Modern. What do you do with this behemoth? Two or three years ago, it was easy to believe this format didn't have legs—there were decks that could Blazing Shoal you out if you were silly enough to play a first-turn tap land. But looking out into the sea of people here at the largest Constructed Grand Prix in Magic history, it's safe to say that Modern not only has legs, but extremely long, spindly ones. The format is vibrant, interactive, and open. But it's one thing to have interest in the format and play it at your local game store. It's something else to attend a 4,300-player tournament and succeed. So what should you do to make that transition? I talked to former Player of the Year Brad Nelson, a recent Modern convert, to find out how he prepared to face down a tournament the size of Stowe, Vermont.
Nelson is a self-admitted Standard specialist. Though he doesn't attend Grand Prix events with the same regularity he has in the past, he has finished in the Top 8 four out of five Standards he's attended, and the fifth time saw him lose two back-to-back win-and-ins to finish just out of the running. But this man has came to play Modern today; and he's knows his stuff. "This is the first time my opinion on Modern is actually relevant," he joked. The man has spent the better part of two weeks grinding out matches online, the place that got him his original breakout performances, and has a solid game plan. So what did he do and how should you do it too?
Well, firstly, he "stopped being cute." Sure, he piloted the Niv Magus deck that could win in the first two turns, but it could also mulligan itself into oblivion or get blown out by a single Path to Exile. After recognizing the "danger of cool things," Nelson's advice can be condensed into two solid points: 1) Know your strengths and pick a deck that plays to them, and 2) Play the crap out of that deck.
Knowing your strengths may seem like an easy thing to do, but it requires a lot of self-reflection, and often, an impartial third party. "Jacob Van Lunen had to tell me what kind of decks I like to play," Nelson said, which sounded ridiculous coming from a former Player of the Year. But it's true. "He figured out that I like to play highly interactive decks that have explosive finishes." This Standard connoisseur plays cards like Craterhoof Behemoth, Blasphemous Act, and Flesh & Blood (and winning a recent StarCityGames Invitational Qualifier with Boros Charm and Ghor-Clan Rampager)—cards that allowed for interaction in the early turns, but aimed for a giant combo finish. When Brad realized this, it pointed to an easy choice: Tarmo-Twin. And when Van Lunen heard that the decision, the Jersey native said, "All I could think was, 'that's so Brad.'"
Although there's an argument for Melira Pod as well, Nelson said he liked Twin because all the cards are powerful on their own. "In Pod, you play a lot of one-ofs that aren't that good on their own. If you don't have Chord of Calling or Birthing Pod, you're basically playing a Gavony Township deck." Nelson also admitted that playing Pod would make it hard to accomplish his second step of knowing the deck inside and out. "I didn't play Pod in Standard, and I haven't played it yet in Modern. It's a hard deck."
This sentiment was echoed by some of the Canadian players that I talked to. Though Pascal Maynard, Kevin Antcil, and Philipp Gareau all but admitted that Pod is probably the best deck, Maynard said, "I can't play it perfectly, so I'm not playing it at all." This was probably a good decision for the crew. They drove all the way from Canada (18 hours with pitstops), and perhaps a deck that requires such ridiculous lines of play every turn might not be the best choice. This segues into the second piece of advice Nelson extolled: Play the deck into the ground.
Pascal Maynard, Kevin Antcil, and Philipp Gareau
Nelson said he's played well into triple-digit games with the deck over the last week or so, and he said he's finally gotten a hang of it. In the process it's revealed one of the things he loves best about the format—its intricacy and slowness of play. One of the best parts of playing Tarmo-Twin, Brad said, is how much it slows down your opponent. "You might have Snapcaster, Lightning Bolt, and two land in your hand, but you're opponent has to play as if those two cards are Pestermite and Splinter Twin." The ability to win out of nowhere forces longer games, more interaction, and just more decisions in general. And this causes hands like the above to be better in Tarmo-Twin than any other deck, because you opponent has to play around the insta-win at all times, even though you don't have it.
This forced interactivity helped Nelson figure out that his favorite play is to Remand his own spell. The games get so drawn-out, Nelson said he'll realize that an early Remand, allowing him to see a mere one card deeper into his deck, ends up being the reason he won nine turns later. "There's a constant exchange of small resources," he said, and if you're on the better end of the exchange each time, you'll pull out the victory. But, again, the only way you'll know when to exchange, is if you know all the lines. And the only way to know all the lines is to play the deck over, and over, and over. It's no surprise that the Pro Tour Born of the Gods Top 8 was littered with the people who'd ground out the format. I suspect it will be no different here.
Nelson was eager to discuss the format and his prospects for this weekend, he's ready. And with his clear joy of the deck and his defined knowledge of the format, he's set himself up for success. "Who knows? I might fall flat on my face, but I'm confident. I know my deck like the back of my hand."
In sum, Step One: Identify Hand. Step Two: Know Hand.