I know that it is Level Up Week here on the mothership, but I am going to be presenting an opposing viewpoint this week—at least from the perspective of the draft table. Since the Rise of the Eldrazi Prerelease I have done a lot of drafting and piled up stacks of Knight of Cliffhaven, Venerated Teacher, and Enclave Cryptologist. I have already mentioned in a previous column how much I like the white-blue leveler deck, but in light of a couple of big events—and the increased popularity of the archetype—I may have to look at a different wedge of the color pie for my draft desserts. Over this past weekend Germany's Florian Koch won Grand Prix Lyon and Brazil's Carlos Romao won the fourth seat at the Magic Online Championship Series in Chiba. Both players had to draft to win the final three rounds of their Rise of the Eldrazi Limited events and both players looked to black-red removal strategies and the rebound mechanic to get them there. I was able to talk with both players about their events, their approach to Limited, and the future.
I have corresponded with Florian over the past couple of seasons about Magic history and he has been an occasional coverage reporter for this site and a regular contributor to PlanetMTG. In fact, the 29-year old from Aachen, Germany got to watch hometown hero Simon Görtzen win Pro Tour–San Diego up close as he came to play in Grand Prix–Oakland and then cover the Pro Tour for the German site the following weekend. While in Oakland, Florian, who has been playing Magic for just about as long as you possibly can without being a member of Richard Garfield's inner circle, picked up the first Pro Points of his career with a Top 64 finish. Now, after his win in Lyon, when Pro Tour–Amsterdam rolls around he will be attending as a competitor. Not that he wasn't already attending the event.
"I have been around the Pro Tour forever, but I was never in it," said the Grand Prix–Lyon Champion. "I went to all the World Championships that were held in Europe and also to PT Berlin. At all these events I was never qualified, instead I came to attend the public events and meet friends."
It has been over 16 years since the first time Koch laid eyes on people playing a mysterious new card game.
"A couple of guys were playing Magic at the birthday party of a friend back in 1994," he recalled. "It looked very interesting and I asked if I could play a game. I was a bit surprised that they would let me. The game looked so fascinating that I had expected they would rather keep on playing themselves. Hooked from the first second on ... "
It was not long before he was heading to local Pro Tour Qualifiers for a chance to play more Magic—and not long after that he began traveling to every PTQ within reach. In 1998, he took part in his first ever Grand Prix in Antwerp during the 1998 season. Twelve years later he had his first Top 64, then his first ever win and invite to play on the Pro Tour. So what was different about this event than his previous experiences?
"My memory of the whole Grand Prix is somewhat shrouded," he admitted. "I'm doing a tournament report (again for PlanetMtG) right now, but I can barely remember a game. While I was not at all nervous in the whole tournament, I guess I was so full of adrenaline that I just kept going without being too conscious of myself and the games I played. I even told a couple of people, including Rich (Hagon) that I had drafted white-blue in my first draft when I had in fact drafted green-white."
Koch did play white-blue levelers in the Sealed portion of Day One and had some premium cards for the white-blue deck to work with. A pair of Dawnglare Invokers were declared the best common printed in years for their ability to single-handedly win in the late game. More than any other card they are what drove him toward playing white; his other highlights in the color included Knight of Cliffhaven and Kabira Vindicator. A much maligned two-drop ended up being much better than he expected in the color as well.
"Repel the Darkness was a bit better than I had anticipated," said Koch when asked about cards that had exceeded his expectations. "Lone Missionary always seems to do good things for me in a non-bombish way, although most consider it a fringe card in this format."
His blue was highlighted by Enclave Cryptologist ("Which is almost as silly as the Invoker," added Koch.), Skywatch Adept, Hada Spy Patrol, and Coralhelm Commander. It was the last card that caught Koch somewhat by surprise when he looked over his final build.
"I think I noticed, only after deckbuilding, how good Coralhelm Commander really is," laughed Koch. "Probably because I knew that I would play it anyway if I was blue, but never really bothered to read the card consciously."
One card in blue that ended up being a disappointment was Distortion Strike. He included the card based on strong recommendations from friends, but with so much evasion in white-blue he does not think it is the best archetype for the card. Despite the inclusion of the card that Koch described as a mulligan every time he drew it, he still went 9-1 with the white-blue leveler deck on Day One and found himself sitting down to draft at the top tables on Day Two.
"I was not set on a strategy. I had not done a lot of Rise drafts yet and did not know what was good," he confessed. "Sebastian Thaler had done a lot of drafts already and chatted a bit about his experience. Some other people threw in their ideas and I mostly listened. In the end I had a bit of a meta-strategy: Come up with a deck, not just a bunch of good cards. Of course this is good advice in most formats, but many people don't draft decks and probably, too often, I am one of them."
His packs for his very first draft on Day Two showed him the way with a pair of Deathless Angels bracketing a Transcendent Master for his first picks from the three packs. He ended up being nearly mono-white with a splash of green for some good cards. A pair of Totem-Guide Hartebeests allowed him to assign enemy monsters to Guard Duty. He ended up going 2-1 with the deck and needed two wins at his final Swiss table to ensure a seat at the Top 8 draft.
"The second deck was heavy black with a bit of red," Koch recounted. "My first pick was Disaster Radius and although the red did not exactly come abundantly afterwards, it was enough to complement a lot of solid black cards."
He devastated his first opponent with Disaster Radius and found himself facing off against Pro Tour–Yokohama Champion Guillaume Wafo-Tapa for the right to intentionally draw in the final round of the event. Guillaume scuffled on his mana for two games. Koch punished him with aggressive creatures like Arrogant Bloodlord and Gloomhunter and found himself heading deeper into a tournament than he had ever gone before.
