by Adam StyborskiSaturday, 9:30 p.m.Round 9 Metagame Breakdown
by Nate PriceSaturday, 9:15 p.m.Making Monoblack Work
by Nate PriceSaturday, 8:28 p.m.Round 7 Roundup
by Adam StyborskiSaturday, 7:57 p.m.Round 7 Metagame Breakdown
by Nate PriceSaturday, 5:49 p.m.Round 5 Roundup
by Adam StyborskiSaturday, 5:10 p.m.Round 5 Metagame Breakdown
by Nate PriceSaturday, 4:08 p.m.Top 25 Players at Grand Prix Louisville
by Adam StyborskiSaturday, 2:30 p.m.Making Top 25: Christian Calcano
by Adam StyborskiSaturday, 2:06 a.m.Grand Prix Qualifier Winning Decklists and Metagame
by Nate PriceSaturday, 12:34 p.m.Chasing Cards
by Adam StyborskiSaturday, 10:31 a.m.What to Expect When You're Expecting Standard
by Event Coverage StaffInfo: Fact Sheet
Saturday, 10:31 a.m. – What to Expect When You're Expecting Standard
You've made it. After winning your Pro Tour Qualifier you headed to Pro Tour Theros to battle in the newest Standard format. Theros pushed the potent Innistrad block out, and left you in a lurch for what to play next. New formats are daunting obstacles to the greatest players, even in a smaller pool of cards for Standard.
A week ago, finding your deck seemed almost impossible. But this weekend the impossible is possible once again.
Pro Tour Theros put the game's greatest to the test, resulting in an all-blue, all-French finals for Jérémy Dezani's win. The Mono-blue Devotion deck is the prime target for Standard at Grand Prix Louisville, and it isn't hard to imagine what we might see the weekend: Either you're going to devote yourself to Thassa, God of the Sea, or you're going to bring whatever weapons available to defeat her and her minions, namely Master of Waves.
Those that stay on the path to blue devotion are embracing repeat success. While the metagame is now aware of the blue menace lurking beneath the waves, it still found success on Magic Online this week. The real question facing the Mono-blue Devotion players is whether or not to splash a way to shore up the deck's weaknesses, such as for black's Thoughtseize as Joel Larsson did for Pro Tour Theros.
If you're fighting the blue menace your options are wider. One card that was missing in action at Pro Tour Theros was Supreme Verdict: It's a surefire way to clear a battlefield of creatures is one way to answer the threat Master of Waves can present while taking away the creatures powering Thassa's devotion. Esper Control decks were already including it, but how other decks might capitalize on Mono-blue Devotion's weaknesses is murkier.
Makihito Mihara's Colossal Gruul packs another way to handle Master of Waves and Thassa's devotion-enabling small fries: Polukranos, World Eater. Leveraging devotion to green and Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, Polukranos players can use its monstrosity ability to eat away the opposition.
Kentarou Yamamoto used Mono-black Devotion to fight into the Top 8 in Dublin, and a wide suite of disruptive cards including Thoughtseize and Hero's Downfall can keep blue devotion off-balance until Desecration Demon finishes the job.
Red-based decks find Mono-blue Devotion's Frostburn Weird tough to fight through, but without the tough defender blue decks are loathe to trade away the other creatures they need to increase their devotion. Black-white Orzhov decks are somewhere between the fast red strategies and slower Esper Control approach, but Blood Baron of Vizkopa can shred any deck leaning on white, black, or burn to clear the battlefield of threats.
Between the top decks from Pro Tour Theros and the best decks from Magic Online this week Jacob Van Lunen recapped in Thursday's Perilous Research, the choices for and against Mono-Blue Devotion are all challenging. The players of Grand Prix Louisville are faced with possibilities, but it remains to be seen if one deck will really be impossible to beat.
Saturday, 12:34 p.m. – Chasing Cards
As the time ticks down to the start of every Constructed Grand Prix, players switch into frantic mode. With so many last-minute changes to be made, slots to be filled, and cards to find, there is inevitably a massive rush on the dealers' tables. The tale these cards tell as they fly off the shelves presents a good preview of things to come.
Here in Louisville, the biggest movers and shakers in the hours leading up to the tournament were nearly unanimously in one group: Monoblack Devotion cards. A fringe outlier at Pro Tour Theros last week, Monoblack Devotion found itself unable to continue to hide in the shadows after Kentarou Yamamoto's impressive Top 8 showing. While he ultimately fell to the then 25th ranked Sam Black and his Monoblue Devotion deck, he impressed enough people along the way (myself included) that versions of his deck were soon seen tearing things up on Magic Online.
