Insider: Three Modern Gems from the SCG Invitational

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In November Wizards brought the Modern community a Regional Pro Tour Qualifier circuit, Grand Prix Pittsburgh, and the first League decklists on MTGO.

December? Aside from some neat Oath of the Gatewatch spoilers that hit the Magic online community while I was drafting this article, it's a barren month for Modern action. Endless banlist speculation and axe-grinding doesn't count either.

The only exception to this was Star City Games' Invitational in Las Vegas. The three-day tournament saw the best players on the SCG scene dueling out eight rounds each of Standard and Modern.

Usual Suspects at the SCG Invitational

Over the course of the tournament, SCG released the Top 8 decks, the 7-1 or better decks, and a series of deck techs on lower finishers. That included Jeff Hoogland's sleek Grixis Faeries build, which saw Scion of Oona and Spellstutter Sprite fly Hoogland to 15th in the tournament.

These decks collectively give us an excellent source of new technology for those looking to predict where Modern is heading next.

Today, we're going to look over three cards that enjoyed notable successes last weekend. With just eight rounds of Modern, there's only so much we can extrapolate from Invitational finishes, despite the high-caliber players behind these cards. That said, we can certainly use the Invitational to confirm or challenge our ideas about the format.

We've already seen these cards in other decks throughout the season---their reappearance at the Invitational underscores their Modern relevance. You'll want to buy (or sell) accordingly.

1. Pia and Kiran Nalaar

Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound was probably the best Modern card out of Magic Origins, but Chandra's parents are quickly closing that gap.

We've seen Pia and Kiran Nalaar in Grixis Midrange lists for a few months now. The card's impressive resume includes Gerry Thompson's 33rd place list at Grand Prix Oklahoma City, almost two dozen Top 8s at SCG States, Corey Burkhart's 5th place finish at Pittsburgh, and Dan Jessup's winning list at a Premier IQ in Coopersburg. All in the last three months!

Following the Invitational, we can add both another Top 8 and a 7-1 list (Gerry T again!) under Pia and Kirans' belts. The red Lingering Souls is getting more real with every weekend.

Mama and Papa Nalaar give Grixis (not to mention Jund) some extra reach and width normally unavailable in those colors. Top-decking the Nalaars in the lategame can easily convert to six damage---two from the thopters and four from the Siege-Gang Commander impression. In the mid-game those same tokens can wall opposing Anglers and Goyfs, trade with the Affinity air force, or chisel away at life totals.

Add in Kolaghan's Command or Rise // Fall and things get even crazier. Who said Snapcaster Mage is the only source of value for Grixis?

This flexible, multi-matchup relevance makes Pia and Kiran excellent in a Grixis strategy struggling to keep up. The traditional Cryptic Command-powered control lists, exemplified by Patrick Chapin's at Grand Prix Charlotte, fell from Modern's Tier 1 after only a few months in the spotlight.

Midrange-geared Grixis builds have picked up the slack, driven by Inquisition of Kozilek, Liliana of the Veil, and now Pia and Kiran Nalaar.

The New Face of Modern Grixis

Combined with the two finishes at the Invitational, this history points to the Nalaars as Grixis mainstays moving forward. Even the mighty Liliana hasn't been a regular in all the new Grixis Midrange strategies. Pia and Kiran, however, almost always show up.

Financial Advice: Long-Term Target

Between their newfound Grixis home, scattered Jund appearances and sideboard showings (Grand Prix Pittsburgh champion Alex Bianchi ran one in his Jeskai Twin sideboard), Pia and Kiran are an increasingly valuable investment. By the end of the weekend foil copies had vanished from Star City Games, with TCGplayer stock dropping as well.

The card isn't mythic, which imposes a lower ceiling than we see on something like Jace. Hangarback Walker pushed up to the $12 range at rare, but the Nalaars are unlikely to match Walker's dual Modern and Standard demand. That said, the current $1 price tag is a gross undervaluing of its long-term playability (doubly so for the $4-$5 foil cost, even in spite of the foiled promo edition).

If you're playing Grixis or Jund, get these now and hold on. Same goes for speculators looking to play the long game. You'll also need to keep Pia and Kiran Nalaar in mind when Magic Origins rotates out of Standard down the road.

2. Ugin, the Spirit Dragon

R/G Tron is rapidly solidifying its status as a true Tier 1 deck. Although Karn Liberated and Wurmcoil Engine remain Tron's workhorses, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon has hopped on board as a valuable member of the colorless squad. Joe Lossett and Justin Rios brought R/G Tron to a 6th and 8th place finish respectively, further reinforcing the ramp deck's position in Modern.

Ugin brings a lot of upside to the Tron roster. He clears the board, snipes enemy threats, and wins the game on his own. You aren't dropping Ugin on turn three even with an assembled Urzatron, but he still makes an excellent turn four-to-five play for a deck aiming to go over the top. Extra board-sweeping power, in addition to the staple Oblivion Stone and Pyroclasm, is huge.

Despite his strengths, Ugin rarely occupies more than two slots in your average R/G Tron list. Rios brought a pair to Las Vegas, while Lossett only used one. Another top Moderner at the Invitational, Dylan Stittsworth, also included just a single Ugin in his own 7-1 Tron list (he outperformed Lossett in Modern but fell flat in Standard.) That one-to-two-copy approach mirrors Diego Marquez's 8th place Tron list at Porto Alegre, as well as Ray Montes' SCG Dallas Open build.

