Pro Tour Kaladesh Preview

Posted in Feature on October 10, 2016

By Rich Hagon

Rich Hagon combines a deep knowledge of the players of the Pro Tour with a passionate love of the game. He's a regular commentator for Pro Tour and Grand Prix live video coverage, and is the official Pro Tour Statistician. He has been covering Magic events since 2006.

And so our journey through 2016 continues. If we look in our rearview mirrors, we can dimly glimpse the end of the 2015–16 season—a season that came to a head in Sydney, Australia, with the crowning of Lukas Blohon. That event set all the Platinum and Gold pros for the 2016–17 season, together with the participants in the 2016 World Championship at PAX West...

Which, if we look again in our rearview mirror, is front and center. If you have 67 minutes to spare, I recommend going and watching Game 3 of the finals between Brian Braun-Duin and Márcio Carvalho. That's if you've already seen it. If you haven't, I positively demand that you go watch it. What an exclamation point on an extraordinary week.

If we look up ahead the road a ways, we can start to see the Dutch city of Rotterdam coming onto the horizon, with a Team Limited Grand Prix as the warmup act for one of the greatest weeks of the premier play calendar, the World Magic Cup. More than 70 nations, incredible drama, camaraderie, and fantastic outfits.

First Things First

But first, less than a week away, dominating our field of vision and filling us with anticipation and wonder—it's Pro Tour Kaladesh. And while this new plane is showcasing a place that most of us would probably enjoy as a vacation spot, in the real world Pro Tour Kaladesh is going to positively gleam, set as it is at the prime global resort that is Honolulu, Hawaii. We're expecting one of the largest fields we've seen at a Pro Tour in recent years, and, if past Honolulu Pro Tours are anything to go by, we can also expect a lot of extra passengers packing their bags, determined to invent their own tomorrow on the blistering beaches of this destination paradise.

Inside the tournament hall, the structure of the event is precisely what you've come to expect from the last few years of Pro Tour action—at least until we get to Sunday. Everyone opens up Kaladesh packs on Friday morning for three rounds of Draft, followed by the official pro take on the new Standard format across five more rounds. Reach 4-4 or better, and you get to do a carbon copy of this program on Saturday, this time with the goal of reaching the Top 8. After sixteen total rounds, the Top 8 advance to Sunday.

That's where things get a little bit unusual. We love watching people play Magic, and we know that you do too. However, pro players are very, very smart people, so if there's an incentive that means they'd be better off not playing Magic, and simply taking an intentional draw instead, they're going to know it and act accordingly. The last round on Saturday frequently features players choosing this path, secure in the knowledge that their place in the Top 8 is unassailable. And so, this time, the incentives are shifting a bit. Here's what's going to happen:

  • The quarterfinals will be split into two stages.
  • In stage one, the No. 5 seed will face No. 8, and No. 6 will take on No. 7. The winners of those two matches advance to stage two of the quarterfinals.
  • In stage two, the winner of the match between Nos. 5 and 8 will play the overall No. 4, while the winner of No. 6 versus No. 7 gets to play against the overall No. 3 seed.
  • The two stage two winners make it through to the semifinals.
  • Whichever of Nos. 4/5/8 makes it through the quarterfinals gauntlet will find the No. 1 overall seed waiting for them in the semifinals.
  • One of 3/6/7 will survive as far as the semifinals, and will meet the overall No. 2 seed there. So, the reward for finishing Saturday in either first or second place is a free pass as far as the semifinals.
  • Then normal service is resumed. Two semifinals produce two finalists, and then it's head to head for the title.

To see a visual of this new Top 8 bracket, along with more details about changes coming with Pro Tour Kaladesh, be sure to check out Hélène Bergeot's recent "State of Organized Play" article.

In practical terms, you're going to see the same amount of Magic on your screens. What's changed is the incentives for playing the last round on Saturday, and the rewards for being higher up the standings. As I said, Nos. 1 and 2 get straight through to the semifinals, while Nos. 5, 6, 7, and 8 will all have to win four matches on Sunday to claim the title.

