The Soapbox: Oppressive Cards, The Hall of Fame, and Modern

With #SCGBALT and an upcoming Pro Tour, Ari Lax has a lot to talk about! Check out his views on the Hall of Fame, the Modern format, and the most oppressive Magic cards that nobody is talking about.

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I’ve been playing a ton of Magic lately to prepare for Pro Tour Magic 2015, and it still almost doesn’t feel like enough.

While most of this leads to “super secret Pro Tour Tech”, I’ve picked up odds and ends here and there when I’m taking breaks to prepare for Grand Prix or Vintage Champs.

Gitaxian Probe is Almost Cheating

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that Gitaxian Probe is one of the most underplayed cards in the format. It might even be the second biggest mistake in New Phyrexia. Only Mental Misstep had the same potential to destroy deck building on such a broad spectrum.

I know. We all got burned on Street Wraith. Two life to randomly draw a card is actually a cost.

Except that’s not what Gitaxian Probe is. Playing 56 cards is only half the equation here.

Gitaxian Probe is pay 2 life, draw a card, get info. How much is knowing your opponent’s hand worth? Actually, quite a bit in a lot of formats. In Vintage, it lets you know whether to wait or go for it. In Legacy, it lets you know whether their average threat is bait for their real threat or their actual game plan. That or it lets you hit on Cabal Therapy, which is arguably one of the other underplayed cards of the format. In Modern, it lets you know what answers they are holding and sequence as such or it lets you know if they have the combo or not.

There’s also the fact that Street Wraith is a virtual blank when you are low on life. 3BB for a ¾ swampwalker isn’t winning any awards or stabilizing any games. Gitaxian Probe has an “alternate” cost of U, meaning it isn’t dead when you can’t pay Phyrexian mana, and is just a rebuy when you are trying to find your out. In terms of draws, that’s just as live as the last one.

This alone might not be enough to play Probe, but look at the decks that play Street Wraith. It’s all things like Living End and Dredge where the cycling is leveraged into more by putting a black creature into the graveyard.

There are so many ways to get leverage out of Probe. Use the Peek to decide how to cantrip or sequence a combo. Use the Peek to hit on Cabal Therapy. Give it Flashback with Snapcaster Mage, Yawgmoth’s Will, or Past in Flames to get card advantage. Count storm. Up your blue card count for Force of Will or Misdirection.

The immediate response I expect to get to this is “Well I don’t have anything to cut”. Listen. I once thought this as well. I played Storm at a Grand Prix where Mental Misstep was legal, and I’m pretty sure playing zero copies of Gitaxian Probe was a worse decision than playing Storm in that field.

You just cut the bad ones. It’s really easy.

With four Gitaxian Probe in your deck, each card is worth seven percent more density of that effect than it was before. Playing eight two-drops? Cutting one of those is only cutting half a copy. Playing 24 lands? Still only minus a fractional land. In exchange for a small cost, you get to play “more” of your best cards.

If you want to argue your deck needs these exact 60 cards, good luck. There have been under five decks since I started playing that actually wanted over 60 cards and didn’t play Battle of Wits. I can assure you the same logic fits closely when just dropping down to 56. My guess is you don’t even see a big shift until the mid-40s.

There’s the argument that it messes up keeping openers, but I don’t really buy too far into that. If it’s lands you’re worried about, if the hand was that close to start with and had a Probe, you probably should keep anyways. If your argument is that you need to know if your seventh card is a specific one to keep, you probably should just play as many of that card as you can and not blame Gitaxian Probe for not drawing them.

I’m not saying 100% of decks should play the card. It definitely is not just a straight-up change to 56 card decks. Not having blue mana is a consideration, as is already heavily using your life total as a resource like Modern Pod or Jund.

But seriously. If Yawgmoth’s Will is in your deck, you better be really afraid of Stax if you want to convince me that zero Probe is right.

Playing a Deck to “Get Lucky” Is Lying to Yourself

I’ve often heard people talk about playing a linear strategy at the event in order to “get lucky”. This almost sounds like it makes sense, and I know I’ve used it in the past.

