Last weekend, there were over 4,600 players playing Modern at either Grand Prix Charlotte or Grand Prix Los Angeles. That’s a massive combined turnout, and it serves to highlight the popularity of the Modern format.
Los Angeles had the best video coverage of a Grand Prix I’ve ever seen, bar none. They had multiple full matches (one live, one Timeshifted) every round, consistent caster pairings, engaging filler content, no downtime, card images, graphical deck displays, and awesome commentary. ChannelFireball did many of these things right before, but it seemed like they upped their game on the stream this weekend. Luis, Gaby, Marshall, Huey, Andy, and whoever else was working behind the scenes: excellent job!
Meanwhile, Grand Prix Charlotte had some unfortunate technological issues but writers Jacob van Lunen and Meghan Wolff provided enough deck techs, metagame breakdowns, player profiles, and deck lists to allow me to analyze and grasp the main stories from that event.
In this article, I’ll go over 8 things that stood out to me the most from this weekend. I’ll link to the live stream archives from Grand Prix Los Angeles or to the text coverage from Grand Prix Charlotte whenever applicable.
8. Goblin Dark-Dwellers and Boom // Bust Is a Sweet Combo
At Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, Goblin Dark-Dwellers was overshadowed by the Eldrazi, but now that the necessary bans have taken place, you had a great opportunity to see Dark-Dweller’s relevancy for the Modern format this weekend. The way the rules work is that Goblin Dark-Dwellers allows you to cast either side of a split card as long as at least one-half of that split card qualifies the cost restriction. This means that you can target Boom // Bust, cast the Bust part, and destroy all lands in play.
Several players did well by pairing Goblin Dark-Dwellers and Boom // Bust. In Los Angeles, there was most notably Hall-of-Famer Patrick Chapin, who finished 10-4-1 with his Grixis deck. You can see him exploit the “combo” on stream in a game that was exciting to watch.
In Charlotte, Zhengdon Shan showed up with a Rakdos Mana Denial deck. He posted a pristine 9-0 record on Day 1, which earned him a deck tech interview. Although he didn’t fare as well on Day 2, it is still a sweet new strategy to take into account.
Rakdos Mana Denial
Zhengdong Shan, 11-4 at GP Charlotte
7. Nahiri, the Harbinger Didn’t Dominate
Going into the weekend, many players wondered how dominant Nahiri would be. After all, the previous weekend, Peter Ingram won the SCG Modern Open Indianapolis with Jeskai Harbinger, and fetching Emrakul is a big game. Even if you end up drawing the singleton Emrakul, you can just +2 Nahiri to shuffle Emrakul back in. Some players even started to wonder if Nahiri might be the best planeswalker in Modern.
As it turned out, Nahiri didn’t perform as well at the Grand Prix level. There were no Jeskai Harbinger decks in either Top 8, and Liliana of the Veil is still the best planeswalker in Modern.
Jeskai Harbinger still saw a good amount of play, though. In the Top 32 of both Grand Prix, there were 4 decks with a playset of Nahiri, corresponding to a 6.25% share of the Top 32 metagame. One was piloted by Gerry Thompson, who was interviewed for a deck tech. To give another, similar number: In the Day 1 Top 100 breakdown in Charlotte and Los Angeles, the average metagame share of Jeskai Harbinger was 7%. All of this indicates that Jeskai Harbinger is still a deck to be reckoned with, but it didn’t have a dominating performance.
The Jeskai Harbinger list with the best record was piloted by Francis Cellona. He narrowly missed the Top 8 of Grand Prix Los Angeles on tiebreakers, but at least he earned an invitation and airfare to Pro Tour Eldritch Moon in Sydney.
Francis Cellona, 9th at GP Los Angeles
6. Mill Players All Around the World Had Reason to Rejoice
Most players at Grand Prix Los Angeles planned to win by reducing their opponent’s life total to 0. A few aimed to give their opponent 10 poison counters. And at least one really brave player tried to win by having his opponent draw a card from an empty library. That player was Jinlin Li, giving hope to mill players everywhere.
