PITCHfx and Statcast sz_top/sz_bot Zone Issues Continue, and High Fastballs Suck

Numerous people have written about the sz_bot/sz_top issues in PITCHfx (and now Statcast) data. You cannot blindly use those variables to create umpire zones, because the errors – collected manually by stringers – are not normally distributed across the two variables. For more information on that, see the following links:


There’s tons of others if you care to find them.

I was testing a strike zone theory of mine and my memory was jarred when I ran the first SQL commands against my PITCHfx/Statcast database – ah shit, I need to normalize the zone and regress for bias. I looked up the articles above and realized most of the articles were pretty old, so I figured I’d run the data myself.

Here’s weighted average data for sz_top and sz_bot, which can vary PER PITCH, but in the raw data table here, is displayed as per at-bat. Click the tweet to expand the image if you like.

And here’s a quick example of the per-pitch variance in sz_top and sz_bot that can happen – Chase Utley, 2014-2017.

Last, but not least, I took this data and ran a rough regression to attempt to correct for the bias. It’s not perfect, but it’ll be close.

In short: Hitters like Mike Trout suck against high fastballs, but unfortunately, umpires don’t like calling high fastballs strikes. The implications are obvious, unfortunately.

In Defense of (some) Unpaid Internships

Before I even get into the topic at hand, I want to head off the outrage culture members by saying that as of August 26th, 2016 – and for the foreseeable near future – Driveline Baseball’s internships are all paid positions – about 50%+ above minimum wage in Seattle. They are also highly competitive, with hundreds of applicants for the spots.

Alrighty then. If I don’t put that in the first part of the post I know I’ll get blasted by idiots.

Unpaid Internships are Predatory

Yes, it’s true. Multiple people have written scores of words way better than I ever could about how unpaid internships perpetuate income inequality and favors legacy-rich college-educated young adults. Here is just a sample of said articles:

I’d also like to point out that many “staffers” on campaign trails for politicians are unpaid and the same stuff applies to them, regardless of the progressivism of the candidate.

I don’t really have much to add. Unpaid internships in my field – athletic performance training – are widely abused, because most university gyms and performance training centers are barely profitable. This is seen as some sort of justification for simply not paying employees under the guise of “experience” when they’re actively coaching athletes, performing manual labor, and/or creating content. This is completely unacceptable, and Driveline Baseball will never do this.

However, I want to talk a bit about how offering only paid internships is a form of discrimination. Yup. You read that right.

How Paying Everyone Can Contribute to Unfairness

As stated before, throughout 2016 Driveline Baseball has only offered paid internships at above minimum wage rates (about 50% higher, in fact). Almost all paid interns have been offered extensions to their contracts at the same pay rates, and we anticipate converting many of them to FTE positions with a raise and gold-level medical benefits. It’s been a great system for us.

However, all of the paid interns we have hired have been extremely qualified individuals. They were the cream of the crop of what we had – many had previous experience and almost all had formal education (sometimes in the field of choice, sometimes not). Since we’re paying them, the company wants to see a return on investment, and we have certainly achieved that. It’s been a good symbiotic relationship – the interns get paid a decent wage, gain experience, and produce value for the company. Everything’s all good.

…except that it really isn’t, if you think about it.

There is a huge amount of privilege implied in the above – these candidates were in a position to pay for college through academic/athletic scholarship, parental help, loans, or even self-financed through hard work at menial jobs while younger. Even the last point – which sounds meritocratic – isn’t. What if you were unlucky enough to grow up in a family that didn’t prioritize work ethic as a main trait, and the public schooling system you happened to find yourself in didn’t reinforce it either? What if your parents were divorced young and were negligent? What if you do a basic calculation and realize that post-secondary education largely generates negative return on investment for all but the best colleges?

You are extremely likely to not be one of the best candidates for a paid internship, and your resume will be discarded compared to others by any business who is planning on paying interns/employees.

It is not rational to expect corporations to hire paid interns and employees who are simply worse than other candidates. So how can unpaid internships be useful?

