Grixis Death’s Shadow (GDS) is currently considered the ‘best’ deck in the Modern format. However, in Modern the metagame is so wide and open that it is very hard for any deck to really be the best and even if it is, it won’t be by a significant margin. After winning a PPTQ in the middle of the season I was slightly lost on where to direct my testing and Magic playing as the Standard format was defunct and the Limited format was going to change with the next set release. Team Axion’s captain, Tom Law, suggested that with the Modern PPTQ and Grand Prix Birmingham coming up I should invest some time into learning Modern, a format I’ve traditionally struggled in.
I have played a variety of decks over the years in Modern: Twin, Infect, Tron, Amulet, Burn, Bant Eldrazi, Elves, Merfolk, Scapeshift, Affinity and a smattering of others. I’ve had some small success with some of these decks but have never had a deck I’ve felt comfortable with and enjoyed. As I had some time to spend testing I decided to pick up the ‘best’ deck and try to learn it. So I spent the next few weeks playing GDS non-stop in Modern leagues on Magic Online. I tested various builds, configurations, sideboard cards and learnt the deck and the match ups fairly well. The thing I enjoyed most about the deck was that it was incredibly important to sequence things correctly and in most instances when I lost it was possible to identify why I lost; either the keep, an incorrect scry, mismanagement of life total, cycling a Street Wraith at the wrong time, incorrectly assessing threats etc. etc. I genuinely felt that I had a lot of agency in the matches, which isn’t always the case in Modern, and that I could win a lot if I played well.
For the Grand Prix itself I decided to run the list I’d had the most experience with, a version with nineteen lands rather than eighteen and Sleight of Hand which has become more popular. I decided that I wanted access to a Lightning Bolt in the deck as an answer to Mirran Crusader specifically. The sideboard slots were changing somewhat in the lead up to the event as I hadn’t been playing any graveyard hate in most of the PPTQs I’d been playing in as the number of decks I’d bring them in against simply wasn’t worth the slots. However, for a tournament as large as a Grand Prix I was expecting to face at least a couple of graveyard based decks and wanted to have access to a big haymaker hate card. This, coupled with the applications for the mirror match, made the choice of Leyline of the Void fairly easy for me. I had spoken with both Kanister and Magnus Lantto on Magic Online about Nihil Spellbomb in the mirror and they agreed it wasn’t very good whereas Leyline on turn zero could be crippling. My sweeper of choice was Kozilek’s Return; having tested Anger of the Gods, Pyroclasm and Kozilek’s Return I firmly believed that K-Return was the best option. The instant speed allow you to catch Affinity creature lands in combat as well as play it in a far better spot than sorcery speed sweepers allowed against most decks. The other sideboard cards were all locked as they had important applications in various match ups. That is other than the Disdainful Stroke which was a relatively late additional in anticipation of a rise in popularity of Valakut decks where it is able to hit both Primeval Titan and Scapeshift in the late game and thus protect you from their best top decks. I was happy with the process of building the list and the sideboarding decisions leading up to the tournament and would be unlikely to make any serious changes going forward, although I suspect the eighteen land versions might well be superior.
Tournament reports don’t seem to be that popular these days on the big Magic websites but I have always enjoyed them a great deal and therefore will be giving a report of the tournament round-by-round. I will attempt to discuss the wider thought processes and key aspects of the match ups as I go and will also talk about the sideboarding in each match. As a note on sideboarding you will see that Street Wraith is taken out a lot; this is because you can take out a velocity card frequently to replace it with a higher impact card for the specific match up. The life cost is also much more important in some match ups and you would rather not have a card which realistically only ever costs you life to replace it with a new card.
Round One - Bye
Round Two - Bye
Round Three - Kevin Gameiro, Death and Taxes
This match up is mostly about the disruption they can present and Mirran Crusaders. They have quite good disruption with Path to Exile, Flickerwisp, Ghost Quarters, Thalia and Leonin Arbiters as well as presenting a reasonable ‘go-wide’ style board. These factors can make it a difficult deck to beat for GDS but their cards are individually relatively low power on their own and require some synergies to perform better than most Limited decks. The aim is to kill their key cards, discard any Mirran Crusaders and protect a large threat from Path with either Stubborn Denial or a discard spell. It is also important to be aware of the tricks they can do with Flickerwisps and the potential cards they have access to through Vial. These tricks include a Vial on two putting in Leonin Arbiter in response to fetchlands, Vial on three putting in Flickerwisps at inopportune moments or on four putting in a Restoration Angel in response to removal spells. The more astute DnT players may also attack your red mana specifically so you should try to avoid exposing it early unless it is necessary or you have a back-up.
I won the die roll and kept a hand with a removal spell, some cantrips and a discard spell, which I fired off on turn one and saw Kevin had a hand with a solid curve but only a single land and an Aether Vial. I took the Aether Vial and whilst Kevin valiantly deployed Thraben Inspectors for the next several turns he never found a second land and died to my Zombie Fish and Death’s Shadow.
In terms of sideboarding for this match up I tend to cut Street Wraiths and some discard in favour of Kozilek’s Returns, Engineered Explosives, Liliana, the Last Hope and Izzet Staticaster. Post-sideboard you can play a slightly slower game as you have Kozilek’s Return to deal with Mirran Crusader, which in the first game you have very few answers to which forces you to play aggressively before they draw one or even multiples.
The second game saw Kevin mulliganing to six and playing a land and passing on the first turn. I cast a discard spell and saw a weak hand with a Path, a Resoration Angel and a Leonin Arbiter. I took the Arbiter and made a mental note to leave a fetch land in play to have revolt to kill the Angel when Kevin played it. Kevin was unable to find any relevant action and I cast a Liliana, the Last Hope on turn three and then killed his Restoration Angel with a Fatal Push when he cast it on the end of my fourth turn; having cracked a fetch first to enable revolt. He was forced into the awkward position of casting a Flickerwisp to prevent the ultimate of Liliana and sacrificing it to the +1 ability to buy turns. I had been cantripping aggressively to find an answer to a Mirran Crusader in case Kevin drew one, as this is his most likely route to victory from this spot. Once I found a Kozilek’s Return the game felt firmly under my control and Kevin scooped to the Liliana a few turns later. It is worth noting that I was aggressively scrying away creature threats due to the Path in Kevin’s hand and looking simply for more answers to protect the Liliana. If I hadn’t had the planeswalker threat I would have been looking for multiple threats to attempt to overload his removal in addition to an answer to Mirran Crusader.
