GPT Copenhagen at the Luckshack (Quarter finals)
By Neil T Stacey
There seems to be a pattern when I write Modern tournament reports. I always seem to talk about two things – an interesting brew that I wanted to play and the Affinity deck that I ended up playing when the new deck didn’t quite hold up in testing. A big part of deckbuilding is accepting that not everything pans out the way you want, and understanding that it’s rare to come up with a deck that is a real contender in an established format. If you love deckbuilding like I do, you’ll keep at it anyway. It’s just important to be aware that there will rarely be a great payoff for your efforts.
In this article I’ll be talking about a Modern Red/Green aggro build that I’ve been working on, and a couple of tweaks I made to Affinity for Saturday’s GPT at Luckshack.
I’ll start with the red deck. I started putting it together when Dragons of Tarkir was being previewed and it’s an update to an older mono-red deck that I’ve played on and off. The reason for reviving it and the reason for the green splash are one and the same: Atarka’s Command AKA ‘Extra Bushwhackers’ or ‘Maindeck Skullcrack’.
The list I’ve arrived at for it as is follows:
Rg Aggro (Modern) by Neil Stacey
4x Goblin Guide
4x Monastery Swiftspear
3x Legion Loyalist
3x Zurgo Bellstriker
2x Grim Lavamancer
3x Young Pyromancer
4x Goblin Bushwhacker
Instants and Sorceries (17):
4x Lightning Bolt
3x Atarka’s Command
2x Mutagenic Growth
2x Forked Bolt
2x Burst Lightning
2x Devastating Summons
2x Searing Blaze
4x Wooded Foothills
4x Bloodstained Mire
3x Stomping Ground
2x Rootbound Crag
The aim of this deck is to produce a consistent turn 4 kill and occasional turn 3 kill. It specialises in overkill; the combo finish of Devastating Summons and Goblin Bushwhacker should be well known to anyone who played Standard when Zendikar block was legal and there are a few other synergies here that are capable of producing brutal attack steps. Young Pyromancer churning out tokens makes for huge swings with Atarka’s Command or Goblin Bushwhacker and Mutagenic Growth does double duty, adding free damage and triggering Pyromancer or Monastery Swiftspear.
Goblin Guide, Monastery Swiftspear and Zurgo make up a dream team of one-drops that all generally attack for two and can come down with haste. Legion Loyalist brings some utility in the one-drop slot, helping the deck dominate combat and push damage past blockers. The burn spells are chosen to be able to affect the board. We’re counting on getting damage through in the red zone, so Lava Spike isn’t the kind of thing we’re interested in. I’ve got a 2/2 split of Burst Lightning and Forked Bolt because both have subtly different uses. Forked Bolt does a good job against problem cards like Lingering Souls while also being spectacular at mopping up mana dorks and ruining Affinity’s day. Burst Lightning on the other hand adds to the number of instant-speed removal spells and scales a bit better in the late game.
Grim Lavamancer is another nod to the Affinity matchup and also gives the deck a bit of reach in matchups where attacking isn’t an option later in the game.
I was very close to running this deck; it fell just a bit short of what I wanted from it in testing. Many of its draws are vulnerable to removal and/or discard. Many of the cards are dependent on synergy to be good; Devastating Summons is underwhelming (but not terrible) without Bushwhacker, which is in turn weak when your board is empty. Worse still are the cards that depend on synergy to be good but also don’t synergise with each other. For instance, Legion Loyalist and Young Pyromancer are both underwhelming on their own, and they don’t interact with each other in any way. As a result, I found I would often end up with hands where my opponent only needs to get rid of a few of my cards to make the rest embarrassingly bad and put me out of the game.
This deck isn’t hopeless, however. With a few tweaks it could very well be a playable option. It has an excellent matchup against Affinity, to the point where Game one is fairly even and you get to bring in Ancient Grudge after boarding. It is solid against Red-Blue based decks in general, taking full advantage of any bit of breathing room offered by early turns spent on Serum Visions or life paid to Gitaxian Probe. The cheap threats get under most counter-magic and a lot of removal, although a bunch of Lightning Bolts can stifle your early development. Mutagenic Growth offers some protection there, and Atarka’s Command can sometimes save a key threat from burn-based removal. The matchup against Burn is fairly even, with this deck being marginally faster, but the Burn deck having the ability to interact with it a bit more.
