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The Indianapolis Run-Bad

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I spent the weekend in Indianapolis attempting to play Magic, but failing miserably.

The first failure, of course, was disregarding everything I wrote last week and deciding to play Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. I believed that the addition of Green Sun's Zenith and my metagame call of maindecking Slagstorm would be enough to push the deck over the top. Instead, I faced a miserable 2-3 performance, including 2 mirror matches (1-1), a loss to a White Weenie deck topdecking a Day of Judgment, and a mulligan to 5 because I couldn't get an opening hand with more than 1 land in it... in a deck which is almost half land. Variance is a cruel mistress.

On Sunday I played in the Legacy Open, and went 1-3 with the same deck that had gone 3-1 in the Legacy Challenge the night before: Cantrip Ad Nauseam [card Tendrils of Agony]Tendrils[/card]. I made money with the deck in Nashville last year, and I felt that the deck was grossly underrated - the Merfolk matchup is nowhere near as bad as people make it out to be, and Aggro decks such as Zoo and Goblins are effectively a bye. I lost to such ridiculous setups as Zoo blowing me out with Orim's Chant out of the sideboard after Ghastly Demise took out his Gaddock Teeg, never actually being able to set up the combo against Affinity despite a million cantrips, and Counter-Top topdecking a Force of Will the turn after I Thoughtseized him, revealing a hand I could combo off against. The next game he ignored my Xantid Swarm and set up an impossible lock of Ethersworn Canonist, Academy Ruins, Counterbalance, Leyline of Sanctity, and got me with the coup de grace: a Blood Moon shutting off my [card Tropical Island]green mana[/card] so I couldn't even hit my absurdly improbable lone out of EOT Krosan Grip (Canonist), Krosan Grip (Counterbalance) + Ill-Gotten Gains into Dark Ritual+ Krosan Grip (Leyline)+ Ad Nauseam (possibly via an Infernal Tutor, I can't remember if it was already in my graveyard).

You win some, you lose some. Clearly I'm not an absolute failure at Magic, considering I've been to the PT and am qualified for another one this year; but it's very easy to take a weekend like this rough and to let it get to you. I'm going to make sure that doesn't happen, and I'm planning on crushing SCG Memphis (and possibly SCG DC before that). Furthermore, once Besieged hits Magic Online, I'm going to buy into Block Constructed there to prepare for PT: Nagoya. Nobody wants to read detailed bad beats stories, so I've culled a couple of mini-article topics from Twitter instead.

Mailbag 1: Standard

First off, I've been asked what to do in Standard by two people too impatient to wait on PT: Paris results.

I told the first one to build a spreadsheet and just goldfish 100 hands of different variations of [card Kuldotha Rebirth]Kuldotha Red[/card] to figure out which versions got the highest percentage of turn 3 kills and the lowest percentage of bricking (probably best defined as a turn 6 or later kill). The deck practically rolls over to Pyroclasm as it stands, so you might as well go balls to the wall game 1 and then sideboard into resiliency somehow. It's worth noting that with Goblin Bushwhacker it's entirely possible to deal ten-plus off an empty board if you sandbag Kuldotha Rebirth (or Devastating Summons), so it may be preferable to board out the stuff that tends to lead to the “all-in” hands which lose to Pyroclasm, especially when on the draw. A more Goblins-like list that eschews Ornithopters and the like wouldn't have this problem, but would lose the sheer appeal of the blazing fast speed. Perhaps a transformative sideboard should be investigated. If you didn't buy at least 2 Contested War Zone for your own use before it went all the way up to $6, you should have been paying more attention.

The second person said he didn't want to play Kuldotha Red or Valakut, so I pointed him in the direction of Blue/Black Control, given that it has access to sweepers and Memoricide - perfect for beating Kuldotha Red and Valakut. People seem to have forgotten that Marsh Casualties exists, and the card's actually better than Black Sun's Zenith against Kuldotha Red, since it'll actually save your life on the draw when they have the turn three kill. I would probably hedge by maindecking 2-3 Zenith and boarding in a full playset of Marsh Casualties.

