The Season Two Invitational And The State Of Modern

Brian reflects on what could have been at the Season Two Invitational – and what Modern could be with just a little more careful maintenance of the format to remove the cards that enable long-standing degenerate issues in the format.

Last weekend featured the first SCG Invitational using the Modern format and also the second SCG Modern Open. Both events were enormous. It was the largest Invitational of all time, and I’m not sure on exact details, but it was at the very least close to being the largest SCG Open under the new structure, if not the straight-up the largest. The conclusion to draw here is simple: people care about Modern. Modern may even be more popular than Standard right now, and I embrace that. It is great for Magic to have a format that allows people to play older cards but that is still accessible enough for newer players to get into.

Modern may not be as good of a format as Legacy is, but it’s certainly a lot more affordable and available to more players. And saying that Legacy is better is also just a pure judgment call. I personally believe Legacy is superior, but there are a lot of people who are able to afford Legacy decks and still feel like Modern is a better format.

The point is that Modern is a big deal. It’s here to stay, and it’s something we should care about if playing Magic competitively is relevant to us. There are going to be a lot of Modern events.

I actually enjoy playing Modern, and the fact that Modern events are drawing bigger crowds than Standard events warms the icy cold nether-cockles of my heart. Standard is in a good place right now, but as a format, I simply prefer the more powerful things you can do in Modern… well, generally speaking that is. It seems like quite a few Magic players agree, at least if we’re looking solely at tournament turnout.

With that being said, I think there is a lot of room for Modern to improve. That’s not to say that Modern sucks right now, or anything like that. I enjoy playing Modern, but I think it can still be better. I want to talk about ways in which we can improve Modern and make it the kind of format that appeals to as many players as possible.

First off, though, I’d like to talk about the Invitational.

The Season Two Invitational

This was definitely the strangest Invitational that I’ve ever played in. My standard operating procedure at Invitationals thus far has been to have a ridiculously good Day One – something along the lines of 7-1 or 8-0 – and then have a Day Two performance that is not quite good enough to make Top Eight.

Honestly, my Day Two performances haven’t actually been that bad, but they also haven’t been particularly good either. Usually it’s something like 5-3 or 4-4, which is a reasonable result considering that the level of play that deep in the tournament is going to feature the best players or best decks in the event. It’s just short of being good enough, however, and therefore I have a reputation for falling apart on Day Twos.

I kind of hate that reputation. If 5-3 is falling apart, then what is doing well? Is every time you don’t Top Eight considered “falling apart?” The fact of the matter is that making Top Eight of a 665-player tournament isn’t an easy feat, and of the 20-ish players who go 7-1 or better in Day One, only three or four are going to actually make Top Eight. I’ve also Top Eight’d four of these tournaments and started 7-1 or 8-0 in all of those. I’m batting about 50-50 in converting a strong Day One into a Top Eight – I could be doing better, but it does kind of irk me when I’m kind of the running joke for Invitationals even though I’ve played in something like fifteen of them and my median finish is in the Top Sixteen. I just want to battle in an Invitational, give it my all, and not deal with the daggers I get for every loss I sustain even though I have to be one of the consistently highest-performing Invitational players out there.

Regardless, this tournament was a complete reversal for me. I had a rough Day One but still managed to sneak into the second day at 5-3, then ran off a 7-1 record on Day Two which was one win short of the 8-0 I needed to Top Eight with.

I ended up going 12-4, which was good for 21st place. It’s a testament to how big these tournaments have grown that 12-4 is 21st. I’ve Top Eighted Invitationals at 12-4 before. 12-4 was also the record I got ninth with at the last Invitational. These tournaments are getting enormous and it’s becoming harder and harder to etch your name into the Top Eight.

The most unfortunate part for me was that I actually sabotaged my own tournament, potentially costing me that Top Eight. In round five of Day One, the first round of Standard, I not only got a game loss in a game I felt favored to win, but I also caused Shaheen Soorani to also get a game loss in a game that he was definitely going to win.

Between the swap from Modern to Standard, Michael Majors was battling with Shaheen’s deck against me. As pairings went up, we hastily scrambled up our cards and shuffled off to play our rounds. This happened to be the only round in the tournament where I didn’t pile shuffle my deck.

