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Welcome to another season of Regional Championship Qualifiers. That feels like a statement that should have an exclamation point at the end. Yet, I'm sticking with a period. I just...struggle to feel about RCQ's the way I felt about the PPTQ or PTQ system. It might be that the years between the later systems and now were too great. It might be that a lot of RCQs use Pioneer and I'm lukewarm on the format at best. It could also be that DreamHack doesn't act like it has the passion for the system as Wizards once had. I'll still play in them and did over the weekend. I'm just not as engaged.
This RCQ was at my local game store (LGS), Mythic Games. This was really convenient because it meant I had no problems getting the details for the event and registering. I did so well in advance because the store only has 48 seats at the moment. It's set to expand sometime next year, which will be nice. I find having breathing room advantageous.
The format was Pioneer, which I wasn't thrilled about. I've been struggling to understand, much less enjoy Pioneer. However, it made perfect sense. The Store Championship the week before was also Pioneer. That was intentional to allow players a chance to practice for the bigger event. I wasn't able to attend the Store Championship, but I was told that Mono-Green Devotion not only won but was the most popular deck there. This gave me confidence in my own deck, Mono-Blue Spirits.
I was only ever going to play Mono-Blue Spirits for the RCQ. It's the only deck I actually want to play in Pioneer. Mono-White Humans does have some appeal since I've played lots of Humans in the past. However, Spirits eats Devotion like candy while Humans merely has a good matchup. Had there been any actual decision to make, the fact that the field was expected to be Devotion-heavy sealed the deal.
Being my LGS, I knew exactly when to leave and what to expect. Funny how that works. I also knew that I wanted to be there exactly 40 minutes before the event started. This was right after the first wave had arrived and settled in but before the stream of players arrives to fill the venue. The perfect window to register your deck in peace and have all the time to scout the field. Of course, I always adjust my deck based on scouting, so I didn't register the sideboard or the final flex slots until the last second.
There were a handful of dedicated control players there. The overwhelming majority of players I scouted, however, were playing Spirits, Devotion, or Izzet Phoenix. There were also quite a few Humans players. I entered the day with my deck in an anti-control configuration because I play against UW a lot in weekly tournaments. However, given the field, I needed to adjust. I always carry around all the cards I might want for this very reason. After a quick swap-out, I registered the following deck:
Mono-Blue Spirits, David Ernenwein (RCQ deck)
I would later overhear that there were 11 Devotion players, 9 Humans players, and 7 Spirits at this RCQ, so my scouting was on the nose.
The maindeck doesn't look like it's changed since the last Pioneer RCQ I played. However, that is deceptive. In normal weekly play Slip Out the Back is maindeck and I don't play Lofty Denial. With scouting determining the field was heavy Devotion, I made these subtle changes. The matchup hasn't measurably changed in the intervening months otherwise.
Reading the Room
Mono-Blue Spirits is strong against Devotion because it presents a fast clock and has disruption. I enforce this with extra maindeck counters and Disdainful Stroke from the sideboard. Slip is great against any removal deck. Mystical Dispute is mostly in the sideboard for the mirror and for Izzet decks. Witness Protection is the only real removal available in mono blue. This leaves Spirits quite weak to creature-based aggro. They'll have actual removal, we have Protection and tempo tricks. Normally I play Cerulean Drake, but I didn't see any red decks.
March of Swirling Mist looks odd, but I think that Spirits players need to give this card serious consideration. I initially chose it because it's the only card in blue that cheaply protects a board against Supreme Verdict. However, I've found it to be shockingly versatile. It's a huge tempo play to fog an opponent's attack and clear out blockers for an alpha strike. Against creature decks, it's the closest thing I have to a sweeper to get back into a race. I've also used March to render Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx worthless by phasing all the creatures in upkeep. I encourage Spirits players to try out March.
Due to limited seating restrictions, the RCQ was capped at 48. The event sold out, but only 44 players actually showed up for the six rounds of Swiss. There's never a lunch round at Mythic Games. Partially, that's because they've got deals with the various restaurants in the area for delivery and mostly because the head judge wants to leave at a reasonable time.
I was disheartened to see that both Matt Nass and Andrew Baeckstrom were in attendance. I've never played Andrew, but he was a high-level pro in the old system. I've played Matt before and never beaten him. This didn't bode well for me. I overheard that Luis Scott-Vargas was going to attend too, but ultimately couldn't. While that would have increased the competition significantly, I always seem to do better at events he attends, so that was disappointing.
Round 1: Atarka Red
I was on the play for game one and curved out pretty close to perfect. I went Wanderer into Curious Obsession with Geistlight Snare protection, followed by two Supreme Phantoms and Spectral Sailor to seal the game. This is fortunate because my opponent was on Atarka Red, and I don't have Drakes anymore. The matchup is quite bad but countering his Burning-Tree Emissary is basically game-winning.
-2 Ascendant Spirit -3 Curious Obsession
+2 March of Swirling Mist +3 Witness Protection
In game two it was my opponent's turn for a great curve-out. He had Phoenix Chick into double Emissary and Reckless Bushwacker. Legion Loyalist sealed my fate.
For game three I countered his Emissary on turns two and three, but I developed slowly. Thankfully, Shacklegeist stalled his attacks enough for me to win the race. My opponent very helpfully flooded out.
I was not punished for my metagaming and got quite lucky. You need both to do well.