Turns out it is comically irrational.

Here is the gist of the typical logic that gets someone to this point.

1. I won’t be able to outplay opponents with the standard options.
2. Deck X has extremely polarized matchups.
3. If I play all good matchups with deck X, I will win.

Let’s break this down.

I won’t be able to outplay opponents with the standard options.

First of all, this tends to be way less true than you think. People make very poor plays all the time. Some people make less of them but not most. The amount of effort to find or make generic plans for certain matchup scenarios is very low, and odds are that’s enough to put you on the right path.

Even if that isn’t possible, let’s get real here. Most of the time just drawing better than everyone else gives you a huge edge that is hard to throw away. Very rarely there are decks or matchups where almost every game is super skill intensive, but those tend to be the exceptions rather than the rule. Standard is typically more about big spells which limits tough sequencing decisions. Modern and Legacy have some modularity options, but in Legacy, you can overpower people with basically anything. In Modern, sequencing is often quite clear. Oh look, I should cast Inquisition of Kozilek before they play their two-drop. Figured it out.

So, why are we superstitious towards Wizards Event Reporter being the source of our luck instead of deck randomization? If we are going to “get lucky”, there are a ton of different ways to do that.

Also, for what it’s worth, if you can’t make a lot of the sequencing decisions with a normal deck, you are going to make similar ones with the easy deck. And typically those decks are far less forgiving when those decisions matter. See also: Pat Sullivan with Burn versus that Burn guy (you know the one) with Burn.

Deck X has extremely polarized matchups.

See my Bogles videos last week.

Are you sure the matchup is that favorable? It could be hype or based on old lists.

Are you sure the matchup is that easy? One of my opponents at Grand Prix Chicago bragged about his Mono-Blue matchup with Mono-Black Aggro and was promptly 2-0ed. I’m pretty sure Blue should be way ahead, but there are a lot of ways to lose. Similarly, I always had Legacy Storm versus Landstill as a bye for Storm, but the first three times I tried to play it I didn’t know the secret of Storm having infinite time to set up. Maybe the matchup is favorable, but if you don’t know why or what to do, you can easily lose.

If I play all good matchups with Deck X, I’ll win.

That’s a big if.

What you play against is also was less random than you think.

There’s a reason certain decks in this category win at certain times. Their bad matchup is waning in the metagame. Their bad matchup is somewhat represented, but is poorly positioned and will quickly fall out of the metagame. People start changing sideboard hate to narrow options that cover only other decks.

This is not random.

If you want to go all-in on an “easy” deck with “polarized” matchups, don’t just choose one out of a hat.

Also, consider if your goal should actually be winning.

You do this at an event. You win. Congrats.

What’s your goal for the next one? Get lucky again? Maybe you can get lucky for ten rounds. Maybe twenty. Maybe thirty. At some point you will end up at or near expected equity though, and you will be in the same spot of picking decks and hoping.

What if you just decided to play whatever seemed best. Maybe you lose ten matches. Or twenty. Or thirty. At some point though you end up learning a few things and you will start winning. There’s a lot of cause and effect here that people miss. You aren’t randomly Owen Turtenwald or Josh Utter-Leyton out of nowhere. You beat people with Jund because you have Junded more Jund than anyone else has ever Junded.

Of course, I can’t say with a straight face there isn’t a similar benefit to being the guy that shows up with Satyr Wayfinders or Might of Old Krosa at every event. My point here is more that these are actual decisions.

Being that guy with that deck is as much of a choice as finding the optimal 75 of the king of the hill.

Polukranos is both a Little too Good and a Lesson

After Pro Tour Journey into Nyx, there was a decent amount of talk about how the Sylvan Caryatid plus Courser of Kruphix pairing was oppressive. Based on sheer numbers, that’s probably not incorrect. That pairing of cards is really good against aggressive decks. They are just ok elsewhere and cause threat density issues if you load up on them. Similar discussions were had about Elspeth, Sun’s Champion before the event, which is fair as Elspeth was just a Titan level threat in a world without Titans. Even the pseudo-Titan Souls really aren’t on the same level. Of course, it’s also a Titan level threat in a world where you have to do some serious work to get to six mana thanks to the high threat power level compared to the low removal and card draw power levels.

