A Curious Trend: GP Vegas Prep

By the time this article goes live, it will be just over a week and a half until the Modern portion of Grand Prix Las Vegas. To close a previous thread, yes, I am going and yes, I did win two byes. Not because I actually won a GPT (I have a habit of getting second place at these things), but because I ground out the last 200 or so points I needed in May. This triumph did come at a great and terrible cost, however. I had to play Standard again. *Horrified shuddering*

Anyway, back to good Magic. Over the past month I have witnessed an odd trend at both the GPTs and weekly Modern tournaments: dedicated Legacy players. This is not a bad thing; new players leads to more innovation and coverage. More dynamism and visibility incentivizes Wizards to expand Modern tournaments. That’s why I’ve spent so many words trying to make Modern easier for new players. However, most converts come from Standard. The Legacy crowd was an anomaly, especially since they usually want Modern to be Legacy-lite. I’m more accustomed to hearing them bemoan Modern’s lack of cantrips and weaker combo decks. Recently, they’ve actually enjoyed themselves. This piqued my curiosity.

Talking to the Legacy players didn’t yield any insights. I don’t think I expected them to just give me an unequivocal answer, but I definitely didn’t get one. Everybody had their own reasons for playing more Modern and for picking their deck. However, I think I have an answer. The Legacy players tended to favor Grixis Shadow and Eldrazi Tron decks, which are in fact Legacy-lite decks. Seeing that GP Vegas begins with a Legacy event, this has implications for the Modern field. The consensus best decks (which are definitely popular, but I’m skeptical they’re really “the best”) are Grixis Shadow, Eldrazi Tron, and Company Combo. Exactly which Company deck is the best is unclear, but both versions are considered very good. Based on this Legacy factor, I think the Vegas metagame will be skewed towards Shadow and Eldrazi. Prepare accordingly.

Legacy-Lite Modern

I will admit that the connection between Modern Grixis Shadow and Legacy Grixis Delver looks thin. As you’ll see when I get to the decklists, there’s not much overlap. The connection is far more subtle. There is no such problem with Eldrazi Tron. It is Legacy Colorless Eldrazi, but Modern-legal. While I cannot prove this, I suspect this has been the key to it dethroning traditional Tron lists. I know that its land base is harder to disrupt and its spells are overpowered for their cost, but the deck is very clunky compared to regular Tron. The higher threat density is good, as is the mana explosion from Tron, but the lack of accelerants compared to Bant Eldrazi and cantrips compared to GR Tron often make it worse than both. The best explanation I have is the Legacy crowd giving the deck a boost. Just look at the lists.

Legacy Colorless Eldrazi, by Brandon Johnson (8th Place, SCG Louisville)

Creatures (23)
Eldrazi Mimic
Endless One
Matter Reshaper
Thought-Knot Seer
Reality Smasher
Endbringer
Walking Ballista

Artifacts (6)
Chalice of the Void
Umezawa’s Jitte

Instants (4)
Dismember
Warping Wail

Sorceries (2)
All is Dust

Lands (25)
Ancient Tomb
Cavern of Souls
Eldrazi Temple
Eye of Ugin
City of Traitors
Wasteland
Mishra’s Factory
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Karakas
Sideboard (15)
Thorn of Amethyst
Leyline of the Void
Ratchet Bomb
Phyrexian Revoker
Batterskull
Walking Ballista
Crucible of Worlds
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Eldrazi Tron, by Fumiyasu Suzui (4th Place, GP Kobe)

Creatures (21)
Walking Ballista
Matter Reshaper
Thought-Knot Seer
Reality Smasher
Endbringer
Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
Emrakul, the Promised End

Artifacts (10)
Chalice of the Void
Expedition Map
Mind Stone

Instants (3)
Dismember

Planeswalkers (2)
Karn Liberated

Lands (24)
Eldrazi Temple
Urza’s Tower
Urza’s Mine
Urza’s Power Plant
Ghost Quarter
Wastes
Sanctum of Ugin
Sea Gate Wreckage
Sideboard (15)
Relic of Progenitus
Pithing Needle
Ratchet Bomb
Spellskite
Surgical Extraction
Crucible of Worlds
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
All is Dust
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The two decks share the same core of Eldrazi and are built to wield Chalice of the Void. Go back to PT Oath of the Gatewatch and the start of Eldrazi Winter and the similarities get more pronounced. Modern Eldrazi Tron is as close as possible to the Legacy version, and as those who remember the reign of Treasure Cruise Delver can attest, playing a Legacy deck in not-Legacy is really powerful. Colorless Eldrazi was very popular until recently thanks to a good Miracles matchup, so I suspect there will be plenty of pilots willing to make the swap (back?) to Modern.

