Monday, April 11, 2016

n00bcon 8: Pilgrimage to the Cold North

The Path to Juzám
"I'd really love to play Serra Angel again." - Danny Friedman 2012

I first saw Magnus's blog back in 2012, and (in severe retrospect) I can now say that my initial reaction was pretty far off the mark. I don't remember exactly how I found my way to the Old School MTG blog, but after paging through the existing content, my only thought was about my first favorite creature in Magic. Rather than taking a more active interest in 93/94, I dismissed the format/blog and returned to complaining about the printing of Blightsteel Colossus.

The next time Old School MTG came within my purview was when I was living in Oakland, California sometime during late 2013 or early-mid 2014. Steve Menendian had recently become interested, and was looking to drum up interest for a Bay Area contingency. At the time we were testing Vintage regularly at his apartment, and I clearly remember him uttering something to the tune of "Jayemdae Tome is the Jace of 93/94" (note that there was no Vintage-relevant Jace aside from JTMS at the time).

I ended up buying a handful of random Alpha and Arabian Nights playables over the next few months and thinking about decks. Steve set up the first NorCal Old School MTG tournament at Eudemonia in May of 2014. Unfortunately, I was in the process of moving from the Bay Area to Chicago, and couldn't make the tournament (it was the weekend before I made the drive from Oakland to Chicago in my self-built car {for the second time}, and was busy getting my life in order prior to the move).

After moving to Chicago, I immediately started playing Vintage regularly with my good friend Jason Jaco (of Eternal Central). Jaco had already been brainstorming 93/94 decks, and it wasn't long before we were slinging Old School cardboard multiple times a week. Within a few months we had a regular playgroup of degenerate nerds who now refer to themselves primarily as "Old School players" above any other MTG-related affiliations.

Interest Turns to Obsession
Since the summer of 2014, I had been vigorously playing Old School and buying cards at a financially unsustainable pace. By the winter of 2014, I had a collection that could put together most blue-based decks as well as a decent collection of Unlimited dual lands. Jaco even ran the first Eternal Central Old School tournament at Eternal Weekend 2014

By early 2015, Magnus and I had started talking back and forth about the idea of traveling internationally to battle with "$20k decks for a $0.10 card." The seed was planted, but n00bcon 2015 was slightly outside of of the realm of possibility with work and finances.

Over the remainder of 2015, I continued to play and promote the format, including the creation of this blog. I played in a Old School '95 tournament (the "Conference of Professionals") in NYC with my friends from Land Lotus Juzam. Jaco held the 54-person Eternal Weekend 2015 Old School tournament attracting a diverse group of players from first-timers and likeminded nerds like myself, to Randy Buehler (who eventually went on to win the event).

My interest and enthusiasm for this format continued to grow with each game I played, and it became all too apparent that I'd be venturing to the Cold North to duel for a Shark. When cheap plane tickets and an invitation from Magnus surfaced, there was no question.

Preparations for Civilized Dueling
After purchasing airfare to n00bcon 8, I started brainstorming deck ideas. After throwing around a few ideas and soliciting some input from my local play group, I started testing a UWR control deck harnessing main deck Blood Moon as a way to combat five-color mana bases and Mishra's Factory (the most common win condition in the restricted-Strip Mine-metagame in Gothenburg).

I tested builds, each with reasonable success, at both the recent Chicago Old School tournament and Card & Board Old School tournament in Archbold, OH. It was no surprise that my biggest losses were to decks that were either largely unaffected by Blood Moon, or decks running 3-4 Disenchant.

I found myself losing most games that I cast Serendib Efreet or Serendib Djinn, so my build at the Card and Board tournament cut the Serendibs for a second copy of The Hive along with various other cards that should assist with control as well as aggro (such as Fireball, Mirror Universe, and Copy Artifact). This resulted in a deck with very few win conditions, but packed with answers. 

It was my thought that in a metagame that seemed to have so many copies/variants of The Deck in the top eight (in my own belief due to the restriction of Strip Mine in the Swedish meta), that a deck predominantly composed of answers, and in itself had an answer to Mishra's Factory as well as the whole The Deck mana base, that this deck would be a strong Shark contender.

