Testing the Modern Gauntlet for Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan

Knowing an entire format months beforehand should make it easier to test for a Pro Tour. Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan certainly didn’t feel like it. Testing for a Modern Pro Tour was a daunting task. There are so many decks, and so many iterations of these decks, that getting accurate information on simple ideas such as which deck is favored is nearly impossible.

I began testing for Rivals of Ixalan almost immediately after Pro Tour Ixalan. I wanted to know first-hand what every decks strength and weaknesses were.

I started with a deck I was very comfortable with, Grixis Death’s Shadow. Grixis was what I planned to play at all of the Modern Grand Prix I was going to attend, and ended up going to neither because of flight complications.

I liked Grixis Shadow from the get-go. First off, it’s a Thoughtseize deck with counterspells. This really helps mitigate bad matchups. The deck’s floor is high. It also has some nut draws. An early large Death’s Shadow after a couple of discard spells is a difficult draw to beat for most decks. This is one of the reasons why no matchup can be too awful for a Death’s Shadow deck.

Grixis Death’s Shadow is not without weakness though. The deck can often play out more slowly than other Death’s Shadow variants. It has eight real threats in Death’s Shadow and delve creatures, and Snapcaster Mages can close out a game, but slowly. If your plan against a deck is to use discard early and close out quickly with creatures, and you don’t have either half of that package, you’ll be in rough shape against Tron or Storm that can take advantage of a slower draw. This is especially true if you’re leaning on Stubborn Denial. For these reasons, Death’s Shadow’s ceiling is actually pretty low on the matchup scale. You can beat anything, sure—you can also lose to anything because you’ve spent too much time casting cantrips and setting up as opposed to applying pressure. I’d say the only matchup I’m excited to play against is Lantern, but I’ll get into that a bit more a little later.

So after testing Grixis Shadow thoroughly, I moved onto other decks.

Next up was Eldrazi Tron. I tried Eldrazi Tron on Sam Pardee’s recommendation. I hated it.

Eldrazi Tron seemed like a fair deck that had too little interaction. On the early turns you were always setting up your mana with Expedition Map, leaning on a Chalice of the Void, or crossing your fingers that you drew Tron or 2 Eldrazi Temples. After playing a few Leagues with this deck I felt like it was basically attacking slow draws or leaning heavily on Chalice of the Void, a known quantity in the format, so decks that were weak to it like Grixis Shadow and Storm had already adapted.

After spinning my wheels a bunch with other decks I actually came back to Eldrazi Tron a second time trying to see if my initial 15-20 matches weren’t giving the deck enough of a chance. I eventually decided that I’d just have to agree to disagree with Sam.

During testing with Grixis Shadow, I noticed that I lost to Storm more often than I would have thought, given how good a matchup I thought it was. I wasn’t sure if I was playing the matchup wrong, or if I was just unlucky. I wanted to test Storm to see if it was that, or if the deck was actually much more resilient than I thought.

Storm’s biggest strength was in some of its more lopsided matchups. Playing against Valakut or Tron, I finally felt like I had some free wins. You could basically goldfish against these decks and combo off reliably and easily.

Storm’s biggest weakness became apparent very quickly. Everyone can interact with you, if they’re trying to interact at all. Storm has small creatures, relies on its graveyard, and sets up its hand. When creature removal, graveyard hate, hand disruption, and counterspells are all foils to your plan, that can be a huge problem.

The sideboard plan of Empty the Warrens and Pieces of the Puzzle is a great one. The problem is that the format has already adapted to it. Everyone brings in sweepers to interact with Empty, and many of these cards can also just kill your mana creature at sorcery speed.

So while I liked game 1s with Storm, I felt like a dog to a lot of decks in the format post-board, and in Modern, I want my deck to get better post-board, not worse.

Next up was Lantern. There was a lot of hype around Lantern leading up to the Pro Tour—maybe with good reason seeing as it eventually won the Pro Tour. I had talked some with Justin Cohen about the deck, and he had made some suggestions and directed me to a Google document that had a wealth of information on whether to play or draw in each matchup, how to sideboard, and what to name with Pithing Needle in the dark. I played several Leagues with the deck, and even with the document I felt the deck struggled when the opponent did something out of the ordinary. I’d name Chandra, Torch of Defiance with Pithing Needle and the opponent would kill me with a Chandra, Pyromaster they drew in the time in between when I’d Thoughtseize an opponent and when I got to control their draws.