Dragonlord Ojutai You can see where this is going. Somehow I made it through fetching multiple times with Wooded Foothills, casting big Genesis Hydras, and sideboarding twice without noticing that a Dragonlord Ojutai was in my G/R Devotion deck. In game three against Abzan Aggro, I reached a gamestate where the game was undecided but I felt that I was fairly far ahead. I have a Hornet Queen that I’m casting for the turn that will be followed by a Genesis Hydra for 10-13ish the next turn against a board of Siege Rhino, Wingmate Roc and a Roc buddy. I’m at a healthy thirteen life.

I look at the top card of my deck and can see that it’s a slightly discolored sleeve. Let’s just say the sleeve wasn’t the only thing slightly discolored at that point. I’m pretty sure my face also fit the description. I called a judge and the ruling was a game loss. I appealed, and the head judge also upheld the ruling of a game loss.

I was playing a G/R Devotion deck with 61 cards, including a Dragonlord Ojutai. Shaheen was playing an Esper Control deck with 59 cards, missing a Dragonlord Ojutai. The biggest tilt was that I was totally gonna Genesis Hydra into that Dragonlord Ojutai and I don’t think my opponent could beat it. Damn it!

I’m not gonna lie, I was pretty mad at this point. I wasn’t mad at my opponent or the judges. It wasn’t my opponent’s fault, and the judges made the correct ruling. I was hoping it was one of the kinds of penalties that could be downgraded when you notice and call it on yourself, but apparently that is not the case.

I was just mad at myself. Not only did I sabotage my own tournament – at this point I was 3-1 and likely to advance to 4-1 – but I also sabotaged Shaheen’s tournament, one of my good friends. It was a pretty feel-bad moment, and was made worse when my next round opponent just really steamrolled me. Winning nine of the next ten matches and finishing a single match short of Top Eight didn’t hurt to propagate thoughts of “What if?”

The moral of the story here is to always count your deck every round. Pile shuffling is not an effective way to randomize your deck, but it is a good way to check your deck, make sure it’s the right number of cards, and make sure your sleeves are in good enough condition to play. It’s worth getting in the habit of pile shuffling at the start of every round (but there is no need to do it during the round).

I can only remember three times I have ever gotten a game loss. All three were in Invitationals. Once for showing up late to the round, once for a decklist error, and now this. All three times it cost me the match while I was in Top Eight contention and each time I finished one win out of the Top Eight. I’ve gotta say, it kind of bites. Normally I am extremely cautious about how I play and I make sure that I don’t lose from stupid mistakes, but somehow I have butchered things three times at Invitationals.

On the other hand, I was pretty happy with how I recovered from the fiasco. I was honestly pretty tilted at the entire situation – again, mostly at myself. Despite that, I resolved to not let it destroy my tournament and I managed to actually battle back and put up a pretty good performance despite it.

I went 6-2 in both formats. I played Abzan Company in Modern and G/R Devotion in Standard. Abzan Company was a deck I had been working on pretty exclusively for a long time. I played the exact same 75 that I wrote about in my article last week. I liked the list. I beat Jund, Abzan twice, G/W Hexproof, Scapeshift, and Grixis Faeries. I lost to G/R Tron and Storm.

In essence, I beat the decks I was supposed to beat and lost to the ones I was supposed to lose to. I think Abzan Company is a good deck but not a great one. It’s not the best deck in the format or really even close to it, but it’s probably the best deck for me because I’ve invested so much time into it and know it inside and out. I believe that it has more good matchups than bad matchups, and that going 6-2 is a fairly accurate representation of the deck. Unfortunately, the bad matchups happen to be Amulet Bloom and G/R Tron. Amulet Bloom is a broken deck that needs a ban, and G/R Tron just won the last two Modern events. Let’s just say that those aren’t exactly the kinds of decks you want as enemies.

The only changes I’m considering making for GP Charlotte is finding some room to slot Fulminator Mage or Tidehollow Sculler into the maindeck in some capacity. I’ve been testing with anywhere from 1-4 copies maindeck and I think 1-2 is probably the right final number. I think the third Viscera Seer is an easy cut. It’s simply a weak card and is also the easiest card to Chord of Calling for, so it’s the least relevant to draw naturally.

I just want some chance to win Game Ones against decks like G/R Tron and Amulet Bloom. Having access to some amount of Fulminator Mages gives me that chance. Fulminator Mage isn’t enough for a lot of decks to beat G/R Tron and Amulet Bloom, but it’s usually enough for this deck because Abzan Company actually has a relevant clock that is only a turn or two slower than G/R Tron and Amulet Bloom’s.

