I had the privilege of attending the 2022 North American Premodern Championship this past weekend, in Boston, MA.
If you don't know what a Premodern is, don't worry! I didn't back in, say, November of last year, either. According to their website, Premodern is "a community-created constructed format consisting of the sets from Fourth Edition to Scourge"... "An underlying idea is that the format should be a home for iconic and fun cards that don't see play in other formats - either because their relative power level has withered over time, or because they are not tournament legal due to their interactions with newer cards."
Premodern is very simply the best format I've ever played. The games are highly skill testing while still fast paced and exciting, a balance contemporary Research and Development has struggled with for more than the last ten years. Maybe more importantly, I don't think I've had as much fun attending "the Gathering" since the heyday of U.S. Nationals some 20 years ago.
In 1998 my friends and I ran something called "the Gauntlet." While this is not something that would probably be allowed in a convention game hall in 2022, back in 1998, the nice people running the big room even let us use the announcements microphone to drum up players, or as I like to call it, "business".
The Gauntlet was simple: You could put up a wager (I honestly don't remember what the actual stakes were) and all you had to do was beat five of the best players in the world [or at least the room] playing their signature strategies and you would receive, let us say "a prize" in-line / commensurate with your wager.
The prospect of getting to do battle with Internet-famous Magic players - let alone obtain "a prize" - was a big draw, and we took on all comers all night. In the wee hours of the morning, probably something like 7am, a relatively unknown deck designer from
Madison Milwaukee, Wisconsin by the name of Brian Kowal emerged the sole survivor of The Gauntlet. Hundreds of aspirants donated to our breakfast buffet fund; but only BK actually got paid back. He played a Mono-Green StOmPy deck.
That was a pretty good Magic: The Gathering weekend. I got to meet future super best friends like Lan D. Ho for the first time in person. It was the first real-life gathering of Internet-famous deck-building team Cabal Rogue, led by future Grand Prix Champion Adrian Sullivan; and as a coverage fanboy, I was sooooo stoked to meet Bill Macey. Bill was an early Magic hero, having been the only winner of the US Open in the inaugural edition of The Duelist Sideboard (print edition!) to have found success with any deck other than Necropotence. For me, it was ticklish to have him not only as a teammate, eventually a friend, but holding down the White Weenie seat of The Gauntlet.
Of course, there were other great episodes of "the Gathering". At the following year's Pro Tour New York, future PT Champion (but already three-time Top 8 competitor) Patrick Chapin declared our crew "much more fun to hang out with than the 'good' players." At LA in 1999, myself, two Pro Tour Champions from the previous year, and a Maxim model partied alongside Nicole Eggert of Charles in Charge fame in a Long Beach nightclub. If you're my age, Nicole Eggert is probably a big deal to you. After that? Tons of quarterfinals-eves where Top 8-locked infinites celebrated early. Half a dozen Saturday nights all in one summer where I personally ruined undefeated Grand Prix Day One records (friends' obviously, not my own) by debauchery prior to Day Two. Nationals 1999 was perfect in all but one way. And the Steak houses! So many steak houses! The occasional barbecue, or prime rib overlooking the gentle roar of the Pacific Ocean beneath a purple sunset... Almost all on Randy Buehler! It was a good run for a good many years.
But this past weekend was something different.
For the first time in a long time, I was the rookie; the interloper.
Last November I was sorting through my paper collection for the first time since 2002. I literally hadn't gone through those boxes in twenty years! Some pretty good finds, like say these:
Guess this play set goes from long box to binder. Who even knew I owned these, LOL pic.twitter.com/HBmSJwO4MV— Michael Flores (@fivewithflores) November 4, 2021
But one of the big things that came out of it were my old teammate Kowal and All Tings Considered godfather Bryan Manolakos helping me to find a place to actually play some of those older cards.
I started testing semi-seriously in January with Patrick O'Halloran-Gannon, with a plan to compete in May's North American Championship. BK told me he was making the trek, and that was good enough for me. Close friend David Tao hosted more-than-semi-serious play-test sessions, with great Premodern players, headlined by former Vintage and Legacy World Champion Roland Chang playing and prepping.
To say I was hooked from the start is a severe understatement.
