June 21, 2017

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How to Succeed in Modern Without Really Trying (Part 1)

My name is Nick Desmarais and this is my first article here on MTGCanada! If you’ve played any GP events in the past few months in either Europe or North America, it’s very likely you’ve seen me battling it out in Day Two or playing Legacy side events.

The Modern Grand Prix held this past weekend in Las Vegas was the second-largest Modern constructed event on record and, due to its size, 12-3 ranged from a Top 16 finish all the way down through Top 64 whereas usually it would Top 16 with solid breakers. Unfortunately, my breakers were just barely outside of Top 32, despite ending Day One with an 8-1 record.

I wasn’t originally planning on going to Las Vegas at all, but after getting home from GPs Copenhagen and Amsterdam, the travel bug proved to be unshakable and somehow I managed to snag a cheap last minute flight! Copenhagen was also a Modern event, and so my preparation and experience there really solidified my thoughts on the format.

The week before Copenhagen, after finishing up Day Two in GP Montreal, I asked Edgar Magalhaes if he would be playing Bloom if he were to play Modern at the moment. He certainly knows the deck better than I do, and despite his assurance that the deck was strong, I couldn’t get over the Jund Death’s Shadow match-up being very poor for Bloom. Anticipating a lot of Shadow and linear aggro players, I chose to play Dredge. Without getting into too much detail, it was my worst Modern performance in quite some time, dropping during Day Two at 8-4. It felt like Dredge, while powerful, didn’t quite offer the same opportunities to flex my strengths in terms of sculpting a game plan 3+ turns ahead, assessing situations on the fly, or getting value through instant-speed outplays. I wanted to play something that would give me a bit more flexibility in approaching each individual game as it came, and if these things sound like they’re up your alley, I highly recommend you take a similar approach.

Flashback to Miles Moscardelli trying to sell me on Death’s Shadow in early February when the deck just existed as a strange Jund variation that was beginning to pick up steam online before breaking out in Vancouver. We loved how many free wins it got while also giving a great amount of disruption and perfect information thanks to the bevy of Thoughtseize effects. It was lean, flexible, and absurdly powerful, while giving you lots of choices each turn. In the days leading up to Vegas, Grixis had just dominated the SCG Open and GP Copenhagen, and it looked even stronger than Jund thanks to Stubborn Denial fixing the classic weakness of targeted hand disruption. As the saying goes, you can’t Thoughtseize the top of their deck.

On the Tuesday before my flight, I decided to test Grixis on MODO to see how it felt and immediately 5-0ed two leagues before the reset on Wednesday. On Saturday morning, I showed up with the same 75, ready to battle, despite the deck being known as one of the hardest to play properly in the format and my almost non-existent time spent playing it.

Here’s the list I played in Vegas

Grixis Death’s Shadow

Spells (25)
Fatal Push
Lightning Bolt
Kolaghan’s Command
Serum Visions
Thought Scour
Inquisition of Kozilek
Stubborn Denial

Creatures (16)
Death’s Shadow
Snapcaster Mage
Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Gurmag Angler
Street Wraith

Lands (19)
Polluted Delta
Scalding Tarn
Bloodstained Mire
Watery Grave
Blood Crypt
Steam Vents

Sideboard (15)
Liliana, the Last Hope
Engineered Explosives
By Force
Leyline of the Void
Ceremonious Rejection
Collective Brutality
Izzet Staticaster
Anger of the Gods

Some interesting things about the deck:

Lightning Bolt, while classically powerful, is probably the weakest now that it’s ever been. So many players are choosing to show up with resilient cards like Death’s Shadow, Thought-Knot Seer, or Prized Amalgam, and there are very few Planeswalkers to punish with the direct three damage. I would have played four Fatal Pushs and cut the Bolt, but I felt that with so much card selection, the split in favour of Push would be stronger almost all of the time while still giving some equity towards being able to Bolt-Snap-Bolt them or finish a close race.

