There is an old proverb about the best-laid plans. I intended to examine the results from SCG Regionals this week, but at writing time, they had not been officially posted. The few forum and reddit posts provide patchwork at best data, so that article will have to wait. Instead, I will be discussing how I and my fellow Colorado Magicians are preparing for GP Las Vegas in a few weeks.
Quite a few local players are planning on going to Vegas. This means that in addition to increased turnout at the weekly events, there have been a lot of special testing sessions. In turn, I have gained considerable insight into how the format is evolving locally. On the basis that players across the country are seeing the same information, I have been adjusting my metagame expectations and my deck selection. The question that I'm in the process of answering is whether my assumptions translate into reality. Initial results are inconclusive but encouraging.
Everyone is aware that Humans is on top of Modern at this point. Players are similarly aware that Affinity and Jeskai Control are good against Humans. Thus, a lot of players are morphing their decks around this fact. I haven't noticed players changing which deck they're playing, mind; just how it's built. This is Modern, and specialization is critical to success. What I'm seeing is a lot of repositioning to make decks less vulnerable to Humans' disruption and to improve their Jeskai matchup, while Tron of all flavors has disappeared from the local meta.
A clear example for me is a certain player's Affinity list. He's been on Affinity for some time and has been struggling to win the closer games. There's a lot of splash damage from Humans in addition to the normal Affinity hate. Recently, he's been dropping Galvanic Blast for Tainted Strike and Mirran Mettle. His justification is that Affinity is almost a combo deck anyway, so why bother having interactive cards? Mettle is functionally identical where lethal damage is concerned, and has the upside of countering Lightning Bolt. Tainted Strike can win games out of nowhere. I don't know if it's actually good, but it's beaten a lot of woefully unprepared players, me included.
There are also the polite euphemisms and other free thinkers to consider. I had previously wondered about the UR Artifact Prison deck and if it could ever beat control. Then I played a local player that was developing a very similar deck and he, rather dejectedly, informed that it "didn't, really." He also explained that his reason for playing the deck was that it was unexpected and had many ways to land Ensnaring Bridge around Meddling Mage.
Given that he expected Tron, another almost-impossible matchup, to be on the decline because it's weak to Humans and Affinity while aggressive decks are all the rage, he anticipated few deck that can interact with non-creature permanents, a perfect time for prison. Stony Silence doesn't bother artifact prison, and Ancient Grudge is mediocre thanks to redundancy and a full set of Welding Jar.
I asked what he had planned for control matchups and he just shrugged. And fair enough: Modern is diverse enough that hoping to dodge is a viable strategy. In short, "Humans on top" doesn't mean Modern is completely solved; there are still plenty of players dissatisfied with its traditional offerings and are looking to exploit the metagame on their terms.
The Proving Ground
I haven't done a tournament report in quite a while. Between the disappearance of western Opens and stores being priced out by the new Invitational Qualifier system, competitive level Modern events have been scarce. There just aren't many around here besides PPTQ season. In response to players bemoaning this fact, a number of stores have started running IQ-style events, which essentially offer similar competition and prize structures without an invite at the end. Since IQs served as a kind of minor league for grinders, these have been the perfect replacement, and a great way to get practical information about the metagame while refining decks. That's why I attended one last weekend.
Given that I expect Humans, Elves, and Affinity to be very popular in Las Vegas, my normal deck choices aren't optimal. Merfolk has an even matchup versus Humans and terrible ones against Affinity and Elves. Death and Taxes variants shine against Humans and Affinity, but pale against Elves and decks that prey on those three. Thus, I am favoring going back to my control roots, and since I don't ever want to play traditional control mirrors, there was really only one choice for me.
