A Tale Of Four Formats

Being that he’s marathoning Grand Prix for the next month, Sam Black has a little to say about each of the major formats right now! He provides you with some #SCGPHILLY guidance and then touches on the recent StarCityGames Organized Play changes for next year!

We’re reaching the point in the season where people are getting comfortable with what Battle for Zendikar brings to the table. Most of the cards
have been tried out, and we have a reasonable idea of what works and what doesn’t. The balance of power is definitely still shifting enough that I wouldn’t
say things have settled–after a dominant performance by Jeskai Black in Quebec City, it failed to make the top 8 after falling apart in Day 2 of Grand
Prix Indianapolis. Abzan came out on top with an extremely streamlined list, in that Brent played four copies of most
cards in his deck.

Despite generating a lot of excitement leading up to the event, Eldrazi Ramp failed to place any players in the top 8. The deck is powerful, but players
knew to prepare for it, and it still has some legitimately terrible matchups. From what I observed, Rally the Ancestors seemed to generate a little less
buzz, but similarly failed to repeat its GP top 8 performance. In place of these fringe strategies, this week saw Bant Hardened Scales make the top 8 before being eliminated, at
least in part, by a game loss. It’s easy for me to imagine that there could be something to this deck, as Managorger Hydra is a card that can win games
very easily, and things like four maindeck Stubborn Denial give this deck a unique kind of play.

I personally played B/W Tokens, which felt like a good deck for the tournament despite the fact that I failed to win a match. I don’t want to go down the
rabbit hole of bad beat stories, but some weekends it feels like you lost because you chose the wrong deck, sometimes like you lost because you made
mistakes, and rarely, as was the case this weekend, you lost because unlikely events repeatedly broke badly for you–it’s dangerous to think this way,
because it offers excuses that allow you to displace blame that might otherwise force you to learn, but as long as you know you don’t often come to this
conclusion, it’s important to be able to recognize when it happens, because it’s part of the game, and you don’t want to reduce all of your conclusions to
the final outcomes of games.

I played this:

I wrote about this deck after the Pro Tour, and then it
started popping up on Magic Online and in GP Trial winning decks. Paul Rietzl saw one of those trial winning decks and tuned it back into a version I’d
previously posted on our forums without remembering that I’d worked on it, and said he was going to play it at the Grand Prix. I trust Paul to be on top of
Standard for any Grand Prix, but I often don’t play the decks he plays because he often plays deck I’m not very familiar with or comfortable playing, but
when he independently chose to play a deck I designed and tested substantially for the PT, I had to take advantage of the opportunity to trust him.

Besides, it made sense to me. This deck is strategically similar to Bant Tokens, except that black gives it access to better tools to fight Eldrazi Ramp,
which I was afraid I would need to be able to beat in Indianapolis.

Having played both, I prefer the straight B/W version to the Esper version that Raymond Perez Jr. made the top 8 with. The mana
“works well” in the Esper version, but it costs a few points of life per game, and sometimes the choices on which lands to fetch can get awkward, and while
this is a strange concern, I actually think the time cost to shuffling to get lands that can lead to more draws is a real concern for me, as two of my
matches went to time even without fetchlands at GP Indianapolis. Painful Truths sounds better than Read the Bones, but it’s actually pretty difficult to
play a two-drop and then play it on turn 3 to draw three cards because of the way the lands work out, and scrying is particularly powerful in a deck that
never shuffles. The blue card I’m most excited about is actually Dragonlord Silumgar in the sideboard, which has been very good for me in Jeskai Black
against Abzan, but I don’t think it’s worth it. The biggest advantage to the Esper version is actually getting to play Murderous Cut and turn it on early
with fetchlands, which B/W can’t do. If Esper is better, that’s the real reason.

I’m not sure if Seeker of the Way or Knight of the White Orchid is the better two-drop, and I’m not sure if it’s better to have Wingmate Roc in the
maindeck or sideboard.

This deck is real, and good, but like Bant Tokens, it can struggle against Abzan, so now might not be the best time for it.

One small note: In the few matches I played, Monastery Mentor was great for me because the only red deck I played against was Eldrazi Ramp. Considering how
disappointing this card was last season, it’s worth noting that it can be a very strong sideboard card this season.

One final thing I’d like to mention about Standard is Jeskai Black. I don’t think the deck is dead because one day of one tournament went badly for it, but
this deck is uniquely hard to play. For the most part, talking about which decks are hard to play is really subjective. Some ways of thinking are easier
for some than for others, and there’s also a big difference between “hard to play well enough to win matches” and “hard to play perfectly to get that last
few %”–some decks are easy to get the first 80% out of, and very hard to get the last 5% (Burn, Affinity); others are hard to get the first 50% out of,
but then there’s a big jump once you get it (Amulet Bloom, Lantern Control).

Jeskai Black is just hard at every level and in every way. Players constantly lose games on turn 10 because they couldn’t cast the right two spells on turn
5 because they fetched the wrong lands in the first two turns. Even ignoring the difficulty of working the manabase, every card has tons of different modes
and can be cast and recast at different times and in different ways, and the deck uses the graveyard in a wide variety of competing ways. Everything about
the deck maximizes options and decisions, which is great in terms of the ceiling of this deck, but I think the power level is at the point where this
mostly plays out as a bunch of different failure modes–opportunities to lose games you maybe could have won. The deck, when played optimally, isn’t
broken; it’s just good, and in practice, it’s just too hard for most people. While trying to decide if I should play it for the Grand Prix, I threw away
two out of five matches in the last league I played. I thought, I can probably do better than this at the Grand Prix, but I haven’t proven that, so it’s
probably better to just make a safer choice. There’s no shame in knowing a deck isn’t for you because you can’t play it at 100% and choosing something

Having just finished a Standard Grand Prix, I’m now playing aLegacy Grand Prix, aLimited Grand Prix, and a Modern Grand Prix over the next three weekends. So I’ve had to
start thinking a little about everything.

