by PAUL W.
During the tournament, I found myself in a miraculous spot. I somehow managed to reach top 8 of my first tournament ever in one of the most diverse formats you can imagine. In this article, I want to share impressions about how I approached the tourney and the process of refining my deck to give back the great HL-community the joy I have experienced during the MGM#8. If you want to skip this introduction and move onto the discussion of the Matches, feel free to scroll down a bit.
The deck I brought to the table was Mardu Midrange. The reasons for playing this deck were twofold. For me being a relatively new player of the Highlander format (although I played it 8 years ago before I took a substantial break from Magic), I somehow felt the obligation to start off as an underdog and so I imposed on myself the obligation to play neither of the two most prevalent colors – even I knew that blue obviously had the most powerful spells with Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Treasure Cruise or Mana Drain and green brought acceleration, tutoring and beef to the table which other colors can hardly match. Furthermore, I deemed it inappropriate to spend my money on blue-based dual lands since I did not know if my return to Magic would be a lasting decision.
However, as I was in the process of refining my card selection and as I gained a feel on what BWR is trying to achieve in a game of highlander, I noticed that this color-combination was able to provide the most efficient disruption/ interaction/ removal for whatever is sitting at the opposite side of the table while still offering the flexibility to adopt different roles as the game goes along. Hand disruption, Land destruction, Death-and-Taxes-like cards, hasty beaters or insurmountable planeswalkers always seemed like an attractive combination for me. Additionally, you are able to extract the immense potential out of newer Magic releases. Palace Jailer; Queen Marchesa; Kaya, Ghost Assasin; Nahiri the Harbinger; Liliana the Last Hope; Fatal Push; Collective Brutality just to name a few…
I playtested with Mardu for half a year before the tournament and tried out different versions. At first, I was on a Blood Moon/ Ruination build but discarded it after a few weeks since I felt it was castrating my own options too severely. Then some lists popped up at MTGpulse which showcased different takes on the archetype. I recall several builds with way over ten planeswalkers and mana-rocks accelerating into these costly spells. I do understand the idea behind this build, but I think as you craft your deck like this, you are missing out on a couple of important pieces which would perfectly fit the curve and gameplan of Mardu (e.g. Tidehollow Sculler or Bitterblossom). Then there was a list which scored high at an influential german Highlander tournament series, but had more of a control flavor and curved out at six with spells like Sorin, Grim Nemesis or Wurmcoil Engine. However, against other control decks or decks with a higher degree of interaction, I always hated the feeling of having a five or even a sixdrop in my hand with the definite assurance that it will eventually meet a counterspell when they maneuvered me into a position where I just had to deploy it to survive (Control has to be blue by definition; only counterspells can play the draw-go effectively IMO). As my playtesting progressed, I even cut my only fivedrops in the form of Thundermaw Hellkite and Archangel Avacyn (which I can definitely see people arguing for).
The decklist I registered at the MGM#8 and which I consider the only appropriate take on Mardu given the current RDW/Combo-heavy Meta with midrange decks in a rather endangered is generally a tap-out deck within the lower range of the midrange spectrum.
Temple of Malice
Temple of Silence
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Hymn to Tourach
Inquisition of Kozilek
Hide // Seek (Seek)
Path to Exile
Swords to Plowshares
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
Kaya, Ghost Assassin
Liliana of the Veil
Liliana, the Last Hope
Nahiri, the Harbinger
Heart of Kiran
Brimaz, King of Oreskos
Figure of Destiny
Kambal, Consul of Allocation
Pia and Kiran Nalaar
Recruiter of the Guard
Seeker of the Way
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Thalia, Heretic Cathar
Vial Smasher the Fierce
Some card choices are worth explaining:
It struck me like lightning when I realized about two weeks prior to the actual tournament that I simply HAD TO include Heart of Kiran in my deck. I have seen it in the Mardu list I was referring to above, but never realized the potential this card can have both on offense and on defense But if you combine it with Elspeth, you most of the time have a 2 turn clock in the air; Kaya can continuously crew it while also removing pesky blockers and Chandra Pyromaster serves kind of the same role. This card is strong, evasive and flavorful and I hope I never have to cut it.
I brought in Pia and Kiran Nalaar over Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, which eventually turned out to be one of the best decisions I have made. Kalitas always felt too clunky and had no impact on the board the turn it came into play. Furthermore it is weak to Karakas, which just feels horrible when you desperately need him. Also, the lifegain ability is almost irrelevant, since RDW has access to spells which conveniently shoot four damage to creatures. You would always prefer the boardstate mom and dad create you when they enter the battlefield, since they are also helpful to push through the last amount of damage.
Furthermore, I decided to play Rishadan Port and eventually cut Tectonic Edge. The latter, in my opinion, is highly overrated, since it poses a restriction to greedy manabases and only provides disruption as early as turn four. It is good if you have to answer opposing manlands (a function which had been filled by Fatal Push) and only really shines if your opponent already has problems developing his or her mana. Port, on the other hand, is a very flexible card which you can use to tap your opponent’s open mana during your turn to deny countermana and, together with the two Thalias, has the potential to lock down entire games.
