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Jeff Zandi is a five time pro tour veteran who has been playing Magic since 1994. Jeff is a level two DCI judge and has been judging everything from small local tournaments to pro tour events. Jeff is from Coppell, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, where his upstairs game room has been the "Guildhall", the home of the Texas Guildmages, since the team formed in 1996. One of the original founders of the team, Jeff Zandi is the team's administrator, and is proud to continue the team's tradition of having players in every pro tour from the first event in 1996 to the present.


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The Southwestern Paladin
Control is Back
Old School Control Makes Top Eight in U.S. & U.K. Nationals
August 30th, 2005 by Jeff Zandi

There was a day when all you had to do to keep your opponent under your mind control was to leave two Islands untapped. Your opponent knew that no matter what he played, you could respond by playing Counterspell and ruin his plans. The simple, pure elegance of Counterspell was removed from the blue mage years ago, and nothing has come close to taking its place. However, in both the United States Nationals two weeks ago, and in the English Nationals two weeks before that, control decks toppled one aggressive deck after another to reach the top eight of both prestigious tournaments.

The common belief has been that control decks simply do not have the kinds of cards available to be viable against aggressive mono red and mono white decks or against the “combo” decks such as Tooth and Nail and the (mostly) mono blue Urzatron decks.

Two decks broke the mold in August to prove that control is alive and well in Standard constructed. First, in the English Nationals, Neil Rigby reached the top eight with a blue white control deck loaded with thirteen counter spells (fifteen if you count his two main deck Twincast cards). Rigby locked down the board with the oldie-but-a-goodie combination of Worship and Pristine Angel. Across the Atlantic, in the U.S. Nationals, Neil Reeves took control with a mono blue control design featuring sixteen main deck counter spells as well as four Jushi Apprentice to give him the card advantage that really puts his deck over the top.

I’m not trying to paint the picture that NOBODY is playing mono blue control these days. In the constructed portion of the recent U.S. Nationals, six players out of one hundred and seventy-six chose mono blue control. Only one of those made the top eight, the one played by the professional card player from Texas Neil Reeves.

When I talked to Neil last week, he had mixed feelings about his Nationals experience. Basically, he wanted to win. Don’t confuse Neil’s desire to win for bad sportsmanship. Neil is a big fan of Antonino De Rosa, and is excited to be on the U.S. team for World’s with De Rosa and Jonathan Sonne. I joked with Neil about how, in photos taken after the final match at Nationals, he looks really severe and brooding. Apparently, Neil wasn’t in a big smiley kind of mood at the time.

Neil just wanted to win, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Yes, he was happy to pocket a big paycheck for finishing second. Neil just wanted to win. Moreover, he knows he had the right deck, and that his matchup against De Rosa in the finals was in his favor. You might understand why Neil was READY for this to be HIS Nationals if you knew a few things about Neil.
First, he has been dominating Nationals for the past four years. I’m almost certain that Neil has the best Nationals record of any U.S. player over the past four years. Another reason that Neil might be less than completely satisfied with second place in any tournament, even one as prestigious as U.S. Nationals, is because of the company he keeps. Back in Valley Ranch (the Dallas suburb where Neil lives and where the Dallas Cowboys have their offices and practice facilities) Neil has been playing cards a lot with Adam Bernstein. Bernstein won a Pro Circuit event, the equivalent of a Magic Pro Tour event, in the superhero card game Vs. Last year, Neil’s former traveling companion and Magic teammate Bob Maher junior won the Duelist Invitational. A week after Bob won the right to put his face on a Magic card, Neil’s OTHER constant companion at the time, Dave Williams, became an instant millionaire (coming in SECOND, strangely enough) in the World Series of Poker.

Even though Bob Maher is known to his friends fittingly enough as The Great One, I have no doubt that Neil taught him a thing or two about Magic in their time together. I have a pretty good idea that Adam Bernstein learned how to play Vs. from Neil. I know for a fact that Dave would never have become the poker player that he is today without many hours at the card tables with Neil Reeves. These guys have all gone on to somewhat greater fame and fortune in the same games that Neil competes. While Neil is certainly happy for all his friends’ varied successes, he can only share in their success to a certain degree. Neil just wants to win at the highest levels of all the games he plays.


Neil, who admittedly doesn’t stay as current in the game of Magic as he once did, studied the top deck archetypes a few nights before Nationals. Neil selected a version of the mono blue fairly close to one recently played by Jeroen Remie. Testing the deck against a couple of the more popular decks that Neil figured he would encounter in the competition, he fell immediately in love with the mono blue design. Even before selecting mono blue, Neil knew that he wanted to play control of one sort or another. Urzatron, greatly enhanced by the recent addition of Memnarch (hardly seen in the deck in the U.S. Regionals two months earlier) still required too much luck to be really good, in Neil’s opinion. Neil looked at the more popular version of mono blue but did not like Thieving Magpie either as a card drawing engine or as an early game blocker against aggressive decks.

