Decision Making For Grand Prix Richmond

Seven-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor Ari Lax takes you through his process to decide on a Modern deck for the largest Constructed Grand Prix of all time this past weekend.

In last week’s article, I noted that five of the six decks I was considering for Grand Prix Richmond were on the list of top finishers at Pro Tour Born of the Gods.

Those decks fell into one of three categories:

A. Fast noncreature-based combo decks (Storm and Ad Nauseam)
B. The most aggressive creature decks in the format to race combo (Affinity and Little Zoo)
C. Thoughtseize decks to beat combo (Jund and Faeries)

From there I played a bunch of games with basically everything and established the following goals.

1. Beat Splinter Twin

Splinter Twin was the second most popular deck at Pro Tour Born of the Gods and the most represented deck among the winners bracket and Top 8. It also is relatively light on really expensive cards bar fetch lands, which are reasonably replaceable. If I planned on doing well at this Grand Prix, I would have to beat Twin multiple times.

I would also have to do this in a way that wasn’t just "play a bunch of Twin-specific hate." The various tempo Twin decks mostly exist because they punish this. That said, I tend to play decks that have the plan of "just kill them," which when backed by marginal disruption puts these decks into a position where my disruption matches their combo but their disruption is worse than my deck.

Aside: In a field of over 4,000 players, the concentration of people actually able to build Jund or Zoo is going to be diluted. There really aren’t enough Tarmogoyf to go around, and even if there were, not everyone would want to dish out nearly $1,000 for a playset. As a result, the metagame ends up getting spread over a number of random other decks more than it would be at a smaller event.

Simply put, more people are there to play their deck as opposed to being there to play the absolute best deck.

2. Manage Storm, Ad Nauseam, & Burn

Storm and Ad Nauseam put up very good numbers at Pro Tour Born of the Gods. Again, they are also light on Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, Liliana of the Veil, and other cards that might be priced out of the format for some competitors. People would play them, and they would do reasonably well.

Burn also did reasonably well in Valencia, is reasonably capable of winning, and is perennially popular among people who just want to play. As a result, it is overrepresented at large events and on Magic Online. I would estimate you have to play against the deck an average of one time per Grand Prix in this format, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

I didn’t think you would have to specifically prepare for any of these decks, but the three of them represented a section of the metagame you needed a game plan against. I expected to play against them at least once, and that could not be my one loss.

3. Beat Jund & Other B/G Midrange Decks

Jund accomplishes the top two goals very well. The combination of Abrupt Decay, Liliana of the Veil, and Thoughtseize shreds the combo decks. You are soft against Burn, but binning one of the three non-interactive matchups in exchange for crushing all of the others is reasonable.

Many of the higher quality players would realize this. Lists from reputable sources were readily available (be real, it doesn’t get much better than Reid Duke for B/G Midrange). You’re also a stack of good cards, allowing you flex room against a lot of the random brews people show up with.

Note that this goal of beating Jund went way down in priority as the event grew in size. Again, not everyone is going to have the ability to play Jund. Instead of expecting two or three matches against it, I would face it one or two times. Even if my deck was just even versus Jund, like a lot of things are, I felt fine trying to win a couple coin flips.

4. Have Game Against U/W/R

After watching Sean McLaren’s Top 8 matches, I knew I didn’t want to play U/W/R Control.

That said, being completely dead to the deck wasn’t an option either. Whether it was Geist of Saint Traft lists, control lists, or even semi-archaic Delver of Secrets lists, people would play enough of it that I had to care about how my matchup against it.

5. Have Game Against Melira Pod

I didn’t expect Melira Pod to be the most played deck, but I needed to be able to fight it in some capacity. I would be aided by the fact that it is one of the hardest decks to play in the format, but if your deck can’t beat Kitchen Finks, that will only get you so far.

6. Don’t Lose To Blood Moon

Before the banned list changes Blood Moon was borderline unplayable. Deathrite Shaman meant that Jund could play through it off one basic, Tron was comically good against it, and most other decks were able to ignore it.

Literally overnight that changed. Jund lost Deathrite Shaman. Tron stopped existing. Zoo started existing and had to do significant work to not be crippled by an early Blood Moon. Blood Moon went from a laughably bad card to a generic way to get free wins.

Losing to Blood Moon is miserable, and so many different decks could or would play it. Off the top of my head, Splinter Twin, Storm, Affinity, Blue Moon, and Living End could or should have some number, while Burn players might just jam it because they feel like it. I didn’t feel like I could afford to sacrifice random games like that and as such was very hesitant to play anything that would.

