So, there's going to be a Pro Tour, and I'm going to tell you about it.
There's going to be an updated Limited format and an updated Standard format. Two hundred or so of the best players in the world—the regular crew, in other words—will be joined by another 200 or so assorted grinders, one-time Grand Prix Top 8ers, and take-a-shot RPTQers—the regular "can I make Day Two?" crowd, in other words. After sixteen rounds across two days, eight of those 400 players will come back to fight for the title. There will be at least one train-wreck draft on camera, at least two Hall of Famers at 3-0 after the draft, and one or two players undefeated at 8-0 at the end of Day One. One Standard deck will be the most popular. The deck that everyone thought would be the most popular will be there, though it won't be played by as high a percentage of the field as everyone expected. At least one group of pros will say they got the metagame wrong, and at least one group of pros will chuckle at just how right they were about that same metagame. Somebody amazingly good, who will also have gotten amazingly lucky at several key turning points in their weekend, will go undefeated on Sunday, and Craig Gibson will take their photo. Chances are, they'll be quite happy at that moment. Chances are, they might even manage a smile.
So far, so same—a glorious, delicious manifestation of all that's great about the highest levels of our magnificent game. A thrilling same, a majestic same, an appointment to view same. But, you know, still—same.
So why does this Pro Tour feel so different than those that have gone before? Why does this feel like a fresh start, not just to the 2017 Magic year or the 2016–17 season, but a brand-new era for the Pro Tour? Why does this, the second Pro Tour of a season still barely half done, leave me excited for a PT weekend in a way I haven't been since I dreamed last Thursday I was beating Paul Rietzl in the final, watched by the Pope, the Queen, and Kylie Minogue?
One word answer—and this might be the first and the last time you get one of those from me:
Yep, Dublin plays host to the start of a new, marvelous adventure in the world of Pro Magic. Of course, there have always been teams in the game. Look back in the history books, and you'll find Pro Tour Champions like Phoenix Foundation or Team Von Dutch. Teams like USA, Japan, USA, the Netherlands, USA, Germany, USA, USA, USA, USA, and USA are among the national Team World Champions, while Chinese Taipei, France, Denmark, Italy, Greece—and not USA—have held the modern equivalent, the World Magic Cup. Each year we have several Team Grand Prix, where powerhouse trios of Hall of Famers routinely battle each other to a standstill in the late rounds, before Matt Nass, Sam Pardee, and Jacob Wilson take their next trophy shot. And, even away from the public-facing glare of the tournament tables, teams have been a fundamental part of the Pro Tour experience. Testing teams gather in secretive rooms around the host city, feverishly working out their Limited pick orders, the last three "flex" slots in their groundbreaking Standard deck, and how many sideboard cards Brian Kibler is going to have for the mirror match.
In a sense, teams are the same, too. So, what's different? Well, this time around, Magic means business. You can call it a game, you can call it a sport, you can call it an e-sport, but if there's one thing the entertainment business has learned from the last hundred years (and historians have learned from the last ever), it's that humans love teams. USA versus USSR at ice hockey; England versus Australia at cricket; the Red Sox versus the Yankees; the Lakers versus the Celtics; New England versus the World . . . . We love to root for excellence, for the underdog, for the team that somehow "belongs" to us. In the recent past, Magic teams have certainly been visible, but be honest: If I give you six outstanding players (let's say Reid Duke, Craig Wescoe, Brad Nelson, Raph Lévy, Josh Utter-Leyton, and Joel Larsson) and asked you to name their team affiliation for each of the last half dozen Pro Tours, how many would you get right? Players routinely change their testing group, often based on logistic circumstance—who wants to test where, for how long, online or offline, and through a discussion group or face to face (or Face to Face).
Now it's different. Now teams have to stick together. For the next three Pro Tours, their success is tied to the success of their five soldiers in arms. While one of the six can fail outright (the lowest Pro Point total in a team at each event won't count toward their total), the other five will all contribute toward a final Points list that will ultimately lead to a trip to Boston and the World Championship later this year, where tens of thousands of dollars will be on the line.
