Feature Article – The Gang Cracks the Format

Due to an abnormally open schedule and uncharacteristic motivation, I put significantly more time and effort into preparing for Pro Tour Philadelphia than most events over the last couple years. The combination of a world where Affinity might be good with Nassif’s ability to devote himself to playtesting had me excited. I quickly purchased most of the Modern staples on Magic Online and got to work. I collaborated with Nassif, Patrick Chapin, Matt Sperling, Michael Jacob, Gerry Thompson and Drew Levin for this event, or basically everyone I know that wasn’t staying in a house in the woods for two weeks.

What we discovered very quickly was the warping effect that [card]Cloudpost[/card]-based ramp decks had on the format. Because of the ability to create massive amounts of mana and stick uncounterable [card emrakul, the aeons torn]Eldrazi[/card], [card]Cryptic Command[/card] and/or [card]Mystical Teachings[/card] fueled control variants were largely unviable. Due to the possibility of a quick [card]Primeval Titan[/card] fetching multiple [card]Glimmerpost[/card]s, non-disruptive anti-creature Rubin Zoo decks would have to change dramatically. We decided immediately that we needed to be able to crush [card]Cloudpost[/card] decks consistently or simply build the best Cloudpost ourselves.

I am naturally inclined to explore aggressive strategies first, especially in a fresh format, and it seemed to me that Affinity neatly solved a major problem of the format. The combination of [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card] and [card]Cranial Plating[/card] could invalidate the large amounts of lifegain Cloudpost decks were capable of and allow me to finish them off after applying initial pressure with the usual assortment of robots. If I had played Affinity in Philadelphia, it would have looked something like this:

[deck]4 Ornithopter
4 Memnite
4 Frogmite
4 Arcbound Ravager
4 Cranial Plating
4 Mox Opal
4 Thoughtcast
3 Springleaf Drum
3 Atog
3 Galvanic Blast
2 Arcbound Worker
2 Fling
4 Inkmoth Nexus
4 Darksteel Citadel
4 Glimmervoid
1 Blinkmoth Nexus
1 Shivan Reef
1 City of Brass
4 Blood Moon
3 Ethersworn Canonist
1 Ancient Grudge
1 Dispatch
2 Dismember
4 Unified Will[/deck]

I played this, or something like it, in countless 2 and 8-man queues and was winning over 60% of my matches, but there was a problem. I hated the [card]Atog[/card]/[card]Fling[/card] part of the deck. While it was cute and explosive when drawn together with the right number of artifacts and against an unprepared opponent, too many times I would draw one or the other or they’d have a blocker or I’d be a little short of killing them. Ultimately, both cards were playing fair and that was something you just couldn’t do in a format so large.

In the days before the tournament, I tried “volume” variants with [card]Vault Skirge[/card], [card]Steel Overseer[/card] and [card]Master of Etherium[/card] that sought to overwhelm the opponent with a fast, large swarm rather than cheese them out by sacrificing your board. But with time now running out, I couldn’t find the right mix of ingredients. I left Los Angeles for Philadelphia on Wednesday night, prepared to play Affinity but secretly hoping either Nassif or Chapin would emerge from their lab with an ingenious concoction I could pilfer.

I landed Thursday morning, pleasantly surprised that I’d managed to sleep most of the 5 hour flight. Even better, I was able to check into my hotel upon arrival at around 7 am, meaning I could unpack, go to the fitness center to sweat off the jetlag, shower and shave, and eat breakfast before the site opened and the others awakened.

When we all met up, there were 4 distinct camps. Sperling and Levin were locked into Matt’s Kavu Predator Naya Zoo. Chapin was happy with the look of Splinter Twin. Brock Parker, who had joined us, was deciding between traditional Zoo and something resembling my Affinity deck. And Nassif was sitting on a bed making proxies for [card]Bottled Cloister[/card] and [card]Welding Jar[/card].

Wait, what?

