Toward the end of last year we got to meet Bing Luke when he qualified for the Magic World Championships by virtue of his invitation to also compete in the Magic Online Championships (or MOCS). The online slugger got his first look at big league pitching—call it a cup of coffee in the big leagues—and picked up four match wins on the weekend. What was fascinating to me about getting to know Bing was that he lived right here in New York City and yet was not really connected to any of the existing play groups in the metro area.
When the StarCityGames.com Standard Open rolled into Edison I had the chance to hang out with Bing over pastrami sandwiches at Katz's Delicatessen, along with several dozen other Magic players either from or in New York for the tournament weekend. It was Bing who suggested Wall of Tanglecord for the Green-Blue Wave deck I took to a 21st place finish at that event. That was one of just two live Magic events Bing participated in since Worlds last December as he migrates from being solely an online player to a mix of online and live play.
But last weekend, Bing showed both his live and online playing skills by pulling a rare double, combining a National Qualfier in New York and the MOCS Season 4 championship...on the same day.
The story starts with National Qualifiers. When the 8-slot regional qualifiers rolled around last weekend, I was more than happy to loan Bing some cards so he could take a shot at getting to Nationals. (I was out of town but will be trying my hand at some of the Wizards Play Network one-slot qualifiers in the coming weeks.) Bing's weapon of choice for the event? White-Blue Caw-Blade courtesy of the hive mind, with some minor alterations to adjust for the anticipated National Qualifiers metagame.
"The conventional wisdom was that [the Regional Qualifier] was very aggro-based—or at least more aggro-based than the traditional metagame," said Bing when he swung by my office to return the cards. "I took the deck and added an extra Day of Judgment main, a little extra removal between the main and sideboard. The core of the deck is pretty flexible but not too many big changes."
As we talked about the deck he compared it to the recently Standard-dominant Faeries archetype.
"People have certainly made that comparison between Squadron Hawk and the Bitterblossom role," he explained. And playing a control deck that doesn't just roll over to creatures in the early game didn't hurt either: "[Caw-Blade] has all these control elements but is also in the driver's seat for the first few turns. The thing that really sealed it for me was the fact that that you can be in these awful situations but have dinged them a couple of times early with Hawks and then finish the game with a couple of big turns. Gideon them out, or Sword up a Colonnade, and swing a couple times and they are just dead. There might be decks that have better long game plans if left unmolested—like Eldrazi or maybe Valakut—but you can keep them from getting there and kill them before they do."
As the current Standard format—and the exact shape of the Caw decks that will define this era when we look back upon this time—has played out against the backdrop of the Star City Opens, the best players have vacillated between the "classic" white-blue builds and "new fangled" versions with red or, more recently, black. For Bing the classic model was the only choice for this event.
"I don't think it is a question now," he said of the black versions of the deck. "The splashes are a little too disruptive to the mana base. Inquisition of Kozilek can be a great card, but counters are also nice. I think the biggest problem with Inquisition was that it couldn't hit Jace or Sun Titan or any of the other big cards that people were bringing in to swing the match. Maybe if it was Thoughtseize it would be a lot different. There is nothing worse than playing Inquisition and seeing all these cards you are going to lose to in two turns."
Over the course of the weekend the mirror was the most common match-up Bing faced. Of the nearly 200 players in attendance in New York, just a hair over one in four of them were playing Caw-Blade. For Bing those games often come down to achieving board dominance through Tectonic Edge.
"Unfortunately there are no haymakers that you can throw in there to swing the match," he said of the mirror match. "Sun Titan is one of the best cards you can have in the mirror, but there are way too many games that don't even get to that stage."
There were eight rounds of play in store for Bing and then the Top 8 players would be qualified to compete in Nationals.
"There are a lot of big names there," said Bing of the always intimidating field of tri-state ringers. "I played against Chris Lachmann and other established New York people. Josh Ravitz was hovering around the top tables—he made Top 8. It was a tough tournament."
He played mirror matches for half of his rounds and was also paired against a rogue version of Kuldotha Red. Pro Tour San Diego winner Chris Lachmann also had a spicy deck that caught Bing off guard and that took him his full allotment of time to beat.
"Lachmann had a mono-white Emeria deck, which was a pretty tough matchup," Bing explained. "They have Swords as well and they have a lot more bodies. Pilgrim's Eye is surprisingly good. They have a lot more big plays at six and seven mana between Emeria and Sun Titans."
Bing's one loss on the day came in a mirror match, and he attributed it to sloppy play on his part and partially to his relative inexperience with playing live Magic.
"When you don't have all the information in front of you, you need to go and find the information," said the MTGO grinder, used to being able to see all the zones of the game at the same time. "I played a Mystic and I was flipping through my deck trying to figure out what I needed to get and decided I needed a Sword more than I needed Mortarpod. Then when I fanned open my hand again there was already a Sword there. I could have just flipped open my hand and seen that I had one—little leaks like that."
Of course, that works both ways. There are little edges you can get playing live Magic that are not there on Magic Online. Bing described a similar series of plays, but this time it was his opponent resolving Stoneforge Mystic.
"He was flipping through his deck, got a Sword of Feast and Famine and then just stopped and thought about it," related Bing. "I could tell that he wanted to get Mortarpod instead but was locked into picking the Sword. It told me a lot about his game plan and where he was in the match up. There is a little more information out there and I am still trying to figure out how to get all of it."
I asked him how all the bluffs and tells in live Magic compare to the online game where you certainly see people tap and untap mana to telegraph a card they are not holding or will feign weakness by quickly clicking through a turn.
