It’s hard to find sad-faced pictures of the reigning World Series MVP. He’s probably sitting at home this October frowning as the jerkface Chase Utley helps the rival Dodgers win a playoff game by brutally kneecapping the Mets’ shortstop. These baseball playoffs have been weird. I don’t even know how to process the game five between the Blue Jays and Rangers going on as I write this. I’d rather spend a day in Toronto than Dallas or Arlington or Fort Worth or whatever city the Rangers call home, so I’m cheering for the Blue Jays. And I guess the Mets, who as a Braves fan I don’t like, but as a former Brooklynite I have some affection for. This Mets team is likeable too. Much more than the Dodgers who, well, like Void Winnower, I can’t even.

Speaking of confusion, let’s talk Battle for Zendikar sealed! Let’s talk Grand Prix Madison. Let’s talk frustration and sadness and uncertainty. This limited format is very weird. I like it. I wish I could play it more. Now that it’s released online, I suppose I can, although I really don’t enjoy spending much time on Magic Online these days. Regardless, I need to play it more, because it’s a format that needs to be explored to be understood. That’s true of all formats, to one degree or another, but Battle for Zendikar is super weird in a way I haven’t come across before. I think Wizards R&D was trying to convey the frustration and alienation of facing the Eldrazi through the physical sensation of playing the game. I’m not sure if that was their goal, but they achieved it, and it makes sense, so it seems like that’s what they were going for. Just like how the Phyrexians are invasive, the Eldrazi are befuddling.

atrium

I did some Eldrazi-themed google image searches. I have no idea how this came up, but it looks cool.

All that said, I felt prepared going into Grand Prix Madison. As I shared in my guest post sealed exercise earlier this week, I cracked a ton of packs and built a ton of sealed pools leading up to the event. That was in addition to actually playing in competitive sealed events where I got real reps with the cards. I had a good sense what I wanted to see in the pool I opened during deck building.

This is not what I had in mind:

That'll do, Pig

Creatures (15)
Kozilek’s Sentinel
Oran-Rief Invoker
Valakut Invoker
Lifespring Druid
Nettle Drone
Catacomb Sifter
Undergrowth Champion
Vestige of Emrakul
Kozilek’s Channeler
Territorial Baloth
Plated Crusher
Breaker of Armies

Spells (7)
Outnumber
Turn Against
Complete Disregard
Demon’s Grasp
Lands (18)
Blighted Gorge
Smoldering Marsh
Fertile Thicket
Mountain
Forest
Swamp

Sideboard (32)
Transgress the Mind
Natural Connection
Scour from Existence
Eldrazi Devastator
Zada, Hedron Grinder
Makindi Sliderunner
Snapping Gnarlid
Looming Spires
Swell of Growth
Scythe Leopard
Void Attendant
Kalastria Nightwatch
Dutiful Return
Carrier Thrall
Defiant Bloodlord
Lumbering Falls
Tightening Coils
Prism Array
Roilmage’s Trick
Brilliant Spectrum
Coralhelm Guide
Spell Shrivel
Gideon’s Reproach
Smite the Monstrous
Stasis Snare

Decks like these really want to leverage scion tokens into giant threats. You want ways to shift the balance of power on board. Rares aren’t dominant, but you still want some good ones to tax your opponent’s resources. Card advantage is nice. This pool offers basically none of that. I spent ten minutes of the build time mixing and matching colors and cards, trying to find something impressive. Eventually I determined this was a fool’s errand, and I went about fitting as many of my good cards as I could into something resembling a coherent deck. This pool felt decidedly below average, but I could do something with it.

I don’t think there’s much to discuss in my card choices. Maybe Dutiful Return is good and should have gone in somewhere? I decided not to play Natural Connection because Lifespring Druid seems better to me in most situations. You can only play so many mana-only cards, and the expensive Rampant Growth didn’t seem worth it. I sided it in a couple times against opponents who could easily deal with my Lifespring Druids, and in one game I got to blow out my opponent’s Unnatural Aggression fighting a 4/5 against my Territorial Baloth, but overall I feel confident in my choice not to put Natural Connection in my main deck.

spawnsire

“Closure of consignment shop spawns ire” is how this found its way here.

As you can see, my pool didn’t offer many options for sideboarding. The aggressive landfall cards don’t quite get there, although they can in decks with a higher concentration of early plays. Splashing white for a couple removal spells didn’t seem any better than the black splash I already had. Maybe the blue cards could have added some value as a fourth color? I don’t think they are good enough to make my mana into a mess. You need powerful splash cards that effectively provide two-plus cards of value in one card, so that you have room to devote extra deck slots to stuff like Natural Connection or a nineteenth land. Coralhelm Guide and Spell Shrivel are nice, and maybe Brilliant Spectrum or Roilmage’s Trick would have been useful. The cost to my deck would be too high, though. Don’t make your bad deck even worse by trying to cram in marginal value.

