This time next week, there'll be another name added to the list of Pro Tour Champions. This time next week, the best in the world will have completed two morning masterclasses in the intricacies of Dragons of Tarkir / Fate Reforged Draft. This time next week, the finest deck builders will have unveiled the true trendsetters of the new Standard format. This time next week, four hundred will have become one. And this time next week—using your undoubted taste and refinement—you'll have watched, read, perused, debated, and otherwise plain enjoyed upwards of 30 hours of live event coverage coming to you direct from the tournament floor. In short, this time next week we'll know. Right now, however, it's time to speculate, and we don't even need to be quiet about it:
IT'S PRO TOUR TIME!
I'm Rich Hagon, and I'll be your Newsdesk host, guiding you through all the edge-of-your-seat action as three days of drama unfold. Blake Rasmussen and Mike Rosenberg head up our text team, which features Josh Bennett, Tobi Henke, and Craig 'Lightning Helix' Jones. Our pen-toting pentagram will bring you exclusive features, in-depth feature match coverage, the inside story on all the decks that matter, and a comprehensive breakdown of everything you need to know. For your as-it-happens ringside seat, nothing gets you closer to the action than our video team. Join Brian David-Marshall, Randy Buehler, Ian Duke, Marshall Sutcliffe, Tim Willoughby, Rashad Miller, and yours truly as we mark your card for all things Standard and Limited.
Want more? You'll get hundreds of photos from the extraordinary lens of Craig Gibson, who has been capturing the truth inside the moments that matter for close to twenty years. Also prowling the floor will be Nate Price, bringing you all the interactive you can handle on social media, and of course the dynamic duo of Nate Holt and Shawn Kornhauser will be carefully sculpting their latest Walking the Planes episode.
In a little bit, we'll do some stargazing about the Limited and Constructed formats that will shape the destiny of our next Pro Tour Champion. But first, a question for you:
Starting with Pro Tour Theros, there have been six Pro Tours (Theros, Born of the Gods, Journey into Nyx, Magic 2015, Khans of Tarkir, and Fate Reforged.) Given that we cut to the Top 8, that means 48 slots across those six events. How many different players have filled those slots?
Think about that for a moment. There have been millions and millions and millions of Magic players. Comfortably less than a thousand have ever made a Pro Tour Top 8. Recent Pro Tours have had fields of approximately four hundred players each. That's only one in fifty who make the Top 8. So how many players have achieved the super-tough unlock that is two Top 8s in the last six events?!?!?
An astonishing five players have this double on their career highlight reels. And one of the five has gone even further, and has a hat-trick of final tables since the start of last season. He is Hong Kong's finest, Lee Shi Tian, and it's no coincidence that he finds himself at the forefront of the Player of the Year race. Joining him in the recent 'Double Top' club are Jacob Wilson (Fate Reforged, Born of the Gods), Shaun McLaren (Khans of Tarkir, Born of the Gods), Yuuki Ichikawa (Magic 2015, Journey into Nyx), and Ivan Floch (Khans of Tarkir, Magic 2015). Wilson warmed up for the Pro Tour by winning the Star City Games Invitational last weekend, while McLaren and Floch both have decidedly un-dusty Pro Tour trophies on the mantelpiece. If you pick these five to root for over the weekend, you have every chance of still having a horse in the race deep into Sunday.
Lee Shi Tian
The Player of the Year race is already coming into focus, and this is certain to be a pivotal weekend for the destination of that particular title. In addition to Shi Tian (1st), McLaren (6th), Floch (7th), and Wilson (9th), the front-runners include the mighty Yuuya Watanabe (tied with Wilson for 9th), the reigning two-time World Champion Shahar Shenhar (5th) from Israel, and a slew of top American talent. Ari Lax sits just two points adrift of Shi Tian, with ChannelFireball stalwart Eric Froehlich and former Player of the Year Owen Turtenwald snapping at his heels.
