So, I won the Limited portion of GP Las Vegas last month. I wrote the majority of this report the day after the GP to decompress, but I was exhausted, busy, and miserable, and I wasn’t happy with what I wrote. Then life caught up with me and between moving, getting my bike stolen, work, and the Mythic grind on MTG Arena, I just never had the chance to go back and finish the report. Now here I am, one month later.
I assume there won’t be another major Modern Horizons Limited tournament, so you won’t find any practical takeaways here. But I hope this will be a fitting eulogy for the best Limited format of all time, and maybe you’ll find some useful ideas on how to approach Limited in general.
Day 1: Sealed
As I explained in my GP Cleveland report, my goal in Sealed is to play the greatest number of the best cards in my pool. That approach is particularly appropriate in high-synergy, high-power formats like Modern Horizons, where most pools don’t have the necessary pieces for a synergy deck but do have a ton of removal and other disruption.
That approach was particularly easy with the pool I had. All my best cards were in green and black and I had exactly 25 playables. This was the deck I built, with the cards I boarded in throughout day 1 on top:
I decided to play the 《Talisman of Resilience》 as fixing for the Islet, since I wanted the Islet both to mitigate flood and to enable the 1st 《Murasa Behemoth》. In retrospect, my mana was decent enough with just the 《Fountain of Ichor》 and 《Arcum’s Astrolabe》 despite the Snow-Covered 《Plains》 and 《Island》, given how slow the Sealed format is, and that I could have just played both 《Thornado》 and Islet. I still think Talisman was the best game 1 choice on balance, since the other two options are a lot more narrow, but I definitely should have given more thought to playing 《Thornado》 + Islet.
I had 3 byes and went 6-0. To be completely honest, I had stayed up until 3:00 AM the night before watching OG vs. PSG.LGD and then flew into Vegas at 7:00 AM, so my recollection of the day isn’t the sharpest. I do remember having fun rebuilding Sealed pools with Andrew Elenbogen, cheating in Mental Magic using Collin Rountree‘s Mardu Death’s Shadow deck (using 《Final Payment》 to kill his 《Illness in the Ranks》 to re-enable my 《Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree》), and Tacos El Gordo with Richard Tan, Zack Witten, and Mike Mei. My opponents were all friendly people and tough competition.
A somewhat interesting keep or Mulligan decision from round 5 against Tobias Roos, game 1 on the draw:
My Opening Hand against Tobias Roos: Game 1 on the Draw
My general approach in Limited is that I’d rather lose than Mulligan, particularly in Sealed. And this hand not only has nearly all my 2-drops, it has my best early proactive play in the 《Saddled Rimestag》, my best early defensive play in the 《Gluttonous Slug》, 《Ransack the Lab》 to find the 3rd land if I draw a 2nd, and 《Mob》 to facilitate a swing turn later. All that said, I haven’t played enough with the London Mulligan yet, and it’s definitely possible that hands like this that were keeps under older Mulligan rules now fall on the other side of the line. Most of the friends that I asked about the hand said they would Mulligan.
What does the math say with this manabase? I had 8 《Forest》s, 5 《Swamp》s, a 《Plains》, an 《Island》, and the 《Islet》 left in my deck, so I had 8 great draws (the 《Forest》s) and 8 decent ones (any other land).
With 33 cards in deck and 2 draws before my second turn, I was 43.18% to hit a green source and 74.24% to hit any land, which would have guaranteed at least 《Slug》 into 《Ransack》. If I hit a green source, I can play the 《Rimestag》 with 2 follow-up creatures to trigger it even if I miss on my 3rd land for a while. With those numbers, I still just can’t buy that this hand is a Mulligan, even under the new rules.
People are quick to point out in analyses like these that hitting a green land or particularly a non-green land doesn’t mean winning the game, and I agree. But I’ll have a very good draw and an additional card in all the games where I get there. And those people tend to gloss over the fact that missing a land (25.76%) doesn’t mean losing the game either. In fact, I did miss my 2nd land drop this game, discarding to hand size on turn 2 against my opponent’s aggressive Ninjas deck.
Ultimately, who knows? Close decisions like these are what keep Magic interesting for me. If you think you have a novel argument for or against keeping, definitely let me know on Twitter.
I had flown into Vegas without a housing reservation since only staying 1 night made it hard to find a roommate, but thankfully both Richard and Zack had space for me. I wound up staying with Richard because his hotel was closer and we watched game 3 of Secret vs. Liquid before heading to bed. I was sad to miss such a hype grand finals but I just couldn’t run back 6 rounds on 3 hours of sleep. I’m really, really glad that I didn’t have to run 9 rounds on that much sleep.
