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Compulsive Research: From Boise to Sacramento

Zaiem Beg

If you were to mug someone, how would you do it?

It was the night before the PTQ and I was in some random part of Sacramento near my hotel. I had stopped at a gas station and was in need of a restroom, so I went to the back of the station and a man, not much bigger than me, approached me and spoke with more calmness than you might expect, given the situation.

“You need to give me your money.”

I didn’t know how to react. I’d never been mugged before, so this was a new experience, In addition, he wasn’t brandishing a weapon, and he wasn’t bigger than me. (He was taller, but I’m pretty sure I outweigh the guy, which is a good sign that I need to shed more than a few pounds, but I digress.) He didn’t look like he was hopped up on any drugs or about to do anything crazy. And who starts off a mugging like that? “You need to give me your money?” How matter-of-fact. So I responded with the first thing that came to mind:

“Um, no?”

He was not amused.

“I’m not ing around!”

“Yeah, well, I don’t have any money anyway.”

“Oh. Show me your wallet, so I know you’re not lying to me.”

I showed him my wallet, devoid of cash, as it usually is. I’m a plastic guy exclusively.

“Oh, okay,” he said.

The would-be criminal wandered off, climbed into his truck which had a very visible license plate number, and drove away.

This whole exchange made me very disappointed in the state of criminal behavior these days. So many things went wrong. He didn’t have the decency to wear a mask or brandish a weapon. I’m not asking for a fancy gun or a brand new shiny knife – a baseball bat would have been fine, or failing that, even a tree limb probably would have sufficed.

There was also no urgency. “You need to give me your money.” Come on, folks. If you’re going to go half-hearted into a mugging, of course it’s not going to be successful. You have to really go all in. Put everything you got into it. He waited way too long to bust out the expletives, which came too late to really convince me that I needed to give him my money.

The wallet thing was another problem. He wanted to be sure I wasn’t betraying the mugger-victim trust that was forged in those brief moments. What would he have done if I did have money in my wallet? He wasn’t even close enough to grab for it if he had wanted to. Would he have scolded me for being dishonest, for leading him to believe that I did not have the money which he believed I needed to give him? This was not well thought out.

And finally, and this is basic stuff folks, if you’re going to rob someone, please don’t get into your car where people can plainly see what you’re driving and record the plate number. I hope for his sake that he stole the car, but given his demonstrated prowess for mugging, this seemed unlikely.

Riki Hayashi thinks maybe he was taking the Patrick Chapin approach to mugging. (If you’re reading this Patrick, I’m just kidding. We’ve never met, but from what I can tell you seem like a stand-up guy at events. But if you did have to mug someone, I’d fully expect you to do so far more competently than this guy.) By saying “You need to give me your money,” he was not representing a mugging, but merely suggesting it. Perhaps I did feel like I needed to give him my money. Perhaps not. That decision was on me, really. If no money exchanged hands, where was the harm? No threats were made, so no crime happened. (The Sacramento police did not see it this way.)

Unfortunately, my PTQ was about as successful as this would-be criminal. Quick tournament report:

Round 1 (???.dec)

I mulliganed to five on the play and had no pressure on the board, trying to beat down with a Burrenton Forge-Tender and a Mutavault (which I added to Ranger Zoo as a 22nd land). My opponent played double Sakura Tribe-Scout, but when I got stuck on land and couldn’t cast my spells, he powered out Meloku and Garruk. Game two, I mulliganed again and got stranded with two lands in play as he played several Tarmogoyfs and Garruks and had a Shriekmaw for my Tarmogoyfs (For those of you a little confused by this description, Zaiem’s opponent was using the Sakura Tribe-Scouts to keep dropping various Ravnica bouncelands into play. Dimir Aqueduct and Simic Growth Chamber are pretty sick when Garruk Wildspeaker untaps them – LSV, who was actually watching this particular match).

