If You Can't Beat Them...

Posted in The Week That Was on June 17, 2011

By Brian David-Marshall


There's a lot happening at Magic Weekend. In case you missed it, here are a few highlights in text, audio, and video form!

Hanging out on the Sunday of Grand Prix Providence weekend, I spent time with a handful of players heading to Singapore for the Grand Prix there. Their collective plan was to play in the Grand Prix and then spend the rest of their time in Singapore finding whatever deck it was that would actually beat the Tempered Steel deck in Block Constructed for Pro Tour Nagoya. It was generally accepted by the group of Eastern-bound players—a group that included multiple Pro Tour champions and a Player of the Year—that they would not be playing Plains on the first turn of the Pro Tour.

Oft cited in the assumption that something would emerge to beat Tempered Steel was the metagame leading up to Pro Tour Yokohama back in 2007. White Weenie dominated the online tournament scene in the weeks leading up to the Time Spiral Block Constructed tournament. By the time the Pro Tour rolled around, Sulfur Elementals were everywhere and the Mystical Teachings-based control deck emerged on top of the field. The closest a White Weenie deck came to the finish line was in the hands of eventual World Champion Antti Malin, who finished in 50th place with the deck.

Fast forward to early on Thursday before the Pro Tour. A group of sullen-faced players led by Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa—one of the most rabidly anti-White Weenie players of all time—were resigned to playing Tempered Steel after it resisted their best efforts to break it for more than two weeks. Unless some miraculous new deck reared its head in the next few hours, there were going to be 180 reluctant Plains registered by the ChannelFireball squad.

"I need to find forty copies of this card," announced Brian Kibler, flashing me a Vulshok Refugee, several hours later. He and Brad Nelson had been in the proverbial tank for the whole day and had emerged with a Big Red deck that had a favorable Tempered Steel match-up and was going to dominate the red decks—which they correctly anticipated would be the second most played archetype—thanks to the main-deck Refugees... assuming that they did not need to resort to opening packs to find the balance of the forty.

From a coverage perspective it was an exciting development, but it was short-lived. In the end Kibler only needed to find eight copies, as it was just him and Brad Nelson playing the red deck while the remaining eight team members stuck with Tempered Steel by the time Round 1 got underway.

Five rounds later the decision to stick with the Tempered Steel was clearly justified as it had five different players sporting perfect records, including eventual Top 8 competitor Luis Scott-Vargas, who would actually not lose a single match with the deck. At the end of the Swiss rounds on Saturday the Japanese coverage team asked Scott-Vargas if would be willing to play an exhibition match against Shouta Yasooka to discover which deck—the single-colored weenie deck or the improbable four-color control deck—was the mightiest of the two.

Despite having a booster draft of "some" importance to wake up early and refreshed for, LSV generously agreed to destroy Yasooka in five quick minutes. It was brutal and efficient, with the leader of the ChannelFireball team landing a Tempered Steel on turn three of both games. The match left Yasooka with his head shaking and admitting there was almost no way his deck could win the match-up.

I had an interesting conversation with Yasooka about his concoction, which flew in the face of what everyone else had told me about the format. Many deck designers reverted to single color decks due to the lack of mana fixing, but Yasooka went all the way up to four colors. He took the argument in a different direction, claiming that it was easy to get multiple colors of mana but challenging to get multiples of the same color. It was easier, in his mind, to splash Beast Within than to add another double-blue spell to his deck or sideboard.

With the first leg of Block Constructed out of the way, it was time to draft. You can see threedifferentdraft viewers in the coverage, but perhaps the most significant draft of the tournament took place away from the watchful gaze of the all-seeing Draft Viewer. Fortunately, Limited Information columnist Steve Sadin was there to write about it. While many other players were looking at the New Phyrexia Draft format as a slow and grindy affair, two-time U.S. National team member Michael Jacob was employing a much different strategy.

"I think that Forced Worship is borderline unplayable, and Hexplate Golem is a joke," said Jacob in an interview with Sadin about his Suture Priest beatdown strategy. "People are playing decks that are filled with terribly inefficient spells and around 18-20 mana sources. Meanwhile, I'm playing the most efficient cards in the format and a reasonable number of mana sources."

It was an exciting new take on the format that caught a lot of people's attention. Another player advocating the strategy was Hall of Famer Raphael Levy, and the influence of the two players would go on to have an impact on the Top 8 draft—just look at Tsuyoshi Fujita's first-pick Suture Priest over the objectively more powerful Glissa's Scorn.

Fujita had already been drafting aggressive decks and went 6-0 during the Swiss rounds—one of only six players to do so—despite not having a ton of experience with the new Limited format, and was the only Top 8 competitor to sweep the draft rounds.

As we moved into Day Two there were a handful of new faces that stood out among the familiar denizens of Day Two. We have spent a lot of time in the last decade talking about Magic Online's influence on the Pro Tour, but Carrie Oliver is the first player to prompt a similar article about Duels of the Planeswalkers for the Xbox in coverage.

The British Magic player was introduced to the game via Duels when her roommate bought it for the Xbox. She was instantly hooked and soon found herself playing at the Worldwake Prerelease for her first live card-gaming experience—in fact, she had no idea there even were physical cards, much less Prereleases for them. From there she found herself playing all the time and was soon winning an Extended Pro Tour Qualifier for Nagoya. Just getting to the Pro Tour from Duels of the Planeswalkers would be a story in and of itself, but the fact that Carrie finished her first ever Pro Tour in 32nd place means that the tale is far from over. Her finish assures her of an invite to Pro Tour Philadelphia.

