Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan Preview

Posted in Competitive Gaming on January 29, 2018

By Rich Hagon

Rich Hagon combines a deep knowledge of the players of the Pro Tour with a passionate love of the game. He's a regular commentator for Pro Tour and Grand Prix live video coverage, and is the official Pro Tour Statistician. He has been covering Magic events since 2006.

So here's the plan. I'll start with ten words. Then I'll cover ten inspirational-sounding things, followed by ten teams, ten players, ten cards, and ten decks. And then I'll end with ten words again. Ready? Let's begin.

Ten Words

  1. Pro
  2. Tour
  3. Rivals
  4. Of
  5. Ixalan
  6. Starts
  7. This
  8. Friday
  9. Good
  10. Times

Ten Things

  1. Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan takes place in Bilbao. That's in Spain, a country in Europe. Players in the PT, I would consider it a personal kindness if, when you arrive at the airport and deposit your luggage, you would ask your kindly airline representative, "Is this the Bilbao bag-ins?" That's what I'm Tolkien about.
  2. There's a huge range of experience and expertise on display at any Pro Tour. Routes to the big show are many and varied. You'll see members of the Pro Club, ranging from the cream-of-the-crop Platinum pros through the "Top 50 in the world" Gold pros and the "single-shot" Silver pros, together with players who have had Top 8 success at recent Grand Prix, carved out their slice of the action via online RPTQs, or worked their way up the qualifying chain, culminating in an RPTQ triumph. Oh, and you'll see members of the Hall of Fame, too.
  3. This is the second Pro Tour of the season. While nobody will be winning Player of the Year this weekend, any Pro Tour has enough Pro Points on the line to shape the seasons of, well, almost everyone who aspires to be a high-level pro. It's true for the Team Series, too; nobody wins the whole thing this weekend, but the board is well and truly set by the end of Sunday, with the front-runners, leader-chasers, and also-rans clearly defined.
  4. Like all Pro Tours, we begin on Friday with players sitting in groups of eight, knowing that their first three opponents will come from that same table. Why? Because the format on Friday morning is Draft, in this case featuring two packs of Rivals of Ixalan and one pack of Ixalan. By playing opponents from within their eight-player "pod," players know that the overall strength of the packs being opened is the same for everyone at the table. If the packs are weaker overall, at least everyone at the table is trying to solve that same puzzle.
  5. Our Constructed format this time around is Modern, which is, to put it mildly, a bit popular. Rounds 4–8 on Friday feature this majestic format, with a slew of viable archetypes guaranteeing a real expression of many of the things that make Magic such a special game.
  6. As long as players reach a record of 4-4 or better from their eight Friday rounds, they get to come back on Saturday. Now, admittedly, everyone at 4-4 has a very small chance of making it to the Top 8 on Sunday, and the 5-3s will need a deep Saturday run. But, from 6-2 and up, players will wake up on Saturday thinking that a morning of three more Draft rounds, and then five more of Modern in the afternoon, could realistically secure them a berth in the Top 8.
  7. A quick word on tiebreaks. When players have the same number of points (3 for a win, 1 for a draw, 0 for a loss), we look at their OMW%, which is their opponent match win percentage. So, we look at everyone that player faced through the weekend and average out those players' records. That gives us a kind of "strength of schedule" to compare two players. The math is sufficiently complicated—and changeable round to round—that we do all this "under the surface," meaning it's sometimes very hard to work out what record might be enough to reach the Top 8. As a broadcaster, that can be frustrating. As a fan, it all adds to the drama of the home stretch on Saturday afternoon!
  8. At the end of Saturday, the Top 8 advance to Sunday play. Now it's straightforward elimination Magic, played across best-three-out-of-five matches, with sideboarding allowed after the first two games of the set.
  9. That Top 8 features the same Modern decks the players used to reach Sunday, but often Sunday isn't just about the best deck and the best matchup. More frequently, it's about who can handle themselves under the severest pressure of their Magic lives, who can kick the door down just as it seems to be closing permanently, and who can keep making the right play turn after turn and game after game until there are no turns left to play. And that player becomes a Pro Tour Champion.
  10. Honestly, we quite like these Pro Tour things, so we've assembled a team to bring you all the action, and it's this one:

Play-by-Play Commentators: Marshall Sutcliffe, Riley Knight, and Tim Willoughby
Color Commentators: Simon Görtzen and Paul Cheon
Interviewer and Features: Brian David-Marshall
News Desk: Rich Hagon and Maria Bartholdi
Feature Match Spotters: Rashad Miller and Neil Rigby
Writer-Reporters: Frank Karsten and Chapman Sim
Social Media: Marc Calderaro
Content Managers: Blake Rasmussen and Mike Rosenberg
Executive Producer: Greg Collins

