When is a 4-3 really a 3-3?

Yesterday I attended the first PTQ of the current season at Superstars Game Center. I had a good time as always. We have a good crowd here in Northern California, both judges and players alike, and I think that makes for a great playing environment.
We had a smaller tournament than typical this time, with 122 players. I don’t think that we should generalize from that to the health of the Magic scene, however, since this was a graduation weekend – specifically, the San Jose State University graduation was the same day as the PTQ, a mere three blocks away from us. Combine that with Memorial Day weekend, and it’s understandable that we had a reduced turnout.
The upshot of that number was seven rounds rather than our usual eight.
Thanks go out to our excellent judging staff, this time consisting of Riki (head judge), Eric, NIck, Neil, and Alex.
I went 4-3 this time, and I think this highlights that I am currently very much a 50-50 player. Although I bring some potential trouble to my record by insisting on playing decks of my own design, I can also point directly to some notable play errors that could potentially have led to me winning games, and thus matches. I mention this because I enjoy improving my play, and because I continue to hear players telling each other “bad beat” stories that can be distilled correctly into “the game proceeded as expected, and I lost.” It’s okay to generate this kind of narrative if it makes you feel better, since this is a recreational activity, but if you actually also want to improve as a player, you will have to be honest with yourself and acknowledge those things which can be legitimately influenced by your actions.
Click through to the extended entry for the final deck list I brought on the day, as well as my round-by-round tournament report, and an explanation for why a 4-3 is actually a 3-3.

When I last checked in, I was planning on bringing a BGW ‘big beats’ aggro deck called Sugar Water. Following further testing and consideration, I modified it into this build, which I actually brought:
Sugar Water

20 Creatures:
Noble Hierarch
Qasali Pridemage
Doran, the Siege Tower
Kitchen Finks
16 Spells:
Path to Exile
Pithing Needle
Maelstrom Pulse
Elspeth, Knight-Errant
Primal Command
24 Land:
Murmuring Bosk
Treetop Village
Wooded Bastion
Twilight Mire
Llanowar Wastes
15 Sideboard:
Guttural Response
Faerie Macabre
Battlegrace Angel

So, changes…
As in writing, so in deck design. “Kill the ones you love.” Or, in this case, relegate them to the sideboard. I removed on Battlegrace Angel and pushed the other three over into the sideboard. They’re awesome against aggro, but are dead cards in a lot of matchups.
I also pulled the Behemoth Sledges, as they were a little bit win-more. I think they’re still pretty solid, so they might need to go back in to some version of this deck in the future. I also brought the three Primal Commands over to the main from the side, since they’re also good against aggro and they can act to plow control decks under and buy me a turn. Also, they’re incidental hate against various mill decks.
Finally, the two Pithing Needles came back in, as I was concerned about the many, many things that use activated abilities (including that pesky new combo deck).
Over in the sideboard, I added Faerie Macabre against Lark decks (which gave me a hard time last time), and a full set of Angelsong as ‘tech’ against the G/W Overrun matchup.
So that was the deck. How’d the games go?
Round one versus Phill playing Turbomill
A first-turn Borderpost announced that this was likely to be some Mill or Fog variant. I dropped a Pridemage and Phill dropped a Howling Mine. I hit him once with the Pridemage, then cashed it in to take out the Mine. I followed that up with a Doran, and Pithing Needle naming Jace Beleren (which earned a mild grimace from Phill). He played out a Font of Mythos, and I hit it with a Maelstrom Pulse while I kept attacking with Doran. Phill tried to buy some time with Evacuation, so I just started evoking Cloudthreshers to his face and the game was over soon after.
-2 Kitchen Finks
+2 Guttural Response
The idea with this sideboarding strategy is that if I stumble long enough to get really badly milled, I will probably have a Response and a Command in hand, and be able to push one through countermagic.
This never actually came up.
I played Hierarch into Pridemage into Thresher, with incidental Pulsing of Mines and Fonts, and the Mill deck had very little game against that strategy.
