On Monday morning, one of my Magic friends asked me to share my favorite moment from Grand Prix Pittsburgh. That was like asking ten-year-old me what I wanted for my birthday. Was it Craig Wescoe finally doing justice to the obscure albeit awesome GW Hatebears? A Jeskai Twin deck (yep, Jeskai) not just making Top 8 but winning the entire event? Maybe it was the Day 2 metagame showing the healthiest Modern since Charlotte. Or the fact that Wizards gave us the full Top 32 decks instead of a skimpy Top 8!
I couldn’t decide, so I just settled on Wescoe slamming that disgusting Choke against poor Corey Burkhart. What can I say: I’m a martial artist and a sucker for all things grappling.
Grand Prix Pittsburgh was easily one of my favorite Modern events of 2015, and potentially its best. Within the tournament’s context, it showcased a diverse field with ample innovation (the continued rise of Grixis Midrange) and plenty of old favorites (Twin: the hero Modern deserves). Even outside of Pittsburgh, the Grand Prix showcased Modern’s self-regulating nature as the linear nightmare of StarCityGames’ Dallas and Grand Prix Porto Alegre crumbled under the Modern mainstays of Jund, Affinity, and Twin. Trevor Holmes already recapped the event in his Monday article, and Pat Chapin did a solid metagame breakdown (premium) over on SCG. For today, instead of reinventing their hard work, I’m going to look at a few higher-level narratives out of Pittsburgh these authors didn’t touch on. I’ll also revisit my predictions from last week’s piece. This is a great setup for all the Modern action coming in December and January, and hopefully a valuable contextualization for the tournament.
Predictions Hits and Misses
If Pittsburgh was the highlight of my weekend, the dismal Bears vs. Broncos game was rock bottom. You thought Wescoe made some questionable game three plays in his semi-final match against Affinity? Be glad you didn’t see some of the player and coaching decisions in our home-field loss to a quarterback on his second game ever in the NFL (and his first starting). I had linked the Bears’ fortunes to GP Pittsburgh’s in my article last week, and I’ve never been happier a prediction never came true.
On its own terms, Pittsburgh shook out almost exactly like I predicted in the article. That’s great news for me because it suggests I wasn’t making catastrophic metagame misreadings going into the event. It’s also great news for you readers because it means you weren’t listening to catostrophic metagame misreadings.
Prediction #1: Jund will keep the peace – Yes!
“Overall, I’m banking on Jund fulfilling its role as format policeman, and betting that players see it this way too. Jund might not win the event (might not even Top 8 it!), but it will be there to hold the line and keep the peace.”
With an 8% metagame share on Day 2 and three copies in the Top 32, Jund made a strong showing as a format regulator. To be very clear, I don’t think this is the best deck in the format. Its relative representations on Day 2 and in the Top 32 suggest this too: 8.8% down to 5%. I also don’t think that Jund alone is the policeman and peacekeeper Modern needs (more on its partner, Twin, later). All that said, I firmly believe Jund is an integral policing force in Modern and Pittsburgh reflected this importance. I do want to offer one critical observation for Jund players: don’t rely on Kolaghan’s Command for beating Affinity. Pack Ancient Grudge or pay the price. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all the Top 32 Jund lists used 1-2 Grudge (two used a pair), and I suspect lower-placing lists weren’t as cautious.
Prediction #2: Amulet Bloom will beat the hate – Yes!
“Expect to see a respectable Bloom showing in Day 2 and, if Twin doesn’t do its part, at least one copy in the Top 8/16.”
I’d bet my Thanksgiving turkey that someone in the comments is going to argue that Bloom had a poor showing at the Grand Prix and really isn’t as top-tier as people make it out to be. Don’t listen to them. Mike Sigrist barely missed the Top 8 on breakers (he got 9th, with his .6944 losing out to Nicolich’s .7054), and he was joined in the Top 32 by two other Bloom players. Bloom also made up 5.5% of the Day 2 metagame, overperforming into the Top 32 (where it had a 6.3% share). Add to that its Regional Pro Tour Qualifer share of 7.3% and its Tier 1 status in October and you have a deck that is unquestionably a major player. In the Pittsburgh context alone, Bloom did all this despite a field saturated with Twin players (12.1% on Day 2) and Blood Moon. Five of the Top 8 decks ran Moons in the board, with eight more in the Top 32. Given all those hurdles, it’s significant that Bloom sent players to the Top 32 and almost to the Top 8. As you go into December Modern events, prepare for this deck like you would prepare for any other top-tier player. Is the deck beatable? Absolutely, and don’t let the ban maniacs or the Bloom-hypers tell you otherwise. Can you coast through this matchup without practice and the right cards? Don’t even try it. Treat the deck as a top-tier contender or get ready for a rough couple of games.
Prediction #3: Scapeshift will Top 8 – Yes! …sort of
“Scapeshift is that rare combo deck which can play a very solid anti-aggro game, perform a serviceable control imitation, and rock the proactive, out-of-nowhere combo win.”