Carrying that over to this weekend, the various vendors set up around the room have been reporting various pieces of the deck are among the most sought-after cards of the weekend. Desecration Demon, Hero's Downfall, Lifebane Zombie, Abhorrent Overlord, and Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, have been simply evaporating. The Overlord is the major signal that these cards are looking to end up in Monoblack Devotion, but the other cards could very easily end up in other strong finishers from this past weekend, as well. Desecration Demon and Lifebane Zombie are two important parts of the Orzhov Midrange deck used by Paul Rietzl in his Top 8 run, and the Hero's Downfall is a large part of both Rietzl's deck and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa's Top 8 Esper Control deck.
Beyond these cards, there have been a smattering of cards from the other major decks that have been picked up, though not quite to the same degree as the above. Polukranos, World Eater, a key component of Makihito Mihara's Colossal Gruul deck, has been picked up, as has Master of Waves, one of the big devotion cards in the winning Monoblue Devotion deck. These decks will obviously be a big part of the weekend to come, but their growth has been incredibly outpaced by the rise of Monoblack.
One of the interesting things I noticed wandering around was the relative lack of cards being picked up for the Esper Control deck. As Supreme Verdict appears to be one of the important keys to stifling Monoblue's dominance, I expected to see a run on the cards for that deck, as well. Perhaps the fact that the deck is changed fairly little from its previous incarnation is to thank for that. People already have most of the cards needed to build it, so there is less demand for cards like Verdict.
In any case, if the story at the dealers' tables tells us anything, it's to be on the lookout for Erebos, God of the Dead, and his crew. He and Gary look to be out in force. It will be interesting to see if they are up to the task of stemming the blue tide that Pro Tour Theros unleashed, or if their devotion is misplaced.
Saturday, 2:06 p.m. – Grand Prix Qualifier Winning Decklists and Metagame
One set of clues to tell us how Standard is evolving from Pro Tour Theros are what players brought to win byes the day before. Since many players bring what they intend to play for the main event, the decisions for following or fighting Mono-Blue Devotion have been made. Each qualifiers is a small sample of what you'll see at the big show.
So far, so good when it comes to what we've expected to see for Grand Prix Louisville.. Esper Control and Mono-Blue Devotion are out in force, and each won a qualifier. Green-White Aggro and Blue-White Control (packing the full suite of Supreme Verdicts) are right behind, each with a victory as well. Orzhov Midrange won the fifth qualifier, and leads a tied up pack of Red Devotion, Black-White-Red Control, and Colossal Gruul. Going big and controlling game are a running theme among the other well-represented decks, and lurking in the small counts even further out are an array of decks of all shapes, sizes, strategies, and colors.
For reference, here are all the winners' decklists:
Saturday, 2:30 p.m. – Making Top 25: Christian Calcano
Getting to the top of your game isn't an overnight process. The best players have played for years, putting in the effort required to grow. One way to see who reaping what they've sown is checking the Top 25 Pro Rankings each week. Event to event throughout the season, those who have found success will rise into the list and remain firmly on it.
One player shining brighter today is Christian Calcano, the No. 25-ranked player in the world today. A Pro Tour mainstay before his Grand Prix victory in Minneapolis, Calcano's story is a familiar one that was a long time in coming.
How did you get into Magic?
"I started playing at Forbidden Planet, my local game store in in New York City growing up. I knew someone who played Magic and lent me his Zombie Cleric deck for Friday Night Magic. Right away I was drawn to the Pro scene. I had only played Magic for a month before getting competitive because it's my nature. I've been playing Pro Tour Qualifiers since 2004, and before I even went to a PTQ I was at my first Grand Prix in New Jersey: Mirrodin Block Constructed where I lost the last two rounds playing for Day 2."
How did you get to winning your first Grand Prix in Minneapolis last year?
"Since I started playing I've played in like 80 Grand Prix, 100 PTQs, and like 12 Pro Tours. The commitment to getting better got me to that point. It was the first Grand Prix I'd ever made Top 8 and won. It was my second year on the Pro Tour, so it didn't change how I approached playing. It probably led me to play at more Grand Prix than I did before: I wanted to play for more Pro points."
With your Top 16 finish at Pro Tour Theros you're now ranked 25th in the world. How do you feel about it? What does bring in the Top 25 mean for you?
"I ended last season on a downswing. I went really hard at Platinum Pro level , and it's the level that's eluded me so far. The names you associate with Platinum are the greatest players in the game and Hall of Famers. I ended last year at the minimum of Gold to stay on the Pro Tour. This year I've been to five GPs and Top 64'd in Detroit, and then I made Top 4 at a StarCityGames event. I had a lot of confidence going into the Pro Tour, and making Top 16 feels like I'm good again.
When I saw that I made Top 15 I was really stoked. There isn't a single name on this list I don't know. They're all players I've played on the Pro Tour, and they're all players I really respect because I feel that their game's really good. This is definitely a list I want to stay on and work my way up. I want to prove to the world I belong on it."