Round two versus Jeff playing Cascade Control
The first game went so fast that I didn’t have a good read on what Jeff was playing. I went Hierarch into Doran, lost the Hierarch to a Pyroclasm, hit with Doran, lost Doran to a Maelstrom Pulse, played a KItchen Finks, then followed that up with Elspeth and beat Jeff to death with an Elspeth-pumped Finks. Just like that.
Going into game two, I kind of thought Jeff was playing Five-Color Control, what with the Vivids, the Pyroclasm, and the Pulses.
-2 Pithing Needle
+2 Guttural Response
Game two went on surprisingly long, given that I was stuck at two lands for several turns, and then three lands for many, many, many, many turns. I had an early Pridemage that ate a Pulse, and then not much action. I Pulsed away his Leech, then lost my attempt at a Kitchen Finks to a Cryptic Command. I took some minimal damage from an early Anathemancer (being protected by my lack of lands), traded the first life on a second Finks for it, then lost my minimally renewed board to a Pyroclasm. I topdecked a Doran, who ate a Path (hey, my fourth land!), then topdecked another, who ran into a Cryptic on the way down. We were deep into this somewhat obnoxious game two, and the life totals were roughly even (17 versus 18), with lands deeply uneven (4 versus 10). Note that my inability to topdeck lands combined with Jeff’s inability to topdeck anything else kept the game as even as it was.
Eventually, Jeff hit a Cruel Ultimatum, which swung the life totals and returned his Leech to his hand. I think I could perhaps have recovered at this point, but Jeff cogently dropped Pithing Needle naming Elspeth, and that cut three of my best outs.
I don’t think I changed my sideboarding between games two and three, or at least my notes don’t say that I did.
I mulliganed to six on the play here, which is what I’d done in game one, so I was fine with that. This deck mulligans pretty well.
I led with Doran, who ate a Pulse, and followed it up with a Kitchen Finks. After some initial beats with an exalted Finks (thanks, Noble Hierarch!), I lost life #1 on the Finks to a Bituminous Blast that flipped up an Anathemancer. Jeff played Needle on Elspeth again (he had to explain this to his friends after the match, as they were only around to see him Needle a card that never saw play). I hit a Primal Command for lifegain and to plow under one of his Vivids. I think I’m losing some detail here on creatures coming into play and being Pathed and Pulsed (including one of my Cloudthreshers), but I know after the Primal Command we stood at 22 versus 12 life, with an Anathemancer on his side and a Noble Hierarch on my side. Jeff drew and played a Cruel Ultimatum. I responded with a Cloudthresher, leaving me with a Thresher and no cards in hand, and Jeff with a bunch more cards, a returned Leech, and the life totals even at 15.
From there, I started swinging with the Thresher, and Jeff started playing blockers, as well as Unearthing Anathemancers to smack me in the face. As we rolled into extra turns, it came down to a topdeck fight. Jeff played a Bloodbraid Elf into a Kitchen Finks, taking him to 7 life. I attacked, and the Finks ate it and he went to 9. He couldn’t afford to attack back with the Bloodbraid, since I still had a Treetop Village and could block, then keep swinging. He chumped again and didn’t topdeck anything useful, rolling it back around to my turn again.
Jeff was at 9 life, with me at 1 (from various Anathemancer smacks, etc). I had a Cloudthresher and a Treetop Village, and no cards in hand. He had one creature in play. Our table was completely surrounded by onlookers now, as we were the last game in extra turns. Looking at my graveyard, I saw that I had a handful of outs. If Jeff had not Needled Elspeth, I would have had three more outs, but as it was, I needed a Pulse or a Path. Instead, it was a Treetop Village, and I shook Jeff’s hand and thanked him for an excellent match.
Now, if we were to walk back many turns, we’d see my most glaring play error on the day (well, most glaring to me; perhaps I did something much worse that I’m still unaware of). On an earlier turn, I made some play (removing one of Jeff’s critters, perhaps) that I was quite happy about, and I passed the turn without playing my Treetop Village. That kept my first Cloudthresher in my hand one turn longer than it needed to be, which in turn pushed back the arrival of the second Cloudthresher. Having that swinging in one turn earlier than usual might have given me the win. I can’t reconstruct events well enough to be sure that it would have let me win, but I can say that it was 100% a play error to not drop the Treetop Village.
