Knowing Where to Look: A Pro Tour Dark Ascension Preview

Posted in Feature on February 6, 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.

A long time ago, when I was a kid, coverage of major sporting events was rubbish. Soccer? You'd get one live match each year—the FA Cup final. The US Masters golf? A half-hour highlights package. Maybe three weeks later. An entire season of American football (or, to the initiated, just plain "football") was condensed into an hour, at the end of which ninety seconds sufficed to cover the Super Bowl. Getting the events I really cared about—the World Series, the NBA Finals—involved hanging out of an attic window with a $10 battery-powered radio, desperately trying to catch the crackling, distorted feed from American Forces Network Radio at the local US Air Base. Did I mention that coverage was rubbish?

Times, as they do, change. Now there's the Golf Channel. Subscription packages to see every single game the New York Mets play each year. NFL Red Zone. Hundreds of live soccer matches every season. Live cricket 16 hours a day. In fact, there's so much awesome competition out there, it's becoming impossible to know where to look. Okay, I'll TiVo the Cardinals, watch Red Zone live, then switch to the Broncos game while recording the... Seriously, the board game Channel Surfer can't be far away—a Eurogame of stunning complexity using remote controls to determine the winner.

Times have changed for Magic, too. When we want to tell you about the 1994 World Championship, won by Zak Dolan, we painstakingly (and reverently) pull out one of the few remaining copies of The Duelist and carefully scan the relevant precious few pages of prose. In the Wizards of the Coast HQ in Renton, there's a collection of every issue of the European Sideboard, a bizarre fold-out concoction of "news" (i.e., things that had happened within the last umpteen weeks), features about people you had never heard of and had once won a game or two, and a complete A-to-Z of European rankings leaderboards. Oh, and it was all in black, white, and blue. Not full-color; not just black and white; but black, white, and blue.

How far we've come. It came home to me exactly what a juggernaut Magic has become on January 14, 2012. On that day, you could—with a modest amount of technology—spend your weekend watching not one, but two tournaments. Live. Dozens of matches played by some of the best players in the world, exploring the worlds of Standard and Legacy before your very eyes. You could watch, listen, learn, interact, and simply wallow in the astonishment of finally living in an all-Magic, all-the-time era. Add in all the tremendous writing around the web, the hundreds of decklists relentlessly churning out of the Magic Online presses, the replays, the YouTube archives, dozens of new podcasts every day...

Make no mistake about it. Magic has achieved 24/7 status, and that means sometimes you don't know where to look. This article. That podcast. His replay. My Twitter. Your Facebook. Her tournament report. Those standings. Their announcement.

Now Pro Tour Dark Ascension is just around the corner, and it's our business here at to present you with more options for your time than ever before. Three days of Magic at its finest are about to unfold, and knowing where to look is going to ensure you're facing the right way when history is made. To that end, here's my guide to some of the places you should be looking as we head toward the crowning of the first Pro Tour champion of 2012.

Viewing Dark Ascension Cards

When you watch the best players in action, whenever they get to look at the opposing hand of cards (with a Gitaxian Probe for example) they'll write the cards down. It's not that they have the memory of a goldfish, but Magic is a game of complex moving parts, and a little bit of help in the heat of battle goes a long way. That's where Gatherer comes in handy. However much you've pored over the spoiler when it went live, however many articles you've read, and however many Prereleases you went to, chances are you don't know every single last tiny detail about the new set. Chances are, at some stage you'll want exactly that one little bit of information that's escaped you. If you're feeling technological, there are few things handier than Gatherer.

Dark Ascension Fat Pack

That looks great on your laptop or your iPad, but for fans of pen and paper systems there's nothing quite like the Player's Guide, which comes as part of the Dark Ascension Fat Pack. Does that guy turn into a Vampire or a Werewolf? Does that green spell need double green or just single? He's got the rare, how many uncommon Curses are there anyway? That's when you want your full card list available, all weekend long. It's your indispensable guide to the new kids on the block.

