Modern Insight

Posted in The Week That Was on September 18, 2015

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

In this issue:

Shining a Light on Zac Elsik | August Player of the Month

Who doesn't want to bring a crazy, off-the-radar deck to a Constructed Grand Prix and have a breakout performance underscored by having your opponents, the judges, and everyone watching along scramble for their Gatherer links to look up the cards you are winning with? That was exactly what Dallas native Zac Elsik did when he finished in the Top 16 of the nearly-3,000-player field of Grand Prix Charlotte playing his Lantern Control deck in Modern. Although he did not reach the Top 8, his deck created quite a buzz after the event and many streamers—most notably Pro Tour Hall of Famer Luis Scott-Vargas—took the artifact-based deck out for a spin.

Zac Elsik's Latern Control—Top 16, Grand Prix Charlotte

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Despite its success at the tournament and the interest after the event, Lantern Control did not really seem to be a deck people were taking seriously. Was Lantern Control a novelty deck that just managed to eke out one good finish because people did not know how to play against it? Zac Elsik was determined to prove otherwise. He knew that his tournament inexperience with the deck had cost him crucial wins. He also knew that Grand Prix Oklahoma City was going to be his opportunity to improve his performance, silence the critics of the deck, and—most crucially—qualify for the Pro Tour.

With some slight modifications to the deck, he would be one of only three players to emerge from Day One with a perfect record. He would go on to make the Top 8, where he met up with Brian Braun-Duin playing Splinter Twin in the finals. It was the ultimate test for a rogue deck; a Grand Prix Champion playing a pillar of the format that won the most recent Modern Pro Tour. The match went to three games, but in the end the Lantern of Insight deck was able to cut off all the paths to victory in Braun-Duin's deck and win the tournament. It also prompted this tweet from BBD a couple of days later:

So who is the man who built the deck that haunts Braun-Duin's dreams?

Shining a Light on Zac Elsik

Zac Elsik is an avid gamer who embraces a wide gamut of play patterns, from board games and console games all the way through collectible card games, which he picked up during his freshman year of college ten years ago.

"I met up with a group who were interested in strategic board games as well as going to Friday Night Magic every week. They helped teach me the value of some Magic concepts such as card advantage, netdecking to improve your skill as a player by focusing on making the right plays, and how to build janky weird decks that actually functioned well using the previous principles," said Elsik of the players he met, who shaped his desire to play both competitive Magic and build interesting Constructed decks.

He took a short break in college to focus on competitive Super Smash Brothers, but Innistrad caught his attention. He had been frustrated in the past by losses, and had not taken advantage of those opportunities to learn how to improve his game. If he was going to pick the game up again, he was not going to lose without learning something about winning.

"I went to many events, which eventually lead to me winning a PTQ with Green-Red Tron—using Mindslavers—and my securing trip to Pro Tour Avacyn Restored," recalled Elsik of his first taste of success in competitive Magic. "I was excited to get to play with the pros. My friends spent a lot of time helping me train for the PT, which ultimately lead to a 17th place finish using some weird Naya-splashing-black Miracles deck."

One out of every six cards in his deck were miracles, and the deck was predicated on the idea that if you played enough of them they would occur naturally over the course of a game.

"Those, combined with solid, must-answer threats like Huntmaster of the Fells, Sigarda, Host of Herons, and Garruk Relentless put a lot of pressure on the Block Constructed decks. Although the mana base was shaky, the deck performed really well! The biggest take-away from the event was knowing that all that training had paid off and I was a strong Magic player," said Elsik, who parlayed that finish into an invite to the next Pro Tour.

He had his attention pulled in another direction for the Modern Pro Tour, however, and did not put in the same amount of preparation for Return to Ravnica as he had the previous event. He played Jund at that one and missed the cut to Day Two. Around six months ago, he got the itch to get back to the Pro Tour, and he has been using the Lantern of Insight to guide his path back.

"The thing I like about Modern is how open and unexplored deck development is. There are a ton of strong and powerful decks in Modern, which is great, but I feel there are many hidden decks that have the potential to do just as well; they just have to be fleshed out and refined. I really love coming up with my own ideas or taking ideas other people have and expanding upon them to create something powerful. I toyed around with Taking Turns, Protean Hulk Combo, and Lantern Control before finally settling on which one to go big with," he said when asked why he chose such an offbeat deck.

He had been playing the deck extensively for more than a month before his first Grand Prix with it—both against a gauntlet of format staples piloted by friends and on the PPTQ circuit. Playing in the qualifier tournaments, he would find himself getting close to success but stumbling due to his own mistakes with the deck.

Abrupt Decay | Art by Svetlin Velinov

"Each mistake with the Lantern deck costs you. There is a lot of preplanning you have to do. You essentially have to think as if you were your opponent, trying to figure out what they will be doing or can do and preparing to stop them as it happens. Assuming you could always make the right decision, the deck ran near flawlessly. This gave me the courage I needed to pick it over another one of my pet decks for GP Charlotte."

As soon as the tournament was over, Elsik knew that his losses were attributable to those aforementioned play errors and immediately decided that he would be taking the deck to Grand Prix Oklahoma City. Despite the attention paid to his deck in between the two tournaments, not many players seemed to have the deck on their radar. That was just fine for Elsik, who expected that the learning curve for the deck would keep many players from choosing to play with it. He also explained that there was a dexterity curve to playing the deck as well.