When you travel 1,000 miles to play a limited GP, it’s hard not to feel deflated when your sealed pool underwhelms. Fortunately I enjoy the challenge of eking out victory with suboptimal cards. Battle for Zendikar sealed favors grindy games, rewarding clever strategy and patient play. I put my best foot forward and hoped it was enough to advance to the draft tables on Sunday. But going into round three (after my byes) I was not hopeful. I was not happy. I felt downtrodden.

Round three didn’t help. My opponent was on the “my pool is so bad I had to play one drops, pump spells, Zada, Hedron Grinder and hope for the best” plan. In other words, a step or two below my already bad position. I won the die roll, and despite my inclination to draw in this format (especially with a slow three-color pile like this) I sensed something in my opponent and chose to play. Scythe Leopard met Kozilek’s Sentinel met Swell of Growth. I played the “trade resources” game and felt like I was in a great spot. Then I drew a patch of lands while he drew a Broodhunter Wurm. I lost game one. After crushing him game two with a well-timed Complete Disregard, game one replayed itself in game three. Bad cards and bad luck combine into a round three loss. I knew I could still get to 7-2 or better, but I had just wasted my margin for error in my first match of the day.

donatello

I call it “Donatello that Betrays.” Did anyone see this movie?

I fought through and won my next three rounds. Plated Crusher and Breaker of Armies aren’t the best threats in the format, but they can finish games. I lost one game where my opponent played Kiora, Master of the Depths, used her -2, and drew Guardian of Tazeem and an island. But otherwise, I played well and got to 5-1 with three rounds to play.

My round seven opponent was playing blue-white fliers. As you may notice, my pool is almost completely incapable of dealing with fliers. I can kill them with removal spells, and that’s it. Plated Crusher outraced small fliers in game one. I lost game two to Mist Intruder plus Shadow Glider attacking repeatedly until I died. The decided was super close. At one point I sacrificed my Blighted Gorge end of turn to shoot a Shadow Glider, meeting the inevitable Lithomancer’s Focus. Eventually I had Oran-Rief Invoker and Vestige of Emrakul going to race, with Lifespring Druid along to help out.

Two turns before I would win the race, my opponent cast Coastal Discovery, tapping out to save me an additional four points of damage. The next turn, I was dropping to four from the fliers, meaning I had to chump block the 4/4 awakened land with Lifespring Druid to survive. My opponent was at six and I had exactly eight lands to put out ten points of trample damage. He had attacked with everything, but then played two creatures post-combat, with a total of five toughness. Thanks a lot, Coastal Discovery. I drew Outnumber for the turn, but couldn’t use it to survive or clear the way for enough trample, needing all my mana to make the invoker a 7/7 and hit my opponent to one. If I hadn’t sacrificed my Blighted Gorge, would I have won? Maybe. Lithomancer’s Focus would have screwed up my race though. If Coastal Discovery awakened for three instead of four, or he had drawn four toughness instead of five, or if Oran-Rief Invoker got +6/+6 instead of +5/+5, I would have won. In a very unfavorable matchup, with a bad deck. I could have been 6-1 and in great shape to advance. But instead, I lost by the slimmest of margins.

dust

You said it, dog.

Round eight went well, but I lost round nine to a blue-red deck with two copies of Guardian of Tazeem. And a bunch of other good cards. He mulliganed the first game and I took it down. Game two I lost almost solely to his turn five play of foil expedition Cinder Glade, cast Exert Influence for converge three, steal my Vestige of Emrakul. Talk about a kick in teeth. Game three was painful. I slowly felt the game slipping away as he played powerful card after powerful card. I killed the first Guardian, but a popped Hedron Archive drew the second and that eventually sealed my fate.

I was devastated. To come so close, with so little, and to lose anyway? I wanted to die. Leaving the conventional hall, I trudged slowly and silently to my rented car, drove back to my downtown hotel, rebooked my flight home so I could leave early Sunday morning, and just hurt. Limited grand prix are becoming more scarce these days. I felt like I did what I could, but it wasn’t enough.

I felt confused, befuddled, distraught. I got Eldrazied. Go Mets?

Brendan McNamara (MTGO: eestlinc, Twitter: @brendanistan) used to play Magic in the old days. His favorite combo was Armageddon plus Zuran Orb. After running out of money to buy cards and friends who were willing to put up with that combo, he left the game. But like disco, he was bound to come back eventually. Now he’s a lawyer by day and a Dimir agent by night.

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