Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch Preview

Posted in Feature on February 1, 2016

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.

So here we are, 2016, and ready for the second Pro Tour of the season and the first of the calendar year. The traveling circus stops this week in Atlanta, Georgia, where a new set and an old format take center stage.

The new set is, of course, Oath of the Gatewatch, and the battle for Zendikar seen in, yes, Battle for Zendikar has plenty of new twists for faithful fans of Magic lore as well as the spikiest of Spikes, looking to dominate the battlefield with new cards, new strategies, and new insight.

The old format—which has also been given a sparkling new sheen in recent weeks—is Modern. On the Pro Tour calendar thanks to its love within the community, Modern is a format where crazy is run-of-the-mill, where devastating isn't just for Zac Hill, and where the power level in each and every deck is truly stacked. Throw in an Eldrazi or twelve, and this is shaping up to be a big Pro Tour.

So how can you get involved?

  1. First, are you within reach of Atlanta this weekend?

If you are, we'd love to see you at the Cobb Galleria Center on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, or all three! We've made it super-easy for fans to come and watch their favorite players in action all weekend long. Aside from the Feature Match area—which showcases four outstanding matches every round and is accompanied by all the trailing wires, headsets, and hushed voices you'd expect from a live TV studio—virtually every match in the hall is laid out so that it's almost like sitting at the table with the players. It really is an awesome way to watch Magic, and whether you want to see the cool new take on Modern round by round or the crazy mono-black Draft deck at Table 94, you'll get a great viewing experience on Friday and Saturday.

On Sunday, the Top 8 are taken to the deepest, darkest, Feature Matchiest corner of the building, meaning getting up close and personal is tougher—but that doesn't mean you can't be part of the action. We'll have all the action live via big screen and speakers in the hall itself, and the cocktail of anticipation, excitement, strategic savvy, and in-jokes amongst the crowd (which frequently features entire rows of Hall of Famers whispering nervously to each other) is something to behold. In Atlanta, the commentary booth will also be out in the midst of the crowd, and you can expect Brian David-Marshall to be out and about, chatting with the great and the good.

  1. "But Rich," you say. "I live in Botswana, or England, or several other places that are not within easy reach of this Cobb Galleria Centre of which you speak. What about me? How can I enjoy the Pro Tour?" Unsurprisingly, Wizards of the Coast has thought about you too. Across three days, you'll see close to 30 hours of live video coverage.

At the News Desk, I'll be joined by fellow anchor Brian David-Marshall to take you through the best of the new Draft archetypes, all the new twists and turns of Modern, and every result that matters, in the company of an ever-rotating cast of great players and analysts. If you want to up your game and be on the same page as the pros, we've got you.

Meanwhile, at the beating heart of the Pro Tour, our Feature Match coverage team will bring you all the action from the very best matches each round has to offer. Marshall Sutcliffe, Randy Buehler, Ian Duke, Tim Willoughby, and Luis Scott-Vargas (Sunday commitments permitting) will walk you through every turn in glorious 1080p HD (meaning your two-inch smart watch screen will never have looked crisper), while Neil Rigby, Maria Bartholdi, and Rashad Miller will help keep the Feature Match wheels turning behind the scenes. Some of you will no doubt have thoughtlessly volunteered to go to "work" on Friday, before your weekend of relentless coverage watching kicks in. That's okay, because there'll be a ton of written content right here on DailyMTG. Our text team of Corbin Hosler, Marc Calderaro, Jake Van Lunen, Blake Rasmussen, and Mike Rosenberg will bring you reports from standout Feature Matches, great articles on the new Draft format, our exclusive Draft viewers, plus all the Modern decklists and analyses you can shake a stick at (which has been proven scientifically to be "a lot").

Flaying Tendrils | Art by Slawomir Maniak

Of course I'm preaching to the choir here, as we know that many of you have had this weekend blocked off in your nice 2016 diary with the nice kittens on it ever since grandma gave you it for Christmas, just like she does every year. However, a few of you A) may not have a kitten diary for 2016, or B) may not know every last detail about how the Pro Tour works. Here's the summary:

Friday

Three rounds of Draft. Packs 1 and 2 are Oath of the Gatewatch and pack 3 is Battle for Zendikar. Everyone plays exclusively within their own table, so by the end of the morning you generally have one person at 3-0, three at 2-1, three at 1-2, and one still trying to get off the mark at 0-3. Every match win gets you 3 points, with 1 for a (doesn't happen very often) draw and none for a loss.

