Return to the PPTQ Grind: Week 4

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Another week, another failures to qualify. Yes, plural. Spoiler alert: I didn't win either PPTQ last weekend. Fortunately, there are still plenty of chances ahead. And more opportunities to find novel introductions for this series.

In lighter news, Spirits had a very good weekend. The fact that SCG Baltimore was won by UW Spirits while Bant did well in Prague offers little metagame insight, as the decks are mostly identical. The primary distinction is whether you want a better control (UW) or midrange (Bant) matchup. That said, I hope Ondrej Strasky writes about his deck soon. Seeing Aether Vial and Collected Company in the same deck gives me heartburn from the tension.

The Decks

Despite being a two-PPTQ weekend, I intended to play the same deck for both events. Partially, I was hoping to only play one event; I was also feeling pretty good about my deck. Spirits has outperformed my expectations and all my other decks in testing and actual games except against Tron, where Storm reigned supreme. While I did play Spirits for both events, I ended up altering my deck between events.


I took the exact same 75 from last week to Black Gold on Saturday. I had some concerns, but I didn't actually see any reason to deviate from the plan that had previously worked. Militia Bugler was fine, but couldn't save me in the discard-heavy matchups. I'm not sure what can except for Leyline of Sanctity, and targeted discard is no longer prevalent enough to justify that call. Spirits works by ambushing opponents with cards in hand, and being forced to dump cards onto the board kills the actual power of the deck. In that situation, Spirits is bad Merfolk.

Some of my concerns played out over the course of the tournament and prompted me to make changes for Sunday. Tron is not a good matchup. As with most aggro decks, Spirits is pretty cold to a resolved Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. Even when Ugin isn't in the picture, it can be very hard to get enough of a clock together to beat Wurmcoil Engine or Worldbreaker. I was also a little interaction-light and lacked mid-game punch and recovery.


After some deliberation, I decided to abandon my Bugler plan. The kinds of decks where Bugler was actively good (Jund-esque attrition) were pretty rare. It was fine in general, but never shined, and wasn't what I wanted to be doing in a number of matchups. Infect has been so elusive, and I was beating Humans and Eldrazi so handily, that Reflector Mage also proved unnecessary. Losing Bugler also meant that Leonin Relic-Warder had to go. There wasn't much need for that effect anyway. The question was what the replacements would be.

I rebuilt my deck to close the hole that was my Tron matchup. Of the creatures available, Vendilion Clique seemed best, since it could remove the otherwise unbeatable Ugin from an opponent's hand. As a bonus, Clique also prevents Terminus being miracled. Kira was a nod to attrition decks.

I included Damping Sphere in the sideboard in place of some anti-combo cards. It's more for Tron than combo, but it does demand an answer from everything. I don't run Unified Will anymore because I've run into too many awkward situations where I needed a counter early and had no creatures. The Sword was for attrition matchups and for lifegain against Burn. I've seen other players using it for that exact purpose successfully, and that's another hole I needed to fill.

The Tournaments

This weekend's offerings were at my LGS, Black Gold, and then the store from my pre-Vegas report. As both are excellent shops with reliable climate control and more than enough space, the stores were certain to be absolutely packed. And they were. Both tournaments ended up being six-round ordeals, with 54 players on Saturday and 63 on Sunday.

Scouting at Black Gold is pointless. The shop has a wide metagame where everything is liable to show up. I know what the other regulars play, but that never indicates the overall metagame, and this PPTQ was no exception. Of course, I may only think this because I'm there so often. The weighted fields I've seen elsewhere may be perfectly normal for those stores. Case in point, I saw a lot of control and combo at the Sunday PPTQ, which may have just been how that store rolls, or may be particular to that specific tournament.


The tournament started auspiciously enough as I pair against Living End, an exceptional matchup for Spirits. Between Spell Queller and Mausoleum Wanderer, it's pretty unlikely Living End resolves, and with Remorseful Cleric, I can make End work for me. My cockiness about the matchup and ensuing misplays would have cost me game 2 had my opponent drawn better.

Round 2 is against Hollow One, and game 1 I'm never really in it. My draw isn't great, and he tears through his deck with looting effects. Game 2 I have the answers I need and it's fairly easy for me. Game 3 my opening hand has Rest in Peace, Eidolon of Rhetoric, and Settle the Wreckage, presenting a nearly ideal curve. However, those are the only actual spells I see the whole game. I stabilize at 9 life, leave him with no board, and just can't kill my opponent because I only draw irrelevant lands and Vials. I die to triple Bolt.

Round 3 is against BW Planeswalkers. This matchup is almost un-winnable for me between the pile of discard, removal, and token makers, and I'm easily crushed in two games. My opponent gets himself really low playing shocklands and Thoughtseize, but with Liliana of the Last Hope around, I can't get anything going. I'm almost certainly eliminated from Top 8, but not from prizes, so I stay.

