The Grand Prix is Coming

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Grand Prix Detroit looms at the end of this week. I'm hopeful the tournament goes well and isn't a colorless nightmare, but the opportunity for the community to grill Aaron Forsythe is worth it regardless. That being said, it is hard to imagine Eldrazi won't be the driving force behind the Grand Prix metagame, though maybe not the way you expect.

All Is Dust banner

The data available from our Top Decks page tells a very clear tale of Eldrazi's dominance, but it is important to remember, barring massive resource expenditure, such data will always provide a lagged result due to the time between collection and the analysis. I bring this up because we have a very interesting narrative from StarCityGames' Modern Classic in Philadelphia that bears investigating. Once we have a better understanding of this narrative, we can attempt to apply the lessons to the greater metagame and inform our approach to the Grand Prix.


Classically Modern

It's important to remember SCG Philadelphia only constitutes a single datapoint in the wider metagame and should not be seen as indicative of a wider narrative. Even so, the data within it is suggestive enough to be worth investigating. For reference, the Top 16:

Deck NamePlace
UW Eldrazi2
Living End5
Bant Eldrazi6
Abzan Company7
Blue Moon (UR Control)8
UW Eldrazi9
Colorless Eldrazi12
UW Eldrazi14
Colorless Eldrazi15

Hmm, that's quite interesting. Only two Eldrazi made Top 8, with six in the total Top 16. That's not exactly cause for celebration, but it's far less than we've become accustomed to since the Pro Tour. Without Round 0 data, I'm loathe to read any further into this, since we don't know if this is indicative of the population or not. If Eldrazi was 40% or more of the total field then this is about what you'd expect, or even a bit low for the top tables, but if it was less than 20% then this is very high representation. Regardless, the results are still interesting. Despite rumors of its demise, Jund won the whole thing and put another pilot into the Top 16. And it had to beat UW Eldrazi to do it, what appears to be, by consensus, the best version of Eldrazi. Jund's removal package (including maindeck Damnation) was deemed too slow, and Jund's threats too easily outclassed, for the deck to remain viable, yet Jonathan Delano either didn't get the memo or he agrees with Trevor about beating Eldrazi.

Jund by Jonathan Delano (1st Place SCG Philadelphia Modern Classic)

The old workhorse rides again! Jonathan's list looks fairly stock, but has also clearly been tuned for the Eldrazi. Abrupt Decay is reduced to a two-of in favor of an additional Terminate and Damnation, while an Inquisition of Kozilek has been exchanged for Thoughtseize. The surprisingly strong (especially against UW) Anger of the Gods comes in from the board. While many might have said it takes far more aggressive tuning and rebuilding of your deck for Eldrazi, Jonathan apparently understands it's dangerous to neglect your deck's core and kept the essentials, a smart bit of tuning that paid off.

Ensnaring BridgeLooking at the other non-Eldrazi we see similar subtle adaptations. Bryant Cook played three Ensnaring Bridges in his Burn sideboard, a rarely seen addition acknowledging the betenticled monstrosities' speed. Brett Schmuckler's Living End played  a Goblin Dark-Dwellers in case Eldrazi sandbagged Reality Smashers. Benjamin Nikolich's Blue Moon has maindeck Roast and Flame Slash, which fry all Eldrazi but the largest Endless Ones, to complement four Blood Moons.

What I find really surprising is Tim Sussino making fourth place with Storm. You don't see much Storm period normally due to its vulnerability to discard and now Thought-Knot Seer (disruption that hoses Pyromancer Ascension and Past in Flames AND provides a strong clock). This leads me to conclude Tim is either a very experienced pilot or got very, very lucky in the pairings (leaning towards experienced here; he played the deck back in 2014 in an old Premier IQ).

Now, again, lets not get ahead of ourselves. This is just one event. However, in this event, good preparation and a solid core were rewarded with success despite the known power of Eldrazi. As we move into Grand Prix Detroit, it is always tempting to metagame hard and really try to target the top-tier decks, but as Jordan and I have warned you before, there is no guarantee it will pan out. Philadelphia indicates the Modern metagame is more open than you might think, so plan accordingly.

How to Approach Grand Prix Detroit

The question that this is all leading to is "how do I prepare for the Grand Prix metagame." The answer is simple: Don't. That's it, I'll see you in the comments!

