World Magic Cup Qualifier (WMCQ) Scotland – Modern Zoo Deck Tech and Winners Report by Grant Hislop
I went to Las Vegas last month. I had a lovely time. I gambled a lot, and drank a lot, and ate a lot of food that’s a lot bad for me. My personal highlight of the trip was realising just how hot it was, and realising that I’d need to buy a hat to keep the sun out of my eyes. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Las Vegas, but it’s next to impossible to find an article of clothing there that isn’t emblazoned with a casino logo, or generically ‘Las Vegas’ written on it. I was in what was essentially a newsagent, stocking up on water, and Bud Light, which is essentially water, but has a little bit of an alcohol content. I saw it. Its flames were calling to me. The neo-tribal spikes peeking out from behind the banners, which I choose to take as proclaiming the wearer ‘Big Slick’, not just the common name for the two badly embroidered playing cards also present, and implying proficiency at Texas Hold’em. The complete bloody absence of the words ‘Las Vegas’ on the exterior of the item. I fell in love. I bought the hat. It cost me $6.99, which is like £4 in real money. I wore it all holiday. My girlfriend hated it. I didn’t care. It’s the greatest bad hat in history. It doesn’t even matter that it’s incredibly uncomfortable to wear, it’s still the best. I knew I had to wear this hat to a Magic tournament. This is the story of how Big Slick wore a pretty sweet hat to a Magic tournament.
It’s been a long time since I’ve accomplished anything meaningful enough that I’d consider writing about it, so it makes a nice change to be back putting virtual pen to virtual paper. I’ll start off by apologising, as this article is likely to be even more masturbatory and self-congratulatory than my usual fare, if you can a) believe that and b) actually remember anything about my writing style. Seriously, it’s been ages…
Modern really isn’t my favourite format. Not by a long shot. I’m not a fan of what ‘they’ do with the ban list, and I find the deck choices pretty uninspiring. I wasn’t a fan of Bloodbraid Elf being culled for Deathrite Shaman‘s sins, and the presence of several of the cards on the ban-list is ridiculous to me. I think the format would benefit from being narrowed down quite a bit, instead of being this Legacy-lite type deal, where so many things are playable, and many people are just looking to play the combo deck that people’s hate isn’t geared up to beat.
Honestly, I’ve just come out of something of a Magical funk recently. I went through quite a lengthy period of not playing several PPTQs that were close to me, for no reason other than not really feeling like going. I skipped the first WMCQ of 2015 due to childcare issues, and not really feeling confident in any of the decks in Standard, nor my ability to pilot them to worry too much about trying to sort out my childcare. On the day, I remember feeling quite disappointed in myself, as I’d set a Magic Goal(tm) of qualifying for the WMC at the beginning of the year, and I’d denied myself 1/3 of the opportunities that I would have to fulfil that goal due to nothing more than apathy.
Clearly, this second chance wasn’t going to be a repeat of the first, and I resolved that I’d actually do some work for the second, even if playing the Modern format is only slightly more appealing than jamming matchsticks up my urethra, or some other equally degrading act of self-flagellation.
I was an early adopter of the Modern format, as in the early days; the Wild Wild West, if you will, but with less mechanical spiders, when the format was not only playable, but enjoyable. See, for me, the extensive ban list has led to the format being too open, as there isn’t a bullshit check, like exists in legacy in the form of Force of Will and Wasteland. Too many decks means that it’s impossible to have anywhere close to an adequately prepared sideboard, so you’re left scraping together cards that overlap with as many possible opponents as is reasonable, and some dedicated hate cards for the actual, real decks that one can expect to face.
Personally, I look at Modern as a format in which you can do pretty much anything, so long as it’s proactive, and powerful. It’s for this reason that I can’t stand the Grixis control decks, as any attempt I’ve made to play them have led to my answers lining up poorly with what the opponent is presenting. Grixis is just the latest in a long line of decks, such as the old Wafo-Tapa Jeskai decks that just rely too much on having not only a perfect metagame read, but the nous to act appropriately on that read. Realistically, I just don’t have the format familiarity any more, nor the interest in obtaining it to make decks like that a realistic option for me.
