Modern Resolutions

2014 Players’ Champion Brad Nelson fell just short of #SCGPC glory this year, but he’s now ready to open up about his difficulties with Modern and his solidified deck choice for the big Modern Open at #SCGCIN!

Like clockwork, we are once again at the last day of the year. Most individuals take this time to reflect on the year freshly behind them to better evaluate what steps to take on their journey into the unknown. This might have been my fate as well on this most significant day for reflection, but oddly enough I spent all that energy the week prior while I waited for Santa to gift me with his presence.

Last week was a rough one for me. It had been a while since a tournament knocked me on my butt as hard as the #SCGPC did. I was so close to a perfect tournament. I did almost everything correctly. My Modern and Legacy decks were perfectly metagamed for the field. I sliced through both those fields as easily as a lightsaber through a wrist. After seeing all the decklists, I would have been comfortable in any combination of bracket. That was the easiest part oddly enough. No, my downfall would come in my field of expertise. I never thought in a million years that my undoing in this event would be Standard.

I played the wrong deck, played it poorly, and was severely punished. I watched the replays in insurmountable humiliation as over and over again I took the wrong line against Jim Davis in game 1 and got punished for my incompetence. I’ve never seen myself play Standard with this level of ineptitude before. I didn’t and still don’t know why I played so poorly or chose to ignore my gut in deck decision and instead go with the deck people around me liked more. I deserved to lose, but I didn’t want to do it by punting so badly for the World to see. For days I cowered in fear that my horrific plays would be discovered by the masses, and this constant paranoia kept me from writing about the event or even playing any Magic. The only way I could move forward from the event was to ignore it and Magic for a couple days.

Thankfully, Star Wars came out and I was introduced to the wonderful world of “The Force.” Now, I had never seen a Star Wars movie before this new release, but that all changed after my first theatrical experience with this World. I instantly bought the other six movies and devoured them. I could have easily borrowed them from friends, and I even had someone want to make a double date out of this experience, but at the time the dark side had taken too much hold over me. I was frustrated, angry, scared, and all those other emotions that don’t do anything positive thanks to my near-miss at the #SCGPC. These movies brought me back from the brink and made me realize my world wasn’t ending because of those mistakes. It’s never too late to throw the evil Sith Lord that’s corrupting your thoughts off the railing. I wasn’t the chosen one, and now I can finally accept it.

Bouncing back from the event was easier than I thought. My last adventure out of Roanoke was #GPPitt, which was (for those keeping track) about a billion days ago. I’m starting to get restless just sitting in town! Luckily, The SCG Tour® is going to Cincinnati this weekend, which will easily be the best tournament of 2016 to date! I wasn’t planning on going to this event a few weeks back leading up to the #SCGPC since Pro Points will be getting in the way of me trying to qualify for the third year in a row, but I changed my tune once I heard Gerry Thompson would be in attendance on his way to moving back to Roanoke. That, and the fact that I probably should be focusing on Modern with #PTOGW coming up in the next month.

Preparing for #SCGCIN is rather easy since my plan is to simply run back the same archetype I played in the #SCGPC. I’m guessing many people thought my process for picking the deck for that event revolved around taking the Lightning Bolts out of my Jund deck and replacing them with Path to Exiles, but the process was much more complex than that. In actuality I tested around ten different archetypes until resting on Abzan. I worked on my weakest format and ended up coming to a rational conclusion that Abzan might just be the best deck in the format. Not just for the metagame I predicted in the #SCGPC but for an open field as well.

It’s always difficult to claim something is the best when in the position that I’m in. A strong sense of responsibility comes over me as a content producer when making bold claims that could impact people’s decisions. It’s one of the reasons that I rarely do it anymore. A younger Brad Nelson would constantly make hyperbolic claims about the things he was passionate about regardless of legitimacy. With years of experience behind me, I have now realized that the respect my fans give me should be given back to them tenfold. They are the people trusting me with their tournament lives, causing mistakes I make to cost them events and time. I now tend to only plant my flags when the ground is stable. Or at least when I confidently think it is so.

