The first nine rounds of Grand Prix Denver are in the books! The triumphant return to Hour of Devastation Standard after a week of Modernity has been a rousing success so far. People were afraid that Ramunap Ruins and the rest of the Ramunap Red deck would run roughshod over the field into the foreseeable future, but that's been the furthest thing from the truth.
Though the Red deck is still good, it’s by no means dominant. And its presence at the top tables is no better than many of the other decks here.
Here are some of the highlights of the first day of combat.
Wide Open Standard Field
Standard was touch-and-go for a while there. And though some bannings were necessary, the regulations have worked like gangbusters and Standard is shining brightly. Throughout the day on camera we saw decks like Jeskai God-Pharaoh’s Gift, Temur Energy, Scarab Temur, various stripes of Control, Zombies, Black-Green Constrictor, even a White-Black Tokens or two.
As Hall of Famer Ben Stark said about the format, “When all the top decks are beatable, you’re going to have a great Standard format. And that looks a lot like what we have here."
Here are just a couple of decks and their pilots
Corey Burkhart – Jeskai God-Pharaoh’s Gift “Jeskai GPG”
This crazy deck that aims to get creatures in the graveyard to pseudo-eternalize with the big artifact God-Pharaoh’s Gift was around at the Pro Tour, but failed to make a lasting impression. But it’s back, and with some new Red flair in tow. The new Jeskai-colored version seems to have given the deck the kick in the pants it needed.
ChannelFireball Fire’s Corey Burkhart talked a little about why the deck works, and why it’s working now.
“One of the biggest [factors in its success] is that the deck has a pro-active game plan ... I’m trying to fill my graveyard up, then activate Gate to the Afterlife. It’s very hard for your opponent to win after that."
He continued, “It’s funny, you have some embarrassing Magic cards that you wouldn’t play in a Limited deck, but that’s OK because they come back as 4/4s. And even though that’s not that big, it’s OK because there’s a lot of them."
On what’s different about the deck now, and why so many top Pros are on the deck, Corey said, “People were trying to play the White-Blue version at the Pro Tour, and you needed speed. Ramunap Red was everywhere (and it still is on Magic Online), and the cards just didn’t do enough."
“Thraben Inspector wasn’t an actual card in your deck, and the Glint-Nest Crane is not going to pay off. It’s drawing you a card like 1/3 of the time. Would you put that card in your deck? Maybe in Limited..."
"[The Jeskai version] is much more explosive than the White-Blue version because of the cards like Cathartic Reunion and Insolent Neonate. They are often dumping multiple creatures into your graveyard, triggering the Gift that much sooner."
Look for this deck to continue showing up at the top tables again tomorrow. It’s the real deal.
Return of Ramp and Mark Jacobson’s Greedier Variant
Ramp decks are certainly back, and they come in various stripes. Another deck that also showed up at the Pro Tour with underwhelming results. But the metagame shift has served it kindly.
The centerpiece of all the Ramp strategies is Hour of Promise. It works wonders. Not only does it ramp you up, not only does it make you Zombies, but when searching out deserts like Ramunap Ruins or Hashep Oasis, you net yourself some spells too.
The run-of-the-mill versions are Red-Green, and though it’s effective, there are other places to go with it. One place, the craziest of places, is Mark Jacobson’s 5.5–Color Ramp.
Here’s the article about the deck [with decklist to be added Sunday morning], and it’s a spicy brew indeed. It shares more in common with the Gift of Paradise Draft decks in Amonkhet and Hour of Devastation Limited than it does a regular ol’ Constructed deck.
The 1/2 color is the colorless mana required for just a few Eldrazi spells out of the sideboard. It’s an extremely difficult deck to play, but it’s the only deck that splashes double-off-color Aftermath cards and regularly casts them—Spring // Mind is nothing for this deck.
And it’s not the only spicy Ramp brew....
