Saturday Highlights of Grand Prix Birmingham 2018

Posted in Event Coverage on May 13, 2018

By Craig Jones and Tobi Henke

Saturday was Day 2 of Grand Prix Birmingham. Now, normally that would be the last day and be held on a Sunday. However, Grand Prix Birmingham was one of the special double Grand Prix taking place in 2018. Saturday was split between two main events, with Day 2 of the Legacy event running simultaneously alongside Day 1 of the Standard event.

In keeping with the theme of odd contrasts, the NEC was also hosting a fitness event over the weekend. In my hotel the previous evening there were many conversations that went along the lines of "Are you here for that card thing?" or "Are you doing the fitness thing?" As I walked in on the morning it was amusing to spot the differences between the two groups. One here to focus on their mind. Another to focus on the body. Both having fun in different ways on a lovely May UK morning.

As for the two main events, we were back to those contrasts again. Premier events featuring Legacy used to be few and far between, but 2018 had spoiled us with multiple Grand Prix featuring Legacy already, either as the sole format or as part of Team Trios. In contrast, Standard, to be charitable, had not had the best of times over the past year.

This all looked to change. The Dominaria set had just been released to massive enthusiasm and the Standard Grand Prix at Birmingham marked the set's constructed debut on the Grand Prix stage. Early indications were that Dominaria would have a big impact and shake up the format with cards like Karn, Scion of Urza.

Now, because of the way the weekend was structured, the video coverage was focused on the second day of the Legacy Grand Prix. But never fear, text coverage has the scope to go a little broader and my associate Tobi Henke put in a lot of extra work finding out the pro's thoughts on the new format. More on that below.

But first, Legacy. And some people travelled a long long way to compete at this tournament.


Part I – Legacy

(by Craig Jones)

True Dedication to the Legacy Format

How dedicated are you to playing Legacy?

Are you dedicated enough to fly 28 hours from the other side of the world...?

These guys did, coming all the way to Grand Prix Birmingham from Sydney, Australia. Okay, that is some keenness for the Legacy format.


Matthew Spinks, Damien Berry and Thomas Koch

They are Damien Berry, Thomas Koch and Matthew Spinks.

Spinks and Berry live about an hour from Sydney, which, by Australian measurements counts as the city centre.

So why come all the way to the England? As all three said, they don't get enough opportunities to play Legacy in Australia. There used to be some pretty big win-a-mox tournaments, but now there are no major tournaments. This enticed them into coming all the way across to England in order to play a full Grand Prix of Legacy.

For Berry and Spinks it turned out well as they both achieved the requisite 6-2 record to continue competing on Day 2. Koch, unfortunately, fell short at 5-3.

At least he had the consolation of being able to play Standard on Saturday.

Or maybe not. I probably shouldn't post the picture of Koch's expression when I asked him that. Legacy players like their Legacy.

Spinks ran Mono-Red Prison, which is also sometimes known as Dragon Stompy thanks to previous iterations including efficient dragon beaters like Rakdos Pit Dragon.

Also, you remember those interactions I talked about yesterday with Blood Moon effects and Dark Depths, well Spinks ended up on the wrong end of them, and angry 20/20 Marit Lage tokens multiple times on Friday.

"Later on I waited for them to play the Dark Depths before playing Blood Moon."

As he also said about Legacy. It's the format where you "do things in the right order or get horribly punished."

Berry's weapon of choice for the weekend was Elves, but his version was better set up to play through a turn one Chalice of the Void on 1.

As Spinks said, "He plays against me a lot."

Berry's tech was Gaea's Herald. With a herald out, it doesn't matter what number your opponent has Chalice on, your creatures aren't getting countered.

Given how far they'd travelled, I thought the Australian guys would be sticking around for longer, but no, as Berry told me, they'd travelled here on Wednesday and were scheduled to take the long long flight back on Monday.

That really is dedication.

Berry told me that when they'd had the idea of coming over, "It took me all of 3 secs. Yeah, I could do with a holiday."

And it paid off well for him.

I caught up with them at the end of Day 2 and Berry had converted his Day 1 6-2 into an overall 12-3 record and 22nd place finish.

However...

"That'll pay for about half of the flight. Maybe three quarters."

Never mind. It sounded like they'd had a fun weekend, which was the most important thing.

