Written by Dan McKay
Getting There: How I Won Nationals 2018
Okay, so here’s the thing: I’ve played a lot of nationals. I played my first one when I was fifteen and I’ve been in each one since then. The best I have done previously was top eight. I have plenty of bad beats stories, as does any magic player. But I have one in particular that sticks out in my mind: the year I went 7-0 and then didn’t make the top eight. I was on forty-land swans combo and drafting probably my favourite draft format as well as one of the formats I was best at: shards of Alara block draft. Everything was going my way until day two where it promptly fell apart. Everything from being unable to draw enough land in my forty (though sideboarded down to thirty-eight) land deck to my opponent having behemoth sledge by turn three in all three games. It was really quite the thing to behold, and makes for a hell of a story. Probably a better story than the one I have to tell today. But in this one I don’t get wrecked by a Lemony-Snicket-level of bad luck, so you’ll forgive me if I prefer it.
So, I was on mono green until the day before I flew up to Wellington. But the matchup against red-black was pretty bad and we figured it was likely to be pretty popular, so I called an audible and swapped to mono red (but, ya know, with some black). The list was Hayden Dale’s, massive thanks to him but more on that later. Hayden had been testing it quite a bit and the deck was a hybrid of mono-red and black-red, playing a bunch of early drops, but using scrapheap scrounger and one copy of cut to ribbons to improve your matchup against creatures with four toughness and have access to really strong cards. The only changes I made were to the sideboard. I cut the sideboard abrade and aethersphere harvester and put in an ahn-crop crasher and a fourth Chandra’s defeat. The deck felt really strong a lot of the time, and I just wanted to dodge green.
Day One: Constructed
So, the day started off well. I got good matchups, I had pretty good hands, and I was playing reasonably. My only loss was to Dan Bretherton playing a deck that was basically the mirror, but I didn’t know that and sideboarded as though he was playing red-black, which tends to be a lot bigger than the mono-red-splash-scrounger version. I think his sideboarding was non-optimal too since he also thought I was on the traditional red-black deck. It would have been interesting to see how we would have boarded if we had both known the other person was on the same deck. But his draws were a lot more live than mine, and I couldn’t dupe him into making terrible plays to get me back into the game despite my best efforts, so he took it out.
Overall the constructed portion mostly came down to playing against good matchups and hitting good curves. The one game I would like to highlight is that I played against turbo fog in the last round of standard. I, like many people, think the deck basically shouldn’t exist in standard because it involves cards that you can’t get by buying standard-legal sets and that seems like something that shouldn’t happen. However, that isn’t why I wanted to highlight the match. I wanted to highlight it because I never thought I would get to card insult to injury in a standard tournament and boy does it feel good!
Here’s the situation: It’s game two and I’m a game up. I keep a one land hand on the draw with two one drops, two two drops, an insult to injury and another card I can’t remember. He plays land. I draw a land and play soul-scar mage. He does very little. I draw a ahn-crop crasher, play Kari Zev and attack. He ramps. I play ahn-crop and attack. He plays nissa, scries and leaves fog mana up. I play insult, and he takes fourteen damage that he can’t do anything about and dies.
Three mana, fourteen damage. Now that’s a sideboard card.
Day One: Limited
So, I am in pod three with a four-one record and I’m sitting next to the left of Callum Gittins and Jason Chung, which both means that I can trust the signals I get in pack one, and that there are going to be some hard matches to play at the table. I open a djinn of wishes and get passed a fair bit of decent blue and a late electrify in pack one so I draft a sweet blue-red deck with a couple of shocks, couple of electrifies and a lot of card advantage. My main deck was maybe a little bit too scared of aggro and could have included bone to ash, but it was pretty strong.
Round one I play against someone I don’t know and he draws a lot of lands and a lot of two drops in both games and not much else. Easy win, probably quite lucky.
Round two I play against Callum and in game one I just roll over him with a host of really strong cards. Game two I mulligan to four and my deck does its best to get me out of it by giving me just about the best cards I can have. Unfortunately for me, Callum has a dryad greenseeker and a chaos wand (which is bonkers good against me as it hits multiple removal and card draw spells) and there’s no coming back from that amount of card advantage no matter how well I draw. Game three Callum missed his fourth land for a turn which allows me to get my siegebreaker giant down into his chaos wand and I am feeling pretty confident about it because I know both of my electrifies are in my hand. He uses it every turn and he hits totally lost, a shock for another one of my guys, a bounce spell that I sideboard in, and some other spell that didn’t really help him. Ultimately, Callum got a bit unlucky and I was able to take advantage of it.
Round three I play against Jason Chung and I offer the ID into top eight. He refuses as he thinks he is going to win. I don’t blame him as his deck is pretty scary: mono-white with about a thousand angel of dawns and that crazy cat guy that makes more cats when it attacks. He gets it down game one and my hand full of land is no sort of answer for it so he takes the game. Game two I get some card draw going and suddenly I have more removal than I know what to do with. I am confident I am going to win but I’m not as confident about game three with him on the play. I can’t offer an ID again as I’ve already done so, but he can offer one to me. What I need to do is convince him to offer the draw somehow. So it was time to try the old Jedi mind trick.