As for Blue-White Control or Caw-Go, you shouldn't play it. I saw a U/W player in the feature match area keep a hand of 3 lands, Preordain, Squadron Hawk, [card Jace the Mind Sculptor]Jace[/card], and Day of Judgment on the draw. You can't really ask for a better hand than that. Turn one Preordain, turn 2 Squadron Hawk, and no third turn. Kuldotha Red's got this truly perverse form of card advantage where anything in the opponent's deck that costs 4 or more mana is a complete blank because it'll never, ever be relevant. If the Control deck actually stops the absurd initial swarm, it can win with pretty much whatever it feels like, as long as it doesn't take so long that the Kuldotha deck gets to build a secondary swarm.

The lesson to be learned here is that Kuldotha Red isn't really an Aggro deck. It looks like one because it's attacking you with creatures, but it's really not:

Does that really look like an aggro draw? To me it looks something like this:

The point I'm trying to make is that the Kuldotha Red player doesn't actually have to slam down the swarm on turn 1 or 2. If you're playing K-Red and you know your opponent has Pyroclasm, Slagstorm, or whatever sweeper is going to mess up your plans, you can sit there and wait for a situation where a Goblin Bushwhacker (or Goblin Chieftain if you're playing it) will allow you to slam the full 20 points across the table in one shot after they do something asinine like tap out for Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Or perhaps you bait them into blowing a sweeper on a board with nothing but Mountains, a Mox Opal, a Goblin Guide, and a Signal Pest, while you're holding something like double Kuldotha Rebirth, Ornithopter, and Goblin Bushwhacker. Playing the deck as a smart Combo deck rather than a stupid Aggro deck will result in additional wins, especially where sweepers are concerned. The Control player, of course, gets the upside that if he plays smarter, he can stall you out even further and establish control for real.

Mailbag 2: Travel Expenses

For any given event, we max out at a round-trip flight, a hotel room for 3 nights (Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday night), and food. If you're chaining events (such as going from your home town to the SCG Invitational to Japan for PT: Nagoya) or flying internationally you'll need more nights' worth of hotel stay in your budget. Keep in mind that you're burning vacation days or going without pay by doing that, so make sure to take that into account when checking if you've got the room in your budget. If you're driving instead of flying, you're looking at either 2 or 3 nights' worth of hotels; sometimes 1. It's far better to drive somewhere the night before and be well-rested for the event than to try to drive 4 hours the morning of the event. For any event more than 2 hours' drive away, I recommend skipping FNM and driving to the event.

Back to flights. If you're flying somewhere, Priceline.com is your best bet for cheap - I got my round trip ticket from Atlanta to Indianapolis plus 3 nights in a fancy hotel for $350 - but cheap also meant terrible flight times. Getting up at 4 AM Friday and returning at 3 AM Tuesday (thanks in part to delays - the itinerary had 12:30 AM or so) weren't exactly ideal, and I won't be letting Priceline pick the flight times for me ever again. I could have picked my own flights and worked some on Friday and Monday to make back the extra $100 or so I'd have spent on the pricier flight times. Still, Priceline came out way to my advantage: the price for a room at the hotel I stayed in is $129 a night. If you do the math there, I effectively got the flights for free.

The other main place to look for flights, and the place I'm probably going to use to set up my trip to Nagoya, is Hipmunk. They don't have any affiliation with the hotels so you can't get the combined rate like you can via Priceline or the other big shots.

If you're going to fly to events regularly, pick a particular carrier and try to stick to them, and sign up for their Frequent Flyer program, especially if it lets you pick up miles off restaurants, store purchases, and the like. You should already be in a hotel rewards program for whatever hotels you find yourself visiting a lot for tournaments you drive to in the usual 4-6 hour radius. Even if it takes ten trips to get a freebie, you're still better off with the freebie than without. If you're really flying extremely frequently, check out Jeph Foster's article.

Split stuff as much as you can. Obviously you can't split airline tickets, but gas money (or alternating drivers) should be split and hotel rooms absolutely should be split. I didn't actually get a split for my hotel room in Indy, which annoyed me since I was planning on giving someone a place to sleep in my room for $25/night - that would have saved me $75 over 3 nights and someone who paid full price for a hotel room close to the event would have gone from paying close to $400 to paying $75. That's a great deal both ways.

