Rallying to 1st Place at GP Oakland

Successful athletes will tell you that one of the most important elements of growth is rest. In physical sports, resting means allowing your body to recover, letting your muscles grow, and protecting yourself against injury. But in any field, resting also means clearing your head, and allowing yourself to come back refreshed. I had excellent preparation for Grand Prix Oakland, and I believe that rest was the key to it.

A mistake that I see myself making, as well as other players, is that I’ll play games, play games, play games, but never give myself time to think—never give myself time to breathe. Letting yourself digest the information you’ve taken in is important, as is taking a step back look at the situation from different perspectives. Sometimes getting too caught up in tournament preparation can be like driving top-speed through a tunnel—you can only see what’s in front of you, and all you can do is cross your fingers and hope that you’re going in the right direction.

If I had been playing Standard consistently, straight through the whole season, I don’t think I would’ve ever picked up Rally the Ancestors. I probably would’ve kept spinning my wheels with decks like Esper Control and Dark Jeskai, getting frustrated and burnt out on Magic. Thankfully, after two weeks off from playing Standard over the holidays, I started 2016 feeling refreshed, and willing to start with a clean slate. I was truly finding joy in playing Magic again, and I wanted to explore as many options as possible to give myself the best chance of doing well.

Choosing a Deck

All that said, I decided that the best place to start was with Esper Control, the deck I’d played to success at PT Battle for Zendikar and GP Quebec City. My cousin, Logan Nettles, and I continued to put a lot of time and effort into the deck, and I still liked it. On Magic Online, I had a win rate I was pretty happy with, and I liked my matchups against the other top decks. Here’s my most recent list:

Mage-Ring Esper

What had me worried was the deck’s poor ability to actually close out games. On MTGO, I almost never won a match with more than 5 minutes remaining on my clock. My most common victory condition was timing out my opponents! But that wasn’t going to work at the Grand Prix. For a player chasing Pro Points, a draw at a GP is exactly the same as a loss. So a slow deck like Mage-Ring Esper needs to be very, very special before it becomes a decent choice.

I had played Esper in a handful of previous tournaments and had managed to avoid draws, but only just barely. Since then, I’d trimmed even lower on win conditions. Moreover, recently I’ve grudgingly come to accept that there are limits to my physical and mental stamina at a Magic tournament. Why force myself to slog through 15 hour-long, hard fought matches if I could make it easier on myself?

So I decided to explore some other options, with Esper as a backup.

Red

Next up were the red decks. I tend to shy away from Mono-Red because I enjoy playing longer games, and don’t like to feel as though things hinge on the strength of my opening 7 cards. However, I’ll still play it when it’s truly great, and I thought that Battle for Zendikar Standard might be one of those times.

In this format, it feels to me like all of the decks are basically the same. There’s Abzan, Jeskai, Mardu, BW Tokens, Esper Dragons, and Esper Control—the cards are different, but to me, the strategies feel largely the same. You choose 3 or 4 colors of your liking, and play the best removal and value cards that you can find. The two decks that break from this mold are Atarka Red and Rally the Ancestors, so they both held a lot of interest for me.

Actually, the deck that really appealed to me more than Atarka Red was RG Landfall, like the one Paul Rietzl used to win the Super League Championship.

This deck maintains a lot of the strengths of Atarka Red, yet it’s a little bigger, and has more staying power and control over the game. I’ve always enjoyed putting a lot of power and toughness onto the battlefield as quickly as possible, and this deck is excellent at that.

Both Atarka Red and Landfall were totally fine, but not stellar. Given my prejudice against red aggro, these were never more than back-up decks for me, in case my other options didn’t pan out.

Rally

Next was 4-Color Rally the Ancestors. This deck had put up remarkable results, and I had a sneaking suspicion that it was simply the best deck. I felt that it would be irresponsible not to at least try it.

Even so, I was hesitant to pick it up. My philosophy toward deckbuilding is very “rock-style.” I first try to identify the best cards, and next try to find the best way to use them. One of my first tests in evaluating a card is the question, “how powerful will this card be when I’m mana-flooded?” Cards like Siege Rhino, Den Protector, and Dig Through Time pass with flying colors—needless to say, Sidisi’s Faithful and Zulaport Cutthroat do not.

There was also the daunting factor of Rally’s complexity. Maybe the deck would be too hard for me? Maybe I would fail or embarrass myself? Even if I was capable of learning the deck, how many hours would it take me to catch up with experts like Matt Nass and Josh McClain, who’d been playing the deck for months?

