Another PPTQ season is upon and this time round the format is Modern. As ever, I’m writing up the PPTQs I play in as I try to qualify for the Pro Tour. In this article, I’ll take you through some of the theoretical and practical steps for preparation and how I fared in the event.
Stage one: understanding the current state of Modern (theory)
The current Modern format is pretty diverse, so it’s pretty important to have a good read on the metagame take if you want to narrow down your deck choice and also understand what decks others are likely to be fielding in a tournament.
Below is a brief overview of how I perceive the current modern metagame from which I’ll move onto how I’ve used this knowledge to tailor my preparation for events of this format. I have provided a link to an example decklist from MTG Top 8 for each. This is purely to exemplify what I’m thinking are the consensus most-popular choices worldwide and most likely opponents at a Modern Grand Prix. For brevity, I have not provided much in the way of explanatory notes as to why specifically I think a given deck is individually better than another one, but reasons for my perceptions will hopefully become clearer as I narrate my preparation, so bear with me on this one.
I view the following three decks as the current ‘go-to’ strategies for Modern at the moment – each of these three strategies provide the best blend of power-level and/or consistency. This makes them the most popular decks, and consequently the three decks you are most likely to face in an event.
Then there are a few decks that sit just below these decks. I think solely on the basis of power level or consistency they are worse choices than any of the above three, but they have a favourable or even matchups against one or more of the above decks, which explains them being in the next bracket in terms of popularity. Sometimes you can find success by playing, not ‘the best deck’, but ‘the deck that beats the best deck’.
Below these I would place a couple of decks as they also present viable strategies with reasonable power or consistency, but I think that they have too many weak matchups within the six listed above which I estimate to form the basis of the current metagame:
Some other decks that I think also present viable angles of attack, but are either much less consistent or have too many poor matchups against some of the more popular decks listed above:
And I’m pretty sure you can think of other decks that have had some success in Modern here and there! To an extent, the flip-side of a highly diverse format is that you can be successful with almost anything if you know your deck well, how it lines up with the remaining decks and play it very well. This means that decks which I haven’t even mentioned yet can still win an event as large as a Grand Prix if they dodge their bad matchups (or get a bit lucky if they have to face them) and are played tightly with well-constructed sideboards to back them up.
One clear practical step I’ve taken is to join (worldwide) groups on Facebook that are purely dedicated to discussions on a specific deck. Not all the content that is posted on it will be useful all of the time, but in my book it’s ‘free intelligence’ to help you understand things about the different decks as people are constantly posting lists, discussions or findings from testing/tournaments. For example, if I want to play Affinity in a tournament, but have never played against Eldrazi Tron, I can look at content or post a question in the group.
Stage two: Watching the decks in action (the bridge)
I’ve nicknamed this section ‘the bridge’ because it merges both theory and practice and it’s mainly a concession to the following related points:
- You can be theoretically correct with your understanding of decks and cards, but if you aren’t good enough at applying the theory, then you’ll still likely not get those wins.
- If your theory is wrong, you spend too much time practicing the wrong thing.
- You often don’t have enough time to do both thoroughly (I certainly don’t).
I watch a lot of coverage and streaming to help me understand how effective (or ineffective) theoretical choices are when applied. This is mainly because I don’t play Magic Online so most of my practical testing has to be done in person, and there is very limited time for this. Before you suggest that I just suck it up and play Magic Online, I’m going to share that there are benefits to watching the coverage or other players play the game that you can’t obtain from being in the hot-seat itself, so please stay with me on this one. Let’s look at the following examples:
- The person playing isn’t you – this means that they will sometimes think of things that you don’t (and vice versa). This provides a learning opportunity. In the case where they ‘don’t find the line of play that you were thinking of’ or choose to use a card you don’t like, you can still understand whether you might have been wrong and the line of play or care they used was still reasonable, or how much they got punished for it – (so much they lost the game, or was it just marginal?).
- You can often pause, or replay matches, or flick between and compare – you have more information at your disposal because realistically, you can only play one match at a time but you can watch more than one at a time. You likely won’t have time to test all matchups pre and post sideboard, but by watching relevant coverage/streamers you can zone in on the most relevant parts of the recording and learn from them. This is potentially much more efficient than finding it out while playing (provided you learn from it).
