Last week, I wrote about two-time World Champion Shahar Shenhar as he embarks on a quest to win a third straight title at this event. Next week the event itself will be upon us, and I gathered together a cross-section of the massive team that covers events like Pro Tours, the World Championship, and the World Magic Cup to talk about what we can expect to see in the coverage that will begin next Thursday on twitch.tv/magic at 9:00 a.m. PST/4:00 p.m UTC.
Participating in the discussion were Walking the Planes frontman Nate Holt; text coverage writers Adam Styborski and Chapman Sim; Pro Tour Hall of Famer pros and color commentators Randy Buehler and Luis Scott-Vargas; R&D member and color commentator Ian Duke; and fellow play-by-play man Marshall Sutcliffe.
From left to right: Marshall Sutcliffe, Randy Buehler, Ian Duke, Luis Scott-Vargas, Chapman Sim, Nate Holt, Adam Styborski
BDM: Standard is going to be the format for four rounds of the Swiss and for the Top 4. We have certainly seen some big changes in the top of the charts moving from all the red-based aggro decks of Pro Tour Magic Origins to the Hangarback Abzan of the recent Grand Prix. What are we going to see as the weapons of choice from this elite field?
LSV: Everyone is definitely going to be adjusting for Hangarback Walker's recent success, but past that I think we will probably see a diverse field. Blue-Red Mill may even show up, though that's a bit of a longshot.
Ian: The breakout decks at Pro Tour Origins were Mono-Red Aggro and Blue-Red Artifacts. Both of these decks are very beatable if you prepare for them, and we can be sure the World Championship competitors will be doing just that. I expect more green decks and Abzan decks than at the last Pro Tour, to combat aggro. Then maybe other players will try to "next-level" the green decks by playing Blue-Black Control or Jeskai.
Randy: I don't think either deck from the last PT Final will be a big factor. The Ensoul Artifact deck has been thoroughly driven out of the metagame by the rise of Dromoka's Command (plus the discovery that you don't need an artifact-centric deck to take advantage of the power of Hangarback Walker). Mono-Red is still viable, but I expect everyone to be ready for that too. The defining archetype going in is probably the Abzan Hangarback deck that finished 1st and 2nd at GP London (plus put three more in the Top 9). So the right deck is whatever beats that, I'm just not sure what such a deck would actually look like. If I were playing, I'd be pretty tempted to stick to the deck that gets to play Dromoka's Command and Hangarback Walker and Siege Rhino, even if it does have a target on its forehead now.
Adam: I expect control decks to keep adjusting. Tools to deal with everything from burn, aggression, Den Protector recursion, and even Hangarback Walker are already in the format. It's time for a hard shift back toward the other end of the deck spectrum.
Nate: I think Standard is wide open. We'll see Dragons, Rhinos, Thopters, burn spells, and probably a mill deck too!
Sim: With the format constantly shifting, there is going to be a lot of guesswork in terms of metagame positioning. In a tournament with only 24 players, it seems more important to deduce what the other players are playing and pick a deck to beat the field, rather than to design a new deck to attack the mature Standard metagame in such a short time frame. I am hoping to be wrong though, because I am looking forward to some innovation. It would be really sweet to see an unexplored archetype before Battle of Zendikar changes things forever!
Sutcliffe: I expect the competitors to be relatively conservative. They have to beat a lot of different decks, and unless they have a great read on the format, I think we'll see people try to get as much play as possible from their decks.
BDM: I know I am looking forward to jamming all the Modern Masters (2015 Edition) drafts I can get myself into. Opening a Myrsmith a couple times is on my to-do list for the weekend. What cards do you most want to open when you are competitively drafting this format?
Sutcliffe: Karn Liberated jumps to mind, as I love ramp decks in this format. Mulldrifter. Oh yes, Mulldrifter. Algae Gharial is my sleeper card for the format. It's amazing in a set with zero deathtouch creatures!