*Footsteps fade, a door creaks open, then clicks shut*

*A door creaks open, then clicks shut, footsteps approach*

Sorry, I'm back. The note attached to the brick just thrown through my window says I need to actually explain that statement (people just have no appreciation for laconic pithiness).

As I've warned you before, it is far easier to Next Level yourself than it is to Next Level the room. While there is value and percentage to be gained in accurately reading and accordingly preparing for the metagame, guessing wrong can be disastrous (playing Scissors expecting to only hit Paper in later rounds and instead playing nothing but Rock). This is especially true for a large and open event like the Grand Prix. Given the trend, you have to expect at least 500 players to show up, likely around 1000. Basic statistics tell us that as sample size (N) increases, the sample distribution becomes increasingly normal (the bell curve, for those unfamiliar with stats).

Reality SmasherThus, a given Grand Prix metagame sample will be more likely to accurately reflect the "real" metagame. Look back at Top Decks, whose N is similarly high enough to reasonably model the "real" metagame, Eldrazi holds 23.6% of the paper format. This means your odds of seeing Eldrazi at a paper tournament in a given round is about 1/4, really closer to 1/5. Now, this is high and prior to Oath of the Gatewatch your highest odds for seeing any given paper deck were 7/100 (Affinity's 7% paper share in December), which you might think makes targeted metagaming more useful today than it was in December and early January.

Hold on! You have a 3/4 chance to not hit Eldrazi in a given round, which over a nine-round Day 1 means you could plausibly never hit Eldrazi at all. This means you warped your deck for nothing. If Eldrazi's share was over 1/3 or 1/2, closer to Ravager Affinity at its 2004-2005 worst, then it would be a smart move to target the deck as a number of Grand Prix winners of that era did. Players tried that against Caw Blade but it didn't really work because A) that deck was just all the best cards and lacked a targetable weak point and B) Caw Blade just had a better A game than the anti-Cawblade decks and overpowered or outplayed them. Those that claimed their deck beat Caw Blade were mostly fooling themselves. Therefore, if you're looking to gain an edge at this Grand Prix, I would advise you to fall back on the established principles for Modern deck construction, namely:

  1. Have a solid maindeck Plan A
  2. Know your weaknesses
  3. Know which weaknesses can be fixed and which can be ignored
  4. Have general answers or be able to ignore rogue strategies

Getting a Plan Together

If the first three points are a surprise to you, then you probably shouldn't go to the Grand Prix. That said, even if you may not have been explicitly told these points before, you still probably know them intuitively. So remember you know them, remember you built your deck accordingly, and STOP SECOND GUESSING YOURSELF! I've seen students and colleagues lose faith in their knowledge and psyche themselves out prior to tests hundreds of times and perform poorly as a result. Have confidence in yourself, dammit!

Shadow of DoubtSimilarly, as large tournaments approach nerves will always crop up and make you doubt your preparation. Doubt leads to audibles, audibles lead to misplays, misplays lead to rage, rage...leads to suffering. Unless you come late to an utterly broken deck, never throw out weeks of preparation and, even then, only do so if it's a reasonably easy deck to play. This is easier to do in Standard, where the decks are fairly well-known (especially toward the end of a format) and limited in number, meaning that maindeck and sideboard strategies are relatively easy to pick up. Modern is a much different beast and it takes dedication and practice to get the most out of a given deck. You're just not going to get that right before the tournament. Couple that with the scale of the format and trying to learn matchups is nearly impossible in the short period before a tournament. You need a REALLY good reason to audible in Modern. If you're asking at all if your reason is good enough, it isn't. Put the brew down and back away. Now.

The best way to avoid this problem is to decide a hard deadline for setting your deck in stone. For Grand Prix tournaments, I set Thursday night for maindecks and Friday night for sideboards, if you're scouting at the pre-GP events, and Friday morning otherwise. This removes the temptation to fiddle with and (in all likelihood) ruin your deck, giving you plenty of time to work the nerves out of you system. The more confident and relaxed you are, the better you will perform. That, plus familiarity with your deck, is far more beneficial than some new "tech" you convince yourself of the night before. Give yourself time to get your mind off the game and relax so that you're well rested and ready for the actual tournament.

The Flaw in Every Plan

The greatest other trap that players (myself included) fall into has to do with the last two points about fixing/ignoring weaknesses and having general answers. This is also related to our earlier metagaming discussion. I struggle to succinctly explain this in principle, so I'll use myself as an example.

