The following is a report replete with unimportant ramblings, minutia over the last three cards in the 76, stories of punts, and of course moments of immense skill (read: luck). More than anything, it is the reminiscing of Gathering with good friends over a shared niche hobby. Indeed, it is the Gathering that the Lords of the Pit provide over all else that makes this thing special. Replace the cards with clubs and carts and the Old School Players Ball could resemble a sweaty charity golf tournament somewhere in central Alabama between ever older (and often ever rounder) college buddies escaping the demands of life. The cards are the shared passion that brought everyone together, but it is the people that keep us coming back.
Prepare to Get Balled
The Ball is the event of the year for U.S. Old School. A “championship” title or prize payout would only lessen its stature. Naturally, it has been on my calendar the entire year, joining only one other Lords’ event, Madison Offensive III, I could attend. Life comes at you fast and the opportunity to jam Old School has diminished as the distance between the Chicagoan Mecca and my domicile has increased. All the more reason I was stoked to pull some cards together, obsessively rearrange them, and make a run for a third straight Old School Player’s Ball Top 8.
What to play? As my previous post can attest, The Deck of decks is my true Old School love. It is one of the first decks I built and I’ve tinkered with different variations off and on for years in events both big and small. I enjoy playing it, especially in tight matches. I also have a bunch of reps that could potentially offset the heaping tons of rust gathered on my already limited skills. I have also been slowly trading off a bunch of underused cards to upgrade staples over the past year and it would be awfully fine to throw down with those beat-to-hell Beta Counterspells. On the other hand, the Ball would be an opportunity to reconnect with folks and a faster deck would mean more time between rounds to catch up and slam some beers. I ran a RUG aggro list at the inaugural Ball and enjoyed casting Apes and Stripping lands well enough and there was plenty of extra time. At this year’s Madison Offensive, I ran Power Monolith but the combo is always less fun than I imagine and I was left wanting up in the frozen north for something… more. Given the recent scarcity of chances to play, I decided to sleeve up my partner of choice for another spin on the ball room floor.
Having settled on The Deck, I put a whopping five games of prep in via a camjam session with the preeminent Mossman who promptly burned a hole in my dome with his Big Red deck. After collecting myself from the long distance balling, I was not sure the exact 76 to pull together. One COP Red or two was a question the entire Old School internet and I considered. Beyond the COP shenanigans, there were a few considerations running through my mind. First, EC Old School and especially the Midwest player base were likely to skew heavily towards aggro and aggro control. This is normal for the event and is why I usually build The Deck the way I do - lots of cheap one-for-one removal to survive while the mana base is under threat. Then slowly stabilize, get that beautiful card advantage machine online, and flip-flop go the life totals. Second, blue-based Workshops were putting up a ton of finishes and the East Coasters were jamming away with it. The previous year I was handily run over by Shops and wanted to be ready this year despite not having any reps against it since. Finally, the Atog menace. Very fast damage, plenty of burn, and hits mana hard. After spending too much of time daydreaming I snapped a picture of 76 based on last year’s list, shoved it in a deck box, and threw a bunch of maybes into a box of middle school decks and a carefully packaged Revised 40 list.
The Nerds Descend
Per custom, a bunch of nerds rallied the night before to jam with Contract From Below, Middle School, or just get some Old School reps in. DMen Tap bulged past capacity as the sweathogs rolled in. Uncharacteristically, I played very little MTG that evening. I was too focused on seeing old friends, telling stories, and squeezing to the bar. All the better. I can always camjam to play some Old School, but there are only a few times a year I can feel the warm embrace of the mtgmeatball himself, Mr. Carter Petray. That evening I was glad to see the venerable Danny Friedman escaping from the hellscape that is Texas. Danny is a good friend and we regularly vie for the title of “luckiest player alive.” After discussion of the downsides of living in the furnaces below the Mason-Dixon Line, Danny’s voice lowered and asked “are you on The Deck tomorrow?” Danny is known for being an exceptionally tight player and running control decks with very few (or plain bad) win conditions and here was an opportunity for the two of us to nerd out on the minutiae of card selection. What luck! We got to catch-up and I could make some last minute changes to my list.
Danny, being the unconventional genius he is, was all in on a great heresy: no Factories and a reduced land count to maximize gas. Moat would jam opposing Factories, facilitating 49 minutes of durdle before a big ol’ Fireball or Mirror tricks. The reduced count enabled some slots in the main to explore. I was excited about trying it, but lacked the gumption to cut all the Factories. That night I settled on two Factories in the main, a Divine Offering to boost the Workshop and Atog matchups an unperceivable smidge, and a Red Blast for shits and giggles. And let’s be honest, if the opponent is not on blue, a dead 61st card probably doesn’t matter. I put Moat in the board and kept Abyss in the main. Shane, the best dude in Old School Magic, loaned a last-minute, Beta Copy Artifact (to replace a Fellwar Stone), an English Moat and a third Divine Offering.
