There were plenty of great moments, decks, players, cards, and stories over the course of the weekend here in Bilbao. The Limited rounds were great, but the Modern rounds were particularly complex and diverse. No single archetype clinched more than 10% of the metagame, and when the dust settled, the Top 8 featured seven different archetypes across players representing seven different countries!
The following ones are our picks for the top things to remember from Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan.
Two Human Players from Team Connected Company in the Top 8
One of the breakout decks from the tournament was Five-Color Humans. Although the tribe has had access to Champion of the Parish and Thalia's Lieutenant as Modern payoffs for the past two years, the current version of the deck was propelled into existence by Ixalan's Unclaimed Territory and Kitesail Freebooter. With the addition of a new land and a disruptive creature, the Human tribe reached a critical mass.
It was the most-played deck at the Pro Tour, and thanks to an on-tribe disruption suite of Kitesail Freebooter, Meddling Mage, and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, it had the tools to keep combo decks in check. The disruptive creatures could even help dodge Supreme Verdict or Anger of the Gods, although those sweepers were still among the best ways to beat the deck.
Two players were successful in piloting the deck to the Top 8, and both of them were from team Connected Company: No. 18 Andrea Mengucci and No. 19 Javier Dominguez.
The cheers from their team members when they learned that Mengucci made it in eighth place revealed their competitive passion, their joyful friendship, and their happiness at seeing two of their team members among the remaining eight players.
This Pro Tour marked the third Top 8 for Mengucci, but the first one for Dominguez. It was the result that he had been hunting for after finding previous success only at the Grand Prix level, at last year's World Championship, and after two previous heartbreaking ninth-place Pro Tour finishes.
Speaking of ninth place, do you know who quietly finished ninth at this weekend's Pro Tour? Why, Hall of Famer Jon Finkel of course, who had nearly added a seventeenth Top 8 to his already outstanding resume.
The Third Time's the Charm
Cracking the first Top 8 is an inkling of greatness to come. If you do it a second time, it proves that the first wasn't a fluke. Then, if you make a third final day, you earn the world's respect as you join a unique class of elites. As of yesterday, less than a hundred players (94 to be exact) had achieved this feat of strength.
This weekend, three players made their third Pro Tour Top 8, namely No. 2 Reid Duke, Gerry Thompson, and the previously mentioned No. 18 Andrea Mengucci. These players, among the most passionate Magic competitors we know, also have other accolades worthy of mention. Duke was the 2011 Magic Online Champion, Thompson won Pro Tour Amonkhet, and Mengucci was a World Magic Cup Champion. Combined with these milestones, their third Pro Tour Top 8 this weekend could bring all three players one step closer towards being inducted into the Pro Tour Hall of Fame, the ultimate dream for any professional Magic player.
Reid Duke reached the Top 8 with a deck he had been championing for years: Abzan. He even wrote a complete article series on all varieties of black midrange decks in the weeks before the Pro Tour, a great resource to learn more about these decks. "My Tarmogoyfs, my Dark Confidants, my Liliana of the Veils, those cards just never get unsleeved," Duke said after he clinched his third Top 8 by outmaneuvering Tay Jun Hao in a really close, challenging, and masterfully played Round 15 match. "I've played with these cards so much that they're virtually turning into dust in my hands. This is just the deck that I love and it's really fun to be able to have made it this far, doing things my own way."
Gerry Thompson made the Top 8 with Mardu Pyromancer, a relatively new addition to Modern that uses Bedlam Reveler and Young Pyromancer, fueled by Faithless Looting, Lingering Souls, and various other instants and sorceries. "The card is so good," Thompson said when he was asked about Bedlam Reveler. "When the card came out, I was like 'this card has a place in Modern, I just have to figure it out. I tried a bunch of shells, and they didn't pan out too much, but the deck was killing it on Magic Online." Thompson saw the potential, picked up the deck for the Pro Tour, and added a third Top 8 to his resume.
