Get Schooled: TCGPlayer States Report (2nd)

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It's been a while, but it's time for another tournament report! TCGPlayer States was last weekend and I never miss the chance to prove my skill in front of the as much of the community that didn't attend the Standard LCQ. It's annoying that Star City has cut States entirely, but it's actually a nice throwback to when Wizards ran States. Having two States meant that you had several champions trying to out-brag each other. With only one again, there is no competition. Everyone knows where you stand.

As you have undoubtedly deduced from the title, this tournament went much better than the RPTQ. Some of this is due to metagame changes and a few tweaks I made to my deck, but I have to be honest that a lot of credit goes to the Random Numbers God. I ran very, very well and definitely won some matches that, had variance not favored me, I would have lost. As BBD said about his run to the World Championship, the best strategy is to hope to dodge and get lucky. This is especially true because I had not played my deck extensively prior to the tournament.


Prelude: Brews That Just Aren't There Yet

For the past few months I have been avoiding Merfolk. Part of this was irrationally blaming the deck for my poor performance and partially because everyone needs a change once in a while. I'd also had some new ideas and inspiration to brew, especially since Aether Revolt was spoiled. I've always loved control decks and seeing Fatal Push inspired me to bring out my old Mentor deck. More cheap spells should make Monastery Mentor work. Right? Well, no, I still cannot recommend playing Mentor in Modern because all those old problems linger on. However, if you take out Mentor then you have a very strong control deck. As in actually really viable. Even more than SCG Columbus led us to believe. Between Grixis and Esper, control mages are finally making a play in the format.

I also wanted to put some more work into making Death and Taxes work in Modern. Some of my favorite cards of all time are in that deck and I really wanted to sleeve them up again. Craig Wescoe also gave me a push with his MOCS result. I've been experimenting with the deck in various configurations and permutations for quite some time and it seemed like a good time to try again. And it was! I've had a great deal of success with DnT in weekly tournaments around here, helped along by a favorable metagame. For some reason, my LGS has been overrun by Tron and Burn for months, and DnT naturally has great matchups. It initially looked like I'd be running the deck for States.

However, both decks shared a problem. They could disrupt the opponent easily. They could both establish impressive leads, both in board position, card advantage, and tempo. But turning those advantages into actual wins proved elusive. The problem was closing speed. Unless you possess some kind of hard lock you cannot just wait around and expect to win the game. Esper easily stifled creature decks and ground hard against everything not named Tron, but as the game progressed things just gradually slipped out of your control. You'd spend time durdling in the mid-to-late game while your opponent built up removal or protection in their hand. You don't have many win conditions or ways to protect them, so if I didn't find one fast enough, regardless of what I was running, I ended up being unable to win too often for my taste. I feel like what the deck is missing is a five mana, hexproof finisher. Blood Baron of Vizkopa is close, but the lack of flying really hurts. I'm still working on the problem.

As for DnT, the problem is that both Wescoe's deck and the version I'm working on are very good at disrupting Tron, grinding with midrange, and clogging the board against aggro. The problem is that your disruptive hands are just slightly too slow. Right now their clocks are roughly a half turn slow and Tron recovers more often than it should, and this is a common problem across matches. This is not to say that the deck is a bad choice by any stretch. To put it in MTGO League terms, DnT is a 3.5 deck. You can expect to win 3-4 games every league you play in, but you're unlikely to win the event. And that wasn't good enough.

Returning to Form

This meant I was defaulting to Merfolk for the event. Merfolk is tried and proven and I don't ever show up just to play. I enter tournaments to win. The only question was my final configuration. Colorado is traditionally Burn-heavy, and with a recent spike in Tron I didn't expect much BGx, though Grixis would be a factor. After about a week of retooling, I settled on this list:

I've stopped running Echoing Truth. I had no reason to expect a lot of token strategies and the grindy fair matches where I liked Truth as a defensive measure appeared to be in decline. I was completely cold to a resolved Aerie Worshippers now, but the odds of seeing that card are pretty low, so I didn't care. In their place I added back the fourth Path and a Clique. I've played Clique Merfolk before and having a proactive answer seemed necessary when I'm removing catchall answers. I still needed ways to deal with Ensnaring Bridge, which I expected to be a significant player, so I kept in the Recalls and maximized my Wills. Affinity has been in decline but Recall and Stony Silence are so good elsewhere they still merit inclusion. Will is also an all-star against Tron so it was an easy card to max out on. This also meant that I could remove Meddling Mage, which isn't in a great place right now. Combo hasn't made that much of an impact around here so his utility is limited. Couple this with Colorado's reputation as a Burn-centric meta and I wanted the counters. The demise of other Spreading Seas decks removed the need for Deprive.