Round Four - Manuel Luis, Affinity
Manuel is a player from my area and a friend of mine. He is a strong player and I knew he was playing Affinity having lost to him in a PPTQ the weekend before. Manuel mulliganed in the first game and produced a mediocre draw which I was able to dismantle with a handful of removal spells backed up by an early Gurmag Angler.
In this match up I believe that in game one it is very important to have Death’s Shadow as a threat against a good Affinity draw as removal spells will often be outpaced by either Cranial Plating or early damage into an Etched Champion, a card GDS cannot interact with in game one. These two cards, Cranial Plating and Etched Champion, are the key cards in the match up and dictate the pace of the game from the Affinity side. As the GDS player you should attempt to stay out of range of Galvanic Blast as much as possible and factor in a hit from a Champion or the potential for a topdecked Cranial Plating and equip into these calculation. This may include leaving up removal on certain turns or not firing off a Snapcaster-Fatal Push sequence too aggressively.
My sideboard plan for this match up is similar to other aggressive match ups as I sideboard out Street Wraiths and some discard. I sideboard in Kozilek’s Returns, which is exceptional in the match up as both an answer to Etched Champion and potentially the creature lands, Ceremonious Rejection, which should be hoarded for Etched Champion or Cranial Plating most of the time, Izzet Staticaster and Engineered Explosives.
The second game saw Manuel take another mulligan and dump his hand of 0-drops on the first turn, including a Mox Opal and no lands. I passed after playing a fetchland, took a couple of points of damage and then Fatal Pushed the Arcbound Ravager Manuel deployed on his second turn using the Opal and a Springleaf Drum. My turn two play was Engineered Explosives on 0 and immediately sacrifice it, which destroyed most of Manuel’s board and crippled his mana. From there the game was effectively over and whilst I ended the game at a low life total it was unlikely Manuel would recover after the EE play.
It is also important to note that many Affinity lists these days have Blood Moon in their sideboard and will bring it in against GDS. I do not believe that it is really possible to play around it too much in the first few turns of the game as Affinity is still an incredibly fast aggro deck and establishing your mana in order to cast spells in a timely fashion is more important than avoiding getting blown out by Blood Moon. However, it is something to be aware of and whenever possible one should try to at least get the Swamp into play or leave open a fetch land to grab it if the opponent does have Blood Moon.
Round Five - Foo Xin, Eldrazi Tron
Eldrazi Tron is an odd deck; combining some of the aspects of a Tron deck, with the lands and the maps and Karn Liberated, with some of the aspects of the Eldrazi decks such as Matter Reshaper, Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher. The absolutely most important card in this match up is Chalice of the Void as a Chalice on one will shut off most of the GDS deck. It is possible to Kolaghan’s Command away the Chalice but that is often too slow and you’ll end up getting beaten up pretty badly in the meantime. Generally speaking their threats don’t line up that well against yours as your creatures are bigger than theirs but your life total is often low which leaves you exposed to Walking Ballista pinging you to death. All is Dust will also often end the game on the spot. As with many match ups in Modern you desperately want to have discard spells early against Eldrazi Tron to disrupt their frequently awkward curves and take the Chalice, which they lean on heavily.
Foo led on a Tron land and an Expedition Map and I led on a discard spell seeing a hand of Matter Reshaper, All is Dust, Thought-Knot Seer, Karn and Ghost Quarter. I took the TKS as I had a removal spell for the Reshaper and knew my draw should be fast enough to invalidate the expensive cards unless the third Tron piece rolled off the top. Foo simply played a land and passed on turn two, which wasn’t as impressive as my cycle Street Wraith, play shockland and make two Death’s Shadows. The Reshaper came down and I untapped, fetched, shocked and killed it with a Kolaghan’s Command before smashing with the Death’s Shadows. Foo discarded the All is Dust to the Kolaghan’s Command, which I found surprising given it is likely his best out if he can draw into Tron. This did give me the information that he must have a different plan however and I should be wary of my life total for potential Ballistas or Reality Smashers. He played a Ballista on 2 and passed, choosing to chump block with it and not pinging me as I had a fetch land out. I Thought Scoured myself and made a Tasigur, which swiftly chumped the Smasher Foo played on the following turn and we proceeded to game two.
My sideboarding for Eldrazi Tron is simple - Fatal Push is pretty poor in the match up as nothing it kills is that valuable to kill, other than TKS and even then it isn’t great. So Push comes out and Rejections comes in as your most important card in post-sideboard games, countering every card from their deck if they don’t have a Cavern of Souls in play. I also sideboard in Engineered Explosives in order to deal with Chalice of the Void but also as a critical answer to Thopter tokens produced by Hangarback Walker, which otherwise tend to be impossible to beat. Dreadbore, Disdainful Stroke and Liliana of the Veil are all good cards to bring in and Lightning Bolt is an easy cut. Post-sideboard I believe the scariest cards from Eldrazi Tron are the Walking Ballista/Hangarback Walk duo, especially if the Eldrazi Tron player is experienced enough to cast them through a Cavern. However, Chalice is still incredibly hard to win through, Relic can cause a lot of disruption and All is Dust is also a huge threat. That said, the Eldrazi Tron deck has quite a lot of air and if you can interact early they often need to topdeck pretty well to beat you, which leaves you ahead as you can use Snapcasters and cantrips to sculpt your hand and they rely on just raw unadulterated topdecking.
The second game Foo leads on a Tron land and passes. I cast a discard spell and see that he has natural Tron but only a Reshaper and a Smasher as pay-off cards and promptly discard the Smasher. I am able to deploy some threats and hold up countermagic whilst Foo draws a combination of lands, maps and relics. On the penultimate turn of the game I have Ceremonious Rejection, Disdainful Stroke and a Snapcaster in hand but Foo has an Expedition Map which he uses to search for Cavern of Souls and I am terrified he has a Walking Ballista to kill me; he draws for the turn and reveals a hand of simply four lands, which cannot beat the 10/10 on other side of the board.
