Last weekend I played in my first RPTQ. What a tournament! I'd never played in a room full of players on or above my level before, and to say I was underprepared is a huge understatement. My car full of Boston grinders left after the third round, all of us beaten to shreds by the competition.
I brought Counter-Cat to the event and went 0-3, learning some invaluable lessons and re-igniting my love for Modern in the process. The mistakes I made leading up to the RPTQ might have cost anyone a strong finish at a high-level tournament. In this article, I'll share my experience and pinpoint where I went wrong.
I went with Counter-Cat at this event for a few reasons. For one, I felt like the deck's mainboard cards lined up well against the metagame. Lightning Bolt's share currently clocks in at 35%, a historic low, and many players are sleeving up uninteractive decks like Infect, Tron, UR Prowess, and Dredge. Wild Nacatl looks very appealing in such a setting. Similarly, Path to Exile is a knockout against World Breaker, Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror, and Prized Amalgam alike, not to mention Jund's characteristically robust creatures. And I'm with Trevor on the strength of Spell Pierce and Surgical Extraction right now.
Here's what I played:
Lethal Mistake #1: Not Considering Other Decks
Temur Delver was another option for the tournament, and is easily the deck I have the most reps with in Modern. I hold that Pierce and Path are great in Modern right now. Of course, Blood Moon and Disrupting Shoal look pretty enticing, too. Another reason I took Counter-Cat instead is I felt like mixing things up. I feel like I start to slip with Temur Delver after lapses in playtime, and I'm well out of practice from tossing around nothing but Colorless Eldrazi Stompy both online and at local tournaments for the last couple months. Path to Exile and Spell Snare are more forgiving to play with than Vapor Snag and Stubborn Denial.
If recent practice is the issue, why not just play Eldrazi, you ask? Habit. I've always felt more comfortable bringing tempo shells I'm well-versed in to competitive events.
Well, it's been said over and over again (even by me), but still now bears repeating: success in Modern comes most easily by playing what you know. The metagame shifts often to accommodate new innovations and trends—Death's Shadow Aggro becoming UR Prowess for extra Blood Moon resilience; Infect moving towards two-mana artifact removal for the increasingly prevalent Chalice of the Void; Jund recruiting Grim Flayer and Anger of the Gods in the mainboard for help versus Bloodghast and Blossoming Defense. Because of this, "playing what you know" doesn't just mean sleeving up a deck you've been playing for years, but sleeving up a deck you've played often in the last few weeks. Based on this principle, I might have had a much better time on Colorless Eldrazi Stompy than my tempo-tunnel-visioned brain had me believe before the event.
Round 1: WR Prison (win roll, 0-2)
Game 1: This matchup seemed like the worst one for Counter-Cat on paper, so I was sad to run into it so soon. I mulligan once. Foundry, Plains from my opponent is plenty of incentive to fetch around Blood Moon as I land Wild Nacatl. I Growth the cat past a Helix and land another before Moon does come down to shrink my creatures to 2/2. It takes my whole board, but I'm able to slug through a resolved Nahiri and Ajani Vengeant, and with the help of a 3/4 Tarmogoyf put my opponent on a clock to find another big card. At this point my opponent has drawn and resolved two copies of Wrath of God.
I cast Growth on the Goyf after no blocks to put my opponent to 3 instead of 5, realizing he can neutralize the board with any number of cards. Sure enough, he draws Gideon Jura and starts plussing after removing my threat. I pay blue mana for Probe even though I could draw Snapcaster and Bolt my opponent before he draws a Helix, since paying life will drop me from 13 to 11 and shave a turn off my opponent's Gideon clock. I don't manage to draw one of my functional four Bolts in time (two Bolts, two Snaps), instead chumping twice with topdecked creatures and losing to the Gideon.
Game 2: I keep a hand of Hallowed Fountain, Serum Visions, Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration, Arid Mesa, Mana Leak, Destructive Revelry, Tarmogoyf. I Serum on turn one to find more lands (to no avail), and follow up with Delver. My fear is Guide into Blood Moon, but I'm hoping I can untap with Leak or draw a green fetch for my Revelry. But Guide into Moon locks me out, and Helix kills the Delver.
Fortunately, my opponent doesn't have any pressure of his own. He gives me time to naturally draw into both Island and Forest, and I resolve both of my Huntmasters after he sticks Chalice for two. The Huntmasters get dealt with via Wrath of God, planeswalkers, and Anger of the Gods. I make a final stand with Delver and Nacatl, who collectively eat a second Wrath before I crumble again to Gideon.
Lethal Mistake #2: Assuming Deck Familiarity
I've played plenty of games against Kelsey with GRx Moon decks as she piloted Counter-Cat, and she's learned to play against Chalice/Moon strategies with the deck. After watching the match, she was quick to inform me that my Game 2 hand was an easy mulligan, which makes a lot of sense in retrospect. I need to open a lot of threats or some combination of creatures and Spell Pierce in this matchup to have a chance. If my opener relies heavily on Serum Visions to fix mana, I'm going to have a pretty bad time, especially when my hand doesn't contain any fetches that nab basic lands. Revelry was also very tough to cast given the seven I kept, as I'd have to make a third land drop.
When it comes to playing against Chalice/Moon decks with Counter-Cat, Kelsey simply has more experience than I do. It wouldn't have been tough for me to get this experience myself—I would just have needed to prioritize getting in games against WR Prison before the tournament. Even jamming 10-20 games against a mediocre pilot would have given me a much more solid impression of hands I could and couldn't keep against the deck, which is a good start for learning how to beat it.