The final UWR Control list I decided on for n00bcon 8
U/W/R Blood Moon Control

I felt that this list was about as strong as my deck could be while running main deck Blood Moon, which I felt was worth the sacrifice of running a deck with Factories, Cities, Mind Twist, Demonic Tutor, etc. 

With a deck list decided on, airfare purchased, and accommodations secured (thank you Kalle!!!!), I was ready to fly 4,100 miles to play Magic to ***AT BEST*** end up with a card that would serve to make my Old School sideboards worse going forward.

Journey into the Abyss
Initially, my flight to Gothenburg had a layover in Brussels. That being said, two days before my flight out of Chicago was scheduled to leave, the recent terrorist attacks at the Brussels Airport and the Maalbeek metro station occurred. Not only was this a window into the depths of horror that humanity is capable of, but it also put a severe dent in my travel plans. Fortunately, after a couple calls to the airline, I was able to re-route my flight through Frankfurt, free of charge, and only arrive two hours later than initially scheduled.

While I had to scan my passport just to move between the A and Z gates of Terminal 1 in the Frankfurt Airport (not even to exit), Landvetter in Gothenburg didn't even have any security/passport-checking required to exit to the city. No complaints there. Kalle 'Egget' Nord, who was gracious enough to allow me, a near-total stranger, to stay with him, met up with me at the airport.

Nothing more quintessentially Swedish than Volvos in the airport
After finding Kalle, I got myself some Swedish kronor(s?), and we took a bus into the city to meet up with Magnus. Kalle was extremely prepared and brought beer along, which was immediately consumed.

After meeting up with Magnus, we ventured to one of the few state-owned liquor stores (Systembolaget). Sweden has a government monopoly on liquor and higher-alcohol-content beer, so it was important for us to purchase our beer for the weekend while the Systembolaget was open, given reduced holiday hours due to Easter. All the beer we purchased was sold as individual bottles/cans, so we ended up leaving with our hands pretty full between beer, luggage, and n00bcon prizes that Magnus had with him.

We then took another bus to Kalle's apartment to assemble some of the n00bcon supplies, drink, and game a little. We manually cut the n00bcon name stickers, I lost many consecutive games of Vintage to Magnus's "white weenie" deck, and I got a glimpse of Kalle's amazing collection of cardboard.

The pimpest of white borders
You may recognize some of Kalle's previous work
Kalle's accurate Time Bandits map recreation
We later ended up at Rotary Pub (the site for n00bcon, scheduled the following day). At about 2:30 AM, I realized that all I'd eaten that day had been a half pastrami sandwich on my Lufthansa flight, I'd been awake for 39 hours straight, and I'd spent the last 12 of those hours drinking. I was definitely not in the best shape. Fortunately Martin "Hardy" Hardselius, was nice enough to get me some of the taco night-leftovers at the pub (which I was able to barely ingest given my state). That was enough to hold me over until Kalle and I went back to his place, where I enjoyed probably the soundest night of sleep I have ever experienced.

We ended up arriving at Rotary Pub a couple of hours ahead to the start of the tournament. Two of the first people I ran into were Constantine Prishvitsin and Nikita Shelest. Prior to coming to Gothenburg, I had been emailing back and forth with Constantine, half of the Russian Old School MTG contignency planning to attend n00bcon, about hanging out as well as delivering a few cards for them. I believe a few of the cards were for his friend Nikita's deck. I find it really amazing to be involved with a global community that somehow, despite the distance and cost, can come together, drink, and sling cardboard – all in the interest of good times and a Giant Shark.