Many Shadow players, Grixis or otherwise, play Lingering Souls with the idea being that it breaks the mirror. In practice, this really isn’t the case as long as you’re prepared for the possibility of getting haunted by so many Spirits. Liliana trumps a Souls while also being almost immune to anything else they could have as long as you’re keeping board parity, Explosives cleans it up if absolutely necessary, and Izzet Staticaster completely blanks the card while also gunning down Snapcaster Mages. Stretching your mana base for the Godless Shrine just isn’t worth it since you need access to a basic Swamp and would prefer having a second Blood Crypt to naturally draw than ever seeing a Shrine.

Round 1 – BYE

I generally mostly only play Magic Online so only barely managed to wrack up enough points for one bye at the few events I played last year.

Round 2 – Knightfall

Knightfall is an interesting deck in that despite having the potential to combo kill you, in practice it rarely plays out that way because there are so many ways to answer a Knight, and they’re hard-pressed to actually manage to kill you otherwise since the rest of their cards are so fragile. My opponent seemed relatively inexperienced and was shocked that I boarded in Anger of the Gods against him, saying that it’s useless because it doesn’t kill Knight of the Reliquary. Funnily enough, he said this while it 4-for-1ed him, including killing a Knight.

-3 Stubborn Denial
-2 Street Wraith
+2 Anger of the Gods
+1 Izzet Staticaster
+2 Liliana, the Last Hope


Round 3 – Ad Nauseum

Again, my opponent seemed relatively inexperienced and due to the polarized nature of the matchup, there weren’t any particularly interesting plays, except for when I Bolted him to 0 before combat damage while he had a Phyrexian Unlife in play and 10 power worth of Shadow swinging at him. Linear combo decks are very simple, you simply pick apart their hand and counter relevant spells as they try to claw out a win somehow.

-3 Fatal Push
-2 Terminate
-1 Lightning Bolt
+2 Ceremonious Rejection
+1 Countersquall
+2 Collective Brutality
+1 Engineered Explosives

Explosives is solely for the ability to kill their Lotus Blooms in the upkeep as they come off of suspend, it’s possible that they combo in response but at least you get to deny them a draw step alongside the Lotus mana. It’s better than having a Bolt sticking around!


Round 4 – Bant Humans

This deck, if you haven’t seen it, has been tearing up the online metagame recently and is a very good choice if you like aggressive strategies backed by soft disruption. The match-up is another relatively simple one made slightly more complex by Collected Company and both versions of Thalia.

The key to aggro matchups is to let them do all of the work for you in regards to your life total while you play as Grixis Control. Taking a shockland or two is ok, especially if your hand is very strong, and a Thoughtseize is almost always worth more than two life, but aside from that, you want to be very cautious with how aggressively you burn your life away because if they can answer the Shadow with either removal or by going wide, there’s almost no way to make a comeback, especially in game one.

In game two, on my second turn I saw an Anger of the Gods with Serum Visions and floated it on the top of my deck, since he only had played one creature so far, which met a Fatal Push. He quickly made me dance on the razor’s edge of balancing greed with need, pressuring me with both Thalias, slowing down my ability to actually cast Anger, since the deck is so fetchland heavy and the basic Mountain isn’t actually playable. In order to cast an Anger, I had to anticipate needing it in two turns from when I would develop my fetch for a second red source.

I spent an extra turn playing a basic Island instead of the fetchland in order to Snapcaster + Thought Scour to fuel a Tasigur, and he took that chance to dump his entire hand on the board in order to get an entire extra two damage on me, putting me to nine. With Tasigur and Snapcaster playing solid defense, he had one draw step to hit either his third Thalia’s Lieutenant or Company into one to go just barely wide enough to get me for exactly eight, and his whiff let me finally play the Anger I’d been holding for the past five or six turns. He thought I topdecked it since, according to him, I should have played it earlier to kill a Noble and some random other Human. Instead of minorly inconveniencing him, it was a total haymaker and shut him out of the game completely.

