Regular readers of this column will know that I find it quite easy to see reasons to look forward to each Pro Tour. The fundamentals of any given Pro Tour weekend—two morning drafts, two afternoons of Constructed, knockout rounds in the Top 8 on Sunday, all featuring the best current players in the game—are enough to guarantee fun, interest, skill, drama, a dash of disappointment, and at least a handful of surprises.
Not every Pro Tour can be a true blockbuster, however, because of the word "averages" in "The Law of Averages." Sometimes there just aren't a ton of innovative decks at the top tables. Sometimes the Draft format can look pretty routine. Sometimes the fan favorites get knocked out early, and the big stars lose their quarterfinals, leaving viewers with players they're not as familiar with to root for, and decks that they (unfortunately) are all too familiar with.
I don't think we're going to have a problem with Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica. The kickoff to a new Pro Tour season is always sweet, with a good couple of hundred players entering the fray thinking that this can be their year. Whether the goal is a first Pro Tour Top 8, a fifth Top 8 to pad a career path to the Hall of Fame, a strive for Platinum status, the chance to start out fast in the Team Series, or just to get a first match win under your belt at your first Pro Tour start, there is a "new term" feeling that puts a spring in the step of even the most battle-hardened players.
In Atlanta this week, there's something pretty special happening even before the Pro Tour gets underway, and that's because Seth Manfield and Luis Salvatto will be breaking their tie in the Player of the Year Race on Thursday, beginning at 3 p.m. ET/noon PT/7 p.m. UTC on twitch.tv/magic.
Each of them will bring four Standard-legal decks to the Feature Match area, and play a series of single games, with the winning deck in each game forced to "retire" for the remainder of the matchup. The Player of the Year will be determined by the best of seven games, meaning the winner will have to win once with each of their four decks. As if the spectacle of the Player of the Year isn't enough, this promises to be a great sneak peek into the kind of Standard decks we'll be seeing once the main event starts on Friday morning.
Speaking of Friday morning, and Saturday morning come to that, we'll be featuring Guilds of Ravnica Draft, before we get to five rounds of Standard each afternoon, with those same Standard decks to be used throughout the Top 8 on Sunday.
But for me, and for many fans around the world, the biggest highlight of the first Pro Tour of the new season is the start of the Team Series. Squads of six players will battle across five events—Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica, Pro Tour Cleveland, Pro Tour London, Pro Tour Dallas-Fort Worth, and Pro Tour Barcelona—with the top five finishes at each event contributing to their end-of-season total. Then the Top 2 will go at it head-to-head to decide the 2018–19 Team Series title. The 2017–18 title was won so thrillingly at Las Vegas last month by Ultimate Guard Pro Team.
When it comes to the Team Series for 2018-19, I believe we can group teams into one of four categories, based on their own expectations of how the season might pan out. Those look something like this:
- Legitimate expectations of winning the whole thing.
- Hopes of reaching the Final, expectations of reaching the Top 8.
- Hoping to be in contention for the Top 8.
- Hoping to stay in contention for Top 8 as long as possible, and maybe chain together some extra Pro Tour appearances along the way.
Within these groups, there's still a decent range of hopes and expectations. To give you a better picture for what might be in store (deep breath), I thoughtfully time travelled to the end of the season and recorded interviews with players from each of the teams! And then, so as not to spoil the result, I left out the names of the players I'd interviewed and their teams, so you can watch the whole season not knowing who won!
"We Think We're in Group 1"
- ChannelFireball – Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Martin Jůza, Luis Scott-Vargas, Mike Sigrist, Ben Stark, and Josh Utter-Leyton
- Hareruya Latin – Lucas Esper Berthoud, Márcio Carvalho, Sebastian Pozzo, Carlos Romão, Luis Salvatto, and Thiago Saporito
- KMC-Genesis – Corey Baumeister, Brian Braun-Duin, Seth Manfield, Brad Nelson, Logan Nettles, and Shahar Shenhar
- Musashi – Yuuki Ichikawa, Teruya Kakumae, Yuuya Watanabe, Kentaro Yamamoto, Shota Yasooka, and Ken Yukuhiro
- Ultimate Guard Pro Team – Andrew Cuneo, Reid Duke, Jon Finkel, William Jensen, Paul Rietzl, and Owen Turtenwald
Absolutely no surprises here, as these five epic squads will all feel that the trophy will have their name on it in 2019. Mike Sigrist demonstrated he was every bit as valuable as his five Hall of Fame colleagues last season, and a single match result at Pro Tour 25th Anniversary would have seen ChannelFireball contesting the finals at Worlds in Las Vegas.