Explaining Legacy-Lite

I think that what I originally perceived as increased fragility was actually a “legacification” of Modern decks. Legacy rewards decks that are pushed to the extreme of efficiency. Between fast mana, cantrips, and efficient threats it is not only possible, but preferable, for decks to be as cheap as possible. A typical Standard deck’s average converted mana cost is 3-4. There are cheap enablers, answers, and threats leading into overwhelming threats. Modern decks‘ average CMC is normally 2. All of the best answers are one mana while the best threats tend to be at two. Decks don’t play many 3-4 CMC spells, but there are enough to boost the average. In Legacy the average is one, and really it’s less than one. Not only are there actual zero-cost spells like Lotus Petal, but there are lots of alternate costs that make spells free (i.e. Force of Will and Daze). Yes, I know they have actual mana costs, but that’s not important. If they weren’t free they wouldn’t see play. Ergo, legacified decks will be pushed towards all one-mana spells.

Furthermore, Legacy decks tend towards the fragile. Jordan and I have been over this a number of times, but having Brainstorm and Ponder allows decks to run fewer copies of cards and still expect to see them. Couple this with the fetchlands and you have lots of decks that run few “actual” lands, few threats, and more answers. This facilitates the aforementioned efficiency, allowing decks to only run the essentials, but it also means that they’re fragile. With low threat density and high numbers of durdle cards, if you beat the first few threats from a Legacy list, particularly Delver, they are unlikely to have follow-ups. They’ll find more eventually, but not without a lot of durdling first. This goes back to the car analogy I’m fond of because F1 is just like Legacy. Their cars, particularly the engines, are legendarily efficient and powerful, but if you get a rock into the system it explodes. When Legacy decks do they’re thing it’s a wonder to behold, but when things break down they really break down.

Grixis Shadow

As a result, I argue that Grixis Shadow is the Modern version of Legacy Grixis Delver. Delver of Secrets has never been very good in Modern, mostly because you cannot guarantee it will flip. Brainstorm makes it far more likely in Legacy. Even if that weren’t the case, Legacy decks are removal-light compared to Modern so Delver usually just dies. It’s just not an impressive threat. Death’s Shadow has come to fill that niche.

Grixis Death's Shadow, by Mattia Rizzi (1st Place, GP Copenhagen)

Creatures (16)
Death’s Shadow
Snapcaster Mage
Street Wraith
Gurmag Angler
Tasigur, the Golden Fang

Instants (15)
Thought Scour
Fatal Push
Lightning Bolt
Stubborn Denial
Terminate
Kolaghan’s Command

Sorceries (10)
Thoughtseize
Serum Visions
Inquisition of Kozilek

  (0)

Lands (19)
Bloodstained Mire
Flooded Strand
Polluted Delta
Blood Crypt
Watery Grave
Steam Vents
Island
Swamp
Sideboard (15)
Ceremonious Rejection
Stubborn Denial
Surgical Extraction
Collective Brutality
Liliana, the Last Hope
Anger of the Gods
Engineered Explosives
Grafdigger’s Cage
Nihil Spellbomb
Izzet Staticaster
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Legacy Grixis Delver, by Spencer Garnier (1st Place, SCG Louisville)

Creatures (14)
Delver of Secrets
Deathrite Shaman
Young Pyromancer
True-Name Nemesis
Gurmag Angler

  (0)

Instants (18)
Brainstorm
Lightning Bolt
Spell Pierce
Daze
Dismember
Force of Will

Sorceries (10)
Ponder
Gitaxian Probe
Cabal Therapy

Lands (18)
Wasteland
Volcanic Island
Underground Sea
Flooded Strand
Misty Rainforest
Scalding Tarn
Polluted Delta
Tropical Island
Sideboard (15)
Flusterstorm
Engineered Explosives
Grafdigger’s Cage
Baleful Strix
Grim Lavamancer
Darkblast
Diabolic Edict
Fire Covenant
Kolaghan’s Command
Pyroblast
Red Elemental Blast
Surgical Extraction
Vendilion Clique
Cabal Therapy
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Grixis Shadow is aping Grixis Delver. Yes, the cards are different, but they are as close as possible given the translation from Legacy to Modern. It has powerful one-mana (most of the time) threats, lots of cantrips, the best answers, an aggressively low land count, and some long-game value. The decks even play similarly. Legacy Delver seeks to ride a single threat to victory, wielding its answers defensively as protection and to keep the opponent on the back foot. Grixis Shadow is slower, but it also tries to force the opponent onto the back foot with discard while killing you with a massive threat. It may not be identical, but the same principles are at work. Play the best cheap threats possible and back it up with lots of disruption.

