CrEaTuRe BaSeD sTrAtEgIeS aRe BaD
Izzet at MGM Continental Cup #2

By Marcel S. on 13 November 2019

It’s Halle time, baby. And by that I mean 90 players battling it out who will be the winner of this year’s biggest German / European Highlander tournament. In other words: The hype was real.

The weeks before the tournament I contacted a lot of people from different communities, especially for deck help, and everyone felt it. It didn’t matter how tough life’s been treating you lately, everyone who planned to go there in advance (60+ people counting the pre-registrations) knew it was time to have a blast playing the best Magic: The Gathering format on earth. The location (Hall of Games with its wonderful store owner Lars L.) was very nice, just as last year. I saw a lot of old faces and met a lot of new ones. It was such a relaxed and friendly mood created by people that care about a very special hobby, I just can’t find the right words to phrase it. To sum it up: Continental Cup 2019 exceeded my expectations.

Blue is love

Pretty much a year ago I ditched my long-time favorite color combination that was Azorius. I had some fun with Dimir in between, but finally stuck to Izzet which I main up to this day. Deep in my heart, my eternal love for mono blue will never die, but I like to win games before my facial hair turns grey, and red’s supporting this purpose pretty well.

What will now follow is a tournament report from the perspective of a UR control / midrange player. If this doesn’t interest you, you might as well skip this section to get to the part where I share some general thoughts about our format right now. You can find the list (+ some deck description) here.

Round 1 vs. Florian (not my teammate) on Jeskai Tempo / Midrange

Florian is a well-known player from Berlin and an experienced Jeskai pilot who tries some techy stuff from time to time. I like that a lot. He’s also the guy that offered his True-Name Nemesis for the price of two Cents on magiccardmarket after its banning. A fine humor.

Game one we both mull to five. We trade our limited resources when his Spell Queller eats my Vendilion Clique and starts beating for two a turn in the air. We both draw a lot of nothing, I finally find and drop Magus of the Moon—that unfortunately fixes his mana so he can start burning me down, speeding up the clock. He has both Force of Will and Force of Negation for my bombs (Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Fiery Conluence that would kill his board and bring back my Vendilion Clique) and I roll over to the Spellqueller beats.

Game two I mull to six and already have the feeling that I might start with a defeat in the biggest tournament of the year. He has a slow start, though, and the war of attrition makes us both end up in topdeck mode. Some turns later with plenty of Islands in play, I resolve Vedalken Shackles that take over the game in an instance. He asks the judge how much time’s left and concedes so we can have a third game.

In the last game of this match my non-basic hate pays off. I focus on handling his threats before I drop Blood Moon and Back to Basics. He has an Island and a Plains, but my two enchantments still limit his mana significantly. That makes my Pia and Kiran Nalaar resolve and the three bodies start beating. He Lightning Bolts the brother and sister, I Chain of Vapor them back to my Hand, netting me another pair of Thopters in the first extra turn when I recast them. Another attack and some activations of the legendary siblings seal the deal in the last extra turn.

Knowing that he might have drawn this match if he didn’t concede game two, Florian wasn’t even being salty. He’s a calm guy, doesn’t talk too much and focuses on winning—a very pleasant opponent.

Score: 1-0 (phew)

Round 2 vs. Justus on 4 color Tempo w/o green

If you attend the Metagame Masters series in Berlin from time to time, you probably noticed this guy. He and his friend Max (who won last year’s Continental Cup by the way) make Top 8 on a regular basis there, playing low mana curve Tempo builds that are optimized to the very last card. These two are some prime examples for dedication to a specific deck that pays off so much.

In game one he realizes what he’s up against as soon as I drop basic Island and Mountain in my first turns. My teammate Florian plays a very similar deck so I roughly know what I have to expect, too. That causes a stand-off where we’re just dropping lands until I decide to cast Back to Basics with five mana sources in play and Pyroblast and Force Spike as back-up. He has Pyroblast, too, and another cheap counterspell, so I come out on top and he has only two basics left when Back to Basics resolves. I take this game safely home after that.

Game two is a very interesting back and forth. He uses Gurmag Angler, Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Monastery Mentor to threaten me, but I have the solutions (Petty Theft and Magmatic Sinkhole for the two black delve creatures, Fiery Confluence for the token producer). He floods a little which lets me resolve Jace, the Mind Sculptor. It’s still tough because his deck is so efficient, but after four Brainstorms with a fetchland activation in between, this is over.

After the match we’re discussing the power of Force Spike and how recent editions gave his deck even more flexible options (he runs Charming Prince and Bonecrusher Giant now for example). For a short moment, he seems a little sad which is understandable: A player of his caliber has the potential to take a big tournament like this one down and a loss in the early matches hurts a lot. He quickly shrugs it off, though. Cool guy, top Highlander player—I enjoyed these games a lot.

