Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir is right around the corner. Players from all over the world have begun to converge in Hawaii to set up draft tables and Constructed gauntlets against the backdrop of volcanic beaches and crashing waves in preparation for the first Pro Tour of the new season. The event will feature Khans of Tarkir Draft for the first three rounds of each day followed by five rounds each day of the new Standard format. The Top 8 players will advance to play on Sunday in a single-elimination bracket to determine the first Pro Tour champion of the new season.
To talk about which cards and strategies will get that player into the winner's circle—and who that person might be—I sat down with a handful of the coverage staff responsible for bringing you all the action from the very first Khans of Tarkir draft pick on Friday right through the last point of damage (unless someone decks an opponent with Villainous Wealth, which would be amazing) and the award ceremony on Sunday. Joining me at the table are your host for the weekend of coverage, Richard Hagon; Pro Tour Hall of Famer (and the man who called one of the most memorable plays in Pro Tour history at the first PT in Hawaii) Randy Buehler; Walking the Planes co-creator and host—as well as recent father—Nathan Holt; recent addition to the video team roster, Tim Willoughby; Pro Tour Hawaii 2009 Top 8 competitor Zac Hill; and one of the newest members of the coverage team on the text side, Corbin Hosler.
BDM: The Prerelease is the starter pistol for the Pro Tour. After missing the Magic 2015 event I was able to squeeze in a tournament while visiting my family. I chose Sultai but ended up with an Abzan deck that splashed a couple of Sultai cards. What was your Prerelease weekend like and what clan did you choose?
Hagon: As always, I had a fantastic time at Chimera Games in Nottingham, my old university city. I had two very different experiences—a ridiculous Abzan deck that felt like it couldn't lose (and it didn't), and a Jeskai deck that made me think prowess is a mechanic aimed squarely at Draft, rather than Sealed—it couldn't buy a win.
[As a contractor who works closely with Wizards of the Coast R&D, Randy is unable to play in sanctioned tournaments...like Prereleases.]
Willoughby: My Prerelease weekend was a fun one. It began with a midnight Prerelease where I was solidly Abzan, making good use of Savage Punch on my Abzan Guide to ensure that I didn't get out-raced by Mardu aggro. My weekend ended with a Temur Prerelease deck that ultimately got built as Mardu, so I could make the most of a couple of copies of Ponyback Brigade. The unassuming little common ended up flooding boards with tokens to buy me the time I needed to dominate the air with Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker.
Hosler: The Prerelease weekend was a blur. I played at midnight and had a really fun Jeskai deck that was essentially a bunch of creatures with no power, a critical mass of removal spells, and a pair of Warden of the Eye to loop all the removal. Oh, and I also had Flying Crane Technique. That may have won me a few games. I also played twice on Saturday and was four colors both times, just playing a lot of value Abzan creatures and removal. Overall, it was 15 matches played in 24 hours, and I had a blast the entire time.
BDM: We have a glimmer of what Khans of Tarkir will do to Constructed thanks to a handful of Open events but Limited is still pretty opaque. I have only won so far with Sultai, but anecdotally it seems like aggressive decks are doing really well. I have even seen a mono-white deck win a draft. What have you gleaned from your draft experiences?
Holt: I have more questions than answers. How high do you pick lands? Are straight three-color splits just bad? How many two-land hands can you really afford to keep in a mana-hungry format with morph creatures and three-color cards? Also—not sure I agree about aggro being good. What are the best cheap threats? There are a lot of huge monsters ready to devour them.
Hill: This format is challenging, complex, and intricate—all in good ways. My best record was with what was essentially a morph theme deck with Trail of Mystery and two Secret Plans, but I've also drafted BR Aggro, Five-Color, and Jeskai Midrange. I still have no idea what pick orders are, but delve and delve enablers both seem to be over-performing relative to expectation. I cannot stand Banners, except in five-color decks, because I think you lose out on so much by not being able to play a morph on the third turn.
Willoughby: Thus far in Draft, my key takeaway is that I need to be picking mana fixing and cheap creatures higher. Whenever I have a lot of decent lands in my Khans of Tarkir draft decks, I am able to parlay my good mana into some very powerful decks, but over and above that, I have found that aggressive Mardu strategies (two- or three-color) are powerful enough that they require some special attention when it comes to mana curves. While it is tempting to start turn three with a morph, that start is frequently just not good enough.
Buehler: I have won both with aggressive (ideally two-color, maybe with a small splash) Mardu decks (I love chaining out raid creatures), and also with a five-color deck that takes lands early plus all the best gold cards. The format seems super-sweet and I'm genuinely curious to see what the pros make of it.