During my playtesting in our strong Erfurt Group, I eventually had an even matchup against a Grixis Control Deck by a successful player and several Bant Tempo Brews; a very favorable matchup against other creature-based decks (such as 4Color Blood); and an OK-Matchup against Combo-decks I was familiar with which was enough for me to travel to Berlin. The only deck I continuously lost to was Jeskai Midrange (a deck which I would argue to be the strongest deck at the moment) in the hands of a very skillful player. My aim was to enjoy some memorable games of Magic against obviously more skillful and experienced players while still having confidence in my decklist. And throughout the tournament, I became more and more convinced that I have chosen a powerful deck, but more importantly, the RIGHT deck for ME.
Now on to the games itself.
Match 1 against Jeskai Control: 2:1
The start in my first tournament could not have been more gentle and respectful. I played against Karl D., who was a very focused player and overall a really nice person. We quickly found a level of personal interaction which enabled both of us to stay concentrated and feel more relieved from the surrounding tournament pressure. He even reminded me on an important trigger, which took me by surprise!
Game 1 I lost because I approached the game on the wrong angle. I was used to Jeskai Midrange and kept a hand with several removalspells and double-white creatures such as Brimaz, King of Oreskos, which tends to be good against Jeskai due to his four toughness. I did not realize that he was fetching on basics and also played a signet, so his turn-4 Blood Moon locked me out of the game since I fetched aggressively.
Game 2 I was able to lead with an early Grim Lavamancer, which showcased his whole potential by dealing 8 damage over the course of the game. I was later able to bait the counter for my Queen Marchesa by throwing away Palace Jailer and could protect her infinitely with Karakas and Volrath’s Stronghold while handling his board and drawing a crucial Thoughtseize to secure my position.
Game 3 I could resolve both my hand-disruption and a threat in the form of Falkenrath Aristocrat, since I have not seen any counterspell. He later stuck a Torrential Gearhulk, which I could either answer with terminate or Hide//Seek. I made the right decision to use the latter, since he later stuck a pesky Frost Titan which then got terminated.
Overall, I was really nervous at first. Getting paired against my least favored matchup Game 1 and even losing the first game is not a great feeling. But I owe Karl a lot of gratitude for his kindness which enabled me to have a smooth start in the tournament.
Match 2 against Bant Midrange: 2:0
I have played this matchup several times and consider it even. But, if the Bant-Player resolves a midgame Draw-Three or a creature tutor, I have often a hard time dealing with the additional value brought to the table.
Game 1 he opened with a mana-elf, but my inquisition was able to disrupt his curve significantly (I took Geist of Saint Traft). I had only reactive spells, so I kept the board more or less in check and later made him discard his Dig Through Time. As we approached turn 6 or 7, I deployed a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, which can be a tough deal for Bant as he outclasses his team and since they only have a few outs against him. The Planeswalker enabled me a couple more drawsteps where I could close out the game.
I do not recall everything from Game 2, but I remember having a 4/4 Figure of Destiny as a relevant Body after he stuck Palace Jailer to draw him 4 more cards. Luckily, I was able to stick Bitterblossom, another very relevant card in this matchup, and Elspeth to carry this game to victory.
Match 3 against Mono-Black: 2:0
A friend of mine who is currently living in Berlin and testing Highlander in the ASL told me of a mono-black deck that he encountered a week before. I did not expect this deck to be brought to the tournament, but when my opponent leads off with two swamps in a row, I made the right conclusion and from this point onwards, the match became rather predictable.
Game 1 I kept a land-heavy hand with Tidehollow Sculler and Crackling Doom as the only spells. My Crackling Doom was taking by Turn 1 Duress, my Tidehollow Sculler and the follow-up Brimaz, King of Oreskos were killed. He then got ahead for a few turns with Geralf’s Messenger, Vampire Hexmage and Smuggler’s Copter. I could resolve Ajani Vengeant into Arc Trail killing his creatures (I lost my Ajani to the Hexmage in the process), leaving an empty board except for the Copter, which he couldn’t crew. He then drew lands for the rest of the game, while I was able to resolve Queen Marchesa to bury him in card advantage.
Game 2 my opponent seemed to have a very reactive Hand. I cast Lingering Souls turn 3 which was answered by Liliana, the last Hope, pretty much the perfect answer. Luckily I was able to take down his Liliana with a turn 4 Elspeth, Knight-Errant. He tried to keep the board under control with Gatekeeper of Malakir, Malicious Affliction, Marsh Casualties and Murderous Cut, barely managing it against Elspeth and a Brimaz that got brought back with Unearth. He could stabilize somewhat and resolve Custodi Lich, making him the monarch, which he didn’t keep for long against Elspeth though. Elspeth and a pumped-up Figure of Destiny finished him off a few turns later.
