Grand Prix Barcelona 2017 Day 1 Highlights

Posted in Event Coverage on March 11, 2017

By Tobi Henke

1,265 players gathered in Barcelona, Spain, for the third Standard Grand Prix weekend following the current format's debut at Pro Tour Aether Revolt a little over a month ago. All of the usual suspects from Europe were in attendance of course, including (1) Márcio Carvalho and (8) Lukas Blohon, both fresh off a Top 4 finish at last week's Magic Online Championship, as well as Top 25 players (13) Ondřej Stráský, (14) Ivan Floch, and (21) Joel Larsson.

As befits the fameously cosmopolitan Barcelona, Pro Tour Gatecrash Champion Tom Martell from the United States and several Asian players like four-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor Chapman Sim and two-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Yuta Takahashi added some international glamour.

The Big Stories

Barcelona continued the story of Standard, which had begun with the dominance of just two decks: Mardu Vehicles and Black-Green Constrictor. Then Four-Color Copy Cat rejoined the fray and, for a while, those three were considered the "Big Three" of Standard. Then, at Grand Prix Utrecht two weeks ago, a red-green-blue energy deck built around Dynavolt Tower made the case for a "Big Four."

So what was the situation in Barcelona like?

Two Decks at the Top

It would appear that Standard circled back to the dominance of just two decks. However, this time around, Mardu Vehicles, either with or without Walking Ballista or with a pair of Ballistas, found itself vying for the top spot with Four-Color Copy Cat. Just look at the decks the Platinum and Gold pro players attending this Grand Prix had chosen:

Deck #
Four-Color Copycat 8
Mardu Ballista/Vehicles 8
Blue-Red Control/Tower 2
Temur Tower 1
Jund Energy Aggro 1
Blue-Black Colossus 1
Blue-Red Zombies 1

The metagame at the Magic Online Championship the previous week had looked similar, albeit with less Copy Cats. So why was everyone playing the deck now? Pro Tour Kaladesh quarterfinalist Pierre Dagen had a simple answer to that. "Well, because it kinda is the best."

I posed the same question to several others, including Pro Tour finalist Matej Zatlkaj, and got variations of the same answer. At least when looking at sheer power in a vacuum, Four-Color Copy Cat should apparently be considered the top dog/cat.

Constrictor Curiously Absent

So where did Winding Constrictor go/slither/wind up? I once again turned to Pro Tour Theros finalist Pierre Dagen, who said, "Well, Black-Green was only being played to beat Mardu which itself was played to beat Saheeli. That's how I see it anyway. But, with Mardu's new sideboard plan, Black-Green doesn't beat Mardu anymore."

Dagen was referring to what could be described as the transformational sideboard plan commonly employed by Mardu Ballista players nowadays, utilizing additional planeswalkers and removal, even Fumigate at times. "Now it's like a game of Rock–paper–scissors where rock also beats paper. So why would you play paper?"

At the very least, Black-Green would need a major overhaul to adapt to the environment and its challenges. Such was the premise of a recent article by Pascal Maynard, advice wisely heeded by one of the few players to find success with Black-Green this weekend so far. The following was an actual decklist handed in by one Grand Prix Trial winner on Friday:

I should probably mention that this is not how a decklist is supposed to look, even if judges were being lenient at the Trials here, especially with players who entered multiple Trials. Kids, don't try this when you're not at home!

Standard Still Evolving

The story of Standard at this Grand Prix wasn't just about the demise of Black-Green or about the two decks left behind at the top because of it. For example, interesting tech cards kept popping up within the Mardu archetype.

Take Sin Prodder, for instance. With Mardu decks typically gearing up for the late game after sideboarding, its triggered ability came in handy, as did its ability to menace planeswalkers (pun acknowledged). One player even brought a special version of Mardu Ballista featuring Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim, Eldrazi Displacer, and Mindwrack Demon. See Deck Spotlight #1 below for details.

Meanwhile, an archetype outside of the Big Two, Three, or supposed Big Four recovered marvelously and was mentioned by the people interviewed for Deck Spotlight #2 and #3 and, naturally, piloted by the person I talked to for Deck Spotlight #4.

Day 1 Deck Spotlights

Deck Spotlight #1: Evolving Mardu with Simon Nielsen

2014 World Magic Cup Champion Simon Nielsen had told me on Friday that he was going to run Mardu with Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim, Eldrazi Displacer, and Mindwrack Demon. I definitely needed to know more. To be fair though, one of the first things Nielsen admitted on Saturday was that just one of these cards, a single Ayli, had actually found a place in his main deck.