Round 2 (Astral Slide)

This is a bad matchup, but I tried to make the best of it. Unfortunately, game one he had triple Finks, double Path, and Wrath (Or as I like to call it, “the ol’ Path “n Wrath.” Mostly because it sounds folksy, and we don’t get to do folksy much up in these here parts), then got Finks + Slide + Loam going and I had no chance.

Game two I stuck a Gaddock Teeg, but he had Slide + Hierarch and I never drew a Hedge Mage, Path, or a Vortex, making my entire game plan fall apart.

So it was 0-2 for me. Since I came all the way to play, I decided to stay in, since I had absolutely nothing else better to do all day.

Rounds 3-7: Irrelevant

Well, I did 5-0 the rest of the day, but I was out of Top 8 contention, so it really was irrelevant. I walked away with six packs, which isn’t really much of a consolation. A more important consolation was the quality of my opponents, all of whom were quite friendly and enjoyable to play against, particularly the Raiders fan in round four and Jim the Ninjas player in round six (complete with Swarmyard, Ornithopter, Ninja of the Deep Hours, and a Trinket Mage package. Jon Loucks would be so proud).

[No mention of the awesome judging staff? –Riki]

So that’s the end of Extended, which is the end of a long Extended season, stretching all the way back to when I was helping Berlin-qualified players test for that event in October. I’ve been playing Extended in perpetuity ever since, and I’m sad to see my favorite format disappear. My inability to qualify for Honolulu via the PTQ circuit leaves me with one last chance to qualify for Pro Tour Honolulu: the last chance qualifier (I have no idea where the name comes from).

I may be kissing Extended goodbye for the summer, hoping to see her return in the fall, but I picked up a few lessons this season that can be applied to future Constructed formats.

Lesson 1: Decks that win on Magic-League should not be dismissed out of hand

This is actually a holdover from last year, when the mono-red burn deck made its debut on Magic-League and won several events. People scoffed at it, saying, “It’s just Magic-League. The players aren’t very good, so obviously a jank deck can win against a weak field.”

This year, the same mistake was made when a crazy, terrible combo deck involving Heritage Druid and Glimpse of Nature and Nettle Sentinel won various Magic-League tournaments, and a lot people dismissed it. Gavin Verhey even joked about “playing that terrible Elfball deck from Magic-League,” for Berlin. We all had a good chuckle. Like that deck could ever win.

Whoops.

Yeah, you might see some crazy decks on Magic-League, but if they are consistently putting up results, look at them again. There’s probably some merit to it, and it’s entirely possible you’re looking at a tier one deck.

Lesson 2: Just because nobody’s playing a strategy doesn’t mean it’s not valid

At the beginning of the season, the format was really focused on efficiency. Zoo was playing the most efficient creatures possible. Mono-red burn was trying to squeeze in as much damage as possible while using the smallest amount of mana. As a result, Faeries feasted on the one- and two-casting cost spells that dominated the format with Spellstutter Sprite and Spell Snare.

This opened up a lot of room for deck design, and early in the season it was ripe for the picking. Extended had become so warped around 1 and 2 CMC cards and answers to those cards that if you dared play (gasp!) a three casting cost spell, it could present serious problems. Taking this to the extreme was Martyr of Sands strategies, which pushed everything to the late game and could play virtually any spell in the format, regardless of casting cost.

Like Elves, these strategies were met with some disdain because they were relatively inefficient and were thought to be unable to keep up with the streamlined decks that were expected to dominate the format. But sometimes if you think you’ve got a good idea and nobody agrees with you, you may just have something. Try it out. The masses are lazy, especially at the beginning of a format, and will fall back on what’s familiar (the archetypes from last Extended season, essentially). That’s a great time to come into the format with a sideways strategy that nobody’s prepared for.

Which is related to the next lesson

Lesson 3: Consider all options to solve a problem, even if it’s a generally “unplayable” card

When we were working on W/b/r Martyr, we were having a pretty serious problem with Vedalken Shackles and/or Engineered Explosives. Initially we were winning games against Wizards by getting Martyr lock and having the Wizards player concede, only to never finish game two, giving Martyr the match. When Wizards players figured out that this was not a winning strategy, they would just play out game one, content to take the draw rather than the loss.

