I’m sitting in the tournament hall at the end of 16 rounds of Swiss waiting to head to dinner with some former The Pantheon teammates (Huey, Jon Finkel, Reid Duke, Kai Budde), and all of a sudden the scorekeeper for the tournament can be heard over the loudspeaker saying, “Matt Sperling, please report to the main stage” or something to that effect. My eyes go a mile wide and I look at Kai like, “WTF is happening?”
Kai and I have spent several minutes discussing the simple mathematical proof for why I’m not going to make Top 8 unless a miracle happens. The standings math is fairly straightforward here:
- I have 36 match points, with excellent tiebreakers.
- 6 players were able to draw into 37+ match points, and did so.
- There were 4 players with 34 or 36 points that couldn’t draw, making two matches in which the winners who would have 37+ points.
- Therefore, my only two paths to Top 8 would be the 34 vs. 34 match resulting in an unintentional draw, or a disqualification of one or more players with 37+ match points.
If you play enough, you’ve seen this a million times. There will be a “clean cut” where tiebreakers do not factor in. And someone always says, “Unless someone gets disqualified…” when describing their or your chances, but nobody believes that will actually happen.
So I go up to the scorerkeeper and he says, “We just wanted to make sure you’re still here. Don’t go anywhere in the next 20 minutes.” He tells me this info with a pretty good poker face, but I’ve known Nick for 20 years and despite his best efforts he seems like the cat who ate the canary. Or is that just wishful thinking? My head is spinning. I tell him, “I really hope you aren’t teasing me.” They don’t call anyone else up. Just me.
Back at camp, my former teammates are wisely telling me not to get my hopes up, and I’m telling myself the same thing. Humor is my bridge over awkward/nervous waters, so I just start saying how I’m guaranteed either a Top 8 or the worst slow roll/bad beat story in Pro Tour Top 8 announcement history.
The minutes are passing by so slowly at this point, you’d think Gabriel Nassif had a Jace in play across the table from me. After a lifetime of these minutes go by, teammates who are on Twitter start to see reports that Yuuya Watanabe may have been disqualified from the tournament for marking his sleeves. Next, a member of the coverage staff comes over to again make sure I’m still here, then another, and I now allow myself to accept that a miracle has really happened. Then they gather eight of us together for the announcement and walk up. It’s guaranteed.
Coverage staff congratulates me on my third lifetime Mythic Championship Top 8 (which I managed to pull off in only the second Mythic Championship ever held—pretty impressive).
Let me cover the full story in two parts. Today in part one I’ll go over qualification and preparation, and a deck tech with sideboard choice explanation for the Affinity deck I played. In part two I’ll give a tournament recap/report and a fully detailed sideboard guide. Look for the second part in the next few days.
Qualification and Preparation
The story of my Mythic Championship II experience starts here with my qualification through an MCQ win when the Grand Prix circuit stopped in the Bay Area (where I live). I snagged an invite with U/R Phoenix.
I am no longer on a pro team or playing professionally, so my choices are to join a team, form a team, or test on my own. I’ve done all three in years past when preparing for different Pro Tours, so I wasn’t stressed about it. Paul Rietzl asked the Ultimate Guard and Genesis guys if they wanted to bring me on, but explained that I could not travel to the event early or do any in-person testing. Given that constraint, and the fact that they were preparing with a few players I was not as close with, they passed.
Paul decided to step away from their testing in order to prepare with me instead. In my last Pro Tour, Paul and I didn’t test together and it was agonizing as we talk all the time but couldn’t talk about the prep. It made the whole affair a lot less fun for both of us, so we decided not to do that again. But still, it was extremely kind of Paul to step away from one of the best teams in the world to prepare with me and only me.
Our approach to Limited preparation was that Wizards of the Coast wasn’t allowing us to prepare for Limited in advance in any easy way, so we would have to table that and cram later.
Modern was a different sort of thing. We could play on Magic Online as much as we wanted, but Magic Online at the time did not use the London mulligan rule, which was a defining element of this Mythic Championship. So we starting testing to see what decks we liked and also theory-crafted about the impact of the mulligan rule on the various decks.
We knew Tron would get better, but would Dredge get better? Yes, you can mulligan very effectively with the deck, but Frank Karsten published an article about how if you put four Leyline of the Void in your deck, the new mulligan rule would make it extremely likely you could find one. So where would that leave Dredge in the post-sideboard games? We didn’t know.
