Lessons From Montreal

Legacy Championship winner Ari Lax writes about the many different lessons he learned at the Theros/Born of the Gods Limited Grand Prix in Montreal, Canada this past weekend.

I performed extremely poorly at Grand Prix Montreal with a fairly solid pool, but not all is lost. Grand Prix Philadelphia is coming up in just under a month, and even with the few matches I played, I was able to glean a lot of knowledge about the format. When I go to Philly in a few weeks, I’ll be opening up a sealed pool yet again, but I’ll be thinking a little bit differently based off of my experiences in Montreal.

Green Is Better Than It Looks

I should know this from Theros Sealed, but the green creatures in this format overperform. They all look like they are just durdly monsters, but the reality is that even a 4/4 for five like Snake of the Golden Grove outclasses everything that was cast before it in a game. The other part of this is that the smaller creatures aren’t sized to close before that point. To use a Zac Hill term, it’s just not mathematically possible for the low cost creatures to win the game before the endgame haymakers hit.

It’s also difficult to push downhill into a medium life total. Most of the cards that do that are things like Nimbus Naiad that are actually just game-ending threats and not actually optimized as reach. Sure, it’s a swing less to kill them, but considering how difficult it is to kill creatures in this format, your creature that is killing them will probably still be around to finish the job two attacks later.

The other part of this equation is that there are so many interchangeable monsters. Yes, Nessian Asp is miles ahead of all the others, but when comparing them to the other colors, it just doesn’t matter. The other colors’ creatures are just on a different sizing schedule. Five mana doesn’t buy four power in the other colors.

So when on paper it looks like your green cards are an old-fashioned clunk fest with no really outstanding cards, they are actually just reliable. Each green fatty is a single card combo to build a monster.

White Is Worse Than It Looks

This is basically the inverse of above. Yes, heroic creatures that get counters are good if you trigger them a bunch. Getting that to happen in Sealed is hard. The category of "random combat tricks that win fights" is much harder to come by in this format. Commons are harder to come by in general in Sealed compared to Draft, and this is even further pronounced by the Theros/Born of the Gods split. The pump in Born of the Gods just doesn’t stack up to the +2/+2s in Theros in terms of pushing through the large creatures. Losing this ability to win combats is part of the reason it’s so hard for the small creatures to endgames before the large ones get online.

The card quality also drops off drastically after the first couple commons. A creature that is for all intents a Grizzly Bears (Oreskos Sun Guide) is one of the best white commons out of Born of the Gods. As we said in our set discussion for the Pro Tour, the sixth best green common is probably better than the third best common in every other color, especially white.

On the subject of best commons, Akroan Skyguard significantly underperformed for me. Putting anything other than a bestow creature or Aura on it still did not result in an impressive body, and if I was putting an Aura or Bestow creature on something, it really didn’t matter what it was. I figured out that the issue is that the upgrade per counter on Skyguard isn’t really comparable to Wingsteed Rider. A 2/2 flier for 1W is good, but a 3/3 flier for 1WW is absurdly good. It isn’t until the third counter that the cheaper creature becomes better, and by that point it really doesn’t matter since again your flier has +3/+3.

The trap is that the white cards all look good on paper. Your deck has a curve, you have things with heroic that look powerful, and you have spells that do things. It turns out that you are battling uphill to make your cards actually exchange for theirs.

The best white decks are pretty unbeatable, but those are not nearly as common as people think. If your white is not solidly above average, you’re probably being trapped into playing it.

Pro Tip: If you don’t know if your white is good or not, count your copies of Ornitharch. That card is pretty close to unbeatable. Also, Glimpse the Sun God is similarly absurd.

Bounce Matters Less, Removal Matters More

Griptide and Voyage’s End were absolutely phenomenal in Theros Sealed. They reset heroic creatures, knocked off Auras, and were one of the few ways to answer a Nessian Asp.

In my matches at Montreal, I was remarkably unimpressed by the bounce my opponent played, while even marginal removal like Excoriate was game changing.

Part of this might be that Retraction Helix is significantly worse than Voyage’s End or Griptide when you are the aggressor. Having to have an untapped creature that could attack but instead has to tap to bounce a creature is a real drawback. I also think that the Heroic interaction with Helix is overstated for this exact reason. If your creature is midsized (like a 3/3 Wingsteed Rider), you don’t really want to tap it instead of attack, but you also want the +1/+1 counter. If you’re defending against an enchanted creature, the card is as good as any bounce spell, if not better since it can also bounce a bestow Aura to kill the attacker in combat, but defensive bounce is just generally worse than offensive bounce due to the inherent card disadvantage.

On this note of "issues that are caused by Born of the Gods being less powerful than Theros," the worsening of removal in the new set is also a big part of this issue. There are no replacements for Time to Feed, Asphyxiate is not on par with Sip of Hemlock, and Weight of the Underworld is not close to Lash of the Whip or Pharika’s Cure. This puts a higher premium on any removal, not just the topnotch ones that determined your build in Theros Sealed.

And again on the "Born of the Gods is way worse than Theros" bandwagon, the threats in this set are just not as good. You no longer have "Rage of Purphoros doesn’t kill Nessian Asp, but Griptide does" as the defining characteristic of the format. Generic removal kills the generic creatures getting in your way instead of needing unconditional removal to kill premium threats.

Griptide and Voyage’s End are still great cards, but seeing bounce in your pool is no longer something that locks you into playing blue.

Black Is Great If You Have Playables

If you want removal, black is the place to go for it. If you want removal, you also need to be heavier black. Lash of the Whip is splashable, but Asphyxiate and Sip of Hemlock cost double black and are the cards you’re really looking for.