Next it's the first appearance of Modern. This is 60-card decks, plus a sideboard, and you play five rounds, each time matched up against a player with a record similar to yours. So, in Round 6, if you're 5-1 you'll play someone else who also only has one loss. If you're struggling at 2-3, you can expect to hear tales of woe from your also 2-3 opponent. At the end of the day, you can have a maximum of 24 points (eight wins and no losses). Only two or three of our 400 or so competitors will get there. That's okay, as there's more Magic to come—at least if you get to 12 points (four wins) or better. That's what lets you come back to play again on Saturday.

Saturday

Saturday features the same menu as Friday, but it's not a menu like your old-school dinners, filled with high cholesterol and tasteless disappointment. No, this is a mouth-watering menu of three rounds of Draft and five rounds of Modern, this time served up with a side dish of elimination.

As each round goes by, the stakes (but not the steaks, because that would be weird) get higher. With three losses after fifteen rounds (12-3), it may be possible for final-round opponents to agree a draw, gaining them 1 extra point that takes them both into the Top 8. For anyone who finishes on four losses (12-4), that's likely to be right on the edge of Top 8 contention. Historically, tiebreaks have played a part in whether 12-4 is good enough. The moral: don't lose four times, and if you do, try to do so as late in the tournament as possible (opposing match win percentage, the first tiebreak divider, is generally higher for you the later in the tournament you lose your matches).

Sunday

The Top 8 players return on Sunday to battle for a championship—and a cool $40,000 for the winner. The format is Modern, and sideboards are going to come to the fore. Why? Because all our Top 8 matches will run to the best-three-out-of-five games, with sideboarding all the way from Game 2 to a potential match-winning Game 5. We'll start our Sunday coverage with the first two quarterfinals running side by side, and we can promise that you'll see both matches decided live on camera. Then it's quarterfinals three and four, and again, we'll make sure that the deciding games are always shown to you as they happen, live.

After a quick spot of lunch (or breakfast or dinner, depending on your time zones), it's on to the semifinals, and we'll be showing you every turn of these epic encounters. The winners of the first two quarterfinals will meet in our first semifinal, and then the third and fourth quarterfinals will provide the combatants for the second semifinal. Then it's onto the final, and another slice of Magic history will be, as someone once said, in the books.

Is It Getting Drafty in Here?

But let's go back a bit. I can honestly say that it has been a while since I was so excited to see what the pros do with a new Draft format. You always learn a ton of stuff by listening to so many respected professionals explain their thought processes, and your weekly Draft can certainly become a lot less random once you've spent the weekend immersing yourself in OGW-OGW-BFZ Draft. But this time around, I'm struggling to think of a Draft format that is so radically different from the one that went before it, while maintaining at least some semblance of it being the same or similar. I could easily write an article every day this week about the intricacies of the new format, but to illustrate my point, here's how the ten color pairs worked in triple Battle for Zendikar Draft and how they potentially line up now that Oath of the Gatewatch is driving the Draft narrative:

White-Blue Awaken Control becomes White-Blue Tempo Flyers—Only one pack of BFZ means far fewer awaken cards, which was such a feature of the last format. You might still get a Clutch of Currents, but now it's cards such as Sweep Away and Reflector Mage that can keep the board clear while your evading flyers seal the deal.

Blue-Black Ingest becomes Blue-Black Evasive Colorless—Ingest isn't precisely dead, but it's sure on life support. All those cards you used to take that were marginal on pure stats but got a bump because of ingest (let's say Culling Drone)—well, now they're mostly just vanilla 2/2s. Mist Intruder and Oracle of Dust are definitely cards on the downgrade. But, now you get to play with Gravity Negator and Thought Harvester, which makes for a very different play pattern.

Black-Red Aggro becomes, er, Black-Red Devoid Aggro—Still very much on the front foot, the tension in the new black-red is reliably accessing colorless mana for assorted activations while simultaneously keeping your black and red mana base rock-solid.

