By the time the eighth and final qualifier event of the 2018 Romancing the Stones season came around, I was already frothing in anticipation for the invitational. A disappointing double X-4 finish during Eternal Weekend had left me looking for a win with a little prestige. I’d hoped that it would come during RTS8, but to no avail. That left the invitational. The posting on lonestarlhurgoyfs.com said it all: the winner would receive “a year’s worth of bragging rights.”*

Preperation

The invitational format offers the most knowable metagame of any tournament. The rosters are small, and the players’ complete deck selection history is typically available. This shifts the focus from the tight play that is necessary to win at big events towards optimal deck and card selection. By choosing correctly, one can nuke their opponents from orbit before the first round even starts.

The first step was putting each person on a deck. I think we had two weeks with the full roster in place. I have never been less effective at work. I knew I was safe to put Tweedy on Xerox and Jeff on Survival. From there I quickly decided nobody would play Dredge, comfortable in the knowledge that Paradoxical can just beat Dredge anyway, especially if they’re not playing the pitch version. I also put Shane on Ritual storm, as he had played that at every preceding event.

That still left me with four players who might reasonably field zero to four Shops decks, two or more Survival decks, at most one White Eldrazi, or another Paradoxical list that would tow close to Coval’s streamlined, Eternal Weekend winning list.

I brewed a lot. Paradoxical, like most blue decks in the format, has a dozen optional slots that can dramatically change how the deck performs in various matchups. Vintage Blue’s set of powerful tutors allows a single card to fundamentally change a matchup. Note I speak here of Vintage’s true Blue decks—those that play Demonic Tutor and Yawgmoth’s Win — as those foregoing the black splash are now — and have always been — fish decks.

At some point I expected four Survival decks, which led to such hits as maindeck Massacre with both Vamp and Mystical to find it, as well as purchasing more than one copy of Glare of Heresy. Dreams of exiling Stony Silence or Thalia as needed had me fantasizing about being made fun of for popularizing a new Vintage all-star white sorcery in a sort of Rube-Goldberg power fantasy. There was a 75 with double Dread of Night, as well as one with 14 lands in the main. I’m not proud.

Most builds were not so ambitious, and they mostly settled around the right configuration of anti-hate (Repeal, Hurkyl’s Recall, Balance, Fragmentize), Tinker, Vault+Key, and the Night’s Whisper slots. For the latter, I settled on one Whisper, one Merchant Scroll, and the maindeck Remora. The Remora came only after I chose to cheat on sideboard space against what I expected to be a single Xerox deck by playing neither Karn nor Defense Grid. Four Remoras, Traps, and Flusterstorms would give me byes against Shane — who I expected to be on ritual storm — and Pat, while still being very live (less traps) against Xerox. This opened up a lot of sideboard space that eventually got filled with three Hurkyl’s because, like Survival, there was a chance of as many as four Shops decks. I did not want to feel like a fool to show up unprepared for a deck that several players own in real cardboard.

I did all of this in three days. It took me another week to decide that Vault+Key was terrible. That still left four days of masturbatory goldfishing with the final 75. When wrist pain showed up on the third day, I wondered if my teenage self could have done better.

Then the reveal stream came. I was right about Tweedy, Stu, Pat, and Jeff. Aren on White Eldrazi was a surprise but it’s still fundamentally the same matchup as Survival. Shane had audibled to Moon Stompy; that made my Remoras far less enticing but still worked in my favor, as Moon Stompy doesn’t have much of a chance against Paradoxical. But Ben Kendrick was playing Xerox. Paradoxical’s worst matchup. The matchup I had cheated on both maindeck and sideboard. Doom.

I spent the last day or so before the event predicting how my opponents would board, and writing down my own plans on a sheet of paper. Vintage has too many 1-ofs for me to be able to board proficiently on the spot. I always end up forgetting about some of the swaps I wanted to make.

The tournament

I’ll skip the typical description of travel and the venue. It suffices to say that there were bloody Marys waiting for us. There was also a bottle of something called Malort, which I’m told “is horrible” and “tastes like varnish”. Half the bottle would be gone before day-end.

We randomly choose pods and opponents, and sit down to play.

