Back on the PPTQ Grind: Week Five

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Argh. Falling short of your goals is disheartening enough. Knowing it was because you didn't perform at you best is far worse. Doing so on your home turf is humiliating. This week's PPTQ did not go well; that's the tagline here. Just in case it wasn't immediately apparent.

This week's PPTQ was held at my local shop, Black Gold. I'm there a lot of the week playing weekly Modern tourney's and I definitely consider it my home turf. You can imagine how excited I was at the prospect of winning this for the home team. And my disappointment when that didn't happen. My poor result is directly the result of poor play on my part, but I will also be deflecting some of the blame onto circumstance. I was under the weather last weekend and it impacted my play. I wasn't actually sick, but in that pre-sick phase where you're just lethargic and spacey. Just out of things enough to punt my way out of the tournament.

On a more upbeat note, Ixalan spoilers have begun. I have yet to see any Modern-worthy Merfolk but there's still about 60% of the set to go. Having the tribe in blue-green is interesting, as players have been trying to integrate Collected Company into the deck for some time now. While Company is certainly powerful, it has never been enough to justify distorting the mana base, cutting Aether Vial, or any other compromises necessary to make room. If Ixalan brings a green disruptive Merfolk à la Cursecatcher or a two-mana cantrip like Silvergill Adept, then it might become worthwhile. Things will have to dramatically change course though—current signs are not encouraging. Merfolk already get big so the counters theme is needless and we already had Monastery Siege which wasn't good enough. Giving it fins won't change that.

The Deck

Two weeks ago I nearly got there playing UW Spirits. I kept playing the deck and am overall very happy. I'm doing a lot of individually powerful things and there's very good synergy. Reflector Mage, Spell Queller, and Chalice of the Void are shockingly powerful cards and incidentally synergize well. Clearing a board with Mage and then keeping it clear with Chalice and Queller feels disgusting. The Chalices also really compliment the Spirits theme of untouchable creatures, often acting as pseudo-Drogskol Captains while simultaneously preventing the opponent from advancing their gameplan. It's also nice to have a card that some decks just can't beat. Spirits is still very vulnerable to creature swarms and Chalice isn't effective everywhere, but great in enough places to be very worthwhile. Besides, sometimes you just race them with fliers.

The maindeck is largely unchanged. Cryptic Command was very good, but Cavern of Souls occasionally made things awkward. It was easy to get two same-colored mana, but three was proving a stretch. This was fixable by moving away from Mistveil Plains in the mana, but I found myself wanting something cheaper anyway. This deck is weirdly mana-hungry. Sphere was seeing play as a catch-all anyway; it made sense to promote it to maindeck.

Hibernation had a standout performance two weeks ago, but it just wasn't good enough anymore. Elves and Counters Company have virtually disappeared from my regional meta while white-based creature decks are rising. This necessitates a change to Supreme Verdict. Wrath of God was a serious consideration for quite a while, but Verdict was the clear choice. Yes, I do remember what I said about Cavern making color-intense spells awkward, but that was mostly in relation to triple blue. Double-white, single-blue is easier to manage. Uncounterability was also important because the mono-blue Grand Architect deck has been showing up in force recently and it sucks losing to Judge's Familiar.

Meddling Mage is in Detention Sphere's old slot, mostly because Storm has been popular recently. I've tried a number of cards in that slot, including Runed Halo, and am not really sure what is best. Being a creature for Vial, a human for Cavern, and having applications in many matchups currently wins it for Mage, but that could easily shift.

The Tournament

I had been preparing for and looking forward to this PPTQ for quite some time. On the day of I was no longer optimistic. I just had no energy and it felt like I was thinking through mud. Which might have been less my actual health status than the fact that I woke up really late and had to scramble a bit to get to the site. This didn't leave me much time to actively scout, but I also didn't have to. I recognized most of the faces there and knew that this would be a pretty wide assortment of decks present. I saw part of the Boulder combo collective, the red aggro-loving central Denver crowd, and the usual suspects from the local meta. My assessment was for lots of combo, control, Eldrazi Tron, and Burn. In other words, it was a cross-section of the Denver meta.