Fulminator Mage happens to also be fairly reasonable against a lot of other decks in the format. It’s great against control decks and sometimes a blowout against midrange decks. It’s also not horrible against things like Affinity or Infect as it can handle Inkmoth and Blinkmoth Nexus. Even against mono-colored decks like Merfolk, you can still take out a Mutavault. It’s rarely a complete brick, and can sometimes lead to free wins.

I also like Fulminator Mage in this deck because of how easy it is to use it over and over again in matchups where it is great. You can Chord for it, Collected Company into it, and rebuy it with Eternal Witness and Reveillark. The upside of having a few copies is enormous if the metagame is going to be full of decks that hate playing against the card.

As for Standard, I just played the G/R Devotion list that Brad Nelson wrote about this week. I spent most of my time testing Modern and just defaulted to his opinion on Standard. I played G/R Devotion at an IQ a few weeks ago, went 4-2 in the Swiss, finished eighth seed and then split the finals with CVM. The deck seemed powerful and well-positioned, but didn’t offer you too much room to maneuver in many matchups. In the two weeks between that IQ and the Invitational, not a single card choice changed.

G/R Devotion turned out to be a really powerful deck for this event. I won a Standard Grinder on Thursday with it and went 6-2 at the Invitational. One of those two losses involved that game loss I mentioned earlier; it could have easily been 7-1. I was really happy with the deck and felt very far ahead against nearly all of my opponents. Brad and CVM also played the deck to good finishes. Brad made Top Sixteen (losing to CVM) and CVM took it all the way to the elimination rounds.

While I would have liked to have joined them, it was nice seeing Ali and CVM, two good friends of mine, not only make Top Eight of the Invitational but actually battle each other in the finals. With that being said, I do have a little bit of beef with Ali, because Angel was the token I was planning on making and he beat me to the punch! Talk about a tilt. Isn’t there some sort of Door to Nothingness token you could have made? C’mon man.

I’m not sure where to go next in Standard. G/R Devotion mirrors really suck and the deck is very good, so I expect it to be a really popular choice moving forward. Figuring out the next move in Standard is something that I’ll need to learn for GP Providence, but it’s not something I’ve bothered to work on much yet since the next event for me is Modern again at GP Charlotte.

Speaking of the Devil, let’s talk Modern.

The State Of Modern

Modern is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde kind of format. On the one hand, sometimes you get involved in these games of Modern that are extremely skill-intensive. More than any other format, including Legacy, Modern rewards you for knowing your deck inside and out. Players like Todd Anderson find so much success in Modern because Todd has played so many games and understands how to eke out every tiny edge when playing Temur Twin. In Modern, this matters a lot.

To give an example, I won a game in a Modern grinder against Esper Tokens because of one of these minor little situations where you can gain an edge. My opponent played a Monastery Mentor, played a fetchland, and then passed the turn. I drew my card and passed back. At the end of my turn, my opponent cracked his fetchland and I was able to respond by casting Chord of Calling for four to get a Murderous Redcap and kill the Mentor before he got his land and the ability to cast a spell. It was an extremely minor mistake to wait on cracking the fetchland until after I’d untapped, but those are the kinds of tiny edges that a lot of Modern games are built on. If he had cracked it on his turn, he could have played around that situation.

There are so many tiny edges and so many little ways to gain value in Modern if you know the format inside and out. I wrote an article a few months ago that went over a ton of these interactions that spring up over and over again in Modern. Even beyond the interactions in that article, simply understanding how and when to time spells plays an enormous role in whether or not you’ll win or lose a close game. I love that aspect of Modern, and it’s for that reason that I actually enjoy the format.

On the other hand, the match I just played on Magic Online showcases some of the horrible aspects of the format. On turn one, I cast a Viscera Seer off of a Godless Shrine. On turn two, my opponent exiled a Simian Spirit Guide to cast Blood Moon. Turn-two Blood Moon on the play is acceptable in Legacy. Cards like Daze and Force of Will exist to protect against that. In Modern it shouldn’t be acceptable. How am I supposed to fight that? By randomly having a basic in my opening hand? Should I know that this is coming when my opponent’s turn-one play was simply “Mountain, Go?”

I then proceeded to lose the second game to an equally-fast Blood Moon. It was extremely frustrating to me. I spent time and tickets to enter a daily event, excited to get to play Magic –and I didn’t get to play Magic. I sat there with a bunch of Mountains in play twiddling my thumbs every turn. I would write this off as an unusual circumstance and brush it aside, except this isn’t unusual. That is what happens in Modern over and over again.