Round 1 vs Shane Rice on Moon Stompy

Game 1 on the draw

Mox Opal, Mox Sapphire, Mox Jet, Polluted Delta, Vampiric Tutor, Ancestral Recall, Timetwister

This is a great hand. Shane’s most likely relevant plays are a Blood Moon effect or a Null Rod, and this hand affords me the ability to cast Ancestral Recall against either one.

He leads us off with a Rabblemaster off Mountain and Mana Crypt, and the token punches me for one. This means he has no prison effects at all, and is just hoping to either draw one, beat me down, or catch me leaving my artifacts out for Fiery Confluence. This is bad for Shane.

I play Recall off the Sapphire. One of the cards it draws me is a Hurkyl’s Recall. I play the Jet and the Opal, and Preordain after fetching a basic Island. I pass the turn with Hurkyl’s mana up, which will allow me to either bounce a topdecked Null Rod or protect my own artifacts against Fiery Confluence. He does neither, and I’m able to Vampiric Tutor for Paradoxical Outcome.

On my turn I draw the PO, then I Hurkyl’s Myself to net an extra blue mana. I replay my artifacts and cast the PO as an Ancestral Recall that generates four storm. Among my draws are Demonic Tutor and Mind’s Desire. I tutor for a Black Lotus which lets me cast the Mind’s Desire for 11. It finds Tendrils.

Game 2 on the draw

Force of Will, Island, Ancestral Recall, Mox Pearl, Mox Ruby, Ponder

I believe he mulligans to 6, then has Mountain, go. This is bad for Shane.

My draw for the turn is Tinker, which I cast, leaving me with Island, Pearl, Sphinx in play, and a possible Force pitching Ancestral Recall in hand. I pass.

Shane makes both a Magus of the Moon and a Rabblemaster, which he does post-combat so that the token doesn’t give me an additional six life. I let both resolve since they don’t matter, and the Rabblemaster is actively bad.

On my turn I draw Paradoxical. I can’t cast it, but as a blue card it means it’s now safe for me to cast my Recall. It finds Time Walk, Force, Paradoxical, which should be more than enough to win the game. Shane concedes to Time Walk, but deigns to stick around for one last draw when I point out he’s only going to fall to two. The extra turn isn’t enough.

Round 2 vs Brian Tweedy on Jeskai Xerox

Game 1 on the draw

Library of Alexandria, Paradoxical Outcome, Ponder, Top, Force of Will, Sol Ring, Mana Vault

The first card I drew in this hand was the Library, and that was nearly enough to keep on the spot. My entire plan this match is to grind them out, and no card does it better. The only really scary thing he can do is play an early Mentor, but that’s unlikely to be a problem until turn four or five.

The game progresses as you might expect. I choose to do nothing, and Tweedy struggles to find something powerful enough to pressure me to cast my cards. I spend a long time without any colored mana, but eventually I start playing stuff he needs to counter. We get to a point where I’m able to cast a Paradoxical for seven, which he Pyroblasts, paving the way for me to hardcast Sphinx of the Steel Wind. Unlike Ben’s list, Tweedy has no maindeck answer for the Sphinx. I plan to cast the Tinker in my hand next turn to go get a Top, but I draw the third Paradoxical Outcome which gets the concession.

Game 2 on the draw

Underground Sea, Time Walk, Island, Fragmentize, Ancestral Recall, Mind’s Desire

This hand is solid for grinding, as even if he missteps my recall I’ve got land drops and an answer for Stony Silence.

Tweedy goes to six, and our first turns are uneventful. I cast a few cantrips and use my Time Walk as an explore. At some point, he casts a Dack Fayden, and I cast my Recall in response. He missteps, and I Force the misstep, drawing three. Dack resolves. I’ve not played out any artifacts to steal, so the Dack draws cards. We spend a few turns like this, but Tweedy can’t seem to find Red mana. One of his activations sees him discarding double Pyroblast.

At some point, he makes Stony Silence hellbent and I still have the Fragmentize in hand, so it gets destroyed. Later, during the finals, you can hear Tweedy complaining about this on the coverage. I Demonic Tutor for Yawgmoth’s Win and pass the turn. He draws and passes. My draw for the turn is the Lotus I shuffled away when I cast the tutor. This is the best possible draw. I cast the Yawgmoth’s Will, which he has some sort of counter for but I have Force and Fluster to protect it. I don’t end up needing the Flusterstorm, and—in the face of 5+ colored mana and a graveyard with both Recall and Time Walk—he concedes.