Round Six - Olli Radus, Jund
Olli mulligans and leads on a Blackcleave Cliffs but has no play. I am thinking about what deck he might be playing and run through a few options in my head of decks which would lead on the Black/Red fastland but have no play on the first turn. It never occurs to be that he might be playing good ol’ fashioned Jund. He reveals this on the second turn by playing a Verdant Catacombs and Inquisitioning me. My hand is fairly strong; some removal and cantrips alongside a Death’s Shadow. However, Olli decides to take Stubborn Denial from my hand and this is a very interesting choice on his part so I’d like to delve a little deeper into it. The Stubborn Denial is not ‘turned on’ yet and my hand is unlikely to be able to turn it on in additional to making the Death’s Shadow on the next turn. The Death’s Shadow is my only threat in hand and Olli doesn’t take that so he likely has an answer to it. He also doesn’t take a removal spell so he doesn’t have his own creature threat he wants to keep in play, such as a Dark Confidant. I puzzle on the selection and determine that he must be concerned about the ‘force spike’ mode on the Stubborn Denial and has a Liliana of the Veil in hand, which is a premier threat in the match up and the most likely reason to take the turned off Stubborn Denial. It is also possible that he was concerned about a potential Delve threat with Stubborn Denial to protect it the next turn. I draw a discard spell and all the thought is rendered irrelevant as Olli reveals a hand with Liliana, a Maelstrom Pulse, a Tarmogoyf, an Abrupt Decay but no third land. I take the Liliana. We proceed to play a game of trading resources back and forth as threat meets answer in classic midrange mirror style. However my draws of Snapcaster Mage and Kolaghan’s Command prove to be more powerful than Olli’s draws, demonstrating one of the inherent issues with Jund in Modern at the moment; it is trying to do the same thing as GDS but is simply a less powerful deck than GDS.
Sideboarding here is to set up to fight a midrange battle, which GDS is supremely well positioned to do. Both the Lilianas, Engineered Explosives and Dreadbore come in and Street Wraiths head to the sideboard once again. Some people advocate taking out discard spells in these kind of match ups, as was conventional wisdom in G/B/x mirrors in the past. However, I find that the games play out such that they will frequently have relevant cards in hand at most points in the game as the removal isn’t immediately deployed and you have some awkward to answer threats. The ability to take those more specific answers to your threats and the information you can gain by casting an early discard spell means that I am loathe to cut them here. The card I am most concerned about in both pre-sideboard and post-sideboard games is Liliana of the Veil as it cleanly answers my threats and can force me to play into their answers before I have the necessary tools to fight back.
In the second game Olli leads on a discard spell and my hand is very strong with my own discards spells and redundant threats and a Snapcaster. The hand was so redundant I don’t recall which card was chosen but my return discard spell saw a weaker hand with a Tarmogoyf and a removal spell. We traded removal for creature a couple of times before I landed a Death’s Shadow uncontested. The game continued for a couple of turns with the only truly interesting part being my decision to not crack a fetch land to keep open to potential to enable revolt against a 4-CMC creature such as Olivia or a Huntmaster. Olli cast a Huntmaster the turn after I cracked the fetch, so it is possible he was holding off on this play due to the potential for a Fatal Push answering it. I chose eventually to crack it to put him on a two-turn clock and he then used his turn to cast the Huntmaster. I had a Terminate and a Fatal Push which I fired off end of turn and then drew a fetch land for lethal damage.
Round Seven - Autumn Burchett, Naya Humans
Autumn is a well known face in the competitive scene in England and boasts a 9-1 constructed record from Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar as well as a slew of more local results. Autumn is a friend and I knew what deck I’d be facing this round and was not happy about it. In fact as the pairings went up someone asked my record and I said “6-0, about to be 6-1”. Autumn’s deck is a base Green/White Human Aggro deck with the recent inclusion of Magus of the Moon. The tribal aggressive decks aren’t great match ups for GDS in the first place and the full playset of both Mirran Crusader and Magus of the Moon made it even worse from my side.
There was an upside to knowing how bad my match up was against Autumn as I was able to keep a hand with my singleton Lightning Bolt in game one. Autumn led on some humans and I pushed them around a bit before the Mirran Crusader came out and I was able to Bolt it immediately. I repeatedly cast Snapcasters and flashbacked more and more removal against Autumn’s threats and managed to dodge a Collected Company long enough for the Snapcaster beats to get there.
Sideboarding for this match up is similar to the other aggro decks again with Street Wraiths coming out and Kozilek’s Returns coming in. I also bring in Engineered Explosives as an additional sweeper or a pre-emptive answer to Mirran Crusader or Magus of the Moon. Izzet Staticaster is a little slow typically, especially on the draw. Liliana, the Last Hope can be good but again it can be quickly outpaced on the draw. Dreadbore is a consideration for a large Champion of the Parish or Thalia’s Lieutenant.
The second game lasted a matter of minutes as Autumn played a turn one Noble Hierarch and I cast a discard spell seeing both Mirran Crusader and Magus of the Moon in hand. In this spot I cannot beat a turn two Magus of the Moon as I simply won’t be able to cast spells so I am forced to take it. Unfortunately I have no answers to the Crusader in my hand and if it starts to grow my out dwindle rapidly. Autumn was able to play a Thalia’s Lieutenant on the next turn and that was the second game over as I failed to find my Lightning Bolt.
The third game was one of the more interesting games of the tournament as Autumn had a pay-off heavy but land light hand. I cast a discard spell and take a Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, seeing a hand with a lot of powerful cards but that Autumn is unlikely to be able to deploy especially quickly. I also have one of my Kozilek’s Returns in hand so I want to take the Thalia and cause Autumn to play into a Return which can wipe away her board, which the Thalia is most likely to constrict. Due to the nature of discard spells Autumn obviously drew a replacement Thalia immediately but this meant that lands weren’t forthcoming and I bolt the Thalia end of turn, untapped and draw a Liliana, the Last Hope. Liliana on an empty board with a Kozilek’s Return in hand is very close to the ideal spot from my point of view as Autumn cannot play a mana creature or some of the human two drops into the Planeswalker’s +1 ability. Autumn draws a Rest in Peace which makes my delve threats almost impossible to cast but doesn’t impact the board. I manage to fade a land for another turn and when the third land and the Mirran Crusader do come down I am able to Kozilek’s Return it away and ultimate the Liliana to take the match.
