I stopped by the PTQ at Misty Mountain Games in Madison, Wisconsin, fully prepared to cheer on my friends to victory. Matt Severa wasn't in town rocking his version of Pod, but plenty of other Madisonians were in attendance. I was rooting most heavily for old-school magician Brian Kowal and his awesome-looking Mythic list, though there were plenty of other people to root for, whether it was Ben Rasmussen with Junk, Lukas Carlson with Pod, or Stephen Neal with Pyromancer Ascension. Really, when you go to a PTQ seven minutes from your house, there ends up being too many people to name.
Misty is the place where a ton of Magic players you might know of either started out or ended up for some period of time. The short version of the list includes Bob Maher, Sam Black, Gaudenis Vidugiris, Mike Hron and many, many others you might know. Back in the day, Misty Mountain was the first game store in Madison that really managed to have some longevity. The then-owner, Steve Port of Legion Supplies, had been running PTQs as a tournament organizer, and he moved into a vacuum where the tournament players in town had taken to meeting at restaurants (IHOP, for example) to play and practice.
This was a pretty bonkers situation,when you think about Madison having a metropolitan population over half-a-million people, including four colleges and universities. Even then, Misty was located out of downtown, somewhere about over... there:
(I photoshopped this photo together for a PTQ at Misty not so long ago.)
These days there are something like five major game stores in Madison, and so the crowd of magicians has spread all over the place, as opposed to being centrally located at one store. The current owner of Misty, one Ben Rislove, used to manage Misty in the latter days of Steve Port's ownership and so at this point I've known Ben for years.
As I was watching the PTQ, I started thinking about how few of these large PTQs might be left. I thought it would be nice to document this one, particularly given how interested people have seemed to have been in getting a little more in depth information. I asked Ben if he could help me out with the standings and decklists after the event. Voila! 184 decklists...
The Limitations on Data
In the CEDTalks with Matt Sperling , Matt went into a phenomenon I think a lot of people don't really understand: deck selection. One of the reasons that he chose to play R/W Burn at the Pro Tour was simply how very close he was to dying to it so many, many times in various events. However, that being said, many of his opponents who were playing Burn were not playing very well. He reasoned that it was very likely that if a more talented player were playing the deck, he would have lost some number of those games.
In my opinion, a big part of what happens when it comes to deck selection is that cultures emerge on decks. Burn really appeals to a lot of the inner child in players. This can mean that some of the people who select it are selecting it because it appeals to the fun in them. While I know I enjoy playing Magic quite a bit, and I intend to have fun, when I select Burn, I select it because I think it is the right deck for the tournament. When I gave Sperling my six top lists for PTM15, Burn was number two (right behind Planar Cleansing Control).
A lot of more talented players eschew a deck like Burn in Standard (or any format really), because they think it will get rid of the edges that they have in skill over an opponent. This is one reason why you are often more likely to see the best players in an area playing a controlling deck or a combo deck. These decks often give players the impression that they are leveraging skill to get wins (whether this is more true of these decks than other decks or not).
Between the self-selection of players on decks comes another huge factor: practice. In Modern especially, knowing your deck matters a lot. Over the course of the day, I heard from countless players about how "they would have won" if only they'd made the better play. In nearly every case, the player recounted how the loss came out of a failure to either play their deck correctly or a lack of experience in interacting with a specific decklist.
This can really come into play with card availability. For a lot of players, being able to create, say, three copies of Rock-style decks, with four of Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, Liliana of the Veil, and the land can be a horrible challenge. Someone pulls the short straw, and they often end up playing a second choice deck.
In addition, when you're analyzing a deck archetypes's performance, you do have to keep in mind that not every player playing a deck is really all that useful to measure. When players are at wildly different levels of skill, not all results are created equal. A part of why DCI Reporter has a minimum result on your Opponent Match Win % for any particular opponent is so that you don't get punished too greatly for playing against someone who isn't great at the game. On the other end, the players that are the most skilled with a deck are often the ones who can give you the best sense of a deck archetype's worth. As an example from ancient history, one of the reasons that I somewhat shrugged at the classic combo deck Trix (after Dark Ritual was banned in 1999) is that if you looked at how the deck performed more rigorously, yes it was getting great results, but it was underperforming given how many players were playing it and that was even more noteworthy when you took into account the fact that the vast majority of the world's best players were playing the deck.
