Goals and Retrospective After GP Birmingham

I’m travelling home from GP Birmingham as I type this, and whilst I didn’t finish particularly well in the main event I wanted to write about what I got out of the event and my aims going forward, along with a few words about my deck choice for the event. A lot of these are relevant to many people looking to improve in Magic, so hopefully it’ll be an interesting read!

The Little Fish in a Big Metagame

Going into the main event I’ll admit that I have not put a great deal of time into testing the Modern format over the past year, since the World Magic Cup really, and it’s changed a fair bit since then, but I like to think I have a strong knowledge of what most decks are trying to do. Based on this, I chose to play Merfolk, which is a proactive deck with a bit of disruption, and whilst there is some sequencing and some interesting lines, a number of the games will be fairly straightforward and predicated towards combat math.

A lot of decks rely on or have a limited manabase, whether it’s a core part of their gameplan (Tron, Scapeshift), they are multiple colours (GBx) or simply run very few mana-producing lands (Burn, Jund Shadow etc.). This opens up a lot of free wins where you remove the ability to cast spells with your 8 Spreading Seas effects after sideboard and beat them down with some Mutavaults and 2/2s. It’s almost like transforming into a prison deck!

The final reason I opted for Merfolk was that in such an open format it only has a couple of matchups that are genuinely awful – Affinity and Lantern – and while I did end up running into Lantern in round 9, the fact I played against 9 unique decks over the day spanning a wealth of different deck types just goes to illustrate how hard it is to strongly metagame for Modern. Despite my 5-4 finish (reaching 5-2 before losing rounds 8 and 9), I’d still make the same decision. Most of my losses were matches that could have gone either way, and I was able to make it very hard even in games where I had mulliganed or drawn very badly.

Now onto the meat of the post!

Coming off a year where outside of the WMC and a few PPTQ top 8s I’ve actually played very little competitive magic, I wanted to look at what I’ve started improving and what I’m looking to improve going into a year where I’m going to be playing a lot more.

Playing more and reflecting upon events in greater detail

The first part of this is a no-brainer – Magic rewards repetitions and practice. My first aim is to be testing and going to a lot more tournaments, but that’s only half of it. Going to loads of tournaments is only good for development if you can gather learning points from those experiences – sideboard choices, gameplay interactions or what made your deck choice a good/bad decision to name but a few. I used to fell like I was good at being analytical post-event and being able to replay game events in my head to expand my understanding, but it’s fallen off in recent years and is a characteristic I really want to bring back into my game.

Fighting back from early slumps

Those who know me well will know that I have a horrendous early round record, and learning how to deal with that is something that I’ve improved. It’s very easy for many Magic players to react emotionally to these kinds of starts and let it affect their play, and I’ve long advocated taking 5 after every round where possible to reset and center yourself. It’s again something I’ve been sloppy adhering to recently though and again a big goal is to take that time out, avoid the bad-beats stories and be ready for the next round. After a 1-2 start this weekend I managed to avoid spiralling and rattle off 4 wins to put myself in a decent spot to day 2, and it’s definitely a useful thing for many players to remember.

The other side of this coin is early round mentality, which is still something I’m trying to find a solution to. Getting into the right mindset for the beginning of play is definitely one of my goals for the next year.

Caffeine and hydration

I’ve spent years between university and Magic with a pretty significant caffeine dependence, which I’ve looked to tackle recently. The issue is that a can of energy drink or strong coffee will keep you going for a little while, but after that the crash comes in and you feel worse. At that point the only real solution is more caffeine and your attention and mental state degrades. This weekend I prepared with plenty of water and food I could regularly eat between every round to keep my concentration up and avoid energy crashes, and I was amazed at how awake I felt even after 8 or 9 matches and a 7am start. It also had the upside of avoiding the horribly overpriced convention centre food!