The Return of Ulamog, with Paul Dean’s Tech
Massdrop teammate Paul Dean brought his own version of the Ramp deck too. For him it obviates lots of the problems he’s always had with the other builds.
His Temur version has counterspells and card draw that blue loves to provide.
“You still get to cast Ulamog, but you also get to be interactive," Dean explained. “Most of the Red-Green version can just be cold to a Gideon, or even a turn-two Longtusk Cub, but [redacted card names at Dean’s request] work so well in the early game to combat those strategies."
I don’t want to censor myself here, but Paul has all the will in this situation—it’s virtually supreme—and I don’t want to countermand that...
World Championship Competitors Gearing Up
Though the Pro Tour Hour of Devastation signaled the end of the Magic season for most players, 24 of the game’s most glorified card-slingers will get together one more time to cap off an amazing 2016–17 season.
Here at Grand Prix Denver, plenty of World Championship competitors were in attendance—including one in the commentary booth!
Third-ranked Reid Duke took the weekend off, in a sense, and joined Marshall Sutcliffe in the booth.
(4) Sam Pardee, (7) Brad Nelson, (9) Seth Manfield, (10) Owen Turtenwald, (T-15) Sam Black, (T-15) Donald Smith, (18) Steve Rubin, (19) Gerry Thompson, and (24) Eric Froehlich were out and in full force.
I caught up with a few of them to talk about the upcoming, very difficult tournament.
(4) Sam Pardee
“I feel good. I do." Pardee said. “I played really well the second half of the season, and things just came together."
“For whatever reason, things felt pretty easy during that time; I was just playing good Magic and not making a lot of mistakes." Pardee did have one heck of a season, clinched Platinum for the first time, and Top 8-ing his second Pro Tour in two years (when the first already seemed well overdue).
“This Worlds is weird, though. It’s a Prerelease, sort of." Pardee was referring to the fact that for the first time, the World Championship will be the first showcase of a new set, Ixalan. This meant much different prep than usual would be required. Like Pro Tour with 24 players.
“But there’s no Modern, so that’s good. Makes things a lot easier." Pardee chuckled. For Modern in particular, at very small tournaments like these, the decks could become so swingy, a few choices could skew an entire metagame.
(19) Gerry Thompson
This small metagame that Pardee talked about was something Thompson was quite familiar with, and felt prepared for—despite this being his first modern-era World Championship appearance.
“I played in the big MOCS tournament, and the SCG Player’s Championship, and I learned a lot about those small-field tournaments." Thompson said. “Look, that doesn’t mean I’m favored or anything—many of the players this is their, like, fifth consecutive Worlds or something—but it makes me not as weirded out."
He continued, “Players are human, so they have biases. So if you give me the field to beat, you can get a good feel of what the tournament will look like." He caveated, “You can’t put them on specific decks or anything, but if aggro isn’t that good in the format, and you know people who rarely play aggro, it becomes pretty easy to say there won’t be a lot of aggressive decks going around."
He took a moment, then summed it all up saying, “It’s gonna be a tough tournament for everyone."
(7) Brad Nelson
For Nelson, he was seemingly more excited for the Team Championship Finals, where his team—Genesis—will be competing against Musashi to decide the first ever Team World Champion!
And not just the finals itself, Nelson was excited at how his team performed over all. “100% of our team is queued for the team finals, and 50% are qualified for the individuals. That’s awesome," he said.
“I get a really sense of pride in the group we put together."
“We may not have been anyone’s first choice, but we focused on solidarity instead of results. But we got the results anyway ... I’m proud of that."
(15) Sam Black
When I asked Madisonian Sam Black, he said one of the most Sam Black things I’ve heard in a while. He looked back at me, thought for a moment, and said, “I have no feelings about it."
He had yet to turn his attention the tournament he’s attended before, and wasn’t going to mince about it. I can respect that.
This time around, despite almost 1,200 players, there were only four undefeated at the end of the day—and there could have been three. Here’s a bit about each of them.
