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Luck, Skill, Victory – (Belated) GP Anaheim Report

I had a wealth of topics to choose from this week, but managed to find reasons to push most of them to the future. I was going to talk about some M13 cards, but seeing as how I’ll be reviewing the entire set shortly, I decided to keep that to a minimum. I was also going to talk about my upcoming Hall of Fame vote, but the official ballots and stats are sent out next week, so that too shall wait.

Instead, I settled on a topic I’ve wanted to do for a while: A GP Anaheim report. This report is a little different than most, for a few reasons. First of all, when I say “GP Anaheim”, I don’t mean “GP Anaheim 2012”. Yes, we are going all the way back to 2003, to the first Grand Prix that either Web (David “the Ocho” Ochoa) or I attended.

Just going back to Anaheim got me thinking about how I started playing tournament Magic and (more relevant for the reader) what I learned from that Grand Prix. A play-by-play report about an Extended format nine years ago does nobody any good, but the events that transpired during the tournament profoundly influenced me, and there are plenty of lessons to be learned. One pre-lesson lesson is that if you don’t get anything out of a tournament, win or lose, you aren’t looking closely enough. This tournament happened to be particularly influential because it was my first big tournament, and Extended was like the Wild West back then. But, almost every tournament I’ve attended has taught me something. If you aren’t improving, you are regressing.

Plus, who doesn’t like a good story time?

Grand Prix Anaheim

Grand Prix Anaheim took place at the end of 2003, right after my final exams finished. In fact, I didn’t think I was going to make it, but some friends of mine were planning to drive down anyway. They graciously offered to leave later than planned, drive an hour and a half from the Bay Area to pick me up from Davis, California, and make the six hour trek down to Anaheim. I later repaid one of said friends, Brent (BA), by making him skip Pro Tour Charleston after he, Cheon, and I won a team PTQ, due to more final exams.

Web had gone down the night before, and actually set the stage for the first lesson:

•Playing tournament Magic isn’t cheap.

This is just about the most obvious point imaginable, but I certainly ran headfirst into it this tournament. Here is the deck I should have played:

Ben Stark – Top 8

[deck]Main Deck:
3 Masticore
4 Metalworker
1 Platinum Angel
3 Chalice of the Void
1 Damping Matrix
1 Gilded Lotus
4 Grim Monolith
1 Mindslaver
1 Myr Incubator
2 Stroke of Genius
4 Tangle Wire
3 Thran Dynamo
4 Tinker
2 Upheaval
4 Voltaic Key
4 Ancient Tomb
4 City of Traitors
7 Island
3 Rishadan Port
4 Seat of the Synod[/deck]

Note how broken this deck was. It was so broken, in fact, that multiple pieces from it were banned ([card]Ancient Tomb[/card], [card]Tinker[/card], and [card]Grim Monolith[/card], if I recall correctly)—a ban announced before the GP, but that wouldn’t take effect until after it ended. The problem I faced was that even though I had played basically the above list (I chose to use [card]Goblin Welder[/card]s and [card]Thirst for Knowledge[/card]) to multiple PTQ Top 8’s, I wanted to sell the actual cards while they were still worth something. I had Web sell the entire deck before the GP, since it was the last pre-banning event, which left me playing an entirely different deck.

I didn’t like making a decision based on card availability, but I also didn’t like the idea of watching my cards lose more than half their value over the course of the tournament. I’d certainly do that differently now, and therein lies part of the lesson: if you are going to go to the trouble of attending a tournament, give yourself the best shot possible. I willingly played an inferior deck (and once you see the list, you will certainly agree), and still regret it. I’m not saying that everyone should buy playsets of [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jaces[/card] (that was part of the problem with Jace specifically), but I’ve frequently seen people who’ve paid hundreds of dollars to attend an event balk at spending 30 dollars to play the correct cards in their deck. Don’t be that guy.

So, what did I play?

Monkey Business

[deck]Main Deck:
4 Birds of Paradise
1 Genesis
4 Llanowar Elves
1 Molder Slug
4 Ravenous Baloth
3 Uktabi Orangutan
2 Viridian Shaman
4 Cabal Therapy
3 Diabolic Edict
4 Duress
4 Pernicious Deed
3 Vampiric Tutor
9 Forest
4 Llanowar Wastes
6 Swamp
4 Treetop Village
Sideboard
2 Engineered Plague
1 Haunting Echoes
3 Naturalize
2 Phyrexian Negator
1 Planar Void
2 Smother
1 Spiritmonger
3 Wall of Blossoms[/deck]

Just by looking at this list, you can tell a few things:

1) I wasn’t trying to win on power level alone. Look at the cards/decks legal in this format:

[draft]goblin ringleader
hermit druid
ancient tomb
oath of druids
tinker
mind’s desire[/draft]

Yep, playing five [card]Uktabi Orangutan[/card]s was probably the way to go…

2) Most of the time, playing the best deck is better than trying to beat the best deck.