Okay, quick tangent. One of my favourite things to do in magic is to beat opponents who have got me crushed by convincing them to lose the game. Next time you see me at a tournament, ask me about the wurmcoil engine and spellskite, or the karn and the glorybringer, or the mutavault and the lord of atlantis, or one of many other stories like that where I won an unwinnable game by convincing my opponent to do something terrible. Unfortunately, those kind of shenanigans are a lot harder to pull off against a good player, and it would be fair to say that Jason Chung is the best player in New Zealand. Of course, in this case I didn’t have to convince him to do something terrible, I just had to convince him to offer the ID and lock himself for top eight, so I figured it was worth a shot. So, I set about trying to demoralize him by beating him as soundly as possible. I use combat tricks to save guys I don’t care about, I use removal on creatures that pose no threat. I basically act like every card in my hand is amazing.
I don’t know how effective this tactic really was but he offered the ID at the start of game three while he was deciding whether to mulligan. My hand was a snap-mull so I was only too happy to take him up on his offer and make the top eight.
Day One: Later That Night
So I was in the top eight and playing Remi in round one. He was on the traditional red-black list which was meant to be a good matchup for me as I was more aggressive. However, he had the choice to start, which pretty well negated that advantage. However I had two other advantages. One of them was the fourth chandra’s defeat in the sideboard, and the other was Hayden Dale.
I mentioned Hayden Dale earlier. He lives in Sydney now but used to play in Christchurch and we are good mates. He has also played a lot of aggro and understands aggro sideboarding, especially in the mirror, better than most anyone I know. That night, after the requisite dinner out, I messaged Hayden and we talked about how to sideboard in that matchup for way longer than would seem appropriate. Seriously, the discussion about whether you want to take out one bomat or two on the draw was a whole thing. Anyway, we talked over the matchup and ironed out his initial sideboard plan into something even better. I was feeling good about my chances against Remi for the next day.
Day Two: The Top Eight
So round one I’m playing Remi. He has the play and things proceed in the usual manner, trading burn spells for guys and getting in damage. Unfortunately for him he draws a lot more lands than I do, and as we are both playing aggressive decks, I am well set up to punish him for it. I take game one. Game two he draws a bit better, but not much. I use a Chandra’s defeat early and he goes for the turn five glorybringer but I have a second defeat in hand and take it out before it can attack. One mana to waste your opponent’s entire fifth turn is a hell of a deal, and I get to play my own glorybringer uncontested on my turn and exert it to kill his only creature and get in a healthy chunk of damage. He draws a blank, I drop an active Hazoret and the game is over.
We have a chat about our sideboards and he told me later on that once I showed him the four Chandra’s defeats he wasn’t sure he could ever win two games after sideboarding. I’m feeling pretty good about that fourth defeat about now.
Round two I get paired against Jason Chung playing blue-splash-red paradoxical outcome. There’s not that much to say about this match to be honest: I had the play, my deck is good, his draws weren’t.
I actually screwed up in game one and essentially misclicked in real life, targeting the wrong one of his creatures with my ahn-crop crasher. But he wasn’t in a position to punish my mistake so I won anyway.
After I beat Chung I got in on an extra-crisp high-five with Dave Marshall who was winning the modern PPTQ at the time. I was worried about the next match as it looked like I was going to be playing against a red-green monsters deck and I was picturing my most matchup (mono-green) but with added glorybringers for good measure. That sounded like a nightmare. As excited as I was to play in the World Magic Cup, I was more worried that my dreams of being national champion would be stomped on by a procession of large, green dinosaurs.
So, we get to the finals. It’s me against Christian Lee playing red green monsters. I keep a two land hand that includes my single copy of canyon slough (rhymes with cow, not with poo, this isn’t America). My hand does have a shock and a soul-scar mage though so I have some decent play on one mana if I need to play my mountain turn one in order to shock a Llanowar elves, and it has plenty of two drops so I won’t be too crushed if I miss drawing another land for a while. Christian plays his first land and ends. I draw another mountain, which means I can cast any two of soul-scar, Kari Zev and ahn-crop crasher on curve, but not all three unless I draw another mountain. I lead off with soul-scar as I think it maximizes my good draws and pass the turn back to Christian. He plays another land and drops servant of the conduit. I’m practically grinning wickedly at how well that makes my curve line up as I get to play my canyon slough, point a shock at his mana dork and get in for two damage. Over the next couple of turns I got in for some damage and he pointed some removal at my guys. The procession of scary dinos was nowhere to be found and I began to wonder if he hadn’t drawn them or if they just weren’t in his deck. On turn five he dropped a glorybringer and exerted it to kill one of my creatures. On my turn I put another creature on the table and got in for some damage, dropping him to twelve and leaving me with two scrapheap scroungers in play, one in the graveyard, a lightning strike and a Hazoret in hand and two mana up. On his next turn he played a second glorybringer and attacked deciding not to exert. He had a third glorybringer and hand and this attack put me to twelve, opening me up to be killed on the next turn. At the end of his turn I fired the lightning strike at his head, dropping him to nine life and then untapped, slammed Hazoret and attacked for lethal.
Game two was an odd one. Christian played a lot of removal but not a lot of threats. At one point he banefired a bomat courier. I was able to keep deploying threats and getting in damage with my early drops while he traded card for card with me. Eventually it was enough and I won the game and the event.
At The End Of The Day
I’m not sure if there’s a lesson to be learned here. I think I mostly played pretty well but have certainly been events where I’ve played better. I think I chose the right deck, but there have certainly been events where I’ve made even better meta calls. I think I had good luck, but there have been events where I’ve had better. Ultimately, I’m not sure what the take-away here is except that sometimes you get there. And let me tell you, getting there feels pretty damn good.