It’s about 4:00 p.m. on Saturday afternoon and I’ve just seen my friends Mike and Emily who came by the tournament hall to see what was up. They ask me if I defeated the gentleman I was last battling against and, indeed, I did. After some chats, pictures, introductions to other Magicians and the like, I wish them well and they go off to tour some cultural fascination or other.
I begin to ruminate about my 7th round match, against a fellow playing a Brad-Nelson-looking deck. Well-tuned, with some nice Esper-tokensy interactions, but heavily underpowered and (alas for my opponent) not piloted by the aforementioned Brad Nelson. I’m 6-1.
I wander over to the feature match area and chat with Brian Kibler. My friends had mentioned an intense looking guy in a leather jacket who shuffled his cards in Kibler-esque fashion (my word, not theirs! They don’t even know how to play Magic—no one’s perfect).
I notice that Brian is wearing a leather jacket and I put 2 and 3 together.
Brian fans out my deck, and between cackles and approving nods asks me a few probing questions, then congratulates me on all of the filth I’ve managed to cram into one deck.
It’s nice to be appreciated.
TBS (The Ben Seck) joins the conversation and is a little more skeptical about the Stubborn Denials and 64 cards.
Am I really playing 64 cards? Why!?
The story really starts with Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar where most of our team played something like this:
Jon Finkel and Owen Turtenwald made Top 8 with this deck—one which I spent a lot of time working on.
To us it was nothing mind-blowing, just a very modern (for the time) understanding of Standard—you can play lots of powerful cards in 4 colors; big creatures are probably not a good idea unless they are Siege Rhinos or Tasigurs; expect a lot of Crackling Dooms, planeswalkers, and Jaces; etc.
In Quebec City, a week after the Pro Tour, this deck had boomed in popularity and there were 4 in the Top 8, 3 of which were near carbon copies.
When Grand Prix Indianapolis rolled around a week later, I played a similar deck, putting Painful Truths in the sideboard (a card we knew was good, but didn’t think was necessary at the Pro Tour) and swapping Dispels for Negates to improve the matchup with Green/White and Eldrazi. Owen and I thought we were in decent shape, but we didn’t do anything special in Indy.
This was not a huge surprise—I felt that the deck was already somewhat overrated. Yes it’s a good deck, but there is so much you can do in Standard that once people are metagaming against a deck as fair as this one, it’s hard to believe it’s where you want to be. In fact, even before Indy, I had already started on a new idea:
My Zvi-esque code name for it was Greedy Abzan.
The premise of the idea is simple: Abzan is a great shell, but there is room to be greedier with the mana. Once you are using Flooded Strands to fetch Sunken Hollows, you know it’s possible to splash blue—especially since the only double-colored cards the deck wants to play are in white (Gideon and Wingmate Roc), and all the fetchlands (Wooded Foothills, Polluted Delta, Flooded Strand, Windswept Heath) can get white mana producers. It is a bit like looking at a very nice house and knowing it’s possible to build another floor, and just not knowing what you want to put in it!
I started with one of our test decks from Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, Andrew Cuneo’s Bring to Light deck:
Bring to Light
Your man Cuneo is an excellent player and deckbuilder, and a well-established member of (probably?) the best team in Magic, but I think we can agree that this is not his best work. Apart from the obvious fact that he’s playing 5 colors in order to not play super-solid cards like Den Protector and Gideon, his mana is particularly suspect—with Sandsteppe Citadel making his best turn-2 play (Jace) very unpleasant to cast. (Have you ever fetched an Island in an Abzan deck? Don’t!)
But I had played against him and found that even with those criticisms lurking, his deck packed some punch.
Another thing you ought to know about Andrew is that he is very good at giving up on decks. Some people who are good at tuning will take their Temur midrange deck almost to the point of being good, and keep trying to change one thing here or there dreaming that their Savage Knuckleblades can make it to tier 1. This is a good time to show Andrew your work, and let him help you face reality.
Alas, he had already given up on this Bring to Light deck and, after trying to tune it up myself, I came to the inevitable conclusion that he was quite right—this deck was a dead end.
But shortly after our Grand Prix Indianapolis mediocrity (and the dominant performance of Abzan in that tournament), I wondered: can’t I just play Abzan with counterspells instead of all of the stinky Infinite Obliterations and Transgress the Minds?
I brought something like this to Friday Night Magic:
Greedy Abzan, Rough Draft
Nasty, I know. While they are not exactly full counterspells, Stubborn Denials and Disdainful Strokes made my matchups with Rally and Eldrazi feel pretty unfair. Counterbalancing this pleasant duo of matchups were, alas, a few others:
First, Dark Jeskai was now maindecking Roast and otherwise focusing on beating Abzan. Our local Jeskai proponent beat me in instructive fashion, playing an early Soulfire Grand Master then Roasting and Crackling Dooming his way to 30 life by turn 4.
Second, one of my FNM opponents (also rocking Abzan) beat me with his OWN Stubborn Denials and Disdainful Strokes. He had copied the deck from somewhere (I thought he said a Grand Prix, but I haven’t been able to find a list like his from a Grand Prix—who knows!?), meaning my clever idea was in fact a known quantity and might not catch people off-guard.