So just who are the supergroups, the underdogs, the overachievers, the do-it-for-the-little-guys, the can't miss, and the how-did-they-miss? With over 30 teams starting out on the road to the World Championship, we can't go deep on every single one of them. But here's a quick guide to a baker's dozen of the likely frontrunners, presented in entirely neutral alphabetical order.
Pat Cox, Matt Nass, Martin Jůza, Josh Utter-Leyton, Corey Burkhart, and Paul Cheon
This is one of the most interesting squads, and one I wish I had a crystal ball to peer into circa 2021. Right now, none of these six are in the Hall of Fame, and only one (Utter-Leyton) will think their career to date could be enough for a ring. But expanding on their combined eleven Pro Tour Top 8s seems like the minimum they'd be looking for, and while this is as laid-back a group as you could wish to meet, three at least have unfinished business. Paul Cheon's life took a different path from Magic just when he was getting close to the global summit. Remember, there was a point in the mid-to-late 2000s that Luis Scott-Vargas was his sidekick. Martin Jůza would be a slam dunk for the Grand Prix Hall of Fame, were that a thing, as he's one of the five best players ever to sleeve up a deck at a GP. Now he's looking to pad a Pro Tour Top 8 line that seems short at just two. And then there's Corey Burkhart, who looks incredibly well-positioned to be one of the biggest winners from this new team shift. He's fantastically talented, ridiculously hard-working, clear-sighted, and that this group wanted him on board should tell you a lot.
Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Mike Sigrist, Joel Larsson, Ben Stark, Ondřej Stráský, and Eric Froehlich
This half of ChannelFireball doesn't need the crystal ball to look forward; it needs a videotape to look backward. Between them, they've accomplished pretty much everything in the game. It helps, of course, when you have three Hall of Famers (da Rosa, Stark, Froehlich), a Player of the Year (Sigrist), and a Pro Tour Champion (Larsson)—that will tend to pad your statistics quite nicely. Nonetheless, 24 Pro Tour Top 8s, three PT titles, 65 Grand Prix Top 8s, over $1,000,000 in prize money . . . yeah. Ondřej Stráský is one of the finest young players in the game right now. When he tweets to say how amazingly lucky he feels to have been allowed into this team, you pay attention. Really, I could have summarized Ice in four words: this team is outstanding.
Ben Rubin, Tom Martell, Matt Costa, Jelger Wiegersma, Shahar Shenhar, and Brock Parker
If Matt Costa and Brock Parker are the weak links here, millions of us can go to bed praying to be a weak link when we wake up. This team has thirteen PT Top 8s between them, coincidentally the same number as their Grand Prix trophies. They have multiple Hall of Famers in Rubin and Wiegersma, a two-time World Champion in Shenhar, and a Pro Tour Champion in Tom Martell. Costa's career arc is similar to many outstanding young talents: burst onto the scene, look poised to become a mainstay of the PT top tables, suddenly stop being a fifteen-year-old savant and become an eighteen-to-twenty-year-old college kid, and Magic takes a back seat for a while. Now, though, school's done for Costa, and he can potentially go back to being the guy who expected to beat Jon Finkel, in his first Pro Tour Top 8. Weak links? Titanium, more like.
Willy Edel, Márcio Carvalho, Carlos Romão, Thiago Saporito, Luis Salvatto, and Antonio Del Moral León
Away from North America, there are some awesome teams to get behind, and this is certainly one of them. Dex Army has been around for a good few years on the PT scene, with community leader and Hall of Famer Willy Edel the guiding hand on the tiller. Everyone on this squad has a PT Top 8 to their name. They have 35 Grand Prix Top 8s, ten wins, a Limited mastermind in Márcio Carvalho, and a World Champion in Romão. Saporito and Salvatto have both had their moments in the sun, with more likely to come, and if a Pro Tour Champion (in the form of Antonio Del Moral León) turns out to be winning your sixth-man award, that's saying something.
Face to Face Games
Alexander Hayne, Sam Pardee, Steve Rubin, Jacob Wilson, Ivan Floch, and Oliver Tiu
Given that all six of these players are well-known at both the Pro Tour and Grand Prix levels, they've actually got surprisingly few "miles on the clock," leading to less gaudy numbers than some of their stellar opposition. However, three of the six are PT Champions (Hayne, Rubin, Floch), Sam Pardee made it to the World Championship for the first time in 2016, Jacob Wilson now is what Matt Costa was then, and Oliver Tiu is not just the Rookie of the Year; he's one of the most exciting talents we've seen emerge since Brad Nelson. I fully expect the bulk of this team to be in the heat of the Day Two battle at any PT they play in, and more PT Top 8s are likely at the low end of their expectations. I guarantee: every one of these six knows exactly when the World Championship will be held.
