GP Nashville finalist Ari Lax discusses a few topics that have been brought up in the Magic community recently like Thragtusk in Standard, Magic Online decklists, sleep-in specials, and other contentious issues.

During the past week or two there’s been a lot of discussion of random topics in the Magic world in between all the Pro Tours, Grand Prix, and hurricanes. After my recent rant about the trigger policy, I’ve been on a bit of a soapbox kick. Here are a few of the topics that I’ve been able to form solidly logical opinions about, or at least I hope so.

Thragtusk and Angel of Serenity

After my last article, some discussion cropped up of how ubiquitous Thragtusk and to a lesser extent Angel of Serenity have become in current Standard.

I’ll start with Angel of Serenity. This card is very powerful, but you have to work for it. Seven is still a lot of mana. If anything, Angel of Serenity being so good is an effect of ramp, Reanimator, and Tapout Control. This, in turn, is a result of Thragtusk warping the metagame against aggressive decks.

Let’s lay this down from the get go: Thragtusk is not an unbeatable card. This is not a Primeval Titan that automatically ends the game upon entering play. This is not a Stoneforge Mystic or Bitterblossom that establishes a completely dominant threat in an unreasonable timeframe.

Thragtusk is a powerful attrition card. If you don’t interface with it on a level where it gains a measurable advantage, the card is not overpowering.


The first way to deal with this is what I talked about last week: going over the top. Thragtusk is not a fast card and does not punish you for durdling around. The Omniscience deck is still a little off, as is Epic Experiment as of the last time I checked, but either of them could be adapted for success. Alternatively, as I mentioned last week, you can try an alternative big deck like Grixis Control with things like Nicol Bolas to go over the top.

The second way was emphasized by Todd Anderson last week: counterspells. If Thragtusk does not enter the battlefield, none of its abilities that generate an advantage occur. That’s not to mention the tempo advantage you generate by using a two mana (Essence Scatter, maybe Syncopate) or three mana (Dissipate) card to answer a five-drop.

The third way, which Todd touched on, is evasion and ignoring the 5/3. Zombies started down this line with Crippling Blight, but Restoration Angel countered this line quite disastrously. This is why Thundermaw Hellkite has flared up so much lately and also why Falkenrath Aristocrat is very well positioned. Both of these cards not only take away Thragtusk-sized chunks of life per hit but crash straight through Restoration Angels. I’m not sure why Aristocrat hasn’t seen more play since B/R Zombies disappeared, but if I build a Standard deck with any focus on attacking, expect it to feature one or both of these cards. That is unless I play Lingering Souls and Intangible Virtue, but that’s about the same thing.

If you want to get really degenerate, you can Pyreheart Wolf people, but even as of the latest list, Mono-Red Aggro is still about half a card short now that there are only a few Humans Stromkirk Noble punches through.

This all said, it’s also very possible Thragtusk is a Bloodbraid Elf, where the surrounding cards create a hostile environment for the decks that effectively combat your attrition. With Elf, it was Putrid Leech and Blightning that clocked out the ramp and combo decks that could ignore your attrition. We’ve established that Thragtusk has issues with fliers, counters, and new ramp/combo in the form big spells. Figure out how to solve each of these and your deck will be very hard to beat. I’ll give you a hint: one of the answers is Cavern of Souls. Just be aware you want actually good answers, not narrow ones. Notice how I said Putrid Leech and Blightning were the keys the first time around.

Regardless, I’m fairly unconcerned about the card. If Gatecrash is as powerful as Return to Ravnica, even just via cycle completion, the format will be able to push straight through a Thragtusk. It will still be a very powerful, highly splashable card, but I doubt the format will be all Thragtusk battles for Pro Tour Gatecrash.

Modern: Good or Bad?

A lot of pros voiced their discontent with the Modern format after Pro Tour Return to Ravnica. Mostly, it was that the format felt like monotonous battles between interchangeable combo and midrange decks.