This is a rather minor problem, but I did feel like without access to all of this information on paper during the Pro Tour itself, I’d have to really focus on playing this deck with all of my testing time. I asked Sam Black outright if he thought the deck was strictly better than the rest of the field or whether it was just another good deck that also required a lot of knowledge of the format and the deck. My conversation with him led me to believe that spending my entire time testing learning the deck was probably not worth the investment. One potentially small mistake will likely cost you a game, and any small mistake accounts for a lot with this deck.

One of the other problems I had with Lantern during testing was just how bad it was against Grixis Shadow, a deck I thought a lot of pros would end up playing. Paulo didn’t believe me when I asserted that Grixis Shadow was a massive favorite, and Sam Black said that it was probably close but he felt like a small favorite against it overall. We tested this matchup together in person a couple of days before the Pro Tour. Game 1s are winnable for Grixis but not great by any means, but when Grixis gets to take out all of their dead cards for disruption it becomes laughable.

You’d simply cut down a few threats and all of your removal, add some more counterspells with Ceremonious Rejection and Stubborn Denial, pepper in some Nihil Spellbombs to add another instant-speed draw effect and a way to interact with Codex Shredder and Academy Ruins, and you end up with a deck that is very good at keeping Bridge off the board and that is difficult to control with Lantern. Add Liliana of the Veil and the matchup turned out, well, lopsided.

After Tron had a huge showing I decided I’d test the deck a little to see if others saw something I didn’t. I tried Seth Manfield’s GP OKC Top 4 deck list. I had absolutely no success with it. I was often a turn behind a fast start from other decks. Affinity would have me dead on board while I sat there with an Ugin, the Spirit Dragon in hand. I’d be staring down three threats when I could cast a turn-4 Karn Liberated. Or worst of all, I’d have no gas in the tank after assembling Tron, or not assemble Tron at all. I should have considered that the metagame was likely hostile to Tron since it was on everyone’s mind after a ton of well-known pros played the deck at the Grand Prix. Testing at this time may have turned some of my close matchups into unfavorable ones, but it didn’t feel like it at the time. I just didn’t think the deck was impressive against anything that could put pressure on you early.

What finally tipped the scales was when I asked Sam Pardee what was favored between this deck and Humans. He felt that Humans was because of all of the disruptive creatures. When I asked others who played Tron and Humans at the Pro Tour, I got the opposite answer. This is one of the problems in testing Modern. I’ve found that sometimes it’s difficult to find matchup data because there are so many decks and you rarely test just one matchup. You play against a deck one or two times, win, and feel like you’re a favorite when in actuality you had such a small sample that you hit a deck’s fail rate and didn’t get an accurate depiction of how the games play out. I think this is what happened to Sam, and by no means makes me less confident in his ability to accurately assess a matchup. I had the same thing happen to me with Grixis Death’s Shadow against Humans.

At this point in our forums, we had a few posts with new decks, and one deck that seemed promising. Ben Weitz had posted a list of an R/G Eldrazi deck he created that was remarkably similar to a deck I played in the last Modern Grand Prix with Eye of Ugin. He 5-0’d one of his first Leagues with the deck, and unfortunately, the deck was shown on the 5-0 lists shown for Magic Online data. In fact, Eric Froehlich even wrote an article about it right here on ChannelFireball.com.

The deck looked, well, awful. Like a Standard deck with a few Modern-level cards in it. But the deck over performed for everyone. After the deck list got leaked on MTGO no one else seemed to pay much attention to it, but it was enough for us to stop playing the deck online shortly after so people couldn’t just go Google the contents of the deck and understand how it worked.

I played approximately six or seven Leagues with the deck and went 4-0 drop in almost all of them. The philosophy behind the deck is that Eldrazi Obligator can fix a lot of your bad matchups against decks like Tron and Scapeshift. Hijacking a Wurmcoil Engine, Primeval Titan, or Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger backed up with some early damage and Lightning Bolt can end games quickly.