Thompson's abundance of removal sliced through Javier Dominguez's Humans in the quarterfinals, and he managed to dramatically come back against Pascal Vieren after being two games down and facing two lethal Thing in the Ice in the semis. Although he fell to eventual champion Luis Salvatto, Thompson's run this weekend was impressive, even more so when you consider that he dedicated his performance to Korey McDuffie, his close friend who had sadly passed away the day of the Pro Tour.
Brian Braun-Duin Gets His Best Pro Tour Finish Ever
Brian Braun-Duin, fan favorite and 2016 World Champion, had a tough 2016-17 premier play season that left him without a qualification for the 2017 World Championship. This weekend, he rebounded in an impressive way.
12-4! 4-2 in draft and 8-2 with fan favorite Lantern Control. My breakers are too bad to top 8, but this is my best PT finish ever so I am quite happy. #PTRIX— Brian Braun-Duin (@BraunDuinIt) February 3, 2018
Although his tiebreaks did not come close to being good enough for the Top 8, he posted his best Pro Tour finish ever, and had an amazing time all weekend.
This was the most fun Pro Tour I have ever played. Played against 8 different archetypes in 10 rounds. Gameplay was diverse and interesting (for me...at least). Modern is just a better format than Standard. Hoping for more Modern PTs. #PTRIX— Brian Braun-Duin (@BraunDuinIt) February 4, 2018
Pascal Vieren's Undefeated Run
Pascal Vieren had been absent from the Pro Tour scene for seven years straight before returning with a vengeance in 2016. When his brother Peter clinched the Belgian team captaincy, Pascal figured that he might as well try his best to join his brother by qualifying for the World Magic Cup, and "things got a bit out of hand after that." Team Belgium made it to the finals of the 2016 World Magic Cup, and Pascal followed up with multiple individual finishes, culminating in a legendary run this weekend here in Bilbao.
Over the sixteen Swiss rounds, Vieren didn't drop even a single match. He did rack up two unintentional and two intentional draws, but that still left him undefeated, reminiscent of Luis Scott-Vargas's epic 16-0 run at Pro Tour San Diego 2010. It wouldn't be until the semifinals where he finally fell, and it was Gerry Thompson to hand him his first match loss of the event.
Vieren's deck of choice was a novel Blue-Red Pyromancer deck designed by his brother Peter. Their draw-go control deck contains a lot of interactive cards, ranging from burn to countermagic, and eventually wins the game with Young Pyromancer or Thing in the Ice. These creatures were fueled by your typical blue-red control cards, such as Lightning Bolt, Cryptic Command, and a key new addition from Ixalan in Opt. Modern never fails to disappoint when it comes to the variety of decks that are possible.
Hollowing out the Competition
Black-Red Hollow One was a relatively new deck that took advantage of discard spells like Faithless Looting, Burning Inquiry, and Goblin Lore. These cards had been around for a while, but in 2017 two new payoff creatures were printed: Flameblade Adept and Hollow One. They made the deck possible. It was not only fun to play, but Hollow One decks also had an excellent conversion rate: All the red-black versions made it to Day Two, and only the single red-green version failed to advance.
There were various ways to get Hollow One on the table early. Burning Inquiry could enable a first-turn Hollow One, while a second-turn Faithless Looting or Goblin Lore could crank it out on turn two!
Round 14: Ken Yukuhiro vs. Liu Yuchen
Quarterfinals: Ken Yukuhiro vs. Reid Duke
Hollow One is a 4/4 creature for potentially zero mana, but it has other applications too! In the semifinals against Luis Salvatto, he was one card short to activate Grim Lavamancer for lethal damage. Cycling Hollow One, that put the second card in the graveyard, allowing Yukuhiro to equalize the score at 2-2.
Yukuhiro is mainly renowned for two things: His bubbly personality, and his bubbly creations. He believed in Bone Picker, Lone Rider, and even Tukatongue Thallid when nobody else did. This weekend, Hollow One became yet another of his signature cards. B/R Hollow One is one of the most fun and explosive decks to play or watch, and certainly will be fondly remembered for being one of the most unique decks in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan.
