Magical Hack: Grand Prix Grandstanding

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Having myself fallen one round short of the joy of drafting Coldsnap, it is left to the two Grand Prix tournaments from last weekend to illumine us as to what is actually going on with the Limited formats that we will be seeing as key highlights this weekend at various National Championships…

Having myself fallen one round short of the joy of drafting Coldsnap, it is left to the two Grand Prix tournaments from last weekend to illumine us as to what is actually going on with the Limited formats that we will be seeing as key highlights this weekend at various National Championships. With a sum total of three events to provide us with some information as of the time of the writing of this article, plus advanced notice of the results of the National Championships in Australia thanks to Blisterguy this past Wednesday, we’ll take a brief look at Standard to see whether it resembles the Regionals metagame at all, pop over briefly to the world of Ravnica Limited by way of the Undefeated Day 1 Decks at Grand Prix: St. Louis and Grand Prix: Malmo, and then explore that coverage more fully to see if any information can be mined about how the Coldsnap Release Weekend went up in the lofty rafters of professional tournament magic.

Stopping off first at the French National Championships, we have some limited information to work with: a list of all decks registered on Day 1, and a list of the eight decks to make the elimination rounds. As a multi-format event, this is not exactly representative of the field, as a deck that goes 6-0 day one has little-to-no control over its fate based on its prior results, as not every Constructed specialist knows their way around a draft environment or two. We also know a bit from the Australian National Championships thanks to an informative leak or two by New Zealander coverage guy Ray ‘Blisterguy’ Walkinshaw, thanks to his column this Wednesday, This Week on MTGO #24… which tells us that a poorly-named Black-White-Blue control deck (“Solar Flare”, for what seems to be absolutely no reason whatsoever) crammed its way into three out of the four semi-finals slots. And likewise the deck had a similar explosion on MTGO, jumping practically overnight to the #1 most-represented deck at premier events, whether because a group of dedicated playtesters were testing the deck leading up to their event (the “Cymbrogi effect”) or because IRL magic (not to be confused with Irish Magic) was following the MTGO metagame for every twist and turn.

Of course, while the events down under may be following a metagame trend that was seen in weeks leading up to the event, the French were swarmed by rather an unusual deck choice: White Weenie, splash a bit of Blue. Half of the decks in the Top 8 at that event looked something like this…

Yes, those are in fact a pair of Wojek Sirens in the hands of people going to Worlds, thanks for noticing. Perhaps the best part is that this archetype blindsided not just the metagame in the room but the coverage staff as well, as it’s listed under “divers” (a.k.a. “random” or “miscellaneous”) on the Day 1 Deck Breakdown seen here. This sets a much more interesting precedent than the slower-than-paint-drying, sideboarding-in-more-paint “Solar Flare” deck, for two key reasons: French Nationals has always had a much greater impact on the U.S. National Championships than any other Nationals, and the U.S. National Championships is well-known for having a long-standing love affair with little White men attacking for two. In both cases, however, we see a Dissension-oriented metagame adjusting beyond the point last seen at Regionals to include a strong Azorius presence, and the U.S. National Championships is all but destined to include a similar exploration of the twists and turns that one can take as Blue and White cards play together… to attack, or to defend.

It would also be safe to say that Shining Shoal has finally gotten its day in the sun, but I’m sure Resident Genius Michael J. Flores will be happy to talk about that to great lengths if you’ll let him. I’d be astounded if there wasn’t a podcast on Top 8 Magic by end of day Friday, or at the very least a premium “Flores Friday” article expounding upon the metagame shifts going into Nationals… cleverly occluded to avoid giving away proprietary information to be played out by Ravitz and co. at Nationals.

And finally settling at the informative brunt of this week’s articles, we have two Grand Prix tournaments to cover from this past weekend, one in Malmo and the other in St. Louis. In St. Louis, American (and Latin American, and Canadian) Magic battled with a foreign invasion as they attempted to repulse the attack of a small but very determined contingent of Japanese spellcasters, and in the end StarCityGames.com own Zac Hill failed in his appointed task as Jack Bauer of the Magic world, as a Grand Prix in the heartland of America was won by a Japanese player who at some point must have flown a dozen hours just to crush American dreams and American dreamers. Meanwhile, over in Europe (or, more specifically, Malmo), a migration of a different sort was occurring… as the French National Championships was effectively a “brain drain” on some of France’s best players, with Benjamin Caumes, Julien Goron, Yann Hamon, Nicolas Labarre, Sylvain Lauriol, Pierre Malherbaud, Alexandre Peset, Antoine Ruel, and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa all skipping a European Grand Prix in order to play their National Championships instead.