I think this is all pretty straightforward, but rest assured that the coverage team will be there for you throughout the weekend, tracking all the ups and downs as we head toward our new Top 8 structure. One person who won't be playing on Sunday is Hall of Famer Luis Scott-Vargas. He's a full-time member of our PT coverage team this season, meaning you'll get the full LSV experience throughout the webcast. Joining Luis in the expert seat in the booth will be Ian Duke, on loan from his day job as a member of R&D at Wizards—the people who actually make Magic. In the play-by-play chair, you'll find Marshall Sutcliffe, Gaby Spartz, and Tim Willoughby, while Rashad Miller and Neil Rigby will, as usual, be looking after our feature match area. Over at the news desk, I'll be attempting to keep all the balls in the air, while Brian David-Marshall will be bringing you all the news from around the tournament.

Away from the live webcast, there's a ton of awesome content coming your way. Our trio of writer-reporters are Corbin Hosler, Adam Styborski, and Melissa DeTora, each with their own unique perspectives on the game. If social media is your thing, Trick Jarrett and Nate Price will be acting and interacting throughout the weekend. Craig Gibson will see life through his own exceptional lens, while Blake Rasmussen and Mike Rosenberg will keep everything on track, all under the watchful gaze of Executive Producer Greg Collins.

But what are we going to see? What will these two new formats actually look like? Let's take a look through our Prophetic Prism, and start by taking a speculative look at the new Draft format. Kaladesh brings with it three new mechanics: fabricate, energy, and Vehicles. Of the three, fabricate is almost certainly the least "sexy," and is also going to be the mechanic that wins games most unobtrusively. As a rule of thumb, the suggestion seems to be that you're going to turn fabricate 1 into a 1/1 Servo approximately two-thirds of the time. However, the rule of thumb doesn't get you very far at the highest level, and watching for the occasions when players decide to pile the +1/+1 counter onto their base creature is going to teach us a lot. In particular, a lot of the breathtaking shenanigans available in the set come once those creatures have +1+1 counters on them; Armorcraft Judge and Fairgrounds Trumpeter are just two examples of cards that would much rather you didn't create Servos.

Energy is super interesting, since it isn't something we've seen in the game before, and therefore evaluating it correctly is proving very difficult. The energy cards come in lots of "flavors." Some, like the Thriving cycle across the five colors, give you enough energy for exactly one use of the activated ability before needing an alternative source to fuel them. Some cards, such as Maulfist Doorbuster, get you multiple uses before they run out of the proverbial gas. Some energy cards keep on expanding; Aethersquall Ancient is going to fill your energy reserves turn after turn, making you feel like you own a Scottish North Sea oil field in the 1970s. (That, my friends, is what we in the trade refer to as a "niche reference.")

While there are very few people who spent time as a child thinking, "When I grow up I want to work on a Scottish North Sea oil field in the 1970s," a rather larger demographic belong in the "I'd like lots of money and a garage full of amazing cars" group. There's no doubt that Vehicles on Kaladesh appeal on many different levels, not least the sheer visceral desire to own the things. While Fleetwheel Cruiser may be the plane's version of a brand new Ferrari, the flagship of the vehicles is, indeed, the actual Flagship: Skysovereign, Consul Flagship, to be precise. Early feedback on the Vehicles in Limited play suggests that the cost of crewing them can be fairly steep—some say even prohibitively high. It's certainly true that there are going to be some very sad-looking piles of scrap metal sitting on the battlefield in search of a driver, but when the Vehicles get into top gear, boy oh boy they're a sight to behold. Across Friday and Saturday, you'll see every pick from every pack of four fantastic players, and I can't wait to find out how they go about prioritizing the Vehicles. There could be some incredible bargains to be had late in the pack, especially as not every deck will want to set themselves up with crews control. (Mmmm, that hurt.)