This section is going to be short, but here are my resulting comments:

  1. There are a lot of interestingly subtle differences between all of the combo decks. Twin and Infect are absurdly interactive against light interaction but suffer against a large amount of it and can be interacted with via commonly played cards. Storm and Eggs are very non-interactive against “normal” cards but have a lot of hard hate cards they have to dodge and few ways to answer their opponent’s threats. I may be personally biased, but I find these differences very interesting, especially when evaluating deck choices for a tournament.
  2. Iterating, evolving, and proliferating control decks takes a lot longer than other archetypes. It’s much harder to pinpoint the threat-answer balance for a one-shot format like a Pro Tour than it is over a couple weeks of a PTQ season. Even one week later, we’ve seen the results and lessons of the Pro Tour used to compile a solid U/W deck that I would classify as control.
  3. There has been a lot of talk about unbanning Green Sun’s Zenith and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, among other cards. While I think in the context most people think about these cards being used they are fine, I have serious concerns about how they will promote combo. Both are definitely worth seeing for trial periods, but if you start getting turn 3 Primeval Titaned to death or Scapeshift starts Jaceing people out, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
  4. Most of the midrange decks are still 60/40 decks at best. Jund was fine at the Pro Tour because the players that did well with it were able to ride skill and Limited advantages to the top of the standings, but at a Grand Prix it’s just a way to lock up a low money finish and at a PTQ it’s a very conservative choice.

Regardless, I’m interested to see how a broader spectrum of people respond to the format after the Grand Prix in Lyon and Chicago. I’ll be at the latter this weekend, so let me know your thoughts on the format there.

Magic Online Decklists

As of a couple weeks ago, Wizards of the Coast made the decision to get rid of their full listing of prize-earning Magic Online Daily Event decklists. The largest event for each format is still going up, but for formats like Standard this means somewhere between half and two-thirds of winning decklists aren’t being published.

From what I can understand, the reasoning for this is that Wizards is trying to prevent Standard formats from being solved too quickly. Given the progression of Faeries to Jund to Caw-Blade to Delver in recent years, I can understand their concerns, but I don’t believe this is the right way to address them.

Here’s the problem with this logic: cutting the metagame information from more samples to a few is not going to significantly change how often people are exposed to a major deck. Assuming that within a day the overall metagame is fairly constant, cutting down to one Modern event is not really going to show me any less Jund than three events a day would.

What I am going to see less of is the deck that is 1% of the metagame.

The following stories are going to be anecdotal evidence, but I think they demonstrate my point here.

Pro Tour San Juan 2010. Gavin Verhey and I are sitting around the Disaster Beach House (story for another time) looking for a deck. U/W Control was a pile of do nothing that could never beat Eldrazi Ramp, Eldrazi Ramp was fine but slow, Vampires was a trap (as I knew from the last Pro Tour), and RUG Control… Actually, I have no clue on that one. We just didn’t like it.

We booted up the computer and started scouring Daily Events. Half an hour later, we stumbled across a green-blue aggro deck that 3-1’d a single Daily and disappeared. Three days of tuning later and the deck went 10-0 at the Pro Tour. The other 10-0 deck? Another Vengevine Aggro deck.

Pro Tour Return to Ravnica. I was comfortable with Affinity as my default deck and spent most of my testing trying to find something better. I found a BUG Infect deck that had strong finishes over a string of a couple Daily Events. I tried it out and didn’t like it, but when I later played a list with Noble Hierarch, I had a shell to go back to and insert it into.

Removing Daily results doesn’t help prevent the “top decks” from spreading around and becoming commonplace. Unless there’s absolutely no information transfer, formats will converge around recent winning lists. Cutting the number of lists shown only hurts those who are looking for new ideas and trying new things.

The counter argument is that the rapid proliferation of low profile lists leads to a much quicker discovery of problem decks that aren’t known from the start. I don’t really know how to answer this concern. All I can say is that it feels wrong that “problems” like this are being addressed on the consumer side as opposed to the production side and that, in my experience, only a select few real formats have truly set end points due to extreme mistakes.

Note: This cut also creates a demand for people who simply fill in the gap and compile results. I’m waiting to see how long it is before someone is writing a “This Week in Magic Online” column simply doing what the “What’s Happening” page did before, only with deck descriptions instead of full lists.

Note Two: I have a theory that a lot of the real event convergence we see is also the result of scheduling and positioning. For most participants at a SCG Open Series, it’s a one-shot event like a Pro Tour. There’s one SCG Open Series every few months within driving distance of an area, whereas for Pro Tour Qualifiers in the Midwest or Northeast you can realistically grind one even every week or two for an entire season. This means the rogue decks have minimal event-based tuning, while the net decks are already event tuned from the previous week. If anything, I feel like more events, not fewer, may lead to a more diverse and interesting metagame.


