As I sit here at midnight, sipping a Red Bull and listening to Fear Before the March of Flames, knowing I should be sleeping, I can't. For weeks... months even... it has been all about the deadline. Monday night. Work until it's done. Hitting the keys until my brain refuses to output anything more.
Did I mention that I woke up at 4:00 this morning to fly home from Kansas City?
Some nights we get it done early, but others are a grueling stretch that lasts until four or more in the morning. Did I mention I have to wake up early to go to actual work?
I'm giving her all she's got, Captain!
To say that the last few months have been a grind would be an incredible understatement. I've traveled almost every weekend for tournaments, and I only spend approximately three days at home per week. During those three days, I'm usually making three videos at StarCityGames and writing an article. I am also partially responsible for a few newsletter segments, though that pressure should be alleviated soon due to the help of my good friend Bard Narson. When I'm not eating or sleeping, I'm playing Magic. The videos, the Magic Online, the testing for upcoming tournaments. Eventually, it all starts to blend together, and I can't even remember what deck I played in what video that we filmed two days ago, let alone recreate the decklist for it.
It can be a bit... taxing.
Before we get too far, let me just say that I am not complaining. I love my job. I love everything about it. Every single day I get to wake up and do something I love for a living, and I honestly haven't been happier at any point in my life than I am now. I feel like what I'm doing here at StarCityGames is helping people get better at something they're willing to devote hours and hours to. I'm giving people something to look forward to involving a game that they love! Just like any other hobby, I think Magic is important on many levels. It gives you an outlet, an occasional escape from everyday life for just a little while. It gives you some breathing room so you can go back to real life feeling refreshed. Hobbies are what keep us from going crazy, since it is so incredibly boring to think about work all the time.
But most importantly, to me, I feel like I'm giving back to a community that actively responds to everything that I produce. Whether my writing or videos get a positive or negative response is completely up to me and what I do. The pressure to give something positive back to you guys each week can be fairly difficult, because I am not always happy. As you have probably noticed, the mood present in my writing has changed for the better over the last few months because things are looking up! I'm starting to get settled down in our new home, my wife and I don't argue as much, and I've been winning again.
I've even been having fun again.
And that is really, truly, what this game is all about. If you aren't having fun then you shouldn't be doing it. It really is that simple. Without the fun aspect of Magic, it becomes a chore. The grind becomes monotonous and pointless. You can find many other ways to get through life that don't involve a constant tax on your sensibilities.
Might I suggest taking up golf?
Maybe you could collect stamps?
But seriously, I've just had a blast lately, but I am really looking forward to this weekend. We're taking the weekend off from Magic so we can enjoy our new home, have some friends over and relax. Grilling, board/video games, movies, and Werewolf. Maybe we'll crack open a few beers. Who knows?
"I did nothing. I did absolutely nothing, and it was everything I thought it could be."
Let's just hope that Link doesn't play the Song of Storms and ruin our barbecue.
Speaking of BBQ's
While I will be taking this weekend off from "work," I did a lot of traveling over the last few weeks. I didn't do so hot in Miami, but I did put up a solid finish at Grand Prix: BBQ, or I guess Kansas City. I'm not going to do a full-on tournament report because there really isn't a relevant Modern tournament anytime soon, and because I didn't take notes on any of my matches.
Let's begin at the beginning with the scramble.
Last week I wrote about Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas and how I thought it could be formed into a powerful deck that did a lot of interesting things. I kept building and tweaking different versions on Magic Online, but there was just one problem: I didn't have any of the cards. At the moment, I am quite heavily invested in Legacy and Standard, and I don't have a lot of free capital to go out and buy an entire deck without hemorrhaging money. This is actually a trap that I fell into constantly for years. Every time I had a new or interesting idea, I would drop everything and buy the deck on Magic Online to play some tournaments. After losing a few matches, I would instantaneously scrap the idea and move on to something else. But when you're constantly buying and selling cards, your collection takes some significant losses.
Suffice it to say, I've set plenty of money on fire in the past, and I didn't really want to do that again. I did get a chance to talk to Gerry a lot about the format, and he suggested an idea rather than a deck:
Do something more powerful than anyone else, even if it isn't as consistent.
While he didn't say this verbatim, this idea resonated with me after our talks. Decks like Birthing Pod and Splinter Twin were fine, but they were old hat and most people would be moderately prepared in some way or another to mess with your strategy. Usually, this meant a lot of spot removal. This also meant that aggressive decks were likely bad, since the best combo decks in the format relied on small creatures to do their dirty work.