Ten Teams

Right now, more than 30 teams have one Pro Tour result to count toward the end-of-season score and their attempt to claim one of the coveted slots at the Team Series final later in the year. By the end of the weekend, we'll have reached the season's halfway point. Here, from the early leaders to the early-in-trouble, are ten teams to keep an eye on:

1. Genesis – 1st place, 52 Pro Points

Corey Baumeister, Lukas Blohon, Brian Braun-Duin, Seth Manfield, Martin Müller, and Brad Nelson

It's not entirely coincidental that the early leaders in the Team Series can also claim the first Pro Tour Champion of the 2017–18 season, in the form of former World Champion Seth Manfield. That Genesis have already been finalists in the Team Series should be a warning to the rest of the field; there's every reason to suppose that this early-season form is absolutely indicative of things to come. Don't be surprised if Genesis continue to outpace the field—they are essentially a team without obvious weakness in any department.

2. ChannelFireball – 2nd place, 51 Pro Points

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Martin Jůza, Luis Scott-Vargas, Mike Sigrist, Ben Stark, and Josh Utter-Leyton

The joke coming in to Pro Tour Ixalan was that five Hall of Famers ran out of Hall of Famers to team with, and had to make do with Mike Sigrist. The good-natured Sigrist took numerous daggers/sick burns, but had the last laugh when making the Top 8, unlike his five teammates who are now statistically, provably not as good as he is. Of course, the reality is that they're all tremendous, with stacked career records, and well capable of adding more Top 8s in Bilbao.

3. Team Ultra PRO – 3rd place, 50 Pro Points

Sam Black, Ivan Floch, Alexander Hayne, Matthew Nass, Samuel Pardee, and Steve Rubin

With the top five from each team counting toward their final score for the event, and 30 Points on offer to the winner, finding themselves 2 Pro Points off the pace is a negligible deficit for the team members, who are so self-effacing that I like to think that one of them once got so annoyed with a teammate that they responded with the words "I beg your pardon?" Three Pro Tour Champions in Floch, Hayne, and Rubin, plus an avalanche of specialist deck-building knowledge from Black, Nass, and Pardee. It's hard to imagine them outside the top handful at season's end.

4. Ultimate Guard Pro Team – 4th place, 47 Pro Points

Andrew Cuneo, Reid Duke, Jon Finkel, William Jensen, Paul Rietzl, and Owen Turtenwald

I'm bored of telling you how great this lot is. Three ranked in the Top 10 worldwide right now (Duke, Turtenwald, Jensen), two more Hall of Famers (Rietzl, Finkel), and an outstanding deck builder and curmudgeon (Cuneo). They're perfectly poised to lead the way this time next week.

5. Revelation – 8th place, 37 Pro Points

Martin Dang, Paul Dean, Thomas Hendriks, Christoffer Larsen, Joel Larsson, and Petr Sochůrek

With Genesis in first place, it's reasonable to think of Revelation as "Genesis B," and maybe that's how it shakes out at the end of the season. That doesn't stop this Denmark-Canada-Netherlands-Sweden-Czech Republic smorgasbord from being very, very good.

6. MTG Mint Card – 12th place, 32 Pro Points

Kelvin Chew, Jason Chung, Huang Hao-Shan, Lee Shi Tian, Eduardo Sajgalik, and Yam Wing Chun

As MTG Mint Card were right in the thick of things down the stretch last season, most casual Pro Tour watchers have a much better idea of who these guys are now than a couple of years ago. But 12th place is not a good start for them, so it's time to get back in the race in Bilbao.

7. Connected Company – 14th place, 31 Pro Points

Christian Calcano, Jeremy Dezani, Javier Dominguez, Raphaël Lévy, Andrea Mengucci, and Tomoharu Saito

Another truly global configuration, Connected Company features North America (Calcano), Europe (Dezani, Dominguez, Lévy, and Mengucci), and Asia-Pacific (Saito). From 14th place, though, they'll be looking for another truly global configuration of match wins—ideally lots of them.

8. Musashi – 15th place, 30 Pro Points

Yuuki Ichikawa, Teruya Kakumae, Yuuya Watanabe, Kentaro Yamamoto, Shota Yasooka, and Ken Yukuhiro

And here's the big shock from our opening Pro Tour salvo this season. The reigning Team Series Champions have dug a significant hole for themselves in their quest to retain their title. No need to hit the panic button just yet, though, as any one of these could win in Bilbao, and that's 30 Points right off the bat.

