As this article goes live it will be just a few hours before the undoubtedly massive Grand Prix Paris begins and just one week away from cracking that first pack of Born of the Gods for the opening draft of the eponymous Pro Tour in Valencia, Spain. Most of the teams—many of which we looked in on last week—will already be in Spain, trying to understand the new draft format and break the radically changed Modern metagame.
Players are not the only ones getting ready for the big weekend. Equipment is en route, show manager to-do lists are being triple checked, and formats and teams are being dissected by a dedicated coverage team that will be bringing you wall-to-wall coverage of the event. On video and in text, there will be coverage of every round—from the very first draft pick to the crowning of a champion on Sunday—and for the first time in PT history we will be bringing you every game of every match in the Top 8. I got together online with some of the people who will be responsible for bringing you that coverage to get a sense of what to expect next weekend.
Joining me for the Roundtable were text coverage reporters Mike Rosenberg and Blake Rasmussen, two stalwarts of the both GP and PT coverage. Text coverage can be a thankless job in this era of video coverage, but time and time again each year it is their work I return to, to revisit old events, and they are the Wolverines of their craft. On the video side, I am joined by Pro Tour Statistician Rich Hagon and Pro Tour Hall of Famer Randy Buehler—who returns to the Pro Tour scene for the first time in too many years—as well as Limited Information author Marshall Sutcliffe and former Magic R&D member Zac Hill.
BDM: Looking out my window at another foot of snow setting over the gray icy sludge of the past few weeks I am wishing I had gone to Valencia a week ago. When are you getting to Spain and do you plan to do any sightseeing or extra traveling in conjunction with this trip?
Rasmussen: I don't arrive in Valencia until the Wednesday before the Pro Tour, but I took about two weeks to travel prior to the tournament to various places. In fact, I'm writing this from my hotel room in Rome right now! At 5 a.m. Because jet lag. At any rate, I've been itching for a chance to see Italy for a while, so I'm here for nearly a week before heading to Barcelona—where everyone keeps telling me I HAVE to do some kind of Antoni Gaudí tour (he's a famous architect). From there I'll hop on a train and take on Valencia.
Rosenberg: I'll only be staying one extra day after the Pro Tour this time around. The plan is to meet up with some friends who are also in town for the Pro Tour for some sightseeing around Valencia, as a number of people I know locally actually qualified for this one.
Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias
Hill: I'm getting in on Tuesday—and staying until March 3, in order to play at GP Barcelona with four-Time PT Top 8 Competitor Marijn Lybaert and fellow PT Honolulu Top 8er Christophe Gregoire. I've got to spend most of my time working for The Future Project (including meeting with a literal prince, which should be... interesting) but I expect to catch all the Gaudí architecture I missed last time, and the purportedly-beautiful Valencia beaches I also missed courtesy of the Great Flood of 2007.
Sutcliffe: Arriving on Wednesday before the tournament and have to fly out immediately after to make it to Melbourne (via Seattle). No time for sightseeing!
Hagon: Pro Tour weeks are always high intensity, so I'm looking forward to staying on for a couple of days in Valencia to decompress before going on to the Team Grand Prix in Barcelona. Which, by the way, is going to be one of the Grand Prix highlights of 2014.
BDM: Teams have become an increasingly important component of Pro Tour preparation. Just last week, I talked to representatives from six teams that will make up more than 25% of the field. What has changed in the last couple of years to make what once seemed like such an exception—the super team—into the rule?
Buehler: I'm sure the success of ChannelFireball inspired a lot of folks, but I also think the way Wizards has synched up the Pro Tours with new set releases has pushed things beyond the tipping point: you can no longer rely on Magic Online as your primary form of preparation for either Limited or Constructed, so there's a lot more pressure to find a team that can potentially solve the new formats in a very limited amount of time.
Hill: It's unreal how totally things have changed since my own near-decade of PT experience in the early-mid 2000s. I remember thinking my seven-person PT Berlin team was HUGE, almost untenably so. But, to put it bluntly, Magic is just a lot harder nowadays. The bar is higher. I remember getting a 14th pick Errant Ephemeron (probably the best Time Spiral common) at PT Kobe because there were people who just hadn't drafted the set more than five or six times. That would never happen in a million years nowadays. So you can't just go at it with two or three friends, because you're just going to get CLOBBERED if your pick order is just SLIGHTLY out of sync, your deck is second-rate, you think the environment will look different than it does.
