Feeling the Grind

Posted in The Week That Was on August 1, 2008

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on DailyMTG.com, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

I have had the good fortune to experience Magic in many forms in my almost 15 years' involvement with the game. I have won a PTQ, organized some pretty big tournaments, won a smattering of money on the Pro Tour and Grand Prix level, owned a well-regarded gaming store, and forged life-long friendships while playing the game.

I recently realized that there was a glaring hole in my play experience. In all my years of spell slinging, I have never played at U.S. National Championships. With Regionals well behind us, that would not change unless I ground my way into Nationals on Thursday.

The Meat Grinders—think of them as gruesomely named Last-Chance Qualifiers—are a huge part of the Nationals experience and I convinced my editor to let me play (while I would normally be doing a preview column). Grinders are being handled a little differently this year. Rather than fill up a small schedule of large tournaments, there are 32-person single- elimination Sealed Deck and Standard events firing off as they fill up.

I arrived before the announced 10 a.m. start time to get a jump on the Sealed events. It turned out the TO had started taking sign-ups early and there was already a long line. Fortunately the line was mostly Standard players and they filled up three Constructed events by the time I signed up as the 30th player in the first Limited event. Reports of the demise of the Standard format are greatly exaggerated.

While I was waiting for the last couple of 40-card hopefuls to sign up I heard a familiar voice call my name from the throng of players waiting for my grinder to start. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust—he was a little grayer and thankfully sans his trademark shorts from that long-ago Sideboard cover —but it was former U.S. National Champion Dennis Bentley.

Former U.S. National Champion Dennis Bentley was trying his luck in Thursday's grinders.

Although he had not played Magic in nearly five years, Dennis recently got the bug to play again. He got in a few FNM drafts, picked up a few cards—some of them for winning his local tournaments—and decided to give Nationals another try. It would be nice if there was a legacy invite for past champions but Dennis was going to have to earn his invite if there was any hope of another Championship turn by the Rochester, N.Y. native.

After registering the contents of another player's deck, my grinder got down to the business of building our first sealed pool. As I looked at the name of the player who had registered my deck I realized that this tournament was going to be hard fought. There was already one former National Champion playing in this event and here I was looking at a card pool that was recorded by none other than Dustin Stern. Dustin was a member of that fabled Pro Tour–Chicago Top 8 that is considered to be one of the finest collections of Magic talent on one Sunday stage.

I utilized the method of deck sorting that Steve Sadin outlined in this week's Limited Information and it was remarkably easy to manage as a consequence. If you have trouble remembering how to do it, you can just look at the deck registration sheet and arrange the cards and hybrid colors in the same sequence they appear on the sheet; white over blue-white over black-white and so on. It also makes deck registration a remarkably crisp affair.

I ended up with three highly playable rares from my two Eventide packs thanks to a foil Deity of Scars to go along with Call the Skybreaker and the most alluring card from the two packs of Eventide, Hallowed Burial—basically a five-mana Wrath of God. I did not feel as though I could support the red or white cards and ended up building my deck around green and black cards for my ersatz Spiritmonger and Incremental Blight.

Brian David-Marshall

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I still don't know if the build was correct. I could have splashed red for some removal but I was worried about being able to play an early Deity with Mountains on the board and I decided to stick to two colors. I hoped it would be enough to get me through five rounds.

Sealed Grinder One, Round One: Douglas McKay

Douglas was a pleasant opponent from upstate New York who was here mostly to play in Legacy events. He came out of the gates quickly in our first game with a Tattermunge Maniac. The little bugger ate away half of my life total before I was able to stabilize the board and start swinging back for significantly larger chunks of life with a full-sized Deity and take the opening frame.

Douglas McKay was a dream killer for BDM.In the second game I kept what Steve Sadin likes to call a speculative hand—which basically means I should have mulliganed. I had a mix of spells and lands but it was dependant on me drawing some creatures to smooth it out along the way. Douglas came out fast again, this time with Pyre Charger, and by the time I could stabilize I the board he was prepared to destabilize it with Leech Bonder and Banishing Knack.

In the third game we had a slugfest, trading blows back and forth. I was pretty sure the game was mine, as I was on the play and we were trading similar amounts of damage. However, his Ember Gale meant I could not strategically block on the game's final turn.

