Emmanuael Vernay, winner of the first Grand Prix in Magic history.
This weekend's event will be the 213th Grand Prix in the history of the Pro Tour and the fifth to be run in the Netherlands. Over the course of those 10 years, countless players have qualified for the Pro Tour, literally millions of dollars have been given away (starting with a prize purse of $10,000 per event, it has grown to $30,000 plus $5,000 in amateur prizes), and has featured just about every format the game has to offer.
This weekend marks yet another Grand Prix first as the format is the relatively new Two-Headed Giant Limited, which will kick off as a PTQ format next weekend. Players in North America were able to get a jump on the format last weekend with a second year of Two-Headed Giant State Champs. You can keep your browser pointed to the tournament center all weekend for some two-headed coverage courtesy of Tim Willoughby and me (although I am here sporting my historian chapeau and will be focusing more on putting the event into context, interviewing all the past winners of European Grand Prix who have been invited this weekend, hosting a talk show with the game's top players, and trying to determine how old Oomens actually is). Until then, I thought it would be interesting to look at this past weekend's results to get a better understanding of the format, how it has been impacted by the change in starting life totals from 40 to 30, and what to expect from the exciting addition of draft to the 2HG landscape.
Culling through the winners from States / Champs there were two teams that stood out. In Alabama, Brian Grimmer and John DeAngelo repeated their win from last year's inaugural 2HG Champs while in Mississippi John Klauk (you may recognize the name from the Player's Reward Newsletter) and Jason Sheffield did the same. The two teams were gracious enough to share their thoughts of the format and talk about their experience over the past two seasons.
Interestingly, the two teams took different approaches to answering my questions. Brian Grimmer (BG) and John DeAngelo (JD) each answered separately after consulting with one another while John Klauk (Klauk) took the dominant head approach. He talked over each question with his teammate but he gave all the final answers.
BDM: Can you give us a little background on each team member? Age, occupation, Magic resume, hometown…Grimmer and DeAngelo, from their 2006 2HG triumph.
BG: I'm a 30-year-old programmer analyst who lives in Montgomery, Ala. but was born in Enterprise, Ala. I got third at Southeast Regionals last year to qualify for U.S. Nationals. I attended Pro Tour-Geneva this year and last year teamed up with John and our friend Shay Hall to attend Pro Tour-Charleston.
JD: I'm a 30-year-old supervisor originally from Waco, Texas, but I now claim Auburn as my home. I won a ton of money for years in Type 1 tournaments and I've been to U.S. Nationals twice, but haven't yet hit the big money win. As mentioned, we were able to attend Pro Tour-Charleston as teammates, too.
Jason Sheffield - Age: 24
Occupations: Warehouse Materials Handler (Government Funded Halo 2, Guitar Hero, and MTGO player) / Music Minister
Magic Resume: Been playing since Mercadian Masques. Lots of FNM. 1 PTQ and 4 Champs events starting at 2005 Constructed Champs, all of which I have made Top 8 or Top 4 at. Two wins outta' five ain't half bad! Wonder how long the streak will live?
Hometown: Beaumont, MS (good luck finding it on a map)
John H. Klauk - Age: 33
Occupations: Computer Systems Analyst
Magic Resume: Been playing since Antiquities. Sometime author for the MPR Newsletter. Permanent Amateur with 17 PTQ Top 8 / 0 Wins. Top 8 Champs professional with eight out of twelve Top 8s with two wins! Maybe I'll get an honorary lifetime achievement award someday?! Until then, thanks for the amateur prizes WotC!
Hometown: Hattiesburg, MS
BDM: You guys have played together for two years now -- what made you decide to team in the first place?
BG: At the time, everyone was trying to organize teams for the Charleston PTQs. I got passed between teams more times than I can count, so I decided to judge 2HG Champs and the local PTQ instead of playing. At the last minute, I heard that John (who had "retired" from live Magic to play strictly on MTGO) was interested in playing 2HG, so I called him the Thursday night before the event and asked if he wanted to go. He accepted and his first live tournament in a couple of years was the 2006 2HG Champs.Teamwork and familiarity paid off for Klauk and Sheffield.
Klauk: Both Jason and I have been in an MTGO clan for over three years now (Klaukwork Wizards), consisting of almost exclusively local MS players. Jason had been playing a LOT of sealed deck leagues and doing well in them at the time the first 2HG Champs was announced. I immediately asked him if he would like to team up. Our clan constantly e-mails sealed deck builds back and forth between members in order to have the strongest builds for their leagues. I felt that Jason's sealed builds were the strongest among all the clan members at the time. That was definitely yet another contributing factor toward me wanting him as the second head on our team -- not to mention that Jason had just recently Top 8'd the MS Constructed Champs event (his first tournament event outside of FNM) with a very good rogue deck, dubbed Culling Rock.
