Mind Games

Magic: the semi-finals

Magic: the Gathering is the best game. Unfortunately, it’s practically impossible to explain how to play, but I can sum it up like this: you and an opponent deploy cards from decks of your own construction, and the cards interact in various arcane ways with each other until a winner is determined. The cards can represent creatures, like dragons or elves, or symbolize spells, like lightning shooting from your hands into the face of an obnoxious person. Eventually one player’s spells or creatures overwhelm the other’s, and he wins. In the game, you and your opponent are wizards. In real life, you are nerds.

The marketing for the game is directed at teenagers, but I’ve never been sure why this is. The rule book is a 120-page-long PDF formatted like the criminal code. For example:

413.2a If a spell or ability specifies targets, it checks whether the targets are still legal. A target that’s removed from play, or from the zone designated by the spell or ability, is illegal. A target may also become illegal if its characteristics changed since the spell or ability was played or if an effect changed the text of the spell. The spell or ability is countered if all its targets, for every instance of the word “target,” are now illegal. If the spell or ability is not countered, it will resolve normally, affecting only the targets that are still legal. If a target is illegal, the spell or ability can’t perform any actions on it or make the target perform any actions. If the spell or ability needs to know information about one or more targets that are now illegal, it will use the illegal targets’ current or last known information.

Most of the people I know who play the game are adults, and the complexity of the rules is the reason we play. Exploiting some weird loophole so that your gang of trolls beats your friend’s gang of trolls is incredibly satisfying, especially if his gang of trolls was totally about to win.

Magic players, like other men engaged in time-wasting pursuits (fishermen, golfers, grad students), love to recount to each other the intricacies of the deed. Below is a tournament report I filed to the thirty or so people in the “nycmagic” Google group after I came close to winning a large tournament. The grand prize was a trip to Paris, to play more Magic.

Subject: Philly PTQ Report

Hi guys. Like Patrick, Hunter, and Tony before me, I am pleased to report a great run in a Scars Sealed event. I won 6 of my first 7 matches in yesterday’s PTQ, and going into the 8th and final round I found myself in 9th place. A win and I make Top 8, just 3 Plague Stingers from Paris. My last match went to three games, but my opponent, piloting sicknuts.dec, had too much gas. I finished 15th out of 230-something.

I’ll spare you a full run-down of my matches, both because I can’t remember the details and because most of my matches weren’t all that interesting. But my deck build was worth discussing, and I’ll also give a sketch of the final round.

I’ll warn you right now: even without the match blow-by-blow, this report is long. As you guys probably know, the only thing I like better than playing games of Magic is rehashing games of Magic.

My Pool & Build

I had a Cerebral Eruption with other Red good stuff. I had a Sylvok Replica and a Spider in an otherwise weak Green pool. I had six good White creatures. I had a Necrotic Ooze and a Skinrender with little support. And I had a Sword of Body and Mind.

But my build was dictated less by what I had than what I didn’t: no Arrest, no Blast, no Turn to Slag, no Dispense Justice, no Revoke Existence, no Grasp, no Flesh Allergy. I knew there would be many 6-drops out there that I had literally no available answers for, even out of the sideboard.

Knowing I needed to either beat my opponent or put him irretrievably on the back foot as soon as possible, I decided to go extreme RW aggro:

1 drop
2x Goblin Gaveleer
2x Origin Spellbomb
Infiltration Lens

2 drop
Glint Hawk Idol
Sunspear Shakiri
Gold Myr
Arc Trail

3 drop
Tumble Magnet
Kemba’s Skyguard
Vulshok Replica

4 drop
Oxxida Scrapmelter
Glimmerpoint Stag
Ghalma’s Warden
Rusted Relic
Cerebral Eruption

5 drop
Kuldotha Forgemaster

9 Mountains
7 Plains

The Gavaleers barely made it. At the last minute, I put them and two Mountains in and took out Iron Myr, Sylvok Replica, and two Forests. The Myr and the Replica are objectively more powerful, but I needed beaters and consistency. That was my hardest deckbuilding decision.


If my pool was, say, a 7 or 7.5 out of 10, my matchups were a perfect 10. The list of cards that my deck just straight-up folds to is long: Contagion Engine and Sunblast Angel, in particular, but also Geth, Hoardsmelter, etcetera. Yes, I’d built specifically to minimize the chances my opponents would find their bombs, but I count myself lucky that few did.

