I definitely peaked too soon. There's no possible way to follow up to last week's Jurassic Park intro and not look pale in comparison. I can't even go for the ironic method of pointing out this out, I've done that before. My remaining option is to just awkwardly forge ahead and feel relief that the qualification system will change next year so I don't have to worry about it again.
While it's not what I expected, Guilds of Ravnica is already bringing the Modern cards. Assassin's Trophy is clearly intended as an answer to Tron, and it will absolutely excel in that job. It won't drive Tron out by any means, but it will improve the matchup for GBx decks. I strongly doubt it will suddenly become favorable, but shifting from horrible to even is still a huge swing. More interestingly, I think Trophy will be more impactful for control decks than Jund-esque midrange. Not because it will suddenly make Sultai Control viable, but because it may encourage control to run more win conditions. Trophy hits Celestial Colonnade, Snapcaster Mage, and planeswalkers. Given all the discard GBx already runs, I wouldn't be surprised if UWx was forced to run more ways to close out the game thanks to Trophy.
There was almost no way that I wasn't going to run Spirits again. Going Storm in a field of Tron was the only reason I would have switched. Even if Storm had been the clear choice, I had a chip on my shoulder after my abysmal performance last week and wanted to do right by my deck.
I've made a number of changes, starting with removing Moorland Haunt. Even in testing where it should have turned the tide, I found that Haunt just didn't do enough to justify how often it choked me on mana. The problem is primarily that it's very slow, making it a late-game play. At that point in the game, if 1/1 Spirits can deliver a win, we weren't losing. Besides, most attrition matchups call for Rest in Peace, which completely neuters Haunt.
I've said repeatedly that I don't like Geist in Spirits, and I still don't; he's terrible in creature matchups when we can't can't clear a path. However, further testing suggested that he wasn't measurably different from Vendilion Clique against combo decks and Tron, but far better against control decks. Given that I've seen fewer and fewer creature decks as control's stock continues to rise, Geist seemed like a safe bet for this event.
A weirder addition is Slaughter the Strong in the sideboard. While the sorcery hasn't made any impact in Standard, it was exactly what I was looking for after souring on Settle the Wreckage. Three mana is much more affordable than four for Spirits. And in the matchups where we want sweepers, particularly Humans, I expect to always be behind on the board with fewer than four power, making Slaughter a one-sided sweeper. As a marginal bonus, Bogles has been lurking around, and they have no defense against Slaughter; Leyline of Sanctity answers Settle.
This week took me out to Greeley and the largest play area I'm aware of in Colorado. The shop has two floors, the upper one just for playing. It's so massive that they comfortably fit the six round, 52 player PPTQ and a Star Wars miniature tournament with room to spare. It also meant that there were Star Wars-themed snacks available including blue milk. I got the feeling that for once Magic players weren't the alpha-nerds in the building, and I still don't know how I feel about that.
Greeley is surrounded by farmland, and because I have frequently gotten stuck behind farm equipment going out there, I left so early that I arrived shortly after they opened. My boredom allowed me to scout almost everyone before the tournament started. I observed a lot of Humans, Storm, and control decks, so I was feeling pretty confidant. As I found out walking around after round 1, the field was roughly half control, a third of which was Jeskai, with combo being a minor part. There were also a good number of Spirits decks there of both varieties.
The tournament starts out very well, as both round 1 and 2 I am against Jeskai Control. The games go basically how I drew them up, and I stay well ahead throughout. All UW Spirits has to do here is carefully manage its resources, then dictate the field of battle for an easy victory. The only real worry is a miracled Terminus, which is pretty rare out of Jeskai lists.
As my round 2 opponent observed after the match, Spirits is great at dictating which (if any) of its creatures die. Our clock and Vial ensure the opponent's only option is to play their removal and give us the choice between Mausoleum Wanderer, Selfless Spirit, etc. Round 1 tries to flip the table with Dragonlord Ojutai, but I have no reason not to attack into him. Baneslayer Angel would have been far more threatening.
Round three is against Mardu, and I just can't seem to beat that deck. He has a lot of Lingering Souls and Lootings game 1 to stifle and overwhelm me. Game 2 he banks on Liliana, the Last Hope and dumping Souls into his graveyard with Looting, but I Rest them away and then bulldoze through his tokens to kill Liliana with Geist. Unfortunately, I lack a proper follow-up when he gets his eighth land for Bedlam Reveler and pulls inexorably ahead.
Round 4 is against Bant Spirits. I have a great start game 1 and have him at five before he gets a Company off and stabilizes. From that point on, I flood while he draws creatures. Game 2 is an attrition game until I get a slight advantage with lords, allowing me to start chipping in. Eventually I out-removal my opponent, Quarter his Township, and just race. Game 3 we actually mirror each other's plays for the first four turns before the board becomes a lord stall, with him lacking removal for my lords while I have to hope he attacks so that I can break the Drogskol lock with Blessed Alliance. Eventually he obliges, giving me an easy win.