Jund and Junk are pretty much as controlling as I’m comfortable getting. When your control decks feature Dark Confidant, Tarmogoyf and creatures that start off as Grizzly Bears, you know the format is quite a strange one. There are a few combo decks that I’m happy playing, but it didn’t seem like the format would be particularly soft to them. One of my go-tos is Living End, and with it just coming off a World Championships in which it was the second most represented decks, not to mention an awful lot of splash damage from the Grishoalbrand decks, and Graveyard hate being one of the principal ways to fight Grixis, it seemed like Living End wouldn’t be a particularly wise choice for the weekend.
What this meant was that I had to decide whether I was just going to default to playing Jund, as I frequently have in the past, or try and make something else work.
What the above is meant to illustrate is that I didn’t just fall onto Zoo. I wanted a deck that was good against Twin and Control decks, which I expected a lot of. I also wanted a deck that could reliably race the combo decks. Ideally, I didn’t want to just lose to Affinity in game one, but so long as I could significantly improve post board, I was prepared to be a dog in game one. I wanted a way to fight through the expected glut of Jund and Junk decks, ideally using a single card that could at least restore parity after a flurry of discard spells, that could deal with Dark Confidant, and wouldn’t just get brick walled by Tarmogoyf.
You might think that all of this is just after the fact justification, and to an extent, you’re right, but for my money, Zoo accomplishes all of those things.
2 Blood Moon
1 Domri Rade
1 Dromoka’s Command
1 Grim Lavamancer
1 Kataki, War’s Wage
2 Kor Firewalker
2 Rest in Peace
2 Stony Silence
2 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
You’ll notice that this deck is very close to what I’d consider ‘stock’ versions of Collected Zoo. Really, the only cards that are somewhat out of the ordinary would be the Voice of Resurgence and Domri Rade. I wanted Voice of Resurgence as I expected a disproportionate amount of Jund(k) and Control decks, where Voice shines (assuming you can remember your triggers). Domri is for similar reasons, being great as a way to draw a card round about half the time, and act as a removal spell against many creature decks, and often either a fog, or a later way to draw cards. He gains massive plus points for being single-handedly the best card to resolve against Grixis, or really any deck that’s trying to keep the board fairly clear, but only using one for one spells to do it.
Scavenging Oozes are just a versatile two drop which happens to be incredibly useful, and very well positioned currently. It’s really nice to have these cards that are just good, but become exceptional against one of the decks you expect to face the most.
Qasali Pridemage is similar, but useful against a different set of decks. There are several combo decks that rely on Artifacts and Enchantments to win, and it’s nice as a piece of maindeck affinity hate, even if it is very slow. Not to mention that Exalted continues to be the most efficient way to win Goyf wars. It’s obiviously a card that gets sideboarded out quite a lot, but I wouldn’t leave home with less than two. The third Pridemage got the nod ahead of the fourth Tarmogoyf because in a great many cases, just being big isn’t good enough in this format, even if it is a two mana 8/9 on occasion.
Loxodon Smiter gets the full playset treatment as it’s wonderful to have a counter-proof threat that occasionally you’ll get to put into play for free. As a slight tip, if an opponent with access to countermagic happens to tap out, I like to resolve any other threat in my hand, with Smiter as a last resort, as it’s just so backbreaking for an aggressive deck like this to get to Time Walk an opponent. This deck is all about the early turns. Putting as much into play as fast as possible, so any chance you can get to make your opponent stumble represents a significant amount of damage.