Score: 2-0 (not bad)

Round 3 vs. Hendrik on Abzan Ramp

Hendrik made green-based Ramp strategies great again in our beloved format. If I remember correctly, he’s from Berlin and placed Top 8 in the Metagame Masters series several times—just like he did this Continental Cup. Unfortunately, this is the only match I have not much to say about—the mulligan hammer hit me hard.

In game one I go down to four cards because I can’t find a single blue mana in my opening hand three times in a row. When I finally keep, I’m just playing to see what he’s playing before dying to several Wolf tokens from Garruk Relentless and a big Knight of the Reliquary.

Game two I mulligan down to five, but can keep up in board presence. A pretty big Crackling Drake makes this a somewhat close game before I’m running out of gas. Some smaller stuff like mana dorks, a Kitchen Finks and Shalai, Voice of Plenty that all got pumped by a Gavony Township two or three times end my misery.

Two non-games in a match is bitter, but well, we’re playing a card game that’s based on a good amount of luck. Hendrik felt visibly sorry and played it straight and fair, so there’s nothing for me to complain about. I could use the leftover time to get some snacks and drinks, so there’s that.

Score: 2-1 (ugh, that was ugly)

Round 4 vs. Christoph on White Weenie

I haven’t met Christoph before, but my teammate Fiona knows him from her local community, so we were introduced to each other in the pause between rounds two and three. He’s a chill guy with a very fine beard.

Before we begin, you have to know there’s two types of White Weenie decks: The less aggressive one that plays a fuckton of hatebears and the one that goes full force straight into your face. Unfortunately for me, Christoph plays the latter version.

Since I have no clue what I’m facing, I keep a mediocre hand game one with early interaction in the form of Negate and Spell Snare. Christoph wins the die roll and Gitaxian Probe’s me so he knows what I’m relying on with my starting seven. He drops a Student of Warfare and that’s where the misery begins. I start with the classic “Island, go” and he just levels up that Student to a 3/3 to avoid Spell Snare. That’s pretty much how the game goes: His pressure forces me to tap out in turn five and that’s when Ravages of War resolves. Since I’m behind on board, I eventually die.

Game two started a little better—at least that’s what I thought. Christoph has Gitaxian Probe again which reveals my Arc Trail and Fiery Confluence to him. He follows up with some two-power one-drop. With perfect information, he plays it pretty sleek: I don’t get to two-for-one him with Arc Trail because he follows up with Winter Orb instead of another creature, so I have to Memory Lapse the artifact. From that point on, we’re making our land drops and start playing cat and mouse. Do I cast Fiery Confluence to deal three damage to each creature? Then there’s a Winter Orb to stay. Do I only deal two damage and kill the Orb? Then there’s some stuff surviving the fire and beating me down.

In the end, I have the following Deja-vu: His Ranger Captain of Eos makes sure another Ravages of War resolves. He has some 2/1 left that gets pumped by a Hymn effect—and that’s it.

Nothing much to say except that that guy knows his deck. He used the Gitaxian Probe information to make optimal plays in both games and get those lethal 20 points of damage in. Well played.

Score: 2-2 (meh)

Round 5 vs. Sebastian on White Weenie

This guy was in for some friendly trashtalk and those matches are often times the best. Hint: He’s playing the aggressive White Weenie variant.

In game one I mull to six and have no clue what I’m playing against, so I keep some decent six with Mana Leak and Fire // Ice to react accordingly. He wins the die roll and starts with War Falcon and follows up with Soldier of the Pantheon. Protection from multicolor has never been stronger since I drew Electrolyze as my first card of the game. I use Petty Theft to bounce the Soldier at the beginning of combat step so War Falcon can’t attack. The game goes a little back and forth and we’re exhausting each other on resources. This makes his Castle Ardenvale look pretty bonkers. I need to Stifle its activation, then Nimble Obstructionist another activation the turn after because with two Hymn effects on the board, these dudes are 3/3. Once I’m out of Stifle-effects, shit’s going down quickly. Next.

As an Izzet player, you feared True-Name Nemesis. Now it’s banned. In game two, I got to know my new archenemy: Soltari Priest. Protection from red means I can’t burn it, Shadow means I won’t ever block it. So that’s how it goes: He sticks the priest that’s getting pumped two times to make it 4/3 (that new Force of Virtue is pretty nice by the way). I don’t find an out (one of my few bounce effects or Vedalken Shackles) and the holy man deals 16 damage on its own—enough to drop me below zero with the help of his friends.

So what’s to take from that? While the less aggressive White Weenie version (the one my fellow comrade Leif from Westphalia’s community runs) feels like a pretty balanced match-up, the straight aggro version looks like an absolute horror to play against. Had a good laugh, though, since Sebastian is a pretty funny guy and we were commenting on each other’s “insane plays” the whole time. Totally worth it getting completely destroyed by War Falcon and his brothers with protection from Izzet.