While I had won the MCQ with U/R Phoenix and continued to do well with it online, I suspected that the mulligan rule would hurt U/R Phoenix more than it helped it. A deck with 20 cantrips doesn’t really mulligan a lot and the sideboard is way more incremental improvements than haymakers compared to other sideboards. Plus, people were starting to really figure out how to approach the Phoenix matchup. So I did not want to play Phoenix in London, but would sort of have it somewhere in the list of backup plans if nothing else worked out.
Then, they announced a couple of new wrinkles that changed our preparation process. The first was that we would be able to test the London mulligan on Magic Online starting April 10th. The second was that deck lists in this tournament would be shared with your opponent prior to the start of each round.
Being able to test the London mulligan on Magic Online changed everything. Tron was indeed very powerful, but there were some bad matchups, like Cheerios and Ad Nauseum that would also improve and end up pretty difficult to counter. Tron would end up on my short list of possible decks, but I regarded it as a backup plan since I wasn’t totally crushing with it, and people would expect it and over-prepare for it.
Paul and I started using a process of elimination for getting decks off our radar and narrowing our focus. We called eliminating a deck “scrapheaping” it, “sending it to the heap,” or if the testing was so obviously unfavorable, we’d simply type “heap” in the chat log. The spreadsheet containing a running list of heaped decks was pretty funny. It said, “Deck – Junk, Heaped? – Yes, Heaped by – Matt.” and then we wouldn’t test Junk anymore.
Around the end of testing we had heaped everything except Tron (which I had won a lot with), Green-Black (which Paul had won a lot with), and Affinity (Paul had heaped Thoughtcast Affinity early in the process but I wanted to try Frenzy Affinity before scrapping both and I started to win a lot with it).
Sometimes a deck would hit the scrapheap when faring poorly in a league or two—small sample sizes inevitably crop up in Modern testing with a 2-person team, but you have no choice but to use small sample sizes and your intuition about what is going on. It is dangerous to discard a deck after going 2-3 in a League, but it’s also very dangerous to waste time, and more dangerous still to start counting your 2-3s as “Nassif 5-0s,” meaning “I went 2-3, but I punted one match, I timed out one match, and one of the losses was to a fringe deck nobody plays, so basically I went 5-0.” (Every part of this article will have a Nassif beat, I guess—sorry Gab).
Other times, a deck would get heaped in our 1v1 testing vs. the known, most relevant decks (Phoenix, Tron, etc.) if it just couldn’t hang with one or more of those decks. This is how Hardened Scales got heaped. It wasn’t beating U/R Phoenix, Modern’s most popular deck. It wasn’t crushing the rest of the field badly enough to overcome this critical weakness, so off to the heap it went.
Back to the topic of 5-0s, despite all the Leagues we were playing, our familiarity with Modern, and our overall pretty good lifetime win rates online, we didn’t have a single 5-0 trophy in the format, which was kind of discouraging. We joked that if Paul managed to 5-0 at some point with a ham sandwich, I’d immediately be ordering sliced ham from the ChannelFireball web store to bring to London.
Eventually that 5-0 trophy came in maybe my 5th or 6th League with Arcbound Ravager, Experimental Frenzy, and friends. The Phoenix matchup here was different than it was with Hardened Scales. Four Galvanic Blast main deck gave you some absolutely critical counterplay to Thing in the Ice in game 1, and Rest in Peace and Dispatch were surprisingly effective in sideboarded games, as was Experimental Frenzy. Instead of hoping to race U/R Phoenix or run them out of answers, you could simply run them out of threats. Pyromancer Ascension and Arclight Phoenix are not real cards against Rest in Peace, and they don’t have an easy way to get the Rest in Peace off the board. Four Galvanic Blast and two Dispatch, along with three Experimental Frenzy, meant that finding Thing in the Ice answers was not that hard. Add in a couple Etched Champion to help block a flipped Thing, and you can play a 15-turn game against U/R Phoenix, as the control player, and bury them in card advantage.
Even before we got that trophy, my record with Affinity was better than our record with any other deck. The 5-0 was the straw that broke the camel’s back and we locked in. Paul didn’t even bother ordering cards for his backup plan of G/B Midrange. We were playing Affinity, and had a week left to tune the 75 cards and have a sideboard plan versus each deck.
