I played a homebrew at a PPTQ last weekend. I don't really remember the circumstances of picking up the deck, I just remember hanging out in the TCGplayer warehouse after work, talking about playing Lantern of Insight. When you tell people straight-faced that you're going to play Lantern, they freak out, because Lantern's a weird deck. In my friend Burrito's (yes, Burrito is his real name) case, he tried to talk me off the deck immediately, and thrust the following into my hands:
Last week, I wrote about my friend Brian's Smallpox skepticism with dismay. There are plenty of ideas that can be safely dismissed out of hand, but Magic decks, especially Modern ones, are a different beast. Sure, the best deck in Modern is Grixis Death's Shadow, but if you're comfortable shaving a percentage point or two off of your expected win shares, you can do your fair share of cooking in Modern.
Burrito told me that he and a coworker, Dave, had been working on the deck (you can find Dave's original iteration here), so I held my initial criticisms and promised to play the deck, even though I had Lantern all set. I'm not going to lie—the fact that I have a column to write factored in. I was excited to get to write about a friend's deck, and I was also excited at the prospect of playing Condemn against a Death's Shadow deck. I looked forward to sideboarding Azorius Charm out every match.
The PPTQ started at two on a Sunday, which is truly obnoxious. The tournament was far from home, so I didn't know anyone and spent most of my downtime eavesdropping. I overheard the following exchange:
GUY 1: Two o'clock is a pretty late start time.
GUY 2: Well, the store doesn't open till noon.
GUY 1 & 2: [shrug]
What?! Just open the damn store early! People have to work tomorrow. Two-o'clock start times are horrible and I'm never doing another one again. You can't even 0-2 drop a two-o'clock tournament and enjoy the day. Take your two-o'clock start time and fire it into the sun.
For the first few turns, we just stare at each other, making our land drops. They eventually blink first, running a turn-four Gideon, Ally of Zendikar into my Spell Queller. On their next turn, they attempt to Fatal Push it, non-verbally prompting me to respond. I pick up the Fatal Push, and before I can say “uhhhh,” my opponent hurriedly cracks their Flooded Strand in order to trigger morbid.
The judge ruled in my favor, and to my opponents' credit, they corroborated my story in a spot that would've been easy to lie in. The game unravels for my opponent from there. I even get to Remand an Ancestral Visions! Good times.
Game two, they draw a lot of discard spells against my double-Snapcaster Mage, double-Remand hand. For their first bit of action, they Inquisition of Kozilek a Vendilion Clique and then target it with Surgical Extraction. I let both spells resolve because who cares, I'm winning with Remand and Snapcaster Mage anyway. Next turn, they cast an escalated Collective Brutality, discarding Lingering Souls, in order to strip my hand of a card and drain me for two. They choose Azorius Charm, their Lingering Souls in the ‘yard still rendered irrelevent thanks to the virtual four copies of Remand in my hand. Their third discard spell, a second Inquisition of Kozilek, finally hits a Remand. They do some more maneuvering to try and ensure their Ancestral Visions resolves, but I have a Negate from a Serum Visions the turn before to get my Remand to stick. From there, my opponent mistakes the board for a race and attacks with their Celestial Colonnade, so from there I'm able to bounce their one blocker left—an empty Spell Queller from ages ago—with a Venser, Shaper Savant and win the match.
For the second match in a row, my first play of the game is an end-step is a Vendilion Clique on their end step. I see the following:
Additional information: They have a Chalice of the Void with a charge counter on it and three lands—an untapped Rugged Prairie, an untapped Temple of Triumph, and a tapped Temple of Triumph (they scried the card to the top). After tanking for a bit, I looked at my hand full of Remand, Snapcaster Mage, and Spell Queller and decided to not take anything. I assume the top card of their library is a land to play all of these expensive cards, and I've got the Remands to keep the hand contained.
I let a one-for-one Anger of the Gods resolve on their turn and countered everything for the rest of the game as they flooded out. I even got to do the fabled “tap Plains, Ghost Quarter it to grab my third blue source for Cryptic Command” play on their Gideon Jura.
Both games were decided by me chipping in damage till I won, although winning game two required both letting a Blood Moon resolve and successfully convincing them to try and race with their Restoration Angel instead of leaving it back. Choosing to go to one life against Mountains is always precarious, but it was necessary, and I didn't get punished Since all of their cards cost four or more and all my cards are instant-speed, I get to dictate both games. It's also worth noting that I saw no snow-covered lands (meaning no Skred) or Lightning Bolt, making Spell Queller much better than usual.
I won both games by the skin of my teeth, dealing the last points of damage right as I was about to run out of permission. My opponent was mana-flooded in game one and mana-screwed in game two, making both games that much easier to win. For all I know, they had Lightning Bolt in their deck and just never drew it, making me the luckiest person in the universe because I never played around it.
We split the first two games; game three comes down to one draw step. I'm at one life, they're at seven, but I have enough of a board to win the game on the next turn, and I have Path to Exile for any creature they draw. If I can fade a burn spell, I win the game.
They draw Boros Charm, and I die to it. They cast it in my upkeep instead of casting it in their own main phase, which I shamefully get annoyed at. While it may be true that if I have a counterspell for the burn spell, they're dead no matter when they cast it, it is really, really dumb of me to get mad at my opponent for playing their cards optimally. “Slowrolling” is not a thing. If you're reading this, Nick—sorry about that. GGs.
Between matches, a teenage kid watching the game told me my deck was cool. So I'll always have that. What I took away from this: Play Azorius Charm in Modern and the teens will have your back forever. A win's a win, I guess.
This is not a matchup I want to see at all. The PPTQ was 26 players, so it was hard to avoid figuring out what deck everyone at the top tables was on, and I knew my opponent was playing Storm.