- In the case of streamers on Twitch, you can ask the streamer questions via chat. Sometimes the person streaming is a seasoned pro or a member of the Magic Hall of Fame. So if you don’t understand why they made a certain play or sideboarded a certain card, you can potentially find out by asking.
I mainly watched recent Modern event coverage from the SCG or Grand Prix circuits. I followed the streamer Joarthus. Joarthus is Wes Kalbus, a Californian-based player who has been playing just short of a decade. As he is not a known professional Magic player, you likely have not heard of him. Why did I start watching his stream? Wes tries out a variety of ideas (some good, some not so good) explains his lines of play (or possible lines of play) on the stream very well and is very proactive in answering questions from chat. This allows viewers to benefit from the above three main points which is something I have found very valuable and this is why I have chosen to follow his stream over a lot of other streamers. I have watched him stream mostly Modern and he has played UW control, RG Valakut, Mono-white Death and Taxes and Affinity through countless MTGO leagues. This has allowed me to watch how all these decks play against a variety of decks. If you are an aspiring competitive player, I would strongly recommend checking out his stream! https://www.twitch.tv/joarthus
Stage 3 – Playing some games (practice)
Being based in Leeds means I have a few friends who are also interested in being as prepared as possible for Magic events, or at least arranging some practice sessions to get a feel for decks and learn how to sideboard in different matchups. While I mentioned the above benefits to watching others play, you still absolutely have to play out the games, see for yourself and develop your own conclusions. Someone else in a Grand Prix feature match or on stream might be able to sequence their cards to get out of a tough spot and win, but can you?!
Some friends and I have set up a Facebook chat and group to discuss ideas, post decks/ideas and testing results as well as arrange testing sessions in person. This at least gives us a line of communication and a record of findings which can help inform the time we actually spend together testing ideas out more efficient.
I try to come to testing sessions with specific and clear goals. For example, ‘in the next session, I want to play a lot of games versus deck X so I can decide whether cards A B C (which I’ve put in my deck because of deck X) are actually effective or not!’ I resent just showing up ‘jamming games’ where nothing is learnt and the only thing to take away is a confidence boost/dent based on which deck won the most matches in that session. The topic of how to get more out of ‘playtesting’ is a very big one, enough for a separate article, so I’ll park it here for now as this the main point I’m trying to make is to ensure that you actually get some practice in with all the theory you’ve been mining beforehand (via Stages 1 and 2).
Deck choice for the event
So what did I play in the end? To the surprise of quite a few, I ended up running RG Valakut for this event! The main reason for my choice is because I think the deck is favourable against creature decks and control decks. If my years of playing Modern in stores around me has taught me anything, it’s that the metagame at smaller local events is not reflective of the metagame for Grand Prix events, the Star City Games circuit, or what is consistently going 5-0 in MTGO league decks. They tend to have a much higher proportion of random/pet decks many of which are either creature based or control decks. Admittedly I’ve found that many people also bring Burn to local PPTQs (which I think is definitely bad for RG Valakut in game 1, but I hoped to shore that up with a good sideboard plan (see below)). My secondary reason for playing it is that I am considering running it for the upcoming GP in Birmingham so I thought the build I am trying could do with some test runs. Lastly, between the big three, I think Valakut has decent game vs Death’s Shadow and Eldrazi Tron – not so much against Affinity, but again I’ve come with a strong sideboard for that matchup. Here is the list I ran:
Some notes on card’s I’m playing
- Prismatic Omen: This card allows the deck to be even more busted than it normally is. While it’s bad in multiples or if you desperately need lands, it allows you to create wins out of nowhere or increase the clock when you don’t draw or resolve your payoff cards.
- Hour of Promise: I wanted to try out this card from the new set as redundancy in terms of ‘payoff’ cards. In addition, it helps make sure you can get Valakut into play without Titan or Scapeshift. It has good synergy with Prismatic Omen as, if you have that out and fetch 2 Valakuts with Hour, your Valakuts are also Mountains and will probably trigger four or more times for at least 12 damage!
