What does this mean? Well, in many respects, these are the best sorts of tournaments for newer players, or those coming back to the game after a break. While some card pools are stronger than others, nobody has "bought in" for more than anyone else to play, and the potential for anyone to have mastered the format is pretty slim. This isn't to say that if you sit down opposite Olivier Ruel or Jon Finkel that you won't have a tough match on your hands (those guys learn pretty fast), but in theory the playing field is about as even as it could possibly be.
Even better, Prereleases attract everyone to come and game. This is where you'll see hall of famers rubbing shoulders with players at their first tournament, because the lure of new cards is universal. Chances are that Jon and Olivier will be at a Prerelease somewhere, and I'd imagine they'll be having a blast. In my first Prerelease, I played against English pros Sam Gomersall and (former Limited Information author) Scott Wills. Never is there a better way to learn more about the game, and to find out that pro or not, everyone loves to game. This year, at the London Prerelease, I'll be gunslinging with the likes of Quentin Martin, English pro and (also) former Limited Information author. Prereleases are the most social tournaments around, and I'm looking forward to seeing friends that I might not have hung out with in a while, slinging some spells, and having a good time.
Prereleases come in all shapes and sizes, to suit both those looking to play locally and those looking for a more grandiose affair worthy of a road trip. While I'll be in London, there are big events scheduled all over, sporting artists signings, gunslinging, and all sorts of revelry. For a full list of these "big ones," check out Regional Prerelease Fact Sheet—premier tournament organizers all over are doing their bit to make your Prereleases as memorable as possible. (For the complete list of Prereleases by region, head to the Worldwide Prerelease Fact Sheet.) I remember being pretty excited for my first Prerelease just at the potential to be able to make the most of a trader being right there with more or less any card I wanted for sale. Then there's also the giddy thrill of simply playing competitively, taking a step into the world of tournament Magic.
In terms of preparation for a Prerelease, it is not exactly like a lot of other tournaments. It is more like preparing for a good day out. Refreshingly, it is really not worth spending too long thinking about decks, or the format. The whole point is that it's something new. This is just one of the reasons that it is a lot of fun. Prereleases are all about the fundamentals. You want to have fun, and the best way to do that is to think ahead and make sure that all the incidentals are sorted, so that you don't need to worry about them.
Do you know where your Prerelease is? It sounds silly, but the journey is all part of the adventure, and as fun as those "getting lost" stories can be (I may or may not have been involved in quite a few of them), they get a lot less fun when you just miss registration, rather than just making it. Do you have a plan for eating? Not all venues have food, and I know a lot of players who just forget to eat at events. I once got a warning for "unsportsmanlike conduct—bad case of the stomach rumbles" at one Prerelease from a jovial judge. Normally, I want to have some food with me, a phone (and the tournament organiser's number), my travel plans sorted, and enough money to cover me for a whole mess of drafts (just in case). Others will carry sleeves, deck boxes, trades. What you need to have a good day might vary, but you know what you like, so just make sure you're prepared. Luckily, the cards you need to play will all already be there.
You might have noticed mention of draft in that last paragraph. That's right! Drafts are back! While drafting triple Conflux might well be a little unusual (it's not going to be a widely played format beyond the Prerelease weekend), it is still a fun way to play, and lets you see a lot of cards very fast. Drafts were on hiatus for the Shards of Alara Prerelease, but they make their valiant return with Conflux, meaning that there will be a whole host of ways for you to play. The traditional "main event" at a Prerelease is sealed deck, and if you want to win a T-shirt, that's the way to go, but there is also potential for 2-Headed Giant play, and Open Dueling depending on what floats your boat.
With regard to the playing, is there anything in particular to bear in mind? Well, as it happens, yes. The standard plan for me is to try to play a deck with as close to 40 cards as possible. Of those 40 cards, I want about 17 lands, as much removal as I can get my hands on, and a bunch of monsters with which to lay down the good beats. If those monsters have flying or similar, so much the better. This plan doesn't really change for any Sealed or Draft format, which is probably for the best as it makes it really easy to remember.
The extra seasoning on it for Shards block is that mana bases are pretty complicated. There are a lot of multicoloured cards that are just devilishly powerful, if you can play them, in Shards of Alara. If anything Conflux seems to push that even further from what we've seen thus far. This means that you'll probably have some tricky decisions to make during deck building. It's tempting to leave working out the mana for the last five minutes of deck building, but in this format, that could be a blunder. Have a look at what mana fixing you have early, and put it to work—this looks to be a format that will reward you for it.