That made me even more confident in Jason's play ability during a 24K event. Since I had been able to muster a great deal of success in past Champs events (I've been fortunate enough to have Top 8'd eight out of the twelve Champs events I have played in with two wins), Jason was eager to step into the fight as my wingman. Turns out we both have taken turns being the wingman, helping each other to make both the best builds and plays possible.
BDM: How important is it for you to have someone you know and have played with before when playing 2HG?
BG: We actually consider that a big reason for our success thus far. John was one of the people who taught me how to play competitive Limited Magic about 10 years ago, so we're very familiar with each other's play style and tend to agree on card evaluations.
JD: We also realize that it is a team effort more than some teams we've seen. We don't have one player playing two hands and we don't have egos that keep us from listening to the other player. We see some teams who come up with different plays and argue with their partner about how their play is the right play. We are willing to discuss the merits of both sides and come to an agreement on what to do. When one of us makes a bad play, we don't dwell on it ... we learn from it and move on without blame. Our team is a partnership, not a dictatorship.
-- John Klauk
Klauk: We think it is vital in order to do well at a 2HG event. We were friends before we were 2HG teammates. Knowing each other, and knowing that you get along is key to being able to both feed of each others' strengths as well as being able to catch each others mistakes and correct them before they are made. Basically, it just makes communication between each other better and automatically instills trust. Jason builds sealed better than I do, so knowing that makes it easy to defer to his deck builds when we have a discrepancy between us.
It also makes it simple for him to believe me on card interactions/rulings that may come up during play that he may not have been aware of -- such as how Fiery Conclusion and Djinn Illuminatus worked together last year in the Top 4 for us. Having played together last year, we had 150 percent confidence in each other this year, yet we were still able to voice our opinion to each other when we thought the other was wrong about any particular decision, and during a game, we were able to do it in a manner that did not give our opponents' much, if any information.
BDM: As veterans of the event from one year to the next ... what impact did the change in life totals have on your strategy and card evaluations?
BG: I don't believe card values were impacted too dramatically ... the cards are either good for 2HG or not. Our strategy had to become more aggressive however, because you have to deal less damage to win and have to start blocking sooner than you would with 40 life to play with.
JD: In my opinion, it forced us to move away from our strategy from last year of planning for the late game. With the lower life totals, the mid-game becomes more important because an aggressive strategy can end a game before you stabilize. For example, one team in the Swiss this year won on turns six and seven in successive rounds.
Klauk: Well, with the somewhat late announcement, we were not able to know for certain, but we both discussed that the life change would probably have the biggest impact in the speed of the matches during the Top 4 draft portion. We both felt that the sealed matches would not change too terribly much. The value of playable life gain cards, such as Essence Warden and Vampiric Link, went up though. An unanswered
Essence Warden on turn one is a huge advantage in this format. We still both believe that this format is more about card synergy and big creatures than anything else. Overall, we liked the life change. It did make the games and tournament end sooner, and players had more cards in their hands at the end of the games, so the decisions your team makes are key as you don't always get an opportunity to utilize every strategy available to you. You have to pick the correct path between you and your teammate's hand, or else you will lose -- I think we're trying to say the life total change did not affect deck building as much as it affected play decisions.
BDM: What are the key strategic differences from Ravnica 2HG to Time Spiral 2HG?
BG: With storm and slivers being such a big factor, Time Spiral seems to force you to make decks that interact more than those of Ravnica. Building two independently strong decks tends to not work as well as building two decks that feed off each other for a 2 + 2 = 5 type of interaction. You have to consider the entire card pool and how the cards benefit both decks.
JD: Also, Ravnica didn't let you play with the color pie chart like you can with Time Spiral. To play good cards in RGD you had to play certain color combinations. (i.e. Steamcore Weird, etc.) Often you were forced into deck choices that often meant playing two colors per deck and splitting the fifth color between the decks. In Time Spiral, you can pretty much organize the colors as you see fit to maximize the effectiveness of each player's play style. In our draft this year we were able to ignore blue altogether, but in Ravnica block all the colors were important.
Klauk: The obvious difference is that during the Ravnica format your team was mostly deciding what one color to split between both decks, and you would get to utilize the best cards from all five colors, whereas in the Time Spiral format, you are deciding what color to exclude from the decks -- unless you have a Planar Chaos dragon that can find it's way into one of your decks. Not so obvious is that Ravnica 2HG leaned more towards making both decks consistent and ensuring their mana wouldn't eliminate you. This often meant leaving out a powerful creature or spell because it didn't fit the colors of either deck.
