The vagaries of jet lag have really done a number on me, so this week’s effort might be shorter than usual. However, one of the decks in particular is so offbeat that I have a sneaking suspicion you might just forgive me.
There Has to Be Something Here…
Working a GP in Europe is often very different from working one in North America. The players and judges approach things differently, the expectations are vastly different, events tend to be smaller, and of course the metagame is different. When I judged GP London last year, I was surprised that not only was there a distinct Standard metagame in Europe, there was a judge one as well. However, this article is not really about judging, so let’s just leave it there.
Having caffeinated and consumed a traditional bacon butty, my first task of the day was to help get a 250-person Standard trial going. Mega-trials like this are rare in North America (I only known of one TO who does them regularly), but they appeal to the variance-seekers who want the better chance to play against less-skilled opponents that such events provide. They are usually five-round single-elimination affairs, with everyone who finishes 5-0 getting byes. As you might imagine, there was the usual smattering of G/W Tokens, Four-Color Rite, and Grixis Control decks along with the W/B Control deck Seth Manfield used to win GP New York, but in watching these decks, I noticed a couple of things:
I tell you, friends, with insights like this it’s a wonder I have yet to qualify for the Pro Tour. Or Day 2 of a GP. Or to win a Game Day. Okay, it might be a slightly obvious list, but bear with me. With Sylvan Advocate on two and the Tracker on three, what if we follow up with an on-curve Explosive Vegetation? Not only do we get two Clues, we instantly power up our Advocate and set ourselves up for a big turn 5. I definitely want to jam these two into some sort of ramp-ish deck that still has a chance to play aggressively.
With both creatures we want to hit being eligible for Collected Company, I want to try to jam Undergrowth Champion in here too. It blocks well, is all but immune to damage-based removal, and can get very large rather quickly. With Sylvan Advocate in the deck, we likely want to be blue or black along with green to make sure we get creature-lands to maximize the bonuses from our Elven friend.
It’s possible we don’t want to play Collected Company in order to enable a big top-end. Maybe that means The Gitrog Monster and World Breaker, along with Drownyard Temple for the synergies. Perhaps we look to red, essentially playing R/G Ramp with a more solid bottom end. That would also let us play Mina and Denn, Wildborn as another four-mana accelerant. No list to share here, just some food for thought.
On Saturday, I did meet someone playing their first-ever Grand Prix with a G/R Landfall deck that had a lot of these ideas in it. I am not sure how they finished the day, but I did see them dismantle the W/B Control deck that’s been all over the place since #GPNY. It ran both Blighted Woodland and Evolving Wilds as well as most of the cards we mentioned above, but I also saw Embodiment of Fury floating around. Not sure I want to go that deep, unless we go the Jund route.
Assault from Behind
One of the major tasks we have as judges at any level is simply to watch Magic. Aside from keeping us occupied between actual judge calls, this serves several purposes. We get to see the format in action, learning what cards and interactions will pop up and what questions we should expect. We get to correct issues that arise before the game progresses too far and the situation becomes impossible to repair. We also, occasionally, get to catch people cheating. A couple of the high-profile disqualifications and suspensions in recent months have been due to observant judges watching games of Magic and seeing something that looked wrong.
Don’t worry, judge friends. I am not about to talk about those disqualifications.
While watching one of these games of Magic, I saw a battlefield state consisting of two Tide Drifters, two Benthic Infiltrators, and a Mist Intruder. The graveyard had a Collected Company and a Void Grafter in it. Oh, and there was also one of these babies on the battlefield:
If you have never looked at that card and wished you could brew with it, I’m not sure we can be friends. A card that has the Doran, the Siege Tower effect, but is harder to destroy? It’s one-sided, you say? And it has a pump effect built in? Okay, we’re doing this. I don’t have the full list, but we’re going to come up with one now.
- 3 Sidisi's Faithful
- 4 Mist Intruder
- 4 Benthic Infiltrator
- 4 Tide Drifter
- 2 Void Attendant
- 4 Void Grafter
- 4 Sylvan Advocate
- 3 Blinding Drone
I’m not 100% on that manabase, but I do know I want to have a decent amount of colorless mana available to me. I’d love a way to more reliably find the Formation, but beggars can’t be choosers, can they? Blinding Drone provides a solid answer to Ormendahl, Profane Prince and Dragonlord Atarka, and we of course have a boatload of great blockers to handle any aggressive decks. We are actually running a full eight creatures with ingest, making Void Attendant quite a potent option later in the game.
The key to an Assault Formation deck has always been to find a way to build it that it isn’t unplayable without the namesake enchantment. Sure, we could run a bunch of creatures with defender to really pack a toughness punch, but then we just lose to any sort of enchantment removal. While we are certainly less powerful without it, the deck functions reasonably well without Assault Formation on the battlefield. Our sideboard does provide some options for decks that can remove or counter the Formation, bringing in some three-power creatures that provide value. Cards like Mizzium Meddler and Altered Ego are definitely changeable, though.
Counters! Counters Everywhere!
One of the main reasons I played Naya Human Company was due to the high power level of two Thalia’s Lieutenants hitting the battlefield simultaneously. When your whole team is Human, that’s a lot of counters being spread around. The Bant Humans list that evolved from Bant Company (and, I like to think, my list linked above) made full use of this interaction while also getting to play Sigarda, Heron’s Grace to protect the troops.
To the surprise of virtually nobody, I am not satisfied at just getting two Lieutenants at once. No, we have to go deeper. My friend Roger played Mono-White Humans at GP Toronto, with the maindeck tech of Eerie Interlude to avoid sweepers. A spell that lets us exile all our creatures and have them come back together, triggering Thalia’s Lieutenant multiple times? Oh, I am all about it. If we happen to have any tokens around, we can choose not to blink them (or any other creatures we want to keep around) thanks to the wording of Eerie Interlude.
