Sunday's Highlights of Grand Prix Birmingham

Posted in Event Coverage on May 13, 2018

By Craig Jones

How could Sunday possibly top Saturday?

If you haven't already seen it, I heartily recommend checking out the video coverage of the Legacy Grand Prix Top 8. There was drama, emotion and a lot of highly excitable Scots spectators as long-time player Gary Campbell became the oldest player (I think!) to hoist a Grand Prix trophy at the grand old age of 52. His Mono-Red Prison deck locked out Polish pro Grzegorz Kowalski's Grixis Delver deck to take the match 2-0.

Normally that would be the perfect capstone for a Grand Prix weekend. Except there wasn't just the one Grand Prix being held this weekend, we still had the Standard Grand Prix. While 220 players were battling it out on Day 2 of Legacy, we had another 1169 players getting to grips with the new Standard format on the other side of the cavernous Hall 12 of the Birmingham NEC. 237 of those managed the requisite 6-2 or better records to return on Sunday for what we hoped would be an exciting conclusion to this mega Grand Prix weekend.

The Dominaria set had recently been released and looked like it had given players plenty of new tools to play with. With Pro Tour Dominaria looming on the horizon, which of the new cards would stamp their mark on the new Standard format—Steel Leaf Champion, Goblin Chainwhirler, Lyra Dawnbringer or the karnfather himself, Karn, Scion of Urza?

THE RETURN OF MONO-BLACK CONTROL?

However, the first spicy concoction I got to look at found some more unusual toys to play with. On Saturday Tobi Henke found a very interesting black deck using Cabal Stronghold (the new Cabal Coffers) to power out game-ending threats like a kicked Josu Vess, Lich Knight or Torment of Hailfire.

I can now reveal the identity of the deck's pilot—Mario Rodenas Lopez, hailing from Albacete in Spain.

The deck continued to perform well for Rodenas Lopez on Saturday as he was one of the nine players to run the tables with perfect 8-0 records.

A feature match in Round 10 provided a perfect showcase for the raw power of Rodenas Lopez's mono-black deck (which is on the video coverage). Facing down a board presence from a blue-black midrange deck, Rodenas Lopez flipped Azor's Gateway into Sanctum of the Sun. This netted him 5 life and a land that currently tapped for 13 black mana. Rodenas Lopez made full use of the Sun's bounty, marking his opponent's board for death with Tetzimoc, Primal Death and then wiping the board when the Elder Dinosaur entered play. The next turn he had 22 mana available and summoned an 11/11 Walking Ballista. On to game two.

The second game was less explosive, but still saw Rodenas Lopez wipe out his opponent with a Torment of Hailfire for 7.

Was this the cutting edge of new Standard or someone's kitchen-table Commander brew? Who cares when the results are this entertaining.

I caught up with Rodenas Lopez after his feature match. Rodenas Lopez is a dedicated mono-black player. He's been playing some variation of it for 15 years. He plays it in Standard, Pauper, even Legacy. Mono-Black Control is one of those archetypes that some players forever hope will become a thing when an exciting new black card is spoiled, but inevitably never really gets there. However, Dominaria brought with it a few cards to catch the attention of MBC fans. When I asked Rodenas Lopez which cards had got him excited for building this strategy, he fanned out Cabal Stronghold, Josu Vess, Lich Knight and Karn Scion of Urza.

Rodenas Lopez was the only one running the deck this weekend. He built it himself. I don't know whether it will have the legs to go on to subjugate the Standard format, but it does look a lot of fun and is capable of some crazy powerful plays.

Mario Rodenas Lopez's Mono-Black Control

YOUR NEW STANDARD METAGAME

Around Round 11 or 12 Tobi and I snuck off to the secret judge deck check alcove and crunched the numbers on what people were playing on Day 2 of the Standard Grand Prix. Okay, mostly Tobi crunched the numbers while I read out what the deck lists were and got confused over whether something counted as "Vehicles" or "Aggro".

