Last weekend I ventured to Spain to compete in the Grand Prix at Magic Fest Barcelona. The format for this event was Modern, a format I have indulged in recently through the European Modern Series. Since I last played Modern, Bridge from Below has been banned, so running back the same 75 simply wasn’t possible. Modern is sometimes described as the ‘The Wild West’ of Magic formats – not only are the deck possibilities very wide-ranging, but there is has also been plenty of evidence over the years that any deck can potentially succeed! This can prompt an ‘agony of choice’ where deck selection is concerned. Additionally, Modern is often described as ‘high-variance,’ and there are some quite polarising perceptions of it as a competitive format ranging from it being rewarding of skill and practice to it being a format that depends heavily on opening hands and draws over the first few turns. I believe there are elements of both, but also it can be important to acknowledge that sometimes it’s hard to honestly tell whether skill or variance contributed most to an event result. In this article, I’ll consider both these characteristics of the format by discussing how I decided my deck choice for the tournament and by examining the elements of variance I noticed during my play.
Choosing a deck
For an event as large and unpredictable as a Modern Grand Prix, I wanted to play a deck with as many of the following characteristics as possible:
- Well-positioned against other decks that will be popular
- Something I am confident I can pilot proficiently
- Something I am confident I will enjoy playing
Let’s look at these three characteristics in turn to explain my logic behind my eventual choice.
What did I expect to be popular?
Based on a mixture of things, such as MTGO data, information from decklist sites such as MTG Top 8 or MTG Goldfish, and what professional players were streaming or talking about in the lead up to Mythic Championship IV (which was also taking place at Barcelona), I decided to make a shortlist of decks I thought would be popular at the event – these are not in any particular order:
- Eldrazi Tron
- Izzet Phoenix
- Azorius Control
- Mono Green Tron
- Grixis Urza
There are many other archetypes waiting in the wings that are strong decks, for example Burn, Dredge, Vizier/Druid Combo, Amulet Titan – I just expected them to be a little less popular. The theory is very crude here but, simply put, if I can correctly estimate what decks I expect to be the most popular, I can predict what I’m most likely to play against. This provides a good starting point for choosing and then tweaking a deck. I’ve deliberately used the phrase ‘starting point’ as I believe there are diminishing returns on trying to analyse the Modern metagame too comprehensively.
What can I confidently pilot?
I considered the following decks that I’ve played before to a level of proficiency I’d be comfortable taking to a Grand Prix event – again in no particular order:
- Mono Green Tron
- Gruul Scapeshift
- Azorius Control
Each has their relative strengths and weaknesses, but this decision was more about how confident I felt playing each deck in the event. This self-reflective process eliminated some choices for me:
- Tron: Despite the London Mulligan, I still didn’t feel as confident playing this deck as I first thought I would. Actually playing the deck allowed me to understand how difficult a lot of matchups can be without turn three Tron and I didn’t want my draws and mulligans to dominate my tournament and I estimated the Hogaak matchup to be very poor.
- Scapeshift: In a similar vein to Tron, this deck relies a lot on being able to use turns 1-3 to set up, with the earliest critical play being on turn four (unless I play Through the Breach). Despite a reasonable metagame position against some of the most popular decks (Eldrazi Tron, Humans, Jund), it also has some very bad matchups again against some of the more popular decks (Hogaak, Phoenix) and isn’t great against a lot of the more fringe decks (Burn, Infect, Storm, Ad Nauseum).
- Hogaak: It may have been a cowardly mistake not to play this deck, but I effectively gave my opponents the credit I felt they were due in the sense that I expected them to pack the appropriate amount of hate for this deck. To me, it was obvious that it was going be popular at the Mythic Championship, and I was not surprised at the metagame numbers for day 1 of the event. Consequently, I decided that people would be too prepared to face this deck and opted out.
- Azorius Control: With its suite of Planeswalkers and the printing of cards like Force of Negation, this deck is actually very difficult to hate out and probably the strongest it’s ever been in terms of its cards (not its metagame position).
