Grand Prix Madrid

Casting Primeval Titan in Madrid *2nd*

Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s article, which is a special one for me. As most of you probably know, and the title partially gives away, my team managed to place second at the Team Trios Grand Prix in Madrid. That not only means that we won a whole lot of matches of Magic under the Spanish sun, that also means that I will be going back to the Pro Tour in a format I’m actually interested in and reasonably good at. I can’t wait to go to Minneapolis this summer and play some more high level Modern!

The Legacy Portion

In seat C, which is the Legacy slot, I had the privilege of having Thomas Enevoldsen. Thomas is known for his escapades with Death & Taxes in Legacy and have been toying around with different builds of the deck since his breakout back in 2013. I recently went back and read this excellent article from Caleb Durward where he talks about Grand Prix Strasbourg in 2013, which coincidentally was the same tournament I had my breakthrough. You should definitely check it out if you like history and Legacy combined.

Long story short, Thomas didn’t like the deck in today’s metagame of Kolaghan’s Command  and way more sweepers like Marsh Casualties  and Toxic Deluge  compared to back in the day, so he was looking for an alternative for Madrid. Luckily for him, I had been playing a lot of 4-Color Leovold and pitched him the idea that it was finally time to play with good cards and turn one protection against broken things instead of playing with a handicap (basic Plains). It didn’t take him long to adopt some of my ideas and develop his own through testing on Magic Online. We did some sparring mostly about sideboard plans and the last flex slot in the main deck, but I could see even after just a few leagues, he had already exceeded my abilities with the deck, and I felt super confident going into the tournament with him as the pilot and me to his right with input when needed. Thomas Leovoldsen was born.

Thomas Leovoldsen

The Standard Portion

The Scarab God

For Standard we put our trust in Michael Bonde to choose a good deck to smash the opposition. Michael doesn’t excel in deckbuilding, but he is very versatile in picking up a deck and playing it well after some dedicated testing. He ended up playing Blue/Black Midrange – a deck that has a lot of play to it and actually has many similarities to 4-Color Leovold from Legacy. He had many complex boardstates during the weekend, and each and every time he was able to solve them to give our team the best chance of winning our match. I know nothing about Standard, but I know a few things about Magic in general. I felt confident from round 1 all the way to the finals that Michael would do the right things in-game. Trust like that can’t be understated in team tournaments. My best advice is don’t team with someone you feel the need to supervise too much during matches.

The Modern Portion


Magic Online Championship Series 2015 (2nd)
World Magic Cup Qualifier 2016 (2nd)

Now let’s focus on the tournament through the lens of yours truly. I hadn’t played Modern in a while when Wizards of the Coast dropped the bomb on us – Bloodbraid Elf  and Jace, the Mind Sculptor  was unbanned in Modern. My first thought was to play Jace in a blue Scapeshift deck to ramp it out on turn three and hopefully get a few activations out of it which should be enough to win games. I wanted to play Search for Azcanta and flip it for ramping or card advantage purposes. In practice the deck dealt too much damage to it self, Jace got killed right away and I got out-controlled against decks like Grixis and Blue/White Control. I made the mature decision and discarded the deck and started researching the web for inspiration, and I came across another favorite of mine. TitanShift with Bloodbraid Elf!

Inspirational deck list (5-0)


I liked the Bloodbraids a lot in theory, but I needed to get some games in to verify that it’s a good enough card on average in the deck. I basically inserted the elf in my old list from last summer where I won a PPTQ with TitanShift. Read about that here.

Bloodbraid Elf will most of the time hit a ramp spell and let you develop your lands and help you win the game with Primeval Titan or Scapeshift. The 3/2 haste part of the card is great when you’re trying to deal with planeswalkers (I easily won a game on the draw vs. turn three Karn Liberated this weekend) or pressure opponent’s lifetotal to make Valakut triggers lethal earlier, but just having a blocker can save you the turn you need to top deck a Titan or Scapeshift. It especially excels after sideboard where you’ve cut potentially dead cards like Lightning Bolt and only have good hits. It also supplements the midrange plan with Tireless Tracker, Obstinate Baloth and Thragtusk perfectly in matchups where Blood Moon, Leyline of Sanctity, Negate, Runed Halo and other hate is expected.

In the last article I talked a lot about the card choices, so today I will focus on the reasoning behind choosing this deck for the weekend and provide sideboard guides for the most common matchups.