9. Final Last Samurai – 17th place, 29 Pro Points

Tsuyoshi Fujita, Yuuta Hirosawa, Yuki Matsumoto, Makihito Mihara, Ryoichi Tamada, and Kenji Tsumura

Last season, this team was Last Samurai. Whether they are indeed Final Last Samurai this time around, or whether we're destined for No Actually Really Genuinely We're Not Messing Around This Is 2022 Final Last Samurai isn't clear. But another poor performance in Bilbao might suggest that some glory days are firmly in the rear-view mirror.

10. Hareruya Latin – 21st place, 24 Pro Points

Lucas Esper Berthoud, Márcio Carvalho, Sebastian Pozzo, Carlos Romão, Luis Salvatto, and Thiago Saporito

Well, somebody has to have the wheels come off, and among the potential end-of-season contenders, it's Hareruya Latin who find themselves in deep trouble early. They're all still very good, of course, but whereas a team like Musashi might trust themselves to all routinely hit 11-5 or 12-4, Latin might be in need of a truly mighty finish from someone, and doing that in Bilbao would do very nicely.

Ten Players

I said up front that there are lots of routes to the Pro Tour. Choosing who to feature is a really tough call, but while nobody on my ten-player list is yet in the Hall of Fame, that might be in the future for several of them. All of them, though, are worth your attention in Bilbao.

  1. Corey Baumeister (Genesis) – Six Grand Prix Top 8s is impressive, but not inherently world-class. Five of those six came in 2017. Now that's absolutely world-class. The whole "Hey, did you know that Brad Nelson is actually Corey Baumeister's brother?" thing is lazy journalism, which is why I'm doing it here, but Corey doesn't need to be anyone's wingman. He's not in the shadows, he's front and center.
  2. John Rolf (MetaGame Gurus Moon) – At the start of the season, Rolf realistically wouldn't have been a favorite to win a Pro Tour, because it's hard to reach that level without Pro Tour titles, Hall of Fame rings, or World Championship glory already in the bank. But Rolf is proof once again of one of the age-old Magic concepts: work hard, surround yourself with talented friends who want to share the journey (in this case Brandon Ayers and Nathan Smith, both high up the Pro Club food chain), and good things can happen. Two Grand Prix Top 8s in the last year, some hideous travel stories, and a wonderful run all the way to third place at Pro Tour Ixalan, and it looks as if the ever-friendly Rolf is ready for the big time.
  3. Sam Ihlenfeldt (Tower Games) – We move from the player in third at Pro Tour Ixalan to fourth at Pro Tour Ixalan. Whether or not there was a Faustian pact involved, Ihlenfeldt's PT week seems to have broken down into "Win lots of cash, lose lots of hair." With Tower Games rewarded for their faith in a largely unknown team, now it's time to see if Ihlenfeldt can, if not repeat the Top 8 appearance, at least be competitive down the stretch once again.
  4. Christoffer Larsen (Revelation) – People have all sorts of responsibilities away from the Pro Tour, but most of them involve the ability to hang out in convention centers on the weekends. So it came as something of a surprise when I discovered that Larsen is a chef for the Danish navy, and spends months at sea at a stretch, before conveniently being on leave just in time for every Pro Tour! One of the pro scene's largest personalities, Larsen is great fun to be around, so here's to aligning schedules.
  5. Sam Pardee (Team Ultra PRO) – It's not always easy to see why Pardee is a top pro. He's not a huge media star, he's not your go-to for a provocative quote about a format, and he hasn't randomly found himself at the center of mind-blowing Games for the Ages on camera. But then you assemble his results—his 3rd-place finish at Pro Tour Eldritch Moon in Sydney, Australia, his 2nd-place finish at Pro Tour Hour of Devastation, his thirteen Grand Prix Top 8s—and you realize that Pardee is the quintessential "Let the gameplay do the talking" player. Interview soon.
  6. Patrick Dickmann (EUreka) – Like Pardee, Dickmann is a tremendous Modern player, although the Splinter Twin/Deceiver Exarch/Pestermite "entertainment" that he's synonymous with is long gone from the Modern format. Nevertheless, if you want to pin your hopes on a player who isn't at the very forefront of the pro ranks but sure knows his way around 75 cards, Dickmann could be your ticket.
  7. Piotr Glogowski – Very early in my PT coverage career, I got a proper verbal battering from Randy Buehler when I accidentally revealed in a Thursday afternoon conversation with pros present what a particular pro was playing the next day. That's an edge that shouldn't be given up lightly, and it's a lesson I carry with me to every event since, even more than a decade later. Fortunately, at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, there are only four certainties: Death, Taxes, Death and Taxes, and Piotr Glogowski playing Lantern Control. He'll probably try to play it in Modern, too.
  8. Sam Black (Team Ultra PRO) – Although he was a finalist in the first Modern Pro Tour back in 2011, it's ironically unclear whether this is actually a format that suits Sam. With Standard taking an adventurous turn in recent weeks, that seems fertile territory for an insatiable deck builder like Sam. It isn't at all certain that Modern represents that fertile territory, arguably favoring the metagame tinkerers, the "last two cards" crowd, over the "start from scratch" dreamers. So if Sam does do the business in Bilbao—enhancing his Hall of Fame credentials in the process—it will be all the more impressive.
  9. Ari Lax (Massdrop East) – If you're going to reach one Pro Tour Top 8, you might as well make the most of it, and Lax did so, winning the whole thing in Honolulu at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir. Lax is most assuredly not a full-time Magic pro, so it's impressive just how attached to everything that's going on he's able to be. Nonetheless, carving out the time to get in the hours needed to stay competitive against superteams of dedicated testers is getting harder and harder.
  10. Mike Sigrist (ChannelFireball) – And the joke's on them! The only member of the team without a Hall of Fame ring did the old-timers proud last time around, and it's thanks to Sigrist that CFB are right near the top of the leaderboard. Always gracious, thoughtful, and—here's a word that's going out of fashion—kind, Sigrist only enhanced his reputation as one of the true good people in the pro ranks by the way he handled a very, very tough loss in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Ixalan. Lots of people root for Sigrist, and it's easy to see why. It's because they think he's Brad Nelson.

