Losing and Learning: Analyzing Losses at GP Detroit

The triple Eldrazi Grand Prix weekend has come and gone, and with it went my final shreds of hope for this Modern format. Luckily, Aaron Forsythe confirmed at GP Detroit that Eldrazi was “DEFCON 1” for Wizards, and we’ll certainly see a metagame correction in April. While I won’t play much Modern until then, I still have a lot to say about this weekend. I brought the devoid sluggers to the battle myself, but lost as my misplays and poor pre-tournament decisions stacked the odds against me.

Oath Banner

In Sowing Salt: Eliminating Toxic Attitudes, I encouraged players to take their losses in stride and learn from the circumstances that contributed to each failure. Most Modernites are as sick of hearing about Eldrazi as I am of playing against it, so I won’t bore you with my Mimic-heavy tournament report. This article instead takes readers through my own loss-analysis process, considering the things I could have done better leading up to and during the tournament.

Motivation and Work

Most of the errors I made come down to an overarching theme: motivation. The Eldrazi metagame hasn’t really stimulated me. Normally a Modern junkie, I’ve spent a good deal of time away from Magic as the raging monsters took over my beloved format. But naturally, if you don’t do the work, you don’t reap the benefits. Here are some ways I could have quelled my apathy.

Setting and Keeping Goals

I realized the importance of goals at GP New JerseyTreasure Cruise was destroying Legacy, and I showed up with a port of my Modern Counter-Cat deck to try my hand at the format for the first time. Tropical Island, Wild Nacatl, Daze, Volcanic Island, Ponder, attack for two. I ran very hot and ended up going 7-2 on Day 1, and 11-4 total, despite my inexperience.

PonderI came home from that weekend a different man. Not because I’d had a good time, or met interesting people, or even attended my first Legacy tournament. But because I’d spent my weekend casting Ponder and Brainstorm. And you can’t cast Ponder and Brainstorm without a plan – unlike Serum Visions, which mostly smooths out future draws, those spells dig for answers very efficiently and are too valuable to resolve casually. Before casting them, you always have to ask yourself: what do I need to find?

Since New Jersey, I’ve applied this cantrip philosophy to every aspect of my life. When friends ask for advice, I wow them with my wisely stoic, stock response: well, what’s your goal in this situation? Realistically, I’m not that wise. All I’m doing is casting Ponder.

Unfortunately, I didn’t cast Ponder this weekend.

I had low hopes for the tournament, and my goal for the GP was just to make Day 2. I came up with this goal the morning of the event. Making Day 2 is a fine goal, but I could have prepared for it a little better by asking myself some questions. What will the level 0 field look like? What decks will see the most play early on?

I didn’t do any of this work, and ended up narrowly missing Day 2. Getting caught up in the soul-draining depths of colorless Modern made me forget what being a blue mage is all about: Pondering. But hey, at least my Ponders have Dan Scott’s signature on them now.

Remembering the Joy of Competition, and Planning Ahead

“I don’t get to play Delver.” “It’s not even real Modern.” “All the games will come down to variance anyway.” These are some of the excuses I made to diligently slug through hours of Dragon Ball Z characters “powering up” (how is that necessary?) instead of preparing for GP Detroit. When I got to the tournament and started playing, I realized that no matter how messed up the format was, competitive Magic really gets my rocks off. I wished I’d better prepared for the event so I could get more out of it than I did, and vowed to keep the regret in mind for next time.Ratchet Bomb

Planning ahead would have helped me avoid a number of snags. For instance, my Detroit list had 3 Ratchet Bomb and 3 Gut Shot in the sideboard, but my collection only had two of each card as I pieced the deck together before driving West. Despite the fact that I was driving to the tournament with someone who manages a card store and literally has every Modern staple at his disposal to lend me, I sleeved up Pithing Needle and Surgical Extraction (!??!!) instead. This two-card sideboard change heavily impacted the tournament, as I lost to Affinity twice by small margins.

Choosing a Deck

Here’s where my lack of motivation first took its toll. Weeks before the tournament, I made a few deadly mistakes in even choosing a deck for GP Detroit.

Personal Biases

In last week’s article, I discussed the importance of playing a deck you enjoy and know well. While I stand by those claims, it’s possible to cling too strongly to a certain archetype, deck, or card. Sometimes, players take their “pet decks” to wholly hostile metagames, and lose as a result.

To avoid falling into the pet deck trap, I elected to play Eldrazi at GP Detroit. What I hadn’t done was completely eliminate my desire to play something “different” from everything else. It’s not any fun for me to win with a deck I didn’t design, or at least heavily influence. Sleeving up UW or GR Eldrazi, which I correctly assumed were the strongest builds going in, wouldn’t have sat well with me. I subsequently failed a number of pet deck tests, packing Serum Powder without doing hard data collection or number crunching, and running Chalice of the Void despite its obvious weakness in an eldritch ocean of four-drops. I didn’t even test different color splashes.