The above archetypes were not only my expected metagame, but also share the description of “even-good” matchup for TitanShift. Blue/Red Storm and Death’s Shadow, which are bad matchups for my deck, are on a huge downswing, and I wanted to exploit that this weekend. I felt very confident about Jund being the most played deck, and conveniently TitanShift is also great against decks that are good against Jund. I had the pleasure to play against five copies of Jund and five Tron decks this weekend, so I guess you can say my prediction was spot on. The point I’m getting to is that you can’t leverage that much skill at the table with TitanShift, but picking it for just the right weekend is the real skill here. I went 13-3 individually losing to Tron and Hollow One in the swiss and Grixis Shadow in the finals, and here is the 75 I chose for the event.
Top4 Grand Prix Madrid TitanShift Andreas Petersen

Sideboarding

Jund

Out:

In:


Tron

Out:

In:


Burn

Out:

In:


Affinity

Out:

In:


Humans

Out:

In:


Hollow One

Out:

In:


Bogles

Out:

In:


Jace Control

Out:

In:

I’m still high on adrenaline from the weekend and didn’t get nearly enough sleep yet, so I’m sure I’ve forgotten a bunch of stuff that is really important. Don’t hesitate to ask me about the deck or the trip in general. Thank you all for the awesome support before, during and after the tournament. I will try my hardest to make you proud when it’s time to battle at the Pro Tour this August. I love you guys!

Preparing for Grand Prix Lyon

Wow, that was a great Pro Tour to watch. Any concerns about Modern not being able to hold up to the scrutiny of the pro teams were pretty much rendered mute. The top 8 had 7 different archetypes, and the diversity continued throughout the posted decklists. The most popular deck was 5-color Humans but because it’s just a bunch of creatures it is very beatable if you just try a little.

Lantern winning the whole thing seems to have garnered the most talk about banning but I’m not sure it’s warranted. I have very little experience playing against Lantern so I don’t have a good idea of how beatable it actually is. It seems like Burn and Tron have decent matchups but I for one do not want those decks to see more play. Anyway, as long as there are so few people actually capable of piloting Lantern, the problem might be too small to warrant bannings. Then again, it’s a pretty weak argument that it’s only a small number of people ruining things for the rest of us. I’ll stay out of the debate for now and be content whether something is banned or not.

Instead I’ll try to figure out what I should play at Grand Prix Lyon next week. When deciding on a deck in Modern I think you should always choose between decks you have extensive experience with. There are so many different matchups and weird interactions that you will be very hard pressed picking up a new deck the day before a tournament and do well. Of course, if you have a long time to prepare and build up a mastery of a new deck, by all means go for it, but a week which includes working full time is not enough.

That actually brings me to an important announcement if you haven’t heard: I have decided to quit my day job and spend all my time on Magic. For this blog it means that I will be devoting more time to writing and I will try to do more writing while I’m playing. This way I write down my thoughts as they occur so I don’t have to remember a couple of days back when I sit down to write an article. So if you feel like my posts are of low quality (yet are somehow still reading?) you should see an improvement soon. If you don’t, then I hope you will still see an improvement. I will also be trying my hand at streaming and a good friend and I have started working on a Youtube project so keep an eye out for that. I’m very excited for all of this and of course a bit nervous but I hope the excitement will win out and shine through.

Back to Modern, I have 3 options: Storm, UW Control and Mardu Pyromancer. I have played both Storm and UW at Grand Prixs before and I played a lot with Mardu during December and January. Given ample practice time I think I would play Tron since it’s good against Mardu, Lantern (I think) and Humans, all of which I could see being popular in Lyon. Then again, it’s Modern so week to week metagame changes are pretty negligible, another reason why I favor just playing something you know well.

Of the three, I have the least experience with Mardu so there would have to be some big tendencies in the metagame for me to choose it over one of the others. If I knew the metagame would be the same as the Pro Tour I would snap it off but the trifecta of Burn, Tron and Scapeshift will likely be more popular at the Grand Prix so I don’t think I have the guts to bring it.

I had actually thought UW Control to be kind of dead but the printing of Search for Azcanta and maybe more importantly Field of Ruin has given new life to the deck. I definitely enjoy playing it more than Storm but not enough to want to play it unless it is as good or better, so I’ll have to figure out if that’s the case.

Looking over the Pro Tour lists, they are actually quite similar to what I used to play, and I have tried both with and without Ancestral Vision. Last I played it, around Grand Prix Birmingham, I had abandoned Ancestral but when people like Raphael Levy, Lee Shi Tian and Tomoharu Saito include it, I consider the discussion reopened at least.

There were two main reasons why I cut it. First, the most important thing for the deck was to play its fourth land on time to unlock Supreme Verdict and Cryptic Command. Cards like Wall of Omens were more help there. Second, the top dogs were Grixis Shadow and Eldrazi Tron who had Stubborn Denial and Chalice of the Void respectively, which made it too uncertain that Ancestral would resolve.