I felt extremely lucky to win this match as the Naya Humans deck is almost designed to prey on GDS and has several hard to answer threats as well as a difficult to beat gameplan. Not only that but I had recently cut a Liliana, the Last Hope from my sideboard to fit in a Disdainful Stroke and in just 5 rounds of play the singleton copy had ultimated twice!
Round Eight - Peter Ward, Affinity
Peter is another regular on the English competitive scene and we’ve played a few times in the past, including a WMCQ final where Peter beat me in a GW Tokens mirror match. He is a formidable opponent and a very thoughtful one.
Peter mulligans in the first game and present a slower draw, which suggest to me that he has multiple pay-off cards in hand. My hand is a lot of removal and a couple of threats. The removal is all necessary as Peter makes Cranial Plating and each creature becomes a huge threat on their own. However, Peter’s mana development hasn’t been that good and critically he has no Darksteel Citadels. This means that when he casts his Etched Champion his Metalcraft isn’t absolutely secured. As previously mentioned the two critical cards from the Affinity side are Etched Champion and Cranial Plating and Peter has both, although by this point I’ve deployed a Tasigur and a Death’s Shadow. I untap in the face of the Etched Champion and immediately swing both my creatures head long into it. Peter has a tough decision here because if he blocks and I remove Metalcraft he will lose the Etched Champion but in order to do this I would need specifically Kolaghan’s Command as his artifacts mostly non-creatures and if I have the K-Command it is unclear is he can even win the game from this spot. He eventually decides to block the Death’s Shadow and I do have the Kolaghan’s Command which shocks his Signal Pest and shatters his Cranial Plating as well as his dreams as his board heads to the graveyard.
I sideboarded in the same way as I did against Manuel and have a mental note that Peter is more likely to have Blood Moon as his team have discussed it positively in the past as part of the Affinity sideboard plan.
The second game has Peter off to a slower start again and he applies a bit of pressure with some early creatures but doesn’t have much pay-off as he gets stuck on two mana. I have a Kozilek’s Return which I am trying to sandbag for an Etched Champion or until I find another answer to the problematic three drop. I eventually get to a low enough life total that I fire it off and this forces Peter into a difficult spot as his Glimmervoid will die if he doesn’t activate a land to keep it alive each end step. I take the chance to deploy a couple of giant Death’s Shadows and then use a discard spell which reveals Peter’s hand of Galvanic Blast, Blood Moon, Rest in Peace and an Etched Champion. I am able to deploy an EE to remove his blocker and the Avatars deal lethal damage.
The Affinity match up is very close in my opinion and both of my opponents having slightly awkward draws as well as having the knowledge of what they are playing before I make my game one mulligan decisions certainly helped a lot in beating it both times at this Grand Prix.
Round Nine - Daniel Longoria, Tribal Death’s Shadow Zoo
Unlike the previous two rounds I had no idea what Daniel was playing as I sat down to play for the undefeated record on Day One. He won the roll and led by cycling three Street Wraiths. This is not a standard opening from a competent Death’s Shadow pilot if they have a fetchland in hand so I was trying to work out if he’d kept an awkward mana hand as GDS or if he was Living End with no land or something like that. I was briefly terrified he was going to deploy multiple Hollow Ones but he then played a fetchland and simply passed the turn leaving me to wonder what was going on with his hand. A discard spell allowed me to find out as his hand contained multiple pump spells, including Temur Battle Rage and Might of Alara, alongside Tribal Flames and a Tarmogoyf. I took the Tarmogoyf and won the game relatively easily after that as Daniel had a handful of irrelevant cards if he couldn’t stick a creature.
I had some idea of what these decks tended to look like but had no experience playing against them. I sideboard in Engineered Explosives as they have a large number of 1 CMC creatures, Dreadbore as an additional removal spell, Liliana of the Veil and a Stubborn Denial for my Street Wraiths. I knew that Daniel’s deck had access to quite a few burn spells and burst damage so my life total was likely to drop quickly making the cycling on Street Wraiths a big cost.
The second game saw a quicker start from Daniel with a Swiftspear and an early Tarmogoyf, both pumped by the Mishra’s Bauble he cracked on the first turn. I dropped an Engineered Explosives on one and attempted to play a control game where I held up mana for removal/countermagic. I had the idea in my head that the Engineered Explosives was constricting Daniel’s plays so I attempted to leave it on the battlefield as a deterrent to deploying more creatures to the board. Unfortunately this meant that I died with the EE uncracked from a fairly high life total to a flurry of burn and pump, which I attempted to counter rather than cracking the EE and ended up taking a significant hit from the Swiftspear.
I went back to my sideboarding and took out a Kolaghan’s Command for the fourth Stubborn Denial as the non-creature spells seemed a huge issue in the match up and the Kolaghan’s Commands seemed quite slow.
Game three was on camera and can be viewed below!
The same situation came up in this game with the Engineered Explosives and I was fairly sure that Daniel’s plays must be being constricted by the EE on one as his plays were quite awkward from my point of view. This turned out to be inaccurate again as his hand simply contained more expensive spells he wasn’t able to deploy. On the decisive turn of the game Daniel asked me how big my Death’s Shadow was and as this is derived information and not public information I did not reply. He asked again twice and I told him that Death’s Shadow is printed as a 13/13 and that it has -X/-X where X is equal to my life total, which was eight at the time. He looked a touch befuddled and looked to the judge, at which point I relented and told him that, yes it was a 5/5 currently. I think this interaction may have thrown Daniel a little bit as he proceeded to sequence his turn in a slightly odd way, choosing to Dismember my Death’s Shadow and then Tribal Flames my face after the Dismember did not resolve. We were both clearly tired at the end of a long day of Magic as when he passed the turn I excitedly went to crack my EE thinking it would remove the Swiftspear and then my Snapcaster could remove the Tarmogoyf giving me lethal. Luckily I realised what you have no doubt realised already; cracking the EE would kill my Death’s Shadow. I realised this in time and didn’t make a gross error on camera but instead drew a Fatal Push off the top to Push-Snap-Push and take the match! I think that if Daniel had simply pointed the Tribal Flames at my Death’s Shadow I would be forced to use the Snapcaster to counter and his hand was strong enough to have taken the match. However, it played out the way it did and I had secured my first 9-0 on Day One of a Grand Prix.