Round 3 vs Jeff Lubinski on Survival

When I sit down, Jeff is talking about the possibility of me missing top 4 on breakers if he beats me, as he’s 1-1. This is an artifact of our decision to split into pods of four and round-robin instead of a traditional three rounds of Swiss. Everyone makes a mental note to pick a better structure next year. I resolve to crush him, because at this point I am running hot and I feel invincible.

My notes for this match are sparse.

Game 1 on the draw

Library of Alexandria, Mox Opal, Mox Opal, Force of Will, Scalding Tarn, Vampiric Tutor, Hurkyl’s Recall

He tries to make a Thalia turn one or turn two, which gets Forced. I draw a Mox Pearl and Vampiric for Ancestral Recall, and proceed to go nuts. I think Jeff hit me with a Rootwalla or Hierarch once before I Tendrils’d him.

Game 2 on the draw

Ancestral Recall, Paradoxical Outcome, Top, Top, Ponder, Misty Rainforest, Mox Jet

This hand is vulnerable to either of his hate pieces, but it doesn’t straight up die to them and will allow me to draw three on my second turn.

I make an early Sphinx that gets exchanged for a Gilded Drake, and a few turns later I die.

Game 3 on the play

I make a critical mistake in this game where I wait to cast my Ancestral Recall in response to one of his spells while he has a Lotus in play. He has a Spell Queller for my Recall, which resolves. I ended up winning this game with Mentor tokens. Jeff conceded when — in order to survive — he had to chump block with the Queller, drawing me three cards.

Semifinals vs Stu Ziarnik on White Eldrazi

This matchup looks abysmal on paper, but I’ve beaten it each time I’ve faced it. Stu doesn’t think it’s a particularly good matchup for him, either.

Game 1 on the play

Preordain, Preordain, Force of Will, Mox Emerald, Mox Opal, Underground Sea, Paradoxical Outcome

This hand is great. We have a Preordain to find a third mana rock, and Force + Blue card to stop his hate. If Preordain finds any artifact at all, we’re very likely to win.

I cast Preordain, and it finds a Sol Ring. I cast the Emerald, use it to make the Sol Ring, and drop the Opal. I make a mistake here by playing the second Preordain. This leaves Paradoxical Outcome as my only blue card for Force, so by casting the Preordain I have to find another blue card to pitch, else Forcing any play he makes leaves me without action.

His first turn presents Phyrexian Revoker off of Ancient Tomb, which I force. I’m not sure what I pitched, but I untapped and cast both Time Walk and a Ancestral Recall that I tutored up with Merchant Scroll. On my extra turn I make Monastery Mentor and like eight guys. Stu concedes.

Game 2 on the draw

I didn’t write down my hand for this one, but it contained Library of Alexandria, land, artifacts, and Force of Will.

I make the library on my first turn and pass without casting any artifacts. Normally, against Thalia decks you’d want to run them out there, but not playing them here leaves me with the ability to Force his play and still have an active Library.

Stu feels obligated to Wasteland it, and makes a Kataki. His board is some land that makes one mana and two moxes, so I let the Kataki resolve. We spend three turns just paying for our respective rocks; I am slightly ahead as I have a Sol Ring that pays for itself and an off-color Mox. I am at fourteen life when a Thalia joins the party, but I’ve got a decent number of lands in play and a Repeal in hand. The two hatebears take me to ten.

I play out the few moxen in my hand, paying Thalia’s tax, and pass. Stu’s bears take me to six, and I Repeal Thalia in his end step.

In my upkeep, I respond to Kataki triggers by casting Paradoxical Outcome, which draws me Lotus, Tolarian Academy, and Demonic Tutor, which was enough to win.

Finals vs Jeff Lubinski on Survival

The format of the finals was best of five, with the first two games being played preboard. I think everyone was excited about the chance to play a best of five under pressure. I hope that next year even more of the rounds are best of five, as it really was a treat.

