Happy New Year! I hope that 2015 proves to be a great year for all of us, with plenty of happy moments and lots of Magic to be played.

Before I begin to look toward the future, I’d like to tell the story of the last tournament I played in 2014. After all, you can’t have a new beginning without having some kind of ending first.

Qualifying

I had the good fortune, last month, of competing in the SCG Players Championship. For those of you not familiar with the event, it’s a 16-player, invitation-only tournament that serves as the culmination of the Open Series for the year. The 16 players were chosen based on a variety of accomplishments.

When the tournament was announced, I was thrilled by the prospect of qualifying. I love playing in small, ruthless tournaments like this one. Any time there’s a particularly high concentration of talent in an event, I hate to miss the chance to throw my hat in the ring! I don’t play SCG tournaments every weekend, but I’d had some success on the circuit in the past, and I thought that with a little luck I’d be able to earn a qualification.

Unfortunately, I underestimated my competition. The dedicated players began to shoot up the leaderboard, playing (and winning) almost every weekend and leaving me in the dust. It became clear almost right away that if I was to qualify by accumulating points, I’d have to make big sacrifices in terms of my Grand Prix attendance, and perhaps my personal life as well.

But there was one way left to qualify! I won the third SCG Invitational tournament of the year and spiked a qualification!

Sort of.

Actually, I was the only player of the 16 that had neither won an invitational nor earned the requisite number of points to qualify. I lost the finals of the Invitational to Tom Ross, who had already been invited to the Players Championship. The slot that was rightfully his passed down to me and I was invited to the tournament.

I suppose I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder going into the tournament. I’d earned a qualification fair and square according to the established rules, and yet I still felt like a charity case. When it comes to my Magic career, I absolutely loathe the idea of leaving anything to chance and the fact was that, this time, I’d gotten lucky. I went in determined to prove that I had what it takes to be there. In particular, I wanted to get revenge against the man who’d become my Open Series archnemesis: Tom “the Boss” Ross.

Preparation

A huge portion of the articles I’ve read about this event written by the other 15 competitors (either before or after it) have featured a statement along the lines of, “I wanted it more than anybody else.” I take exception to such a claim.

First off, it’s presumptuous to make a claim about what’s in the heads—and hearts—of other individuals. You can simply never know! Personally, I’ve devoted many years of my life to Magic and any time I enter a tournament, it’s with a drive to finish in 1st place. Beyond that, this tournament had special meaning for me as a way to redeem my loss in the finals of the Invitational, as the culmination of a year of hard work, and—realistically—because odds are that it would be the only opportunity I’d have in my life to compete in this particular tournament. I don’t know who wanted to win the most, but I wanted to win quite a lot.

Second, and far more importantly, it’s simply irrelevant! Emotional investment in a tournament can be great if it leads you to try harder and practice more. However, winning at Magic is about hard work and dedication, not about who wants to win. It boils down to putting in the hours, and using your time effectively. And when it comes to tournament preparation, I like to think I’m pretty hard to outdo.

My preparation for this event was a healthy mix of long-run testing and tuning of my decks of choice, and a bit of last-minute cramming. That, plus many hours of researching my opponents and trying to predict what decks they might bring to battle.

I worked with Gerard Fabiano, who was also competing in the tournament. This meant one day of dedicated testing together as well as lots of strategizing and information sharing.

I also owe a special thanks to my friend and neighbor Andy Boswell. Andy was only a couple of places outside of qualifying for the Players Championship himself. Quite frankly, he deserved to be playing the tournament instead of me. However, he never once complained, and offered Gerard and I his complete support in helping us prepare. At a time when computer problems were preventing me from playing Magic Online, Andy must’ve put in nearly 20 hours of face-to-face Standard and Legacy playtesting with me. Thanks!

In Standard, I knew I’d be playing a B/G Whip of Erebos deck. A few weeks prior, I’d put up a 4-0 finish at the World Championship with B/G Constellation, which I believe to be the best deck in Standard. However, the cost of playing two colors instead of three is limited sideboard options. I set out to correct the problem by splashing blue.

There were four factors unique to this tournament that made me want to add blue for more sideboard options. First, I thought I’d be able to accurately predict the field, meaning my sideboard cards could be pinpoint accurate. Second, I expected to face U/W Heroic and End Hostilities control decks, which I needed blue sideboard cards to reliably beat. Third, I specifically expected to not face dedicated aggro, meaning a few extra painlands and tapped lands would not be particularly costly. Finally, the Top 4 would be best-of-five in Standard, so if I wanted to get 1st place (which was my goal), my sideboard was going to be very important.

Legacy was a bit more of a question mark. I’d been playing Miracles for most of the year to solid though not stellar results. I typically choose Miracles because it’s great for an open field. Against most creature-based decks, Miracles is a massive favorite. It’s very consistent and there’s a lot of play to the games, so you have a great chance to outmaneuver all but the most expert of Legacy players.

