Return to the PPTQ Grind: Final

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And so, the season comes to a close. While I didn't get there, I can't say that this season was a complete bust. As a consummate grinder, the near misses just fuel the competitive fire and are a stark reminder to keep pushing myself.

In the meantime, Guilds of Ravnica spoilers roll on. While there are a number of interesting Modern-playable cards in the set, I find the mechanics themselves drawing most of my attention. Surveil in particular looks to be incredibly powerful. It's arguably better than scry because cards in the graveyard are generally more valuable than cards in the library (case in point: dredge and delve). What interests me most is whether surveil is powerful enough as a graveyard enabler to make otherwise overcosted cards playable. Testing will tell.

The Deck

Prior to the tournament I struggled with my deck choice. Spirits is a solid deck and in the right field it can be a nightmare but I hadn't found a good strategy for the hardest matchups, specifically Mardu Pyromancer and Hollow One. The problem was that the deck that has a good plan against those decks, Jeskai Tempo, is really poorly positioned otherwise, especially now that the other control players are aware of the Geist plan. After spending the week failing to conclusively make a decision, I stuck with my mainstay.

The Leylines were a last-second addition based on what I thought the field looked like. I don't know a better answer for targeted discard.

The Tournament

I was expecting an enormous turnout for the last Modern PPTQ, but it's shockingly small at only 27 players for five rounds. It's especially weird considering that every other PPTQ I went to this season was at least six rounds. The only rational explanation I can come with is the 10 AM start time put a lot of players off. It was also Store Championship day for many, and it's possible that some grinders chose to go play Standard instead of Modern, as incomprehensible as that sounds to me. On the other, less rational hand, the venue is in a somewhat odd and isolated place for western Denver. It's in the middle of a residential area quite far from major roads, which could make it difficult for non-local players to make the trip. I live relatively close by, so I wouldn't know.

I didn't get a good read on the room prior to the tournament. I saw a few known Tron and Company players, one combo, and several Mardu Pyromancer pilots. I also saw a WB deck getting sleeved up, making me think it was Tokens again. In truth, it was an Enchantment prison deck, but I wouldn't find out until round 2. This made me think that creature decks were sweepers would be good were rare, so I adjusted my board against discard. As it turned out, I should have stuck to my guns; my read was very off and creature decks were everywhere. Metagaming is always a risk.

The Swiss

Because of the small turnout, I recognize most of the players, even if I don't know what they are playing. For round 1 I pair against the Tron player from Week 3, and I fully expect her to still be on mono-Green Tron. Indeed, she has turn three Tron with Expedition Map, but then casts Thought-Knot Seer. That should maybe raise a red flag, but I win too easily to really think about it. I'm punished game 2 when I mulligan to a hand that's great against Tron, but she's actually playing Eldrazi Tron. I fix my sideboarding and win game 3 after Phantasmal Imageing her turn two Seer to take Reality Smasher, the lynchpin of her hand.

I recognize my round 2 opponent's name, but I'm not sure why, as I don't recognize him. Maybe I've played him before and just don't remember his face? This nagging thought distracts me the whole match. It turns out he's also on UW Spirits, and I have the first true mirror with the deck. I expected it to be just like the Merfolk mirror, where preponderance of lords wins. It is, and he had that games 1 and 3.

Now having faced two creature decks in a row, I'm really being punished for taking out anti-creature sideboard cards. Slaughter the Strong in particular would have wrecked my Sprits opponent.

Round 3 is against Humans. It's also the same Humans player I seem to keep hitting from Week 5. Game 1 I mulligan to an average hand, and he's got a great hand with multiple Mantis Riders to wall my creatures and overrun me. Game 2 he's relying on Auriok Champion to buy him the life to get his slow hand moving, but I have the lords to wreck that plan. Game 3 is a nail-biter since I have lords against a huge Champion of the Parish. I barely get there with strategic chumps and Queller on Lieutenant. While I never lost to him this season, the matches kept getting closer.

The last time I saw my round 4 opponent he was playing Mardu Pyromancer, so I was dreading this match. It turned out he was on UR Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror, which is incredibly good for me. Game 1 I get Geist down with Cavern of Souls and he has no answer. I keep deploying Selfless Spirits in case he has Anger of the Gods or similar, but he never sees them. Game 2 he double mulligans and is stuck on one land.