Given the relative dearth of Ugins in even the best Tron list, it seems odd to highlight the planeswalker as a major speculation target. Sure, Ugin is likely to stay relevant in Modern as the years go on, but there's only so high singletons can go.

That is, unless Standard has any say.

Financial Advice: Short- to Medium-Term Sell

Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is a major Standard staple these days, which is directly responsible for his big ticket price tag. Esper Dragons plays him. Abzan Control plays him. Jeskai Black sticks him in the sideboard. And Standard Eldrazi Ramp decks do their best R/G Tron impressions with a whopping four Ugins in the main.

That level of demand would drive Ugin's price tag to Gideon, Ally of Zendikar levels. Probably higher, given the dragon planeswaker's casual appeal. Add his R/G Tron importance to the equation, however, and you have a card whose price seems to keep rising.

Ugin and Team in Standard

In my view, all of this makes Ugin a great target for a short- or medium-term sale.

Assuming Oath of the Gatewatch makes colorless cards even better in Standard, Ugin is likely to hit his peak price in the coming months. It's never getting better than this. It might even get worse if Oath brings decent colorless hate or other hosers to the Standard picture.

Ugin is good, but not Jace-levels of good. His $40 price won't climb much higher than $50, and much of that is likely to occur within the next three to six months.

If you're playing Tron in Modern, hold on to 1-2 copies for your own purposes and then sell out the rest when the post-Oath buzz reaches its high point. Don't buy into this card at current prices unless you have deep pockets and are industrious enough to turn these around before June. It's a great card with a lot of post-Invitational significance, but you need to keep Ugin's overall context in mind to make money on him.

3. Cinder Glade

Our last card today is a bigger gamble with fewer data points supporting it---but where's the fun in Modern speculation if you aren't taking some risks?

Scapeshift has been around in Modern since Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle got unbanned in 2012, but mostly in a traditional Temur form. We've also seen the no-Scapeshift builds featuring Valakut, Summoning Trap, and Chalice of the Void, such as Ricardo van den Bogaard's Top 4 list from 2014's Grand Prix Madrid.

Joey Mispagel just added to the Scapeshift continuum with his 7-1 build at the Invitational, a close replica of Thien Nguyen's 7th place strategy at Pittsburgh. These Titan Scapeshift lists are fast, linear, and double-down on one of the so-called "tango lands" from Battle for Zendikar.

In my pre-Pittsburgh Modern Nexus article, I predicted a Scapeshift deck would sneak into Top 8 alongside Modern regulars. I didn't think it would be the less-interactive Titan version, and even after seeing the results I wasn't sure if the deck could exceed one-and-done status.

Mispagel's 7-1 Invitational finish doesn't guarantee the R/G Titan build is the real deal, but it's a strong statement for a new type of Scapeshift strategy. Following the footsteps of many established Modern decks, the Titan list goes linear, trading Temur's interaction for more explosive ramp (Khalni Heart Expedition), haymakers (Primeval Titan) and a late-game mana sink (Commune with Lava).

If this approach can work at both a Grand Prix and the Invitational, there's a good chance it will continue to pick up momentum as more players adopt it.

Cinder Glade is central to the Titan Scapeshift manabase and one of the few cards in the deck that isn't already part of another strategy. This niche in Modern makes it one of the better tango land investments, and a nice long-term bet on a new combo build.

Financial Advice: Stay Frosty

The Mispagel and Nguyen Scapeshift builds feel metagamed. Even though they can succeed in the current Modern field, that doesn't mean they have the staying power to be format mainstays. If they can't cut it there, investment into cards like Cinder Glade is unlikely to pay off.

On the other hand, if these decks really have something going for them outside of this particular Modern metagame, then the list's profile (and profit margins) go up considerably.

Whether you are a Scapeshift aficionado or an investor looking to make Modern money, don't dive in on R/G Titan staples until we've seen more results.

Even one more finish at an Open or Grand Prix, or a handful of Top 8's at Premier IQ's or similar venues, would suggest broader viability beyond the hype factor. On the other hand, if no such finishes materialize, it would suggest the deck is too niche to comfortably buy into.

It's easy to see Nguyen's or Mispagel's finish and go nuts buying Commune with Lavas in wholesale bulk. The same goes for Cinder Glade and foil Khalni Heart Expeditions. Resist the temptation and wait for the data! Should you see results, snap-buy as much as you want. If the results don't come, then you aren't hundreds of copies into a deck that will never make another Modern showing.

Modern in December

Now that the Invitational is over, we won't see many big Modern events until January. Thankfully, the first month of 2016 will more than make up for it. Star City Games will bring us two Opens, Oath of the Gatewatch will (hopefully) bring us key new staples or reprints, and the January 18 banlist announcement will be making people even crazier than they already are.

You can bet I'll be weighing in on all those issues as we close out December and move into 2016, especially the ban and unban possibilities for the upcoming update. Until then, keep on looking for informative Modern data points and remember to consider all your speculation decisions in the format's broader context.

Any other Invitational cards I missed? Other Modern winners (or losers) you want to call out from the last week? I'll see you in the comments below!

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