Last weekend, I finished in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan. It was my third time reaching the Top 8 of a Pro Tour, and was some of the most fun I’ve had playing Magic in recent memory. My deck choice and preparation can’t be much of a mystery, as I more or less outlined them in advance in this article series. Nonetheless, I’d like to share the story of my tournament, and why old-fashioned Tarmogoyfs and Dark Confidants wound up serving me so well.

My weeks leading up to the event were substantially different than they have been for past Pro Tours. As always, I practiced with The Pantheon, which consists of my Team Series team, Ultimate Guard, as well as our extended network of friends, teammates, and advisers. But ever since the new sets have been hitting Magic Online early, we’ve been focusing more on playing online and less on maintaining an extensive gauntlet for tabletop gaming.

Even more than that, preparing for a Modern event is much different than preparing for Standard. The extensive card pool means that Modern is slower to change. While a small handful of cards from a new set might make their way into the format, they’re unlikely to turn the format on its head. For the same reasons, it’s daunting to try and reinvent the wheel, as it would require almost superhuman ingenuity to come up with a great deck that no one has tried before.

Instead, most of us showed up with a short list of decks to try. When one showed promise, we might encourage teammates to take it for a spin. Unfortunately, after a week of playing, nothing stood out as being clearly better than the rest.

The writing was on the wall. In a format where all of the top decks are close to equal, where it’s hard to choose a strategy with a big edge against the field, why wouldn’t I simply choose a deck I enjoy? Why wouldn’t I choose one that I have experience with and know I can play well? I’m not above sleeving up Urza lands or Lava Spikes when I believe that those are the winning strategies, but why would I subject myself to that when other decks are just as good?

So I turned back to my Thoughtseizes and Fatal Pushes. I had concluded my article series by saying that Traverse Death’s Shadow and Classic Abzan were the decks that impressed me the most. The tiebreaker for me was the matchup against Celestial Colonnade decks. I love playing that matchup with the Dark Confidants, Lilianas, and creature-lands of the Abzan deck. But I hate that matchup with the fragile threat-base of Death’s Shadow. Thinking that U/W/x Control would be popular at the Pro Tour (and especially popular among the top players), I settled on Abzan.

Abzan

Reid Duke, 6th place at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan

If you’re a frequent reader of my content, then there will only be a small handful of surprises about this deck list. The first is the presence of Nihil Spellbombs—a lot of Nihil Spellbombs—and in the main deck rather than the sideboard. It’s common to pair Grim Flayer with Mishra’s Bauble as a cheap artifact to cantrip and add a valuable type to your graveyard. But after a few Leagues with the deck, I realized that I liked Nihil Spellbomb much better. It gives you a fighting chance against graveyard decks in game 1 and it frees up sideboard space. Lastly, nearly every deck in Modern uses the graveyard to some extent, and Nihil Spellbomb particularly shines in some of the midrange pseudo-mirrors like Death’s Shadow and Mardu Pyromancer.

On the topic of Mardu Pyromancer, this was a breakout deck that I was getting paired against a lot when playing Magic Online the week before the Pro Tour. At first I struggled with the matchup, being consistently out card-advantaged in long games. My solution was to load up on Nihil Spellbombs and Liliana, the Last Hopes, which eventually resulted in me feeling like a noticeable favorite.

Although I didn’t play the matchup in the Pro Tour, Gerry Thompson’s 11-0 Modern run on his way to the finals made me feel justified in giving Mardu Pyromancer its due respect. If you have a Modern tournament coming up, I recommend including a healthy amount of graveyard hate, as it’s nearly impossible to beat this deck in a fair fight without targeting its graveyard.

Liliana, the Last Hope was my sleeper card of the tournament. And on that note, I think it remains a sleeper card even after the Pro Tour. It’s not that people don’t know that Liliana is a powerful planeswalker—she’s been played in small numbers in Modern ever since she was first printed. But I don’t think people have fully realized how much the change in the planeswalker legend rule has changed her value. The 2 Lilianas are both incredible, solve different problems for the deck, and pair amazingly well together. Having both in play at once is, in my humble opinion, the most fun you can have playing Modern.

The most impressive use of Liliana, the Last Hope is recurring Fulminator Mages, which is a way to lock a Tron, Valakut, or control player out of the game. Since she also does a Grim Lavamancer impression against small creature decks (as well as pairing beautifully with Damnation), she winds up being an excellent weapon across a wide range of matchups.

I was confident in Abzan going into the tournament. I felt good about most matchups outside of Tron and Valakut. I knew that Tron would be a popular deck, but hoped that I could either dodge it, or pair a fast Liliana of the Veil with a few turns of good luck in order to come out with a win.

Day 1: The First Draft

My first Draft was relatively boring. I first-picked Curious Obsession from a weak pack, which is a card that looked unassuming at first, but has proven to be very strong. My next pack had Silvergill Adept as the only standout card, and then I got a third-pick Forerunner of the Heralds. From that point, it turned into one of those Drafts where you essentially close your eyes and take the best Merfolk card from every pack.