Finally, there are a ton of people who simply drop from the event once they aren't in contention for the prize they care about. For some people that is Top 8. For others, that is when they can't win packs or whatever prize. A great deck can end up being unnoticed because the pilot stops playing at 3-2, even though they might have continued on undefeated.
In an event that is as small as a PTQ, even a large PTQ, there is simply not enough one can do to take into account all of these factors. Now, a lot of these things get normalized out when you get enough attendees. If there are 1,000 people in a room and you have access to performances, you can get a much clearer sense of how a deck is doing. But even with an event with say, 184 players, there is still plenty to be learned.
When you broke down the field, here were all of the archetypes represented, grouped together for a touch of simplicity:
22 BGx Midrange
17 UWx Control
5 UR Delver
3 G/W Hate Bears
3 Turbo Mill
3 Small Pox
2 Ad Nauseum
2 Bant Midrange
1 Blue Moon
1 B/R Midrange
1 Cruel Control
1 Green Devotion
1 Grixis Teachings
1 G/W Aggro
1 Red Deck Wins
1 Zur Aggro
So, here is the crazy and somewhat unsurprising thing: only three decks had more than 10% representation in the field. While that isn't a Legacy-like number (or at least Legacy of a year or three ago), it is still pretty incredible.
Among those lists that had about 10% or more, the number raises up to five macro-archetypes which can be broken down thusly:
- 9 Kiki-Pod
- 8 Melira-Pod
- 6 Angel-Pod
22 BGx Midrange
- 8 Jund
- 8 Junk
- 5 BG Rock
- 1 Loam
- 10 Tarmo-Twin
- 8 U/R Splinter Twin
17 UWx Control
- 8 UW/r Control
- 3 UW/r Geist
- 2 UW/r Midrange
- 2 UW/r Kiki-Control
- 1 U/W Control
- 1 Esper Control
Each of these macro-archetypes had representatives among them who managed 5-3 records or better. To me, the threshold of hitting that record is meaningful. It is good to know that someone could at least manage to get to that record. Of the 184 players, only 49 achieved that result. If we only examine the archetypes who had someone do well, these get kicked to the curb:
Red Deck Wins
This doesn't mean that all of the decks that didn't do well are bad. I, for example, really love Infect right now. However, with only two people playing it, who knows what we can say about Infect if both players didn't do well. We would be able to say something very different about it if both players did well.
So who are the winners? What can we say about them?
Decks with Winners
There are actually quite a few decks that had someone go 5-3 with them, but otherwise didn't have anything really noteworthy happen for them and only had a handful of players. If we wrap them together into the amorphous "Other" category, Tokens, G/W Hate Bears, Small Pox, and White Weenie also fall away. This leaves us with only those decks that either had someone manage a 6-2 or better, or those decks which had at least ten players.
Here is a breakdown of finishes:
One of the things that I've done with this event's data is to present it slightly differently than I have in the past. The difference between eight rounds (like this PTQ) or ten rounds (the Constructed portion of a PT) or eleven rounds (a very large SCG Open) or even fifteen rounds can be huge in terms of how much accuracy you can get. More people smooths things out. Less people simply means you can't trust information as much.
As a result, one of the things I've done is simply highlight the unreliability of some of the data. The yellow boxes on the total players show what the expected value of any player's performance in the event is. Roughly 26.5% and 12.5% of players finished 5-3 and better or 6-2 and better, respectively. The results marked in red are those archetypes whose players exceeded that performance expectation, and those in pink exceeded expectations but only had one player representing the archetype at the top tables, calling into question the confidence we can have in those results.
There are two results which stand out to me more than anything: Twin and Scapeshift.