Facebook Fantasy Pro Tour

If you haven't become involved in this already, you really should. Most major sports have fantasy contests running alongside the big event, and now Magic has its very own with the gorgeous new Facebook app. Like any hardworking baseball manager, you can look through your roster of options to create the most powerful team of cards you can, and score points according to how many copies of each card appear in the top Standard decklists out in Honolulu (likely to be all decks that record at least six wins in the ten Swiss rounds of Constructed play). There's a lot going on under the surface of this challenge, since your goal isn't to work out who's going to claim the trophy. If someone breaks the format with a mono-blue Control deck featuring four copies of Counterlash, and you correctly predict your Polish friend will indeed win the title in that way, you'll get very few points unless dozens of other successful competitors have arrived at Counterlash as a must-have. Your goal, therefore, is to correctly identify the metagame, and that's a puzzle that's been eluding the best pros in the business for more than fifteen years.

You start out with a planeswalker as the "captain" of your roster. Every copy in the successful decklists nets you 5 points. Three creatures are up next, divided by size. You won't have to wade through Gatherer to find them, though, since every legal card is already in the app waiting for your approval or snorts of derision. There's a slot for an instant, a sorcery, an enchantment, an artifact, and a nonbasic land. Finally, if there's a tie, you'll have to rely on your choice of pro player. Whoever finishes better in Honolulu breaks the tie. Think of Brian Kibler or Yuuya Watanabe as your last-second Adam Vinatieri. (Actually, that's probably a bad idea, so don't.)

For the record, I wish it to be known that you're all playing for second place, since my extensive research has led me to a team that simply cannot be beaten. I'll be revealing my winning selections on the Fantasy Pro Tour Show on Thursday in Honolulu, at which point you'll be able to marvel in wonder, and ask yourselves, "Now why didn't we think of that?" In any case, the Fantasy Pro Tour is ridiculously entertaining and something you should absolutely find time for before the main event starts.

Covering It Live

So what can you expect from the Event Coverage team in Honolulu? More. Much more. First off, you'll get live video coverage of every round. Every round on Friday, every round on Saturday, every round on Sunday. You'll be in the company of Rashad Miller, Sheldon Menery, Brian David-Marshall, and yours truly, as we bring you the definitive marquee matchup from each round. We'll bring you as-it-happens news of all your favorite players round by round, spotlighting the storylines developing in the brand-new Standard format.

When our main match has finished, we'll aim to move one of the other big names into the spotlight, but when there's no more games to be played, we'll bring you a host of features to keep you entertained before the next set of pairings go up. You'll get extensive player interviews about their careers, their preparations, their teammates, their decks, and their hopes for Honolulu. You'll get live chats with the winners, fresh from the feature match area. What was the key play? What were they thinking when their creatures all died? How quickly did they see their route to victory? You'll get the answers moments after the results are in the books.

We've got special guests, too, from inside R&D in Renton. Aaron Forsythe will be joining us to provide his ample insights into the state of Magic, while Zac Hill—author of the Latest Developments column right here and a member of both the design and development teams for Dark Ascension—will lift the lid on lots more behind-the-scenes gossip on the new set. We also know how popular and important deck techs are to you, and when we're not in the booth bringing you live matches, we'll be doing the same great in-depth one-on-ones with the pros, as a new Standard and a new Draft format start to come into focus.

So much for video, but the written word has been around for a while, and we certainly won't be neglecting our audience who likes to—gasp—read. You'll still get feature match coverage every round, with the team of Bill Stark, Tim Willoughby, Steve Sadin, and Mike Rosenberg also delivering metagame analysis, feature articles, and of course many, many decklists. And yes, you'll get two Draft Viewers too!


Then there's the marriage of the written word and new technology—Cover It Live. We were really excited by how many of you wanted to get involved with this awesome way to keep on top of everything that's going on. Whether you're watching as Tim Willoughby juggles four matches at once, letting Jon Hickey know which player you most want to see featured next round, or telling us what your favorite unsung-hero card is from Dark Ascension, Cover It Live is definitely a window you should have open somewhere on your monitor.

And of course there's Twitter, where you can get coverage updates from @MagicProTour, plus follow many of the pros, as they keep everyone up-to-date with multiple posts each day. Keep track of the whole experience with the hashtag #PTDKA. It's also a great way to give us feedback on what stories you want to see covered and ask questions about the event—the announcing crew will be keeping tabs on the hashtag to work your thoughts and questions into the live stream.

