Modern feels a lot like early 2000s Legacy to me, and maybe that's why I can't seem to get enough of the format. Despite the fact that most of the best decks in Modern are combo decks, none of them are particularly scary or broken. The fastest combo decks require you to jump through a ton of hoops, organize a handful of cards all at the same time and, to achieve the speed they Threaten, they fold to most any disruption from the opponent.
This is an apple that fell pretty close to the "Iggy-Pop" tree, and I'm ok with that. When it comes to fair decks, they all just seem like versions of Jund, and Jund is always powerful but never threatening – kind of like the old Zoo and engine-Survival decks in Legacy. They were always good decks, but you always felt like there was something more powerful you could (and probably should) be playing. So, despite its flaws – of which there are plenty – Modern feels a lot like the Legacy I fell in love with years ago, and that has a lot to do with why I enjoy it so much now.
This weekend I had a rare opportunity to play in a local Modern PPTQ. I don't like the PPTQ system at all, something I've been quite vocal about on social media (we'll get there later), but despite these reservations I still enjoy the format and wouldn't mind getting back on the Pro Tour, so I thought I'd give it a shot. Having played little Modern in the past few months, my expectations weren't running high, I was basically hoping to see some friends and play a little Splinter Twin. For those of you who aren't aware, my most recent "old" PTQ win was with UR Twin to qualify for PT KTK, so I know the deck quite well and had a high degree of confidence that I could play competently, even fairly cold.
I did as most of us do and went to recent event Top 8s to find a list I liked and I came up with Rudy Briksza's Grixis list from a Star City Super IQ on 7/5:
My personal play style with Twin is more akin to a tempo-control deck, using the multitude of small advantage spells to nickel and dime my opponent to death, rather than going all-in on the combo out of the gates. For that reason I chose to swap a third Pestermite for the fourth Exarch, putting me on a 3/3 split. I also switched out the Dispel in the board for a Mizzium Skins, because I have an obsession with that card, and it happens to be a rare way to "counter" an Abrupt Decay on your combo guy. Those were the only changes I made. I was a bit hesitant to go into an event sporting only two Remands, but I was impressed with how well the deck played despite only having the two.
There were a high-40s number of players for a six round event.
R1 – Ben – Living End
A bad matchup, though his only having four Living Ends means our Counterspells line up well with his deck. Unfortunately I didn't draw them at opportune times, nor did I draw Spellbomb in game two, so it was a moot point. A quick loss had me looking for commiseration from friends, and checking when the bar next door opens.
Quick note: Don't forget Grafdigger's Cage doesn't stop Living End. The creatures enter from exile, not from the graveyard.
R2 – Colin Chilbert – UB Mill
Another pretty miserable matchup, and Colin is one of the friends I was previously commiserating with. Our first game revolves around him missing his third land for a few turns. He can't get anything going, and has to small-ball mill me for a bit via Thought Scour. Eventually he does draw a few lands, but by then my team of crappy creatures is in range of lethal. We both make a pretty major error at one point, but his is bigger than mine and it costs him. Our second game he manages to mill and Surgical Extraction my Splinter Twins, acting as both a Duress and a way to shut me off my easiest route to victory. The game comes down to a mere card or two left in my library, but Colin manages to string the right cards together in the end. Game three was much like the first game, where his mana troubles cost him early and allowed me to get ahead on resources. Eventually I managed to stick a Blood Moon (which was situationally excellent but generally bad against his deck) cutting him off blue entirely and he waffled for a while with the black spells he could cast before succumbing to two power threats. The bar will have to wait.
R3 – Todd – Temur Delver
Both of these games were squeakers, with me winning at four life each time after some crazy hoop-jumping to keep the Tarmogoyfs and Scavenging Oozes and Hooting Mandrills off my back. Cryptic Command was obviously great here, but the surprise hero was Kolaghan's Command, which managed to allow Snapcaster Mage to trade up for bigger threats a number of times. In the end we pulled it out, but it was a close match for sure.
R4 – Ross – Abzan Midrange
On the other end of the "close match" spectrum, there was this round. Ross's deck was just not properly set up to deal with a deck like mine. Our first game, he was off to a fast start with Birds of Paradise into Loxodon Smiter, into Smiter number two, into Wilt-Leaf Liege. Unfortunately I had a turn three Pestermite into a turn four Splinter Twin and won the game at a healthy life total. The second game went much like the first, but this time I bolted the bird and he had a tough time recovering. Eventually he tapped out when I had the combo in hand and I went off unimpeded.
