This weekend is the Star City Games Regional Championships and I’m excited to have a chance to take the new banned list out for a spin. This event is going to be especially interesting because it’s the first major opportunity for most Modern players to learn what the new metagame is going to look like. In addition, the fact that it takes place before the Pro Tour is finished means that the tech that we see on the big screen will not even be fully developed yet. This is huge when looking at what to bring. With Splinter Twin in the rear-view mirror and some large Eldrazi on the horizon, Modern is in a place of instability for the next few weeks. It’s especially important in times like this to make sure you’re not behind the curve. With as little information as there is about where the format is going, it’s more important than ever to take what we do have and make the most of it. Today, I’ll discuss what I do when preparing for a tournament and focus specifically on the initial thoughts I have for the new Modern format.
When preparing for a tournament, I always like to take these three steps:
1: Check the latest tournament finishes.
2: Playtest against the expected field.
3: Make sure to not over-metagame.
Let’s get to it.
Look at the Lists:
For me, my first stop is firing up my computer to check the latest events and scout out the decklists that did well, making sure to examine the day 2 breakdown. This way, I can know which decks are performing well, and what hot new tech is popping up as the format begins to contort itself into alignment. I always start here because I know that this is the most common information that people are looking at week in and week out. I constantly look at lists and compare them to the established “stock version” for each archetype on my computer. Finding new tech is always fun and those diamond in the rough cards can often take unknowing opponents at your local shop by surprise. My notepad on my phone has a document where I like to save cool ideas I see in these events so I can brainstorm while I’m driving to an event or on my way to work. If you know what won last week, chances are, you’ll have a good idea of what’s targeted this week. Moving along to some of my notes about the event:
- The Top 8 featured 2 Merfolk lists, 2 Affinity lists, 1 Temur Delver (another copy in 10th), 1 Burn (another in Top 16), 1 Zoo deck, 1 Jund deck
- One copy of BW Eldrazi made the Top 16 (featuring 4 Thought-Knot Seer but only 2 Oblivion Sower and only 2 Reality Smasher)
- Shockingly, No GR Tron in the Top 16
- Neither Merfolk list played Vapor Snag
- Both Burn lists played Rest in Peace
- The Jund deck played 2 Faerie Macabre in their sideboard
Let’s break these notes down: That is a very aggressive Top 8 and the Top 16 looked like more of the same with only 2 combo decks and only 2 midrange lists. Additionally, there was an Ana-Company deck that falls in the middle of the two. This seems to be typical of week 1 results; linear decks that are generally beating down is always common practice in the new format. I’m sure we all assumed that Tron and BW Eldrazi would be more prominent in this event, but, we have to keep in mind that this was, essentially, a large side event. The grinders on the SCG circuit would likely still be playing the Standard Open, and the Tron players that did show up are in for some rough beats against a hyper aggressive metagame, especially if Pyroclasms were being replaced by Kozilek’s Return. This RUG Delver Tempo list has shown up before and it’s important to put that deck’s results into perspective. While there were two copies in the Top 16, this specific version will likely not be a large portion of the metagame going forward and isn’t worth preparing for directly. However, we also saw Merfolk and Affinity making a strong showing and it is a good idea to prepare for those decks, with cards that nod to Delver. I know any stock deck I pick up is going to have to 6-7 slots that need to be adjusted because I no longer have to expect Splinter Twin. For example, in the Top 8, we saw two very different Merfolk sideboards. Spellskites and Dismembers were in both, but, one opted for Hurkyl’s Recalls, Relic of Progenitus and Hibernations, while another opted for Echoing Truths and Tectonic Edges. This is a perfect example of the vast differences people expect in new metagames and the flexibility of sideboards in a new Modern format. Neither Merfolk list was running Vapor Snag, which is probably a concession to not bouncing Deceiver Exarchs in response to Splinter Twins. However, it’s a breath of fresh air for someone who’s trying to cast a Loxodon Smiter or a Reality Smasher. Vapor Snag was touted highly by Todd on Twitter, and, as the metagame evolves, Vapor Snag will look good, even if it’s ideal home is likely not Merfolk. Less Tempo and more beatdown paired with MD Tidebinder Mages feels like a good change for the Merfolk lists. I’m not really sure what to make of the Faerie Macabre and Rest in Peace notes. It’s certainly interesting to see the obscure tech that likely was made to stop the Goryo’s deck from getting out of control, or perhaps curtailing delve and Snapcaster strategies, but, these cards are, at the very least, atypical choices and are definitely going to be kept in the back of my mind when I’m trying to analyze what other players are thinking about when going into the new metagame.
Based on these results, I’m making sure I’m packing answers that don’t just answer Delvers, but, address an aggressive curve that can go precise or wide. Pyroclasms, Anger of the Gods, and Engineered Explosives feel like great ways to combat Affinity, Merfolk, AND this Delver deck. Additionally, spot removal seems like a good place to be as well to corral early Delvers, merfolk lords, or Steel Overseers. I’ll say it again: If I were a Tron player, I’d probably skim on one of those big Eldrazi and make sure I have some Firespouts in my sideboard.
2: Testing Time!