I want you to think for a moment what made you fall in love with Magic for the first time. For me it was this:
When I was a new player; before I even knew that the card Taiga existed the bug that got me was this Red 1-drop.
The idea that this was a card you could play, just in a Red deck - Mon's Goblin Raiders was contemporary to Kird Ape at this point - but had an implied synergy led me to believe that there were Cheat Codes to the Universe... That there was some puzzle back there waiting to be unlocked. I wasn't a very good deck-builder yet, but reading that text box in 1994 ignited a passion for putting Magic: The Gathering cards together in compounding combinations that has simply never let up.
If that makes you assume my attraction to Premodern is nostalgia-driven... Nothing could be further from the truth. In 1998, I considered Jackal Pup and Cursed Scroll The Enemy. In 2000 I was on the anti-Replenish team at Neutral Ground (even if the Replenish team across the room were still my good friends).
The format is just great! The thing I like the most - and is of greatest contrast with the least satisfying element of contemporary Magic - is that winning the die roll is so much less meaningful. In 2022 I'm a little deflated (especially in Best-of-One Arena Events) when I lose the roll. In Boston last weekend, I didn't win even a single one.
It might be surprising to hear for a format with turn-three combo kills and Jackal Pup + Wasteland openers, but cards like Swords to Plowshares, Daze, and even Thawing Glaciers give you time to develop and counterplay.
I'd guess it doesn't surprise you to learn that my early Weapon of Choice was a Mono-Red deck with Grim Lavamancer and Fireblast. I was set to bring that through my whole first month. I tested lots of decks - from a Madness with Survival of the Fittest to later favorite Astral Slide - but Mogg Fanatic had my heart early.
When first breaking the ice on the format way back in November, Kowal had told me that "power level errata" [whatever that meant] on Parallax Wave and Parallax Tide had been reversed. Because no one played the cards, WotC didn't want to waste confusing digital space managing text from a Standard format 22 years gone that wasn't making Legacy or Vintage sixties. I pretended I knew what he meant and consigned myself to playing something with basic Mountains up until about... Wednesday.
I was initially too proud and pretended I knew what he meant. But then last week I sent him this text:
This is the extent of what I was imagining:
You have a Seal of Cleansing on the battlefield.
You now play Parallax Tide. You remove the five counters (or maybe four if the opponent only has four lands in play), and before those abilities resolve, remove the Tide with your Seal. It will leave play (destroyed), trigger the return of the lands to the battlefield, and then exile them. The lands will never return! One sided Armageddon!
Brian further explained to me that Opalescence + Parallax Wave made you conventionally invincible. No creature without hexproof was safe. Parallax Wave could do the same permanent exile trick to creatures, but with even more tricks and spice. Teamed up with Opalescence, Parallax Wave could target itself, not only resetting its fading counters at will, but also granting a kind of de facto vigilance and de facto immunity to creature removal.
So, the boy who loved Kird Ape twenty-eight years ago went to work.
I won't bore you with the many, many iterations I went through over the following twelve or so hours, or the limitless patience of Kowal and Tao with my rookie questions. I looked up how others approached Replenish, but most of them were obsessed with a one-shot kill via Pandemonium and Saproling Burst. Their decks never escaped the second tier; and for reasons that should be obvious in retrospect. They couldn't cast half their enchantments. Their decks put at least three times as much pressure on the card Replenish, and hence were much more vulnerable to Tormod's Crypt. Besides which, didn't you just win in two or three attacks if the opponent had no permanents and you had infinite mana anyway? It was possible to take a cleaner approach that was more fundamentally robust, and also fixed the incumbent Replenish decks' structural problems.
My understanding was that Replenish was a Tier Two strategy in Premodern not because it wasn't powerful, but because it was both relatively slow (for a combo deck), and also soft to beatdown. I had something in mind for that, though.
This is what I registered in the 2022 North American Premodern Championship:
Parallax Combo | Premodern | 2022 North American Premodern Championship
- Creatures (3)
- 3 Squee, Goblin Nabob
- Enchantments (18)
- 1 Solitary Confinement
- 2 Seal of Cleansing
- 3 Opalescence
- 4 Attunement
- 4 Parallax Tide
- 4 Parallax Wave
... It was the largest Premodern tournament of all time!