Just like that I was out. It was a sour feeling but I did not have time to dwell on it. Grinders would only be running until the late afternoon and I would likely only have time for one more if I was going to make it into the main event on Friday.

I got entered into the fourth Sealed Grinder of the day, and as we filed into our seats I exchanged commiserating glances with several fallen comrades from that first event—including Dustin, who also took a first round exit.

This deck was a little tougher to build as it did not have the assortment of bombs that my last pool tantalized with, although I did have a Grim Poppet. I knew I would either be building the deck as a midrange blue deck that would take to the air with a pair of Merrow Levitators or as a green-black deck of ground pounders that hoped to win with Gift of the Deity. Here is what I ended up building (although I did add some lands to swap from one build to the other if needed):

Brian David-Marshall

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Sealed Grinder Four, Round One: Andrew Garmon

Andrew Garmon stared down BDM in the next grinder. In the first game Andrew was dominating the board with his Mistmeadow Witch, but I managed to survive an all-in attack with a suddenly untapped Levitator thanks to Consign to Dream. That allowed me to untap and deploy my Poppet and take the first game.

In the second game I mulliganed and Andrew's deck made short work of me as I stumbled to make plays while he had some sideboard anti-blue monsters show up. I decided to reach for my board to and made a 35-card swap leaving only the artifacts, the Scar, and Flame Javelin in the deck. I caught Andrew by surprise with the swap and my Rendclaw Trow with Gift of the Deity scooped up his whole team in one swoop.

I was 20 percent of the way there.

Sealed Grinder Four, Round Two: Brad Stryczek

Brad is an Iowa Magic player and grizzled PTQ veteran from the same battles that Bill Stark used to grind away in before taking an internship in Renton. Brad rolled over me in Game 1 despite his mulligan and I did not feel good about the way my deck was configured. Once again I swapped more than 30 cards to go to the green-black-splash white for Seedcradle Witch version. My deck curved out perfectly in this game with Hungry Spriggan doing the bulk of the heavy lifting.

In Game 3 Brad tried to hold back my creatures with a defensive Runes of the Deus on his Noggle Bridgebreaker, but my Seedcradle Witch showed up at just the right moment to make his blocks impossible.

Sealed Grinder Four, Round Three: Aaron Hauptmann

Aaron Hauptmann stood between BDM and a spot in the final four of the grinder.Aaron double-mulliganed in the first game and I did not get to see much of his deck as I got in with a motley crew of noggles and occasionally flying merrow. I considered making a sideboard switch again but decided that I would wait and see what happened in the second game. Aaron worked my hand over with a Cinderhaze Wretch as I clung desperately to a Prismwake Merrow that I was hoping would swing combat in my favor. Ultimately, Aaron sent my whole board back to hand with Banishing Knack. Sigh. That card is so good.

In Game 3 I went for "the package" again and felt like I was winning as my deck came crashing out of the gate with Hungry Spriggan and Boggart Ram-Gang into a much smaller board from Aaron. Aaron nudged his Scuttlemutt in the path of the Spriggan and then crushed my dreams with Cankerous Thirst—he killed the Ram-Gang and the Spriggan without losing anything on his board. It was a certifiable blowout and the handful of people who were watching to see if I could get there began to drift away.

That was it. My grinder dreams were over. Playing in the U.S. National Championships will have to wait until next year. Of course there is a weekend full of exciting Public Events for everyone who misses out on the main event, including Super Friday Night Magic, the Vintage Championship, a $3,000 Draft challenge, PTQs, Grand Prix Trials, and dozens of other events.

Perhaps I can sell my editor on doing embedded coverage from the public events this weekend...

Firestarter: What Story Are You Following This Weekend?

The action at U.S. Nationals / Magic Weekend kicks off Friday morning. But that's just the tip of the iceberg on the coverage scene this weekend. We also have Grand Prix–Kobe starting Saturday (that's Friday night on the east coast), plus the National Championships from France and Italy also on Saturday. Will the Japanese deckbuilders bring something new to the Block Constructed party in Kobe? What does Guillaume Wafo-Tapa have in store for Standard? Will either Paul Cheon or Luis Scott-Vargas raise the U.S. trophy again? With so many top players in action across four venues, what storyline are you most interested in following?

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