The fact that they didn't left the door open for Ultimate Guard Pro Team. Andrew Cuneo, Paul Rietzl, and Jon Finkel gave them the match lead in the finals. For a long time, it looked as if they'd be back for a tiebreak decider, since William Jensen, Reid Duke, and Owen Turtenwald—the so-called Peach Garden Oath—were very much up against it, at a match behind and 0-1 down in both the other matchups. But, they prevailed, and arguably the "number-one seeds" coming into the season got exactly what they deserved: a title, and a share of the over-$100,000 top prize.
For that to happen needed a worthy finals opponent, and that came in the form of the team who ended the "regular season" with the most Pro Points, Hareruya Latin. It's easy to talk in glib terms about "Latin American All-Stars" or some such, but that really does describe this stellar outfit. Like both CFB and Ultimate Guard, there are no changes on the Latin roster, and they'll be expecting to be back next year, ready to go one better.
We've already discussed the top three teams from last season, and for the remaining pair of Group 1 outfits we return to the 2016–17 Team Series contest, and the finalists from the inaugural Team Series. Beaten that day were the freshly sponsored KMC-Genesis. If Standard is going to determine the outcome, this could be where the smart money sits. In addition to brothers Corey Baumeister and Brad Nelson (currently with the top two win percentages in Standard within the pro ranks), there's former World Champion Brian Braun-Duin, and multiple Champion at every level Seth Manfield, who may yet be your 2017–18 Player of the Year. Logan Nettles isn't the best known, but he deserves his place here, which should tell you a lot. And then, in arguably the most exciting move of the "off-season," two-time World Champion Shahar Shenhar joins the squad—and this Shahar Shenhar, judging by his performance at Worlds 2018, is the real deal once again.
And then there's Musashi, unquestionably the best of the Japanese teams assembled for this season. Champions in 2016–17, they're headlined by two Hall of Famers in Yuuya Watanabe and Shota Yasooka, and Ken Yukuhiro, who had a World Championship to forget but remains a terrific player and, perhaps crucially for success, deck builder.
And so, these five look primed to battle it out at the Top of the standings. But what will they be saying at the end of the season?
"It's hard to be disappointed when you reach the final, especially after our start to the season, but we can't help feeling that way."
"We led throughout the season, but got the metagame wrong in Dallas, and that cost us."
"We trust everyone on our team to make the right play almost every time, and that's how it played out most of the year. Good luck to the finalists; we'll get them next season."
"These are the best teammates in the world. It's easy for people to say we were among the favorites, but so much has to go right to actually deliver on that. And we did!"
"Honestly we're gutted. There's enough talent on here to be taking the title, so 5th place doesn't really feel like we were at the races."
"We're Definitely/Probably/Hopefully in Group 2"
- Hareruya Axe – Christian Calcano, Jason Chung, Raphaël Lévy, Tomoharu Saito, Petr Sochůrek, and Kenji Tsumura
- Hareruya Sword – Kelvin Chew, Jérémy Dezani, Javier Dominguez, Grzegorz Kowalski, Andrea Mengucci, and Lee Shi Tian
- Snapcardster x MTGMintCard – Michael Bonde, Martin Dang, Thomas Enevoldsen, Christoffer Larsen, Martin Müller, and Simon Nielsen
- Ultra PRO – Andrew Baeckstrom, Ivan Floch, Thomas Hendriks, Matthew Nass, Samuel Pardee, and Matthew Severa
Yes, that's nine teams that will at least expect to reach the Top 8. Welcome to math, and high-level competition. We're going to be talking about Hareruya a lot this season—the question is for which team(s)? Hareruya Axe features truly one of the most global lineups. Tomoharu Saito and Kenji Tsumura are both from Japan, while Asia-Pacific is also represented by New Zealand's Jason Chung. France's Raphaël Lévy and Czech master Petr Sochůrek fly the European flag, while Christian Calcano plays out of New York, New York, USA. They'll need to gel as a testing unit, but if they can, there's a lot to be optimistic about.