Where this deck really suffers is against decks with Kitchen Finks and friends. We’re depending on getting damage through in combat so the combination of life-gain and solid defense is a difficult one to beat.
Overall, a deck that has just reasonable matchups alongside some outright terrible ones isn’t going to have a great winning percentage, so it needs some tinkering. One route to go would be to cut some of the conditional cards in exchange for better standalone threats. Dropping Young Pyromancer for Tarmogoyf is one such option and it’s something I’ll look at, assuming Modern Masters 2015 brings down the price of Tarmogoyf. The spell package also needs some tinkering, it feels like it’s off by a few cards. If I abandon the Young Pyromancer plan then I can get away with pushing up the creature count a bit, which will make the deck a bit more robust.
Having shelved this as a work in progress, I resorted to my trusty Affinity, sadly without much time left for updating it. The tournament I was sleeving up for was a Grand Prix Trial at Luckshack, where all the entry fees were going toward a plane ticket to the GP. The list I ran wasn’t much changed from the build I’ve written about previously.
Affinity (Modern) By Neil Stacey (Top 8 at GPT Copenhagen, Luckshack)
4x Signal Pest
4x Vault Skirge
4x Arcbound Ravager
1x Etched Champion
Other Artifacts (11):
4x Mox Opal
3x Springleaf Drum
4x Cranial Plating
2x Ghostfire Blade
4x Ensoul Artifact
Instants and Sorceries (6):
2x Galvanic Blast
2x Stubborn Denial
1x City of Brass
3x Inkmoth Nexus
4x Darksteel Citadel
4x Blinkmoth Nexus
4x Ancient Grudge
2x Shrapnel Blast
2x Tomb of the Spirit Dragon
2x Slag Fiend
1x Galvanic Blast
1x Illness in the Ranks
1x Radiant Fountain
I finally got around to cutting Master of Etherium; the card very rarely has enough impact to justify its spot at the top of the curve, so I decided to try out a couple of Ghostfire Blade instead. The other card where I have now reached zero copies is Steel Overseer. I just prefer Ensoul Artifact. It’s faster and doesn’t just die to whatever random burn spell your opponent has lying around.
The Ghostfire Blades were decent for me. They fill in a sparse spot on the curve and they add toughness, in contrast to the +lots +0 of Cranial Plating. However, I get the feeling that the creature count here is now a shade low; I lost more than one game by ending up in a position with multiple pieces of equipment and no creatures to carry them.
The other new addition here is also the card most likely to turn heads. Affinity is a well-known deck, but it’s also incredibly flexible because of its ability to make any colour of mana. That means that you get the opportunity to play some oddball threats that make narrow hosers awkward. Slag Fiend fills that role in postboard games where you can reasonably expect to have a reasonable number of artifacts in the graveyard quite early in the game. This is particularly true in mirror matches, where both players will typically bring in interactive cards like Ancient Grudge. Slag Fiend counts both graveyards, so he gets really fat really fast in that situation, particularly if Arcbound Ravagers are involved. He is also very solid against Red/Blue/Green decks that have plenty of artifact destruction but very little unconditional removal to deal with him once he’s out past Lightning Bolt range. I bring it in for the mirror match and for any matchup that is likely to have sweepers for artifacts, or just a ton of removal for the rest of my threats. It’s also generally big enough to get Ferocious online for Stubborn Denial, which is absurd for a one-drop, admittedly with the caveat that you generally can’t cast it on turn 1.
My word count is getting hefty and I’ve still got a lot to talk about, so I will have to skip the detailed tournament report. Instead, I’ll just talk a little bit about my impressions on the tournament and on this build of the deck.
I’ll start by saying that my play was below-par for entirely avoidable reasons. I’m on holiday down here in Cape Town and I under-prepared in the days leading up to the tournament. I also let myself get a bit sleep-deprived. That was stupid of me. Opportunities to play for a flight to an international tournament are scarce in South Africa and they’re worth a solid effort. Moreover, if you’re willing to fork out the thousands of Rands for a competitive deck and set aside the time for tournaments as well as paying the entry fee (R250 in this case), then by comparison it’s a trivial sacrifice to make some time for decent practice and a good night’s rest.
It is indefensible to make a habit of showing up at tournaments without taking reasonable steps to ensure that you play well.