I set to testing with a non-ancestral list and found myself struggling to get to just 3 wins in a league. I don’t think I played the same deck more than twice during 5 leagues, so it’s not like I just faced a bad matchup all the time. It’s just that UW is a deck that really requires you to be focused almost all the time. The games are often close until well after turn 5 and even in the late game you can lose by spending the wrong counterspell/answer on their threat. Since it was so long since I had played UW I often made these small missteps in the first two leagues and then I got frustrated and made even more in the next. For me at least, if I am going to play this deck I need to be calm and comfortable which I wasn’t. Since I don’t know if I can get there before the Grand Prix I turned back to trusty old Storm.

I started out with a chat with Snapcardster buddy Michael Bonde who had just played it at the Pro Tour to a 6-3-1 record. He still like the deck so I questioned him about his list:

Creatures (6)
Baral, Chief of Compliance
Goblin Electromancer

Spells (37)
Serum Visions
Opt
Sleight of Hand
Pyretic Ritual
Desperate Ritual
Manamorphose
Remand
Unsubstantiate
Gifts Ungiven
Noxious Revival
Past in Flames
Grapeshot
Empty the Warrens
Lands (17)
Spirebluff Canal
Steam Vents
Shivan Reef
Mountain
Island
Snow-covered Island

Sideboard (15)
Pieces of the Puzzle
Empty the Warrens
Wipe Away
Echoing Truth
Gigadrowse
Shattering Spree
Lightning Bolt
Dismember

There are a couple of new things here, compared to my last list. First off is the full amount of one mana cantrips which I don’t have any argument against; you want to churn through your deck so let’s play all the cards that help do it. Then there is one Unsubstantiate instead of the third Remand. I think this is brilliant because while you lose out on a card, being able to bounce something like Meddling Mage or Eidolon of the Great Revel can give you a chance in a lot of games where you otherwise wouldn’t have any. Next, it seems Noxious Revival has claimed another victim. I even gave it a second chance after talking to Michael and I never cast it. Either I was winning without it or I needed it to be a card in my hand and not on top of my library to be able to win. I am sticking to Simian Spirit Guide and I will spend a lot of thought over the next weeks to come up with a proper argument rather than just “one has been great for me, the other hasn’t.”

Finally, the manabase is completely free of fetches. The advantage is that when you scry something to the bottom of your library, you get to keep it there until you play Gifts Ungiven. The downsides are that you are slightly weaker to Blood Moon and I think you take slightly more damage from your lands (calling Frank Karsten to do the math here). I think both downsides are pretty negligible; since playing without fetches, I have faced Blood Moon twice and won even with no Islands in play. The cost is just one mana for playing a Manamorphose before you play a guy. No matter how the actual math shakes out, I’m sure there is a less than one life per game difference. I remember one game in Madrid that I won because my turn 1 Scalding Tarn made my opponent play his turn two a bit differently in case I was playing a deck with Lightning Bolt or Spell Snare, but I think that’s extremely rare and doesn’t move the needle noticeably. I like going fetchless.

The sideboard is where things get really interesting. Michael had gotten it from Caleb Scherer’s blog  and I recommend you read the 5 or so posts he has written about Storm. I played some leagues with his list and followed his sideboard guide. The essence is that when you expect graveyard hate (which is close to always), you cut the Gifts package for Pieces of the Puzzle and look to play a long game where you either play multiple smaller Empty the Warrens or just stock up your hand and kill with Grapeshot plus Remand. I had just been playing Pieces as an extra grindy card and rarely shaved even a single Gifts, but I tried it out nonetheless.

My opinion after 10 leagues or so is that Caleb goes overboard with the Pieces plan, at least in some of the matchups. Against Tron, for example, I don’t think there’s a need to take them in, I would rather just keep my game plan intact, force them to draw hate and when they do, you still have bounce and/or artifact removal to power through it. I like to have some number of Pieces, but I see them more as a way to help dig for a bounce spell. Against all the blue decks, Gifts is often better, even for grinding, because it’s an instant, and you still get card advantage.

The only matchup where I agree with making the full Gifts-Pieces switch is against Shadow decks where can be quite sure that you won’t be able to combo off the normal way, and where even small Empty’s are likely to win the game. Otherwise, the main plan is just so strong that by switching you have already given up considerable percentage points, whether they draw hate cards or not. Of course, I am not 100% on this and I’m not sure how it is possible to have a rational discussion about this since it basically come down to numbers which none of us are able to calculate properly (I would think even Dr. Karsten would be hard pressed). Nevertheless, I am very interested in any points you might have, no matter which side of the argument they favor.