Implications

I’ve been polishing my Merfolk deck for the GP for months, but recent metagame developments and this revelation has shaken me. While I have good matchups against Eldrazi and Grixis decks, Merfolk isn’t the best deck to really exploit this information. If two of the best decks in Modern are really Legacy-ports, then it would stand to reason that they should be attacked like Legacy decks. How practical this actually is will be covered in the next section, but it will still help guide us in the right direction. Full disclosure, in Legacy I play Death and Taxes. This should not be surprising. My experiences with these matchups are going to be the basis of my discussion. If you want more of an overhead view, go see a Legacy specialist.

Eldrazi Tron

Colorless Eldrazi is a very easy matchup for Death and Taxes. Eldrazi relies on Chalice of the Void to meaningfully disrupt opponents. Even when it sticks turn one, Chalice is bad against DnT. Flickerwisp invalidates Chalice and you also have Cavern of Souls and Aether Vial. Additionally, Wasteland and Rishadan Port can cripple mana-hungry decks. Eldrazi has so many lands that they will get out of it, but it rarely matters. The big problem that Eldrazi has against DnT in Legacy is Swords to Plowshares. Eldrazi gets a lot of value from the size of its creatures because hard removal outside of counters is pretty rare.

What this implies for Modern is that the key to beating Eldrazi Tron is to not lose to Chalice and pack hard removal. The deck plays a lot of creatures, but it also has a lot of lands. If you can deal with the first few threats there is a very good chance Eldrazi will simply flood out. The key is to avoid the lock piece and counter their size advantage. The deck is not fast, just overwhelming, so if you do dodge Chalice it’s not that hard to race them. Don’t try to go bigger than the Eldrazi, go under them.

Grixis Shadow

Legacy Delver against DnT can be weird. DnT packs a lot of good cards, but an unanswered Delver is still lethal. Sometimes you will Wasteland them out of the game, other times you stonewall them with creatures until equipment wins the game. Sometimes they just race you, sometimes they trade resources until you run out, sometimes Tarmogoyf just smashes through. The one thing I’ve found that consistently works is dodging, by which I mean you avoid their interaction. Legacy interaction is primarily countermagic and sometimes just sticking a Vial or Cavern wins you the game. Delver needs its interaction to line up in very specific ways and when that doesn’t happen the deck falls apart. You really don’t need to pick a Delver deck apart, if your cards don’t line up the way Delver needs them to they may be powerless to win.

Similarly, Grixis Shadow needs to pick your hand apart to win the game. It often only has a threat or two in a game and if they get answered Shadow may impotently watch itself die. Therefore, if you’re going to answer the deck you need to invalidate their interaction. Having a gameplan that is resilient to discard is a great plan, but so is invalidating their interaction. I’ve watched Little Kid Abzan dismantle very good Shadow players because Loxodon Smiter is so good against discard. A hand of just Smiter would normally be a mulligan, but against Shadow it might be a free win. I’ve also seen Shadow decks fall to UW Control because they knew the control player had more answers for their only threat than they could discard. Robust redundancy is terrifying to fragile decks. It is also important to note that just like Legacy Delver, Grixis shadow does not run many actual mana sources. As a result, it is possible to take them completely off their lands.

Can This Be Exploited?

It’s tempting. I don’t know if it is possible but it is very tempting. Thinking about all of this really makes me want to run Modern DnT in Vegas. The problem is that the actual Legacy crowd is small relative to other formats, and despite the large turnout I expect I don’t think it will be enough to really tip things in Grixis and Eldrazi’s favor. GPs are enormous tournaments and Modern is far too diverse a format for such a targeted approach. If the format was more legacified (legacrific?) then it would be a possibility, but as is I think it unwise to take an anti-Shadow or anti-Eldrazi deck to Vegas. There’s too much noise in Modern for that to be a sure strategy.

Still, it’s important to remember that the best decks in Modern are based on Legacy decks, and can be beaten by the same means. They’re very good decks, but don’t let the hype fool you. They’re fragile and dodgeable. Attack them from angles they’re not ready for and the decks just crumple.

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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