Hosler: Any time you have a draft format that encourages people to build three- (or more) color decks, there's going to be an opportunity for aggressive decks in just one or two colors to take advantage of the speed of the draft. If people are willing to trade consistency for power in their Limited decks, doing something consistently powerful in one or two colors will always find a way.
Hagon: As someone who likes a bit of a helping hand, I love the "draft paths" that R&D gives you, and in Khans of Tarkir you get a ton of great "journeys." Say you start blue-red—now what? Move into Temur? Move into Jeskai? Try to keep a third color to a minimum? Get greedy and take both white and green? Or just frontload pack one with a million lands, and then go wild. What a great format.
BDM: Jeskai Ascendancy has already shown it can do well in both Modern and Legacy, but can it find a place in Standard? I'm skeptical but I'm sure people will do their best to break it. What cards from Khans of Tarkir are you excited to see play in Standard at the PT?
Hagon: First things first—yes it can. Not a ton of people know Andrew Baeckstrom, but I was super-impressed with him when I got to see him make the Top 8 of Grand Prix Louisville last year. And when he won the final WMCQ for the US last month, that cemented the US in my mind as one of the teams to beat. Andy played Jeskai Ascendancy in Standard last week and just missed out. If Standard is sans-control (or even control-light) then you only have to ask yourself "What is the most unfair thing I could be doing?" And that might very well turn out to be Jeskai Ascendancy.
Willoughby: Jeskai Ascendancy is a card that I have barely stopped thinking about since I first really got a feel for what it can do. As much as I would love for it to do big things at the Pro Tour in Standard, I'm not convinced that all of the tools are there just yet. One thing I have noticed, though, is that comparatively few of the lists I have seen are running Ephemeral Shields. Convoke plays very well indeed with what Jeskai Ascendancy is trying to do, and when one of the big concerns for the deck is the abundance of removal, having a "free" way of stopping that seems very important to me. Nothing would make me happier than seeing Jeskai Ascendancy arise as a true combo deck in Standard, but it might take another set or two to get there.
Hill: Well, the new Sarkhan successfully eclipses Thundermaw Hellkite as my favorite-ever card, so that certainly doesn't hurt. :) I think Abzan Ascendancy is super cool, and I want to see people do awesome things with it. Seeker of the Way I was hoping could be my sleeper hit of the set, but looks like last week spoiled that dream. Empty the Pits is my kind of card—just ensure that you win the late game, and survive until you get there—but I'm not sure how well-suited the metagame is to its success. The card I think will not perform this weekend, but that I think is actually likely to be quite powerful, is Sultai Ascendancy. It's like a Signet for delve spells plus quite relevant card selection—scry 2 as a rider on spells has traditionally been worth around half a card.
Buehler: For some reason I find myself rooting for there to be a viable Warrior deck. If you squint just right you can even talk yourself into Raiders' Spoils as a better Bident of Thassa. That's probably unrealistic in a world full of large blockers, though, so I'll settle for Sidisi—she seems perfect for all the green-black graveyard shenanigans that were already almost good enough last year.
Holt: I'm on Team Jeskai Tempo 100%, so I'm rooting for Mantis Rider. Take that, you board-stally green decks!
Hosler: If there's an opportunity for people to play a combo deck, there's always going to be a group that tries to exploit that possibility, and I think that opportunity may be Jeskai Ascendancy this year. It's made a big splash in the first week, and I expect to see more of it at the Pro Tour. Personally, I hope to see someone make use of See the Unwritten. You never know what you're going to find, but you can be sure it will be something big!
BDM: We have seen the heroic mechanic put up modest results in past events, but with a whole new Standard, I am looking forward to seeing it get a chance to shine in Hawaii. What cards or strategies that have been in Standard for the past year with little to show in the way of results are you looking for in Hawaii?
Hill: I think Mono-Green (or Nearly-Mono-Green) Nykthos has got to be the most obvious choice, and I think the Magic card Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver is likely to gain value as the format gets "midrangier" (plus it pairs extremely well with Master of Waves, a potent weapon against Goblin Rabblemaster decks). I think Flooded Strand has the potential to improve the WU heroic decks we saw mostly underperform at Pro Tour Journey into Nyx, but I wouldn't expect it. RW Heroic is fine, and Battlefield Forge makes it quite a bit better—I think it's actually better in that deck than Arid Mesa would be—but I think the omnipresence of Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix makes playing aggressive decks very challenging. That said, Heroic (because of the pump spells in the deck) is better-suited to dealing with that particular pair of cards than most other aggressive strategies, so I could see it taking the field by surprise.
Hosler: The deck I'm always on the lookout for is the Reanimation deck that hung around the Block format a year ago. Looping Hornet Queens out of the graveyard sounds like a good time and, if the format slows down some at this event, I think it could be well-positioned.