Left with only a few options after this, I decided to do a little more digging, and came across The Modern Cheat Sheet article by Ari Lax. In it, he goes over many of the powerful players in Modern, and gives their strengths and weaknesses in a nice little package. It was refreshing to see a helpful piece about a format that virtually no one is writing about right now. After scrolling through the article, I found the strategy that I wanted to play:
I'd played something like this before in a Modern PTQ a few months ago. After playing with the deck a reasonable amount, I deduced that I wanted Izzet Charm where there was previously Lightning Axe. Unfortunately, this meant playing a third color, which would be relatively taxing on the manabase and I wasn't sure it was worth it. After the PTQ season ended, I forgot about the deck until I laid my eyes upon this monstrosity, and I knew I had to try and work on it.
I talked to GerryT a lot about this strategy. He was dead set on his version being better, featuring Soul Spike, Deathrite Shaman, Snapcaster Mage, Glimpse the Unthinkable, and Unburial Rites. Unfortunately, I just didn't think that deck had enough raw power to fight such a diverse field. Modern is full of landmines and you just have to be prepared to beat all of them, or just overpower them with your strategy.
A lot of decks in Modern are very good at that. Decks like Melira Pod, Splinter Twin, and Scapeshift all have plans that invalidate many other opposing strategies. Sure, they can put up some pressure and possibly a bit of disruption, but there are so many dig spells and redundant copies of their combos that it is almost impossible to keep them from going off given enough time and resources.
So what was I to do? I played a few matches with Gerry's version, and I just didn't like it. I have to admit, I didn't get in enough games to make a decision with much merit, but I could just feel it in my gut. I wanted to go bigger, and I knew exactly where to turn.
After acquiring all the missing cards from some friends of mine, this is the deck I ended up registering for the Grand Prix.
So this is how the deck works:
You try your best to put Griselbrand into play. After doing so, he will usually have haste, allowing you to attack for seven, gain seven life, and draw a ton of cards. Usually you'll draw into Fury of the Horde and a few red cards, which allows you to untap Griselbrand and repeat the process after gaining some more life and drawing some more cards. If you can deal your opponent 21 or so damage, they're usually dead.
Your backup plan is Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. Not a bad Plan B, amirite? When your opponent has Lingering Souls or is sitting pretty at 15 life, a hit from Emrakul is usually enough to seal the deal. However, there are times where it takes a combination of both cards over multiple turns to kill the opponent. These are the "tough games."
In fact, I had one of those tough games against Matt Nass in game three of the last round playing for Top 16. He was playing Melira Pod and gained infinite life in response to an end-of-turn Through the Breach, putting Griselbrand into play.
After he gained infinite life, I quickly proclaimed, "I'm not sandbagging, I'm just going to try and deck you." His solemn response of "okay" was quickly met by drawing fourteen cards, and casting Through the Breach into Emrakul, attacking with the tag-team duo, then repeating with Fury of the Horde to eliminate his entire board. At this point, my hand was basically perfect but I had to make sure I could lock him out of the game.
A few turns later, he had played some lands, so I wiped his board once more with Emrakul and Through the Breach. On the next turn, I cast Griselbrand and began attacking for seven to pad my life total, and draw all the relevant cards I needed to cast an Emrakul and make sure he never got more than one permanent into play. When this soft lock was set up, I just drew and discarded every turn, occasionally reshuffling my deck by discarding Emrakuls.
As you can see, the deck has a lot of angles.
But Griselbrand is the backbone of the deck, and I'll try to explain why using a comparison I've made before to an older card that is banned in Legacy.
Goryo's Vengeance is in a strange place in Modern. Since it is an instant, it combos well with Emrakul and Faithless Looting, as well as other discard outlets. While you will usually have to wait until you have three mana in order to discard Emrakul to Faithless Looting, put the trigger on the stack, and then reanimate it before the trigger resolves, it is well worth the effect. Goryo's Vengeance is also a very cheap way to put Yawgmoth's Bargain into play.
While I've talked about Griselbrand in Legacy before, I think it deserves a bit of discussion for Modern as well. I don't think it is that overpowered in Modern since there really aren't a lot of ways to abuse the free draw spells. In Legacy, that is a much different story, as Force of Will exists and allows you to virtually counter all of your opponent's spells for the rest of the (very short) game. In Modern, we have to get a bit more creative. Fury of the Horde is just an abysmal card, much like Blazing Shoal. It allows you to win games that you have no business winning, and is another way to abuse a draw engine. Soul Spike is similar, but doesn't do quite as much damage in the long run. It is a pretty big stretch between four and seven damage when you need seven life to draw cards with Griselbrand.