Back to my original options, Storm and Ad Nauseam were quick to fall out. Neither beat Splinter Twin, and neither beat Jund.

Faeries was the next to go. I didn’t play the games, but I was told by Nick Cuenca that he was unable to get it to beat Jund. I’m willing to try to make this work in the future, but I simply didn’t have enough time to pour into it.

I tried Little Zoo since I knew it raced Splinter Twin, but I kept losing to Blood Moon. This may have been an option I should have explored a little further, but it was really too frustrating to have to play against that card. Anger of the Gods was also extremely hard to beat, making me think that the beating Jund goal was a little out of reach.

Melira Pod got added to the things with Thoughtseize category, but I did not feel comfortable playing the deck. It’s not that I felt my lines were terrible; I just didn’t feel like the cards had the raw power I was looking for. Odd to say considering Birthing Pod is probably one of the most powerful cards in the format, but closing the games always felt like a chore. If I wanted to do that, why was I playing an engine deck and not Jund or U/W/R Control?

I almost went down the Jund road, but three things stopped me.

The first was that I was losing the midrange mirrors with the stock lists. Other people had their trumps, and I didn’t. The issue I had was that a lot of these trump cards were extremely inbred. Seriously, what is Lingering Souls good against besides mirrors? I expected Jund mirrors to be popular, but not to the prior extent where compromising my deck against the field for a better mirror match was optimal.

The deck also had issues finding enough relevant threats. You have Dark Confidant, Tarmogoyf, and Scavenging Ooze, but beyond that you have a bunch of options that aren’t good. The typical three-drops all lacked punch, and the four-drops were too clunky and very matchup dependent for impact.

Aside: This angle of "viable threats" is what Wizards has decided to attack with both Jund bannings. While I think both cards were reasonable to hit, this won’t hold from a long-term perspective. You are going to keep printing good creatures; you won’t keep printing Liliana of the Veil or Dark Confidant that provide unique advantages. Unless they stop printing good creatures that cost less than four, the deck will eventually return to its previous state of near dominance. I would say that things that are double white, blue, or red to cast are off limits, but the mana will just change to match the need.

Finally, the mana was just bad. Treetop Village and quadruple black for Phyrexian Obliterator was an issue multiple times in the four matches I played with that list. At least that was better than the Liliana of the Veil, Anger of the Gods, Courser of Kruphix list, where I struggle with my mana literally every game I played. You are being pulled in one too many directions with these lists, and without Deathrite Shaman things don’t just magically work out like they used to.

I came close to fixing all of these issues with a Junk list based in part on work done by teammate Craig Wescoe. Lingering Souls is a huge breaker in the mirror that can go in the sideboard, Knight of the Reliquary is a powerful threat that is relatively easy to cast, and the number of double green cards goes down while Knight provides mana fixing if necessary. Here is where I was at before giving up on the deck:

Why did I give up on this deck?

There were a lot of very small tweaks here I just wasn’t able to test. Was the mana right? Were those the right Knight of the Reliquary targets? What about the sideboard? Being 70/75 correct with this kind of deck is a big deal.

The deck is also absurdly graveyard centric. A Rest in Peace puts you on zero threats with more than two power. Playing a fair deck that has issues with graveyard hate was not my idea of a good plan.

That left Affinity.

The deck crushes Jund. It doesn’t lose to Blood Moon. It is quite good against combo and burn since it is just as fast and more interactive. People complain about the U/W/R Control matchup at times, but with Spell Pierce I never minded it assuming I faded Stony Silence one of the last two games. I also felt Melira Pod was fine, maybe a push at worst against a good player with a more spiteful sideboard.

Importantly, I felt extremely able to play the deck. If Melira Pod is one of the most difficult decks to play in Modern, Affinity is the other contender. You run the full gamut of sequencing decisions with man land activations, multi-turn combat math, and playing around removal. Even Cranial Plating creates a load of weird mana counting issues, but at least if you draw it, math is much less relevant. To paraphrase a conversation I had before this event:

Matt McCullough: I’m pretty sure Affinity requires counting to numbers over ten.
Me: Not if I draw Inkmoth Nexus. Or Cranial Plating.
Matt: Oh yes, good base Plating math. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 27, flurple, shoe.

The lone question I had was whether I could beat Splinter Twin, and some good chats with Alex Majlaton took care of that. He found room for four copies of Galvanic Blast and a Spellskite in the maindeck, which was more than enough when combined with the push toward fairer less consistent combo lists and the decrease in sideboard Ancient Grudge.