This was good news for Spirits. The deck targets combo and control, and Burn is heavily splash-damaged by Chalice. Etron can be tricky thanks to Walking Ballista but its otherwise very winnable with a fast draw and/or Reflector Mage. While I scrambled to register I was feeling very confident.

The store was very nearly full, but I didn't hear exactly how many players were in the PPTQ. It was six rounds long, and prior to the repair I heard 49. Then a number of players who had called ahead but arrived later than expected, which added I'm not sure how many players. I wasn't unhappy with this; my round one opponent had a UW Control deck that I knew would be a nightmare. It had all of the sweepers and was splashing for Lingering Souls (don't know if it still was). The repair moved me from table three down to eighteen against Grixis Control, a much better matchup.

It doesn't help. He outdraws me by a good margin game one, then I make a series of serious punts to lose game two. This becomes the theme of the day and I drop out of prize contention at 1-2-1. My only win was more about my opponent's deck failing her than anything I did.

What Happened?

I was just not playing well. There's a lot to keep track of in a basic game of Magic. Competitive jacks that up considerably with the additional rules. Couple that with the bookkeeping needed to preserve match integrity and in my case write about afterwards, and Magic is a very mental game. And my mind just wasn't working. On several occasions I just spaced through decision trees, or came to the correct decision only to not execute it properly. Yes, I wasn't at full capacity, but that doesn't excuse the general sloppiness of my play. General spaciness and the odd missed trigger sure, but I really should have been paying more attention.

The first example was round one, game two. My opponent has out Izzet Staticaster (yes, she is) which decimated my Mausoleum Wanderers several turns earlier. I have Spell Queller out with an important spell under it and Chalice on one. I've beaten my opponent down quite a bit and he's going for Choice of Damnations to get his spell back. I have Rattlechains and Selfless Spirit in hand, so all I have to do is play Rattlechains and give him hexproof. Either that resolves or my opponent goes for Staticaster—either way I then flash in Selfy, save my creatures and two-for-one my opponent. The problem is that when I execute the plan I say "trigger," and immediately play Selfy. Meaning the Rattlechains isn't hexproof yet. Meaning I just feed the Staticaster. And give my opponent the time they need to get back into the game.

Another good example is from my draw. I was against Esper Control at the end of a long game capping off a long, hard-fought match, and we were nearly to time. I'd already missed several Chalice triggers which would have ended things earlier. We needed a judge's clarification on a rule and it took several minutes. Within a few seconds of play resuming, time was called. We tie the game with my opponent at one. During turns I realized I should have asked for a time extension due to the judge call. I didn't even consider it then, but I normally do ask. As a result I get a draw instead of a win. Just wasn't thinking.

Lessons Learned

If you're not 100%, and you're going to play competitive Magic, don't play a complicated deck. Given my mental state I really should have been playing Merfolk. It would not have been as well positioned but it has far less to keep track of or things to screw up. Being 90% instant-speed with lots of odd interaction gives Spirits a lot of power and flexibility but it also makes it easy to screw yourself. Mefolk plays fish and turns them sideways, which is all I was really up to do. Again, don't be too ambitious and play what you are able to play well, not the best deck.

I'm also changing how I play my cards. Normally artifacts and enchantments go on my left side near my deck, but this is a problem when you play Chalice. You can miss those triggers and being relatively new to the card I keep forgetting it exists. I normally put them where they're hard to see, and not having that reminder is making me delete them from memory to make room for all the new stuff that has happened since I cast the card. No longer. From now on Chalice goes right in the very middle of the battlefield where it can always remind me it exists and to counter things. Most players will see Chalice and not play spells that get hit, but some heads-up players will try to sneak stuff past you. When you're as dozy as I was, it works and wins you games. No more!