What are your plans for the rest of the season?
"I'll definitely hit up more Grand Prix up to Pro Tour Born of the Gods. After that I'll see where I'm at and if I need to go to more. Even with the five Grand Prix rule I have a lot of points to gain before I worry about that. The ultimate goal is to reach Platinum this season. That's the plan."
Saturday, 4:08 p.m. – Top 25 Player's at Grand Prix Louisville
Thanks to the large number of Pro Points offered at each Pro Tour, there is always the potential for quite a shakeup in the Top 25 rankings at the conclusion of each event. Pro Tour Theros was no different, with some fairly significant shakeups coming in its wake.
First, there is the slight change at the top of the standings, with Ben Stark, fresh off of his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, overtaking Josh Utter-Leyton by virtue of a Top 64 finish. Though he has the top slot now, Stark is not in attendance here in Louisville. Thanks to his performances thus far in the season and the changes to the Grand Prix contribution to a player's Pro Points total, even if he were to win the Grand Prix, Stark would only stand to gain about one point on the season. This leaves the door open for Utter-Leyton, who has made the trip, to reclaim his spot atop the standings.
Having come off of a disappointing performance in Dublin, Utter-Leyton is really looking forward to another chance to play what is shaping up to be essentially the same Standard field that he saw at the Pro Tour.
"It was disappointing to finish the way that we did last week," he told me. "Fortunately, I get another shot. This week, I'm playing Esper Control, which I believe was a really strong deck against the top half of the field at the Pro Tour. Since most people are going to take their cues this week from the decks that did well at the Pro Tour, Esper should be good again here. I wouldn't say that I'm looking for vindication, but I am definitely happy that I get a chance to play this Standard format again. I think I have a really good understanding of it, and I'm looking for a chance to prove that."
That's not the only thing on his mind. With currently top-ranked Ben Stark skipping this event, Utter-Leyton is poised to retake the top spot from him, if he can manage a Top 32 finish, that is. And that is a fact that Utter-Leyton is well aware of. When I asked him if the ability to overtake Stark and reclaim his prior spot atop the standings meant something to him, he responded with a smile.
"Oh hell yeah!"
Speaking with his teammate, 14th ranked David Ochoa, their decision to switch decks this week is likely to a better answer to the challenges ahead of them than last week's Pro Tour did.
"In Dublin, we prepared for a field of Esper Control," he explained to me. "Esper ended up being one of the biggest decks in the field, but the numbers weren't as big as we thought they were going to be, and that hurt us. This week, we think the Pro Tour is obviously going to have a big impact on the decks that people are playing. We're looking for a bunch of Monoblue Devotion, Mihara's Green Devotion deck, Monoblack Devotion...they did well at the Pro Tour, so they should be here in much greater force. We audibled into Esper Control this week. It's much better against all of the Devotion decks in the field. The only decks we really don't want to be facing off against with our Esper deck are Naya and other midrange creature decks like that. Fortunately, they don't appear to be as popular here this weekend."
They weren't the only players to audible to the Esper Control strategy. 4th ranked Reid Duke and 22nd ranked Owen Turtenwald both chose to audible from the Monoblue Devotion strategy that had served them so well in the Pro Tour to the three-color control deck. Again, the ever-shifting metagame led them to search for the deck that they think will give them the best chance to win this event.
"We are expecting a lot of Devotion in the wake of Pro Tour Theros," Duke explained to me. "All three varieties—Monoblue, Monoblack, and Monogreen. People will play the decks that did well. There will also be players playing Esper, like we are, so we need a deck that is going to perform well against the Devotion strategies, as well as other control strategies. That's why we picked up Esper for this weekend."
Both groups of players gave me the same general reasoning for looking towards Esper for success, and they hinted towards the same cards as the reason: Doom Blade and Thoughtseize. The ability to keep the Devotion decks off of their best creatures, reduce their devotion count, and disrupt their strategy is going to be very important in this field. It also happens that these cards do double duty as protection against the other Esper Control decks, where Thoughtseize is obviously powerful disruption and key against many planeswalkers.
Unlike Turtenwald and Duke, who audibled away from Monoblue Devotion this week, 13th ranked Sam Black, fresh off of a Top 8 performance at the Pro Tour, stuck to his guns. Though he admitted it might not have been his first choice.
"Huey and Owen hooked me," he laughed when I asked him about his decision. "They said that they were sticking with Monoblue, and then they changed to Esper."
Still, it's hard to argue against the deck, especially given both how powerful it is and how well Black knows the workings of the deck. He also learned a lot last weekend, having run up against two other major versions of the deck, including eventual finalist Pierre Dagen's version, nearly identical to the version that Jeremy Dezani used to win the event. This week, it is safe to say that Black comes in even more prepared for the mirror than he was last week, and positioned well in a similar environment to post a similarly strong finish.
