Feb 8, 2018

Vexing Devil. Any Questions?


Jon Stern here, representing Massdrop West. I played Burn at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan in Bilbao and finished in 21st place. Overall, this is a decent result, good for some cash and a bunch of pro points, but it's bittersweet because of how I got there. After eleven rounds, I was sitting as the first seed at 10-1 and probably only needed to win two of my last five matches for my first Top 8. Sadly, it was not to be.

For most of the tournament, I was the one asking questions of my opponent. Many of these were whether they would like to pay four life. Now it's time to turn the tables on myself and answer some of the questions people have been asking in post-tournament conversations and on social media.

My Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan Report in Twenty Questions:

Was this your best finish at the Pro Tour?
I've technically finished higher than 21st place on three occasions. I lost a feature match to Masashi Oiso in Round 16 of Pro Tour Yokohama 2003 where he was playing for Top 8 and I was battling for 9th or 10th. I ended up in 18th place. With no shot at Top 8, I intentionally drew with Conley Woods into 13th place with at Pro Tour Gatecrash in Montreal, also known as Pro Tour Sleep-in-Your-Own-Bed. Finally, I won my last round against Lucas Siow at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar to finish in 20th place and stay on the train. That said, this is definitely the closest I've been to finally making Top 8. I really thought I would get there, but just couldn't hold down the stretch.

I thought you were known as an Affinity player. Why didn't you play Affinity?
Honestly, I considered it up until the week of the Pro Tour. I knew Affinity would be one of the most played decks, but I just don't think it's very good right now. It used to be that you would win almost all your Game 1's and then just try to dodge or fight through hate in one of the other two games. That's not necessarily the case any more for two reasons. The first is simply the existence of Fatal Push which makes your Inkmoth kills much less reliable. Even Tron decks are sometimes splashing for it. The second reason is that there are several decks in the metagame that are just naturally very good against you, even without dedicated sideboard hate. Storm and Dredge are the two main culprits, with Jeskai just a tier below.

Why did you decide to play Burn?
I started testing Burn as a reaction to the success of big mana decks like Tron and Titan Shift at GP Oklahoma City. It was more for science than anything else as I felt that Burn would be a cornerstone of the format and something teams like Genesis or MTG Mint Card might play. I wanted to investigate it's matchup profile mainly to figure out which other decks might be pushed out of the metagame or rise in popularity. Then I started winning a lot and eventually decided that it had less inherent weaknesses than other decks I was considering.

What other decks did you test?
Affinity might be the deck I've had the most success with, but I've also Top 8'd a GP with Jund and started another one 10-0 with Lantern Control. There are probably eight to ten decks in Modern that I've played at serious events or tested extensively at one point or another. That's still only a third of the field, however, and one of my goals in testing for this Pro Tour was to explore some of the other archetypes and expand my repertoire. I tried a lot of decks that I wouldn't say fit my normal play style, but the one I spent the most time on was Dredge. This is a deck with a powerful proactive strategy that I wanted to have it in my back pocket in case the metagame shifted in its favor. I don't think Dredge was necessarily a bad choice, but found I was losing a few too many games even when my deck functioned as it was supposed to. Besides Dredge, I also tried to learn Storm but never really felt comfortable, and played a lot of games with Affinity, Tron, and Lantern Control in order to preserve the ability to audible to them as a backup plan.

Can we see your exact decklist?
Of course.
Burn - Jon Stern
Main Deck
4 Inspiring Vantage 2 Arid Mesa 2 Bloodstained Mire 2 Wooded Foothills 3 Scalding Tarn 3 Snow-Covered Mountain 2 Sacred Foundry 1 Stomping Ground
4 Goblin Guide 4 Monastery Swiftspear 3 Vexing Devil 4 Eidolon of the Great Revel

4 Lava Spike 4 Lightning Bolt 4 Searing Blaze 2 Skullcrack 4 Lightning Helix 4 Boros Charm 4 Rift Bolt

Sideboard
2 Skullcrack 2 Searing Blood 2 Rest in Peace 2 Path to Exile 2 Grim Lavamancer 3 Destructive Revelry 2 Kor Firewalker

Vexing Devil?
There's a common misconception that all Burn has to do is draw seven three damage burn spells to win the game. There are some percentage of games that come down to topdecks, but a much more relevant factor is often how much damage you are doing per mana spent. Skullcrack and Lightning Helix give pretty poor rates of return in that respect, and you will frequently lose games if you draw too many spells that cost two mana. You are pretty happy if Goblin Guide hits twice before it dies to a removal spell, so you should be ecstatic if your opponent pays four life to deny you a 4/3.