It was an excellent match. Nonetheless, that play error just plain old stood out afterward.
Round three versus Ken, playing Doran Rock
This was Ken Ellis, who you may recall from this Hollywood deck tech:

He was late in coming. I waited, as I didn’t feel like game lossing him for being late. Unfortunately, he was late enough that Eric had to go ahead and do that, after we both looked around to see if he was anywhere nearby. Ken and I shuffled up for game one, and then had our decks nabbed for a deck check. Ken’s joke that he was going to pick up another game loss was prophetic, as he was told, with some amount of apology, that he’d registered a 61-card deck (his list having one more Llanowar Waste than the actual deck did).
We hung out for a while and played out a somewhat glib three games. I won that pseudo-match in two games, but I don’t think that’s meaningful.
Ken was screwed over here, oddly enough, by me and Jeff playing too fast in extra turns. At PTQs of ours size, every round goes to time, and most of them have control-on-control matches or slower players driving them to extra time, meaning that those extra turns take a long time. In contrast, but in accord with the way things are meant to work, Jeff and I played out our extra turns at a brisk pace, bringing the round to a quick end. That, in turn, caught Ken out trying to pick up food. Which is, on the whole, unfortunate. He was a good sport, though, and even after the inadvertent match loss, played on into the remaining tournament rounds.
Round four versus Matt, playing Jund Aggro
One reason I moved the Battlegraces to the sideboard in this revised build is that even with them in the main, the deck simply didn’t have a good matchup against aggro. This was born out here yet again. Matt led with an early Figure, following it with a Jund Hackblade. I Pathed the Figure, which stalled the Hackblade for a turn (no haste for you, sir), but a Bloodbraid into an Anathemancer backed by a giant pile of burn and a Boggart Ram-Gang was more than I could recover from, even with series of Kitchen Finks.
-2 Pithing Needle
-4 Cloudthresher
+3 Condemn
+3 Battlegrace Angel
Matt opened game two with a Figure. I took a hit to the face from Figure, then responded with a Kitchen Finks. Matt played a Hackblade and a second Hackblade, and I managed one of those thrilling plays, of Pulsing away double Figure of Destiny. I played out a second Kitchen Finks while Matt took pain from his lands (he had a particularly painful land selection this time around). I hit a Primal Command (up to 28 life) then dropped a Doran and a Grace and started swinging. I ended the game at 37 life.
In game three, I Condemned away yet another early Figure. Soon after, I dropped Doran. Matt attacked with a Jund Hackblade. I blocked with Doran, and he hit Doran with an Incinerate. When I just said, “Sure” and did nothing, he did a slow double take, and then winced, realizing his error. Things didn’t go well from here, as I was able to keep swinging, hit a Primal Command, and Matt was unable to recover.
Round five versus Kenyon, playing G/W Tokens
I was pretty happy here, at a semi-earned 3-1 record in a 7-round tournament. As I sat down, I recalled seeing Kenyon playing in an earlier round, and was disappointed that I was unable to pull up a memory of what deck he was playing. Not so useful, that.
His deck did was it’s meant to do, rolling out Kitchen Finks, Processions, and finally Rangers. I hit a Primal Command to put him back a turn and tutor up a Cloudthresher, but Thresher ate a Path. I landed Elspeth, which Kenyon apparently considered enough of a threat to devote an Overrun to. I admit I found this odd, since that same Overrun turn would have killed me. Instead, Elspeth died horribly, and I had a few more turns to try and draw into useful solutions for a giant batch of creatures.
I think one of this deck’s failings as a design is a lack of genuine solutions to that giant pile of creatures. Perhaps I should have (1) made it faster or (2) had a couple Wraths in the side. What do you think?
-1 Pridemage
-3 Primal Command
+4 Angelsong
This game saw us with dueling Finks as openers, followed by his deck vomiting up some Cloudgoat Rangers. In fact, I ended up having to drop Needle on Ranger, despite a Windbrisk Heights being in play as well, just to keep them from flying over and beating me to death. At the end of the day, though, it was a simple hard-cast Overrun that killed me, taking me from 21 to negative numbers in a single turn.
