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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Control is Back
Old School Control Makes Top Eight in U.S. & U.K.
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
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 TALKS ABOUT HIS NATIONALS DECK
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:
1st place after Swiss rounds, 2nd place overall finisher
U.S. Nationals Mono Blue Control
4 Stalking Stones
4 Jushi Apprentice
4 Spire Golem
4 Mana Leak
4 Vedalken Shackles
2 Oblivion Stone
2 Thirst for Knowledge
1 Sakashima the Impostor
1 Uyo, Silent Prophet
1 Mephidross Vampire
4 Threads of Disloyalty
2 Echoing Truth
4th place finisher English Nationals
4 Cloudcrest Lake
4 Coastal Tower
3 Blinkmoth Nexus
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
4 Mana Leak
4 Thirst for Knowledge
4 Damping Matrix
3 Talisman of Progress
2 Boseiju, Who Shelters All
4 Auriok Champion
HOW NEIL’S DECK PERFORMED AT NATIONALS
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
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.
REVIEWING NEIL RIGBY’S BLUE/WHITE CONTROL DECK
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!
Level II DCI Judge
Zanman on Magic Online