Time Spiral 2HG leans more towards deck power than consistency. You want to decide on your colors based on the most powerful creatures you have. And four toughness is the Magic number in this format. It dodges most of the good common removal and blocks most of the early plays the other team can make. It is what makes both Aetherflame Wall and Citanul Woodreaders such decent cards to have and play early in this format.
BDM: What do you guys think of the addition of draft to the 2HG format? How much preparation did you guys put in for the draft portion?
BG: I love it! It makes the top 4 more skill-based rather than just hoping to get ridiculous cards in a sealed deck, like we did last year.
JD: I love it, too! It is much better than random new sealed decks for the Top 4. We didn't get much practice though. We did two drafts together and swept them both playing round-robin rather than Swiss.
Klauk: We loved the addition of the draft! It was an incredibly fun, new way to draft! We felt like the fate of our Top 4 decks was much more in our control than the sealed portion. We think most players feel the same between sealed and draft. We discussed our draft strategy ahead of time, but we had not actually ever done one of these drafts, though John had read several articles and was up on several strategies for it.
BDM: Do you have the card pool/decklists for your sealed decks? What were the keys to your success with the decks?
JD: I think our key to success is that we build the two best decks from our card pool and then fit the decks with our personal play styles. I consider myself an excellent Sealed Deck player who can build solid decks out of most card pools and both of us are primarily Limited players. We talk things out and generally come to the same conclusions.
We designed the decks that Deck A would carry much of the early game. Once the game rolled to turn four, Deck B takes over until turn six when both decks just begin to steamroll. The tiny hint of land destruction between both decks proved to be invaluable as we were basically able to remove one player from the match twice during the day. By far, the large monsters were our most valuable assets, and our most powerful card for the day was Vesuvan Shapeshifter. It gave us two Greater Gargadons at one point and took care of Akroma, Angel of Wrath as well by flipping over and copying her, since we were lacking an Ovinize at the time.
BDM: Can you give us a basic idea of how you approached the draft and what were the first picks you made in each of your packs with a little explanation as to why you chose those cards?
BG: We didn't have a detailed strategy going in because we try to keep our options open based on what we're passed, but we had an eye out for the sliver engine with the idea that we wanted to be mid-game aggro/aggro-control. As for the picks, I know in one pack we took Conflagrate and Firemaw Kavu over Sedge Sliver even though we were trying a sliver strategy because removal, especially reusable removal, is that much better in 2HG.
In another pack we took Void and Strangling Soot for much the same reason. It was that pack that settled us into red-black and green-white as the decks. Tromp the Domains was a first pick because of the "I win" factor it provides, but I never drew it. Around pack 3 we had determined that blue would at best be a splash color, but we ended up avoiding it altogether with only a few mid to late hate drafts. It also helped getting passed things like Grapeshot and Thelonite Hermit by the only amateur team in the Top 4 and the Urborg we passed came back and ended up a major part of our deck strategy.
JD: One pack that shows our tendency to an aggressive strategy involved Verdant Embrace and Knight of the Holy Nimbus over Search for Tomorrow after much debate. Another pack we took Crovax, Ascendant Hero and Gaea's Anthem with the idea that Crovax could work with our Subterranean Shambler to act as removal while the Anthem helped keep our creatures safe while making our aggressive strategy all the more effective, especially with Verdant Embrace and Thelonite Hermit. Pyrohemia was another first pick due to its ability to clear the board as well as pressing an advantage rather quickly.
Klauk: Our strategy was to take the best two cards we opened and then take the next two best cards we got passed, but pay close attention to what slivers we passed. For the next two picks, if there were any playable slivers, we would go the sliver path. Since there are six packs, you pass three times to the right and three times to the left. This means it is not as easy to get cut off from the right. If the other two teams were passing slivers then it was possible we were only fighting the team to our right for them. Also, we decided ahead of time that counter Magic was much more valuable in this format, since one player could be developing board position while the other could sit on the denial. In addition, we both agreed that the most broken mechanic in this format in 2HG is Storm. Also, we agreed we would more than likely both build two-color decks, abandoning a color as soon as we were able to determine which it should be.
