That’s So Modern: GP Las Vegas Report

Grand Prix Las Vegas was massive. You knew that from the coverage, but numbers don’t have the same impact as being there. I had to elbow my way to the match slip box past hundreds of players milling around the Vintage Magic and Quiet Speculation booths while over half of the actual GP contestants played on. Couple this with the packed side events and the loaded panel stage, and I’m shocked the plumbing survived the weekend. And the really amazing thing? It only took up three-quarters of the event hall.

You already know that I didn’t win, and if you’re weird enough to sort through the round results, you also know how well I did. I’m not unhappy with my results under the circumstances (which I will describe momentarily). But for me, the main takeaway was how far I’ve come and how far I have to go. Making Day 2 is getting much easier, but consistent prizing remains elusive. I just have to keep my head up and take things one hurdle after another.

Getting Ready

I’ve mentioned my preparation for this GP a few times. Between grinding for byes and my dedicated testing, I felt I had an excellent handle on the metagame and on how to play against all the big decks (more on that next week). My problem was my deck. I felt that UW Control was well positioned in the expected meta thanks to strong matchups against Grixis Shadow, Eldrazi Tron, and Counters Company; however, I knew I was not going to bring it to Vegas. Slow control decks are exhausting to pilot at the weekly tournaments. Playing such a deck for seven rounds on Day 1 was not appealing. I was certain that I would be fine for the first few rounds, but fatigue would set in and a misplay could be fatal. I needed something more forgiving of mistakes.

I’m most comfortable with UW Merfolk, but I was rather leery of actually taking it to the GP. To be clear, the deck is great; it has a phenomenal matchup against Eldrazi Tron, which I expected to be popular thanks to Todd Stevens, and against the total field. But I was still worried. Grixis is a coin flip. It is very winnable, but Grixis has plenty of hands that fatally pick apart Merfolk and win before you can recover. I think the average Merfolk hand stacks up well against the Grixis’ average but my great hands don’t just crush Grixis like theirs will. Counters Company is another problem, mostly because I can’t play enough removal to consistently break up the combo. The combo is very fast and more often than not they win without any resistance from Merfolk. And there are always the twin nightmares of Affinity and Elves. I was hoping for something better.

I hoped that something would be Death and Taxes. On paper, the deck stacked up very well against all the top decks. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Leonin Arbiter really put the screws to Grixis, Ghost Quarter and Tectonic Edge are great against Eldrazi Tron, Blade Splicer and Flickerwisp grind Affinity down, and Arbiter is solid against Company decks. This was borne out by Theau Mery’s run. The problem was that I could not get the deck to work for me. Most of my games played out like the Vegas final with clunky awkward hands and worse draws. Had I played more games like Mery’s quarter- and semifinal matches, I probably would have played the deck as well. As it was, I left it at home. For the record, at one point I was playing Mery’s exact maindeck, and it was my worst configuration. I’m glad it worked out for him and the deck receives the attention it deserves, but I’m a bit bitter that it didn’t work for me.

In the end, I registered this version of UW Merfolk:

Uw Merfolk, by David Ernenwein (GP Las Vegas)

Creatures (28)
Cursecatcher
Silvergill Adept
Harbinger of the Tides
Lord of Atlantis
Master of the Pearl Trident
Merrow Reejerey
Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
Master of Waves

Artifacts (4)
Aether Vial

Instants (4)
Path to Exile

Enchantments (4)
Spreading Seas

Lands (20)
Seachrome Coast
Wanderwine Hub
Mutavault
Island
Cavern of Souls
Sideboard (15)
Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
Echoing Truth
Grafdigger’s Cage
Stony Silence
Rest in Peace
Ethersworn Canonist
Unified Will
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

I moved away from utility spells in the maindeck, focusing on maximizing topdeck value with Harbinger of the Tides over maindeck Echoing Truth. I still wanted them as a catch-all, particularly against tokens and Ensnaring Bridge or as sweeper protection, so they moved to the board. Vendilion Clique has been very good for me but never outstanding, while Kira is mediocre in some matchups and an all-star others. I cut two Islands for Cavern of Souls as insurance against Chalice of the Void.

The Grand Prix

I arrived in Las Vegas Friday around 10:30 intending to play the Modern scheduled events. I wanted to get a better sense of what the other grinders were playing and their take on the metagame. Unfortunately, I was a bit under the weather thanks to the previous night’s buffet… being of lesser quality than advertised. Uncertain of my ability to actually finish the event, I just watched. This proved a good decision.

