This past weekend, I played in Grand Prix Charlotte. I was excited for the tournament, since I'd had a lot of fun testing Modern recently and exploring all sorts of different decks built around Collected Company. The deck that I ultimately played was just a few cards off from the Bant Company list posted in my article just before the tournament:
- 1 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Blade Splicer
- 3 Eternal Witness
- 4 Flickerwisp
- 3 Kitchen Finks
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Qasali Pridemage
- 1 Restoration Angel
- 4 Voice of Resurgence
Unfortunately, I did quite poorly in the actual event, failing to win even a single match after my byes. My first round was a feature match against Brian Liu, the winner of Grand Prix Richmond. I recognized his name and remembered that he won that tournament with Kiki-Pod featuring Fiery Justice in the sideboard, and was amused to discover that he was playing essentially the same deck minus Birthing Pod. I managed to win the first game when we both had fairly weak draws, but mine had Gavony Township, before getting literally five-for-one'd by a Fiery Justice on four mana creatures and a Flickerwisp in game two and then failing to draw any removal in game three when he just naturally assembled Restoration Angel plus Kiki-Jiki.
My second match was against Infect. We split the first two games, then we both mulliganed to five in game three. I had a strong draw for five cards, with Birds of Paradise into double Blade Splicer, but he hit me for five poison with a Plague Stinger on his third turn with Might of Old Krosa, and then had Mutagenic Growth plus Groundswell plus Vines of Vastwood for my Path to Exile to kill me on turn four despite my Path. And I thought my five-card hand was good!
My third match was against G/R Tron, and it was clear to me that it was not my day when my opponent assembled the full Tron on turn three in both games. I actually hung in for a surprisingly long time in game one, eventually losing to Emrakul into Ugin when I likely could have beaten Wurmcoil Engine or even Karn. In game two I had an Aven Mindcensor to stop his Expedition Map - though not until he already had Tron - but he still found his single Eye of Ugin in the top four cards. Sometimes you just aren't meant to win, I suppose.
Now, one could certainly look at my result and take away from it that the deck I was playing was a poor choice - after all, I went 0-3 in the tournament. And while it's possible that was the case, I think that it's important not to jump to conclusions too quickly from a small sample size, especially in a format like Modern. It's easy to end up on the wrong side of variance over the course of a few matches, and it can be difficult to recover from when decks are so explosive. I lost every die roll, mulliganed many times, and still only narrowly lost the matches that I did (except against G/R Tron, where I got stomped).
People piece together information to fit whatever narrative already exists in their head. If someone plays a deck like Splinter Twin, Jund, Affinity or Amulet Bloom and go 0-3, people will generally assume they got particularly unlucky, because that's an explanation that fits what they already believe. But if someone plays an unusual or unknown deck and has the exact same result, the focus will generally instead be on the quality of the deck rather than on the player's misfortune - again, because it fits their narrative most effectively.
I think in many cases, players make decisions about what decks to play based on these factors. They feel like as long as they play a known - and thus "safe" - deck, their choice can't really be called into question. If they have a poor finish playing Splinter Twin, at least they don't have to worry about it being because they picked the wrong deck. But if they do poorly with a deck of their own design, or something similarly off the radar, they may feel foolish for making that decision in the first place.
No one has ever built a good deck without building a bad deck first, and many of the best decks have sprung from ideas that others thought were foolish.
I remember showing up to Pro Tour Chicago back in 2000 and showing people my Red Zone deck and having them literally laugh at me for playing so many huge creatures. "What is this, the Beatdown Box Set?" they asked, referencing a beginner's boutique product that had come out not long before the tournament. I made my first Pro Tour Top Eight at that event, finishing in third place, with many players in retrospect feeling like I had the best deck in the tournament.
I remember Patrick Chapin being so adamant that there was no way Baneslayer Angel could be a reasonable card to play in an Extended deck that he called me up to try to convince me to stop building decks including the card. I did not relent, because the card seemed so powerful in the Zoo-heavy metagame that we predicted for Pro Tour Austin. I won the tournament with Baneslayer Angels in my own Zoo deck, and the three of us who played the same list had one of the best combined win rates for a deck in Pro Tour history.
I remember laying in bed in the house we were renting in the run-up to Pro Tour Philidelphia to test and overhearing Owen Turtenwald telling everyone who would listen that he couldn't believe that I kept trying to build Zoo decks, because there was no way they could possibly work in the newly-minted and combo-laden Modern format. A week later, my Zoo deck was played by almost our entire testing team, including Owen himself, and Josh Utter-Leyton, who made it all the way to the finals of the event.
My point here isn't to claim that the deck that I played in Charlotte was actually any good despite my result. My point is rather to encourage you to experiment and try new things rather than always play it safe. If you always play the latest build of Abzan because you're afraid of looking foolish if you do poorly, you're handicapping yourself just as much or more than you would by trying crazy decks all the time. I'm not advocating for playing something off-the-wall just for the sake of doing so, but rather for an openness to exploring even ideas that others might tell you are bad.
As for my Charlotte deck, I probably wouldn't play it again if I had another Modern Grand Prix tomorrow. I had a great run of success with it in the week leading up to Charlotte, which is why I ended up playing it in the first place, but I think it may simply not have enough raw power to really cut it in Modern. It's excellent against all of the other "fair" decks - I trounced quite a few Jund and Abzan decks in my testing, along with Patrick Chapin's Grixis Control deck in the handful of games we played the night before. But many of its cards are reliant on synergies in order to be effective, and even when those synergies manifest they don't do anything nearly as powerful as decks like Amulet Bloom, G/R Tron, Infect, or Affinity.
