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Rebuilding Time: A Store Championship Report

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Wow. It's been almost two years since I attended a paper tournament worth writing about. There have been a lot of $1-2k cash tournaments in Colorado since in-store play resumed, but I haven't been able to attend any of them. That's how adulting works. However, I was able to make the Store Championship last weekend. The fact that Mythic Games is truly local for me helped out but considering how many large tournaments I've missed this year (and how much I've missed them), I would have made it work anyway. So today I'll relate what happened and what I learned about Modern at the Championship.

I didn't have high hopes going into this tournament. I've been playing significantly less Magic than I used to. It's not due to a lack of overall desire, mind, but there's far less opportunity today than in 2019. I used to be able to play Modern every day of the week if I was willing to travel around the Denver area. Today, there are only FNMs and occasional weekend tournaments. The problem is that the pandemic still isn't over and stores don't want to risk their staff running more events. And/or can't hire more staff to run said events during the week. Which is more than fair. But playing online just doesn't cut it for me. As such, my play skill has degraded and I'm far less prepared to compete at large tournaments than pre-pandemic. This is foreshadowing.

The Deck

With that in mind, my deck selection was always going to be very restricted. I have UW Control built but I don't trust my ability to play it well over a full day, and I definitely don't have the skill for the mirror anymore. I don't like Humans at the moment, and that left me with the choice of Merfolk or Burn. Merfolk may be my old warhorse, and it is doing better now than it has for years, but it has a flaw. In my experience, Merfolk is very strong against UW Control, a solid choice against Amulet Titan and 4 Color piles, and terrible against Hammer Time and Ragavan decks. I'm constantly behind in tempo and can't just win out of nowhere. Burn has performed better for me in those matchups thanks to Lightning Bolt and Searing Blaze. So I brought both decks to the tournament.

There were a ton of Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer decks in the room and so I ran a very stock Burn list. As a bonus, Burn's typical game would be easier to manage than Merfolk's because, again, I'm out of practice. That's especially true for sideboarding. (The split between Snow-Covered and normal Mountains is utterly meaningless. I did it when I first built the deck to annoy someone, and I can't be bothered to adjust it now.)

The Tournament

The tournament capped at 48 players because that's how many seats were set out. Pre-pandemic Mythic had space for around 70, but they took away all the tables during lockdown and don't want to overcrowd the store now. Which again, makes perfect sense. We hit the cap, but only 47 actually showed up. I'm not sure why, but it might be a case of players double-booking stores to ensure they get a space. I say this because most of the players actually there were people I'd never seen before, not at Mythic Games nor pre-pandemic. I'm guessing that a general changing of the guard is happening. On that note, Wizards provided Arbor Elf promos for each store, but for some reason only sent Mythic 40. So to make up the deficit they handed out FNM foil promo packs because Mythic basically swims in the things. I got one of the packs and it more than paid for my entry. Thank you, Commander players and your love of foil mythics.

I arrived early to scout the room which is when I confirmed that there was a ton of Ragavan, hence solidifying my deck selection. That wasn't entirely surprising; Denver's had a lean towards Jund and Burn for as long as I can remember. However, the spread of Ragavan decks was considerable. Jund Saga was the most popular by far, but there were a shocking number of mono-red decks of varying strategies, all with Ragavan. Following that the field was extremely mixed with a wide range of blue decks and also decks from past metagames. By which I primarily mean Titanshift, a deck that has been completely eclipsed by Amulet Titan ever since Dryad of the Ilysian Grove. And yet there were a number of pilots there. I even lost to one.

The Swiss

Which in fairness was all I did. I didn't win a match and just dropped from the tournament. What a way to get back into the proverbial saddle! And the worst part is that I don't think I could have done anything different. My matches all went to three games and I always lost with my opponent one burn spell away from dead. The consistent problem was that I was just missing something. In the first match I didn't draw a spell for 5 turns after getting my opponent to 3 with no means to stop a burn spell. In my second and third matches I kept reasonable one-land hands that become phenomenal with a land. And I didn't draw one until far too late. It especially hurt in the match against Titanshift since I died with my opponent on 1 life.