Wild Nacatl and Noble Hierarch are our one-drops of choice. I originally had a single Birds of Paradise as well, but that was cut after I’d top-decked it a bit often. I was prepared to sacrifice a bit of explosivity for mid to late game consistency, and when I decided I wanted Voice of Resurgence maindeck, the mana bird was the card I was least impressed with, and got the cut. As an aside on ordering, if I have both Nacatl and Hierarch in hand, I’ll lead on Hierarch, unless I’ve got a second Nacatl, and can play the second Nacatl and the Hierarch the following turn. In the instance that I’ve sucessfully untapped with Hierarch, I prefer to play a second one drop and a two drop over a single three cost spell. Again, the aim of the deck is to get as much onto the table as quickly as possible, and hope that your one and two cost threats will line up well against the opponent’s two and three cost answers and threats that improve as the game goes long.
The deck is, I would argue, the most mana efficient deck in the format, so making sure that you use all your mana every turn becomes even more important than usual. Just play aggressively into removal spells, and force them to have every kill spell or counter that they’ll need. So many modern decks win because of ‘the fear’, and we can’t really afford to buy into that, as we’re not especially interactive.
Collected Company is our trump card, and the one that makes opponents terrified to tap out, which often gets us extra damage through. I’m a big fan of this card, and the deck is constructed to maximise the card, with nearly half the deck being ‘hits’. This is the card that lets you get back in the game against Jund after they’ve spent the early turns ripping your hand apart. I’m a big fan of playing Shocklands untapped if it’ll give me access to four untapped mana pre-combat, as a way to discourage removal spells. Obviously the better your opponents are, the less this will work, but I definitely racked up quite an alarming amount of ostensibly free damage with this bluff, and with an aggressive deck, you’ve got to eke out every possible point of damage that you can get, whether you deserve it or not.
The removal suite is fairly standard. Sometimes, instead of killing our creatures, opponents will elect to attempt to trade with them by blocking. We need removal spells to punish them for that. Dromoka’s Command is the newest addition to the deck, and it’s a removal spell that doubles as Splinter Twin hate, and a rare maindeck anti-burn card. It’s decent, but you’re definitely paying the premium for your options.
Lightning Bolt clears out most of the early game cards while going to the face in the later turns, and Path to Exile is necessary over Lightning Helix because some people are villains and play cards like Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Gurmag Angler early on, and we can’t afford to get road-blocked here. Ramping our opponent a land is a significant disadvantage in this deck, as we’re trying to execute our game plan before our opponent has a window to stabilise, and giving them an extra mana often resets any advantage we may have gotten in the early turns. Quite often I’ve found it preferable to trade a creature for a creature with a Path to Exile in hand for this reason, as my board was strong enough to withstand the loss of a creature, while allowing them to untap four lands and play a fifth would be potentially devastating.
The sideboard is a blend of hate cards and things that might make matchups slightly better. The deck attempts to deal with many opponents purely through racing them, or going under what they’re doing, so the risk of overboarding is very real. Ideally, in most post-board games, all I want to see is a reasonably aggressive start, and then one hate card. The way I look at it, each hate card represents about a turn, and we’re a turn four aggro deck in a world of decks that need to use all their mana in the first couple of turns to find their combos, and don’t have all that much room to fight through an aggressive clock AND hate cards.
Thalia is the perfect example of this, being as close to a pure Time Walk as you’re likely to get against a lot of decks. Just adding a single mana to the cost of a spell frequently represents an entire turn against some people, as they’re likely to be tapping out in the early turns in an attempt to stem the bleeding on the early Nacatls and Tarmogoyfs that would be killing them if left unchecked.
Kataki and Stony Silence are our usual anti-affinity cards, both of which are back-breaking for them to play against. I find Kataki is best to wait until the Affinity opponent is tapped out with a board presence, and it’s seldom worth it to run it into a Galvanic Blast or other foolishness on turn two, but Stony Silence is pretty much the best play against them that there is. It also pulls double duty, being necessary against Tron, which I’ve found to be a good matchup, short of their Ugin. The only way you’re ever beating Ugin is if you’ve got them on a very low life total, and have a Collected Company in hand. Everything else is very manageable.
