Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar Preview

Posted in Feature on October 12, 2015

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.

The calendar turns to October, and (along with the baseball postseason) that signals a time of change in the world of Magic. The last Pro Tour season is now firmly consigned to the record books—Pro Tour Magic Origins looks a long way away in our rearview mirror—and those fortunate enough to have need for trophy space in their homes have found the perfect spot for their career-highlight totems, and are once again focused on the climb to the top. With Seth Manfield's victory at the World Championship marking a thrilling end to the early-season rush, we can turn our attention to the first Pro Tour of the new season. Held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, this PT will see close to 400 of the world's finest spellslingers coming together to compete for their share of the $250,000 purse.

If you're a veteran of Pro Tour viewing (or playing!), this article might not be for you. But if you're wondering just what this whole Pro Tour thing is about and how you can follow the highest-level Magic there is, well, read on.

The Tournament

It all begins Friday morning, October 16, at 9:00 a.m. sharp, with tables of eight players confronting the myriad decisions involved in a Battle for Zendikar draft. They'll each play three opponents at their table (this helps keep everything fair, since some tables may have particularly strong or weak booster packs, and this way everyone at the table has been drafting from the same overall power level), and then play opponents having matching records. So, in simple terms, the four Round 1 winners will get paired against each other in Round 2, and the two winners of those matches will play each other for the perfect 3-0 record.

Whatever their record (ranging from 0-3 to 3-0), all the players get to continue playing on Friday afternoon, when we'll switch to the Standard format. So, instead of 40-card decks that the players have drafted, this is 60-card action. The players will have chosen their decks ahead of time, based on an extremely complicated mixture of deep thought, playtesting, metagame analysis (what they think everyone else will be playing), personal deck-style preference, and sometime just pure caprice. All the cards have to be tournament-legal, which in the case of Standard for Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar means cards from Khans of Tarkir, Fate Reforged, Dragons of Tarkir, Magic Origins, and Battle for Zendikar.

On Friday afternoon, everyone will play five rounds of Standard. Just like the Draft rounds, it's best two out of three, spread over 50-minute rounds (plus extra turns to help settle most of the outstanding matches at the end of the round). Once again, players are paired by record, and although the math isn't always perfect, you always end up with only one or two players ending Day One with a perfect 8-0 record (approximately 200 people win Round 1, get paired against each other in Round 2, 100 get to 2-0, 50 to 3-0 etc.). For almost everyone, it isn't about getting to 8-0. The number that matters is twelve—that's 12 match points, with 3 awarded for each win and 1 awarded to each player after the (relatively infrequent) drawn matches. You get nothing for losing, so winning four matches is the threshold for making Day Two.

Dutiful Return | Art by Anna Steinbauer

With a little over half the field remaining, Saturday begins with three more rounds of Battle for Zendikar Draft. It used to be the case (going back to the early 2000s) that Draft was where the pro players had the biggest edge. Frequently, they were the only players actually trying to test-draft at all, and you would see many players attempting their first-ever draft of the new format during the Pro Tour itself. Those days are firmly gone, and the preparation some teams go through for the Limited rounds is nothing short of a military-style boot camp—it's a good thing drafting is so much fun!

By the time the Limited rounds are finished at lunchtime on Saturday, it's likely that everyone remaining will have lost at least one match. If someone is still perfect, it's time to dust off the record books and start wondering just how far they can extend their run toward the perfect 16-0 Swiss record set by Luis Scott-Vargas some years back. Again, though, that isn't the number that matters. On Saturday afternoon, there are five more rounds of Standard, and the number that matters here is four. In this case, four is the number of losses a player has potentially accumulated during the tournament. With three or fewer losses, there's an excellent chance of making the Top 8, which is the exclusive group of eight players who get to come back to fight for the title on Sunday. With a fourth loss, things become very tricky, and although it's sometimes possible to sneak into the Top 8 on a tiebreak (which is basically a "strength of opponent" number that calculates how hard-earned each win is), with the fourth loss it's basically no longer in a player's hands whether or not they advance to the Sunday action. If you only have a couple of hours to spare on Saturday, make sure you see Rounds 14 and 15—that's where a lot of the slots in the Top 8 are decided in head-to-head action in our feature match area.

