There were a lot of questions coming into this weekend. With Modern mixed up thanks to the banning of a certain Shaman and the return of one nasty Nacatl and the most bitter of blossoms, no one was quite sure what the weekend would bring.
Modern, once thought stagnant, was suddenly and irrevocably, incredibly intriguing.
Now, with the tournament in our rear-view mirror and a champion crowned, we're actually able to answer those questions and reflect on the lessons we've learned about Modern, about Magic, and about making an old format new again.
The More Things Change
Well, somewhat new.
As it turned out, many of the decks that have defined Modern for a long time were still quite viable, albeit with some adjustment. Melira-Pod, Splinter Twin, Affinity, Scapeshift, W/U/R variants, and Storm all put up solid showings that let everyone know they weren't going anywhere.
"There were no real surprises," Hall of Famer William Jensen said. "The format didn't change much. There's less Jund, I suppose."
The near absence of Jund is likely the second biggest change. Without Deathrite Shaman, Liliana of the Veil came down much later and Jund was weakened significantly. Team Elaborate Ruse was able to have some success with it, but it certainly wasn't the omnipresent force it once was two bannings ago.
The biggest change, however, was the reappearance of Zoo, brought on by Wild Nacatl being released into the, um, wild.
In fact, the level of Zoo's presence was one of the big questions coming into the weekend for a lot of pros.
"The format looked like what I thought it would, though I didn't think Zoo would be as popular as it was," said No. 22 Ranked Player Brian Kibler.
Zoo, as it turned out, was the most popular deck over the course of the weekend, a fact Kibler attributed to the general failure of people to pick up on Anger of the Gods, one of the few cards that really did change the way people approached the format. It's also, moving forward, likely to be a new staple and a constant pressure on creatures with three or fewer toughness.
If it Ain't Broke...
"No one could really break it," said No. 15 Ranked Player Martin Juza.
Questions about before the weekend started as to whether the format could be broken now that Jund and the ever present Thoughtseize, Dark Confidant, Liliana of the Veil combo, not to mention the ready-made graveyard hate of Deathrite Shaman, was diminished. Could someone break Goryo's Vengeance? Could Faeries rise again to menace yet another format? Could anyone create a deck that had game against the wide-open Modern metagame?
It turned out the answer to all of those was pretty much "No."
Though Twin variants had a good showing, none of the Pros we spoke with were surprised. Nor did they think it was unbeatable. It would simply become the target for hate the next time around, of which plenty existed.
And the two previously banned cards also managed to enter the format without causing too much consternation. Their removal from the ban list, as it turns out, didn't break anything.
"Nacatl is still good, Bitterblossom is still good," said Matej Zatlkaj, who finished 10th this weekend. "But the format's still wide open."
Speaking of which...
Everything is Permitted, Nothing is True
"You can play anything and you can win, or you can lose with anything," Juza said.
That seemed to be the consensus among just about everyone in the tournament.
Look at Zatlkaj. Playing the same Jund deck as his teammates, he ended with a wildly different result. As most of his team crashed and burned, Zatlkaj kept winning and kept winning until he ended up in 10th.
"The format is volatile. You could get good match-ups and go 10-0, or you could get bad match-ups and go 0-10," said Zatlkaj. "If you guess the metagame right, you could be rewarded, but if you get paired against three random decks to start a GP, you could easily go 0-3."
By the same token, there seems to be room for creativity. Dickmann changed up Twin to include Tarmogoyf and earned his first Pro Tour Top 8. Team MTG Mint foisted Blue Moon on the metagame and helped secure Lee Shi Tian's second. Neither deck was on anyone's radar before this weekend, and either one could rise or fall in the coming weeks.
So if Modern is the Wild West where anything is possible, how in the world did people win?
By knowing their decks inside and out.
Familiarity Breeds Contenders
"You see players who are really familiar with decks doing well, like Patrick Dickmann with Twin and Sam Pardee with Pod," Juza said.
Indeed, up and down the standings, the players who did best tended to be those who had played the same deck or strategy for a very long time. Players who were familiar with Birthing Pod chains and when it was right to try for the Splinter Twin combo or when you could safely expound your resources for a Grapeshot kill, or what to counter and when.
Sam Pardee, as Juza pointed out, has been playing Birthing Pod basically forever, and finished 23rd, one win out of the Top 8. Likewise, Josh McClain, best known for winning a Grand Prix with Melira Pod last year, finished in 11th place with the deck. Michael Hetrick fell off in Day Two, but his Day Ine undefeated run was due, in large part, to his familiarity with the Living End archetype.
In fact, the Top 8 is strewn with people who simply knew their decks inside and out. Dickmann has been playing Twin variants for the entire existence of Modern, and has been kicking around the idea of Tarmo-Twin for a year. Jacob Wilson worked closely with Pardee and has played Melira-Pod extensively himself. Tim Rivera explicitly stopped playing Pod to play a deck he felt more familiar with. Lee Shi Tian might have been playing a new deck, but he's also got one other Pro Tour Top 8: in Modern.
And on and on down the list. Familiarity, more than anything else, seemed to drive success at this Pro Tour. Those who had it, thrived in Constructed. Those who didn't, fell back to the pack. The decision trees in some decks are so complicated that a week of practice can't possibly compete with a year's worth of dedication to a deck.