Blood Moon is a stupid Magic card, and the deck is very well suited to present a clock, then a Blood Moon, which a great many decks just can’t beat. I won quite a few games by curving Nacatl into Tarmogoyf into Blood Moon, and then you’re often able to just mop up whatever board presence the opponent has managed to present, and the early turns against control decks are often a case of them answering my spells at sorcery speed, especially if I’ve been lucky enough to draw Voice of Resurgence.
The rest should be fairly self-explanatory. In terms of what to sideboard out, the non-essential main deck cards are Qasali Pridemage, Knight of the Reliquary, Tarmogoyf and the removal spells. Collected Company comes out against decks that are faster than me, like Burn and Bogles. The rest of the deck is pretty clutch. As I mentioned above, overboarding is very possible with this deck, so I’d be very wary about changing more than five cards, unless I’m looking to make a pretty radical adjustment to my curve. You’ve got to maintain a high creature count if you’re running Domri and Collected Company, but I’d cut Company ahead of Knight of the Reliquary if I were interested in lowering my curve, as Knight is at least a speedbump on turn three, where Company isn’t.
I was asked about the split between Knight and Smiter at the WMCQ, and I explained it as follows:- Loxodon Smiter is always a 7/10 card. It’s never going to be awful, and it’s almost never going to cost less than two mana to deal with. Knight can be a 9/10 card, but it can also be a 2/10, on draws where you’ve not go many fetchlands, it can get Lightning Bolted to death. Trading three mana, a card, and usually an entire turn for their single mana and a card is completely unacceptable in this deck, so Smiter gets the slightly unexcited nod ahead of the higher ceiling’d Knight of the Reliquary.
The WMCQ itself was one of the simpler tournaments I’ve ever played. My results were as follows:-
Round 1 – 4 Colour Gifts – 2-0
Round 2 – Phyrexian Zoo – 2-1
Round 3 – Jund – 2-0
Round 4 – Grixis with Geist of Saint Traft – 2-0
Round 5 – Affinity – 2-1
Round 6 – Dredgevine – ID
Round 7 – Splinter Twin – ID
Quarters – Affinity – 2-1
Semis – Dredgevine – 2-0
Finals – Grixis – 2-0
I got lucky when I needed to get lucky, and my oppoenent stumbled when I needed them to stumble. I won a couple of mulligans to five, though I have found myself mulliganning a lot with this deck. I mulligan any hand that can’t produce a creature before turn three, and any single threat double removal spell hands are not worth keeping. For example, against Affinity in the quarters, I mulliganned Nacatl Bolt Bolt and four lands because I was on the play, and there’s just too much that can go wrong there.
The early rounds were fairly straightforward. I put down a clock, and cleared the way. I frustrated myself in round four, against Grixis with White. We were late in the game, I had a Domri about to ultimate, a board presence, and enough creatures to kill him unless he had Damnation plus Terminate in hand. I draw a Blood Moon for the turn, and have six mana, with several red. I don’t really think, then tap all my red sources for it, leaving my basics untapped, and it’s Remanded. If I’d taken another couple of seconds to think it through, I would’ve considered Remand, and been able to shut the door completely, rather than giving him access to two draws to find the two cards that would mean that I didn’t win the following turn for certain. Making mistakes like that on what is, ostensibly, the last turn of the game is unforgivable, and I’ll be looking to tighten up in the future. I was lucky enough that my opponent didn’t have the two spells necessary to stop me killing him, and I won anyway, but that’s not the point. I apologised afterwards, and assured my opponent that all my frustration was purely at myself.
