[Note: I wrote this prior to Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan to document my Modern testing and deck selection leading up to the tournament.]
Qualifying for the modern Pro Tour has its pros and cons. For me, one of the most exciting parts about the PT is the deckbuilding and testing that goes into trying to solve a fresh format.
For a standard Pro Tour there are rotations and printings from the new set that always shake up the format. There is a lot of work to be done to develop an understanding of how the new format will take shape. I used to spend a lot of time thinking about new cards as they got spoiled, brewing new archetypes in my head, finding new synergies to build around, and writing decklists on scraps of paper or on my computer. I’ve stopped doing that lately and instead choose to wait for the Pro Tour to establish a metagame before I put a lot of thought into my own opinions on standard. Attending a standard Pro Tour would give me a reason to dive back into that early discovery process which was always a lot of fun.
But trying to solve a format is a lot of work. It’s a lot of work in a short amount of time which gives an edge to the bigger teams of pro players. The best players working together in a house full-time for a couple weeks are going to come out with a much better picture of the format and more tuned decks than an individual testing part-time at home. Modern on the other hand I could start testing as soon as I qualified in October – more than 3 months of testing time ahead of the Pro Tour in February. Not only did I have much more time to test, I’ve played modern a lot so I already knew the format fairly well.
I’d prefer the excitement of unpacking a fresh format even though it would put me at a disadvantage to the bigger teams in the actual tournament. Testing for this modern Pro Tour so far has felt no different than testing for any other tournament with an established metagame. It didn’t feel special and I want my first Pro Tour (or any Pro Tour) to feel special and exciting!
But I don’t get a choice in the matter, so let’s talk about the modern format.
The State of Modern
I’ve played more than 100 hours of modern in over 50 competitive leagues totaling 247 matches.
I tried a lot of the top decks and did equally mediocre with all of them: Affinity, Humans, Burn, Grixis Death’s Shadow. I tried some newer or less played decks that were still being innovated and did equally mediocre with all of them: UR Moon, Goryo’s Vengeance, UW Control, Esper Death’s Shadow, Jund Death’s Shadow.
The more I tested modern the more I realized there wasn’t much to learn. There are dozens of viable decks and no best deck. No number of hours invested was going to turn up a deck with a clear advantage.
At that point, preparing for Modern was a hopeless feeling. If it’s impossible to gain a strategic advantage through deck selection and tuning, even if you had infinite time and resources available, then what’s the point of investing any time or any resources to testing the format at all?
Without a strategic advantage available, I focused the remainder of my time on gaining a tactical advantage: playing one or two decks a lot and knowing them very well. The best you can do in modern is pick a playable deck, know your matchups, know how to sideboard and know your lines of play against as much of the field as possible. This has been the advice in modern for awhile and it’s particularly true now in a meta as unfocused as this one.
What Others Think of Modern
I use social media to help calibrate my own opinions about decks and formats. It turns out my feeling of hopelessness testing for modern is shared by many. Here are some examples of what others have been saying about the modern format as they look ahead to the Pro Tour:
‘When exploring the Modern format, one thing that you come to accept is that the overwhelming majority of decks are exactly fine. Many of these decks present the occasional absurd hand that makes you want to believe that you’ve found something special… Don’t fall for it. It’s just another one of the fine decks that you can play if you want to.’
– Ryan Overturf, Fact Or Fiction: Modern At The Pro Tour
‘Modern right now doesn’t have a deck to beat. It hasn’t had a best deck for over six months. Is <insert deck name> good? Yes. Are people going to put it into their testing gauntlets? Yes. But no one is bending over backwards trying to combat it when it’s likely to take up a maximum of five percent of the field. Modern is too diverse a format to devote that kind of energy to a single archetype.’
– Ross Merriam, Fact Or Fiction: Modern At The Pro Tour
Joel Larsson was asked about his Pro Tour testing on stream:
Viewer: ‘Joel, what are you thinking about playing at the Pro tour?’