Willoughby: Looking past Jeskai Ascendancy, there are actually a few "engine" cards in the format that I'm hoping will do some work. Altar of the Brood seems like it will either do nothing or do literally everything, and I've heard tell that there are some interesting heroic decks utilizing Hardened Scales. Could now be the time for Sage of Hours to do something big? I truly hope so!
Buehler: Delve seems like it adds a whole new dimension to all the graveyard decks that have been running around on the rogue fringe of Standard.
BDM: The three members of the incoming Hall of Fame class are known for three different speeds of decks. Rietzl is the aggressor, Mihara is the King of Midrange, and Wafo-Tapa is still playing his Round 16 match from PT M15 as we talk. If you had to pick one of those three speeds to describe this Standard format, which Hall of Famer would it be?
Holt: I think Mihara's ready for his sixth Top 8. I'm putting my money on midrange and the "junk rares" style of deck that Patrick Chapin won with at PT Journey into Nyx.
Hosler: Mihara definitely has the edge here. Green is king, and that means midrange is the backbone of the format. What I like about what we've seen so far is that there's a place for all three, though. Aggressive decks have made a decent showing, and the tools are out there for a control deck, especially once you get masters like Wafo-Tapa on the case.
Willoughby: If I had to pick a speed for the Standard format, it would fast. Even the midrange cards actually feel quite quick in this format, with many of the massive, three-color monsters actually hitting play a turn or so quicker than they might have in days gone by. I'm sure Wafo-Tapa will find a way to make the slow control decks work, but I feel like at its slowest, Standard is kind of midrangey.
Buehler: All hail King Midrange. This might be the most Mihara format ever.
BDM: Where does Honolulu rank in the pantheon of Pro Tour host cities? Do you think playtesting for two weeks in Hawaii is easier or harder for teams that have started occupying the island this week?
Hill: I've certainly had my own good experiences in Honolulu. :) No, seriously, it's an incredible city and an incredible place. It definitely rewards "super teams" and full-time Magic players who can take time out of their lives to spend two weeks on the island, as they're not likely to still be reeling from the long flight and the time change. But once you're there, I think the island's comparative isolation, and the fact that you're in a different time zone from the other people in your life, allow you to really zone in and focus on Magic until the Pro Tour begins.
Willoughby: There are few Pro Tour locations that live up to Honolulu for me, at least during the day. Every time I realize I'm on a beautiful island for a Pro Tour, my life feels at least moderately blessed. There are some other PT locations that might have Honolulu beaten for awesome karaoke (Japan and Dublin). The nightlife in Amsterdam was kind of epic. Rome had better architecture. In spite of all of these things, when I want to impress people with the awesome places I've been thanks to Magic, Hawaii is the first place I mention. I think that playtesting is likely a touch easier in Honolulu than elsewhere, as acclimatizing to the time difference is no joke for almost everyone. I know a lot of players are staying on for a while after the event to get their jollies on, so hopefully they've been productive in the time before the event. Hopefully not too many players will be sporting coral cuts while they shuffle up.
Hagon: Honolulu is the dream destination for most normal human beings. However, it's also the easiest place to playtest because of this conversation, which happens every day in every beach house testing group ever:
"What's it like outside today?"
"It's hot and sunny, with miles of deep blue ocean to frolic in."
"Great! Let's stay inside and playtest."
Holt: Walking the Planes very nearly had episode number one at Pro Tour Dark Ascension in Honolulu, but the paperwork wasn't done yet. Oh, what could have been. I'll never forget watching the Kibler vs. Finkel semifinal from my couch, and I've yet to know what Magic Hawaii has to offer.
Buehler: Number one with a bullet. I'm not even sure what other cities are even in the pantheon! And I think the players are so excited to get to the island that it helps fuel productive testing (in and around swimming, sushi, etc.). Keep in mind that the first Pro Tour Honolulu saw the birth of the large testing house, with Mark Herberholz emerging from the now-legendary Beach House with a red-green beatdown deck that won the whole tournament (defeating a certain Craig Jones in the final after Craig pulled off a famously miraculous topdeck to get there). So yeah, Hawaii equals good times all the way around.
Hosler: What could be easier than forgoing the beauty that is Hawaii to stay indoors to play Magic? In all seriousness, though, it doesn't get much better than Honolulu. And the players who have been here all week to playtest are all professionals. I'm sure they hear the call of the island from time to time, but they're here with a job to do.
BDM: Grand Prix San Diego Champion Nathan Holiday is a player who has made a tremendous impression on me, as he has just had ridiculous results at the GP level. I am excited to see what he do with a few Pro Tour events strung together and a strong Face to Face Games team at his back. Any dark horse players you have your eye on to start this season?