I do think that the deck has at least some potential, and I don't think it's really bad, per se. But what it does well - generate a strong, removal-resistant board presence - just isn't what a lot of Modern matchups are about. While creatures with enter-the-battlefield triggers alongside Flickerwisp and Collected Company plus Eternal Witness can give you a seemingly never-ending stream of threats in games that go long, a lot of Modern games go short, and a lot of Modern decks can ignore a great deal of what you're doing. The decks that I lost to in the Grand Prix were classic examples - it didn't matter how many Golem tokens I had when my opponent went infinite with Kiki-Jiki + Restoration Angel, or killed me in the air in two hits with Plague Stinger, or ramped into Ugin and Emrakul. I think Bant Company may be a strong choice in the right metagame, but Modern right now feels too unpredictable to rely on trying to get matched up against fair decks.
Amusingly enough, the Modern deck I like right now is the one that Paul Rietzl and Matt Sperling played in the Grand Prix, which Paul played to a tenth place finish. Their deck was just a few cards off from the Naya Company list which was the very first Modern deck I built in my Charlotte testing. I had a run of poor results with the deck early on and dismissed it quickly - exactly the same rash judgement based on small sample size that I warned about earlier on.
- 1 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 4 Loxodon Smiter
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 3 Qasali Pridemage
- 3 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Wild Nacatl
While this deck still doesn't have anything like a single-turn combo kill, and it can certainly be overpowered by a great deal of what is out there in Modern, what it does have going for it is that it's full of individually-powerful cards. Wild Nacatl is a card that can just win games, especially when they come in packs of two or three early on. Cards like Tarmogoyf, Knight of the Reliquary, and Lightning Bolt are all independently quite powerful and don't rely on drawing the right combination of cards to enable them to end games quickly.
One thing that I actually really like about this list is that it only plays three copies of Collected Company. I realized fairly quickly in my testing with Naya Company that the deck didn't make great use of the namesake instant, certainly not compared to many of the more combo-oriented lists out there. My conclusion at the time was that Naya didn't leverage the card well enough to want to include it at all, because the deck was mostly about taking advantage of efficient threats. But the reality, I think, may be that it simply wasn't correct to focus on the card as much as I was trying to do, and rather to just play it as a powerful value card that adds an additional tactical dimension to an already-strong deck.
I think I got caught up in trying to make a deck that best used Collected Company rather than trying to make the best deck that used Collected Company, which is a subtle but important difference. The card Collected Company is extremely powerful in the Bant deck I played at the Grand Prix, but the deck as a whole has quite a few cards that aren't terribly efficient or powerful on their own. The Naya deck can't do anything special with Collected Company, but the deck operates much more efficiently and smoothly than the Bant deck in general. While Bant may be the better Collected Company deck, Naya, I think, is the better deck overall.
Moving away from Modern for a moment, I want to talk a little about the Standard Super League. The league just concluded the final week of its regular season, which means for me it's over. Since I only ended up winning two matches, leaving me in the unenviable last-place position, sadly that means I won't be invited back for next season.
I think a part of my poor performance was due to playing whatever new deck looked cool to me each week, sometimes without a lot of practice with it beforehand. I looked at the league as a way to explore a variety of different deck ideas in a competitive setting more than anything else. Another part of it was due to the league's format that informed players of their first round pairings before decklists were submitted. That generally meant that every week I found myself playing against someone who was geared specifically to beat midrange green decks in my first match, and since I universally played exactly that, I tended to have a tough time coming up with wins.
Now, I certainly could have played something different to throw people off, but my view of the league was that it was about the viewers more than anything else. While I could have shown up with something like Esper Control or Atarka Red to give myself a better chance of winning, I didn't think that was what people wanted to see me play, so I stuck to my guns. It sounds like the next season will move away from having information about first round pairings before decklists are turned in, so hopefully future seasons won't see players either shying away from the decks they are known for or getting punished for sticking with them.
I really enjoyed the Standard Super League, and hope to see it and events like it continue and grow. I think Magic can really use more regular broadcasts like it both to provide more consistent content for viewers and to offer more venues for players to get to know players outside of their periodic appearances in Grand Prix and Pro Tour coverage. I found a recent Reddit thread about what Pro Players fans admired to be really telling, because a huge percentage of the answers were players on the StarCityGames Open Series circuit rather than the Pro Tour itself. The sporadic nature of Grand Prix and Pro Tour event coverage makes it really difficult for fans to learn much of anything about many of the top pros, while SCG's consistent quality broadcasts do a great deal to build the profile of their regular competitors. I'd wager that more players know who the top SCG players are than the Platinum-level pros in any given season, and that feels like a major failure of star-building to me on the part of the official coverage.
That said, I think the state of Magic Online makes it pretty difficult to use effectively as a good platform for regular broadcasts. It's frequently difficult to see what's on the battlefield or in a player's hand, and while that can also be true in broadcasts of physical games, having a production team that can bring up enlarged cards on the screen can help a great deal for an audience trying to follow along. I actually would love to see that kind of production put into place for some kind of regular online league, since I think having a consistent and high-quality broadcast outside of SCGLive® would go a long way toward bringing more viewership to Magic, and ultimately help grow the game as a whole.
And that's what we all want, right?