Couriered Over from the States

Also travelling a long way to be here at the weekend was Zan Syed of the United States. Syed is from Atlanta, Georgia and was currently trying to grind up from Bronze to Silver and add a second Pro Tour invite to his resume.

Syed had suffered the heartache of missing out on a couple of win-and-ins at recent US Grand Prix and was here on a quest to accumulate enough precious Pro Points to bump up to Silver level and a Pro Tour invite.

I can emphasize with that. It can be hard to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and step right back into the fray after coming so close. As someone that lost five Pro Tour Top 8 win-and-ins before finally getting that elusive win, all you can do is keep putting yourself in that position, giving yourself that win-and-in chance again and again. It will drop right.

More on that to come, oh yes, more. Like 25 years more, but that's getting a little ahead of ourselves...

The reason I'd picked out Syed to talk to was an interesting little innovation he'd added to his Grixis Delver deck. Bomat Courier has been an all-round Standard all-star for the past year, but a Legacy card, alongside some of the best (and most broken) cards from Magic's history?

Syed evidently thought so, as he'd added three copies to his deck.

Bomat Courier is a useful little beater and card advantage engine in Standard, with the one disadvantage that you don't always know which cards have been exiled. However, Legacy is a fetch land format, with many of the popular decks running eight or more of the powerful mana fixers. Fetch lands have a great interaction with Bomat Courier. Crack a fetch land and you get to see the entire contents of your deck while searching for the land. By a process of elimination it's possible to work out exactly which cards are currently exiled facedown under the courier. Providing you train yourself...

Obviously it's not possible to spend an age with each fetch land crack to try and sleuth the identity of the cards exiled with courier. Spend too long trying to piece together what's missing and any respectable judge will start hitting you with slow play warnings.

As Syed told me, you need to have a system. Online it's easier, as the cards are presented to you in an organized fashion. He suggested trying out courier tricks online first and then moving to paper once you feel like more of a challenge. He told me he usually boils it down to the important cards for the matchup. For example, against combo the cards he cares about are Force of Will or Daze, so while searching for a land he'll prioritize checking the counts of those in his library to see if the opening is there to sac the courier and catch an opponent off-guard. In the match before I spoke to him, against Reanimator it came down to hoping the courier had snagged a Diabolic Edict, which it unfortunately hadn't.

It's not just fetch lands as well. The mainstay of the Legacy format, Brainstorm, also interacts favorably with the Bomat Courier as it gives the player a degree of control over which cards get exiled. It also presents an interesting guessing game for the opponent—is that card valuable, or was the player just taking the opportunity to clear some unneeded cards from the top of the library.

I spoke to Syed after he'd just lost his third match and likely shot at a Top 8 finish. However, he went on to finish in 24th place, which will take him closer to his goal of reaching Silver. Maybe that little Courier has even greater potential than Standard all-star.

Legacy Top 8 Highlights

And this was where my writing day got completely derailed, but for the best possible reasons.

That Top 8, whoa, that Top 8. I don't think I've ever seen anything like that at any Grand Prix I've covered.

But first, let's get the basic facts out of the way. After another seven hard-fought rounds, the field was whittled down from 220 to just 8 people: Peter van der Ham, Johan De Gruyter, Alexander Mertins, Janus Skovby Andersen, Grzegorz Kowalski, Gary Campbell, Bernardo Santos and Yuta Takahashi. Grixis Delver, Legacy's current number one boogeyman, was well represented with three copies. Two other variants on the Brainstorm/Fetch Land/Force of Will package, one leaning on Conspiracy all-star Leovold, Emissary of Trest and the other making use of recent Commander addition Kess, Dissident Mage, also made the final cut. Opposing them were two "Chalice" decks. One added potent Blood Moon effects and fast red mana to the prison package, while the other beat down with a motley crew of robots. Rounding out the Top 8 was Mertin's rogue Dredge deck.

Of the eight players, Kowalski and Takahashi were the most well-known. Takahashi had an illustrious pedigree stretching over ten years and featuring 11 Grand Prix Top 8s (with three wins) and two Pro Tour Top 8s. Kowalski had been on a tear recently on the Grand Prix circuit, with three Top 8s in the last six months including a Modern title won earlier in the year in Lyon.

Most well-known on the world stage, maybe. For the locals here there was only one name that mattered... Scotsman Gary Campbell.

