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The Final Cut - The Stalker


As most of you may or may not know, my name is Michael Keller - or more commonly known among my peers in the Legacy community as "Hollywood" (due in large part for my love and interest in film) from Team Left Field. I have been playing competitive Magic since August of 1994 when The Dark was first released and have always been an Eternal aficionado, namely Legacy. I haven't been as involved as I would like to be as I am currently serving in the U.S. Navy, but that hasn't completely stopped me from enjoying a refreshing tournament once in a while. One of the things I've prided myself in over the years is doing extraordinarily well in high-profile events with unorthodox card choices deemed by a wide margin of the Legacy community as "flawed" or "inherently bad." The truth is, no one really knows with one-hundred percent certainty what they will be facing as they decide what deck to play in a large event, and this actually evens out the playing field more than one might think. I've followed this method of thought to success over time and have improved myself as both a player and scholar of the format from the people who are better than me. If there is any credibility you would prefer to give me based on this article, consider I've won blue Dual Lands for the last five years with cards like: Polar Kraken, Lord of Tresserhorn, Snakeform, and All Hallow's Eve.

Polar Kraken

You're probably thinking to yourself, "That's impossible; those cards are terrible!"

If you are thinking that, as I suspect most of you are, that's good; that's exactly the frame of mind I want you to be in right now. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you'll gain some insight as to what kind of player I am, and more importantly, what you can take away from it all.

Going to a large tournament can always be a fun and exciting thing, and as well it should be. You shouldn't be intimidated by players with higher ratings than you, because confidence goes a long way in playing your game and owning the match right from the start. But there are times when people tend to question their own ability and choice of deck based on how they fared in their latest endeavor, effectively getting blown out and going home 0-2 drop and wondering, "What the hell happened?"

The confetti is falling down on your head and you're not the winner. Hurts, doesn't it?

It should... if you're a true competitor.

But there are other people like that out there like you, believe it or not. There's always that one person who bridges the gap somewhere in Unpredictability Land. There is that one person who reads and comprehends what wins on a constant basis - only to conceptualize a product structurally designed to take down that deck (or groups of decks) that always seem to hoist the trophy at the end of the day. This individual is not someone who does not solely generalize or rely solely on mathematical probabilities to win games, but enjoys shopping at garage sales for a set of clothes that would decent on them - only to outclass the alpha male at the hottest club downtown and wind up getting all the girls. In this case, it would be the prize of winning under the guise of cards dismissed as poor choices at face value.

I'm talking about... The Stalker.

Abyssal Nightstalker

To be clear right off the bat, The Stalker is not necessarily your stereotypical "rogue" Magic player. As the years have passed us by, so too have the people's exploits of various single-card strategies and archetypes that have changed the face of the game. But The Stalker is that one person you see at your local event that you know plays the dark-horse card very well and is dangerous to predict based on their fluctuating but fast-adapting style of play. The Stalker is willing to take risks and sometimes very big ones even prior to the beginning of the event they are attending. These multilateral individuals - much like myself - always follow a code of conduct that allows them to always have the edge against opponents who many claim to be superior based on general performance and namesake alone.

When you sit at the table, it's twenty-twenty, and the scales are even. The Stalker, however, knows their opponents and studies their competition obsessively, and I'm not just talking about the obligatory "peruse around the tables" before a big event. He follows their style of play, their tendencies when it comes to making decisions, the general type of deck (or archetype) they follow, etc. over the course of time. Information is a powerful tool, and when used properly, it can crush someone's dreams in a big hurry. Stalkers take risks but understand that in doing so, when a defeat is implemented on an unsuspecting opponent, you can relegate them to fearing you the next time you play based on such unorthodox and explicitly dangerous style of play.

Kind of makes you uneasy, doesn't it?

I thrive on competition and knocking players who are better than me out of contention in large events; it's a very rewarding feeling. It's key to understand who the ringleaders are in a local metagame and what decks are being funneled from person to person and player to player. (Again - potent information) When you discover trends based on a local metagame over a certain period of time, you can adapt your strategy not only to what is prevalent within that meta, but more importantly the mimicry in which players who follow a very skilled player tend to follow as well. I've found that an abhorrently large number of players - ones who are typically weaker in play-skill - follow these ringleaders by simply using either a stock list or that person's winning combination so they themselves can follow in the same footsteps. Everyone wants to be a winner, and some will do it at the cost of their own creative ingenuity (or lack thereof).

It's at this point we've realized that linear way of thinking becomes so predictable, it makes the life of The Stalker much easier. Preparation is always key, and the point of gaining an edge over your opponents is understanding whether or not they are weak-minded and will retreat to stock variants of any popular archetype to try and win games. People in general can be hard to decipher mentally, so it takes a crafty person to uncover the type of player they are up against.

Take the following now-defunct list I created for example. This is a simple list predicated on controlling the game through permanent-based effects and a swarming creature horde capable of getting large in a ridiculous amount of time; a Chalice Aggro variant:

Mono Green Chalice Aggro by Michael Keller

Converted Mana Cost
Basic Land9

This deck forms part of my article:

The Final Cut - The Stalker

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This is a list I piloted to a top four finish at Jupiter Games' Dual Land Draft back in late 2009. Let's just look at it for a moment and take it in.

The list itself has some questionable slots, no doubt about it. In fact, one could even go as far as to say it would be "suicide" running a deck like this into a large, unpredictable event.

But just how unpredictable really was that event from the get-go?