Archetype # %
Black-Red Vehicles 66 27.84810127
Steel Leaf Stompy 28 11.81434599
Black-Green Constrictor 26 10.97046414
White-Blue Control 23 9.70464135
White-Black Vehicles 21 8.860759494
Mono/Mostly-Red Aggro 13 5.485232068
Blue-Black Midrange 10 4.219409283
Green-White Goodstuff 5 2.109704641
Blue-Red Gift 4 1.687763713
White-Blue Gift 4 1.687763713
Grixis Chainwhirler 3 1.265822785
Sultai Constrictor 3 1.265822785
Others: 31 13.08016878
Total: 237 100

The breakout Standard weekend was clearly Black-Red Vehicles. It was probably Matthew Foulkes fault. The popular UK streamer was playing the deck with some success for the week before the tournament. Karn, Scion of Urza has clearly answered critics' (okay me, stupid stupid me) thoughts that it might be overhyped. Also doing a lot of damage is an angry goblin with a set of chains. Goblin Chainwhirler has the right stats and is very effective at flaying small critters off the board. Despite making up the largest chunk of the field, there was a lot of variety amongst the Black-Red Vehicles lists as they leaned on going either under or over their opponent's defenses.

Second most popular archetype, Steel Leaf Stompy, makes use of another triple-mana-symbol rare from DominariaSteel Leaf Champion—to put opponents on a very fast clock. The reason we called it Steel Leaf Stompy rather than Mono-Green was because a lot of the lists chose to splash either blue for Spell Pierce or black for Duress to fight the control decks.

Yes, there was control, although the addition of Seal Away has nudged blue control decks more to white-blue than black-blue.

It was good to see all five colors of Magic well represented. It will be interesting to see if the metagame can adapt to the chainwhirlin', Heart of Kiran-crewin' menace that put up such good numbers over the weekend.

YOUR NOT EXACTLY METAGAME CHOICES

Normally, for some reason, whenever I cover a cool-looking deck, the pilot inevitably goes over the side of a cliff in a fiery fireball of doom. So, rather than inflict that curse on anyone else, I thought I'd look for some people that were already pre-cursed.

These were a couple of lists that caught my eye while I was doing the metagame analysis. Unfortunately, Day 2 was not kind to either player, as they fell victim to the black-red chainwhirling scourge that arouse in great numbers at Grand Prix Birmingham. The decks looked fun, though, and I thought I'd mention for them for people interested in playing something different.

The first deck caught my attention with the presence of one little stowaway—Slimefoot, the Stowaway.

Ryan Carter had brought a saproling deck to the Grand Prix. He was here primarily for the Legacy Grand Prix, but when that didn't go so well, the only deck he had on him was the little mushroom men. The deck had taken him to Top 4 at his last PPTQ and it also took him into Day 2 of the Standard Grand Prix with a 6-2 record.

Unfortunately, Day 2 hadn't gone so well, like due to this rather obnoxious fellow:

There were a lot of chains whirling around on Sunday and that's not a healthy environment for poor little mushrooms. Carter was 8-5 when I spoke to him. He also had "won" a bet that if he made Day 2 with saprolings he'd have to play the same deck in the upcoming RPTQ. Given the current metagame, I'm not sure that counts as winning, although Carter felt the deck was pretty good against mono-red despite the chainwhirling goblin menace.

Ryan Carter's Saprolings

Also running a tribal theme, but not one you might initially spot, was Sean Knowelden.

Did you know Walking Ballista is a Construct? Or Verdurous Gearhulk? And Scrapheap Scrounger? And Foundry Inspector? Or that Karn, Scion of Urza, as well as being a pretty decent card advantage engine, also has a third ability that creates Construct tokens that get bigger with the number of artifacts you in play, like all of those aforementioned Constructs.

Turns out that there a lot of random artifact critters that randomly also happen to be Constructs. Enough to throw in a Metallic Mimic to pump them all. And maybe Winding Constructor to pump them even more.

With Karn, Constructs and Winding Constrictor there was only one thing the deck could be named—Karnstructor.

I saw this deck the day before the Grand Prix, and it looked very appealing. Knowelden credited its construction to Gerry Thompson and he picked it up from the discord group he was part of. The deck looked very powerful, and it took Knowelden to 6-0 and Day 2.