Wow, did this archetype get crushed. With eighteen players, not a single player managed to get to six wins. If we break it down into subgroups, we can see how many players achieved the minimally successful 5-3 mark:
Splinter Twin: 6 of 8
Tarmo-Twin: 1 of 10
I still believe this is a reasonable archetype, but this is a pretty damning result. Did it have too big of a target on it? Or is it just a bit underwhelming right now? Was it picked by less practiced players?
I'm of the opinion it might be a little bit of all of the above. These days, it feels like everyone in a PTQ is a veteran; I'm still reminded of Adam Jansen calling Michael Bernat a "new player" because he'd only been playing seriously in tournaments for 15 years. Looking at the list of players on the Twin lists, I do feel like, of all of the archetypes highly represented, Twin players had many fewer greatly experienced players, though it did have some.
In addition, I just think that people are really gunning for Twin. Twin isn't the easiest deck in the world, but the basic concept of it is fairly straightforward, and I think it is a go-to deck for people to test against and have a fairly reasonably piloted bit of opposition. Compare this to various Pod lists, which can be incredibly challenging to pilot optimally, and I think people could generally be far more prepared against Twin than Pod with reasonable effort into testing.
Poor Scapeshift. This is one of those lists that I really think is worth exploring. To me, today's Scapeshift reminds me of many of the best parts of High Tide from 1999. I'm completely unsurprised by this archetype winning the GP in Minneapolis.
Unfortunately, only two of the eleven pilots of this deck managed to get five wins. That is fairly unexciting. I'm reminded of one of the biggest problems with the deck: in some ways, this is a deck that can't help but play fair. While the "combo" of the deck is pretty intense, cast one card and win the game, the prep you need to take care of before that point means that you get to let other people enact their gameplan.
Ultimately, watching people play this deck, I think you really need to be practiced at it before picking it up. The margins with which I saw people lose were often very small. Beyond that, I can't tell you how often, both recently and over the years, I've seen someone cast a Scapeshift "for the win" only to not win because of something in play.
I still like this deck very much; just make sure that you practice this deck a ton before considering it for a major event (and 'a ton' means something when we're talking about Modern).
There Can be Only One
There are a ton of decks that only had a single representative cruise to the top of the standings. Of them, there are still some valuable things that can be claimed.
Let's talk first about some decks that are on the radar but a little less common. Faeries and Pyromancer decks are both decks that, if you're a savvy tournament player, you should already be aware of. In the case of both of these decks, less than 5% of players chose to play these decks, and two veteran players managed to do well with each archetype: Stephen Neal with Pyromancer and Joe Bernal with Faeries. Everyone else couldn't manage to break through the 50-50 barrier.
I'm actually not a huge fan of Pyromancer right now; I think that Stephen Neal did as well as he did because of his incredible experience with the deck and his general affinity with combo decks in general. Even so, unlike Joe, he failed to make Top 8, though I wouldn't be surprised to see him sling a similar 75 again the next chance he has.
Joe, for his part, was the only player playing Faeries to run zero Pack Rat. I know a lot of people have had success with Pack Rat, but Joe's path involved eschewing the Standard superstar in favor of a more "classic" build. As with Pyromancer, only one player, Joe, managed to break the 50-50 mark, though in his case he did break through to the Top 8.
My opinion of Faeries is quite the opposite of Pyromancer; I think Faeries is very worth playing. But, that being said, like Burn, I think Faeries actually walks a very thin line between winning and defeat. The core of Faeries includes a lot of both underpowered cards and cards that slowly kill the pilot of the deck. A Bitterblossom can certainly finish the game, but it takes time, and in the meantime you might be dead! If you know how to ride that thin line, you can take advantage of the powerful synergies the deck provides; if you don't, you will be like all of those non-Bernal players watching on from the sidelines.
The final deck, Bant Midrange, was designed and piloted by Brian Kowal. Kowal, for those of you who don't know, is (in my opinion) one of the most talented deckbuilders of all time. Legacy Rock owes him a huge debt. He was the creator of Ponza, of Boat Brew, and of many less well-known decks, including decks like the "Slideless Slide" that Bob Maher used to win GP Detroit in the early 2000s, the anti-Faerie Naya list that many people nearly cracked Top 8 of US Nationals with in the late 2000s, and many, many other decks that have done well at PTs, GPs, and more.