At that point in time, Merfolk, Bant, Survival variants, and Storm Combo (pre-banning of Mystical) were growing choices in the community and posed serious problems for players who were ill-prepared to deal with them if they wanted to realistically get into the top 8 of a large event. My philosophy was twofold on the situation. First, I know I can beat the players - or at least have the confidence in trying to - who are less talented than I am and weak-minded. Secondly, if I wanted to top 8, I would have to realize that in order to do so would require defeating the more skilled pilots with their pet-decks or other archetypes they play on a more typical basis, but giving them a sense of mental leeway so that I can adapt to what it is they are playing to deflect the element of surprise. If I can nullify losses to inferior competition by beating them and tailor my deck towards finding a tangible edge against good players with good decks, than I dramatically increase my chances of placing highly in the tournament I choose to play in.

I knew Islandwalk would wind up being a key mechanic, on my side of the table, not theirs. I knew that both Wasteland and Trinisphere would save the day against Combo, and it did - defeating Bryant Cook two games to one. The way I figured it? If I'm going to go all the way, I need to be able to stop the player, not necessarily the deck. I knew Bryant would be there, and because of his success as a player and his cult status with The Epic Storm, I knew he would be piloting it. In predictable fashion, he sure enough did show up. And by knowing he'd be there I adapted accordingly and knocked him out of contention in the process. I also saw a fair amount of Ichorid, and Trinisphere wound up giving me a win in the top 8 - effectively shutting my opponent down.

There's always a generous amount of chatter that goes into promoting an event on a larger scale. More often than not, you tend to see the usual suspects in a region or area you are familiar with. With that in mind, it is always important to keep notes on each person who regularly attends these events and try to understand how they play and what makes them so successful. The Stalker should always keep in mind that a great player will always adapt to wins and losses and continue their hand at what makes them successful, or they will fall completely from grace and attempt something new. Keeping tabs on things like this is always key, especially if you are looking for that hidden edge over your competition. Whenever your opponent makes a play error and you catch on to it, write it down. Or, better yet, if you win the game via blowout (or even if the game is drawn out), sometimes a player will erupt with fury about what he or she may have drawn to win the game. If that's the case, don't let something like that go unnoticed; mark it down and remember that if that player had those cards, they could have had a chance. Remember who they are - as you might end up playing them again sooner than you think.

This is where the sideboard is critical. You have fifteen dedicated slots to your worst matchups or cards to just supplement your deck so that you have a higher probability of drawing into those cards. Sideboarding is a strategy that deserves its own topic, so I won't go into too much detail trying to be an expert on what you should play, because that is entirely up to you. It is, however, important to understand that your sideboard should be crafted to punish those decks you should expect to see at the end of the day, as that goes without being said. Sometimes an opponent will be gracious (however foolish) enough to show you the cards they sided in to try and win the game. Remember this strategy and jot those cards down with the match itself - it could prove vital.

Lurking Nightstalker

Living in a world where internet is commonplace and video is everywhere, Stalkers who are serious about winning tournaments should take full advantage of whatever medium they can to gain tips on a player and what they are playing. This is why I enjoy watching featured matches for big events - what the camera tells us is how a player reacts under pressure and how aggressive are they in their approach. Are they calm and collected with a poker face like Daniel Negreanu, or do they fold easily when their opponent is able to stabilize and demoralize them outright? I for one take notes when watching these matches for impending competition and create a mental and physical game-play profile on each player and what their tendencies are. Some of these (if not all) players love the spotlight, but in reality it is the worst possible thing that could ever happen to someone who is under a microscope and vividly giving away the intricacies of their game. It's one thing when a few people stop over towards the end of a round to see what all the fuss is about with a match in-progress, but it is another thing we as spectators - and Stalkers - should take very seriously when preparing to go heads up into an event with competition who have their faces and names everywhere and have the same intentions you do: winning.

It should drive the fire inside you to be better at your game and to win any event you pay money to enter, no questions asked. This can be referenced to the fact that a good friend and teammate of mine, Alex Artese, just won a large Dual Land Draft in Binghamton using Gerry Thompson's Counterbalance list and effectively running the table against some very stiff competition. People are just riding in circles at this point in time in the post-Survival era, from Goblins to Counterbalance to Merfolk, with a generous portion of Combo tossed somewhere in the mix of this mess. Without impugning on Alex's outstanding efforts, I believe his victories were in large part due to an ineffective approach by his opponents in how to stop a deck like that, when it is clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the format as far as Counterbalance lists go. Firespout seems to be the x-factor that changes the dynamic of the Aggro match-up and forcing players without a good understanding how they should play their opponents on their toes. A good deck in the hands of a great player can do great things, but a slightly above average deck in the hands of a great player can be just as applicable if that player has done their homework and understands the intricacies of both the deck they're piloting and format. Alex knew this, and his preparation led him to victory.

There are downsides to being a Stalker at your event of choosing, however. For one, you're one who is constantly overwhelmed with obtaining information at an alarming rate, so it can be overwhelming at times. The trick is to not only remain focused, but have fun with what you're doing. Understanding what deck works best for you is critical when you pick your poison. But remember, your deck can be just that - poison - if not handled properly. Know the ins and outs of your deck and exactly why you chose what you did. Come prepared with a side-boarding strategy specifically geared towards certain troublesome archetypes. You can even adapt a written strategy against individuals themselves, provided you understand their tendencies and applicable archetypes.

In essence, a Stalker is someone with a serious desire to win at Magic taking into account all avenues of information and availability to media in order to pick up on any advantage they can gain when predictability begins to thaw. They thrive on details and the ability to convert turnovers into touchdowns. Frequenting large events in a general region will almost always bring the same players out of the woodwork, and in general those players will always bring the same concept to the table. But don't be unprepared. Be that person who has done their homework on their competition; be that person who wants to win and wants to walk home with $2,000.00, a trophy, or a set of blue Duals; be that person willing to take the risk that sometimes what is perceived as unorthodox and unnecessary is actually the right choice on any given day.

Be a Stalker. Gain that edge. Win that tournament, because everyone remembers a winner.

Michael Keller

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