R5 – Travis – Jund
Travis is a good local player who has made a number of Top 8s at PPTQs, but now he stood in the way of me rolling through this tournament. I like Travis, but he was on the tracks and the Twin train was heading his way. Our first game went much more his way than mine. After winning the die roll he led off with an Inquisition that was particularly important, and followed up with a number of hand disruption spells to keep me from ever establishing a real path to victory. He sealed the deal with a Liliana that kept me from playing anything relevant. In both the remaining games, I managed to fight through the Lilis and hand disruption with a combination of Blood Moons and Keranos, God of Storms. It turns out that Keranos is really difficult for Jund decks to deal with once resolved. Keranos kept the board clear while the rest of the deck did the heavy lifting, and eventually we got to the point where Travis ran out of plays to make off two colors of his deck.
The top six players could ID for a relatively clean cut, while the winner of the 7/8 and 9/10 matchups would also make Top 8. I was seated in sixth, so I knew I was a lock with a draw.
4-1-1, Top 8
Quarterfinals – Grant – Eggs
Admittedly, I hadn't paid a lot of attention to what the Eggs deck looked like once they banned Second Sunrise. I knew the deck was still viable in theory, but with a pair of engine spells that cost a billion mana each I never really expected the deck to be good again. A Vendilion Clique in game one showed a pair of Open the Vaults alongside a Krark-Clan Ironworks, and I understood how the mana worked again. Leaving him the KCI (which was obviously the mana choke-point for the deck, having to resolve a four mana Sorcery speed spell), I let the Remands and Snapcasters do their job and tempo-ed him out. Our second game was much like the first, except I landed a turn two Nihil Spellbomb to make Grant's life extremely difficult. He told me after the match that he had the Echoing Truth, but by the time he had all the pieces together to win, he would have had to buy time with the Echoing Truth against my creatures and couldn't have won through the Spellbomb.
Semifinals – John – Monowhite Death & Taxes
I've never seen D&T in Modern before but I did watch John play a little through the day and the deck seemed interesting. A lot of decks had trouble with Leonin Arbiter plus Ghost Quarter, including me. Unfortunately John never went for that line against me and it ended up costing him as he gave me enough time to leverage my Electrolyzes, Kolaghan's Commands, and Lightning Bolts against his army of small creatures. He never got a good board presence, and I managed to stick the combo against his empty hand in two games.
Finals – Nick – Tempered Steel Affinity
Nick is easily one of the Top 4 players in the room at the start of the day and I would have expected to face him eventually. I think the matchup is very favorable for me, and though I am on the draw, I expect to be able to break serve at some point if he doesn't draw well.
I mulligan to five in game one and almost check out of the game but my five cards are Pestermite, Splinter Twin, Remand, and two red lands, so I see where it goes. Nick has a slow start with only a Signal Pest on turn one, and the Bolt I draw for the turn handles it. His second turn is just a Ravager, and I draw a land. I take a hit from a baby Ravager, Remand his Tempered Steel, and draw the fourth land off the Remand. I take another hit from his guys, and when he taps out to advance his board I make infinite faeries.
Game two is a bit more of a grind, but not in the way Nick would prefer. My turns are Bolt, Remand, Kolaghan's Command, Pestermite, and Snapcaster on Kolaghan's Command before Nick decides he's seen enough. My four-power team is facing down a single land on his side of the table, and Nick extends the hand.
Victory is ours!
A few quick hits on the build:
· Mizzium Skins was mediocre, but I didn't see many Abrupt Decays on the day. Dispel would have been fine in this slot.· I also saw no Collected Company decks, so the Grafdigger's Cage was beyond blank. The Sowing Salt fell into the same category, as I played no Tron or Amulet.· Kolaghan's Command was fantastic all day. It felt like Ancient Grudge finally grew up, and had the ability to serve a reasonable role in the deck beyond the Affinity matchup (but was still excellent there).· I didn't miss Tasigur, but I wouldn't have minded access to one or two copies had they been available in-game. It does take some of the pressure off the combo, but I've played UR Twin enough to feel comfortable playing the non-combo role without him.· Blood Moon was worse than I've seen it in a long time, but was still awesome. That card is just the best (or worst, depending on your perspective).· I dodged Burn, but having zero ways to interact with arguably the best deck in Modern other than racing seems like a shaky proposition. I'll need to put more thought into this issue, for sure.
Winning is great, and obviously I'm very excited to get the opportunity to compete at the upcoming Regional Pro Tour Qualifier in hopes of making the Pro Tour. However, I'd be a special kind of hypocrite if I were to suddenly applaud the merits of the PPTQ system simply because I happened to have won one. The fact that I am benefitting from the system on Saturday does not invalidate the concerns I had with it on Friday.
