Breakers Bad: 17th at PIQ Denver

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Greetings once again Nexites,  it's your editor here with another tale of missed glory tournament report. Sheridan will be back tomorrow with the monthy metagame breakdown. (and it will be polished to a mirror shrine, right Sheridan?!) Last time saw me missing at States by the skin of my teeth playing UW Fish. This time is more a case of tripping inches from the finish line.

Tragic Slip Art

I had planned on playing in the Standard Open on Saturday and only playing the Modern Premier IQ if I scrubbed out, but during the week leading up to the Open I had a problem. My Jeskai Tokens list was crushing its way through the red decks in our gauntlet, but could not beat Ugin, the Spirit Dragon or Duress and Transgress the Mind. This might have not been a problem since the Colorado metagame, especially at large tournaments, is always red heavy. But my very average performances in Standard tournaments during the week, and an Open Trial Friday night, convinced me to skip the Open and just play Modern. Given what I saw in the coverage, I think I made the right call.


Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Of course, watching the coverage proved to be a problem: I started thinking about my deck choice. One of the biggest mistakes you can ever make is question your deck selection the day before an event. You'll never be more practiced and ready than with the deck you intended to bring, no matter what tech you hear about the day before. Just don't do it. I know this and have suffered for audibling in the past. And yet there I was pouring over recent results between rounds, worrying about how well positioned I was and whether I should be playing my Mentor list or UW Titan, apparently forgetting that neither had the pedigree or proven record as my Fish list.

Thankfully, I had to leave my computer to do some actual work which broke the spell my anxiety had cast. To be doubly sure, I took apart and de-sleeved every Modern deck I had except Fish (to remove the temptation) and locked all my gear and deck in my car to await the following morning where I registered the following list:

Yes, it's the exact same list I played at States: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. No, I have not changed my opinion about Harbinger of the Tides. It also would have only been as good as Echoing Truth once, and much worse on several other occasions. This 75 has continued to serve me well and so until there is a massive shift towards aggro, tempo, or dedicated combo decks, this is likely the configuration I will keep using.

The Tournament

There are 142 players in the PIQ, meaning we're in for a bruising eight rounds. It's going to be a long day.

Round 1: Connor Kelley, Infect (Win 2-0)

Connor is a fairly young local player but is pretty good nonetheless. He's usually on weird combo decks but rarely the same one twice so I have no idea what to expect going into the round.

Game 1
I've started using Rock Lobster, Paper Tiger, and Scissors Lizard to determine play/draw and win, leading with an Aether Vial. Connor has a Breeding Pool and Serum Visions, which tells me precisely nothing about his deck. I charge my Vial and play Master of the Pearl Trident and pass.

Blighted AgentThen Connor drops Blighted Agent and I'm pretty sure I'm dead since I have no Paths or Truths in hand. I just Vial in Cursecatcher and pray. Draw step: still no removal. Attack for four, play Silvergill Adept to try and draw Path, draw another Adept instead, Vial in the Adept and draw a Lord. Guess I'm dead, pass the turn. Connor untaps, plays Pendelhaven, plays Groundswell with landfall and, to me, it looks like he suddenly realizes he has to Pendelhaven in response or not at all which he does. He then plays Distortion Strike and hits me for seven poison. I untap, Vial and play two lords, and kill him.

After the game he tells me that he thought that the Vines of Vastwood in his hand was another Groundswell so that he had lethal, which is why he paused after playing the first one. Too bad for him, but we've all made that mistake.

-2 Unified Will, -1 Aether Vial
+1 Hibernation, +1 Dispel, +1 Tectonic Edge

I often shave a Vial for sideboards cards and Wills are too slow. Hibernation is of limited value so I only bring in one.

Game 2
On the draw I keep one land, a Vial, a handful of creatures, and Spreading Seas. I probably lose to Nature's Claim but you really can't mulligan when you have plenty of blocks for Glistener Elf and Spreading Seas for Inkmoth Nexus. He has a turn one Glistener Elf. I don't draw land or a Path and play my Vial. He plays Inkmoth Nexus and Groundswell to hit me for five poison. I draw another lord. Whelp, I'm probably dead so I pass the turn.