Red-Green Landfall becomes Lands Matter Midrange—Slowing down a notch, the new red-green decks absolutely do care about lands (look for Embodiment of Fury and Embodiment of Insight to be solid players this weekend), but you're going to see a lot fewer Makindi Sliderunners and Valakut Predators, and not just because there's only one pack of BFZ.

Embodiment of Insight | Art by Marco Nelor

Green-White Go-Wide becomes Go-Wide Support—You're still going to want to get a bunch of creatures onto the battlefield. Grovetender Druids might be a nice BFZ pickup, and Scion Summoner has a familiar feel. Now, though, there are going to be +1+1 counters flying around, and if they happen to come from Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, so much the better.

White-Black Life Gain becomes White-Black Allies Life Gain—Okay, so this one kinda sounds the same, but it plays soooo differently. Before, you cast an Ally, triggered Kalastria Healer, had Drana's Emissary drain your opponent turn after turn, and did unfair things with Bloodbond Vampire and Serene Steward. Those cards still exist, but now cohort is your friend (your, ahem, ally, if you will), and the grind of "I'll draw a card and lose 1 life" and "I've tapped my Vampire Envoy, gain 1 life" and "tap this and my Zulaport Chainmage, you lose 2 life" gives white-black a very Orzhov feel. White-black is nasty.

Blue-Red Colorless Izzet becomes Blue-Red Surge—Someone at the Pro Tour is going to go 6-0 by understanding this archetype better than everyone else. It isn't easy—much like trying to evaluate prowess for Jeskai drafting, the trick with surge is working out how many "small" spells you need and just how much you need them to do to be worth a spot in your deck. How many Expedites and Slip Through Spaces is too many? And how filthy do you feel on turn four when you Slip Through Space your creature, draw a Goblin Freerunner, cast if for its surge cost, then Expedite it before attacking with both? Surge is potentially very powerful at multiple stages of the game, but building it right is something most of us really need to learn.

Black-Green Sacrifice becomes Black-Green Graveyard Colorless—This just in: green wasn't especially popular in Battle for Zendikar Draft. I hope most of you knew this. There was a black-green deck you could end up in, looking to leverage a million* (*million = six) Scions into a game-ending Tajuru Warcaller, or Tajuru Beastmaster, or Swarm Surge, or Zulaport Cutthroat combo. This time around, the graveyard will still be part of your plans, but so will cards such as Baloth Null and Null Caller.

Red-White Aggro becomes Red-White Allies—If you look up the page just a little bit, you'll see "White-Black Allies Life Gain," and that right there is part of the issue with red-white. All those white Allies have multiple homes to go to, meaning you might be competing for them hard if you want them for your red-white Allies deck. Also up the page just a little bit we mention cohort, and the inherent slowness of piecing those activations together means that red-white is no speed merchant of fiery death; it's more "tap my Zada's Commando and my Ondu War Cleric, shoot you for 1."

Five-Color Converge becomes Green-Blue Eldrazi Ramp—With so few converge cards left in the format, I think we can safely consider that archetype gone. But green pairs pretty well with Wastes, and blue has a lot of lovely Eldrazi things running around, opening up ample ground to run amok.

I Don't Just Want New, I Want Modern

In case you've been avoiding the internet tubes these past few weeks, two cards became banned ahead of the Pro Tour:

These two cards—and I'm pretty certain I'm talking to the three of you reading this who started playing Magic in the last 17 minutes, and nobody else—were/are fundamental parts of decks that have been incredibly good in Modern. I won't bore the three of you with the details, but it was getting to the point where A) everyone knew that Amulet Bloom was an amazing deck, and that the only real excuse not to play it was if it was too complicated for you to play properly (it is nutso hard to play well), and B) the existence of the threat of a game-ending Splinter Twin was substantially warping many, many games of Magic.

So what is the fate of these two pillars of the format? Can Amulet Bloom? No, it can't bloom, but it could flourish. Just like Azusa, Amulet players may have been temporarily lost, but they are seeking. Justin Cohen, who went all the way to the final last year at Pro Tour Fate Reforged, is just one who will be hoping not just to seek but to discover. Meanwhile, it used to not so much be the case that Pestermite—rather, Pesterdid. And now, Pestermite might, because everyone's favorite hyphenated combo piece (Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker) is practically screaming at Splinter Twin players that all is not lost (or seeking).

