I spent the weekend in my mom's hometown in Pennsylvania for my cousin's graduation party. As luck would have it, one of my best friends, Brian (name changed to protect the innocent) owns a shop there that was hosting a PPTQ the next day, so I wound up staying at his place for the weekend. This came with a lot of fringe benefits. We've always had an understanding that I could borrow whatever deck I wanted, thanks to his extensive collection; I opted to play this:
Brian tried his damndest to convince me not to play it, rattling off a litany of pet decks he assured me would be more fun to play. Unfortunately, his pet decks all sucked. Affinity? Good joke. If I wanted to play 1/1 creatures I'd go grab a Portal starter set. Krark-Clan Ironworks? Good lord, man. That deck has been trash since the Bush Administration. As ever, Brian's arguments for his decks of preference were more compelling in his head than they were in reality; at the end of the day, I opted to play Pox. It looked great on paper, and I've never missed a PPTQ Top 8 with a Jaberwocki deck (read: I'm due to brick).
Going through matchups in the week leading up to the event, I felt pretty good about all of them. Death's Shadow, Affinity, and Eldrazi Tron all seemed like straightforward matchups where the Smallpox deck carried an advantage. I had a plan for all of them, and figured that my choices were obvious enough in other matchups that I could figure things out on the fly.
On the way to his store, I asked Brian how many people he was expecting.
"About 20 or so."
Really? That few?
"We don't really like to advertise these things."
"So with [my store], I'm not really catering to the type of player PPTQs are designed for. Look, man: the internet is a thing. I know I can't beat the lowest common denominator on price, so I'm trying to win on intangibles. Cleanest store, friendliest atmosphere, stuff like that."
Hm. Seems like a fine approach to me.
"I'm trying to provide an experience to the people who walk in here multiple days a week. The ones who have some skin in the community, who I know will be kind to newbies. I want to give them the experience of winning a large local tournament. So I don't advertise them too much."
They're on the WotC site anyways, I noted.
"I mean, if they're willing to navigate that site, the least I can do is give them a decent space to play in."
The PPTQ ended up firing at 24 players—a little on the small end, but I was comfortable with it. There would be five rounds of swiss with a cut to Top 8.
I'm on the play for game one and my opponent mulligans, but my starting hand's a bit awkward. I have an Inquisition of Kozilek, but my only source of black mana is a Shambling Vents; My opening hand is Smallpox, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, Inquisition of Kozilek, Fetid Heath, Shambling Vents, Flagstones of Trokair, Fatal Push. I play Shambling Vents and they return serve with a (foreign) Spirebluff Canal into a (foreign) Sleight of Hand, asking me if I'd like clarification on what Sleight of Hand does before they resolve it. In fairness to my opponent, If someone ran out a turn-one Shambling Vent against me in a sanctioned match of Modern, I'd assume they had no clue what they were doing either.
On my turn, I draw a second Smallpox and fire off Inquisition of Kozilek, seeing Spirebluff Canal, Island, Baral, Chief of Compliance, Goblin Electromancer, Peer Through Depths (the only english-language card in their hand!), and Pyretic Ritual. I nab the Peer Through Depths, on the logic that both of their creatures will be dead and Peer Through Depths gives them the most potential to draw out the resource denial I'll be slamming home over the next two turns.
I draw a second Flagstones of Trokair on my third turn and got to experience one of the deck's best possible draws: Inquisition of Kozilek into Smallpox (sacrificing Flagstones of Trokair) into Smallpox (sacrificing Flagstones of Trokair) into Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. The game did not last long after that. Just like he does in Standard, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar closes the door quickly.
The matchup seems really poor for Storm. The necessity of playing a turn-two creature puts a lot of value on Smallpox, and even cards like Fatal Push aren't all the way dead thanks to all their suite of two-drop Helm of Awakening creatures. And that's assuming they get out of the gates through all the Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek. I will say that I never get a good idea of how the matchup's supposed to go because my opponent mulligans to five in game two and doesn't put up much of a fight that game either. The match ends on an anticlimactic note.
