Known Unknowns: An Pro Tour Preview

Posted in Feature on May 7, 2012

By Rich Hagon

Rich Hagon combines a deep knowledge of the players of the Pro Tour with a passionate love of the game. He's a regular commentator for Pro Tour and Grand Prix live video coverage, and is the official Pro Tour Statistician. He has been covering Magic events since 2006.

Let's start things off gently with a little metaphysical icebreaker in the company of one Benjamin Sisko, commander of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, as he attempts to utilize the fine sport of baseball in order to explain the nature of linear existence to a puzzled alien. Let's be honest here—nothing says "GOOD MORNING!" quite like a conversation about the nature of linear existence (except possibly an extra strong cup of coffee)...

SISKO: In the end, it comes down to throwing one pitch after another, and seeing what happens. With each new consequence, the game begins to take shape.

ALIEN: And you have no idea what that shape is until it is completed?

SISKO: That's right. In fact, the game wouldn't be worth playing if we knew what was going to happen.

ALIEN: You value your ignorance of what is to come?

SISKO: That might be the most important thing to understand about humans. It is the unknown that defines our existence. We are constantly searching, not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions. We are explorers.

Magic players are true explorers, seeking not just the answers to our questions, but for new questions. How will this matchup go? What should I sideboard? How will the new expansion shake up Standard? Block? Modern? Will the new Draft format be fast? How powerful are the mythic rares this time around? The truth is, with Magic we need never fear knowing all the answers. No sooner has a format been "solved" by the brightest minds in the game, then the landscape shifts dramatically as new boosters are cracked, new stories written, and new players rise to prominence across a global network of events.

Pro Tour Avacyn Restored, May 11 – 13

This time, the latest greatest converge upon the wondrous city of Barcelona, Spain. There, over the coming days, we'll get our chance to see the newest exclamation point in Magic's history, and that's where I come in. There are things we know we know. These are Known Knowns. There are things we don't realize we know. These are Unknown Knowns. There are certainly some things we didn't know that we didn't know. These are Unknown Unknowns. And then there are the things we know that we don't know—the Known Unknowns.

Here, then, are just some of the Known Unknowns for Pro Tour Avacyn Restored:

Rounds 1–5: Block Constructed

I love Block Constructed. I always have. I even played in a Block Pro Tour once, and part of the appeal of Block is that we all know in our heart of hearts that the Answer is Right There, in front of us. When you deal with Standard, or one of the truly behemothic (Note: not actually a word) formats like Modern or Legacy, the list of cards available simply dwarfs what most of us can, or are prepared to, comprehend properly. Block is different. Block is seductive. We've already played with two out of three sets. How much difference can just one more make?

Start with 244 cards in Avacyn Restored. Take out the basic land, take out the vastly overcosted. Take out the cards that are strictly worse than other options in Innistrad or Dark Ascension. Take out the cards that beg for Commander or Grand Melee. Use your laser analysis to carve out every micron of value from what's left, looking for the synergies, the power, the combo. You end up with a list of playable cards for Block Constructed. Start shifting them around a little, and tantalizing glimpses of the winning deck swim momentarily into view, before being drowned out by the voice of pragmatism.

Avacyn, Angel of Hope | Art by Jason Chan

You see, there's a tension at work in Block Constructed. Sure, you need to be an analyst, knowing the precise tolerances of every moving part in your masterpiece. But you also need to be a dreamer. Maybe you need to see yourself tapping eight for Avacyn, Angel of Hope. Maybe you need to be the only one who sees that Angel's Tomb is more than a crypt for the unwary. Maybe you need to be the one who finds the perfect home for the Planeswalker a long way from home, Tamiyo, the Moon Sage. And maybe you need to be the one who shows all the people who started their decklists with Vexing Devil, Thunderous Wrath, and Thunderbolt, that Red Deck Wins... doesn't.

Avacyn, Angel of Hope
Tamiyo, the Moon Sage

Artist and Scientist. That's the challenge facing more than four hundred players in Barcelona. Be bold, or play it safe? Make a metagame call that can see you slicing like a knife through butter but see your hopes torn to shreds on the rocks of pitiless aggression you weren't prepared to handle? As the decklists are handed in shortly before Round 1, somebody in the room has just penned a winning decklist worth $40,000. What's the winning list? A Known Unknown.