Ten Cards

When I see a new set, I like to imagine. I like to imagine just how crazy a card might be, how much fun it might be to commentate on, how dramatic a conclusion might occur on camera because of what a card does, or sometimes doesn't do. Here are ten cards from Rivals of Ixalan that I'd love to see doing outrageous things.

  1. Paladin of Atonement – There may be a lot going on with this card, but all I actually care about is finding out is how big it can get.

  1. Skymarcher Aspirant – I consider the 25-foot walk between my armchair and the soft drink in the fridge in my house to be me "going the distance." Exercise is important. But on Friday and Saturday morning, I want to see a turn-one Skymarcher Aspirant go the distance and deal all 20 damage. I can dream.

  1. Crafty Cutpurse – Apocryphal or otherwise, tales of this card are already out in the wilds of social media. Oh, you cast Brass's Bounty, you say? Whoa, now that is a lot of Treasure. For me. Thank you.

  1. Nezahal, Primal Tide – In another world (or on another world?), Nezahal and the rest of the legendary Elder Dinosaurs might have been mythic rare. But here they are as rares, which means we're going to see plenty of them opened on Friday morning at different tables. But which will be the lucky pods with Nezahal, Primal Tide?

  1. Timestream Navigator – This one's awkward, because Timestream Navigator is mythic rare, so the math is against us. But how great would it be to see someone chain two of these together, and claim three turns in a row? I'd navigate to that stream.

  1. Fathom Fleet Boarder – I'm not generally a "hur, hur, nyuk, nyuk" kind of player, but part of me (apparently no longer secretly) wants someone to die accidentally to not realizing that they don't have another Pirate when they're at 2 life. More reasonably, watching someone die when their opponent responds by killing their only other Pirate should still be good value for those griefer instincts.

  1. Form of the Dinosaur – I can't even be bothered doing a joke for this one, it's just too easy. But I do want to see this in action, so I'll probably gather the news desk team and tell them to "get on the floor, go and find Form of the Dinosaur."

  1. Ghalta, Primal Hunger – If you've played even a modicum of Rivals of Ixalan, you know that although this has a printed casting cost that says something about "10GG," we all know that the actual casting cost is GG—which, not coincidentally, stands for "Good Game."

  1. Jadecraft Artisan – There was a time when the game was full of cards like this that allowed you to do all sorts of counterintuitive things that very occasionally did good work. Like, as happened at Grand Prix Indianapolis, casting this, giving your opponent's creature +2+2 until end of turn, and then killing it with Legion's Judgment. In my judgment, that's the kind of interaction that keeps the game fun.