- Wood Elves: A ramp spell that blocks, which is becoming more important with the existence of Death’s Shadow. It’s also fetchable with Summoner’s Pact if you’re in a tight spot and sometimes you can chain ramp spells with this as the land you fetch can come in untapped.
- Sweltering Suns: Many people asked me why I’m not running Anger of the Gods as exiling is ‘strictly better’ against cards like Kitchen Finks or Prized Amalgam. While I agree with that specifically, I hate drawing a sweeper when it is not relevant, so being able to cycle it makes it a redraw in those cases. In the case of Kitchen Finks and Prized Amalgam, I’m happy enough with Sweltering Suns slowing them down enough to buy me a turn more to combo off so I’m not as concerned about not being able to exile.
- Relic of Progenitus: The idea is to slow down the Shadow decks, mitigate against Tarmogoyf and Snapcaster Mage while also protecting against Surgical Extraction on Valakut. At worst it is a redraw and also is useful if you draw it early against Dredge or Living End. I’m not completely sold on this, but I’ll admit it frees up sideboard space!
Some notes on cards I’m not playing
- Lightning Bolt: I’m not running this card! I decided to focus on a build that implements its plan A as quickly as possible (i.e. ‘Goldfishes’ better). You often don’t have spare mana to use Lightning Bolt while doing this anyway, the only role I felt Bolt really fulfils is offing a turn one Steel Overseer or Goblin Guide, and in those matchups, that won’t necessarily make the difference. In addition, some players will play round it anyway.
- Chandra Torch of Defiance: I’m not running this card either! Chandra’s abilities are all potentially useful to this deck, but I’d rather be casting either 2 ramp spells, a ramp spell and a Prismatic Omen, or even Hour of Promise on turns 3-4 if I can. After sideboarding, I’m more likely to need to drop an Obstinate Baloth against Burn, Engineered Explosives or a 3 damage sweeper against ‘go wide’ decks so I didn’t see myself likely to find a good opportunity to play this card unless the game gets drawn out and I have stone nothing.
- Chalice of the Void: I want to try this card to have more game against Burn, Ad Nauseum and Storm, but in the end I decided that it was too much of a commitment out of the sideboard and that if the Burn matchup can be addressed through the lifegain creatures, it might just be better to hope to dodge Storm and Ad Nauseum as those decks aren’t popular at the moment. I’ll probably test it out on another occasion.
The event itself
I travelled to the event with Gareth Woodhead (Gaz) who was running either Kik-chord or UW control. Gaz loves playing random spicy one-off cards in his lists so his deck was likely going to be more interesting than mine. There were a whopping 62 players in attendance, which is just short of 7 rounds of swiss play! Here’s how things went (games in a match are numbered):
Round 1 vs UW midrange
- My opponent fetches a Hallowed Fountain and plays Peek, writes down my hand and then does nothing for the rest of the game except conceding in a couple of turns. I’m not sure what he’s playing but I hedge against Leyline of Sanctity and remove one Sweltering Suns and add a Reclamation Sage.
- My opponent lands a Blade Splicer and reveals his midrange creature strategy. He even puts a Sword of Feast and Famine on it and goes to town on me. He ‘Vendilion Clique’s me in my draw step and pauses at the sight of a Primeval Titan and Summoner’s Pact. The pause makes me think he probably doesn’t have a counterspell to stop either the Titan or the Pact that will fetch the Titan – the latter of which I do and annihilate his board with multiple Valakut triggers and win the game from there.
Round 2 vs UWR control
- I have to mulligan to 5 and keep 3 lands, Prismatic Omen and Hour of Promise which is probably better than going to 4. I’m pretty happy my opponent is playing UWR as I think it’s a good matchup (as long as you don’t get Scapeshift ‘Spell Quellered’!) In the mid-game, my opponent starts firing off multiple Lightning Bolts at me at an attempt to pressure me. I interpret this as a sign of weakness and cast the Hour of Promise with Omen and one Valakut already on the Battlefield. It resolves, I fetch up 2 Valakuts, and because they are each Mountains that see 5 or more Mountains when they enter, I get 3 triggers for 3 damage off each of them and send 18 points of damage at my opponent.
