Three weeks from now, the first Pro Tour of the year gets underway in the fabulous city of San Diego, California. Many Pros will have made the short trip from Oakland, scene of the opening Grand Prix of the year, just the previous weekend. I spend much of my time around the best players in the world, and with a lot of exciting additions for the 2010 season, I’m more excited about Magic at the highest level than I’ve ever been.
In particular, many of you will know that I’ve landed the dream job of sitting beside Pro Tour Historian Brian David-Marshall in the Booth for Pro Tour Sundays, and together we’ll be hosting all the Tournament Centers, bringing you a mix of great features throughout each PT weekend. Now more than ever, therefore, I’m plugged into Pro Magic.
But to my mind, that isn’t enough. On the 21st February, I’ll call home the first PT Champion of 2010, but that’s the end of a journey that encompasses far more than three days of competition. As we head towards the resumption of Pro play, I wanted to take the time to explore three facets of the game we all love. Next week, I’ll be talking about the PTQ experience. In two weeks, I’ll tell you how I got from Tempest Prerelease in 1997 to Worldwake Pro Tour in 2010.
But to start the series, it’s Prerelease time. To my mind, this is the perfect place to introduce a newer player to Tournament Play. Everyone is on the same learning curve together, and hundreds of mistakes get made that would be pounced upon a few weeks later, once we’ve all had time to comprehend and evaluate the new set. The atmosphere feels something akin to Christmas, as hundreds of little parcels get ripped open. And, just like Christmas, in those first few hours of shiny newness, there’s little room for the disappointment that sometimes comes when the cards don’t do quite as much as we hoped they would.
Usually, I’d be in the heart of London, at The Games Club, happily Gunslinging my way through the day, but this time around fate intervened, and I found myself playing in The Prerelease Money Can’t Buy — namely, the Wizards of the Coast Employee event that took place last Wednesday evening. For several reasons, playing took a distant third place behind seeing a bunch of great people who were excited about the birth of their latest creation, and sleeping. I arrived, you see, halfway through round two, and with 23 straight hours of travel under my belt.
I was not, it will not surprise you to learn, at my best. Still, here’s the pool I was confronted with:
Journey to Nowhere
2 Shieldmate’s Blessing
2 Veteran’s Reflexes
Sky Ruin Drake
Sphinx of Jwar isle
Bala Ged Thief
Guul Draz Vampire
Soul Stair Expedition
Claws of Valakut
Mark of Mutiny
2 Torch Slinger
Khalni Heart Expedition
2 Oran-Rief Recluse
2 Slingbow Trap
Vines of Vastwood
I wasn’t super-excited by this lot, although the Sphinx Of Jwar Isle, plus a desire to see Treasure Hunt in action, sent me along a Blue path, and double Torch Slinger plus Searing Blaze seemed a reasonable reason to pair it with Red. Here’s what I ended up playing:
2 Torch Slinger
Mark of Mutiny
Sphinx of Jwar Isle
Sky Ruin Drake
As I was building, I had a chance to chat with Zac Hill, Tom LaPille, Mike Turian, and Kelly Digges, all of whom had a hand in Worldwake. Also on hand was Ken Nagle, for whom Worldwake represents his first set as Lead Designer. Having been part of the Grand Designer Search a while back, he seems to have utterly found a home in R&D, although I imagine waiting to find out what we all think of ‘his’ set must be pretty nerve-wracking.
I faced Magic Rules Editor Mark Gottlieb in my first encounter. Mark has developed quite a fictional personality, thanks to the supposed back and forth with Mark Rosewater as written about in MR’s Making Magic column on the mothership. I did wonder whether he’d ever gone to a Prerelease, only to find some utterly hideous rules black hole that hadn’t been spotted during testing. Mark has been in the job longer than any previous incumbent, currently at four and a half years and counting. He told me that there had been little slips here and there, but nothing truly calamitous.
As for the game, he was struggling for land in the opener, which allowed me to edge ahead. A stall developed, but I always had a little more on the board than he did, and Mark Of Mutiny was able to make that advantage critical. I regret to announce that was my solitary game win of the night. An early Fledgling Griffin gave him a good start, backed up by Lightkeeper Of Emeria. Then came Hammer Of Ruin, and it lived up to its name. The Lightkeeper was on hand again in the decider, but I had a decent Enclave Elite and Voyager Drake that looked to be winning the race, until Nemesis Trap utterly wrecked me, as Nemesis Trap will surely wreck many.
