Welcome to the third week of the new Modern. For many of us this is probably the most significant week simply because now is when the new IQ season really kicks off. Yes, there were a few IQ's last week concurrent with the Baltimore Open, but this is the week that stores nationally really started to host tournaments, allowing Modern Spikes to finally start grinding without fear again. As a bonus, this also means that Sheridan's data sample is growing so we can finally start to get an accurate picture of the metagame. With States next weekend, now is the time for deck reevaluation and serious testing.
Despite being qualified I was unable (and slightly unwilling) to travel to Columbus for the Invitational, so instead I attended my local Modern IQ. I also expected to benefit from a softer field since many of the better players who weren't in Columbus were traveling to Albuquerque for the Grand Prix. While I understand the appeal, I won't travel out of state for Sealed GP's. I hate having my fate decided by random number generators and the thought of being at the mercy of my Sealed pool after a lengthy drive isn't my idea of a good time. Constructed GP's are another story; choosing my deck makes me feel like I'm more in control of my fate and makes the trip more palatable.
This should come as no surprise to long-time readers, but I played UW Merfolk again. I've often said that you should play what you know in an uncertain metagame, but I actually didn't want to play Merfolk this time. States is next week and I wanted to get some deck testing in at a more competitive event. Unfortunately, that wasn't possible.
If this looks familiar, that's because it should---my maindeck and board are nearly identical to their pre-Eldrazi configuration. Honestly, I wasn't planning on just reverting to type and running Merfolk again, but when it came down to it nothing else was ready. Ancestral Vision was not the answer to the problems with my Monastery Mentor decks (I'm starting to think I need to take notes from the Legacy Miracles lists), I wasn't confident enough in the metagame to try a deck like Death and Taxes, and I couldn't run my current UW Control list that includes the Thopter combo. The latter because I was absolutely convinced that I still had my set of Sword of the Meek from when I played Thopter Depths in Extended. And I don't. And it was sold out at the local shops. And my online order still hasn't arrived. Frustration.
Following my failure in Detroit, and receiving assurances that Eldrazi would be banned, I knew that I didn't want the Eldrazi-specific cards anymore. Thus I had removed a Harbinger of the Tides and the Sea's Claim in favor of another Master of Waves and a maindeck Kira. Once the unbannings were announced I knew that the format would slow down, if only temporarily, as players tried out the new toys. In a world of control decks Harbinger is just not good enough while Kira is phenomenal, so bringing in another at Harbinger's expense made sense.
When it became apparent that midrange and control would be the most popular choices for the first few weeks, I cut Harbinger entirely. Too often it is just a 2/2 for two and while that's serviceable it's also not very good. Harbinger is your best card against Delver and Grow decks, and strong against Burn and Zoo. The first two are very rare, Burn is already a good matchup, and in the Zoo matchup Harbinger isn't enough to swing things in your favor. All told it's just not a card I want right now. Besides, I wanted counterspells for the expected control and combo decks. Maybe the format will shift toward tempo and Harbinger will be great again but for now I'd leave it at home.
I initially thought that I'd just go back to Unified Will but the ubiquity of Abzan Company changed my mind. It's always been a conditional counter that was dead against creature decks and if Company was big I wanted to avoid playing a blank (and no, Harbinger isn't very effective there either). I was thinking of maindecking Dispel to fight removal and Goryo's Vengeance when I noticed that a lot of control decks were running Spreading Seas. As Mutavault is an important card in those matchups, this seemed bad for me. Then I remembered that Deprive existed. A hard counter that could free my Vaults? Seems good.
The sideboard is quite similar to my Regionals one, just -1 Hibernation and Forge-Tender and +1 Unified Will and Kira. With Thopter and Vision around I expect fewer Kiki-Chord and Burn decks so I don't need as many cards for them, but I do need more cards for control and combo. Will gets the nod over Deprive here because I only bring in counters against decks with few to no creatures. Since I want to counter many different kinds of spells I take a general one over Dispel or Negate.
I arrive at the venue later than expected to find I was right about the field: it was much smaller and lacking in known competitors. I have to rush to register and finish my decklist, so I don't get to scope the field very much.
With only 22 players there would be five rounds and then a cut to Top 8, with a 3-1-1 record being the goal. This is tiny for a Denver area IQ. The late-season "blizzard" (it really wasn't, despite the weather reports) and the GP shrunk the field far more than I expected. This could either be really good or really bad for me---the more unknown the format, the better it is to be aggressive, but also the more likely you will run across something unexpected. It also makes it more likely that other aggressive decks will rise to the top and Merfolk struggles against many of them.
Round 1: Taylor, Soul Sisters (Win 2-0)
While no one has ever complained to my face, I've gotten enough flak in the comments about using full names that I didn't record them this time. I have never seen Taylor before and have no idea what to expect from her.
I win Rock, Paper, Scissors and start with a mulligan. I lead with Vial and Taylor has Plains into Soul's Attendant. Soul Sisters, lovely. This is actually a pretty good matchup for me since incremental life gain is not very effective against large chunks of damage and their clock is not very fast. The main concern is Honor of the Pure and Spectral Procession.