- Humans: This deck didn’t get much of a boost from recent sets in the same way as other decks did. More alarmingly, the card Plague Engineer looks very strong against the deck. However, the deck keeps putting up results amidst other overpowered chaos, which is perhaps testament to its intrinsic power in spite of these factors. I felt a lot more confident playing either humans of Azorius control.
What will I enjoy playing most?
By this point, if you know me well, it’s a foregone conclusion. In competitive tournaments I much prefer attacking with Champion of the Parish than countering spells and drawing cards with Cryptic Command. My deck choice being decided by how much fun I’ll have may seem ‘weak’ to more competitively-minded players, however, my conscience is very clear and I think I applied reasonable logic using the first two steps and used a deck’s ‘fun factor’ as more of a ‘tie-breaker,’ so I don’t think I’m doing myself a disservice here and ignoring the metagame. When people ask me for advice on what deck to play for an event, but aren’t able to articulate what decks they think will be popular and what they can play well (i.e. the previous two steps), I usually recommend whatever deck they think they will have fun with playing in the tournament – afterall, we are here to have fun!
Humans lists are pretty stock but there are a couple of flex slots and different ways to build the sideboard. This is what I focussed on mostly, helped by a former Spanish GP winner (Madrid 2018) Christoph Green (@ChristophTG). While I had been spending my recent Modern-playing days casting 8/8 tramplers for 0 mana and counting 1, 2, 7 with Urza lands, Christoph has had some recent success at an MCQ and the MTGO Modern challenge with Humans. With his help, I ended up submitting the following decklist:
Some notes on card choices
Great in attrition matchups and has great synergy with Phantasmal Image. It’s common for these to use up one or two of the last couple of flex slots. I personally expected to face more decks where attrition didn’t matter as much, and Bugler would be ‘too slow’ to make an impact. Having said this, my final sideboard composition resulted in me having very few sideboard slots for matches where I’d need every bit of assistance I could get against removal spells (i.e. Jund), so I ran two in the sideboard.
One of the more recent and more useful tools Humans has received, Deputy of Detention provides the deck with maindeck answers to problematic cards like Ensnaring Bridge and removal that is effective against recursive threats like Bloodghast, Gravecrawler, and Arclight Phoenix. Its flexibility swayed me to play two in the maindeck instead of Militia Bugler or a split between the two. To me, its strengths outweigh the downside of it not being a Human for Champion of the Parish/Thalia’s Lieutenant triggers and also being a bit harder to cast without Ancient Ziggurat. I did actually have to name ‘Wizard’ with tribal lands a couple of times during the event.
I decided to cut the Auriok Champion in order to run three copies of this card. I decided that the Champion made a huge impact against Burn and Mono-red Phoenix, but not so much vs. Hogaak, Phoenix, or Jund. While Phoenix decks might have a hard time destroying the Auriok, it can be returned to our hand with Thing in the Ice, and Phoenixes will just fly over it. The other decks kill mainly with their green threats and Auriok doesn’t block these very well at all. It also dies to Plague Engineer. Chalice just seemed like a better all-round choice to combat Phoenix and Hogaak, but also has some application against Tron, Burn, and Infect.
I played only one copy as I didn’t expect to face any Affinity or Hardened Scales, so it was mainly for the Tron matchup. I think I underestimated how useful it would be against those decks, so perhaps this was a mistake and I should have played two copies.
I played only one copy as it only stops a subset of the cards in Tron decks and Azorius Control has become less reliant on 4-drops than it once was. Previously, Meddling Mage naming Path to Exile and a Gaddock Teeg was a bit of a ‘soft lock’ on the deck, but now with Oust, Teferi Time Raveler, and Winds of Abandon, the deck has a lot more ways to break free.
At the time, I felt I wanted another card for the Hogaak matchup!
Positive tournament variance
For success in any tournament, especially one that lasts about fifteen rounds, I’m hyper-aware that there are a number of things outside of my own control that will pave a smooth or rocky route to success. In this section, I’ll summarise them.
