There's always jockeying for Top 4 position in the final rounds of the World Championship. While the flash of technology and deck choices always draw the most attention, it's the first three rounds in the day that set the stage for players vying for a shot at the title.
Just three players performed exceptionally well in the Limited rounds this year, and each had a different tack on what I takes to start each day of competition with the best foot forward.
"If I haven't practiced a format much I usually force an archetype. Fortunately, I practiced a lot so I was open to drafting anything," sixth-ranked Jacob Wilson said. "I practiced with a group of four out of the 24 here, and I know what their preferences are so that can help. In Modern Masters 2015 Edition, Mike Sigrist, Owen Turtenwald and Alexander Hayne love five-color control."
While his team was an important part of the work leading up to the tournament, practice is what mattered most for Wilson. "I tested a lot for Pro Tour Magic Origins. I did a lot before the Pro Tour," he said. "I went to Hayne's house after the Pro Tour and we scheduled a few Modern Masters 2015 Edition drafts, then a few more once it was back on Magic Online. We talked to Sigrist and Turtenwald that drafted a lot online as well."
Though practice makes a difference, there's more competing at the World Champion level than card skill. Sometimes, it's the procedural differences that "One thing that was different that Hayne brought up was that there was no combat tricks in my second draft deck but players get decklists," Wilson said, pointing out that without tricks holding up mana or extra lands wasn't actually the bluff it could be. "I should have taken Titanic Growth or Might of the Masses today over a better card—it wasn't something that I thought about."
Jacob Wilson, even despite his solid Limited performance, found ways that he could have gained further edges in this tournament.
Another competitor that found success in the early rounds of each day was seventeenth-ranked Steve Rubin. He, too, put in the time for preparation.
"I started before Grand Prix London," he said. "I knew Standard was going to be changing and Modern Masters 2015 Edition wasn't online yet so I did Magic Origins drafts first. I honestly wasn't doing too great. I wanted to do a lot of drafts to catch up; I didn't make Day Two at Grand Prix Dallas/Fort Worth."
Where did he put in all this practice? "It was exclusively Magic Online," Rubin said. "Magic Origins was weird since we had known the format. [As a team] we didn't go back over the set, but we did that for Modern Masters 2015 Edition and looked at every card. We each did our own thing on Magic Origins, except for me, maybe. I just drafted super aggressively."
For Rubin, his focus was on achieving mastery over all of the options, and making the best of the most powerful cards he would find. "In both formats I wanted to stay open. In a tournament like this you want to know what to be in and move into that color," he explained. "In the first draft I had picked two white cards and two red cards, then fifth-picked Ghost Council of Orzhova. I took that as a signal to move into Spirits. In the second draft I first-picked a Separatist Voidmage and was passed a pack with Blazing Hellhound with a common missing. I decided to jam on the Hellhound and that if he's passing it to me I should move into it."
Rubin's high risk, high reward strategy paid off for him in the Limited rounds.
Many competitors strictly avoid colorful cards that early, preferring to maximize the opportunity to play every card they draft. Rubin turns that assumption on its head. "Having powerful cards is going to pay off, even if it's risky," he said. "You're going to get some amount of wins back being aggressive. Not in terms of aggressive deck, but the decision to play 16 lands or slam a gold card early in the draft, which are things you wouldn't normally do. It's a power level thing. Taking a gold card early is like 'My deck is going to be more powerful.' It's high risk, high reward in a way but it doesn't mean you're losing the game otherwise. You just want to be ahead of your opponent. You're both high level players and if it's going to come down to one powerful effect winning a game, it matters. The deck itself is going to be more powerful even if it's less consistent."
Jumping back to the Blazing Hellhound pick, it was clear later Rubin's plan worked out perfectly. "It ended up he had taken Suppression Bonds and my deck ended up great. I also played 16 lands. Against the best players you need every edge you can get. I played both Alchemist's Vial and Titan's Strength. I went super aggressive and it paid off.
For nearly everyone you'd talk to in the field, getting as many drafts in as possible is the still the baseline expectation. fourth-ranked Seth Manfield, the first player to lock up a Top 4 appearance and the only player to go undefeated across both drafts, drilled in the tried-and-true method.
"Back before Grand Prix Vegas I was in a spot where I thought I'd make Worlds based on the Pro Points I already had," Manfield explained. "I got in a bunch of Modern Masters 2015 Edition drafts knowing later down the line having a good understanding would benefit. Constructed formats change so much I wanted to focus on just Constructed this past week leading up."
Seth Manfield was a juggernaut not just in booster drafts, but in all formats this weekend.
As part of the quartet that Steve Rubin worked with, the testing methods matched up. "I did three drafts then we talked through all card choices. I had done 30 before," Manfield said, referring to Modern Masters 2015 Edition. "I really wanted to be green, and green-white was my favorite deck."
Was all of Manfield's effort leading up dedicated to Modern Masters 2015 Edition? "The Pro Tour was a big part of it," Manfield said about the Magic Origins battle in Vancouver a month ago. "We already had a handle on the format. Having a group of guys come together and talk about card choices is great, but I'm still going to make my own decision. I felt confident with Magic Origins for sure."
Balancing between the varied formats was Modern Masters 2015 Edition and Magic Origins are very different though," Manfield continued. "You can go multiple colors in Modern Masters 2015 Edition, and my deck was three colors. In some formats there is fixing, but in Magic Origins it's more aggressive, two-color decks. You can't get too fancy. You just have to be straightforward."
Knowing the formats, putting in the practice and perhaps picking things to push the usual limits of a deck's power? World-class drafting wasn't so removed from what you find elsewhere.
Just don't forget to pick up some tricks along the way.