There were other lines I could have taken in my games, especially the second match against Jund Saga. The problem is that according to my opponents they wouldn't have changed the outcome. In the Saga match, after I lamented the decision I made left me dead to what he did and I should have taken a different route, he revealed that had I taken alternative route I was dead to his alternative choice. It was just too late and I was too far behind in cards and tempo for anything I did to make any difference. I wasn't playing as well as I could have. However, it seems like it didn't matter. My deck just didn't show up at the critical moment and the only alternative decision I could have made was to mulligan for a more reliable hand rather than the speculative ones that I kept. Whether that would have made any difference is impossible to say.

Metagame Observations

I dropped at 0-3, but there were five rounds. Technically it should have been six, but there was a cap. This meant that I had ample time to both lament my performance and to see what was actually happening in the room. I've mentioned that it was a Ragavan-centric tournament, but what was really surprising was the dearth of UW and Hammer Time. There were a lot of blue decks there, but they were mainly Grixis Deaths Shadow followed by Tribal Elementals. Some of them might have actually been Blink because all I saw was Ephemerate, Fury, and Omnath, Locus of Creation. Despite what I'd seen played at FNM for weeks, there was almost no cascade or control.

The Monkey in the Room

Which might be a function of most of the players present being players I don't remember ever seeing before. However, it doesn't explain why there was so much Ragavan, especially Jund Saga. It isn't at all surprising that this metagame looked different from the online one. That's just how it is. However, for Ragavan decks and particularly Jund Saga to be so omnipresent is notable, particularly in light of what didn't show up.

Jund Saga and Hammer Time are very similar decks strategically. Jund is Jund, and therefore does everything in midrange fashion, whereas Hammer Time is more of a combo deck, but that's a question of how, not what. Both feature a fast kill followed by a grinding plan anchored in Urza's Saga. Hammer has its combo kill, where Saga is looking to ride a Ragavan into Tarmogoyf and just snowball the opponent in value. The Hammer kill is obviously much faster, but losing to a Ragavan feels quite similar, as the Monkey steals the means to actually get back into the game. And since Jund is Jund, it has a strong matchup against Hammer, which could mean that players anticipated more Hammer and adjusted ahead of time.

The Exploit

I don't know how the Top 8 shook out. Or who exactly made it. I didn't stick around to find out. However, thanks to the Companion app, I do know who the best-placed player was, and I know they were on Belcher. Well done to them! And given what I said above, it isn't surprising. The room was primed for exactly this to happen. The metagame was extremely fair. It's been quite fair all year. Even the cascade decks fall on the fair end of scale, aiming simply to beat down with a couple of 4/4s. That's not a bad thing, but it does mean that pretty much every deck is skewed towards playing fair Magic. In other words, card advantage, tempo, mana development, and general grinding are every deck's focus. I kept losing not to hate, but to falling behind on tempo and losing the race. However, nobody was ready for a deck that doesn't do anything fair.

Which is the big takeaway from the Mythic Games Store Championship. The format is very fair because with creatures like Ragavan in the mix, playing fair is extremely good, and every deck has the tools to compete on that axis. But it takes commitment to beating other fair decks to be successful. This doesn't leave much sideboard room to fight unfair decks. Not that it's been necessary. However, when it does become necessary, most decks just don't have much to fight combo. Even Jund Saga has been cutting targeted discard recently, and lacks Liliana of the Veil to maintain pressure on combo hands.

Which begs the question of why combo isn't a bigger player in Modern right now. Counterspell decks are the traditional enemy of combo and they're everywhere, but Veil of Summer exists (itself a key player in fair's fight against fair). Hammer Time's only real hope is sideboard (sometimes maindeck) Thoughtseize and racing, and its average kill is slower than true combo kills. And all the Omnath piles are pretty slow. Yet I don't see many combo decks in the data, and I only saw one Belcher deck at the Championship. That hints at an exploitable gap in the metagame that players just aren't tapping into yet.

The Only Way Is Up

So yeah, the only big prize tournament I'm able to make in 2021 and I completely scrub out in a way I hadn't done in years. It sucks, but that's not entirely surprising under the circumstances. There's no use in worrying about it though. I just have to get used to working on my game again and be ready for more next year.

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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