I use Spreading Seas to dig and then Vial in lords while Taylor plays out a total of four sisters but has no offense thanks to Deprive on Procession and Path on Ajani's Pridemate. Gaining four a turn buys her a number of draw steps, but against twelve damage she just cannot pull ahead or effectively attack back so I win easily.
Nothing. I have nothing I want to bring in and nothing I want to take out. I've heard some people bring in Torpor Orbs against Soul Sisters but if you're going to go that route Chalice of the Void for one seems more effective. My A game is strong enough that I don't need either.
I mulligan into a slow hand with no creatures to cast before Kira, Great Glass-Spinner, but it does have Path, Deprive, and Echoing Truth so I keep. Taylor has Soul Warden into Pridemate into Spectral Procession into Honor, just about the best curve possible, but Path and Truth clean up her offense and buy me the time to get an actual board presence together. It ends up being a race thanks to her Honor, but my size and evasion carry me through her defenses.
Weirdly, we're one of the last matches going. That either means a lot of aggro in the room or variance-fueled blowouts. The last rounds going all involve Junk decks which means my earlier metagame assumptions were correct but could prove difficult to overcome.
Round 2: Ethan, Five-Color Scapeshift (Win 2-1)
Ethan works at the shop and frequently plays the owner's fully foiled (with Expeditions, triple-sleeved) RUG Scapeshift deck. He's also known to go into Jund and his own brews so there's no telling what he's actually playing until he drops his deck during shuffling and reveals Sakura-Tribe Elder.
I mulligan again and keep based on the Deprive in my hand. This doesn't end up working because I draw very few creatures and only Kira sticks. It turns out that Ethan is playing a Bring to Light version of Scapeshift using Gemstone Mine and five-color lands to play all the best removal and Wall of Omens. I counter his first Brought Scapeshift but have no answer to the second.
Knowing Ethan, his deck will have no offensive creatures or permanents that I want to remove so I put in my anti-combo and -control package. Forge-Tender does nothing against Scapeshift but it does stop red sweepers which are far more dangerous.
This time it's Ethan's turn to mulligan, twice in fact, and Aether Vial plus Cursecatcher and Spreading Seas cause him to stall on lands. I drop a Master of the Pearl Trident and Vial in Meddling Mage naming Supreme Verdict with multiple counters in hand to seal the game. Ethan plays Bring to Light into my Cursecatcher just to slow my clock down but I Vial in another threat to finish him.
I mulligan again and get a hand with no blue source but both my Tectonic Edges, Aether Vial, and Cursecatcher so I keep. This works out because Ethan's draw is pretty slow so I have time to get some creatures together, though a Supreme Verdict grinds me to a halt. I Tec twice to stall his kill and try to find creatures that aren't Cursecatcher. Eventually he forces me to use all my Cursecatchers to stop Bring to Light and then he Scapeshifts for 18. That leaves me dead next turn to a topdecked Mountain or burn spell, but I Vial in a Master of Waves for one with a Mutavault in play for exactly lethal.
Despite the close game I'm feeling pretty good with that win. Unfortunately, it was a bit premature.
Round 3: Mario, Elves (Loss 0-2)
Remember when I said that I was rushing to register? This bit me Round 3 when it turned out I had written down Master of the Pearl Trident twice instead of Master of Waves. Whoops, game loss. Not that it really mattered.
Turns out that Mario is playing Elves, an appallingly bad matchup, and his hand is really, really good: Heritage Druid into Dwynen's Elite into Elvish Archdruid, hemorrhage hand (including Ezuri) onto board, Chord of Calling for Craterhoof Behemoth. I would have needed many Path's to win that game and I don't even have the white mana to cast them.
The game loss really didn't affect the outcome here. I'm about 15% to win game one and 30% to win games two and three so I was very likely to lose anyway.
This also finally gives me enough time to scout the room. There is no Tron, two other Merfolk decks, a number of Jund and Junk decks, Jeskai Control both with and without Thopter combo, and a lot of Burn. Not unexpected but surprisingly predictable given the small size.
Round 4: Jason, Junk (Loss 1-2)
I saw Jason playing round one so I know that he has a very creature-heavy Junk deck that uses Farseek to ramp into Archangel Avacyn // Avacyn, the Purifier and Thragtusk at the expense of removal. My hope is to out-tempo him before he overpowers me.
I have to mulligan another no-lander. All of my mulligans so far have been due to mana trouble and I'm doing it a lot more than normal so I just accept that variance is against me today. I keep a one-lander with Vial since I have a scry and a two draw steps to find another land.
He Abrupt Decays my Vial but I do find the second land to go after his with Spreading Seas and use Deprive against Siege Rhino. He only has a Sylvan Advocate and is restricted on white mana, while my board is made of Cursecatchers and Mutavaults. Accepting that I'm just dead to Maelstrom Pulse, I play the two Master of Waves in my hand and he has no answer.
-3 Aether Vial
I know he boards in Reclamation Sage and he's shown how willing he is to kill my Vials. I don't want to be tempted to keep hands based on Vial. Hibernation is amazing against green creatures and I want Kira to protect my Masters.