Seriously people, two is not enough. Disenchant effects aren’t enough. If you want to beat Affinity, you better mean it.

My contribution to the deck was turning those five interactive slots into three copies of Galvanic Blast and two copies of Spell Pierce. Seriously, Brian DeMars was so far ahead of the game when he first moved Spell Pierce to the main deck of Affinity after Grand Prix Kansas City last year. Need to counter an early Birthing Pod or Chord of Calling? Deal. Jund’s removal? Sure, why not. Electrolyze? Got that too. And what about kolding every combo deck in the format while covering against sideboarded Hurkyl’s Recall and Shatterstorm? Yeah, got those covered. The only awkward point is when you have a single blue source up against Splinter Twin, but that’s a small price to pay for a flexible backbreaking spell.

After a couple days of back and forth, I ended up on the following list.

Alex played the same maindeck, opting for some marginal sideboard changes. His third Thoughtseize and second Grafdigger’s Cage became extra copies of Torpor Orb and Spellskite.

Since Alex gave an insanely detailed breakdown of the deck in general and every reasonable matchup last week, I’ll stick to discussing some of the list-specific decisions here.

3 Steel Overseer: This guy is actually a slower clock. He’s obviously a mirror breaker and huge against random creature decks, but in a Steam Vents world he loses value. You want some number since having actual game winners in your deck is important, but the full four is not currently optimal.

2 Etched Champion, 2 Master of Etherium: Partly a concession to the amount of Storm, Ad Nauseam, Scapeshift, and mirror matches we expected, Master also helps up the threat density. As good as Etched Champion is, it’s still just a base Phantom Warrior on offense. Master adds eight or more power to the board on most occasions, which I would dare to say is "good enough to win."

2 Memnite: Enablers are required, but this thing generally doesn’t do much beyond tap to Springleaf Drum. There are too many random blockers in the format for a 1/1 for zero to matter.

3 Galvanic Blast, 2 Spell Pierce, 2 Welding Jar, 0 Thoughtcast: Galvanic Blast was a requirement to beat Melira Pod and Splinter Twin. Without some form of removal to interact with them, you would lose games to them comboing off on turn 4. In the case of Pod, you would sometimes even see them gain infinite life on turn 3 by curving mana creature into Kitchen Finks into Melira, Sylvok Outcast or Viscera Seer plus Chord of Calling for the other piece.

As for Spell Pierce, see my rant above. To work off Mike Sigrist’s Top 8 profile quote, "Affinity loses to cards, not decks". It turns out that almost all of those cards are noncreature spells.

Against most of the things that interact with your deck, Welding Jar is just a free Spell Pierce. It’s also an artifact. You would rather have Spell Pierce against the non-interactive cards, but going up to seven nonartifacts really clunks ups some of your hands. Also, free. Seriously, it’s Daze versus Spell Pierce in Legacy levels of different against Jund and U/W/R Control, not to mention the fact that it counters Abrupt Decay.

Regarding Thoughtcast, I honestly feel that if that card is in your deck it may as well be another threat. By the time you cast it, you should be set on board position since you have an affinity count of at least three, so you are just trying to draw into more action. With a deck that is so threat light and completely non-attrition based, the two cards you draw off Thoughtcast are often worth about the one threat of value you would get by just having it be a different card. Sure, drawing slightly more Cranial Plating and Arcbound Ravager is slightly better than drawing more Steel Overseer and Master of Etherium, but making them cost an additional mana is a big deal. There’s also the 2012 argument of "if I wanted to draw Cranial Plating, I can pay one white mana for Steelshaper’s Gift."

I realize that all of the Top 8 lists have Thoughtcast. I just honestly don’t understand what it is trying to accomplish.

1 Island, 0 Mountain: You have four blue spells and three red ones. Galvanic Blast is also rarely an urgent cast, whereas having the blue for Master of Etherium and Spell Pierce on time matters more. The one source difference isn’t huge, but it matters enough.

3 Glimmervoid, 0 City of Brass, 3 sideboard Thoughtseize: There was a point in the metagame where you wanted Thoughtseize over Spell Pierce. You often wanted to fire off a turn 1 Thoughtseize to hit a Stony Silence or similar two-drop, which is often awkward with Glimmervoid. As a result, you played City of Brass.

Times have changed. Only two of my twelve opponents at the Grand Prix had Stony Silence. Zoo is a thing, so your life total matters. Glimmervoid is back to the optimal choice for the five-color land slot.

