Eternal Warrior #17: Four Easy Pieces

1. Faeries and Zoo at PT Born of the Gods

Two weeks ago, ahead of PT Born of the Gods, I examined the changes to the Modern format and took an in-depth look at Faeries. I concluded, as did many others, that the deck had a poor match-up against the Wild Nacatl decks. If Zoo was going to be super-popular at the PT, Faeries seemed like a poor choice.

This turned out to be largely correct. Zoo was the most popular archetype. Only a handful of players were on Faeries, and just two of them finished among the top decks in the constructed portion of the event. The two successful pilots were Alex Sittner and Shota Yasooka. Their approach to building Faeries highlights one of the great historical debates about the deck that I dived into two weeks ago: do you want to play Scion of Oona or not? Just a few days prior to the PT, a Faeries deck made 4-0 in an <strongMTGO Daily Event with the full set of Scions. Both Sittner and Yasooka passed on Scion, opting for much more control-heavy builds. In hindsight, this seems like an obvious move to combat the large number of aggressive Zoo variants.

In addition to planting his flag firmly in the “no Scions” side of the debate, Sittner went all-in with manlands. I was concerned that a 26-land variant would get flooded too often without the good card-filtering and draw spells that previous Faerie decks could employ, but he was clearly undeterred. Manlands are almost as good as spells in some situations, but they aren’t always relevant at all stages of the game. He also opted for two Tectonic Edge, a card that I didn’t think served a good enough purpose in the metagame to warrant including yet another colorless land in a deck whose key spell costs 1UUU. Tec Edge is not really enough against Tron, but Tron was almost as unpopular as Faeries. Presumably Sittner felt that opposing manlands were a problem that justified the mana complications.

Both Sittner and Yasooka used Secluded Glen. I expected this, and I still don’t like the card. The rest of the mana base was about as I expected. You’ll recall that I suggested Sunken Ruins as an option primarily for Faerie decks using Liliana of the Veil. Yasooka played 2 copies of Lily maindeck, and opted for 3 Sunken Ruins to help cast the ‘walker.

Zoo had the biggest numbers in the field. The deck with the biggest numbers often has a mediocre win percentage overall, and this was true of Zoo. That’s not because the deck was bad, or even because people were gunning for it; it’s just the law of averages coming into play. In fact, the deck put up very good results in the constructed portion, with three distinct variants enjoying success.

Domain Zoo with Tribal Flames, Snapcaster Mage, and Geist of Saint Traft was the variant with the most buzz going into the event. Fast Zoo, a “Cat Sligh”-style of deck that stayed in Naya colors and included as many as twenty 1-drop creatures, also had a great showing. The deck plays almost like the Infect strategies, and some Fast Zoo players even included Mutagenic Growth! Having to race to 20 instead of 10 is off-set a little by the fact that Fast Zoo’s creatures all have much more reasonable bodies. Kird Ape and pals can live through a Pyroclasm and even match up okay on defense against other aggressive decks.

Finally, Big Zoo was also a major player. Big Zoo has been a viable deck in past environments when fast aggro was popular — it’s a midrange strategy that throws brick walls in front of smaller aggro decks, then taking over the game with planeswalkers or dominant creatures. Noble Hierarch accelerates into un-Boltable Loxodon Smiters and Knight of the Reliquary. The Big Zoo variant shares a weakness to combo with all other non-black midrange decks, and must devote ample sideboard space to disruption. Shahar Shenhar’s list looked similar to the Domri Naya lists of last year. For a new take, here’s Owen Turtenwald’s list that employed the services of Chandra, Pyromaster and Thundermaw Hellkite.

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2. GP Richmond: Is Modern surpassing Legacy?

This spring may represent a new high-water mark for the popularity of the Modern format. February brought us PT Born of the Gods featuring the format, and March is about to bring us another huge Modern event at GP Richmond. Star City Games is running the GP, and the retailer appears fully committed to hyping the ever-loving crap out of it. If their pre-registration numbers are accurate, this could end up being among the largest constructed-format Grand Prix ever held.

The previous record for largest constructed-format Grand Prix was GP Madrid in 2010, a Legacy GP with over 2,200 players in attendance. The other GPs to approach that mark have all been Legacy GPs as well. So here’s the million-dollar question: Is a record-breaking turnout for GP Richmond an indicator that Modern is overtaking Legacy as the eternal format of choice for paper players? If so, what impact might that have for digital players?

The Legacy price bubble in spring of 2011 caused a lot of hand-wringing over the price of the format, and drove much of the discussion that led to the creation of Modern. It was repeatedly predicted that “card availability” problems would doom Legacy. “Card availability” is, of course, a polite euphemism for “too expensive”. After all, there are over 300,000 Underground Seas in existence, and not every Legacy player needs a full playset. Aside from a few oddities like the Portal sets, the rarest cards commonly played in Legacy would be Legends rares (20,000 English copies and likely two or three times that many Italian ones) and Antiquities U1′s (31,000 copies). Most of those cards show up only as occasional singletons, with Candelabra of Tawnos being the notable exception.

Denizens of various Internet forums insist on playing out “Modern vs. Legacy” as if it were the “X-Box vs. PlayStation” console war, staking out sides and defending theirs to the death without regard to reason. But, like the last-generation console war, maybe there doesn’t have to be a clear winner. It is indisputable that Modern has enjoyed enormous success and grown by leaps and bounds over the past two years. But Legacy has continued to flourish right alongside it. The numbers for Legacy GPs have remained high. Grand Prix DC was the largest constructed GP of last season with nearly 1700 players, compared to just under 1000 players at the North American Modern GP in Kansas City. Both formats routinely fire their Daily Events on MTGO.

