Pro Tour Ixalan Preview

Posted in Competitive Gaming on October 30, 2017

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.

Remember Worlds?

So, we went to Boston, right? And there were these players, yeah? Like, real good ones. There were Hall of Famers and Pro Tour Champions and people with twelve Pro Tour Top 8s and all three members of the best team in the world and the Magic Online Champion, okay? And, yep, there were 24 of them, which isn't a lot, but that's fine, because, like I say, they were real, real good. And they fought and thought and battled and scrapped and scraped and counted and thought some more and fought some more and battled and scrapped and scraped some more, and this tall dude with the slow, easy smile and the quantum brain, name of Jensen, kept winning and winning and winning. And then, after a good night's rest, he went right back to winning and winning and winning. And then, after a good night's rest, once there were only four left, he went on winning. And winning. And that was enough winning to mean he won, and William Jensen was World Champion.

Forget About Worlds

That was Boston, that was 24 players, that was soooo last month, darling. This is Pro Tour Ixalan, and if you think we can have fun with 24, just imagine what we can do with more than 400!

Welcome to the first Pro Tour of the 2017–18 season, coming to you this weekend from Albuquerque, New Mexico. I'm your host, Rich Hagon, and I can tell you that the coverage team can't wait for all the action to start. I'll be at the news desk alongside my fellow anchor, Maria Bartholdi. Moving around the room, getting all the breaking stories, will be Brian David-Marshall. Paul Cheon is taking a weekend off from his day job of making Magic, and, with Luis Scott-Vargas returning to full-time play, Simon Görtzen will be joining us to give us his expert analysis.

In the commentary booth, they'll be joined by three continents of entertainment, featuring England's Tim Willoughby, Australia's Riley Knight, and America's Marshall Sutcliffe. With players from around the world coming into the studio to share their insight on both Draft and Standard, we'll bring you a truly global perspective on the upcoming season. Joining us will be an unrivaled text coverage service, bringing you in-depth features, metagame analysis, many, many decklists, and much, much more, courtesy of Marc Calderaro, Corbin Hosler, Chris Gleeson, and Mike Rosenberg.

It's going to be quite the Pro Tour party, and from first pick to trophy shot, we'll be there to bring it all to you live.

Remember Worlds?

At the start of each day, the players in the World Championship were seated at tables of eight, called "pods." Then they drafted three packs of Ixalan, before creating 40-card decks that they played against other players in their own pod, always (almost always, technically) playing someone on the same record as themselves. So, at 0-0 the matches were paired randomly, and then the 1-0s played each other, and the 0-1s played each other, and eventually, in Round 3, the two 2-0s played to "win the pod" and the two 0-2s tried desperately not to reach lunchtime without a single win.

That's how Friday and Saturday are going to start at Pro Tour Ixalan.

Forget About Worlds

There are two big differences between the morning entertainment at Worlds and the Draft offerings at Pro Tour Ixalan. The first is all about people. In Albuquerque, there will be roughly 400 players on the starting line, meaning a room full of 50 or so Draft pods. How do we get from 24 to 400? We start with everyone from the Hall of Fame. Then it's the Pro Club members—all the Platinum and Gold pros are automatically invited to every Pro Tour. Next there's a large contingent of Silver pros. They get one invite per season to use wherever they want. This is the first PT of the new season, so expect a lot of Silvers to show up, looking to turn their single shot into a season-long invite with a strong performance.

That accounts for roughly half the field. The other half come mostly from single-tournament success. For some, that means a strong finish, or a place in the Top 8, at a Grand Prix leading up to PT Ixalan. For many, it's the path from a successful RPTQ event. And, for others, the fierce competition of Magic Online has seen them to the starting line.

But, whatever way you slice it, a Pro Tour field just isn't quite as densely packed as the World Championship. So, if you're a Platinum pro, there's a good chance that you look around your table on Friday morning and see one or two serious threats to your plan of going 3-0, and a handful of what you hope will turn out to be sacrificial lambs.