Sunday is championship day, and our eight remaining competitors come back one last time to fight for a slice of Magic history. Unlike the first two days of competition, there's a matchup bracket, meaning that each player knows their quarterfinal opponent, which two players they could potentially face in the semifinal, and which four players they can't face until the final. Standard is once again the format, and the importance of sideboards (fifteen cards that the players can choose from to substitute into their decks between games) is really showcased on Sunday. That's especially true in the final itself, where we move from best-two-out-of-three to an epic best-three-out-of-five-game set. Although we can't guarantee the kind of finish provided by Owen Turtenwald and Seth Manfield at the recent World Championship—this is a live sport, after all—there's every chance of another terrific tussle to end the tournament and give us the first Pro Tour champion of the new season.

The New Set

There's a clue somewhere in the name—Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar has the new Magic set right at the heart of it. The influence of a new set on its namesake Pro Tour can vary a lot, for a lot of different reasons. This time around, Battle for Zendikar is likely to be a major, major factor. For one thing, BFZ is a big set. Ignoring the 25 full-art basic lands (which is kind of tough to do, because they're gorgeous), BFZ has a whopping 249 cards in it. That's 101 commons, 80 uncommons, 53 rares, and fifteen mythic rares. As usual, there's a wide range of mechanics designed to give fun and challenging gameplay across multiple formats. This time around, we have:

  • The Eldrazi—not a mechanic as such, but a huge (literally) part of the set. The Eldrazi are the Big Baddies on Zendikar, and their head-turning stats (11/9, 10/8, 7/8, and so on) are also matched in gameplay by the 1/1 Scions that help get them into play.
  • Awaken—for an extra dollop of mana, you get to turn one of your lands into a creature. Permanently.
  • Converge—a series of effects that scale the rewards you get for using more and more colors of mana simultaneously.
  • Ingest (and process)—daringly using the exile zone as an unusual resource, ingest is part one of a two-part story that needs Processor creatures to deliver the payoff. With mechanics like these, it's a good thing the word "synergy" already exists.
  • Devoid—it's not just the Eldrazi that are colorless. In Battle for Zendikar, color is leeching out of cards everywhere you look. And you can look, thanks to the ingenious now-you-see-it, now-you-don't card frames, specially developed for this new set.
  • Rally—for teamwork, nothing beats rally, and whomever you choose to ally yourself with, there are lots of bonuses waiting on the battlefield.
  • Landfall—it's Zendikar, and that means that the land is no bit-part player. It isn't just with awaken that lands really matter, and landfall means that every card on top of your deck has the potential to seriously alter the game. Want to give your team a +2/+2 bonus, or double strike? Landfall lets you do that.

The Limited Format

In the Draft rounds, you're going to see a breathtaking range of gameplay. This definitely isn't a set where you're going to see the same cards over and over and over again. Just think about the uncommons for a moment—with 24 booster packs being opened in a draft, and three uncommons in each pack (ignoring the mildly-math-messing issue of foils), that makes 72 uncommons at a draft table. That's less than one of each uncommon! In smaller sets, you can see players building up many copies of particular commons, and even hitting several of particular uncommons. That's just much harder to do in BFZ, and it's going to favor the players who have really done their homework.

Rolling Thunder | Art by Yohann Schepacz

What's less clear is how the new mechanics are going to perform. Awaken is set up for white-blue decks. Converge wants to be as many colors as possible, but likely starts out as green-blue. Ingest is really hard to set up in Sealed, but with the wider card selection in Draft, blue-black is an archetype ready to showcase Drones and Processors. Landfall was super-aggressive in the original Zendikar, and here it finds a natural home in red-green. Green is also the color of ramp effects (cards that accelerate your mana, like Lifespring Druid, Eyeless Watcher, or Nissa's Renewal), so watch out for giant Eldrazi in green-based decks. As for devoid—and yes, we're about to discuss which colors are the home of colorless cards!—both Black-Red Aggro and Blue-Red Colorless Control could be the spot. Throw in the sacrifice theme of green-black, the old-school aggro of red-white, and an intriguing black-white archetype centered around life gain, and you have an awesome Limited format to kickstart our Pro Tour season.