Rosenberg: In recent years, it has become much harder to maintain a string of invitations for the Pro Tour if you haven't secured them through earning enough Professional Points in a season. Being on the team makes the most of every pro's time and ensures that their results are as detailed and accurate as possible, giving each player the best chance for a solid finish and—most importantly—at a chance of earning as many Pro Points as possible for maintaining Gold or Platinum for those coveted Pro Tour invitations. It's a lot better to work together to make the most of each Pro Tour finish than it would be to work your way back onto the Pro Tour via PTQs.
Sutcliffe: Pro Tours don't happen that often. The tides change slowly, but after seeing repeated success from Team ChannelFireball and subsequently from the former Team StarCityGames, the rest of the pack faced a daunting proposition: get on a team that could compete with a super team, or get left in the dust. The natural reaction is to form new super teams.
Rasmussen: I also think you have a bit of maturing of the Pro Tour happening. As players play on more and more Pro Tours, they make more friends, and those friends tend to start sticking and working together. And smaller groups start having success and join up with other smaller groups. Look at Team FacetoFaceGames. Prior to Alexander Hayne's Pro Tour win and subsequent Grand Prix tear, that team might not have existed. But as people have succeeded or started looking for teams based on their past success, they've joined up to form this giant team. In the early days of Magic, that happened regionally. Now, because of the Internet, you can lash together any number of people who have played on the Pro Tour, no matter where they're from.
BDM: We actually had a little bit of a hot stove season leading up to this Pro Tour, with several players moving around to new teams. I am excited to see what Team TCGPlayer.com (formerly Team Luxurious Hair) does with the addition of Constructed mad scientist Conley Woods and Limited specialist Chris Fennell. What was the biggest offseason move in terms of teams in your mind?
Buehler: While I'm as excited as anyone to see what sort of a brew Conley Woods comes up with in his new environment, I think the expansion and organization of FacetoFaceGames—the "Canadian" team that isn't just Canadian any more—is going to have the biggest impact on this Pro Tour.
Rasmussen: I feel like everyone is going to say the ChannelFireball: The Pantheon shift, but that's really just the same Kai/Jon/Zvi/a-million-other-insane-players team that it was before. The biggest move has to be the creation and/or consolidation of all of the newer teams. It's virtually impossible to compete with the two ChannelFireball teams in terms of star power—there are only so many active Hall of Famers to go around—but it's always interesting to see how teams fair when we get to the Pro Tour. Team Revolution, for example, proved its chops at Pro Tour Theros. It's possible another team could step up as well.
BDM: There was a while where it was just Team ChannelFireball vs. the field, but now there is not even just one team CFB anymore! Which team are you most excited to see in action when the tournament is finally underway?
Sutcliffe: The original Team ChannelFireball. It seems as though the new Team ChannelFireball has taken the reins as the most successful team over the past few Pro Tours. The tools are still in place for Luis Scott-Vargas, Ben Stark, Josh Utter-Leyton, David Ochoa, Brian Kibler, and company to put up dominating performances. I'm looking for a big move to regain the throne.
Rasmussen: The Pantheon. Because that's probably going to be my answer from now until they stop testing together, no matter what team name they go by.
Hill: I've actually got to say Team Revolution. Raph Lévy has shown up with one of the most innovative decks at the tournament consistently for the last two years at least, and the supporting cast is insanely impressive as well. We hear a lot more about the great predominantly American teams, but the lineup on this one also runs DEEP.
Hagon: Amid all the sponsors and gimmick names, I'm going for "Team Japan." This isn't quite as all-encompassing as it sounds—Shuhei Nakamura and Shouta Yasooka are two big names who are testing elsewhere—but this could certainly be the event where Japan as a nation comes roaring back to the forefront of the Magic world. With every respect to the fabulous cadre of American players dominating the game in recent years, I think Pro Magic is better with a strong Japan, and we may see that this weekend.
