Over the past eight or so months I've taken a new approach to preparing for tournaments. Instead of selecting a deck for an event and testing matchups and sideboarding plans against other expected decks, I've tried to just play as many different decks in the format as I can leading up to an event. I study the metagame trends and try to find the strengths and weaknesses of each archetype and how they fit into the bigger picture of the format. After all of that is said and done, I will try and make a call based on the information that I have learned and generally play the deck with little to no testing after the decision is made.
At first, friends of mine would give me grief for this approach. "Play what you are comfortable with" is the most common thing that I hear when I explain this to people. Another being, "You should just select a deck and jam games with it until you know the ins and outs." While neither of those are necessarily wrong approaches to take, they never seemed to work for me.
I "feel comfortable" playing blue-based control decks, but for a long time my results were lacking with those types of decks and I wasn't sure why. It was easy to point to my losses as variance-based and my wins as earned, as I think most people go through that phase at some point. Most are still in it. It took me a long time to break the mold of what I was comfortable playing, but once I did, I could feel myself learning angles of the game that were never present in the decks I was "comfortable" with. I was growing as a player, and that opened up more decks that I was comfortable with.
Going into Grand Prix Quebec City, I was very happy with the Rhino Jund list that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The format seemed very creature-heavy with the perceived dominance of the G/W Megamorph deck, so a deck packing Siege Rhino, Den Protector, and all of the best removal spells in the format didn't seem like a bad place to be. Even the matchup against the early Jeskai Black deck was winnable, but the format evolved. Jeskai Black was very popular at the Pro Tour, putting both Jon Finkel and Owen Turtenwald into the Top 8 of the event with the best version of the deck we've seen up to this point. While Abzan was eventually crowned The Champion, Jeskai Black was appointed the title of the deck to beat.
Quebec showed us that there were other things that we could be doing in the format other than casting Mantis Rider and Ojutai's Command though. Jake Mondello, who I shamelessly plugged the week leading up to Quebec, made the Top 4 of the event with his version of R/G Ramp. While the ramp deck did end up losing to Jeskai Black in the semis, the matchup is firmly in the favor of the deck casting Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. With the Jeskai Black deck leaning on the effectiveness of the two-for-ones that both Ojutai's Command and Kolaghan's Command offer, while also filtering through cards effectively with Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, R/G Ramp can largely ignore the game plan of Jeskai Black. Using the early turns to cast cards like Nissa's Pilgrimage and Explosive Vegetation, R/G Ramp is able to ramp themselves to a stage of the game that Jeskai Black can not interact with. That void is largely due to the nature of R/G Ramp's threats being based around a Planeswalker and a Creature that has a powerful "on cast" ability, that will happen even if it is countered.
I didn't bother putting anymore thought into where the format was in the days after Grand Prix Quebec City, as I hadn't planned on attending Grand Prix Indianapolis. Well, things changed in the middle of the week and I found myself able to attend the event. Now I needed to figure out what to play. I spent the majority of Thursday and Friday playing different decks in the format trying to figure out where I wanted to be. Jeskai Black was the safe option, but it felt like the weaknesses were very exploitable. The ramp deck was surely powerful, but there were games were you just didn't draw any action and died with 20 lands in play. Most of my thoughts going into the weekend were based around Ojutai's Command and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. It felt as though they were the two most powerful cards in the format and you had to figure out the best way to fight both of those. What I was missing was the third pillar of the format, which is not so secretly Warden of the First Tree. G/W/x Aggro has been the best performing deck of this Standard format so far, regardless of what is considered the "deck to beat."
I found myself making lists of the cards that interested me for the weekend, and that lead me to playing games with the W/B/u Tokens deck from the Magic Online Championship Series the past weekend piloted by Fabrizio Anteri. For reference, here is his list:
This deck has a lot of tools that are incredibly effective against Jeskai Black, while also offering play in more matchups than is initially realized. In testing, we found that the pairing of Secure the Wastes and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar's emblem was a quick and easy way to combat the R/G Ramp deck and their combination of Ugin and Ulamog. With similar cards being effective against Jeskai Black, I started looking at different cards that the deck could play.
I was very interested in mainboard discard, as this is something that I have been a fan of through the entirety of this format, and eventually found room for a pair of Duress. While I wasn't settled on the deck until the morning of the Grand Prix, I was fairly confident in my list as I headed into round three off of my byes. Here is the list that I registered:
The main changes that were made involved removing Ob Nixilis Reignited from the deck in favor of additional copies of Wingmate Roc. Wingmate Roc is an interesting card right now, as on the surface it feels like an expensive creature/threat that plays poorly with Ojutai's Command. In reality, Wingmate Roc is one of the better creatures that cost four or more against the Command.
Wingmate Roc is a card that you want to play when you already have a strong board presence, which makes it difficult for the Jeskai Black player to be content with passing the turn with four lands unused. In this situation, we have plenty of non-creature threats that can be deployed to steal tempo and present multiple threats, such as Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Sorin, Solemn Visitor. Having the ability to put Jeskai in a Fork between playing to the board and holding up Ojutai's Command for Wingmate Roc is one of the strengths of this deck.