The card that no one mentions that I think is on par with these three is Polukranos, World Eater.

It’s not like there isn’t a pedigree of large four-drops that goes back a long time that look similar on paper, but none of them have quite the impact of the Legendary Hydra.

First of all, size does matter here. Traditionally the massive four-drop with upside has been a 4/4, like Ravenous Baloth or Loxodon Hierarch. Polukranos being a 5/5 changes a lot of the math, and even more so, the fact that Polukranos easily grows to a 7/7 or larger.

Aside: To show exactly how rare this sizing is, there are six four mana 5/5’s with an upside in the history of Magic if you count Advent of the Wurm. There are seven 4/4s for four with an upside…whose names start with A, B, or C.

Part of it is that a monstrous’ed Polukranos is basically untouchable on defense, but it’s also the fact that it can easily race on the way back. A 7/7 is a full two turns faster than the previous anti-aggro 4/4’s are, meaning that the window closes very quickly once it hits play. The size boost also makes the card much more relevant when you aren’t playing against aggro, boosting Polukranos’s overall metagame value and increasing the odds of having to play against the card.

But the really oppressive part in my mind is how the monstrous trigger rectifies board states. A 4/4 for four slows down an aggressive deck, but you can go around it. Only a select few (Loxodon Hierarch) really change from this dynamic. Polukranos takes over the board in a way that’s almost reminiscent of creatures that are deliberately more fragile like Olivia Voldaren. At worst, the monstrous pegs down a smaller creature. Often, it kills two or more.

The point I’m trying to illustrate here is that Polukranos is oppressive in a way that doesn’t really self-regulate. The worst case scenario with Polukranos is not that it’s a near blank, it’s a huge threat that has to be dealt with.

Of course, the other lesson here is that oppressive is quite relative. Imagine Polukranos in the era of Vapor Snag or Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Actually, you really don’t have to, because Phyrexian Obliterator was close enough and saw almost no play. This Standard format is light on ways to punish four-drops, and that’s a choice by design. It’s been a while since a four-drop without an enters-the-battlefield trigger has really made it big in Standard, and honestly, it’s probably good that a different class of card is good for a change.

I’m also not super excited about the alternate world where the four Jackal Pup sized creatures in Theros Block get to run rampant (Tormented Hero, Soldier of the Pantheon, Gnarled Scarhide, Firedrinker Satyr). I’m all about aggro, but that’s a little bit too much.

My Hall of Fame Ballot

I was lucky enough to receive a Hall of Fame ballot this year despite falling just short of the 150 lifetime Pro Points required to automatically earn a vote (I’ll pass that mark on or before the second Pro Tour of next year).

Here’s the logic I have behind my ballot:

-Do You Use All Five Votes?

This is a big one, especially this year. I’ve seen a lot of ballots with only three or four names, but my bar is a bit lower than theirs. Four top 8s with a win, multiple finals, or simply something else extra is enough, but any less than four top 8s, and it takes a lot to cover the lost ground.

-Do any of the under four crowd matter?

Honestly, that’s a clear no for me this year. Sure, some of them have a bunch of top 16’s, but that’s at best a tie breaker between people already at voting level. None of the three vote contenders are really on the Legends of the Pro Tour list in my mind, or at least aren’t in a positive way. Sorry Osyp :(. Looking forward, there are a handful of people at two who aren’t yet Hall of Fame eligible but would be in consideration with a third, but that’s a long ways away.

Looking at the four plus crowd, that leaves nine people vying for five votes: Wafo-Tapa, Mihara, Saito, Edel, Herberholz, Rietzl, Ikeda, Lybaert, Johns.

My votes this year are going to Makahito Mihara, Willy Edel, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, Paul Rietzl, and Tsuyoshi Ikeda.

