As regular readers of this column may know, I competed in an RPTQ for Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan last weekend. I'll spare you the melodramatics and simply say that I finished with a 4-2 record for a Top 16 finish. Close, but no blue cigar.
Wait, that doesn't sound right.
In any case, I settled on the following stock Jeskai Control list:
There's nothing particularly exciting here. I wanted the ability to play as reactively as possible against an expectedly proactive metagame, so playing a maindeck copy of Vendilion Clique over a Geist of Saint Traft that is difficult to connect with in many matchups made sense. Moreover, the singleton copy of Opt allows you to play value Snapcaster Mages on your opponent's end step, something I did with effectively Thought Scour years ago in Splinter Twin decks.
Despite a rather average record with a stock deck, I learned a lot this weekend that will inform my Modern preparation for #SCGINVI.
Trust Your Instincts
I wrote two weeks ago about playing Dredge for the RPTQ since it seemed to me like the amount of graveyard hate was trending significantly downward, with some players eschewing it entirely. It was indeed the deck I started my testing with and the deck I played with the most over the last two weeks.
My results weren't stellar, but I wasn't seeing a lot of hate and my instinct that the deck was once again well-positioned was reinforced by the deck winning the Magic Online PTQ last weekend. More importantly, that winning list incorporated an interesting card, Burning Inquiry, which helps the most significant issue I was having with the deck: reduced explosiveness after the banning of Golgari Grave-Troll.
In the end I let the fear get me and I was left to watch Alex Majlaton take down the RPTQ with Dredge in dominating fashion. While I don't think Jeskai was a bad choice by any means, not playing a powerful deck with which I am quite familiar when it was well-positioned was a mistake. If you're the kind of player who likes to play linear decks, you have to take advantage of the weeks when the metagame breaks your way, and I failed to do so.
What makes it worse is that an RPTQ is the exact kind of tournament where I should be taking bigger risks. In most cases, you're only going to get one loss to spare, and while I certainly won't say no to some draft sets, the days of me coming home from a tournament happy to have a box of cards in my hand are long gone. RPTQs may not be winner-take-all like the old system, but they still have a prize structure that is more top-heavy than any other tournament in Magic.
It may feel bad to walk in there and get Rest in Peaced out two rounds in a row, but the difference between an 0-2 drop and 4-2 is negligible. I should've disregarded the mediocre results in a small sample size and latched onto the fact that the most important variable, the amount of graveyard hate in the metagame, was in my favor.
Control Decks Are Popular
I suggested Jeskai Control for the Team Open last weekend and it appears that many players were like-minded, as it was the most popular Modern deck in the room on Day 2. It was also among the most popular decks in the room at the Raleigh RPTQ. There, U/W Control variants also showed up, perhaps listening to Todd Stevens's advice from last week.
The much-maligned control archetype is suddenly chic, which is something I failed to properly account for in my deckbuilding. I was high on Jeskai because of the prevalence of creature decks like Humans, Affinity, and various Collected Company decks. The high density of removal backed up by Spell Queller and Snapcaster Mage is great against those decks while giving you a way to play aggressively against linear decks. However, this build can be a liability against bigger control decks like U/W or this more reactive list from Baltimore piloted by Ali Aintrazi:
The takeaway here is that you should never be too quick to assume that you're onto something that others are not. Jeskai Control has been performing well for months now, and unsurprisingly, other people noticed. I should've done more to prepare myself for mirror matches or pseudo-mirrors, as that is what ultimately knocked me out of the tournament.
Big Mana Decks Are Waning
This is the other reason that I was drawn to control for last weekend. Tron and Scapeshift are both on significant downturns, with a single copy of Eldrazi Tron on Day 2 of the Team Open and zero copies of traditional Tron or Scapeshift, numbers that were similar to those I saw in Raleigh.
Now, the former being a Team Open may mean that we're seeing a bit of the "Friends don't let friends play Tron" effect because no one wants to ally themselves with such villainy, but the fact that it's supported by my observations and online trends suggests that effect wasn't particularly large.
These decks were largely suppressed by the rise of Storm and likely aren't as good against the creature decks as they have been in the past. The Collected Company decks all have combo kills that can win the race, especially in Game 1 when the decks don't have much interaction, and Humans is plenty disruptive enough to win games against this class of decks.
