It’s been a crazy day in Richmond. The inaugural outing of Amonkhet has been a rollicking good show so far, especially in close coordination with our friends at Grand Prix Beijing and Grand Prix Bologna. We’re getting set for Pro Tour Amonkhet next week, and boy does it show. The Pros must all be lovers, because there are a lot in Virginia. There were 48 players with three byes! And here’s a quick look at the Top 25–ranked players in attendance this weekend:
- (5) Seth Manfield
- (6) Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa
- (7) Steve Rubin
- (9) Brad Nelson
- (10) Joel Larsson
- (12) Matthew Nass
- (13) Alexander Hayne
- (15) Sam Pardee
- (16) Ondřej Stráský
- (18) Eduardo Sajgalik
- (19) Ivan Floch
- (20) Petr Sochůrek
- (21) Jiachen Tao
- (24) Brian Braun-Duin
- (25) Mike Sigrist
These Pros were all over the feature-match area and the floor—just like a magical infestation.
The Pros in the wild.
Shoot! Massdrop members Neal Oliver and Ben Weitz caught me!
One particular World Champion, Brian Braun-Duin, became caught by a whole bunch more spectators.
And just Shaheen Soorani hanging with some wurms.
But there was plenty more going on in Richmond than just Pro-spotting. This was the coming-out party for Amonkhet, and there was tons of Sealed to be played. What did the first day show us?
The Effect of Early Release on Magic Online
For the first time, Amonkhet was released on Magic Online weeks before the Pro Tour. Before, players had to huddle together in tight groups to get their hands on physical cards to test both Limited and Constructed for the Pro Tour. But now, everyone had access to the cards with plenty of time to test. I caught up with (25) Mike Sigrist, Joel Larsson, (7) Steve Rubin, and (24) Brian Braun-Duin to get their thoughts.
Sigrist laughed and said, “Read my article in two days." This topic had clearly been on his mind. The biggest change, they said, was how it deemphasized the need for teams to hole up together.
Braun-Duin said, “It’s good for Magic; just worse for teams."
“Being on a team just sucks now," Rubin joked. “I mean, I’m obviously kidding, but it’s been different."
Larsson added, “The whole super-team thing doesn’t pay off as much anymore."
(25) Mike Sigrist, (7) Steve Rubin, and Pro Tour winner Joel Larsson
For many non-Pros, this is likely welcome news. Players without a team going into the Pro Tour well know they are at a distinct disadvantage, and this allows them a leg-up, or at least an equal footing, to the Pros.
Sigrist said, “I went to draft camp, with the Massdrop guys, and it was cool and all, but I don’t know if it was better than me sitting at home drafting online."
Rubin added, “At draft camp instead of it being my 1st – 8th drafts, they were my 13th – 20th."
Another change with the advent of the set’s early release on Magic Online, Sigrist added that it means a lot for the people who have full-time jobs—who can’t abscond away to a remote castle to draft. I, like many people, surely thought immediately of Paul Rietzl. The Hall of Fame Pro is famous for being a “halfway crook” in the community, traveling very little for Grands Prix, and making his appearance count. (Although he does seem to be in a fair amount of Daily Events on MTGO...).
Siggy also thought of him, apparently, saying, “I actually quote Rietzl in the article!"
In addition to more Limited exercising, there’s also more time available to Standard deck testing. Though the repercussions of this aren’t clear yet. And will warrant revisiting after the Pro Tour next week.
Going for Maximum Greed
There was a flurry of largely multi-color decks floating around the top tables—upwards for four to five colors, in fact.
When I caught up with some Pros to ask how greedy is too greedy in this Sealed format, I quickly heard: “Doesn’t exist," from Pro Tour Hall of Famer Ben Stark. “There is no ‘too greedy’." As he and others have discovered, the format has the tools to go big and go home a winner.
In the feature match area on the Twitch stream we saw Eduardo Sagjalik going all in with a five-color monstrosity, thanks to a tip from mtgMintCard teammate Zen Takahashi. But Sajgalik was far from alone. And in Stark’s opinion, more should have gone for it. “Shuhei [Nakamura] is playing two colors, but with his pool, I would have definitely gone Five-Color Green. Definitely."