I was pretty excited to have escaped the first day without taking any losses but have several friends who have started a GP with a 9-0 record only to have a horrible second day and finish outside of even cashing the event. I had made a couple of errors during the day but mostly had played pretty well and run incredibly well. The rest of Team Axion and friends gathered and headed into Birmingham to a Chinese restaurant for dinner, which let me have my much beloved Crabmeat and Sweetcorn Soup before heading back to my brother’s to get some sleep.
Round Ten - Chris Arlow, Abzan Midrange
I had done my research the previous evening and double-checked it in the morning so that I knew all the undefeated players and the decks they were playing. It turned out that this didn’t end up mattering as I played yet another English player and PPTQ grinder, Chris Arlow. I know Chris pretty well and he is always faithful to his fair GB deck in Modern, which I frequently mock him about, so I would’ve known his deck regardless.
The first game I took a mulligan and neither Chris nor I did anything impactful for the first few turns. Unfortunately for me Chris also knew the match up so he’d kept a hand with multiple Lingering Souls. These traded for most of my cards as I Stubborn Denial’d one half, used two removal spells on the back half, used two removal spells on another front half and then died to the millionth spirit token as Chris was able to remove my threats.
In terms of sideboarding I firmly believe that GDS is ahead in this match up if they can efficiently deal with Lingering Souls. The issues arise when you are able to do so as the card will drain so many resources by either producing pressure or chump blockers. Therefore I sideboard in Engineered Explosives, Izzet Staticaster and Liliana, the Last Hope with the primary function of dealing with Lingering Souls although Liliana and EE have additional value. I also sideboarded in the other Liliana, as a good removal spell/alternative threat and Dreadbore as an additional removal spell and answer to potential Liliana or Gideon from the other side.
Chris took a mulligan in the second game and then immediately called a judge as he looked at his mulligan. He’d drawn and looked at a seven card hand accidentally and the judge gave him the option of either allowing me to take a card from the seven or mulliganing to five. I added to this that if he let me take a card he’d still have the option to mulligan to five but Chris decided to just go to five rather than show me the seven. This must have been to protect some information for the post-sideboard games as it is almost always better to have the greater number of options available to you. In the end he actually mulliganed to four cards and then flooded out against my fairly strong draw and the game was pretty one-sided.
The third game was also fairly one-sided as Chris was never able to establish much pressure and my blue spells allowed me to find action and high-impact spells whilst he flooded out a bit again. I played somewhat cautiously during this game as he kept several cards in hand and I was concerned about a sequence involving Damnation, which I know he plays in the sideboard, but it turned out he simply had nothing of relevance as I presented more threats than he had removal.
Round Eleven - Loic Le Briand, Burn
Round Eleven saw me paired down and thus in the dark about what my opponent was playing although you may recognise the name and the archetype as Loic went on to win the whole Grand Prix. Burn is a relatively close and interesting match up in my experience apart from one gaping hole; game one. In the dark as a GDS player you’re more than happy to keep a hand with multiple Thoughtseizes and Street Wraiths, perhaps some removal and cantrips. I kept a hand which wasn’t even that bad against Burn but when I Inquisitioned Loic and saw two lands all burn spells I knew I was in trouble. If you don’t have a Death’s Shadow or a Gurmag Angler on one of the first few turns of the game it is extremely difficult to race the goldfish speed of the Burn deck and you frequently are forced to deal some incidentally damage to yourself through lands, Thoughtseizing or Street Wraith cycling. I lost game one pretty hard as I didn’t present an early threat and Loic simply flung burn at my face every turn of the game.
My sideboard ignored some match ups and worryingly for me Burn was one of those match ups. I had chosen not to run any Collective Brutality as they’d been unimpressive for me against anything other than Burn and Storm where they are outstanding. However, you absolutely have to take out Street Wraiths against Burn as the velocity provided is not worth the life cost. I brought in two Stubborn Denial, an Engineered Explosives and Liliana of the Veil in their place.
The hands you are looking for against Burn post-sideboard are the ones where you can interact one every turn and have a Death’s Shadow early on. The second game had exactly this, with a discard spell, some removal, a Stubborn Denial and a Death’s Shadow. I kept, as did Loic but my disruption plus Death’s Shadow made him unable to deploy sufficient burn spells to kill me before the Avatar did the job. The most interesting point of this game was when Loic cast a Shrine of Burning Rage, which I hadn’t seen before in Modern but knew the power of the card from playing it frequently in cube (yes I am the Mono Red guy in your cube draft). I managed to eat a turn cycle from Loic when he didn’t want to put down the ability to activate the Shrine and then in response to the trigger I used Kolaghan’s Command to blow it up, which forced him to crack it and spend his mana in his own upkeep.
Game three Loic mulliganed to five but had a pretty good start whilst I deployed a Gurmag Angler. The Angler is typically a four turn clock against Burn but annoyingly Loic resolved a Lightning Helix in the first few turns which meant it would take an additional attack for the Big Fish to kill him. We had a few spells back and forth and on the final few turns of the game I had seven cards to his none but had no interaction for a burn spell, just a grip of removal and fetchlands I was choosing to hold. I faded a three damage burn spell for a couple of turns and barely managed to eek out a win against this mulligan to five, which had also required me to deploy my Engineered Explosives to kill a Shrine of Burning Rage.