Glistener ElfI get a reprieve when he just animates the Nexus and hits for two. I'm a lucky man! ...who fails to draw land or interaction again, even after Vialing in Silvergill Adept, so I just play the another Vial. Connor reveals why I'm not dead on his turn when he finds another land and plays Wild Defiance. He then makes a mistake by attacking with his Elf which I happily trade my Adept for. He explained afterward that he had no pump in hand besides more Wild Defiances and was hoping to buy himself time to draw some for his Inkmoth, but that leaves him fewer outs to just kill me if I continue to have mana trouble, especially with Defiance out. In any case I'm still dead unless I draw a land to Spread the Nexus, which I immediately do, charging my Vials to one and three. Connor just plays another Defiance and passes. I charge my Vials to two and four and play Lord of Atlantis. Connor draws and plays Blighted Agent but it's too late. I Vial in another lord and Master of Waves for six, then untap, play two more lords, and attack for 23.

I freely admit I got really lucky to win there: Infect is a really bad matchup and Connor drew poorly. This match took all of 10 minutes so I have plenty of time to scout the field. It's a healthy assortment of BGx, Tron, various blue decks, and Bloom. Also two Lantern players. Boo. Here's hoping I dodge.

Round 2: Michael Vellequette, Elf Aggro (Loss 0-2)

I've never seen Michael before and so have no idea what to expect. I certainly wasn't expecting what actually happened.

Game 1
Heritage Druid
I lose to Paper and we both mulligan. My mulligan has one land and five lords. I agonize over it but reason I have good enough odds between the scry and two draw steps to find a land, and if I do then the hand is very good. So I end up keeping. Then Michael leads with Forest and Elvish Mystic. This is bad: Elves is a horrible matchup because they're just too explosive for me to keep up. I whiff on my draw, play my land, and pass. He plays two more mana elves and passes, also on one land. I draw a Vial and play it, hoping I'm not just dead. He plays an Elvish Archdruid and Heritage Druid. I don't draw land again and concede.

That sucked.

-2 Unified Will
+2 Hibernation

Game 2
My opening hand is kind of slow, but it has Path and enough lands so I keep. He opens with Llanowar Elves and I respond with an Adept hoping to find Hibernation. I don't. He then plays Bramblewood Paragon. Yes, you read that right: Bramblewood Paragon. Collected Elves is bad, but Aggro Elves is even worse. He then has Nettle Sentinel which gets a Paragon counter. I weakly play a lord and pass. He plays his entire hand thanks to another Sentinel and Heritage Druid, including two lords of his own. I'm simply dead unless I draw Hibernation.

I don't.

Well, that really sucked. It's lucky for Elves that Splinter Twin keeps it down because Heritage Druid is a little broken. No I'm not bitter, why DO you ask? My swift defeat means I have plenty of time to get lunch and cool off before the next round.

Round 3: John Gaebler, BW Tokens (Win 2-0)

Another new face. This is what I want from big events: people I haven't played before. John's quite personable which makes the match more enjoyable and helps him deal with the crushing I deliver.

Game 1
We both mulligan and I keep a reasonable grip with Silvergill, Cursecatcher, and Vial. John starts very slow and it isn't until he plays a Raise the Alarm into a Vialed in Cursecatcher that I know he's on Tokens. I just play out some Silvergills and then sweep up an entire Lingering Souls with Echoing Truth before dropping two Master of Waves to crush him. BW Tokens is a good matchup for me since maindeck Truth is so powerful against them.

-2 Unified Will, -1 Aether Vial
+2 Rest in Peace, +1 Tectonic Edge

Will is unlikely to be good if he has a reasonable start while RiP is very good against flashback cards. The extra Edge is insurance against Vault of the Archangel.

Game 2
My hand is slow, but John's is slower. He gets off an Inquisition to take Echoing Truth but only has two lands both of which I Spread. It takes him too long to find a third for his hand full of Lingering Souls to save him from Master of Waves. I have Rest as well, just in case.

That was a convincing boost to my confidence. Time to press ahead!