The field was very diverse, which I found both encouraging and terrifying. Encouraging because Merfolk does well in an open, unfocused field, and terrified because there was a lot more Affinity and Elves than I wanted to see. Of course, even with heavy sideboarding those matchups are awful, so I wasn’t going to change my deck. I didn’t see much Eldrazi Tron or Grixis Shadow, which was confusing. Confident that I wouldn’t be taken completely by surprise tomorrow, I went to my hotel room and slept off my discomfort.

Day 1

My byes gave me a leisurely morning, which I took advantage of by watching the coverage. I was supposed to arrive by 11, but these things always drag even without Miracles so I didn’t actually play my first round until well after noon.

Round 3 Grixis Shadow

Game 1 (Play, 6-7)

My hand is a little slow but it’s solid with several Silvergills to make up for my mulligan. My opponent also starts slow with just a tapped Watery Grave, but several Thoughtseizes and fetch/shocks let him deploy Death’s Shadow. I cantrip into Harbinger to negate his attack and then kill him with islandwalk. I only dealt nine damage that game. How Shadow decks don’t auto-lose to Burn still shocks me.

Sideboarding:

-4 Aether Vial, -1 Master of Waves
+2 Rest in Peace +1 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner +2 Echoing Truth

I take out the Vials because they’re terrible topdecks and the Master because he’s slow and Grixis often has Liliana, the Last Hope. I board like this against every Shadow deck I hit.

Game 2 (Draw, 6-6)

My hand opens with Cursecatcher then plays out Spreading Seas. My opponent doesn’t do anything for his first two turns, but when I try to Spread his Blood Crypt, he pauses for a while. I assume he has Stubborn Denial based on his demeanor—and it would be correct to counter here—but instead he eventually says, “I see that as beneficial,” and lets it resolve. This baffles me, but he has another Crypt to play out Liliana, the Last Hope who eats my Cursecatcher.

I spread that Crypt as well, pass, and use my lords to chew through his removal while Lili ticks up. He ultimates Lili and finally plays a Shadow, but I have two lords and an Adept in play and knock him to six. He has a very hard look at his hand, then discards Anger of the Gods to Collective Brutality and sees that I will drop additional lords to kill him on my turn. He couldn’t play Anger due to lack of red mana which he could have avoided by countering my earlier Seas.

3-0

Round 4 Grixis Shadow

Game 1 (Play, 7-7)

Best deck twice in a row. Expectations met. I play a turn-one Cursecatcher and counter his Thoughtseize to protect both my hand and his lifetotal. I’ve found that chip-shotting Shadow is a bad plan. Build your board and hit for very large chunks to deny them fast threats. He has a lot of removal and multiple Shadows and Gurmag Angler to shut me down completely. Removal, Merfolk can beat; removal plus a clock is much harder.

Sideboarding:

Same as above

Game 2 (Play, 6-7)

I keep a one lander with Cursecatcher and multiple cantrips but miss my second land drop. I knew it was a risk, but mulliganing against Grixis is a great way to lose. Had I hit my land my hand was great, but it may not have mattered—my opponent has another excellent draw and I deal exactly two damage this game.

3-1

Round 5 Sultai Delirium

Game 1 (Play, 6-7)

My opponent doesn’t do much this game, though that may have to do with my Vial and Cavern of Souls shutting down counters. He plays a lot of manlands and Mishra’s Baubles and gets run over.

Sideboarding:

I have no idea if a Sultai Shadow deck exists, and his cycled Architects of Will strongly suggest a delirium theme, so I board like he’s a control deck.

-4 Spreading Seas
+2 Rest in Peace, +2 Unified Will

Game 2 (Draw, 7-7)

A lot of removal and discard is thrown at me, including a Snapcaster Mage found by Traverse the Ulvenwald, but I’m under no pressure and Vial in Master of Waves for three backed up by Will for his Damnation to close the game. I’m feeling hopeful; decks like this are exactly what Merfolk wants to see all day.

4-1

Round 6 Eldrazi Tron

Game 1 (Draw, 6-7)

My opponent leads with Eldrazi Temple and moans when I open on Island, Aether Vial. He’s well aware of how bad this matchup is for him. He also has two more Temples, but can only muster a Chalice for one and some small Walking Ballistas. I play around his All Is Dust and quickly rebuild with lords to grow out of Ballista range and just crush him. He’s flush with mana but has nothing to do except cast a Karn that is just an overpriced Vindicate.