Not only was I happy to see many far-flung friends like Cabal Rogue and Righteous Babe teammate Kowal, and New York debauchery companion Zac Hill (Zac has relocated to Washington, D.C.)... But multiple Pro Tour Champions were also in attendance. I was most excited to meet Olle Rade, a first-ballot Hall of Famer and the winner of Pro Tour Columbus back in season one.
Olle was gracious enough to sign my Urza's Baubles (a signature card from his Columbus-winning deck). I kind of love how I can now never upgrade the one white-bordered copy in my play set now :)
This past weekend was chock full of Pro Tour Champions!@OlleRade? probably signed more Sylvan Safekeepers, but I'll now always cherish my set of Urza's Baubles. "Remember Columbus" pic.twitter.com/VVwx7ySPJS— Michael Flores (@fivewithflores) May 15, 2022
Brian Selden, the 1998 World Champion, played a version of his Cali Nightmare in Premodern. In 1999, when, deflated, I learned I had come in ninth place at US Naitionals on tiebreakers, Selden came up to me and said "Ninth at Nationals isn't so bad." He, himself, was one of the eight players ahead of me in '99, and would be battling the likes of Zvi Mowshowitz the next day... But had been in my unlucky spot the previous year. Brian followed up his 9th at Nationals with 1st at Worlds! No one else could have done a better job for me in that moment.
One of my favorite memories ever was Brian Selden consoling me on my 9th place at US Nationals 1999.— Michael Flores (@fivewithflores) May 15, 2022
"Ninth at Nats isn't so bad," he said. He beat me out for Top 8 in 1999... but had himself come in 9th on breakers the previous year on the way to his 1998 World Championship! ? pic.twitter.com/QKkVpYEC3W
Look. I had a great time. Tournament was loaded. Format is the best ever. I LIKED IT, okay? But we might as well get to the Magic rounds, huh?
Round One - Phi Luong with sickestever.dec
Phi got the ball rolling with Gush and a Meddling Mage. He named Counterspell (what would you have named, against Island / Island / Flooded Strand?) I smelled blood and went for Parallax Wave on my turn. Daze. Another big turn. Another Daze. My next powerful play? Foil.
Uh-oh. The Meddling Mage might not have named a card currently in my deck, but it was soon paired with two Quirion Dryads... And I was out of gas. After catching me with second Daze and playing creatures, Phi just didn't have the mana to counter me again, so I dumped all my action for a planned big Replenish. His Foil was absolutely backbreaking.
Combo stories at this point just aren't very interesting. Either I drew action and he didn't have a fourth Counterspell or he killed me, right? I drew Intuition, loaded up triple Replenish, and turned it around.
In Game 2 he got stuck on lands, so it was in fact the sickest ever for YT.
Round Two - Robin Lundh with Full English Breakfast
Being generous to myself, I like to think I would have slowed Robin the eff down had I gotten a turn three. However, Robin's deck was simply not that generous.
He opened on Birds of Paradise, then Survival of the Fittest. At that point he searched for a Palinchron, then traded it in for an arcane creature you've probably never heard of called Volrath's Shapeshifter. Give it a look:
With extremely precise play, Robin pitched the Shapeshifter for a maybe even more arcane oldie, in Phyrexian Devourer:
At this point, the fun started, if you're a Robin Lundh fan. Robin Unearthed the Shapeshifter, creating a brief moment where the Shapeshifter "saw" Palinchron as the top card of his graveyard, therefore untapping his lands before Unearth actually landed on top of it in the graveyard.
At that point it was academic to discard the Devourer for Triskelion, allowing the Shapeshifter to borrow its ability to gain lots and lots of +1/+1 action, then replace it in the graveyard with the Triskelion, translating the ex-Devourer +1/+1 counters directly into my life total.
Welcome to the Premodern show, MichaelJ.
I had not prepared for the Full English Breakfast matchup, and Robin was patient enough to explain his combo to me as he executed it. But I concluded two things: First, even with six double lands, I was not going to be the faster combo deck; and second, it would be difficult-to-impossible for him to kill me without Survival of the Fittest in play.
That worked out, and I was able to buy enough time (with a little help from Parallax Tide) to take Game 2 and Game 3.
