There is a long-standing tradition in the New York Magic community: one person wins, everyone wins through cake. It started—I believe—when Steve Sadin won a qualifier for Pro Tour Kobe. He had never been to Japan before and treated a large group of us, which included his opponent in the finals, to an ice cream cake from Baskin amp; Robbins that was around the corner from the late, lamented Neutral Ground. Everyone agreed that it was the best Pro Tour Qualifier victory that any of us could recall. You always feel good for your friends when they win but why not also get some cake in the bargain? A tradition was born and whenever someone wins a PTQ, online PTQ, Grand Prix, or earns a berth at a Nationals Qualifier they must buy cake. It can be ice cream cake, icebox cake, cupcakes, red velvet cake, or even red velvet cupcakes. The only thing that matters is that you share your victory with the friends who helped you prepare, loaned you cards, and cheered you on.
I am happy to report that I owe cake—for the first time since this tradition began—thanks to winning a slot at Nationals this past Saturday. It isn't only me, however, my fellow columnist, podcasting partner, and friend Michael J. Flores qualified at the same event, as did Top8Magic.com Mockvitational winner Christian Calcano. June has been declared Cake Month in New York, as we will be spending the next few weeks settling up a dessert debt. For those of you who follow me on Twitter @top8games, Matt Wang is finally going to put an end to the #WangOwesCake hashtag this Friday to kick off the month. As for my cake, I will likely be baking a chocolate malted cheesecake for the NY crew when I get back from San Juan, but there are a lot of people owed a slice of cake, so let me tell you the story of how I find myself in such pleasant debt.
I knew I was going to play in a Nationals Qualifier for some time, but could not decide on a deck that I wanted to play. Mike Flores had a couple of lists that he really liked, but the week before the event I was leaning toward a Mono Red deck that had made the Top 8 of a PTQ in Hartford that previous weekend. Everyone who watched the deck in action felt like it was the deck to play for Nationals Qualifiers, although none of them ended up playing it. Nightmare scenarios of planeswalkers and Baneslayer Angels benched the deck by Wednesday for everyone who was testing it on Monday. I was talking with Ben Hayes and we briefly toyed with the idea of putting an Island and four Negates in the sideboard but soon abandoned the deck in search of a new 75 cards.
I spent some time talking to Billy Moreno and we brainstormed an Enchantress deck that is very close to the list that Jacob Van Lunen wrote about this week for Building on a Budget. The idea was that you would have a layup against Jund with four Spreading Seas and Convincing Mirage—not to mention four Ardent Plea to cascade into them—to stymie their mana base, and that the card advantage of your Mesa Enchantresses and Sigil of the Empty Throne would be enough to keep up with the White-Blue Control decks and planeswalker builds. Even as I was testing the deck, I knew it was not something I was going to play if I was seriously trying to qualify. I don't get to play in events very often and I did not want to fall into the trap of playing a goofy deck at the last minute. If I was going to play a last minute deck I was sure I could find a good one to use. I turned to Facebook and Twitter and asked for serious deck suggestions.
I have almost all of my cards at my office in the vain hope that I will get them organized, I started panning through them to find the nuggets of whatever deck I might end up playing. I pulled out fetch lands, planeswalkers, notable mythic rares, and staple commons and uncommons that seemed likely to show up in a starting 75. As I prepared to head out for a date with my wife, I was leaning toward a hand destruction-based Vampires list that Ben Stark suggested, but was still game for anything good that showed up in my inbox. I left the cards on my desk and headed off for a showing of Iron Man 2. By the time I got home there was a message from none other than Gerry Thompson, advocating a Naya deck that had the Boss Naya Cunning Sparkmage / Basilisk Collar package from Pro Tour–San Diego in a build that was optimized for Vengevine. The deck ran 32 creatures, 2 pieces of Equipment, and 26 lands—that's right, it was a mono-permanent deck. Not only did the list look good, it came with a comprehensive sideboarding guide—ideal for when picking up a deck at the last minute.
I even had most of the cards waiting for me on my desk—including four copies of the hard-to-find Vengevine—and was excited about playing the deck. I headed into the city early and went straight to my office to grab the necessary parts to build my monster house. I hit a small snag though as my keys did not seem to be working. Matt and I sublet space for the Top8Magic offices from another company—one that keeps more traditional business hours than we do—and I had forgotten that they had changed the locks on the outer doors after some personnel turnover. Since the change, the doors had never been locked by the time I got to the office and I had never thought to get myself copies of the new keys. I sent a text to Zvi Mowshowitz, who lives just a couple of blocks away, to see if he was up and in a mood to lend me some cards. Surprisingly, he was up early on a Saturday—especially for a gamer not playing in an event that day—and not surprisingly welcomed me to pillage through his stacks of cards for whatever I needed. I managed to find four Vengevines, most of the lands, some random commons, and Zvi's completely intact Mythic deck from Pro Tour–San Diego and headed off to the event site. Mark down one slice of cake for Zvi.
