The wrong tool for most jobs (a PTQ report)

In developing an appreciation for an idea, sometimes we want to factcheck ourselves to make sure that we are not in love with the idea beyond the point of reason, or, conversely, that we have not misapprehended the situation such that our good idea turns out to be, on the whole, bad. While I wouldn’t advocate setting aside your creativity out of fear of having made a bad choice, I think it’s good to be able to evaluate those situations where you have badly mismatched your choice to the event.
Or, to put it another way, 1-2-2.
Over in the extended entry, I’m going to take a look at a deck choice that turned out to be sorely mismatched for our area, and reflect on how it represents not just a mismatch, but also an incorrect approach to a core component of the game.

Before I launch into the report itself, I should mention that we had 125 players at this PTQ. I talked about this with my first round opponent, wondering at the fact that the other side of the country has seen several enormous PTQs (200-300 players) but we’re just cracking 100 of late, going to 7 rounds instead of our usual 8. Perhaps it reflects our local economy – California just hit an 11.5% unemployment rate, which may be impacting our player base’s ability to acquire cards and make the treck. In the PTQ season leading to Hollywood, we regularly had crews coming from Los Angles (that’d be 400-500 miles away, depending on the PTQ location here). This time around, my farthest-traveling opponent was merely from Shasta. Regardless, I normally expect our PTQs to be in the high 100s up to 200 or so, so the drop-off is notable.
Here’s the deck I brought this time around:

26 Creatures:
Ethersworn Canonist
Gaddock Teeg
Knight of the Reliquary
Kitchen Finks
Chameleon Colossus
Battlegrace Angel
10 Spells:
Path to Exile
Pithing Needle
Oblivion Ring
24 Land:
Seaside Citadel
Treetop Village
Reflecting Pool
Wooded Bastion
15 Sideboard:
Celestial Purge
Pollen Lullaby
Primal Command

Once again, the seemingly random deck title is, indeed, random, taken from yet another song in my iTunes library.
So, what’s up with this deck?
The core concept here was to hate out my expected opposition, denying them card advantage and plays, while landing progressively larger beaters and pushing through for the win. I’d had reasonable success with a Doran deck at the last PTQ, but found myself disliking the awkward mana base inherent in that design, and hoping to generate a G/W deck that could successfully blow through the current play environment.
Initial testing began with a build that had Noble Hierarchs and Qasali Pridemages (as I’ve used before), then added in some of the hateful two-drops, and so forth. After a while, I got sick of the Hierarchs, as I was not playing such an explosive deck that they were awesome on turn two, and losing them to every single mass removal card ever meant that I didn’t want to cut lands to include them or, indeed, rely on them too much at all. I’d also ditched the Behemoth Sledges I’d used in earlier builds, finding that they often came down as a pretty dead card in testing, making me wish I just had more creatures. In many ways, a resolved Battlegrace Angel served the same purpose as a Sledge, so I preferred those, as they were both body and roleplayer.
My prospective build as of mid-last-week featured a clunky collection of eleven two-drops followed by a shaky and uncomfortable ramp up to bigger creatures. I had an epiphany mid-week and ditched the Pridemages, opting for the Knights. The Knight is a nifty card in a deck like this, as it means you can get away with running a lot of land while still avoiding obnoxious late-game flood, using the Knight to cash in lands and thin your deck (this also let me cut a Village, as I was now able to search them up with Knights).
I eventually settled on the build above, and it tested quite well against various Cascade decks all along the axes (aggro, control, or combo). This was important, as I expected to be playing against a wall of Bloodbraid Elves. It also had a good game against Faeries and various R/x aggro designs. It did not play well with Lark, and did some stuttering against Kithkin or Tokens. I think this last point reflects a fundamental error in the design and my thinking behind it. I’ll talk about that after I go through the rounds.
Round 1 versus Alex, playing U/W Lark
Alex opened with Island, Mystic Gate, so I put him on Lark and sighed a little, hoping that my last-day switch to Snakeform would help me out here. However, when turn two Teeg resolved for me, things looked up. A Canonist followed, and no amount of Meddling Mages or Larks could help him out from there, as I Pathed stuff out of the way, dropped Finks, and beat down. As it happened, Teeg locked a significant portion of Alex’s hand out of this game, and made him incredibly wary of getting Teeged out in games two and three.