- I don’t have to mulligan to 5, but I don’t draw particularly well at the start of the game. Luckily, Sakura-tribe elder is there to beat down. It does about 6 damage before my opponent bites the bullet and casts Path to Exile on it. I cast Scapeshift into Remand but luckily 8 mana means I can simply replay it in the same turn for the win!
Round 3 vs UW Control
- I open fairly optimally except I only have one payoff card (Summoner’s Pact). I resolve Prismatic Omen and beat down with Sakura Tribe Elder. I clock my opponent with Valakut and my opponent is forced to tap some mana for a Planeswalker as he can’t just play lands and keep enough mana up for two counterspells forever given my land drops are going to kill him. By this point, I’ve drawn an Hour of Promise as well as the Pact and my opponent scoops fairly quickly
- I again go beatdown with Sakura-tribe Elder, but my opponent prevents its beatdown damage with Gideon of the Trials and plays Geist of Saint Traft. I resolve a Thragtusk to block. My opponent then attempts to destroy Valakut with Ghost Quarter so I use the Elder and a fetchland to kill Gideon in response. Valakuts are then removed by Surgical Extraction. Luckily Tireless Tracker is there to pick up the slack. He meets a Detention Sphere a couple of turns later. I relentlessly crack clues looking for more pressure. I add a second Tracker to the board and even Jace, Architect of Thought isn’t enough to stem the bleeding and catch up to the card advantage provided by Tireless Tracker.
Round 4 vs Abzan Death’s Shadow.
- I open by suspending Search for Tomorrow, much to the dismay of my opponent who’s first play is a turn two Grim Flayer. I take a hit from it while I do some more ramping. My opponent then adds Liliana of the Veil to the board but it’s not enough for my turn four Scapeshift.
- My opponent plays Thoughtseize and takes Search for Tomorrow and then cycles Street Wraith and adds a Tarmogoyf. I ramp up to three lands but my opponent adds two Death’s Shadows to the board. They are only 4/4’s at this point, but probably lethal next turn. My only option is to use Summoner’s Pact to search for Chameleon Colossus, but my opponent has the Path to Exile and is able to grow his Death’s Shadows large enough to be lethal the following turn.
- My hand is a bit Land-light but has the tools to slow my opponent down. I remove an early Tarmogoyf with Engineered Explosives and I’m able to then use Hour of Promise to take out a small Scavenging Ooze. My opponent has very little disruption and I’m then able to curve into a Primeval Titan using Summoner’s Pact, remember to pay the Pact the following turn and the Titan does its job without even doing any combat damage.
I intentionally draw rounds five and six. My opponent in the sixth round is not guaranteed to get into the Top 8 and has to rely on tie breakers going his way (they likely will, but you never know) so I was expecting to have to play out the last round.
Quarterfinal – vs Abzan Counters Company
- My opponent is on the play and combos out on turn 3 with Devoted Druid, Vizier of Remedies and Duskwatch Recruiter. Nothing to see here!
- My opponent plays a couple of mana creatures but I have Sweltering Suns to wipe them out and then proceed to drop a Titan a couple of turns later.
- My opponent misses his second land drop but plays a Vizier of Remedies using Noble Hierarch. It does mean he’s not likely to combo on turn three so that gives me hope. After he misses another land drop, I decide it’s best to slow him down by destroying the Hierarch with Engineered Explosives rather than ramping further. He would have played Devoted Druid if he had it instead of the Vizier and he can’t topdeck a land and play Druid next turn so I feel quite safe in doing this. He does hit the land and plays a Duskwatch Recruiter. I continue to ramp, knowing he can’t combo next turn either. He doesn’t add much the board and the Titan comes down, wiping his small creatures out and taking the game a turn or so later.
Semifinal – vs Jund
- This is very similar to my match in round four of the swiss. My opponent plays Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf, I ramp into Scapeshift. This is a classic example of why I want to play this deck.