I am increasingly convinced that two formats aren’t competing, they are actually helping each other. They share many of the same staples. Legacy players have most of the cards they need to play Modern already, and Modern players can upgrade to a Legacy analogue of their Modern deck for about the price of a tier 1 Standard deck during most recent seasons. The formats are very different, but an enthusiast of one format can usually find a deck in the other that they will like to play.

If GP Richmond goes on to smash the attendance record, it is undoubtedly a good sign for the health of Modern. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad sign for Legacy.

3. Bant Stoneblade at SCG St. Louis

I was fortunate enough to have a Star City Legacy Open within an hour of my house a couple weeks back. I had done fairly well playing Zoo at those opens through the years, but all my recent enthusiasm has been centered around True-Name Nemesis, so I was eager to give it a spin in a paper tournament. We had almost four hundred players for a Legacy tournament, in the midwest United States of all places! Like I said, Legacy is staying strong.
Here’s the list I ran:

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I started off 2-0, before losing in Round 3 to eventual Top 8 player Andrew Ziggas. I dropped after 7 rounds at 4-3 to go home and watch The Walking Dead rather than try to eke out a $50 prize for another 2+ hours of play.

The deck played very strong against combo all day, especially post-board. I beat Sneak and Show, Ad Nauseum Tendrils, and OmniTell. I also picked up a win against BUG Delver. Where the deck had problems was against attrition decks. I lost twice to Shardless BUG and once to Jund. A single tournament is a small sample size to be sure, but the deck subjectively felt like a dog to those decks. I have a few ideas about improving those matchups, but it all basically comes down to a choice between A) increasing the threat density or B) fighting back with my own card advantage. My board plan against them had been to use the more resilient threats like Elspeth and Thrun, and while that worked to a point, I was too far behind to turn the tide. I should be boarding out the Force of Will for all those matchups and have a nice four-card package in the sideboard for them, and that’s something to work on going forward.

This list definitely needs one copy of Dryad Arbor. I had been contemplating a Natural Order sideboard plan up until the night before the tournament, but decided against it. Dryad Arbor should have made the cut anyhow, and the ability to fetch one up would have saved a better creature from dying to an opposing Liliana of the Veil more than once. I would probably shift to 4 Windswept Heath instead of the split with Flooded Strand I’m employing now, which also makes the basic Island worse.

Overall, I was happy with the deck’s performance and plan to continue working on it. But with Shardless BUG putting two players in the Top 8 of that event, I know I’ll need a better plan against that deck.

4. Impact of the Lion’s Eye Diamond Promo

The MOCS promo for this season is Lion’s Eye Diamond. This is probably the biggest event in MTGO finance since the Force of Will promo last January. LED is a key card for Legacy combo decks, and has been ludicrously expensive for ages. If you are playing Legacy online and don’t own LED, this is your time to make a move.

A promo for a card like LED, with serious supply and/or hoarding issues, creates an extremely volatile market. Prior to FoW’s promo release, the card’s price had danced around between 80 and 140 tix for a few years. The price dipped just below 80 on the eve of the promos. When the promos hit after the scheduled downtime, there was a scramble to set a new price. Players with promos tried to sell them for the full retail of a regular FoW, while opportunistic buyers tried to snatch copies for 20 or 30 tix. After about an hour, the price settled comfortably into the 50-60 range if you were dealing with humans rather than bots. It took several months, but FoW’s price fully recovered.

I would expect about the same from LED. LED is not in as many decks as FoW, but combo decks are popular on MTGO, and as a practical matter are pretty good for grinding out tickets. In fact, despite the perception of some writers that MTGO is a combo-heavy environment, LED’s price has likely been suppressing the level of combo below where it otherwise would be. A world where FoW is over twice as expensive as LED is going to be filled with people looking to freeroll quick wins with things like Goblin Charbelcher against helpless opponents.

So what should you do about this promo? If LED’s price tracks what we saw with FoW, here are the simple answers. If you need LEDs, the evening of the first day they’re released will be as good a time as any to pick them up. The copies awarded at the MOCS itself won’t add significantly to the number available, so there’s no use waiting. If you don’t need any LEDs but manage to earn one, sit on it. Within a year you’ll likely be able to sell it for much more than you could right away.

And if you’re still fighting the good fight with a non-blue fair deck, do yourself a favor and grab your set of Mindbreak Trap now. You’re gonna need ‘em.

You can find me on Twitter @cjwynes.

  1. regarding scion of oona:

    im really surprised to hear that nearly everybody played it.
    as far as i remember it from old extended, the card was never actually good in the deck and only played in the sideboard.

    so lets hope there is still lots of room for improvement for faeries. i think its one of the coolest decks in modern.

  2. When I looked back over the historical Faerie builds, use of Scion had waxed and waned through the years. But ultimately, the best Faerie pilots were advocating that you use Scion, by the end of its time in the 4-block extended format.

    I think there’s a psychological factor with Scion as well. This is hard to precisely explain, but I believe that the sort of player who is aspiring to be competitive has been trained to be dismissive of cards like Scion, because it looks or feels like a casual tribal card. That, in turn, makes people hesitant to endorse it, and feel as if they almost have to apologize for the card being in their lists. If you set a deck with Scions next to a Fae deck with fewer tribal synergies and more flexible removal or countermagic, the non-Scion deck would instinctually *look* more competitive if you had ZERO playtest or tournament data, because of our natural prejudices as competitive players.

    Scion does something fairly powerful in Fae, but I can see how you won’t always want what it does. I think there are times when it will be smart to play it, and times when it will be smart not to play it, and clearly the PT was a time not to play it.