My round 4 opponent never shows. Yeah, free win? Anyway, round 5 is against HollowVine, which is apparently better against graveyard hate at cost of explosiveness. In any case, game 1 is pretty easy for me, as I have time to remove his big creatures, build a Spirit wall, and then win in two swings. I feel that the weirdness of his deck costs me game 2. I lose by the skin of my teeth and I think it's because I misidentify Hollow One as the threat when I really needed to Path a then-tiny Lotleth Troll. I'm not sure though, because it was so close, the extra damage from the One early may have killed me. Game three he's stuck on one land and I have Rest in Peace.

Round 6 is against Mono-Green Tron, and games 1 and 3 he has Ugin and I can't counter it. Game 2 is an easy win when I Quarter him off Tron twice.

3-3 is not the record I was looking for on my home turf. The Top 8 consisted of two Hollow One decks, mono-Green Tron, Ad Nauseam, Burn, Jeskai Control, Mardu Pyromancer, and some flavor of Spirits.


This tournament begins far worse: my Bridgevine opponent kicks things off with Looting discarding Vengevine and Bridge from Below followed by two Endless Ones for Zombies and an angry plant. Game 2 I Cleric his opening Bridge and Settle his board. Game 3 he has turn one Vine but no follow up or second land, while I have turn two Rest followed by lords for the win.

Round 2 is against Storm. Game 1 I have multiple Wanders, Supreme Phantom, and Cleric. He fizzles through the disruption. Game 2 I'm all in on Rest being good, but he has 12 goblins on turn three. Game 3 he mulligans, and I Quell his Pieces, so he never has the chance to go off. Damping Sphere makes the math more complicated, but he never had the spells to win in the first place.

For round 3, my opponent mulligans on the draw, thinks awhile, keeps, and scrys bottom. The only game action he takes is discarding Bloodghast to hand size turn two. He scoops the turn after, apparently never finding a land. I assume it's a graveyard deck and board accordingly. It is Hollow One, but his draw is pretty clunky, and he Burning Inquiries away most of his removal. After the match he told me that his game 1 hand was Street Wraith, Faithless Looting, and two Ones. Any red source and that hand is insane. Given that Hollow One is a high-variance deck, I think it's a reasonable keep. You don't play that deck to play safe Magic.

Round 4 is against Humans, and it's an easy win for me in two games. I didn't really need my sideboard cards. I could have lost because of some loose play game 2, but my opponent didn't have the cards to punish me. At end of round, there are four undefeated players, so we double-draw into Top 8. Doing so pushes me down to 8th place.

Top 8

Once again, there are two Hollow One decks in Top 8, along with Mardu Pyromancer featuring Death's Shadow, Jeskai Control, UW Control, Ironworks, myself, and one other player who doesn't actually stay because we split the prize payout. Being a low seed is particularly unfortunate for me because top seed is the Ironworks player. His list is odd in that he runs the Thopter-Sword combo maindeck as an alternate win condition, which is really bad for me.

I lose in two games, the first because I lack Queller and the second because I decide to Quell his bait Thopter Foundry instead of hold it for a turn to get the Scrap Trawler he was going to Buried Ruin back. My thinking there is that with Queller on board, if I draw any Spirit or even Moorland Haunt, I will have enough Wanderer triggers to kill that turn while he's tapped out. I draw a useless land and proceed to lose.

Meanwhile, the control decks were facing off. When I left the site about fifteen minutes after my loss, they were still playing game 1, both at around 20 life with about a third of their respective libraries left. Legends say they remain locked in an eternal control mirror, never to finish, to this very day. The Drawing Jacemen.

Lessons Learned

My tendency to take ultra-safe lines has cost me plenty of games, to the point that testing partners have called me out. Therefore, I've been taking the Romantic Game Theory approach to try and just win. I have been winning more games that I probably shouldn't on paper, but that may not be the strategy working out: I play very fast, and coupling that with looser lines really throws opponents off. However, I've also been losing more close games.

I played really loose all weekend; even sloppily. I threw a lot of value away in the games where I knew I was heavily favored, and probably in the other games as well. Also, in the quarterfinals I took the line to win right away, when had I waited, my opponent was so resource-depleted that I was going to win the following turn anyway as long as Trawler didn't hit the board. I need to slow down and think harder about my lines. I don't want to go back to being overly passive, but swinging between extremes isn't good either.

On the Deck

I'm not sure what to think about my changes from Saturday to Sunday. I never drew Clique, though there were a number of matchups where it would have been better than Bugler or Reflector Mage. The only time I played Kira was against Humans, and she was better than Mage or Bugler in that situation since my opponent's good creatures were already gone and I needed to get a clock going. Having protection from their Reflector Mages was theoretically good, but didn't actually come up.

Damping Sphere was rather mediocre, but that's what I expected against combo decks. It was the final nail against Storm, but even Negate would have worked. Frankly, Negate would have been better against Ironworks. If I find superior Tron tech, I'll be replacing Sphere.

Onward to Victory?

There's just one PPTQ next week, and I hope it will be my last. Best of luck to everyone out there still 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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