Brad Nelson, Lukas Blohon, Seth Manfield, Michael Majors, Martin Dang, and Martin Müller
Outside the always-entertaining Brad Nelson, this is one of the least "showbiz" of the super teams on display. However, unless "pizazz" turns out to be a keyword in Amonkhet (spoiler: it isn't), that doesn't matter. The goal isn't winning with style, smiles, and witty repartee, it's just to win. For that, Genesis looks to have all the right ingredients. Michael Majors would be The Deck Builder on many of the best teams. His consistent Constructed record is close to unmatched, yet here he's likely the third member of the brain trust behind Nelson and Manfield. Offhand, I'm struggling to think of anyone in the last decade who understands the ebbs and flows of the Standard metagame better than Manfield, and his ruthless willingness to ditch even a PT-defining deck for something completely different seven days later is just one of the reasons he went on to become World Champion. Blohon guarantees incredible technical play, while the dynamic Dane duo of Dang (PT Champion) and Müller (WMC Champion) mean that this unit has an overabundance of everything you'd want in a team destined for the World Championship showdown.
Tomoharu Saito, Shuhei Nakamura, Yuta Takahashi, Jérémy Dezani, Oliver Polak-Rottmann, and Petr Sochůrek
The best case: two of the best Japanese players of all time (former Players of the Year Tomoharu Saito and Shuhei Nakamura), plus a dominant Constructed mind (Yuta Takahashi), form an APAC-EU alliance with a proven winner at the highest level (PT Champion Jeremy Dezani), a Standard savant on the rise (Sochůrek), and a brilliant all-around "team man" in Polak-Rottmann. The worst case: Saito, Nakamura, and Dezani all have their bests behind them, and the other three's bests aren't The Best, they're just very good. This is one of the most interesting teams to watch because a revitalized Dezani, forcing Hall of Fame–caliber performances out of Hall of Fame–caliber careers, backed up by Sochůrek and Polak-Rottmann taking the next steps, could be quite something to behold.
Kenji Tsumura, Tsuyoshi Fujita, Masashi Oiso, Makihito Mihara, Kazayuki Takimura, and Ryoichi Tamada
I got all this way without saying "all stars," but, seriously, how can you not right here? Four Hall of Famers—Tsumura, Fujita, Oiso, and Mihara—backed up by both finalists from Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar. Of course, every one of them has Pro Tour Top 8 experience. Sure, you could throw in a Yuuya Watanabe and Shota Yasooka if you wanted everyone to be a Hall of Famer, but this looks like a great blend of the best of the old and the best of the new of Japanese Magic. If you take an interest in the history of our beloved game, you're going to want to follow this team. A large part of the game's past, and maybe it's future, could be right here.
Pascal Maynard, Jarvis Yu, Ricky Chin, Timothy Wu, Eric Severson, and Jon Stern
There's plenty of experience here, as Team East West Bowl has splintered into several smaller contingencies. The members of Massdrop East have 25 Grand Prix Top 8s and five GP wins, and Pascal Maynard and Ricky Chin both have Pro Tour Top 8s. It's easy to imagine one of them cracking Sunday again this season, but less easy to see the team as a whole making waves against the best of the best.
There are two questions that need answering, however. First, how will the chemistry fare now that a gigantic group of 20 or so has been forcibly portioned out into groups of six? From the outside, it looked as if East West Bowl built success on the idea of a super-collegiate framework, where you knew that the success most likely wasn't going to be you, but if you all worked hard, it was going to be someone. And that made it all worthwhile. Some teams (ChannelFireball and Dex Army are two good examples) seem to believe that there's a clear-cut varsity team, and their plan is clearly "Outstanding" and "Only Incredibly Good" as the split. East West likely doesn't know exactly what that "Outstanding" unit would look like, precisely because of that super-collegiate model. And second, despite the all-for-one notion, how important is the loss of Andrew Brown? His departure for the promised land of Wizards of the Coast in Seattle may well be to the benefit of the game as a whole, but it's hard not to see his loss as a severe dent in the chances of East West, whether that's Massdrop West, Massdrop East, Mox Box Bowl, or however many others Bowl out of the compass between now and game time.
