Back on the PPTQ Grind: Week Three

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Another week, another PPTQ, and another failure to qualify. On the one hand, this is nice: I don't have to actually think about my article week to week. On the other, I'm still not qualified for the RPTQ. With the good comes the bad, I suppose. Anyway, before I get into my tournament, lets talk about the real news from the weekend: SCG had a Modern Open in Syracuse, and Eldrazi Tron closed out the finals. There were also two more copies in the Top 32. Considering that only six copies made Day 2, that is a very solid conversion rate. Much better than Grixis Shadow's, which only put one copy into Top 8 and one into Top 32 after having brought eight pilots to Day 2.

I'm sure this will fuel banning arguments to no end, but I'd rather focus on Tron. It shows up in event and MTGO results at least as often as Shadow. I said almost a month ago that Eldrazi Tron was the real problem in the Modern meta and Grixis Shadow was talking advantage of its wake. Evidence is accruing for my theory.

There's another Modern Open and two Grand Prix this weekend. I would not be surprised if E-Tron took down at least one of these events. Should that happen, I expect E-Tron to overtake Grixis Shadow on the Salty Player Banlist Calls ranking chart. I think the evidence that Death's Shadow needs to go is ambiguous at best, but to me it increasingly appears that Eldrazi Temple needs to go. We'll see what happens Sunday.

The Deck

I was extremely frustrated with Death and Taxes after last week. That's not totally fair to the deck; I wasn't hitting the matchups I was targeting, and that cripples the deck. However, that is still a scathing indictment. If the deck can't win against randomness, I really shouldn't run it at PPTQs. Therefore I relegated it to the backburner, with the plan of only running it if I saw a lot of Tron.

I haven't had good results with Merfolk in more than a month, and this PPTQ was up north again, so I expected lots of Affinity. That left me with UW Control. Not that this is a bad thing—UW was the first deck I built in Modern, back when recurring Kitchen Finks with Sun Titan was the best way to grind through Bloodbraid Elf. It has been a while since I actually sleeved the deck up for a tournament, however, so I put a lot of extra work into knocking off the rust and tuning the deck. Taking this deck to local weeklies really shocked other players; I've played various aggro decks for so long that's all anyone thinks I can play anymore. It was oddly satisfying watching them be shocked and confused by Celestial Colonnade.

The deck went though a number of iterations, but a variation of Ryland's deck had the best results for me, so that's what I prepared for the PPTQ.

The most obvious change from Ryland's list is that I'm running fewer lands. I flooded out more often than I got mana-choked in testing, and I really didn't like Irrigated Farmland, so I cut that and an Island. The change freed up space for Blessed Alliance, which I badly wanted in the utility slot and against Eldrazi. Think Twice is a fine card in multiples, but was unimpressive as a one-of. I also wanted two Sphinx's Revelation, so I made the swap. Finally, my planeswalker suite includes more Gideon Jura and a maindeck Elspeth. The Gideons were an availability issue, as Gideon of the Trials is sold out in my area and my order still hasn't arrived. As I learned during the PPTQ, you frequently need an early clock in this deck. I was also boarding Elspeth in so often that I just maindecked her.

The main difference in the sideboard is all the Geists. Against Gx Tron and combo you desperately need a fast clock to back up your counters and Geist of Saint Traft is as good as it gets in UW. He's pretty poor in a lot of matchups, but when he's good he's amazing, and better at that job than Vendilion Clique.

The Tournament

This was much smaller than the previous two PPTQs, only 33 players. Which is just enough for six rounds again. The judge wasn't particularly happy about that, but it ended up working out. Only two rounds went to time and most were done 10+ minutes early. Fast tournaments are one of the rare pleasures of Magic and enhanced the experience greatly.

I didn't really get any information from my pre-tournament walk around. There were a few players working on their decklists, but I knew what they were playing beforehand either because they always play the same decks (they being Living End, Jeskai Control, and Zoo) or because I saw them last week (Bant Humans, Kiki-Chord). Therefore I just sat down and registered my list. Five and a half hours later I was done, in 10th Place with a 3-2-1 record.

What Happened?

Fate certainly played a part. My round one opponent was one of the best, and easily most successful, UB Faeries players in the state. Not an auspicious way to start a tournament. For those unaware, control decks have never done well against Faeries unless they have Volcanic Fallout. It was never unwinnable, even in Standard, but trying to grind them out is daunting at best. It's worse for me—he runs Sword of Light and Shadow maindeck and Ancestral Vision sideboard. I also never test against Faeries so I'm at a huge disadvantage. I get crushed.

Things improved from there. I beat Grixis Shadow, Gifts Storm, and a weird Temur Hollow One deck in quick succession. The turn one Flameblade Adepts confused me greatly, though it made sense with all the Faithless Lootings and Burning Inquirys the deck played. It seemed really explosive but lacked reach or staying power, and so despite some huge Kiln Fiend-esque hits, I stabilized and won easily both games. You may think this put me in good position for Top 8, but my breakers were almost as bad as they could be, so I wasn't holding out much hope.

Any such hope was extinguished next round when I lost to Merfolk. In my experience, this is a terrible matchup for Merfolk, but I'll freely admit that my experience is not typical among Merfolk players. Game one I saw no sweepers and could never turn the corner against Kira, Great Glass-Spinner. Game two I saw mostly sweepers and not enough answers to his Mutavaults backed with Dispel. I was still in the prize hunt and didn't want to fight late afternoon traffic, so I stayed for the final round against GW Hatebears. Neither of us have the breakers to make it in unless disaster strikes everyone above us.