Apprenticeship / Free Education Model

Driveline Baseball has tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars of technology that is used on a daily basis to improve athletes’ outcomes, and this is available to the athletes and employees at almost all times. This is not only very useful to us, but also offers interns/employees/executives the chance to learn something new every single time they work with technology – we are constantly pushing the envelope and researching new things in sabermetrics, performance training, injury rehabilitation, and so much more.

Brief aside: I grew up in a blue-collar household. I was working at the age of 14 (at a pizza shop, cash under the table) and opted out of high school day classes to work full-time at the age of 17 (at the library as a union page) to supplement my scholarship in college. Both of my parents worked hard, difficult jobs. Work ethic had been instilled me in from a young age (it didn’t always manifest itself, of course), and for that I am extremely lucky. Yet I chose to work for free on many projects and in internships to pick up skills that I could not have acquired any other way – I was able to use advanced technology and computers and work with brilliant people, and that advanced my career in software development. Later when I would switch careers, I worked for free and below minimum-wage in my mid-20’s for professional baseball teams and for people in the industry just so I could learn something new. I did all this while working a full-time job that I didn’t necessarily like, but it was the best way to get that education without spending money to go back to college (something I figured had negative ROI).

Today I hear from very similar people – those who have full-time jobs as a server at a chain restaurant, and I think to when I logged late night shifts at the Olive Garden as a server, making $2/hr plus tips, saving my pennies to move to Seattle to be with my girlfriend. I spent my free time applying for jobs and doing independent research and work to further my portfolio. I would have gladly taken a flexible unpaid internship to leverage that desire, to make myself better.

Here is one specific example: Driveline Baseball owns and operates one of the only private Trackman installations in the country that openly works with elite college and pro athletes. Trackman, for those unaware, costs in the not-low five figures (agreements prohibit me from disclosing the actual price) and requires a fair bit of technical expertise to actually set up and use on a regular basis. Trackman is used in all MLB stadiums and some minor league stadiums to track ball flight off the bat and out of the hand of the pitcher; its origins come from missile tracking technologies. It is a tremendous opportunity to learn cutting-edge stuff about the game, so much so that I have appeared twice on the MLB.com Statcast Podcast to talk about these things.

This is literally a very rare (used to say unique until I was berated into changing this English gaffe) opportunity, maybe one of three or four in the world at best. There are tons of students and progressive baseball coaches who work full-time jobs or two part-time jobs to keep food on the table that could easily be unpaid interns at Driveline Baseball to use this technology to learn more, put on their resumes, and advance their careers and knowledge. They may not be qualified to be paid interns or employees, but why should that limit dedicated, hard-working people? Why should I shutter my door? In the name of fairness?

Here’s what I’m thinking about after talking it over with a bunch of entrepreneurs who are also socially conscious.

A Good Unpaid Internship Looks Like…

  • Flexible hours that are almost entirely controlled by the intern. No schedules (outside of reasonable work hours setting availability and such). No shifts.
  • Access to privileged technology, science, or other items/services not publicly or freely available.
  • No expectations of actionable work being generated by the intern. In case useful or profitable work IS generated, a retroactive payment structure should be negotiated and perhaps written into a rider when the unpaid intern comes on “staff.”
  • Open communication at all times between management and interns.
  • Free to leave / quit at any time.

I think that is more than fair, and something that would be huge. Yet it is still something I struggle with daily because, like most socially conscious people, I loathe the idea of unpaid employees, even though these are not employees by any stretch of the imagination.

What do you think?

How Niantic Should Approach Pokemon Go Problems – Like a Human Being, not an MBA-Type Asshole

Niantic Labs deserves a ton of credit for taking a license of a very popular piece of IP and blending it with a novel platform – Augmented Reality – and turning it into Pokemon Go, one of the most successful launches of all time. They ran into a few problems due to insane load that was probably at least a single order of magnitude higher than they were expecting, but honestly got it under control fairly quickly. I know some of you probably disagree, but having worked for large companies that supported out huge game launches (I was at Microsoft/Xbox when they launched a number of big titles) and startups that suddenly gain a huge amount of traction they weren’t expecting, I promise you that Niantic handled the technical side of expansion about as well as you can ask for.

The problem is that they’ve basically done everything wrong since.