This marked Yukuhiro's fourth Pro Tour Top 8, and even though he failed to advance to the finals, he exited the tournament with a smile on his face and a skip in his step. Three of his comrades from team Musashi also played B/R Hollow One, and all of them finished 10-6 or better. It was a testament to the team's unity and Hollow One's viability. Together team Musashi will surge close to the top of the Pro Tour Team Series Leaderboard, as they collectively earned 63 Pro Points this weekend!
Yukuhiro might not have won the Pro Tour today, but he certainly won all our hearts.
The Ballad of Salvatto
Luis Salvatto, Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan Champion
The story of team Hareruya Latin member Luis Salvatto didn't start anywhere close to the Top 8. In many ways that story parallels the rise of the Lantern Control deck he piloted to the championship title.
Salvatto's first Pro Tour Top 8 at Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad came after years of rising through the ranks of the Argentinian and South American Magic communities. He finally hit Gold status last year, and lost his heart-breaking Platinum status bubble match in the last round of Pro Tour Hour of Devastation. Coming into this tournament, he pivoted from playing the off-the-wall 8-Rack to the off-the-wall Lantern Control after watching Pedro Carvalho play it.
He glided through the first day, and on the second day, had a series of incredible matches leading into the Top 8.
In Round 14, Salvatto won an epic game against Jon Stern. It looked like he had no way to win, and the race was on, but Salvatto recycled Collective Brutality multiple times from his graveyard with Codex Shredder and Academy Ruins, burning out a Burn player with his overtly not-Burn deck.
Yes: Jon Stern, playing Burn, got burned out by Lantern Control. It was an incredible turn of events, but Salvatto pulled it off. He played the same Collective Brutality four times!
WHAT IN THE WORLD DID I JUST WATCH? Lantern is a burn deck now?!? #PTRIX— Zac Elsik (@utdzac) February 3, 2018
The godfather of Lantern Control, Zac Elsik, saw something about his deck that even he didn't know.
Then, after an amazing technical matchup against Corey Burkhart on Grixis Control—both players putting on a clinic on how to play such an unlikely matchup—it was time for the match that would go down in history. And it was already unlikely and unlucky that the matchup would happen at all. With Salvatto and friend, teammate, and Pro Tour winner Luis Esper Berthoud both within striking distance of the Top 8, all they needed to do was not get paired against each other. If they were paired against anyone else, it was quite possible for both to make it to Sunday play. But they did.</p>
Teammate Thiago Saporito looking on at the unfortunate matchup, lamenting that the only choice was a fight to the death.
It was hard to imagine something more unfortunate than the pairing itself. At least until in the first game Salvatto discovered something awful while searching through his deck with Whir of Invention. He hadn't de-sideboarded from the previous round. A judge was called and he was assessed a game loss.
The unique situation became awkward and tense for the entire stream, and must have been extremely flustering for both Salvatto and Berthoud, who said if he'd won the match that he wasn't sure how he'd sleep that night.
But as crazy as it was, Salvatto rallied after the mistake in front of the world and took the next two games to make it to the Top 8. And in the final game, there was an indelible moment when Berthoud asked, "Do I have any chance of winning?"
And when Salvatto answered honestly, "No," the die was cast.
After the match, Berthoud tweeted a team chat referencing Salvatto's original decision to play the deck at all this weekend.
Another great takeaway from Round 16, other than how to fantastically rally from an awful mistake in public, was how Round 16 showcased that the pros are human. Even at the very pinnacle of the game, players make the same mistakes we all do. Magic: The Gathering is the most complex game in the world that is also enjoyed by millions, and focusing on the mistakes isn't what matters. It's all in how you recover and learn from them. This message was not missed by the Magic community. A Reddit thread appeared immediately and rocketed to the front page, highlighting how Round 16 was inspiring to all of us who hope to one day be one of the best.
And one of the best is what Salvatto became. In the Top 8, he first beat Jean-Emmanuel Deprez 3-2, whose Traverse Shadow deck lacked sufficient answers to Ensnaring Bridge. In the semifinals, he defeated Ken Yukuhiro, whose deck couldn't beat turn-three Ensnaring Bridge either.
Congratulations to Luis Salvatto, your Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan champion!