Transformation. In one word, that beautifully sums up the forthcoming Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad.
Right, I'll be off then.
Or not, since there are probably a few more blanks I should fill in before packing the suitcase for a three-week Magic trek around the globe.
So, yeah, transformation—nothing changes the Pro Tour season like the third, and penultimate, leg of the Magical grand slam, and that's taking place this weekend in Madrid, the capital of Spain. For three days, that vaunted city will be the center of the Multiverse, as close to 400 players from every corner of the world converge in their collective quest for glory, Pro Points, and many thousands of dollars. What happens over nineteen rounds of fierce but fair competition will determine the plans for the remainder of the season for many of the world's best players. Is Player of the Year a real possibility? Will they have to settle for Gold, or is Platinum coming their way? Will they get to lead their country at the World Magic Cup later this year? Or will they be back in the scrum for PPTQ and RPTQ slots, before they get another chance on the biggest stage?
Despite all the tumultuous change afoot, some things remain blessedly the same. Take the schedule, for example. It looks something like this:
Friday: Three rounds of Shadows over Innistrad Booster Draft, followed by five rounds of Standard.
Saturday: For everyone with at least four match wins from their eight Friday rounds (technically 12 points, with 3 awarded for a win and 1 for a draw), exactly the same as Friday—three rounds of Shadows over Innistrad Booster Draft, followed by five rounds of Standard.
Sunday: Only the Top 8 remain, and they'll play best-of-five matches with their Standard decks from earlier in the tournament to determine each quarterfinal winner. Then it's on to the semifinals, until the last two battle it out for a winner's check of $40,000.
Now, the schedule isn't exactly the same as last time. Eagle-eyed fans will have spotted that there's been a slight rules change for the Top 8, and we wouldn't want you to be caught unawares, so—in the Top 8, players will use their original 60-card Standard decks for Game 1 and Game 2. Between Games 2 and 3 will be the first time that players have the opportunity to improve their decks via their sideboards. Those extra fifteen cards will still be very important, but won't come into effect until that third game.
Hopefully, many of you are thinking that you'd like to get a look at some of these nineteen rounds. Fortunately, we feel the same way, and will be bringing you live and uninterrupted coverage throughout the weekend. In the commentator booth, you'll get the experience and insight of Limited Resources host Marshall Sutcliffe, Hall of Famer Randy Buehler, and Ian Duke from Magic R&D. You'll also hear from Brit-about-town Tim Willoughby and the fabulous Gaby Spartz, while Rashad Miller and Neil Rigby will be making sure the Feature Match area runs like clockwork. Meanwhile, I'll be anchoring our news desk content, including all the top archetype deck techs as Standard comes front and center, plus a stack of great Limited content, including multiple Draft walkthroughs and our famous Draft Viewer, putting you in the pilot's chair. Out on the floor, our feature content host, Brian David-Marshall, will be diving deep into the action, bringing you live interviews as key matches finish and myriad stories unfold.
Of course, we know that not all of you are lucky enough to be able to schedule thirty or so hours of your time to be with us every step of the way. If you want your PT SOI fix in a more streamlined package, look no further than the text team, led as usual by Blake Rasmussen and Mike Rosenberg, together with Tobi Henke, Marc Calderaro, and Josh Bennett. You'll get insightful reruns of key matches, special features, and—let's be honest, it's what you're here for—every deck that moves, card for card. Add in photographer extraordinaire Craig Gibson, the Walking the Planes team of Nate Holt and Shawn Kornhauser, plus a ton of technical talent behind the scenes, and you have a group of people ready to bring you an amazing weekend.
So what is the new Limited format going to look like on Friday and Saturday morning? Every new set brings change, but sometimes that change is gradual, such as when Oath of the Gatewatch gets added to Battle for Zendikar. That change is still significant, but it isn't seismic. This time, everything changes. Why don't we start with a quick rundown of the mechanics?
Skulk is pretty straightforward—it makes some creatures tougher to block. There aren't a ton of skulk cards in the set, so you'll only see it in a few of our Limited games. When it's there, make sure you do the math—two creatures with skulk can be blocked by different creatures depending on their size.
Delirium wants you to have at least four types of cards in your graveyard. So, at the start of the game, you don't have it. In the general pattern of play, you'll find it really easy to end up with a creature in your graveyard, you'll have a good chance of naturally finding sorcery and instant cards joining it, and then...well, that's the fun of delirium, finding the fourth type of card to turn it on. Maybe you're running an artifact creature or two (which count as two types once they're in the graveyard), maybe you've found a way to discard a land there, or maybe you've built your deck to make sure you have a handful of enchantments. In any case, as soon as you've got your four types in the bin, delirium is on, and there's a wide variety of rewards for getting there. Some of them are really good, so when you're watching the Limited rounds, keep an eye on the graveyards—what's in there can really make a difference.
