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Modern Mastery: The Final Exam

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Modern

I was pretty much settled on my list for the GP the week beforehand. I had been doing a lot of testing personally, and working with Nina (@cardboardwitch) on tuning the list for the expected paper metagame. We determined the field was going to mostly be Jund/midrange mirrors, combo decks like Storm and Eggs, Robots, and of course the boogeyman: RG Tron.

In our testing, almost all of the most powerful sideboard cards cost four or more mana to cast in the midrange and UW matches, or they were manlands. Tron is a nightmare, but racing it Game 1 does happen sometimes. Especially if they stumble on Tron pieces. This led us to thorough testing of Fulminator Mage in the main deck because it was in our sideboard already. We eventually came to the following conclusions:

  • Mage was amazing in all non-combo matches. As long as you understood what your opponent was trying to do, the Fulminator Mage often gave you a way to impede your opponent’s success.
  • Lingering Souls is amazing versus Infect, mirrors, and other aggressive strategies like robots and tokens. It fails to shine, however, in combo and Tron matches. I often felt that four was too many.
  • Liliana of the Veil is super relevant in the combo and control matches, but is also excellent in matches where your opponent’s cards represent a much larger in-game impact than they should. Examples of this are Burn decks and Infect, where each card in the opponent’s hand can be used to devastating effect.
  • Abrupt Decay was a constant underperformer. Not being able to kill man lands was consistently an issue, and if UW Angels and Brian Kibler’s Wilt-Leaf Lieges were coming along for this ride, I needed a better answer.
  • Tron was likely going to be present in some numbers at this event. It is popular locally, and it seemed a natural predator for the rising number of Jund decks in the popular metagame. We needed a structured plan if we were going to survive that pairing.

Solving these problems brought me to the following 75 for the tournament:

Last-Minute Studying

By now, many of these changes likely seem very minor compared to some of the innovations Willy Edel introduced in his winning Spirit Jund list. (Although, I suppose it’s now Cobra Jund …) Our changes were subtle, but seemed to have a wonderful effect on the matches that we wanted to win.

There was no questioning the power of the main deck Fulminator Mages. I did not lose a single Game 1 in testing against midrange decks when I resolved a Mage on Turns 3 or 4 off a Bloodbraid Elf. Tron also started to look a little better, as we now had some maindeck outs to some very serious problems. Three Lingering Souls was decidedly the correct number; I was able to find them regularly when needed without feeling like there were too many. Removal was healthy because of the shift to Terminate from Abrupt Decay, with each card basically representing the destruction of an opponent’s resources.

The sideboard saw me take a small risk on Stony Silence over Shatterstorm. I knew Shatterstorm is undeniably the better Robots hate card, but I wanted more game against Eggs and Tron while maintaining some game against Robots. I played a bunch of games against Chris Lansdell on the Thursday before the GP, and I knew the matchup would be OK even if I didn’t draw the ultimate trump card. Being able to cascade into the Stony Silence felt like a good enough reason to try it.

I was trying to ensure my sideboard cards were as flexible as possible while still maintaining effectiveness. In order to make space for the Mages in the main deck, I did have to move one copy of Liliana to the sideboard. I agreed with Nina that in 40 percent of your matches Liliana is amazing, but in the other 60 percent she tends to be an overpriced Cruel Edict that could easily have been a removal spell instead. After Josh Utter-Leyton said “she is definitely cuttable,” I  found my last sacred cow to kill and moved one to the board.

The Grand Prix experience was amazing. The venue was really big, and it was well organized with decent seating and an excellent food area. I arrived on site early Friday, and spent most of the day helping out at the Face to Face Games booth before having to finish my family driving duties. I ended up back at the site in time to meet up with Jonathan Medina and Taylor Gunn just as they were arriving from their long drive up. We went to get some dinner, and then hung out for a bit until I had to leave to go and get KYT from the train stations.

Huge thanks to everyone that was asking about my opinion on sideboard card selection, and matchup analyses. The fact you have that faith in my experience, specifically gained through this process, tells me that I must have been doing something right. I spent most of the rest of the night hanging with my bros, driving a million miles home and recording a podcast. KYT and I both had byes and took advantage of the VIP sleep-in special, so it was a good night’s sleep in preparation for the long days to come.

