Regional PTQs for Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan start next week, and the RPTQ format is Modern. For those of us who are competing (I’m not one of them, but I know a few), there are a few angles of attack that I wanted to discuss today. I'll also provide some general thoughts on the metagame now that the "Humans shock" has settled somewhat. This will be a two-part article: the first, a general discussion around RPTQ preparation and strategy; the second, a few decks that caught my eye heading into RPTQ season, along with some unique perspective around the philosophy behind archetype choice. I’ve got some video content I’m working on as well, but I couldn’t let this opportunity to discuss RPTQ strategy slip me by. Let’s get to it!
A Brief History
For those who know my (brief) competitive resume, you know that I hold a dear place in my heart for the Regional Pro Tour Qualifier circuit. Back in Fate Reforged Standard, in the middle of my streaming heyday, I spent weeks grinding and perfecting my Esper Dragons list, learning the ins and outs of every matchup and perfecting my sideboard strategy to a card. While the fact that Esper Dragons was the best deck in the format at the time certainly helped, I owe my Pro Tour berth to the RPTQ circuit and the hours I spent preparing for it.
With RPTQs coming back around, here’s a few things I learned the first time around that I feel give me a unique perspective on how to approach this particular event.
A Strange Case Indeed
RPTQ events (and competitors) are an interesting breed. There’s a mix of the old PTQ grinder crowd, mixed in with the new crowd of wide-eyed and innocent small-town PPTQ winners. As a result, the types of decks (and players) you face at RPTQs can vary wildly from event to event, but nevertheless create a unique environment that always ends up very unlike the crowd you find at Star City Games Opens and Grand Prixs.
I’m a firm believer in playing the field, which doesn’t necessarily align with the metagame. SCG Opens often tend to be very “top-heavy,” in the sense that a large number of players are running either the best deck or the deck they feel best beats the best deck. Grand Prix are much larger, and contain a more diverse range of experience and skill level in the player base, so the diversity in archetype tends to match. The top decks are present of course, but so are a bunch of random chaff that you have to weed through in the early rounds. While this is obviously a generalization, and variance in your pairings can give you vastly different results, for the most part it holds true.
All that to say this: oftentimes the deck you choose to play and your resultant success is just as dependent on the type of event as all the other factors we are familiar with. The metagame, the rock-paper-scissors theory, deck familiarity, and more are all factors we take into account—but the type of player and quality of event we are playing in can influence results just as well. Packing Grixis Death’s Shadow at SCG Charlotte a while back—on the very weekend when everyone was gunning for Grixis Death’s Shadow—is a bold move, and must be considered during deck and sideboard construction. Were that event a Grand Prix, I would have spent less time teching for the mirror and opposing hate cards, and more time preparing my deck (and my comfortability) for an open field.
That brings us back around to RPTQs. How do we prep for a field that offers a unique playerbase, somewhere in between a Grand Prix and an SCG Open? The grinders will be out in force, and we’ll have to beat them at the top tables to get the invite, but our day could easily be ruined by some rando going rogue with a pet deck. Back at my RPTQ (indulge my Standard reminiscing for a second) my whole event was almost ruined by Zack Jesse (the throwback!) piloting an Abzan Reanimator list I was completely unprepared for. I had spent all my time preparing for Mono-Red, Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector and was completely unprepared for an archetype that didn’t play by the rules. Victory was eventually achieved, but on the back of familiarity with my archetype and the ins and outs of how to play it rather than familiarity with every matchup in the field.
So, as always is the case with Magic, we’ve got options! Been playing Jund for years? Know the ins of outs of every matchup? Then you know your deck is a 50/50 deck, but go ahead and play it, content with the knowledge that you’ve tested every possible matchup more than your opponent, so you deserve to win even though you sleeved up a million removal spells against Tron. If that doesn’t describe you, and you recently found yourself with a beggar’s chance at the bright lights, perhaps something straightforward like Affinity is more to your liking. If you’ve been neck-deep in the metagame trends for the past few weeks, and you know what everyone is playing because you’re a genius, attacking with something off the wall like Living End, Ad Nauseam, or Bogles could be the way to go. The best thing about RPTQs, in my opinion, is that all options are possible, and the event is small enough that literally anything can take the room by surprise.
A Few Options
So I have no idea if this deck is good, but it intrigues me for a couple reasons. First, the catchy sideboard with all the great cards, complete with Rest in Peace, Stony Silence, and a playset of Leyline of Sanctity because you know somebody’s going to be playing Burn. It dodges the main downside of tricky decks, in the sense that they’re, you know, tricky decks, which is often a synonym for "bad." At worst, its still Tron, and a bunch of decks in the format still fold to an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. At best, you look like a super genius, and can present the triple threat of powerful deck/attacks the field/off the radar. You know, that deck that crushes you while you sit there thinking to yourself, “Yeah, I just got next leveled.”
Is Thalia's Lancers actually good? I question it, but I shouldn’t, because I haven’t played it yet. And neither should you. I’m not above any card or strategy if it’s the one that’s going to help me win, and if that’s the attitude you have going into an RPTQ event, then you just aren’t meant for the Pro Tour. Sorry. Playing on the largest stage requires suspending disbelief, putting aside pride, and looking under every possible rock for the edge it takes to be a champion. For me, that card was Stratus Dancer. My final round, my Pro Tour win-and-in, came against Mono-Red, and I won the match by beating down for a few turns with a Stratus Dancer, then casting Silumgar's Scorn and Foul-Tongue Invocation to survive his lethal. Make the Pro Tour with a card that makes your opponent read it. It’s a memory you will never forget.
I know, it’s a control deck with Gideon of the Trials and Search for Azcanta // Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin. I can’t help myself. I love this deck for a couple reasons. First, every single card in this deck signals to me that the pilot knows what he’s doing. I’m not saying this is a perfect list, as the numbers could just as easily be experimental as intentional. But this is the sort of deck you play for weeks and weeks, trying out tons of variations of cards, finding the flex slots, and tuning for specific matchups. This type of approach takes dedication, and an iron will. I spent weeks grinding Esper Dragons only for it to become a target right before my RPTQ, but I stayed the course. UW Control will definitely not be a target in the same sense that Esper Dragons was, but a strong finish or two from a control deck right before the RPTQ can potentially ruin plans you've been working towards fruition for weeks.
I know from experience that taking down an event with a deck you’ve played for weeks and weeks, perfecting it to the best of your ability, culminating finally in ultimate victory… It’s something special. RPTQs, in my mind, bring out the type of player you are, whether you realize it or not. How do you respond to a challenge? Do you face it head on, putting all of your faith in how you play your signature deck on game day? Do you bank on preparation, essentially betting your results on how accurately you were able to figure out the field? Or do you roll the dice on something you might not be too familiar with, but nevertheless feel will give you a hot-hand type effect?
What type of player are you? If your RPTQ is coming up, you’ll know soon enough. If this round isn’t your opportunity, get there, so you can find out.
Thanks for reading,