Game two was long and involved, and I O-ringed a Lark. Hm. I think that was a misplay. This game saw me sitting at 22 life for quite a while, and bringing Alex down to 11, but he eventually regained control and quickly swept me out with Larks.
In game three I got scared (aka “the fear”) and kept a six-card hand that was basically lands and a Path (there was a creature there as well, I think). Hm. Bad keep. I am the beatdown here, and should have mulliganed to five to get some better action for the early game. I proceed to draw mostly lands off the top, and am basically not in this one.
That’s two misplays in the first match, and I think the mulligan misplay clearly cost me any chance I had of winning. That said, I didn’t tilt after that. I was a little disappointed to have lost my nerve enough to make a poor keep, but that was also a good lesson learned for the rest of the day.
Also, Alex was a fun guy to play a match with, so that was nice.
Round 2 versus Tyler, playing Kithkin
This was Kithkin splashing black for Zealous Persecution.
Tyler commented that he hadn’t been playing much lately, and I think this may have led to slower play that was not egregious, yet pushed us to time. Note that I don’t really mean that as a negative about him; it was so subtle that I only really registered it when the minutes were winding down at the very end, as he never really “tanked,” just took a little longer on each thing. I take this as a lesson to try and pay more attention to that kind of thing.
Game one was me fighting with my high-value single cards against his card advantage. He had two early Knights of Meadowgrain who were quickly backed by Ajani, which meant I was chumping with Kitchen Finks and he was building a giant mountain of life. Although I was able to tread water for a while, eventually Cloudgoat Ranger and friends took me down, blowing past my blockers.
Game two also went long, and involved a whole mid-game where he was hitting me with a Knight and I was hitting him with a Grace, and life totals crawled ever so slowly in my direction. Eventually I started drawing into my Threshers (three of them!) and he walked his Knight into one of them. That Thresher ate a Path, and another one came down…as we went to time. When we went into extra turns, we had ended up with me at 28 life, and him at 20 (me at 28 from an exalted, lifelinked Thresher swing into a chump blocker). We were in his turn when time hit, and he offered to count my first turn as turn zero of extra turns. I pointed out that he was the active player, and that I would have turn one instead. I had an ulterior motive, if you will, in insisting on playing this properly, as it meant I would have three more turns to his two, and I’d also have the very last turn, allowing me to alpha strike him with abandon.
That said, I’d have insisted on doing it right no matter what. That is, after all, how the rules are supposed to work. Notably, I don’t think Tyler was trying to do anything sneaky here. Rather, he thought more play would be more fun (at least, that’s the impression I got; I didn’t ask).
So, on turn one of extra turns, I swung in with Thresher and both Treetop Villages, losing one Village to a Path and having Thresher chumped by something. During his turn, I dropped my third Thresher of the game, taking me to 26, and, more critically, him to 18. On the third turn of, I swung with both Threshers, and he let them hit, dropping him to 4, then played a Kitchen Finks. On his turn, he played out a Cloudgoat Ranger, and I sighed as the board filled with dudes.
Now, I blame this part on my having woken up a bit before 6am to drive to the tournament.
We went to my turn, I drew, and it was another Grace. I surveyed the board again, and saw me with six attackers (Village, Thresher, Thresher, Grace, Canonist, Finks, I think) and him with five blockers (Cloudgoat and friends, plus one other creature). I knew the Grace in hand did nothing, and said, “This is frustrating,” which earned me my first ever “You have to make a play” from the judge watching our match. I activated Village, then pushed everyone into the attack, thinking that was that. Tyler went to block almost all my dudes…
,,,and the judge asked if the token that was blocking my Grace had flying. As it happens, no. And, in fact, nothing on Tyler’s side flew. My Grace did four to him, and that was that. Game win for me, match draw for us.
As an aside, I sometimes lament that our PTQs happen on Saturdays. Given how sleep deprivation builds up during the week, it would be nice to have a recovery day before a tournament. Ah, well. If everyone’s playing tired, it’s not like anyone has an edge.
So, having won with an on-board kill despite missing that same on-board kill, I found myself with a loss and a draw.
