I went into Pro Tour 25th Anniversary thinking that it would probably be the most important Pro Tour I’d ever play. In retrospect, I don’t think that I was wrong.
There was a juiced up prize pool that increased the normal pool of $250k up to $850k. If you know any passionate high level players, as much as some may complain about prize money being as low as they are, it’s still not really about that at the Pro Tour. That’s definitely the case for me, anyways. Yeah, it’s nice that there was some extra money involved, but most importantly to me, I had the opportunity to play with two of the best players of all-time, Luis Scott-Vargas and Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa.
It doesn’t stop there, though. I was still a point short of Platinum going into the event, and I’d need a Top 8 at a GP to hit it otherwise, but we had the opportunity to try and get to the Team Series finals with a pair of strong finishes from our teams, and I had the opportunity to qualify for the World Championships for the third time if I was able to have a strong finish at the event.
With this in mind I kept my focus on Modern all year. I kept my attention on the trends in the format, what decks I thought were good and under-represented, and took more of them for a spin than I usually do.
As many of you who’ve read my articles in the past know, Hollow One is the deck I focused on a lot throughout the past few months. I liked it a lot, and kept it in my back pocket for the Pro Tour. It was always going to be my fallback, but I didn’t like how it matched up with U/W Control all that much, and it’s a coin flip against a lot of the decks I expected to show up, like KCI and Humans. In addition to that, with KCI running rampant in the hands of Matt Nass leading up to this Pro Tour, additional graveyard hate would be everywhere. While the deck can beat cards like Rest in Peace and Leyline of the Void, it would rather not play against those cards either. If I was going to play a graveyard deck in the tournament, there would have to be a good reason for it.
A couple of weeks out, I tried some variants of U/W Control, and didn’t particularly find them all that exciting. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria did take them to a whole new level, and I do think that the card makes the deck go from tier 2 to tier 1, but it still wasn’t enough to make me want to be reactive in Modern.
Ben Stark was a huge advocate for the deck. He tried several iterations and worked on the deck a lot, and by the time of the PT, he was actually contemplating between Jeskai and KCI, not U/W. In a world where there’s a bunch of U/W and Humans, he said that he’d much rather be playing Jeskai because the dead cards in Jeskai play out better than the dead cards in U/W in that specific matchup.
I eventually narrowed down what I was personally considering to a few decks. KCI, Hollow One, and Humans.
With this in mind, about three or four weeks before the Pro Tour, I did nothing but play KCI. KCI is an incredibly difficult deck to play, and requires some knowledge of the deck to know when the correct time to try and combo off is when you’re light on resources. I know Hollow One like the back of my hand and figured that it wouldn’t take too much time to learn Humans.
I saw a lot of posts this week about KCI needing to be banned. The arguments are both how strong the deck is, and of course how much time it takes to play its combo turn.
I’m strongly in the KCI does not need to be banned camp. I played the deck a lot. More than any deck I’ve never played in a tournament before. While the deck is powerful, it’s very beatable. We saw a strong showing from Ben Stark with the deck this past weekend, but what we failed to see was his personal results. While I don’t know how most people did with the deck, I do know that the two players on our squad’s records were both nothing to write home about. Matt Nass did quite poorly from what I hear, and Ben started out strong but didn’t win much when Day 2 began. I think this deck will continue to be a strong choice moving forward, but once playing against the deck is more common, and knowing how to fight against it becomes more well-known, I believe the discussion we’re having on banning KCI (there’s still arguments for Mox Opal and Ancient Stirrings, but that’s a different article) will mirror those of banning Death’s Shadow not too long ago.
After playing a bunch of matches with KCI, I found that the deck was only as good as your opponent allowed it to be. Players had access to a ton of “I win” sideboard cards against the deck, and every one they added gave them a much better chance at beating you. Examples of these cards are Rest in Peace, Stony Silence, Leyline of the Void, and so on. These cards can be interacted with via Nature’s Claim, but every copy of a reactive card makes your deck a bit worse. If people are increasing copies of these cards, you can’t then just add a bunch of Natural States too because your deck ends up too diluted. KCI can also fall to a well-timed shatter effect in the face of pressure. A deck like Hollow One could put a reasonable amount of power on the battlefield, and an Ancient Grudge on Krark-Clan Ironworks later the game is over. The deck can fold if forced to combo off in undesirable conditions.