I know that, as a Merfolk player, my deck is very weak to green creature strategies, particularly aggressive ones. For a very long time, I have used Hibernation to close that hole and as a bonus I have a devastating answer to Bogles.Hibernation However, I know Zoo, Elves, and Bogles constitute a very tiny segment of the metagame (4% today, if we're generous). This leads me to want to cut them but I don't know for what. I could go for additional Echoing Truths to hit the broadest possible decks and close my weakness to Worship, Ensnaring Bridge, and Ghostly Prison, all cards I know see a reasonable amount of play thanks to Eldrazi. That said, if I hit said green decks, I'll want something more powerful like Reflector Mage. I know, for the above stated reasons, that the choice is always going to be a guess and I could guess wrong, but that won't stop me from worrying about it until the tournament is over and I'm either vindicated or infuriated.

As a result, I am more likely to refuse to make an actual decision and split the difference to hedge against the most decks. While this is the safest option, it may not be the "best" option, either practically or theoretically. Game theory has two overarching branches: Classic and Romantic. A Classic strategy focuses on loss minimization while Romantic stresses profit maximization. Studies generally find that, over the short-term, Classic strategies do better since, while wins are small, losses are small too and good play will net a profit. However, over a longer period, Romantic strategies often have a higher payout because when they win, they win big and their losses are rarely large or frequent enough to eliminate the size of the wins. This leaves players in the unanswerable position of choosing to play to not lose or play to win for a given iteration.

Setting a hard deadline helps with this problem, but it doesn't eliminate the problem entirely and can cause the doubt which leads to misplays or tilting. The only way I've found to quiet this doubt is to convince myself I've made the right call and stick with it. How do I do that? By answering the question at the start of this discussion.

How Do I Prepare for the Grand Prix Metagame?

Easy: by not preparing for "The Metagame" and instead realizing what it represents. For the reasons I stated above, you can't base your decisions around the metagame stats as numbers in and of themselves. What you can do is understand their significance and how players will react to them. You can throw around numbers all you like: they're just numbers unless you understand what they mean. You have to interpret your data before it becomes useful.

worshipTaking the Top Decks stats and the SCG results tells me two things. First, that Eldrazi may be popular but format stalwarts are still perfectly viable. Second, that players are adapting to Eldrazi by tweaking their maindecks and sideboards with anti-Eldrazi cards. What this means for the metagame is there will be a large number of decks that will have either a fairly narrow range of very powerful permanents that lock out the fast Eldrazi starts and have considerable game against other more fair creature strategies or by adopting sweepers and removal that I already play around. This means, rather than worry about certain decks, I need to worry about specific cards.

DisenchantAs rounds go on, I am more and more likely to see anti-Eldrazi cards and less likely to see other decks that are weak to those cards. As Brian Kibler said, as a tournament goes on in a world of anti-decks, the number of targeted decks at top tables decreases in favor of the anti-decks. Since I have two byes I should assume by the time I actually sit down to play the Grand Prix, the wheat will have started to separate from the chaff and I will be more and increasingly likely to hit Worship and Ensnaring Bridge than I am decks that lose to those cards and/or to Eldrazi like Zoo and Bogles. I should instead focus my final sideboard slots to answer the splash damage. This could mean additional Echoing Truths so that I'm never without something for creature decks, but it might also mean that, for the first time in a long time, I might play Disenchant. Only testing will tell.

I intend to play in Grand Prix Detroit, so sometime next week you'll likely hear how that went, how I finally resolved my sideboard dilemma, and if I was right about the metagame. In the meantime, keep testing, trust those results, and believe in yourself. I'll see you in Detroit!

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.

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Posted in Modern, Strategy, TournamentsTagged , , , , , ,

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One thought on “The Grand Prix is Coming

  1. I was at the SCG Modern Classic at Philadelphia (sadly, I left my consistent draws at home), and I can tell you the Eldrazi prevalence was a bit lower than what I had expected. This is a tad anecdotal, but I didn’t run into it at all, and I only saw a handful of representatives as I walked up and down the tables. That might help explain the relative lack of results, as it needs to show up to stand out.

    Regarding the rest of the article… there’s definitely some good advice here, particularly the part of developing a good Plan A of your own. My best results against this metagame have been when I’ve doubled down on my own gameplan (in the case of Merfolk, creature-based aggro with a touch of disruption), and brought in all of my hate out of the sideboard. Focus on the primary gameplan, then adjust as necessary.

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