Mechanically Speaking: Miracles

Not since the creation of the kicker mechanic has so much time and effort been spent on trying to comprehend the true value of miracles. Understanding that the miracle cost is a huge bargain isn't the tough part. It isn't even beyond our abilities to work out which miracles we're quite happy to pay full price for. No, the conundrum comes during the draw step, when the miracle is literally in our hand—the one with fingers on, not the one with cards in, because that would be bad.

Entreat the Angels

How many 4/4s do you need with Entreat the Angels? Is now the time to reset the board with Devastation Tide or Terminus? If Temporal Mastery is only going to equate to cycling for with the chance to lay a second land on your turn, do you hope to cast it another day? And if Thunderous Wrath isn't going to kill a genuine threat, should you pull the trigger anyway? Right now, these are all Known Unknows, and the players spending all their waking moments testing for the Pro Tour are trying to turn them into Known Knowns. Those who do will be one step closer to a trophy on Sunday.

Rounds 6–8: Avacyn Restored Draft

I hope most of you have had the chance to play some Limited games with Avacyn Restored, either at the Prerelease or at the release events this past weekend. It has been some time since I've had so much fun at a Prerelease weekend. Partly, that's due to the fabulous bunch of players and staff who hunkered down at Chimera in Nottingham to the serious business of crafting bonkers Sealed pools all weekend long. Partly, that's due to the thrill of the new. I mean, we're explorers, remember?

Peel from Reality | Art by Jason Felix

Mostly, though, what stood out for me from my early Avacyn Restored play was just how smooth the game play was. Some people like Limited formats where you can kill everything that moves, and it's the seventh creature that actually gets to stick around and pile in for the victory. Eight lands on both sides, empty battlefield, ten cards in each graveyard, life totals at 16–13. Yep, I love those kinds of games too.

Peel from Reality
Thunderous Wrath

Sometimes, though, it's nice to have a plan, and have some reasonable expectation that you might be able to follow through with it. Avacyn Restored isn't a set bursting with prime removal. This time, you have to work at it, and that means being tricksy and creative. Being tricksy and creative means blue, and I can't wait to see the likes of Alchemist's Apprentice, Crippling Chill, Fleeting Distraction, Ghostly Flicker, Peel from Reality, Vanishment, and the unbridled joy that is Mist Raven tie opponents in incremental knots the likes of which we haven't seen for a goodly while. I predict some players will be close to tears after being bamboozled by bonkers blue. Burnt out by Thunderous Wrath? You shrug and move on. Nephalia Smuggler and Kessig Malcontents? Now that feels kinda personal.

End of Day One—the Races

With eight rounds down, the shape of the tournament is starting to come into focus. There's an even 4–4 record required to advance to Saturday play, so a couple of hundred competitors will be in need of Barcelona tourist guidebooks come Friday night. For those left, there are a variety of targets looming large. Everyone wants to win, and the next step to the Pro Tour trophy is to make the Top 8. While there can be only one Pro Tour Champion, there are many other races going on in Barcelona. The Player's Championship will be held in Seattle, pitching sixteen of the world's finest players against each other across three days of competition. Want to know how that race is shaping up? Why not spend a little time with my fellow commentator Brian David-Marshall? Go ahead, I'll wait.

Wow. The Player's Championship is going to be insane. But what else is there to play for in Barcelona? While there are only sixteen players who can make it to the Seattle showdown, closer to two hundred will make their way to the inaugural World Magic Cup in Indianapolis, with three World Magic Cup Qualifier winners joining the top pro player from each country. Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa locked up the top pro slot for Brazil sometime in early February, and Richard Bland must be confident of carrying the flag for Great Britain, but there are some brilliant last-day-of-the-season finishes to national pro races. Here's half a dozen to whet your appetite:

Australia: Jeremy Neeman has a healthy 14-point lead, but both Daniel Unwin and Aaron Nicoll have top-level form, and Top 8 in Barcelona is worth at least 20 points. Chances are that Neeman will have yet another strong finish—you don't lead Luis Scott-Vargas 5–2 in matches between them without knowing how to play Magic—but expect to see him pushed all the way.