Zero Transparency, No Post-Mortems, No Updates

As of this blog post (August 2nd, 2016), here are Niantic’s channels’ most recent updates:

Facebook: August 2nd, 2016 – Subject: Recent Changes to Pokemon Go
Twitter: July 17th, 2016 – Subject: Pokemon Go launches in Canada
Corporate Blog: July 6th, 2016 – Subject: Pokemon Go launches in AUS/NZ/USA

The Facebook “press release” goes into zero detail on why features are being removed. This is completely unacceptable. By contrast, here is an example of what a company should do when servers go down or there are technical problems – GitHub Incident Report, Jan 28th, 2016. Note how GitHub’s release follows this flow:

  • The Event (What Happened?)
  • Diagnosis of the Problem (How Did We Fix it?)
  • Future Work (How Will We Make Strides to Ensure This Never Happens Again?)
  • Conclusion (Sincere Apology)

This is how every single technical outage should be documented. Furthermore, when updates are issued or technical problems cause the removal of previously-expected features (three-footstep bug turning into no tracking at all), a similar release should be issued.

I can only guess why Pokemon Go can’t track local pokemon; this seems like an embarrassing bug that should have prevented the app from shipping entirely. From what I’ve seen (I’ve done a fair bit of reverse engineering of Pokemon Go and have contributed to patches of third-party APIs and bots), Pokemon Go local tracking should work like this:

  • Phone sends server GPS coordinates
  • Server responds with ordered list of lat/long pairs with pokemon in X kilometers radius
  • Phone runs local calculation on distances and displays pokemon on the screen with distances to each pokemon using footprints or other method

Note that steps #1 and #2 must happen for the game to work anyway, so adding step #3 makes no sense that it would “increase server load” as some have claimed.

This leads us to…

Inability to Talk Like a Human

Niantic’s second problem is that they have zero capacity or desire to talk to their users like they are people. This was a problem with Ingress and I’m not surprised to see it continue with Pokemon Go. Niantic has long been considered a company with extremely poor customer service and zero transparency into their actions. Nintendo/The Pokemon Company should have seen this coming and allocated resources to protect their IP, but it’s not like Nintendo has a very good reputation in these areas, either.

Niantic’s last press release – on Facebook and not copied to their corporate blog, which is another huge mistake – reads exactly how disconnected politicians speak to their constituents:


As many of you know, we recently made some changes to Pokémon GO.

– We have removed the ‘3-step’ display in order to improve upon the underlying design. The original feature, although enjoyed by many, was also confusing and did not meet our underlying product goals. We will keep you posted as we strive to improve this feature.
– We have limited access by third-party services which were interfering with our ability to maintain quality of service for our users and to bring Pokémon GO to users around the world. The large number of users has made the roll-out of Pokémon GO around the world an… interesting… challenge. And we aren’t done yet! Yes, Brazil, we want to bring the game to you (and many other countries where it is not yet available).

The first point about the ‘3-step display’ is at best a half-truth because while it was working, it was not confusing at all! It worked very well. Then it was permanently broken – on purpose – and that was confusing. But the feature as it was designed was something that gamers enjoyed and expected. It is clear that the display was a technical problem, and as stated above, all technical problems should be documented and explained. Niantic should have issued a press release that contained language similar to what I’ve drafted:


We have removed ‘3-step tracking’ temporarily from Pokemon Go. We know this is a disappointing piece of news, and we’d like to take this opportunity to explain what went wrong and what we’re doing to fix it.

What Went Wrong?

Our code that we wrote to track pokemon globally and locally scaled poorly. Our inability to plan for scale this wide came back to bite us. In short, we were making too many server calls when we should have been pushing more of the decisions locally and figuring out a better caching plan. Unfortunately, a short-term fix is not in the cards at the moment, so we’ve decided to disable tracking instead of continuing to display a broken feature.

How are We Fixing it?

Right now the client-side app makes too many calls to the server, which artificially increases server load and makes the game unstable for all users. A fix involves decreasing unnecessary communication between server and client and potentially reworking exactly how pokemon spawn. We’ve brought in some expert network consultants to help us rewrite this code from scratch, and we have an alpha version in testing in certain areas right now.