Mark Jacobsen, Paul Dean, JC Tao, Ari Lax, Scott Lipp, and Ben Weitz
Two Pro Tour Champions headline this branch of the artists formerly known as East West Bowl. Ari Lax and JC Tao have both got the job done at the highest level, and there's likely more success to come from the rest. Lax in particular is a massive team asset and should ensure excellent preparation and deck selection.
Mox Box Bowl
Ben Friedman, Alex Majlaton, Eugene Hwang, Rob Pisano, Brandon Fischer, and Paul Yeem
This group will have a fantastic time. How could you not when Ben Friedman is involved? But none of them have yet reached Sunday at a Pro Tour, and that's likely the goal for the season rather than mounting a challenge to the top teams.
MTG Mint Card
Lee Shi Tian, Jason Chung, Hao-Shan Huang, Kelvin chew, Eduardo Sajgalik, and Sung Wook Nam
This isn't the most star-studded of the APAC-based teams, but it's certainly headlined by one of the best players of the modern era anywhere in Lee Shi Tian. Nam Sung Wook is a Magic Online powerhouse; Jason Chung, Kelvin Chew, and Eduardo Sajgalik all have PT Top 8s; and Hao-Shan Huang is a GP winner. Don't be surprised to see them high in the standings.
Kentaro Yamamoto, Yuuya Watanabe, Shota Yasooka, Ken Yukuhiro, Yuuki Ichikawa, and Teruya Kakumae
This is where the rest of the Japanese big guns ended up, and it's an outstanding team to be sure. Ten Pro Tour Top 8s, two Hall of Famers in Yuuya Watanabe and Shota Yasooka, plus multiple PT Top 8s for Ken Yukuhiro, Kentaro Yamamoto, and Yuuki Ichikawa. That's right, five of the six have multiple PT Top 8s. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this team is where Yasooka fits in. Traditionally working alone, his approach to a more collegiate role than he's used to could determine a lot this season.
Sam Black, Justin Cohen, Gerry Thompson, David Ochoa, Matt Severa, and Josh Cho
Heading for $500,000 in prize money, the deck building prowess of this group hasn't always translated to maximum results at the tournament table. But what deck building prowess it is. Sam Black and Justin Cohen are an incredible build and test tag team, while Gerry Thompson and David Ochoa could fill those roles for any team in the competition with distinction. So, they'll build outstanding decks for sure; now what will they do with them?
Reid Duke, Owen Turtenwald, William Jensen, Jon Finkel, Andrew Cuneo, and Paul Rietzl
The joy of alphabetical order means I've got almost to the bottom of my highlights list before introducing the team that is arguably the pre-tournament favorite to be lifting a trophy at the World Championship. Puzzle Quest features four Hall of Famers (Turtenwald, Jensen, Finkel, and Rietzl), plus two more who could easily end up there one day (Duke and Cuneo). With 33 PT Top 8s, five PT titles, 90—ninety—Grand Prix Top 8s, 17 GP titles, the Greatest of All Time combined with the Greatest of Right Now (Finkel and Turtenwald), this team is as close to fantasy Magic as it gets. Monstrous.
Craig Wescoe, Raphaël Lévy, Patrick Chapin, Brian Braun-Duin, Mike Hron, and Dan Lanthier
Sometimes humility is a good thing, so when Dan Lanthier says that he doesn't exactly know how he ended up on this team, he has a point, despite that he's a very good player and has been very good for a long time. Thing is, he's in a group with two Hall of Famers (Lévy and Chapin); two PT Champions in Wescoe and Hron; and the reigning World Champion, Brian Braun-Duin. Of Lanthier's five teammates, Hron may be the most unfamiliar, not least because "Hi" is about as loquacious as he gets. However, he has an amazing brain, especially when it comes to Limited, and it isn't as if Constructed isn't in safe hands with the likes of Wescoe and Chapin on board. There's a curious mix of personalities in this team, and it isn't certain that they'll gel in the way that some groups comprising hard and fast friends will. If they do, however, they could easily end up on top of the pile.