Part of the appeal of the Pro Tour is that it's about so much more than the Player of the Year and the No. 1 ranked Player contests. Every player has a story to tell, and here are a few players from across the world who could be in the mix down the stretch:
Willy Edel of Brazil has been in the Hall of Fame voting mix for a while, and another Pro Tour Top 8 would cement his candidacy, in all likelihood. Abzan Midrange is right in his wheelhouse, and he continues to be super-consistent at Pro Tour level. When there are 400 players in the room, reaching 55th place doesn't sound like much, but it's still better than 85% of the field. That was his finish at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir. Then there's participation in the World Championship, a Top 8 finish in the World Magic Cup, and 26th last time around, at PT Fate Reforged in Washington, D.C. If the four-time Top 8 man is out of the running by Saturday afternoon, it will be a major surprise.
Paul Jackson, on the other hand, probably isn't someone most of you know much about. But he perfectly illustrates the great stories that are waiting for us once the PT gets into full swing. Jackson is the 2014 Grand Prix Sydney Champion. In addition, he's finished no worse than 27th in his last 3 GP starts, and his season record at that level of 24-5-2 (82.8%) is second across the entire PT field. But it's actually his Pro Tour history that caught my eye. His first event was PT Kuala Lumpur back in 2008, when he was only 16. You can use words like 'raw' and 'inexperienced', but the fact is that he didn't win a match, dropping out at 0-5. This, I am assured, is a fairly miserable way to spend your first day on the Pro Tour. Move on five years, and the 21-year-old gets back, this time at PT Dragon's Maze in San Diego. He did quite a lot better, finishing above average at 9-7. Then PT Fate Reforged gave him a third crack at the highest level of play. And he took the opportunity with both hands, going 11-5 to automatically qualify for Brussels. So now what's the next step for the 23-year-old Australian? Can he find the extra win he needs to be on the edge of Top 8 contention down the stretch on Saturday?
Then there's Mario Flores of Mexico. His experience at the highest level is confined to one event, the World Championship of 2010 in Chiba, Japan, where he went 10-5-3. For him, though, it's the Grand Prix circuit that tells a story. So far, the 23-year-old has played in three Grand Prix. His debut was the 2012 GP Mexico City. He finished 6th. Two years later, Grand Prix Mexico City. He finished 5th. Grand Prix Mexico City 2015? 2nd. His lifetime GP record is 29 wins, 7 defeats, and 5 draws (most of which were Intentional Draws to take him toward the Top 8). That's over 80% of his matches won, which (when you think of all the little things that can go wrong in a game of Magic that mean you just can't win) is absurd. Will he be able to dominate in an event that doesn't have 'Mexico City' in the title? That's unclear, but it's stories like Jackson's, and Edel's, and Flores', that produce the rich vein of storytelling that sets the Pro Tour apart.
Whoever you think will be left standing (or, more realistically, sitting) on Sunday afternoon, they all start out the same way: opening a pack of Dragons of Tarkir, and mostly hoping that the set is going to live up to its name. In case you missed the memo, Dragons is all about, well, Dragons. There are big dragons, huge dragons, dragons that breathe fire, dragons with bad breath (I think), dragons that kill you fast, dragons that kill you slow, weird and quirky dragons, game-tension dragons, and plain old Game Over dragons. Even when there aren't any Dragons on the actual battlefield, you can feel their presence everywhere. Whether it's a Dragon Fodder token, or a ground-pounder being turned into a Sunday Roast, this is one of the most viscerally flavorful sets for ages.
Of course, with a quarter of a million dollars in prizes on the line, our Pro Tour field probably won't be concentrating too much on which of their mythic rares have feathers on their wing tips. For them, working out how to turn two solid packs of Dragons of Tarkir into a 3-0 Draft deck is the first order of business on both Friday and Saturday (assuming they reach 4-4 or better to reach the day two starting blocks). To do that, they're going to need Fate Reforged to deliver the missing pieces of their drafting puzzle.