I wandered over to watch BDM in action, just in time to see him complete a 5-0 sweep of his random matchups. Despite an article I wrote following the Zendikar Prerelease where I savaged my own choice of Red-Black aggro, subsequently it’s become clear that if you can find the cards for it in your pool, it’s a highly efficient strategy. Having opened Searing Touch in each of his three Worldwake boosters, together with a bunch of Vampires and the potentially-amazing Urge To Feed, BDM had no trouble putting all-comers to the sword, including Greg Marques, a former Magic Designer, who lost despite obliterating BDM’s team with Marsh Casualties.
Marques became my next opponent, and it will not, I think, have escaped your attention that my deck is rather vulnerable to Marsh Casualties. That took care of game 1, and in the second, a Skitter Of Lizards opened proceedings for Greg, and eventually dealt not only the first damage of the duel, but the last as well, as it remained the one creature left standing when a ferocious collection of trades had been completed.
Oh well. To be fair, even without the stupid amounts of no sleep, I would have surmised it wasn’t my day when the one time I successfully cast Sphinx Of Jwar Isle led to me immediately blocking a 5/5 Quest For The Gravelord token. Thank goodness there was another Pre-Release coming later in the week!
Rather tediously, I can’t tell you much about the next couple of days spent inside Wizards HQ, because then either I’d have to kill all of you, or WOTC would have to kill me. I like my life too much to want the latter, and the former seems like altogether too much hard work.
On, then, to Prerelease part two, and this was the real thing — hundreds of players who haven’t been working on the set for months, coming to see what Worldwake held in store. Rather more than any other Prerelease around the world, the Seattle event benefits from a selection of R&D types ready to come and spend the day Gunslinging. This is one of my favorite ways to play the game. You get to meet tons of people, and there are no ranking points on the line to make anyone behave like an idiot. You see lots of different decks, and therefore lots of different cards, in action, and can start to form an idea of what’s consistently beating you around the head.
Ideally, you want a good but not great pool for Gunslinging. If your opponent wins, you give them a booster, and it always feels a little unkind if you’re crushing someone on turn 3 when all they’ve done is laid one measly creature and seen it destroyed. Equally, since you’re going to be playing a lot of Magic in a short space of time, having a pile of utter junk can be very miserable, as no one likes to get battered all the time. Here’s what I opened:
Arrow Volley Trap
Join the Ranks
Rest for the Weary
Shepherd of the Lost
Caller of Gales
2 Into the Roil
2 Trapfinder’s Trick
2 Wind Zendikon
Bala Ged Thief
2 Brink of Disaster
Soul Stair Expedition
Claws of Valakut
Kazuul, Tyrant of the Cliffs
Quest for the Goblin Lord
Skitter of Lizards
Khalni Heart Expedition
Creeping Tar Pit
Jwar Isle Refuge
Once again, my preferred Black-Red option was nowhere in sight. There wasn’t even really an opportunity to pair one of them with something else, and that meant my actual removal was minimal to put it mildly. Nonetheless, my Blue-White deck had plenty of bounce going on, and some decent flying tempo in the form of double Wind Zendikon. Here’s the list:
Join the Ranks
Shepherd of the Lost
2 Into the Roil
2 Wind Zendikon
In total I played against 13 opponents in the space of about three and a half hours of non-stop Magic, and I learned more about the deck every step of the way.
1 versus David
I managed to get the whole defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory thing off to a flying start. He had played in the 6.30am Prerelease flight (6.30am? Really?!?), and hadn’t had a lot of success with it. Ruthless Cullblade opened for him, and it was joined by Kazandu Blademaster. I had got started with Wind Zendikon into Trusty Machete, and equipping it led to my 4/3 flyer looking to win the race.
Then he cast Join The Ranks, and promptly changed all the math with his now enormous Kazandu Blademaster. When he added Vastwood Gorger to the board things looked bleak, but Whiplash Trap sent both the Gorger and the Blademaster back to hand. When he recast the pair, I was ready, and cast Vapor Snare to take control of the Gorger. Despite being at just one life, I felt all was well as I untapped and drew my card, and put my Vapor Snare in the bin.
With nobody waiting, we played a second game, and this time it was I who got the benefit of Join The Ranks, allowing me enough time via chump blockers to deal the knockout blows with Shepherd Of The Lost and a 3/3 unblockable Aether Figment.
2 versus Justin
I’m reliably informed that there are times when playing Scythe Tiger is a perfectly acceptable plan. I’ve just never been around at any of those times. Justin had an aggressive Red-Green deck, which opened on a Goblin Shortcutter and then dropped a Scythe Tiger. That’s all you really need to know about the game, as he never saw another land. Of course, if he’d ever laid another creature, he could have put his four Quest For The Gemblades counters on it, but Scythe Tiger has Shroud…Emails, detailing the awesomeness in battle of Scythe Tiger, extremely welcome.
