As this article goes live, we are just a week away from the first Pro Tour of the calendar year (although it is the second of the 2014–15 Pro Tour season). Before each Pro Tour, I like to gather around a virtual table with some of the amazing people who bring you the wall-to-wall coverage of the pinnacle of competitive Magic five times a year. I asked them about new cards, the format, and—of course—who will emerge on top from the toughest tournament in the competitive Magic world. But first I asked them to talk a little about what they do during the better part of a week covering a Pro Tour.
BDM, Hagon, Willoughby, Duke, Styborski, Buehler, Sutcliffe
BDM: Leading up to a Pro Tour, I will track notable movement among the major teams, learn the cards, and work on plans for feature content at the event—not to mention wrangling the Roundtable. Once I get there, I wear a handful of hats that covers deck techs, player interviews, some play-by-play, and co-hosting the event with Rich Hagon. I also stay a day after the tournament to do a tournament recap with Hagon called Friday Night Countdown. What does your Pro Tour coverage experience look like?
Richard Hagon (Video Coverage): I have two main jobs at the Pro Tour, one very much in the public eye, the other less so. Behind the scenes, I'm the producer of the Newsdesk, which is all the content that happens between rounds. I work with my boss, Greg Collins, to work out what features we want to show everyone while the rounds are ticking down, and then work during each round to deliver the next segment. Then, of course, I'm on-air as the Newsdesk host, acting as the ringmaster of the circus—basically being eyes and ears for the viewers, bringing them all the important results, standings, what's going on in the tournament—and helping our range of experts and insiders make sense of telling the developing story of each Pro Tour. And yes, that requires a lot of preparation!
Tim Willoughby (Video Coverage): My role at the Pro Tour is largely focused around the Feature Match area. For most of the rounds, my job is to make sure that everything there is running smoothly, bringing updates from those matches that aren't-on camera, doing interviews with players, and making sure that what you see onscreen includes all the information you could want: accurate life totals, cards in hand, the works. My preparation tends to be a lot of drafting (aw shucks!) to make sure I'm on top of all the new cards in the set, along with more generally staying fit and healthy. While I get a few rounds in the booth commentating, I probably spend more time on my feet than just about anyone on coverage, so a comfortable pair of shoes is a must!
Ian Duke (Video Coverage): I'm new to the coverage team. I'll be playing the role of the insider from R&D, similar to what Zac Hill had done, but gradually ramping up to that level. I'll be doing some commentary in the booth and some segments from the desk. My hope is that my months (or year!) of experience with the newest set will give me a head-start in card evaluation and where I think players will end up after their testing. The most important things I'll need to do to prepare are (a) memorize printed card names and forget playtest names, and (b) sync myself up with the real-world metagame and forget our internal predicted metagame. Having inside/advanced knowledge can be a double-edged sword!
Adam Styborski (Text Coverage): Getting ready for a Pro Tour is as hard as it gets: Updating Commander decks and squeezing in as much Limited as possible. As a member of the text coverage team, I get to interview players, write up feature matches, and hunt down the more interesting stories that can't make the spotlight on the live broadcast. The luxury of asking questions off-camera is invaluable: I'm not the best investigative reporter, but sweet stories and secret information to set up later stories is as exciting as it gets on the floor of any tournament.
Randy Buehler (Video Coverage): The early part of my preparation consists of putting together an overview of the Constructed format, both because it makes for a nice set piece during lunch, right before Round 4, and also because it helps me make sure I know what I'm talking about when I'm in the booth for the Constructed rounds. Then, once I hand off all the information so those graphics can be built, it's time to start drafting the new set. Ideally, I'm completely up to speed on Constructed by the time the new set goes live on Magic Online so I can just jam practice drafts until it's time to head for the airport.
Marshall Sutcliffe (Video Coverage): My role for the event is play-by-play commentator in the booth and host for the Newsdesk when Rich isn't there. To prepare, I focus on the new cards, specifically the Limited environment. The first step is learning the card names, the second is getting an initial feel for the cards and the format. I also will play some matches of whatever the Constructed format is for the event, as I am often in the booth for those as well.
BDM: I only went 3–1 at the Prerelease but I was so happy with the Sultai card pool I opened, which included Tasigur, the Golden Fang; Sage-Eye Avengers; Soulflayer; and Ugin the Spirit Dragon. If you were wondering how I lost with that assortment of power rares then you have not played against a Cloudformed Sage-Eye Avengers and Citadel Siege yet. How was your Prerelease?