On the Deck

While I'm generally very happy with the deck I have noticed some problems. First and foremost: I'm tired of Grafdigger's Cage. It was great two weeks ago, but with Company decks falling off and not much Dredge to worry about it's just not very good graveyard hate. Exiling cards is critical against graveyard combos like Storm or Thopter Foundry, delve creatures, and Tarmogoyf. It's been almost two weeks since I've needed Cage but I keep needing Rest in Peace and not having it. That will change for next week.

The other problem, and I don't have a clear solution, is the land count. You have lots of three-drops and often want five or six lands to maximize your spells and protection, so 22 lands is critical. However, flooding is a problem when your only card draw is Ninja of the Deep Hours, and there's really no room to add ways to smooth your draws. It would just change the deck too much.

Adding fetchlands has been suggested, and it is a good one, though not without problems. On the one hand you keep the land count but you get to thin the deck of lands. That's good. The problem being that you're doing more damage to yourself in a deck that struggles against creatures. You also have to make cuts. Cut too many basics and you're suddenly dead to Blood Moon. Cut into the dual lands and you weaken your color balance. You also will draw fewer lands, and that is sometimes a problem. That said, I do think this is solvable, and I will be experimenting with new manabases this week.

Moving Forward

I see myself sticking with Spirits since it has so much play against so many decks in the Denver meta. However, I'm going to be bringing along easier decks just in case. This will entail some time dedicated to refamiliarize myself with Merfolk, which I haven't played in months. I may also finally build Little Kid Abzan since I have all the cards and it is straightforward and powerful. You shouldn't expect yourself to be at your peak all the time. You want to be, but I will be hedging in the future.

...And On...

The PPTQ that I'm attending this week is up north again, and while my default remains Spirits I could see myself adjusting back to UW Control if the meta looks like it did the first few PPTQs. Still not giving up! Good grinding, and may you get there before me.

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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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4 thoughts on “Back on the PPTQ Grind: Week Five

  1. Thanks for the weekly reports !!! I’ve been thinking about building the spirits deck and was wondering if adding green could help with some of the problems you’ve found with the deck. Noble hierarch + Collected company seem really good in this deck.
    Also, would you mind sharing your little kid Abzan list ? I’m building that deck for a friend who’s coming back to the game.

    1. If you’re going to go for Bant Spirits that’s fine but it dramatically changes the deck. My version is built to be a prison/aggro deck, which is very potent against midrange, control, and combo decks. Vial is essential for this version because you need your creatures to be uncounterable as often as possible. The Bant versions are more value decks, intended to flood the board with incidentally good creatures rather than really target one interaction. You can’t run Vial in this version. Bant doesn’t particularly shine in any matchup, but it is never an underdog either. It’s matchups are very Jund-like in that you’re never really worse than 45% or better than 55%. UW has lots of 65% and 35% matchups. Which you prefer depend on you and your metagame.

      As for Little Kid, I don’t have a particular list in mind. I was literally just going to put Noble Hierarch, Voice of Resurgence, Loxodon Smiter, Siege Rhino, and Wilt-Leaf Liege together and just start tuning. If you’re looking for more guidance, look here.

  2. I really appreciate this write up. I thought I was one of the few to have bad days like these and have been thinking of stop playing from time to time seeing as my mental energy fails me during certain periods. Nice to see I am not alone in this regard. Repositioning important cards seems smart. I place eidolon of The great revel right in the middle of everything with goblin guide to have my few triggers together. Granted, it is nothing near The level of interaction spirits has.

    I quit playing interactive decks and have been playing burn for some time now to gather my game, so to say. Played jeskai Flash and just ended up in analysis paralysis so I went with a more linear aggressive strategy for a while. I’m branching out more interactive decks again but will be keeping my burn deck close just in case.

    Anyways, thanks for sharing your thoughts and struggles. I can surely relate :).

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