This deck of BK's was, like so many of his, a brew just before the event. For those of you who liked Zvi Mowshowitz's deck Mythic, you'd probably love Kowal's Lotus Cobra/Knight of the Reliquary brew. While he didn't Top 8, watching him play the list, it looked very powerful to me. I don't know if it is good enough for Modern, but there is still something pretty damned exciting about a Lotus Cobra-powered Sword going to work early in the game.
Finally we have those decks that had both more than a single representative above the 5-3+ mark and managed to get someone to eighteen points.
This was certainly the deck of the tournament with the greatest number of players playing it. Beyond that though, it was greatly successful. All told, the Pod decks were among the most likely to get someone to 6-2 or higher. Here is the breakdown of the sub-archetypes of the Pod decks, and how many people had winning records (5-3+) with them:
Kiki-Pod: 4 of 9
Melira Pod: 2 of 8
Angel Pod: 1 of 6
While I've been pretty excited about the Kiki-Jiki-less/Melira-less Angel Pod lists, it does look like they aren't doing all that great. The explosive power of the Kiki Jiki lists and the overwhelming stability of the Melira lists seem to be taking the day.
When you look at the numbers, it is actually really shocking that the Kiki Pod decks did so well. In a way, just looking at the various pilots though, I somewhat think it is possible that the players who chose these lists also just happened to be some of the best players in the room. This can make a huge difference. In addition, the best performing Angel Pod player happened to be the player I think might be the most experienced Angel Pod player in the room, and the best performing Melira Pod players also happened to be the most experienced people with the deck.
Playing Birthing Pod is not easy. In many ways, it is like a far less forgiving Survival of the Fittest. Any version of the deck gets to play the value game of "comes into play" followed by "comes into play" trigger, and just grind someone out. Any version of the deck can also just win somewhere in the midst of this grind. Navigating the path takes some skill.
In my opinion, I still don't think that any of these decks is definitively better than any other; I think if I forced one of the top Kiki-Pod players to play Melira Pod they'd do similarly well, and vice versa. Good players have been gravitating to this deck, and when they do, it serves them well. If you think of yourself as a talented player, this is definitely a deck you should be considering. It's worth noting that nearly everyone who succeeded with any version of Pod ended up in Top 8 or just out of Top 8. Impressive.
Affinity had the largest conversion of players to a top record (6-2+). In fact, in addition to an incredibly high conversion rate at the top (over 25%), it also managed to have solid results below that (36% with winning records, when the average was 26%). Very few people did poorly with the deck.
I've always respected beatdown decks. But, having piloted both Affinity and Pod, I think that Pod is the harder deck to pilot. Between the two, Affinity seems to be a deck that is more likely to get a high result. This is the only true beatdown deck in the format that is succeeding, so if you like to attack, this is probably the deck for you. And while no deck in Modern is one where you can say, "Oh, this doesn't take any effort to pilot," I do think that there is less of a burden on the pilot to play Affinity well than to play Pod well.
If you haven't had as much time as you'd like to prep for the format, or you are a dedicated beatdown player, I think this is your deck.
Whatever the color combination, the various Black/Green(/x) Midrange decks are a real force in the format, basically ruining the fun of most of the rest of the format. In many ways, this might be why this archetype is one of my favorites. Breaking down the subarchetypes, you can see how many players of each managed a winning (5-3+) record:
Junk (BGW): 5 of 8
Jund (BGR): 3 of 8
Rock (BG): 1 of 5
Crime-Loam: 0 of 1
While the pure B/G build is how I prefer my version of this deck, it is the Lingering Souls builds that ruled the day. Just looking over all of the lists, they overwhelmingly overperformed every single other version of the list. At the same time, none of the decks in this macro-archetype managed to crack the Top 8.