Round Twelve - Ivan De Castro Sanchez, Bant Humans
As the only undefeated players left in the tournament I knew that this round I would face Ivan and I was not looking forward to it as his deck had a lot of tools which are difficult for GDS to beat. He is an aggressive deck with the ability to go-wide, similar to Autumn’s deck in Round Seven, except that Ivan has access to Knight of the Reliquary, which can actually tussle with the GDS creatures and he has Reflector Mage which can easily give him the window he needs to punch through a blocker on a key turn. That said, it is a creature deck and GDS packs a lot of removal so I hope that he doesn’t have exceptional draws and I’m able to break it up with my removal suite and discard.
My hopes are fulfilled in game one as I discard away a threat and then use removal and Snapcasters to keep his board clear and kill him with a combination of Death’s Shadow and Tasigur.
Sideboarding for this match up involved bringing in Engineered Explosives and Kozilek’s Return as potential sweeper options and then potentially Izzet Staticaster on the play and Liliana, the Last Hope although I err on the side of not doing this now that I am more familiar with Ivan’s decklist and would advocate for Dreadbore and Liliana of the Veil as additional answers to the Knight.
In the second game I had what I considered to be a difficult mulligan decision as I could deploy a Gurmag Angler on turn two but didn’t have any interaction with my opponent except for a single removal spell. In retrospect this hand was certainly a mulligan as presenting a single threat isn’t that strong against Reflector Mage or Path to Exile and my single removal spell won’t protect me from a good draw from Ivan. I kept the hand and was punished by a quick draw from Ivan backed up by a Reflector Mage, which stranded the Gurmag Angler I had cast, along with a second one I had drawn in my hand with no realistic expectation of deploying them before I died.
The third game was on coverage and is available to watch below.
I kept a one-land hand on the play in this game but with a Serum Visions and a Fatal Push which I expected to be able to get me to my second land and which point I could likely cast some threats. I also had a Kozilek’s Return and an Engineered Explosives, which could catch me up from a position of being behind on board and were liable to constrict Ivan’s mana development if I could use them early. The game played out reasonably well for me other than being unable to find a removal spell for Ivan’s Knight and this meant that I was also unable to attack and pressure him, as the Knight would be lethal on the backswing if I attacked with my Death’s Shadow. We had a stand-off for a few turns as Ivan continued to grow his Knight and gain value with the ability. I still had the Engineered Explosives but did not want to deploy it and tap out as Ivan was repeatedly considering something and I felt that he likely had a Collected Company in hand which he wasn’t willing to cast into a potential Stubborn Denial. The action was forced when I drew Inquisition of Kozilek and it seemed that Ivan was going to cast the Collected Company regardless this turn as his only business spell left. I made the decision to cast the Engineered Explosives for three, hope that Ivan hit poorly on the Collected Company and if I was able to remove the Knight on the next turn I am very likely to win the game from that point. Ivan did not hit poorly and I died.
Round Thirteen - Piotr Glogowski, Lantern Control
Piotr is better known in the Magic world by his Magic Online username, Kanister. If you have played any Modern leagues on Magic Online you have probably played against him at some point. He is a serious Magic Online grinder and a very strong player. I’ve played against him several times on Magic Online and have always tried to pick his brain about sideboarding, metagame choices and deck-building during those matches. I have a great deal of respect for his abilities and know that he is a master of the Lantern Control deck.
The first game I keep a hand with disruption but no threat and hope to draw into one quickly as establishing a clock against Lantern is very important. I shred Piotr’s hand but am unable to land a threat and he effectively locks me out quite early on. I scoop once he Ghost Quarters and mills away all the red sources in my deck, leaving me unable to use Kolaghan’s Command to remove his Ensnaring Bridge and thus unable to win the game.
The match up isn’t that good in the first game due to the volume of irrelevant cards in your deck. Luckily the post-sideboard games are in your favour as you can bring in a plethora of good interaction and take out those useless cards. Ceremonious Rejection is an all star post-sideboard as it counters all their key cards, Stubborn Denial is also very helpful as a counterspell. Both Lilianas come in as additional threats and to provide good value and Engineered Explosives as an answer to their problematic permanents. Street Wraith not only stays in the deck for this match up but is critical in maneuvering around their lock pieces as it gives you access to instant speed card draw to find an important piece of interaction. Fatal Push is terrible and these all come out, as well as Lightning Bolt and one Terminate. I leave in a single Terminate as Lantern decks frequently have some weird creature in the sideboard such as Magus of the Moat, Magus of the Moon or Padeem, Consul of Innovation, which you cannot beat if you take out every piece of removal.
Piotr mulligans to five in game two and when I Thoughtseize him he has kept a no land hand with a Mishra’s Bauble, two copies of Ancient Stirrings and some lock pieces. I shrug and take the Bauble. He takes a couple of turns to get established, by which point I have two threats in play and am able to counter a Bridge if he was even able to find one, which he isn’t and we move onto the third game.
The third game is on coverage and viewable below!
Piotr makes a turn zero Leyline of Sanctity, which turns off quite a lot of my key disruptive pieces. I have some disruption in the form of countermagic and a Liliana, the Last Hope which I use to rebuy Snapcaster Mages a couple of times. However, each time I do Piotr immediately uses a discard spell to make it return to my graveyard. I am unable to apply any real pressure and Piotr establishes a multiple Ensnaring Bridge/Welding Jar lock. I ultimate my Liliana, the Last Hope and made every Zombie token in the feature match area with the hope that Piotr might make a mistake if I find my Engineered Explosives and let me kill him in a single swing, either that or he accidentally leaves cards in hand and allows me to attack for more damage than Craterhoof typically deals. Unfortunately my Liliana of the Veil ultimate isn’t an out as it targets and the Leyline prevents me from targeting Piotr and of course Piotr doesn’t make any mistakes. Whilst the Twitch chat and Commentary team think my best result here would be a draw I did tell Piotr that I would concede if we went to an unintentional draw as I’m well aware that he has this game won. We don’t actually go to time and Piotr mills me out.
I’ve gone from being one of two undefeated players in the tournament to taking back-to-back losses and need to win the remaining two swiss rounds to get the Top 8 and Pro Tour invite I desperately want. Despite this I am still feeling quite relaxed and am reasonably happy with how I have played during the day - I am ready to play some more Magic.