What attracted me to the Smallpox deck in the first place is that the deck attacks a lot of different resources all at once. Plus, the deck does a lot of cool stuff. Flagstone of Trokair was one of those cards I never got to play with as a kid but always wanted to, and sacrificing it to Smallpox and fetching a Godless Shrine feels like a dream—albeit a mediocre one—come true. Discarding a Lingering Souls or a Bloodghast to a Smallpox is another cute trick the deck's capable of. It's hard to be sure if an incremental value grind like that is good enough in a format like Modern, but I was willing to find out.
I'm still not sure what my opponent was up to here. All three games, I played against what appeared to be a value-oriented Collected Company deck that featured Knight of the Reliquary as its big finisher and a handful of utility lands to search up, including Gavony Township, Vault of the Archangel, and Sejiri Steppe.
Game one I'm way behind, but on my way towards stabilizing behind a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and a Bitterblossom. I'm at seven life, staring across at a crowded board of a lethal Knight of the Reliquary, a Scryb Ranger, and a Birds of Paradise. Their Knight of the Reliquary is tapped, so I figure, what the hell—I'm going to cast this Smallpox post-combat anyway and sacrifice my tapped 2/2 Human Soldier Ally Token and make another one so that I have a black creature (from the Bitterblossom) and a white creature (from a post-combat Gideon, Ally of Zendikar activation) to protect me from a potential Sejiri Steppe (but who plays that card anyways?).
As it turns out, Scryb Ranger has text on it. My opponent untaps Knight of Reliquary and blocks my 2/2, killing it dead. I analyze the merit of casting Smallpox post-combat even though i'll be dead to Sejiri Steppe and decide it's worth it since that'll put my opponent down to two mana sources in play.
They have the Sejiri Steppe.
I feel a little better about the sideboarded games. Getting to cut Smallpox for Damnation seemed strong enough, and after an early two-for-one with a Damnation my opponent didn't see coming, I win game two with little fuss.
From my perspective, game three swung on one turn. Their hand is one unknown card and a some irrelevant shock-land. They drew a card in a one-turn window between getting Thoughtseized and casting Courser of Kruphix, and I don't know what it is. I'm assuming it's a land, but it could realistically be anything other than a Collected Company based on how they've been playing. Their battlefield is Courser of Kruphix and a Kitchen Finks with a -1/-1 counter on it. The top card of their library is another shockland. The Kitchen Finks is tapped, but the Courser of Kruphix isn't, so I decide to attack with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar under the assumption that if they block with Kitchen Finks, there's no need for me to cast this Damnation I have in hand, since the only way they get back into this game, in my opinion, is via Courser of Kruphix.
Their one card I don't know about is Path to Exile, which dispatches my Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. I cast the Damnation to buy myself some time to draw out of the mana flood and in response, my opponent cracks a fetchland, shuffling away the land to reveal a Collected Company.
I can probably beat either Path to Exile or Collected Company. I can't beat both.
Attacking with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar was probably too aggressive, but I was looking for a reason to save my Damnation. More likely, I was baited into the attack by a strong player. The Collected Company yields a Knight of the Reliquary, which kills me in short order while I flood out. Topdeck races in Modern feel a lot more stressful than they do in Limited or Standard, because of the nature of the cards. If your opponent resolves a Collected Company and you draw a Marsh Flats, that's it! You're dead! That's probably a reason not to play Smallpox in the first place. If everything goes to plan but you don't have Gideon, Ally of Zendikar to close the door, an opponent's cards are ostensibly too good not to draw out of whatever resource denial the deck applied in the early game. While I'm already griping, I'll note that the mana in this deck for its maindeck configuration is worse than it looks. There are two white spells—Lingering Souls and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar—but the deck needs to run four Flagstones of Trokair as a matter of course, and four Shambling Vents are nice in the mid-to-late game but terribly awkward in an opening hand, actively preventing a one-drop, two-drop curve, one of the best weapons the deck has against the field.