No Easy Answers

Arrival on site was easy and uneventful. Because KYT only had two byes, we got on site just before Round 1 was completed. I settled in to relax and focus on the field in front of me before needing to battle. I said hello to all the people I knew that were there. I was able to get Medina some Advil for his headache during Round 2, and found a Godless Shrine for Josh Utter-Leyton so he could finish his decklist. Round 4 pairings were soon announced and I was shown to the VIP seat that would be mine to enjoy for the day, only to sit down across from a very familiar face.

“I suppose this is only fitting right? I mean, the journey started with you, so…”

Lucas Siow smiled at me. “ Well, at least we know what we’re playing against.”

We both continued to shuffle pleasantly, knowing that this was likely going to end up rough for me. I open with Deathrite Shaman, Dark Confidant, two Lightning Bolts, and three lands. I’m on the draw in this one, so I open with Blackcleave Cliffs into the Shaman. Lucas fetches up a land to fuel the Bolt for my Shaman at end step. A follow-up Inquisition of Kozilek from Lucas nabs Bob, leaving me on the lands and Lightning Bolts. I do not see another spell in four draws and his Tarmogoyfs get it done quickly.

“I wonder if I should bring in my artifact removal against you. I hear you’re pretty high on the Sword,” Lucas comments with a smile.

Yes. It was going to be that kind of game.

I end up keeping a hand with some sweet Olivia Voldaren love but don’t see more than three lands. I was never really in either of these games, and it wasn’t close. Lucas and I spent a few minutes talking about our tech for the tournament, shared a couple of laughs, and he was on his way, leaving me with the clear indication that this was going to be a very long day.

My next opponent ends up piloting Soul Sisters, which ends up going to three games. We had 16 minutes or so when we started Game 3, so I felt pretty confident I wouldn’t time out. Upon closer investigation of my play lines, I realized I made two mistakes that cost me at least another turn, but very likely the game as well.

I was facing down an army of Spectral Procession tokens with an active Mikaeus the Lunarch in play. I had the matching souls in play on my side as well, and chose to block all three attackers with my matching spirits. That forced him to use Mikaeus immediately, leaving him open to a reasonable alpha strike with Raging Ravine and a Tarmogoyf. But he ends up having two Path to Exiles the following turn, robbing me of my clock. Since I had already thrown away my blockers, it was only a matter of time before my imminent demise. I could have had one more turn available to me at the end as well, when I was able to resolve another Tarmogoyf and my second Raging Ravine was also live. I end up cracking a fetchland when I shouldn’t have, which leaves me exactly dead to my opponent’s alpha strike despite a lifegain bump from my Deathrite Shaman.

P-U-N-T.

Staying Focused

I was feeling pretty dejected at this point because I could no longer afford a single loss, or it would end my day. I was not ready to give up though, as I had to remain accountable to all of you, my faithful readers, and give it everything I had left.

Thankfully, I sat down to find a familiar face smiling across from me. I had met Cory Martin (@coryjmartin) at GP Toronto in 2010, and we remained in Twitter communication since. I knew I was going to be able to play a good game of magic, and win or lose, I was going to have fun. It was very quickly evident to me that Cory had a much different idea of fun than I did.

Turn 1: Mountain, pay two, Gitaxian Probe.

“YES!!” I exclaim. “I have been waiting to play against this all day.”

With a smile Cory replies, “You have no idea really…”

After looking at my hand and drawing a card, the following sequence happens: “Exile Simian Spirit Guide from my hand, tap Mountain, cast Desperate Ritual, Blood Moon?” Yes, this was Turn 1, and I was on the draw.

Thankfully, I had both the basic Forest and the basic Plains I would need already in my hand. I end up casting Tarmogoyf on Turn 2 and Bloodbraid Elf on Turn 4, which reveals a Thoughtseize. Cory wisely concedes the game instead of giving me further information about his spicy deck.

I keep a hand of two Deathrite Shamans, two Lightning Bolts, a Tarmogoyf and two lands in Game 2. Cory opens with Chalice of the Void on one and follows up with a Blood Moon on Turn 2. I continue to draw cards looking for a basic land, and end up getting killed by a Magus of the Moon and a Demigod of Revenge. The Demigod was enough to make me pack it in.

