Mat Bimonte: Getting By With A Little Help From My Friends

Team If You Ain’t First, You’re Last finished, um, not last.

Last weekend was one of the most fun tournaments I’ve ever had the privilege of attending. Sure, winning it is cool and whatever (humblebrag), but playing with your friends in a competitive environment is the future of Magic.

We hosted the first ever NRG CTQ at Collectible Corner, my store in Normal, Ill. With 30 teams coming to town, and how many great players are on the Nerd Rage Gaming circuit nowadays, I knew I needed to build an excellent team if I wanted to compete.

How do you build a team?

Well, there are certainly many schools of thought. First, play with a bunch of friends. Second, play with format specialists. Third — my choice — find two friends who are skilled in general and build together.

My easiest choice for the weekend was to see if my sidekick Jeff Hoogland was interested. Jeff wanted to play Legacy or Modern, and I love Standard, especially when people are so irritated to play it right now, so the next step was to find someone to play Modern or Legacy for us. Though we wouldn’t really need Jeff (we’ll come back to that), it was nice to have someone as well versed as him on the team.

They say it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and that couldn’t be more clear than when I messaged my close friend Kent Ketter to see if he wanted to make the Bloomington (Ind.) to Bloomington (Ill.) trek for the weekend. Kent has family near us so it usually isn’t too hard to get him on board.

Team built. Now what decks do we play?

We can start with the easy one in Standard. I was playing a ton of 4-Color Saheeli before the event and was sold on how good it was. What happened? Well, I started to play against Archangel Avacyn and was losing my mind trying to figure out how to beat it. Well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Mardu is a deck that isn’t really my favorite playstyle in Standard. I typically like grinding my opponents down with incremental advantage in a format that is attrition based like Standard, but this deck has a ton of results backing it up, so we put it together around midnight on Friday before the tournament and went over some sideboarding notes, which I think was the biggest part of why I was so successful on Saturday.

On to Modern. Kent and I had serious conversations about playing Living End, as Bant Eldrazi, Death’s Shadow strategies, and BGx decks are at the forefront of the format. Blood Moon plus a strategy that is hard to interact with is a nice place to be when heading into the great unknown. The more Kent and I talked, the more I was thinking about how sweet it was to have a deck that was hard to interact with while using our graveyard as a resource. Then it hit me: Why don’t we play Dredge?  

Zen Takahashi and Lee Shi Tian both played a post-bannings version of Dredge to the Top 8 of a Grand Prix, and the results were largely dismissed or forgotten about. Zen is a friend I interact with pretty frequently via Twitter, so picking his brain was easy. Kent also has had success playing Dredge before, so he understood the mechanics and sideboarding behind the deck. (If you are looking for a truly comprehensive guide to the deck, Zen has a nice writeup here, and I urge you to read it a bunch of times if you’re considering playing Dredge at a tournament.)

Also, Dredge is as good as people let it be. If you want to beat Dredge, your sideboard allows you to do so. Kent played against one Rest in Peace, two Relic of Progenitus, and two Surgical Extraction on the day that we know of.

Kent and I were done, so what about Jeff and Legacy? Well, if you know anything about Jeff, you know he is no stranger to a toolbox deck. He had marginal success at the SCG Players’ Championship with an interesting Aluren deck, and he was interested in playing it again. In Legacy right now, I’m firmly in the camp that it is Miracles vs. the field, and if you aren’t playing Miracles you need to be playing a deck that is very good against it, or that you at least think is very good against it to be competing. (Editor’s note: The Top 4 decklists from the event can be found here.)

Tournament Time: Highlights and Lowlights

Before we go further, let me share with you each individual record on the day.

Mat: 7-1

Kent: 6-2

Jeff: 2-1-X

Let’s start with the lowlights and funny moments from the tournament:

  • Jeff’s record.
  • Our two game rule violations as a team. When you haven’t played in paper for a while, things can get sketchy mechanically.
  • GRV No.1: Jeff casts Shardless Agent and begins to Cascade. After he casts his spell, the cards are supposed to go into the bottom of the deck; instead Jeff shuffled the deck. Oops.
  • I’m beginning to shuffle my opponent’s deck (I hadn’t shuffled cards in a week or so) and decided I wanted to spill his deck everywhere, looking at extra cards with the head judge, NRG’s own Max Kahn, standing beside me. Oops again.
  • Round 1 was also a pretty sweet lowlight for me. I lost three games total on the day, and two of them were back to back in this round. Luckily Jeff was able to piece together one of his two wins in this round to save me from complete embarrassment.