So now we get to why I think Abzan is the best deck. I guess the first thing we should discuss is why I have gone to the dark side and given up on my beloved Jund–turned my back on #JUNDGUY. The red counterparts to the BG/x archetype in Modern used to be far superior to the white ones, and it wasn’t really close. The turning of the tide was a slow process, but it’s happened.

The biggest reason for this shift is the printing of Kolaghan’s Command. Initially it seemed like this card would go perfectly in Jund, which is does, but it found an even better home in Grixis strategies thanks to how well it works with Snapcaster Mage. Not only does this two-card combo demolish Jund heads-up in the fight for resource advantage, but it also makes Grixis a much more high impact deck against the strategies Jund was trying to prey on in the first place. Grixis Control is just a better version of Jund whether we like it or not.

The other major reason that solidifies Abzan being superior to Jund is the necessity for Path to Exile right now. Lightning Bolt is much better than Path to Exile against aggressive strategies since the extra land allows them to have an even greater tempo advantage, but it doesn’t hold a candle to it when trying to take down cards like Primeval Titan, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, and Wurmcoil Engine.

I could go on and on about the little intricacies on this subject, but that would take more time than it is worth. Suffice it to say that Abzan is better, Willy Edel is always correct, and #JUNDGUY is no more.

So even if Abzan is superior to Jund, that doesn’t make it the best deck in the format. What does make it the best is how the metagame is currently positioned. Abzan Company, Merfolk, Scapeshift, Grixis Twin, and W/B Tokens are all played in low numbers. All five of these decks are difficult matchups for Abzan, but that doesn’t matter when they are a very small portion of the metagame. Modern is easily the most matchup-dependent format out there, which makes picking good metagame calls highly rewarding as long as you know how to play the deck you choose.

I’m guessing this is the reason why there aren’t more Amulet Bloom decks running around–also a bad matchup. It does have one of the highest win percentages in the format, but it is also the most difficult deck to pilot. It’s pretty funny that I have seen more players screw up and lose with the deck on camera than I have seen play well and win. I even tried to pick up the deck in preparation for the #SCGPC but quickly realized that the 60 cards in my hands were smarter than I was and abandoned ship after a day.

Players tend to play it safe when it comes to deck choice and more often than not, keep playing the same thing they know and own even if there are shifts that should be concerning. Now, we do see things shift, but on a much slower timeline than in Standard. I’m not saying these decks should be seeing more play right now, but that predicting metagames is much easier in this format than others. In fact, these decks aren’t great choices since even when they are good against Abzan, that isn’t the case for the other highly played decks: Burn, Affinity, U/R Twin, Grixis Control, Jund, Abzan, Zoo, Amulet Bloom, Infect, and G/R Tron. We all know that Modern is filled with roughly 50 different archetypes, but these ten decks make up about 50% of the field.

Not all of these matchups are generally great for Abzan in the abstract. Burn, Zoo, Amulet Bloom, and G/R Tron are all considered negative percentage matchups. This is when the fun part of metagaming begins! We are able to do some interesting things to our deck thanks to these ten decks making up half the field. Modern has an extensive pool of cards to work with, making it easy to find cards that stack up well against multiple different decks. Many of those cards have been discovered, but thanks to innovative decks like Lantern Control, players are proving that discovery and learning will never cease in this format as long as you try new things and get creative.

That last statement might make it seem like I have found some amazing cards for Abzan that shore up all weak spots of the deck. I haven’t. In fact, most of my technology has been passed down by the granddaddy of Abzan himself, Willy Edel. The point I’m trying to make is you can capitalize on multiple bad decks stacking up in similar ways. I don’t think I have to hang the fruit so low that I need to describe why Fulminator Mage is a sideboard card that overlaps against both G/R Tron and Amulet Bloom while also being applicable against Affinity, Infect, and even the G/B/x Midrange matchups. Bad matchups begin to become less of an issue when there are hateful spells that line up against many of them at the same time.

