Last weekend was host to the Star City Games Invitational held in the jewel of southwestern Virginia, Roanoke. The city of Roanoke, not to be confused with the lost colonies of Roanoke, is also known as "The Star City" which is where Star City Games gets its name. Up in the mountains surrounding the city is a large construct of a star. It is possible to drive up to this star and see the entirety of the city of Professor Roan-Oak beneath its spread. It is a magnificent and beautiful sight to behold. It is truly a shining beacon of hope and light in an otherwise dim world. Roanoke is a gorgeous town, home to many thousands of people, all of them delightful. Perhaps most famously, Roanoke is the city where the world-renowned Berglund Center is located.
The monolithic Berglund Center is what some might call a feat of modern day architectural prowess. Two-to-three stories of plainly adorned dull grey stone make up this masterpiece of civil engineering. I have heard whispers from shadowy figures refer to it as the ninth wonder of the world, but nobody is bold enough to speak about it openly. Only cloaked figures in hushed tones are confident enough to make such declarations.
If I had only one complaint to level at the Berglund Center it would be that the air conditioning was barely functional, which meant that myself and the hundreds of other competitors in the event were sweating the entire time, and for a solid period of time the water had been cut off to the building causing the bathrooms to be out of order. Also, they aggressively checked your bags at the door to ensure that you weren't bringing in any outside food or drink, forcing you to have to pay marked up prices to buy those items at their concession stand. Alright, so maybe the Berglund Center wasn't all it cracked up to be, but that's okay. I wasn't there for the sights and sounds of the Berg, I was there for the tournament.
The Invitational is a multi-format event, featuring eight rounds of Standard interspersed with eight rounds of Modern, assuming that one is successful enough to make it to the second day of competition.
In Modern, I had elected to bring Grixis Death's Shadow. Two weekends ago, I lost back-to-back win-and-ins for Top 8 of Grand Prix Las Vegas in heartbreaking fashion with the deck, and I felt really comfortable piloting it. However, I also felt like Grixis had gotten much worse in the format as a whole as decks were really starting to adapt to beat it, and it was clear that Grixis Death's Shadow was definitely a deck that could be successfully hated, unlike some broken Modern strategies of the past.
It's possible that I would have switched Modern decks to something with less of a target on its back had I more time to test, but in the absence of time, I defaulted to playing a strategy I was comfortable with. I only had a day or two of testing available and I decided to dedicate that time to testing Standard, a format that I had not touched a single time since the banning of Aetherworks Marvel.
Brad Nelson was really big on Temur Energy as a strategy, but I simply was not winning much with the deck on Magic Online and I didn't feel like it was very good. I also tested some with Black-Green Energy but was also not winning much with that deck, although I felt like much of that was my own fault. With Energy, early turn sequencing is of utmost importance and I could tell that I was doing it wrong and that was costing me some games.
Eventually I realized that I kept losing with Temur Energy to Mono-Black Zombies, even with access to Radiant Flames and Chandra, Flamecaller. I ended up deciding to test some with Zombies myself and very quickly decided that it was the deck I would be playing in the Invitational.
I felt pretty comfortable with Zombies. I thought that people would be relying on Zombie hate cards to beat the deck without realizing that it takes both hate cards plus a cohesive strategy to beat Zombies, as many of the creatures in the deck are very resilient to removal. Simply putting Radiant Flames or Sweltering Suns in your deck isn't a good enough plan without the supporting cast.
On the first day of the Invitational, I ended up going 2-2 in Modern with Death's Shadow, meaning I would need a resulting 3-1 Standard performance to give me the 5-3 necessary to make Day Two. I felt pretty confident that I could get there by cracking open a cold one with the zomboys, and after a 2-1 start, I never felt more confident than I did when I saw my last round pairing of the day.
