gideon Jura

Round 6: Win 2-1 vs Caw-Blade
Game one I'm way ahead, resolve a mortarpod, and he can't ever win.
Game two I'm way ahead, get him to three life, and easily lose.
Game three I think he stumbles on mana and I'm able to defeat him.
In retrospect I'm annoyed that I can't remember why I lost game two. It involved some mistake that I made, but he was able to, with tight play, get back in the game. I don't think I ever drew my mortarpod this game, or else I would have been able to easily just shoot him three times to win. Or maybe I did have the pod and no creatures? I don't know. I do know that I didn't counter a squadron hawk at some point, which was a mistake. My details here are fuzzy.
IN: 1 Azure Mage, 1 Deprive, 1 Psychic Barrier
OUT: 2 Mental Misstep, 1 Timely Reinforcements
He actually brought missteps in against me as I brought mine out. We determined that in the mirror, all they do is counter preordain, unless they have spell pierce. If they do have Pierce, you absolutely want to have the missteps. Otherwise the value isn't there. My opponent determined the exact opposite, saying after the match that being able to counter a preordain when they're digging for answers is huge. I agree, but I'd rather not run them.

Round 7: Win 2-0 vs UB Control
This was an awkward match. My opponent was stuck on four lands for the entirety of game 1. There may have been a tectonic edge or two involved here, but still. The game also took years to finish because we don't have a very fast clock in this deck. I was beating him down for two damage a turn most of the game, presumably with squadron hawks.
Game two was more of a game. I really don't remember specifics other than the following factoids:
1. My opponent had a Consecrated Sphinx on the battlefield for half of the game.
2. So did I.
3. I decided to attack my Image into a Mystifying Maze.
4. Still won that game.
The game ended when I cast a Sun Titan to get back both Images. He cast a Volition Reins on the real titan, then attacked with his sphinx and passed back at 3 life. He had two Bloodghasts out plus the Titan, while I had two titans. I actually stared at the board for about a full minute before realizing that bloodghast can't block.
IN: 1 Psychic Barrier, 1 Deprive, 1 Celestial Purge, 1 Azure Mage, 1 Revoke Existence
OUT: 1 Timely Reinforcements, 2 Mortarpod, 2 Mental Misstep
I forget the exact details. I'm not sure about what I did with the Revoke or the Missteps.

Round 8: Lose 0-2 vs UB Control
This was an even more awkward match, mostly because I lost.
In game one I was stuck on three lands for most of the match. I also let nerves get to me and ran out a Timely Reinforcements when there were 0 creatures on the battlefield and, even better, my life total was higher than his. I miswrote the life totals on the pad. I died to some combination of Consecrated Sphinx and Grave Titan.
Game two was mostly the same. I never got anything going. I died to Karn + Liliana + Jace.
Sideboarding same as before.
My opponent was a pretty stand-up guy and a much better Magic player than I am, so I didn't feel terrible about losing.

I dropped at this point, at 5-3. My friend made 4-3 with the deck. Not the greatest day. Can't make day 2 every time!

Getting to see one of our playgroup make T8 was pretty exciting, though.
Even though we both had disappointing results, I learned a lot from this. First, my testing was inadequate. My most successful tournament deck has so far been Stoneforge Bant from last extended season. That deck had the benefit of being tested and worked on by a larger group of people, not just two. There were more perspectives in play and better, more robust testing against the field.

I also let the testing get too inbred. I feel like I ignored many popular archetypes, mostly because I was at home on summer break and not around other Magic players that I know well. With the Bant list I only ever ran into one deck across two PTQs that I wasn't prepared for*, and I managed to fight that match out to a draw. With this deck, there were multiple matchups (Valakut, UB control, paladin) that I just did not know how to play against. I was defeated by all of them at least once during the day. (I did a side event and was defeated by Valakut.)

*In the first PTQ I was defeated by Boros twice. For the second one we fixed the sideboard for this matchup and I obviously ran into 0 Boros decks.

This was the first time I've run a true control deck in a big tournament. Now, I love control in drafts of basically all formats, but running it in a 9 round constructed tournament is a different animal entirely. I think for the near future, at least, I'll stick to aggro...
So that's my report.


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