Sideboarding:

-2 Cursecatcher, -2 Aether Vial, -2 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
+2 Stony Silence, +4 Unified Will

The plan is to play out threats under the Eldrazi then counter their relevant spells. Lacking the cantrips of Gx Tron, Eldrazi Tron tends to flood out, and I’ve found that if you beat their opening hand you win the game.

Game 2 (Draw, 7-6)

We both start slow, but I don’t have white mana for the white spells I keep drawing, meaning I fall behind his turn-three Endbringer and follow-up Thought-Knot Seer. I keep cantripping with Adept and Seas looking for white, then Harbinger-bounce the Seer to try and hit. I don’t, and I should be dead when my remaining Path is exiled the following turn. However, he forgets the Seer trigger when he replays it. I finally draw Seachrome Coast, Path the Endbringer, then trade off Master of Waves and tokens with his Seer and Reality Smasher to stabilize at 1 life. He doesn’t draw anything relevant for the rest of the game. No bones about it, I would have lost if not for his misplay.

5-1

Round 7 Grixis Shadow

Game 1 (Draw, 7-7)

Another Grixis deck, but he has the mediocre draw into Tasigur who gets Harbingered and I islandwalk around his follow-up. Instead of removal he has cantrips and Denials so I just win.

Sideboarding:

Same as above

Game 2 (Draw, 7-7)

I play a lot of cantrips, but can’t really put together any pressure. His draw is removal-heavy including two very good Anger of the Gods with a Death’s Shadow. I stand no chance.

Game 3 (Play, 4-7)

I triple-mulligan. No chance to win. I’m not sure how well I would have done with seven cards given what he shows me, but I’m completely doomed at four. Bad beats.

5-2

Round 8 Abzan Midrange

Game 1 (Draw, 6-7)

My opponent has a removal-heavy draw that I gradually work my way through. She’s stuck on two lands and eventually the removal runs out so I get there easily.

Sideboarding:

-4 Aether Vial
+2 Rest in Peace, +2 Echoing Truth

This is my classic Abzan sideboarding. You take out the dead topdecks and add in hosers for Lingering Souls.

Game 2 (Draw, 7-7)

My opponent opens on Grim Flayer while I attack her lands with Spreading Seas. This time, she’s creature- and land-heavy and I’m under pressure, but that dissipates when I RiP, trade Silvergill for Kitchen Finks, and Path the Flayer. I do get wiped by Flaying Tendrils, but it takes her Souls tokens too. I then drop several Master of Waves for the win.

6-2. I’m now locked for Day 2, though I have to win out to have a realistic chance at any kind of prize. With at least 4,000 players (seatings went up to the 2,000s), you’ll need to be at worst X-4 to win anything other than a single Pro Point.

Round 9 Counters Company

Game 1 (Play, 7-7)

I keep a one-lander with two Vials. My opponent kept at one lander with Birds of Paradise and two Devoted Druids. Every time he uses his mana dorks, I bounce them. That buys me the time to draw Path to Exile and another land so I can remove his Druids before Vizier of Remedies hits the table, and I attack for lethal.

Sideboarding:

-2 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
+2 Grafdigger’s Cage

I don’t really have much, but Cage is incredibly powerful since it shuts off all their tutors.

Game 2 (Draw, 7-7)

I have another land-light hand with Vial while my opponent has the combo turn three and is visibly irritated when I have Path to not die. I continue to develop my board while he just has more mana dorks. After counting his mana, I know that he can Chord of Calling for Devoted Druid and combo next turn. He already telegraphed at least one Chord by rereading my Cursecatcher. I have Vial on two and five mana, so I play Seas and two Adepts looking for Cage. I find it. He has Chord, but only for one thanks to Cursecatcher, and gets Viscera Seer. He draws nothing relevant before dying.

7-2

A very good Day 1. It’s going to be a struggle tomorrow, but I’m feeling hopeful. Better still, there are a lot of other Denver players making the cut, some at 8-1.

Day 2

Round 10 UW Control

Game 1 (Draw, 7-7)

A Celestial Colonnade is not how I wanted to start the day. All the sweepers and haymakers makes this a very hard matchup. Fortunately for me, my opponent blows both his Supreme Verdicts early, and thanks to Cavern of Souls I can rebuild with impunity. His Elspeth, Sun’s Champion looks to try and clog the board, but I force my way past the tokens with Reejerey and Harbinger. Once Elspeth is gone, I find a Lord of Atlantis to swing for the win.

