Tag: magic

Rethinking ‘Rethinking Red’

By: Dom Harvey

Three years ago, frustrated with red’s lack of depth in Cube and in general, I wrote an article for Riptide Lab exploring off-the-wall themes that could give our red sections a few more options than burn and beatdown (with the occasional Wildfire). My solution – turn red into a pure combo colour – was an admission of defeat. Storm Entity and Blazing Shoal didn’t stay in my Cube for long.

Thankfully, the last few years have been kind to red. We now have the tools to make red aggro more fun and engaging, help red offer more to control, and give it some new and interesting material that integrates well with not just the rest of red but also the other colours and strategies in the Cube. These ideas aren’t suitable for every Cube, but hopefully there’s food for thought here no matter what your design philosophy is.

Red aggro in Cube is defined by its brutal, ruthless, single-minded efficiency. It’s very easy for it to be the best deck in a Cube by accident, and it gleefully performs its role as the fun police. I get the sense that it’s a Cube staple not because everyone enjoys it but because red needs to have something and this is the easiest way to fill in the gaps. There are enough directions to take red now that you could drop red aggro entirely; there’s a good case for trying that. What if we tried ‘fixing’ it instead?

Prowess

Prowess has gone from newcomer to evergreen mechanic in only a year, and it’s sure to become more appealing as time goes by. Combat is often a boring affair in Cube: most combat tricks aren’t good enough to justify including, and instant-speed removal tends to be used pre-combat to stop its target from blocking. You usually know what the outcome, or narrow range of outcomes, will be for any combat step. Prowess lets you change that without explicitly trying to: all you have to do is play spells, which your low-curve aggro deck wants to do anyway. Red is an especially good colour for this as there’s no shortage of instant-speed burn and, as one of the designated ‘spells matter’ colours, red gets a lot of support here. Prowess also forces you to think carefully about sequencing: you can’t just dump your hand on the table and throw burn at them unless your draw is perfect, as you have to manage your resources well.

Previously this theme had to go hard on instants and sorceries because that’s where the payoffs were – Kiln Fiend, Young PyromancerGuttersnipe – and you needed a lot of them to make it work. With prowess, the equipment or planeswalkers that are often the more powerful cards in your deck can also work towards this goal.

Key cards: Monastery Swiftspear, Abbot of Keral Keep, Kiln Fiend, Young Pyromancer, Guttersnipe, Chandra, Fire of KaladeshShrine of Burning Rage (perhaps the best one of all); in other colours, you have Seeker of the Way and Stormchaser Mage/Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest

Support: anything that lets you get multiple triggers from one card – Firebolt, Staggershock, Blast from the Past, Faithless Looting, Reckless Charge

Intersection: part of Prowess’ appeal is how neatly it ties into other strategies, namely the following:

Berserkers

What if, instead of playing a few dopey creatures and hoping they get there, you build a large creature and force it through? This strategy has been around since the BerserkBlood Lust days but recently gained prominence again in Constructed with Brave Naya, Heroic, and Landfall/Atarka Red in successive Standard formats. Your goal is to apply early pressure and force your opponent to commit to a defensive measure so that you can safely move in for the kill. As with prowess, I think this presents both players with more interesting decisions than the typical ‘Zurgo up to Hellrider‘ deck: you constantly have to weigh up whether you can afford to go for it and how to bait your opponent into taking their shields down (or, from the other side, into moving in at the wrong time). The deck does have nut draws that end the game very quickly but I find it more satisfying to lose to a flurry of combo pieces coming together than the usual perfect curve from a red deck.

This approach flips some of red’s most common matchups: green decks can no longer stave off your aggression with a big dumb animal as easily, while removal-heavy black decks can relax in the knowledge that they don’t face as much implied pressure from burn.

There are enough good creature enhancements now that you don’t have to be embarrassed about playing them: Madcap Skills, Hammerhand, and Call of the Full Moon are some of the best, but you can pick whichever fills in a gap. Auras always were and will be risky against cheap removal, but connecting once with any of them is equivalent in damage output to a good burn spell and if it sticks around for longer it’s more than paid for itself.

Berserkers often branches into green, which has a lot to offer in all areas: large creatures, pump, and the OG Berserk.

Key cards: Reckless Charge (much scarier than it looks on paper), prowess creatures, Prophetic Flamespeaker, Flamewake Phoenix (a resilient, evasive threat that can combine with pump to win out of nowhere), Temur Battle Rage

Support: creatures that naturally become large (Countryside Crusher, Plated GeopedeKargan Dragonlord), equipment (O-Naginata)

Intersection: Prowess, as mentioned

Prowess also works well with:

Tokens

While Berserkers is about going tall, Tokens is about going wide. If your opponent is trying to blunt your offense with cheap blockers and removal, a token-heavy start lets you push through damage and maintain a board presence anyway. Token spam can lead to stalled boards and repetitive gameplay but, when all goes well, tokens become another in-game resource that a skilled player can manage and exploit.

Some of the best token-makers and payoff cards are noncreatures, which ties in nicely to prowess: in Theros/Khans Standard, the Atarka Red decks used Dragon Fodder and Hordeling Outburst to curve out effectively while having enough spells to trigger Monastery Swiftspear (and later Abbot of Keral Keep).

There is more than enough token support in red, but other colours like to join the fun: tokens help the sacrifice theme common in Rakdos and are a core part of Selesnya’s identity.

Key cards: Young Pyromancer, Mogg War Marshal, Hordeling Outburst, Purphoros, Goblin Bombardment, Stoke the Flames, Tempt with Vengeance

Support: anthems (Hall of Triumph), Goblin Bushwhacker/Reckless Bushwhacker, other mass pump effects (Rites of Initiation/Haze of Rage if you want to go deep)

Intersection: Prowess, equipment (can turn a disposable body into a real threat)

Here’s a sample deck from my Cube that shows some of these ideas working together:

domred1

On the midrange and control side of things, we have:

Red ‘Engine’

Previously, red’s contribution to slower decks was very limited: it would burn things, burn some more things, and sometimes provide a finisher. Card draw and selection was left to whatever the other colour was, and – with the exception of white – all of them did it better than red.

That can change. You have to work for it – red’s filtering/rummaging spells aren’t universally playable the way something like Compulsive Research or Night’s Whisper is – but the rewards are worth it. Red no longer has to be one-dimensional and can become the backbone of grindy non-decks, which opens up a lot of design space.

The first step is to minimize the downside of these effects. To make ‘discard X + draw X’ better, you want discarding cards to be acceptable or, if possible, actively useful. The madness burn spells – Fiery Temper, Violent Eruption, and underrated all-star Blast from the Past – are a good place to look, and I’d consider Squee, Goblin NabobDrownyard Temple/Crucible of Worlds, and red’s various Phoenixes. On a macro-level, you want to encourage strategies that make full use of the graveyard: for instance, Reanimator is often thought of as a UB-centric deck but you can substitute blue’s Looting effects with red replacements. If you go deep on the artifact ‘Welding’ theme described below, you can even have a mono-red Reanimator deck! Feldon of the Third Path and Mizzix’s Mastery/Goblin Dark-Dwellers let you push that angle for creatures and spells too. Maybe you pair Faithless Looting and Magmatic Insight with Land Tax or Life from the Loam, or use blue card draw to fuel a massive Firestorm.

There’s too much to summarize it all here, but this thread goes into these ideas in more detail.

Key cards/Support/Intersection: These all depend on what you want to do and how far you want to take it, but there are some examples above.

domred2

Artifacts

Plenty of good artifacts have been printed throughout the years (and with Kaladesh coming soon, Pia and Kiran are sure to find lots of new trinkets to play with), and red is one of the best colours at exploiting them. The Welder deck headlined by Goblin Welder and Daretti (along with Trash for Treasure and Scrap Mastery if you want to fully commit) promises to give red more character and add to the variety of midrange and control decks on offer.

A major selling point of this theme is that artifacts are, by nature, more broadly playable, so you can afford to include more ‘narrow’ artifacts in your Cube knowing they will find their way into decks somehow. This does mean that you can’t rely on them making it to you in the draft, as anyone who doesn’t find something nice in their colours will gladly snap up your Palladium Myr or Masticore, but with a high enough density of playable artifacts this shouldn’t be a problem.

You can take a more optimistic view of this: any build-around artifacts you decide to include will be more readily available. The Welder effects mean that you have faster and more consistent access to these in-game: for instance, you can Weld out a Thopter token to bring in Conjurer’s Closet and start blinking Pia and Kiran, bring in Alhammarret’s Archive to super-charge the Faithless Looting you played earlier, or go nuts with Pyromancer’s Goggles. If you just want to make a Myr Battlesphere and bash them to bits, you can do that too.

Blue has the most ‘artifacts matter’ cards but other colours have random things to offer. White has some incidental contributions in cards like Thraben Inspector and Blade Splicer and many of the better artifact creatures want to be flickered, while green recently gained Tireless Tracker and can use Ancient Stirrings or the ‘Impulse for creatures’ cards to increase consistency.

Support: Pia and Kiran Nalaar, Solemn Simulacrum, Epochrasite, Perilous Myr, Hangarback Walker, mana rocks (which suggest a crossover with the Wildfire strategy that has hovered on the fringes of Cube design for a while now)

domred3

This only scratches the surface – there are viable themes that aren’t explored here, and plenty of stand-alone cards that add fun new elements to red – but I’ve been impressed by the strategies laid out above and would advise giving some or all of them a try in some capacity.

