Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan: Report and Reflection

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Hello All!

Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan featured a two-set Draft format, and the first Modern constructed Pro Tour format in a couple years. I like Modern as a format, but mostly as a casual observer. I simply don’t have time to spend on the nearly endless possibilities it offers and prefer to do what a lot of pros do: concentrate on Standard and Booster Draft.

But, there I was in Spain, with my outstanding preparation team — Pantheon — which consisted of: Paul Rietzl, Gab Nassif, Corey Burkhart, Shahar Shenhar, Andrew Boswell, Reid Duke, Owen Turtenwald, William Jensen, Andrew Cuneo and Jon Finkel. We rented a very pleasant house on the ridge overlooking Bilbao, bought a lot of groceries, went through a respectable quantity of Nutella and played an obscene amount of Magic.

Ben Rubin playing for Team Face to Face Games at Pro Tour Ixalan.

One card I was keen to break in Modern is Hazoret, the Fervent. It’s great in Standard, should lend itself to the speed of Modern, and fits into two already good shells: Burn (or Zoo) and Lilliana of the Veil decks. Suffice it to say, that despite (or because of!) reaching for less popular cards like Molten Rain and Small Pox, I did not manage to break the ferocious red god. But I DID sink a lot of hours in the process.

Luckily, I’ve been down enough rabbit holes that I know that such brews often don’t make it from promising to Pro Tour-worthy. I thus had some practice logged with a few of our other front runners: Madcap Moon, Green Tron and Abzan featuring Dark Confidant. I felt that all three were totally decent, and certainly not broken. I was most attracted to Reid Duke’s Abzan deck, which you may know he top 8’d with (going 8-2-1 with it overall):

Ben Rubin- Abzan

Reid is known to like his games of Magic to be competitive and attrition-based. He’d prefer to trade resources, forgo any risky early attempt at a win and give himself a fighting chance in a game that tests both players’ skill and endurance. I don’t mind telling you that, in Magic in general and certainly with this deck, Reid has more skill and endurance than I do. I probably made an average of 1 significant mistake per match, and I believe this resulted in one less match win than Reid would’ve had. I went 5-5, but found most of my matches satisfying and all of my opponents professional and sporting. I beat Jeskai Flash, Abzan Company, Ironworks, Traverse Shadow, and G/B Midrange; and lost to Humans, Hollow One, Eldrazi Tron, Jeskai-Breach, and Ad Nauseum.

Looking over the decklist, you will first notice that it’s a bit old-fashioned. No Death’s Shadows or Traverse the Ulvenwalds, as is the rage for G/B decks these days. Instead the deck works hard to have just the right disruption to slow the opponent down and milk the very efficient  two-drops it has, while mercilessly bleeding the opponent with Liliana of the Veil. Where this style deck used to struggle with early removal, Fatal Push is a dream come true when compared to Path to Exile or Dismember. Removing red from the old base of Jund cards means the manabase is quite consistent, can afford several creature lands and has room for one of the most punishing sideboard cards in Modern: Stony Silence. Not to mention the trump card in any grindy match-up: Lingering Souls.

Nihil Spellbomb might look odd in the deck — and it is! The idea was to have another potent hate card that could be squeezed into the maindeck, while also providing another card type for Tarmogoyf. I am a fan of this logic, I think people are far too modest with their configurations and tend to play the best 35-40 spells they can find for their maindeck, and leave it to the sideboard to come up with back-breakers.

But, this often leaves matchups where strong maindeck cards are the only chaff available to replace when the sideboard weapons are ready for action. However, Liliana decks (and reactive decks in general, once you are in a format as diverse as Modern) often don’t have this problem. As Reid explained to me, it’s generally not about which 60 cards you want in your deck, but which 15 cards of your 75 you are most happy keeping on the bench! Meaning that you often end up with something dubious like a Fulminator Mage against Burn or Scavenging Ooze against Tron.

Compounding this peculiarity of the deck is the fact that two of the cards I often faced after sideboard, Rest in Peace and Leyline of Sanctity (White sure gets some sideboard filth in Modern, eh!?), make the Nihil Spellbomb either totally useless, or pretty unpleasant to activate. So, expanding the sideboard by putting a sideboard-ish card in the maindeck mostly meant that I still had this sideboardish card in my deck after sideboard (and not always because it was good!). Even worse because of how it interacted with my opponents’ sideboard plans against me.

Still, looking at Frank Karsten’s analysis of the Pro Tour Metagame, and seeing Reid do well, assure me that this brand of Abzan was a reasonable choice. Your best matchups are other midrange and control decks; as well as some of the combo decks like Storm and Ironworks; and the some of the aggressive decks like Burn and Affinity.

Were I to do it again, the Spellbombs would all be gone, the sideboard would include an Anti-Human card like Orzhov Pontiff, and the Graveyard hate would probably be less flexible and more ambitious like Leyline of the Void. This would leave some Collective Brutalities in the main and might mean no room for the Grim Flayer. Cards I’d be interested to play (depending on the metagame) are Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet and Angel of Sanctions.

Rubin at Pro Tour Ixalan.

I mentioned the Pro Tour has two formats, and although Booster Draft is a bit simpler to tackle for us than Modern, it was interesting in its own right. We found the format fairly sluggish, and even chose to draw first with some of our decks. We found tribal synergies to be very successful in the case of Merfolk and Red-Green Dinosaurs (but green quite poor otherwise); and found Red, then Black to be deepest and most successful colors.

Other teams seemed less interested in long-term cards like Recover, and seemed to play the format more like Triple-Ixalan than we did. Maybe they were right! We only managed (as far as I know) a 51% win-rate in Limited, where our team almost usually wins more than 60% with 40 card decks. I’ll be at Grand Prix Santiago next month where a more informed Limited-market will let me know whether we were right or wrong! Whether the format is all about two-drops, or whether (as we think), it’s more about Recovers and splashing bombs.

As for Modern, I’ll be at Grand Prix Toronto this weekend hoping to improve on my 5-5 performance, and bob-and-weave through an extremely diverse and frequently surprising Modern format.

Lastly, our weak limited performance was not enough to keep Reid and Jon Finkel from the top of the swiss standings. Meaning that Team Ultimate Guard is, for the moment at least, at the top of the Team Series standings. I’d also like to thank Face to Face games for sponsoring my own Team Series squad, who put in a very decent effort and climbed out of the cellar up to 14th overall.

Thanks for reading!

Ben Rubin

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