Willoughby: So far, Fate Reforged has been a blast for me. On top of some Prereleases, I have already done a number of "regular" sealed decks and quite a few drafts. The first thing I've learned is that powerful rares are a bit like opinions in Fate Reforged—everyone seems to have one. It's just as well that there's a fair amount of removal in the set, because it seems like everyone will have at least one bomb to drop.
Hagon: Manifest is smoooooth. I love Jeskai anyway, even though I found it very hard to draft successfully, and manifest seems perfect for smoothing out that tension of creature-versus-spell inherent in Jeskai. The Prerelease was a ton of fun.
Sutcliffe: I went to a Prerelease, and did a bunch of drafts after work at the Super Sunday Series. I also covered the Super Sunday Series, which had two Limited components. I'm piecing together a good feel for the format still, but one thing I did notice is that more players were playing allied color pairs as their primary colors, and that some of the rares from Fate Reforged are very strong.
Styborski: My Prerelease was an incredibly fun run to a 3–3 record just shy of additional prizes, and if I had the time I'd do it again. In all likelihood I'll have drafted several times just before this article goes live. The Prerelease showed me the upside to manifest can be pretty strong. My first drafts are where I plan to jam it and see just what happens in as many games as possible.
BDM: While I opened up my second Tasigur in two events, my first draft didn't great. I was Sultai, but just got rolled over by a much more aggressive deck that was fast and consistent but not especially powerful. How has Fate Reforged…well… reforged the Draft format?
Styborski: Watching Matt Costa drafting at the Super Sunday Series last weekend really drove home how mana availability has shifted. The first pack won't have two, three, or more nonbasic lands to choose from, incentivizing more conservative draft strategies and discouraging five-color decks. The downward mana pressure may not be huge, but it's there and needs to be considered throughout the first pack.
Duke: My general sense of Fate Reforged, coming out of development, is that the format is faster than triple-Khans, the mana fixing is a little scarcer, and decks more often end up two colors. The set has a lot of bomb rares.
Buehler: The biggest change for me is that "friendly color" decks are a thing you can draft now. It isn't so much about what you can't find in Khans as it is what you can't find in Fate Reforged: three-color cards.
Sutcliffe: One key is to remember that you do have two packs of Khans of Tarkir coming after that Fate Reforged pack. Ultimately, Fate Reforged cards have to fit into Khans of Tarkir strategies, not the other way around.
Willoughby: So far with Fate Reforged, the one thing I've not really seen is the successful "five-color" deck. With most of the cards in Fate Reforged being monocolored, it looks like it will be easier to be a two-color drafter. That said, I'd still be looking to take lands early, and be in enemy colors for the first pack, just because the payoff in packs two and three is still potentially huge. Fate Reforged seems to have plenty of decent removal, which is where a lot of my drafts start these days.
BDM: What Fate Reforged card are you crossing your fingers for as you open your first pack in a draft—and how do you open the damned pack with your fingers crossed?
Sutcliffe: Aven Surveyor. The card has performed well for me so far, and I love it. I did put the +1/+1 counter on it twice already, which is two times more than I thought I would for the duration of the format. The best non-rare so far has been Temur Sabertooth, however. The rare I really want to open is Ugin, The Spirit Dragon. I initially gave it low marks for costing eight mana, but now I think I can craft my deck in a way that lets me resolve him. And once you do that, it's hard to lose.
Buehler: The thing I most want to open in Fate Reforged is rares. Seriously—have you read those things?
Willoughby: At common, my favorite card in Fate Reforged is Sandsteppe Outcast. At uncommon it's Temur Sabertooth. While I wouldn't necessarily recommend playing them in the same deck too often, if you do there is obvious synergy. At rare, it seems that I am the boy with the golden touch, as Tasigur, the Golden Fang is my most-opened rare. I would be fine if this trend continued, as activating his ability is one of the more fun things I've done in Magic lately. Just the other day I cast Dead Drop to kill Silumgar and a Cloudform manifest token...before using Tasigur and getting my Dead Drop back. Suffice to say I won that game.
Styborski: I want to find multiple Goblin Heelcutters in my draft decks. While I've dabbled in decks of all types, I've found myself super comfortable with base-red decks in Khans of Tarkir. Adding in ways to punch through damage, repeatedly no less, is exactly the type of bread-and-butter card I want to be playing. And after enjoying the power of Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury I can safely say that's a red rare I'd love to start with.