The issue here is that black is borderline unplayable in Born of the Gods. Past Asphyxiate, it dries up really quick. Servant of Tymaret is pretty good, but basically none of the commons can win a game. I’ve gone as far as to say I actually like Warchanter of Mogis because it might be an evasion creature.

So with half of your packs being terrible for black and the other half pushing a heavy black theme with Disciple of Phenax and Gray Merchant of Asphodel, you end up in a situation where black is often just straight up unplayable in Sealed. I saw many copies of Sip of Hemlock languishing in sideboards over the course of the day. Of course, getting to play black is a real delight because the cards that make it good are extremely good, so keep an eye out.

Red Got Better

As a reminder, red was basically unplayable in Theros Sealed. The red decks that did well at Grand Prix (read: 9-0ed) were mostly green decks that splashed for Underworld Cerberus or Polis Crusher. On rare occasion a deck would have the required amount of Stormbreath Dragon and support cards to break through, but red was still the most underrepresented color in the undefeated bracket.

Fall of the Hammer is a good card. Bolt of Keranos is a good card. Kragma Butcher is a good card. Some of your uncommons like Akroan Conscriptor are very good cards. These cards are also much more prevalent than the Theros all-stars thanks to the smaller set size of Born of the Gods. This puts red in the envious position of being the only color where the set split makes you more likely to open your best commons.

Your first pack cards got way better. As I mentioned above, the four damage to five damage jump on Rage of Purphoros matters less. Red has almost all of the good ways to finish after getting in early damage. Your random four-drops (Borderland Minotaur and Ill-Tempered Cyclops) are now larger than anything in the second set as opposed to being a hundred percent outclassed by green options.

Five of the six undefeated decks at Grand Prix Montreal played red. This is not an accident.

Enchantment Removal Got Way Better

If most of the creatures are interchangeable, the pump spells in the format become what sets them apart. Making your random creature big enough to eat their random creature is a big deal.

Even though the bestow creatures in Born of the Gods are less powerful than their Theros counterparts by a large amount, they still accomplish this goal of pushing your creatures over the edge and forcing two-for-one blocks. If Auras are the best way to make this happen, that in turns makes answers for enchantments things that can rectify board states.

Note that swapping half of your monstrosity creatures for tribute creatures lends a lot to this interchangeability. Instead of a player paying mana to make their creature grow out of reach, their opponent loses some ground to make it manageable. Because the creatures rarely reach into the heights of monstrosity, the smaller boosts of bestow creatures are actually the biggest things around. The lack of monstrosity also means that the only way to get that large is through enchantments, so the awkward Fade into Antiquity versus Nessian Asp battle happens much less frequently.

The Truly Unbeatable Cards Are The Noncreature, Non-Enchantment Rares

Every deck in the format is aiming to interact with creatures and Auras on some level. All of the common and uncommon threats fall under one of those categories. As mentioned above, due to the generally large sizing of the common threats, most of the removal people are trying to play matches the ability to kill any creature or Aura threat rare or non-rare.

The threats that are really insane in Sealed are the cards that dodge this answer set. Obviously that means Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, but there are several spells that are extremely powerful. For example, Hunter’s Prowess.

This doesn’t mean that things like Eidolon of Countless Battles aren’t game enders. It just helps define what the true top tier of bombs is that are potentially worth warping a deck around.

I Seriously Cannot Do This "Chain Of Grand Prix" Thing

I was extremely underprepared for this event, and it sucked. All of these are things I could have learned with an extra week to work on the format. Obviously that time didn’t necessarily exist, but if I had not been preparing for Richmond and Cincinnati, it could have.

These three weekends are a rare exception. I was obviously going to Richmond since it was a StarCityGames.com Grand Prix and Modern. I was obviously going to Montreal since it was within driving distance. I was obviously going to Cincinnati to hang out with all my Midwest friends.

Barring these rare exceptions, this won’t happen again. It was a good reminder of something I’ve been saying for a while now, and I’m glad I wasn’t really counting on these events for anything important.

I Am Very Good At Distributing My Variance

I jokingly say doing well at Magic is about knowing how to distribute your lifetime variance. Better to brick two events and win one than finish average at all three, especially under the new Grand Prix system.

I had been running pretty good in the travel aspect of my game lately, with all easy flight schedules and upgrades for days. It was bound to catch up to me, and unfortunately my travel compatriots were hit as well.

An itemized list of what occurred:

  • Our car was late picking us up because they got pulled over basically pulling out of their driveway.
  • Someone’s backpack broke as we were getting up to meet our car downstairs.
  • The driver’s GPS died, leaving only the "Norwegian Grandmother" voice setting to tell them there was no map on it and no open memory to put a map in.
  • It wasn’t snowing on our way to Montreal, but we were stuck in snow drifts that actually obscured the road and made controlling the car difficult. Also making this difficult was the fact that something in this stage caused the power steering to die (note: the car had been serviced under a week earlier).
  • One of the people I traveled with checked their byes, saw about 775 Planeswalker Points, and showed up after the two-round sleep-in special. It turned out an event had gone in after the cut off and they actually had one bye, resulting in an early match loss.
  • The coup de grace:

The temperature outside of zero was about how hot we were running this trip. We quickly concluded that getting jackets from the trunk was a worse idea than opening the doors and making everyone freeze, and the conversation quickly turned to whether we would be eaten by wolves, coyotes, or a moose (in my understanding of moose, they wouldn’t eat you out of hunger but out of spite for property and livelihood).

On the fortunate side, we had made it across the border, which led to the following fun experience.

Yes, this has happened before to me.

Fortunately, I can really appreciate these scenarios due to the "it’s not my car" factor. It was a reasonably awkward inconvenience, but the experience was fairly absurd.

Also fortunately, I have a chance to redeem myself.

I promise now that Grand Prix Philadelphia 2014 will be a zero car malfunction Grand Prix for me.