When Will It Be Fixed? 

While we do not have a hard ETA, you can expect weekly updates with technical writeups on where we are at – found on our blog and Facebook accounts.


We know that we’ve failed the gaming community at large, and all of us at Niantic would like to apologize for the impact of temporarily disabling this feature. We will continue to work on this issue and will keep the community in the loop at all times with technical progress. Thank you for your continued loyalty, and we continue to work hard to earn your trust.

Refusal to Engage a Motivated Community

Niantic’s desire to shut down services like Pokevision and other third-party tracking sites is exactly what you would expect from a company that is governed by fear and very short-sighted MBA-type empty suits with zero desire to connect with their users. Niantic sees these users as disruptive hackers, when in reality, all successful companies that have a semi-adversarial relationship with users (IT security, for example) do their best to ally themselves with the hackers. When it comes to cybersecurity, smart companies pay out Bug Bounties for hackers who responsibly disclose security holes in their products and services; dumb companies contact law enforcement and try to crack down. The latter approach simply drives all the bugs underground and ensures they will be exploited for black market reasons (and it also generates an enormous amount of bad will), the former approach rewards freelancers for improving their product and taking an interest in improving it.


When Niantic discovered Pokevision (a website that tracked Pokemon Go pokemon spawning at any location in the world), they should have contacted the authors of the tool and offered to hire them in a capacity that helped them solve their ‘3-step tracking’ issues as well as develop future features for the game. If Niantic was worried about server load from these tools, they should have reached out with a rate limiting plan and worked with the website to cooperate together. From the outset, Pokevision repeatedly stated they would take the website down if Niantic or Nintendo requested, showing that they were good actors with the best of intentions. This is an ideal scenario where you engage them and the community at large to fix a problem you have in a collaborative effort. Not only do you end up with a better service, but you generate goodwill in the community.

Niantic needs to admit their product is broken and that they didn’t take security all that seriously (MITM attacks continue to succeed despite the fact that Niantic just installed certificate pinning in their app in an attempt to block HTTPS sniffing). It’s not a war they can afford to fight when they already have a ton of other fires they’re stoking with their heavy-handed approach, and attempting to control what users do with a shipped binary on user-controlled hardware… well, let’s just say that it’s not a battle that can really be won.


Niantic Labs is a company just like the majority of the new American businesses that come to power – full of MBA-type assholes who do everything to limit legal exposure and see customer support as a sinkhole. It’s a perfect parallel to our current political climate, where the majority of our representatives provide little to no transparency on why they vote the way they do and do not document their processes for their constituents – yet we blame American voting turnout on the individuals, not the people above us who fail to connect with your every day person. Corporate strategy follows that exact same model, and there’s no surprise that there’s a massive backlash with users filing for refunds, complaining to Apple/Google in droves, and hacking their software left and right to provide the features Niantic should have had on lockdown from the beginning.

If you futilely swim upstream long enough, don’t be surprised when the current eventually overtakes you. It might require a company (or politician) to swallow a bit of ego and allocate resources to supporting customers (gasp!), but the effort is well-worth the investment.

Be All Things

A friend of mine is an outstanding technical hitting coach. I took lessons from him and got significantly better, primarily because his understanding of the swing is driven by reality and what successful pro players tend to do. He also understands the value of vision-based training, because a swing is just a swing – vision and approach make up the other half (or more) of a hitter’s ability to succeed in the box.

We were talking between sessions of hitting once, and this exchange came about:

“If you were 19 again and starting off in pro ball [he was a former 9th rounder who signed out of HS, played up to AAA], knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself to give yourself the best shot to make the big leagues – to be the best hitter you could be?” I asked

“I’d tell myself that I needed to hit 4 times per week at least on my own, and once with a coach using video. I’d drill vision constantly and have batting practice pitchers throw me breaking balls just to take them. I’d join a gym and lift, getting incredibly strong. I’d get on a speed training program so I could consistently run a 6.8 or better. And I’d get on a velocity throwing program like yours so I could have a plus arm from third base.”

“Got it. That makes sense. Do you tell your kids this?”

“Yes. I try to tell them how they can succeed based on my failures in the game.”

