This weekend Irish Nationals made its return and to say I was excited would be a little bit of an understatement. Those who have watched my stream, listened to my podcast or even just had a passing conversation with me know about my high disdain for the WMCQ system and the damaging effect I thought it was having on the Irish Magic community. We won’t dwell on that today though and instead I’ll talk about my experience at Irish Nationals 2017. First let me give you a bit of background to my love affair with this event. I started playing magic around 2003, for the first year it was normal, kitchen table, super casual stuff. After hitting my first big event in Ireland, which was a Mirrodin pre-release, I discovered that I loved tournament magic. What really hooked me was the idea of Nationals, I played at a National qualifier without really knowing what Nationals were. I didn’t qualify but falling just one or two wins short compelled me to ask a few veterans of the competitive scene what it was I had just missed out on. I remember having the event described to me and thinking that this was the greatest thing I had ever heard of. I didn’t think I would ever be able to make a Pro Tour but now I didn’t need to, there was an All-Irish Pro Tour coming to town and I knew if I tried hard I could make it. I dropped the deck I played for my first qualifier (an Elves brew with Skullclamp) and decided to play a real deck, Goblin Bidding. I got the qualification that second time around in a smaller qualifier outside Dublin and was ecstatic!
A couple of months later I got to play in the big leagues, there was about 100 players at that Nationals, someone had recommended I play the Elf and Nail deck that had broken out a couple of weeks beforehand, I had of course never played a game with it and didn’t care because elf decks were my favourite back then (Oh, and dragons, but sadly there wasn’t a dragon deck). I couldn’t believe the scene was that big in Ireland and we had so many competitive players! It was held in a nice hotel and to me, at the time, it looked just like the professional events that I had seen so much coverage of. I ended up 5-1-6 which in my mind was excellent for my first time but was disappointed not to win the finish for someone under 18. The atmosphere is something I won’t ever forget; while people were still trying to be competitive and wanted to represent Ireland at Worlds, it was never tense, always fun and full of people that were happy that time of year had rolled around again. People who were eliminated from Top 8 contention were disappointed of course but they were also pretty content to be playing Magic and then later on in the evening having a couple of drinks with a room full of their friends.
Another thing I remember vividly from that day is that I never wanted to go back to kitchen table Magic again. I wanted to go to Grand Prixs, I wanted to qualify for the Pro Tour but most importantly I wanted to represent Ireland at Worlds. I wanted more than anything to carry the Irish flag for the opening ceremony! However, I was not to come close until 8 years later, losing my quarter finals of Irish Nationals 2011, I came within touching distance of the team and was devastated when I lost. It took a lot for my friends to console me but in the end I cheered up when they told me I had improved by leaps and bounds and that I would be on the team next year for sure. Well, as we all now know, that would be the last year anyone had a chance, the World Magic Cup was rolled out next year and it was never really the same.
Back to the present though and how I feel about the new Nationals. I was sceptical at first, we are a smaller community so we are likely to have 7-8 rounds, the byes seemed needless and unfair and mostly I felt that it just couldn’t match up to the old system I had fallen in love with. All that melted away when I entered my local game store Gamers World on Friday, they were the TO’s of Nationals and where running trials for byes. There was that buzz from years before, that competitive edge and camaraderie, I knew before I even arrived to the venue on Saturday that this was going to be a great event and it absolutely didn’t disappoint.
Coming to the event itself, I played Mono Red. Testing coming up to nationals was pretty normal, I tried breaking the format with a few brews but everything fell a bit short. It boiled down to which I liked better after Worlds – Mono Red or Temur Energy and after trying both I settled with Ramunap. I had a better grip of sideboarding with it which is always important (and it was my only 5-0 online). Here’s the list I went with.
