There were 416 players today at Grand Prix Mexico City. It was a small tournament, but it was large on stories. It's the release weekend for Guilds of Ravnica and by all accounts it's a fantastic set, and players were ravenous to get their hands on them. Here are the highlights from the first day of action.
Team Bandana member Diego Ostrovich Reappears
There was a little throwback to some old school Magic lovers today—Diego Ostrovich reemerged. Though many of you likely don't know his name, He was part of the Latin Alliance testing team "Bandana" that took the World Championships by storm back in the early 2000s. A ragtag group of players from Uruguay, Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina all pooled their resources and took over the tournament, vaulting two players into the Top 8—eventual World Champion Carlos Romão from Brazil, and Diego Ostrovich from Argentina. It was an amazing moment in Magic, and for many marked the beginning of South America's ascendance to the world stage of Magic. It was the first Pro Tour Top 8 for both Brazil and Argentina, and it would remain the only one for Argentina for a long time.
Brazil capitalized with players like now-Hall of Famers Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa and Willy Edel, but Argentina lied dormant for a while. It's only recently that players like Luis Salvatto and Sebastian Pozzo have picked up the mantel that Ostrovich created. Seeing him here was a bit like seeing Romão showing up at tournaments again. But when I caught up with him, Ostrovich was quick to downplay his return.
"No, no, I'm not back full time or anything," he said. "The travel is very hard, and I have a two-year-old." But that didn't stop him from traveling from Buenos Aires to Mexico City. He had his reasons for that. "My friend [Francisco Sifuentes] is trying to make Silver, and he said ‘Come to Denver with me.' And this is on the way to Denver, so..." he shrugged for a moment, "...here I am!" He added, "Plus, I've never to Mexico City before, so, you know, why not?"
Though we talked after Ostrovich had slaughtered his first two rounds, the rest of the day was not kind to him. But he's traveling with Sifuentes to Denver next week, and I wouldn't dare underestimate him.
Mario Flores – The Mexican Assassin
There was a silent killer in the midst of Grand Prix Mexico City, but you'd be forgiven if you missed him. And though he's a well-worn Pro Tour vet, he has skirted fame outside his home country. Mario Flores has Top 8'ed three of the five individual Grand Prix Mexico City events ever held—2012, 2014, and 2015.
Though he swears he's been moving away from the game lately—as he's studying for degrees in both Engineering and Philosophy—his results here seem to demur. He was undefeated for the majority of the first day, and is still in prime position to get another great finish again.
"Yeah, I just don't have enough time anymore," Flores said. But when I followed up by asking if he's still as good as he was, he said, "Oh, yes. I'm still good."
This caused part-translator, part-co-interviewee Marcelino Freeman to roll his eyes. "So humble, Mario. So humble."
Flores shrugged it off in a way reminiscent to a Gerry Thompson shurg, and continued. When I asked which of his majors was harder, Flores had an immediate answer—"Philosophy. Philosophy." He explained, "You don't have one answer. You ... can't."
This thought process explained why he loves Guilds of Ravnica. "I always love multi-color formats ... there are so many things you can do. Like philosophy it is hard to find one answer." Applying that to his Sealed pool today, he said he did very well, but he made just one mistake."
"I should have played red instead of green." That's right, Flores' one mistake was completely changing his main color. It didn't seem like that hurt him too much, as he finished Round 8 with one loss and advanced to the second day.
Building Guilds of Ravnica Sealed
"I just love formats where you have fixing!" It was the most declarative statement I'd heard from Martin Jůza in a long while. "It's very hard to build ... it's more fun that just ‘I have enough good red cards, so throw in some Mountains." Jůza's general feeling on the Guilds of Ravnica Sealed reverberated through the other hardened pros in attendance. In a group of Sam Black, Corey Burkhart, Steve Rubin, and Jůza, they all chimed in about different aspects of the newest set's Sealed bona fides.
I JUST LOVE FORMATS WHERE YOU HAVE FIXING.
One of the reasons the decks are hard to build is power-level variation. Burkhart talked a lot about this—card valuations "swinging wildly" from archetype to archetype and match to match. To highlight this he brought up Ochran Assassin.
"That card is great against Selesnya, just great. But against Boros, it's a bad 1/1 for three mana that's killed by their worst removal—and that's only when they've already killed all your other stuff too." Burkhart had a point, and that's true of many cards over the entire set.
Another aspect that Jůza discussed was the sheer amount of playables. "It's actually hard [to build the Sealed pool]. You have to look at all your guildgates, and then you look at thirty playable cards!" Everyone else nodded in agreement.
Sam Black chimed in, "There's only like two unplayable cards in the whole set." So everything is on the table.
The best part about this, as Jůza said, "It's very hard to have a trainwreck." You can get the cards you need. "It's not like the packs are full of Demystify and Demolish and you literally can't build a deck." It's putting them optimally together that's the hard part.
This hit Grand Prix Indianapolis Top 4 finisher Lance Austin hard. Between rounds Austin consulted with some pros to see where he went wrong. His deck was good, but he knew it could be better. After some rejiggering as a group, he saw possibilities that he'd missed earlier that had held him back. "You know," Austin said, "when I was building I really thought I was Boros, then I splashed for some good green cards. But what held me back, was a didn't think to retool from the start and make it a Selesnya base, then splash the red."
And it's not just the main deck that should concern you...
The Importance of Back-Up Decks (and Sideboarding)
It's key in the rich Guilds of Ravnica Sealed to go deeper than the main deck. Sam Black said that he sideboards six or seven cards sometimes. This is due to many of the reasons above—deep card pool, good mana fixing, and higher than normal situational power-level variation—but there's another reason too: Unlike any Sealed format before, you can predict the metagame. And here at Grand Prix Mexico City people have used that to their advantage.