Jinlin Li, 9-4-2 at Grand Prix Los Angeles
Out of all the cards in Shadows over Innistrad, I didn’t expect Manic Scribe to make an impact in Modern, but it certainly did. In this deck, the 0/3 joins Hedron Crab, Mesmeric Orb, Glimpse the Unthinkable, Mind Funeral, and Archive Trap for a critical mass of mill cards. There is an alternative win condition in Jace’s Phantasm, but the main route to victory is dedicated milling.
Jinlin had an excellent Day 1, but things didn’t go as well for him on Day 2, as he ultimately ended with a 9-4-2 record. Maybe he ran into some of those Jeskai Harbinger decks on Day 2, whose Emrakul keeps getting shuffled back in—that is kind of a problem when you’re playing a mill deck. Even if you have Extirpate after sideboard to exile Emrakul, one shuffle will still happen.
5. Modern is Still Full of Surprises
The humongous card pool of Modern is filled with all kinds of fringe combos. Case in point: Pili-Pala and Grand Architect—2 cards that, when combined, generate infinite mana. I’ve seen them before in a shell with Collected Company, which can hit both pieces. In that version, Duskmantle Guildmage was the kill condition because it could be hit with Collected Company.
But the Pili-Pala combo can go into many different shells. In Los Angeles, Lars Jay Robert McMartin-Rosenquist showed up with a deck that was reminiscent of Tarmo-Twin: It didn’t focus too much on the combo part, contained plenty of cards that were good by themselves, but offered a potential turn-4 kill that opponents had to respect.
Lars Jay Robert McMartin-Rosenquist, 11-3-1 at Grand Prix Los Angeles
This is a really cool deck. Once infinite mana is generated by Pili-Pala/Grand Architect, you can use that mana to draw your entire deck with Whispers of the Muse and finally kill with 4 Lightning Bolt and 4 Snapcaster Mage. Or an arbitrarily large pump from Kessig Wolf Run. The deck was featured on camera in round 8, but don’t get your hopes up: you won’t actually see the combo part in action.
Although the deck is cool, I am a bit skeptical. Without tutors, the combo is hard to assemble, and the 2 combo pieces are pretty weak cards by themselves—at least worse than Pestermite and Splinter Twin. Nevertheless, 11-3-1 is a good record, and I am interested in developing this strategy in the future.
4. Bant Eldrazi Was the Breakout Deck of the Weekend
In my mind, the breakout deck from the tournament was Bant Eldrazi. I am not entirely sure whether I should call a deck with Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher “new” since we just came out of the Eldrazi winter, but the Bant color combination was a novel take on an Eldrazi Temple deck after the Eye of Ugin ban. I had already seen Eldrazi & Taxes and RG Eldrazi variants in the weeks before, but the Bant approach was different, and it looks quite well-designed.
One of the benefits of the Bant color combination is that, besides strong Eldrazi creatures, it offers the dream start of turn-1 Noble Hierarch, turn-2 Eldrazi Temple, Thought-Knot Seer. That’s pretty powerful! The deck posted a Top 8 in the hands of Pascal Maynard, and it put 2 players in the Top 32 of Grand Prix Charlotte.
Pascal Maynard, 4th at Grand Prix Los Angeles
Without Eye of Ugin, the new Eldrazi shell forgoes cards like Endless One and Eldrazi Mimic. Instead, it opts for midrange options like Matter Reshaper. All inclusions make sense to me, and I could see this Bant Eldrazi deck play a big role in Modern going forward. I’m glad that it appears to be at the correct power level: not dominant, but strong enough to be competitive.
According to Pascal’s Top 8 player profile and a deck tech with his East West Bowl teammates, the inception of the deck is credited to Todd Stevens, who played the deck at the SCG Modern Open Indianapolis to an 11th place finish. They tuned the deck a bit, and it worked out excellently for Pascal.
3. Andreas Ganz Broke the Curse
At the European Grand Prix circuit, Switzerland’s Andreas Ganz is known as a strong player who excels at collecting mediocre finishes. At 135 lifetime Pro Points, he had the most lifetime Pro Points in the world of players who has never made it to a Grand Prix Top 8 or Pro Tour Top 8. To put that Pro Point total into perspective: If you spread it out perfectly over time (which Andreas never did), then you could be Gold level in the Pro Players club for 4 years straight, and still never manage to Top 8 even 1 premier event. That’s impressive! I haven’t done the math (all right, I’m lying, I have) but that is a really unlikely string of finishes.