My Gripes with the PPTQ System
Winning a PPTQ doesn't feel like winning a PTQ. It feels like coming out of round three of a Grand Prix undefeated. You feel great because you're 3-0, but you also know in the back of your mind that there are other people out there who didn't have to work for their 3-0, who just got to show up and win without playing. Despite having put in some great work up to this point, you still have a bigger challenge ahead of you, and you know that if you don't succeed in this section of the tournament, you'll be back to round one and playing your way into even footing again.
I stretched that metaphor a bit far, sorry. The point here is that winning this event feels like a mere step, rather than an accomplishment. And there's not much associated with this win to look forward to. Now I need to prepare for an event where I get a single shot to do well – with no fallback option if I fail.
I understand there were issues with the old system. PTQs with players in the hundreds (not to mention the strange situations in non-North American locations) were becoming difficult to handle, and the choice was to either expand the number of PTQs – subsequently expanding the size of the Pro Tour – or to figure something else out. As it stands, the "something else" they've designed is a structure that maximizes the amount of feel-bads, and disincentivizes players who are trying to grind out PT invites via their system. All of the things people actually liked about the PTQ system – road trips with friends, multiple shots at garnering an invite throughout a season, etc. – are removed, and replaced with low-stakes events that feel more FNM than GP, and an incredibly high-stakes event where you're unlikely to be able to get a car full of friends qualified, so you're as likely to be testing and traveling alone as not.
A few things have changed since the inception of the new system, and those changes are for the better. Streamlining the formats for the PPTQ, RPTQ and PT is great – you don't need to learn Modern if you Q through Standard. Having players in fifth through eighth (in sub-128 player events) auto-qualify for the next RPTQ is a step in the right direction for removing some of the feel-bads. But much like winning a PPTQ, these solutions aren't the end of the road. They're just step one.
Once you qualify for the RPTQ, you can't play in further PPTQs for the remainder of the season. This means, if you Q week one, you are locked out for the rest of the season. You then go to the RPTQ months later, and get one shot to qualify for the Pro Tour, or else. Meanwhile, some of the players who have Qed in the last few weeks may have been grinding the format the whole season, and have a much better grasp of metagames, etc. This is a serious disadvantage for people winning early, and the stakes couldn't be higher.
In season one a slew of the RPTQs had fewer than 40 players, while a handful had over 70. This disparity is significant in that the former are just over the threshold for six rounds, while the latter sit in seven to eight round territory. It's difficult to argue that two more rounds in a tournament where you need to pre-qualify to attend makes the event much more difficult. Meanwhile, the system structure (how many invites are handed out) sees these events as effectively the same size. Statistically, you're nearly twice as likely to make Top 8 of a 40 player event as you are to Top 8 a 70 player event, and yet both have the same number of invites. 11% of the players at a 70 person RPTQ will lock up an auto-invite to the next as a minimum result, while 20% will do the same at a 40 player event. This disparity highly incentivizes players to game the system by travelling to smaller RPTQs (as Mike Flores demonstrated by flying to Utah for the RPTQ, rather than going to the one a mere two hours from his home in NYC). Statistically, the odds are just way too good not to. With stakes as high as they are, the "EV" of the smaller tournament is just massive.
I think there are ways to correct these issues. Most importantly, there needs to be incentive for a player to qualify for the RPTQ independent of the Pro Tour invite at the end of the rainbow, in order to make the events feel like a worthwhile accomplishment in-and-of themselves. Handing out special promos is a start, but they can and should do better. Whether that means increasing prize structure in a way that rewards players for accomplishing the invite, expanding the invites, or some other incentive I haven't come up with yet I don't know, but something should be changed. You need to feel like this is a big step towards something larger and a victory in making it this far, rather than making it feel like another obstacle. Perhaps even more importantly, you need to find a way to balance the scales on the event sizes, to make the difference between 40 and 80 player events less apparent. Doing calculations for expected value based on things outside the game itself makes the whole experience feel miserable, and it's something that absolutely must be done if you want to maximize your potential for making the Pro Tour in this system today.
As I said, I'm very excited to be one step closer to back on the PT. I feel great about my win, and plan to work hard preparing for the RPTQ. I played a skilled opponent in the finals and could easily have shown my distaste for the system by conceding, but the truth is the grind is worth it if you come out the other end with an invite. And that's exactly why I think this system needs to be looked at with a critical eye – the pot of gold is an enormous incentive to chase, but they can structure that chase in a way that falling short at any point prior to the pot of gold itself doesn't feel wretched.
Thanks for reading, and please share the article and your thoughts on the PPTQ system. The more discussion there is about the benefits and detriments to the system, the more likely we are to see positive change!