- My opponent comes out of the gates with turn one discard, turn two Tarmogoyf, turn three discard and Tarmogoyf. I think I lose this one for myself. I try too hard to try to get my Valakut online by only fetching mountains with Sakura-tribe Elder and Search for Tomorrow, only to be unable to cast the Baloth in my hand. I feel safe at 14 life facing down two 3 power Tarmogoyfs and a Dark Confidant. Unfortunately for me, my opponent uses Kolaghan’s Command to burn me and discard a Planeswalker to grow his Tarmogoyfs to 5/6 and kill me before I can untap.
- Again very similar to the first Game. I have a very good draw which, even though disrupted a smidge, can’t withstand the raw power of a resolved Primeval Titan on turn four.
Final – vs RG Valakut
All I know about this matchup so far is that the person on the play is favoured – mostly because they are far more likely to be able to get Primeval Titan online or cast a lethal Scapeshift first. Luckily, I think my build has a slight edge in the mirror as I have Prismatic Omen and at least four more ramp spells than my opponent – so I’m a bit more consistent at “Goldfishing” (I’m playing against my friend Matt ‘Mythic’ Duggan, so I know his list roughly).
- My opponent plays a land and I open with Search for Tomorrow. I then cast a ramp spell on turn 2. He casts a Chandra on turn three and I ramp up to 6 lands on turn three with Search for tomorrow resolving and another ramp spell. My opponent doesn’t have a ramp spell but uses Chandra to generate mana and cast Titan. I use Summoner’s pact to fetch a Wood Elves and then cast Scapeshift for lethal and take the first game.
- After we both Mulligan, my opponent starts off a bit faster and has Tracker on turn three and Chandra on turn four. Meanwhile, I ramp into Baloth to brickwall the Tracker and try to stay above 18. My opponent kills Baloth with Chandra, beats down with Tracker and adds Titan. I retaliate by playing Prismatic Omen and Hour of Promise, fetching two Valakuts for four triggers. I kill Titan, Tracker and Chandra. It looks like I’ve made a good move completely wiping out my opponent’s board, but unfortunately my opponent draws Scapeshift and the Tracker has already knocked me down below the magic 18 so it’s definitely lethal.
- My opponent mulligans to five with me on the play. I play three ramp spells and a Scapeshift on turn four (plus another ramp spell) to ensure I deal more than 18 damage on turn 4.
Ramp mirrors are rarely interesting I’m afraid. I was quite fortunate to be able to break serve in game one, but as I mentioned, being the player with both Prismatic Omen and more ramp spells likely played a part in this victory.
Post event thoughts
I’m really happy going in the direction of this being a combo deck, rather than a pseudo-interactive deck which has a combo. Most interactive cards that are in the maindeck aren’t enough in some of the tougher matchups so I’ve decided it’s better to just ensure the deck plays to its strengths as much as possible and has a strong sideboard plan for its tougher matchups – I didn’t really get to test this out much because I didn’t play against Burn or Affinity, but that potentially means I read the metagame well for this tournament.
In terms of changes, I’m not likely to change much in the maindeck as I like the way the current setup. I will be paying a lot of attention to my sideboard and try and work out what slots I definitely want going forward, this is because I feel I’m leaning on it quite heavily for some of the weaker matchups I expect to face. I can see potentially dropping Thragtusk and the second Tireless Tracker if I expect less people trying to destroy and use Surgical Extraction on Valakut in games two and three. I’ve completely written off being able to beat Storm and Ad-Nauseum, but maybe this is incorrect, in which case I’d want to squeeze some Chalice of the Void in the sideboard.
It’s good to get qualified for the RPTQ early but it does mean no more PPTQ articles for this season. I’m going to GP Birmingham, likely playing Titanshift, but there’s a small chance that I ‘wimp out’ slightly in spite of the result and default back to UW control, we shall see. I’ll let you know how it goes.
I’ll close this article with a quick, practical tip about playing against Titanshift. You should never scoop to your opponent resolving Scapeshift without making the opponent fetch their lands. A couple of my opponents did this in the event, and although I would have always been able to fetch enough Mountains to kill my opponents, the first time I played against this deck, I waited for my opponent to fetch the lands and they ended up doing it incorrectly (or didn’t have enough mountains left in the deck) and I took 0 damage instead of lethal. For the sake of ten seconds, just make sure (or call their bluff)!