I assumed that Counter-Cat would play fine in my hands since I designed the deck and have played with it quite a bit. But Modern is very different now than it was then, and I'm not as familiar with the deck as, it's fair to guess, my opponents were with theirs.
Round 2: Dredge (lose roll, 1-2)
Game 1: I have a fast Delver and Mandrills, a Path to Exile, and get to Snare a Cathartic Reunion. But my opponent opens much better despite taking a mulligan. I'm quickly put on the defense and die to Conflagrate plus a horde of Amalgams.
Game 2: My opponent refuses to make land drops two turns in a row so he can discard to size and get dredging. My on-the-play sequence of Wild Nacatl, Tarmogoyf, Helix on Narcomoeba plus Cat, Bolt plus Mandrills is much too fast for him, and I'm able to push through lethal with a Mutagenic Growth.
Game 3: Growth saves Tarmogoyf from Lightning Axe, and I follow the Lhurgoyf with a Mandrills and Surgical away my opponent's Amalgams. I manage to attack him down to ten with the fatties while at 13 life, and slam Delver and a 2/2 Nacatl (on Temur colors) to defend. My opponent casts Reunion and goes crazy dredging, unearthing a triplicate of Ghasts and granting them haste with a perfect Conflagrate, which kills Delver and Cat and deals 4 to me. His counter-attack brings me to 3 and makes it impossible for me to crack back, since I'm dead to a Ghast connection plus Narcomoeba. The board stalls out and I lose two turns later to Life from the Loam and another Conflagrate.
Round 3: Dredge (win roll, 0-2)
Sideboarding: See Round 2.
Game 2: I take a mulligan and keep an unexciting six with Mandrills as my only threat, Helix, Path, Serum, and two lands. My opponent gets all four Amalgams on the board and attacking by turn three, bringing two back on his turn and two more on my end step. I can Path one, but even blocking another with Mandrills seems bad when my opponent dredges Conflagrate next turn.
Lethal Mistake #3: Not Testing Matchups and Tuning
The list I took to the RPTQ is the exact one I posted a few weeks ago, when I first started thinking on the strength of Path and Pierce in this metagame. I was spending most of my time with Eldrazi then, and nothing changed on that front since.
Like Burn, Dredge is one of those decks that you can always beat if you want to. Beyond helping you establish your role and gameplan, putting in reps against the deck will tell you how many hate cards you need to run in the sideboard to consistently execute that plan.
I was counting on early one-drops and Spell Pierce to carry me in this matchup. But had I played even a few matches against Dredge with Counter-Cat before the RPTQ, I would have seen that I needed more than a mere two Surgicals in the board to support this gameplan. Ryan Overturf plays a full four in his Grixis Delver sideboard, which should have encouraged me to test against Dredge and see if I wanted that many.
Dredge, Infect, and Bant Eldrazi were all decks I expected to see at the RPTQ. I'm happy with my Infect matchup, but unsure about the other two. Whether or not Counter-Cat was the "correct" choice for the event, it was careless of me not to test the deck against the strategies I expected going into the event.
Lethal Mistake #4: Underestimating the Competition
One of the draws to Temur Delver over Counter-Cat was its much-improved WR Prison matchup. Stubborn Denial and the third Mana Leak do wonders against Sun and Moon strategies, and Monkey Grow's threats hold up much better than Wild Nacatl in the face of Lightning Helix. As a wedge, Temur is also notoriously resilient to Blood Moon. When it came to choosing a deck for the event, though, I looked at WR Prison's paltry 2% metagame share and assumed I'd be fine dodging the deck.
After WR Prison swept me Round 1, I realized my error. This event was bound to be full of competitive players scrutinizing the Modern metagame and choosing decks accordingly, and not more casual Modern players writing out their pet decks on decklists for the first time. With Infect and Dredge positioned as Modern's clear leaders, it makes sense that players would sleeve up decks favored against those strategies. Between Chalice of the Void, Rest in Peace, and Blood Moon, WR Prison has perhaps the best matchup against both decks combined in all of Modern, and I should have expected it in larger numbers.
Another part of "underestimating the competition" has to do with the actual skill level of my opponents. I didn't expect them to be bad, but until last weekend, I've never had the privilege of playing in an event with such a high percentage of competent players. As a result, I had no idea there was so much work I'd have to do before the tournament to catch up, although it seems obvious now. My opponents had done their homework and knew their matchups very well, giving them a huge edge over me.
Am(algam) Only Human
My interest in Modern is always fervent, but the amount of time I dedicate to playing the format waxes and wanes. Some weeks I'll jam 50 hours and others I'll hardly play at all. This RPTQ caught me at a time when Modern, like Lightning Bolt (coincidence?), occupied a historically low share of my daily thoughts. I've been moving and discovering a new city and scouting for non-Nexus jobs. I had prepared for this event slightly less than I would have prepared for a PPTQ—to expect to have a shot against players of RPTQ caliber, I actually needed to prepare much more.
I still had an awesome time. It was deeply humbling and galvanizing to play with and alongside so many skilled players and competitive Modern junkies. I can't wait for the next RPTQ. In the meantime, I'm excited to apply what I've learned by mastering my matchups and tuning my decks. To loosely quote Stitcher Geralf:
"Modern is a veritable wonderland. I have never felt more inspired."