This build is mostly identical to the one that was everywhere at the end of last year and still sees play. My quirks are Arid Mesa and Mana Leak. I play Mesa over Scalding Tarn because Mesa can fetch Plains. Against Blood Moon decks, white mana is critical Tears of Rage the Moon; Plains also helps against Burn, which demands white but punishes shocking. Mana Leak sticks out for being so situational, but I've become increasingly frustrated with Logic Knot. The double-blue cost has frequently forced me to fetch in ways I'd prefer to avoid and in the early game, and it often underwhelms. There's no guarantee that I will have fetches to feed delve or have played anything at all when I need to counter something, and I've had Knot rot in hand far too often. With Tron apparently disappearing from the meta, I wanted the counter that is easier to cast and more reliable.
I've found sideboard Spell Snare more valuable against control and combo than any other counter. Storm is still a huge player in the meta, especially in my local one, and Snare counters the most important combo pieces. Against control it hits Snapcaster and Negate. More importantly, it answers Search for Azcanta // Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin on the draw, and that card can be crushing if we can't stick Geist early.
I know that I posted a build with Declaration in Stone a few weeks ago, but nobody is playing Hollow One. I didn't think Declaration was that great overall, only that it was an excellent counter to the best Hollow One starts. Given that I didn't expect to see any, it was cut. Hollow One perplexes me somewhat, as it barely shows up in individual paper results and its metagame presence has declined. I know it is more popular online and that MODO does all the random discard automatically, but that can't be the reason for the disparity. In any case, I don't worry about the deck anymore.
28 players made the journey to the site, which was less than I expected. Previous events have been 6 round affairs, but early June is an awkward time schedule-wise with school just letting out, vacations being taken, and larger tournaments going on elsewhere. I didn't see any top level players, or at least didn't recognize any, but the field was packed with mid-level grinders. This was actually perfect, since I expect GP fields to be similarly full of these kinds of players. I also saw a lot of known Collected Company players, so at the last minute I substituted an Anger of the Gods for Vendilion Clique.
Round 1: BR Shadow
Game 1 (Draw; 6/7)
My opponent begins by fetching an untapped Blood Crypt and Thoughtseizeing me. He then doesn't do anything else except shock in another Blood Crypt. Having no clear idea what's going on, I stick to my gameplan and slam a turn three Geist of Saint Traft. Again, my opponent does nothing on his turn. I attack and he kills the angel token. The following turn he starts digging with Faithless Looting, discarding several Lingering Souls he can't cast yet. I keep swinging and stop Souls with Queller.
-3 Mana Leak
I don't actually know what my opponent is doing, but I assume it's Mardu Pyromancer and this is how I board, assuming my hand will be shredded by discard so cheap counters are irrelevant.
Game 2 (Draw; 7/7)
My opponent misses his second and third land drops, but has a discard spell every turn. I had only answer cards in hand so I'm unable to punish this slow start. Eventually he gets lands and I find Spell Queller and Quell a Liliana the Last Hope. Then, when he's at seven, he sneaks in a Blood Moon, and I didn't see any fetches to play around it. I burn him down to four, swing in with Queller, then proceed to lose as I brick while he kills Queller and gets out Death's Shadow and Young Pyromancer.
Game 3 (Play; 7/7)
My opponent starts very slow, which is fine by me. The first real action is my eating Last Hope with a Queller that he can't successfully remove. He plays a large Death's Shadow and I take a solid hit, but I Queller and Snapcaster on his end step hit for lethal.
Round 2: Mardu Pyromancer
Game 1 (Draw; 7/6)
My opponent's first action is to Collective Brutality me before landing Blood Moon. I was able to play around it this time, and land Geist turn three. He plays Young Pyromancer but no other spell, so I just Bolt it and Geist goes the distance. His Moon hurt him more than me because he didn't have a Swamp until after I killed the Pyromancer.
Same as last round.
Game 2 (Draw; 7/7)
The is a pure attrition fight, but he gets out a string of Pyromancer tokens while I flood out. A Blood Moon makes it worse, but honestly I was doomed even if my mana was free.
Electrolyze is normally good against token decks, but my opponent is clearly all-in on Mooning me. Since my opponent always takes it with discard, I want cards that are less color intensive to Snapcaster back.
