Saturday, 9:55 a.m. – Beating Them Black and Blueby Tobi Henke
Just so everyone's on the same page, let's quickly recap what happened last week at Grand Prix Albuquerque. In short, Mono-Black Devotion and Mono-Blue Devotion utterly dominated the tournament: three of the four undefeated players at the end of Day One were devoted to mono-black; mono-blue was the most played deck on Day Two; and then the two decks almost split the Top 8 evenly between them, with blue taking three berths, black taking four including the number-one spot.
Interestingly enough, the match-up between the two apparently can go either way and has no clear favorite. "Two evenly matched decks dominating all others is a very rare occurrence," said Pro Tour champion turned coverage reporter Simon Görtzen. "The reason why it works here is that each deck keeps down a different class of competing decks. Mono-Black makes life difficult for Esper Control which could otherwise beat Mono-Blue. Mono-Blue, in turn, keeps the red-based aggressive decks in check which would otherwise be a problem for Mono-Black. It's team work!"
So, basically, these are the decks to beat. Of course, there are many more viable archetypes in the format and there's always potential for some new development obliterating the established order of things, but Albuquerque gave us a very clear image of what to expect. Now it's up to the players to turn said expectation on its head. As we're sure they will.
Saturday, 10:22 a.m. – Grand Prix Trial Winners
While Saturday and Sunday are the days of the actual main event, the Grand Prix weekend always starts on Friday with a number of fun as well as a number of more serious side events. The last-chance Grand Prix Trials clearly are among the latter, offering players the final chance to earn byes for the Grand Prix ... and giving us the opportunity to gauge how the field may look like this weekend.
Mono-Blue Devotion and Mono-Black Devotion were obviously expected. Meanwhile, Blue-White-Black and Blue-White Control took slightly more people to a tournament victory than previous results would have suggested. However most interesting among the winner's decks here, even if not completely new designs, is the tendency for mono-blue to not actually be that mono. One of the decks is splashing black for a few choice removal spells; another one includes white to form a sort of hybrid between Mono-Blue Devotion and Blue-White Control. It can follow up Nightveil Specter and Claustrophobia with Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx to boost Sphinx's Revelation for example. Sounds awesome, doesn't it?
Saturday, 1:35 p.m. – Dealer Talkby Frank Karsten
At Constructed events, the dealers always have some of the best insight into the latest developments. What sells well before the tournament begins is often a good indicator of what decks people will be playing. I walked down the dealers stands to see what cards were in high demand this weekend.
The big story is Shrivel. No dealer could seem to keep them in stock. "Some players were even opening M14 boosters in desperation," Michael Duke from MagicMadhouse.com told me. Shrivel is a relatively new addition to the sideboard of Mono Black Devotion that has gone up in popularity lately. Its main use is to fight an early onslaught of white creatures. When facing a Soldier of the Pantheon and a Daring Skyjek on turn two, Shrivel is the best answer you can have.
Shrivel was not the only card for Mono Black Devotion that players were looking for. "A lot of players asked for Hero's Downfall and Underworld Connection, and we even sold out of Pack Rat," Jens Arndt from MTGZap.com mentioned. After Owen Turtenwald's win in Grand Prix Albuquerque last weekend, that may not come as a surprise, as Pack Rat is one of the best cards in the Black Devotion mirror match.
And finally, lands. Everyone seemed to be looking for them. Mutavault and Temple of Triumph were selling well, but that could be expected. More interestingly, many players had asked for basic Island and basic Swamp, but not just from any set—these devoted magicians were looking for a nice set of specific basic lands. "I sold a ton of Beta Islands today," Rudy Meijer from MagicUnited.nl said. Lands from Unhinged and from Zendikar, for example, were running hot as well.
In the end, if you're playing in a big tournament, you not only need the right cards, but you want them to look gorgeous as well.