This is a lesson that seems to never take, though for good reason. People want to find the deck that beats the best deck, and imagine themselves cunningly one step ahead of the metagame—with rewards soon to follow. In reality, the Jund/Faeries/Delver deck is the best for a reason, and more often than not, playing a brew designed to crush it is doomed to failure.

At GP Anaheim, I (and my teammate at the time, Phoung), played that Rock list, which as you may be able to tell, is heavily metagamed against Tinker. It’s actually great how many mistakes we made in deck construction. It makes this an excellent example of what not to do:

a) Our deck wasn’t powerful. [card vampiric tutor]Vampiric Tutoring[/card] for [card]Molder Slug[/card] or [card]Pernicious Deed[/card] may be sweet, but it sure isn’t off the charts on power level. It’s barely on the chart to begin with, especially in the format we were playing.

b) Tinker may have been the best deck, but the format was incredibly wide open. There were five or six insane tier 1 decks, as well as dozens of others, so metagaming against just one deck was incredibly shortsighted. This problem doesn’t always apply in modern times, since I have won tournaments by aiming for Jund and only Jund, but the equivalent would be maindecking 3 [card]Surgical Extraction[/card]s in current Legacy because you are afraid of Reanimator—the deck may be good, but there are dozens of solid decks floating around.

c) We were playing more than four Uktabi Orangutans (essentially), and a Molder Slug. Enough said.

d) We didn’t really have a plan against most decks. We jammed 4 of a bunch of cards good in different matchups ([card]Ravenous Baloth[/card] against burn, Deed against aggro, [card]Duress[/card] against control/combo) and had Vampiric Tutors to find the appropriate ones, but Vampiric for Baloth or Duress doesn’t really accomplish much. In the first example, paying 2 life to gain 4 is weak, and in the second, losing a card to then trade one-for-one is terrible. I’m not even going to get into the logistics of playing 8 one-drops and 4 [card]Pernicious Deed[/card]s, but it will suffice to say that wasn’t ideal either.

Going back to the more general point, I’d like to take a look at why I think it’s better to spend your time learning how to play the best deck, than how to beat it. I’ve been on both sides of the equation. I have plenty of success stories, and just as many of abject failure. Over nearly 10 years of playing in tournaments, I’ve done way better when I learned the best deck inside and out, tuned it, and played it.

First, let’s be clear on the situation I’m describing. I’m not talking about when there are five tier 1 decks, and one is slightly better than the others. I’m talking about when the best deck is overwhelmingly better than the rest. Examples of this are Faeries in Standard, Jund in Standard, Caw-Blade in Standard, Delver currently (though not by much, so perhaps it doesn’t quite fit), and Dark Depths in Extended. Rarely does this occur in older formats—I don’t remember Legacy pretty much ever having a deck head and shoulders above the rest, except perhaps Reanimator back when [card]Mystical Tutor[/card] was legal (those were good times, too), and [card survival of the fittest]Survival[/card] after [card]Vengevine[/card] had been printed.

When there is a clear standout, it’s often for a reason. Faeries wasn’t FAERIES because it didn’t win. Jund wasn’t played for the good times. It isn’t hard to tell when such a deck emerges, which luckily isn’t all of the time. There are times when you can jam Tron and make Top 8 (#GPHoth), but when a [card]Tempered Steel[/card] exists, you should be playing it.

The temptation to try and find a way to beat the best deck is way higher than it should be. For every time I’ve just played Faeries (Top 8 GP Seattle), I’ve played something like GW Hammer Time multiple times, when the correct ratio is likely the other way.

There is no hard and fast rule as to when a deck is worth fighting. One huge reason that it’s almost always better to play the best deck than try and beat it is that even when it’s right, most people ignore this advice and play their own decks anyway. The only times when it’s good to play a super-metagamed deck is when there is a best deck, enough people are playing it, and you actually beat it. Everyone played Caw-Blade, but the deck wasn’t actually beatable, so it didn’t matter if you knew it.

Going back to GP Anaheim, that’s where we were. Our deck did legitimately beat Tinker (I was like 3-0 against in the tournament), but the vast majority of the field just wasn’t Tinker.