Round 4: James Alcorn, Amulet Bloom (Win 2-1)

I swear I'd seen James before, but he gave no sign he knew me. In any case, I knew from playing near him previously that he was on Bloom.

Game 1
We both mulligan, and then James takes another one. I'm on the play and curve well from Vial into Adept and Cursecatcher, and again into Reejerey and Pearl Trident. James has a turn one Amulet but no Karoos, putting up no real resistance. This is typically what I see from Amulet: impressive explosive potential but frequently It Just Does Nothing.

Meddling MageSideboarding:
-4 Spreading Seas, -1 Aether Vial
+2 Tectonic Edge, +2 Meddling Mage, +1 Unified Will

Spreading Seas is a pretty minor speed bump usually and I'd rather have hard answers for his lands. Meddling Mage is amazing at shutting the deck down.

Game 2
We both take one mulligan and I keep a hand with Vial, Cursecatcher, and a Will leading into Master of Waves. We both start slow with me playing Vial but not having any two drops, just more Cursecatchers, while he uses Ancient Stirrings to find lands. On his turn three he goes for an Amulet and I Will it, Vialing in Cursecatcher. My reasoning is that I need to slow him down so that I can get some kind of offense together but he has a second Amulet to ruin my plan. It was a calculated risk at the time and wrong in retrospect. Not something I'd do again. My only beaters for many turns are three Cursecatchers so he had plenty of time to eventually find Titans and kill me.

Game 3
On the play I open two Tectonic Edge, Meddling Mage, Aether Vial, Master of the Pearl Trident and two Master of Waves. Do you keep?




No of course not. YOU SNAP KEEP! Yes, you might lose to Nature's Claim but if he has anything besides a turn two kill then you completely shut him down with Meddling Mage and Tectonic Edge. This is exactly what happens. I get out a turn three Mage, follow it up with Kira, and then Master of Waves. James can't risk going above three lands because of double Edges and the mana to use both in one turn. He reveals that he had two Titans in hand at the end of the game.

Mage is really underrated for what he does. If you're scared of combo there are few better sideboard cards out there.

Round 5: James Storm-Blevins, Grixis Control (Win 2-1)

The name sounds familiar and when he sits down I recognize James from the PPTQ circuit. What I don't remember is what deck he was playing so this could get interesting.

Game 1
I lead with Vial and he has fetchlands into Thoughseize. I like it when my opponent begins the game at 15. I start dropping creatures and he has Serum Visions and another Thoughseize. I manage my damage output well enough in the face of a constant stream of removal that I eventually kill him with a Cursecatcher.

-2 Spreading Seas, -2 Path to Exile, -1 Aether Vial
+2 Rest in Peace, +1 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner, +1 Unified Will, +1 Dispel

I know he has Tasigur so I leave some removal in. The counters and RiP's are fantastic against Grixis.

Game 2
No Vial for me, just Cursecatcher and Silvergill into a stream of creatures that start trading for removal. Meanwhile, I attack his red sources with Edge and Spreading Seas until he's totally off red.Radient Flames After beating him to 10 I have a decision to make. I can just attack with the two lords I have in play, or add the Reejerey I have in hand to put him to 2 life. What makes my decision for me is that I know he has Radiant Flames in hand because he forgot he had no red source the previous turn and tried to play it. I play around the card I know, which also means that any shockland is a dead draw. He draws an Island and plays Damnation.


Well, still no red source, so the Kira I have as follow-up should be good. He draws Bloodstained Mire, gets a Mountain and plays Flames.

Double dammit. His hand is so stocked with removal at this point that I can never get back into the game and he kills me at one life.

Game 3
For this one I don't have a Vial, just Cursecatcher, and once again we play the game of trades until I resolve Kira. He goes for Radiant Flames but I have Will for it and then Rest in Peace to shut off his graveyard. Snapcaster Mages cannot save him anymore.

That was an exhausting match and I'm glad the rounds keep going long so that I can decompress and recover between opponents.