"You might think of Mardu as this super aggressive beatdown deck, but after sideboarding, especially on the draw, it really isn't. Cards like Scrapheap Scrounger, Heart of Kiran, and Toolcraft Exemplar aren't good when you're behind, so you need to adopt a different game plan," said Nielsen, "just like the French did with their planeswalkers at Grand Prix Utrecht."

Instead of his own planeswalkers, which Nielsen expected everyone to come prepared for by now, he was sideboarding a different breed of creatures. "Like Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim. That's a 2-drop which is actually good at blocking. After sideboarding I usually have two Ayli on the draw, zero on the play."

Nielsen explained that focusing on Archangel Avacyn was how to win the Mardu mirror because the Angel was so good against opposing planeswalkers. "In the sideboarded mirror, a huge danger is to flood out. So we were looking for a mana sink and found the perfect answer in Eldrazi Displacer. It supports the Avacyn game plan, it kills Walking Ballista, and it's easily supported by a mana base of Spire of Industry and Aether Hub. Besides, Linvala, the Preserver is one of the most overlooked cards for the Mardu sideboard. Linvala really allows you to catch up when behind."

Finally, Mindwrack Demon was Nielsen's sideboard tech against Four-Color Copy Cat. Said Nielsen, "It's hard for them to deal with, because it doesn't die to Chandra, Torch of Defiance or Oath of Chandra. And because it flies and tramples it can eat their planeswalkers when other creatures would be stopped by a Thopter from Whirler Virtuoso."

Simon Nielsen's Mardu Ballista

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Deck Spotlight #2: Blue-Red Control/Tower with Jérémy Dezani

Pro Tour Theros Champion and 2013–2014 Player of the Year Jérémy Dezani had brought a deck which he called "Blue-Red Tower," although he was quick to point out that it wasn't as much about Dynavolt Tower as the deck with green. "This only has two Towers. It's less an energy deck, more a classic control deck."

About the origins of it, Dezani said: "Martin Dang played it to an 11-4 finish at Grand Prix Utrecht, going 5-1 against Mardu. Two of his losses came against random blue-black Metalwork Colossus decks, which are probably safe to disregard. So it had a very good record against the dominant decks of the format. I tried it out for myself on Magic Online and went 5-0 in three queues, one just yesterday."

Dezani basically liked everything about the deck. In particular: Blanking opponents' Fatal Pushes because the only creature in the main deck was Torrential Gearhulk. Sideboarding in creatures when least expected, especially Thing in the Ice against all of the power 3 attackers like Scrapheap Scrounger. And the main-deck copies of Release the Gremlins. "Good against everything but Saheeli, but that's a good matchup before sideboarding anyway. Even then you will often kill a Whirler Virtuoso and then turn a Thopter into a Gremlin on your turn."

Dezani explained that the deck did well against aggressive decks and that its counterspells and card draw spells were obviously great in the slower matchups. "It truly doesn't have any bad matchups among the Top 5 decks."

Wait, Top 5? What did Dezani consider to be the Top 5?

"Mardu, Saheeli, Black-Green, Temur Tower,"—that much was expected—"and Aetherworks Marvel." More on that later.

Jérémy Dezani's Blue-Red Control/ Tower

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Deck Spotlight #3: Jund with Martin Jůza

Martin Jůza had been among the first I talked to on Friday. At that point, Jůza was on Blue-Green Aetherworks Marvel, "Sort of my own deck. I have been trying various Marvel variants over the past two weeks, [Sultai], [Bant], and now I'm on this."

However, Jůza also knew there was chance he would audible, giving it ten to twenty percent. In the end he did, but switched to another interesting deck, an updated version of his Jund Energy Aggro which had taken him all the way to the Top 8 at Pro Tour Aether Revolt.

Jůza explained why Jund was a fine choice for the current metagame. "People are cutting down on Fatal Pushes at the moment because Shock's better against Saheeli. Then you also have your own Shocks, plus Unlicensed Disintegration, so you have great removal. The deck is specifically good against Four-Color Saheeli and it's just generally good because it attacks from so many different angles. It has Scrapheap Scrounger which is annoying, planeswalkers, cheap creatures like Voltaic Brawler, the big stuff like Verdurous Gearhulk, and I also ran two Skysovereign, Consul Flagship. You also have Greenbelt Rampager which is good right now because people play Oath of Chandra and there are a million 3/2 creatures right now."

