Staying on top of Magic is difficult at the best of times.
A sudden change in one format can upend weeks or months of preparation while a committed player struggles to stay afloat. It was only right that those of us fighting for the ultimate honour on the SCG Tour (at, for many of us, the highest stakes in our careers) would have to cram for all the classic constructed formats. Here’s an inside look at one man’s confusing, careening journey:
Jund Food – Dominic Harvey
In another timeline this would be the swan song for an old, tired Standard format. Since the release of Throne of Eldraine we’ve had three Mythic Championships, a handful of Magic Fests and an Invitational that was meant to feature Standard too. After two sets of bans the same sets in Standard birthed another new format and we prayed it would be bearable before a return to Theros wiped the slate clean again.
Early signs were mixed. A widespread concern was that the bans would just give way to a format where Fires of Invention, somehow not nearly the most broken card in its set, could run rampant with its competition neutered. Jeskai Fires performed well at the first Arena tournaments and was sure to set the tone for the last Arena Mythic Championship of the year. Various Cauldron’s Familiar + Witch’s Oven shells were popular too, with Twitch phenom crokeyz leading the adoption of Casualties of War as a mirror breaker that was also the scariest card for Fires.
This was shaping up as a format where whoever cast the biggest hay-makers came out on top. With that in mind, the Five-Colour Fires decks chosen by Shota Yasooka and (obviously) Ken Yukuhiro looked like a stroke of genius. Yukuhiro’s list sported Niv-Mizzet Reborn as a Fires payoff that could reliably find the all-important Casualties of War, tangle with Cavaliers and Kenrith in a fight, and give you a free Divination as an afterthought. Most importantly, this take on Fires was my kind of nonsense. Even the seemingly tough Izzet Flash matchup was closer than expected and that deck seemed like a flash in the pan anyway. What could go wrong?
Seth Manfield, Brad Nelson, and Javier Dominguez answered that decisively by putting three copies of the same Simic Flash deck in the Top 8 of the Mythic Championship. The Brineborn Cutthroat builds had always under-performed but this new take re-imagined the role of cheap counterspells, using them as a bridge to Nissa (still, after all this time, the queen of Standard) that were also ideal follow-ups to Nissa. The ability to transform into a Nissa plus Hydroid Krasis ramp deck meant that old approaches of baiting out counters with your weakest cards or biding time and picking your spots played right into their hands. I knew without testing that this deck would ruin my dreams of colourful dragons. I knew after testing that it was beating everything else too.
My testing partner Baker Neenan (probably better known by his MTGO handle VTCLA but now definitely better known as a future MOCS competitor) and I made some clear upgrades to the Flash deck. Gilded Goose is leagues better than Paradise Druid in a deck that passes with its mana open every turn, wants to stay afloat against pressure, and never forces you to choose between it and Quench or Growth Spiral. With four Goose and four Growth Spiral, the dream draw of third turn Nissa — still the best thing to do in Standard — is possible and Goose slots neatly into common openings like T1 Goose, T2 Quench, T3 Ambusher/Frilled Mystic. It’s only really worse against Bonecrusher Giant but we correctly predicted that few, if any, players would bring Fires given its dismal matchup against Flash.
The Ramp versus Flash matchup was our next priority. We found that Flash mopped the floor with Ramp in game one but the addition of Shifting Ceratops as well as ramp’s own Mystical Disputes and Aether Gusts flipped the script — now both decks were playing similar games but Ramp was already designed to gain the mana advantage that’s so important in Flash mirrors. However, the Flash deck was still more cohesive and ready to prey on Ramp’s inconsistencies. Going into the final day, I was leaning towards Flash splashing Noxious Grasp to fight my fellow Breeding Pools.
With the clock ticking I went through the motions of testing with and against Jund Sacrifice. Jund came out ahead even with builds laden down with Casualties of War and other ways to fight Fires. I knew I wanted to build Jund to be more efficient and more removal-heavy and that this would make the Simic matchups even easier. Korvold greatly over-performed whenever it showed up and was often the only card you wanted to draw so maxing on those was the first move. I added a God-Eternal Bontu as another ace to dig for with Trail that could win in one shot with Mayhem Devil or spark joy by de-cluttering your board while dodging the omnipresent Aether Gust.