Had the French genius finally gone mad? I didn’t have time to find out. His Esper Tezzeret brew was so far out of my range of abilities that I looked to the Innovator for guidance. He confidently told me that Twin combo was the best deck and that our list was solid, if not special. I was sold. Patrick’s focus has recently shifted away from trying impress the masses with his creativity and towards giving himself the best chance to win. Here is the deck I ended up registering:

[deck]4 Preordain
4 Ponder
2 Serum Visions
4 Deceiver Exarch
4 Pestermite
4 Splinter Twin
2 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
4 Remand
2 Dispel
1 Pact of Negation
1 Boomerang
2 Firespout
3 Simian Spirit Guide
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Steam Vents
1 Watery Grave
1 Breeding Pool
4 Cascade Bluffs
1 Mountain
8 Island
2 Blood Moon
1 Firespout
2 Mystical Teachings
1 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
1 Deprive
1 Negate
1 Into the Roil
2 Spellskite
2 Ancient Grudge
1 Dismember
1 Pithing Needle[/deck]

I was able to get in a few practice games against Zoo and Cloudpost and sketched out a rough sideboarding guide for myself with Patrick’s assistance but still felt slightly apprehensive. Hopefully all the time I had spent playing the OTHER decks in the format would help my when piloting this one. Over my career I’ve always been the beatdown, torturing combo players for stumbling on mana or failing to develop quickly enough. Now I was Michael Vick lobbying congress on behalf of PETA. Out of place, but (I hoped) finally doing the right thing.

Round 1 – Martin Lindstrom – Sweden

Martin was armed with Infect, which should be a tough matchup for the slower but more consistent and resilient Twin. Unfortunately, in both games Martin was forced to mulligan and [card]Plunge into Darkness[/card] aggressively to find combo pieces. When I had the [card]Dispel[/card] or [card]Remand[/card] for his [card]Blazing Shoal[/card], it didn’t take [card]Pestermite[/card] long to clean up. Two games in and I was happy to be 1-0, even if I only had to do a combined 6 damage or so in the two games.


Round 2 – Le Lin – United States

Le and I actually sat next to each other in the first round, so there were no surprises here. I knew he was playing Mono-G Cloudpost, quite possibly the best matchup for me. I won the roll, and killed him with confidence on turn 4, as I know it’s extremely unlikely he has a meaningful way to interact with the combo. In game two, he ramps and casts a pretty massive [card]Scapeshift[/card] on turn 4 that threatens [card emrakul, the aeons torn]Emrakul[/card] the next turn. Luckily, I’m able to [card]Preordain[/card] into [card]Blood Moon[/card], and he isn’t able to find an answer before I combo him out.


Round 3 – Tom Dixon – United States

Tom was playing Jund, which was the first deck I had tried in testing for the event. His deck seemed specifically good against Twin, with [card]Punishing Fire[/card], [card]Terminate[/card], and even [card]Sudden Death[/card] to deal with my combo. Combined with a clock of [card]Kird Ape[/card]s and [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]s and Tom made short work of me in two brutal games.


Round 4 – Martin Juza – Czechoslovakia

Martin and I were not featured, with the coverage reporters preferring the charismatic David Ochoa-Eric Froehlich pairing. We made small talk and I rolled a 6 on two six-sided dice. Here’s where things get interesting. Martin rolled the dice, dropping one on the ground and rolling a 6 on the other. He looked at me, shrugged, and implied that he had won the roll (because the result of the other die was immaterial). I said that I wasn’t sure. What is proper protocol in this situation? If you drop one die do you reroll one or both? If you simply let your opponent choose, he has the ability to angle shoot be rerolling both if the die on the table is a 1/2/3 and rerolling the fallen die if it’s 4/5/6. So I called a judge.


Yes, I did. I didn’t and don’t think Martin was trying to “get me” in any way, but I think it’s always ok to call a judge if you’re not sure what’s going on is right. The judge had no idea how to deal with this (I’m not sure it’s even in the floor rules). The head judge decided that for this tournament the policy would be that you just reroll the fallen die (note that this is the opposite of house police in craps, for example). Anyway, I accepted the ruling.