Round 3 versus Josh, playing G/W aggro
Josh was playing a more synergistic beatdown deck in my colors, and had drawn the previous round as well. In the first game, Knotvine Paladin took me apart and I never really recovered. In the second game, I took some early harm that I was able to mitigate with Finks, and then played out some Chameleon Colossi and stalled the board. The real champion here, however, was the hobbit, as Teeg locked up a tremendous number of high-value cards in Josh’s hand (e.g. Teeg stops Spectral Procession). Eventually I was able to start going on the offensive with Colossus, and finally battered through for the win.
Our third game locked down as well, especially as I managed to spike up to 34 life (Finks, Primal Command) early on. On the fifth turn of extra turns – mine, as it happened – I was faced with the impossible task of pushing 18 damage through blockers. It didn’t happen, and that was draw number two on the day.
Josh’s friends chided him for playing a draw-producing G/W deck, and I felt like I’d put myself in the same boat, as I was, in many matchups, able to not lose, but not so much to win.
I decided to stay in and attempt to win out. Also, if you’ve driven two hours to game, you pretty much want to game, unless circumstances suggest you should really, really throw in the towel.
Round 4 versus Ryan, playing W/R/G aggro
I suppose I could call this Naya aggro, but that feels odd since neither white-generating mana sources nor white cards appeared in game one.
My opening hand had double Finks and Path, so I felt decent and kept it. Ryan didn’t manage any action before my first Finks, which eventually ate a Hellspark Elemental. I played a second Finks, and then a Grace. I hit once with an exalted, lifelinked Finks before double Pyroclasm cleared my board (he’d also Firespouted once before that as well, I think). At this point I was at 34 life to Ryan’s 9. Ryan played Goblin Assault, but the one hasty dude a turn wasn’t going to do the trick when I dropped a Thresher, and the game ended shortly afterward.
Game two was a non-game, as my play went Teeg, Finks, etc, and Ryan’s went Plains, Plains, nothing.
So, a game win. Nice. This (R/x) was a matchup I’d tested more, and I was hopeful that perhaps I could continue to have reasonable (or, dare we imagine, good?) matchups for the next three rounds.
Round 5 versus Jubal, playing Kithkin with a controlling flair
I’ll spare the specifics for my final round of the day, but to point out that Jubal O-Ringed and Pathed all my threats, then played Larks and Rangers (of Eos) to refresh his board after I’d burned my point removal on his stuff. I lost in two games.
At this point, I decided I’d clearly brought an incorrect, perhaps even incoherent, deck to the tournament, and that I’d rather drive the 140 miles home two hours sooner than later. I dropped.
One of these things is not like the other
So, what was fundamentally off about my deck today?
Basically, I screwed up on card advantage. My deck contained many tools designed to stifle certain brands of card advantage. Canonist shuts off cascade and, more generally, forces people to play the game at my pace in terms of card-for-card (that is, one card per turn). Teeg cancels out large swaths of people’s hands, including many cards that threaten to many-for-one me. Pithing Needle, which I’ve discussed lately, shuts down another axis of cards, and can do so on a many-for-one basis (e.g. Needling Windbrisk Heights when multiple copies are in play).
However, turning off some card advantage is not the same as gaining card advantage. This is a proactive and yet not far-reaching means of attempting to level the playing field, rather than choosing to simply arrange a better field. Although I was able to cut off certain aspects of card advantage, I was still in trouble when someone ran a Lark or Cloudgoat Ranger out against me. In contrast, I was relying on point-threats — that is, single, big threats — which meant that even getting one-for-oned was exceptionally bad for me.
Or, more succinctly, I would have done well to either add positive card advantage (e.g. a planeswalker) or to focus on synergy across my threats and accelerating my deck more quickly into beatdown, perhaps via synergistic creatures. Josh, from round 3, honestly did much better in this regard, although I think he did need some form of reach to really seal the deal.
I admit, I adore big point threats. I also really enjoyed the disruptive influence of my Canonists and Teegs on many popular game plans. In those matchups, they’re brilliant, and the deck does well. Outside those matchups, however, they’re nothing special, so they represent a sort of fractional value of “card advantage denial.” I mean, it’s great fun to drop a game one, turn two Teeg on someone (and he’s a much better maindeck card than Canonist generally), but blindly forgoing positive card advantage to run with my cool idea meant that I didn’t really get to play effectively in a lot of these games.
Hmph, and all that.
I should say I still had a fun day, on the whole, and all my opponents were cool people. I just wish I’d brought a more effective build, even if it meant discarding a theme or two along the way.