From the same camp, you can argue that Hareruya Sword should be battling right alongside the biggest and best, and it would be no surprise if they did. Remember, the step up from Top 8 to finals can be very small indeed—just ask ChannelFireball. Sword has a great lineup, with both Champion and Finalist from the World Championships (Javier Dominguez and Grzegorz Kowalski), Pro Tour Champion Jeremy Dezani, World Magic Cup winner Andrea Mengucci, World Championship 2017 Top 4 member Kelvin Chew, and new Hall of Famer Lee Shi Tian. There's not a weak spot in there.
Snapcardster x MTGMintCard is unusual in being a single-country team from Europe. The Great Danes, as I will undoubtedly call them on air at least once, are truly the best their country has to offer, and that's a very, very good team. World Magic Cup Champions are reunited in Enevoldsen, Müller, and Nielsen. Martin Dang is a Pro Tour Champion. Michael Bonde has had decent success while combining life outside Magic training to be a teacher, while Christoffer Larsen has to negotiate with his employer—the Danish Navy!—for time off to get to Pro Tours. They're not all well-known globally, but if things go right, that could change in a big way this season.
And what about Ultra PRO? There are lots of team dynamics spread across the Team Series—there's Leader plus Followers. There's Stars plus Potential. There's Outstanding Decks plus Good-ish Players. Nowhere, I would argue, is there a squad where the word "team" is more authentically important. Andy Baeckstrom, Ivan Floch, Thomas Hendriks, Matt Nass, Sam Pardee, and Matt Severa all have a ton of experience at delivering results when a team finish is at stake. Whether that's winning a Team Grand Prix or shepherding inexperienced teammates through World Magic Cups, if they win the whole thing, that true sense of what it means to be a team will be very important.
"I'm so proud of our team. We came up short of the finals but fulfilled our season expectations, and we've got a Pro Tour Champion this season. Go me!"
"This is about where we imagined we'd be—but we never realized what it would take to get here."
"We set realistic goals at the start of the season, so to fail to reach them feels bad. But every team in the Top 8 is really good, so well done them."
"We knew the chance of the finals had gone when London went so poorly, so with that in mind, we have to be pleased."
"We'd Love to Be in Group 2, but We're Realistically Group 3"
- Baguette – Julien Berteaux, Davy Loeb, Guillaume Matignon, Antoine Ruel, Florian Trotte, and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa
- Belgic Magic by Hareruya – Christophe Gregoir, Branco Neirynck, Leon Van Der Linden, Thomas Van Der Paelt, Peter Vieren, and Pascal Vieren
- EUreka – Immanuel Gerschenson, Piotr Głogowski, Radek Kaczmarczyk, Elias Klocker, Panagiotis Papadopoulos, and Aleksa Telarov
- FacetoFaceGames.com – Peter Ingram, Eli Kassis, Edgar Magalhaes, Morgan McLaughlin, Gabriel Nassif, and Shaheen Soorani
- Final Last Samurai – Atsuki Kihara, Yuki Matsumoto, Makihito Mihara, Takuma Morofuji, Kazutaka Naide, and Ryoichi Tamada
- Greater Good – Samuel Black, Eric Froehlich, Quinn Kiefer, Steve Rubin, Ben Yu, and David Williams
- Hareruya North America – Brandon Ayers, Ben Hull, Jacob Nagro, Gregory Orange, John Rolf, Allen Wu
- Kusemono – Toru Inoue, Ryuji Murae, Shuhei Nakamura, Rei Sato, Yuta Takahashi, and Kazuyuki Takimura
- Legion – Ben Friedman, Gerry Thompson, Oliver Tiu, Oliver Tomajko, Noah Walker, and Jacob Wilson
- Massdrop MTG – Mark Jacobson, Jack Kiefer, Pascal Maynard, Jon Stern, Ben Weitz, Timothy Wu
- The Comic Book Store – Hunter Cochran, Wyatt Darby, Alexander Hayne, Mattia Rizzi, Ondřej Stráský, and Jonathan Sukenik
