Back on the PPTQ Grind: Week Six

An unexpected problem with managing a long running series is the intro. This is the sixth time I’ve had to report that I didn’t get there and I’m worried that I’m just retreading old ground at this point. My only hope is that by pointing this fact out and turning it into my intro, I can claim that it’s making some meta-pretentious, post-modernist ironic statement about writing style and reader expectations. So that’s exactly what I did; please buy it.

After my terrible performance last weekend, I was determined to redeem myself this week. I took extra precautions to ensure that I was on top of my game and spent more time than normal tuning and practicing with my deck. It very nearly paid off. However, it wasn’t my weekend. I’m disappointed, but I can’t be too upset. It’s been said before that sometimes it’s just your tournament and everything goes your way. That was true for the winner of this PPTQ, and I can’t really argue with fate. I’ll just cross my fingers and hope next week it’s my turn to run hot.

In other news, Ixalan spoilers continue to roll in, and I’m starting to warm to UG Merfolk. I said that it would take a green Cursecatcher and/or Silvergill Adept for me to consider it, and that partially happened. Merfolk Branchwalker is not Adept, but it is similar enough to have me interested.

Getting a land off the top is fine, but I’m having a hard time evaluating the rest of the ability. In the early game, I imagine you’ll take anything you see and won’t be binning anything. Thus you’re just giving your opponent free information in exchange for a power/toughness boost. However, later on you’ll be happy to mill away a useless Aether Vial or Cursecatcher. Explore looks close to cantripping, so I’m definitely going to look into the inclusion. Of course, the problem with UG has always been how to actually fit Collected Company into Merfolk, and nobody’s solved that to my knowledge.

The Deck

Once again, I played UW Spirits. This should come as no surprise. I did go to the tournament site with my UW Control and Death and Taxes shells, but I wasn’t expecting to actually play them. The tournament was held in Longmont, which is roughly halfway between Boulder and Ft. Collins. Longtime readers will know that Boulder is known for combo and control, while my experience with the northern crowd told me to expect creature combo and Blood Moon. Spirits is best in those matchups, and it would take seeing a lot of Tron for me to change decks.

UW Spirits, by David Ernenwein (2nd Place, PPTQ)

Creatures (28)
Mausoleum Wanderer
Selfless Spirit
Rattlechains
Phantasmal Image
Reflector Mage
Spell Queller
Drogskol Captain
Ninja of the Deep Hours

Artifacts (8)
Chalice of the Void
Aether Vial

Enchantments (2)
Detention Sphere

Lands (22)
Seachrome Coast
Hallowed Fountain
Cavern of Souls
Flooded Strand
Moorland Haunt
Island
Plains
Sideboard (15)
Unified Will
Rest in Peace
Supreme Verdict
Stony Silence
Meddling Mage
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

I mentioned last week that I was intending to change up the land base and sideboard. I’ve generally been happy with my sideboard except for Grafdigger’s Cage, and this was especially true if the combo players turned up in force. Don’t know if you’ve heard, but Meddling Mage is really good against combo decks. Ethersworn Canonist is better against Storm and Ad Nauseam, but Boulder combo tends to be more like Bubble Hulk: setup-heavy, single-card combo rather than explosive turns. Cage is great against primarily Company decks, and mediocre as graveyard hate. Delve and Tarmogoyf have been more popular recently and RiP is phenomenal there. I wasn’t expecting much Company anymore, so I went for the more consistently useful hate card.

As for the maindeck, I’m still generally happy with my configuration. Ninja is a little weak, but it plays so well with everything else I’m doing that I’m willing to accept this. The looks I get are also great value. The only problem I’ve had is my land base. The deck really needs 22 lands, but drawing too many is a death sentence. With only Ninja for card draw, when you need to hit three lands and often want five or six, flooding is still a problem. I tried several different fetchland manabases and eventually settled on the four Strands. Running more fetches made it noticeably harder to hit five mana and made the deck more vulnerable to burn. Not by a lot, but enough that I don’t thinks it’s worthwhile, given the first problem.

The Tournament

If nothing else, dedicatedly grinding PPTQs takes me to places and stores that I never knew existed. I’d never heard of the site until it appeared in the PPTQ listings, and I don’t often have any reason to travel north of Boulder. You live in a state but don’t usually see much of it, so this is a nice bonus.

The turnout was pretty low; only 25. I don’t know if the local scene is really small or if the word didn’t get out, but that’s way down from every other PPTQ this year. I do know that a lot of the usual crowd including much of the Boulder crew weren’t present. Apparently a number of them have been skipping other responsibilities, nerdy and otherwise, to grind PPTQs and were now in trouble. This deprived me of planned-for good matches, but ultimately wasn’t a problem as I went 3-0-2 in the Swiss, double drawing into the Top 8. I just got crushed in the finals to end in second place.

There were a lot of unusual decks at this PPTQ, the Top 8 consisting of RG Ponza, Breach Titan, Naya Zoo, Bant Humans (same player and deck from week two), my UW Spirits, Death and Taxes, Mono-Blue Favorable Winds, and Mono-Blue Grand Architect. The judge was perplexed, especially about my Ninja. In truth, I saw three Death’s Shadow and two Eldrazi Tron decks at the tournament, but they all fell short. There were a number of Chord of Calling decks too, but Jeff Hoogland wasn’t piloting them, so they did poorly. Now that players have had time to adjust, they’re just no longer that threatening.

What Happened?

