I ended up playing Mono-Blue Devotion at Grand Prix Chicago. My final list of considerable options ended up also including Blue-White Control, Black-Red Devotion ala Jared Boettcher, Naya Hexproof, and the bigger Mono-Red Aggro deck (not Boss Sligh).
The first contender out was Mono-Red. Mono-Red was a really good deck. As seen in my videos from a couple weeks ago or from the recent Star City Open results, it makes the matchups against a ton of decks look easy. It just lost to Blue Devotion. Not as in “it's bad, but you can win on occasion”. As in, “sign the match slip now and you get to take an extra 20 minutes to find food” bad. I expected Mono-Blue to be big and the format to be narrow, so that was straight out. Turns out it was 20% of the Day 2 metagame, which is over the 10%-ish line of where I'm willing to play a deck that beats everything but deck X.
Hexproof was the next cut. Again, it was extremely powerful against a segment of the top contenders, this time Monsters and Mono-Blue instead of Mono-Black and Control. It wasn't one huge issue that pushed it out but two smaller ones. Hexproof is not great against Esper Control, but the matchup is certainly winnable. The deck also loses some percentage of games to itself. Sometimes it's because the Auras available aren't dense, cheap, or powerful enough to carry every game; sometimes it's the mana, and sometimes it's just the fact you can't find the right target for all your pump spells. I would expect to lose about one match to each of these issues over the 12 rounds I had to play. Add to that the fact Mono-Black actually makes a fight out of the matchup, and it wasn't a deck I could see myself easily top 8ing with.
That left three decks from the obvious choices.
Black-Red was the most promising Black Devotion list in my mind. All of the other lists I tried could not beat the card Divination. The control deck draws two, hits a land, finds another answer. It's not like your threats are actually good at beating them down. Your best card in the matchup is just Mutavault because it dodges most removal. Black-Red at least offered a unique set of cards to attack this issue in Radkos's Return and Sire of Insanity. It also had Dreadbore as its auxiliary removal spell to ensure you had more outs to an Elspeth, Sun's Champion, Jace, Architect of Thought, Polukranos, World Eater, or Xenagos the Reveler. Compare to Abrupt Decay, which is almost exclusively good thanks to killing Underworld Connections in the mirror. In the end, I didn't have enough time to test if these changes fixed the matchup enough and opted to play it safe. Turns out people also missed the memo on Divination, so Black was an excellent choice instead of just a very good one.
Aside on Abrupt Decay: This card was extremely overhyped initially when Temple of Malice hit the scene. The whole Detention Sphere issue with the card is way overstated as fighting situational answers to their answers is exactly the game they want to play. In the end, that's a matter of doing a small thing versus doing actual nothing against Sphinx's Revelation (see: Ultimate Price). Your problems are with Elspeth and stacks of big threats; play the cards that beat them.
Blue-White was the deck I was pretty convinced was the best deck in the format. The problem I had was that I couldn't make a list that was tournament playable. Blue-White is a great deck, but every turn from 2 through 7 (or 8) you need to play a land and a spell. And not just any spell, the good one for that turn. Miss a land early on? Dead. Miss the right answer (i.e. Azorius Charm and Detention Sphere vs Stormbreath Dragon)? Dead.
This problem isn't actually unsolvable. Divination is a big part of it as it finds you lands and the right answers. The temples are the other huge part as they ensure you draw the right mix of things and rarely have to mulligan, as a mulligan makes this nearly impossible. The issue I was having was I couldn't actually play win conditions. Drawing a win condition early is basically a mulligan. No matter how much you try, Aetherling is never really the right spell before turn 9 or 10. Playing one mulligan in my can't mulligan deck seemed poor. Elixir of Immortality sometimes is a relevant spell, but I had serious doubts about winning matches with that card. Sure, you should 2-0 most people, but what about those games you stumble a bit and die? Odds are that isn't more than one game a match, but if that's game 1, how do you actually plan on taking the next two before 50 minutes elapses? What if you just line up an answer slightly wrong and punt a game? If I was Adrian Sullivan or Harry Corvese and had been on this deck from day one and never switched, I might have been able to do it, but because I spent my time sampling the format I didn't make it to that point.
