Back on the PPTQ Grind: Week Four

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This is a very frustrating week for me. You see, I have a very good result to report on and an embarrassingly bad one as well. It's not the ideal result, but much better than previous weeks. I almost got there, but that just isn't good enough for me. I'm massively competitive and will never be satisfied with anything less than victory. Given that, my second place finish at the PPTQ really stung.

This was the double PPTQ week, thanks to the RPTQ for Pro Tour Ixalan. I have to reiterate how annoying it is that Denver always gets the Standard RPTQs but not Modern ones. I want to get back on the Pro Tour regardless of format, but Modern is so much more enjoyable to me that I actually look forward to grinding this season. Not having to travel for them is a huge bonus, especially because it will be winter travel. Why couldn't the Modern RPTQ be in summer? It's so much easier to travel then. Still, at least this doubles my chances of getting there.

A quick note before we go on: neither Eldrazi Tron nor Grixis Shadow won a big Modern event this weekend. Grixis did have a very good showing, however, getting second in Richmond, and placing copies into the Top 8s of both GP Birmingham and GP São Paulo as well as the Classic. This ensures that Grixis will remain the focus of banning speculation for the foreseeable future. It doesn't matter if you believe it's justified or not, there is a very strong opinion in the community that the deck is too good and they are gathering the evidence to prove it. Couple this with calls from pros like LSV and I definitely wouldn't bet against the deck surviving past August 28. Which likely means that Eldrazi Temple will remain, much to my dismay.

The Deck

Last week I got my best result so far with UW Control. 10th may not be Top 8, but it is so much better than dropping with a losing record. As a result I intended to stick with the deck for another week. It was fairly well positioned, but I knew I needed additional practice. After spending the week doing just that, I was far less confident in my choice.

Two problems with my deck had appeared. First and foremost, I was struggling against red decks. Burn was an okay matchup, especially after board, but red creature decks were a nightmare. The problem was that my list was built to deal with small numbers of large creatures, not swarms. Against a swarm you need to prevent a lot of damage prior to playing your sweeper so you don't just die to the second wave of haste creatures and burn. This means Wall of Omens and Kitchen Finks, both of which aren't good anywhere else. I felt that this problem was acceptable—it didn't seem likely that this would manifest at the PPTQ. Goblin Bushwhacker decks just show up in my local meta every few months and aren't a reason to abandon a deck.

What was an actual problem was the mirror. I played a number of matches against several different types of control decks over the week and didn't win a single one. While in a few cases it was entirely my play mistakes that cost me, it was consistently clear that I was simply disadvantaged against other control decks. I didn't have anything to really break open the mirror and I was grinding at disadvantage. I didn't have Ancestral Vision to pull ahead on cards, Crucible of Worlds to grind out their lands, or extra disruption to force through a win. I just had to grind and hope they bricked out first. Was it doable? Certainly. Is that a great way to spend a tournament? No. This convinced me that control was a risky choice, and once I got to the site I decided not to play control. Instead, I played this:

Yep. That's Ninja of the Deep Hours. And a full set of Chalice of the Void. Spicy, but there is madness to my method.

See, my versions of Spirits have always been great against control decks and terrible against creatures. I decided to just embrace this when I rebuilt the deck this week. Therefore I played the absolute best protection card in Chalice instead of Kira, Great Glass-Spinner. Playing Chalice meant cutting Path to Exile, which was never very impressive anyway. This let me play a full set of the far more impressive Reflector Mage, which is a messed-up card at instant speed even in Modern. Playing a full set of Cavern of Souls ensures that the only maindeck card that I can't cast through Chalice is Aether Vial. Ninja was added because this deck can flood and wanted some kind of card advantage, and I remembered that reusing Reflector Mage is very good.

The sideboard was built based on what I saw in my pre-tournament scouting. Extra counters for blue decks, Cage for graveyard and Chord decks, Hibernation against green decks, Stony for artifact combo. I didn't expect many Tarmogoyf decks so I didn't think Rest in Peace was necessary. The Detention Sphere was my flex slot. I initially had Disenchant, but after some consideration Sphere was better. Being able to hit multiple copies of a thing is good, but the main reason was in case I hit creature decks where Hibernation was poor. With no testing of this configuration, I sat down for round one.

The Tournament

The PPTQ was being run alongside the Last Chance Qualifier for the RPTQ. It was a large LCQ (didn't check numbers) and a 38 player PPTQ. This utterly maxed out the available space, and we had to be packed in like sardines to make it work. I really wish they didn't run things like this, or at least planned for huge attendances but c'est la vie. Additional judges would have been great, though in truth most events could use additional judges. Another six-round day, this time much longer because of logistical problems and players going to time.

When I was scouting, it was hard to tell how many players were there for Modern. Of those I knew weren't in the LCQ, I identified three control players and four Chord players. I then saw two players testing with red decks (was hard to tell what exactly), two more playing Delver, and two on Storm. I never saw any Affinity, but I did see a Thopter Foundry player. Between the control decks, red decks, and Storm, UW Control felt like a poor choice. I really hate playing from behind round after round, and that is exactly what would happen in this field.

On the other hand, lots of control and combo with slower creature decks is exactly what Spirits wants to see, so I hurriedly rebuilt the deck from the cards I had with me. This worked out, as I finished in 2nd place, losing the finals to my nemesis, the UB Faeries player from last week. At least I don't have to worry about him at any more PPTQs this season. My Swiss record was 4-1-1, defeating Jeskai Control, Allies, Eldrazi Tron, and Jund Shadow, losing to the Thopter deck, and drawing with Counters Company. I beat midrange Abzan and Elves during Top 8.

