It’s Shoaltime: Pro Tour Philadelphia

Tezzerator creator Kenny Oberg got together a powerful Pro Tour team to test for Philly, and they came up with a super-fast B/G Poison Shoal list that sported turn-2 kills 30% of the time! Read about the deck and Modern.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Kenny Oberg from Sweden. I’m mostly known for the creation of Tezzerator, which I piloted to a 5th place finish in Pro Tour Berlin 2008. I have a strong affinity for brewing decks and ideas and really like challenging, big, and unknown formats. I started out as a Vintage player with a plethora of choices and combo strategies and have always liked decks that are consistent and give you a lot of choice. One of the best ways to achieve this is to play cards like Brainstorm, Ponder, Beseech the Queen, or Tezzeret the Seeker and their like. This article will be about what me and my fellow Swedes chose to play in Pro Tour Philadelphia and our process in doing so.

The format was Modern and brand new with a fresh ban list and announced just three weeks before the actual tournament. They wanted to stop turn three combo decks and banned cards such as Dread Return and Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, but with a format of over 5000 cards, it was begging to be broken.

When facing an unknown format, I start out by identifying the most unfair and abusive things you can do. That is usually different kinds of combo decks, like accelerating mana for something like Dragonstorm, two-card combinations such as Splinter Twin with Deceiver Exarch, and putting something like Emrakul, the Aeons Torn into play with Through the Breach. Then there is always Zoo; it’s a solid, well-proven strategy and gives you a clock to square off against.

Building a control deck this early in the format is almost undoable, since you’re choosing from different reactive cards and strategies; the key word here being “choosing” because you can’t bring an answer for every possible matchup. You could probably tune a control list to beat a stock Zoo list, but a) you are giving up percentages in other matchups, and b) your Zoo opponents probably won’t be bringing a stock list. This, paired with the inevitability of 12Post, made control a hopeless project; also banning Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Mental Misstep, and Ancestral Vision sure didn’t help blue mages around the world.

The team:

Olle RÃ¥de, Hall of Famer with merit list too long to mention. No hair though.

Martin Lindström, GP London Top 8 and crusher of my dreams in the quarterfinals

Elias Watsfeldt, PTQ grinder and the only player in the group shorter than me. That makes him cool in my book.

Per Nyström, most famous for presenting a 61-card deck in Honolulu, to Conley Woods, in a match for the Top 8.

Kenny Öberg, that’s me.

Bertil Elfgren, Swedish level 6, who was a lock for Top 8 in Pro Tour San Diego; it was just  a matter of drawing with one Luis Scott-Vargas. No, that didn’t work out.

Tore Hedbäck, former Swedish champion.

Ludvig Londos, LCQ qualified for Amsterdam and was 7-0 in the Pro Tour until he met Brad Nelson.

It was early quite obvious the format was fast, and the focus was on combo; just a few of the earlier, more commonly known decks included Ad Nauseam, Pyromancer Ascension, Splinter Twin, and Grand Architect with Pili-Pala. The format was touching turn 3 in speed. So what if we could go even faster? Rite of Flame sped up Pyromancer Ascension; Pentad Prism boosted Ad Nauseam; and Amulet of Vigor ramped up Cloudpost.

But just a few days into testing, my friend Elias Watsfeldt happily told us about Blazing Shoal with a turn-one infect creature and its potential to get a turn-two kill by pitching something large such as Reaper King. It can’t get much quicker than that!So after the obligatory ridicule of someone wanting to play Vector Asp, Pact of Negation, Slaughter Pact, Reaper King, and Serum Powder, he still managed to convince to us to test the deck. To my utter horror and despair, the deck seemed to be the real thing. I wanted to cast Ponder! Preordain! Draw cards! Instead the possibility of my casting Spoils of the Vault and dying to it and then just going well it happens 13% of the time, it’s expected was becoming a very plausible reality.

This is what the deck looked like in its infancy from Elias, which I never tested. It showcased the concept and is how it started. Worthy of note is the Serum Powder, which works really well in lowering the 13% chance of dying to Spoils of the Vault. In the end, it felt too bad during actual tournament matches, as you don’t want to give away what you’re playing. It’s also the worst topdeck of all time. It did help you skyrocket to casting Reaper King for no reason.