One plan that Justin Cohen brought to the team’s attention was to sideboard into Sai, Master Thopterist. Sai gave you an angle to win through the hate cards, while also enabling your combo by producing a ton of mana on your combo turns. The awkward part about Sai is that most decks with Path to Exile end up leaving them in because those decks have so many bad cards against you. But if Sai sticks, it can run away with a game through a Stony Silence. Sai, in my experience, is also great at stabilizing against decks like Hollow One and Death’s Shadow that try to beat you with one big creature. If you can keep your life total relatively high, Grove of the Burnwillows can keep Death’s Shadow small enough that even a Temur Battle Rage won’t kill you. In some cases, Sai can even beat a Death’s Shadow player who is a little too aggressive in dealing themselves damage with just a couple of Thopters.
After incorporating Sai, Master Thopterist, I still wasn’t enjoying playing the deck most considered public enemy number one. Modern is a weird format. The card pool is so big that it can adjust to anything.
KCI is either so good that I have to play it despite all of the attention it’s receiving, or it’s just another solid deck. If it’s just a solid deck, I could decide not to play it and feel comfortable about it. That’s where I landed despite putting a lot of work into learning it. KCI is a deck I’d likely take for a spin in a Grand Prix where people aren’t as used to playing against it, but at an event like the Pro Tour, the players will know how to play against it, which in my opinion seriously decreases my equity with the deck.
I had dismissed the deck the day before deck submission, despite Ben Stark iterating on the deck and ending up with Negate, a card we determined was quite a good addition. It helped turn your Guttural Response slot into both a way to interact with sideboard cards on the play or past turn 2, while also helping you push through counter magic. Obviously, twice as much mana is a steep price to pay. The matchups against those cards are generally grindier anyways, so you can wait to combo later.
While the various innovations intrigued me, I didn’t think it was enough to change my decision.
During the week of testing, two new decks seemed to be extremely popular on MTGO. Bant Spirits and B/R Bridgevine decks were popping up everywhere. I decided to try out the Bridge from Below deck as it looked quite explosive in some games where I played against it with KCI. While the deck felt powerful when it was working, it felt quite inconsistent to me. Your deck hinged on getting Bridge from Below or Vengevine into your graveyard early, and it didn’t have much of a backup plan against graveyard hate. While I was winning a decent amount on Magic Online, I recognized mistakes from my opponents on multiple occasions, and situations where I ran hot that led to me winning more than I thought I would at the Pro Tour. The deck mulliganed a lot, and most importantly, I noticed it struggled against Humans, a deck I thought would be quite popular at the PT. Humans could simply set up a battlefield and leave creatures untapped to block and the Bridgevine deck would usually struggle to produce enough attackers to make a lethal attack. If they make early trades, they lose Bridges from their graveyard. The very explosive draws were of course more difficult, but they were fewer and farther between than I’d like them to be.
Here’s a deck list I played in a couple of leagues. I found a list in the league 5-0s and edited only a couple of cards:
Bridge from Below
While this is a very early iteration of the deck, and other versions may be better, I’m not in love with archetype right now.
The next new deck, Bant Spirits, was everywhere. This is the deck I definitely think is the better of the two, and it showed up on Magic Online in huge numbers. This deck had a proactive game plan and didn’t use the graveyard, and the most appealing part about the deck was its sideboard. This deck got access to all of the busted white sideboard cards, while also not being susceptible to much sideboard hate: Rest in Peace, Stony Silence, and even Worship.
Unfortunately, by the time we got around to testing this deck, I decided that it was a little too late in the process, and didn’t want to focus all my attention on a deck that may or may not be a better choice than other decks. Ivan Floch and Silver Showcase Champion Stanislav Cifka were also testing Modern with me, and both decided to play this deck despite beginning work on it only several hours before deck submission. I felt from looking at it that Humans would line up fairly well since it could get underneath the deck. While Humans has a worse sideboard, it felt like the faster deck, so I decided to rule out Spirits.
