Best Pro Tour Ever?

Chris Lansdell isn’t done with brewing just because a great Pro Tour has concluded! #SCGNY’s Standard Classic could be the site of even more Standard innovation if you follow Chris’s latest!

It seems like every Pro Tour recently has been hailed as one of the best ever, but the recently concluded #PTEMN may have a stronger claim than most of its contemporaries to that crown. Despite being on the other side of the world, I did my best to watch live as the action unfolded, as is my wont, and I have some observations to share on the whole weekend.

A-Bant-Don Ship!

The biggest story going in to the weekend was the expected dominance of Bant Company. A lot of the coverage narrative in fact was focused on those who had chosen to join them and those who had attempted to beat them, with “them” being the Bant Company players. An entire pre-taped interview segment was based on that very discussion, in fact.

A large majority of the pro players decided to “beat them” and find a brew that could beat the known bogeyman of the format while remaining acceptable against the rest of the field. They succeeded; only two Bant Company decks made the Top 8, and only nine of them (out of 43) went 7-3 or better. Hardly the dominant performance we expected.

Breakout Cards

Probably the biggest breakout card of the weekend was Emrakul, the Promised End. The hype around Big Mama ‘Drazi was fairly muted in the two weeks leading up to #PTEMN, aside from people like Ali Aintrazi telling us it was busted. How good was it? There were more copies of Emrakul in the Top 8 than there were Spell Quellers. Who saw that coming?

Of course I couldn’t resist a little bragging here, as Vessel of Nascency was a prevalent part of many of the team decks we saw this weekend. The ability to enable delirium as early as turn 2 while also drawing a card (essentially) led to a true breakout performance for this little common from Shadows over Innistrad. I believe I had that.

One thing I did not have was Wretched Gryff, and I don’t think many others did either. I can’t remember the last time a card so simple it was used to demonstrate a new mechanic was actually played in a top-tier deck. The combination of drawing a card, triggering Kozilek’s Return and Sanctum of Ugin, and allowing you to fly in for decent chunks of damage made for an irresistible package…especially if you can get that for two mana and a sacrificed creature.

An even bigger surprise was Thermo-Alchemist, the star of many a U/R draft deck and this spicy number from Pedro Carvalho:

I love everything about this…almost. I really want to fit some Take Inventory in here somehow, just for additional cheap card draw. I also think Galvanic Bombardment can in many cases be superior to Fiery Impulse, especially in a deck that will likely draw so many cards. I can only assume the Goldnight Castigators in the sideboard were for the ramp matchup, but since that deck is now even faster, it could well be a liability. Still, I need to try this or something like it, maybe with Niblis of Frost or Docent of Perfection in here somewhere.

The other list that made me happy was the one played by Maciej Janik and several others:

Four colors in this format is somewhat aggressive, but luckily we don’t actually need to cast our “red” spell, and the black is basically a splash. I tried playing a U/B Zombie Emerge deck at FNM and it felt like it was just missing one piece to be powerful. Cryptbreaker was in my version and never really felt good enough. I also played Wharf Infiltrator, which felt better, but I always felt the quantity of mana available to me was stretched too far.

Here we get the card selection of green instead, along with Noose Constrictor as a powerful discard outlet. Haunted Dead, however, is probably the best card in the deck for adding more power to the battlefield in a hurry.

The sideboard does confuse me somewhat, lacking as it is in Distended Mindbenders and also having the ambitious plan of emerging a Decimator of the Provinces. I do love the Dragonlord Silumgar, which in my version was an absolute workhorse; not only does it steal you something to sacrifice, it can be sacrificed itself only to be bought back later. This list is a lot of fun and I recommend it to anyone who likes beating up on Bant Company.

Attacking the New Meta

With the Pro Tour starting at 8:30pm Thursday, our weekend tournaments were affected more than normal by the unfolding metagame. Friday night still saw people guessing at lists, but we had a small tournament on Saturday and a larger one on Sunday for which full lists were available. Those tournaments saw some interesting trends, not least of which was the number of players looking to go with red removal. We did have one person on the Carvalho list above, plus a couple of brews.

Matt Pippy has not been playing Magic for long, but this brew belies his relative inexperience. It absolutely demolishes both Bant Company and W/R Humans, though it did seem to struggle against the Emerge decks. Some more discard might fix that issue.

This deck was responsible for the following sequence:

Goblin Dark-Dwellers, target Grasp of Darkness.

Grasp your Spell Queller, get back Languish.

Cast Languish, kill your other Spell Queller.

Get back Kolaghan’s Command, you discard a card and I get back my Dark-Dwellers.

I was unaware cascade was still in Standard.

With only some tweaking of numbers, I think B/R Dragons is a real threat going forward, especially if the metagame becomes Bant Company, G/B Delirium, and Humans. It has a lot of play to it and red removal is well-positioned against the Collected Company metagame.

Shane Wyatt, who I believe I have brought up here before, likes red decks. Okay, he loves them. If he shows up with a deck that does not have Mountains (or has Islands in it), people will be very confused. He was one of four people to play Mono-Red on Sunday and make the Top 16, with two of those making Top 8.

Just look at this baby. Pure hot heat. My first thought on looking at it was that I want to splash white for Eldrazi Displacer, Needle Spires, and Declaration in Stone in the sideboard. Blinking Bedlam Reveler (I would want the second one in the maindeck) and Goblin Dark-Dwellers is just great value, and we also get the added fun of blinking Spell Queller.