There was no reason to be red with Glistener Elf in green, which easily outmatched Viashino Slaughtermaster, and it was then quickly changed to:

This is really close to where we ended up. Serum Powder did not stand, as well as Summoner’s Pact, which was replaced with creatures so as to not be stopped by Chalice of the Void for zero, Ethersworn Canonist, and much more, despite the thinning for Spoils of the Vault. After these changes, the deck was one of the fastest and most consistent decks we could find and stunningly close to what we played in Pro Tour Philadelphia.

These are the 75 cards most of us registered (only minor differences), and if you break it down, it has:

Ten creatures with casting cost of nine or more: Reaper King, Greater Gargadon, and Progenitus.

Twelve infect creature: Glistener Elf, Vector Asp, Inkmoth Nexus.

Eight tutors: Spoils of the Vault and Plunge into Darkness.

The last two playsets are Pact of Negation and Slaughter Pact.

Its beauty is simple. It’s all about maximizing the number of combo pieces and tutoring when you really need to or when there is an opening. However, this deck goes against my natural instincts. It doesn’t play Magic; it tries to be fast and non-interactive and kill on turn two. But you pay for that blistering speed with the dark side of tutoring. Just casting Spoils of the Vault with twenty life gives you a 13% change of dying right then and there.

This gave me the same bad feeling as playing All-In Red or Goblin Charbelcher in Vintage, which are strategies I would never touch for the life of me. I like my games to be skill-testing, and I don’t like glass cannons.

But the more I tested with the deck, the more I started to look at it from a different angle. Most often when casting Spoils of the Vault early, I was in such a position that if it hit, I’d win then and there. That’s about 80-87% chance to win those games, and when you have the combo, you can react if they have removal or a counterspell by tutoring for Pact of Negation. Every so often, you don’t even have to respond, if they have nothing or you just have the nuts. In the end, it turned out to be a true beast, and I would take those odds any day in any game for the rest of my life if I could.

Everything wasn’t merry though; Zoo was not a matchup you wanted to face off against. We tried over 200 games, with all possible sideboard cards we could think of, without getting any huge edge. Instead of sideboard cards, it came down to how experienced the opponent was in how to play against you. If they main-phase killed your creature and if they didn’t play that Wild Nacatl turn and kept mana up at almost all times, it was worse.

Also with Cloudpost appearing a lot on Magic Online, which by the way is such a good matchup for Shoaltime that you sideboard zero cards, some people started playing Molten Rains and Blood Moons, which is a bad thing when you’re relying on an Inkmoth Nexus and want to surprise all removal with Defense Grid.

In the end, surprise value won out a lot. Our opponents not knowing what hands to keep in game one surely helped, as in testing we played as though the opponent knew what they were playing against. That’s a discussion in itself, whether that was right or not, but I do prefer the bonus you get during the actual tournament, and it can be worth a ton.

Other dark areas were Doran and Affinity. The latter was one of the main reasons to run Apostle’s Blessing, as it gets you through all their blockers with the tiny clause about protection from artifacts. Also Blessing often acted as Pact of Negation and Slaughter Pact five to six; it’s possible we should have played more of it. Before, we had Inquisition of Kozilek, but it didn’t solve the problems that we had, and Blessing pulled some heavy weight.

The Pacts are worthy to showcase; they are just incredibly strong in a strategy like this. They are your catchall and can get rid of all the answers the opponents can play against you. It doesn’t matter that you can’t use them defensively as you can Angel’s Grace, as you are the clock. You shouldn’t need to stop them from winning, just to stop them from stopping you. To be able to handle cards like Spellskite, Dispel, Wild Nacatl, Tarmogoyf without breaking a sweat and for free is what makes the deck so consistent and rewarding when you assemble the combo.

Regarding the sideboard, it might look rough with its 4-4-4-3 structure, but I ensure you it’s not. We did try a huge amount of cards, and as the deck is so fast, you really want to have four of what you need, as you need it early.

Deathmark was there to give us time to set up the perfect opportunity against Zoo or make it remotely possible to beat Doran, the Siege Tower. Defense Grid was needed on turn four, and Sylvan Scrying was a substitute when you wanted more Inkmoth Nexuses and cut the more vulnerable Vector Asp and Glistener Elf. Also being a combo deck, you don’t want to sideboard too much unless necessary, so we wanted to make sure the cards mattered. Depending on how heavily Affinity is played, you have some slots to play around with.

We did test blue versions of the deck, but it always fell back to transmuting for combo pieces with Muddle the Mixture or Tolaria West, which were very slow, and much of the speed was lost. When you Spoils or Plunge for what you needed and it was not in the top 15-19 cards, it felt miserable to start casting Ponders and Preordains.