The key to the Flash matchup was preventing them from taking over the game with Nissa or Ambusher so four Murderous Rider + four Noxious Grasp let you do that and slice up Ramp’s payoffs. This setup made me worse in mirrors due to the lack of Casualties but I could still board up to three of those and Korvold/Bontu often let you power through or get ahead of Casualties anyway. After going into the last day least confident in Standard, I came out thinking I had the best deck in the tournament.
While the format looked imbalanced in Roanoke, Standard finally seems to be in a decent place for the first time in a while. I’d argue for a third round of bans — Frilled Mystic, Negate and Sinister Sabotage (maybe Quench to be safe) — so that I can play rainbow roulette with Niv-Mizzet in peace but that may be pushing it.
TitanShift – Dominic Harvey
More than the other formats, my preparation for Modern was heavily informed by the roster of the tournament. For one thing, Modern seemed stable while Legacy and Standard were both going through their own upheavals so it made sense to focus most on them and pick a ‘safe’ choice for Modern. Team Lotus Box was over a third of the field and they were still high on the Urza deck they broke Modern with — Evan Whitehouse Top 8’d MagicFest Columbus, Dylan Donegan won a MCQ in Richmond — and they agreed the deck was largely un-exploitable. Now, obviously since then the format has been completely overhauled by the banning of Oko, Mox Opal and Mycosynth Lattice a lot of this has changed, but I figured I’d share my preparation with you anyway.
The addition of Karn, the Great Creator for the Invitational was a mirror-breaker that was incidentally perfect against every deck that tried to move the goalposts by going over the top of Urza or not playing into Oko. Elsewhere, Harlan had played Urza since its release to fantastic results while his testing partners in Drake and Zach Allen had a lot of experience with and respect for it. Oliver Tomajko played Urza at the Invitational, as did Dilks. Collin Rountree played what Allen Wu told him to play; Wu placed ninth in Columbus with a more interactive build of Urza. There was a real chance we were looking at a one deck tournament where the race to find the mirror breaker was already over.
With that in mind, I looked for ways to thread the needle and somehow emerge with a decent Urza matchup. My understanding of the deck improved when I was told that Urza is just good Jund — the best interaction, the best threats and powerful sideboard cards for any matchup. The counters are universal interaction, Oko invalidates any deck that relies on a specific creature or artifact while creating cascading pressure, and Urza is a ‘free’ threat that adds a ton of power to the board.
The only card types that aren’t covered by that somewhere are lands and enchantments so I first looked at the big mana decks that were my go-to for most of this year. I expected Tron to have a fine matchup against Urza but Oko was surprisingly annoying when backed up by counters and Damping Sphere added a whole new dimension that you had to fight through post-board. Similarly, Amulet relied too heavily on Amulet and Scout to get up to Titan in time and Damping Sphere was still an issue. Recent ramp decks leaning heavily on Castle Garenbrig and Field of the Dead like my list from the Ultimate Showdown offer a template for how to beat Urza with this strategy.
I had spoken to Collins Mullen a while ago about his Scapeshift list from mid-2017 that cut the interaction for a mono-green maindeck with Khalni Heart Expedition, Prismatic Omen and Hour of Promise to give as many nut draws as possible. This was the perfect starting point: Valakut and Field of the Dead were impossible for Urza to interact with while the enchantments could avoid counters and set up winning turns that ignored the battlefield. The deck didn’t care about Oko and cards like Engineered Explosives were mostly air. There was no obvious bullet for Karn to fetch unless they could cast Lattice but Valakut and Field could even fight through that sometimes. Most Urza lists were still playing Damping Sphere as their all-purpose ramp/combo hate that did nothing against me.
Expecting at least 40 per cent of the room to be on Urza, the next most popular decks figured to be Shadow and perhaps blue decks looking to prey on those. Veil of Summer is excellent against all those and crucial for improving your pre-board Urza matchup; why not maindeck it instead of Lightning Bolts that had no good targets or the other ‘flex slot’ candidates that did nothing in this narrow field? I could still board in the red cards where they were useful and Veil even cycled in some of the ‘other’ matchups thanks to its bizarre templating.