The New Standard

The big change is finally here. With Battle for Zendikar, we move into a new Standard that isn't just new because of new cards, but that's new because of a new structure to the format. Now Standard rotates every six months, and BFZ will be with us for a total of eighteen months. The Standard that players will do battle with in Milwaukee is one of the smallest pools of cards for a long time—but that doesn't mean Standard has suddenly become less powerful. Rather, there are more Constructed-level cards crammed into each new set, meaning that there ought to be plenty of opportunity for the brand new cards out of BFZ to shine.

First, though, let's remember that there are four more sets in Standard to help players build their decks. Khans of Tarkir delivers comprehensively in the land department, helping mana bases with the likes of Polluted Delta and Flooded Strand, plus the rest of the fetch lands. Siege Rhino certainly hasn't gone away, and neither has the speediness of Monastery Swiftspear. Once we hit Fate Reforged, we get Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang, plus a ton of popular sideboard options. Dragons of Tarkir gives us Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector. Dragonlords abound, as do multiple Commands and Collected Company. Finally there's Magic Origins, and you can expect to see plenty of planeswalker action starring none other than Everyone's Favorite Planeswalker (ahem), Jace Beleren, this time in the guise of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy.

But what about Battle for Zendikar? What star-power cards are waiting to shine in Milwaukee? Although we're in the earliest days of new Standard, it's pretty clear that mana bases are going to be hugely important. There are a slew of options, and deck builders have been helped by the cycle of battle lands (Canopy Vista, Prairie Stream, et al.) that can give them the opportunity to spread their color net very wide. Wide enough, in fact, for Bring to Light to be one of the big movers in the first weekend of new Standard action. We can expect planeswalkers to be important, and while neither Kiora, Master of the Depths nor Ob Nixilis Reignited have yet set the Standard world alight (that's Chandra's job, presumably), Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is showing all the signs of being a Standard standout.

For the full impact of Battle for Zendikar on the new Standard, we'll have to be patient just a little bit longer, and see exactly which lineup cards are presented by our 400 or so Milwaukee brewers.

(Sorry.)

The Players

But who are these 400? Like every Pro Tour, there are a variety of ways to qualify. Here are some names to watch out for:

Hall of Fame

The Hall of Famers are entitled to play at every Pro Tour, and it's always exciting when any of the greatest players of all time—Kai Budde and Jon Finkel both look set to start in Milwaukee—come to the big show. Many can't attend every time, but there are a number of permanent fixtures, including the ever-popular Luis Scott-Vargas, "The Innovator" Patrick Chapin, Japan's Makihito Mihara and Shuuhei Nakamura, European pros Frank Karsten and Raphaël Lévy, and Brazil's Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. Speaking of Brazil, this is a special weekend for Willy Edel, who will join America's Eric Froehlich and Japan's Shota Yasooka as the newest members inducted into the Hall of Fame, in a special ceremony held on Wednesday night, which you'll get a chance to watch during our Pro Tour broadcast.

The Pro Club

Platinum is the highest level of the Pro Club, featuring the players who are at the absolute pinnacle of the game right now. So, you get Player of the Year Mike Sigrist, Pro Tour champions like Canada's Alexander Hayne and Sweden's Joel Larsson, and many of the game's most popular players who regularly feature in the Magic Top 25 Pro Rankings.

Gold features players who just missed out on Platinum last season, like Christian Calcano, longtime masters of the Grand Prix circuit like Martin Juza, and well-known names from the Pro circuit, like Paul "Paul" Cheon and Matej "Big Z" Zatlkaj.