Unfortunately, from then on, Knowelden hit a steady stream of the breakout deck of the tournament—Black-Red Vehicles—and the wheels fell off. When I spoke to him he'd fallen to an 8-5 record. While the deck does a lot of cool things, it does suffer from the usual problems of synergy decks. Knock out a piece such as that turn 2 Winding Constrictor, and the deck is making below average dorks. Black-Red Vehicles has enough removal to stop the deck getting all the +1/+1 counter synergies going. Knowelden did feel a little unfortunate about his matchups after getting paired against 7 Black-Red Vehicles decks in a row. The deck was popular on Day 2, but still ...

Anyway, here is a list that looks a lot of fun to play, but you might want to wait to see if other decks dethrone Black-Red Vehicles first.

Sean Knowelden's Karnstructor

TOP 8 HIGHLIGHTS

That's enough of the quirky decks. This tournament was Black-Red Vehicle's coming out party where both Goblin Chainwhirler and Karn, Scion of Urza cemented their status as the hot new debutants from the Dominaria set. Special mention should also be made of Seal Away. Heart of Kiran came back in a big way, and this was as a reaction to the potent two-mana removal spell.

Black-Red Vehicles made up 28% of the Day 2 field. By the time the field had been winnowed down to just eight players, that share had increased to 75%. 6 of the 8 decks in the Top 8 were looking to beat down with Heart of Kiran, Scrapheap Scrounger, Goblin Chainwhirler and friends. Piloting them were Goncalo Pinto, Luke Southworth, Matt Brown, Rasmus Nilsson, Martin Jůza, and Simon Nielsen. Rounding out the Top 8 were Etienne Busson with Black-Green Constrictor and Leo Lahonen with White-Blue Control. Of those Nielsen and the Hall of Famer Jůza were the most recognizable.

Clocks and tardiness also played a weird role in this tournament. On Friday Jůza was caught out by a combination of Birmingham train stations and the Legacy tournament running much more efficiently than anticipated. He picked up a game loss for arriving late for Round 4 and another in Round 5 for submitting his deck list late. Luck is all swings and roundabouts, so after a miserable Legacy experience he bounced back to smash his way into the Top 8 of the following Standard tournament.

Nielsen also had an unfortunate experience with an alarm clock, or his second sleep-in special as he described it. Luke Southworth was the grateful recipient of an unexpected Round 10 "bye" as Nielsen failed to arrive in time. This didn't faze the Danish pro at all. In fact, his only losses over the Swiss portion were to Rodenas Lopez's rogue Mono-Block Control deck and his own alarm clock.

Brits had been doing extremely well in previous Grand Prix, so I was almost expecting either Luke Southwork or Matt Brown to follow in the Legacy winner Gary Campbell's footsteps. It was not to be. Brown's run was stopped in semifinals by Nielsen and Luke Southworth was ground out by Leo Lahonen's tag-team of Gideon and Teferi in the quarters.

In fact, it looked like this tournament would belong to the Finn. His White-Blue control deck seemed perfectly positioned in a Top 8 filled with aggressive Black-Red Vehicles decks. After dispatching Southworth, Lahonen defeated Jůza in the semifinals. Possibly by boring him to death. I wouldn't be using that as an insult. Lahonen had assembled a true control player's control deck. Pre-board the only win conditions were Gideon of the Trials and letting the opponent deck out while rotating Teferi's to avoid the same fate. It was very good at gradually crushing opponents into submission.

After taking down two Black-Red control decks, Lahonen was a hot favorite to complete the hattrick by defeating Nielsen in the final. However, this was the Dane's tournament. His most dangerous opponent over the weekend had been his own alarm clock and he wasn't going to let Lahonen's White-Blue control send him back to sleep. It was a tough final. A game down, Nielsen had to draw both good bait and a Glorybringer in the narrowest of openings to steal game two. Game three was much easier. Lahonen's draw never allowed him establish control and Nielsen heartlessly pillaged his way to his first Grand Prix title!

The tournament provided a useful early look at the Dominaria Standard metagame. Black-Red Vehicles clearly established itself as the deck to beat, but—excluding the final—White-Blue Control showed itself to be clearly up to the task. It will be interesting to see how the metagame evolves, especially with Pro Tour Dominaria on the horizon.

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