That left Mono-Blue Devotion. As I said, this deck is one of the closest things to an actually good deck in this format. Your cards are all proactive so it's hard to draw a mismatched hand and you have good curves that punish average draws. You have sick interactive tricks to play thanks to Rapid Hybridization. You have absolute bombs in Thassa, God of the Sea, which is arguably the single most overpowered threat in the format, and Master of Waves. You also are drastically ahead against the entire aggro subset of the format, which is something none of the other top decks can boast.
The list I played was pretty much the stock one, not that there are many options when you are limited to one color.
- 4 Cloudfin Raptor
- 4 Frostburn Weird
- 4 Judge's Familiar
- 4 Master of Waves
- 4 Nightveil Specter
- 4 Tidebinder Mage
- 4 Thassa, God of the Sea
Nothing has really changed with the deck; literally one of my 75 cards was not legal for Pro Tour Theros. There aren't more Hall of Triumphs because it doesn't add devotion and is semi-conditional. Jace, Memory Adept may be a crutch in the sideboard, but I don't mind making my life easier. There aren't a lot of Dissolves because mana efficiency matters more than countering an Archangel of Thune that you can swarm over. I opted for a mix of Revised, Fourth Edition, and Unlimited Islands because they kind of matched and I couldn't find the draft land box.
I ended up going 7-3 in matches actually played, defeating Mono-Black Aggro, Mono-White Aggro, Brave Naya, a Mono-Blue mirror, Mono-Black Devotion, Naya Hexproof, and Burn while losing to Black-White Midrange, Black-Green Devotion, and Jund Monsters. Against the Black decks it just happened that I mulliganed against the matchup I can't really afford to thanks to Thoughtseize, and against Jund Monsters he had accelerated starts and I was unable to get a Thassa or early Master of Waves to match. You will notice that is only 10 rounds as I had three byes was fortunate to get concessions from Sam Black and Kyle Douglas to put myself in to exactly 32nd place. The two Pro Points here means I only need a Pro Tour top 100 to hit Gold, which based on previous events is approximately the difference between 9-7 with solid tie breaks and 10-5-1. Not the top 16 I really wanted, but considering I mised into 32nd on tiebreaks I'll take it.
I would definitely recommend Mono-moving forward, but honestly it doesn't matter much whether you play it, Monsters, Mono Blue-Black, or Revelations. All of the decks are similarly powerful, any one of them can beat any of the others, and it's really just how you want to play Magic. I wanted to play an aggressive, tempoish deck and picked up Nightveil Specters. Some people like attrition battles and want to Pack Rat. Some people like midrange beasts and play Domri Rades. Some people like drawing a bunch of cards and board sweepers.
Seriously. Play whatever you want. All of the decks are equally good or bad, and at best there are only small edges to be gained based on metagame positioning. Play what you are best with, and you will find yourself winning more than with anything else in the format.
Grand Prix Logistics:
Three things to cover here: event running, prize support, and the Grand Prix cap.
There has been a drastic amount of variance in the quality of events across the last few years of Grand Prix. In all fairness, most of this is tournament organizers getting drastically better at their jobs in the last five years. I understand you can't always put on the production that was Grand Prix Richmond. I understand that certain cities or times of year have inherent issues that limit options. I also understand the odds are that having one suboptimal Grand Prix isn't going to change the attendance at that event. I can't even say I will skip a Grand Prix just because I dislike the TO. But the low end of this spectrum will stop new players from coming back, and this is not what Wizards wants promoting the game. It's very reminiscent of “old Magic” of the mid-2000's, where the people who played already never left and new people were hard to pull in. Allowing organizers who have repeatedly shown suboptimal performance to sell your exclusive product of Pro Tour invites is suboptimal at best, actively detrimental at worst.