Don't worry if you don't have your deck built perfectly upon opening up your packs. This is all too common a story even for experienced players, as nobody will be experienced with the new cards. Over the course of the day you will get a better feel for the cards, and friends and other players might have helpful suggestions on how you could modify your deck using the cards you opened—and because it's a Prerelease (as opposed to something like a PTQ), you're allowed to change your deck in between rounds. By the end of the day, your deck might well be a powerhouse.
Thinking of powerhouses, we are brought to my preview card for the day. On its own, it is definitely good, but what particularly excites me about it is the potential it has for letting me play whatever the best card in my deck is, regardless of colour.
Now, you can tap for this little beauty, and we'll get on to some of the nuances of doing so in a moment or two, but first off, I'd like to introduce you to a variation on a popular theme: basic landcycling. For those of you familiar with the cycling mechanic, or perhaps its Scourge variation of "landcycling," this will hopefully be fairly straightforward. The way that basic landcycling works is that at any time you could play an instant, you can pay the basic landcycling cost of Gleam of Resistance, discard it, and search your deck for a basic land, putting it into your hand and shuffling your library. This does trigger anything that cares about cycling (e.g. Astral Slide) and can't be hit by counterspells, as it is a card ability rather than a spell.
With basic landcycling, you can fetch any basic land. Note that this isn't the same as something like Eternal Dragon's plainscycling, which could fetch a Tundra or a Temple Garden. It has to fetch a basic land. It can fetch any basic land though, making it pretty versatile. Given the colour commitments and domain mechanics already seen in previews, this is a pretty big boon. If I'm running any of the basic landcycling spells in my Sealed Deck (and I probably am!) then I'm likely planning on fetching land with them at least as often as I am casting them. I'm greedy, and like to play my big spells in spite of awkward mana costs. It's a weakness of mine.
My other weakness is combat tricks. While you don't see a whole mess of combat tricks in Constructed play, they are, for me, the bread and butter of any Limited format. They dictate a lot of the nuances of the combat step, and combat damage tends to be the way that limited games are swung. When I talk about combat tricks, I basically mean any instant-speed play you can make which will give you an edge when creatures are in the red zone on attack. Sometimes these will be removal spells, to make that double block on your Bull Cerodon less exciting all of a sudden. Sometimes they'll be on-board tricks, like having a Vithian Stinger to be able to render otherwise exciting blocks ineffectual.
The sorts of tricks that you hold in your hand ready to play at just the right moment are the ones that I'm a particular fan of. If nothing else, these are the reason that you should try not to play spells before combat, or lay extra lands if you have nothing to do with them. You always want to let your opponent think that you have a way of making combat work out badly for them, as it makes all of your attacks that much more powerful. Holding a trick is like holding a get out of jail free card for your attackers, allowing you to swing in, even on unfavourable looking boards, and often connect for useful amounts of damage.
The best bit is, your opponent can't know if you actually have the trick, or are just holding land until they block. There is something that makes me a little giddy about attacking for 2 successfully, in spite of potential blockers. Just show them a trick once, and forevermore, they have to think you might have another. Happy times.
Gleam of Resistance is a particularly devilish trick, as it allows you to be aggressive with little or no penalty. Sometimes, Limited games wind up being a slugfest of traded blows with nary a block to be seen. Your aggressive nature gets some hits in, but at the expense of getting hit back. All of a sudden you are gambling on having better attackers than your opponent. The Gleam gives you a big edge in that sort of situation. You can barrel in with impunity, largely safe from big blocks, as you can make your whole team bigger at instant speed. If your opponent is resolute in not blocking and gives you a chance, you could potentially get lethal damage in with the instant. Even more exciting than this, though, it will sometimes let you ambush your opponent's team. Untapping all your creatures and super-sizing them means that it is very likely you will be able to make some spectacular blocks, often killing off multiple creatures for little or no loss of your own. This kind of "two for one" trade (the one is your Gleam of Resistance) is the sort of thing that will win you games, as you have used one card to deal with multiple cards, leaving you with backup cards left to deal with your opponent.
What are your plans for your Prerelease weekend? Whether it be at a local shop or the culmination of a Magic road trip, I wish you a good one. If you're coming to London, I'll see you there. Bring a deck. I'm ready to play!
Bonus: Planeswalker's Primer Videos
To make sure you're up to speed on the new themes and rules before the Prerelease, check out these videos: