The day had finally arrived. Magic: The Gathering Arena had finally implemented the feature I’d been ecstatic for, Direct Challenges. This would allow players to finally verse each other privately, so games with friends were now possible.
Dennis, my companion from down under has been a pal for well over five years now. We’ve played countless games together and shared many laughs and memories. Although burdened with the constraints of distance, gaming had allowed us to stay in touch from opposite sides of the globe. He was the one who told me about Magic and started me down this journey, so a grand tournament was befitting to celebrate being able to play cards from across continents.
Dennis is a seasoned Magic player and has a vast collection of cards stacked up in his home. A veteran to the game versus someone who still relatively new to it all. Although I’m caught up with standard play, I’ve still yet to delve into the deeper realms of Magic, so he had the advantage there.
We set out some ground rules for the tournament.
- Five rounds of best of three matches
- We would both submit five decks and number them randomly
- A random number generator would be used to select the decks
- Sideboarding was optional after round one of each match
- Even if one of us won the set, we would play out all five games
I was fairly confident in my recent success in the standard format, so felt poised to be able to hold my own against my mentor. Would someone who’d offered his wisdom be able to stop his student from overtaking him?
Match One: Izzet Control vs Selesnya Tokens
There was a lot of excitement in the air for the first match, with the random number generator rolling a one, we both laughed that our best decks were both positioned to play against each other first. I was fearful, token decks are notorious for breaking through against control strategies and can get out of hand very fast. Selesnya is the guild made up of Green and White magic. They use token generators (creating small minions in large numbers) to overwhelm the opponent. Selesnya is particularly annoying as it has the mechanic “convoke” letting you tap creatures to help cast spells. This usually leads to one of two outcomes: A big threat, or even more tokens. The tokens on their own seem non-threatening. 1/1 soldiers with lifelink (when it attacks it gains health) don’t do much but chump block, but buff them up to 2/2 or have fifteen coming at you at once and there’s not much you can do.
My deck was based around controlling the board. With the use of hard removal or counterspells to stop any shenanigans happening, as long as the big threat cards were taken care of. Once stabilized my end game was based around using Niv Mizzet, Parun and card draw to finish him off. Dealing one damage whenever I drew a card was a great strategy against a token deck, but only if I could get there. Niv costs three blue & red mana, which is a very specific cost, making him hard to cast.
We shuffled up and looked at our opening hands, the first match was underway and both of us were off to a good start. My opening hand had everything I needed. Three lands, card draw, removal, and Niv. This seemed like an ideal start in theory, but with no counters in hand was a bit risky. Dennis started off pretty fast, using spells to find lands he needed. I thought the best thing would be to counter when he tried to start his token engine going. Luckily, I drew the counter to stop his History of Benalia occurring. This card is extremely powerful, its a Saga, so it has multiple effects over three turns (the last effect being the most powerful). Normally it creates Knight Tokens that get buffed once the saga completes. Stopping this was huge as it’s one of the best cards in the deck. Dennis thought I was maybe playing the Phoenix deck so I had the element of surprise. He was able to spawn saprolings next, little fungus tokens that I thought wouldn’t do much work at all. I waited patiently to see his next move, two tokens on turn four isn’t a big tempo play so I had my suspicions something else was coming. The elephant in the room was trying to come into play. Venerated Loxodon is a Convoke creature, letting you put a +1/+1 counter on each creature that convoked it. This would have been a disaster so another counter came out to deal with it. I’d bought myself another turn and was getting dangerously close to Niv, with no counterspells left though I had to use my card draw to dig for an answer. The next turn everything went downhill. Countering a Loxodon is normally a great play, but Dennis had been holding out. Trostani Discordant is the card this deck builds around. Giving all your creatures +1/+1 and creating two tokens is something you don’t want to see. This resolved and I’d wish I’d just let the Loxodon hit the board. I had a big removal spell in hand but was nowhere near the land count to cast it. I had to hope he didn’t have the other card the deck was built around to stand a chance. Unfortunately, he did. March of the Multitudes allows you to pay three mana then X (where it can be either lands or convoked creatures)to create 1/1 soldier tokens with lifelink. Cards with X on them are always a danger. They are technically limitless to how far you can push the mechanic. Dennis laughed and said he’d give me a small one with only casting it for X=2, only making two soldiers but then meaning he had six creatures on the board, all being buffed by Trostani. So the measly two damage quickly changed to twelve and I was worried. I had no spells in my deck currently that could sweep the board so was banking on Niv doing all the work. Dennis couldn’t stop chuckling, one March is always a good board swing but he knew that it was all tied up after that. I had to drop down a creature to try and block but a Conclave Tribunal (a removal enchantment) came down to deal with my creature leaving me wide open. Dennis mentioned I was “all tapped out”. Then the second March of the Multitudes happened. This time for a mere X=5 meaning nine 2/2 soldier tokens and four saproling tokens were in play. I had no way to bounce back from this. I took care of Trostani but was on a two turn clock. Dennis was just flexing after that. Dropping another Loxdon but the token engine was too strong. He swung in with his army of tokens and I had no answers.