Deckbuilding and Play Patterns with Ancestral Vision

By Dom Harvey

Hello!

We all saw the Eye of Ugin ban coming; most of us were dancing on its grave long before the announcement came. Almost nobody expected what came with it: the introduction of Ancestral Vision and Sword of the Meek into Modern. Both were fixtures of the Extended format that most resembled Modern and were banned from the start to stop them defining the new format in the same way. As so many cards came on and off the ban list their continued exile became hard to justify, but even those of us who thought they were safe didn’t expect this to happen now. These are exciting times!

One reason these unbans are so promising is that Vision and Sword both demand careful deck construction. You can’t just throw them into an existing deck and expect them to perform well. Additionally, their presence in the format is likely to have far-reaching implications that should inform your deck and card choices. I want to talk about what those might be and highlight some of the common pitfalls that people are already walking into.

Blue decks in Modern have waited so long for a strong, reliable draw engine; between Ancestral Vision and the boost Thopter Foundry gives to Thirst for Knowledge, two may have arrived at once. In particular, Ancestral Vision gives hope to traditional control decks like Jeskai and Grixis that are very popular with a large segment of the player base. This is the best gift they have received in quite some time.

It’s not all good news. All the reasons people cited for Vision being safe to unban still apply. It’s the ideal poster-child for the ‘Turn 4 format’ in a sea of decks that do their best to shun that label. Vision mocks you from exile as Burn or Affinity bash your brains in or Storm and Goryo’s Vengeance sit there pleasuring themselves. In a lot of matchups and situations, Vision is a $50 blank card.

It’s also not the panacea for what ails blue decks in Modern. Your Esper Mentor deck or ‘Sultai Control brew’ was bad before and it’s bad now no matter how many copies of Ancestral Vision you ‘jam’ in there. Vision is likely to exacerbate any consistency issues your deck already has.

This may sound like a hatchet job. I’ll state upfront that Ancestral Vision is a strong card that will probably have a lasting impact on Modern, but focusing on its flaws is a good way to show how and why it works when it does.

Ancestral Vision makes you a promise: “I’ll worry about card advantage, you just buy me time to do what I need to do”. It gives you enough strength in the mid- to late-game that you can and should play more cheap one-for-one answers that prolong the game; you can even afford to trade cards at a disadvantage knowing that Vision will bring you back to parity. This strategy is only sound if the payoff is real: drawing three cards must reliably translate into a tighter hold on the game. This is less likely if your deck is full of situational cards that don’t maintain their value at each stage of the game. It’s no use setting your deck up to survive until a Vision if you draw a redundant land, a Spell Snare with no targets, and a removal spell that’s poorly suited for the matchup. The same principle applies to Vision itself: unless the game goes very long, each extra copy that you draw off the first Vision is dead. The card is self-defeating in that regard.

Think back to the card draw spells that defined Constructed formats. A crucial aspect most of them shared is that you could compound the advantage they generated by chaining them into further copies of themselves. Fact or Fiction revealing another Fact or Fiction was always a nightmare, a small Sphinx’s Revelation gave you enough life and cards to set up a larger Revelation, and it was disturbingly easy to cast back-to-back Treasure Cruises. Interestingly, Dig Through Time was reasonable in Standard despite being completely busted because the cardpool didn’t let it conform to that model; you could put the UB Control decks of THS-KTK Standard in an awkward position by just not letting them use their Hero’s Downfalls and Dissolves so that they couldn’t cast their first Dig, and if they did resolve one Dig it was now that much harder to cast the second. The nature of the card makes it hard to chain copies of Ancestral Vision; there will be games where you suspend it on Turn 1 and Turn 2 and bury the opponent in card advantage, but more often you’ll draw the second one on Turn 4 and wish it was anything else.

Vision also places heavy demands on your manabase. You need enough untapped blue sources to suspend it on Turn 1, so it clashes with control mainstays like Celestial Colonnade or Creeping Tar Pit. If you run too many lands it’s easy for Vision to hit a pocket of land and accomplish nothing, but Vision can’t help you hit your land drops early so you can’t afford to shave lands. A common scenario in the Mono-U Faeries days was that a player would suspend Ancestral Vision, miss an early land drop and fumble, and then make poor use of the extra cards from Vision because they didn’t have enough mana or time. You can rely on other cards like Serum Visions (PSA: Serum Visions, Ancestral Vision) to smooth out your draws, but your deck quickly becomes full of air. It’s unwise to rely on just Ancestral Vision as your draw engine, but it doesn’t leave you room to play much else.

This is a big part of why Vision doesn’t work nicely with the other incentives to play blue in Modern. Snapcaster and Jace both want you to play lots of cheap cards. On the surface that’s fine because you want to unload your hand quickly after Vision resolves, but if the cheap cards you draw are more Serum Visions and Thought Scours you’re just spinning your wheels. Cards like Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile are close to universal answers in Modern, which is what makes them so good, but Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize are highly time-sensitive. Snapcaster and Jace are so much better when they can rebuy your card draw spells, for the reasons given above – think how great they would be with Fact or Fiction! The lack of synergy with Ancestral Vision is a big deal. Vision also doesn’t contribute towards Delve or Prowess immediately, and isn’t great with Thirst for Knowledge either. This is good for the format – rather than having every blue deck start with 4 Ancestral Vision, it’s great if there’s a Snapcaster-Jace deck based on cheap cantrips, a Thirst for Knowledge deck, a Vision deck, and so on – but bad for Ancestral Vision’s chances.

At its core, the suspend mechanic rests on the idea of trading time for mana. Vision directly introduces cards as another variable in that equation. When Vision is good, it’s because other tools exist to convert one of these resources into another. In Extended, Chrome Mox let you cash in a useless Spell Snare – or a second copy of Vision – for the mana to drop your relevant cards quickly enough. From another perspective, Vision gave you the cards that let you justify running Chrome Mox, which was important in keeping pace with the rest of the format. A good way to beat control decks relying on Vision is to choke off their access to one of those resources: sequence your spells wisely to stop them using their mana efficiently, find a way to make the extra cards not matter by playing threats that their interaction doesn’t line up well against, or put them under enough pressure that they can’t afford to spend their time poorly.

When you suspend Ancestral Vision, you’re announcing that a major event will take place in four turns and daring your opponent to be ready. This public information gives a strong incentive for the opponent to finish the game – or at least establish a winning position – before Vision can resolve and give you more options. As a result, sweepers work very well with Vision as you punish them for committing too much to the board. A brutally effective tactic in control decks is to force your opponent to choose which powerful mid-game cards to play around when the right approach for dealing with one is bad against the other. In Standard and RTR Block, aggro decks were pinned between Jace, Architect of Thought and Supreme Verdict: if you held back creatures in fear of Verdict, Jace would come down and halt your offence; if you played out enough creatures to pressure Jace, you might be walking into Verdict. Vision lets you recreate that, although the knowledge that Vision is coming changes the dynamic a little.

Vision warps the pacing of control mirrors in the same way. Unless one player stumbles and their opponent senses weakness, control mirrors often see both players doing nothing for a long time until someone decides they are ready to pick a fight. Vision changes that by scheduling that fight in advance: a showdown will take place in my upkeep four turns from now, whether you like it or not – and whether I like it or not! I’ll use the Mono-U Faeries deck as an example again, since mirrors were often decided one way or the other by Ancestral Vision. The main effect Vision had was to force plays to ‘cluster’ around a specific turn. If I have Ancestral Vision coming off suspend in a few turns, I don’t want to run my Vendilion Clique into Mana Leak now; I want to do it when my Vision is about to be cast, tying up their mana or taking away one of their answers. Ancestral Vision forces this fight to happen during your turn, and before you can make your land drop, forcing you to defend it when you’re least willing and able to. With the Faeries deck linked above, the mirror often come down to expensive sorcery-speed sideboard cards; for anyone familiar with the concept of Faeries, this sounds like the worst plan you could have! It worked in part because Vision forced a commitment on their upkeep: you could harass their Vision with Remand/Mana Leak or Spellstutter Sprite and make them tap low to fight over it, opening a window to resolve a threat on your turn. Additionally, Faeries didn’t have much cheap countermagic that could hit everything, so if you couldn’t cast Cryptic Command the opponent could eventually force something through; blue decks in Modern have the same profile, relying on Cryptic Command as a universal answer or eschewing it altogether. In Faeries, this threat changed over time – Vedalken ShacklesGlen Elendra Archmage, and eventually Future Sight – and we could see Keranos or a similar card fill this role in Modern.

This dynamic is mainly in play in blue mirrors, but it informs how you want to build your deck with Vision in mind. Most of the objections to Vision that I’ve outlined above rest on the opponent’s ability to wrest control of the pacing of the game away from you. If you can get out in front and force your opponent to react to you while Vision is ticking down, you will close the game with a threat a decent amount of the time without losing mid-game superiority thanks to Vision. This is what made the card so strong in Standard Faeries: the whole deck was designed to force the opponent to play on its terms, and the looming threat of Vision removed their ability to adjust properly. I’m not convinced that Faeries improves enough with Vision to be playable in Modern, but the principle is sound. Delver of SecretsYoung PyromancerThing in the Ice, and other cards that require setup are poorly suited to this because you don’t want to draw them off Vision, but Tarmogoyf is perfect; Geist of Saint Traft might see a resurgence for the same reason.

