How to Win a MODO PTQ

My last article detailed how I recently won a MODO PTQ by developing Eternal Command for Modern, and can be found here. About a year ago, I won a Standard Constructed MODO PTQ. In this event, I played Green-Red Aggro. My processes for winning the two PTQs were similar. The method of this article is to examine how I won the Standard PTQ, then to compare the process to my Modern PTQ win in order to derive the particular things that made for my success.

In case you weren’t playing Standard at that time, or just don’t remember the metagame, this was shortly before M13 was released. Thus, Standard did not have Sphinx’s Revelation, Thragtusk, or Thundermaw Hellkite. Standard was quite healthy at the time, with a variety of playable decks: Black-Blue Zombies, Black-Red Zombies, Black-White Sorin Control, Blue-White Delver, Green-Red Aggro, Naya Pod, Solar Flare, and Wolf Run Ramp.

I began by copying a list that was doing well and looked solid:

The idea behind this deck is straightforward. Accelerate into threats, then smash hard with swords and Wolf Runs. The deck’s best opening is Turn 1 Bird of Paradise or Llanowar Elf, Turn 2 Sword, Turn 3 Strangleroot Geist, equip Sword, attack. The trample from Wolf Run made swords connect, and amplified the humongous size of Wolfir Silverheart. Moreover, thanks to the Swords and Wolf Run, every creature in the deck was useful throughout the course of the game. The deck beat hard and fast, and kept beating until the game was over. One reason I chose this deck is that it had a good matchup against Delver, which was generally considered to be the “best deck.”

As I played the deck in Daily Events and MODO PTQs, however, it became clear that some of the card choices were just wrong. Specifically, I disliked Borderland Ranger, Wolfir Silverheart, the 2/2 Sword split (to be fair, many lists were running 4x Sword of War and Peace, with 2x Sword of Feast and Famine in the sideboard), and Green Sun’s Zenith. Here are the changes I made, and the reasons why I made those changes.

Borderland Ranger was in the deck as another creature that helped with mana fixing and development. If you had a green-heavy draw, you could use Green Sun’s Zenith to fetch Ranger, which meant that you had an additional 4 red sources in the deck. This meant that you could play more green, which the deck needed for its mana dorks. Also, because of Wolf Run, you theoretically could not have too much land. I found in testing, however, that you could have too much land in hand. The deck wanted mana, but it really needed mana in play. Too often, the game would be over before I had a chance to play the Ranger-fetched lands, which meant that Ranger wasn’t much better than Gray Ogre.

I looked through the list of cards legal in Standard for a suitable replacement and found… Viridian Emissary! This card solved the problem nicely. On the surface, these two cards look similar. Both are small green creatures that fetch a basic land. Emissary has the benefits of costing 1 mana less and putting the land directly into play, while Ranger has the benefits of 1 additional toughness and fetching the land when Ranger enters the battlefield, not when it dies. On the whole, costing 1 mana less and putting the fetched land directly into play were more important than 1 extra toughness and fetching the land when the creature comes into play. The net effect of playing Emissary over Ranger was that it sped up the deck. With lands coming into play rather than waiting for their turn to be played from hand, I was able to make stronger plays faster (including Turn 3 Huntmaster or Thrun). Also, Wolf Run became superb. Replacing Ranger with Emissary was the most important change I made to the deck.

In my last article I discussed how Serum Visions was so important to the synergy of Eternal Command. Viridian Emissary played that role for Green-Red Aggro. Both cards synergize with the deck and help develop advantage in the early turns. To use my favorite Magic analogy, Viridian Emissary and Serum Visions are both examples of deck lubrication.

Wolfir Silverheart was an immediate disappointment. Too many decks were playing cheap removal like Go for the Throat, which set up disadvantageous combats. Moreover, Silverheart was terrible against Delver, which ran Vapor Snag and just happened to be the most popular deck. I realized that Silverheart was really just a sideboard card against Green and Red decks such as the mirror or Wolf Run Ramp.

I replaced Silverheart with Zealous Conscripts. Conscripts was already in the sideboard against Black-Red Zombies (Falkenrath Aristocrat) and ramp (Titans), and those decks were becoming more popular (in fact, I lost to Black-Red zombies in the semis of a MODO PTQ that season). Conscripts seemed better against the field, and it did not disappoint.

The 2/2 Sword split seemed reasonable in Game 1 because you do not know what your matchup is until you are playing, and flexibility is worth something. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that Sword of Feast and Famine was better against the field. It was better against Zombies, Ramp, and the mirror. Theoretically, Sword of War and Peace was better against Delver, but Swords weren’t good in that matchup anyway (because of Vapor Snag) so it didn’t matter. Thus, I maindecked 4 Sword of Feast and Famine, and put 2 Sword of War and Pace in the sideboard. This led to many free wins, including a semifinals mirror where my opponent had the wrong sword in Game 1, and only 2 copies of the right sword post-board.

The final card that I removed was Green Sun’s Zenith. I am not quite sure why it was in the deck, but it was in pretty much every Green-Red Aggro list I saw, including 2 that had recently won MODO PTQs. I suppose the idea was that Zenith is good all throughout the game: it could fetch early accelerants, late-game Silverhearts, or the singleton Thrun (which was good against Delver). Moreover, Zenith is good enough to be banned in Modern, so it had to be good enough for Standard, right?