Game two played out in an eerily similar fashion. Even after sideboarding in my sweeping removal spells. Dennis mentioned his hand was a strong one too. I started off by playing out my lands and being able to drop an Electrostatic Field to at least stem the bleeding from the tokens. I kept my mana open to try and stop any tricks and blocked his early Tribunal enchantment on my wall. He had another one straight after, so I cast all my cheap cantrips to start digging through the deck for more answers. I pulled a Niv out and my mana ramp was going incredibly well. I copied his saproling migration with a spell to keep up with his tokens on the board. We both had four apiece and I just needed one more land to drop Niv and stabilize. Unfortunately, another March was about to come down. This time it was for X=7 meaning there were eleven tokens about to come at me. Niv came down, and one more turn and I’d be able to start dealing with them. I was tapped out again and Dennis was ready to strike. His third Conclave Tribunal unbelievably came out, this time targeting my only hope. To add insult to injury he slammed down the Trostani, buffing all his tokens again and generating even more tokens. I tried my best to block but the eleven damage was now twenty-four, I let it come through and Dennis took the first game with ease.
Match Two: White Dorks vs Izzet Phoenix
The next roll I was pretty chuffed about getting to play My White Dorks deck. I know this deck is incredibly low to the ground and can overcome a lot of the meta easily if left unchecked. Dennis was playing the Izzet Phoenix deck, something I’ve tried to pilot live before and can keep up with aggro by using card draw.
My deck was based around getting creatures down fast and using buff spells to protect them. It plays similar to Selsyna tokens and the low-cost creatures can be referred to as dorks. They don’t do much on their own but can cause chaos once buffed, or a small army of them arrive. The deck has a couple of finishers to deal with sticky boards and Tribunals to remove big threats.
Dennis’ deck plays around casting cheap spells to get Phoenixes into the graveyard and resurrecting them, all the while making the drakes as big as possible. The drakes get buffed from the number of spells you’ve cast so the deck’s synergy is very powerful once it gets rolling. Sometimes you can have a 10/4 drake come down out of nowhere and buff it to swing in for lethal damage with a one cost spell.
Luckily, I knew I was the aggressor in this matchup and that he would have to play on the back foot. My opening hand was ideal, with the perfect curve of small creatures and a buff card I felt confident that it was going to be an easy win. My dorks have a lot of evasions, so with flying or being able to sacrifice themselves to give them important dorks indestructible. My first draw was Tribunal so I knew I could just start dropping threats down with very little consequence. By turn two, three dorks were pushing through and Dennis was digging through his deck pretty fast. Turn two I had a bit of a misplay (forgetting to play a creature) but luckily this didn’t have much of an impact as Dennis was struggling to clear the board at this point. With Three dorks and a powerful three drop about to come down, I was ready to take the game. He was able to get a couple more minions down, but on nine life you are in serious danger of getting run over. With my board now bolstering six minions against his three. I swung in with half my squad to clear his smaller minions and a second drake came down. It looked like a good defensive play, but on four life it was too late. I swung with everything but my Marshal and Dennis scooped it.
Game two I was on the same game plan. Push through with the dorks. Dennis had the early removal but trying to hit my Adanto Vanguard with a shock which was a slight misplay. Early on I would happily pay the four life to make it indestructible. Dennis kept digging, shocking himself to get a Crackling Drake down as a blocker. I had two Vanguards in play and another Benalish Marshal down. They were now both 4/2’s when attacking, being able to trade with the Drake easily. I had my trump card in hand and knew this game was going to be a clean sweep. Dennis tried to play another minion to get in the way of everything but I had a Chance for Glory in hand, giving all creatures indestructible and you get an extra turn. The drawback of the card is that if you don’t win on your extra turn you lose the game. This card is more for casual play, as you would only play it when you know you are going to win. I dropped it down and managed to burst through even without the need for an extra turn. Match two went my way and the Drake deck just couldn’t get rolling like it was supposed to.
