The Result

Exploring the wide-open Modern format from the booth at Grand Prix Birmingham was brilliant fun. The tournament itself had more ups and downs than a fiddler’s elbow, with an enormous multitude of decks all jostling for position. Decks of all stripes were represented, and people came ready to tackle the Big Three: Death’s Shadow, Scapeshift, and Tron.

None of these decks put up a dominating performance, however, and all weekend the decks on the top tables were more diverse than the art on PV’s basic lands. With 8 (well, maybe seven-and-a-half) discrete archetypes in the Top 8, the finals were very representative of the lack of consensus as to what is the best deck.

After 15 hard-fought Swiss rounds and a thrilling Top 8, Loic le Briand set the tournament hall on fire with a supremely compelling masterclass in piloting Burn through the final. Burn is perhaps the most linear deck you can imagine, looking to turn each nonland card into 3 to 6 points of damage, but le Briand showed us all just how deep this fiery rabbit hole could go. After a characteristically blazing-fast game 1, le Briand decided that his deck—against all orthodox reasoning—could grind against a G/B Rock deck.

To the astonishment of all who watched, le Briand took apart Steve Hatto by pointing his Lightning Bolts at creatures rather than at the dome, disrupted his opponent’s synergies with Relic of Progenitus, and somehow stitched together a win by taking a controlling role. Attempting to out-grind G/B—a deck that’s better at grinding than Rodney Mullen in THPS2—sounds insane at the best of times, but with a Burn deck? Le Briand defied all expectations, comfortably taking the match in straight sets and hoisting the trophy with a big grin on his face.

If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and watch the finals—it was truly astonishing to see the depth and range of the Burn deck in the hands of le Briand.

The Moment

Piotr Glogowski was on an absolute tear with Lantern Control, sitting at 11-1. His round 13 opponent, George Channing, was also crushing it with an archetype that was widely touted as the deck to beat: Grixis Death’s Shadow. After splitting the first two games, these players were ready to dig in their heels and defend their x-1 records as the cut to the Top 8 approached.

You can watch it all unfold here.

Both Channing and Glogowski got off to decent starts, with Channing deploying Liliana, the Last Hope early while Glogowski set up his defenses with Ensnaring Bridge and Leyline of Sanctity. Despite the huge amount of interaction in the Grixis deck, Channing was unable to prevent Glogowski from assembling the various pieces of Draft chaff that Lantern Control uses to win. He kept ticking up Liliana nonetheless and when she hit her ultimate, Team Coverage was sent scrambling to crack a fresh box of Zombie tokens.

Glogowski carefully counting both cards in Channing’s library.

Channing sorely tested the supplies as he plonked literally hundreds of tokens into play, but all of them were unable to attack due to the 3 Ensnaring Bridges in play. Seeing as Glogowski had used Surgical Extraction to exile Channing’s Kolaghan’s Commands, there was no way for the thousands-strong Zombie horde to connect! Glogowski shredded the remainder of Channing’s library, Channing extended his hand, and Glogowski went on to top the Swiss.

The Deck

Ever since Battle for Zendikar gave us Retreat to Coralhelm, determined brewers have been trying to make it the Batman to Knight of the Reliquary’s Bane, and break it in half. “Knightfall” decks have been on the fringes of Modern for a long time, never offering enough in speed, resilience, or raw power. Ivan de Castro Sanchez’s take on the deck, however, may mean that the game has changed.

Bant Knightfall

Bolstering the instant-win 2-card combo that is Retreat to Coralhelm alongside Knight of the Reliquary, Ivan included tribal synergies out the wazoo. This deck is able to get out of the gates like a greyhound with cards like Champion of the Parish, ramps towards Collected Company with Avacyn’s Pilgrim and Noble Hierarch, offers excellent interaction with Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Reflector Mage, and can grind into the late game with Eternal Witness and Thalia’s Lieutenant.

Ivan de Castro Sanchez impressed us all in the booth as he snagged himself a Top 8 slot on the back of an incredibly strong performance. Ivan didn’t pick up his first loss until round 14, and was richly rewarded for his canny preparation and tight play.

The Takeaway

From the booth, there were a few lessons we took from the weekend.

  1. Counters Company had an incredibly strong weekend and is expected to enjoy more success in the weeks to come. The deck is resilient, consistent, and fast. Capable of turn-3 kills, Counters Company has a lot in common with the play patterns of the old Splinter Twin decks—it threatens to end the game on the spot if your opponent taps out early, and if they spend too much time playing around the Vizier of Remedies/Devoted Druid combo, then you can just overtake them with Gavony Township. Keep this deck in mind when putting together your 75—its weaknesses include judicious removal or sweepers, and a light reliance on the graveyard.
  2. Modern continues to be a format that rewards dedication and persistence—the familiarity you gain with a deck after having played it for years will give you a huge edge in high-stakes tournaments like GPs. While bannings have, historically, knocked some decks out of the format, Modern nonetheless remains an arena where you will be rewarded for knowing a deck inside out. Understanding the texture of different matchups, knowing how to tune your list, and being familiar with corner-case interactions are all supremely important in Modern, and come with long-term experience with a single deck. Pick a deck, stick to it, and you’ll reap the benefits!
  3. Sideboarding remains the most critically overlooked aspect of the format. Constructing and tuning a sideboard against a field as diverse as Modern is a supremely difficult challenge, and understanding what your deck is trying to do in games 2 and 3 is perhaps the greatest test of the Modern deckbuilder. Do you want your 15 filled with hard-hitting silver bullets? Do you want to put together a transitional sideboard that will allow to you adopt a different post-board position? And most importantly, which decks are you tuning your sideboard to beat? Given the hugely diverse range of decks you can expect to face, it’s not an easy task to be ready for everything!

That’s it for this week—what did you learn from GP Birmingham? I’ll be back next week to explore what we learned from GP Denver!