Overall, I appreciate the dedication my opponent put into his deck and how tried to extract the best out of this mono-colored build. I do not even think that card-quality was really an issue here, but for an advanced player, it is rather predictable what to expect and how to navigate within a matchup like this.
Match 4 against RDW: 2:1
Although I have never played this matchup, I considered it slightly in my favor, since I have access to cards such as Lightning Helix, Collective Brutality, Kambal, Consul of Allocation or Kitchen Finks, which in combination with Volrath’s Stronghold or Unearth would be devastating. It turned out that other cards would come in handy.
Game 1 I had the most insane curve I could have ever imagined. On the play I curved into Heart of Kiran into Liliana of the Veil into Elspeth, Knight-Errant and swung for 7 in the air while diminishing the handsize of my opponent. However, in the last possible turn, my opponent played a Flames of the Bloodhand EOT and used his turn to cast both Pulse of the Forge and Fireblast for the remaining 12 damage and thus took the first game.
Games 2 and 3 developed quite similar to each other. My opponent had a somewhat creature-heavy draw, which is generally easy for me to deal with. I resolved Tidehollow Sculler and a few discard spells Game 2 to disrupt his hand and later found the “combo” of Kitchen Finks and Unearth which sealed the game. Game 3 the discard was again very relevant, while my opponent only found two lands and was further set back by Vindicate. If I recall correctly I drew Falkenrath Aristocrat to seal the match in a quick fashion.
On hindsight, it was pretty relevant to diminish the explosiveness of RDW in the early game to turn the games in my favor. I congratulate David to still reach the Top8 with this deck later on!
Match 5 and 6 were intentional draws against Luca (Jeskai-Twin) and Fabian (Izzet)
Quarterfinals against Izzet: 1:2
Being happy to have another player from Erfurt with me in Top8 contention, I was not amused to face Fabian with his Izzet-Deck directly in the Quarterfinals. I have experienced him as a very accurate and thoughtful player who has a strong knowledge about his deck, since he achieved several Top8 results with this achetype in the past.
Game 1 I benefitted from being on the play due to my higher standing. I kept the best hand possible for my deck in a vacuum, which turned out to be insane in this matchup, too. It contained two lands, amongst them a fetchland to fuel my Deathrite Shaman to lead into a turn-2 Liliana of the Veil. There was also a Tidehollow Sculler as well as a Kaya, Ghost Assasin and a Vial Smasher the Fierce. I developed my gameplan accordingly and resolved a turn 3 Tidehollow Sculler which forced me to decide between Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Vendilion Clique. I took the Jace which he never got back this game and won by activating Lilly and having cast triggers out of Vial Smasher the Fierce.
Game 2 I have not been concentrated or experienced enough to compete with my opponent. I could not handle his melting Thing in the Ice which was accompanied by a Goblin Rabblemaster. When I deployed a few creatures, Chandra, Torch of Defiance burned my board. I was so afraid that I vindicated her instead of the Rabblemaster, which was retrospectively definitely the wrong decision. Additionally, rumor started among the spectators as we both unintentionally missed two triggers of his Thing in the Ice. This would have bounced the Goblin Tokens. On hindsight, it would have changed nothing on the actual outcome of the game since I was not able to hold pace. But because I have never experienced a situation like this, I let emotions take control and got distracted and even more nervous by this incident.
Game 3 I missed the draw of my Gitaxian Probe due to this lack of concentration, which turned out to be crucially relevant (I have drawn each answer a turn too late). When he deployed Back to Basics, the game was basically locked in his favor.
Aftermath/ Thoughts on Deck going forward:
Overall, I am happy to have made the experience to feel the pressure in the Top8 and am proud that Fabian took the crown to Erfurt with his deck. However, although I consider Izzet to be one of the most consistent and strongest decks in Highlander, it would have also been possible for my list to win against it in the hands of a better player.
Regarding post-tourney deck-considerations, I would definitely cut Monastery Mentor. Although it is a very potent card, the shell does not fit to unleash its whole potential. He was very underperforming over the last dozen of matches. Maybe I will sculpt my Manabase in order to include an Eldrazi Displacer, a card which I have seen doing a lot of work. I am also considering cutting Brimaz for the exact same reasons as Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet and therefore bring in a Calciderm (outclasses everything while providing an irremovable clock against control-decks). If Stoneforge Mystic becomes legal, I am going to cut either Seeker of the Way or Grand Abolisher and replace Blightning with Sword of Fire and Ice.
I hope that my perspective and insights were entertaining and helpful for the majority of the readers. I am grateful to have such a strong and motivational playgroup behind my back in Erfurt – feel invited to join our local FNM’s! Also a big “Thank you” to the tournament organizers for creating such a forum and taking care of this awesome Highlander format!