Sideboarding:

-4 Path to Exile, -2 Harbinger of the Tides, -1 Master of Waves
+2 Unified Will, +2 Echoing Truth, +2 Rest in Peace, +1 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner

Game 2 (Draw, 6-7)

I open on Island, Vial, and my opponent plays Spreading Seas on my Island. I guess he was really desperate for the cantrip. He then plays Gideon of the Trials and gets an emblem while I play RiP. From there I fairly easily take down the Gideon and then win in two turns. Despite a Glimmer of Genius, my opponent has few relevant spells this game. Bad beats.

8-2

A great start to the day, and now I’m locked for a winning record overall. You’ve got to start with the small goals, then go for the big ones. Get a winning record first, then go for hitting the prizes.

Round 11 RG Valakut

Game 1 (Draw, 6-7)

My heart sinks when I see a turn one Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. This is an awful matchup, especially on the draw game one. To make matters worse, my hand is very slow. I have no meaningful impact on the game and get Scapeshifted out turn five.

Sideboarding:

-4 Path to Exile
+4 Unified Will

My only hope is to counter their haymaker cards and race. Ramping them is not a winning strategy.

Game 2 (Play, 7-7)

This time my opponent has a slow start and I have a fast one. Unified Will on Primeval Titan seals the game.

Game 3 (Draw, 7-7)

My opponent has a lot of accelerants and Anger of the Gods, but he leaves me a window to win. He Summoner’s Pacts for Primeval Titan with only two green sources, and Titans in two Valakuts. If I draw Seas off my draw steps and pair of Adepts, I will win via Pact trigger. Sadly, it’s not to be.

8-3

Round 12 Affinity

Game 1 (Play, 6-7)

Lovely, my nearly unwinnable matchup. He has a nuclear bomb of an opening hand to boot. At least it’s over quickly.

Sideboarding:

-4 Aether Vial
+2 Stony Silence, +2 Echoing Truth

I spend a lot of time thinking about bringing in Kira as a blocker, but Affinity has Whipflare, and I don’t want to board into that card.

Game 2 (Play, 7-7)

I play a turn-two Stony Silence. This leaves him with only Vault Skirges for offense, which I easily race.

Game 3 (Draw, 6-7)

My hand has several Paths but only a Cursecatcher for offense. This is a drawn-out affair, but I can never put together enough of a clock to get there, and his final three draw steps are power cards to slam the door.

8-4. I’m more than likely out of serious prize contention, but I’ll stay in for the outside shot.

Round 13 Dredge

Game 1 (Draw, 7-7)

My hand is fast enough that I make a game of it, but he gets multiple Conflagrates to shut me down and has Bloodghasts for days. Life from the Loam was very good for him.

Sideboard:

-4 Spreading Seas
+2 Rest in Peace, +2 Grafdigger’s Cage

Game 2 (Play, 5-7)

By all rights I should have lost this game. My keep is mediocre and has no hate, but his dredges are so poor that I creep back in. Conflagrate and Darkblast have me on the ropes when I find Rest in Peace and catch him with nothing meaningful in hand. I trade my creatures for his creatures, find more creatures, and win at two life. Maybe my luck has turned?

Game 3 (Draw, 7-7)

Nope. I keep because I have Paths and a good curve but no hate. He has lots of removal, good dredges, and lots of Conflagrates. I have him at four and need a lord to win, but I brick and die.

8-5. At this point I’m only playing for a single Pro Point and given how things are going that is unlikely. I drop.

Wrap-Up

Hitting a run of bad matchups Day 2 was just poor luck. I was fortunate to win Round 8, but that was also the most winnable of the bad matchups. I was very unlikely to beat Valakut or Affinity, and Dredge is a coin flip under the best circumstance. DCI Reporter was simply unkind.

As for my deck, overall I was very happy with my configuration. I never needed the Ethersworn Canonists, but I saw a lot of combo decks at other tables so it was good to have them. Against Grixis, I feel like Spell Pierce is very good, but I don’t think I can justify cutting anything for them. Perhaps I will just have to bite the bullet. Next week I’ll go into countering the top decks. See you then!

Bonus Bad Beat Story! A friend of mine was playing 8-Whack at the GP. Round one he is paired against a woman whose boyfriend also plays 8-Whack and she had built a deck filled with walls specifically to beat 8-Whack. It did, the one deck that it could. The following round he was paired against a Doran, the Seige Tower deck. Functionally identical but better in every way. He dropped at 1-4.

David began playing Magic during Odyssey block, quit playing Magic when Caw Blade ruled the world, and returned to Modern shortly before Deathrite was banned. He’s made an appearance at the Pro Tour, made money at GP Denver, and is constantly grinding and brewing in Modern.

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