I drew rounds six and seven, but I’d rather have just drawn round six, and played for position in seven. I attempted to do this, as I was playing against Splinter Twin, which is a good matchup for me, and a win would guarantee me top of the Swiss standings, meaning I’d be on the play for the entirety of the Top 8, which is huge when your dream start involves playing three threats on the first two turns of the game, and everyone is running two mana removal spells. I started to play, but I made a pretty huge blunder in the first game, forgetting TWO separate Voice of Resurgence triggers, which is embarrassing, and really just bush-league stuff. I lost the game as a direct consequence of my incompetence, and, confidence shaken, I offered the draw, which my opponent accepted, as he wasn’t locked for Top 8 himself. I’ve no idea whether he realised it was a bad matchup for him, but realistically, when your confidence takes a pounding, and the matchup isn’t one that you’re particularly sad about facing in the elimination rounds anyway, I think offering the draw here is ‘correct’.
In the quarters, I was lucky enough that my opponent cut me to an early Kataki in both sideboarded games, and I even got to follow up with Stony Silence in game three, for the full non-game experience.
Semi finals was my first experience playing against Dredgevine. I have Scavenging Ooze maindeck, my Knight of the Reliquary is often bigger than their payoff cards, and I have Rest in Peace and Blood Moon in my sideboard. Game one was a grind, but in game two, I cut him entirely off green mana, and he was operating on a single swamp. It wasn’t a particularly interactive affair. Blood Moon is a stupid card.
Finals were against perennial bridesmaid, and one of my favourite Magic players; Duncan Tang on Grixis. This matchup is the one I most wanted to see, and our game one draws lined up very well for me, as he drew a lot of Lightning Bolts, and I drew a lot of four power creatures. Game two, he kept a single land + cantrip hand, after we’d both gone to six. He cantripped turn one, and passed without a land drop on two into my land + Noble Hierarch, commenting that the best he could hope for was another two Hierarchs and an attack for three. I channelled my best Wade Barrett impression, and informed him that ‘I was afraid I had some bad news’, and dropped a Loxodon Smiter. He misses a land drop again, and I draw Thalia. I drop him to fifteen, and play it. He finds a land, Lightning Bolts the Thalia, and it’s back to me. My draw for the turn is a second Loxodon Smiter. I put him to ten, and pass with eight power on the board, a Lightning Bolt in hand, and him with two lands. Duncan untaps, draws and dejectedly offers the handshake.
And that’s it! I’m going to Barcelona to represent my country in what looks like one of the most fun events on the Magic calendar. I’m obviously pretty delighted to be doing this, as it’s been one of my goals since its inception. I’ve seen a bunch of Americans grumping on twitter about how much better Nationals are than WMCQ’s, and honestly, I’m inclined to agree. However, I think that the World Magic Cup is significantly better than the old World Championships, and I think it’s better by more than Nationals were better than WMCQ’s. I also think it’s a delight that there’s an aspect of Organised Play that doesn’t inherently favour North Americans, and really, that’s what’s most important here. We Europeans, especially those on an Island like us Brits just have so much less access to Grand Prix than our cousins across the pond, so if the new WMC works out slightly better for countries with smaller land mass, then I’m in favour.
Massive thanks to Paul McLachlan, whos shop Spellbound Games always runs a tight tournament, even with raging nerd flu. Also to Head Judge Snap, who has excellent taste in wrestling themed tokens, and allowed and encouraged me to use Bret Hitman Hart and Ravishing Rick Rude tokens to represent my elementals, on the few occasions when I did remember my triggers.
I’m really going to work at this, as there are hundreds of people who’d love to be in my shoes, and representing ones country is a big deal. I’m of the opinion that the World Magic Cup is as much for the people watching as the players themselves, and there are certain standards that should be met. There’s literally 0% chance I’ll be attending not wearing a kilt, and will do my best to ensure the rest of the team does as well.
It’d be easy to point to the preparation I did, and the perfect deck for the run of matches I had, coupled with some good, old-fashioned luck, but realistically, I think we need to give all the credit for my win here to my flame covered ‘Big Slick’ hat that I wore to the tournament. Thanks Big Slick, you’re the best.
Stay classy, mtgUK