Sitting down for round 5, I can't shake the feeling, just based on looking at him, that my opponent is on Jeskai Ascendancy combo. He was, and I'm not sure what to make of that premonition. Game 1 I have a great curve but no Spell Queller and he has a turn three kill through Mausoleum Wanderer. Game 2 he has Abrupt Decay for my Damping Sphere, but only has one Ascendancy that I Queller, and his deck can't win without it. Game 3 he Glittering Wishes for Ascendancy turn 2 so he can try to win turn 3 before I have Queller up, but I have Negate. He has a lot of cantrips, mana dorks, three maindeck Decays and the fourth he wishes for, but no Ascendancy until he's used up his Decays and I have Queller.
I'm in 9th place thanks to appalling breakers, so I have to play it out. I'm against Jeskai Control again, but game 1 I get wrecked by Terminus and concede with nothing left in hand and facing down a Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I hadn't played around Terminus on account of its relative rarity in Jeskai. Game 2 he's light on removal after a mulligan, and I have an easy victory. Game 3 he gets several Terminuses to stop my early creatures through Wanderer. I get Vial after that and just wait until I can Vial in Geist with Queller protection, and ride Geist to victory.
I'm in 2nd place in a Top 8 consisting of Counters Company, two hybrids of Counters Company and GW Valuetown, GR Eldrazi, UW Control, Jeskai Control, Jund, and myself. I'm paired against one of the hybrid decks for the quarterfinals; game 1 he draws the Valuetown part of his deck and I win easily. Game 2 he has a turn three Sigarda, Host of Herons with Gavony Township, and I am too far behind to catch up. He also has Worship, but honestly it wasn't going to matter. For game 3 he goes has the combo part of his deck and that kills me.
This outcome frustrated me because I had Queller to stop the Company that put him in position to combo, but I had kept a hand without a white source or Vial because that was its only flaw. Given how things played out, I believe that with that source, I would have won; I could have then stopped his first two combo tries, and he may not have been able to hit a third before dying.
Slowing down and thinking more had the intended benefits. While I know I didn't play perfectly, I was where I expect myself to be, and far above where I have been. Humiliation is sometimes the best medicine.
The real lesson for me here was one of perspective. It's easy to look at my decision to keep game 3 of the quarterfinals as a mistake, but as they say, "hindsight 20/20." It wasn't the best hand in a vacuum, sure, but it had almost all the pieces it needed to win. Such is the nature of calculated risks.
On the Deck
I was very satisfied with my deck and am unlikely to make any changes before the next PPTQ. I didn't actually cast Slaughter, but it's done well enough in testing that I'm not worried. Given the metagame I've been seeing, this configuration strikes a nice balance, and in a vacuum I don't see any need to adjust. There are still niggling problems surrounding the lands, but I haven't found any elegant solutions. Horizon Canopy is the obvious fix for flooding, but is rather awkward in a UW deck and may cause more harm than good. This is probably just a flaw that I must accept and move on.
What was more enlightening for me was my discussions with my round 4 opponent and some other Bant Spirits players over the day. I've maintained that UW is better against control, whereas Bant is better against attrition. While they all wanted it on record that Bant Spirits is still favored against control, they generally agreed with me: Bant has Collected Company; UW is trickier. Bant also has less sideboarding tension. Stony Silence is a powerful card, but clashes with Vial, for example.
What I found surprising was how poor their Tron matchup is and why they feel favored against creature decks. The former comes down to a slower deployment speed and lack of meaningful interaction. UW is slightly faster because Vial makes more mana than Hierarch. It can also play around Oblivion Stone more easily than Bant, though it's just as cold to Ugin. Bant also can't run Ghost Quarter or Mutavault.
Humans is a good matchup for UW, but the Bant players said theirs was almost a bye. My experience differs from those of my colleagues. I have found Bant and UW equally vulnerable to Humans's best starts, but Bant has more ways to catch up in the mid-game and to shut down Humans game 1.
Collected Company is responsible for the first advantage, but the real breaker is Gavony Township. Being able to reliably grow the team is a huge advantage when things start to stall, and as a result Bant can match or surpass other creature decks in raw power. That isn't always relevant because of flying, but the bonus is Township also invalidates toughness based removal. Of course, they cautioned that without at least two each of Township and Horizon Canopy, Bant Spirits can struggle to muster much power.
All this discussion has changed how I differentiate between the decks. When expecting lots of control and Tron, I'll pick UW Spirits. Against a field of attrition and creature decks, Bant seems like a better call.
Next week will probably feature the end of this year's grind reports. Should I miss out on the invite, I will have another chance, since the RPTQ is in-state and I will be hitting the Last Chance Qualifier. Here's hoping it won't come to that, and good luck to everyone still grinding!