Constantine (left) and Nikita (right) and their awesome Time Boak shirts
International trading, complete with Russians, Germans,
insane cardboard, and tools for verifying authenticity
Constantine altered a BEB, as well as giving me some of
the awesome Bertrand Lestrée djinn stickers he made
I ended up meeting so many of the people constantly mentioned on this blog (so many that I can't begin to write about all of them in the interest of some amount of brevity), and I can report that the Swedish Old School Magic community (at least the ones I met) are stand-up, excellent examples of humanity. Everyone was so welcoming and reminded me of what I love so much about this community. It was very fortunate that the Swedish Old Schoolers spoke better English than most Americans (and were equally informed about American politics/current events), which really allowed for some in-depth conversations ranging in topics from MTG to world politics.
A panorama showing many familiar faces

pwn3d like a n00b(con)
Anyways, I am sure you're all wondering how the tournament went for me and my Blood Moon control deck. For all of you who have ever run basic Plains along with Blood Moon in Old School, you probably have a pretty good idea; things did not go quite as planned.

Running Blood Moon in Old School can be very powerful. It shuts down much of the mana bases in the most powerful deck, as well as turing off, what I would call the most broken card in the format, Library of Alexandria. There are three main ways that decks remove Blood Moon: Disenchant (requires white mana when non-basics only make red, but one of the most common four-ofs in the format), Blue Elemental Blast (requires blue mana when non-basics only make red, generally a sideboard card), and Chaos Orb (the best solution since it requires no colored mana, but hard to draw since it's restricted). The decks hurt most by Blood Moon, often have a very difficult time removing it, due to not being able the generate white mana for Disenchant.

This was my key miss with running Blood Moon—the decks that are most successful with Blood Moon are generally mono red, blue/red, red/green, and red/blue/green (and occasionally other combinations, notably not with white). The key common factor is that none of these decks play basic Plains. This is very important, because multi-color control decks, the decks most harshly crippled by Blood Moon, often run up to four copies of Fellwar Stone. If Fellwar Stone never taps for white mana, it is very difficult to destroy Blood Moon, making it hard to cast much outside of Lightning Bolt or Fireball. At that point, the multi-color control pilot often aims to draw Mox Pearl/Black Lotus (if we assume they have drawn one of their three to four Disenchants), or Chaos Orb as their main outs.

As can be seen from the deck list that I ran at n00bcon, my deck contained basic Plains, allowing opposing decks running Fellwar Stone to generate white mana for Disenchanting my resolved Blood Moons. This proved to be one of the main contributors to my horrendous performance in the tournament. The other large issue with a deck, like the deck above, is that running a deck centered around casting Blood Moon is only good when such a deck faces decks affected by Blood Moon.

Here were my matches for the day:
Round 1: Deadguy Ale 1-2 – Loss
Round 2: R/G Berserk Aggro –1-2 Loss
Round 3: The Deck (containing basic Plains :) ) 0-2 – Loss
Round 4: ***BYE***
Round 5: B/G/R Blood Moon Aggro 1-2 – Loss
Round 6: Power Monolith 1-1 – Draw
Round 7: The Deck 2-0 – Win

My memory from the day is a bit foggy (on account of the drinking and SUCH BAD BEATS), but here are my mental notes from my matches. I don't remember all of the names of my opponents, but each one was super courteous, put up with my inability to speak Swedish, rarely if ever cut my deck, and were graceful winners.

Round 1
Game 1, it looked like Magnus "Eneas" Nilsson's deck was mono black. He played only basic Swamps and ran over me with Juzáms and Hypnotic Specters. Game two, I boarded out my Blood Moons (having not seen any white mana-producing lands or cards), which is a big mistake against Deadguy Ale, given that their white sources are often limited to four Scrublands, Mox Pearl, and Black Lotus. Despite my error, my opponent got me down to 1 life, and I was able to win with Mirror Universe and a Lightning Bolt (it may have been the Fireball). I remember game three to be a good grind, with my opponent pulling out a win in the end (or who knows, maybe I got blown out and lost on the fifth turn, Danish beer can do that to you).

Round 2
Game 1 was ended within the first five turns to a Giant Growthed, double-Berserked Elvish Archers. I didn't see it coming at all. I vaguely remember winning game two, and then losing game 3 similarly to how I lost game one – swiftly and with a ton of damage at once. Blood Moons were drawn, Blood Moons were bad. VERY BAD.