  1. Azor, the Lawbringer – You have no idea how long it took me to type the words "Sphinx's Revelation," because I had to type it so lovingly, nostalgically, and lingeringly. Fun geography fact: get two of these, and you've got yourself nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic Ocean. And who wouldn't want nine Volcanic Islands? Hmm? What's that? Oh, not Volcanic Islands, but volcanic islands. Never mind then. Let's go with this one instead: Legion Lieutenant – It doesn't take a lot of experience to understand that this plus other Vampires equals yay. So where do these get picked, especially in pack two? Are you really going to pass a lord to your possible Vampire-slinging opponents? And, if so, someone in the room is going to end up with a Constructed deck that features three or four of these. If you liked Wizened Cenn, you'll like getting your teeth into Legion Lieutenant. Or he'll like getting his teeth into you, or something.

Ten Decks

Modern is probably my favorite format. Many decks feel like old friends. A few feel like lifelong enemies. All feel like they deliver a diversity that is hard to match. Here are ten decks that do something distinctly Modern.

  1. Grixis Death's Shadow – The flow of seeing someone so deliberately and even provocatively reduce their life total voluntarily is the hypnotic draw to this deck for me. Who knew that cycling a card and paying 2 life for the privilege could feel so utterly disgusting in all the best ways?
  2. Affinity – Vomit. Not, you understand, "Affinity—I want to vomit," but watching an entire hand of Magic cards spewed on to the battlefield all at once is pretty awesome. Something else that's awesome? Stony Silence.
  3. Jeskai Control – I love control decks, but you don't actually have to in order to appreciate the majesty that is Cryptic Command. The versatility and power is all over the card, but there's more to it than that—Cryptic Command isn't easily gained. Cryptic Command can be a liability, and watching players scrap and scrimp and save to survive to the point in the game where the full awesomeness of the card can be unveiled is a dance that never fails to deliver.
  4. Burn – Because sometimes "cute" can go a bit too far, and knowing that Burn is there to set (sometimes) creatures and (mostly) players on fire makes me very happy. Brandon Burton approved this message.
  5. Tron – On some level, every game of Magic is about doing unfair things. Sometimes that begins with "Hi, I'm Reid Duke," which is clearly unfair in so many ways, or even, "Hi, I'm Rich Hagon," because in both cases opponents begin desperately praying for a re-pair. Tron (or 'Tron, for the grammar nitpickers) proudly announces that unfair is back on the menu, boys. See, watch me doing nothing remotely threatening on turn one. See, my deck is rubbish, it does nothing on turn two. My lands are weather-beaten relics of the 1990s, and they're even white-bordered. See me untap, thisisturnthreeKarnLiberatedthanksforplaying.
  6. Blue-Red Gifts Storm – Sometimes, it's fun to know exactly what's coming. Now, Blue-Red Gifts Storm has plenty of opportunities to go wrong, and that's part of the fun, too, I suppose, but for me this is the kind of deck where you see the actual physicality of a game of Magic. The opponent has done their thing, and now it's showtime. The deck tentatively gathers pace, building on each small step forward. An Opt. A Manamorphose. A nondescript Sleight of Hand. And now we're off. Ritual, Ritual, onward, we know what's coming, big moment, there's the Past in Flames, now it's getting academic, but watch the eddies and flows, and then the single Grapeshot that represents so many more alongside. Seriously, watch one of these in action from an overhead camera view—it's basically Magic ballet. And it's beautiful.
  7. Titan Shift – I've played a bunch with this deck over the years and always had fun. It feels mostly like a "quest" deck, as you assemble your path to the right combination of lands on the battlefield and spell in your hand. And then you win. But of course, the real joy of Titan Shift is dreaming up imaginative ways to kill the people who call Primeval Titan "Prime Time."
  8. Dredge – Talking of imaginative ways to die, Erin Campbell reminded me that writing a Modern preview without describing Dredge as quite clearly the best deck there has ever been might not be good for my health. Dredge, everyone; it's great. Mm, great, yes, great. Mm.
  9. Humans – Shockingly, there are many Humans in the Humans deck. But when faced with a humanitarian crisis, I recommend turning to Champion of the Parish. My love for that card is likely irrational, but there are so many games where you feel you've won when you cast the Champion on turn one. That may be irrational of me, but hey, I'm only Human.
  10. Mardu Pyromancer – I see a soul-sucking collection of viciously conceived cards, none in theory overpowered, none in theory destined to beat you, none in theory about to inflict 20 minutes of abject misery upon your beleaguered psyche. I see a black hole of no fun. I see 60 cards that scream existential crisis. Marshall Sutcliffe sees "value."

So there you have it: ten words, ten things, ten teams, ten players, ten cards, and ten decks. Which brings us neatly back to ten words again.

Ten Words Again

1. Be
0. There

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