"A lot of that is overrated," shrugged Bing. "You are going to get 90% of your information from the plays people make and the order that they make them in. Plus you don't get into the mind games if they are tapping mana to bluff something. I think in order to play at the highest levels [of live play] you need to be able to get as much information as you can from every means possible."
Bing illustrated with another tale from a mirror match in the late rounds of the event. He had one card in hand, Day of Judgment, and his opponent played Jace, the Mind Sculptor and immediately put it on the table and reached for a die to place loyalty counters on it. Bing told him to hold on for a second and briefly thought it over, noted two untapped mana on his opponent's side of the table, and then simply passed priority back with no play.
There was one close call along the way with one loss already under his belt. Unable to take a draw—virtually another loss at this stage of the tournament—Bing found himself in about the worst possible situation in Game 3 of the mirror. The situation was so dire that his friends who had been cheering him on walked away dejected before the match was over.
"I won on the last turn of extra turns—he played a Sun Titan that was basically in play for three turns. Everyone who was birding the match walked away. He also had a Gideon and an active Sword of Body and Mind that was hitting me and giving him Wolf tokens. I stabilized on two life after dealing with his Gideon with my Gideon and finding Day of Judgment and wrathing. I realized I had hit him for a couple of turns early and could hit him in the air for exactly lethal over the next two turns."
Bing was able to draw into the Top 8 in the last round and earn himself an invite to Nationals. Events later that evening could create some interesting questions for event organizers at Worlds should Bing Luke do well at Nats and make the team.
"I have to figure out if they would let me play in Team Worlds if I qualify since—last year at least—the team rounds were being played while the MOCS was being played. I know it is something that doesn't have a fixed schedule and they can fire whenever they want to, but it takes up a lot of time and Team Worlds takes up a lot of time. I guess that is an open question," grinned Bing, who has not quite locked up that National team berth yet but did wrap up another part of the equation later that evening.
"I went out and got real food—which is always a luxury coming out of an event—with Reid Duke, who was a fellow MOCS competitor last year, for a celebratory dinner," Bing explained of his evening plans for another tournament. "By that time it was 8:30 and by the time I got home it was 9:30 and the MOCS started at 10. My plan was to shut down for a couple of hours before I needed to start playing again—not as much time as I would have liked."
Not only was Bing qualified to play in the MOCS that evening but he had locked up the requisite 45 points to snag three byes for the event. Armed with a similar list to the one he had just used at the National Qualifier, Bing prepared by making some minor changes to adjust for what he expected would be even more mirror matches and a fair amount of Blue-Red Green.
"There was actually [an online] PTQ at 8:00," laughed Bing, as he revealed his original scheme to pull a Paul Rietzl that evening. "The plan was that if I got knocked out early [from the National Qualifier] to basically build a second copy of the deck. If you have two events running you need separate copies. I would have entered the PTQ and tried to double table, but luckily I didn't need to."
The plan to grab a quick nap before Round 4 did not work out since he was not feeling well.
"I wasn't sure if it was a bad burger or the fatigue of being shuffled around and not being able to control when or what I ate throughout the day," said Bing. "I wasn't actually able to get any rest but I drank lots of water and guzzled liter after liter and started watching the replays as they started firing."
With three byes in the bank, Bing only needed to play five rounds before the cut to Top 8. He played a handful of mirror matches and a pair of unexpected matches against Vampires (a deck that actually seems to have qualified a handful of people for Nats).
"It was kind of surprising because I hadn't seen any Vampires in a while. Aggro was getting beat down," said Bing. "Vampires seems pretty good. Another one of my MOCS competitors, Logan Nettles, is big on Vampires, and if you are good with it and know how many creatures you can afford to have on the board and how much pressure to apply when, you can put a lot of pressure on Caw Go and squeeze a lot of advantages out. I think it is in the same position it was in at Worlds where it was probably a slight underdog to Blue-Black but Eric Froehlich still made the Top 8 by virtue of his tight play over however many Standard rounds."
A deck he did not face off against was RUG, which came as something of a surprise for him. Another surprise was finding out that the event was only going to have eight Swiss rounds and not ten. With eight wins locked up Bing could have likely lost both of the remaining matches and still made Top 8. Staying awake would have been another challenge all together.
"I was worried that I was just going to fall asleep at my desk."
He managed to stay awake somehow and sweep through the Top 8 to earn himself a seat at the MOCS and another invite to Worlds to go with his earlier qualification for Nationals—not bad for a day's (and night's) work. Next up for Bing is trying to earn an invite for Pro Tour Philadelphia—something he hopes to accomplish during the Legacy Grand Prix in Providence, Rhode Island next month.
There was a lot of Caw-Blade on both sides of the table from around 10 a.m. Saturday to 7 a.m. Sunday. Vampires was one deck that Bing noticed as being interesting. Another was the Jonathan Sukenik's Grixis Tezzeret deck. Sukenik, who also qualified for Nationals, spent a lot of time playing at the top tables near Bing's matches, and Bing liked what he saw from the deck.
"It is a deck that he probably knows how to play very well," cautioned Bing to anyone just looking to pick the deck up and instantly do well. "It has a lot of innate power with all its planeswalkers. Koth is really good at fighting Caw decks. They can't kill it very easily—they can attack it for one a couple of times while you are hitting them for four. It is not really a match you can bring in Lifestaff for, so damage really matters. They have Bolt, Galvanic Blast, Slagstorm, and Koth's ultimate. There was one match that he was telling me about burning someone out from thirteen—Bolt, Bolt, untap and Slagstorm and Galvanic Blast you then Tezzeret's ultimate for four."
There may be a couple of different options in Standard, but Bing Luke is going to stick with the Hawks that keep bringing him additional cups of coffee until the metagame gets shaken up with the addition of New Phyrexia.