Match Three: Knights of the Realm vs Zombie Uprising
This was my first homemade deck. I’d wanted to build a White/Black deck for a while and thought this would be the best time to try it out. The deck is centered around putting down Knights that have synergies. It’s similar to how White Dorks would play but with a higher curve (meaning the creatures cost a bit more but are stronger.) I’d put in the Angel package as well to round things out but didn’t really realize how strong they were till we started playing.
Dennis’ deck was a reanimator deck, using zombies and demons alongside powerful planeswalkers to get value back from sacrificing creatures from the graveyard. It was similar to the first deck I’d built in magic and I knew how it wanted to play out, but also that it took time to get the value engine running.
The first match we both agreed our opening hands were fantastic. I had a Knight of Grace; a 2/2 knight with first strike that gains +1 if any player controls a black permanent alongside a host of angels. This card also has hexproof from black, so Dennis theoretically couldn’t target it with removal. Dennis started playing his zombies and ghouls but they couldn’t block against my Knight as they would just die to first strike. My 3/2 was doing the work and a Resplendent Angel was also a 3/3 flying threat that needed to be dealt with. I topped decked Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants that allowed me to buff my minions even further each turn as well. Dennis got in some hand hate (making me discard unwillingly) and took an angel from me. His engine was simply running too slow. He was exclaiming that the deck wasn’t even as “janky” as I claimed, but I did mention that he’d seen all the angels and that they weren’t even the fun cards. A Demon of Catastrophes came down, but again he knew that the removal was already in hand for it. He was down to two and Liliana, the Necromancer made an appearance but my minions were 6/6’s now. He grabbed his demon from the grave but at that point, it was too late.
Game two my hand was filled with removal, but no minions. If Dennis could create a wide board state I was going to be in trouble. I got down an early Midnight Reaper, but Dennis had Walk the Plank; a removal spell I didn’t nearly think anyone was playing anymore. I wiped off his creature with a cast down in response. Dennis was continuing with the hand hate and took one of my removal spells, he was getting more creatures down at this point and the pressure was on as Gorgons and Zombies can be very threatening once backed up by a Planeswalker. I’d gotten two lucky draws with two History of Benalia’s coming down in a row I could keep up with the wide board state. Dennis Played into my removal again, even though he knew it was in hand. The forgotten Varaska’s contempt could deal with his 6/6 demon. Varaska, Scheming Gorgon came down which was a real pain, as it dealt with my angel but I had four Knights down and luckily it ended up being used only as an expensive removal spell. Dennis forgot to block when I swung with everything so he was on four health. We fooled around a bit but my seven knights were fairly threatening and I was just waiting to close the game out. Another Match win for me and I just needed one more to take the series.
Match Four: Frenzy vs Rakdos
We were both playing red decks, mines was a Mono-Red deck based around Experimental Frenzy, whilst Dennis was sporting a Red/Black deck based around creating a wide board with graveyard antics.
My deck was about playing everything out fast and slinging spells at Dennis before he could get his graveyard engine online. I didn’t really know what to expect from the deck as I’ve only played against one other Rakdos deck so far.
Dennis had many big creatures like Rekindling Phoenix paired with small drops that had pesky ways of returning back from the graveyard. He also had his favourite card for the series Demon of Catastrophes, a big 6/6 flying demon that is very hard to stop. I was able to shoot down his Phoenix and get him down to a dangerous nine health. At that very moment, his demon was about to appear. Dennis had a ton of value in his deck, using the Rakdos synergies to sacrifice cheap creatures to gain card and board advantage. His demon was a 6/6 flyer and was able to go right over the top of me. Coupled with Act of Treason to gain control of my Goblin Chainwhirlers I was running out of answers fast. My plan was to try and get him with Experimental Frenzy. It was a card I’d found much success with the week prior, but he already had so much pressure on board. I had to concede.
The second game my opening hand was much better. I had a wealth of one drops and a perfect curve into Runaway Steam-Kin and Frenzy if I could find the lands. I misplayed and tapped my mana too early but the next turn was able to get both a Steam-Kin and a shock to kill his zombie. Dennis used Murder to take a creature from my board, but I was rolling now, three mana gets a lot of work done in Mono-Red. Dennis was able to drop Open the Grave but at that point, he was sitting on a low seven health. My hand, however, was loaded with burn. My Frenzy was ready to pop and a lucky top deck of Banefire sealed it up, even with a Demon and token zombie standing in my way.