The second big difference for the Draft portion is the date. Yes, check your calendars, it's later now than it used to be. Or, to put it another way: in ye olden days of yore, pre–Magic Online, you could turn up to a Pro Tour and find numerous competitors who had done exactly zero drafts of that format. If you were a super-prepared pro, you might have managed half a dozen. These days, you can get half a dozen drafts in during the first day of Magic Online play. So now, with the Pro Tour shifted to later in the cycle, just imagine how many drafts it's possible to have done. It's a lot. Like really, really a lot.

So what does that mean for the Draft format? In the abstract, it means vastly superior preparation for the field as a whole. It means everyone should have drafted every archetype multiple times if they're serious about doing well in the Limited rounds. It means that everyone should know what the good cards are in every archetype, and what cards just shouldn't be allowed to surface in an opposing deck. And everyone should be intimately familiar with every piece of removal, every "unexpected" counterspell, and every combat trick. It has been a long time since we've had such a developed Limited format to ponder at the Pro Tour, and one of the most interesting aspects of how Limited plays out is seeing what the players do with all the extra time, repetition, and knowledge they've been given.

Remember Worlds?

In the afternoons, the Worlds competitors turned their attention to Standard. Still facing players on the same record as much as possible (so, if you're 4-1 after five rounds, you're likely to play someone else on 4-1 in Round 6), they played four rounds of Standard to close out each day.

Pro Tour Ixalan also features Standard each afternoon, with five rounds of Constructed play on both Friday and Saturday.

Remember Worlds?

The players were in Boston for several days before the event began, and the more we talked to them, the more it looked as if the Standard metagame was, ahem, not destined to thrill. Riley Knight perhaps summed it up best when he argued that $100,000 was sufficient to make the players think long and hard before committing to a "risky" deck. Whatever the reasons, exactly no players went truly rogue. If we ignore the Treasure Red deck of Donald Smith, which did show some innovation, there were essentially three decks at Worlds.

There was Ramunap Red, looking distinctly like the deck Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa had taken to win the Pro Tour in Kyoto a few weeks earlier. Then there were Some-Color Energy decks. Sometimes these were straight Temur, sometimes these were Temur plus The Scarab God, but energy was the unifying theme. Things got a bit interesting after sideboarding, since the energy decks had the ability to go a number of different ways, in particular having the capacity to go toe-to-toe with the third group of decks: Blue-Black Control. These decks brought the most obvious of the Ixalan contributions to the Worlds party in the form of Search for Azcanta. "Hyperbole" and "Josh Utter-Leyton" haven't often been in the same sentence together, so when Josh describes a card as "broken" (which, perversely, means that it works incredibly well; it "breaks the game," hence broken), you should pay attention.

So, Ramunap Red, Energy, and Blue-Black Control. And . . . nothing else. Technically there was a Grixis Control deck wandering around, but that's because there was a Shota Yasooka wandering around, so you shouldn't read anything into that. In short, a three-deck metagame.

Forget About Worlds

Well, don't forget about it completely—those three big decks are still in existence, still good, still three big decks. But, for the Pro Tour, there are at least four more legitimate contenders.

Abzan Tokens goes wide. Very wide. With Legion's Landing out of Ixalan and Hidden Stockpile helping to create an endless stream of tokens via Anointed Procession, this deck takes quite a lot of stopping. It also takes quite a lot of killing, especially if you're a red deck designed to deal 20 damage, not 30 or 40 damage in a single game.

Esper Gift starts with the idea that God-Pharaoh's Gift is a good card to have in play, so playing four copies of Gate to the Afterlife seems like a plan. Many filthy things start to occur once the Gift is in play, largely because the deck is full of useful enters-the-battlefield abilities. Kitesail Freebooter robs a card. Hostage Taker, um, takes a hostage. Champion of Wits draws you a handful of cards. And, yes, along the way these are all 4/4s. God-Pharaoh's really is the Gift that keeps on giving.

Blue-Black Control may have been the flavor at Worlds, but the days since have shown a resurgence in White-Blue Control, featuring the awesome "mini game" that is Approach of the Second Sun. Personally, I love "quest" cards in the game. They don't have to win you the game, but there's just something about ticking something off the to-do list that really appeals. The double-faced lands in Ixalan are just one example of cards that make you jump through hoops, but then hand you a medal for doing so. (Or a 1/1 with lifelink, but you get the idea.) I'd love to tell you lots more about this deck, because I love it, but it's been Censored.

