Ever since Rich Hagon had slipped into the conversation that he’d made a gentlemen’s wager with Brian David Marshall about the performance of the UK team versus that of the USA, the pressure had been building. There seemed to be, to my considerable panic, a rising consensus that the team this year wasn’t awful, that we could be expected to accomplish things, to make the grade, to step up to the plate. And sure enough, we put in quite a bit of effort building decks, drafting and testing in preparation – taking our duties seriously!
Regarding my own performance, as the tournament approached the monkey on my own back was reaching Joe Young proportions. I couldn’t afford to shame myself with an ignominious 2-16 record when the fortunes of others were also riding on my results… Be reasonable, I snapped at myself. Huge honour, culmination of entire Magic career, others would kill beloved elderly family members for the privilege, exotic location, good times with good friends. All true, but still… 2-16.
Although I am grateful for small mercies, and especially grateful for larger mercies on the scale of ‘giving you a ticket on the next flight’, disruption to our travel plans to Narita were not inconsequential. Jonno (you can read Jono’s report here), Richard and I arrived in Birmingham with several hours to spare before our short hop to Charles de Gaulle (CDG), and I whiled away the hours illustrating to them that Vampires isn’t a complete walkover for Elves or U/W – there’s a justifiable suspicion towards the deck left over from its populist incarnation just after Zendikar went live, but the deck is now a little more robust and features some nice interactions.
So, Birmingham on a snowy December evening. Our aeroplane takes its allocated place in the ‘de-icing queue’,and waits with serene British politeness as the minutes build up on our delayed departure. Eventually we take off approximately forty minutes late and although some time is made up en route, our mad rush through CDG means we ‘only’ miss the take-off of our Narita connection by ten minutes. We then embark on a mad quest for the Ibis hotel generously allocated to us by Air France, which involves boarding a bus on the doorstep of one Ibis, driving for almost an hour in circles around the airport passing innumerable other, presumably entirely unsuitable, Ibises. Entertainment is provided by mad laughter coupled with trying to explain ‘Dragon Cards’ to two Dutch girls while Richard perseveres in a straight-laced explanation of what MTG is all about… Lately I’ve resorted to just informing people that yes, I am a professional poker player.
Another day, another de-icing queue – at least this time we know we’ll actually get to Japan. I ply the Japanese girlstravelling beside me with Foxes hard candy, for which I am rewarded with a period of intense lolling (counteracted in the romantic stakes by some equally hardcore lolling from the right flank by Jonno). Fourteen hours after boarding our flight, free Ramen and cokes all night, and the delectable Lee Ah-Lee in Miss Staff Sergeant (a classic of contemporary Korean cinema), we arrive in what is a complete fantasy land. I’m sure the effect of setting foot in Japan was exacerbated by my long hours of wakefulness, but the ambience, the urban and rural landscapes, the endlessly absorbing beauty and novelty, came sharply to me even in the short window between the parallel airy and desolate spaces of the aeroplane cabin and the Makuhari Messe Conference Centre. I’d booked my return flight from Japan for a week after the end of Worlds, so the cultural experience was going to be waiting, in all its slender, impressionable, dark-haired glory, after the serious business of savaging chubby international card gamers with pretend Vampires was finished with.
I managed to get an updated Standard list with sideboard from some friendly US 5K grinders who I knew from PT Austin (Mike Pozsgay and Christian Keeth) so I wasn’t running a list card-for-card from the MTGO dailies – always a nice feeling. For the team event I was running a Belgian list of ANT, which is different to Joao Choca’s list that I tested with, foregoing the Burning Wish package for straight U/B (more searching and a higher chance of first and second turn kills). The sideboard was incidental, just bounce, a final Thoughtseize, Spell Pierce and a Xantid Swarm package in case someone out there is suicidal enough to be running Countertop. Cards were loaned out to us in huge quantities and with great trust by a large number of UK players and shops, for which we remain in your debt. I got good prices for all the Jaces at the dealers.