Duke: Bathe in Dragonfire, Whisk Away, Sandblast, Douse in Gloom, and Reach of Shadows are all solid removal spells I'm happy first-picking. Aven Surveyor is probably the strongest monocolored creature. The enemy-colored commons are all quite strong, and are there to guide players into enemy pairs (leaving them open for two clans in Khans). At uncommon, Temur Sabertooth, Pyrotechnics, Mistfire Adept, and Lightform are some of my favorite ways to start a draft. That said, you'll very often first-pick your rare in this set. Citadel Siege, Outpost Siege, and Mastery of the Unseen are among the best rares.
BDM: Pro Tour Fate Reforged is going to set the tone for Modern for the next year. The format obviously gets shaken up by both the addition of new cards in Fate Reforged and the subtraction of cards joining the banned and restricted lists. What existing deck benefits most from the bans and what cards from Fate Reforged do you see going into the Modern arsenal?
Duke: The banning of the blue delve cards means BGx Midrange is much better positioned. I expect Abzan midrange with Siege Rhino (and maybe Lingering Souls) to be the strongest baseline "fair" deck. The banning of Birthing Pod really helps aggressive creature decks. I expect some amount of disruptive Zoo decks that are trying to position themselves against Splinter Twin, Scapeshift, and Storm (all of which remain strong). Think Wrapter's Counter Cat deck from Pro Tour Philadelphia in 2011. Affinity still remains one of the best Game-One decks in the format and benefits from the loss of the "tutor for hate cards" mode of Birthing Pod.
Sutcliffe: The midrange "Rock" style decks rely on one-for-one spells to grind their opponents into oblivion. Treasure Cruise made that very difficult, but now it's gone. I think Jund, Abzan, or just Black-Green decks will see more play as a result. The two white cards are the ones to look out for: Monastery Mentor and Soulfire Grand Master. I'm not sure if either has the punch to hack it in Modern, but that's where I would look first.
Styborski: Abzan and Jund decks do. The utility and reach of either deck is great, and on top of the tried-and-true Thoughtseize-Liliana of the Veil disruption I think these will jump back toward the top in popularly and relative strength. Tron decks of every color already playing Karn Liberated have to be testing out Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. While Ugin's additional 1 in cost over Karn means the Urza Tron trinity alone isn't enough to cast it, Ugin also serves as a Wrath of God (with bonus) effect against everything but Affinity. Depending upon what players are expecting, seeing Ugin appear in some Tron lists wouldn't surprise me.
Willoughby: I think that Abzan has gained the most stock following the bans. Discard just wasn't a sound plan in a world where people could reload with Treasure Cruise, and now you can load up on Thoughtseizes and Lililanas while beating down with Siege Rhino, without being punished too hard for it. My first pick is Tasigur, the Golden Fang. Much of the time he does a decent Tarmogoyf impression—fetch land, Thought Scour, and he's coming down on turn two—and if there is a deck that can activate his ability, that is just a bonus. Honorable mention goes to Dark Deal. I'd love to see it do something with Golgari Grave-Troll, but it will take a better mind than mine to figure out what that something is.
Duke: I don't expect a huge splash from Fate Reforged in Modern. Some considerations are Monastery Mentor, Ugin (in Tron), and Tasigur.
BDM: There was a lot of shakeup on the major teams heading into this event, some of which was covered in this article. What stands out to you as the most significant off-season move?
Buehler: I think it's the creation of the new team around Bob Maher. I don't know how exactly they convinced Sam Black to join team "old guys with full-time jobs" but it's a major coup for them. Pantheon still strikes me as the team most likely to have the best decks, but it will be interesting to see if the brain drain starts to take a toll. In any case, Modern is the format where big teams have the smallest edge anyway. Is there somewhere I can pick the field—aka "Magic Online Grinders"?
Hagon: You can certainly argue that Caw-Blade and Pro Tour Paris was the zenith for ChannelFireball, although Worlds that year was also incredible. However, both of those were in 2011, and four years is an eternity in Magic. What's fascinating to me therefore is what ChannelFireball are doing to restore their dominance. Will they miss Rietzl and Stark? Is Face to Face the answer? Or is the jovial Tom Martell the difference maker? I'm really interested to see whether they can get their house in order to the point where they're once again the best of the best.