While I wasn't able to confirm it, at 52 I think Campbell might be the oldest player to ever make the Top 8 of a Grand Prix (the previous eldest I could find was Tom Swan, a Grand Prix winner back in 2000 at the age of 50). To say Campbell is a legend of the Scottish Magic community would be an understatement. Campbell is the beating heart of Scottish Magic. He's been playing since the game first came out 25 years ago, is a regular sight on the European Grand Prix circuit and one of the nicest players you could ever come across. This was reflected in the highly vocal support of a large Scottish contingent watching the Top 8 matches. This provided excellent atmosphere to the closing stages of the format. As the lone Brit in the Top 8, Campbell was also shouldering the hopes of the home nation (sort of, it's a bit complicated in the UK given that we are at once both Brits and respectively English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish at the same time) and he did not disappoint.

This was that one tournament where the fairytale script was being followed, so it was inevitable that Campbell would successfully navigate two tricky matches against first Mertin's Dredge deck and then De Gruyter's Steel Stompy to make it all the way to the final. All the way he was cheered on by an exemplary Scottish crowd.

Guys, I cannot express how awesome you were for that Top 8. I've never seen or felt anything like that. It was a credit to Scottish Magic and I heartily recommend checking out the video coverage of the Top 8.

In the end it came down to Campbell and the player on a blistering hot streak, Grzegorz Kowalski. Normally you'd put the advantage down to the experienced Polish pro, but Campbell's Mono-Red Prison was designed to prey on the multi-colored manabase of the Grixis menace.

For me this was a more personal game than most as I've known Gary for years. Obviously, as a reporter at these events, we have to remain impartial, but I won't lie, I did feel a surge of excitement as Campbell locked out Kowalski's mana with an uncountered Blood Moon in the first game and then locked him out of the attack phase with not one but three Ensnaring Bridges in the second game. Behind the safety of the bridges, Campbell picked away at Kowalski's life total with Pia and Kiran Nalaar. My heart was in my mouth at the closing moments of the game. Campbell needed only to untap to throw two of his artifacts at the Pole for the last points of damage. Kowalski threw a desperation Lightning Bolt at Pia and Kiran even though Campbell had a Chalice of the Void set to one.

Don't put them in the graveyard, I thought. Don't let the bolt resolve and put them in the graveyard.

There was a pause, then Campbell tapped his Chalice to counter the Lighting Bolt. The Scottish contingent behind the commentary team of Riley Knight and Raph Levy erupted in jubilation. The old man, the beating heart, of Scottish Magic had earned a Grand Prix title after 25 years of playing the game.

They say that nice guys come last, that nice guys don't win, and—taking nothing away from Grzegorz Kowalski, who is an excellent player in excellent form—today one of the nicest players in the game won a Grand Prix title.

And I don't care how sappy that sounds, sometimes some stories feel right and it's a true pleasure to tell them.

And even then, it's impossible to do justice to the moment. Here is what it looks like to play the game for 25 years and finally get your hands on that Grand Prix trophy.

Whew, and we aren't even done for the weekend. It was hard to believe this was Saturday and there was still another day of Magic to come. How do you top that?

Well, I'll pass you onto my colleague Tobi Henke with some splendid coverage of the new Dominaria Standard. The drama of this particular Top 8 is a hard act to follow, but there was still Day 2 of the Standard Grand Prix to come, and this lays the groundwork for even more Magic action to come on Sunday.


Part II – Standard

(by Tobi Henke)

Dominaria Being Great

Now, we're obviously not in the business of ever downplaying the success of a recent release. Still, it was exceptional just how many players voiced their extreme happiness with Dominaria.

Simon Nielsen, for instance, said, "Dominaria is quite an impressive set! Not only does it bring a lush and interesting Limited environment into our hands, but you can already start to feel the impact of the Play Design team. Standard is amazing currently, and Dominaria seems to have shaken things up completely. You can barely use information from two months ago anymore."


Simon Nielsen, four-time GP Top 8er and World Magic Cup champion

"Testing Dominaria Standard has been a ton of fun!" Gerry Thompson mentioned, while (7) Javier Dominguez went on the record saying: "I love the design! There are many cards that seem powerful enough to affect Standard, but none of them is like obviously too powerful. The set just redefined the format, since now the best creatures have to face better answers."