Aside on Modern Horizons Draft
For me, Modern Horizons Draft is defined by the incredible density of powerful build-arounds at common. There are the obvious ones like 《Faerie Seer》, 《Arcum’s Astrolabe》, and 《Cleaving Sliver》 that go into the obvious archetypes of UB Ninjas, 5C Snow, and RW Slivers, but also subtle ones like 《Igneous Elemental》, 《Phantasmal Form》, and 《Diabolic Edict》. This density is a huge part of why I consider Modern Horizons the best Limited format of all time. You have to constantly track what cards you think will wheel, what cards you actually do wheel, look out for unexpected synergies, and search for the open lane. Drafting the format is kind of like building a constructed deck against an adversarial neural network that you need to trick into giving you the cards you most want.
For example, consider 《Igneous Elemental》. On the surface, it’s a RG land synergy card. But it’s quietly even better in grindy RB decks that enable it via 《Ransack the Lab》, 《Rank Officer》, and Cycling Lands and that can recur it using 《Return from Extinction》 and 《Graveshifter》. It can also be great in slower UR decks that put a land into their graveyard using 《Rain of Revelation》 and then make up for the tempo loss of Rain with the Elemental.
Similarly, 《Phantasmal Form》 is a mediocre combat trick in most decks, but if you have enough 《Eyekite》s, 《Gluttonous Slug》s, 《Spinehorn Minotaur》s, or assorted 1/1s, it becomes a cantripping 《Searing Flesh》. 《Weather the Storm》 is either stone unplayable or an incredible combo piece with Talismans, 《Everdream》, and 《Stream of Thought》. You can routinely get 《Diabolic Edict》 13th pick because it lines up poorly against cards like 《Putrid Goblin》, 《Springbloom Druid》, 《Goblin War Party》, and 《Irregular Cohort》, but if you have enough removal for small creatures like 《Lava Dart》, 《Pyrophobia》, and 《Igneous Elemental》, then it can be a 2-mana answer to an otherwise problematic 《Murasa Behemoth》.
The key to getting a great deck is figuring out which synergy packages are available and avoiding contests. You don’t want to draft snow if you need to spend high picks on snow lands, because then your spell quality won’t be high enough; you don’t want to draft an 《Eyekite》 deck if other people at the table are also taking 《Eyekite》s, because then you won’t end up with enough 《Eyekite》s to justify building around them; you don’t want to draft Ninjas if other people are, because there are an average of four 1-mana enablers per 8-person draft and you’ll need all four to have a great Ninjas deck; and so on.
Cards that are strong purely on rate like 《Trumpeting Herd》 are a lot weaker than they look on the surface because they don’t enable and aren’t enabled by any other cards. I think that problem is a large part of why white is the weakest color in Modern Horizons. Cards like 《Answered Prayers》, 《Rhox Veteran》, and 《Settle Beyond Reality》 are extremely powerful in the abstract and would be far and away the best commons in a normal Limited format. But these cards are all only individually powerful.
《Irregular Cohort》 and 《Lancer Sliver》 are the actual best white commons, even though their rates are more modest, because they fit into synergy packages. You can draft a white deck that’s strong despite lacking synergies if you get all the 《Answered Prayers》 in a Draft, but you won’t get late picks that are great specifically for your deck with that approach.
These insights are limited to Modern Horizons because most sets don’t have so much leeway for complexity. Like, you just can’t put a complicated build-around like 《Phantasmal Form》 at common in a normal set. That said, I’ve noticed a lot more emergent synergies in recent sets, like 《Scholar of the Ages》 + 《Blood for Bones》, 《Soul Salvage》, or 《Unsummon》 in Core Set 2020 (M20) and 《Dovin’s Acuity》 + 《Clear the Mind》 in Ravnica Allegiance (RNA). I hope that trend continues.
(My 《Lancer Sliver》 claim will probably be controversial, since you’ll only want 《Lancer Sliver》s if you can get them late. But all the best white decks I’ve seen would have preferred more 《Lancer Sliver》s to any 《Answered Prayers》.)
Day 2: Draft
My first Draft of day 2 started out with a hard choice: 《Watcher for Tomorrow》 or 《Crashing Footfalls》. My testing team for Mythic Championship Barcelona decided Watcher is better, but that’s the kind of pick that’s a lot easier to make in the abstract, without the bomb rare in front of you and a 45-second timer ticking down. I did take the Watcher though. Watcher fits into every synergy package and even opens some unique packages, while 《Crashing Footfalls》 fits into none. I got 《Sling-Gang Lieutenant》 p1p2, 《Moonblade Shinobi》 p1p5, 《Faerie Seer》 p1p6, and a couple of late 《Eyekite》s for the seeds of a promising Ninjas deck.