My deck ended up being better-than-average, if not amazing. I didn’t have rares, but I had a good curve, 3 Forerunner of the Heralds that I could chain together, and a decent helping of the removal spells that you want in Merfolk, like Crashing Tide and Hunt the Weak.

While the Draft portion was boring, the gameplay was anything but. I found myself in the 2-0 bracket paired against Mass Nass, whom I knew (based on position) would have a very strong red deck. In game 1, Matt made a strange attack that I was at first unable to puzzle out. I took great pains to remain calm and keep my wits about me, and eventually concluded that he was planning a post-combat Golden Demise. I kept my River Darter out of combat, and was able to minimize the damage when—sure enough—he played his board sweeper.

This was a highlight of the tournament for me, because I knew that I likely wouldn’t have found this play at other points in my career. In my early years, the problem would have been a lack of experience, and at other points it might have been a lack of focus. Although it wasn’t some earth-shattering play, and may not have even influenced the outcome of the game, it felt symbolic of being in the zone, and being ready to reap the rewards of a lot of hard work.

Game 2 was outrageously close. Starting out behind, I stabilized against Matt’s fast start, and battled back to a favorable position with a Negate in my hand. Matt drew out my Negate with a Tilonalli’s Crown—which threatened to change the race in his favor—opening the door to topdeck the devastating Angrath, the Flame-Chained and win the game.

Game 3 was similarly close, but in largely the opposite way. This time it was Matt who had played me into a corner. He had a 5/5 Mausoleum Harpy that would kill me in the air in only one or two turns. I made an aggressive attack with a Jadecraft Artisan, knowing that I could win if Matt had only lands, but would die immediately to nearly any nonland card in Matt’s deck. He drew a land at the wrong time, and I drew Crashing Tide to force through the last few damage and make it a clean 3-0.

Day 1: Five Rounds of Modern

I had a dicey start to the Modern portion of the event, as I lost a 30-minute game 1 against Affinity—one that it felt like should have been mine. I mulliganed to 5 in game 2, but my opponent had a reactive hand that couldn’t kill me quickly through a Lingering Souls and a removal spell. A dozen turns later, I found myself purposely declining to cast Stony Silence, thinking that the Clues from my Tireless Tracker were more valuable than my Affinity opponent’s artifacts. Although a strange one, this is usually a good problem to have, and I eventually took the match to a game 3.

Unfortunately, game 3 started with under five minutes on the clock. My hand was good, but I had to make some lightning-fast decisions with a Grim Flayer trampling over an Etched Champion. I was holding a Damnation in my hand for insurance, but knew that if I cast it that I would be unlikely to finish the match in time. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that and I won the match on turn 3 of extra turns.

Round 5 was a rather convincing loss to Humans. This was a version with Path to Exile and Collected Company. While I can’t say whether this version is better or worse than the Aether Vial version, I can assure you that it’s scarier to play against. A fast start backed up by Collected Company and Path to Exile for my blockers put me away quickly.

Next I beat Ben Stark and his Jeskai Control deck. This is a matchup I felt well prepared to play, and I must have attacked for about 30 damage with Treetop Villages over the course of the match.

Round 7 was a great one against Ivan Floch and his Grixis Death’s Shadow deck. I cast a turn-1 Inquisition of Kozilek, and therefore knew a lot about Ivan’s hand for much of the game. That said, something interesting happened a few turns later. Floch cast Tasigur, the Golden Fang and passed the turn with a Steam Vents untapped without making his land drop. I took my turn, and at end of turn he cast Opt. Normally, I would have expected him to cast Opt on his own turn in an effort to make his land drop. So from that point, I began to strongly suspect that he had drawn Stubborn Denial, and I played accordingly.

The game broke down into a situation of a Death’s Shadow in play on Ivan’s side, a known Fatal Push in my hand, and a “known” Stubborn Denial in Ivan’s hand that I refused to play into. This allowed me to leverage the fact that Ivan was stuck on lands, and could only cast one spell per turn while holding up the Stubborn Denial. Eventually, Dark Confidant drew me into more removal and I won the game.

Round 8 was against Hall-of-Famer Tsuyoshi Fujita and one of my most feared matchups, Tron. Abzan has some game in the matchup with Stony Silence and Fulminator Mage out of the sideboard. Winning a sideboarded game on the play is usually no problem, but that still leaves you crossing your fingers that the Tron player stumbles in one of the other two. This is exactly what happened, as Fujita’s deck failed to deliver in game 1, and I wound up taking a close match after splitting the sideboard games.

My record was 7-1, and I went to sleep feeling great. I was doing well with one of my favorite decks—one that I knew I could pilot proficiently. In the final round I had escaped a tough matchup with a win. At two points earlier in the day I had improved my chances by making very specific reads on what was in my opponent’s hand. Things were going well and it was my tournament to win or lose.

Day Two: The Second Draft

If my first Draft was boring and straightforward, my second Draft was terrifying. I’m most comfortable drafting Rivals of Ixalan when I’m any combination of the Mardu colors. So when the player to my left opened the ultra-powerful Profane Procession, I had to decide whether I wanted to fight for my preferred colors, or take a different route. Interestingly enough, I had opened Zacama, Primal Calamity in an otherwise weak pack, so I decided to step out of my comfort zone and try out a Dinosaur ramp deck.