Meaningful Mechanics

Once we hit the afternoons in Honolulu, it's over to Standard, and a Standard that is certain to look very different from recent weeks. There's always a tendency in moments like this to point a finger at cards that are leaving Standard, rather than cards that are entering. That's natural, as Collected Company is well known and understood, while Aetherflux Reservoir is neither. Nonetheless, the absence of Collected Company really is the headline loss from the rotation, and it creates a ton of space for creative deck designs. The three new mechanics each have the possibility to impact Standard in a meaningful way.

Fabricate is the new mechanic that is most clearly understood, since it fits neatly into a theme that we've seen before, for example with Green-White Tokens. It isn't hard to see that an army of 1/1 Servos that all become 2/2 Servos thanks to Master Trinketeer, and then 3/3 Servos thanks to Chief of the Foundry, could be pretty intimidating, and once they've got past that initial 1/1 stage, it's hard not to feel that Make Obsolete has been made obsolete. There are a lot of red cards that are interested in you having Artifacts around—Inventor's Apprentice is fantastic value as a virtual 2/3 for one mana, while Salivating Gremlins routinely attack as a 4/3 trampler. Of course, all this token generation may be far too slow for Standard. We'll see.

Players looking to use energy for Standard have two basic options. The first is relatively simple: find the individual cards that get solid benefits from energy. Two cards that encapsulate that perfectly, and also work very nicely sequentially, are Voltaic Brawler and Lathnu Hellion. The Brawler attacks on turn three as a 4/3 trampler, and does the same thing a turn later, before needing more juice. Lathnu Hellion is a 4/4 Haste creature for just three mana, and those are absurdly good numbers. Of course, there's a drawback, and the Hellion may not be in play for very long. Then again, the game may not be being played for very long, and that's certainly what you're hoping if you're sleeving up the Hellion.

The second approach with energy is to find a whole series of cards that generate energy efficiently, but to plan on using the resulting energy on a big payoff elsewhere. With this plan, a card like Thriving Turtle is meant to be nothing other than a turn-one roadblock, with the two energy counters starting off your energy fund for the game. The early signs are that it's going to be hard for players pursuing this route to find that big payoff. There are no "infinite" energy sinks in Kaladesh—there's no X energy burn spell, for example, and no X/X energy creature that you can pour all your resources into. But there are enough moving parts in the set to suggest that someone may find an energy loophole to exploit somewhere.

Then there's Vehicles. In some senses the most obvious of the new deck-building routes to explore, we've been given Vehicles, we've been given Pilots for the Vehicles, and, in Depala, Pilot Exemplar, we've been given someone who can be a linchpin of that new strategy. Since crewing is fundamentally a drawback, you'd expect Vehicles to offer something in return, and in terms of raw stats they are all well above the curve. While nobody is expecting Aradara Express to provide a stable platform in Standard, it isn't hard to see that an 8/6 with menace for five mana is scale-mockingly unusual. Any time you can find stats like that sitting around at common, you know that there are some diamonds sitting in the Vehicles showrooms, and we can definitely expect players to try to take advantage of that.

A Field of Dreamers

But which players? As I mentioned earlier, this is likely to be one of the largest Pro Tours we've seen for a while. There are several good reasons to suppose this. First, there's the question of the Silver pros. Silvers get to use one Pro Tour invite of their choice through the season. Pro Tour Kaladesh is the first PT of the new season, and all the Silvers who are aspiring to play at every PT this season will want to take their shot at a good finish as early as possible—that means Honolulu. The second major factor comes from Pro Tour Eldritch Moon in Sydney. With many players unable to sort out the practicalities of visa applications in time, those players had their entry deferred to PT Kaladesh. It's hard to tell exactly, but 75 extra players is a good ballpark figure. Finally, it's Honolulu! If you live in London, Dublin is just down the road. Maybe you've already been to Albuquerque or Nashville. But Honolulu? That's the kind of place you're going to move heaven and earth to get to. The result? Our best guess is that you're going to see somewhere between 450 and 475 players at the Day One starting line. And that means our traditional suggestion that "the fourth loss could be critical" is likely to turn into "nobody on 12-4 is making it in to the Top 8." Couple that with the new incentives on offer for Top 8 position, and it's very likely that the last round on Saturday is going to be absolutely sensational.

