by Randy Buehler
Most of the players qualified for Nationals returned to their various hotels before the last Meatgrinder finished up around 1:30am. By the end of Thursday the last 20 members of the nationals field had been chosen and the metagame for Saturday was taking form.
The biggest story on Thursday was definitely Casey McCarrel. The Pro Tour New York champion recently ended a 6-month suspension and his first tournament since the suspension ended was Meatgrinder #2. He won. His skills seemed a little rusty, but the old talent was obviously still there. It didn't hurt that he opened Predator, Flagship and Jeweled Spirit either! Two of his matches went to "first blood" overtime -- since you can't have a draw in a single-elimination tournament, matches that are tied at the end of time and arbitrated on life totals. If there's a tie there too then the players play on and the first change of life decides the game. In the first round, Casey's sudden death began at the beginning of game 3. McCarrel's opponent was going first and kept a 7-card hand that included Spore Frog and Deepwood Wolverine. McCarrel took one mulligan ... and then another. His 5-card hand included both a Mountain and a Seal of Fire. First turn kill!
McCarrel wasn't the only "name" player to qualify for Nationals through a Meatgrinder. 1998 US National team member Bryce Currance piloted a Trinity deck through 'Grinder #1 and Jason Moungey qualified with Replenish. In the last Grinder, James Hustad joined Currance and Bill Macey (who did it last year) as the elite few who have qualified for Nationals through Grinders twice. Overall attendance figures for the Meatgrinders were much higher than expected. Well over 600 players entered one of the 5 tournaments. Last year at Origins there were 6 Grinders instead of 5 and about 800 players participated. Apparently, it's the allure of trying to become US National Champion that draws most players to the 'Grinders, not Origins.
Of course, most watchers were more interested in what decks were doing well and not what players. The big winner on the day appeared to be Trinity Green. It claimed 2 of the 4 invitations during the first Grinder and by the final Grinder it was the most popular deck in the field (and qualified one player). Replenish was never far down the list of popular decks and it is still a force to be reckoned with. The raw power of the deck is enough to overcome some of the hate for it that is floating around and it quite capable of winning against an unprepared field. All the green that is getting played has made black decks (both Suicide Black and Control Black) a popular choice. Control black fared only OK in the Grinders, but I heard a number of players contemplated it for Saturday as a reaction to all that green. In addition to Trinity Green, there are Stompy decks floating around. Stompy is an underdog against Trinity in game 1, but Vine Dryads do give it a shot. After sideboarded Lumbering Satyr can swing the matchup decidedly toward Stompy.
All in all the Standard field is very diverse and surprisingly healthy for a metagame that is this evolved. In addition to green, black, and Replenish, there are also burn decks floating around (a copy of Red Deck Wins 2000 qualified through Grinder #3 -- Daniel Paskins has a lot more friends and fans than I'd realized), and Rebel decks have seen significant action as well. This is U.S. Nationals, so don't be too surprised to see a Rebel deck playing on camera on Sunday -- white weenie has claimed the prize in each of the last two years (Matt Linde two years ago and Kyle Rose last year).
Kyle is back to try to build the winning deck for a third straight year. Mike Long is here and appears to be on top of his game. Both of these Virginians already know that they are invited to the Draft Challenge being held Saturday night so they had extra motivation to prepare. The top 4 players after Friday's draft portion of Nationals will also receive invitations to this $20,000 event (along with Darwin Kastle and Trevor Blackwell).
The gang is all here and it should be a fun weekend. Well, not all the gang is actually competing. During a pick-up basketball game on Thursday afternoon, Ben Rubin took an elbow to the mouth and lost a tooth. He went to the hospital and he'll spend Friday having his mouth fixed instead of drafting. The elbow in question belong to Brian Hacker, a former member of team "Hit Men".
Wizards of the Coast R&D member Henry Stern, a participant in the game, says, "We were playing some hoops, and there was a rebound. Ben went up for it, as did a lot of other people, and Ben intersected Brian's elbow and some teeth were knocked loose." No foul was called. Stay tuned to the Sideboard for all your US Nationals coverage needs.