Taking Miracles to the (Sensei's Divining) Top 4

Feature Article from Brian Braun-Duin
Brian Braun-Duin
1/19/2017 11:02:00 AM
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Two weeks ago, I piloted Miracles to a Top 4 finish at Grand Prix Louisville. Louisville is where my Pro Tour career started. I won Grand Prix Louisville 2013 with Mono-Black Devotion in Standard. While I didn't create that deck – Kentaro Yamamoto made Top 8 with the deck the week before at Pro Tour Theros – my win in Louisville helped kickstart the process of cementing Black Devotion as one of the dominant archetypes in Standard, a distinction it would hold for an entire year until Return to Ravnica rotated out.

That win also cemented me as a Magic professional. It was my first Grand Prix Top 8 and first Grand Prix win, and without that moment it's unclear whether I would have ever made it as a Magic pro or what direction my career would have gone. In a field where people don't respect what you say unless you can also back it up with results, having that win under my belt also gave my content some credibility it sorely needed. To say it was important to my career is an understatement. Louisville holds significance to me, and to be able to go back to where it all began and put up another great finish was an awesome experience.

This time around, I decided to play Miracles. Unlike most Grand Prix, I had a large amount of time to test for this tournament because it was the first event after nearly a month-long break during the holiday season. I spent most of that time trying to find an excuse to not play Miracles. The simple fact is that I don't think Miracles is the best deck in Legacy anymore. It has taken years, but players have finally begun to adapt to beat Miracles. Delver decks used to be really great matchups for Miracles, but now they are playing Abrupt Decay and tough threats like True-Name Nemesis or Liliana of the Veil and the matchup has swapped. Additionally, new cards like Leovold, Emissary of Trest, Recruiter of the Guard and Sanctum Prelate are natural predators to the deck.

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I tested Aluren and many different flavors of Delver decks, but in the end I came crawling back home. I decided to play Miracles because I was comfortable with the deck, and it didn't hurt that I also owned a physical copy of Miracles, meaning I wouldn't have to buy a bunch of expensive Legacy cards or have to track down people to borrow from in order to play a different deck. While I tested a bunch with other decks, I didn't know exactly what the best builds were or how I should board in each matchup, and I didn't think I would be playing those decks at peak efficiency.

I also tested a lot with Miracles itself. I wasn't winning very much testing the deck on Magic Online. Magic Online was overrun with Sultai-based decks that were proving very tough to defeat for Miracles, but I hoped that those decks would be less prevalent at the Grand Prix. There was also a lot of Sneak and Show on Magic Online, which is the toughest combo deck to beat. I was winning nearly all my matches against other decks, but these two were a thorn in my side. I went into the tournament with low hopes and low expectations.

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Thankfully, I employed a timeless strategy that has proven me well in the past. It's a two-pronged attack known as “hope to dodge and get lucky.” It's where you aim to not play against decks that are bad matchups for you, or in the unenviable situation where you should find yourself matched up against one of these undesirable decks, the goal is to simply get really, really, ridiculously lucky.

As it turns out, I managed to get lucky a lot over the course of the weekend. I also played much better than I could have hoped to. While testing on Magic Online, I had been making a number of minor mistakes in many games that were reducing my likelihood of winning. I was no longer a good Miracles pilot. I had grown rusty with disuse, and while that may have been okay when Miracles was miles above the other decks, it's no longer good enough as other decks catch up in power level.

Thankfully, something clicked for me at the Grand Prix and I was making good plays and sideboarding decisions that were stealing percentage points in tough games and matchups. My favorite moments in Legacy are where you have to play a mind game with your opponent. This generally involves cards like Cabal Therapy or Counterbalance, and specifically how those two cards interact with Brainstorm. I was coming out on top in a lot of those situations over the course of the weekend, something I attribute to a fairly even mix of intuition, preparation and just straight-up luck.

I ended up going 9-0 on Day One. On Sunday I had a slightly rockier road, starting 3-1-1 and finding myself in a win-and-in for Top 8 against Brad Nelson. We played an intense three-game match that was defined by a moment where I am facing down a 5/6 Tarmogoyf at 6 life with only a Monastery Mentor, Counterbalance and lands in play with no cards in hand. He attempts to cast a Brainstorm and I blind flip a Swords to Plowshares. It was the perfect way to both counter the Brainstorm with Counterbalance and also care of the Tarmogoyf the following turn. With a Sensei's Divining Top coming off the top the turn after, I managed to take control of a very perilous game and clinch a Top 8.

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In the quarterfinals, I played against Craig Wescoe on Death and Taxes. After Monastery Mentor made short work of him in the first game, we played an interesting Game 2 that was defined by the Monarch mechanic. Craig played a Palace Jailer, which introduces the Monarch mechanic to the game until the game ends. Whichever player is Monarch gets to draw an extra card during their end step, but if a creature deals them combat damage, the other player becomes the Monarch and gets to start drawing the extra cards. I had to go through some hoops, but I ended up connecting with a Snapcaster Mage to steal the Monarchy, and then never relinquished it. The game went on for quite a while but Craig eventually got a taste of his own medicine as he succumbed to a swarm of small white creatures courtesy of a certain M. Mentor. Drawing two cards a turn didn't hurt either.

