Game Analysis: W/R Vehicles vs. Grixis Control

Welcome to another edition of Game Analysis, a special column for examining, in detail, a single game from video tournament coverage.

Today I’m going to cover one of the most challenging games I played at Pro Tour Kaladesh: Game 2 of round 15 against Shota Yasooka and his Grixis Control deck. The stakes were high, as I would likely make the Top 8 if I were to win the match, but would likely be eliminated if I were to lose. I’ll be analyzing the game from my perspective, as the pilot of W/R Vehicles.

Here’s the video, so you can follow along.

The Matchup

Red-White Vehicles

Reid Duke, 10th place at PT Kaladesh

Grixis Control

Shota Yasooka, 1st place at PT Kaladesh

I’ve included the deck lists for reference, but it’s important to note that we, the players, did not have access to them at the time of the match. I’ll be examining game 2, so naturally by this point we both knew the matchup. But we did not know one another’s individual card choices or sideboard strategies.

W/R Vehicles is both fast and resilient, and has a lot of excellent tools against control decks. The traditional control game plan of removal and card drawing has a hard time keeping up. I had won the first game on the back of a fast draw on the play.

But Shota’s creatures—Thing in the Ice and Weaver of Lightning—are potent in the matchup. If one of those goes unanswered and is backed up by a good draw, the game is likely to go in his favor. These, as well as Radiant Flames (which is good, but not quite as good as it is against some other aggro decks) are his key cards.

The key cards on my side are the Vehicles—Smuggler’s Copter and Fleetwheel Cruiser; and the planeswalkers—Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Chandra, Torch of Defiance. The presence or absence of Selfless Spirit on the battlefield can also change things dramatically. But it’s vulnerable to any spell from among Yasooka’s plethora of spot removal. I also left a bit of removal in my deck—3 Declaration in Stone and 1 Skywhaler’s Shot—that I could dig for in a sticky situation.

The Early Turns

Shota is on the play and plays Sunken Hollow.

After drawing for my turn, my hand is: PlainsNeedle Spires, Toolcraft ExemplarSmuggler’s Copter, Selfless Spirit, Veteran Motorist, Veteran Motorist, and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.

It’s tempting to play Plains and Toolcraft Exemplar, since that leads to the best draws W/R Vehicles is capable of, but it’s more important to ensure that I can cast a 2-drop on turn 2, especially since the combination of Smuggler’s Copter and Veteran Motorist is so effective at helping me hit my land drops and smooth my draw. If I fail to draw an untapped land, Toolcraft Exemplar will only attack for 1 anyway. I play Needle Spires.

Turn 2 Shota plays Island and Thing in the Ice. There’s information to be gleaned from Shota’s land drops. I can comfortably say that he doesn’t have a Spirebluff Canal, since he would’ve played that instead of Island. It’s very unlikely that he had Evolving Wilds or Wandering Fumarole on turn 1 (and somewhat unlikely that he had Smoldering Marsh), since those are more natural turn-1 plays than Sunken Hollow. When players aren’t playing their “best” lands, it’s more likely that they’re light on lands (choosing a bad option is a hint that their options are limited). I draw Pia Nalaar, play Plains, and cast Smuggler’s Copter.

Turn 3 Shota plays Wandering Fumarole, visibly drawn off the top of his library. This could be a ploy, but so far all of the evidence would fit with him having a land-light hand. He passes the turn and I draw a Smuggler’s Copter. At this point, my top priority is to hit my land drop. With only Island and Sunken Hollow, I neither have to fear a permission spell for my Veteran Motorist, nor a removal spell for my Smuggler’s Copter (at least not commonly played ones).

I cast Motorist and see a Plains, and another Smuggler’s Copter with the scry. The land goes on top, the Smuggler’s Copter on the bottom. I crew, attack, draw the Plains, and must decide what to discard.