Randy: I actually care more about what cards I'm going to get passed than what cards I open. Plan A for me is to get passed a couple copies of Scatter the Seeds early in pack one, though that doesn't happen very often, and I find I am usually one of the first people to move into Blue-White Artifacts (which I want to call "Affinity," even though it's really more of a Metalcraft deck this time around). I don't want to be greedy and name a rare, so I guess I'll answer your original question with Dispatch.
Sim: For me, the card that's the most fun to draft around is Etched Oracle. I am a fan of five-color decks in Limited, since I get to pick up good cards from every color. However, in a serious competition, I'm going to go with Comet Storm or Profane Command for their sheer versatility and raw power! X spells are great!
Adam: Bitterblossom and Burst Lightning. Both are type of the bread-and-butter cards I like to use (an aggression/value engine and flexible burn spell), but I'd settle for a premium foil Tarmogoyf instead if I saw one.
Nate: Wilt-Leaf Liege! I'm undefeated when first-picking it and I think Green-White Tokens is the most powerful archetype in the format.
Ian: From a competitive standpoint, I always liked the Green-X Tokens decks based around cards like Kozilek's Predator. If I'm just playing for fun, slamming a huge Eldrazi like Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre and trying to make it work is always a blast.
BDM: I have found that I CAN make the Sphinx's Tutelage deck work in this Draft format, but it is super hard to get right. It has been much more rewarding to find the open color pair and just draft the most aggressive deck I can in that slot. What have you learned about Magic Origins Draft as the format has matured?
Sim: I have learned first-hand that the Black-Red Sacrifice archetype is very powerful, and that it is possible to draft a slow Blue-Black Control deck using a lot of cards that are likely to table.
Sutcliffe: It's all about the basics. You want creatures, combat tricks, and removal spells. Two colors. Good curve. Nothing else.
Ian: It's one of the most color-balanced Limited formats I've seen. I got a huge variety of answers from the pros about what colors and strategies they thought were best. I think the format comes down to making sure your deck has a plan and that it's the right plan. The strong rares aren't much better than the strongest uncommons, so more of the games come down to who has built their deck to execute a coherent strategy.
Randy: I'm still amazed at how powerful the combat tricks turned out to be. I don't think there's ever been a format where you could get a more powerful tempo swing from winning a combat with a cheap trick and then also play an additional creature on an early turn of the game. It's not surprising once you think about the way renown incentivizes everyone to attack and connect with the opponent, but it is surprising when you take a step back and think about how much lower you would have drafted Enshrouding Mists in every other Draft format ever.
Nate: Red-Green is goooood. I think Origins is a beatdown format where you wanna keep attacking all the way up the mana curve. The Gruul brutes are gifted in this way.
Adam: Aggression is still good. Topan Freeblade, Ghirapur Gearcrafter, and friends seem just as effective now as they were weeks ago. At the very least, I'm still finding white-red solid enough to work, and that's all the matters.
LSV: As the format has matured, I've realized both how important it is to have two-drops and how the format isn't just fast beatdown. Those do seem contradictory, but it feels like you need twos in order to not get run over while still wanting some bigger cards for when the game goes late.
BDM: The Standard and Draft formats have been recently explored at the highest levels of play, but what the players can bring to battle with in Modern is an open question. We have seen players catch the field off-guard in this format when someone zeroes in on a sweet metagame deck—Shota Yasooka in year one and Reid Duke in year two come to mind. Are there any surprises to be found here and, if so, who is the most likely suspect to be springing them on us?
Randy: Sam Black. His brain just doesn't work the way normal human brains work. It's more awesomer. There are more legitimately viable decks in this format than there are players in the tournament, so anything is possible. The real skill comes from being able to predict the metagame in advance. . .
Sim: I have no clue what is good in Modern, but I think Lee Shi Tian might. I'm not saying that just because he is my teammate, but because he is the best Modern player I have ever played against. Three consecutive Modern Pro Tour Top 8s is simply incredible, but I'm inclined to answer with one of the Japanese players. Yuuya Watanabe and Kentaro Yamamoto will likely ask Shota Yasooka for some pointers. If Shota is indeed helping them prepare, Watanabe and Yamamoto might just show up with yet another Yaso masterpiece!