Looking at the two tournaments together for Sealed Deck, we have certain assumptions we expect to see fulfilled based on the results of similar tournaments so far this season. In two prior articles on the subject, Your Fate Is Sealed and Big in Japan, we saw the following aspects seemingly influencing success on a grand scale among the undefeated decks:

From the first set of events, Torino / Toronto / Kuala Lumpur, it seemed evident that all seven of the undefeated decks ran a sum total of four colors, five of ‘em in a split of two main colors with two light to medium splashes for key power cards. One of the seven played a deck split evenly between three colors, with the requisite splash of a fourth color, while the last of the seven had a full-blown four-color deck split evenly across the board in such a fashion that suggested a certain someone remembered to sacrifice a young goat to the mana gods that morning. Seven players played sixteen Karoos and eight Signets, plus three rare dual lands for a total of twenty-seven cards counting to two colors of mana split between seven players, just a hair under four per player.

From the second week of analyzing Grand Prix play, in Toulouse, the three undefeated decks were two four-color decks and a three-color deck, with Shuhei Nakamura playing two main colors and two mild splashes, Olivier Ruel playing three main colors rather evenly split and a fourth-color splash snuck in edgewise, and Julien Soum playing a very evenly split three-color deck. Between three players we again had a reasonable bit of mana-fixers, five Karoos, two $20 bills, and six Signets. Thirteen divided by three is just a hair over four per player, and so if you get your four fixers you have permission to go a little bit overboard… it’s worked in the past, so long as you’re clever with your mana count and color commitments. There are a few good reasons for that, and we’re looking at Malmo and Saint Louis to either confirm the hypothesis or reject the hypothesis that stands to date in my analysis of these events. The trends as they stand going into this weekend would basically be summed up as this, from “Your Fate Is Sealed”:

In Sealed Deck at least, it seems clear that we are talking about a very high power format, where the decks that succeed are the ones that stretch their mana that extra little bit in order to squeeze in just one more bomb card, just one more color, along with their best creatures and all their mana fixers and all that other stuff we’re used to in Sealed Deck: playing for your evasion creatures and making sure you have tricks and a decent curve and all that. This means we have an odd format, one dominated by the powerful cards everyone is bringing to the table and the solid synergy of the cards in their deck… and presumably one that is slower than draft, where one’s mana can be helter-skelter and still be expected to work itself out before it’s too, too late.

This appears to be a reversal of what I thought was going on in the last PTQ season, which “only” added Guildpact’s three guilds to the set and still had some strong guild synergy interactions going on. With two Guildpact, you got just enough to let the Orzhov, Gruul and Izzet themes of those colors stand out, giving you a solid point-and-counterpoint system in your Sealed Deck… as one starter of Ravnica is enough to let some of the themes from its four guilds shine, while two boosters of Guildpact also was just about enough to give each of those three guilds their distinct character. With just one pack of Dissension and just one pack of Guildpact, neither of those two expansions is present in enough quantity to really let their guilds shine, and dictate a clear and easy path to victory. Ravnica still shines, but it doesn’t really work as well as it used to with so many themes going at cross-purposes to each other, and the absurdly high power level of the cards in the sealed deck distributed seemingly evenly across five different colors and all ten guilds.

If Ravnica-Guildpact Sealed Deck was a complicated yet delicate game of balancing your risks versus the rewards for trying to reach them… well, I’m sorry, but the name of the game for Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension Sealed Deck is Thermonuclear War.

Looking at the Malmo and St. Louis undefeated Day 1 decks, we can see the following:

St. Louis —

Samuel Stoddard (G/R/B, 2 Karoos, 1 Signet, Civic Wayfinder)
Dalton King (W/G/b/r, 4 Karoos, 1 Signet, Silhana Starfletcher. PS: Demonfire you.)
Nathan Baum (G/U/B, 2 Karoos, 1 Signet, Farseek, Civic Wayfinder, Silhana Starfletcher)

Malmo —

Jelger Wiegersma (G/U/W/r, 2 Karoos, 1 Signet, Silhana Starfletcher, Terraformer)
Andre Coimbra (R/G/w, 2 Karoos, 1 Dual, Civic Wayfinder
Rosario Maij (G/B/w/u, 3 Karoos, Civic Wayfinder, Silhana Starfletcher)
Vasilis Fatouros (G/B/w, 1 Karoo, 2 Signets, Civic Wayfinder)

Again we see some inclusions that are a little bit shaky, like reaching to add a fourth-color splash for Electrolyze off a bounce-land, Signet, and Starfletcher alone, which work out because time is apparently an acceptable resource to stretch in the fight between power and consistency… and having a look at the “fixer” count we see about what we expect. Sixteen Karoos split seven ways, plus six Signets and a dual, make for twenty-three fixers distributed among seven decks, or just over three per player. Just over three is a marked decrease from just about four, and so it is worth noting that all seven of the Undefeated Decks from this week played Green as their main color. Five Wayfinders and four Starfletchers presumably did their bit to help out, as might the lone Farseek… but we also had five four-color decks and two three-color, so the players weren’t stretching quite as far as they did the past few times, likely because the fixers only went so far this time. (I know I for one got exactly one Karoo and one Signet in my PTQ pool this weekend, which almost made me cry until I ran into my friend the Skeletal Vampire.)