I’m planning to play Plains and Toolcraft Exemplar post-combat, so that limits my choices to: Gideon, Ally of Zendikar (one of my most powerful cards in the matchup), Selfless Spirit (a card I’ll want if I’m committing a lot of creatures to the battlefield), Pia Nalaar (good against spot removal and can help punch attackers past the Thing in the Ice), Veteran Motorist (can smooth my draw and help me find a fourth land for Gideon, Ally of Zendikar), and Smuggler’s Copter. If I don’t draw a land for my next turn, my plan will be to use Veteran Motorist to look for a fourth land, draw it with my Smuggler’s Copter, and then play Selfless Spirit. So I make the judgment call to discard my Smuggler’s Copter. It’s not completely clear to me that this is the best choice, but I would make the same decision again. If not for the Selfless Spirit in my hand, I would’ve put a higher premium on a threat that would survive through Radiant Flames and discarded the Motorist instead.

On turn 4 Shota casts Galvanic Bombardment on Veteran Motorist and passes without playing a land. I draw Needle Spires. The combination of my Motorist getting killed and drawing a tapped land changes my plans, and I’ll now be content with casting Pia Nalaar in the interest of mana efficiency. But since Toolcraft Exemplar cannot attack through Thing in the Ice anyway, I use it to crew my Smuggler’s Copter and attack before anything else. I draw and discard Inspiring Vantage. I play Pia and Needle Spires.

Turn 5 Shota draws, plays Smoldering Marsh tapped, and casts Radiant Flames. I untap and draw yet another Smuggler’s Copter. So I have 4 lands and my hand is: Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, Smuggler’s Copter, Selfless Spirit, and Veteran Motorist.

I have a window to cast Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. But I’m deathly afraid of Shota casting 2 spells to transform his Thing in the Ice and eating my Gideon, Ally of Zendikar for lunch. This could be 2 burn spells, or a card draw spell plus a burn spell. Additionally, if I play Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and use the Knight to crew my Smuggler’s Copter, any untapped land would allow Wandering Fumarole to kill Gideon, Ally of Zendikar as well. I decide instead to play Veteran Motorist and another 2-drop. This has the additional benefit of giving me extra looks for Declaration in Stone to get rid of the threatening Thing in the Ice.

Unfortunately, my scry sees Mountain and Toolcraft Exemplar, which both go to the bottom. My loot draws me a Mountain, which I discard. Post-combat I cast a second Smuggler’s Copter.

The Critical Turn

Turn 6 Yasooka plays a Spirebluff Canal and passes with 4 mana open. I draw a Plains. My priorities are to apply enough pressure that Shota cannot comfortably take a turn off to cast Glimmer of Genius, but also mitigate the damage to my position if Shota can transform Thing in the Ice at instant-speed.

Casting Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is a poor option due to both the threat of a permission spell, and the imminent Thing in the Ice transformation.

Activating both Smuggler’s Copters is risky against Thing in the Ice with 2 counters. But activating only 1 Smuggler’s Copter is worse if Yasooka has a single removal spell, or if his plan is simply to cast Glimmer of Genius.

I decide that I’m in a bad situation against 2 removal spells regardless, and that I want to give Shota the minimum amount of breathing room if he has an awkward hand. I cast Selfless Spirit, crew both Smuggler’s Copters, and go to combat. Shota casts Harnessed Lightning on one of the Smuggler’s Copters and I must decide if I want to sacrifice Selfless Spirit.

First, I’ll point out a very clear mistake that I made. I should’ve allowed the Thing in the Ice trigger to resolve before anything else. It’s a mistake to let Shota keep 2 counters on Thing, because if I sacrifice Selfless Spirit, he could respond with a second removal spell, which would now resolve before Thing in the Ice transforms. The result would be an extra creature being in my graveyard instead of my hand.