We munched our way through a fairly average fast-food meal at Lotteria Burger, completely failed to find one of the members of our group who had gone wandering and never returned, waited for a fruitless hour for our shuttle bus to take us back to the hotel before caving and hailing our second cab of the day. Fortunately at some god-forsaken hour our missing team mate arrived safe and well… shrouded in mystery the evening was, and shall remain, forever.
I spent a troubled night at the comfortable (and cheap) Toyoko Inn, crashing out at 10 pm only to wake before 4. Breakfast was literally and figuratively fishy, but I managed to choke down some glutinous rice dumplings and miso soup. Walking into the event, I experience a curious physiological effect, a kind of synaptic tilting. At variable intervals stretching from one to ten minutes, my brain quivered on an internal axis, like Di Caprio’s spinning top in the final shot of Inception. This discombobulating effect was destined to last well into the next week – a result of chaotic sleeping patterns which for once couldn’t be attributed to snoring. This sense of vague unreality had at least one positive effect: performance anxiety was ebbing into an endless succession of lengthy blinks and head-clearing head-shakes.
Not a world superstar, good – not a member of a national team, not good. Turns out Hoi was qualified on ranking, but hadn’t played a lot of Magic in recent months. Turns out my introduction to Worlds would be the mirror.
Game 1: My scorecard is defaced with a huge ‘MISSED SCRY’ circled five times. This technical error haunted me, but it was a more subtle error I made earlier in the game which was the most important one – making a Kalastria Highborn over a Bloodghast. The Bloodghast pre-empts a Gatekeeper of Malakir; as it was, I had to sacrifice my Viscera Seer to it. I ended up drawing a bunch of Bloodghasts, which are obviously terrible when behind on board. After he overran me with creatures, he flashed me two Doomblades, dead in his hand for most of the game.
Game 2: Hoi played a Mimic Vat out of the board and I folded almost immediately to the advantage it gave him. Without getting the Highborn ‘combo’ online (which is difficult through a lot of red removal), the games go long enough that the mana investment for setup and activation are good value for the extra scrying, draining, blocking and attacking enabled by the Vat. He made a slight error on the penultimate turn, not making an extra attacker via the Vat to put me to 0, but I was so far behind there was nothing my draw step could offer me to punish him.
At the end of the round Hoi departed, accidentally leaving me with his sideboarding sheet. Like facing down a turn 2 mana Myr on the draw, I briefly considered burning it, then realised it would be bad for my final standings.
Another round, another Hong Kong opponent, but this one from the nationals side. He’d been watching the remnants of my previous round, so he knew I was on Vampires and could scheme accordingly. His deck was a blue-red control deck with a lot of Planeswalkers including Little Jace, Koth and Chandra Nalaar, Mana Leaks, Bolts, Pyroclasms, with Contagion Clasps and Everflowing Chalices to build up into back-breaking Destructive Forces. Unconventional.
Game 1: He mooches around going one-for-one a lot, making Jace into certain death, bolting and leaking a lot of my spells, but ultimately my scrying and Bloodghasts mean I get ahead on the table and finish him off. First game win!
I bring in Duress, but leave the Demons in the sideboard. I think with hindsight this might have been a mistake, as I don’t see any evidence of Big Jace, but the Demon can’t be considered good against a deck that can prospectively bounce it with one of the most-played cards in Standard.
Game 3: I flood out horribly; to evidence this, at one point I make a desperate Gatekeeper of Malakir to kill his boarded Calcite Snapper with five mana open and two lands in hand, only to have it double mana-leaked. I got caught in the ‘keep land in hand’ bluff mentality, which is doubly reinforced by the prospect of resurrecting Bloodghasts late on. I put up a fight with Sarkhan the Mad, making three dragons via Bloodghast, each of which was killed with a combination of Chandra, Bolts and Pyroclasms.
Disappointing. At least in the aftermath I had the pleasure of having my performance de-constructed by the striking figure of Simon Carmichael, from the Ireland national team. Advice much appreciated, and the camaraderie of the Irish was a great boon to me during my time at Worlds.