Buehler: I'm a sucker for nostalgia and historical context, so I'm always interested in watching the guys I used to play against back in the day, and that means CFB: Pantheon. Can Kai improve on his 17th-place finish at PT Theros? Can Huey finally get the breakthrough performance he needs to put himself into the Top 25 Rankings where we all know he belongs? Does Jon have another Top 8 in him? Oh, by the way, they are also the team that has been consistently putting up the best results at recent Pro Tours, so there's plenty more reasons to watch than just nostalgia.
BDM: Of course, individual players have to draft the cards and play the decks. Pro Tour week is a big one for shaking up the Top 25 Rankings with a big showing. Just look at Jérémy Dezani after PT Theros. What player currently on the outside of the Top 25 rankings do you have earmarked for a big tournament?
Rasmussen: Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, which feels a bit like cheating. He had a poor season last year and he certainly seems determined to undo that. And it just so happens that Faeries is now legal again.... My backup would be Jon Finkel, but I suppose that depends on how good of a deck Storm is right now.
Hagon: There are dozens of players with a global reputation outside the Top 25, not least all the Hall of Famers who don't play all the time. However, I'll offer you someone making his Pro Tour debut who might just shock some people. Raymond Tan comes from Malaysia, and has been playing at Grand Prix for less than a year. In four starts this season, he has a 76.5% win rate, which is ridiculous, with two Top 8s, one of them a title at GP Kitakyushu 2013. His Constructed win rate goes up to 82.1%. He's completely untested at this level, but I really think he might be someone who just "gets it" when it comes to Magic.
Hill: Billy Jensen. One of the best ever; one of the best now.
Sutcliffe: Two players jump to mind, both recently inducted in the Pro Tour Hall of Fame: William "Huey" Jensen and Luis Scott-Vargas. Huey is back. He won a GP, made the finals of another GP, crushed the Open series tournaments, and is poised for a big Pro Tour finish. LSV isn't on the Top 25 Pro Rankings currently, but you would be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't consider him one of the top 25 players in the world.
Buehler: William Jensen is the correct answer to this question, but I do also want to point out Sam Pardee. I've been watching his Modern videos as part of my own preparation for this Pro Tour and the Grand Prix Portland champ (who also has two runner-up finishes on the Grand Prix circuit in the last year or so) clearly knows both the game and also this format extremely well.
Rosenberg: William Jensen is certainly on my list of players to watch, but that's probably the obvious answer for a lot of pros. My underdog vote goes to Tim Rivera. I knew Tim from another game's competitive scene, and even despite him recently picking up Magic again, I still think he will be one of the best Limited players in the room next weekend. His first event after coming back from retirement involved a PTQ win, and his fourth sanctioned event since returning to the game had him winning the StarCityGames Standard Open in Las Vegas. A Pro Tour Top 8 seems like the perfect thing to follow up his already impressive return.
BDM: I have really come to admire the way Dezani handles himself with a sixty-card deck. I feel like his best might still be to come. Which of the Top 25 players do you expect to finish this next mile-marker in the race to Player of the Year with a strong Pro Tour?
Sutcliffe: Josh Utter-Leyton. Josh is a machine. Looking at him, you may not be able to tell if he is winning a tournament or losing one. Super hint: He's probably winning.
Buehler: Owen Turtenwald has been playing the best Magic of his career in the last few months, across quite a few different formats. He's also got a twelve-match Top 8 winning streak going that is still active as he heads to Spain.
Hagon: I'm guessing that everyone, without exception, will truthfully answer "Owen Turtenwald." You can, of course, make a case for any of the Top 25, but he's the obvious choice. And if I need to explain why, just tune in at the weekend and watch him bury people, round after round after round.
Hill: I'm going to vote Owen Turtenwald. I think he's the best player alive right now, with arguably the best supporting cast at the event.
Rosenberg: Not taking any risky bets here. I'm picking Owen Turtenwald. That dude's been on fire this season.
BDM: Born of the Gods is still a riddle that that the players need to solve and they will get right to it when the first thing we see on camera is a Born of the Gods pack being opened. My favorite new card in early testing has been Oracle's Insight—have you gotten this on a creature with inspired yet? What are the cards that will have the biggest impact on this Draft format? Are there new decks that you are angling for when you draft with this set that were not possible in triple-Theros?
Sutcliffe: Born of the Gods is more of an evolution of the format rather than a revolution. Many of the same themes from Theros are carried over, and the players who recognize which cards help the existing archetypes the most will be most successful. I'm not looking to reinvent the wheel, give me my black-green or white-blue deck all day. Unless we open Phenax, God of Deception...