Playing the right deck

I have a history of solid results with off-meta or tier 2 decks, and when looking to take my game to the next level I think it’s a big deal to consider whether I’m really making the optimal choice. Card availability etc. are factors but realistically if my aim is to improve my results I really need to make that not a barrier, between investing more into the game, trading and playing more limited. A little caveat about Modern – there are so many Tier 1.5-2 decks and the margins are so small that I think it’s reasonable to prioritize decks you are familar with, but in order to do that my goal is to increase my experience with plenty of decks. With that experience it’s much easier to make an informed and complete choice about what to play.

One last aside – even if you personally aren’t having a great day, make sure you cheer on others who are! I had a great time following friends who were making a great run, whether they were a GP first timer or a veteran. It was even cool to see the guy who beat me in round 8 making a deep run at the top tables!

I hope some of this is interesting or useful to people in a similar boat as me, even if it isn’t a tournament report about how I crushed the GP. Check back for more next week!

Bonus decklist – 4 colour control (Unpowered graveyard cube)

Creatures (6)
1 Flickerwisp
1 Trinket Mage
1 Curator of Mysteries
1 Archangel Avacyn
1 Ishkanah, Grafwidow
1 Torrential Gearhulk

Spells (16)
1 Thought Scour
1 Brainstorm
1 Sensei’s Divining Top
1 Miscalculation
1 Cyclonic Rift
1 Feeling of Dread
1 Unexpectedly Absent
1 Liliana of the Veil
1 Hero’s Downfall
1 Dissolve
1 Soul Manipulation
1 Thirst for Knowledge
1 Crystal Shard
1 Day of Judgment
1 Ojutai’s Command
1 Murderous Cut

Lands (18)
2 Celestial Colonnade
2 Misty Rainforest
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Lumbering Falls
1 Concealed Courtyard
1 Scattered Grove
1 Temple of Mystery
1 Fetid Heath
3 Island
2 Swamp
2 Plains

Davie Whyte

@fullofgravy

Grand Prix Manchester 2014 Musings Part 1: Block Constructed

Cyclonic Rift on a 6/6? Too strong!

Cyclonic Rift on a 6/6? Too strong!

Friday evening, 8:32pm: I’m attempting to ignore the vendor’s confusion as I provide them with a long list of cards including Constructed all-stars Scourge of Fleets and Dakra Mystic. Journey Into Nyx ended up defining the deck we ended up playing in the main event.

Yes, I ended up playing the Mono Blue Devotion deck that caused a number of stirs beginning with a GPT win on Friday. You can check out an interview with David Inglis and Neil Rigby  about the deck here where they shared some of their thoughts

Block Constructed: When It’s Easy Being Green

The defining engine of the Theros Block Constructed format unsurprisingly ended up being the triple whammy of Sylvan Caryatid (the un-Boltable Bird), Courser of Kruphix (the Pillarfield Ox that could), and the cycle of Temples. Even since the point early in the block, when the format consisted entirely of Naya decks featuring Stormbreath Dragon and Elspeth, we had repeatedly debated whether Sylvan Caryatid was too good to stay; both entirely stifling to traditional aggro strategies as well as giving green decks a huge leg up in resources in a control matchup where you don’t even have to worry about wraths. Whilst WotC did not end up banning anything, (like Innistrad block’s token dominance) it is plainly obvious that this combination of cards warped deck choices like no other.

You just have to look at the aggro decks (which play out more like true combo decks) that had any moderate amount of success – the R/W and U/W heroic decks (with mono black being a touch more traditional) had to be constructed in the eye of maximising nutty draws at the cost of unplayable hands just because a true aggro strategy was not good enough.