So, two rounds into the World Championships and here I am on table (Worlds Competitors/2). My opponent for this miserable match to determine who will remain down here was Franco Bonazza, likewise a National Champion. Seems like the kids these days are no respecters of reputation. Franco was piloting the ubiquitous Valakut Ramp deck, which we thought based on the showings at recent 5K events and major tournaments was on the wane – how wrong, how wrong we were.
*Examine hand for Mark of Mutiny, find none*
Game 3: Like Nationals, his deck does what it should do and mulligans twice. I make a pile of vampires and swarm him to death in reasonable time – except he reveals post-game that he has *two* Primeval Titans in hand and has been on six mana for two turns. Unfortunately for him, much earlier in the game he’d harrowed and fetched double green, then asked for a takeback to get a mountain instead. I let him.
Out of the bottom bracket!
Enrico is the reserve member for Italy, beaten by the eventual champion. Ever wary of Italian banter after having to suffer the company of picarescas (does this work in Italian?) like Bramba Davide and Bruno, I am pleasantly surprised. He is much more agreeable than all those others. We even commiserate one another over all the play mistakes we make over the course of the match.
Game 1: The dream opening of one-drop into two one-drops on the play did for him.
Game 2: Another massive mana flood from me in this game, another resolved Sarkhan the Madwhich made three dragons, each one of which met its end in a variety of ways. Most humorous was the one which successfully ate an attacking Celestial Colonnade – I waited expectantly for some hitherto unforeseen trick that would trump the token, but instead Enrico sheepishly binned the manland then made a post-combat Journey to Nowhere. Not that I can preach, I missed a couple of Bloodghast triggers in the slow midgame which meant a mutual wallowing in our own inability.
Game 3: I Duress and see Gideon, Day of Judgement, Elspeth, Jace, Mana Leak and a couple of lands. I take the Day, and several turns later Enrico is still on three lands, the Mana Leak a fading memory, with my vampire horde knocking on the door.
Round 5: Yong Han Choo (Singapore) Valakut Ramp
A moment of comedy before the round, when I sat down and offered my hand.
Me – â€œI’m Joeâ€
Him – â€œJackson.â€
Me – â€œYes, Joe Jackson.â€
Him – â€œJackson?â€
Me – â€œYes, I’m Joe Jackson, Michael Jackson’s dadâ€
Him – â€œNo, I’m Jacksonâ€
Alriiiiight. So Jackson Choo (or Jackson Yong, tripartite names make me wonder) has a Pro Tour top 8 to his name, at Hollywood in 2008. He’s also got Valakut, which is bad/good for me depending on his Pyroclasm draw.
Game 1: One of those games where your opponent ends up on two life, and you wonder about that critical play where you would have pulled out the victory. The ‘just once’ on this occasion is turn 4, when I swing in with the team to put him to low life. I’ve got a board of Gatekeeper, Highborn and Pulse Tracker with four mana, and I drop a Vampire Lacerator to shorten the clock, figuring if he’d had the Pyroclasm he’d have used it the previous turn. He has the Pyroclasm. My drains put him to single digits, but I don’t draw enough gas before he resolves Primeval Titan. I make the frankly embarrassing play of flashing him a Mark of Mutiny in order to provoke a scoop, only for him to tutor up two mountains at instant speed to burn his own Titan, before making a second one. Not wondering, I die.
Game 2: I Duress his Tumble Magnet and make a crazy Demon of Death’s Gate on turn 3 after getting him to within two swings. He promptly tops another Magnet and puts me on lockdown, but eventually, after a really tight game in which his Valakut triggers and Raging Ravine get me down to within a couple of life, he runs out of charge counters and the Demon connects with all the momentum suggested by its evocative artwork.
Round 6: Christian Keeth (USA) B/R Vampires
Christian is a fugitive from WoW Minis and hails from Las Vegas – this is good, since I’ve never been to Sin City before and now I have a contact there. He’s one of the Americans who gave me the list in the first place, and we’re laughing about it as we sit down for what promises to be a classic 75 card mirror. Except he’s betrayed me and put Skinrenders in his sideboard, thus ending our fledgling friendship in cruel fashion.