“All good coaches do. Now tell me, [coach name], say I’m a 16 year old very dedicated high school athlete who wants to play elite D1 baseball or pro ball. I have a little ability but I’m pretty raw. And I’m dedicated, truly – I’ll miss a session per month, maximum. I get a 3.2 GPA in school and I don’t get in trouble. I come to you, you tell me that story about what’s necessary to excel. And then I ask you this question:

That sounds great! Do you offer a program that encompasses all of that?

What’s your answer?”

“Hmm. I see your point.”

The hitting coach and I put dual programs together to get on the same path, but it never really materialized much since he moved away and got into the select/summer team world. We still keep in touch all the time, of course, and I still highly respect him.

But the exchange above is how I try to run Driveline Baseball. What do you need in your life to be the best pitcher you can be? That is what Driveline tries to offer, in whole. Otherwise, the parts have to be assembled haphazardly and undoubtedly I’ll disagree with some aspect of how you’re doing it, to which your response should be: “Then you do it if you know best!”

We offer:

  • Strength/speed training in our weight room containing 3 Olympic lifting platforms, specialized equipment, and our outside area to run and complete agilities
  • Throwing programs ranging from long toss, weighted ball training, mechanical remapping using PlyoCare balls
  • Technical benefits not found anywhere else – Trackman + Rapsodo spin rate analysis, Edgertronic high-speed video, 3d biomechanics lab filming
  • Supplements to sustain growth for athletes – Vitamin D, EPA/DHA, Protein, Creatine
  • Networking to get your verified videos out to college coaches nationwide
  • An on-site physical therapist once per week
  • Trainers certified in various soft tissue manipulation methods
  • Elite recovery tools like Marc Pro / EMS, Normatech, Powerplay

There are a few things we need to get better at to build the complete pitcher, but we pride ourselves on constantly Being All Things. To me, it is hypocritical to expect our athletes’ best without giving them our best effort in return – sharpening the sword we have AND adding new blades to our arsenal, rather than passing them off to third party resources.

Can you Be All Things if you expect greatness? Your athletes may depend on it.

Smart and Thinvitational 2016 – The best Magic event of the year

For the last two years a bunch of my friends have gotten together to get away for a weekend of gaming and just disconnecting from our regular lives. Technically speaking, this is only the second annual such event, but it was loosely organized prior to that. However, I believe our roster is mostly set going forward, though obviously we expect substitutions will be a regular thing. The people involved are:

  • David Bedoll, actuary (main organizer, getaway used to be in his parents’ house on Anderson Island in Washington State)
  • Steven Birklid, owner of Fast Signs in Shoreline (main Magic organizer, tournament designer, and card stock / proxy printer)
  • Max McCall, Game Developer @ Blizzard
  • Zac Hill, Chief Innovation Officer @ The Future Project
  • Cedric Phillips, Media Manager / Main Voice @ Star City Games
  • Brian Wong, best limited Magic player to never play on an individual Pro Tour (also works on like vaccines and more important stuff than any of us)
  • Jesse Wilke, poker professional
  • Peter Beckfield, software developer @ WG Cells
  • Me, owner of Driveline Baseball

Our interests and professions are varied, but the one thing that brought us all together was Magic: The Gathering. We’re a collection of has-beens and never-were gamers who all generally love the Retirement Home Format for Old Magic Players – Cube Draft. So we get together and do that, but we also play archaic and invented formats, arrange it into a grand tournament, and play the hell out of it a bit too seriously.

Here was this year’s grand prize and poster for the tournament, as designed by Steven Birklid:


If you’re complaining about the logo being impossible to read, then congratulations, you officially understand the whole point of the name of the event.

Last year’s winner was Zac Hill, and as the defending champion – and guy who generally has the most ridiculous Facebook pictures usable for exploitation – Steven selected him to be the face of the event for at least 2016.

To take a look at what events Steven planned for this year’s tournament, go to the official Smart and Thinvitational 2016 Tournament Google Spreadsheet.

