Last weekend I played in Grand Prix Toronto...is a sentence I have now typed multiple times in the last few months. There was a GP Toronto just after the last Pro Tour in February and now, before another Pro Tour has even been played, we went back to the city for yet another Grand Prix. Two in three months.
This time it was a team tournament. I teamed up with Bradley J. Nelson and Seth Q.A. Manfield to form what is colloquially known as "The Hilton Garden Oath," a commitment to stay at Hilton-branded hotels despite receiving no perks for doing so, and then to dominate team events together. Our first foray into the world of team tournaments was at GP Columbus in April where we, and I quote, "didn't do so hot."
But we were feeling good about GP Toronto. The format was Team Constructed. We waffled a bit on who would play what format, but we eventually settled on Brad playing Standard, Seth playing Modern and me sleeving up the Legacy cards. This configuration played to our strengths the most.
Brad is a Standard master, having the best lifetime win percentage in Standard in Grand Prix and Pro Tour events of anyone in the world. I'm the most well-versed in Legacy, having had a few GP Top 8s in the format and years of testing under my belt. Seth is just, well, good at pretty much everything, and as far as we knew, Modern was a subset of everything.
Brad ended up playing White-Blue Control in Standard, a deck that I had pegged as the best deck in Standard from my article last week. He played the creature-less version with only four Teferi, Hero Dominaria as a way to win the game.
Teferi serves as a win condition by ultimating, removing all your opponent's permanents from the game, and then using the -3 ability to target itself. That loops it repeatedly as your draw step while preventing your opponent from sticking any permanents thanks to the ultimate. Eventually they mill out before you.
Seth played Jeskai Control in Modern, a list based off Benjamin Nikolich's version of the deck, which Benjamin has been crushing with on the SCG circuit as of late. Jeskai boasts a strong Humans matchup and has game against most other decks as well. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is once again a powerhouse in this deck, providing a constant source of card advantage that is way easier to protect than Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Teferi has a higher loyalty that is Lightning Bolt-proof and untapping two lands at end of turn to allows for removal spells to save it.
I ended up playing Four-Color Leovold, also known as Czech Pile, also known as Four-Color Control, also known as…
Let's just say that Legacy has a lot of names for decks.
I've played this deck before in Legacy. It was the deck that I ran at Grand Prix Seattle last month. I started off Day 1 at 8-0 before a 3-4 stint on Day 2 left me with a solid but disappointing 11-4 finish. I was pretty sure Four-Color Control was one of the best decks in Legacy and remained steadfast in that belief between GP Seattle and GP Toronto, rejecting all arguments to the contrary.
One thing I found very interesting is that Four-Color Control is a deck that sprung up in the Legacy format to prey on Delver decks. It was a deck designed to smash Delver decks with endless two-for-ones and annoying defensive threats like Baleful Strix.
There is just one problem.
It doesn't actually beat Grixis Delver. I was worried going into GP Seattle that it wasn't favored against a good pilot on Grixis Delver. I lost twice to Grixis Delver played by good pilots, including Daniel Duterte, who won the GP. Those losses effectively knocked me out of Top 8 contention.
But it did beat almost everything else. So a deck that sprung up as a Delver-slayer actually lost to Delver but beat most of all the other decks. Unusual, to say the least.
I set out to improve the Delver matchup from the Leovold side. There were two main ways that Grixis Delver won – the first is to destroy their fragile mana base with Wasteland and then just tempo them out with whatever is left. The second is to use a combination of Gurmag Angler and True-Name Nemesis to put the control deck in an unwinnable spot. Generally speaking, Four-Color Control has just one or two answers in their entire main deck to a True-Name Nemesis and a lot of those answers are cards like Diabolic Edict that can't actually kill True-Name Nemesis if other creatures are in play.
Four-Color Leovold is so slow that it becomes impossible to race True-Name Nemesis in most games and cards like Diabolic Edict were really hard to line up against True-Name Nemesis because of Young Pyromancer and Gurmag Angler. Grixis Delver with a Gurmag Angler on defense holding back everything and a True-Name on offense was almost impossible to beat.
I made it a goal to improve that matchup going into Grand Prix Toronto. I contacted Jarvis Yu to help me test, as Jarvis is a strong Legacy player who has a lot of experience playing Grixis Delver. Jarvis beat me relentlessly, no matter what I tried. It was demoralizing to say the least. I won a grand total of zero testing matches against Jarvis Slay Yu.
After being struck down by Jarvis, I resolved that I would become more powerful than he could possibly imagine. I spent the next day thinking about how to improve the matchup almost nonstop, but with no real progress. I didn't want to completely change the deck to beat this one matchup, but I also didn't want to go into the GP with a bad matchup against the best deck in the format.