Czech Republic: No prizes for guessing that Martin Juza leads the way. Stanislav Cifka and Lukas Blohon are both more than 15 points back, but watch out for another Lukas—this time Jaklovsky. He made the Top 8 of Worlds in Chiba 2010, and is only 7 points behind Juza. Given that another Top 8 is well within his grasp, it might be the young pretender claiming the throne come Sunday.

Japan: Only four players can still represent Japan as their leading pro. The gaps look quite large—Chikara Nakajima 23 behind, Shouta Yasooka at -19, and Shuuhei Nakamura a dozen points adrift—but leader Yuuya Watanabe will almost certainly need a strong finish of his own if he's to hold off his fellow Player of the Year winners (Yasooka '06, Nakamura '08).

Netherlands: The Dutch haven't had a great deal to shout about since the halcyon days of the mid-2000s. Ruben Snijdewind looks to be the best of the latest group, and he comes into Barcelona 1 point behind Hall of Famer Jelger Wiegersma, who leads thanks to his PT Dark Ascension Top 8 performance. It could yet be a Hall of Fame clash down the stretch, with both Bram Snepvangers and Frank Karsten in the likely start list, and within reach.

Slovak Republic: Five years ago, it would be unimaginable that we'd be talking about this nation in terms of Magic. Now, however, two current pros and former Team World Champions from 2010—Ivan Floch and Robert Jurkovic—look set to do battle, with Floch holding a slender 2-point advantage.

Spain: On home soil, and in the city that saw him claim a memorable Grand Prix victory with Seismic Swans, Joel Calafell will look to maintain his 6-point lead over another Grand Prix Barcelona winner, Martin Scheinin, with David Garcia Copete leading a large chasing pack that could all get there with a big finish.

Those six races are all competitive, with some big names looking to cement their claims to an Indianapolis berth. Later, though, I'll bring you six more races that are much, much better, where the Unknowns are really Unknown...

Rounds 9–11: Draft, part 2

How much will the players have learned from the first draft? Magic has come a long way from the days of purely Constructed specialists plying their trade at selected Pro Tours, but in any Pro Tour field there are always competitors for whom Round 6 is their first ever draft in the new format. Wizards recently announced that, from Return to Ravnica later this year, the Magic Online release of the set will be closer to the paper release. That's big news for pros, who will get the chance to playtest and draft endlessly online in the days leading up to the Pro Tour. This time around, however, it's a case of getting eight people together and cracking packs the old-fashioned way. If you're team ChannelFireball, finding eight isn't an issue. For some others, though, the draft rounds are going to remain a Known Unknown.

Mechanically Speaking: Soulbond

Whether soulbond is going to make the jump to Block Constructed, and beyond that to Standard, is unclear, another of our Known Unknowns. In Limited, however, it's the business. One of the things that made Lorwyn so special was the way in which you were able to draft incredibly powerful cards very late in packs, because they were only powerful for your deck. Nobody else could possibly want them, as you were the only Elves drafter at the table, or the only Giants drafter, and so on. When it came to game play, you felt super-powerful, but so did your opponents, because they'd managed to draft all the super-synergies for their strategy too. What made this so neat was that the cards themselves weren't particularly powerful in isolation. It required a peculiar alchemy to make them good, meaning that R&D could confidently print crazy-good Limited cards, knowing they would safely avoid being abused in a wider Constructed context.

Mist Raven | Art by John Avon

In Avacyn Restored, soulbond helps to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. A turn-three vanilla 2/2 like Trusted Forcemage? How about having two 5/5s on turn four, as you soulbond with Druid's Familiar? With only 3 toughness, Renegade Demon is pretty vulnerable. Not when you soulbond with Hanweir Lancer, making it 5-power first-striking goodness. Look through the set and more and more eye-popping synergies come to light. Pathbreaker Wurm is a humble common. It's perfectly reasonable as a 6/4 for six mana. Cast a Wolfir Silverheart, however, and soulbond leaves you with a 10/8 trampling Pathbreaker Wurm and an 8/8 trampling Wolfir Silverheart. Yes, this is a format where 18 power of trample is good.