There are a lot of misconceptions about archetype matchups in general that extend to the way people think about beating combo decks. A sure sign of an amateur player is that they throw countermagic, discard, or some other card that interacts with the resources combo decks uses into their sideboard and that's the extent they think about beating a combo deck. These half-baked plans always suck. Disruption isn't the way to beat a combo deck—you need to threaten to end the game. Pressuring their life total early and following that up with some light disruption is a tried and true way to beat linear decks.
One of Burrito's first questions for me after the event was “did you get to Nimble Obstructionist a Grapeshot?” Unfortunately, that's not really how the matchup works. First, the Storm deck resolves a two-mana enabler—either Baral, Chief of Compliance or Goblin Electromancer. From there, winning is pretty trivial. Make some mana, cast Gifts Ungiven, make lots more mana, cast Past in Flames, make way too much mana, draw a bunch of cards, cast another Gifts Ungiven, and getcha with a BUNCH of storm spells. One three-mana Stifle isn't going to cover that. Remand is less embarrassing, but still borders on irrelevant in the context of the matchup.
The matchup comes down to interacting with their eight creatures as quickly as possible. They can't really go off without them, but given enough time, they'll find one and be able to win from there. The issue with this flash deck is that it has all these Condemn and Azorius Charm that do nothing, essentially acting as filler to be chewed through in order to get to any relevant card. Remand, a card that had been passable to good all day, is trash against Storm. Path to Exile is probably the best spell in the maindeck.
We split the first two games, and my opponent, later citing inexperience with the deck, cast an Empty the Warrens instead of two lethal Grapeshot in the waning turns of the game—right into my Supreme Verdict. However, I wasn't able to close out the game, and we unintentionally drew. If the game had had even five minutes' more time, I'm certain I win it, but it doesn't, so I don't. So much for that Nimble Obstructionist.
I can still make Top 8 with a win, but I have to win.
My opponent's first action: a Temple of Deceit.
“Oooooh,” I say. “You're playing that deck.”
“How do you know what I'm playing? Maybe I'm playing something else.” I play my first land, a Celestial Colonnade. “You know what I think you're playing?” my opponent asks. “Blue-white control.”
I just smile. What else can you do?
We split the first two games. Game three got ugly.
We're both recovering from multiple mulligans. They have a couple Plains and a Gemstone Mine, I've got three lands and a hysterically irrelevant Stony Silence. An end-step Vendilion Clique, targeting them, sets the scene:
I don't want them drawing out of their mana screw, and I have this hand beat with Remand galore. I've also got a Nimble Obstructionist to hasten my clock. So I let them keep their grip.
A few turns and a Phyrexian Unlife later, I pass the turn. They're at eight infect. I have only five lands, but I still have the Ad Nauseam covered by double-Remand.
They draw their card and cast Ad Nauseam. In the interest of mana-efficiency, I Vendilion Clique them in response and see the following hand:
There's nothing I can bottom here to keep them from winning or casting a Pact of Negation on my Remand. Missing a PPTQ Top 8 after making the cut of the previous five you played in feels crappy no matter how you slice it.
If I was going to cast Vendilion Clique, I should've done it in their draw step for a shot at tucking their one Ad Nauseam. That wouldn't have worked, because they had two Ad Nauseam, but it's what I should've done. It's hard to be too mad at the result, though—I think I did the best I could given the decks I got paired against and the tools at my disposal.
Basically, any game I won was because the deck I was playing against was weak to Remand and subsequent Snapcaster Mage flashing back Remand. That and the Gideon, Ally of Zendikar out of the sideboard were the deck's few bright spots. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in particular won me a game against Burn single-handedly; for the second weekend in a row, it felt great to cast Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in Modern. A singleton Irrigated Farmland is also kind of cute, I guess, but I probably wouldn't run it if it was my choice. Then again, I wouldn't really run this deck at all.
If Condemn is bad, I can at least see its applications. Azorius Charm, on the other hand, is truly inexplicable. I'd say I sideboarded them out every game, but that's not true; I literally always boarded out Condemn first, and there usually weren't enough cards to bring in to cut all the Azorius Charm.
By the way, Remand and Surgical Extraction is a non-bo.
Nimble Obstructionist was far more cute than good. On the day, it countered one thing: a Grim Lavamancer activation in a game I was very easily losing anyway. It's just never going to be mana-efficient unless it's countering a Planeswalker ultimate. As tempting as stifling a fetchland is, that just transforms the card into a situational Stone Rain. Like I said, more cute than good.
I was grateful to Burrito for letting me borrow the deck in full, but it just is not very good. If I were changing this deck but keeping the weird Condemn core intact, I'd probably look at Delver of Secrets as a way to generate early pressure. I'd probably also cut the Irrigated Farmland for an Island. The mana here is a lot worse than it looks, and its curve is really low; I'd try to cut down on the enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands as much as possible.
Metagame decks—decks designed to prey on specific decks and do little else—have issues if the metagame read is wrong or they just don't see favorable matchups that day. There were plenty of Death's Shadow decks at the top tables, but I didn't see one all day. All the copies of Condemn that clogged otherwise passable draws all day would've been great there. The problem at the core of every metagame deck is that your perception is not reality. Not everyone adheres to the interpretation of the format that you do, and assuming otherwise will lead you to doing stuff like maindecking four Condemn in Modern. I have no issues with brews, but if you have competitive aspirations, you'd better make sure your brews have a proactive gameplan they can execute, especially in a format like Modern. Focusing on one target in Modern is a great way to lose a lot of your equity; just because Grixis Death's Shadow is the consensus Best Deck doesn't make the other decks in the format bad or any less real.
See you next week.