If Vision does end up defining blue decks and Thopter Foundry becomes a Modern staple, what are the implications for the format at large? Remand is already somewhat popular in Modern and a good way to trump Vision and win counter wars in general, so decks that naturally want to run Remand are happy. If Remand becomes important in mirrors, Spell Snare starts to look a lot better; it’s also handy against specific problem cards in most matchups – Eidolon of the Great RevelArcbound Ravager/Cranial PlatingVoice of Resurgence – and crucial against Thopter Foundry. It’s unfortunate that both Snare and Remand are awkward draws mid-game, so if your blue decks become inbred to win Vision fights your overall deck quality becomes worse, but these are the sacrifices you make.

The big loser overall from these changes is Affinity: everyone will pack heavy-duty artifact hate for Thopter/Sword, and one of your best matchups in Burn might be less popular in the short term. Meanwhile, Merfolk is already salivating at the idea of slow blue decks becoming popular, can attack through Thopter/Sword in a way that aggro decks can’t, and would love to see Affinity fall back.

For Burn and Infect, the other members of the aggro trifecta that was popular at the Pro Tour, this may well be good news. If Jeskai becomes more popular thanks to Vision, both decks are in for a rough time, but if Vision-based blue decks are edged out by Thopter/Sword, Infect will be ready to pounce. The Thopter/Sword combo is obviously good against Burn if you can get it going, but if your early game is T2 Sword T3 Foundry you might just be dead to one of their better draws. If your white deck wants to hate out Burn, it can; just don’t write off the matchup as an easy win.

Jund and Abzan have capitalized in a big way on blue’s lack of a good draw engine; it’s no coincidence that BGx all but vanished during the Treasure Cruise era. Now that this is changing, they will have to pay proper attention to those matchups. I’ve seen lots of Jund players complacent about Thopter/Sword because of Abrupt DecayKolaghan’s Command, and Scavenging Ooze, but this displays an ignorance of how the combo works in practice. As long as they have another artifact lying around, which isn’t hard if they build their deck with that in mind, they can sacrifice that to Foundry in response to your removal and continue sinking their mana into the combo. The early turns will be spent trading, as normal, and eventually they will play Foundry with a few lands open; you can kill it, but they get to effectively cast Lingering Souls – one of the best cards against Jund – on the way out. These decks run Academy Ruins, which gives them a level of late game power that you can’t compete with – Gerry Thompson’s initial list runs 2 Ruins and a Tolaria West to fetch it. It’s also worth noting that none of the obvious responses to Thopter/Sword are good against, say, Baneslayer Angel, which UW Thopter decks have ‘transformed’ into post-board with some success in the past; the same goes for Gideon Jura or Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, or Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas if that’s a thing. Again, the tools exist to beat this new breed of blue deck, but you have to play them and draw them and use them effectively. Hand-waving and reciting the text of Abrupt Decay is no substitute for good deckbuilding.

If Burn and Infect end up suffering alongside Affinity, the format stands to slow down. This might create an opening for decks like Scapeshift that are slower than dedicated combo but more resilient against blue. Ad Nauseam loves to see blue decks and hates to see Jund, but I’m not sure if the deck is structurally sound enough to be a good choice.

Abzan Company was good pre-Eldrazi, great against Eldrazi, and will still be solid post-Eldrazi. You can out-grind the midrange decks without caring about Thopter/Sword and you can still claim a good matchup against the faster decks. It doesn’t hurt that RG Tron got significantly weaker. One concern is that Jund and Grixis will start sideboarding Leyline of the Void to fight Thopter/Sword, but it will take some time for people to adjust properly.

More generally, there may be an opening for faster combo decks that were held down by Twin. I’ve seen Thopter/Sword compared to Twin as a package that blue decks can play without much commitment to add a new dimension, but the key difference is that Twin acted as a safety valve against random stuff that you couldn’t prepare for: your answers may not line up well against their threats, but you can sometimes just win on Turn 4 and that puts a floor on how bad any matchup can be. The threat of Twin forced opponents to try to win the game quickly and, in doing so, walk into Twin’s interactive cards. Thopter/Sword doesn’t end the game out of nowhere, so you can gauge how much time you have, and you can afford to play around the cards supporting it because it doesn’t put you under that much pressure.

My hope is that, when the dust settles, the metagame we see will be more balanced and interesting than it was before. There are two main approaches to deck selection in Modern – pick whichever linear deck is off the radar or well-positioned at that moment, or play what you know with adequate preparation for the linear decks you do expect to show up – and both are still worth following even as the format continues to change.

Thanks for reading!

Pro Tour OGW Report

By Dom Harvey

I was fortunate enough to have a front row seat for the Eldrazi invasion at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch. I’m staying true to my preparation style by writing this hurriedly two months later; by now, the takeover is complete and we mortals can only wait for Aaron Forsythe, the highest power, to nuke the aliens from orbit and make Modern great again. Until then, let us huddle around the fire and tell tales of a Pro Tour gone wrong.

I’ve been playing competitively for a long time, but only in the sense that I was physically present at tournaments. I wasn’t good enough to break through on talent alone, and I did nothing to help myself: I didn’t practice properly, my deck selection was poor, and I had no real connections in the UK Magic scene. I resolved to fix as much of that as I could for my only chance to play on Magic’s highest stage.

When I won the RPTQ in November, I felt lucky to qualify for this Pro Tour in particular. I had pressing commitments as a student but I could be more flexible than someone with a full-time job and spread my preparation over the three months before the event. Modern was an established format that I knew well, so I didn’t face the usual challenge of diving into a new Standard, and the new set surely wouldn’t change too much! I hoped this would lessen the downside of not working with a team, and even that problem was solved for me when Scotland made another Top 8 at the World Magic Cup. I couldn’t ask for better circumstances.

My failure to use my time effectively is even more frustrating with that in mind. I can make excuses – health problems didn’t help matters – but I’m responsible for the final outcome. Hopefully this will serve as a useful guide, to myself as well as others, for what not to do next time.

Preparing for Modern/Thoughts on Affinity

Before the Eldrazi arrived to paint Atlanta in fifty shades of grey, Modern appeared to be a known quantity. There’s a lot of room for innovation, and some decks turn out far better than expected – Amulet went from circus freak to format breaker very quickly – but the basic terms of the format were established long ago. Battle for Zendikar barely registered on the format, and the ‘Eldrazi deck’ was just a Magic Online experiment with Wasteland Strangler and Scrabbling Claws. At this stage, there were no signs that Oath of the Gatewatch would add much more. I resigned myself to another tournament full of Twin, Jund, Burn, Affinity…

The one change everyone saw coming was bad for me. I qualified playing Amulet which, despite what Reddit insisted on telling itself, was the best deck in the format by a ridiculous margin. It was so good that winning with the deck fostered a kind of imposter syndrome: can I only win a tournament if my deck is hopelessly broken? I was confident the deck was getting banned.

I didn’t expect Splinter Twin to join it, but I wasn’t floored. Tom LaPille predicted a Twin ban in an interview he gave after leaving Wizards, and it would be hard to hype up the tournament if the same deck won a third Modern Pro Tour. Twin’s removal did its job by invalidating old assumptions about the format (as much as I enjoyed the ‘for the sake of competitive diversity, Splinter Twin is banned in Modern’ meme – or ‘for the sake of Eldrazi, competitive diversity is banned’, as some had it – it’s too early to judge the full effect of the Twin ban until Eldrazi joins it in exile). Lots of people who were loudly ignorant about Modern were scared of a Tron takeover, but the consequences of Twin being gone were clearly bad for Tron even if you thought Twin was a bad matchup: the Burn, Infect, and Affinity decks that Twin kept in check would rise, and combo decks that were strategically dominated by Twin were unleashed on the format. Decks like BW Tokens that couldn’t beat Tron were still appealing because we expected everyone to come to the same conclusion; and indeed, the few brave Tron pilots in Atlanta performed poorly.

I had to find a deck, and I had no idea how to make that choice. I wasn’t confident in my level of play, and I was about to compete in my first Pro Tour as one of the easy marks. That led to a mess of contradictory thoughts. I could pick a ‘safe’ deck with proven strength; there’s no shame in sleeving up Jund or Burn. These decks are popular for a reason and it’s arrogant to assume I can do better. However, every player in the room will have a plan to beat the established decks and the hate cards in Modern are lethal if people choose to play them; the choice to play a known linear deck displays its own form of arrogance in assuming that the wider field won’t come well prepared or knows less than I do. Then again, everybody always thinks they beat the best deck and it continues to do well and keep that title. If I do play a stock deck, where’s my edge? My list will be less well refined and I’ll play it at a lower capacity, so why would I be the one to do well with it? Maybe I should look for a new strategy or one that people won’t prepare for, but I can’t compete on that front with experienced deckbuilders and teams. It was a weird epistemology problem with no easy answer.