Ivan and Stan played the following deck at the PT:
After ruling Spirits out, in my last hours I had a decision to make. Did I want to play the deck I’m extremely comfortable with in Hollow One, or the deck I had been playing for the past couple of days, Humans? I looked at what I expected in the metagame and what I had been playing against on Magic Online and ended on Humans. Here’s the reasons why:
- I thought Celestial Colonnade would be a popular card. I thought U/W Control would be much more popular than Jeskai Control. Hollow One struggles with U/W but dominates Jeskai, while Humans has a solid matchup against U/W, but is weak against Jeskai. Point in favor of Humans.
- KCI could be outrageously popular. The deck is so powerful, and despite being a small dog or evenish against a lot of decks post-board, the deck is still very good and people may have invested a lot of time, just as I did, on it. I still feel as if Humans is a favorite there, whereas Hollow One is a small dog to an even matchup there. Point to Humans.
- The fact that KCI is popular has brought more graveyard attention. If I’m not going to play KCI, it would be nice to not suffer the collateral damage of its existence by playing a deck that didn’t worry about having to use its graveyard. Humans is just that. Hollow one loses a point there.
- We thought because of the potential popularity of KCI, Tron would be down in numbers. Tron isn’t exactly a bye for KCI, but it’s still a solidly good matchup and people may be scared away by that. It’s great against Humans, but it’s not great against KCI, and if people decide to try and outpace KCI with decks like Infect and Storm, Tron gets even worse. While this steered me towards Humans, we got this wrong. Tron was still one of the most popular decks in the tournament, and a rather decent choice with Humans and U/W Control being so popular.
- I hadn’t seen a Lightning Bolt in a week outside of Hollow One decks. Lightning Bolt is an incredibly strong card against Humans, and the decks that play it main are generally bad matchups.
- Mardu, Jeskai, and other Snapcaster Bolt decks aren’t great for you. I wasn’t seeing these decks at all while testing. I also wasn’t seeing much Humans online so there’s also that. I was seeing decks like Spirits, Bridgevine, U/W Control, KCI, and Hollow One online. In that metagame, Humans is a solid call.
All of these factors led me to playing Humans. It’s a strong proactive deck that doesn’t fold to hate cards. It happens to be weak against some fair strategies, but those decks tend to be bad against KCI, Hollow One, and Tron. If that’s the case, Humans is in a good spot for the event. Given the information I saw, I would not change my deck choice. I think Humans was a solid call for the tournament, and we saw two copies of the deck in the Top 4, despite them both making early exits.
Here’s the deck I registered for PT 25th Anniversary, which one of my testing partners for this event, Willy Edel, helped shape:
The raging debate about the deck is how much Militia Bugler helps the archetype. I was a firm believer after a few matches, but after the Pro Tour, I’m less high on the card. Yes, it’s pretty good against the decks that try and 1-for-1 you out of the game, but it’s not insane or anything. A lot of the decks in Modern right now are just too fast to try and grind them out with creatures. Humans’ strength is that it’s able to get on the battlefield quickly, and present a board that opponents can’t deal with, or a battlefield that contains enough disruptive elements that you can close the game before the opponent has time to recover. In other words, you don’t want to be playing from behind with Humans. Militia Bugler doesn’t impact the board enough on its own to be your best card in any matchup, and is merely an OK card in the matchups it’s supposed to be great in, like Mardu Pyromancer. I would certainly not play four in next event where I play Humans, and I’d play the 4th Reflector Mage and 4th Phantasmal Image if I were to do it again. I’d leave Militia Bugler as a 2-of for the time being but it would definitely be on my watch list. I do like how it can string together Thalia’s Lieutenant’s in the mid game, and it’s a pretty solid card in the mirror because of this. Militia Bugler is definitely not what makes Humans great, though.