WRONG! Zenith is great in Modern because of Dryad Arbor. In Standard, it was just an overcosted tutor. While flexible, it was basically just the worst creature (for its mana cost) in your deck. Would you play a 2-mana Llanowar Elves? How about a 3-mana Strangleroot Geist? Or a 6-mana Wolfir Silverheart? While Thrun was admittedly a good tutor target against Delver, a hexproof, regenerating, counterable Durkwood Boar just wasn’t very good against a deck with Mana Leak. I didn’t want to replace Zenith with any other tutor, so I used those slots to fill in some of the cards the deck already played: I added a 2nd Thrun, a 3rd Magma Spray, a 4th Bonfire of the Damned, and a 4th Zealous Conscripts. My final list looked like this:

This deck worked beautifully. It beat faster and harder than before, and was better-positioned against the metagame. One other change worth noting is that I cut the Stingerfling Spiders from the sideboard and instead added 3x Manabarbs. Stingerfling was in the board against Delver (which also played Restoration Angel). It was originally intended to be a Zenith target but was only sub-par. Combust and Crushing vines were better in that matchup. Moreover, although Delver was the most popular deck, Green-Red Aggro was already favored against Delver, and thus did not need more sideboard cards for that matchup. The problem decks for Green-Red Aggro were Wolf Run Ramp and control decks such as Solar Flare or Sorin Control. “Those matchups needed more sideboard cards, and Manabarbs was the best card against each of these decks.” It is also worth noting that Manabarbs synergizes with manadorks.

At this point, I have laid out my process for winning both MODO PTQs. Now I will attempt to figure out what these wins have in common. What is true of both cases?

1) I began with a known list that had already proven it could compete. I did not attempt to reinvent the wheel, start from scratch, or homebrew. The Green-Red Aggro list, or something very much like it, had recently won two MODO PTQs. That told me the deck was competitive. Similarly, Yasooka piloted the Eternal Command deck to the finals of the 2012 Player’s Championship. That told me the deck was competitive.

2) I did not play the “best deck.” In Standard, the “best deck” at the time was Blue-White Delver. It had won many PTQs and was well-established. In Modern, the “best deck” at the time was Jund. It had won the Player’s Championship. Jund also made the finals of Pro Tour Return to Ravnica and did very well on the GP circuit. Eventually, Wizards decided that Jund was too dominant and therefore banned Bloodbraid Elf.

3) I played a deck that beat the “best deck.” Green-Red Aggro was known to have a good matchup against Delver, particularly post-board. I regularly smashed Delver decks, and even beat Delver in the finals of the PTQ I won. Perhaps not surprisingly, that Delver player won a MODO PTQ later that same season. Similarly, Eternal Command had a good matchup against pre-ban Jund. The battle against pre-ban Jund was essentially an attrition war. You kill their stuff, they kill your stuff, and whoever has stuff at the end wins. EC wins the long game, though, because it has more card advantage. Also, Cryptic Command can take over and create alpha strikes if a board stall develops. It’s worth noting that BBE was NOT a problem for this deck. EC basically put a whole lot of 2/1s and Tarmogoyfs on the board, both of which are great at stopping BBE. BBE into Dark Confidant, you say? Okay, Snapcaster Mage into Lightning Bolt, we’re even. Or Snapcaster into Electrolyze, +1 card and 1 damage. In the PTQ I won, I played against 3x Jund in the Top 8, going 6-1 in games. This is because, in a battle between mid-rangy decks, the one with more card advantage and a better trump card tends to win.

4) In playtesting, I watched for cards that did not seem to do much. I changed 13 cards in the Green-Red Aggro maindeck from the original version. I also changed 11 cards in the Eternal Command maindeck

5) In playing, I watched for cards that were beating me. This included decks as well as individual cards. Green-Red Aggro had trouble with control decks, spot removal, and Falkenrath Aristocrat. Eternal Command had trouble with aggressive decks, Lingering Souls, and Deathrite Shaman.

6) I replaced the cards that did not seem to do much with cards that were better against the cards that were beating me. This is a version of the minimax principle from economics, which can be interpreted as an imperative to shore up weaknesses. The idea in both cases was to preserve the decks’ good matchups while improving the weak matchups. Winning Game 1 is especially important against bad matchups.

7) I became familiar with the metagame and developed detailed, tested sideboard plans. This took time. While I only spent about a month on the Green-Red Aggro deck, I spent nearly 6 months tuning Eternal Command. Adding Manabarbs to the sideboard of Green-Red Aggro was crucial. Similarly, 4x Threads of Disloyalty and 4x Spellskite worked wonders in the sideboard of Eternal Command, at least in a Jund-heavy meta.

In sum, I won each of these PTQs by picking a deck that did not have a target on its back but could beat the deck that did. I practiced with the deck and figured out ways of fine-tuning it. Changing a decent amount of cards in a deck, rather than playing a stock list, has the advantage of making it more difficult for your opponent to predict your plays. Perhaps most importantly, I learned the metagame. This allowed me to minimize maindeck weaknesses and to develop effective sideboard plans. I am satisfied with this method and will use it again.

  1. I love your articles. Very detailed, very insightful.

    I also loved RG with 4 bonfire and 4 Swords maindeck, this was the last deck i really really enjoyed in t2. Very powerful, and yet very fun.

  2. I know this isn’t too relevant to the actual article, but I actually played Delver and found Gr aggro to be an extremely easy matchup.