Saturday, 1:55 p.m. – Checking In with Valentin Macklby Tobi Henke
On the other side of the big pond the big news these past weeks was Owen Turtenwald winning back-to-back Grand Prix. On a somewhat smaller scale, however, those were quite a few weeks for Valentin Mackl as well, and his accomplishments surely didn't go unnoticed, especially in his hometown Vienna. While I talked to him several people came by to congratulate him on his recent performances.
Mackl had been on the radar of the European GP coverage team for quite a while, continuously making Rich Hagon's list of players to watch. But it was getting old, introducing him as "an up-and-coming player from Austria" at the beginning of feature matches. Thankfully, we don't have to do that anymore ... A couple of months back, at the beginning of the 2013–2014 pro season, the globetrotting Mackl finished in the Top 4 of Grand Prix Miami. He later placed in the Top 75 at Pro Tour Theros in Dublin, then lost his win-and-in match playing for the Top 8 of Grand Prix Antwerp, and that was only the beginning. Within the last three weeks, he made it to the Top 4 at Grand Prix Valencia as well as the Top 4 of Grand Prix Albuquerque and squeezed in a Top 64 finish at Grand Prix Washington between the two.
So how does it feel to be Valentin Mackl at the moment? "Awesome!" said Mackl. "These past couple of events have been an absolute blast. I'm at 22 pro points, qualified for the next two Pro Tours thanks to my Silver level, and now I'm looking to make it to Gold."
He concedes that his recent success did involve a fair share of luck. "It was a good run," said Mackl, "but basically I just did what I have been doing for the last couple of years." Mackl could already boast an impressive rate of making Day Two at Grand Prix, something upwards of 80 percent. "But I've never gotten so far before [Grand Prix Miami]," he said, "so it kinda has to be difficult, but now that I've done it a couple of times it somehow doesn't feel that hard after all."
When someone asked him what his next plans were, he joked, "Well, first I'm going to win GP Vienna of course." On a more serious note, he mentioned that he had no crazy travel plans for the foreseeable future. "I already have three Top 8s this season and only the best five Grand Prix finishes count toward one's pro point total."
Further in the future lies the possibility of leading the Austrian team at next year's World Magic Cup. "I currently have a 10-point lead on the second ranked player, and he's not that [active], so among the realistic competition I'm even further ahead" said Mackl. "But of course a lot can happen in the months between now and then. Still, it feels good to be the frontrunner."
And now with the added advantage of playing on home turf, Valentin Mackl is even more of a player to watch. Which we'll certainly do later in the day.
Saturday, 2:15 p.m. – Devour Flesh, Ultimate Price, or Doom Blade?by Frank Karsten
Black players looking for removal have all the choice in the world. When it comes to efficient two-mana removal spells in Standard, you have access to Devour Flesh, Ultimate Price, and Doom Blade. All have their advantages and disadvantages. Ultimate Price can destroy Desecration Demon and Pack Rat, but fails against Frostburn Weird and Boros Reckoner—two creatures that Doom Blade has no trouble with. Devour Flesh, on the other hand, is capable of dealing with Nightveil Specter, Sylvan Caryatid, and Blood Baron of Vizkopa, but doesn't always kill the thing you want to kill, and it can be horrible against Master of Waves.
Looking at the top decklists from Grand Prix Albuquerque, it seems that no consensus had been reached on what the best two-mana removal spell is. Owen Turtenwald, who took the trophy with his Mono Black Devotion deck, played a mix of 2 Devour Flesh, 1 Doom Blade, and 2 Ultimate Price. But looking at other Mono Black Devotion and Esper Control decklists from the Top 16 of that tournament, it seemed that everyone had come to different conclusions. Some lists maxed out on Devour Flesh; others ran no Ultimate Price at all.
So which one is the best? Of course, this depends on what kind of decks you expect to face, but in the current metagame, which removal spells to play? I tracked down some of the players in attendance here today (some of which were playing black; some of which were not) to hear their thoughts on the matter.