Steve Rubin chimed in, “I’ve seen so many decks I’m jealous of. They look great."
Stark finished, “Seriously, the average number of colors on Magic Online last week is 3.5. Maybe higher. Probably higher—something like 3.8."
This strategy is one to watch for future Sealed Grand Prix.
Best Draft Format Ever? And Sealed Might be Better than Draft?!
“Players get to play Magic," was what 12-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor Pascal Maynard said about the former when explaining his caveated claim of Amonkhet “maybe” being his favorite Limited format.
The ability to discard a useless card to draw a fresh one—which Cycling provides—means that your curve can go higher without weighing down your deck. As Maynard extolled, this means it’s less likely that when your opponent plays a six-drop, you won’t have a response.
Here from him yourself:
This is an argument that we’ve seen many people say on Twitter over the last couple weeks. The games just feel good even if you’re losing, because it doesn’t seem hopeless. It makes for a better overall experience.
But a feel-good Limited format is not the only exemplary aspect of Amonkhet. More players than usual are espousing that Sealed might be even better than Draft—which is a rarity among top-level Magicians.
I caught up with both streamer extraordinaire Kenji Egashira, and Pro Tour finalist Justin Cohen to explain why.
In draft, you have to find your lane (I.e., your two-color pair) and draft the archetype with that pair. But there’s freedom in Sealed—freedom to go three-color, four-color, or even five-color! The building implications are blown up and you can make full use of all the cards—again, with many thanks to cycling. A card like Lay Claim becomes a much easier splash when you can just trade it in when you can’t cast it.
But, as usual, Limited opinion-haver Ben Stark summed up his counterargument fantastically.
Though in comparison to Draft, Stark said, “Sealed is harder because you have a lot of options. But the gameplay is worse—there are a lot of bombs out there." He continued, “Draft is the opposite." Stark said that the draft portion is simpler. “But the gameplay is so great. Most people think that I love the building portion [so I’d like Sealed more], but the draft building portion is like 30 minutes, and the gameplay is three hours."
Interlude for some Cosplay!
In the midst of all this Sealed action, I caught up with Vanessa Martin, a relative newcomer to the Magic cosplay community. But boy did she come correct. Check out this amazing version of Hazoret the Fervent:
Let’s get a nice detail of that mask.
You can catch Vanessa all day tomorrow on site, or @VanessaLeighCos on twitter.
The Weekend That Almost Wasn’t
Another fun interlude was almost a premature coda. Ben Seck had a particularly harrowing story of taking a very, very expensive Uber trip from Newark, New Jersey down to Richmond, Virginia at 2 am and barely made it here.
After he waited for 8 hours in the Newark airport for a flight that would never depart (after landing in Newark from San Francisco), he was left in the Garden State with no way to get the five hours to Richmond. After assessing his options and discovering that renting a car at that hour of the night would be insanely expensive, he tried the ever-faithful car-service app and found a willing driver.
It took a roadside nap, a call to a wife saying he won’t be home tonight, and likely some caffeine, but Seck and his new best friend pulled up to the venue at 7:30 am, with plenty of time to register his Sealed pool and get ready for the Grand Prix.
Now all that stuff was well and good, but what about the end of the day? Where did all this Sealed Pro mayhem end up? Well, it ended with seven 9-0s, and a lonely Justin Cohen at 8-0-1. Sorry, Justin. We still like you, I promise.
First up, Robert Coffman from Toledo, Ohio. He owns a card store Frogtown Hobbies, and he drove down with five guys all the way from Ohio. “I drove," he said. “In the rain ... It was ten or eleven hours with the weather."
This 9-0 felt great to him, because as a store owner, he only gets to play in the errant PPTQ from time to time. But lately, he’s made a concerted effort to get to the Pro Tour, enlisting the help of Tyler Mantay, former Rookie of the Year hopeful, to get there. “He took me under his wing," he laughed.
“It’s a lifelong goal [to qualify for the Pro Tour] ... and at Grand Prix Louisville I started wearing this bracelet and said I’d wear it until I made the Pro Tour. I’m going to keep it on as a reminder," Coffman said.
Maybe it will come off tomorrow.