-2 Stubborn Denial
-4 Street Wraith
+2 Anger
+2 Lily
+1 Staticaster
+1 Exposives


Round 5 – Elves Vizier Combo

This deck has been relatively popular recently and is a very easy matchup, since the deck is loaded with removal to take care of their relevant creatures, hand disruption to hit their ways of refueling, and enormous monsters that quickly make theirs into glorified chump blockers. It’s even easier post-board with access to three different types of sweepers and the incredible Liliana.

-3 Stubborn Denial
-2 Street Wraith
-1 Thought Scour


Round 6 – Jeskai Control

My opponent mentioned that he Top 4ed the Legacy GP just two days earlier, so I was excited to get to play a game with a strong opponent! Unfortunately for him, game one was a total nongame, as he was stuck on two lands and his attempted wincons, a flurry of Lightning Bolts, only served to make my Shadow even angrier.

Games two and three were very interesting and had a few intense moments with great play on both sides – my opponent, Jody, thought the same thing and was so thrilled with the second game that he shook my hand saying that it was one of the tightest, most fun games from both sides that he’d played all week! They both ended up in almost identical situations on the last turn where I had to get moderately unlucky to lose, but in reflection, likely would have won either game if I had valued sideboarding differently.

Since the games both ended essentially the same way with only very minute differences, I’ll only break one of them down. I’m at a healthy (for my Shadow, at least) life total of four with a Liliana on seven counters and a Gurmag Angler as my only creature, with a hand of Collective Brutality, Thought Scour, and a few blanks.

Jody is at four life post-combat and tapped out, representing lethal on untap with his Celestial Colonnade plus Vendilion Clique. My only option is to Thought Scour myself, then -2 Liliana, and if a Snapcaster Mage is in the top five cards, I win on the spot thanks to rebuying him with Liliana into Brutality, flashback Brutality. Unfortunately, in neither game did I find the Snapcaster Mage, even having a second Thought Scour and eight lands in game three, giving me seven total chances to hit.

Later at dinner I thought more about the context of my role in the matchup and realized that I severely overvalued the Liliana’s potential. Realistically, his removal either kills her (Bolt, Helix) or exiles my dude, so that I can’t rebuy it with her -2. Burn and a Clique, combined with my general need for early aggressive life loss, is a pretty quick clock if I don’t kill him quickly, and taking a turn off from developing my board or disrupting his plans to play a Planeswalker that can only occasionally get value from a +1 and can’t always -2 for value here dilutes my plan too much, and had the Lilianas been the Lightning Bolt or Terminate that they were swapped with, I would have never been in the position where I was forced to hit a Snapcaster because Jody would have been dead instead of having to cross his fingers hoping that I whiff.

-3 Fatal Push
-1 Lightning Bolt
-1 Terminate
+1 Countersquall
+2 Collective Brutality
+2 Liliana (don’t actually copy this though)


Round 7 – Faeries

The Faeries were out in force at this event, likely thanks to Valentin Mackl’s advocacy of it at Copenhagen and its strong Shadow match-up. Spellstutter Sprite and Bitterblossom are very well positioned right now. Unfortunately for my opponent, out of every Shadow player in the room, it’s very possible that I was the one most prepared for this match-up, as back in the days of DCI rating, Faeries brought me to an average of around ~2100 Constructed, and it’s been my comfort deck in Extended and Modern for quite a while.

In both games, I ripped the Bitterblossom from his hand on turn one while outmaneuvering him either with an early Gurmag, which dodges all of his removal except for a Cryptic bounce and is bigger than a Mistbind, or with a turn two Shadow that resolved through a Spellstutter Sprite thanks to Lightning Bolt stopping the Faerie requirement from being met upon resolution of the Sprite’s ability. In game two, he took turn three off from doing anything to develop a Sword of Feast and Famine, before promptly being punished by Kolaghan’s Command doing its best Shatter impression, getting a card from his hand, and letting me safely untap to rip the last card from his hand while also resolving a Shadow and holding up options of Push or Denial.