At this point I made a vague plan: explore the radical options and commit to one if it seemed good, with the Burn/Infect/Affinity trifecta as a default option. I wanted enough repetitions with Infect that I could comfortably pick it up for the Pro Tour without extra work; I didn’t do this, which I count as a massive error even though I’m glad I didn’t pick it. I began with Goryo’s Vengeance, which many people expected to get banned and eventually will be: the card already pushes the boundaries of the format, and it limits their ability to print splashy legendary creatures as headliners for new sets. Specifically, I was intrigued by Goryo’s Vengeance with Emrakul, which has always been one of the most powerful things you could do in Modern but never found traction thanks to Deceiver Exarch. The Twin ban also removed the only natural home for Dispel, the most effective answer to both Vengeance and Through the Breach. If Modern became an aggro vs. combo shootout as expected, the fastest combo deck in the format was the place to be. Finding a good shell proved difficult, and Burn and Infect were too popular for how swingy those matchups were. I was very close to playing it, though, and it’s a deck I’ll come back to when Eldrazi is banned.

This exploratory phase of the plan never got off the ground thanks to poor time management. Scanning MTGO matchup data, I saw that Elves and Green Devotion both put up shockingly good numbers and were glad to see the Twin ban; Green Devotion even had a new toy in Oath of Nissa. I never put the work in to see if anything was there. BW Tokens had solid stats and seemed like a great metagame call if Tron didn’t show up, but my list wasn’t well tuned and it was the fairest deck in the most unfair format. The Death’s Shadow deck was also doing very well, and I had noticed Team EUreka members playing it online, but before long I knew I wouldn’t be able to learn it in time. When we were told that Become Immense was popular at the vendors and EUreka showed up all playing the deck, I felt vindicated but also embarrassed for not at least trying it.

Cute ideas that never made it out of a notebook included the 5C Ancient Ziggurat/Pillar of the Paruns deck (which gained Reflector Mage in Oath), hyper-aggressive Kiln Fiend decks, and various Rally the Ancestors/Return to the Ranks shells. I did my best to raise Amulet from the dead, but it was not to be.

If I’m honest, I think I was always going to end up on Affinity. It won me the PPTQ that set the whole process in motion, so there was an emotional attachment there. That was my first time playing the deck, and it performed way above expectations. I shelved the deck soon after but gained a lasting appreciation for it.

So, when I still didn’t have a Modern deck on Thursday night, I bit the bullet and borrowed Affinity. I felt regret about the process, but happy with my choice. Affinity has been a fixture of Top 8s since the format’s inception: the same 75 that Top 8ed the first Modern Pro Tour is still legal today. Even when the popular decks were bad matchups, Affinity routinely put up a 52-53% win rate; now, with Twin gone and Burn/Infect in the ascendant, things looked even rosier. The deck scores a ton of free wins, which I knew would be crucial for beating more skilled opponents, and can steal games against bad matchups with good draws. It also excels at punishing opponents’ misplays, which occur even at this level.

Yes, there’s hate. I wasn’t scared – and I always find a reason to worry! Even at the Pro Tour level, people don’t respect Affinity; that was true for Pierre Canali in Columbus over a decade ago, and it’s true today. Affinity was the default best deck, so people ought to come prepared, but the results of previous Modern Pro Tours made it clear that they don’t. The hate that people play is low in quality, quantity, or both. The decks that load up on hate do it because they have to: their pre-board matchup is bad enough that they have to overhaul their deck to win both post-board games. Life as an Amulet player had also steeled my nerves: I often beat decks that ran Blood Moon, and won multiple times against a resolved and unanswered Blood Moon (including in the deciding game to make Top 8 of the RPTQ). Blood Moon – or Stony Silence, or Rest in Peace, or whatever the nuclear option is – is effective hate, but for hate cards to work there are a few conditions: you have to play them, you have to draw them and resolve them, and they have to do their job.

Registering them proved too hard for some players. You’re not that likely to draw one of your 3 Stony Silences in your opener; are you going to mulligan a hand that’s good for your deck’s plan but lacks the hate you thought you needed enough to spend slots on it? Would you keep a 1-land + Stony Silence hand that’s dead if it bricks for a turn, or a hand that has nothing beyond the hate card? Even if you get your Stony Silence down, sometimes they drew some lands and an Etched Champion or Ghirapur Aether Grid and force you to have something else. There’s a strong rational case for not being scared of hate, even though the hate cards in Modern are ridiculously powerful. I knew that I was probably going to get Shatterstormed out of a match – maybe even the entire tournament – and wanted to be ready for it. For this tournament, I didn’t need the illusion of control. It was liberating!

With the tournament starting in a few hours, I laid out a stack of artifacts on the table and got to work. Here’s what I registered:

Affinity

Creatures (26)
Ornithopter
Vault Skirge
Signal Pest
Arcbound Ravager
Steel Overseer
Spellskite
Ensoul Artifact
Master of Etherium

Spells (10)
Cranial Plating
Welding Jar
Galvanic Blast

Lands (24)
Mox Opal
Springleaf Drum
Darksteel Citadel
Blinkmoth Nexus
Inkmoth Nexus
Glimmervoid
Shivan Reef
Island
Sideboard (15)
Etched Champion
Spellskite
Ghirapur Aether Grid
Blood Moon
Hurkyl’s Recall
Dismember
Spell Pierce
Ghost Quarter
Mountain

The first major change I was sure about was the full set of Master of Etherium over Etched Champions. Against the ‘big three’ of Burn, Infect, and the mirror, Master is excellent – or at least better – while Champion is awful. Champion is great against Jund/Abzan, but that matchup is already decent and you have to make some sacrifices. Master also helps you race combo decks and random stuff, such as a format-breaking monster with mono-colourless creatures. When I spoke to Eduardo Sajgalik, whose coaching was very helpful, I was more happy about his choice of Affinity than he was. I was glad to see quad Master in his list, and in other lists that did well.

The more radical change was the removal of Memnite/Springleaf Drum. It’s hard to disagree with established wisdom, especially the group of Affinity minds behind the list that Pascal Maynard took to the Top 8, but I can only speak to my experience: Memnite is terrible in Affinity. All of your creatures either have evasion, are big enough that they can attack on the ground, or perform some other function. Every deck – even a control deck with Jace or Snapcaster – has creatures that render Memnite useless. It’s not good at blocking either – two of the primary aggressive decks are Infect, which can attack into or through it, and the mirror, which laughs at it. It’s like an anti-Leyline: you never want to draw it outside of your opening hand, but it’s often not good there either!

The argument for Memnite is that it gives you more nut draws in conjunction with Mox Opal and Springleaf Drum. Any 0-cost artifact does the same for Mox Opal, and I’d sooner play Welding JarMishra’s Bauble, or Chalice of the Void. It does good work with Springleaf Drum, but Drum actually makes a lot of your draws worse. For Memnite + Drum to get you ahead, your hand needs to have all of Memnite, Drum, at least 2 lands in your 16/17-land deck (missing a land drop means that Drum = a land but at the cost of a mana), and a high-impact 3-drop (Plating + equip iff you have another creature, Master/Champion/Grid). This is great when it happens but a more common situation is that your one creature gets Bolted and now you have to take a turn off for a replacement just to turn on your Drum, or you have only one land or multiple Drums and your draw is clunky, or you have to tap a creature that really wants to attack. Drum is also worse than land against sweepers, as your follow-up plays are harder to cast. It’s often likened to Birds of Paradise in this deck, but Birds stands on its own and doesn’t force you to play bad cards to optimize it. Most Affinity pilots shave Memnite when sideboarding anyway, so for those games their configuration is similar but reliant on Drums that are now even weaker.

Running more actual lands also makes you much better against Stony Silence and gives you added insurance against Path and Ghost Quarter – which I found I wanted myself in a ton of matchups. Spellskite was solid against Burn/Infect/the mirror and helps against Kolaghan’s Command and other removal from the fair decks, so in it goes. I’ve never liked the fragility of Steel Overseer but it’s the most important card in some matchups; I like Ensoul in small numbers as another payoff card that messes up their racing maths and runs away with games. Again, I wish I had tested any of this, but the judge asking for my decklist wanted to move on with their life.

OGW/BFZ Limited

But first, there was Limited.

I’m a Constructed player at heart; it’s what I played as I learned the game, and what I still prefer to play now. I usually dip my toe in the format on the release weekend, and often that’s the last I think about it. From the moment I qualified, the nightmare scenario was clear: a predictably bad finish in the draft, tilting and being unable to focus for Modern, and the whole experience ending in failure.

Luckily, I found OGW/BFZ draft more fun and intuitive than many formats. My love of Cube was useful here, as it felt very much like a low-powered Pauper/Peasant Cube with some rares sprinkled in. A well-designed Cube asks you to look for unexpected bridges between colours and strategies. The strong gold uncommons in Oath, the commitment that colourless mana demands during the draft for ‘gold’ cards like Blinding Drone, the large gaps in power between colour pairs, and the lack of support in Oath for themes from Battle combine to create a strange dynamic where this habit is very useful.

I wanted to try the full range of strategies at least once – BR and UB Devoid, BW Lifegain, Allies, and so on. Every time I wanted to try something new, I found a reason to go into green instead; the first drafts I did before leaving and the two drafts on Day 2 of GP Vancouver all saw me end up in green. This was a strong vote of confidence in Oath’s green cards given how weak the colour is in Battle, but I felt it was justified. By the time I was drafting with the Scots at their Atlanta house, we were all so high on the support-heavy green decks that they were over-drafted in our practice drafts. This threw up a new set of problems: if we were right about green’s power level, don’t we need to branch out in case lots of drafters are fighting over the colour? If we were wrong, isn’t that another good reason to try out other decks?