Blue was wide open in pack 2, highlighted by a 5th pick 《Future Sight》. And it was also wide open in pack 3, highlighted by p6 and p7 《Faerie Seer》s and wheeling 《Moonblade Shinobi》 and then 《Phantasmal Form》.
I took my third 《Eyekite》 over 《Graveshifter》 p3p1, which I wasn’t sure about, but I had 《Future Sight》 already as an expensive, grindy card and I had 2 《Eyekite》s and 2 《Phantasmal Form》s already. I got super rewarded by the 4th 《Eyekite》 p5 and the aforementioned wheeled 《Phantasmal Form》, with 3 cards left.
I actually passed the 3rd 《Faerie Seer》 for a 《Lonely Sandbar》 since I had 4 《Eyekite》s and only 2 Ninjas at the time, 1 《Moonblade》 and 1 《New Moon》. I got punished for that decision by the 《Moonblade Shinobi》 I saw p3p2 wheeling (I took my 2nd 《Mob》 over it). With 4 《Eyekite》s and a low curve, I don’t think I even got that punished though, and I really did not expect the Shinobi to wheel. I think it was the only blue card in that pack.
The final result was one of the more absurd decks I’ve had in any format:
I played against Joe Lossett on RW Slivers round 1, Max Mick on 《Stream of Thought》 control round 2, and Michael Bernat on RUG stuff on round 3. My opponents’ decks were all strong as well and I had 3 surprisingly tough 2-1 wins, highlighted by getting milled out by a triply Replicated 《Stream of Thought》 in game 1 against Max Mick.
This Draft was less interesting. I started with 《Pashalik Mons》, one of the best rares in the set, and immediately got passed a 《Munitions Expert》 to accompany it. I got somewhat cut on black and red from there but there was never any point where I could have reasonably moved off my first 2 picks. I had to speculate on 2 《Forgotten Cave》s early in pack 2, I think p3 and p4, hoping to get 《Igneous Elemental》s later. But I did get 2 《Igneous Elemental》s in pack 3 and then successfully wheeled all 3 of the 《Diabolic Edict》s I was tracking.
A late 《Force of Negation》 also found its way into my card pool, somehow.
My deck wound up okay:
I played 18 lands because I had 2 《Forgotten Cave》s, could play a 《Waterlogged Grove》 as the 18th land, and because I actively wanted to be able to discard a land to my 《Lesser Masticore》 and 《Rank Officer》.
Part of why I maindecked all 3 《Diabolic Edict》s is because I only needed to win one match and there was a good chance I’d effectively be presideboarded against one of my opponents with that configuration. But Edict was also just a good card in my deck, and the card does naturally get better in multiples.
I played the 《Viashino Sandsprinter》 and 《Orcish Hellraiser》 instead of the slightly better filler cards in my sideboard because they were Warriors to get back with 《Pashalik Mons》 using 《Return from Extinction》.
I got paired up against Bryan Hohns on a mostly green snow deck in round 13. I drew 《Pashalik Mons》 and 《Munitions Expert》 in both games against Bryan’s land-heavy draws and won anticlimactically. I played horribly in game 1, missing literally 3 《Gluttonous Slug》 triggers to make it so my alpha attack on the last turn would put him to 1 instead of 0. I had to make an almost-alpha to put him to 3 instead, with a 《Rank Officer》 and 《Pashalik Mons》 in play but no mana available, potentially losing to 《Winds of Abandon》. That was his only out in the format though, since 《Pashalik》 would have killed him through 《Dead of Winter》. Thankfully, my mistakes didn’t matter.
I drew my next two matches with Ashwin Ugale and Daniel Truong to rest, since doing so locked me first seed anyway. I got a coffee to try to wake up some. I probably should have gotten dinner from someplace in the convention center too, but Richard had brought me an omelette from the place he’d gotten brunch so I wasn’t that hungry. I ate a protein cookie instead, with dreams of getting an actual dinner after losing in top 8. Super bad outcome, as I wound up not getting dinner at all. Probably a bad decision too.
Top 8 Draft
You can find coverage of my top 8 Draft here. It’s awesome to have players of Ben Stark’s caliber doing commentary these days. He articulated more or less my exact thought process at every step of the Draft and I don’t have a lot to add.
The two main picks where Ben disagreed with me were p3p1 when I took 《Conifer Wurm》 over 《Frostwalla》 and p3p3 when I took 《Twin-Silk Spider》 over 《Squirrel Nest》 and 《Magmatic Sinkhole》. I stand by taking the 《Conifer Wurm》 — I think my opinion of the card is somewhat higher than Ben’s. I think the Wurm is one of the strongest cards in the set with ～10 snow permanents and I figured I’d be able to pick up a couple of late snow lands based on how many were available in the previous 2 packs.