Game 1: I draw three Kalastria Highborn, which is a strong card. Except that’s more or less all I draw, and their brightly burning flames draw unwelcome moths in the form of Bolts and Arc Trails. Several Gatekeepers of Malakir are also distinctly unfair when I don’t have a Bloodghast.
Game 2: Christian gets a really removal-heavy draw, including Gatekeeper again. He also draws four Lavaclaw Reaches; I’m not sure about the relevance of this, except I’m forced to commit card resources to killing his lands, so when we both flood out, he’s left as the last man standing. We both manage to resolve Sarkhan the Mad, but he has another Bolt when I try to make a Dragon, so my Sarkhan dies to his Reaches. A comedy moment occurs when he makes a Bloodghast into a Dragon and simply flips the card to denote the 5/5. I grudgingly inform him that it’s probably better to put the card into the graveyard so he can make it into a Dragon again next turn. Which he does.
Lost two mirror matches and went 50/50 against Valakut and control decks, missed about a thousand potential scrying opportunities and a non-zero number of Bloodghast triggers. I guess I should have been prepared for this when I signed up to play Vampires in the first place. Not only have my constructed rounds left me feeling a little dejected, but with my stamina at an all-time low, I’m now faced with the prospect of what, for me at least, will be two high-pressure team rounds. Starting off with the gentle assignment of France, boasting Antoine Ruel, Julien Parez, and Guillaume Matignon.
So, my first round heading up the UK Nationals team and I’m facing down a seasoned professional destined for great things this very weekend. He’s friendly enough and the entire round is started in somewhat jovial fashion, mostly down to Antoine Ruel who seems to be extraordinarily laid back and gregarious – can’t commend him highly enough.
I was interested to read Guillaume’s report on our match, being the ‘Scottish guy’ playing for ‘Team England’. My recall of Standard matches has certainly waned since the event, but these games stood out starkly for me – amusing to read his inaccurate recall of what transpired between us.
Game 1: He opens on a Savannah, which is hugely important since I know he’s either playing Zoo which is unlikely and will be immediately readable, or combo Survival, both of which are excellent for me. When he’s done nothing relevant on turn 1 or 2, I Ad Nauseam in complete comfort, then agonise over my flipping decisions for ages. He moans about how slow I am, and asks whether I’ve ever played a) my deck or b) Legacy, before. The first card I turn is Tendrils, but followed by little in the way of mana. Eventually I flip a final card, a Dark Ritual which puts me to 6, and he scoops. According to his tournament report, he’d been sent heavily on tilt at this point by Parez countering Richard‘s turn 2 Nest Invader which promptly morphed into Emrakul. I guess that explains the grief.
Game 2: He mulligans looking for hate but has to stick with an aggressive draw featuring Hierarch, Jitte, Survival, Tarmogoyfand Pridemage. I Thoughtseize the Survival out of his hand, and he explodes onto the board with all his creatures. At one point I spend a long time calculating whether I can go off with a Duress to make exactly lethal storm, getting me a 3 minute warning from both my opponent and a judge, before passing the turn under pressure and neglecting to spend blue mana on a Preordain.
I have Chain of Vapour for his Gaddock Teegs and Canonists, so when he attacks to put me within one swing of dead I Chain his Jitte-equipped Pridemage. He responds by sacrificing one to destroy the other, boosting the Tarmogoyf to lethal next swing. I Chain that too, possibly a mistake in case he draws Teeg, but I want all my blue mana to filter my draws. He remakes it immediately, I take another attack then generate huge mana and *IGGY POP*. Dan (you can read Dans report here and here) and Antoine are still playing slow and loose, but eventually they pack them up at 1-0 with the round already over in our favour. Finally a lot of pent-up nervousness can turn into that sleep-deprived euphoria that sometimes settles on one, as we’ve trampled into the dust the team-dreams of a nation of some Magic renown.
Having disposed of the French, it was on to another huge clash of the 19th century global imperialists: Great Britain versus Russia. I’d be facing down Vladimir Mishustin, Champion of the Russian Federation (in a bygone era, perhaps reprised in Hollywood by Dolph Lundgren).
But this is a story for next time… ;)
Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing your thoughts,