Round 2: Bant Spirits
Games one and three played out the same way. My opponent never missed a land drop and I'm stuck on Island, Faceless Haven. I couldn't possibly keep up. My opponent successfully tricked me in game one by sequencing his first two lands so I thought he was UW Control and took a more conservative line. It didn't ultimately matter, but still. Great bluff.
Game two was actually interesting. I won thanks to March fogging a big attack and clearing the way to Protection an unphased lord and get in my own big attack. This kept my opponent on the back foot and forced him to repeatedly trade creatures. Ultimately, I won the Shacklegeist competition to open up enough sky to win through.
Game Two: -4 Rattlechains -3 Lofty Denial -1 Spectral Sailor
Game Two: +2 March of Swirling Mist +3 Witness Protection +3 Mystical Denial
Game Three: -4 Curious Obsession -1 Spectral Sailor -3 Lofty Denial
Game Three: +2 March of Swirling Mist +3 Witness Protection +3 Mystical Denial
On the play, I wanted to keep in Obsession because the tempo and card advantage is key. Getting the opponent to waste removal or Shacklegeist activations on a 1/1 is huge. On the draw, that plan won't work out.
Bad variance ensured that I had no real chance in two of three games. Sucks, but that's Magic.
Round 3: Fires of Invention
I know my opponent is typically on UW Control, but he also has Devotion. I kept a hand that's good against either deck. Unfortunately, he's actually on Fires of Invention and I can't counter the namesake card and just fell behind and died. I might have gotten there but for Omnath, Locus of Creation triggers. He wasn't paying attention and missed several, but I still lost badly.
+2 Disdainful Stroke +2 March
In game two I mulliganed into a one-lander with one-drop and Obsession. If I draw a land I'm cruising. I didn't, and the opponent has Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp and I could never catch up.
At this point, I'm most likely dead for Top 8 but there are prizes for Top 16, making it worth it to stay.
Round 4: Abzan Greasefang
My opponent has a turn three Parhelion II. I have Shacklegeist. I counter my opponent's attempt to Thoughtseize himself to get another chance at Parhelion. I win after playing Supreme Phantom. This is a very easy matchup for me when they don't go off on turn two.
-2 Ascendant Spirit -3 Curious Obsession
+2 Unlicensed Hearse +3 Witness Protection
In game two I mulligan and I thought my opponent should have too. He had enablers but didn't hit, then cast Can't Stay Away twice looking for action, and missed. My clock was anemic as I kept a counter-heavy hand, but I gradually pulled ahead. Eventually, my opponent milled a piece of equipment, played Greasefang, Okiba Boss, and had Parhelion bounced. I placed Greasefang in Witness Protection, and countered a follow-up Greasefang.
I was still alive for prizes, and suddenly more. There was an unintentional draw at a top table, and suddenly there was room for X-2's to hope on getting in.
Round 5: Enigmatic Incarnation
Initially, I thought my opponent was on Fires or possibly Niv to Light. I wasn't sure what to think when instead he played Enigmatic Incarnation and sacrificed his Leyline Binding to find Titan of Industry. After I bounced Titan I won with little effort. He commented that Titan is a shockingly bad card. I'm inclined to agree.
-2 Ascendant Spirit
+2 Disdainful Stroke
We both mulliganed for game two. I won because my opponent did actual nothing all game. He kept a hand of red spells with no red source.
Standings went up and the math said that it was possible for up to two X-2's to make Top 8. It required tables three and four to play and both X-1-1's to lose, but it was possible. Even if I lost, two X-3's will make Top 16. Now I just needed a favorable matchup to get there.
Round 6: Mono-White Humans
Whelp. This is Spirits' worst matchup, and I'm on the draw. I was just doomed. He had a perfect curve with two Thalia's Lieutenant and I had no chance whatsoever.
-3 Lofty Denial -4 Curious Obsession
+2 March of Swirling Mist +3 Witness Protection +2 Slip Out the Back
For game two he had a removal-heavy hand and I couldn't fight through. His creatures are naturally larger and he drew more of them. I was never really in the game.
Final Record: 3-3
Thanks to tiebreakers, I made the Top 16 and got 15 Dominaria United set boosters. Not a total loss.
The Top 8 consisted of two Humans decks, Grixis Phoenix, Mono-Green Devotion, UW Control, Bant Spirits, Rakdos Midrange, and my Round 1 opponent. Andrew Baeckstrom on Mono-White Humans won.
While my record leaves much to be desired, I feel like my play was satisfactory. I made a number of mistakes this tournament, but none of my mistakes were fatal. I was pretty dead in every case (confirmed by opponents after the match) and I would have improved my position by making better plays only marginally, at best.
This didn't even count how seeing the correct number of lands in a game continues to be a problem for me, but that's down to variance. I've said it before, to win a tournament requires being both lucky and good. I'm playing well enough but didn't catch as many breaks as I needed. I used up the good variance in round one by winning a matchup I frequently lose. I needed to not get stuck on lands as often as I did.
If Humans is going to continue to be a major player in the metagame going forward, I'll need to find a different deck. Mono-Blue Spirits is a complete dog to Humans. Bant is better thanks to Skyclave Apparition and Collected Company, but still not great. I may have to just buy Hopeful Initiates.
Luck Is A Factor
The new season is proceeding and there will be more RCQs. I can only hope that the variance problems I've suffered work themselves out so that I can stop blaming them for my results. I'd rather lose to bad decisions than just being a little unlucky.