This is a far cry from previous performances of this macro-archetype, which appeared to be overwhelmingly dominating the PTQ circuit. I think that people have just gotten used to what this deck is capable of. I particularly noticed a great deal of homogenization of these lists, with Garruk Wildspeaker everywhere; I think perhaps everyone was watching some recent GP coverage...
Overall, this is a clear safe choice. Whatever cards might draw you out of pure B/G, be they Lightning Bolt or Lingering Souls, the fact remains that Tarmogoyf plus Dark Confidant joined with removal and discard is a thing; respect that, or don't expect to do well at a Modern event.
Odds and Ends
The black sheep of sorts in Modern, the Burn deck was only barely played but definitely rose to the top. People don't typically respect this deck as a contender, but it continues to put up numbers from those who are dedicated.
Burn is a harsh deck to play, more than most archetypes; a single misstep ends it for you. At the same time, watching people play against it, it is a very hard deck to be ready for. I saw a handful of match losses from people who took damage they shouldn't have because they had no idea they were in danger of dying so soon.
Tron is an interesting macro-archetype to examine. Combining all of the variations, it was the most likely deck with more than four players to have a winning record, but, it was definitely underrepresented at 6-2 or better. To me, this deck has all of the hallmarks of a moderately good but not great deck. Many of the wins it is going to get are going to come out of being such an unusual archetype in the format, but ultimately, I don't think it currently has what it takes to be a contender.
Similarly, all of the various UWx decks, be they classic control of whatever color combination, a more midrange control deck, or the more aggressive Geist of Saint Traft decks--whatever the version, the results were underwhelming. I think that if you're planning on playing a deck that says "no," you're probably better off playing B/G Midrange decks, and if you're planning on trying to take things to a tempo game, there are better options.
Speaking of which, U/R Delver could well be that option. While it only had a small handful of players, the deck really delivered the goods, going well over expectations at both 5-3+ and 6-2+. Of course, with so few pilots, it can be really hard to make that judgment in full confidence.
The Top 8
It was a clean cut for Top 8, with only those going 6-1-1 or better making it. Here is the Top 8 of the event:
1st - U/R Delver (1st seed) - Aaron Lewis
2nd - Burn (7th seed) - Jasper Johnson-Epstein
3rd - Affinity (4th seed) - Logan Petersen
4th - Faeries (6th seed) - Joe Bernal
5th - Affinity (2nd seed) - Alexander Javed
6th - Kiki-Pod (3rd seed) - Dzi Do
7th - Melira-Pod (5th seed) - Lukas Carlson
8th - Kiki-Pod (8th seed) - Louis Kaplan
Aaron Lewis and Jasper Johnson-Epstein both vanquished their opponents 2-0 with Burn utterly decimating Faeries, and U/R Delver grinding Affinity into the dust. While Jasper himself seems to feel like he made an error to lose the PTQ, the matchup is a very intriguing one from both ends, and I'm not sure who I would expect to have the edge.
Here is the winning decklist:
I actually really love this list, even down to the odd one-ofs (though I may be biased in that regard). I particularly love two one-ofs: Grim Lavamancer and Runechanter's Pike. These two cards are somewhat of a nombo with each other, but they also are a great card to draw only a single copy of in the course of a game. The rest of the one-ofs serve as analogs to some other part of the deck, be it countermagic or burn.
There are some fabulously hateful cards in the sideboard of this deck. Blood Moon is incredible against so many opponents and can be tantamount to a one-card-win. Electrickery is a card I've been endlessly impressed by. The one card that I like the most in the board is Vandalblast, an incredible card for a Snapcaster Mage deck that might just actually get to the point where it is ready to overload.
After going through all 184 decklists from the event, I know that I have to say that Modern continues to impress me with its diversity. While I don't know if I'll ever be swayed into loving Modern like so many of my friends do (I'm still deep in love with Legacy), the format has a lot of options. Whether you choose Aaron Lewis's winning deck from this PTQ or some other list, having a sense of what is happening in Modern is important if you hope to succeed. I hope that I've helped at least some of you on that quest to Hawaii.
I hope I see at least a few of you reading this there!
A special thanks to Ben Rislove and Misty Mountain Games for the decklists!