GP: Nashville involved a hotel/parking/food split that took my costs for the event from over $250 to less than $100 (half of which I made back up in a 3-way trade involving an Alpha Black Lotus some idiot kid wrote his name on). Of course, I got the best deal possible at GP: Atlanta since I could walk to the tournament from my apartment and had the home-field advantage of no jet lag. That doesn't happen very often, but it's instructive in some ways: it might actually be cheaper for you to stay at a hotel 20 minutes away for $30-$50 a night than it is for you to stay in the “special event rates” at the uber-swanky hotel they hold the tournament in. The downside, which you really need to watch for, is that some hotels (Opryland in Nashville, for one) charge obscene prices for parking but waive them for people who stay the night. Opryland was still expensive enough that it was worth it to toss them $18/day twice, but in other places it may be worth staying in the more expensive hotel on-site, especially once you start splitting.

Event entry fees: No help here, you're hosed. It's unsplittable and unavoidable.

Food: In general, food's unsplittable, but if you find yourself in a place like Five Guys where the burger is accompanied by approximately eight giant potatoes' worth of french fries, you might be able to save a few bucks by splitting the sides. If you've got things really hammered down to where you have free time, you can buy a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a jar of jelly for less than $5 and keep a couple people going during the event without having to resort to vending machines or $8 convention caterer sandwiches, then it's just a matter of finding dinner afterward. This is even more vital when driving somewhere that involves a day trip. Take a box of Pop-Tarts or whatever if you're sleeping in a cheap hotel, because you won't necessarily have breakfast, and the morning McD's run is a massive timesink. I'm also pretty sure the Pop-Tarts are actually less bad for you. Of course, if you've got a carload of people you'll probably have to resign yourself to the fast food plan, as trying to get 4 Magic players to plan ahead is impossible.

To summarize, here's a rough guess of what to expect:

2 hours each way (day trip): $20-40 in gas each way, plus event fees and food. This varies depending on car, distance, speed, driver, current price of gas, etc.; but $10 an hour is a reasonable ballpark estimate for gas for most of us. If you go with the same group of people regularly, switching drivers is fine. If someone starts mooching, he starts paying - it ends up being pretty easy to enforce. If you don't yet have a regular trip crew, split it up. Round down for the driver and up for everyone else. This is actually not too bad food-wise: you can eat breakfast on the road and dinner back; just check ahead of time to figure out if lunch is within walking range. If not, Mr. Zero Two Drop can take the keys and make a food run for his carmates that are still playing. If you don't trust him with the car, he's in charge of standing outside and paying the delivery guy. Once he fulfills that obligation, he's free to play in side events.

2-8 hour drive (weekend trip): Gas is a real cost here and the idea of splitting it up over time is not really workable. To save the hassle, mix it in with the hotel costs. Hotel ranges from $50 a night (smaller areas) to $150 a night (really fancy hotels at major convention centers). Most likely you're going to be sticking in the 50 to 120 range. If you have the hotel room for free via rewards, split it up fairly according to something like half the standard price. Hotel room splits are pretty simple if you've got something like 2 beds and 2 people (or 2 king-sized beds and 4 people who are not excessively homophobic or touchy-feely): you just run the even split and call it a day.

Otherwise, driver gets first shot at the bed, especially if the trip was so long that the passengers were sleeping in the car. If you've got some sort of situation where there's 2 people on a bed, a couch, and the rest are on the floor; you split it up accordingly. For 4 people I'd say something like 40% bed, 30% couch, 15% floor; or 35/35/15/15 if the bed can be split. It's all ballpark numbers and being overly precise with things in something like a $50 hotel room is kind of dickish- just do $15/15/10/10 or $20/20/5/5. The important thing here isn't really so much the exact numbers as much as it is keeping people from fighting over who gets the bed/couch/chair/whatever. Some hotels keep an air mattress in the closet for the kids. Check for one, you might be lucky and find yourself in a “family” room.

Flight to event: You'll be lucky to split anything besides the hotel in this situation. Again, whoever reserves the hotel room makes the rules, but in cases of excessive dickishness, he may end up with the entire room to himself (if not now, then in the future), so it's in his interest to be reasonable. Cost here should total a bit under $500 (unsplit) for people flying domestically within the US, and you should be able to split it down to $200-300 or so, assuming you're not scoring a free/discounted flight somehow. Take full advantage of the free toothbrush+toothpaste most hotels offer, given the TSA lunacy regarding fluids. If you're flying, you should be packing nothing but clothes, cards, and possibly an alarm clock or a couple of books. Don't risk delays by screwing around with liquids or checked baggage. A suitcase that can go planeside valet and one of the Magic shoulder bags for your cards to be put in the overhead compartment is the way to go.