I'm obviously not the first or last to say this, but the prize layout for these events does not play well with their size, even ignoring the whole EV side. If you are playing in a Grand Prix and are expecting to gain value, you are either counting Pro Points or way too good to not be. I realize that Wizards has locked in certain aspects of prize support and can't change them fast enough to meet the growth of these events, but there certainly is an issue with some of the way things are now. The big one is how much tiebreakers swing these large events. I've consistently come out on the right side of these, but many people I know have had a lot of feel bad moments as a result. At smaller events this means people without two or three byes can expect to make significantly less for a money finish compared to the Pros. Two of the three Grand Prixs I top 8ed this season I likely would have missed top 8 if I had won my first three rounds the hard way instead of going to get lunch. On the flip side, DCI Reporter resetting tiebreakers on the large event merge makes day 2 very high variance. Only your day 2 opponents and their records matter, so you can see multiple point tiebreaker swings occur to knock people out of contention from previously safe spots. My suggested fixes are having the first two or three rounds not count for tiebreaks regardless of byes and fixing the split event issue, but I'm pretty sure the first one of those is not entirely intuitive and could be improved.
Now, a paragraph for the hundred people who actually care about this topic:
The Grand Prix cap should also be adjusted slightly, but it still seems fairly necessary. It's certainly a feel bad when someone with five top 16 finishes basically can't win anything at a Grand Prix, but at the same time you shouldn't be able to hit Gold off a stack of mediocre finishes. It worked okay for the first year of implementation, and now that we have data on almost a full year, it should be easy to work out better thresholds. My guess is that seven is a bit better number that doesn't leave people feeling quite as stranded at their point total if they do well early in the season, but more complicated Yahtzee “fill in the blank” style solutions might also work.
My coverage on this format has been a little light for it being the most relevant one for a larger percentage of players, so I would be remiss to skip it this week. I also have Grand Prix Worchester coming up, so I need to start doing some real catchup. Unfortunately, it seems like Magic Online has deteriorated as a testing medium with the free fall in pack prices destroying prize structure so this may be more difficult than it has been in the past. It also seems like PTQ lists have been going up slower than in any past season, making it even harder to find data.
That said, a lot of my friends have been talking to me about the PTQ season, and here is my advice from what they have seen:
If I was playing in PTQ next weekend instead of the Grand Prix, I would be playing Scapeshift or Tron.
Everything I've seen suggests a big push towards Black-Green midrange decks. Melira has been a winner in this spot in the past, but the slower land combo decks punish both of those archetypes as well as the move towards slower, interactive Twin decks.
Scapeshift is definitely worse against the Liliana of the Veil decks, but keep in mind the loss of Deathrite Shaman really hurt the matchup. If you look back to the Stream Team testing for Grand Prix Seattle, their non-Deathrite Jund decks were close to even against Scapeshift. Those decks were also way more aggressive than the current lists are, with Bloodbraid Elf, Blightning, and Geralf's Messenger making appearances. Scapeshift should have an edge against the current lists, though I can see that changing if they move towards Garruk Wildspeaker. Craig Wescoe really pushed Garruk as our four drop of choice in Jund for Pro Tour Born of the Gods, and it plays very well in scenarios where the suspend one Overrun is wanting to race.
Burn is another deck I would consider on the basis of also being slower pseudo-combo. I don't have a list, but it is worth noting that you are way better against Splinter Twin than either of the above decks just based on speed.
Of course, this is just how I would play the format. Find the hole, play that week's silver bullet. It's also perfectly fine to be that guy Podding or Junding or WURing for weeks and weeks. Even being that guy for Affinity is fine. There's a lot of noise because the format is so wide open, and given random pairings plus the lower deck mobility due to prices, it's easy to have guessed wrong to have the best odds but still come out fine.