On a personal note, I really tried to go that way, as I was so much against the all-in feeling, and Ponder and Preordains didn’t have the same risk to them. Having access to Blighted Agent also solved a lot of the Affinity issues. Having counters like Spell Pierce when the format would largely be unknown was tempting, as it both protect your combo and also interacts and stops opponents’ plans. But in the end, the consistency of Glistener Elf and Nexus turn 1 and the brutal turn 2 and 3 kill rate won out, even for me. Still I’m very happy to see that Sam Black went all the way to semifinals with his well-tuned blue version of this strategy.

I won’t bother too much with the matches. But a minimized sample can give you a feeling of how the deck operates.

I started out by facing a fellow Scandinavian, Andreas Nordahl from Norway. Two turn-two kills. Andreas played five cards total between the two games: Island, Island, Halimar Depths, Dispel, and Ponder. His Dispel met a Pact of Negation, and that was that.

Next up was against Zoo. I led with: Pendelhaven, Glistener Elf. Opponent: Stomping Ground into Wild Nacatl. I played a Gemstone Mine and attacked; he thought in agony and blocked with it, and I make it a chump with Pendelhaven. Next up was a Kird Ape, same thing. With me having Inkmoth Nexus in play, he couldn’t cast his single removal, as he would be dead on Blazing Shoal if he didn’t keep it. Eventually I found Defense Grid and Pact of Negation to finish him off safely.

Round 4) Game 2 I was up 1-0 and met Splinter Twin: Opponent tapped out turn 2 for a Spellskite; on my turn 3 I had Slaughter Pact and just missing Blazing Shoal, I Spoiled for it while at 20 life, and it was the 22nd card, and I died. Onto game 3.

Half of the eight of us started 4-1 in the tournament, myself included, and the other half split between 3 and 2 wins. That brought the total matches won to 26 compared to 13 losses, a solid 65%. What was very stunning was that out of the 97 games we all played together day one of the event, we got 29 turn-two kills; that’s almost exactly 30% of the matches won in the blink of an eye! Against real opponents in a Pro Tour, trying their best to stop you.

And before some of you fellow readers points it out, yes we did really fail horribly in the drafts; that’s what we get for focusing so much on Modern. Not to mention we also started four weeks in advance with Extended before they changed the format, so you could say we are Constructed junkies and naively blame M12 Limited for our horrible draft record.

It’s hilarious how often we spent more time shuffling then playing the games, and consistently throughout the day, we saw each other being the first ones that finished, as the matches were several times fewer than fifteen minutes long.

My first nickname of the deck in our forum was Lunchbreaker, as the games were always so quick in testing and would give you plenty of time to eat in between rounds, and it was more than true. The deck is both vicious and simple to play and on the brink of unfun. In its different incarnations,it might warrant the banning of Blazing Shoal, but until then It’s Shoaltime!

Thank you for reading

Kenny Oberg


Bonus section:

The evening when we had dinner the day before Pro Tour Philadelphia, we set up a bunch of quests—hard-to-accomplish scenarios for the next day. And the requirement was that it must be the correct play to lead up to them. Here are those we did accomplish:

Hardcasting Reaper King (at least four times).
Killing without Blazing Shoal, both with and without infect.
Paying for the blue pact (20 lands, 6 blue sources in the deck).
Attacking with Greater Gargadon.
Bad Beat Quest: Losing with Spoils of the Vault with 15+ life two games in a row (Poor Per Nyström; it was his round one).

Some that we did not make:

Winning a match casting only two spells (we did get halfway with games won with only one spell, but that was not enough).

Winning a match where opponents cast zero spells, also known as playing a tapland or no other play turn 1. (Halfway here as well.) 

Honorable mention of a late quest accomplished on Magic Online. Turn two kill on a mulligan to three (courtesy of Elias Watsfeldt).

Some sideboard plans:


When you are on the play:

+4 Deathmark
-4 Vector Asp

On the draw:

+4 Deathmark + 4 Defense Grid +3 Sylvan Scrying
-4 Vector Asp -3 Glistener Elf -4 Spoils of the Vault


-4 Pact of Negation, or some Vector Asps, as they get worse with Kataki.
+4 Kataki, War’s Wage


+/- zero :)

Splinter Twin

+4 Defense Grid
-2 Apostle’s Blessing
-2 Vector Asp or -2 Progenitus