International Flight: Again, splitting the hotel is pretty much the only thing you'll be able to pull off. Depending on where you're going, local transportation may be an issue. In Amsterdam you're scoring a bike at something like 8 Euro a day; in other places it may be taxis, trains, buses, or just plain getting a close-by hotel and walking. As a general rule, the less you know of the language, the more you're going to spend. Check if your hotel offers power converters - I could have saved myself some hassle in Amsterdam if I'd checked that on day one instead of on Sunday. In total, you're going to look at $200 to $300 on top of the flight+hotel; more if you're looking for cards at the event. Most countries have really expensive cards compared to the US (at Amsterdam, cards were going for prices in Euro higher than the price in USD, with 1 EUR at around 1.3USD), so you really want to have as much as possible ready in advance. In extreme cases, you can actually stock up on cards in the US and sell them overseas, even to dealers, for more than you paid for them in the States. This can actually let you skip the currency-switching fee the airport or your bank charges.

Mailbag 3: Avoiding Tilt

How do you stop bad tournaments from getting to you? The first and most important answer is to attend lots of tournaments at the highest level possible: SCG Opens, GPs, PTQs, and National Qualifiers. I'll skip FNM the night before any of those, even if FNM is 5 minutes away. I want the extra sleep, and I want to hit up enough of those tournaments that losing one isn't going to make me feel miserable. If you go to 2 PTQs and the National Qualifiers as your only real tournaments in a given year, you've got shitty chances of actually winning anything at all, even if you've actually got the advantage over your opponents. It's also likely that you won't have the advantage over them just because of your lack of experience.

The next thing is to focus on your overall win percentage. If you keep it high, you'll get money finishes eventually. The winning percentages of top pros are something like 70%. You'll notice that even 75% translates to a mere 6-2 in an 8 round PTQ, which typically misses the top 8! Realize that even the best players have to deal with variance, and you do too. In your local 4-round FNMs or MTGO Daily Events, do you always finish at the same record? Obviously not. Sometimes you go 2-2, sometimes you go 4-0. Your win rate is just the average of those, but the higher your win rate is the more you're going 4-0 and the less you're going 2-2.

What you've got to look at is the fact that things work out in the long run, and the more you play, the more likely you are to get an event far enough on the upside of your current average to make it to the Tour by winning a PTQ or making top 16 of a GP.

On paper, a 70 man PTQ sees 8 out of 70 people (11.4%) make the top 8. If your lifetime win rate is 50%, those are your odds of making top 8. If your lifetime win rate is 66%, you're ahead of the curve.

A 50-50 player has a 0.19% chance of getting 9 straight wins. A 66% player has a 2.6% chance. A 75% player is looking at a 7.5% chance. 9 straight is what it took me to win my trip to Amsterdam last year after losing round one of a PTQ. My lifetime win rate is close to 66%, so I had roughly a 1 in 40 chance of going to Amsterdam after losing in the first round. This was a 70-man event, and even after losing the first round I was still more likely to win than a generic 50-50 player was before the tournament started! Even with that advantage, of course, 1 in 40 is not a great set of odds, but it really drives home how big of an impact a shift in your overall winning percentage can make.

Perspective is critical to avoid going on tilt. Your odds suck in any one event, even if you have a very high lifetime winning record. That's why it's important to play in tons of events - so you have a higher chance of doing well in any given time frame. If you're at a multi-tournament event such as a SCG Open, play in as many events as possible. Don't have a Legacy deck? Draft or borrow one. Focus on improving your overall rate of victory. Don't play crappy rogue decks just for the sake of being different - play the best deck you can, as well as you can, and if you're well above a 50-50 win-loss record, you'll get there eventually.

Thanks again for reading,

Joshua Justice

JoshJMTG on Twitter.

2 thoughts on “The Indianapolis Run-Bad

  1. Hey, I'm the Orim's Chant zoo guy.

    Don't get discouraged! My friend Nick has similar problems with ANT at indi as well. All day it was: use 5 cantrips, find nothing, lose. I could write an article about how much I hate Mindbreak Trap, plus it's soo narrow. Chant takes people by surprise and is great for the chant on upkeep to win next turn.

    You were a cool guy to talk to, sorry bout the rough beats, and maybe see you at the next Legacy event within 6 hours of wisconsin.

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