To summarize, this year’s Magic events included:

  • Bring Your Own Standard – two large expansions, four small expansions, one core set (cannot select more than one set per block)
  • Legacy Rotisserie Draft – included three rounds of banned cards, all current Legacy-legal cards were available for selection
  • Set Sealed – participants were randomly assigned 9 sets to build a deck. All cards that were ever banned in ANY major format are banned in this format.
  • Racial Draft – participants were randomly assigned a race to build a deck around. All cards must have the race’s name in the rules text, title, or type line. Three cards per person are allowed to be “drafted” and were “raceshifted.” For example, I took Heritage Druid and all instances of “elf” were translated to “merfolk.”
  • 3v3 Cube Drafts – standard moneydraft format, participants were randomly assigned a team of three and players got 1 extra point per team win. My teammates for the weekend were Max McCall and Zac Hill; the other teams were Steven Birklid/Brian Wong/Cedric Phillips and Jesse Wilke/David Bedoll/Peter Beckfield. These ended up being surprisingly balanced, I thought Birklid’s team was the clear favorite, my team being 2nd best, and Wilke’s team being the worst. However, all teams won one match in the round robin competition.

Let’s go into the strategies I took into each format!

Bring Your Own Standard

Delver of Secrets

I’ve played a fair amount of BYOS-type events in the past at Origins (a regular tournament there back when I played) as well as online in #apprentice, but not any time in the last decade. Given the restrictions on bannings and the “no two sets from the same block,” I was pretty sure I’d just play some form of Delver since I was expecting at least 2 and probably 3 players to make some ridiculous combo deck, 2-3 others to play control, and the rest to play midrange/aggro/Delver themselves. I tried to build an Eldrazi deck but it didn’t seem good, and when Cedric submitted his, I realized I totally forgot about Ancient Tomb, which would have made the deck insane (and it did, spoiler alert).

Since Delver is easily built with Innistrad + New Phyrexia + any reasonable core set, I decided I wanted to play maindeck Meddling Mage in a format where the decklists are face-up to begin the tournament, especially since I’d also certainly be slamming four copies of Gitaxian Probe. It seemed like a slam dunk considering I figured some would be playing combo, and if an Eldrazi list was out there, it’s extremely good against them too (Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher are the only cards you care about, the former often moreso than the latter).

Ponder was banned, so I had to choose between Portent and Preordain to fill it. I decided to go with Magic 2011 to get access to Glacial Fortress, Mana Leak, and Preordain. Instead of Force of Will, I went with Nemesis to take Daze and took Ice Age to get Swords to Plowshares and Adarkar Wastes. I took Betrayers of Kamigawa so I could have access to Umezawa’s Jitte, a card everyone else forgot about besides Cedric. With Planeshift for Meddling Mage, I also got access to Gainsay, which I decided to play maindeck since I knew most of my opponents would be slinging blue spells.

I ran Swords to Plowshares over Vapor Snag maindeck, which overall was probably a mistake; I could have chosen a different large set if I was willing to drop Adarkar Wastes. Oh well.

After the decklists were submitted, I felt really good about my chances. I felt I was only a dog to Cedric (Eldrazi) and potentially Jesse (UWR Delver), because while he had worse mana, he had access to Pyroblast and Gut Shot after sideboard.

Set Sealed

When I saw the list of sets I was randomly assigned, I nearly threw up.

  • Fate Reforged
  • Shards of Alara
  • Invasion
  • 8th Edition
  • Nemesis
  • Battle for Zendikar
  • Mercadian Masques
  • Prophecy
  • Legends

Force SpikeWe had to play at least TWO separate cards from each set in our maindeck. Fuck. I considered playing some sort of Blue Skies deck but after filtering through the card pool, I ended up going with a mono-blue griefer control deck that used Tasigur to kill. The biggest mistake I made was running 4 copies of both Daze and Force Spike, but anyone who knows me also knows that I can’t help myself sometimes. I should have run a 4/2 or 4/1 split of Spike + Daze and more cards that generated card advantage maindeck instead of relying on just Tasigur and 4 Fact or Fiction.

After the decklists were submitted, I felt my Set Sealed deck was one of the weakest decks in the pool, but that no one had a very good deck anyway.