The real goodness lurked deeper in my sideboard. I still wanted an option to finish fast so two fatties made the cut. First, the MVP of any list, Shivan Dragon, which is pretty much an auto-include for its level of 3rd grade badassery. Second, an Alpha Serra Angel because she is the actual right choice being able to block after attacking and can’t get BEB’d. But most importantly, the aforementioned great dude Shane once loaned that Alpha Angel to me for an event years ago. Afterward, I paid Mr. Shuler a pittance to Sharpie his signature on the card mistaking it for my own less-impressive Beta Angel. Lessons were learned. I became the sheepish owner of a Sharpied Alpha Angel, and Shane received a new Angel in two business days. And no, I don’t know why Shane is still loaning me cards. Finally, Aladdin made the cut again – because IF you have two red available, and IF he lives, and IF your opponent has artifacts, he just might find some utility. But no matter the usefulness, he is always awesome. Skip to the end if you want final impressions of this half-Frankenstein configuration.
Strap on Those Dancing Shoes
I woke up the next morning, shook off the IPA-induced fog, and suited up. The lovely jts_mtg_alters accompanied me to meet with several other denim-clad Lords for some breakfast chimichangas. There was good revelry, bloody hammers, and plenty of coffee. This would be everyone’s third Ball, and there were no illusions as to the need to fuel up before eight rounds at a venue such as Revolution with their variety of beers on tap. After breakfast was a short walk on a 70-degree morning to the Blue Line and we hopped over to Revolution Tap Room where we said goodbye to the sun and hello to the masses.
The Ball was insane as always as Big Brain Bob and Jason the Jaco put on great events. We were greeted at the door and got registered as we entered, handed an information sheet including food delivery options and some sweet OSPB swag. This year’s fundraising efforts were amplified with a raffle with a CE Chaos Orb as a prize. For me, this year was a little different now that I no longer reside in Chicago. The emphasis shifted from meeting new folks to reconnecting with old friends. In eight rounds of Swiss+1, I was happy to face off against three Lords in a hazy bid to ball or be balled. The following is what I estimate a mostly accurate account of the rounds.
Round 1 – Nick “I “Like Pink” Rohr (1-0)
Round one, I faced Chicago stalwart Nick Rohr on Big Pink Burn. There was solid catching up between us as The Deck did Decklike things. Multiple Blood Moons resolved, but the basic Plains in his list turned on my Fellwar Stone, plus my basics and Moxen gave me lots of outs. Especially post board with three BEBs. If there isn’t associated pressure, four ‘Mountains’ draw a card with Tome as well as four Islands to find the answer. The last game highlighted this well: two Blood Moons were on board with Nick at nine lives and me somewhere around 10. Once he got pressure, I made a move on his end step to double Disenchant the Moons to unlock Bolt-Bolt-Regrowth-Bolt for the win.
Round 2 – Brandon on White Weenie (2-0)
Round two, I faced off against Brandon on an EC classic, White Weenie. WW has not been as prominent lately and I have fond memories of it running me over in the finals of Eternal Weekend 2016. The Deck delivered and overcame crazy starts by Brandon with lots of one-for-ones, into Balance, into other grossness to finish with the Angel. Brandon was a great opponent and I was happy to see him break the Top 16 at the end of the day.
Round 3 – My man, that motherfucker Ray (3-0)
Ray is the tits. We sat down. We chatted. We laughed. We compared our jts_mtg_alters Cities of Brass. We punted. But I won in two.
Round 4 – Michael on 4C Zoo (4-0)
Round four I faced Michael Scheffenacker on 4C good stuff. This match is where the rust really started to show, but Michael is a solid player and I love the opportunity to play against experts. Games 1 and 2 culminated in big spells, Mind Twist game one as The Deck took control, and a Time Walk-Twister-Mind Twist move from Michael that KO’d me game 2. Unfortunately, the round ended in time, only the second time I have suffered such a fate. Even when I was lucky enough to play regularly, my Orb flips have always been mediocre (some would say embarrassing). Given my lack of practice, I was not excited to Orb flip a round. But Revolution was playing one of my jams and I sang along and flipped five or six enroute to victory.
Note: I lost count but up to here I mulliganed a ton and would continue to do so throughout the day. I am curious if the missing two Factories affected the mana that much or if in my rustiness I was making too many decisions to shuffle back seven acceptable cards.
Round 5 – Danny. (5-0)
I just knew it would happen. I knew I would have to face Danny. I basically learned to play The Deck by getting punished by Danny in bars around Chicago with his various control stews. Danny is a master of patience. He will account for all the lines and will not be rushed into making a move. In the mirror, often the one that moves first is punished terribly. Danny and I laugh on the way to our table, and we consider randomly determining the winner to just drink some beers and hang out. But we couldn’t do that. This was a great matchup waiting to happen. I am for the first time excited about the main deck REB. Danny less so.