The other issue I struggled with was not knowing the metagame. I’m used to Affinity and Burn being popular decks, so a big chunk of my board is devoted to those matchups. I was the only one in the room playing Affinity, and no-one was playing Burn. Half of my sideboard might as well have been Yugi-Oh cards. This, too, was avoidable. I don’t have many contacts in Cape Town Magic, but I have enough that a couple PMs on Facebook could have given me a better picture of what to expect. Beyond that, a sideboard with such narrow focus is not the best bet in an unknown meta-game. In the dark, it would have been prudent to switch out an Ancient Grudge or two for some more generalised removal like Dismember, which still has utility against Affinity but also works in other matchups. The life-gain land package is also suspect; it has no utility in any matchup other than Burn.
Besides that, I’m fairly happy with this build. Stubborn Denial continues to take people by surprise and while I haven’t seen enough of Slag Fiend to really be sure about it, it has been good when I’ve drawn it and I’ve gone through plenty of draw steps where I have hoped to peel it off the top. In the one loss that I took in the Swiss rounds, I was very disappointed when it failed to go the distance in a situation where it looked set to pull me back.
I had spent a big chunk of the game stuck under the thumb of a Night of Souls’ Betrayal, which resolved because of greedy play on my part. I tapped out to play and equip a Cranial Plating when I could easily have held a mana open for Stubborn Denial and I got punished for it when the four-mana enchantment made a mess of my board and blanked my array of man-lands.
However, I was able to put out Slag Fiend as a 4/4 with my opponent on low life and Denial mana up. Alas, it was not to be. Denial was able to stop one removal spell, but Abrupt Decay sealed the deal. Despite the end-result, that scenario is a good illustration of why I play the card. In the situations where I want it, it’s an amazingly efficient threat and it ducks a lot of the removal that’s good against me as well as a lot of the hate cards that give me the biggest problems. And once in a while it synergises with Arcbound Ravager for a huge beating. I don’t have enough of a sample size to say for sure that it’s good but I’m happy to keep experimenting with it. It’s powerful and every opponent has to read it. That’s everything I look for in a card.
My loss in the quarter-final was in a tight match against Ruaan Marais, who went on to win the tournament. He was playing Red/Blue Delver, which I have always found to be a tough matchup for Affinity. Cheap, instant-speed removal is the best tool against Affinity, and Vapor Snag is never better than against an Ensouled Darksteel Citadel. Add in problem cards including Grim Lavamancer and Electrolyse along with sideboard bullets like Shatterstorm and there’s a good reason I get nervous in that matchup. Nevertheless, enough things went my way that the match came down to the wire. Game three ended with Ruaan on just 2 life and with 8 poison counters. It’s always satisfying to end a tournament off with a hard-fought match, even if it doesn’t go my way, and this was a solid contest.
This type of tournament contributing toward international travel is something I would like to see more of. However, the economics are tricky. Let’s take this tournament as an example. 25 players attended, with an entry fee of R250. That adds up to a total of R6250 toward the plane ticket. I did some quick pricing for the trip on Expedia.com, and assuming you stay only two nights and aren’t too selective on flights or hotels, the whole trip will cost around R12 000 plus your meals. Throw in 35 Euro for a visa and even with the contribution from entry fees, the tournament winner is in for a pretty expensive trip.
Now, the shortfall is certainly not Luckshack’s fault. To my knowledge, they ran this tournament at a loss. They supplied a venue, two judges, some boosters as extra prize support and a table full of free snacks, while putting all of the revenue toward a plane ticket. You can’t realistically expect a store to put in more than that, so for tournaments of this type to really take off, the equation needs to change a bit. Now I know I’m repeating myself here, but the best way to do that is for everyone involved to invest some time into teaching new players. In the long run, this will directly boost turnout as well as improving revenue for stores, giving them more resources to devote to promoting high level play through tournaments like this.
Another approach I’d like to look into is for two different stores to both run tournaments like this, feeding into the same GP. This would cut down on travel stress which is a real factor if you’re on your own, and cuts down on hotel costs if the two winners decide to split a room. Preparing with someone else attending a tournament is also sure to improve their chances.
Dracoti has also resolved to assist in a small way with funding players for overseas travel. We’ve been doing it quietly for a while now, but now seems an opportune time to state publicly that wherever possible, we will publish tournament reports from SA players who make it to international tournaments. We pay a little more for these than we do for regular articles, so hopefully we can offset the costs just a little bit while giving the rest of the player base some of the benefit of those big tournament experiences.