After dozens of Opens, hundreds of IQs, thousands of matches, and millions of games, this season's road to the #SCGPC is making its final stop tomorrow in Vegas for the #SCGINVI. For hundreds of players this will be their last chance qualifier to journey all the way to Roanoke to battle for their share of $50,000. For a select few this event will be the exact opposite. The race for the “at-large” slots is coming down to the wire with a very tight race between a select few players. Big swings will have to happen for some of these guys, but I am confident that all of them will be showing up with their best game faces in an attempt to finish the year off strong. A finish that brings them to Roanoke, Virginia!
I, on the other hand, will be watching the coverage from my own home. Instead of traveling across the country in an attempt for another token, I instead have decided to keep well rested and prepare for the #SCGPC. I actually haven't left Roanoke since #GPPITT and won't until #GPOAK, which makes this the longest time I have stayed put since moving to Roanoke. An actual month in one city! I'm not one for making wishes, but I certainly feel like one of mine was answered this month.
Now even though I am skipping the #SCGINVI, that doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about it. The gamer in me always wants to prepare for such important events like this even when I won't be in attendance. So what should people play this weekend?
Well for starters, the event is two different formats. Both days of swiss competition start with four rounds of Standard followed by four rounds of Modern action. Those lucky enough to finish in the top 8 after sixteen rounds of swiss will be battling Standard in best of five matches. Two Constructed formats for an event can be tough to swallow, so let's break it down by each format.
So let's start with what we already know about the format. The top decks in the format are Abzan Aggro, Jeskai Black, Esper Red or Mardu Blue or Jeskai Blacker (Todd's deck), Atarka Red, Four-Color Rally, and Esper Mentor. Now Esper Mentor hasn't been a widely played deck before, but last weekend we saw the deck have its second major finish in the hands of Vikram Kudva after Shota Takao took the deck for its initial spin in Kobe a few weeks ago.
Now Magic Online data has Four-Color Rally as the deck to play right now. The Painful Truths-based Jeskai decks are the worst matchups for the deck, but everything else is in the green. My limited testing with the deck confirms this data, but there is one thing that emotionally conflicts with this decision for me. It always feels that my draws are the most important aspect when playing this deck.
Saying a deck is draw-dependent in Standard right now isn't really singling anything out, but it does feel more with this deck than any other that your opening hands have the highest variance in the format. I do like the deck, but due to how awkward the opening hands can be has caused me to not like it as a choice for myself. That does not mean this deck won't see any play this weekend.
Decks like Four-Color Rally will always be less represented than they deserve. I expect roughly 5% of the field to be playing this deck even though it should be closer to 10% or even 20% for how powerful the deck is. The barrier to entry on the level of skill needed to effectively pilot is what keeps this deck's numbers down. I would suggest respecting the deck if able, but would choose to trim on hate cards for this matchup if I was stretched for slots.
Atarka Red is the next deck to talk about. Not because of its sheer dominance in this format but due to the fact that it is still winning most of the tournaments even when everyone is trying to beat the deck. I don't know what more can be said about this deck that I and everyone else who write words about Magic cards could say, but I will suggest respecting this deck highly. Not only is this a very respectable choice, it may very well be the best for this event. That and the fact that I would suspect players who qualified via Modern could very easily pick this deck up and learn it more quickly than any other deck in the format. It's fast, resilient, and powerful.
Now that we have talked about the most aggressive strategy as well as the one combo deck in the format, we start to fall in the murky midrange space that occupies most of this format. I don't even know where to begin when trying to slog through all of the different versions of all of the decks when they occupy so much of the same space. I guess we can start with the glue that keeps all this crap together.
Whether we like it or not, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is at the center of this format. Whether you are playing it or not, beating this card is priority number one. Now Gideon, Ally of Zendikar isn't the end of the world when it resolves thanks to how warped the format is around it, but Esper Red has begun to change how the game is played.
Todd Anderson may be correct in his assessment of Mantis Rider in Jeskai Black, or he may not be. It doesn't really matter when it comes to metagaming. What can be considered fact is that his version of the deck is weaker against this planeswalker. Sure he has ways to keep it off the board, but not nearly as many as other decks in the format. What Todd gets by sacrificing some against Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is a much better chance at beating the mirrors and other decks playing Jace, Vryn's Prodigy.
This is because the answers in this format are amazing and the best ones pair very well with Soulfire Grand Master. Being more controlling gives Todd an edge in the mirror thanks to having more velocity in the form of Treasure Cruise, Painful Truths, Kolaghan's Command, and Ojutai's Command. By skimping on creatures, he allows himself the extra room necessary to fit in all of these extra card advantage spells almost creating an engine for attrition.