So the Ravnica analysis seems to remain correct: power continues to win out over consistency, with the greater number of decks stretching to include two splash colors in addition to two main colors. If you can cast eighteen of your spells off fourteen of your lands, you’re pretty much at the average for Ravnica Sealed Deck. Now with a quick mana count, tallying all the lands and Signets played by our seven undefeated Sealed Decks:

Jelger Wiegersma: 16 Lands, 1 Signet
Andre Coimbra: 18 Lands
Rosario Maij: 16 Lands
Vasilis Fatouros: 16 Lands, 2 Signets
Samuel Stoddard: 16 Lands, 1 Signet
Dalton King: 16 Lands, 1 Signet
Nathan Baum: 16 Lands, 1 Signet

This tallies to just over seventeen mana sources per player, and with sixteen Karoos between seven players we are basically seeing the “standard issue” of two Karoos, one Signet, and fourteen other Lands as the industry standard for the weekend. Compared to the other four tournaments, where we had 17.4 mana per deck rather than 17.2… and 1.4 Signets per, instead of just a hair over one. Essentially, the mana counts are again representative of what we saw in previous weeks: closer to seventeen sources than eighteen, because the expectation is there that you will draw your mana over a sufficiently long time, and approximately sixteen lands plus one Signet per deck. We are missing one key piece of information, that being whether these players tended to play first or draw first, but really… that’s not the kind of information you really expect to show up in the coverage, as interesting a statistic as it would be.

Now we can leave the City of Guilds behind in the height of summer, grasping for a refreshing, cold… draft? When last we left Terisiare in the midst of shattered alliances, Homarids walked the land, glaciers thawed and receded (and were errata’d, and the best card in High Tide decks in Extended), Kjeldor branched out in outposts against the barbarians of Balduvia, and Krov lay in rubble in the aftermath of Phyrexian war-beasts raised from their slumber by a mighty spell feeding off of the blood of the Archmage Jodah, a descendant of the mighty Brothers who broke the world long before Rand al’Thor ever thought it “might be nice.” Now we face a repetitive world of Thrumming Stones crapping out enough worshippers of Tevesh Szat to put the Cult of Rakdos to shame, eight power worth of First Strikers on turn 3 (for the low, low price of three mana, one card, and a hefty portion of your allocated luck for the weekend), and a world where a snow-covered land is a reasonable first pick.

In Saint Louis, early results at the draft table saw White criminally under-drafted, with numerous drafters making the Top 8 on the strength of under-appreciated White decks, many featuring the Ripple-licious Surging Sentinel in abundance. So many of these mages got to the top table that way, and so many of them were conscious of how their neighbors got where they were, that in several cases a new draft plan had to be audibled to on the fly, or face the possibility of everyone fighting over the exact same cards if they tried to dance with the girl that brought them.

And in Malmo, similar feats were pulled off, if not quite with the heavy bias on White. Prior to the Top 8, the three most successful archetypes (as seen by coverage reporter Tim Willoughby) were Red/Blue, Green-X (with X most commonly being Red), and White Weenie. As far as Ripple going in the Top 8 was concerned, Surging Sentinels was split by two players (four for one, two for the other), Surging Aether was a six-of for one player, while Surging Might was a five-of for Kamiel Cornelissen… and Surging Flames was a four-of. Surging Dementia, predictably enough, was nowhere to be seen. Four Sentinels Guy got to the semi-finals, while Four Flames Lad made it to the finals… and the winning deck was a solid, removal-light Blue-Black Snow deck featuring Garza’s Assassin and two Disciples of Tevesh Szat as its only true creature-control elements.

There is a certain irony that Ripple as a mechanic lost in the finals in both events, with four Surging Flames dying to a Blue-Black Snow-based deck in Malmo and six Surging Sentinels falling to… a Blue-Black Snow-based deck in Saint Louis. Surging Mights won zero elimination-round matches, Surging Sentinels won a few, Surging Aether proved irrelevant regardless of however many of them you drafted, and Surging Flames are good but the Ripple part is hardly the part that matters. But the Blue-Black decks based around the Coldsnap “snow” mechanic won both Grand Prix in the format, leaving the multiplicity of the “lost” Ice Age block expansion behind to just take good cards that work well together instead of trying to draft the most aggressively inbred deck at the table. Forum posters on StarCityGames, and the twenty-plus page thread discussing results of drafts done on the Coldsnap beta-test (and, perhaps, “IRL” as well) that came to basically the same conclusion have been vindicated by Pro-level results, though you know… if you can get enough Sentinels… it may just work out.

Another look at Coldsnap draft in greater detail is certainly in order, as early results at both tournaments suggested that trying to draft your Coldsnap draft deck like a degenerate Constructed deck would yield the best results… but in the end, the decks that looked more like draft decks and less like Relentless Rats decks won the day.

Sean McKeown
smckeown @ livejournal.com

Sleep will not come to this tired body now,
Peace will not come to this lonely heart
There are some things I live without, but I want you to know
That I need you right now… I need you tonight…
The Smashing Pumpkins, “In the Arms of Sleep