Charles League hails from Richmond, Virginia. He’s currently a Bronze-level pro and was Silver last season. He Top 8’ed Grand Prix D.C., beating another 9-0 player Brian Braun-Duin during a win and in.
For him, the competition isn’t just winning the game he’s in, it’s also beating all his friends back in Richmond. “I chase down friends in Pro Points all season," League said. “I literally keep a list of Richmond players, and I see who I’m going to pass next."
That was pretty killer, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the time he said he wouldn’t shave until he earned a Pro Point.
“I didn’t shave for almost an entire year," he said.
Additionally, he’s a big fan of what he calls “luck manipulation." No that’s not cheating. It’s more like ... superstition. He explained.
“Basically, you know how you wish people in the theater to ‘break a leg’? All my friends know to not text you at all during the tournament. They won’t ask me how I’m doing, they won’t wish me good luck." Ok, it’s exactly superstition. League also had others:
- Don’t sleep in a hotel bed the night before a tournament; “it’s unlucky."
- Try to sit on the same side of the table every time.
- Always sit your deck on the right side, slightly tilted.
League said he was tons more ways he manipulates his luck like that. He also co-hosts a Magic podcast called “Scrubland." I can’t vouch for it at all, but I’ll definitely vouch for the name.
Collin Rountree hails from Houston, Texas and just turned 21 last week. His gaggle of Houstonian friends who all made the trip were excited about that. The whole time I talked to him and his friends, it felt like there was some secret about him they weren’t telling me. It was a bit intriguing.
His friend explained, “He’s a young up-and-comer; he won and SCG Open in 2014 with Mono-Blue Devotion; and he went 9-0 at Grand Prix Vegas, the Legacy one."
There was also something about crushing Jake Peralez, but things were getting so frenzied, I’ll admit, I can’t remember how and when he got crushed. But believe you me, it sounded savage.
Rountree said he hopes to redeem himself from the last time he went 9-0, just a few months ago in Vegas. He 0-4’ed the second day, and felt pretty terribly about it.
This time, he’s out for glory, even if it means crushing his Houston buddy, Jonathan Coleman.
Jonathan “JP” Coleman
JP Coleman’s also from Houston and his winding way here was much different than Rountree’s. Coleman is a self-described “retired” player. He only plays now when his friend Tom Guan gives him a deck and drags him across the country.
“This past year," JP said, “I’ve been traveling a lot with Tom because he’s been slotting me the decks. It’s been pretty great." He continued, “We came to GP Denver last December, so we figured this was the run-back."
“On the way, everyone was saying, ‘Oh man, your deck is bad, your deck is bad.' So I thought, fine, I’m just going to have some fun anyway. It’ll be a great time."
Now, for Coleman, that great time has turned into not only his first Day 2, but a headstart into tomorrow without a loss to his name.
Last but not least was the Roanokan, current World Champion, Brian Braun-Duin. BBD didn’t have the best year, but it looks like he’s trying to kick off the new Magic season right. 9-0 is a pretty sweet place to be.
We talked about the changes in Standard since Pro Tour Hour of Devastation.
"A lot has changed," he said. “Obviously Ramunap Red was insane at the Pro Tour, and then the next week ... the deck that beat Red, Zombies, was the best deck." He continued, “Now we’re seeing the next level."
This next level of Standard is the evolution from purely reactionary, best-first instinct, to a flow of a lot of decks vying for and toying with the top slot.
Braun-Duin said part of the reason Red was so good at the Pro Tour was, “all the people who identified that the red deck was good—they just played it—rather than trying to beat it." He followed, “Once people are gunning for it, you kinda want to join the ‘beat-it train’."
Now I personally imagine that train is full of Michael Jackson fans, but what do I know?
“I think the format’s really healthy right now, all the top decks are about at an equal power level."
We all hope it stays that way!
That was the action as we saw it from the floor, but there’s a whole ‘nother day left!