Score: 2-3 (oh god pls no)

Round 6 vs. Miguel on RDW

If there’s anything worse than playing against aggressive White Weenies as the UR Midrange / Control mage, it must be Red Deck Wins. You have no lifegain and really need to clock hard in order to have chance—which this deck doesn’t really excel at.

Game one I have to mull to six again, but I find one of the most important cards my deck has to offer in this match-up: Thing in the Ice. At least I win the die roll so the frozen Horror enters the battlefield as soon as possible. Miguel has some mediocre start with Vexing Devil as his one-drop which obviously deals four damage before hitting the bin. I counter some stuff and discard Back to Basics and Blood Moon to Izzet Charm that lets my Thing in the Ice flip. I burn potential blockers and counter some dangerous stuff before da big snek ends the game in three attacks. I have 6 life points left.

The second game was the best one I had the whole tournament. I win the game at one life—but only because he didn’t have a one drop after we both mull to six. That makes the game go long, too long for my taste. I get some Jace, the Mind Sculptor action going, but can never tap out in fear of getting burned out in response. A flipped Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy keeps an annoying Chandra’s phoenix in check while Brazen Borrower is chipping away at Miguel’s life total. We’re both running low on cards and I hardcast Hieroglyphic Illumination (the only moment in the entire tournament I wished it was Fact or Fiction that I cut for the Illumination) at his end of turn. That’s when he scents his chance to Lightning Strike me for lethal with only one untapped Island on my site of the battlefield. His friend sitting next to him is as excited as us—then I present the life-saving Spell Snare. From that point on, I can outcontrol my opponent and Vendilion Clique joins his brazen Faerie friend before Fiery Confluence does what it does best: kill people who are at six life points dead.

Miguel is new to Highlander and not even mad because those two games were just dope. If he had a slightly better start after his mulligan in game two, there would have been a game three—that’s how bad the match-up is. We kept chatting for a while before I had to get something to drink.

Score: 3-3 (of course I win the worst possible match-up)

Round 7 vs. Jörn on Abzan Ramp

Jörn turned out to be a pretty relaxed guy knowing what’s good against Izzet: Casting big, uncounterable fatties that you will never get rid of anytime soon (Carnage Tyrant says hello). As you can guess: I’m facing Ramp again.

Game one feels like I had switched decks from UR Control to Tempo. I counter his turn one Expedition Map with Mental Misstep and bounce his early plays with Brazen Borrower and Venser, Shaper Savant. Thanks to The Royal Scions, I’m clocking pretty fast for a creature light deck like mine. When his deck finally starts doing what it should do, it’s already too late: His Archon of Valor’s Reach has to attack my Scions that threaten to ult. My Chandra, Torch of Defiance helps out and deals the missing two damage with her first plus ability.

Game two is such a mess. He has a nice start with a Forest being enchanted by Utopia Sprawl. Combine this with Arbor Elf and you’re good to go to cast some fatties. A Fierce Empath finds Carnage Tyrant and now things look grim for me. I find Thing in the Ice and Back to Basics. The latter cuts him off of his Treetop Village—which is the one single mana he needed to cast the big dinosaur the next turn. So he casts a Thragtusk instead which is also pretty good against me. When he finds another land the following turn and drops Carnage Tyrant, my Thing in the Ice still has three counters on it. I decide to go all-in and do some powerful magic: Petty Theft his Thragtusk, Thing’s going to two counters. I cast Preordain, keep priority and Negate my own cantrip to remove the last two counters. Big snek awakens for the second time today and hits for seven.

With the lifegain from Thragtusk, there’s still another three turns I must get the Horror damage in. He adds Lotus Cobra and Arbor Elf to the board which I Electrolyze in my next main phase so I can hit for another seven. He has only Fierce Empath as his next trop which finds a horrible death by Forked Bolt that a Spellseeker found. Back to Basics still keeping his Treetop Village tapped makes sure he can’t cast anything because a dead Arbor Elve means there’s two mana a turn missing from the Utopia Sprawl enchanted land. He finally dies to Awoken Horror with three big fatties in hand.

Score: 4-3 (satisfied)

What this year’s Continental Cup has shown us

In my opinion, the most important thing to take with us from this tournament is that good, dedicated players that invest time in their deck, can play pretty much everything and be successful with it. That explicitly includes creature based strategies, be it aggro (Gruul [hello Felix], Selesnya, White Weenie, Mono B Suicide), combo (Pattern Rector, Hermit Druid, 5 color Kiki-Jiki) or special stuff like Ramp.

Is it fun playing against academy combo? No.

Is blue the arguably best color in the format? Probably.

Can we currently enjoy the most diverse metagame since years? Yes. This also explains why in the recent surveys a lot of people say they are pretty satisfied with the format currently. Despite its obvious flaws and a lot of complaining and whining, our unique way of playing Magic: The Gathering itself and the community around it are fun. A lot of it.

Let’s keep it that way.