Going Rogue at GP Bologna with Modern Jeskai Ascendancy, by Matt Gregory
Picture the scene: Just outside the cavernous hall hosting Grand Prix Bologna, three men, brand new teammates, are stood beneath the cloudy sky. One is tense, only two successful matches of Magic: The Gathering away from achieving a long-held dream. One is relaxed, laid-back, amused by his companions’ obvious stress. The third is puffing industriously at a cigarette with a haunted look in his eyes, muttering something about “99.2%” over and over and over…
Let’s rewind a little bit…
Last weekend was Grand Prix Bologna. It was the first major tournament being attended by a large portion of our new, as yet unnamed, team. Kayure has, in his excellent tournament report, already described how we came to work together, but this was the first time our work as a team had been put to the test. And I was the guy letting everybody down.
Not in terms of results, particularly. I made Day Two at, if not a canter, then at least a gentle trot. Sadly, Sunday was to be the day I got smacked repeatedly around the head by variance, with bad draw following perfect opposing topdeck in a repeating loop. In Standard, you can get away with some dodgy draws by leveraging play skill. In Modern, you don’t get the time to do that. That’s the nature of the game though, so I don’t have any cause for complaint. It’s Modern. Sometimes you just get Modern’ed.
I felt like I’d let my team down because I’d decided, for pig-headedly stubborn reasons I detailed in my last article, to go “lone wolf” and play a non-Eldrazi deck. All of my teammates were playing Blue-White Eldrazi. Given that Joao qualified for the Pro Tour with a 13-2 result and Kayure took down the whole thing, they made the correct decision, and I did not. No argument there at all.
But by going solo, I felt I’d failed to contribute properly to the testing process that had brought them to their winning list. It was my first tournament as part of a serious team, when I should have been focusing my efforts not just on my own result but on those I was working with. I’d been doing that in Standard, where we’ve been having plenty of success as a team with Rally, but not here. Happily, my sense of guilt is more than assuaged by the fact that they clearly did OK without my help this time around.
Here’s a promise to my team – as long as I’m working with them, that’s the last time I fail to put my fair share of the hard yards in on the deck. I almost feel bad about crowbarring my grinning mug into the celebratory team shot alongside Kayure.
That said, for the first few photos we took there was a certain much-beloved British-based judge who had even less to do with the deck than me capering around in the background, so at least there was somebody even less responsible for Joao and Kayure’s immense and richly deserved success in some of the pictures… In that (unnamed) judge’s defence, I should say that he was most of the way through an all-day shift and had drunk approximately thirty cans of Red Bull, so he earned his moment basking in Kay’s success in other ways.
I won’t go over my (flawed) logic for steering clear of Eldrazi again, but in the end I sleeved up an old friend of mine – Jeskai Ascendancy Combo. After, at first, enduring and enjoying mixed success with the deck after Joao and Eduardo Sajgalik introduced me to it at GP Copenhagen last year, I’d spent months working on the archetype and started achieving pretty stellar results in local tournaments. In the months leading up to the Splinter Twin ban, I’d worked out a list which, although slightly slower than our original version, was much less draw-dependent and better able to fight through disruption.
Here’s where I’d got to by January:
3 Stony Silence
3 Leyline of Sanctity
1 Jeskai Ascendancy
1 Wheel of Sun and Moon
1 Meddling Mage
1 Abrupt Decay
1 Scarscale Ritual
The deck still had its flaws, of course – it was still very easy to lose a game due to a single poorly sequenced turn, graveyard hate was still tricky to battle through, and when presented with Burn it still crumbled like a Hobnob under a ton of concrete. But I was winning at over 80% at a variety of tournaments and generally felt like I was playing the best deck in the room – even if nobody else ever believed me (yes, the deck looks like a total pile on paper, I know).
The Twin ban changed things, however. For starters, the metagame was always going to shift away from fairer, more controlling decks (which Ascendancy tended to prey on) and towards faster, less interactive decks which tend either to be coin flips (Affinity) or actively bad match-ups (Infect to a certain degree, Burn to about 200 degrees until charred black all over). That already put Ascendancy into an awkward position.
Then the Eldrazi happened, and happened hard. At first it looked like Ascendancy was dead in the water – I certainly didn’t fancy trying to fight through decks with four maindeck Chalice of the Void – but as the Eldrazi archetype evolved into the coloured (well, sort of) forms that dominated the Grand Prix weekend, it looked like Ascendancy might still have a chance.
First of all – the Eldrazi match-up. It’s pretty much bang-on fifty-fifty. Barring abnormally bad or good draws, you tend to lose every game where they resolve a Thought-Knot Seer and win the ones where they don’t. Fine, I could deal with fifty-fifty. Where I was optimistic though is in the decks people were working on to try and beat the Eldrazi. Abzan Company? Merfolk? Elves? Living End? These are all favourable match-ups!