Constraints of the Format

  • The best creatures all have huge toughness stats for their investment – Caryatid, Courser, Brimaz, Prognostic Sphinx and so on. The red decks had Blinding Flare, Arena Athlete and Harness by Force, whilst the blue decks had access to Stratus Walk and Aqueous Form. The problem with these strategies is that all the cards are bad on their own; Arena Athlete is garbage without the targeting effect and if you don’t draw the other tricks you are left floundering with mediocre weenies that can’t beat a life-gaining Pillarfield Ox. Gods Willing could force a creature through, but in a lot of games your Gods Willing is so important in protecting your creature from removal that it’s quite hard to cash it in. I liked Harness in my red sideboards (and Portent of Betrayal before it), as the card was a good draw much more consistently, scaled up in the late game, and happened to have fringe benefits (inspired creatures untap after you gain control of them, for example), but of course the card had to be terrible against Elspeth since nothing in this format actually tramples, barring Polis Crusher.
  • Courser of Kruphix.  Another reason I decided to give up making Esper or red aggro work. Courser was perfectly situated against these kinds of strategies.
    Of course it's good.

    Of course it’s good.

    Against aggro, it has the obvious strengths of a good body for 3 mana, and free lifegain, but that isn’t all. Consider that in a vacuum, an aggro deck plays a low curve and shaves lands below the average (to say the range of 19-22). Doing so allows an uptick in threat density and live draws. Well, Courser blows that theory out of the water, by allowing you to play a higher and more powerful curve, at similar threat density thanks to the second ability. Against control? It’s simple. They have to spend a resource to kill the Courser, because if they don’t it will simply out-resource them into the ground anyway.

  • Thoughtseize. One of the more powerful cards to be reprinted in recent memory, Thoughtseize finds itself in an interesting position in the Block format. On one hand, the card stifles synergy-based strategies in an almost-broken way. Look at the aggro decks again! When my aggressive deck is actually soft to Thoughtseize, I don’t want to play it very much at all. However, in other matchups, the card is surprisingly variable in how well it performs; sometimes, the ability to pluck a key Planeswalker or Prognostic Sphinx out of the opponent’s hand before they can get value from it can be devastating, but the thing was that Courser and scry effects are so good at drawing your way back into the game that players in this format are better protected from the tier one discard spell than before. Additionally, most Thoughtseize decks didn’t have a key way to capitalise on an early discard like in Standard formats where a turn 1 Thoughtseize into either a Bitterblossom or Pack Rat has often dominated the game by itself. However the card found its way into many mandecks following the Pro Tour, due to raw power level, and this eventually dissuaded me from my previous choice to play Team Revolution’s U/B Inspired.
  • Planeswalkers. All of the planeswalkers are very good. Ajani, Elspeth and Xenagos all provide simple, large amounts of value, Ashiok excels in a creature-based format with Courser of Kruphix, and Kiora’s abilities are pretty useful both as protection from battlecruisers as well as her -1 interacting very well with Courser. Yes, that card is good, did I mention it yet? The key weakness of most of the planeswalkers is their susceptibility to Prognostic Sphinx, but regardless, a good plan against planeswalkers was without doubt essential.

Joining the Thassa Fan Club

As the post I linked to above says, the deck was essentially a metagame decision predicated upon the overwhelming masses of Junk decks present in the room. Their whole strategy is based around powerful creatures/planeswalkers backed up by the best removal spells. Neither of those, for the most part are very good against the deck we chose to play. A big core of their strength is that hexproof threats Fleecemane Lion and Reaper of the Wilds are troublesome to interact with, but both Whelming Wave and Scourge of Fleets ignore that protection very well.