Everyone in this group has a shot at the Top 8 for sure, and if you have that kind of a season, then the finals become possible too. Baguette has three stars of the past in Hall of Famers Antoine Ruel and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, and former World Champion Guillaume Matignon. Their success demands that at least one of Julien Berteaux, Davy Loeb, and Florian Trotte become stars of the present. Belgic Magic by Hareruya starts the season fresh from seeing Christophe Gregoir, Branco Neirynck, and Thomas Van Der Paelt reach the Top 4 of Pro Tour 25th Anniversary. EUreka is an all-European squad with plenty of experience, but that means they need to find a way to somehow go up a level. FacetoFaceGames.com doesn't necessarily have their best-ever squad, but they do have Hall of Famer Gabriel Nassif, and control-master Shaheen Soorani on the roster. Final Last Samurai is headlined by Hall of Famer Makihito Mihara, but his best days were a decade ago, and there doesn't look to be a ton of support from a solid but unspectacular squad. Greater Good is absolutely stacked with talent, and if Magic was their only focus, they'd be prime candidates for the Top 8. At best, however, that's true for exactly one of them (Black), which is likely a major issue. Hareruya North America features the three Champions from Pro Tour 25th Anniversary: Greg Orange, Ben Hull, and Allen Wu. They proved their worthiness at the subsequent World Championship, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see the quietest team in the field make some noise this season. Kusemono looks like one of the stronger Japanese units, with Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar Champion Kazuyuki Takimura, perennial favorite Yuta Takahashi, and Hall of Famer Shuhei Nakamura amongst them. Legion is tough to judge, because they have talent—what's unclear is the application, i.e., how much time they'll be spending trying to turn that talent into success. So, they could make the finals, or go nowhere fast. Massdrop MTG features the other Kiefer brother, Jack, alongside a team with vast experience. Their big question mark is how to take the next step. The Comic Book Store is a team I'm pretty excited about, because there's a ton of upside to the "lower" part of their roster—Hunter Cochran and Jonathan Sukenik aren't household names yet, but they could soon be. If they start the season well, they could go a very long way in the Team Series.
"London was the real highlight for us."
"You put one in the Top 8, that's mission accomplished. We had two, and that's incredible."
"It never really came together, but we had fun at least."
"We weren't trying to put together the best team; we wanted to have the best time, and we did."
"I thought we were going to make the Top 8 halfway through Saturday, but we just faded down the stretch."
"We were who we thought we were."
"Let's Go for It and See What Happens"
- Axion Now – Jelco Bodewes, Autumn Burchett, George Channing, Joao Choca, Francesco Giorgio, and Jamin Kauf
- Bolt the Bird – Oscar Christensen, Matti Kuisma, Leo Lahonen, Roope Metsa, Kasper Nielsen, and Karl Sarap
- Cardboard Live – Andrew Elenbogen, Marcus Luong, Maxwell Mick, Rob Pisano, Vidianto Wijaya, and Bradley Yoo
- Cardhoarder Mentoring – Drew Helbig, Douglas Romani, Hamish Seymour, Daniel Troha, Daniel Vega, and Nick Waugh
- GeekGear – Dani Anderson, Gary Campbell, Kyle Cooper, Lauge De-place, Alexander Gordon-Brown, and Luke Southworth
- GOAT – Matt Brown, Joe Demestrio, Ethan Gaieski, Kevin Jones, Makis Matsoukas, and Sam Rolph
- Good Luck High Five – Dirk Baberowski, Kai Budde, Patrick Cox, Gerard Fabiano, Craig Wescoe, and Jelger Wiegersma
- Grey Ogre Games – Thirawat Chaovarindr, Tay Jun Hao, Ernest Lim, Christian Wijaya, Yam Wing Chun, and Lim Zhong Yi
- Magicsur – Julio Bernabe, Jose Luis Echeverria Paredes, Marcelino Freeman, Guilherme Merjam, Luis Navas, and Ignacio Parot
- MTG Manager – Dmitriy Butakov, Antonio Del Moral León, Louis Deltour, Gonçalo Pinto, Bernardo Santos, and Francisco Sifuentes
- MTGSheep – Yeh Chih-Cheng, Liu Yuchen, Zhu Yuxuan, Bolun Zhang, Zhang Zhiyang, and Zhou Zirui
- Myst – Huang Hao-Shan, Mak Wai Hou, Martin Hrycej, Jan Ksandr, Dominik Prosek, and Zhi Yimin
