Clear indicators of structural flaws – PTQ Honolulu 2009

I just watched Gab Nassif’s spectacular topdeck to win his way out of the quarterfinals in Kyoto.
I’m reminded of earlier today, when one of my opponents commented that I was topdecking like a champ. I said that I’d put the cards there in the first place because I wanted to draw them…
I did not do particularly well at today’s PTQ, but I stayed in to try and suss out the issues with my deck choice. Across sixteen games, I mulliganed to six five times, and to five fours times, which suggest to me that there are basic structural issues here.
Click through to the extended for a deck list and a brief tournament report.

I chose to bring a Gifts deck to the tournament. I creatively titled it “Regalos” on the deck sheet. Here’s the list:

15 Creatures:
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Eternal Witness
Hag Hedge-Mage
Kitchen Finks
Selkie Hedge-Mage
Etched Oracle
Arashi, the Sky Asunder
21 Spells:
Path to Exile
Raven’s Crime
Life from the Loam
Gifts Ungiven
Profane Command
Crime // Punishment
Engineered Explosives
24 Land:
Academy Ruins
Ghost Quarter
Windswept Heath
Bloodstained Mire
Temple Garden
Overgrown Tomb
Watery Grave
Breeding Pool
Godless Shrine
Snow-Covered Forest
Snow-Covered Swamp
Snow-Covered Plains
15 Sideboard:
Tormod’s Crypt
Path to Exile
Relic of Progenitus
Kataki, War’s Wage
Darkheart Sliver
Gifts Ungiven
Cranial Extraction
Night of Souls’ Betrayal
Liliana Vess
Primal Command
Fracturing Gust