On the one hand, four copies of Scapeshift showed up in Pittsburgh’s Top 8, as part of Thien Nguyen’s RG ramp strategy. On the other hand, this was a much more proactive Scapeshift than the “serviceable control imitat[or]” I banked on in my prediction article. I’m still chalking this one up as a hit because Scapeshifting for Valakuts is still Scapeshifting for Valakuts, but you’ll want to treat Nguyen’s build differently than you would treat Hoogland’s. This finish will also reinvigorate interest in the lagging Scapeshift decks, so expect to see more of these in the future. Scapeshift made up 2.9% of the Day 2 metagame in its many shapes and sizes, and I would bet these shares will only go up as more players take a hard look at the underappreciated Scapeshift synergies.
Twin and BGx: Modern’s Buddy Cops
Don’t be surprised if this section header gets turned into an article title one day. I can already envision the graphic (think Shanghai Knights but with more Exarchs and Goyfs)! No matter how you feel about the BGx grindfest or living in fear in the URx Twin contest, it’s hard to deny the importance of these decks in Modern. We’ve seen this all year, notably at Charlotte in June, and Pittsburgh was an important next chapter in the buddy cop narrative.
It’s easy to look at Pittsburgh and get too excited about finishes that aren’t necessarily meanngful. Don’t get me wrong: it didn’t get much more awesome than watching Wescoe drop a Gaddock Teeg like it was 2008. And I love me some Footsteps of the Goryo as much as the next combo player. As wonderful as these Pittsburgh moments were, they also aren’t necessarily meaningful for the larger Modern narrative. There are a lot of Pittsburgh features that will try and make something out of every single finish, and it’s up to you to separate the real mountains from the sea of molehills.
Twin and BGx? It doesn’t get more mountainous than these two.
Due to its massive card pool and relative lack of generic answers, Modern is always going to have a lot of random linear decks floating around. These lists take many forms. There are the “pure” combo builds like Ad Nauseam, Hulk Combo, and Storm. There are the old-school aggro decks such as Burn, Merfolk, and more Zoos than we can name. We see ramp (Tron, Amulet Bloom), we see aggro with combo-esque elements (Affinity, Bogles, Infect, Suicide Zoo, Elves), and we see decks that are just plain weird (Time Warp). All of these strategies share an almost single-minded devotion to goldfish games. If I wanted to operationalize a definition for a “linear deck”, it would be by counting the number of maindeck cards that are at their best when used non-interactively. I’m not doing that now, but we can all see the common goldfishing thread between these kinds of decks. Also, just to be clear, these decks are not low-skill despite their linear nature. “Linear” isn’t an insult. It’s a gameplay description.
Given all these linear options, why are most Modern events like Pittsburgh or Charlotte and not like Porto Alegre or Dallas? Thank URx Twin and BGx Midrange. That’s not “URx Twin or BGx Midrange”. It’s “and” because healthy metagames need both decks.
It’s almost impossible for the assorted linear decks to punch through a metagame with both Twin and BGx. If you’re too deep on synergy, Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek will rip you apart. If you’re too light on interaction, an early Remand is guaranteed to keep the Twin player alive until the turn 4-5 combo. And if you’re too reliant on cheap creatures, there’s nothing like a Lightning Bolt to set you back, and there’s nothing like Twin and Jund when it comes to wielding Bolt efficiently. Linear decks can’t deal with these different policing angles and typically crumble over long tournaments. Pittsburgh showcased this effect throughout the weekend, especially in the finals where Jeskai Twin made textbook work of Affinity.
Modern breaks down in two scenarios. The first is where tournaments are too small for the metagame to arc towards Twin and BGx justice. Linear decks can dodge these policemen in smaller events, and then hope to get lucky in the single game where they get jammed up. This doesn’t work at a Grand Prix, which is exactly what Chapin talked about in his Monday article with respect to Bloom’s finishes. If you just look at small-event data, you tend to see more of the goldfish decks bullying their way to the finals. That’s not going to happen at a tournament where both Twin and Jund show up in force (or Abzan, depending on the BGx police flavor of the month). Of course, the second breakdown scenario is where one (or both) of the decks are absent. No Twin? Get ready for Affinity and Amulet to run over everything in sight. No BGx? Honesty, i can’t think of a time when there was no BGx at all, but I know that an absence of Jund sees big increases in Infect and other small-critter-based aggro.
At Pittsburgh, we saw both decks which is why the event was so healthy and such a return to old-school Modern. This is a critical observation because it shows us situations where the metagame can be broken (relatively speaking) and then self-correct just a month later. That’s important if you are playing (prepare for the correction or jump on board a policing deck), speculating (don’t play the long-game on spending on linear decks that might be here today and gone tomorrow), investing (Twin and BGx only go up because they are always here), or just trying to understand the format (we’ll always come back to these two decks no matter where the format is at any given moment). Pittsburgh should have been a faith-restoring event for all Moern players, and I am optimistic that we can keep seeing these forces in more events to come.
Post-GP Pittsburgh Modern?
We have some SCG Opens in January and a number of mid-sized Modern events in the interim. Expect to see Twin and BGx keeping order at all those events, because it will take another major shift to lower either deck prevalence form where they are now. For example, a big part of Twin’s summer decline was likely a transition by Twin players to Grixis decks, particularly Grixis Control. With these decks floundering today, the Return of the Twin was an inevitability.
Any other takeaways you got from Pittsburgh? Decks or cards you found interesting? Or are you just excited for the grandeur that will be Bears vs. Packers on Thanksgiving night?? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see you all after the holiday week!