"Dominaria? I love it. It brings some really spicy stuff for everyone!" Eliott Boussaud added. For proof, several people pointed to Karn, Scion of Urza. The card had already been adopted even by the Legacy community this weekend, who used it in decks like Mono-Red Prison, Eldrazi, and Steel Stompy.

Standard A-Changing

If one wanted to sing the praises of Dominaria, there hardly could be a better way than to point out that it was an amazingly intricate puzzle which would take long to solve. Though a lot of theories were beginning to take shape this weekend.

"I haven't understood the format as much as I'd like, so nothing I can say at the moment has much weight," is what Jean-Emmanuel Depraz led with as a disclaimer, before going on a detailed explanation of the conclusions he'd arrived at so far:

"One, since the format is new and relatively undefined, I want to play something proactive, even if it doesn't fit my preferences. For that reason, White-Blue Control and other Torrential Gearhulk shells were discarded pretty easily.


Jean-Emmanuel Depraz, champion of GP Warsaw 2017 and quarterfinalist at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan

"Two, toughness 1 is more of a downside than it has ever been in Standard before. Walking Ballista and Goblin Chainwhirler are among the most impressive cards I've seen, and there are lists that run both. This affects the performances of some other potentially format-defining cards, like Bomat Courier, Llanowar Elves, and Glint-Sleeve Siphoner.

"Three, Heart of Kiran is still insane and should be played a lot again. It is best buds with Karn, Scion of Urza and dodges Seal Away.

"Four, I am really afraid of God-Pharaoh's Gift, in particular the blue-red version that proved to be a big hit at the end of last format. I've people argue that it doesn't have a single good matchup anymore, so I probably won't run many answers to Gate to the Afterlife. Fortunately, Abrade also deals with Heart of Kiran, so having a few answers anyway is not much of a sacrifice."

Gerry Thompson was another person who had a lot to say about how he expected Dominaria to change the format: "There are enough powerful cards to shake up Standard, to cause some previously ubiquitous cards like The Scarab God to fall out of favor, and there are plenty of unique buildarounds to sink countless hours into.

"There are old favorites like Mono-Red Aggro, Black-Green Constrictor, and White-Blue Control, but some tier-two archetypes like Green-White Tokens and Mono-Green Aggro also received enough toys to make them competitive," said Thompson.


Gerry Thompson, twelve-time GP Top 8er and champion of Pro Tour Amonkhet

"White is by far the biggest winner in Dominaria, which leads to a dramatic shift in color balance. Black has largely been supplanted as the midrange/control color, so you can expect to see fewer Vraska's Contempts overall.

"Standard has also sped up a bit, so if your deck was struggling to keep up beforehand and didn't receive anything new, it might be time to hang it up. For example, the God-Pharaoh's Gift decks are significantly weaker than they were previously," Thompson added, echoing what Depraz had said earlier.

Thompson continued listing under what specific assumptions he was working for this Grand Prix: "White-Black Vehicles is the new hot deck and I expect it to perform admirably. White-Blue Control and Mono-Red will be huge players. Karn, Scion of Urza has a huge impact on Standard and makes things like Construct tribal playable."

Simon Nielsen chimed in with his take on the format too: "Obviously Karn, Teferi, Lyra, and History of Benalia are impactful cards that already shake up the metagame by themselves, but I actually think there's a lot of potential in the cycle of triple-colored 3-drops. Standard has been lacking quality 3-drops, and it's nice to get an incentive to play manabases of all or mostly basic lands, which vastly improves your consistency. Conveniently, all of them crew Heart of Kiran, a card that has gotten a lot better, partly due to Karn and partly because neither of to the new 2-mana premium removal spells, Cast Down and Seal Away, can touch it.

"The three decks I've considered for this GP all have one of these 3-drops: a mostly white vehicles deck with Benalish Marshall, the currently popular black-red deck with Goblin Chainwhirler, and Mono-Green Stompy with Steel Leaf Champion which stomps the white and red decks. This one is a risky choice, because it's more inconsistent and horrible against control decks," Nielsen mused. "All of these decks make good use of their Heart of Kiran. I think it's important to be good both with and against the card."

Louis Deltour focused on the fall of the old gods: "Rivals of Ixalan Standard was basically all about The Scarab God—either you tried to go really under it with Mono-Red or you had to go above and beyond to overpower it by playing a weird linear strategy that would fade out as soon as the blue-black midrange decks adapted to you.