Things I could have done differently:

  • Tested Serum Powder more rigorously
    I had originally planned to take sample hands until I opened Serum Powder 100 times and analyze the card’s relevance in each. For the GP, I settled on playing a relatively arbitrary three copies, but this kind of data collection would surely have helped me find the optimal number.

To be clear, I loved Serum Powder during the event. It shone the most in Round 2, when I came out of a relaxing bye to face Affinity. I swiftly 2-0’d my opponent by finding perfect hands, spending a few minutes resolving my mulligans. The process took so long because I opened every Serum Powder in the deck – for at total of six in the match – and began each game with close to half my library in exile.

  • Chalice of the VoidTried omitting Chalice of the Void
    I actually worked for a while on a colorless version of Eldrazi without Chalice of the Void, instead putting the artifact in the sideboard. Simian Spirit Guide became much worse without Chalice in the main, and cutting Guide made the Chalices from the board pretty unreliable in the matchups I wanted them for. The problem I had with this build was I saw no real reason to remain colorless. If I wasn’t going to play Chalice (or Guide), why not just splash UW and fill out those eight spots with more threats? I left these issues unresolved, and my deck suffered as a result.

Overall Metagame Positioning

I played Eldrazi because I liked certain elements of the deck, and figured it was better than any non-Eldrazi deck. I was mostly right, but had foolishly decided to try “dodging” the Eldrazi menace myself instead of innovating ways to get over (or under) the mirror. The problem with this strategy is that if I’m going to lose to Eldrazi, I might as well play not-Eldrazi.

Things I could have done differently:

  • Adjusted to beat the mirror
    I didn’t do many games against UW Eldrazi, and have never even played against GR Eldrazi, at the Grand Prix or elsewhere. My losses at the GP were to UW Eldrazi (twice) and Affinity (twice); had I shored up the UW matchup a little, I might have taken one of those matches and made Day 2.
  • Eldrazi DisplacerPlayed a better-positioned deck
    This option relates back to personal biases. Had I not been so stubborn, maybe I would’ve given ol’ Eldrazi Displacer a whirl (in its proper home). UW has more technical interactions and synergies than Colorless Eldrazi, but it’s still Eldrazi; slamming threats on-curve is generally sufficient with these decks. It seems straightforward enough that I could manage even on my first try.
  • Played something more fun
    I had a decent time piloting Colorless at the GP, but I always have fun playing competitive Magic. A more innovative or complicated deck might have tickled me more, and since I didn’t end up taking the tournament very seriously, I could have blatantly ignored (instead of just incidentally ignored) my metagame positioning and gone with something truly terrible, but more stimulating. You know, like Delver of Secrets. I also did a few testing sessions with a friend, Jamie Blanchette, to make sure his Esper Rally brew was favored against the turn two Thought-Knot Seer deck (it was). As much as Esper Rally isn’t something I’d normally play, I wished I’d had a deck that mentally engaging to draw from throughout the tournament as I watched Jamie brilliantly blitz through Day 1. By comparison, I felt a little dumb winning games because I happened to open the right lands.

The Golden Rule of Brewing

I’ve long said that the first thing to do when you brew is to make sure your deck isn’t a worse version of an existing deck. Many decks in Modern show up once, or maybe twice, and then vanish – that’s because the superior version gets most of the credit. Humans? Often a worse Zoo. Slivers? Usually a lackluster Merfolk. Colorless Eldrazi? Yep, bad UW Eldrazi. These decks can still pair favorably and take home a trophy, but they do so rarely. For example, a Humans player can, in some depraved metagame, pair nine times against decks with atrocious Zoo matchups and end up undefeated. That doesn’t make Humans a respectable deck, or one anyone should ever play. I ignored this rule for the GP, opting to play a cobbled-together list of cards I thought looked cool instead of a tested-and-proven assemblage of known hits.

Tuning Your Deck

With an acceptable deck in mind, we can begin tuning for the event in question. I may have failed in my deck choice, but I still tweaked my numbers for the GP. Regardless, I made a few mistakes on this front, too.

Number Count and Tech Choices

We discussed arriving at 3 Serum Powders above – the switch from four wasn’t so much a result of testing as an intuition after sometimes clogging on them. Some other suspicious inclusions on my part are the one-off Sea Gate Wreckage and the pair of Endbringers.

Sea Gate WreckageSea Gate Wreckage tested very well for me against Eldrazi decks after we’d traded resources, but before we could activate Eye of Ugin. Likewise, Wreckage excelled against grindy midrange decks with mana denial effects and discard spells. Against these decks, Eldrazi already has such an advantage that I’m not sure Wreckage earns its spot over Mutavault #3. And against Edrazi decks, the matchup so frequently comes down to who draws the most explosive opener that I doubt Wreckage pulls its weight. It certainly did nothing for me this weekend.