Day 1

I only had two byes (the injustice of it all), and started by playing against Mono-Red. After getting trounced game one, I sided in [card]Wall of Blossoms[/card], cutting terrible discard and some of my [card]Vampiric Tutor[/card]s, and easily won game two. In game three, I thought I was crushing him, but then he played a morph. For some unknown reason, I didn’t [card pernicious deed]Deed[/card] it away immediately, and it obviously became a [card]Blistering Firecat[/card]. After a hit for seven, he had barely enough burn to finish me off, as I lost a game I was sure I had won.

•Don’t get overconfident.

I didn’t suffer from this for long, but I sure did back then. I know plenty of players, even excellent ones, who play much worse when they think they are winning. Had I really thought about it, I would have known that it was a Firecat, and even that Deeding for zero was an obvious play—but I was already in the “I’ve won the game” mental space, and I kind of checked out. Your play shouldn’t change, winning or losing, and this extends to the stakes on the match.

One huge disadvantage that many people have when they try to make the transition from FNMer to PTQer to Pro Tour player is that they get caught up on what they are playing for in a given round. You need to be able to play round 1 of a PTQ the same way as the finals—regardless of how many people are around, what you get if you win, and what the match means. You also need to get used to having a ton of people watching; if you want to win a tournament, you will have spectators, and being able to just ignore all that is essential.

After starting 2-1, I beat a Goblins deck, despite it being a (theoretically) bad matchup. Unfortunately, his full house of Piledrivers over Warchiefs lost to my pair of [card cabal therapy]Cabal Therapies[/card]:

[draft]3 goblin piledriver
2 goblin warchief[/draft]

I rattled off a few more wins, including a nice one against Tinker where he [card]Mindslaver[/card]ed me. I responded by Vampiric Tutoring for [card]Molder Slug[/card], and he was left with the choice of playing [card]Molder Slug[/card], or not playing [card]Molder Slug[/card]. He wisely decided not to, and then shortly lost to it, since I did in fact choose to cast it on the following turn. See, we really did beat Tinker!

Come round 8, I was 6-1, and paired up against noted banking expert TJ Impellizzieri. I offered the draw, since back then x-1-1 was a lock and x-2 sometimes missed on breaks, but he wisely refused it.

•Make the play that puts you in the best spot to win the tournament.

I didn’t really think about such things back then, and all I wanted to do was make Day 2. TJ correctly pointed out that our tiebreakers were good, we would probably make Day 2 with a loss, and drawing was stupid (that’s pretty close to how he phrased it too, though less diplomatically). Having goals is good, and I’ve certainly come to events happy to make Day 2, to make Top 8, what have you. Still, making plays like drawing in this round lower your overall success, and even though it feels riskier, you should be willing to put yourself in the best spot possible.

Nowadays this direct situation doesn’t apply, since all x-2’s make it, but the moral of the story certainly does, as people take sketchy draws and resign themselves to accepting worse results than they need to. Even if you lose round one, there’s no reason to start thinking about dropping, or feeling hopeless. Matt Nass of all people put it the best, when he said that once he went x-0 at GP Oakland, he realized that no matter what his record is, he can always just win all his matches. If you keep that in mind, you will eke out a substantial amount of value from hopeless tournaments.

Back in Anaheim, I got crushed rapidly by a [card]Hermit Druid[/card], despite having a sick sideboard of one [card]Planar Void[/card].

6-2

I did make Day 2, so the story doesn’t end yet. Checking in on Web, he was trucking along at x-1, playing Red Deck Wins. You may not know this about Web, but he used to have a reputation as quite the aggro player. He played Fish in Vintage ([card]Flying Men[/card] and all), and Red Deck Wins in every format. Goblins in Onslaught Block Constructed, RDW in Extended, everything. Luckily, he saw the light eventually, but back then it was all beatdowns, all the time.

Web and I were both quite happy with our Day One performances, and back then we even cared about rating, so we speculated on how many points we gained. Oh, the days when that mattered…

Day 2

I started Day 2 by playing against [card]Mind’s Desire[/card], in the hands of Seattle resident Jed Dolbeer. I was actually talking to Jed just recently, and he was surprised that I remembered our match. It wasn’t that the match was particularly memorable (he mulled a bunch and I manascrewed him by Uktabi’ing his artifact mana), it’s that I tend to remember my matches, and this tournament in particular. Nothing important there, I just find it funny that both PV and I tend to recall matches in such detail, and he can even write reports without taking notes of any kind.