Round Three - Pete Lankering with Mono-Red Burn
Remember above when I talked about addressing Replenish's soft beatdown matchup?
David Tao put a potential solution on my radar. It's not actually good all the time; and even in matchups where it works, it's unreliable if the opponent is prepared. But against stock Red Decks? You will often steal Game 1 no matter how unstoppable their draw seems.
The card in question is Solitary Confinement.
In concert with Squee, Goblin Nabob, Solitary Confinement is a kill. The opponent will deck because you never have to draw a card, and Squee can keep it fed as long as you don't forget you have an active graveyard.
If the opponent has as little as one splashed Naturalize in his sideboard, this card doesn't work, and you might as well side it out. He will literally draw into the answer at some point before decking out - even if it is his very last card! On balance, you never advance.
But in Game 1? Against Mono-Red? It was just the bullet I needed to take the first.
Because my version doesn't play Enlightened Tutor you obtain the solo Confinement with an Intuition for two copies of Replenish. Generally, the opponent will give you a Replenish to get the Confinement back, rather than the card itself. Just note you'll need a fourth land, and that an Opalescence in the graveyard can make your life tricky. On the other hand, if you already have four mana and a Replenish, any combination of Squee and Confinement works off an Intuition. EZ game.
Round Four - Jeff White with The Rock
Both games went about the same way. Jeff tore up my hand with Duress and Cabal Therapy, got way ahead, had enough creatures to kill me on the battlefield... And I pulled it out with a big spell on the last possible turn.
Against Jeff I sided like this:
Careful Study is kind of buddies with The Rock's one-mana sorceries and you don't need any more of that action helping them out. Also siding it out prevents you from keeping seductive one land hands with a Squee that immediately lose to a Duress.
Solitary Confinement is particularly bad against The Rock (with Pernicious Deed) and I wanted Counterspell for predicted Haunting Echoes. Finally, Fact or Fiction and Thawing Glaciers are both excellent counterplay for an opponent with one-for-one disruption like Duress and Cabal Therapy. Plus, Thawing Glaciers + Frantic Search is great fun!
One thing to note: I was very happy with my technical play all tournament but for two slips. One of them was against Jeff, where I missed Squee in my graveyard. More embarrassingly, it was two Squees.
Round Five - Flint Espil with Angry Hermit Triple Combo
Even before this weekend, Flint Espil was one of Premodern's standouts. Leading into Boston, I watched him play for some hours, hoping to learn the main decks of the format. As a newcomer to the Premodern community, it's impossible to miss the reverence that players at large have for Flint's deck-building prowess and results. And after playing him myself?
I've been lucky enough to throw hands against the best players of multiple eras, since the very inception of the Pro Tour. I can tell you that any of them would have been proud to command Flint's level of discipline, but more importantly mental game and table presence. Lots of my opponents were competent, but the future Champion was legitimately impressive.
We joked that at Table One, neither of us had won a die roll yet. As you already know, Flint would win this roll, so simple mathematics indicated that I would win the match. I did. You can't argue with math!
Remember when I talked about how disciplined he is? In Game 1, Flint went down to four cards to find Phyrexian Dreadnaught + Vision Charm, putting me on a two-turn clock. He simply refused to keep anything but a Cadillac hand, and my merely very good hand couldn't answer in time.
In Game 2, though, my sideboard really shined. I sided in all my Swords to Plowshares, plus Abeyance; for Seal of Cleansing, Solitary Confinement, and Parallax Tide. Parallax Tide - one of the key incentives to my strategy in the abstract - has comparatively little text against Flint, who can win with very little land in play.
If you're wondering why I sided out Seal of Cleansing in a matchup where I had just lost to Phyrexian Dreadnaught, it's because both Abeyance and Swords to Plowshares are upgrades, and I still wanted all my search cards. Hermit Druid has all the Duress action of The Rock, but instead of giving you between three and five turns while they deploy some merely excellent creatures, Flint's combo deck can kill you in just one or two turns... You don't have time to find Counterspell or fiddle around with Thawing Glaciers. I knew I wasn't fast-er than Flint; but I still wanted to be fast.