Partially I ran pretty well and partially I had good pairings. There were a lot more decks than usual where Chalice of the Void was backbreaking. This led to me having fairly easy games. When Chalice wasn’t great, flying was. The only problem was my weakness to Valakut, the Molten Pinnace, which beat me in the finals. I hit Grixis Shadow, Saheeli Evolution, and the Mono-Blue Winds deck in the Swiss, then Bant Humans, Grand Architect, and finally Titan. Like I said earlier, odd deck turnout. I really can’t say much about my own play, as there weren’t a lot of complicated situations or judgement calls to make. For the most part my opponent and I just played out our cards and whoever had the best grip won. Somehow this ended with me being advantaged even though I was on the draw for most of the day. Also, I really only had one close game. Somebody got blown out every other game.

I did start on the play against Grixis Shadow round one, but due to a one-drop-heavy hand I had to delay playing my Chalice for one. This gave my opponent the opportunity to Thought Scour into Tasigur, which came close to racing me. It didn’t, as I was free to dump Spirits into play and then counter the Kolaghan’s Command that would have gotten him back into the game. Game two he had a great draw with Liliana, the Last Hope and double Death’s Shadow and I was crushed. Game three I have the turn-two Chalice, and he has the Tasigur. But I break serve with Reflector Mage and he never catches up. I drew three Chalices that game, discarding one and having the second destroyed by Command, which took his whole turn of mana and let me stick the third one to lock things up.

Against Saheeli Evolution he had the turn-four combo every game but I kept breaking it up by either flashing in threats to kill Saheeli Rai or Detention Sphereing her away. At that point he became a fairly underpowered Kiki-Chord deck and games one and three I just flew past him to victory. Game two I bricked off long enough that he stabilized and crushed me. Eldritch Evolution was made into a liability several times thanks to Wanderer and Spell Queller.

If you’ve never heard of the Favorable Winds deck it’s filled with one-mana blue fliers like Judge’s Familiar and Jace’s Phantasm, which it turns into real cards with Smuggler’s Copter and the eponymous enchantment. This comes together for him game one and I get swamped. Games two and three this does not happen, as he doesn’t get his enhancers and I have Chalice for one to lock out his creatures. I’m just bigger than him and force my way through. The fact that his only relevant interaction for my deck was Psionic Blast was a factor. It obviously worked, as he made Top 8, but man that is going deep. I double-draw because I’m starving and have amazing breakers.

The quarterfinal against Humans went basically the same as the other aggressive matchups. Game one I curve out and have a Spell Queller for his Thalia’s Lieutenant. Game two his Champion of the Parish gets huge and I don’t see Reflector Mage. Game three I curve out again. Against the Architect deck there is one interesting play where I use Wanderer triggers to trick my opponent into sacrificing his Walking Ballista for no value after dumping his entire hand. This lets me win the race with my 2/1s when I probably should have lost. Game three goes long because I keep a control hand with two Supreme Verdicts and don’t see much action, but he’s out of it by the second Verdict. My two games against Titan are similarly uninteresting, as I don’t really have any relevant interaction for game one and game two I mulliganed to a very mediocre five.

Not that I’m too surprised. I knew I would probably lose if I hit Breach Titan and was hoping its pilot would fall to Ponza in the quarterfinals. He didn’t, for the second time that tournament. He even told me that he’d gotten past three other Blood Moon decks that day. Sometimes, the cards are just on your side and you run hot.

Lessons Learned

The main takeaway I had was how open Modern is and the unpredictability of the PPTQ meta. I saw plenty of known decks in the room, including Storm and UW Control, but mainly hit fringe decks. I am of course guilty of this as well (I get a lot of confused looks playing Rattlechains) but it is impressive.

On the Deck

I really didn’t learn very much from this tournament. The deck displayed all the strengths and weaknesses I knew about, both in terms of matchups and the overall strategy. The main thing I’m really working on is the sideboard. I’m vulnerable to decks where Chalice is bad. Against decks that go bigger I lack relevant interaction, while against other Cavern of Souls decks I easily fall behind if they don’t stumble. This has left me wondering if I need to refocus my sideboard to address this problem.

Moving Forward

I intended to stick with my current deck stable through the season, though I think Merfolk will work its way back into the lineup. If mono-blue decks keep showing up in force, it’s perfect. Affinity and Tron, once metagame mainstays, have vanished alongside Company decks so the format is far more favorable now than it was in August. I’ll have to see what my scouting shows.

…And On…

Still a few weeks left in the season for me and I will definitely keep trying to make it. Hopefully, it will be this week.

One note before I go: the Iconic Masters release notes have a very significant ruling, and easily the most important thing to come out of a set that I found disappointing. Yes, Grove of the Burnwillows and Horizon Canopy are welcome reprints, but there’s been a subtle change to how Blood Moon effects work. Before, you had to play by any rules-setting effects of your soon-to-be-Mountains with Blood Moon around. This meant that you still had to pay two life for your shock-mountains and pick a creature type for Cavern. Now, those don’t happen. This makes it free to play your Mountains, but it also means that when the Moon rises, your Cavern of Souls doesn’t make anything uncounterable. Adjust your play accordingly.

David began playing Magic during Odyssey block, quit playing Magic when Caw Blade ruled the world, and returned to Modern shortly before Deathrite was banned. He’s made an appearance at the Pro Tour, made money at GP Denver, and is constantly grinding and brewing in Modern.

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