Joel: ‘I’m not going to say that here.’
Viewer: ‘Have you tried Titan Shift?’
Joel: ‘I have tried most things, yes. I don’t like anything. That’s all I can say.’
‘In December I played Modern for about 120 hours, used 15 different decks, and all of them had roughly the same win percentage give or take a few duds. I went 3-2 in 80% of my leagues. That statistic is completely fabricated, but that’s how it felt.’ … ‘My tactic of learning to hate every deck might not have been optimal, as every time I tried a new deck I quickly realized it was just like every other one out there.’
– Brad Nelson, Opinions On Modern
Modern at the Pro Tour
One of the romantic notions I have about the Pro Tour is an image of the top testing teams huddled up in a house locked away from the prying eyes of the outside world trying to find the secret tech that breaks a new format.
I don’t believe that’s what’s happening for Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan. Most pros seem to share my opinion that there is no best deck in modern. With an unsolveable format on our hands, it’s not worth trying to ‘break it’. The format has way too many decks to test everything, even with a large testing team.
For this reason, I don’t expect there to be as many ‘team decks’ as you would normally see. I expect individual players to register what they are personally comfortable with.
The Pro Tour won’t be as diverse as an open modern field like a Grand Prix or an SCG event; those events have a lot of tier 2 or 3 brews and pet decks that people bring to events just for fun. Pro players will mostly be choosing from among the top tier and known deck options but the field won’t be as concentrated as a standard Pro Tour where multiple teams may all land on the exact same deck.
I would be surprised if the most played deck at this Pro Tour was more than 10-12%. This makes it unrewarding to try to metagame the tournament. Since there’s no best deck, the format is more fragmented, which means there’s also no way to choose a metagame deck (a deck that performs well against a specific expected field).
Again this tells us that deck selection is not the key to this format or this tournament; getting favorable pairings, having a good sideboard (and drawing your sideboard cards), knowing your deck and playing it well are what matter in modern. My testing focused on these elements that were in my control: building my sideboard and getting hours of practice.
The decks I expect to face and want to have a plan for are: Grixis Death’s Shadow, Storm, UWx Control, Humans and Tron. All had been very popular online and in recent paper events. Affinity and Burn also had significant representation in the online metagame, but the prevailing wisdom from pros that I’ve been paying attention to seemed to indicate that these two archetypes had lost some of their edge in modern over the years as other decks have gotten better. They are still common in open tournaments but I don’t expect as many pros to bring these at the Pro Tour.
TLDR; I expect the Pro Tour metagame to more or less reflect the paper meta game but due to pro player biases I’d expect:
- A slightly higher representation of Death’s Shadow, UWx Control and Storm
- A slight lower representation of Burn, Affinity and Tron.
The one possible exception to my metagame hypothesis is Lantern Control. Lantern is a deck that doesn’t see a lot of play in open fields: it’s unintuitive, difficult to play, risks going to time and is not very fun for most players to play with or against so nobody plays it. But there are have been rumblings in the community that Lantern might be the best deck in the format.
If there were ever a tournament where ‘fun’ and ‘difficulty to play’ are basically non-factors, the Pro Tour is it. This is a deck that might actually get the Pro Tour team testing machine churning and if teams do break it there is a chance this will be a Lantern Control Pro Tour which will be miserable for everyone involved: players, commentators, viewers and Wizards of the Coast included.
There was a lot of buzz about the Whir of Invention builds of Lantern about two months before the Pro Tour. I was worried that the deck might be the hot new thing headed into the event. At the modern events since, the deck has been basically non-existant. I know that the GP/SCG/Magic Online field at large is unlikely to pick up Lantern. But a part of me is worried that the pro community is sitting on the deck knowing that they wanted to tested it extensively for the Pro Tour.
After 247 matches of modern with a wide variety of decks I have a 54.3% win rate in the Magic Online competitive leagues.