Round 6: Brandon Nelson, Esper Gifts Control (Win 2-0)

You've all heard of Brandon: he won Grand Prix Salt Lake City last year. He's a very good player who I've played a number of times. In Modern, he's usually on Twin or Jund, and I win when he plays Twin and lose when he's on Jund.

Game 1
Lingering Souls
Brandon's on the play, mulligans, and leads with Marsh Flats. Not expecting that, I play Vial. He then plays Flooded Strand, cracks both his fetchlands for an Island and tapped Godless Shrine. Seeing my confused expression, he assures me that he has not forgotten how to play Magic and needed to get his fetches down so that he could Serum Visions. Of course, now I'm really confused because this is nothing like he's played before. I just start laying creatures which he Wraths away, only for me to play some more and islandwalk past his Tasigur and Lingering Souls. Is he, is he playing Esper Mentor? I really want to ask but know he won't answer until after the match.

-2 Spreading Seas, -1 Aether Vial
+2 Rest in Peace, +1 Unified Will

I may not know what he's playing but I know that RiP is good against Snapcaster and Souls. He seems slow enough that Will might also be good.

Game 2
Brandon mulligans again and then shocks himself to Inquisition of Kozilek me.timely reinforcements Shockingly, he takes a Lord of Atlantis instead of my Aether Vial. I think this is simply wrong, but he said that he didn't care about Vial because he had no countermagic. I put the mana advantage from Vial to good use getting some threats out. He accelerates into his Tasigur, which I reset (for the rest of the game, as it turned out) with Echoing Truth. I beat with a Silvergill and Mutavault pumped by Master of the Pearl Trident while he plays two Timely Reinforcements, the first of which I Will away. This buys him time but doesn't stop the beats and his Grave Titan is quickly Pathed. He has no removal and simply dies.

Brandon jokes about my drawing perfectly to beat him, but I respond that I was hardly perfect, just good enough this time. I'll take being Just Good Enough if it means I win. I also ask him about his deck. He is playing Mentor, but this is really an Esper Control list that runs Mentor to provide an overwhelming clock against combo decks. I file that away for later, it's definitely worth investigating.

At this point the pairings are brought out and I realize that I'm in trouble. My breakers are terrible, with my OMW% at only 44%. The only X-1 with worse breakers is Gerry Thompson of all people by a tenth of a point. To make Top 8, I need things to really break my former opponents way the next two rounds, and most likely win both rounds myself.

Round 7: Zachary Mullen, Bring to Scapeshift (Win 2-0)

Let's get started! For Zarchary, this is an actual win-and-in. For me, it's likely just the first step.

Game 1
Things go well for me, despite being on the draw since I lead with Vial. He just plays fetchlands for all colors and suspends a Search for Tomorrow for the first few turns. Eventually he gets out a Sakura-Tribe Elder to block a Master of the Pearl Trident but has no other resistance. I kill him from 13 with Master of Waves.

-4 Path to Exile, -1 Aether Vial, -1 Spreading Seas
+1 Unified Will, +1 Dispel, +2 Tectonic Edge, +2 Meddling Mage

Elder and Search means Scapeshift, and lands of every color means Bring to Light. Counters and hard mana disruption are the order of the day in both those cases.

Game 2
Zach has another clunky start while I have Cursecatcher and Silvergill to start beating. Once again he accelerates into nothing while I just keep up the pressure. The turn before I kill him he does play Bring to Light. While a Scapeshift for seven is not lethal I don't want him tutoring at all, so I counter it. Pretty easy win.

bring-to-lightI get the feeling that his deck let him down, but in my experience, Bring to Light is too clunky an approach to beat streamlined aggro. Still, he was X-1 so maybe it's just me.

Checking the standings again confirms my worst fears. My breakers are still only 48% putting me in 8th place and there are two 16 pointers with breakers at least 7 points better than mine. For me to be safe by drawing all of my previous opponents need to win and the 16 pointers both have to lose. Neither scenario is likely so I have to play it out. I could take the draw and roll the dice and at minimum be assured of a Top 16 but I came to win. You can argue about the theoretical benefits of  loss-minimization vs. profit-maximization, but I decided a long time ago to always go for the win in Magic and I'm not going to back down now. I'm going for top seed or going home!

