Chasing the Skill Curve

I recently attended the StarCityGames Open Series: Worcester, and I played in both the Standard event on Saturday and the Legacy event on Sunday. The biggest things my decks had in common were that they were complex decks with many decision points and that I had never played them before. Yes, that’s as bad as it sounds . . .

There was plenty of upside. I cashed both days. I finished 7–3 for a sixty-first-place finish in Standard, and I went 7–1–1 in Legacy, which was good enough to bring me into the Top 8, where I made it to the semifinals before I lost. My story could easily have been so much better, though . . .

As I mentioned in my last article, I chose a toolbox version of Naya Pod for Standard:

This was a very powerful deck with a lot of midgame options and frequent important decision points. I chose it in part because of those aspects. I wanted a deck for which my years of high-level experience and play skill would help me succeed. While I could have chosen Delver, there were good reasons not to:

  • I’d be playing a deck for the first time against a lot of mirror matches in which my opponent was a much more experienced pilot.
  • I’d be playing against a lot of decks that were specifically prepared for mine, piloted by players used to playing against my deck.

Green Sun's Zenith
The problem with choosing a deck that rewarded high-level play skill and the ability to make frequent tough decisions well is that it tends to backfire if you don’t test and play the deck before entering into a big event with it. I assembled the deck two days before the event. The day before the event, I brought it to an FNM and played two rounds: a loss and a draw. This setback wasn’t enough to deter me from playing my deck in the Open. The decks I played against at FNM weren’t the decks I was expecting to see at the Open—Delver, Solar Flare and R/G aggro. I also realized that it would take me some time to get the feel for how my deck should be played in various matchups. Unfortunately, I was out of time.

I started the event 1–2 with both of my losses being hard-fought affairs against W/U Delver decks. With seven long rounds ahead of me, I might have dropped out had I been playing a different deck and faced with such long odds of cashing. This time was different. I believed in my deck. The blame for the losses didn’t belong on the deck, it belonged on me. This was for two reasons: My deck still needed tuning, and I wasn’t playing it well enough. It was too late for tuning, but I could still continue my learning curve with the deck and perhaps turn things around.

Fortunately for me, I turned things around, and I won six of my last seven rounds and snuck into the Top 64, beating the only other Delver deck I faced on the way. One of the many things I did to right the ship was to tune my deck on the fly. I sideboarded my Bonfires and my Wurmcoil Engine out in every matchup, and I stopped bringing in my Oblivion Rings. After sideboarding, my deck was much closer to the way the main deck should have been in the first place: four Pods and four Zeniths with all creatures and land.

I also learned to appreciate why some of my sideboard cards perhaps should have been in the main deck. Zealous Conscripts are pretty sick if I have a Pod available to sacrifice the creature it steals. Champion of Lambholt is pretty nuts when paired with Wolfir Silverheart. Wolfir Avenger is pretty good against everyone. Perhaps more important, however, is that I just became better at playing the deck as the rounds rolled on.

Thanks to my Top 4 finish in the Legacy Open, I decided to attend the SCG Invitational in Indianapolis and play the same two decks I’d just played in Worcester. Of course, that meant tuning my Pod deck:

The Thunderbolts are in the sideboard specifically with Delver in mind. Delver decks don’t kill me on the ground. I take almost all of my damage from flying Delvers, Spirits, and Angels. My favorite thing about the Thunderbolts is being able to attack with all of my creatures when my opponent has 4 mana open and is obviously waiting to ambush me with a Restoration Angel and knowing I don’t have any instants. I also like that they aren’t dead cards even if my opponent was to sideboard into a non-flying-based deck.

The Bonfires came out of the deck in favor of more creatures. In this deck, being a creature (especially a green one) is kind of like being a blue card in my Sneak and Show Legacy deck. Every noncreature card needs to be rigorously justified—it’s another card that doesn’t help with Birthing Pods. In my Legacy deck, every nonblue card needs to be absolutely essential—it can’t be pitched to Force of Will or Misdirection.

I had some of the same problems on Sunday in the Legacy Open. Since I didn’t own the cards for the deck and I don’t know any Legacy players who live near me, I was playing another deck that I hadn’t tested with. I actually hadn’t played Legacy in years. I don’t own the cards for a Legacy deck, it would be incredibly expensive to buy them, and I was unfamiliar with the Legacy metagame. Everything changed when I was at Origins in Columbus. My friend Adrian Sullivan asked me to play a few games of Legacy with him, and he had two decks. The deck he wanted to test against was a powerful combo deck called Sneak and Show. I won every game we played (between three and five) without even having a chance to see what Adrian’s deck was trying to do. I was hooked. The deck was obviously powerful, it didn’t seem that having intimate knowledge of the metagame was a prerequisite, and it was really fun to play!

The other piece of the puzzle was solved by my friend Steve Guillerm, who was able to loan me the cards for the deck. So the morning of the event, he gave me the cards (I didn’t even know what the specific build or sideboard was going to be!), and I sleeved them up, filled in my decklist, and was readyish to go:

Round 1 was encouraging, as I won 2–0 without finding out how my opponent was hoping to kill me. Round 2 was where the chickens came to roost. I ended up with a draw, in large part because I didn’t know my deck well enough. I probably should have won Game 3—I resolved a Sneak Attack and drew a lot of cards with Griselbrand. The problem was that I didn’t know my deck well enough. My opponent had a Karakas in play, which meant he could return my legendary creatures to my hand.

This led to my most embarrassing moment of the weekend. I call it my bonehead moment. Since I obviously wasn’t going to be able to hit my opponent with an Emrakul, I decided I was going to need a lot of Griselbrands to kill him with. So I went ahead and put a second Griselbrand into play, not realizing that he was also a legend. While it may seem surprising that I messed up with one of the few Standard-legal cards in my deck, I’ve been playing for so many years that I was much more comfortable with most of the non-Standard-legal cards in the deck. With my Griselbrands dying without having a chance to attack and gain me life, I ended up having to sneak Emrakul into play multiple times . . . just to have a blocker to save me on turn five of extra turns. Sigh . . .

I had one other really embarrassing moment during the event when I received a game loss for recording my decklist (I believe for the first time in a pretty long career) with three Pyroblasts instead of two Pyroblasts and one Red Elemental Blast. Luckily, I was able to win 2–1 in spite of the game loss.

Fortunately for me, my unfamiliarity with the deck didn’t cost me any more wins. I had one loss in Swiss, which was to eventual champion Reid Duke, but it wasn’t because I didn’t know what I was doing. It was because his deck was a faster combo deck than mine and because he was able to win every counter war we had. My 7–1–1 finish was just good enough to put me into the Top 8 in eighth place. Unfortunately, I ran into Reid again in the semifinals, and it resulted in another 2–0 loss.

So, this was a weekend of learning on the fly for me, with decks that required successfully navigating many difficult play decisions to play well. While I’m happy with my results, I can only wonder what I could have been able to accomplish with proper testing and tuning. This is definitely one of those do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do moments. I hope what I learned in Worcester will help me to even greater success in Indianapolis.