What Happened?

I lost the finals because that Faeries deck is a terrible matchup. Normally, while I can't stop them from casting Bitterblossom, I can push through it just by going big. Chalice and Cavern shut off their interaction so I can win at my leisure. The problem is that this particular player plays a lot of devastating three-drops, namely Sword of Light and Shadow and Liliana, the Last Hope. He also has Creeping Tar Pit and Mutavault. I don't have instant speed answers except for Cryptic Command and Vialing in Reflector Mage, both of which are temporary. So I'm simply cold to creature lands, particularly one I can't block. Game one is a close race that he wins by drawing Cryptic when I don't, game two Tar Pit gets there.

My other loss, to Thopter Combo in the swiss, was poor fortune. In game one I didn't have Spell Queller until the turn after he plays Ensnaring Bridge, and then he plays a second one the turn afterwards so I can't Cryptic my way out. Game two I mulligan to a terrible five and just die. Nothing I could do there. Normally decks like that are good matchups but I just didn't draw the cards to win.

Most of my wins were the result of my clock, and I got lucky against Allies. Jeskai can't really match Vial into Chalice for one, and when you have Queller for sweepers it's just unfair. Then again, that's what the deck is meant to do against Jeskai. Jund Shadow went the same way, with me also getting considerable mana and card advantage bouncing Reflector Mage with Ninja. He did get a game off of me by chaining a Grim Flayer into Tarmogoyfs. I could have set a Chalice on two when he only had Flayer on the board, but I couldn't remove it then and his deck is mostly ones, so that was the number I chose. I think if I do choose two I could have still lost based on all the ones he milled with the Flayer; hard to say. That was also how my quarterfinals match against Abzan went down. Game one against Eldrazi was easy, he played all the Chalices while I just flew in for massive damage. Game two he had turn four Ulamog, but I'd done enough damage that with a chump I was able to just nose him, winning at one life and four cards in library.

I should not have beaten Allies. It is exactly the sort of deck that should crush mine. Luckily for me, his draw was lackluster. Reflector Mage bought so much tempo that, coupled with a pumped Wanderer countering Collected Company, I won the race game one. Game two he was stuck on just Cavern of Souls for land, but had a lot of one-drops that got me to nine. Thankfully, that took long enough that my mull to five with Vial and Reflector Mage could blank an attack step and stonewall him until I had the win. Elves should have been a similarly bad matchup, but his draw is poor game one and game two I draw a Grafdigger's Cage to prevent him comboing off and then two Hibernations to seal the game. That's a really great card against Elves.

You may have noticed that I'm only talking about the Saturday PPTQ. This is because I didn't actually check on the Sunday PPTQ, concurrent with the RPTQ, and assumed it was at the same time as the previous one. It was not. It was earlier. As a result I missed it. In my defense, the first PPTQ ran very long in a building where the AC was badly overworked and I got home late. However, that is no defense. Always, always, always check before you go! I'm very irritated at myself over this.

Lessons Learned

My main takeaway is that preventing your opponent from playing Magic is a great way to win. My deck accomplishes this in spades and I could definitely see myself playing at another PPTQ. Also, always check the day and time of tournaments. That's... just awful of me.

On the gameplay side I felt like my play improved, but that may have simply been because I had to make fewer decisions playing this deck than UW Control. Once you're opponent's deck is neutered, you're free to do whatever. I will remind myself of this before the next one so I don't get undisciplined.

On the Deck

I was very happy with the maindeck and I don't think I want to make changes. Ninja was cute, but he can also be very effective. Drawing cards and reusing Rattlechains and Mage were all very good, but my opponents kept spending entire turns worth of mana to kill him and that's even better, especially with Vial. Chalice was generally better than Path, so I'm planning on sticking to this plan.

The sideboard was built according to my scouting and I will be making changes. Hibernation was great but it probably won't be great next time. I played against more decks that RiP was good against than Cage, but that also isn't likely to be a consistent thing. There was no Affinity, but had there been I would have wanted Kataki, War's Wage over Stony. Since I can protect Spirits like him it makes sense in an Affinity field to have him, but otherwise Stony is better. I'll just have to see where things stand in two weeks.

Moving Forward

Yes, two weeks. This week is GP Denver and there are no PPTQs to grind. I'm not playing the main event because I don't have a playable Standard deck and don't want to buy one just for this tournament, but I will grind Modern side events to evaluate my deck for the week after. I really like Spirits and I would like them to be good enough for the rest of the season. Hopefully it will work out.

...And On...

This means that I'll need to actually write something new next week. Might as well make it my qualitative report on Preordain. I've finished the Storm testing and am just under halfway through the Control test (been on the back burner compared to PPTQ work) but I've got enough of a handle on the card to give you a general idea about the card's place in Modern. Good luck and keep grinding!

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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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3 thoughts on “Back on the PPTQ Grind: Week Four

    1. Mostly I didn’t think I needed them and I hate extra shuffling, but during the tournament I began to think about the deck’s vulnerability to Blood Moon. It has a lot of basics, but fetches would provide some insurance. If you want fetches I’d cut the Fortresses and two Fountains.

      The three drop slot is absolutely packed so you have to maximize your impact. Nebelgast is fine in Standard but Modern is too fast for him. Tapping a creature or two during combat is rarely enough to win a race, making Reflector Mage better in that slot. Geist is incredible in the right matchups, but in many he’s just a slow Boros Charm. This makes him a sideboard card, but you’d only bring him in against decks you’re already pretty solid against.

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