Thanks, Gatewatch

The Gatewatch had one job! Brian Kibler is infuriated that they let the Eldrazi crash the Pro Tour, but he’s not giving up hope yet! The hero we need may not be Gideon or Nissa or Jace; it may be The Dragonmaster!

Grand Prix Washington, DC: March 11-13!

The Gatewatch sure did a bang-up job, didn’t they?

The sole storyline to come out of Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch in Atlanta is the absolute dominance of the Eldrazi, from the CFB/FtF colorless Eldrazi deck putting three members into the Top 8 and ten in the Top 25 to the East-West Bowl victory with U/R Eldrazi in the hands of Jiachen Tao. As an archetype, Eldrazi outperformed every other deck by such an enormous amount that social media has been abuzz with rumors of emergency bans since Pro Tour Sunday.

Let’s just slow down a second and breathe, okay?

Yes, Eldrazi crushed the Pro Tour. The deck’s results were far and away better than anything else in the tournament. But at least part of that success came from the fact that virtually no one showed up prepared, and few even really knew what they were up against until it was too late.

Prior to last weekend, most people thought of Eldrazi decks as a kind of ramp strategy and likely sought to combat them with the same kind of cards they might play against G/R Tron, like Fulminator Mage, Tectonic Edge, or Crumble to Dust. That’s if they bothered to come prepared with any real plan at all. When the Eldrazi decks that actually showed up at the Pro Tour were playing 4/4s on turn 2 and 5/5s with haste on turn 3, those anti-G/R Tron cards did absolutely nothing to help them.

I almost played Eldrazi myself. The group that I prepared with (including Gerry Thompson, Brad Nelson, Brian Braun-Duin, Seth Manfield, Chris Fennell, Steve Rubin, Ross Merriam, Michael Majors, and Seth Manfield) was very much split on what they wanted to play in the final few days leading up to the event, mostly between Infect and Reckless Bushwhacker Zoo. Brian Braun-Duin and I were slowly making progress on a monoblack Eldrazi list that we were each playing independently in Leagues on Magic Online. We’d been paring down the list from a midrange B/W Processor build into something leaner and more aggressive, but we were running out of time.

We only started testing with Eldrazi Mimic on Tuesday before the Pro Tour, at the suggestion of Ross Merriam. From there, we began stripping out the more awkward elements of the deck, like Blight Herder and eventually Relic of Progenitus and Wasteland Strangler.

Chat with BBD Part 1

We found Endless One not long after Mimic, which improved the deck’s ability to be proactive dramatically by offering a flexible drop for any stage of the game, as well as a powerful tool to help enable Mimic. But we continued to be mired with leftover issues from the previous build that we hadn’t quite moved away from yet, namely actually playing colored spells and thus needing colored mana rather than utility lands.

Chat with BBD Part 2

I could certainly tell that there was something powerful there, but I couldn’t quite get it to come together. I was struggling to beat the hyper-aggressive linear decks like Burn, Infect, and Affinity, which I expected to make up a huge portion of the Pro Tour field, and finding myself flooding out too often against other midrange-style decks. While I wished I had more time left to work on it, I abandoned Eldrazi on Wednesday before the Pro Tour. My final list looked something like this:

Once I had finally given up on getting the Eldrazi deck to work, I had to figure out what I was actually going to play. My fallback deck, amusingly enough, was the exact deck I’d played at the Modern Pro Tour last year: Abzan Aggro.

I expected a metagame similar to that of the previous Modern PT, with the exception of Splinter Twin. Abzan Aggro is quite strong against any other “fair” strategies, since it can play an excellent attrition game thanks to Lingering Souls in particular but also Kitchen Finks, Voice of Resurgence, and Gavony Township. On top of that, it has the potential to present a very fast clock with big, cheap threats backed up by Wilt-Leaf Liege, which is enough to beat just about any Modern deck if it stumbles just a little bit.

I considered playing Zoo, which is excellent against Affinity and Infect and has decent game against the other midrange decks in the field, but Naya is terrible against Burn and worse than Abzan against many of the combo decks like Scapeshift, since at least Abzan has access to Thoughtseize. I thought that Burn would make up a significant percentage of the metagame and I wanted to have a good matchup with it rather than a miserable one. I was also concerned about Relic of Progenitus out of Processor Eldrazi and G/R Tron and didn’t want to rely on Knight of the Reliquary and Tarmogoyfs as my major threats in a format with a lot of incidental graveyard hate.

Besides the fear of Relic, my assessment of the metagame was pretty accurate. Affinity, Burn, and Infect were the three most-played decks, with G/B/X actually taking the third-place slot if you lump Jund and Abzan together. All of those are at least reasonable matchups for Abzan Aggro, assuming you bring enough sideboard hate for Affinity. And I did.