My one-lander has Cursecatcher, Path, Seas, Silvergill, and Hibernation. With odds of hitting my land drop at 19/53 and 19/52 for my two draws, I keep. It's usually bad to mulligan against GBx and if I do hit my hand is exactly what I want. I don't see my second land until Pathing my own Cursecatcher, and then I don't see another until at length Jason kills me.
Another game, another no-land opening. Variance, ergh. My six is another good one-lander and I scry trying to hit lands and again fail. That is really frustrating.
I should have mulliganed game two, but the potential payoff of the keep was very high if I hit. It's terrible to go to five against a deck with Thoughtseize and Inquisition, both of which he showed me game two, but it might still have been correct. At the very least it may have been less frustrating.
The standings are posted and I am in 11th. Thanks to draws in Swiss only the top six can draw in, so I still have a chance since one nine-pointer will make it in. I need 9th place to lose, the seven-pointer to lose, and to have 10th place's tie breakers go down less than mine will since both my losses will be drawing in. Of course, this all hinges on me winning in the first place.
Round 5: Paul, GR Goblins (Win 2-0)
Paul is a shop regular and I know he's playing Goblins. This is not good. Merfolk might have the best success rate against the field but it is weak against the other tribal creature decks. Elves is far more explosive and unfair, while Goblins is similar to Merfolk but has haste creatures and burn so it's much faster. Fortunately, I play Paul nearly every event we both play in (I swear DCI Recorder is programmed to pair players who play each other frequently) so I know how to play this matchup.
I mulligan again on the draw and Paul leads with Goblin Guide. This doesn't bode well. I have a Vial and pass. Paul misses his land drop, attacks me into another land, and plays Mogg Fanatic. This lets me drop Silvergill Adept with Cursecatcher on standby. Paul still has no land and Fanatics Silvergill to attack with his Guide again.
At this point I'm out of danger as I Vial in 'Catcher, play Merrow Reejerey, then Vial in Lord of Atlantis and just swamp him. He did find his second land but just used it to try and Destructive Revelry my Vial, which I counter with 'Catcher. It's an interesting inclusion that makes sense for a more artifact-heavy metagame, but I think it's a bit optimistic all the same.
Sideboarding against Paul is hard. He's a wildcard and is always trying off-the-wall sideboard strategies. He's used Torpor Orb, Boil, Blood Moon, Rending Volley, and Pyroclasm at various points. Since I know he has and will probably add more Revelrys I remove some targets for more protection against Goblin Grenade.
No mulligans for once but Paul leads with Legion Loyalist, which is actually his scariest draw. The best way for me to win is to just trade creatures until my cantrips pull me ahead on cards and Loyalist makes that impossible. Fortunately, he only has a Mogg Fanatic after I play Cursecatcher.
At this point I can add more creatures to the board, but I have Deprive and all my lands are non-basics so if he did bring in Blood Moon I'm dead. I decide to leave Deprive up and just pass. Paul also passes with three lands. Huh. I just play another land and pass back. The longer the game goes on the better it is for me.
Paul draws, looks at his card and attacks. He has no subtlety and neither does his deck---if he plays like he has Atarka's Command, he has Atarka's Command, which I counter after blocks and trade for his Loyalist. On my turn I just replay my land, cast Kira and pass.
Paul has Goblin Guide and an attack, but at this point I'm well out of danger and start playing Lords. He has a Goblin Piledriver to wall my attacks but I go wide and just swamp him. He reveals that he had several Revelrys in hand with Bolts and Grenades but Kira kept them from being a viable option to stay alive.
Stage One: Complete. Now I have to wait for the other results. I get up to sort my deck and miss the outcome of the 9th vs. 10th game, but I do see that the seven-pointer is playing Grixis vs. Merfolk, so he's not favored to win (he doesn't thanks to Master of Waves in game three). When the announcement is finally made it turns out that the former 9th place made it in. By half a tiebreaking percentage point over me. SO. DAMN. CLOSE.
The Top 8 consists of Merfolk, the Elves and Junk players who beat me, Jeskai Control with Goblin Dark-Dwellers, Burn, Jund, Abzan Company, and a BW Eldrazi Hatebears list very similar to Pascal Maynard's. I was very surprised by this since I didn't think that list was viable, but here it is. I don't know if this is because the deck is well positioned or because he just got lucky, but I've been working on a list similar to that so I hope it's the former.
Well, missing an IQ Top 8 isn't so bad and I did get some insight into the metagame. The usual suspects are out in force but control players are emerging thanks to Ancestral Vision.
I only saw one Thopter player, who was 1-2-1 when I checked after round four, having fallen to his deck's inconsistency and slowness. In the games I saw, he struggled to draw his pieces in the right order early enough to matter. I think this is common enough and the optimal Thopter list is still elusive, but you should pack graveyard hate regardless. This inconsistency probably means you'll see it most often in Tezzerator builds, though Gerry Thompson's deck might change things.
I intend to test extensively and would like to try out something different for States this weekend, but we'll see how it goes. Conventional wisdom seems to be to play what you already know, but I've never been one to stick to convention.