Martin went for the kill with his Infect deck early, and I tried to [card]Dispel[/card] the lethal [card]Blazing Shoal[/card]. Neither of us expected him to die when he cast [card]Spoils of the Vault[/card] for [card]Pact of Negation[/card], but that’s exactly what happened.

Martin easily and trivially killed me in game two.

Game three was incredibly weird. On the play I had a turn 2 [card]Spellskite[/card], giving me a modicum of security. But [card]Thoughtseize[/card]s and [card inquisition of kozilek]Inquisitions[/card] tore the [card]Pestermite[/card]s and [card deceiver exarch]Deceivers[/card] from my hand, leaving me with only [card]Splinter Twin[/card]s, removal, countermagic, and a [card]Simian Spirit Guide[/card]. So I did what I do best. I played the Spirit Guide and attacked Martin 10 times, sneaking in a [card]Pithing Needle[/card] (for [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card]) and using cantrips to sculpt enough removal that he could never kill me. Weird, but I happily took it.


Round 5 – Jesse Hampton – United States

This was just one of those matches. Jesse was playing 12-post, my supposed best matchups, but I lost a close 3 game match. I lost the die roll and took too long to put my combo together in game one. After taking game three on script, I was shocked to see a turn 2 [card]Chalice of the Void[/card] for 1 game three. All of a sudden all of the [card]Ponder[/card]s and [card]Preordain[/card]s in my hand were dead and I couldn’t piece together a victory before [card emrakul, the aeons torn]Emrakul[/card] came down and toasted me.


I saw down and drafted a fairly disastrous draft deck, featuring 3 [card]Stonehorn Dignitary[/card], 2 [card]Thran Golem[/card], 2 [card]Roc Egg[/card], significant mana problems, and no clear path to victory. It did also have a [card]Day of Judgment[/card], 4 [card]Incinerate[/card]s, and 2 [card]Pacifism[/card]s, which I promptly rode to an easy 3-0.

Pro Tip: If you draft a terrible deck, with a multitude of first picks and an abundance of trash, make sure you draw the good cards!


Before we went to bed, Nassif and I decided to preorder breakfast and were pleasantly surprised by the delicious aromas of egg, avocado, salsa, and potato around 7 am. A quick walk back to the site and I was greeted by a pod including soul eater David Williams, former lawkeeper Craig Wescoe, and intense monochromatic shirt wearing Robert van Meedevort. Again, I drafted a white/red deck, this time featuring [card]Serra Angel[/card], [card]Fireball[/card], 2 [card]Chandra’s Outrage[/card], and a reasonable curve. I was extremely confident – I figured if I could 3-0 with the pile I put together on Friday, surely 2-1 was the floor for this deck.

I managed only a 1-2 instead, losing a brutal match to Wescoe that came down to a single [card]Goblin Bangchuckers[/card] flip. The top eight dream was over, and it was back to Modern.


Round 12 – Louis Scöt-Farkas – United States

Felt the need to butcher the spelling of his name as badly as he did mine. Anyway, as he said so eloquently, he got a modicum of revenge for my triumphs at previous events. No shame in losing to the best player in the world.


Round 13 – Peter Vieren – Belgium

Peter was playing a [card]Restore Balance[/card]/Cascade deck that seemed designed to beat Zoo, Affinity, Cloudpost, and the various solitaire combo decks in the format. He had little chance in the two games where I was able to find [card]Remand[/card]s for his namesake card. Of particular problem was the fact that he can’t play cheap reactive spells to threaten the combo without risking cascading into them.