-2 Street Wraith
-1 Fatal Push
-1 Terminate
+1 Izzet Staticaster
+1 Engineered Explosives
+1 Countersquall
+1 Collective Brutality


Round 8 – Jon Stern on Affinity

Generally, Affinity is as close to a bye as the Elves deck is, but I hoped that the match would be a little more fun because Jon is considerably better at Magic than the average early Day One GP competitor. He mentioned that he finished 6-3 in both of the other main events held in Vegas, so I had to do my best to make sure he was in a position to be as consistent as possible with a third 6-3 (but I liked him and hoped he’d 7-2)

In game one, I kept a fast Shadow enabler hand with a ton of hand disruption, nabbing his Ravager and Etched Champion. Without those two cards, his hand was made much slower, with only a few manlands and two Galvanic Blasts in the grip. I was able to hold off his early pressure, and Thoughtseize away one Blast, but my incredibly aggressive (and required) life loss put me in a pretty dangerous spot. It took a little bit, but the game steered to a point where my Shadow was doing its best Abyss impression and my held Snapcaster + Stubborn Denial kept me safe from any topdecks. Eventually, after a one-turn window to draw Ravager and kill me, he blanked on gas and died to Shadow.

Game two was slightly more exciting. Hand disruption made sure that his only board presence was a Signal Pest rallying two Ornithopters, and Izzet Staticaster did a stellar job indiscriminately murdering Pests, Skirges, and (Bl)Inkmoths alike.

-4 Street Wraith
-2 Stubborn Denial
+2 Anger of the Gods
+2 Liliana
+1 Izzet Staticaster
+1 By Force


Round 9 – Storm

The table for this round was in a different part of the room, with way more space between players, fixing possibly the biggest problem of the event. I thought that it was something they were doing as of the last round for the top tables, but it turned out that my opponent was a VIP with a fixed seat, and all VIP tables had a ton of room.

The Storm matchup is very similar to the Ad Nauseum matchup except that you don’t have the chance for them to play a Leyline of Sanctity on you. This makes it even easier because the constant barrage of pressure, hand disruption, and counterspells lets you fight them on the only axis that they care about.

Game one was textbook, and in game two my opponent cast an Empty the Warrens for four Goblins, then decided to attack me thinking that his goblins could race my two Shadows. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t realize how counterintuitive the damage race is, and immediately died on my attack step.

-3 Fatal Push
-2 Terminate
+1 Izzet Staticaster
+2 Collective Brutality
+1 Countersquall
+1 Engineered Explosives


Feeling pretty solid about the day, I met back up with Michael Maurici, whom I’d been traveling with for the past three weeks since just before GP Copenhagen. Both of us were trying to get back on the PT after long breaks from Magic, and he managed to Top 4 GP Amsterdam. If anything, he was way more pumped about my finish than I was, and we went to Sakana Sushi for dinner.

Just a quick aside, if you’re into sushi and you’re ever in Las Vegas, that’s the spot. We ate there twice over the weekend and it was incredible, like culinary nirvana. The fish wasn’t as high quality as it would be anywhere closer to the ocean, but they more than made up for it with $25 All You Can Eat dinners, and the nigiri fish to rice ratio was incredible. You had to literally wrap the fish around the rice a second time while picking it up with chopsticks in order to eat the piece in one bite, something I’d never seen before. The rice was about the length of your thumb knuckle to thumb tip, and the fish was almost from thumb tip down to wrist.

Feeling ready to Snorlax it up in the hotel room, I head back and unfortunately didn’t manage to get any sleep from roommates coming in at all hours of the night, eating dinners at 2am, etc. Definitely not what you want to have happen before Day Two!