This seems to me less like a case of the metagame specifically moving to attack them and more like the metagame evolving organically in a way that was bad for them. These decks were at their peak when midrange decks like Grixis Death's Shadow were bigger than they are now and the most popular linear deck, Dredge, was a good matchup. Their presence certainly played a role in suppressing the decks they prey on, but the emergence of Storm and Humans was an independent event for which they've suffered.
Now, should control decks continue their ascent, I could see big mana rebounding, since they are historically quite good in those matchups. So while these decks are trending downward now, it may not be long before they rebound. You could've reasonably ignored them for last couple of weeks, but I'm keeping my eye on them for the Invitational and so should you.
Deck Knowledge Is Key in Modern
My two losses last weekend were to a Jeskai Control mirror and Skred Red. I had practiced some with Jeskai myself, but since it was my first tournament with the deck and I wasn't generally in practice with it, I wasn't particularly comfortable, especially piloting against a fringe archetype like Skred Red.
This lesson is bordering on clich at this point, but even the oft-repeated wisdom is oft-forgotten. I should likely be doing more work to expand my range in Modern during downtime between events, as rare as that time may be, but when it comes to registering for an event, it's important to remember the decks that I'm most comfortable with. Even if there had been more Dredge hate than I expected, I would've been well-prepared to fight through it.
With Jeskai, I was prepared to fight through creature decks and Thoughtseize / Fatal Push decks and did so with relative ease, but I struggled against the rest of the field, losing the two above matchups and only taking down U/W Control after a blunder from my opponent which, if I'm being honest, was in part brought about by the fact that we hit time in the round and a judge came by to check on us, breaking my opponent's focus in a game where he was very far ahead and only needed to navigate a turn or two to take complete control over the game.
This may seem like me beating myself up over not playing Dredge, and that's because it is. Whether or not I'm justified in doing so is another question.
Modern Is More Diverse Than Ever
This is another common line in Magic writing, but it's one I've typically opposed. I've tended to fall on the side of Modern's diversity being a ruse, a format of 30 decks that fall under a narrow range of strategies. But look at the top decks right now. Control is bigger than it's been in years. Big mana decks are down but not out. Storm and Dredge have both been Tier 1 options for the Jenny, Combo Player devotees this year, and Humans has brought some diversity to the aggro clan heretofore dominated by Affinity.
Thoughtseize / Fatal Push decks are still a force, even if Grixis Death's Shadow has largely supplanted the old standbys Jund and Abzan, and there are still plenty of fringe decks to choose from that may not be as consistent as the top-tier strategies but can take a tournament down on any given weekend.
The diversity we have now is more than a bunch of decks with different names. There is a wider strategic diversity in Modern than there ever has been, and that's what really counts. And perhaps even more importantly, every super-archetype has several viable representatives, so players who gravitate towards a single strategy aren't pigeonholed into playing a specific deck. Grixis Death's Shadow as the easy top performer in the Disruptive Midrange category may be the lone exception, but personally I'm okay with that. He may not be as detestable as Tron pilots, but I have no sympathy for Jund Guy.
All of this leaves me in a difficult position. I could spend the next two weeks practicing with Jeskai Control so that I'll have a solid choice no matter how the metagame shakes out in the next two weeks, but I can't neglect Standard, a format I've barely played since Ixalan and need to put some significant work in to.
Given how narrow the Standard metagame is, I could spend this week working on that half of the tournament, reassess my Modern preparation in light of how the online metagame moves in the next week, and go from there. Ideally the graveyard hate won't come back in big numbers despite Dredge coming back, but I can't depend on that. For some reason, people don't like Dredge, even as much as they don't like Tron. And that causes many to overreact to its presence to ensure they can beat it.
It's like I'm the villain in all of this! But that just can't be. I'm the hero. I'm always the hero, fighting the good fight against these midrange muck-dwellers with my high-minded combo decks and resilient aggressive strategies. I may stray elsewhere from time to time, but I always return home to hold down the fort.
But maybe other people don't like losing on Turn 3 and just want to play long, interactive games of Magic?
Am I so out of touch?
...No. It's the children who are wrong.