Going Platinum

With all the changes to Organized Play, it has been hard to keep track of all the points and standings that matter. Now things are coming clearly into focus. Professional Points—or the Pro Points we've all known, sweated, and bled for over our time as players—are back at the forefront of the global game, helping to determine the most successful pro players, and also hand out some very important invites. May 13, 2012, is the big date where the season ends and all the assorted goodies are given away.

Pro Club levels for 2012–2013 get locked in, and it's a simple matter of being Silver, Gold, or Platinum: 15 points gets you Silver status, 25 steps you up to Gold, but 40 is the big one. That's where Platinum status kicks in, together with $250 appearance fee at every Grand Prix, $3,000 appearance fee at each Pro Tour, $1,000 if invited to the World Magic Cup, plus hotel and flights at each Pro Tour. It's a sizeable package of benefits, and a lot of players are chasing this hard. You can look at the complete standings here.

Four players are already atop the pyramid, their Platinum status secure: former Player of the Year Yuuya Watanabe, Josh Utter-Leyton, David Ochoa, and Luis Scott-Vargas. Those last three are all American, all very good, and all part of the Channel Fireball machine starting to resemble a production line of almost mythic tournament results. With 3 points now awarded for competing at each Pro Tour, even poor finishes will see Conley Woods, Italy's Samuele Estratti, and Great Britain's Richard Bland reach the Platinum club by the end of the season. You can expect them to be joined by at least a dozen more, with perennial powerhouses like the Czech master Martin Juza, Brazil's finest Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, and reigning Player of the Year Owen Turtenwald almost certain to be among them.

The Professional Point standings have further significance beyond going Platinum, however, and it's significant for a large portion of competitive players all around the world. Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of the recent turmoil was the announcement of the World Magic Cup to be played at Gen Con Indianapolis in August. This amazing team event features the winners of three World Magic Cup Qualifiers in each country, plus the Top Pro. That Top Pro—you guessed it—is determined by Professional Points. Right now, there's some fantastic talent looking to head up their respective national squads:

Yuuya Watanabe for Japan

Josh Utter-Leyton for USA

Richard Bland for Great Britain

Samuele Estratti for Italy

Martin Juza for Czech Republic

Raphael Levy for France

Jeremy Neeman for Australia

Vincent Lemoine for Belgium

May 13 is the day when the identities of the team captains will be determined, and Pro Tour Dark Ascension will go a long way to determining some of those slots.

Finally, there's the Magic Players Championship, the sixteen-player shootout that already has World Champion Jun'ya Iyanaga, Magic Online Champion Reid Duke, Pro Tour Philadelphia Champion Samuele Estratti, and Player of the Year Owen Turtenwald locked in. The Pro Tour Dark Ascension champion will join them, together with a roster of global Professional Points leaders. It's going to be quite a ride.

Notable Appearances in Honolulu

Dirty little secret: When I qualified for my two Pro Tours (London 1999 and Philadelphia 2005), I used to visit a strange little corner of the web that looks something like this. There, I'd scroll down ever so slowly, past all the amazing famous players I'd dreamed of playing against, until eventually—yes!—there would be my name, in black and white, indisputably heading for the Pro Tour to get beaten repeatedly by better players. Now I check out that page regularly to find out who might be joining us for the big show. Up to 159 players will be making their Pro Tour debut in Honolulu. Can any of them go the distance? That's becoming increasingly tough, but it has been done before—by Jan-Moritz Merkel of Germany, winning Pro Tour Kobe in 2006 on debut.

A large part of any Pro Tour field is made up of Pro Tour Qualifier winners. With more than two hundred PTQs taking place around the world, here are some of the players who have battled their way to the fabled "blue envelope."

Todd Anderson brought Illusions to the attention of the global community and has a long track record of deck innovations that could stand him in good stead in this fresh and exciting Standard environment. Antonino de Rosa made the Top 8 of US Nationals three years in a row, claiming the title in 2005. With 250 Lifetime Pro Points, he's easily the most decorated PTQ winner in the field. Someone else with big-time experience is Michael Gurney. He won a PTQ in Seattle to buy himself a chance at repeating his Top 8 from Pro Tour Los Angeles 2001. Gerard Fabiano is guaranteed box office—stand-up, wit, raconteur, and no mean player either.