But with a couple weeks of rest and relaxation behind me, with a healthy mindstate, and a love of the game, I decided to take on the challenge. Owen Turtenwald and I both picked up the deck, played a tremendous amount online, and talked endlessly about card choices and sideboarding strategies. My results were good, and his results were great, including going 4-0 in three consecutive Daily Events.

I liked Rally because it finally felt like I was doing something different than everybody else. It impressed me in its consistency and resilience, since there’s a lot of built-in card advantage and filtering. The combo finish meant that if the game dragged on, I felt confident that I would win. My opponents really needed both a fast clock and disruption if they wanted to beat me.

We didn’t get fancy, and we liked basically all of the ideas that players like Matt Nass and the European professional team, EUreka, had already come up with. Our main innovation was to take Fleshbag Marauder/Merciless Executioner (which most players only played in the sideboard, if at all), and put them in our main deck.

Owen and I were on the same page in terms of not loving Grim Haruspex, and splitting them with Fleshbag Marauders made a lot of sense. Fleshbag is a useful tool to have access to in a long game, since you can choose it with Collected Company or recur it with Rally the Ancestors when you need it. It also helps you in the games where you don’t draw Nantuko Husk, since sometimes an inability to get creatures in the graveyard is a real problem. It freed up sideboard slots, so that we were able to fit everything we wanted in addition to 3 copies of Anafenza, the Foremost to shore up the mirror match. Finally, Fleshbag Marauder is great in the matchups that tend to be the closest, like Abzan and Esper Dragons.

The last deck I tried was a home-brew version of Rally the Ancestors. Sidisi’s Faithful did some cool things, and was important in game 1 against Anafenza, but I was never thrilled with it. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy felt like a fancy Merfolk Looter, with the transformation being sometimes helpful and sometimes annoying, in about equal frequency. I speculated that the deck wouldn’t lose much by cutting the blue.

Abzan Rally

I liked this deck quite a lot, since it could compete just fine as a normal midrange deck, but also had the combo finish for any game that dragged on. If people overdid it on combo hate, you could simply kill them with Anafenzas and Siege Rhinos. It was also better against Atarka Red, because of the Shambling Vents and Siege Rhinos.

Knight of the White Orchid is great, but the deck really wanted a creature that was a good play on turn 2. (Like, say, uh… Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy). Maybe Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim will be just what the doctor ordered. Check back with me next week for some possible updates to Abzan Rally.

The deciding factor between the two decks ended up being that I actually liked the fetch-heavy 4-color mana base better than the Abzan mana base. It was worse in the sense of consistency, but it was better in that your lands entered the battlefield untapped more often, and helped you to transform Jace and cast cheap Murderous Cuts when you needed to. Deck-thinning also matters an abnormal amount in the Rally the Ancestors deck.

A Quick Note on Deck-Thinning

Deck-thinning means taking undesirable cards out of your deck (usually lands), and increasing your density of helpful draws. “Deck-thinning is negligible,” is a phrase that we hear often in Magic, to both helpful and destructive results. It’s true that newer players tend to overestimate the effects of deck-thinning when they first learn about the concept. But if you completely ignore deck-thinning, then you’re leaving a valuable tool on the table, and you won’t win as much as you might be able to.

It’s important to understand one subtle distinction in order to understand when deck-thinning is important, and when it’s “negligible.” The effects of deck-thinning over a single draw step are very small, but the effects of deck-thinning over the course of a protracted game, where you see a large portion of your library, are large.

An example of bad deck-thinning logic: I can keep this 6-land opening hand in Limited, because I have 2 Evolving Wilds, which will thin my deck of lands. Evolving Wilds does thin your deck of lands, but that will only help you in a substantial way if you can survive deep into the game. With a 6-land hand, you’re going to be in big trouble if, say, 2 out of your first 4 draw steps wind up being additional lands. Thinning 1 or 2 lands from your deck over the course of 2 or 3 draw steps will only result in a small fraction of an extra spell, which is not enough to make a bad hand good enough to keep.

An example of good deck-thinning logic: I know that I’m definitely going to use my Polluted Delta to search for a Sunken Hollow. I might as well do it before I cast Collected Company, so that a slightly larger portion of my deck is made up of creatures. Two factors make this example different. First, you’ve determined that it costs you basically nothing to crack your Polluted Delta right away, since you know you’ll need the Sunken Hollow one way or another. Second, Collected Company immediately sees 6 cards in your library, so the effect is more noticeable than it would be over a single draw step or two.