Craig Wescoe is another player who has stuck to his guns, though he did make a few changes. The 18th ranked player in the world is known for his personal devotion to white, so it was unsurprising to see him sleeving up Boros in Dublin last week. While he didn't perform incredibly well in the Standard portion of the event, he chalked that up mostly to preparation for the wrong decks, something he is looking to avoid here in Louisville.
"I'm playing Boros again, but I've made some changes to account for what I'm expecting this weekend," he told me. "I'm essentially playing Ross Merriam's list. Last week, I ran a list that was much better against control, so I won the one control match I played against, but I pretty much lost every Game 1 against the midrange creature decks I played against. This week, I've got better cards for the creature matches, like Banisher Priest and Brave the Elements. I should do better this week against all of the devotion decks that people are likely to be playing because of the Pro Tour."
So the end result of this little investigation is the expectation that the decks that performed well at the last Pro Tour will again be out in force this weekend. This is no surprise, as that tends to be how the Pro Tour shapes events in its wake. In order to combat a nearly identical field, many of the Top 25 players in the world are pinning their hopes on Esper Control, a deck that many of them felt would be the major deck to beat at the Pro Tour. Positioned well in that field, it should prove similarly well-positioned here, as it possesses many of the tools necessary to fight devotion, including large amounts of creature removal, hand disruption, and the planeswalkers necessary to finish the job.
For more on the other member of the Top 25 in attendance, Christian Calcano, check out Adam Styborski's interview with him here.
Saturday, 5:10 p.m. – Round 5 Metagame Breakdown
Is Mono-Blue Devotion the deck to beat this weekend? The decks played across the top twenty-five tables for Round 5 show that may not be the case.
Esper Control was the most popular archetype among all competitors at Pro Tour Theros, and so it is for the moment here. Supreme Verdict is surely floating among the lists, but it's Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver that's beginning to make itself known as No. 25 Christian Calcano shared last round.
Colossal Gruul, complete with Arbor Colossus; Polukranos, World Eater; and Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, is close behind the Esper Control numbers as another deck primed to eat away at any blue it comes aross. Burning-Tree Shaman to chain in an early, and monstrous, Polukranos is as deadly here as it was in Dublin.
However, it's still early to count Mono-Blue Devotion out just yet: It's still the third most popular deck at the top. Sam Black, the No. 13-ranked player in the world right now, is still wielding the formidable forces of Thassa, God of the Sea. Coming off a Pro Tour Top 8 it'd be hard to deny that playing it again is a good idea. Black won his match, so we asked him what he was expecting coming into the weekend before getting his take on the breakdown.
"I'd expect more [Pro Tour Theros] Top 8 decks," Black said. "More Skylashers and more Mistcutter Hydras. People will be out for the blue deck. Probably less white weenie or Selesnya type decks." Showing him the breakdown of decks for the round looked eerily like Sam's call: Esper Control, Colossal Gruul, Orzhov Midrange, and Black Devotion are all well-represented.
"It makes sense there's less [Mono-Blue Devotion] here than in the Dublin Top 8," Black continued. "People think everyone will hate blue and there's obvious way to do it, so people will shy away. It also makes sense for Mihara's deck to be popular: People love to play creatures, and it can do all sorts of awesome stuff with Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx."
"Esper is what a lot of Pros are playing here," Black said. "There's a perception that Esper is good against all these other decks, though I'm surprised there's less Black Devotion here." After sharing the archetype breakdown from the qualifiers, Black continued. "It looks like there's more black in the field, but the decks from the Pro Tour are doing better."
Where would things go from here? That's something not even he could answer for us.
Saturday, 5:49 p.m. – Round 5 Roundup
Coming into Round 5, there were only four of the seven Top 25 ranked players who had managed to win their first round. As such, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to see all of them in action in the Feature Match area.
Under the lights of the camera, 4th ranked Reid Duke and his Esper deck squared off against Mathew Damrell and his Orzhov Midrange deck, akin to the one played by Paul Rietzl in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Theros. Right next door, 13th ranked Sam Black had a chance to prove what he had learned last week in this Monoblue Devotion mirror match against Blake McClure. Behind them, on the ancillary tables, 14th ranked David Ochoa and 25th ranked Christian Calcano squared off against their opponents. Ochoa was embroiled in a tedious Esper Control mirror match against Christopher Sims, while Calcano's Esper deck had to fight through Justin Uppal's Colossal Gruul deck.