The specifics of the format are irrelevant now, but I never found a reason to stray from my first impressions: draft WB if you can get it, GWx or GBx if you can’t, and stay away from blue and red. The UR Surge deck doing so well at the GPs piqued my curiosity, but it never looked impressive in our house drafts. Moving in on the two worst colours without a clear idea of what to do while in your first Pro Tour draft seemed like a quick and easy route to the 0-3 start I feared.

I heard one piece of advice from everyone I asked: Limited is the key to doing well. It’s hard to have a massive edge in Constructed and, even if you do, Limited is the difference between glory and a good finish. We remember this Pro Tour for Eldrazi’s dominance in Constructed, but its pilots who made Top 8 did so because they also did well in draft. Lee Shi Tian may be a Modern master, but he’s quietly one of the most consistent drafters too.

The Pro Tour

The trip itself got off to a strange start. After a wonderful trip to GP Vancouver, I touch down in Atlanta after a long flight and begin every traveller’s favourite ordeal: finding your Airbnb in a sketchy area of an unfamiliar city late at night. I had a vague memory of the photo from the listing, and there’s a building on the right road that looks like it – at least in the dark. I see someone standing outside and walk up to ask him about the apartment. He looks at me quizzically and slowly asks me to repeat myself. When I do and it’s clear he doesn’t know anything, I figure I have the wrong house and move on. As I go round the side of the building, I see the sign near the door: it’s a transitional facility for recently released convicts! The guy had probably seen a lot of stuff in his life, but a posh-sounding Brit with a suitcase accidentally trying to check into a halfway house must be a new one.

My actual destination was billed as ‘The Art House’, and the pictures online suggested a quaint and quiet place that would be a nice backdrop for our stay. As I saw the exterior I thought something was amiss and, sure enough, I’m met with a house filled top to bottom with nude paintings and sculptures that looked like it came from an amateur horror story. I decided the Scottish team’s couch was a better place to be for the rest of the trip and they were kind enough to tolerate me. Thanks guys!

Testing with a group for the event was an odd experience. Everyone else had locked in their Modern deck before we arrived, wisely choosing to play what they knew with a few adjustments for the expected field. They couldn’t help me with my indecision, and I couldn’t help them. We made a token effort to build an Eldrazi deck, but the list I built was weak and got itself dismissed quickly. Looking at the dominant UW and RG lists now, they seem so ‘obvious’ in retrospect; in practice, though, if I had an extra two months I still wouldn’t have looked at Eldrazi Skyspawner. It’s some consolation to think that many of the game’s best didn’t get the memo either. Still, it would have been nice to be in on the joke! We spent most of our time drafting, and felt good about that side of things.

A welcome feature of the coverage this time was a look at the out-of-game aspects of the tournament. I watch the Pro Tour coverage religiously but had never seen the tournament hall on camera; you only see the feature match area, which often looks like a theatre tech went overboard with a dry ice machine. The venue in Atlanta felt right: large enough that the event felt important, but small enough that you could walk around and take it all in. The ‘open house’ segment took us inside the Pantheon’s testing, which was unremarkably professional and mostly made me feel embarrassed about my own. I like to think a segment about our testing process – no structure, unloved draft commons fighting for table space with empty Natty Light cans – would be more representative.

===

A lot of first Pro Tour reports describe the thrill of hearing that seat assignments are up for the player meeting and knowing your name is on that list – if only for this one event, players you know and look up to are your peers, and you are in the position that all of them started from at one point. After the late-night scrapheap challenge of building Affinity and all the stress of preparation, I wasn’t relaxed enough to soak in the atmosphere and enjoy the moment. Luckily, that moment turned into several minutes as the taxi bearing some of the Asian players was delayed and judges began debating how long to wait before starting the draft anyway. They came up with a sensible fix, and the sight of Tomoharu Saitou and friends charging frantically through the tournament hall was only a brief distraction.

Before we began, the head judge asked all the first-timers to stand up for a round of applause. It was a nice gesture that helped the newbies to calm our nerves and the seasoned players to mark their prey. I took some comfort in not being the only one standing at my table, where Chris Fennell and Shaun McLaren were the only two names I recognized.

The draft started well, featuring Sylvan Advocate as the best card in the pack and a good incentive to be in green. I picked up some decent black cards, including a pair of Vampire Envoys and a Baloth Null, but the second Oath pack was a bust and I was light on playables going into Battle. Brood Butcher was a nice start, and the fixing I had picked up came in handy when I was passed Drowner of Hope and moved into blue. The rest of the pack was kind, giving me some solid Awaken spells and a Hedron Archive as well as a Skyrider Elf that was perfect for my deck.

The obvious weakness here is a lack of ways to interact with creatures. I was ready to put a premium on middling removal like Demon’s Grasp, but nothing came; I had to play an awkward Bone Splinters just to have an out to bombs. The deck had powerful cards and could conceivably win games, but I wasn’t optimistic. I resolved to play as well as I could and escape with a win.

domdraft1

===

My first ever opponent on the Pro Tour was Aaron Webster, a fellow robot warrior. The nerves I’d expected to feel were kicking in, but within a few turns everything I’d heard was confirmed: this was still Magic. Anyone can draw the nuts, mull to 5, or overlook something crucial. Wiping a stacked board with Rising Miasma on turn 4 was a nice start to the Pro Tour, and from there my deck’s late-game power took over; I missed on-board lethal with Drowner of Hope, but thankfully it was still there when I saw it next turn. With that mistake, the nerves were gone and I settled into the rhythm of the tournament, taking the match easily.

After beating a friendly American named Taylor, I found myself playing for 3-0 against Chris Fennell. He wasn’t thrilled with his deck but made it look good, dominating the first game with a Steppe Glider I couldn’t answer. Brood Butcher took over Game 2, and my draw in the decider was solid. Things quickly went south when his 3/4 Tajuru Stalwart became Infused with the Elements, and suddenly I was drawing to two outs that never arrived. This match highlighted the weaknesses of my deck and showed how Chris did well to salvage his, finding ways to enable nut draws to cover for his low average card quality. It stung to lose with 3-0 in sight, even though I hadn’t expected to be in that position. Chris reassured me that I hadn’t made any obvious mistakes, which was a nice confidence boost heading into Modern.

2-1

A quick aside: scheduling quirks and the structure of Modern meant that lots of players – not only top GP finishers but an entire cohort of RPTQ winners – qualified for the event playing Modern and could play the same deck in this Pro Tour. There were other, high-profile players whose preferences in Modern were well-documented. I could make an educated guess about the deck choices of a good third of the room based on public information, and initial scouting filled in a lot of blanks.

But not all of them. As I find my seat for the first round of Modern, I see LSV shuffling next to me. He asks to borrow a piece of paper – a habit of his, I’ve learned! – and looking over I see what I’m pretty sure is… Matter Reshaper?! This Eldrazi thing is for real, then? If one of the elite teams thought the deck was good enough to play, there must be something there, but as I sat pondering this I had no idea it would be the most dominant deck since Caw-Blade – and this wasn’t even the best Eldrazi deck in the room!

My opponent arrived – recent Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Stephen Neal – and we got down to business. I was in good spirits, in part because Stephen was amiable and welcoming but mainly because Burn is a stellar matchup for Affinity. Burn punishes the painful manabases popular in Modern but Affinity does the same to Burn while taking no damage from its lands. Vault Skirge threatens to put the game out of reach if pumped, and Burn is often forced to throw burn at your creatures to stay afloat. In discussions with some English players who chose Burn for the event, I argued that Burn needs heavy-duty hate – Stony Silence, Shattering Spree – to salvage the matchup. I faced none against Stephen and took the match despite losing a close Game 2 that I felt must have been winnable with tighter play.

3-1

Next up was renowned globetrotter Christian Calcano playing Jund. The matchup depends heavily on the amount of hate they have, and I expected Christian to be well-prepared. I felt a strong pressure to win Game 1, and the robots duly delivered. Game 2 was close before Etched Champion arrived to tilt it in my favour, and after fading Shatterstorm for a turn I was clear.

4-1

My Round 6 opponent showed himself to be playing GW Hatebears, which was another good omen. The matchup is very good for Affinity, and they have to play a lot of hate and draw it on time to stay competitive. He had the ideal pre-board draw, landing Leonin Arbiter and Ghost Quartering two of my lands, but without a fast clock I was able to draw out of it and land Steel Overseer, which stopped him ever attacking again. I take the usual sideboarding precautions and, sure enough, I’m facing down a second turn Stony Silence. The extra lands let me cast Master of Etherium, and then another, but he ripped a second Path to Exile and the game slips out of reach. Stony Silence came down again in Game 3, but he blew it up!

…with a Fracturing Gust.

4-2

Next I had to play against Death’s Shadow for the first time, in the hands of another American – Tommy Ashton, a name I recognized from his Magic Online results and recent Pro Tour success. The deck made a strong first impression when he killed me Turn 3 on the play, and he gains access to Stony Silence post-board, but it never showed up and my good draws carried the day in the other two games.

5-2

I’m already doing much better than expected, but this last round will set the tone for the rest of the event. At 6-2, I’m in a good position to chase cash and an invite; at 5-3, I’m on course for a mediocre finish. I know it shouldn’t matter, but ending the day with a loss after a good start can easily ruin your mental state – and your chances – in a multi-day event. The stakes for this match are high, even if only in my head.