Legacy Roto Draft

Truth be told, I had Steven Birklid do my bans since I couldn’t care less about them. Going into the draft I figured I would not likely be able to play a decent blue deck considering the makeup of the participants, the bans, and my order in the snake draft. After the picks went:

  • Entomb
  • Shelldock Isle
  • Vendilion Clique
  • Snapcaster Mage
  • Grim Monolith

Noble HierarchI knew that I was done for. I took Noble Hierarch expecting to move into G/W or Naya and potentially splash for light blue cards if it cleared up downstream, and when the people on my left went for mono-white (Cedric), reanimator (Peter), and a value black deck (Steven), I settled into a zoo-based strategy that seemed wide open. The idiots on my right continued to fight over blue cards, and I got unfettered access to the best removal spells in Swords to Plowshares and Path to Exile, got both Armageddons, and overall felt good about my creature selections minus forgetting about Voice of Resurgence being a card. My only real regret is not drafting anti-red/black cards vs. Steven’s aggro deck; a card like Absolute Law would have been a solid choice instead of loading up on a ton of redundant anti-blue cards.

Racial Draft

I had no idea what the hell to do here, so I had Peter Beckfield more or less ship me a list. I made some modifications and it was his suggestion to go with the Elves raceshift strategy, considering the two very good cantrips blue Merfolk tends to have in their deck (Aquitect’s Will, Silvergill Adept, and my raceshifted Gempalm Incinerator). For those unaware, the “combo” is:

  • Turn one: Play Nettle Sentinel
  • Turn two: Attack for 2, play Nettle Sentinel 2 (untap Sentinel 1), play Heritage Druid, tap them for mana, play any green card, untap, repeat with that green creature + two Nettle Sentinels

With the cantrips plus a huge mana sink in Coralhelm Commander (plus Mirror Entity for the Fireball kill), I really liked my deck and how it turned out.

Cube Draft

As stated before, I felt the team of Max-Zac-Me was the 2nd best team but that’d we’d be competitive in any draft we played in. Given the opposition, I consider myself at least an average player in this field (a lofty claim) and probably slightly above average. The only players that I felt that were definitively better than me at both 3v3 drafting + playing are Brian Wong (likely the best player) and potentially Zac Hill, but he was on my team. I’m not saying I’m definitively better than the other 6 players, but it’s at least close in combined drafting + playing skill, and I had been a regular cube player on MTGO while some of the others were not.

In both drafts we used Steven Birklid’s cube, which gave me another advantage, since I had played Steven’s cube quite a bit. It is a very well-designed cube that prioritizes combat and has minimal equipment. Green mana ramp is intentionally a thin/poor strategy, and blue-based do-nothing control decks are weak. In my opinion, the absolute best card in the cube is Massacre Wurm, since black is very strong AND it is often an insta-kill condition – most of the combat is 2/2-based.

Hero of Oxid RidgeOur first match was against Peter/David/Jesse. I opened a generally weak pack with Hero of Oxid Ridge as the only red card in the pack. Despite the brief saga of Boddy Red, I traditionally play blue-based control decks in both constructed and cube formats, and this is pretty well-known amongst my friends. (Earlier this weekend, we played a cube draft for funsies and I went a solid 0-3 with a shitty blue deck in this very same cube.) So I decided to cut the red hard since there were no prototypical red aggro drafters in this cube and hopefully end up in a surprise mono-red deck. In this draft, my red deck lacked the critical mass of one-drops to be an S-tier deck (you want 7+ one-drops of ANY quality in a good cube red deck), but it made up for it with the two best four mana game-enders in Hero of Oxid Ridge and Hellrider plus Koth of the Hammer for staying power and inevitability. I went 2-1 in this cube and none of the matches really stood out to me, Zac went 3-0, and Max picked up a match and we won the first cube.

The second match took place when I was in the lead in points and a few others were right behind me – Zac and Cedric, namely. Playing against Cedric/Brian/Steven, I knew I had to play exceedingly well and draft a good deck to pick up a 2-1 here; while 1-2 was potentially in for the final two slots, it would largely depend on how the others played – if Cedric 3-0’d and Zac 3-0’d, I’d probably be out.