Investigate is known in the trade as a "card-smoothing" mechanic. Over time, the accumulation of Clues can give you the chance to see a few extra cards each game, smoothing out clunky draws, improving your mid-game curve, and ensuring that you still have some things to do in the late game. Since drawing cards is essentially good at least 99% of the time (yes, you can get decked, and yes, you could be getting damaged for cards in your hand, but let's play nice), the trick with investigate is to work out whether the cards that have the ability are good enough to include in your deck, even when you're eventually getting a card out of it at the other end.
Madness has been here before, and transformation has rarely been clearer than in how you feel when you see the word "discard" on a card. Tormenting Voice and Macabre Waltz are both reprints, but the "drawback" of discarding a card has now become a "Yes please!" Throughout the Limited rounds, you'll see players gleefully discarding cards from their hand, paying madness costs, and adding to their board, often at a gigantic discount.
Double-faced cards are, of course, literally transformational, and they come in two "flavors." First, and easy to remember, are the Werewolves. They all transform the same way—if a whole turn goes by without a spell being cast, boom, it's time for howling and fangs. Want to get rid of an opposing Werewolf? Cast two spells in a turn and they'll transform back into their gentler original form. That's the same as the last time we visited Innistrad, but once we get past the Werewolves, R&D have let themselves off the leash this time around, and there are numerous ways for assorted cards to transform. Once they do, watch out, because these are some of the most powerful, interesting, and fun cards in the set.
Shadows over Innistrad is a large set, and that means there are going to be tons of great cards that don't make it onto the big screen during our six Draft rounds across Friday and Saturday morning. On average, there'll be less than one of each uncommon opened at any given draft table, and at least a dozen or so rares will end up being camera-shy, and that's before we even get into the fifteen mythic rares. Even so, here are a few cards to watch out for:
For pumping your team and turning every creature you have into a real threat, there's Always Watching. Descend upon the Sinful is the Wrath of God variant in the set, while Bound by Moonsilver looks rock solid as white removal.
If you see it, Geralf's Masterpiece has every chance of dominating the table over and over again. Blue also gets a Control Magic variant in Welcome to the Fold, and an awesome madness enabler in Reckless Scholar.
Black shows off double-faced technology with Elusive Tormentor/Insidious Mist, with madness blowouts coming in the form of From Under the Floorboards. Plus, watch out for the tension of a card like Mindwrack Demon—that card does a lot of hurting, and not always to the opponent.
Red has a ton of great new toys to play with, with Burn from Within among the most straightforward. Meanwhile, if you like double-edged swords (or mixed metaphors), Goldnight Castigator has already been the subject of many a Prerelease horror story, on both sides of the table.
At uncommon, green packs a punch with Pack Guardian, and Sage of Ancient Lore gets truly massive as Werewolf of Ancient Hunger. For a more cerebral approach, Tireless Tracker guarantees you a steady flow of Clues.
Then there's the gold cards. Traditionally, this has been an opportunity for the denizens of R&D to let their hair down a little, but this time the gold party night must have been really good, because some of these cards are just spectacular. You may not see many of them this weekend, but be on the lookout at your own Friday Night Magic for the likes of Altered Ego, The Gitrog Monster, Olivia, Mobilized for War, and Sigarda, Heron's Grace. Gold may not be the way to go for most decks, but picking up any of these straight out of a fresh booster pack can be a brilliant start to your next draft.
Not all the cards I've mentioned will be starring in the Pro Tour afternoons once we turn our attention to Standard. Indeed, most of them look most at home as Limited all-stars. But some cards will be ready to make the transformation from 40- to 60-card decks, and few cards straddle the two deck-building worlds better than planeswalkers. This time around, there's a real fracas for top dog in the planeswalker department. The knock on Jace, Unraveler of Secrets is that there's already an amazing Jace (how sweet the sound) available in Standard. You know what's better than awesome? Two awesome. But not too awesome. That's a thing too. Once we hit gold, you've got the brand-new spectacularness that is Arlinn Kord—can she lead Werewolves to the forefront of Standard? Then there's Nahiri, who I'm certainly never inviting around to my house. "Disruptive house guest" doesn't really cover it. And of course there's the founder of the proverbial feast, Sorin, Grim Nemesis. If Anguished Unmaking is anything to go by, he's not going to be a bundle of laughs for any opponent this weekend.