Game 1 on the play

Preordain, Preordain, Force of Will, Brainstorm, Top, Mana Crypt, Mox Opal

I lead off by playing out the artifacts and casting Preordain with the Opal. This doesn’t find much, so I spin Top and pass.

Jeff has a Thalia off of Tropical and Pearl, which I Force.

I untap and cast Brainstorm. After resolving it, I have an Underground Sea, a Mana Vault, Lotus, and Paradoxical. I draw five cards including Vampiric Tutor, Demonic Tutor, and a Timetwister I desperately don’t want to cast. At this point the puzzle is just in how to make enough Black mana to win the game. I cast the Vampiric Tutor, with the plan of going and getting Yawgmoth’s Will, but while I’m searching I realize that I can win deterministically by using my floating Blue mana and Repeal to convert the Blue mana into a Black mana, so I just grab Mox Jet. The Vampiric into Jet ended up being a mistake, and I should have just grabbed Tendrils there so that the Demonic wasn’t necessary.

Game 2 on the draw

Force of Will, Misty Rainforest, Tinker, Repeal, Mana Vault, Snapcaster Mage

I drew a seven card hand that I’d happily keep against Xerox, but it was ultimately too fair against Jeff’s plan for stopping me. I go to six. With the hand I get, my entire plan is to resolve Tinker on two, and Force of Will his Gilded Drake. I double check his decklist to ensure that the only has the one answer.

Jeff plays a fetchland and passes. It turns out he had Ancestral Recall, which he should have just cast as it wouldn’t have overdrawn him on the mulligan. On my turn, I play a fetch and crack it, Jeff responds by grabbing a Tropical Island and casting his Recall. This doesn’t directly interrupt my plan, so I let it resolve.

Jeff has a second land drop and a Sapphire, and passes. This is incredibly strange to me. It’s clear that the rest of his hand is just land and guys, and that he was all-in on the Recall. Imagine my surprise when I cast Tinker, and Jeff responds with Spell Queller. This directly interrupts my plan.

I had a few options here. One option was to plan on either Repealing or Balancing away the Queller to get my Sphinx, but without Balance in hand or more mana available for Repeal that seemed like it would be too slow. Another was to ignore it, and shift towards trying to storm him out again, but I had no artifacts in play so that also seemed too slow. This leaves me stuck on the original Sphinx plan; I don’t let it resolve. The damage is done, however, and now I need to find another Force of Will before Jeff can find his Gilded Drake.

Jeff knows what to do, and begins digging for either the Drake or Survival to find it, which he quickly does. I Repeal the Survival as he’s short on Green mana, and this prevents him from making a Gilded Drake next turn. Over the next two turns I make a Mentor and play a Mana Crypt to make a dude, but I don’t have much in my hand to really get it going. Jeff takes his sweet time getting Gilded Drake. I manage to find a Merchant Scroll, with which I get Dig Through Time. I chose this over Ancestral because I was unlikely to be able to do anything with the mana anyway. Hurkyl’s Recall would have bounced the Sphinx and my two artifacts, but with the Stony Silence in play I was never going to be able to cast it, and replaying the artifacts wasn’t going to power my monks up all that much. Dig gets Ancestral Recall and Ponder, which I find somewhat comical.

He spends a couple turns chipping my thirty life away, while making a Stony Silence. On the critical turn, Jeff made a mistake where he planned to Phantasmal Image one of his Vengevines, but he failed to account for his Mox being disabled. He would realize later that even with the mistake he still had lethal, but at the time it phased him enough that he missed it.

I then proceed to go nuts with Mentor, and find a Time Walk. Yawgmoth’s Will doubles the insanity and I attack Jeff for literally hundreds of damage.

Game 3 on the draw

Library of Alexandria, Mox Sapphire, Mana Vault, Scalding Tarn, Mox Pearl, Top, Polluted Delta

There’s not much to this game. Jeff leads off with Lotus into Stony Silence, which resolves, but he has nothing else. I just sit on the Library for a while, and my second land drop is Tolarian Academy so I’m not even down too far on mana. I draw into the Fragmentize, fully expecting the Spell Queller that never comes. Jeff dies that turn, and I am the 2018 Romancing the Stones champion.