Round Fourteen - Jonathan Anghelescu, Living End
I haven’t been able to keep track of what people below an X-1 record are playing so I have no idea what Jonathan might be playing this round. He plays a land and passes and I cast a discard spell, seeing a hand of cyclers and a Cascade spell. My heart sinks a bit as I realise my hand is pretty poor against Living End and I don’t have a clear route to victory if he is able to resolve a Living End. I take the Cascade spell and hope he doesn’t draw another for a few turns. I am able to make a Gurmag Angler and Jonathan cycles a lot. He eventually hard casts an Archfiend of Ifnir, which I terminate and he dies. I feel like I’ve been fortunate here to dodge him finding another Cascade spell but I’ll take it.
Sideboarding is pretty easy here as the removal spells are poor and we want to sideboard in Leylines of the Void and Stubborn Denial. The game plan is pretty simple as they have three copies of Living End which you want to prevent them resolving whilst applying as much pressure as possible. It is also worth noting that some Living End decks have Blood Moon in the sideboard and they’re going to attack your mana with Fulminator Mages early and often. The removal spells have no impact and thus are very easy cuts.
My opening hand in the second game has none of the key cards so I quickly mulligan it and am rewarded with a Leyline of the Void, a Gurmag Angler and some Street Wraiths. I drop the Leyline into play and spend my first turn cycling Street Wraiths down to 14 life before passing the turn. I have a Gurmag Angler and a Death’s Shadow as threats but Jonathan has Grove of the Burnwillows which keeps my life total going in the wrong direction and makes the Death’s Shadow very awkward for me to cast. Jonathan trades a Cascade spell and Living End for my first Gurmag Angler and Fulminator’s a land away. I am light on lands and he makes another Fulminator Mage but doesn’t immediately sacrifice it as he wants to block my potential threats. This allows me to use my blue mana an additional turn and I deploy the Death’s Shadow and a Tasgiur. Jonathan hard casts a Desert Cerodon and plays a second Grove of the Burnwillows. I am able to luckily draw into a fetch land quickly enough to keep my Death’s Shadow alive through the double Grove and kill Jonathan with a Kolaghan’s Command rebuying a Street Wraith to make my Death’s Shadow lethal.
I am very happy that the Leylines in my sideboard, which were a relatively late addition to the list, have had an impact as they hadn’t been sideboarded in at any point earlier in the tournament.
Round Fifteen - Guillaume Perbet, Dredge
The final round of the swiss and the win-and-in for the Top 8. I was expecting to be paired against sixth as I was fifth in the standings going into the round but the third placed player, who was on 39 points, had played against fourth already and thus he was paired against me. That player was Guillaume and whilst he could have drawn into a Top 8 slot comfortably I was unable to do so - I had to play and I had to win.
This was a high pressure match and again I found myself in the dark about what my opponent was playing. Guillaume won the roll and led on a Karpulsan Forest, a card which you only typically see from budget Green/Red Tron lists. I was pretty confused about what deck he might be playing but as always I was able to determine it quickly with a first turn discard spell. His hand contained multiple Cathartic Reunions but no Dredge cards although he was clearly playing Dredge. Honestly his hand looked pretty weak but the match up pre-sideboard is pretty poor against Dredge and whilst I was able to present some disruption and a couple of threats the recursive nature of the Dredge threats and the chump blocking provided by Narcomebas put me solidly behind. At one point Guillaume milled over a French copy of Driven//Despair and I called a judge for the oracle text before dying to it shortly thereafter. Dredge is a favourite against most things in the first game but is very susceptible to sideboard hate so I wasn’t too worried about losing this game.
The Leylines, which had been quietly collecting dust at the back of my sideboard up until the previous round, got another outing here as they are very clear and obvious inclusions. The removal spells are poor as the Dredge creatures will simply keep coming back after you’ve removed them so these are taken out. I also sideboarded in Liliana, the Last Hope and Izzet Staticaster as these can manage the board against Dredge in the games where you aren’t simply overwhelmed immediately. Engineered Explosives is a consideration but isn’t that strong and is a heavy mana investment. Stubborn Denial is also a consideration for countering Conflagrates, sideboard cards interacting with my potential Leylines or threats and something like Driven//Despair which could one-shot me.
My game two hand contained a Leyline of the Void and a fast Delve threat through cycling Street Wraiths, very similar to my hand in the second game against Jonathan. I dropped the Leyline on turn zero and then made a threat on turn two after having reduced my own life total significantly. Guillaume went on the 1/1 beatdown plan and cast Insolent Neonate into Golgari Thug into Neonate. This plan actually got me to a relatively low life total until I was able to draw an Izzet Staticaster and that effectively locked up the game for me.