The biggest complaint I’ve heard about Modern, and justifiably so, is that the format is full of a bunch of super-linear decks that all punish you for not being prepared for the specific angle they attack you on. There’s a reason all of my Collected Company decks are built to quickly combo my opponent out: you simply have to in Modern. You can’t survive trying to play a fair game of Magic in Modern unless you have a ton of disruption in your deck. Decks like Jund are the only fair decks that can thrive in the format, and even Jund loses a lot to unfair decks when they don’t draw the right half of their deck.

Your hand is a bunch of Abrupt Decays and Terminates against G/R Tron? Good luck.

You drew a grip of Thoughtseize and Liliana against Affinity? Ouch.

At least if you’re playing a deck that is capable of executing a fast combo or a fast win, you are able to potentially just do things faster than your opponent. I can’t beat a Cranial Plating on an Etched Champion any other way that gaining infinite life, to provide an easy example. I can’t beat a turn-four Ugin, unless I somehow managed to combo out on my turn four.

Control decks basically don’t exist. They can’t. You can’t try to play a control deck in a format with G/R Tron, Amulet Bloom, Infect, Affinity, Burn, etc. You have to play something proactive, because quite frequently you’ll run into a matchup where your answers simply don’t do anything and your only shot of winning is to just race. Control decks can’t race, and thus they don’t really exist.

In the Blood Moon example above, had I been playing something like Burn, or had I even just had a Forest, I could have easily won the match. In that regard, so many games of Magic in Modern just feel random. Did I get paired against Scissors this round, or Paper? Out of all the formats I have played, Modern tends to have the highest density of non-games of any format. By “non-games” I mean games where one player just obliterates the other player so badly that it didn’t even feel like Magic was being played.

Personally, I feel the biggest offenders, by far, are Amulet Bloom and G/R Tron. G/R Tron singlehandedly keeps so many other decks from being viable. You can’t play a control deck in a field where G/R Tron exists. You also can’t play fair creature decks in a format where G/R Tron exists.

Amulet Bloom doesn’t stifle as many archetypes, but it’s simply oppressive. That turn-two Blood Moon example above could have easily been the many times on Magic Online within the past few weeks where my opponent cast Primeval Titan on turn two. Modern is supposed to be a format where turn-two kills don’t exist, yet this deck is consistently breaking that rule.

Sure, Amulet Bloom rarely actually “kills” the opponent on turn tow, rather they just play and attack you with an 8/6 hasty Primeval Titan that pulls four lands out of their deck and puts them onto the battlefield, but I don’t really think that distinction matters too much. How often do you lose a game of Magic where you attack your opponent with a Primeval Titan on the second turn? I’d say games where Amulet Bloom casts Primeval Titan on turn two, they are well over 90% to win. Realistically, it’s probably over 95% to win.

The argument in defense of Amulet Bloom is that a turn-two Primeval Titan doesn’t actually happen that often. I think they are lying. I’ve been turn-two’d at least once in each of the last four matches I’ve played against Amulet Bloom. I used to think I was just hitting the poor end of variance. I don’t think that’s true anymore. I just believe that’s how often the deck actually does turn-two people.

If you think about it, it doesn’t take much to accomplish this. It takes an Amulet of Vigor, a Summer Bloom, a Primeval Titan or a Summoner’s Pact, and then a bounceland and a regular land. That’s it. Two lands and three spells. That is actually less cards than it takes my Abzan Company deck to pull off an infinite life combo, and I execute it often enough on turn three despite playing far fewer copies of each individual piece. With Serum Visions and Ancient Stirrings, it’s not actually that hard to assemble this. I think getting turn-two’d once per three game match isn’t too far off from normal.

There exist other decks that are theoretically capable of turn-two wins, like Infect and Storm. However, these decks allow for interaction along the same lines that most normal decks do. Removal spells are good against Infect. Storm can be attacked in a number of ways by cards like Relic of Progenitus, Scavenging Ooze, and Abrupt Decay. These decks, or at least Storm, are also just far less likely to have a turn-two kill than Amulet Bloom is to have a turn-two Titan.

Modern is full of a bunch of these hyper-linear decks and 80/20 matchups. If you play Abzan Company and get paired against Infect, you’re probably 80% to win. Turn-two Melira or Spellskite is simply game over against them. If you get paired against G/R Tron, you’re probably 20% to win. Likewise, if G/R Tron gets paired against Infect, they are probably 20% to win.