Robert Coffman with the reminder bracelet
Next up is a name we know from his Top 4 finish at Pro Tour Aether Revolt, 18th-ranked Eduardo Sajgalik. He was the terror of the Feature Match area all day with his five-color special.
“That was the first time I was five color," he said. His pool also provided a White aggressive deck, but when he saw two Gift of Paradise in his pool, he remembered what his teammate Zen Takahashi wrote on their mtgMintCard forums: If you’re the “Gifts deck," you should try to go all out—just go for it.
So Sajgalik went the full five colors, and it paid off in spades.
Sajgalik and Braun-Duin discuss Sajgalik’s five-color behemoth
Sajgalik was excited, but didn’t get sentimental, as he was setting his sights higher. Even though his first time at Platinum Pro Player Level is within grasp, “I’m going for Worlds," he said.
The other big name was even bigger—I mean, the reigning World Champion is a pretty big deal, right? Brian Braun-Duin did the BBD special, and prepared completely for this weekend. “I’ve done about 70 or so drafts," he said. But oddly enough, he had only done one or two Sealed. So how did he get here? With a little help from Shaheen Soorani.
“Shaheen told me attacking is bad, so I went with him." He explained a little further." I showed him three potential builds from the same pool, and the one he said was the best, I thought was clearly the worst." It had a bunch of cyclers, and didn’t “do anything." But when he tried a few games with his own build and failed miserably, then tried Soorani’s build and went undefeated, he changed his tune—Attacking is bad!
Devin Koepke is one of several standout players as a part of Team Cardhoarder. Hailing from Saint Louis, Missouri—“Born and raised," Koepke said—he spends his non-Magic hours working for a private investigation company. “It’s as cool as it sounds."
Picking up Magic around Alara Reborn, he recalls a time when “Bloodbraid Elf was great—the whole Jund deck in fact." Travelling with teammates, and nightly meetings to discuss and test formats, led Koepke to be well-prepared for the weekend. “I did about 30 drafts on [Magic Online]," Koepoke said, “as well as practice Sealed. Bought boxes and everything."
Picking at opponents all day with Bonepicker was one of his successes. “The tempo of playing removal to kill their creature and play a 3/2 with deathtouch," led to extra damage all day long, good enough to notch a 9-0 finish for Day 1.
Dylan Gellis wasn’t quite a Richmond, Virginia local. The University of Maryland Computer Science student made the short drive from College Park, Maryland to battle. Picking up the game with Khans of Tarkir, it was a different group of friends from those that introduced him to the game that came with him.
He, too, benefitted from the earlier release of Amonkhet on Magic Online, playing Sealed Leagues online as well as participating in his local store’s Prerelease. As for his success, he “just had removal and bigger creatures—no real splashy bombs."
His opponents might argue that Aven Wind-Guide, and plenty of ways to make tokens, was bomb enough to clinch the 9-0.
Another player at the top at the end of Day 1 was Mike Baraniecki, a long-time competitor that picked the game up when Urza’s Saga was in Standard. Driving in from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his close group of friends, Baraniecki earned his second lifetime 9-0 after Day 1 at a Grand Prix.
"Theros was the recent set when I did it last, playing at Grand Prix Philadelphia ," he said. A factor for him to repeat was the earlier release of Amonkhet to Magic Online. “I played twelve Sealed Leagues in nine days," Baraniecki said. “Tomorrow will actually be my first Amonkhet draft!"
Last up was Kyle Thiele. If his name’s familiar, it’s because he had a big team feature match with his father and his uncle—all clad in their Texas A&M gear—against “Team Hall of Fame” Ben Stark, Luis Scott-Vargas, and Eric Froehlich at Grand Prix Detroit in 2015.
Though he’s since moved from Dallas, Texas to Washington, DC (“The people there don’t quite get southern hospitality," he mused) this weekend was a homecoming of sorts, as his Dad flew from Austin, along with his best friends from Detroit, Utah South Carolina for a bro weekend. They all played in the tournament, and the others dropped out and played Mario Kart.
But Kyle’s here at 9-0, and his father’s right by his side.
Kyle Thiele and his father, Robert Thiele
That was just a taste of all the action on the first day of Grand Prix Richmond. And we’ll do it all again tomorrow!
Congratulations to the 9-0 finishers (and Justin!).