The problem, of course, is that sometimes your opponent won't pay the four life because they have an Ensnaring Bridge out, a plethora of blockers or removal spells, or are simply going to kill you before your next attack. Cards that give choices to your opponent are almost universally frowned upon, but that's the wrong way to look at it. If a one mana instant gave your opponent the choice of losing 20 life or letting you draw 20 cards, it would obviously be insane. Vexing Devil is much closer to the margin and is one of the worst cards in the deck, but it's still a one mana spell that will often be a four-point Lava Spike. Sometimes it does nothing, but sometimes your main deck Grim Lavamancer is also a virtual blank. We can't all be Lightning Bolts.

Is the green splash necessary?
I don't know if it's strictly necessary, but the cost is fairly low, and Destructive Revelry is a significant upgrade over other sideboard cards like Shattering Spree, Smash to Smithereens, or Wear/Tear. In most cases, artifact removal is sufficient, but you do really want to kill Phyrexian Unlife against Ad Nauseam and Leyline of Sanctity against Lantern and Bogles. While it might be fine to accept a less-than optimal sideboard plan against such a small percentage of the metagame, it's not like Destructive Revelry is bad against Affinity and other decks with must-kill artifacts. It's less a question of what you can get away with, and more about versatility. Stomping Ground is a real cost, but I think it's worth it.

Is there a reason for the random assortment of fetch lands and Snow-Covered Mountains?
There's a reason, but not a really good one. If card availability is an issue, any red fetch lands fine. It's so rare that you're able to keep a hand without a first turn play, so the bluffing factor is minimal. This did come up one time in the tournament where I was able to lead on Scalding Tarn with plans to cast a Lightning Bolt into double Eidolon of the Great Revel. But, in this case, I don't think I got much value from the misdirection as my opponent's first two turns were fairly scripted. Pithing Needle is also a card that could come up in Game 1 against Lantern as you don't really have anything else to name, and fetch lands allow you to reset your draw step. For that reason alone, having a mix is better than having four of any single one. I ran the extra Scalding Tarn because I thought it provided the most bluffing value and was the one players would least associate with Burn and name off Pithing Needle in the dark.

As for the Snow-Covered Mountains, well, I guess they bluff Gifts Ungiven and might trick an opponent if they glimpse one of them while you're shuffling. I'm Canadian, however, so running Snow-Covered Mountains just felt natural.

What was the worst card in your 75?
Almost certainly, the worst card was Kor Firewalker. I was prepared to face as many as forty different archetypes and was only bringing Kor Firewalker in for the mirror. Just the fact that you have it in your deck also makes your early land sequencing very frustrating, as you often have to shock yourself with a Sacred Foundry in case you draw a Firewalker when you would otherwise just be finding a Snow-Covered Mountain. Unfortunately, when I was testing without them online, it would too often be the difference between winning and losing. If I was unwilling to play Lantern because of a bad Burn matchup, I certainly didn't want to register a version that loses the mirror.

Do you regret anything about the list you registered?
Yes. I think it was a mistake to play only 19 lands. I thought this was the case before the tournament as it's so important to cast as many spells as possible during first three turns of the game, but other lists were running 19 and I wanted to find space for as many sideboard cards as possible. In retrospect, I probably should have just played an extra fetch land instead of the third Vexing Devil. This change could have sideboard ramifications as boarding out the 20th land would certainly be reasonable in some matches, especially on the draw, but being able to bring in an extra card is a luxury rather than a hindrance, even if the numbers don't line up perfectly.

Do you have any unconventional strategies or tips for playing the deck?
I think the only thing that would qualify as unconventional was my plan to board out Monastery Swiftspear against Death Shadow. Swiftspear does two things that you don't really want to do in that matchup: ping away at their life total early on, and encourage you to play instants on your own turn. It's still much better than Vexing Devil as paying four life might actually be advantageous for your opponent whereas Swiftspear can technically choose not to attack. So if you follow this strategy, just make sure you have enough cards to bring in.

Is Burn an easy deck to play?
The short answer is Yes, but also No. Compared to most of the other decks in the format, Burn generally plays out in an intuitive manner with fewer complex decision points. That isn't to say there aren't important, difficult decisions, just that the lines are easier to analyze than a deck like Affinity or UW Control. A bigger factor, perhaps, is that Burn is an easy deck to play against. There's a lot of redundancy which allows most players to figure out what a Burn opponent is planning to do and develop a coherent plan to fight it. Although this is less of a concern at a Pro Tour than at a GP or PTQ since you can expect an overall higher level of competence regardless of what deck you're playing, it's still something to consider. The deck needs to win on it's merits because people aren't going to make that many mistakes against you.