Although there were clearly design issues with my Tokens matchups, more than I thought from testing, I also recall that, in retrospect, my keep was a little wrong in this second game. I should have mulliganed at least once with the goal of drawing into more of my anti-tokens hate.
I think, however, that I was fundamentally playing a build that was weaker against Tokens than I meant it to be, as I’ll discuss a little below.
Round six versus Albert, playing G/W Tokens
Awesome. Tokens again!
I opened with Hierarch into Elspeth. Albert, in turn, had a Pridemage, who came in on the attack against Elspeth. Albert had a Dauntless Escort, which I responded to with Doran. The Escort had to ditch to save a set of Procession tokens when I played a Cloudthresher. Unfortunately, I had a second Thresher in hand, and Albert fell soon after to Cthulhu.
Note how much better it worked this time around.
-1 Pridemage
-3 Primal Command
+4 Angelsong
In this second game, I started taking early hits from an exalted Steward of Valeron. I wish my notes were better here, since I mainly just recorded me taking hits. I strongly suspect that this means I made a sketchy keep of some kind, since that tends to lead to such things.
In the third game we progressed to more of a stall, with Steward, Finks, Cloudgoat Ranger…and yet another Pithing Needle on Ranger. Eventually, Albert swung with three creatures and rolled an Austere Command out from under a Heights, clearing the board and taking out my Needle. Unfortunately for him, I drew a Cloudthresher soon after, and where he was drawing chump blockers, I had a gigantic monster. I also had an Angelsong in hand, so I was reasonably confident I wasn’t going to lose the game.
When we went to time, we were in Albert’s turn, which struck me as fortunate since it meant I’d have three turns to try and kill him. The main consideration here would be when to cash in the Angelsong (that is, by cycling it), versus keeping it in reserve just in case. Of course, realistically, that meant I’d know by the end of his second turn if I needed it or not, since I’d know if he could swing for the win or not. As it happened, he drew and played another chump blocker of some kind on the second turn, and I drew and played Elspeth, which meant that, as he had no cards left in hand, my Thresher could fly over for 10.
Round seven versus Josh, playing B/W Tokens
Other than a conversation about making and playing the 20-Ultimatums deck, this was not a particularly exciting round for me. I hit once with an exalted Finks, but otherwise it was all a morass of Persist creatures, tokens, and the occasional Sculler.
-1 Pridemage
-3 Primal Command
+4 Angelsong
Yeah, that didn’t work out this game, either. Clearly, I had minimal game against tokens, being one for three on matches, and two for seven on games (with the only two coming in the match I won).
Clearly, the deck as I built it lacked game against various tokens builds. In retrospect, I think there are two paths I could have taken here:
1) Pack more effective sweepers. I considered, for a while, actually just straight-up having Wraths or Burials in the sideboard. I think this is most likely the less effective option, inasmuch as it contravenes the main goal of having an aggro deck.
2) Bring in disruption and cut to a more efficient deck. I think I’ll explore this and test it a little bit more, but it was striking to me that I was thinking of this as a G/W deck splashing black for Pulse and Doran, but the immediate response from many opponents was “Oh, Rock.” I think, especially going into a Standard environment with Cascade Swans, a deck like this either needs to be hyper-aggressive (e.g. Dark Bant) or pack effective disruption (e.g. Doran Rock with Scullers).
I suspect #2 is the more effective option in the current environment.
Overall, this deck was semi-strong, which is to say it did not have the consistency to blow through the tokens decks, but was otherwise solid. I think disruption would help tremendously in giving it the needed consistency in those matchups where things either go very well or not well at all.
Overall, I enjoyed this PTQ, but that is, fortunately, nothing new. I think I could have had at least one more match win off of better play, but that I needed a deck redesign to take the others. The next PTQ isn’t until late June, so I’ll have a lot of time to watch the metagame move, and to consider and test new ideas.
I will, naturally, keep posting the good ones as I hit on them. In the meantime, I recommend you go to your next and nearest PTQ, as it’s one of the most enjoyable of the local or regional tournaments.

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