Nate: Yes, there will be a surprise. I expect a healthy dose of Abzan and Splinter Twin decks, but don't be surprised to see a curveball come out of nowhere. I guess Soul Sisters is too much to hope for, but a man can dream.
Whenever Sam Black is in a tournament, there's a chance you're going to see a truly special deck. I watched him Top 8 a Legacy Grand Prix with Carrion Feeder. He built a PT-winning deck with Doomed Traveler. He broke hexproof at PT Avacyn Restored. He knows things. . .
Ian: Absolutely. Modern is full of powerful decks, each with very different game plans. It's impossible to prepare for them all at once. If someone is able to bring an abstractly powerful deck that is "off the radar" of the other players, he can really reap the rewards. Shaun McLaren and Yuuya Watanabe are two of the most adventurous deck builders among the competitors, and they often work alone. If there's a crazy rogue deck, I'd expect it to come from one of them.
LSV: There's definitely room for surprises in Modern. I expect plenty of the competitors to dust off lesser-played decks to try and take the field by surprise, and overall I'm thinking we will see a pretty wide range. Last year was dominated by Treasure Cruise decks, but we will have no such boogeyman this year, and I'm excited to see what that means. I'm going to go with Paul Rietzl. He doesn't play a ton of Modern, so it's always cool seeing what he ends up on.
Adam: Surprise is relative. I expect something from Magic Origins to hit a deck hard. Whether it's unexpected reach or a clever solution that's needed, I think a classic deck like Splinter Twin with an Origins twist will push ahead. Seth Manfield is the kind of player to bring high-risk, high-rewards plays and decks to the Pro Tour already, and if anyone's going to go all-in on something nobody else would expect, it'll be him.
Sutcliffe: The key is that the player has to have to a keen idea of what the competition is up to. Not necessarily exact archetypes, but the types of decks people will bring. Reid Duke brought Bogles to the tournament as a metagame call two years ago and found himself in the finals.
BDM: I find the Team Thommo group to be pretty compelling for this event—two PT Champs in Martin Dang and Joel Larsson, MTGO Champ Magnus Lantto, and WMC Champion Martin Müller—with their ability to find winning decks suited to task at hand. Which subset of players do you have your eye on?
LSV: I have to mention my GP Detroit teammate Eric Froehlich and my (former) testing teammate Shahar Shenhar here. If I had to pick a group of players, they'd be it.
Adam: The Japanese contingent is always the most fascinating and exciting for me to follow. They are exceptional players that earn unprecedented success through their hard work. Hearing how other players respect both Yamamoto and Watanabe leads me to believe a return to Top 4 for both wouldn't be unreasonable or unexpected.
Sim: There is a lot of talk about Shota Yasooka being a master deck builder, but I want to point out that Sam Black is also in the picture. He has an excellent track record of producing format-defining decks, and anyone he is working with will be glad to be able to peer into his mind.
Nate: I never know who's teaming with who for Worlds. It's such a different event than a PT. The current wisdom is that teams of two are the most strategic. I believe Sam Black and Paul Rietzl are a pair. Seems good.
BDM: All eyes will be on Shahar Shenhar as he goes for a third straight World Championship title. Eric Taylor once famously ate a hat after an unprecedented win by Kai Budde. Would you be willing to wager on eating any garments against Shahar winning for the third time?
Sutcliffe: Maybe a fingerless glove or low-cut sock?
Randy: Hell no, I was there! Eric was pounding the table in agony as all the ketchup in the world failed to make bits of his leather fedora go down pleasantly. Seriously, though, the three-peat would just be absurd! If Shahar does that, I'll—
Adam: Actually, I'm already in the hole to eat a garment in a different prop bet. I'll have to pass on the potential to be 0-2.