EndbringerIf I really wanted to beat Eldrazi, I should have ditched Endbringer entirely and gone with Oblivion Sower in the main. Sower was a card I tested before, even as a four-off, but decided not to play at the GP because it did so little against the format’s small aggro decks, while Endbringer would carry those matchups by himself. I should have remained focused – there wasn’t supposed to be that much Infect last weekend, and Sower would certainly have been a better choice against the known quantities of Eldrazi. Endbringer might get over Ensnaring Bridge, but that card has been seeing considerably less play as intelligent Eldrazi players brainstorm solutions to the artifact. (Or just play mainboard World Breaker.) As for Endbringer‘s relevance vs. Affinity, I could have probably dedicated more sideboard slots to the matchup and performed better against Modern’s original devoid bogeyman.

Bringing a Sideboard Plan

I’ve read many articles from experienced players about not needing or liking sideboard plans. Personally, I love them, especially when I’m not truly intimate with a deck. Just designing a sideboard plan challenges me to establish my probable role in each matchup. Between games, with thoughts about the recent win or loss swimming around in my head, it can be tough to focus and decide on the spot what I should be doing in Game 2 before I have a serious handle on my deck.

Making sideboard plans has another important function – it helps tune the sideboard. If I make plans for each matchup and realize that Surgical Extraction only comes in twice, maybe I should cut Surgical Extraction for something more flexible. If I have too many cards to bring in against UW Control and not enough to bring in for Affinity, maybe I should cut Crucible of Worlds for a third Gut Shot. I missed out on these thought processes by not making sideboard plans, and even had trouble identifying my role in a few matches as a result.

Knowing Your Role

Gut ShotAgainst my first UW Eldrazi opponent, I neglected to board in Gut Shot on the play, assuming my opponent would remove his Mimics and try playing a control game. He had the Mimics anyway and out-tempo’d me with them. Against my second, I never saw a Mimic after Game 1, and was told after the match that he’d boarded them out for Games 2 and 3, effectively blanking my now included Gut Shots. Whether one of these opponents knew his role and one didn’t, they both misboarded, or they both picked up on and took advantage of my inexperience, the fact is I had no idea what I was doing between games, or what my opponents would do. I boarded poorly in both matches, and would have gained a significant edge by simply acquainting myself with the UW Eldrazi matchup.

In Game 3 of Round 8, I narrowly lost to Affinity after dominating the matchup earlier in the day. My sleepy opponent made a bunch of visible misplays, but none as major as mine. On turn three, I seized the initiative and slammed Reality Smasher on a nearly empty board with a grip full of disruption, deciding I could ride the behemoth to victory while negating my opponent’s future plays. My opponent had no cards in hand and a lowly Vault Skirge on the ground, with two Inkmoth Nexi and an inactive Mox Opal for mana. He topdecked Cranial Plating and handily raced me to the finish line a turn before I could resolve and crack Ratchet Bomb on two. I made an obvious mistake: I tried to out-aggro Modern’s most aggressive deck. Had I scared off the Plating by landing Ratchet Bomb earlier, my stream of business would easily have gotten me there. But I didn’t know my role in the matchup, and ended up losing with a fresh Endbringer in play and the Bomb at one counter.

Modern Rules!

When I told inquisitive friends how I did in Detroit, they uniformly replied with disappointment and empathy. “Sorry, dude.” “That sucks.” I actually had a great time, and I learned a lot about deck building, event preparation, and priorities. Don’t be sorry! GP Detroit was about as tentacle-y as I’d imagined, but I guess even at its worst, Modern has something to offer me. Here’s to the coming April metagame and the open format we know and love.

Jordan is the copy editor at Modern Nexus. He has played Magic since 2003, and Modern since its inception. A devoted theorist, he always brings tuned brews to events. Jordan favors card efficiency over raw power and specializes in disruptive aggro strategies.

2 thoughts on “Losing and Learning: Analyzing Losses at GP Detroit

  1. I appreciate the honesty of this piece a lot. It’s fine to make our own choices, but it’s important to acknowledge when we’re wrong, rather than blaming exterior factors and “run-bad” for poor results. You’d written about owning our losses before, but actually doing it “in public” takes guts. We could all learn to dig our heads out of the sand a bit and critically analyze our losses.

  2. This was a fabulous article Jordan. Thank you for highlighting the Brewer’s Dilemma in a meaningful and intelligble way. Speaking of brewing, and looking towards the brighter future of Shadows Over Innistrad, I’ve been working with a Temur Delver list that replaces Delver with Thing in the Ice. Have you any thoughts?

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