Once we get to Standard, it's going to be a ton of fun working out how the best in the world have chosen to tackle such an utterly transformed deck-building landscape. Here are the first eight archetypes from Grand Prix Paris, an event that happened less than six weeks ago:
- Grixis Control
- Dark Jeskai
- Bant Company
- Abzan Aggro
- Esper Dragons
- Four-Color Rally
- Blue Abzan
- Green Mardu
Between them, those eight decks run 28 colors, or 3.5 per deck on average. Now here are the first eight archetypes from last weekend's StarCityGames.com Standard event, the first peek behind the curtain at new Standard:
- Bant Company
- Mono-White Humans
- White-Black Eldrazi
- Blue-Red Control
- White-Black Midrange
- White-Blue Humans
- Green-White Humans
- Esper Dragons
Those eight decks total seventeen colors, or 2.1 on average. After much analysis and Karsten-esque number-crunching, we can conclude that these two formats are not the same. Indeed, they are vibrantly, startlingly, wonderfully different. When we talk about the deck-building sand that players will get to walk on this weekend, the reality is usually that they are already building on the foundations laid out for them. And yes, it's still true that experienced pilots were able to manage good results in week one of the new Standard with Bant Company and Esper Dragons. Remember, this is the first time that such a sweeping shift in Standard has happened, with the new two-set block structure wiping out a ferocious amount of the previous format with a single stroke. Constructed has always been important to the winning of each Pro Tour, but the deck-building juggernauts—the Josh Utter-Leytons, the Gerry Thompsons, the Sam Blacks, the Patrick Chapins—must be positively salivating at just how wide open the new Standard is, secure in the knowledge that a right answer this Friday could take them deep into Sunday action.
Standard is going to be amazing this weekend.
Whether it's the 40 cards of Shadows over Innistrad Draft or the 60 cards of new Standard, the matches themselves are sure to be something special. But at this third of the four Pro Tours of the season, hundreds of players will be looking to turn individual match wins into a much bigger story—a story that will transform their season and do much to determine their life path over the next months or even years.
In 2011, Owen Turtenwald became Player of the Year on the back of a spectacular season that included seven Grand Prix Top 8 finishes. On the final day of the season, he had to watch as rival after rival fell one or two matches short in the Top 8 of the World Championship in San Francisco, leaving him in possession of the coveted title. But the overwhelming feeling was not one of accomplishment, but of relief. While the previous title holder, Brad Nelson, was widely acknowledged within the pro game as the best in the world, the same wasn't true for Owen—he had more to prove, especially with no Pro Tour Top 8s to his name.
Since then he has gone from strength to strength, accumulating those missing Pro Tour Top 8s and adding multiple Grand Prix titles to a burgeoning list of successes. Then came the World Championship in Seattle last year. Owen believed, and believes, that he's the best—claiming the title over an elite field would headline and validate that belief. He came up short—one agonizing, life-changing game short. Since then, he has allowed nothing to stand in his way. Last year, at the start of the final Pro Tour of the season, there were close to 50 players who had a theoretical shot at winning Player of the Year. By the time Pro Tour Sydney rolls around, it's likely that Owen will have reduced the theoretical opposition to his coronation to single digits, and most with a vanishingly small chance of actually stealing away the title. Put simply, Turtenwald has transformed himself into not just the best player of this season, but one of the best players the game has ever seen. Each and every day, he is bettering himself as a player in a way that most of us can only gasp at—he is literally transforming what it means to be a professional Magic player before our very eyes. In a game of such variance, his consistency is overwhelming, and it is born of a professionalism that few have ever matched.
If anyone is going to catch Owen for Player of the Year—they aren't, but let's pretend for a moment—it could be Martin Müller of Denmark. You want transformation? Müller has been part of a movement that has transformed not only himself but a whole region. In 2014, he was just starting out, making his first tentative steps into the world of premier play. Two years later, he has Top 8s at both the Grand Prix and Pro Tour levels, a trophy from the 2014 World Magic Cup in Nice, France, and a well-deserved place in the Top 10 of the pro rankings. But the success has gone far beyond Müller alone. Müller's WMC teammate Simon Nielson is right at the forefront of the Magic Online standings. Martin Dang is a Pro Tour Champion. Sweden's Joel Larsson improved on second place at Pro Tour Gatecrash in 2013 by returning to Canada and winning Pro Tour Magic Origins in Vancouver. Add in Magnus Lantto and Lars Dam both winning Magic Online titles, and you have an incredible transformation in the fortunes of Scandinavian Magic. And if you want to follow more of their successes, tune in this weekend, as Brian David-Marshall will be spending exclusive behind-the-scenes time with Team EUreka, a name that has become synonymous with success at the highest levels in the last twelve months.
Whether you're going to spend your time checking on the progress of Owen Turtenwald or Martin Müller, or focus instead on the winners from your nearest RPTQ, hoping that they can do themselves justice on the big stage; whether you want to see Bant Company and Esper Dragons survive the rotation cull, or can't wait for Humans to claim their rightful place on top of the food chain; whether you think 40 is the perfect number of cards to sleeve up, or you think that Standard sideboards are where the action's at; and whichever side of your cards are uppermost, you're going to have a great time this weekend, as Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad is shaping up to change a lot of lives.
Transform your Magic weekend and tune in to twitch.tv/magic to see all the action for yourself beginning this Friday!