Round 8: Chris Andersen, Burn (Loss 1-2)

Chris seems familiar, but I'm not sure how. I know he's playing a fast deck but not what. I'm not liking my chances here.

Game 1
I like them even worse when I'm on the draw. Turns out I'm against Burn and my draw is not very fast. Meanwhile, Chris has Eidolon and multiple Searing Blazes. I still steal the game, despite my own misplays, thanks to him mistargeting his Blazes and sequencing his burn poorly.

Searing BlazeThe last turn of the game, I have two lords in play, he's at 9 with a Swiftspear, I'm at 1 with a one-counter Vial. I'm holding a Cursecatcher and Unified Will. I pass and Chris should just play Searing Blaze for one, which I will counter with Will. What he does instead is play the Swiftspear he drew. What I should have done here is Vial in response so that my Will is never offline. Instead, I just let Swiftspear resolve, hoping to ambush both when he attacks. He does attack and I activate Vial. At this point, Chris just has to Blaze in response and win. Instead, he lets me play Cursecatcher and then goes for the Blaze. I counter the spell, eat his blockers, and then attack for exactly lethal.

I think if we had both played optimally that last turn I would still have won, since he had four mana and two two-cost burn spells that I would have countered with Will and Cursecatcher that turn. It didn't play out like that and we both made huge mistakes, ultimately giving each other the opportunity to win.

-3 Spreading Seas
+1 Kira, +1 Unified Will, +1 Dispel

Seas is usually too tempo-negative to be good so it goes out for counters and Searing Blaze defense.

Game 2
We both mulligan, and I keep a hand with good interaction against creatures but a slow clock. He has no creatures and just burn spells. I can't put together enough offense to threaten him in time and get burnt out.

Game 3
Another slow start from him with just suspended Rift Bolt on my turn two Lord of Atlantis. Of course, my followups aren't great and his Eidolon makes recovery difficult. I flood hard and die on my upkeep to a flurry of Bolts. If one of the eight lands I drew was a spell, or if the Lord I traded for his Eidolon had been Master of Waves, I might get there but that's how it goes. I lose and am out of contention.

Final Record: 6-2, 17th Place

And that's it, I'm going home! Standings come out and my breakers now sit at 53%. Both of the 16's had won and still have better breakers anyway. Best case for me had I drawn was 10th. Mine are in fact so bad that I drop out of Top 16, right behind Gerry Thompson whose breaker's are better by less than 2%. Argh. I'm not disappointed with my deck, and I can't even blame luck since mine was good more times than it was bad. It's just really irritating when bad stats keep you out of the Top 8. Oh well. $50 is $50 so at least I break even on the day. Yes, it isn't what I wanted and it sucks to drop so far in one round but if you let it get to you then you'll tilt yourself out of ever improving or enjoying the game. You take your wins where you can get them, especially when you're as dedicated a grinder as I am.

Should I have drawn? It would have meant $50 extra, another result posted on Star City's website and an interesting playmat to add to my collection. On the other hand had I won it would have meant a considerably higher payout. I made my decision and I'm sticking with it. Would I advise you to do the same? The best I can offer is this question: Did you come to win or to profit? In my situation, if you come to win you play. If you come to profit you draw. Simple as that.

That's all for this tale of woe. Time to get back to the grind. Overall I was happy with my deck and as I said unless there is a major shift away from midrange decks towards combo or tempo I wouldn't change anything. We'll see what happens when the GP and PPTQ season starts up again. Here's hoping I break my habit of getting second at these things. I will be putting Fish down for a while since I have friends and colleagues going to Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch who'll need help testing, and major events always put me in a brewing mood. For those of you interesting in picking up UW Fish, I remind you that this deck is far less aggro than you expect, and you have to learn how to grind with this deck if you want to force your way through Jund and Grixis. May the gods of mana be kind to you all and good luck grinding your way to glory!

David Ernenwein

David has been playing Magic since Odyssey block. A dedicated Spike, he's been grinding tournaments for over a decade, including a Pro Tour appearance. A Modern specialist who dabbles in Legacy, his writing is focused on metagame analysis and deck evolution.