I am not quite sure what list I’ll play but if you swap Noxious Revival for Spirit Guide in Michael’s list above, you’ll be pretty close. If you have a list, I’d love to see it and hear your reasoning. Wish me luck in Lyon, and good luck to you wherever your next tournament might be. If you’d like to see some of the video content I’m going to do, follow me on social media, I’ll post whenever something goes up.

Religion in Magic

I am an atheist. Don’t close the tab yet, this isn’t an article about actual religion, I just wanted to put it out there. This article is about subjectivity in Magic and why you should be aware of it. You can view it as a response to point 4 of Brian Demar’s recent article for ChannelFireball but I actually first thought about it when I read an article by Sam Black a few years ago.

Both of them argue that a decision in Magic (mostly deck choice, but Sam takes it all the way to in-game decisions) can be right for one person and wrong for another person based on their play style. As I see it, there is only one way this can be true; if your play style will influence your other decisions in the game in a way that deviating from that style for one play has so little synergy with your other plays that it will actually reduce your chances of winning. But in that case, you should look at your entire play style and if there is a better one, adapt that. Essentially, their point of view is for players who don’t want to change their play style.

For completeness’ sake, note that two plays can actually have the exact same ‘value’ in which case you are free to pick whichever you like, or it can be impossible for us to discern the actual value of the plays because they depend on information you cannot possibly know (as was the case for Frank Karsten’s awesome analysis ). But this doesn’t mean you just get to say that your play was correct because we don’t know better.

Magic may, as Sam suggests, be art, but Magic strategy is a science. Sometimes science doesn’t know the answer to our question, but the answer is still out there somewhere. I am a Magic scientist in the sense that I am interested in finding the correct answer to as many questions as possible so I can be the best player possible. I (probably) won’t become the perfect player that always gives myself the highest possible chance of winning, but I refuse to limit my potential with shortcuts like the ones suggested in the first two links.

I don’t blame you for doing so; maybe you are just playing for fun (I don’t mean the word just in any demeaning way, it is a perfectly legitimate reason for playing), or maybe you want to win a Pro Tour or Grand Prix before you die of old age and don’t have time to try to figure out the optimal play in every scenario, so focusing on one archetype may yield better results.

While there is surely a (large) narcissistic part of me that wants nothing more than to be holding a trophy, I try to focus on the process of learning and improving. I don’t care where it ends or how many times I’m wrong along the way, as long as I keep striving to improve.

Wow that was quite the rant, let’s get a bit more specific. The easiest way to get punished for focusing on your strengths is forcing archetypes in draft. It’s pretty easy to imagine someone going into an Ixalan draft knowing all the ins and outs of the Merfolk deck only to have the person on her right drafting Merfolk. The result likely won’t be pretty.

Now, you could do as Ondrej Strasky (sorry buddy for not having the correct characters for your name on my keyboard) and learn several archetypes to increase the chances of one of your archetypes being open, and indeed it might be your best chance of doing well in a tournament. In the end, though, you are limiting yourself because while you managed to steer clear of Merfolk and found the open Dinosaur deck, there might have been a Vampire deck that would have been even better for your seat if you only knew to look for it.

I want to emphasize that this isn’t the same as favoring one archetype over others because you think it is simply better. Sometimes Merfolk is just so good that it is better than Vampires even if the latter is much more open than the former. This rarely happens and often the power level discrepancy between archetypes is useful only as a tiebreaker for close picks.

It’s also often in coverage that they talk about a decision made by a player and say something along the lines of: “He likes to be aggressive, so this is the type of line he likes to take”. If the player later loses, the commentators sometimes go as far as excusing that loss with their play style. This makes sense for the Cedric Phillips school of coverage where it’s all about building appealing storylines, but for those who watch coverage to get better at the game, it’s actually detrimental. I don’t have any examples of this and maybe my memory has gone biased but at least keep an eye out for it.

We like to have answers. It’s much more comforting to have answers to all the questions you care about than to have a bunch of them be mysteries. I don’t blame you for striving for this comfort, and I especially don’t blame you for taking shortcuts for short term gains (I’m sure I will be taking some leading up to the Pro Tour). But don’t mistake the easy way for the right way. That’s how you end up with Trump as president.

Did that last sentence need to be included? Probably not, but remember the immortal words of the great Nicholas Cage.


Maybe there are very few people who play Magic for the same reasons as I do, and maybe the rest of you got nothing out of this article, but at least now you know how I approach the game, and that should make it easier to relate to my future content. And you got reminded that Nicholas Cage movies exist…