Silver is the level with the most diversity. There are players here with fantastic results—Pro Tour champions like Stanislav Cifka, Magic Online champions like Lars Dam, World Magic Cup captain Tzu Ching Kuo, or 2013-14 Player of the Year, Jérémy Dezani of France. Then there are people like Fabrizio Anteri, busily compiling one of the best Grand Prix careers imaginable without yet quite being able to deliver on the highest stage. This could be his season to shine.

Angelic Gift | Art by Josu Hernaiz

Grand Prix

Many players parlay a single awesome weekend into a ticket to the Pro Tour via a Top 8 berth at a Grand Prix. This is often a place to spot up-and-coming talent, players who have demonstrated their ability to get through a tough two-day tournament and now have a shot at the highest level. Sometimes, though, a tournament can get dominated by established pros, and never has this been truer than the Team Limited Grand Prix earlier this year, which saw Matt Nass, Sam Pardee, Jacob Wilson, Eric Froehlich, Luis Scott-Vargas, Ben Stark, Reid Duke, William Jensen, Owen Turtenwald, Matt Costa, Brock Parker, and Shahar Shenhar claim the twelve berths available. Between the four teams, there were 125 Grand Prix Top 8 finishes, making this one of the most absurd lineups GPs have ever seen.

RPTQs

This is where the true grinders come from. Before they can even play in a Regional Pro Tour Qualifier, they have to win a PPTQ to get there. Around the world, there are some very talented players who make it to the Pro Tour via their nearest RPTQ. This time around, there are Americans like Gabe Carleton-Barnes and Brian Kowal, Brazil's Eduardo dos Santos Vieira (L1X0 on Magic Online), Canada's Dan Lanthier, Chapman Sim and Kelvin Chew from Singapore, and Louis Deltour from France. Any of them could make a run, alongside many RPTQers who will be making their Pro Tour debut in Milwaukee.

The Coverage

"Okay," you say, "I want to follow the Pro Tour. How can I?" Well, let's start with the old-fashioned way. If you're anywhere near Milwaukee over the weekend, swing by and say hi. You'll be able to get right to the rail of almost every match in the tournament, meaning a ringside seat by your favorite players. There's exclusive goodies available at the onsite shop, a chance to meet the best in the game, and a viewing area that's always charged with high tension throughout the weekend as players gather to watch the matches unfold via live stream.

Speaking of which, we'll be going live at 9 a.m. on Friday morning. Here's what time that is near you:

(All times local, Central Standard Time)

Thursday

4:00 p.m.–7:00 p.m.—Player registration at event site

Friday

8:55 a.m.—Seating for player meeting posted

9:00 a.m.—Mandatory player meeting begins. Standard deck lists are collected from player tables by judges.

9:10 a.m.—Day One play begins

Saturday

8:55 a.m.—Day Two pairings posted

9:00 a.m.—Day Two play begins

Sunday

8:15 a.m.—Top 8 players check in at the Top 8 playoff area

9:00 a.m.—Single-elimination matches begin

I'll be alongside the regular Pro Tour broadcast team of Marshall Sutcliffe, Randy Buehler, Brian David-Marshall, Ian Duke, Tim Willoughby, and Rashad Miller. You'll get nineteen rounds of feature match action spread across the three days, culminating in turn-by-turn coverage of every match of the Top 8 on Sunday. Our colleagues on the text team—Blake Rasmussen, Mike Rosenberg, Adam Styborski, and Corbin Hosler—will deliver a top-notch blend of decks, features, decks, analysis, and (almost certainly) more decks. If you want to know the true shape of new Standard, this is where you'll find it. Add in the Walking the Planes team, filming their unique take on the Pro Tour scene, plus photography from Craig Gibson and all the social media you can handle from Nate Price, we've got you covered, wherever the story takes us.

The early jockeying for position is done, and a new chapter in Pro Tour history is about to be written. Can Mike Sigrist or Seth Manfield deliver another weekend of triumph? What can we learn for our next Friday Night Magic draft? Which cards from Battle for Zendikar will come to the party for new Standard? And which deck should you be playing as you try to join us in person and win your own seat at the best game in town?

Milwaukee is the place, and this Friday is when it all starts. We'll see you at the starting line.

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