- Nerd Rage Gaming – Joshua Collier, Lewk Faley, William Hahn, Matthew Haney, Jake Lamb, and Scott Matthews
- Omega Card Games – Maxime Auger, Slater Claudel, Lucien Longlais, Jeff Pyka, Charles Rinehart, and Richard Tan
- Phoenix: New Dawn – Joshua Bausch, Jasper Grimmer, Christian Hauck, Marius Heuser, Arne Huschenbeth, and Thoralf Severin
- Spanish Masters – Alvaro Fernandez Torres, Sergio Ferrer Rozalen, Antonio Martos Donaire, Cristian Ortiz Ros, Adrian Ramiro, and Francisco Sanchez
- Team RIW – Zach Allen, Corey Burkhart, Tyler Hill, Ari Lax, Max McVety, and Stuart Parnes
- Tower Games – Sam Beaulieu, Samuel Ihlenfeldt, Gregory Michel, Matt Sikkink Johnson, Matt Stankey, and Daniel Weiser
- Waaagh Taverne Paris – Eliott Boussaud, Pierre Dagen, Jean-Emmanuel Depraz, Remi Fortier, Théau Mery, and Julien Stihle
It would be a major accomplishment to make the Top 8 for these teams, but part of the beauty of the Team Series is that, if you're in the Top 8 after the second Pro Tour of 2019, you get to bring the whole team of six back for the third Pro Tour of 2019. That very likely means requalifying one, two, or even three teammates who have fallen off the Pro Tour somewhere during the season. Remember, the only rule for making a team is having all six members qualified for this first Pro Tour of the new season; plenty of the teams in this group don't have qualifications beyond Atlanta for some, or even all, of the members.
Within this group of teams, there's maybe exactly one that thinks they can win the whole thing. That's Good Luck High Five, which, in the interests of full disclosure, I will point out is the team sponsored by my news desk co-host Maria Bartholdi. "Historic excellence" doesn't begin to describe them. Kai Budde has seven Pro Tour titles. Dirk Baberowski has one of his own, in addition to the two he claimed alongside Budde. Jelger Wiegersma is a Pro Tour Champion. Craig Wescoe is a Pro Tour Champion. Patrick Cox and Gerard Fabiano both have Pro Tour Top 8 experience, with three and one Top 8s respectively. So why aren't they among the favorites for the title? Simply, there's more than a whiff of "semi-retired" about them. It's not at all certain that all six will make the start line at every event. Indeed, it's not at all certain that all six will make the start line of any event, and that's what makes a strong finish overall unlikely. However, look for at least one Pro Tour Top 8 from this team sometime during the season.
Of the rest, Axion Now will continue to progress, representing the best England has to offer; Bolt the Bird has the best team logo bar none; Grey Ogre Games represents the Asia-Pacific region, with Yam Wing Chun likely their headline act; MTGSheep is the squad from China; Phoenix: New Dawn is the German squad that could surprise a few this season; Team RIW has a lot of potential upside, led by Pro Tour Champion Ari Lax; and Waaagh Taverne Paris is a French team of European Grand Prix regulars, where Pro Tour Valencia winner Remi Fortier might only be the third- or fourth-best member of the team, and that makes them one of the darker horses this season.
"We'll be back next season, and we'll be better next season."
"We were in this for one PT, and it was a good one."
"We learned a ton about the game, and each other."
"Game over, man. Game over."
And so, we're just days away from crowning a new Player of the Year, from the start of the Team Series, from seeing all the options in Guilds of Ravnica Draft, and from finally bringing the new and excellent Standard format into focus. Join us—and by us, I mean Rich Hagon, Maria Bartholdi, Brian David-Marshall, Tim Willoughby, Marshall Sutcliffe, Riley Knight, Paul Cheon, Eduardo Sajgalik, Craig Gibson, Mike Rosenberg, Chris Gleeson, Adam Styborski, Corbin Hosler, Marc Calderaro, Nick Fang, and a host of people behind the scenes—as the fledgling season kicks into high gear.
Is it going to be a good one? Even if you haven't time travelled (as I have) to the end of the season, you already know the answer.