The other notable change is moving Tectonic Edge from my maindeck to the sideboard. It is worse against Tron than you might think, but the real decision was that BGx had been declining in the LGS metas for months, and Edge was at its best there. I suspect the uptick in Tron was behind this phenomenon. As a result I needed less mana denial and so went for more resilience with an extra Island and Mutavault. I kept the two in the board so that in matchups where I was boarding out my Vials I had some extra lands.

The Tournament

States was being held in northern Denver, at a location that I know often has very limited parking. The previous year's TCG States had been pretty small so I didn't think it would be a problem, but I made sure to preregister and get there early just in case. This was fortuitous. The event had been capped at 72 due to the size of the space. They hit that, and then had a flood of additional players, some from quite far away, attempt to enter. After much consternation, and an hour delay, 84 players were crammed into the place. A venue that had expected only 30 or so. And only had one judge on hand (who did an amazing job considering the workload). Still, with the loss of SCG States, I cannot imagine why they thought turnout would be so low. Hopefully, lesson learned.

Looking around the room, many of the usual suspects are absent. The local RPTQ was that weekend so I presume that many of them were at the LCQ. This makes the room a little softer than I was expecting, but I know better than to get complacent. Seven rounds of Swiss is a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong, especially when I'm looking for five wins and a draw.

Round 1 vs. Bant Eldrazi (W, 2-0)

Game 1  (Play, 6-6)

I know my round one opponent as an infrequent player at my LGS, which isn't helpful. He plays decks from all over the spectrum, so I don't know what to expect. It turns out he's on Bant Eldrazi, though that isn't immediately apparent. He has a turn-one Ignoble Hierarch and then an escalated Blessed Alliance to slow my assault, but the only spaghetti monsters he deploys are Eldrazi Displacers so I just run him over.


-1 Vendilion Clique

+1 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner

Game 2 (Draw, 6-7)

My opponent kept a very slow hand with a lot of removal, which is a losing strategy against Kira. I'm really flooded, but it takes forever for my opponent to draw creatures to actually pressure me so I have time to play my Seas out and cantrip into lords. On my last attack my opponent has a chance to get back into the game thanks to Displacer and a Drowner of Hope. He blinks, then Paths, Kira. He has the option to blink his Drowner to survive my attack and start taking over the game with tokens, but he doesn't see the line and I kill him.

Round 2 vs. Grixis Control (W, 2-0)

Game 1 (Draw, 6-5)

I have a very good start with Aether Vial and Silvergill Adept. My opponent has Ancestral Vision turn one, but he started so far behind on resources that despite a second Vision several turns later he never comes close to stabilizing. Mutavaults and a lord eventually kill him.


-3 Harbinger of the Tides
-4 Spreading Seas
-1 Path to Exile

+4 Unified Will
+3 Rest in Peace
+1 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner

Game 2 (Draw, 7-7)

My opponent comes out quickly with Serum Visions into a turn three Tasigur. I have a Vial and hold off playing anything into his counterspell (later revealed to be Logic Knot). After he taps out, I Path Tasigur and then slam RiP. My opponent hangs on for a while, but Master of Waves proves to be too much. He actually uses Cryptic Command twice to bounce him, and after the second time he has the removal for all my other creatures. Still, I land an attack for 10 using two Mutavaults and and he concedes.

Round 3 vs. Bant Eldrazi (W, 2-1)

My opponent is another familiar face, and again I have no idea what he's playing. He used to be on Death's Shadow but I know he hasn't for a while.

Game 1 (Play, 7-6)

I continue to be unaware of what he's playing because he misses his first land drop with a laugh. I have a good curve and quickly win, having discovered why he kept a no-lander when he plays multiple Hierarchs into Reality Smasher much too late to matter. On the draw with a scry he was hoping to get lucky and ramp out his monsters, which is by far the best way for Eldrazi to beat Merfolk.


-1 Vendilion Clique

+1 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner

Game 2 (Draw, 7-7)

My hand is good if a little slow, and becomes unfortunate when he has back-to-back accelerated Thought-Knot Seers to shred it. He wins very easily from there.

