Normally I use this space to talk Commander theory, or at least make my content relevant to the format. I recently received some sage advice: passion is more important than content. I played in Grand Prix San Diego last weekend and the event had more emotional impact on me than any other I've played, so I'm going to write about it.
San Diego was only the second Grand Prix I'd been to. The first was last year's in Oakland, but the format was extended, I didn't have a deck, and I hadn't been planning to play when a few friends decided to go and asked if I wanted to come along. I thought a big event might be fun and the promotional Umezawa's Jitte made up for the entry fee, so I threw together some hilariously bad Quest for Ula's Temple deck with the hope of winning a match. I didn't get that far, but I did win a game by hard-casting Inkwell Leviathan in my sixteen land deck after my opponent Legend ruled his own Jittes. The point I'm trying to make is that San Diego was the first Grand Prix I've seriously competed in, and I had no idea what to expect.
I took Greyhound down to San Diego with and an old friend from San Francisco who's also at school in LA, and the two friends I've been PTQing with this season. We'd practiced a lot of Innistrad Sealed and some Draft, and I'd managed to win an eight-man Trial at my LGS. By this point I felt pretty confident in my grasp of the format, but unlike the PTQ circuit I was liable to run up against Pro players if I did well. How was it all going to go down? There was only one way to find out. Crack my Day 1 pool:
In Magic, you want a deck that's powerful and consistent. In Innistrad and most other sealed formats, that means that you open a multitude of bombs and plenty of solid removal to keep you from losing to opposing bombs. This is not such a pool. Geist-Honored Monk, Balefire Dragon, Curse of Death's Hold, and Daybreak Ranger are classifiable as bombs, and at first black-red looks like a great idea. Alongside Curse, black offers Victim of Night and Morkrut Banshee to deal with opposing threats, and Bitterheart Witch lets me find the Curse more consistently. Unfortunately, there isn't enough removal in this color combination to fight out the slug-fest that would be bound to happen if I made it to the later rounds with a good record. Between the 1,044 pools opened at the GP, some were bound to be insane, and those pools in the hands of competent players were bound to make the top tables as the rounds went on.
When your pool isn't one of the top ten percent in raw power level, you need a different approach to beat those that are. Basically you need to stop them from enacting their game-plan, which means avoiding interaction along the axes they're prepared for. This pool has an Invisible Stalker along with Butcher's Cleaver, Spectral Flight, Furor of the Bitten, and Travel Preparations, so in theory I could have gone all in and blanked their removal and blockers, but the deck would have been incredibly inconsistent. There's a happier middle-ground to be found in decreasing the effectiveness of opposing removal without completely turning it off: aggression.
The more pressure you can put on your opponent, the less time they can wait to maximize the value of their removal spells, and the less time they have to draw their most powerful cards. Even better, because the good players with good pools will be expecting other good pools at the top tables, they'll build their decks to be more effective in a long game, and will most likely choose to draw first, effectively putting themselves another turn behind in the tempo-dependent games you bring to the table. With this in mind, the correct way to build this pool for a Grand Prix with three byes going in is almost certainly to run all of the powerful and aggressive green and white cards, but the building doesn't end there. Nightfall Predator is ludicrously powerful when it can pick off a creature every turn, and Rage Thrower is almost unbeatable in a deck that forces trades. Between Traveler's Amulet and Ghost Quarter, there's almost no reason not to add some power with a splash. In fact there's only one reason not to go that route.
There's a better splash.
Luis Scott Vargas has compared Grasp of Phantoms to Time Walk, and while that comparison doesn't quite hold up in the majority of blue decks it does when you're the aggressor in virtually every match up. Interestingly, the more aggressive the deck, the less the card parity of putting a creature on top of its owner's library matters, so Silent Departure fills the same role, and cheaper. But once again, this deck has to be designed to beat the strongest pools in the room, and while Silent Departure is more mana efficient, the opportunity to keep an opponent off of removal for an extra turn with Grasp more than makes up for the cost. On top of all that, splashing blue doesn't even diminish Daybreak Ranger's value by that much. While there are times when Nightfall Predator will kill off the opposing team, more often than not its job is to eat a removal spell. With a Ghost Quarter or Traveler's Amulet on the board, my opponents couldn't afford not to kill Ranger given the chance.
Here's the final list I registered:
My friend Claude, who I came down with, had a round one bye based on rating. We sat down and discussed what we ought to sideboard into, and then tested a few quick games to get a feel for our decks. He headed off to play round two, and I hunted down Eric, a friend from San Francisco who I knew had also won three byes for the event and did some more testing. My deck was fairing pretty well, but not dominating, so I went into round four feeling a bit uneasy.