Most of the top players in the tournament had chosen to throw their lot in with Esper Control, a reasonable choice given the similarities between this field and that of the Pro Tour. Esper has all of the tools required to be a force against a field of Devotion decks, and they certainly appeared to be out in force in this event. Still, the lone Esper deck to be matched up against a Devotion strategy didn't have the best go of it. Calcano opened his match with a mulligan to three, easily losing the first game. He then found himself up against every Planeswalker in Uppal's deck in the second. Combined with the Burning Earth that hit play, Calcano was quick to fall.
"It wasn't a good match for me," he told me as he picked up his cards. "I mulliganned to three in the first game, and I didn't have any of my Detention Spheres or Hero's Downfalls in the last one. I got an Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver, out and managed to steal a couple of mana creatures, but the Burning Earth ended up doing too much damage to me, and I didn't have any way to stop it."
Ochoa similarly ran afoul of inconsistent draws in his match against Sims. After playing two fairly tense games involving multiple planeswalkers, Sphinx's Revelations, and very tiny libraries, he found himself on the receiving end of a glut of lands in the final game of his match, as Sims's Ætherling finished the defenseless Ochoa off. In Ochoa's own words, "Turns out Ætherling is difficult to kill. Who knew?"
The other Esper Control player in the feature match area had a much better go of things, though his match wasn't easy. Reid Duke opened his match by punishing Damrell's mulligan to five by drawing three Sphinx's Revelations, kindly putting Damrell out of his misery. In the second game, he sided out some of his defensive cards on the draw and was punished by a very fast start from Damrell. An unanswered Precinct Captain is capable of amazing things, and Duke knows this firsthand.
The final game was a nailbiter. After facing down a reasonably aggressive start from Damrell, Duke was able to stabilize at two life by virtue of his Blood Baron of Vizkopa. The Blood Baron is, shall we say, fairly good against a deck that is completely black and white. Even more, although Duke didn't have the Supreme Verdict to keep himself alive, he did manage to find a Detention Sphere to sweep away a pair of Desecration Demons, one turn before he died. With the Baron's help, Duke was able to claw back from the brink, eventually taking the match from Damrell.
"Blood Baron was really my workhorse in that last game," he told me after narrowly escaping his first loss.
The final match of the Top 25 showcase round featured 13th ranked Sam Black, in an opportunity to show his stuff in the Monoblue Devotion mirror match. His first game was rather anticlimactic, as his much faster draw ran all over Blake McClure's slower draw. In the second game, things built up to a fairly tense board state before McClure wiped things clean with a Cyclonic Rift, sealing things with a massive attack to send it to Game 3.
With the match on the line, things came down to one crucial turn. Black had opened with a slightly stronger draw than McClure, who had only managed a pair of Judge's Familiars and a Thassa, God of the Sea. Black had managed an early Nightveil Specter, a very key card in this matchup. The situation flipped when McClure stole the Specter with a Domestication, simultaneously stealing Black's biggest threat and putting his own Thassa into devotion. It looked like things had swung firmly in McClure's favor, but Black had a Cyclonic Rift to bounce the Domestication, negating McClure's attack, and returning his Specter to his side. This also gave Black the window he needed to begin attacking with his own Thassa, putting himself ahead in the race, and eventually sealing his win.
Black spoke at length last week about the importance of the four-drop slot in this deck, and this was the ideal example of what he meant. There are only so many slots available, and there are too many cards that you want to put in them.
"It's because I was on the play and managed to curve out," Black explained. "I was able to curve out and stay ahead. Managing to hit your curve is incredibly important in the mirror match."
With that, only two of the Top 25 players manage to keep their pristine undefeated records intact: Reid Duke and Sam Black.
Saturday, 7:57 p.m. – Round 7 Metagame Breakdown
Two rounds of results are in since the last metagame breakdown, and the latest pairings across the top tables were surprising.
Esper Control is firmly atop of the field, and even added another representative among the top. The combination of Thoughtseize, to disrupt whatever an opponent might be planning, and Detention Sphere, to disrupt whatever an opponent tries to do, work as intended to knock away pesky Gods and lock up everything from Nightveil Specter to Arbor Colossus.
The more important piece of the Esper puzzle may be Thoughtseize though, and the Orzhov Midrange deck from Pro Tour Theros piloted by Paul Reitzl, ranked 17th in the Top 25 players, jumped in representation. The common threads between the decks include the aforementioned Thoughtseize, Here's Downfall, and Sin Collector. Each are efficient ways to break down opponents' plans.
And if the plan was to cast Master of Waves or attack with Thassa, God of the Sea, your plan is getting derailed regularly. Similarly surprising is how the black devotion decks haven't made more of an impact. Despite sharing Thoughtseize and Hero's Downfall, with some versions splashing to get Sin Collector into the mix, the power of Erebos, God the Dead hasn't grown yet.