4 Soul-Scar Mage
4 Bomat Courier
2 Kari Zev, Skyship Raider
2 Harsh Mentor
4 Earthshaker Khenra
3 Ahn-Crop Crasher
2 Rampaging Ferocidon
4 Hazoret the Fervent
4 Lightning Strike
1 Chandra, Torch of Defiance
4 Ramunap Ruins
1 Scavenger Grounds
4 Sunscorched Desert
2 Sand Strangler
1 Magma Spray
2 Chandra’s Defeat
2 Rampaging Ferocidon
2 Pia Nalaar
2 Aethersphere Harvester
1 Chandra, Torch of Defiance
It’s a pretty standard list, I have what I call the main deck hate bears package with Rampaging Ferocidon and Harsh Mentor. I think both of these cards are strong in the Temur match up and the Dinosaur shines against the tokens deck that is seeing an abundance of play on MTGO. Another small change from a lot of lists are the Sand Stranglers in the board, I have been liking them against Temur but way more importantly I think they are very good in the mirror. Making sure I had a few extra cards like the strangler for the mirror was important as all 4 of the trials were won by Red on the Friday. I wish I could tell you some cool testing stories or a special Irish team I had but in reality it was just Magic Online and getting lots of people’s opinions on decks that they had tried. I would also like to tell you my list is perfect and you should lock it in but realistically this format has 4-5 viable decks and you should play the one you are most comfortable with and know best.
The morning of the event went smoothly, got in with plenty of time to spare, grabbed myself some breakfast in McDonald’s while hurling abuse and exchanging insults with other Irish Magic players, you know, the normal stuff. WER didn’t work so player meeting was random seating which didn’t really change anything. A beautiful aspect of Irish Nationals is, in short, the banter. A head judge that isn’t ready to quip back and deal with waves of laughter isn’t going to do well but Thomas Ralph, the head judge this year, handled it perfectly. There are stories of head judges at older Nationals not dealing with it well and promising not to come back after their first experience, Ireland just seems to be a very difference place to head judge. It was all feeling great and very much like old Nationals did until the first round started. Byes at nationals just don’t feel right, I’m not against byes as a concept but there’s just something about Nationals that makes me want to sit down from round one and do battle. I had a bye so I used this time to scout a little, see what people were playing and hope I hadn’t chosen the wrong deck for the day. There was a little more Temur then I was happy with but in general it was what I expected, a mix of everything. And before long it was my time to jump into the fray.
Round 2 vs Jonathan Doogue on Temur Energy
I got to see what Doogue was on during my round 1 bye but it didn’t influence my mulligan particularly and I had a pretty easy keep. He thought I was more of a midrange player and kept a hand that was full of Rogue Refiners and slow grindy cards. I ended up running him over pretty fast. Game 2 is a bit more of a blur but I remember Doogue deciding not to Essence Scatter a Earthshaker Khenra but it made the combat a bit worse for him then he thought, the game snowballed away from him after that. Result so far 2-0.
Round 3 vs Mark McGovern on Sultai Energy
These games weren’t close to being close, Mark ran over me. He played well and had soild draws, I also never hit my fourth land in game 1 with some Hazoret jamming up my hand and game 2 I didn’t even hit my third land. Mark throughout the day joked that most of his games ended this way and in the Top 8 he lost to a mull to 5, all in all it seems he didn’t get to play much Magic over the weekend. 2-1.
Round 4 vs Eamon Moloney on Esper Gifts
I can’t recall much game 1, I think it involved Ferocidon doing some work. I just remember the second game Eamon not being able to hit a third land for a couple of turns making it a little routine. It was funny being on the bubble this soon in the tournament and this was something else that made it feel a bit different from other Nationals. 3-1.
I felt pretty comfortable going into this draft format; I had done a bunch of drafts online and felt it was pretty straightforward. I ended up in pod 2 with some solid players including the team captain for this year. The draft was interesting, my first pick was super easy taking a Vraska’s Contempt, after that the draft was a little hard to read. I was all over the place trying to find the open tribe and colours and then I got a late Anointed Deacon followed by a Skyblade of the Legion moving me into Vamps. I only had 6 playables at the end of the pack but was confident I had picked up on the open archetype. I got very rewarded in the second pack and all the vampire cards flowed, highlights involved a second pick Bishop of Rebirth and a Skullduggery with only 3 cards left in the pack. It was looking like my deck was going to be a 10 out of 10 but I got really cut in pack 3. I ended up picking up maybe two or three playables with the only notable one being an Adanto Vanguard. In the end the deck was definitely above average but I was a tad worried I had to win the next two to Top 8. Before we got to register our decks we had to do a weird deck swap. I don’t think there was a better way to do this to prevent cheating but I really wish Wizards would send out stamped product instead to avoid this awkwardness.