Sample decklist

la_rata_diabolica (3-1)
THS Block Constructed Daily #7143447 on 06/04/2014
Maindeck
4 Dakra Mystic
4 Master of Waves
4 Omenspeaker
4 Prognostic Sphinx
4 Scourge of Fleets
1 Thassa, God of the Sea
4 Dictate of Kruphix
3 Hubris
2 Retraction Helix
3 Thassa’s Rebuff
3 Whelming Wave
20 Island
4 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
Sideboard
4 Dissolve
4 Gainsay
2 Hour of Need
3 Perplexing Chimera
1 Retraction Helix
1 Whelming Wave
I would certainly play a Kiora’s Dismissal over the extra Helix in the board – Mono Black aggro, a hard matchup is pretty popular because it is cheap, and Dismissal is great to have to shore it up.
A card  we played in the side (probably the worst card I have ever registered in a Constructed tournament, excluding a joke Enter the Infinite in a mono red list once…) was Cloaked Siren. The 3/2 flash flier is not very good, but it does happen to fly over a lot of creatures, and kill an upcycled Kiora or a Xenagos that made a Satyr. It’s not bad at pressuring the others, either. Besides, no one can play around it, which is an edge!

Notes about the deck:

  • I enjoyed playing Dakra Mystic a lot, giving a little bit of control to a Howling Mine effect over what is drawn is sweet, and I’d be interested in trying the card out in other formats. Another aspect of the card was that it regularly led opponents down the garden path believing that Drown in Sorrow was actually good against us; instead it is inefficient at killing the Mystic, and the only other card it hits, Master of Waves, would be in the sideboard by the time Drown in Sorrow had led theirs. And the best feeling? Scrying 3 with a Prognostic Sphinx attack, then drawing that card you want immediately.
  • Omenspeaker isn’t a great card, but finding land drops for every turn is critical for the deck, and the card works pretty well with Whelming Wave and Nykthos.
  • Dictate of Kruphix is the most important card in the deck, finding your Evacuation effects, hitting your lands, and adding two pips of devotion to boot. The extra cards your opponents get are regularly of limited use, since their mana is usually invested in replaying the cards you bounced. Meanwhile, via Nykthos you can play your cards with much greater velocity – as David put it very well, you only get a small advantage each time but your opponent is getting absolutely nowhere.
  • Since BUG, Junk and Mono Black are all rammed to the gills with Downfalls, Bile Blights, Silence the Believers, and so on, Master of Waves is easily the most sided-out card, but he is very good admittedly against non-interactive aggro decks (especially red ones), and Naya, where Chained to the Rocks and Banishing Light are put under a lot of pressure to answer the threat. Another boon to Master’s playability is the fact that Polis Crusher and Reaper of the Wilds both have far more relevant abilities in the format than Polukranos, so the World Eater was getting cut from a lot of lists.
  • Retraction Helix was a vital part of the puzzle. Another component of the bounce spell package, it has the key utility of resetting normally troublesome planeswalkers, or allowing you to counter them. I also used the card to return Chained to the Rocks, freeing an estranged Master of Waves to deliver the kill, and the card possesses a fine synergy with Thassa’s Ire, which provides a way to use the ability multiple times in one go. Quite the blowout.
  • Thassa’s Ire is a card I was extremely high on throughout testing various decks. Debtor’s Pulpit had been a fine answer to the unkillable Aetherling in last year’s Block format, and I drew parallels early on. Whilst much more expensive to activate, Ire handles a Prognostic Sphinx or a Stormbreath Dragon just fine, and is another resilient form of devotion. Conveniently enough, it works just nicely with your own Sphinxes, removing the tap downside of the protection ability from the equation.

We ended up having some bad luck, but I still feel good about the chosen deck. I just happened to get paired against people who hadn’t got the memo that Mistcutter Hydra doesn’t really do a lot in any of the primary matchups. We can’t beat it though, unless we land a Perplexing Chimera before they land it. In addition, players were upping the numbers of Ajani, Mentor of Heroes in their 75s which proved to be problematic, as the card is hard for us to interact with, and the counter-placing ability makes you lean on Whelming Wave a little too much as their guys become too big for Scourge to handle. Daniel Entwistle ended up just shy of drawing into top 8, but still a great run from him, and he made sure there were real Krakens on day 2!

In my next column, I’ll wrap up my thoughts about the format and what it menas for the future, and talk some M15!

Until then,

Davie Whyte

@fullofgravy on twitter