I haven’t really played Legacy in almost a year, and Legacy is a very hard format to properly playtest for, especially in around three days, and especially
since each of the decks I’d want to try out would cost hundreds of tickets to complete on Magic Online despite my already extensive collection. I think I’m
probably just going to pick up a known good deck relatively cold and see what I can do with it, a time honored tradition among professional players in
Legacy events.

In thinking about the format, I thought Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy was a card I might want to try, mostly because, having initially wildly misevaluated the card
and now having seen how great it is, I love the card (I love any card that can really trick me like that), and I’d like to play with it. In theory, it
seems like a card that would be great in Shardless Sultai since it wants the same kinds of spells that Shardless Agent wants (spells that are profitable to
cast on your turn), and while it’s a two-mana creature that can die to a removal spell without impact, the deck is already playing cards like Deathrite
Shaman and Tarmogoyf to stress the opponent’s spot removal. So, of course, I was happy to see that Matthew Tickal had already had success with Jace, Vryn’s
Prodigy in this deck, but I’d plan to go further than just playing

The other deck I’m interested in is Death and Taxes, because I like playing decks that play a lot of creatures but that aren’t purely aggressive and play
long games or short games with those creatures, and it always looks pretty good whenever I play against it.

I think it’s not a fluke that Tom Ross keeps winning with Infect, just as I think it’s not a fluke that no one else ever wins with it. I think the deck is
legitimately great, but I don’t think I would trust myself to sideboard properly with it, and it’s a style of deck I think I’d enjoy less than the other

In Modern, I’m similarly interested in Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, but that’s tempered by my enthusiasm for Amulet Bloom and Lantern Control. I think Jace is
strong enough that in theory, it could pull Ojutai’s Command into Modern. At first, Ojutai’s Command seemed irrelevant, as it’s a less powerful card than
Cryptic Command, but putting Jace onto the battlefield in the opponent’s end step, or when they tap out to cast a creature is so powerful that the card
might have a place. The problem is that it’s very hard to get away from playing red for Lightning Bolt in any of these fair blue decks, as it’s just a much
better removal spell to have early and often than any other card in Modern, and Jace is a lot better with good, cheap, high impact, proactive spells to
Flashback, which in Modern means that it plays best with cards like Thoughtseize. What this means is that Jace is likely best with red and black, and it’s
a lot harder to get away with four colors than three in Modern, so white is likely just the odd one out. Kolaghan’s Command doesn’t interact quite as well
with Jace, but it’s certainly not bad, and it’s probably good enough at filling a similar role that Grixis is just the best place to be.

Of course, it’s worth looking at this weekend’s top 8 results from the Grand Prix in Porto Alegre, which paint a completely different picture of Modern
than anything I’d expect. Living End, G/R Tron, G/W Hexproof, Twin, and four Wild Nacatl decks–two Burn and two larger Zoo-style decks. As far as I can
tell, nothing new happened to account for this sudden success for Wild Nacatl, so I’m inclined to write it off as a fluke of the South American metagame,
but there might be more to it. It’s also worth noting, in light of my considerations above, that no Jace decks or control decks made the top 8–every deck
was decidedly proactive (as I generally advocate for Modern).

As for BFZ Limited, I honestly haven’t had a chance to really work on it since the Pro Tour, but I’d strongly recommend Ari Lax’s article to keep up with the Sealed format.

One last thing I want to touch on is the recent changes StarCityGames.com announced to its
organized play. First, I need to explain something. There seem to be a few conspiracy theorists on the forums who think StarCityGames has a heavy hand in
telling its authors what to write, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Essentially the only exchanges I ever have with anyone at StarCityGames.com
about my content relate to what formats people might be interested in for my videos, especially when the most recent set isn’t available on Magic Online. I
don’t live in Roanoke or work for StarCityGames.com beyond creating the content you see, and I don’t really talk to anyone who does. My opinions on this
are my own and unsolicited. I do recognize that StarCityGames.com is my employer, and I am loosely aware of their interests while writing for them, but I
would never say anything I didn’t believe for their sake, I’d just avoid mentioning things I take issue with that I don’t think they’d want to have on
their site (not that this ever really comes up).

With the old system, I really didn’t like that the seasonal leaders were the people who had the most points throughout the year at each cut off–it created
a huge barrier to entry and a huge commitment to compete for a slot at the Players’ Championship. Now, as I understand it, if a player does well at an
Invitational or has a single season where they know they’ll have time to compete in a lot of events (for example, maybe the summer for a student), they can
try to make time to attend as many as possible then and make a run at the Players’ Championship, and if they come up a little short, they can maybe decide
to keep going to make a push for the yearly leaderboard. To me, this is the biggest change, and I think it’s great.

As a writer, I’m invited to attend every StarCityGames.com Invitational, but I’ve skipped over half of them, and a huge part of that is that preparing to
play a format I don’t usually play, Legacy, is just too much of a hassle. Between that and the fact that most of the people I usually travel with aren’t
invited to these events because they usually play GPs rather than other SCG events, I often just decide that it’s too much trouble to travel and prepare by
myself. Reducing the number of formats I have to keep up with makes it much more likely that I’ll attend, so for me, I think these are great changes.