At 4-3, I would only need to defeat the skilled and legendary wizard named Shaheen Soorani to advance to the coveted second day of competition. Shaheen is notorious for skewing his decks way more than what is necessary to beat whatever the most mindless aggressive deck in the format is, and well, Zombies have no brains, so it was no surprise that Zombies was the deck Shaheen had geared up against with his patented Blue-Black Control strategy. He had a deck packing lots of cheap removal spells alongside Liliana, the Last Hope and Yahenni's Expertise, coupled with a sideboard plan of Flaying Tendrils and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet.
Unfortunately for Shaheen, things were gonna Ghet hairy really fast. I know Shaheen really well and all the Standard tricks he likes to bring to the party, so I was prepared for an excessive amount of Zombies hate. I left in Grasp of Darkness to kill his Kalitas and even sideboarded in my own Kalitas to get around Shaheeni's Expertise and Flaying Tendrils.
We played two long, difficult games, where I demonstrated my advanced skills in strategy to Outwit, outsmart, and outlast Shaheen, proving once and for all who the superior mage is.
Okay, fine. Shaheen got mana screwed in game one and then flooded in game two. I got pretty lucky, but let's make it a point to never tell Shaheen I said that. Shaheen is a very talented player, but we can't let his ego get too big.
With this "all-too-easy" victory over Shaheen notched in the books I had managed to advance to the second day of the Invitational where I was hoping to somehow successfully get out of the Modern portion unscathed with Death's Shadow so I could go back to playing Standard, the format I felt comfortable with.
It was not to be. I lost back-to-back matches to start Day Two and quickly found myself at 5-5. Knowing that I would need to win the last six rounds straight to even cash, I did what any degenerate grinder would do. I dropped from the Invitational so I could join the SCG Open late. The Open was already going on so I would have to start the event with a first-round loss already in the books. Starting a tournament 0-1? No problem. I was probably going to lose that round anyway!
I love a good "odds stacked against me" gamble. Unfortunately, I was short on time, so I was forced to just register the same Death's Shadow deck from the Invitational again in the Open, even though I desperately wanted to play a different deck, or at the very least, change up the cards within my deck. Despite being locked into my same mediocre list of Grixis Death's Shadow, I actually managed to rattle off four straight wins to start the tournament at a 4-1 record, but the wheels fell off after that point and I ended up finishing 5-4 and dead for the second day.
At this point, I could either just take my ball and go home and accept a mediocre result for the weekend, or I could be a glutton for punishment and come back one last time to the famed Berglund Center to battle in an SCG Classic event on Sunday. Initially, I was actually really excited to play in the Legacy Classic, especially since I was going to borrow Jarvis Yu's lucky Lands deck that he's had so much success with at the Grand Prix level.
That excitement lasted for about the five minutes it took for someone to inform me that there simply wasn't a Legacy Classic being offered and my options were Standard or to hit me baby one more time with my third Modern tournament of the weekend. What a shame. No Legacy Classic? What kinds of monsters are these people?
I have not been doing well in Standard recently, and it has been growing discouraging. Some of it is clearly my own fault. While I can't pinpoint exactly what it is, I certainly have to be making mistakes in some capacity. One rarely does poorly for an extended period of time while playing great Magic the whole time. It can be tough to know what mistakes you're making, but it is naive to assume that you're playing well and just always getting unlucky. I don't know how I'm messing up, but I do know that it has to be happening.
In addition to what has to be my own mistakes, some of it is also the extreme variance of the last years' worth of Standard. Decks like Mardu Vehicles and Aetherworks Marvel are extremely high-variance decks. Sometimes you have Toolcraft Exemplar into Heart of Kiran, and sometimes your deck is cracking a clue on turn two and playing a tapped land and saying go on turn three. Sometimes you're casting Ulamog on turn four and sometimes you're hoping to stay alive so you can hardcast one of the three Ulamogs in your hand by turn 12. I have not consistently been hitting the top end draws of whichever of these decks I'm piloting, and it becomes really hard to win when you can't find Aetherworks Marvel or don't draw Gideon.