In Game 3, I see another unique card grace the opponent’s side of the field on his first turn: Trinisphere. I draw cards and play lands until I reach my third turn. I draw for the turn, look at the Bloodbraid Elf in my hand and call for a judge. I inquire about the interaction between cascade and Trinisphere, and much to my dismay, find it is not in my favor. I thank the judge after rewording my question to ensure the answer is the same, and proceed to play a third land, casting Maelstrom Pulse on the Trinisphere. I resolve Bloodbraid Elf into Tarmogoyf on Turn 4, and they end up going the distance. I thank Cory immensely for the games, citing they were “exactly what I needed” before getting ready for my next opponent.

(Huge shout out to Jeremy Schofield from Western Canada for his counsel and advice in between rounds. He really kept me focused on the next match, and nothing else.)

Time’s Almost Up

For Round 7, I find myself sitting across from one of the guys that had been hanging out with Owen Turtenwald and Reid Duke for most of the day. I find out later that he is a longtime player from Pro Tours gone by. He seems like a nice enough guy, and we engage in friendly banter before presenting our decks.

He opens on Turn 1 with an Urza land, and I think I noticeably slumped in my chair a little. Tron?

I could see the dreams melting away before me, but before I could disappear completely, I resolved to wake the hell up. I had prepared for this. I had tech for this. Just do what you do.

I end up on Turn 1 Deathrite Shaman, Turn 2 Dark Confidant, Turn 3 Fulminator Mage and Turn 4 Bloodbraid Elf into a Terminate that gets put back in the deck. I end up with enough damage to race in for the win. Thankfully, three Ancient Stirrings from my opponent resulted in a bunch of blanks, and we were on to Game 2.

This one was pretty much out of my hands as an early Karn Liberated did his thing in clearing the way for the Wurmcoil Engines, putting us into Game 3. This one was a long one. We went until almost time, but the Turn 4 Olivia Voldaren ended up going the distance in the face of two more Ancient Stirring blanks. It is at this moment that I call my games with Lucas even in variance, shake my opponent’s hand, make sure he is coming to the party that night, and deliver my match slip.

I face someone piloting Ari Lax’s 4c Pod deck in Round 8, and quickly find his Izzet Staticaster gunning down my spirit tokens, paving the way for his angels to win. I mulligan to six cards on the play in Game 2: Deathrite Shaman x2, Terminate x2, Tarmogoyf and Blackcleave Cliffs. I decided to loosely gamble on this hand because any land would get me to where I needed to be in this match. That land did not come until the turn after my opponent resolves Sigarda, Host of Herons, and I’m out of contention. I very noticeably played like hell in this match, and my decision to keep the terrible hand ended my day. I checked the time, and with my ManaDeprived Party starting in short order, I decided to drop and go and get ready.

I learned a lot this weekend. I learned that practice makes perfect. But only if you practice correctly, and regularly. I posted a message to my Twitter followers about my failure at this tournament, and was met with a lot of positive feedback. I want to thank all of you for this. It helped to brighten me up, and gave me the resolve I needed to effectively host my party. I also had a chance to talk to Brian Kibler about his performance at the GP that day.

“I didn’t win a single match today,” he said.

It was really quite refreshing to hear that someone of his caliber still has bad days. I had been playing some of the best Magic of my life leading up to this event. I know what that feels like. It feels good, and I want it back. Our beloved format has changed. The results of GP Toronto are going to have a large effect on the metagame, especially as we head into Modern PTQ season.

Back to School?

I had a long talk with Jonathan Medina about this, and I decided that I want to run this back. Modern PTQ season is the only one that I end up actively participating in, and since I’m already more than halfway experienced with it, why not carry it on?

I’m going to take a break over the next month, and come back in January to continue the mission for Modern Mastery. We are all stocked with a full stable of card inventory, and will be able to make about 75 percent of the relevant decks in the format. We will be piloting a bunch of different decks, and even taking pro challenges.

I want to thank all of you for your participation in this leg of the journey. I would not have decided to come back for another run without all of your support. I can’t wait for the new year, as we will have a whole new world ahead of us. (That one was for PV)

See you all soon.

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