Hagon: In part from a flavor perspective (as these are rarely my colors of choice), I loved Black-Red Minotaurs in triple-Theros draft, and with Ragemonger now a potential first pick, I expect to continue enjoying the horned menace.
Rosenberg: Some of the uncommon Archetypes seem very, very good, especially the blue one. That said, any card with bestow seems powerful as well. I don't think Born of the Gods changes the dynamics of Theros Limited too much, but instead supplements the game plans that we are already familiar with.
Rasmussen: I think the biggest change is the addition of the cheaper common bestow creatures. Some of them look pretty unimposing without the bestow ability, but they really push how important it is to have bodies—any bodies—that can suit up. Bestow costs of three and two mana are just so cheap that I think it'll provide a boost to white-based heroic decks, specifically RW. Hopeful Eidolon was one of the better bestow cards in triple-Theros not just because it gave lifelink, but because it was the cheapest bestow creature available.
Buehler: White-blue heroic still looks really good to me with Akroan Skyguard doing a pretty good Wingsteed Rider impression. I'm also excited that there is one fewer pack of Ordeals and Gray Merchants, which should lead to more interesting and interactive games of Magic.
BDM: Most of the rounds will pit the players against each other in Modern combat—a format that has been monkey wrenched with the recent bannings and unbannings. How viable do you think Zoo and Faeries are going to be in this new modern Modern format?
Buehler: They will both show up, although in order to be successful they're going to need to figure out a good plan for beating the various Birthing Pod decks. Zoo in particular may struggle to slog through the never-ending stream of two-for-ones and lifegain that Pod can put in its way.
Hagon: Zoo—complete staple of the format. Faeries—The number one lie heard on the eve of every Pro Tour? "I don't lose to Aggro." At this Pro Tour, the likeliest liars are wish-fulfillment Faeries players. It's certainly possible that an amazing player will take it to the Top 8 (and personally I'd like to see that), but I expect all sorts of people who think they're rock solid with Faeries to get blown away with utterly ruthless, properly tuned decks.
Rosenberg: I think a deck with Wild Nacatl is one of my picks for the best deck next weekend, most likely alongside some permission, such as Remand or perhaps even Bant Charm, like from the 2011 versions of CounterCat. I'm also not putting much stock in the Fae making their triumphant return. It's a much different world than the one the Faeries used to inhabit, and I don't think players will be able to build the optimal Faeries list until a metagame has been established.
Rasmussen: Very. Zoo basically just comes back from what it was before Nacatl was banned, and it was viable even when Modern was full of turn-three kills back in Pro Tour Philadelphia. Now that the format has slowed, the fast, up-to-five-color aggro deck will certainly have a place. Faeries is interesting because we haven't seen it in Modern before. Obviously it has dominated both Standard and Extended, so it seems like a good bet to come back, but several cards created in the interim might change that. The "can't be countered" cycle affects its "counter all of the things" strategy, and cards like Abrupt Decay and Supreme Verdict are decent at stealing back tempo. That said, the deck is incredibly powerful, so I can't see it not being a deck in some form.
Hill: A variant of Zoo I think might very well be the best deck. Faeries I think is probably the third-best Bitterblossom deck, so I don't expect it to be much of a player.
Sutcliffe: I think Zoo will be potentially viable, with Faeries less so. An aggressive domain-based five-color deck already existed before the unbanning of Wild Nacatl, and it gets a big boost with everyone's favorite Cat Warrior. I think we will see plenty of Bitterblossoms over the course of the weekend, but my guess is that they won't be in the traditional Faeries shell.
BDM: What does booting Deathrite Shaman mean for some decks that might have been sitting on the sidelines? I would love to see the Mono-Green Devotion deck with Genesis Wave find some room to thrive in a less Jundy metagame. Is there a pet deck you are rooting for to emerge in this shaken up format?
Hill: I think Raph Lévy's Dredge deck from PT Return to Ravnica will look a LOT better when the best deck doesn't get four free hate cards.