The other major deck at play was still Colossal Gruul. Arbor Colossus wasn't an uncommon choice for Detention Sphere given that Colossal Gruul held on to its share of the metagame. Elvish Mystic leading into a string of ever-larger fatties topping out with Polukranos, World Eater made plenty of games end quickly.
Is that what Reid Duke, ranked 4th in the Top 25 players, thought would bear out coming into Louisville?
"I expected a lot of decks that did well at the Pro Tour," Duke said. "Things like mono-black, mono-blue, green and red devotion. I thought there'd be a good mix of control decks, and things like the black-white midrange deck. Aggressive decks wouldn't be as popular as before the Pro Tour." On the day, Duke had faced two black-based midrange decks, an Esper Control deck, and a fast white aggro deck, though he defeated them all.
"It seems like the mono-black is doing well," Duke said from his experience so far on the day. Of course, "doing well" is relative. Black Devotion held onto its share going into Round 7, but it's still small compared to the rest of the field.
Saturday, 8:28 p.m. – Round 7 Roundup
Coming into this weekend, all signs pointed to Monoblack Devotion being a force to be reckoned with at this event. It was fresh off a high-profile, Pro Tour Top 8. It had been seen tearing up Magic Online in the intervening week. Its top singles were absolutely flying off the shelves at the vendors' tables. It even showed up as one of the most-played decks in the Grinders yesterday. It looked like Monoblack Devotion was on the rise.
So what happened?
Checking around the top tables up to this point in the tournament, Monoblack Devotion was but a sliver of the decks seen. Where Esper Control and Colossal Gruul were thriving, Monoblack Devotion was fading from view. This round, I managed to grab three of the four Monoblack Devotion decks that were doing well, each piloted by a top-flight player, and invited them to play in the feature match area alongside 2nd ranked Josh Utter-Leyton's Esper Control deck and Ian Suire's Colossal Gruul deck.
One of the main camera matches for this round of features was 13th ranked Sam Black and his Monoblue Devotion deck squaring off against Todd Anderson and his Monoblack Devotion deck. This match was a long, drawn out affair. Black took the first game in incredibly quick fashion, curving out and overwhelming Anderson's removal-light draw. In the second game, the players took to the skies, with Nightveil Specters fighting on both sides. In the end, Anderson's proved stronger, as he was able to cast some of the spells he stole from Black via a Temple of Deceit. Eventually, he was able to whittle down Black's forces to the point that he was able to pull ahead and win. His life total was never really in question, as being on the play allowed him to stay one step ahead of Black the whole way.
The final game was another very close one. Again, there was a surprisingly mirrored start from both players, with multiple Nightveil Specters filling the skies. In this case, however, Black was the one able to break the stalemate, landing a potentially lethal Master of Waves at a crucial time. Anderson surprisingly didn't have any removal for it, and set about digging for some. With an Underworld Connections in play and a second copy in hand, he was able to dig four cards deep into his deck looking for a single piece of removal to take the Master out, giving him another trio of cards to take control of the game. Instead, he found four meaningless cards (not an easy task given his large number of spot removal spells), and the match went to Black and his Monoblue deck. It's hard to beat a man named Black playing a Devotion to Black deck.
Playing right Anderson was his testing partner Brad Nelson.
"Todd played this deck against me on our video series for StarCity, and he absolutely crushed me," Nelson admitted. "That's why I picked it up and started playing it. I think Monoblack Devotion is probably the best deck in the room right now."
He set out to prove it, quickly going up a game against Alex Sittner's Esper Control deck. Between the power of Underworld Connections and Thoughtseize, he was able to pull far ahead of Sittner, easily taking the first game of the match. In the second, he once again found his advantage in Underworld Connections, with the powerful enchantment hitting play one turn after a Pithing Needle shut off his Pack Rat. Thanks to his steady stream of cards, he was able to assemble all of the cards he needed to assert his dominance over the other big black deck in the field.
Unfortunately, he would be the only Monoblack deck to escape this feature round unscathed. Seth Manfield, facing off against Marcelino Freeman's Jund Midrange deck, ran afoul of the myriad of planeswalkers in Freeman's deck in the first game of their match. Manfield was able to bounce back from a mulligan thanks to an Underworld Connections, but the life he lost for the cards put him in a difficult spot, made even more difficult by Freeman's Xenagos, the Reveler, and his hasty Satyrs. Manfield came back strong, relying on another stream of removal spells to keep ahead of Freeman's deck in the second game, eventually riding Gray Merchant of Asphodel and Mutavault to a victory.