Game one is always interesting given that we are both pre-boarded against aggro decks. There will be plenty of blanks, especially on my end without even Factories to hit with the three main deck Swords. Danny puts the clinic on during game one. The game was long, and every now and then, I almost got close but it was just always out of my grasp. I slipped into a position where I had to start running bombs into likely answers because they were the only way back in. Danny suffocated me out and it was a truly awesome time. We went to board and I think 10 cards came in including all three creatures and Dust to Dust. Danny does not believe in Dust to Dust given its mana cost and sorcery speed, but I think it is amazing in the mirror. I resolved it killing two mana sources early and it was a huge 2:1 swing. Game 2 was another grinder but the luck was stronger on my side of the table. Serra and Shivan ended it together in glorious Old School flavoring.
Game three starts with a time remaining warning from Jaco. I think six minutes. Shit. Danny is resigned to flips, I remark that “we’ll see” and ask him to play quick. I really don’t want to press the luck on flips with a master. The Force is strong with me and turn one Ancestral steals the title of “Luckiest Player.” I have some early interaction then run out my MAIN MAN, Aladdin. I cannot stop laughing. We are locked in an epic struggle and one of my favorite childhood cards arrives to kick ass and take names. Danny has some mana rocks, but the one point of damage seems like a better line and I turn the little dude sideways. The game is up in the air at this point and Danny has a grip but the clock is ticking. The Deck delivers the Dragon right off the top. The inner lizard brain says do it and I immediately run it out. No answer. Those early beats mattered and Aladdin and the Dragon swing in for lethal in two turns. Aladdin had stranded powerful artifacts in Danny’s hands and the insane clock of Shivan got the deed done quick. I get a beer with seconds to spare.
Round 6 – Aaron “The Champ” West (5-1)
I sit down across from Aaron, the reigning champion of the Ball. I knew he was good, but I learned he is also an all-around awesome dude. This was my favorite non-Danny round. I got to play against a great player, across three tight games, and every moment was enjoyable. This is because Aaron was a pleasure to hang with. The match ends staring down a Mishra’s Factory on two life with no answer. Aaron would continue to roll and become the back-to-back champ.
Round 6.5 – Bobby the Brain on R40 Mind Twists
I find Bob, true master of tournament organizing and self-proclaimed master of Revised 40, a putrid format for only the grimiest of ballers. We throw some cards down across a barrel of booze and get to it. I ball Bob back to the Stone Age with my raw, unsleeved Revised powerhouse and get to tattoo his ante cards in both games. This dumbest-of-all-formats ended up being a blast between rounds as I later battled David and Ray. Getting to memorialize the games with a Sharpie and the carefree, sleeveless riffles is true joy.
Round 7 – Matt on 4C Aggro (5-2)
I slide over from the barrel back to a table and face Matt on another 4C deck featuring Lions, Dibs… you know the crew. I don’t remember all the details here besides a pretty spectacular punt. With an Underground Sea in-hand, land drop to give, and six lands on-board, I ran a moat into four open mana. Guess who forgot about Power Sink despite playing it at a previous Ball? That’s right, this guy.
Round 8 – Sonny on Red (6-2)
I saddle up with Sonny for the final round. We immediately start bullshitting and enjoy the last round. Memory is definitely no longer complete. But I know game one The Deck delivered me a timely main deck Mirror Universe instead of that REB lurking in there to flip totals and steal a quick W. Game two I overload on Blue Blasts and bring in the Dragon. It is a quick one and the last round expires against a fun opponent. The sun had long since retired.
Three for Three
My 6-2 record squeaked over the line for a third Top 8 finish to defend the dignity of the Lords. Newly-minted Lord Ian Blank cracked the creative Top 8, maintaining a minimum of honor in Chicago. A Gathering of long-toothed Lords quickly boogied out of Rev to grab some beef mountains at Kuma’s and another round or two recalling inflated stories of balling.
To Deck or Not to Deck?
If you are interested in playing a Deck variant, I highly recommend it. The decision trees are large, all the busted cards are there, and the sweathogs will boo the shit out of you. It’s great. In terms of this year’s list, I would not run it back exactly. The matches I lost or those that were close were almost always because of Factory. Having Factories of my own to block or a main deck Moat (or two) over Abyss would probably be better. Also, under mana pressure from Strips, I am not sold cutting land drops is the right move. The main deck REB never mattered, although it scared Danny. If it had, it would have been an awesome blowout and therefore maybe worth it just for the photos. The one card I really liked was Copy Artifact over Fellwar Stone. Low downside, high upside. Dust to Dust was great. Seeing both Danny and Will Magrann’s list, I am surprised by their use of Twister. I do not like draw 7s in The Deck (despite their fun).
As Shane astutely noted at the Contracts meetup prior to the Ball, none of these card decisions really matter. Playing tight with any of these configurations will work. He is undoubtedly correct but it’s fun to labor over a few cards, change a bunch at the last minute, and then get balled.
Many thanks to the Lords and all who are in on the joke of Old School. This year’s Ball was a hell of an event and Bob, Jaco, Nathan, Carter, Mossman, Shane, etc. all deserve big ups. Best of all, none of Shane’s cards were inadvertently defaced this go around.