Embracing the Degeneracy – RPTQ Top 4

This past weekend, I made the Top 4 of the RPTQ at Face to Face Games Toronto after narrowly defeating my good friend Nick Cummings in the final round of play. While the victory was bittersweet, I am ecstatic that, as of Pro Tour Aether Revolt in Dublin, I will have attended four out of the past five Pro Tours!

You could say that RPTQs have been a weakness for me; I’ve played in five RPTQs, and this was the first time I’ve managed to even Top 16 one of them. It feels great to convert one of these opportunities into a Pro Tour invite and get that monkey off my back instead of having that “I’m just here to collect my RPTQ promo card, AGAIN” feeling.

I played Blue-Red [card]Kiln Fiend[/card] and didn’t lose a single match throughout the event, defeating Red-White Skred, Affinity, Bant Eldrazi, Bant Eldrazi, Elves, and Grixis Goryo Breach. The deck itself is criminally underrated right now, partly because it is still a “new” deck to Modern. It is probably the biggest beneficiary of the new fastland cycle from Kaladesh, and [card]Thing in the Ice[/card] and [card]Bedlam Reveler[/card] are still relative newcomers to the format. The deck has been seeing a lot of play on Magic Online and in the Team Unified Modern format at the World Magic Cup, but I think we’ve yet to see it really display its full potential.

Why I Chose to Play Blue-Red Kiln Fiend

Phyrexian mana is degenerate.

Like many smart magicians, I’ve always had a preference for playing blue control decks in every format, when given the opportunity. But, sometimes, you have to stop trying to fight the good fight and just give in to the degeneracy. This was the case at Grand Prix Detroit last year, at the peak of “Eldrazi Winter” in Modern. At some point during testing for that event (probably after getting Turn 2 Thought-Knot Seer’d for the umpteenth time), I realized that Eldrazi was just too good to not play.

While the current Modern format is nowhere near as broken as it was during Eldrazi Winter, it feels like similarly tough times for anyone trying to play “fair,” reactive Magic. There are so many diverse threats, and not enough universal answers nor enough sideboard slots to beat everything. The sheer speed of the format means that if you stumble at all, you will lose. At the Toronto RPTQ this past weekend, I saw this firsthand, as the decks that eventually rose to the top were the ones trying to win by turn three, and each in different ways. Blue-Red [card]Kiln Fiend[/card] has the ability to keep up with the fastest decks in the format such as Dredge, Infect, and [card]Death’s Shadow[/card] Aggro. It also has the tools to interact with these other creature combo archetypes. [card]Lightning Bolt[/card], [card]Vapor Snag[/card], and [card]Thing in the Ice[/card] can be effective at breaking open these pseudo-mirror matches. [card]Blood Moon[/card] is another major reason to play Blue-Red [card]Kiln Fiend[/card] over similar strategies, and allows you to slow down or lock out the big mana decks and three-color decks that are on the other side of the spectrum.

Blue-Red Kiln Fiend

2 Island
3 Misty Rainforest
1 Mountain
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Spirebluff Canal
2 Steam Vents
1 Stomping Ground
2 Apostle’s Blessing
1 Faithless Looting
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Manamorphose
4 Mutagenic Growth
4 Serum Visions
1 Sleight of Hand
4 Temur Battle Rage
1 Twisted Image
1 Vapor Snag
1 Bedlam Reveler
4 Kiln Fiend
4 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Thing in the Ice
1 Grafdigger’s Cage
2 Spell Pierce
1 Stubborn Denial
2 Ancient Grudge
2 Young Pyromancer
2 Blood Moon
1 Dismember
3 Ravenous Trap
1 Bedlam Reveler

The gameplan of this deck is mostly straightforward; play a [card]Kiln Fiend[/card] or [card]Thing in the Ice[/card] on turn two, and cast [card]Temur Battle Rage[/card] prefaced by a few other spells on turn three. There are twelve “free” spells in the deck to help facilitate this, and you mostly want to save them for the turn in which you are going all in for the kill. Many of these spells are also cantrips, so, along with [card]Serum Visions[/card], you get to churn through your deck very quickly to find key cards.

Mastering the deck, though, involves some practice and a lot of small decisions that happen in the span of the first few turns. This should be familiar to anyone who has played [card]Death’s Shadow[/card] Aggro, Infect, or Delver strategies before. It’s all about aggressively mulliganing, sequencing your fetchlands in combination with scry effects, and knowing when to “go for it” ([card]Gitaxian Probe[/card] always makes that one easy).

My maindeck is fairly stock, though in some lists you may see more copies of [card]Sleight of Hand[/card] or [card]Vapor Snag[/card]. I prefer to have a diverse mix of bullets like [card]Twisted Image[/card], [card]Faithless Looting[/card], and [card]Apostle’s Blessing[/card] that each have their own situational advantages. My only uncommon sideboard choice is [card]Ancient Grudge[/card], which is a huge boon for this deck and comes at the low cost of having to play a single [card]Stomping Ground[/card] in the maindeck. Sometimes the green source even comes in handy when you need to cast [card]Mutagenic Growth[/card] using mana!

The tougher matchups are Jund and Abzan, where you have to overcome lots of removal, discard spells, [card]Liliana of the Veil[/card], and large blockers. These attrition-based matchups are where I cut most of the [card]Temur Battle Rage[/card]s and transform into a value deck powered by [card]Bedlam Reveler[/card] and [card]Young Pyromancer[/card], or try to steal games with [card]Blood Moon[/card]. It’s the same plan that I and many others used in [card]Splinter Twin[/card]. It’s not always smooth or pretty or even a surprise, but it’s the best way to try to scrape out a win in the nightmare matchups. The first things I look to board out are some of the weaker cards like [card]Twisted Image[/card], [card]Faithless Looting[/card], all but one [card]Temur Battle Rage[/card], some amount of [card]Lightning Bolt[/card], and the [card]Stomping Ground[/card].

A quick aside on [card]Ravenous Trap[/card] against Dredge: be patient and wait as long as possible to pull the trigger. They will often have things like [card]Gnaw to the Bone[/card] and [card]Vengeful Pharaoh[/card] that are more dangerous than letting a couple of creatures slip through the cracks. Let them exhaust all of their enablers in hand, if you can, and then sweep up as much as possible.

The Modern Path to the Pro Tour

“What is the easiest way to qualify for the Pro Tour?” This is a question that gets asked a lot. Is it going 13-2 or better at a Grand Prix? Top 4’ing an RPTQ? Winning a Magic Online PTQ?

If your primary goal is to make it to the Pro Tour, here’s my answer: the Modern format. Become a master of it, learn all of its nuances, study decklists, and attend every Modern event that you can. Find a deck that suits you, and keep racking up the repetitions. Standard and Limited are uniquely important because they are the only formats played at the Pro Tour nowadays, but I believe that the non-rotating nature of Modern makes it the most rewarding format to get you to the Pro Tour in the first place. Legacy might be an even more rewarding format to master, but there are just not enough Legacy events that give out Pro Tour invites for that to be worth it.

So far, all of my Pro Tour qualifications have basically come from playing Modern. At the point that I hit Silver last season, 18 of my 19 pro points were from Modern events. Right now, I’ve realized that I should be prioritizing Modern Grand Prixes, even if they are further away. At a Modern RPTQ, there will be a portion of the field that qualified through Sealed PPTQs or from Top 8’ing the previous RPTQ of a different format. Some of these players will have little to no Modern experience, and that’s when your own expertise can give you an enormous edge.

Best of luck!