I've been doing fairly well at non-Standard events over the last year. I have a Grand Prix Top 8 in Legacy, Modern, and Limited, and almost got another Modern Top 8 at GP Vegas a few weeks ago. I've almost Top 8'd 50% of the non-Standard GPs I've played this year, which is a pretty insane rate. I'm having a great season if we ignore Standard. But Standard has been so bleak that it drags everything down. My best Standard finish GP finish over the last year is 9-6, which, when you subtract byes, is a 50% win rate. And that's my best tournament.
It's been such an up and down year that I'm really having a hard time making sense of it. If we just look at Modern, Legacy, and Limited, I'm actually having a great year and playing really good Magic. If we focus on Standard, I'm having the worst year I've ever had and playing really poor Magic. Add into the mix the stress that if I don't put up a good performance soon, I won't have enough points to re-qualify for Worlds, and it's been a year of frustration and confusion.
So when it came time to drive into the nationally recognized Berglund Center one more time for the weekend, a large part of me wanted to just stay home and skip the event, rather than subject myself to one more event of potential frustration. I had already bombed out of both other events this weekend, and if history is to be believed, I was unlikely to do well in a Standard event. It would have been easier to just sleep in and spend my day watching TV instead of grinding away in a tournament hall.
What drove me to play actually came from a fairly unlikely source. That source was the enjoyment I got out of playing Mono-Black Zombies, of all decks. It came as a big surprise, but I actually really like playing the deck, and I also found out that I was pretty good at it. I was winning a lot with it on Magic Online, and I had come to the conclusion that I was approaching matchups and sideboarding way differently than other people did, and I felt that knowing how to board in various matchups was a big edge that others didn't necessarily have with the deck.
The major key is that there are no sacred cows in Zombies. There are multiple matchups where I side out Relentless Dead. There are matchups where I side out Lord of the Accursed. There are matchups where I side out Metallic Mimic (Alright, fine, that's almost every matchup). In certain matchups, you have to play in weird ways. You turn into a control deck against the white Monument decks. Use Liliana to keep their tokens under control and never expose your creatures to Dusk // Dawn unless you are killing them that turn or absolutely have to. That means side out Metallic Mimics and don't cast Lord of the Accursed right away. The matchup is actually quite favorable if you know how to pilot it properly.
I ended up deciding to play the Standard Classic. I registered Zombies again.
The night before, I tweeted out the following:
This was mostly meant as a joke, but as with many of my jokes, it was still laced with some amount of sincerity. I could really use a good finish to give me some of my confidence back for Standard.
I ended up losing round one.
Weirdly enough, I had this huge sense of confidence about the event and felt pretty sure that I was going to make Top 8. Even a first-round loss didn't really shake that. Sometimes you just know you're going to do well.
I ended up battling back from the loss and made Top 8. I ended up losing in the semifinals to Jadine Klomparens, who won the event with a Black-Green Constrictor strategy. Contrary to popular belief, I think Constrictor is actually the worst matchup for Zombies. They have Yahenni's Expertise, Walking Ballista to pick off early creatures, and an aggressive game-plan that can be faster and also grow bigger than what Zombies can do.
Ultimately, however, as I didn't win the tournament, I was forced to quit Magic as per my earlier tweet. I take my declarations very seriously. Unfortunately for all of you, my retirement was short-lived. After spending weeks in the wilderness contemplating life and existence, I came to a sudden realization. I needed Magic back in my life. So I'm back, baby, and ready to play Magic again! You thought you could get rid of me that easily? No way. I've unretired now, suckersssssss.
With newly renewed vigor, I'll be playing this game for a long time to come. I'm energized for Magic again. I won't retire until I'm well past my prime, deep into my 40s, a washed-up, haggard, old man trying to figure out how I threw away another game I had in the bag. It'll be a long time until I quit this game.
Well, that is, unless I don't reach my goal of exactly Top 16 or better at the next Pro Tour.
- Brian Braun-Duin