Deck and Sideboarding

I was very happy with my maindeck, and mostly happy with the sideboard. I never missed Vault+Key, and I’m unlikely to include it in the future. That two-card combo belongs in control decks who are interested in having an “I win” button. In Paradoxical, drawing either half is garbage most of the time, and you already possess four such buttons. When I did play it, even when I had one piece I still found myself tutoring for Ancestral Recall or Paradoxical unless I was certain my opponent had nothing in hand.

This is the deck I played

I entered the tournament with my sideboard strategy planned well in advance. This is how I boarded or planned to board against each player:

Vs Jeff on Survival

In Out
1 Island 1 Mystic Remora
1 Karakas 1 Night’s Whisper
1 Fragmentize 1 Merchant Scroll
1 Massacre 1 Gitaxian Probe

I want additional lands to fight through any hate he has, and additional cheap answers to that hate. I board out the low-impact Remora and cards that are bad with a Thalia in play. I don’t need them to grind anyway, because I just want to win quickly.

Vs Shane on Moon Stompy

In Out
1 Island 1 Library of Alexandria
1 Fragmentize 1 Night’s Whisper
2 Hurkyl’s 1 Gitaxian Probe
  1 Balance

Shane doesn’t have a taxing effect like Thalia, so I’m not interested in colorless lands. I bring in answers to Null Rod because I don’t care about Moon effects. Night’s Whisper is unnecessary and bad vs Moon. Balance is both hard to cast and likely terrible, as he empties his hand quickly. Probe is for blue decks.

Vs Pat on Paradoxical

In Out
3 Mystic Remora 1 Hurkyl’s Recall
2 Mindbreak Trap 1 Tinker
3 Flusterstorm 1 Sphinx of the Steel Wind
  1 Timetwister
  1 Balance
  1 Vampiric Tutor
  2 Force of Will

I board out Tinker because it’s too slow, Balance because it’s dead against everything except Mentor, and Timetwister because I’ll probably lose if I cast it. I’m just looking to grind, so Vampiric and Force of Will can be shaved. I’m bringing in five counterspells and four Remoras, so I’m not worried about being light on Force.

Vs Ben on Xerox

In Out
3 Mystic Remora 1 Vampiric Tutor
3 Flusterstorm 1 Hurkyl’s Recall
1 Fragmentize 1 Timetwister
  1 Mox Opal
  3 Force of Will

The way this matchup works is I just try to cast one more broken spell than they have answers to your broken spells. Remora is usually a Duress, but when it resolves your opponent is probably dead. I side out cards that are bad for this grindy strategy, i.e. an opal, card disadvantage tutors, and some Force of Will.

Vs Tweedy on Xerox

In Out
3 Mystic Remora 1 Vampiric Tutor
2 Flusterstorm 1 Hurkyl’s Recall
1 Fragmentize 1 Timetwister
  1 Mox Opal
  2 Force of Will

This is the same plan, but I go with a 2/2 Fluster/Force split instead of 3/1, as he has three Stony Silence instead of just one.

Vs Aren on White Eldrazi

In Out
1 Island 1 Mystic Remora
1 Karakas 1 Night’s Whisper
1 Massacre Merchant Scroll
1 Fragmentize Sensei’s Divining Top
1 Hurkyl’s Gitaxian Probe

This is almost the same plan as against the other Thalia deck, Survival. The difference is I go up a Hurkyl’s here as they have a few more artifacts. I like cutting a Top as mana isn’t as plentiful in this matchup, it’s dead if Null Rod is in play, and it can be awkward against Revoker.

Stu on White Eldrazi

In Out
1 Island 1 Mystic Remora
1 Karakas 1 Night’s Whisper
1 Massacre 1 Merchant Scroll
1 Fragmentize 1 Sensei’s Divining Top
2 Hurkyl’s 1 Gitaxian Probe
  1 Demonic Tutor

Stu has more Null Rods and no Stony Silence, so I want Hurkyl’s even more. Demonic Tutor can be too expensive, and I’m less dependent on specific answers. It’s also reasonable to cut Timetwister.

Closing Thoughts

Vintage is great and you should play it. Romancing the Stones is great and you should go to the events. You should also watch the coverage because Sam makes fun of us the whole time.