Round 5 vs PJ Reid on Merfolk
I was passing to PJ for the draft and knew he was green based, though I thought he was Dinos because I had passed him not one but two Savage Stomp. Game 1 and 2 are both one sided. I curve out game 1 and he makes some efficient threats in game 2 along with a One with the Wind on a Jade Guardian to run me through. Game 3 is tighter but I get ahead and just about manage to stay ahead, it felt like most of the game if I had drawn one more blank that I could have lost control but we got our win and in instead. 4-1
Round 6 vs Paddy McDonagh on UG r Ramp
For all the marbles winner gets to ID and come back tomorrow for a Top 8. Game 1 I cast an early Heartless Pillage, Paddy discards 2 spells but ends up flooding out, the discard at the time seemed correct but he certainly got punished. Game 2 I kept a 2 lander that didn’t pan out, I don’t find my second colour or third land fast enough and get run over by a couple of Siren Lookouts. Game 3 is much closer affair; I thought I had an excellent curve with a Bishops Soldier holding a Prying Blade helping us accelerate out a Bishop of Rebirth. An Elaborate Firecannon and some slower draws by me helped Paddy turn a little bit of a flood on his side into some shocks but in the end I drew just enough gas to seal the deal. 5-1
Round 7 vs Tadhg Murphy on BR Pirates
I get the handshake here to ID into the top 8 and it feels great or at least it does at first. The way the round works out there’s a chance that two 5-1-1s don’t make it. Of course there are a group of us trying to figure out exactly what can happen but my OMP seemed way too high for it to be me and Tadhg had 2 byes meaning his OMP should also stay good enough. In the end only one 5-1-1 ended up not making it and a big commiseration to Daniel Gilligan for being that 5-1-1.
I ended up in fourth which of course was important, giving me the play in the quarters. Unfortunately this meant that I would be playing my team mate from last year, Alex Ball. We had talked a lot on the build up to Nationals and were on very similar lists, our mains I believe ended up only being one card different but I did have Stranglers in the board when he didn’t which can swing the mirror in a major way.
One fine Irish Nationals tradition is Thomas Ralph running a table quiz after day one. As much as I would have liked to stay for a drink and the quiz I had to get some sleep, it was an early start the next day and I was spent. 9am start on Sunday was rough but I was pumped. My girlfriend Cali was nice enough to give me a lift to the event so we got to jam out to my favourite pre-event band Run the Jewels. In the end I didn’t really need to get psyched up because it seems like lady luck wanted me to win almost as much as I did.
Quarter Finals vs Alex Ball on Ramunap Red
Game 1 I flood out a little. I’m way behind and I play for a damage race with a Ferocidon in play. I choose to kill a Bomat Courier instead of a Kari Zev. I wanted Zev to help me kill Alex by pining him for extra damage when his token came into play. This plan started to look really bad when Alex slammed a Hazoret with two cards left in hand. I swung, putting Alex on lethal next turn but knew I was dead to nearly any combination of cards in his hand. Well, anything except the three mountains he drew. Game 2 can be summed up quickly, Alex died turn 6-7 with 4 lands in play and 3 Glorybringers in hand. Sad to knock a good friend out like that and would have loved to meet him in the final instead.
Semi Finals vs James Clare on Temur Black
These were also non-games. Both games James kept 2 landers and both games James didn’t draw a third land till way after it mattered. Sometimes you work hard and get rewarded, sometimes you’re a lucksack and barely have to play magic in the Top 8.
Final vs Dave Wolf on Temur
I was very happy that Dave had made the finals, the Top 8 had a lot of good talent in it but this is a guy that gets better every time I see him play and I think will continue to. These where the only real games of the Top 8 but still didn’t end up being that close. He had a good curve of creatures in both his draws but never drew removal, if I recall correctly the only “removal” spell he played both games was a Glorybringer when a Hazoret was already killing him over 2 turns.
And there we have it: My friends were right all those years ago, I would indeed win the next one! After all these years I get to call myself Irish National Champion. There might not be a ceremony to carry a flag in anymore but it doesn’t make me any less proud. This year we have an excellent team, all based in the same city in the same gaming store. I made some mistakes at Worlds last year but plan to make up for them and am expecting nothing short of a Top 8 run from team Ireland this year. Lastly, a few shout outs for such an amazing event this year –
Gamers World and Fergus Looney for organising Nationals.
Thomas Ralph and the rest of the judge staff for an excellent job.
The Irish comunity for creating one of the best atmospheres in tournament Magic I’ve experienced.
Sandar Baars for always having a deck ready for me.
Craig Chapman for making sure I didn’t have to take public transport (perish the thought!).
Ger Norton in the future for never letting me forget that the Nationals he won had way more rounds then the one I did.