Oh, we’re not done there. Know what else I learned this weekend while watching someone play a G/W Humans deck? Servant of the Scale is a Human. I know, right! Avatar of the Resolute, sadly, is not. We’re playing it anyway, though, because the deck just sings with them. We still get to play staples like Tireless Tracker, Thraben Inspector, and maybe even Reflector Mage in here too. Hey, look, more Humans!
Poor, Unloved Bombs
It seems I latch onto one powerful rare or mythic every season that just doesn’t see enough play, and I try to make it work. Last time around it was Alesha, Who Smiles at Death (and I haven’t given up) and she often teamed up with this season’s card: Drana, Liberator of Malakir.
Well, Drana was in need of a new friend after rotation, and it seems she has found a soul(less) mate in Olivia, Mobilized for War. Both of these cards are too powerful to be lounging in trade binders. There’s a R/B aggro deck we can be playing right now, and I would bet it’s pretty darn good too. I did see someone doing quite well with a version that included the above two Vampiric ladies along with Hangarback Walker, Forerunner of Slaughter, Asylum Visitor, and some burn spells. I think the mistake a lot of people made in their early testing of the Level 0 R/B Vampires deck was trying to jam too many Vampires in there to take advantage of the obvious power level of Falkenrath Gorger. While we can certainly get some value there, we might want to look instead at a more balanced approach.
What else is not seeing the right amount of play? I am positive that Oath of Gideon could be doing more than it is. That extra loyalty kick is very real, and the two tokens are far from trivial. With the embarrassment of riches we have right now in the planeswalker department, there has to be a deck out there somewhere that can make use of Oath of Gideon. I saw it on the battlefield exactly once this past weekend, but it enabled a Sorin, Grim Nemesis to destroy The Gitrog Monster right away and live to tell the tale.
Atarka’s Command was a dreaded card before rotation, and it still is in Modern. I find it hard to believe we can’t find a home for this powerful modal spell in one of the many token builds floating around. Given how grindy the G/W Tokens mirror seems to be, I would have thought the ability to go one above your opponent at instant speed could make all the difference. Not to mention the oh-so-seldom-used mode to put a land onto the battlefield and the implications that has with a surprise Westvale Abbey. Yeah, go ahead and reread that line. The land is untapped. Ding. Surprise Ormendahl is the best kind of Ormendahl, and if we also choose the “opponent cannot gain life” mode, we can block theirs with ours and end up approximately a billion miles ahead.
Adding red to G/W Tokens would also allow us to play Arlinn Kord in the deck, a card that just has too many abilities to go unplayed. Sure, she can be vulnerable at times, but as a follow-up to a Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, she can shore up your defenses and then immediately transform to threaten a big Anthem effect on your next turn. And if we’re talking mirror matches, that trample can be huge.
One card I saw in an Esper Control deck sitting at X-1 was Confirm Suspicions. At first I was confused as to how that card was in a winning deck, since I am relatively certain I have never considered it playable. The more I thought about it, though, the more I think it can be amazing as a one- or two-of in a hard control deck. These decks often run 27 or 28 lands, so don’t balk at a five-mana spell that essentially also draws you three cards. Don’t sleep on this one.
At this point, I have worked a lot of Grands Prix. Until this weekend though, they had all been for North American organizers who (largely) do things the same way. This was my first one for a European organizer and many things felt different, from the high proportion of women in the event to the narrower aisles between tables. Some of these changes didn’t feel like they would translate well across the Atlantic, but a couple were worth trying for sure.
One of the more striking things was the sheer diversity in judges. Although North American GPs will often attract judges from overseas, this event had far more from far more countries. We had an Estonian, a Lithuanian, some Poles, a Finn, some Greeks, Italians, French and Spanish judges, and of course the expected English and Irish judges. That’s not even close to an exhaustive list. The opportunity to learn about their approach to both judging and the game itself was very valuable and rewarding.
I also learned that I really want business cards to give to people playing sweet brews in these events. “Hey, sweet deck, here’s my card. Would you mind emailing me your list so I can write about it?” So often I have seen decks doing fun things, only to realize I had nothing close to the full list that I wanted so badly. Definitely worth a try.
I want to leave you with one important lesson I learned. Quite often at a GP, we will have a player or players request fixed seating, for any number of reasons. This request is almost always granted, as we should all know by now how committed Wizards of the Coast and tournament organizers are to making tournaments accessible to all, like Brandon Burton. We had a player this weekend in a wheelchair with a specially designed rack to hold his cards and someone to shuffle and play them for him. As inspiring as it is to see players with that sort of physical challenge playing our game at the highest open level, one other player is overcoming an even bigger (in my mind) challenge when it comes to Magic.
He is blind.
This player was in fixed seating in my area of the floor, so I got to watch him quite a bit. The more I watched, the more the enormity of his effort dawned on me. Aside from the expense of getting his sleeves and tokens imprinted with Braille, he had to become adept at reading and remembering the cards in his hand, on his side of the battlefield, and in his graveyard incredibly quickly. He does not have the luxury of recognizing artwork that we do. He has to ask his opponent to tell him in detail the plays they are making. He runs the risk of opponents just flat out cheating because he can’t watch them. Perhaps the most mindblowing thing, though, is that this guy has to remember the entire battlefield state each turn. I just cannot fathom the brainpower that must take. How much must he love this game to put so much effort into just being able to play?
As always, friends, thanks for stopping by. Next week the travel should have stopped, so I will have an article for you that I have wanted to write for a while. Until next time…