View More By David Ernenwein

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13 thoughts on “Breakers Bad: 17th at PIQ Denver

  1. David,

    Nice and thorough report….sounds like it was a lot of fun.

    I am curious what you named with Meddling Mage playing against the Bloom deck? I figure you’d name Amulet, but wanted to double check.

    1. Primeval Titan. Against Bloom, unless you know they’re on the Hive Mind plan, you always name Titan. It’s the heart and soul of the deck. If Amulet doesn’t come down early then it’s probably not being played at all, so there’s no point in naming it. With Meddling Mage you always name the impact cards, not enablers.

      1. Hi David,
        Nice report, its a good read (which is hard to do when I don’t really like merfolk)!
        Anyway – I’m no pro, and I know this isn’t always a popular opinion, but.. I feel like Summoner’s Pact is often the better call for Meddling Mage than Primeval Titan. First of all, if you see a Tolaria West in play, it’s possible they’re planning to use the U it generates and bounce it back to fetch a summoner’s pact. Secondly, if you have a path to exile for the first titan (which you didn’t in this case), then it’s fairly safe to name the summoner’s pact – and it switches off hive mind too.

        If you don’t see T-west or have a path, primeval titan is probably the right call (e.g. like you did), but it’s not a snap decision. If they land the first titan and fetch a slaughter pact (from a t-west), then obviously we’ve given them an out to mage that they didn’t have before.

        For those reading these comments – if the card in question was slaughter games rather than meddling mage – summoner’s pact is the better call more times than not – as it turns off cards like thragtusk and hornet queen being searched up, hive mind kills AND titan chains. They’re then down to top-decking the 4 titans pretty much.

  2. I assume you did some number crunching and realized you couldn’t make it into the top 8 by drawing? If you know playing it out is the only way to get into top 8, I think you just have to do it. Even from a profit standpoint, I think taking whatever you think is the best stab at top 8 is usually the best move, since the payouts get so much higher anyway. Where it gets interesting is if you aren’t sure whether drawing will get you into the top 8 or not. Then you have to balance the approximate chance drawing will get you into the top 8 vs your odds of winning against a random opponent with a similar record as you.

    Do you find unified will usually works for you when you need it to, or are there a fair number of times when you don’t have more creatures?

    1. In the matchups where you really want counterspells then Unified Will is normally a hard counter at all times and better than the other options (Cursecatcher does almost the same job Spell Pierce does). The only times that Will is actively bad are in matchups where you really don’t want counters anyway.

  3. I agree with what others have said. You were right in playing it out. You play for wins and for top 8’s and your best chance of achieving either was by winning out. You did the right thing in my opinion. Sometimes the breakers just don’t go your way. I think it’s a good lesson for a lot of players to learn. Thanks for the well written and in depth article.

    1. I’ve read a lot of tournament reports, and I think very few acknowledge the real impact misplays have in actual matchups. We see this ALL THE TIME on camera in high-level events with some of the best players in the game. Premier IQs are going to be no different. Most of the time, pro tournament reports gloss over play errors and attribute their wins to pure skill and their losses to bad luck. Coverage often tells a different story.

    2. And I’m certain that if it were my opponents writing this then they’d have noticed mistakes I made as well. That’s the thing about mistakes, if you could see your own then you wouldn’t make them in the first place.

      1. You see it at SCG Opens or IQs, which are not High level in my opinion. At a Grand Prix this usually does not happen, especially in Day 2. I’m able to recognize where I misplayed and where my opponents do, and by reading your report opponent’s mistakes seemed to be large part of your result.

  4. Tough luck on that Game 3 against Burn. An early Eidolon with no Vial on our part makes Burn tough to overcome at times. It’s unfortunate that it came to that (I’ve been on that end a few times, and it stinks every time). Elves is usually going to be a loss no matter what, especially if your opponent comes out of the blocks fast like you described (though I’ve found that T1 Vial into T2 Tidebinder for their mana dork has given me a great chance to win), so you had to hope that the more-or-less coin-flip matchup (Burn) went your way. Better luck next time!

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