It’s Modern season, time to grind for the Pro Tour! I’ve spent most of my career on the grind and this year is no different. Therefore I will be documenting my attempt to climb back to the Pro Tour for the rest of the summer. If my past experiences are an indication, this will be like watching me play a roguelike game (constant horrible failure until a miraculous breakthrough occurs that is not my fault).
The plan is that every week there is a PPTQ to attend I will do so. I may hit several if it’s a practical option (I’m not going out of state for a mere PPTQ). I will go over the what and why of the deck I play, how I fare, and what lessons I learn for the next one. Doing nothing but match reports will be more boring to write for a month solid than it will be to read them, unless I win. Then I will do a normal report because I’ll want to crow, as would anyone. Hopefully you’ll learn from my mistakes, misreads, and losses to avoid them yourself. At very least, airing my failures will provide self-motivation to improve.
Last Week, I laid out my deck choices and the relative strengths of each in my expected metagame. After additional scouting and practice during the week, I eventually decided on DnT. I’d had good results over the previous month, I knew it well, and it had the best matchups against both Affinity and Tron, which I expected to be everywhere.
My list is fairly standard, since there’s really not much reason to deviate from Brian Coval’s Invitational maindeck. My unique contributions are from testing since then and some adjustments for the Denver metagame.
Death and Taxes, by David Ernenwein (PPTQ Deck)
4 Thraben Inspector
4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
4 Leonin Arbiter
2 Serra Avenger
1 Phyrexian Revoker
4 Blade Splicer
2 Mirran Crusader
4 Restoration Angel
4 Aether Vial
4 Path to Exile
4 Ghost Quarter
4 Tectonic Edge
2 Horizon Canopy
2 Kabira Crossroads
1 Cavern of Souls
3 Rest in Peace
2 Stony Silence
2 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
2 Wrath of God
2 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Devout Lightcaster
1 Phyrexian Revoker
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I had been playing Weathered Wayfarer, but it rarely did enough to justify keeping it. Meanwhile, I really like Revoker against Affinity, so it took the slot. The other big thing is Kabira Crossroads. There is a lot of Burn in Colorado, particularly in Denver. Kitchen Finks is the best card for that matchup you can maindeck. Finks is otherwise terrible in the meta, so I’m playing a card that lets me build my own Finks. It was a one-of tutor target for Wayfarer, but when she got cut I added an additional Crossroad. I could only get two Horizon Canopy‘s for the tournament, but I probably wouldn’t play more than two anyway. Relying on painlands for mana is dangerous in a Burn-heavy meta. I tested online with four and lost a number of matches to self damage so I wanted to cut them back regardless.
The sideboard has some more spice. Gideon is a very good card in grindy matchups and I did expect control decks to be popular. There’s a second Revoker for Affinity and combo decks, as well as Grafdigger’s Cage against Company decks and Dredge. While I understand the merits of playing Relic of Progenitus instead of Rest in Peace, I really wanted two Cages. This required cutting a Relic, and as a three-of RiP is better than Relic. Being less likely to draw it early makes me want the more impactful card.
I had been playing Dusk // Dawn, and while it is a very good card against Eldrazi and Shadow, I expected more Affinity and was otherwise good against the top two decks. Wrath is necessary against Affinity’s go-wide plan and the random green creature decks that always crop up. Finally, rather than a third Mirran Crusader I have Devout Lightcaster. While worse in a vacuum, it is phenomenal against Shadow decks. With the deck sorted, it was time to actually face the field.
The actual PPTQ was held at one of the smaller stores on my end of town. Based on past experience, I expected this first tournament to be huge while subsequent weeks it would shrink substantially. I wasn’t wrong—we had 46 players for six rounds of Swiss. Prize would be based on standings and pay out to X-2 or better while you’d need at least that to make elimination rounds. This was also a packed field, with nearly every grinder in the state present. My gut said it would be a hard gauntlet.
I was right. I dropped at 1-3. I also only hit other grinders, many of whom I hit at weekly tournaments. Not happy, but I also can’t be too upset.
The short answer is that Death and Taxes happened. Basically, everything I’ve said about the deck was validated by this PPTQ. When you hit the matchups you’re targeting the deck is amazing. If you don’t, you really need to draw the right pieces of your deck at the right time. I had a lot of close games but couldn’t quite pull through.
I beat an Esper Death’s Shadow deck thanks to its fragile manabase, lost to Grixis Control when I drew the wrong parts of my deck for games two and three, and then lost close races to first Boros Burn then Naya Burn. I’m not exaggerating about the Grixis match—in game two I had the graveyard hate when he had all removal and sweepers, while game three he had the fast-Tasigur-into-Kalitas-with-removal draw, while I was all threats and no interaction. Had I had the game-three draw in game two I probably win, or vise versa.
As annoying as that is, it’s the price of playing a deck like DnT. Without deck manipulation you just have to hope that all your disruption is always relevant, and unfortunately it just wasn’t this time. I may have lost the Shadow match if my opponent had a basic Plains in their deck. I Ghost Quartered his white sources before he could Lingering Souls me out of the game. Not unwinnable, but I hate fighting that battle.
You could chalk this up to Luck of DCI Reporter but ultimately the field I expected wasn’t there. The Affinity and Eldrazi players just didn’t show. I counted two Affinity decks, one GR Tron, and a Bant Eldrazi player in total during round three. There were a few Grixis decks, of which I think only one was Shadow, but for the most part UWx Control, Burn, and Chord of Calling decks were in vogue. Given this, Merfolk’s faster clock would have been preferable, though my UW Control list was the actual correct choice. Dispel and planeswalkers were very strong against the actual field last weekend.
