Starting at the Finnish Line

Posted in The Week That Was on July 23, 2010

By Brian David-Marshall

Nationals season is rumbling into top gear this weekend as the Canadian, French, and Australian Championships will be covered here this weekend as they happen. Everyone will be looking to the results of these events to glean information about the post-M11 Standard metagame. It is likely, though, that this weekend's competitors will be looking to the less-heralded Finnish National Championships that occurred this past weekend—and the first Nationals to incorporate M11 into the Standard card pool.

Finland is a country that is no slouch when it comes to producing Pro Tour-caliber players. Hall of Famer Tommi Hovi headlines a cast that includes Pro Tour–New Orleans finalist Tomi Walamies, and former World Champion Antti Malin. As far back as 1996, the Finnish National Championships has warped metagames in its wake when Tommi Hovi took the first steps of his Hall of Fame journey by introducing the world to Stasis-Lock.

Jani Lindroos, the winner of this year's Finnish Nationals, did not feature much in the way of innovation—unless you count not playing the suddenly ubiquitous Mana Leak—with his white-blue control deck, but it was not for the lack of trying. Jani actually wanted to play the deck that placed 8th in the tournament but his team could not cobble enough copies of that deck in time. He lost the coin flip ... and won the tournament.

Jani Lindroos's White-Blue Control

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The 26-year-old student is also the owner of a game store in Pasila, Finland, along with co-owner Antti Malin, called Caribou Magic. He has been playing the game since Ice Age was released in his hometown.

"Back then we had a nice community of players in my hometown, Porvoo," recalled the freshly crowned Champion. "Some active people held unsanctioned events—thanks Aarne!—and after that we started attending sanctioned tournaments held in nearby cities. I also won my second Pro Tour Qualifier, which got me hooked on competitive play."

As a 16-year old headed for the Pro Tour, Jani did not know any of the Pros from his country but was pleased that they welcomed him to their club once he got there.

"It was impressive to see players like Tommi Hovi and Tomi Walamies playing at the top of their game," he said of watching Finland's finest in action. "They, among other Finns, were really polite and helpful towards me even though they didn't know me back then. Overall it was more the people than their accomplishments that inspired me."

With a stake in a game store, Jani has plenty of opportunities to play Magic, from FNM and daily Drafts to more casual formats like Cube Draft and Singleton. With Nationals approaching he found himself within striking distance of qualifying for the next Pro Tour after finishing tiebreakers away from the money in San Juan.

"My goal was to go 5-0 then drop and qualify for Pro Tour–Amsterdam. After losing my first round I had to play it through to get enough rating," laughed Jani, who had about as good a tournament as you can when you consider how many things did not work out the way he planned. "I would have liked to play the Megrim deck that my teammates and business partner—Antti Malin—designed and which took Hannu Vallin to the Top 8. For some reason, we didn't have enough copies of that deck and after a coin flip I was forced to play white-blue. It was so cool to see people resolve Pelakka Wurm against that deck and still lose."

Hannu Vallin's Megrim Deck

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After starting the tournament out with a 1-2 record in Standard, Jani rattled off six straight wins in Limited. He drafted black control decks with a smattering of blue cards each time. In his first draft he took Doom Blade out of an otherwise bombless pack and in the second draft he took Corrupt from a pack that was unspectacular.

"I didn't exactly win the 'open the nuts' prize," said Jani before adding: "Although I got passed Mind Control both drafts ..."

When asked if there were any key plays en route to making the Top 8, Jani looked to a narrow escape after making a judgment call during the second round of Limited play. He and his opponent were in the second game of a match after a long Game 1. Both players had almost complete knowledge of the other players deck and they knew they were both in top-deck mode. Jani was waiting for a Corrupt to float to the top while sitting on Flashfreeze and Assassinate in his hand and his opponent needed a Fling or Act of Treason to end the game.

"During combat, my opponent wanted to use Lightning Bolt to kill one of my bears after I double blocked a Canyon Minotaur with them," Jani explained. "Since the Canyon Minotaur was his only relevant creature I decided to counter the Bolt and kill the Minotaur in combat. However, my 2/2 creatures were irrelevant and I should have just let them die, Assassinate the Minotaur during my turn and continue the top deck-race while I would still be holding a counter for most of his 'I win' cards. I got lucky and drew the card I needed before he drew his."