Rounds Four and Five
My first opponent had a white-blue deck featuring Mindshrieker and Angel of Flight Alabaster, and presented a decent clock backed by lots of card advantage. I managed to pull out the match on the back of my Galvanic Juggernauts, but I was feeling unsure about my pool's chances when I'd already encountered so much difficulty in my first round. While the next round still went to game three, it was nowhere near as close, and I started to believe that I might have a chance.
My opponent for this round had an aggressive black-red deck full of Vampires and Werewolves. I lost the first game to Bloodcrazed Neonate and friends fairly quickly while Galvanic Juggernaut refused to block. The second game started off poorly too; I was getting beaten down by Crossway Vampire, Vampire Interloper, Rakish Heir, and Bane of Hanweir. I dealt with the Heir, and though my Geist-Honored Monk died, one of its tokens held off Interloper. All I needed to do was deal with Bane of Hanweir and then draw a 2+ power creature the turn after that, and I'd be back in it. I picked up the top card of my library...Galvanic Juggernaut! That could trade for the Bane of my existence, and better yet, I had five lands out and a Traveler's Amulet in hand, so I could increase my chances of drawing a body. “Cast Amulet, crack for Island and play it, Juggernaut, go.”
“Bane of Hanweir transforms.”
I punted that one pretty hard. Next turn my Juggernaut had to attack, he took it, and two turns later I lost to his Werewolf, not the best feeling in the world.
Rounds Seven and Eight
I managed to get my head back on straight before the next round started, and found myself paired against Lukasz Musial of Tempered Steel fame. He had another strong UW deck, and both games he managed to secure a superior board position before I crushed him with the awesome might of Grasp of Phantoms. Between my strong draws and his mana issues, he wasn't in a very good mood at the end of the match, but I wished him luck for the next round, and he did in fact manage to rally and qualify for Day Two. The next round went similarly smoothly, and before I knew it, I too was locked for the next day!
Despite being unable to miss, winning round nine was still pretty important. X-3 was going to be unable to Top 8, and X-4 couldn't Top 16. Being unsuccessful in winning a PTQ this season, and with only a few to go, Top 16ing this Grand Prix was going to be by far my best chance of getting onto the Tour. I walked over to the pairings board, scanned for my name, and found the table number. Then I checked my opponent.
You've got to be kidding me! Going into the event, I knew I'd play high-level pros if I did well, but on some level I didn't really believe it would happen. I struggled to regain control as I made my way over to table sixteen.
“His deck will be just as ill-equipped to deal with aggression as the rest of them.”
“You know how to play this game.”
Not that I really believed any of that. I sat down and introduced myself, then we rolled and he chose to draw, revealing an Island and an Angel of Flight Alabaster as he riffle shuffled. I drew my hand, and I was in the clear!
I kept, and after curving Pilgrim into Ranger into [card Elder Cathar]Cathar[/card] into Outcasts, he was dead to Prey Upon.
I could taste victory, but he was right to choose the draw. He hadn't seen any indication that I was playing an aggro deck, he just saw a particularly fast start; somehow that hadn't crossed my mind. I blinked a few times in bewilderment, then picked up my seven.
Surely a turn three Juggernaut would do it. But somehow he stabilized. He rebuked the Juggernaut, and clogged up the board to keep the Elder Cathar and Elite Inquisitor I'd drawn from getting through. I was ripping lands, and then I found it: the second Grasp of Phantoms. I was on seven lands, and Grasped his Angel of Flight Alabaster to keep the Mindshrieker he'd milled (see a pattern?) in his yard and hit for some damage. He replayed it, I pulled the top card of my library towards me, picked it up, and slammed down an eighth land! Three Grasps later, I'd 2-0ed the Shadowmage Infiltrator himself!
All it took was double Time Stretch.
With Day 1 on the books, I briefly considered trying to find a computer to do a practice draft on Magic Online, but opted for more sleep instead. My friends and I returned to the hostel we were staying at, and hit the sack, only to find a surprise the next morning...
Which you can hear more about if you come back next week for Day 2! In the meantime, I'd love to hear your opinions about my straying from my normal purview. Do you want more content like this? If so, which parts of the experience do you want to hear more about? How would you have built this pool? I'll be at Worlds in San Francisco this weekend, so if you're going to be there, feel free to drop me a line via any of the usual channels and we can meet up. I look forward to seeing you there!