My trusty Monkeys and I lost the next round, beat another Tinker deck, and then beat Rob Dougherty, who has been playing White Weenie every time I’ve faced him. He played it back then in 2003, and was still playing it in 2011 when we played in round 2 of Pro Tour Nagoya. Hey, when you’ve found your niche, you’ve found your niche.

In the second to last round, I was 9-3, and I played against Terry Tsang. He was also playing Mind’s Desire, but I wasn’t as fortunate as last time. He Tinkered for [card]Gilded Lotus[/card] early, cast some [card]Twiddle[/card]s, and I died to a giant [card]Tendrils of Agony[/card]. Even though our Rock deck was presumably set up well against an artifact-based combo deck, his deck was broken, and ours was not.

9-4

The last round was big. A win would put me into the Top 32, and back then they paid out amateur prizes to the top finishers with no Pro Points. Winning money would go a long way toward giving me incentive to keep coming to tournaments, and I was certainly feeling the tension.

My opponent mulled to 5, and led with a Plains. I wasn’t sure what he was playing, so I just played a [card]Treetop Village[/card] and passed. He then proceeded to [card]Enlightened Tutor[/card] for [card]Chrome Mox[/card] (!?), imprint a [card]Hammer of Bogardan[/card] (!!?) and cast [card]Blood Moon[/card]. Wow. That’s still one of the most surreal openings I’ve EVER played against, and I’ve been playing for a while now. He had zero cards in hand on turn two, and my deck still had nine Forests and six Swamps. I did not in fact get screwed, and won that game handily. I had no idea what was going on, and got even further confused in game two.

In the middle of the game, after Tutoring for and casting [card]Damping Matrix[/card], a card which did nothing except turn off my [card]Ravenous Baloth[/card]s, he had an [card]Academy Rector[/card] in play. I assumed he would be going for [card]Form of the Dragon[/card], it being the most powerful red or white enchantment I could think of. I still had to attack into it, and had Deed just in case, even though that would wipe my board. He blocked with Rector, and without hesitation, slammed [card]Powerstone Minefield[/card]. Puzzled, I continued attacking with my 3/3’s and 4/4’s, winning shortly thereafter.

If you ever see Adam Prosak, ask him about the turn one [card]Exalted Angel[/card] he faced at this Grand Prix, and I’m sure he’ll regale you with quite the tale.

10-4, 20th place, $650.00 (400.00 of which was amateur prize)

I was exceedingly happy with my tournament, but the excitement wasn’t over yet. Web was playing for Top 8, and I even had time to go watch his feature match!

I highly suggest you read BDM’s thrilling account, found here.

Web was playing against Terry Tsang, who had just crushed my hopes and dreams. The matchup here was even worse for Web, who was playing a deck with [card]Jackal Pup[/card]s and [card]Stone Rain[/card]s against a deck that could go off on turn one.

I came over with Terry up a game, and it didn’t look pretty. Web managed to pull out game two after Terry kept a land-light hand and got [card]Rishadan Port[/card] + [card stone rain]Stone Rained[/card], but going to game three had to favor Terry significantly.

I was watching from Terry’s side, and I saw him fall into the same trap that got me in my first round of the tournament. He could have Tinkered for [card]Gilded Lotus[/card] on turn two, Twiddled it, and cast [card]Diminishing Returns[/card] with one mana floating. The odds he wins from that position are very high, but he got greedy. He decided to Tinker for a second Lotus, and pass the turn. Keep in mind that Web only had a Pup in play.

Granted, Web’s board didn’t look threatening, but passing on a high % kill for a way higher % kill at the expense of a turn was just not necessary. Greed kills, and I’ve been my own victim too many times to count.

Web, being the hero of the story, peeled a land, played it, played a [card]Chrome Mox[/card] (at which point Terry grimaced), and slammed down [card]Rack and Ruin[/card] on both Loti. It was the best moment of the tournament for me; not only did I have a prize split with Web (because mise), Web was in the Top 8!

Of course, those who have looked at the Grand Prix Anaheim Top 8 might notice a conspicuous absence of any Ochoas, since he ended up in 9th on breakers, but still. Both of us were very happy, and decided that maybe we did like playing in tournaments after all…

I hope this nine-years delayed tournament report was a good combination of fun and useful, or at the very least a look at what kind of deck got me into playing in Grand Prix to begin with.

LSV

Sample hand:

[draft]3 uktabi orangutan
2 viridian shaman
2 llanowar wastes[/draft]

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