Mihara is a snap yes in my book. I voted for him last year, and the same reasons apply. Pro Tour Theros was the only Pro Tour he top 8-ed with what I wouldn’t call one of the two best decks in the room. Reveillark was an insane metagame call for Hollywood, Dragonstorm was retrospectively the best deck of the format when he won Worlds, I’m shocked he didn’t get past the quarterfinals of Pro Tour Valencia with Tron, and his Esper list at Pro Tour San Diego was nearly perfect. Now that he has a fifth top 8, it’s a slam dunk. I also forgot his two Grand Prix wins and his Worlds Team Championship.

Willy Edel is another player I voted for last year and will again this year. His four top 8s span a few years, but he spent a lot of those working hard to get Brazil on the Pro Tour. The general consensus from those I’ve talked to is basically that without his help to boost the Magic scene there him, Carlos Romao, and Paulo would be the sum total of pro players from the country. There were allegations against him early on, but as I said last year, those have not been repeated while his success has.

Paul Rietzl is my third snap yes. A win plus another finals appearance is a big deal, and in general, he is everything you want out of a Hall of Famer. He balances his “real life” with Magic perfectly, speaks out for honorable and clean play, and wrote probably the best tournament report of all time.

Wafo-Tapa did make a mistake with the God Book. He admitted it, lived it down, and his legend is still that of being the control guy, if not the best control player of all time. Five top 8s plus that title is enough for me.

My last spot came down to Ikeda and Herberholz, and Ikeda’s dedication won out. I’m still not sure of my choice here. I put the win as a push against multiple finals appearances, with Grand Prix as the numbers tiebreaker to go with the Pro Point plus community bonuses. For those wondering about other intangibles, the cowboy hat is also about a push against the timeless victory photo.

Marijn Lybaert misses on performance metrics. Four top 8s without a win or multiple finals doesn’t match up. He definitely stands up in future contests, and I expect in a year or two he will be a big contender.

Scott Johns has been vouched against by multiple people from that time. I’ll trust that.

Saito is a tricky subject. Since voting for him last year in spite of his ban, I’ve heard a number of stories that give me pause. The things he was banned for were things I could personally gloss over as crossing the line in the pursuit of greatness, but other things not so much. I could easily see voting for him in the future because he really is one of the all-time greats in all the categories, but I definitely need some more time to think over everything here.

Modern Thoughts

Grand Prix Boston-Worcester is two weeks away, and the Pro Tour one week after that. More importantly, the Star City Open Series in Baltimore is next weekend. I fully expect that event to set the scene for both of those, especially with the addition of the Modern Premier events to the Sunday Open Schedule.

Looking at PTQ results across the Northeast and other regions, I predict the following for this Grand Prix:

  • B/G variants will be the enemy, but the metagame will spread out going late.

    This event reminds me of Grand Prix Kansas City last year. The metagame has gotten really fair as people have fought back against the linear trio of Twin, Pod, and Affinity, but that is inherently exploitable. I expect a broad mix of other linear decks like Burn, Tron, and Scapeshift at the top tables in day 2 as they exploit lists that are tuned to beat an inbred metagame and decks from two months ago.

  • Twin will be the underperformer of the top trio.

    When the metagame shifts to the “tier two” unfair decks, Twin gets hurt the most. Pod and Affinity don’t change much whether they are fighting Jund or Tron. They just do their thing. Twin trying to fight other Twin decks and Jund becomes a weird hybrid monster. You are forced to choose between a better plan against fair decks and raw power against unfair ones in a big way, and choosing either weakness is a bad spot for this event.

  • All-in combo is not the place to be yet.

    Abrupt Decay is still the bad guy. If you miraculously make it deep into the event your life will be easy, but do you want to be the one person playing Ad Nauseam who gets the lucky pairings early on and dodges just enough Liliana of the Veil decks to make it there?

  • I will likely decide my deck based on a coin flip the night before the event.

    I have no shame in admitting this.

    Have a rough decision? Flip a coin. If you really don’t like the outcome, you probably shouldn’t do it and probably didn’t want to do it to begin with.

    Plus, who doesn’t love a good sweat?