My sideboard was OK, but having not played against KCI a single time, I regret adding the second copy of Kambal, Consul of Allocation, and would likely replace it moving forward with a Kataki, War’s Wage. This would be more helpful against Affinity, and it’s also fairly effective against the faster KCI draws, which are the ones I’m worried about. I’d want a second Dismember for sure, at the expense of Gut Shot, and I’d like one or two copies of Dire Fleet Daredevil or potentially the added Militia Buglers I’d cut for grindy matchups. I’d be interested in testing Damping Sphere some. It’s difficult to cast in the deck with four Ancient Ziggurats, but it hits one of your worst matchups in Tron, and is disruptive enough against Storm and KCI to bring in.
All in all, the strength of the Humans deck lies largely in its main deck, and its sideboard is quite mediocre for the most part.
Once the tournament began it was like something out of my worst nightmare. I was looking forward to playing with two of the best players to ever walk the planet, and hoping that I’d do my fair share. Unfortunately, Day 1 didn’t go so well. I played some bad matchups, drew rather poorly, and had a lot of tough spots. In the blink of an eye we were 0-3 to start the event. The comments like, “We didn’t think we’d see you guys here” started to roll in. Luis started asking at what record we’d allow him to just go to Gen Con. By the end of Day 1, I may have well had been at Gen Con. I didn’t play a match that mattered, and I certainly didn’t win any that did. I had some close matches I may have won if we played on. We managed to rally back some, and ended the day 3-4. I felt horrible about my personal performance, but Paulo and Luis were great and understanding, and assured me that it was a function of bad draws and matchups, and not necessarily my play or deck choice. In a team tournament it isn’t about your individual performance, but the team’s performance as a whole, but knowing that doesn’t change the fact you’re going to feel awful if you did extremely poorly. Make sure that you support your teammates in an event if they’re feeling down like this because it really does help just hearing your friends tell you that it’ll be OK.
I woke up the next day with low expectations. I Facetimed with my daughters and wife, and felt good about the day ahead. I’ll try my best. Whatever happens, happens.
I managed to win a close mirror match in the first round of Day 2 against a friend of mine, Adam Snook, and then I won again, and again. We managed to start off 6-0. I didn’t know it yet, but that record both locked me for Worlds and Platinum. We played the last round knowing that it could have big implications in the team series race. Paulo, Luis, and I all thought we had it locked up when our opponent took what we thought would be his last draw step as Luis had lethal damage in play in the form of a Delver of Secrets and Gurmag Angler, with a Force of Will and Daze to discard to it, with a Stubborn Denial in hand. Our opponent had just Pondered and not shuffled, however, and rolled off a Supreme Verdict, extending the game and shutting off one of our hard counters. We lost from there, and later found out that the match would have clinched us a spot in the Team Series finals.
While I was extremely disappointed that we didn’t make it to the Team Series finals, I was so relieved when I found out that I was going to be playing at Worlds again. I’ll be honest—the mistake I made in Top 8 of PT Ixalan flashed into my head a few times, and I couldn’t help but think that it may cost me a slot at Worlds. But I made it and I couldn’t have done it without Paulo and Luis, and for that I’m absurdly lucky.
Overall I had a blast at PT 25th Anniversary. I’m honored that I got to play with Luis and Paulo, and additionally honored that I got to represent Team ChannelFireball for the entire season. Martin Juza, Ben Stark, and Josh Utter-Leyton are incredible players and I wish that we could have won our last match to finish the job to get us to the Team Series finals because they deserved it after all of the effort they put in.
While I enjoy team Pro Tours, I didn’t quite enjoy the testing process. Testing with my friends relieves a lot of the stress and makes the process more enjoyable. When we’re spread so thin on formats we don’t get to enjoy each other’s company or even work together on the same thing without making sacrifices. I’d still love to run back the team Pro Tours however, regardless of format.
For now though, I’ll just have to keep my mind on the World Championships. It will be the third time I play, and this time I’m not just “happy to be there.” I plan on working my tail off and giving myself the best chance to win. Let’s hope that I can make that happen.