However, this tournament was special. There would be no budget decks, no wacky homebrews, and every single opponent was going to be a great player fighting tooth and nail to beat me. I consider myself almost exactly 50/50 to beat a good Delver player, some combo decks are troublesome, and Infect is a very tough matchup. I was worried that I might bring Miracles to the tournament and wind up being about 45% against everyone.

I considered switching to a few other decks including U/R Delver built for the mirror, Sultai (the deck Gerard played), Abzan, Sneak and Show, Reanimator, and even Elves. However, after putting in the time to map out what I thought my opponents might play in Legacy, I realized that the field would be diverse enough that I needed to play the deck with which I was the most experienced if I wanted to successfully navigate through the variety of challenges I was likely to face. That, combined with some success in testing against Andy led me to lock in good old Miracles.

The Tournament: Stage One

The tournament featured a special structure. I can simplify it by saying that it consisted of a series of group stages (think of the Soccer World Cup), where the top two players in each group would advance and the bottom two might be in trouble. Every win and loss mattered in one way or another, but basically the structure was such that your top priority was to avoid losing streaks. It would be better to go 2-1, 2-1, 2-1 than to start undefeated and then lose a couple in a row in a later stage.

The first stage was Standard and to our dismay Gerard and I were randomly assigned to the same group. We wanted to put off facing each other for as long as possible and we particularly wanted to avoid playing in Standard since we’d both settled on the same archetype and the constellation mirror can be brutal.

However, there was nothing to be done and we played out our matches against each other, and against Kent Ketter with Mardu and Kevin Jones with an aggressively-slanted build of Jeskai Tokens. Gerard won the group by going 3-0, and the other three of us went 1-2.

My matches were all close. Against Gerard, we split the first two games, and he won game three with an unanswered Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver, which was the main difference between our two deck lists. Against Kevin I kept excellent one-landers on the draw in games one and three, but stumbled on mana while he had turn 3 Goblin Rabblemaster to punish me. Similarly, against Kent I lost the game where a Rabblemaster punished my awkward mana draw and won the two games that I had great hands with card drawing and lots of removal.

I found myself in an interesting spot in game two against Kent’s Mardu deck. My board featured five lands and an Eidolon of Blossoms, and my hand had a sixth land, Courser of Kruphix, and Hero’s Downfall. The obvious play is to slam Courser, draw a card, and then play a land (hopefully off the top of my library) and gain a life. The catch is that Kent had open mana and the possibility of Hushwing Gryph. At the time, I had no information whatsoever about whether or not Kent even had the card in his deck.

Honestly, I didn’t even think about Hushwing Gryph in the moment. I cast Courser certain that Kent’s plan was to kill my Eidolon in response. He played Hushwing Gryph and I missed drawing a card only to sheepishly play my land and Downfall the Gryph afterwards.

I was certainly a fool to not stop and think about the possibility of Hushwing Gryph. However, looking back with the information I had at the time (and the fact that Gryph is far from ubiquitous in Mardu), I honestly don’t know what the best play was. Should I have played the land first to play around Hushwing Gryph even though it meant giving up some of the value of my Courser?

Anyway, back to the tournament, where Gerard had won our group while the other three of us all finished 1-2. To determine our second-place finisher, we went to tiebreakers, which for this case was game-win percentage. Since all of my matches had gone to game 3, and Kent and Kevin had each lost a match 0-2, I was awarded second place and advanced to the next stage. More charity!

Stage Two: Legacy

Legacy started with a feature match against my nemesis, Tom Ross, who was presumably playing Infect. Infect is a very hard matchup for Miracles, but I’d come prepared with two copies of a very special sideboard card: Peacekeeper. Tom cannot win through a Peacekeeper, and only has a single Piracy Charm as a realistic way to remove it from the battlefield. It would just be a matter of getting that far…

Tom, on the play, looked at his opening seven cards and exclaimed, “Holy [expletive]!” before keeping. I’m quite a big fan of Tom Ross. On the one hand, he’s a nice and genuine guy who seems to take a lot of joy out of Magic. On the other hand, he’s a fierce competitor who’s very capable of mind games and deception. So during the seven-minute coverage delay, I turned these things over and over in my mind, trying to figure out if Tom was being sincere or playing games with me.

Well, once the game started, I didn’t have to wonder much longer, as Tom killed me on turn 2 on the play with a Gitaxian Probe and a Daze to clear the way. I resolved zero spells.

Game two was closer, but still a convincing win for Tom. I spun my Sensei’s Divining Top a number of times, but didn’t find what I needed to stop Tom’s poisonous onslaught. Tom played carefully, only laying out one creature at a time and not leaving himself open to any Terminus blowouts.

So right away I had my back against the wall, needing to win two matches in a row to make Day Two. I came out on top of an epic three-game battle against Dylan Donegan’s U/R Delver deck. Game three can be found here.

To round out the day, I defeated Kent Ketter’s Reanimator deck in three games and survived to join seven other players on Day Two.

Stage Three: More Legacy

Again I started with a loss, this time a close one to Steven Mann and his RUG Delver deck.