Since the Rally deck has Collected Company, and since it generally sees a very large portion of its library over the course of a game, deck thinning matters. Moreover, you wind up putting cards on the bottom of your library from Collected Company and from scrying. Keeping track of these cards, and managing if and when you’re going to reshuffle them is very important. Learning how best to use your fetchlands is one of the greater challenges in playing Rally the Ancestors.

Playing Rally the Ancestors

Here’s what I ended up playing. Owen played a third Fleshbag Marauder and only one Grim Haruspex.

Despite the way we traditionally think of combo decks, Rally the Ancestors is actually quite slow. Step 1 is always to survive and fill your graveyard. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy accelerates this process when he sticks, but for the most part this means making land drops, putting creatures into play, and trading or chump blocking during combat. Collected Company is your best card because it allows you to deploy creatures at a discount of both cards and mana.

Once you’ve amassed enough creatures between your graveyard and battlefield (usually in the ballpark of 5 creatures depending on what they are), you might be ready for a value Rally. Think hard about timing. Do you want to Rally on your own main phase while the opponent is tapped out? Do you want to ambush your opponent in combat? Do you want to let an extra creature die and then Rally at the end of the turn? Here, Nantuko Husk is the most important card, since it will allow you to get your creatures back into the graveyard (otherwise they’ll be exiled), and will allow you to trigger “dies” abilities like Grim Haruspex and Zulaport Cutthroat. Even if you don’t have a Husk, having enough Sidisi’s Faithfuls and Fleshbag Marauders might be enough. You can also transform Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy during your upkeep, with the exile trigger on the stack, and then the Telepath Unbound will stay in play.

If you’ve made it to this point, there’s a good chance the game is in the bag. If things are still close, however, or if you need to put the final nail in the coffin, then your goal becomes to find a second Rally the Ancestors. Use Catacomb Sifter to work toward scrying it to the top. In the late game, you will Rally back a large number of creatures and kill your opponent on the spot with Nantuko Husk plus one or more Zulaport Cutthroats.

Always play carefully and deliberately with Rally the Ancestors, since there’s always a lot going on. Even on the final turn of the game, when it’s completely certain that you’re going to win, you should continue to play very precisely. If you get careless, you might make a strategic error that lets your opponent back in the game. You also might make a mechanical error that earns you a warning from a judge.

Stacking your triggers correctly is challenging, but it’s hard to go horribly wrong. If you have mana available and want something to cast, it’s much better to scry before you draw. If all of your mana is already accounted for, it’s slightly better to draw before you scry (since you’ll have more information with which to make the right decision). However, you don’t want to “waste” scrys, by putting the same card on top multiple times in a row. When in doubt, alternate your scry triggers and your draw triggers. Remember also that you can use Nantuko Husk to insert more draws or scrys in the middle of the action if it’s helpful to do so.

The Tournament

Grand Prix Oakland was a wild ride. I’ve never played an event where such a large portion of my matches—and even my games—were very, very, very close. I topdecked on the last possible turn, I won a game on turn 5 of extra turns, I had opponents make small mistakes at critical moments, and it took all of that and more to keep myself alive in the tournament.

My 2 losses in the Swiss were against Abzan (a deck which I also beat 5 times over the course of the tournament), and RB Dragons. You might not expect RB Dragons, a deck with neither permission spells nor Anafenza, the Foremost, to be a tough matchup for Rally. However, a fast clock is the scariest thing for a Rally player, and the hard-hitting fliers in the Dragons deck can sometimes get the job done.

It was a pleasure to play the finals against a teammate and a true legend of the game, Ben Rubin. I grew up watching Ben play, and finally had the chance to play a great match against him on a highly competitive stage. Game 1 of our match was one of the most fun games of Magic that I can remember.

And of course, winning the tournament means a lot to me. I often used to have the mentality that, “a good finish is a good finish,” but after playing the game for so long, I’ve realized that it’s not exactly true. While finishing in the Top 8, or losing in the finals feels like a great achievement, it’s also bittersweet. Coming away with the trophy is a completely different feeling, and it’s one that I haven’t had in a very long time.

Thanks to everyone for the support! I’ll be carrying this love of Magic with me into PT Oath of the Gatewatch in a few weeks, and into our new Standard format!

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