"I don't remember much of the draft," said Koch, who drafted a brutal black-red arsenal of removal spells and whatever army of creatures he could muster. "I know that I picked Vendetta first because it was simply—by far—the best card in the pack. In the middle of pack one I had picked up Vendetta, Induce Despair, and Last Kiss. Then along comes Surreal Memoir and I knew what I wanted to draft. The deck Thaler had previously told me about. It is a red-x deck (most often black-red) that uses Surreal Memoir to replay its removal spells. The deck depends mostly on the quality of the removal and the number of Surreal Memoir you can get. I think you don't want more than two, but the deck gets weaker if you cannot get your hands on two. The creatures seem to be pretty arbitrary, but with three Vendetta I was glad to get two Escaped Null to compensate for the life loss."
With the win, Koch has thrust himself into the middle of the Rookie of the Year race, but he was skeptical of any suggestion that he might be able to keep the title in Germany.
"It is funny that a lot of people suggest that I am heir-apparent to the title," he cautioned. "Are Niels Viaene and I #1 and #2 right now? He is one point ahead of me, but he is qualified for San Juan, whereas I am not. Anyway, my primary aim is to collect the two extra points I need to get to level 3 and qualify for Chiba. It's a dream to participate in a World Championship. The logical aim beyond that would be to get a few more points to make level 4. Everything else is a bonus. With respect to the title, we will see how the second half of the season plays out. Last season, that was the part were the top rookies made most of their points. I might have a chance if I qualify for Worlds and manage to do well there."
I asked Koch, a student of the game, to shine some light on the rise and fall, and rise again of professional Magic in Germany.
"You first have to get an idea of why German Magic declined after Kai. As I see it, the reason for that was pretty much Kai himself," Koch explained. Back then when you went to a PT or a GP, you just had to ask Kai how you could improve your deck and he would tell you. To some extent that might have spoiled a generation of Magic players in Germany because suddenly this well of knowledge was gone and you had to figure out things for yourself. Now we have a generation of talented players that are basically uninfluenced by Kai and thus used to doing things themselves. Obviously this interpretation of the facts is a bit one-dimensional and might be biased by the way I experienced these things. There are other explanations, too. The top German players are a bit more easy-going these days than the players that were good in about 2002-06. Thus they find it easier to cooperate which is very important."
Koch will be looking forward to a little of that cooperation when the time comes to prepare for his first Pro Tour in Amsterdam. Little did Florian know but he was taking part in that spirit of cooperation as he helped another player qualify for the fourth seat—and a shot at a $25,000 first prize—at the Magic Online Championship Series in Chiba. Earlier this month we interviewed the first three winners of spots at the invite-only tournament that will be taking place at Worlds. The big name winner at that point was Brad "FFFreaK" Nelson but a player with a World Championship trophy has nudged him to the right side of the marquee—still above the title though.
It is hard to imagine that Carlos Romao, who seemingly burst onto the scene out of nowhere to win the World Championship in Sydney, has been playing Magic for more than half of his life.
"I have been around sice 1996. I was fourteen years old when I started," said the World Champion. "Me and my brother used to do things together and we discovered Magic at a local RPG store. We played a lot at home, but he got interested more in basketball than Magic and I started playing local tournaments."
While Carlos is known as a Pro Player and the trailblazer for the Brazillian Magic scene he has been playing MTGO since before it was widely available.
"I was one of the beta testers and I think that everybody who participated got a voucher and an account," he recalled. "I remember I played an Odyssey draft and lost in the first round. I asked for some packs for my friends, played a couple more drafts and won and developed my account."
Romao enjoys playing online because it allows him to multitask and he also appreciates the speed with which shuffling is dispatched and decklists don't need to be filled out. When you have been playing on the Pro Tour since 1998 you have filled out enough decklists to last a lifetime.
"I feel so old right now," joked Romao. "I am officially an old school player. Magic has changed a lot. Creatures are more powerful. The Planeswalkers have changed the game in my opinion. I think the game is tougher, with a lot of good players, due to MTGO. I remember that 5-6 years ago, just a few players really knew how to play Limited. Now, MTGO has brought an easier way to practice."
Romao explained that bomb rares were the secret to his Sealed Deck success in the Swiss rounds. When you pair a former World Champion with such cards as Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief, Consuming Vapors, Linvala, Keeper of Silence, and Student of Warfare you can pretty much book him a seat at the Top 8 draft table.
"Every single card I played in my deck was very good," Romao marveled. "Amazing pool. That is the key."
When it came time to draft, the Brazillian superstar, who had not done any Rise of the Eldrazi drafts to that point, looked to the results from Lyon for some strategic insight.
"When I won the last round, I just went to sideboard.com and looked at the Top 8 Grand Prix decks," he admitted. "The winner was a black-red deck and I got some inspiration from it. My first pick was Staggershock. My decision was based on rebound. Just sick."
While Romao did not have the deeply stocked arsenal of spells that Koch used to hold off the competition, he did have a creature that outclassed the rest of the Top 8—Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief.
Romao was looking forward to the event in Chiba and marveled at the opportunity to play Magic Online for a shot at $25,000.
"It was a great tournament—Magic Online is getting bigger," said Romao. I just want to congratulate Wizards of the Coast, and offer thanks to everybody who stayed with me until my last round."
It worked for Koch and it worked for Romao. Whether you are playing at FNM or playing online give black-red a try in Rise of the Eldrazi Limited and leave those levelers for me.