The third game my opening hand was pretty weak so I mulliganed to six as Guillaume had already kept a seven card hand. Given that he had seen my sideboard haymaker in the previous game I suspected that his seven card hand was either quick or able to deal with the Leyline if I found it. Therefore I did not believe that aggressively mulliganing towards a Leyline was a winning proposition and kept a six card hand with some cantrips and a Liliana, the Last Hope. I felt that perhaps Guillaume may have kept a hand with more post-sideboard interaction and if his draw wasn’t too fast then I would be able to leverage the cantrips to find the tools to win. It turned out that I was partially correct in that he had a very awkward draw; he led on a Gemstone Mine and appeared to be lacking a second land as he quickly Dredged a Dakmor Salvage and played it as his land for the turn on turn two. The game progressed slowly and I managed to land the Liliana on a board where my Gurmag Angler could protect it and it could pick off some of Guillaume’s board. He was clearly struggling with his mana as the Gemstone Mine actually ended up using all three counters and heading to the graveyard, leaving him with just three Dakmor Salvages as his lands. Typically the Dredge deck is able to fix these issues by using Life from the Loam but that would involve Guillaume taking natural draw steps to find the green source to cast the Loam as well as Dredging more to put it into the graveyard to Dredge back. I felt that I was in a pretty strong position at this point until I blocked a Prized Amalgam attacking Liliana and post-combat Guillaume used a Collective Brutality to kill the Angler. He also made me discard an irrelevant Thoughtseize and saw my hand contained two Street Wraiths which I had been holding for several turns with the intention of casting them as blockers to protect Liliana. I desperately need to draw my fifth land to continue to be able to protect the Liliana, which looked like my best route to victory. I got there. I drew the land. I quickly fetched and cast the five mana ¾ which matches up nicely against the three mana 3/3s on the other side. The game devolved into a surreal race where Guillaume was Dredging back Stinkweed Imps and attacking me for one or two points a turn whilst the ground was stalled and the Liliana negated one Imp per turn. My draw steps and cantripping provided me with an Izzet Staticaster which enabled me to control the board further and actually kill an Imp per turn cycle with the Liliana and Staticaster working together. At this point I was most concerned about potential Conflagrates as my life total had dwindled to a the low single digits and Guillaume had found a red source through natural draw steps. A large portion of his deck was already in the graveyard and I had yet to see a Conflagrate or a Life from the Loam which led me to the conclusion that these were either in his hand or in the remaining couple of dozen cards. Guillaume found a Lightning Axe which he decided to point at my Staticaster, thus keeping his recursive clock in tact and giving him the potential to win with flying damage. This plan has a cost associated with it though as he continued to Dredge back the Imps from his graveyard and his library is getting smaller and smaller each time. I calculate the clock from the damage compared to him decking and decide that I can win this race; I cast a Snapcaster end of turn, targeting Thought Scour and then casting the Thought Scour targeting Guillaume, much to the amusement of the table judge. I untapped and drew another Thought Scour, which effectively ended the game and Guillaume extended the hand. Decking a Dredge opponent to reach the Top 8 of a Grand Prix and get a Pro Tour invite isn’t something I would have ever expected to happen.
I hadn’t realised the size of the crowd that was watching our match during the games as I was focused on the games and always play with my hood up to avoid being distracted by things around me. The crowd was substantial and almost my whole team, alongside many friends, were watching and cheering when I won. The support and congratulations from all of them was truly overwhelming and I’d like to thank everyone who was there.
Quarter-Finals - Alberto Galicia, Abzan Midrange
We were given decklists to look at for a few minutes before starting our Top 8 matches and I noted that Alberto had no copies of Path to Exile in his deck and was effectively a Black/Green deck splashing for Lingering Souls. The lack of Path didn’t make him especially weak to my threats though as he had Maelstrom Pulse, multiple copies of Abrupt Decay and Dismember as clean answers to most of the my threats. Much of the match was on coverage and can be found below. The first game saw me dying to Lingering Souls as I was unable to draw enough action to overcome the value of Lingering Souls, flashback Lingering Souls.
My sideboarding was the same as when I had faced Chris in Round Ten except that I had access to Alberto’s sideboard options and noted that outside the Damnation and the Liliana he didn’t have much to bring in. I suspected that he would bring in Nihil Spellbomb as well but this doesn’t remotely bother me as it is such a low impact card. I made a mental note to respect Damnation, brought in numerous answers to Lingering Souls and went back into battle.
Game two I am stuck on lands for a little while and casting cantrips to try to draw into more lands. My hand actually had access to a very fast Tasigur but Alberto stripped it from my hand before I was able to deploy it. I was quite fortunate to draw one of my few outs to the Lingering Souls Alberto had deployed but made the biggest error of the tournament immediately after this stroke of luck. I played the Engineered Explosives out for 0 but failed to fetch in my own turn. If Alberto had had an Abrupt Decay in response to the fetch during his turn I would have lost the game immediately. Luckily he did not and I wasn’t punished for this severe oversight on my part. Alberto and I had an interesting stand-off where he didn’t want to cast Fatal Push on my Death’s Shadow into my Stubborn Denial so he simply kept taking the damage from it. On the critical turn of the game he finally cast the Fatal Push on his own main phase, indicating he had a follow up play. This is where I was concerned that he may have the Damnation from the sideboard but his body language and the time he spent on the decision made me think that this was not the case. My read was correct and his follow up play of Liliana of the Veil wasn’t enough to beat my Death’s Shadows.
In the third game I made the errors of exposing both my Watery Graves to Alberto’s Tectonic Edge, which wasn’t a serious issue until he drew a second Tec Edge and killed both of my Watery Graves in a single shot.This error didn’t end up having that big an impact on the game as I still had easily enough mana to cast my spells but it was a grave error nonetheless. I also chose to use my Engineered Explosives potentially a turn earlier than was necessary but Alberto had shown that after game two he was not willing to flashback the Lingering Souls until after I had answered the first half. I believe the critical turn of this game was actually in the first couple of turns when Alberto cast a discard spell taking my Liliana, the Last Hope, which was the reason I had kept the hand. The game devolved into a topdeck war after I fire off repeated removal spells on the spirit tokens. I cast a discard spell seeing that Alberto had a Damnation and an Abrupt Decay in hand; I asked Alberto if he wanted to cast the Damnation and indicated at it with my hand, much to the outrage of Twitch chat and the commentary team who swiftly pointed out I couldn’t take that with my Inquisition of Kozilek. Alberto drew another Lingering Souls when we were both out of resources and it was enough to win him the game and the match.
Despite being unable to win the Grand Prix I was incredibly happy with my finish and am very excited to get to play on the Pro Tour again. My previous Pro Tour experience was fantastic but blighted by a poor Draft record so this time my aim is to improve upon that record. I still believe that GDS is the ‘best’ deck in Modern but that it does require an up-front time commitment to learn it and play it to a good result. I am extremely grateful to my team who all helped me prepare for this tournament in different ways and I couldn’t have achieved this result without them. This is a dream start to the new Pro season and I will be looking to capitalise on it throughout the year.
I’d like to thank everyone for their support once again and as always I am very happy to talk to anyone and everyone about Magic so if you have any questions please do feel free to come to me with them.
About George Channing:
George has been playing competitively since 2014 and is a true grinder; with a huge number of competitive events under his belt, his results have been improving year on year. With a Grand Prix Top 8 in Modern and a few Pro Tour appearances, he aspires to become a regular on the biggest stage. George’s role on Team Axion is frequently related to metagame and decklist analysis, whilst also providing a lot of raw testing data. He most enjoys Standard with the speed and frequency of the metagame developments keeping it interesting.