Shane mentioned being particularly happy with Insolent Neonate as some early damage, a speed bump, and a way to pitch surplus lands later in the game. The deck is not an all-in burn deck but is slightly faster than a traditional Big Red build. Watching Shane play it made me excited to actually try a red deck, which almost never happens.

Some of the best innovation I saw was in the form of single-card tweaks to existing lists. My friends Ryan and Mike used Zack Kanner’s Abzan Control list as a base but added one key piece of technology: Sigarda, Heron’s Grace. Mike originally came up with the plan as a way to beat Emrakul, the Promised End’s cast trigger, but throughout the day they both discovered it’s also good against Transgress the Mind; Ishkanah, Grafwidow’s activated ability; Distended Mindbender’s cast trigger; and of course burn spells. She also grants hexproof to an animated Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and lets you turn your graveyard into a stream of annoying threats. I know Mike in particular was very happy with it all day.

The other thing people tried to do was deal with all the graveyard shenanigans. Without an obvious piece of graveyard hate in the format, we had to dig deep. A couple of people chose Learn from the Past as their weapon of choice, but I prefer a different janky Dragons of Tarkir card:

It’s slow, but the delirium decks are often grindier and we will therefore often have seven mana before we lose. Not only do we complete hose their gameplan, we also get to steal all their toys. It’s even possible we could process some of them with a Wasteland Strangler, perhaps. Either way, I want to resolve it just once and watch their mouth drop.

A Day at the Races

Pro Tour coverage for me is all about narratives. Scratch that, all coverage is about narratives, or at least it should be. The race for GP Master this season was nothing short of thrilling, as it was last season. It’s a real shame that this title is going away, but at least the reason given for that makes good sense. What makes even more sense is disposing of the Midseason Master title, which basically functioned like Elo ratings and encouraged Owen Turtenwald to sit at home for half the year after he won it.

Throughout the Pro Tour we received updates on the races for Player of the Year, Draft Master, Constructed Master and the various national champion slots. Those updates were great, and the mini-interviews were great. I would have liked to see some clips showing some great plays or some stats on the dominance of the various contenders, but let’s take it one step at a time.

Being national champion is starting to feel more important each year. That could be helped by actually showing a medal ceremony for the champions, for example. Time constraints meant we didn’t get to hear from all the race contenders, which is something that could be prioritized in the future. After all, it only applies to one Pro Tour a year.

Of course the big story was the Player of the Year race. Seth Manfield, who appeared unstoppable for the last few months, losing out to Owen Turtenwald on the most unlikely of Hail Mary situations made for great viewing, especially when Owen went from 10-0 to 11-4 and was in danger of missing the Top 8 he needed to steal the title. Then again, if Owen had played more in the second half of the season, he might have broken records on his way to the crown.

Hall of Fame

The Pro Tour Hall of Fame is in a weird place. On the one hand, Magic is the only game I can think of where Hall of Famers are still active, but once elected, they tend to play less as they no longer need to grind events to stay qualified. On the other hand, inactive pros are encouraged to come back and play once they are elected, since they automatically get entry to every Pro Tour.

Then there are the prominent people in the community who will probably never be elected to the Hall of Fame because it is a Pro Tour Hall of Fame and not a Magic Hall of Fame. The likes of Brian David-Marshall, Frank Kusumoto, and Jamie Wakefield have all had huge impacts on the game and the community around it, but they will never be recognized for that with the game’s highest honor. Other sports with a Hall of Fame will allow for a Builders Wing or something similar that allows for non-players to receive their due.

The supposed bonus of electing people to the Hall, that it encourages old-school pros to come back to the game, has worked only sporadically. William Jensen came back, and we have seen the likes of Ben Rubin starting to show up at Grands Prix. However, Eric Froelich has played significantly fewer events since being elected, and had Luis Scott-Vargas not had an obscene year, he had made remarks about playing fewer events as well. I would really like to see the Pro Tour qualification become reliant on playing a certain number of Premier events in the previous season, or perhaps in the last twelve months. The bar could be set pretty low, but it does mean that electing someone to the Hall of Fame does not mean we see less of them.

Where Does It Rank?

It’s been said a lot, but for me this was the best Pro Tour I can remember. The Top 8 might not have had the absurd name value of Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad, but only one person in the Top 8 was in their first: Sam Pardee, a very well-known player. Two of the players had had multiple Top 8 finishes this season, and LSV was on his third in a row. Just amazing.

Then there were the stories that went all the way through Round 16 on Saturday evening, culminating in Owen almost pulling off the trifecta of Hall of Fame election, Player of the Year coronation, and Pro Tour champion. Games of Magic are great and all, but it’s the emotion behind them that really draw in the viewers. That’s why the Olympics are so popular.

Given the expected dominance of Bant, this Pro Tour also contained a surprising amount of innovation. So many archetypes in the 21-points-and-better lists, and the feeling that the format is still not settled. I feel like G/B Delirium might be the best deck coming out of the Pro Tour, and that is certainly where I am looking to start. Abzan Control, surprisingly absent from the event, is another option with some solid toolbox choices.

Combine that with some classic games, some great between-rounds content, and a lack of controversy on camera, and I think we’ll look back on this event as the start of something great.

That’s all we have time for this week, folks. As always, thanks for stopping by, and until next time…Brew On!