Hosler: I'm not sure you could call him a dark horse, but I'm interested to see how Rookie of the Year Jared Boettcher follows up his incredible rookie campaign. It's been a few years since we've seen someone so new take the circuit by such storm, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him follow it up with a big showing in Honolulu.
Hagon: I guess this is a romantic pick, as I wrap myself in the flag for a moment, but some of the Brits have been working with DailyMTG.com, and it would great to think that either Matteo Orsini-Jones, Dan Royde, or my good friend Matt Light might put all that team talent to good use in Hawaii.
Holt: Paul Cheon has returned to the spotlight, making Magic content from the comfort of his home. But does he have too much rust to put on a great Pro Tour performance? Win or lose, I'm eager to see how his weekend turns out.
BDM: Normally, I ask you to pick a winner—and you still can here—but instead I want to ask more broadly for a bold prediction about the Pro Tour weekend.
Buehler: There will be 32 copies of Courser of Kruphix in the Top 8. I'm not even sure that counts as bold, but in the storied almost-20-year history of the Pro Tour there have never been 32 copies of a card in a Top 8 (not counting basic lands, of course). The current record is Tinker (and Grim Monolith) from Pro Tour New Orleans 2003 at 28 copies, but one Psychatog deck snuck into Top 8 to prevent the sweep. (It's been done at the Grand Prix level by Jace, the Mind Sculptor, by the way, who also brought Preordain along for the ride.)
Hagon: A bold prediction...God I love a challenge with almost no downside! Hey, if I'm wrong, it was a bold prediction. If I'm right, I get to say so forever! So, here you go: The final will be won in no more than fifteen total turns by a score of 3–0 by Andrew Baeckstrom, playing Jeskai Ascendancy. (Andrew, if you play something else on Friday, there will be trouble!)
Willoughby: My bold prediction for this Pro Tour is that this will be the Pro Tour where Nassif finally gets a positive record in Limited, and as such ends up crushing the whole thing. His Constructed record has been crazy at the last few events...he just desperately needs to match his Constructed performances with his Limited decks. I'm really hoping that the new format suits his play style. Fingers crossed here.
Hosler: Bold prediction? I think the title will be won by a deck not containing Courser of Kruphix and Sylvan Caryatid. They're clearly pillars of the format, but everyone knows that already. Last year everyone knew what the pillars of that format were, and then Jérémy Dezani took the title with a deck containing Cloudfin Raptor. Anything can happen.
Hill: It's honestly hard for me to say. I've heard a number of people decry "the death of blue" for this Standard season, and I don't buy that at all. In terms of performances, betting on a Platinum pro isn't exactly a "bold" prediction, but I'm predicting a solid performance from Chris Fennell. I think the complexity of this draft format will reward one of the game's current Limited masters, and I think his skills as a deck "refiner" for new formats are underrated.
September Magic Player of the Month (#MTGPoM)
It has been a slow month on the high-level tournament Magic scene as weekends were devoured by the Khans of Tarkir Prerelease and release weekends. That meant as few GPs as we see in any month on the calendar: just one, in Salt Lake City. There was another big Magic event to be had, though, and we will sift through to find our Magic Player of the Month. As always, you can engage in this discussion over the next week on social media using the hashtag #MTGPoM to tell me who you think should be awarded the honor.
First up is Brandon Nelson, your Grand Prix Salt Lake City champion. Nelson, who has been something of a hard-luck player in the past with multiple 9th-place finishes at high-level events, had to fight through a tough draft table in the elimination rounds and get through a bracket that included Jamie Parke and Eric Froehlich. All that before going on to best Sam Batarseh in the finals of the Magic 2015 Limited event. Not only was it the first win of Nelson's career, it was also the first time he had gotten as far as the finals of a Grand Prix competition.
And now for something completely different...
Sean "Day" Plott is the host of the Geek and Sundry Magic show, Spellslingers, and was a member of the victorious community team at this year's Magic Online Community Cup held at Wizards HQ. After being a member of the eight-person team that defeated the squad of Hall of Famers and Pro Tour stalwarts fielded by the Wizards team, Plott was the last person standing at the special Pre-Prerelease Khans of Tarkir event that pitted the members of the community team against one another.
So who is it going to be? The grizzled Magic veteran winning his first Grand Prix title or the gaming celebrity who not only hoisted the Community Cup, but also what he called the Community Cup No-Prize for becoming the first person to win a Khans of Tarkir Limited event? You can use the hashtag #MTGPoM to discuss. I can be found on Twitter as @Top8Games or you can aim your opinions in the direction of @MagicProTour. I will let you know who won next week.