Modern After The Pro Tour

After writing about preparing for Modern at Pro Tour Born of the Gods yesterday, Sam shifts focus to what he expects the field to look like this weekend at Grand Prix Richmond.

GP Richmond

In my last article, I focused on my work and thoughts leading up to Pro Tour Born of the Gods rather than my thoughts coming out of it or my expectations for this weekend at Grand Prix Richmond. Today I’m going to discuss just that.

There’s already a wealth of excellent data analysis and other great advice from Patrick Chapin and Ari Lax. The core message is simple: at Pro Tour Born of the Gods, combo was the place to be. This is not terrible new for Modern. In fact, it’s been that way since the beginning, as Pro Tour Philadelphia, the first Modern Pro Tour, was dominated by combo.

However, I would suggest that the trend we’ve seen is that combo has consistently been much stronger at Pro Tours in Modern than at Grand Prix and that there’s reason to believe that trend will continue. That’s obviously the key message that I need to unpack, which involves understanding why things play out that way in the first place.

Pro Tours always happen after some big change, like a new set or a change to the banned list. Pro Tours also feature the most innovation aside from that, as more people and even more importantly more big groups are putting dedicated efforts into trying to do something new to break the format. GPs have always incentivized and rewarded innovation less than PTs, instead rewarding players who make a good choice for the metagame, tune their deck well, and play it well.

This means the PT is a more open and unexpected field. When you don’t know what to expect, the best thing to do is do something powerful yourself, ideally something more powerful than your opponents. This generally means having the fastest, most consistent, most resilient, or least expected combo deck. There are other ways to be proactive and powerful, but they are rarely going to outperform whichever combo deck ends up being best suited for the tournament.

If everyone else was just going to play the best decks from Pro Tour Born of the Gods, something like Infect would be a reasonable choice. It’s the fastest combo deck, and it’s easy to disrupt but great at beating other people who just want to race. Interestingly, Infect wouldn’t have been a good choice for the PT because there were a lot of Zoo decks and control decks that would have been very good against it; they just weren’t the best performing decks.

However, Grand Prix Richmond won’t just consist of players choosing a combo deck that did well at the PT. Those combo decks are likely bad choices, especially Storm, the best performing of them, because now people understand that they have to respect Storm. So rather than playing it themselves, they’ll just bring hate, and Storm can’t reliably beat hate. What this means is that while there was once a winner’s metagame that Infect might have been good against, there is never actually a tournament in that cycle where Infect is actually a good deck to play. It’s interesting how that works out.

With everyone trying to beat combo, they’ll have less room for the abundance of hate cards for Zoo that were extremely popular in Valencia, like Threads of Disloyalty and Anger of the Gods. Those cards will still show up a lot because they were successful at the PT, meaning anyone copying a deck will have them, but I expect everyone to trim a little of that kind of card to make room for more dedicated combo hate.

I don’t know that Zoo will be the best performing deck in Richmond, but I definitely expect it to do substantially better than it did in Valencia.

My first instinct about Zoo is that I’d want to play a version that tries to beat combo more than it tries to beat other creature decks—I’d want to be fast rather than big, and I’d consider having access to Thoughtseize. But of course that’s thinking like I’m going to play against the winning decks from the PT. This would be similar to playing Infect, and it’s likely a mistake. It all depends on how much you expect people to adjust. I just think people feel more comfortable trying to beat last week’s deck than hopping on, especially when it’s so obvious that last week’s deck is beatable.

One thing to note though is that after Pro Tour Theros I expected everyone to have a lot of hate for Mono-Blue Devotion, the most successful deck of the tournament, and when I played in the first Standard GP after the PT, I was shocked by how little people adjusted. Now, Modern is different because it’s much easier to figure out how to hate a deck like Storm than it is to hate a deck like Mono-Blue Devotion, but I’d guess for any less obvious or less dominant combo deck, the reactions probably won’t be that extreme.

So with all this in mind, the decks I recommend and the decks I expect to do the best are fair decks that have a plan against Zoo and combo decks from Pro Tour Born of the Gods. I don’t expect large numbers of cool decks that we didn’t see there, so I think the targets are pretty clear.

The hate that I’d be looking to incorporate more of is graveyard hate that keeps graveyards empty—not Grafdigger’s Cage, Surgical Extraction, or Tormod’s Crypt. I’d want Relic of Progenitus, Leyline of the Void, and Rest in Peace. Ethersworn Canonist and Rule of Law are also good. These cards, both graveyard hate and the one spell limit cards, are the best ways to fight both Storm and Living End, and Rule of Law even has potential applications against Splinter Twin since it makes it impossible for them to protect their combo (with spells, as they can still play Spellskite).