Excluding these four matchups shows that Abzan is favored against the other five most highly played decks. Abzan can mitigate the bad matchups that are popular by going the extra mile and solidifying the sideboard with cards that line up well against the good popular matchups as well as the bad ones. The entire 75 becomes a melting pot of well- positioned cards across the top half of the field, making me believe it is the best deck in the format. So what are those 75 cards I’m deciding to play this weekend at #SCGCIN?

Those educated in the way of the Abzan will quickly realize this list is extremely similar to what Willy Edel played in #GPPITT and close to what I played in the #SCGPC. Having a good list doesn’t always mean you have to stray from the known, but just identifying what works and what doesn’t is huge.

My list from the #SCGPC had a few cards in the sideboard dedicated at overlapping against Grixis Control, G/B/x mirrors, and Zoo-based burn decks since it would be much easier to properly predict the metagame. Since this weekend will not be just me and fourteen of my closest buddies (Jim Davis is now off the list), I had to cut the Sorin, Solemn Visitor as well as the Bitterblossom.

I still want an answer to Keranos, God of Storms, but that has changed to Dromoka’s Command for the weekend. Both Celestial Purge and Dromoka’s Command overlap in the areas that justify their inclusion in the deck since they both handle Blood Moon and Keranos, God of Storms as well as act as a backdoor answer to the Splinter Twin combo. What sets them apart is the more fringe applications they have.

Celestial Purge is a better choice against Jund since they run a high density of difficult to answer threats like Dark Confidant, Raging Ravine, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang. Dromoka’s Command fits the bill when you are looking for a counterspell against Burn style decks as well as its amazing synergy with Kitchen Finks. It’s also serviceable against Merfolk since it deals with Master of Waves and kills a Spreading Seas that is allowing safe passage through a field of giant green monsters.

One card I would have liked to try out in the sideboard is Leyline of the Void. It’s obviously amazing against any graveyard-based deck, but it is also the trump sometimes needed against Grixis Control. That matchup is pretty favorable, and since there’s minimal graveyard decks roaming the fields, I’ve decided to choose to ignore those strategies and hope to not run into them. That’s the wonderful and scary world of Modern we live in.

Now this list is nowhere perfect nor should you take my word as gospel. Modern has always been one of my more difficult formats, but due to this I have put in a lot of work trying to become better at it. Since then I haven’t finished worse than 12-3 in my last five Grand Prix, but I have also not broken into a Top 8 either. There is still much to learn about this format, and I’m pretty sure that will never change.

Disagree if you’d like. It’s always possible you’re right and I’m wrong.

Like I said at the beginning of the article, mistakes will always be a part of this game, and no one that plays it will escape their dreaded grasp. You will never play a perfect tournament, nor will you play a perfect match. Magic is complex, which is most likely the reason you dedicate your time to it. To always be searching for more accomplishments and more road to travel. No end in sight.

I have one goal for next year related to Magic and it has been the same one I’ve had for many years. I find setting concrete goals to be foolish in a game of competition and variance. Your goals for next year should not include statements like qualifying for the #SCGPC, a Pro Tour, Top 8’ing a Grand Prix, or anything like that. Those may or may not come regardless of effort. Validation should be an internal experience.

Your one and only goal based around this game should be to never stop learning, to understand that there is no graduation and that you are always a student of the game. Accept that mistakes will happen no matter what but that they are only as severe as the lack of attention you give to them. Don’t let your default mode be bitterness and deflection. Own your shortcomings and grow from them. Focus on being better in any way you can instead of reveling in highlight reels. The moment you think you’re good is also the moment you have to start all over again. You just won’t know it yet.

I hope you have a wonderful and safe New Year’s, and I look forward to starting yet another year’s journey with you all. I’ll see you in #SCGCIN!