When you gain the ability to draw a ton of cards a little too early in a game, you get people talking. While I didn't make the Top 8 of the Grand Prix, I did some things that many consider "too fast" or "too powerful" for Modern, and I honestly wouldn't be surprised if Goryo's Vengeance was banned. While Through the Breach would probably still be legal, you wouldn't have the power or consistency that the deck currently has.
There are a lot of natural foils to the archetype that are currently available in Modern, but this tournament was particularly soft to my deck. I played against a lot of combo decks that were just slower, and most of them used their own graveyard so I had virtually no fear of interaction other than Deathrite Shaman. Pyroclasm, Izzet Charm, and Through the Breach are all fine answers to that type of threat.
As for the tournament itself, where should I begin? After finalizing my list on Friday, I decided to get some much-needed sleep. I had to wake up earlier than normal because I was traveling with Kali, and the judges had to be there a few hours before the players. While I had to wake up early, I did get a reasonable amount of sleep and I had a few hours to wake up before the event actually started. During my two byes, I played a few games of "goldfish," where I saw how quickly I could combo off. Suffice it to say that I didn't go off as quickly as I would have liked, but I just prayed the tournament would go more smoothly. I knew the deck was strong, and I just hoped that my draws would be a little better or my matchups would be pretty easy. Luckily, I was handed both.
Currently, the deck is listed as "Untitled" under the Top 16 decklists. I assure you that was me (heh). I played my heart out, and only having two byes seriously cost me a Top 8 berth, as I ended up losing round three. After that early loss, I rattled off eight wins in a row to get to a healthy 10-1. After that, the wheels fell off a little bit when I ran into back-to-back Splinter Twin decks, which is assuredly a miserable matchup. Let me explain why:
1. They have counterspells. This can be a particularly powerful form of disruption, as you don't actually have that many cards in your deck that do stuff, and Pentad Prism is a one-shot accelerator that leaves you high and dry when it runs out.
2. Their combo pieces of Deceiver Exarch and Pestermite can stop your combo in its tracks. Fury of the Horde only untaps creatures that have attacked, and you can't re-combo them after they've stopped your initial onslaught.
3. Their combo is fast and resilient to most forms of disruption. With so many dig spells, it is easy for them to find exactly what they need for most situations.
4. Your hate cards are predictable and easy for them to beat with versatile spells.
5. I built my sideboard poorly and it cost me a lot.
After those two heartbreaking losses that knocked me out of contention, I was rather deflated. I had a lot of hype on Twitter and Facebook leading up to that point, and I even killed Pat Cox on turn two of game one on camera. It was pretty sweet to say the least.
I knew what the deck was capable of from the start, but I didn't think it would be as consistent as it ended up being. I killed my opponent on turn two about four different times throughout the tournament, and had the ability to do it in other games but I wanted to fight through opposing disruption. For example, when I suspected my opponent had something like Surgical Extraction or Grafdigger's Cage in their deck, I didn't want to obliterate my hand by casting Faithless Looting on the first turn. It was just as easy to wait until turn three to see what I was up against and move on from there. Additionally, half of your combo in Emrakul is only good if you allow your opponent to set up their board a bit. Fifteen damage is fine and all, but the Annihilator trigger is what does the most damage. If you spend all your resources just to hit them with an Emrakul on turn two, there isn't a lot to be gained.
You also don't want to throw away the value on your Through the Breach. If you Faithless Looting and discard multiple copies of Griselbrand, it is less likely that your Through the Breach will have a creature to put into play. In a lot of cases, it is better to wait than to expose yourself to something that you could easily play around. In this case, any type of graveyard hate can be devastating if you play into it. This is only true for games two and three, as most people don't have a way to interact with your graveyard in game one other than the occasional Deathrite Shaman. In most Game One situations, it is correct to just "go for it" and hope they don't have an answer.
After finishing strong in 11th place, I reflected on my weekend and I was proud of myself. I was the only person playing the archetype to make Day Two, and I ended up just shy of playing for a shot at the Pro Tour. The deck was unexpected, and I can almost positively chalk up one of my losses to my inexperience with the deck, and the others from a lack of a coherent sideboard strategy.
Going forward, I want to put Modern on the back burner for a little while. The PTQ season for Modern is a bit too far away for me to put much effort into it, though there is another Modern Grand Prix a few months away that I will almost definitely be attending. The deck was a lot of fun, and I really hope they don't ban anything so I can keep doing my thang.
A few weeks from now, I'll be in Richmond for the StarCityGames.com Team Sealed and Standard Opens, followed by the StarCityGames.com Invitational in Somerset, New Jersey. With M14 being released soon, I've got some work to do on some new brews and fashioning old favorites into battle-ready mode. If you see me at an event, feel free to come say hello! I might even sign your beast token.
Thanks for reading.
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