e are one week away from a weekend that will feature coverage of U.S. Nationals, U.K. Nationals, and German Nationals. The American tournament will be taking place in Minneapolis, Minnesota and there will be a whole gaggle of dailymtg.com columnists heading there for the weekend—although hopefully most of us will not have to write anything while we are there.
I have been to Nationals for the past few seasons in coverage capacity, but when round one of this year's Championship starts up, I will be sitting down to play in a match and not to report on it, as will Limited Information columnist Steven Sadin, Top Decks' Mike Flores and site contributor / data analyst Paul Jordan.
I have to admit I have gotten used to the cushy accommodations on the coverage circuit. I am going to be cramming into a room with both Steve and Mike along with site contributor Paul Jordan. It will be nice to prepare for the events with my friends but having to fend for pillows and covers is a skill set that has atrophied over my years perpendicular to the action. As for my 40 and 60 card skills ... well, I will be turning to my teammates for advice.
While both Mike and Steve have experience playing at Nationals—and have both experienced success there—it will be the first time I am actually playing in a National Championship. In fact, and this was shocking to me when it dawned on me, round one will be the first time I have ever played a Constructed match at an invitation-only event.
Mike has been playing in Nationals for years with a heart-breaking 9th place finish in 1999 being his highest place. Mike's deck creations have fared a little better than he did, including a win for Jon Finkel with the mono-black Napster deck, and a Top 8 finish for (looming Hall of Famer?) Brian Kibler playing Green-White Control in 2004. He also built Josh Ravitz's Big Red Top 8 deck in 2005.
Jon Finkel's Napster
1st Place - 2000 U.S. Nationals
Brian Kibler's Green-White Control
Top 8 - 2004 U.S. Nationals
Josh Ravitz's Big Red
Top 8 - 2005 U.S. Nationals
Mike has been grinding away non-stop on Magic Online since Magic 2011 became available and I look forward to seeing exactly what deck we end up playing.
It may seem odd to you that we don't know exactly what deck we are playing yet, but that is only because Mike has learned from experience that you need to wait until all the last minute results are in before making a final decision on a deck. Getting the metagame shaken up by results from events the weekend before Nationals has become a U.S. Nationals tradition. All eyes will be peeled for results from the Standard portion of Chinese Nationals and any other noteworthy tournaments that take place both online and off.
Whether it was the debut of Momentary Blink decks the week before Nationals in 2007 or the emergence of Solar Flare in the weeks leading up to Nationals in 2006—a year Mike was confident he had the format well-cracked before the tournament rolled around.
"I thought we had the best deck for, like, a month out," said Flores about his Ideal Gifts deck, which he had been playing at the Invitational in side sessions with Osyp Lebedowicz and Pierre Canali. "I would have played the deck at the Regionals, but Osyp asked me not to and I played Boros instead. Ideal Gifts was well over 75% against the existing field at that point—we had maybe one or two tough match-ups but they were winnable. I had never played a deck that had such a dominating match-up."
But a funny thing happened on the way to Nationals ...
"Solar Flare came out and we were too obstinate about not playing it," Mike recalled. "We could have switched to a white-blue deck that one of our teammates had ground in with, but we just didn't. Solar Flare would just stick a Persecute and it was over for us. I learned to never long-range a deck again."
To illustrate his point Mike admitted that Zvi Mowshowitz convinced him to long-range a mono-white control deck early on in this format only to have the deck be rendered irrelevant by Naya Shaman decks that can fetch up Realm Razer.
I asked Mike to explain his rules for building a deck and adapting to changes in the metagame.
"For any kind of premiere event—and this has always been my algorithm—I try to choose the best deck and figure out how to build the deck to beat the mirror match. A lot of players want to avoid mirrors but I always try to treat the mirror match as a real match-up," Mike explained. "I'll always play a deck that I don't need to work for the mana to come out. That is why I have played too many green decks. I have a new rule that I have developed in the last two years—not to play green. But I really like green even though we don't get along well."
Barring something unusual being added to the mix from China, Mike estimated that the field for next weekend would be made up mostly by White-Blue Control, Naya Vengevine, various Ramp decks with Primeval Titan, Pyromancer Ascension, and a little Jund.
"I think there will be 10+% Jund but certainly not the 30% Jund fields we have seen," said Mike of the one-time public enemy number one of the Standard format.
Steve Sadin has had some success at the Nationals draft tables. During Nats in 2007 he ran the draft tables along with a then-unknown Brad Nelson and Jim Davis. It was one of a handful of strong Limited finishes, which include a Top 16 at Pro Tour–Kuala Lumpur and another Top 16 at Grand Prix–Melbourne, that led to him becoming the expert on all things germane to 40-card decks here at dailymtg.com.