Round 14 – Roy Oever – Netherlands

This round again I was blessed by a matchup against 12-Post. I took game one uneventfully, but Roy was able to stick a quick [card]Damping Matrix[/card] in game two and [card]Beast Within[/card] my proactive [card]Blood Moon[/card]. Well my Beast token looked awfully lonely, so I gave him friends in the form of a [card]Simian Spirit Guide[/card], [card]Pestermite[/card], [card]Deceiver Exarch[/card], and the killing blow, the world’s most expensive [card]Goblin Guide[/card] – [card]Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker[/card]. Two [card]Remand[/card]s kept [card]Terastodon[/card] safely in his hand and I beat him down with my motley assortment of monsters.


Round 15 – John-Paul Kelly – Australia

JP was playing the deck I had the last experience practicing against, Storm/[card]Empty the Warrens[/card]. We split the first two games and I was on the play for game three. I kept a hand of 4 lands, [card]Firespout[/card], [card]Deceiver Exarch[/card] and [card]Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker[/card], played a land and passed to JP. JP opened with [card]Steam Vents[/card], played a flurry of spells and made 8 Goblins with [card]Empty the Warrens[/card]. I drew another land, played it and said go. JP attacked me down to 12 and played a [card]Cascade Bluffs[/card], passing with 2 cards in hand. I drew [card]Dispel[/card].

Had I not drawn the [card]Dispel[/card], I naturally would have cast the [card]Firespout[/card]. However, the [card]Dispel[/card] gave me another line of play. I could say go and used my [card]Deceiver Exarch[/card] to tap down his [card]Cascade Bluffs[/card] (to protect against a topdecked [card]Goblin Bushwhacker[/card]). Then on my next turn I could cast the [card]Firespout[/card] with [card]Dispel[/card] backup to protect against a [card]Remand[/card], [card]Spell Pierce[/card], [card]Negate[/card], [card]Disrupting Shoal[/card], or anything else JP had up his sleeve. This sounded good to me at the time, so I went for it. JP drew and played [card]Watery Grave[/card] untapped and promptly [card]Duress[/card]ed away my [card]Firespout[/card].

Bleh. My deck tricked me into punting! Curses.


Round 16 – Mateusz Kopec – Poland

This was a mirror match save a few small card choices, and Mateusz unfortunately was ravaged by a series of mulligans that let me secure the victory in two quick games.

Final Result: 10-6, Top 64, and a boatload of planeswalker points!

Since the Pro Tour, Wizards made some dramatic changes to the format, banning a variety of combo pieces and enablers in an effort to slow it down. Here is what the new metagame will probably look like:

Deck: Twelvepost
What it lost: [card]Cloudpost[/card], [card]Green Sun’s Zenith[/card]
Where it stands: This deck was intentionally neutered by the bannings. It’s possible the Urza lands can be used either with a [card]Gifts Ungiven[/card] or [card]Scapeshift[/card] package to make a “big mana” deck, but it will certainly be a fair deck and not have the same format skewing event. There’s nothing much in Innistrad to help such a deck, although it’s possible [card]Caravan Vigil[/card] + [card]Sakura-Tribe Elder[/card] could be something.

Deck: Splinter Twin
What it lost: [card]Ponder[/card], [card]Preordain[/card]
Where it stands: Wizards is ok having a deck like this that kills on a fair turn like turn 4. But there is something very unfun about watching your opponent sit there and play with themselves by casting a never-ending string of [card]Ponder[/card]s and [card]Preordain[/card]s. There’s two different ways for this deck to go. Either it can replace the [card]Ponder[/card]s and [card]Preordain[/card]s with less effective draw spells such as [card]Sleight of Hand[/card], [card]Serum Visions[/card] or [card]Gitaxian Probe[/card]. Or it can turn itself into a slower combo/control hybrid and play [card]Cryptic Command[/card], [card]Mystical Teachings[/card], additional countermagic like [card]Spell Snare[/card], and possible even [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card]. Keep an eye on [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] here, as it works particularly well with [card]Gitaxian Probe[/card] and is a nice backup target for [card]Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker[/card] and [card]Splinter Twin[/card] if you can’t stick or find the other combo pieces. Also of interest: both the best matchup (12post) and worst (Infect/Shoal combo) have been destroyed by the bannings, so I’d call the metagame impact about a wash.