Game 3 (Win, 6-7)

My hand is mediocre, but after a turn-three Seer, he doesn't play another spell until a turn-six Engineered Explosives on two. Not because he had nothing to do but because I Spread his only colorless source. He has several Hierarchs and beats away at me with Seer while I build my board around Explosives. By the time he pops Explosives and finds colorless mana I'm back into the game and drop a big Master of Waves to smash through his very late monsters.

Round 4 vs. BG Rock (W, 2-1)

Erg. Rock is one of my worst matchups. Too many threats, too many answers. I expect this is going to suck.

Game 1 (Play, 7-7)

My hand is fine, but his removal flies fast and thick from turn one. Despite this I still get him to 6 before Thrun, the Last Troll and Tarmogoyf shut down my offense, until he finds the removal to safely attack. I often wonder if I should choose to draw in this matchup. The tempo advantage is only occasionally relevant while card advantage is usually critical. Testing has so far proved inconclusive.


-1 Harbinger of the Tides
-4 Aether Vial

+1 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
+2 Tectonic Edge
+2 Rest in Peace

Game 2 (Play, 7-7)

We have a lengthy, back-and-forth attrition fight until he plays Bitterblossom at 9 life. I don't really have a way to attack though Tarmogoyf, but then I draw Kira into RiP and suddenly the entire game has changed. Where he was once comfortably able to build an airforce and attack, now I can freely eat his Faeries and he can't attack with Goyf. I start building my ground force while hiding behind Kira and he can never attack me or risk dying on the swingback. I never have an opening to attack, but Bitterblossom finishes him anyway. I comment on this and my opponent explains that he specifically plays cards to remove Blossom for this exact scenario but never saw them.

Game 3 (Draw, 7-7)

This starts as an attrition fight, but things stall out for both of us. I have no lords, but I neuter his Goyfs with RiP. I need to use Spreading Seas to find action, but his Ghost Quarter says otherwise. I wait to play Seas and am rewarded with Tectonic Edge. I use Edge on his Quarter, he kills my Mutavault in response, and I use the floating colorless and my new Island to play Seas and draw a lord to break through for a turn. He has removal and Bitterblossom next turn at 12 life. I don't get Kira this time, but I draw running lords, including Reejerey. That allows me to wipe his tokens with a Path, a Harbinger, and an attack. He has to use his last removal spell, Abrupt Decay, on his Blossom to buy a turn, but draws nothing relevant. One more win and I'm in!

Round 5 vs. Grixis Faeries (W, 2-1)

This round gets embarrassing when my opponent next-levels me with his odd deck choice. I incorrectly identify it as Grixis Control game one, which punishes me hard when I go to sideboard.

Game 1 (Play, 7-6)

I have a great curve of Vial into lords while my opponent just has Blood Crypt and Mountain. He casts some expected removal spells and follows up with a Mutavault. When he tries block with it, I cast Path, which finds him an Island. Based on all this, I conclude that I'm against Grixis Control again, which is reinforced by a Snapcaster Mage. A Master of Waves for 4 kills him.


-3 Harbinger of the Tides
-4 Spreading Seas
-1 Path to Exile

+4 Unified Will
+3 Rest in Peace
+1 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner

Game 2 (Draw, 7-7)

I have a good curve beginning on Cursecatcher, while he plays a turn-two Bitterblossom. An odd card for control to run, I think. I just play Lord of Atlantis and attempt to land Kira when he responds with Spellstutter Sprite! That's not Grixis Control, that's not Grixis Control at all! I'm against Grixis Faeries with a hand full of Rest in Peace and Unified Will. He plays Sower of Temptation on Lord of Atlantis not realizing that my team still gets the bonus, but it's okay for him since so do his Mutavaults. He wins the race at 2 life. I need to re-sideboard!


-2 Rest in Peace
-4 Unified Will

+3 Harbinger of Tides
+2 Tectonic Edge
+1 Path to Exile

Game 3 (Play, 7-7)

I have a fast curve while he plays an early Sprite. I assume it's meant as a blocker but it turns out he needed to facilitate a Ninja of the Deep Hours strike. Deep respect man, that is a spicy deck. All the spice in the world isn't enough as I just keep slamming down lords and he just dies.