Round 3
I played against Hannes Löfgren running a classic build of The Deck containing both Serra Angel and basic Plains (gotta love it). His hands did seem a bit better than mine, but overall, the combination of his Fellwar Stones with my Plains (or his own), and his many Disenchants left my "competitive edge" feeling not quite so competitive. He handily dispatched me in two quick games. Blood Moon: now bad 2/3 matches.

Round 4
My unstoppable record afforded me a bye, and the opportunity to watch Felipe Garcia, with U/R aggro play against Nikita with his mono green aggro deck at the feature match table. I can't say I was happy about getting the bye, nor happy that it was my first "win" of the day, but I did get to watch an exiting game of Old School.

All sorts of crazy permanents in this match,
not just the black Serendib Efreet
It was nice to step back for a minute (or 50) and marvel at
the sight of such a large group battling Old School
Round 5
I don't remember a ton about these games. My opponent was super fun to talk to, and when he found out that my plan was Blood Moon (as was his), we both had a good laugh, as Blood Moon hurt me more in these matches than him. I feel like I won a game, but it's also possible that I just lost this match 0-2 as well. Blood Moon: bad 3/4 match-ups.

Round 6
I faced Thomas Nielsen with Power Monolith combo. Luckily, Blood Moon was good in this match, but due to some hilariously terrible game states, this match ended in a tie. We were seated next to Michael "JhovalKing" Ahlberg, and I couldn't help but notice his Alpha Gauntlet of Mights, Arabian Mountains, and his incredible Canadian Worlds 2001 Khalsa-Brain play mat.
This is the most of any of these that I have ever seen in one game
Round 7
I felt pretty bad for my opponent this round. Clearly, his day was not going too well (he was matched up against my record), and for the first time all day, my deck worked really, really well. I drew great opening hands, the cards that I needed exactly when I need them, while my opponent did not get quite so lucky.
You can get a pretty good idea of how this game worked out by
both graveyards (mine above the deck) and what is in play
And holy shit – do you see how Blood Moon may be doing something in the picture above?!

Soapbox Analysis
I cannot blame all of my losses on how "rank" Blood Moon was in many matches (at least 3/6), but I can say that designing a deck around main deck Blood Moon in combination with Blood Moon being so mediocre (given not only my match-ups, but also considering my points with Blood Moon/Fellwar Stone/Plains) was likely the major culprit in my lackluster Swedish Old School debut.

The deck only ran two Blood Moons, but was built specifically to harness their disruptive power. This required not running black (no Mind Twist, Demonic Tutor, or The Abyss), not running green (only gaining Regrowth in a shell like this), but most importantly, not being able to run Mishra's Factories. Mishra's Factory is undoubtedly one of the best unrestricted cards in Old School MTG. It is an un-counterable win condition that does not force it's controller to designate extra deck slots for it; it can count as a standard land-based mana source as well as a win con, allowing the deck to run more answers and other powerful business spells. This is one of the main reasons why The Deck is so powerful and continues to win so many events.

The negation of the black cards, green card, and most of all, Mishra's Factory, produces a control deck that is just simply inferior to The Deck, if Blood Moon cannot create enough of a competitive edge to justify running a list like mine at all. Missing the relevance of running my own basic Plains, against a field with decks susceptible to Blood Moon, that contained multiple Fellwar Stones, proved to a fatal error and one that I believe cost me at least two matches over the course of the day. Also, having been matched up with multiple decks that were unaffected by Blood Moon, further showcased my poor analysis of the quality of my build—lesson learned.

Post-Battle Libations and the (non-existent) Burden of Defeat
I drowned my post-n00bcon feelings of defeat in good conversation, Swedish microbrews, and more Old School with Hardy. We jammed my Mono White Prison deck against his Mono Black Dreams Control for a good few hours. Ridiculous game states occurred with misplays "a plenty." I often ran out of physical space for permanents.
Note the life totals in the dice
I was awarded a prize for my low-placing performance
At some hour later than midnight, Kalle and I headed back to his place to get some rest. This time, he seemed about as tired as I had been the night before, so the sleep would do him some good. We were planning on playing in the Swedish Vintage National Tournament, which started at 5PM, technically, that day. After a long day of drunken wizardry, the rest was very much welcomed.