For as much as theory crafting can do, actually putting your proxies (sorry, “playtest cards”) where your mouth is is the most important part of figuring out what to play. Playtesting ensures that you can see how you stack up against your opponents. In a new format, playtesting is especially important as decks that might have been favorable before. now might have 3 or 4 new sideboard cards for you, considering that they don’t need to be prepared for Splinter Twin or Amulet Bloom. Something that I heard from the Magic community before, and have made sure to do myself, was to put 3-4 copies of an incredibly potent sideboard card against you in the decks you’re playing against to see if your deck can truly hack it. In a format as diverse as Modern, it’s unlikely that someone is playing such a dense number of specific hate spells against just you, but, it’s important to always challenge yourself in playtesting in order to make sure you’re playing your best when it really counts.
When you get down to testing, you get a real idea of what you’re doing, and, more importantly, what your opponent is trying to do. I do my best to pause testing games and ask questions like “why did you do that?” or “should I kill creature X or creature Y here?” These questions give me a good idea of what my opponent is thinking, so I can disrupt their game plan. Despite the fact that games usually take longer when you do this, you will take away so much more from your time, which is really what playtesting is all about. In the New Year I decided to try some new things to improve my play. One of the most important things I’m trying to move away from is going on autopilot in matches I think I’m familiar with. If possible, I try and have someone “bird” me, or look over my shoulder to keep track of my plays. If we’re lucky, my playtesting group can get 4 people together and play games where each person has someone to discuss his or her plays with, without giving away information to the opponent, ensuring that both players are only making plays based on the information that they could have in a real game.
My gauntlet this week includes BW Eldrazi, RG Tron, RUG Delver, Merfolk, Affinity, and Burn. My playgroup includes a Jund player, a Scapeshift player, myself, a combo player generally, and a Death and Taxes player.
Our group does a good job of addressing the metagame, but, we aren’t aggressive players at heart, so we’ll have to take our playtesting games slowly when piloting the aggro decks. It’ll be important we don’t end up playing the decks sub-optimally and conclude thinking the matchups are better than they are.
Sometimes, if I’m worried about playing a deck below its full potential, I’ll go to mtgcoverage and I’ll search for the deck I’m interested in learning to play or playing against and I’ll watch experienced players play the decks. Obviously, this doesn’t yield the same results as seeing and learning the lines yourself, not to mention having perfect information makes it easy to cruise through your decision trees (I find it best to mute commentary and write down my choices when I’m really studying, then watching with commentary a second time), but, watching Hunter Nance pilot Merfolk is likely to yield more information than watching my friend who’s never taken the list to an event.
3: Think inside the box:
The reason I save this step for last is because while looking at just 16 decklists and getting in 20-30 games can really improve your play and your knowledge of that specific tournament, you can certainly begin to put the blinders on towards the wild world that is Modern. Playing against the new hotness over and over makes your tried and true cards sometimes look weak and your boring sideboard cards seem lacking. But, the fact is that shaving Terminates so you can deal with Enduring Ideal combo is always going to be wrong. It’s important to remember that there are other decks that you will play. These bannings were a huge shake up to the theory of Modern, but, remember that Twin was 11% of the metagame and Amulet was 2%. It stands to reason that 80% of Modern is going to stay pretty similar to where it was. Make sure you aren’t cutting your Ancient Grudge to make room for Intrepid Hero. (Digressing for a second, a friend of mine literally suggested Intrepid Hero to beat the giant Eldrazi hordes. Thankfully, the rest of the group asked: “What else is that even good against?”) Getting a little cute and a little techy makes sense and can be incredibly rewarding. For example, my test group suggested Kalitas in Grixis Control to combat the bad Burn matchup, while holding strong against midrange strategies without going all the way over to Peace Strider (looking at you, Gerry T). Additionally, we’ve talked about pre-boarding for aggressive decks by playing maindeck Anger of the Gods in our slower decks. Both of these moves feel like strong metagaming decisions as they are preparing for a broader swath of decks, and addressing format trends, (there will be more aggressive strategies), rather than a single matchup, and, lose as few points as possible when playing against the rest of the format.
Finally, it’s important to know that just because a new metagame puts deck X in a strong position, not everyone has the free resources, cards, or time to buy, test, and learn a new deck in a matter of a few weeks. Even if my testing shows that an Eldrazi deck playing 4 Reality Smasher and 4 Thought-Knot Seer is insane right now (spoiler: it’s pretty insane right now), not everyone has the money to immediately buy the most important new cards as soon as they come out. When the new banned list comes out, a lot of people tend to jump to conclusions about EXACTLY what the meta will look like. It’s really important, especially in eternal formats, to remember that people will play with the cards they have and prefer the familiar over flashy, especially when flashy has a triple digit price tag. While the grinders will always be trying to gain an edge where they can, it’s important to not think too far outside of the box. Keeping yourself grounded and having a consistent, established, and proactive plan for the decks that you know will be out there is always going to be better than skimming on cards to beat Burn and Affinity because of the crazy new deck you’re worried about.
Going into Regionals, I’m still on the fence about which deck I’m going to bring. I’ve been playing Kiki Chord on MTGO since November and have 70 of my 75-76 cards figured out, but, I’m also incredibly prone to brewing and tuning new and fringe decks (in b4: Kiki Chord is already pretty fringe). I’ve been playing a RG Scapeshift variant in paper and think it’s pretty well positioned.
Bottom Line: Whatever I decide on, I know I’m coming to Regionals with a deck that has a strong defense against aggressive strategies like Burn, Affinity, and Merfolk and has a proactive, hateful plan for RG Tron and Mono Black Eldrazi.
Until next time.
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