Those are just some of the best teams, and I am confident that I'll be receiving emails from other teams that I haven't mentioned, asking whether I've taken leave of my senses. The strength in depth is staggering and is just one of the reasons I'm so excited to see how this incredible new competition plays out.
But, to play it out, we still need matches. Here's the what and when:
- Aether Revolt-Aether Revolt-Kaladesh Booster Draft, followed by three rounds of Swiss play (paired against someone else on the same record).
- Standard—five rounds (Rounds 4–8), again paired against someone on the same record. Everyone with at least four match wins (that's 12 points, with 3 for a win, 1 for a draw, and 0 for a loss) advancing to Day Two.
A repeat dose of Friday, with the Draft tables of eight players being determined by record. So, Table 1 will feature the one or two players with perfect 8-0 records, plus a bunch of 7-1s. The next half dozen pods will be mostly 6-2 records, before the 5-3s, and eventually the 4-4s. While everyone who makes Day Two has a theoretical chance of reaching the elimination rounds on Sunday, tiebreaks (which are based on the match-win records of all your opponents) make it very tough for a 4-4 player to reach the Top 8, even with a perfect 8-0 record on Day Two.
After three rounds of Draft (by which time it's likely that literally everyone will have experienced at least one match loss), we return to Standard, with players using exactly the same decks they used on Friday. There's no changing cards between days at a PT. Once we finish Round 16, the Top 8 will advance to Sunday.
Speaking of Sunday, our last Pro Tour introduced a new system for the Top 8, and we'll be using it again in Dublin. In stage one of our quarterfinals, the No. 5–player will face the No. 8, while Nos. 6 and 7 will face off. Lying in wait for the winners will be Nos. 3 and 4, whose reward for finishing higher on the first two days gets them that extra round of safety at the start of Sunday. As for the top two seeds, they don't have to play in either of the quarterfinal shootouts, meaning that they start Sunday just two wins away from the trophy. All the matches are best-three-of-five games, with sideboarding beginning after Game 2 is concluded.
Now, with all this talk of teams and such, you'd be forgiven for thinking this event was called Pro Tour Teams. But, according to the website, it's actually Pro Tour Aether Revolt. So, what impact might the latest set have on the outcome?
Let's start with Limited. Simple math tells us that two thirds of the cards on show in the six Draft rounds are going to be from Aether Revolt. Since they're also being drafted in the first two packs, they'll clearly define the shape of each deck, with Kaladesh left batting cleanup to fill out the last crucial cards in each 40-card Limited deck. It's not clear what direction the new format might be taking us, but there are certainly some things I would dearly love to see happen on camera. Here's a few that would make your so-calm-it's-almost-inhuman host into a bundle of excited Rich-ness:
- Lifelink is one of those abilities that often feels more powerful than it actually is. Fortunately, with Aethersphere Harvester, it could be as useful as a punch in the face, since the rest of the card is so utterly awesome. I want to see it played, and I want to watch someone, somehow, beat it. Good luck with that.
- Consulate Dreadnought might turn out to be a thing in Constructed, but since 7/11 are two of my all-time favorite numbers for culinary reasons, I'm really rooting for this little Vehicle—er, enormous Vehicle, sorry—to fear nothing and beat people soundly.
- Dark Intimations is a really cool card, but it isn't easily castable. It's whatever the opposite of easily castable is, which is why I want to see it cast. Oh, and when it is, let's have them sacrifice a 5/5, discard a removal spell, we'll get back a 6/6, and draw a removal spell. Because, if we're going to all that trouble, don't we deserve a proper four-for-one spanking?
- I love, love, love Greenbelt Rampager, which is weird, because a green mage I am most emphatically (usually) not. But a 3/4 on turn two puts a wide grin on my face, plus it guarantees that Marshall Sutcliffe is either going to have to make an "Elephant in the room" joke or look like an utter killjoy. I win either way and with a Greenbelt Rampager, so will you.