A Quest to Become the Swedish National Vintage Champion
After sleeping in until past 2PM, Kalle and I started thinking about the Vintage tournament soon approaching. Kalle had a control deck running Deathrite Shaman and Dack Fayden at its core that seemed really strong. I had brought a 61-card Grixis Thieves build that I had sitting around at home that I had liked in testing. The inclusion of Mind Twist, and Impulse made the deck a bit more interesting than the average build.

Grixis Thieves by Danny Friedman
Business (38)
Force of Will
Mana Drain
2 Flusterstorm
Mental Misstep
3 Thoughtseize
Mind Twist
Treasure Cruise
Dig Through Time
Thirst for Knowledge
Time Walk
Ancestral Recall
Demonic Tutor
1 Yawgmoth's Will
1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Dack Fayden
2 Notion Thief
Snapcaster Mage
Blightsteel Colossus
Voltaic Key
Time Vault
Sensei’s Divining Top
Mana Sources (23)
Black Lotus
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
Mox Pearl
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire
Mana Crypt
Sol Ring
Tolarian Academy
Scalding Tarn
Flooded Strand
Volcanic Island
Underground Sea
Snow-Covered Island

Sideboard (15)
1 Toxic Deluge
Ravenous Trap
Steel Sabotage
Ingot Chewer
Virulent Plague
Pithing Needle
2 Tormod's Crypt
Grafdigger’s Cage

The deck is packed with disruption in the form of ThoughtseizeMind TwistMental MisstepFlusterstormMana DrainForce of Will as well as both Dack Fayden and Notion Thief. It could cheat-out quick wins with Tinker for Blightsteel Colossus or assembling Time Vault/Voltaic Key.  Overall, this deck is very powerful and fun to play (assuming you like control).

Initially, this deck started its life as a blue/black control deck that powered out out massive Mind Twists off of four main deck Mana Drains, coupled with three Snapcaster Mages and three Notion Thieves. Eventually it would drain into, or hard cast a Sphinx of the Final Word (two were in the deck). I wanted to try something out without a big broken wins, like Tinker/Blightsteel Colossus or Time Vault/Voltaic Key. It turns out, that while it's a fun idea, the deck just wasn't comptetitive enough against Workshops or Oath. It did pretty well against Pyromancer/Mentor tokens and annihilated DPS Combo. Sadly, the interesting cards came out, and the broken cards/red came in. I will definitely try another Sphinx of the Final Word deck again in the future, since the card is bonkers.

Anyways, after Kalle tweaked his deck a bit, we left for the tournament being held at the University of Gothenburg campus. We commuted with a combination of bus rides and walking, and I got to see some of the city on our way. Gothenburg is a truly beautiful city to walk through and I was continuously blown away by the architecture. It feels nothing like anywhere in America due to the age of the city along with the density of green space (at least from what I saw).

The tournament site itself was also pretty interesting, and looked like no university I have ever been in before from an architectural standpoint.

Interesting ceiling
Interesting mural
I had the judge check my alters and he ok'ed everything except for my two altered Mana Drains. Fortunately, we figured this would be the case and Kalle lent me one, and I took an unaltered one from my Old School deck. We then quickly wrote out our deck lists and the tournament began shortly after.

Brief Tournament Synopsis
The tournament was six rounds with a cut to top eight. I won my first four rounds and had the best record going into round five. I remember playing against Pyromancer, Oath, and DPS Storm. Some hilarious highlights were during my game against Oath, where I stupidly cast Snapcaster Mage into my own Grafdigger’s Cage (pointed out by my opponent), just to have my opponent cast Yawgmoth's Will into the same Cage a few turns later (which I pointed out when he tried to play a Black Lotus out of the graveyard). I maintained a severe advantage all game, yet never drew any hard counters in the late game. My opponent hard-cast a Sun Titan, getting around Grafdigger’s Cage to bring back Voltaic Key (Vault was already in play, it could have also been the other way around), to win the game. It was pretty amazing.