Whether there are 300, 400, or even 500 players on show in Honolulu, the best are still the best, and this Pro Tour is presenting them with challenges in both Limited and Constructed that are going to be fascinating to see play out. Luis Scott-Vargas took to social media to describe the new set as seriously complicated, and as a general rule, the more complicated the format, the more the best get to shine. If there was ever a Pro Tour to think that the pros are going to show just why they're the pros, this is it.

Unlimited Potential

In Limited, there are so many unique challenges that players who have accurately figured out the whole format are going to be very few and far between. Identify correctly when you need Servos and when you need counters. Correctly evaluate all the Vehicles, pick them appropriately, and use them without giving away game-ending tempo. Get the most efficient energy package you can, and then carefully use it on exactly the right activations at exactly the right time. Above all, in a set that's full of synergies both obvious and hidden, there are going to be plenty of games that are determined by some crazy interaction that most players haven't yet drafted enough to discover. So, for a format like this, you want your absolute Limited masters front and center.

Four names spring to mind: Chris Fennell, Ben Stark, Rich Hoaen, and Márcio Carvalho. Fennell was actively headhunted to become the Limited mastermind on a Pro Tour team that already had some of the finest minds in the game. He's been delivering Limited excellence year in, year out, and has a reputation as someone who can figure out things that almost no one else can. Ben Stark is a Hall of Famer, and many regard him as the single best player of Limited in the world right now. The same was said of Rich Hoaen in the mid-2000s. As a Silver pro, he may not make it to Honolulu, but if he does, watch out. And then there's Márcio Carvalho, the most successful Limited player of the last Pro season, carrying the title of Draft Master. This is a format that is absolutely going to reward excellence, and excellence describes these four perfectly.

High-Caliber Constructions

On the Constructed front, I'd like to mention Sam Black, Seth Manfield, Josh Utter-Leyton, Petr Sochůrek, and Chris Botelho. Sam has long been regarded as one of the world's great deck builders. When he made the Top 8 of Pro Tour Philadelphia in 2011, part of his success was due to his ability to attack brand-new formats. New Standard may not be quite as vast as Modern was then, but his unpacking of a new format remains a core strength. To my mind, the single biggest edge Seth Manfield has is his willingness to not get too attached to any one deck. He will happily win a Grand Prix one weekend, and then switch to an entirely different 75 cards the following week. For him, figuring it out isn't an occasional thing, it's part of his routine. Then there's Josh Utter-Leyton, who, with five Pro Tour Top 8s to his name, will be a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame when the time comes. Meanwhile, he's the established engine room of ChannelFireball, and this format seems built for the meticulous, synergy-seeing deck builder that he is. Petr Sochůrek, meanwhile, has put himself to the forefront of Czech Magic over the last eighteen months, and that's at a time when Lukas Blohon is white hot. Standard is Sochůrek's playground, and I fully expect him to appear in Honolulu with all the bases covered. Finally, Chris Botelho. That isn't a name that is instantly recognizable to many, but Chris gave us a ton of entertainment at Grand Prix Portland recently, when he piloted his own "Kitty Pact" deck (featuring Harmless Offering and Demonic Pact) to the Top 8. This is his first Pro Tour appearance, and it looks like the kind of Standard where the weird and the wacky might be not only tolerated at the top tables, but actively encouraged.

Aloha!

So, with the World Championship behind us, and the World Magic Cup still ahead, it's time for our attention to focus in on the wonderful island of Hawaii. Whoever emerges from the gigantic scrum of talent on display will almost certainly have invented no fewer than three amazing decks—this isn't a Pro Tour that's going to be won by merely "solid." If there is one, the new Collected Company is a long way from being known. The Limited format promises surprises and wonders in equal measure, and the 60-card format is positively screaming for our pro players to leave their deck-building footprints in the Standard sand. So, grab your sunscreen, your shorts, your beach towel, your shades, and your love of all things Magic, as the 2016–17 pro season kicks into high gear.

See you on Friday.

R.

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