Things I want to happen
- Winning the die roll: It is pretty much always advantageous to play first, and if the match goes to three games, getting to go first in two out of those three games will give us a head-start.
- Avoiding the need to mulligan: Literally starting with fewer resources than we could have if our first hand had been good enough is disadvantageous. However, this doesn’t mean we’re out to keep every seven we think we can get away with. The London Mulligan admittedly helps mitigate the damage mulligans can do to our tournament but being graced with strong opening sevens is what we’re after.
- Nut-draw: This is similar to having a strong opening hand, but goes a little further. If the first four or five cards we draw complement our opening hand and propel our gameplan into overdrive or simply line up well with what the opponent happens to be doing, the game will become a lot easier to win regardless of whether the opponent is playing their first Magic event or is in the Magic Pro League. A deck’s ability to consistently nut-draw due to the kinds of cards it plays and the speed at which is plays them often makes it a popular choice in competitive play.
- Avoiding (mana) screw or flood: While a nut-draw implies that we’ve already done this, in games where we don’t quite nut-draw our opponent, we want to be drawing the right mixture of lands and spells. This helps us play the game ‘unimpeded’ instead of having to make forced choices due to resource constraints.
- Playing against favourable matchups: We can’t control which opponents we will play during the event as pairings are randomised, but this is where ‘choosing the right deck’ can pay off. It’s not quite the same as rock-paper-scissors, but the principle of being advantaged going into every battle still applies.
Once destiny has determined the above factors, we then arrive at the point where we have to make good decisions mulliganning, in our gameplay, and in sideboarding between games. Imagine a scenario with two players of equal skill-level playing the same deck in a tournament. I believe the one that picks up more positive variance in the form of the above factors is much more likely to win the event; sometimes even a less-skilled player with more positive variance can outshine gifted and skilled players who have to mulligan a bit more or encounter a bit of manascrew along the way.
I travelled to the event with a group of players from Leeds: Rob Catton, Matthew Duggan, Alfie Bennett, and Andrew Devine. Lawrence Arnelll, Alex Gershaw, and Katie Devine were also part of the trip but didn’t play in the main event.
Let’s now look at my tournament rounds in light of the factors related to variance in the previous section. I had two Byes.
R3 – vs Eldrazi Tron 1-2 LOSS (2-1)
- I won the die roll. I mulligan (mull) to 6 in game three. I didn’t nut-draw my opponent. I avoided screw/flood. The matchup is even.
R4 – vs Dredge 2-0 WIN (3-1)
- I won the die roll. I didn’t have to mull (my opponent mulled a lot). I didn’t nut-draw my opponent. I avoided screw/flood. The matchup is not favourable.
R5 – vs UW Control – 1-2 LOSS (3-2)
- I won the die roll. I mulled to 5 in game one. I nut drew my opponent in game two. I flooded a bit in game three. The matchup is even.
R6 – vs Tron 2-0 WIN (4-2)
- I lost the die roll. I mulled to 6 in game one (my opponent mulled a lot). I nut-drew my opponent in game two. I avoided screw/flood (my opponent didn’t). The matchup is not favourable.
R7 vs Eldrazi Tron 2-0 WIN (5-2)
- I won the die roll. I didn’t have to mull. My opponent drew badly in both games. I avoided screw/flood. The matchup is even.
R8 vs Humans 2-0 WIN (6-2)
- I won the die roll. I mulled to six in game two. I didn’t nut-draw my opponent but I had a lucky topdeck in game one. I avoided screw/flood The matchups even.
I was very pleased to make day two, but I’m very aware that I needed a decent brush of positive variance to get there! I don’t believe I played any favourable matchups and in the two matchups where I felt unfavoured, my opponents experienced a dose of negative variance! I’m generally happy with the way I played but I think I could have played better vs Azorius Control. In game three I should have added a mana with a Horizon Canopy in response to its destruction with Field of Ruin. This would have put life totals at parity and made my opponent’s Timely Reinforcements worse (they would have had to use a fetchland or play it a turn later in order to gain life).