Pro Tours are generally where the Spikiest of the Spikes hang out—that's psychographic speak for "people who really care about winning more than other parts of Magic"—so I'm surprised at just how many named characters I'm going to be following in Dublin. I want to see Ajani Unyielding go to work. I'm hoping that Baral, Chief of Compliance might do something (though likely not in Limited). Surely we can't go through a whole Pro Tour without at least one sighting of legendary pet Monkey Ragavan, attached to Kari Zev, Skyship Raider. And then there's Rishkar, Peema Renegade; Tezzeret the Schemer; Sram, Senior Edificer; Yahenni, Undying Partisan . . . It feels to me as if there are going to be a lot of specific "people" involved in this one.
Meanwhile, over in Constructed, at the time of writing we're just getting to grips with the results from the first StarCityGames.com Open event using Aether Revolt. Traditionally, this event only offers a small window into what might be unveiled at the Pro Tour, with the best decks being firmly kept under wraps by those who have them, and extensions to existing archetypes being much more prevalent than wholesale kitchen-sink change. Still, the top 32 at the Open saw a dozen different archetypes, and that suggests that there's plenty of space for the pros to play around in before they settle on their final decklists for Dublin. Among the Aether Revolt cards on display:
- Vehicles—Aether Harvester found a home in the main deck of Green-Black Aggro, and in plenty of sideboards. Heart of Kiran, meanwhile, found a home just about everywhere!
- Creatures—Cheap was the order of the day. Winding Constrictor, Metallic Mimic, Aethergeode Miner, Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, and Shielded Aether-Thief all sit low on the curve at just two mana. Rishkar, Peema Renegade was in multiple lists, while the Walking Ballista also got sleeved up plenty.
- Spells—No surprise to see Fatal Push all over the place, but control decks are very real, with Disallow a real player.
- Planeswalkers—And this is where things get interesting. Planeswalkers are generally very, very good. And yes, we saw one get plenty of coverage. But it wasn't Ajani Unyielding, who was nowhere to be seen, nor was it Tezzeret, whose schemes we can only assume are not yet ready for public consumption (maybe Shota Yasooka has a Tezzeret Control list for the PT?). Instead, it was back to Kaladesh we went, for the official coming-out party for Saheeli Rai, in combination with the brand new Felidar Guardian. While it's not yet clear what the optimal build for this is, it seems certain that many, many hours of PT testing are going to be devoted to delivering that answer. If you've never experienced playing with and against the Splinter Twin combo, you're going to get an analogous experience with new Standard. It's entirely possible that this is the question coming into the Pro Tour. Get the build of this right, and you could be lifting the trophy on Sunday.
So, there you have it. Aether Revolt is starting to shape up very nicely, thank you, whether it's for the six rounds of Draft spread across Friday and Saturday morning in Dublin or the ten rounds of Standard that will determine the Top 8 and then the knockout rounds on Sunday. I can't help feeling that Renegade Map is a card that's going to see a lot of airtime, and that the Standard we've seen so far is going to look radically different by the end of the weekend.
Meanwhile, it's time to pick your second-favorite Team. Second? Well, hopefully you're already fans of this one:
Play-by-Play Commentators: Marshall Sutcliffe, Tim Willoughby, and Gaby Spartz
Color Commentators: Luis Scott-Vargsa and Ian Duke
News Desk: Rich Hagon and Brian David-Marshall
Feature Match Floor Reporters: Tim Willoughby and Gaby Spartz
Feature Match Spotter: Matej Zatlkaj and Rashad Miller
Writer-Reporters: Meghan Wolff and Tobi Henke
Content Managers/Editors: Blake Rasmussen and Mike Rosenberg
Social Media: Nate Price
Executive Producer: Greg Collins
Seriously, though, this Pro Tour really is a game-changer. You only need to take a look at the magnificent promo videos made by the two ChannelFireball teams to see that the teams are taking this new adventure very seriously, and I can't wait to see the feature match area for the first time, with pros in their all-new team liveries ready to get their Magic on. Your coverage team is ready to bring you all the action as we take our first steps into this new era. Tune in to twitch.tv/magic on Friday to see it all unfold. Coverage starts at 9 a.m. local time (GMT)/1 a.m. PT/4 a.m. ET/9 a.m. UTC, and I promise you won't want to miss a moment of the action.