What did you play against at the Pro Tour? Did your deck perform to expectation?
I went 5-5 in Constructed, but that includes a lot of tough matches against great players at the top of the standings. Overall, it's a shame to waste a 6-0 in Limited, but the deck was solid. Several matches were extremely close, and I could have easily finished 7-3 or better.

Here's how my rounds went:
Round 4: Won 2-1 vs Francesco Giorgio - Jeskai Spell Queller (eventual finish - 225th place)
Round 5: Won 2-1 vs Cyril Crouzet - Grixis Control (eventual finish - 256th place)
Round 6: Won 2-1 vs Yukio Kozakai - Burn (eventual finish - 107th place)
Round 7: Won 2-0 vs Guilherme Merjam - Humans (eventual finish - 75th place)
Round 8: Lost 0-2 vs Lucas Esper Berthoud - Humans (eventual finish - 16th place)

Round 12: Lost 1-2 vs Pascal Vieren - UR Pyromancer (eventual finish - 3rd place)
Round 13: Lost 1-2 vs Ken Yukuhiro - BR Hollow One (eventual finish - 4th place)
Round 14: Lost 1-2 vs Luis Salvatto - Lantern Control (eventual finsih - 1st place)
Round 15: Lost 0-2 vs Yuta Takahashi - Jeskai Geist (eventual finish - 44th place)
Round 16: Won 2-0 vs Piotr Glogowski - Lantern Control (eventual finish - 47th place)

My losses in Rounds 13 and 14 were both pretty hard to take, as there were points in each of them where I felt like a massive favorite to win, but that's why you play the games. I also just never beat Ken Yukuhiro, but that's a story for another day.

Would you keep Vexing Devils going forward?
That's a tough call, as they are one of your worst cards. The biggest surprise for me at the Pro Tour was just how popular the Humans deck was. I dismissed it from contention because I kept beating it with Burn online, but I think those results were skewed a bit as people were trying to find the best version. If Humans retains it's spot at the top of the metagame, Grim Lavamancer becomes more attractive as a main deck option. It's not that Vexing Devil is particularly bad against the current metagame, but you just may be pulled in too many other directions.
Did anything interesting happen in your Pro Tour drafts?
Yes, in both cases. In my first draft, Golden Guardians was opened two seats to my left. As a double-sided card, it is revealed to everyone at the table, and I remember lamenting that I would have to play against it. I began to sing a different tune when it was passed to me as my 7th pick. I got another one 5th in Pack 2 which means that nobody in my pod thought this card was any good, which it definitely is. Not every deck will want it and there are some Uncommons you would take over it like Ravenous Chupacabra, but Golden Guardians make it virtually impossible for your opponent to attack on the ground and provides inevitability in the form of an endless stream of Golem tokens. My deck also featured an incredibly high power level with two Raging Regisaurs, two Raging Swordtooths and the ability to splash Angrath, the Flame-Chained out of the sideboard. I was short on two drops, however, but was able to dodge my opponents' best aggro draws and pull out the 3-0.

My second draft was featured as Pod 1 and was a pretty harrowing experience. The player to my right opened Profane Procession while I was looking at a weak pack with only Dire Fleet Poisoner. I decided to count on the fact that he would take the Procession and try to go WB, and took the weaker Jungleborn Pioneer. I wasn't committed to forcing Merfolk, but felt that it might be a good opportunity to do so, knowing that it was almost certainly going to be open on my right. I wasn't married to the idea, but never found a good reason to move out, despite an abysmal first pack that only yielded a Hunt the Weak, another Jungleborn Pioneer, and two Sailor of Means that ultimately wouldn't make the cut. I opened another Golden Guardians in Pack 2 and took it despite it not being at it's best in Merfolk. I was worried about a train wreck, and needed ways to pull out victories if I ended up hedging towards those Sailor of Means. I stuck to my guns and took a Mist-Cloaked Herald over a splashable Bombard, and got paid off handsomely in the third pack with two River Heralds' Boons, a Shaper of Nature, and a bunch of other good Merfolk. Overall, my deck ended up quite good despite the lackluster start.

Was this your first 6-0 in Limited at a Pro Tour?
I'm pretty sure this is my first 6-0 since they introduced mixed format Pro Tours. In my earlier stint as a professional Magic player, I considered myself much better at Limited than Constructed with all my cashes being at Limited Pro Tours. I always felt particularly comfortable at Rochester Draft where most people would overlook the depth of strategy involved. These days, with Pro Tours coming so soon after release, it's harder to compete with players who come into the event with over a hundred drafts under their belt. I was always feel like I'm still learning the format when the Pro Tour rolls around, and probably average 3.5 to 4 wins.