I asked Steve what the trick was to attacking the draft tables at Nationals, where the perception is that the players may not have as much experience drafting since many players qualified to be there by playing in Constructed National Qualifiers. Steve dispelled that notion.
"If you sit down at a 4-0 draft pod, everyone is going to know their way around a draft table and similarly if you are sitting down to draft on Day Two," said Steve.
"One thing that I usually do for Limited at Nationals is to identify a color or color combination that is being under-drafted and sit down at the table with the intention of forcing it," he explained about his approach to the draft. "If people don't see a normally under-drafted color or strategy coming to them they will ignore it and you will have a lot of opportunities to get paid off in that color. A lot of people will fight over the most popular strategies."
"If there is no bias that is evident by the time I get to the event site, I will just draft reactively," he continued. "That means I will wait to see what color is very available. I try to remain flexible for the first few picks and see what high quality cards are coming to me with the fourth- and fifth-picks. My fourth pick means a lot more to me than my first one."
Mike Flores and Paul Jordan.
Our fourth roommate is not currently qualified for Nationals but that has not stopped him in the past. Paul has his eyes set firmly on what were once known as The Meat-grinders, that take place the day before Nationals. They are essentially Last Chance Qualifiers that are run as soon as thirty-two players are signed up for the event. Signups will start at noon on Thursday and continue throughout the day. This typically nets somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen players qualifying to play in Nats via Standard events and a hair fewer getting there via M11 Sealed Deck.
The events are all single elimination—which is where the Meat-grinders label came from—and players are able to sign up for another event as often as they want and are able. Back in the old days there were only a handful of these events and they would start out with hundreds of competitors grinding away for a few precious slots. It is a much more appealing proposition to know that you have multiple shots of qualifying throughout the day.
And if you don't manage to qualify ... well, I am sure there is plenty of Magic to be found throughout the weekend in the Public Events. I actually know players who have found qualifying to be bittersweet as it comes at the cost of not being able to play in the Public Events all weekend long. You can check out the schedule of Public Events—which includes details of the Grinders—by clicking here.
As I mentioned earlier, Paul knows a thing or two about getting into Nationals through the Grinders having actually battled his way into a last chance Nationals invite in the past. He took a Momentary Blink deck, that had just won an event the weekend before Nats, and plowed his way through for a berth.
"I just took the deck that Gabe Walls did well with the week before and I won with it," said Paul. "For what its worth, it is the only time I have ever qualified for Nats."
Paul Jordan's Blink
1st Place - 2007 U.S. Nationals Grinder
"You really have to love Magic to do it," said Paul of the Grinder experience. "I really only have the chance to travel to maybe one Magic event a year and when I found out that all my non-relative groomsmen were qualified, it made this an easy choice. Let's put it this way—I am going to be going to Hawaii the next week with my wife and I am slightly more excited about playing at Nationals."
"Obviously you want to do well, but I don't have the expectation that I am going to win every event like I did 10 years ago. I will be playing a lot of Standard whether I qualify or not—I think I can do a lot of damage with my deck," said Paul who has been prepping for this event as much as anyone who is qualified for the main tournament. "For some reason I have always thought of myself as being better at Limited—probably because I like it better—but I actually do much better in Standard."
"If you are going there to qualify and are serious about it—it is not like the old days when there were only a couple of them—and you want to get in, then you have to start out as early as possible and play in as many as possible," said Paul about his plan of attack for playing in the Grinders. "Early and often—just like voting."
On a Side Note
Cedan Bourne works for Legion Events and in addition to a myriad of other duties is their resident foodie. I asked him for some advice about where to go for some good local eats while in town next week and he provided the following suggestions:
"I didn't mention any that are listed here, but of those I would have recommended Hell's Kitchen and Murray's. No particular order to these:
Small plates, but not tapas.
Recently visited by Anthony Bourdain, This is a hot ticket right now.
Be sure to make a reservation as they only have seating for 36 people.
Creative pub fair.
With a five-course tasting menu for $30, it's an amazing bang for your buck.
You can get some Americanized classics, but the real money is on the specials board. Huge menu and open late.
Minneapolis has one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the world outside of Vietnam. If you like Vietnamese you shouldn't miss this one.
Seafood, most of it fried.
Only open during the summer, Sea Salt is located in Minnehaha park right next to the falls.
Fantasic fish, fantastic location. Be prepared to wait in line.
Midwestern Middle Eastern.
No, that's not a contradiction.
As the name implies, they love their spices, you will too.