Here are our first picks from each pack:
Pack 1: Cancel and Empty the Warrens (passing Bonesplitter Sliver). So there you have it. Counter Magic and Storm. Go plan, go. Pack 2: Bonesplitter Sliver and Ith, High Arcanist. Hard to beat another good sliver and a solid creature that supports the Storm backup plan. Pack 3: Cancel and Volcanic Awakening (Armageddon versus one player is good). Yet more counter Magic and Storm. It's all about Synergy. Pack 4: Griffin Guide and Lightning Axe. If we were going to play a creature enchantment, it's harder to get better than this early on in the game. Lightning Axe was for removing bomb creatures later in the game, or upping the Storm count. Pack 5: Sinew Sliver and Damnation. Sinew Sliver may have come back to us, but we did not want to chance it, as it was too key for our early game plan. There are more opportunities in a 2HG draft for defensive drafting since you are more likely to play versus the said card, and we did not want our opponents to have an out for our growing horde of slivers. So...we yanked Damnation, even though it was in the color we had abandoned early on. So, we got a card for our deck AND took one out we did not want to see. I doubt if it is ever right to double-defensive draft and give up at least one card for your deck in a 2HG draft. Pack 6: Shaper Parasite and Molten Firebird. Shaper Parasite was a nice gift in our removal light blue-white deck. Molten Firebird is just good. Making room for it in these decks was a little difficult, but necessary for late game situations -- should there be a late game.
BDM: Will you be pursuing PTQs or the GPs in this format? With two wins you both have to be pretty high in the ratings -- any plan to sit on them and just Q that way?
JD: With two Grand Prix coming up, we agree that we don't expect our rating to be good enough to be in the Top 50, so we don't believe we'd be able to sit on our rating and attend. We definitely plan on attending some PTQs and are considering making the trip to Boston.
Klauk: Well, unfortunately, with Mississippi being a smaller state with lower attendance at its Champs, our overall record from the last two years is 10-2-2, so our rating is not as high as it probably will need to be to Q. As much as we would like to go some of the PTQs, they are very far from us. On top of that, Jason is getting married right in the middle of the 2HG PTQ season. We will be lucky to attend one event together. We'll see if we can make it three-for-three though!
As a backup plan, John may be teaming with Erik Landriz, a local multiple-time PT cash winner, during the PTQ season if Jason is not available. If John can Q off rating, then he can bring Jason along to San Diego. Wish us luck! The old man's been trying to Q since Homelands.
BDM: How different is it to make a deck for the Sealed portion as opposed to the draft end of things? How much does the format change from Sealed to Draft in terms of speed, power, etc?
BG: I don't think the strategy changes, but your ability to put that strategy into effect is much easier in Draft than Sealed Deck because you have more control over the cards in your card pool. With Sealed Deck, you focus on which cards make the cut and how to organize the colors with the cards you're given. With Draft, you draft with the focus in mind and then have to decide which cards DON'T make the cut. We had a good bit of trouble deciding the last 3-4 cards to cut from each deck in the draft portion, eventually passing Assault/Battery over to be used strictly as another burn spell in the red-black deck to fit in more slivers and combat tricks.
JD: It is much like the difference between regular sealed and draft ... unless you're a terrible drafter, your draft decks will tend to be much better than your sealed decks and work together really well. Sealed tends to be more about bombs, so the skill is more about using your cards to overcome the opponent's bombs while the draft requires you to be able to draft a stronger deck than the other teams.
Klauk: Sealed portion is much slower. It is all about BIG creatures later in the game. You can build the decks so that one deck handles the early game, supported if need be by the other. Then both decks kick it into gear for the mid-game and soon after end the match as it approaches the late game. Build with that in mind, play your powerful creatures, don't make mistakes, and you should do fine.
Draft ... what can we say? It is much faster. We won both of our Top 4 matches on our sixth turn. The first match we would have still won on turn six had our opponents started with 40 life. That's what Sinew Sliver, Double Might Sliver, and Shadow Sliver do. In the finals, we played second, saved our Might Sliver from a Stormed Grapeshot on their turn six via Cancel on one of the Storm copies. We swung in for lethal damage on our sixth turn, sitting at 35 life via Essence Warden, and eight cards in hand each via Opaline Sliver.
While we were very fortunate to get triple Might Sliver, don't underestimate the value of the sliver strategy in draft. It's hard to get more aggressive than it. Here were our draft decks:
Firestarter: Grand Prix Masters
With ten years of GPs under the bridge, who is the best Grand Prix player of all time? Alex Shvartsman has a seemingly insurmountable lead in the Top 8 count, plus three wins, Kai Budde has a staggering seven wins, and Olivier is closing the gap on Shvartsman in Top 8s and has four wins to boot. That does not even take into account the Japanese Grand Prix monsters like Kenji and Shuhei, who are making their case as well. Who do you think is the most dominating GP player of all time?