Thus ensued several weeks of trying to break, rebreak, and otherwise stretch the limits of Blue Abzan technology. I tried outgrinding Dark Jeskai with Nissa, I tried 4 main-deck Jaces and Ojutai’s Commands, I tried taking out green to play Painful Truths, and most of all I lost lots and lots of tickets on Owen’s MTGO account.
He was a good sport about it.
About five days before the tournament I had a series of epiphanies:
2) If I don’t pump a Warden on turn 2, second-class 2-drops are simply not worth it. I only want 2-drops that scale up (removal spells and Hangarback Walkers, no Gnarlids, Seekers, or Heir of the Wilds).
3) People are building their decks seriously soft to Gideon.
5) Abzan Charm is no longer good enough for my deck.
I think that final insight was the most important.
I actually love Abzan Charm and consider it one of the pillars of the format—but when you look around at a world full of Jaces, Monastery Mentors, and Pia and Kiran Nalaars, Inspiration for GBW had better be a card your deck wants. I had intuited that Abzan Charm was weak a while ago, but without a justification like this, I couldn’t bring myself to cut any. But when I looked over the popular deck lists, I went down to 2, then 1, then 0. Ultimate Price proved excellent as a replacement (better than the serviceable Silkwrap because of how important instant speed is against Husk, Warden, and Become Immense).
Greedy Abzan, Final Cut
So, rather than trusty old Dark Jeskai, I ran this beast. The main deck turned out to be close to perfect (I would, in retrospect, play -1 Duress, -1 Den Protector, -1 Stubborn Denial, +1 Transgress the Mind, +1 Hangarback Walker, +1 Dromoka's Command/Ultimate Price, depending on metagame), and my somewhat experimental sideboard performed gloriously.
The Painful Truths/Jace/Ojutai's Command are there for Mardu/Jeskai matchups who intend to grind you out by economically removing all your fatties. So, you board most of them out, along with the flaky Stubborn Denials (but please keep in the Tasigurs!) and bring in your own card economy, along with disruption depending on what their deck is doing (you’ve got a lot to choose from between Stroke, Exert, Miasma, Silumgar).
Esper Dragons was a matchup I didn’t look forward to but felt I’d have a decent shot against with the sideboard transformation. Luckily, I did not face it.
Altogether I felt I’d been fairly ingenious, but also pretty fortunate. Believe me, things don’t always come together like this!
Now it’s Sunday night and Reid Duke is Grand Prix Oakland Champion. Hard to pick a more deserving guy, and a more dedicated teammate (not a great ping pong player though—again, no one’s perfect).
Reid was my third Rally opponent in the last six rounds and I had hoped I would beat him too. Alas, after winning a satisfying and drawn-out game 1, I keep a questionable no-green-mana hand to lose game 2, and forget a crucial interaction in game 3 to let what might’ve been a close game get out of hand quickly in Reid’s favor.
As we go for dinner with various friends and supporters, we find a suitable restaurant and upon entering are greeted with applause (not joking).
To be specific, it was precisely Reid’s left foot entering the restaurant that triggered the claps (again, this is not a joke). The waitress at first told us that food was no longer being served but (perhaps urged by the curious and copious claps) she eventually offers us an abbreviated menu and we have a nice end-of-the-tournament meal with chicken wings and beer and some pleasant stories/ribbings/barnings etc.
And they still want to know: Why 64?
But isn’t it obvious?
I’ve got 16 fetchlands, and I’m pretty mana hungry (Tasigur and Warden are technically insatiable), so I certainly don’t want to skimp on fetchables. Specifically, I’ve got 10 targets I certainly want available, even though most of them make for poor draws off the top of the deck. But Shambling Vents are still calling my name from the bench, and a Llanowar Wastes is urging me to give him a chance to play a turn-1 Warden when I don’t have (or want to use) one of my fetchlands to get a Forest. I wanted 27 lands in my intial 60, so with only one spot available and 3 cards to add which are better than the average land in my deck (not as good as Windswept Heath, but much better than the Battlelands in the average case), I have to ask one question:
Do I have any good spells to add?
As it happens, a third Den Protector and fourth Stubborn Denial sounded like fine additions, only marginally worse than the average card in my deck (believe it or not, my only standout is Warden of the First Tree). There is an extra cost in that my sideboard bullets lose efficacy (most important against Red and Abzan), but I still felt that diluting my Battlelands was worth it (they are not nearly as good in this deck as they are in Dark Jeskai).
Was 64 a huge a benefit? No.
Was I ever over 64 during testing? Oh yes.
Do I think it was right? Probably.
Is it gas that I had Jace in my sideboard and zero Abzan Charms with everyone playing around the GBW instant through the Swiss rounds? Yes, definitely.
Is it even gassier that my Grand Prix Oakland Finalist plaque says "2016" instead of, like, "2001"?
Thanks to the many people who helped me in and before the tournament, and to all of you for reading.