I opened Skullclamp and took it, passing very good blue cards in the process. With my second pick, I again took a red card and started cutting the red hard, as blue dried up quickly from my right. Each pack continued to have 1 insane red card and 1 decent one (at most), which made it clear that I’d be cutting mono-red cards hard and being able to loop critical cards like Kargan Dragonlord and Shrine of Burning Rage if necessary. I ended up with both Skullclamp and Bonesplitter and seven one-drop creatures including Goblin Guide, and even had Fireblast, Burst Lightning, Rift Bolt, and Lightning Bolt. I also had Wasteland. This was probably the single best red deck I had ever drafted in Steven’s cube, and potentially one of the best in any non-powered cube I had ever drafted.

I played three tight games against Cedric, who had a superb Splinter Twin deck with a lot of redundancy. Game one was very close, game two he took after I emergency Fireblasted his Deceiver Exarch, and game three I took the tempo lead and kept it, finishing him off with my excessive burn spells.

I don’t really remember my match against Brian, but I’m pretty sure I just ran him over with two explosive starts.

Steven beat me with a very good white deck, and I went 2-1 in this cube as well as the last, which I was happy with given that I went 0-3 in my first cube draft last year. Zac won the cube draft portion going 5-1, and Jesse and I tied for second at 4-2. Our team won 10 matches, Cedric’s team won 9 matches, and David’s team won 8 matches. All in all, very close and fair teams this year.

Actually Playing the Constructed Matches

The majority of the fun of these tournaments is in the deckbuilding and the drafting, not so much the playing, so I won’t go into deep detail. Here are some of the highlights:

  • I successfully maneuvered Max McCall into resolving a Dictate of Karametra and having just one Island up after it landed. I then cast Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and Dazed his last Memory Lapse, 5’d Ugin, and that was that, since I had let him counter my previous Counterspells with Memory Lapses and would be drawing them over the next two turns.
  • Cedric embarrassingly outplayed me in the finals during Legacy Roto. He opened on Isamaru, Hound of Konda and I opened on Elvish Mystic. He played Mother of Runes on turn two and I untapped and attempted to cast Path to Exile, running directly into his Brave the Elements. He then untapped and played Phyrexian Revoker blind-naming Elspeth, Knight Errant, stranding it in my hand.
  • I made a critical play error against Cedric in the finals of BYO Standard. I was beating him down with two Insectile Aberrations converted on turns 2 and 3 and I had just cast Geist of St. Traft, and he had Thought-Knot Seer and Matter Reshaper in play. He cast Reality Smasher into my three mana, and I let it resolve. He went to attackers and I cast Swords to Plowshares on his Thought-Knot Seer to cantrip, and when I did, I drew Mana Leak. I should have cast it on Thought-Knot Seer prior to Reality Smasher resolving, but since I had Daze in my hand and he had a mana open, I completely forgot about the idea of countering his spell. I lost due to that play error in combination with the fact he drew two of the lifegain Eldrazi colorless lands, leaving him at 1 life to end the game (Vapor Snag would have won the game instead of StP as well here). He also almost lost the game himself by casting Phyrexian Metamorph into my Gainsay which he knew I had, but he had temporarily forgot that it was a blue spell – he later said he feared that I had drawn Mana Leak. Damn.
  • I combo’d Peter Beckfield’s Soldiers deck with my Merfolk deck in Racial Draft on turns 2 and 3 and he got slow starts, so that was fun. However, Brian Wong’s Zombies deck was by far the best deck considering Ghoulcaller’s Bell was returning a raceshifted Tarfire + 1 other Zombie spell all day. It was a massacre.


I lost in a close two matches in the finals to this year’s winner Cedric Phillips (who ALSO won a PTQ while on vacation), but was generally happy with my play.

Kyle and Cedric

Overall, it was a hell of a weekend and one I can’t wait to repeat on a yearly basis. I highly suggest BYO Standard, Set Sealed, and a Roto Draft for inclusion with your friends. The Racial Draft thing was fun but ended up being a goldfishing experiment between us all, and while it was fun to design and build, the games were non-interactive for the most part.

The final standings are below for your amusement – and again, you can see all the detail on the official spreadsheet.