Hagon: Confession time—I know that, in a Faeries mirror, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa would beat me A LOT. Maybe that's true for a lot of people reading this. There are a lot of players at this Pro Tour who aren't part of a super-team, or indeed any team, and they're simply not going to have as much information coming in as larger, better-prepared groups, so they need a deck with the proverbial "puncher's chance." So, yes, I'd like to see a first timer at the PT go 16–0 with Living End, which is the deck I'd be playing to "live the dream" if I was lucky enough to be qualified for such an amazing PT.
Rasmussen: It means Goryo's Vengeance could get a bit scary. Ever since Modern was created I've wanted to re-make the old Greater Good/Yosei lock with Goryo's Vengeance, but you had to do some acrobatics to make it work. Now? Less so. However, considering Griselbrand and Emrakul exist, I doubt Kamigawa dragons will be getting much love.
Sutcliffe: The main decks that are freed up thanks to the banning are graveyard-based strategies. I am hoping that a Gifts Ungiven deck resurfaces. It has poked its head up a few times in the past, but Deathrite Shaman was a major problem for the deck. Freed from those particular shackles, it may have the tools to flourish.
Buehler: It's clearly good news for graveyard strategies, including reanimator decks and Snapcaster Mage decks. I definitely expect both Goryo's Vengeance decks and Gifts/Unburial Rites decks to show up in bigger numbers than we have seen at recent events.
BDM: There is also the matter of Born of the Gods to factor into the Modern format. It is always hard for new cards to crack a large format but are there any cards you expect to shake things up in Modern?
Rasmussen: Not really. I think some of the scry lands could make their way into control decks (I've played one or two in a Cruel Control list that I love), but that's a risky proposition with both Nacatl and Faeries in the format. So maybe not. I suppose the obvious answer is Brimaz, but, despite it's cheaper cost, it's still not Hero of Bladehold, if you're looking for that kind of card.
Buehler: I wouldn't put it past either Craig Wescoe or Brian Kibler to show up with Brimaz, and Courser of Kruphix is also quite good at surviving in a format where Lightning Bolt is the primary form of removal, but the biggest shakeup will come from the other new set: the one with Wild Nacatl and Bitterblossom in it.
Rosenberg: Brimaz may very well see Modern play. He's powerful enough to make a difference, whether it is in WB Tokens or maybe even Melira Pod, since his tokens certainly benefit from the Gavony Township plan, and are perfectly reasonable to trade in for one-mana creatures if you have Birthing Pod.
BDM: Finally, what is up next for you as far as coverage over the next month to six weeks?
Buehler: The Pro Tour begins a string of five events in six weekends for me that includes GPs in Melbourne, Montreal, and Cincinnati, plus the Magic Online Championships in San Francisco.
Rosenberg: A LOT of traveling internationally. As I'm writing this, I am also getting ready to leave for Mexico City, where Nate Price and I will be reporting on what is quite possibly my favorite national Magic scene in the world. After Valencia, my next event will be in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in March, once again alongside Nate Price. That event will be followed up with the Magic Online Championship in San Francisco, where I'll be the sole text reporter bringing you the latest stories to come from that tournament.
Hagon: Valencia is the middle week of three for me, with GP Paris before, then GP Barcelona after. Then it's a few weeks off for good behavior, before GP Vienna toward the end of March. In between, I'm really looking forward to watching the MOCS Championship Coverage.
Sutcliffe: I'm covering Grand Prix Melbourne, then GP Montreal, GP Cincinnati, and the Magic Online Championships.
Rasmussen: After this minor diversion through Europe I'll be at GP Cincinnati with the crew. Beyond that? Only God and Greg Collins know.
BDM: Thanks guys! Can't wait to work, draft and hangout with you all in (hopefully) sunny Valencia!
January Player of the Month (#MTGPoM): Alexander Hayne
While Tom Martell is fond of using the statement "not particularly close" when describing a choice between two subjects, I can tell you that the discussion about this Player of the Month award was actually very close between the two North American Grand Prix Champions who are also Top 25 Ranked Pros. There was some argument that Hayne should pull away from Martell in the debate by virtue of having won his Grand Prix on his home turf, but that argument was nullified by Martell being less than two hours from his living room when he won GP Sacramento.
While winning three GPs in the last six months is impressive it does not factor into winning Player of the Month. In the end, it was the fact that Alexander Hayne finished in the money for both Grand Prix he played in while none of the other winners had a second strong finish at that level.