I can’t defend 《Twin-Silk Spider》 pick other than to say that you have a lot less time to think than you’d expect in professional REL Drafts. Between remembering what cards you’ve taken, what cards you’ve passed, and working out what you can expect to come, it’s a struggle to figure out which of the cards in front of you to take. I was worried about not having enough cheap cards and 《Twin-Silk Spider》 is one of the best defensive plays in the set. It’s the kind of card you hope to get later in the pack, but I didn’t think I’d get another opportunity at a card that filled that role. I had 2 《Magmatic Sinkhole》s already and few ways to put cards in my graveyard, and I was looking at 《Squirrel Nest》 purely as a win condition. Overall, I think I should have taken 《Squirrel Nest》 instead, since it’s only a slightly weaker defensive play and a much more powerful card overall. The Spider was definitely in 3rd place behind Sinkhole by a good margin though.
This was the final product:
I played 18 lands because my mana was a bit sketchy with the 2 《Trumpeting Herd》s and a splash, I had 2 《Rain of Revelation》s and the 《Fiery Islet》 to mitigate flood, and because I had so many 4-drops. I should have played a second 《Treetop Ambusher》 over the 《Ravenous Giant》 for curve and color considerations, but I just had a higher opinion of the Giant than I should have.
My deck wasn’t good, like a clear 5 out of 10, but I think it was actually in the top half of decks in the pod. The packs were weak and broke in a weird way such that no archetype or synergy package was ever clearly open.
All of my matches in the top 8 were on camera. I was hoping to do a play-by-play analysis of my games, but this report is long enough already — maybe in a future article.
Being on the play throughout the top 8 definitely helped a lot. My opponents all drafted decks with somewhat dysfunctional manabases and I got to play creatures and kill them while they stumbled. They could have easily Mulliganed less and had good draws that cast all their spells, but they didn’t.
I do think all of my opponents could have been more conservative with their manabases though. Bryan Hohns played 17 lands and Ashwin Ugale played 16, both with mana even shakier than mine. I don’t remember Will Skippen‘s manabase exactly, but I think it only had 4 black sources.
I took notes before starting each match. There rules on open decklists are such that you can’t refer to your opponent’s decklist during games nor take notes on it until after both players have fully resolved their Mulligans, so I come up with mnemonics to remember the key cards in my opponents’ decks while studying them and record all relevant cards at the first moment I’m able to. It’s a bit awkward, particularly with timed rounds like at MCs, but those are the rules. I hope said rules change soon, particularly if we keep using open decklists to facilitate coverage.
I actually couldn’t remember that Will had a 《Twisted Image》 until he cast it in game 1. My mnemonic told me that he had a 6th instant that was blue and started with a letter in the second half of the alphabet, but I was exhausted and couldn’t come up with the name of the card. But as with all my mistakes this tournament, it just didn’t matter.
I got my trophy, posed for some photos, and immediately left for the airport. The tournament ended at 9:50 and my flight was at 10:45. I’d eaten maybe 900 calories the entire day despite Richard being kind enough to bring me food, and I was literally starving. I got on my plane 10 minutes before boarding closed, got 3 bags of pretzels from the flight attendant, and my hunger made those pretzels were the most delicious things I’ve eaten since Petrus in London. I collapsed in my seat, queued up Harmlessness, Golden Hour, and St. Vincent’s self-titled, then closed my eyes until the plane landed in San Francisco.
I Lyfted home, made myself a protein shake, got ready for bed, and tried to sleep through the adrenaline still saturating my bloodstream. I got to sleep at 5:00 AM and woke up at 7:00 AM for a personal training appointment. After that, I crashed and worked from home. I’m thankful I have a job where I have the freedom to do that.
Magic tournaments are fun, but they’re also grueling. Doing well is a curse and a blessing, as the stakes and stress amp up each round. Feature matches start after the main round to give production more time to prepare, and that means shorter breaks between rounds. I’m actually thankful that I’m relatively anonymous and don’t need to deal with coverage that often.
This weekend was amazing, but it was also painful. Some of the pain was definitely on me. I’m getting older and I need to exercise more, sleep more, etc. I can’t keep subsisting on protein cookies and cashews through Magic tournaments. Some of the pain is just the competitive Magic experience, though.
Still, it was awesome seeing all my Magic friends again, it was awesome getting one last dance with Modern Horizons at professional REL, and it was awesome winning another GP. I was planning to take a long break from Magic after Vegas, but I’ve played the first 2 Magic Online MCQs for MC after Richmond and I booked my flight to GP Phoenix last Thursday. Magic is a hard game to quit.
Only 3 more top 8s now, (Hunter) Cochran. I’m coming for you (I’m definitely not).
Allen Wu (Twitter)