I was never going to break it.
From the moment that I qualified for MCIV in Barcelona a few months ago, I knew I wouldn’t have the best deck in the room. I wouldn’t find the best build of Urza. I wouldn’t invent a new deck from scratch. I don’t have Matt Nass’ ability to brew up wild new decks, or Brad Nelson’s uncanny eye for the perfect metagame foil for a specific tournament. So, what should I do?
I had no clue. For the past few years, my Constructed strategy has always been to just pick something that qualifies as a “best deck” or tier one strategy, and play that. In the immortal words of Keith Capstick, and a saying that has stuck with me: “Do something powerful.” But for this tournament, with so much Modern change, I didn’t know what was powerful anymore.
So I procrastinated. I tried not to think about Modern. Before the banning, I had a great excuse. “There’s no point in testing a pre-ban format, it’ll be so different!” I drafted a lot. My draft decks certainly got better. I found archetypes I liked and archetypes I didn’t. The set had “Modern” in the name so I’m sure it was helping me improve in constructed as well.
The first time I drafted an Iceberg Cancrix deck I was convinced that I would 0-6 the league and instead went 3-0 6-0. It was beautiful, really. Have you ever drawn a hand with a plains and a red card in a deck with no white cards or mountains? Yeah. Wild. I thought maybe Iceberg Cancrix was the truth, or that I had just gotten very lucky.
I played a local pre-ban Modern tournament while a lot of my friends were out of town, and so didn’t have access to the cards for Hogaak Bridgevine. I cobbled together Mono-Red Prowess, hoping that putting Blistercoil Weird in my Modern deck counted as powerful. It’s always scary to register a deck containing cards that are fifteenth picks in Limited. I know deep down I’ll never register this deck at the MC, but I assure myself that any Modern is good, useful testing.
Every night before I leave for the tournament I think about playing Humans. My friends all think Humans is a bad idea. “It’s a 48% deck.” “Humans is a slight dog against the field.” “I think you’d have to be brave to bring humans to the PT right now.” I only feel uncertainty about deck selection. I play some leagues with Humans to mixed results. I peak after winning this game:
At this point I believe Humans to be as medium as my friends say it is. I continue to have no clue how to prepare for Modern. I’m not normally a tester. I like to just show up to a tournament with a reasonable deck that I think I can kind of play. That’s what I did to win my MCQ. (Actually, I wanted to play Esper, but couldn’t borrow the cards and could only get Mono-Red, so I played that and it worked out). The path to Modern deck selection wouldn’t be so easy.
So I keep drafting, aka procrastinating. I start doing well. A few weeks away from the tournament and I’ve gotten my MTGO rating to an all-time high of 1930. I draft some sweet ones and get lucky with some bad ones. I probably like milling people out a little too much, and worry that the strategy is not actually viable outside of MTGO. At the height of my Modern Horizons confidence and success I play against the phantom queue trophy leader Petr Sochurek, aka, PetrKikac twice in a row, getting stomped by his A+ Dimir Ninjas deck, and my worry increases.
Do I actually know anything about this format? Are the things I think right? I have limited (ha) testing. I talk about MH1 strategies with the famous writer of the Gul_Dukat newsletter Daniel Goetschel. He tells me that taking Astrolabe early is “too cosmic” and I think I understand what he means. I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. I go on a losing streak the week before the tournament and wonder if everything I think about Modern and Modern Horizons is totally wrong.
Then Hogaak gets banned, and the entire Modern format tips on its head, with Phoenix poised to be the top dog.
Nope, they just banned Bridge from Below. Kanister goes 12-0 in the Modern Challenge the weekend before the tournament. I still have no idea what deck to play at all, so I start to strongly consider playing Hogaak. I ask all the powerful wizards I know about the deck and whether they think it’s a good call. The responses are positive, and I finally have a realistic alternative to Humans. I feel a glimmer of confidence, copy Kanister’s list into the deck submission tool, and we’re off.
The tournament does not start well. I draft a pretty decent Bant Snow control deck, but end up going 1-2 after some close decisions and a few mulligans.
A few rounds and some bad decision-making and play later, I’m 1-4. I’m already thinking about borrowing a Standard deck for the MCQ the next day. I’ve gone 1-4 at many tournaments before. I’ve 2-2 dropped countless times. But I can’t say that it doesn’t feel way worse to have this record at my first MC. Everything, at this moment, sucks.
Then I have one of these rounds where everything just goes well. Turn one Faithless Looting, discard two Vengevines, go. There are few better feelings than staring at your opponent after making this play. You know they’re worried. I win that game. Next game I have just a Lightning Axe and some creatures. Opponent has one card in hand, a Thought-Knot and Ensnaring Bridge in play. I draw a land. Shrug. Cast my spell. Top-deck a Nature’s Claim for the Bridge from the Thought-Knot trigger, cast it and swing for the win. Two more rounds later and I’m 4-4 into day two. This does not suck.
Daniel Fournier and I go out to find the nearest restaurant with a reasonable star rating that will feed us. We’re both 4-4, but I’m a happy 4-4 and he’s a sad 4-4. Day 2 is almost a carbon copy of the first. 1-2 the draft. 3-2 Modern, though I concede after getting paired up to and beating a fellow Canadian. I mess up the draft but don’t really know what happened. Everyone I talk to says MC-level drafts are a different beast, even from MTGO leagues. I’m disappointed to have done poorly in both drafts, given that was the format I prepared for the most.
I’m confident I chose the right archetype for the tournament. It was clearly more powerful than everything else. Nobody’s ever as prepared for the boogie monster deck as they think. The problem was me. I wasn’t prepared to play the deck. I made more stupid mistakes than I would have with more practice. I didn’t take any time to tune the deck or even play a few leagues. No regrets, though: 56% win rate decks and medium skill are better than 48% win rate decks and above average skill.
If you’re a player like me, competitive but casual, wins sometimes but not often, wants to keep winning, play the best deck. Temur Energy? Played that. Mardu Vehicles? Yep. Black-red aggro? For so many tournaments. And I’ll keep on Gaaking until I can’t Gaak anymore, and you should too.
But this trip wasn’t about winning. I always told myself I wanted to qualify for one Mythic Championship, and I did. I had accomplished the thing I wanted, and I’d played the tournament. I can’t tell myself that I gave it my all — that’s not what my relationship is with Magic. I wanted to win, but I knew I wouldn’t be the most prepared or have the best deck, and that was OK with me.
Hogaak – Andrew Gordon
On Sunday, after finishing the MCQ 3-3, Autumn Burchett, one of my favourite streamers, offers to play some games of Battlebox with me. I met them this weekend, after spending a lot of time in their Twitch chat, where I mostly make ogre puns and offer very helpful play advice. We play a couple games, and like the rest of my matches in Barcelona, split them 1-1. And this is the moment I’ll take with me from the trip. Magic is always fun.
Preparing for large tournaments where you care about the result a lot is rough. You hear and read a lot of completely different opinions. You don’t know if you’re wrong or right about anything. You play games and win, you play games and lose, but you can’t be certain of anything. I feel relieved to be going back home after the tournament, to one-day tournaments that I don’t prepare for. To just picking up whatever deck I can borrow and hoping for the best. I’m already thinking of the MCQ the upcoming weekend, and just playing some variation of Hogaak that I find in an article the day before. Maybe I’ll get lucky and win.