"It requires a lot of discipline, practice, mental strength, and physical agility to pilot," he said of the deck that can win by selectively milling one card at a time. "Knowing when to mill the top card of your deck or your opponent's deck is not always an easy or obvious decision. Playing quickly, and I mean really quickly, is very important—as without speed, you are likely to go to time because opponents will take up most of the clock thinking about ways to break out of the prison lock. When you take the general player base, not everyone is capable of such intense play; so many decisions need to be made in such as quick manner. Not everyone has knowledge of how all of the Modern decks function. Aside from that, many still believe the deck is not a "real" Magic deck and can't realistically have a high win percentage against the best decks in Modern."

Elsik tested a lot of new cards between the two events, with cards like Infernal Tutor and Sunbeam Spellbomb getting tryouts. In the end, the most notable addition to the deck came from Magic Orgins in the form of Draft build-around Ghirapur Æther Grid.

"This card is absolutely nuts! Not only does it act as a "fifth" bridge by holding off creatures, it also becomes a quick way to close out games. This plus a fourth Mox Opal helped speed the deck up to beat all of the aggressive decks I played at GP Oklahoma City," he said of some of the small changes heading into the weekend; a weekend that he went into with an eye on winning the tournament.

Zac Elsik's Lantern Control—1st Place, Grand Prix Oklahoma City

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"I knew that I could win if I made Top 8, which is a bold statement to make, but I knew the strength of my own deck better than anyone else in the world. That confidence and determination gave me the strength to focus on my play throughout all of Day One and enter Day Two undefeated. At that point I was really happy, as I knew others would look back and see my Lantern Control deck went undefeated."

Combined with his success at his last Modern event, that might have been enough for any deck builder to feel satisfied—but not Elsik. He managed to squeak into the Top 8 after expecting that he might have a smoother path, but once he made the Top 8 he was calm about his chances.

"I knew my deck could take me there and win. I refined it for that very purpose. I took every advantage of the good opportunities presented to me in the top 8 to secure a victory for myself and Johnnies everywhere," said the freshly crowned GP Champion, who is now qualified for the Modern Pro Tour that will take place in Atlanta early next year.

"I will most definitely be playing Lantern Control at any and all serious Modern events, especially the upcoming Pro Tour. I have a lot of faith in the deck and its overwhelming power against the majority of commonly played Modern decks," Elsik declared. "I will be doing a large amount of testing with my friends to prepare for this event. From my experience, playing as many games of Magic against other good players as you can greatly increases your success rate at tournaments. I want to do the best I can!"

Now that the deck has posted back-to-back solid finishes, he may have to learn how to play the one match-up he has not had to worry about in the past—the mirror match.

"I have no idea how to play that matchup," he admitted. "Many asked me that during the GP OKC weekend, and I simply told them 'I have no idea. I cannot even fathom how to go about playing out that game.' So I don't know what to tell you here. The reason I'm so unsure is because the deck is designed to beat anything, so it has many answers to itself. Pithing Needle stops a lot of cards. Abrupt Decay stops Needle. Academy Ruins is problematic and brings back all the artifacts. Playing Lantern of Insight at all is probably incorrect, as your opponent also gets information. It's a real mess."

Elsik is looking forward to sitting back with steepled fingers and seeing what he has wrought upon Modern as people try to either play the deck or beat it.

"Many people claim the deck loses to artifact hate, which is somewhat true. The problem is this deck runs discard and gets to choose what cards you draw most of the time," said Elsik of the deck's ability to illuminate the top of each deck with Lantern of Insight and mill trouble cards with Ghoulcaller's Bell. "This really makes it hard to have a good sideboard plan against the Lantern Control deck and all the other potential decks you could face. The best sideboard plan to beat Lantern Control is to dedicate as many cards as you can to beating it. The more cards you have, the more likely you will see them before you are denied drawing them."

Codex Shredder | Art by Jason Felix

Maybe if the deck really takes off we will see Elsik playing something else. He already knows that there are a couple of decks that he doesn't interact well with—as well as his nemesis, Burn.

"Scapeshift and Storm are tricky, because they don't rely on creatures to win and there's nothing really to name with Pithing Needle or have Spellskite defend against. Surgical Extraction helps a good bit, but it's not as easy to find as my artifacts, which Ancient Stirrings can grab," he said. But it was another fringe deck that he was the most worried about playing against. "I believe 8-Rack would also be problematic, as I'm typically without cards in my hand and have few ways to remove artifact/enchantment permanents."

Of course, there will be two more sets released between now and Pro Tour Atlanta, so who knows what other treasures Elsik will be able to find for his pet deck.

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August Magic Player of the Month: Seth Manfield

There's a little unfinished business from two weeks ago to cover here. With preview articles turned in a couple of weeks earlier than our normal deadlines, I was not able to report that our Player of the Month for August was World Champion Seth Manfield. He had the tournament of his life at the World Championship, with a 15-1 weekend that included two wins over the first person to win the tournament, Yuuya Watanabe, and three wins over former Player of the Year Owen Turtenwald.

It was one of the most dominant tournament finishes anyone on the coverage team could recall. When you think back to similar dominating runs—LSV at Pro Tour San Diego or Shota Yasooka at the first World Championship—you become conditioned to expect them to stumble just short of the finish line, but Manfield managed to keep his legs under him and finish the sixteen rounds with just one loss to show for the weekend.

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