Positive EV – The Formats of Pro Tour: Honolulu

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Tuesday, June 9th – Manuel Bucher’s performance at Pro Tour: Honolulu wasn’t quite enough to see him into Day 2. Nevertheless, he believes he’s made some profound discoveries regarding both Shards Block Constructed and Shards Block Draft. He dislikes the first format, but has recently reached an epiphany regarding the forty-card format. If you’re struggling to win in Shards/Conflux/Reborn, Manu has the advice you need!

As I’m writing this, it is Sunday 6:30am. You might have guessed by now that I am already awake because of the jetlag. If you think this, you’re wrong. I tried to be up and about early enough to get into the queue for a Magic Online Tournament held at the site. Sadly, the queue was already full. One hour before the site opens was not early enough.

For my Pro Tour report, I’m going to write about both parts, Limited and Constructed. I probably won’t tell you a lot about my matches, simply because there is not a lot to tell. I’d rather share what I think about the format.

Shards of Alara: Block Constructed

Days before the Pro Tour, the format was pretty obvious. There would be an insane amount of Jund decks, with some dedicated Cascade and Green/White beatdown decks. As I usually perform pretty well when I am able to tune the most popular deck to beat the mirror, I decided that I was going to play Jund too. I made this decision two days before the PT was held, and this is what I played.


4 Savage Lands
4 Jungle Shrine
4 Exotic Orchard
4 Rupture Spire
4 Swamp
4 Mountain
3 Forest

4 Sprouting Thrinax
4 Bloodbraid Elf
2 Thornling
2 Enlisted Wurm
4 Broodmate Dragon
1 Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund

4 Celestial Purge
4 Terminate
4 Blightning
4 Bituminous Blast

4 Maelstrom Pulse
2 Qasali Pridemage
2 Thought Hemorrhage
4 Goblin Outlander
3 Anathemancer

As Jund decks display a lot of variance, it is very hard to know what you are fighting against. Some list run Sedraxis Specter and Putrid Leech, some list run Jund Hackblade and Putrid Leech, and some lists are not running any of these cards. There are the slower versions splashing for White, and versions with no splash at all. I thought that some mid-ranged builds – whose early drops are either Putrid Leech or nothing at all – would be the most popular, but when I reached this deduction I didn’t think about the purpose of Sedraxis Specter. If you get punished by Blightning with a Sedraxis Specter in your hand, you are able to even it out (they lose two cards – Blightning and the card they have to discard into the Specter – and you lose the two cards to the Blightning… And both players take three damage). If you manage to discard two Specters, you are way ahead. And Blightning might be the second best card in the mirror, right after Bloodbraid Elf.

All my early drops are either the most powerful cards in the format or very good removal in the mirror, and Celestial Purge is by far the best there. I didn’t play any Maelstrom Pulses as they just don’t shine if your opponent has the same name on their permanents as you have on yours. This configuration makes your cascade far better than your opponents’. You never flip up a dead card, and the cheap spells are still powerful in the late game.

Some people play Uril or Algae Gharial for the mirror, but I think Thornling is the better plan here. Both Path to Exile and Oblivion Ring are not popular splashes in Jund, and Thornling beats both Uril and Algae Gharial in the heads up.

Sadly, this was one of the worst — if not the worst — format I’ve played in my life. I will not share a round by round report, as all the wins and losses happened the same way.
First of all, I played five Jund mirrors (some more controlish with White, some more aggressive with Ancient Ziggurat and Woolly Thoctar).

– Whenever a player took a mulligan, he was in a huge disadvantage because of Blightning
– Whenever a player missed one of his several colors, he probably lost
– Whenever a player missed a land drop in the first four or five turns, he probably lost
– Whenever a player didn’t cast a spell in the mid-game, he probably lost

This is not counting the huge randomness of Cascade building lots of variance in such a big tournament.

Cascade makes it very hard to plan the game. Assuming you did Blightning your opponent on your third turn playing first, and you now have the choice to cast a Bloodbraid Elf or not. If you reveal one of the removal spells to the empty board, it might lose you the game, because your opponent gets a lot more value out of his good cards. If you reveal one of your good spells (Blightning, Sprouting Thrinax), you might end up winning the game at this point because your opponent will have a very hard time catching up. You are unable to plan out what happens (unless you are playing something like Cascade-Swans, in which cascade is a fine ability), and you have to play the card and see where it gets you.

I hope a player who had more success on the tournament confirms my thoughts on the format. I know it is hard to believe a player such as myself, who did pretty badly in this format, who complains about it. This is also why I’m now switching over to the Limited format, which I enjoy a lot more.