Early on I tried a lot of different archetypes. Every deck I played fell into two categories:
- I was able to rule it out pretty quickly (due to results or play style) OR
- It felt ‘OK’ and won slightly more than 50%
I didn’t have time to play 20 leagues with every deck in the format, which is what it actually takes to get a reasonable sampling of games and matchups to make conclusions about a deck. I decided to pick one of the decks I was comfortable with and just spend hours working with it.
I spent a lot of hours playing Monowhite Death & Taxes and Death’s Shadow variants.
Monowhite is a deck that has been popping up in online results for awhile. I first tried it after Brian Coval won an SCG Invitational with it at the end of June 2017. I have a lot of experience with Aether Vial/Flickerwisp strategies. I’ve played Legacy Death & Taxes. GW Hatebears was my first ever modern deck. I really enjoy the gameplay and have a lot of practice with the cute tricks that Flickerwisp enables. When I picked up the deck I really didn’t think it was going to be very good in modern. It looked much too slow and durdly for the format, but for some reason I kept winning. One advantage as a less played deck is that other players will be less prepared to play against it.
I hadn’t played much modern at all since then, but I decided to go back to the deck and try it again. Right away I was consistently getting 4-1 and 3-2 finishes in leagues. It was still winning and after a lot of poor results with the ‘top decks’ of the format this got my attention. I continued to try other decks but I kept coming back to this one, trying new flex cards and sideboard cards, tinkering with new utility lands and building the deck to my liking. In all, I played 121 matches with the deck (nearly 50% of my total modern matches). I had a record of 76-45 for a 62.8% win rate. This is not only significantly better than my performance with other decks, but actually a win rate I’m more than happy with in the format.
Death’s Shadow is one of the best decks in the format, so I really wanted to give it my best effort. One thing I didn’t want to look back on and regret for this Pro Tour was registering an underpowered deck when I had better options available. I was afraid that I’d be doing this if I played monowhite.
With Shadow I was nervous about signing up for a deck where I’d probably be outplayed in my mirror matches. This wouldn’t necessarily stop me from playing it, since one of the best ways to get better is to play against opponents who are better than you. That’s the long-term view but it may sacrifice good results in the short term. That’s a separate decision I’d have to decide if I was willing to make.
I’ve played Grixis Death’s Shadow at small events for awhile now in modern. I enjoy playing Snapcaster-value decks and I think playing a turn 1 discard spell is one of the best ways to defend yourself against a wide open field. I was having success playing with Temur Battle Rage in Grixis and it felt like that added burst of speed was necessary in the format. I decided that if TBR was the way to go, why not go back to the original Jund-focused lists that were built around abusing TBR? The deck was more threat dense with Tarmogoyf and Traverse the Ulvenwald. What it gained in threat density and explosiveness, it lost in the ability to get value and grind in the late game.
I did well with Jund Death’s Shadow at first and almost considered switching to it. I had won 53.2% of my matches but I knew I punted away a good number of wins learning the deck. It would take a lot more hours to get more proficient with the deck; more hours than I probably had between then and the Pro Tour. However, once I remembered that it basically couldn’t win against the value gameplan of Grixis Death’s Shadow I decided that was a non-starter for this Pro Tour anyway.
This decision locked me in to monowhite. After a couple months of testing and 45 leagues I still hadn’t gotten a modern trophy. I went back to the deck and focused on tuning the last few slots. In my next two leagues I went 9-1 and finally got my first 5-0 modern trophy. I still wouldn’t say I’m confident in my deck choice, but I can’t argue with the results and I know that it’s good enough to do well.
I continued to agonize over the final flex slots and sideboard choices up until the deck registration deadline. Here’s the final list that I registered for the Pro Tour.