Styborski: Face to Face joining with ChannelFireball speaks to the commitment the Canadians are bringing to this Pro Tour. With several disappointing runs for standouts like Alexander Hayne and Jon Stern—two players I personally admire for their skill—getting to double down with more of the game's greats is a turn in the road. I'm excited to see how the change and broader flow of information affects their performance.
Duke: The rejiggering of the CFB teams will probably have the most impact, though there's such a depth of talent among those players and the CFB/Pantheon teams have been so large in the past, I don't think any individual players will end up "stranded" without a strong team. I expect small teams of three or four players that focus on perfecting their own pet deck to do better than large teams that try to explore the whole format from scratch. I expect large teams to have a lot of disagreement among themselves about what decks to play.
Willoughby: I think that Sam Black has the least replaceable set of skills of any of the off-season movers. If it works out that there is a hot new deck for this Pro Tour, Sam is one of the people I would trust to get to it. That this is a Modern Pro Tour may diminish this slightly, as the impact of new sets tends to be smaller on formats with so many cards. Ben Stark's move is also huge, as I don't know of anyone quite like him for synthesizing a whole draft format in a short space of time. However, it seems that every team is making more efforts to have a "draft guy" or two, so that move may not prove as decisive. One way or another, team TBD looks formidable.
Sutcliffe: Definitely Stark, Rietzl, Black, and company forming their own team. Forming that new team meant shaking up two of the most successful teams on the Pro Tour, and possibly creating a new third team to contend with. Adjusting is hard, and a team like Revolution or TCGPlayer could capitalize on the other teams shuffling people around.
BDM: Decklists come in and get sorted by the judge staff. What letter are you flipping to in the file folder for your first look at the new format? For me, L is for Lax. He won the last Pro Tour and is just a fiend for the Modern format.
Hagon: Without cheating by actually looking at the player list, the one that leaps out to me straight away is M. For a start, I get Josh McClain, a noted Modern master and huge proponent of Birthing Pod. What's he going to replace his beloved archetype with? Right next door will be Shaun McLaren, and he will have been influenced by the testing of exactly one person—himself. Then there's Pro Tour Gatecrash Champion Tom Martell, and recent inductee into the Hall of Fame, Makihito Mihara of Japan. Those four might make up less than 1% of the field, but I guarantee there's a ton to talk about just from those four deck choices.
Duke: I'd flip first to Shaun McLaren. Not only is he the reigning champ from last year, but he also has the reputation for being a lone wolf and being willing to innovate his own decks. I think he'll be particularly skilled at evaluating the cascade of implications of the bans and ending up a level ahead of the competition.
Sutcliffe: S is for Stark. I always look to see what Ben is playing because he and I have a similar mindset when it comes to decisions like this. I assume he would pick what I would pick, and I want to know what the default power vs. consistency deck is. Same thing for a guy like Huey Jensen. I always want to know which decks those two are playing.
Willoughby: I would go to S. This way, I get to look at the lists of Ben Stark and Matt Sperling (Team TBD), Luis Scott-Vargas and Shahar Shenhar (ChannelFireball), Timothee Simonot (Team Revolution), Tomoharu Saito, Christian Seibold, Thiago Saporito, Chapman Sim, Mike Sigrist, John Sittner, and Ondrej Strasky. You could very easily make a sweet Top 8 for this Pro Tour featuring only surnames beginning with S.
Styborski: U is for Josh Utter-Leyton. His prowess at tuning and testing decks typically defines the ChannelFireball baseline. His second Pro Tour Top 8 came with the first Modern Pro Tour—Philadelphia 2011—and while the format isn't quite as wide open now as it was then, the recent banned list changes demolished two of the best decks outright and inflicted splash damage on several others. What Josh brings will be the end result of looking to break the format all over again. And, of course, I want to know the story!
BDM: Which player have you had the chance to observe in your coverage experience that you think everyone should be keeping an eye on?
Buehler: Shaun McLaren. He seems to Top 8 a majority of the tournaments he shows up for, and this one seems to play directly to his strengths.
Willoughby: Fabrizio Anteri. He's had a stellar run at the Grand Prix level, and got some time in the spotlight during the World Magic Cup, where he took England to 3rd place. He is a very talented player who seems ripe for a breakout performance at the Pro Tour.