After such a non-event, it seemed only fair to give him another go, and this time it was a fair fight. Despite not having many Mountains in play, the two he had were enough to make Claws Of Valakut a dominating presence on the board. I added to Umara Raptor with Join The Ranks, making my bird a 4/4, not shabby for three mana, but he just kept on coming, and eventually overwhelmed me, largely due to the Claws making blocking next to impossible.
3 versus Casey
This was one of the best games of the day. He had started with some Red on display, so can’t have enjoyed seeing Kor Firewalker arrive. Black removal killed that, and Bala Ged Thief proved more than a little irritating. Each time I felt like I could race with my flyers, he had another piece of removal, including Urge To Feed and Tomb Hex. The final straw was when he triggered Landfall off Caustic Crawler to send my Horizon Drake packing — it may have Protection from Lands, but not from Landfall, sadly. Casey was a really fun opponent, who was clearly having a ton of fun, which is what Prereleases are all about. I have a feeling that he didn’t get much of an exciting rare out of his booster prize, but it’s not everyone who can say they beat Rich Hagon! (Because not everyone’s played Rich Hagon, before you say.)
4 versus Joe
This was when I discovered my deck had a curve. Steppe Lynx turn 1, Kor Firewalker turn 2. Nothing turn 3, but he was already at 14 when he attempted a four-cost monster, and that turned into a 2/2 monster for me thanks to Summoner’s Bane. Kor Skyfisher sent a land back, ready to trigger the Lynx again, and it was all over. Brutal.
Game 2 was much longer, and much more fun, overall. Since I’d opened with Wind Zendikon, I was happy to go down the racing flyers route, but found my Horizon Drake meeting Cancel. He kicked Kor Sanctifiers to get rid of the Zendikon, and then dropped the utterly awesome Sea Gate Loremaster. I immediately bounced it with Into The Roil, but permanent answers for it really meant Vapor Snare.
When he remade it, the Snare was nowhere in sight, and he proceeded to draw away from me. By the time the Vapor Snare did appear, I suspected it would be too late, and his following Iona’s Judgment to get the Loremaster back only confirmed this. The final nail in the coffin was the super-Harm’s Way, Refraction Trap. Would I have won a decider? I sincerely doubt it, as he showed me the Rare combo that had seen him go 4-0 in his pod: Day Of Judgment to wrath away the board, and then Marshal’s Anthem to get his side back again. Wow.
5 versus Sean
Sean had also gone 4-0 with his deck, which was meant to be an aggressive Red-Green affair, ramping up to late-game goodness. That isn’t what happened, however, as I found my curve again. Steppe Lynx into Kor Firewalker isn’t bad against two Mountains, and when the total of his turn three turned out to be Harrow, I knew he wasn’t going to recover without something special happening. I laid Aether Figment as a 1/1, and then went about the business of tempo-ing him to death, first with Into The Roil, and then, when he finally got something useful onto the board, stealing it with Vapor Snare.
6 versus Lucas
It sounded as if Lucas hadn’t had the best of luck in his pod, since he’d lost one game to someone who had put both Chandra Ablaze and Sorin Markov into play against him. One’s tough, two seems like overkill. I had started with the 4/3 flyer plan of Zendikon plus Trusty Machete, and his counterplan involved Scrib Nibblers, a card I suspect may have a home somewhere, that somewhere being Chernobyl.
At first his Caravan Hurda didn’t look like any kind of problem, but once he put Nimbus Wings on it, everything changed. There was no way through for an age, and I confess to thinking that I might have to tell you how I died to being decked by Scrib Nibblers over fifteen turns. Thankfully, bounce arrived via Whiplash Trap, and my flying army could wing in unimpeded. With him down to four, I got my first look at a Death’s Shadow, pounding down as an impressive 9/9, before becoming a deeply unimpressive 0/0 when I stole it with Vapor Snare.
7 versus Ben
I imagine this was quite frustrating for Ben, as he seemed to do lots of good things, none of which made the blindest bit of difference. As usual, I was doing my combination of tricks and flying to build up a lead. He went for Territorial Baloth, and that seemed like an ideal target for Summoner’s Bane. He cast Gigantiform, and I used Aether Tradewinds to get rid of that threat. Finally, having cast Bestial Menace, he looked to have found a way to get rid of my Zendikon via Feral Contest.
Now, as it happened, I’d left four mana open to cast Join The Ranks, which meant that my now-tapped Zendikon wouldn’t be forced to block. Of course, now that there’s no manaburn in the game, you don’t need to have a reason to tap your mana, you can just do it whenever you like, meaning you need never run into this with a Zendikon.