The core of the WW deck is eight 4-ofs (Vial, Thraben Inspector, Arbiter, Thalia, Splicer, Flickerwisp, Restoration Angel and Path). [Note that I’m not including the Eldrazi package that includes Eldrazi Displacer and Thought-Knot Seer. I started testing this archetype with TKS but with Resto and TKS there are too many 4-drops and I think Resto is too good not to play on both raw stats and synergy in this archetype. Playing Eldrazi Temple does give the deck more turn 2 plays, but losing Tectonic Edge takes away from the focus of the mana denial strategy.].
With 23 lands, that leaves 5 flex slots. I’ve seen these slots filled with Weathered Wayfarer, Smuggler’s Copter, Phyrexian Revoker, Selfless Spirit, Eldrazi Displacer, Thalia, Heretic Cathar, and Aven Mindcensor. These are metagame slots that can be used to tune the deck. My preference is to favor the cheaper cards to fill out the curve since the core of the deck only has eight 2-drops with the Arbiters and Thalias. I would like to have at most one 3-drop among the five flex slots.
The big breakthrough for me was including Relic of Progenitus in the main deck. Monowhite is already a very slow deck by modern standards so it’s really important to have early plays. For that reason Thraben Inspector was a vital printing for the deck. Adding Relics gives the deck ten 1-mana plays. As a cycler, it’s a disruptive card with low opportunity cost which helps smooth out the early turns of the game. The maindeck graveyard hate is relevant against a lot of format, ranging from incidental upside against delve threats, Snapcaster Mage, and Lingering Souls to a bullet against some unfair decks like Dredge, Goryo’s Vengeance or Storm. But the biggest benefit is freeing up sideboard slots in a format where sideboard cards are at an absolute premium.
With two Relics, I went with x2 Selfless Spirit and x1 Phyrexian Revoker as my final three flex slots for this particular tournament. I was worried about an over-representation of Supreme Verdicts in the Pro Tour field and hedged against that with the Selfless Spirits. Phyrexian Revoker was a last minute addition as the final flex slot to hedge against Lantern Control and Tron.
The sideboard can really be customized depending on the meta. The sideboard Gideons were added late in testing and did a lot of work to improve a sketchy UWx control matchup. I included Ratchet Bombs pretty early in testing as a way to combat Humans and they earned their keep throughout testing as flexible answers to explosive creature decks (Elves, Humans, Affinity), tokens (Mardu Pyromancer, other Lingering Souls decks, and the Empty the Warrens plan from Storm) and decks with troublesome non-creature permanents (specifically Lantern). In the hours before registration I made room for two Stony Silence out of fear of Affinity and Lantern, cutting the second Mirran Crusader (which Death’s Shadow decks have adapted to beat anyway) and shifting the second Revoker into the main deck (cutting a singleton Aven Mindcensor since I didn’t expect a lot of RG Valakut).
I’ll write more about the deck, some of the card choices, its place in the format and my sideboard plan when I write my tournament report about the Pro Tour itself.
Modern as a Pro Tour format offers a more level playing field for individual players who aren’t on big testing teams. The format itself is very diverse and as long as you play a good deck that you know well, you’ll have a chance to win. Variance in the pairings (getting good matchups) and game play (drawing sideboard cards) also contribute to evening the playing field between top pros and RPTQ winners or first-time PT players.
Format specifics aside, an eternal format at the Pro Tour evens the playing field for individuals against the bigger testing teams. The format is well established so hours of focused testing has a lot less value.
That said, preparing for this modern Pro Tour has been truly unexciting and anti-climactic because the format is well established so hours of focused testing has a lot less value.
I’m excited to play in my first Pro Tour. Even though I didn’t enjoy playing hours of modern, I didn’t want to go into my first PT thinking I could’ve done more to practice. I’m not exactly satisfied to be registering a deck of mopey white creatures, but it’s been the deck that has been performing the best in my hands which is what counts.
Now I’m just going to have to qualify for a standard Pro Tour so I can get the full testing experience.