Another player who stood out early was Germany's Fabian Thiele, who got to Nagoya off a 20th-place finish at Pro Tour Paris—his first ever Pro Tour. Thiele, who describes himself as a casual Magic player and competitive chess player, earned a Top 8 berth in his second Pro Tour effort and leads the Rookie of the Year race without even playing in a single Grand Prix so far this year. Thiele played with good humor and sportsmanship throughout the event, and it was hard not to root for him. In the penultimate round of the event, and playing for a Top 8 berth, Thiele kicked off Game 2 against Hall of Famer Rob Dougherty with a sincere "Have fun!" After getting eliminated in the semifinals of the Top 8, Thiele decided he wanted a keepsake from the event and got his fellow competitors to sign an Elspeth Tirel he had picked in pack 3.

Still another standout was Italy's Francesco Cipolleschi, who went 6-0 in draft and was performing well with his black-red Karn Control deck in the Constructed portion of the event. With two rounds left in the event, he and Tsuyoshi Fujita were the only players remaining with 36 points at 12-2. In theory they should have been able to shake hands and lock up a Top 8 berth, win, lose, or tie in the final round. As it turned out they were both paired down and each lost in Round 15. That left seven players with 36 points, and a second pair-down for Cipolleschi meant that the Italian player could not draw his way in like the remaining six players with similar records. Bad news for Cipolleschi was good news for France's Elie Pichon who locked up a berth with his win over the Italian.

In the end, 36 points were enough for one player—the aforementioned Thiele—to make the Top 8, and Cipolleschi finished 9th. Other players on the outside looking in included Joel Larsson and Hall of Famer Raphael Levy. Levy dug himself an early hole with three losses on Day One and the fourth loss in Round 11. He won out down the stretch but could not defeat his tiebreakers. If you want to see a fun deck you should definitely check out his Two-Color Red deck that won six straight matches down the stretch with three main-deck, Mycosynth-powered Consecrated Sphinx giving his deck late-game finishing power.

For the Draft portion there were multiple players who seemed dead set on white, and with a ton of Porcelain Legionaries at the table it was easy to get the wrong read. In addition to Tsuyoshi Fujita, both Gaudenis Vidugiris and Elie Pichon were looking to draft an aggressive white deck, and none of the three of them played more than 16 lands in the Top 8. Gaudenis described his strategy as being red-white fliers, but described his deck as being red-white with the word "fliers" conspicuously absent. When I tried to talk to Fujita about his deck he waved me off like a pitcher with a catcher calling for a hanging slider over the middle of the plate.

It looked at that point like the draft was aligned perfectly for Luis Scott Vargas, who had gambled a little bit on infect knowing that it was the kind of gambit that could pay off with a 3-0 result—the only type you are looking for in the Top 8. When a Plague Stinger he passed in favor of an Oxidda Scrapmelter came back around to him it seemed like his gambit would pay off, but he ran afoul of Toshiyuki Kadooka's Treasure Mage into Thopter Assembly in three of the four games they played in the quarterfinals.

In fact, in the quarterfinals the three most experienced players all fell by the wayside, leaving 21-year-old David Sharfman as the last player standing with any prior success on the Pro Tour. Kadooka was a Japanese PTQ veteran playing deeper into the tournament than ever before, while Elie Pichon was playing in his first ever Pro Tour and Thiele his second. Sharfman first came to the attention of the coverage team a few years back when he excelled during the Constructed portions of U.S. Nationals but flailed during the Limited rounds. He has worked diligently on that aspect of his game, and he feels he is stronger at Limited than Constructed at this point in his career—as evidenced by his win earlier this season at GP Paris and now his win in Nagoya.

I asked him about his draft during deck construction. Like many other players he had been looking to white early on, but hr quickly abandoned it when he got a strong signal that blue was open.

"My draft was really interesting. I know for a fact that LSV and Pat like to draft blue decks," said Sharfman of Luis Scott-Vargas and Pat Cox, the players sitting on either side of him. "Pat passed me Ingester second pick, which threw me for a loop. I don't want to get caught between them drafting blue, but the card is so good I can't really pass it."

Sharfman had ended up with a smattering of white cards including Shrine of Loyal Legions and Porcelain Legionnaire, but neither card committed him to white. He left his options open and got paid off in the next two packs.

"In pack two I opened Flamefiend and it kind of worked out. I was passed Into the Core and Blisterstick Shaman after that. In pack three I got the rest of the red removal—Embersmith, Scrapmelter, Shatter, Turn to Slag. The only pick I regret is not taking a Flight Spellbomb because I did not realize how few artifacts I had for the Embersmith and Flamefiend. I ended up playing an off-color Replica to make them worthwhile."

Earlier I mentioned the White Weenie decks leading up to Pro Tour Yokohama. One of the players who "solved" that format was Mark Herberholz, who brewed up a Teachings deck that got him to the Top 8 of that event. For this past weekend Herberholz had another brew in store, and came up with an alternative White Weenie strategy that got both Pat Cox and tournament winner David Sharfman to the draft table on Sunday—proving that even when you kind of join them, you can still beat them.

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