Game 3 (Play; 7/7)
My mana is awkward and I get Mooned again, but I do manage to get out my basics. I answer several Pyromancers but Elementals and Spirits nearly kill me. I use Geist as a blocker and Helix to not die when my opponent decides not to play the Bedlam Reveler he's been telegraphing for several turns nor his graveyard Lingering Souls. This means I get to draw Relic, crack it to remove the threat, and draw the Lightning Helix I need to survive the next attack.
That Helix reduces my opponent's offense to a single Elemental and one Spirit. After I draw for my turn, he uses Kolaghan's Command to make me discard and shock me, so I use the Path I drew to remove his Spirit, then attack him to 8. There's a stalemate with me at one life for a few turns until I draw Bolt for the Elemental and hit him to 2. He finally has the mana for Bedlam Reveler after several turns of throwing discard spells at my empty hand, and rolls for the lethal Bolt but comes up empty.
If my opponent didn't play around the Supreme Verdict absent from my deck, I would have definitely lost.
Round 3: Grixis Death's Shadow
Despite being surrounded by Company, Affinity, and Humans players, I continue to pair with BRx decks.
Game 1 (Play; 7/6)
My opponent makes his deck choice very clear with an accelerated Gurmag Angler into Shadow. I path the Shadow, get in a Snapcaster chipshot, and then burn him out.
I haven't found a reason to change my standard plan against the deck from last year.
Game 2 (Draw; 6/7)
My opponent once again has a turn two Angler, but takes so much damage that I can race with a Queller. At 8 life, my opponent shocks in a land for reasons unclear and dies to Bolt-Snap-Bolt.
At this point, there are only three undefeated players because of unintentional draws. There are some very slow GW Valuetown and Jeskai Control players present. I'm not paired down, so I can double draw against Bogles (happy to dodge) and Humans.
Quarterfinals: Grixis Death's Shadow
The Top 8 consists of two Abzan Company decks, Bogles, Humans, Death and Taxes, myself, and the Mardu Pyromancer and Grixis Death's Shadow decks I faced earlier. I'm third seed.
My round three opponent is back for a rematch and not pleased that I'm on the play.
Game 1 (Play; 7/5)
The double mulligan is bad enough, but my turn three Geist is salt in the wound. He's taken aback by Geist and asks if it's actually maindeck. He apparently thought I was pure control. There's nothing he can do but kill the angel several times and try to play blockers, but I have Path.
Game 2 (Draw, 7-7)
Game 3 (Play; 7/7)
My opponent Thoughtseizes my Geist and plays turn two Gurmag Angler, which I Path. I draw and play a turn three Geist. My opponent can't directly answer it. At nine life, he Thoughtseizes again and sees that I have two Bolts and a Queller. He takes a long time to decide to take a Bolt and play Gurmag Angler, telegraphing his Fatal Push. I play Queller to force through damage then draw Path again to win.
By this point it's late in the day, so the Top 4 just split prizes to go home.
While prizing and running well and great by themselves, I'm rather torn about the result. My purpose was to test the deck and it doesn't feel like I did. I never saw Mana Leak, and didn't have matchups where that or Logic Knot were relevant in the first place, so I don't know if my substitution was valid. The main thing that was confirmed was how good Geist is against not-linear aggro, to the point where I want to run a full set maindeck.
I am very happy with Jeskai Tempo over pure control. While that version certainly has a better long game and Humans matchup, Tempo is still favored there, and Geist is amazing. I prefer to punish slow draws and force my opponent to have the answers or die, so I won't be switching off anytime soon. This is just personal choice; the decks are only differentiated by how quickly they win. I will say that a number of my wins were only possible because of Geist.
What I saw during the tournament corroborated my earlier format observations. The meta was primarily BRx and Company Decks, which are robust enough to survive Humans' disruption and have the tools to withstand Jeskai Control. In this case, it was going in on Blood Moon and just racing, but I saw a number of other strategies including Phyrexian Arena. I also didn't see a single Tron piece, and there were several players that had previously been huge Tron fans.
It's clear that everyone is looking for that edge against the known decks, but there isn't consensus yet. How are you looking to attack the metagame? Let me know in the comments.