I got a beautiful gift third pick: Ghalta, Primal Hunger. Personally, I think this is one of the stronger rares in the set, and was not expecting anyone to pass it in pack 1. I gather that one of the drafters took Ravenous Chupacabra while the other had some specific archetype preferences that didn’t involve Dinosaurs.

Unfortunately, the rest of pack 1 was lackluster and had me spending a lot of picks on sideboard cards like Naturalize and Plummet. Going into pack 2, I still didn’t have much direction for my deck.

That changed when I got first one, and then a second Tilonalli’s Summoner. Later in the pack, I saw Path of Discovery, which had been a controversial card among my teammates, some liking it and some hating it. Thinking that I already had a strong late game, I almost picked a curve-filler creature over the Path before I did a double-take and realized how well it paired with my 2 Tilonalli’s Summoners. Since it triggers on a creature entering the battlefield—including a token—I could get half a dozen explores any time I attacked with a Summoner!

Pack 3 went pretty well, with the highlight being 2 Otepec Huntmasters. I finished the Draft with a G/R/w Dinosaur deck that was very high on power level, but low on efficient removal. One interesting deck building decision was to maindeck a Naturalize, since three of my opponents had visibly drafted Profane Procession, Golden Guardian, and Treasure Map.

I only posted a 1-2 record with the deck. I got to combine a Tilonalli’s Summoner with Path of Discovery in only one game, which I wound up losing to flying creatures anyway. Sadly, neither of my rare Dinosaurs ever made an appearance.

Day Two: Five More Rounds of Modern

You can’t be disappointed if you finish your second Pro Tour Draft and you’re still in contention for Top 8. Nonetheless, at 8-3, my confidence was a little shaken, and it was starting to feel like the wheels were falling off.

Then it happened.

With my tournament life on the line, I was called to the feature match area. My opponent was Jon Finkel, and it was my worst matchup—Tron. I quickly lost game 1, and when he started with Leyline of Sanctity in game 2 I was ready to pack my bags. I could try again in a decade or two when they bring the Modern Pro Tour back for the next time.

But that’s not how the match ended. Jon’s deck sputtered a little bit, and Stony Silence and Fulminator Mages did what they were supposed to do. I won the two sideboarded games, and suddenly my tournament was back on track.

In round 13, I won a game after surviving for four turns at 3 life against Burn. If that’s not a sign that your tournament is going well, I don’t know what is. Next was an intense match against U/W Control. U/W Control is a highly favorable matchup, but the problem is that you sometimes start game 3 with under 10 minutes on the clock. This was one of those matches, but an uncontested Liliana of the Veil went to ultimate, and I was able to win just in time.

Finally came my win-and-in match against Tay Jun Hao and his Humans deck. Humans was my only loss in the tournament so far, and it’s not a deck to take lightly. Game 1 was an incredible grind that I eventually won with Scavenging Ooze. Game 2 went from looking great—a hand full of all creature removal—to awful when Jun Hao cast Mirran Crusader—to great again when I topdecked Liliana of the Veil.

The final round was a handshake with Jean-Emmanuel Depraz and I was in the Top 8!

The Top 8

I started my story by saying that this was my third Pro Tour Top 8, which is the truth. What I chose to omit is that I failed to win a single game in either of my previous two Top 8 appearances. Needless to say, this represents a bit of a chip on the old shoulder. When I realized that I had an unfavorable matchup against Ken Yukihiro and his R/B Hollow One deck, I had nightmares of yet another anticlimactic, ignominious exit.

I stayed up late practicing the matchup with William Jensen and the rest of the team. It was a particularly frustrating matchup in that the games felt decided so much by the strength of Hollow One’s draws and so little by what Abzan was doing.

Almost everyone on the team had a different suggestion for how to sideboard, with varying opinions on cards like Thoughtseize, Collective Brutality, and both Lilianas. In the end, I decided that I would follow my own instincts—probably one of the stupidest things you can do when you have Jon Finkel and William Jensen advising you—but hey, it had gotten me this far. I would treat the matchup the same way I treat Affinity, Humans, and Burn—plan to stabilize at a low life total, and then make sure I have enough card advantage to bury them in the late game.

My sideboard plan was:

Out

In

You can watch the match here.

While I didn’t win, I did get to play a great match and take Ken all the way to a game 5, and I’m not disappointed with the result. In two of the games, he had 2 Hollow Ones in play before I played my first land and there was nothing I could do. The other three games were close, and I was happy with the way I played them.

The very last card that I took out of my deck before the Pro Tour was Murderous Cut, and having one more answer to Hollow One and Gurmag Angler would have been valuable. But then again, who knows how much it would have cost me against Tron and control to swap a threat for an unexciting removal spell?

I loved my Abzan deck and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for something to play in Modern. The density and resilience of the threats gives it a natural advantage against control, Death’s Shadow, and other midrange decks. The tools are there to beat linear strategies like Affinity and Dredge.

It’s fun to win by playing fair when everyone wants to tell you it’s impossible. If you like playing close and interesting games, then you should be sure to pick up Abzan and make Liliana your new best friend.