I won game one in crushing fashion, but game two I kept a mulliganed one-lander and eventually lost. In my defense, it was the kind of one-lander you keep on the draw, with a white source, three Path to Exile, Condemn, and Blessed Alliance. But it takes four turns to draw another land and another two to draw the third. I never saw the cards that I swapped for the lands so this wasn't a deck-building problem but pure variance. The worst part is that if I got to five mana a turn earlier I still would have turned the corner but it wasn't to be. I still just barely failed to stabilize and win. Game three is another grindfest that goes to time just as I play Elspeth and start the process of winning. The draw gets both of us prizes and my best result so far this season.

The Top 8 consisted of Amulet Titan, that Bant Humans list, the Merfolk deck that beat me, Counters Company, Kiki-Chord, Grixis Shadow (not the one I beat), Jund Rock, and Storm. I didn't stick around to see who actually won; I was really hungry by that point.

Lessons Learned

Unlike in previous weeks, I cannot point to any grand strategic error or misplay that cost me the tournament. It seems very unlikely that I could beat Faeries period, though I nearly stole game two thanks to an early Gideon of the Trials and Bitterblossom damage. However, his deck is a card advantage machine and I could never compete. It may be possible to build the deck to win those games; I just don't know if it's worthwhile. My loss to Merfolk was mostly due to drawing the wrong part of my deck at the wrong time, but I might have done better if I'd sideboarded differently. Spreading Seas is generally very bad against Merfolk so I took out three but I really needed them against all of the Mutavaults. This requires reevaluation.

What I am sure about is that I threw a lot of value away and made several games closer than they should have been thanks to poor sequencing and timing decisions. I fetched at less-than-optimal times, used removal in the wrong order, and forgot to use my planeswalkers entirely throughout the day. Did it affect the outcome of any games? Probably not; my more powerful cards pulled me through. Yes, playing control is hard, but that's no excuse for poor play. I knew I was rusty with control, but I apparently didn't appreciate how rusty. I have got to tighten up and play better if I'm going to keep playing UW. There was one unforgivable sequence in which I thought through my plan, worked out the correct sequencing, and then still messed it up. It didn't cost me the game, but it could have. I think my problem is that I tunnel-visioned into the situation immediately in front of me and kept missing the greater strategic picture. And also just brain-farted like a champ. Everybody punts indeed. I need to fix this if I'm to get back to the Pro Tour.

On the Deck

I was generally happy with the deck. Not having two cheap Gideons is a problem that I hope will be fixed soon. Gideon Jura is great against swarm decks but there just aren't many of those in Modern now. Having a cheap, recurring answer that is also a great source of damage is essential. 

I also wasn't impressed with Wall of Omens. It rarely blocked anything, and would have been better as Think Twice most of the time. Even when it did block, it always died. I'd like to see a more impactful spell in that slot.

It's weird to say, but UW feels like a deck build for post-board games. Affinity and Dredge are game one decks, meaning they are very favored in most game ones but lose a lot after sideboarding. UW feels like it loses a lot of game ones because it's spread too thin, but it makes up for it with much better sideboard games. I'm curious about whether making the deck a little more extreme maindeck is a good option. Not sure what exactly that will entail, but it is interesting to think about.

Moving Forward

UW is likely to remain my deck for the next week. The format has been much more hostile to Merfolk and Death and Taxes than expected, but counters and sweepers are still good. My practice focus will be less on deck construction than actually playing the game well. My strategic play is suffering from small, tactical level mistakes, and that has to change.

And On...

This is an RPTQ weekend, and that also makes it a double PPTQ weekend. I expect the first one to be easier than the second since most of the local sharks will be playing the LCQ, but I intend to hit both. Hopefully, lightning will strike once this week. Good luck, and grind on.

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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.

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6 thoughts on “Back on the PPTQ Grind: Week Three

  1. Good article as always, definitely agree with your thoughts on ETron and wonder what might happen if anything. I got 3rd at a 38 player PPTQ in my area this past weekend, 4-1-1 on BW Tokens. Lost to the eventual winner on Affinity in the semifinals.

    1. The weird thing about Etron to me is that the problem is less the Eldrazi themselves than Walking Ballista. It fills so many holes and blind spots for the deck and I cannot imagine it would be so highly tiered otherwise. Not that you’d ban Ballista, but it still seems the real problem to me.

  2. Great article as always, but as a D&T player I’m going to miss your comments about the deck. I have a doubt with the stony silence in the sideboard in D&T. Wouldn’t be better to have something like 2 Disenchant and 1 Kataki instead of the Stony and not lose the power of the Vial. It has been always kind of a nightmare to take away the vials and lose the card draw of the Inspector due to a Stony that not always gives you the victory against Affinity. What are your thoughts?

    1. Against Affinity you are never going to win the tempo war (unless you were going to win anyway) so I board out Vials there, making Stony less harmful. Kataki is better against Affinity as you say, but you really need Stony in other matchups so that’s why I always run it. Walking Ballista is a nightmare and justifies the anti-synergy in my mind. I don’t blame anyone for going Kataki instead, but I prefer the wider usefulness of Stony.

  3. It charms my heart as a fellow merfolk player to see all these merfolk pilots running so well, even though your success with the deck has been marginal for yourself. It is definitely the right call against so much affinity to shelve it, even if I and the people in your tournaments just play that deck all the time. (like all merfolk players)

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