Next, we should note that this situation is unique. There’s a special rule in Magic that a player always has first priority to respond to his or her own spell, regardless of whose turn it is. (Think Lion’s Eye Diamond if you’re an Eternal player). Under normal circumstances, there might be an opportunity to “get” Shota because if we both passed priority, then Harnessed Lightning would resolve and he would have no opportunity to cast Negate. But the Thing in the Ice trigger throws all of that out the window since I, as the active player, would have first priority after the counter gets removed.

Regardless, if I had x-ray glasses and knew that Shota had Negate, but no other castable spells in hand, my best play would be to not sacrifice Selfless Spirit. Let’s dig a little deeper to decide whether or not I could have (should have) had that information, and what would happened if Shota had different combinations of cards in hand.

The first question is, from my perspective, why would Shota target Smuggler’s Copter with Harnessed Lightning when targeting Selfless Spirit would limit my options? If he targets Selfless Spirit and I sacrifice it, I fizzle the spell and he gets no energy. If he targets Smuggler’s Copter and I sacrifice Selfless Spirit, Harnessed Lightning can resolve, dealing no damage and leaving behind 3 energy. He might also see the Smuggler’s Copter as more valuable than the Spirit, and want to give me the opportunity to make a mistake. Not much information to be gained here.

It certainly makes sense for Shota to have Negate. I should know that he kept a 2-lander with no red mana and that, aside from tapping out on turn 2 and turn 5, he’s had no opportunities to cast Negate. I should also know that he chose to cast Galvanic Bombardment while holding up 2 mana on turn 4, despite having the option to Radiant Flames away 2 creatures.

Another important question arises. Could Shota have kept a hand with Thing in the Ice as the only castable spell? Well, every player is different when it comes to mulligans, but if Thing in the Ice and Radiant Flames are 2 of the most important cards in the matchup and he had both, then I shouldn’t rule out the possibility that he kept a speculative hand.

Conclusion #1: I don’t know that he has Negate, but should not be surprised if he does.

Could Shota have another removal spell? So far, every time he’s had red mana available in this game, he’s cast a burn spell. I’m not sure if he’s playing Grasp of Darkness, but this is also the first time he’s had access to double-black (and he conspicuously leaves it open). I also know he doesn’t have lands in hand.

Conclusion #2: It’s possible that he could have a second removal spell.

Could Shota have no other castable spells this turn? If we accept the possibility that he might keep a hand on the strength of 2 lands, Thing in the Ice, and Radiant Flames, then the rest of his hand could be anything. He could be holding any combination of Glimmer of Genius, Painful Truths, Jace, Unraveler of Secrets, Torrential Gearhulks, expensive permission spells, or other clunky cards I hadn’t even thought of.

Conclusion #3: It’s possible that he could have no other castable spells.

The main advantage of sacrificing Selfless Spirit is that if he has nothing, I get to attack for 3 additional damage (and a loot) this turn. Also, if he transforms Thing in the Ice at sorcery speed the following turn, I get to keep an additional Smuggler’s Copter in play.

The main disadvantage of sacrificing Selfless Spirit is that if he casts Negate to transform Thing in the Ice, the Spirit winds up in my graveyard instead of my hand.

If he has a second removal spell, he only gets to kill 1 creature anyway (since the others will get bounced before the spell resolves). It’s unclear which is more valuable between Smuggler’s Copter and Spirit, but if Shota valued the Spirit higher, he could’ve simply targeted that instead in order to force my hand. In this scenario I don’t see much reason not to sacrifice the Spirit.

So I think we can boil the decision down to considering the odds of Shota having nothing paired with the benefit of saving the Smuggler’s Copter and getting to attack, against the odds of Shota having Negate paired with the cost of losing my Selfless Spirit. In the scenario where Thing does flip and my creatures go back to my hand, it isn’t a disaster to lose the Spirit, since my mana will be constrained for the next few turns anyway. But it is fairly disastrous to miss out on 3 damage in the scenario where Shota has nothing and is simply making a desperation move. Allowing him breathing room when he’s drawing out of a mana screw and only needs one more spell to transform Thing in the Ice is unacceptable.