Because there are a limited number of guilds, limiting the styles of play, allows you to assess your Game 1 deck from each expected opponent, and a devise a plan to shore up the weak match up. Often this is Boros. The only pure aggro deck in the format, Boros preys on the durdling decks set up for the attrition war that often happens.
(If you don't believe me, just see Corey Burkhart's statement on the matter)
On his #MTGGRN Sealed, Corey Burkhart said:— Magic Pro Tour (@magicprotour) October 6, 2018
"The games are great for me ... there some games that are complete and utter nonsense, where players are drawing 20 cards and then they run out of cards." He added laughing, "I'm in THAT boat today—we'll see how it goes." #gpmex pic.twitter.com/d3u9Qv0HEl
So if you know you'll face Boros, you can devise your game plan in advance. And that can go further than just scoping out your board. Jůza "pre-boarded" his main deck with cards that are slightly worse in other matchups, but just killer against Boros. He's playing two Child of Night and a Loxodon Restorer, even though he has universally "better" two-drops and five-drops available.
Or, one better than that, creating a whole second deck to swap into against your bad match up. The old "Back-Up Deck" in Sealed is often relegated to the status of "Crap-I-Really-Messed-Up-This-Build-How-Can-I-Fix-It"—but in Guilds of Ravnica, you can set up a whole second deck for just a specific match up. Rather that try to sully your Dimir control to deal with aggression, just build a Selesnya stop sign full of life gain and two-drops to kill Boros where it stands?
Ugh, it's just so fun!
In Sum: Guilds of Ravnica Sealed is Great and Fun and Wonderful
I'll level with you all—sometimes writing about Sealed is hard. Sometimes players at higher levels view it as a perfunctory format, and less than Draft (though Owen Turtenwald has been vocal opposition to Sealed dislike). Getting players riled for the nooks and crannies of Sealed is sometimes hard. But it's clear from Grand Prix Mexico City that players here would run it back again if they could. Players were all but falling over themselves to talk about how good the format is.
Martin Jůza said, "R&D did a fantastic job with this whole set. There's so much you can do; there's so much skill; the games are great. It's great."
And sometimes-pro/sometimes-coverage-writer Chapman Sim joined in: "I literally flew here specifically because of how fun the format is. I booked my ticket on Monday!"
There is so much play to each pool—and it's the first Sealed in a long time with a real, honest-to-Hazoret aggressive deck that isn't indicative of a fast format, it's just delineated properly in the Sealed metagame. How crazy is that?!
The Undefeated Player(s)
So there could a dispute for how many undefeated players there were at the end of Day 1—as Limited Grand Prix function slightly differently than Constructed. With both formats, after Round 8—the end of Day 1—the cuts for Day 2 are made. But where Constructed physically ends its day and everyone goes home, the Day 2–qualified Limited players fight one more round with their Sealed deck before hitting the hay.
Today at the end of Round 8, there were three 8-0 players—Carlos Pal, Sam Black, and Juan Jose Valladares Grimaldo. But after Round 9, there was only one.
Sam literally didn't drop a game until Round 9. His solid Grixis deck did exactly what he wanted it to do, with Niv Mizzet, Parrun cleaning up almost all the games, "as long as it wasn't in the bottom three cards of my library," Black said.
Black has played a "ballpark of two Sealed pools" so far, though I'm not quite sure how you have a ballpark of two, but as he explained in the below video, more so than almost all other expansions, the Sealed is very relatable to draft.
"First you wanna see what cards you want to play, then you see if you mana allows you." - Undefeated @SamuelHBlack on Sealed building at #gpmex— Magic Pro Tour (@magicprotour) October 7, 2018
I never could get that second step. pic.twitter.com/KqZfy2MJS3
Given the small tournament, Black is pretty confident he only has to 3-3 to Top 8 tomorrow, but nothing—nothing—in Magic is guaranteed.
The Costa Rican Carlos Pal only recently returned to the game (in August) after considerable time off. He is a former Costa Rican National Champion, and due to a regimented point-chasing at the end of the season, has locked up captain status for Costa Rica at the World Magic Cup. After missing the last needed point at Grand Prix Detroit, he flew himself to Sweden to play Grand Prix Stockholm and sewed up captaincy.
At the beginning of the day he did not like his chances with his fairly standard Boros deck, but as the rounds wore on, and he kept winning and winning, he started to warm up to the white sun and the red fire.
"When you curve out 1-2-3, and the 3 is a mentor card, and then you just go removal ... You beat most of the decks." -@CPal90 at #gpmex on his 8-0 Boros deck battling Sam Black in the last round. pic.twitter.com/761wcNoviM— Magic Pro Tour (@magicprotour) October 7, 2018
Juan Jose Valladares Grimaldo
Juan Jose Valladares Grimaldo is a fitness coach who lives outside Mexico City. He considers the game his "second hobby"—because his first is his work which he absolutely loves. Talking about it, he couldn't help but pull out photos of his clients who were just doing awesome, he was so proud of them.
And though he's clearly a great fitness coach, he's not too bad at his second hobby either. He plays at his local store Gamesmart (which he was just as excited about as his clients), and he's Top 8'ed Mexico Nationals twice in the last couple years. He's usually a Modern Abzan and Jund player, but he made the exception this weekend, given that, well, it's not a Modern tournament.
There will be many more stories tomorrow as we work to crown a Grand Prix Mexico City champion! See you then!