Observations from the Games Laboratory Modern Grand Prix Trial

This weekend past I had the opportunity to watch the final two rounds and Top 8 of Games Laboratory’s GPT in Melbourne. Walking around the tables and talking to the participants there was a diverse field and everyone was having a good time.
With Modern no longer a Pro Tour format, there is not the regular content there once was. Still, the format remains very popular in Melbourne, evidenced by the strong turnout despite two other events running on the same day. Given the abundant enjoyment and enthusiasm in the room, I wanted to give a quick recap of what I observed.

Fast decks were at the top tables
The Top 8 was: two Naya Burn (no Wild Nacatls), one Affinity (Steel Overseer), one Scapeshift (no Bring to Light), one Melira Company, one Infect, one Ad Nauseum and one Patriot Control.
Six fast decks and two Lightning Bolt with counterspell decks. This Top 8 selection was not reflective of the room overall. As I walked the middle tables I saw control and midrange decks, plus some brews. It was clear the faster decks had won the day and were taking home the prizes.

It is important to note the two ‘slow’ decks in the Top 8 were interacting with Lightning Bolt and counterspells; the middle tables also featured more of these decks than the other traditional Modern interactive suite of discard plus Abrupt Decay. More on this later.

Strong players were also at the top tables!
I have been out of the game for over a year, so I did not know everyone at the event. However, I knew seven in the Top 8. They were all above average or strong players.
Watching the Top 8, though there were some mistakes, I saw high level play by players very familiar with their decks. While we have to look to pre-Theros times, Modern was once a format dominated by the players who specialised in it. The Modern card pool is deep and the format traditionally open, unless there is a deck warping the meta (eg: UR Delver and UW Eldrazi). Rarely can a player step into an event with a new deck and be comfortable with everything thrown at them.

It was pleasing to see experienced players putting up the best results. Hopefully Modern, despite the dominance of aggressive strategies, is still trending back towards being a skill rewarding format.

Melira Company seems the deck to beat
I was fortunate to sit by Lachlan Singleton and watch his masterful run through the Top 8. All facets of the deck were on display: fast and explosive Collected Company draws, slow and grindy wins through Gavony Township and always fun mediocre creature beatdown plan.

Melira Company is appropriately proactive for the format, with many of the features which made Splinter Twin such a consistent performer: consistency, mostly good matchups and the capacity to win quickly. Melira Company has favourable matchups against Burn, Affinity and Infect – three of the best decks. Importantly, in the slower matchups there is an abundance of opportunities to leverage play skill.

Lachlan made a lot of nice plays, understanding well the delicate balance between increasing pressure and avoiding a wrath. Also impressive was his sequencing with the deck’s few instant speed spells. My favourite moment was in his semi-final, where in a relatively even board state, Lachlan decided to sacrifice a Birds of Paradise to Viscera Seer for the scry. Though the body is always relevant in a Gavony Township deck, and the mana too given the four Chord of Calling, Lachlan recognised the scry was more important and made the sacrifice at the first possible opportunity. His reward was a Collected Company atop the deck which he kept with a sheepish grin.

I have discussed Melira Company with local aficionado Chris Cousens many times since his Grand Prix Top 8 and am really impressed by what I see and hear about the deck. Right now Melira Company would seem the deck which most allows you to leverage play skill and format knowledge. It might be the case you see the rare sight of my sleeving up some green creatures in the near future.

I would not play midrange right now
There is something incredibly satisfying about playing a deck compromised of only the most powerful and efficient cards. Given the obvious power level, it was a surprise to see midrange doing so poorly. The problem, it occurred to me as the shape of the Top 8 became clear, the format currently pulls in too many directions at once for a midrange deck to succeed.

Allow me to explain:
Against aggressive decks like Infect and Affinity, you need a draw of interactive spells and pressure to close the game quickly. Any creature which slips through the cracks could be lethal from pump spells or Cranial Plating, and if you do not close the game fast they will continue to draw threats until something connects. To win demands a fairly specific draw from a midrange deck, so while they might be decent pairings, you can easily lose two to zero.

Against a deck like Patriot Control, comprised entirely of flash two-for-one value creatures, removal and counterspells, your entire removal package is horrendous. While early threats like Tarmogoyf are strong, Patriot Control can take a reasonable beating to leave up counterspells before later answering the board. Counterspells generate huge tempo swings against midrange’s three through five drops and then, in conjunction with Snapcaster Mage later on, lock out the game. These games demand you draw your cards in the right order, or you simply will not mount anything resembling game winning pressure.

Finally there are decks like Burn and Scapeshift which fight on limited axis, thus posing a mix of the above problems – now you can draw one too many removal or too few threats and lose badly, in addition to the aforementioned problems.

It certainly is not the case midrange cannot succeed in Modern. Jund continued to have success since the inception of the format and more recently, Abzan midrange has been a competitive choice too. The issue is building a deck to tackle such a diverse field is very difficult, and it is not surprising midrange performed poorly while the format is still unsettled. As the format becomes more predictable and the exact suit of discard, removal and threats can be refined midrange should put up better results.

Sword of the Meek and Ancestral Visions are not Splinter Twin
With the ban list changes in April, there was real hope (from some of us!) there could be a top-tier Blue Control deck in the format. By now, it is very clear this will not occur. From what I saw and talking to participants, there were Sword of the Meek plus Gifts Ungiven decks at the lower tables, producing results consistent with everyone else not named Gerry Thompson.

Two players in particular I spoke with, whom I would consider good players, had poor showings which is pretty damning. I do think the more proactive Tezzeret shell is better suited to the format’s demands, but given the prohibitive price tag I would not expect to see it turn up in large numbers any time soon.

I was told there was a single Ancestral Vision deck in the event. While Paul Mitchell made the semi-finals, Ancestral Vision looked somewhat unimpressive in the games I observed, and it hardly a surprise to see Paul make a strong finish. We played our league match afterwards, and while he decimated me quickly, Ancestral Vision was also a non-issue in those games. Considering how Ancestral Vision lines up against the other decks make the Top 8, I would not expect to see more copies placing in the future.

Neither card achieves what Splinter Twin did for Blue decks – a quick path to victory, coupled with ever-present pressure to limit your opponent’s plays. The threat of Twin made medicore creature beats actually threatening, the impact of counterspells much greater and compensated strongly for the weakness of Blue card draw in the format (infinite damage is good like that).

Blue decks remain desperate for ways to stay proactive. Perhaps there will be relief in a future set, or maybe Grixis variants with Delve creatures can be explored again.

Final thoughts
The event was great and the successful players should be proud of their accomplishments. I am quite excited to play some Modern, though invariably I will play “Fazz-tier-garbage” until competitive events are again a possibility, after which Chris Cousens can tell me what to do. You can never go too far wrong playing good decks as recommended by players better than yourself.

On a personal note, this was the first live event I journeyed to since my suspension and honestly, I was nervous about the reception I would receive. Happily I can report many players went out of their way to include me in discussion and make me feel welcome. Thank you everyone ^^

Finally, there is a great Pauper League starting up in Melbourne soon, so you will see some content along those lines in the near future.

– Zem

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