This cannot be ignored by the rest of the metagame. If enough people jump on Todd's bandwagon, the rest of the Jace, Vryn's Prodigy players will lose too much in the mirrors to keep up. This is why I think we will see many Jeskai players move over to the no Mantis Rider version--whether it is correct or not. I've never understood why players always respect the mirror match more than the rest of the metagame, but it is a fact and something that shouldn't be overlooked.
So what does this say for Gideon, Ally of Zendikar fans? Well it's a time to rejoice! Personally I would work very hard on finding a list to play this powerful card. Now there are pros and cons to playing Gideon. For starters it can be difficult to protect the card. The best deck in the format that plays Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is Abzan Aggro. This deck has some of the worst removal for protecting the card, and Fiery Impulse has become so popular that we are even starting to see Dromoka's Command numbers falling to as low as two. This means that Jace, Vryn's Prodigy can often times get out of control for the Abzan Aggro player and be cause for a mountain of card advantage to overcome far too early in a game.
This is just a small problem for the deck though. In actuality, I believe Abzan Aggro sporting a high density of Silkwraps would be a perfect choice for this weekend. It might make the mirror match a little bit more difficult, but that isn't as important as an uncontested Jace. Silkwrap is in a great place right now since it is a clean answer to Esper Red's minimal creatures, Esper Mentor's powerful early creatures, as well as a great removal spell against Four-Color Rally. The only matchup that Silkwrap isn't serviceable against is against Esper Dragons, but that deck has been seeing very little play since the Europeans showed us how good it was last month. Again, I have no idea if it's correct that Esper Dragons isn't being played, but that isn't relevant for what we are trying to accomplish.
So my choices for this event in order would be Abzan Aggro, Atarka Red, and then Four-Color Rally if you have a background in the deck. I would steer clear of Ramp, Esper Dragons, and R/G Landfall. Everything else falls in between, but this format is more about playing and deckbuilding once you get into this middle ground. I would just suggest respecting Gideon, Ally of Zendikar this weekend.
Things get much more difficult to grasp once we move onto the other half of the tournament. Modern is a wicked beast to try to understand, which is why you shouldn't even try. No matter how much people try to metagame this format, one doesn't really exist. There are just too many decks that cost too many dollars for enough people to move around the metagame after every article or tournament result. All I can tell you is how I would approach it and you can take that information any way you choose to.
Metagaming is impossible in Modern, but micro trends do emerge in this format. The most noticeable is how decks are constructed. Just because most players don't change their archetypes doesn't mean they won't make drastic changes to it thanks to outside information. So what has happened recently that people will take notice of?
We can start with my prized archetype and talk about Jund for a little bit. The round 10 feature match at #GPPITT was Reid Duke and yours truly. The matchup? Infect against Storm. Two known Jund players doing battle with degenerate combo decks. That says a ton about the format right now!
Snapcaster Mage numbers are down, land-based strategies in the form of Tron and Amulet are up, and degenerate combo decks are also being highly played. This is not the right time to be playing Liliana of the Veil. Players will take notice of the fact that Jund is losing ground. Abzan is in the same boat, but seems like a better choice if you like to live the Lingering Souls life.
Aggressive decks are taking the form of Affinity, Sullivan Zoo, and Infect. Merfolk and Collected Company numbers are drastically down. This doesn't mean much, but also means everything. Finding spells that are good against all three of these decks is rather difficult. Obviously Lightning Bolt is good against all three of them, but that's why it's the most played card in the format. This split of beat down strategies might be the reason the format seems so polarizing right now. I don't even know if I am making any sense right now, but I do feel that the format has become more combo driven because it's difficult to build a deck that can beat all three of these decks and other combo decks. That's probably why the only popular Snapcaster deck now is plain old boring U/R Twin. There is a reason why it's the “best” deck in the format.
The only advice I can give with confidence about this format is to not play fair. Do something degenerate or aggressive. Kolaghan's Command was once the defining spell of the format, but that time has come and gone. The format has sped up drastically, which means that out midranging other midrange decks isn't what you want to be doing. I mean, don't let me talk you out of playing a certain deck, but that's what I would do. I would probably count to only ten like I did in #GPPITT since that is the strongest deck at beating combo and Affinity and since Jund and Abzan are so poorly positioned.
Well that's all I've got this week. It's time for me to go back to the lair and finish off my testing for the Players' Championship. I can't believe it's already been a year since I so luckily won the last time. Winning that tournament last year allowed me to spend more time focusing on Grand Prix and Pro Tours instead of having to do both, which catapulted me to a Platinum level. I'm taking this year's tournament just as seriously as I did last year even with the fact that I qualified eleven months ago. I want to win it again, and I am doing everything in my power to make that a reality. I just hope my best friends, Todd Anderson and Tom Ross, will be right there with me doing battle. I could accept a changing of the guard as long as it was one of them. I will see you all next weekend for the #SCGPC!