As I said before, my interest in playing a Gifts deck is what prompted my big historical retrospective of Gifts decks. So what was I trying to do with this one? Well, it has a couple features.
Utility Creatures
I may well be unreasonably allergic to creatures who don’t do something. All my creatures have a comes into play effect, or can be sacrificed usefully, or have some ability coming out of your hand (Arashi). The basic idea is to have a lot of anti-aggro and recursion built into the creatures, o that they’ll form a frame that doesn’t fold to hyper-aggressive approaches.
…of all sorts. I like the spread of Engineered Explosives, Crime // Punishment, and Damnation. They were all quite useful today. The Putrefy and Mortify represented an attempt to pack in more removal that could also serve to take out specific problems other than creatures, but I think they weren’t all that necessary. What I should have done is have included the fourth Path in the main deck. Path is amazing. The drawback of giving them a basic land and thinning their library a bit is nothing compared to how amazingly powerful it is to be able to RFG something for one mana. It’s close to Swords-ey goodness. I should have run all four in the main.
I ran with triple Thoughtseize and triple Raven’s Crime. This, incidentally, is part of why there are so many lands – I wanted to be able to retrace those Raven’s Crimes early and often, as my testing showed that retracing Crime was beastly in certain matchups. As it happens, I think I overvalued those matchups (which is to say, I never played against any form of Storm). This was also part of the purpose of the Life from the Loam, as it would play into a possible Gifts package of Raven’s Crime, Loam, land, land.
The sideboard was geared toward improving my matchup with Affinity, Zoo and similar aggro, and storm. As I mentioned, I never played against storm.
We had an unusually small PTQ for our area, with 112 people (I suspect several overlapping major area events siphoned off players). This meant seven rounds, rather than the usual seven. Even though I was basically out of contention almost immediately, I stayed to try and figure out what was up with my deck. Here are the rounds, in brief…
Round 1: Ricky, playing Faeries
The first game played out almost per plan, with me getting in early hits using random creatures, and Ricky playing out a Spellstutter Sprite to peck away for a while, as well as a Vendilion Clique that I Pathed with its ability on the trigger (yay, Path!). When one Sprite became two, a Jitte followed soon after. I channeled Arashi to kill the Sprites, only to find that Ricky had been sandbagging a third Sprite, which picked up the Jitte and, with Ricky at 7 life, took me down from 11 to 0 in short order. I brought in Liliana and Betrayal in game two, as we both went to six cards. An early Clique never saw any removal from me, and eventually picked up a Jitte and killed me.
Round 2: Liam, playing Merfolk
Merfolk. Surprised me, too.
Game one saw me go to five cards, which didn’t help against the Folk. From there, it played out the way Fish decks are meant to, with one stupid Merfolk beating me to death, defended by a wall of countermagic. Game two was similar, although I was able to pull things out somewhat longer by just playing cards straight into a series of counterspells, and Raven’s Crime-ing him a few times.
Round 3: Ryan, playing Worship Midrange
Ryan’s deck had Noble Hierarchs, Silhana Ledgewalkers, Troll Ascetics, and Worship, among other things. Our first game was long, and was largely about me throwing Finks and other creatures in front of an exalted troll. Eventually Ryan played out a Simic Sky Swallower – and was entertained that I wrote “Swallower!” with an exclamation point on my notes. The flying beast hit me twice before I drew my one Damnation and cleared the board, leaving me with a persisted Kitchen Finks. I then began to hit him with the Finks, eventually lowering his life total enough to let me kill him through two Worships with a Profane Command.
The second game wasn’t quite as a dicey, but involved many of the same features, except with the addition of me using Crime // Punishment to clear Ryan’s guys repeatedly.
Round 4: Alan, playing Affinity
As it happens, the Affinity matchup is even better than I thought (though in fairness, this wasn’t the Delay build, which I think is the scariest). In this game, I just ran out Finks, then Finks, then Crime // Punishment to clear away Alan’s lands and an Ornithopter, then another Finks, all with a serving of Path to take out creatures. Note that even though I’d won, I still mulliganed to five in this game. The second game was similarly poor for Alan, even though I went to six, as I was able to again play out Finks, Path away creatures, and so forth.
Round 5: Even, playing Zoo
This was Domain Zoo, with the full five colors, Tribal Flames, and maindeck Thoughtseize and Tidehollow Sculler. In game one, I just liberally Pathed away Nacatls and threw Finks down in front of attacking creatures. Once I’d finally cleared the board of creatures, I reanimated on of Even’s Goyfs with the Crime part of Crime // Punishment and beat Even to death with it. For game two, I yanked the three Thoughtseizes and sided in Darkheart, the fourth Path, and Primal Command. I took some early Ape beats, but was able to roll out a Kitche FInks, then another Kitchen FInks. I finally used Damnation to clear the board, then Even played Finks, which I matched. Our Finks ran into each other and I took a Tribal Flames to the face, but I followed that up by playing out the Etched Oracle, and then playing Primal Command, which earned the scoop.
By this point, I was noticing good performance against aggro, which was heartening, since my deck’s frame was minimally supposed to achieve that.
Round 6: Michael, playing Faeries
The first game was a long one that I won; it began with Etched Oracle, which I immediately sacced out of the way of a Sowering, and then followed with Profane Command to get back FInks, and from there, Michael was on the back foot the whole time. I was retracing Raven’s Crime extensively in game one, which really damaged Michael’s game and prompted him to side in Relic of Progenitus for games two and three. In game two, I retracted Crime extensively again, and was honestly doing reasonably well until a Jitte came out, I killed it, and Michael topdecked another Jitte. My deck wasn’t resilient enough for that, and he killed me soon after. We went into extra turns on game three, but a Clique wielding a Jitte took me out there as well.
Clearly, I had an issue with Jittes.
Round 7: Matthew, playing Bant Aggro
A Jitte killed me again in game one. Good grief. Game two went long, but I was able to clear the decks with recursive Engineered Explosives (thanks, Academy Ruins!) and take Matthew out with Etched Oracle. In game three, an early Gaddock Teeg turned off most of my hand, and countermagic from the Bant deck made sure the rest of my hand wouldn’t have any effect on the board.
I think the primary structural flaw in this deck as it stands is a lack of aggression. I have an aggro-resilient frame, but even games where I had a good opportunity against control decks went quite long because even though I knew I was supposed to be the beatdown, I couldn’t apply appropriate pressure. What should I do about this? Well, I could always run Tarmogoyfs, but I continue to feel allergic to this vanilla creature, even if it’s a big vanilla creature. I’ll have to think more about how I want to handle this.
I’m also thinking of ditching the Crimes. They’re fun, and they do tremendous harm to storm decks, but otherwise, I think they may even be distracting me from being the beatdown when I need to. This was especially highlighted by the sinking feeling of watching an Ancestral Vision resolve after I’d spent a couple turns stripping away cards.
Clearly, I don’t recommend this deck in its current form, although I liked playing an aggro-resilient shell with a Gifts package. I think it needs more aggression before it can really do well at the PTQ level.