Game three was the decider. If I was able to take this I’d close out the series early. This game was much closer. I had some early minions and Dennis was dropping lands with no answers. My hand was ready to Frenzy on turn four and I thought that would be the winning play once it landed. A lightning Strike went straight to face and the race was on. I then topdecked: Wizard’s lightning; Viashino pyromancer; Lightning strike; into a Goblin Chainwhirler, dealing an incredible amount of burn damage to him directly. The Chainwhirler came in off Steam-kin mana and my creatures finished his Ogres off. His life total was extremely low. Dennis was sitting on two health, a tough spot to come back from in any game. I blew up my Experimental Frenzy to finish him in style with a shock from hand for exactly lethal.
Match Five: The Enchanted Forest vs Liliana’s Nightmare
I’d taken the series win so the last match was just for fun. I’d build a deck around enchantment cards, allowing creatures to get buffed permanently with some pretty sweet effects; +1/+1 counters or even getting +7/+7 in the late game if I could hit it. The deck had a ton of protection spells and things that offered Hexproof (can’t be targeted by spells) to stop any Black removal wiping them off the board.
Dennis’ deck was centered around Liliana, a powerful planeswalker that uses a lot of graveyard reanimation to bring back zombies and skeletons. He also had faithful demons and spectral creatures that had graveyard recursion, gaining advantages by bringing back creatures once they were sacrificed. I knew that this deck was not too be messed with, once the big creatures arrived I’d have little chance to catch up unless I built a creature with all the enchantments.
Game one I curved out pretty well, I popped down a Novice Knight; a creature that can only attack once it’s enchanted. Dennis had some early hand hate with Duress, but I got my first enchantment down and swung in for four. Dennis was lucky enough to have Walk The Plank, a removal that is really cheap and effective against most creatures. I was pretty far behind on lands and board. To top it all off Dennis was able to play Liliana, the Necromancer. This card is pretty insane, with it’s +1 loyality counter making me lose two life and it’s -1 returning a creature from the graveyard to hand. I had to answer this threat fast and looking at my hand, it seemed hopeless. Dennis had used a lot of his cards though and I was starting to find lands. I was able to get a Satyr Enchanter down, making all my enchantments cost one mana less. Dennis ticked up Lili, passed and I drew my next perfect draw. Danitha Capashen, Paragon is a 2/2 with all the perks and the bonus of making enchantments cost one mana less. Dennis countered it with a cheap spell and then walked the plank my Satyr, leaving my board empty again. Dennis was able to throw down another planeswalker; Lilliana, Untouched by Death. This version let him tick up +1 loyalty to dispose of cards to his grave, and also could act as a removal spell if he needed it. Two planeswalkers on the board is a very scary place to be in, so I knew if I wanted to have a chance drastic measures would have to be taken. My next turn I was able to get down Vine Mare, a card that has Hexproof from Black, exactly what I needed. I was able to start putting the pressure on. In the following turn, I exiled one of his Planeswalkers. I was down to ten life and Dennis had his Gravewaker down (a 5/5 flyer). Luckily I turned my Mare into a Pegasus, giving it flight with On Serra’s Wings and buffing it from a 5/3 to a 6/4. Dennis responded with a mirror image, allowing him to make a copy of his Gravewaker. This card is a big threat and I knew it was all or nothing after that. I had my Vine Mare buffed and added Prodigous Growth (Give a minion +7/+7) to make it a 13/11 creature with Lifelink. Dennis had no answer, I was back to twenty-one life and he was facing a threat he couldn’t answer due to Hexproof. I popped another enchantment on for good measure and realized the text actually said “can’t be blocked by black creatures” I was up to thirty-seven life post-swing, Dennis sitting on a minus thirteen.
Game two Dennis didn’t have the best Mulligan and I had a good curve with my white cards. Dennis used his hand hate to get rid of the Prodigious Growth and my removal, but Danitha was able to come down cleaning this time. I was down to two cards but was able to enchant Danitha to a 3/3 with Lifelink and First strike. I was starting to get the damage in fast. Dennis was stuck on lands and four damage a turn is a pretty fast clock to be working against. A second Prodigious Growth came down and Dennis was staring down lethal, my measly Knight was now a 9/9 with trample (excess damage goes to the player) taking down his 1/1 blocker and pushing through for the win. The deck completely ran over this time, but we laughed and joked that a novice should never be able to push 9 damage so early on. A lucky curve and draw on my end sealed up the last game with smiles and laughs had throughout the series.
A fantastic mini-tournament with a close mate can be just as intense as a real game in my opinion. Arena’s graphics and wonderful art make the game come alive and being able to finally play with someone I’ve known forever even though they are the other side of the world was a dream come true. Hopefully, we can continue our series and make it into a regular league with other mates trying to now beat the champ.