I also cast a Mind Twist for six against DPS (piloted by none other than the great Joakim Almelund) when my opponent had mulliganned. He had his Library of Alexandria in play, just needing one more draw step for activation.

I was matched up against Hannes Löfgren, my round three opponent from n00bcon, for round six. We had the two highest records in the room and chose to draw. This gave me some time to drink some water and watch Kalle's feature match.

At the start of the final round of swiss, I still had the highest record in the room and drew with my opponent again. This gave me time to play Old School with Nikita, who was at the Vintage tournament (not playing) with Constantine who was playing in the event. Nikita's mono green aggro deck was good, often winning games by wide margins.
My third match at table one for the day
Constantine's feature match against my Oath opponent
At the end of the final round, I went into the top eight as the third seed. I was matched up against Joakim with DPS and I was on the play. Seems good!

Luck was not with me in my games against Joakim, and he beat me in two fast games. Sadly, I cannot report that I became the Swedish National Vintage Champion, just a six place finish. I was awarded an FNM Brainstorm, then Kalle and I left the University, had dinner with Hardy and his brother, Erik, then walked all the way back to his place. Gothenburg was so nice to walk through, and the walk had me in great spirits.

Vintage Side Event at Gothcon
In the spirit of marathoning MTG, Kalle and I got a couple hours of sleep and ended up back at Gothenburg University to play in the Sunday Vintage side event. I brought the same 76, and Kalle had a new U/R build packing Goblin Welders and Intuitions—cooler than Mind Twist. We caught the bus and walked a bit to get there. Gothenburg continued to be beautiful.

Kalle and I both did very well overall. The tournament was five rounds of straight swiss. I ended up with one loss to Erik Andersson, a Swedish Vintage player slinging Pyromancers, and Kalle ended up with two, one being to me). When I sat down I noticed his Neurosis hoodie, so we talked about music and discovered we both were fans of Slint. Our games were awesome and broken, with him coming out on top.

Kalle's Goblin Welder deck
Crazy trades from Midstage's Old School binder
My last match, against Kalle, was very broken and felt very close during the first two games. Game three ended early with the most broken start into a turn one (technically turn two with the Time WalkMind Twist for seven. I ended up playing Jace into Time Walk on the first turn, and Jace-storming into the only cards that would have allowed for a seven-card Mind Twist on Kalle. Got very lucky.
There's no feeling like a turn one Mind Twist for seven
(on either end)
I ended up getting third place, winning a bit of store credit from Mindstage, and picked up a Land Tax and an Alpha Karma.
Spoils of the weekend
A gift from my host
After the tournament, Kalle and I met up with David Chambers and his girlfriend, Shakrah for dinner at The Old Beefeater Inn in Gothenburg. Beers were consumed, good conversation was rampant, and the fish and chips were the perfect sustenance. The walk to and from again showed the inherent beauty of the city, and I find myself itching to go back already.

Somehow, after constant MTG for four days, Kalle and I went back to his place after dinner and jammed more MTG (playing with EC B/R and legalities) until 4:15AM, when my cab showed up and took me to the airport, headed back to Chicago by way of Frankfurt.

The four days I spent in Gothenburg were an absolute whirlwind and I enjoyed every minute of it. I'll definitely be going back next year! I wanted to quickly thank all of the friends that made this possible:
  • Kalle Nord for letting me stay with him and making my stay the best it could be
  • Magnus De Laval for being the steward this format, setting everything up for me, and being a total badass
  • Marc Lanigra for the most ridiculous story I have ever heard, revolving around mountains of $20 bills and buying $100 steaks
  • Finally, all of the amazing Swedish and international Old School MTG'ers that I met during this trip—you were all incredibly kind and it was an honor to meet and hang out with all of you
Until next time,