For those who aren’t familiar with this, tournament organizers have recently started adding the option of “sleep-in specials” to Grand Prix for those with byes. The typical cost for this is $20. At Limited Grand Prix, this entails showing up late and receiving a pool registered by a judge, with the additional fee helping cover the additional staffing needs.

Paul Rietzl brought up the point last week that for Constructed Grand Prix, the sleep-in special entails none of this extra work. Those opting for this do have to submit a decklist on time, but at most this only requires the tournament organizer to print up an email attachment. That’s quite a profitable Kinko’s they’re running there.

Whether this should or shouldn’t cost more isn’t what I want to discuss. Instead, I want to bring up a secondary line related to the prepayment part of the sleep-in special.

“Why doesn’t every event have online registration and decklist submission?”

This solves a ton of issues. Digital decklists are harder to lose and are much easier to manage than a thousand scraps of paper. Decklists could also easily be checked for format legality before submission, eliminating many deck registration errors and therefore penalties.

The short answer: It’s a great idea and would make everyone’s life easier, but no single tournament organizer has incentive to make it happen.

The long answer:

I asked a friend of mine who works in web design how long it would take to create a system that takes payment for registration, links it to a DCI number, and provides an interactive decklist form that locks at event start. His expectation was a week or two of work for one person to make a solid system, provided they were also capable of some graphic design work on the user interface end.

This is an investment. Not a massive one, but still an investment. How many massive events does a tournament organizer run a year? Is that enough to make this worth it? You would probably still have to accept paper decklists as well for those people scrambling around for last minute changes without access to a computer. If you were the only person using this for your events people might not even know about it, resulting in low usage and no real change.

Upgrading from the current system is going to require some effort from higher up. Either Wizards makes the software themselves, a group of organizers works together on the project, or something similar.

The Pro Tour Changes A Year Later

About a year ago, the change from the old eight-level Pro Player Club to the current Silver-Gold-Platinum one occurred. I wrote as levelheaded an article about it as I could at the time, and here we are after a year of practice.

I feel like a lot of what I thought about the Planeswalker Point invites at first was very true, and I’m glad to see them gone. Too big of a grind, too much burn out, and most importantly, it didn’t promote the right things in players.

That said, we still have no idea what the Pro Player Club changes will do to the system a year later. It will likely take another full year operating under the new system without Level 4/Gold overlap to truly see what happens. I still have no idea how the number of invites will change. My guess is the change in systems will cut Pro Tour attendance by about 50 players, but it could easily be 100 or 0 as I don’t know the exact math.

I’ve made my statements about how I think the difficulty of getting on to the train hinders the growth of new stars, but that’s not something you can really show in the short term if at all.

The one thing I do know: there is a general malaise about Grand Prix among many of the competitive players I know. The minimal number of invites and the reduction in value of a single Pro Point has made Grand Prix go from one of the best ways to get on the Pro Tour to the worst. I’ve talked to many people who are much more reluctant to travel for them than in the past. Of course, I also know a ton of people who still go regardless just to hang out, which is great, but unless you can extrapolate value from the couple of Pro Points from lower cash finishes, it’s much harder to see yourself gaining value from the event.

I’m not sure how to remedy this, as Pro Tour invites aren’t really a commodity you can throw around, but this should be discussed. Passing down invites was the first thing I thought of that made some sense, but it’s a logistical mess and making tiebreakers past Top 8 matter that much would not make most people very happy.

The Silver-Only PTQ is a good idea. Two byes and a WMCQ invite rounds to nothing when just attending a couple Grand Prix in a season gets you the same thing. Minor unique benefits are very nice ways to make it feel like an actual level.

Sponsor’s Exemptions are another great idea, though I expect they will be less necessary in the future as the kinks work out of the new system. Some kind of seasonal results tracking like Planeswalker Points would be similar, only it should reward results over participation.

I’m sure there are more topics I failed to cover that have slipped my mind. If you’re interested in my opinion on any other issues or on Modern for the upcoming Grand Prix, ask me below or on Twitter.

Ari Lax