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I ended up losing the semifinals to Reid Duke's Salty Sultai brew. Reid's draws weren't even particularly devastating, I just couldn't get anything going in either game and was eaten alive by Deathrite Shaman two points of life at a time. While I would have loved to win the GP, I was happy to see Reid's innovation and hard work pay off for him. Reid's deck and win is a reminder of what makes Legacy so great. It's an extremely skill-intensive format that rewards preparation and understanding of the format, but it is also a format that still has a lot of room to explore, especially with new powerful cards like Leovold changing dynamics.

Over the course of the weekend, I played 14 rounds of Magic against 13 unique decks. The only repeat archetype was that I played against both Jarvis Yu and Jody Keith on Lands. Other than that, every round was against something different. Here's a quick look at my tournament.

Rounds 1-3: Byes
Round 4: Imperial Painter. Win 2-0
Round 5: Grixis Delver. Win 2-1
Round 6: 4 Color Delver. Win 2-0
Round 7: Aluren. Win 2-0
Round 8: Lands. Win 2-1
Round 9: Infect. Win 2-1
Round 10: Lands. Draw 1-1-1
Round 11: Elves. Win 2-0
Round 12: Black-Red Reanimator. Win 2-0
Round 13: Sultai Delver with Stifle and Dark Confidant. Lose 1-2
Round 14: Mentor Miracles. Win 2-0
Round 15: Sultai Delver with Planeswalkers. Win 2-1
Quarterfinals: Death and Taxes. Win 2-0
Semifinals: Sultai Midrange Brew. Lose 0-2

While some decks – like the two versions of Sultai Delver – share many cards, they are still different enough in how they are built and their game plan that I sideboard very differently against them and don't consider them the same archetype at all. Legacy is a very diverse format and rewards players who are familiar with all the different archetypes and varieties within.

I was happy that I spent a lot of time testing on Magic Online, as I had developed plans for how to attack matchups like Aluren and Black-Red Reanimator, two decks that were popular on Magic Online but had not made a mark in paper tournaments leading up until this event. Without that testing, I'm not sure I would have been prepared for what to expect and how to play those matchups.

And while we're on the topic of matchups and how to play them, I've noticed that I play Miracles a lot differently than many people do, and I want to explain my methodology for how to build and pilot the deck and why I believe it is the correct way to approach the deck.

Midrange Miracles

I think the major difference in how I see Miracles compared to others is that I don't view it as a control deck; I view it as a midrange deck. I think people have adapted to beating Miracles played as a control deck. Miracles doesn't always win the late game, especially against the slower, grindier and more powerful versions of Delver, and I feel like the best way to beat a lot of these decks is to put pressure on them to have specific answers at the right times. The best way to put that pressure on them is to keep jamming cards that will win the game if left unchecked.

When I started testing Miracles for this Grand Prix, I started immediately with Monastery Mentor versions of the deck. I knew that if I was going to play Miracles, it was going to feature Monastery Mentor, and that wasn't really negotiable. I looked at a lot of versions of Miracles, but I ended up basing my list off of a list I got from Wilson Hunter. Many of you might not know Wilson, but he made Top 8 of the Legacy Grand Prix in Columbus last year and is a pioneer for playing Miracles with low land counts, lots of cantrips, four Monastery Mentor, and no Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I don't agree with all of his card choices, but I like how he fundamentally approaches the deck. The list he gave me to start with this time around was similarly constructed, but also had access to two Engineered Explosives in the main deck.

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Over the course of my testing, I changed a lot of cards and ended up playing a list that featured a lot of the cards that I have traditionally liked playing in Miracles. I bumped up to 21 lands and added Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and changed the sideboard to include matchup-specific haymakers like Blood Moon and Izzet Staticaster. I did, however, end up keeping the Engineered Explosives from Wilson's list. It's not normally a card I like, but it was great for me in testing.

I ended up playing cards like Blood Moon and Jace and Monastery Mentor because I think that is what makes Miracles strong. Mentor is what took Miracles from being a good deck in Legacy to being “the” deck in Legacy. Mentor is the kind of card that produces a lot of free wins, provides outs to situations that seem impossible, and gives Miracles a chance to beat decks that normally punish it.

I firmly believe that playing a build with Entreat the Angels instead of Mentor is flawed. I also feel that playing builds that are trying to grind out card advantage with cards like Predict is also flawed. I understand that people play Magic for many different reasons and some people enjoy this style of play and that's why they are attracted to a deck like Miracles. I'm okay with that, and if that's what you enjoy, then stick with it, but from a competitive standpoint, Mentor is just a way better threat. Why go through so much work and so much time off the precious clock clawing for slight edges in card advantage when you can just play a card that kills them?