Death’s Shadow decks were also good matchups. Obligator can steal and kill a Death’s Shadow if you keep your life total high, or can kill the opponent otherwise because their life total is so low. Grove of the Burnwillows also allows you to control the size of a Death’s Shadow or just kill it.

After moving this deck to real-life testing only, we discovered that it had some issues with Blood Moon and Ensnaring Bridge, and it had a terrible Humans matchup, a deck we decided would be the most represented deck in the tournament based on word-of-mouth.

In fact, a lot of our late testing was skewed toward the fact that we thought Humans could be as big as 20% of the field or potentially more. This meant that whatever deck we played we wanted to have an acceptable matchup against this deck. In reality it was the most popular deck, but it was only 10%, meaning that you could just ignore it if your other matchups were favorable.

After discovering the R/G Eldrazi issues, only one player we tested with played the deck—Grzegorz Kowalski—who ended up finishing the tournament at 7-3. If I have one deck I regret not playing at this PT, it’s this one, mostly because I like attacking the tournament from a new, different angle as I think it adds percentage points, and while this deck isn’t much different than other Eldrazi decks, Eldrazi Obligator would add a few free game wins.

Here’s Grzegorz’s 7-3 list from the Pro Tour:

R/G Eldrazi

I will note that I think Grzegorz wanted to play another Ulvenwald Tracker in his sideboard but was unable to find them.

The next and one of the last decks I chose to test was Jund Death’s Shadow. I saw that an old teammate—Nathan Holiday—had just finished with a strong record with this deck and Josh Utter-Leyton, Sam Black, and Sam Pardee were all heavy advocates of the deck over Grixis Shadow.

Josh Utter-Leyton had posted a deck list that removed some creature removal in this deck in favor Manamorphose. The philosophy behind this was that Manamorphose was an instant to enable delirium for Traverse the Ulvenwald while replacing itself, and it didn’t have the matchup dependency creature removal did. He was so impressed with the card that by the time I had come around to testing this version of the deck it had 4 copies. A draw of a fetchland with turn-1 hand disruption combines with any two of the 0-mana cycling effects to turn on a second-turn Traverse into a Death’s Shadow.

This enables much faster threats and games. The issue with all of these 0-mana cycling effects from my perspective was that the deck would often draw a lot of air and a ton of lands in slower games. As a result, it leans on Temur Battle Rage to close early so that the game never gets to this point. Had I played the entire last day with this deck, I likely would have ended up playing this deck at the Pro Tour. And while I don’t regret not playing it, it’s one of my current front-runners for Grand Prix Toronto.

Here’s the list that several players on my testing team played at the Pro Tour:

Traverse Shadow

Andrew Baeckstrom, 8-2 at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan

So after testing quite a few decks, we had a discussion about Grixis Shadow against Traverse Shadow. We decided that if you were much more comfortable with one version, you should just play that. I had over 100 matches on Magic Online with Grixis Shadow under my belt, so I spent that last day ironing out the Humans matchup with Ivan Floch and Matt Severa. If we got it where we wanted to, that’s what I was going to play.

We discovered that the matchup was actually pretty unfavorable despite all of my experience on Magic Online. The deck could come out really fast, and punish the Death’s Shadow player for lowering their own life total to play a Death’s Shadow. A single Reflector Mage could end the game because of the tempo loss.

We tried testing all of the sweepers, and they all just seemed too slow. In fact, most of the sweepers were sorcery-speed, so Aether Vial proved to be a real issue. After I played an entire day of the matchup, we eventually came to the conclusion that the best card was Lightning Bolt. The most likely way to lose to Humans was getting your removal spells Meddling Maged, getting “burned out” by a Mantis Rider when your life total was low from a Death’s Shadow, and losing to a Mirran Crusader post-board. Lightning Bolt would give you a bigger spread of removal to name against Meddling Mage, and kills both of the other problem creatures.