Deadeye Navigator
Mist Raven

Finally, though, there's one soulbond combination that I'm hoping we'll get to see on camera sometime during the Limited rounds. In fifteen years of playing Magic, I've rarely felt more ridiculously powerful than at the Prerelease when I got to live this particular slice of gaming heaven. Eight mana in play, end of your opponent's turn. They have four creatures in play. Then they don't. The combination? Deadeye Navigator and Mist Raven. Will anyone assemble this pair, and will we get to see it? Heart and Soulbond, I really, really hope so.

Rounds 12–13: Back to Block

With the booster packs put away, it's time to bring out the sixty-card concoctions once again. This is where we start to get a real understanding of what Block Constructed truly looks like, as the best decks and the best players gravitate toward the top. At Pro Tour Dark Ascension in Honolulu, we introduced the awesome test of prediction that is the Fantasy Pro Tour. We were kind. We made it easy. It was Standard, and there were no prizes for guessing that the likes of Delver of Secrets and Snapcaster Mage were going to be frontrunners. After all, we had the data of hundreds of events on which to build our predictions. All we had to do was slot Dark Ascension into an existing metagame.

Snapcaster Mage

This time, the gloves are off, and the bragging rights for being the Fantasy Pro Tour winner among your talented group of Facebook friends are well worth fighting for. If you think I'm going to tell you my picks before I've had the chance to talk to all my pro friends, you're crazy. Right now, those picks are staying locked in what passes for my brain. However, it would be rude not to offer at least a little help, so once more it's over to my good friend, Mr. Brian David-Marshall.

Hmm. Food for thought there. Maybe I need to change some of my picks—Outwit might not turn out to be as good as I imagined....

Rounds 14–16: The Crunch

This is where most of the races will be won and lost. One of them will be the race for Rookie of the Year, with contenders looking to follow in the proverbial footprints of the likes of Randy Buehler, Masashi Oiso, Yuuya Watanabe, and current title holder Matthias Hunt. Many players could snatch the title with a stellar finish in this final event of the season, but rarely down the years has there been a more convincing leader than America's Jesse Hampton.

Jesse Hampton

It took Hampton a full decade from his first sanctioned match to his first Pro Tour, but once he reached the big stage he didn't waste the opportunity, reaching the Top 8 in Philadelphia last year. At Pro Tour Dark Ascension in Honolulu, it required the combined stopping power of Samuele Estratti (a heart-pounding 1–1 draw in Round 15) and Jelger Wiegersma (a 1–2 Round 16 loss) to prevent him claiming a second Top 8 in his first three Pro Tours. Buehler, Oiso, and Watanabe all went on to great things in the game. With a wonderful temperament to keep him on an even keel, there's every chance Hampton could do the same.

Meanwhile, with the rounds ticking down, those Magic World Cup slots are going to be filling up. Let's take a look at the best National races that could still be live during those last crucial rounds:

Canada: When Rich Hoaen departed the tournament scene, it looked as if Canada would be largely bereft of contenders. That's not true anymore. Pro Marc Anderson leads the way on 24 points, but Alexander Hayne, David Caplan, Noah Long, and Dan Lanthier are all within 10 points of claiming the title, and Caplan and Lanthier in particular have demonstrated that they belong at the top tables. Could be very tight.

Germany: There's an intriguing upset on the cards here. Bernd Brendemühl leads the way, followed by Magic Online Championship finalist Florian Pils, long-time player Jörg Unfried, and young contender Jonas Köstler. However, sitting 11 points adrift, and with barely a whisper in 2012, is Pro Tour San Diego 2010 Champion Simon Görtzen. This is someone with phenomenal attention to detail, ice in his veins, and all the experience you could want. It wouldn't surprise me to see him in contention as the rounds dwindle.

Norway: This one's really simple. Once they were teammates, and now they're not. Andreas Nordahl and Sveinung Bjørnerud are locked together on 25 points, with the third team member Kristoffer Jonassen 6 points back. In San Francisco last year, they came within an ace of claiming the world title, ultimately losing to Japan in an epic final that saw Makihito Mihara at the top of his game. Now, though, it's Highlander time, as there can be only one.