Next, I beat Ross Merriam with Elves, which is typically a very favorable matchup for Miracles. I emphasize typically because if there’s an Elves player that I don’t want to face it’s Ross Merriam. Of all of my opponents over the course of the tournament, Ross was the one who most impressed me. I don’t mean this as any kind of power ranking of the players, but simply as a compliment to Ross and his expertise with this particular Legacy deck. He played great against me, maximizing his resources, playing conservatively at the right time and taking calculated risks at the right time. It took a lot of tight play and a lot of luck for me to just barely edge him out.

Game two started with a mulligan on the draw. My six-card hand was three lands, Force of Will, Counterspell, and Sensei’s Divining Top. Ross, on the play, Thoughtseized me on turn 1 and I made the bold play of casting Force of Will to protect my Top. So I began the game with three lands and a Sensei’s Divining Top, at the mercy of whatever I could find on the top of my deck. Eventually, I got Jace, the Mind Sculptor into play and every turn featured me Brainstorming with Jace and then doing my best to clean Ross’s creatures off the board. I was reasonably successful, but left a window for Ross to pseudo-combo-off. He put nine creatures into play and attacked me down to 1 life with Craterhoof Behemoth. After a Supreme Verdict, ten more turns, and no more cracked fetchlands, I was finally able to Entreat the Angels for the win. It’s the longest I’ve ever played Magic at one point of life!

At this point, all four players in our group were 1-1, which meant that the results of round three were do or die. I’d be facing Tom—the very fitting last boss—Ross yet again.

Yet again, Tom killed me on turn 2 on the play in game one and I began to see my tournament life flash before my eyes. Thankfully, game two went better. Peacekeeper, ironically, can sometimes apply a pretty mean stranglehold.

At this point, the result was in that Ross Merriam had defeated Steven Mann and the consequences, for me, were extremely heavy. In this case, the tiebreaker would be head-to-head, meaning that if I lost my match, I’d have the same record as Steven Mann, who had beaten me, he would advance to the sudden death round and I would be instantly eliminated. If I won, however, then I’d have the head-to-head tiebreaker over Ross Merriam and I’d win the group and advance straight to the Top 4.

My first game win of the weekend against Tom Ross had given me a glimmer of hope. Perhaps he wasn’t invincible and maybe I could get the better of him after all. Game three he lead with a Glistener Elf, notably off of his one basic Forest. The Forest is noteworthy, first because it meant that he could not cast Daze and second because it provided a strong hint that Tom might not have a second land. I cast Swords to Plowshares on the Elf and Tom quickly Force of Willed. I decided to Force of Will back, Tom missed land drops, and the game slowed down. I played out some lands but didn’t have any way to press my advantage and eventually Tom drew out of his mana-screw with a stacked hand. We both sculpted our hands for many, many turns preparing for a final showdown over a Piracy Charm targeting my Peacekeeper. With the help of my Counterbalance and Pyroblasts I countered Tom’s Charm and he was forced to concede. I was on to the Top 4!

Top 4: Standard Against Brad Nelson

Brad Nelson was also playing Sultai Whip, but his deck was much different from mine. Where I had Eidolon of Blossoms, he had Sidisi, and where I had card drawing spells in my sideboard, he had Ashioks. My analysis of the matchup was that I would have the advantage in a very long game, but Brad had a number of ways to steal the game if he could get ahead early.

I lost game one fair and square. I kept a land-heavy hand and the spells that I drew weren’t the most important ones in the matchup (Brad had Pharika out and I didn’t). I made the best of what I had and at one point the game boiled down to my Doomwake Giant and Hornet Queen against Brad’s two Hornet Queens and Pharika. If I’d drawn substantially better than Brad from that point I could’ve won, but I don’t think there was ever a point in the game where I was a favorite to win.

After that, we split the sideboard games 2-2. I prefer Eidolon of Blossoms to Sidisi in the matchup because in many games, random bodies on the battlefield just don’t do much. They die in the collateral to a Doomwake Giant, or can’t attack through big guys and Hornet Queens. On the other hand, the card drawing and guaranteed value of Eidolon is great for grinding out opponents.

However, a quality that I perhaps underestimated is that Sidisi kills extremely quickly all on her own and is adept at punishing an opponent who has a bad draw. In the two games I won, I ran away with Eidolon of Blossoms and in the two I lost, I missed land drops and Sidisi made short work of me. On the whole, it was a good match where both of our decks had a few moments to shine.

In the finals, Brad defeated Gerard to take the title. I’m extremely proud of Gerard and was happy that we made it to the Top 4 together. It would’ve been nice to see one of us take down Brad in Standard, as I still maintain that our build has an edge in Whip Mirrors. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to complain about the result, and we got a ton of close and memorable games out of the weekend.

The SCG Players Championship was a great wrap-up to 2014 for me. It would take a big stroke of luck for me to qualify again next year, but hey, stranger things have happened! If not, at least 2015 will have plenty of other Magic moments to look forward to and I’ll try to carry the lessons of this event and the rest of last year along with me.