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This also affects how I play the deck. I don't view cards like Mentor, Jace, Blood Moon or even Counterbalance as win conditions. I view them simply as means to an end. I see people too often playing scared to drop their Counterbalance into an answer or play their Mentor out unprotected on turn three, but those are the plays you have to make. I view these cards as expendable and often jam them as early as I can and force them (sometimes literally Force them) to have an answer. Yeah, sometimes they have the Spell Pierce for your Counterbalance or the Daze for your Monastery Mentor. In that case, you get to just keep playing the game. But when they don't have those cards, well, they're probably just dead.

When you play the game this way, it puts a lot of pressure on them to keep up. Normally, Miracles is playing from behind and trying to leverage Sensei's Divining Top at the right times to wrest control of the game before it's too late. Well, I find that it often ends up being too late when you're facing down the kinds of threats people are playing today, like True-Name Nemesis, Liliana of the Veil or Leovold, Emissary of Trest.

With the Mentor version, you have a quick way to turn the corner and sometimes you also get to force them to play from behind, which is not where Delver decks traditionally thrive. When they are trying to play catch-up and are spending their turns answering your threats, you are in the driver seat. Now that's what I call control.
I also don't play scared in the face of cards like Abrupt Decay. The only time I like to side out Counterbalance is in matchups where Counterbalance is simply a weak card, like against Aether Vial decks with Cavern of Souls or Eldrazi. Just because some decks can answer Counterbalance doesn't make it bad against those decks. My plan against decks relying on Abrupt Decay is to overload their Decay. If they are blowing up Counterbalance, they might not have an answer to Mentor. If they are blowing up Mentor, maybe Blood Moon gets them the next turn.

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Playing with these kinds of powerful game-ending effects and playing them proactively and without fear is how Miracles wins a lot of these games. As it turns out, Mentor is a more powerful threat than almost anything your opponent can be doing. If they don't have an answer to a Mentor, you'll outrace Delver or Death and Taxes or whatever creature deck they are presenting. If they do, then maybe the turn they spent killing your Mentor allows you to successfully stick a Jace the next turn.

I think having a midrange mindset also affects how to build and play with the deck. One thing I don't do is let the fear of “feel-bad situations” affect deckbuilding or play. For example, I didn't play any basic Mountains to go with my handful of red cards in the sideboard. I wanted a strong, powerful game one mana base and I didn't worry about the rare situations where you desperately need a red source after sideboard and both Volcanic Islands have been hit with a Wasteland. Those situations feel bad, but what feels the worst to me is wasting a sideboard slot on a Mountain or having an off-color basic in the maindeck just to be safe from worst-case scenarios in a few matchups that I may never play.

This also influences how I sideboard a lot. One thing I noticed that I do differently than most is I sideboard out some amount of Terminus in nearly every matchup, and side them all out in a lot of matchups. For example, I sided out all four Terminus against Brad's Sultai Delver deck with Lilianas and Jaces. It can create feel-bad situations where Terminus is the only card that can save you, but in general I don't think you want that card in that matchup. I also consider it a feel-bad scenario when I get hit with a Hymn to Tourach followed by a Liliana followed by a Jace, the Mind Sculptor and I have a Terminus in my hand or draw one.

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I also sided out all four Terminus against Aluren. That deck is specifically built to be able to grind through these kinds of cards with their insane card advantage, and that's not even considering that Cavern Harpy with an Aluren in play can save most of their creatures from a Terminus anyway. I'd rather just slam Mentors and beat them to death.

Similarly, I side out Terminus against Storm and don't worry about the rare situations where I die to Empty the Warrens. I side out Terminus in the mirror and try to win the Mentor fight instead of trying to play these clunky answers to their Mentors. I side out Force of Will against Infect and don't worry about the times they kill me on the second turn, and so on and so forth.

Unlike traditional control mentalities where you always want an answer to everything and always want to be protected from any situation that can arise, I prefer a different approach. I think that level of caution and risk prevention will lose more games than it will win. All those times you draw a Terminus instead of a real card in those matchups will also cost you games, you just might not notice them as often as you notice that one time you really needed a Terminus and it was in your sideboard.

I think this mentality is what got me to the Top 8 of GP Louisville. I took risks in sideboarding. I didn't play scared, and I didn't worry about the feel-bad worst-case scenarios. Instead I stuck to playing the most powerful cards and I played them aggressively and forced my opponents to react to what I was doing.

All of these other decks have adapted to what Miracles is doing and they are prepared for that game plan. They are prepared for Terminus and for Entreat the Angels. They are also prepared for Monastery Mentor. But are they prepared for the Blood Moon that follows? Are they prepared for Jace? Do they have the answer in hand on turn three? These decks have adapted to fight Miracles and Miracles has to adapt in kind.

Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. But here's a secret. Monastery Mentor plays both sides of the ball.

@BraunDuinIt




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