With Scapeshift putting up promising results (in as far as anything does against Urza), I locked it in as a default and looked elsewhere. I tried several Karn, the Great Creator shells trying to harness its proven strength against Urza but discovered that most of these were just bad decks and that Oko beats Karn unless you can defend it properly. The most promising Karn deck was also an Oko deck based on a Devoted Druid list from MTGO brought to my attention by Gerry Thompson. The Devoted Druid half didn’t do much for me but the planeswalkers alongside mana creatures and Ice-Fang Coatl felt very promising. Finding a good tertiary threat (…ideally one good against Urza) would push this idea over the line. I was going to start with this after the PC, but then they banned Lattice:
Bant Good Cards – Dominic Harvey
Speaking of Druid being nonsense, my nightmare came true and Lotus Box showed up with a Bant Devoted Druid deck that I couldn’t hope to beat and punished me as hard as possible for relegating Bolt to the board. It was tough to separate my frustration at what that choice meant for me from my general confusion. Their deck was still poor against Urza — without even Teferi, Time Raveler or Postmortem Lunge to let you steal games from Oko — and weak to the blue decks that some of the Urza players might turn to instead. The Mirran Crusader plan shores up the Shadow matchup but I was surprised to learn they liked it against Urza too, where it gets swallowed up by the end-game Cryptic lock like everything else and is often bricked by Urza itself. In particular, Tomajko/Corrigan’s white splash with Spell Queller and Path to Exile was naturally strong against this plan and the matchup as a whole.
This tournament proved that Urza is not just a very strong deck in a vacuum but highly adaptable and resilient. My too-clever-by-half TitanShift deck became so much worse the moment Urza adopted Ashiok, Dream Render; adding a few removal spells here or some Pithing Needles there shifts matchups more than any opponent can by adding something to their deck. Choke is the closest thing to ‘Urza hate’ but it is much worse on the draw than the play, can be weak if they have a basic Forest or Mox Opal, and is mostly neutered by Urza — and this all assumes it resolves! Removing Oko would reduce Urza to ‘just’ the best deck in another form but is a necessary move for the format anyway — the much-heralded diversity of Modern, where you can bring whatever you like and win with it, is exposed for the lie it is when Oko is around.
Sultai Snow – Dominic Harvey
When Pioneer was announced and the Invitational format quickly changed, we were excited to see if the Players’ Championship would follow suit. Instead, this tournament ended up as the last hurrah for Legacy on the SCG Tour. This was great news for… well, everyone else. Many grinders list Legacy as their favourite format and have built up an institutional knowledge that’s hard to compete against as a newcomer. 2019 shook Legacy to its foundations like every other format but the building blocks remained — two equally skilled players look highly mismatched if one has spent several years casting Brainstorm. Toronto has an excellent Legacy scene with Edgar and Dilks as headline acts and other PC competitors were keen to boast about their Legacy prowess.
The scariest aspect of Legacy was also the most reassuring: I don’t know how to fight fair against people casting Brainstorms but I know that’s what they’re doing. When we shared our predictions after decklists were locked, we all expected a field full of blue decks with a smattering of combo players hoping to sidestep the blue mirrors they feel outmatched in. I considered running the classic gambit of playing a graveyard deck in an unprepared room and Dredge making Top 8 of the GP was a great place to start. I quickly found it was fragile even against the blue decks it’s meant to dominate and wondered if Hogaak was a better way of doing the same thing, urged on by the good doctor Tariq Patel. I came away from my Hogaak testing even more impressed that he managed such an impressive run with it, as the deck had glaring structural flaws that I didn’t think I could fix in time.
I started to question this entire plan. For a small tournament in a narrow format where you can confidently predict the metagame, hard hate of any sort looks more tempting. If you play a combo deck you’re already ahead against the graveyard menace; if you play a blue deck you have to build your maindeck to beat the 50+ per cent of players on similar decks and you won’t have many weak cards to upgrade. That leaves you with a lot of empty sideboard slots that can only really be used to target combo. That can be easier said than done — it’s hard to cover the graveyard, Dark Depths and any ambitious Storm players at the same time — but I felt the risk was greater thanks to how obvious this move was. Even before I queued into Dilks on Hogaak and heard another player had requested a copy of Dredge, those decks were an obvious choice if you want to play a different game. Half of the Lotus Box core showed up with Hogaak to comically varied results. If I told you the guy who 3-0ed with it thought it was broken while the guy who didn’t win a game was immediately off it, would you be surprised?