8 versus Mons
Mons? That’s an unusual name. Surely it couldn’t be? Indeed it could. Of course, some of you may not have a clue what I’m talking about, but old-timers will recall a little creature, a 1/1 for R, called Mons’s Goblin Raiders. Well, just as Maro was named after Mark Rosewater, Mons’s Goblin Raiders was also named after someone in R&D, and here he was, Mons Johnson in the flesh.
I’d love to tell you that he overran me with Goblins, but for someone who loves attacking for two so much, this game took a looooong time. I was ahead for a long time, too, opening with Steppe Lynx, and continuing to nibble away with Landfall, helped by Kor Cartographer. Aether Tradewinds and Into The Roil continued to mount the pressure, but things changed when he cast Surrakar Banisher for my Wind Zendikon.
I had him down to three, and when I found Vapor Snare off the top to steal his newly-summoned Vampire Nighthawk, I felt that would probably do it. It didn’t. He kicked Kor Sanctifiers to get his Vampire back, and then equipped it with Hammer Of Ruin, a card I was starting to take a serious dislike to. Seer’s Sundial, although arriving very late, still started to draw him cards, and next up was Living Tsunami. By the time I died he was back up to 15, had seven cards in hand to my none, and was one mana away from casting Iona, Shield Of Emeria. The turnaround had been as emphatic as any I’ve been the victim of for a good while.
9 versus Aaron
Combos scare me, especially when I’m only just discovering what they do. Aaron opened on Hada Freeblade, Ruin Ghost, and Tideforce Elemental. Those last two are more than a little good together in Limited. Tap your man, exile my land, back it comes, untap my Tideforce, tap your other man… not funny, if you’re on the other side of it. BDM, ever the realist, glanced over at this Combo and said, ‘You know what breaks that combo? EVERYTHING!’ He had a point. A couple of turns later, I had bounced them both with Whiplash Trap, and then spent successive turns casting kicked Into The Roil, giving me more than enough time to fly over for the win.
10 versus Melvin
This was probably my favorite game of the day. He had Ruthless Cullblade and Corrupted Zendikon, I had Umara Raptor and the Trusty Machete that had done such sterling work all day. Join The Ranks swelled my Raptor, but I was still well behind, so needed to block and then watch it die to the removal I knew he had to have. Crypt Ripper would have won him the game, but I had Summoner’s Bane at the crucial moment. Then we got into an unconventional race, as he laid Zektar Shrine Expedition, and triggered the first Landfall. With Explorer’s Scope active, he was likely to get to the three counters he needed sooner rather than later.
But how much later? I hit him for four, and Explorer’s Scope didn’t find him a land. I hit him for five, and Explorer’s Scope didn’t find him a land. I hit him for seven, and set him to two. If he found a land with Explorer’s Scope it would be too late for him, so he had to see land off the top for the win. He did, which was fair enough, and I handed over a booster with a smile.
11 versus Anson
Anson was running Red-Black, but unfortunately I didn’t get to see much of his deck, other than a Highland Berserker. Umara Raptor plus Machete got things rolling, and Aether Figment as a 3/3 put him on a serious clock. I added Horizon Drake and Tideforce Elemental on turn 6, and tapped down his only blocker for an efficient win.
12 versus Steve
I’m a big fan of Vampire Lacerator, and probably more of a fan than I should be. Steve began with the 2/2, and died with it still on the board. I’d found the 4/3 flying combo again, and had enough defense to consistently thwart his attacks. I got my first look at Abyssal Persecutor, which strikes me as a fantastically entertaining card, regardless of its final usefulness in various formats. Still, that was shortly before he died, so it turned out Platinum Angel would have served him a little better.
13 versus Charles
I’d seen Charles playing several of the other Gunslingers, and had a horrible feeling he was on the prowl for packs. The game was effectively over on turn three, as he added to his Islandwalking River Boa with Tideforce Elemental. Two things got tapped every turn, and I died in ruthless fashion.
With sixteen duels gone, I felt like my brain had had a proper workout. Early impressions are that the Sealed format is still pretty fast, and that the Zendikons in particular with their built-in capacity for Haste have made slower defensive decks harder to make work. It was great to meet so many friends old and new, and in particular to hear directly how much people enjoy what we do on the webcasts, podcasts, and text coverage from the Premier Events around the world.
I hope that you enjoyed your Worldwake Prerelease, wherever it may have been. Next time, we’ll take a look at PTQ-land.
Until then, as ever, thanks for reading…