The final game saw the players fighting against the clock. With under eight minutes to go, it looked like this match might end in a draw. Both players were playing incredibly fast, trying to avoid a draw, but their decks were less than forthcoming with action. Both players appeared flooded, drawing nothing but lands. To make matters worse, Manfield even had an Erebos, God of the Dead, which he activated a whopping nine times in the final game, each time hitting a land. By the time Freeman was finally able to get a creature to stick (Desecration Demon), Manfield had used the two removal spells he had found in the top half of his deck, and the Demon was able to finish him off in a very anticlimactic final game.
In the final match in the feature area, the two big decks of the tournament faced off at 5-1. Josh Utter-Leyton represented the powerful and ubiquitous Esper Control deck, while Ian Suire stood behind Colossal Gruul, the very deck that Makihito Mihara used to secure his sixth Pro Tour Top 8 this past weekend. These have easily been the two biggest and strongest decks in the field thus far, and this was far from the only instance of this matchup that we would be sure to see.
The first game of the match was fairly uneventful. As Suire put it, "I mulliganned to six, misplayed twice, and conceded on turn four." What the first game lacked in tension, though, the second brought out in droves. Stuck on three lands, Utter-Leyton was being overrun. Suire held a number of creatures and a Garruk, Primal Hunter, to make things worse. Utter-Leyton had managed to stop Garruk after only one activation thanks to a Pithing Needle, but he was staring down Polukranos, World Eater, and a hand of other creatures. Still, handicapped as he was, Utter-Leyton managed to use his very efficient removal spells to keep afloat, narrowly avoiding dying multiple turns in a row. As he began to draw into more and more lands, he was able to actively affect the game rather than being forced to spend all of his resources to simply stave off defeat. When he hit six mana and was able to land Elspeth, Sun's Champion, he had finally turned the corner. Where once he had appeared dead to rights, Utter-Leyton had managed to crawl back into things and take his match down.
We've seen a gradual decline of Monoblack at the top tables, and this round saw a death knell for two more of them. As well-positioned as many players seem to believe the deck is, it can be incredibly punishing if it doesn't draw the answers it needs when it needs them. Monoblack has certainly got many ways to ensure that it draws them, the biggest of which being Underworld Connections, but most of the players in the tournament have opted to go with Sphinx's Revelation over the powerful enchantment, and it seems to be paying off for them.
Saturday, 9:15 p.m. - Making Monoblack Work
As the first day of play here at Grand Prix Louisville comes to a close, a few things have become incredibly apparent.
- Esper Control is a big deal
- Colossal Gruul is a big deal
- Other Decks appear to have lost their luster
From all of the conversations we've held with the various pros around the room, the first two of these points is hardly surprising. Most of the big names in the room believe that Esper was the best deck to have played in the Pro Tour a week ago, and they feel that this Grand Prix is strongly influenced by the decks that did well there. As such, the best decks to play in Dublin should be the best decks to play here, and that means Esper.
It also means the Colossal Gruul Devotion deck. There are few plays in Standard right now that are as powerful as tapping Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, for mana, and the Colossal Gruul deck gets to do that multiple times in one turn. Interestingly, in a color combination usually known for its creatures, it's the planeswalkers that are carrying the brunt of the burden in this incarnation. Between Domri Rade; Xenagos, the Reveler; and Garruk, Caller of Beasts, there are absurdly powerful things to do with the plethora of mana the deck is able to generate. It was an incredibly powerful choice in Dublin, and a large number of players in the room, or own Jacob Van Lunen included, believe that Gruul is the way to go.
And then there are the other Devotion decks. Sure, Monoblue Devotion will continue to be a thing. It won the Pro Tour, and people haven't suddenly figured out how to deal with it over the course of a week, at least not entirely. It is still a force, albeit a shrinking one. Monored Devotion decks are all but absent from Louisville this weekend in the wake of their generally abysmal showing at the Pro Tour.
Which brings us to Monoblack. Hailed by many as one of the next big things to look out for in Standard, we had our hopes high that Louisville would herald the return of the mighty Swamp. Kentarou Yamamoto used it to make Top 8 of the Pro Tour. It did incredibly well on Magic Online. It made up a good chunk of the decks being played in the Grinders. It even effectively sold out at the vendors' tables. And then it completely disappeared.
To answer this question, I turned to Brad Nelson, former Player of the Year and champion of Monoblack Devotion, to explain why he thought the deck was worth bringing to this tournament, and what he thought was happening to the deck that we had all expected to be a major force this weekend.
"I didn't know what I was going to play on Wednesday," he told me with a laugh. "Todd and I did our versus series that we do on StarCity, he was playing this deck, and he just destroyed me. Ever since then, I have been playing with the deck, and I just absolutely think it is the best deck in the room. We were very geared for the mirror, so hearing that it's not on the top tables is kind of disappointing."
According to Nelson, the deck has everything that a deck needs to be good under these conditions. Right now, Thoughtseize and Doom Blade are two of the best decks in the format, and playing a deck that both gets to play them and doesn't get hurt by them, is an incredible boon.