I took a look at the matchup on paper in depth before the tournament started, and determined that the maindeck configuration was correct and I didn't want to sideboard any cards in or out. Is that crazy? In all my time spent playing Magic, I've never experienced that, let alone in a match against the consensus best deck of the format. It feels so wrong, but then again, I still can't think of anything I want to bring in against Death's Shadow. Collective Brutality seems kind of bad, but what am I bringing in for it? Anguished Unmaking hits any potential Liliana of the Veil, I guess.
Going into the match, I'm feeling confident anyway. Smallpox seems like the perfect answer against an opponent playing a tempo game, going all-in on one big threat and riding it to victory. However, I underestimated a few things about the deck: it has a massive amount of hand disruption, meaning they'll never play into a Smallpox. Grixis Death's Shadow also has a strong late game, able to turn the corner on a dime and end the game in just a couple of turns.
I think my draws were fine, but I lost both games easily anyway. Losing the die roll felt like it hurt a lot.
Calls to ban Death's Shadow are easy to dismiss out of hand, but that match was decent proof that any Death's Shadow ban would be wholly in service of optics. The deck operates by stripping its opponents' hand, landing a big threat, and riding it. Death's Shadow just happens to be the best threat, but Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Gurmag Angler are so similar in function that the deck wouldn't really go anywhere, it would just get a little worse. I'm confident that it would remain on top of the Modern metagame even if its namesake Death's Shadow got banned. Then again, most of the recent Standard bans have been more about optics than gameplay, so a Death's Shadow ban wouldn't be the most surprising outcome of one of next year's two Modern Pro Tours (I'm counting the team PT).
At 1-2, Top 8's looking pretty unlikely, but I stay in the tournament to keep playing with the deck. At this point, Brian's snickering about my deck choice because his absolute favorite thing to do is to point to outcomes that confirm his worldview. "Of course you're 1-2! The deck is bad!" It's annoying. When Jaberwocki tweeted about the Smallpox deck, his praise of the deck was measured: "the deck is good but not insane." Before the event, I acknowledged that but wanted to play the deck for myself to really see what it brought to the table. There are some definite problems with the deck, to be sure, but the loss to Collected Company wasn't out of my grasp and the win against Storm was a decisive one (I'm still not sure what happened against Death's Shadow, but I'm told it's supposed to be a strong matchup for Smallpox. Shrug).
No, there's not a deck called No-Show… my opponent just didn't show up. I am the luckiest man to ever live. Brian and I took the opportunity to go get burritos. I love burritos.
My opponent sits down and goes "I have no idea how this matchup's supposed to go." They know I'm playing Smallpox; in a room of twenty-something players, the Smallpox deck tends to stand out. Also, we sat next to each other round one, so I know they're playing Jund. Their deck is all foils and Expeditions and Masterpieces and stuff, which… whatever. Anyone that spends that much money on noise has earned the attention they purchased.
I'm feeling pretty confident about the matchup. The two decks will trade Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize back and forth, but Smallpox has a huge impact on such a mana-hungry and clunky deck (Jund remains the best clunky deck to ever exist), they have few answers to Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and their abundant creature removal is just a bunch of blanks.
Game one I get targeted by Inquisition of Kozilek for a Smallpox and then immediately draw another Smallpox, to my opponent's chagrin. Their Tarmogoyf never saw it coming. My opponent lands a Dark Confidant, one of the keys to the matchup, and I don't have an immediate answer to it. I do, however, have a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, which I'm able to hide behind and even get in once for a hit of damage. My opponent's Dark Confidant finishes them off, something you always dream about doing but are never quite able to pull off. I'll be perfectly honest: this is not the first time I've attempted to kill someone with their own Dark Confidant, but this is the first time I succeeded.
Game two, they mulligan to five and draw a ton of lands. I have an early Gideon, Ally of Zendikar but never activate it into their open mana, instead opting to make a 2/2 every turn, because I have no idea what they could have in hand but I assume they have something I've never heard of. In short, my stupid fear of Path to Exile carried over into a match where the card couldn't even hurt me anymore—a neat little parable for why you shouldn't necessarily carry past traumas with you everywhere you go. As I demonstrate this round, that's easier said than done. I win the game despite my best efforts; my opponent drops a handful of Expeditions on the table that I can't differentiate from each other to signal that the game is over because they flooded out.