This may change back soon. Thoughtseize is better against the mirror, Splinter Twin, and Birthing Pod than Spell Pierce is, with the flipside being that I would rather Spell Pierce Jund and U/W/R Control in game 1 because making them invest their mana matters more as their cards are so redundant. Zoo is on a downswing, so life matters less. Spoiler Alert: I’m also trimming Master of Etherium, which makes the mana split better.

I’m not saying you should go back to a pre Deathrite Shaman ban Brian DeMars list. Just be aware that is an option moving forward.

The sideboard: Torpor Orb is better than Spellskite versus Splinter Twin since it pulls an Ancient Grudge and not a Flame Slash, but Spellskite has applications against midrange, Auras, Infect, and the mirror, so a split is preferred.

Thoughtseize and Spell Pierce are the best combo hate you can play. They hit all of the combos, the drawback of them not a hundred percent kolding opposing decks is negated by the fact that the time they buy is more than enough for you to win, they interact with sideboard hate like Hurkyl’s Recall and Shatterstorm, and they flex to work against midrange backup plans like RUG Twin or even just against midrange in general. Thoughtseize is also the best answer to Stony Silence because it doesn’t make you leave mana up and just asks for colored mana before the Silence resolves.

Rounding out your set of Etched Champion is a must against fair decks.

Alex and I expected a lot of the mirror and played a bunch of artifact hate because of it. The third Ancient Grudge was a Wear // Tear as a hedge against Auras and other shenanigans.

Dismember rounds out your removal against anything with creatures that you want to remove. The colorless cost against Splinter Twin is a big upgrade, and I debated a nonzero number of the card main to make the mana work better.

Finally, you have your anti Birthing Pod trio of Whipflare and two copies of Grafdigger’s Cage. Cage locks out their tutors for Kataki, War’s Wage, while Whipflare breaks through Lingering Souls and other blockers.

I ended up going 10-5 at the event against the following decks:

1-2 versus Melira Pod
1-1 versus Splinter Twin (beat U/R, lost to RUG)
1-0 versus G/W Auras
1-0 versus Four-Color Gifts
1-0 versus Infect
2-0 versus B/G Midrange
0-1 versus Affinity
0-1 versus Zoo

Despite my middling finish, I would play the same deck if I could go back in time. All of my losses but the mirror match were close, and most of my wins were completely lopsided.

I would make minor changes at most. I’d swap out a Master of Etherium in the main for a third Etched Champion and use the open sideboard slot and one of the Thoughtseize or Spell Pierce slots for another Grafdigger’s Cage and Whipflare to try and seal more Melira Pod matches.

In terms of my goals and preparation, I missed the fact that Affinity would be extremely popular. While it is difficult to play well, it is easy to win with and reasonably cheap to assemble. Fortunately we prepared for this in our deckbuilding, but it wasn’t a guiding factor in my deck choice.

Of course, I don’t think that would have changed much. Splinter Twin, Affinity, and Melira Pod formed a bit of a triangle at this event. No deck really had an edge on the others, so it came down to good old heads-up Magic. Who drew better plus who played better—that’s all. Which you chose was a matter of personal preference. They were the only decks that were more than ten percent of day 2, and they were fourteen of the eighteen decks that qualified people for Pro Tour Journey into Nyx.

That all said, I might hold off on playing Affinity moving forward. People will overcompensate with hate, which matters a lot.

I would just play Birthing Pod for a Grand Prix starting tomorrow. It’s hard to hate out and solid versus Affinity and Splinter Twin. Jund-esque decks are close to reasonable, but they are soft to Affinity in exchange for being better against Twin. If Affinity hate picks up, these decks can step in and exploit that hole in the metagame.

Just before this event I had a revelation. This Modern format feels like the Modern format from the first Pro Tour Qualifier season, only someone went back in time and shared Melira Pod with the world. Splinter Twin is a bit more durdly than it was back then, Jund has better removal (Abrupt Decay) but worse threats (no Bloodbraid Elf), and that’s about it. Blood Moon is good again, while Splinter Twin and Affinity top the charts.

But it’s all okay, as we can just go back in time for the upcoming Pro Tour Qualifier season. For reference, the big waves that first season were Life from the Loam having a breakthrough; Gifts Ungiven for Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite or Iona, Shield of Emeria plus Unburial Rites trumping Splinter Twin and Affinity; and U/W answer decks rising before falling to G/R Tron.

When U/W decks start preying on this metagame, don’t say I didn’t warn you.