At this point there are only three undefeated players. Once I confirm I'm not the pair-down, my opponent and I draw round six and go get food. I draw again round seven to lock in my spot. I end up third seed as we don't have a clean cut, and two 18-pointers get in, including my round-one Bant Eldrazi opponent. The Top 8 consists of two Bant Eldrazi decks, me on Merfolk, the Grixis Faeries player, UB Faeries, GW Tron, Abzan Company, and Jeskai Midrange.

Quarterfinals vs. GW Tron (W, 2-0)

Game 1 (Play 7-7)

I'm on the play and have a very fast hand with a Seas to crush my stumbling opponent. Thirteen damage on turn four is too hard to overcome.


-2 Aether Vial
-2 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
-3 Harbinger of Tides

+2 Tectonic Edge
+1 Stony Silence
+4 Unified Will

On the draw I only bring in one Silence because Tron's baubles can't be caught like on the play. On the play I take out all the Vials for all the Silences.

Game 2 (Draw, 7-5)

I have a good hand of Cursecatcher into Seas and Reejerey while my opponent struggles to find Tron. On turn four, with another Catcher and lots of lords in hand, I draw a second Reejerey. This lets me dump my entire hand into play and swing for 16 with a Mutavault, leaving my opponent at one with no outs. He does have the final piece and Oblivion Stone, but those don't hit Mutavaults.

Semifinals vs. Abzan Company (W, 2-1)

I'm paired against the second seed, against a player that used to be exclusively on Burn but recently switched to Company. This is not a great match because I know he is on the multiple-combo version.

Game 1 (Draw, 7-6)

My opponent forgets to scry off his mulligan, but it doesn't matter. He has a great curve with accelerants, Company, and Knight of the Reliquary, which finds Gavony Township. I concede when my draw step isn't a miracle.


-1 Rest in Peace
-1 Cursecatcher

+2 Rest in Peace

Game 2 (Play, 7-6)

I slip in some damage, complemented by his mana base, until he's at ten and we're more or less stalemated. He has the Saffi Eriksdotter/Renegade Rallier combo out but can't use it because of Rest in Peace. At this point I drop Master of Waves for a lot and finally break through for lethal.

Game 3 (Draw, 7-6)

This game is stupid and I should not have won. I keep a one-lander with two Vials and fail twice to draw lands. My opponent destroys my first Vial, then Tidehollow Scullers the other. I draw another Island to play Harbinger and Lord of Atlantis, while he has multiple Scullers to take Master of the Pearl Tridents. I play cantrips looking for more lands, which brick, while he cannot attack or draw business. Eventually I find a white source, play RiP and then go nuts with a Reejerey, dropping multiple spells a turn. Had my opponent drawn reasonably I would have lost handily. Because he drew abysmally I won. Afterwards we joke that he shouldn't have scryed in games two and three, it worked out poorly for him compared to game one.

Finals vs. Bant Eldrazi (L, 1-2)

The other Bant Eldrazi player beat my round-one opponent to make it here. He was also a Star City States Champion from last year, so he's looking to defend his "title."

Game 1 (Play, 6-7)

My hand is really mediocre, made horrible by turn-three Thought-Knot Seer, turn-four Reality Smasher. The lands I draw are no help here.


-1 Vendilion Clique

+1 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner

Game 2 (Play 7-7)

I start out slow, but disruptive. Eventually I get out two Reejereys and dump my hand again. He doesn't really have anything despite early Displacers and Thought-Knot.

Game 3 (Draw 7-7)

My opponent has an early Smasher but Harbinger stifles that attack. Despite Thought-Knot beats, I manage my life total and stabilize, and am setting up for a lethal attack when my opponent drops Worship into play. I am now on a one-outer. Within the next couple turns I have to Path his Thought-Knot, draw another Path off the trigger, then draw a third Path or Harbinger on my draw step to clear his three creatures and attack for the win. This all assumes he bricks off. I don't get the chance as he has Displacer with three Eldrazi Temples to crush my chances. And that's the game. The tournament started at 1:00, and we finish the finals at 10:30. It's been an unexpectedly exhausting day.

So Close...

It's always disappointing to get so close and still not win, but I got very lucky to get that far in the first place. I hit good matchups and ran well. I'm a little conflicted about my lack of Echoing Truth—it wasn't relevant for the most part but it could have saved me in the finals. I also never cast Clique, so I don't know how good it is. Still, for those able to make SCG Dallas, I do recommend my list. It served me well.