And then there's the Kaladesh "theme deck," Mardu Vehicles. Initially a Prerelease-winning Sealed deck (I jest), Mardu Vehicles is apparently the deck that you go back to at precisely the moment that it becomes good again. The "it" that it is doesn't change. What changes is the metagame, and where Heart of Kiran fits in. And yes, I know that Hazoret the Fervent shows up to spoil the flavor.

So, all in all, the Standard environment looks a lot more varied, viable, and vital than Worlds might have led us to believe. And, with 400 players or more, you can expect to see plenty of fringe strategies looking to gain an edge over the established metagame. Somewhat against the odds, it looks like Standard at PT Ixalan might be really sweet.

Remember Worlds?

A few clusters of players got together informally to test for Worlds, splitting the testing across the two formats and sharing whatever tech they could find for Standard. Then they reached the starting line, and everyone fought alone. Of course, everyone wanted their "teammates" to do well, but there was nothing beyond supporting friends. You won, and you lost, alone. Unless, of course, you were on Genesis or Musashi, in which case you were in one of the top two teams in the world, waiting for Sunday at Worlds to determine the winners of the first ever Pro Tour Team Series Championship. It looked so good for Genesis after the first set of matches, and well into Match 2, too. Then Musashi went into overdrive, fought back to level the series, and took the title in the deciding set. They were clearly the best two teams across the season, and Musashi were dominant and deserving winners.

Forget About Worlds

And this time I mean really, because Pro Tour Ixalan sees the launch of the 2017–18 Team Series Championship. Our first season featured the last three Pro Tours of the 2016–17 season, but now, with our "test season" behind us, it's time for every Pro Tour to matter, and that starts in Albuquerque. Six-person teams compete, with the Pro Points won by the top five competitors counting toward an overall team score. At the end of the fourth Pro Tour of the year, the Top 2 will once again compete for the title.

This season, no fewer than 37 teams have signed up for a spot on the leaderboard. That's a lot of sets of six people to get our head around, but it turns out that it's a bit simpler than that. In broad terms, there are four groups of teams competing this year:

Tier 4: These are the teams that have very few, if any, notable pros on the team. They're often from a local geographic area, or based around one or two particular stores in a city. Their enormous handicap—and enormous is the right word—is that many of them are only qualified for this Pro Tour. That means that, without an 11-5 result or requalifying elsewhere, they'll be gone after one event. Last season, we saw Lucas Esper Berthoud win a Pro Tour, but many of his teammates were unqualified, and his Points weren't enough to carry the load alone. Realistically, they could never be. That's the situation for all the Tier 4 teams, and there's roughly a dozen of those. If they can requalify multiple team members into additional Pro Tour starts this season, that will be the measure of success. Can they win the Team Series? Theoretically yes, but I could also theoretically be voted Sexiest Man in Magic. Yeah, you think about that for a moment.

Tier 3: There's another dozen or so teams that probably won't be winning the Team Series either. Some of them have some of the same problems as the Tier 4s—not enough people reliably qualified—and most simply don't have the depth of squad to compete across the full year. If you think that sounds harsh, consider this: At a typical individual Grand Prix, the winner plays between fifteen and eighteen matches. At a Team Grand Prix—that's where teams like William Jensen, Reid Duke, and Owen Turtenwald routinely dominate proceedings—there's the equivalent of 48 rounds (because each player plays sixteen rounds). Notice how the consistency of the best people winning goes up when it's teams? In the Team Series, the best teams will likely play something like 320 rounds of Magic. So, the goal for most of the Tier 3 teams is to progress as a unit, pool their testing resources, qualify everyone for future Pro Tours, and hope that they're the one team from this group that might put it all together and mix it with . . .

Tier 2: Thanks to those 320 rounds I just mentioned (six players on a team, four Pro Tours, say five team members on a top team making Day Two, that's 80–88 matches per team per Pro Tour), the Tier 2 teams likely won't make it to the final either. However, if you squint a little bit, you can make a case for these four:

  • Catharsis: Niels Noorlander, Oliver Polak-Rottmann, Marc Tobiasch, Peter Vieren, Pierre Dagen, and Niels Molle.
  • Hareruya Latin: Luis Salvatto, Sebastian Pozzo, Márcio Carvalho, Lucas Esper Berthoud, Thiago Saporito, and Carlos Romão.
  • Kusemono: Toru Inoue, Kazuyuki Takimura, Shuhei Nakamura, Kazuaki Fujimura, Riku Kumagai, and Yuta Takahashi.
  • Metagame Gurus Sun: Josh Cho, Ben Friedman, Oliver Tiu, Ondřej Stráský, Matt Severa, and Gerry Thompson.