R9 vs Eldrazi Tron 0-2 LOSS (6-3)
- I didn’t win the die roll. I didn’t have to mull. I didn’t nut draw my opponent. I avoided screw/flood. The matchup is even.
R10 vs Hogaak 1-2 LOSS (6-4)
- I didn’t win the die roll. I mulled to six in game two. I nut-drew my opponent in game one. I got a bit mana-screwed in game three. The matchup is even
R11 vs Jund 1-2 LOSS (6-5)
- I won the die roll. I didn’t have to mull. I didn’t nut-draw my opponent, but I had a lucky topdeck in game one. I avoided screw/flood. The matchup is not favourable
R12 vs Phoenix 2-0 WIN (7-5)
- I won the die roll. I mulled to six in game one. I nut-drew my opponent in game one. I avoided screw/flood. The matchup is even.
R13 vs Mono Green Tron 2-1 WIN (8-5)
- I lost the die roll. I mulled to six in game two. I nut-drew my opponent in game two. I avoided screw/flood. The matchup is not favourable.
R14 vs Burn – 2-1 WIN (9-5)
- I lost the die roll. I didn’t have to mull. I didn’t nut-draw my opponent. I avoided screw/flood. The matchup is favourable.
R15 vs Mono Red Prison – 2-0 WIN (10-5)
- I lost the die roll. I mulled to six in game two. I nut-drew my opponent in game one. I avoided screw/flood. The matchup is not favourable.
Day two didn’t start off very well with me losing three in a row, mostly due to some clutch turn three plays such as a 4/4 Walking Ballista and Plague Engineer being incredible against my deck. However, I was pleased that I managed to bounce back and I’m overall happy with the way I played. Whereas, on day one I felt like the winds were in my favour more generally, on day two, I felt I had to make my own luck a bit more. The last three rounds were particularly tense and close matches decided more by in-game decisions than variance for sure!
I knew my tiebreakers were going to be too poor for cash, and I ended up placing 154th. In the old days this would have been worth a single Pro Point.
Is positive variance more important than skill?
Positive variance might sometimes be the biggest factor contributing to success in a single tournament, but it will always need to be backed up with an amount of skill – and anyone wanting continual success in Magic tournaments can’t rely on variance to carry them through each event if skills are not used.
Having said this, I think it’s important that, when analysing any match or tournament result, you keep positive and negative variance in mind. Doing so has helped me take a holistic view of analysing my own results and learning from my mistakes. The trick is not to just blame variance or blame poor play whenever it suits to explain losses, but instead consider them together and be more honestly conclusive in understanding why the result of a match ended up a certain way. For example, there were a lot of players in that tournament who are stronger Magic players than me but didn’t make day two of the Grand Prix because they had to mulligan more or hit unfavourable matchups more often etc.
If I’m 100% honest, getting a respectable record of 10-5 in the event was only the icing on the cake of what ended up being a really positive holiday, and I owe that largely to the company of my travelling companions Rob, Matt, Alfie, Andrew, Lawrence, Alex, and Katie. Spending time with friends is a big contributing factor as to why I continue to play the game. It was really fun to explore the traders and play some Commander when not competing, as well as try out the city’s local eateries and hit the beach once we had left the venue.
This month I have more Modern events lined up in the form of some Mythic Championship Qualifiers and GP Birmingham. I’m not sure if I’m going to keep my faith in humanity or not, those Eldrazi look very tempting! I’m also still playing Commander regularly so I might drop in a few words and some decklists during August.
You can find me on Facebook and Twitter @Chris54154, feel free to hit me up with any of your thoughts! In addition to some MCQs and Magic Fest Birmingham in August and you’ll find me at the UK’s European Modern Series Final in September.
As always, thanks for reading, good luck, and have fun in your next game!