Inspiration struck at an unlikely time. I was driving home from seeing Deadpool 2 with Brad and his fiance Amber and I was thinking about how if I had a threat like Gurmag Angler that could put early pressure on Grixis Delver, I could put them on the backfoot, which made it easier to execute my strategies. Unfortunately, Gurms McGee doesn't work in Four-Color Leovold, because it ruins Snapcaster Mage. If only there was something else…
And then it hit me. It struck me, like a smooth criminal. I lost control of myself and yelled out, "Ach Hans, run. It's the Llurghoyf." Tarmogoyf isn't a new idea in Four-Color Control; I have seen lists playing the card in the past but for some reason I had completely forgotten, but it seemed like the perfect card to combat Grixis Delver after sideboard.
I sent a message to Brad Nelson at 2 a.m. the night before we left for Toronto, telling him to bring Tarmogoyfs along on the trip.
That worked out pretty well.
I registered three Tarmogoyfs in my sideboard, a threat designed to put pressure on Grixis Delver and Chalice of the Void strategies, and I played against a lot of Grixis Delver and Chalice of the Void strategies. I did not lose to any of them, and Tarmogoyf did a lot of work and surprised a lot of opponents.
I also made a few other changes to the list. At GP Seattle I played Preordain, but in this event I swapped back to Ponder. Brad and I discussed this a lot on our drive to Toronto and concluded that we believe Ponder to be superior against Grixis Delver. Against Grixis you need to keep hitting land drops until about your fifth to avoid losing to Wasteland and should be aggressively searching for land drops. Ponder lets you dig one card deeper for a land or a removal spell.
Ponder is way worse in grindy matchups, though. For example, I think Preordain is superior in the mirror match. The reason is that games go long and Preordain gives you improved quality in the long term because Preordain doesn't force you to have to keep shuffling your deck to get maximum value out of it. With Ponder, you usually want one or two cards and to shuffle away the third. That means you must keep deploying more and more fetch lands over the course of the game to fetch away cards when you'd rather stop hitting your land drops. You also have to often keep one or two weak cards to facilitate a good one, when Preordain lets you keep only the good ones and none of the bad.
I think Toxic Deluge is just better than Marsh Casualties in this strategy. Previously, I played a 1-1 split of the two cards, but now I really like a Toxic Deluge main and a second copy in the side. Marsh Casualties can sometimes be better against Grixis Delver than Deluge because Deluge also sweeps up Strixes. However, Deluge can also kill Gurmag Angler and is surprisingly effective in the mirror match and is great against decks like Steel Stompy. Plus, if you've never Deluged for seven to kill Griselbrand, then have you ever actually lived?
I made a claim to Brad and Seth that Four-Color Control didn't have any bad matchups in Legacy except for Grixis Delver. I also made a claim that my personal floor in the tournament – the worst I could possibly do with the deck – was 14-0, and my ceiling was 16-0. The difference in those two wins, of course, being whether we made it to the Top 4 or not.
These claims were both exaggerations and complete lies, but it turned out to not be by that much. I only lost two matches throughout the 16 rounds we played, and both were to Lucas Siow playing the mirror with a teched-out version that only played one main deck Force of Will and a lot more grindy elements.
I would like to say that I won all those matches because of my insane skill with the deck, but in reality I drew Jace the Mind Sculptor on turn four on an empty board quite a few times, which was pretty nice. While I drew very well, the deck is also just very good.
It has a strong combo matchup, especially after sideboard when Surgical Extraction, Flusterstorm and friends get into the deck, and it is surprisingly quite good against various Chalice of the Void strategies like Eldrazi, Steel Stompy and Mono-Red Prison. I even think the deck is quite favored against Turbo Depths. Lands can be a tough matchup, but even then I have been mostly beating Lands on Magic Online testing and in events. Turns out the only matchup you can't win is the actual mirror match.
Brad, Seth and I ended up making it all the way to the finals where we lost to the team of Morgan McLaughlin, Chris Harabas and Lucas Siow, who also defeated us in round nine. They completely dominated that tournament – they were in first place at the end of the swiss rounds and had played against all the 2nd-8th place teams, beating most if not all of them. It was a dominant performance, one I would have liked to have stopped, but we were simply not powerful enough.
Still, we were very happy with second place. Brad and Seth had never made the Top 4 of a team GP before, and were growing disillusioned with team tournaments. I had only one previous one myself, having made Top 4 of GP Sao Paulo in Brazil in 2016 with Shaheen Soorani and Pascal Maynard. While some teams like Huey, Reid, and Owen make this look easy, we fought hard to finally get that GP Top 4 and our efforts finally paid off.
Three control decks in 2018? Who would have thought you could make the finals of a GP that way. A few years back, this would have been madness to suggest, but Control is back, baby. We slayed a lot of opponents along the way, but we also slayed our biggest opponent in this tournament. It wasn't our fears. It wasn't our doubts. It wasn't our worry that we weren't good enough, that we were cursed, that we'd never get that team GP top 4.
No. It was the time clock. Three control decks? Yikes.
- Brian Braun-Duin