On my way to the site I sent text messages to Luis "Not-Vargas" Neiman, Matt Ferrando, and Ben Hayes, looking for the remaining cards. Between the three of them I was able to build the deck within three Vapor Snares and two Oblivion Rings, which were readily available at the dealer tables—a slice of cake for each of them. In less than an hour I had gone from 0 to 75 cards, but I had spent all my time assembling the deck and barely had shuffled up for a practice game by the time round one pairings were posted. It was announced that there were 128 players signed up and we would be playing seven rounds. After seven rounds the Top 8 players would win invitations to Nationals and that the winner of the plaque would be the player with the best record and tiebreakers after the seven Swiss rounds. 128 players is the absolute upper limit of how many players can be in a seven round tournament. Even one player signing up would have pushed the event to 8 rounds and meant that players with 6-1-1 records—and possibly even a 6-2 player or two—could make the Top 8. At seven rounds it was highly unlikely that players with one loss could draw in the final round. Players needed to go either 5-0-2 or 6-1 to make the cut.
Matt is the Top8Magic intern and recently qualified for his first Pro Tour and is heading to San Juan. I knew he was playing a similar Naya list—call it the 65 card mirror—but was not running the Sparkmage package in the main deck and also had both Elspeth and Gideon in his sideboard. We were trading blows in Game 1, I had a quick Vengevine followed by Bloodbraid Elf and Knight of the Reliquary but he had Dauntless Escort suited up with Behemoth Sledge. The game was very close but in the end he was able to absorb all my attackers with his Hierarchs, Bird, and Lotus Cobra and save everyone with his Escort. While Gerry had provided a sideboarding guide he did not account for the mirror match. I knew that Matt was going to bring in his Sparkmage package as well as his planeswalkers. I brought in Oblivion Rings and Pithing Needles and took out my Sparkmage package to make the room for them. My thinking was that I could Needle the Sparkmage—as well as the planeswalkers—without having to worry about shutting mine off. I managed to stabilize the board with my sideboard plan but Matt eventually took the game over with Dragonmaster Outcast—which he slotted where I had Scute Mob—spitting out an inexorable stream of dragons to knock me into the single elimination bracket.
I barely saw any of Alexander's deck in Game 1 other than Ponder and See Beyond but I was pretty sure he was playing a Polymorph list similar to the one Kenji talked about qualifying with in a recent column. I don't remember exactly what cards I took out in this match but I brought in Oblivion Rings to remove Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and Pithing Needles and one copy of Path to Exile to try to interfere with his Polymorphs. We had an epic second game, which involved me playing out a Sparkmage to negate his two Awakening Zones while he kept digging for cards with his Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I eventually suited up a Knight of the Reliquary with Behemoth Sledge and was able to get him down to 2 after he had bounced, countered, and eventually Needled my Sparkmages. He was able to Polymorph up an Emrakul but because of the trample from Sledge and the deathtouch from Basilisk Collar had to chump block my Knight with the Eldrazi.
With my Sparkmages handled, he had been able to amass spawn tokens and untapped to hard-cast another Emrakul. He took another turn and attacked me down to 26. I had to sacrifice 6 permanents and eventually was left with two Noble Hierarch, four lands (including a Raging Ravine), and a Bloodbraid Elf, while he had two spawn tokens on defense. I drew for my turn and found Path to Exile waiting for me. I had exactly enough mana to activate the Ravine and Path one of the tokens to force through the final points—if he had not been holding a Deprive to force Game 3. The game had gone very long and Alexander was skeptical that we would have enough time to finish Game 3. I had to keep a one land hand with two Noble Hierarchs, Knight of the Reliquary, two Cunning Sparkmage, Misty Rainforest, and one other card. Alex had Awakening Zone but I managed to get my Sparkmage online in pretty short order while attacking with my Knight. Alex kept looking at his hand and laughing and eventually he showed me why when he spent consecutive turns playing Polymorph on my Cunning Sparkmages—only to flip them into more Sparkmages—and I eventually won the game despite Alex drawing three copies of his deck's eponymous spell.
