Captain Ivan Floch and his cadre of mages have lived up to expectations so far, cruising through Day One with a 5-1-1 record and securing themselves Top Seed in their group for Team Sealed. They had 3-0'd it on Day 1. I was over their shoulder for the build as they tried for a repeat performance.
They divided the stack of 168 stamped cards and quickly sorted it all into eight piles: the five colors, gold cards, artifacts, and lands. They called out the rares to each other as they went through, and it was a nonstop hit parade that ended with Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker. Next, they spread the gold cards by clan and saw of wealth of Abzan cards, including Armament Corps and Duneblast.
I asked Matej Zatlkaj for an overview of the method they used to approach building their decks. "I start with the lands, Ivan usually tackles the gold cards. You want to find out what your multicolor support is like. Then you group the most important cards together and see what kind of deck each group wants to be in. This time, Abzan was a certainty. We just needed to figure out which were its main colors."
Jan Tomcani laid out the Abzan gold cards while the others each went over a color. The imposing Michal Guldan tackled white and found good news: two Suspension Field, three Feat of Resistance, and a whopping four Alabaster Kirin. Floch had the red, quite deep but also demanding a heavy color commitment. Zatlkaj had black, boasting a number of powerful spells but very short on quality creatures. The lands were oddly skewed, with three Wind-Scarred Crag and four Dismal Backwater. Zatlkaj had almost immediately discarded Sultai as an option, despite the presence of a morph-friendly Secret Plans / Ghostfire Blade package. "If you build Sultai with this pool, you just cannot make the Abzan deck work. There's also no reason to go four color, you're not getting additional power."
Team Slovak Republic had a system they followed in order to quickly and efficiently sort the cards they would be using to build their team's decks.
Now they settled on two other deck skeletons: evasive White-Blue and a very aggressive Red-Green. Dividing green was surprisingly easy. All the black tools pointed towards a long, grindy game, so it wasn't interested in Alpine Grizzly and Savage Punch. Meanwhile the Red deck had plenty of two drops and four drops, so it could afford to pass on a Highland Game and Sultai Flayer. Favoring red mana also meant giving the Abzan deck the Hooded Hydra they'd opened.
Red-Green was a fixture in their play-test builds, explained Zatlkaj. "With twelve packs you're all but guaranteed to get the cards you need to make the deck work. You'll have lots of two drops like Highland Game, Smoke Teller, Valley Dasher, Leaping Master, and you'll have plenty of pump, hopefully with Savage Punch. You'll also have a finisher like Barrage of Boulders or Roar of Challenge. The most important thing is not having too many spells. You don't want draws that don't do anything."
Despite two Bitter Revelation, the Abzan deck was getting overloaded with delve cards: Dead Drop, two Sultai Scavenger and Murderous Cut, so there was no home for Hooting Mandrills. Likewise, Incremental Growth stayed on the sidelines. Zatlkaj explained: "The card is only just good. Lots of times they will have had to trade creatures with you and so it's better to have a card like Dragonscale Boon." Other cards stuck without a home included two Treasure Cruise (no good in aggressive white-blue) and a Butcher of the Horde.
The White-Blue deck had come together nicely. Blue had given it some quality morphs in the form of Mystic of the Hidden Way and Glacial Stalker, so Ghostfire Blade was a natural fit. It also plays very well with the Kirins. The spell suite had been completed with a pair of Kill Shots. "Kill Shot depends on your deck's strategy," explained Floch. "If you have evasive guys, it is very good. The only thing their creatures can do is attack you back. If you have ground creatures, not so much."
Lastly there was brief consideration of alternate builds, just for due diligence. With so many Crags, a red splash was an easy possibility, and offered both Jeskai Charm and Master the Way. Floch was quick to dismiss it. "In Blue-White the spells were already so good - how much better would the red be? There was no reason to change it." They also tried shifting the focus of the Abzan deck from Black-Green to White-Black, adding in some warriors-matter cards. "In our testing we always seemed to have a White-Black Warriors deck," explained Guldan. "But this time there just weren't enough cards to make it worth it." Zatlkaj agreed. "We didn't open a single Mardu Hordechief, for example."
The last major decision concerned the place of Become Immense in the Red-Green deck. Guldan didn't like how expensive it would be, with cards unlikely to go to the graveyard. He felt that Arrow Storm was a fine replacement, offering finishing damage as well as removal. Floch took the other side, and eventually his will prevailed. Overall they were very pleased with their decks. Guldan called them "Maybe the best we've had." Zatlkaj was more cautious, especially after a heartbreaking loss to South Korea thanks to running top-decks. They rallied, however, and rattled off a pair of wins to secure a place in the Top 16 pools.