It would be a surprise to see all of these teams near the top of the leaderboard by the end of the year, but there's a reasonable chance that one of them can string a series of results together. Any of them could be right near the top in any one event, it's just trying to outperform the Tier 1 teams across the whole season that looks problematic.

Are you thinking, "But wait a second, those teams are really good!"? Well, you're right, which means the last group must be utterly spectacular.

Tier 1: And they are. There are eight powerhouse teams this season, any of which will think that they absolutely have what it takes to make it to the final. Here they are:

  • ChannelFireball: Mike Sigrist, Ben Stark, Josh Utter-Leyton, Martin Jůza, Luis Scott-Vargas, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa
  • Connected Company: Jérémy Dezani, Tomoharu Saito, Raphaël Lévy, Andrea Mengucci, Christian Calcano, and Javier Dominguez.
  • Face to Face Games: Corey Burkhart, Ben Rubin, Eric Froehlich, Rich Hoaen, Gabriel Nassif, and David Williams.
  • Genesis: Lukas Blohon, Corey Baumeister, Brian Braun-Duin, Martin Müller, Brad Nelson, and Seth Manfield.
  • MTG Mint Card: Jason Chung, Yam Wing Chun, Huang Hao-Shan, Kelvin Chew, Lee Shi Tian, and Eduardo Sajgalik.
  • Musashi: Yuuki Ichikawa, Kentaro Yamamoto, Yuuya Watanabe, Shota Yasooka, Ken Yukuhiro, and Teruya Kakumae.
  • Ultimate Guard: Andrew Cuneo, Paul Rietzl, Owen Turtenwald, Reid Duke, William Jensen, and Jon Finkel.
  • Ultra PRO: Ivan Floch, Alexander Hayne, Matt Nass, Sam Pardee, Steve Rubin, and Sam Black.

ChannelFireball – How many ways do you say that this looks like a ridiculously powerful lineup? Do you start with "five Hall of Famers, plus a Player of the Year in Mike Sigrist"? Do you go with "two of the greatest Limited brains of all time in Stark and Jůza, two of the top ten players of all time in da Rosa and Scott-Vargas, one of the great metagame readers in Josh Utter-Leyton, plus a Player of the Year in Mike Sigrist"? Or do you go with "How do you make a team where former Player of the Year Mike Sigrist could possibly be the weakest player on the team?" Just nuts.

Connected Company – So, a few years ago, this team would have looked decidedly ordinary. Sure, you'd have a Pro Tour Champion in Dezani, a former Player of the Year in Saito, and a Hall of Famer in Lévy. But then you'd have an Italian up-and-comer, a single-shot GP winner, and a Spanish guy who narrowly missed out on a Pro Tour Top 8. Now things look quite a bit different. Mengucci has hardware via the World Magic Cup. Calcano has a second GP title, a first PT Top 8, and his first experience of playing in the World Championship from Boston last month. And Dominguez now not only has a second 9th-place finish at the Pro Tour, but came within one match of being World Champion last month. Their careers may not yet be quite so storied, but you wouldn't expect many players on ChannelFireball to actually get better this season. These guys can.

Face to Face Games – Despite being arguably the weakest player, and certainly being the player with the least impressive career to date, Corey Burkhart may be the key to how this team fares this season. There are three Hall of Famers on the team, but Rubin, Froehlich, and Nassif have been more about the Ago than the Now. Hoaen has been lauded as the best Limited player in the world in the past, and David Williams has shown time and again that he's a fantastic teammate to have on your side. None of them have truly been at the sharp end of, say, Player of the Year for some time, if at all. But one thing that doesn't yet show up on the stats sheet is that Burkhart is wonderfully ambitious, with an insatiable desire to know every detail of every matchup, and if that kind of attention to detail spreads across the whole team, there could be a lot more tales being written about this group, including Burkhart, the official go-to sideboard option for Reid Duke's hair.