I decided to trust the process of elimination. I 0-5’d a league with my default choice of Lands before learning that my Lands sensei had joined another dojo. I confirmed that I’m not the type of savant who can win with Storm without putting dozens of hours in. I watched several hours of Ross Merriam losing with Elves in years past and put it down before I even picked it up.
Danny Batterman then pointed me towards a Sultai Snow deck with Green Sun’s Zenith that finished second at GP Bologna. This tournament was the only real bellwether for post-Wrenn and Six Legacy before the Players’ Championship but very little attention was paid to it — my deck was automatically brushed off as “Dom being Dom” when, if anything, I’d cleaned up someone else’s list and instilled some discipline! If certain card choices raised an eyebrow, the basic premise made a lot of sense. The blue soup mirrors are all about Oko — you want to be the best Oko deck and the best deck at beating it — so Decay is the ideal card to pair with it. With Oko dominating the board, Leovold covers what happens off the board as well as cards that interact with your board (or find others that do).
Green Sun’s Zenith distinguishes this from the other Snow lists sludging around. Zenith demands a commitment of sorts in deckbuilding but offers a lot in return, promising reliable turn-two Oko or Leovold without making you play too many mana creatures that are poor draws in the longer games that Oko inevitably creates. Access to Scavenging Ooze gives you a shot at beating the graveyard decks in game one while a steady stream of Ice-Fang Coatls threatens to bury Delver. Most importantly, Zenith lets you put Leovold into play turn after turn in the matchups where that’s all you want to do — either they remove it and you’re up at least a card, or it sticks and makes life impossible.
I had second thoughts at the eleventh hour after Daryl Ayers won the online Legacy Playoff with Death & Taxes. I knew Collin Rountree would play it — and part of me knew he would 3-0 — but also that Zan had flirted with it in the past (which meant Jeremy would slide into the DMs too) and Abe knows his way around a basic Plains. Am I meant to be playing it myself, loading up on Massacre or Virtue’s Ruin, or pretending it doesn’t exist? After tabling that question, I ask my friends if I’m just making a mistake by not playing Sneak & Show — an under-performer once you remove JPA93’s results from the average but a consistent one and also the perfect way to hedge against blue decks and combo at the same time. Ultimately, I didn’t regret not playing it while realizing that this would have been a great tournament for it.
I enjoyed this final foray into Legacy and may look for excuses to play the format more. I don’t know if the current batch of complaints about the format are sound but I do know that, like every other format, it would be more interesting without Oko.
I’ll close with a quick account of the tournament experience. Most of us got to this event primarily through long days in the trenches in large tournament halls, a jumbled mass of players and chatter and starvation-induced mistakes. The culmination of that effort is the highest stakes tournament of the year in a building where you’re more likely to play FNM or an IQ – or, to paraphrase Patrick Sullivan, to have your thumbs broken for stealing duals. Being in such a low-key environment with fewer distractions relieves a lot of pressure and helps to foster a strong camaraderie but can be jarring when you realize someone just lost a match for thousands of dollars with little fanfare.
Usually the intensity of an experience adds to the stress but here it was the downtime: you would wait for hours to play for your right to stay only to squander that opportunity, or watch two players — and, by now, friends — go under the bright lights knowing it would spell disaster for one of them. Not having your own match to focus on at all times almost forced a weird kind of empathy where the gravity of the moment for everyone else sank into you too.
Despite the atmosphere, this tournament felt much more stressful than most — in my second match against Abe Corrigan to end the first day after more than twelve hours of Magic, both of us looked and felt utterly defeated. Anecdotally, it seemed like the stakes were getting to people as I saw more critical mistakes than you might expect from players of this caliber. After a while, this becomes reassuring — it isn’t just you, the best players on the circuit that you want to call your peers are all succumbing to it too. Along with many, I thought Oliver and Edgar were the two best players in the tournament (as well as two of the best I’ve ever met); it was fitting that they met in the finals and Oliver hoisted the metaphorical trophy after the fewest fatal errors.
I’ll go into the toll of the grind in a separate piece. This race was such an all-consuming experience that it’s hard to reflect on whether it was ‘worth it’ — so much would be different if this was still just the abstract possibility it seemed at the start of the year. Ultimately, I didn’t embarrass myself too bad; I put on a good show; I had a wonderful time; and I get to leave with the title of best rookie year in SCG Tour history with some hardware to show for it. If you can’t be happy with that, why bother?