Sim: As statistically unlikely as it is for any player to win the World Championships a third time running, I don't want to tempt fate by wagering something I don't intend to honor. Cotton is neither nutritious nor tasty. The furthest I will go is to swallow a stick of gum or half a tube of toothpaste if lightning strikes thrice and Shahar Shenhar wins it again.
Nate: Make no mistake, Shahar isn't the lucky little kid his friends tease him to be. He is supremely gifted at mastering established metagames across multiple formats—unlike PTs, where every meta is new—and Shahar has zero Top 8s. His skill set is perfect for Worlds. I wouldn't bet against him. I only have one hat at the moment anyway, and I need it because that's how I fix my hair.
LSV: I've been categorically banned by Owen Turtenwald from making any wagers related to Shahar.
BDM: Yuuya Watanabe is the only player to play in this event for four years running, and he is the only non-Shahar winner of the tournament. I feel like Yuuya's ubiquity in this event—remember, he was also Top 4 last season—is overshadowed by Shahar. How good is Yuuya, for people at home who might not have the chance to see him as much as we do?
Sim: "Yuuya" is pretty much a word that directly translates into "winning" and "consistency." As a coverage writer and a player who's been on the circuit for the past three seasons, I meet him an average of once a month and he is usually in contention for the Top 8. If we publish a Magic dictionary someday, he'll get his own entry.
Nate: Yuuya is an all-time great who shows no signs of slowing down. But don't take my word for it. Even hardened cynics with more reputability, like Owen Turtenwald, talk about him that way.
LSV: Yuuya is incredible. He's a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible, and I don't think anyone has written him off in any tournament he's attending.
Sutcliffe: Yuuya's stats are so good, they are borderline laughable. I think we are all waiting for his PT Top 8 number to jump up a bit more, but we also all know it's going to happen; he's just that good. If you are making a list of the best players in the world and leave Yuuya off, you have made a serious error.
Ian: Simply put, Yuuya is one of the best players in the world right now. He's definitely my player to watch for this weekend.
Adam: Watch him draft. Watch him play. Watch him react to high stakes with remarkable excitement. He's a mesmerizing player to follow because he's truly one of the game's greatest of all time.
BDM: If Yuuya wins this tournament, it would make next year's World Championship a best-three-out-of-five for him and Shahar. As much as I hate picking against the dynasty, I am fully expecting Yuuya to even the series up. Your turn: Pick me a World Champion!
Adam: It's time for Yuuya Watanabe to cap off the World Championship with another win. I have a hard time imagining I don't vote for him next year in his first year of Pro Tour Hall of Fame eligibility. Picking up another well-deserved World Championship title leading into Hall of Fame voting next year should put an exclamation behind his name on other ballots as well.
Nate: SHAHAR SHENHAR, BABY
Ian: Yuuya Watanabe
LSV: Eric Froehlich. He's motivated by back-to-back 2nd places in the Player of the Year race and GP Detroit, which I think will have lit a fire.
Randy: Eric Froehlich
Sutcliffe: Eric Froehlich! I think he's been playing some amazing Magic for a long time, and his breadth of skill really helps him out in a tournament with so many formats to play.
Sim: I'm going to be "statistical" and go with Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. While everyone is clearly very good, none of them have quite the same experience. With the most Pro Tour Top 8s among the crop, PV has shown that he is the most seasoned player with the ability to perform under the most intense environments. He's also come in Top 4 before, which reinforces my answer.
Tune in next week on Thursday at 9:00 a.m. PST/4:00 p.m UTC to see what the 24-person field brings to battle and who rises to the top. Will it be a ludicrous third title for Shahar Shenhar, or a merely ridiculous second one for Yuuya Watanabe? Or will one of the other 22 players get to hoist the trophy? Don't miss any of the action as we bring you the Swiss rounds live Thursday and Friday, and the Top 4 in its entirety on Sunday. As for Saturday . . . there will be something to fill in the void. Don't you worry about that.