Genesis – Most of the team that reached the Team Series Championship final last month is still intact. Given that the additions are 2016 World Champion Brian Braun-Duin and the white-hot Standard machine that is Corey Baumeister (brother to Brad Nelson, in case you missed the memo), it's easy to see why Genesis are among the favorites once again. There's obviously some measure of luck when you end up in the top two out of 32 teams as Genesis did, but they were by general consensus one of the best teams in the field, and played like it. Expect to see them there or thereabouts once again.

MTG Mint Card – On the fickle sliding scale of public awareness, this team may not look as intimidating as some of the others in the Tier 1 list, but public awareness never won a game of Magic. If he lived almost anywhere other than New Zealand (which is close to, as a rough guide, New Zealand and nowhere else), Jason Chung would be a Platinum pro every year. Yam Wing Chun is now well-known for a disappointing reason, but you don't get to make a mistake in Game 5 of a Pro Tour semifinal without being very good at the game. Kelvin Chew is soft-spoken and actively shuns the spotlight. You may still have noticed that he reached the final four of the World Championship last month. And Lee Shi Tian is well on track to be in the Hall of Fame. They're not Japanese, they're not famous, they're just very, very good.

Musashi – Four facts:

  1. They opened last season looking like one of the strongest teams.
  2. They dominated the series, and were comfortably the number-one team at the end of the season.
  3. They won the Team Series Championship, defeating Genesis in the final last month.
  4. They're all back, ready to do it again.

What else do you need me to say?

Ultimate Guard – The so-called Peach Garden Oath of Owen Turtenwald (Hall of Fame), William Jensen (Hall of Fame, World Champion 2017), and Reid Duke (former Magic Online Champion) is one of the most successful teams ever assembled. But the Team Series needs six players, not three. So they went out and added Hall of Famer Paul Rietzl, control master Andrew Cuneo, and the Greatest of All Time, Jon Finkel. The mental gymnastics required to somehow make out that there are holes in this squad are severe, but they include: (A) Finkel and Rietzl are "semi-detached" from the game on a weekly basis, with lots of commitments away from the game; (B) Duke might not be a better player than his two Pro Tour Top 8s suggest (because he's regarded as an unstoppable killing machine by most); and (C) Cuneo may spontaneously combust with excitement. Frankly, I don't see it. This is a crazy-good squad, and they're going to play that way.

Ultra PRO – You can divide this team neatly into two, between three Pro Tour Champions (Floch, Rubin, and Hayne) and three who haven't yet taken down a PT title (Black, Nass, and Pardee). I think that's misleading, however, as this may be the most evenly talented of the Tier 1 teams. They're also a tremendous bunch of human beings, with hardly a bad word spoken about any of them. These really are the "pro's pros"—hardworking, smart, humble, pleased in victory and gracious in defeat, and still managing to defeat most of their opponents week after week after week.

So, the bottom line is this: The Team Series had an awesome start, with tremendous teams, a Cinderella story or two sprinkled in, the best two teams meeting in the final, and a deserved winner in Musashi. And the Team Series is about to get bigger and better!

Remember Worlds? Forget about Worlds!

We love the history of the game. We love the cards, the drafts, the decks, the players, the Grand Prix, the Nationals, the World Championships, and every one of our flagship Pro Tours. But if there's one word that defines the game we all love, that word is "change." There is always something new, vibrant, and extraordinary just around the corner. This week, there are three dozen or so teams coming to start their journey to a Team Series Championship. Hall of Famers and Platinum and Gold pros are coming in search of the first major Pro Point payout of the season. Silver pros are coming to chance their arm, looking to use their "silver bullet" to get another shot at glory. There's a hundred or more players testing themselves at this level for the very first time, dreaming of a weekend to remember forever. And yes, there's William Jensen too, a newly crowned World Champion, leading the Player of the Year race, part of one of the most exciting squads in the Team Series, a Hall of Famer, a dominating player at the height of his powers. And he's very tall, so the height of his powers is quite a lot.

Remember Pro Tour Ixalan.

It's going to be great.

See you on Friday,


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