Swords to Plowshares is the best card against all three of Flint's combos, but Abeyance is sometimes even more dramatic. You can respond to Phyrexian Dreadnaught with Abeyance. If it resolves, then the opponent will not have an opportunity to use Stifle or Vision Charm to "save" the 12/12. They'll just play their ace and put it into the graveyard directly!
It's even better against the Hermit Druid side.
One way the deck wins is by using Hermit Druid on its own upkeep. With no basic lands, library becomes graveyard; and the opponent always reveals the one Krosan Reclamation. At that point Reclamation flashes back to put Reanimate on top, and a hasty Sutured Ghoul will finish the job in one big swing. If you respond to the Hermit Druid activation with Abeyance, the opponent will not have an opportunity to cast Krosan Reclamation, and will fail to be able to draw a card.
In Game 2, I kept an excellent hand that did not have Swords to Plowshares. But it had enough. I used Abeyance in the traditional way - as a "Time Walk" cantrip on consecutive turns - denying Flint the opportunity to cast any spells main phase at all. This gave me time to set up my combo while he wasn't casting any spells.
In Game 3 my hand was unbeatable. Flint mulled. I snap-kept seven: Swords to Plowshares, plenty of mana, and combo pieces too assorted to be disrupted made it academic.
Round Six - Michael Simpson with Goblins
Round Seven - Brian Kowal with This Girl
It was a nail biter. I was paired down... But paired down against one of my best friends in Magic for over twenty years. Against the person who got me to come to this tournament to begin with! So, I conceded to him. If all went well, both BK and I would be Top 8! We were! But I fell from second to seventh. Now deterministic, I'd be playing second the entire tournament.
Top 8 - Aaron Dicks with Mono-Red Burn
Who is your favorite Red Deck guy? Is it me? Please say it's me. If it's Patrick Sullivan, that's okay (he's my favorite); or Dave Price!
But if you're a Premodern guy? Aaron Dicks might very well be your favorite. Remember the Urza's Baubles that Olle signed? Aaron Dicks innovated their inclusion in the archetype. In fact, his build from this Instagram post was literally the first deck I built for testing. In a way, he's responsible not only for Urza's Bauble, but my own love for Premodern as a whole.
Aaron had actually defeated Olle in the last round of Swiss, so the innovator of Urza's Bauble took out the original innovator of Urza's Bauble. I'm just the guy who knew his Top 8 opponent's seventy-five and that Solitary Confinement was going to work out if I got it fast enough. So, I hard-mulled to five to find the Intuition combo. Aaron's draw was good. And he was on the play! But the five I kept had a double land and a path to the full combo.
Top 4 - Flint Espil with Angry Hermit Combo
BK would later joke that had I not conceded to him in that last round, I might have been on the play in this match. At the time (a bit salty) it didn't really help.
I shipped two hands that would have been keepers against most of the rest of the Top 8 for one that had text and action against Flint's brutal triple combo. My fiver had only one Adarkar Wastes, but Careful Study and Squee. It wasn't there-there... But the last two were Frantic Search and Parallax Wave. Squee was going to go to work. You can't ask much more from a five.
Had I been on the play... It might have been a game. But he took my Careful Study, and had Cabal Therapy information about my Frantic Search. Squee went from Ancestral Recall to Squire pretty quickly. I missed my next two land drops, and Espil had all the time in the world to craft a one-turn kill with perfect information backup from a Cabal Therapy flashback.
Play/draw finally got me!
In hindsight I must have been smarting from the double-mulligan, because I'm 80% I brain farted on my seven-card keep in Game 2. I didn't detail it every time I flew to Paris or London in this event, but I spent more time on five or six than on seven all day. Just the previous round I beat Premodern's top Red Deck guy with a laser focused mulligan setting up my two-card combo just for his deck... And the deck that made me first fall in love with the format.
I kept seven and Flint read me like a cheap dirt rag. "He doesn't have Swords to Plowshares." My hand was good... But it didn't have Swords to Plowshares and he knew it. Flint forced a turn one Dreadnought and that was all she wrote. I'd just have to settle for 3rd in the biggest Premodern tournament of all time, my first.
In the end, Mr. Espil - sorry Doctor Espil - is maybe the best torch-bearer that the burgeoning format could have. If I had to lose to anyone in Top 8? I'm glad it was to the community's hero and an exemplary champion.