All I really remember about this round was Chris hitting me with Blightning on turn three, with him on the play. I had just played Noble Hierarch and discarded a land and Vengevine. On my turn I played Bloodbraid Elf into Stoneforge Mystic which fetched a Behemoth Sledge. It turns out that for Games 2 and 3 he sided out Blightnings out of respect for Vengevine. He took the second game but an exalted Vengevine did the bulk of the work in Game 3 and I was still alive after three rounds.
Davon is an old-time Neutral Ground regular who knows I appreciate a rogue deck. "You are going to love this jank," he laughed as we sat down to play. I was pretty impressed when he killed me with Kiln Fiend on turn four with the help of a Ponder and Distortion Strike on turn three. Staggershock closed out the game a turn later. I sided in Oblivion Rings, Path to Exile, and another Behemoth Sledge and took out some cards on the higher end of my mana curve. I got well-timed Paths in both of the remaining games to save myself at least 10 damage each time and to buy me the time to get a Behemoth Sledge online. The deck was definitely interesting and capable of winning out of nowhere. Rashad Miller, who was in town to hang out with some friends, was watching the match and began to fantasize about Kiln Fiend and Wee Dragonauts fighting side by side in Extended.
Thomas was a gregarious opponent who was there with a lot of friends,all of whom were sitting near the top tables. He clearly enjoyed the game and was a pleasure to play against. My deck put a lot of pressure on him early and he managed to fog for one turn but could not find an answer in time. I took out the Sparkmage package for Needles, Rings, and Pridemages. I promptly Ringed his Howling Mine in Game 2 and then Needled his Jace Beleren but he was able to Time Warp, Time Sieve, and Open the Vaults and I never got another turn that game. After the match he pointed out that if I had simply played the Needle naming Time Sieve he likely would have just scooped on the spot. Fortunately, I got Game 3 when he kept a shaky hand and I once again played Oblivion Ring on the Howling Mine he was looking forward to smoothing out his draw with.
I got destroyed in Game 1 by the combo. This is actually a pretty good matchup for the deck if I can get a collared Sparkmage online but he did not give me any time in Game 1 as he had a Lotus Cobra attacking for 14 on turn four. Game 2 was looking similarly grim when I found myself staring down a Knight of the Reliquary that dropped me from 18 to 4. I was holding Oblivion Ring and Vapor Snare and tried to figure out a way not to die on his next attack. In the end, my only chance was to have him either be playing just one copy of Eldrazi Conscription or to have drawn that second copy. I Ringed his Knight, played my own Knight—alongside a previously played Bloodbraid Elf—and hoped for the best. Chris attacked with Sovereigns and I asked him if he was going to search when exalted went on the stack. He shook his head no and I put my 7 power of blockers in the way of his 6/7 Sovereigns. He seemed confused and said, "He flies."
Like me, Chris had picked up his deck at the last minute and had assumed from the artwork that Sovereigns of Lost Alara had flying. I was tapped out and he assumed he did not need anything extra to finish me off. He played Baneslayer Angel after combat but I had Vapor Snare in hand and luckily turned the game around from the brink of elimination. Chris's heart was not in it for Game 3 and I suddenly found myself a round away from qualifying for U.S. Nationals—a tournament I have never had the good fortune to play in.
I asked Jason if he was planning on going to Nationals if he won and he said he was less than 50/50 to attend. Basically he said he would only go if he could drive there or take a bus. After we split the first two games of the match and he figured out that he was looking at roughly 20 hours of drive time—and my assurances that I intended to play if I won—he decided to concede to me. Suddenly I found myself owing people cake and joined in debt by Mike Flores and Chris Calcano.
I ended up in second place behind Nationals Qualifier champion Calcano and part of a large group of players in search of a dinner spot that could accommodate 25 people on a Saturday evening. We ended up going to Shake Shack for some outdoor dining and after tournament drafts. It was a surreal experience since I don't play in many tournaments these days beyond the occasional FNM and Prerelease flight. The last thing I qualified for was Pro Tour–Boston, again with Mike Flores—although that time as a teammate—which was the event that kicked off my coverage career.
Thanks to everyone for their support and suggestions, but especially to Gerry Thompson for the deck list and great sideboard; Luis Neiman, Matt Ferrando, Ben Hayes, and Zvi Mowshowitz for the cards; and Alex West, Rashad Miller, and Lauren Lee for the sidelines cheers. Rest assured everyone ... there will be cake!