It all combines together to create this kind of unfun game of Russian Roulette where you just have to hope that you get the right pairings in each tournament and dodge the bad matchups. Decks like Splinter Twin prey on the random decks of the format and a lot of the super-unfun decks like G/R Tron and Amulet Bloom, but then decks like Jund and Abzan prey on Splinter Twin.

Normally I would be OK with this and just say that metagaming is a big factor in Modern, but honestly it goes far beyond simple metagaming. When you metagame in Standard, you’re still picking a deck that’s at worst like 35-40% against any given deck. In Modern, you’re picking a deck that’s going to have some 20% matchups and some 80% matchups and you’re just spinning the chamber and hoping you don’t get unlucky.

It may seem like a lot of whining about Modern, but really this is my only major complaint about the format. There are far too many-hyper linear decks that all exist on different axis points. It forces players to play super-proactive strategies themselves, pushing a lot of different archetypes out of the format. There’s nothing wrong with forcing people into proactive strategies, I simply feel like the format would be better if it also gave reactive strategies a chance to shine. Modern is a diverse format in terms of the number of decks played, but it is not a very diverse format in terms of the style of decks people play.

I think the solution is simple. Remove Eighth and Ninth Editions from Modern. Nothing good comes from those sets. Decks like Storm (that WOTC has already shown they dislike being good) lose Sleight of Hand. Amulet Bloom loses Summer Bloom. The Tron lands are gone. Lastly, super-unfun and needlessly-hateful hoser cards like Choke, Boil, and Blood Moon are gone, which would drastically cut down on the number of games that are over without one person getting to play Magic.

The biggest complaint that I’ve heard against this so far, outside of people who are unhappy that their beloved G/R Tron or Amulet Bloom deck get banned, is that a change like this pushes the format towards just being a bunch of Abzan mirrors grinding into each other over and over again.

I simply don’t believe that’s true. Strategies like Twin, Infect, Affinity, Burn, G/W Hexproof, Collected Company, Delver, Elves, and many more don’t get touched at all by this. The end result is simply that the two largest offenders to the fun and enjoyment of the format (G/R Tron and Amulet Bloom) get nerfed, and then individual cards like Blood Moon, that also contribute to non-games, also bite the dust.

One argument against my last paragraph is that calling G/R Tron a deck that sucks the enjoyment out of Modern is opinionated and biased. Many players don’t mind playing against G/R Tron but hate losing to Burn. My response to that is that Burn actually interacts on a normal level. Burn is essentially a turn-four combo deck where normal removal spells do interact with them.

G/R Tron doesn’t interact on the same level, and G/R Tron has the capability to do things like cast a turn-three Karn Liberated to exile a land, then on turn four exile another land and play another Karn to exile yet another land, preventing you from even playing Magic. I think that is far more degenerate than my opponent finishing me off with a Lava Spike and a Skullcrack before my creatures can deal lethal damage to them.

Another solution for improving Modern is to bring back cards that increase the power level of other decks. Ancestral Vision, Stoneforge Mystic, or Jace, the Mind Sculptor might give control decks a fighting chance in this format. Deathrite Shaman and Green Sun’s Zenith would allow creature decks to get off to a fast enough start to compete. Bloodbraid Elf probably shouldn’t even be banned in the first place.

Ultimately, the end result is that while I think Modern is a good format, I don’t think it’s nearly as good as it should be. I think there is still a lot of room to improve and a lot of ways to make the format a lot healthier than it is. I’m not suggesting that all unfair decks be banned. Rather I’m suggesting that we nerf the biggest offenders at stifling the creativity and opportunities that exist within modern, G/R Tron and Amulet Bloom, or unban enough other cards to put other decks on even footing.

At the very least, Summer Bloom has to go. Amulet Bloom is too powerful and too consistent at assembling a turn-two combo. No matter how good your matchup is against Amulet Bloom, you can still just lose to them killing you on turn two, and that seems to go against what makes Modern a functioning and healthy format.

I’m excited for GP Charlotte, but I’m also dreading it. I’m hoping I get to play a lot of fun and interactive rounds of Magic, but I also know that I could just get steamrolled three times without really having a chance to play and that bothers me. It could be a long, fun tournament for me, or it could be over fast and be a source of frustration.

That’s Modern for you. You never really know which side of it you’re going to get. For some players, that’s a positive. For me, it’s a negative. I’d rather be able to metagame and tune decks against an expected field rather than just play a powerful proactive strategy and cross my fingers. I’m hoping WOTC agrees and we see some bans or unbans to shake things up and hopefully turn a usually-fun format into an always-fun format.