Deck: Zoo
What it lost: [card]Green Sun’s Zenith[/card]
Where it stands: Zoo does what it does really well and that’s beat up on decks around the periphery of a format and provide a fast consistent clock (now with disruption). The only unwinnable matchup for ChannelFireball’s zoo deck in Philadelphia was Storm which lost a fair amount of its critical pieces. Zoo will be a big player in the new metagame. Without [card]Green Sun’s Zenith[/card], I’m not sure if this deck will continue to play [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card], but if it does watch out for 1 [card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card] as a surprise kill card in the mid to late game.

Deck: Affinity
What it lost: Nothing
Where it stands: Affinity was another of the big winners. It’s fast and consistent and struggled with [card]Rite of Flame[/card] combo similarly to Zoo. Affinity will be the classic 55-45 deck in the new format. It should have favorable matchups versus virtually every other deck in the metagame. However, it’s a deck that tends to suffer with increased attention. If Zoo comes prepared with [card]Ancient Grudge[/card] or (gulp) [card]Kataki, War’s Wage[/card], that matchup could quickly become untenable.

Deck: Pyromancer Ascension
What it lost: [card]Rite of Flame[/card], [card]Ponder[/card], [card]Preordain[/card]
Where it stands: I have a soft spot for the card [card]Pyromancer Ascension[/card], but it simply lost too much. It could possible withstand the loss of the accelerator, but without [card]Ponder[/card] and [card]Preordain[/card] this is just not a deck.

Deck: Infect Combo
What it lost: [card]Blazing Shoal[/card], [card]Ponder[/card], [card]Preordain[/card]
Where it stands: Infect combo as we know it is not a viable archetype anymore. Wizards is not interested in having people die on turn two. If people are going to be poisoned to death, [card]Cranial Plating[/card] or [card]Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas[/card] will be boosting the power of [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card].

Deck: Elves
What it lost: [card]Green Sun’s Zenith[/card]
Where it stands: Elves was not a particularly good choice in Philadelphia. Now it lost the card that made it consistent. This is no longer a player.

Deck: Hive Mind
What it lost: [card]Ponder[/card], [card]Preordain[/card]
Where it stands: Hive Mind was an inferior choice to Splinter Twin in Philadelphia. Losing the card selection/cantrips will also hurt it more because it must find [card]Hive Mind[/card] to win, while Twin benefits from redundancy. This is no longer a player.

Deck: Jund
What it lost: Nothing
Where it stands: This is my pick for the biggest winner from the bannings. It loses nothing, comfortably fits the [card]Punishing Fire[/card]/[card]Grove of the Burnwillows[/card] shell, gains tremendous card advantage with [card]Dark Confidant[/card] and [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card] and can disrupt combo and control decks with [card]Thoughtseize[/card] and Blightning. Affinity stands out a possible tough matchup, so you’ll want to come prepared with a full set of sideboarded [card]Ancient Grudge[/card]s (and possible some [card]Seal of Primordium[/card]s as well).

Deck: Death Cloud
What it lost: Nothing
Where it stands: Antonino De Rosa got off to a 5-0 start with this deck in Philly and this will continue to exist around the periphery of the format. [card]Death Cloud[/card] really struggled with the speed of combo before, so perhaps the more reasonable pace will allow it to break out. I still don’t see a way for it to reliably beat Splinter Twin, however.

As for the rest of the decks, the two archetypes that seem most poised for breakouts are Blue control and [card]Birthing Pod[/card] variants. Blue control could come in the form of Faeries, old school Next Level Blue, or Teachings based decks like we saw in Amsterdam last year. The best Birthing Pod decks have a combo element such as [card]Melira, Sylvok Outcast[/card].

I hope this breakdown of the new format was useful. Time to get ready to go film some more content with Matt Sperling and Mashi Scanlan. We’ll give our thoughts on the horrific new set!

Thanks for reading,


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