Ob Nixilis Reignited on the other hand felt clunky, but after playing with the deck more, I can definitely see a place for him in the 75. Painful Truths was one of the best cards for me this weekend, so having a spilt option of Phyrexian Arena or Murder would be a welcome addition.
Moving to the sideboard, I moved away from Monastery Mentor in favor of Mastery of the Unseen for a few reasons. First of all, I wanted to try and incorporate a threat that was not blanked by Virulent Plague, as that card was very good against the tokens them in the deck. Secondly, I liked Mastery against Jeskai Black a lot more than I liked Monastery Mentor. Mentor felt like a card that I wanted to play with another spell in the same turn to take advantage of its trigger, but that pushes it into Ojutai's Command territory, which is something I'm not interested in. Mastery also fit into the two-drop slot that worked with my Knight of the White Orchid's when on the draw, which is not to be overlooked.
I was feeling really good about my chances in this Grand Prix. I've felt like I have progressed since my last Standard Grand Prix, which was a 12-2-1 good for 9th place at Grand Prix Providence, so the idea of finally cracking the Top 8 was a very real thought. That being said, I ended Day 1 a disappointing 7-2, which meant that I would likely have to go 6-0 on Day 2 to make my goal. With my previous best Day 2 performance being a 4-1-1, it felt like a tall order. I tried to get the best night of sleep that I could and just wanted to take it one match at a time. I found myself fairly comfortable when sitting down for Day 2, but I couldn't help but be a little uneasy about what could have come from Providence if the breakers went my way. I'm aware it isn't what I should be thinking about, but I've never claimed to have the strongest mental game. I did what I could to keep it contained, and I think I did relatively well looking back on it.
After winning the first round, then the second, and the third, I found myself in a "PTQ Top 8" where I only had to go 3-0 to Top 8 my first Grand Prix and requalify for the Pro Tour. My opponent in my "PTQ Top 8"?
Knowing LSV was on Jeskai Black, I felt pretty good about my chances in the match. Even though up to this point I was only 4-2 against the archetype on the weekend, the two losses felt a lot closer than the four wins. I don't generally move into details of my matches, but I feel like our game one was very much worth mentioning from my side of the table.
On turn four, I was able to resolve a Gideon after using Silkwrap to deal with the turn two Jace. I made a token and passed back, looking at the pair of Wingmate Rocs in my hand and the empty board on the other side. LSV cast Tasigur, the Golden Fang on his turn, leaving a single Smoldering Marsh untapped before passing the turn. I realized that this meant Fiery Impulse was coming down to take out my token if I were to just move to combat with that as an eligible attacker, so I immediately activated Gideon's plus one ability, and declared combat. The fifth land and raided Wingmate Roc that followed prompted a Fiery Impulse on my Knight Ally at the end of turn. At this point, I knew I was ahead on the board by a large margin, and with a second Roc in my hand, it was going to be easy to deploy even more threats to the board. Like I mentioned earlier, against Jeskai Black, Roc is easiest to deploy when you are already ahead on the board. After drawing, LSV played a land, and attacked Gideon (Which was at five loyalty) with only his Tasigur. Realizing that the most likely reason for this attack was Crackling Doom, I offered no blocks, which prompted the Crackling Doom, taking out my Bird Token and finishing off Gideon before the passing of the turn. The second raided Wingmate Roc put the writing on the wall, and at the end of the game there was an Ojutai's Command sitting in the hand of my opponent.
Game two was taken by Tragic Arrogance in the hands of LSV, but I was able to take game three and the match.
Two rounds to go.
I assumed my breakers were not strong enough to win this round and draw, so I didn't let myself get ahead of myself, but this was the closest I've ever been to a Top 8, as at this point my fate was solely in my hands at 11-2. After being paired for the feature match against Brent Clawson, who I knew was on Abzan Aggro, I was fairly confidant in my chances. While the matchup is what Anteri ended up losing to in the finals of the MOCS the previous week, I felt as though the addition copies of Wingmate Roc would prove to be huge upgrades for me and I was already 2-0 against similar decks up to this point in the tournament. After Roc'ing through game one, I found myself short on resources to put up much of a fight for game two or three and ended up falling to the eventual champion.
I salvaged my last round against a Grixis Dragons deck splashing white for Crackling Doom for a finish of 12-3, good for 19th place. I wanted to be disappointed with the weekend, but it is actually tough to be. This time last year, I was happy to cash a Grand Prix, the idea of making the Top 8 felt like a dream. Now, I can say my record in my last two Standard Grand Prix is 24-5-1, which is a pretty big jump for a year.
Next week there is an Open in Philadelphia that I will be attending, and Grand Prix Pittsburgh after that. While I'm not as comfortable in Modern as I am in Standard, I'll be preparing for that in the best way I know how, and I'll still be expecting big results.