Styborski: Ben Friedman. As someone I've watched for years leveling up in the mid-Atlantic competitive scene, I'm surprised he hasn't hit a Pro Tour breakthrough yet. He's consistently among the top tables, and it's time he closed out a Top 8 appearance. While his style may not be for everyone (like Rashad's, his hats would clash with my sweater) his spirit is nothing short of admirable.
Hagon: I think a huge story potentially is Jérémy Dezani. He's had a rotten time at the tables since becoming Player of the Year (he has fewer points this season than anyone currently in the Top 25), and the swagger and power that characterized both his actual play and his attitude at the table seems to have somewhat deserted him. However, this weekend is a great opportunity for him. He has a tremendous team with him, a team that helped propel him to the title at Pro Tour Theros. He is an absolute beast when it comes to Modern, and, perhaps most crucially, the banning of Birthing Pod may mean that he can reliably play Jund—and very, very few people play Jund better than Dezani. Arguably, nobody does. So I think it's a huge weekend for him, and Dezani on the move in the Feature Match area is one of the great sights of Magic, because you can see that it really, really matters.
Sutcliffe: Neal Oliver. Neal is still on the "up-and-comer" list for the Pro Tour, but at the Grand Prix level (where I do a lot of commentating), he has crushed. He also played in the World Magic Cup for team USA. Neal is creative, thoughtful, and independent when it comes to how he views Magic. He knows what works for him and has no fear about playing whatever he thinks will win. Even if that includes the occasional Banner.
BDM: Bold predictions time! Pick a winner and give me something that we will know at the end of the tournament.
Sutcliffe: Eric Froehlich. Eric is at the top of his game, and has been for a while now. He's deadly consistent and brings one of the strongest technical games to the table. He isn't a specialist in any one form of Magic; he's just a master at all of them. We will know that you don't need Birthing Pod to play that archetype.
Styborski: Josh Utter-Leyton, finally closing out a Pro Tour with a trophy in hand. He's got the skill. He's got the expertise for this tournament. It may not be bold, but his victory would cast off any doubt that he would lock the Pro Tour Hall of Fame on his first eligibility in 2017. At least I'd know one of slots filled for my presumed ballot that year.
Willoughby: I'm going to pick Willy Edel to win Pro Tour Fate Reforged. I feel that the metagame changes following the bannings really suit his style of play, and he clearly has the ability to perform at the highest level. At the end of the tournament we will know whether or not Golgari Grave-Troll deserved to be benched for so long. Powerful as he is, my guess would be no.
Hagon: Fairytales don't happen in sport, which is why, when fairytales happen in sport, they're so cherished. I'm going with Jacob Wilson to go one better than his 2nd place last year. What will we know? We'll know that Modern is a mighty format, where knowing the format and knowing your deck is paramount. We'll know that this is the Pro Tour where the big names have the biggest edge—those players who are currently on Facebook arguing that this is a format where you can play anything, and every matchup is a coin flip, are just coming to Washington for the sightseeing, because winning they will not be. And finally, we'll know that players who know Pod didn't just know one of the great decks inside and out, they knew an entire format inside and out, and that's why one of the erstwhile Pod players is going to claim the trophy on Sunday.
Duke: Shaun McLaren, Jacob Wilson, Patrick Dickmann, and Josh Utter-Leyton are players I'll have my eye on. I'm looking forward to seeing how the bannings have affected the format, and hopefully learning that the format is healthier as a result.
Buehler: We're going to find out just how good Siege Rhino is. Some players have already begun comparing it to Bloodbraid Elf, and it's the first serious challenger to Bloodbraid's title of "Best four-mana creature ever printed," but if it wants that title it's going to have to win a Pro Tour title for someone. Possibly someone from Brazil. I'll pick Willy Edel to cement his Hall of Fame candidacy with a fifth Top 8 and his first title.
I will be in San Jose this weekend doing coverage of the Team Grand Prix alongside Sutcliffe and Pro Tour Hall of Famer Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, which you can find right here. Then I come home, throw in a load of laundry, and head right back out the door to join up with these guys—who are just a small part of the team that brings you the Pro Tour coverage—for one of the tent-pole events of the coverage year. If you want to join in the roundtable conversation, you can find me on Twitter at @Top8Games or aim your comments in the direction of @MagicProTour—use the hashtag #PTFRF and you may well see your comments on screen.