Here is Neil’s mono blue deck from Nationals, along with Rigby’s blue/white design from the English Nationals. Discussion about Neil’s experiences at Nationals follows:

Neil Reeves
1st place after Swiss rounds, 2nd place overall finisher U.S. Nationals Mono Blue Control
21 Island
4 Stalking Stones
4 Jushi Apprentice
4 Spire Golem
3 Annul
4 Mana Leak
2 Condescend
4 Hinder
4 Vedalken Shackles
2 Oblivion Stone
3 Boomerang
3 Rewind
2 Thirst for Knowledge
4 Twincast
1 Sakashima the Impostor
1 Uyo, Silent Prophet
1 Mephidross Vampire
1 Triskelion
4 Threads of Disloyalty
2 Echoing Truth
1 Annul

Neil Rigby
4th place finisher English Nationals
Blue/White Control
4 Cloudcrest Lake
4 Coastal Tower
3 Blinkmoth Nexus
6 Island
3 Plains
1 Eiganjo Castle
1 Mikokoro, Center of the Sea
1 Oboro, Palace in the Clouds
1 Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
3 Pristine Angel
1 Blinding Angel
3 Worship
4 Mana Leak
3 Condescend
4 Hinder
2 Rewind
3 Boomerang
4 Thirst for Knowledge
4 Damping Matrix
2 Twincast
3 Talisman of Progress
1 Twincast
2 Boseiju, Who Shelters All
3 Acquire
3 Reverence
4 Auriok Champion
2 Quash


The version that Neil played with in Nationals (listed above) differs slightly from the list he started with a few days earlier. The list he began with included four Rewind, three Thirst for Knowledge and only three Jushi Apprentice. Neil thought the Rewinds were too heavy and hard to cast. Neil dropped one Rewind and one Thirst to add a fourth Jushi Apprentice and to add one of two Condescend cards that ended up in the deck. The sideboard was primarily concerned with the match up against Tooth and Nail. This was a good guess, since Tooth and Nail was the most popular deck at U.S.
Nationals, played by no less than forty-five players (a full 25% of the field). Against Tooth, Neil brought in a kind of standard “suite” of eight cards including all four Twincast and four Tooth and Nail targets for when Neil’s Twincast created copy of the opponent’s Tooth and Nail resolves.
Neil’s board also included four copies of Threads of Disloyalty. I figured that these were for matchups against weenie and aggro decks, but Neil said they were actually more valuable in the mirror (or near-mirror) match. In these matches, Neil primarily used the Threads to steal Jushi Apprentice.
Against mono red decks, Neil admits it was big fun to use Threads to steal a Slith Firewalker after it had grown to a size that would be difficult for the red deck to block in future turns. Neil’s sideboard MVP, however, was a tiny little card that he only included in the sideboard as a filler, the fourth copy of Annul. Neil was amazed by how good Annul was against EVERY deck in the field. In fact, in making changes to his Nationals deck for future play, Neil identified the fourth Annul as being the first and most important addition to the deck. Amazing.

Against other decks with counter spells in them, Neil sideboarded in as many copies of Twincast as possible. Against counter spells, Twincast essentially became a two mana hard counter. The best situation was when Neil would play an important card on his own turn, like a Jushi Apprentice or Vedalken Shackles. If Neil’s opponent responded with Rewind, Neil could respond with Twincast, making a copy of Rewind to counter the opponent’s Rewind and UNTAP FOUR OF NEIL’S LANDS. This trick allowed more expensive counter spells in Neil’s hand to be available for casting on his opponent’s turn.


It might not be quite fair, but Neil had a few things to say about Rigby’s English Nationals deck. Neil was surprised that the Worship/Pristine Angel combo would be valuable enough to tie up six cards with in the main deck.
While Neil felt Rigby’s selection of counter magic was decent enough, he felt the deck would have had difficulty winning in the U.S. Nationals field.
Of course, the real key to Rigby’s success is that his deck didn’t have to be able to win in any tournament except the one it was in. There was not enough published about English Nationals in general, or about Rigby and his deck in particular to know as many details about the deck’s performance as we would like. I continue to find Rigby’s deck interesting, however, simply for its audacious use of Worship as a primary control element.

The most important element of BOTH these Nationals decks is their ability to put together a winning combination of counter magic in a day and age where efficiently priced counter spells are very hard to find.


Just as an added note, it might interest you to know that Neil Reeves and pal Adam Bernstein both competed at a Pro Circuit Vs. event at Gencon in Indianapolis the weekend after U.S. Nationals. Adam’s luck did not hold up.
Adam washed out of the tournament early. Neil finished in ninth place, allowing him to pocket another several thousand dollars in prize money, but not allowing him to lift the champion’s trophy that he REALLY wants.

Of course, I’d love to find out what YOU think!

Jeff Zandi
Texas Guildmages
Level II DCI Judge
Zanman on Magic Online


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