There were some changes to make though. In this faster, less Lightning Bolt-heavy metagame, the Birds of Paradise needed to make a return. Being able to cast a Wished-for Jeskai Ascendancy on Turn 3 is crucial when the other guy probably has you dead next turn. There was also the thorny issue of a significant uptick in yard hate like Rest in Peace and Relic of Progenitus, so I moved away from the hyper-consistent Life from the Loam engine and towards a full set of Ideas Unbound. Here’s what I registered:
3 Stony Silence
3 Leyline of Sanctity
1 Jeskai Ascendancy
1 Wheel of Sun and Moon
1 Meddling Mage
1 Scarscale Ritual
Day 1 went more or less according to plan. I misfired into some excellent draws from Merfolk in Round 6 and, inevitably, ran into Burn (which hardly anybody was playing) in Round 8. My opponent won the roll, dropped Mountain into Monastery Swiftspear and I was tempted to sign the result slip 0-2 on the spot to save myself some grief. As it was, the match was over within six minutes including shuffling, sideboarding and pleasantries. I’ll say one good thing about Burn players – at least they put you out of your misery quickly.
Aside from that, it was essentially smooth sailing, including a couple of pleasantly perfect draws in Round 9. Turn 2 kill to round out the day? Don’t mind if I do, thank you, deck. Aside from the disappointing revelation that authentic Bolognese sauce, made and eaten in Bologna, tastes precisely the same as it does out of a jar back home, it was a fine day, and several of our team had made Sunday with exactly the same record.
That was the end of the good news for me, though. I started Day 2 with a tense match against Merfolk. I took a routine Game 1 and was on the receiving end of a lightning-fast beatdown kill Game 2. In Game 3 I spent several turns trying to bait out a problematic Spell Pierce. Finally, my opponent took the bait. I had only three cards left in hand, could I really combo off if I didn’t resolve a Serum Visions? Well, two of the cards were Ideas Unbound. I was going to get a look at eight fresh cards and from there cruise to victory. Right?
Of course not. One redundant Jeskai Ascendancy, a Noble Hierarch, two Fatestitchers and four lands. I had two mana available. I was in total shock as I laid my cards on the table. One hand was extended to shake my opponent’s – the other was clasped across my forehead.
I worked out the odds on my phone and I was 99.2% to hit at least one castable spell and continue going off. 99.2%… I might have mentioned my misfortune a few more times that day. Just once or twice, probably. It was important for my teammates to understand what went wrong from a purely analytical standpoint, you understand. No salt at all. None whatsoever. Not me…
And I certainly didn’t try to start #mattgregoryluck, not for a moment.
After that I enjoyed a swift win over Ad Nauseam before spending my next two matches entirely failing to draw Ascendancies or Wishes before dropping. I’d drawn like a dog all day, but that just happens sometimes, especially when you’re firing a glass cannon.
Of course, I could have gone with the more consistent approach of playing Life from the Loam, because the entirety of the graveyard hate I faced consisted of a solitary Scavenging Ooze, in the game where I won on turn two. All those Eldrazi decks with their Relics and Rest in Peaces? I faced them precisely zero times. See? #mattgregoryluck.
The curious thing is that, ultimately, I don’t regret my deck choice on a solely personal level. I faced mostly good match-ups and simply didn’t run well enough to take advantage. There were misplays, of course, but luckily only one of them cost me a game, and that not the match (I blanked on an Inkmoth Nexus on my opponent’s side of the board and subsequently Wished for an Ascendancy to go off the following turn – had I wished for Wear//Tear to take out Cranial Plating I would probably have won but instead left myself dead on board). Because I know that, I also don’t regret my performance, despite that one egregious misplay.
What I regret is that I chose to play what was, at best, the second best option available to me. I could have played the same deck as two of my friends who will now be battling it out on the Pro Tour in a month or so. Perhaps more importantly, I could have been working on that deck to help out my boys.
That’s the lesson I learned from this weekend – that whilst there are many good reasons not to play the best deck, or the deck your team wants to work on (familiarity with the archetype for instance), there is no reason not to help your teammates out to the best of your ability with whatever deck they want to play. It’s also simply not right to refuse to play a deck out of a sense of stubborn pride, as I did. It’s not that I don’t care at all about such things, but watching Kayure and Joao having the weekend of their lives reminded me of one thing above all – as lovely as the view from the moral high ground might be, I’d rather be standing with a trophy in my hand.
Congratulations Kay and Joao – you earned it, every bit of it.
Picture the scene: A pizzeria in central Bologna. Nine gamers are gathered round a table, eight of them draining three huge vessels of lager and one daintily sipping an orange soda. Everybody is laughing, enjoying their enormous meal, and congratulating one of their number on his success at the same time as they look forward to him footing the bill. Everyone is incredibly happy – happy with the success of their friend, happy with their food and their beer (or soda), happy with the camaraderie of the occasion. And, not least of all, happy that the bloke in the sweater has finally shut up about that 99.2% thing…
P.S. – If you’re not convinced by claims that I’m less lucky than the average human being, here’s a story you may enjoy. On Friday I was walking to the venue, with my brand new satchel slung over my shoulder. I hadn’t even got halfway to the venue when the strap snapped off. As I had no alternative bag with me I was forced to transform my leather satchel into a briefcase for the weekend. Needless to say, my friends were less than sympathetic and a certain, non-family friendly quote from The Inbetweeners may have been used a few times. Brand new satchel breaking the first time I wear it? That’s #mattgregoryluck.
Thanks for reading!