Fate is a set like no other. Never before in the history of the game has a set been designed to 'pivot', facing both backwards to Khans of Tarkir and forwards to Dragons of Tarkir. Changing card evaluations has always been a massive part of the game's appeal, but the chameleon-like qualities inside Fate Reforged really deliver. Take Crux of Fate. In KTK-FRF, this was a pretty simple card. Do they happen to have a Dragon that you really need to kill? Gosh, that's unusual, but say Dragons. No Dragons? Of course not, so just set up the routine 4-for-2 with the non-Dragons clause. Simple.
Fast forward (and the temptation to do time travel jokes here is severe) and now imagine the possibilities of Crux of Fate game play in Brussels. You have multiple Dragons in your deck. Your opponent has multiple Dragons in theirs. You've both got one in play, and you suspect they have one more in hand. They've certainly been sandbagging something big for a while. Their Dragon's better, but do you really want to pull the trigger on a 1-for-2? You do not, so you wait, hoping—yes, hoping—that your opponent is going to run out another gigantic flying beastie. They don't—the bigness they've been waiting to cast is of the own-the-earth variety. So now what? You say non-dragons, tidying up the battlefield somewhat, and losing your chance to deal with their Dragon? Crux of Fate won't come up that often, but Fate Reforged is packed full of cards that are going to reward the people who are taking the time to intimately understand the power shifts in a world dominated by dragons.
You'd be forgiven for assuming that the draconic flavour dripping from every corner of the Limited format would be somewhat diluted once we reach the five Standard rounds that will make up our Friday and Saturday afternoon entertainments in Brussels. Dragons of Tarkir marks the end of the traditional three-set block structure, and that means that it has some fairly heavy lifting to do once Theros block leaves the Standard scene. The result? A slew of cards from the latest set that seem likely to have a major say in who takes down the trophy on Sunday. The true shape of Standard is still unclear, but a look at the data that is already out there in the 'real world' shows more than twenty Dragons cards ready to duke it out with the best that Standard has to offer. Just check out the 7-1 or better Standard decklists from the SCG Invitational last weekend:
- Mono-Red Aggro ran Lightning Berserker, Zurgo Bellstriker, and even Dragon Fodder.
- Sultai Reanimator (and several other decks) were delighted to add Sidisi, Undead Vizier.
- Green-White Devotion ran the megamorph Deathmist Raptor, and also took advantage of the power and versatility of Dromoka's Command.
For Esper Control players, there's a fabulous new toy to play with in Narset Transcendent, not to mention the closest we've seen to a pure Counterspell for a while, Silumgar's Scorn, and more Command action, this time of the Ojutai variety.
Keep digging (through time?), and you'll find the likes of Haven of the Spirit Dragon, Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit, Magmatic Chasm, and Atarka's Command. Once you open up the Sideboards, you can add Roast, Surge of Righteousness, Dragon Throne of Tarkir, Silkwrap, Foul-Tongue Invocation, Self-Inflicted Wound, and Virulent Plague to the list.
And remember, that's just the cards that people were prepared and willing to play on the very first weekend of Dragons in Standard. How many of the cards we've mentioned will be in Randy Buehler's top Standard picks once we get to Brussels? You'll have to tune in to find out.
Speaking of tuning in, you’ll be wanting to know when you can watch all the action. Coverage will begin on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the following times, depending on your time zone:
12 a.m. PST (West Coast, North America)
3 a.m. EST (East Coast, North America)
7 a.m. GMT (Europe, United Kingdom)
9 a.m. CET (Europe, Belgium local time)
4 p.m. JST (Tokyo, Japan)
For the next few days, we can all join in the fun of trying to work out the best draft strategies, the perfect opens, the loud-and-clear signals, the shape of the Standard metagame, the impact of Dragons of Tarkir, the influence of Theros, Born of the Gods, and Journey into Nyx, the pro testing teams that are most likely to break the Constructed format wide open. But this time next week, you'll know. At least, you will if you do the right thing and join us for another Pro Tour thrill ride on Friday.
See you there.