The standings show that there is no clean break for Top 8, and there are too many 3-1's who will be playing for any except the undefeated players to draw. Thus, I play round 5 against Hollow One. Game 1 I discard my gas to Burning Inquiry and he has it all. Game 2 I have Rest in Peace, as well as Negate on Goblin Lore to strand his big threats in hand. Unfortunately, he has a lot of removal to keep me from blocking his Flamblade Adepts.

I figure I'm out at this point, but the math ends up working out for one 3-2 to make it in. Apparently it was possible for one table of 3-1's to draw in, and nobody saw it. I am that 3-2 thanks to most of my opponents also making it in. Given what I knew about the other Top 8 players and that I'd always be on the draw, I didn't like my chances.

The Top 8

I forgot to get all the Top 8 decks, but I did see the Eldrazi Tron deck from round 1, the UW Spirits deck from round 2, the Hollow One deck from round 5, Lantern Control, Living End, and then Counters Company. I was paired against the undefeated Company deck and just got crushed. This version has not just the Devoted Druid combo but the Kitchen Finks infinite life one. Game 1 I stop the Druid combo with Path, but the turn after, he has Finks and Chord through Wanderer to gain infinite life. I had Vial on two but no Remorseful Cleric to stop him. Game 2 I mulligan, and he again goes for infinite life and Companies into multiple Finks so I can't effectively disrupt him.

Final Lessons

Another season come and gone, and I just didn't make it. It's frustrating to miss your goals, but this isn't my first rodeo. It took over a decade of near misses for me to make my first Pro Tour, so I've learned to redirect my thoughts from that failure to the successes along the way. Looking over my overall performance, I have to say that this was a very successful season. I had a string of Top 8 finishes, and the credit prizes mean I won't have to actually pay to play Magic locally for some time. Once I got my head out of the clouds and actually focused on the game, my play was generally very good, and I've identified a number of areas where I can still improve. The lesson I hope every grinder learns from this series is that ambition and high standards are important, but unchecked, can also lead to disappointment and frustration. Enjoying the little victories and taking success where you can prevents burnout and makes the game more enjoyable.

On The Deck

UW Spirits is the real deal. As a disruptive aggro deck, it is at least as good as Humans. I know that I'm biased since Spirits has been my pet deck for years, but the evidence is becoming undeniable. Whether the deck will continue along the path I chose, pure Bant, or if the hybrid version is still unclear. In a control-heavy field like I saw week 6, UW is definitely the superior deck. In an open field, it's far harder to say, and more work is required to figure it out.

The main problem with Spirits remains the sideboard. While I went off Aerie Worshippers week 6 because Humans and Burn were ready for it, I appear to be the only one to feel this way. Spirits really struggles against Hollow One not because of the big threats, but because of their ability to go wide with hard-to-block Adepts. Given that I haven't solved this problem any other way, it may be correct to become a creature prison deck after board. Rather than try to win by removing threats and racing, my normal plan, perhaps I should be focused on hitting a hexproof threat and then locking them out with Aerie Worshippers. I'll win the long game thanks to having more fliers. This represents a radical repositioning effort, but it's worth a shot.

Until We Grind Again

This season may be over, but the drive lives on. I have one more shot at the LCQ later this year, so I'm not out yet. That said, it is also time to say farewell to the current PPTQ system. Wizards intends to scrap it next year, and at time of writing, the new one has not been revealed. Goodbye, PPTQs! You truly were a grind.

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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 “Return to the PPTQ Grind: Final

  1. You mentioned Mardu Pyromancer being a rough matchup for UW Spirits. I played Bant Spirits for a few weeks shortly after it became a “real deck”. I recall that Bant (this was before Aether Vial made it into Bant) had an easy Mardu matchup, and long-time Mardu players bemoaning how impossible the matchup was. I played against it a few times and it seems easy enough.

    Have people just learned how to play against Spirits better, or is UW that much different?

    1. It’s very different. Bant doesn’t have dead draws like Aether Vial and can regain board dominance and card advantage after Mardu’s used up their removal with Gavony Township and Collected Company. UW can beat a flurry of removal, but doing so after having your hand picked apart by discard is very hard.

  2. Can you possibly give any details on the nature of the WB deck you mistook for tokens, I have been working on a WB enchantment prison deck for over a year and want to get an idea of what some other people have been doing with that archtype.

    1. I didn’t get a great look, but I saw that it was using cards like Nevermore and Gideon of the Trials to set up an Ensnaring Bridge lock. I didn’t see an actual win condition.

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