Jani recounted the gauntlet he faced in the Top 8:

"First I faced Time Sieve, which was not a good match-up for me. I got easily beaten during the first two games. After those games my opponent got really unlucky. He had problems with mana during all of the last three games. My draws were also pretty nice. In the last game I made a huge mistake by countering the wrong spell and my opponent got to take extra turns. Luck was not on his side and after playing like five turns in a row he had to pass the turn back while facing lethal damage."

Sami Tuomi's Open the Vaults

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"My second match-up was against White-Blue Control. I think that this match-up is all about sticking a Jace or Luminarch Ascension. I was pretty happy to have a very good sideboard for this match-up."

Max Lehtinen's White-Blue Control

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"In the Finals I was facing a really nice build of Esper Control featuring Grave Titans. He had some discard spells and Esper Charm, which is really strong. It also helps against Oblivion Ring and Luminarch Ascension. I had Spreading Seas for his creature-lands and I was also running three Tectonic Edges. Overall I think that in this match-up Esper Control should be the favorite."

Erkki Siira's Esper Titan

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Joining Jani and Erkki on the National team will be Kalle Sundberg who played Turboland.

Kalle Sundberg's Turboland

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"I'm lucky to be a co-owner of Caribou Magic and I am very excited because we will have a good opportunity to do some serious testing at our store," said Jani, who was looking forward to his first World Championships as a competitor.

"I've travelled with my friends to attend Worlds both in New York and Rome, even when I was not qualified," said the team captain. "It certainly is an honor to play against the best players in the world. Being on the National team is something I have dreamed of ever since I qualified for my first Pro Tour with Blue Skies, since it certainly is something very special to represent your home country, even though I'm not all that patriotic. I suppose since Finland is a very small country, it feels more like representing the whole scene back at home."

    Looking Ahead to Canadian Nationals: Five Questions with Lucas Siow

Lucas Siow is a formidable player who has bounced around North America for the past few years. After starting out as a member of the flourishing Magic scene in California he moved to the East Coast after graduating from school. He now finds himself living in Canada and preparing for North America's northernmost Nationals. Lucas is a player who has been found playing deep into Day Two of multiple Pro Tours and posted one of the best Constructed seasons on the Tour in 2009.

Question 1: What is the impact of M11 on the Standard format and what cards do you expect to see play deep into Day Two?

Lucas:Fauna Shaman: Naya has gotten a lot of new toys. Fauna Shaman is an amazing new threat versus removal light Ramp decks (Realm Razer) and white-blue. They want to save Paths for Vengevine and Pathing it on turn two is really bad anyway. Naya also gets to Obstinate Baloth Jund if they want dedicated hate.

Primeval Titan: The real deal. I think its less exciting in a Turboland Shell, but will still see play there. In Destructive Force/Valakut decks this card really shines. The fact that you get value even when they kill it makes it so strong. It can also play lots of roles such as offense—Valakut, defense—Khalni Garden / Tectonic Edge, and card selection—Halimar Depths/Fetch lands.

Cultivate: Just a super-solid role player. Whenever you mulligan there is no card you would rather have. It also basically guarantees getting to your Titans/Baneslayers if you draw three lands, making those strategies more viable and consistent.

Mana Leak: It slots most comfortably into white-blue variants, but those decks are kind of weak to all the ramp strategies floating around. It does give white-blue even more early plays—always welcome in control decks—and is a versatile enough answer that I expect it to be hanging out near the top tables.

Question 2: Any insight into which other Canadian players might be threats to make the National team?

Lucas: I don't have much experience—and I have a pretty heavy Toronto bias—with the Canadian Magic players but here are four people who I would watch:

Vincent Thibault just won an Amsterdam PTQ in Montreal and is one of the founders of the awesome We actually brewed some very similar decks for Nats this year. He is one of the few non-Ontario players on my radar.

Marc Anderson. I have been testing Standard and Draft with him for this year's Nationals. He seems well prepared.