Japan might be going through something of a transition at the moment, but Shintarou Ishimura—who made the Top 8 of Pro Tour Paris last year—won a home PTQ to get another chance to show if he's part of the next wave of Japanese players. Then there are three European PTQ winners to mark your card: André Mueller finished second behind Remi Fortier at Pro Tour Valencia 2007, and also made the Top 8 of Pro Tour Philadelphia 2005. Lasse Norgaard won the Copenhagen PTQ in his native Denmark, and is one of a huge contingent from Scandinavia, a region that has really seen its stock rise in recent months. Seeing multiple Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, or Danes in the Top 8 would be no surprise. Meanwhile, Germany's Adrian Rosada is back, having entered the winner circle at Grand Prix Paris 2009, then the largest Magic tournament ever held.

Standard: Three Decklists

Whatever your chosen media—video, text, Cover It Live, or a smorgasbord of all three—knowing where to look at the start of day one is a pivotal moment. The first thing I'm going to want to see is three decklists. They're not just any three decklists, though; they're three decklists that could give us a massive pointer toward what's going to happen on Sunday.

Conley Woods.

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa.

Luis Scott-Vargas.

Yes, they're all Team Channel Fireball, but they represent three very different constituencies. Of course, they all want to win, but given the choice they'd arrive at winning in very different ways. Conley likes to plow his own furrow, coming up with something different to attack the metagame. Witness his triumph at Grand Prix Orlando earlier this year. Luis loves counterspells, card draw, and board sweepers. He's a Control player at heart. As for Paulo, he's a pragmatist, and will play The Best Deck no matter what, but he has an undoubted love of both Combo and attacking for 2.

So what can these three decklists show us? Here are some scenarios:

If all three are playing different decks, doesn't believe they've cracked the format.

If all three are playing Delver of Secrets or White-Blue Humans or Tempered Steel, they don't believe that there is an answer to the format, and that one of these is—just about—the best deck.

Now it gets interesting. If all three open up with a deck designed to start with turn-one Swamp into Gravecrawler, you better believe the Zombie apocalypse (although possibly not the Zombie Apocalypse) is for real.


If all three are playing Control, you know they believe all this talk of aggressive creature decks is a red herring, much like the White Weenie decks of Pro Tour Yokohama 2007, which got simply butchered when it came to the crunch. Maybe the fight won't be between Humans and Werewolves and Zombies (oh my), but between the age-old rivals of power and toughness versus card advantage.

Now the scenario that's keeping 500+ potential competitors awake at night, worrying: If all three turn up with a deck that revolves around, let's say, Curse of Misfortunes, that's the ballgame right there. If they can make that collection of Curses work, via a Conley Woods special, to the point that all three of these great players are ready to stake their Pro Tour lives on it, everyone else better pray they arrived at exactly the same answer.

Curse of Misfortunes

Of course, the most exciting answer is where Conley updates his winning Titan Ramp deck, Paulo kicks off with Gravecrawler, and Luis takes a leaf out of Shouta Yasooka's book and runs a Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas deck. Then the door is wide open for a Chapin, an Oberg, or maybe even a Bland to have the hot tech that propels them to triumph. In any case, round one: three decklists.

Draft: Pick 1, Pack 1

"So obvious that nobody thought of it for more than fifteen years." That's an approximate summary of how we've arrived at the Draft format where the most recent set is opened first. Genius. No longer do you get to fill out your deck with the Dark Ascension of the block, waiting until pack three to hopefully find your missing pieces for your master plan. Now it's a journey into the unknown right from the starting pistol, as the players will be confronted with huge choices in their very first pack. You'll be able to analyze and armchair quarterback the plays and picks of sixteen stand-outs across our two Draft Viewers.

Curse of Misfortunes might not cut it for Standard, but somebody somewhere in Honolulu is going to find it as the rare in the first pack and get passed an uncommon Curse of Thirst. Two picks in, and there's a strategy ready to rock and roll, with the promise of numerous unloved Curses coming from Innistrad. Zombies might turn out to be more shambolic than shambling in Standard, but with Geralf's Messenger, Black Cat, Farbog Boneflinger, Gravecrawler, Highborn Ghoul, Reap the Seagraf, Sightless Ghoul—and the mythic rare Mikaeus, the Unhallowed—there's plenty of fuel to get your ghoul on in Dark Ascension, with the possibility of Unbreathing Horde getting a chance to shine out of Innistrad.