Twin is dead. Amulet is dead. Long live Twin. Long live Amulet.

Elsewhere, the format is just as deliciously mental as it has ever been. Always a fundamental part of the format, Affinity (or "Robots" if you feel the need) seems to have been positioned better with the likely downturn in the fortunes of Twin and Amulet. While Affinity will look to reach 20 damage as quickly as possible, the Tron decks (if you're in Atlanta, ask Rashad Miller to explain why they're called Tron) will want to count to seven—that's seven mana, composed of an Urza's Tower, an Urza's Power Plant, and an Urza's Mine. Since this is seven mana contained in just three lands, it becomes possible to play cards such as Wurmcoil Engine (6 mana), Karn Liberated (7), Ugin, the Spirit Dragon (8), Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger (10), or even Emrakul, the Aeons Torn (15). Emrakul, for reference, is a bit bigger than the creatures in Affinity (well...mostly).

We can expect to see Burn decks aplenty, incredibly focused Infect decks, tricksy Merfolk, the combo decks such as Scapeshift or Living End, the likes of Jund (black-red-green) and Abzan (white-black-green). Oath of the Gatewatch could play a part in Modern, providing new Eldrazi to the mix. You can even hook your tendrils into an Ad Nauseam deck, if that's your thing, if that's your thing, if that's your thing, if that's your thing…

Cards Need People Too

With Modern being such an amazingly diverse format, keeping on top of it all is next to impossible. But, in addition to giving you a floor to sleep on, money for lunch, and a sympathetic ear for your amazing jokes, that's what friends are for. Nowhere more than the Modern Pro Tour is the influence of testing teams felt, as the best players in the world prepare to battle. The ChannelFireball Pantheon has six Hall of Famers on their squad—William Jensen, Jon Finkel, Kai Budde, Gabriel Nassif, Jelger Wiegersma, and Ben Rubin—plus another half dozen who could get there one day, including Owen Turtenwald, Reid Duke, and two-time World Champion Shahar Shenhar.

Over at Team Ultra PRO (check out the article Adam Styborski penned on this super team), Hall of Famers Bob Maher, Paul Rietzl, Ben Stark, and Patrick Chapin headline the team, but Amulet man Justin Cohen and his megamind roommate Sam Black are also on this team, together with new additions Ari Lax, Mike Hron, and Corey Burkhart, who is definitely someone to watch out for. And that's barely half the talent on Team Ultra PRO.

Back at ChannelFireball, the rump of the original team (David Ochoa, Luis Scott-Vargas, and Josh Utter-Leyton) remains, but now in a hugely influential partnership with Face to Face Games—meaning standouts such as Alexander Hayne and Jacob Wilson, and a European contingent that features World Magic Cup winner Andrea Mengucci and Czech standout Ondřej Stráský. With a full 20 on their combined roster, there's every chance that this team could still have someone live coming into Sunday.

But so could Cabin Crew, headlined by Hall of Famer Frank Karsten and perennial Grand Prix master Martin Juza. So could MTG Mint Card. After all, a team of Lee Shi Tian and anyone would have a good chance of the Top 8. This time they're a true Asia-Pacific alliance, with the likes of Paul Jackson and Chester Swords of Australia and New Zealand's Platinum Pro, Jason Chung.

Don't discount Team Blitz, either. A new name for some old faces, this team includes World Champion Seth Manfield and deck brewers par excellence Brad Nelson, Gerry Thompson, and Todd Anderson—and this is also the new home of Hall of Famer Brian Kibler.

One team that will have to go some distance to match their exploits of 2015 are Team EUreka. A European alliance, they took home two Pro Tour trophies last year via Martin Dang and Joel Larsson. Their dominance has continued at the Grand Prix level, and although the bulk of them aren't true household names, don't be surprised to see the likes of Aleksa Telarov, Niklaus Eigner, or Wenzel Krautmann under the bright lights deep into the tournament.

TL;DR

This has always puzzled me, since, if you've got this far, it clearly wasn't, and you clearly did. However:

It's a Pro Tour.

This weekend.

Live coverage across all three days.

Best players in the world.

Oath of the Gatewatch in Draft action.

The new Modern format.

Prize pool of $250,000.

And, of course, most importantly:

You.

See you on Friday,

—R.

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