Limited testing didn’t happen until we got our account credentials for the MTG Arena streamer and mythic competitor early access event, where you got a #sponsored account with all the cards and the ability to play Sealed deck, but not Draft. Paul feels pretty strongly that the most rewarding thing to do with Limited time is learn the cards. Learning how to draft flows from learning the cards, and being a Draft master is impossible without the fundamental knowledge of which cards are good in which archetypes.
So we initially set out to just play games however we could. Mostly that meant playing Sealed deck against random opponents, which was fine. But we also went into the Constructed portion of Arena and built 60-card decks (it won’t let you build 40-card decks) that were mockups of Draft archetypes. We assigned Paul the first 5 guilds alphabetically, and I got the last 5. The decks we built could use up to two of any common and up to one of any uncommon, rare, or mythic, but needed to contain exactly 25 lands, 21 commons, 14 uncommons, 7 rares, and 3 mythic rares. This is arbitrary stuff, but just like with small sample sizes in Modern, you have to give up on getting perfect data and try to harvest some useful data. We played those 10 decks against each other at random and learned things like, “This 1/3 that lets you scry every time you cast a noncreature spell is really good, and it doesn’t even require instants and sorceries! Any noncreature spell will do.” It seems obvious now, but it wasn’t obvious purely from reading the spoiler since there is so much info in a spoiler that you inevitably miss some details or assume a new card is the same power level as similar cards in the past, even if it isn’t.
David Williams was not testing with us yet because he was not planning to attend the tournament, but when he ended up booking a last-minute flight, we looped him in and started talking Limited. When we all got to the registration hall on Thursday, the night before the tournament, we found out that all players were getting 9 boosters of War of the Spark so that they could practice. Paul still felt like his return on investment would be higher playing more Sealed deck on Magic Online, so he went to his hotel room to do so. Dave and I thought that the difference between one or two real Drafts and 0 could be large (personally, I never feel like I know what is going on in my first couple of Drafts but I catch up quickly). So Dave and I stayed at the site and did a couple of Drafts with 6 other players who were nearby.
Paul ended up going 6-0 in Draft, and the three of us went a combined 12-3. The lack of prep time actually helped us because we aren’t the “do 100 Drafts” types anyway, so if everyone does fewer than 10 real Drafts and other pros have to jump through hoops to do Cube-style Drafts, we come out slightly behind those pros—but not that much behind—and we actually come out ahead of PTQ winners who have limited time and experience to draw upon. Those players are pretty screwed.
Deck and Sideboard Choices for Modern Affinity
The 75 Paul and I both played:
4 Blinkmoth Nexus 4 Darksteel Citadel 4 Inkmoth Nexus 3 Spire of Industry 2 Mountain 4 Arcbound Ravager 1 Master of Etherium 2 Memnite 4 Ornithopter 4 Signal Pest 4 Steel Overseer 4 Vault Skirge 4 Galvanic Blast 4 Cranial Plating 2 Experimental Frenzy 4 Mox Opal 4 Springleaf Drum 2 Welding Jar Sideboard 2 Ancient Grudge 2 Damping Sphere 2 Dispatch 2 Etched Champion 1 Experimental Frenzy 1 Karn, Scion of Urza 1 Relic of Progenitus 2 Rest in Peace 2 Thoughtseize
Let’s go through each card and explain what its purpose is.
These cards are grouped together because their most important shared feature in this deck is that they enable broken draws where you play 7 to 9 cards onto the battlefield in the first two turns of the game, sometimes even on the first turn. Mox Opal is the star of the show, and the card in this deck that most benefits from the London mulligan rule. But the other cards here are key enablers of Mox Opal, Cranial Plating, and Steel Overseer, none of which are all that powerful if you’re curving out 1, 2, 3 like a traditional deck with no zeros.
Similar to the zeros, but slower. Okay, it’s not quite that simple. And yes, I realize that Vault Skirge is technically a 2 by CMC, but the history of Phyrexian mana is that it can be ignored when determining your curve.
Springleaf Drum is a component of explosive starts and also a supplier of 5 colors of mana. It’s not as powerful as Mox Opal, but it’s very important to the deck and a welcome sight in most opening hands.
Signal Pest is what it is—one of the weaker cards in the deck but still capable of pitching in early and late into the game.
The lifelink on Vault Skirge can be critical in this deck. It’s definitely better than Signal Pest in this deck if you ever had to shave one of something.