A nail biting race for top player; Norway's Sveinung Bjørnerud and Andreas Nordahl.

Poland: In terms of raw numbers, no nation has a tighter race coming into Barcelona than Poland. Lukasz Musial leads perennial pro Mateusz Kopec by a solitary point, with Tomasz Figarski and Tomek Pedrakowski 2 points back. It's going to be a four-way dogfight in a nation that has steadily been improving over recent years, and their eventual team could be a dark horse for success come the main event in Indianapolis.

Sweden: If I were Joel Larsson, I'd expect to have to reach at least the Top 8 to outlast my rivals for the World Magic Cup. That's because they include Kenny Öberg (-2), Elias Watsfeldt (-7), Martin Berlin (-8), and Denniz Rachid (-8), all of whom are well capable of seeing Sunday play. With Block Constructed such an important part of the next few days, Öberg in particular looks a danger, as he's always a live contender for breaking a format.

Switzerland: Andreas Ganz has gone all around the world to deliver his slender lead, but both Matthias Künzler and Nico Bohny are well within range. All three would be excellent leaders for a team that traditionally does well on the global stage.

USA: I've saved the best for last. If this race is decided by the end of Saturday, I'll be frankly astonished. Imagine a Top 8 of Luis Scott-Vargas, Josh Utter-Leyton, Matthew Costa, David Ochoa, Tom Martell, Conley Woods, Sam Black, and Owen Turtenwald. Nobody there looks remotely out of place, and any one of them reaching Sunday would guarantee them somewhere between 20 and 30 points.

That puts the onus on Brian Kibler to keep on winning. His lead ranges from 3 over LSV to 19 over Black and Turtenwald (that famous firm of Mid-West attorneys). To be fair, keeping on winning hasn't been much of a problem lately for Kibler, who took part in an amazing semifinal last time around against Jon Finkel before becoming Pro Tour Dark Ascension champion over Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa of Brazil. The top USA pro and the Pro Tour Avacyn Restored Champion might well turn out to be one and the same.

Sunday: The Top 8

Trying to predict the Top 8 for Sunday is a fool's errand, which won't stop myself and BDM trying to do just that on Thursday. Like Sisko says, the game isn't worth playing if we already know what's going to happen. Of the many Known Unknowns in Barcelona, finding out how it all plays out on Sunday is right on top of my must-see list. We've been blessed with some amazing players and some amazing matches over the last few Pro Tours. Here's hoping Sunday will showcase more of the same.

Known Knowns

Fine. We're explorers, we're defined by the unknown, I get it. Sometimes, though, there's something wonderfully comforting about life's little certainties, so while we have to wait a few more days to start finding answers to some of the tougher questions, I want to end by bringing you some Known Knowns about Pro Tour Avacyn Restored:

  • From Round 1 to the final, you'll get live coverage. All day, every day.
  • Up to three feature matches every single round, featuring the best of the best.
  • All the big interviews.
  • Comprehensive text coverage of all the big stories and key matches.
  • Join us interactively with Cover It Live.
  • Block Constructed deck techs.
  • Avacyn Restored draft techs.
  • Special guests.
  • A special documentary from inside R&D in Seattle.
  • All the facts you need to make sense of the unfolding storylines, including key up-to-the-minute results and standings
  • Great plays, great topdecks, great "what if?" moments, great Magic.
  • Commentary and analysis from Marshall Sutcliffe, Zac Hill, Sheldon Menery, Rashad Miller, Brian David-Marshall, and yours truly.

Find coverage times in your area here.

There are times that having a linear existence is kind of awkward, but not when it comes to the drama of sport. For three days later this week, there'll be hundreds of thousands of us glued to assorted phones, pads, monitors, and giant plasma screens as nineteen rounds lead us to the next Pro Tour Champion. It's the Unknown that defines us, and I can't wait to explore all that Avacyn Restored has to offer with you over the coming days.

Until then, here's one more Known Known, and it's one that most of us can agree on:

Magic. Best game ever.

See you in Barcelona.

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