Case, my opponent, was a nice, quiet guy who also won a RPTQ to get here. We split the first two games of the Affinity mirror, and I’m on the play for Game 3. My opening hand is dodgy, so I send it back; he joins me. My next hand is also weak, and I can feel the tilt starting to kick in. I send it back – but so does he!

I make a highly unusual move: I offer to draw the game and go to Game 4, so that we can both start with seven cards again. He immediately agrees, presumably wanting a more interesting and competitive game than we were likely to get on five cards. My thinking was that the advantage you get from being on the play – setting up a nut draw with cards like Overseer, Master, Plating, or Aether Grid – requires a minimum quantity of cards. Everything on that list gets better the more cards you have, and the Opal/Drum starts that let you jump ahead need cheap artifacts to enable them – hence my argument against Drum. With five cards, my board development is likely to be staggered in a way that gives up the initiative and lets him make use of his extra card. I don’t know how sound the logic is, but it worked out as my fresh hand produces a Turn 2 Aether Grid and he can never get on the board.

It’s an odd situation – if I’m making this offer, I must think it’s favourable for me in some way. Maybe I believe I have an edge on play skill or matchup positioning and want to minimize the variance that comes with smaller hands; maybe I prefer the feeling of getting to make decisions than hoping my draw is better than his. Maybe I go through the thought process above and it’s just wrong! Regardless, in pure EV terms it can’t be correct for both of us; his agreement amounts to a claim that I’ve overlooked something. Writing this weeks later, I’m still not sure if I found a creative solution or went out of my way to hurt my chances and won despite myself. Either way, I was thrilled to be 6-2 at the close of play.

6-2

===

The second draft promised a depressing twist on my original fear: instead of the draft ending my tournament before it began, it might ruin me when I was in a legitimate position to do well! Overnight I listened to the Limited Resources episode about LSV’s Pro Tour testing that had been embargoed until then. He was much higher on the colourless-matters cards than we were, and his views on a few archetypes differed from ours. One thing’s for sure, though: neither of us wanted to draft UG!

Naturally, after first-picking Sylvan Advocate again, the only playable cards in the next few packs were blue. A fifth-pick Saddleback Lagac gave me hope that green was open, but that well promptly dried up again. My card quality was high – multiple Blinding Drones and Prophets of Distortion, with Sphinx of the Final Word making it to me in Pack 2 – but the deck wasn’t cohesive and had no answers to common threats. I was picking up the ‘colourless’ manafixing for my blue cards anyway, so I was ready to move in on a splash colour in Battle. A late Jori En was encouraging but also biased me towards red, which proved disastrous when I passed a Complete Disregard and then a Demon’s Grasp. My deck desperately needed removal, and that was my only chance to find some.

domdraft2

Mentally, I began to slip into damage control mode, and the first round didn’t help. My opponent was Ben Weitz, an up-and-coming pro and member of the team that won the event with their UR Eldrazi deck. He was in WR with a small Ally subtheme, and my deck’s weakness to cheap creatures like Ondu War Cleric or Zada’s Commando was soon on display. I held on for while, but double (!) Goblin Dark-Dwellers made life difficult and an impressive Reckless Bushwhacker turn did me in. Game 2 is effectively over on the second turn when he plays Immobilizer Eldrazi; on the final turn, I have six creatures in play and none of them can block.

6-3

After a simple win against another American PTQer, I’m paired against Michael Majors for the final round of Limited. If I can somehow 2-1 this pod, I have a good shot of going 3-2 in Constructed for a solid X-5 finish and an invite.

I soon realized where the good white cards went as three of my best creatures entered the Isolation Zone. The game was close throughout until he had a window to draw something to kill me. Rush of Ice leapt off the top to punish me for some arguably loose plays earlier, and I’m left with the familiar feeling of knowing I screwed up but not how or when. The second game went very long, with me having to manage my mana for Prophet, Blinding Drone, and Seer’s Lantern every turn and him looking for some way to break through. I was forced to trade off my Sphinx of the Final Word with a Kozilek’s Pathfinder to survive, and it looked like I might not have a way to finish him if I didn’t scry into something soon. With the clock ticking down, I made a big Skyrider Elf and evened the match.

The match could have ended in a draw with both of us playing at an acceptable pace, but that wouldn’t help either of us and we both had outs to win in the time we had left. I have a decent draw in Game 3, but he plays a bunch of beefy fliers and runs me over. I wished Michael luck and was glad to see he finished X-5 to lock Gold.

7-4

3-3 overall in Limited was disappointing on one level, but not entirely surprising. I’m not sure how meaningful it is that I beat the other PTQ winners and lost to the known players – the skill gap is higher in Limited, but the immediate cause of most of my losses was better draws from better decks and it’s hard to reflect on mistakes I may have made in the draft portion. It remains the area of my game that needs the most work.

Back to Modern, where I need 4-1 for an invite and 3-2 to cash. I was hoping for good matchups and opponents I didn’t recognize. Instead, I’m against Martin Clement, one of the Scottish guys I’d prepared with and whose sofa I was crashing on. I knew he was playing Storm with an eye-watering amount of Affinity hate. I’d also cut a lot of the generic combo hate from my board, with only Spell Pierce to stop him doing his worst.

Sure enough, he won the race in Game 1, and I was about to win even through a Shatterstorm in Game 2… except that I had stupidly thrown a Darksteel Citadel to Ravager on a previous turn rather than Mox Opal, so after my board was cleared I couldn’t cast the Master of Etherium I drew. Somehow he didn’t draw anything either, so eventually I found a third land and Master won me a game I was sure I had tossed away. In Game 3 I had a solid draw that can’t disrupt him – and, thanks to my lack of relevant sideboard cards, I can’t justify a mulligan to look for one. Shattering Spree showed up this time to fight for Shatterstorm’s title, and I could only watch as the past went up in flames.

7-5

I needed an quick win to de-tilt me and was fortunate to get one against East/West Bowl member Adam Boyd on UR Eldrazi. Adam was playing the deck of the tournament and didn’t lose again in Constructed, but in our match the scary draws powered by Eye and Temple never materialized and nor did his sideboard hate.

8-5

I began the home stretch by facing Jarvis Yu, also of East/West Bowl. I vaguely knew Jarvis from articles and forum posts but didn’t put a face to the name until a few days earlier, when he joined us at our house for some practice drafts. He’d made an offhand reference to Abzan Company, which I hadn’t registered as a possible deck choice until then; if somebody had handed me a full 75 at that moment, I’d have jumped on board. It looks like an even smarter pick in light of the PT and GP results, and is likely to be a good deck after the dust settles from the bannings.

The first game showcased a key selling point of Affinity: I felt lost deciding which combinations of cards to play around and possible Chord/Company targets and the right lines for each case, but my draw was powerful enough that it didn’t matter. In Game 2 my draw wasn’t that fast and, when I stuck an Aether Grid, I was already facing pressure on the board (as well as implied pressure from a possible combo). He found Reclamation Sage for my Grid and I made the other one, but by then his board was large enough that I couldn’t contain it with the few artifacts I have in play and Kataki forces me to take a turn off from shooting creatures. I could have bought some time by shooting his 2/1s instead of Viscera Seers, but I was worried that would leave a combo piece in play and give him extra Scrys to find the other pieces or something else that would put me away. I’m not sure what was correct, but should have thought more about it.

Jarvis quickly kept for Game 3 and I had the feeling I was about to face Kataki. I tried to sequence my plays to minimize the damage and saw Stony Silence instead.

Just like that, I was no longer playing for an invite and had to win my last two matches to cash. Jarvis unfortunately lost in the last round to miss an invite, but is still chasing Gold and will hopefully get there with a good result in Madrid.

8-6

I beat Merfolk in about ten minutes despite my best efforts. Alright then. One more!

9-6

For all the marbles (specifically, $1,000) I would have to beat Rob Cucunato, who had some GP success with Affinity. Steel Overseer is amazing in the mirror and I regretted cutting the fourth copy as two of his teamed up to dominate the first game. My massive Master of Etherium, almost always the biggest thing on the board, had no hope of breaking through. I’d have to win two games, including one on the draw, with virtually no hate for the mirror – another decision I was kicking myself over.

The second game looked bad when I had to mulligan twice and soon became worse. Rob had a fast draw with Plating and Ravager, and I couldn’t hold off his attackers, let alone mount an offense of my own. I used Galvanic Blast to get Ravager off the board or at least force a commitment to it, and to my shock he moved in on a Signal Pest! I like to trim Signal Pests in the mirror because they die to a Nexus or Skirge in combat so easily and it’s rare that the bonus matters, and if the Pest were a more relevant card I was in big trouble. As it happened I was still in dire straits, needing to draw a blocker and equip my own Plating every turn just to stay alive. My deck was kind, feeding me a steady stream of Nexuses and Ornithopters, and eventually I was able to trade with the Pest and take down his other attackers. I eventually drew a Vault Skirge and suit it up, and after fading a Galvanic Blast for yet another turn I started attacking with a massive lifelinker. Had Rob maintained his board and kept applying pressure, I was drawing to very few outs.

As I was trying to complete a stressful comeback, another drama was unfolding beside me. Tom Martell was in bad shape against his Burn opponent who, much to Tom’s frustration, kept ‘missing’ his Eidolon trigger when casting spells. When Tom had to issue a stern warning, his opponent – Xin Sui, an Asian player who spoke passable English but was mainly communicating through gestures – claimed that Tom was making similar mistakes. Affronted, Tom called a judge so that his opponent’s sloppiness would go on the record. I wasn’t paying much attention yet, too busy trying to stave off my impending doom.

The judge came over and things suddenly took a strange turn. When asked about what happened, Xin Sui denied missing his triggers and seemed to imply some kind of misunderstanding. Tom instantly flagged this up as lying to a judge, turning what could and should have been a routine judge call into a DQ-worthy offense. The most bizarre aspect of the situation was that Xin Sui wasn’t going to receive any real penalty – and Tom was clear when giving his initial reminder that he didn’t suspect cheating – but he lied for no reason and at great risk to himself. He was facing a seasoned pro and professional lawyer who was sure to call him out on any shadiness, and lied in a spot where his having lied was the only thing that made sense; the only other explanation was that Tom had called a judge over in order to lie to him in some kamikaze bid to get himself disqualified. He also did this with a handful of spectators around – I didn’t have the level of certainty needed to approach the judge about the situation, but I could tell something was seriously amiss. When head judge Kevin Desprez arrived and didn’t escalate the penalty further, there began a lengthy debate at the table between him and Tom that didn’t change the result. Tom was forced to play on and was swiftly roasted to put him out of the money.

This was a somewhat distracting and unpleasant backdrop to my own money match. In a much less exciting Game 3 my Steel Overseer dies, I stall on mana, and Rob puts me out of my misery.

9-7 (aka dead last)

Walking out of the convention centre I run into Tom and offer commiserations that turn out to be misplaced. When the original judge and head judge compared notes later they realized his opponent was lying and retroactively disqualified him! Apparently he’d been banned several times in the past for similar behaviour. Tom got his win – plus the money and extra pro points that came with it – after all.

No such luck for me or for Martin Clement, who also lost playing for cash. We consoled ourselves with a visit to the Georgia Aquarium and its famous dolphin training show, which was very entertaining (some might say it was ‘deece’), but there was still some lingering resentment. The upside of writing this a few months later is that most of that has faded and I can reflect on what the event meant to me.

My weekend was a rollercoaster of emotions – I repeatedly did just well enough to get my hopes up and then badly enough to dash them. Despite that I felt weirdly detached from my progress, as if I was watching someone else from home; I didn’t feel the frustration that often comes from routine losses at local events or on Magic Online, even though the stakes were much higher. It helped that all of my opponents were professional and most were actively pleasant to play against – I kept in touch with Taylor and Case throughout the event – and two of the ‘worst’ losses were to Martin and Jarvis. I didn’t have high hopes, or a ‘team’ or cheering section that I was letting down if I lost, so I felt free to enjoy the experience without the burden of expectations. Part of me wants to redouble my commitment to the game and try to get back on the Pro Tour; part of me feels that I’ve done all I can there and would only set myself up for disappointment. I’m not sure which side will win out yet.

Thanks for reading, and I’d appreciate any feedback!

Learning From Pauper—A Study in Aggression

By: Grillo_Parlante

As it’s been several months since I last wrote about my evidently favorite magic topic—pauper aggro decks—I figured it was about time I returned to the well. I would like to do a more theoretical breakdown of how these decks function, and how some of their dynamics can help guide aggro design in cube.

Formats are defined by their mana, and one aspect that both cube and pauper share is that the mana is not great. Most cube design follows a fairly basic structure, which allocates about 11-12% of its space to land based mana fixing. If you look at Frank Karsten’s work in this article, the conclusions are pretty ugly.

As far as cube is concerned, this is poor news for two color aggro in general, worse news for two color aggro running double color spells, and fairly dire news for three color aggro.

In pauper, aggro decks are naturally divided along two strategic lines: mono-colored decks capable of curve outs (albeit perhaps not as consistently as other formats), and multi-color decks that devote the early turns to setup, with a big aggressive payoff once they do. This is due to the format’s comes-into-play-tapped lands (CIPT lands). In addition, cube tends to struggle with presenting a sufficient density of playable one drops for aggro without watering down the colored sections, further suggesting the value of giving consideration to turn two design.

While this should not be seen as a strict strategic divide—even within the context of pauper—it is a useful model in terms of thinking about cube aggro design as it helps address a central issue within the archetype. There just is very limited design space (in both pauper and cube) when it comes to two power creatures that cost one mana. If your aggro strategy is based around consistent curve outs, those decks are in danger of missing spots on their curve, or stumbling on mana, and then being crushed when the opponent’s grossly superior card quality is brought to bear a few turns later.

The harsh reality is that certain aggro decks are going to constantly be in danger of being a turn behind whatever else is going on in the environment; all because of a certain type of negative variance that uniquely affects them. However, I find that pauper aggro decks tend to do several things much better than their brethren in other constructed formats: namely, that they are very good at making up for lost time.

These things are easier to show than talk about in the abstract, so we are going to be doing a few deck techs. Of course, it’s generally undesirable to attempt a direct port of any constructed deck to cube, but hopefully we can unpack some concepts.

Goblins—Aggressive Control

jsiri84 (1st Place, Magic Online Pauper Premier Event on 3/8/14)

Creatures (31)
Goblin Arsonist
Goblin Bushwhacker
Goblin Cohort
Goblin Matron
Goblin Sledder
Mogg Conscripts
Mogg Raider
Mogg War Marshal
Sparksmith

Spells (11)
Death Spark
Flame Slash
Lightning Bolt
Sylvok Lifestaff

Lands (18)
18 Mountain
Sideboard (15)
Electrickery
Flame Slash
Flaring Pain
Gorilla Shaman
Pyroblast
Smash to Smithereens
Sylvok Lifestaff

This is a mono-colored list, which has a gameplan of steady pressure, building up to an explosive turn, supported by flexible aggro-control elements. Though a turn one aggro deck, it still is susceptible to stumbles due to its creature base (lots of 1/1s) or from mana screw. This is fairly analogous to the difficulty of many cube aggro decks, which may have the raw tools to curve out, but sometimes variance will get in their way.

Goblins is a highly synergistic deck, built around sacrifice interactions, and could variously be described as horizontal, recursive, sacrifice, or aristocrats aggro. Let’s pick out the key elements, so as to distill the core concepts into something useful to designers, rather than focusing on nomenclature.

Ability to beat removal: Being a deck built around sacrifice synergies, Goblins has a certain natural resilience to strategies that want to kill its creatures The key pieces are:

  • Sacrifice outlets. Mogg Raider and Goblin Sledder buff key board pieces beyond the range of damage based removal. The board may temporarily contract; but it can be surprisingly difficult to completely eradicate the deck’s board presence.

Ability to beat the board: Goblins has surprisingly excellent tools to help it play a more deliberate game, even shifting into a hard control position in certain matchups. It has repeat sources of removal in the form of Sparksmith and Death Spark, and its main aggressive pieces can play a surprisingly effective defensive game through stat boosting and chump blockers. It also has access to red’s flexible burn suite, which can be used either as reach, or as spot removal.

It can also close out games by fanning out its threats, attacking around an opposing line, before sacrificing its blocked board to buff one unblocked threat for lethal.

Ability to exert burst damage. It also has explosive haymakers, the specter of which hangs over every interaction. The tool of choice is Goblin Bushwhacker, which can close out a game in rapid, brutal fashion.

Goblins can leverage that perceived pressure to good effect. Perceived pressure means that while a deck may have an early game built around steady pressure, it doesn’t necessarily have to concern itself with curving out, and can force an opponent to play around spells in hand that are capable of producing lethal on the spot.

Curving out with a 2/2 into two more 2/2 creatures is very powerful; but if your aggro decks are going to have trouble making those types of plays consistently, you have to give them a game plan for the mid or late game. Goblins has the tools to pursue a more deliberate gameplan, compensating for early stumbles with flexible aggro-control tools, allowing it to play towards a haymaker finish powerful enough to make up for early stumbles.

Affinity—Turn Two Explosion

_Pain_ (August 2015)

Creatures (16)
Atog
Carapace Forger
Frogmite
Myr Enforcer

Spells (27)
Thoughtcast
Fling
Galvanic Blast
Perilous Research
Chromatic Star
Flayer Husk
Prophetic Prism
Springleaf Drum
Terrarion

Lands (17)
Ancient Den
Darksteel Citadel
Great Furnace
Seat of the Synod
Tree of Tales
Sideboard (15)
Electrickery
Hydroblast
Pyroblast
Relic of Progenitus
Ancient Grudge

One of the reasons why I think so many cube designers have a hard time incorporating turn two aggro principles into their environments is that most constructed turn two aggro decks are just poor specimens for direct ports.

For example, this pauper affinity deck follows a fairly standard turn two aggro blue print: it uses the first couple turns to setup (in this case playing out artifacts to power the affinity mechanic) before making a series of powerful turn three or turn four plays that compensate for having ceded over the early game. Affinity achieves this by playing out a small army of 4/4s for little or no mana.

Another example would be the hexproof deck, which wants to spend the early game setting up, before coming across with a giant boggle whose size and slew of keywords more than compensate for the lost time—raw power justifying the time spent maneuvering the deck into that position.

The problem with all of these strategies in cube, however, is that they tend to require narrow mechanics. If cube already has a difficult time making curve-out strategies consistent, than its going to have an even harder time providing infect redundancy, enough artifacts to make metal craft or affinity consistent, and the density of good auras to make an aura based aggro mechanic function. The above deck, requiring its multitude of artifact lands to even function, would be a nightmare to attempt to recreate.