I sneak into the Top 8 on breakers for the second time writing this column. I'm the eight-seed. Hooray for me.
Eldrazi Tron's another matchup I like on paper. Smallpox is great, Liliana of the Veil is great, all they have a big ol' clunky creatures, and I've even got Fulminator Mage post-board. This should be good!
My opponent is on the younger side—17 years old, to be exact. They are very nervous, taking deep, labored, steadying breaths all the time. I assume them that it's going to be fine, but they are totally tense, all limbs flying and hands shaking. They speak the names of perceived high-impact cards sharply upon resolution; Reality Smasher and Endbringer are announced with an emphatic urgency; I'm convinced my opponent's heart is going to explode. A Smallpox, forcing my opponent to sacrifice the Reality Smasher they pinned their hopes and dreams to, triggers a sharp, unsteady inhalation of air. I try again to calm my opponent down, letting them know that we're friends. They laughed and assured me they were that nervous all the time. I then told my opponent something I wish someone had told me when I was his age: "There are going to be more events. You are going to make a lot of Top 8s. This is going to get way easier. I promise."
The reality of the situation is that I'm soothing an opponent that's kicking my ass. Despite how it looks on paper, I quickly ascertain that this matchup is godawful for the Smallpox deck. I can disrupt lots of resources early, but I can't apply the pressure necessary to close the door before Eldrazi Tron rebuilds. Eldrazi Tron's early threats—Matter Reshaper and Thought-Knot Seer—generate value that's tough to compete with, and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar isn't the impenetrable fortress that it is against Modern's other fair decks.
At some point, the "little kid" deck of choice went from mono-red to ramp strategies. I noticed this when I started getting paid to write about Magic — Primeval Titan and Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle were both legal in Standard at that point, which led to a lot of players incapable of doing anything other than counting their mana and casting the most expensive spell in their hand winning a lot more games than usual. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's just something I've noticed. The linear Tron decks, not burn, are the Little Kid Decks of Modern in form, even if Burn is the Little Kid Deck in function, thanks to the fact that it's exponentially cheaper pricewise. Little Kid Deck isn't even meant to be a denigration—it's just shorthand for a deck that's simple to play and forgiving of pilot mistakes. Eldrazi Tron is certainly that: a deck dense with threats that also has a devastating nut draw capable of beating all comers. And how difficult is it really to search for an Eldrazi Temple or a Tron piece and attack until the game ends? All decks run into complex problems at some point. Little Kid Decks just encounter far less of them. And oftentimes, it's just correct to play them.
Oh yeah, by the way, I got dunked on. Obviously. Getting mana-flooded in game two is mildly irritating, but that'll happen with a 24-land deck from time to time. I walk away from the match a little frustrated, but ultimately recognizing that failing to put a clock on Eldrazi Tron for too long will always have the same outcome: they are going to claw back and quickly start running over you with huge colorless creatures before long.
I enjoyed playing Smallpox a lot, and would love a deeper understanding of the Grixis Death's Shadow and Eldrazi Tron matchups, even if to just have a clearer sense of whether or not I got unlucky in my matches against the two decks. Also, five matches just isn't enough to get a good idea. My takeaways aren't inscrutable; they're based on my experience, and my experience was scant. That's a skill I've been trying to develop: taking small sample sizes of events and trying to suss out facts from noise. It's tough, but it's a fun puzzle to crack for me. I mean, that's basically all Limited evaluations are. You could do a literal thousand drafts and figure out how good each individual card is that way, but who wants to do that? Taking experiences and tempering them against all possible outcomes strains the imagination in a productive way. I don't remember the context, but someone once chided me by sarcastically telling me "your experiences are reality." They were being sarcastic, of course, but their point is an important one to remember: first-hand experience is important, but using it as your only guiding force without any further examination isn't foolproof.