He did admit to some weaknesses though. "The mana base could be better. And compared to Mardu you don't have an actual 1-drop, you don't have a Wild Nacatl or whatever."

Ironically, Jůza took two early losses on Saturday versus Aetherworks Marvel. However, he didn't think his deck choice was at fault here: "No matter what I would have played I wouldn't have won against turn-four Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. Nothing in the format does. That's why I wanted to play to Marvel in the first place. I wish I did."

Martin Jůza's Jund

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Deck Spotlight #4: Temur Marvel with Marc Tobiasch

Finally, it was time to address one of the players who actually did choose Aetherworks Marvel. For that, I turned to Marc Tobiasch who had built quite a few interesting decks in recent months as well as a reputation for doing so. For example, he was behind the Metalwork Colossus deck which had made the news at Grand Prix Utrecht and he had piloted his very own Jeskai Ascendancy deck to a ninth-place finish at the 2016 World Magic Cup.

So why was everyone talking about Aetherworks Marvel all of a sudden? Tobiasch didn't know that either. "I've been playing the deck for a while now and already did so at Grand Prix Utrecht. The deck is actually very similar to Four-Color Saheeli. It uses the same energy shell, has Rogue Refiner to go through the deck and Whirler Virtuoso to buy time. I even have Chandra, Torch of Defiance as well. Saheeli has the problem that you need two cards for a proper win, although the durdle aggro plan sometimes works too, of course. With this deck, on the other hand, you just need Aetherworks Marvel and you're good."

However Tobiasch was quick to point out that the deck didn't need to go Aetherworks Marvel into Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger at all cost. "I believe the archetype still suffers a lot from the stigma associated with the old all-in versions where if you didn't hit your Eldrazi you were often out of gas. This is more of an energy deck which has Aetherworks Marvel for value plus the random lucky win. Between Servant of the Conduit and games going long, you actually get to hardcast Ulamog surprisingly often. In fact, I cast it more often from my hand than via Marvel today. And I never lost when I cast it."

Marc Tobiasch's Temur Marvel

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Day 1's 9-0 Players

After nine rounds, six players stood atop the standings with pristine records of 9-0. Five of them you can find pictured below, left to right: Michal Lipinski, Kazuma Matsumoto, Miguel Castro, Paulo Pinto, and Louis Snazle.

Michal Lipinski was the first to advance to 9-0. In his day job, the 27-year-old from Warsaw, Poland, was working in software quality assurance; this weekend the quality of his Mardu Ballista deck assured a perfect run on Day 1. When asked for his special tech, Lipinski shrugged, then offered: "Three Aethersphere Harvester. A great choice, they helped a lot today."

Hailing from Tamade, Japan, Kazuma Matsumoto was the youngest of the players to reach 9-0, at just seventeen years of age. He had also chosen a relatively young entry into the canon of format-defining decks in Temur Tower.

Miguel Castro, a 23-year-old student from Madrid, Spain, had taken Four-Color Copy Cat on his winning spree. His secret tech? "Skysovereign, Consul Flagship. I think I won against Mardu several times with it."

The eighteen-year-old graphic designer Paul Pinto from Porto in Portugal had played a Mardu variant with a split between Walking Ballista and Veteran Motorist. "The highlight of the deck was having two Archangel Avacyn main."

Meanwhile, Louis Snazle, a 20-year-old delivery driver from Birmingham, England, ran into some problems when he built his Mardu Ballista deck at the last minute. "I couldn't get a fourth Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and had to replace it with Aethersphere Harvester. Couldn't get Release the Gremlins, went with two Fragmentize instead."

Marcus Angelin, a 35-year-old chemist from Stockholm, Sweden, sadly had to leave before the group photo was taken and can be seen below. Playing Mardu Ballista, Angelin listed his feature match against (13) Ondřej Stráský when asked whether anything special had come up during his rounds. "I managed to make two severe misplays and still win. Severe, like really."

That's the story of Grand Prix Barcelona's Day 1. Sometimes you get to play flawlessly, sometimes you don't. Sometimes you find the key to success in Archangel Avacyn, other times you simply fail to find a Gideon.

Join us tomorrow for more stories straight from the battlefield of Grand Prix Barcelona 2017!

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