This all changed in Charlotte, where he took his Ad Nauseam combo deck and made it all the way to the Top 8. Having broken his “curse,” he didn’t stop, and promptly won the whole thing!
Andreas Ganz, GP Charlotte champion
So congratulations on finally breaking through, Andreas! He even did so in stylish fashion, as in the finals he abused his opponent’s Thalia, Guardian of Thraben to cast a Pentad Prism with 3 (!) charge counters. That’s a sweet play, and these kinds of unusual interactions are partly why I enjoy Modern so much.
Now that Andreas has a winner’s trophy, the next “curse” that I hope will be broken is that the player with the highest lifetime Pro Point total without a Grand Prix win or Pro Tour win (and, while I’m at it, no PTQ or Nationals win either) will get there. You may guess who that player is.
2. Merfolk Did Better Than Expected
The metagame expectations I provided in last week’s column turned out to be largely in line with what actually happened at the GPs, except for one huge discrepancy: Merfolk.
In Los Angeles, there were as many as 8 Merfolk players in the Top 100 of the round 9 standings. And when the dust settled, Lord of Atlantis had won the tournament. Congratulations to Simon Slutsky! I did not see that coming.
Simon Slutsky, 1st place at GP Los Angeles
While Merfolk has always been, say, 3% of the metagame in Modern and is hardly a new strategy, why did the deck perform so well in Los Angeles? Frankly, I’m not sure. The strange thing is that over in Charlotte, there were 0 Merfolk players in the Top 100 after Day 1 or in the Top 32 after Day 2. Zero! So that’s a huge difference between the 2 events, and I don’t have a good explanation for that. The best I got is that Los Angeles is closer to an ocean than Charlotte, and that must have been a hospitable environment for the Merfolk. Yeah. That must be it.
1. Ethan Brown Became the Youngest Grand Prix Finalist Ever
There is no historical player age database, so it’s possible that I’m forgetting someone, but I believe that 13-year-old Ethan Brown is the youngest Grand Prix finalist ever.
3 other young talents that also posted impressive feats are the following.
- Cole Swannack played the 2002 World Championships when he was 13 years old. Interestingly, that event was held in Sydney, just like the Pro Tour that Ethan now qualified for. Cole could’ve actually made it to the Top 8 if Raphael Levy wouldn’t have defeated him in the penultimate round, but he had to settle for a 17th-place finish instead. Raph is such a villain!
- Julien Nuijten won the 2004 World Championships when he was 15 years old.
- Thomas Pedersen recently turned heads when he made Day 2 of Grand Prix Copenhagen at 12 years old.
But none of these players made it to a Grand Prix finals at the age of 13, so I believe Ethan broke a record. One weird thing that I’m sure of (because that information is readily available) is that he is the first player with the first name of “Ethan” to Top 8 a Grand Prix. I’m actually not even sure what surprises me more.
Either way, Ethan did it with an archetype that I’m quite fond of.
Ethan Brown, 2nd at GP Los Angeles
Darksteel was released on February 6, 2004. This means that Arcbound Ravager is 12 years and 3 months old—only a tiny bit younger than Ethan. Since Eighth Edition, the oldest set legal in Modern, was released on July 29, 2003, it’s only a matter of time until someone makes the Top 8 of a Modern Grand Prix with cards that are older than themselves.
Affinity had a good weekend, by the way. The best time to play the deck is right when people stop paying it respect, and this weekend it seemed that there were fewer sideboard hate cards around. The Grand Prix Top 8 competitors had 2.4 dedicated artifact hate cards in their sideboard on average, which is a little bit less than what I found last week. I know correlation doesn’t imply causation, and it’s hardly a satisfying sample size, but it’s still a relevant observation.
In the finals, Ethan lost to Simon Slutsky’s Merfolk deck. That’s a good matchup for Affinity in general, and things were going very well for the player I was personally rooting for. But Simon managed to draw too many Hurkyl’s Recall, and Ethan was unable to beat them.
Nevertheless, Ethan piloted his deck confidently, and he already carved out a legacy for himself. Assuming that Ethan can make it to the Pro Tour in Sydney, I’ll be checking if he can surpass Cole Swannack’s record there. I’m sure the Twitch chat will lend their power.