Also, I never played against poison. An Ichorclaw Myr or a Plague Stinger, backed up with Untamed Might, would’ve caused me significant problems, and sadness.

I did beat a guy who resolved a Steel Hellkite in all three games. I beat Mimic Vat twice. Koth once. Spikeshot Elder a bunch of times. I even beat a turn 7 Wurmcoil, which normally would be game-over. But I’d hit him with the Sword twice already and had a bunch of nerds on the board, so I played rope-a-dope on the Wurm, chump blocking turn after turn, until he ran out of cards sitting on a stacked board, 50-something life, and 10 I-hate-Magic counters.


Sword Of Body And Mind — Yeah, it’s obviously a bomb, but it was very interesting to see how my opponents always misevaluated its three threats. Everyone put them, most threatening to least, as: token, damage, mill. In Sealed, the board is all-important and your life total is never far from your mind, but no one counts their library until it’s too late. Three hits with the Sword and the game is over. Two is enough to apply serious decking pressure, because the Wolf tokens just help extend the game, and your opponent has to leave back blockers to avoid another hit. I stole several games against better decks by milling them out. The Sword was my poison.

The Goblin Gaveleers — Their trample ability forced damage with the Sword. And they were a surprisingly decent topdeck. I won games by having more men than my opponent, and when I’d peel a Gaveleer, say, turn 5, I usually had an equipment on board, meaning he was effectively a 3 power trampler. I only lived the T1: Gaveleer, T2: Equipment dream twice. It was a dream I could have every night. I’ve rolled my eyes at people playing this card before. It’s much better than I thought with the right support.

Oxxida Scrapmelter/Glimmerpoint Stag — I was going to compare them to Batman & Robin, but Bush/Cheney is more accurate. The former does the damage; the latter pulls the strings. Many times, the Stag would sit in an undisclosed location, my hand, waiting for just the right moment to work his wicked will. He removed blockers; he triggered extra COIP effects; he reset lands; he even blinked an opponent’s Tumble Magnet, pre-combat, for a win (I had the Sword and two guys. He could only respond to the Stag by tapping one of them. I equipped the other and swung.)

Cerebral Eruption — Brian was saying this card was very good. He was totally right. One-sided sweepers, even ones that whiff half the time, are a beatdown deck’s best friend.

Weak links

It’s silly to complain about a 6–2 deck, but if my Kuldotha Forgemaster had been a Revoke Existence, not only would I have rested easier the whole day, I probably would have won my last match and made top 8.

Last match

The one card that my deck could neither race nor answer was Tempered Steel. It was a 3-drop bomb that I had no maindeck removal for and, even worse, I couldn’t even attack around it, because when it’s in play, my board is outmatched man-for-man. Of course, I see this card twice in my final match.

Game 1

I have the Gaveleer attacking with the Lifestaff on T2. By the end of T3 my opponent is at 12 life, with a Gold Myr and Myr token on board. I have a Myrsmith out. I am feeling good. T4, I connect for more damage. On his turn, he drops Tempered Steel and a Glink Hawk. A Myrsmith and a Wurmcoil Engine follow soon after. Next game.


I had prepared a Green package, planning to swap in my Sylvok Replica and some other green guys for my White if I saw Tempered Steel. But… here it was — the end of the day, and my maindeck had taken me one match from the Top 8. I’d never played with the Green build, and it doesn’t exactly answer the Wurmcoil question anyway. The altar is no place to breakup with your girlfriend! I sideboard nothing.

Game 2

Vindication. I swarm him with nerds. His Nim’s Deathmantle? My Scrapmelter. I win pretty quickly.

Game 3

The Steel comes out. A bit later this time, but by then board has stalled. He has a Spikeshot Elder, but still only one Mountain. I’m generally short on lands. I have a Stag and the Sword in hand. He’s been beating with a pumped Glint Hawk Idol, life is low. I end up double-blocking it when I probably should’ve just taken the damage (leaving me at 2) and swung back with the Sword. As it was, I had to spend all my creatures to hold off his steroid horde. I lose with the Sword and the Forgemaster in hand. I probably misplayed this a little. But my opponent was nice, and I hope he did well in the draft. It was his first Top 8.