While I don’t think it’s impossible to recreate true turn two aggro mechanics in cube (and I’ve had some success at lower power with heroic and double strike) it’s probably more important to recognize that cube is its own beast, and that aggro decks really just want tools to make up for the time lost due to cube’s negative variance. Flexible board interaction tools, the ability to beat removal, and access to explosive plays that compensate for lost time, are all good directions to go.

Fortunately, there is quite a bit of creative space as to how exactly one can go about achieving these elements.

Stompy—Disruptive Aggro

Jsiri84 (July 2013)

Creatures (25)
Quirion Ranger
Young Wolf
Nettle Sentinel
Skarrgan Pit-Skulk
Garruk’s Companion
Wild Mongrel
Shinen of Life’s Roar

Spells (18)
Rancor
Groundswell
Vines of Vastwood
Gather Courage
Bonesplitter

Lands (17)
17 Forest
Sideboard (15)
Scattershot Archer
Leaf Arrow
Gleeful Sabotage
Hunger of the Howlpack
Fog
Viridian Longbow

Here we have a vertical growth strategy, where the growth pieces also function as disruption, and provide the ability to setup haymaker plays should the initial curve-out be stunted. In certain ways, Stompy is reminiscent of a fish deck; in other ways, it is reminiscent of an infect deck. However, it has traded Daze, islandwalk, and lords, in favor of disruptive pump and power based unblockablity. Rather than trying to create a direct port of a mono-blue deck, which never could have worked, stompy reinvents the disruption paradigm into something that thrives within its format’s constraints. Pauper has a focus on damage, targeted, and edict based removal, which is reflected in stompy via vertical growth, hexproof, and undying.

Pauper aggro decks also generally feature evasive tools to prevent their pressure from being shut off simply by an opponent’s wall of blockers. The goblins deck could go horizontal around a board and pump a single creature to lethal, and this deck runs a lot of conditional evasion pieces to allow it to continually apply pressure.

Access to an explosive, pump-based kill gives the deck a playstyle that feels strangely like an infect deck: it can deal incremental damage while protecting its threats, positioning itself for one big turn. An opponent has to be wary of how they time their removal, and stay attentive to the unseen pressure represented by the pump spells.

Stompy takes a lot of aggro concepts people have a tendency to think about narrowly, and rethinks the implementation of disruption and evasion in a creative manner. The deck focuses on core elements to creatively design something capable of thriving within the context of its environment, seeing the forest rather than just the trees.

Mono Blue Delver-Tempo Incarnate

Yating,

Creatures (21)
Cloud of Faeries
Delver of Secrets
Frostburn Weird
Ninja of the Deep Hours
Spellstutter Sprite
Spire Golem

Spells (23)
Ponder
Preordain
Counterspell
Daze
Dispel
Exclude
Gush
Logic Knot
Mutagenic Growth
Snap
Bonesplitter

Lands (16)
16 Island
Sideboard (15)
Exclude
Curse of Chains
Force Spike
Hydroblast
Quicksand
Serrated Arrows

First, I want to caution people against supporting blue aggro in cube, at least not without substantial edits to your cube’s structure. Not only is there a lack of one drops, but there is a lack of quality two drops, which is generally crippling to any manifestation of the archetype. It becomes a bit more manageable with a lower powered base, or aggressive singleton breaking, but it is still a struggle.

However, our focus is going to be on the concept of tempo, which is critical to understand. We’ve already been hinting at this, with our acknowledgment of the need to provide aggro tools to recoup lost time.

In the above list, 26% of the spells cost effectively no mana, and 45% of the rest of the list costs 1-2 mana. Delver’s raw potential to get ahead on spell casting, while disrupting an opponent’s ability to cast their own spells, is extraordinary.

This is really the meaning of tempo within magic: comparative turn efficiency in a game whose basic metric is turns. The best representative of this concept is Man-o’-War, which allows you to add a 2/2 body to the board, while negating an opponent’s prior play.

While tempo is a term that has meant many different things to many different people, across many different formats, at its core, it simply is this concept of comparative turn efficiency. Tempo is a theory that applies to every game of magic on some level, but certain decks or cards may revolve around the idea more so than other. Delver, for example, is built around a concept of extreme tempo generation through free spells and counter disruption; one could fairly label it a tempo deck. Cloud of Faeries costs no mana and adds a body to the board, by its very nature it is a pure representation of tempo generation: and one could fairly label it a tempo card. However, this doesn’t mean that control decks or midrange decks don’t care about tempo generation or don’t support tempo cards; they just approach tempo in a different manner, usually by efficient removal or ETB effects.

You’ll notice that Delver, unlike every other aggro deck we’ve looked at, has no way to generate a sudden burst of damage, and the reason is that it doesn’t need to. Goblins, Stompy, and Affinity are all prone to stumbles in their opening turns, either due to mana issues, insufficiently aggressive draws, or by design. Consequently, they need some sort of overarching, powerful play to make up for that lost time. Delver doesn’t have this problem, because it generates tempo simply by its basic operations. Even its slowest draws are capable of greater raw spell efficiency than many other decks in the format. Its best draws put a clock upon the entire game, devolving its remaining course into a contest of turn efficiency that other decks are ill equipped to compete in.

Cube is too inconsistent of a format to support anything approaching this level of consistent tempo generation. As a result, every single aggro deck really should have some tools to compensate for lost time. In a more consistent, stable environment, where the aggro decks are producing six power worth of creatures on turn two, this isn’t so much a problem; however, this isn’t the reality in pauper or cube. This is especially key, because cube tends to feature a large number of ETB producing midrange creatures, or planeswalkers, who are very good at generating tempo through free spell effects. Without tempo recouping devices, both pilots can find themselves in unfun situations where the aggro deck stumbles, and the game has effectively been decided by turn two, but it doesn’t actually end until much later.

Rats—Visages of Suicide Black

SneakAttackKid June 2013

Creatures (19)
Augur of Skulls
Chittering Rats
Crypt Rats
Okiba-Gang Shinobi
Phyrexian Rager
Ravenous Rats

Spells (18)
Dead Weight
Echoing Decay
Geth’s Verdict
Duress
Sign in Blood
Unearth

Lands (23)
Polluted Mire
17 Swamp
Barren Moor
Sideboard (15)
Okiba-Gang Shinobi
Rendclaw Trow
Snuff Out
Sorin’s Thirst
Tendrils of Corruption
Victim of Night
Choking Sands
Corrupt
Duress

Our last deck tech is perhaps a little strange, as it generally is classified as a control deck.

We’ve been touching upon different forms of disruption in aggro, ranging from Vines of Vastwood to Spellstutter Sprite. However, all of those forms of disruption are reactive, and work on a model of sequencing threats into disruption. Here we have an approach that revolves around sequencing disruption into threats.

The old suicide black lists would do this with cards like Unmask or Duress into Phyrexian Negator, and vintage workshop decks do something similar with Sphere effects into threats. Modern jund has turn one Thoughtseize into Tarmogoyf. In rats, you can curve out disruption into a three drop threat, which gives the deck a feeling of being oddly aggressive at times, despite having so many attrition and control tools.

Rats provides some interesting commentary on one way discard can be incorporated into cube as cheap disruption for aggro decks. This sort of sequencing swap also provides a form of alternative “early drops” for aggro, relieving the pressure to water down a list with Savannah Lion clones, and provide an interesting way to blend turn one and turn two aggro concepts, within the limited space of a cube. I also feel it helps give context to the role of how cards like Thalia should function as disruptive pieces. It would seem there is a lot of creative space for cube designers to approach and solve these problems.

To reiterate, some of the knobs and levers that a cube designer has to work with are:

  1. Basic aggro structure: turn one vs. turn two.
  2. Reactive vs. proactive disruption strategies
  3. Different ways to recoup lost time.
  4. Tools that fill a dual role of control or disruption, while simultaneously feeding an aggressive plan.
  5. Different forms of evasion.

December 5th 8-man Cube Draft

by: Jason Waddell

Last month riptidelab.com purchased its first MTGO cube(s), and while as a community we are still in our infancy in terms of online drafting organization and video content production, things are moving in a positive direction. Community members are firing Grid Drafts a couple times a week, and we’ve organized several 8-man drafts over the course of the last month or so.

My streaming skills are still developing, and this weekend’s drafts were not without its headaches: my internet crashed, computer was straining under the stress of running Skype, MTGO and stream software concurrently, and my draft was a bit of a disaster. Well, a salvageable disaster.

If you want to watch the actual draft portion, replays are available here (part one) and here (part two). The audio levels are a mess (Skype callers are barely audible… my bad), but if you’re so inclined.

UWrgControl_3-0
(click to enlarge)

What generally turned out better were the matches. Match 1 is still a mess (stream crashed and missed part of Game 1), but Matches 2 and 3 are pretty watchable. Here’s a playlist (below). I’ve started it on Match 2, but feel free to click through and watch the first match (at the end of the playlist).

As mentioned, we’re still new to this, so if you have any comments or suggestions for how to improve the quality of the stream, YouTube channel or commentary, please let us know in the forums.

(Note: a forum member had created a RiptideLab YouTube account for us, but I had to create a new one so that I could complete the verification process and upload videos that were longer than 15 minutes. If you subscribed to the old YouTube channel, please subscribe to this new one)