Geralf's Messenger
Mikaeus, the Unhallowed

Who will gamble with their opening pick? Who will try to stay open as long as possible? Who will signal their intent to the table with an ostentatious double-faced card? You'll be able to see the top tables pick by pick on the Draft Viewer, and of course we'll be bringing you Draft techs through the middle rounds of the event as well.

The Graveyard

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of a game of Magic, different sets focus on different parts of the game. Sometimes you need to see how many cards are in hand to work out who's really winning. Scars of Mirrodin? Sure, you're at 20 life, but you're about to die to poison. Sometimes it's all about the red zone, with creatures turning sideways early and often. During the Draft rounds, especially—but during the Constructed rounds too—you're going to need to look at the graveyards. One of the most exciting developments during the Innistrad Draft season was the increasing prevalence of the Spider Spawning decks. In assorted blue, black, and green recipes, these decks dumped cards into their own graveyards before using flashback to devastating effect, with an army of Spiders often merely the finishing touch to a deck packed with elegance, synergy, and deep frustration for unprepared opponents.

Increasing Confusion | Art by Dan Scott

Now, with the arrival of Dark Ascension, comes the latest twist to the graveyard tale. Now you'll have to keep an eye on both graveyards at once. While the self-mill deck is still very much an option, even with fewer Gnaw to the Bone, Forbidden Alchemy, and Spider Spawning to take from one less Innistrad booster, the new storyline involves milling your opponent. Open up an Increasing Confusion and both mill strategies are open to you. Get to six mana, and over two turns that's fifteen cards you get to send packing. Your opponents start with forty. They start with seven in hand. By turn seven that's another seven gone. That's a dozen or so cards left in their libraries, even if you haven't given them a helping hand in the meantime. With cards like Chill of Foreboding and Thought Scour, not to mention a significant upgrade to the common Curse of the Bloody Tome from Innistrad, the competition for mill cards is going to get a lot more interesting.

Increasing Confusion
Thought Scour

Down the Stretch

We know not all of you will be able to spend all day with us, especially on Friday. But here's a quick overview of what to watch for:

The Stretch, the final five rounds, occurs on day two. This is crunch time, with every round seeing multiple big names fall by the wayside while others close in on yet another Top 8. The tension in the feature-match area is close to unbearable during these rounds, especially when you see a long-time leader spend hour after hour not quite getting across the finish line. To my mind, nothing—not even the final itself on Sunday—beats the thrill ride that is the penultimate round of each Pro Tour, and we're delighted to be bringing it to you minute by minute.

Then we're on to the Top 8, and it's lights, cameras, action, as we bring you our traditional Sunday extravaganza. All seven Sunday matches will get the full play-by-play text treatment. You can keep up with the action on Cover It Live. Make your prediction for who will win the title. Join in the polls and make your voices heard. Meanwhile, our full webcast will cover all the angles—even the one from above the feature-match table you all like so much! How many archetypes will be in the Top 8? Will there be a shift to Scandinavia? Could the Americans complete an amazing clean sweep of the Top 8 slots on (admittedly distant) home soil? All the answers to play out on Sunday.

Samuele Estratti, 2011 Pro Tour Philadelphia champion.

Simply making it to the Pro Tour is a huge achievement. Once the lights have dimmed and the stream has gone quiet, take a look at the final standings, and ponder this: Every name on that list, from first to four-hundred-and-something, has a story to tell. Buried away in there are personal histories, from claiming their first-ever Pro Tour match win, to making day two for the first time, to becoming the all-time Bulgarian Professional Points leader, to winning eleven matches in a row and still not making the Top 8. 267th isn't nowhere. 267th is special.

Friday Night Countdown

"Friday what?" you say. "Friday Night Countdown," I reply, and proceed to tell you that in the days after Pro Tour Dark Ascension we'll be putting together a longer-form video especially for all of you who like to play Friday Night Magic. We'll look at the weekend in-depth, bringing you detailed advice about all the major archetypes you could be sleeving up for battle at FNM, plus top interviews, behind-the-scenes goodness, and a host of features we just couldn't cram in across three days of gaming greatness. Look out for it at Speaking of which...

Knowing Where to Look, 2pm EST, Friday 10th February:

Turns out knowing where to look isn't that tricky after all.

See you there!

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