The main lesson from this is not to assume the metagame. I went in on the assumption that the grinders (which I expected would make up the majority of the field) would be playing highly tiered decks. Death’s Shadow and Tron were popular choices back at States. Many of those who went to GP Las Vegas took or tested those decks, and the weekly tournaments where we all practice and test were full of Tron and Affinity. It made sense to me that this would continue, and this led me to pick the metagame deck for the tournament.
I could have audibled into Merfolk since I had the deck with me. There was another Merfolk player there and he was at the high tables when I left, so it is possible that my deck choice doomed me. However, that interpretation is disingenuous and counterproductive. I made impactful play mistakes and some ultimately wrong strategic decisions during the tournament, which I will be detailing in the next section. A few of these were wrong because of how they played out on later turns, but in general I played sloppily. I can identify two very bad keeps and three play mistakes that contributed to losses. Whether I could have won those games is irrelevant (my opponents drew very well every match)—I was not playing anywhere close to my best. If I want to get back to the Pro Tour, I need to focus.
Therefore, my focus for the next tournament will be on the best deck choice for me, rather than the expected meta, and on keeping my head on the game.
About the Deck
I feel compelled to mention at this point that DnT is not a bad deck. I could have won all the matches I played, and would have won against Boros Burn if I’d taken the line I’ll be talking about below. It wasn’t the best positioned for the specific tournament, but it was still a fine choice and had my predictions panned out it would have been the correct choice. Don’t just write it off.
It’s very weird to say this, but Restoration Angel was really bad last weekend. My hand was clogged with multiples several games and even when I was jamming Angels it just did not feel impactful. The problem is that a 3/4 flier for four isn’t that great anymore (nice work, Fatal Push) and trying to get value off a Blade Splicer was shockingly hard. Older versions of the deck still had Kitchen Finks to find value more reliably. I still want a few copies but I’m leery of continuing with the full set.
I was very happy with Kabira Crossroads. Most of the time it’s not much but against Burn I got to build Finks quite a bit. This kept me in game two against Boros Burn, which I should have lost easily. I also got value in that matchup by confusing and tilting the most successful Burn player in the state. Huge upside, and I consider that reason enough to keep it in going forward.
As for the sideboard, Gideon was a fine card but he wasn’t spectacular last weekend. That slot needs reevaluation, and I may move him to the maindeck in place of some Angels. Not necessarily for two Restos—Serra Avenger can also be awkward without Vials, but I hate cutting too far on two-drops. I think that either Burrenton Forge-Tender or Selfless Spirit are the call in Gideon’s slot. I needed an answer to sweepers against Grixis Control, and while Spirit is better for that, Forge-Tender is also solid against Burn. I’ll see where things stand later this week.
Playing the Deck
It hadn’t come up in testing or practice for weeks, but Death and Taxes is a slow deck. There’s no exponential growth like Merfolk, explosiveness like Affinity, or flurry of Burn to close a game. There’s just piling on pressure from disruptive but unimpressive creatures until the opponent caves. You’re always trying to go wide with three-drops, and that slows things down. This requires you to be as aggressive as possible against other fast decks. However, most of my experience the past month has been against grindy matchups and Tron, where you focus more on disruption and survival. The clock problem never came up, so I didn’t remember it at a critical point.
In game three against Boros Burn, I had a Blade Splicer, Flickerwisp, and two Golem tokens at 8 life. I had four mana, facing two cards in my opponent’s hand, three lands, 12 life, and two Goblin Guides. I have Resto in hand. I chose to attack with Wisp and hold up Resto in case he has Searing Blaze next turn. He does have Blaze, but doesn’t mainphase it or play a land. To have any hope of winning I have to Resto first—he Blazes my Splicer for one, I cannot kill him on the backswing, and die to his remaining burn in hand. If instead I had been more aggressive and attacked with the Golems then I could have played Resto after combat, made another Golem and he couldn’t kill me first. I left the door open and he walked through. My experience against non-Burn told me to take the more conservative line and it was the wrong one. Writing it out now it seems obvious, and it should have been. The fact that it wasn’t means I deserved to lose.
The big lesson here is to remember your deck’s weaknesses and adjust your play accordingly. I’ve learned this before and I needed this reminder.
I’m probably not going to run DnT again this week, partially because I think it will be poorly positioned and partially because I don’t think I’ll have time to answer the questions I raised in the Construction Changes section. What I will run is uncertain. Many grinders from the last PPTQ will be at the next one and they will be reacting to their results. So the meta I saw is unlikely to be indicative of the one I will face, though you can never discount card availability and deck loyalty. I do know that I’d like a deck with more individually powerful cards to simply haymaker my way to victory. It will depend on how testing goes this week. Still, I could definitely see running the deck again if the meta looks favorable, or later in the season.
My next PPTQ is Saturday in northern Colorado. This is a problem for metagamers because the Colorado Magic scene is very regionally divided. The Greater Denver metagame accounts for the Denver metro area and Colorado Springs and represents about two-thirds of total Colorado players. Most of the rest come from the north (I’ve never seen any PPTQs west of Boulder) and they’ve always done their own thing. Wyoming figures prominently into their equations. This will be interesting.
Keep grinding, and may you get there before I do!