"I think you don't want to play Doom Blade because of the recent success of Mono Black," said Martin Juza, who is ranked 15th in the Top 25. No. 10 Stanislav Cifka agreed: "You don't want to sit with 3 Doom Blades in your hand." However, they pointed out that the prevalence of Nightveil Specter in the current metagame forces you to adjust your removal suite accordingly: you need to have a few Devour Flesh.
Grand Prix Strasbourg 2013 Top 8 competitor Michael Bonde has a similar view on the matter. "Ultimate Price kills the most creatures, but Nightveil Specter is such a beating," he explained. "I think the mix in Owen's deck is the best for Mono Black Devotion. It is useful to have a removal spell for every situation in your deck, to have a out to every threat your opponent might play. You are often happy when you draw a mix."
Personally, I love Singleton decks, and I like creating more options by playing cards with different names. So, I can get behind the philosophy of playing a mix. Then again, because the metagame constantly marches on, the mix that was best for last weekend need not be correct for this one. We'll see how it turns out.
Round 4 Feature Match - Valentin Mackl vs. Marijn Lybaertby Frank Karsten
Valentin Mackl has been running extremely hot as of late. Earlier this month, he finished 4th at Grand Prix Valencia. Last weekend, he again made it to the Top 4 of a Grand Prix, this time in Albuquerque. There, his Mono Blue Devotion deck fell at the hands of eventual winner Owen Turtenwald. This weekend, he took his Mono Blue Devotion deck to battle once more, hoping to ride his home town advantage—he originally hails from Vienna—to an even better finish.
Marijn Lybaert, on the other side of the table, is an experienced player from Belgium who has four Pro Tour Top 8s from his name. Although he is a frequent member of the European coverage team, he found himself playing rather than commentating today. Like Mackl, he chose Mono Blue Devotion.
When the players started shuffling, Lybaert was surprised to see that Mackl was playing sleeveless. "This is my first GP," Mackl joked.
After I prompted him, Mackl revealed the true reason: "It's fun. Everybody else plays with sleeves, so I play without. None of my cards are damaged, so there are no markings." He then turned to his opponent. "Do you think it's funny?" Lybaert disagreed: "It's not funny; it's crazy."
Mackl was not out of jokes, though. "You play 80 cards? Your stack of cards is so big." Mackl said when he picked up Lybaert's deck for a cut.
"This funny guy, Valentin, always so funny," Marijn mentioned.
"You said I wasn't funny! You lied!" Mackl replied.Game 1
Eventually, the match got underway, and game 1 was a quick affair. Mackl, on the play, had the following curve:
Lybaert, in the meantime, merely had a bunch of small creatures and a Domestication, but lacked an answer to the opposing Thassa. Two turns later, he packed up his cards, unable to block any of Mackl's attackers.
Mackl comes out of the gates quickly in game 1.
Mackl 1 - Lybaert 0
This time, Lybaert had the aggro draw. He started off with Cloudfin Raptor on turn 1 and Tidebinder Mage on turn 2. He had Thassa, God of the Sea on his third turn, but hovered it over the table, expecting a Gainsay. But Mackl didn't have countermagic, and Lybaert let out a battle cry of joy. When Lybaert had Domestication for Mackl's Nightveil Specter on the next turn, it was over.
Lybaert enjoys his aggro draw in game 2.
"What, that's it? It's turn 4 Valentin, come on," Marijn said as Mackl scooped up his cards.
"Wasn't it like this in game 1 as well?" Mackl replied.
"No, there I waited until turn 5 or 6," Marijn answered.
Mackl 1 - Lybaert 1
The third game was a more interesting one. Lybaert started with a Cloudfin Raptor on turn 1, but then passed several turns without a play. Mackl didn't do much either, just playing lands and passing the turn. By turn 5, Mackl had 4 Islands and a Mutavault in play, while Lybaert had 2 Mutavault, 3 Island, and a 0/1 Cloudfin Raptor in play. The players did have spells in hand they could cast, but none of them wanted to walk into a Gainsay.