"I think that in the new current Standard format, with how the cards have been designed, you're going to have a rotating cast of best decks," Nelson continued. "I'm really excited to play this format. It's very skill-intensive, it has a lot of high-impact cards that are good some times and bad the others, but I think that, from the Pro Tour, my vote for the best card in the format right now is Thoughtseize. I wanted to play a deck that wasn't vulnerable to Thoughtseize on turns one or two, and got to take the best advantage of the card. You have Underworld Connections to get back the cards you lose. If you play against a Thoughtseize deck that isn't blue, you have Pack Rat, which lets you be super aggressive. I just felt that this deck can play a lot of different roles. It can go aggressive, it can go midrange, and it can go really late. I'm not afraid of Sphinx's Revelation playing this deck. As long as I get some of my board set up, I'm fine. I can beat a Revelation for five or six."
Yet there are certain considerations that would make this deck very bad. Fortunately, this weekend has shaped up to keep the most offensive of them away.
"Dynacharge. That would destroy me," Nelson laughed. "Monored is by far the worst matchup. I even came into this tournament cutting all of my Monored answers, playing good, efficicent cards instead of situational stuff. I've played against two Esper decks, a mirror match, and Monoblue; exactly what I expected to play here."
Still, since Monored Devotion isn't a major player here this weekend, it doesn't explain why there has been a drop off in its performance. Nelson does have one theory.
"It's probably one of the hardest decks to play that I've played in a while," he said. "You have to make the correct decisions on which lines you are going to take with this deck fairly early a lot of times, and it can be difficult to select the right ones. Sometimes, you may not realize that you're on the wrong path until it's too late."
I will be the first to admit, it does look like a reasonably easy deck on its surface. It's a ton of removal and disruption, card drawing, and big threats. It seems like the decisions (outside of the cards to take with Thoughtseize) are minimally difficult. However, after having watched a day's worth of matches with the deck, I can now see how tough this deck can actually be to play. Nelson pointing out the deck's aggressive capabilities is the perfect illustration to this.
"If you can get a Pack Rat online against Gruul before they get their Garruk in play, you don't even really care about it," he said. "You just run them over."
In a deck that most people associate with control, I'd imagine the most difficult thing for many players to gauge would be when to be aggressive. Usually, that comes after you've established control. According to Nelson, that's not always true with this deck. Considering that he is entering the final round with a perfect 8-0 record, I'm not going to question him.
Saturday, 9:30 p.m. - Metagame Breakdown
Where did the last round of Day 1 in Louisville take us? It's all familiar faces and places.
Round 9 Metagame Breakdown
After nine rounds, Esper Control was finally tied by another deck: Orzhov Midrange. If players wanted to execute their plan this weekend it became clear none would go as desired. Esper Control packs a wide array of countermagic, everything from Gainsay and Essence Scatter to Syncopate and Dissolve interject ones will on opponents. Orzhov Midrange, along with the Black Devotion decks, had access to Duress, Doom Blade, and Ultimate Price. Everywhere you looked, trains were being derailed.
Colossal Gruul yielded little share of the metagame throughout the day, and like its distant cousin Mono-Red (that's lumped into the Other category above) the ability to be explosive early is a strategy more difficult to take apart. Slower decks that don't create urgency for opponents made up everything just off the top archetype radar.
It also means that Mono-Blue Devotion didn't disappear entirely, and actually made up some ground in the metagame. Disruption can be a powerful tool, but having it in a deck doesn't mean it's guaranteed to be there when you need it. Powerful decks pounce on the opportunities they're given.
Unfortunately that's what happened to the Esper Control deck played by David Ochoa, ranked 14th in the Top 25 players, when he battled for Day 2. We asked him how he thought the weekend would look.
David Ochoa's plans has been wrecked too.
"There'd be a larger representation of Top 8 decks from the Pro Tour, " Ochoa said. "Basically, all the decks that did well would show up here. Based on that shift, people would also think of the decks that would do well against those decks. If people are expecting to see Orzhov midrange and Colossal Gruul, I'd expect people to bring more Esper, which is good against those for the most part."
"I played Esper," Ochoa said. "And I played against two other Esper decks, a blue devotion and black devotion deck, as well as Selesnya tokens and a Grixis deck - not something I expected. It seemed like there was a decent amount of midrange and devotion strategies , and some Esper Control."
Taking a look at the data from round nine confirmed some of Ochoa's thoughts. "I'm not surprised Orzhov Midrange is popular," Ochoa said. "It's the type of deck people that go to these events like to play. I was expecting to see a little more green-something decks, like Naya and Junk, but it seems like that section of the metagame got killed by the Orzhov decks."