Louis Deltour, four-time GP semifinalist, two-time finalist

"Dominaria added a lot of impactful mid-game threats that can leave you too far behind when The Scarab God comes online, so it doesn't see nearly as much play. I expect The Scarab God domination to end, but blue-black based midrange is going to have its moment in the future when the meta is more defined."

Over and over again, people brought up Heart of Kiran. "A card that got resurrected is Heart of Kiran," said Thoralf Severin. "The interaction between it and Karn, Scion of Urza is very agressive and offers lots of protection at the same time."


Thoralf Severin, three-time GP semifinalist

Severin had been undecided between playing White-Blue Control and Black-Red Vehicles at this event, and admitted that both were somewhat obvious choices. If anything could be considered established archetypes at this point at all, it probably were these two. But he hinted at experiments with some considerably spicier stuff for the upcoming Pro Tour.

"I just couldn't make it work in time for this event," said a sad Severin. "I have played many matches online, including a mono-colored variant of each color. Then again, the Standard mana base seems to be very open for a lot of three-color decks as well! I think that could be a worthwhile avenue to explore, since the decks right now are mostly one and two colors. Overall, the format seems overwhelmingly open and leaves a lot of room for creativity."

Case in point: Usama Sajjad, who had just won a Grand Prix two weeks previously, running Lich's Mastery in his semifinals draft deck, was making plans for this card in particular. "Talking with my GP teammates, we thought how we could build a Lich's Mastery/Approach of the Second Sun/Fumigate/Moment of Craving/et cetera deck. That card has to be exploitable!"

No Holding Back

With Pro Tour Dominaria coming up in three weeks time, one question on our minds was whether or not pro players would try to keep their best Standard tech secret ...

"I'm on a team, but we're giving all of our information away at the moment," said Gerry Thompson, "though we will enter lockdown mode two weeks or so before the PT."

Simon Nielsen, meanwhile, argued that it was basically pointless: "The metagame changes anyway, and information travels so quickly that your new tech might be outdated in a week. For instance, I played against this black-red Goblin Chainwhirler deck online, messaged my team about it, and considered it for this GP, hoping its power would remain secret at least until then. A couple days later, a decklist is posted and Matthew Foulkes starts to stream it. Then a couple of days later, people have already started to metagame against it with Mono-Red."

Jean-Emmanuel Depraz, finally, chuckled at the question: "I wish! If we Frenchies had any super secret tech, I would have kept it secret. Unfortunately, we don't."

Looking in on Standard

I literally only got to watch part of a single game of Standard today, and only because I was looking for a certain pro player. I think I got lucky though, because, in this game, the pro player's opponent put on some truly spectacular moves. (Not sharing the identity of either not to give away what anyone's playing.)

First the mono-black mage in question kicked Josu Vess, Lich Knight with the help of Cabal Stronghold. This wasn't nearly enough to stabilize the board however. Even after casting Battle at the Bridge for seventeen, he was still shedding life in a dangerous way. This only stopped after he cast Karn, Scion of Urza and got a Walking Ballista that had been exiled with another Karn earlier, pumping sixteen mana into it.

The game ended soon after, in aptly amazing fashion, with yet another escalation:

Karn's +1 ability found Gonti, Lord of Luxury as well as Torment of Hailfire. The latter was of course exiled, but Gonti was cast and found yet another Karn on top of the unlucky pro player's library. This Karn in turn—in fact during the very same turn still—led to Torment of Hailfire with X=17.

I, as well as the crowd that had gathered by this point, was suitably impressed. Even the match's loser had a good laugh as he extended his hand in concession. If this was how Standard looked going forward, we'd be in for a treat on Sunday.

Going for the Undefeated Record

Following up on the previous segment, I was even more impressed when the mono-black mage then showed up for the 8-0 group photo!

Congratulations for remaining undefeated in Standard so far to: Mario Rodenas Lopez, Ashley Baden, Klaas Gruber, Sean Lynch, Alexander Hugill, Marco Del Pivo, Mark McGovern (pictured above, left to right) as well as Davide Cappiello and Goncalo Pinto (not pictured).

See you tomorrow; good night!

Whew, and good night from me too (Craig). Will Standard give us a Top 8 as emotional as the Legacy one?

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