With this result, do you have a shot at becoming Draft Master and qualifying for Worlds?
I certainly have a mathematical shot, but I only went 3-3 at Pro Tour Ixalan, and, with the last event being a team tournament, there is only one more Pro Tour to earn points. I'm currently sitting in a tie for 5th with thirteen other players at 27 points. Pascal Vieren, Alexander Hayne, and Craig Wescoe all have 30, but Elias Watsfeldt is the runaway train right now with a perfect record of 12-0. I would basically need to 6-0 the last Pro Tour and would still really only have a shot if Elias fails to make Day 2. No reason not to try though.


How does this impact the pro points race? Are you on track for Player Club status?
After moving out to British Columbia last year, I've cut back significantly on the number of Grand Prix I'm willing to travel to. Airfare is more expensive, time zones are an adjustment, and the flights just take a lot longer. With the ten points I earned in Bilbao, I'm sitting at 18, thirteen behind Alexander Hayne and Pascal Maynard in the race for Canadian captaincy, and roughly on track to renew my Gold status. I told myself at the start of the year that I wasn't going to grind the GP circuit and that, if I was going to keep my pro status, it would have to be on the back of some decent results at the Pro Tour. This finish keeps me in the hunt, but there's still a lot of work to do.

How is Massdrop West doing in the Pro Tour Team Series race?
So much depends on spiking a top finish. As far as Massdrop West is concerned, Pascal Maynard lead the way with a second place finish at Pro Tour Ixalan. Halfway through the tournament, it was clear that the team's hopes were resting largely on my shoulders as I was well-positioned for a late run. Unfortunately, while we still got a decent number of points, we were jumped in the standings by a few teams who were carried on the back of individual Top 8 performances from players like Ken Yukuhiro, Luis Salvatto, Pascal Vieren, and Gerry Thompson. Connected Company actually had two in the Top 8 with Andrea Mengucci and Javier Dominguez, while Reid Duke's finish solidified Ultimate Guard at the top of the standings. We are currently sitting in 10th place within striking reach of Top 4, but we'll need to do well at both Pro Tour Dominaria in Richmond and at the team Pro Tour in Minneapolis.

Would you recommend Burn for upcoming Modern tournaments like GP Toronto? Is that what you're going to play?
As I mentioned earlier, one of the problems with playing Burn in an open event like a Grand Prix is that it's kind of an easier deck to play against. Whereas some of your opponents might make mistakes against Abzan Midrange or Mardu Pyromancer, there's just less opportunity for them to stumble. The lack of Pro Tour success from Tron and Titan Shift also diminish the incentive to play Burn. Lantern remains a good matchup, but is probably not the kind of deck that will see a massive upswing in popularity due to the style of play and clock considerations. Overall, Burn is still a fine choice, but probably not as good a metagame call as it was in Oklahoma City. That said, it's always hard to find the motivation to test a lot right after a Pro Tour, so there's a good chance I'll just play Burn again in Toronto and rely on the preparation I've already done.


Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the slightly different take on a tournament report. I find people always ask me the same types of questions after a good finish, and aren't really interested in the minutia of a round-by-round synopsis. So why not just focus on what people actually want to know? Despite its flaws, Modern is a fun format to play, and it was nice to play a deck that doesn't go to time every round. Even if it's not the most complicated deck, Burn does interact a lot with what most of your opponents are trying to do, and does have more play to it than people often give it credit for.

PREVIOUS ARTICLES · Meet the Massdrop Teams: http://dro.ps/mtg-team-announce · *2nd* at Pro Tour Ixalan: http://dro.ps/ixalan · Unclaimed Creature Types: http://dro.ps/ari-creatures · Why I Never Drop From Tournaments: http://dro.ps/eric-nevergiveup · The Art of Sideboard Construction - Sultai Energy: http://dro.ps/jon-sideboard · A Commoner's View on Pauper: http://dro.ps/mark-pauper · Blue Moon Beach Control: http://dro.ps/scott-bluemoon · Top 5 Modern Decks: http://dro.ps/pascal-modern · Storm in Vintage Cube: http://dro.ps/ben-storm · An Early Look at Rivals for Standard: http://dro.ps/shaun-rivals · A Standard Approach to Evaiuating New Cards: http://dro.ps/rob-newcards · Drafting Rivals of Ixalan: http://dro.ps/tim-ixalan · Team Sealed Secrets: http://dro.ps/eric-secrets · Steal My Standard Ideas: http://dro.ps/tommy-secrets


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Great writeup! I had no idea Massdrop had a Magic team, but I'll be on the lookout for more content now.
I totally love that it is indeed English and, other than it being a card game, have no idea WTF is being talked about. And, I'm totally fine with that, no need for even a cursory attempt at explaining. I do believe that this person went somewhere, did something with cards, did not quite as well as he would have wanted, and is now explaining something to people who understand. Laughing at my near-total, "WTF is he talking about."
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