Shards of Alara: 8-Player Draft

In my opinion, Shards of Alara has become a very fast format since the release of Alara Reborn. As the control player, it is very hard to build a winning deck if you don’t have any mass removal spells (Jund Charm, Infest, Volcanic Fallout, or even Suicidal Charge) or a bomb that wins the game the turn it comes into play (Empyrial Archangel, Broodmate Dragon, and others). I would pick Akrasan Squire over almost everything, unless I open it with either a very good rare for beatdown or a very good rare for control.

The booster I opened had the following cards that made sense for me to pick first.

Tezzeret the Seeker
Kathari Screecher
Welkin Guide

As my goal was to 3-0 the draft, and I had to accomplish my goal in order to make Day 2, I picked Tezzeret the Seeker. Tezzeret is a bomb in the right deck, and wins often if it hits the table. Sadly, if you don’t get the dedicated deck, Tezzeret is mediocre at best. Assuming I opened such a pack when I had to go 2-1 in the draft in order to Top 8 an event, I’d probably pick the more solid Welkin Guide or Kathari Screecher.

For my second pick, I’m faced with another hard decision, having both Kathari Screecher and Tidehollow Sculler in the pack. As U/W beatdown is my favorite archetype in the format, the Kathari Screecher was very appealing to me, but as I had to go 3-0 I tried to get the dedicated Tezzeret deck and picked up the Sculler.

For my sixth pick I was passed an Empyrial Archangel. As this is one of the few cards I would first pick over an Akrasan Squire, I had no idea what is going on, and put the card in the facedown pile in front of me.

Somehow both the Welkin Guide out of pack 1 and the Kathari Screecher out of pack 2 wheeled.

My pack 1 ended with some cards for a dedicated Tezzeret deck, some cards for a U/W beatdown deck, and some for a five-color control deck.

This made drafting for the next packs very hard, and I ended up with a U/W based mid-ranged deck splashing for Tidehollow Sculler and Darklit Gargoyle to strengthen up my Tezzeret, and another splash for Empyrial Archangel. My manabase was fine, as I had a pair of Borderposts, an Obelisk, and a pair of non-basic lands. The deck was fine… It just wasn’t a 3-0 deck. The power was missing, and the synergy was missing. I also didn’t have the removal to compensate for those aspects of the deck, as my only removal-type cards were Unsummon and Path to Exile.

I did some team drafts the next day, and I learned a very valuable lesson on how to draft Shards with Alara Reborn. Before Alara Reborn was released, I wanted to be two colors with a splash for the third color in the shard. I tried the same in the first few Shards-Conflux-Reborn drafts I played, but it usually didn’t work out that well. Alara Reborn features nothing but multicolored cards, and I didn’t realize for a long time how they worked. Thanks to the hybrid mana symbol, there are a lot of cards in a shard you can cast with your main color and any of the two others. That is why I am trying to get a lot of cards for the core color of the shard in the first two pack, and picking those cards over more powerful cards in the side color (like Kathari Screecher over Puppet Conjurer in Esper). I don’t much care how many cards I pick in both my “side colors,” but I try to keep the count as low as possible. With the third pack you can pick up a lot of the Shard-dedicated hybrid cards, meaning you end up having an easy manabase to build, and you end up with a constant deck.

If you end up with an 8-4-4-1 (or 8-5-3-1) manabase, with the “1” being a fixer, you are able to cast a huge amount of the cards if you draw your main color and one of your side colors. As you build your manabase, make sure you count the right cards as the right color.

Assuming you are Esper:

Bant Sureblade is a White card. This is because your deck needs to draw its main color to function; you rarely will be able to keep an opening hand without it. If you count this as a White card, it makes it easier to determine if you need more White sources than Black, or vice versa.
– Esper Sureblade is a Blue card. This is because it doesn’t matter which side color you draw. As long as you draw your main color (Blue), you should be able to cast the card.
– Glassdusk Hulk is a Blue card. This is because you get value out of the card even though you don’t draw the side color needed to cast it, as you can cycle it with your main color.

I pick cards that are only in the main color of my Shard much higher than the ones of my side color. The failure rate of the Shard-dedicated decks go down by a lot, and your deck ends up being very consistent even though you lose some power.

I was not a huge fan of this draft format until I figured this out. I didn’t think that you are able to draft a solid Shard deck without a huge failure rate because of the mana (a 5-6-5-1 manabase is just not what I am looking for), or you lose a lot of power because you pick the mana fix that high. I was disappointed because you couldn’t draft the very decks the format suggests you try. With this single stroke, I actually started enjoying the format, and I will definitely end up participating in some more team drafts.

Next weekend I will be playing in the Grand Prix in Sao Paolo, and hopefully I’ll end my losing streak. I will not be playing cards I hate in that tournament (Bloodbraid Elf). Instead, I’ll be switching back to less powerful cards that I enjoy playing. It might change my attitude toward playing the game, and thus help my results.

Thanks for reading!

Manu B