Conclusion #4: Even though it’s likely that he has Negate (perhaps greater than a 50% chance), it’s not certain, and I would be giving up too much by letting my Smuggler’s Copter die. In the absence of some kind of very specific read based on body-language, I should sacrifice Selfless Spirit.

Well, if you’ve somehow stuck with me through all that and managed to avoid spoilers, I can now tell you that I do decide to sacrifice Selfless Spirit. Shota Negates his own spell to transform Thing in the Ice and bounces my board. Post-combat I play a Plains and replay a Smuggler’s Copter.

The Death Throes

Turn 7 Yasooka attacks for 7, plays and cracks Evolving Wilds, then plays Jace, Unraveler of Secrets, +1s, scrys to the bottom, and draws a card. I draw Toolcraft Exemplar, which makes my hand: Toolcraft Exemplar, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, Smuggler’s Copter, and Veteran Motorist. My board: 5 lands and Smuggler’s Copter.

Gideon, Ally of Zendikar remains hard to protect in the face of Awoken Horror, Wandering Fumarole, and Jace, Unraveler of Secrets to bounce blockers. I decide that my best chance is to close the game before Jace buries me in card advantage, so I start by casting Veteran Motorist with the intent to crew and attack. I see Selfless Spirit and Fleetwheel Cruiser with the scry.

As counter-intuitive as it is, Fleetwheel Cruiser actually doesn’t do much in this game state. Shota will be going down to 5 life, and the game should be over within 1, 2, or 3 turns regardless of who wins. My ability to produce a lot of attackers is what matters, and the potency of those attackers doesn’t matter as much since he should be able to line up his answers against the most threatening attackers anyway. 4 mana for an attacker is bad rate in this scenario, and it’s a rate I have access to anyway because of Needle Spires.

I should scry Selfless Spirit to the top and Fleetwheel Cruiser to the bottom. Then I should attack, loot away Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and cast Smuggler’s Copter. This way I have 2 flying threats that are immune to sorcery-speed removal and Jace bounce. On my next turn, I can cast Selfless Spirit, crew both Smuggler’s Copters, and force Shota to have 2 removal spells in order to survive. Smuggler’s Copters are the best plan against the board of Awoken Horror, Wandering Fumarole, and Jace.

Instead, I made the mistake of scrying both cards to the top, looting away my Smuggler’s Copter, and casting Selfless Spirit.

Turn 8 Shota attacks me for 7 (I don’t block), then he casts Galvanic Bombardment on my Selfless Spirit, and bounces my Veteran Motorist with Jace. I untap without the hope of dealing lethal damage, and also facing down a lethal Awoken Horror. I recast Veteran Motorist, scry a land to the bottom, and a Selfless Spirit (a blocker) to the top. But when I go to crew my Smuggler’s Copter, Shota casts Unlicensed Disintegration. Finally, he bounces my Toolcraft Exemplar and deals me lethal damage with Awoken Horror.

Good Game!

After reflecting, I feel proud of myself for this game. I can’t claim to have made all of the judgment calls correctly, and I now believe that I limited my chances to win based on my scry and my loot on the second-to-last turn of the game. Some other players might’ve had a stronger read on Shota having Harnessed Lightning and Negate on turn 6, and acting on those instincts would’ve improved their chances to win. All that said, I feel that I played the game to the best of my abilities. I’ll work on improving those abilities instead of beating myself up based on expectations that are unreasonable for this point in time.

This was one of the toughest, most interesting games of my career. It was heartbreaking, since losing (and losing game 3) caused me to miss Top 8. It was humbling, since I’d gotten outplayed. Far outweighing the negative emotions, however, was the fact that this game was inspiring and just downright fun! Magic is an awesome game and it’s amazing how much difference there can be between a good player, and a truly great player like Shota Yasooka. I hope to continue playing on the Pro Tour for more chances at games like this one.

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