Also, just a heads-up I have finished data collection for Jace the Mind Sculptor. The data analysis is in the works but it's a lot to pore though. Just looking at the raw data is interesting and has some suggestive implications, but I need to get a little deeper before I'm ready to report. Look for it soon!

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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

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

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11 thoughts on “Get Schooled: TCGPlayer States Report (2nd)

  1. Congrats!

    I missed states, but fortunately one of the last GP trials in modern is at the end of the month here for Vegas. I’m still pretty bad at Delver though not sure its worth the effort. David, at what point of proficiency with a deck did you feel comfortable going to a larger-scale event?

    1. There isn’t one, at least for me. I started going to big events when I was still a newbie scrub because I knew that I would learn more by trying than waiting around. My take is that if you want to go you should.

      Now in terms of actually winning, that depends. Obviously the more experienced you are the better your chances are, but that isn’t the only factor. You can just run hot and do well even if you have no idea what you’re doing. In fact, a number of players who did well at the Flash Hulk GP Columbus wrote afterwards that they didn’t actually know how the combo worked. I think that as long as you know what you’re supposed to be doing and how your deck operates, even if you don’t have all the nuances down, you should still go. You might surprise yourself.

        1. It is always better to play what you know. The value of the time and preparation you put into the deck will outweigh the value of playing a “better” deck in any non-Eldrazi Winter situation. As an added benefit, you will know what your opponent is doing, but they may not know what you are doing. Never underestimate the value of ignorance driven free wins.

  2. Nicely done, David! One note on your Round 1 recap, though – Displacer can’t target itself, so if your opponent didn’t have a 2nd Displacer, he didn’t miss that line, because it doesn’t exist. As for Echoing Truth… I keep it in my sideboard now, but I don’t think I’ll ever cut it from my 75 (and I also run Snags as an additional out). I would try to sneak it in your board if you can – Hurkyl’s seems like overkill given that you already have Stony Silence.

    1. That’s a typo, it’s supposed to say Drowner. He could have held me off by blinking Drowner. I’ll correct that now.
      Hurkyls is definitely overkill for Affinity but against Lantern it is not. I think I agree with you on changing it to Truth though.

  3. Congrats on your finish. Earlier in the article you mentioned you were playing around with death and taxes builds. I’ve been trying many variations of the deck and have had a decent amount of success. Is there any chance you would share the lists you’ve tried and what build has put up the best results? I keep 4-1ing competive leagues, but always fall short and I think that with tweaking, the deck could work.

  4. Hey I am Dustin the Grixis Faeries player. I appreciated your report…was a great tournament. You and losing to Abzan in the top-8 showed me I need 2 damnation in the board for sure. Merfolk definitely feels like a very solid and underplayed deck.

    Definitely got to keep up that spice level.

  5. Also I would say to @Zack Stackhouse that you should always play the deck you are most comfortable with and actually enjoy playing even if it is not considered tier 1. Two top 8 faeries players with drastically different builds I think show that for sure

  6. I’ve been working for a while on a new theory regarding both modern and legacy
    (and possibly other formats with some adjustment)

    I call it “the diversity threshold”

    To count how much “diversity” a deck has you simply count how many differently named cards you play with in your main-board, and ignore counting anything else. A deck with 60 islands would have a diversity of 1, while a deck with 20 mountains, 20 lightning bolts and 20 force of wills would have a diversity of 3. A 60 card deck with absolutely 4 of each cards has a diversity of 15.

    Going through a little more than 5000 legacy decklists I registered the diversity scores of all decks winning 1st place to see if I would get some interresting results.

    I discovered that the majority of decks winning 1st place has a diversity score between 19 and 22, and almost nothing won below a diversity of 18, except a few fringe decks getting lucky.

    Among the lucky decks were 4 merfolk decks which had a diversity of 16, 16, 17 and 17. None of them won at tournaments larger than 50 people present, where the majority of decks within the range of diversity 19-22 are spread out throughout small and very large tournaments (some 1000+)

    By the way, the 5000+ decks are a couple of years old… (around 2014)

    My question is this:
    Perhaps merfolk has too little diversity to cross over the threshold and into larger tournaments.

    One way to expand the diversity could be through a couple of fetchlands, which would be a minor change, or perhaps merfolk don’t really need such a huge amount of “growers”, you could perhaps cut some of the smaller lords, playing perhaps 6 instead of 8?

    Has anyone of you really toyed with the number of growers?

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