Nassim Ketita is another local PTQ winner. I know he is a perennial contender on the PTQ circuit from the Toronto area despite no personal experience with him.

Samuel Tharmaratnam is just one of those guys with "The Hunger." Every season he is grinding—going to every possible PTQ and large cash tournament he can make. Reminds me of the group I started playing with in California, and in the last couple of years six or seven of us have made a Pro Tour.

Question 3: How much M11 Limited have you played? How do you think it stacks up against previous core set Limited formats and what is the key, in general, when drafting core sets?

Lucas: We have done four practice drafts for Nats and I did two or three during the Prerelease. I think this format is very similar to M10. The key for core sets is to have bombs or be aggressive. If you can't open bombs make sure to have a focused deck that can win quickly. Which leads me to a new M11 archetype which I have been having a lot of success with—and hopefully spoiling it won't be too big a deal. The key is that for the first time since I have been playing Magic we have a common Threaten effect in Act of Treason.

So we are first picking those. Then, we get to utilize a lot cards that other people might not want—like Bloodthrone Vampire, Viscera Seer, and Fling. Once you have established your sacrifice outlets you round it out with the synergistic cards like Reassembling Skeleton, Arc Runner, and Warlord's Axe. Of course, since we are in a black-red aggressive deck hopefully you have the solid removal like Doom Blade, Lightning Bolt, and Fireball.

Question 4: Have you been looking over the deck lists that have done well this past weekend? Which decks seem intriguing to you?

Lucas: I have been keeping as up to date as possible. The recent Japanese Pro Tour Qualifier Top 8 had something like twenty copies of Primeval Titan, which blows my mind. I had been working on a Naya Destructive Force shell, but I really like its inclusion of the Valakut combo. It's the perfect threat since, no matter what, you are advancing your plan, but you are also just killing them if it lives for even a turn.

The most intriguing themes of last weekend for me were:
1) The disappearance of Red Deck Wins.
2) Similarly; where's the Jund?

Question 5: Following up on that last part, I noticed that your Facebook status said, "Smells like the perfect Time for Jund". What makes you say that?

Lucas: Here are the Cliff's Notes:

People don't expect it. When I was doing practice drafts for Nats, people seem genuinely surprised that I suggested Jund would be 15-20% of the field. Its not making Top 8, so people already discount it—just like they wanted to after Worldwake and Rise of the Eldrazi were released. And make no mistake, Jund is good enough that you need to be prepared if you want to beat it.

People are testing against bad versions of it. Playing Naya or Mythic against the no Blightning/Lightning Bolt versions of Jund would convince anyone it's dead. Even testing against a version without Blightning gives you completely skewed results. Bloodbraid into Blightning is just as good today as it was two weeks ago. Testing against poorly built versions of the deck make people underestimate, and sometimes prepare incorrectly for it. Part of the issue is that every internet author is telling you to do something different. Gavin Verhey, Manuel Bucher, Gerry Thompson, and Craig Wescoe have all written about Jund in the last seven days—but all four were writing about very different decks.

People don't update. Owen Turtenwald / Tommy Ashton's Jund was the dominating deck towards the end of the M10 Pro Tour Qualifier season. But you can't just stand still. There are all these new ramp decks and the new Fauna Shaman deck, which require you reinvent a bit. But people don't like playing Jund, generally, so rather than try to evolve it, they try to brew new decks. This is often the case. But people underestimate how good it can be if you just work on perfecting a known quantity—see Zoo a couple of years ago in the hands of Tomoharu Saito.

Jund has all the tools. You show me seventy-five cards that I need to beat and I can build a Jund deck that goes 50/50 against the field, but will crush you. Which means if you have the right metagame reads you can easily gain an edge with a good build of Jund. I know that my Jund sideboard these days has cards that I haven't had in the board since October. Hopefully they are as good as I believe they will be against this weekend's format.

White-blue will not be at the top tables. I expect a lot of ramp-based strategies, which white-blue variants tend to have problems with historically. So, while I have skimped a lot on that match-up, I am not worried. Which means the only other match-up that might be unfavorable is Red Deck Wins but that also seems to have disappeared.

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