On to the highlight reel! There were plenty of these, so I’ll try and cherry pick my favorites.

  • The tournament overall. Being able to sit down with friends, discuss lines, and just having a general fun feeling overall was incredible. 10/10 will be doing this again.
  • Winning! Of course this was awesome, and our aptly named team — “If you ain’t first, you’re last” — made good on our vow to win the tournament.
  • After our only team loss in the Swiss, we sat down and needed to rally to have a chance at making Top 4. Kent and I were both up a game, and were watching Jeff play his Legacy match. He casts a Cabal Therapy and blindly names Shardless Agent. He hits not one, not two, but three of them. Just hilarious. But this story isn’t done. Same opponent, different game, Jeff casts Cabal Therapy blindly again, names Tarmogoyf and hits two. Better lucky than good I suppose.
  • Our elimination matches were awesome. We went into the semifinals not thinking we were going to win other than my matchup. I was paired against Temur Tower, Kent against Ad Nauseam, and Jeff against TES. The highlight from this match was my opponent being at 7 in Game 1 after I had flashed in an Archangel Avacyn to save my Heart of Kiran. It comes to my turn, and I decide to attack with Avacyn, opponent goes to 3, I have mostly nothing going on in my hand, so in my second main phase I crew up Heart with Avacyn, and cast a second one. It resolves, and legends the existing one from play. I kill my opponent in their upkeep with Avacyn flipping over.
  • The finals match was the last highlight I want to take a look at. This was the matchup we lost in the Swiss. I 2-0’d my opponent in the Swiss, but still walked away with a loss. Time for revenge. I’m basically the king of pep talks and let my team know that if we lost I would never forgive them. Sure did my part. The highlight of this mirror was having a Scrapheap Scrounger and Thraben Inspector on board on my third turn, my opponent’s fourth. They cast Gideon to make a token, and I Unlicensed Disintegration the token, redirect the damage to Gideon, untap, attack Gideon for one and my opponent for three. Next turn, same thing. Next turn, same thing. Three Gideons in a row, three Unlicensed Disintegrations in a row. The game ended when my opponent cast a six-mana Walking Ballista, and one of my two remaining cards was a Fatal Push. Six-mana Lightning Bolt has to feel pretty bad.

So, I win my Finals match 2-0, Kent is into game 3 and has a pretty risky six-card hand. I ask Jeff his match score, he is up a game. I let Kent know it’s OK to keep the hand, and we can rely on Jeff to hopefully win at least two matches on the day. Kent unfortunately doesn’t find his second land drop and dies rather quickly to Reality Smashers.

We move to focus on Jeff and his Game 2, and his hand is just absurd. Double Deathrite Shaman, Thoughtseize, Cabal Therapy, Aluren, 2 lands. After we tear our opponent’s hand apart and have Aluren resolve on Turn 3, Jeff is able to sacrifice a Deathrite Shaman to activate Cabal Therapy’s flashback and look for Force of Will in our opponent’s hand. We see a bunch of lands and a Swords to Plowshares. Jeff calmly looks at Kent and me and says “I think I can win this turn through a removal spell, but I can’t remember how. I’ll figure it out as we go along.” Sure, whatever you maniac, do what you want, I feel good about it. About halfway through the combo Jeff looks at me and says “Matty, I messed up” (not his exact words, but close enough). I could’ve killed him with my bare hands at that point. Luckily we had plenty of power on the battlefield to attack through and our opponent missed on a Terminus to punish us, and we walked out with a title.

Wrap Up

I can’t even fully describe how much fun the event was to be a part of, and how thankful I am that so many people showed up to make it a success. Just an incredible time overall. I highly suggest going to the next one that is near you!

Thanks for stopping by,

-Mat Bimonte

Mat Bimonte first picked up the game during Theros block, but already has a Modern 5K championship under his belt, as well as a number of smaller Standard tournament wins. Based out of Bloomington, Ill., Mat is a regular on the SCG Tour, with future aspirations of qualifying for the Pro Tour.

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Mat Bimonte