So Lybaert waited, and Mackl patiently did the same. It was beautiful to see, like two sword masters dancing around each other, each of them waiting for the other one to make the first move.
Mackl, holding several Gainsay, is content to just pass the turn.
Lybaert eventually bit the bullet. He played Master of Waves, which unsurprisingly met Gainsay. Mackl, on his turn, resolved Nightveil Specter. Lybaert tried to steal it with Domestication, and a huge counter-war resulted. Gainsay? Gainsay. Gainsay! And just like that, Mackl untapped with Nightveil Specter in play and, as it turned out, even a fourth Gainsay in hand.
That fourth Gainsay allowed him to counter Lybaert's second Domestication, allowing him to keep the Nightveil Specter advantage. A while later, Mackl had resolved Thassa, God of the Sea and Master of Waves, and attacked for lethal.
Mackl 2 - Lybaert 1
After the match, I asked Lybaert about Domestication, a card that Blue Devotion specialist Sam Black didn't run in his build of the deck. "It's very good in the mirror match," he explained. "You can steal Nightveil Specter and Master of Waves to deal with the big threats. Also, if both players have Thassa, God of the Sea in play, you can steal your opponent's copy and immediately sacrifice it to the legend rule. I play one Domestication maindeck and more in the sideboard."
Alas, they did not carry him to victory. "Four Gainsay is too much," Lybaert concluded.
Saturday, 3:00 p.m. – Sixteen Players, Three Archetypesby Frank Karsten
With over 1,400 players in the room, there's no chance we could tell you about the whole of the Day 1 metagame. Something we can tell you about, however, is the deck choices of a select group of 16 players that we picked to shine a spotlight on:
Frederico Bastos, Michael Bonde, Marco Camilluzzi, Stanislav Cifka, Pierre Dagen, Jeremy Dezani, Ivan Floch, Lukas Jaklovsky, Martin Juza, Joel Larsson, Marijn Lybaert, Valentin Mackl, Simon Gortzen, Helmut Summersberger, Jan van der Vegt, and Matej Zatlkaj.
Here's the archetype breakdown of what this group of Pro Tour champions, seasoned veterans, members of the Top 25 Pro Rankings, and up-and-coming talents are playing:
Mono Black Devotion: 7
Esper or Blue-White Control: 5
Mono Blue Devotion: 4
Looking at the choices of these pros, it seems that if you want to do well in Standard, there are three decks (and only three decks) to choose from. Although these are known archetypes, there was still some innovation going around. For example, a small white splash in Mono Black Devotion, and an Elixir of Immortality long-game in Blue-White Control. There is always something new.
Besides, these three archetypes are not the only decks that are being played today. Walking around the top tables, I saw a plenty of green and red decks as well. I was also intrigued by a Black-Red-White deck that won with Toil & Trouble. So there's still more to Standard than Blue Devotion, Esper, and Black Devotion, and I can't wait to see what makes it to the top of the standings today.
More on Sunday, when we have a detailed breakdown of all Day 2 decks for you!
Round 5 Feature Match - Eduardo Sajgalik vs. Frederico Bastosby Tobi Henke
On one side of the table sat Frederico Bastos, an old-time pro from Portugal whose two Pro Tour Top 8s stem from more than ten years ago; on the other side sat Eduardo Sajgalik who made the Top 8 of Pro Tour Return to Ravnica. Even though Sajgalik has been around much longer than his recent PT success, this match was somewhat akin to the new guard against the old school.
Both players were undefeated so far, running mono-colored devotion decks. Sajgalik brought the blue cards, Bastos was on black. As evidenced by the Top 8 of Grand Prix Albuquerque, this match-up can go either way, although it really didn't here ...
In the first game, Bastos cast Thoughtseize and Underworld Connections as his first two spells, both without any impact of the board, before missing a crucial land drop. Meanwhile, Sajgalik had already summoned Frostburn Weird and Nightveil Specter, then lost his