The place I’d start with in terms of using these hate cards is Reid Duke’s G/B deck, which I listed in my last article but will put here again for reference. It seems like a good choice, especially with the addition of Leyline of the Void to help against Storm and Living End, both of which might otherwise be difficult matchups.

This is a deck that has a great matchup against Zoo, which I expect to continue to be a real concern, as well as plans against the major combo decks. It also just looks to me like the kind of deck that wins Grand Prix.

Another reasonable approach might be to just play a deck very similar to Shaun McLaren’s PT-winning deck. It’s not a deck that’s easy to hate, and the hype from the tournament is focused on other decks despite Shaun’s win. How bad can it be to play a PT-winning deck that no one really seems interested in adjusting to in a format that is likely to shift back to containing the exact kinds of decks this deck is trying to beat in the first place? More importantly, it’s a powerful deck that doesn’t necessarily care that much where the format goes—it’s full of cheap and versatile answers and expects that some of them will be suboptimal in the first game, but it’s already set up to be flexible enough to account for anything in the following games. Having a better idea of what to expect can only help matters.

If this deck were less focused on using Snapcaster Mage, I’d definitely want Rest in Peace. As is, that’s likely not the best way to go. Instead I’d consider a Rule of Law or two, which is admittedly just as awkward with Snapcaster Mage, but I think it’s more backbreaking when you want it. I’m also a little surprised that Shaun didn’t play any Combust, which helps against opposing Restoration Angel, Celestial Colonnade, Knight of the Reliquary, and Loxodon Smiter, which are most of the creatures that are likely to have enough toughness to survive Lightning Bolt or Lightning Helix. More importantly it’s a great answer against Splinter Twin, but it’s the incidental utility in other places that puts it over the top for me.

I could also see Suppression Field in a deck like this, though I know it’s been around forever and isn’t often played here. I suspect that’s because it’s a "soft answer" that only really delays your problems, which could very well be a legitimately damning concern.

As I think more about my expectations, even the Big Zoo deck I played might be a reasonable choice for this tournament. It’s terrible against Burn, but I don’t see any reason to expect Burn to be popular since I think it’s fairly soft to all the decks that performed well at the PT. (Okay, maybe just most of them. It’s definitely good against Living End for example.) Plus it didn’t do well itself. Against other combo it’s a little soft game one, but it can get Zoo-like starts and it has enough removal to have a reasonable matchup against Splinter Twin and Melira Pod.

I expect Zoo to put up a substantial presence, and Big Zoo will still be great against that. I liked the deck a lot against the fair reactive control decks I’m recommending, as it just has a lot of power and cards that are difficult to answer. I think I’d change a few things moving forward, but I could definitely recommend something like:

Thinking about Shaun McLaren’s deck as well as the prevalence of Anger of the Gods in general made me really want the third Loxodon Smiter, so I cut a Thundermaw Hellkite for that. I could almost see cutting Birds of Paradise for the other. I also cut the second Sacred Foundry for a Mountain, which is a change I wanted to make before the PT but Owen insisted was bad. In the tournament, I found myself wanting Mountain and not the second Sacred Foundry, as I suspected, so for now I’m sticking with my intuition that the Mountain is better. It doesn’t have much to do with the metagame; I just think the deck is generically better that way.

In the sideboard, I cut Batterskull for the second Thrun, the Last Troll. This is how things were until the morning of the PT, and I really like Thrun against Zoo and the blue decks and think Batterskull is too tricky to resolve. I like overloading on uncounterable cards against the Restoration Angel decks like Thrun, Loxodon Smiter, and Combust.

I also cut the two copies of Blood Moon for a second Rule of Law and a Back to Nature. Blood Moon was intended as a catchall that is particularly good against decks like Faeries, G/R Tron, and Scapeshift, which I’m not especially concerned about in the format as I expect it for Richmond. At the same time Auras and Storm proved to be real threats that I think we can expect to see again, so I’d rather tune the hate that way. I’d be open to cutting Shatterstorm as well if there is some particular hate card you really want to add for some reason.

When all is said and done, remarkably I think I expect the field in Richmond to resemble the day 1 field at the PT more than the winning decks at the PT, but it won’t quite be like either of them. I think my primary advice is to caution against overreacting to anything, even the rise of hate. For someone like Jon Finkel, who knows Storm very well and has relatively little experience with other decks, I’d recommend Storm again. There will be more hate than there was, but realistically there can’t be that much more hate. Sideboards in Modern just don’t have that much room, and everyone can justify not changing much because they "know" most people will be too scared of hate to show up with Storm again anyway.

At the end of the day, Grand Prix Richmond is not just a Modern tournament; it’s a huge Modern tournament, and that means the field is going to be diverse. The most important thing in this format has been and will continue to be playing a deck you’re comfortable and familiar with, knowing your matchups, and keeping up with recent results and trends to know what to expect from your opponents. Play smart and don’t overreact.

GP Richmond