Galvanic Blast is just a huge advantage this deck has over other creature decks. Lightning Bolt is one of Modern’s most powerful and popular cards. This is a very relevant 33% more damage for the same price, provided you satisfy a condition that’s extremely easy to satisfy in this deck. But it isn’t just abstract theory or comparison to Bolt—this is the right time and place for Galvanic Blast, thanks to Thing in the Ice’s 4 toughness.
The first three you probably know and love, and are untouchable staples, but Master of Etherium sometimes gets cut for Etched Champion or something else. The first Etched Champion is pretty good in the main, but we expected a few too many non-interactive opponents to want it. In a different expected metagame, there’s nothing wrong with it, and it frees up a sideboard slot.
Experimental Frenzy is so good. It’s better than you think it is. For example, the key to the U/R Phoenix matchup is to realize that Frenzy is so strong against them, despite their ability to bounce your whole team with Thing in the Ice, that you can play control after sideboard. The old four Ornithopter control deck. That’s how powerful Experimental Frenzy is.
Do not forget that sacrificing Frenzy for 3R is very relevant. You might have accumulated three zeros, a land, and a Plating during a couple of draw steps and/or opposing bounce effects. If you sac the Frenzy, the opponent might be dead on the spot. Don’t miss those kills.
When I looked up stock lists of Frenzy Affinity, some had one Mountain with no other basics, and some had one Mountain one Island. Both seem horrendous to me. Path to Exile is slightly less popular than usual, but Field of Ruin and Ghost Quarter are way more popular than usual, and Assassin’s Trophy is relevant as it usually will be such a powerful card. The 2nd basic lets you sideboard expensive cards like Karn if you want to, for specifically those Field of Ruin-type matchups where things go long and you end up with extra mana.
Glimmervoid sucks. People actually play Shatterstorm and you can actually win after they cast it. You sometimes have to shove onto a Nexus. It’s just not worth the life you save over Spire of Industry.
Cutting a Nexus or a Citadel to make room for Ghost Quarter seems crazy to me, so I must admit I have never tried it. Those lands are so good. Ghost Quarter isn’t bad, but it isn’t a Nexus or a Citadel.
There simply weren’t enough Stony Silences around to warrant Wear // Tear in my opinion. If you always play with fear, you become blind to what outcomes are actually most likely and which you can actually impact most. Even an opponent who does sideboard Stony Silence might not draw it, might lose to Etched Champion, or might beat you easily after you Wear // Tear it, making your sacrifice elsewhere in order to do so a wasted effort. As with many of the possible choices, Wear // Tear has a time and place, and this wasn’t it.
A critical tool versus Tron and Amulet (and occasionally Storm).
- 2 Dispatch
Absolutely amazing efficiency that, as I’ve discussed above, lets you play from the control side of the matchup when your opponent is trying to use Thing in the Ice or Dark Confidant to outmaneuver your Experimental Frenzies.
You still sometimes see lists with four Etched Champions in the 75. I feel that’s overkill, as the first is a lot better than the second, and too much expensive stuff can clog Frenzy, but look, the card is very powerful and if you play extras, they will have utility too.
You want more 4s especially versus anyone with Path/Trophy. It can be two Frenzy but there’s obviously extremely sharp diminishing returns (Karn might be one of your best reveals the turn following a Frenzy, while a second Frenzy would be among the worst). Karn is a pretty clean 2-for-1 or better vs. the U/W and B/G decks. Against a deck like Burn it can change their ability to kill everything, and there are games that play out that way (especially if they have Grim Lavamancer). Karn isn’t amazing and isn’t close to a must play, but it did just enough to get the nod this time.
Rest in Peace was an absolutely essential tool for us against both Phoenix and Dredge. The second one you draw is dead versus Phoenix so we hedged and played one Relic, but I’m not sure that’s correct. And similarly, I’m not confident you don’t just want three RIP and one Relic in the PT metagame since Dredge was present in numbers as we expected. But there isn’t room for everything.
I love Thoughtseize compared to other interactive options like Spell Pierce, Stubborn Denial, Unified Will, etc. When you are flipping through your deck with Frenzy you get to keep going, and that matters, but you also can use this turn 1 or 2 and not have to leave mana up every turn. Stubborn Denial and Spell Pierce also fail to appreciate that the card you care about is Primeval Titan a significant portion of the time. So we liked Thoughtseize in testing and I still do.
I’ll be back in part II of this report with a full sideboard guide and a tournament report of all the crazy stuff that happened between the start of the event and my eventual second place finish. I don’t know yet how I will undermine my friendship with Gabriel Nassif in that second part, but I’ll try to find something.