So we needed a late-game card that met the following requirements:

1. Preferably in red, black, or white.

2. Could not be trumped by Vedalken Shackles.

3. Could race an active Jitte.

4. Could not easily be trumped by Engineered Explosives, especially if Academy Ruins was involved.

5. Had a high enough casting cost to blank Spellstutter Sprite.

6. Would end the game quickly if it resolved.

That’s a pretty wide range of problems, and there aren’t a lot of solutions in Extended. So we had to start thinking outside the box and dipping into the “unplayable” cards. Maybe Sleeper Agent was the answer (as it could be Proclamation of Rebirthed back and tutored for by Ranger of Eos), but we found it didn’t race Jitte. Storm Herd was another possibility, until its vulnerability to Engineered Explosives was considered. After several passes through Gatherer, the answer was:

Roiling Horror.

(Go ahead, I’ll give you a moment to read what it does.) [I had to because I thought it was Rolling Horror. –Riki, learning something new]

“OMG!” people would say. “That card’s awful! Your deck is awful!” as soon as they saw the card, not realizing that it did have a role and it fit that role very well. Being closed-minded to a card that is “terrible” shuts off possibilities that are readily available. Yes, take a card like that with a grain of salt and test the bejeezus out of it, but if it does what you need it to do, then write it down on your deck registration sheet and feel good about the fact that you have access to a larger card pool than most people.

(At GP: Los Angeles, I faced bad matchup after bad matchup all day, and the card that pulled me out of the tight spots in order to win games I had no business winning? Roiling Horror. Say what you will about him, but he’s essentially Phage the Untouchable in a Martyr deck.)

Lesson 4: Don’t be closed-minded about a card

Okay, I have to apologize to Path to Exile.

I’m sorry, Path. I called you the Vince Young of Conflux (An American Football player who came into pro football with a lot of hype, only to fall flat on his face because he was deeply, fundamentally flawed and hugely overrated). Whenever I cast you in testing, I chanted “overrated!” and clapped. I immediately saw a loss of tempo and card advantage and was not prepared to make you a staple of any deck I played. I wasn’t alone. Others said you were overrated, too. Gerry Thompson. Frank Karsten. Adrian Sullivan. Noah Weil.

Arguments happened. I insulted you. I saw the Rebecca Guay alternate art foil of you and said, “You’re pretty but useless, just like Jessica Simpson.”

I didn’t really understand you. I played against you right after you came out, and people didn’t understand you either, and it was great for me. I didn’t realize you took a little finesse, but that finesse made you a pretty powerful card. You may not be an automatic four-of for decks that run white, but you’re also not a never-runs-four-of-maindeck card, either.

I haven’t played you in Standard. Maybe you’re worse. It’s entirely possible you’re worse, as most decks in Standard are capable of using most or all of its mana every turn, even in the late game. But you were so bloody good in Extended for me, and I was almost never unhappy to see you.

But I’m a changed man. I could have stubbornly refused to maindeck you as a four-of after everything I said, lest I look like a hypocrite. But what’s more important: Playing the best deck, or maintaining my image?

***

It was such a point of contention that I could have let my ego get in my way, especially since I was so adamant about the card. I’m still not going to go as far as to say that it’s better than Swords to Plowshares, or that it belongs as a four-of in every deck that can play it. And I’m not convinced that you don’t play something else that does the same thing if you can afford to, like running Terror over Path in a deck that plays both black and white. But if you don’t have access to Terror or Smother, then Path is a pretty good option. It took me a little longer to realize than I would have liked, but it would have been very easy for me to keep pretending that it wasn’t exactly the card my deck needed.

So it’s off to Standard for the rest of the summer, with GP: Seattle coming up very soon. Standard is a little stale, but it looks like Alara Reborn provides for some interesting deck design space, which I hope to utilize to crush Regionals and Grand Prix: Seattle next month.

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