When we asked Sam Pardee, a big advocate of the Humans deck, why he wasn’t going to play the deck, he said that he didn’t like its matchup against Snapcaster Mage-Lightning Bolt decks. Our plan was to just become one of those decks post-board. Between us, we all had at least 2 Lightning Bolts, but some of us had 3 between the main deck and sideboard.

Lightning Bolt also serves as a serviceable “upgrade” in some of your matchups where removal is bad. While it’s not quite Temur Battle Rage, you can steal a game with the Bolt-Snap-Bolt on end step sequence against some of the unfair decks you need to race.

Here is the list I registered for Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan:

Grixis Shadow

As far as the rest of the deck, the only questions I wanted to answer in testing were the following:

What’s better: Opt or Serum Visions?
What’s better: Dismember or Terminate?
Is Temur Battle Rage worth it?

Most of us liked Opt better than Visions for a few reasons. You want to get ahead of your opponent and close out the game before they draw out of the holes you picked in their plan with hand disruption and countermagic. Opt allowed you to dig deeper immediately, while Serum Visions traded a delay to get 1 card deeper. Opt allowed you to play at instant speed, which is pretty important when you’re boarding up to 8 counterspells post-board.

Opt’s last upside is that it’s incredible against Lantern, a deck we knew would be in higher representation at the Pro Tour than at a Grand Prix because it’s not a deck you just pick up and play—it’s a deck you decide to learn and then play it. More Pro Tour players would likely be willing to do that.

In my opinion, if you expect to play a lot of grindy matchups such as the mirror, Serum Visions is a better inclusion, but when you need to play an important card every turn of the game I’d much rather have Opt.

The second question was one we never really answered. I answered it for myself during testing with a tiebreaker though. A lot of us were unsure on Dismember versus Terminate, and leading up to the tournament I had always played a split. I didn’t have a big reason why I was doing this, but I did want to try both and see if one was noticeably better or worse. I noticed when playing against Humans that having a spread of removal was actually likely correct. Having another card that would need to be named against Meddling Mage was a big enough reason for me to want to play a split, but when I added the Lightning Bolt, I deferred to LSV’s confidence in liking Terminate more.

In actuality, I think if you’re leaning more on Temur Battle Rage that you should likely play at least 1 Dismember in the mix so that you have a way to use your own life as a resource to have faster kills with Temur Battle Rage.

Lastly was the Temur Battle Rage question. I was really low on the card leading up to the Pro Tour, as was the rest of my team, because it was such a liability against decks that were trying to interact with you heavily. But I think from here on out I’d likely play a Temur Battle Rage over the main deck Lightning Bolt and go back to a split of Terminate and Dismember. Temur Battle Rage cuts a turn off from an opponent playing a non-interactive deck, and can quite literally turn game losses into wins. I think having access to a single copy of this card is too high of an upside.

So while I tried a ton of Modern decks, by the end of testing I didn’t really feel comfortable with anything. I think each deck had noticeable strengths and weaknesses, and not only that, knowing that every deck will likely be equally represented in the metagame makes it difficult to get an edge in deck selection. I know it’s a common narrative that in Modern you can play anything and just knowing your deck will give you an edge, but I’ve been a skeptic of that narrative for as long as it’s been told. After this tournament, I am more a believer in that narrative for Modern. I can’t remember who said it in testing, but one of my testing partners said, “People don’t change their Modern deck—they just change some cards in it week to week.” If Scapeshift has a good showing some people may pick it up, but is not a noticeable change in the metagame. People will just add more Scapeshift hate. This weekend, not a ton of people will pick up Lantern because it won. People will just play a different artifact hate card than they did last week. Knowing this, you can and should react by avoiding artifact decks, and playing whatever else you’re comfortable with, or if you only like Lantern or Affinity that’s fine too. Play the deck you know, play it well, and you have as good a shot as anyone.

This was most of my experience testing Modern for PT Rivals of Ixalan, and it was one of the hardest tournaments I’ve ever prepared for. I think that showed in my results. I finished 2-4 in Modern and Booster Draft, which is disappointing. What’s even more disappointing is that I know almost as much as I did before testing as I do after the Pro Tour about Modern, so, with all that said, what should I play this weekend at GP Toronto?


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