Here’s what I played:

If you’re keeping track, that’s literally two cards off in the maindeck from the list I played last year at Pro Tour Fate Reforged. I swapped one Siege Rhino for a Qasali Pridemage and one Loxodon Smiter for a Kitchen Finks in anticipation of more Affinity and Burn and fewer Remand decks. My sideboard this year was drastically different with a lot more attention paid to Affinity and a lot less to Splinter Twin. Go figure.

I was pretty happy with the list going into the event, and I still like it in retrospect, though I obviously would have rather ended up finding one of the great versions of Eldrazi instead.

My record in the Pro Tour itself was brought down a great deal by my Draft record, which was a resoundingly poor 1-5. I failed to pick up a win in the first draft with a deck that was stretching for playables. I’d had by far my most success in my practice drafts with B/W, which influenced my decision to try to stick with those colors for what was certainly too long after they’d dried up and other colors were open. I got punished with a poor third pack, and while two of my matches were quite close – once I got my opponent to one life when I exactly died his next turn, and I was similarly short on damage before my opponent played Kozilek, the Great Distortion to lock me out in the other – I ultimately ended up winless.

I even lost my first round of Modern to Merfolk to put me to 0-4 and I thought I was in for a short tournament, but I managed to rally and win four straight against two Jund decks, a G/B Eldrazi deck, and a Mardu deck in order to make Day 2. Sadly, my results there weren’t much better, and I only managed to put up a 1-2 finish in the Draft portion with a deck that felt much better than that. I lost a close match to Infect and then finally got blown out by Kenji Tsumura’s Grishoalbrand deck before I dropped from the tournament.

While my Constructed record wasn’t anything special this time, I clearly need to improve on my Draft results if I want to find myself in contention for future Pro Tour finishes worth mentioning. I have to say that Luis Scott-Vargas’s finish this weekend had me feeling a little jealous, since it means he passed me in lifetime Top 8s with six to my five. Given that his last Sunday appearance outside the booth before this was in 2011, I think I’m due soon, since my last Top 8 was my win in Hawaii in 2012. I’m certainly going to re-evaluate how I’m approaching my preparation for the remaining Pro Tours this year, because I’d love to tie that up again and maybe even come out with my third win.

But for now, there are more immediate concerns, like how in the world to beat all of these Eldrazi.

Amusingly enough, I actually think Abzan Aggro may be a reasonable contender. I have not tested against the Top 8 builds specifically, but I found that in my testing leading up to the event and against the Eldrazi deck I played in the Pro Tour, I certainly didn’t feel like a major underdog. Both Voice of Resurgence and Lingering Souls are quite good against decks looking to attack on the ground with big creatures, and your creatures like Siege Rhino similarly match up well size-wise against Thought-Knot Seer.

One of the most amusing interactions in the matchup, though, is between Reality Smasher and the anti-discard abilities of Loxodon Smiter and Wilt-Leaf Liege. If you play something like Path to Exile or Dismember on a Reality Smasher, you can use the discard trigger to put one of your giant monsters onto the battlefield for free. They may be the ones with the two-mana lands, but that kind of tempo swing can certainly help you keep up.

I actually want to revisit Zoo as well. I expect the success of Eldrazi is likely to push a lot of the Burn out of the metagame, and I think Wild Nacatl and friends may have a decent shot against the Eldrazi overlords.

Wild Nacatl itself matches up poorly against Matter Reshaper and Thought-Knot Seer, but it can help punish the life loss from Phyrexian mana use while Knight of the Reliquary outsizes the rest. Blood Moon out of the sideboard may also help slow them down, if not nearly lock them out. But maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to play Naya again…

As for other cards that line up well against Eldrazi:

I’m actually curious if some kind of U/W Control deck might not be a horrible thing to try, with things like Wall of Omens and Kitchen Finks to slow down the ground assault, plus Snapcaster Mage, Restoration Angel, Wrath of God, and the like for value. I was actually toying with the idea of a U/W Aether Vial deck briefly, since I wanted to play with Flickerwisp and value cards like Wall of Omens and Spreading Seas, and it sure is nice to Flickerwisp an Endless One.

You know there’s something weird going on in a format when I’m talking about playing a U/W deck.

But the sky isn’t falling. While the Eldrazi decks are certainly extremely powerful, they’re still essentially midrange creature decks in the end. Of course, they’re midrange creature decks with eight painless Ancient Tombs, which definitely makes things more difficult, but they’re not unbeatable. Oh, and they’re full of colorless cards, so there aren’t really any hate cards against them, and their best cards are lands but all the land destruction is too expensive to really work against them…

The sky may not be falling, but the Eldrazi sure do cast a long shadow across it.

And just think, Emrakul is still out there somewhere!

Grand Prix Washington, DC: March 11-13!